As we walked down the halls towards our rooms, I found Twilight walking beside me, while Pinkie chattered away cheerfully at Shining Armor. He had told us that tomorrow there would be a meeting with Celestia, Luna, and a few others to decide the final fate of the fledgling hive. Until then, we could relax and enjoy the delights of Canterlot.
"So what exactly did you do at the end there?" asked Twilight as we walked. "We unicorns use horn touching as a means of transferring magic, is it the same for changelings?"
"It's similar," I replied with a nod. "Emotional energy and magical energy are fairly interchangeable for us. But I wasn't preparing them to cast any spells, I was feeding them. They've been near starvation all this time."
"I have stationed the most sympathetic guards I could find to watch them," Shining Armor said over his shoulder, apparently having overheard, "but I couldn't think of any way to get love for them."
"What I gave them should last them for a while, and I can do it again as needed. I'm getting more than enough love to go around, so I don't think it will be a problem to keep them fed."
"Well, that's good, I guess," said Twilight. She paused for a moment then asked, "You're still connected to them, right?"
I nodded. "I could cut the bond if I needed to, but it's kind of nice having someone other than Pinkie there."
"They're not going to... I don't know, influence you, or something?"
I considered how best to explain it. "I suppose in small ways we will influence each other, but the bond between hive-mates doesn't change who we are. It shares information, and emotions, but it doesn't share personality." I glanced at Pinkie and added, "If it did, I would be much more hyperactive and random than I am."
Twilight chuckled. "Very true. But breaking their bond with Chrysalis changed the other changelings."
"The queen is the hive. Her bond is different, and her influence is far more profound."
"Ah. I think I see."
I was saved from further questioning by our arrival at our rooms. Not that I minded satisfying Twilight's curiosity, but I was tired. I'd used up far too much energy feeding the other changelings. I hardly looked at the spacious room Pinkie and I had been given; I simply collapsed onto the bed.
Pinkie climbed in next to me. She yawned as she did so, visual evidence of what I could also sense through our bond—she was tired too.
I'm sorry, I said silently to her, feeling a little bit guilty. This had been the first time I'd ever actively pulled from her, and not merely drawn in the energy she'd already given off.
I don't mind. I could tell how hungry and weak they all were. I wanted to help them. I like making changelings happy too, after all! I just need a nap and I'll be fine.
Yeah. I caught myself yawning too. A nap sounds great.
Pinkie wrapped her forelegs around me and snuggled up against my chest. Can you be less poky?
Well... all right. I could spare enough energy to shift; that didn't take much. I changed into the pink stallion's form I wore most often. Pinkie sighed contentedly and pressed close to me. I wrapped my forelegs around her too, and drifted off contentedly with her head tucked under my chin.
I woke with Pinkie Pie nuzzling my ear. I sighed happily and opened my eyes. "Morning, sleepyhead," said Pinkie.
I blinked at the sunlight coming in through the window. "So it is." I hadn't really meant to sleep all evening and on into the night, but apparently I'd needed it. I felt good; even asleep, Pinkie's love for me had restored my energy. I wrapped my hooves around her and pulled her close. She lifted her muzzle and kissed me. I let my eyes slide closed as I kissed back, to better feel what she was feeling.
As a drone, I had no sexual nature whatsoever. I'd panicked the first time I'd sensed lust from Pinkie, having no idea how to deal with it. But as we'd gotten more used to each other, we had come to enjoy a certain amount of intimacy. It had never really gone beyond kissing, but even though I didn't seem to be capable of arousal myself, I could enjoy sharing the feelings that Pinkie got from our occasional make-out sessions.
Knowing what she liked, I held her close, stroking her fluffy mane and then running my hoof down her back to eventually end up caressing her cutie mark. She kissed me harder, her own hooves going around me.
Even though it didn't really matter to me, Pinkie always wanted to return my attentions. She started running her hooves up and down my back, pushing close against me as she did so. The feel of her body against mine was somehow different today. I could feel her arousal, of course, her breath against me now a heavy, rapid panting, and the spicy taste of lust hung like a fog in the air around us. But there was something else now, an answering heat, not on my tongue or in the bond we shared, but tingling down my spine.
My breath caught. What was this? How could it be happening? I pulled back from Pinkie, feeling confused and uncertain.
Pinkie sensed my confusion and let me pull free from her embrace. Sweetcake? What is it?
I don't know. I found I was trembling. Even separated from Pinkie, that tingle of fire was still there. I knew what it felt like, but that was impossible. Fear spiked through me. Was something wrong with me? Remembering an old legend about changelings who spent too much time as ponies and stopped being changelings, I swiftly changed back to my natural form. Relief filled me for an instant. I hadn't really thought that I'd fully turned into a pony, but it was the first explanation I could think of for how I could feel what I was feeling.
If not that, though, then what?
It's okay, Sweetcake, said Pinkie gently. Whatever it is, it's not hurting you. She reached up and cupped my cheek gently. I sighed, trying to relax. A little more of that strange, impossible heat stirred at her touch. She kissed me again and it was electrifying.
I shouldn't be able to feel this... My protest was weak, but I couldn't shake off my worry.
Pinkie, though, wasn't worried at all. She reached out to me, sharing her enthusiasm with me. I've always wished you could do something other than just listen to how I feel when we're together. Feeling excitement like this is good! It's better than cupcakes or balloons. Sometimes I think it might even be better than parties, and it ought to be shared. I don't understand why either, but I think it's a good thing. She broke off the kiss and smiled at me. It feels good, doesn't it? Change back, and let me show you how good it can feel.
I changed again, resuming my equine form. Pinkie's hooves went around me, pulling me in tight, and she kissed me again, hard, her tongue pressing into my mouth.
I wrapped my hooves back around her and kissed her in return, feeling the strange new fire burning higher within me. I didn't know what was happening, all this was so bizarre and impossible. Yet as Pinkie's hooves began to wander over my body, and the fire I felt blazed higher, I found that I no longer cared how or why.
Some time later, as I lay holding Pinkie, sated yet still confused, I remembered that we were no longer entirely alone. The little hive was a gentle hum at the back of my mind, nothing like the old hive had been, but still there.
Feeling vaguely embarrassed, I reached out to them. Somewhat to my surprise they weren't really paying me any attention. There was a faint sense of amusement from Minder, who greeted me wordlessly as my mind brushed against hers, but none of the others seemed to have noticed what I'd just been doing.
Then again, they were drones. Drones didn't have any interest in sexuality. But I was a drone too. None of this made any sense!
You don't need to be such a worrywart. If there's a reason, we'll figure it out eventually. Until we do, it's really nice to be able to buck with somepony I love. I never had a special somepony before I met you, and sometimes I have kind of bucked with somepony who wasn't, because they were so sad and it was what they needed to cheer them up, but I don't usually do that, because it's hard to not hurt ponies when you get all mixed up with bucking and love kinds of things when you don't really love them. I do really love you though, so everything will be all right. She hugged me close. I chuckled softly. She was right, in her long-winded and easily side-tracked way. There was no point worrying about it.
Eventually Pinkie let me go. "I'm getting hungry. We should go get breakfast before the palace kitchen starts setting out lunch! They have amazing muffins!"
I smiled and nodded.
The rest of the day passed without incident. We spent the afternoon wandering around the palace gardens, simply enjoying each other's company. As the shadows began to lengthen, Pinkie and I were summoned to the promised meeting. A pair of stone-faced unicorn guards escorted us to a council chamber, where a round table held a dozen or so seats. Celestia was there already, sitting on a throne-like chair built to suit her stature. Her sister Luna sat on a similar chair beside her. Twilight was already there as well, flanking Celestia on the other side. Pinkie sat next to her, and I sat next to Pinkie.
Moments later Shining Armor and Cadance entered as well, Cadance sitting beside Luna, and Shining Armor beside her. Both of them nodded to me, and I could taste nothing but friendly regard from either of them. Considering what my hive had put them through, that was somewhat surprising. They were obviously remarkable ponies.
Two final ponies filed in, one a middle-aged stallion with a quill cutie mark, carrying a notebook. The other was an elderly mare in formal robes. They both took seats next to Shining Armor, leaving the seats next to me empty.
"Welcome, Swift Note, Lady Scroll," said Celestia. "Now that we are all here, let us begin." Her voice fell into a formal cadence as she continued, "We are meeting here to discuss the fate of the independent changeling hive, currently represented by Sweetcake," she nodded at me. "Present at the table are myself and Luna, representing the throne, Shining Armor representing the guard, and Lady Scroll representing the Nobles' Council. We also welcome Princess Cadance, my student Twilight Sparkle, and Pinkie Pie, Bearer of the Element of Laughter, as advisers, and Swift Note as scribe."
Swift Note's quill darted over the paper as she spoke. "I believe we should begin by allowing Sweetcake to tell us what the hive wishes."
I swallowed. Speaking in front of strange ponies was not something I was used to. I couldn't taste any hostility or fear in the room, but Lady Scroll had a hint of wariness that verged on suspicion about her that worried me. Still, I felt Pinkie giving me a gentle mental hug. To my surprise I felt Minder doing the same. You do speak for the hive, and you are a better representative than Chrysalis could ever be. Just speak the truth, it is simple enough, she said. Feeling a little better, I spoke.
"The hive wishes to find a way to coexist with ponies. Our main goal is simply to survive peacefully. We have no desire for conquest or conflict of any kind. Chrysalis is an aberration, and we want nothing to do with her and her hive."
"You still have to feed on ponies, though." Lady Scroll's muzzle gave a little twitch, and I caught a whiff of distaste from her.
"The process of feeding," broke in Celestia, "is not as harmful as some ponies might have you believe, Lady Scroll. You can ask Miss Pie about it if you like."
Lady Scroll looked at Pinkie, who bobbed to her feet cheerfully. "It's not anything bad! Sweetcake feeds off me all the time, and you can see that I'm just fine! It's not like he's a leech all sucking the life out of me; that wouldn't be any fun at all. He's more like a sponge, sort of mopping up extra bits of feeling that leak out! It doesn't hurt at all. I really like being able to help him by letting him feed; it makes him happy and I love making ponies happy. Even if he weren't my special somepony I think I'd still want him to, because it makes him happy. And I guess it keeps him from dying too, which is kind of important. It's not right to say somepony shouldn't have food, even if somepony is actually some changeling."
Lady Scroll's eyebrows both went up at Pinkie's enthusiastic babble. She chuckled. "Well, if it leaves you with such energy, youngster, I can believe that it's not harmful. I envy your enthusiasm."
"I had a whole dozen cookies at lunch, so I have lots of sugar to help!" said Pinkie. A laugh rippled around the room. I thought to myself that I couldn't have found a better ambassador than Pinkie Pie.
"I believe all present here can accept the postulate that this feeding does no harm to ponies," said Princess Luna. "Yet the general public will not be so easily swayed. There has been a certain amount of hysteria since the attempted invasion. Indeed, I believe Shining has dealt with a rash of false changeling accusations of late."
Shining heaved a sigh. "Yes. They've finally started to tail off, but for a while it seemed like there were a dozen every day. Everyone with a grudge against their neighbor was suddenly convinced they were a changeling. If we didn't have Twilight's changeling revealing spell I don't know what we'd have done. With it we could easily prove or dismiss such accusations. But they're a troubling sign. Ponies are afraid. I feel that the number of accusations has dropped off because ponies have run out of neighbors, not because they've stopped being afraid of changelings."
"Perhaps that's all the more reason to have a visible population of friendly changelings here," said Cadance.
"Perhaps. But I would worry about acts of violence against them," said Shining. "We can't ask them to risk their lives in order to provide an example to ignorant and bigoted ponies."
"They are, admittedly, quite safe where they are," said Twilight with a wry smile. "But leaving them imprisoned really isn't an option either. Especially not if they want to be freed."
She turned to me, and I nodded. "They do. Shining has been taking good care of them, and now that I'm here they can be fed properly. But they want a chance to establish a real hive."
"What about sending them somewhere away from the major population centers? Protecting them here in Canterlot will be difficult, unless we want to have them live in the palace itself. But perhaps in some smaller town?" That was Cadance again, and there were several nods around the table as she suggested it. I nodded too.
"That's not a bad idea," said Twilight. "Sweetcake has been living openly in Ponyville for a couple of months now. There have been problems, but no actual acts of violence. It's quite possible that a small hive could live there peacefully."
"Given that these creatures are changelings," said Lady Scroll, "could they not simply be released to live in secret? Even in Ponyville, the citizens will resist the idea of having a changeling hive established among them. Need this be public knowledge?"
"Not necessarily," said Celestia. "Yet I find myself doubting the wisdom of establishing such a secret."
"Secrets get out," said Pinkie. "Not all ponies are as good at keeping them as I am."
"We might do more harm to the trust our subjects have in us than good, were they to discover we had been hiding such a thing from them," said Luna. "The crown has its secrets, certainly, but we must choose them with care."
"Indeed." Celestia nodded solemnly.
"So I guess Ponyville it is then," said Twilight. "Assuming it's all right with the hive, that is?" She looked at me.
I half-closed my eyes and asked Minder what she thought. Living openly among ponies would sound utterly mad, she told me, save that I know you've done it. If you can, we can. We are willing to follow you there.
I turned my attention back to the room. "The hive is willing," I said.
"Very well." Celestia gave me a warm smile. I tasted that odd sort of love from her again, and recognized it now as being maternal. She loved her ponies as a mother loved her foal, or as a queen should love her hive. "However, before the new hive can be established in Ponyville, something must be done to put an end the involuntary immigration that is resulting from Chrysalis' current attacks. So long as there are new changelings who must be prevented from spying for her, the hive will be needed here in Canterlot to aid them."
I nodded, as did most of the other ponies, though Lady Scroll looked a bit puzzled. Apparently she didn't know about the recent attempts to infiltrate Canterlot or the attacks on me.
"Chrysalis is a blight upon the world," said Luna harshly. "Her desire for power cannot be tolerated. She must be eliminated."
There was a brief, startled silence. Then Twilight chimed in. "I would prefer to arrest her and try her for her crimes, if possible, but I agree. Her invasion was a crime against Equestria, and her continuing attacks are a crime against her own people."
"She shouldn't be queen of anything," I found myself saying, and in the back of my mind Minder shouted her agreement as well. "She seems to believe that you are killing her subjects when you catch them, yet she's still willing to spend their lives for the sake of petty revenge. More than that, the changelings she is sending are infiltrators. The hive needs them. All she's doing is harming her subjects."
"I agree," said Celestia. "She is abusing her power and her subjects. Unfortunately that is a problem easier denounced than solved."
"Yes. She is at the heart of the hive, and there are several thousand changelings there. Every last one of them, from the least worker drone to the most powerful of her under-queens, would die to protect her," I said. "So long as she is their queen it would take outright warfare to get at her. Much as I would like to see my fellows freed from her, I can't ask that of you."
"So long as she is their queen," said Twilight, thoughtfully. "What if she weren't? If there was some way to sneak in Shining's barrier spell, and cut her off from the hive, what then?"
"I'm... not sure. I think the whole hive might go into shock. Not as badly as those who've lost their hive-mates as well as their queen, but it would still be traumatic for them. However else it affects them, though, they certainly wouldn't be as fanatical, nor as coordinated, without her."
"I would still have to get to Chrysalis to cast the spell though, which means getting past all those changelings," said Shining.
"I can cast it as well, and so can Cadance," said Twilight.
Shining shot her a flat look. "I am not letting either of you go in my place."
"I believe I may be able to master this spell as well, nephew," said Luna. "Yet any plans we might make now are plans made in the absence of knowledge. I know that Sweetcake and those of his new hive may tell us much, yet there is much that they might not see, nor know. My guards are highly trained in covert actions. I shall send a few of my best to the hive, and seek out whatever secrets it might contain. If there be a way to spirit a pony into the innermost sanctum and deal with Chrysalis by stealth, they shall find it."
"Certainly a frontal attack is out of the question," said Shining with a nod. "So stealth is well worth considering."
"Luna speaks the truth about the skill of her guard," said Celestia, with a nod. "So if there are no other suggestions..." She looked around the room, and when there was nothing but silence, she nodded and continued. "We will have Luna's guards scout the hive. Further decisions will wait on whatever information they may bring us."