• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,496 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Atelier

She wanted to make a memory.

The reasons were not what they had once been. There would be very little need to revisit it, because there was likely almost no time remaining to do so. Once she and the one who had finished, (plus those around her, ponies who had traveled at her side on that other road, companions and friends and -- whatever the orange one was) worked out where things had gone wrong...

She had promised not to kill herself, for the sake of the others. But when they were taken care of, made safe, fully protected from her fate... the pain would still be there. The failure. A waste of a life, and one which would (should) never be taken back by the one whose time she had thrown away on the pursuit, because in spite of the wonders which should have sprung from his instruction, his labors, his Great Work, she had still managed to get something wrong and became...

...this.

Given that, she had no real reason to create one of the memories. But... it was something to do. Something she had not done since the event. And she did need to make one of the event, because doing so might help her work out what had happened through the process of review. Given the typical creation time required, she might be able to do that before she had to leave for the meeting -- plus one other. A warm-up, because the event was going to be a very complicated memory at best and creating a simpler one might let her approach it gradually, along with allowing her to learn if she was still capable of creation at all.

The pain...

She didn't know.

But the cycle had reached the point where she could once again feel the shield, although not every aspect of it. Even to her agony-distorted senses, what little of the information she was able to interpret seemed -- incomplete. As if it both was and was not her, or at least the version of 'her' which existed at the moment of detection. The signature was distorted, warped in the same fashion as her body, and part of it trailed off into something which was currently invisible -- an aspect she would only feel when the twisting wings began to return, long after she'd lost the rest...

She had created the shield during the event, without conscious thought, while things had -- changed. She suspected there was some degree of layering involved.

But for now, she could feel the shield on the other side of the hidden way once again. Opening the door was a trick she'd been doing for years, and it didn't require any kind of magic at all. Passing through -- more difficult with a larger body, plus there was something in the way at the far end. And parting what was on the other side of the little tunnel -- she could not negate the pegasus aspect from the combined working, but several minutes of struggle eventually allowed her to open a hole she could pass through, one which closed itself behind her as she entered.

There was more than a little fear in an approach which took place more slowly than it had since the very first day. She hadn't tried to get through before because... she had been afraid to see. As long as she didn't see her memories, she could pretend they were all still intact. She thought she had protected them and him, knew the second (and far more important) part had been a success, but it had only made her more fearful of viewing the first...

...they were safe.

Those which were public. The hidden ones. Every memory untouched --

-- including that one.

She looked at it. There was very little choice, for she had put it in a place of honor, one of pride -- and that was something which now sickened her.

Had that been the mistake? The memory itself? Had creating any of them been wrong, and that which was in front of her had simply been the final insult? She didn't want to believe that, but -- it was potential evidence, something she had to consider. One of the last things to happen before the event, and therefore a possible trigger.

But making memories... that had never felt wrong, even when it took her away from her studies. Memory creation was natural. He had said so. She knew that thinking too much about it hurt him, and that was part of why she'd always been so careful about finding the time, getting to the special place and getting out before he came to check on her. For a long time, she'd never wanted him to know that she was making memories at all, because she never wanted to see him in pain.

But on that worst day of all, the day of the event...

...she had been proud.

She had thought... it would help him. Make him feel better. Bring a smile, or a tear of joy. And so she had...

...no. The pink one first. Then the next.

She had to work quickly, but she was used to that: only the reason for the time pressure had changed. Stay too long, the green loop would begin to come around -- and then she wouldn't be able to leave for hours, missing the appointment...

She began.

It was so much harder than before. She couldn't always prevent herself from twitching, and there were harsher pains which made bringing the outer reaction down to a mere twitch impossible. And the pain was constant -- but it had ebbs and flows. Tall spikes and extremly shallow ditches. It never went away, but there were moments when it intensified, and she was beginning to learn some of the signs which indicated a foreshock. She listened to the horror of her body, and found moments when it warned her to step away before it was too late. At others -- the signals were too subtle, or drowned out in the chaos of a twisted sensorium, and then she had to fix a mistake. A process which gave the pain chances to create other errors, and things easily compounded from there.

But it was a learning process, much as memory creation itself had been. The longer she forced herself to listen, the easier it became. The pain never went away, the ebbing would need immense amounts of charity before it could even be described as 'minor' and the only true moments of partial relief were the brief seconds of peak. She could not live with the agony (and just the physical kind), not for a full lifetime, and pretending it was possible to manage, existing only for those times when the silver was at the top of a loop and it was possible to imagine she had done no more than recently fracture several ribs... no.

For now, though... she made errors, more than she had in years, and all of them were ultimately her fault. But she also managed to correct a few of them, and the memory gradually became clearer as she went along.

Every so often, she would stop and listen, for she always had, just in case he came by unexpectedly. (In fact, he tended to drop in on her unexpectedly so often during memory creation that on a subconscious level, she'd learned to expect it.) This was added to something entirely new: glancing up. The novelty of seeing something other than a ceiling wore off quickly.

The special place was no longer a fully protected one.

Sun did not touch the memories, not truly: it had to pass through a pair of shields, and the public ones were thus doubly discolored in tone. She had initially found the results insulting: the magic had no respect for the sanctity of memory. But there was nothing to be done about it, and the offense faded quickly. Her own shield had saved them, the secondary one kept everypony else away, and she could adjust to the alteration of light. She had privacy... but still, she would stop and listen, or look up to see if somehow, somepony who had managed to get through the weaker construct (and she could feel just how weak it truly was) might be staring down at her from the rim.

Nopony there. Again and again.

Every so often, she found herself looking at that one. Hating herself for having created it, wondering who else had seen it (for surely somepony had stared into the hole), and wondering if --

-- no. The private memories were still hidden: nopony else had gotten through her shield. There was safety here, at least for now, and the shield itself might outlast her life. She would make sure to take care of her own memories before she died. And as for that one... she would not touch it. Even if it had been the mistake, the thing which had triggered her irredeemable failure... even when all of her others were gone and only the public ones should have remained, she would leave that one behind. For there was every chance it was the final signature of her mistake, writ large for all to see...

...but she could not destroy it, for it wasn't her memory.

It was his.

And she had made it so.


[/hr]

Rainbow had a certain way of getting to the point, and that method reverberated through the castle. Nothing was easier than tracking her down on sound alone, and few things would have been harder than getting her to stop.

"It was you, wasn't it?"

A stumbling, half-stuttered "...n-n-no..."

"I know it was you who did it! Own up!"

"...n-n-n-no... I didn't d-d-do anything..."

Those particular protests hadn't come from Fluttershy: it had been far too loud, the tones were all wrong -- but the brief, locally-inaudible gap before the next burst was quickly given a source. "Fluttershy, I don't care! It wasn't you and it wasn't me, it sure wasn't Pinkie or the Doctor, nopony else was around but them! So that means it's one of them! There's only so many suspects in the book, nopony's brought in a hidden character -- the butler did it! Because it's always the butler! What's your name?"

"Softtread," came a remarkable steady stallion voice.

"So you did it!"

Calmly, "I did not."

The arriving group briefly glanced at each other. Hoofsteps accelerated.

"Prove it!"

"How did you wish me to prove I have not done something?"

"By... you can... I... you're trying to trick me!"

"Miss Dash, I promise you, I take the sanctity of this household and those whom Lord Presence welcomes as guests very seriously."

"Not seriously enough!" Rainbow shouted. "Because it's gone!"

"You are certain you have not misplaced --"

"-- stop asking that! I know where I left it! Somepony must have moved it! And --" her volume did not drop so much as lock wings against ribs before plummeting from a suddenly-calm sky "-- I understand, I really do. Because somepony was curious. They just wanted -- a sneak preview. I'm sure nopony here would ever want to take it and claim they'd done all the work. Just... flipping through it so they could get a direct look at all the awesome. Perfectly understandable." Conspiratorially, "I might have done it myself if somepony as awesome as me was in the castle. So... maybe I should just -- turn around. Face the wall for a couple of minutes. Not really pay any attention to who's going in and out, you know? And if I turn back and it's suddenly here... then it's over. Because I get it. I really do."

Pinkie now. "Rainbow, I don't think --"

"-- turning around now!" The words were almost cheerful. "Counting to a hundred and twenty!"

They were now close enough to hear Fluttershy, if just barely. "...Rainbow, it's a big castle... there's a lot of rooms..."

"Fine," Rainbow grumped. "A hundred and fifty it is. Better start galloping! One -- two --"

Which was when the shopping group reached the study.

Twilight, the last in the procession, found herself frozen in the doorway. It wasn't the sight of Rainbow facing a bookshelf, eyes squeezed tightly shut. Adding an openly-worried Pinkie and Fluttershy to that did nothing for her. The sight of every single servant in the castle -- long-time employees and temporaries alike -- crammed into the room, some nervous, others near-frantic, and more than a few dripping lightly with sweat -- gave her some concern, but only because of what some of them might drip on, and she briefly considered yelling out in a desperate attempt to order them away from the shelves.

Instead, all that emerged was "The books..."

Quiet, who had been approaching Doctor Gentle (at the left end of the servant inquisition line, tending to a mare whose sweat had been rapidly transitioning into froth), glanced back at her. "Twilight?"

"Your books..."

The shelves rose to the ceiling. They were on every wall. There were extras over the doorway. One window was under encroachment, and that was simply a more polite way of saying 'siege'.

The contents gave off the scent of dignified age, that special tang of paper which had been loved over the course of centuries added to aged binding glue, mixes no longer used and still holding (as long as the reader was careful, and Twilight was never anything but). Each spine showing the discoloration of long life was visually loved in turn, for they had earned every age spot and Twilight longed to ask them about the story behind each one.

There were names she knew by heart, and she thought well of Quiet for having them present. There were things she'd only heard of, and she longed to ask about his sources. There were rumors on those shelves, crystallized gossip which had previously only existed as desperate wishes passed back and forth by those who knew there would never be anything more than want, and they were real, solid, and right in front of her...

She did not swoon, but only because Rarity more or less held the local copyright on the action. Staggering forward by a single hoofstep, however, seemed to be more in the public domain.

"Twilight?" Quiet carefully asked.

The servants, none of whom were trying to get through the occupied doorway (and there was still room to pass her), watched, their eyes taking on a fresh layer of bewilderment, one Twilight frankly didn't care about. It wasn't important. The words Rarity had said on the way in could wait. The mission had a few hours before it had to be picked up again and that was still important, even if she was having a little trouble thinking about just how important it was.. but her priorities were in order. All she'd done was shove some entries around on the schedule in order to create new space, then written some very important things down.

Twilight went straight for the first fresh instruction on the revised checklist. She didn't have time for anything else.

"Whatever everypony's doing... could you all please pick another room for it?" There was a dazzle in her voice, as if her very words were failing to blink away teleport flash.

"Fifteen, sixteen... oh, no..." Rainbow groaned, turned away from the shelf, wound up waiting for Applejack to pass as the farmer claimed a quiet corner towards the back. "Twilight, I'm glad you're back, we need the extra eyes and any magic you might know for this, I'd really appreciate your casting it, but what I'd appreciate almost as much right now is if you'd take a second and blink."

"The Teerantinto," Twilight non-replied. "Why is that spiral-bound?"

"It's his notes," Quiet said. "Twilight, I think --"

"-- you have his notes."

"...yes."

"I'll give you five thousand bits."

Rarity's groan was a soft one, and no less pained for the lack of volume. "Twilight, dear, you do not have five thousand bits. I do not keep a particularly close eye on your finances, but I am not certain you generally have five hundred to spare, especially given how you have been so very carefully saving up so you can take the six-pony version of the escort test..."

"I'll use a Royal Voucher."

"This is not a mission expense," Rarity carefully tried. "Nor is it any aspect of our stay in Trotter's Falls which the palace would naturally understand and sign for. You cannot --"

"-- installments. Five bits per moon. For a thousand moons. Or we could do it faster. It's all just details." Her field was aching to flow forward and seize the volume, but she had to formalize the transfer first... no, wait: she'd just realized there were additional negotiations to throw in. "And that's a Fortreeze next to it. You have a Fortreeze. Out of the entire print run, there are supposed to be only two Fortreezes surviving in the world. The Princess has one and the Archives have the other. That isn't either of them."

"It's his fieldwritten first draft," Quietly helplessly said. "He bound it himself to see how it would look once it was published. Twilight, I think we need to find out what's going on here before --"

"-- his first draft."

Spike's groan chorused with Rarity's.

"Yes," Quiet said.

"The one he wrote himself."

"...yes. And bound."

"I'll give you my wings --"

-- which was the point where a multiply-offended Rainbow threw herself in front of Twilight's frozen gaze. "Twilight!"

She blinked.

"...what?"

"Books are important, right?"

She nodded.

"More important than anything?"

"...sometimes..."

"Fine! Then let's talk about mine! Because I'm pretty sure somepony stole it!"

The vocalization of near-ultimate blasphemy made her blink twice. (For his part, Quiet added an extra three.)

"...oh."

"Yeah."

"I'll help you look."

"Thanks."

"Has anypony searched this room yet? I'll start taking things down. Just in case it was accidentally shelved somewhere in here. Or stuck behind a book. Or maybe inside one. I know it was pretty thick, but some of those books might be able to hold it. Plus your binding wasn't that good, Rainbow. The pages might have gotten separated. There could be a single one inside every other volume. Somewhere. Which means somepony needs to turn all these pages. Carefully. While making sure some of the text doesn't match. You know, that would be really great to see in a mystery novel -- Pinkie, pass me the hat... So everypony head out, I don't want anypony getting hit by floating volumes and there's just so many volumes, I'm going to need some space..."


[/hr]

Twilight grumbled to herself as she prowled through the latest in the series of castle corridors. She had only been trying to be thorough. There had been absolutely no need for her friends to shove her out.

She had no magical means of tracking the composition. If Rainbow had been fieldwriting, then there would have been a signature to reach out for, but... pegasus. It left her with the same method everypony else was using: lift, turn, flip, make sure nothing had been tucked under anything else, and try not to leave any stone unturned -- or, given the way Quiet's ancestors had tended to shop, any drawer unopened. And there were a lot of drawers.

The servants continued to swear that none of them had taken the manuscript, and Quiet had eventually released them to join the hunt (with Rainbow muttering about how that at least gave the thief a chance to change their mind). He and the Doctor had remained in the library to search it themselves, and Twilight was trying very hard to convince herself that Quiet wasn't using the time to move some of his volumes to safety, things he would be claiming he'd never owned in the first place -- but she didn't think he would ever do that to her and besides, it was too late: she was certain she had at least a twentieth of the best ones memorized and, based on what she'd already seen, could project the possible inventory for another seven percent, and that was a number which she barely would have believed in if she'd seen the results in her nightscape...

They would be talking later. A very long talk. Not about -- the things Rarity had said, because there was a fresh priority, one she clearly had to work out immediately before anypony of intelligence found that room and made a better offer for the treasures within. But for now... she had to help in the search. Because friends came first. And Twilight was genuinely upset. The manuscript might have been -- well, she had to be frank: Rainbow's writing needed a lot of help, and some of the assistance on the earliest efforts might have needed to take the form of a divine intervention which she was no longer able to pray for. But Rainbow's efforts had also been sincere. And from what Twilight had seen of the manuscript, there had been a slow improvement in progress as the pages had gone by. Coming to grips with the material, slowly learning how to work with it at all, letting the subconscious lessons from every successive journey taken at Daring Do's side come that much closer to reaching the actual page. Rainbow had no skill at punctuation and just a little more when it came to the concept of paragraphs: if her work had been rendered into Ancient Crystalia, it would have fit right it. But as for simply expressing herself through the written word... Twilight felt she would have gotten there in time. Moons of it, filled with hard instruction, harsh edits, and more than a few non-adventure books field-flung in her direction in the hopes that one of them would teach her what a semicolon was for.

And even without that... even if it had truly been the worst thing ever written in Equestria's history -- it was Rainbow's manuscript.

Twilight was sure Rainbow wouldn't have misplaced it. And for somepony to steal a book...

She had been fuming her way through the corridors and after the first two, only a little of it had been about the blocked study.

Next room...

Her field coated the lever, opened the door. She glanced inside --

-- oh.

I shouldn't...

...I can't...

...it's his bedroom...

It couldn't have been anything else. The little freestanding shelf and beautifully-carved bookends -- Celestia's mane, they were the same as her mother's set -- told her who slept there. Invading his sanctuary...

...well, at the very least, she should inspect the reading material and make sure some servant hadn't accidentally put the manuscript there, plus there might be something else to make an offer on and surely it wouldn't hurt anypony if, say, she gave up twenty seconds for a particularly interesting page. Possibly forty. Was five minutes too --

-- it was Quiet's bedroom.

Her body had slipped all the way inside without her conscious notice. She was in his bedroom.

He had excellent taste in furniture, or somepony had before him. The metalwork on the headboard was unexpected: most ponies went with wood -- but there was nothing wrong with minotaur art, and Twilight gave up a second to appreciate the pattern of the twists and turns hammered into the cold iron, suggestions of leaves and branches, hints of birds, a cricket here and there. One large currently-closed walk-in closet off to the side, then a smaller (and ancient) wardrobe next to that. There was a winding ramp in one corner and from Twilight's memory of the castle, it would have to be heading directly for the observatory. Look towards the bed (and there was so much room in the bed, perfectly made but that had probably been the servants, a little dent in the mattress for the side closer to the shelf) because that was the way to get back to the books --

-- there was a small, ornate pearl-edged pillbox next to that little shelf. She hadn't noticed it at first, lost in the shadow of a first edition which...

...he probably takes something. For whatever's in his blood. It can't be cured, but there are some things where the right medicine can at least moderate the symptoms. I should ask how often he has to take them. Maybe I should carry one or two, just in case he gets caught away from --

-- and next to the pillbox...

Twilight looked at the picture.

She could have spent some time on the frame. She could have cataloged it: surely it was several centuries old, and the scrollwork around the edges deserved appreciation. That was within, however... that had been there for less than a year.

Quiet's captured image was on the left side. She paid it very little attention.

The mare on the right had her full focus.

Somewhat taller than Quiet, with a solid build. A leaf-green coat, a shade she instinctively associated with a plant which Fluttershy had once warned her away from. The eyes were almost the same shade, but seemed to have a touch of muted orange around the fringes, and the mane and tail took that further into an elaborate curl of orange-white, one Rarity might have tried out for herself if those instructions turned out to be legible.

The wedding dress was beautiful, especially given the white roses which almost seemed to be growing from the headdress, setting off the elegant-seeming horn. The pony wearing it looked... passive. Not particularly concerned about smiling for the camera. Almost -- bored.

A quick glance at the left. Quiet had been smiling. But... only a little. To Twilight, it looked like the smile worn when somepony had just been told to do so by some level of authority, a mask put on for a situation which those above you insisted you attend, and you just stood there pressing hoof after hoof after hoof while longing for the chance to get out of sight, end the whole thing, just end it so you could take the mask off...

...or he might have just been smiling.

Back to the right.

She's prettier than I am. No great surprise, especially as Twilight generally thought every mare in the world had her beaten -- but this one was much prettier. Almost on Fluttershy's level, but with what felt like a haughtiness added to that beauty...

...or boredom...

She kept looking at it. Not the pillbox, much less any contents. There was no searching for the lost manuscript. Just the picture.

Twilight had no idea how long she stayed there, didn't care to find out. It was just her and...

...the picture.

It wasn't a very good picture, really.

Actually, the more she thought about it, it was a horrible picture, especially for one taken on a wedding day. She hated it...

...and she left. Somepony else could search this room.

She hadn't even checked out the rest of the books.


[/hr]

It took some time to fill his first friend in on all the details and thankfully, every last moment of it was conducted in privacy. Nopony else was supposed to come near the study, and two servants were stationed at each end of the approach corridor to make certain Twilight didn't come back.

"Necessary," Doctor Gentle finally said, his field tugging at a book before pushing it almost all the way back, working on the illusion of a complete (if not to 'flip every page' level) search. In a more weary tone, "Necessary..." Quiet, who was also using the chance to do a little reshelving, glanced over. It got him a tired smile. "It is becoming a mantra, Quiet. I am experiencing a certain need to remind myself why Coordinator is part of this at all, and I somehow doubt you have been able to get through this day without thinking the word at least once..."

Quiet wearily nodded. "There is no doubt in my mind that he's the one who told the press where she was. I never paid that much attention to his school stories, at least not to where I would have had them memorized. Having horse apples stuffed into my ears never struck me as an appealing way to pass a party. But I got the general drift of them. I knew he hated Twilight: I even had some idea as to why. Because he couldn't completely control her. For somepony like Coordinator, that's a sin. I think he made her life miserable in that school -- and now he's proving he can pick up exactly where he left off."

Doctor Gentle sighed. "The emotions of an angry first-year who has been told that while he can play with and even break every other toy in the playroom, there is one he should be careful with -- and so he forgets all the other toys even exist. A tantrum stretched over more than half a lifetime. I knew he was a petty pony in so many ways, and yet he still finds means of surprising me."

Starkly, "We have to get them out. There may be very little chance of their actually discovering anything and there's probably a few whose first instinct on finding out what was going on would be trying to sign up. I can just imagine Murdocks' reaction if he decided there was a way to supplement all the screams of 'Depose!' with somepony he could depose with. An actual replacement to go on the thrones, and possibly the ability to make his favorite candidate into a personally-controlled Princess..."

"Except," Doctor Gentle quietly said, "that such has never been what this is about. I am aware of how many among those who support us cherish such dreams... and I am not about to hand so much as the offer of a stronger fantasy over to that one unless there is truly no other way forward. I am certainly not about to grant him any chance at the reality. But it would be all he could see... all so many have chosen to perceive at all..."

"Plus," Quiet wryly pointed out, "we would need a reporter who would stay bought."

The elder managed a smile. "Even with, shall we say, enlightened self-interest involved... difficult."

"Very. Other than hoof-stomping on their shells, which just tends to summon more to the site of the crushing... any ideas on how to clear up our infestation problem?"

That produced a sigh. "I was hoping you had one. And the pony who might have the strongest notion of how to deal with it is the one creating it. The only concept I have is forcing a story somewhere else, something they would all have to leave and cover -- but I'm having some trouble imagining what we could create which would warrant taking their attention away from a Princess. Not without actually hurting somepony."

"Don't even count on it then," Quietly dryly said. "Injured ponies are news. Twilight is gossip... We'll just have to keep thinking about it, and ask everypony else if they can come up with something. At worst, Chief Copper might be able to manage a little harassment -- as if that wouldn't make headlines, but it'll be a distraction -- and we can all try to keep an eye on them, steering them away from anything risky. But there's still a major element of luck in this. One bad moment, one sighting..."

"Fortune has been on our side thus far," Doctor Gentle admitted. "But I am not about to count on retaining that favor. The two things we know we can control are excluding them from the party invitations, then keeping them from sneaking onto the grounds. We may need some extra security, but no cancellation should be necessary. We keep all of them outside the castle, Quiet. Nopony is going to acquire an arrival point in the corridors. Add that to regular patrols and our own knowledge of just who is not welcome here, and the meeting will work as planned."

Quiet exhaled, allowed his field to position a bookmark for later. "I'm comforted... at least for that. I just wish I had something else for you. Getting rid of press... I swear, I'm feeling sorrier for Twilight by the day. All the ones she dealt with before coming here, having them invade, and it's not exactly going to stop after she leaves..."

He had been trying to think of a definitive solution, anything which would guarantee her privacy and peace of mind for whatever her lifetime would be. It hadn't happened and despite his total lack of responsibility for the creation of the issue, that particular failure felt like a completely personal one.

"There is a price to pay for every gift," was the steady answer. "That has always been known, ever since the first days. But in this case... the gift she has gained outweighs that price, and so it shall be for all whom we help."

Quiet nodded. "So for the press..."

"We keep thinking. If nopony thinks of anything, we conceal, we redirect, we do what we must. And hope it is enough."

"And -- Coordinator? I don't think we can force the issue with him on the press, at least not just yet -- but what about the manuscript?" Doctor Gentle had told the group that he'd woken up shortly after Twilight and the pegasus had, spoken to Coordinator on their mutual way out the door and thus seen the bureaucrat leave without any papers at all. The Bearers had believed him without question.

Immediately, "Let him keep it for a time."

Quiet blinked. "Because?"

"Because -- he is necessary, at least for a while longer. And where things have been written down... there might be lessons to learn. You recall what the pegasus had been writing about?"

He sent his memory back to the previous night's dinner, sorted through the self-involved words launched across the table until he'd extracted some actual information. "It sounded like she was trying to record some of their early adventures..."

"Yes," the older stallion calmly said. "Adventures to which 'mis' might be applied..."

Quiet turned away, faced a different shelf. His field sorted, rearranged.

"If there is nothing there -- we find the manuscript in a day or so, and there is no harm done," Doctor Gentle continued. "But until then... let him practice his art, and see what kind of path he might paint for us."

The younger male nodded, continued the pointless search. "Two days, maximum. We may have to move the party up a bit -- the end of that second day. We may be hurting our chance of getting a full gathering, but the faster we do this, the less time the press has to get their teeth into anything. We can return the papers just before everything starts."

A smile, unseen. "I have faith in Coordinator's ability to finish reading by then."

"We'll know how fast he's going by the painkiller stock drop rate in the pharmacy."

They falsely labored in silence for a few minutes.

"Five thousand bits," Doctor Gentle said.

"Yes."

"What was the actual value? Because I would guess she was attempting a drastic overbid in the hopes of getting it away from you before you came back to your senses."

Quiet smiled. "You know, I honestly have no idea what it's worth? It was on the shelf long before I was born. I only check the prices on things I'm trying to acquire..."

"Given that you're hardly planning to sell off, I understand that completely."

"Well... maybe if we have to run. I can always grab a few pieces on the way out. Things rare enough to sell immediately, but not so scarce that anypony's going to question a bunch of them hitting the market at once." He gave that some thought. "I should start pulling a few things. Just in case."

"Very sensible," Doctor Gentle complimented him. "But from the sound of it, that would leave the Teerantinto and Fortreeze out. Will you take them with you?"

"Do you know how many books it takes to overload a saddlebag?" Quiet managed a shrug. "The answer is generally at least five books less than you figured on, especially with my hauling. I might just -- mail them off to a dedicated collector. Somepony who'd appreciate them..."

With a smile, "Which costs you five thousand bits."

"We'd never be able to cash the Royal Voucher anyway."

"And -- teasing now "-- the wings?"

It didn't even require a moment of thought. "Pass."

They worked, for creating the illusion of a thorough search involved just as much effort as the search itself. They talked to each other in privacy and safety, with much of it working out to be the simple casual jokes which so often passed between friends. Neither paid any attention to the clock, for the effort took as long as it took, and ended when it ended.

And so neither had any knowledge that Twilight, who had been keeping an eye on the time, had headed off the grounds, taking two of the Doctor's with her so they could all reach their appointment...