• Published 1st Aug 2013
  • 4,111 Views, 213 Comments

Defense in Depth - Fon Shaolin

Twilight's life takes on a different tint when she fails to pass her entrance exam for Celestia's School. As it turns out, there are other ways to serve her princess and country.

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Chapter 7

Twilight collapsed onto her cot. Out of everything in her short life, she wouldn’t have imagined that pitching fifty tents in three hours would be her wall. And yet, here she was, muscles burning, lips cracked, and wishing she could get the taste of government-issued tent out of mouth. She had a new appreciation for earth ponies and what they went through without magic or wings to manipulate things which, the annoyingly analytical part of her brain reasoned, was one of the reasons for the no flying and no magic rule.

Comfort wasn’t something Twilight found easily, but exhaustion helped with that. Her bag of gear was a suitable pillow and her ROTC coat was a decent blanket. She tucked into the tightest ball she could, snuggled up to her dufflebag, and started to drift off.

Until the flap opened and Lightning Dust stomped in, followed by her gear.

“They told me we’re sharing a tent,” she spat, preempting Twilight’s anger with her own.

Twilight looked around her tent. There was barely enough room for her own things, to say nothing of another pony. “There were fifty tents! I counted them!”

Lightning Dust started dragging her own cot into the tent. “One is for the field supplies. Cadre sends their apologies for the oversight.” With both their gear, the cots were practically pushed up next to each other into a double. Lightning Dust looked about as pleased with that situation as Twilight felt.

She put her bag between them, which fell mostly on Twilight’s side. “Cross that line and you’re dead,” Lightning Dust warned.

Twilight snorted and pushed the bag back onto the other mare’s side. “Don’t worry, you’re not my type,” she snapped.

“High-octane awesomeness is everyone’s type, Sparkle,” Lightning Dust answered. She flopped down onto her cot without a care how much it would knock Twilight around. A moment later Lightning Dust’s head popped up over the bag dividing them, a rakish smile on her lips. “Too bad for you, awesomeness also has standards.”

The unicorn flushed, but she recovered in record time. Twilight had years of experience being an asshole, after all. “You’re right. I don’t think I can crawl low enough to get under the bar you probably normally set for your partners.”

Real anger flashed across Lightning Dust’s face, illuminated by the thin bit of floodlight that came through the haphazard tent flap. She opened her mouth and snapped it back closed after a second. Instead of being witty, she just threw herself back down onto her cot, knocking Twilight around again, and gave their bag divider a solid shove.

Twilight counted it as a win. Not that I’m keeping count or anything, she lied to herself. Twilight had matured past being a bully, but some personality traits never went away once they were firmly established. Shutting up someone like Lightning Dust would, Twilight thought, would always be therapeutic.

Tomorrow, though - tomorrow she would have to get a new bunk-mate. Otherwise she was sure they’d end up murdering each other before the first week was out.

--- Defense in Depth Chapter 7 - Kasserine Pass, Part 1---

“More bubbles, Your Majesty?”

Princess Cadance looked up from her book; white suds were beginning to crest the middle of her barrel, so she shook her head. “No thank you, Moondrop.” She replaced her bookmark and handed off the dime store paperback (a not-so-secret vice of hers) over to a different attendant. “I shouldn’t spend too long here anyway. Auntie wanted to share breakfast with me this morning.”

That meant only the briefest of pampering - just a quick hour of getting her mane ready, her coat powdered, dried, and brushed, her hooves filed and trimmed, her fetlocks retouched, and a good horn polishing. Barbaric is what it was, but for Auntie Celestia there was very little Cadance wouldn’t do. Or forgo doing, as it were.

Summer Breeze fell into step with her the moment she was out of the royal bath. “You have a ribbon cutting at ten and an elementary school recital to officiate at noon,” she said, in a clipped, professional tone that didn’t betray how new she was at her job.

“I will be having breakfast with Princess Celestia until she wishes to release me,” Cadance stated, and Summer immediately began scribbling on her schedule in case it went long.

Cadance had to remind herself not to be so cold to the mare. They would be working together for the next few years, after all, and didn’t deserve to be the focus of Cadance’s disappointment. It wasn’t Summer’s fault that Twilight hadn’t taken her job. That her future sister-in-law wouldn’t be her partner in Canterlot. That decision was solely Twilight’s and Cadance respected her decision...mostly.

Well, maybe there was a little anger. Twilight had thought the offer was charity, but Cadance had honestly wanted to put that mare’s sharp mind to some use. Summer Breeze was easily the most qualified pony for her position, even more so than Twilight, but she wouldn’t ever push back. Twilight challenged everything. It was partially why Cadance didn’t think she’d make a good guard, royal guard or no.

I would pay good bits to see Auntie’s face the first time Twilight tells her that she won’t be fighting whatever monster of the month alone. When was the last time anyone told Auntie ‘no’ at all?

“Princess? Did you say something?”

Cadance blinked. She’d said some of that out loud, didn’t she? “Nothing, Summer Breeze.” She thought better of that for a moment and added, “Maybe look into seeing if my personal retinue could accommodate an extra guard in the future. Say a year down the road.” Summer scratched something down on her notepad again. Better to start planning ahead now.

And, speaking of Royal Guards, Cadance spotted her favorite standing outside of Celestia’s dining room. Shining Armor might have found the duty dull compared to his work on the fringes of the kingdom, but getting to see her fiancé on a regular basis was a blessing. Cadance could even schedule her lunch to mirror his most of the time, so they even got to enjoy a few stolen moments together. Another thing she probably owed her aunt for.

Her unicorn was the model of professionalism, though. When she walked up to the door he puffed himself up to full attention. “Princess Cadance,” he greeted.

“Lieutenant Armor,” she returned. Behind her, Summer Breeze had already broken off the other direction, leaving them alone in the hallway. Once Cadance couldn’t hear the unicorn any further, she darted in and stole a kiss.

Shining Armor didn’t pull away, but he made that adorable little annoyed face Cadance loved so much when she pulled back. “I’m on duty,” he said, trying to be chiding and failing.

“It was a military bearing test. You passed with flying colors.” She leaned in again and pecked his cheek.

“What was that one?”

Cadance smiled. “Your reward, of course. How’s Auntie this morning?”

It was just a habit to ask at this point. Auntie was Auntie, after all, but today Shining Armor’s smile turned strained. “I...think she might be mad at me,” he answered, hesitantly. “She didn’t say two words to me when she came in. Roan, the sergeant that usually pulls the night duty outside her room, said she’s been like that since she got back last night.”

“Well, I suppose I better see what’s wrong. Probably just another eldritch abomination attack she’ll have to deal with.”

“We can hope.”

Cadance bumped him with her hip as she passed. “As you were, Lieutenant Armor,” she whispered in that special way she knew he liked. A strong burst of magic opened the massive, ancient door to Celestia’s dining room and she stepped through.

It was as if the door was a portal to another age. The royal dining room was, perhaps, one of the only rooms in the palace that never got remodeled and Cadance always felt supremely out of place. Most ponies did. There was a chance that was Celestia’s intent behind the ancient motif, but Cadance knew what her aunt’s private wing of the castle was like. Celestia just felt more at home here among crystal chandeliers and candlelight than electric bulbs and modern convenience.

The very alicorn herself was an entire room away, at the head of her solid oak table. The thing dominated most of the space and Celestia had once told her that it came from a single tree, though Cadance didn’t see how such a thing was possible. “Trees used to be much bigger,” her aunt had said with a wink when she’d asked about it.

Celestia didn’t seem to be in a winking mood today, though. Cadance awkwardly stood by the door and Celestia made her wait a solid minute before her usual, “Niece. Join me for breakfast?” was called out.

She’s mad, Cadance thought as she trotted up to her normal place. Celestia wasn’t alone - her student, Sunset Shimmer, was there as well, seated to Celestia’s left. For once, the mare was quiet. She snuck furtive glances at her mentor as she pushed her food around on her plate, waiting. She’d likely already tested the waters today and had gotten snapped at; it was about the only thing that could keep her tongue in check.

The moment Cadance was seated, Celestia’s private wait staff brought her a plate; assorted fruit and pancakes. At least Celestia’s mood didn’t affect the delicious fare she was offering. Sunset still had a great deal left on her plate, though, and Cadance couldn’t imagine eating very much in this type of atmosphere. Even sipping her juice seemed--

“Twilight Sparkle.”

A name. A cause. A reason. Cadance licked her dry lips. Shining Armor had been half right; he wasn’t the member of his family that Celestia was upset with, though. “Yes, Auntie?”

The Canterlot Cable newspaper that Celestia had been reading neatly folded in a golden hue of magic and Cadance now had the living goddess’ undivided attention. On a normal day, that could make a pony feel like they were walking on clouds, but Cadance felt coals beneath her hooves when those purple eyes settled on hers.

“I attended the unicorn trials at the military entrance examination yesterday, Niece. Your friend is supremely talented, though her manner could use some some refinement. I am surprised your demeanor did not rub off on her, over the course of your friendship.”

She’d met Twilight. For one moment, Cadance felt nothing but happiness for her friend. It had been what Twilight had been working for her entire life, and she’d done it. But, just as quickly, that happiness turned to dread. Celestia never attended those things undisguised. And her aunt had a (bad) habit of pushing a pony.

And Twilight Sparkle, no matter how much she’d matured, was not the type of mare to take to being pushed. She shoved back.

“What did yo...she...do, Auntie?”

Celestia didn’t miss the slip and her eyes narrowed. “She kicked me out of her hospital room after berating me and insulting the Magisterium.”

“Her hospital room? What happened to he-”

Celestia diffused Cadance’s heat before it could start boiling over. “Magical exhaustion after the ring test. She was out for a few hours, but she made it to her train in time. Likely she is already pitching tents at Dressage.”

Across the table, Sunset Shimmer snorted. “A few hours for just the ring test? Why are we talking about this unicorn again?” Celestia’s attention slid over to her student for a moment and the amber unicorn’s smug look evaporated.

“Because, my talented student, she completed the test.”

There was dead silence in the room. Cadance licked her lips again. “Auntie, when you say ‘completed’, you mean...?”

“All seven rings. Even in the middle of the seventh, she could still cast.”

“Impossible!” Sunset Shimmer yelled, front hooves up on the table. This time Celestia’s stare didn’t calm the mare. “I was the baseline for those rings and even I could only get to six! It malfunctioned!”

An orange floated up from Celestia’s plate. With a quick flash of magic, the outer skin was vaporized. Calmly, Celestia said, “There was no malfunction, Sunset. I was one of the proctors for the exam. I watched her do it.” She took a dainty bite and let her statement fully settle in. “But you must remember that young unicorns develop at different speeds. Twilight Sparkle may have simply come into her full power earlier than you. Or was, perhaps, more motivated at that particular moment.”

Or, perhaps, she is simply more powerful was left unspoken, but not unstated.

“I did say she was talented,” Cadance muttered, though she didn’t truly believe it just yet. The rings at the military processing center had been considered technological marvels three years ago when they’d been installed, and as a royal alicorn Cadance had been present with her aunt when they’d first been switched on. She remembered the feeling of distinct unease just from being close to the things. Even Shining Armor had only cleared three of them.

“You did. And it was my mistake to not have listened more closely at the time. I’m attempting to correct that and I may need your assistance convincing her to join the Magisterium instead of the Royal Guard.”

Cadance let out a shaky laugh. “There is only one princess in this room that could convince her to do that. Just ask her yourself, no costumes or illusion spells, and she’d do it in a heartbeat.”

The larger alicorn drew back, frowning. “I guessed as much, but I cannot. Twilight Sparkle must come to the decision without my direct appeal if she is to recognize her true potential.”

“You’re playing your games again, Auntie. If you really listen to anything I say to you, asking her yourself is the only way you’ll do it.” Celestia frowned deeper and Cadance wanted to give her aunt a good shake. “She’s my best friend. I know her. You have been her entire world since you sent her that letter years ago. You are the only reason she wants to even be a guard. Did you see her cutie mark? She got that right after she read your letter. It’s not going to magically go away.”

“You want the princess to beg some random unicorn to join the Magisterium?” Sunset demanded. Her eyes were sharp again, having lost the wildness they’d had a moment again. As quick to lose her temper as she was, Sunset could recover just as fast when she smelled a chance to puff herself up. “Royalty doesn’t beg; royalty orders.”

Cadance bristled. “I won’t order my future sister-in-law to give up her dreams.” She turned to Celestia. It was now or never. “Auntie, if Twilight is so talented, why not just take her on as a student?” Sunset, predictably, erupted across the table, but Cadance had the alicorn’s attention. She could do this for Twilight. “Weren’t you saying that Sunset had almost learned all she could in Canterlot? That would give you time for a new student. I know Twilight is older than normal, but isn’t this a special circumstance? She would be the most faithful student you ever had if you took her on. She would work herself to the bone to make you happy.”

One last arrow in the quiver. “And...and it would be a wonderful wedding gift to me for you to take her on. So we could work at the castle. Together.” It was her most blatant card to play, the most obvious, but Cadance could see it hit bulls-eye. She let out a deep breath of air when the ancient ruler’s head dipped, just as Sunset let out an indignant “What?!”

“If that is what you wish from me, then so be it, my niece. Sunset, Cadance is correct about your training. It is almost time for you to begin your field studies where you will develop your own spells and your own ways of dealing with issues facing our kingdom. It’s what you’ve wanted, isn’t it? More freedom?”

Sunset sputtered. “I...I...of course! I just want you to treat me like an adult. Like a true mage.” She looked down at her food, not frowning, but not smiling. “I’ve lost my appetite,” she declared, and pushed away from the table. Celestia’s face was carefully neutral as her student nearly bolted out of the room, but Cadance could see the worry in the alicorn’s eyes. And the pain.

“She loves you,” Cadance murmured after a moment. “It’s her only good trait.”

Celestia’s nose twitched. It was the only real show of annoyance she did when she wasn’t in private. “She has many good traits, only they may not be suited for this day and age.” The ruler of Equestria did allow herself a small sigh, which was as telling as anything about her mood. Her half-eaten orange flopped back down onto her plate. “After the solstice I will remove Twilight Sparkle from the Royal Guard as my personal student.”

The affirmation lightened Cadance’s spirits. “So even you think she’ll make it?” she asked, finally getting down to her breakfast.

“So I hope. Fort Dressage will, I think, prove to be an adequate first lesson to my future faithful student.”

A bite of pancake hovered just beyond Cadance’s lips. “Auntie, that sounded...ominous.”

Celestia smiled.

Author's Note:

Over the last few weeks I saw a few people put this into their "dead stories" libraries. I do so love defying expectations!

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