The Advent of Applejack

by Mister Friendly

Chapter 1: The Games We Play

Chapter 1: The Games We Play

“Order. Order! This meeting will now come to order!”

The extravagant dining hall fell silent almost immediately, small conversations disregarded without a second thought. To all the ponies gathered around the lengthy table of polished mahogany, pleasantries had only been to fill the silence before the true purpose of their gathering in private came to light.

Candles flickered in candelabras set all along the length of the table, illuminating the many dishes and beverages yet to be sampled, along with the small gathering of primly dressed mares and stallions in their seats.

Each of the room’s inhabitants sat with regal distain in their chairs, some with their noses turned up prudishly as they waited in silence. Others eyed up the length of the ornate banquet table towards the head seat – a high-backed thing big enough to make a minotaur feel petite, covered in rich velvet and constructed with the most expensive lumber bits could buy.

The occupant – a rotund khaki unicorn with a silver mane long-since bleached of its natural color by age – sat with his portly hooves steepled before his muzzle, his stormy grey eyes glancing this way and that to make sure his guests were giving him their undivided attention.

The pause was mostly a symbolic one, however. As much as he liked throwing dinner parties for his esteemed friends and acquaintances, that night had a very different goal in mind besides mere mingling, and he knew every one of this guests was well aware of that already. Once the word was given, all waited for him to get the ball rolling.

“My friends,” he began, his tone subdued and grim, “I doubt I need to tell you all why I have seen fit to gather all of you here tonight.”

A few of the ponies seated before him mumbled acknowledgements in a unified grumble that bounced this way and that around the room.

“I can hardly see why anypony wouldn’t,” drawled a high society mare haughtily, her eyes drifting around as if bored. “I mean honestly, less than a year ago, those little cretins were public enemy number one, and rightly so. Now they are living here in our great nation of Equestria. Actually living here!”

Several of her compatriots made their agreement known, one or two even daintily rapping a hoof on the table before them to better illustrate their opinions.

Then, another spoke up; a dark, charcoal stallion with an immaculately maintained silver mane topped with quite the spectacular top hat. “I do not mean to doubt the judgment of our fair princess, but to allow changelings of all things into Equestria so easily…”

Once again, the room devolved into quiet, unsettled grumblings, each posh pony making their disagreement known but little else.

“Changelings…,” grumbled an elder mare with a rather spectacular bun done up atop her head, “I scarcely know what could’ve come over our glorious monarch to simply let their kind into Equestria, just like that, after everything they’ve done to us ponies. What terrible lapse in judgment this has been. Do we not get a say in the matter?”

“So far they’ve proven to be little else but trouble,” stated a stormy blue unicorn in a loud voice, “first brazenly attacking the capitol, even going so far as to strike down Princess Celestia herself, not to mention raining destruction all throughout Canterlot! My entire collection of authentic Griffon suits of armor, ruined in an instant by one of those wretches!”

A few words of sympathy were shared, more than one pony sharing in their comrade’s pain.

“Even an attack on some backwater, rustic village only proves the true vicious barbarism of these changelings,” said a grim-faced stallion, his gruff voice sounding almost guttural. “And now, because of some… farmer… who spent her whole life deceiving everypony around her, those very changelings are to be given free rein in the very country they tried to conquer not even one year ago?”

Loaded looks were shared throughout the room, each one knowing the answer if they had anything to say on the matter. But therein laid the problem.

“With the princesses championing their cause,” one of the stallions pointed out, “we have little say in the matter, do we?”

The mare with the bun huffed loudly. “I have nothing but love for our rulers, but sometimes I fear that Princess Celestia has too much of a bleeding heart for her own good. But of course, plenty have fallen in line behind her. Have you heard the rumors? Some have the... audacity... to dub changelings as the fourth pony tribe of Equestria! I am all for a good laugh from time to time, but this has long since lost any semblance of humor. I hope that the Princess of the Sun regains some of her sense, because this entire mess is getting spectacularly out of hoof.”

A few nods were given. While not a soul present doubted the wisdom held within the ageless alicorn, such a fact only further compounded the issue in the eyes of the aristocracy.

“It is not Princess Celestia that has done the majority of the championing, though,” pointed out the congregation’s host, gesturing with a hoof. “That would be the newest member of our royal family.”

Again, a wave of murmuring ran through the room, eyes turning towards their neighbors to exchange looks. But this time, the voices were spoken with disappointment and disapproval.

“So unfortunate,” sighed one of the patrons at the table. “So freshly out of the metaphorical gate, too, and already throwing her political career away, and for what? Deceitful little monsters?”

“I’m sure dear Princess Sparkle only needs some guidance,” remarked the mare with the bun atop her head. “Her family is quite reputable; I’m sure she will catch on to the way of things soon enough. She just needs some time to adjust.”

“Are you sure about that?” spoke up the host of the gathering, crooking a manicured brow at the mare seated halfway down the table from him. Seeing the quizzical look he got, the stallion elaborated, speaking in a tone like his every word should’ve been very obvious. “If I am not mistaken, it was one of Princess Sparkle’s closest friends that started this whole mess. One… Applejack, I do believe.”

One of the high society ponies gathered around the table – a light burgundy mare wearing an elegant dress – scoffed before anypony else could speak. “A commoner? Who would put any stock in somepony like that? No, the only reason she and her… congregation, let’s call it, have any sort of a foothold is because of whatever stunt they pulled to earn the princesses’ favor. Twilight Sparkle especially; her judgment cannot be the clearest in this situation, can it? Were it not for her and her history with the changeling leader, we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation in the first place. Besides, have you heard some of the things that changeling has said? She claims herself not to be the one leading all of these changelings, and yet she has quite clearly identified herself as a changeling queen! How is anypony supposed to take anything that comes out of her mouth as fact?”

The gathering’s host gave the mare a curious look. “True, but Applejack's involvement in the grand scheme of things has been fairly minor. Princess Sparkle’s support is indeed one of the key factors to the escalation of this situation, but she, too, isn’t the lynchpin to this unsettling new paradigm. Princess Celestia, her sister and Princess Mi Amor Cadenza have all thrown their support behind this changeling takeover, not to mention various other... ahem... bleeding hearts with power to spare.”

“So then, what to do?” one of the stallions at the table asked. “We have only seen limited success, in part because we are going up against the decisions of the royals themselves.”

“Not to mention some of our peers do not seem to see the danger in trusting these creatures,” the mare with the bun pointed out with a slight wave of the hoof.

“That reminds me,” spoke up a posh pony in a dinner jacket. “Where is Fancy Pants? Or Prince Blueblood for that matter? Surely this would not be something for him to miss out on.”

“I fear Fancy Pants would not be of much help to us,” the mare with the bun sniffed. “I hear he personally took in some changeling to be one of his housemaids. Not to mention the fundraisers he’s thrown in the name of Applejack and her… colleagues…”

"Fancy Pants always did have a soft spot for ugly ducklings," somepony scoffed, batting a dainty hoof as if trying to push away something particularly foul smelling. "Just look at what he's done for Fleur Di Lis."

“And Blueblood?” somepony asked quizzically. Of all their supporters, Prince Blueblood had been the most for their cause, and he was one of the few out there with the wealth and influence to make any sort of noteworthy contribution.

The host at the head of the table waved a hoof dismissively. “Ah, he had prior engagements.”

“Not that he would be of much use anyway,” somepony noted in distain. “A wealthy brat such as himself wouldn’t be able to do anything unless it was spoon fed to him. Finances are well and good, but it's such a chore trying to get him motivated for anything not explicitly related to himself.”

“So then,” noted one of the guests, “where will that leave us? Surely something must be done before something else happens, but what are our options?”

This time, no one had an immediate answer. This was the very point they’d been pondering over since the entire problem started, and just when they’d been beginning to make some headway, in came a new face in the scales of power; Twilight Sparkle. Once again, they found themselves infuriatingly grounded at square one, and to those at the table that night that weren’t nursing a growing worry, they were becoming increasingly frustrated.

Everypony fell quiet, grumbling a little in the background, some looking to one another for ideas. But, like before, no one seemed struck with inspiration. They had tried so many avenues already, but no matter what they did, the bottom line was always the same; the princesses had the final word. Their decision was absolute.

So then, what possible options did that leave them with anymore?

“Friends, friends,” their host said suddenly, his voice regaining the attentions of all of his guests. He batted his fore-hooves placatingly at each side of the table a few times until the gathering had fallen silent once more.

To their surprise, they found the stallion smiling lightly, as if his concerns weren’t nearly as burdensome as their own. “Let’s not work ourselves into a frenzy. Cooler heads will prevail, as they say. Sooner or later, Princess Celestia – and the rest of the court, for that matter – will see the error of their ways. We simply need to play our part to cushion the blow when it comes, that is all.”

Several of the gathered aristocracy exchanged bewildered looks. That had not been the large stallion’s stance before. He’d been the biggest worrier of them all, in fact. After all, he'd been the one to propose these secret meetings in the first place.

“Bullion… Are you implying what I think you’re implying?” asked the mare with the bun, cocking a curious eyebrow.

The portly stallion, Bullion, cracked a smile. “Mmm… perhaps. But you know me, my dear Vanity; I am no schemer, merely a listener.”

Vanity’s eyebrow hitched up higher still. “Oh? Then you have heard something?”

“Oh, do go on and tell us, Bullion,” one of the stallions stated, grinning despite himself as he leaned forward expectantly.

But Bullion only waved a hoof dismissively. “Oh, it is just a feeling I have, my friends,” Bullion said knowingly. “Given the changelings’… disposition… I get the feeling that all of our problems will solve themselves in due course. Now… Why don’t we have something to eat? This is something of a dinner party, after all.”


Far away, far to the north, a pair of ponies made their way down a crystalline hallway that seemed to glow with its own light that defied the night itself.

It was an odd pair, to be sure; one that drew more than one set of eyes whenever their owners crossed paths with the strange duo.

One walked upon gilded horseshoes, her lavender hooves striking the lengthy rug just slightly too hard, as if not quite used to the extra padding and weight of the gold adornments on each hoof. Weariness did not help in the matter, either.

Twilight Sparkle ruffled her feathers – an action that was still quite novel, and every bit too distracting for what it was worth – and stifled a yawn. Even though she’d been spared having to wear a regal gown this time, the long hours made it feel like she was wearing some kind of weight anyway.

Her crown sat neatly – and very carefully – atop her head, nestling just behind her horn, but at the moment she was contemplating whether or not it was a good time to remove its unwelcome weight from her tired neck.

“Ah… what a day,” she remarked, trying to fill the silence in the crystal hallway. “The Crystal Empire certainly has gotten a lot more lively, don’t you think?”

Her question was aimed at the one tromping down the hallway beside her with decidedly less grace – partly because she, too, felt a lot more tired than she felt was fair.

But the one trotting along beside her was not a pony. She had no fur coat – only jet black, smooth chitin and a golden amber carapace upon her middle. Each and every one of her limbs – even her mane and tail – was shot through with holes, giving her a rather unhealthy look.

Instead of having wings full to bursting with brightly colored feathers, hers were merely translucent membranes that occasionally twitched out an irritable buzzing sound. Her slightly curved horn bore a rather unsettling point to it – that, and a single notch near the back.

Her amber mane almost hid a small, spindly black crown topped with dazzling topazes that matched the color of her alien, double-ringed eyes – which were currently staring sullenly straight ahead.

As strange as this creature was, Twilight Sparkle had long since gotten over the unique strangeness of her friend. They had been put through more than one trial together, after all.

“What’s wrong, Applejack?” she asked, catching the look in the changeling’s eyes. “That went well, didn’t it?”

Applejack turned her amber eyes towards her friend, but her expression didn’t lighten all that much. “’Course it did, Twi’. That’s cuz ya and Princess Cadance were there ta do all the heavy lifting.”

Twilight tried to suppress a grimace, but it didn’t work too well. “Oh come on, you did plenty, too!”

At that, Applejack actually rolled her eyes. “Ya, sat there lookin’ pretty more like. Ah don’t know why ya keep tryin’ ta drag me into them meetin’s. Half the time they don’t even want ta see me there, and the rest of the time y’all handle things just fine without me.”

Once more, Twilight’s expression fell a little. Applejack hadn’t been in a good mood ever since leaving Ponyville – just like she always was whenever she had to make such trips. Well… technically she didn’t have to, but Twilight kept insisting that she accompany her whenever the topic of discussion was one in particular.

“Applejack, even if you don’t see yourself as their leader, you are kind of the face of the changelings in Equestria. You have to be there for situations like these.”

But again, Applejack seemed unmoved. “Twi’, ya know Ah ain’t some fancy court pony, right? Half the things y’all were talkin’ about in there went right over my head! Ah still don’t rightly get why we were called out in the first place. All Ah got was somethin’ ‘bout businesses and changelin’s and that was it.”

Twilight gave her reluctant friend a supportive smile. “Yeah, I know… but thanks for coming anyway. I know Cadance and Shiny were there, but having a friend like you in there with all those nobles helped me keep my head.”

At that, Applejack’s expression lost most of its edge. She knew Twilight was still getting used to being an alicorn, let alone having official duties from time to time that went above and beyond anything she was used to. But sometimes it was really hard to remember she was only a freshly coronated princess.

“Don’t mention it, Twi’. Ah still owe ya a whole lot for everythin’ y’all have done for us.”

At that, Twilight blushed in embarrassment, her wings ruffling still more. “It’s nothing, really. What are friends for, right?”

For the first time since arriving in the Crystal Empire, Applejack cracked a small smile. “Right…”

“Besides,” went on Twilight, her own smile growing, “it feels nice to have somepony else to relate to.”

Applejack couldn’t help but blink, nonplussed. “Beg pardon?”

“You know,” Twilight said, waving a hoof idly, “being a princess.”

Just like that, Applejack’s small good mood faded with a sigh. “Twi’, Ah know where y’all are comin’ from, but Ah ain’t no queen. Ya got more right ta that than Ah do. I just wish sometimes others could see it like that.”

While Twilight gave Applejack a searching look, the changeling pointed one hoof out a nearby window.

Beneath a starry, cloudless night sky, the crystalline cityscape of the Crystal Empire stretched out nearly to the horizon. Each house shone like an expertly cut gemstone, catching the light of the lamp posts and even the full moon with prismatic splendor, making even the smallest of homes seem like a priceless artifact.

For a moment, Twilight didn’t know what Applejack was pointing at, until she noticed a small gaggle of ponies eying the window. They were all clearly tourists, considering not one of them gleamed like a living gemstone. In fact, if Twilight thought about it, she realized that some of that group looked rather familiar…

“Changelin’s always follow me around, waitin’ ta see what Ah do,” Applejack said, sounding forlorn. “It’s like they’re expectin’ me ta do somethin’ all special-like everywhere Ah go.”

“That’s because they look up to you, AJ,” Twilight pointed out.

To her surprise, Applejack actually fidgeted uncomfortably, dropping her gaze and frowning. “Ah ain’t all that special,” she mumbled. “Ah ain’t like you, or like Rainbow. Ah’m just a farmer, and havin’ more expected outta me just don’t sit right with me!”

Applejack sighed, reining herself in a bit. She recognized the irritably burning sensation in her chest, and quickly did her best to subdue her fraying temper. “Sorry. Ah didn’t mean ta get all heated like that.”

“It’s okay, Applejack,” Twilight reassured, but she was still watching her friend carefully. “It’s been a pretty long day.”

Applejack sighed heavily, now not quite able to meet her friend’s gaze. “It’s just… Ah don’t see the point in me comin’ to these sorts of things. Ah ain’t nothin’ more than a farmer, and that’s all Ah want ta be.”

Twilight pursed her lips. She wanted to argue to the contrary – that Applejack was so much more than just a farmer, that she had hundreds upon hundreds of others looking to her for support. Yet, if Twilight did stress the point, she’d just be waging the same battle she’d been waging for months now. And considering how irritable Applejack was at the moment, pushing the point probably wouldn’t be the best idea she’d ever had.

Luckily for her, she was spared any further comment when Applejack slowed to a halt. “Welp, this is me,” the changeling said, gesturing halfheartedly towards a set of large double doors set into a recess on the wall.

With a start, Twilight suddenly realized how far they’d walked. Were they already at their overnight suites? It just didn’t seem possible for a moment.

“Oh, uh… right,” Twilight said, shaking her head to clear it. “Well, goodnight, Applejack. See you in the morning.”

“Night, Twi’,” Applejack responded with a yawn, then made for the door.

But a moment later, just as Twilight had turned towards her own room, she heard a dull thump followed by a startled hiss behind her.

Twilight turned her head around quickly, worried, only to find Applejack standing in front of the double doors, lightly wringing one of her forehooves.

“Applejack? You alright?”

The changeling turned to look at her, then waved her off. “It’s nothin’. Just sore from workin’ the orchards, that’s all.”

Again, Twilight winced. She knew that Applebuck season was only a few days old, but missing even one was weighing very heavily on Applejack’s mind. The fact that she’d come at all had taken no small miracle.

“We’ll head out first thing in the morning,” Twilight promised.

A moment later, she lit her horn, and with a thought, undid the latch to door to Applejack’s room. “Sleep tight, AJ. And… Thanks for being here today. I really can’t thank you enough, Applejack.”

Applejack blinked, and for the second time that day, she offered a small smile. “Don’t mention it, Twi’. Yer the one who did all the work.”

Twilight smiled kindly, and a few moments later, the two went their separate ways.

As soon as Twilight had disappeared within her own room, however, Applejack paused to eye her own door critically, then the bottom of her hoof with a confused frown.


Applejack’s suite was exactly the thing she’d been dreading it would turn out to be; needlessly huge, with a whole bunch of fancy odds and ends like plush couches, more fluffy sitting cushions than she rightly knew what to do with, and a whole bunch of other things she just didn’t see the need for. The entire room must’ve been as big as all of the bedrooms back home combined.

The lights had been dimmed, but all that did was point out how massive the windows were on one side of the room, which must've been big enough to fly the whole Wonderbolts team through with room to spare.

She only needed a bed, a bath and a mirror. Everything else seemed so… needless. Perhaps her mood was making her overly critical of all the wasted space around her, but she just couldn't help but note how impractical all this room was.

But as she trudged up to towards the bed, something caught her eye.

Something was placed neatly at the foot of the enormous bed set to one side of the chamber; something that seemed to be wrapped with regular old brown paper.

The ordinariness of the object was something of a system shock for Applejack, considering how her day had been. She curiously cantered closer, eyeing the object with a raised eyebrow.

It was just a simple brown package, visible in the moonlight cast from the absolutely huge windows lining one end of the room. On it was a simple postage address, and – sure enough – it was addressed specifically to her in a rough scrawl.

She blinked, then carefully bit down on one of the strings holding the thing together and tugged it apart, laying the contents of the package bare.

And there, looking back at her, was the brightly illustrated cover of a book, featuring a mare swinging through the air on a vine, evading the snapping jaws of hungry crocodiles.

The title of the conspicuous book was blocked by a small piece of paper that looked like it’d been crumpled up, smoothed out, and crumpled up again nearly a dozen different times, until the owner had finally decided to write a few simple words:

“Go nock em dead, cowgirl!”

Applejack sighed, almost completely ignorant of the wide smile tugging insistently at her lips. “Rainbow…,” she chuckled as she shook her head in disbelief.

She didn’t even mind that the brash pegasus hadn’t spelled ‘knock’ right. The simple gesture of having one of her beloved books sent on ahead – possibly even on the very train she herself had reached the Crystal Empire in – was more than enough to put a smile on her face.

For a brief moment, Applejack allowed her thoughts to drift back to home. Specifically, whether or not a certain ornery pegasus was making a pest of herself on the farm or not…

Applejack sighed to herself, then raised one hoof, intent on picking up the Daring Do book.

She was interrupted by the sound of a faint, crisp click on the marble floor behind her.

“Good evening, Your Highness.”

Every muscle in Applejack’s body went stiff, her breath catching with an audible hiss. Then, slowly, she turned her head towards the source of that low, purring voice.

And there, standing exactly in the path she herself had just walked, stood a changeling, his eyes glowing icy blue in the dimly lit room. Applejack could only barely make out more than his silhouette and unsettlingly fixated blue eyes.

Applejack didn’t panic; she kept herself calm, even if every muscle in her body remained primed for action.

She knew a few things to be true. Firstly, none of the Equestrian changelings would ever call her ‘Your Highness’, at least not to her face.

Secondly, the look this changeling was giving her was totally unlike the unsure, even nervous glances of the drones she’d met already. There was an intensity to this drone’s stare; a discipline that altogether unnerved Applejack the most.

“Ya know,” Applejack commented dryly, “it ain’t real smart sneakin’ up on somepony like me.”

“I apologize,” the drone said, his voice completely devoid of even the faintest trace of repentance. “Under normal circumstances, I would not bother you at such a late hour.”

Applejack eyed the drone carefully. Experience had taught her not to let her guard down, but at the moment she was trying to think up some options. If this changeling turned out to be less than friendly…

“So then, why are ya here?” Applejack inquired while she turned to face this possible threat.

“I come bearing a message,” the drone responded simply. “I am going to use my magic for a moment. Please to not be alarmed.”

While the drone’s warning did take Applejack by surprise, it did little to ease her tensions as his horn came alight with acidic green energies.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the drone levitated a plain cardboard box out from behind him, bringing it forward to rest between himself and the on-guard apple farmer.

“This arrived in the mail for you this morning,” the changeling informed Applejack, who in turn bristled.

“Are ya tellin’ me ya want through my mail?” she shot.

The drone, however, remained unmoved. “For your protection only,” he informed her plainly.

“And how is messin’ with my private things goin’ to protect me,” Applejack challenged, now quite incensed. She could tolerate all of the attention she’d been garnering of late. Digging through her personal affairs, on the other hoof, was taking things way too far.

But again, the drone remained unfazed. “Perhaps you do not totally understand the gravity of your actions, Your Highness,” he said emotionlessly. “You have made some very, very powerful enemies, Applejack; enemies who would eagerly see you burn for what you’ve done.”

Applejack paused for a moment, her anger temporarily ebbing somewhat in order to give way for something darker. “Ya mean… The other queens? Is that who yer talkin' about?”

“Yes, I am,” the drone responded with a nod. “In one stroke, you managed to strike them all exactly where it hurts them the most; their powerbase. You have successfully set the changeling world on its head all by yourself, and there are many out there who are none-too pleased about it.”

“So then,” Applejack shot, her eyes narrowing, “Are ya here to threaten me?”

For the first time, the drone showed some vague semblance of emotion. His eyes widened ever so slightly as he paused for just a moment to take in Applejack’s words. “Threaten? No; I’m afraid you misunderstand my purpose here. I am here to warn you, Your Highness. If I, or any changeling meant you any harm, you would not be getting such advance notice.”

“Good ta know,” Applejack said bluntly.

“As I told you,” the drone went on, and as he did so, he lifted one hoof to gesture towards the package sitting between them, “I am only here to deliver a message.”

“And that is?” Applejack inquired, cocking an eyebrow.

But the drone said nothing more. He merely kept one hoof pointed at the package and let that gesture speak for him.

Applejack frowned, then looked down towards the box between them. It wasn’t big – perhaps big enough to hold a melon. It’s outer surface bore obvious signs of being tampered with – a poorly redone seal sat broken and taped over, and the box’s corners bore rather disturbing signs of being singed by magic.

For a moment, Applejack merely wondered if the drone was making an appearance only because he’d botched covering up the evidence of his deeds. And yet still, something he’d said made her think that simple guilt had nothing to do with this.

“So what’s in…,” Applejack started to ask, looking up towards… nothing. To her complete surprise, she found the space across from her completely empty. She hadn’t seen the flash of changeling magic, nor heard the buzz of insect wings. It was as if the intruder had simply ceased to be entirely…

Applejack blinked, looking around for a few more minutes with similar results. But there was simply no trace of her mystery intruder.

Then, she returned her eyes towards the little package resting before her. It sat almost innocently, waiting for somepony to pry its top open.

But Applejack hesitated. She had a very bad feeling in her gut, one that she could not shake.

You have made some very, very powerful enemies, Applejack…

The young changeling bit her lip, eyes locked on the little – yet ominous – package meant for her, one apparently worrisome enough to warrant tampering with.

And yet, here it was.

Yes, Applejack had a very, very bad feeling indeed…


The sun had long since gone to bed by the time the dining hall in one of Canterlot's finest mansions emptied. Carriages were summoned, more than a few lengthy goodbyes were said, and soon the party of some of Canterlot’s wealthiest dispersed into the night.

This time, however, Bullion’s party guests left in decidedly more optimistic spirits than had become the norm for his little private parties. Frowns were lighter, conversations not quite so subdued. It was a marked improvement over the conclusions over his last few dinner parties, and the portly stallion couldn’t help but smile at the improvement.

He stood by the door, seeing each of his guests out as they waited for their carriages to sidle up the drive. The early summer breeze played with the many manicured hedges and flowering bushes on his lawn, wafting the scent of the night lightly under his nose.

“Really, Bullion,” remarked Vanity again, regaining his attention, “what are you hiding? What would it hurt to share a bit?”

Bullion chuckled lightly at the mare’s curiosity, but held fast. “My dear, my only secret is insight into the changelings’ nature, from what they’ve already demonstrated of course.”

“Of course,” Vanity replied, eager for more information. But Bullion was in no mood to give it. He was a tease; a notorious tease at that. The more someone tries to dig information out of him, the more he’d dangle it just out of reach for his own personal amusement.

Bullion merely smiled knowingly at Vanity and gave her a little wink. “Perhaps you are looking a touch too deep into this, my dear. Now, off with you; the hour is late, and it wouldn’t do to be worn out for the coming Summer Sun Celebration.”

Again, Vanity gave her host a curious look, but this time said nothing. The Summer Sun Celebration was a few days away yet; why bring it up at all?

Bullion gave a start when the clock in the hallway behind him boomed a low melody, chiming the hour. “Oh dear, is it really that late already?” he remarked. “Time sure flies when you’re having fun.”

Vanity laughed lightly. “Perhaps I should be the one telling you to get some rest.”

Bullion laughed heartily. “Perhaps you should! Ah, how time flies…”

As he spoke wistfully, the rattle of wooden wheels heralded the arrival of one final carriage as it trundled to a halt before the front steps. It was a black, vintage thing, far and away from the shiny, sleek contraptions at the beck and call of the rich and famous.

Immediately, a young stallion hopped out of the front seat and towards the carriage’s door, bowing respectfully. “Your ride, ma’am.”

Bullion had to restrain a chuckle. Where Vanity had gotten her taste for such antiques he would never know, but her fondness for them always tickled his funny-bone.

“Well then,” Vanity said with a smile, “I suppose I must take my leave now. But please, Bullion, do keep me in the loop. I’d hate to think you were leaving your colleagues out of some grand scheme.”

Bullion made a show of clutching at his chest in mock surprise, grasping theatrically. “My dear Vanity, you wound me! Why, I would never do such a thing!”

His last guest humored him with a little laugh, but said nothing.

“Besides,” Bullion went on, his expression settling into an easy smile. “I believe I told you myself, did I not? I am a much better listener than a schemer.”

Vanity restrained a sigh, though her disappointment wasn’t so well hidden. “Oh well, can’t blame me for trying. Good night, Bullion.”

Farewells exchanged, the two went their separate ways in perhaps higher spirits than they had for a while.

Vanity allowed her chaperone to magic open the carriage door for her, and in she stepped, already eager for home as the door clicked shut behind her.

“Ah, what a night,” she sighed, slumping in her plush seat. In the darkness afforded by the curtained windows of the carriage, the posh mare allowed her smile to slip from her lips, instead replacing it with a dull countenance. Within moments of the carriage setting off, it was as if the mare seated within the shadowed interior had transformed into somepony else entirely. “What a dull night…”

“Is that so?”

Vanity jumped, stifling a gasp.

Too late she realized that the shadows' protection was not hers alone. There was another figure seated directly across from her, and had she not spoken, Vanity would never have noticed her.

But now she could. She could just make out the shape of a slender mare seated across from her with a poise to put every one of the aristocrats at Bullion’s party to shame.

As the carriage passed by a street lamp, a thin blade of orange light cut through a gap in the curtains, momentarily exposing a deep blue cheek and steely silver eye of the one seated across from Vanity, but did little else to shed light on her identity.

And yet, it was all Vanity needed to know exactly who she was dealing with. Still, she remained motionless out of surprise for a moment, struggling to recompose herself quicker than her shock could subside.

“I… was not aware you’d… be here already,” Vanity said, her usually smooth voice jittery.

“Time is not a luxury I can afford to spend idly anymore,” the mare stated in a low, smooth tone as soft as velvet. “Especially when I do not know how much of it we have left.”

“That’s… a fair point,” Vanity said slowly. “Still… do you not think that your being here might be a bit… rash?”

“If I wanted your opinion,” the mare said stiffly, “I would’ve provided you with one.”

Vanity flinched. “My apologies. I was only thinking of your safety.”

The one opposite her spared Vanity any further remark, but even in the dark, the posh mare could feel the other’s eyes on her.

“What did you learn tonight?” the mare asked. Her voice was slightly too level and soft to make it sound like a demand, but nopony could’ve missed the implication in her voice.

At this, Vanity managed to recompose herself, choosing to adopt a business-like demeanor. “It seems that Bullion does believe that something will be happening alright.”

The shadowed mare was silent for a moment, her eyes turning to eye out the narrow slit between the curtains of the carriage and out towards the rapidly disappearing cityscape of Canterlot. “A pony who actually pays attention… will wonders never cease,” she commented after a moment of pondering.

Vanity continued to watch the mare’s barely visible profile, wondering if she should speak at all or not. Fortunately for her, it never came to that.

“This means we’ve wasted enough time,” the mare said without inflection. “I’ve grown weary of their hemming and hawing. Things need to be set into motion. Now.”

With that, she turned a sharp eye towards Vanity, who immediately sat up straighter. Even if the posh mare couldn't quite make out the other's expression, just having her eyes set on her made her feel like she was being smothered.

“Do I make myself clear?”

Vanity repressed a gulp, then nodded. “Yes… Your Highness.”

The mare regarded Vanity for a while longer, her gaze unreadable even if it could be seen. "Good."

Then, she turned her head, metallic silver eyes resting idly on the dwindling lights of Canterlot. She rested her cheek on one hoof, and lapsed into silence. But on the inside, the gears of her mind continued to turn rapidly. There was still so much to do...

For her sake, I hope Queen Applejack is in something of a receptive mood. Games are not something I intend to be playing for much longer...