“Your Highness, the Council requests a few hours’ recess before we begin deliberation on the next docket item,” Charlemane said flatly, without even a hint of remorse.
“So granted, Chairpony.”
The sound of Celestia’s gavel striking its base made Twilight wince, each impact another wound in her heart. Shining must have noticed because he pulled her and Cadence even closer. She could hear Cadence weep softly, and from the sound of Shining’s breathing, he too was on the verge of breaking down.
I’m so sorry, brother. This wasn’t your failure; it was mine. I couldn’t do anything…
She held on to him like a vice, tears streaming down her face. The Council may have been filing out of the room, even passing right by them, but that didn’t matter. Right now, they were only worthy to be ignored, and that’s exactly what she did as time ticked onwards. All that mattered was providing some level of comfort for her brother who so thoroughly deserved it.
“What on Equestria would make you think bringing her here now would be a good idea?”
Twilight twitched. After such a long time, all the others should have been gone. Charlemane, though, seemed to still be here.
“You think keeping us both in the dark a better option?”
Luna as well, apparently. Twilight buried her muzzle further in Shining’s chest, her tears soaking into his coat.
“Of course! Do you have any clue as to how traumatic this is!?”
Twilight could hear Luna’s wings flaring out, her voice dripping with indignation. “There are some things in life we must face, Councilpony. Things we have the right to know, to see, even if it is hard.”
“Try explaining that to her!”
A few seconds later, the doors slammed shut, and they were left alone. Luna walked slowly over to them, head low.
“I don’t blame you.” Twilight lifted her head. “I blame him and the Council. Maybe even Celestia a little bit.”
“It’s not Charlemane’s fault,” Shining interjected, sniffing a bit.
I’ve never seen my brother even come close to crying before…
Cadence put a hoof up to his lips. “Hush, darling. Allow me.”
Shining nodded and placed his chin on her shoulder while she talked.
“Shining struck a deal with Charlemane. If he could—”
Luna placed a hoof on Cadence’s back. “I would advise taking this conversation somewhere more private. Let’s use one of the refreshment rooms.”
Cadence lowered her head in a slight bow. “Of course, Auntie Luna. Come on, sweetie.”
Shining moved to get up, but his hoof slipped back down, and he lowered his head, sighing.
No, come on, Shiny! It’ll be okay! We’ll figure something out! Twilight grabbed onto him, pushing up on his chest to get him to stand up, but he just sat there.
“Allow me.” Cadence stepped over to her, and put a hoof under him as well before a small, subtle rush of wind blew through their manes.
Twilight lifted a hoof in surprise. That’s pegasus magic! How did she use it with just her hoof?
Though he was wobbly, he slowly rose to his hooves, and Cadence used a wing to help him balance. Slowly, they left the chamber, Shining’s heavy, plodding hooves barely making a sound thanks to Cadence’s magic. The group made their way around the corner and entered a small side room.
Luna brought up the rear, and stopped just after passing through the doorway to turn around and call out down the hall. “Acolyte Arcane Edge, Paladin Silhouette, to me!”
Two Night Guards appeared from around a corner, one the stallion she’d known from her training, and one female she’d never seen before. They silently stooped to a deep, supplicating bow, and spoke in unison. “Sovereign, what is your will?”
Luna walked backed into the room and started closing the doors. “Keep guard. My sister, should she deign to show herself, is allowed inside. Should a member of the Council wish to enter, you have my permission to be more forceful in your duties.”
“Yes, Sovereign.” Twilight could see a smile on one of them just before the door closed.
The moment they clacked shut, Shining flopped down on a large cushion, daintily followed by his wife. The sun streamed in through the windows, blanketing their coats in a soft, warm glow.
Twilight took in a deep breath then let it out slowly, releasing some of the tension that had built up in her chest. As the adrenaline drained, she let her muscles relax and dropped down next to her brother, leaning against him.
“I never really thought this would be how it would all end,” Shining half-whispered, his voice cracking. “You know, my career. My crown.”
“Hush, darling.” Cadence squeezed him with a wing. “It’s not over yet. Charlemane keeps his promises. He’ll try to stop them from taking your crown.”
Twilight shuddered. “Can they really do that? Can they force the Princess to take away his nobility?”
Luna scoffed. “In theory,” she said, wandering over and behind a large bar that looked well stocked with liquor. “The Council is supposed to be the voice of the citizens, as Equestria is far, far too large for us to rule on our own. How much they truly are this is neither here nor there on this matter. If they vote in unison on a topic that our ponies are so riled up about, there’s little they cannot get Celestia to concede. And make no mistake, our ponies are quite upset over how weak Canterlot seems due to the attack. Small riots have broken out in Manehatten, Shanghay, Marelaysia—even Cloudsdale has had a disturbance. Naturally, firing the one in charge of Canterlot’s defense is an easy way for the Council to calm things down, even if that decision could later prove short-sighted.
“However, regardless of the future consequences, once the charge was laid and the demand given, had Celestia not acted, the whole thing might have turned into small rebellions rather than just unfocused anger. There is already an organized resistance in Stalliongrad; we cannot risk that spreading.”
Shining deflated even more. “I was trying to do right by our military; right by our soldiers. I never thought—”
“No good deed goes unpunished, Prince,” Luna said, looking around the cabinets behind the bar. “The silver lining is that your wife is correct. Charlemane, politician though he is, will keep his word. In addition, unlike discharging you from the military, the task of taking your crown from you is fraught with danger. Like so many other things the Council may wish to do, this is extremely likely to blow up in their faces, allowing my sister to pick up the pieces and gain an advantage.”
Twilight’s ears perked up at this, though they were sore for having been flat against her head for such a long time. “Why is it so much more difficult? This seems like nothing more than a changeling hunt to me.”
Various objects banged and clattered behind the counter Luna was looking at. “Oh, it is, but you have to understand the precedent here. The reason Charlemane asked Shining if he was complicit in the attack and even tried that angle at all was because the Council wanted him to be guilty of more than merely not seeing the attack coming. If he was somehow involved, there could be a criminal trial, and taking the crown would be easy.”
“Hold on!” Twilight lifted up her hooves, stopping Luna’s explanation. “You said Charlemane was working with Shiny.”
“He is,” Cadence chimed in. “But remember, as Chairpony, he has to represent the Council in official hearings no matter what his personal views are. The position gives him power, but also ties his hooves. Most of his influence lies in the political back channels.”
“Which is why the real fight has yet to come.” Luna pulled out a set of bartending tools and arranged them on the countertop. “Fortunately, issues of nobility are a civilian matter, which means I have a say in the final outcome. For Shining’s sake, however, I shall keep my big mouth shut until the final vote. Any push I make privately is likely to backfire.”
Cadence stood up and stretched out her wings. “Speaking of, I should get going and get to work. Your efforts might backfire, but mine won’t.” She leaned down to give Shining a gentle kiss, which he returned. “Stay here, sweetie. Let me fight for you for a change.”
He silently mouthed some words of thanks, tears welling up in his eyes.
Luna rustled around in some drawers. “I’d clean up a bit first, Cadence. You look like a disaster. Well, all three of you do, honestly.”
Cadence bowed and left the room, the Night Guard closing the doors behind her.
Twilight sighed, shifting her weight so Shining could lean on her a little.
Luna grumbled. “Where is the…? Ah, here it is.” A cocktail shaker floated through the air and landed on the bartop. “Cadence is an effective negotiator, and can read ponies better than anypony save perhaps Celestia. Because of her, there is yet hope.”
“Princess.” Twilight stared at her directly in the eyes. “How bad is it? Give me the truth.”
Luna’s shoulders slumped a bit. “The truth? The truth is that it’s difficult to be certain. If the Council was ignoring all the consequences of what such a decision would do, your brother would already have his title stripped from him.”
“But that’s not what’s going on here, so that’s not what I want to know,” Twilight asserted, pointing a hoof.
“Correct!” Luna started tossing bar implements and liquors around, making them dance and spin in her magic. “Since they failed to convict Shining of any deliberate wrongdoing, and only held a vote of no confidence, this makes things more complicated.”
“Basically, they convicted me of incompetence.” Shining groaned. “And since there are so many there with family members that are actually, factually incompetent, taking the title of ‘Prince’ away from me means that it becomes much, much easier for lesser titles to be taken away under even less pretense. At that point, it would only take one angry Duke to turn the nobility into a circular firing squad.”
Twilight clopped a hoof on the ground. “Which means that if they take away your title, suddenly every single member of the nobility is fair game for almost anything.”
“Just so,” Luna said right before shaking her cocktail vigorously. “I honestly wonder what Celestia has planned for this. I wish she’d share more with me. Still, disaster though this is, either outcome could wind up backfiring on the Council. Either Prince Shining gets more time to dedicate to rebuilding his image and giving the Dukes hell on the civilian stage, or they remove his noble rank too and the Council potentially destroys itself from within. I can’t say I agree with either outcome. He’s been too valuable a military leader to just let go in times like this; even with my restricted military intelligence access I can see that much.” When she was finally done, she poured her drink into a maretini glass and garnished it with a sliver of lime zest.
“Hmph. Or, his effectiveness is exactly why they let him go.” Twilight mused. Yet, despite her anger, she couldn’t help but observe the drink Luna had made. To just casually start making it before lunch like that was like a beacon to her curiosity. There had to be a reason. “What are you making?”
“A cocktail, obviously” Luna replied, grinning. “Almost done.” She placed the bottom of both of her forehooves together, one on top of another, and then separated them. In between them, and resting on the lower hoof, appeared a blue bottle. It was fat and round at the bottom with a long, thin neck. With a slight twist, she pulled out the cork and poured a small amount of the liquid.
The clear liquid in the glass started to change color rapidly, going from clear, to sea green, to dark blue, and finally clear once again. Twilight could hear fizzing, but there were no bubbles. Curiosity getting the better of her, she got up and wandered over to the glass only to find her brother was right beside her.
“It’s still fizzing. Is it fizzing?” he asked, his tears drying up.
“Did it fizz?” Twilight added. Welcome back, brother. It’s good to see that curious side of you again.
“Sort of. Shining, go ahead and take a whiff. Don’t drink. Just smell. Twilight, keep your distance.”
The siblings looked at each other with mirrored expressions, both with one eyebrow up and half a frown. Even their verbal response was the same. “Oooookaaaayyy…”
Twilight looked at it, but didn’t quite keep her distance. Instead, she put her ear up to it. Can’t smell it like this, at least. She didn’t hear fizzing anymore, though. “What the…?”
She heard the ocean. Waves crashing, wind roaring, and under that she could swear she even heard seagulls crying.
“Now, Twilight, give your brother room.” Luna winked.
Shining leaned forward and placed his nose right over the glass. His nostrils flared as he inhaled the air over the drink, followed by jolting backwards right on his side in a coughing fit.
“Shiny! Are you okay?!” Twilight rushed over and used her hooves to stabilize him and get him to stop flailing then lifted him back up on his haunches. “Come on, say something!”
“I’m—” he coughed, “—trying!” He coughed again. “Ugh. Whoa.”
Shining listed and leaned right into Twilight hard enough that she had to push hard to keep him from crushing her. I keep forgetting how heavy he is! So much muscle he might as well be an earth pony!
“Uaaagh. UGH!” He finally readjusted himself and sat balanced on his haunches. “What in Tartarus was in that? Feels like I just downed a couple of ales.”
“Tidewater!” Luna replied, snickering like a schoolgirl. “‘Tis a most potent drink devised by alicorns, for alicorns. Even breathing the vapors can lead a normal pony to become intoxicated. And, it is just about the only drink currently in existence that can get a full alicorn completely drunk. I could imbibe the entire cabinet behind me and only get ever so slightly tipsy. But this!” She held up the bottle. “This divine distillation of magic is the exception. I am the only keeper of the recipe left, though dear sister wishes I had forgotten it. She even tries to destroy my hidden stockpiles! Hmph. Just because her vice of cake and sweets only plumps out her rump and mine makes me intoxicated does not give her the right to judge.”
“That’s not an excuse to get my brother drunk!” She put a foreleg around him. “Look at him!”
Shining shook his head harshly. “I think… I think I’m okay. Wow, though. What would happen if I drank that?”
Luna shrugged and took a sip. “You’d be severely intoxicated to the point of hospitalization, rather than merely a little relaxed.”
“Still!” Twilight protested. “Princess, neither of us drink!”
Luna blinked. “You don’t… drink. I do not comprehend what you are saying.”
Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “We. Don’t. Drink. Neither of us!”
“Ever?” Luna asked, sounding a bit like a filly.
“Well,” Shining interjected, “I have an ale or two occasionally, but never any more than that. Ever. This is fading quick, but it might be the most I’ve ever ‘had,’ so to speak.”
Luna blinked again. “I still don’t quite understand this. How can you just not drink?”
“Because we’re powerful!” Twilight yelled then stopped when she realized who she was talking to. “Ugh. I mean, when I was a filly, I had a huge surge of magic. Since Shining’s wellspring was also rather huge, even if not as big as mine, we both swore off getting drunk so we wouldn’t put anypony in danger.”
Her brother raised a hoof. “Eventually, I also had to be ‘on call’ all the time to deploy my shield, so there’s also that. Pheh. They just fired me, but I bet they’ll still expect me to use it.” He sighed and groaned at the same time. “And they’re right. I’d still do it if I needed to. If Canterlot needed me to.”
“That’s because you’re more of a noble than they’ll ever be,” Luna quipped. “And to hold both of yourselves to such a high standard is quite commendable. But, I can assure you, there is no need to deprive yourself of relaxation. In fact, after all this is over, Shining, I might recommend you take a long vacation. Perhaps accompany Cadence on one of her national tours.”
Shining shook his head. “No. Not when Canterlot is this vulnerable. Who would raise a shield in her defense?”
Luna raised her eyebrow. “Ahem. I will.”
“You?” both siblings responded, mouths open.
“I was creating magical barriers thousands of years before either of you even existed. I can shield Canterlot. And just imagine how the Council is going to feel about relying on their shunned Princess for defense. I wonder if they considered that when another attack happens I’m the only other pony capable of that. Hmm.” She swirled the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip.
The brother and sister smirked at each other. “You planned that, didn’t you?”
“Hehe, nay. I just thought of it. But it’s delicious nonetheless. The drink and the idea.”
Even though Shining laughed, Twilight could tell it was forced. “Yeah, but I’d still rather raise the shield myself. I mean, getting to laugh at the Council would be fun for a bit, but… It just wouldn’t be the same as getting to do my…” He swallowed. “Job.”
Luna smiled and came out from behind the bar then placed a hoof on his shoulder. “Thou hast served the crown for many years, Shining Armor. Who knows, in time, they may see their folly, and you may yet serve again. For now, think of this as a vacation, and relax. Enjoy the time with your wife.”
Twilight nodded. “She’s right, Shiny. I bet they’ll come crawling back eventually.”
Luna laughed and raised her drink in the air. “Cowardice often does.” She then proceeded to down the entire concoction in one large gulp before lightly slamming the glass on the bar. “Ahhh…”
Twilight patted his shoulder. “I mean, think about it, Shiny. You’ve always been there for Canterlot, and everypony else too. I honestly can’t believe all the things I’ve been hearing lately about what you’ve done for me. But, I’ve been training with Luna for months now. Let me handle some of this. I’m not a filly anymore.”
Luna laughed and danced back behind the bar. “Ha! Ye art both fillies compared to me!”
Shining raised an eyebrow and scratched the back of his head with his hoof. “Umm…”
Luna opened her mouth, paused, and then continued. “Eh, ‘tis still true. All of it.”
Twilight clenched her teeth and worried about whether she should ask, but threw caution to the wind and decided to anyway. “Um, Luna, are you…?”
“Pbbbt. No! I am not a real stallion, Twilight Sparkle, and I thought that obvious.”
“Ha!” Shining snickered before breaking out in laughter, slamming his hoof on the ground a few times.
“Ugh, no, Luna!”
“Huzzah! Twilight called me ‘Luna’ again! I win!”
Twilight facehooved as Shining laughed even more. “No! Princess, I meant, ‘are you drunk?’”
“Hehe, oh Twilight.” Her wings fluttered around a bit. “Of course not. I’m just a tiny bit tipsy, and I tend to get a little loopy and happy when I have tidewater.”
Shining snickered, his face brightening at the exchange. “Thanks, Princess. I needed that laugh.”
Luna’s grin went from happy to devious. “My pleasure, Prince. Speaking of, you aren’t in the military anymore. You’re free to call me ‘Auntie’ now. There’s no need to be so formal. As I said, you’ve done much for us, especially for one your age. In fact, I recall the day I met you.”
Shining’s pupils retracted to pinpricks, and Luna’s mischievous grin only widened.
“Although perhaps you should tell the tale, since you no doubt remember it better than I do, seeing as I had just been blasted with the world’s most powerful magical weapons.”
Shining looked over to his sister. “Well, you see…”
Twilight giggled. “Well, now I have to hear about this. What were you doing that day, Shiny? You never did tell me, saying it was all ‘classified.’ Well, I have clearance now, and we’re in a private room.”
Shining slumped back down to the ground. “I’m not getting out of this, am I,” he said rather than asked.
“Nope,” came the reply from both mares anyway.
He sighed. “Alright, get comfy, everypony. Might as well get this over with.”
"What? That’s it?!"
"Ye-yes, sir!" an extremely scared officer replied.
Shining Armor, the newly-minted Captain of the Royal Guard, facehooved. "That’s not a professional report, soldier!"
"It’s all we know!"
"Then get out there, and find out more!" Shining yelled, chasing the subordinate back out of the closet that might, if one squinted and was being very generous, be called a captain’s office. "I swear, this is what happens when you give the captaincy to a noble like some kind of trophy."
"I think you’re being a little harsh on him, Captain. At the very least, we know the Princess is safe now, and the casualty reports have been minimal," came a neutral tone from Intelligentsia, who was sitting on a box with her back against a sharp corner of a free-standing locker. Almost every single spot on the floor of the cramped, beige-wallpapered room was being taken up by some kind of box, filing cabinet, or storage locker filled to bursting with documents and office supplies. Aside from a small tile path to his seat the entire room was packed to the withers.
"Nopony is more thankful everypony is okay, trust me on that! But, Celestia help me, it’s going to take a decade to reform the guard back to where it needs to be. This is my fourth day, and I already have the worst track record in history. Did you know we had three flights of pegasi that are only now launching? Like the emergency orders were just optional. I swear, heads will roll over this."
Intelligentsia sighed. "Ours if we’re not careful."
"Oh, I’m already anticipating that. Come on, we need to get to the Royal Chariot Bay."
The two moved towards the narrow corridor before the door, only to enter at the same time and get stuck.
"Oh, this is just balls."
As if the office was in on the joke, the lights overhead flickered and failed.
"That’s it!" Shining flared his horn and pushed Intelligentsia forward and out of their stuck position. "I swear, I’m not going to rest until we have a proper war room. This is insanity."
"You have my full support, sir," Intelligentsia said as they finally got out of the office.
Shining stopped alongside Intelligentsia. “Did you hear the door click?” he asked.
“I don’t think so—”
He whipped back around and yanked the door open, slamming it shut again and again without success.
"What the hell? It doesn’t even lock!"
"Figures," Intelligentsia groaned. "Just leave it. We—"
The doorframe creaked and groaned, the sound of metal scraping on metal as the screws keeping the door in place popped out or broke from the force of Shining’s telekinetic field. Yanked out of it’s place, the door itself started to screech, squealing under its punishment until it resembled a giant playing card folded in half. Even the door handle popped out of its place like a champagne cork.
"Somepony get me a new door!" he yelled down the narrow hall then turned to a random passing soldier. The Captain hurled the door of steel down the hall just as a guard rounded a corner, making the hapless pony dive for the ground. The half-ton of steel crashed into the hardwood floor, sending a shower of splinters into the air. "And get those pegasi in the sky!"
Shining’s mood only soured as the pony in front of him, whom he’d nearly turned into a pancake, lay there motionless. With a slight, subconscious growl he stomped up to him, not even caring that his hapless subordinate looked ready to wet himself.
"Go!" He yelled right in the subordinate’s face, managing to get him to scramble to his hooves and run down the narrow hallway. Shining gave chase, nipping at his fetlocks and not letting up until they were back in the castle proper and had to go in a different direction.
"I do think you’re being a bit hard on them, sir. We’re used to things being more casual here."
"This is the Royal Guard, Officer. ’Casual’ shouldn’t be in our vocabulary."
"You won’t win friends with that attitude."
Shining stopped and stood by a set of large, open double doors leading to the Chariot Bay. "I’m much more interested in the safety of Canterlot. For instance, this should be closed right now. I’d also like them to be redone in steel rather than wood."
"It’s a design choice," Intelligentsia quipped.
"It’s a security weakness! If you want it to look like wood, fine, but make it a steel core with enchantments." Shining rubbed his forehead. "No, getting distracted won’t help. Let’s focus on the issue at hoof."
The two walked through the doors and into the chariot bay, which was more or less a hollowed-out piece of Canterlot Mountain. At the far end was an opening to the sky with a small runway, while inside the bay itself were a dozen or so slots for official royal chariots. Most of the vehicles were in their place, sitting unused, as their pilots were up in the sky. Well, most of the pilots were up in the sky. Some were standing idle in the bay.
"You four, on me! Celestia is arriving with my sister and a new Princess! Honor Guard formation at the landing site, now!"
The pegasi just stared at him, one with his mouth slightly open.
Intelligentsia spoke up. "In their defense, sir, you did just say ’new Princess,’ and that does sound rather, well, insane."
"Trust me, I know, and I’m going to look like a damn foal if this is inaccurate. Doesn’t excuse anything though. What are you all doing!? I gave an order! Hop to it! Go, go, go!"
The pegasus group scrambled to the landing strip, assembling into formation and snapping to an attentive stance.
"Well at least they can look professional," Shining sighed. "Now, we wait."
They didn’t have to wait long. Shortly thereafter, the chariot descended from the sky, flanked by a dozen more exhausted guards.
"ROYALTY ARRIVED! ATTEN-TION!" Shining’s voice cracked as he yelled, the strain on his own body beginning to become apparent. All the soldiers snapped to and saluted, save for Shining and Intelligentsia, who bowed.
"Arise and be at ease, my ponies," the Princess said while stepping off the chariot, her voice just barely hinting that, perhaps, she too was exhausted.
Upon lifting from his bow, he caught a glimpse of what he assumed was the new royalty. But it was only that, a glimpse of her light blue hair. She seemed to be doing her best at hiding by staying behind Celestia’s flowing mane.
"Do not be afraid, sister. My guards are your guards now."
The pony cautiously stepped out from her hiding place and sat down. Though there was no flowing mane, she clearly possessed a large horn, wings, and was taller than he despite her visage of youth. There could be no doubt; this pony was an alicorn.
"Captain Armor, I’d like you to meet my sister, Princess Luna. She has been redeemed and has agreed to peacefully resume her role at my side."
"Huh," Intelligentsia blurted out. Shining gave her a quick, mean look, and she went back to attention. With a deep breath, Shining approached the smaller alicorn and dropped into a bow once again.
Time passed as he held his head low, the seconds each adding an additional burning sensation in his tired legs. When he finally looked ever so slightly back up at her, he found her staring at him as well, though for what reason he could not discern. She merely looked, with neither malice nor joy nor any other expression in her wide, icy-blue eyes.
After many more uncomfortable heartbeats, the smaller alicorn turned to her sister and spoke.
"He’s strong," she said.
"He is indeed, but it is still rude to keep him kneeling for so long." Celestia winked at her.
The alicorn turned back to him and nodded, allowing him to exit the bow.
Shining cleared his throat. The next few moments would have to be handled delicately. “Your Highness, it is good to see you return safe and unharmed. Forgive my soldiers their failures, as my command is clearly not worthy of your grace. I offer my immediate resignation and surrender for punishment as you see fit.”
Surprisingly, it was the smaller alicorn that reacted first. Her eyes went wide again, and she stepped away from her sister and looked up at her. Celestia gave her only a small glance before responding with the calm, sweet voice she was known for.
“Please, Shining. Such things are unnecessary. I could not, in good conscience, punish you or your soldiers for failing to hold back the assault of an alicorn, especially my own sister. I may as well ask you to move a mountain or halt a river.”
Luna seemed to calm with that and moved back under the shadow of her elder sister. Whatever her reaction, though, the political dance wasn’t yet done. “Nonetheless, this was my failure, and I believe I do have a barrier spell that could halt a small river. I must ask for your judgement of me.”
Celestia didn’t miss a beat. “Then I will give it, and I find you innocent and worthy of your station. Now, no more of this.”
“Of course, your highness,” he said, smiling in a short bow. That was the cover he needed. He’d still have to face calls for his head, but they’d be much quieter now. "If I may, communications have been lackluster since your disappearance. We are uncertain as to the entirety of what has transpired."
"What have you been told?"
Shining looked over to the smaller alicorn for just a moment, trying and failing to determine a polite way of proceeding. "That your sister, Nightmare Moon, imprisoned you in an attempt to usurp the throne but was thwarted by Ponyville mares finding rare magical artifacts and defeating her. We then heard reports that she had surrendered to you."
He had to keep his legs from shaking when he saw the sad look on the younger alicorn’s face. That felt even worse than I thought it would.
"That is close, Captain, although missing crucial details," Celestia replied with a calm, even tone. "My sister was cleansed of malice by the Elements of Harmony. I can assure you, she is no longer a threat. She is truly my sister once more, and shall be treated as such. I trust that is not a problem?"
Shining shook his head. "Of course not, your majesty. The Guard shall serve. Unfortunately, that is all whom I can speak for."
“You refer to the nobility.”
“You have to admit, this is a major political event.”
Celestia’s horn began to glow, and a case from the chariot floated next to her. “I thank you for using restraint in your description, Captain, but I ask that you leave such matters to me.”
A quick look into the rest of the chariot brought something to Shining’s attention. “Of course, Princess, but, if you would forgive my asking, where is my sister? Shouldn’t she have arrived with you?”
Celestia looked genuinely taken aback at the question. “Oh my, forgive me! I thought you had heard!”
Shining’s heart stopped. “Heard what?”
“She decided to stay in Ponyville with her new friends! I’ve honestly never seen her so happy.”
Shining’s heart beat twenty times in rapid succession then stopped again. “Friends!?”
“Indeed! She seems quite taken with them and the town. In fact, she—”
The smaller alicorn interrupted her sister with light tapping on her shoulder. “His sister, is that the one on approach to the summits?”
Celestia looked at her and then back at him before responding. “Yes, but that is personal information.”
Luna snapped back to look at the others and shrunk down with embarrassment. “Oh,” she whispered. “She’s very strong.”
“That’s enough, I think. Captain, my sister and I desire to spend time with each other, privately, as we have much to discuss. If you would be so kind as to clear the halls for us.”
Shining’s heart and other biological functions shocked back into operation. “Friends!?”
Celestia’s tone got just a bit heavier. “Captain?”
A jolt of pain went down his spine from a light punch from Intelligentsia, and he jumped to attention. “Oh, right! Guards! Clear the halls! No one will so much as lay eyes on our princess… er, princesses! Move!”
Smooth, Shining, let force of habit put you on the new alicorn’s “I can’t wait to outlive these ponies” list.
The group moved out back into the castle, with the guards in front clearing out everypony they found and Shining and Intelligentsia just ahead of the princesses.
“Hey, Captain,” Intelligentsia whispered. “I thought your sister wasn’t exactly the social type.”
“She doesn’t make friends that aren’t in hardback. I’m going to have to find out what’s really going on when I get a chance, but at least I know she isn’t hurt… probably.”
“I think you might be worrying a bit much.”
“That’s my job, Officer.”
Awkward silence reigned in the halls as ponies were herded out of sight. Shortly, they reached Celestia’s tower and the double doors to her personal chambers, and Luna quickly moved inside. Celestia levitated the case in with her and turned to face the two Guardsponies.
“Captain, I do not want any interruptions for one week.”
“A week? But, your highness, the Inner Council will—”
“Will heed my commands, my little pony.” She smiled at him. “I am officially declaring the Council and national government on holiday as a celebration of my sister’s return. The Astral Court, Council matters, and all non-essential services are to be closed for the duration of my absence. I apologize for being so brief, but a thousand years is a long time to go without seeing one’s sister, so I must end things here. As for national security, I will leave that in your capable hooves, Captain.”
As the doors began to close, gold arcs of electricity and magic sparked across the entryway, filling the air with the scent of ozone. At the moment they shut, a field of leylines sprang to life within them, generating a shield that easily rivaled any of Shining’s best. Nothing short of another alicorn is going to be able to get through that.
“Well, that went well.”
“Intelligentsia, today has been a disaster, and this just makes it worse! How am I supposed to guard Canterlot with a completely dysfunctional and exhausted force? Not to mention field questions from the ponies about a new Princess?”
She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I mean, I saw the Nightmare coming, not Princess Luna. Thanks for listening to me on that, by the way.”
“You don’t get to rub it in until you help me figure this all out.” He poked her on the shoulder.
He smirked. “Because you were the one who saw the Nightmare coming.”
“Your sister saw her coming as well, I might add.” She smirked back.
“Don’t remind me. Somehow, in all of this, I need to find a way to check up on her personally.”
“Why not just send somepony else? You’re as exhausted as the rest of us.”
“No, it has to be me.”
“It has to be me,” he asserted with a glare.
Intelligentsia backed up a little and kept a hoof up. “Okay, okay, it has to be you. Loud and clear.”
Shining backed off a little. “Good. Now I just need to figure out where I’m going to find a few hundred fresh soldiers.”
“Wait!” Intelligentsia interrupted. “You hear that?”
Shining tilted his head a bit, wondering what she was talking about, but then he heard it too. Hoofsteps. Lots of them, marching perfectly in synchronization.
“Either you just got your reinforcements, or we’re being invaded.”
The two peered over the stairwell, awaiting the arrival of whatever was coming. Images of the worst possible scenario danced in his head, as his mind was wont to do, while his heart beat in tempo with the marching.
Intelligentsia must have spotted them first. “Hey, that’s—”
Shining clopped a hoof on the tile in triumph. Long, flowing gold mane, lanky physique, powder-white coat that everypony thinks is dyed, a flower behind the ear, and last but not least a blue, white, and rose-colored, customized uniform that’s so robe-like there’s no way in Equestria it conforms to regs. Yeah, there’s only one stallion that could possibly be. “General Gemstone Quartz! Now there’s a sight for sore eyes!”
The General himself marched at the lead of what must have been three dozen soldiers leading and flanking him, moving to take up position at the doors to Her Majesty’s chambers.
“Captain Armor! Explain yourself!”
“General?” he asked.
“I said, explain yourself!”
Shining’s mouth hung open a little as he looked around a bit nervously. It was unlike Gemstone to be so aggressive. The soft features of his face were hardened and angry. Even his long, wavy, blond mane was tied back in a more in-code manner.
Technically, the General had no authority over him. The Captain of the Royal Guard answered only to the full Inner Council and Princess Celestia herself. Still, he could understand the need for answers.
“General, our princess is safe, and her sister has been redeemed. They have retreated to their chambers and have given orders not to be disturbed for a whole week, during which time the government is on holiday. I was just about to start organizing watches for the city.”
Quartz looked up at the double doors of the entrance. “Open the door, Shining, I need to speak with her.”
“Excuse me, General?” he replied, laughing.
“Princess Celestia? Your Highness? Your Grace?” The General boomed towards the doors then swung around. “Shining, I told you to get this door open!”
Shining took a step back in shock before gathering himself. “General, I’m a master of barrier magic, yes, but that’s Celestia’s spell, and I’m fairly sure it was meant to work with the enchantments already in the doors.”
“I’m well aware of that, Armor. Do it anyway. I must see her!” He snapped around to the door and pounded on it like a snare drum. “Your Highness! Can you hear me? It’s Gemstone! Could you open the door? Please? For me?”
Shining looked up at the door and back at the General. “Go grab all the other generals and fire everything you have at it. Then, maybe, just maybe, they’ll hear the knock.”
Light blazed out from the General’s horn so quickly even Shining Armor didn’t have time to react. By the time his eyes adjusted, he found his hooves encased in crystal and sealed to the floor.
“I’m not interested in excuses, Armor! You will open this door immediately!”
It’s going to be like that, huh?
“Back off, General. Even you don’t get to order me around. That’s not the way it works.”
The General waved at one of his stallions, and they approached him with a scroll. “Captain Shining Armor, by order of the Inner Council, you are hereby relieved of duty and will surrender Canterlot’s defenses to me, immediately.”
Intelligentsia jumped in. “The Princess just ordered the Council on holiday! You can’t just—”
“Yes! I! Can! And you just joined him, Miss…”
Shining interrupted her this time. “I’m guessing those were drafted and signed before Celestia gave the order. Am I correct, General?”
“Just so. Since you will not open the doors, you may remain here next to them until our princess returns to us. Think long on your failures.”
Shining merely snickered a little at first, but ultimately couldn’t hold back anymore, and broke down into a fit of laughter. At points he laughed so hard the crystal on his hooves was the only thing preventing him from falling over.
“I take it you find something funny, Captain?” General Quartz sneered.
Shining laughed hard a few final times before regaining his composure. “Yeah, yeah, I do. It’s damned hilarious, actually. You and the whole bucking Inner Council just played right into my hooves.” He laughed some more. “And I wasn’t even trying to play you!”
Shining maintained his smile even as the General got right into his face. “Perhaps a few days here without food or water will teach you some humility.”
“Yeah, about that,” he said, powering his own horn and casting a spell. Six beams of purple light shot out from each of his hooves, splitting and shattering the crystals and freeing his limbs. “Relieved of duty or not, you have zero authority over me. Try to trap me again, and I’ll geld your sorry flank right in front of your troops and then gift-wrap your stallionhood for General Blaze as a Hearth’s Warming present!” Shining grinned. “Or at least I would if anyone could find it. Come on, Intelligentsia, we have a chariot to catch. Leave this damn fool to his fate.”
Shining took off at a trot down the stairs and paused just before getting out of eyesight of the top. With another grin, he turned around and yelled up. “By the way, I bet the nobility is just dying to know that Princess Luna will be joining her sister as their ruler, not to mention all the press is probably lined up at the castle gates already, just dying to ask questions of the pony in charge! Have fun with that!” It’s probably the last fun you’ll get to have for a few years.
Shining continued his laugh and even danced a bit as he led his assistant back down the stairs.
“You enjoyed that,” she was laughing too.
“You’re bucking right I enjoyed that! Did that moron actually think he could just seal me? I just got my GR-7 certification!” Shining shook his head. “General Quartz is usually a lot more level-headed.”
Intelligentsia rolled her eyes. “Anytime something comes up that directly threatens the Princess’s safety, he tends to act a bit rashly.”
Shining tilted his head in thought. “Really? Wonder why.”
“Yeah, it’s a mystery,” she deadpanned.
“Nothing. So where are we going? You said something about a chariot? Wait, we aren’t…?”
“Yes we are!” Shining said as they arrived back at the chariot bay. Fortunately, there were still three pegasi there that didn’t look especially exhausted. In fact, they were lounging about as much as one could in royal guard armor. “You three! Get a chariot ready ASAP!”
The pegasi looked at him. “Um, sir, General Quartz has ordered all chariots grounded. You need an order from a princess, Prince Blueblood, or the Inner Council to get clearance.”
Shining put a hoof over Intelligentsia’s mouth. “That’s exactly what we have.”
“You do?” the pegasus asked.
“We do?” Intelligentsia asked as well, and Shining pressed harder on her mouth.
“I do. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza has given me clearance and a command to check up on my little sister, Twilight Sparkle, in Ponyville.”
“Oh!” The pegasus took a step back in surprise. “But I thought you were relieved of command.”
Wow. Juicy gossip? Everypony knows it in five seconds. Actual intel reports? Takes two days. “I hardly think I need to be on duty to check on my little sister, guys. I helped raise her for crying out loud. Just get the chariot ready, and let’s go. I want to be back by sundown.”
“Um, alright. Hey Feathers, go run the clearance for us.”
“On it,” the lone female pegasus replied, flying off to verify the orders.
“It’ll just be a few moments,” the third pegasus said.
Shining chuckled. “Guys, seriously. I’m the Captain of the Royal Guard. Let’s get going here.”
The two remaining pegasi looked at each other nervously. “Well, if you say so, sir.”
“Awesome!” Shining hopped on a nearby chariot. “Come on, Gen!”
Intelligentsia nervously climbed on board while the pegasi hitched themselves on. “Gen? And are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she whispered.
“‘Intelligentsia’ is a mouthful, we’re both off duty, and yes. Yes I do.”
She fell back on her haunches as the soldiers began a rough takeoff out of the bay. A few seconds later they were in the air, flying down the mountain, and being shot at by pegasi.
“What the hell!?” one of the chariot pegasi screamed.
“I know, these guys are lousy shots. I really need to get them better training when I get back.”
“Get back!?” the mare next to him yelled. “When we get back, we’re going to get turned into statues!”
“Five bits says otherwise. Ten bits says Quartz will be bowing to me in apology.”
Gen latched onto the safety bar for dear life as the chariot bucked and weaved to dodge the lightning attacks. “Thirty bits says we’re about to get killed by a dozen angry pegasi enforcing a no fly zone!”
“Meh, don’t worry about them.” With a smile, Shining turned around and lit his horn. Purple energy flowed out like water, gushing and surrounding the chariot in a haze of lavender. As soon as the spell was complete, the lightning started bouncing off the newly formed shield, unable to find a path to the chariot.
“You see, most unicorns just put up a shell of a force field and rely on the spherical shape of the barrier to reinforce its hardness. That just makes it brittle to really hard hits.” He sounded a lot like he was delivering a weather plan. “I, on the other hand, fill the inside space with enough magic that the force is dissipated by the full volume rather than just the outside shell. It takes more energy to set up, but it makes for a much, much more durable shield. Doesn’t work with really huge shields, though. Taxes the wellspring too much.”
“Yeah well that’s great and all, but they’re still going to catch up to us and kill us!”
Shining looked into Intelligentsia’s furious, seething eyes and smiled. “Oh, have some faith. This is nothing.” With a light step, he turned around and relit his horn. There were at least two dozen pegasi making passes at the chariot, firing lightning to try and take them down. If they were yelling anything, the sound was muffled by the shielding.
Shining took a deep breath and poured power into his horn. He had to be calm and careful for this, as he’d wind up hurting his own soldiers if he lost even the slightest bit of control. The spell whizzed around his horn, spiraling into a complex formula dancing and interacting with the shield already around them. Several seconds later, a spark cracked in the air, and a shockwave blasted out from the shield. The purple wave slammed into the pursuing pegasi, knocking them back and locking their momentum so that they’d have no choice but to fly away from the chariot. By the time the spell would wear off, they’d be too far away to give chase.
“Unreal… But we’re still going to be hunted like fugitives!”
Intelligentsia punched him hard in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.
One of the chariot pegasi spoke up. “She’s right! What’s stopping us from landing right now and turning you in?”
“Relax, you three. We’re going to be just fine. Cadence will back me up.”
“Who?” all three asked.
“Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. She’s an old friend; I’ve known her since foalhood.”
“Like a princess is going to stick her neck out for a stunt like this!” Intelligentsia kept yelling. “And even if she did, it wouldn’t change anything!”
“Oh, she will. Wouldn’t be the first time! And I’m surprised at you, Gen!”
“Yeah, you of all ponies should be able to see a larger picture. Here, look at it this way. What would happen if Cadence did go ahead and say she gave that order.”
Intelligentsia stared at him, huffing and angry.
“Come on, think it through.” Shining was smiling like a fiend.
“Well, the treason charges… Oh sweet Celestia, we’re going to be statues—”
After a few more calming breaths, she continued. “The charges would be dropped and, most likely, they’d start an ‘investigation’ as to why her orders weren’t followed.”
“You’re sure she’ll come through?” the left pegasus asked.
“Completely, and even if she doesn’t, I’ll take the blame fully. You guys are in the clear. But, still not done.”
“Not done?” Gen asked.
“Nope!” Shining beamed, still unable to contain his grin. “Keep thinking it through!”
He could practically see the gears turning in her head. “Well, odds are the investigation will find the communications deficiencies in the guard and… You! You planned all this, didn’t you?”
Shining let out a huge laugh. “Yup! Well, kind of.”
“Some of it was spur of the moment, but I knew we’d be okay pretty early on.”
Intelligentsia leaned over the side of the vehicle. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Aw, come on, Gen! Think about how great this is! Quartz is going to have to tell the Princess and the Council one of two things. If he tries to avoid responsibility for letting us get away by saying the Guard is a mess, then he has to side with me in asking for reforms, funding, additional authority, etcetera. If he says everything in the Guard is fine and we’re continuing to uphold a proud tradition, blah blah blah, he looks like a complete blowhard, because we got away. He’s trapped!”
“And if your girlfriend sells us down the river?”
Shining chuckled a little. “She’s not my girlfriend, Gen. She’s just a friend from my foalhood, and I seriously doubt she’ll hang me out to dry. All she’ll need to hear is ‘Twilight Sparkle’ and ‘Shining Armor.’ I’m certain she’ll want me to beg forgiveness after all is said and done, maybe even have me do something for her in exchange, but she’ll help. Trust me.”
The mare seemed to calm down a little and sat back in the chariot. “For somepony who is easily one of the largest worry-worts in Canterlot, you’re awfully calm about what might happen to us after this!”
His smile became a little less cocky and a little more wistful at that. “Well, I always worry more about my family than myself. Anything can happen to me. I’m expendable. Twilight, though? She’s far, far more important than I am.”
“So it’s an inferiority complex then.”
“Tch.” He slumped down next to her hard, his fatigue starting to show. “It’s not an inferiority complex, Intelligentsia. It’s the truth. She’s the Princess’s personal protégé.”
“And you’re the Captain of the Royal Guard. Like it or not, you are a more important piece on the board than she is,” she declared, poking at his chest.
Shining closed his eyes. “You only say that because you haven’t met her. She’s a genius, Gen. Give her some time, and she’ll make discoveries that’ll change the world.”
Several moments passed with nothing but the sound of beating wings, as even the wooshing of the air was blocked by the shielding.
“Um,” one of the pegasi spoke up. “Are we going to get arrested when we land at Ponyville? Why are we still going there? For that matter, why are we still listening to you two?”
“Yes, we’re going to Ponyville.” He sat up with a grunt. “No, we won’t be arrested. They won’t have a clue as to what’s going on. And like I said, I’ll take all the blame if it comes down to it. For all they’ll know, I forced or tricked you guys to do this.”
“You did trick us into doing this!” the other yelled.
“Oh, right!” He chuckled. “Well, that just makes it easier then, doesn’t it? If you could, set us down outside the village.”
“Why are we landing outside the town if they don’t know about our ‘daring escape?’” Intelligentsia asked.
He cleared his throat before responding. “I want to make sure Twilight is okay, and I want to do it without her knowing I’m there. If she sees me, she’ll just say she’s fine even if she’s not.”
“And if she's fine like the Princess says?”
Shining turned to Intelligentsia and gave her a stern look. “Then we’ll leave, and she’ll never be the wiser. Let her stay without thinking I’m worried about her. If she’s really happy, then I want her to stay that way.”
“So you’re going to spy on her.”
“I’m not going to spy on her, Gen.”
She stared at him.
“Okay, I’m going to spy on her. But quit giving me that glare. You look like I’m going to do something lewd.”
“You just lied to our fellow comrades and made them accomplices to violating a no-fly edict so you could see your sister, you dragged me along for the ride, and now you’re telling me you don’t actually want to see her when you get there! I think I’ve earned the right to stare at you like you’re a bucking lunatic!”
Shining shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Intelligentsia stretched her legs, thankful to be off of the rocky chariot and once again on solid, safe, unyielding ground. “Okay, so, what exactly is the plan here? We stalk your sister until, when, exactly?”
Shining rolled his eyes. “It’s not stalking, Gen. We’re going to just observe for a bit. If she’s happy, we can leave.”
“And then get arrested.”
“And then get arrested, yes.” His hooves kept a quick pace on the gravel road leading into town. They had circled around to the southeast and landed far enough outside as to not be so easily noticed.
“And I take it you’ve never served in the intelligence corps.”
Shining blinked. “No, but what does that have to do with anything?”
Intelligentsia stopped and spun around in front of him, jabbing his chest with her hoof. “Because we’re about to enter town and try to be stealthy while wearing our uniforms.”
“Oh! Right, that’s a… That’s a problem there.”
“Take it off, and fold it up. I’ll stash them in the bushes over there, put a spell on them. Then, we’ll split up. Try not to do anything stupid.”
Shining took off his cap. “Which of us is the one leading this again?”
“This isn’t a military op, so there’s no ‘official’ leader,” she flatly said, taking off her own uniform.
“Uh-huh.” Shining smiled, taking his off too. She can’t be that mad if she’s being so matter-of-fact.
“Wait!” Gen raised a hoof, getting Shining to stop mid-strip.
“Um, what?” he asked.
Gen strode up to him and started weaving a spell. “You’re likely to be recognized by the townsponies if you just walk in. You don’t want to have to explain to your sister later on how you snooped on her, do you?”
Shining resumed taking off the uniform. “Ah, right, good point. I suppose that’s a glamour spell?”
“My illusions are too crude for that. Just because it’s an earth pony town doesn’t mean there aren’t unicorns here that can see through it. I’m going to change your coat and mane color instead.”
Shining’s mouth popped open for a moment. “Wait, what? You can—?”
A blast of magic cut him off along with a purple cloud of quickly-dissipating magic fog. Waitaminute… Purple!? As he feared, his coat was now a brilliant, regal shade of purple.
“Oh, Celestia, no! You are not dressing me up in this color!”
Gen waved a dismissive hoof. “It’s fine. No one will know it’s you this way.”
Shining looked himself over again. His mane was now much, much darker. Nearly black. “Are you kidding!? I look like my sister as a guy!”
“Um, you are your sister’s brother, you know that, right?”
Shining towered over her then leaned down to put his face right in front of hers. “And do we want these ponies associating me with her!?”
Gen looked down at him and then back up. “Good point. Hold still.”
He sat back down and sighed. “Make it fast, Gen, before somepony sees us.”
One more spell later and he was dissipating cyan fog this time. Gazing around at his body, he looked as if he should be a pegasus instead of a unicorn, but it would do. “Hmmm, grey and black for the mane? I suppose that works. Give me more warning next time, though.”
The two of them got up and started towards the village.
“Sir, with all due respect, I hope there isn’t a next time we have to do something like this.”
“Same here, Gen. Same here.”