Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

No Good Deed

Twilight Sparkle hadn’t gotten herself presentable or anything remotely resembling it. Crazy bed mane, unbrushed teeth, and even her slightly tangled tail hairs didn’t matter in the slightest. All she had needed to hear was that her brother was in trouble. After that, she had bolted out of the bed and took off running at a full-steam gallop to the Empyreal Hall, the meeting place of the Inner Council of Equestria.

Canterlot was larger than it appeared, even more so in recent years thanks to expansion efforts. The castle hadn’t seen quite as much growth up until just recently, but its halls were convoluted enough already. Spending her formative years in the castle didn’t make the paths any less winding or tedious.

Moreover, with her small tower destroyed, she had been sleeping in a room at the very top of the tallest tower in the entire city. This meant that she had to go all the way down many, many flights of stairs in order to get to the deep, secure areas where the Empyreal Hall awaited. She’d been running for several minutes and was finally getting close after blowing past another set of guards before they could even get their hooves up to salute.

Come on, pick up the pace! Shining’s in trouble, she kept repeating to herself. Each turn down a new hall brought with it a new flight of stairs. When she finally got to a small straightaway, she pushed hard into the floor with her hooves, kicking out with her hind legs into a full gallop on the slippery marble while using her horn to tear at the fabric of space. No, wait! Can’t teleport! Security wards will get me! Come on, earth pony magic!

Railings and decorations blurred in her vision as she poured on the speed to dangerous levels. Even after Luna’s training, her earth pony magic remained unpredictable at best. When she arrived at the next set of stairs, she locked her legs into a braking position, sliding forward on all four hooves as the staircase rushed towards her all too quickly.

“Nononononono—!” On instinct, she curled up to brace herself for what would have been a harmless tumble on a flat surface. However, this was decidedly not a flat surface. 

Hard corners tried to crunch their way into her muscles and bones on each tumble, threatening to break a leg, her ribs, or worse. These impacts should’ve left anypony who wasn’t a pegasus in need of a trip to the hospital. The world whirled around each time, a sunlit skylight and shiny steps trading places in her field of vision, accentuated by painful hits. She hit the bottom of the stairs splayed on the ground, bruised, and with the coppery taste of blood on her tongue.

Tenderly, she picked up one leg, ignoring the pain and putting it under her. She followed with two more, hissing and wincing as she pushed herself up. The spill should have had her crying out for a guard or medics, but it wasn’t hurting as much as she suspected. She glanced over her back and body, moving each joint in turn. Some of her muscles were extremely unhappy at the moment, but they were still functional and nothing appeared to be broken. She’d certainly wind up with a number of bruises, but a hospital stay was not in her immediate future.

“Tsk tsk. I had a feeling this would happen.”

Violet rage and power whirled into a ball, revolving around with the Grand Mage as she prepared an attack for whatever was behind her.

Until she saw it was Princess Luna with her forehooves up.

“Easy, Twilight! Easy! This is not part of your training!”

Twilight halted the spell, waving her hooves in the ambient magic to get it to disperse quicker. “I’m so, so, sorry, Princess! I just fell down the stairs, and I’m so used to getting ambushed that—”

“Twilight Sparkle! Calm thyself!”

She took a sharp breath in and held it, giving herself credit for not completely panicking yet.

Luna raised an eyebrow and stared.

Time passed, and they stood there. Twilight looked around a bit. The council chambers were still a few hallways down. Maybe I should just get going. At her first twitch, Luna moved to block her path, maintaining her stare. Or not.

Some more time passed, Twilight walking in place like a filly who needed to use the restroom before her lungs finally gave out and forced her to exhale.

“Feel better?” Luna asked.

“Not really,” she coughed.

The Princess walked up and used her hooves to turn Twilight around to face away from her. “Honestly, you didn’t even put on your torc. What were you thinking?”

“You said Shiny’s in trouble! In fact, I really can’t stay here! I have to go and—”

“You will stay put until I am done with you!” she commanded, a silver-clad hoof clanking on the tile.

Twilight’s haunches shot to the ground like they were suddenly made of lead.

Luna lit her horn for a spell, creating a light-blue ring of magic in the air that very slowly descended over Twilight’s head. “Your brother is in front of the Inner Council. He is not in mortal danger. He is in political danger.”

“All the more reason I should be there!” She tried to stand up, but Luna held her down with a hoof. “I could help him!”

“Yes, a semi-delirious, bed-headed, supremely frazzled mare busting down the doors is sure to win the day in a political argument and sway the minds of the highest nobility of Canterlot.”

“I… I see your point.” Her ears went flat against her head, and Luna gently nudged her to stand while the ring kept moving. “I’m sorry, Princess. I rushed in. You’ve taught me better than that.” The ring of magic passed around her face, making her squint from the glow. As it moved, it tidied and cleaned her face and mane.

“An alicorn’s protective instinct can be powerful. I imagine that there is no pony on this world whom you are more protective of than your brother. Save myself and Celestia, I’ve honestly never seen a pair of siblings with a closer bond. As such, I forgive you, but we must be mindful of our position.”

“Our position?”

A hoof pressed down against her in between her withers. “Twilight, listen to me carefully and do thy best to remain calm. The Council is currently deliberating whether or not to pass a vote of no confidence against your brother. If they succeed, Celestia will be forced to discharge him from the military.”


“I need you to stay calm, because I’m afraid it only gets worse.”

“Worse!? How in Tartarus can it get worse!? Shiny loves his job!”

The ring was in the middle of her barrel now, and Luna leaned in to whisper. “After this, they’re going to try and take away his crown.”

Twilight froze. At that moment, no force could have moved her. Not an invading army, being struck by lightning, not even Luna’s magic. She simply couldn’t.

Luna continued, “I know. It’s unprecedented. I could scarcely believe it myself. That’s a separate item in their docket, though. The vote on his military position will happen very shortly, which is why we need to get you cleaned up. Even if we can’t do anything, I feel you have the right to be present.”

Twilight’s lip trembled as she held back the tears. Strong. I need to be strong, like Shiny. She tried to swallow but failed. Her throat was too dry. “You’ll vote in his favor, right?”

Luna shook her head. “Remember, I have no vote in the Council on military matters. Moreover, they like me even less than your brother. I’m afraid my efforts would be naught but a hindrance. At this point, it’s up to Celestia and Cadence.”

A gust of wind washed over her as the ring progressed, and Twilight turned her head to face the Princess. “Why didn’t Celestia tell me? Why didn’t Shiny? Or Cadence?”

Luna sighed. “A better question would be ‘why didn’t Celestia tell her own sister?’ I imagine they wanted the both of us to focus on your training. Or perhaps they merely wished to spare you the pain for a time. I know that my sister would expect me to barge in there with you just behind.”

“Isn’t that what we’re about to do?”

Luna gave her a wry little smile. “I never said she wasn’t right.” A snap went through the air from the spell finishing. “There, all better. Don’t rely on this spell for grooming, Twilight. In fact, it’s better if you just forget it.”


“Because if you overuse it, your coat, mane, and potentially even your cutie mark will be bleached pure white. Come, we must make haste.”

Twilight followed Luna in the direction of the council chambers, moving at a much more leisurely trot than her earlier full-throttle gallop. Twilight’s mind raced ahead down the halls, starkly contrasting their walking pace. Calm, Twilight. Keep calm. You can’t help Shiny if you don’t stay calm. She took a deep breath then let it out slowly. Calm.

“Princess?” Twilight asked.

“Luna,” came the admonishing reply.

She was still not quite used to that. “Luna, what are we going to do? Do you have a plan? Maybe incriminating evidence we can use to lean on the Council?”

Luna snorted so hard her ethereal mane rippled. “If I had something like that, Twilight, the entire Council would already be in irons. No, I’m afraid this is something that has become inevitable.”

Twilight jumped ahead of her, pleading. “Then what can I do!?”

The Princess leaned down and put her muzzle so close to Twilight’s that she could feel her breath on her face. The teal irises were utterly alien and cold compared to the comforting magenta pools of Celestia’s eyes. “When the time comes and he has surrendered his uniform in dismissal, you run up to him and give him a hug. Understand?”

She shook her head. “No—”

“You will,” Luna assured her, moving past her and around the corner to the doors to the Empyreal Hall.

Twilight followed suit and nearly ran right into the Princess’s rump. When she looked around, she saw why Luna had stopped: three members of Celestia’s elite Day Guard stood watch in front of the locked and magically-sealed council doors.

“Why are we stopping? Aren’t we allowed in?” she asked, lowering one of her ears.

“Look at their numbers and armor. Three guards, not two, and Day Guards at that!” Luna raised her voice, “I’m fairly confident that this is a message from my sister not to interfere. Am I correct, gentlecolts?”

“Correct. Her Great Majesty has given us orders to bar you both from entry.” The Day Guard stood motionless aside from his lips.

Twilight practically jumped back at Luna’s reaction to her sister’s snubbing; she giggled!

And snubbing you, too, don’t forget, she reminded herself. Shining Armor was in trouble behind those doors, and there wasn’t much time. Or, she didn’t think she had time, at any rate. Now, how to get past that seal…?

“Oh, there! You see!” Luna pranced up to the guards, flicking one of them with her ethereal tail. “Don’t you see it? That look on her face? She’s already trying to figure out how to break down the seal!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Well, yes, but—”

The Princess flopped down on one of the guards, putting both forelegs over his back. “And do you know what that means?” She put her lips right up to his ear and whispered with a disturbingly delightful tone, “It means that she doesn’t consider you three a threat.” She pushed in a bit closer to them. “Not.” Closer. “At.” Closer. “All.”

The guards stood perfectly still, but the hairs of their manes bristled ever so slightly.

Still giggling, Luna pranced around in front of them like a schoolgirl teasing her classmates. “How would it feel to be the first to fall to our Grand Mage’s wrath? Are you truly willing to risk it all to keep the world’s most powerful unicorn from protecting her brother?”

“Luna!” Twilight yelled. “That’s enough. Quit teasing them.”

“Oh?” Luna smiled. “Do you not wish to get past the shield?”

She shook her head. “I want to get through, but if you’re taking the time to tease them like this instead of knocking them out yourself, that means we have at least a little bit of time. Moreover, Celestia would know that this would not stop us were we truly determined, which I am. I also don’t think she’d carelessly put her Day Guard in harm’s way like this. Which could only mean one thing.” Twilight stepped forward and looked the princess directly in the eyes, daring her to deny the logic. “You know an alternate way I can get in.”

Generally speaking, when confronting somepony in such a manner, especially a princess, a hug is not the anticipated response. Yet, here she was, buried deep in the Lunar Diarch’s embrace.

“And here I was worried that I couldn’t teach you nearly as much as I wanted. I was wrong. You’ll do just fine. Come.”

Although she couldn’t see anything other than dark blue hair and feathers, she could feel a slight teleportation shock around her. Luna had definitely taken them somewhere.

When the wings let her go, she had to rub her eyes. Wherever she was, it looked very old. The fact that there was moonlight coming in from the small windows in the late morning almost certainly meant that it had some connection to the princess, but what was more surprising was how bright it was. The ancient stones around her were illuminated as if it was the afternoon sun. She could even see tiny bits of dust hanging in the air, and they were sparkling. An alicorn-sized vanity mirror and drawers lay behind her, and it looked every bit as ancient as the dull grey stone. It was as if it had been plucked from another era of history altogether.

“Where are we?” she asked, coughing a bit.

Luna shook her body and wings, kicking off some dust. “This is my private ready-room for the council chambers. As you can see, I do not use it much. It is the only way to teleport into the council, and even then, only alicorns can gain access. We’ve put special protections into the wards here to ensure that.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “This— I can’t be here! It’s like sitting on the throne! It’s tantamount to treason!”

“Alicorns do as we must, Twilight.” Silver-clad hooves clicked and scraped on the dusty floor, turning their owner around to tower over the ascendant. The humor from Luna’s face was completely gone, replaced by a seriousness that sent Twilight back to the cloud over the Glass Desert.

~~“I’ve seen her halt an army’s— actually, my army’s advance and make them turn in terror just from her arrival.”~~

“Twilight Sparkle, do you remember when I told you that Celestia loves you as a daughter?”

Her ears went back flat against her head, and she nodded in a half-bow.

“That was not hyperbole. I have never been a mother, but I knew my nephew well. I also know my sister, and I can say with absolute certainty that the way Celestia looks at you is the same as she looked at him. She loves you, Twilight. She put those guards on the door as a message to me, saying to not do that which I am about to. She does not want you to endure the pain of seeing your brother so hurt nor does she want you to struggle uselessly in a vain attempt to shield him.

“More importantly, she does not wish for you to see what she must do. I understand her feelings, but this is a part of being a ruler. I feel you must bear witness to what will transpire. Ultimately, however, the choice is yours.”

Twilight raised a hoof to her chest, expecting to fidget with her torc until she remembered she wasn’t wearing it.

“I cannot force you to enter. If you wish, I will take you back, and you can wait for the session to end. As leaders, we must make such decisions for ourselves. As alicorns, we must live with their consequences— for however long fate decrees it.”

Luna pointed around a corner and into a very dark hallway. When Twilight stuck her head out to look, she noticed none of the omnipresent glow of twinkling lights present in the rest of the room. Instead, there was just a short hall and a large, heavy-looking door at the end.

“One more thing.”

Luna’s voice had gotten more conciliatory, but it wasn’t helping. Twilight was still nervously looking back and forth between the door and the magic circle on the ground where they had arrived.

The Princess continued, “If we enter, I must hide us. We must stay completely silent for the spell to hold, and we must remain so until the end. Were we to reveal ourselves, both Celestia and I will suffer substantial political blowback for sneaking you in. We will be observers only. Do you understand?”

Twilight was barely listening.

I must get through that door. Shining Armor needs my help!

Princess Celestia raised you. She trusts you. You should heed her advice.

Her forehoof fell to the floor and started pushing her forward.

No! You need to listen to the Princess! She’ll be mad at you!

Shining Armor has spent his entire life protecting me. It’s time I acted like an alicorn and returned the favor.

She stepped completely into the hallway’s darkness, making for the door.

You won’t even be able to do anything! Luna said you have to be silent!

Then at least I’ll know which council members to remove.

She was about to open the door herself when a silver hoof pushed against it to keep it closed.

“Remember,” Luna admonished. “Absolute silence.”

A black cloud of magic and ephemeral matter swirled around them, encasing them in a sphere of evanescent darkness. When Twilight let her focus falter, it appeared as if the entire world would be subsumed, yet as long as she paid attention, she could still see out of the field.

A faint click sounded from the lock on the door, and the princess began to open it so slowly it was nearly painful. The care with which she moved and the look on her face reminded Twilight of a naughty foal sneaking out during the night, trying not to wake her parents.

“Sssshhhh,” Luna re-emphasized, stepping through the door with such grace she may as well have been a ghost. Judging by the properties of the spell she was using, they both may have been just that: ghosts.

Quietly, Luna escorted them down another small hall and out an archway directly behind something Twilight hadn’t actually seen in ages: Luna’s throne. As of late, it had gotten a little unnerving seeing the thrones themselves, as they were reminders of her so-called ‘destiny.’

Still, there were other matters to attend to. She quickly stepped around the massive chair and looked out and down into the council chambers. They were four stories if not taller in height. The center of the room was brightly illuminated by an overhead light along with the back and bottom of the room, where there were some dark wooden seats for guests, witnesses, and others approved to be present. These were parted by a purple carpet leading from the main entryway.

The seating for the council and royalty, meanwhile, sat was cloaked in an oppressive, magical darkness. Seeing through it to the ponies in the seats of power was impossible, which lent the entire room as much foreboding as was possible. In the middle of it all, and the very center of the room, was a lone podium with a microphone. This was where Shining Armor sat in his full ceremonial uniform, alone, isolated, and facing the greatest political powers in Equestria. It was as she’d feared; Shining Armor was facing a true inquisition rather than an investigation.

“Stay close,” Luna whispered, nudging Twilight to keep pace with her as they descended a set of exceedingly steep stairs around the outskirt of the large, circular room.

In the center of the chambers, in front of Shining Armor, a single unicorn stood with a deep sky-blue coat and jet black mane. He wore a rather eccentric outfit resembling almost a mix of contemporary Canterlot fashion and Roan Renneighsance wear. Although his mane was slightly more unkempt than most city ponies, the natural way it folded over gave him an effortless air of aggression. There was no doubt in her mind; this was Charlemane, Duke of Roan and Chairpony of the Inner Council of the Equestrian Nobility. The stallion facing her brother had more political power than anypony that didn’t have “Princess” in front of their name.

Behind said stallion was the utter and complete blackness of the Umbra, a special spell obscuring the ponies of the Council.

She’d only been there a few times before, but she knew the layout. There were five levels of seating, with each row towering even higher than its predecessor. The bottom three rows held all twelve of the Dukes and Duchesses of Equestria, which ruled twelve of the thirteen Duchies that made up the nation.

Above them, Prince Blueblood presided over the Duchy of Canterlot, which included the surrounding towns such as Ponyville. Should Blueblood ever become charming enough to take a wife, they would have two representatives. Princess Cadence, meanwhile, cared for the Duchy of the Lost. She was the champion of orphans, the infirm, towns outside of official Duchy borders, and all of those ponies that need an advocate and a voice yet lack one. If this particular meeting hadn’t been specifically about him, Shining Armor himself would be sitting next to her. From what he’d told Twilight, though, he rarely did. Running the Guard was beyond a full-time job.

At the top, the Eternal Sisters presided over the nation of Equestria. At either end sat their thrones in front of their private entrances, each mirroring the other perfectly with Celestia’s throne on the far left and Luna’s on the far right.

Twilight finally arrived on the bottom of the stairs, her last step causing enough noise that she worried about Luna’s spell breaking. Fortunately, it held, and they quietly ducked into the visitors’ seats, the Princess barely fitting in them.

“We are waiting for your answer, Captain.” Charlemane’s voice had a significant Roan accent, and that didn’t do anything to shake the raw intimidation dripping from his very being.

Twilight shuddered a bit. She wasn’t used to the political side of Celestia’s life at all. She was aware of it, and she had extensive knowledge of Equestrian law and protocols. That, however, wasn’t the true nature of it. The politics of Canterlot was about knowing ponies, owing favors, making deals, the projection of political will, and how many bits one had. Overall, it simply wasn’t a game she was used to. She’d never been part of that world; the Princess had made certain of that. Until recently, there had been little in her life but friendship and studies, barring the occasional world-saving adventure.

“I find the question to be insulting, Chairpony.” Shining retorted. “I’m simply attempting to determine an appropriate answer.”

“If this is how long you take in battle—”

“Do not question my combat capabilities, Chairpony.” Shining pounded the podium with a forehoof. “I am the only GR10-ranked unicorn in the past seven hundred years. If you so wish to question what I can do in a battlefield, I could invite the entire Council out to a field to test me!”

A beam of light came on near the top of the chambers, illuminating Princess Celestia, who spoke with her usual calm. “Captain, please do mind your temper. I understand that the question is difficult for you, but this Council requests an answer.”

Shining snapped to a standing attention then bowed. “Yes, Princess. Forgive me.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Twilight caught the tiniest glimpse of Celestia’s eyes before the darkness overtook the Princess’s seat once again.

“Then answer the question.”

A new light had appeared over one of the council members, this one on the middle level, revealing a gray unicorn mare with an even grayer mane: Duchess Bismare of Germane.

“Stand down, Duchess!” Charlemane snapped, charging up his horn. “I will not tolerate usurpation of this Council!”

Thunder echoed in the hall along with a bright blue-green flash which forced Twilight to hold up her forehooves for an instant. When she put them down, Charlemane was up three rows and staring down a shocked-looking Bismare.

He deflected the security wards! That’s impossible! Well, okay, clearly not, but still!

Charlemane slammed his hoof on a little panel on Bismare’s desk, switching off the light over her and returning the space to darkness before trotting back to the center of the room.

Luna whispered next to Twilight’s ear, “If nothing else, I will give Charlemane this: he is fearless. Ponies of power tend to tip-hoof around other ponies of power, yet he commands this chamber without need of such elegant dance. Also, for the life of me I can’t seem to fix the wards so they can stop him.”

“Now then, Captain, I will repeat.” Charlemane cleared his throat. His stare was burning into Twilight, even though he wasn’t looking at her. “Were you complicit in the Summer Revolt?”

“W—!” Luna’s hoof caught Twilight’s mouth just in time, silencing her outburst.

“No, I was not, Chairpony.” Shining said through clenched teeth.

“Then would you mind explaining how the vaunted Royal Guard Intelligence Service, which you oversaw the expansion of, missed all the evidence forewarning of the attack?”

Shining cleared his throat. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that, Chairpony. Which evidence are you referring to?”

Oh Celestia! Shining, why did you have to word it like that? Twilight whimpered under her breath. The longer she sat, the more she could feel the magic not only in the chambers in general but also surrounding her and Luna. It was almost as if they were surrounded by a heat haze that slightly distorted their view.

“Very well, Captain, I shall indulge you. Let’s start with the troop movement reports from the disgraced General Towers. Not only are they faked in a manner that is quite clear, but they also report advances from the Gryphonic Empire. That last fact alone should have been enough to summon the Council, yet your report stated that you only realized a problem just before the attack. Care to explain?”

Shining cleared his throat again. “Gladly, Chairpony. Firstly, we had no prior reason to suspect treachery from the ranks of the Generals. Each of their number and near subordinates was thoroughly vetted for loyalty, and there hasn’t been a defection from within the ranks since the Lunar Rebellions.”

Luna visibly winced.

“What’s more, the Gryphonic Empire’s movements are anything but unusual. Not only do gryphons help provide security in numerous northern villages—”

Shining was cut off by a few barely-audible grumbles and murmured sentences from the Councilponies in the shadow.

“As I was saying, gryphon traffic has only increased in recent years thanks to our newest villages being close enough for easier trade. Our scouts are still occasionally erroneously reporting civilian trade traffic as military movements, thanks to the fact that all gryphons tend to be armed, military or otherwise.”

Charlemane stomped his hoof on a panel on the floor, sending a cacophonous crack through the room and tossing up sparks. “Come now, Captain. Do you really expect this Council to believe that the sheer number of gryphons that were reported were all just ‘civilian trade traffic?’”

Shining shook his head, almost grinning. “Chairpony, their numbers are far short of that of a full invasion. Mounting any kind of campaign against our nation would require nothing less than the full brunt of their military might to have any hope of long-term sustainability. Gryphons aren’t stupid. They’re a military culture. They have to know this. Jumping to action over what are, at worst, a few scouts would be extremely unwise.”

Duchess Bismare’s light turned on again. “Then when should we take action, Captain?” She scowled down at him.

Charlemane’s neck swung around so fast Twilight could hear one of his neck vertebrae pop. “The use of gryphons in border town police forces are not within the scope of this hearing, Duchess! I will not let you hijack these proceedings with your personal pet issue!”

“No Chairpony, I’m fine answering a few of her questions,” Shining interrupted with a smile. “First off, Duchess, the gryphons aiding in those towns arrived as civilians. We’ve no cause to turn them away as per the Stalliongrad treaties.”

“No gryphon is a civilian, Captain.” The Duchess sneered. “They all enter their military.”

Shining shook his head. “Only the latter is true. Many of them leave their military formally after a time. Just as in Equestria, those who have left are regarded as civilians by both civilizations. Just because they can fight doesn’t mean every little flock is considered a military force.”

“Yes they are!” Bismare pounded a hoof on her desk, sending a crackling noise reverberating through the Hall. “This council has repeatedly advised the Guard that the non-pony law enforcement members in towns near the Gryphonia border are subverting the edicts lawfully placed upon our towns by the Duchy! The same is happening in Prance! We have effectively lost governance over—”

Shining Armor snorted. “The towns are peaceful, have reasonably low crime, and most of them are at least generally responsive to direct orders from the Crown. They are not truly following Gryphonic law. If they were, your tax collectors would be more than chased out. They’d be dead— or at least scarred for life.”

“A government cannot function without income, Captain! How do you think we pay for—?”

Shining stomped the floor with his hoof, its metal shoe cracking the tile and making the Duchess’ earlier outburst sound like a light cough. “I’ve met your agents, Duchess. My wife has seen how much the Duchy of Germane’s outer colonies have to pay for ‘protective services.’ Fancy Pants pays a lower rate on his income, even before his charity deductions. I’m not surprised they turned to the Gryphons for help and told your officers to go kiss a hydra.”

“How dare you!” She pounded her desk again in response, but it was like a foal in a tantrum compared to the Captain’s thundering hoof. “Those ponies chose to live in the untamed borders! They pay those taxes so I can send forces there to keep them safe!”

Enough!” Charlemane’s voice cracked, his Roan accent breaking through even more than before. “This hearing is not so you two can—”

“I’m not finished!” Shining roared, appearing right next to Charlemane in a white blur.

Twilight blinked. That wasn’t teleportation. It wasn’t quite what Luna does, either. I think he literally just jumped. Has he always been that fast?

The Chairpony rolled his eyes and waved at Shining to continue.

“Odd,” Luna whispered in her ear. “Charlemane never allows outbursts like this. What is his game?”

Shining turned with a sharp twist and began pacing about the room. “‘Keep them safe,’ Duchess? Who do you think you’re fooling? Up until three months ago, we had two divisions along the border! And you think it’s your so-called ‘police forces’ doing the safekeeping? Even without Towers’ troops, do you really think anything up there is capable of tangling with General Blaze and living to tell the tale?”

Twilight swallowed. His movements were like her own when pacing, but somehow more menacing. Each tap of a hoof on the floor felt like he’d shatter another tile effortlessly.

“Speaking of living, these frontiersponies we’re talking about are mostly earth ponies. They met the call of the North and, together, built communities that can withstand the environment. And they’re thriving! They don’t need soldiers and protectors as much as they need infrastructure and help with building schools. Roads and rail to trade centers. Things you can provide with a wave of your hoof, yet you sit on your haunches! And when they understandably rebel and get pissed, you deem them traitors! It’s no wonder they’re trying to break away!”

Twilight was far enough away that she could barely tell what color Bismare’s eyes were, but she could swear she saw a vein bulging next to the mare’s horn. “You will watch your tone, low-born! I am the only reason those ponies were able to settle those lands in the first place!”

“Granting permission doesn’t give you the right to take credit, Duchess!”

Luna whispered just loud enough for Twilight to hear, “Good job, Shining, don’t let her distract you with rank. Go in for the kill…”

“Furthermore, those ponies know more about being Equestrian than you ever will! I’d have any one of them be a Duchess before you! You’re one of the reasons the situation is bucked to begin with!”

The Chairpony growled. “That language is not—”

“Shove it, Charlemane!” Shining yelled into the hall, his voice bouncing off and echoing over and over. “We tax them into oblivion and give almost nothing in return! We mark the towns as black on our map, but I bet that if they were treated fairly there wouldn’t be any of this! I’ve been to some of these places, Duchess! I went there on my own and wearing my crown! I didn’t get run out of town, spat on, or yelled at like you do! The only thing thrown at me was a hoofball! Those ponies are generous to their neighbors, kind to their visitors, and honest in their needs! They aren’t the traitors!” He turned around and thrust a hoof up at the pony sitting in the light and smoldering in rage. “You are!”

“I will not be compared to mud ponies, you insole—”

All the lights in the room shut off with an audible chunk, dropping darkness unto the entire chambers as they went completely silent. Seconds passed with no sound at all, not even a peep.

When the light finally returned, it was nearly blinding. A searing, radiant aura burst into life near Shining’s normal Princely seat, burning away the entirety of the Umbra and illuminating the entire chambers in glorious light. It even completely drowned out the sun’s light from the skylights and stained glass at the top and back of the Hall above the Council. In the center of it all, the core of the blaze, was the source: Celestia herself, looking down on the Duchess from Germaney.

Twilight blinked and rubbed her eyes, slowing getting used to the brightness.

“Duchess Bismare.” Despite the display, Celestia’s voice was calm and controlled. “I do not yet believe my own ears. Please, clarify for this Council. What was it that you just said?”

Duchess Bismare looked as if she was terrified for her very life. She had already turned towards Celestia, and was cowering so low to the ground she could barely be seen behind her desk. Twilight had only ever seen the Princess’s face like this once before, when she had put all of Ponyville under a “want-it, need-it” spell.

No, wait, Twilight thought as she watched the scene. This is worse. Much worse.

As Luna had shown her, there was a time when some ponies believed that words alone could cast spells. If this had been true, Twilight felt that the tone of Celestia’s question would have been lethal by itself. Yet, Bismare looked as if she had only become a small filly.

“Um, Your Highness, I meant to say that—”

“I did not ask what you meant to say, Duchess Bismare,” Celestia interrupted, her voice echoing throughout the room. “I asked what you did say.”

Silence took the hall for a few moments, reigning over the chambers as even time seemed to pause to wait for her answer, frozen in the light.

Bismare coughed, lifting her water glass with her magic. The water sloshed around as she lifted it to her face, not unlike a foal just learning telekinesis. She took a long drink, a lot longer than what was proper.

“I’m waiting, Duchess.”

The mare bowed so low Twilight couldn’t see her behind her desk anymore. “I’m truly sorry for my hurtful words, Your Majesty. I shan’t repeat them in these most high chambers.”

Celestia’s expression softened a bit, easing the hard lines on her forehead. “That is the correct response, my little pony. However, I will not have anypony use such language in my most prized city. You will pay a sum of two hundred thousand bits to Princess Cadence’s earth pony orphanage network and personally spend a total of two hundred hours of community service to the same network. Only then will you be allowed to return to my home and resume your duties. Do you understand?”

“I… Yes, Your Highness,” came a bodiless reply from behind the desk.

Celestia banged her gavel from across the hall. “Then leave this city at once. This, I command.”

The old mare slinked away from the Princess, head down, ears flat, and tail literally between her legs. The room was silent except for the sounds of her hoofsteps moving down the stairs and then across the center of the chambers towards the main doors. Twilight’s eyes stayed locked on her the entire time.

As Bismare passed by Charlemane and Shining, Twilight’s peripheral vision made out the barest hint of a smile from the Chairpony. Her brother, however, had a grin on his face that a salamander would be proud of.

“So, they were cooperating all along,” Luna mumbled through her own smile. “Well played, Captain.”

The main doors opened and closed with a meek click, and the all-encompassing light faded in seconds as the Umbra reasserted control over the Hall. The lights over Celestia’s usual spot and the center floor were still on, and the Princess had reassumed her position on her throne.

“I apologize for the outbursts, Your Highness.” Charlemane bowed, no longer hiding his smile.

“Somehow I doubt your sincerity, Chairpony,” Celestia countered. “I know you too well. Regardless, please continue the hearing.”

“As you wish. Captain, if you would humor this Council, we had questions regarding the Intelligence Services’ expenditures.”

Shining’s face returned to the stone-like sternness that was the de facto standard for Guardsponies. “And?”

A little stack of papers floated out of the shadows, being held aloft by a strikingly shimmering, sea-blue telekinetic field. “According to its last report, an outlandish ten percent of the entire RGIS budget was being spent on one mare living in a town with a tiny fraction of the population of Canterlot.”

Shining shook his head. “What is your question, Chairpony?”

The stallion shrugged. “Very well, I’ll be direct. Why are you spying on the citizens of Ponyville?”

“Hmph. I suppose it could look like that.”

“It is that!” Charlemane yelled, tossing the papers down with enough force to scatter them all over the floor.

Twilight winced a split-second later as the Chairpony’s horn flashed with light from a spell being cast with stunning speed. Some of the papers rushed up like they were being carried by a tornado, then stopped as they arranged themselves. It was as though they were being pasted on a giant wall only barely made visible by a faint blue-green glow of magic.

One of the papers then ballooned in size so much it blocked the view of the others, and the text on it became clear.

“Secret searches of all postal mail and packages mailed to, from, or carried through Ponyville.”

Shining shook his head again. “All searches were carried out within the confines of the RGIS Charter and only when there was an imminent threat warranting it.”

The page shrank, and was quickly replaced with another as Charlemane continued. “Clandestine recordings of residents—”

Shining interrupted, his expression still solid as granite. “Taken from public areas with no expectation of privacy and destroyed on a regular schedule when no meaningfulness is presented.”

Yet another page. “Over one hundred covert agents stationed in Ponyville—”

Shining interrupted again. “Every single one there is to protect—”

Your sister!” Charlemane shouted, finally breaking Shining’s expression.

Twilight squeaked a little when Luna’s wing pressed down on her, but she quickly came to welcome its protection from the hostility of the room.

“Captain, believe me when I say I understand the desire to protect one’s loved ones. But this… This has to be the most stunning display of nepotism in the history of Equestria!”

“Clearly he hasn’t met Blueblood,” Luna whispered.

Twilight ignored her. She wasn’t in the mood. This pony was hurting her brother. Not physically, but it was an assault all the same.

“No!” Shining arched his back a little, pushing his head forward in a slight lean. “No, Chairpony, that’s not what’s stunning here. What’s stunning is the sheer number of ponies out there trying to hurt her!”

Grinding his teeth, Shining’s horn lit up and blazed with light. First, it was purple, the same color as both Twilight and their mother. Then, it shifted to a new color: light blue.

Twilight chewed her tongue. Shining’s magic had always been powerful. For that matter, hers had been too, but in different ways. When they were little, their wellsprings were around the same size, or at least comparable to each other. Apparently, she had passed him long ago in that respect, but her brother had always had one thing over her, which was the sheer rate he could output at. Whenever he got serious and really pushed his magic, it always changed color like this to the same shade as his eyes. Cadence even once said he could use more magic at once than her, and she was a winged unicorn, which were known for their ability to expel tremendous amounts of magic in the blink of an eye.

What’s he doing? Wait, his magic is going into the display…

Shining’s horn crackled with power, sending arcs of electric blue magic into the wall that displayed the papers. Within seconds, the wall went from blue-green in color to a light blue.

He took over his spell! Shining… Brother, how did you do that?

A page from the floor flew up and expanded to cover the wall. “Starting six months after Princess Luna’s return, the Nightmare Cult attempted to murder my sister! They tried it seven times over the span of just four weeks!”

Twilight gagged, her shoulders lurching forward like somepony had stomped on her back, but in reality, there was no such impact. It was just Luna brushing her primaries over her calmingly.

“Though I had nothing to do with that, I feel responsible all the same.” Luna whispered. “I truly apologize, Twilight.”

Shining broke into a trot, pacing back and forth. “The only reason they were stopped was because somepony in their ranks grew an actual conscience and warned us.”

“That doesn’t justify all th—”

Shining cut him off again. “Oh, I’m not near finished, Chairpony.” Another page from the floor replaced the one on the wall. “A week after she saved us from Discord, Stalliongrad revolutionaries made an attempt on her life. We learned of that one just in time thanks to some of the covert guards listening in on one of their conversations.”

Charlemane opened his mouth, but Shining barreled onward.

“Thirteen years ago, an earth pony nativist cell decided to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. We found out about it thanks to our ‘outlandish’ Ponyville budget and exhaustive intelligence networks. When they smuggled in weapons to accomplish the task, it was the searches that caught them!”

“Ten years ago!” He didn’t even give the Chairpony an opening this time, kicking up many of the remaining papers on the ground. “A unicorn-supremacist group went after Luna’s student! If not for the intelligence network we put up around Twilight and the use of the word ‘student,’ we might’ve never caught them!”

“I wish Celestia had allowed my Night Guard to conduct the raid,” Luna muttered. “If she had, other would-be kidnappers would have made themselves sick over the merest thought of hurting my little Pip.”

“And you! You!” Shining strode directly up to the Chairpony, each hoofstep a casual utterance of authority, indignation, and rage made all the more potent by his still-glowing horn violating the politician’s personal space. “Twilight has saved this Council, this nation, this world a half-dozen times already. Take that sum we’ve spent, multiply it by a thousand, and we’d still owe her. Yet you stand before me and say that my efforts to protect my sister are nepotism? Look around, Charlemane! Her tower, her sanctuary, the place she called ‘home’ for years under Celestia’s wing is a smoking pile of rubble! Not Celestia’s chambers, not mine, not Blueblood’s, nor this very room! It’s her home that was destroyed! They attacked her first!” 

Shining snapped away from the stunned stallion, slowly plodding away back to his podium before turning to speak once more. “And don’t you dare suggest that I don’t feel any responsibility for it. They almost killed my sister! The filly I got my cutie mark for wanting to protect!” He breathed in, holding the air and filling it with his burden before exhaling. “I’m never going to be able to forgive myself for my failure.”

“I never knew…” Twilight sniffed, wiping tears off her face with a fetlock. “I had heard he was protecting me. I never knew just how bad it was.”

“Sssshhh.” Luna’s wing was holding her much like Celestia’s had in the past. It felt different, though. Celestia’s wing was soft and warm, almost like a blanket made out of motherly love. Luna’s was a hard plate of armor, with stiff, oily feathers. Something meant to bear the brunt of any storm. “Thy brother loves you, truly. He didn’t want you to know for fear that you would be too worried about him to learn what you needed.”

Charlemane had regained his composure somewhat, along with control over his spell, which he cleaned up and reorganized.

Luna continued, hushing her voice ever softer. “For a pony of this age, Shining Armor’s resolve is impressive. I’ve never seen Charlemane so flustered. That alone is a feat.”

Twilight jumped a tiny bit in place, twice, at the sound of the Princess’s gavel striking its base.

“Chairpony, this line of questioning has been exhausted, I believe. Further, some of these precautions were approved by my own quill. If you wish to question their usefulness, I request that you direct your inquiries to me. Understand?”

Twilight took a few rapid, deep breaths, then calmed down. It was okay. Celestia was there. She’d protect him.

“Yes, your majesty.” His words were as smooth as glass, his bow equally effortless. “Captain, how many enemy combatants were captured during the Summer Revolt?”

Shining raised an eyebrow in an expression perfectly mirroring Twilight’s own. Where’s he going with this?

“We estimate that approximately two thousand hostiles participated in the Summer Revolt directly,” he replied.

“I asked you how many were captured, Captain.”

“I’m getting to that. Of these two thousand, about a hundred were operating the hostile airship, while the remaining nineteen hundred were engaged in fighting over or near the city. Of these, around a thousand were KIA. Most of the remaining hostiles fled, but we did manage to capture about one hundred of them.”

Another page took over the display, expanding to show a list of names, ranks, and numbers. “The ponies on this list?” the Chairpony inquired.

Shining nodded. “Just so. Most of the assailants were pegasi. I imagine that was needed in order to return to Canterlot as fast as they did. The day after my sister returned.”

Twilight lurched again from the sting. The attack… The whole thing was—

“Not your fault, Twilight,” Luna chimed in with a stern whisper.

The smaller mare deflated a bit. “Am I that obvious?”

“You are you, Twilight. There is no shame in that.”

She nodded and forced herself to pay attention to the hearing again, even though a large part of her didn’t want to.

“What have your learned from your interrogations, Captain?”

Shining closed his eyes with a sigh. “Precious little, although what tiny bits we have discovered have been eye-opening. Most of the captured abandoned the false Bellerophon before it exploded. The rest were from Towers’s command.”

The duke shuffled some of the papers in the stack around, looking at them instead of the captain. “Then let’s start with the ship workers. What have you learned from them?”

“Almost nothing.”

Charlemane looked up. “Do you mean to say that you haven’t interrogated them? Help me understand that response.”

Shining inhaled as if he had gotten a large papercut. “It’s not an easy thing to explain. I’ve done interrogations before. I’ve seen them done. They’ve been not only uncooperative but incredibly resistant to even our best techniques and methods.”

“Perhaps these ‘interrogators’ you use need better training?” Charlemane deadpanned.

Shining snorted. “Well, I requested Council permission to turn them over to the Night Guard, but the motion was denied.”

Twilight looked up at Luna, who was smirking in a rather self-satisfactory manner.

“Quite. It seems that they’re quite a set of believers, then,” the Duke postulated. “Ponies don’t shrug off interrogations so easily without a cause.”

“That’s not what scares me most, honestly,” Shining agreed. “The captured ship workers weren’t soldiers. They don’t have the build real training gets you. The actual soldiers we caught were more forthcoming, but it still hasn’t meant much.”

Charlemane lifted a page up and glanced at the one under it, giving off a little smile. “But your words were carefully chosen there, it seems. You said ‘almost nothing’. So what did you discover?”

“Be careful, Captain,” Luna whispered aloud.

“A number of things. For one, we believe the pseudo-organization that orchestrated the attack to have access to approximately seven billion bits worth of resources.”

The page that he was lifting up floated right back down as the magic field sputtered. “Seven billion? This wasn’t in the report. How do you know this?”

Shining pulled out his own tack of documents from his podium. “I just received an update from RGIS before arriving. We’ve been able to identify a few orphaned ‘shell’ companies that have mysteriously ceased to exist in the past few months. Most of the paperwork we have on them is, to be blunt, useless and often fraudulent, but the numbers they used in their bank accounts before emptying them are real. Based on their activities, the capabilities of the equipment used against us, and the state of their unfinished airship, we’ve come to this estimation.”

Charlemane rubbed his face with a hoof while murmurs came from the Council members shrouded in the darkness. “When were you going to share this information with us, Captain?”

Shining smiled. “I already submitted copies to your seneschals, but you were already in the chambers when that happened, and this meeting is top-secret.”

“You could have opened your mouth and told us,” a random voice from the darkness shouted.

“I just did!” Shining shouted back. “Besides, the beginning of the hearing made things exceptionally clear. I’m only to respond to questions asked, correct?”

Charlemane groaned. “Bismare and her arbitrary rules. Very well, Captain, is there anything else you feel the need to inform us of right away? Like, for instance, how the RGIS missed an organization with seven billion bits in the bank?”

Shining shook his head. “Actually, not bits, Chairpony. Resources. We’re thinking they keep much of their ‘wealth’ in capital. Minerals, real estate, magic artifacts, and other things. We’ve given them the name ‘Robber Barons.’ Of course, some bits are always needed by any organization, which is why we were able to find these companies at all.”

Charlemane shot a glance up and back behind him to the still shrouded council, causing the murmurs to stop like someone pulled a needle off a record. “Indeed. Then, you mentioned the captured soldiers being more forthcoming? What did you learn from them?”

Shining shrugged. “Not much, but there were some things that were at least somewhat helpful. We know most of Towers’ troops had no idea what was going on. They simply followed what they thought were legitimate orders to pull away from the border, and eventually the signal was given for the conspirators to race for Canterlot. The ones not in the know were just left in the North, wondering what was going on.”

“But that doesn’t answer the most important question.” Charlemane shook his head and walked directly up to the Captain. “Why did the conspirators follow Towers?”

Shining glared into him with a stern stoicness before answering. “Money.”

“Money? That’s all?”

He nodded, eyes closed. “About twice the normal salary for the average soldier in the regular military.”

Charlemane turned his back on Shining and enunciated to the darkness. “A salary which has been frozen for how many of the years you have been Captain of the Royal Guard, the pony responsible for setting military expenditure priorities?”

Shining lowered his head. “Eight of the seventeen fiscal years I oversaw have seen frozen salaries. This is truth.”

“And did it not occur to you that perhaps this might be the result of your fiscal policies?”

“I should ask you the same question, Chairpony.”

The Duke turned around, incredulous. “Excuse me?”

Shining sneered, “I set priorities, but it’s this Council that determines my budget. When I first took command of the Guard, we couldn’t have protected a clown from a bunch of disgruntled foals. Even if they had the discipline, they didn’t have the tools.”

“This Council has Sent you hundreds of millions of bits specially marked for new equipment! Where in Equestria do you get off?” Charlemane screamed at Shining’s face, his Roan accent once again completely overtaking his speech.

The Captain’s horn flashed for an instant and sent the duke back on his haunches. “‘Specially marked’ for specific projects that benefit companies owned by Council members or their families. Little fancy baubles so they can trumpet job creation. You know what I spent my money on? Things for my soldiers.

“When I did my first Guard Tour of Facilities, I found veterans’ hospitals in Stalliongrad where the rooms hadn’t been cleaned in years. Another so-called military hospital in Marelaysia was so ill-equipped they were breaking open coconuts and using the water for IV fluid since that was the only clean liquid they could get ahold of. The soldiers under Generals Blaze, Quartz, and Stone were required to purchase their own weapons and armor. We were so short on space in Canterlot Central HQ I had to give up my quarters to expand it. Yet every time my predecessor or even the Princess tried to negotiate for additional funds, all you ponies saw was a way to make yourselves richer, not solve the actual problems.”

Shining pulled his microphone in closer. “So that’s what I did. I solved problems. If you think that’s what caused all this, fine. Fire me. But ask yourselves this question: Who is it that really protects this room? I do,” he said before any of them could answer. “Who is it that protected Canterlot as best he could even while being under the spell of a Changeling Queen? I did,” he answered again. “Somepony or something is out there. Out to destroy and take over this country. What do you think will happen when we get placed in check again? Do you really think that if they’re willing to kill Celestia, they’ll spare you? 

“And when that time comes, who do you think will protect you? The mare or stallion cowering in the shadows next to you? Or the second most powerful unicorn of the last seven hundred years, eclipsed only by the very mare you fools think isn’t worth protecting to the best of our ability?”

More murmurs and whispers came from the darkness, and Shining slowly sat back down on the pillow behind the podium.

“Chairpony Charlemane,” Shining spoke sounding exactly like a Captain should. “Call your vote. I’m done with this nonsense.”

Luna shook her head. “While it appears I have underestimated you as a politician, Shining, I’m afraid that still isn’t good enough. You might give a couple of them some nightmares, but that just wasn’t enough.”

Twilight swallowed. “Are they going to fire him? Can they actually do that?”

Charlemane stood back up. “Very well, Captain. Your Highness Princess Celestia, it has been submitted that the Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria has No Confidence in the abilities of Captain Shining Armor to fulfill his duties to the Crown. In accordance with law and tradition, we will now proceed to poll our members for your Eternal Sight.”

Celestia nodded and banged her gavel once. “Very well, Chairpony. Proceed.”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat then ran the next dozen in two seconds. “Already? I thought there was more time…”

Luna wrapped a wing around her, holding her tightly, but it wasn’t enough to stop Twilight from shivering in worry. “I warned you this would not be easy, Twilight Sparkle. Be strong.”

“Can’t you do anything? Please!” she pleaded, tears welling up. “My brother is in trouble!”

“Hush!” Luna admonished. “Any louder and the spell will break. Let the tears fall if you must, but do so softly. Maintain your calm.”

She twitched left and right, trying to see anything that might help, but there was only darkness. Darkness and a sole, distinctive pony in the other side’s observer’s area. Grand General Blueblood? When did… What’s he doing here?

Her mind didn’t take long to formulate a plan. “Psst! Luna! General Blueblood is here! He can speak for Shining’s defense! Can you stall the vote?”

Luna shook her head. “He’s already spoken to the Council at length in your brother’s favor. The ship has sailed, Twilight. All that is left is for the gavel to fall. Be at ease; he will need your strength very soon.”

“Official Vote of the Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria, Docket Number 1986530. Chairpony Charlemane presiding. How does the Chamber vote?”

A light appeared over the noble in the upper-left. “The Duchy of Marelaysia has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Celestia, no, please…

The light disappeared, only for a new one to take its place. “The Duchy of Manehatten has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Down the row the light went. “The Duchy of Neighpon has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of the Bittish Isles has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

The light shifted and moved up to the next row, washing across noble after noble faster than Twilight could come up with an excuse to stop it. Her lungs pushed air in and out through a pant only tempered by the tightness of Luna’s wing and its cage-bar-like feathers pressing against her.

“The Duchy of Stalliongrad has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of Shanghay has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of The Hinterlands has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of San Palomino has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Her forehooves danced in place, looking for somewhere to go, something to do to help, and finding nothing as the lights moved to the third and final row of dukes and duchesses.

“The Duchy of Cloudsdale has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

The light over Bismare’s spot shown briefly for just a moment, letting a gasp of air escape from Twilight’s mouth when the rhythm interrupted. This was it. There were only two Dukes left. The last one would’ve been Charlemane himself, but he didn’t vote except in ties. The light lingered longer than normal for the empty seat, then settled on Naponion, the Duke of Prance. The plump unicorn stood up somewhat less than gracefully and cleared his throat.  

“The Duchy of Prance respectfully abstains from voting in this matter, Chairpony.”

Charlemane sighed in annoyance. “Very well, so noted. Also noted is the Duchess of Germane’s absence. The Council now requests the votes of the Royal Quarter.”

A teeny, tiny glimmer of hope still remained. The Royal Quarter referred to the maximum possible four ponies with the title of “Prince” or “Princess” that were not alicorns. Right now, there were only three, as Blueblood had no wife. Although Shining couldn’t vote on something directly pertaining to him, that still left Cadence and Blueblood. If they both voted in his favor, there was an incredibly small chance that Celestia would have enough justification to be able to save her brother.

The realization of who the lone Prince up there actually was crushed that tiny bit of hope she had left.


A light appeared above a pink winged unicorn whose mascara was running from tears. After some straining, she weakly announced her vote. “Due to familial ties, the Princess of the Lost must recuse herself from voting.  Forgive me.”

“Cady…” Shining whimpered, losing his stoicism.

No… Not even Cadence?

“Have you all gone and lost your minds!?” A light blazed to life over Prince Blueblood’s seat, illuminating him even before Cadence’s went out.

“Please, Your Highness,” Charlemane said. “The hearing is over. We only require your vote as the Prince of Canterlot.”

“Canterlot wouldn’t exist if not for that stallion!” Blueblood raged, slamming his hoof into his desk like he was playing piano with a hammer. “You lot wouldn’t just have lost your damn seats; you’d’ve lost your heads! You sleep safe and sound in your beds each night because this officer spends every waking moment thwarting plots on your hides!

“That’s quite enough, Your Highness!” Charlemane yelled back, pointing a hoof. “We just need your—”

“You all want my vote, you corrupt sacks of horn-rot!?” Little bits of spittle were raining down on Naponion. “The Duchy of Canterlot has Full Confidence in Captain Shining Armor and the shield he puts over this city every single rutting time one of you imbeciles mistake your damned servants’ green horn aura for a changeling’s!  Put that in your docket and smo—”

“Blueblood,” Celestia interrupted, voice as calm as could be.

“Yes, Auntie?” Blueblood stopped his rant and turned around in an instant, looking a bit like a kicked puppy.

“That will be quite enough, nephew.” Celestia smiled slightly, the same motherly glow that she showed to Twilight so many times over the years.

“Yes, Auntie.” He bowed. “The Duchy of Canterlot votes in Full Confidence for Shining Armor.”

Twilight’s jaw was just about ready to wiggle out of its socket to try and get away from the roof of her mouth. Prince Blueblood voted in Shiny’s favor?! He was the only vote!? The same pony that thinks I’m not worthy to be the princess’ student because I wasn’t born a noble!?

“Princess Celestia,” Charlemane began, pausing ever so slightly before continuing. “The Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria has polled itself and found that Equestria has No Confidence in Shining Armor’s abilities as Captain of the Royal Guard. We hereby formally issue a demand as Representatives of the Ponies of Equestria that he be stripped of his position effective immediately.”

This was it. The Council had substantial political power, but ultimately Celestia had the final say on matters. The rest was a calculation. She could reject their demand, but doing so would have a huge political cost.

Please, Princess… Don’t do it…

Shining Armor turned to the princess, exhaled, and stood up straight and proud. Celestia sighed and lifted her gavel with a neutral expression. “Very well, Chairpony. I have heard the evidence placed before this Council, and the pleas of the ponies.”

Twilight twisted her barrel about, trying to shake loose of Luna’s wing. No, Princess…

“Although I disagree with this Council’s recommendation, I understand their position.”

Twilight lifted her forehooves up and pushed against the powerful alicorn wing.

“Twilight! No!” Luna’s plea went unheeded as the smaller mare broke out of the hold.

“I wish I had another option, Captain, but—”

“Tia! Don’t!” Twilight yelled, shattering the invisibility spell and leaving the entire chamber stunned and slack-jawed.

The entire chamber, that is, except Princess Celestia.

“Twily?” Shining’s voice cracked, a tear already in his eye as he turned to look at his sister. Twilight had her forehooves on the bannister, desperately pleading with her mentor through watering eyes.

“Damn…” Luna whispered behind her.

Princess Celestia’s face grew ever so slightly more sad, but her eyes stayed glued to the stallion before her, never once looking in Twilight’s direction. “I am very sorry, my student. But I do not have a choice. Shining Armor, I hereby strip you of your military rank, duties, and position, and discharge you from the Royal Guard and my armed forces, immediately and permanently.”

Her gavel came down twice, with both Twilight and Shining jolting slightly as if being struck down by the very sound.

Shining turned away from Celestia and slowly walked down from his podium as all the lights in the chamber slowly turned on, lifting the dark ambiance but leaving the dour atmosphere.

Twilight’s mind froze, completely unable to think of what to do as he started walking by, his head held mostly high but lowered ever so slightly from his normal military-style gait. Two soldiers from the main doors walked up to him.

“I’m very sorry sir, but we have to confiscate your uniform,” one said.

“I know,” he replied, unsnapping the buckles with his magic. With a single movement, he took of the jacket, then folded it in his telekinetic field before giving it to them. In the end, he stood naked, watching as they carried it off to parts unknown in the castle.

“Now.” Luna’s single word was accompanied by a hoof to the back, and Twilight finally knew what she had to do. She leapt right over the railing and grabbed him in an embrace that was quickly returned. A blur of pink feathers and forelegs wrapped around the both of them a second later.