Two instrumentals later, and we hit a lull. I can tell that Octavia needs a breather, and I've nearly run out of new material. It's not that we can't continue performing, but—rather—it wouldn't seem right for us to dominate the entire night's festivities.
My shaded eyes travel across the hall, meeting Pinkie Pie's. She's no Beau, but she reads me all the same. The mare's an entertainer at heart, and she can tell when an event needs to move on into the next phase.
She leans in to Twilight, murmuring something.
The Princess nods... then nods again. With a heavy sigh, she puts on a thin smile and waves her hoof in Pinkie's direction.
Pinkie says something back, smiles, and backflips into the crowd.
I can feel Octavia's wince in my peripheral.
Miraculously, Pinkie lands with one hoof on the edge of an empty chair at the head of a refreshments table. Balanced like a ballet dancer, she waves a forelimb in the air and speaks boomingly into a microphone.
"Alright, fillies and germs! You think this party's nearly over?! No way, horsey! The Friendship Gala is in full swing! And who better to commemorate the occasion than your very... own... Princess of Friendship... Twilight Sparkle!" She twirls about like a pink swan and stretches both hooves out—and upside down—towards the lavender matriarch in question. "Take it away, Queen Bookworm the First! Woohooo! Who's awesome?! You're awesome!"
The crowd erupts in chuckles before applauding thoroughly. A sea of smiles pivot in Twilight's direction as the alicorn stands up.
Spike holds a microphone up to her, smiling proudly.
"Ahem..." Twilight stands tall in her gown. She spreads her wings and speaks firmly, "It is both an honor and a pleasure to usher in this evening's special event... the very first annual Friendship Gala, located right here in my special home of Ponyville, the navel of Equestria."
Whistles and cheer fill the chamber. Golden beams of sonic euphoria soar left and right over everypony's heads. Among them, I detect the colors of Lyra and Bon Bon. Applejack's chortles mix with Fluttershy's quiet exhalations. Everything feels jubilant and familiar.
"I know that many of you came here not knowing what to expect," Twilight says. "First off, I want to thank you for your good faith... and your willingness to try new things."
A few more chuckles echo across the hall.
Twilight smiles as she continues, "I suppose—in short—I wanted the Friendship Gala to stand out from the Grand Galloping Gala and other events. Some have said that this is meant to be a great deal less formal than what's held in Canterlot. So far... well... I guess you could very well attest to that. Huh?"
More laughter, quieter and more subdued this time.
Twilight clears her throat and carries on: "But, in all honesty, what I feel the Friendship Gala should entail is the plain and simple celebration of each other's company. We are here today—in Ponyville—in spite of so many harrowing events that have travailed across Equestria in recent history. The Return of Nightmare Moon... the Rise of Discord... the Changeling Conspiracy..." She gulped. "Tirek's Rampage." She shook her head. "If it weren't for the magic of friendship, none of these crises would have been averted. We all have each other to thank for triumphing over such inexplicable adversity. I know for a fact that I myself wouldn't be here if it weren't for Spike, my most trusted assistant. Applejack and her honesty. Loyal Rainbow Dash... generous Rarity. Fluttershy and her kindness. Pinkie Pie and... hehe... her endless joy and laughter."
"Don't forget my wicked chocolate muffin recipe!"
Laughs and more laughs.
Twilight smiles, exhaling. "Friendship is more than just a harmonic device for saving this kingdom. It is a force that helps us prosper each and every day. It allows us to relish the presence of those whom we consider special in our lives... without whom our existence would be hollow." She gulps. "And wanting."
I gaze to my left. Octavia sits in her stool, hugging her cello. Biting my lip, I gaze back across the hall.
"But friendship is forever a learning process," Twilight says. "And a growing process. It is full of as many mistakes as it is full of achievements, and we wouldn't be any better off without either of them. And even I, Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship... have made m-many mistakes as of late." She clenches her teeth, pausing for a few seconds. "And, as always, I have found ways to grow... and to improve myself."
I look towards the far side of the chamber. I spot a guard with a blue mane. Flash Sentry gazes quietly across the crowded ballroom. His eyes are alert, resolute. If there's emotion beneath it all, he keeps it well guarded. Even all colors are obscure. His body is a bulwark of monochromatic purpose.
"Such improvement has only been made possible through the direct contribution of friends," Twilight says. "And... I suppose..." Her gaze drifts towards the opposite end of the ballroom, where my stage is located. "...if there's one lesson that I've learned to appreciate as of late, it's that friendship is nothing without respect." She gulps. "We are all... nothing without respect... and a deep sincerity of heart. It is something that divides acquaintances from loved ones. And, well... as far as I am concerned... you are all loved ones in my eyes."
She sniffles a bit, but hides it with a firm voice as she holds her hoof out.
"So... from my heart... to all of my beloved subjects... friends... and muses... I wish you a wonderful Friendship Gala... and an even greater life ahead. Thank you all."
Applause fills the room, filling my ears, blinding my vision. Beyond the crimson deluge, I am certain Twilight Sparkle is smiling. And if I'm to trust the gray breath coming out of her muzzle, then it's the first honest smile she's enjoyed in months.
That's freedom worthy of envy.
"Now... without any further delay, let's continue with tonight's festivities," Twilight says. "Take it, Pinkie!"