Edited by: Burraku Pansa, LittleRobotBird, Masked Ferret
Now that a crime against equinity had been prevented, Sweetie took a moment to analyze her surroundings more thoroughly.
Despite some superficial similarities, it didn't feel like Canterlot. The architecture lent itself to a different approach: the stonework was somehow warmer—maybe due to the rusty color of the walls—and Sweetie could’ve sworn the fresh air smelled different, although she couldn't quite place how. She slowly approached one of the windows, relishing the feel of the wind on her face and the soft caress of the silk curtains.
What she saw outside was completely different than any other place she had visited so far.
Wherever she was, this studio was situated on higher ground, allowing her an unimpeded view of hundreds of buildings, all in more rustic and earthen colors than anything she'd ever seen in Canterlot.
The city slowly progressed at a gentle slope towards a great, yawning bay, where she could make out a small sea of ships’ sails—and beyond that, glittering, a sapphire ocean spreading all the way to the horizon.
Sweetie's eyes were wide, and she released a deep, shuddering breath, not realizing until then that she’d been holding it in. Her senses were assaulted by the warmth of the sun and the vibrancy of the elements around her. Even though the water was so close, the earth below felt alive and less restricted than in any other city she had visited since acquiring her new abilities. The air felt more gentle, and she imagined fire would be almost playful here.
She took her eyes away from the city and looked to the streets below, where ponies walked and talked happily—the very image of what an idyllic city should be. Marble plazas stood out between the buildings, connected by what had to be hundreds of bridges arching over bustling canals. Each plaza sported fountains and statues, and around the corner of a large building, she could see the edge of a colorful marketplace. The faint sound of voices mixed with the occasional chime and bell carried by the sea air. Sweetie shook her head in wonder.
"What is Sweetie Belle doing here?"
She turned back to the studio, trying to ferret out any more clues to her location. With nothing familiar around, chances were that she might not necessarily have met anypony from this city in other worlds.
"I guess I could pretend to have amnesia?" she ventured, stepping into the room. She glanced about until she found a small wooden desk, where a scroll detailed the specifics of the current commission: a painting of "Lady Sweetie Belle," commissioned by...
"Me?!" Sweetie gasped, looking at the agreed-upon price, then back at that smile, then back to the contract. "What happened to me? Am I the daughter of some rich noble in this world?"
She turned towards the chaise lounge she had first appeared on.
The flag was draped over the high end of it... A two-toned blue shield, bordered with purple, a central tree with three apples in its boughs, each apple with a silver band. Left of the tree was an open tome, and to the right was a six-pointed star with strange wiggles... What had Blueblood called it? An estoile? Or was it a mullet? No, mullet stars were straight-armed. Heraldry was not one of the fields of study she had picked up over the time loops, but Blueblood had impressed on her the value of identifying noble houses by their symbols and themes.
A tree and a book and a star, though, just wasn’t ringing any bells.
Looking around again, she took note of a pair of dresses hanging near the back of the room. Both were sheer like the one in the painting, the pure white one especially so. The other dress was more conservative, and came with lilac embroidery and lace that matched her mane. They had to have been custom made. More expensive dresses the local Sweetie commissioned for herself, then...
She must be some sort of rich pony. But why here? This wasn’t Canterlot. If she had to guess, based on the languages she had heard from outside, it was Bitaly.
She didn’t have family here. She didn’t know anyone here.
Unless...! That had to be it!
The local Sweetie must be an orphan, and Rarity, too! They’d been taken in by a kindly noble family, like in that famous play, and raised in wealth and privilege.
It made perfect sense!
And if this was like the play, then a suave noblestallion was about to get between them and result in a tragic triple-suicide of doomed lovers! Why oh why did these things have to end in tragedy?!
Then again, maybe not. Maybe that was the farthest one could be from the truth.
But the local her definitely wasn’t lacking in disposable income nor influence. The how and why would have to come later.
Sweetie re-examined the picture of herself. The Sweetie in the painting was a little older, in her teens at least, with long legs and a slim, princess-like figure. She was almost a young Fleur, though Sweetie noted—with a little disappointment—that her muzzle hadn’t quite filled out to complete the princess look every filly dreamed of. Her cutie mark was different, though: a pink heart with a black musical note superimposed, a portamento, and two waving bars behind them that ended in cute little curls.
"Well, that would be a giveaway," Sweetie muttered, glancing back at her own cutie mark. Thankfully, there were plenty of dresses around, and with some luck one of them wouldn’t be see-through.
She levitated the pearl-white one, grimacing at how easily she could see the wall behind it, before putting it down and trying on the lilac dress. She nodded to herself, her cutie mark covered, if only barely. "It’ll have to do for now."
With that settled, Sweetie walked out of the studio to find her sister, or any pony that knew her. Trotting softly down a long hall, she could hear the sounds of conversation from beyond and below. Her ear twitched. It was more Bitalian. Thank the Princess she had picked up those extra languages during the time loops.
Slowly making her way towards the voices, she also got a better look at the building around her. The walls and the ceiling were done in a soft chinoiserie style—a style she recalled as one of Blueblood’s favorites from his many afternoons discussing fashion and all things courtly.
The ceiling in particular was further enhanced with a vast mural, very distinct from the way things were done in Canterlot. It was a barrel ceiling again, just like the room she’d woken up in, giving depth to the depiction of the ponies of Bitaly as they clustered and fought and bartered. As the mural curved with the ceiling, it became blue with sky and clouds and cavorting pegasi. Above them all was a family of unicorns, sheathed in magic and in a long procession behind some sort of hourglass.
There was a family Blueblood had mentioned whose noble standing was based around the keeping of an ancient hourglass: an artifact of great power.
Was this the same family?
Sweetie searched the vast mural for Princess Celestia. She had to be— There! There she was, depicted with forelegs outstretched as she bestowed the original hourglass upon a pure white unicorn mare with starry wings. Behind the Princess was mare with a platinum-silver mane and a stallion with a long mane of gold, both holding onto her wings with one hoof and her shoulders with the other, almost as if restraining her.
Sweetie felt comfortable enough guessing at the identity of those two: Princess Platinum and the First Blueblood. Notably absent was any depiction of Princess Luna, who would have also been there.
A mirrored staircase ahead led down into a columned courtyard, shrouded by vines that bore tiny blue and lilac flowers. A small party of ponies milled about below in fine dress and jewelry, waited on by servants. A number of paintings were on display; it must’ve been a viewing party.
Sweetie blinked a few times before gathering her wits. There was a slight chance that the ponies there might actually not know her.
"Yeah, and Luna plays with a duckie in the bath," she muttered as she considered using an illusion to pretend to be another pony. She discarded the notion. "Might as well mingle if I get caught. At least the artist here knows me, so I could gather some information."
With a nod, Sweetie stepped forth, walking calmly across the room, her eyes set on her destination—the exit—and her heart beating rapidly in her chest. 'Please don't let them notice me.'
"Oh! Lady Sweetie Belle!"
Sweetie slowly turned, forcing a smile, to look at the pony that was talking to her. "Oh, hello. I do apologize for interrupting, I was on my way out, you see..."
A tall stallion approached her with a smile somewhat dimmed by his clear surprise and confusion. He was a very lean earth pony, dusky brown, with a frilly brocade vest and red ruffles around his throat and fetlocks. He reminded Sweetie just a little of a stallion Rarity had crushed on for a few months way back before... everything.
Trenderhoof, that was it. Rarity did have odd taste in stallions sometimes.
"Lady Sweetie Belle," he said again, dipping his eyes in momentary deference. "What a surprise to see you still here! Did you forget something in the room?"
Sweetie nodded. "Yes. Yes I did! I had intended to wear this dress today, you see, and so I returned to fetch it"—she took a guess based on the signature on one of the paintings—"Signore Barocchi."
"Of course, my Lady," he replied after just a moment’s pause. His eyes dipped again as if in fearful reverence. "If there is anything else you need, I am your humble servant."
Sweetie hesitated for just a second. "There is one thing, Barocchi," she said. "I'm afraid I’ve lost track of time. Do you recall where I was heading just before I left earlier today?"
"As I recall, you were to leave for the aviary with the young Ser Fortunatissimo." Barocchi coughed politely into his hoof. "He was to take up much of your day, I believe."
Fortunatissimo? That loosely translated to Good Fortune. Wait. Was it a— Was she supposed to be on a—
"Ah, of course!" Sweetie's smile became a bit more forced. "How could I forget dear Fortunatissimo? This will not do! I shall depart immediately, lest Fortunatissimo grow desperate and his patience exhaust itself." She cleared her throat. "I'll take my leave, Master Barocchi," she said, heading for the door. "Thank you for reminding me."
"Oh, of course, my lady!" he called out to her, only to add, "I shall fetch Miss Tiara to attend to you!"
Sweetie Belle stopped dead in her tracks, blinking a couple of times before she turned around and raised an eyebrow.
She felt tempted. So very tempted.
"To attend me."
She struggled with herself for a moment, wondering if Diamond Tiara would be wearing a maid costume.
"N-no, I will be fine. Waiting longer will only upset dear Fortunatissimo even more than he probably has been..."
Barocchi inclined his head in respectful courtesy. "It is protocol, my lady. Duchess Sand Dune’s orders."
Before Sweetie could stop him, he had already motioned to one of the ochre-coated guardsponies waiting in the wings. The rest of the attendees in the viewing party paid little notice as one of the two guards trotted out into the open and the second took wing. Both wore elaborate steel cuirasses over ruffled white vests, open-faced kettle helmets over stern and disciplined visages. Their armor was lighter than you’d see on the Royal Guard in Canterlot, but each pegasus also had the benefit of a mounted crossbow on their back and a sheathed blade attached to their right foreleg. So much for slipping away without being noticed.
Barocchi apologized for the delay and the wait she had to endure, and Sweetie smiled politely even as her mind raced.
Diamond Tiara. That just raised even more questions! Still, at least it was a friendly faaa— Okay, not a ‘friendly’ face, really, but it was a ‘familiar’ face at least. That was something. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise.
Expecting to have a couple minutes to plan, Sweetie was more than a little surprised when the tap-tap of hooves from at the top of the mirrored staircase caught her attention. Descending with more than a little grace to accompany her hurry, and alongside the pegasus guard from before, was a young mare that could only be Diamond Tiara. All that pink was a dead giveaway.
This Diamond Tiara was taller, fuller, and much more of a proper mare than Sweetie would’ve expected. Sadly, Diamond Tiara here wore no maid outfit—there was an expensive-looking neck ruffle beneath a diamond-studded brooch that encircled her neck. As part of her dress, she was very obviously wearing a corset that tucked in the stomach and accentuated the chest in emulation of the alicorn body type. The rest of her dress was light and sheer, catching the breeze. It was a look more than a few mares here seemed to favor.
With just a hint of annoyance, Sweetie noticed that Diamond Tiara still insisted on wearing a tiara, even after what must have been years. She secretly wondered if the wealthy earth pony mare would end up an old granny someday, still clinging to that silly silver tiara of hers. Sweetie couldn’t remember a time when the filly hadn’t been wearing it. She’d also grown her mane long, to the point where it brushed by her front legs as she walked.
"My lady, please, allow me," were her first words, and she dipped her eyes for just a second. She turned to Barocchi and the two guards. "I shall escort her from here, gentlestallions. Thank you for fetching me."
Sweetie slowly closed her mouth. "Yes. Quite. Shall we, Diamond Tiara?" she asked, heading towards the door.
"Of course," Diamond replied, trotting up alongside her. The doors ahead opened, revealing a colorful courtyard garden interspersed with statues. There were ponies here, too, particularly around a salespony showing off reams of silk and exotic trinkets. Sweetie recognized a trio of zebra totem-masks among the items for purchase.
"You’ll have to excuse me, Sweetie Belle, but where do you wish to go?" Diamond inquired. "I thought you’d left for your date with Master Fortunatissimo."
"Yes, about that. I don't think I'll be meeting with Fortunatissimo," Sweetie said. "Not yet at least. I, uh, don't really feel like going to the Aviary. How about we walk around the city for a bit, just to clear our heads? I'll speak with him later."
"As my lady wishes," Diamond said it as if by rote, only to add, "I guess we’re going shopping, then? I’ll call for a shade."
Motioning to the side, she led Sweetie to an alcove near the gatehouse and quickly stepped away. A moment later and she returned with a lacquered cane between her teeth. Activating a switch in it, a flower-like parasol took form. Tiara held it up to a suitable height and angle and let it go—it hovered in place just off Sweetie’s shoulder, and followed her as she moved.
"Lady Sweetie Belle, Miss Tiara," said one of the guards by the gate, recording their names in a log at his station. "Have a pleasant outing."
"Thank you, Alfonso," Diamond replied.
Sweetie merely nodded, still trying to shake off her surprise.
There was little in the way of grounds between the gate and the street. Merely a few steps and they were very much among the throngs of the bustling city.
"Where to, my lady?" Diamond asked when Sweetie paused.
Sweetie pondered for a bit, eyeing Diamond Tiara for a moment before nodding and looking down towards the sea with a smile. "How does a stroll down to the pier sound to you, Tiara? There should be plenty of shops and more than one place to enjoy a drink or two."
"We should cut through the Plaza of Lady Sand Storm," Diamond suggested, pointing to her right. "This way, you’ll recall."
"Sure!" Sweetie agreed, and she began walking. "I don't mind. You lead." She and Tiara weren’t exactly given a wide berth, but they were left mostly alone as they began their walk. The ‘mostly’ came from the fact that there were small shops on almost every corner, selling foods or drinks or nicknacks—but especially fruit and cooked kelp—and several vendors would call out to the pair to offer their products.
It was hot out in the streets, too, and Sweetie was grateful for the parasol Tiara had brought with them. The cobblestone streets were alive with less well-attired ponies working and playing, but Sweetie’s ears twitched as she heard the bells of ships and the gentle lapping of the sea.
It wasn’t long before she saw it up close.
Tiara had led her to a stone wall that ran perpendicular to a large canal, from which she could see some of the city docks. The wall ended when it merged into the turret of a thick-bodied tower that loomed high overhead. Just past it, she could see another structure, enclosed, but with half-built ships inside.
Some sort of arsenal, maybe? Even more interesting, she could see the systems of locks that controlled the water level of the canals that wove throughout the city center.
Sweetie's mind, however, kept returning to the sea. This was the first time in her life she’d actually been right next to it, and the soft, almost hushed sound of the waves reaching the shore was incredibly calming. Her hooves could feel the earth under her almost singing, so alive were the elements around her, and the language of the sea was like a melody hidden in the crash of waves.
It possessed a power so beyond what she had ever imagined: a promise of hidden secrets and worlds beyond her imagination. There was a constant dialogue between all the elements here, and somehow that helped chase away the shadows that would whisper when she was upset. If this was indeed Bitaly, just like Blueblood had described it, she wished they had had enough time during the loops to have visited at least once. Maybe if she ever saw him again, he could indulge her and they could go sailing together.
She had to stop and sit on one of the several stone benches overlooking the horizon. "This is such a beautiful place, don't you think, Tiara? So different from Ponyville."
Tiara seemed a little confused by the question at first, or at least she hesitated a second, looking out over the water before answering.
"Worlds apart," she agreed. "I remember the first time we came here. I refused to even set hoof on a boat. All I could think about were all those stories of sharks and monsters out there."
Sweetie couldn't help but giggle. "I don't blame you." Her gaze turned back to the water. "The sea is such a magnificent force of nature, with so many secrets hidden just below the surface. I think Apple Bloom once wanted to get a sailing-related cutie mark, but we couldn't find a way to get out of town, reach the sea, and head back before our sisters would notice we were gone. I think the rally call was... 'Cutie Mark Crusaders Kraken Hunters.'"
Diamond Tiara nodded but said nothing. She did give Sweetie a look out of the corner of her eye, though. One that she had to know Sweetie would notice.
"What?" Sweetie asked.
"You haven’t talked about those days, or about those two, in a while," Diamond reminded her, smirking. "Getting nostalgic?"
Sweetie's smile became a bit sad at that piece of information. "Drifting away from your friends... It’s not something I would ever wish upon anypony. Don't you wonder how Silver Spoon is doing?"
"Silver Spoon still writes," Diamond protested, but then she waved the whole affair off with her hoof. "She’s so busy, though. Wants to be Mayor some day. As if being Mayor of Ponyville takes that much effort. Puh-lease!"
Sweetie shook her head. "You never know. Organizing things, dealing with Princesses and the inevitable attack of the month by some unstoppable force? Can't be that easy."
"Being the first to flee in terror?" Diamond Tiara laughed. "But that’s Ponyville for you." Still sharing the sea view with Sweetie, she stole another quick look at her mistress. "I think about it, too, you know. Like that train ride when we left. Ugh!" She groaned. "And Daddy made me help carry your bags! ‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said. I can’t believe he was right."
Sweetie blinked, trying to reconcile the mental image of Diamond Tiara with the words 'help carry luggage.' "Yeah," Sweetie finally said, a bit shakily. "I imagine getting used to a completely different lifestyle wasn't easy."
Diamond shook her head slowly. "Not that I had much choice. But on the other hoof, I have been able to help Daddy and the company by being out here. I’ve learned a lot... Expanded my ‘network of friends’ and all that. You can never know too few ponies, or have too few of them in your pocket. If that means carrying around your bags for a few years, I guess there are worse apprenticeships in Equestria."
She smiled and laughed again, lightly and almost carefree.
"And I had it easy," she added, pointing to Sweetie. "I just had to put up with you, with all due respect. You had to learn from Lady Sand Dune! Those first few months while you were jumping through hoops, or walking those lines to ‘correct your trot,’ I was enjoying myself. Those were good times." She snickered. "At least you weren’t still a blank flank!"
Sweetie rolled her eyes, recalling her training with Fleur. "Well, I'm glad somepony enjoyed my suffering. But are you really going back to the blank flank thing? That was never a shining example of maturity, you know?"
"Maybe not, but it is as much a part of our past as Silver Spoon or Apple Bloom and Scootaloo," Tiara argued. Her smirk remained fixed on her lips. "Don’t tell me it still bothers you? The noble Sweetie Belle, still irked by the teasing of an earth pony?"
Sweetie shook her head. "It doesn't irk me as much as it would disappoint me if you still thought that way. That's hardly the type of pony you've given me the impression of being since I got here, Tiara."
"My my," Tiara tutted. "You have been bit by the nostalgia bug today, haven’t you? Is that why you decided to stand up Fortunatissimo?" She clopped a hoof on the stone floor. "Is that why you were teasing Gentle Swell the other night?"
"I was?" Sweetie shrugged. "I didn't notice." 'Who the hay is Gentle Swell?'
"You don’t need to be coy with me, of all ponies!" Tiara scooted closer and winked conspiratorially. "I’m your wingmare, after all. It comes with the ‘loyal hoofmaiden’ territory. Test your food, carry your things, manage your clothes and affairs, act as second for duels, flirt with the other guy. Right there in the job description. You had poor Swell wrapped around your hoof all night. I thought Lady Margarita was about to explode and challenge you then and there, but you were getting back at her for all the things she did to you when you first came here, right?"
Sweetie coughed. "Well. Perhaps. Maybe I should be more careful about the situations I invite, right? Wouldn't want another duel. All that posturing. Not the best idea. I'm sure Fortunatissimo will be fine, once I talk to him and explain I simply wasn't feeling up to meeting anypony at all today."
"Naturally..." Tiara acquiesced. "I am your company, either way. Actually, I’m glad you didn’t go off with him." She covered her mouth with her hoof and coughed very softly and very purposefully. "He has a reputation as a Don Juan. I know Lady Sand Dune doesn’t care, but your sister would. You know how... conservative she is by comparison."
"Well then, just as well I didn't meet him today." Sweetie nodded weakly. "But maybe it is time for us to go. We should continue our stroll. After all, the day won't last forever."
"Of course. The boardwalk isn’t far."
Sweetie nodded for Diamond Tiara to lead her there, as her mind went over their conversation. The local Sweetie was a completely different pony than herself, even allowing her relationship to her fellow Crusaders to fade away to the point that Diamond Tiara was surprised when she brought them up.
If it was true that her local self was flirting with different nobles, even married or engaged ones, she had to wonder what this Lady Sand Dune had been teaching her local self. It seemed that Sweetie Belle here was behaving more like... old Blueblood.
She did not want to be like old Blueblood. Unless the local Sweetie was still a good pony inside, but then, why would she leave so much of her old self behind? If she came from Ponyville, then she should share some similarities with the local Sweetie beyond appearance and the fact that she could walk like a noble.
Whatever the reason was that she’d been sent to this world, it must have been related to her local self.
There was no way that she could leave without at least mending that friendship. Just like that other Scootaloo had said a few worlds away: Crusaders would always be there for each other.
She shook her head. "Ugh. I need a drink. Tiara, do you know a good place to get something?"
"Most of the seafront establishments aren’t to your standards, my lady," Diamond Tiara reminded her, making a grimace that was all too familiar. "Not mine, either! But... Oh, what about that?"
Sweetie saw what she meant right away: plying the canals were shops on boats, one or two ponies with an open air set of goods on display. Up and down the canals they rowed, selling to anyone either on the canal or alongside it. Most were clearly street cuisine, just like in parts of Canterlot and Manehattan, but some catered to a middling cliente. One nearby, festooned with flags and streamers, boasted drinks from ‘east to west, and all in between.’
Tiara escorted her right to the front of the line, not bothering to even consider waiting with the other customers. Sweetie felt a bit embarrassed, but Tiara knew this place better than she did, and if that was how things went then that was how things went. What had Blueblood said? ‘Royalty has more important things to do than wait.’ He clearly wasn’t alone in embracing that sort of reasoning, at least when it was convenient.
"One of our Duchess’s hoofmaidens!" the float owner gasped, seeing Sweetie and Tiara. She clopped her hooves together and lowered her eyes for a moment. "What can I get for you, noble ladies?"
"Margarita Sunrise," Sweetie said immediately. "Don't be shy with the tequila."
"Chilled sangria," Tiara requested for herself, and she turned over to show the inside of her right hoof near the neatly trimmed fetlock. There was a small sigil there that the vendor needed only a moment to see. "The blackberry, if you would be so kind. Extra berries. Like triple the berry quotient. It should be very berry."
"This will only take a moment!" The unicorn vendor levitated cups and drinks and berries and even cut a lime for Sweetie’s margarita sunrise. She did all this with a smile, even as the boat rocked gently in the canal. The ice and the syrup for Tiara’s sangria came last and the pair of drinks floated the distance to the two mares. Diamond took hers in hoof while Sweetie captured hers in a soft magical glow.
Sweetie sipped her drink and nodded appreciatively, enjoying the refreshing taste as her mind dwelled on the reason behind being here.
What was there to do or learn?
Her last world-jump hadn't even required a fragment, and now she was stuck somewhere else without a clue on how to get out. Hopefully that wouldn't take too long. She did not want to spend years in a world where she had lost her friends.
"What do you make of this?" Diamond Tiara asked, pointing to a nearby plaza with the same hoof that held her drink. Like all the public plazas here, it seemed, this one was designed around a grand statue or fountain. In this case, it was both: a statue atop a lovely fountain depicting a rearing unicorn mare with an hourglass in one hoof, raised high. Instead of sand, water could be seen within the hourglass, constantly streaming from the top to the bottom. Struggling against the mare was an armored minotaur, trying to drag her down.
"Sienna—you remember her," Tiara went on to explain. "The other day she claimed that the artist who made this, depicting the Unyielding Resolve of Singing Sand, was trying to depict both a battle of wills and a lover’s embrace. She seemed to think that Singing Sand and Iron Heart were doing the nasty on the side. I told her I didn’t quite buy it, especially with how brutally Singing Sand put down the minotaur. What do you think? Did Lady Sand Dune ever tell you anything juicy about her ancestor?"
Sweetie grimaced, thinking back to Blueblood. "You know as well as I do that nobles love to talk about their families non-stop, but they are very careful not to mention anything... specific, which might be interpreted as a stain on their illustrious history."
"But aren’t you learning some of Singing Sand’s magic?" Diamond asked, taking a quick sip from her sangria. "I’m no unicorn, but just learning magic all day seems pretty boring. I refuse to believe the great Lady Sand Dune doesn’t gossip at all. That can’t be."
Sweetie frowned. She had no idea what type of pony Sand Dune was. "Tiara, unless she was teaching me some alliteration spell that required a grander context, I doubt she'd ramble about things that you wouldn't be around to hear." She twirled her drink and looked at Diamond Tiara. "Why the sudden interest?"
Tiara was quick to answer with an evasive, "Just curious."
Sweetie thought for a moment on the conversation so far, and slowly, she started feeling a bit uneasy. She sighed when she heard Diamond Tiara take a breath.
"You know, thinking about Ponyville," Diamond Tiara began, her lips over the rim of her drink. She sipped briefly. "One thing I’ll never forget was during the changeling invasion, when we were all holed up in His Grace’s manor..." She lowered her eyes and stared at her sangria, the berries shifting around the chunks of ice. "I was hiding with Silver Spoon, but you three just had to go out and help. You couldn’t just listen to Miss Cheerilee and stay put. Do you remember that day?"
Sweetie's eyes narrowed. "It's hard to forget."
"In all my life, I’d never been so afraid." Tiara shook her head. "For all the teasing, I was always a little scared... you know, that somepony would finally just snap at me. Maybe that was part of why I did it, too, to see just how far I could push you three. I always thought it would be Scootaloo, actually. Sometimes she would just glare at me."
Tiara laughed again and took a long drink.
"But that day?" she said, and she speared Sweetie with a long look—the type that only came from somepony trying to read your face, and failing that, your thoughts. "Especially when those worms broke into the basement? I was petrified. What I never understood was why you three weren’t. I’ve been afraid of changelings ever since. I still am to this day, no matter how often we’re told to keep an eye out for them. They scare me."
"Why... are you telling me this?" Sweetie asked, her discomfort only growing by the second.
"I just want to know if I’m being unnaturally brave right now," Diamond Tiara explained. She put her drink down on the plaza floor and looked Sweetie right in the eyes. "So tell me: are you a changeling?"
Sweetie blinked and took a sip of her tequila sunrise. "You know, Tiara, there's nothing wrong with being afraid. We Crusaders were scared quite often... And the changeling invasion was a horrible thing to witness. Now, when I talked to you about Ponyville, and being there with you, and being friends with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, I wasn’t lying. So, if I say not exactly, are you going to freak out even more?" She looked down at the plaza. "Because if my instinct is correct, you figured out I wasn't the Sweetie you knew pretty much from when we left Barocchi. Now everything depends on what you’re going to do, and where that will leave me."
"Don’t be mistaken." Diamond Tiara held up her hoof for a moment in a gesture of non-aggression. "I’m no fighter. I’m not into that dueling stuff you unicorns love so much. I’m not going to do anything."
"But I am."
Sweetie recognized her own voice well enough.
That, and the crack-snap sound of teleportation.
Turning towards the flash, she caught sight of herself falling slowly to the ground. This version wasn’t wearing a dress like in the artist’s atelier and the painting. Instead, she wore a steel cuirass much like the guards from before. It was only appropriate. She’d appeared with two of them by her side, and, like a murder of crows, more appeared on the rooftops all around the plaza.
"Tiara," Sweetie said, taking a moment to sip more of her tequila sunrise. "You were very brave indeed, but you might want to go to your mistress. I'm not sure I'd want to be standing next to me, depending on what they want to do." She winked at the earth pony. "Thanks for the drink and the talk."
"R-right," Tiara murmured, and she backed away. A second later and she galloped over to where the other Sweetie had landed. She whispered to the newly arrived Sweetie before the unicorn mare motioned for her to keep back.
Moving with all the grace of a model, the local Sweetie then started towards her.
"I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes," she said, projecting her voice confidently and loudly.
By now their corner of the plaza had been mostly vacated, but onlookers were hiding behind the statue, the fountains, and under the awnings of shops.
"There are changelings in Bitaly after all," local Sweetie announced, narrowing her bright green eyes. "At least I didn’t miss my date for nothing."
Sweetie slurped the last remaining dregs of margarita sunrise before carefully putting the glass down.
"I think you have my species confused a bit," she said, raising an eyebrow. "But, seeing you right now, I'm less impressed than I thought I'd be. So, given that you came surrounded by guards to do the dirty work for you, I assume you're going to attack with overwhelming odds?" Her eyes drifted to take stock of the amount of guards around, as well as Sweetie Belle's location, just as her body assumed a relaxed stance of I Quattri Elementi. "Just be warned: if you do attack en masse, I will defend myself, and I will not hold back."
Rather than respond right away, the local Sweetie continued to approach for a closer look at the ‘changeling.’ Walking by Sweetie’s right, she shifted her posture to keep the other her to her front. Soon, they were slowly circling one another; the sensation was all too much like when Sweetie had trained with Fleur. She knew the local Sweetie was gauging her as well.
"That’s Elementi," she finally said. "Who trained you in it?"
"Fleur," Sweetie replied. "A long time ago. Before you learned your first spell... Although, I'd venture to say I was a bit older than you at the time."
"Fleur de Lis... or Lis Dee?" Sweetie recognized the name, then. "Her?" Still, she quickly nodded and accepted the challenge. "I’m Alla Breve. You can probably guess who taught me."
"Given where we are and who your patron is, I'd be hard-pressed not to have an idea." Sweetie smiled thinly. "You seem to have all the cards in your hoof, Sweetie Belle. What's your first move?"
"It would be impolite not to ask you to surrender," she answered easily enough. "You’ll be treated fairly, despite being an enemy of Equestria. We won’t do to you what you tried to do to us."
Sweetie giggled, enjoying the unamused glint to her counterpart's eyes when she did so. "You think I'm an enemy of Equestria? What gave you that impression?"
"You’re a changeling." Sweetie saw her own face darken in a frown. This local her did not seem fond of shapeshifters. "You’re wearing my face."
"It's my face too, you know," Sweetie replied, painfully aware that it was not technically so anymore. "I'm not pretending to be you." She tilted her head, feeling annoyed. "I'd rather not pretend to be you, to be honest. I'm glad I don't have to." She snorted. "From what I gathered, you're behaving like Blueblood did before the Gala."
The local her also tilted her head, but in momentary confusion. "What?"
"Paintings of yourself, flirting about with noble ponies, fancy clothing, and that condescending undertone? Yep. That's big brother before the Gala." Sweetie smiled, having realized that she was—somehow—in the same world, if at a different time. Each world was unique, after all, and this many similarities? No. This was Blueblood's world. "In fact, I don't think he would approve."
"I don’t see what my brother-in-law has to do with any of this," the local Sweetie replied, her tone calm but with a definite undercurrent of vexation.
Something, or maybe a number of things, about this conversation was getting on her nerves. She just wasn’t about to show it.
"And a changeling is the last creature in this world fit to judge me," she went on to say, never breaking the tempo of her circling. "I am a noble mare, like my sister, like my teacher. The one who doesn’t belong here is you. No changeling will ever be welcome in Equestria after the horrors you and your allies unleashed, and we will never let you worm your way into power over us again! That is the only topic that bears discussion here."
She abruptly stopped, swirling pale green magic circling her horn and pooling into an ever-growing star field. Green, the same color as her eyes.
Not everypony had a magical hue that matched their eyes. Blueblood had called her lucky once, because of it. Now this version of her was building it up for some sort of potent spell, and the lucky spell color took on an ominous tone.
"Surrender," the noble Lady Belle hissed, just faintly baring her teeth in challenge. "Or I will subdue you."
Sweetie narrowed her eyes and analyzed her counterpart's movements before relaxing her own stance. "You're adorable, Sweetie Belle. But after this nice stroll around town, and seeing the sea for the first time ever, I'd rather not destroy the landscape." She threw her mane back and raised her head, the very image of a noble mare. "Very well, I yield."
"A wise move," Sweetie told her other self, and she motioned to the looming pegasus cadre that surrounded them. "I might be new to fighting changelings, but I’ve made more than a few ponies pay for underestimating me."
Sweetie shrugged. "It seems like the best way to avoid trouble. After all, the last time I got into a serious, life-or-death fight in this world, one of the opponents used a five alliteration spell." She paused and gave her other self a look. "I'm sure you'd be up to par, right?" She winked at the local Sweetie Belle. "Well, lead the way."
Sweetie Belle placed a hoof against the transparent magical barrier, rippling waves radiating from the point of contact and across the plane of force. It didn’t hurt to push against it, at least, but that didn’t make the walls of her prison cell any more permeable.
It was solid, but nopony had been creative or sadistic enough to add an electricity or fire spell to the mix. She pressed a little harder, her hoof flattening against the barrier, but there was no give. Not even a little. Which meant physical force wasn’t going to be an option if it came to breaking out.
Her cell was actually a rather interesting magical construct from a purely academic point of view. Basically, it was a cube made out of a few layers of interlocking barriers. Within the cell, she could use her magic to lift a cup of tea, and even warm it, but the shields wouldn't allow her to levitate the same cup if it was outside. Even the floor was just another plane of force, once again making her quite glad that it didn’t have any malicious spellwork attached.
Still, given the way it was constructed, and the limitations of the barriers themselves, as well as the required stability of the prison, not to mention her very different skills and magic, she was pretty sure she could escape if things went sour...
However, escaping might be the wrong thing to do, since the more guilty she looked, the less leverage for real freedom she would have.
Inside the cell, she had all the basics: a bed, a table, a chair and a small lavatory. Nothing too nice, but as cells went, it wasn't half bad. Actually, just from personal experience, she knew it could have been a heck of a lot worse! As it was, the inherent need ponies in this universe had to be overly polite to enemies of certain threat levels had guaranteed that she would be comfortable, if not lavished with the latest literature and a wine cellar of her own.
This was a prison for another noble pony, not some random changeling off the street... or at least so she thought. No one would leave a fairly high quality saucer with a cup and tea for a changeling, would they? Especially since the changelings here seemed pretty reviled.
Sweetie frowned. "This place really does need a wine cellar."
Her attention was drawn to the stone floor and walls beyond the barriers, as well as the small window that allowed enough light to go through to give the room less of a dreary look, but wasn’t big enough to let her see outside. Her magic couldn’t penetrate the barriers, but she could still hear the whispering voices of the rocks and the cheerful banter of the wind, blowing from the sea. Beyond, she could hear the waves, but not the water itself. That made her captivity less intimidating, but the fact that they would go to such extremes meant that they probably intended her to be here for a while.
Sweetie sighed and sat down, biting down on an apple that had been provided for her incarceration, part of an ironic ‘welcome to prison’ fruit basket. Chewing slowly and thoughtfully, her thoughts went back to herself, or rather, her local self.
How had she grown up to be such a pompous jerk? It's like she had been turned into a sponge and absorbed all that she hated from Diamond Tiara into herself, leaving Tiara almost pure and unblemished.
She would have words with Blueblood. Oh yes.
Spoiling? Good. Spoiling rotten? Not good.
This filly seemed to have forgotten where she came from, who her friends were and what traits were admired by those she used to be around. Sweetie very much doubted that Rarity would have turned into somepony like that.
The door to the cell block picked that very moment to open, the iron grate moving apart like two pairs of screws or a jaw full of interlocking steel teeth. The metal retreated into the walls and a faint shimmer crackled in the air. A moment later and a familiar-looking hoof clopped against the floor, preceding a white leg and a mare’s body. Her body.
As if summoned by her earlier thoughts, the local Sweetie Belle entered the prison wearing the same cuirass from before, but now with a gaudy cloak over her sides and flank. It was a pure white with ruffled lavender edging, fixed around her throat with a silver chain and tiny, bead-like pearls. She held her horn and chin high as she entered, projecting confidence and superiority, the long curls of her mane bouncing softly. Diamond Tiara followed immediately behind her, wearing a smaller but very similar cloak and a notebook affixed to a chain around her neck.
She was also carrying a pillow in her teeth, and she hustled to place it down on the floor ahead of her mistress. Tiara then stood back and the local Sweetie Belle gracefully took her seat.
"Well then," she said, observing her imprisoned doppelganger. "I trust the accommodations are sufficient? You are not uncomfortable?"
Sweetie Belle shrugged from within the prison. "Eh, it'll do for now. But really? The cuirass? Who are you trying to impress this time? With me behind this seemingly indestructible cage and you safely outside, I doubt there's such need for pomp." She took a bite of her apple. "I mean, I get that it was probably drilled into you as you grew up, but still..." She snorted. "Also, I liked the Crusader cape better."
The Sweetie Belle outside blinked her green eyes and shook her head after a moment. "You misjudge my intentions. I merely wish to know where the other changelings are. I will take this cuirass off when they are found and in captivity alongside you."
"Sorry, not the sort of changeling you're looking for." Sweetie finished the apple and considered eating a pear, before shaking her head and looking at her counterpart. "If there are any changelings here, I have no idea who they are or where. Besides, your idea of what I am is way, way off target."
"Is it?" the other Sweetie wondered. "But where are my manners? Can you tell me your name, at least?"
"Sure! I do apologize for the delay and utter disregard for protocol." Standing up, and bowing just like Fleur had taught her, Sweetie smiled. "Sweetie Belle, at your service. Best friend of Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, taught at school by Miss Cheerilee, younger sister to Rarity and adoptive sister of..." She grinned. "Your brother-in-law. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I'm sure."
"You insist on keeping up your charade," the other Sweetie replied with a soft, ladylike sigh. "Very well, I will humor you. Since you are Sweetie Belle, I can play the role of Lady Belle. I don’t think I need to reiterate my background or my titles."
"Your... titles?" Sweetie shook her head. "I have been wondering about that, to be honest. What happened to you, Sw—Lady Belle? Titles never had any importance for us. I know that Blueblood insisted everypony be addressed properly—"
"Why do you keep mentioning my brother-in-law?" Lady Belle's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Tell you what." Sweetie grinned. "Ask him yourself when you have the time. That way you don't have to hear my side of the story and think I'm making everything up. In fact, ask Cadance, too! Ask how she felt after she woke up. Or, Luna. Ask Luna about the whoopie cushion."
Lady Belle and Diamond Tiara exchanged a quick look. One that Sweetie knew meant something, but she couldn’t quite decipher what.
"For all the good it will do, I will pen a letter to Canterlot that we have caught a changeling wearing my skin and taking my name," Lady Belle promised. She took a long, hard look at the her inside the magical cell. "Not that it will change anything, much less your fate."
Sweetie's challenging grin grew less abrasive and more fond. "That's because you don't know him like I do," she said in a lower voice. Her eyes met her counterpart's and she smiled earnestly. "It's too bad, really."
"In the meantime," Lady Belle continued, unperturbed by Sweetie’s comments. Her ears had twitched, though, so she had heard them. "Until we get a response, why don’t you answer my questions?"
Sweetie shook her head, gathering her thoughts. "First, I want to promise you that I am not one of the changelings that attacked Canterlot, nor am I related in species to them."
"If you are not a changeling, then what are you?" Lady Belle asked, ever polite. "You clearly know about my past. You are pretending to be me. You even know about the Crusaders."
Sweetie sighed and sat down again, looking Lady Belle in the eye. "Changelings are not very good at knowing about a pony's past to the extent that I know yours, so that should give you a hint. They'll copy a pony's behaviour to a degree, but their emphasis is always on getting what they want, while pretending to be somepony they're not. Case in point, Chrysalis acted completely different than Cadance."
"Some are more skilled than others," Lady Belle reminded her, "and you’re clearly not a common drone. Prior to the invasion, many changelings had infiltrated Equestria for months, some for years. That you are good at your job doesn’t convince me of anything other than your cunning and audacity. After all, Chrysalis posed as Cadance—in front of the Princesses, in front of Twilight’s family, in front of her own brother—for how long?"
"Almost a year," Diamond Tiara supplied the answer. "Nopony is sure, but there are many theories."
"Chrysalis..."—Sweetie grimaced—"was a crafty one. But she was nothing like Princess Cadance. Twilight would not be fooled by her, Blueblood had a very long fight with Cadance, and they tended to avoid each other for years, so it would be no surprise if he didn't catch on, and as for Celestia..." She shrugged. "Princess Celestia being fooled is harder to explain, but you'll have to concede the point that if I were trying to really pretend to be you, I'd be more... you. And less me! You can ask Diamond Tiara: the reason she caught on so easily was because I wasn't pretending to be you. If I'm as crafty as you say, then I wouldn't have been caught so quickly. No offence, DT."
"Tiara?" Lady Belle prompted.
"There were some fairly... obvious... differences in behavior," Diamond answered, lowering her eyes at being shoved suddenly into the spotlight. "She acts more like you did when we just arrived, maybe?"
"Then that explains it," Lady Belle decided. "A changeling acting on outdated intelligence."
Sweetie burst out laughing. "Oh wow, I am dense in this world!"
"HEY!" Lady Belle blurted out, but she quickly coughed into her hoof and composed herself. "I am not."
Sweetie smiled at the reaction. "Sorry, no outdated info. I'll clear some things up, first. You asked me what I was? I'm a pony changed into a fae. Another world, basically, with counterparts all over the multiverse. In essence, I am you, in this world, up to the Gala. In others, past Discord and Sombra... Have you heard those names here?"
"Discord and Sombra, of course. That was years ago, before I left Ponyville," Lady Belle replied, motioning to Diamond Tiara, who began writing on the notebook hanging from her neck. "Before we left Ponyville, I mean. And you mentioned a gala. Which gala?"
"The one where Sis and Blueblood fell in love, of course," Sweetie said.
"Luna’s Gala?" Lady Belle asked. "That would have to be the one... But everypony knows about my sister and His Grace and how she became a Baroness. A book was written about Sis—about my sister—only last year. This is no secret."
"A book?" Sweetie grinned, sensing an opportunity. "Let me see. I'm sure the book mentioned that the day of the gala, we woke up when Sis screamed her lungs out because of Opalescence. And then, I'm also sure that the book mentioned that we were late for class, and that Scootaloo got me and Apple Bloom into an accident involving ducks crossing the road, or that we landed in the trash and Diamond Tiara's exact words at the time were—"
"'Hey, Blank Flanks,'" Diamond Tiara recalled the words, saying them in her own voice, "'Why don't you go dig around some more in the trash for your cutie marks?’ Something like that, I think."
"'Hey, Blank Flanks!'" Sweetie repeated the words with her best nasal Diamond Tiara impression. "'Why don't you go dig around some more in the trash for your cutie marks? I'm sure you can find something that'll fit you just fine!' Followed by the usual laughing from Silver Spoon, of course."
"Sweetie," Diamond said quietly, before leaning over to whisper something in Lady Belle’s ear.
Lady Belle merely nodded and closed her eyes for a few long seconds.
"I remember most of that, yes," she finally admitted, and she opened her eyes to re-examine the Sweetie in the cell. "Rarity screaming because of Opal, that stupid trash... Actually, it’s all coming back to me. What a terrible morning!" She briefly gagged before catching her impropriety. "Okay," she added, then she grimaced. "I mean, very well. Color me impressed. But if you are me, what happened later in the day?"
Sweetie shrugged. "I don't remember."
"You don’t remember?" Lady Belle repeated, just to be sure she heard right.
"In my own world, we took an exam on unicorn history," Sweetie explained. She frowned, trying to recall the original way things had gone instead of the thousands of other days she’d spent in the Gala time loops. "Twilight polymorphed a pair of mice into horses... They escaped?" Her shoulders slumped for a second as she realized she couldn’t really remember. So instead, she shrugged again. "I’d bet things played out differently here. Blueblood had this whole thing planned, but I was gone before it happened."
"I see. And you really think my sending a letter to Canterlot will mean somepony will come and set you free?" Lady Belle asked, incredulous. "Do you know what the changelings did to him?" She frowned as well, but it was a sharper, deeper frown than the caged Sweetie’s. "What they did to us?"
"I don't know what they did to you," Sweetie said, her eyes softening. "I was never near Ponyville when they attacked. I was helping Blueblood, Cadance and Princess Luna free him from a trap that Chrysalis' servant had him ensnared in. I couldn't stay, and I wanted to help more, but..." She looked away. "I couldn't stay. I didn't know what happened to him after that until you confirmed he was alive."
Lady Belle craned her neck slightly, examining her captive counterpart with a discerning eye. A hoof rose to her mouth, dabbing at her chin as she thought. Sweetie watched herself watching herself. It was all still kind of surreal.
"I don’t think I believe you," she said at length, but added in the same breath, "though I will write the letter and give you a chance to prove your story. I am a fair mare, after all."
"Thank you, I guess... I just have one more question, if you would answer it for me."
"Ask it, and I’ll decide if I want to answer," Lady Belle replied.
"You still like musical theatre, right? Tell me you didn't get your cutie mark for singing Sapphire Shores songs."
Lady Belle’s frown ebbed away and she even broke into a small smile. "No. Though I did meet Sapphire Shores several times. Actually, I earned my cutie mark when Blueblood sent a pony down from Canterlot to perform. He insisted she stay in the room next to mine."
Sweetie's eyes were wide and she leaned forward, truly interested. "Who was it? Was it... Was it Octavia?"
"Octavia Melody, yes," Lady Belle answered, with a look of confusion. "How did you guess?"
Sweetie's grin wouldn't go away. "Blueblood got me in contact with her and she taught me to play the cello." She laughed. "I'm glad it was her that helped you out," she said honestly, relaxing into her chair. "No matter what happens, it seems that some things are meant to be."
"But our cutie marks are different," Lady Belle reminded her, and she pointed very briefly in the direction of her captive self’s hindquarters.
"Regardless, they came from music, and Octavia was a big part of that. For whatever reason, be it destiny or chance, she’s a big influence for both of us, here and in other places, in the end." Sweetie nodded.
"The similarities are uncanny," Diamond Tiara noted.
Lady Belle’s frown returned and she directed it, however briefly, at her earth pony assistant and one-time tormentor. "Yes, uncanny," she agreed. Rising from her pillow, she sighed. "You’ll have to excuse me a moment. Tiara, continue the interrogation in my stead."
"Of course," Diamond said, nodding with her pen still in her mouth.
Lady Belle left much as she had entered, head held high and with formal poise. Her tail sashayed back and forth behind her, the curls just a few inches above the floor.
"It seems you upset her," Diamond Tiara explained, once Lady Belle was gone from the room. She turned back to the cell. "Before she returns, I’d be happy if you could answer some questions for me."
Sweetie blinked. "Why do I feel like I'm being interviewed for a job?"
Diamond tittered, having to use a hoof to keep the pen from falling out of her mouth. "Oh no, I’m much, much harder on ponies I interview. This is just a simple, casual interrogation."
"Fair enough. Hey, do you still like apple walnut muffins? I like the fruit, but I would love one of those, especially if it's one of Pinkie's." Sweetie's eyes widened. "Does Sugarcube Corner export to Bitaly?"
Tiara shook her head. "Sorry. Only Ponyville products out here are a few Barnyard Bargains stores, and even those weren’t around until I got here." She tapped her left cheek. "Muffins aren’t huge down here like they are back home... but I think I can arrange for something. Actually, yes, I know a good place."
"That's great!" Sweetie nodded in thanks. "Okay, shoot, Tiara. What do you need to know?"
"Like Lady Belle said, we need to know what other changelings are in the city or in the countryside," Tiara said. Before Sweetie could object, she added, "I know you aren’t a changeling. You’re a fay? Fae? Fay. But if you do know anything, I’d appreciate you telling me. There’s been some... hysteria lately about changelings. Ponies are on edge. Lady Sand Dune herself is concerned.
"But"—Tiara nibbled on her pen—"those things you remembered. I hadn’t even thought about all of that in a long time."
"I don't live in the same timeline as you. For me, that happened... a lot more recently. Only a couple of years at most." Sweetie frowned. "Why is everypony so worried about changelings invading Bitaly? Didn't you beat them back? From what I've learned in our conversation, if there are any changelings around, there probably aren’t nearly enough to be a threat to anypony here."
"Changelings are always a threat." Diamond Tiara stamped a hoof at the mere thought of them. "The Hives were devastated after the Battle of Canterlot—their Queens were killed, but some escaped, and they’ve been causing trouble here and there ever since. A few years ago, a group that fled to the north even tried to instigate a war between Equestria and Crown Roc! That’s why, whenever we find them, we hunt them down. Who knows what kind of evil they’re up to here in Bitaly?"
Sweetie sighed. "I can't argue with you on that. My experiences with changelings here were always... negative." She shook her head. "Honestly, Tiara, if I knew about any changelings here I would tell you. I wouldn't want Lady Belle or anypony else here to be their victim, but I just arrived today."
"In the suite where Lady Belle was having her portrait done?" Tiara guessed.
Sweetie nodded. "The portrait needed an honest smile. That's all I have to say about it." She grinned. "You know, I never really thought I'd have an easier time talking to you than to myself."
"Lady Belle has been through a lot. Leaving Ponyville wasn’t easy for her and she wasn’t exactly happy to have me along instead of Apple Bloom or Scootaloo. And... I didn’t do much to endear myself to her at first." Tiara actually looked and sounded contrite, her ears folded back and a look of regret on her face. "Give her some time."
"It probably wasn’t easy on you either, though, was it?" Sweetie asked. "The Diamond Tiara I knew... Well, uh..." She was kind of a bitch, but Sweetie didn’t exactly want to say as much.
"You remember I thought I was a pretty big deal back in Ponyville?" Tiara asked. "The richest girl in town, the prettiest cutie mark, the filly everypony wanted to be around?"
"I do remember that. Not exactly the words I would use, but close enough."
Despite herself, Tiara smiled at the memory. "I was the prettiest young mare in town, too. You, or my Sweetie, she had a crush on this colt, Pipsqueak, so of course I tried to steal him from her!" Tiara sighed wistfully. "Good times."
"Pipsqueak? That little colt from Trottingham?" Sweetie blinked. "The one with the Luna crush?"
Tiara rolled her eyes at the reminder of that little personality quirk. "The one with the Luna crush, yes." She coughed. "But it wasn’t about him, it was about annoying you. I never really liked you, you know? I liked your sister... But anyway, let’s just say we weren’t on the best of terms when we left. Daddy warned me, too. He tried to prepare me for the trip, but I refused to listen. I figured I’d go to Bitaly and—hoofmaiden or not—I’d be the prettiest and most popular filly in the court."
Sweetie shook her head. "Court doesn't work that way... It must have been a really hard time for you."
"Do you know anything of noble courts?" Tiara asked, shaking her head at her own foalishness. "Especially unicorn courts? Hard time just scratches the surface."
"I attended a couple of court sessions with Blueblood and I've seen other courts," Sweetie said softly. "I'm afraid that being a unicorn, it was simply a drag for me, rather than an experience where I learned much. I was much younger and a lot more naive back then."
Diamond Tiara nodded, understanding, at least in part. "Sweetie was much the same way. Rarity had coached her on how to act and behave, but she wanted an adventure when she arrived. She thought Sand Dune would be just like her sister. But Lady Sand Dune is very strict and very demanding. She isn’t cruel, mind you, but she expects excellence in all things and she has no tolerance for ineptitude. She had made a deal with Lady Rarity, so no matter how clumsy Sweetie was, it wasn’t like she’d be expelled from court... but that first year, she struggled. She struggled a lot."
Sweetie frowned, thinking about her counterpart's attitude. No wonder she acted like that, guarded and ready to stomp down any trace of her old personality. It had been ironed out of her with peer pressure, high expectations, and a task master. It must be almost painful for her to meet 'herself' with a more carefree attitude.
"As for myself," Tiara continued, "let’s simply say that I was not accorded the respect that I thought was my due. My rich daddy was far away and no one cared about him. Money didn’t matter to the other fillies, only standing, and that you have to fight for. The other earth pony fillies were the worst. You’d think they’d be more understanding, but it was the exact opposite! Everypony picked on me because I was new. A new foreign filly. New money. Too new to know what to say and what to do and who was important. They even made fun of my cutie mark!
"Can you believe that?" she all but exclaimed, pointing to her tiara cutie mark in obvious disbelief. She nonetheless shrugged it off a second later. "I guess it goes to show you nopony is immune. Through it all, I had to learn to adapt. I couldn't just go running back to Ponyville with my tail between my legs. Besides, Daddy needed me here to help the family business, and for an earth pony, nothing is more important than family."
Tiara smirked. "At some point... Sweetie and I started talking instead of ignoring each other. I guess we both realized we had enough enemies and rivals—we didn’t need to fight amongst ourselves, too." She smiled, a broad, genuine smile having finally come to a positive part of her story. "We became friends. We'd found somepony we could trust."
Sweetie chuckled. "No wonder you caught on so quickly that I wasn't her. I thought at first it was that I was too obvious, but I think you'd have caught on even if I had been trying to act like her."
Diamond Tiara didn’t respond to that. She just smiled and looked down at her hooves. It was about then that Sweetie noticed a faint blush on the earth pony’s cheeks.
"Being alert for changelings is just part of the job, that’s all," Tiara muttered.
Sweetie shook her head, but didn't stop smiling. "Whatever you say, Tiara."
"Well, enough about us!" Diamond declared, then she paled slightly. "I mean me! Enough about me!" She flipped the pen around from the left to the right side of her mouth. "Let’s hear what you know about the changelings. Anything you can tell me is better than nothing!"
Sweetie sighed. "Alright, I'll tell you all I know about changelings, Tiara, but it's probably a lot less than you already know."
Sweetie lay in bed, staring at the faintly shimmering ceiling of her barrier cell and considering her day so far.
The interrogation by Diamond Tiara had not shed any new light on the situation of the world. Plenty of complaining about the court, reminiscing, and even a light jab at Silver Spoon's glasses, but nothing that would allow her counterpart to trust her. Probably, Tiara had been told to divulge as little real information as possible while gaining as much as possible. Whatever else Diamond Tiara was, she wasn’t an idiot, neither before nor after her time in the cutthroat court of Bitaly. She’d picked her words well.
Still, if anything positive could be said about Chrysalis’ indoctrination and training, it was that the spymasters had taught Sweetie very well to pick up hints and body language. Innocuous comments or too-carefully worded replies told almost as much as straightforward answers could, and Sweetie had been trained for two years by the best infiltrators in this world.
It was clear that the battle with the changelings had not been as decisive as ponies wanted to pretend. That one, they hadn't even tried to hide, given that they were pretty much convinced that Sweetie herself was involved. But the unrest, the fear... It told her that whatever remnants of the changeling hives were left, they were active, and they had probably attempted more attacks or tried to re-establish control of their territories.
She hadn't found out many specifics about the battle of Canterlot, but it seemed a lot more violent and involved than the one she had experienced when she had still been a filly.
Since when had she stopped thinking of herself as a filly? How long had she not been one? Probably longer than Lady Belle.
She snorted again, growing aggravated.
The pretentious git, coming in with lines about how she was a noble and her sister and brother-in-law were nobles. Had she truly forgotten her origins? Was it any surprise that they had just about ended up in a fight?
Sweetie pouted, thinking more on her attitude towards herself that morning.
Looking at it from an impartial point of view, there were probably two sides to the blame game. Lady Belle might’ve been a git, but maybe it was partly Sweetie’s own fault, too, for being so aggressive and judgemental towards the local Sweetie. It wasn't her life after all, not this one... though maybe it could have been, once upon a time, if things had been different. It also seemed like her local version had had a hard time at court, trying to live up to expectations. Chances were that, had she herself not been catapulted into the multiverse, she might have ended up being worse.
On top of that, what had her trip across worlds gotten her? She was a monster in appearance, inequine, and wasn’t that the root and the cause of so much of this current trouble?
If she had shown up looking like her original self, her natural self, her... real self, then who knows how everypony would’ve reacted. They probably would have still accused her of being a changeling.
It was this body of hers. Even Bon Bon couldn't live outside with her true form, lest Ponyville as a whole attack her and most likely end up hurting Lyra as well. Maybe that's why she was so angry with Lady Belle.
Lady Belle was no monster. She had only had to deal with noble families and infighting at court, which was draining at the best of times and would make most ponies callous. That alone had been enough to change Lady Belle’s personality, while Sweetie herself...
Everypony wanted her to be carefree and happy all the time, despite everything that had happened to her. They looked at her as if she still was that little filly sitting at the library and struggling to lift a cup of tea with a levitation spell.
Why couldn't they understand that she had grown? That she was a different filly? Sweetie almost growled. She had learned more magic. She could fight—she had combat spells and moves that could utterly destroy her opponents. She could see that whatever this Lady Belle had gone through, it had never included being chased by hordes of monsters and having to fight them back and kill them. She was willing to bet that this Sweetie Belle wouldn't dare look the Beast in the eye and challenge it. This Sweetie Belle wouldn't have died over and over in a labyrinth of death!
And yet, she, Sweetie Belle, slayer of monsters, apprentice to evil knights, demonic queens, spymasters, dueling experts, musicians, singers, nobles... She had to be happy. No. Not just happy. She had to be innocent. She had to be able to smile and that smile had to reach her eyes and give warmth to others who had not been in her place and had no idea what it was like, being at war!
What type of pony could go through torture, war, years repeating the same day, being transformed all the way to their soul into a parody of what they should look like... losing their home, missing their family... What type of pony could live through all that and not change at all? Why was the local Sweetie entitled to change into a spoiled brat, handed everything she could ever want, while multiverse-Sweetie had to deal with almost having murdered her mentor and almost being killed by her own sister and remain the same?
It wasn't fair. And it was even worse to see that Sweeties in all other universes were continuing their paths and lives and achieving something while she was stuck meeting ponies anew or convincing them that she meant them no harm, just long enough to be flung into another world to repeat the process. They weren’t any more Sweetie, any more deserving of a real life, than she was.
It was true that she had had no plans for her future when she had become Twilight's apprentice, but so what? She had been too young! She hadn’t even known that her talents were in music, or that she had to plan anything so early in her life. She could have been a famous singer, or an actress. She could have been a magical engineer, with her gift for spell matrices. But no... NO. She had messed up—messed up just once—and it had taken away her own future and Twilight's. And now, she couldn't even contemplate a future, since there was no foreseeable end to her journeys. What else would she become?
Sweetie hit the pillow with her hoof. Why didn't she get paintings done of herself? Why didn't she have Diamond Tiara as a hoofmaiden or even a friend? Why— Why couldn't she have grown up with Blueblood as a brother-in-law? Why couldn't she have kept her big brother and sister instead of being trapped in this stupid, neverending journey to maybe, maybe save Twilight Princesses knew when and Princesses knew how? Why couldn't Blueblood have escaped with her? Was it so much to ask to have have somepony, anypony, with her? Somepony that knew what was going on and understood her?
She turned onto her side, trying to fight back the tears she could feel running down her nose.
"It's not fair," she whispered. "It’s just not..."
A grinding sound interrupted her thoughts as the iron teeth that served as the door to the prison block opened wide. Sweetie craned her neck to check and see who her visitor was before quickly turning around, leaving her back to the door. It was Diamond Tiara again, and for some reason, Sweetie didn’t want her one-time tormentor to see how she probably looked at the moment.
"Sweetie Belle," Diamond Tiara greeted in an amiable tone. "Breakfast time. Go ahead and put it through the field."
Sweetie’s ears prickled at the sound of another voice. Tiara hadn’t come alone? It was probably the serving mare again. She heard a gentle fizzing sound as the enchanted meal platter passed through the barriers into her cell.
"I have some news," Tiara added, and there was a pause, probably as the earth pony sat down. "Lady Belle has written your letter, but it will take some time to reach Canterlot. In the meantime, Lady Sand Dune has heard of your capture and is flying back home to see you for herself. I thought you should know and be prepared."
"Oh, joy of joys," Sweetie Belle snorted. "I'll be polite, but I just hope she doesn't intend to turn me into Lady Belle 2.0."
"Lady Sand Dune is an unwavering opponent of changelings, both inside and outside our borders. I’ll admit I am a bit worried for you," Tiara told her with a soft sigh. "It would be smart to get your story straight, and yes, please do be polite. She is a very powerful mare and rather protective of... Lady Belle. She’ll probably also want to study your illusion in more detail. You seem resistant to the magic spells Twilight developed."
"Well, as long as she doesn't become violent or really try to torture me, we'll be okay," Sweetie surmised. Then she smiled, recalling the words of Lady Belle the day before. "I might not look it, but I’ve made more than a few monsters pay for underestimating me."
"Madame, may I be excused?" the servant asked.
"Yes, go ahead," Diamond Tiara said. After the servant was gone, she spoke up again. "Is something wrong?"
Sweetie shook her head, wiping her face before turning around. "No. Nothing... but there's something you should know, Tiara. My illusion is not a lie—it's a reflection of my real self. If Sand Dune tries to rip it apart and manages to do so, it would be like ripping my soul." She leveled her eyes at her counterpart's hoofmaiden. "Worse, it would be a violation of my soul. As much as I don't want to start a real fight, she can't do that to me. I won't let her."
Diamond Tiara pointed to her rather hornless forehead. "I’m not exactly much of a magic type, you know. Numbers and finance I can help with, but magic? Not so much. But what you’re saying is that this isn’t, like, a magical appearance on top of your real one?" She clearly paused to pick a more diplomatic way of describing it. "If it's still an illusion, would you look...different?"
Now facing Diamond Tiara, Sweetie took a deep breath.
"It's not even a real transformation, like with changelings..." Sweetie started slowly. "It's just so complicated that if you touched my coat, it would feel like real fur, and all your senses would tell you that I'm Sweetie Belle in body. It's a blanket that protects me, and dropping it... it's hard. Even surrounded by ponies I trust, it's like I'm exposing myself like a piece of meat ready to be cut into pieces. As if something precious were being taken away from me and I could never get it back."
Diamond Tiara's expression grew slightly horrified. "But what you're describing sounds—" She cut herself short, apparently unable to even continue.
Sweetie looked away. "I’ve only shown my true self to a few ponies... It's not something I enjoyed, and even if I trust them with my life, it's hard to show them what I am now."
Diamond Tiara grimaced. "A... fay?"
Sweetie smiled bitterly. "Whatever you call it, whatever I am, I’m not a pony anymore. Sweetie Belle and yet not." Her eyes grew hard. "I'll fight anypony that just wants to force me to expose myself like that."
"You would be a bit hard-pressed to break through your prison," Diamond Tiara said softly, walking around it. "I heard this type of cell was originally designed to hold Twilight Sparkle, or a pony of similar power. You can't tell me you’re as powerful as she is."
Sweetie chuckled. "Of course not, but I'm pretty sure that, if I wanted to, I could get out. A prison like this requires a very delicate balance of magic... On the other hoof, without going into detail, I'd rather stay here and prove I'm not an enemy than escape and make you all think I am."
Diamond Tiara blinked at the bold statement. "You seem very sure of yourself."
After a pause, Sweetie explained, "What else do I have? I need to be patient." She sat down and warmed some water with magic so that she could prepare some tea to have with her meal. "If Lady Belle sent that letter, patience and endurance are going to be my allies more than desperate fights."
"You could just be trying to scare me," Diamond Tiara countered, although her demeanor betrayed the comment as more of an afterthought than a real challenge.
"To what end, Tiara?" Sweetie asked with a sigh, pausing in her meal. "You’ll be telling Lady Sand Dune and Lady Belle all that we've talked about, but so far you're the closest thing I have to a friend and ally here."
"I am?" Tiara stopped and shook her head. "Well, I guess I might be."
Diamond Tiara took a seat while Sweetie went back to her meal in silence. There was a companionable sort of energy in the room: an unspoken understanding that lasted the whole meal that made both young mares simply feel comfortable with each other for the time being.
Finally, when Sweetie was done, Diamond Tiara asked, "Was breakfast to your liking?"
"It was delicious," Sweetie said. "Thank you." She glanced at Diamond Tiara. "I have to admit, I'm a bit curious about why you're still here."
"My Lady bid me to attend to you," Tiara answered. Seeing the other mare roll her eyes, she continued, "And I asked to. I didn’t like seeing the two of you fighting before anyway. My talking to you makes you happier, her happier and me happier. And a happy prisoner is less likely to cause trouble."
Sweetie blinked, surprised at the straightforward answer. "Well, that... makes perfect sense."
"Unless there’s somepony else you’d rather chat with?" Tiara winked rather teasingly. "Pipsqueak, maybe? He could read you his latest Luna Letter! Or that script he’s working on for I Dream of Lunie."
Sweetie chuckled. "I don't think I'm quite prepared to read those yet."
"I didn’t think so!" Tiara smiled rather brightly. "I guess I’ve stopped seeing you as a changeling and more as... somepony. I don’t want to see you treated like something you aren’t. Plus, I think Lady Sand Dune will reward me for getting information out of you! So"—she leaned forward towards the barrier cell—"if it's true that you have been to other worlds, have you met me in them?"
Sweetie laughed, despite herself. "Very well, I'll tell you about a world where everypony we know was the opposite sex. Including you."
Diamond Tiara's eyes went wide. "You met yourself as a male?"
"Yes," Sweetie said. "And although he was young, I can tell you... he's probably grown up to be a mare-magnet."
"Wait!" Diamond Tiara gasped. "What about me? Was I also a mare-magnet?"
Sweetie smirked. "Oh, wouldn't you like to know?"
Their conversation lasted for a while, but just as Sweetie was about to get to the best part, it was cut short by the soft click of a gaslight knob, the gentle white light of the prison cell block shifting into a painful reddish-orange.
Diamond Tiara, her mouth still open mid-sentence, slowly turned around in her seat. Blue eyes widened as it began to dawn on her that something was amiss. Watching her closely, Sweetie also couldn’t help but look around in dawning confusion. The lights hadn’t changed color before except to dim in what she could only guess to be mimicry of the daylight outside.
"What’s... going on?" Diamond asked, and she bopped her forehead with her hoof for asking a question nopony here could possibly answer. She turned to Sweetie. "I’ll only be a moment."
"Whatever it was, it wasn’t me," Sweetie promised, raising her hooves up in a placating manner. Still, she got up on all fours and paced the edge of her cell facing the door while Tiara stepped over to the jaw-like metal grate.
Sweetie narrowed her eyes for a second, as a thought came to mind: it was the design of the outer cell doors. The inner ones were interlocking magical barriers, which made sense when you wanted to negate magic and contain something seamlessly. The issue was why bother with the interlocking metal lattice for the outer door connecting the cell room with the prison block? Even when it was closed, there was about enough room to squeeze a dainty hoof through the bars. Why have a system that totally encapsulated a prisoner and surround it with one with a bunch of holes?
"Hello?" Diamond Tiara called to anypony outside in the hallway connecting Sweetie’s cell to the prison block beyond. "Gentle Breeze? Ser Latchkey? Is anypony out there?"
Sweetie’s ears flattened against her head as she picked up a soft whine.
"Do you hear that?" she asked.
"Oh!" Diamond Tiara smiled to herself as she saw something flashing—a light blinking, outside in the hall. "Blink-blink-blink, pause, and then three more. That’s the emergency signaling system."
"What does it mean?" Sweetie pressed, leaning up against her shimmering cell wall. "It must be code for something."
"Of course it’s code for something!" Diamond Tiara trotted back to where she had left her notepad on the floor, the very same that she had carried around her neck earlier. Holding it up with one hoof, she flipped to the back pages and a double-length sheet unfolded.
Brushing a pink and white bang of her mane out of her eyes, she began to scan the document, apparently for the first time. Sweetie could see the expression on her face slowly shift from casual concern to dawning shock to the sort of fear preceded—like an earthquake—by bodily tremors. Diamond Tiara’s lips parted as her jaw went slack.
"Tiara?" Sweetie asked, trying to not press her face up against the barrier. "Mind sharing the good news?"
"There’s... There must’ve been a breakout somewhere in this pillar of the prison," she haltingly explained, licking her lips anxiously as she double checked the translation document for the light-codes. "This is not good. Lord Sand Stone must have initiated a lockdown."
"A breakout?" Sweetie took a step back from the magical barrier and turned her eyes towards the interlocking iron teeth that separated her cell from the hall. "Tiara, I don’t think I’ve asked this before, but now that I think about it, I didn't get to see what it looked like from the outside in that sealed chariot you brought me in on. This is just a normal prison, right?"
The earth pony mare shook her head. "Ah, no! No, not at all. This is the Quartz Family’s maximum security prison. It’s, well, it’s mostly a prison for monsters."
"Changelings. Rampaging minotaurs. Sky serpents. A zebra witch doctor," Diamond Tiara listed. "I think there’s a sphinx somewhere, too. And a troll! I remember hearing that there was a troll in one of the other wings. Creatures we haven’t yet exiled back to the Sunset Lands. Everything except sea monsters." She quickly looped the notepad and its chain back around her neck and headed over to the metal bars once again. "Hello? Excuse me! I’d like to be let out, please? Anypony!"
Sweetie was about to tell her to give up—
When Diamond’s prayers were apparently answered!
"Miss Tiara!" a stallion’s voice rang back, along with the clatter of armored horseshoes on stone.
"Gentle Breeze!" she called to the stallion, and Sweetie saw him a second later. Gentle Breeze was, as the name implied, a pegasus pony. His coat was a darker shade of gray and his mane sky blue. He wore a steel armored cuirass with the ruffled undershirt that Sweetie had seen before. Various derivatives of it seemed to make up the Bitalian version of the ubiquitous royal guard armor back in Canterlot and Ponyville.
"What in Equestria is going on out there?" she asked, as he gently pushed her hooves back past the metal bars.
"I don’t know!" Breeze turned to attend to something next to the doorway. Sweetie watched him as best she could. It had to be the unlocking mechanism for the metal bars. Breeze turned briefly to explain to Diamond Tiara, "But ponies are saying the chaos-cursed Black Sprite got out somehow! Lord Sand Stone’s ordered the chains ready, just in case."
"The chains?" Tiara asked, and she stepped back a hoof. "You can’t be serious?"
"We need to get you off this pillar ASAP, Miss!" Breeze seemed to hesitate a second, his teeth bared in frustration. "No, no, the old code won’t work. The emergency one is—"
"Please hurry," Tiara said, and he nodded as he worked, but she didn’t forget she wasn’t alone either. She glanced back at Sweetie. "Ser Breeze, you must know we can’t leave... our prisoner here to drop with the pillar. We need to move her to another wing of the prison!"
"Drop?" Sweetie asked, starting to catch on to something. "What do you mean, ‘drop?’"
"I can’t open any of the barriers, so there’s no point dwelling on it," Breeze gruffly replied, and he nodded to himself. With a whirr of hidden gears, the teeth of the metal door began to screw back into the wall, retracting. "Here we go!"
"Ser Breeze." Diamond held up a hoof to stop him as he reached for her. "I must insist we—"
"And I said there’s no time!" He reached for her hoof, grabbed hold, and started to drag her out. "Besides, Lady Belle would have my head if something happened to you in here!"
"No! Wait! We can’t just—" Whatever else she was going to say turned into a scream as something in the hall, a mass of gold and black, plowed into and over Ser Breeze. He roared in surprise, and a gust of wind billowed back down the hall.
"Oh, oh!" Tiara gasped, falling backwards, catching herself, and inching away from the now open doorway, her posture low to the ground and afraid. "Ser Breeze?" she called out, wincing at the sounds of fighting beyond. "Breeze?"
The snarling face of a lion leered at her from the prison hall, muzzle wet with blood. Tiara screamed, bolting for the back of the outer cell as the lion—no, a manticore—squeezed impossibly through the comparatively narrow doorway. Sweetie slammed her hooves against the magical barrier around her to try and get the creature’s attention, and it almost seemed like she had succeeded in distracting it, except the manticore snorted and...
"So you’re the one who blew our cover," it murmured in a throaty, muffled voice that became more easily understood as it changed form. Bloody canines receded into a shrinking muzzle, and a thick black mane rippled and morphed into tawny yellow membrane. Paws the size of a pony’s chest melted away into jagged hooves amid a brief split-second torrent of golden fire. The last to revert in form was the manticore’s scorpion tail that whipped side to side as it withered down into a flap of yellow membrane.
What stood before the two mares was a changeling: a yellow changeling, its body longer and more sinuous, more feline, than the ones Sweetie was familiar with. With the longer body came a pair of wings that folded behind a golden carapace. Most notable of all, though, was the complete lack of a horn. The yellow changeling’s golden eyes darted between the caged Sweetie and the terrified and helpless Diamond Tiara.
"The room’s clear," it yelled over its shoulder, wiping its blood-stained mouth with the back of a black, pitted foreleg.
The fierce, animalistic changeling then stepped aside.
Behind it entered a second changeling, this one not bothering with a disguise. This one was green, more like the kind Sweetie was familiar with. The body of this changeling was black, save for some glittering green carapace around the torso, back and wings. It was taller than a normal drone as Sweetie remembered them, the body type and the extra-long horn more like... more like Chrysalis, but that couldn’t be. This changeling was still too small, too immature looking. She wasn’t Chrysalis, and yet she was so similar...
Her green eyes scanned the room, skipping Sweetie and instead focusing on the walls. "Thank the Hatcher, we got here before the matrix frequency reset." Having examined the room’s magic, only then did she set her eyes on the captive Sweetie Belle. "Are you sure this is her?" she asked, glancing back at the yellow changeling.
"This is the new changeling, isn’t it?" the yellow one hissed at the cowering Diamond Tiara.
The terrified earth pony could only nod.
"Then I’ll have you out momentarily, my young sister!" the tall green changeling declared, her horn awash with unicorn magic. She lowered her horn towards the magical runes that powered one of the barrier walls, electric green starting to eat away at them. "While I deal with this, Sever, you might as well dispose of that earth pony."
"Gladly!" The yellow changeling stalked towards Tiara, her tail alone morphing into an arachnoid stinger while the rest of her remained unchanged.
"Don't harm her!" Sweetie warned the changeling. "Don't you dare harm her!"
The yellow changeling hesitated, glancing at Sweetie in surprise.
"I'll go with you," Sweetie growled. "Although I had no intention of escaping and now my credibility is down to zero. But Diamond Tiara must be left alone."
Chrysalis' lookalike glared at her but didn't stop disrupting the spell. "Why should we let the pony live? She was going to interrogate you! She would simply watch while Sand Dune tore you apart to reveal your secrets!"
"For me, it's a personal matter." Sweetie hoped the less said, the more convincing she would sound. "For you... some mercy will go a long way if things don't work out like you planned."
"Whatever you intend to do, it's best that we do it now!" the yellow changeling called out.
"Keep her safe!" Sweetie Belle ordered, joining the other changeling in channeling magic. "I'll aid from my side, but you must keep her away from us. We are leaving her behind, unharmed!"
The Chrysalis lookalike snorted, but continued her work. "You sound like you're used to giving orders, sister."
"I'm not used to being ignored," Sweetie returned, imitating the magic across from her. Although she couldn't be sure, and this was not the way she would have escaped, she could feel the barrier tremble with their efforts. She glanced at the yellow changeling. "The moment I'm free, I'll take care of her."
She saw Diamond Tiara shiver, and tried her best to smile encouragingly as the barrier finally shimmered and dispersed, not even with a bang, but with a fizzle. "That takes care of that! But I hope you had a plan other than releasing this?"
"Of course!" the green changeling retorted, magic flaring around her as she transformed into a mare in a medical orderly uniform. "Arrangements have already been made. We'll sneak out in the confusion!" She shot Diamond Tiara a glare before leading them out into the hall. The yellow changeling followed close behind her.
Sweetie walked up to and behind the terrified Diamond Tiara and pushed against her back, gently but insistently, until they were out of the room. The changeling pair was lingering over the fallen Ser Breeze, the sight of which made Diamond Tiara feel faint. Sweetie shook her head slightly at the sight. There was nothing to be done for him now.
Instead, she looked around and motioned for Tiara to go ahead, the two disguised changelings moving behind them. Concentrating, Sweetie cast an illusion spell, making it flame around her body as she took on the appearance of Bon Bon in a nurse’s uniform. Diamond Tiara noticed and almost did a double-take at the sight.
"This is a mistake," the yellow-armored changeling hissed, baring her teeth at the trembling Tiara. The entire facility rumbled around them before she could say more, her expression turning from predatory to worried.
"No, this is fine," the changeling leader hissed. "We’ll bring her with us for now... Assurance that our new sister will come with us."
"I'd rather leave her in a cell where she'd be safe," Sweetie retorted.
"There is no safe on this rock," the green changeling corrected her, breaking into a run as she led them down the hall. "The Black Sprite is four floors down. If they can’t contain it and the other things that get loose in the confusion, they’ll drop the prison wing into the ocean’s maelstrom."
"Into the what?" Sweetie gasped. "We’re in the air?" Given the reputation of the Quartz, and their naming conventions, Sweetie had assumed they’d ship their prisoners to somewhere in the desert.
"You really have no idea?" the golden changeling asked, an amused spring in her step. "Oh, you’ll see soon enough."
Tiara tried to say something at that but no sound escaped her mouth. Her lips moved, but it was like watching a mime. Tiara realized this, too, and glared at the source of her ensorcellement.
"Silencing spell?" the changeling leader asked Sweetie, more amused than surprised.
"I'd rather not risk Tiara's safety if she were to attempt saying something that might provoke you two," Sweetie explained.
The feline changeling snorted as she trotted, now fully taking on the guise of a griffin nurse. "Your kindness will be your downfall."
"We'll see," Sweetie muttered. "Anyway, we should hurry. I have no doubt Lady Belle will be here shortly."
"Let her come; I'll tear out her tongue!" the feline changeling hissed menacingly. "Then we can see what she’s like without that voice she’s so proud of." She licked her beak with a black tongue.
Sweetie Belle shook her head. "Ponies always underestimate Sweetie Belle," she said, giving Tiara a meaningful glance.
The young changeling queen that had come to her rescue took the lead again as they came to an intersection, seemingly ignoring them. "Is that why you didn't put up a fight?" she asked as they followed her. "I heard of your capture from one of my agents."
"In part," Sweetie conceded. "But also because it's always better to be underestimated. Like I said, Sweetie Belle is always underestimated."
The group made their way down the hall until they heard the sounds of fighting, then they slowed down. A quartet of pegasus guards stomped past in full armor, followed by a stern unicorn sergeant. None paid any attention to the medical staff. It seemed they had bigger flax to fry.
"Remember to keep your wards illuminated!" the unicorn yelled, directing the stallions forward and past the unassuming mares. "And by the Princesses, don’t let it touch your shadow! This is it, gentlestallions! Go, go, go!"
"We make for the entrance as fast as possible," the lead changeling whispered, glancing back at her three followers. "Do not engage in battle unless there's no other way; we need to get to the outer ring without drawing undue attention to ourselves."
"What about her?" the yellow changeling asked, motioning with her head at Tiara.
"Nothing," Sweetie responded, glaring at them. "She'll behave until we've crossed the gates, or we’re topside, or whatever. I want to leave her for Sweetie Belle."
The lead changeling hissed under her breath, her wings momentarily flexing beneath her pony disguise. "Leave her? To talk?"
Sweetie rolled her eyes. "There’s nothing she can say that they don't already know, and Tiara is no unicorn—she has no clue how you dismantled the cage. Call it foolishness, but I consider not provoking dangerous enemies a wise move. Any damage comes to her and you're not making a statement about changeling valor, but rather a personal attack which will guarantee a witch hunt."
The changeling shook her head but remained quiet, leading them into the chaos of the outer cells. Most were empty, but the group passed by one or two where Sweetie could see trios of glowing eyes behind magically warded bars. The guards were struggling to deal with the escapes in the lower floors, particularly this ‘Black Sprite’ Sweetie had heard about before, allowing for medical and civilian personnel to escape unharmed. Or so it seemed.
"You have to let us out!" a pony cried up ahead, near the exit up to the topmost floor.
"I just saw a shadow move!" Another huddled under her hooves in terror. "Oh Princesses, the sprite is here! I just know it!"
"You can’t keep us locked in here like criminals!" another pony in a white doctor’s coat protested.
"Damnit," the lead changeling cursed, raising a hoof to those behind her. Up ahead, Sweetie could see a small group of ponies milling anxiously. None of them were guards; most likely they were doctors or psychologists or other staff who had been caught in the lockdown. Up ahead of them was a vault-like door, guarded by a pair of humorless unicorns in armor.
"No one gets in or out!" the guard to the right of the door barked. "Lord Sand Stone’s orders!"
"Lord Sand Stone isn’t locked in here with rampaging monsters!" an outspoken earth pony in a white shirt protested. "I’m a lawyer! You have to let me out!"
"If you’re a lawyer, we should probably stick you in one of the cells."
"Do we try and take them?" the yellow changeling whispered as they all watched the alteration in progress.
"We won’t be able to open that door if we kill them," the green changeling snapped in reply. "There’s another way. Come on."
"Another way?" Sweetie asked as she followed. "If there’s another way out, then why are all those ponies at that exit?"
"That’s a good question," Sever, said. "Cerci, Princess, why aren’t any of the ponies heading for this other exit?"
The green changeling made an aggravated sound, and Sweetie could swear she rolled her eyes.
"Because this isn’t strictly an exit," she explained, trotting past the cells from before with the three eyed things in them. "We’re going to make an exit." She stopped at the occupied cell furthest from the crowd. "This one will do."
Tiara tried to say something, her voice straining against Sweetie’s spell as the changeling, Cerci, held up her hoof. The appendage rippled, shifting in size and color through two mare forelegs and then finally turning into a stallion’s. She then began to fiddle with the clockwork lock next to the enchanted iron grate that led into the cell.
"Are you trying to set that thing free?" Sweetie asked, as a warning light began to flash, the gas-lit flame turning from orange to blue. "Do you even know what’s in there?"
A gurgling snarl emanated from within the cell, and Sweetie steeled herself for when the cell opened... except instead of opening, there was a sudden and forceful ejection! The entire cell block broke away from mooring points in the prison block. Suddenly exposed to the light outside, Sweetie was able to very briefly see inside the cell—a cell similar to the one she had been in—beyond the interlocking iron teeth. She was able to distinguish a dark, twisted, vaguely pony-like figure as the inner cell tumbled away and into the open air—
Only to vaporize as it hit some sort of screen, the remnants falling away in a hailstorm of concrete chunks and glittering stardust.
"What the hay!" she heard herself murmur, but neither of the changelings seemed to notice. They were already moving through the now opening grate-door into the area the cell had just vacated. "What was that?"
"The prison is surrounded by a rapidly fluctuating pair of gravity spells," Cerci explained. "Look for the telltale distortion in the air. If you touch it, the shearing forces will rip you apart."
"Do you have wings?" Sever asked as a howling ocean wind blasted against their faces. Both she and Cerci were already spreading wings, pegasus-like in Cerci’s case and griffin-like in Sever’s. The sound of voices behind them came from what had to be guards alerted to the cell’s ejection and the prisoner’s execution.
"I'm afraid not. I'm not that type of changeling—not all of those of my type have wings," Sweetie admitted, and to her secret relief the other changelings nodded. Clearly changelings without wings were no anomaly to them. It was a small but lucky break. "I could always cast a teleportation spell, but I imagine those have been taken into account to prevent escapes."
Inching closer to the drop beyond, Sweetie could see more precisely just where she was. Below her, the wall of the prison "pillar" stretched downward for maybe two hundred hooves before terminating abruptly. Under that was what could only be called an abyss: a swirling eye in the middle of the ocean surrounded by jagged rocks and titanic crashing waves. Beyond the eye, what had to be the maelstrom she had heard about, was league after league of empty ocean. The shattered and splintered remains of what might once have been a large cylindrical tower were scattered around the maw of the maelstrom below, proof that at least once, the Quartz clan had made good on their promise to "drop" an entire wing of the prison rather than allow an escape.
Overhead, dark clouds loomed, serving as colossal anchors. Magical chains were set into them—Sweetie could see at least one very clearly—holding the physical prison-pillars of wings aloft, high in the air. It was a clearly and blatantly artificial pegasus construction, only marginally adorned with the usual pegasus architecture of waterfalls, pillars and colonnades. Instead, what parts of the structure didn’t support the towers of the mid-air prison complex were dedicated to holding in place a series of coils and at least three thin metal rings that encircled the prison... probably what was maintaining the fluctuating gravity spell. Sweetie knew of gravity spells from Twilight, but she’d never imagined one on this scale before.
"Your star field will end up scrambled if you try and project through a gravity spell," Cerci answered, clearly familiar with unicorn magic. "Grab onto me. Sever. Take the earth pony and follow my lead."
"You’re the princess," Sever consented with a nod.
Sweetie slowly moved behind Cerci. As soon as she felt secure, she nodded at the changeling.
"Alarm!" a stallion’s voice cried. "Sound the alarm!"
Sweetie held on as Cerci spread her wings and trotted right of the edge and into the open air. Changelings typically weren’t as nimble as pegasi, but you wouldn’t have known it from how easily Cerci pulled up and into a climb, hoof-lengths from the faint shimmer of the gravity spell. Sweetie felt the changeling’s body ripple beneath her hooves as she changed form in mid-flight, yet not all of Cerci’s body transformed. She seemed able to stop the transformation at her shoulders and haunches. Instead, only her legs lengthened and grew slender. It took a moment for Sweetie to realize what the partial-change had been to.
"A breezie?" she asked, amazed.
Not only was this changeling demonstrating a level of control over her transformation that Chrysalis herself had never shown or mentioned, but this meant she could scale up or scale down a metamorphic effect. Breezies were tiny and Cerci hadn’t altered her size at all.
"Breezie limbs, good for climbing," Cerci explained, her hooves sticking to the wall like glue. Without a moment’s hesitation, she began to ascend. Sweetie looked around and saw Sever, still in griffin form and carrying an utterly terrified Diamond Tiara, was also making her ascent, using her griffin paws to rise up... with some difficulty. The stone was not that yielding, and griffin claws were meant for digging into animals and the occasional tree, not solid granite.
Sweetie, noticing the difficulty of the griffon and Tiara's horrified gaze, quickly leaned to the side, confident that Cerci could handle her without any problems. She touched the wall, whispering softly to it and to the stone to yield to the griffon's claws. She felt Cerci's body twitch, and could see her ears move, trying to hear what she was saying, but despite her surprising abilities, Sweetie doubted the changeling would understand such an alien language.
She could immediately notice the difference, as under the surprised griffon's claws, the rock changed, allowing her to have a much firmer grasp. She began to climb, better able to keep pace with the green changeling she had called princess. Sweetie hadn’t missed that. But was Cerci really a changeling Princess? Or has Sever just used the term in place of boss or Ser?
"There!" Cerci yelled over the whip-like winds that surrounded the prison pillar, stirred into a frenzy by the gravity spell. She pointed towards one of the massive chains that anchored into the cloud perimeter. There was a walkway on top of it, along with some sort of cable tram.
The wall beneath their hooves rumbled, and looking down, Sweetie was hit by vertigo. Fighting back the momentary nausea, trying not to think about the sheer drop into oblivion, she was better able to appreciate the sight of some... thing, black and shadowy, spilling out of cracks in the wall. An inky tendril wound around itself, pointed upward, and grew a single baleful, beady eye.
"It can smell our shadows; don’t think too much about it," Cerci said simply, focusing on her climbing. "It’s too bright out here for it to follow us."
Sure enough, the eye and the tendril wavered and shriveled in the light. Much to Sweetie’s clear relief. That was the Black Sprite? Why couldn’t it be some effeminate stallion in pixie shoes? Had the local Sweetie and the rest of her ilk really thought her such a monster that she had to be locked up in a prison with eldritch horrors? Then again, given how hated changelings were in Equestria, maybe it was lucky they hadn’t thrown her through a portal right into Tartarus.
"Just a little closer and we jump," Cerci warned, wings transforming into diaphanous dragonfly-like appendages. "Sever!" She held out a hoof, motioning to her companion. "Get ready!"
Just as Cerci tensed to jump, cries of "Escape! Alarm!" split the air. "There they are!"
A pegasus guard was flying outside the gravitational eddy, a magical spear of some sort in his hooves. He leveled it at the changelings and began to fire as they jumped, but the magical bolts dissipated harmlessly against the powerful gravity spell that surrounded the prison—preventing escape but making it nearly impossible to intervene. Another blast of cold, salty ocean air hit Sweetie in the face, and she clung onto Cerci like a piece of flotsam in a heaving, violent storm.
The two mares slammed into the walkway more than landed, rolling and tumbling in a mess of limbs. Cerci, having anticipated the rough landing, recovered first and jumped up and onto her hooves. A magical spell was already pooling around her jagged horn, discharging as a greenish beam. The cable tram that had been halfway up to the cloud perimeter shuddered and jerked as the changeling severed one of the cables that supported it. The tram—occupied, to Sweetie’s horror—jerked forward and sprang off the tracks. A safety lock activated, thank the Princesses, leaving the tram to dangle helplessly off the giant chain it had been riding astride.
"That should keep those ponies busy!" Sever chortled, smoothing over her ruffled griffin feathers as she paced up to the two magic users. Tiara was still clinging onto her back like a remora, her face buried in the changeling’s lion-like body.
"This is our only chance! We make our rendezvous or we die trying," Cerci yelled, leaving no room for objection or argument. She broke into a gallop, following the walkway that ran parallel to the tram tracks. Sever followed close behind her, loping along like a hungry predator on the chase. She shook off her equine baggage in the process, and Diamond Tiara fell to the ground and nearly hit the edge before catching herself. No doubt she’d be screaming her lungs hoarse if not for the silence spell Sweetie had tagged her with. She looked just about at her wits end.
"Tiara." Sweetie prodded the young mare. "Tiara!" she repeated when she noticed that she hadn't quite pierced the numbing veil of fear that had all but frozen the earth pony mare in place. "Tiara, you need to stay here or go somewhere safe, probably the clouds at the end of this chain," she said, cancelling her spell to allow the other mare to talk. "I don't think you'd be safe with me otherwise... You have to tell them what you saw."
"T-tell them?" Diamond Tiara stammered, still looking wildly back at the prison. From their new vantage point, they could see how it, and two other pillars just like it, dangled precariously from yet more of the sky-chains.
Sweetie nodded. "They won't believe in me. Lady Belle already wants to find a reason to prove me an enemy, and Sand Dune will probably attack me on sight... At least you’ll know the truth." She glanced in the direction of the changelings. "I'll figure out what's happening. Please stay safe."
With that, and wondering if she was making a big mistake, Sweetie took off after the changelings, leaving an utterly confused mare in her wake.
Hopefully, Tiara would be able to follow close behind. Sweetie didn’t feel all that confident leaving her on one of those giant chains when, somewhere, somepony had a switch that would likely cut them loose. Sweetie shook her head, dismissing some of her worry and focusing instead on what was ahead of her: at the end of the chain was a guard station for the cable-borne tram. Already Cerci and Sever were approaching it, the former’s horn unleashing a fusillade of magical attacks.
By the time Sweetie had galloped up to the station, the small number of guards there had already been beaten down by the two changelings. Cerci appeared unharmed, but Sever was sporting a burn across her left foreleg. She spat one of the guards’ spears out of her mouth, having wrenched it free in a struggle using just her teeth.
"Where’s the pony?" she asked, yellow eyes darting towards the newly arrived Sweetie Belle.
"She's staying behind," Sweetie replied, a bit coldly. "There's no reason to drag her with us; she would only slow us down and provoke the powers that be here to chase us even more ferociously."
"That was Diamond Tiara," Cerci stated, also glaring at Sweetie now. "Lady Belle’s right-hoof mare. I thought you’d use her to send a message, but... is there more to it than that?"
Sweetie shook her head, thinking carefully but quickly. "She's loyal to me too, in her own way," she said after a moment. "She'll be doing exactly what I want her to do and that will give me an advantage for any future encounters with Ladies Belle or Sand Dune."
"There’s no time to argue anyway," Cerci growled, and she trotted to the station’s exit. "Know that three of our sisters died breaking you out. They paid the price for our escape today. That mare of yours is only alive because I expect the investment in her to pay off later. If it doesn’t, I’ll collect it myself."
Threat delivered, Cerci slammed open the exit doors and galloped towards a series of nearby platforms suspended above the cloud cover. Waiting there was an extended-length pegasus chariot with a red cross on the side. Less important than the ride itself was the fact that it had a clear and open window to the outside, past the normal security wards.
Cerci and Sever pushed the chariot off the edge and then took wing, Sweetie once again hopping onto the former’s back for a ride. The chariot careened to its doom, but the two changelings and their new ‘sister’ escaped through the gap in the magical shield surrounding the cloud ring.
Endless tracts of ocean stretched as far as Sweetie could see, but she held tight and hoped against hope that the changelings who’d freed her knew where they were headed.