• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,505 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?

  • ...
40
 1,032
 11,505

Composition

Twilight had already committed the faux pas of second-guessing a mark: something which would border on the unforgivable with many ponies, as those who heard the focus of their lives being cast into doubt seldom reacted well. She would not do Applejack the disservice of questioning her friend's magic. The farmer had said 'somepony just got here,' and so there was somepony there. She believed that.

But she didn't see anypony new, at least not within her current arc of sight. A half-panicked survey of the landscape might alert the new arrival. And so...

"Where?" she whispered, fighting to keep her own posture from tightening.

"Behind you," Applejack softly replied. "Don't turn: you probably couldn't see it anyway. Ways back, through the trees. Not on the main path. Still more than a few body lengths out."

"...one?" Fluttershy quietly asked, something which required practically no modifications to her normal tones.

"It's one unless we've got a pair of ponies trying to do the Trottingham Two-Step," Applejack reported. "Four hooves."

"Maybe they're not following us?" Spike tried. "Ponies come out here for apples. This could just be somepony who wanted a snack."

"This early in the morning?" Applejack reported, forcing her volume down. "Maybe. But that's not the way I feel like betting right now, Spike. An' either way, I don't want ponies seeing us out here. Ah sure don't want them close enough t' hear. So we're gonna move now, nice and natural. Just trot off like we're the ones looking for apples. I'll listen, see if this one tries to follow, and if they do -- we'll shake them. If it gets real bad --" a glance at Twilight was accompanied by a very visible wince "-- you teleport us out. Two ponies plus Spike: you can pull that off, right?"

It was as much as she was officially licensed for: Twilight had only been able to pay for the three-sapient version of the escort test. "Yes. But if I teleport you --"

"-- better than some of the other options," Applejack half-forced out. "Just bring us in somewhere that nopony's gonna see the reaction. Okay. Everypony follow me. And chatter a little, if you can. Act natural."

Twilight briefly wondered if acting qualified for lying -- then remembered the play. Still, if the lines weren't rehearsed... "About what?"

A soft groan. "Oh, for... Apples. Talk about apples."

"...why?" Fluttershy asked.

"Because we're in a wild apple orchard," Applejack hissed. "And not only is that the reason why we should be out here, it's kind of a topic I can keep going for a while." And then, with her normal volume coming back all at once, "Let's scout over that way." A head tilt indicated an angle stretching off to Twilight's left. "Maybe I already got the one type of seeds, but there still might be a few other varieties around here. Since we're not gonna be around much longer, I want to finish this scouting gallop. Come on, everypony!"

...does that count for a lie? Because it had emerged so naturally, without strange expressions or green eyes constantly darting up...

Applejack began to trot, Spike now half-clinging to the thick name. Twilight forced herself into step, and Fluttershy brought up the rear. None of them risked glancing back.

"Look for a striated sort of red," Applejack called back. "Hint of peach at the very top, near the stem. We're in just about the right place for a Jonagold. And that's not controlled like the Eastern Red Giants are, but I've never seen a tree I liked. Wouldn't mind adding a few to the Acres if we can just find a decent source of seeds."

"Peach?" Twilight asked, mostly because it was something she could say.

"Just the color. Not the flavor. They're more tart than sweet."

"Oh. Good." Twilight searched for more words. "Because I don't like peaches."

"Y'don't?" A little hint of very real surprise made it into the words. "Because I've seen you eating them. Pinkie served up that pie the one time, and you had a slice --"

"-- Pinkie baked it," Twilight sighed. "I didn't want to be rude. And it's the texture, plus the juice is so cloying, and if you've ever seen what happens to it when somepony tries to put them into a preserves jar..."

"...everypony has foods they hate," Fluttershy contributed. "Angel hates iceberg lettuce: that's why it's his punishment dinner, after he's been bad."

Spike projected his groan to the theoretical back row of the open-air theater. "Obsidian." (Twilight winced, automatically nodded.) "It's not a real gem. It's a rock which had some weird things happen to it. So that's what it tastes like: a rock which went through some bad stuff and wants to take all of it out on you. And you know the worst part? It looks so good. The color, the way the light goes through it -- you'd swear it was going to be the perfect gourmet snack. Exactly what you need to get through that next reshelving. But as soon as it hit my tongue..." The memory triggered a very open, extremely sincere gagging sound. "Obsidian is the Baked Bads of the gem world."

They could all see Applejack's wince. "Do we have to talk about that right now?"

Fluttershy giggled. "...we should talk about the old lessons, so we don't forget them. Get some help. Ask for help." A half-mischievous pause. "Go to bed already..."

Applejack muttered to herself, the words lost in low tones, and glanced off to the right. "So maybe this way..."

They wandered through the wild zone, and Twilight couldn't make herself look back. The play was in progress, and breaking character might alert the local audience as to what was going on. But she didn't know what was happening. Applejack was still talking (lying?) and that had to mean the pony was behind them. Following. But --

--why?

Several possibilities presented themselves. The reporters were very unlikely to have departed from Trotter's Falls, and it was possible that one of them had wandered out of the town just in time to spot a Princess, decided to go look for a story to distort. (Or worse, had camped out within easy sight of the castle, was watching every coming and going.) It could be a local, somepony who'd started out as just looking for an apple and upon spotting the four of them, had switched into a quest for gossip. Or it could have been --

-- somepony else.

Whoever planted the resonance bomb might have come out to see what had been set off -- or would they check her home first? But if she'd gone back and they'd found her there, they still might come out to get rid of any others, so nopony else would set those off and then tell the local police about a strange spell in the wild zone. Take the teeth out of the traps. And when that pony sees us...

If she had gone home, and the pony who'd placed the spells had met her there -- how much had that pony been told? Any accomplice (at least an accomplice) would certainly be aware of who they were and what they looked like. What would that pony intend for them? Further consultations, asking them for help to fix her? Or would they attempt to cover up what had happened through getting rid of everypony who knew?

An accomplice who wanted help would have approached.

She forced her hoofsteps to stay even, made all four legs work in something which she was hoping would appear to be a natural rhythm, trying to keep the sudden surge of fear from reaching her movements. Twilight wasn't sure it was actually working.

We could be in trouble. Big trouble. If this is that other pony --

-- there's four of us. We could take on one pony.

A pony who might know all kinds of magic, have devices we've never seen before. Or both. A pony who might know a lot, who would have to know a lot just from what she told us. Maybe she found out about the original Bearers herself -- but somepony else could have told her. Somepony could have told her so much...

And now she wanted to stop. Confront, capture, question. But if it was just a local or a reporter -- all right, with a reporter, there was a chance to get rid of some stress, but --

-- and there's at least one more possibility. What if it's her? The bomb would have worn off by now. Maybe she came back out and she's afraid to approach us after what happened, she doesn't know how to explain what she did and she wouldn't know that I figured out what happened...

Should I stop? Call out? I can't project my field backwards: it's a blind grab with too many trees in the way. I could get anything.

She could think of so many possibilities for what might be happening. But she was merely thinking about them, and...

'That's what I meant about you in fights. Sometimes you're so busy thinking about ways to block a kick that by the time you pick one, you've already got a hoof in your ribs.'

Okay, Rainbow. You've got a point. Maybe this is where I need to stop thinking and start acting.

And now I'm thinking about that.

...I'm not sure it helps.

What should I do? What do we do?

"And would you look at that?" Applejack had stopped at the base of a trunk, and the hatless head had tilted up, all the better to let her gaze at the hanging fruit. "Jonagolds. They ain't perfect ones, but -- they're wild. No control on the weather out here, so the growing conditions ain't ideal and without the Effect, the soil isn't charged up enough to let the tree do the best it could. For wild, that's probably about the best we could ask for."

Twilight blinked. "We found them?"

"I know my orchards," Applejack replied. "So now -- Spike, you'll want to get down for this..." The little dragon quickly dismounted, freeing Applejack to spin and slam her hind hooves into the bark. Apples dropped. "Okay. This one -- and this one -- don't like the looks of this one -- yeah, there's the worm -- and these two for backups -- you can eat that one, Spike: just wipe it down a little first."

"With what?" Spike naturally asked. "I don't have any cloths, I'm sure not rubbing this against everypony's fur, and all we've got around here is more dirt."

"...saddlebags," Fluttershy suggested.

"Rarity," Spike replied, and shuddered.

"Good points," Applejack conceded. "And since we've got what we need -- Twilight, let's take the fast way out."

Part of her wanted to stay, confront. Another portion was still searching for a workable plan, and there was something very close to majority writhing in confusion and self-doubt. Everything briefly united to trust her friend, and Twilight nodded.

"Trot over," she said. "It's a little easier when we're all touching." They gathered. "Okay..."

A quick, hopefully-unseen glance at Applejack. The farmer forced a tiny nod.

Twilight's corona flared, and they all went between.

Once the flash of teleport dazzle had been blinked away, the remaining pony silently stared at the spot where they had been. There was a brief head shake, and then the slow, worried trot back began.


[/hr]

Twilight hadn't memorized all that many spots around the area. Bringing a group into her assigned bedroom had too many risks: with the way her friends had been grouped around her, it was a virtual guarantee that at least one body would have arrived in a position which intersected the furniture, with an additional promise of recoil -- something which could all-too-easily wind up randomly aimed towards the balcony doors. The ravine, while it probably did warrant yet another inspection, would have required another teleport to get back in less than a day. But they'd been to the lake a few times now, and she was relatively confident in the shoreline being unoccupied.

She was right, and so the only body which hit the ground did so of its own volition as Applejack immediately dropped to all four knees, sides heaving with breath after breath as the earth pony desperately tried to center herself again. Fluttershy matched her level before the second exhalation could begin.

"What happened? Is it the teleport? It sounded sort of like you were suggesting something about that back at the orchard, but we never got a chance to talk --"

"-- it's the teleport," Twilight cut in, lowering her own body to the pebbles. "It'll pass. And we all need to talk, before the party." Everypony needed a full update, for everything they knew, had learned, and merely suspected. "Applejack, are you --"

"-- give me a minute," the farmer said. "No hurry, right?" She briefly forced her head up, checked the sky. "No weather team up there, an' -- I'll know if somepony is around here in a few. Twilight, can somepony trace a teleport? Figure out where we went?"

She shook her head. "There's been a lot of attempts to create spells which would do it, and none of them ever worked. The best you can do is sort of magically attach yourself to the other pony: make them bring you along. It's not easy, I didn't feel any workings, and whoever was back there would have shown up with us."

"Good... good to know," Applejack gasped. "All right. Then we've got that minute, and I can..." She swallowed hard, and Twilight wondered how much had just been choked down. "...just breathe a little. And yeah: when we get back to the castle, before the party -- one more bath. That should give us the chance to brief everypony on -- whatever's needed."

They gave her the minute, and Twilight waited until Applejack had staggered back to her hooves before asking the next question. "Was that her?" And why I am thinking Applejack would know? "I thought that maybe she came out again after the spell wore off, and she was just nervous about approaching us after running away --"

"-- nah," Applejack replied, voice a little steadier. "Couldn't have been."

Spike blinked. "How do you know?"

"Too light," was the answer. "She's big for a pony, Spike: just about Luna's size. Wasn't anywhere near that much pressure against the soil. This pony -- well, I'm guessing it was a pony: all I know for sure is that there were four legs an' the impressions sort of ran towards hooves. But I ain't seen anything else around here, not that can think. Could have been an animal, something which figured we were prey and decided to track us for a while. But at the same time -- light. Not enough weight to really think about taking on three pones plus one dragon and coming out ahead. And that's all I know, everypony. Whoever it was, they followed us all the way. Couldn't shake 'em casually and didn't want to make it look like we were trying, so I waited until we had a reason to leave, and then we left. One something or other, not too heavy, with four legs, which tracked us as far as it could. And..." She frowned. "...quiet. I was listening deep, but I was using my ears too. Never heard a twig being stepped on. Didn't even hear anything breathing. All I knew was that they were on the ground and behind us, a ways back."

It wasn't quite a relief to hear: one possibility removed, but far too many others opened. "I was thinking a reporter who spotted us," Twilight admitted, "or a local who just happened to be going for apples and wanted to see what we were doing. Or --" a brief hesitation "-- it could have been the pony who planted the resonance bomb." She wanted their opinions, wished she'd had them a few minutes ago. "I was wondering if we should have just gone after them."

"...if it was an animal," Fluttershy stated, "spooking's not always the best idea. And for a pony... a reporter's not so bad, in some ways." Timidly, "I mean, they're really bad, but it's not the kind of bad which goes worst right now. Somepony who just lives here, we could talk to. But if it's the pony who was helping her, or making her do it... I don't know, Twilight. They would have had to confess, right there. We don't have evidence to connect anypony to what happened, so unless they got scared and fought us while they were yelling all about their plans..."

"Daring Do," Spike sighed. "Canon #6. Maybe we missed an opportunity, but we don't know..."

"It's a mystery," Twilight quietly said, and they all stared at her. "I was thinking about that before: that we're in a mystery more than an adventure. And the rules which apply to adventures only work when you're writing about them. So the things which happen in adventures don't work, and the ones which take place in mysteries need an author. We might have missed our chance, or -- we might have just dodged a reporter. I don't know, and -- I'm really starting to hate second-guessing myself all the time."

"...we could go back," Fluttershy proposed. "...start by the broken tree and search?"

"Don't have a reason for going back," Applejack replied. "Worst thing we could do might be to let somepony know we're onto them."

"They know," Twilight quietly replied. "If it's the pony who was helping her and they found her when she went home, then they know something. Whatever she told them." Which led to the next question. "Applejack, you didn't sense anything else? Any magic she might have used, anywhere she could have gone?"

The farmer took a deep breath. "No more echoes. I listened as deep as I could, but... after a while, I was mostly tracking whoever was behind us. Trying to focus. But I would have heard her: I know that. And I did hear the caves."

Twilight blinked. "...the --?"

"-- little network, not too deep." Applejack said. "Might have been natural or it could have been an old Dog tunnel. Didn't feel too even. We already know there's some stuff underground in these parts: the ravine and the waterfall prove it. So it didn't surprise me to hear a little more. First time I've picked up on it, but -- first time I've been listening that deep. If it's Dogs -- and there's no local pack, from what Quiet said -- then the tunnels are abandoned: no one moving through. Least not for that part."

"Maybe we should check them out," Spike suggested. "If somepony's moving around and trying to stay out of sight..."

It got him a slow nod. "Yeah. We probably should. But we're gonna need some stuff before we try. Don't want to go spelunking without preparing, Spike: going after Rarity was bad enough, and that was with an occupied tunnel. The Dogs keep their warrens steady, make sure nothing collapses. We get down there, and it's just going to be me watching for the bad spots." Her tail shifted: left, then right, and her knees straightened a little more. "I'm okay to move if anypony knows where we're going next. The castle? Or did you want to try surprising whoever that was in the wild zone, Twi?"

"Not yet," Twilight sighed. "It'll take too long to work back from the tree: it's the only place I've really got in my memory and with four of us, whoever it is will probably see or hear us first. And I don't want to go back to the castle yet. I want to head into town. We can't stay in the castle much longer, and -- we need some things. Camping supplies, for starters."

"An' what's the excuse for buying them?"

Twilight blinked. "Sorry?"

"We've been selling a lie," Applejack shot back. "That we came for the Doctor, and then that we were staying a few days. So what's the next lie? We're going camping instead of going home? We got called to a mission and we're going to need some stuff before we all head out, but we're staying for the party anyway? Ponies see us buying stuff, just about any stuff with Royal Vouchers, and they're gonna wonder why. Might have to hit the next settled zone and shop there, then work back. Or wait until tomorrow and then say there's a mission, only we can't tell anypony what it is except that it means we're gonna be camping. Lies just lead to more lies, Twi. So better figure out which one you're telling, because once you pick that road, there's only one way to get your hooves off it. And when you don't know who you can tell the truth to, then that --" the hesitation was visible "-- might be worse. So what are we doing?"

Another blink, and then a slow breath. "With the camping supplies? I don't know. Maybe we do need to wait until tomorrow. We have to plan the departure as much as anything else. But I still want to go into town. I need more Fawkes Vials, and I think we have to check out the device shop: try to get some idea if the pony who runs it could have been involved with the snitcher."

"All right, then," Applejack nodded. "We'll do that." She began to trot towards the exit path, movements steady.

Twilight, still motionless, watched the blonde tail shifting under grey sky for a whole three hoofsteps before the question came out. "Applejack?"

The farmer glanced back over her shoulder. "What?"

"Did you --" and in the moment before the words emerged, she hated herself, for to question a mark was a discourtesy and insult -- but to question an Element "-- when you were talking about looking for those Jonagolds -- did you lie?"

"It's an apple orchard," Applejack steadily said as her eyes refused to narrow. "A wild one. Conditions looked about right for that kind of apple. So I decided, on the spot, to look for those apples, and I said I was looking for them. That's truth all the way through, Twi. Nopony told me I had to say why I was looking. I didn't lie. Ah just changed the subject."

She trotted away. After a moment, Spike scrambled, caught up, and she allowed him to ride again. Fluttershy followed them. But Twilight remained on the shoreline for a few extra seconds, thinking.

Rarity doesn't have to give everypony anything they ask for. Fluttershy's lost her temper a few times. Pinkie's been sad, I don't use magic every minute when I'm awake. Rainbow's always been Rainbow, for better or worse.

And Applejack doesn't lie. But that doesn't mean she has to tell the whole truth.

We're more than our Elements.

It could have been a reassuring thought. It might have been a disturbing one. But as she stood on the damp pebbles on the shore, Twilight didn't know how she felt about it.

We're all just ponies. She's just a pony: Pinkie keeps asking us to remember that. But a pony who would make somepony think they were broken...

And there was something else.

Trixie said essence is harvested from the dead or the dying. If she used essence, then somepony had to gather it.

Were the ponies they used dead when they started? Or dead after they finished?

We know she's already killed twice.

How many dead unicorns did it take to create the Amulet? How many ponies would have been needed to create her? And if it is essence, and resonance can distort it so easily...

She said she was doing it to save the broken. Charity. Discovery. Sympathy. It's what Rarity said: not all resonance is negative.

But if it's essence -- then somewhere in all this is a graveyard.

High humidity, a dropping temperature, and fast-moving breezes as the time of stormbreak approached. It was as good a reason as any to shiver. And then she hurried to catch up.

But for a moment, the nightmare came into the world, and she pushed her way through the bodies of the dead.


[/hr]

There were many words which could be used to describe Trotter's Falls. "Isolated" generally worked, with "expensive" as a constant, and those used to a little more in the way of greenery could easily pull out "barren." But on the day of the party, there was another term in play and upon seeing it posted in the main display window of Miracles Limited, Twilight openly groaned.

"'Closed'," she read aloud. "Why are so many places closed?"

"Maybe he's getting ready for the party," Applejack suggested. "That's what the last place said on their sign, an' we know he's coming. Plus he's got a new colt: that kind of has a way of stealing hours, Twi."

"But I needed the vials..."

"So we'll get 'em tomorrow."

"We might have to do everything tomorrow," Twilight sighed, openly frustrated and not caring who heard it -- not that there were ponies around to hear: the worsening weather seemed to be keeping the population indoors. "Closed, closed, closed..."

It wasn't a universal condition: some shops remained open, and they had yet to encounter a restaurant which had locked its doors. But it seemed as if a good part of the settled zone had decided to take the day off, and there was more than a little evidence around for Twilight having been the cause. They had tried to find a store which might stock camping supplies, and the only likely candidate had been closed. They hadn't even been able to confirm that establishment as truly useful: nothing they would have needed had been visible in the front window. But they had found the device and convenience shop. To wit, they'd found it closed. However, in that case, the window had provided a great deal of information, mostly concerning how even a Royal Voucher might have its purchase limits. Twilight was starting to give some serious thought towards sending Trixie one of the precious documents with the next letter and asking her to buy everything, just to keep the palace accountants from suffering a voucher-by-voucher series of coronary palpitations.

"The party's hours away," she tried, presenting one last protest. (Although not too many hours now: they'd lost time in approaching the town from an angle which didn't mean going past the castle again, and had nearly wound up lost. Twice.) "How much preparation time does everypony need?"

"...maybe they're all doing it in Rarity time," Fluttershy gently smiled.

Spike sighed. "Where it takes longer to get ready for the party than you spend at the party... Guys, can we just go inside someplace?" He shivered. "It's getting colder, most of my emergency gems -- Rarity's emergency gems -- are back at the castle, and I'm getting low on flame. I just want to warm up a little."

"The coffee shop's open," Applejack noted. Fluttershy and Twilight mutually shuddered. "We don't have to buy any coffee. It's bad enough that they've got a shop..." For Ponyville, Zecora was the only truly reliable source of beans, and Barnyard Bargains was the central seller of the anti-nausea medication most ponies required after taking the initial risk. "They've probably got some tea and pastries to go with the foul. And the tea's gonna be warm. Besides, at least coffee smells good." Which triggered reluctant nods: coffee did in fact smell very good, thus proving that some illusions could also be woven from scent. "Let's go in."

There was a single pony behind the counter, her deep brown fur nearly blending into the contents of the glass jars arranged on the wall behind her. Only the reflections of interior lighting off that glass (because Sun was currently a lost cause) and the presence of small white labels helped to differentiate the two, especially when she blinked.

Twilight automatically read a few of those labels as she trotted in. The majority told prospective buyers where the beans had been harvested from: Pundamilia Makazi naturally led off the majority of indicators, as the zebra's home nation was the world's only truly reliable source of coffee. (It was possible for earth ponies to grow it in Equestrian soil, just as the Cornucopia Effect created the potential for everything else -- but the limited local demand and need for extreme climate control meant very few farmers spared any space for that particular crop.) This was followed by the name for the subspecies of bean. After that, it was the exact region of that distant country, perhaps the grower's name if it was somepony of repute, and finally a few suggested uses, all of which included actually drinking the stuff and were therefore automatically ignored.

The proprietor's dark brown eyes narrowed as she watched Twilight trot in. Applejack was right behind her, and the pupils became something very close to slits.

"...hi," Fluttershy tried as she came in with Spike, because she wasn't entirely the pony Twilight had met on that first day. "...it smells very nice in here."

The mare said nothing. She simply watched them all, irises barely visible and jaw set into a line of something which felt like defiance.

Fluttershy had changed. But she hadn't changed that much, and the silence sent her right hind leg into the first movement of a hoofstep back. "...we were wondering... if we could just get some tea?"

"You trot into a coffee shop," the mare said, "and you want tea."

"...and -- pastries?" Fluttershy valiantly tried. "You have pastries in that case... they -- look like very nice pastries..."

"There's a tea shop," the proprietor harshly told them. "Out the door. Turn left. Twelve buildings down."

More softly, "...they're closed. A lot of places are closed today..."

"I run a coffee shop," the mare tensely stated. "I serve coffee. To the ponies I want to serve." Her pinprick of a gaze briefly shifted to Applejack, then returned to Fluttershy. "I reserve the right to refuse service to anypony. I'm not serving you."

Down to a whisper. "...but..."

"Get. Out --"

-- which was when Twilight took a step forward.

"I see tea jars. On the fourth shelf."

"I imagine you see a lot of things," the mare replied. "You don't seem to hear very much. I don't have to serve anypony if I don't want to. That includes you."

Applejack moved up, stood tensely still on Twilight's left. "Y'don't want to serve a Princess."

This was ignored. The mare was now staring directly at Twilight. "When I find trash in my shop," the proprietor steadily said, "I remove it immediately. I suppose there are those who just let things fester for a while, but I find the smell tends to drive my real customers away. I don't have to serve you. I won't take your money. If your field goes around a single jar, it's theft. Touch one strand of my fur and it's assault. Now get out. And take your pet with you."

Spike's tail twitched. Applejack's right foreleg moved forward --

-- as Twilight's left foreleg slammed sideways.

The created barrier was small. Thin, weak, and all in the physical ways, completely ineffective. But it was still somehow enough, and Applejack stopped.

The mare softly laughed.

"That's right," she told them. "You can't do anything, and even she's just barely smart enough to know it. I read. I know exactly what you can and can't do. What the protocols are. And before you say this will cost me business, it'll bring in a lot more from the ponies who know somepony can stand up to you. I won't serve you tea in my coffee shop --" her horn ignited and the brown field dipped below the counter, brought up a small, quickly-rolled bundle "-- but I will give you the complimentary gift of my opinion."

The newspaper was slung towards Spike: Twilight's field automatically caught it before it could impact scales.

"Get out," the mare smirked.

Twilight's field strength resided at the far end of the Celestia Meter (Adjusted). She knew far more workings than the vast majority of unicorns, could sometimes even try to put raw theory into a spontaneous casting and watch that mistake unfold. Multiple spells were viable in this situation. A touch of basic manipulation would forcefully express her opinion. There were any number of things she could have done, and so she did none of them.

She turned, trotted towards the door, and silently left. After a few seconds, the others followed.


[/hr]

"Ah'd ask what that was about," Applejack half-snarled well before they would have been completely out of earshot, "but I'm pretty sure I already know. That's a Murdocks paper, ain't it?"

Twilight's field had already unrolled it, and her eyes were quickly scanning across the pages. "Yes..." She sighed. "It's not Ponyville, Applejack. There's ponies who don't like the government, or the Princesses. The --" and the quotes only partially encased the nausea "-- 'loyal opposition'. Like Thistle Burr." Every settled zone had at least one pony like Thistle Burr: in Ponyville's case, he counted for twelve. "And they're not going to like me any more than he does. Us, not with the Bearers effectively being agents of the thrones. And she's right. There's nothing we could have done: nothing legal. In Ponyville, I can get away with dunking a reporter because it is Ponyville and as long as it's just dunking, Chief Rights will be on our side. Here... we trot away. We have to trot away." No matter how much it hurt.

"...but we didn't do anything," Fluttershy whispered.

"We don't have to," Spike heavily said. "We just have to exist."

Applejack took a long glance back, and Twilight did everything she could not to track the movement or expression. "Well," the farmer finally shrugged as she faced forward again, "at least we got a stupid one."

Twilight didn't get it. "How so?" More pages turned.

"A smart one would have served us. Overcharged, tainted the drinks, made sure we'd be sick later and couldn't tie it to her. This one was just so proud of how she felt an' the chance to say it right to our snouts that she couldn't pass it up." Applejack snorted. "Give me a stupid pony any day. The ones smart enough to keep it under wraps in public are the ponies you've gotta watch out for. Anything in that paper? 'Cause if there ain't, I want to dump it before she has a real thought go through and tries to tell somepony we stole it."

The former unicorn blinked, then scanned a little faster. "Gossip -- gossip -- more gossip -- scandal -- oh, for Sun's sake, we all know where the Princess was during --" and the soft groan served as the initial announcement of the discovery. "Found it."

"What are they writing this time?" Spike asked, blowing the last wisps of flame over fast-clenching claws.

Twilight read through it. "It's mostly about invasion of privacy." She sighed. "Just ignore the irony... Apparently I've been directing threats towards an unnamed private citizen, saying I'll go after them and expose all their secrets for no reason whatsoever beyond my really wanting to because I'm just a horrible pony that way. But of course that unnamed pony doesn't have any secrets, so I'll just make something up -- ignore that irony too... And that's breaking palace protocols. Taking what happened in the thaumaturgy shop and twisting it around to make me look as bad as possible. Just the usual, Spike." And the fact that it had taken her a mere moon to consider that kind of wound inflicted on the truth as the usual brought pain to more than one pony: she could hear Applejack's wince. "But it's a weird way of going after me, and that's when you go past the lies. How can I break palace protocols? I'm not the Princess or Luna. We work for the palace when we're on missions, but the protocols she's misquoting are for the Diarchy. You can't apply the standards for rulership to somepony who isn't a ruler."

"...some ponies don't think that way," Fluttershy softly said, feathers lightly trembling with each word: she hadn't recovered from the confrontation yet. "...they just see the wings, Twilight. They see an alicorn, and the title is Princess, so they think you have to be in charge of... something, I guess."

"I'm a librarian," Twilight wearily shrugged as her field began to roll the newspaper back up. "I have absolute domain over the arrangement of my Periodicals section, right of enforcement against the crime of late fees, and no final say whatsoever over what the mayor assigns me for a budget. But they're not going to write about that, unless they're calling it a clear sign of possible insanity again, according to a lettered expert who never gets a name. It's just going to be me and all the horrible things I threatened to do, abusing my non-royal authority, and it's all me. The reporter barely even mentioned that you were in the shop, Applejack. Or --"

-- wait.

Her corona flared, and the newspaper opened so quickly as to nearly tear itself apart. (Normally, it was a horrible thing to do with any reading material and would have called for at least a minute of self-chiding -- but this was a Murdocks newspaper, and so she didn't care.)

"Something else?" Spike quickly asked.

Twilight reread the whole thing. It didn't take long. "She put it all on me. Quiet isn't in the article."

"You're kinda the main target, Twi," Applejack shrugged. "More she can blame on you, more she's gonna blame on you."

But she said she was going to get his name. Print a story about us hanging around together. That ponies would know who he was...

"...maybe she found out he was the local Lord?" Fluttershy carefully proposed. "And she didn't want to risk --" the one visible eye briefly closed "-- no, I'm being silly: they go after the Princesses. Nopony who works for them is going to worry about offending somepony with any title at all."

"Or maybe it just reads better when Twi's responsible for everything," Applejack countered. "They've got a style of lie, Fluttershy, and they usually stick to it. Spike, you're looking pretty cold there. Want to try for another store?"

The little dragon's arms were now huddled tight against his body, and his posture was slightly curled in on itself. "No. Let's just go back to the castle. We've got to get ready for the party. And then, when everything is over..."

His eyes briefly closed, and his tip of his tail dropped closer to the dirt.

"...we can go home," he quietly finished. "I just -- really want to go home."

They walked and trotted under grey-black sky, in a barren town at the heart of an isolated settled zone, and the group pulled a little closer together. Some of it was keeping an eye on each other, and being in a defensible position should more reporters appear. (Twilight almost longed to get the article's writer -- but any attempt to correct the record would only provide a chance to further distort it.) But a little was for warmth, and the rest because in the end, they were the only truly familiar things in what suddenly felt like a very strange land.

I want to go home.

There was no resonance bomb triggering that thought. Just the pressure of the mission, the pain of the confrontation, and the permanent weight of wings.


[/hr]

And then there was one more bath. It put them in what felt like a safe place, away from the activities which had taken over the castle. It allowed them to pretend the stresses were being soaked out. It had the seven of them together, updating and briefing each other, at least once Pinkie had checked for eavesdroppers again. (She had been the hardest to fetch, and she'd still been trying to insist on something regarding an archway when Applejack had finally become fed up and just outright pulled the fuming party planner down the hallway, tail-first.) It allowed them to share everything which had happened, make sure everypony knew the latest information, possible tactics to employ, recover from hearing Spike and Twilight's tentative thoughts regarding essence, and let them all mutually try to figure out exactly what their next lies were supposed to be.

"A mission might be best," Twilight reluctantly concluded. "I can say I got the alert in the morning. It gets us out of here with a good excuse, it explains why we need to resupply, and -- well, then the main problem would be if things took us back into town again." She softly sighed. Claiming palace secrecy was theoretically good for a lot of things, but most of the practical uses centered around making ponies wonder just what they were being so secretive about. "Maybe we all need to sleep on it after the party and talk it over again tomorrow. But we can't stay in the castle, everypony, because the town will start to wonder about that. We can't stay here, and we can't leave the area before everything's over... we need to come up with something. And maybe a faked new mission is it, but..." She paused, glanced at Rainbow, whose sullen form was starting to drift by on the right. "I'll take any ideas anypony has."

"Nothing," Rainbow listlessly declared, barrel and chin low in the water. "I've got nothing."

Everypony focused in that direction. "Are you all right, dear?" Rarity carefully asked -- then winced. "No, you are not, and I believe I know why. It is because we are leaving --"

"-- and that means I'll never see my manuscript again," Rainbow finished. "Well -- I guess there's a chance somepony might spot it somewhere, and he'll mail it to me." A brief frown. "He. Um... Quiet. He'd send it. But I know where I left it, everypony. I do. That means somepony took it, and -- maybe they're rewriting it, maybe they'll try to get it bound and submit it somewhere, I could fly by a bookstore and spot my own words under somepony else's name..."

Twilight, who would never need to write a scroll about the emotional agony of having somepony else taking the credit for hard work, carefully moved closer. "You can start over, Rainbow. Just work from your drafts. It'll be faster that way, and I'll help --"

"-- most of that was the drafts," the pegsaus sullenly stated. "I just -- wrote stuff down. Whenever I thought about it. I don't remember everything I wrote. Not word for word."

"But you remember everything that happened!" Pinkie reminded her. "Whoever took it doesn't. You just have to remember again. Only with better commas."

"I guess." A long exhale, and water soaked its way up a little more of the cyan fur. "I just wish I knew who did it. I just wish I could kick the pony who did it. For starters." With a slow-rising note of hope, "And if we found out at the party, there's all the clouds outside. That's a lot of lightning..."

Twilight, who'd already (and in part, reluctantly) defused one potential fight that day, scrambled to change the subject. "Rarity, I hate to ask, but -- are the dresses --"

"-- and the tuxedo," Rarity wearily nodded. "Barely -- and do not give me that look, Spike: your scales are set off most elegantly in this design, and having you insist that you feel as if you are wearing, and I quote, 'a lemur suit,' will not make me send you into the party in what would remain the nude. For everyday events and the majority of what Pinkie hosts, that is more than adequate. But this will be a party which requires clothing, and so clothing you shall don." (The little dragon grumbled to himself, sunk lower into the water, and entered an impromptu sullenness contest: Rainbow easily won.) "Everypony should come by my assigned quarters before the festivities begin. I will make sure everything goes together properly. And Fluttershy? Your design exposes the tail."

"...but," the caretaker tried to protest. "...but..."

"And there is no time to rework it. You have the fullest tail among us: I believe it should be shown off for a change."

"...but..."

And the corner which Fluttershy ultimately backed herself into probably wouldn't appreciate the view. Still, some of the ponies who got a look at her before she entered the defensive stance...

"Rarity?"

"Yes, Twilight?"

"Can I get some help?"

Carefully, "With what?"

"Well -- this is my party. Technically. I should probably look my best for it. And you know I'm still not good with cosmetics. So -- if you would put my makeup on for me? Please?"

"Makeup," Rarity repeated.

"Yes," Twilight stated, feeling the the stares of the group starting to focus upon her as defensive tones tried to rise, personally leading an instant internal revolt which crushed the rebellion under a tide of Decorum. "Makeup."

"You hate wearing makeup," Rarity unnecessarily reminded everypony. "You generally react to any attempt at applying proper cosmetics in a manner befitting somepony who had been told to have their face painted with acid. You wore makeup to the Gala, under rather memorable protest, and only complied in the end because you were afraid of reflecting poorly upon the Princess. And now you are requesting it. I believe you can recognize the reason for my surprise?"

"It's about our host," Twilight magnificently failed to lie (if only for wording). "And that's exactly the same as it was with the Princess. Quiet's put up with a lot, having us here. The party might be for me, but everypony around here is going to remember it as his party. We have to reflect well on him. So for me, that means makeup. And for everypony else, it means being on our best behavior. All of us. Rainbow, I know you're down and I really do understand why, but -- try to put on an uptilted snout, just for a few hours. Pinkie, let the band play -- do we have a band? Applejack --"

"-- I've got something ready," Applejack cut in. "Something appropriate."

The stares directed themselves.

"Appropriate," Twilight not-quite-asked.

"Very," Applejack smiled. "And that's the truth. But it's also a surprise, and that means if anypony asks me anything else about it, I'm just gonna float here with my mouth shut. Any other last-minute stuff we need to go over before any maybe-band starts playing?"

"Just try to keep your ears open," Twilight told them all. "Ponies talk at parties: that's one of the first things Pinkie taught me." (Damp curls enthusiastically bounced a few body lengths away.) "We can't pry. We really can't bring things up. But we never know what we might hear. It's a small chance, but -- you never know. And if we don't find out anything -- then just try to have fun, as much as you can. But careful fun. We have to think about our host. We're reflecting on our host."

"And hostess," Rarity added.

Twilight's head whipped to the right at a speed which, with a much longer and equally-soaked mane, would have risked injuries to Fluttershy's ears.

Far too carefully for the movement which had preceded the word, "Hostess?"

"Quiet's spouse," Rarity clarified. "She came back today, you know."

"Did you see her?" A little too quickly.

"No. I was in my quarters, finishing everypony's garments. I simply overheard two of the servants mentioning her return as they went by outside."

"Oh." But there had been two others who'd stayed behind. "Pinkie, did you happen to meet her?"

"I've been going back and forth all day with the servants and catering staff!" the baker reminded them. "Kitchen, main hall, front entrance. And besides -- um... what does she look like?"

Twilight winced. That was right: unless somepony else had tried looking for the lost manuscript in Quiet's bedroom, she'd been the only one to see the picture. Which potentially meant there was very little point to the next question, but since Rainbow had been searching everywhere... "Rainbow?"

A quick head shake. "Maybe she went by under me, but nopony said anything or introduced us."

"So unless somepony spots her before everything starts, we'll probably meet her tonight," Twilight concluded. Does Rarity have enough makeup? Maybe I need to make one more gallop for town. It's maintaining our cover: that's probably worth a Voucher. "I guess that'll be --" and it took a very awkward-feeling pause before she could settle on a word "-- interesting." Followed by the smallest fraction of a second before she decided it had been the wrong one, and tried to recover with "Tonight's for the party, everypony. We probably can't advance things there, and we have to think about tomorrow and everything which comes after. But for tonight -- just try to have fun, as much as you can. And maybe we'll get lucky." A soft sigh. "I hope we get lucky..."

"Maybe she'll show up," Spike weakly joked.

And what are my best cosmetic colors? I know what Rarity puts on me, but I've never gotten a professional opinion --

-- Twilight refocused. "We're not that lucky."


[/hr]

He was dressing her.

She had clothing, of course: the simple country dress, and that formal gown for come-calling dinners. They had practiced etiquette while she was wearing those dresses, and -- she couldn't seem to remember most of the details for those lessons. It was hard to remember, when the drugs took hold -- at least for some things. Depending on the drug and dosage, others might march forward and block her inner view of just about everything else. And when it came to sleep...

It was experimenting. But it was also the needful, and so she dutifully tried whatever he gave her, for it was what had to be done.

This dress was new. Of course, it had to be: her height had increased, and nothing from the time before her mistake fit any more. (She couldn't even rest on her own bed without overlap: one more reason why she'd originally slept concealed in the closed-off secret, recently-added little room below.) It was new, it was from him, and so she didn't want to tell him that even to her fogged senses, it was ugly. But his sewing skills were limited to stitching wounds, and he had no special eye for creating the balance of colors (although she suspected he could easily appreciate it from others). All he could do was gather fabric and try to create something roughly pony-shaped, and a bit beyond pony-sized.

The draping was awkward. It was loose, out of necessity. But the slits at the sides had been properly aligned.

"I know," he half-sighed, half-chuckled as he checked another stitch in the wounded cloth. "I'm no good at this. It's not what I would have imagined for the occasion, and I doubt it's what you pictured either."

"It's -- fine," she managed. The most recent dose was starting to fade out, and she knew he'd heard that in her voice: his head came up a little too quickly.

"You'll have some medicine just before it starts," he told her. "But I don't want to risk giving you too much now. We're still learning, and there are risks I don't want to take unless we must. Do you think --" and his face told her he hated having to ask "-- you can endure?"

"Yes." It might have been a lie. But it was a lie she would tell for him.

"It's all about tonight," he reminded her, trying to smile. "One way or another."

She nodded.

Half a whisper now, and she almost wondered if the words had been meant to be heard at all. "Not how I imagined it..." And then, more normally, "You met seven. You saw hundreds, coming so close to the gathering of mine. But now -- now you are the one being met. You are their introduction to miracle."

The shudder got past her, vibrated mane and tail as their colors slowly shifted.

"The pain?"

"Yes." No. She wasn't a miracle. She was a horror. But her failure might yet save the rest, and all that might be required to set them on the right path was fulfilling what he had asked her to do. The least she could do in atonement for having wasted his life.

"Can you manage?"

"Yes." For him.

The smile came, and it was one of pride. Something she didn't deserve.

"Tonight," he told her. "Those in attendance -- they have hoped. They have dreamed. But tonight, at the presentation -- they will believe."