The two split up and went their separate ways, Shining to find his sister and Intelligentsia to find out more information on what, exactly, happened in this town.
“Now then,” Gen whispered to herself, trotting down the main road and eyeing the quaint buildings. “I suppose the easiest thing to do is ask the local authorities. And that means I find the town hall.”
She paused for a moment. Most of these buildings are relatively small. They’d have to pick the largest one to hold the celebration in. That’s where I’ll start my hunt for evidence. Her eyes scanned the rooftops, spotting one building near the center of town that easily dwarfed the rest, and started making her way towards it. “Well, this isn’t taking long. Something to be said for small towns, I suppose.”
The main road led Intelligentsia where she needed to be, the town hall. There were still plenty of ponies in the streets celebrating, though they didn’t seem to pay her much attention. Probably helps that I’m not wearing saddlebags or a purse. No money, no reason for a vendor to bug me.
A couple short minutes later, she strode up to the doors of her destination. It was certainly large for such a small town, although it’s design also lent it to other functions as well. There were several burn marks and torn banners on the outside, along with a hole in the roof, but it was the inside that really caught her attention.
“Wow. Something happened here.” Gingerly, she stepped over the police tape and tip-hoofed her way into the middle of the auditorium, trying carefully to avoid stepping on and thus disturbing any evidence, but gave up about eight steps in. “More like, some tornado happened here.”
Everywhere she turned there was confetti, streamers, plastic cups, spilled refreshments, and every other manner of party paraphernalia a pony could ponder. Hoofprints of every conceivable size were present and going in every possible direction.
“Hello, hello, what’s this?” She swept away some of the debris, revealing a bunch of scorch marks underneath. They were large and jagged, spreading out a few meters into the hardwood floor. “Okay, so we know either pegasus or unicorn lightning was used here. That’s a start, at least.”
“Can I help you?”
Intelligentsia lifted her head up to find a brown-coated earth pony mare, likely a civilian, flanked by two Royal Guard stallions. Her legs tensed, ready to run, but she stopped short. Wait, keep calm. There’s no way they know what happened just yet, and Princess Cadenza may have already called off the search. Just do what you came here to do.
The guardsmare cleared her throat. “Yes. My name is Intelligentsia, and I’m with the Royal Intelligence Services. Communication has been lackluster since last night’s incident, and although we’re relieved everypony is okay, we were hoping you could help us shed some light on the series of events.”
The mare shared a glance with her guards for a moment. “I see. And your credentials?”
“Right he—” She looked down at her chest when she realized her magic couldn’t find a pocket. “Oh. Right. I kind of… hid them, with the uniform, and… Put a spell on them so nopony could find them, and…”
Shining took a deep breath and turned the corner, keeping a sharp watch out for his sister. There weren’t any purple bookworms to be found, but there were plenty of other ponies. Though many looked dead tired from being up all night, they didn’t look like they were in the mood to stop celebrating any time soon. A small band was playing at a gazebo for a bunch of dancing locals, and a couple at a cherry stand waved at him, pointing out their wares. Some bottlerockets and other small fireworks were going off from time to time, giving the air a true sense of jubilance. It was almost infectious. Almost.
“Okay, focus,” he said while yawning, “Let’s think this through. Celestia said she’s staying at the library. I can assume she’s still there. Which means…”
He rounded a corner, his legs just itching to break into a gallop, but froze in his place midway down the next street. I have absolutely no idea where the library is, and even if I did, almost every house in this town looks the same. He looked around at the ponies near him and spotted a large, red earth pony pulling a cart.
“Um, excuse me, sir? Sir?”
The red pony with a green apple for a cutie mark ignored him, keeping on his path.
Okay, hard way I guess. Shining strode up and got directly in his path. “Sir? Could you help me?”
The straw in his mouth shifted position. “Oh, you were talkin’ ta me? Don’t reckon’ nopony’s called me ‘sir’ before.”
He nodded. “Yes, right, um, well, I’m terribly sorry, but could you tell me where the library is?”
“You ‘nother Canterlot type?”
Shining blinked. “How did you know?”
“Th’ way ya talk. Library’s on th’ north end of th’ market. Be nice ta Miss Sparkle, now. She saved us.”
So I hear. Guess you’re becoming a bit of a celebrity, Twily. “Of course. Thank you, sir.” He bowed slightly and ran off.
“Ow, hey, watch the rocks!” They don’t even have paved roads here.
Gen was being dragged along the ground by the two large stallions, despite her insistence that she was who she said. They wouldn’t even let her go get her uniform! Apparently the Guard was still on high alert for suspicious characters. Worse, they were dragging her along in a rather undignified manner, and they’d slapped a magic inhibitor ring on her horn.
She sighed and slumped down, letting them carry her. If I have to be arrested, at least I can make them carry me.
As she looked around, more and more ponies gathered to gawk at the mare being carried off to the sheriff’s office in shackles. Oh wonderful! An audience! Maybe they think I worked for Nightmare Moon. One pink mare in particular was walking right beside her, staring intently.
“Can I help you?” Intelligentsia asked, her voice overflowing with sarcasm.
The pink mare jumped in the air, gasped in shock, then ran off.
Huh. Well, it worked, but, still. That was odd.
“Okay, library, library, where is…?” Shining Armor stopped and looked to his left at a sign he wasn’t entirely sure he saw in his peripheral vision. Yet, there it was. It read, plain as day, ”Golden Oaks Library.”
“You have got to be kidding me. They have a living tree building!? And one large enough to be a library!? I thought the last pony that made those died fifty years ago! Oh, this I have to see.”
His march to the front door stopped abruptly several paces away. Hold it. I can’t let her see me. So, how do I go about this… Wait a minute, there’s a note on the door. Actually, two notes.
He glanced left, right, behind him, and even leaned a little to try to peek in the darkened windows before striding up to the tree.
I am currently on lunch break, and will be back in one hour!
“Well, at least she’s eating, so there’s that. How about the next one…”
I also just realized that it’s a holiday, so the library is supposed to be closed. Hence, I will be away for the rest of the day.
He took in a large breath and let out a sigh. “Back to square one. If she’s still out to lunch, then… Hmm. Given he was probably up all night, Spike’s likely too exhausted to cook, and Twilight’s culinary efforts usually involve smoke and firefighter ponies. So, she’s probably at a restaurant. Time to head to the town square.”
The metal bars swung closed and locked with a reverberating clang. Ponyville only had three cells, and she was the only one in any of them. It was probably a peaceful enough town they only needed that many.
“Hey, guards!” she yelled out. “If you’re gonna lock me away, can I at least get a piece of chalk?!”
A little white stick flew through the air at her, and she caught it deftly in her lips. Benefit of not being able to control magic until late in adolescence, I guess.
Ponies in cells were usually allowed writing implements, and chalk was allowed because even if they marked up the walls, a single unicorn could erase it all in seconds.
Ugh, this is going to suck without magic. Still, might as well be productive. She repositioned the chalk in her lips and started drawing, annoying herself at her lack of precision compared to her hornwriting. First, she created a five-pointed star on the wall large enough to cover most of the available surface area. Then, she put “Nightmare Moon” on one corner, “Celestia” on another, the “Inner Council” on the third, the “Nightmare Cult” on the fourth, and finally, on the last point, she wrote in “Gryphonia.”
“Now then,” she mumbled with the chalk still in her mouth. “Let’s see where the connections are.”
Shining strode through the market, stumbling through the crowd. The square was filled with ponies celebrating the return of the sun, buying and downing vast quantities of food and beverages.
“You there! Don’t forget to buy your official Summer Sun Celebration t-shirt!”
“Wha—?” Shining turned his head only to find a white t-shirt being dropped over his face with somepony trying to get it on the rest of the way. He jumped back, struggling as the fabric caught on his horn. “I don’t even have any money with me!”
The shirt flew off.
“Well, how about you there! Yes, you!”
Shining backed away while the vendor descended on another poor pony, forcibly clothing him. Sorry, buddy, but I don’t have time to save you. Shining dashed off into the crowded market, trying to get his bearings again. Hmmm… Can’t get a good view down here. Going to need to get closer to the restaurants and start a search pattern.
One by one he went to the cluster of restaurants, poking his head in their windows. The foods looked fresh and delicious, but his stomach was still far too worried about his sister to consider stopping to eat.
“Nope, nope, and nope. Damn. She’s not here. This is not looking good.”
“This is not looking good.” Intelligentsia took a few steps back to look at her creation. Her special talent was making these connection grids, looking for commonalities and relations. “Connecting the dots,” as it were, just as the constellation on her cutie mark had lines drawn in. Yet, this one was not going as planned.
There were a few lines connecting things together, but the only two leading to Nightmare Moon were one from Celestia and one from the Nightmare Cult. There were dozens of smaller entities on the wall now, so there should’ve been far more connections.
“So, what is it that I’m miss—?”
Intelligentsia spat out her chalk, breaking it on the concrete wall in front of her. Who in the world… She whipped her head around to say something but failed when the pink mare from earlier started talking first.
“I’m Pinkie Pie! I haven’t seen you around before, and that means you’re new! So I started talking to ponies to put together an official ‘Welcome to Ponyville Party’ for you! And then nopony knew who you were and didn’t want to come celebrate with me ‘cause you’re in jail, so I was sad. And I said to myself, ‘Pinkie, you need to help this pony!’ And then I said, ‘But how can I? She’s probably all sad-face in jail!’ But after that I was all, ‘And that’s why you have to help her and cheer her up!’ I was so sad, ‘cause I was thinking, ‘But how do I do that if nopony wants to come to my party!?’ So then I told myself, ‘You just party extra hard for her and bring her lots of cupcakes, and when she gets out of jail, introduce her to every pony in town! That way, she’ll have lots of friends and won’t need to do things to be in jail anymore!’ Isn’t that neat!?”
The hyperactive blur had stopped talking and held her forelegs in the air excitedly. Five seconds later, Intelligentsia realized the mare might have said something in there that asked for a response.
Not missing a beat, the other mare inhaled a deep breath and started talking again. “Hiya! I’m Pinkie Pie! I haven’t seen you around before, and that means you’re new! So I started talking to ponies to put together an official ‘Welcome to Ponyville Party’ for you! And then…”
“Excuse me, miss?” Shining waved over to a yellow mare with an interesting, curly, orange mane. “I was wondering if you could tell me if you know where Twilight Sparkle is?”
Kinda risky mentioning her by name, but if I can get a lead quickly, it might be worth it.
The mare stopped and looked him up and down then grew an alluring smile. “Well hello, handsome! I haven’t seen her around, no, but wouldn’t you rather have some fun with me?”
Shining lost a bit of strength in his hind legs. “Umm… What?”
She gave him a light nuzzle on his neck, brushing against his side a little before abandoning the pretense and graduating to rubbing against his side instead. “Twilight’s nice and all, but we earth ponies have, heh, stamina.”
The mare draped a foreleg around his neck, giving him a curiously strong and immensely inappropriate hug. "So handsome, I bet you get offers all the time."
Shining lowered his head, stumbling over her hooves as he backed up in an attempt to shake the offending pony. He began twisting himself in awkward positions, while she matched his movements every step of the way. What, does she do this for a living or something?
"Stamina," she let out a hot breath into his ear, "and I just so happen to have this little spot where we could test out that claim…"
“Ummmmmmmm…” Shining’s face flushed as he lit his horn. Please let this spell of Twilight’s work…
There was a flash and a powerful crack of thunder, and then he found himself half a hoofball field away along with a bit of a headache. Ow. Well, it worked. Is she okay?
Shining turned around and looked into the distance, seeing her slowly get to her hooves. She’s fine. Run! He blitzed down the road out of town before other ponies showed up to check out the noise, not looking back.
Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ugh.
It had taken some time, but Intelligentsia had finally determined that banging her head on the wall was not going to get the living sugar rush in front of her to stop talking. Closing her muzzle with magic wouldn’t work either, as not only would the earth pony break out of it but her magic was sealed anyway.
Thus, a more conventional approach was therefore needed.
She jumped off the wall that had so recently been the target of her aggression and landed directly in front of the bars, all four hooves connecting with the ground in a single, loud, clop. Her face hardened into determination and implacability. Then, Intelligentsia pointed a hoof towards the exit.
“Leave,” she commanded in her harshest, most authoritative tone.
The other mare’s eyes welled up with tears. It was quite possibly the saddest, most pathetic thing Intelligentsia had ever seen, yet her expression held firm.
Not because she was cruel, but rather, she was stunned beyond words.
She can do something other than smile?
The pink pony, whom Intelligentsia had just now remembered was named “Pinkie Pie,” sniffled and wiped away a tear.
“O… okie-dokie. Lokie,” she muttered, crying. Just like that, she was gone.
All before the guardspony could show remorse or apologize.
Damnit, I’m such a bitch.
Shining had to keep up the pace for some time before finally being certain that the mare couldn’t follow him. He even left the road so his hoofprints wouldn’t give him away. Now, he was in an open field just outside of town. Though not out of breath, as this was nothing compared to his military exercises, he still found himself thirsty and winding down from adrenaline.
He let himself stop on the short grass and took a break to stretch his body out to prevent cramping. Can’t stay here long, but I need a moment to regroup my thoughts. I have to get back in town without anypony hitting on me. Worst case, I’ll just wait for Twily to return and watch her from somewhere.
With the rush of adrenaline finally gone, he was able to take a look at the scenery. The hills were lush and green, the surrounding mountains were gorgeous and still snow-capped, and the breeze was brilliant. Summer might have officially started, but spring was still hanging on. Nowhere was this more evident than right before him in the hundreds of rows of apple trees in late bloom.
“This little town really is quite beautiful. It’s not Canterlot, but still. Gorgeous. Heh. It’s hard to believe a place that looks this peaceful could have a crazy mare like that living in it. I hope they’re not all that nu—”
Shining looked over towards the orchard, finding a couple of mares having a picnic under the trees, one of whom was waving at him.
“Could you come here please?”
Uh-oh. Play it cool. See what they want first, maybe tweak your voice a little. He trotted up to them, doing his best to look nonchalant but feeling more awkward than anything. “Can I help you ladies?”
One of the mares, sporting a white coat and violet mane, fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Would you please be so kind as to stand right over there for me, darling?”
Shining raised an eyebrow. The spot was in front of and between the two mares, and covered in harmless-looking grass. There was no hint of any magical trap or other device or ambush, but he still got a chill down his spine as he stepped over to where she pointed.
“Now then, how about this one?”
“Nope.” The rainbow-maned pegasus replied, leaning back on the tree.
“Why not? Rainbow, these are the very colors you said you liked! And he looks so dashing!”
Thanks, I suppose?
“Rainbow” rolled her eyes. “Well, for one, he’s a unicorn.”
Tribalists? Here? And she’s a pegasus? I didn’t expect that.
The other mare huffed. “And just’s what’s wrong with unicorns?”
“Nothing’s wrong with them, Rarity. I just don’t date them. Look.” She fanned out her wings and pointed at the sky. “I spend almost all my time in the air! I don’t want to date a guy that can’t go where I go.”
I suppose one could argue that’s just being practical, not tribalist…
Rainbow continued, “Besides, a draft pony? Look at me! Look at him! He’d probably break me in two!”
He swallowed a lump in his throat. “Um…”
“Hmph.” Rarity lifted a roll of measuring tape out of her bag and started taking the measurements of her ‘guest.’ “Well, I for one find him quite lovely looking. I’ve always liked the form of a draft stallion. So strong and sturdy. Perfect to lean against on a date. Not too many stallions in this town looking for fashionable attire, though.”
“Ummm…” He scratched the back of his head.
Rainbow snickered. “Well, if he’s your type, why don’t you date him?”
Shining slowly started to back away.
“Surely not! We’ve only just met! And besides, my heart is set on… him!” Rarity looked as if she was ready to melt, clasping her hooves together while her eyes focused on something far, far away.
“Him?” Rainbow and Shining asked simultaneously.
She flopped down on the picnic cloth, resting her head on her hooves. “My Prince! Celestia’s nephew, Prince Blueblood!”
He and Rainbow shared a glance and a barely-stifled snicker.
“You’re trying to go after a Prince!?” Rainbow guffawed. “Come on, there’s no way! He’s probably got his pick of any mare he wants! Why’d anypony want to date somepony like that?”
I’m willing to bet a month’s salary that this rainbow-maned mare has absolutely, positively no real experience with Blueblood and yet she’s still absolutely right.
“Oh, hush.” Rarity dismissed Rainbow’s words with a hoof. “It’s meant to be. One day we’ll finally meet, and he’ll sweep me off my hooves. You’ll see.”
Shining, against every last instinct in his body, remained completely still. Ma’am, if I didn’t need to keep my cover, I would save you. I really, really would. There is no way in all Celestia’s heavens that you could possibly be so awful a pony as to deserve a life with that stallion. I wish, I truly wish to all the heavens that I could warn you. I pray you wake up before it’s too late, you poor, poor thing.
Rainbow was still laughing a little. “Yeah, well, send us a postcard when you get with your dreamboat there, Rares.”
“I shall have you know I intend to take very good care of all of my friends when I enter high society. After all, I—”
Her words were cut short by a few loud tolls of a distant bell in the town’s clocktower ringing back in the square.
Rainbow jumped into the air. “Oh, crap, is it time already? Sorry, Rarity, I promised AJ and Twi that I’d do this thing with them. I gotta jet. Later!” Another second later, and she was gone, rocketing into the sky.
Huh. She moves a bit like a Wonderbolt.
“Well, it appears that I am without company. Would you care to share a conversation?” Rarity fluttered her eyelashes again.
I really don’t have time for this. I need to find Twi— Wait! Did that pegasus say somepony and “Twi’”? Could that be—? Shining shook his head, and started to go into a bow but stopped himself. Don’t bow, she’ll figure out you’re from Canterlot! Just, make up something! “Sorry, I’m late, too. Gotta run!”
He didn’t even wait for a response before taking off down the hill, following the pegasus deeper into the farmland.
Intelligentsia sighed. Her shorter piece of chalk was harder to work with, but even if she had her magic, she knew this wasn’t going to work.
What am I missing? She put her hoof up to the wall and traced the connections one more time. “Princess Celestia and Luna are sisters. The Nightmare Cult has been worshipping Luna for centuries and trying to bring her back. She’s back now, but she lost. And the cult has been quiet for decades!”
She slumped down against the wall and covered her eyes in defeat. “If there is a connection here, I can’t see it. Or I’m missing something.”
“Oooooooooh, I am the genie of the light pink hair!”
I do not want to uncover my eyes. Maybe if I don’t look at her, she’ll give up.
She slowly, carefully uncovered an eye, bracing for the worst, and there was Pinkie, dancing on the other side of the bars in a ridiculous genie costume.
Nope, I should not have done that.
“Hehe! You have found my lamp! I shall grant you three extra-special wishes!”
Intelligentsia raised an eyebrow. “Um, I never found any lamp.”
Pinkie just giggled. “Sure you did! It’s right there!”
She looked down, and there was, in fact, a bronze lamp next to her hoof. She lifted it up, staring at it, mouth agape. “How did you do that?”
“Aww, never mind that, silly! You get three wishes now! What do you want? A cupcake? Oh, two cupcakes!? Or an ice cream cake!? Oh, I know! How about a friend! That’s easy! Pick me!”
Intelligentsia rolled her eyes. This mare just doesn’t quit! “Weren’t you running off crying earlier?”
Pinkie smiled. “I got better.”
“… You got better?”
“Yup! ‘Cause I have friends! And as long as they’re with me, I know I’ll never have to stay all sad-facey! Now, hurry up, and make your next wish!”
Intelligentsia slumped back down even further. I do not want to do this, but I really need time to focus. She flopped over on her side and pushed herself up then went over to meet her by the bars. “I know what my wish is.” Pinkie’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates. Intelligentsia could practically see rainbows in them. “I wish…”
“Yeeeees?” Pinkie squealed.
“I wish for you…”
Intelligentsia resisted the urge to smile. This was going to be mean. “Pinkie, I wish for you to not grant me my wish.”
Pinkie froze in place. “Huh?”
“I wish for you to not grant me my wish. Now, run along and get to work.” She shooed her away, and Pinkie complied, her face wildly switching between all sorts of different and conflicting emotions. It went from incredible joy to sadness to confusion to silly to even what Intelligentsia might call “pensive” then looped back around and did them all again while she slowly walked away.
When the exit door finally closed, she went back to her connection grid. I really hated to do that, but I need to get back to work. Maybe I should try a temporal predictive matrix. It’s going to be a pain in the flank to do without magic and nowhere near as reliable, but it might give me a clue or two…
Shining slunk up towards the barn, creeping from bush to apple tree to entirely too skinny fence post, and generally staying behind any object he could find. It’s not going to be hard to spot me. There’s almost no cover here. Despite the wide open space, there didn’t really seem to be witnesses around other than a few random farm animals. The trees weren’t quite ready to make apples yet, and there was a serene quiet over the land that, in truth, did little to calm Shining’s nerves. The military had taught him that “quiet” usually meant “ambush.”
He pressed his side against the barn, limiting the number of angles he was exposed from. Okay, I need to either find a way to locate Twilight directly, or I need to come up with a more concrete search pattern. All without either her or that “Rainbow” spotting me. Hiding from Twilight should be easy; she always did have a bit of tunnel vision. The pegasus, though, she could be trouble. I wish I had a layout of this place; I could make a search pattern. Hmm… I wonder if there’s a ladder in this barn I could use.
He carefully rounded the outside corner of the building, peering left and right to make certain no one was watching him as he entered. The last thing he needed was to be spotted breaking and entering. Okay, breach the door, check corners. This is a civilian structure, though. No lethal magic, knockouts only.
Shining quickly eyed the latch. It was a simple piece built around a padlock loop that didn’t even have a lock at the moment. Peaceful place. No need to keep things locked up. He took a breath, and counted. One, two, three!
The door swung open and he jumped in, not even needing to check to his sides, as there was already a pony right in front of him. It was the large, red, draft stallion from before, sitting at a table with a drink in his hoof.
Crap! Shining dropped into a defensive stance, and readied a base barrier spell in his horn, flaring it to life. There he stood, crouched and ready. Ready for anything that might happen, like a charge or an earth pony buck. When this stallion attacked, he’d never know what hit him. In fact, he…
“Can I help you?” the farmer pony asked.
Shining blinked. Why isn’t he attacking? I’m trespassing! In Canterlot that’d get you a scream and a fight for sure. His eyes darted around the room, looking for some other explanation. A trap, another pony ready to pounce on him, something.
“Are ya’ll alright? Ya seem to be a bit, well, unhinged.”
Shining raised an eyebrow. “So, you aren’t going to attack me?”
The stallion shook his head. “Wasn’t plannin’ on it. Why?”
Shining cancelled the spell in his horn, rubbing his forehead. “Um, well…”
“Just what were ya expectin’ fer me ta do? Bum rush ya?”
The Captain winced. “Well, yeah, sorta… Kinda… More or less I was expecting you to attack me on sight so I could justify knocking you out and wiping your memory so I could climb up this barn and get a good look at your farm so I could see where Twilight went… Eh heh heh wow I sound crazy…”
The farm pony looked him up and down. “Ya’ll’re one of those military types?”
“Know what ya’ll need?”
Shining raised an eyebrow. “What?”
The stallion chuckled and smiled a bit. “An off switch! Most of th’ time, when a pony comes into my barn, I assume they’re lookin’ fer either me or my little sister Applejack, an’ I assume they gots a good reason. Now, since yer expectin’ a fight, I’m guessin’ yer reason is either really good, or really bad.”
The hairs on Shining’s back stood straight up on end.
“Looks like I’m right, ain’t I? So, which is it?”
Shining sighed and sat down. “The former, but I can’t really say why. The whole point of all this was to not get seen. Especially by Twilight.”
“Well, that’s a shame.” He leaned forward and crossed his forelegs over the table. “I could help ya’ll out. I know where they are. But I’m not about to help ya if’n I can’t be sure you’re not gonna hurt her.”
Shining looked the pony square in the eyes. One of the Summer Sun Celebration’s traditions is to stay up not only all night, but for all of the next day as well. He looks like he’s fully taking part, so he’s probably damn tired, but so am I. I can’t guarantee I won’t slip up and hurt him; which would violate my oath. Even if I succeeded in just knocking him out, that pegasus might spot me. Maybe, if I just— No. No, I can’t. I’ve done enough damage for my own selfishness today.
The Captain stood up and took a deep breath. “You mentioned this ‘Applejack’ is your little sister? Well, Twilight Sparkle is my little sister. I heard she’d moved here suddenly and permanently, and I came here to make sure she isn’t being coerced. I wanted to make sure she’s really happy here.”
The farm pony nodded. “And ya’ll wanted to do it quiet-like so you knew the truth, an’ that she’s safe and sound.”
Shining nodded. “One big brother to another, can you blame me? I got my cutie mark for wanting to protect her. I can’t just let this go. I have to know she’s alright.”
“Ya can’t be her protector forever, ya know. She needs ta be able ta have ‘er own life.”
“I am… aware, of that. And I want to let her stay here as long as she wants, but only if I know she’s safe. Please, help me.” Shining pleaded with his eyes. If he was a fellow big brother, there was a chance he would understand.
The pony shrugged. “Alright, I’ll help ya. AJ, Rainbow, and Twilight are down in the main orchard. Head out the door and hang left down th’ path ’til ya see ‘em.”
“Thank you,” he bowed, deep to the ground. “But please, don’t tell them I was here. Especially not Twilight. She’ll just be worried about me, and I don’t want that. If she’s happy here, I want her to stay that way.”
The stallion got up, and sauntered over to him. “On mah honor as an Apple. I’m Big Macintosh, and this here is our farm.” He held out a hoof, and Shining gave it a bump.
“Captain Shining Armor, Royal Guard. I’d love to stay and chat, but I really need to check on her.” He started to back out of the barn, giving one last bow. “And thank you, for helping me.”
Big Macintosh smiled at him. “Eeyup.”
“Hmmm. Well, this is a bust. Maybe the connections just really aren’t there this time.”
Intelligentsia spat her chalk out and spun around to find that, yes, Pinkie was back once again. This mare just doesn’t give up! “Didn’t I send you away with an unresolvable paradox?”
“Nope! I resolved it!”
She started to bounce up and down while explaining. “Yup! I’m all done not granting your wish! Which means you still have two wishes left!”
Intelligentsia reached for the chalk, ready to ignore her completely, but stopped midway. “Let me guess. You aren’t going to give up no matter what I do.”
She giggled. “Nope! We’re gonna be friends!”
Pinkie stopped bouncing for a moment and tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
Intelligentsia sighed and walked over to the bars. “I mean, why me? I’m some random pony who, upon entering town, was arrested. Why would you want to be friends with somepony like that?”
“Are you guilty?” Pinkie asked, blinking.
“Am I? Well, no, although I see why they think I’m suspicious. But no, I’m not a criminal. Honest.”
Pinkie shrugged. “Then I can’t think of anypony else who needs a friend more.”
Intelligentsia opened her mouth to argue, but stopped. Try as she might, she just couldn’t find a way to argue against that. “Well then, Pinkie, I suppose thanks are in order.”
She jumped up and screamed “Yay!” and then reached behind her back and pulled out something. “Cupcake?”
“How did you—?” The guardspony eyed the confection, and it looked like a normal cupcake. “Never mind, I don’t think I should be asking.”
“Hehe! Now you’re getting it!”
Intelligentsia took the cupcake in her hooves. “Thank you, Pinkie.” She leaned her back against the bars, off to the side of Pinkie, and started eating. “Actually, this is a really good cupcake.”
“Aww, thankies! Say, whatcha drawin’?”
She swallowed. “I call it a ‘connection grid.’ I draw circles representing ponies or organizations and then add other, smaller circles around them representing ponies related to them. Then, I draw lines wherever I know there’s some kind of meaningful connection or interaction.”
“Huh. How’d’ya know what’s related and what’s not?”
Intelligentsia chuckled with a mouthful of cupcake. “Good m’mry.” She swallowed it. “Excuse me. Good memory. I also have some magic that helps me. I’ve always been good at ‘connecting the dots.’ Hence the cutie mark.”
“Neat-o! That sounds like a super-duper-riffic special talent! You must remember everypony’s birthdays!”
Intelligentsia snorted. “Well, I try to make it a bit more useful than that, but yes. It can be frustrating, though.”
She slumped down against the bars. “Ponies sometimes don’t believe you when you find well-hidden connections. Like crimes, backroom deals, conspiracies. Nopony believes me about the Cloudsdale Seventeen.”
“Aww, that’s so sad! I thought everypony knew about the Cloudsdale Seventeen!”
Intelligentsia froze and slowly turned around, her left eye twitching. “You know about it?”
“Spluh! Why else would they still say they hoof-carve snowflakes?”
Intelligentsia mulled this over for a moment, then grinned and extended a forehoof. “Alright Pinkie, I give. My name’s Intelligentsia.”
Pinkie gave it a bump. “Hi! My name’s Pinkie Pie! Or I guess you already know that, huh. Well, I’m a baker and party pony over at Sugarcube Corner! Oh! And just a while ago, I became an Element of Harmony! Neat huh?!”
The guardspony’s jaw just about hit the floor. “What did you say?”
Pinkie giggled. “And I thought you said you have a good memory! Hi! My name’s Pinkie Pie! Or I guess you already know that, huh. Well, I’m a baker and party pony over at Sugarcube Corner! Oh! And just a while ago, I became an Element of Harmony! Neat huh?!”
Gen leapt forward and grabbed Pinkie by the shoulders. “You were there to fight Nightmare Moon!?”
“… I think I know what I want for my second wish.”
“Ah still can’t believe y’all haven’t been on a hay ride before, Twilight!”
Twilight hopped up into the large wagon stuffed with hay, and then kept bouncing with excitement. “Nope! I’ve heard about them, though!”
“Yeah,” Rainbow laughed, doing a backstroke in midair. “Let me guess. In a book!”
“Yup!” She put her forehooves up on the front edge of the wagon, looking out and up at the pegasus. “The History of Rural Pastimes and Celebrations!”
Applejack turned a wrench, tightening up a bolt on a hitch, then wiped the sweat off her forehead. “Well, it’s one thing to read about stuff. It’s another thing to actually get out and do it! Haven’t y’all been outside Canterlot before comin’ here?”
“Well, yeah. I’ve been on a couple of class field trips to major cities before, but that’s about it. Fillydelphia and Whinnyapolis, mainly.”
Rainbow swooped around in a circle and landed next to the wagon. “You really need to get out more, Twi!”
“Well, that’s what I’m doing now!” She levitated her cutie-mark embroidered notebook out of her bag. “I even brought my notebook to make sure to take detailed— hey!”
Rainbow snatched it from her telekinetic grasp and flew up, zooming off to the farmhouse.
“Atta girl!” Applejack yelled. “Y’all can have your book back after we’re done here, Twilight. The point of this is to have fun, not take notes!”
“I can take notes on having fun!” Twilight insisted.
A multi-hued blur zoomed back over them and came to a landing at the front of the wagon.
“Y’all can’t take notes on havin’ fun while havin’ fun, sugarcube! If yer takin’ notes, yer not doin’ it right. Rainbow, it’s all set fer ya!”
“Roger!” Rainbow trotted up to the hitch, bopped it into the air with her muzzle, and let it land on her back. Applejack then put a couple of ropes on the pegasus.
Twilight’s hoof went into the air. “Wait, wait! The book said that earth ponies—”
Applejack cut her off. “Ah could pull it, Twi, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun as a pegasus doin it!” She then hopped into the wagon next to Twilight, knocking them both down into the pile of hay inside.
“Yeah!” Rainbow yelled. “No way it’s as fun on the ground as it is in the air! Hang on tight!’
Twilight’s heartbeat took off almost as fast as Rainbow did. “Waaaaaaaait!” In just a couple of seconds, they were in the air, low over the treetops, and zooming around the whole orchard in wide laps. Wind was rushing through and messing up her mane, little bits of hay were flying right out of the cart. The wagon was creaking and groaning, and it sure sounded like the whole thing was about to fall to pieces, literally.
Yet she didn’t care.
Some distance from the mares, there was a lone stallion hiding in the bushes, watching the whole thing as they zoomed across the farm. He had tears in his eyes, a spell disguising his coat color, was severely short on sleep…
… and he was getting up to leave.
“That’s quite a story, Pinkie. Thank you for telling me that.”
Pinkie giggled more and jumped up and down. “Of course! It’s always fun meeting new friends!”
Intelligentsia sighed. She knew what she was going to have to do, but once again, she didn’t want to do it. “Pinkie,” she whispered, holding out a hoof to stop her bouncing. “I need to make my third wish. Okay?”
Pinkie nodded. “Okie dokie lokie! Whatcha need?”
“I need you…” She stopped for a moment and considered. Was there a way out? There were all kinds of possibilities in the future. It was cruel to deny somepony a friend this way, yet… No. She’s friends with Twilight. There’s no other way. “Pinkie, I need you to promise me you’ll not tell anypony I was here.”
She instantly deflated, waterworks already going. “What? But why!? Everypony will be super-happy to meet you once the mayor realizes it was all a mistake! We can throw a party and—”
“Pinkie!” She yelled, cringing at the same time from what she was doing to the poor mare. She put another hoof on her shoulder. “Listen, Pinkie, the reason I’m here is that my commanding officer wanted to make certain Twilight was here of her own free will. We weren’t supposed to be noticed by her. If she finds out we were here, it’ll upset her and violate my orders. Please, Pinkie, don’t tell a soul. Especially not Twilight.”
The party pony sniffled then nodded. “Okie dokie lokie. For you.”
“For Twilight,” Intelligentsia emphasized.
“Yeah. Her too. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” She sniffed again. “Oh! We were supposed to be having a hay ride today!”
The guardspony shooed her away. “Go. Make sure she’s happy here in Ponyville.”
“Roger-doger!” She saluted and—in a puff of dust—was out the door like a rocket.
The now-alone mare stretched her forelegs out then stood up and stretched her hind legs too. Concrete floors are not fun for sitting down on. Or standing on, for that matter. She looked back up at her chalk grid and then lay down on the marginally more comfortable wooden bench. “Well, mission success, I guess.”
A loud clank from the exit door made Intelligentsia’s ear twitch and jolt her awake. The bright light pouring in from down the hall told her that it was still day outside. Must’ve not been asleep for long. Is Pinkie back?
The slow, strong, sturdy clop of large hooves and a male gait told her otherwise. By the time he finally got into view, she didn’t even need to see him to know who it was. “Hello, Captain.”
He looked down at her without an ounce of levity then floated a key into the lock and opened her door. “Cadence came through. Get up. We’re going home. Now.”
“You found her, I take it. Care to get this off of me?” She tapped the inhibitor ring on her horn.
A second, smaller ring floated over to her horn and slipped on. When it made contact with the larger ring, both of them broke into two pieces and fell off.
She got up off the bed and onto the floor then gave him a salute. “Thank you, Captain.”
Purple light blared from his horn in an extremely wide angle, covering the entire back wall for a few seconds. When it was gone, so too was her drawing. The entire thing had disintegrated into a cloud of chalk dust. “No physical evidence.”
She nodded. “It’s all taken care of on my end.”
The barest of smiles creased his lips. “Then let’s go home.”
“Aaaahhhhh… that’s more like it!”
Shining Armor leaned back in a beach chair in the royal gardens, nestled in a corner next to the castle with a cooler holding ice and a couple bottles of ale. It had taken a few hours to get over the shock, but now he could finally let himself admit it: Twilight was safe and, more importantly, happy. On top of that, the castle’s safety was now General Quartz’ responsibility, so now all he had to do was relax and let the political ramifications play out under the soon-to-set sun.
“Drinking on the job?”
Shining turned to his side to spot Cadence approaching with a rather critical look on her face. Still, he couldn’t help but relax at seeing his old friend.
“Nah, I’m off right now. And, you know me. Two drink max. Besides, since I got ‘relieved of duty’ just after Celestia shut down the whole government and locked herself in her room, this is Gemstone’s mess now. By the way, the sunset really brings out your mane’s colors.”
He couldn’t help but smirk a little with her.
“My my, Shining Armor. Buttering me up for a favor, are we?”
“You could say that!” He chuckled, taking a drink of ale. “You know me, though. When it’s important, sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Shining Armor, alright,” she admitted, pulling out another chair for herself with her magic and lying back on it. “Give me one of those, will you?”
He smiled more and lifted the other bottle over to her with his magic, opening the top.
Delicately, she took a few sips from it. “You know, I never did much care for ale,” she said.
“It is an acquired taste. Hard to be a soldier and not have it grow on you.”
“As much as it pains me to fit the stereotype, I much prefer champagne.”
“And that sounds like Mi Amore Cadenza! But, seriously, thanks Cadence. I really had to check on Twilight. I would’ve gone crazy worrying about her.”
“Let me get this straight. You risked life and limb, treason charges, the wrath of a general, and potentially not one but two alicorns, one of whom you know nothing about, just to check on Twilight?”
Shining blinked. “Yes.”
“And you did all this without any fear at all, because you knew that I would be there for you?”
“Hmm…” She was staring right at him.
“What?” Shining asked, lowering his head a bit.
“Oh, nothing, just wondering what kind of penance I should exact from you.”
He gulped. “That doesn’t sound entirely pleasant.”
“Neither is explaining to the Council that a renegade captain was actually following your orders.”
“Touché. So I guess I should be expecting my first captain’s paycheck to be forfeited?”
Cadence had an almost evil smile. “First few. As I recall, there’s a little, well, actually very large restaurant on La Rue D’Argent.”
He gulped again. “That place that takes a year to get into and costs more than a private’s yearly salary?”
“The Gilded Hoof. I wouldn’t worry about the wait time. Tomorrow, you are going to take me there and let me order whatever I want.”
“Aren’t you a princess? Doesn’t the royal treasury pay for all your meals?”
Cadence looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Sorry,” he said.
“And all the while you’re going to compliment me on how wonderful I look and whisper sweet nothings to me whenever you have a chance.”
“Dress nice, and bring roses. Lots of roses. And chocolates.”
“Dress uniform, roses, chocolates. Got it.”
Cadence rubbed her head with her hoof while her left wing twitched.
“What?” the captain asked.
“Dress nice, Shining. I don’t mean a uniform, I mean formal attire.”
His eyes darted around in confusion. “That is my formal attire.”
“I mean a tuxedo or a suit.”
He looked away nervously and started gulping down the ale from his bottle while Cadence looked at him.
“Shining Armor, I’ve known you entirely too long to not know you’re hiding something.”
“I don’t actually own any civilian clothes.”
Cadence’s mouth hung open. “No tux?”
“Not even a suit?”
“Cadence, I’m a soldier stationed in the castle. I own two dress uniforms, three casual uniforms, a set of armor, and a picture of my family. I really don’t have anything else. I’m lucky I managed to get my own private room in the armory.”
She looked genuinely taken aback and even set down her ale. “You’re serious. That’s all you own?”
Shining thought real hard about his tiny room they so generously bestowed on him, trying to think of anything else. “Actually, I take that back. My sister bought me a very nice fountain pen as a gift when I got my promotion. But, yeah, everything else is government-issued.”
This was new. Cadence at a loss for words. He’d have to tread real carefully in this undiscovered territory.
“Um, but I suppose I could rent a tux!”
“Without a reservation? Doubtful. I suppose a formal uniform will do. This time.”
“This time?” Wow, was it unbecoming of a Captain of the Royal Guard to squeak nervously.
A slight shudder went through his muscles as he thanked Celestia he had the wisdom to avoid wasting away all his paychecks. “Well, I guess that’s a fair trade for making sure my sister is safe. You should have seen her, Cadence. I don’t think she’s ever looked so happy.”
Cadence was looking at him. Exactly what look she was giving him, he wasn’t certain, but she was looking directly into his eyes.
“What?” he asked, frowning.
“You’re jealous because she replaced you!”
“She didn’t replace me; she found…”
“She found some friends! You should be happy!”
“I am!” he insisted. “It’s great that she’s found some ponies that accept her! It means I don’t have to be the one to… to…”
“And there it is,” she said, taking a drink. “She doesn’t need you to lean on anymore. The tears make it plain to see, Shining.”
He turned away and wiped his eyes. “Sorry, I don’t normally do this.” When he turned back, she had gotten up off the chair and was mere millimeters from his face. I forgot how quiet she could move. Freaking pegasus genes.
She raised a hoof and rubbed him a little on his cheek. “You really are something else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a big brother care so much for his little sister.”
“I had to,” he exhaled. “It’s not as if you were available as a foal-sitter full time.”
“I can remember a few weeks where I practically was, especially as she was getting older.” She sat back down and took a tiny sip. “If she hadn’t been such a sweet filly to sit for, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Yeah, she’s really special.” He took a very long drink. “But if you’ll recall, you were mostly there when I couldn’t be. Mom always wanted to be a noble socialite, and getting you to babysit her daughter while she went to a party was a coup. And dad was always busy with work at his practice, being somnologist to the Canterlot elite. When Twily became Celestia’s student, that just made it all worse. I was already a teenager, so I didn’t need the supervision, but Twily… I hate to badmouth my mother, but I stepped in when my parents stepped out. Literally.”
“I remember. Poor thing. I’m glad she’s able to make connections again.”
“Amen to that.” He raised his bottle with magic, and the two clinked a toast. “If there’s anypony in the world that deserves some friends, it’s her.”
“That’s the truth.”
“And we learned about the Elements of Harmony.” He stretched out and yawned. “It’s good we found out about them before her majesty finishes her ‘sabbatical.’ Means we can actually explain things to ponies when they ask.”
“Elements of Harmony?”
“Long, crazy story, I’ll tell you about it later.”
She giggled a little. “You know, this all reminds me of the time you protected Twily from those bullies. You frightened them so bad even Twilight was scared to talk to you for a few days.”
“Yeah, well, they deserved it.” He blushed. “I was always protecting her from… from…”
His pupils shrank to pinpricks.
“Uh, Shiny? Are you okay?”
All his combined efforts to answer her just resulted in a twitch of his eye.
“Crap!” He leapt up from the chair and got his hind leg stuck in its straps, causing him to tumble over and land on his jaw before finally shaking it off and getting to his hooves.
“Shiny, what’s wrong!?”
While it was normally a bad idea to ignore a princess, his mind had other priorities at the moment. “Intelligentsia!” Every ounce of his strength was being pumped into his legs to move him through the castle’s halls. He’d have teleported if not for the wards. Rounding another corner, he galloped down the stairs to the war room and opened its door.
An angry limb clamped his mouth shut. It was Intelligentsia. Her left foreleg was completely wrapped around his muzzle and a small mountain of papers were fluttering down to the ground.
“I’m right here, dammit. What the hell is it this time?”
Shining pushed her off his muzzle, falling to his haunches.
“Who is this, Shiny?”
He turned back and saw Cadence right behind him, landing. “This is my aide-de-camp, Intelligentsia.”
“Your Majesty.” She bowed. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Cadence draped a foreleg over him and gave him a little squeeze. “Just following this idiot.”
“Yeah, well, we got a problem, Gen. Huge problem! We just let my little sister, Celestia’s student, stay in Ponyville without a Guard escort.”
Intelligentsia smiled. “Already ahead of you. I talked to Quartz, and he’s pretty shaken. It didn’t take much for him to agree to send some more guards out for her.”
“No! Gen! We can’t just send armored—”
“Unarmored, undercover guard,” she interrupted. “I’m not stupid. I know you want her to be able to live there without tripping over protectors all the time.”
Shining relaxed, exhaling most of his worries along with his breath. “Thank Celestia. I’m sorry for doubting you, Gen.”
Intelligentsia shrugged. “It’s what I’m here for.”
Cadence tapped the two on the shoulder with a pile of papers then all but shoved them under their noses. “Covert, public eavesdropping? Gait analysis? Threat prediction algorithms? Shining, what is this?”
“I…” Shining paused, flipping through the notes himself. “I have no idea.”
“They’re mine.” Intelligentsia started looking about the floor, collecting the scattered pages. “It’s a… kind of proposal, really. You know my connection grids?”
Shining nodded. “What about them?”
The guardsmare swallowed. “I wasn’t sure what to make of my grids in Ponyville, so I tried again here with my magic. And this time, I… added in your sister, and I have to apologize.”
Shining gave her an icy glare. “I don’t like where this is going…” A lone paper floated over to him, and he caught it, finding a large connection grid written down in magic ink. In the very center was Twilight, connected almost everywhere.
She continued, “Your sister is within one degree of separation of, well, almost everything. Strong links, too, not trivial ones. To correct my earlier analogy, she’s the biggest, most important piece on the chessboard other than Celestia herself. These proposals I have? They’re for her.”
“Spying proposals?” Cadence asked, jaw open. “What would spying on Twilight do? She’s not an enemy agent!”
“Not to spy on her.” Intelligentsia shook her head. “To spy on anything looking to hurt her. To find the threats before they act. Before she ever has to find out about them.”
“Gen.” Shining glared at her. “There’s no way you came up with all of this in a couple of hours. Come clean.”
She ducked down, her cheeks red as roses. “I may have thought these up while going after the Cloudsdale Seventeen conspiracy before joining the Guard. I’ve been looking for a way to legitimize the science behind them.”
Shining’s expression grew colder.
Intelligentsia hugged her papers as if she was protecting her foal. “But they’ll work, I swear it! It’ll take some time to get everything in place, but they’ll work! I just need the resources!”
Shining sighed, giving back the paper with the connection grid. “Get a full proposal together. I’ll set up a meeting with Celestia as soon as she’s done with her vacation.”
Cadence leaned in closer to him. “Are you sure about this, Shining?”
“No, I’m not,” he replied. “But I’m too tired to make a rational decision on this now, and there’s little harm in talking about it. And besides,” he gave Intelligentsia a small smile, “I’d prefer paranoid security to lax when it comes to my sister. You’ll get your half-hour, Third Lieutenant.”
Intelligenstia bowed all the way to the ground. “Thank you! I promise I won’t let you…” her head lifted back up in surprise. “Third Lieutenant?”
“Your proposal, your responsibility, your operation.” Shining laughed. “Also, nopony with the rank of ‘Officer First Class’ is going to get to propose a military plan to the Princess.”
“I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with the proposals yet,” Cadence interjected. “But I’ll leave it to Celestia’s wisdom to decide what to do, and make sure the promotion goes through.”
“You will?” Intelligentsia asked.
“If nothing else I’d say you deserve it for putting up with him this long!”
“Speaking of,” she said, leaning into him and bringing her lips to his ears. “Remember the dinner you owe me.” She planted a heavy kiss on his cheek. “See you tomorrow.”
Shining’s mind ran through a few possibilities as she walked out of the room but dismissed them all as utterly and completely ridiculous. There was only one option left: ask the intelligence expert in the room possibly the most pertinent question he’d ever asked. “Why did she kiss me?”
Intelligentsia groaned, burying her face in both of her hooves. “Stallions…”