The conference hall in Canterlot Palace was spacious and nearly bare, but the conference table inside seated only nine. Twilight Sparkle sat on one side of the table, close to the vacant seat at the end (presumably for their host). Rarity sat across from Twilight and next to Pinkie Pie. Rainbow Dash sat across from Pinkie and next to Fluttershy. And Fluttershy sat across from Applejack. Next to Applejack, Starlight Glimmer sat at her chair; her face bore the exact same expression as it had three days ago—wide and hollow and struck with horror. The seat across from Starlight was vacant.
The silence had lasted a good long while. The gravity of what had happened in Ponyville hadn’t lessened in three days’ time. Finally, Applejack turned toward Starlight Glimmer and muttered, almost in a whisper, “You okay, sugarcube?”
“It’s my fault . . . it’s all my fault . . . .”
It had been the first time any of the six friends had heard Starlight speak in three days. Fluttershy jumped, and Rainbow Dash looked up and down to spot the owner of the voice. None of them could really blame her; Starlight’s voice was so low and strained, she barely sounded like herself.
“Don’t panic, Starlight,” Twilight said calmly. “Celestia just wants an update on your lessons, that’s all. I’m sure this has nothing at all to do with what happened—”
At this, Starlight’s eyes only widened more. They began to shimmer with moisture, and she gasped lightly in a staccato fashion.
“Oh, dear . . .” Fluttershy mumbled, glancing at Starlight. “She’s still really upset.”
“Come on, relax!” Dash insisted. “It wasn’t that bad, you know! I mean, if Town Hall had been empty, that would have looked so awesome!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity yelled. “Have you no shame? Starlight feels bad enough without you bringing up the incident in such a tactless manner!”
“Well, geez, it’s not like I meant anything . . .” Dash grumbled. She then saw Starlight’s horrified face, almost frozen where it was, and began to frown herself. “Okay . . . you’re right . . . sorry Starlight . . . .”
“Aww, don’t be such a frowny-puss!” Pinkie chirped. “I don’t think it really was that bad!”
“Pinkie’s got a point,” Applejack added, nodding. “There’s really nothin’ to fear. I mean, there weren’t any casualties, thank heavens. And there couldn’ta been that many—”
The girls (sans Starlight) all turned in the direction of a new, deep and commanding voice. The owner was a sleek grey Unicorn stallion in full golden armor that had followed Princess Celestia into the conference hall. “Twenty-six injured ponies,” he continued, “crawled out of the splintered rubble that was once Ponyville’s City Hall.”
“Princess Celestia!” Twilight beamed, ignoring the stallion. “How are you this afternoon? It’s been quite a while, hasn’t . . . it . . . ?” The stern, somber look on the princess’ face made Twilight fall silent.
“This isn’t a social call, Princess” the stallion said sharply, aiming a sharp gaze at her. “You know exactly why you’re here.”
“Uhh . . . who are you?” Rainbow Dash blurted out from her seat.
“Excuse me, are you a Princess?” the stallion replied with a frown. “I don’t see a horn on that empty rainbow head. So I suggest you sit down and shut it.”
Before Dash could get up to protest, Twilight intervened. “Excuse me, sir, but I think that’s a valid question. I’ve certainly never met you, and I’d like to know why you’re here and why you think you have the right to treat my friends so scathingly.”
“Considering your track record, Princess,” the stallion bit back, “I see no reason to hold back. And for the record, my name is Thunderbolt, and I am the Captain of Celestia’s Royal Guard.”
“That’s bull!” Dash got up from her seat and hovered above the table. “Twilight’s brother is the Captain, not you! You’re totally full of—whoa!” She was cut off when she was enveloped in a deep blue aura and thrown back roughly into her seat.
“Sit your skinny plot down, young lady,” Thunderbolt growled as the same blue glow surged for a second on his horn. “Did it never occur to you that Shining Armor’s current living quarters prevent him from fulfilling his duties in Canterlot?" He then scoffed. "Of course not, most of you prefer to think after you do stupid things.” Almost everypony jumped at the sound of Celestia clearing her throat loudly. Thunderbolt glanced subtly up at the princess and continued, “Suffice it to say, I have replaced Shining Armor, as he is no longer available for this job. And because I work security detail in his absence, it is my duty to assess security problems in Canterlot, and recently, all of Equestria.”
Twilight glanced between the princess and the new Captain, feeling her heart throb in her chest. “Soooo . . .” she asked nervously, “I assume you didn’t call us all here to evaluate my progress in Starlight’s friendship lessons?” At this, Celestia’s eyes narrowed. “Ehehe . . . okay, I guess not.”
Celestia and Thunderbolt walked further into the room. The princess’ mane and tail billowed behind her like a flowing gown, and the captain glanced around the room with his head slightly bowed, as if he were aiming his horn instead of his eyes. Once the two reached the end of the table, Celestia stopped before taking a seat; Thunderbolt stood dutifully beside her. His horn glowed, and a gemstone materialized out of thin air in front of it. He placed it carefully on the table with his magic, then gave it a light tap with his hoof. In an instant, the stone itself glowed, and projected a large, square patch of light directly above it. The square patch of light, much like a film projector, showed a scene to everypony present.
A scene of a dainty-looking cottage in Ponyville, hanging twenty feet in the air and slowly rotating. At this, Fluttershy gasped.
The scene quickly flashed to Sweet Apple Acres, then ten feet deep in ice, when Thunderbolt quietly and succinctly recapped the scene: “Discord.”
Fluttershy fidgeted in her seat, and Twilight felt an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach.
The scene flashed again, and it showed a distanced shot of Ponyville, then covered by an enormous magical dome of energy. “The Alicorn Amulet,” Thunderbolt said. Twilight barely caught a glance of Pinkie gently rubbing the corner of her mouth with her hoof.
Another scene flash, and it showed the outside of some kind of school building in the dead of night. In a smoldering crater in front of the building, a strange, sunny-orange, primate-like creature emerged, covered in grime and eyes swimming in tears.
“Sunset Shimmer,” Thunderbolt said before the scene changed again, this time to the scene of the destruction of Ponyville’s City Hall building three days prior. “Starlight Glimmer,” he continued. Starlight released another faint gasp and sunk down in her chair.
“Okay,” Twilight pleaded, her hooves shaking. “That’s enough. I know why we’re here.”
“As well you should, my former student,” Celestia finally spoke as the projector stone blinked, then extinguished the screen.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Your Highness,” Applejack stepped in, “but how did you know about all this stuff?”
“These are all memories magically implanted into this stone by witnesses of each event,” Thunderbolt supplied the answer. “I was sent to find ponies who’d seen Discord’s joyride through Ponyville and Trixie’s takeover mere days earlier. The Canterlot High incident was only slightly harder to capture, but since you, Princess,” he seethed at Twilight, “made access to that world so effortless, it proved to be much easier than I’d thought. As for the incident three days ago . . . there were plenty of witnesses for that.”
“Look, I understand your intentions,” Twilight pressed, getting up from her chair, “but none of these things were in my control. I mean, I did my best with what I had—”
“Evidently not,” Thunderbolt said sternly. “These are only four events of known threats to Equestria that you were involved in. And if you haven’t wrapped your pretty little lavender head around it by now, then you should know that they all have one other thing in common . . . you enabled them all.”
There was another weighty silence after this. Starlight only sank deeper in her seat—her face was half-covered by the table now.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Rainbow Dash snapped, taking to the air again. “Hold on, hard case! That’s not fair! It’s not like Twilight could fight the Alicorn Amulet! Trixie was too powerful with it!”
“And I took care of Discord’s behavior, like the princess asked me to,” Fluttershy spoke up. When most of the room turned to her, she hastily added, “Um, well . . . kind of . . . I-I did my best . . . .”
“And Sunset was in no danger of relapsing to her old ways!” Twilight argued. “In fact, she helped us save Canterlot High from the Dazzlings!”
“And what happened at Town Hall was not Starlight’s fault!” Rarity shrieked. “She tried to help us rid the town of those awful Timberwolves! She’s as much a hero as—”
“Shut it!” Thunderbolt roared. Instant silence.
“What the captain is trying to say,” Celestia continued, aiming a harsh gaze at him as she placed emphasis on the last three words, “is, as commendable as you all are in defending your friends,” the princess continued, “I must insist to you all that you keep calm and understand the situation.”
The seven mares all looked back at Celestia with varying looks of distress, but in seconds the room was silent, and Dash lowered herself back into her seat. Starlight only sank deeper. Now, she could only barely see over the table.
“Twilight, I haven’t truly had any regrets in helping you realize your potential as a princess until recently,” Celestia continued. “But recounting all of these events, both before and after your ascension, I believe you are a bit too comfortable with your own friendship lessons to know the difference between friendship opportunities and actual threats to Equestria.”
“But Princess, I—”
“Please let me finish,” Celestia spoke over Twilight. “I asked you before to stay in Ponyville only to make friends. And you’ve made many friends. In fact, the fruits of your labors are sitting in this room with us right now.” She gestured over the table to Twilight’s six companions (Starlight slouched even more, now hidden behind the table completely). “Which was the only thing I had intended for you on that front,” she went on. “You were to make friends that you could trust and respect, which would in turn revive the Elements of Harmony. Technically, there should no longer have been a reason for you to continue making friends at that point.”
“I think it would be prudent to add,” Thunderbolt resumed, “that your exploits as the latest princess have not been as successful as I’m sure you’d be willing to believe. While many in Equestria see you as strong, competent, and fair, many, especially after today, would prefer the term . . . ‘lenient’.”
There was another dead silence as Twilight felt her heart plummet. All she could do was stare pleadingly at her former mentor. Celestia did not look back—in fact, she looked as though she hadn’t even noticed Twilight was looking.
Twilight had never felt more betrayed by a mere look.
“What does ‘lenient’ mean?” Pinkie piped up, breaking the silence.
“It means she shows mercy . . .” Starlight mumbled, pulling herself upright only enough to make herself heard. “It means she’s soft . . . .”
“You wanna speak up over there, missy?” Thunderbolt started on her as he approached her, as slowly as a night fog. “Or are you just used to hiding from justice after screwing up ponies’ lives?” If it was possible to sink even lower, Starlight did it right then.
“Thunderbolt, enough,” Celestia ordered, glancing at him for only a moment. Thunderbolt merely sniffed and stepped back a short step.
“’Lenient’? Yeah, I’ll bet if you’d seen that epic battle against Tirek, you’d think differently!” Rainbow Dash snapped, getting up from her seat again.
“And we sealed Discord in stone once before,” Applejack said, also getting up, “and if it could be done before, Elements or no, I’m willin’ to bet we could find another way to do it again!”
“I’m sorry, Princess, but none of this is particularly fair to Twilight,” Rarity also got up to say. “She’s been a noble and fearless leader, doing only what’s right!”
“JUSTICE FOR TWILYYYY!!” Pinkie squealed, jumping up and standing on the table.
Not even bothering to speak, Thunderbolt ignited his horn, and in seconds, all those who’d removed themselves from their seats (everyone except Starlight and Fluttershy) was encased in a magical aura. A split-second later, each pony’s aura flung them back to the table and planted each of them firmly back in their chairs before fading.
“I think you’ve had your say!” Thunderbolt commanded, his eyes as razor-sharp as his tone. “But excuses won’t help you fix the damage that’s been done.”
“You can say that again . . .” Dash grumbled under her breath. She, Pinkie, Rarity, Applejack and Twilight groaned as they rubbed their seats in pain.
“I told you to keep your mouth shut, girl,” the captain growled at Dash. “With me in the room knowing all the crap you and that pink one have pulled, you’re lucky that’s the only pain in the butt you’re getting from me!”
“Thunderbolt!” Celestia boomed. “I said enough!” Thunderbolt glanced back at the princess with narrowed eyes, but complied, sitting on the floor in a dignified pose. After another pause, Celestia released a heavy sigh.
“I’m sorry, my little ponies,” she lamented. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way. But I haven’t been very firm, and that’s largely why things have turned out the way they have. I allowed you to reform Discord instead of just keeping him in stone, and that’s what led to his betrayal. I should have taken measures against users of the Alicorn Amulet, instead of just having it locked away. I should have done what needed doing and sealed off the mirror portal permanently. And I should have placed Starlight Glimmer under arrest for her magical crimes.”
Starlight released another whine from her seat.
“But I was confident in you, Twilight,” Celestia went on morosely. “I thought your lessons would help you make decisions better than I could. But it ended up failing. Far worse than I could imagine. Even your friends have been too merciful on those who hadn’t deserved it. Because of them, a rogue ex-WonderBolt cadet, a pair of charlatans, and a crooked fashion designer are still in the wind, Discord’s shown no signs of remorse, and don’t even start me on the ‘Mare-Do-Well’ incident . . . few moments have made me more disappointed in my student then when I heard you’d done that . . . .” Another sigh, and Celestia pressed on. “But that’s not the point. Things have to change, Twilight. Ponies are afraid. Your decisions must be regulated, as must the ponies you claim to trust.”
“Princess, I don’t regret my actions,” Twilight spoke up. “You taught me that friendship is important. I’m using your lessons for the better of Equestria.”
“Your way doesn’t always work, Princess,” Thunderbolt said. “And there needs to be a plan in place when it doesn’t.”
Twilight finally felt true frustration begin to boil over in her. She fought to keep herself from shuddering in rage, and fought even harder to keep her voice level. “With all due respect, Captain, if you’re going to start regulating every move that my friends and I make, I deserve to know why. This couldn’t just be because of the accident in Ponyville. What brought this up all of a sudden?”
Thunderbolt opened his mouth to answer, but Celestia held up a hoof, and he stayed silent. There was another pause, this one seeming to imply Celestia mentally preparing an answer.
“Not really ‘what’,” she finally answered, “as much as ‘who’.”
Twilight sighed, her fight against the anger taxing her. “All right, then. ‘Who’ brought this up?!”
“That would be me.”
Another new voice hit the conference hall, and the presumed ninth seat entered, a cream-colored mare with horn-rimmed glasses, orange and purple mane done up in a bun, and a heavy, itchy black sweater.