Twilight looked down upon the mountain of books supporting her.
Assuming six hundred sixty words per page, assuming four hundred pages per book... how many books were there in a cubic meter though? A quandry. Still, she didn't need to do the maths to realize there were lifetimes worth of words in those books, of information.
They said knowledge was power. If that was true, she stood upon a slumbering dragon.
Typically this was only true if she were using Spike as a stepladder to get a book that was only just out of reach. Though she had only done this one time, at least in recent memory.
At least he wasn't a light sleeper.
Still, with all these books, with all the printed word, not one book told her how to deal with romance. With courtship. Only one book would have come close to her needs at this moment, "How to Win Friends and Influence Ponies", but at the time it had so enraged her that she had used it for kindling.
She was certain, without any shadow of a doubt, that the book contained no information on how to court your crush if she lived on the moon.
In fact, if anypony had written a book on the matter before now, they were obviously mad.
Unless Luna had cheated on her.
Was it cheating if it was just a seemingly mutual crush and their courtship wasn't official yet? Even if she was just... flirting with other ponies?
No, that was impossible. No one had been clever enough to be able to contact her before. Just Twilight. Only Twilight had access to the technology and the intellect to use it, so Luna couldn't have cheated on her, even if she wanted to.
But why would she want to cheat on Twilight if she were so smart? Ridiculous.
It was becoming more and more self-evident to the mare that she was panicking. This was a bad thing. Telescope Twilight was clever Twilight. Panicked Twilight was stupid Twilight. Stupid Twilight was not only useless in this situation, but in all situations.
But especially this situation.
So, books couldn't help her. She felt dirty admitting it to herself, maybe even a little scared – it certainly didn't help with the panic – but it was true. Coffee would only allow her to panic with an even clearer and more excitable mind.
She supposed, then, that she could try her own hoof at poetry. It was simply writing, wasn't it? Surely, surely it couldn't be that hard.
With one last, longing look through the Telescope, Twilight tore herself away with a bitter sigh, heading down to the ladders and to a smaller peak atop the bookshelf mountains, one with a writing desk and quills.
She made a valiant attempt.
A draft. A failure. A longer one, then. Just more room for error. A shorter one; now her failure was more refined, though confined. A triumph! Her best yet. This, this might suffice.
She'd need a proofreader, to ensure her she had indeed spun straw into gold.
The sleeping dragon didn't stir.
"Spike!" She hissed, more urgently, shaking him with her magic -- out of range of his blasted breath.
Finally the dragon rolled over from his slumber, rubbing his eyes wearily.
"I need you to read this!" Twilight urged, thrusting her latest, and frankly her best, attempt at a poem at him.
"This is a really bad limerick," Spike muttered lamely.
Twilight paused, wondering which part of that to be most concerned about. "...It's not a limerick, Spike."
Probably all of it, then.
"Did you write this?" Spike groaned, sitting up in his padded basket.
"No! No, of course not. Go back to sleep. I just needed to make sure before I went to court tomorrow."
Spike grumbled, curling back up. "Good. That was terrible. Like, who tries to rhyme 'puritanical' in a love poem?"
There was silence, filled only by the grinding of unicorn teeth. Spike stirred again after the briefest of moments, his sleepy brain processing what it could. "Wait, court? But you hate court."
"Oh. Oh yes." Twilight agreed.
The sleepy little dragon grunted. "Then why–"
"Dream about gems, Spike."
"Oh. Okay." His head fell, tucking up around him again. The snoring continued moments after.
And with that, Twilight made for her own bed. She would have to be at court for midday, and she'd rather face it with a good mood.
The scandal still hadn't quite died down since the last time she had suffered through those pompous, stuffy, ill-mannered, empty-headed, starchy, overly-wealthy, overly-formal, inbred...
Right. She had said that all out loud, last time, hadn't she?
Sleep, then. She would think about, and face this, only after a night's rest.
The Capital had, at its very core, the Hollow Palace.
The Palace wasn't truly hollow in the traditional sense. It was filled with ponies, certainly.
Now, whether or not the ponies themselves that occupied its hallowed halls were hollow? That was up for a debate. A debate Twilight would certainly argue long and passionately. Unfortunately, this had done nothing to deter them from wanting her company.
What gave the Hollow Palace its name was that it stood in a permanent state of incompletion. Its shell was completed, ivory marble walls covered in crystalline waterfalls. Stained glass windows had been fitted, but only a third depicted actual events or ponies. The rest had been hastily filled with kaleidoscopic colours simply to keep out the elements without seeming entirely bare.
Inside, the load bearing pillars had been constructed. Some had even been fluted. The staircases were installed, but had no railings fixed.
The Princess of Mourning seemed to like it this way. Perhaps, though, like was too strong a word. Twilight had certainly never seen her smile, though she had been around the Princess her entire life. Even on the rare moments that the black veil she wore was lifted, for meals or tea, the Princess was far too sombre to truly take joy in anything.
Maybe, then, she took comfort – solace even – in a home that was as empty as she herself was.
It was a miserable thought. The Princess was a miserable pony, though.
Miserable as she was, though, she was also the hub of power for The Empire, making the Fountained Throne spring more than fresh mountain water. It also made it the center for all parasites, leeches, and other social climbers in The Empire.
These were the ponies Twilight would face, now, as she crossed the drawbridge. Surrounded on both sides in the noonday sun by these parasites garbed in the finest silks. The most fashionable of bloodsuckers.
They all recognized Twilight. They smiled at her. They waved. They made small gift offerings with the most humble of remarks, as if appeasing a minor deity. Twilight's smile turned rictus as she attempted to play nice with them all, even if they sickened her.
Her perfume is unbearably strong. Compliment her on her taste, she's obviously self-conscious about it. He believes himself a great wit, disguise your barbed remarks with thinly-veiled sarcasm – he won't see through it, but those more important will see the disdain clearly. Them, that couple – a marriage of convenience – make a pleased note about how their outfits match. Resist the urge to point out the lipstick on his collar does not match that of his bride's. The fallout would send two powerful families into a bitter war.
Whilst she cared not for the families themselves, the employees of half-a-dozen factories could not have their jobs placed at risk over Twilight's careless remarks, no matter how careless the stallion himself had been with his indiscretions.
Politics. You couldn't make it any less insufferable by calling it a science. That only added to the betrayal of the experience.
Twilight was looking for a very particular mare though. One that she suspected would be insufferable to deal with. A pony who would believe herself to be far more witty and intelligent than reality's unkind truth would show her to be, and with the wealth that ensured nobody would inform her otherwise.
Still, she knew this pony had prior success.
Her brother, Field Marshal Shining Armour, had been a notorious, outrageous dork in their youth. Truthfully, he still was. He took great pleasure in playing tin soldiers, painting them with an almost obsessive attention to detail. Even their chevrons and epaulets were meticulously applied with delicate brushstrokes.
Twilight remembered this with fond nostalgia. However, it had been explained to her, many times, that this was obviously a grievous and egregious flaw in her brother that would do his career no good.
From the very beginning, it was obvious to these vaunted stallions that Shining was not made for the military. He simply cared too much. Nothing could come of that.
Something that would be the awe of the stallions under him in the decades to come, and seen as eccentric weakness by the ones who shared membership in the exclusive officer's clubs, was that his younger self had named every single tin soldier under his 'command' and remembered them, each and every one. This habit had carried on to those of flesh and blood.
This seemed to have led to a strange affectation in her brother, others would lament. He seemed to genuinely care about the lives of his soldiers, and went to absurd lengths to preserve them, much to the horror of those heady peers who informed Twilight of the situation. No reckless charges for glory, genuinely considering notions of retreat, and a bizarre obsession with strategy.
In the eyes of The Empire there was no glory in Shining's command, no honour. Simply concern for the lives of his soldiers thinly masked as cold pragmatism. It's what you get from an enlisted pony who rose through the ranks, rather than a stallion who was born and bred for the position.
What mare could possibly want a stallion so blinded by the lives of troopers as to sacrifice glory and valour?
The young Rarity, a newcomer of the court – only a teenager at the time – had seen fit to assist Twilight's elder brother, her dorky, gangly, impossibly-mired-in-military-scandal brother, and had won him the hoof of the fairest pegasus maiden in the entire world, Mi Amore Cadenza.
Cadance was a rare creature. She was intelligent, she had a barbed wit, she was effortlessly beautiful – Twilight had yet to see her wear makeup, and yet she still outshone every plaster face surrounding her – and she was achingly kind and patient.
It is fair to say, then, that Rarity was a miracle worker for getting the wonderful Cadance to have fallen head-over-hooves for her brother, only a lieutenant at the time, a lieutenant who still kept his tin soldiers from childhood in his top desk drawer, and remembered each and every one of their names.
A miracle worker was exactly what she needed.
Midday was the peak of court hearings. As a result, the buzz of mosquitoes was deafening in Twilight's ears. Gathering around the carcass of an empire, baking in the hot sun. The Princess of Mourning never did anything but conquer; more glory for the empire, more land in the empire to fill the void in her hollow chest. It disgusted her, and she wasn't afraid to have that opinion heard.
It was an infinite wonder to her that she had been groomed into the position of Royal Philosopher in Residence, then, rather than summarily beheaded as a filly. All these crawling insects paying blind tribute to their pestilent queen, craving her approval. That approval was a thing that repulsed Twilight, that made her skin crawl and her very soul weep.
Yet the Mourning Princess embraced Twilight's disgust. Welcomed it. Encouraged it. Gave her the most vaunted position in the courts, in the Empire, in the world that wasn't the throne itself. A position whose sole job description was to disagree with the Princess as loudly and as often as possible, a position that Twilight took great pride in. But it was a powerful position.
And so the mosquitos smelled blood.
Itchy. This place made her itchy. These creatures made her itchy.
Twilight smiled politely and had a fleeting discussion approaching intellectual. Of course, it was approaching it from the far, far distance. The stallion had thought a single readthrough of Skinners Box's "Utopia" had revealed to him just how perfectly society could function if the common folk were placated through such means.
She repressed the urge to pinch a single vital vein in his frontal lobe with her magic, ending the miserable wretch's life before he had a chance to spread his well-received musings with the others with too much power and not enough sense. She would, too, if the resulting nose bleed wouldn't stain her dress terribly, and she was exceptionally fond of it, unfortunately.
Perhaps they were not mosquitos. They were wasps building a paper hive and stinging and destroying all they perceived as a threat with brutal efficiency. Unlike bees, they didn't have the good courtesy to die in the attempt.
And Rarity was apparently a warrior of the hive. One placed in the upper echelons of the colony.
She had to have done something to get there. Something. Her work combined vapid lovers and enabled marriages of opportunity. She was always in fashion, no matter how vain, inane or insane it may be. She was a throbbing tumour fueling the cancerous rot.
But she had helped her brother, she reminded herself. She couldn't be all bad.
Twilight looked around the crowds. She couldn't see a single young mare garnering the attention of a crowd around her. She saw clusters and cliques, couples and swinging youths trading incautious words... facilitated by her target? Improbable, her target focused on romance rather than blind lust.
That mare passing the lilac, perfumed – yet ironically not lilac perfumed -- letter into the pockets of her beau couldn't have been less subtle if she had soaked the letter in her own urine instead.
Possibly even in front of everypony.
Now, that might have been entertaining.
Instead Twilight was left to skulk past the couple, who would not last longer than the fripperies of youth ceased being novel, as the perfume stung at her eyes.
Why must she be so dressed up? Why not her labcoat and goggles, or her brown tweed and bow tie?
It wasn't that she didn’t like the ensemble. It was her, it was exceedingly Twilight Sparkle and damn the pony who looked down on it. So what if she didn't have one of those frail lace hats the ladies insisted upon these days? A more masculine coachman's hat fit her far better.
Again, so what if she refused the corsets that crushed fairer ladies into swooning, to appease their vanity. And crinolines... whose idea had it been to attach a windmill to a lady's waist and call it fashionable?!
No. She would face the courtiers on her own terms.
A dress the same colour as Twilight herself, made of smooth velvet. A wasp waistline to emphasize her feminine form, since nothing else about her apparel particularly did. It was a dress, true, but it hugged the legs tightly, like suit pants that simply hadn't been split.
The matching jacket, too, might have had the buttons on the lady's side – and was cut to the ribs rather than below the waist like male's wear – but it emphasized the broadness of her shoulders and her self-assured posture rather than allow her to emphasize vulnerability she hadn't already crushed within herself.
Then she heard the whispers. She remembered, then, why she made all the effort to put on appearances.
"It's the Philosopher?"
After that, she caught snippets, starts and stops, doing her very best to appear as if she wasn't noticing. All she had to do, then, was pretend to be doing what she truly wished she could be doing.
She heard disbelief. "No, it couldn't be. She's a recluse. Complete hermit. Social skills of a–"
She heard rebuke. "–supposedly a shutaway, a spinster, they say–" A spinster? Even at twice her age, needlessly cruel. Her ear flicked imperceptibly, but she still chastised herself for the slip in facade. Nopony seemed to have noticed.
She heard scandal. "–virgin! It's true, and apparently not for lack of trying–" The former was true, though whose business that was but hers was another matter entirely. The latter, meanwhile, was blatant conjecture. Probably a young buck trying to make appearances by claiming to have spurned the advances of the famous recluse. She would have to find out who and castigate him, or at least a word that sounded eerily similar.
She heard caution. "–a wit like a sharpened foil. Don't face her in a duel of words, lest–"
She heard scorn. "–a hack, a fraud, thoroughly disreputed. Now, if that Professor Bright Spark fellow had power, we'd see industry boom overnight–"
She heard something unexpected. "–a stunning dress. Simply magnificent. Notes, notes, I must take notes..." Surprisingly, directed at her.
She turned, then, to see a white pony not looking at her, not noticing that Twilight had caught her out, too busy concentrating on the pen dancing across the little red notebook she clutched with a hoof. An impressive feat of concentration.
She took the time, then to notice her. Perfectly styled purple mane, painstakingly so. Twilight smirked. She knew the style, the technique. She knew the motive, too: Hours of preparation to ensure they would never be caught looking in a mirror. What it spoke of in this lady's vanity was superseded by what it told of her pride and dedication, to say nothing of her patience.
"I love your dress, too," Twilight said openly and honestly, silencing those who overheard her to the lowest of whispers. She did, at that. The lady with the little red notebook had waves of red satin cascading down, and it looked for all the world like she had become the stem for a rose in full bloom. The rose stopped at the knee, though, and what billowed to the floor was as black as charcoal and seemed to swallow the light.
"Hrm?" the mare hummed thoughtfully as she looked up from her notebook, surprised. Her eyes widened rather significantly when she saw that Twilight had not only overhead her, but had taken the opportunity to stride up to her. "Oh, dear, it appears you overheard me. I'm dreadfully sorry."
"Don't be ridiculous. I overheard everypony," and Twilight said that rather pointedly, thoroughly underwhelmed by how fast the quiet around them returned to its normal levels of chatter, "and your words were perhaps the only kind ones."
"Well, yes," the lady muttered dryly, "I wouldn't be so sure of that yet."
Twilight winced. "I just became the inspiration behind another theatrical villain, didn't I? I swore after Major Brassbound's Inversions–"
The lady's eyes widened further still. "Major Brassbound was inspired by you? Well, now that you mention it, the resemblance is remarkable. With your permission, certainly?"
"I believe the playwright was a follower of the creed; 'Better to ask forgiveness than permission'. Offered me a rather lovely box seat on opening night. I believe it was all the better to see my reaction."
The lady's eyebrows shot upward, and her eyes remained wide. She was thinking she had committed a rather awkward faux pas. Under other circumstances, she might be right.
However, she had chosen not to be cruel about Twilight's fashion sense. So Twilight smiled, a smile that seemed perfectly innocent to those at any other angle, but offered to her audience a gleeful malice.
"Of course, I think my reaction rather disappointed him. It's a pity, then, that I couldn't see his when the morning after, the paper published the most devastatingly scathing review. I have it on good authority that whoever the anonymous author was, they had significant pull. It's the only time I've ever seen a theater review make the front pages. All of them, actually, the Gazette, the Daily, the Bugle..."
A white hoof leapt to the lady's mouth to conceal a far-too-amused smile, but it just wasn't quick enough. "How dreadful," she lied, "I remember that. It seemed like the work of a talented and very capable author." There was a contemplative silence, and a worried tinge. "I do hope others didn't suffer for a playwright's error."
Genuine empathy. Twilight seemed to have found a gem in an open sewer. "Oh, she was very kind to the actors’ performances. Spectacular. They all found more work. A pity they had been bogged down by such garbage."
"Ah, the anonymous author was a she now?" The Lady, as Twilight was coming to think of her, smirked. "However would you know that?"
"I'm Twilight Sparkle," she declared, enjoying the shocked reaction those words had on her new conversational partner, turning the white mare somehow even paler. "I make it my duty to know these things. Speaking of which, I'm looking for a certain mare, a Ms Rarity." This name, curiously, had no effect on the Lady, which amazed Twilight. Did her own name hold so much more sway? "You don't know her?"
"Oh, I do. Quite intimately, in fact." The Lady nodded slowly. "It rather depends, though, on what you would like to speak to her about? I am her... seneschal, of sorts. Scarlet Letter, pleased to make your most honoured acquaintance, Philosopher Sparkle."
Now that was an interesting name she had. Twilight was about to comment on it, and the look Scarlet was giving her certainly invited the question, but she decided to save it for later. There would have to be a later.
When Twilight didn't ask, those eyes burned with a keen curiosity, a curiosity that the dull-witted would never experience in all their lives. "Tell me, whatever would you have with the Lady Rarity? You say her name like it's acid on your tongue, and you're keen to spit it out, darling."
Twilight's ear flicked at the 'darling'. Now, that was a familiar word that was rather out of place. She looked closer at the subtle crinoline of the rose-like dress. It blended in seamlessly with the other courtiers, but the cut and flair of it? Now, that was distinctly rural. Had it been white, it would have been a land heiress's wedding dress.
A pony, then, as out of place as Twilight herself among these creatures, and doing her very best to hide it. Apparently with great success.
But she had been asked a question, now, hadn't she?
"Well... I've heard she's a rather vaunted member of... this crowd." Twilight scowled. It would have been sweet as molasses to say what she really thought of these overgrown bacterium, but much like molasses, the repercussions weren't worth the indulgence. "So I figure I've got to be looking for the most sensibly dressed pony here, surrounded by the vapid and witless, a big fish in a small pond."
"Oh? Is that what you think of Ms Rarity, then?" Scarlet Letter asked with no small hint of amusement.
"Well, you know these... ponies." The word came only with reluctance. "You know what it takes to succeed here. Wit and intellect will only get you so far, but if you show the slightest hint of original thought? The crowd turns on you. You soar too high, and you're no longer a thermal for these vultures to soar on, but fresh carrion for them to absorb into themselves." Twilight nodded, until she realized she had, in fact, said that last part out loud.
Scarlet Letter, though, just nodded sadly. "It does seem a very delicate line that Lady Rarity is forced to walk. The bits that come with the position are rather enough for her needs, but if she tried to act on them, she'd lose her hard-fought connections. The most crystalline of social networks in The Capital would shatter. She tells me that is why she deals so firmly in romance. It is an investment that pays dividends." Here Scarlet Letter's sad expression buoyed into one that Twilight didn't much like at all; rather cheeky knowingness. "That's why you've sought out my Lady, yes?"
Twilight sighed, mournfully. "Is there perhaps not a more secluded place we could discuss this?" A meaningful look around. Twilight had already caught the word 'vulture' on a few lips. Scarlet's cheeky smirk became a bit wry for it.
"Of course, darling, shall we abscond to the fountains to discuss the business of pleasure?"
Twilight winced at the phrasing, but the way Scarlet's eyes sparkled, with purpose, with passion, with something almost frightening... she couldn't say no.
That wasn't figurative, either. The parts of her brain that would have allowed her to say no had been shut down, somehow.
That should probably have worried Twilight more than it did as she was led out the double-wide glass doors – unpainted – into the gardens, where only the hedges had been cared for.
The pair began to stroll past the dry fountains, pointedly away from the zoo. "The creatures from The Empire's latest conquests may be a marvel," Scarlet remarked, "but their conditions are far from marvellous."
"The Princess thinks beasts deserve little better. They're merely trophies, and this is their display case."
Twilight snorted. "I'm sure your employer thinks it's perfectly reasonable."
Scarlet clutched a hoof to her chest in horror. "Oh, not at all! I can guarantee you, the Lady Rarity despises such horrid treatment of animals, and ponies for that matter."
"She dabbles as a fashionista. I'm certain she does not do her own sewing."
"Well, no," Scarlet admitted, somewhat guiltily, "but she does ensure her assistants are paid a fair wage."
"You speak highly of her. I'm surprised. She's good to you?" Twilight was genuinely surprised now, maybe even a little curious. A lot curious.
"Oh, of course not, she's harder on me than she is on anypony else." Scarlet snorted with a smile. She sat down, now, on the rim of a great and empty marble fountain – one that would never enjoy the simple pleasure of ducks – gesturing for Twilight to sit beside her. She did.
"If that's the case, surely you could find work elsewhere?"
Again, a loud snort, followed by a burst of raucous giggling. "Darling, if Lady Rarity hadn't found good work for me, nopony else would have. She's the only mare I shall ever care to work for."
Twilight raised an eyebrow now. She smiled, too, slightly. She had a sneaking suspicion that Scarlet wasn't the seneschal she claimed to be.
Twilight cast her bait into the waters.
"I'm looking for her services in romance. If she's willing to work wonders for the vapid hangers-on at court, I'm sure she would be willing to help the Royal Philosopher, don't you think?"
Scarlet hummed thoughtfully. "Oh, dear, but she is exhorbitantly expensive. The Royal Philosopher is a title with a lot of power and respect, certainly, a surfeit of both, but it notably lacks more than a scholar's stipend. Which I heard you spend all on books," 'Scarlet' accused, rather testily.
Owch. But her suspicions were rather confirmed. Let's see how far the boning in this corset bent before it snapped, and the true make of this mare was revealed. "Oh, I do. Somepony in the Capital has to. I leave all the trashy 'bodice rippers' for mares like your employer though. I'm sure she burns through them like coal."
Scarlet blushed, becoming rather her namesake. "No more than the usual mare, I assure you! I bet you get off to anatomical diagrams!" Ah. There was that wonderful twang of corset boning buckling, and the gut of the mare spilling out. Beautiful, even the attempts at witty retort had splintered, as had her repose.
"Oh, I bet she pens some too," Twilight continued, as if the mare beside her wasn't practically vibrating with indignation, "under a tasteful pseudonym, of course. You know, if I were to pick a tasteful pseudonym for such raunchy works, I'd probably pick Scarlet Letter. Classy, with just the right undertones of taboo. I'm sure you agree, Lady Rarity."
Lady Rarity, for it was her, sighed beside her. "What gave me away?"
"You have some interesting thoughts on being harder on yourself than anypony else. I rather doubt an assistant would take the same pride in that statement as you did."
"Normally, I'd be rather ticked off for you baiting me so openly," Rarity accused, but slumped back, casually resting her weight on forelegs held behind her on the fountain bed, reclining in the noonday sun. "But a Lady should never lie like I did. And they certainly shouldn't choose such a florid nom de plume to do so. Well done. You bested me." Rarity, much to Twilight's shock, pulled out a little tobacco pouch and rolling papers, setting herself on the task of rolling a neat little cigarette. She offered Twilight one, of course, but Twilight rather adamantly refused.
Rarity shrugged, a rather casual and unladylike gesture, and lit up, taking dainty little puffs.
"It soothes the stress of being around such irksome pests, I find. You certainly had the right idea; find a position of power, then maintain it by dealing with absolutely nopony as often as possible. Wonderful."
"It's unfortunately a lonely position, on top of the totem pole," Twilight admitted.
Rarity snorted, a thin trickle of smoke passing through her nose for her efforts. "Oh, darling, you don't know how lonely alone is until you're surrounded by these ponies, vying for their affections. The loneliest one can be is when one stands amongst a crowd that is not their own."
Twilight was, to put it succinctly, astonished that this was the mare she had sought out. Still, one sure-fire way to test.
"Would you mind reading over some of my poetry? Just so we have a baseline for you to know what you're dealing with, here?"
"Certainly. It can't be the worst I've ever seen, I'll grant you that. Now, be a dear and hand it over for the master to appraise, hrmm?"
Twilight obediently levitated the scrap of paper Spike had dismissed earlier with a porcelain smile. Rarity stubbed her cigarette in the fountain, slipping off an almost-invisible white nylon stocking and placing it back in a pocket of her dress. "The stains these dreadful things leave on a hoof are quite loathsome," She explained.
A red pince-nez emerged from another pocket, settling itself on the thoughtfully-scrunched face of the Lady. There were a few seconds of silence as Rarity peered critically down those red-framed lenses..
"This is a terrible limerick." she remarked dryly.
"It's not meant to be a limerick."
"Oh. Oh, dear. You are in remarkable need of my charity, aren't you, my dear? I mean, this is almost as bad as... hang on... no, I am familiar with this particular flavour of abysmal. You wouldn't happen to have a brother would you?"
"Indeed I do. Military stallion."
Rarity's face lit up. "Ah! Charming fellow, absolutely wonderful, but he had the way with words of a belching toad. Perhaps my greatest accomplishment. So, the resemblance isn't so much familiar as it is familial."
"I suppose you could say that, yes."
"To be fair, sweetheart, I was rather a lot cheaper back then." Rarity feigned a swoon, then, and Twilight tried to hold back from rolling her eyes. Rarity shot her a glare, which Twilight took as encouragement, rolling her eyes to an incredibly sarcastic degree. The Lady nodded in approval.
"Well, how about I make you a wager, of sorts?"
"A wager? Oh, dear, I do like where this is going. Court had gotten dreadfully dull lately." Before Twilight could interrupt, Rarity anticipated it, matching Twilight with an eye-roll of her own. "And yes, before you say it, moreso than even usual, which is a horribly low bar to limbo under. Somehow they continue to exceed my lowest expectations. Regardless, what is this wager you propose?"
"You realize what would happen if somepony overheard one of these careless remarks of yours, yes?"
"This is wonderfully liberating. You see, when I'm in your exclusive company, anything I say is going to be taken as unsubstantiated rumour. So, even if a pony were to overhear this, nopony would believe them. I would ensure of it. Now, dear, you're dodging my question."
"Ah! Right. Well. Okay, here it is." Twilight took a deep breath. All or nothing. Go big or go home. All those wonderful sayings that run through your mind when you're procrastinating at the precipice of a potentially terrible decision. "If what I tell you is, in fact, the most romantic thing you have ever heard, you will agree to provide your unique services for my situation for free."
Rarity smiled wistfully, looking off long into the distance. "Oh, now that's one I haven't heard in a long time. You're familiar with the old rumour then?"
"My brother told me the gist of it, yes."
"Of course he would. He was the first to win it, you know. It seems fitting that another of the lineage should take it up as potentially the last."
Twilight's looked carefully at the scorch mark in the fountain, the remnants of the Lady's unladylike habit. "The last?"
"Oh, yes, the years have left me rather jaded you see," Rarity lamented, "and jade hasn't been fashionable for a decade. It's all amethyst now. Rose quartz though, I've heard that tints glasses wonderfully," she added with a meaningful look, "so let's see if the rose-tinted glasses you have provided me are enough to make this bet meaningful."
"So, all I have to do is tell you how my situation is the most romantic that you've ever heard, and you'll work my case for free?"
"That is rather the gist of it, yes. But over the years I have facilitated literally countless romances. Tragically kept apart by warring families, stark difference in social classes – those are rather my favourite admittedly; the lower classes just have this air of romanticism about them – spurned lovers, insipid love triangles, wars of inheritance... Really, darling, it'd be much quicker to write a book about what I haven't done."
Twilight nodded, confident with her answer. "My–" and then stopped. It was at this moment she realized, that to explain what she and Luna had, she would have to classify and categorize it. To give it a classification would be to instill it with a meaning and weight that might be entirely wrong for it. Disastrously so.
Rarity replaced her glove and lit another cigarette, giving Twilight a rather exasperated look that annoyed her rather thoroughly. It was a look that thoroughly belittled her crisis. "Really, darling, you've stalled for a good three seconds of indecision now. Just call him your 'love'. If it were anything less, you wouldn't have come to me, I hope."
Twilight thought on that, but Rarity continued with barely-concealed disdain. "This is the first time you've said it, yes? At least out loud? Well, forgive me for lighting another of these ill-mannered coping devices, but you're about to have your first honeymoon period and it's going to be nauseatingly, sickeningly sweet. I need something bitter to balance it out."
"Fine!" Twilight spoke with defiance, daring this mare – Lady or not! – to put her in so neat a little pidgeon-hole. "My Love has–" and that was as far as Twilight got.
She smiled, mostly to herself, and lost sight of the world around her.
She saw that little backflip. The grid for code so that they could communicate.
The rather turgid poetry hastily erased, but not quite hastily enough.
Her Love, Luna. Or perhaps it should be Luna, her Love. Twilight's Love, Luna. Luna, Twilight's–
She was brought back by a horrible dull ringing at the back of her head. "Ow!"
Rarity wrung her hoof out in the air, shaking it off. "My apologies, darling, but you blissed out." The hoof was brought back down behind her, propping her up once more as she took another drag on her cigarette. "It was as nauseating as it was sweet. Too much sweet, really, like too-rich mudcake. A spoonful is fine, but you tried to force on me the whole gatteau, darling."
Twilight grinned sheepishly. "That bad?"
"What is it with your family and hopeless romantics?" Rarity rolled her eyes. "Yes, it was that bad. My apologies for striking you, but I learned that from your brother. If it weren't for a quick and precise blow to the head, he'd sit with a dopey grin on his face murmuring 'Cady-bug' over and over to himself for almost an hour."
Twilight snickered. Yep, that was Shining Armour.
"Oh, don't you snicker! So far you seem just as bad. I'm rather dubious about your chances at this bet right now, dear; you could have fallen hard for just about anypony and believed it to be the most romantic thing in the world. You're positively lovestruck."
Twilight thought, again–
"You were about to go off on me again because I accused you of being lovestruck. I will be having none of that," Rarity scolded. "Now, please lose this bet so I can go back to extorting you for ludicrous sums of money for my own personal gain."
Twilight stared at her, slowly working up the most delicate way to phrase her next question. "You really haven't been able to talk to anypony without your mental filter on maximum setting for a long, long time have you?"
Rarity smiled, and her eyes turned smoky. "I swear, every word with you is almost like another long, rolling orgasm." She blinked, the smoke clearing from her eyes and leaking out her ears. "Oh, dear, I just said that out loud didn't I? I suppose that rather adequately answers your question, then. Now! Stop stalling! Go! Answer mine."
"My... l-love," Twilight gulped. Rarity's hoof hovered at attention, but Twilight had gotten through the stammered word without dwelling on that languid stretch Luna had taken, or the grace she danced upon – "Ow! Sorry, sorry!" Almost. "She's written me poetry from a far distance. We can see each other, but we can't meet. The gulf between us is too great."
Rarity made no effort to hide her yawn. "I'm sorry, dear, but you'll have to do an awful lot better than that. The doomed long-distance hook is typical to the tune of cliche, dear."
Twilight made a huge effort to still the steelish twang in her heart at the word 'doomed'. "Alright then." Twilight took a deep breath, preparing herself. She repeated all those well-sounding words from before in that procrastination ritual which Rarity caught on to immediately, giving her a rather impatient look. Finally, Twilight approached it like a bandaid; she had been peeling it off slowly, when in truth she had to rip it off and hope for the best.
"My love is on the moon. She writes me poetry in the moon's surface, where there are no weathers or winds to alter them. The love notes she has written to me will stand for all eternity, long after the last lifeform on this Equus breathes its last. Near as I can tell, one square kilometer has been covered – to the centimeter! – in her compositions, so desperate was she to find the right words. Now I need to respond and... well, you saw." Twilight was panting, now, rocking back into the fountain herself.
She didn't factor in how slippery the bowl of the fountain would be, not one this dry, and fell right back into it, sprawling with her legs in the air. Rarity paid the slip no mind, staring off into space with a serious expression.
"Yes, your response might be a problem," Rarity murmured. "A she, though? Now, that's interesting."
"That's the part you picked up on?!" Twilight shouted from her position on her back, throwing her forelegs up into the air above her in exasperation, "not the fact that there is a pony on the moon and she's writing me poetry?!"
"Oh, well, yes, that I sort of expected. Not that particular surprise, mind, just one of that calibre." Rarity took a slow, deep breath of her cigarette, expelling a choking cloud into the air around them. Twilight was glad she was upwind of the puffing chimney. "Your brother was young, naive and, quite frankly, thick. Brilliant in a lot of ways, of course, but he was... well, your brother was rather a dork, wasn't he?"
"Was?" Twilight snorted, rocking herself out of the fountain, propping herself back up into a position like Rarity's.
Rarity pointedly arched an eyebrow, looking back between Twilight and where she had fallen in the fountain, but decidedly didn't comment on it. "Yes... " she said evenly, level as eroded bedrock, "well. Even then, he still went after the most elligible bacholerette in the empire and made good on it. It only makes sense, then, that you – smarter, wiser, more cynical, and much comparatively older you – would have to go to great lengths to thoroughly trounce the scale of your brother's romantic ambitions."
Another long, luxuriant billow of smoke, as if to punctuate the remark with tainted air. "Which you did. Well done." It was impossible to tell whether that was genuine or sarcastic. "The moon? Honestly, the moon? Who could have seen that coming?"
Twilight snorted, again, at that. Pinkie Pie and Dash made her laugh, but this mare... this mare had a way that just made her smile constantly, with the most occasional of rare fits of less restrained mirth. "Well..."
"That it is a sapphic romance," Rarity continued, finishing the last of this cigarette. "Well, that's rather just rubbing it in, isn't it? You've gone all the distance to have a love greater than even this planet could hope to contain, and you have to make it delightfully scandalous on top of that? Very well played, Miss Sparkle." The cigarette was ashed on the same scorchmark as its predecessor. "What is it about your family?"
"Well, it's not like I could choose preferences..."
"Oh, please, that's not even an... Look, do you know how many of these ladies have experimented with each other? Or their maids? Or each other as their maids watched? Or, on the rarest of occasions, just all in a great, heaving ball of... experimentation?" Rarity snorted. "At least you aren't being a hypocrite about it."
Twilight looked around carefully, up the courtyard, around the dead fountains... nopony around.
"Have... you?" She asked, tentatively.
Rarity's eyes narrowed dangerously. "A lady never asks!"
Twilight retorted with a dismissive chuckle. "Well, yes, but as we have established, I'm not much of a lady."
"Ah, but a Lady also never tells," Rarity finished with a sly smile.
Twilight snorted. "So, Lady Rarity, did I win the bet?"
"You have a paramour on the moon. I am presuming, then, that she must be a living goddess to endure the conditions of such a harsh environment?"
Twilight gaped. Probably true, but, if Twilight thought about that too hard, it made her head spin. Then there was that whole dream debacle–
"Yes, quite," Rarity drolled over her. "So what we have here is the doomed long distance relationship, separated by forces beyond their control, a comparatively simple – yet brilliant – scientist, and a goddess amongst the stars... This is quite literally every romantic cliche at once. It is nauseating, it is sickening, it is droll and, to be as frank as I am capable, it is the most fantastic thing I have ever heard." Now, that was sincerity, plain and true. "My not-inconsiderable services are at your command."
"Really?" Twilight beamed, leaping to all four hooves. "You mean it?"
"Absolutely," Rarity nodded, rocking herself back up off the fountain and dusting herself off. She didn't need to. Even sitting on that horribly dirty thing, not a trace of dust had settled on her rose-like gown. Rarity caught Twilight noticing, and gave her a wicked smirk. "Trade secret. My other, more reputable trade, I should say. Now, where shall we abscond to?'
Twilight thought about that. Some words in particular were ringing in her head.
"Before we go anywhere, I need to speak to the Princess." Twilight shuddered, even as Rarity's eyes grew practically iridescent with joy. Twilight noticed, as Rarity made no effort to hide it. "You want to come with me, don't you?"
"Well, if it wouldn't be too much of a bother–"
"It would." Two words dropped like an anvil.
"–but even if it would be much of a bother, then, as I shall be doing so much for you." Rarity finished, dodging with the grace of a ballerina.
"...fine." Twilight grumbled. "But don't say I didn't warn you."
"But... you didn't warn me, as such?"
"I was hoping common sense would do the job for me." The words were as bitter as hemlock, administered to a willing victim.
It would burn the whole way down. Rarity seemed to anticipate it as if the burn were the gentle warmth of a good scotch. She would learn.
The wide doors to the court opened, and here were the highest tier of flatters, bootlickers, brown-noses, trust-fund bastards, rising stars, fading giants... all gathered in one room, just to sooth and stoke the dying embers of the fire that was the Princess of Mourning's ego.
It was rumoured that once, a time since immemorial, the ‘u’ in her title was not. She was the Princess of Morning; a bright, white and wise mentor figure who heralded the day.
This was not the case now.
She was dull and perpetually clad in funeral attire. Black veil. Black dress. Hair pulled tight and muted. Pale. Occasionally a patch fell out with the ceremony of a pigeon dying of heart failure mid-flight.
This was the figure sitting on the Fountained throne, a gold seat with velvet cushions, the only thing in this entire tomb not half-built. Either side of the throne hosted a simple cascading water feature which pooled on each side of it, then drained and trickled back into the mountain's wellspring.
Some ponies claimed it was the Fountain of Youth, the secret of the Princess's immortality.
Twilight knew that was absurd.
If it truly were the Fountain of legend, then the Princess would have stopped supping from it long ago and just allowed herself to die and rot, as she should have.
Bitter? Twilight? Never.
The doors that Twilight and Rarity entered through were three stories high and dramatically arched. The engravings on them were neither completed nor symmetrical, of course, but at least the doors had both been installed.
Unfortunately it made subtlety to their entrance impossible, a factor that neither could ever hope to achieve, now.
Fortunately, it did make their entrance suitably dramatic. Two mares alone did not simply barge in on active court. It was unheard of!
"We apologize for the volume of the door," Rarity apologized loudly, "it seems to require some grease."
Twilight massaged the bridge of her nose. "Please, Rarity?" she hissed under her breath. "For the moment, we don't need to make an effort to care what these ponies think of us."
"You, maybe," Rarity hissed back through her mask of a beatific smile, "but I am networking."
And with that, the rose-gown disappeared into the crowd in a flurry of hoofshakes and business-like smiles, the mare shooting Twilight a grateful look for taking the brunt of their entrance.
With an internal heaving of much breath, a white folder with purple trimming was firmly inserted into the 'business' filing cabinet. A pity.
"My philosopher!" The Princess boomed, with what could almost be called mirth. "To what does my court owe this welcome surprise?"
"I've uncovered a very old text," Twilight lied, "and I was hoping to seek counsel from the mare who might have preceded even it."
A very subtle twitch in the Princess, as obvious to Twilight as a bonfire signal. She was careful not to push it, to disguise her biting remarks as compliments, but she knew what hurt the most. Her age. Her attire. Her loneliness.
How she had dressed for the occasion of eternal loneliness... Now, that was a remark Twilight had woven like a hungry spider preparing for a moth it saw approaching from the window, but had never used, like the same spider only just in time realizing the approaching moth was, in truth, a bat.
"Speak, then, of these words that have so mystified you, my Philosopher."
Not a single moment of hesitation in the words. Admirable, if Twilight didn't know better.
"You like it when I hurt you," Twilight screamed in the confines of her own head, "Because then you at least feel something don't you, you sick, twisted, warped–"
What she said instead was; "The stars will aid in her escape. Apparently it's nearly a thousand years old–"
The court, as one, flinched and fell into dread silence when the Princess ripped off her veil. Not pull it aside, not flick it back; she tore the fine black lace with an audible rip to reveal the wild, wide and wired eyes of the mare behind it. They glowed – not a metaphor. Behind them burned the fury of the sun, and the whites of her eyes burned plasma.
"Where did you hear those words?" she hissed. It wasn't cold enough to be winter, but still she could see the Princess's breath. Odd.
"An old book. Incredibly old. I–"
"That is a lie. I had them all burned, without exception!" Celestia boomed low. She barely raised her voice, but she significantly lowered her register, so it carried more. It also seemed to rattle Twilight's very bones.
Still, she could see the breath of the Princess rising, like the wisp of kettle too long on the hob.
"Why?" Twilight heard herself asking. She took a step back, now, but her butt just hit door.
"Where did you hear those words?" the Princess boomed. This time the volume was raised significantly, the sheer force of her words. The two guards closest to her, flanking her throne, ripped their helmets off, falling to the ground clutching bleeding ears. Their eardrums had been ruptured.
At the distance Twilight was at, with the ears of hundreds of courtiers between her to absorb the brunt of it, she still felt her skull rattle and teeth chatter.
"You must have missed one!" Twilight screamed back, just to hear her own voice over the ringing in her ears. The steam...
Oh, stars and stones, the Princess was foaming at the mouth. Her saliva was just rapidly evaporating, rather than falling from her like a rabid dog's drool.
"Impossible!" the Princess screeched, bestial, a sound more feral and caged than any creature in her expansive zoos.
Then, a rapid calm overtook the Princess. She abruptly straightened herself. The torn veil was plucked from the floor like a dropped handkerchief and held to the tear. A blazing light seared the two pieces back into a whole. The Princess sat, still and composed on the Fountained Throne.
But still that steam rose ever-upward.
"You are stripped of your stipend," the Princess declared to the court, as cold and as solid as the icebergs that sank great ships, "until you apologize for uttering those words in my presence."
No. No, that was not what was going to happen.
The Princess held only as much power as she could enforce. Twilight's position held many notable safeguards. This was a rabid dog, yes, but behind a sturdy fence. "I'm not going to apologize, because you're asking me to not to do my job. Most ponies understand that they don't get paid for work they don't do, your Highness. It was a gross overestimation on my part to think you might understand that, too, but considering the evidence I suppose I really shouldn't have. You have my apologies for that, instead."
The Princess didn't shake or rattle like earlier. That worried Twilight. Usually a remark that pointed would puncture the all-encompassing, fragile ego of the Princess, a tribal spear hurled clear through a hot air balloon.
Instead she found that spear bouncing fecklessly off the steel skin of a zeppelin.
"Who is the mare you came in with? The Lady Rarity, by reputation, I presume?" The voice was dormant and hollow, now. The caged animal lay dead behind its bars. What lurked there , now, was what had been in the shadows of the cage tormenting the creature so.
It was prepared to slip the bars.
"Is she important to you?" that dead voice asked.
Twilight hesitated a moment. That was all it took.
The courtiers dispersed away from the rose-dress. Rarity stood a heretic island, her network crumbling around her with great weight and greater silence. One had to imagine the sound of shattering crystal.
"The Lady Rarity is banished from court." Celestia declared. "Until such time that Twilight Sparkle apologizes for remarks that shall not be repeated upon punishment of banishment," the dead voice inflected that remark with ice, "and reveals her source."
Great. The shadow-thing had just taken a bolt-cutter to the rabid dog's fence, and they had teamed up against her.
Celestia might have rules and laws that stopped her from doing anything to Twilight. Rules and laws that she couldn't break, as they were the only thing that prevented herself from seeing in the mirror the monster Twilight knew her to be.
She had no such constraints against those closest to Twilight.
It hurt for Twilight to admit that this was the first time she had allowed Celestia access that bargaining chip. She hadn't even considered it when she had walked through that double-door with the Lady Rarity.
Twilight turned desperately to Rarity. To her credit, the mare shrugged and lit a cigarette. In court.
Several courtiers panicked, backing away further, but what worse could Celestia do to a mare whose only crime had been association?
As Rarity strode dignified and indignantly to Twilight's side, she took one long and heavy drag from the burning tobacco leaves. Then, as if an afterthought, she tossed the lit cigarette behind her carelessly. Well, appearing carelessly.
As they left, Twilight felt a chill run down her spine as Rarity's smile grew, little by little, at the panicked screams behind her, ponies rushing madly back and forth trying to extinguish the tapestry she had 'unintentionally' set alight.
Her only crime had been association. Now, arson?
"As soon as those doors close behind us," Rarity whispered, making sure nopony would pay attention to her words between the fires and the enticing sway of her hips, "run. Dignity be damned, you lead the way."
"I could apologize you know?"
Rarity arched an eyebrow.
"Okay, no, you're right, I couldn't, but I could try–"
"Just to be held over your head as a hostage for the next negotiation? No. No, for now, we run, and then we regroup. Then we sort out what to do with the ashes of my life and career."
"You seem to be taking this awfully well, considering."
"Well, that may be, perhaps, because they haven't noticed what I did with my lighter whilst they were all distracted by the cigarette," Rarity remarked.
The immense set of double doors closed behind them, black smoke curling from the top of its arches.
They ran, not stopping for the eight city blocks between the Palace and Twilight's Observatory. Neither mare looked back once.