• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe

The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 43: Assembly

Harlequin pulled the fancy dress closer about her collar, conscious every moment of its many overlapping layers. This was nothing like the cheap substitute that Blueblood had found for her, which did a passable imitation of being expensive, but he hadn’t even cared about not getting it back. But all the fancy overlapping layers and deep red fabric could do nothing to make her feel more confident about the outcome.

At least this time she wasn’t leading an army up to the castle. They had no soldiers at all this time, only the house servants pulling the carriage. And we’re both bugs this time. One wrong spell, and I ruin the life I saved.

Worse thoughts billowed just under the surface—whether Hydrus would really murder Thorax and Codex to fight her. Even if the threat had been mostly a reminder to stop her from running away, she would give him every opportunity now. Once I do this, it’s war. Only one bug left standing. If that. There was still a decent chance Celestia would just burn her to ash and let the bugs keep doing what they were doing.

“Do you think she even cared enough to know what was happening to us?” Harlequin asked, her voice low and nervous. They were most of the way through the city now, with the tall castle walls in the distance. This was where the invasion had begun, and it might be where it finally ended. “Changelings were captive for… at least two months. I can’t imagine how she could not know, unless she didn’t care.”

Silver Smith glanced briefly at the window, as though checking to see if someone was flying alongside the cart while they spoke. Nopony was, obviously. They had received no more investigation than any other well-appointed carriage rolling through the city. There was a small chance they’d run into the real Brass Bell, but Silver seemed certain that wouldn’t happen in the court.

“A ruler like Celestia has many factors on her mind. It isn’t even just the one world anymore, and you aren’t the only threat to Equestria even in this one. For the sake of our plan, we have to hope that she gave the task to somepony else, whom she trusted… and who lied. That’s the trouble with sitting in positions of power. Creatures often go out of their way to serve, providing what they believe we want, often without knowing what it is. Maybe somepony thought that starving you was the fastest way to deal with the threat. Maybe they lost loved ones in the invasion and they’re getting their revenge… we don’t know. But what I do know is that Princess Celestia is a just, understanding ruler. Even if she hates changelings, she won’t want to see you slaughtered. That wouldn’t be right.”

“None of those words was merciful…” But she wasn’t really expecting it to be, either. The bugs hadn’t been set free, even the drones too foolish to know what they’d been doing.

They reached the castle gatehouse, where a pair of ponies in gold armor stood at attention. Harlequin glanced to the window, then immediately froze as she saw the pony approaching from the side.

Apple Cinnamon pushed the door open, glancing inside at the two of them. Then he saw her, and he seized up for just a moment.

Lord Irongate cleared his throat, scooting to the side just a bit. “Is there something wrong, officer? Something… with my daughter, perhaps?” He thrust a scroll towards Apple Cinnamon, fine parchment with golden tassels and the princess’s own cutie mark pressed into the seal. “We have writ of passage to all official functions. Court will be in session soon, unless I’m mistaken.”

“O-of course.” Apple Cinnamon took the scroll, opening it. “You must be… Lord and Lady Irongate.” He passed it back. “Enjoy your time at the castle. You should know that, after the…” His expression fell, and anger briefly surfaced there. He’d never been good at hiding his emotions. “After yesterday, the castle is on alert. Not even ceremonial weapons are permitted inside until things calm down.”

“We’ve got none, son,” Silver said, gesturing once at the empty carriage with them. “Just earth ponies, like yourself. No swords, no hidden spells.”

“Yes.” He looked around, even glancing up at the ceiling and tapping it with a hoof. “I mean no offence, Lord.”

Silver shrugged, settling back into his seat. “None taken, soldier. Thank you for zealously performing your duty.”

They rolled along, though not much further. There was a lot set aside, and a dozen or so other carriages just like theirs were already parked here. The servants who pulled them were off already—they wouldn’t be needed again until court ended, after all.

“Showtime,” Silver said. “We’re second on the agenda, so we’ll want to hurry.”

She followed him from the carriage, then up the sweeping steps into the castle’s front gate. Harlequin had never been here—never been anywhere close. But she knew where they were standing, knew its terrible significance. Here was where they had triumphed, and where the promises of the Queen had crumbled to ash in their mouths.

Just a little further, Harlequin. We’re almost done.

She settled in behind Silver Smith, doing her best impression of bored and a little intimidated. So long as ponies never employed changeling guards, they’d never be able to tell one trying to enter, not without another massive barrier to keep everything out. They hadn’t rebuilt that spell now that the wedding was over, and their enemy was inside the city with them.

Harlequin didn’t even need to pretend to be intimidated. Every step she took she worried might be her last. At a glance she saw a dozen different guards, including Apple Cinnamon. He stole one last glance in her direction before returning to the gatehouse and his spear. Not sounding the alarm.

The front door opened as they approached, and a little fleet of servants swept them up. They took Silver’s jacket, escorted them to the master-at-arms for a formal search. Once it was clear neither of them were carrying weapons, they made their way down another hall, towards the sound of music.

“That’s the anthem,” Silver whispered—there were several ponies in the hall already, most of them looking far less formal than the two of them. Almost all of them were pegasi, with notepads ready. They lingered in the hallway here like racers on a starting line. They got out of the way as Lord Irongate approached, without so much as a word required from him. He didn’t seem to care about them, either.

The music stopped, and Silver winced. “And… no second verse. Her sister isn’t here.” From his expression, he thought that news was about as dark as she did. He didn’t say so, and neither did she. “The first speaker will have ten minutes, then us. We can… go all the way to the last door.”

The last door in the row had no messengers waiting outside it. Instead there was gold trim around the wood, and pony script set into a plaque that was even more intricate than writing usually looked. A special kind of secret hid within that carving, though she couldn’t have said what it was.

“Ready?” he asked, smiling weakly.

“No.” She froze in the hallway, her legs locking up. She nearly lost her transformation right there under the eyes of a dozen messenger-ponies, but then Silver settled a hoof on her shoulder. It wasn’t food, but he was still trying to comfort her. That was something. “Should I be?”

“Nope.” He lowered his voice, whispering into her ear. “Assume the good in Celestia. Without that, we’re doomed.”

Assume the good, she repeated, saying it over and over in her head until it lost all meaning. She didn’t have to assume the good in her own friends. Codex was wise and clever; her drones were innocent and helpful. Thorax had looked out for her, helped her during the invasion. What would the other bugs think about her when this was over?

Will you love me for helping get rid of Hydrus, or hate me for telling Celestia about our secret hive?

There was no more time to deliberate. Silver nudged her forward with a hoof, pushing the door open ahead of them.

She stepped out into a well-appointed velvet box, with dark wood and gold trim on almost everything. Deep red carpet caressed her hooves as she stepped inside, and the air was thick with the smell of a much-loved incense.

There were a dozen comfortable chairs in the box, most of which were empty.

Not all. Three near the front were taken, and they were exactly the sort of ponies she’d hoped never to see.

Prince Blueblood was there in the largest, fanciest chair, his back straight and his nose up. He was focused on the room beyond the box, on the throne not far away, and the assembly of ponies far below with their tables and uncomfortable chairs. He wore a uniform no less refined than what they did. Yet for the second he looked, she felt profound recognition.

Of course he knows. I already impersonated this pony once before. Did he guess I tricked him already?

At his side was Marquesa, the same one who had been there during the fire. You knew what he wanted to do. He was going to burn us alive, and you just watched. You might be the biggest monster in this court.

Marquesa didn’t look away as they came in, watching them intently as Silver led them to the chairs furthest from Blueblood, in the front. At the end of the booth was a little wooden gate, and a stairwell leading to the floor. From there, a red carpet went straight to the bottom of the throne.

Lastly, there was another unicorn stallion, tall and lean. His eyes watched them critically, though they seemed most intent on Harlequin. She felt it just as that pony must—that creature was an empty pit of feeling, just like she was. She wasn’t the only changeling in the box.

The parliamentary hall was a massive room, even by pony standards. There were probably a dozen boxes on their side, each one with their own well-dressed nobility packed inside. Now she knew where the “lower assembly” got its nickname, considering they were almost thirty feet below her.

The princess herself was so imposing that Harlequin nearly locked up again. Celestia was a being beyond anything she’d imagined, even after her time with the Queen. Where she sat upon her throne was bathed in perpetual sunlight, which warmed the little spring and fed the flowers and lilies all around it. There were no windows in the parliamentary hall—they didn’t need any.

Finally, a choir tucked away below them finished their refrain, and silence descended on the hall. Someone from the lower assembly rose, looked once to Blueblood for approval, then stepped up to a lectern. “We gather today for the one hundred and fifty-first session of the Solar Court, in the year of…” Harlequin stopped listening, because at that moment Blueblood’s stallion settled into the chair just behind her.

His voice was as flat as his apparent emotions. That calm was as unreal as his skin.

“I know who you are, Harlequin,” Hydrus said. “What I don’t know is why in the name of the Great Queens you would have come here.”

She didn’t turn around, didn’t look away from the proceedings below. Celestia wasn’t looking at them—she didn’t seem to really see anypony. She radiated so much light, that it blinded even her.

“Eye for talent, that’s what I always said. Now here you are, and we’re almost equals. Your own noble, your own agenda. Fascinating how these things work…”

She glanced briefly back at him. There was no dagger aimed at her back, as she’d feared. No weapons at all, only an entirely fictional smile. “Know your actions have consequences. But there are better ones. Turn around, walk out. Forget whatever you were planning, and I’ll forget you ever planned. No one has to get hurt.”

You’re lying, she thought, bitter. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?

But what did it matter?

“The assembly calls on its first speaker!” said the pony from below. Prince Blueblood rose from his seat, and strode meaningfully through the gate, then down the stairs.

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