Twilight clenched her teeth as she stared at the doors of Charlemane’s office. I know I said I’d see him, and it would be bad form to break the promise, but… A half-dozen internal justifications waded their way through Twilight’s mind, any one of which would be completely logical, or at least satisfying, to use.
She lifted her hoof to knock, hesitated, then set it back down. Maybe he’s not here… Maybe I can just... She shifted to her magic sight for an instant and found a single wellspring behind the door, one of an earth unicorn. Chairpony Charlemane is a hybrid?!
“You know,” Charlemane said through the door, “waiting outside my office for ten minutes doesn’t qualify as a meeting.”
Crap. Twilight stuck her tongue out at Charlemane’s presumed position for good measure, though she had the good sense to put it back before stepping through. “Sorry. I guess you can tell now that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this.”
Charlemane leaned back in his chair and put his hind hooves on his large, wooden desk. “I don’t blame you. It can be difficult to separate the personal from the political. Understand, Lady Sparkle, I wish neither you nor Celestia any ill will personally. In fact, I care for the Princess quite deeply. We are simply of different minds politically.”
Twilight felt the hair on her back stand on end, but pushed the feeling and the topic aside. “You wanted to see me? Was it about the—”
Her eye caught the mostly empty — and overly fancy — bottle of whiskey on his table, along with a glass filled with ice and the intoxicating caramel-colored fluid. It also caught the bright morning sun outside. “Have you been drinking?”
“Yes. Which, of course, begs the next question: am I drunk? No. I imagine that if I showed up to Council drunk, Bismare would take that opportunity by the throat, and I’m not about to give her that satisfaction.”
He motioned to the seat across from the desk. “Anyway. Come, sit. We should discuss a few things.”
Twilight did so, fighting against the chair’s comfort in an admittedly ill-advised desire for it to be made of spikes just so she could give him a dirty look. “Like what? My trip to Gryphonia?”
“Indeed. I do hope that Celestia informed you about the newly recrowned Princess Gilda.”
“She did. It strikes me as somewhat hard to believe.”
“As it should.” Charlemane swirled the little glass of whiskey, watching the ice cubes as they danced. “The political situation in Gryphonia is rather interesting. Ordinarily, the gryphons are very easy to predict. Their code of conduct limits the number of actions they can take. Convincing them of something can prove nearly impossible if it goes against their gut reaction, and intimidation only works when the deck is severely stacked in your favor. Morvana, however, has proven to be quite problematic. Unfortunately, knowing their political process as I do, I do not foresee a change in leadership for some time.”
“Celestia seems to think that there’s hope Gilda won’t become King.” Twilight pulled out her notebook, starting a sketch of the gryphonic political hierarchy. “Do you agree?”
Charlemane’s expression soured, like the whiskey he was drinking had turned into turpentine. “I wish I could say. She’s very careful about walking the line of what the gryphons will find acceptable, and their species’ traditions will ensure her spot no matter what happens as long as that remains true. Gilda may not have such finesse. If she does become King, it might not be for long.”
Twilight drew a link between Morvana and the throne. “What traditions keep her on the throne?”
Charlemane lit his horn, picking up a pair of decorative swords out of the place on the wall. “Every so often, one of the Crown princes or princesses and the other aeries can challenge the King. When this happens, all three of the royals meet somewhere secret, and have a battle royale.” The two swords in Charlemane’s grasp clashed, fighting a mock battle with invisible opponents. “In addition, it is not only the fighting skill of the contestants that matter, but also the skill of their blacksmiths. Whomever has the finest weapon of the group carries a significant advantage, as they may set additional terms for the contest.”
Fire surrounded one of the swords, sending sparks into the air with every parry. “These are rarely fatal, but are always decisive. Only a scant few gryphons are allowed as witnesses, and while the results are not secret, everything else that happens is. It’s a bit of a black box for us, but the results have been the same for nearly half a millennia: Morvana’s family wins.”
The fiery sword struck again, knocking the other to the ground. “I personally speculate that Morvana’s family must have some masterwork weapon — something so far ahead of the others that they’ve yet to catch up.”
Twilight added a sword next to Morvana’s crest on her graph. “You have evidence to back this up? Seems to be a wild guess if not.”
Charlemane clapped his hooves together. “Indeed, I do have evidence. Over the past couple hundred years, the other two aerie’s have advanced their weapons craft considerably, while the Kerava’s, the aerie Morvana belongs to, have stagnated. Although, to be fair, as the gryphons have shunned industrialization, we have pulled ahead considerably in mass-market weapons.”
Twilight looked up at him over the top of her notebook. “It’s as if Kerava isn’t trying, because they know they don’t need to in order to win. They can rest on their laurels.”
“Exactly.” Charlemane took a sip of his whiskey and all but melted into the seat. “Celestia said that you were worried you would never become adept at politics. I think you’ll get there. All you need to do is keep your eyes open and pay attention to the right things.” The bottle of whiskey floated up in his magic alongside a second glass. “Care for a drink?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, thank you. I don’t normally drink alcohol, and certainly not this early in the day.”
The stallion reached out with a hoof and opened up a drawer in his desk, taking out a folded piece of paper and giving it to her. “Then, I can assure you, you will want this.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow and placed the aged parchment on her book, opening it. “Area of effect inscriptions, offset self targeting, substance exclusive… Is this an anti-alcohol spell? Or… An anti-intoxication spell? Does that mean…”
Charlemane lifted up his glass with a knowing smile.
“You just drank that entire bottle of whiskey, didn’t you?”
“And I’m not even tipsy. The gryphons like alcohol, Lady Sparkle. It is our number one export to Gryphonia, and it’s even in most of the food. Without this, I’d imagine you’d be, as the youth say, completely smashed in short order. And it wouldn’t do to have our Grand Mage publicly intoxicated.”
“This…” Twilight bit down on her pen. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want to say it. “This would actually be very useful. Thank you.”
“‘Tis but a trifle. Although…” Charlemane’s voice grew dark as he sat up in the seat, taking his legs off the desk. “What I have to say now is not. While I share Celestia’s sentiment that improving relations with the Crown Prince could prove to be a boon, I must share this warning.
“Gryphonhelm has… or rather, is a famous coliseum where warriors from all over Gryphonia come to test their strength and settle scores, both political and personal. It operates year-round, and I am absolutely certain the Prince is going to want to show it off. This is fine. What is not fine, is you fighting in one of these matches.”
Twilight added a little picture of a generic coliseum to her book. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
“The Prince will insist. I’m almost sure of it. Do not, under any circumstances, participate. From the reports on your missions, you are not ready to face a true gryphon warrior. You might be able to handle one of their meagre knights or fledglings, but they will almost certainly put you up against a Battlemaster, and you will lose that fight.
“It would be a disaster for Equestria’s pride, and tarnish both the Council and the Crown, even though I admit the majority of the disappointment would be focused on Princess Celestia. Regardless, you must not participate. If they try to force you, say you are under orders from the Crown. That should get them to back off, as they would not want to disgrace themselves by forcing you to disobey your orders.”
Twilight set her pen down. “It’s that big a deal? What should I do if they still insist?”
“Leave. In such an unlikely event, Celestia and I will deal with the fallout.” Charlemane shoved out with his forehooves, pushing himself away from the desk on his rolling chair. “But, I am perhaps getting too serious. You should have a wonderful time. In fact, here. On me.”
Twilight watched as a necklace of sorts levitated towards her, settling in her grasp. It was a long, thick string running through washer-like metal rings. She turned one of them on their side, finding gryphonic symbols on them. “Coins?” she asked. “You’re giving me money? I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that…”
“Approximately equivalent to two hundred bits worth, actually. Trust me, it is a pittance compared to the money that changes hooves in the political back-channels of this country. I’m sure the Prince will provide everything you need free of charge. However, your compatriots may wish to purchase some souvenirs.”
“Souvenirs? Really?” Twilight held up the coins, letting them slide and jangle on the string. “You’re giving me money for souvenirs?”
“It is a coliseum, Lady Sparkle. A sporting arena. The gryphons may seem a proud warrior race, but that doesn’t stop their vendors from overcharging for food and knickknacks at social events. If it makes you feel more comfortable about accepting the money, bring back a T-shirt for me.”
“The Duke of Roan, Chairpony of the Inner Council, wants me to bring him back a T-shirt?” Twilight set everything down on the desk and rubbed her eyes with her hooves.
“Is that really so hard to believe?”
“I suppose I expected it to be.” An image of her father in an “I [Heart] Ponyville” t-shirt played in her mind. “Yet, somehow, it is not.”
“Lady Sparkle… Just because I am a member of the nobility does not mean I am not a pony. And if you seek proof of that…”
Twilight pulled her hooves from her face, finding Charlemane pointing with his horn at the wall to the left. She followed it over to a large picture.
“See what I mean? Go on, take a look.”
Itchy curiosity had already hooked her, pushing her off the chair better than any physical shove. She held a hoof up to the frame, finding a black-and-white image of a group of stallions in various stages of inebriation. In the background was a large cloud structure, and at the top centre was a younger looking Charlemane with his foreleg around another familiar looking pony.
“Is that Naponion?!”
“The same. He was always a drunk, but a polite and happy one. This was taken in our college years, and yes, that is Gryphonhelm. Or rather, a cloud above it.”
“And you’re wearing a—”
“Souvenir T-shirt, yes. They do have them available for tourist ponies. In fact, a long time ago, they even had all-pony tournaments.”
Twilight’s neck felt like a stiff axle as she turned her head to face the stallion. “Ponies would go there to fight too?”
Charlemane ran his hoof along a series of books on his shelf. “Before Morvana’s time. Her mother put a stop to the practice, unfortunately. But, as you can see, there is nothing wrong with being a noble and having a riotous good time.” He pulled out a few of the tomes and floated them over to her. “I can get drunk, enjoy a good fight, and still read Aristrotle, Immanuel Canter, and Horizon.”
“Horizon?” Twilight grabbed the book in question. “You have a book on Stellar Horizon?”
“Written by Stellar Horizon.” He tapped on its cover. “Rare though much of his work is, as you can see, there are benefits to being friends with an immortal alicorn. Actually, I’ve seen a statue of him in Gryphonhelm. He’s apparently a minor hero there.”
A strange type of destructive magic began spreading throughout Gryphonia, and later I found out it likely would have spread to Equestria as well had it not been for Stellar’s courageous sacrifice. Although I doubt the gryphons would have been the aggressors in any war with us even then, his actions earned us vastly improved relations for centuries. He’s remembered better there than here in Equestria, in fact.
She flipped through the pages, noting the index and the somewhat frequent sketches. “Celestia… Celestia said he saved Gryphonia.”
“He did indeed, according to the gryphons. I also know that Celestia blames herself in no small part for his loss. It’s why she’s taken such a personal approach with you. Starswirl was a madman, and Crimson just a soldier. Stellar was a philosopher and mage, which you no doubt remind her of.”
“Me?” Twilight closed the book, thinking back to her predecessor’s journal. “Honestly, I don’t know how true that could be. I’ve read some of his work, including some spells. I’m not anywhere near that good, especially when it comes to diplomacy.”
“Ha! Oh, no, you don’t get to get away with saying that, Lady Sparkle. Not the wielder of the Element of Magic. Perhaps you are not as apt as he was on the political dance floor, but that’s to be expected. Friendship and politics are almost opposites. Friendship is about harmony, unity. Politics is about division, and knowing just where to drive the wedge. Diplomacy is the marriage of the two, but in it, either can be wielded with great effect.
“As for magic, I’m led to believe that he was an old stallion when he achieved the rank of Grand Mage. Casting spells is as much about experience as it is knowledge. Give it time. It’s not like that’s something you’re short on.”
Twilight sighed at the reminder of just how much this pony knew. “I suppose…” She cracked open the book again, peeking at the ancient typeface. “Do you think I could borrow this? I’d really like to read it…”
The Duke snickered and floated over his whiskey glass. “That depends, Librarian Sparkle. This is an old and rare copy. Do you know how to care for such books?” The glass hovered over the rare, dusty hardback.
The whiskey glass that was cold. The glass that had ice in it. The dripping, condensation-covered glass.
Her forelegs snapped out, reaching around the book and pulling it tight to her chest. “Yes. Yes I do.” She snarled through her clenched teeth, ears folded down against the back of her head.
“Hahaha! Well!” Charlemane’s laugh rattled the huge windows behind his desk, and jostled the glass which was once dangerously hovering over a precious, precious book. “Tia was right! You are easy to tease.”
Twilight turned away from him and grumbled, still clasping the book.
“Very well, Lady Sparkle. You may borrow it.” Charlemane trotted back to his desk, laughing all the way. “Please, don’t let me keep your friends waiting. Enjoy your trip!”
Twilight mumbled to herself something roughly equivalent to “I’m not that easy to tease” as she left through the ornate double doors.
“Oh, and Twilight!”
She raised an eyebrow at his casual use of her first name, as well as the smug grin on his face as he lifted his glass.
“My T-shirt size is extra-large!”
“Well, it’s certainly good to be a princess.” Trixie pushed at the red plush seating under her hooves and leaned back into her seat. She stretched out inside the enclosed chariot, demonstrating just how much room the four had by still managing to stay outside of the others’ personal space. “Back in my show days, I was ecstatic to get a real mattress for my cart.”
Rainbow flopped down on her back, bending and twisting like a puppy on a cushion. “Yeah, this is pretty nice stuff. Of course, it’s gotta be big if it’s going to haul around Celestia. Oop! Here we go.”
Twilight grabbed onto one of the side handles with her hoof, expecting the same rattling and jostling she felt in the normal chariots, as well as Luna’s. Yet Princess Celestia’s personal long-range chariot had none of that. Even with a whopping nine Pegasus stallions pulling it forward, the only jolt was at that one instance of takeoff where the wheels left the launch pad. Only the slightest sensations of inertia even told her when they had turned.
“And we’re off! Gotta say, I agree with Trixie! It is nice to be riding in style for once.” Spike pulled open a little cabinet next to his seat and pulled out a small package of chocolates. “So, anyone know what the medevac’d pony was doing in Gryphonia? Like, supposedly working? Doing what?”
“Meh. Probably a filing clerk or something.” Rainbow folded her wings and waved a hoof.
“Actually…” Twilight pulled out the briefing documents and found his file. “Rainbow’s right. Or at least, close enough. His listed title was ‘administrative official.’”
“Yup.” Rainbow yawned. “Gryphons are great at fighting, not so great at paperwork. They hire a lot of ponies to do things. Like, unicorns for recordkeeping, pegasi for couriers, and earth ponies for forestry. I spent some time there when I was real little, so when Gilda showed up in Cloudsdale, I was already used to gryphons.”
“I just hope that the other gryphons aren’t like her.” Spike’s teeth, as ever, crunched through the jawbreakers like they were soft butter, but it sounded like gravel being ground between two metal plates. “I mean, this is a diplomatic mission. How do we deal with that?”
“Like I said, just ask another gryphon for help!” Rainbow sat up and stole one of Spike’s chocolates. “Seriously. In Gryphonia, you could have a bag full of a million bits, trip and spill them all over, and not worry about a single one going missing. In fact, the catbirds closest to you will help you pick them all up, and even count them for you to make sure you have them all!”
“Rainbow… You aren’t saying that this is going to be ea—”
“Ah! No! Bad Twilight!” The pegasus flicked a chocolate at her. “No commenting on the relative lack of difficulty of a mission! Last time you did that, Trixie here practically got put in traction.”
“Really?” Trixie lifted up a hoof in surprise. “You said your mission was going to be easy before Trixie, er, surrendered?”
“Yeah, but we were just supposed to go back to Ponyville for a visit. Even when we did eventually go there, it wasn’t as simple as that.” Twilight sighed. “I’m beginning to think that that’s going to become the norm.”
“Welcome to the military,” Rainbow said. “No mission is just that simple. Speaking of missions, how exactly are we going to figure out what’s an illusion once we get there?”
“Like this.” Trixie held up her horn, weaving a spell in front of them. A point of light appeared in the center of the chariot, spinning and shimmering like a disco ball before condensing down into the form of a pocket watch. “There. Spike, pick it up.”
“Sure, I guess.” The dragon knelt down and picked up the watch, tossing it between his hands. “Something feels… Off.” He held it up to his ear. “Sounds like a watch, though.”
“Trixie has yet to be able to master including the texture of an object. I can make it look like something, but I have to use an extra spell to make it sound like something and give it mass. The feel of the object still eludes me. But it’s good enough for this.” A pulse of light emanated out from Trixie’s horn, washing through the chariot and even continuing outside. In its wake, the watch was left glowing pink, the same colour as Trixie’s magic. Also tinged with colour were the whites of the group’s eyes.
“I think I get it! If it glows, it’s not really there.” Spike cupped the watch in his hands and grimaced. “Wait a minute… It’s all wobbly. Or wibbly.”
“That’s the other issue.” Trixie walked up to Spike and dipped his hand forward with a hoof. “If I can’t see the illusion, I can’t maintain it in my mind. The embedded spells keep working, but the main one does not. Also, the visual illusion itself taxes Trixie’s magic. But in this case…”
Trixie fired up her horn again, shooting little bolts of electricity out at the watch.
“Yowza!” Spike pulled back, and his hands phased through the now ethereal device. There it floated, fuzzy and warped before fading away.
“Twilight knows the disruption spell, too. In fact, she helped Trixie develop it.” Trixie plodded back to her seat. “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I never would have figured it out without her help.”
Twilight shook her head. “There’s no shame in asking for help with things, Trixie.”
“Yeah. When you need it, you gotta ask. Or you wind up putting half the town in the hospital with baked bads.” Spike reached under his seat, pulling out a large chest.
“Baked bads?” Trixie asked. “Do I even want to know?”
“Heh. We’re going to have to get her caught up, Twilight.” Rainbow reached under her seat, too, pulling out another chest. “Seriously, somepony should write a book about some of the crazy stuff we’ve done.”
The two hooflockers popped open, revealing the pegasus’s and dragon’s Evening Guard armor. Their purple plating had been recently polished, and had dark chainmail in between the joints. Gold trim accents highlighted some of the pieces, and a Luminar Nova-shaped gem glowed faintly in the center of each chest plate.
“Wow. Custom armor. Cored armor! They spared no expense for you guys.” Trixie rubbed her chest. “Honestly, I’m feeling a little exposed here all of a sudden.”
“You know there’s another locker under your seat, too.” Spike pointed to a place under Trixie’s hooves.
“Well, yeah, but that’s Twilight’s armor, right? I mean, three lockers, three ponies… Er, two ponies, one dragon. I’m not in the guard. I’m a ‘contractor.’”
“Trixie.” Twilight clopped her hoof to get her attention, and when she had it, she gave Aurora some power. The torc shimmered and rose, covering Twilight completely in a couple of seconds.
Trixie’s pupils shrank to pinpricks. “What… What is… Trixie’s never seen anything like that!”
“Bonded armor. A level up from the cored stuff.” Rainbow grunted as she shoved her hoof into a boot. “Crazy rare. That thing she’s wearing? That’s why Twilight survived blowing herself up.”
Twilight giggled. “It even has flaps so I can open up my saddlebags!” She fiddled with the little cap guarding access to the bag.
“I’m glad you like them. When I deployed over the bags, I thought they were important, so I changed shape. It… It kind of hurt doing that.”
I appreciate it, Aurora. Twilight mentally thought at her torc.
“Then… Does that mean…” Trixie pulled out the third chest, opening to find one more set of Evening Guard armor, this one without the holes for pegasi wings. “They made armor for me!”
“Why’s it our colors?” Spike asked. “Like she said, she’s not part of the guard.”
“Probably so she can pass as if she is part of the guard.” Twilight leaned back and folded her hind legs. “We are going to a diplomatic event, and I was the principal invitee. It would be less weird if everyone accompanying me appeared to be a part of my guard. Also, while gryphons aren’t as good at cloud manipulation as pegasi, they do use some cloud structures, and that armor has built-in cloud walking enchantments, among others. Definitely make sense for you and Spike to have it since only Rainbow and I can walk on them natively.”
“Maybe. It’s just that—” Trixie hid her mouth with her hooves. “No one... no one’s ever thought of me enough to give me something like this.”
“Technically, you aren’t being given it. It’s being ‘issued.’” Rainbow did little air quotes with her hooves. “You have to give it back after this is all over.”
“You don’t understand. This means that somepony thought about my safety enough to order it.” Trixie lifted up one of the boots and held it next to her foreleg. The size matched perfectly. She then reached back into the locker and took out a little book. "It even has a manual! Th—this is not something I’m used to, ponies caring about me.”
“Feels nice, doesn’t it?” Rainbow leaned back and shared a hoof/fist pump with Spike. “That’s called friendship.”
“It was probably Celestia who thought of it.” Twilight pulled open the compartment next to her, finding yet more sweets along with a bottle of dessert champagne. “She tends to think of stuff like this. Every little detail you would never have even considered. If it had crossed my mind, I would’ve done the same thing. Welcome to the group, Trixie.“
The newcomer nodded, grasping the chest plate tight and shrinking down into her seat. “Do you… Do you suppose I could, well…” A spell danced on her horn, then showered down on the gem in the Armour. The six pointed star seemed to blush, changing from one color to the next before settling on a light blue, the same color as Trixie’s coat.
“I don’t see why not. In fact, I think it’s a nice touch. Although,” Twilight glanced over to Rainbow trying not to look jealous, “if you’re going to do that, you should share. Think that little glamour spell will work on their armor’s cores to?”
“Trixie can do that. Hold still, you two.” The spell started up once again, this time aiming for the other gems.
Spike’s core shifted to a light emerald green, but Trixie apparently had something more elaborate in mind for Rainbow. Her core shifted color again and again, never quite settling on a full glow of its own. An entire painter’s supply of colours churned in the crystalline tapestry, the ever-changing hues dropping on to the canvas like little drops of rain, each leaving their mark.
“This is officially better than anything I had imagined.” Rainbow’s eyes stayed locked on her gem core. “Approved. In fact, I think this is so approved, I need to find some kind of form to fill out just to show how approved this is.”
“I’d be jealous, but I think mine suits me.” Spike leaned back and cracked his knuckles. “Purple and green scales, you know? Hmmm, wonder how long it will last.”
“Yours and mine should stay for weeks. Rainbow’s will need to be applied every couple of days.” Trixie slipped into her chest plate and secured the latches to her with a click. “Changing a gem’s visual color is fairly simple.”
“Visual color?” Rainbow asked, finally looking up. “As opposed to what?”
“The elemental color, also known as the thaumic profile or elemental alignment.” Twilight’s legs itched to begin a lecture pace, but the chariot was too small. “Everypony, every wellspring, every gem, even every given set of mana has a thaumatic profile. In other words, an illusion spell changing its visual colour won’t change the properties of the core.”
“Oh, yeah! I remember hearing about that in school. Didn’t look too much into it, though. Didn’t have anything to do with flying.”
Twilight winced as she was fairly certain she heard Trixie mutter “At least you got to go to school.”
“Actually, it does,” Twilight continued, getting the subject back on track. “Most pegasi have a thaumatic profile aligned with the wind and water, which is part of what allows you to fly. If I had to wager a guess, I would imagine that Trixie’s profile is light and dark, given her affinity for illusions.”
“Almost spot on, Lady Sparkle.” Trixie and rested her head on her hoof. “But I’m also aligned with silver and earth, from my earth pony side.”
“Silver?” Rainbow asked.
“The magic of life and death, inherent in almost all Earth ponies. It’s their profile that allows them to grow plants as they do.” Twilight smirked as she examined her hoof. “Maybe someday I should try again with a cactus.”
“Okay, I think I’m getting it. But would that mean that you have silver magic too?”
Twilight shrugged. “Probably. I imagine I have a lot of subcategories now, but I think my unicorn side is still dominant. As for my profile for that, well…”
“Hey, Twi.” Spike hopped off his seat and pulled Twilight into a hug with his arm. “This doesn’t honestly still get to you, does it?”
“Not as much anymore,” Twilight sighed. “It’s not something I share very frequently with others, though, so I appreciate it if you two didn’t tell anypony else.”
“Tell them what? Trixie doesn’t think that a pony’s thaumatic profile matters that much.”
“It did to me.” Twilight laid down from the deep seat intended for Celestia. “When I was a filly, all I wanted to do was be like the princess. During my first year as her student, one of my professors ran a test on me to find my thaumatic profile. I was doing so well, I was sure that I would have the same profile as Celestia. I can remember opening up the letter with results and reading through them as fast as I could. For the first two categories I read, my heartbeat just grew faster and faster. Astral, just like the princess. Fire, not in the same order as the Princess, but still, one of hers. Then, I read the last one.
“‘Darkness.’ I was devastated. It was the opposite of Celestia. Her’s is astral, light, and fire. I was so close, but all I could read was that one word. Darkness. The next time I saw her, I begged her not to drop me as a student.”
“I’d like to think the princess wouldn’t drop a student over something so trivial,” Trixie said with a raised eyebrow.
“You’re right. She didn’t. I was being stupid. Stupid, worried, and neurotic. Celestia helped me through it the way she always did. She brought me in her chambers, sat down next to me, put a wing over me, and taught me. She explained everything I could think to ask, and reassured me that not only was she not dropping me as a student, but that I would be learning from her for a long time.”
“Because when she takes a student, that’s a lifetime thing.” Spike reached over with his free hand and mussed up his big sister’s mane. “You learn from her until you’ve got three of four legs in the grave.”
“Unless you become an alicorn, I take it?” Trixie pulled out another piece of her armor, examining it. “I can’t imagine you staying her student if you get the wings and mane.”
“Once I’m crowned Princess, it’s true, I technically won’t be her student anymore and she’s free to take another. But she’s ten thousand years old! I have a feeling that I’m going to be learning from her for a long time to come.”
“Ten thousand!?” Trixie’s hoof slipped on the carpet, sending her to the floor with a soft ‘whump’. “I’ve heard she was old before, at least a thousand, but ten times that?”
“Alicorns have what we call ‘unbounded’ lifespans.” Twilight bent down and lifted Trixie back to her hooves. “We stay at our prime forever, and most diseases can’t touch us. A fully ascended alicorn is also extremely tough, thanks to our earth pony magic. That’s not to say we’re truly immortal, although Celestia is so powerful at this point it’s hard to comprehend anything that could kill her.”
“I don’t think I can imagine living that long.” Trixie popped open one of the side compartments, pulled out a bottle of sparkling water, and started chugging it. “It’s no wonder she takes students for their whole lives. She probably wants those connections to last as long as they can. For the first time, Twilight Sparkle...” Trixie looked at Twilight, eyes cool, but without anger. “I don’t think I can envy you.”
“Yeah, it’s…” Twilight stopped herself, squashing the words before they could come out of her mouth. “Well, it does help that Tia and Luna will be there. It seems like they balance each other really well.”
“Erp. Speaking of…” Spike grabbed his stomach and belched, catching the scroll out of the green flame. “Wow. That felt weird. Ahem!
“Twilight. Luna is still refusing to leave her room, so I’m going to have to be the one to teleport your chariot. Please hang on to something. It has been a long time since I teleported such a large group.”
“Refusing to leave her room?” Trixie turned to Twilight. “Is she being serious?”
“Uh…” Twilight tried to use her nervous chuckle to deflect the question. It wasn’t very effective. “The Princesses once fought each other in open war, and one of them kind of banished the other to the moon for a thousand years. They have… issues. And there was a kind of a tiff this morning…”
“What, does she issue orders from paper slipped under her doors or something? What kind of tiff causes a multi-millennia-old alicorn to lock herself in her room?”
Spike pulled out a file and started cleaning his claws, apparently deliberately not looking at Trixie. “Probably the kind of tiff borne from millennia of jealousy and resentment culminating in a war and an attempt to cause eternal night.”
Trixie blinked. “Okay. Forget I said anything.”
Twilight smirked but her addendum was cut off by a brilliant light shining in through the window. “Looks like we’re up. Hang on, everypony!”
The chariot bucked up and down as the unseen hand of physics tried to toss Twilight off her seat, yet only managed to get her an inch from the ground, with her stomach close behind. “Oof. I guess the more things she has to teleport, the rougher it gets. Everypony in one piece?”
“I think so. Ugh. Makes getting a scroll feel like just a little gas.” Spike’s hand shook as he reached up and grabbed the ledge of the window to pull himself up. “Um, guys? You might want to see this.”
Twilight wobbled her way over to Spike and followed where he was pointing. Six blurs of brown feathers and black talons were diving towards the chariot, swords at the ready. “Uh-oh. You don’t think…”
The chariot rocked like a boat in the wake of the gryphons as they flew by, completely ignoring the pegasi pulling it and circling around to take up a formation with three on either side.
“Eh, no worries guys. See the red shoulder pads?” Rainbow tapped the window with her hoof. “Those are the Gryphonhelm Aerie’s Honor Guard. They’re probably here to escort us in, seeing as we’re VIPs and all.”
“Oh. I suppose that makes… Whoa! Is that the city? Seriously?” Spike plopped down on the floor with a metallic ‘clank’ from his armor.
“Heh. Yup!” Rainbow smirked.
Twilight leaned up against the cool wall of the chariot to try to peek out the window, but only a portion of the city ahead of them was even visible. Still, what was there was, in a sense, a coliseum. “I think I’m going to get a better view. One second.”
“Get a better view? How are you going to—”
Twilight lit her horn and blinked out of the chariot, reappearing with a flash on the chariot’s roof. Even with the pegasi shifting the winds around them, the wind was intense. Twilight lifted up her foreleg to shield herself against the air howling in her face, then fired a shield spell ahead of her instead.
Though the scene was now tinted purple through the field, it was no less impressive. Massive concrete walls linked the mountain peaks themselves, forming a ring around a valley. Each housed a nearly-uncountable number of seats, with more on the sides of the mountains themselves. It was an arena unlike any other, and it dwarfed all of its competition. Supernaturally large pine trees filled the valleys outside the city, providing homes and hunting grounds for the city’s citizens. Cloud structures spiraled into the sky, casting their shadows in the afternoon sun, though they were few and far between compared to the massive superstructures of Cloudsdale. Gryphons didn't usually live in clouds, and instead only used them for specialized purposes.
“Lady Sparkle!” the lead chariot pegasus called out. “We are about to enter a dive! Please return to the chariot and keep your horn, limbs, and entire body inside at all times!”
With a sheepish chuckle Twilight teleported back into the chariot and in the midst of her friends. This was followed by a cyan-colored hoof to the face, though far softer than it could have been.
“Don’t do that!” Rainbow yelled, flapping her wings fruitlessly in the enclosed space. “I’m supposed to protect you, Twilight! I can’t do that if you freaking disappear without telling me where you’re going!”
“Eh, heh…” Twilight could swear her coat was starting to turn into wool at this point. “Sorry, Rainbow. I only went up to the roof, but you’re right, I’ll try to warn you before I teleport.”
The chariot dove towards the ground, pushing the weight of gravity slightly off their backs.
“Speaking of protecting,” Trixie said, stretching in her full set of armor. “I’m guessing I’m supposed to play the part of ‘royal guard’ for this. I don’t know how well I’m going to be able to fool a nation of soldiers, to be honest. I mean, Trixie can act, but this?”
“I think you’ll be fine.” Rainbow shrugged. “We’re rather unconventional as it is. Here’s what you need to know. First, always follow Twilight’s orders. Second, let Twilight do the talking unless someone asks you to speak. Third, I’ll try to stay on Twilight’s left, you stay on her right. If somepony, or some gryphon, decides to get aggressive, give them a death glare like you could end their life in a flash. Like they’re barely even worth the effort to light your horn to turn them into ashes.”
“And if someone does try to attack her? I’m not exactly combat-trained.”
Twilight gave her new ‘guard’ a smile. “Trixie, by your own account, you spent several years running and fighting for your life while still trying to put on your show in small towns all over Canterlot, Manehatten, and the Hinterlands Duchies. It might not be conventional, but I’m certain you can handle yourself well enough.”
“She does have one point, though.” Rainbow trotted up to Trixie and looked her so deep in the eyes she was probably focusing on Canterlot. “If it comes down to it, Twilight is more important than you. With one key exception, she only gets harmed over your dead body. Period! That’s what it means to be a guard.”
Trixie swallowed like there was a whole muffin made entirely of nerves stuck in her throat. “W-what’s the exception?”
“If it’s something beyond either of us. And I mean like, beyond Ursa Major. Some kind of giant monster of incomprehensible doom. Then, all we do is get the hay out of Twilight’s way.”
Trixie turned to Twilight, eyes as big as dinner plates.
Twilight let out a little sigh and held a foreleg out and wide. “One thousand average wellsprings combined,” she said, then pointed at her chest, “all right here. I only wish I could use the magic a bit faster.”
“One… one thousand!?” Trixie slumped down against the wall of the chariot like a sack of potatoes. “No wonder Celestia took you as her student! And the Ursa Minor… I couldn’t have kept that lift up if I tried!”
“Like I said, if we encounter something that turns you into a gibbering fool with a mind broken into pieces, just stay out of Twilight’s way. We’re here to deal with the small stuff Twilight doesn’t have time to.” Rainbow chuckled as the treetops poked their tips into the sight of the window. “We’re getting close. Armor check, everypony. Make sure we’re looking the part.”
“Rainbow, you exit first. Check the sky and roofs for crossbow snipers.” Twilight sat back from the door, signalling the other two to get beside her. “I know you’re not expecting trouble, and really, neither am I, but I want you to act like you’re concerned. It will keep our hosts on their toes to watch for threats. If you found something before they did, it would be an embarrassment to them, and could gain us some favor whenever Tia has to meet them for negotiations again.”
“Was that something the princess asked us to do?” Spike asked.
“No, actually.” Twilight paused, realizing the calculation she was doing. “It… it just came to me, somehow. I guess I picked up something from all those years studying next to Celestia’s throne.”
The chariot slowed and came to a smooth landing on concrete, taxiing for a moment before turning to the side and giving them a view of one of the city’s entrances. Torches lined the ways to doors nearly as tall as one of Canterlot’s many spires. The harsh, square shapes stood in contrast to the rounded elegance of the Equestrian capital. The red and green Gryphon flag hung in rows leading to the city, with one gryphon standing at arms underneath each.
“Looks like they rolled out the red carpet, literally.” Trixie stifled a chuckle. “All these years dreaming of walking on one, and here I am, though I never imagined it would be like this.”
The chariot door opened with a slight hiss from the air pressure equalizing, swinging wide with two Day Guard bowing down to the ground. Rainbow fluttered her wings and jumped out, quickly doing a survey before signaling Twilight that all was safe.
“Should I deploy, just to be safe?”
No, Twilight thought at her torc. Such an act could be misconstrued as hostility. She stepped down from the chariot, carefully poising herself in the best Celestia impression she had. An image of her filly self doing the same. looking immensely silly, and - though she would never admit it - adorkable flashed in her memory and was quickly pushed aside. Real world time, Twilight. Have to make this count.
Each gryphon lowered its head slightly as she walked forward; enough to convey respect, but careful to avoid submission. At the end of the row were the pillars of the city, both literal and figurative. Marble rose from the ground to bear the incredible weight of that section of the city while three key figures, two male and one female, stood under them.
“Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle, welcome.” The center gryphon stroked the red feathers under his beak, gliding the razor-sharp talons across his neck as if they were dull spoons. “I am Prince Ragnar, patriarch and ruler of the Gryphonhelm Aerie. Celestia has spoken of you at length, and with great pride. It is gratifying that she has finally allowed me to meet with you.” Leather stretched and groaned as he dipped his head to honor her, his armor flexing to match his motions. Medals and decorations clinked and clacked along with it in their own special, subtle song.
Twilight couldn’t help but note how his beak was ever so slightly out of sync with his words, which was a common ‘feature’ of gryphons. Their complex voice boxes worked differently from ponies and any other sentient race in Equus, making their words not quite ‘match’ their movements to anyone used to how the other races spoke. Of course, to gryphons, these different movements were natural and all synced up perfectly while the others were strange.
“It is good to be here, Prince Ragnar.” Twilight matched the movements of the gryphons she had passed, a bow meant to show respect, but not submission. Just as she was not his ruler, so too was she not his subject. “I’m honored that you have invited me.”
“The honor is mine, Grand Mage. Or do you prefer Lady Sparkle?”
“Actually, ‘Twilight’ is fine, Prince. I’m not one to stand on formalities. Especially that this is supposedly only a friendly visit, right?”
“Just so. To my right is my bride, Princess Freya.”
The gryphoness next to him bowed her head as her blue plumage swayed in the stiff breeze.
“And to my left is my chief of staff, Enok.”
Enok's feathers ruffled out. “I expected a pony with the title of ‘Grand Mage’ to be… taller.”
“Magical talent and wellspring depth do not correlate to a pony’s physical size, Chief.” Twilight stood up as tall as she could in a futile attempt to make herself bigger in the face of the gryphon several times her height. “Nor does it relate to the trust placed in me by the Princesses.”
“Be that as it may, I—”
“Chief Enok. She is a guest.” The Prince gave the other gryphon what amounted to a stern look, one which was much more directly threatening than the subtle ‘Keep digging your own grave and I’ll throw you in it” kind Celestia was so good at.
Trixie’s glare was even less subtle.
“Of course. My apologies, Lady Sparkle,” he said with a bow, barely acknowledging the veiled threat. “My Prince, shall I show them to their quarters?”
Prince Ragnar stroked a tuft of feathers under his beak. “Indeed, it would be best. Lady Sparkle, I would continue our meeting, but I have pressing matters of state to attend to. I’ve scheduled a dinner feast in your honor for this evening, if that would be alright?”
“Of course, Prince Ragnar.” Twilight pretended to herself that there was a complex political calculation at play in her head, but in truth she couldn’t really see anything past the surface. “Although I was hoping to get a tour of the city at some point.”
“I shall be proud to give you that myself tomorrow morning. Chief?”
He clapped his hand twice, and a pair of the honor guards stepped forward. “The royal guest suite is ready. Please, take their things. Lady Sparkle, if you would follow me?”
Twilight turned her head back and lit her horn, grabbing Horizon’s book out of the chariot before either of the gryphons could touch it. “Right behind you, Chief Enok.”