• Published 26th Sep 2019
  • 509 Views, 30 Comments

CRISIS: A Royal Affair - GanonFLCL



In an alternate Equestria, a young filly, Blackburn, was destined to be Queen of Hope's Point, a beacon of light in the darkness. See her grow alongside the friends and loved ones that made her the ever-watchful, iron-hoofed Queen she was born to be.

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Chapter One: Precocious Princess

The city of Hope’s Point was situated on the edge of a cliff on the farthest southern tip of the northern continent of Equestria. Not the Equestria that you may be familiar with, but a different Equestria, one governed by the dichotomy between the two halves of two wholes. In the south was the great Utopian continent, a land of light, harmony, love, and peace; to the north was the dark continent, a land of darkness, chaos, death, and violence.

Despite being in the north, Hope’s Point was built as a gateway to the south, a literal beacon of hope to ponies that wanted better lives for themselves and their loved ones. To its north was the vast swath of dark, lifeless Wasteland, devoid of nearly any and all plant and animal life. To its south was the Sea of Endless Torment, a massive ocean that divided the world in two. From Hope’s Point one could just see the Belt of Tranquility, a magical storm stretched across the equator that prevented conventional travel across it.

Hope’s Point itself was, on the surface, a small city, large enough to house more than ten thousand ponies as well as commercial and service buildings to accommodate their needs. A magical energy field covered the city in a dome of gold, protecting it from the elements and, more importantly, from would-be invaders. Below the surface, however, the city took up a huge underground cavern, which housed all the residential neighborhoods, the city’s power plants, military and medical buildings, and the royal palace, home to the city’s leader and founder, King Flashfire.

Today, the royal palace was busier than it had been in several years. Banners of red and gold had been put up on both the surface and below, and most of the television stations were covering the event. A crowd of ponies had gathered around a large television set up in the city’s largest thoroughfare, where a news anchor - an orange earth pony stallion with a red mane, dressed in a crisp suit - was presenting the story to the audience.

“Today is a red letter day in Hope’s Point,” the anchor said, turning in his chair to look at the camera. “For the first time since our great city’s founding twenty years ago, we will be privy to the birth of royalty. Truly a great moment for the royal family to recover from the tragic passing of Queen Windwhisper just this past month.”

He turned in the chair again when the cameras switched, and a still image on the side of the screen showed a picture of a happy pegasus couple. The stallion had a light gray coat and an orange mane, and was handsome and charming; the mare’s coat was grayish-blue, and her mane was bi-colored dark blue and light purple. The two were walking together through one of the city streets, flanked by guards.

“Prince Stormchaser and his wife, Blue Blitz,” the anchor continued, “are reportedly the proud parents of a new foal as of eleven twenty-four this morning. Details are scarce, but our reporter in the field, Quartz Band, is outside the royal palace now covering the story as it happens. Quartz?”

The screen shifted to a reporter - a gold unicorn stallion with a blue mane - who was posted just outside the palace. “Thanks Tangerine.” He gestured behind him at the royal palace, a grand, red structure decorated with oranges and golds. “I’m here at the royal palace as we await word from King Flashfire himself with news on the royal birth. Our sources on the inside suggest that we can expect His Majesty within the next five minutes.”

He gestured to the side, and the camera panned over to show a crowd of ponies, some of whom were other reporters with their own camera crews. “As you can see, a large crowd has formed at the palace gates in anticipation of the reveal.”

The anchor, Tangerine, spoke: “Have you received any further information on the status of the newborn?”

Quartz shook his head. “As of yet, the only news we have is that the new foal is healthy, but we have not been given any other infor--” He paused, putting a hoof to his ear. A look of surprise crossed his face. “Oh! I’m now hearing that King Flashfire is about to make a statement. The moment of truth!” He and the camera turned to face the balcony closest to the palace gates.

After a moment, the doors to the balcony opened, and King Flashfire strode out. He was a tall pegasus stallion with a dark red coat and graying orange mane, wearing a black and silver jacket. Beside him was a personal bodyguard, a white unicorn stallion with a blue mane dressed in light, purple-and-gold metallic armor. The crowd below cheered as the king approached the balcony. A few pegasi camera operators flew up to record him; unicorn camera operators lifted their cameras up with their magic to do the same; the earth pony camera operators angled their cameras to get the best view they could from the ground.

As the king reached the edge of the balcony, he lifted his hoof up to silence the cheering crowd. “Citizens of Hope’s Point!” he announced, his voice loud and full of vigor. “Today marks a historic event for our great city. My dear son, Prince Stormchaser, is now a proud father of a foal of his own. This is a great moment for my family and for you, the ponies of this city.”

He took a deep breath. “After the passing of my dear Queen Windwhisper, the pall of death has brought despair to me and my family. May Harmonia rest her soul. If she were here today, none would be as ecstatic as she to bring new life into this world. It falls to me, your king, to present this grand event in her stead. Please welcome my son, your Prince Stormchaser, and his wife, Blue Blitz.”

He gestured to the door behind him, and from the doorway came Prince Stormchaser and Blue Blitz. Stormchaser wore a simple blue jacket, while Blue Blitz was wrapped in a pink blanket and was wheeled out in a wheelchair. She carried a small bundle with her that she delicately held close to her chest. They, too, were accompanied by a guard, a green unicorn mare with an orange mane dressed in light armor.

As they approached the edge of the balcony, Blue Blitz unwrapped the bundle so everypony could see the newborn foal she carried. The pegasus filly had a smoky black coat and a turquoise mane.

Prince Stormchaser nodded at his father. “Father. Thank you.”

Flashfire clapped his son on the shoulder. “Your daughter is a blessing upon this house, my son. Congratulations.”

Stormchaser addressed the crowd. “Ponies of Hope’s Point,” he announced, his voice confident and excited, “thank you all for being here for my wife and I as we bring our beautiful new foal into the world. As much as I’d love to give a speech, you’ve all been waiting long enough for the big moment. So, without further ado--”

He gestured to Blue Blitz, who smiled and lifted the newborn up for him to take. He took the foal gently, and carefully angled himself and her so that all the camera crews could see. “Presenting: Princess Blackburn!”

The little filly blinked up at the bright lights of the cameras. All eyes in the city were upon her in one way or another. She didn’t know it then, but for years to come this would not be an odd experience for her.

While Stormchaser presented his newborn daughter, Flashfire came behind Blue Blitz and put a hoof gently on her shoulder and leaned close to her ear. “You will be a good mother, Blue Blitz. You lack my son’s ambivalence and stupidity. Little Blackburn will learn from you, and from me. Not from him. Is that clear?”

Blue Blitz kept her eyes on her husband, who was laughing and giving their daughter all the attention she deserved, but nodded in response to the king’s question. “Of course, Your Majesty. You can count on me to raise her right.”

“That’s a good girl.” Flashfire rose back up and trotted back to his son. “Son, our subjects have had enough of our new princess for now.”

Stormchaser kept smiling at the crowd below. “I disagree, father. Look how much our ponies love my daughter. They could do with a little more excitement.”

Flashfire clapped his son on the shoulder. Hard. “Son. Inside. Now. You never know who could be watching.”

“Hmph. No need for the ‘royal treatment’. Very well, if you’re going to let your paranoia ruin this too.” Stormchaser looked out amongst the crowd and gave them a gentle wave. “Thank you, ponies of Hope’s Point! Thank you for welcoming little Blackburn into our great city!”

The crowd cheered again as Stormchaser passed Blackburn back to Blue Blitz, then wheeled her back into the palace. Flashfire stepped back to the balcony’s edge, waved his own farewell to the crowd, and then made his way back into the palace.

“And there you have it folks,” said Quartz Band into the camera. “The newborn Princess Blackburn has joined the ranks of the royal family. May Harmonia’s blessings be upon her as our city eagerly watches to see the kind of mare she grows up to be. This is Quartz Band, signing off.”

Eight Years Later

Princess Blackburn trotted through the halls of the royal palace, accompanied by a large earth pony stallion - yellow coat, red mane - in heavy armor: her bodyguard. She wore a too-long green-and-gold-striped scarf around her neck and a simple white dress, which didn’t hide that she had yet to earn her cutie mark; she wasn’t self-conscious about it. As she strolled by servants and guards in the palace, they acknowledged her presence with bows and salutes. Blackburn grinned and gave them little salutes of her own in return.

Blackburn and her guard came up to a large door flanked by two guards, who opened the door as soon as Blackburn approached. On the other side, Flashfire was having a tense meeting with two soldiers and his bodyguard. They turned to the door as Blackburn walked in, and Flashfire’s dour expression immediately softened.

“Grandpa!” Blackburn called as she ran up to him, excited and full of pep.

Flashfire leaned down to scoop her up and hugged her tightly. “Hey! There’s my little ray of sunshine. How are you today, my sweetheart?” He turned to the soldiers and gestured for them to leave. They did so with a salute, and closed the door behind them. Flashfire’s bodyguard remained and gave a nod to Blackburn’s; the two stepped over to the door to stand guard.

Blackburn hugged her grandfather back, rubbing her cheek against his. “I’m doing good, grandpa. How are you? You look so tired.” He tapped her hoof to the bags under his eyes.

“Just busy, my dear, just busy.”

“How come?”

Flashfire raised an eyebrow. “You’re being awfully curious today. Looking to learn a little something from your grandpa?” She nodded excitedly. He smiled back. “Well, there were a few attempted infiltrations over the weekend, so I’ve been meeting with my security agents to make some improvements to the process of letting ponies into the city. Those two are relaying some information from my friend Evening Glitz, who’s in charge of that sort of thing.”

“What kind of improvements, grandpa? Like more guards?”

“More guards doesn’t really help much here, unfortunately. The best we can do at the moment is to try and get better at spotting possible enemies of the city before they get in. Identify them before they get past the gate.”

Blackburn scrunched her nose. “How are you gonna do that? You said they look just like everypony else.”

Flashfire chuckled and booped her nose. “That they do, sweetheart. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to find them. We’re doing what we can, but it’s hard to keep tabs on everypony that might be coming in. There are enemies everywhere; never can be too careful.”

“So… you need like, a book of names of trustworthy ponies?”

Fireflash lifted her up and smiled. “That’s exactly it, sweetheart. We’re trying to put together a database of references so we can spot bad ponies, but it’s not easy and it’s taking a long time.” He sighed. “It’s my hope that by the time I’m gone, my family and my subjects won’t have fear of anypony ruining this great city.”

Blackburn released her grandfather and hopped back down to the floor. “I hope you do it, grandpa. When I'm the queen someday, I want everypony to be safe too, just like you!”

“I’m glad to hear that, sweetheart. You’re such a smart girl, maybe you’ll think of a way to make it happen.” He ruffled her mane. “Oh! That reminds me, I have a surprise for you!”

Blackburn gasped. “A surprise?! What is it?!”

Flashfire smiled and walked towards the door. “Follow me, sweetheart.” He turned to his bodyguard and nodded; the bodyguard nodded back and put a hoof to his ear, muttering something into his collar that Blackburn couldn’t hear.

Blackburn followed eagerly behind her grandfather through the royal palace, their bodyguards in tow. As they walked, taking flights of stairs and passing through halls, Flashfire spoke with his granddaughter. “Your mother tells me you’ve been taking an interest in flight training.”

Blackburn nodded excitedly. “Yup! When I get older, I wanna be the best pilot in the whole fleet!”

“And is your mother okay with that?

“Uh huh! She says I’ve got the perfect figure for stunt flying, just like her, so she’s been helping me get my wings up. I’ve been practicing, look!”

Blackburn began beating her tiny wings as fast as she could. Her scarf loosened and tumbled to the floor from all of two inches up; she couldn’t get very high, and she was clearly straining to stay afloat, keeping her eyes closed tight and biting her lip. After only a few seconds, she dropped to the ground, breathing hard, and picked up her scarf.

“See?” she huffed. “Momma says I’m a better flyer than most fillies and colts my age.”

“You certainly are, dear. You’re going to be a strong flyer when you get older.” Flashfire grinned and helped her put her scarf back on. “I’m glad your mother’s sharing her experience with you. You know she’s our top pilot?”

“Uh huh! She says when I get old enough, she’s gonna train me herself. Teach me how to do all the maneuvers and everything. I started reading about all the different kinds.” She closed her eyes as she tried to remember them. “There’s a loopdeloop, barrel roll, immelman, aileron scissors--” She bumped into a wall. “Oof!”

Flashfire laughed and patted Blackburn on the back. “I admire your dedication to your new hobby sweetheart, but don’t forget to keep your eyes forward. Don’t get distracted by your passions, lest you lose sight of what’s important.”

Blackburn rubbed her nose, embarrassed. “Right, grandpa, sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just be careful. There’s no room in this life for regrets, sweetheart. The only way to succeed is to avoid failure in the first place, and to learn from those failures you cannot prevent.” He turned to the end of the hall and pointed at a door there. “Come, we’re almost to your surprise. It’s just inside that room.”

They approached the door, which led to a room on the opposite end of the palace from where they’d started. The room was mostly empty, save for a small desk and chair in the center - similar to those found in typical classrooms - and a large projector screen that dominated one of the walls.

Blackburn entered first, looking around for something exciting. The screen drew her attention first, then the desk, which she eyed with curiosity. “Where’s the surprise, grandpa?” she asked, not seeing anything. “There’s nothing here.”

“Soon, my dear, just be patient,” Flashfire said as he entered the room. “Patience is as much of a virtue as caution. Take a seat at the desk for now.”

Blackburn did so. She shifted in her seat excitedly as she tried to get comfortable, then looked expectantly at Flashfire, waiting for the surprise.

A few moments later, another stallion entered the room, a unicorn with a reddish-pink coat and a short, pale gray mane, dressed in a tight white lab coat decorated with a red insignia. He bowed to Flashfire as he entered the room. “Greetings, your Majesty. You certainly summoned me far earlier than I initially expected or was led to believe.” He turned to see Blackburn seated at the desk. “Ah, I see the Princess is here as well. Wonderful.” He bowed to her as well. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Princess Blackburn.”

Blackburn nodded with a small smile. “Hello.” She turned to Flashfire. “Who’s he, grandpa?”

Flashfire stepped over to the unicorn and clapped him proudly on the shoulder. “This is Solarian, a scholar and educator from Pandemonium that joined me in building our city. One of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He developed some of the technology we use for the city’s shield and our smaller-scale airships.”

“Your flattery is appreciated as always, sire,” Solarian said with a nod. “However, you forgot to mention my improvements to the city’s shipping database system, which is understandable since the developments aren’t as critical. Just thought I’d mention it.”

“Right, of course, I did forget that, ha ha,” Flashfire said with a chuckle. He turned back to Blackburn. “He also developed the flight system your mother uses. For a unicorn, his knowledge of pegasi anatomy and flight is exquisite. We’re lucky to have him.”

“Well I certainly can’t take full credit for that much, sire. I do owe a great deal of the development cycle to Briarpatch’s assistance since I had to ensure it’s synchronicity with the Diffusion system.”

Flashfire’s expression soured just slightly. “Certainly, I didn’t forget. Harmonia bless his soul.”

“It’s nice meeting you, Mister Solarian,” Blackburn said. “But, um… what’s this all about, grandpa? Why are we here in this room?”

Flashfire smiled at Blackburn. “Solarian here has agreed to be your personal tutor, sweetheart. I want you to have the best possible education, and Solarian is the best possible educator there is. You should be studying more than just flight maneuvers.”

“A tutor, grandpa? My surprise is… a tutor?” Blackburn stared at her desk in confusion. “But… what?”

“Your confusion is understandable, Princess Blackburn. From my understanding you have received no formal education of any kind thus far, but your grandfather decided it was time to correct that.” Solarian turned to Flashfire and tilted his head inquisitively. “Shall I proceed immediately, sire?”

“Naturally, Solarian, no sense in wasting time.” Flashfire stepped out of the door with his bodyguard, leaving Blackburn, her guard, and Solarian in the room together. “I’ll return when I’ve finished with my duties for the afternoon to check on you two before dinnertime. You’re invited of course.”

“Hmm, dinner with the king, what a marvelous experience. I might just indulge myself in your invitation, sire, thank you.”

“W-wait! Grandpa!” Blackburn sputtered. “You’re just gonna leave?”

“There’s no need for me to be here, sweetheart. Don’t worry, Solarian will instruct you in everything you’ll need to be a great queen some day - just pay attention to everything he says, and make use of it. Make me proud, okay?” Flashfire closed the door behind him and walked off, his hoofsteps getting quieter as he walked out of earshot.

Blackburn turned to Solarian, narrowing her eyes. “This surprise stinks, Mister Solarian. I was hoping for a new toy, or some candy or something...”

Solarian smirked. “It is a subversion of your expectations, which is an important tactic in battle as well as negotiations, political or otherwise. You’d do well to learn it, Princess. It provokes your enemy into making mistakes.”

He moved to the projector screen and pulled an electronic tablet from his coat, tapping it to the screen. The screen flickered to life, displaying a variety of labeled folders and files. “Your desk contains all the material you’ll need for note-taking. Please utilize it as you see fit.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow, then lifted up the top of her desk. Inside was a notebook and a selection of pens. She removed them and placed them on the top of the desk. “I have to take notes? C’mon…”

“I’ll be covering material at a fairly rapid pace. It would be advisable to take notes so that you may review them later when not in session and improve your performance.”

“How am I gonna take notes when you talk that way, Mister Solarian? It’s hard to understand you. Uh… no offense.”

Solarian raised an eyebrow. “You find my loquaciousness difficult to understand? I disagree, Princess, it’s actually quite simple if you really take the time and effort to evaluate it. Your father suggested that you take in all the information I am presenting and extract that which is pertinent.”

Blackburn took a deep breath. “Okay… I’ll try.”

“Wonderful. Let us proceed.” He clicked his hoof on his tablet, changing the display on the projector to a slideshow presentation. “Our first lesson will cover the history of Hope’s Point. The city was founded thirty years ago, give or take a few months and some days, when your grandfather, King Flashfire, traveled down here to the southern tip of the continent with a contingent of like-minded individuals with a dream: escaping the city of New Pandemonium and creating a safe harbor for ponies looking to do the same.

“They began with the underground cavern in order to construct the power station that fuels the protective shield around the city, which as noted I helped develop and based on the defensive shield system utilized by the New Pandemonium Air Force’s heavy cruisers. Once the underground facilities were established, work also began on the docks beneath the cliff and the city on the surface.” He paused and stomped his hoof. “Princess, sum up the information as presented thus far.”

Blackburn snapped to attention in a panic. “Oh… um… sure, okay…” She looked at her notes. “Um… Thirty years ago, grandpa came down south here to the tip of the continent from New Pandemonium with a conteng… a contingent of other ponies--”

Solarian stomped his hoof again. “You’re just repeating what I said, Princess, only with slight modifications to lower the complexity of my word choices. As I and your grandfather have stated, you must condense the information presented to a clear, concise point.” He took a breath. “Again.”

Blackburn furrowed her brow. “But… but I--”

“Again, Princess.”

Two Years Later

The classroom was, as usual, only occupied by three ponies: Princess Blackburn, her tutor Solarian, and her bodyguard, still the same from when she was younger; like her grandfather, she’d never switched her personal guard. Her father was notorious for requesting a changing of his guard every few weeks. Most of the guards considered serving Prince Stormchaser a rite of passage.

“--and it should be noted that though Newhaven is only the second-largest port on the Utopian continent, House Sky has been making great strides in their connections with traders from Hope’s Point in an effort to increase their influence both with us and with their fellow noble houses.” Solarian took a deep breath, shutting off the projector. He hadn’t changed a bit in the past two years. “And that concludes today’s lesson. Repeat the key points for me please, Princess.”

Princess Blackburn, meanwhile, had grown up just a little. Her wings were larger and healthier, and she’d taken to wearing less feminine clothing; she still wore her too-long green-and-gold striped scarf, but now wore a white jacket that covered most of her body. Her flank was barely exposed, showing off just the barest hints of her cutie mark: a black crown surrounded by blue flames. It didn’t take a genius to figure out it’s meaning.

She took a breath. “Utopian noble houses number eleven at present: Houses Dawn, Flower, Golden, Green, Light, Night, Silver, Sky, Snow, Waters, Wind. Three most prolific: Silver, Waters, and Snow. House Silver retains importance from ancient times, regarded as heroic bloodline, deep connection with Harmonia; House Water controls Seaside, largest port on coast; House Snow has strong ties with Zeb’ra’den. House Sky making strides, established connections with Hope’s Point traders in Newhaven, next largest port.”

Solarian nodded. “Excellent. As an additional point, House Wind and House Sky are the most likely rivals for Hope’s Point attention. Competition breeds innovation, so it might be worth considering either house at this point, which I have noted often to the King. He has expressed some interest.”

He took a deep breath. “Now, to test your lessons on extrapolating information. I will give you a statement, but utilize much more terse language. It will be based upon today’s lesson, so you will be using your knowledge to point out connections. Ready?”

Blackburn nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Ahem.” Solarian adjusted his coat collar. “I work in Deepgrove’s A-level mines as a supervisor. Last week I went on vacation, met a nice lady named Skytrader. Talked shop a bit. I think she might be interested in buying a few crates of gems.”

Blackburn paused and considered it. “Supervise A-level mine, implies position of power: likely works for House Golden. Contact with a member of House Sky, Skytrader; Skytrader wants gems to trade with Hope’s Point, key component in power generation. House Sky also seeking trade alliance with House Golden.”

Solarian smiled and nodded. “Good, good. All correct. You’re getting better, Princess, much better.” A knock came at the door. “Enter!” Solarian called.

King Flashfire open the door and strode into the room with his bodyguard, a small grin on his face. “Solarian. All done with Blackburn’s lessons for today?”

“Yes. Precise timing, sire, we’ve just concluded today’s lessons.”

“Excellent. There’s much to do tonight, but I didn’t want to interrupt. Glad to see my timing is impeccable as always.” Flashfire then turned to Blackburn. “How are your lessons progressing, sweetheart?”

Blackburn smiled and rose from her seat. She approached him and leapt up to give him a hug. “Very well, grandpa, thank you. Master Solarian says that I’m progressing well.”

Solarian nodded. “Indeed, she’s an excellent student. Eager to learn, eager to impress. She’ll do well in her future, mark my words.” He turned to Blackburn. “Go on, tell him what you’ve learned today, Princess.”

Blackburn cleared her throat and recited her notes from memory. “Utopian noble houses number eleven at present: Houses Dawn, Flower, Golden, Green, Light, Night, Silver, Sky, Snow, Waters, Wind. Three most prolific: Silver, Waters, and Snow--”

Flashfire smirked at the tutor. “She’s certainly learned how to condense the details, hasn’t she?”

Blackburn blushed and scuffed her hoof on the floor. “Oh… s-sorry, grandpa. I… I’ve been so used to doing it in class for reciting notes, so I thought--

Flashfire smiled and put his hoof on her shoulder. “No need to apologize, my little ray of sunshine. One day, when you’re the smartest mare in the room, ponies will wish they could think like you. But I digress - there’s business to attend to.” He turned to Blackburn’s bodyguard and gave him a slight nod. “Livewire, you are dismissed from your current duties, effective immediately.”

The bodyguard, Livewire, raised an eyebrow. “Your Majesty?”

“I’ve got a new assignment for you: an ambassador from House Snow of Utopia is visiting in a few hours, and I’d like a solid security detail to keep her safe. She’s looking to see how our city might fit in with possible trade routes with the zebras, so her detail is to escort her from place to place, show her around the city. I want you on it.”

“Me, sire?”

“Yes, Livewire, you. There aren’t many bodyguards in my employ that I’d trust with this sort of assignment. Are you unwilling to take it?”

“No, sire, I will do as you ask,” Livewire said, bowing low. “But… what of the princess?”

Flashfire turned to Blackburn and gave her a smile. “I have a new detail to assign to her, and your worry is appreciated. You have your orders, Livewire. Report to Hangar Six.”

Livewire nodded. “Aye, sire.” He gave Blackburn a nod. “Princess. It has been a pleasure serving you.”

“Livewire,” Blackburn said, returning the nod. Livewire left the room and headed down the hall outside. She turned to Flashfire. “I don’t understand, grandpa. Livewire’s proven capable over the years. You mentioned a new bodyguard assignment?”

“Yes indeed, sweetheart.” Flashfire turned to the door. “You may enter now.”

Two young ponies, roughly Blackburn’s age, entered the room nervously. One, a short unicorn filly, had a pale pink coat and bright orange mane; she kept her mane out of her face with a pair of safety goggles, and wore a purple jumpsuit. The other, a taller earth pony colt, had a light brown coat and dark brown mane, and wore light, metallic, bronze-colored armor.

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Hey… you two look familiar…” she murmured. She thought for a moment, then it all came together. “You guys sat next to me at the New Year’s Banquet.” She pointed at the filly. “You really liked the spicy peppers. Gadget?” She then pointed at the colt. “And you’re from Newhaven. Um… Crossfire?”

The two young ponies looked impressed, but didn’t say anything.

Flashfire smiled brightly. “Very good, very good. I noticed that you three hit it off pretty well, and that made them perfect for this assignment.” He looked down to the young ponies. “Go ahead you two, reintroduce yourselves and your qualifications,” he told them.

The filly stepped forward first, and bowed to Blackburn. “That’s right, Princess, my name is Gadget.” She rose back up and smiled brightly. “I’m a tech specialist and engineer.” She pulled a small gun-like weapon from her holster with her magic. “And this baby is my SP-100. Made it myself. I’m not allowed to use projectile rounds - not after the, uh… incident - so this sweet thing fires a stun pulse strong enough to knock out even the hardiest of earth ponies.”

Blackburn hummed. “SP… Stun Pistol? That’s a neat abbreviation. What’s this ‘incident’... wait, there’s that rumor of an accident on the firing range two weeks ago. You studied under Chief Engineer Spark Plug?”

Gadget blinked. “Uh, yeah. I did. How did you--”

“A simple observation. Spark Plug was testing new rifle for earth pony soldiers. Nopony was hurt. However, there were several thousand bits in damages.”

Gadget turned red and rubbed her neck. “Uh… yeah. Golly, you’re good, princess.”

Blackburn turned to the colt. “And you?”

The colt stepped up and bowed as well. “Like ya said, my name’s Crossfire, Yer Princessfulness, and I’m a weapon specialist. A pleasure ta meet ya. Uh… again. Yeah, I’m from Newhaven. Mah parents’ve served House Sky fer generations, an’ now--”

“They’re looking to strengthen relations with Hope’s Point, so they’re serving the royal family. Understandable. We covered that in today’s lesson, in fact.” Blackburn nodded appreciatively. “You’re a weapon expert? That’s kinda odd for anyone from Utopia, even if you’re not from city proper. It’s a mostly pacifist society, apart from the Harmony Guard, isn’t it?”

Crossfire smirked. “Pa’s been showin’ me how ta work some o’ the weapons y’all use here, ma’am. I guess I just took to it like a duck ta water, so I signed up ta join the guard.” He turned to grin at Gadget. “I ain’t been banned from practice rounds, neither.”

Gadget rolled her eyes and fixed her stun pistol in his direction. “Keep talking, bud, and you’ll be drooling on the floor in a few seconds.”

“Try it, horn face,” Crossfire huffed.

Blackburn smiled at the two. “A pleasure to meet you. Uh, again.” She turned to Flashfire. “These are the new bodyguards, grandpa? But… they’re so young and inexperienced - no offense,” she added, looking to the two younger ponies apologetically. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Flashfire smirked. “Correct, they are to be your new bodyguards. They’ve undergone their basic training and have proven quite capable so far, and I trust them to do their job well. Additionally, I think you should have ponies your own age around you, rather than only hanging around us adults. And since you three hit it off at New Year’s...”

“Still not getting it...”

“I wanted you to perhaps develop a friendship with your bodyguards, not just a professional relationship. Livewire was qualified as a protector, certainly, but he was older than you by several years and would never have imagined being more to you than a guard. Certainly not a friend in the truest terms. He’d give it a try, sure, but--”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Friends, grandpa? Aren’t… aren’t we friends?”

Flashfire smiled warmly and pulled his granddaughter in for a hug. “Oh of course we are, my little ray of sunshine. We’re the best of friends. But… you need friends your own age too.” He stepped over to his bodyguard and put a hoof around his shoulder. “I’ve told you how long Shining Steel has been with me, haven’t I?”

Blackburn pondered it only for a few seconds. “You became friends while serving in NPAF. He joined you on the journey to establish Hope’s Point and served as your security expert in the initial construction, at least until Evening Glitz came along.”

“That’s right.” He gave Shining Steel a light tap on the shoulder. “But no matter how loyal every guard in this palace is to me, or to you, they could never be as loyal to you as a true friend, like Shining and I are. A true friend is so loyal to you that they don’t just follow orders because you’re the princess or queen, but because they believe in what you’re asking of them. And if they don’t, they’ll correct you. Guide you. You’ll be stronger for it.”

Blackburn eyed the two new bodyguards. “Point made. Okay. You two will be my new… friends.” She gave them a slight smile. “I will try. We will try. Together.” She turned to Solarian. “Master Solarian, am I dismissed for today?”

Solarian nodded. “You are dismissed, princess.”

Blackburn turned to her grandfather. “Grandpa, are you free for dinner? I have plenty of free time with my lessons concluded.”

Flashfire smirked. “For you, my dear, of course. There’s always time for my little ray of sunshine.” He turned to Shining Steel and started out of the room with a wide smile. “Come, Shining, we’ve got a date with the princess. This is a red letter day.”

“Magnificent, sire,” Shining said with a nod, following behind.

Blackburn turned to Gadget and Crossfire. “Gadget. Crossfire. Shall we?”

“Of course, princess,” Gadget said with a nod.

“Roger that, Yer Princessfulness,” Crossfire said with a salute.

Two Years, Six Months Later

Every year, Hope’s Point held an air show and festival for its citizens to enjoy, a display of the skill of the pilots that made up the city’s fleet, and of the royal family’s generosity and love for the citizens. The streets of the city’s surface were crowded with ponies attending the festivities present: stands of food, drinks, gifts, toys, clothes, and other souvenirs; stages set up for entertainment in the form of plays, music, and dancing; booths set up with games that tested luck and skill; and ride contraptions to excite and thrill, including a ferris wheel, a carousel, and a miniature roller coaster.

Princess Blackburn strolled through the crowd amongst the ponies of Hope’s Point, dressed in a gray hooded jacket without her scarf to conceal her identity. At her side were Gadget and Crossfire, also in hooded jackets - blue and purple, respectively - as the identities of the princess’s bodyguards were well known and would obviously reveal who the mysterious third pony was without question. Gadget carried with her a plush blue bear as big as she was.

Without their usual garb, Gadget and Crossfire’s cutie marks were plain to see: Gadget’s was a simple steel combination wrench; Crossfire’s, a black-and-white crosshair.

Blackburn stopped at a food stand selling sliced pineapples on a stick, coated with colorful red and orange seasoning. She eagerly took one from the stand’s operator and passed him the bits needed to pay for it, took a bite and let out an ecstatic, “Mmmm”, then turned to Gadget and offered her some. “Gadget, try some of this. It’s delicious.”

Gadget eyed the pineapple and gave it a sniff. “Ooh, smells spicy.” She leaned up and took a bite, then nodded approvingly as she chewed. “Oh yeah, spicy. Love it. Golly, that’s real pineapple too. Good find, Blackburn.” She turned to Crossfire. “Hey Crossfire, you gotta try this. It’s amazing.”

Crossfire scoffed. “Y’all know I hate pineapple, Gadget. Makes my tongue all itchy.” He shook his head and looked out towards the other food stands. “Ain’t there any bean stands? I could go fer a plate full o’ lima beans.” He turned to Blackburn with a smile. “Did I ever tell ya ‘bout this bean joint in Newhaven? Legume’s Legumes, real classy place, been around fer two generations. Best lima beans in all the south, yessir.”

“Haven’t tried lima beans,” Blackburn mused. “Don’t think we get much call for it in the city. Haven’t seen a stand.” She raised her head up to look out at the stands as well. “What do lima beans taste like?”

“Kinda starchy, like taters, but they got a buttery texture to ‘em. Y’know, real soft like, easy ta chew. My ma mixes ‘em wit’ tomatahs ‘n’ onions, calls it succotash.” He licked his lips. “Mmm mmm, I could really go fer a plate o’ that right about now.”

Gadget shook her head in disbelief. “There’re like fifty stands out here serving all kinds of food from all over the world, and all you can think about is some dang beans?” She gripped the pineapple stick in her magic and took another bite. “You’ve gotta expand your horizons there, Crossfire. Branch your palate out a bit.”

“Agreed,” Blackburn said with a nod, yanking the pineapple back over to her and taking a bite. “You’re too picky. You eat the same things all the time when we get real food: beans, tomatoes, potatoes. Boring.”

“Hey now, it ain’t like I just eat those three things an’ nothin’ else,” Crossfire huffed defensively. “I have ‘em prepared in different ways at least, ain’t like I’m eatin’ ‘em plain or nothin’ like that.”

“Fair.”

“Fair schmare. Look over there,” Gadget said, gesturing to a stand on the opposite side of the street. The stand was selling candied fruits. “Tell me you’re not gonna go try some candied oranges with us. Go on, I dare you.”

“Candied oranges sound mighty nice, actually,” Crossfire hummed.

“Then it’s decided.” Blackburn nodded and led them towards the other stand, passing a collection of bits to the stand operator while Gadget floated three cups of candied oranges over to herself. Blackburn turned and held out an expectant hoof; Gadget placed one cup in it. Blackburn lifted the cup up, took one of the candied orange slices in her mouth, and ate it. She rolled her eyes up into her head and smiled. “Wow, that’s yummy.”

Crossfire took a cup for himself and ate one slice. His eyes widened. "Hoo-ee, that there's a right treat, I tell ya what. Ain't like no candy I ever tried before."

“Well if it's got Mister Picky himself singing it's praises...” Gadget ate one of hers, then closed her eyes and hummed in appreciation. “Oh. Oh wow. There’s a party in my mouth, Blackburn, and everypony’s invited. Golly. Golly.” She grabbed some more oranges from her cup and stuffed them in her mouth.

“Ya got a bit o’ drool right there, Gadget,” Crossfire laughed, tapping the left side of his chin. Gadget blushed, and lifted her own hoof up to wipe the offending liquid. “There ya go.”

Blackburn giggled. “Take it easy. They’re good, not good enough to be sloppy.” She turned towards the end of the street, gesturing with her hoof. “Come on, let's observe the entertainment venues. I heard there are good shows this year.”

The trio trotted down the street full of food vendors and rounded a corner, coming to another, wider street where small stages or spaces had been set up for all sorts of performers. Some were playing musical instruments: a chubby earth pony stallion was playing bongo drums; a small jazz band made up of various ponies played an upbeat tune; a unicorn mare played a large harp and sang a lovely song.

Some performers were dancing: a pegasus mare tap-danced on a stage barely large enough for her; a pair of earth pony stallions with big beards, wearing kilts, stomped around in a frenzied circle. Some performers were putting on plays such as a small troupe putting on a show from a popular tragedy; a yellow earth pony mare with a curly purple mane was performing stand-up comedy; a unicorn stallion was putting on a puppet show for younger ponies, depicting a heroic stallion saving a beautiful damsel from a monster of the Wasteland.

At the far end of the street, however, a larger stage had been set up, and it was this stage that Blackburn and her entourage headed for. They pushed their way to the front of the crowd just over to the side. They were just in time to catch the end of the previous show as the announcer, a lanky earth pony stallion with a golden brown coat and dark brown mane, thanked the crowd. The previous performer, a brown-coated earth pony mare with a light gray bowl-cut mane, bowed to the audience as she shuffled off.

“Thank you, Rockcrusher, that was quite a performance!” called the announcer as he came on stage from behind the curtain. “Okay folks, our next performer hails all the way from Pandemonium City. Let’s give a warm welcome to The Amazing Accolade!”

The announcer stepped back off stage and let the next performer step from behind the curtain. She was an icy blue unicorn mare with a dapper black tuxedo and top hat covering her white mane, and as she strode out onto the stage she twirled a little black wand with her magic. The crowd applauded generously; some ponies cheered.

“Greetings, ponies of Hope’s Point!” she said with a flourish and a bow. “Prepare yourselves for the greatest show in Equestria, as I, The Amazing Accolade, display the finest feats of magic you’ve ever seen!”

With another flourish, the stage exploded with glittering puffs of smoke and sparks. Several ponies in the crowd clapped excitedly, especially the younger fillies and colts. Crossfire was particularly enthusiastic; Blackburn not quite as much, but she still clapped and smiled. Gadget was considerably less impressed.

Accolade tossed her wand in the air with a twirl, removed her hat, set it on the stage, then caught her wand in one swift series of motions. “Behold!” She lifted her hat up to show the insides to the crowd. “The Amazing Accolade’s hat is empty! Or… is it?!”

She twirled the hat through the air, set it back on the stage, and tapped it three times. Another Accolade’s head poked out of the hat and stared out at the crowd, then hopped up out of the hat and stood on stage beside the first; she, too, was dressed in a tuxedo and carried a wand, but did not have her own hat.

The two Accolades spoke in unison. “Voila! Double the Accolade, double the magic!” Another flourish of their wands together, and the hat in between them spewed a torrent of sparklers into the air.

Another round of applause went through the crowd.

Gadget rolled her eyes. “Simple doppelganger spell, nothing fancy.”

“Still impressive,” Blackburn noted. “Doppelganger spells are more advanced magic, not easy to perform even for talented unicorns. Impressive, no?”

“Yeah, maybe, but it’s still not particularly impressive. Certainly not ‘finest feat of magic’ level like she says. That would require something like teleportation or transmogrification spells.”

“Can y’all do that there doppel… dufflel… ugh, double magic, Gadget?” Crossfire asked with a smug grin. “Or how ‘bout any o’ those other spells y’all just mentioned?”

Gadget paused, narrowed her eyes at him. “No.”

“Then let the mare show off her magic. It’s entertainin’, ain’t it?” He gestured into the crowd. “Everypony here seems ta like it.”

“It’s just regular unicorn magic!” Gadget sputtered. “Even all the flourish and stuff is just pyrotechnics, not even real magic. Just smoke and mirrors.”

Blackburn snorted. “I’m surprised at you, Gadget. Thought you had more tact.”

“Tact?”

“The mare is performing to entertain ponies, so if the ponies are entertained, why get ornery?”

“B-because it’s all fake!”

“So? She’s a stage magician. Unicorn magic is commonplace, true. The natural assumption of the show is entertainment with flair and flamboyance, and her boasts come part and parcel with that.”

“Anypony that would get all uppity at stage magic just ‘cause it ain’t ‘real’ magic’s got some confidence issues, Gadget,” Crossfire added. “Anythin’ y’all wanna tell us about?”

Gadget huffed. “Whatever.”

Suddenly, there was a loud ping that sounded through the air; everypony in the crowd and the streets, even the performers, turned their attention towards the source of the sound: a speaker system set up on a tall pole near the stage. A stallion’s voice came over the speaker: “Attention. Attention. The Hope’s Point Thirty-Fourth Annual Air Show will be starting in thirty minutes. Once again, the Hope’s Point Thirty-Fourth Annual Air Show will be starting in thirty minutes.”

Blackburn brightened. “Finally. Come on,” she said, gesturing back towards the street. “We can reach the airfield before the show starts and see the pilots.”

The trio made their way through the crowd back to the street even as the two - or was it one? - Accolades resumed their act. Several other ponies did the same, seeking areas to sit as they got ready for the air show; pegasi flew up to claim spots on the roofs of the buildings lining the streets and helped their non-pegasi friends and families to do the same.

Over the twenty minutes it took Blackburn and her entourage to reach the airfield, the streets had almost entirely cleared out as the crowds took to the rooftops. The airfield itself was at the southern edge of the city, but was atypical compared to what most would expect from such as it was underground. A large launch bay door covered the field when it was otherwise not in use. At present, the bay doors were open and the field had been elevated up to surface level.

As the trio approached the entrance to the airfield, they removed their hoods. The guards at the gate nodded to Blackburn as she approached, letting her through without a fuss. She and her entourage walked past several pilots as they prepared their airships; as this was an air show, only the stunt pilots and their ships, which were smaller - about half the size of a fighter jet - were present, rather than any of the larger cargo or passenger ships.

There were very clear flight teams set up, as their ships shared designs: one team’s ships were elongated ovals, colored royal blue with gold stripes; another’s were shaped like arrowheads and colored black with silver trim. Some ships were unique in design and didn’t belong to any sort of team: one was shaped like a bird, another like a disc with distended top. Each ship was large enough to accommodate a pegasus pilot and all of the systems needed to allow them to pilot the ship; each ship had one engine and a number of fins to make them aerodynamic.

On the other end of the field, in a section sanctioned off all by itself, was another ship unique in design from the others in the field: diamond-shaped and colored gold with red and white stripes. A decal of a rainbow-colored lightning bolt was plastered on the side, emblazoned with text reading “Rainbow Blitz”, the name of the ship.

Beside the ship were three ponies: Blackburn’s parents - Prince Stormchaser, dressed in a lavish dress coat, and Blue Blitz, dressed in a full-body red-and-gold flight suit - and another stallion, a unicorn with a deep purple coat and reddish-pink mane wearing a business suit. Stormchaser and the other stallion were examining the ship’s engine; the former looked like he was showing it off to the latter.

Blackburn brightened immediately when she saw her mother, and rushed forward to greet her. “Momma!”

Blue Blitz smiled wide as Blackburn approached. “There you are!” She scooped Blackburn up in a hug as her daughter reached her. “I’ve been looking all over for you, my little treasure. Here--” She reached into the pocket of her flight suit and pulled out a green-and-gold striped scarf, handing it over to Blackburn. “No need to go incognito anymore.”

“Thanks, momma.” Blackburn smiled and wrapped the scarf around her neck.

“Did you have fun at the festival?”

Blackburn nodded excitedly. “We had all sorts of snacks. I liked the candied orange slices the most.” She turned to Gadget and gestured for her to bring over the plush bear. “I won this at one of the games. Gonna call him ‘Bluebeary’: a pun on ‘bear’.”

“He’s adorable,” Blitz said as she pet the plushie’s head. She gave Blackburn a bright smile. “You excited for the show, kiddo?”

“Uh huh! I can’t wait to see you fly, momma. Gonna do any tricks for me?”

Blitz tapped her chin. “Hmm, I dunno, kiddo. Have you been practicing your basics like I asked?”

Blackburn nodded. “Yup!” She broke away from her mother and took a running jump so she could take to the air with her wings, flying a tight circle around Gadget and Crossfire. After two loops around, she pulled up and did a small loopdeloop, then landed. She staggered a bit, dizzy, but shook it off. “See?”

Blitz clapped her hooves together. “Very good! You’re a natural, kiddo. Tell you what: I’m gonna make the biggest loopdeloop you’ve ever seen, just for you.”

Blackburn pumped her hoof in triumph. “Yes!”

Stormchaser finally seemed to notice his daughter had arrived. “Is that Blackburn?” He trotted over from the engine; the unicorn with him lingered by the engine just for a few seconds, giving it a good once over before following. “There you are. Where’ve you been all day?”

“At the festival,” Blackburn said, her voice not quite as peppy as it had been talking to her mother. “I told you and momma I’d be there until the air show.” She turned to the unicorn stallion. “Who’s this?”

Stormchaser turned to the unicorn and patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, this is an associate of mine from Pandemonium, Crimson Dust. He works for Steelbank Engineering, one of the largest firms in the city.”

The unicorn, Crimson Dust, gave a friendly smile. “You must be Princess Blackburn. A pleasure to meet you.” He gave her a slight bow.

Blackburn nodded in return. “A pleasure to meet you, Mister Dust. How do you know my father?”

“We met through business, naturally. Mostly trading in engineering and weapon parts for your air fleet.” Crimson gestured to the engine of the Rainbow Blitz. “My company produces the parts used by the engines your ships use and some of the smaller weaponry. This engine here is a new model I helped design.”

“And why are you here?”

“Blackburn!” Stormchaser hissed. “Don’t be rude to company. What’s gotten into you, huh? I told you I don’t want you getting analytical around me, especially with my guests.”

Blackburn backed down, ears flattened in embarrassment. “I’m… I’m sorry, dad. I’m just… used to asking questions when meeting new ponies. Grandpa wants me to--”

“Grandpa. Of course. Of course! You’ve been spending too much time at those meetings of his,” Stormchaser scolded. “You know I don’t approve of your grandfather’s rampant paranoia. I hope you don’t start picking up any of his other bad habits.”

Blitz touched her husband’s shoulder gently. “Honey, don’t be so rough on her.”

Stormchaser ignored her. “Apologize to my guest, Blackburn.”

Blackburn looked at the ground, embarrassed. “Sorry, Mister Dust… sorry, dad...”

“It’s okay, Stormchaser, I’d be happy to answer her question,” Crimson said with a grin. He turned to Blackburn. “I was just checking out the engines some of your ships have installed to see the modifications made. Stormchaser had me investigate the Rainbow Blitz’s engine personally since it’s a newer model, and of my design.”

“I hope that satisfies your curiosity,” Stormchaser said sternly. He turned to Blitz, his mood changing immediately back to lighthearted. “We’re going to take our seats now, dear. Good luck today.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek, and he and Crimson headed off towards the edge of the airfield.

Blitz gave Blackburn an apologetic look. “Don’t worry about your father, kiddo. He’s just trying to show off to his friend.” She pulled Blackburn in for a hug. “And don’t you ever apologize for being the smartest mare in the room, okay? You’re gonna do great things someday, treasure. Mark my words.”

Blackburn returned the hug. “Thanks, momma…”

Blitz patted Blackburn’s head and walked back towards the ship. “Come on, kiddo, I’ll show you the flight system.” She tapped the underside of the ship, and a hatch opened up to reveal a boarding ramp leading inside, which she ascended.

Blackburn followed her mother - Gadget and Crossfire remained outside - and marveled at the interior of the ship. The cockpit had a single large console panel with a number of dials, buttons, and other displays. At present most of the readings were at zero since the ship was at rest.

“Wow…” Blackburn breathed, eyeing the cockpit’s wondrous technology.

“Fancy, huh? Most of this stuff is only for when we have a copilot, so it’s not gonna get used much today - we don’t need copilots when we’re just doing stunt flying, only for combat.” Blitz gestured at the circular glass tube in the center of the cockpit. “And this is where the magic happens.”

Blackburn put her nose up against the glass. “Cool…”

Blitz pushed a button on the console, and the tube slid open; she stepped inside and motioned for Blackburn to stand back. The tube closed over her, and after a few seconds, a black aerosol sprayed from the ceiling onto her wings, coating them in a liquid-like black substance that clung to her feathers. A panel opened on the ceiling and a green visor descended over her face.

Blackburn watched with interest. “Master Solarian developed this?”

Blitz gave her a smile. “He did. This liquid is a sort of conductive sleeve that wirelessly connects to the ship’s flight controls, allowing a pegasus pilot to control the ship’s flight as accurately as possible. It’s a big improvement over the old-school throttle and stick for us pegasi.”

“What’s it feel like?”

“Like I’ve got my wings covered in maple syrup.” Blitz gave Blackburn a grin and a wink. “Bramblejam says it tastes like three-week-old coffee. So, y’know… don’t eat it.”

Blackburn stuck out her tongue in disgust. “Blech.”

The cockpit console gave a loud, rapid beep. “Oh, there’s the signal. The show’s starting soon.” Blitz gave Blackburn a bright smile. “Go find a seat, treasure. I’m gonna blow this crowd away.”

“Ooh! Wait!” Blackburn called down the ramp to Gadget: “Gadget. Bring Bluebeary.”

Gadget ascended the ramp with the plush bear, taking a second to examine the cockpit while she could. “Golly. This is some fancy--”

Blackburn yanked Bluebeary from Gadget’s grip and put it down in the cockpit. She gave Blitz a grin. “For luck. Not that you need it, best flier in Equestria!”

“Aww, sweetie,” Blitz cooed. “Thank you. I’m really gonna blow this crowd away, thanks to my little treasure’s good luck charm. Now go find a seat, the show’s starting soon.”

Blackburn and Gadget left the ship, and the boarding ramp closed behind them. As they walked off, they heard the Rainbow Blitz hum gently to life. Several other ships on the airfield were doing the same.

A building on the edge of the airfield had been set up with comfortable bleachers for certain VIPs, which naturally included Blackburn and her entourage. The trio made for section that had been sanctioned off just for them on raised seats at the back, where they’d get the best view considering their shorter stature. Stormchaser sat front and center in the bleachers, joined by Crimson Dust and a few other guests, all dressed in exquisite or formal clothing - only his bodyguard was dressed in protective attire. King Flashfire, dressed in red-and-gold royal livery, sat closer to the middle, joined only by Shining Steel at his side.

Blackburn waved at Flashfire and squeezed her way through the other seats to greet him. “Grandpa!”

Flashfire brightened as Blackburn approached. “There she is! My little ray of--” He suddenly coughed, and had to cover his mouth with his hoof.

Blackburn frowned. “Are you okay, grandpa? I thought your condition was improving?”

Flashfire took a deep breath, then smiled to put her at ease. “Just fine, sweetheart, just fine. Only a little cough, that’s all. Looking forward to the show?”

“Yes! I can’t wait to see momma fly. Best pilot in Equestria!” Blackburn said, beaming. “She promised she would perform biggest loop ever.”

“That sounds wonderful, dear.” He gestured to Shining Steel. “Have you said congratulations to Shining yet?”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow and turned to Shining. “Congratulations?”

Shining gave Blackburn a small smile. “The wife and I found out this morning that she’s gonna have a foal.”

“Oh! Congratulations!” Blackburn said with a bright grin. “Give my blessings to Paramour.”

“I will, Princess, thank you.”

Blackburn turned back to her grandfather. “We’re gonna take our seats now, grandpa.”

Flashfire pat her head. “Go on, sweetheart. Enjoy the show.”

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire took their seats in the top row, just as the speakers nearby buzzed to life. “Fillies and gentlecolts, welcome to the Hope’s Point Thirty-Fourth Annual Air Show, where the best pilots in our fleet take to the skies for your entertainment in celebration of our city’s founding!” called an announcer. “Without further ado, please welcome our first performance of the day, the Black Arrows!”

As soon as the announcement finished, a squadron of six ships, shaped like black arrowheads, took off from the airfield and soared over the city, trailing thin trails of white smoke behind them. The ponies in the stands applauded and cheered as they zipped over their building, and while they couldn’t hear it from here, everypony knew the ponies in the rest of the city were doing the same. The speakers, meanwhile, played an upbeat rock-and-roll song to accompany the display.

The black ships banked, looped, spun, rolled, twisted, turned, and sped through the air over the entire city so that every citizen possible could get a good view of the show. They kept in tight formation, twirling around one another in daring displays of aerodynamic mastery. They only stayed airborne for a few minutes before sailing back over the airfield and landing, just as the music was fading out.

“The Black Arrows, everypony!” Applause and cheers rippled through the stands.

Several other flight teams and even a few individual pilots performed after the Black Arrows: the elongated blue-and-gold ships, the Marvelbolts; a squad of green V-shaped ships, the Emerald Vees; a single ship shaped like a fish piloted by one Skyrocket; and many others. After the last team, a squad of white wing-shaped ships called the Angel Wings, finished their set and landed, the announcer came onto the speakers one last time:

“And now, fillies and gentlecolts, for our last performance of the day, please welcome the Fastest Pegasus in Equestria, the Terror of the Skies, the Mistress of Aerodynamics, the one, the only: Blue Blitz and her Rainbow Blitz!”

The stands burst into applause as the Rainbow Blitz took off from the airfield like a rocket; Blackburn, in particular, leapt from her seat to cheer louder than anypony else in the stands. Nopony noticed Crimson Dust leaving his seat.

The Rainbow Blitz trailed glittery rainbow-colored smoke behind it as it flew, spreading literal rainbows through the sky as it soared overhead. It moved faster than any ship before it in the show, dashing about with all the agility of an actual pegasus. When it finished every particularly daring maneuver, it accelerated in a great burst of speed, sending the rainbow smoke out in a booming ring; each boom was met with frantic applause from the crowd, especially Blackburn.

“Golly, your mom’s shows are always great to watch, Princess,” Gadget said with awe. “I wish I could move like that…”

“I don’t think anypony can move like that,” Crossfire whistled as the Rainbow Blitz pulled a tight, looping roll. “Blows me away how y’all pegasi can do that kinda stuff.”

Blackburn beamed as the ship started a huge loopdeloop, just for her. “Just you wait. Some day, I’ll be just as good--”

BOOM!

An explosion rocked the engine of the Rainbow Blitz just as it was coming down from the end of the loop. It was going too fast and was too low to the ground to pull up in time or for Blue Blitz to react. The Rainbow Blitz crashed with a fiery blast in the dead center of the airfield, colliding with a few other ships in a chain reaction of explosions.

Blackburn’s eyes widened. Her lips trembled. “M-momma?”

All the ponies in the stands rose as one. Panic set in quickly, and several emergency crews rushed out towards the site of the crash. To Blackburn, everything seemed to move in slow-motion: her father at the front of the stands rising up in a rage; her grandfather rising up and looking straight towards her; Crossfire grabbing her and pulling her from her seat to get to safety, Gadget drawing her stun pistol to cover them; the rest of the ponies in the stands looking to the royals for guidance.

As Crossfire pulled Blackburn down the edge of the stands, her eyes drifted down towards the ground below. Her eyes narrowed. Crimson Dust was down there, trotting away from the explosion at a rapid pace, pushing past some of the crews rushing towards the airfield. Her thoughts raced. She remembered him lingering near the engine too long. An engine he claimed to help design. An engine that her father had let him examine.

It all clicked together in one horrible realization.

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