Sugarcube Corner, it seemed, made chemical weapons disguised as foodstuffs. The air just outside was thick with unpleasant fumes, and everything about it smelled faintly of poison. She’d managed to stifle her gagging, and had found some small relief by closing off her nasal cavity, but still her eyes watered from the baking vapors.
Didn’t ponies know that sugar was bad for them?
“O-oh!” said a portly blue cake pony, turning a few shades whiter as they stepped through the door. “My goodness! Princess Twilight! And, uh—guests! How are... you?”
“Dying, actually,” said Chrysalis, wiping the fluids from her eyes. “What toxins do you brew here?”
“She means we’re fine,” said Twilight, giving Chrysalis a look. She gave the cake pony a much nicer look. “We have some representatives from the changeling hive here on a cultural exchange,” she explained. “If it’s not too much trouble, could we tour the kitchen?”
“Oh, o-of course!” said the cake pony, bowing. “Anything for a princess!” She wiped a few beads of sweat from her brow. “Why don’t I just... go and evacuate—clean up—the kitchen so it can be spotless for you?”
And with that, she bustled off to do whatever it was she’d been mumbling about. Which left Twilight, Chrysalis, and a gang of changelings to trade glances.
“So...” said Chrysalis, sparking conversation to burn time. “Princess Twilight? I do believe that’s new.”
“Yes, it’s, uh, something that happened,” said Twilight. She shifted on her hooves. “You didn’t notice? I mean, the wings...?” She stretched her wings out. “...No?”
“Hardly glossy enough to indicate royalty,” said Chrysalis, fluttering her own sparkling wings. “You ought to have them polished more often. Don’t you have that dragon servant...?”
“His name is Spike,” Twilight huffed. “And he’s not my servant.”
“Well, whoever’s servant he is,” said Chrysalis, “it’s important to indicate your status appropriately. Just my advice, from one royal to another.” She gave Twilight a knowing wink. “You know, slime does wonders for adding luster to—”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“I’m only saying, if you rub on a little slime, it’d be easier to see that you’re—”
“No,” said Twilight firmly. “And can you please get your changelings to behave?”
Chrysalis looked over toward the corner, to where a trio of workers were knocking around a tall metal pole. “Oh, all right.” She waved them away from the pole, and walked over to study it for herself. It did seem familiar, somehow. She recalled a pole very much like it in Cadance’s room, once upon a time, but had never quite bothered to fiddle with it. “What is this, by the way?”
“It’s called a lamp,” said Twilight. “It makes light.”
Chrysalis snickered, wings fluttering as she looked over the lamp. “Camera,” she ordered, urging the camera forward. “Watch closely. She says this makes light.”
The camera laughed too. As if you could make light without the proper organs bred in. This ‘lamp’ of Twilight’s hardly seemed to have the right sacs for bioluminescence. She felt around under the membrane at the top of the pole and found a loose tendon or somesuch, which she pulled because she could.
And the lamp made light.
“It really does!” said Chrysalis, looking to Twilight. She looked back at the lamp, eyes widening in amazement. “And it’s not blue?”
“I... don’t see why it would be?”
Chrysalis gasped. “We need these.” She pushed the camera’s face into the lamp. “Study it. We’ll breed more for the hive.”
“That’s not really how it works,” said Twilight, pushing the workers back again. Everyone was crowding a view of the light. “It’s a machine. You can’t breed one. You have to build it.”
“Ah...” said Chrysalis, staring wistfully at the lamp and its glorious light. “I suppose the only alternative, then, is to steal them from you.” She motioned the drones to uproot the pole.
“Or,” said Twilight, using her magic to push the drones back, “or instead of being pointlessly evil, we could instead come up with a trade agreement.”
“Yes, a raid,” said Chrysalis. “That’s what I just implied.”
Twilight took another deep breath. “A trade agreement,” she said. “Where both sides agree to give something the other wants. You want lamps, and we want—just supposing—some of the ponies you’ve stolen from us back.” She flashed a nonthreatening smile. “It would be an excellent first step for repairing diplomatic relations, assuming...”
“That we don’t simply betray you,” finished Chrysalis.
“Well. Yes. We would prefer that you don’t.”
Chrysalis needed a moment to think about that one. On the one hoof, it would be so much easier to simply take all the lamps she’d ever want. On the other hoof, the hive was stretched thin enough capturing ponies. There were, perhaps, insufficient resources to consider stealing every lamp in Equestria. And she’d need roughly that many, if not a few more, to keep the hive lit...
“I suppose we could be symbiotic about this,” she conceded. “A few of our less productive captives for your best and brightest lamps. Yes, that might work.”
It would absolutely work. For all of five minutes. The hive kept very few nonessential prisoners. Mostly just a couple of sour vintages from Trottingham. She could release those, she supposed, if only to free up space. And then she could cheat on the rest with a clear conscience. It didn’t take that much work to disguise a worker as a newly-released captive.
Not that Twilight needed to know that part of it.
“Really?” said Twilight, eyes widening. “I, uh—wow, I didn’t think you’d actually... I mean, we could discuss the terms later, if you want. I’m just a little shocked. This might be the first pony-changeling agreement ever. In history.” Her mouth fell open. “We’d be making history!”
“I... suppose so.” Chrysalis nodded slowly. Come to think of it, perhaps it was. Even if she only released a few tasteless castoffs—the dregs of the hive’s stores—that’d still, on some strange level, be giving Equestria something it actually wanted. That.... had never actually happened before. “A momentous time indeed, it seems. And as such, I have, ah, every intent of honoring the terms of—”
At which point the blue cake pony burst through the doors. Chrysalis considered that an excellent save. She’d already started running out of convincing ways to tell egregious lies.
“The k-kitchen is ready!” she announced. She bowed once more. “I hope you didn’t mind the wait too much, your Highness.”
“No, not at all,” said Twilight. The first red hints of a blush blossomed on her cheeks. “And, uh, you don’t need to call me that if you don’t want to, remember? I keep telling everypony, I’m only Princess Twilight when I’m doing royal duties.”
“Oh!” said the cake pony, blushing also. She stepped off to the side. “W-well, okay, if you insist. I’ll... I’ll just get going, then.” She glanced at the changelings. “Far away. Call me if you need anything, Twilight.”
“Of course,” said Twilight, ushering Chrysalis and the changelings into the kitchen. “Don’t worry about us, Mrs. Cake. We’ll be in and out before you know it.”
The kitchen, such as it was, stank. If the air outside was unpleasant, the air at the source was a dozen times moreso. One changeling screamed. Another had the good sense to pass out in silence. The rest adapted in their myriad ways. A thick shell of the Cakes’ baking flour seemed to work best. The drones coated up in it. Anything to keep the smell out.
“Smells delicious!” said Twilight, taking big whiffs of the toxic air. She looked along the counters, inspecting various trays of baked cakes and whatnot. She pointed to one in particular and squealed. “Apple fritters, too! My favorite!”
“Avoid bakeries if at all possible,” Chrysalis whispered to the camera. “Avoid them forever.”
“I’m sure the Cakes wouldn’t mind... Do you want to try one?” said Twilight, holding up a fritter. Her smile froze slightly around the edges. “You know, since you threw Applejack’s fritters away at the wedding?”
“Really?” said Chrysalis, giving the fritter a tentative sniff. It burned. “I don’t recall.” She took the fritter, though, and slipped it to a drone to throw away. “I’m sure they were probably delicious and not awful.”
“You got that right,” said Twilight, eating her own apple fritter in one giant bite. A dopey grin grew on her face as she chewed. “Mmm. And made with Sweet Apple Apples. Just the best, aren’t they?”
Chrysalis nodded politely. “Ponies will ask that you eat their dessert foods as well,” she explained to the camera. “Avoid ingesting whichever poison they give you. Feed instead off the love they bear for their silly desserts. It will be far more nourishing and less likely to kill you.”
Twilight choked on her fritter. She pounded her chest with a hoof and summoned a glass of water to wash it all down. “Wow, I’m suddenly not hungry anymore.” She shot Chrysalis a glare. “No idea why.”
“Perhaps,” offered a flour-dusted drone, “it is because our Queen has suggested that we would feed off the love you bore for that fritter, and you were uncomfortable with this.”
“Yes,” said Twilight, turning stiffly toward the drone. “I’m... well aware of that.”
“It’s called sarcasm,” said Twilight and Chrysalis, both at once. Both in tones practiced a thousand times. For a brief moment, their eyes met. Their souls attuned in harmony. They nodded silently at each other.
Twilight continued on. “Sarcasm is the practice of presenting a statement in tones or contexts which imply the opposite of their direct meaning. It’s a way of saying one thing, but actually meaning another.” She sighed. “And half of Ponyville has no idea how to use it.”
Chrysalis could not help but shed a tear at that. And not merely because the fumes stung her eyes. “Finally!” she whispered. “Another who understands.” She nudged the camera. “You caught that, yes? The entire explanation? The hive will hear that in the recording, won’t they?”
“You will have to speak louder, your Highness,” said the camera drone. “For my earholes are clogged.” He shook his head, sending clouds flour dust into the air. “Is there something you wish for me to record?”
“No,” she groaned. Well, for a brief moment, she could have dreamed. “No, it’s all right. It’s fine. Perfectly fine.”
“I am glad, then, that your Highness is pleased.”
Another tear shed.
“I know,” said Twilight, giving Chrysalis a soft pat on the thorax. “I know.”
Chrysalis wiped the tear away. At least Twilight knew. She was not alone. She merely had to remember that. “Thank you,” she said. And for the first time in her short-yet-hateful history with Twilight Sparkle, she actually meant it. Not that she’d ever had reason to thank Twilight before, but in this one, singular, entirely isolated incident... She meant it.
“Was that true, by the way?”
“That baked goods are actually poisonous to changelings? You weren’t just saying that because you’re petty and spiteful?”
“Well, perhaps not... poisonous, per se,” said Chrysalis carefully. Priority was still very much on learning the ponies’ vulnerabilities over revealing her own. Because she was petty and spiteful, obviously. “I will admit that they are fairly irritating to us. In ways that have been thought to be potentially fatal, yes.”
Twilight nodded. “This entire time I’d thought you were just being rude. I mean, the gagging looked a little exaggerated, but I hadn’t even realized... I’d just thought you were being incredibly rude. Again.” She coughed and stared sheepishly down at her hooves. “I think what I’m trying to say is that maybe there really is a lot we don’t know about each other. And maybe if we knew a bit more, we wouldn’t be at each other’s throats so often.” She stuck a hoof out. “I’m sorry.”
Chrysalis took the hoof before her primary thought node could catch up. She shook it numbly, still processing everything that had just been said to her.
Was that an apology? From Twilight Sparkle?
But then—well, she had just thanked Twilight Sparkle not a few moments ago. Thanked the irritating thorn in her side who had thwarted her at every opportunity. A mortal enemy, to whom she had sworn she would never thank... nor apologize.
“So,” said Twilight, smiling at her. “Is there anyplace else you’d like to see while you’re here in Ponyville?”
“I have no preferences,” said Chrysalis, returning the faintest hint of a not-sneer. “Wherever you should choose to guide us, we shall be more than happy to follow.”
And she almost meant that too.