“Spike,” Twilight said. “Take a letter for Princess Luna.”
“Ready,” the small dragon said after a moment spent retrieving scroll and quill.
“Her Highness, Princess Twilight Sparkle, summons you to a private session of the Golden Oaks Court to resolve your petition,” Twilight said. It was best to put her in a formal frame of mind to start with, she had decided over a week of agonizing. The only power she really had to force Luna to accept her judgment was the other princess's respect for... well, the title of Princess. “Knowing your own many duties,” Twilight continued, “you may come at your convenience any time this evening.” A little bit of respect, without compromising the notion that Twilight stood over Luna in this tiny domain, would hopefully ensure Luna arrived in a good mood.
“Is that it?” Spike asked when Twilight was silent for several moments.
“I think so,” Twilight said. “Sign it, seal it with my cutie mark, and send it.”
Before he could, there was a knocking on the door – which Twilight had already placed a “Do Not Disturb” sign on. “Who is it going to be this time?” she groused as she started to make her way to open it.
“I think it must be Rainbow Dash,” Spike said. “Everypony else already came by, except for –”
“Applejack!” Twilight said in surprise as she opened the door.
The orange mare smiled tiredly as she stepped inside. “Howdy, sugar.” She looked around. “I'd thought Rarity'd have all those hangings and things up again for ya.”
“She tried,” Twilight said. “And then Pinkie Pie came offering to make a cake. I thought it might be coincidence when Fluttershy came by to ask if I wanted anypony here tonight, but now I know there's a conspiracy.”
“How's that?” Applejack asked.
Twilight stared at her. “You're taking time off from Applebuck Season,” Spike interjected, still holding the scroll with Luna's summons on it.
The farmer let out a bark of laughter. “It's not so bad I can't take one night off. At least when my brother ain't gotten hurt doing something I can't say 'cause I promised not to anymore.”
Twilight kept staring. “Applejack,” she said, “that only happened the one year. You still usually aren't seen in town until every last apple is off the trees. Pinkie Pie hasn't even invited you to her last three parties.”
There was silence for a moment. “Your pa,” Applejack finally said. “He's your family, and you're my family. That makes him my family too.”
Twilight groaned. “Let me guess, Rainbow Dash told you also?”
“I'm serious,” the other mare said. “Twilight, you're the one who taught me three years ago that it's okay to ask for help. You don't have to do this by yourself.”
“I know,” Twilight said, and she smiled. “I really do appreciate it, but this will go better if it's just Luna and me.”
Applejack frowned, studying Twilight for a moment. The purple alicorn did her best to look calm and collected. “All right, then,” Applejack said. “The girls and I are gonna be at Sugarcube Corner. We'll be ready if you need us, and you can come over to celebrate afterward if you don't.”
“Thanks,” Twilight said, and then she hugged her friend. When she released the embrace, she asked, “Should I expect Rainbow to come by next?”
“I don't rightly know,” Applejack said. “I ain't seen her yet today.”
“That's a little worrying,” Twilight said.
Applejack smiled slightly. “I'll try to round her up and get her safely at the Corner for you.”
“Thanks, Applejack,” Twilight said again. As soon as her friend let herself out, she turned to Spike. “Send the letter, please.”
“Already done, Twilight,” Spike said, blowing a wisp of green flame away from his fingers. “I'll go get my horn!”
“Spike, don't...” Twilight trailed off, the dragon already vanished up the stairs. One hoof met her face. “Oh well. Maybe the Princess will like his playing.”
As if on cue, the rising moon shone brightly through an upper window, and the library lights flickered. When they returned to normal, Princess Luna stood in front of Twilight.
She looked around quizzically. “Am I early, Twilight Sparkle?” she asked.
“No,” Twilight said. “I didn't bother with all the decorations because this will be just the two of us.”
The Princess of the Night frowned. “I had thought you would summon the author of that abomination to face justice,” she stated.
Twilight took a deep breath. “No,” she said. “He isn't coming.”
The dark-coated alicorn's wings shifted. “What do you mean?”
Before Twilight could answer, the door to her bedroom opened. “Found it!” Spike shouted, waving his instrument at the top of his arms. He started a little when he saw Luna on the floor below, but quickly put the mouthpiece to his lips and let loose with an... inventive sequence of almost-notes. Both princesses stared at him. He laughed nervously, lowering the horn.
Twilight smiled slightly, actually glad for the distraction. “Would you like some tea?” she offered to Luna, forcing herself not to add “Princess” or “Your Highness” to the end of the sentence.
The larger mare's lips pressed tightly for a moment. “I see you are truly my sister's student,” she said after a moment.
“Princess?” Twilight asked, forgetting herself.
“That is what she says,” Luna answered, “before she tells me something she knows I won't want to hear.”
There was a tense moment, Twilight struggling not to look nervous. She supposed she had seen her mentor make the same offer she was trying to let somepony down gently. It hadn't been a conscious imitation, though.
Luna sighed. “Very well, Twilight Sparkle. I will have tea.”
Twilight couldn't stop from sighing herself in relief. “Spike?” she asked.
“Right!” he said, dropping his brass horn and darting for the kitchen.
“I am certain that you have a very good reason why the peddler of this treasonous story should escape our fury,” Luna stated. Twilight shifted nervously.
Spike emerged from the kitchen, carefully carrying a tray with two steaming mugs on it. “Here you go, Princess... and Princess, I guess.”
Luna actually smiled slightly.
That was when the window over her head burst open. A multicolored blur slammed into the floor between the two alicorns, knocking the tray from Spike's hands, then staggered to her feet.
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight demanded. “What are you doing?” Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a midnight blue aura encasing the falling mugs and settling them safely on a side table.
The pegasus shook her head, as though to clear it. She was dressed in – of all the crazy things – gray barding, and she ignored Twilight's question, instead staring up at Luna. “I challenge you, Princess Luna!”
Both princesses blinked. “What do you mean, Rainbow Dash?” Luna asked.
“Trial by combat!” she stated. Twilight's mouth fell open, and she stood by, paralyzed by shock.
Luna filled the silence. “Surely you are not the one responsible for that trash?”
“No,” Rainbow admitted. “But I will champion him!”
Twilight's mouth moved up and down.
“Hah!” Luna's bark of laughter echoed off the library walls. “I understand now. Very well, Rainbow Dash!” She grinned. “I know not your reasons, but we can discuss that after. As the challenged mare, I may choose the form of the test, but I see no reason not to accept what you offer. Aerial jousting, yes?”
Rainbow seemed taken aback for just a moment. “Right, Your Highness!” she said after a heartbeat.
“Excellent! The best two of three falls should suffice, I believe. I shall meet you outside!” Luna's form turned to blue-tinged shadow and flowed out the window Rainbow Dash had forced open.
Twilight finally found her voice. “Rainbow Dash,” she hissed, planting one hoof firmly on the pegasus's back to keep her from flying off, “what in Tartarus do you think you're doing?”
Rainbow's wings fluttered. “I figured it out, Twilight!”
“I have no idea what you mean right now,” Twilight said.
“Me neither,” Spike chimed in.
“Your dad wrote Daring Do, right, Twilight?” Rainbow said. Twilight stared at her. “It all fits! You know the author but promised not to tell, and your dad writes for the same publisher!”
Twilight could just about follow the leap of logic. It would have been ridiculous... if it wasn't also correct. “That doesn't explain what you're doing.”
“I'm facing Luna in a trial by combat... if you'd just let me go.” Rainbow squirmed under Twilight's hoof. “When did you get so strong?”
“...why are you doing this?” Twilight asked. Her friend looked back at her. “Please tell me you're not doing this just so you can read more Daring Do books,” she pleaded.
“No!” Rainbow said. Twilight looked at her. “Well, not just that,” she admitted. “I'm trying to help! How is this any worse than you fighting her alone?”
Twilight blinked. “I was going to talk to her and explain the idea of freedom of speech,” she said.
“Oh,” Rainbow said. “It... probably wouldn't have worked anyway?” Twilight glared at her. “Look, all I've got to do is win this, and your dad is safe, right?”
“And what do you think is going to happen to him when the alicorn princess who's slain dragons wins?” Twilight growled out.
Rainbow let out a little laugh. “I can win!” she promised.
“Have you ever jousted before?” Twilight demanded. Rainbow opened her mouth. “Fluttershy doesn't count!” Twilight added, and Rainbow shut up. “This is not happening,” Twilight told her firmly.
“Rainbow Dash!” Luna's voice came from outside. “We had not thought you a coward!”
Rainbow stiffened. “Oh, it's on,” she growled, and with a burst of strength she pulled herself free, and then she was gone, out the window.
“Oh no no no,” Twilight moaned. “What am I going to do?” She galloped toward the exit, barely noticing Spike instead racing back toward the stairs before she was out the door.
The rest of her friends met her a few paces past her doorstep. “Girls,” she exclaimed breathlessly, “Rainbow Dash is –”
“We noticed, darling,” Rarity said, throwing her head up.
Twilight's followed the gesture to find Rainbow Dash and Luna facing each other in the air over the Golden Oaks Library. The princess wore silver armor that glowed with moonlight, and both mares had found blunted lances somewhere.
“Sorry, Twilight,” Applejack apologized. “I couldn't find her before she burst in on you.”
Twilight didn't even turn to look at her. “No no no,” she recited. “I have to stop them.” Her wings spread.
“Umm... Twilight,” Fluttershy said. “I know you've been practicing but isn't that... a little, teensy bit high?”
Twilight jumped, her wings beating frantically. A trail of green flame shot from a window of the tree, and above, the two jousting mares hurled toward each other as though that was an arranged signal.
Twilight missed a wingbeat, and landed roughly, losing her feet. A second later, Rainbow Dash crashed to the ground in front of her, lance plowing a furrow in the dirt. “That was a lucky shot!” she said, shaking her head woozily, and the pegasus was back in the air before anypony could stop her.
Pinkie Pie helped Twilight stand. “I could get a party cannon,” she offered.
“You are not firing Twilight out of a cannon, Pinkie,” Applejack said firmly.
Twilight's gaze was still locked on the air. “No no no,” she said again. “This is all wrong.”
Rainbow Dash started to climb. In answer, Luna let herself fall some, positioning underneath her opponent.
Rarity's eyes widened. “Oh no,” she breathed. “That's not... no, it is.” She covered her eyes with one hoof.
Rainbow Dash plummeted, lightning crackling around her falling form for an instant before rings of prismatic light exploded around her, a loud boom roaring over quiet Ponyville.
“That's a Sonic Rainboom, yep,” Applejack said, covering her own eyes to shield them from the rainbow trail, painfully bright in the dim evening light. The tip of Rainbow's lance shone like a multicolored sun, streams of brilliant color trailing off of it.
Luna launched upward to meet the falling Rainbow. At the last moment, the alicorn shifted slightly in the air to avoid her foe, her lance darting out to lightly touch the prismatic blur as Rainbow fell past her.
Rainbow spun out of control, her wings spreading to shed speed, but she still hit the ground with enough force to kick up a massive cloud of dust.
“Rainbow!” Fluttershy shouted – for her, anyway – taking to the air and flying over to the other pegasus.
Luna settled to the ground beside them. “Well fought, Rainbow Dash, but I am victorious.”
Rainbow staggered to her feet, almost shoving Fluttershy aside. “Best three out of five!” she demanded.
Luna laughed. “I am enjoying myself, but I've no desire to hurt you, Rainbow Dash.”
Twilight raced over. “Rainbow Dash! I told you not to –”
Pink light flared in between her and Luna, unfolding into a bright heart that lit up the night, casting strange shadows and revealing ponies gathering on the edges of the town square.
Twilight stopped short of the pink energy.
The heart unfolded, and three ponies stood inside it. The light flared, then died. “Auntie Celestia makes it look so easy,” Cadance said woozily, and then the pink princess collapsed. Fluttershy was at her side in a moment, but Twilight paid more attention to the two ponies she had brought.
“Hi, Twilight,” her father said nervously. “We came as soon as we could when we got Spike's letter.”
“What are you doing here?” Twilight demanded. “Get out of here before Luna sees you!” Fortunately, Luna seemed to be paying more attention to Twilight's mother, though no recognition showed in her face. The pale mare stood only paces away from the Night Princess. Twilight's eyes widened when she saw the golden barding Twilight Velvet wore. “Oh no,” she moaned. “No, no, no!”
“I tried to stop her?” her father offered. Twilight just moaned again.
“One of my sister's guard?” Luna asked.
“Retired,” the much smaller mare stated.
“What business have you with me, then?” Luna's eyes narrowed.
“While we appreciate the spirit in which it was offered,” Twilight Velvet began, “Rainbow Dash did not have our permission to champion our cause. If you would have a trial by combat, Your Highness, you must face me.”
“And why do you defend this... writer?” Luna demanded.
“He is my husband,” was the firmly stated answer.
“A fair answer.” Luna's wings spread, though she didn't leave the ground. Her horn shone darkly, and she detached her lance, plunging it into the ground. “A duel of magic, then?” Twilight Velvet's horn glowed an answering pale light, and three crystal blades appeared in the air around her air, pointed at the Princess. Luna laughed. “A mare after my own heart!”
Bursts of white light sent the crystals hurling through the air at Luna. Black discs caught each blade, halting them in midair. Dark lightning arced down the weapons and back at Twilight's mother. The unicorn danced aside, letting the bolts hit the ground, blowing small craters in the dirt by her hooves. The blades clattered to the ground.
Twilight Velvet shook her head, and light trailed her horn, forming an arc that she flung at the princess. Luna lowered her own head, and a beam of silver erupted out of her horn, consuming the oncoming attack and lancing toward the unicorn. There was a popping noise, and Twilight's mother vanished before the onslaught, reappearing in the air over her foe. She fell, one hoof raised to strike.
Luna rolled aside, and Twilight Velvet hit the ground hard, forced to gallop several steps to avoid losing her feet. Blue magic grasped one of the unicorn's fallen crystal blades, almost under her hooves, and launched it upward.
Twilight Velvet threw herself backward, barely avoiding the weapon, then she spun about, her magic grabbing the other two blades. They darted at Luna, who summoned another shield. The weapons vanished a heartbeat before hitting it, then reappeared on the other side. One blade missed; the other passed through the princess's starry mane, cutting loose a few glowing blue strands.
Luna laughed loudly. “I have not had such fun in ages, brave soldier!” she exclaimed. “I shall count that as first blood, but you shall not triumph with such tactics a second time. Come!” Her horn began to glow ever more brightly.
Twilight Velvet was trembling from exertion, Twilight Sparkle realized, and that was enough to shake her from her stupor. She was pawing at the ground, Twilight realized, and she forced herself to stillness for just a moment as Luna charged.
Twilight's own horn flared, and she appeared, hovering in mid-air with her wings spread, in between the two combatants. Luna skidded to a halt. Almost unthinkingly Twilight's magic searched her home, finding six familiar wells of power. The crown settled onto Twilight's brow, while she wrapped five necklaces around five necks, then brought her friends to stand behind her. “Stop,” she ordered, in a credible imitation of the Royal Canterlot Voice.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said nervously. “Why do you interrupt this –”
“You will not hurt either of my parents,” Twilight demanded.
Luna blinked once. “Your... what?” She stared past Twilight, probably at her mother, and her eyes widened. “Oh no,” she breathed. The light on her horn vanished, and she started to back away.
“Yes,” Twilight said.
“I withdraw my petition,” Luna said quickly.
“No,” Twilight said firmly. “You asked for my judgment.”
“Stop!” Her father's voice rang out clearly, making Twilight look away from Luna for the first time since taking action.
The stallion galloped up, then knelt before Luna. Shocked, Twilight felt herself settle to the ground. “Princess,” he said. “I am Night Light, the author of Nightmare Moon. Please accept my humble apologies. I –”
“No,” Twilight said. “Don't apologize to her.”
Her father looked up, then shied away, fear in his eyes.
“Dad, wh–” Twilight finally realized she was basically shouting and managed to control her voice. “What's wrong?”
“You're still kind of... glowy, sugar,” Applejack said from behind her.
Twilight turned her head to look back at her friends. The Elements on their necks shined with flickering light. Behind them, watching townsponies scattered for some reason. Even her mother looked nervous.
“You really should wear the full regalia if you're going to do this,” Rarity sniffed, though it seemed forced.
“Do what?” Twilight asked.
“Look!” Pinkie Pie said, pulling a mirror out of her mane and clenching the handle in her teeth.
Glowing, featureless white eyes stared back at Twilight. Her mane seemed to have a life of its own, moving to an unseen wind, the pink stripe like a blazing brand in an inky dark void. The gem set in her crown burned with power, pure magic boiling off of it in streams that hung unnaturally still in the air.
The instant she saw this, Twilight lost hold of the power she hadn't realized was welling up inside of her. It faded, and soon all she saw in the mirror was the plain old ordinary Twilight Sparkle. Well, the alicorn-princess-with-wings kind of ordinary Twilight Sparkle, anyway.
The light flickering on her friends necklaces faded away. Everypony seemed to sigh in relief, and Twilight staggered.
“Easy, there,” Cadance said, coming out of nowhere to catch her. “It's rough the first time.”
“What was that?” Twilight hadn't even noticed her getting up.
“Later,” Cadance said, gesturing with her head back at Luna.
Night Light still knelt before her. “I had no intention to offend you, Princess.”
“No intention to offend me?” Luna's voice rose. “How could you think it would not?” Her wings spread.
Twilight forced herself to rise, shrugging off Cadance's attempt to help her. “Princess Luna,” she started.
Luna's wings snapped back to her side. “I have said that I withdraw my petition,” she said to Twilight. “The matter is ended.”
“No, it isn't,” Twilight's father insisted. “I want... I need to know what I did wrong, Your Highness.”
“You didn't do anything wrong!” Twilight shouted – normally. Her own wings opened in irritation.
“Have you read your sire's book?” Luna asked, disbelief in her voice. “He dares to suggest that the fault for my deeds lies with my sister, and he compounds the insult by slandering our Night Guard!”
“The Night Guard?” Twilight's father echoed weakly.
Luna's lips pressed together. “Understand, Night Light, even if perhaps the history thou know does not include it. We commanded fully half the armies of Equestria. Each mare and stallion swore to obey our commands, even unto death.
“To a pony they abandoned that oath, refused to serve us in our madness, and stood by our sister. To a pony, they are heroes, and thy 'North Star' is an insult to their memory.”
“Oh,” Night Light said, his voice weak. “I didn't realize... I never meant to...”
“Wait just a minute,” Applejack said. “This whole mess is because that book is too nice to Nightmare Moon?”
“Yes!” Luna shouted.
Rarity had a hoof at her face. “I see why, but...”
“I understand,” Twilight's father said calmly, bowing his head almost to the ground. “Only a limited edition has been published. I will stop the wide release and recall as many copies as I can.”
Luna glanced nervously at Twilight. “That will not be necessary,” she said. “I do not demand this. Your understanding of ou... my distress is enough.”
“No,” Night Light said, staying knelt. “This is for myself. I never meant to hurt you, Your Highness, or to reflect poorly on the Night Guard of the time. My aim was to help you and honor them. I failed in that. I cannot allow the book to be published.”
There was silence for a moment. “Then we are more than satisfied,” Luna said. “Please rise, Night Light.” The stallion stood on shaky legs.
“This calls for a party!” Pinkie proclaimed predictably.
Luna looked about, settling on somepony over Twilight's shoulder. “I should also apologize for any injury I dealt you, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Velvet. I...”
“No!” Twilight shouted, her wings spreading again. Everypony turned to look at her.
“Twilight Sparkle, I –” Luna began.
“No,” Twilight said, walking up to her. “This is not over, Princess. You were going to have my father executed, over a story you didn't like.”
“I would not have had I known the author was –”
“That makes it worse!” Twilight said.
Her father cleared his throat. “Twilight,” he said, “you don't need to –”
“Yes, I do.” Twilight's voice was hard.
Luna lowered her head. “I... do not believe I would have truly insisted on death,” she said. “Even had we uncovered the author and he was not your father.”
Twilight took a deep breath, forcing calm into her voice. “You acknowledged me as the Princess of Books,” she said, “and submitted this matter to my judgment. I do not accept your request to withdraw your petition. Will you hear my ruling, Princess Luna?”
“...yes,” the larger alicorn said.
It actually took Twilight a moment to decide. “I have three books back in the library on the inalienable rights of all ponies recognized by the Equestrian Throne.” She'd intended to loan them to Luna after the calm, rational discussion she'd wanted to settle this with. “I want... I order you to read them all, with a particular focus on freedom of speech. You're assigned a five page paper, summarizing how these traditions developed over the past millennium, due at my court two weeks from today.”
Somepony, probably Cadance, laughed. Twilight ignored her.
“Very well,” Luna said.
“I am not done,” Twilight said. “Second, if I know my father, he is already planning another book, one that will try to correct what he thinks went wrong with this one.”
Night Light smiled weakly. “Yes.”
“Princess Luna, I also order you to assist him in this. As your duties permit, you must answer whatever questions he may have about what happened a thousand years ago, but you are not to attempt to exercise any veto on what he writes.” That would help prevent this from happening again.
Luna nodded. “Yes,” she said.
Twilight frowned. “And one more thing,” she said. Luna looked at her expectantly. “Father, you're allowed to cancel the wide release of Nightmare Moon, but you can't recall any of the copies that are out there. Not even any advanced readers' copies.”
He winced. “Twilight,” he protested, his voice pained.
“I know,” Twilight said. “I'm sorry, but Princess Luna needs to learn... really learn... why censorship is a bad idea.” Night Light winced.
“I don't understand,” Luna said.
Twilight smiled thinly. “You will soon enough.”
A few hours afterward, Rainbow Dash settled into her cloud bed, more than little sore. She paid no attention to the pain, though. It had been worth it, after all.
Besides the sheer awesomeness of jousting with a Sonic Rainboom, against a Princess even... she'd managed to get her hooves on the real prize. She had a new book by Daring Do's author. Not only a new book, but a new book that was limited to only five hundred copies, ever. And hers was Number One.
Twilight had dragged her aside and forced a Pinkie Promise not to reveal that her father was the author, but she hadn't said anything about the book when she'd given it to Rainbow. She giggled to herself as she opened the cover. Just wait until the Daring Do Fanclub heard about this...