"So we're taking a train up to a city that's sitting on the side of a ginormous mountain?" Kim asked.
"Yep!" Twilight said. "Why, is that weird?"
"A little," Kim said.
"Who builds a city on the side of a really tall mountain, anyway?" Ron wondered.
"Magical talking ponies, apparently," Kim said.
"So, uhh...Twilight," Sunset asked as she stared out the window. "Kinda late for me to ask this, but...I'm not gonna be, y'know...arrested or anything when we get to Canterlot, am I?"
Twilight blinked. "Arrested?"
Sunset ducked her head. "Well...yeah. I mean, before I left Equestria I was banished from the castle, then the last time I set hoof in this world I stole your crown..." She rubbed one hoof with the other.
Twilight smiled gently. "I don't think you need to worry," she said. "And besides, if they do try to arrest you, well...you're with me, and I'll pardon you."
"And...and if Princess Celestia—"
"Sunset," Twilight said, "take my word for it. Celestia wants to see you again. She's not angry with you." She smiled sadly. "She misses you."
"Really?" Sunset asked in a small voice, swallowing heavily.
During the train ride, the group swapped stories to pass the time. Kim and Ron learned about Equestria, Twilight's adventures in Ponyville, and Sunset's journey from self-centered, arrogant she-demon to redeemed student of friendship, while Twilight and Sunset learned about Kim's frequent world-saving exploits and the host of bizarre villains the two teens routinely battled.
"Next stop, Canterlot Station!" the conductor announced as the train rattled its way up the tall spire.
Sunset began to fidget. Without warning, her horn glowed, and a black wool cloak materialized out of thin air, settling over her. She pulled the hood up over her head with her magic.
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Seriously?"
"I'm just a little nervous, okay?" Sunset replied.
Twilight smiled. "You're being silly, but...I understand." She leaned in, narrowing her eyes. "You're not gonna try ducking out of talking to Princess Celestia, are you?"
"Of course not! I just...I'm nervous."
Twilight shook her head. "Still, you just reminded me..." Her saddlebags opened, and her five-pointed gold crown floated out, settling itself upon her head; it was followed by four dainty golden slippers, which she settled onto her hooves. Lastly, a slim gold peytral, a much smaller, less ostentatious version of Celestia's, settled around her neck, a gleaming six-pointed star jewel set directly over her chest.
Sunset blinked. "New crown?" she asked. "I...I didn't damage the—"
"No, you didn't," Twilight said with a gentle smile. "My friends and I...we had to give up the Elements of Harmony a while back to save Equestria. Ever since then, I...switched to this crown." She shrugged. "It's a better fit, anyway. It's not as...well...crowny." She grimaced. "I hate wearing this stuff," she muttered.
"So why wear it?" Kim asked.
Twilight shrugged. "Canterlot is, well..." She gestured with a gold-shod hoof. "Help me out here, Sunset?"
"Snobby? Hung up on ceremony?"
"There you go," Twilight said. "Every time I show up in Canterlot without my regalia, I wind up in all those trashy gossip rags Rarity reads, and they're not very nice about it, so..."
"Eesh," Kim said.
Sunset rolled her eyes. "Poor, put-upon Princess."
When the train pulled into the station, the group disembarked. The station attendant bowed respectfully to Twilight. Twilight led them through the streets. Kim eyed their surroundings with interest; Ron gawked shamelessly. Many of the well-dressed ponies they passed gave Ron dirty looks and turned their noses up.
Sunset sighed. "Canterlot...this Canterlot...it's been so long..."
"Why, good day, Princess Twilight!" a tall unicorn stallion with a waxed moustache and monocle greeted, striding over to them. A graceful unicorn mare stood two paces behind him, striking a series of elaborate modeling poses.
"Hello, Fancy Pants," Twilight said. "How have you been?"
"Oh, smashing," Fancy Pants said. He surveyed Twilight's companions with interest. "I say...not your usual entourage..."
"They're friends from...far away," Twilight said. "They need my help with something. We're just going to the Canterlot Archives to do a little research."
"Splendid!" Fancy Pants said. "Any friend of Princess Twilight's." He espied Sunset's horn peeking out from beneath her hood, and stooped to take her hoof, brushing his lips across it. "A pleasure."
Sunset blushed. "Umm...likewise?"
"And what a lovely young pegasus!" Fancy Pants said. "I do love your mane, my dear!"
"Oh...well...thank you?" Kim said sheepishly.
"Don't get many donkeys in Canterlot," Fancy Pants said as he turned his gaze upon Ron. "Don't let the disapproving stares of the Canterlot elite get to you, my lad. We all trot on four legs, nes paz?"
"Well, we must be off," Fancy Pants said. "Expected at a wine tasting. Enjoy Canterlot!" He and his companion trotted away.
"Wow, that guy's a charmer," Kim said.
"Fancy Pants is pretty much the conscience of the Canterlot elite," Twilight said as she resumed her trot towards the castle. "He singlehandedly saved Rarity's reputation once." With a sheepish look, she added, "And...made me and my friends look less like a bunch of low-class rubes in the process. Not that I care about that or anything! It's just—"
"The Canterlot snobs have a way of making you feel like you're the worm in the apple," Sunset finished for her with a snort. "That's one thing about this city I haven't missed."
When they arrived at the castle, they were greeted by the gate guards and admitted without question. Kim and Ron stared at the opulent decor of the grand, spacious castle with obvious awe. "Wow, this place is right out of a storybook!" Ron said.
"No joke," Kim agreed.
As they traversed the broad, elegant corridors, Twilight was greeted reverently by guards, nobles, and staff, while the others were either regarded with mild curiosity or dismissed with less mild disdain. All too soon, they reached an ornate set of doors flanked by a pair of unicorn guards. The guards bowed to Twilight. "Your Highness," one of them said. "We weren't told to expect you."
"I'm not expected," Twilight said. "But I do have a matter to discuss with Princess Celestia. Is she available?"
"Of course, Your Highness." The doors glowed and swung open; Twilight led the group inside. Sunset began to tremble with anticipation and hesitation.
Beyond the doors lay a long room with a high ceiling, adorned on all sides by intricate stained glass windows, at least two of which depicted Twilight herself. At the end of the long red velvet carpet stood a tall gold throne, upon which was seated Princess Celestia herself, her pastel mane rippling in a nonexistent wind as she sipped tea while perusing a scroll. She looked up at their approach and smiled warmly. "Twilight!" she greeted. "Welcome! This is an unexpected surprise!" She looked over the rest of the group. "I see you have some new friends with you today!"
"New friends...and old," Twilight said. She nudged Sunset.
Swallowing, Sunset lowered her hood and bowed low. "Princess Celestia," she squeaked out nervously.
Celestia gasped, eyes wide with shock. "S-Sunset Shimmer..."