• Published 20th Apr 2017
  • 714 Views, 21 Comments

Princess Celestia's Body Double: Setting Stage For Harmony - JLB



After centuries of tumult, it has been a decade of harmony for Equestria. Princess Celestia has not been showing signs of the ruling stress that's plagued her for years. But Nightmare Moon looms, and the secret of her vitality gains new purpose.

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Consequences: Aversion.

“But what I mean, Princess… is that, ahm…” The blue stallion paced around nervously, unable to bolt himself down to one place as one was expected to when discussing official matters with the Princess of the realm herself.

It’s not easy to blame him for this particular fumble. This situation is a veritable pickle.’

“You aren’t particularly concerned with conventions or ethical limitations, Lord Sparklegust,” Celestia helped him out, further straightening out the scattered, rambly Unicorn’s disposition by addressing him in the official manner as per his social rank. “We figured that out quite some time ago. You needn’t try to explain that to me. Really, this is very much a matter where a picture is worth a thousand words - and I do believe I’ve seen your works in person.”

A white half-lie. Effectively the truth. Sometimes better than the truth, actually. Ah, how I cherish having been forced to perfect the art. Now that… that is a proper lie.’

Garnet Lantern’s head drooped, ears flicking nervously. He breathed in deep, aiming to compose himself, loosening the collar of his visibly rarely-worn official vest.

“I just… didn’t assume things would develop along the lines, um…” He stumbled on his words, kicking his hind hoof absentmindedly. “...that they developed along. If I may be so bold, Your Majesty...”

“Assuming no explosions of unsanctioned payloads happen, you may.” Playing it soft with the likes of Garnet, at least the way he was presented to her by Osmosis, was not an ideal strategy. Further exemplified by her troublemaking body double asking her to be, in fact, as soft as possible with him.

If there was ever a more obvious ploy to get me on friendly terms with ponies I intentionally keep away from myself, Osma, then I’ll pen you a letter. On your flank.’

“Oh, heh, hemm. No issue there, I suppose. The Guard had me searched quite thoroughly, if I say so myself,” the stallion joked in return, nodding. Osma was, in fact, good for something - she noted his character and behaviors down rather accurately in the limited amount of time Celestia presented her with. Had she not, there would have been entirely too much detail. As it stood, Garnet’s ability to slip out of palpable worry into forcibly tasteful jesting didn’t surprise her as much as it otherwise could have. “I should say I’m almost worried by all the precautions, security was not quite so tight when I first presented our works for Your attention.”

“That is because back then I was not yet aware of the full capabilities of you and your spouse’s. When even innocuous items hold untold potential, it’s really best to give them a good inspection,” she followed up on his jesting with a healthy degree of seriousness. “Were you less unpredictable, you wouldn’t have missed the Canterlot Gardens sunset at its best. Now we’ll have to discuss matters under a considerably more dried shade of orange. As you can see, things tend to work out better with more simplicity, Lord Sparklegust.”

I invite you to wriggle out of that one, Garnet. And please, Osma, continue to cast me as an unsociable, inept excuse for a talker. I stole his joking mood, I put pressure on him, I exert authority with my every word, and I’m setting the poor thing up for a softer fall,’ the Princess pondered to herself, dissecting her own moves. She had been around ponies long enough to more or less see how this would play out. With this turn of events, it would be somewhere along the lines of “less unpleasant than an Earthen pilgrimage; more unpleasant than cakes and five unwarranted sugarcubes in every drink because Osma was a sweet tooth last night”. Celestia held a marginal appreciation for confections at best. ‘One would think that would call for more than derogatory descriptors on her part… Hmf.’

“You have that right, Princess! Simplifying and streamlining things is what our technology is all about, after all. I’m glad you understand that,” the stallion accepted her words cheerfully, lifting his forehoof in excitement, leaving the Garden’s everqueer plush grass to bounce in place for lack of pressure. “We’re merely having growing pains for now… A project is only as good as the version one unveils to the public, but hidden behind the scenes is a lot of trouble one goes through on the way.”

“I think I can assure you that searching your personal inventory for things that could conceivably explode was not part of one such grand plan,” Celestia replied with a shrug, averting her eyes. Inside, she won a battle to suppress an onslaught of deadpan monotone. ‘Amazing. My gain, my loss. I got him happy by showing him down. He has higher resilience to conversational duress than most in these past few centuries. Feeling out of time, Garnet? Stand in queue.’ In fairness, after seeing him simmer down a little and almost pout at her lack of reciprocal excitement, she felt some satisfaction. She went on: “It was simply so that there wouldn’t be a precedent for this level of security to be the norm. And on that note… you wear glasses, Lord Sparklegust, do you not?”

“Oh, yes, I normally do. Poor eyesight from birth, that would be my mother’s side genetics having—”

“Did you choose to avoid them to present yourself in a better light, or were they deemed a magical hazard by security?” the Princess shot his ramble down with a piercing question. Yet again her meddlesome shapeshifter friend had to be commended, because this Unicorn did, in fact, like to talk, especially when handling stress. “If it was the former, then I’m sorry to inform you I find bespectacled gentlecolts more well-looking.”

Garnet took the hit well enough - he blushed and folded his ears, giving a controlled smile. ‘Whatever you say puts you in an uncomfortable position. Must be disarming. Trust me, Garnet, I know the feeling. We’re in much the same pit, if only you knew. Too bad you will.’ He cleared his throat and explained:

“No, no, Your Majesty, it was the latter, naturally. I’m a married stallion, and I’d be an explosive item myself if I ever gave up my Canary, if I say so myself!” He shrugged in an expected display of poor knowledge of royal etiquette. ‘Expected and refreshing,’ she scoffed to herself as he gleamed a sparkly smile. ‘I’d worn corsets less constricting than that outdated mess. Why oh why do you keep the Council happy? Scarcely another need in the whole wide world.’

“So your glasses were considered a magical hazard, Lord Sparklegust?” Celestia shook her head and smiled serenely, exhaling. “This conversation has possibly been long overdue, then.”

“I… I-I… I understand the Guard’s concerns, but those Detonating Diamonds I had my frame encrusted with were entirely inert. Only if I were struck by lightning where I stood, specifically on the snout, no less, would they exert any kind of magical energy! And even then—”

Whatever, Garnet. You will build your own proverbial mausoleum if I can help it.’ Celestia sighed in lieu of spoken reply, drifting her gaze from the visitor to her setting sun. ‘You are entirely too much of a dork for me to have a pleasant time building yours.’

“Understood, Your Majesty… I just wish to set the record straight. It’d be a massive shame if all the ground we gained during today’s visit was lost. For everyone involved!” he spoke, and with a good degree of honesty.

“Threatening me, are you?” she asked in return, raising an eyebrow and pitching up her voice. It was important, when speaking to her subjects about things she was displeased with, to sound at least partially joking and playful. “I do recall being locked in a crushing stasis field that required the sacrifice of your eldest child’s dignity to release me from?” In addition to that, the thought of Osmosis being in such a predicament did in fact make her giddy with amusement.

“...not… exactly a… stasis field… yourmajesty…” Garnet squeaked in response, fumbling with his speech and sweating excessively. ‘Oh, cut it out, you… Why do my ponies always act this way when I do this? And it’s always the handsome ones that make a mess for me to sort through, no less. I feel like smacking a kitten on the face. What do I do with them, huh?.. Especially if that smack needs to be delivered…’

“I suppose I can’t be blamed, since I was being crushed by it at the moment,” the mare dripped some venom as she spoke, looking down at the rightfully nervous Unicorn. “Do elaborate then. What was that thing meant to be? And why was it in the library?”

“Okay, yes, yes, I’ll, I’ll explain! I’ll explain everything,” he promised, nodding haphazardly, gulping and inhaling to stabilize his speech. “What you had the misfortune of, um, accidentally activating, was… a wedding gift. Uh, not mine, I’m already married. We had it commissioned a while back. To make a tediously long story short, their wedding was, ahhh… indefinitely postponed, so to say, and we got to keep the part paid to us in advance, as well as the prototype. Myself and Canary worked on it in our free time. We liked the idea we had for it far too much to just abandon it”

“A wedding gift that doubles as a weapon of mass destruction. I can distinctly feel the Sparklegust flavor,” Celestia spoke sarcastically, clacking her tongue in a less than official manner. ‘Yes, Garnet, I’m very much making fun of you. The Princess herself stooping down to get your egg on. Now please don’t be submissive and start defending yourself to make my job easier, will you?’ She raised a condescending eyebrow at the blushing stallion. “It’s subtle, I know, but I can definitely see the pattern.”

“It’s… not… intended to act this way, per se. As I said, it’s merely a prototype… You see, Your Majesty, the idea was that this device - which I think we were going to turn into a… a lamp? No, a chandelier… yes, a chandelier, we were going to turn it into a chandelier once the arcanery was all in order—”

“A chandelier of marital virility, then, I assume,” she cut him off, striking once more where it hurt. Osma was good for more than mere intelligence gathering, at times like these. Thanks to her fumbles, it was almost not horrifically out of character for her to behave in such a manner. ‘I still can’t help but feel a little bit horrible.’

“...” The stallion was silent for a moment, breath evacuating out his nostrils as if he were a balloon, deflating. With near palpable, vein-bulging effort, he composed himself, shaking his head. ‘Osma must have been subtler about it to them than I just was. Good. Strip back your layers so this is over with quicker, you magitechie march hare, you.’ Garnet continued in a much shakier voice. “It was… meant to cast a little light show when activated… there were going to be multiple modes… the lights would, they would, they would make shapes, they would dance together, around the room…” He had lost his fight to remain composed. Although, it would seem that it was only partiallydue to her pressure. The creaking in his voice, the suppressed sighs, the slower inflection. ‘Well… at least it was him who made himself sad. His own fault for being so emotional. Is he even sad? Maybe the two of them just put this much soul into it.’

“Surprisingly quaint. I wouldn’t have described what struck me back in your manor as ‘light’, and ‘shape’ is perhaps a bit of an understatement. ‘Massive stasis shockwave’ is considerably more fitting, and I still fail to see how this could be part of the process, even at prototype stage.”

“We used a rejected projected shield barrier design as our starting point,” Garnet said, having drained his voice of emotion, matter-of-factly, his head hung low. “Some element of that framework interacted with the mood detector we implemented for the chandelier, and somehow enough charge surged into that mechanism for it to try to create a protector shield. That is what happened. We have no excuse… this is just how we work.”

I’m almost disappointed. I expected it to have been an explosive. Turns out it’s the opposite. Good enough… Let’s get this over with.’

“Am I to assume that it was rejected because it actually destroyed things it was meant to protect?” she asked.

“N-no... “ Garnet whined and hissed, ruffling his formerly neat mane with his hooves in exasperation. It likely made him feel even more insecure, though Celestia definitely preferred him like this. He wouldn’t have known, because all he saw in her face was grim dejection. ‘Why in the heavens am I eyeing this stallion up? He ruffled his mane, that is not a big deal. I like ruffled manes; I also like oranges. Do I lose focus when I see an orange? No. Then why am I losing focus now? Exactly, I’m not. Come on, help me out here, Lord Ruffles, stop digging at the ground and say something, this is hardly a good train of thought for me to be on.’ Whatever the reason for the dejection, he took it hard, and spoke even slower. “It… actually, this was the first time it projected anything remotely solid. We were never able to make it more than, than… just a thin, brittle sliver of glassy light. It faded faster than our hopes of making business with the Royal Guard… I-if you forgive my simile.”

“Simile forgiven, Lord Ru— tchpah.” Celestia grimaced lightly, rolling her eyes quite hard behind closed eyelids. “Lord Sparklegust.”

“This was all such a complete freak accident. I examined it after things had settled, before I left to meet you, Your Majesty. The remnants of the shield projector were enough to produce that… shockwave. What activated them was an unprecedented overload of sheer, ummm…” He rubbed his cheek, a habit of a stallion who kept a stubble on more often than not. For this visit, he shaved. ‘I suppose that’s good. Best not to seduce me by accident. You have very peculiar accidents, Lord Rufflegust. Very, very peculiar. I do believe I am getting ideas…’

“Go on?”

“Love energy, Your Majesty. Plainly put, you… y-you loved us so much, it overcharged the device, resurrected the shield barrier, and it then saw you as an alien object. This will probably be v-very amusing once the dust settles, eh-heh, ehhmmm.”

It already is, Lord Rufflegust, it already is. But more than that…’

“Very, very, very interesting.” Celestia sighed. She flexed her neck and breathed in deep, rearranging her thoughts. “Very curious. Quite unusual. This changes things, I’m sure you understand.” The Princess shot him a look.

“I do, Your Majesty.” He nodded.

The whole affair was, undoubtedly, a pickle. Somewhere in the lower-to-middle tier of pickles Celestia had been in over her long, long life. Still rather genuine. The fact that of all the Houses Osmosis could have visited at her first discretion, Sparklegust was her choice, would have been a cruel play of Fate if after her life’s many centuries, the Princess still believed in such a thing. As it stood, it was merely a remarkably poorly timed move.

Sparklegust were a thorn in the side of her conscious ever since Garnet and Canary got an audience with her as part of their patent pitch. Despite months of Celestia’s finest bureaucrats burying them in warehouses of red tape, these two persevered. They really wanted to make it big with their inventions. They really thought they had something unmistakably amazing on their hooves, technology that would change Equestria forever, fix so many ills, put their House’s name back into history where it belonged… Such simple designs that did what only the most complex, draining spells could achieve. What only the most sophisticated, hard-to-manufacture Earthen machinery could deliver. Stability was an issue, of course, as was mass-production, but they already managed so much as a mere two-pony operation. If the Princess saw it their way, it would open so many doors, not only for them, but for Equestria itself. They believed that, they did. She saw it in his and his wife’s eyes that day.

And as she observed their admittedly simplistic demonstration magitech gizmos, Princess Celestia knew one glaringly alarming thing, hidden, of course, beneath her serene exterior, one she had decided to shed at the present time. What she realized back then was simple.

Lord and Lady Sparklegust were entirely, one hundred percent, absolutely correct. This was life-changing technology. It needed not be said that, implemented gradually all over the country, it would elevate them to unquestionable main world power status. The Griffon Empire would be left untold miles behind in their dust, instead of being a fierce, if friendly, competitor that it was at the current time. With scientists and magicians on the task of refining their arcanely infused jewels, the stability kinks would be done away with in no time.

All in one fell swoop.

As she collected herself and told them to wait, as she did all that was possible to half-agree, half-allow, half-arrange, half-consider, and, above all things, delay, she was perfectly aware of all of that. It was the exact reason so much effort went into stifling their work, trying to quell their enthusiasm, working to keep them a pair of magitech tinkerers who did private commissions for a living. To her credit, it worked. Up until now, when she had to face poor, hard-working, idealistic Garnet, and somehow reject him upfront while still sounding sane. If she failed that, then, of course, there were means of censorship and whitewashing the incident in the press, but these were not means the Princess had any plans of forcing herself to use if she could help it.

He wouldn’t understand. Nobody would. Nobody should, she knew that much. The only reason she did was that she was around far longer than anyone else worthy of mentioning. Centuries of observation, not to mention ruling, taught her many things. One of the main ones was: change is extremely difficult. It was impossible to understate just how poorly Equestrian society handled change throughout its history. There was a reason they still had these long-derelict Houses, a reason there was royal etiquette, a reason half of Canterlot even had a reason to exist, there were reasons for a massive amount of things that were beyond silly once one actually thought about them. That reason was that if they were forced out and replaced over a period of time less than about a hundred years, there would be untold tumult within pony society. Equestria was a near-utopia by all accounts, and they were nothing if not tolerant to new ideas… Unless they were replacing old ones. If they were, then you could as well open the Gates of Tartarus.

As a matter of fact, there were societal reforms Celestia thought up that would have brought more chaos into the realm than actually opening the Gates of Tartarus outright. That was, if she were silly enough to do such a thing - make drastic reforms, that is, not open the Gates. Reforms such as, for instance, bringing the Royal Canterlot Voice officially and fully out of use for any occasion that currently warrants it be employed, which she personally could not even remember any of at the given moment. Celestia’s estimations showed that the high society fallout would probably be comparable to if an outright coup happened. And if pony species were no longer obligatorily written with a capital letter, thus not recognizing them as long-gone nation-states, then the harmonious Unicorn, Pegasus and Earthen society would probably revert to Three Tribes-age divides, even if the realms of Unicornia, Pegasopolis and Earthscape existed primarily on the map. Perhaps a bit too pessimistic of an outlook, sure, but it was reason enough to not even try.

‘I’m sorry, Garnet. I really, truly am. But what you and your Canary have got is too good for us to use.’ Celestia brought a smile onto her face as her and the Unicorn stood by. 'You were born in the wrong time, and when that time comes, I will tell the ponies of the future of who thought of it first. For now, though… Let’s see if I can lay you down softly.’

“In technical terms… you nearly committed regicide by negligence. Now, please, don’t— Don’t faint, Lord Sparklegust!” She was actually not even looking at him. Hearing the whimper and knowing how most ponies reacted when told such things, by the Princess no less, was enough. Standard procedure. From this point, though, her tough act was being dropped and she was becoming progressively more compassionate. The meanness served its purpose - he was going to be a lot more susceptible to her words, and he gave her enough ammunition. “We are speaking technicalities, please, I beg you. On the same technical level, your son heroically saved me from his father and mother’s unwitting crime. Things are, however, not the same after such an event. I hope you understand.”

“...” Garnet needed some time to come up with a reply, understandably. It was time she saw fit to let him have. ‘Best if you can understand at least a bit of the greater picture beyond feeling betrayed. Which, I suppose, you are. Less conjecture room is always good, however. Come on. Find those words. If I keep talking, you’ll just get overwhelmed, and then start coming up with things that never happened when you’re out of here. This is how rumors are born, Garnet, this is what makes me pretend I have a pet phoenix.’At last, he wiped the sweat that had congested all over his snout, and attempted to smoothen out his mane with his now-moist hooves. Not the cleanest stallion - then again, the situation was fairly messy as well. “Is… is there any way we can make this up? We are so close to finishing the design documents you requested last year. Can we at least… can we at least circumvent the court system? C-can we? If there’s punishment for us, then could you at least take it onto your authority? I beg you, me and Canary, we can’t waste time with paperwork… Not any more! The patenting process has already taken a great toll on our work, but we’re so close! We can’t— we can’t…”

And so the stallion went on and on, telling her everything she already knew, but with more of an emotional sting to it. Celestia blocked it out, even though the increasingly desperate Unicorn had quite the motor mouth on him. Blocking ponies’ rants out was a skill she had developed and perfected over the many years. Rarely was a good point actually made, and most of them were like this one - emotional, either elated or crestfallen. It was generally a good idea to not get too attached to the affairs of her subjects, so rejoicing along with them wasn’t desired, and feeling guilty for their misfortune wasn’t wanted. Especially when she was the source of said misfortune.

‘It’s not all lost for him. He still has decent enunciation and diction, even though I think he’s at about two and a half words per second on average right now. He could be a dictor once radio takes off nationwide. If this proves an experience traumatic enough for him and his wife to give up magi-engineering… Hopefully it won’t, if I can help it,’ she mused to herself, breathing heavily to appear sharing in the suffering stallion’s misery, eyes focused on the setting sun instead of the pony to her side. ‘Unlike his creations, that technology has a chance at seeing public acceptance while he is still young. Or, more accurately… alive. Equestria can become outrageously silly when you look at things you’ve learned to take for granted.’

“Lord Sparklegust,” Celestia spoke up when she felt he had talked for long enough. There was always a point at which ponies became calmer, more malleable, when they talked for long, intermittent periods of time. The weakness of his voice suggested this was that time. “You have all the right to be upset. I really do understand,” she spoke gently, with forced sympathy, knowing from the tone of his voice that he had mostly been begging and complaining and not being particularly constructive. “But you have to understand as well. You left an item of potentially lethal danger laying around in your library, and considering I wasn’t warned about its qualities, it’s likely your son had no idea what it did, or was so used to this sort of behavior that this seemed like the norm. I completely understand that you did not assume this sort of reaction was possible, but please, Lord Sparklegust. Cool your head and look at the way you treat your craft, in all its explosive glory. You did simply just leave it there, possibly forgetting about it afterward, too consumed with what you and Lady Sparklegust were up to, didn’t you?”

She saw him gasp to shoot back a reply, but before she could even blink, he stopped himself. With his mouth already open, he simply froze in place. His eyes pierced through the grass on the ground. His cheeks, ravaged with intense blush, gradually lost color. After a moment of internal turmoil, Garnet let the air that could have been a pointless return hiss out of his nostrils. His eyes closed, and he nodded quietly instead.

“As you recall, all those months ago, when you presented your very first prototype to me and we began the official process of securing your patent, I was optimistic, but cautious. I told you to prioritize safety above all other things. And now, when I pay you an unannounced visit... “ To fully take control of the situation and the conversation, Celestia put her gold-slippered hoof on the Unicorn’s tense shoulder. He trembled, if not from the weight. “That alone effectively nullifies our dealings.”

The stallion bit on his lip. She wasn’t looking at him, but it was loud enough for her to hear. The Princess shook her head and cleared out her thoughts.

“The fact that by all rights and means, you should now be under a criminal investigation… This simply makes things all the worse. I’m very sorry, Garnet,” she said, getting quieter, eschewing the official title for better impact. “But this is over. Your work won’t be able to continue. I will not pursue charges, of course. I know better, I know better about you and Canary.” The mare sighed, holding his body closer to hers. He was almost limp. “I know, however, that I can’t trust you to deliver Equestria into the paradise that you envisioned. I will no longer be considering your technology fit for employment on a national basis, and you will have to procure a business patent if you want to associate with any particular business.” At that point, the stallion began to audibly constrict sobs. “Which, as we both know, essentially means that you will do best to continue what has worked for you thus far. Make profit via commissions.”

‘There I go… almost done. He’s susceptible. He will accept. I guess I’m going to have to thank Osma. This is one burden off my conscience, and if not for her barging in and messing everything up, I’ll probably have kept the patent charade going until him and his wife were gone. And I suppose that if not for her tomfoolery over the years, the fact I’m all but cuddling this stallion would send Equestria into uproar. As it stands, once this story gets leaked out to the tabloids and exaggerated, it’ll be more or less business as usual. Perhaps I don’t appreciate her enough.’

She squinted and nodded to herself. Taking small steps forward, she forced Garnet to walk alongside her, eventually getting the two of them down a long, hedged path, to a marble statue - an artistic recreation of Equis, with Equestria performed in the best of detail. With a spark of her horn, she rotated it so that the Equestrian landmass faced them.

‘Maybe I should get on with this… He’s not going to be talking. I think I’ve half murdered him. Well, I suppose this is how omelettes are made. I’m sorry, Garnet, but this is for your own good, or else innocuous food metaphors won’t cover the extent of trouble you’ll have to face for the rest of your life.’

“Raise your head, Garnet Lantern. I’m afraid we’re not here without a reason.” She nudged him gently with her wing.

“Uh… Yes, y-Your Majesty? I’m…” He cleared his throat, his voice a disparate mess, made much worse by his attempts to sound proper at such a soul-crushing moment. I’m listening.”

“How long have you lived in Canterlot for?”

“For five years now, Your Majesty. We...” he spoke quietly, a shade of his ranting, begging self. “We operated out of Vanhoover until we’d gathered enough. Heh… heh, we… We purchased a floating manor so moving cost us less. It was an adventure…”

‘I guess the bubbliness and the tangents aren’t for show. This is what he’s like when his layers are all peeled back. Why do troublesome ponies have to be so attractive? I used to think my likes were oddly specific. I suppose my luck could just be even more specifically mischievous.’

“That’s… good. No, I am honest - that is good. That is good news. Unfortunately, the reason we’re here is that… Well, perhaps you haven’t lived in Canterlot long enough to have figured out why yet. Do I explain?”

“Uhm… Please do. I don’t… I don’t think I can think very—”

“I understand.” She took in breath and moved in for the kill. ‘This gambit is for the good of all of us. Yes, conscience, my darling, fine - I admit it. First and foremost it’s to have one less reminder of my failures in the immediate vicinity. In all due technicality, this doesn’t need to happen, and it can be avoided. The scales are all but balanced, though, and I have my own reasons. So let me make my case before you pound at my mind, please. Thanks in advance.’ The mare’s hoof stretched out, passing over the realm of Equestria, Garnet following the gilded shoe with his eyes. “Equestria is a very big place. A very big, very diverse place. Everywhere has something special about it. Canterlot’s specialty is… if I personally had to name one, it would be that everything has its eyes and ears on you.” She cleared her throat, frowning at a stray bead of sweat making its way onto her forehead despite being more or less cool and under control. “This is especially true for the Canterlot Elite. Of whom you are deservedly a part of. Perhaps more so than some others! I would personally have called you one of the first of a new generation of Canterlot high society. Your House is quite different from the rest, and not necessarily in that bad a way, not at all. I doubt you can deny that fact - you are hardly a purebred noble, are you, Garnet?”

“No, I don’t… think I would call myself that, Princess.”

“Well, that then means that many other Houses will have been keeping their eyes on you. Competition isn’t well-liked by some particular families, members of whom I won’t name, whose main claim to nobility is their inherited riches and bloodline. They do not like upstarts like you, even if you just so happen to be from a long-gone family that was probably nobler than theirs to begin with.” The stallion had been nodding along, and at this point she saw him mouth a less than pleased expression. Perfectly understandable - she was barely exaggerating, as unfortunate as that was. “Plainly speaking, Garnet, you have been being watched, and there are probably nasty rumors and raunchy stories being exchanged about Sparklegust at those families’ self-serving meetings and feasts. I’m being honest with you - this is how Canterlot works, and has always worked.”

“But… but we got so much business from the Elite families! They are most of our customers. They never treated us as if we were social pariahs, not on my memory,” he quasi-argued. She could tell from his tone that this was not meant to refute the point she was getting to - he merely presented an inconsistency for her to iron out for him. The stallion was susceptible and submissive to her message, that much was clear, as he still leaned limp against her leg. “Why would they…”

“Very simple. You are too useful for their interests, which are luxurious, fancy, multi-purpose pieces of jewelry with which to flaunt their wealth. To deride you would be to turn away a way to be that little bit more of a standout,” she explained. “This is, however, only so much of a benefit. It’s kept you from having the other families be openly hostile to you… up until now. Even I have to face it - trying to obscure what had happened is pointless. Everyone will know you all but had me murdered by the end of the week, and you know how rumors can grow.”

“Oh… Oh. Oh, oh no. No. But we just—” He began to realize, and she began to hold him tighter, giving at least some comfort.

“It’s an inevitability, Garnet. You will be forced out of here. I would only be able to do so by putting you under my own royal protection… which would set a questionable precedent, considering you did, in fact, put my life in peril. Once again, I hope you understand where I am coming from.”

“...I suppose it’s a good thing we invested in the floating manor, isn’t it?..” he mumbled in abject defeat, hoof pushing deep into his forehead. “I swear by the skies, I never meant for this… for… for this to…”

“I know you didn’t. Now, though…” Her hoof pointed to the Equestria on the statue. “I suggest you choose a destination and get ready to move as quickly as possible, before the rumors creep in and anyone gets any ideas. Some of the families are ridiculously loyal to royalty, and I am telling you that as royalty. They could… complicate the moving process.”

“...” Yet again, he was speechless. To his credit, this time it was slightly less defeated. She sensed a good degree of anger in there. He was recovering on an emotional level.

“I’m having the device in question taken away. We’ll keep it at the Towers, it’ll be one major piece of evidence less - that will slow down the rumors. This delay is all I can offer, though. It’s up to you to choose where you want to move and what you are going to be doing there.”

“I… I see. Yeah… Yeah, I… I see. Yes, thanks.” Garnet took in a deep breath, his ears flicking, eyes closed tight as he concentrated. ‘He’s a bit more mature than I imagined him being. Something told me he was going to bawl into my leg. That would have been extremely awkward.’ She gave him a reassuring pat, rubbing his side a little with her hoof. It seemed to help. “Thank you, Your Majesty, that is… that is more than kind. I’ll, I’ll… I’ll figure this out.”

“If you want a suggestion, I suggest Baltimare or Fillydelphia. A lot of rich merchants in those areas, not much direct contact with Canterlot, and your engineering skills could be of use there just as well.” Her hoof poked at the relevant spots on the map. “More than enough resources for you to live on comfortably.”

“We always wanted to live in Manehattan,” he said plainly.

“...really, did you now? I don’t believe I see the appeal for Sparklegust. It’s in very early stages of development, and I don’t know if there is going to be a lot more business in that area other than fishing,” she followed up on his statement. She was fairly baffled, and did feel curious as to what drove him to that place of all things - but the main reason she indulged him in that conversation was to distract. ‘Without a different topic to end the talk on, he will probably remember what exactly I said about taking that cursed shield projector. That is one dressed up lie too many. When he’s home, it’ll already be gone. It’s probably being taken away right now, in fact. I’m not going to risk losing this… peculiarity on my talk going badly. It didn’t, but if it did and there was a debacle, removing it from their possession could have been problematic. Now it’s up for my personal examination. Clandestine means to reach clandestine goals, such is the way… This is a clue in an investigation long frozen over.’ With that sorted out, she continued in genuine interest: “The Buffalo tribes nearby are still not fully negotiated with, either. Everyone… has more problems than they have money, as far as I’m aware.”

“I know,” he replied, nodding. “That is why I’ll try to convince Canary to let us move there.”

“Not concerned about money, are you?”

“Not particularly, Princess, no. We saved up enough to live comfortably for some time, even with the costs of moving being taken into account. Neither me nor my wife are in our craft to make a profit. The commissions are… mostly to make sure we stay afloat, as it were, if dark days ever hit. I suppose they have. But now, now I’ll…” He cleared his throat, having gotten flustered. The stallion sounded quite passionate. In fact, he removed himself from her reassuring grasp, gently so, and began to pace around slowly, but with a level of strength in his stride that she had to admire. It was good to see him reinvigorated so quickly, even if she could tell there would be many mood swings to come. “Now I’ll be able to turn our dark days to good. My friends from Manehattan told me enough for me to realize that we could really help. We wanted to help Equestria, of course… But now that what’s happened has happened, I’ll want to have us go there.”

“You’ve thought about this before, haven’t you?” Celestia raised an eyebrow, though her eyes looked into his with a sense of genuine approval. There was little in his aspirations she disagreed with. It was quite admirable, and definitely inhabited his subconscious on a significant enough level that, after having realized his hopes and dreams were over with, it sprung up to begin replacing them. ‘I’ve seen stallions much more mature than him take weeks to get over defeats a lot less devastating. Granted, it’s quite clear with his disposition that he’ll have his bouts of sadness, anger and apathy. Normal with such energetic ponies. I do feel he’ll be fine, though. In fact, I think he may succeed. Why if I am not better than I let myself think I am! This is turning out swell.’ She cracked the corner of a smile to encourage him further, casting her question as more approving than it may have sounded like. “Quite altruistic.”

“Well… yes! Yes, I have. It was going to be my retirement plan, since…” He rubbed the back of his neck and smiled weakly. “...well, in my opinion, Manehattan would still be a fledgeling of a fishing town by when our grand work was over. Now, if Canary approves, we’ll have an early start.”

“Then I shan’t stop you. Take the hard road if you think it’s the right thing to do. Not that I think you need be lectured on success, Lord Sparklegust,” she told him, slipping fully into approval, dispelling most of the unpleasantness of this conversation, and making sure they were truly nearing the end of it by reverting to a more official title. A book-end maneuver of sorts.

“Yes, you have that right, Your Majesty.” He nodded and walked up to her, standing face to face with the mare. Or rather, face to chestpiece. “Now that I suppose we’ve discussed all the… um… pertinent questions. May I ask for an exceedingly small favor?”

“Yes?..” Celestia was a bit taken aback, as he did not seem the kind to ask for a whole lot from authority, especially after having been so gracious and thankful.

“I, um… Well, this is a reasonably private spot, what with all the security,” he spoke with anxious quickness, not dissimilar to his nervous rant from before, if less traumatized. “And I… and no, no, I don’t mean to trouble you, but, considering how we have been—”

“Lord Sparklegust… what is it?”

“Could I please hold you for just a short while? I think I am going to end up crying on my way home. Even though I’m leaving shortly… I’m more conscious now that you’ve opened my eyes.”

‘Oh for crying out loud, this was going so well. Great job, Celestia. You just have to be right about the worst things. And look at these eyes. You aren’t refusing.’

The Princess gulped and stared at the stallion with remarkably wide eyes for a scant moment, before closing them and hanging her head in defeat, sharing in a fraction of the feeling he was exposed to just some minutes ago.

‘You are also sincerely hoping this is as private as Vault says it is…’

---

“I really do feel bad for him, you know,” Osma muttered, eyes focused on the beauty pageant floating in front of her. “You sure we don’t want to keep an eye on them? Maybe the kids won’t be a waste.”

“No, I’m afraid not. Today’s more impactful than I think you realize,” Celestia replied while hoof-rubbing a pristine white wing, wobbling around on a thick golden pillow. “Possibly because I’m too lazy to give you the talking to you deserve for your actions today.”

“Ooor, because you’re happy that this rock is off your chest yeeears sooner than you thought, and because everything more or less worked out in the end,” the body double replied with a vixenous head-tilt. “Considering, you know, that that’s what happened.”

“Outcomes and intentions are to be judged separately, as I have to keep reminding you. Just because you didn’t ruin everything in the world doesn’t mean you couldn’t have. Every time you could have ruined everything in the world is a risk I’m not letting go unpunished. Alas, I’m too busy and we did end up with a… tolerable state of affairs,” the Princess droned, rolling her eyes, and made her wing crack particularly loudly, retreating it back to her side afterward. The massaging then continued for the other wing. “So you’re not being forced to answer five chapters of Fair Banks’ “Original Practical Applications of Outdated Economic Theory”.”

“You do realize that I’m aware the only reason you aren’t letting me give you your pre-sundown massage today,” Osmosis droned in return, mocking Celestia’s tone. “Is so that I look more selfish than I actually am and you can pretend to not depend on me to continue existing, Sunny? Perfectly aware, Miss Orange-Flanks. You aren’t even hiding it, this nastiness is radiating off you like an aura.”

“Ah, such words of wisdom from Miss Let’s-Intrude-Into-Vital-Internal-Affairs-And-Touch-Random-Magical-Items,” the alicorn shot back, only to get a rustly raspberry in response. “Don’t pretend you didn’t walk the wire this day. You narrowly avoided making decisions I’d have had to struggle to undo, but still.”

“Beh. This just seems so… cold. And abrupt, too. I see your points, I mean, I saw them first,” the multicolor insectoid mare spoke, while her horn illuminated the lilac and orange sunset-lit chamber. “They may be all aloof and single-minded, but they aren’t bad ponies. Their daughter is a magical prodigy… Their son could make a good parent in future. Should you really have had them cast away at that pretense of yours?”

“Part pretense, Osma. You saw it yourself, Sparklegust was not a Canterlot family. Even if they tried to, they would never fit in. They would try to change things, and I would imagine that they would try hard,” Celestia replied with a heavy breath, lifting herself off the pillow and looking toward the reddening sun, prepared for its cycle to be brought to an end. “You saw how dedicated they were. I don’t think they only neglected their children because they found having copious amounts of rambunctious sex with each other so enthralling.” She rolled her eyes and delivered a heavy slap to her own snout, grumbling at the sound of the shapeshifter’s chittery giggling. “I would personally say that that was what kept them going as they worked their life’s work. Work I was always going to do my best to dismiss and delay. From where I stand, I can see why they would do so. Their children would have a lacking upbringing - one they tried to smoothen out as much as possible - if what you said about their governess and the general lack of apparent child abuse was correct. Once they were older, though, they would have found a world so much better than the one we have right now… Changed with all the things they wanted to bring in.”

“I… respectfully doubt whether I can agree with that.” Osma bit on her lip, flickering her plain color eyes. As she inhaled thoughtfully, a pair of focused irises sprung up involuntarily. “It’s just so odd to imagine ponies thinking this way. They were both so bubbly and nice. Could they really have thought like this?”

“Did you feel anything that would suggest they wouldn’t have?”

“No, I don’t think I did. I just don’t think it’s likely. But then… ugh. This is such a stupid day.”

“To answer your question, by the way… No, I don’t think it was a mistake to let them leave Canterlot. Pellet’s sheer magical talent is not going to be hereditary. Comet will probably not stay as cute, smooth and balanced as you made him out to be.” Celestia planted her hooves into the floor of the balcony, aiming her horn at the sun. “And speaking of their creations, I had that device of theirs brought here and examined.”

“I’d noticed. What did your smartflanks say?”

“You didn’t ask them yourself? Good. Because I took a look at it personally, a very cursory glance.”

“Celie! Are you serious?!” Osma hissed, her irises darting angrily all over the chamber in disbelief. “You rant at me for not being thoughtful, and then you examine a thing that I think I explicitly told you could have killed me! By yourself! Why you—”

“Shush.” The Princess was fairly unflappable where she stood, eyes closed softly, horn having established a connection with the powers that moved her star. “Something Garnet and you both told me had me interested. I knew I’d have to fight through my own scientists if I were to give it over to them first, so I took initiative. As you see, I’m very much alive and unexploded.”

“Bah, you should be!” The shapeshifter huffed and crossed her forehooves. She shook her head, vaporizing the dress she was trying to coalesce into being with the few bits of emotion energy that still coursed through her body.

“This device doesn’t do anything to alicorns. It didn’t react when I touched it. It did react, however, when I simulated a little bit of your, ahm, ‘love juice’, as we call it,” Celestia explained with merely a strain in her voice.

“Equestria doesn’t need a Princess of Euphemisms! Go blow yourself up, now, it’s only fair! Or I’m never giving you the ‘love juice’ again.” The shapeshifter twisted her voice noxiously, seemingly ignoring most of what was said. “It hurts just to say the words…”

“Shush again. I manifested just a drop of what very roughly resembled it. It worked, to a lesser degree, I suppose, than it did with you.” There was a bright, brief flash coming off her horn. With a low, faint rumble, the scenery outside began to darken noticeably. “The wave passed right through me, harmlessly. Tests with greater amounts of the substance saw a few chairs and windows break, which I repaired. To me, however, Osma… It did nothing, there was no effect.”

“Uhuh. Great, keep boasting. I still can’t believe—”

“The point I’m getting at, dear Osmosis, is that you’re either sentient shape-shifting empathetic furniture, or this thing is the first clue we’ve had in years as to what exactly you actually are.” The Princess held an arguably deserved pause as the reality of the statement sunk into the scientifically unidentified insequine mare next to her. “It’s good to have some progress in that regard. I do wish it came at a different time, what with the task I’ve entrusted you with, but I’m feeling hopeful.”

“Wait… Wait, come again. How do you come to that conclusion? I’m a bit confused here.” She did indeed seem rather confused, single eyebrow raised, mouth scrunched in skeptical thought. Her nightly fashioneering was now a static blob of magical energy hanging in the air, a skeletal wireframe of a dress she was working to recreate - a hobby of hers. In light of the information, it clearly went down in priority, in spite of how she appeared enthusiastic about it after the eventful day.

“You may have forgotten, but as far as any of us are aware, the only source of that kind of raw energy in Equestria is you. Even though House Sparklegust are quiiite intimately familiar with the concept of this ‘romance’ you’re so in love with, I doubt they intended for it to react so violently when exposed to energies only your body can produce.”

“You’re… right, actually. How did they— How—”

“The ‘how’ isn’t very important. I’d expect a happy accident such as this to come from their likes. If there’s ever any suspicion, I’ll have them tracked down, but I doubt that will be necessary.”

The fact Osma chose to lean back against a couch and rub her cheek in thought instead of arguing with the alicorn spoke for itself. The shapeshifter’s body-gems grew deeper, swirling with lighter tones inside. Her webbed mane grew additional cortexes, appearing more complex. In pony terms, she was blushing.

“We may find how you came to be in these lands, do you understand? And if the Council continues to be as acceptably average as it is right now, I may just have the time to see to that personally,” the mare said warmly, lowering her head as the spell neared its completion. “I may not be you, but I can get certain things done as well. You are the socializing expert, but dealing with mystery is something that I think I have more of a knack for. It is, after all, mainly mystery because the common ponies aren’t exactly in the know, so I have an advantage on that front. Both in knowing things they shouldn’t, and in not having to work my way around them as well. Besides, I do feel I owe this to you. To take this investigation under my wing properly, that is.”

“Do you really need to, Sunny? I mean, I’m… not complaining. There are things about me that are fairly troubling, but I kind of think that the problems you’re facing at the moment are a little bit grander in scope, so to say.” The insectoid mare got up, now pacing around aimlessly with tinges of nervousness to her steps. “This could wait. And no, I’m not covering up for a conspiracy of an entire species of mind-reading emotion-devouring changelings.” She raised a forehoof in mock defense. “I’m just… I’m me. I’m alright with being me, whereas you’re not exactly alright right now. You won’t really BE alright in the long run, I can’t just douse you with, ahm, ‘love juice’ on a weekly basis! You’ll get used to it and it’ll stop having an effect. And you’re kind of more important than I am. Your wear and tear is worse than my quirks.”

“Well, that depends, dear. Let’s face it, we only have a distant understanding of how anything about you works. I had to learn a lot of biology by necessity as you were going through your formative years,” Celestia said, attempting not to put too much emphasis on the word ‘biology’, as it wasn’t her intent to be snide. “And I’ve grown to trust you enough to not do anything… overly undesired. But please, do recall five months ago. Your gemstones were flashing and you couldn’t control them, you also complained about tingling in your nubs. A year ago, you were restless for an entire week because you were hearing noises that weren’t there. And just when you hatched—”

“I… see your point. I don’t think about this very much. Frankly, it’s kind of uncomfortable,” Osma mumbled, cutting her off, pent-up frustration permeating her echoing tones. “I’m not like anyone else, even though I can be anyone else. Sometimes I feel better being you than when I’m me. The fact you keep me a secret from everyone but Captain Vault and Doctor Diamond doesn’t help that a whole lot, either. Ugh… it’s been what, over a year since I last brought this up? Sorry. The conversation called for it, and you did say that I wasn’t exactly… well-understood. Sometimes.”

Celestia was silent for a short time, hanging her head and sighing.

“Noted, Osma. And understood. I do understand, I really do. But that’s only more reason for you to be excited, don’t you see?” She turned her head and forced a smile, still splitting her focus between the spell and the conversation. “We have something that registers what is essentially your lifeblood, and affects you as a creature largely composed of it. I shan’t bore you with the scientific details, but that gives us a lot of potential progress. Doctor Diamond, for one, will probably be glad to examine something that is essentially unknown, born of the chaotic mind of two unorthodox Unicorns. In the best case scenario, we find out what you are, possibly find more of your people, solve the issues you’ve been having, and to top it all off, we get a big burden off my shoulders. You feel happier for all these things.”

The shapeshifter stopped by a column, staring into the aquarium and mouthing silent nothings to the fish. The hoof that she’d pushed into her face for support sunk quite deep, driving her thoughtful expression into the realms of the uncanny. Her transparent wings jerked and fluttered, and the consistency of her hind hooves fluctuated, creating temporary holes in her limbs. She rubbed her curved horn, leaving it with a noticeable, jaggy dent in the middle, one the mare was too flustered to fix.

“I still think you should go have a vacation,” she grumbled.

“And leave the country in your hooves, of course. Sorry to ruin the display of affection I was working so hard to get through to you, but do you mind reminding me what happened the last time I couldn’t be around for longer than five days?” the Princess replied with some degree of softness.

“But you’re not going on vacation until I find you someone to go there with. Someone who isn’t me, because I think you’d have murdered me in my sleep if I weren’t pumping you full of—”

“Precisely, Osma. That was, in fact, the period of time thanks to which I now have to pretend to enjoy cakes. My favorite confection in this entire world is a regular, standard croissant, maybe a donut, if cream-filled - and what have I been getting for dessert for the past two years? Cakes. You’re the reason I’m trying to find time to learn how to cook.”

“Aaah, I seeee, you’re pretending we’re having two different conversations and it doesn’t matter to you what I say in mine. Unfortunately, Sunny, I can actually get into your head and speak in there… but it’s such a buzz-hive when you’re doing this spell of yours, so I, ah, bleh, buaugh. Yeah, I’ve made my point, owch...” Osmosis spoke, descending into a pained whine, her words echoing through Celestia’s mind up until then. “Where was I? Right. I can’t stop you from doing this, Celie, but if you think that you’re getting me off your back with this favor, think twice. I’m finding you a partner, whether you like it or not. You’re cranky to begin with, and without love? And I mean love on an emotional level, sunshine-flanks, not what I’m helping you out with every now and again! No, this just isn’t acceptable. You aren’t maintainable if it gets any worse.”

“Of course, Osma, dear. Why, ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are so wonderful that they’re capable of, hmmm, the following: splitting families and leaving children neglected by their parents, activating lethally dangerous explosive magical devices, fueling the drives and desires of ponies whose dreams I am obliged to crush, and… Remind me, did I miss anything?” The alicorn’s words were soaked through and through with playfully smug sarcasm, one that would have lightened the air if there wasn’t a tinge of genuinity to her voice. She all but knelt as she spoke, the sun having nearly been laid to rest. Its replacement was moving out into the orbit.

“Celestia, you are so unimaginably dense that it actively hurts my innermost being. Garh! Yeah, add that information to your scientific inquiry,” the shapeshifter hissed through her teeth, her head nubs buzzing and lighting up in random patterns until she knocked herself on the temple. “Me and my origins aside. And don’t you try to tell me that I’m admitting defeat with an actual answer to your oh-so-smug fake question, I happen to be legitimately interested, is all, and am, in fact, above continuing to argue with you. Their son, Comet. He had a pretty queer reaction to the gas that came out of that thing after it was deactivated. Which you would, of course, chalk up to the atrocities of ‘love’ and ‘romance’, but that is beside the point. Could you tell me what it was, was I right about it?”

“Oh, of course! I forgot to mention, silly me,” Celestia said with a soft laugh. Somewhat unceremoniously, evening had changed to night, and her work was done. The lightness of tone seemed to reflect positively on her body double’s composure, so the gentle smile that accompanied the laugh was kept. “You were right, they did use those herbal compounds. I take my skepticism back, though I’m not taking back the frustrations of having to deal with your giggly recollections of that specific scene for what I think was ten minutes.”

The insequine mare took in a big breath and released it with an amplified, almost melodic, echoey raspberry.

“You know, the Southlander herbs. I guess they were to let their magic jewels comprehend what displays of love were like so that this thing would activate and make the scene prettier. Not the worst idea, rather creative, I have to say…”

“Great, you talked about those things, and now I’m really hungry,” Osma complained, whining in a high pitch, fluttering her wings in frustration. Seeing the alicorn’s hoof pat next to her on the couch, she shook her head. “No, no, I need to… Need to bounce around, work my jitters out. Keep going, you’ve begun to ramble-lecture again!”

“Mhm. So, you said that the fumes it puffs out whenever it’s deactivated were a side-effect and distilled. I’m delighted to inform you that they aren’t,” the Princess said smugly. Her companion replied to that with a sharp glare, which was an improvement - and a distraction - from her nervousness. “It’s seemingly designed to release these to reignite the, ahm, flames of love, if the mood was raunchy for long enough. That does mean, by the way, that by their standards, you are a walking container of perverse sex.” They exchanged looks, Celestia wiggling her eyebrows. “But the cloud is quite genuine, I was lucky to avoid its effects. I’m almost impressed that you didn’t try to lure me into getting exposed to it. Thanks for being upfront.”

“Oh, just pile all of my mistakes onto me, why don’t you,” the other mare grumbled in jest.

“That can wait, I’m all too tired to handle such a lengthy process. So yes, there is perhaps another reason I’m not going to bet on Comet to continue the genetic history of House Sparklegust, considering that according to you, he was content on huggling and general affections. Also, if you made no mistake regarding his age, which I don’t think you did.”

“...” Osma was befuddled for a moment. “Ooooh. I seeee. Yeah, I thought so.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“He’s a nice boy. I’ll make your protégé one of the children him and his future partner pick up just to SPITE you.”

“You know, the no punishment decision can still be overrulled.”

“Uuurgh.”

“Especially if you intrude into touchy politics with your next venture.”

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