Crystal sighed and sank lower into the steaming bathwater. Rose petals floated on the surface that rippled with her movement, sending them gliding up and down along the little waves. There was silence all around her once the water stopped lapping against the sides of the porcelain tub, save for the sound of her own breathing.
Nothing relaxed her more from a stressful day than a bath with rose oil, but not even the addition of petals was enough to keep her ear from occasionally flicking in irritation.
The front door clicked and creaked open. "Hello!" Velvet called from the living room. "I'm home!"
"In the bath!" Crystal called back in response.
A moment later, Velvet poked her head into the bathroom. Her nose scrunched up at the sight. "Another bad day, huh?" She walked in and sat on a small stool beside the tub.
Crystal nodded and mumbled, "I went to a cafe, just like I promised."
"That's a good little hermit crab," Velvet teased as she leaned against the tub and smiled, resting her head on her folded forelegs. "And?"
"And nothing. I went to a cafe. I sat there and had a cup of tea, then I had a cup of water because their tea is too expensive. My notebook is blank." She paused, then added, "I was thinking that maybe we should get a sofa."
Velvet raised one brow. "Uh-huh. And where are you going to get the bits from? 'Cause I'm pretty sure they don't make food cheaper than the noodle cups, so the money's certainly not coming out of the food budget."
A small groan escaped Crystal. She sank a little lower so that her mouth dipped under the water line, blew some bubbles, then raised back up to say, "I don't know. Maybe I'd work better on a couch than on the floor."
"Oh, all right. We'll just keep buying furniture until you find your muse." She giggled and flicked a hoof against the water to lightly splash Crystal. "Why don't you go to Quills and Sofas and see if they have a cheap one?"
Crystal rubbed at her cheek that had been aquatically attacked, smiling. "Quills and Sofas? Wow, how long has it been since we went there!"
Velvet grinned. "I went just last month when you needed a new batch of quills. You haven't gone in a very long time."
"Does Mr. Quills still run the place?" She straightened up and reached with her magic to pull the stopper and drain the water.
Velvet held out a towel, which Crystal accepted. "Nope. His son runs it now. Mr. Quills retired when he started having hip problems."
This gave Crystal pause. She quietly dried off before wrapping her mane in the towel and retrieving a bath robe. "I really need to get out more. I didn't even know he had a son."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you all along, Hermie." Velvet left the bathroom and flopped down onto one of their living room pillows. "My parents were asking about you yesterday. They just got their hooves on that interview Trenderhoof wrote about you and asked all sorts of questions."
"Oh?" Crystal went into the kitchen and filled up the kettle with water, then set it on the stove. "We should drop by the bakery sometime."
Velvet rolled over to look at her. "Crystal, I hate to sound like a broken record, but you need to drop by the bakery sometime. I visit them at least once a week."
Crystal stared down at the circle of flames that licked the bottom of the kettle. Her ears slowly folded backwards. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I've become such an introvert."
"Really?" Velvet giggled. "You don't?"
Crystal glanced at her. "You do?"
"Well, yeah." Velvet cleared her throat and said in an overly serious tone, "You grew up under constant pressure from your parents, which made you want to leave the house all the time. I'm way too nice of a roommate, so you don't feel a need to leave." She playfully pawed at the air. "If you want, darling, I can create a hostile environment here."
"Please, dear Celestia, don't." Crystal laughed and looked back at the kettle.
Velvet looked at the kettle as well, then dropped her head down to the pillow. "A watched kettle won't boil, you know."
"Huh?" Crystal didn't look away. "Of course it will. Being watched doesn't affect the heat."
"Can you prove it?" Velvet grinned and gave a playful flick of her tail. "You're the one that doesn't pay attention in school, after all."
Crystal giggled. "All right, all right." She walked over to the living room and sat down on one of the pillows. "So when do you get to actually perform in a show? All you do is practice."
"Well, I have to earn a spot. I'm still only somepony's understudy, after all." She sat up straight. "Actually, it should be soon. Princess Celestia reached out to the company about putting on a special performance for Princess Luna—"
The soft whistle that had gone unnoticed beneath their conversation suddenly interrupted as it gained strength. The spout cover flapped and bobbled, releasing steam with a shrill squeal.
"See?" Velvet grinned. "You stopped watching it!"
Crystal rolled her eyes and got up off the pillow after having just gotten comfortable. She poured two cups of tea and brought them over, setting them on the table to let the leaves steep.
"Anyway," Velvet continued. "It's a short notice performance, and some of the girls are making excuses to get out of it, so there's a chance I could get on stage."
"Making excuses?" Crystal scrunched up her nose. "Do ponies really find Princess Luna so unsettling?"
Velvet shrugged. "Seems that way. So, you better find your inspiration soon, because the suspicious attitude ponies have is already getting old. It's not fair for us to punish her like this when she already paid the price of a thousand years or whatever."
Crystal looked at her with a soft smile while her magic raised and gently bobbed the tea infusers in the still-steaming cups. "Yeah. I'll go look at sofas and try to find the most inspirational and affordable one they have."
Quills and Sofas had certainly changed since the last time Crystal visited. Mr. Quills's son had rearranged everything so that the quills occupied an equal share of the floor space as the sofas, which was a rather impressive feat. Many of the ones that Mr. Quills used to keep on shelves behind the register or in a back room were on display, with lights illuminating the various styles available.
There were plenty of the type of quill she preferred, which had thin vanes and no downy barbs so that she could see what she was writing with minimal obstruction. She did wander down the aisle to admire the other options available—after all, she was already there. Most quills had the barbs stripped, but there were some more decorative options that had some still intact. There were a few that had fancy, full plumes and, in her opinion, seemed rather impractical, but she was secretly tempted to buy one just because.
She sighed and tore herself away from the quills to look through the available sofas. None really spoke to her, though she did pause to sit on a few that looked comfortable enough. She auditioned several of them, sitting on each for a few moments with the notebook she had brought, gazing at the blank pages, waiting for inspiration to strike.
No sofa seemed to carry with it a complimentary muse, however, and she started to lose hope. It was a somewhat silly notion, after all. She walked to the back of the store where the discount sofas still rested and smiled. If she didn't know any better, she'd swear one of the sofas along the back wall was the very same springy one that she and Velvet had bounced on as fillies.
A chorus of gasps resounded throughout the store. Crystal started to turn to see what was going on when a mare's voice rung out in the Royal Canterlot manner, "We are just browsing."
Crystal nearly dropped her notebook. The very princess that had been dancing at the edges of her mind was walking over to a row of quills. Standing just a few paces behind the princess, on her left side, was a guard in the still-unfamiliar armor of Princess Luna's House Guard. The wave of initial shock that went through her was quickly replaced by a tsunami of excitement.
"Stay calm, stay cool," she whispered and clutched the notebook so close that she could have sworn her heart was pounding directly against the cover. If she looked as excited as she felt, the guard might notice her and she didn't want to be noticed.
As if on cue, the guard surveyed the room and made eye contact. She tried not to smile. She repeated her mantra, this time only in her mind. Being caught whispering to herself was definitely more suspicious than smiling too happily.
The guard's attention left her and she breathed a sigh of relief, then she looked over at Princess Luna and her relief rose back to elation. Perhaps it was because Princess Celestia had been around her whole life and Princess Luna was new and different, but the princess of the night was truly magnificent to behold. Her mane shimmered of the night sky and moved as though caught in its own gentle breeze.
The princess smiled to herself while she perused the aisles of quills, selected some, and went to the counter. That was when Crystal's attention was drawn to Mr. Quills's son, who stammered, "Twen—Twenty-five bits, please."
Crystal glanced around at the other ponies in the store. All of them were trying to not be seen by hiding behind sofas or staying almost perfectly still, save for light trembling. She started to frown and looked back at the princess and her guard just as they were leaving.
Her mind was made up. She hopped onto the nearest sofa, flipped the notebook open to a blank page, and started to furiously scrawl her overflowing thoughts across the paper.
Crystal paced the castle courtyard, sweat beading down her neck from nerves that fluttered like butterflies in her chest. Raven couldn't meet for lunch, but she had agreed to read the story notes in her spare time. Today, she was supposed to return the notes with feedback, and Crystal felt much more nervous about what the mare would say about this than Temptation.
"Crystal?" Raven's voice asked from behind her.
Crystal nearly jumped out of her coat. "Oh! Raven!" She turned to face her, smiling crookedly. "How are you?"
Raven raised one brow. "No time for pleasantries. Let's walk and talk."
Crystal's heart sank, but she nodded and matched Raven's brisk pace. She thought she knew what to expect: they would walk down a series of hallways and corridors until Raven felt secure enough to quietly discuss the matter at hoof. However, when they turned down the hall of offices belonging to members of the Royal Guard, Crystal grew both curious and excited. She couldn't keep from glancing through any open doorways to see the armor-clad ponies inside, most of them busy with paperwork.
Raven stopped outside a door. She gave a serious glance at Crystal that brought her focus back to the moment, then knocked.
"Come in!" a mature, older mare's voice called from inside.
Raven's magic turned the knob and pushed the door open. "Sergeant, this may be an odd request, and according to my schedule, it is about time for your normal rounds. While you are out, would you mind the use of your office?"
The mare didn't look up from the paper on her desk. She had a pink coat that contrasted with her gold armor. Her red mane, which held the slightest hint of grey, was braided and draped over one shoulder. "Of course, Miss Raven, but if I may ask—" She halted when she looked up and saw the extra mare standing in her office. She recovered with a smile. "I see. Private, unofficial meeting?"
Raven nodded. "Yes, Sergeant."
"Well, you've certainly come to the right office." The sergeant winked and turned her gaze to Crystal. "I'm Radiant Orchid." She offered a hoof.
"Crystal Wishes." Crystal nearly stumbled over her own hooves trying to quickly reach out and take Radiant Orchid's. "It's an honor to meet a member of Princess Celestia's House Guard!"
Radiant Orchid's brow raised and she smiled wider. "I'm sorry, have we met before?" She glanced at Raven somewhat expectantly.
Raven hesitated before she explained, "Crystal is a novelist. I am aiding her as she conducts some research into castle affairs for her writing."
Radiant Orchid laughed softly. "Is that so? Well, I'm sure it must be all right if she has your oversight." She carefully put on her helmet, tucking her braid underneath, and stood from her chair. "Permission granted, Miss Raven, as I do indeed have my rounds." She offered a nod of her head before walking out of the room.
Raven shut the door behind the sergeant and, before she could speak, Crystal asked, "Why are we in a sergeant's office? I know there are meeting rooms, so why are we not in one of those?"
"Because a sergeant's office is much more private." Raven took a seat in one of the chairs on their side of the desk. "The doors are more secure, and other than Sergeant Orchid returning, there is close to no chance of somepony walking in."
"Oh." Crystal sat in the other chair. "That makes sense." She twiddled her hooves a little nervously.
"So," Raven began as she retrieved Crystal's pitch and levitated it over. "I read through what you've written a few times."
The papers hovered between them until pink magic overtook and set them on Crystal's lap, where she started to poke at them like a shy filly. "Yes?"
"I've thought very carefully on the words to use." When Crystal glanced over, she saw a heavy blush on Raven's cheeks. "I work in close quarters with Princess Luna, and it has become difficult to work with her without thinking about the secret, torrid affair you describe between her and her House Guard commander."
After a pause to let her nerves settle, a smile slowly started to form on Crystal's face. "Then, you like it?"
Raven nodded. "Absolutely! I would dare to say almost too much. Yet, there is a small problem I noticed."
The smile fell. "What is that?"
"It just—ends. Do they get together or not?" Raven's brow furrowed. "Do you plan to write a sequel, and that is why there is no resolution?"
Crystal turned her head away and said nothing.
"What?" Raven leaned in toward her. "What's wrong?"
"Raven, how can you even ask me whether they get together?" Crystal asked softly, still looking at the wall. "You know they don't. They can't."
Raven's ears perked before folding back. "And why not? It's a work of fiction, after all."
Crystal sighed and shook her head. "But fiction should have an element of plausibility to it in order for readers to not lose their suspension of disbelief." A small groan rumbled in her throat. "And I just don't believe that Princess Selene can end up with a mere guard, commander or otherwise."
Raven gave her an incredulous stare for a quiet moment. "I ask again: and why not?"
"Because she is the Princess of the Night, a co-ruler of Equestria." Crystal shot Raven a light glare, as if that would solve everything. "She is held to a high standard, higher than that of a prince who is only a prince in title with not even a parcel of land to his name, and look what happened with you. How can I write a happy ending that could never come true?"
To Crystal's surprise, Raven smiled. "Is that all? Crystal, readers don't care about that. They don't want the truth." She reached out and put a hoof on Crystal's. "They want to believe in the happy ending that you wrote for The Mare's Temptation, and it's your job to let them." Her smile turned almost mischievous. "I'm also being somewhat selfish, honestly. If Princess Selene and Sir Chevalier do not end up together, I will burn your manuscript, because I am in love with their relationship."
Crystal finally relented with a small smile. "I thought you were a stickler for accuracy."
"Oh, some things must be flexible." Raven waved the notion away. "I am perfectly happy with how my story turned out. You know that. Moore is the perfect stallion for me, and I would never have met him if I hadn't let go of Blueblood. And anyway, Selene and Chevalier are perfect together." She cleared her throat and leaned back into her seat. "That aside, I do have something important to discuss on the matter of this novel, whether you end it my way or my way." She winked playfully.
Crystal giggled and nodded. "All right, and that is?"
"The timeline. Moore was right when he had said that this could do extremely well for Princess Luna's image. When The Mare's Temptation took off, there was a small but noticeable increase in Princess Celestia's approval ratings. Despite her being a side character, your portrayal of her had a positive effect on her image among your readers. The increase may have been a coincidence, but I believe it wasn't and that this will help Princess Luna."
Crystal blinked, then shook her head quickly to try to shake off the torrent of thoughts that jumped into the fray. "There are approval ratings for the princesses? It's not as though we can vote them out, so why does it matter?"
Raven raised her brow. "Of course it matters! Unrest is quite unhealthy, so we have ponies dedicated to keeping a hoof on the pulse." She waved her hooves. "Nonetheless, that's not what's important. How quickly can you turn this around?"
"I don't know." She rubbed the back of her neck and offered a weak shrug. "But I will do my best. I'll schedule a meeting with Sunset Coffee and see what he can do for me."
"Please do." Raven stood up and started toward the door. "You already know the basics of the castle, so you shouldn't need too much from me. Oh!"
Raven stopped just before she pulled the door open and looked at Crystal over her shoulder. "There is one other request. Princess Luna, due to her extended absence, still speaks in Early Modern Equestrian. If you could consider writing Selene's dialogue as such, it may also help her be more accepted in that regard as well."
Crystal scrunched up her nose as she gathered the papers. "I can try, though I certainly make no guarantees about that."
Raven nodded. "That's good enough for me. Thank you, Crystal." She added with a wink, "I look forward to your drafts as soon as possible."
Sunset shut the door to his office once they were both inside. "Always good to see you! What can I do for you today?" he asked as he rounded his desk and sat down.
"I have a pitch ready for my next novel," she responded, her chest puffed with pride. "If you could—"
"Next novel?" He steepled his hooves. "Do you want me to set you up with a meeting at Reindom House?" He smiled. "You've already made it into the big league; you don't need to slow your novels with Mares Monthly, though my boss would certainly appreciate it. But, as a friend, you'd do better going straight to print."
"Oh." Her ears drooped and she lowered her gaze to the desk between them. "So, I don't get to work with you anymore?"
Sunset hummed as he tapped his forehooves together in thought, then settled on asking, "Does that mean you want to work with me?"
"Absolutely!" She emphasized her response with a curt nod. "You've taken such good care of me with Temptation that I couldn't imagine working with somepony else."
Sunset started to shuffle some papers on his desk to clear the space in the center, then leaned across and lowered his voice. "Then you can hire me as your agent. I work for Mares Monthly, but I can also work as your agent, as long as you plan to continue to publish with Reindom House. Since they're our partner, it won't be too much of a problem."
Crystal leaned in as well. "Then you're hired."
"Splendid!" He settled back into his seat and gestured with a hoof for her to give him the papers she carried. "So then, as your agent, let me see your pitch."
The minutes that followed after he unfurled the papers stirred the nervous butterflies in her again. She swung her hindlegs and looked around his office in hopes of a distraction. She had seen it many times before, but she tried to preoccupy herself with its contents one more time. Articles and charts were hooftacked up on every inch of wall space, some even with color-coded string to link them together. Sunset took his job very seriously, more like some sort of business analyst than a mares' interest researcher.
Interspersed throughout the work-related documents were a few crudely drawn pictures, composed of bright crayons and the occasional happy sticker. She smiled and looked at the picture on his desk of his family: a beautiful wife, himself, and three foals. One had just been recently added to the Coffee family not two months ago.
"How quickly can you finish this?"
Crystal blinked, returning her gaze to him. Had he asked the question, or was she just hearing Raven's question, but in his voice? He was staring directly at her, though, so—
"Oh." She blinked again. "I'm not sure, why?"
"I was going to send you this brochure in the mail." He slid a tri-folded glossy paper to her. "The Equestrian Writers Convention is coming up in just under five months. We have several booths available for our writers, and I can still get you in." He grinned lopsidedly. "Actually, I was supposed to reach out to you sooner, but I've been busy catching up on what I missed after my time off for Violet's birth."
Crystal scanned the brochure, though she had heard enough to get so excited that she almost felt sick to her stomach. A convention? A booth? Was she ready to do something so public?
Sunset seemed to pick up on her nervousness. Perhaps it was because she was staring at the paper with the expression of a cat that had just fallen in water. "It's completely optional, of course," he said. "We'll still be hawking The Mare's Temptation, but it'd attract a lot more attention if you were there yourself. You can still go incognito. A pair of glasses and a hat can go a long way, you know."
She simply nodded dumbly.
He chuckled and looked back at her pitch. "Anyway, I mainly ask about your turnaround time because if you could have this finished with, at the bare minimum, a month for the approval and editing process, Reindom House could publish just enough copies to debut at the convention. It's a very tall order, but a story like this would be an instant bestseller. I don't know of any stories out there like this. Let's strike the anvil while it's still hot!"
Crystal felt rather nauseated. Was the room spinning? It was a lot to suddenly consider, but—
She nodded, this time with more confidence. "I'll do it. And I'll have this story done in time."
Sunset clapped excitedly. "All right! Then, don't let me keep you any longer. You have a market-changing bestseller to write!" As she stood, he stood with her. "Do you have a working title yet?"
Crystal stopped at the door. She did, though she was a little nervous to say it aloud. "The Princess of the Knight."
"The Princess of the Night? Isn't that a little heavy-hoofed?" He raised his brow.
"Oh, I mean, 'knight'. As in a, um, guard?" Her ears drooped. "It had seemed like a good pun at the time, so—"
"Ah-ha!" He gave a soft laugh and patted her on the shoulder. "I see what you did there! Very clever, then. No pressure, but I'll need the first draft as soon as possible to make the convention deadline work."
No pressure, indeed. She smiled as best she could and walked out of his office. Once she was out of sight, her knees felt weak and her head spun with dates. If she dropped out of school, that would certainly free up more time to write, but what was she going to do about money? The allowance-bribe from her parents was their main source of income. She sighed and made her way to the elevator.
The next few months were going to be stressful, that was for sure.