• Published 5th Sep 2018
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The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I - BlueBastard

A Berylverse Story - The ponies investigate an ancient prophecy tied to Sombra's plan to destroy Equestria, all the while Sunset prepares for her coronation. But not all is as it seems when the mystery begins to imply a far darker truth of the past.

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Chapter 17 - Equestriani Pool Rules

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 17—Equestriani Pool Rules

“Like, holy shit I’m a Goddamn alicorn and I can’t believe half that shit that you just did in there!” gushed Sunset, as wide eyed as Pinkie Pie. “Seriously, that ball defied the laws of physics as far as I’m concerned!”

“I’m guessing wherever you’re from, pool is played in the casual way where you actually hit the ball in the direction of the one ball you want it to hit?” said Corner with a smirk.

“Well…yes! That’s the only way I could think of that involved the cue ball not hitting your opponent’s balls! But you had that thing flying and reversing hairpin turns and….” Sunset paused for a second as if in thought. “Looks like Twi and I are going to be having a nice physics chat.”

“Congrats, Corner,” said Razz. “I think you made a new pool fan.”

“Oh, is that so?” came the sudden vocal presence of Princess Cadence. “Seriously, why didn’t you tell anypony you were squirrelling away Sunny for the day to attend the pool tournament preliminaries, Razz?”

“I doubt she did because it was at all planned,” commented Ari, who along with her sisters also were accompanying the Avatar of Love. As had been typical of what the trio had worked out, the trio had taken triangular escort positions around the romance alicorn, much to her dismay.

Sunset sighed—something that was alarmingly frequent for her it seemed these days. “Girls…look, remember the time before you three totally just ditched me and our friends without warning, saying you were going back to, uh, Cann…Caneighda?” Sunset asked, hastily correcting herself.

“Actually, we said we were going back to Washington sta—" Sonata began before Adagio shoved a hoof in her sister’s mouth.

Not helping,” the eldest triplet groaned.

“Uh, yeah, you get my point,” said Sunny. “Anyway, basically I’m asking if you recall when we were all just friends?”


“You weren’t crawling all over me back then and…” the newest alicorn took a deep breath to prep herself. “God help me if I have to actually pull royal rank here and order you three to chill the hell out! As far as anybody should be concerned, I’m the exact same individual that I was before ascending, and it’s kind of concerning that the Soni, Ari, and Dagi that I knew as friends and now as my cousins keep thinking I prefer having the SIRENs I didn’t know around.”

“But, we’re only trying to protect you like we’re supposed to!” retorted Dagi. “Plus, you did this to yourself, may I remind you?”

“I know, and I realize in hindsight I should have told you guys about Shimmy needing me in Europe. But we’re family, Dagi – you three can guard me without having to be so impersonal all the time. Look, what do you three do when you’re at school with Twily and Tavi? You don’t hover around them like you’re Karate Kommando looking for the first sign of a fight, do you?”

“No, but––”

“Then why do it now? Aside from occasional flareups, I’d argue high school is more dangerous than Equestria on a regular basis.”

The most emotional of the trio, Sonata ended up giving Sunset exactly what she wanted—albeit in the way the alicorn had not expected. “B-but…” the cyan girl said, tears coming to her eyes, “Sunny, family is important to us—you know that. And if we’d been more efficient in making that bitch Cantata answer for her crimes against the Sisterhood, we could have possibly prevented your death. You’re right in that we may be a little overprotective at times, but after losing the people that raised us time after time, we can’t afford to lose any more family – we just can’t.”

Adagio sighed. “Well, without having to resort to Soni’s emotional manipulation, what she means is that ever since the death of our mother, our stepmother, and us having to live with two of our aunts, we’ve had the kind of life Dad couldn’t give us. Family’s become important to us now, and that includes you, you know.”

Sunset briefly considered reminding Sonata that her death was what caused her ascension, but it was something that she was still coming to grips with herself. Furthermore, given how Sonata was reacting and her personal nature, it was hard to tell if these were just more crocodile tears or if it was all genuine. I wonder how Mom deals with this, she thought to herself.

“Looks like you four need to have a nice, long discussion,” observed Cadence, slipping into a more parental posture, “because it doesn’t suit a princess-to-be if she’s on the run more from her own bodyguards than any actual hostile threats.”

Razz couldn’t help herself and snarked, “Says the princess that doesn’t have guards around.”

“None that you can see, at least,” Cadance said cryptically.

“So what, you’re going to mediate it?” asked Sunset with a little more bite than she intended; the last thing she needed was to be smothered by Cadance again, but she was a fellow princess and it wasn’t something she could say in person—and then realized she had. “Er, sorry, but—”

“No buts,” the love avatar interrupted. “Plus...I kinda get the feeling you’re avoiding not just them, so maybe I’m part of the problem as well. If anything, we need Twilight to help us out and get us all seeing eye-to-eye for once.”

“I feel like Raspberry and I are not part of this conversation. Like, at all,” interjected Corner.

“Well, erm, I guess this is sort of a family-exclusive problem, I’m sorry to say, so—”

“No biggie,” said Razz. “I can just take Corner and show her around town while you all have heart-to-heart talking fun.”

“You mean you actually vanishing from our sight would make things easier for us?” Adagio said in a saccharine-sweet way that made it clear she was being sarcastic.

“Dagi….” Sunset warned her cousin, then continued. “Actually, Razz, that’s a good idea, Hopefully, it’ll give us all enough time to get this stuff worked out and we can meet up at some local joint for dinner.”

“Oh, what about The Bannered Mare?” suggested Razz, “That place is always good for an impromptu meet-up!”

Ari looked at Razz with a questioning look. “Wait, isn’t that a fictional inn you visit in that Skyrim game or something?”

Sunset in turn looked oddly at Aria. “Wait, you’ve played Skyrim? When?!

At the same time, at a bar close to Table Rack’s place, the sorely beaten Bumper Thumper grumbled and tried to drown his distress in cider.

“I still can’t believe that damn harridelle won!” he spat. “She had to have cheated—no way she could have beaten me so soundly!”

“On the contrary,” came a thickly accented voice behind him. “The only player of that game who couldn’t be believed was you.”

Thumper turned to glare at the unwelcome newcomer. “Nopony asked for your opinion. Besides, the only chalk you'll need is for the chalkboard—'cause you're about to get schooled!"

Nineball chuckled—which slightly terrified Thumper as a laughing Stalliongrad native’s deep baritones rarely came off as anything good —as he took a seat next to the posh pool player. “I highly doubt that—after all, the stage is already set for the finals between me and Corner Shot.”

“Bah, your ego is just as bad as that promiscuous mare’s—you two aren’t the only ones who can nail a corner curling trick shot in case you need to be reminded.”

Nineball chuckled again. “Like the pony who screwed one up and lost his match has any right to say that to me.”

Bumper gritted his teeth. “Look, what the hell do you want, Nineball? To gloat over how you got the easy match against a first-year griffon in the first round of prelims?”

The red stallion shook his head. “No, I’m here to talk about things I think you’re rather in the mood to talk about.” He then flagged down the bartender, “I’ll take a Haymaker, please.”

“What makes you think I’m in the mood to tell you anything,” seethed Bumper, “other than get lost?”

“Oh, I think you’re going to tell me everything you know,” intoned Nineball, leaning in and squinting his eyes so it looked like they were one connected strip of blue, “because you know who I work for and I’m not afraid to pull a few strings to make your life…slightly more uncomfortable, if you will.”

Bumper gasped. “You wouldn’t!”

“Oh, I will, unless you tell me everything you observed in your game about Corner Shot.” Just then, the barkeep returned with Nineball’s Haymaker, from which the large stallion took a sip. “And while you’re at it, what you know about Raspberry Beryl, too.”

“You sure, Corner?” asked Razz. After their minor misadventures all over Ponyville that day, one last surprise came at dinner time when they learned it would not be at The Bannered Mare, but instead at Twilight’s Castle. The reasoning as it turned out was due to Cadence having to call in backup to help talk Sunset’s triplet cousins out of orbiting her constantly as bodyguards.

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong—I really appreciate the invitation and all, but, um…” The pool shark seemed slightly nervous—something Razz noted both came with the pegasus tending to use her wings to scratch themselves somewhat irregularly. It was curious; Razz had noticed Corner’s apparent behavioral “tic” during her game that morning against that asshole Bumper Thumper, but here she seemed to be doing it so much that it could have been passed off as fidgeting. Maybe she was fidgeting, even? “Look, that captain of the guard Princess Twilight has scares the crap out of me, okay?”

“Oh, Div’s not that bad,” Razz told her. Of course, she’d had some time to adjust to the stallion and mentally disambiguate the gallant guardspony from the diabolical human of the same name, but Corner didn’t need to know that. “I mean, sure, he can get goofy around Twi due to the fact that he’s clearly crushing on her, but aside from that, he’s a gentlestallion, why?”

An awkward look came over Corner’s face. “I...uh...knew a guy like him back home. Constant creeper, always trying to see if he could ask mares out on a date to the point where he became annoying. Look, it’s nothing personal against the Captain, but they just look alike and so it dredges up bad memories. Really.”

“No problem. In any case, the Captain of the Guard himself, Prince Shining Armor will be here as well––”

“That’s even worse!” When Razz gave Corner a puzzled look, the pegasus explained. “He’s fearsome! Didn’t he take on Chrysalis and Sombra? He’s probably, like, a beast or something!”

“Seriously? You know he cries—sorry, I mean, ‘sheds liquid pride’ like a fountain at weddings, right?” Razz chuckled. “Yeah, he’s pretty much terrifying as all get out if you have to fight him, but really he’s just a big softie. And also kind of a nerd: I saw him on the cover of Ochre a few months back when a guest at the Retreat left it lying around—that’s the magazine for ponies who are really into Oubliettes and Obelisks or whatever it’s called.” Razz then changed to a more concerned tone as Corner shifted her wings uncomfortably again. “Are you okay? I saw you scratching your wings like that earlier, but here it’s like Pinkie Pie bathed them in that damn itchy powder of hers.”

“Oh, the itching?” Shot seemed to strangely perk up at the subject change—probably because it didn’t involve the prince who currently was inside his little sister’s castle off to the left of them. “Well, obviously pegasi aren’t really built for using their wings as much as I do, in the ways I handle the cue. As a result, I kind of have a near-chronic rash due to overusing them. Don’t worry, I’ve got a prescribed ointment back in my room, and truth be told I probably should be going back to put some on if I’m itching this much. Plus, I’ll probably have to let my wings relax, which means I’ll likely be bedbound and making a late-night dinner run at Burger Princess or something. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“Alright, I’ll let you worm your way out of this one,” said Razz, “but don’t think I’m letting you off the hook so easily next time.”

“Hey, you’re gonna be around to catch my match against Golden Break tomorrow, right?”

“Of course!”

“Awesome! Catch you later, then!” At that, Corner Shot lifted herself into the air and flew off in the direction of the Retreat. Her height seemed a bit low compared to what Razz usually saw pegasi around town cruise at, but she just figured it was to take the strain off her wings—even though it wasn’t much of a comparison, having her own limb that required regular applications of ointment to keep functionally not-annoying allowed Razz to know something along the lines of what Corner must have been feeling. Still, something was gnawing at the back of Razz’s mind about Shot, about the itching. She couldn’t put a hoof on it though…

“I thought your date was going to join us for dinner?” asked Cadence, who had emerged from the side of Razz’s view.

“Oh, she needed to get back to the Retreat,” Razz explained as she ignored her friend’s attempt at teasing. “Turns out she needed to put some ointment on her wings—something about the way she uses her wings causes an itch.”

“Ah, well, can’t fault her for–”

And she said your hubby terrifies her,” added Razz with an impish grin. “Div as well.”

“Good thing you started with the real reason she had to leave,” laughed Cadence as she escorted the smaller princess into the castle, “because why would somepony like me marry anypony who was normally terrifying? And I refuse to believe that part about Div—I remember when he was just a colt that carried around his security blanket!”

“Cadance, I thought you promised you would never bring that up!” a voice behind her shouted.

For Sunset and the triplets, they all immediately froze—that voice was all too familiar to them.

“Was that who I think it was?” asked Sonata, her face clearly showing concern.

“It better not have been,” growled Aria, already having pulled out the loaned crossbow.

“Hey!” said Twilight, “no weapons at the table!”

“But your highness!” said Adagio, “We all could be in grave danger! That was Divine Right we just heard!”

“Okay, I think we’re all missing some kind of context here,” said Divine Right, returning to the table.

“Uh, yeah,” said Razz, hastily jumping in. She had to defuse the situation lest ponies who didn’t need to know about the human Divine Right in Tartarus. “Look, there was some really bad stuff that went down with the human world and the individual responsible for all of it? He happened to sound just like you.”

“Wait, seriously?” the noble guard asked. “Is that why some of you are acting so weirdly around me?”

“Uh, yeah, more or less,” said Twilight—Divine didn’t need to know that it was because he looked exactly like the other Divine Right that had tried to take over the human world and nearly unleashed a demon in the process.

Soon, all of the ponies were seated around the castle’s dining room table, and before long they were digging into the braised tofu with potatoes au gratin, grilled brussels sprouts and a tomato consommé, courtesy of Spike.

“Oh, I have one quick bit of business I wanted to get out of the way before we get too into our meal,” Cadance said after swallowing her first bite. “Something that you in particular might want to know, Razz.”

Razz continued chewing her own food, but leaned forward to indicate she was listening, and Cadance proceeded. “After reading your report on the incident in Nightshade, I had a few of my agents do a follow up investigation on this ‘Mandible’ changeling that you encountered.”

“Right, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of her,” Razz said between bites. “Find anything good?”

“Not much beyond what you’d expect. It’s no surprise that running intel against changelings is incredibly difficult.” Cadance took another bite, likely to give her time to consider how best to explain things. “We did learn that Mandible isn’t the only one of her kind: Apparently lots of rogue changeling queens have been springing up ever since their attempt to ruin my wedding failed.” Cadance gave a smile that seemed intended to be jovial, but there was a hint of almost ruthless satisfaction to it. “It would appear that Queen Chrysalis’ defeat at our hooves has seriously shaken her hive’s confidence in her as a leader.”

“Well, if she’s had her hooves full dealing with these potential usurpers, I suppose that would explain why we haven’t heard anything from her,” Twilight chimed in.

“That’s possible, but I don’t want us to let our guard down in case she is planning something.”

Razz nodded in agreement before electing to change the subject. It was clear that talk of changelings was understandably putting Cadance in a foul mood. “Well, I’m sure you have the situation well in hoof, Cadance.” A thought occurred to Raspberry then, and turning to Sunset, she asked, “Hey, just curious: you have anyone like Chrysalis on Earth?”

“Yeah, actually, we do,” Sunset replied. “After you told me all about what happened at the wedding here, I looked into it and after some help from a friend that’s good at that sort of thing – better than I am, anyway – and we found there’s a Chrysalis in jail somewhere in Illinois. Serving 10—25 for larceny and grand theft. The Chicago Tribune talked about the thief group she led—all con artists and masters of disguise, kinda like the changelings, I guess. So I guess that’s her.” Sunset thought about it for a bit. “But, as Razz and Twi know already, not everything on Earth is a one-to-one match with Equestria and Equus. For example, we’ve finally met Razz’s counterpart.”

“You did?” Razz asked.

“Yeah, she’s neurotic and traumatized as hell,” Adagio commented, “but at least she’s not as much of a––”

“Sis, knock it off!” Aria and Sonata said simultaneously.

“Did I miss something?” Twilight asked.

Sunset grumbled. “Yeah. For some reason, Dagi and Razz don’t get along. Don’t ask me to explain, save that was one of the reasons I wanted to leave them behind. Unfortunately, they insisted; plus, Ari and Soni adore Razz.”

“Why, I will never know,” Adagio sighed. “In any case, Ribby isn’t the bitch here and she’s got some serious issues that we’re trying to help her with. She’s younger, so maybe she can learn how to be normal...unlike some––”

Divine leapt to his feet. “Capt. Dazzle, I would appreciate it if you didn’t impugn the honor of the Archmagus in my princess’ presence. She is a hero of the land and Equestria looks up to her. If you continue to insult her, you and I will have words.”

“Great, so you’re an asshole too?”

“Dagi, enough,” Sunset warned. “You know you’re already in hot water with my mother because of that.”

“That’s hitting below the belt, isn’t it?”

“If that’s what it takes to get you to behave, so be it.”

The reaction in the room was expected: utter confusion. Only Spike, who kept muttering, “I shoulda been a human,” was the difference in thoughts.

“So, changing gears a bit,” said Razz, “I take it Prince Armor’s presence has helped settle things between the overprotective cousins and their other cousin of two realities?”

"Something like that: I mean, I talked to them, guardspony to...uh, guardshumans?" Shining began.

"Sailors, Shining," Sunset explained. "They're heavily-trained ground troops, but they're technically sailors."

"Really? Because I swear the Navy's the weak link in the chain,” Shining commented.

“That’s not a good sign,” Adagio muttered under her breath.

“Anyway, I sat them aside and explained how I've had to deal with my duties in the past as opposed to what I do now and the fact that even though it drives me nuts that I can't always protect her, I also have to let her do what she does for a living and live our own normal lives. I'd smother her otherwise, and I hope I got the message across."

"You did, General," Adagio admitted. “Besides, I have to also admit that we don’t give her this much protection Earthside, given that she goes to a separate school than we do.”

"I’m glad to hear that I got through to you. And actually, it's just Captain. The Guard is structured slightly differently from the Army, but yeah, I'm a general officer, Adagio—though I suppose that would be flag officer to you." The teen-as-mare bristled and Shining grinned. "Can't call you captain, because aren't you supposed to be off-duty right now? Plus, between my rank and yours, all we need is somepony from the Army to show up and we'll be pulling our manes out trying to figure out who's who."

“How do you tell the difference between your rank and his?” Sonata, pointing to Divine, asked.

“Technicalities. The full title of my rank is Captain of the Guard,” Shining explained, “while Div’s full rank is Divisional Captain. After Divisional Captain, the next rank up is Brigade Captain, which we shorten to Brigadier; then Vice Captain of the Guard, which is just Vice Captain; and then finally my rank.”

“Hey,” interrupted Razz, who didn’t want to get into military minutiae all night, “where’s Trixie? I thought she was staying with you, Twilight?”

“Apparently, she got a part-time job as an entertainer at one of the restaurants in town,” answered the lavender alicorn. “She’ll probably still live here until she fully gets back on her feet, but with a nighttime job, our schedules are going to be different.”

“Still, given what you’ve told me about her,” said Cadence, “it’s nice that she’s rebounding somewhat, thanks to the crowds in town for the pool tournament.”

“She doesn’t sound anything like the Trixie we know back home,” said Soni, “There she’s got some real confidence problems. Totally different from her counterpart here.”

“That seems to be a rule of thumb around here,” Aria noted.

Cadance then glanced over to Razz with a mischievous gleam in her eye. “And getting back on topic, I do believe you’ve made a pool fan out of Sunset, no?”

“In a way, I guess,” shrugged Razz. “Though she did say she wanted to come with me to watch Corner’s next game, so…”

“Well, I’m certainly impressed with the shots. Plus that way when I get home I figure I can mess a little with Dad and Cady, if only to get them both off the Minnesota Fats kick,” Sunset commented, while the triplets merely nodded in agreement.

“Well, if it’s alright with you, Twily,” said Cadence, “I’d like to ask Razz to make a pool table out of crystal to add to your home here.”

“That sounds like a great idea!” chirped Twilight.

“Sure, might as well flex those proverbial muscles—haven’t made anything out of crystal in a while, truth be told.”

“Then how about tomorrow, while Shiny and I are taking the triplets around town—try and teach them not to be ‘on the clock’ all the time—you make a pool table so I can teach everypony how to knock some billiards around. Maybe you could even invite your friend Corner Shot to teach us a few tricks as well?”

“Sure, sounds good!”

“Great,” Sunset sighed. “As if I don’t have enough things in stereo in my life.” When everypony asked, the newest alicorn merely facehoofed.

That night, Razz did what she had to admit had become a macabre tradition for her as of late: reading the next chapter of The Rose with the Broken Neck.

DAY 125:

I believe the pandas of Cathay have an old curse, which they state as such: “May you live in interesting times.” Right now, I certainly believe I do. We are on the brink of war, and the alicorns have shown their true colors. They intend to take my empire. And I will not allow that. Worse still, I may have potential sedition within my own ranks.

Sable and his pack found a centuria of Equestrian guards that had been patrolling around the perimeter of what they claimed was the border. However, a troop of my own forces were there, correctly pointing out that the Equestrians had already crossed the border several miles back – and that this was no “minor error”, as the border in question was a river.

Nonetheless, their coronet argued, and Sable, impatient as always, decided to deal with it. Of that, I have no quarrel. No, my problem became when he then turned on our own troops. Sable reported that he faulted our soldiers for “not dealing with the situation postehaste”. Lt. Cutting Edge was one of my finest junior officers and while lower-ranked troops are a bit a dozen, finding capable officers is a more…challenging issue. Not only because of the need of intelligence, but because there are nobles that need to be assured that their sons and daughters are given choice assignments. Issues such as this only makes it that much harder.

Furthermore, I grow weary – and wary – of Sable and his werewolves. It was already enough that I used that information I took from human legends to mold his forces into something suitably vicious, but I have to wonder if in the long run if I may have created another problem I will have to deal with. His pack seems more wolf than pony now, feral and bestial on a level that outright unnerves many of my loyal troops. At one time, that was an asset. Now? I am no longer sure.

Regardless, if it comes to blows, I will deal with it, if and when it comes time. All part of the grand plan, I suppose.

However, I do have some excellent news on this otherwise dreary day: my grand mage, Dr. Mangle-leg, tells me that her research projects are going apace, and have made outstanding progress. The first one is based on the armor my agents were able to study in the Everfree Armory. She tells me that she will be able to replicate the magic within Queen Faust’s old armor and create something suitable for my station, protection that will give me an edge against her mewling brats who fancy themselves queens in their own right. When I inevitably face them on the field, this new armament will render me even more superior than I already am.

Mangle-leg also tells me that the latest preservation spell on the cadaver of the changeling queen has failed and that she has had to cast another round. There is something inimical within the queen’s body that is withstanding our attempts to study her, as if she defies us from even beyond the Great Pasture. Perhaps she is not even truly dead, despite her extensive fatal wounds, cracked shell and torn mane. Mayhaps she is still within her seemingly-deceased body, in hibernation and subconsciously sending out defensive measures until she heals and awakes once more.

The very thought of that gives me both a shiver of glee and chills down my spine at the same time. If I could obtain her power, I would be an unstoppable force upon this blighted world. But if she still lies alive, awaiting her chance to strike…the Sisters would be the least of my problems. Still, there is no problem that does not have a solution, and I intend to find it, no matter the cost or time.

Which, of course, brings me to my biggest problem of all: my pet, the so-called Broken Rose. She is no longer broken, but instead becoming a rose in full blossom, replete with thorns. It is clear, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is magic within her, a magic that fool Baldassare never noticed, as he was too wrapped up in the smallest of sparks within him. If he had only realized that compared to him, his wife is a veritable inferno, a blazing pyre compared to his mere candlewick.

She grows stronger each day and I have yet to discern the puzzle that she is. Given time, I certainly will. No mere trinket can stand before my might for long.

“Hrrrmmm…” grumbled Corner the next morning, finding that the next match was surprisingly difficult for her, at least in comparison to the previous day where she’d essentially wiped the floor with Bumper’s poor playing. But today, her opponent Golden Break was living up to his name as he’d already won the first round handily and now she was trailing. She didn’t like trailing points, plus it especially wasn’t good that she still felt a little off her game today.

It also didn’t help that Sunset Shimmer was sitting “quietly” off to the side, munching on a ridiculously large bucket of butter-oil coated popcorn. Damn magic ponies and their ability to burn cholesterol for magic, internally whined Corner before she slammed the cue ball with her cue. The white orb bounced off the opposite side of the table, arcing in trajectory to land a divebomb on the solid 2 ball, knocking it into the pocket, while on the rebound the cue ball knocked back the striped 13 ball in the opposite direction and safely away from any convenient pockets.

Sunset, who had been sure there was no way for Corner to get her ball in without also pocketing Golden Break’s at the same time, sat frozen in her seat with a large hoofful of popcorn suspended in a cyan glow. She didn’t react when the cyan magic suddenly was overpowered by a pitch black aura and about half of the popcorn detached from the buttery glob on a trajectory into a different pony’s mouth.

“Good thing I didn’t bring Heelee today,” mused Razz in a hushed tone—careful not to interrupt the pool match—as she sat down next to Sunset. “The last thing he needs is flying pool balls hitting him in the air.”

“You get what you needed?” asked Sunny, not taking her eyes off of the green battlefield before her as Golden Break scowled—evidently the tables might have started to turn against him now.

“Yeah,” replied Razz, pulling out a rolled up, large piece of paper from her saddlebags and opened it up with her telekinesis for Sunny. “Table Rack was more than happy to lend me a set of pool table blueprints for the day along with a full set of balls for me to recreate later.”

“Twice over, I’ll bet. Cadence probably is going to want an identical pool set to take with her when she goes back to the Crystal Empire.”

“Somehow, I got that impression,” chuckled the dark unicorn as she tucked the blueprints away and focused back on the game. While she’d been off talking to the tournament’s venue host, evidently Corner had already lost the first two games while managing to beat Golden Break in the third round. As the winning condition determined the victor by who won seven matches first, it was not a good position for Corner to be trailing so early. The green pegasus seemed to be visually indicating as such as her wings were beginning to periodically scratch themselves more than usual, much as they had last night.

“I gotta ask Corner how she does all that stuff with her wings,” mentioned Sunset, who had since gone back to stuffing her muzzle with popcorn, enraptured by a sport being taken to a level humans generally didn’t bother exploring.

“Why? I do recall mentioning that being so ambidextrous with her wings gives her some kind of rash—she had to miss dinner with us last night specifically because she needed to put on some ointment or lotion or whatever.”

“Yeah, but frankly the way she uses them is a bit similar to hands. Things I’ve kind of gotten accustomed to using, for obvious reasons.” As if to emphasize her point, Sunny held up one of her forehooves—had she been in human form, the hoof would have been replaced with a soft, flat palm with four long digits sticking out of the top and one slightly offset digit on the side. “Plus, look at how she’s scratching—it’s almost like she’s counting her individual feathers. Probably makes preening super easy.” The young alicorn shuddered. “It was bad enough having to learn how to clip toenails as a human, but not even having wings most of the time isn’t going to save me from having to periodically yank out feathers with my mouth.”

“Hey, do it enough times and you can save a fortune on new pillows by replacing it with your own down, right?” joked Razz, who secretly envied that exact fact about Sunset. Being her own personal pillow factory would seem like nothing but a useless gimmick to just about anypony, but Razz saw value in such an idea—given that her own unusual physical accessory occasionally decided to ruin pillows in the middle of the night by impaling them. And pillows weren’t cheap at the rate of a new one every two months at best.

Maybe I should ask Dad to lend me some of his feathers? wondered Razz thoughtfully—her adoptive father Ascot was a pegasus himself, after all—and as Razz watched Corner’s nervous wings count feathers as the match slowly dragged on, the idea retained merit.

But then Razz’s feelings about something being off about Corner kicked in around the halfway point, where Corner had evened the odds and the match stood at each contestant having won four, hard-fought rounds to their name. Having barely pulled through the eighth round to victory, Shot’s wings were practically miniature clones of Pinkie Pie in not being able to stand still at that point.

“Jeez, Corner, never known you to be this flighty,” jested Break, who over the course of the match had at least proven to be far more humble and respectable an individual than Shot’s previous opponent. “You keep it up and all your feathers are gonna fall out!”

“Enh,” shrugged Corner as she took the jab in stride, “it’ll make preening a lot easier, if nothing else.”

“See?” whispered Sunset, “I told you that was a benefit!”

But Razz didn’t hear her identical profile look-a-like, instead she’d been focusing on Corner’s wings. Specifically how they almost seemed to be cycling through what she could only guess was a set of three, well-practiced patterns. Every third time her wings sprung up to “scratch” they apparently seemed to hone in on the same feathers each time. Maybe she is counting her feathers, thought Razz, but that idea didn’t hold any ground—Corner had been doing this for maybe all her professional career, by the pool shark’s own admission, no way she could be in her late twenties and still be worrying about feathers that would have molted off naturally years ago. Or, perhaps it wasn’t so much the feathers as it was simply the rote memorization of the coping mechanism, to combat extreme nervousness. Razz knew from countless misadventures in her past she’d only made it through because of the reassuring grip Heliodor’s talons applied on her horn which helped calm her.

But then…why did she start getting itchy wings like this when she learned she might end up at the same table as Prince Shining and Divine? As if on cue, her own words from the previous night’s dinner on that subject came back to her:

“Yeah, he’s pretty much terrifying as all get out…if you have to fight him…”

She was certain that her conclusion couldn’t possibly have been correct, but the idea that maybe Corner didn’t want to be around Shining because if there was a reason she’d be at the wrong end of either stallion’s wrath…well, Razz wasn’t one to say hiding massive secrets of that caliber was never a good idea. She’d lived virtually a decade selling gem forgeries at prices nopony would look more into and skipped virtually every town she’d ever gone to during that time—Ponyville being the last and only on a technicality. But I had to do what I did because not keeping my secrets hidden from anypony would certainly ensure my death, thought the worried unicorn, and before the trial where he even served as my defense lawyer, I would have been scared shitless to be in the presence of Shining Armor—the guy outright faced my infamous ancestor head-on and lived. And while she hadn’t faced off against Divine Right, if he was anything like his diabolical counterpart, he was probably no slouch in the fighting department either.

As for the topic of secrets, Razz only had to glance at the seat next to her for probably the best example. The daughter of Celestia herself, who had committed pretty much the ultimate act of lese majeste, all now swept away by a set of lies the Crown told. And that secret hid another one: that Sunset’s life, as she’d told Razz, hadn’t always been sunshine and daffodils. That she’d lived in crushing poverty and near-homelessness during her “extended tantrum”. That even when she gained the family life she had so desired, she lived in fear that they would find their secret: that she wasn’t even human. And that all came crashing down when her “long-lost twin sister” came to town.

Razz understood that secrets were problematic, to say the least, but even Applejack had an understanding of why some ponies held them.

We all have our dangerous secrets, continued Razz in her head, glancing back over to Corner Shot making the break shot for the ninth round. I just hope yours don’t come with foul intent, either, Corner.

“Oh, Coco!” called up Rarity. “There’s an interesting delivery for you!”

“F-for me?” stammered-slash-hollered back the earth mare, quickly descending the steps to the ground floor. Having been put in charge of filling the order for costumes by the Four Footed PerFormers, Coco had been forced to utilize Rarity’s secondary sewing machine up in her bedroom while the fashionista herself used the larger one downstairs to finish the last remaining dress orders in time for the grand championship pool match. “Who’s it from?”

“Oh, just the guard,” whimsically replied Rarity as she stepped out of the way. Coco, in turn, was overjoyed to find it was her luggage from the Seabiscuit Arno finally having returned to her.

“Fortunately,” continued Rarity, “it appears none of your things were damaged in the airship’s crash so really the delay in returning them was nothing more than simply processing time…or so the guard who dropped these off claimed was the case. He also said there’s a ฿2000 check from the shipping company to make up for your ‘trying times’.”

“I’m just glad to have my things back!” chirped Coco, who eagerly moved toward her belongings. Only then she found Rarity’s foreleg stretched out and blocking her path.

“Please, darling, allow me.” While courteous, the alabaster unicorn’s tone brokered no argument. “Of course, I’d simply have Spike take your things if he were around but, alas, he’s not, so I’ll just shoulder this light burden myself.” Coco’s luggage immediately levitated into the air, coated in a blue magical hue, and followed the unicorn up the stairs, and Coco following her luggage in turn. In no time at all Rarity had deposited her assistant’s things in the guest bedroom without any fuss. “There we are, right as rain!”

“Gee, thanks Miss Rarity!” gushed Coco. The urge to glomp the older mare was hard to resist.

“Think nothing of it, I would be remiss to be a hostess who didn’t provide suitable hospitality, no?” Rarity lightly chuckled. “Now, how are you doing with those costumes?”

“Oh! Uh, most of them are done, I only need to finish one or two of them and—"

“Ah, ah, ah!” tut-tutted Rarity. “I only have a hoofful of dresses to go myself, so how about I just take those last costumes of yours onto my workload, while you take your time and get yourself further settled here now that all your possessions are returned. Later, if you’d be so kind, you can be the one who delivers the costumes over to the Retreat, as I have dinner plans this evening with my family.”

“Will do! Thanks!”

With a curt nod, Rarity turned and walked off to go finish what little work remained, leaving Coco free to spend time making herself more comfortable in the boutique’s living quarters. For Coco, she couldn’t have been happier…until she got close to the end of sorting away her things and found, near the bottom of one steamer trunk, a letter addressed to her, likely the check in question. However, unlike usual business correspondence, it was sealed with a wax stamp and bore no return address. Curious, she took it in her hooves to open it to see what was inside. She immediately regretted it as the stationary gave away who had sent it long before she needed to look at the typewritten note:

Coco didn’t know how long she’d stood there in shock before hearing Rarity’s voice call up again.

“Coco, darling? Can you come down for a moment, if it’s not too much trouble to ask?”

“U-uh, yeah! One moment!” The nervous pony quickly stuffed the letter back into the envelope, then the envelope into her toiletries bag—not the most covert place, but in a pinch it would have to do. After hiding the toiletries bag under the sink in the guest bathroom, she hurriedly made her way downstairs. “You needed me, Miss Rarity?”

“Ah, yes, I trust you can spare a moment?”

“Of course!”

“Marvelous. Raspberry Beryl was just here—teleported, of course—and asked if she could use my help in finding a suitable felt for making some kind of pool table for Twilight, though heaven knows why as I never thought Twilight to be much of a pool player. Alas, I’ve still got things to do here first, but if it’s not too much trouble, could you go in my stead?”

“Like, just to help her find some good felt?” asked Coco.

“Yes, I will admit it seems much a trivial task for ponies like you or I, to whom fashion and fabric quality is part of our natural talents, but Razz…well, if her mother Cashmere wasn’t stretching the truth, the poor girl needs convincing to take a simple comforter on trips.”

“Sure, I can do it, no problem!”

“Oh, yes, one more thing,” Rarity added, “before she had to teleport back to the pool hall, she said she’d probably be bringing along her friend Corner Shot—evidently one of the hot shot pool sharks in the tournament. I trust that shouldn’t be a problem, but I wanted to give you a heads up.”

“Ah...um, ok, that shouldn’t be a problem,” answered Coco, though her confidence in tone did not match the sinking feeling in her stomach of having to deal with that pony again. “Honestly, it’s just one more pony, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine!”

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