• Published 15th Jul 2016
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Wedding March - Carabas



Upon arriving at the royal wedding in Canterlot, all the foreign delegates have to do is show face, wish the happy new couple well, and try not to die.

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Be Sure to Arrive in Good Time, so You Miss None of the Excitement

Burro could swear afterwards that he’d tried to keep his promise to Damasque and get some work done. He’d tried. But when his whole world had been reduced to a juddering, cramped, and sweltering hole that stank of engine grease and raw metal, it was hard to give next week’s Parliamentary Address the attention it deserved. He’d given up two hours in when he’d only produced half a page of text and half a page of vague doodling. Thankfully, some thoughtful aeroengineer had seen that the craft was furnished with a stack of light fiction, each tome thicker and more gratifyingly trashy than the last, and so he’d let himself be happily absorbed. All the while, the pilot jenny kept the Cloud-Kisser on course.

“Canterlot’s in sight, Arch-Minister!”

The call came from the pilot, several hours into the ornithopter’s flight. He turned to where the door to the pilot’s cabin sat at the end of the noisy, shuddering main cabin, past where his two guards, Berry and Asinara, sat braiding each other’s manes. “Come see!”

Burro groaned with relief, put the book to one side, rose from his cushion pile, and made his way past the curious guards through to the pilot’s cramped cabin. Over the pilot’s wither and past a window smeared with whorls of engine grease, he saw the familiar shape and high spires of the white mountain-city.

It was different from the last time he’d seen it. It was actually on its mountain, for one thing, rather than wandering around the landscape and grumbling. And for another, a great spherical shield of magical force shimmered around it entirely. Burro whistled as he took in the vast scale of the barrier.

“That’s not a half-haunched piece of work,” he said admiringly. “One of the princesses must have built that. Or some powerful unicorn. Or lots of powerful unicorns, even. Damned curious. Celestia did mention in her letters that some manner of heightened security would be in play, but I wasn’t expecting something on this scale. I’ve never known her to be so … well, security-conscious in the past.”

“Fair play to her, Arch-Minister,” said the pilot, keeping up both the conversation and the craft, pushing down on its control wheel to send the craft veering down on a slight incline. “Means I’ll probably have to land this outside the city proper, but I’m sure they’ll have accounted for that. Not unless you want me to just land right on top of it, of course.”

“Hah.” Burro looked straight ahead at the barrier. What sort of danger was Celestia expecting that this sort of barrier had been raised? An incoming wyld storm? All-out invasion? What was the old alicorn keeping under her crown this time, and why wasn’t she telling anyone else about it?

And amidst that storm of questions, it dawned on him that a worryingly thoughtful silence emanated from the pilot.

“I mean, I could land right on top of it, Arch-Minister.”

“What?”

“Ms Amiatina did want to see more of how it handled landing in authentic conditions and on uneven surfaces, and I could get her a report on that here.”

It was a poor sort of patriotism that lacked a counterweight of loathing for the national character on occasion, and Burro felt his patriotism wanted for nothing in that regard. “My dear … what was your name?”

“Pollina, Arch-Minister! Ooh, I bet if I angled it low on the descent —”

“Ms Pollina, kindly don’t try to land atop the barrier.”

“It’s okay, Arch-Minister, I’m good at not dying in these situations, and maybe that’ll rub off on you. Ha, you don’t live to fly every version of this thing without getting very good at that!”

Once upon a time, there had been kings in Asinia rather than elected Arch-Ministers, and although there was no danger of them coming back any time soon (Burro thought with some prideful and nostalgic relish), any head wearing a crown probably wouldn’t have faced this sort of thing.

“Ms Pollina ...”

“Is it a diplomatic thing you’re worried about, Arch-Minister? Come on, the Equestrians are our allies. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we just accidentally skiffed it a little —”

Pollina.”

A heavy and metallic thunk sounded then from atop the craft, shutting up both Burro and Pollina. There was the tread of what sounded like hoofsteps from the roof, and both donkeys craned their heads up to track them as they made their way towards the front of the craft.

The hoofsteps stopped, and three knocks rang against the roof. Immediately after, a head descended into view past the pilot’s window. A gold-armoured, strapping, and upside-down pegasus stallion peered into the craft, his helmet’s plume and outspread wing-feathers fluttering in the high breeze.

Burro paused. Mid-air receptions weren’t something he’d ever really conducted, the Discord Incident aside. Pollina scarcely blinked and threw off a jaunty salute. “Wotcher.”

“Good day!” said the pegasus stallion, his voice somewhat muffled by the glass and the roar of the wind. “Do I address the Arch-Minister of the Asinial Republic?”

“Yes,” broke in Burro before Pollina had the chance to conduct diplomacy on his behalf. “May I know who we address? From this, ah, interesting position.”

“Sir Stratus of her Solar Majesty’s Dayguard, Arch-Minister,” replied the stallion with what would have probably been a respectful nod of the head had it been delivered the right way up. “A landing ground has been prepared for you and your craft outside the city, in light of current security measures. If you could follow me?”

Burro smiled and stepped back from the window. “Thank you, Sir Stratus. Do lead on.” As the pegasus leapt off the ornithopter and started flying towards some distant point on the ground below Canterlot, Burro patted Pollina’s wither. “It’d be churlish to turn down a sensible landing zone so generously provided.”

Pollina made a disgruntled noise in the base of her throat as she watched Stratus fly ahead. “Being a pegasus is cheating,” the jenny muttered, even as she dutifully angled the craft to follow Stratus. Burro ambled back into the main cabin, where the two neatly-braided guards had taken up positions by the cabin door. One of them, Asinara, bore a suspicious expression and had a forehoof hovering by the crossbow holster inside her dark jacket. The other, Berry, looked faintly disappointed as she watched Stratus flying ahead, as if her hopes for a thrilling aerial battle had been thwarted by the pegasus’ entirely sensible reason for being there.

Burro couldn’t share the sentiment, but Berry at least got her own pat on the wither as he passed by. “Don’t fret,” he said. “Next time it’ll be a hostile dragon, or a flock of mantaghasts, or sky pirates, or something similarly fun and lethal.”

He watched from the safety of a porthole as the Cloud-Kisser swept down towards the mountain. A path spiralled up around its height, widening into broad terraces of greenery at regular intervals. One lay level with the city itself, and after a few short minutes of ungainly hovering and shouted encouragement from Stratus, the ornithopter flapped its way down to a landing with hardly anything falling off.

Burro groaned with relief and cracked his joints as Asinara and Berry trotted towards a hatch at the back of the craft. One tug of a lever angled the hatch’s door down towards the ground, and another tug sent a succession of metal plates sliding out from the door’s innards to form a gangplank. Fresh air flooded into the cabin, and Burro savoured every particle of it. He stopped only to scoop up a toaster-sized parcel, shrugged it over his back by its long ribbon with some care, and stepped out into the daylight.

Out from the ornithopter, a stone pathway ran on, bridging a babbling river. The pink hue of the shield rose up from the ground a few feet after that, and behind it, Burro saw several lance-armed guards standing ready. Stratus gestured onwards, and Burro followed his lead, Asinara and Berry falling into lockstep behind him.

“Impressive security measures,” Burro remarked as they trotted over the bridge. “Are they usual for this sort of thing?”

“Couldn’t say, Arch-Minister. This is the first royal wedding since … at least the Pre-Princess Era. Gosh.” The stallion recovered momentarily from accidentally awing himself. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna did request it for the occasion, though, and Captain Shining Armour’s practically been putting in triple shifts to keep things locktight.”

“He’s the groom, correct?”

“Yes, Arch-Minister. He’ll have earned a nice, long, restful honeymoon after today’s done and dusted, if you’ll pardon the frankness. This shield’s all his work; he’s been sustaining it for days.”

“My word.” Burro looked up at the shield with renewed admiration. “Some stallion. And he’s landed some partner in a princess of Equestria.”

“That he is and has, Arch-Minister.” Stratus’s tone dropped to more conspiratorial levels. “Caught a little wedding nerves, Princess Cadance. Bit more … standoffish and stressed than she normally is. Please don’t be fooled if you bump into her before the ceremony, Arch-Minister, she’s a gem every other time.”

“Consider me duly advised,” said Burro. The old jack had never gotten round to marriage, life having thrown too many other fun distractions in the way of what spare time he got, but he’d seen acquaintances and heard stories, and knew the best thing for either partner as the happy day drew close was to offer a helping pair of hooves and/or hard liquor, whichever would be more appreciated in that moment.

They passed through the shield at a slow and measured pace, the pink aura letting them off with a pleasantly tingly full-body shiver as it swept through their forms. On the other side, the other guards levelled their lances and subjected Burro and the jennies to hard stares.

“For star’s sake, they’re fine. Just like everypony else who’s gone through,” said Stratus with much-strained patience. “Stop waving those around. You’ve got your invitation, Arch-Minister?”

Burro conjured it from a coat pocket. “By some tragic error of judgement on the couple’s part, I do indeed.”

“There? See? Lances away.”

Most complied. One stallion looked reluctant. “Might be an imposter who’s pinched the invitation, sir. I mean, anything could happen on one of these weird flying machines mid-flight. Suppose somebody else flew up even higher, right, and then flew down —”

“Look, if he’s an hostile imposter from Capra or Corva or wherever who overthrows all we love and hold dear and leaves the city a smouldering crater, then I’ll apologise personally to the princesses. Until then, let’s charitably assume the invitation he’s got grants him entry.” The chastened guard leaned his lance back up against his wither, and Stratus turned to Burro. “Apologies for that, Arch-Minister. Some of them are new and keen, and wedding nerves have gotten to us all a bit.”

“No harm done. Do lead on to the palace,” said Burro as they trotted clear of the checkpoint and onto the broad, winding streets of Canterlot itself. “First, though … Asinara? Berry?”

“Yes, Arch-Minister?” said Asinara, the more senior of the two.

“Take the day off. It’s a lovely one, and you can find better things to do with it than guarding some old jack who’ll be under the very nose of the alicorns. Fetch the pilot and bring her along with you, be back at the ornithopter by, say, seven, and if I’m not there by then, assume the evening and night and wee hours of the morning are yours as well. Bill the Diplomatic Office if the occasion ends up being extravagant. Damasque will blame me rather than you, and I’m used to her correctly blaming me for things.”

Berry brightened. Asinara frowned. “Arch-Minister, this is foreign soil. We’re charged with the safety of your person, and if you’re out of our sight —”

“It may be foreign soil, but it’s Equestrian soil. I’m as safe here as in my own bedroom … possibly even safer. Under the noses of the alicorns themselves, as I said, and at an event made so secure you could use it as bedrock.” Asinara still looked unconvinced, and Burro offered up his most genial smile. “Look at it this way. Either the Princesses won’t wish me ill, in which case nothing short of Discord’s return could hurt me here. Or if they do wish me ill … well, be honest, my dear, could you fight an alicorn?”

“In this hypothetical, sir, how much time and how many armies do I have?”

“Just so.” Burro patted her wither. “Go on. I’m serious. Appreciate some culture. Appreciate some drinks. Appreciate some cultured drinks. Show the pony crème de la crème how a donkey plays cards and leave them wondering where their family fortunes went. The city’s your oyster. While you enjoy yourself, I’ll rub withers with other dusty statesbeings and make tedious conversation at the reception.”

Asinara reluctantly let herself be tugged away by an excited Berry, but as she went, she called out after Burro, “That last sentence sounded distinctly like a falsehood, Arch-Minister!”

“Oh yes,” said Burro happily as he turned to follow Stratus. “The very best sort.”


Fifteen minutes of brisk trotting later, by which time the weight of the toaster was making itself decidedly known, Burro ascended to Canterlot’s palace complex. The guard presence had diminished as they’d made their way up through the bustling civilian levels of the city, but back here you couldn’t swing a cat without it bouncing off somepony’s barding. Ranks of unicorns and earth ponies manned the gateways and paced along white battlements, and pegasus squadrons circled the countless rising towers. Elements from both companies of the Royal Guard, Celestia’s Dayguard and Luna’s Nightguard, were on display.

Burro’s invitation got more hard scrutiny, but eventually he was let through. “Along the pathway, Arch-Minister,” Stratus said, gesturing with a forehoof. “All guests are currently being received on the green before the Crystal Hall before the wedding commences. Princess Celestia herself has matters in hoof there. Enjoy the day.”

“Thank you, Sir Stratus. I shall.” Burro watched the pegasus fly off and breathed out, for once a free jack sans any escort at all. He turned towards the winding path, adjusted his bicorne, and set out. As much spring as his joints permitted entered his step.

Past several other imposing marble structures all interconnected by bridges and snaking towers, he came upon the promised expanse of green. Behind it, the wide, imposing, and indubitably sparkly shape of the Crystal Hall. And upon it, the wedding gathering.

Dozens of ponies, extending maybe into the low hundreds, mingled and bustled and chattered across its expanse. A few long tables cut across it, as yet empty before the reception proper, and another table heaped with what looked like wrapped gifts sat against one wall of the Crystal Hall. What looked like a rumpled pavilion sat at the centre of the green, with ponies curiously giving it a wide berth. A few harassed-looking staff in white and gold uniforms made the rounds with trays of glasses and canapés, just enough to keep the guests from resorting to cannibalism before the ceremony.

For a moment, Burro hung back, drinking it all in. Then he trotted forwards in a stately and unhurried manner, passing through the crowd’s border and nodding benignly at whoever he passed by. His gaze turned here and there, quite casually. And inside, his Cunning flared like a bonfire.

This was a new place. It was large. Its dynamics needed attention. Burro didn’t use his Cunning much these days for anything beyond especially hectic sessions of Parliament … but this occasion warranted an exception. He let it loose.

It wasn’t one of the more dramatic magical gifts, donkey Cunning, but it earned its capital letter. Some called it unconscious genius, others called it being natural smart-alecks, and others called it things unrepeatable in polite company. Whatever you called it, it was a knack for understanding systems and how they worked, for building up a gestalt picture from scraps of the whole. How things interconnected, the forces they exerted, how each reacted, and, if you practised at it, how you yourself might be able to nudge the whole affair towards eruption...

Most donkeys who did much with their Cunning trained it upon physical mechanisms and engineering, and built all the finely-tuned technological marvels that fluttered and steamed and ticked and occasionally exploded (competence, of course, being an entirely different beast to Cunning) around Asincittà. But there were other systems it could be attuned to, with a little effort and a lot of hard practise, and here was one for Burro’s veteran attention.

Here were groups of all the usual statesbeings you’d expect at an Equestrian state occasion, many smartly-dressed parliamentarian ponies and the odd griffon, representatives from the territories, the more well-connected businessponies, and those sporting Equestria’s vestigial noble titles, who often overlapped with the preceding groups. They mingled in their circles on what was familiar ground to them, and chatted and socialised in their own tight little webs of politics and alliances and friendships that they’d brought along to the occasion. Burro knew some of their names. Some of them he’d received as guests in his own official capacity on several occasions. Some of them had raided his Parliament’s drinks cabinet.

And there was a different and broader group, almost entirely ponies, who’d dressed as well as they could on incomes that, by and large, couldn’t buy out the average city. Family and friends and close colleagues of the groom — and none that he could pick up on for the bride, not yet on the little information they had. Two unicorns at one side practically radiated ‘proud parents’. They were chatting away to a couple of earth pony mares Burro felt might be wielders of the Elements of Harmony, who he’d yet to meet in person but had heard much about. He’d have to introduce himself to them tonight. These closer, personal guests mostly kept to their own circles, but some from the well-connected clusters would occasionally intercept a stray member and engage them in chit-chat. Nothing to be lost from friendliness to a family on the up-and-up, after all, and the threads in the social pattern surrounding Burro tightened and twisted ever so gradually.

His map of the place grew, gained detail. Burro wound his way ever-deeper into the mix, conversations breaking all around him as groups coalesced, split, grew, and parted here and there. A few greater figures drifted like black holes in the pattern, isolated and attention-grabbing and only occasionally engaged with by lesser guests. One was heading for Burro himself, parting the clusters before them like a warship, and Burro’s Cunning sought out the threads that connected them to everypony else —

“Excuth m’, mfter?”

— and then it fell apart like a house of cards in a breeze. Burro blinked, disoriented, and looked around for the source of the voice before he had the presence of mind to look down. A little white-coated unicorn filly looked up at him with bright green eyes, wearing a floral crown and a frilled dress and holding a basket of flowers in her mouth.

Burro quickly shook sense back into his head and then smiled down at her, smoothly covering over any discombobulation from his train of Cunning being lost. Children weren’t a demographic he’d paid much attention to since being one himself, unable as they were to either vote or donate meaningful sums, but he could kiss proffered infants with the best of them and had disarming prattle down to a fine art. “Good day, lass. Can I help?”

“C’ld y’ wch —” The filly paused, spat out the basket’s handle, and began again. “Could you watch my flowers for a second, please? I think my dress is turning inside-out.”

“Of course.” Burro rested a forehoof on the basket as the filly turned her attention to her dress, the folds of which were indeed thoroughly en-fankled. Green magic flickered around her horn as she valiantly tried to fix it. Burro thought for a moment, and then ventured, “You’re a flower-filly for the day, then?”

“Yep!” she replied, somewhat indistinctly past a ribbon.

“Important role, that. You must be proud.”

“Yep! Me and my friends didn’t even think we’d be coming, but somepony saw Princess Cadance didn’t have anypony she knew who could be a flower-filly. So we got volunteered!”

“An excellent duty to get volunteered for, no doubt about that. You must be related to —?”

“Also, Apple Bloom checked and she doesn’t think anypony’s ever gotten a cutie mark for flower-fillying before, but she reckoned there wasn’t any harm in trying! Imagine if that happened, getting our cutie marks at a royal wedding. Diamond Tiara wouldn’t have anything to say to that, I bet! Not like how she was after we tried dragon-wrangling, and that was even after we said sorry to Spike and everything.”

Burro slowly opened his mouth to ask many questions, re-assessed how far down this particular rabbit-hole it would be worth delving, and decided otherwise. “So,” he eventually tried, “you’re related to the groom, then?”

“Nope!” she replied, worrying at another ribbon. “He’s my big sister’s friend’s big brother. Or something like that. Do you know him or Cadance? Is that why you’re here?”

“No, sadly. I’m just the Arch-Minister of Asinia. You often get invited to state occasions like this when you’re one of those.”

“Oh, that sounds cool,” said the filly while conducting yet more worrying at what looked like the other end of the same ribbon. “That sounds like an important job too.”

“So I flatter myself, sometimes. How does your big sister know Shining Armour’s little—?”

“Sweetie Belle!”

A unicorn mare swept in from stage right, purple-maned and white-coated and wearing her own elaborate dress alongside an expression of mild frazzlement. “Sweetie darling, don’t bother the other guests. You have to be inside getting ready, along with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. Cadance will be done any minute now.”

“I wasn’t bothering him!” the filly, Sweetie Belle, objected to what was presumably her aforementioned older sister. “He was just telling me he’s the Arch-Minister of somewhere and he was looking after my flowers while I fixed my dre—”

“Come inside with me, Sweetie, I’ll fix it while you look after your own flowers. I’m sure the Arch-Minister’s got other guests here he needs to talk to.” The mare flashed Burro an apologetic smile. “Dreadfully sorry about this, sir, last-minute preparations are still very much underway. I do commend that naval wardrobe of yours, by the way. That vermillion waistcoat with the blue tailcoat’s wonderfully bold.”

“It was no trouble, my dear.” Burro’s eyes crinkled at the edges. “I do know a jack back home with whom you could have many, many hours of lively debate, but I shan’t keep you from your preparations. Have a lovely day.”

The mare led her protesting little sister away towards the Crystal Hall. Burro watched them leave and then snorted with amusement. “Well done, old boy,” he said to himself. “The first of many similarly continent-altering policy discussions here tonight. Keep up the clever work.”

Mind you, that had shed a little bit of light on Cadance, if there’d been no-one she could call on at all to act as a flower-filly. Some of his intelligencers and historians suspected she might be an unthawed relic from an age-old Equestrian war, and this could certainly support that interpretation.

Belay the self-depreciating wit, then. At least, not until he’d had a good think on that conversation, and after he’d had a few more quiet words with suitably knowledgeable beings ...

As the unicorn sisters vanished up the steps leading into the hall, there was the flap of broad wings and the whump of someone heavy alighting on the ground behind Burro. He braced himself for a hearty clap across the withers and an old friend’s voice, and tried to wiggle the toaster to one side in order to stop the reunion becoming explosive in the most distressingly literal of senses.

When that clap and voice didn’t immediately come, he realised who’d really landed behind him. Burro turned and looked up to meet Princess Celestia’s gaze.

The alicorn’s broad wings fell in against her side, and her mane flowed behind her like a ribbon of the dawn sky. Her magenta eyes twinkled down at Burro — she towered above him, and anybody else present for that matter. She’d dressed simply for the occasion, wearing her usual gold regalia of shoes, collar, and crown.

No proper born-and-bred Asinian would ever bow to a head that wore a crown. But if said head belonged to an old and respected ally who’d stood by the Republic for as long as it had existed, and who incidentally wielded the might of the heavens’ furnace, then it was no shame to at least doff your own headwear at them. It didn’t hurt as well that the last time he’d met Celestia in the flesh, she’d been angrily demonstrating to him and other statesbeings just what sort of might the heavens’ furnace afforded her.

Burro knew what sorts of fires smouldered beneath the gentle smile. But he put the thought of them to one side, and he courteously tipped his bicorne. “Celestia.”

“Burro.” The alicorn smiled gently. “Your invitation got through, I see. Or it didn’t, and you decided to gatecrash regardless. A pleasure to see you here, whatever the case. Is Asinia still intact?”

“Last time I checked, yes, despite my and donkeykind’s best efforts otherwise. And the pleasure’s all mine, Celestia. No effort seems to have been spared for the occasion.”

“Indeed.” The alicorn heaved a relieved sigh. “Effortful in the arranging for everypony involved, but at least it’s all ready to go ahead. I saw you’d met one of the Element Bearers and her little sister.”

Burro blinked, and rifled through his memory for photos and descriptions attached to old reports. “One of the Ele — the unicorn mare back there? Oh fie, so she was. Rarity, the Generosity-bearer.” He ruefully shook his head. “I should have made a proper introduction.”

“You made a good impression, rest assured. And there’ll be time yet for more talking. The day’s young, and it should all go smoothly. Canapé?”

“Hmm?” Burro turned, and saw that a server had trotted up to him, offering a tray of canapés, crispy little confections of potato cake and caramelised apple topped with cream. He paused momentarily when he realised that the server was an ibex doe. She didn’t seem to be producing any outcry from Celestia, so he smiled and scooped a canapé up in his hoof. Before he could thank the server, she trotted briskly off, her gaze turned down towards the ground and her gait careful as if she was trotting on explosive eggshells.

Burro could swear he’d seen her somewhere before, struggled to place exactly where, and dismissed the mystery from his list of concerns before popping the canapé in his mouth. “Mmh, not bad. Your caterer’s done themselves proud, whoever they may be.”

“Apple-and-blue-cheese bites are also making the rounds. As are prawn vols-au-vent for the obligate omnivores amongst us.”

“I can imagine someone else in particular here monopolising the latter.” Burro took a moment to finish chewing before continuing in as unhindered and casual a manner as possible, “You mentioned the day going smoothly.”

“Yes?”

“I’m sure the security you’ve put in place will help greatly, smoothness-wise. I’m curious about said security, though.”

“What of it?” Celestia said mildly.

Burro sighed. “What are you expecting, and how likely is it to kill us all before we see another dawn? You don’t mobilise every royal guardspony and lance-toting militia member without good reason, and I’m still sober enough to hear those reasons without weeping externally too loudly.”

“Some would deem the safety of a princess’s wedding and all its assembled guests and statesbeings to be good enough cause.”

“Some would also introduce phrases like ‘transparent bull-leavings’ into the conversation.”

“Possibly not one to repeat when the Bullwalda and his consort make an appearance.” Celestia’s smile turned wry and she gestured for Burro to accompany her. He fell into step alongside her slow, measured own, and they moved towards a thinner part of the gathering. Eventually, once they’d have to stretch to kick anypony else, Celestia murmured, “It’s a high-profile event, unavoidably so. We’ve gotten word of a planned attack. Multiple words, at that, associated with the usual suspects.”

“What manner of word?”

It might have just been Burro’s imagination, but there was a hint of weariness around the edges of Celestia’s eyes.

“Some information suggests a wyld storm, prepared and launched out from Capra to devastate Canterlot when it lands. Others reckon a murder of corvids with black-powder weaponry have crossed the continent, ready to come flying down from the high clouds to wreak havoc on the gathering. Others got word of an mysterious horror stewed in one of the Capricious Crown’s laboratories, sent out and left to lie in hiding in our countryside until the time’s ripe. Other things yet, each less desirable than the last. Take your pick.”

“That many threats, all at once ...” Burro frowned. “Someone’s playing silly buggers with your intelligencers, then. That’s misdirection if ever I heard it, maybe in service of another attack elsewhere. Stars, even the Crown wouldn’t be that blatant. Not if any attack like those could be so obviously traced back to it.”

“My own thoughts exactly, at the start,” Celestia said grimly. “But then I couldn’t help but wonder whether we were meant to interpret it all as cunning misdirection, in order that we be surprised by a direct attack.”

“You’d drive yourself pointlessly mad with that sort of second-guessing. Not unless you’ve got more information on which you can pin a given guess.”

“Regrettably, no. But what I can and decided to do is cover all our bases.” Celestia made an expansive gesture that took in both the shield and a squadron of guards flying overhead. “If a wyld storm or a force of attackers or some beast strikes here, everypony’s protected under the shield, under the eyes of the guards, and under me. If there is some attack elsewhere, then I’ve ordered local authorities across Equestria to be vigilant and to alert me and any nearby Legion groups immediately … and I’m certain Cadance would forgive me teleporting away if something truly dire arises. Luna rests after her nocturnal duties and shan’t join us today, alas, but if multiple threats emerge, she’ll probably forgive whoever woke her up and help handle matters. And if nothing at all comes up and the day goes swimmingly, then I’ll just be briefly embarrassed and give Captain Armour an extra week’s holiday for his honeymoon in light of needless stress imposed.”

“Ah. Thorough.” Thorough to excess, Burro privately thought. Celestia’s involvement alone would surely be enough of a deterrent for any attacker with the wits the Creator gave a cabbage, and a decisive full stop for any without. “You’ve left yourself well-covered, then.”

“Equestria’s resources are hard to spread thin,” Celestia said with a measure of grim pride.

Burro glanced in the direction Rarity and her little sister had vanished, and nodded contemplatively. “I suppose having your six Element Bearers here can’t hurt matters either if anything world-threatening comes up. Again.”

“Such was only a small factor in why I invited them, but you’re right.” Celestia sighed. “We only have five for the occasion, though. The sixth … well, it seems wedding nerves can get to even the best of us. I do hope she chooses to re-emerge and patch up matters afterwards.”

It didn’t require much of Burro’s cunning, lower-case or otherwise, to recognise a situation that was behind some of Celestia’s weariness, and he dropped the matter for kindness’s sake. From what he’d heard from Asinia’s spy here in the palace, the last entity to have posed a challenge to the Element Bearers was still safely locked away. “No matter then. I imagine the bride herself counts as another layer of security, as an alicorn in her own right.”

“Quite so. Yet to grow into her full power … but even now, she is formidable. And she took a personal interest in the security measures. Captain Armour would have collapsed days ago without her ministration.”

Burro nodded even as he lined up more questions on Cadance, but Celestia rose a hoof before he could let them fly. “I understand she’s quite the mystery as yet, and I imagine I shan’t salve that at all by telling you I have plans in place for her.”

“How well-imagined. Dare I even —?”

“Ask after those in turn? This isn’t the time or the place, not with so many unknown eyes and ears present, and other wedding-related stresses and a potential onslaught to reckon with. Rest assured, Burro, we shall discuss them later and at length. You, I, and certain others here who I have no interest in being kept out of the loop.”

“Hmm.” One of the staff trotted by, proffering a tray of glasses filled with amber-coloured liquid, and Burro plucked one up in the cleft of a forehoof. “I suppose that’ll keep me placated. For now. The sooner the better, you understand.”

“Soon, without a doubt.” Celestia glanced in the direction of the way Burro had first entered, spread her wings, and gave Burro an apologetic smile. “I spy Lady Redwood of Trottingham making her entrance. I’m afraid I may have to go and be a good host elsewhere, Burro.”

“Ah. Well, I can promise to do my best to not get too lost and confused on my own.” Burro glanced in the direction of the newcomer. “If the opportunity arises, inform Lady Redwood she still owes me money from a poker game. And that Asinia’s Parliamentary staff know she sneaked away some of our good gin bottles in her saddlebags from when she visited for the lumber negotiations last season.”

“I’ll do my tactful best. Until we talk matters through, do enjoy the ceremony when it’s ready and the reception after.” Celestia looked upwards briefly. “I’m sure you’ll do so in good company.”

She spread her wings and flapped up from the ground, the breeze of which sent Burro’s coat flapping. Burro sent a jaunty salute her way as she took off overhead, and only when she’d vanished from his peripheral vision did it occur that she’d winked at something in the air behind him when she’d looked up…

And there was the flap of wings, another heavy landing behind him, and there came the long-expected bone-juddering clap across his withers. “Hah!” a familiar voice boomed in his ear. “They’ll just let any old scoundrel past the guards these days, won’t they?”

“Evidently.” Burro turned, a fierce grin lighting up his features as he beheld the griffon who’d materialised at his side. “Here’s one talking to me. How’re things, you old scapegrace?”

Gellert, the old chieftain of the Fivecrags tribe and suzerain through vassalage of most other tribe-sworn griffons on the continent, stood by Burro, his amber eyes bright and his white-brown plumage shining. In contrast to Burro, whose frame could be charitably compared to a toast rack that had had grey hide stretched across it, the bulk of Gellert’s feathery torso strained the buttons on his cloth-of-gold waistcoat. A matching cape was draped over his back and secured at the front by a bejewelled brooch. One of his claws held a half-full glass, and several cooked prawns had been precariously balanced on the rim.

“Fivecrags-wise? Oh, things have been marvellous enough, especially whenever I’ve given them much attention,” said Gellert. He eyed Burro and nodded towards the front of the naval uniform. “What’s this number you’ve got on? It looks formal. And appallingly official.”

This was this morning’s exercise in tears and frustration, and I’ll buy you a drink later if you never broach it for the remainder of the day. And you’ve ...” Burro took in Gellert’s waistcoat and cape. “...made no effort at all.”

“Effort’s for beings who don’t have my natural good looks and grace.” Gellert downed most of his glass along with a prawn. “Still, never mind the dressage. I’ve got you collared for a drink at long last — at least, whenever they start serving us the harder sort of cider. It’s only the soft stuff we’re being given just now, which is probably wise of them. I’ve got you collared, at any rate.”

“The two of us side by side again, and not a civilisation-threatening calamity in sight. Can the end-times be far?”

We’re not the calamity?” Gellert grinned, emptied his glass and downed the remaining prawns, and tossed it casually onto the tray of a surprised and smartly-uniformed mule. He stretched, groaned, and rose a claw as if preparing to bring it down again across Burro’s withers. “Let’s walk and chat.”

“Let’s. But don’t clap my withers again just now,” said Burro, quickly holding up a warning hoof. “I’m more explosive than usual at the moment.”

“More explosive? Why?”

“The parcel on my back’s a toaster for the happy couple.”

“A toa —?”

“Of Asinial design.”

Gellert prudently backed away. “Right. Well, let’s walk and chat in the direction of the gift table by the hall. You can drop it off there along with everyone else’s.”

“Capital idea. You here by yourself?”

“Brought my second-youngest along as a notional guard, but I just left him to wander around the city for the day. I take you’ve done the same with your own flunkies?”

“You take it right. Have you bumped into anyone we’d know? Who’s made it for the occasion?”

“Fairy Floss is here,” said Gellert as they turned and started ambling in the direction of the Crystal Hall. “I got here about half an hour ago, soon after her. Had a chat with her when we were dropping off our gifts at the same time. The Viceroy from Saddle Arabia — Simoom, aye? — he’s here as well. Bumped into him in the crowd when I was making my way over to you. I’m told Greenhorn and his consort should be turning up later as well. Celestia herself’s here, of course. Who else …? Couple of zebras should be inbound soon from each of the pharoahs’ courts. The Capric ambassador should be here soon as well, and the Pachydermian one. Might be others I’ve missed. Not too awful a gathering, all things told.”

“Not too crowded,” remarked Burro, politely bludgeoning his way through a cluster of statesponies. “Though I suspect we’ll all be far too cosy for comfort under this bubble. Did you mention it to Celestia?”

Gellert grunted. “Excessive, I thought, even after she’d mentioned threats had been made. Who’s going to start any nonsense with three alicorns present, or at least in the vicinity? Maybe she knows something she’s not telling us, of course.”

“What’s ‘maybe’ doing in that sentence?”

“Hah.” Gellert fell silent for a short distance before speaking again. “Glad you could make it, though. I’ve been needing something like this for a while.”

“I’d gathered. There were a lot of communiques I’d had passed on from your envoy, hinting at the need for something celebratory.” Burro gave Gellert a sympathetic glance. “Trouble in the home nest?”

“Something like that.” Gellert sighed. “Trouble with my youngest, in particular.”

Burro picked through his lengthy mental catalogue holding the names of all Gellert’s children. “Gilda?”

“Her. She’s — well, she’s been wanting to be more independent for a while. There were discussions, a few raised voices, a few ruffled feathers, and … that’s her flown the nest, right to the outskirts of Fivecrags lands. Made a home for herself in Griffonstone, if you can believe it.”

“That old ruin? What’s she expecting to find there?”

“Independence. A living. Her fortune. Probably what I was looking for once upon a time. Can’t fault the impulse, though I wish she’d chosen a better locale for it. I even suggested privateering to her, like we did, but she was too busy flying towards the horizon at that point.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much. She’s your daughter,” said Burro. “If she’s picked up anything from you, she’ll flail around in magnificent fashion, make a complete pig’s ear of things, and then somehow stumble out the other side smelling of roses. Some tendencies there must surely pass on in the blood.”

“Hah! True.” Gellert shook his head. “Silly to fret about a griffon with my good qualities, you’re right there. Still, I’m glad to get away from home, get my head out of the tribe, even if it’s just for a day. Breathe some fresh air, temporarily forget I’m important and responsible for things, cheer on a happy new couple, and put the world’s weight to one side for a bit. The game’s more wearying than it used to be.”

“I hear that,” sighed Burro. “I’m sure pursuing positions of authority must have seemed like a good idea to both of us at the time. At least today shouldn’t be too onerous.”

They meandered their way through the thickening crowd for a moment longer, and then Burro thoughtfully added, “You should come down to Asincittà next month if you’re still in need of a break. We’ll be launching the three new flagships then, and seeing them off in a suitably festive manner.”

“The new flagships. These’ll be …?”

“The Fear Nowt and her sisters, the Actually, Fear Lots and the No, You’re Compensating. Our admirals still get the most puckish notions when it comes to naming their vessels — I still swear there’s something in our officers’ water — but they should serve their fleet divisions well.”

“Break a bottle of champagne on the hull to anoint each one,” mused Gellert. “And even with those three gone to waste, you’ll still need some doughty griffon to help you deal with all the other bottles left over.”

“Exactly!” Burro paused and squinted about him, craning his head slightly. “Hold on. Let me get my bearings in all this muddle.”

The gathering had swelled in numbers since Burro had arrived, and off in the distance, he could see Celestia talking to a group of important-looking ponies who’d just entered. Ahead and to his right, the Crystal Hall loomed high, and between it and Burro, there was the odd pavilion he’d seen earlier, still with a generous amount of space about it on all sides. Save for one small figure. Burro squinted at them, and blinked in sudden recognition. “Look there,” he said, nudging Gellert. “We’ve got our Pachydermian representative. The Pachydermian representative.”

“What do you mean by — Simurgh’s paps.” Gellert rose onto his rear paws to get a better look. “That’s the Shahanshah!”

True enough, it was Shahanshah-in-Waiting Sailears the Second of Ancient and Glorious Pachydermia, in all his eight-year-old regality, crowned and covered from neck to feet in turquoise robes. Burro remembered talking to (or rather, being talked at by) the little elephant back during the Discord Incident. The calf stood by the odd pavilion, nearly as tall as any of the ponies about him and regarding everything with bright and naked curiosity. He seemed to talking avidly, and Burro wasn’t sure who to.

“Curious that he’s here, and not some expendable court flunkey,” said Gellert. “Is this his regent sending him out on a foreign mission with relative training wheels attached, you reckon? Baby’s first international occasion?”

“Possibly. Shall we pay a visit on our way to the gift table?” Burro said casually. “Keep the wheels of international courtesy turning smoothly?”

“Oh, why not,” chuckled Gellert. “See if he remembers your face from last time. Wrangle a favourable trade deal out of him.”

They moved closer towards the pavilion and Sailears, pressing their way through several chattering knots along the way, and as they drew near, Sailears took notice of them. He tilted his head quizzically for a moment, and then jerked up with excited recognition, sending his large ears flapping and the thin crown perched on his head wobbling. “Oh! Ooh! Here!” he called. “Hello! I remember you!”

“I remember you too, Shahanshah, and it’s certainly nicer circumstances in which we meet than last time,” said Burro, putting on the reassuring smile he’d donned for Sweetie Belle and stepping closer past the pavilion. “I hope I find you well —”

He stepped past the pavilion and towards Sailears, and in one whirlwind of motion, the pavilion abruptly stopped being a pavilion. It spun in the air, faster than Burro could blink, and a torso-thick length of matted brown cord slashed out through the air to smack into Burro’s chest, knocking him back with a startled “Oof!

He staggered, caught his breath, held up a warding hoof for all the good it would do, and looked up. The brown length of cord became a scarred length of trunk, covered in coarse hide that would do the average shag carpet proud, and it pulled back to ward Sailears. Upwards, where it ended at a face that was nearly three times the height of a grown stallion above the ground, two wickedly-curved and pitted tusks jutted like spears. The colours and shine of the pavilion resolved themselves into layer after layer of dyed lamellar and chainmail. Iron-shod feet thick enough to moonlight as tree trunks ground the grass to mulch. And at the top of it all, behind a tight steel helmet with slits just wide enough to glare out at the world from, two night-dark eyes burned.

The mammoth loomed in a manner that could have intimidated a mountain and rumbled, in a voice that Burro clocked as (A) female and (B) akin to a volcano that had just had its pint spilled, “Step not lightly towards the Shahanshah in the presence of the Shahanshah’s guard, outlander!”

“Dame Lyuba, it’s okay, he’s not an outlander!” interjected Sailears, tugging at a flap of the mammoth’s chainmail with his trunk. “Or … well, maybe he is, but he’s not the bad kind!”

Past the black slits of her visor, Dame Lyuba glared down as if she was trying to set Burro aflame with willpower alone. “Do not grant him trust, Your Grace. He has an ill-favoured look.”

“Dame Lyubaaa! We have to be diplomatic and statesbeing-like and other things! And you said that about the last one who tried to talk to me as well.”

“That yellow pegasus also had an ill-favoured look,” Lyuba retorted, shifting her iron-shod feet and stance so that she now loomed over both Burro and Gellert at once, her dark eyes glinting. “Attend to your diplomatic niceties, Your Grace, and heed your lessons there as imparted by your uncle, the Lord Regent. I shall attend to your protection amidst this foreign rabble.”

Sailears sighed and gave Burro an apologetic look. “I’m sorry about Dame Lyuba being scary to you. She’s done that to nearly everyone here. I think my uncle should have had her go to my Diplomacy tutor as well.”

“Well, I, er, I suppose not all beings can have a Shahanshah’s advantages.” Burro’s brain took a moment to decelerate, adjust, and then catch back up to its normal speed, a process that wasn’t helped by Lyuba glowering over him like a thunderhead. He looked to Gellert for moral support and received none, the griffon being too transfixed by the mammoth as well. Nothing for it but to make the small-talk as quick and courteous as possible. “I’m delighted to see you again, Your Grace. I imagine everyone had been expecting a Pachydermian ambassador or courtier to show face rather than your own person.”

“My uncle says that since we can’t get rid of the rest of the barbarian world, we have to live with them and be polite and make allowances for them being silly and everything like that,” replied Sailears happily. “He said this’d be a good place for me to learn who else would be wasting valuable oxygen on the world stage — he says a lot of things like that — and that I had to be diplomatic and keep my real thoughts and intentions close to my chest, to keep my eyes and ears open and to tell him everything I learned, and that if any calamities happened, I was to obey Dame Lyuba as if she was him. Oh, and that I had to memorise everyone’s title in advance and keep them happy by calling them their own.”

“That is generally a good way to keep beings happy, Your Grace.”

“I know you’re an Arch-Minister now! Not a king. Sorry about calling you that back when we met the first time. My uncle says democracy happens at you rather than you being born to power.” Sailears looked curious about the notion. “How does that work, exactly?”

“Well…” Explaining the mechanics of the miracle that was the Republic was hard when razor-sharp tusks were angled right at Burro’s eyes, but he gave it his best shot. “Every few years, every grown-up in Asinia goes to a ballot-box and casts a private vote for a donkey, and once we’ve collected all the votes from the city and countryside and overseas as well, we see which donkey was disliked the least. And then they become the Arch-Minister.” Burro shrugged as casually as he could. “It can be a bit higgledy-piggledy at times, but I think we make it work. That’s probably a biased opinion, though.”

“If you get voted in the first time ...” Sailears started in a thoughtful tone, “... could you make it the law that everyone has to vote for you the next time? I think that’s the clever thing to do.”

“The, ah, laws of the country are decided on by other donkeys than me.” Burro coughed. “They wouldn’t want an Arch-Minister putting what amounts to a crown on their head and undermining the Republic. And the donkeys in the streets wouldn’t stand for it either, I’m glad to say.”

“Quite right. Imagine your terrible face adorning any poor being’s coins,” whispered Gellert.

“Shush.”

“Huh.” Sailears looked very contemplative indeed. “It all sounds weird, but my uncle says we shouldn’t judge too harshly, not if there’s a chance in the future to exploit the thing you’re judging someone on.”

“Very, ah, tolerant of him. I think I should meet your uncle one of these days, Your Grace. He sounds like the very image of a Lord Regent.”

“He’d like you! Maybe,” Sailears chirped, and there was a poorly-concealed snort from Lyuba. Heedless, the little elephant scratched an ear with his trunk and glanced in the direction of the Crystal Hall. “Do you know who’s getting married?”

“Not personally, no, but I’m sure they’re a lovely couple.” The tusk-points kept glinting, and Burro sought around for any opportunity to detach himself. “Ah, I see some friends over there I can discuss them with. I’ll go meet them and stop bothering you and Dame Lyuba, Your Grace, but it’s been a delight to speak to you again. Perhaps we’ll get the chance to meet again during the reception.”

“Perhaps,” growled Lyuba.

Sailears just smiled and waggled his trunk in Burro’s direction. “Okay, Arch-Minister! Have a good day.”

Burro, forgetting himself, unconsciously rose a hoof to shake the proffered trunk. Lyuba emphatically loomed in a manner that clearly suggested to Burro that if he so much as moved a single molecule in a manner that she found displeasing, then she would waste less than no time rearranging it and every other molecule he had that she could lay her trunk on.

It was amazing how that sort of suggestion could sharpen the mind, it really was. Burro drew back, and politely and carefully dropped a short bow. “You as well, Your Grace.”

He turned and walked off, Gellert by his side, while from his back there came muffled conversation. “...Undue friendliness to ill-favoured barbarians such as these—” was the only remonstratory fragment Burro caught from Lyuba before they passed out of earshot and back into the all-surrounding rumble of the crowd.

Burro breathed. “Depth’s bells,” he muttered. “I don’t remember the elephants in my young days being that big.”

“That’s because you were probably fleeing from most of them.”

“Could you have blamed me?”

“Admittedly no.”

“Sending his king out accompanied by that monster. What’s Pachydermia’s Lord Regent playing at? Signaling an increased readiness on Pachydermia’s part to engage with the outside world, whilst showing off just how sharp their tusks are, if I’m any judge.” Burro shook his head. “I’ve got to be a nastier taskmaster to our consul and spies there. If there’s something shifting in the wind over there, I need to know. Our ships sail in their waters.”

“Draw him into the fold. Spare yourself and him the need for any dancing around signals and implications, if there were any,” Gellert fumbled in a pocket of his waistcoat and withdrew a thin cheroot. A moment’s wordless pleading with a passing unicorn saw it begrudgingly lit, and he took a long drag before continuing. “I’ll tell you this, though. That confirmed something I’ve suspected for a while now.”

“What?”

“That no matter her species or your position, you’ll get the exact same reaction from a lady every time. Is it a skill you’ve honed or were you born that talented?”

“Go gawk at a cockatrice.”

“I mean, alright, she leaned more towards the ‘wrath’ end of the spectrum rather than ‘disgust’, but it’s still admirably consistent of you to —”

“A cockatrice or a mirror, whichever’s more horrible.” Burro snorted a laugh despite himself, and Gellert seemed to relax. “Before that happy occasion, though, let’s get this toaster unloaded. My back’ll kill me if Dame Lyuba doesn’t.”

“Shame to deny her that particular pleasure. Let’s keep walking, then. Gift table’s still that-away, just where I left it.”

They walked on through the crowd, passing under the shadow of the Crystal Hall. As they drew closer to the gift table, the numbers thinned once more, allowing Burro to see further than a few feet in front of his muzzle. Eventually, the full shape of the table came into view, all but creaking under the weight of gifts heaped atop it. One’s wedding becoming an occasion that drew in the crowned heads of the world had some perks.

“This way,” said Gellert, motioning to the right. “You can put it next to mine.”

“Grand. What did you — aha!” Burro, eyeing the way indicated, saw two familiar faces deep in discussion. Upon his exclamation, one looked up and beamed, while the other favoured him with a smile that mixed grandmotherliness and winteriness.

The first of these was Viceroy Simoom of Saddle Arabia, an arid island dominion of Equestria’s lying south across the Cheval Sea. The young earth pony stallion’s lanky, brown-hided frame was artfully clothed in dark blue silk, and his smile was sunny and guileless, exactly as Burro remembered it. His wave to Burro started out enthusiastic, and only became something regal and dignified in the last few motions when he seemed to remember it ought to. “Chieftain! And Arch-Minister! Delighted you could make it!”

By contrast, the Tyrant of Ovarn, Fairy Floss, eyed Burro and Gellert knowingly as they came closer, a glass held in one hoof. The old ewe’s small and wizened frame was all but hidden under dark red robes. Age had wrinkled her features and stiffened her motions, but her eyes glinted like cut diamonds over pince-nez spectacles. “Reprobate one and reprobate two,” she said. “If the fashion on a lovely day like this is to express delight, then far be it from me to do otherwise.”

“A delight likewise, Viceroy,” said Burro, doffing his bicorne. “I’m glad to see the months haven’t softened a single one of your edges, Fairy.”

“Uppity Archons are a wonderful honing tool, bless their black little hearts.” Fairy Floss sipped from her glass. “Here to cast a dark cloud on this lovely day for the new couple as well, then?”

“Nothing less. I hope I didn’t interrupt anything between yourself and Viceroy Simoom?”

“Oh, I was just telling the Tyrant about my own wedding, several years back,” said Simoom eagerly. “Mirage and I had the pleasure of Princess Celestia’s attendance there as well, but I imagine today’s occasion will have all manner of distinguished company!”

“‘Distinguished’ is something we’ve been mistaken for in the past, no denying that,” said Gellert.

“A pity your Vicereine couldn’t make it, dear,” said Fairy Floss. “She sounds like a mare with whom I could have a proper conversation. Such beings are so rare these days.”

“Mirage felt somepony had to hold the fort in Tabuck, alas, just in case the whole place went up in flames without proper supervision. But she asked me to pass on her best regards to everyone present, and to mingle with wild and socially-graceful abandon.”

“Is Tabuck particularly liable to go up in flames?” asked Burro.

“Oh no, I shouldn’t think so. It’s not done that in weeks. But a stitch in time, or some other suitable expression, eh?”

“Quite.” Burro coughed and turned away from the smiling stallion to face the Tyrant. “I’ll admit I’m surprised to see you here, Fairy. I thought your days of reckless gallivantery were long-since-faded memories by now.”

“You’re doing that ‘cruelty to a meek, helpless old lady’ thing again, dear, out of what I can only assume is a highly developed death wish,” said Fairy Floss with a subtle smirk. “In any case, not all of us have the same low designs for today as yourself and Chieftain Gellert. This is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s first public appearance on the world stage. Goodness knows my eyes aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still sharper than most, and there’s none I trust more to be in this place today.”

“Want to see what she’s made of, eh?” said Gellert.

“As does any being with the sense the Creator gave a sea cucumber, yes. A third alicorn shuffled out from the shadows and worn in the open declares Equestria’s might for all to see. The world’s getting ever-antsier and unstable over the matter of Equestrian power, and I trust we here don’t need to guess which certain other players on the continent are sniffing around for any chink in Equestria’s armour. Beings tend to stop sniffing if their target bares its teeth. Let’s see if Cadenza’s the sort to inspire peace across the continent, shall we?”

“That’s ...” Simoom looked hesitant. “ … a rather, um, cynical take on things, don’t you think? It could just be a nice royal wedding. Those put everyone in a good mood, I’m sure. And I’m especially sure the Princesses intended it as nothing else.”

“There’s always undeclared motives, dear,” said Fairy Floss. She drained her glass. “And only if you’re lucky and keep your own eyes and ears open, you might get the chance to discover them before they take you by surprise. Take it from someone who was withers-deep in the game before you were a licentious glint in your parents’ eyes.”

Burro rose one hoof to knead his brow, and involuntarily wobbled as one aching leg threatened to repeal its permission to keep him vertical. “We should discuss this in detail and with all due expletives after the ceremony, Fairy. Before then, could you show where I can stick this toaster?”

Fairy Floss’s eye corners momentarily creased in the manner of one with long practise in thinking of rude suggestions and carefully not voicing them. “Put it here, by mine. And a toaster, dear? How … passé.”

“Made by my own city’s craftsjacks.”

“Oh. Well, I retract the passé accusation, but do stand between it and me.”

Burro gratefully heaved off the toaster and slid it onto the space indicated. Gellert chuckled and waggled the cheroot in his mouth. “Good placing. Right next to mine as well. It might catch quality, that way.”

“Which one’s …?” Burro frowned as he eyed Gellert’s gift, lying next to his upon the table. It had been wrapped up in yellow paper, but it wasn’t hard to guess what it was. For one thing, most of it had casually sheared right through the paper, the wicked curve of it glinting in the sunshine. “That’s a sword.”

“Yep, a good old tribal sabre. Good for holding by the hilt with a claw, or for wielding in a magical grip. And there’s a hoof-socket bundled in there as well, if they’d prefer to screw the hilt off and pop that on instead. And if they just want to hang it over a hearth, there’s hooks in the wrapping as well. Cunning work by my smith. He could give your artisans a run for their money.”

“It’s bad luck to get a blade as a gift, you know.”

“Never understood that superstition, myself.” Gellert shook his head. “It’s a perfectly good sword. If bad luck ever comes the couple’s way, they’ll be equipped to slash holes in it. That’s practically making good luck for them.”

“That’s one take on it, I suppose. Just so long as you accept your share of the blame when bad luck inevitably descends on them.”

“Hah! I have my own sabres at home. Any bad luck coming their way’ll find itself reciprocated good and hard.”

“Fair enough. What are you inflicting on them, Fairy?” Burro eyed Fairy Floss’s own parcel, which had a distinctly bottle-ish quality under the tight blue wrapping. “It looks fun, whatever it is.”

“Ten-year-matured crimpnac,” said Fairy Floss, satisfaction in her voice. “The best brandy the vintner communes of Theavally have to offer, and the best gift a new couple still finding their hooves could wish for. Smoother-over of more strife and stress than a hundred lesser vintages. Cools tempers by day, and fills a being with fire as the night draws in. I’ve no doubt they’ll find it of use.”

Burro had heard stories about the more select Ovish brandies. So had Gellert apparently, who regarded Fairy Floss slyly. “A good marital aid, then. A quote-unquote marital aid as well?”

Whatever slyness Gellert could evoke found itself dwarfed by that on Fairy Floss’s wrinkled features, like a shadow next to the night sky. “Oh, it has a certain potency in that regard,” she said. “But rest assured, most of the stories I’m sure you’ve heard are terribly overblown.”

Burro glanced towards Simoom, the stallion’s handsome features contorting with puzzlement as each sentence flew past. “Oh!” Simoom exclaimed then, suddenly brightening. “A marital aid? Like one of those things with knobs on?”

There was a pause in the sly-off, and Gellert and Fairy Floss turned their own wary attention Simoom’s way. “Potentially,” Fairy Floss allowed slowly. “What manner of thing with knobs on are we discussing here, Viceroy?”

“The name escapes me. Names tend to do that. You know.” Simoom smiled at each of them. “It’s got a tapering shape, usually made out of metal or something else that’s nice and firm. Screws together and can come apart. Some of the manufacturers in Equestria or Asinia enchant them to give things a little magical boost. You know.” He elbowed Gellert with what was probably meant to be a knowing grin. “Hah, the chieftain struck me as the kind of griffon skilled in their use, if you don’t mind me saying so!”

“...I possibly do?” Gellert radiated helpless bewilderment in the face of this unexpected angle of attack, as if he’d suddenly found himself being mauled by a goldfish. “I mean, er, fair play to any being who gives them a go, each to their own and all that, but I’ve really never felt the need —”

“Some of the enchanted models freeze water and crush the ice for you?” said Simoom helpfully. “You can pour that in if you need cooling. Mirage and I often do.”

“... pour it where —?”

“Once we get it out in the evening after a hard day, the night just flies by.”

“I … don’t … doubt ...” Burro’s words came out stilted as several of Simoom’s phrases re-arranged themselves and made a outcome that was far healthier for his imagination. Fairy Floss, who had a decade’s advantage in practising joined-up thinking over Burro, got there a few seconds ahead.

“Viceroy, you’re talking about some sort of drink mixer and dispenser, I presume?” she said. “I hope?”

“Quite!” Simoom slapped his forehead with a hoof, whilst Gellert contrived to simultaneously relax and suppress a cackle. “A cocktail mixer! I’d quite forgotten the name, curious though it may be. Yes, Mirage and I got quite an advanced model for ourselves for our first anniversary. She’s quite fond of an iced brandy sour or two at the end of a week. Your own bottle inspired the thought, Tyrant.” In the long and hesitant silence that followed, he followed up with, “I’m sure they’ll enjoy it immensely.”

The long and hesitant silence ran on, in which Simoom appeared to contemplate the middle distance, and then he shrugged and said, “I suppose in terms of more direct marital aids, you could have always just gotten them a good old-fashioned aphrodi —”

“So, Viceroy!” Burro interjected. “What have you gifted the happy couple?”

“Ah!” Simoom brightened and gestured towards a large silvery cage that rested near the bag of the table. “One of my homeland’s more spectacular creatures, painstakingly trained by my falconer over long months from a chick. He looked so proud when I suggested giving it to the royal couple. So happy.” He paused and considered. “Relieved, even.”

Burro leaned closer, curiosity filling him, and past the silver bars of the cage, he saw a large and red-feathered falcon, its head tucked under one scarlet wing.

“Oh, they’re a beauty,” he said. “What sort of falcon are they?”

“A pyrefalcon, native to the westerly hinterlands,” said Simoom proudly. “Her name’s Charity. And she’s very clever. Aren’t you?”

As Burro watched, the wing shifted. The head withdrew, blinking at the noise sources in its midst. And above a beak that seemed too large and wickedly curved for mere hunting purposes, two avian eyes burned.

Burro only realised then that rather than silver, the bird cage was fashioned from steel.

Trepidation kicked in. Saddle Arabian wildlife had a collective reputation as an affront to all that was happy and wholesome in Creation. ‘Ten pints of psychopath in a one-pint glass’ was a phrase that had been used to describe every documented type of fauna at one point or another, and some of the flora as well. The island nation boasted the only known ecosystem where every part of it could claim to be an apex predator, and every part violently asserted said claim on anything that could bleed and some of the things that couldn’t for good measure. Intrepid biologists sailed to Saddle Arabia for study purposes, and this was generally regarded as Nature’s way of keeping the biologist population controlled.

Regardless, he moved an inch closer, stooped, and stared into the pyrefalcon’s eyes.

Hell stared back.

Keeee,” rasped the pyrefalcon in much the same tone as a voice in a dark alleyway might say, “Hey, pal.”

Burro backed away slowly. “A … um, magnificent specimen, I’m sure. I’m no expert on falconry but, ah, don’t they normally wear special little hoods to keep them calm?”

“Oh, the falconer tried making one of those for her,” said Simoom. “She killed it.”

“That doesn’t … how? Hoods aren’t alive.”

“She found a way. Who’s a clever girl, Charity?” Simoom smiled at the pyrefalcon. “You are! You’re clever!”

Keeee.”

“Are they related to phoenixes?” Gellert eyed the bright red plumage. “I know Celestia’s got one of her own.”

“Oh no,” said Fairy Floss dryly. “Phoenixes come from the sun itself, as I understand, and Charity and her kin are as Saddle Arabian as you can get. Also, phoenixes are reckoned to have near-sapient senses of compassion and empathy. I imagine pyrefalcons don’t have those problems whatsoever.”

“Their arcano-biology’s different as well,” Simoom said keenly. “Phoenixes can assume the shape of flame and are reborn from themselves upon extinguishing. Pyrefalcons lay eggs in the conventional manner, but they can spit flames mid-flight. They’ve got ignicatalysts in their gullets and their little lungs work like bellows, see, so when their wing-muscles are entirely stretched —”

“So,” said Burro carefully, “if she was out of that cage and flying around …?”

Simoom’s smile froze. “I, er, would not consider that an ideal state of affairs,” he said slowly and with equal care. “I could make a fair go of restraining her, of course, but really, unless everyone was armoured and had their affairs in order ...”

“Donkey toasters, ill-fortuned blades, and Saddle Arabian wildlife,” muttered Fairy Floss, shaking her head. “Stars above. If we escape today without Equestria having declared war on us all, we’ll have benefitted from some manner of miracle, deserved or otherwise.”

“Ill-fortuned. Bah!” Gellert snorted, and then eyed the front of the Crystal Hall. “They’re taking a while in there. Do you think anything’s come up?”

“I imagine any planned wedding like this goes off like a well-oiled machine,” said Burro. “And like any well-oiled machine, it’ll still explosively disassemble on you at the worst possible moment. Give them time to clear up the inevitable.”

“So sayeth the eternal bachelor.”

“Again, can you blame me?”

“Suspend all complaining,” said Fairy Floss abruptly, who seemed to be trying to crane her head to see back into the crowd. “Something interesting’s coming our way.”

Something interesting did indeed seem to be coming their way, something which parted the waves of intrigued ponies. Burro looked up, gifted with greater height than Fairy, but all he could make out past the scrum was two oncoming sets of jewelled horns. “Aha. I think we’ve got our next member of the company.”

Gellert looked the same way, flapped briefly into the air to gain an exceedingly unfair height advantage, and grinned down. “That we do. The Bullwalda and his consort as well by the looks of things.”

It was possible to make out a muttered conversation from the direction of the horns.

Let me fix your gorget.” A female speaker.

It’s fine. Don’t fuss when we’re in public.” Male, that one.

It’s squint.

It and everything else received the attentions of Steel Thews and my most fashion-conscious huskarls for hours before we teleported over. It’s fine.”

...I wasn’t aware any of your huskarls had a sense of —

They probably don’t, but they were very keen. Hush, I think we’re near the table now ...

In a brief moment, the oncoming horns had shouldered their way clear of the press of ponies, coming into full view of Burro and the others and revealing themselves as two aurochs, each clad heads-to-hooves in gleaming barding with caparisons underneath, both wearing thin gold circlets between their horns. The larger of the two was a young bull, his muscled form huge and made only huger by the weight he wore. His thick, decorated barding shone golden under the sunlight, his caparison was patterned in white and red, and a long hiltless blade was slung against one flank. Pale blue magic flared about his horns, keeping a long and rolled-up package bobbing along at his side The cow at his side was shorter than her spouse, her own barding a pale silver, with checked blue-and-green patterning running underneath it. A longbow lay in a sheath on one flank, and a quiver of arrows sat on the other.

Burro had heard that ideas of formal dress were different for the feudal upper crust of Bovaland than for the rest of the continent. There, if you weren’t equipped to defend your honour with anything more damaging than hurtful remarks, you may as well be naked. The royal couple’s honour seemed quite safe for the time being.

Bullwalda Greenhorn of Bovaland nodded stiffly at the group, and the nod from his Royal Consort was even stiffer and briefer. “Arch-Minister. Chieftain. Tyrant. Viceroy. I hope I find you all well?”

“Weller than usual for this sort of thing, Bullwalda.” Burro smiled and nodded at him, and at the Royal Consort in turn. “I don’t believe I’ve had the honour to meet you in person before, Consort …?”

The cow hesitated for a moment. “Consort Goldtorc. The honour is mine, Arch-Minister.” Her words were measured, her expression was guarded. “The Bullwalda has mentioned you often. Each of you.”

“In flattering terms, I hope. But no matter. Did you have an easy teleport over here from Cromlech Taur?”

“Easy enough with the aid of my huskarls in concert,” interjected Greenhorn. “They were left to stand guard in the city proper. I regret our delay. The guards here insisted on trying to disarm us, as if we were some unknown vagabonds at the gates. If Princess Celestia had not come by, we may still be there arguing.”

Gellert chuckled. “Ah. She no doubt explained the importance of cultural sensitivity vis-à-vis your good selves being able to violently defend against any slight to your honour during the course of the wedding.”

“Something to that effect, yes,” Greenhorn said in a dubious tone of voice, as if he suspected teasing was in play but was too reserved to pursue the matter. “In any event, we are glad we got here before missing the ceremony itself. Is there room to place this?” He hefted the rolled-up package at his side.

“Nudge aside these and there should be enough, Bullwalda,” said Simoom, motioning to some other stacked presents. “May I ask what it is?”

“A tapestry,” said Greenhorn with some pride.

“A tapestry? Very rustic, I do approve,” Simoom said cheerfully.

“I’m sure Princess Cadance and her husband-to-be will appreciate a bit of extra decoration wherever they base themselves,” said Burro smoothly before Greenhorn could take issue to ‘rustic’. “Did anything in particular inspire it?”

“We have a daughter, Princess Buttercup. The walls of her nursery recently ran out of space for new tapestries. The thought occurred then.”

“Tapestries are good for nurseries,” said Goldtorc, the soft voice of the cow taking them all by surprise. The aloofness in her voice had faded, been replaced with something gentler. “They keep warmth in. And they give the little one something to look at. My heifers-in-waiting and I wove this one to depict one of the old Amberhorn stories, where a pony knight joins Amberhorn’s circle to forge a bond of friendship. It seemed … suitable, under the present conditions. I hope it satisfies.”

“I’m sure it will.” Burro smiled, and then frowned. “Nurseries. Now there’s a thought.”

“Tsk, old boy. You can’t go getting broody at your time of life,” said Gellert.

“Something, something, cockatrice. No, I’m thinking about the spawn of today’s union, if any. If both their loins are suitably fruitful and compatible, then depending on the nature of the appendages any little one comes out with, that’ll answer some of the questions about where alicorns come from.”

“I don’t believe that’s likely,” said Simoom, his own expression faintly thoughtful. “I mean, it’s known that the Princesses earned their alicornhood through great striving rather than being born to it. And there’s no recorded cases of Celestia and Luna siring other alicorns. Or siring anypony, for that matter. The history’s dreadfully murky the further back you go, admittedly, but

“What of Princess Cadenza?” said Fairy Floss.

“What of her?”

“Recent timeframes don’t allow her to be Luna’s daughter, but Ovish intelligence seems fairly convinced she’s Celestia’s.”

Burro blinked, doubtful, whilst Simoom’s eyes widened with surprise. “What? But she’s not recognised as such by … well, anypony in the Equestrian court at all, I believe! Why wouldn’t that be revealed?”

“Celestia can be aggravatingly discreet, none of us need to be reminded of that, and I don’t doubt she’s got plenty of loyal ponies prepared to share in her discretions. An undeclared foal’s not a weakness that can used against you. And it fits with what little we know of Cadenza. Little knowledge of her until her teenage years, where she appeared in the capital and worked in a low-key manner. And now that she’s fully-grown and presumably capable of pulling her alicorn-sized weight, she’s revealed at last. Somepony was being groomed for leadership as she grew, close to Celestia’s teachings and trust.”

“Not convinced, myself,” said Gellert. “If she’s not had a foal for all her centuries, why have one now?”

“Tensions across the world are rising,” ventured Greenhorn. “Perhaps she foresaw that and decided that another alicorn could tip the balance.”

“Yes, but things have gotten dicey before, and she didn’t then —”

Something prickled along Burro’s spine. It might have been the conversation. It might have been a breeze. He put it out of mind and interjected with, “There’s also the matter that we’re as sure as we can be that the two alicorns we know something about were self-made, as it were, rather than born. If this marriage produces an alicorn foal, I’ll gladly update those particular assumptions, but until then, we can’t assume Cadance was produced any other way.”

“There’s invariably more than one way to solve a problem, dear, and I imagine that applies to conceiving alicorns. Unless Asinial intelligence has reason to believe otherwise?”

“The best guess we have, based on Cadance’s earliest sightings, mannerisms, and some accounts from staff who worked with her, is that she used to be an apprentice who earned her alicornhood, however that works. But that happened a long time back, possibly even before Luna’s banishment. About a decade ago, she was … unthawed from somewhere, and has spent some of the years since re-acclimatising.”

Fairy Floss’s eyes glinted, even without the aid of her spectacles. “Our intelligence agencies really ought to compare notes on occasion, so we can work with as full a picture as possible.” she said after a moment’s consideration. “But if your jacks and jennies are correct, that begs the questions of where she was unthawed from. And what froze her in the first place.”

Another shiver ran down Burro’s spine. It really ought to have been that last sentence, but the unseen cause felt too … immediate for that. Too tangible. He glanced around, but saw nothing but chattering wedding guests. Was his Cunning acting up? “That’d be a prolonged saga all in its own right, I suspect,” he muttered by way of a placeholder.

Greenhorn maintained an uncertain hold on the tapestry, pending delivery of how useful it’d be. “If that’s the case,” he cautiously allowed, “It certainly wouldn’t be the first time something in Equestria’s past has made itself distressingly relevant.”

“Dear, we don’t know they’re going to make themselves relevant, who- or whatever the hypothetical freezer may have been. Perhaps they were neatly dispatched at the time.” Fairy Floss’s voice trailed off, and she frowned as she mouthed the words back to herself. “Beg your pardon, but what did I just say?”

“You suggested that some awful unknown from Equestria’s past wasn’t inevitably going to become the present’s unwelcome houseguest,” said Gellert.

“Right. My apologies, dears. Pure foolishness and age on my part. Shall we forget I said that and return to the matter of ?”

And then the shiver trickled down Burro’s spine once more, in a way that suggested that the cause wasn’t merely immediate, but getting increasingly immediate by the second. “No, blast it,” he said abruptly, drawing looks from all present. “Are we expecting anyone else today? Any other leaders?”

“I do not think so,” said Greenhorn. “Barring the Shahanshah and his rather … forthright guard back in the crowd, there’s nobody else of our stature due. Only representatives and ambassadors at most.”

“Only something’s not quite right … social dynamics-wise, at any rate,” Burro said, his words unfocused as his mind slid back into another gear. Cast the net wide, feel the thrum and purr of the crowd, sift through it for its basest elements and all the little interactions, reactions, and beings that composed it. See the whole picture, and then look down

His mind closed around some advancing point that jarred like a sour note, a closed steel ball in the goose down that was the surrounding hubbub, and the moment after, Gellert looked behind Burro and muttered, “Damn.”

“What?”

“The good news is, we have another leader with us. The bad news is, refer to above.”

Burro shook the Cunning out of his mind, and turned to see who was coming. From out of the press, with uncertain, muttering ponies left at the edges of the wide wake they left, there came an ibex buck in multihued silk livery. He trotted proudly, an indistinct object sat across his back, and his horns blazed with a dark purple light.

Before him, there floated a crown, its circlet and half-arches and monde glittering under the magic-infused sunlight. Light from no external source glinted in the depths of its countless jewels. As it was brought closer, Burro felt its attention fall upon him, and there came the full-blown spider-down-your-collar impression.

Burro and Gellert unconsciously closed ranks. Simoom drew back. Greenhorn whispered something to Goldtorc, to which she found new unsounded depths within herself to reserve, and Fairy Floss muttered something unrepeatable.

The Capricious Crown of Capra regarded each of them as it approached, and when the ibex servant stopped a few feet away from them, a rasping voice came from its depths. “Good day, everyone.”

“Hitherto, yes,” Burro replied.

“Tsk, snideness. I hadn’t even finished the courtesies.” The Crown’s jewels flickered at each in turn. “Arch-Minister Burro, as yet afloat. Chieftain Gellert, still joined at the hip to the former. Tyrant Fairy Floss, you’re looking as well as can be expected. Greenhorn, Bullwalda of beleaguered Bovaland, and your spouse, I presume. Aaaand … a speck. What a convocation, counting the Shahanshah.”

“Look, I’ve been meaning to have a word about this, I have a name —” started Simoom.

“And what a sad waste of a name that is.” The jewels around the Crown’s rim glinted golden. “But please don’t mind me, everyone. I’m sure we’re all here for the same happy occasion.”

“For the wedding of a happy new couple? So I presumed.” Gellert gestured at the Crown. “I shan’t say a word against the pair behind their backs, but I’m certainly now querying their choice in guests.”

The ibex holding the Crown glowered. “You shall not speak so to the Unfettered

The jewels flashed red and from the Crown’s depths, there came a short warning snarl, like a whetstone whispering down a saw. The buck hushed immediately, his eyes falling to the floor. The jewels dimmed and glinted yellow again as if nothing had happened. “All manner of scapegraces seem to be welcome,” the Crown said. “Let it never be said Capra’s representative omitted themselves.”

“And Capra’s representative feels it necessary to inflict themselves on events, do they?” growled Greenhorn. “How is your confidant, the Cormaer, incidentally?”

“Oh, I can’t assume any especial knowledge of the Cormaer, beyond that she’s busy ruling in Corva at this very moment. Or sleeping, allowing for chronoregions as you move east. One of the two. Why? Should I know something you don’t?”

“You and I and everyone here knows that you consort with !” blazed Greenhorn, starting forwards before Goldtorc and Gellert simultaneously placed restraining limbs before him.

Burro glanced away from the restrained Bullwalda and back towards the Crown. “Why are you here?” he demanded. “This isn’t another Nightmare Moon incident, or another Discord incident. Why show up here of your own volition, with little to gain?”

“Little to gain?” said the Crown. “On the contrary. There is a third alicorn taking a rather central role in proceedings. Can I be blamed for wanting to see what she’s made of, in whatever limited fashion today affords?”

“Ah. Wanting to place eyes or whatever you have — on your new enemy, then?”

“Who wouldn’t?” A shrugging motion came from the flickering pattern of lights playing across the Crown’s jewels. “Maybe she’ll justify Equestrian dominance on Ungula at long last. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll necessitate more planning. Maybe I had a spare day and felt giving you all sleepless nights of guessing was its own reward. Or maybe good intentions and a desire to share in the day’s joy have filled me quite spontaneously.”

When a chilly silence greeted the last sentence, the Crown sighed a metallic sigh. “Would you like some supporting evidence for the latter? Menial, produce the gift.”

The ibex divided a portion of his magic and lifted up the gift on his back. To his surprise, Burro recognised the tall, bulbous shape of a traditional Capric samovar. A red ribbon had been tied around the chimney ring, and the body of it had been enameled black and painted with the colours of a night sky dustings of white stars, distant red nebulae, and odd points of bright blue and green against the void.

He eyed it for several seconds, and it didn’t explode once. Or multiple times, for that matter.

“How inauspicious,” said Fairy Floss. “How much poison were you able to cram inside it in the end?”

“Hilarious,” said the Crown lightly. “The couple shall have to provide their own tea-leaves and spices, but I’m sure they shan’t lack there. The goats under my dominion assure me it’s a wonderful tool for evenings ‘pon mountainsides when the wind blows chill right to the bone, and who am I to question their judgement? Just put it down wherever on the table, there’s a good menial. No, not there.”

As the menial scrabbled for an alternative placement, Burro noticed the ibex servant who’d served him canapés earlier come trotting demurely up to the group, a tray in her grasp. She sidled up, saw the other ibex, and saw the Crown in his grasp. And then she turned right around and bolted in the other direction as fast as seemliness would allow.

And in the moment after she’d left, there came the whump of somepony alighting on the ground behind the Crown, and the flap of broad wings falling in against powerful sides. Everyone present, save the ibex and Goldtorc, took an instinctive step backwards.

“Crown,” said Celestia, her tone neutral.

“Celestia,” said the Crown. “So glad I could make it. I’m afraid I must have come in when you were talking to other guests — the duke and duchess of Maretonia, correct?”

“So it seems. The invitation was for the Capric representative.”

“And I’m sure my ambassador could have performed admirably there.” The same shrugging motion. “But does he represent Capra better than I?”

“That is certainly an argument that could be made.” Celestia leaned down, her eyes flashing gold briefly. “I’ll expect good behaviour. Nothing but.”

“Of course,” said the Crown in a tone that was as meek as Burro felt it could contrive. “You’ll see I’ve even brought a gift.”

“How kind.”

Silence fell, that managed to both be as chilly as the grave and as heated as any furnace, until Celestia looked up to face the others. Even with a smile back on her face, the afterglow in her eyes left trails in their vision. “Ah, good day, everyone. I hope I find you all well?”

“Moderately so, dear, yes,” Fairy Floss eventually allowed.

“Glad to hear it. I’ll give you all a few seconds’ head start in finding your places, then. Backstage muddles have at last been unmuddled, and the ceremony’s about to start.”

Burro sighed with relief, partly for the sake of his aching legs, and as he and the others made for the stairs leading up into the Crystal Hall, he heard Celestia’s voice at his back, projected across the whole of the green.

The wedding at last!


Into the wedding hall they shuffled, row by row, lit by the light streaming in from great windows. Seats divided by a central aisle filled the space before a raised section of floor at one end. Burro passed in underneath a choir of birds, one of which warbled off-key, and found his assigned row near the back of the hall.

He inveigled his way along and finally plonked his weary haunch down, with empty spaces to his left and right. Gellert came up almost immediately afterwards and planted himself down at Burro’s right. Ahead, the great and good of Equestria and the probably less great but likely gooder of the groom’s family shuffled noisily into their own positions.

“A few moments of charming dreariness and then freedom,” sighed Gellert. “Unless any interesting drama happens to delay proceedings. Odds on that?”

“Ooh, with all that security?” Burro thought. “Ten to one. There’s a rucat in one of these pockets if you’re willing.”

“You’re on.”

“Gambling in the middle of a wedding tends to be frowned upon, dears,” came Fairy Floss’s voice, moving in somewhere beyond Gellert.

“Oh, everyone does something fun and disreputable after a ceremony anyway, so if we’re just making good time ...”

“Oh, that wasn’t necessarily an objection, and these odds are acceptable to me. I have a few drachrams in my robes here — ”

“Hey, hey. I’m not a griffon with limitless ability to pay out if drama does happen, so you’ll have to —”

“Beg your pardon,” came Simoom’s cheerful if somewhat muffled tones as he made his way along the last row behind Burro, past which a long line of clothed tables ran under the windows.

“Beg our pardon,” rumbled Greenhorn, as he and Greentorc came just after Simoom, making their way to seats which had thoughtfully been sized for aurochs.

The Crown and the ibex bearing it were silent, but Burro was aware of them settling down somewhere right of Fairy Floss. The ibex floated the Crown up into the air, and there it hovered, sedately observing events. Past it, and from the vestibule lying between the main hallway and the main door, Burro could hear other raised voices, even over the hubbub of guests as yet entering and finding their places.

“... their seating should be of no concern to the necessities of your situation, Your Grace!” That was Lyuba.

“Please, Dame Lyuba!” And that was Sailears. “There’s no seats in there big enough to take you, and I need to be there to say I was present and displayed the face of Pachydermia to the outside world and all that! It’s not going to hurt anyone if you leave me in there for just a few minutes.”

“That is not guaranteed, Your Grace! Every being in there is an outlander. Their minds are stranger than their stunted forms. Who knows what they plot?”

“Having a good wedding?” This was met with a wall of silence. Then, in tones that were a calf’s idea of slyness, “If leaving me there’d get you in trouble, I could always just tell my uncle you watched me like a hawk every step of the way —”

“You will not practise dishonesty, Your Grace! Least of all on my behalf!” This came like a thunderclap, leaving cowed silence in its wake, but after a few moments, Lyuba spoke again, her tone grudging. “If it serves your education and Pachydermia, Your Grace, I could leave you there for a few minutes, without my immediate attendance. I will wait in this vestibule.”

“Thanks, Dame Lyuba!”

“You will call for me should the least danger threaten, Your Grace.”

“Of course, Dame Lyuba!”

“Your Grace, it is not seemly to embrace one’s guard’s leg with your trunk.”

“Sorry, Dame Lyuba!” The Shahanshah of Ancient and Glorious Pachydermia’s cheerful footsteps echoed on the marble floor leading into the main hall. “Please don’t scare anyone else coming in!”

“I do not needlessly scare passers-by, Your Grace!” was Lyuba’s unheeded call. Sailears was already navigating up the row with all the grace afforded a keen elephant calf, leaving a trail of bruises and yelps in his wake. He appeared next to Burro, smiling brightly, propelling himself into the seat to Burro’s left. Burro casually shifted to make enough room. It was that or be shifted.

And after a few more moments of clattering and queries, that was it. A steady murmuring filled the hall, of dozens of different conversations breaking out all around, and Burro craned his head to see what was going on down at the other end, past several rows of pony heads.

There was Celestia on the raised section, looking serene. By her, there stood a handsome and strapping stallion in a Equestrian dress uniform, kindly weariness naked in his red-rimmed eyes. The indefatigable groom who was to thank for the city’s shield, Shining Armour, Burro assumed. His horn’s glimmer flickered as Burro watched. Next to them both, there was a dragon whelp in snazzy evening wear, and there were five young mares. Burro recognised Rarity from earlier, and the others rang true as reported-upon Element Bearers. An eclectic bunch, even under their well-made dresses … but the sort of mares that had saved civilisation on two separate occasions weren’t to be sneered at.

There probably wouldn’t be enough time in the reception to meet them all and to discuss matters with Fairy Floss and the others and to get roaringly scandalous with Gellert, and Burro was deep into regretfully contemplating telling Gellert that tonight’s plans would have to be less tipsy than planned … when at that very moment, the door to the hall smoothly opened. All eyes turned there as the bird choir began singing anew, backed up by somepony who’d discovered all the joys their organ could provide.

Sweetie Belle and two other fillies skipped in, spraying flowers from held baskets with wild abandon. And in their wake came the bride.

The word that came to mind when beholding Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was ‘resplendent’, though the one that snuck in before it was ‘pink’. She held herself high and proudly as she marched down the aisle, her elaborate dress ruffling along the carpet and strewn petals, and she eyed the crowd on either side with a detached and casual hauteur. There seemed to be the suggestion of a smirk on her features. She couldn’t have appeared much more royal absent sticking a syringe into herself and drawing out pure blue.

“Now there’s an imposing princess,” he murmured to Gellert. “Odds on her cowing the Crown?”

“I can hear you, Arch-Minister,” replied the Crown, pitching its voice to carry down the row. “And I’m withholding my judgement. For now.”

“Hush!” hissed Greenhorn in tones louder than either of them, though they were all largely drowned out by the organ. Cadance swept up to the raised section with only the slightest glance their way, and faced Shining Armour with a bright smile, and Celestia began talking.

There was a sigh from behind Burro as Celestia spoke. Goldtorc murmured in Greenhorn’s ear, “I remember our own.”

“Hush.” And in tones faintly tinged with what seemed like sadness to Burro, “I remember also. It was a good day for the kingdom. The line was secured.”

“... of course. A good day.”

“...It is my great pleasure,” came Celestia’s voice, pitched to carry in the echoes of the vast room, as everyone present hushed and held their breath, “to pronounce you —”

Stop!

The door slammed open, and a shocked murmuring spread across the crowd as a purple-coated and ragged-looking unicorn mare stood revealed, panting and glaring at Cadance.

“O-ho!” Burro looked up to see events clearly. “Ten rucats for me at your earliest convenience, Chieftain.”

“Stars confound you. More than usual.” Gellert rose in his own seat as well, all but hovering off the ground with interest.

“My word!” Simoom radiated mixed parts surprise and curiosity, and similar exclamations came from the Bullwalda and the Royal Consort. High above, the Crown’s jewels flared blue.

Sailears tugged Burro’s foreleg sleeve with his trunk. “Is this meant to happen, Arch-Minister?” he enquired cheerfully. “Equestrian weddings are exciting.”

“What’s happening?” hissed Fairy Floss, closer to the ground as she was.

“She’s ...” Burro kept his ears peeled as the unicorn and Cadance exchanged words and eyed the doorway.

The doorway in which a second Cadance appeared, this one dishevelled, battered, and radiating enough controlled wrath to make any old-fashioned monarch proud.

Burro’s mind skipped a beat, and then clicked. “Oh, we’ve got an imposter. At least one.”

“Oh. Is that normal?”

“Bloody what?”

“Quiet, everyone!” The murmuring from the crowd was getting ever more frenzied, and the two Cadances were still talking, and making out the details of what was being said seemed suddenly of high importance.

“... a changeling!” the Cadance in the doorway was partway through declaring. “She takes the form of somepony you love and gains power by feeding off your love for them!”

“What’s a changeli —?” started Burro, but as he turned to the Cadance at the other end, he quickly got his answer.

Hitherto, he hadn’t thought it was possible for eyes and horns to burn green, but burn green Cadance’s did, shedding arcane light that all but poisoned the air. She tensed, snarled, and brought forth a sudden ring of acid-green flame around herself. The fire rippled and built and columned up around her, and half-glimpsed past its seething, things twisted. Shreds of pink hide and feathers fell away like leaves in a breeze, peeling back and revealing a dark, lean, chitinous form. The wings became membranous, the limbs twisted and creaked and juddered upwards, bringing Cadance to a terrible height, and a snarled jag of horn tore up from her brow.

The flames cleared, and the eyes still burned, and the thing unmasked released a peal of melodious laughter at the horrified silence of the crowd.

“Right you are, princess,” she purred.

“What in the hells is happening?” hissed Fairy Floss as the terrified murmuring kicked back into high gear, interspersed with more shrieking. Simoom and the aurochs gasped. Gellert’s claw fell down towards his waist for a blade that wasn’t there. Sailears stared and said, “Wow!”

Burro boggled, his ears struggling against the cacophony, his eyes wide and mouth slightly open. “For Depth’s sake, Equestria,” he said in a pleading tone before Fairy Floss leaned across Gellert’s form and jammed a hoof into his side. “Ow! What?”

“Happenings! Inform me! Now!”

“The Cadance we all thought was Cadance has revealed herself to be some sort of shapeshifting monster, who ...” His ears strained. “”Er, something about feeding, and the groom getting weaker … oh, stars, said groom being the one who’s been keeping the shield going … and there’s more, and if the rows before me could kindly shut up so I could listen, that would be excellent, thank you!”

“Well, this has all the makings of an exciting day,” growled Gellert, flexing his claws. “How’s your bladework?”

“Spectacular as always ...wait, I caught the word ‘army’ there. What in the sunless hells is she doing?” Dark wings flashed past the window, a detail he could have really, really done without noticing.

Behind him, all but unheeded, Greenhorn leaned towards Goldtorc and murmured, “Now would be a good time to notch something to that longbow.”

“I agree. Just give me room ...”

“...we take Canterlot!” called the dark mockery of an alicorn, her voice cutting through to Burro like a blade. “And then, all of Equestria!”

No. You won’t.

And low though it may have been, Celestia’s voice settled across the room like a thunderclap. She strode towards the not-Cadance, her magenta eyes colder than steel. “You may have made it impossible for Shining Armour to perform his spell. But now that you have so foolishly revealed your true self ...”

For a brief moment, before Burro’s eyes, Celestia and not-Cadance locked horns. “...I can protect my subjects from you.”

Then Celestia swept back, her wings spread, and her horn flared brighter than the sun. Burro yelped and blinked away, dazzled, only barely aware of the burning slash of pure golden light she sent driving down at the not-Cadance. A growl came from the not-Cadance, and a poison-green retort stabbed up the instant after, clashing against Celestia’s magic in a crackling display that all but made magic fizz on his tongue.

Oh, you idiot, you idiot, you idiot, Burro thought, looking at the not-Cadance, who seemed to be withering and snarling under Celestia’s blazing onslaught, the alicorn herself remaining steady in the air. That’s not how you pick a fight. Enjoy that opponent while you last ...

Gold and green seethed in the air, and as they hissed and shed sparks like a bonfire where they met, the not-Cadance opened one eye, her horn erupting anew with light. Spitting green forced its way up through the gold, and Burro caught only one brief glimpse of Celestia’s surprised expression before it met her horn-on.

That was when the world went green.

Burro heard cries, spluttering, queries from all around as he tried to blink the flash out of his eyes. He heard a whump, followed by metallic clattering.

He opened one eye.

Amidst the silence, slowly being coloured by screams, he saw the not-Cadance, upright and surprised and horribly, horribly gratified. He saw the groom, standing dead-eyed and listless. He saw the probably-actual-Cadance and the Element Bearers and the purple unicorn — Twilight Sparkle? — rushing towards … towards …

Towards the prone and lifeless form of Princess Celestia, her eyes closed and her horn gently trailing smoke.

Burro stared. Celestia feebly twitched.

“Oh, rut,” he said, whereupon everything went irreversibly to hell.

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