* * *
Princess Celestia Hates Tea
(Seriously, a lot.)
by Jeffrey C. Wells
* * *
"Dysgeusia," said Dr. Caduceus, my Royal Physician, as we pushed our way through the frenetic crowd of junior ministers, each one waving papers at me.
"Gesundheit," I said, attempting a funny. It was a good day to be a junior minister, all told, because in my growing frustration with the ridiculous predicament I found myself in, I had been swinging my approval-stamp around wild and free, as though I were threshing grain with it. I was pretty much approving anything that even looked like a stack of papers at this point, and quite a few things that didn't. I seem to recall bestowing a rather impressive portfolio of executive powers upon an ornamental vase a few hundred yards back, for instance. I hoped that it would not abuse them.
"No, Highness," said Dr. Caduceus. "Dysgeusia, meaning—"
"A disruption in the sensation of taste, yes, Doctor," I said. "I'm well aware."
The maroon-colored unicorn harrumphed a bit as he muscled past a helpless errand-colt. "Then you'll also know," he said, "that there's any number of illnesses that can evoke symptoms of dysgeusia. Serious illnesses, Highness."
"Doctor Caduceus," I said, giving casual approval to a multi-thousand bit study on the effects of cheese upon the world's magnetic field. "I appreciate your concern. I want to assure you that there has been no change in my perception of the flavor of tea. I find it equally distasteful today as I did yesterday, and as I did the day before."
Caduceus clucked his tongue in his mouth and lifted up a little clipboard and pencil in his telekinetic field. "Memory disruption," he muttered, as he wrote.
"This is serious, Doctor," I said, idly designating March as National Herring Month.
"Of course it is, Highness!" he said. "Dysgeusia and memory disruption? That narrows the field considerably, in a rather alarming direction! Paraneoplastic syndrome comes readily to mind."
"You blame absolutely everything on paraneoplastic syndrome, Doctor," I said. "I sent one of my chambermaids to you with a troublesome stone in her hoof, and you returned her with a diagnosis of paraneoplastic syndrome." I punctuated my utterance by funding an entire polar expedition, complete with sled-dogs.
"It's the silent killer," he said, ominously. "And the noisy one. And basically all levels of death-volume in between."
"I'm certain it is," I said, granting Most Favorable Trade status to a candelabra and accidentally declaring one of my adjutants an independent nation unto herself. Just a few more yards to the audience hall. Buck up, Celestia, you can do this…
"I'm telling you, Your Highness," said Caduceus. "You're not a well mare. As your personal physician, I formally advise you to delay the Day Court until you're feeling a bit more, ahm, sane."
"Sane?" I said, quirking my brow at him as I effortlessly annexed a handful of territories on my primary swing and sent several thousand tons of yams to a starving nation on the Zebra subcontinent with my follow-through. "You know what would make me a bit more sane, Doctor Caduceus? Getting out of this crowd of junior ministers and retiring to the peace and tranquility of my public audience hall!" I blinked. "And, yes, I did just say that!"
"Very well, Princess," said Caduceus, sighing theatrically. "You're the god-empress, I suppose."
"Thank you," I said, passing the last few yards of this tedious gauntlet and throwing open the doors to the audience hall.
My audience hall was absolutely full.
We are not referring to "fire-marshal's recommendations" levels of fullness. We are not even referring to "maximum safe capacity" levels of fullness. We are referring to "it would be physically impossible to cram even a single additional soul into this room" levels of fullness. The presence of copious numbers of pegasus petitioners even assured that the room was filled to absolute mathematical capacity two to three vertical levels deep.
Virtually everypony in the room was marked with a tea-related Cutie Mark.
We had ponies marked with teapot Marks. We had ponies marked with tea-strainer Marks. We had ponies with trendy French Press tea-preparation system Marks. We had ponies whose flanks were marked with a trio of tea leaves, or a trio of silken teabags. One husky, bearded pony sported a wonderfully detailed silver samovar with matching sugar-bowl on his behind. Every single tea-talented pony in all Equestria had made her or his way to the capital city, overnight.
My audience hall was filled with an entire solid wall of pony.
And, the second I showed my face at the door, it was also filled with an entire solid wall of noise. Some were concerned tea-merchants, angry at what my declaration might do to their bottom line in the next fiscal quarter. Some were tea zealots, morally outraged that I would dare sling such base slander at their apotheotic beverage. And some were merely good Samaritans who were worried that maybe their Princess had lost her zest for eternal life, and was in need of a good hot cup of tea to cheer her up, tea which they would gratefully provide.
I delicately shut my eyes, and then addressed the room in ringing tones of heart-rending clarity, tones which would brook no over-speak.
"Attention, my beloved pony subjects!" I announced, as the room fell silent in ripples before me. "It is with great regret that I tell you that the Day Court will be hearing absolutely no tea-related business this day!"
Murmurs of protest and dismay began spreading like ground-fire. I spoke again to quash them. "Clearly, there is more to be heard on the topic of tea than any one Princess can manage in a single day of petitions. Return to Canterlot Castle at eight o'clock on the morrow, and queue up before the office of the Ombudspony of the Courts, so that we may approach this crisis with some semblance of organization!"
It is difficult to argue with me when I get my stern face on. Moping and dragging hooves, the throng of petitioners slowly began to clear its way out of my audience hall, a process that took nearly an hour, all told. I spread my wings and flapped over the crowd to my throne, waiting patiently to see what actual business could be attended to to-day.
When all was said and done, I was left alone in the echoing audience hall with a single goldenrod-hued pony, bearing a Mark of three wheat-heads.
I smiled, beatifically. "Approach the Throne," I said, "and state your name."
The young mare did so, curtsying low. "Amber Waves," she said. "From Neighbraska."
"Speak, Amber Waves," I said. "What is your petition?"
"Well, begging your pardon, Highness, I originally came here to petition the Court for some relief from a powerful blight that's been affecting our wheat crop, but—"
"No sooner said than done," I said, so anxious to be dealing with anything not tea-related that I practically trod all over her words with my enthusiasm. "I have many earth ponies at my disposal with special gifts for driving blight from crops, and all their powers I lend to you."
"Yes, but," said Amber Waves, scratching at a flagstone with one roughly-shorn hoof. "Is it… is it true what all them other ponies were saying about you not liking tea any more?"
"Well, yes," I said, dragging my expression of distant, cosmic joy up the metaphorical wall and hammering it into place with good, heavy nails. "That all is true."
Amber Waves shook her head, and then turned away toward the door. "This changes everything," she muttered, as she trotted away.
I gazed out over my completely empty audience hall.
"Well!" I said. "Court's adjourned, I suppose."
"One moment, Princess," came a familiar voice from the door. I looked up. There, making her way down the velvet carpet leading to my throne, was my Faithful Student, looking a bit grey and haggard and heavy-lidded. Accompanying her was the Royal Tea Stewardess, Mrs. Cozy, her eyes rimmed in red. She sniffled occasionally as she walked.
"Princess," said Twilight Sparkle, striding forward, "I know you said you wouldn't be hearing tea-related business today, but—"
"Twilight," I said, "you are my Faithful Student, and Mrs. Cozy is a valued member of my household. Blanket declarations do not always apply to those dearest to my heart."
Twilight nodded at me, seeming satisfied, and then gestured to Mrs. Cozy. The old unicorn approached the throne, curtsying low before me.
"Mrs. Cozy?" I said.
Mrs. Cozy burst into open tears. "You always told me you enjoyed my tea!" the old mare wailed. "For years, you complimented me, over and over, on how wonderful my tea was!"
"Please do not take personal insult at this ludicrous chain of events, Mrs. Cozy," I said, praying for some sort of rope to be thrown to me. "I am familiar enough with tea from my many, many thousands of years consuming it to know when a cuppa is prepared with skill, flair, and integrity. You are a true master of the craft, Mrs. Cozy, and my individual taste for the beverage in question in no way darkens my appreciation for the work you do and the outstanding manner in which you do it."
For all my words, Mrs. Cozy was inconsolable. "Just last week!" she cried. "Just last week I was talking to my sweet granddaughter Chai, saying if she kept it up and practiced her brewing that maybe she could someday be the Royal Tea Stewardess in my place! She was so happy to hear me say that, begging your pardon, Highness. Lit right up like a Hearth's Warming tree. What am I supposed to tell her now?"
"What am I supposed to tell her?" said Mrs. Cozy, and then she was lost to choked weeping. Overcome with emotion, she blew her nose into her apron and then wheeled about and left the hall at full gallop; her crying was audible long after she had vanished from sight.
I sighed, rose from my throne, and descended the steps to my Faithful Student.
"Twilight," I said, "I begin to perceive that I may have made an error."
From my student, naught but stony silence.
"Do you remember the first time we shared tea, Princess?" she said, delicately, after a time.
"Yes," I said. Et tu, Twilight Sparkle? I thought.
"For months, I'd been observing you take tea in our study room at the Lyceum, watching you enjoy a cup or two while I practiced forms of the Uncluttered Path. And it smelled so heavenly, like flowers and warm rain, and I begged and begged you to let me try some, so finally, one day, you sat down with me and poured me a little. And it made me so happy, Princess. It felt like my heart would burst."
Her face darkened. "Then I tasted it, and it tasted like I was gargling with dirt. But I kept smiling the entire time, gagging my way through the whole cup, because I knew that if Princess Celestia loved and enjoyed it, it must be something special. And then when I got back to the boarding-rooms, I snuck a bunch of this horrible black Nilgiri stuff from the bins in the kitchen and I brewed myself about twenty-eight cups of it and I drank it all in six minutes flat, and then I just sat there shaking until about four A.M. when I finally fell unconscious and then I had these terrible nightmares about being tormented by animated pitchers of cream poking me with tiny little spoons."
"But I kept drinking it!" she said, her eyes going a bit crazy. "And drinking it and drinking it and drinking it! And gradually, I started to like it, even though it turned me into an absolute raging caffeine addict! You don't know how much of my parents' care-package money went straight into my tea-strainer, Princess! It got to a point where I deliberately had to step myself down to coffee because my eyes were starting to turn yellow and I woke up every morning with the ability to hear colors!"
She stood there for a moment, panting.
"I did it for you, Princess," she continued, at last. "I did it because I wanted to be you. There's a part of me that still believes, that's dead-set and convinced, that you can't not like tea."
"I'm… so, so sorry," I said, simply.
"No," said Twilight, firmly. "You don't need to apologize. Because you know what? I thought it over last night, and I came to a realization, and I'm feeling a whole lot better about it now."
"One bright spot, then, at least," I said, smiling. "There's a lot of misinformation resting in my ponies' minds, Twilight, most of it my fault. My personal physician thinks I'm insane, or have paraneoplastic syndrome, or am insane because I have paraneoplastic syndrome, or something like that."
"Well, I think it's time we set the record straight. You've got a meeting with the High Cabinet this afternoon, correct?"
"Yes," I said. "Mostly concerned with damage control from my little tea tantrum."
"I would be honored if you would let me attend and stand by your side for it."
"And I," I said, "would be honored if you would do so."
"Great!" said Twilight, brightly, as we trotted out of the audience hall, side-by-side. "Don't worry, Princess. We'll fix this. You'll see."
* * *
"Mares and gentlecolts of the High Cabinet," I said, addressing them. "I realize that it is not a matter of protocol to begin proceedings such as these with an apology, but in this case, I feel one is warranted, and as humility has never been one of my greatest strengths, I find it meet that I should cultivate any such leanings in my soul." I gazed, clear-eyed, at each one of them in turn. "My faithful ministers," I declared, "I am sorry for behaving in a most un-Princesslike fashion yesterday and inadvertently compromising the bedrock of Equestrian society over a relatively trivial matter of beverage preference."
"And I'd like to apologize, as well," said little Twilight, at my side. "Had I not been so completely flipped-out with panic over the possibility of a second Changeling attack on Canterlot, I wouldn't have brought the business end of Elements of Harmony to bear on my wonderful teacher, thus lighting the fuse that led to this whole big… blow-up… thing."
"Apologies are all well and good, Highness, Miss Sparkle," rumbled Chancellor Palimpsest, leaning forward, "but they will not restore the public's faith. Our tea exports have plummeted, overnight. There is talk that the crop of Equestrian Domestic must perforce be terrible this year, if it engenders in the Princess such a violent negative reaction."
"There are even mutterings that the crop itself might be cursed, or hexed," added Lady Goldenrod. "This is a financial disaster, Highness, the ruination of many lives."
"Sociologically-speaking," added Poetry Slam, my distressingly hip Minister of Culture, adjusting his tiny smoked spectacles, "this also puts us on the precipice of an extremely un-groovy downward swing in teahouse attendance, leading to widespread societal angst as we attempt to reconcile and rebuild our cultural identity in light of these new standards of obligatory 'third-place' interaction." He sat back. "We're like ships without rudders, Mommy-o."
"Yes," I said, my head high. "And I bear it all on my own back. Except Poetry Slam's thing. Which I don't understand at all."
"And she totally doesn't have to do that," cut in Twilight, "because it's not her fault!"
I glanced down at Twilight as she stepped up to the podium. "Okay, Cabinet-people!" she said. "I don't want to alarm you overmuch, but I can sum up the problem we're facing here with one single word."
She leaned over the podium, resting her hooves heavily on its edges. "Discord," she said.
The Cabinet erupted in gasps. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO. I moved smoothly to interpose myself between Twilight and her podium. "What I think my Faithful Student means—" I began.
"Discord has returned?" shouted the always high-strung Cardinal Cardinal. "And he can make ponies not enjoy tea?"
"No, he's still stone; but yes, he can!" said Twilight, pointing, who was like unto a rock before the podium and would not be moved. "Or at least his lingering corruption-spells can! I figured it all out last night! No matter how much I thought about what the Princess said to me yesterday, there was a part of me that was utterly convinced that she just couldn't not like tea, and do you know what I realized? That part of me was absolutely right!" Twilight smiled, serenely. "You see, Chancellors, when Discord attempted to destroy Harmony by controlling the minds of my friends and me and making us act contrary to our fundamental natures, we all did some pretty crazy things! My friend Applejack started lying, Pinkie Pie started grouching, Rarity got greedy, Fluttershy got mean, and Rainbow Dash just up and deserted everypony! And it made me lose faith in friendship! Mares and gentlecolts, Discord made us do things that none of us would ever, ever do in real life, except Applejack sometimes. And that's when it hit me."
Twilight turned towards me, her eyes bright and trusting, the very picture of the little filly I had accepted as my personal protégé all those years ago. "Princess Celestia would never not enjoy tea in real life! It's just too important to her, to us! And that means… Discord got to her, too! Clearly, a non-tea-drinking Celestia is diametrically opposed to the real Celestia we all know and love." Twilight grinned at me and snuggled up against my side.
"Wait," said Chancellor Palimpsest, his eyes narrow. "Are you saying that our Princess Celestia is corrupted by Discord's influence? As we speak?"
"Yep!" said Twilight.
"So what can we do to bring the Main Queen home to us, little sister?" asked Poetry Slam.
"It's simple!" cried Twilight. "We do the same thing I did to all my corrupted friends! I cast a memory spell on the Princess, and it'll make her relive every single beautiful tea experience she's ever had. That way, all her enjoyment of tea will come surging back to her, and she'll be the cultured, tea-drinking Sun Princess we all know and love again!"
My left eyelid twitched.
"Every… single… tea… experience?" I asked, quietly.
"Uh huh!" said Twilight, nodding brightly. "Thousands and thousands of years of happy little tea memories. It'll be great!"
Trembling slightly, I looked down at the shining face of my Faithful Student, then up at my High Cabinet; each one, to a pony, was perched on the edge of her or his cushion, watching me, waiting to hear what I would say next.
They all wanted it to be a curse I labored under. The world wanted it that way. An entire quarter of the economy and a non-insignificant slice of our diplomatic relationships hinged, improbably, on my being the Princess that everypony publicly and quite incorrectly knew me to be, down to the least and most insignificant detail.
I am not the master of my people; like any good and righteous politician in the annals of history, I am their servant. And never has this been made more clear than in the words I uttered next.
"Twilight Sparkle," I said, "is absolutely correct."
* * *
And then it was the next day, and I stood tall and unbowed on the Coronation Balcony before a great and cheering crowd of my pony subjects. To my right was my Faithful Student, the Tourmaline Diadem seated proudly on her forehead. To my left, a positively incandescent Mrs. Cozy, whose happy little world had been rebuilt in toto from the ashes it had fallen to.
I stepped forward, looking down at the milling throng. Certainly, all my tea-related would-be petitioners from yesterday would be in attendance, their worries now washed away by the surprise revelation that the Sun Princess had been suffering some dark sorcery this whole time, that she hadn't actually declared her apostasy from their all-important beverage. The mood from the crowd was the sort of deep, ocean-like contentment that can only come from a vast multitude of ponies feeling the relief of slipping back into the status quo. Because, more than anything in this world – more than apples, more than jewels, more than muffins – what a pony wants most out of life is normalcy.
I was about to give them what they wanted.
With great decorum and ceremony, Mrs. Cozy levitated a small, portable tea service over to where I stood, facing the masses, my beautiful antique teacup telekinetically suspended for everypony to see. Mrs. Cozy poured, then, filling the cup. I noted with bemusement that she had chosen Twilight's fresh Darjeeling for the ceremony. It was fitting.
I stared down into the pale, amber-colored liquid. Courtesy of Twilight Sparkle, I had spent the entirety of last night reliving thousands and thousands of hateful years of tea, and though it nearly broke me, I had endured. This one simple real-world task was all that remained. Surely I could do this.
I raised the cup to my lips, and the horrid liquid entered my mouth.
I had once, in my youth, reduced a small mountain to pea gravel with only my hooves to aid me. The effort I had expended there was nothing compared to that which I now spent in attempting to keep my abdominal muscles completely still. One small retch could bring the whole world crashing down again.
Blessedly, the nausea passed, and I flashed the crowd a perfect smile, holding my teacup aloft.
"Delicious!" I declared. And they erupted in cheers.
"It's good to have you back, Princess," said Twilight, looking up at me as the noise washed over us like a wave.
"It's good to be back," I agreed.