It was the day before the award ceremony, and Crystal had finally settled on the single yet overwhelming emotion of stressed. She was so stressed, in fact, that she found it hard to do anything but pace the condo with notes for what she might say.
Having worn herself out from so much pacing and stressing, she decided a nice, relaxing bath was in order. She hurried into the bathroom, her magic flaring to quickly throw her mane into a loose up-do. She turned on the hot water, but when she guided the bottle of rose oil to the faucet and squeezed it, nothing came out.
The water flicked off and she stormed out into the main area. "Velvet!" she called. "I'm going to Phial and Filly to get more rose oil! Do you need anything while I'm there?"
"Oh! More of that gardenia shampoo, please!"
Crystal wrapped a scarf over her ears and around the back of her head, tying a loose knot just under her chin. "Got it. I'll be back!"
She trotted out into the chilly autumn air. It wasn't quite cold enough to see her own breath, but she did shiver once she was no longer in the comforts of their heated condo. The brisk temperatures urged her hooves to move at an equally brisk pace.
A couple months back, a new store called The Phial and Filly Alchemist Supply had opened up just a few blocks away. The owner was a little eccentric and seemed to be more interested in rocks than potions, but he had struck gold with his ingenious mare care products. His rose bath oil, for example, was far superior to a more expensive brand she used to buy. It elevated a scented bath to the luxurious feeling of being in a warm, humid rose garden.
It was also the only way she knew how to relax anymore, and she was out.
The bell rung to announce her entrance and a friendly voice called, "Hello, Crystal!"
Crystal smiled and walked over to the counter. "Hi, Runic. How's business today?"
"Good, as usual," Runic Phial said with a frown.
She glanced at a small basket that sat beside the register and held rocks of various shapes, sizes, and types. "So, I guess that means still no interest in your rocks?"
"No, also as usual, it seems." He sighed, then his ears perked. "But I do have something that you might be interested in!" He stuck one hoof into the basket and rooted around for a moment before he held up a clear stone. "Ta-da!"
Crystal kept her smile in place while she tried to put the pieces together. Finally, she relented and asked, "What is it?"
Runic's wings, ears, and shoulders drooped. "It's a crystal."
"Oh." Her eyes lit up with realization. "Oh! A crystal for Crystal?" She laughed and took the stone, turning it over in her hoof. It shimmered in the light, and with some polishing, it had the potential to be quite the valuable gem. "What were you trying to make?"
The question brightened his spirits almost immediately. "Sandstone, of course!"
"Of course," she repeated with a giggle. "Let me just get the usual supplies." She started to turn toward the store, but paused and looked back at him. "Hey, have you considered getting into the bath bomb business?"
His eyes widened. He glanced around, leaned in, and asked in a low voice, "Into the what now?"
"Bath bombs." She smiled. "They're wonderful!"
"I see." His expression told her he clearly didn't. "And what do you do with a bath bomb, exactly?"
Her smile started to fall. "You put it in the bath, obviously."
"Why would you do that?" He crossed his forelegs over his chest.
"Because it makes the bath more exciting?"
He nodded slowly. "I imagine it would. Well, if you give me the details, I can put something together." He started to trace his hoof against the counter top, miming out some sort of mathematical equation. "So, I'll need a hydro combustible material to start." He looked back up at her. "Does it just explode?"
Crystal hesitated. She reached out and put her hoof on his to stop its movement. "Runic, what do you think I'm talking about?"
"A bath bomb," he replied flatly.
"Yes, but what do you think a bath bomb is?"
Runic hummed in thought before he grabbed one of the phials resting in his vest's pockets, raised it high up in the air, then threw it to the ground. The glass shattered and a sizzling sound followed, but nothing else happened. When Crystal leaned over the counter, she saw a foamy puddle of green goo shuddering on the floor.
"Hmm, wrong one," he mused and grabbed another. "I think this one's it!"
The phial was lifted and tossed with the same enthusiasm as the previous. This time, when it shattered, a large puff of smoke enveloped them, smelling of burnt wood.
Crystal coughed and covered her muzzle. "Runic!" She tried to wave away some of the smoke with her free hoof. "What was that?"
"What I think a bath bomb is! Well, minus the bath, and the explosions, and the likely fatal injuries, of course."
"Oh my Celestia," she muttered, then backed up a few paces to step out of the cloud. "Runic, a bath bomb is a little round ball of bath oils and scents and sometimes glitter. Not a literal bomb!"
"Oh." He flipped a switch and a fan turned on to slowly disperse the smoke. "That would make more sense. You don't seem like you have a death wish to me."
Crystal coughed through a small laugh. "Just forget about the bath bomb, all right?" She retrieved the usual bottle of rose oil, as well as Velvet's preferred shampoo. "I'll just take these, please." She set them down along with the crystal. "And this."
Runic pushed the rock back toward her. "That's a gift. The rest is—" He tapped the buttons on the register with the tips of his hooves. "Ten bits?" He shrugged.
"Only ten?" She started to count out the bits. "Is there a sale going right now?"
"What? Oh, no. I already have this month's bills covered, and you're a repeat customer, so." He smiled and held out the small bag with the bottles inside. "Only ten bits!"
Crystal paused, then just laughed. "Runic, that's not how running a business works! But, thank you. I'll see you next time."
"That's the plan!" he said with a wink. "Have a good day, Crystal!"
"You, too!" She waved just before turning and leaving the store to return home.
Crystal was stalking up and down the hall just outside the throne room, mumbling her lines under her breath, waiting for her cue. There were two royal guards standing by and she was sure she looked and sounded like a crazy pony, but she had more important matters to attend to.
Raven appeared around a corner. "Crystal?"
"Yes!" she squeaked a little too high-pitched. She winced at the sound of her own voice, cleared her throat, and corrected softly, "Hi, Raven."
Raven smiled and walked over to her. "It's going to be fine. We've practiced your speech three times already." She put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "As long as you don't faint—actually, that might be endearing. Perhaps you should faint a little bit." She laughed, withdrawing her hoof to straighten her glasses.
Crystal shot her a withering look before she cracked a smile. "You're laughing inside the castle? What happened to put you in such a good mood?" When Raven's cheeks turned bright red, Crystal pressed, "What is it?"
"We can talk about it later," she responded in a soft voice. "For now, you have an award to accept."
Crystal opened her mouth to protest, but a guard approached them. "Miss Wishes," he said, nodding to her. "Please come with me."
Raven and Crystal walked behind him, the former returning to her professionally stoic expression while the latter returned to her nervous mumbling. Just as they approached a pair of doors and before they were opened, Crystal paused to straighten her outfit. For the occasion, she had gone a step further than the convention's disguise to braid her tail, weaving the pink strands underneath the blonde ones.
The doors were pulled open to reveal the throne room. As she expected, Crystal recognized most of the ponies that turned to look at her from the usual circle that attended most Canterlot events. There were also unfamiliar faces in the crowd, but given their location toward the podium and the notepads they carried, she guessed they were reporters.
Crystal tried not to look surprised to see her parents among the crowd, regarding her with the same lackadaisical interest they did for every pony. She doubted they were there for her. After all, it was an official event, and they never missed those.
Raven gestured to Crystal to follow her while Princess Luna stepped up to the podium. "Citizens of Canterlot," the princess said in a voice that carried effortlessly across the large room, "we thank you all for your attendance, for 'tis a very special occasion. We could not be happier to, as our first decree, establish an Equestrian Authors Award to recognize and honor ponies that are making new strides in the literary world."
Princess Luna paused, slowly looking over the crowd to gauge their reactions before she continued, "We have nominated, and it hath been thusly agreed upon, a new face in the literary world to receive the first Award. It is our honor to now introduce this recipient: Miss C.W. Step." She stepped to the side and looked at Crystal with a smile while the other ponies stomped softly.
When their eyes met, Crystal thought she might faint, but Raven gave a small push against her shoulder to bring her back to reality. Crystal finally smiled back and took Princess Luna's place at the podium.
Though she placed her forehooves firmly on either side of the podium, her hindlegs trembled behind the base. However, her many years of training kicked in and her voice fell from her lips of its own accord, even and calm.
"Good afternoon, everypony." She turned her head to look at the princess at her side. "Thank you, Princess Luna, both for the honor as well as your inspiration." Her gaze returned to the crowd. "It is no secret that both of my published works are heavily influenced from life here within the castle.
"As a citizen of Canterlot, I am blessed with my home also being home to a marvelous palace with inhabitants consonant with its grandeur. It is something we are all proud of, as no other city or town can boast such a claim.
"My second and most recent novel, The Princess of the Knight, was a whirlwind project born from beholding a princess travelling with her closest companion: a guard from her House. It was a risk, I admit, one that I was quite nervous of taking, but I believe it has been a success and for that, I thank Princess Luna and her guard."
She stole a glance at Silent Knight, who was on duty along with another house guard, then looked at the princess and smiled. "Thank you, again and always, for the honor and the inspiration. I am humbled and grateful for both."
The trembling in her legs had stopped and she was able to bow her head without fear of toppling over. When she did, Princess Luna's magic flared just enough to lift and bring over a silver medallion on a midnight blue ribbon. The medallion featured the image of an open book with a quill draped across it.
Crystal's face heated up with excitement as the award was placed over her head and rested on her neck. "Thank you," she repeated in a quiet, more private tone.
Princess Luna simply nodded and returned to the podium to finish the address. Crystal stepped off to the side and inclined her head to look down at the hanging medallion that proudly shined back up at her.
"You went off-speech there toward the end," Raven whispered.
Crystal's ears flicked back and she guiltily looked straight ahead, not even glancing at the mare beside her. "Sorry."
Raven was quiet just long enough to make Crystal squirm uncomfortably. "I'm only teasing you. I know you were nervous. You did fine and it sounded sincere." She smiled. "Do you know what happens next?"
Crystal tried not to groan. "I have to mingle with the reporters and other attendees?"
The sound Raven made in response was a cross between a quiet cackle and a sinister chuckle. "Oh, no. It's much better than that."
When Princess Luna turned away from the podium, the applause of the ponies in the crowd filled the air. With regal grace befitting of her title, she walked over to them, her guards walking just two paces behind her. "C.W. Step?"
"Yes?" Crystal squeaked.
The princess smiled. "Wouldst thou care to join us for a private discussion?"
It felt as though all the blood had drained from her, leaving her cold and lifeless. "Yes." Her hooves moved to carry her as she followed behind Princess Luna and her guards, but she felt nothing. She turned to look at Raven for some kind of aid, but the mare simply smiled and waved. What was happening?
From all of her tours, she knew where they were heading. The hall they walked along led to Princess Luna's private wing. The door they approached led to her office. Her knees went weak with nervous excitement. On both official and unofficial tours, she had never been in either of the princesses' private wings.
When the doors opened and she was allowed inside, she couldn't help looking around like a filly at a fair. Everything was dark, but in an elegant way; the decor certainly wasn't morbid or depressing. The walls and furniture were of varying deep blue and purple hues as though they were crafted from the night sky itself, with accents of silvers and whites like the stars.
Crystal noticed Silent Knight take position against one wall and assume the rigid, statuesque stance typical of guards. The other house guard continued walking with Princess Luna over to a sitting area.
"With your permission, Princess," the guard said. When the princess nodded, she removed her helmet to reveal a bright blue mane with pink tips and sat down.
Crystal, who had been just about to sit herself, froze. Raven had never mentioned such protocol when in the company of a princess. Tentatively she repeated, "With your permission, Princess."
The princess laughed softly. "Thou mayest, and, please, call me Luna."
Crystal finished sitting down. "Thank you." She hesitated before she added, "Luna."
The mare beside her cleared her throat. "As a royal guard, I need her permission to deviate from protocol. As her guest, you don't. You see, some guards are strict and completely by the book." She looked over at Silent Knight. "They might take exception."
"Oh, I see." Crystal tried not to look at him as well. "So, then, Silent Knight will not be joining us?"
"Nay. Silent Knight is one of those 'by the book' guards." Princess Luna started to set out little teacups. "Likely, he feeleth somepony must be on security and, should I invite him over, he would be most uncomfortable. 'Tis correct, Silent Knight?"
"Yes, Princess," he replied.
Crystal hoped to not sound disappointed as she murmured, "Oh, what a shame." She put her focus back on the princess. "Thank you so much for this award, Luna. I was terrified when I met you at the convention, that you might be, um, upset when you saw The Princess of the Knight."
"Upset? Nay." She shook her head. "Confused at first, perhaps, as we—I am not very accustomed to being included." Her expression looked briefly remorseful. "Fitting in has been a struggle."
Crystal nodded. "I can understand that feeling. I never intended to publish my work because I was afraid of how ponies would react. I was worried nopony would understand or like it." Blue magic was replaced by pink when she accepted a teacup that Luna floated to her.
"I am glad thee decided otherwise." Luna smiled and sipped her tea. "We rather enjoy thy books, Iridescence and I."
"Iridescence?" Crystal furrowed her brow.
Luna gasped and glanced between Crystal and the guard. "I did not properly introduce ye? How rude of me! C.W., this is my friend and one of my house guards, Iridescence." She gestured toward the mare. "Thou already knowest Silent Knight, of course."
Crystal offered her hoof to Iridescence and they shook. "It's a pleasure to meet you." A little shyly, she added, "My name is Crystal Wishes."
Both the princess and Iridescence looked at one another, smiling. Crystal couldn't help smiling herself. The simple gesture of just sharing her name seemed to please the both of them.
"If it pleases thee, Crystal Wishes, wouldst thou share thy creative process for thy stories?" Luna leaned in with clear, sincere interest in her voice. "I write a bit as well, but it would be most appreciated to learn thine own process."
Crystal's breath caught in her throat. The princess was asking her for advice? She crossed her forehooves over each other to secretly pinch herself.
When she still remained in what had to be reality and not a dream, she said, "I don't know what to say, Princess, except that I am very much driven by inspiration. All of my better works, published and otherwise, were inspired by something around me." She shifted again, still in a state of uncertain disbelief. "What is something normal or ordinary that I can tweak? Then I simply write from there."
Iridescence and Luna nodded. Crystal continued with a soft sigh, "Admittedly, I idealize. I have lately found myself writing about guards and knights because I fantasize of meeting somepony like the ones in my fiction."
"But thou canst," Luna said, tilting her head and pointing over at Silent Knight. "He is right there."
While Iridescence snickered, Crystal's face turned bright red and she waved her hooves. "Oh, no! I mean, in the way I make them out to be in, say, The Princess of the Knight." She felt herself heat up significantly. "I doubt Silent Knight is anything like the brash, passionate, and dark stallions I write about."
"You've certainly got that right," Iridescence said, giggling. This prompted Luna to giggle and, unable to resist, Crystal followed suit.
"Then, perhaps, if it suits thee," Luna started once the bout of giggling had settled down, looking directly at Crystal. "I would like to extend an open invitation to visit when thou wouldst like, and if we are fortunate, thou wilt meet thy knight."
Crystal lost herself for a moment. Her head grew light and she thought she might really faint. She hurriedly shook her head just enough so she could answer clearly, "I would be truly honored, Luna."
Luna clapped and exclaimed, "Then 'tis settled! Before thou leavest, please meet with Raven to receive a pass with my blessing."
"I see. You have 'her blessing'?" Raven sighed, though she still smiled. "Princess Luna forgets that I need more than your word of her blessing to have a pass issued." She gestured for Crystal to follow her. "Luckily for you, I trust that she actually did say that. So, then, the meeting with the princess went well?"
Crystal trotted on the tips of her hooves as though she were dancing on air. "Well? Well? What an absolutely small word for such a momentous occasion in my life!" She laughed. "Nonetheless, don't think I've forgotten you, Missy Raven." She bumped her flank against Raven's. "You still owe me an explanation from earlier."
"An—oh, yes." The faint glow returned to Raven's cheeks. "I suppose I do."
Crystal waited a beat, then pressed, "Well?"
Raven stopped in the middle of the hall. "You must keep your voice down. It's very important that you do that for me. All right?"
"All right, okay." Crystal giggled and pawed at her. "Stop stalling."
Raven took a quick intake of air before she said quickly and quietly, "Moore asked me to move in with him and I'm considering it."
Crystal had to fight harder than she ever had before to keep to her agreement, though she wanted to squeal with delight. "Oh my Celestia, you two are getting really serious! Do you think he'll propose soon?"
Raven shook her head. "I don't know about that. Perhaps? This is a big first step, at least." She drew a small circle on the ground and glanced up at her shyly. "Should I agree? Is it not unbecoming to move in with a stallion, unwed?"
"Oh, pfft," Crystal sputtered, dismissing the notion with a wave. "These are modern times. Ponies live together before getting married all the time!" She paused, then added with a hint of seriousness to her voice, "However, if you don't intend to marry him, then it is somewhat misleading."
"I—" Raven shook her head, cleared her throat, and continued on down the hall. "I will give it some more thought. For now, let's get your pass so you can go home."
Crystal hummed as she trotted along the streets. She couldn't imagine a more perfect day! In fact, she was certain that even if a pegasus with a foul disposition were to kick a storm cloud above her, she would just take the opportunity to sing in the rain. However, the skies were happily clear and the setting sun offered her a brilliant display on the horizon.
"Oh, Velvet," Crystal chimed as she walked through the door and kicked it shut behind her, "I wish you could have been there! I had tea. With Princess Luna! In her private chambers! And look!" She stopped and puffed out her chest. The medallion glinted in the light while the permanent visitor's pass dangled rather plainly. "I have two new accessories!"
Velvet kept her back to her. "That's—that's wonderful."
Crystal deflated. "Velvet? What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm happy for you." Her tone strongly suggested otherwise.
Crystal lifted both the award and the pass over her head, setting them on the table by the door, and tentatively walked closer to Velvet. "Did something happen at practice?"
"No," she replied with a petulant bitterness. "Practice was fine."
Crystal stopped just a pace away from her. "Velvet, please look at me." There was a hesitant pause, but the mare complied and when she did, Crystal saw tears in her eyes. "What happened?!"
Velvet responded with the last thing she expected to hear: "My mom, she's—she's pregnant."