* * *
Princess Celestia Hates Tea
(Seriously, a lot.)
by Jeffrey C. Wells
* * *
"Tea, Highness?" said the tottery dun-colored unicorn mare, offering up one of the innumerable Royal Kettles for my approval.
"Of course, Mrs. Cozy," I said, plucking up my beautiful antique china cup from my beautiful antique mahogany tea table in a swirl of beautiful antique unicorn magic. "Unless my beautiful antique nostrils deceive me, this morning's selection would be a solid domestic orange pekoe, yes?"
"But of course, Highness," said Mrs. Cozy, "I know how you favor it. And just so Your Highness knows, we're going to have a wonderful jasmine ready for your meeting with the young Miss Sparkle, newly back from Hind. The little filly does love her flowers, doesn't she?"
"Yes, she does," I agreed, smiling pleasantly at the Royal Tea Stewardess. "She and I and jasmine tea go back many years."
"Always nice to have little rituals and traditions between friends, says I," said Mrs. Cozy, whimsically laying a hoof alongside her snout for a moment. "At any rate, after that I expect you'll be wanting tea with tea, so we'll have a nice simple oolong to go with the traditional watercress sandwiches. Then there'll be Earl Grey for your tête-à-tête with Princess Luna, and if you'll forgive an old mare her editorializing, the bergamot essence in the current tin is particularly fragrant."
"Glad to hear it," I said. "You do such an excellent job with Earl Grey, Mrs. Cozy."
She beamed at me, blushing a little. "Your Highness flatters."
"Nothing so base," I said. "Merely an accurate assessment of your prodigious skill."
"Thanky kindly, Highness," said Mrs. Cozy, with a little curtsy. "Ooh, and we've got something a little special cooked up for bedtime!"
"Oh?" I said.
Mrs. Cozy nodded. "Peppermint!" she exclaimed.
I perked. "Peppermint what?"
"Peppermint tea, of course!" said Mrs. Cozy.
"Oh," I said, settling back into my cushion. "Well, that all sounds positively delightful."
"I know, doesn't it?" said Mrs. Cozy. And then, "Ha, listen to me jabber on while there's tea needs pouring. Scootch your cup over here, Highness."
I did so, and with a gout of fragrant white steam, she filled my cup to the brim. I levitated it back over to my sitting-cushion, inclined my head downward at a delicate angle, and took a deep, sighing breath of the aroma.
"Ah," I said. "Heavenly, Mrs. Cozy."
"Again with the flattery, Highness," said Mrs. Cozy, backing respectfully away from me whilst taking hold of the tea trolley's handle in a flicker of deep brown magic. "Now, you just ring for me if you're in need of another cup, you hear me, Highness?"
"I might just take you up on that!" I called, laughing musically. "There just are some times when I can't stop at one!"
"At your honored disposal, as ever, Highness," said Mrs. Cozy, easing the tea trolley out of the salon doors. I nodded and smiled to her, my expression held aloft in a mask of beautiful poise until I could hear the latch click in the door and Mrs. Cozy's receding hoofsteps down the length of the hall.
My face fell. I magicked my beautiful antique china cup over to a beautiful antique fern specifically selected for this purpose and dumped the horrid ichor into the patient and forgiving soil beneath it, watching it glisten for a moment and then vanish into the earth.
"I so barking hate tea," I said, staring down at the dirt.
* * *
"And that's the story of how my friends and I defused an incipient international crisis and brokered a solid peace between the deer-folk of Hind and the Sky Kingdom griffins!" said my Faithful Student, taking a contented sip of her jasmine tea. "Mm," she said, closing her eyes in bliss and letting the steam wash over her. "Excellent as always, Princess Celestia!"
"I employ the best," I said, smiling. "Including, it seems, in the field of negotiation. I'm most pleased with the wonderful news from abroad, Twilight. I would like similar reports from each of the members of your diplomatic mission, if that's not too much trouble."
"My friends are right downstairs, Princess, field reports in hooves! We learned so much about both friendship and complex multinational treaty negotiation, and we're dying to share it all with you!" She grinned at me, wide and white, and then took another sip of jasmine tea.
I responded in kind, sipping at my own cup and, as always, commanding myself in the sternest possible terms not to retch at the taste of the stuff. Some days, it was all I could do to resist the temptation to delve into the time spells, go back to the dawn of pony, find the blackguard who first came up with the idea of boiling leaves and drinking it, and give her or him a good solid cuff. I suppose there's the odd chance that when I returned to the present I would find that pony civilization had crumbled and that the world now groaned under some sort of oppressive Diamond Dog regime, but it might just be worth the risk.
"Oh!" continued Twilight, heedless of my inner monologue. "And we learned a whole bunch of other lessons, too! Rarity would like to talk to you about something called 'Bollywood', Pinkie is planning on preparing a graphically-detailed report on why a pony should never eat too much cauliflower vindaloo in one sitting, and Rainbow Dash would like to petition you for an annual festival where ponies fly diamond-studded kites around in some sort of epic slash-everypony-else's-kite-up kite war, just like they do over there, which is a plan that can only end well."
"I cannot foresee any problems with that," I said, nodding.
"And there's something else here!" she said, mischievously, her horn flaring again as she rustled around in the diplomatic pouch resting lightly against her brisket. "I brought you a little surprise from Hind. Try and guess what it is!"
"Is it… tea?" I said, my eyes glinting and my mouth fixed tight in a gently amused princess-like rictus.
"It's tea!" Twilight exclaimed, producing a small tin and holding it aloft. "Boy, you'll never believe the stuff they let you carry across borders in a diplomatic pouch! No customs or anything, and best yet, it's all perfectly legal!" She pulled the tin back over to her and read the words stamped into the metal. "Super Fine Grade First Flush Darjeeling," she read. "Often called the 'Champagne of Teas', this light-bodied tea possesses an enticing floral aroma combined with muscatel-like spiciness. Perfect with breakfast, a light snack, or anytime you just want to relax." She beamed at me. "I tell you, Princess, nopony knows tea like the Hindi. I had so much tea while I was over there, you wouldn't even believe."
"Sounds delightful!" I said. "I can't wait to try it!"
"Hey, I know!" she said. "No time like the present, right? Lets get Mrs. Cozy up here and have her brew us a cup! If you don't mind opening your present right away."
"Oh, I don't know, I'm rather enjoying the jasmine right now," I said, delicately inclining the royal muzzle toward my student as I lied to her brazenly and without shame.
Twilight blinked. My Faithful Student is quick, eager, and perceptive, and furthermore pays altogether too much attention to me. An asset during lesson-time, to be certain, but when one is trying to pull the wool over her eyes, not so much. I could have sworn that I let nothing of my mien slip, but to my dismay, I saw her face fall a little at my words.
"Is… something the matter?" asked Twilight, her voice laced with an undercurrent of her omnipresent neurotic dread. "Do you not like Darjeeling?"
"I enjoy all tea, of course," I said, digging my nigh-infinitely-deep hole a fraction of an inch deeper. "I am pleased and touched by your gift, my Faithful Student."
"You've already got a lot of Darjeeling," she said.
I once had an entire wardrobe full of Darjeeling, I thought. Stuffed absolutely to the gills. But then, last week, I got in a mood, runically sealed it and carried it out to the hazardous magical-waste depository in the dead of night and was done with it. "No!" I therefore answered, in complete honesty.
"Then… what's the matter? Please, Princess, tell me!"
She did the eyes thing, then. Father in Eohippus, preserve me from the eyes thing, I thought, anchoring my soul against the gale-force wind of adorable, ingenuous pleading being emitted by my student. I remembered little filly Twilight turning those eyes on me many a time, repeatedly reducing the most powerful creature in all Equestria to marmalade. I am powerless against them.
So be it.
"Twilight Sparkle," I said, lowering my head conspiratorially, my voice dancing with a wholly engineered tone of secret glee, "I'm going to tell you something that I've never told anypony else in the entire world. Would you like to hear it?"
Twilight's face was like my beloved sun. "Yes!" she nearly cried, and I could see the wellspring of joy in her heart, joy that I would entrust little Twilight Sparkle with one of the hidden secrets of Equestria. "Of course, Princess!"
I hung my best, most polished smile on my face.
"I really actually don't like tea."
A sheen of ice instantly coated the surface of Twilight's sun, and I winced at my patent miscalculation. Twilight's face did not move, not even a smidgen, but the light in her eyes was instantly snuffed and buried in loose clay in her psychological backyard. I felt a trapdoor open in my gut and attempted to fill the newly-exposed pit with words. "It's a funny story, actually," I said, trying desperately to convince her of this fact. "Several thousand years ago, Princess Luna was stuck on an idea for a birthday present to give me. Consumables are always good for a mare of my age, of course; we've still got a team of royal archaeologists excavating one of my long-forgotten bric-a-brac vaults and discovering interesting new strata of decorative candle-holders, if you'll recall. Well, Luna somehow got it into her head that I was a tea-drinker, and so she bought me this beautiful gold-leaf porcelain tea service, complete with a lovely assortment of teas, and I was very touched by the gift, even though I can't actually stand the stuff. But I couldn't very well say that to her face – you know almost as well as I how delicate she can be – so I would occasionally brew up a cup while she was watching and pretend to enjoy it. And it did make her quite happy.
"It wasn't too long after that that we hosted a Qilinese envoy and his retinue on a matter of trade, and you know how fond the half-dragon unicorns are of their tea, so I had the idea that I would hire a really top-flight tea stewardess – incidentally, Mrs. Cozy's great-to-the-nth power granddam – and had her brew us all a cuppa. Everypony seemed to enjoy him or herself, and then I thought the matter closed.
"A month later, the first crates began arriving from Qilin, gifts of gratitude for my excellent handling of the trade negotiations. And then, the cheerful letters, wishing me health and long life and imploring me to please enjoy the gifts of tea. And it would have been something of a faux pas to scorn it entirely, wouldn't it? So I made up my mind that I would get over my silly distaste for the stuff, and began drinking it near-constantly in an attempt to build up a tolerance.
"After a time of that, tea and I became more-or-less indistinguishable in the minds of my people. Soon, my entire Court was full of grown stallions and mares who had never known the Princess to be without her tea. It became a symbol, of sorts. And maybe it was foalish of me, but once it had reached that point, I felt that to abandon it would create cracks across the public's perception of me as an unchanging bastion of light in the dark currents of time."
I wandered over to the small balcony of the Rosewood Salon and stared down at the happy bustle of Canterlot City, watching the little ponies and their pony carts trot back and forth along the streets like some toy model. "For all my thousands of years of drinking it, however," I said, "I cannot become accustomed to it. It makes me sick to my stomach. Literally, at times. It is my least favorite beverage in all history, even more so than that unsugared juniper beer gut-rot that was something of a fad in the early seven-hundreds. I'm sorry if this comes as something of a shock to you, but I just thought of all the beautiful souvenirs you could have purchased with the money you spent on that Darjeeling, and, well, I felt a bit guilty. So will you please excuse this old mare her little white lie, my Faithful Student?"
I turned back to where Twilight had been sitting, and she was gone.
"That could have gone better," I said. There came a bustle from the arched doorway of the Rosewood Salon, and a pegasus guard sergeant – Hoplite, by name – came into view.
"Ah, Sergeant Hoplite," I said, smiling at him. "Did you by any chance glimpse a distressed purple unicorn fleeing these chambers a moment or so ag—" And that was all the time I had before I was pinned to the floor in a dramatic flying tackle.
My eyes went wide, thoughts of treachery and assassination plots spinning before the eye of my mind. So it came as something of a surprise to me when Hoplite pulled off his helmet and snorted a single word into my face.
"Impostor!" he shouted.
"Sergeant Hoplite," I said, calmly, "my wing-muscles alone have the capacity to bend tempered steel, and so I assure you, this is a matter of politeness alone, but could you please remove yourself from my Royal Person?"
"I take no orders from false usurpers!" snarled Hoplite. "The Element of Magic is on to your deceit, trickster, and she is warning the royal guard as we speak!"
"Hoplite," I said, thunking my head against the hard stone floor of the Rosewood Salon and wishing that the overzealous guardstallion had had the decency to tackle me a few meters to the right, where there was a rather nice plush bit of carpeting. "Your commitment to duty is commendable. As was your father's. As was his father's before him. I have personally known and decorated ten generations of your family serving in this same post, and I can tell you, with levels of uncomfortable detail, exactly what rather embarrassing part of your great-great-great-grandsire's anatomy was injured to earn him his Purple Heart. So might you Pretty Princess Please release me?"
"Your words flow off me like water, Changeling Queen!"
"Oh, so that's what this is about," I said. "Sergeant Hoplite, I assure you that—"
"You will assure me of nothing!" bellowed Hoplite. "The Court doubted the suspicions of Twilight Sparkle once before, during the Royal Wedding Coup, and it was nearly the ruination of Canterlot! The Guard will not be so dishonored by you again, wretched beast!"
Another bustle at the archway revealed Shining Armor, my Faithful Student's elder brother and the captain of my Royal Guard. "Thank heaven," I said, trying to scoot the Royal Backside across the floor so that I could get a better angle of conversation with him. "Shining Armor, would you please call off your commendably zealous stallion-at-arms and then go find your sister? I believe she may be about to do something rather rash."
Shining Armor stood at full attention, seething quietly at me.
"You," he said.
Oh, oh dear.
"You!" spat Shining Armor, marching up to me. "You abducted my beloved Cadence and left her to die in a cold gemstone mine deep in the bowels of Canterlot Mountain! And then, you had the unmitigated gall to impersonate her and stand next to me at the altar! I will hear none of your entreaties!" With a deep scowl and a flash of magenta-hued light, Shining Armor plucked Hoplite off me and then surrounded me in a durable shell of pure aetheric force.
"Listen, Shining Armor," I said, my eyes glancing around at the perfect sphere of sparkling rose-hued energy he had summoned. "It's rather funny, but this really is nothing more than a catastrophic misunderstanding."
"Save your breath, Changeling!" said Shining Armor. "Your lips move, but I hear nothing. I've established a one-way sound barrier in the field that imprisons you, so any further lies from your throat will go unheard!"
I dismissed Shining's force field with a thought. There are certain perks to being the most skilled living manipulatrix of the Stream, after all. "Listen, Shining Armor—" I essayed again.
Shining Armor instantly re-established the containment field with a noise that sounded like the word "poink". I dismissed it once more.
"Shining Armor, please l—"
"If you would please just hear m—"
"There's something very important I n—"
"For the love of my Father in Eohippus, Shining Armor—"
"There she is!" cried Twilight Sparkle, bolting into the now-crowded Rosewood Salon, a phalanx of five friends at her flank and the Tourmaline Diadem of Both Friendship and Magic gleaming at her forehead like a beacon. "That's the Changeling who supplanted Princess Celestia!"
"Oo!" squealed Pinkie Pie. "She's really got her down super-duper well!"
"Yes, except for she forgot one thing," said Twilight, grinning in triumph. "She doesn't… like… tea!"
"Astonishing," murmured Rarity.
"Yeah, what a dumbcluck," remarked Rainbow Dash, hovering a few feet above the mêlée. "Everypony knows that the Princess sucks down tea like there's no tomorrow."
"So what're we gonna do, y'all?" inquired Applejack, she of Honesty.
"Easy," said Twilight. "We blast her! Formation, girls!"
"Um," said Fluttershy, raising a single demure hoof. "I was wondering if, um, maybe we should make absolutely sure that we're right before—"
"No time for that, Fluttershy!" said Twilight. "We need to burn the corruption out as fast as equinely possible!"
"I'm sure you're right," said Fluttershy, hanging her head.
"No, no, see!" I said, my eyes, going a bit wide. "Listen to your friend, Twilight!"
"Listen, Fake Celestia," said Twilight. "Fluttershy is one of my best friends, but everypony knows she folds like an origami box."
"I like origami boxes," admitted Fluttershy.
"See?" said Twilight, apparently vindicated in her own mind. "Everypony form up behind me. The rest of you, stand back. B.B.B.F.F., please throw up a shield to protect innocent bystanders and the rest of the castle from damage."
"On it, Twily!" said Shining Armor, saluting her with a rakish grin.
"Seriously, my little ponies," I said. "If you'll just hear me out—"
There was a hair-flattening surge of spectral energy as the Elements of Harmony bloomed to life. Even my own corona-mane was thrown completely askew. Rainbow light began spinning around the forms of the Bearers of the Elements as surges of raw harmonic power lifted them into the air behind their Twilight-shaped focal point.
"Okay!" I said, sweating a little. "Really not kidding here! I assure you, my forbearance in this matter is largely due to my being rather fond of the décor in this room and not wanting it all torched and s—"
The chromatic wave of the Elements of Harmony finished its charge cycle and lanced at me like a bright hornet made of friendship. "Ow!" I said, crossly. "That really sort of stings, you know!"
"I'm well aware of what it feels like to be struck by the full force of the Elements of Harmony, 'sister'," came a smooth voice from the archway. "It's happened to me twice, if you'll recall your preparatory research."
"Lulu," I said, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice. "Could you please firmly instruct my Faithful Student to—"
"No more lies!" bellowed Luna, knocking over everything in the room that had not been firmly nailed in place, and even some things that had. "My sister loved the tea I gave her! She told me so, again and again! Your deceit is a pathetic one, Chrysalis!"
"It didn't work!" cried Twilight, meanwhile, in tones of dismay, shaking the Tourmaline Diadem up and down and then looking back at her companions. "Are we not friends enough or something? Should we maybe sing a song? Share some secrets?"
"Blast her again!" cried Rainbow Dash.
"Good plan, R.D.," agreed Twilight. "All right, Faux-lestia, prepare to receive a double-shot of undiluted weapons-grade love and tolerance!"
"Twilight, please, is there anything I could say right now that would make you—" Again with the rainbow light. "Augh!" I cried. "Yes! Yes, all right, I'm sort of tasting metal in the back of my throat, now, could we please call a halt on this?"
"No!" shrieked Rarity, who really seemed to be getting into the smiting aspect of things. "Destroy her! Hit her again!"
"I don't think it's working, Rarity!" said Twilight. "Luna, how do you set these things on 'Banish To The Moon' again? Is there some sort of toggle switch on the back, or—"
"No, it's a little more complicated than that," said Luna, grabbing the Tourmaline Diadem from Twilight's hooves. "It's a matter of lunar attunement. Just hold on a mo…"
"Fine!" I said, my eyes going wide at the one combination in this room that really could do me some damage. "Yes! I do so love tea! Mm, mm, good!"
"Too late, pretender-queen," declared Luna, giving the Diadem back to Twilight. "Fire at will, Twilight Sparkle."
"Right!" said Twilight, standing head-high and proud. "Formation, again!"
Once again, the Elements of Harmony blossomed with light. My, my, thought a tiny and dispassionate particle of my mind, how quickly do things get out of hoof.
I gazed up at that which very well could doom me, and to add insult to injury, for the stupidest conceivable reason.
I took a deep breath, gathering the full potential of the Stream around my beautiful antique form like a May Day ribbon, and then focused it through my alicorn, letting it thunder up and down its length. My eyes flared, momentarily becoming windows onto the deepest heart of the blazing-hot sphere which was both my charge and my destiny. I rose into the air, phoenix-like, my coruscant aura utterly obliterating every solid object in the Rosewood Salon that was not shielded by its attachment to the soul-force of a living being. Woodwork, and then stone beneath, burst into flame, falling to curls of blackened ash and magma around our shoulders. The very walls of Canterlot buckled to its power, leaving our little mass of ponies perched unsteadily on a windswept ledge of masonry clinging to edge of the high cityward gallery.
I let out my breath in a thundering Royal Canterlot Declaration.
"HEAR ME NOW," I bellowed. "I AM CELESTIA THE UNDIMMED, PRINCESS OF THE SOLAR ORB! THE BLOOD OF THIS LAND BURNS BRIGHT IN MY VEINS AND BRAVE PONIES WEEP IN AGONY AT MY GLORY! TENS OF THOUSANDS OF GENERATIONS HAVE CRUMBLED TO DUST IN MY WAKE, AND TENS OF THOUSANDS OF GENERATIONS MORE WILL FOLLOW BEFORE I AM SPENT! ALL THIS POWER IS AT MY COMMAND, AND YET I HAVE BUT ONE THING TO DECLARE TO YOU THIS DAY!"
The sun above flared from yellow to dazzling blue-white.
"I… DO NOT LIKE… TEA."
Silence fell over the former room, and over Canterlot City in general, as the sun dimmed to its rather more traditional color. Twilight Sparkle, her mane now ruffled by high outdoor wind, looked up at her brother.
"Gosh, Shiny," she said. "Good job protecting the castle."
"Yeah, kinda messed up there," said Shining Armor, scratching the back of his neck with one hoof. "Almost as bad as somepony running up and down the Hall of Dawn yelling 'Help, help, Princess Celestia has been replaced by an evil duplicate.'"
"Pardon me, but the word I used was 'doppelgänger'," said Twilight. "However, I take your point."
I ignored the bickering siblings. My energy briefly spent, I strode to the edge of the destruction and gazed out at Canterlot City, eddies from the turbulent Stream whipping my ethereal mane back and forth as it struggled to return to laminar flow.
The city was utterly still. Not a cart moved in the streets. And upon me, I could feel the trepid looks of hundreds of thousands of eyes.
Hundreds of thousands of frozen, unblinking stares.
"Oh, dear," I said.