• Published 6th Nov 2020
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A Clash of Magic and Steam - law abiding pony

The Fire of Friendship that once united ponykind has all but faded. One thousand years ago, Equestria fractured... those who disagreed with Celestia's rule left under the leadership of Princess Luna to found their own nation, their own way of life.

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4: A Night to be Remembered

The Grand Galloping Gala was an auspicious occasion for the nobility and Queen Corona. As Twilight walked in from the courtyard, she shivered in the frosty air. Twilight gazed wide eyed at the splendor of the Royal Palace. The elegant, gold capped towers, and oceans of red carpet. Soldiers stood resplendent in gold trimmed armor, and the arriving noblemares silently competed for the most enticing mane styles. That extravagance of the palace was tempered with minimalism however, as none of the guests save for any military members wore a stitch of clothing. The money spent on dresses and jewelry in the past became such a contentious problem that the lower classes revolted due to such wasteful spending.

And today, Twilight hated the consequential tradition. Her featherless wings were on display for all to see, but worst of all was her mark of Destiny. A double starburst with five smaller bursts surrounding it. What shamed her however, was that upon close inspection, the circle of smaller starbursts revealed themselves to be gears. At least most ponies don’t know what a gear is. I hope.

There was at least one bright spot she was looking forward to, and she spotted it soon after climbing out of the family carriage. Her face lit up like the sun. Wild sparks flew from her horn and a girlish squeal erupted. “Shiny!”

Standing just in front of the line of honor guards stood her big brother. The toned unicorn stallion wore a crisply ironed ruby red and gold trimmed dress officer uniform. A smile as broad as Twilight’s grew on him and he waved her over for a hug. “Heyya, Twily.”

Practically bouncing on her hooves, Twilight sprinted over, not caring one iota if some social norm was being tread upon. He wasn’t ready for the sheer force of her sprint and rocked a bit when Twilight collided with him. She wrapped him up in a tight squeeze that Shining Armor was all too happy to return. “Come on now, hug me like you mean it.”

There it was, the unconditional acceptance she loved most from him. Twilight shed a tear as she included her wings into the embrace and hugged him with all her strength. “I missed you so much, BBBFF.” She sniffled, not wanting to let go.

Shining Armor noticed their parents were getting closer, and knew he still had a gala to attend. He let off a goodhearted chuckle and gave a brief tighter squeeze to end the hug. “So did I, LSBFF. I heard your Destiny came to you a few months ago!”

Embarrassed sparks of lightning escaped her horn. “Yee- Yeah, it did, um Daddy!” Twilight backed away from her bewildered brother to allow her father to slide in front of her.

“Well look at this fine stallion,” Night Light cheered with overflowing pride. “Glad you could pry yourself away from the barracks to join us tonight.”

A smirk played over Shining’s face as he embraced his parents. “It wasn’t that hard, dad. Twily and you gave my name a boost after your demonstration to the queen last year.”

“Oh posh, Shiny,” Velvet flicked her son’s snout with a feather tip. “You’d have done just fine without us. He’s just jealous of how handsome you are in uniform.”

Night Light huffed playfully and started walking towards the grand entryway. “Jealous or not, we shouldn’t keep the queen or her Holiness waiting.”

Sure enough, the procession line of the other noble families was getting rather short, and they needed to be in their proper place in line. The family walked with as much haste as dignity allowed to the entry hall. That too spoke of old history: the towering marble pillars with seven meter tall stained glass windows between them depicting great battles of the fabled Celestia herself. Twilight wished she could have studied the windows in depth, but the footmare announcing the families at the top was nearly ready to call their names.

Night Light and Velvet pulled to a stop at the bottom, waiting for the footmare to wave them forward. Velvet took a moment to examine Twilight’s mane and rubbed away some rebellious strands. “I know it will be difficult, but please try to keep your wings as unnoticeable as possible and the sparks to a minimum. Let your mind make the first impression, not your body.”

“And try not to strike up conversation about machines again,” Night Light added as gently as possible. He stroked the side of her neck to avoid messing up her carefully styled mane. “Tonight is your official introduction to high society, not a debate on if we should loosen restrictions.”

“Up to debates now are we,” Shining chimed in with a brotherly smirk and wink. “An improvement to you yelling and crying about it.”

“I’ll have you know BBBFF, I’m a big mare now. I don’t yell and cry!” Twilight gave off an exaggerated, but harmless snort. “Momma’s taught me a lot on how to ‘close the deal’. As she says.”

“Those were meant for you to learn how to bargain for better prices, not… never mind.” Velvet bent down just a bit to pat down several stray hairs on Twilight’s mane from her last errant bout of lightning. The occasional spark from her horn never allowed the filly to have the perfectly combed style she strived for.

The family ahead of them finally disappeared over the lip of the stairs. The footmare beckoned them forward. Velvet and Night Light took the lead with Shining Armor in the rear. Twilight stayed between her mother and father, readying herself to hold her horn in check and wings tight against her barrel. “Please just try to have a good time, my little spark,” Night Light begged as he kept his eyes on the top of the stairs and his poise proper. “Even if you only find one friend tonight, it’s better than not trying.”

At the top of the stairs, the hall flowed back down a short ramp revealing the gala below. As a show of good faith to the public, the crown kept the gala under a tighter budget as well. In fact, Queen Corona had taken quite a liking to making the event as opulent as possible under the tightest of purse strings. The rows of tables were decorated with the same finest cloth that the staff carefully maintained throughout the decades. The offered banquet was fit for a rowdy barracks as a tribute to the enlisted ponies, and not eating your fill was seen as a direct insult to both the military and the crown. Sensibilities be damned.

Well over a hundred of the aristocracy were already present, along with an equal number of commoner families chosen by lottery. With only ambient music playing from the small orchestra band, the attendees were milling about, making deals, gossiping, and setting alliances. Friends in low places was not foreign to the Canterlot elite, and the commoners were an excellence source of information into the wider populous the nobles would be unlikely, or unwilling, to gain at any other time.

A good many among them were clearly military officers running the full gambit from navy to air force. Chief among Twilight’s interests were the colts and fillies her age that were scattered about. Many remained at their parents’ side so they could be individually introduced, though some were on their own. Presiding above them all on a throne of gold and red satin padding was Queen Corona. Even from the furthest end of the ballroom, Twilight could clearly make out the grand size of the throne, and the grandeur she seemed to exude with natural ease. Sitting on a cushion to the queen’s right was a gold and firefly maned filly roughly four years Twilight’s senior. Even one as disenfranchised by magic as Twilight Sparkle knew she was Sunset Shimmer, prized student of the queen.

Twilight didn’t have time to get nervous about either of them turning their piercing gaze upon her when the footmare banged the butt of her spear on the stone floor adjacent to them. “Hear ye, hear ye. I have the privilege to make known: the honorable House Light. High Doctor Night Light, Lady Twilight Velvet, their son Second Lieutenant Shining Armor, and their daughter and heir Miss Twilight Sparkle.”

Panic at seeing so many eyes suddenly upon Twilight threatened to make her wings flare. Her brother and parents bowed and curtsied, Twilight shakily followed her mother’s example after hastily refolding her wings. She couldn’t help but to be reminded of the cloud she had jumped off of. Feels like I’m getting pushed this time.

The current song shifted to a slightly quieter tune, signaling the end of dancing for the moment. That left Twilight stuck with her parents. At least Shiny is here. She stayed close to her brother, eyes scanning for anyone who might be looking at her shameful Mark of Destiny.

Velvet used a wing to direct their attention to a five pony unicorn family, a set of twin unicorn colts and a filly among them. “There, why don’t we start with the Riches?”

Doing her best to put on a good face and adopt her best posture, Twilight dutifully followed along, if only to remain near her brother. Shining however used a touch of magic to push her away. “Twily, I’m going to end up stepping on you at this rate.” He leaned in close to her ear. “I know you’re scared, but a strong face can get you past any of these bits-for-brains.”

The encouragement only caused a brief jolt of self-confidence in Twilight sadly, as all of it was laid low when the other family noticed their approach. A short-lived spark ran up Twilight’s horn. Seeing that, the childrens’ eyes went straight to studying her profile. Oh no. They’re going to see I have wings. Sure enough, a wrinkle of disgust from the colts, and a childish giggle from the filly told Twilight everything she didn’t want to know.

The family introduction went by without Twilight even paying any attention to the adults, save to nod and give one word replies when expected. The other filly outright ignored Twilight by admiring Shining Armor. The colts had the upbringing to avoid outright insulting Twilight in front of the adults, but she could see it in their eyes. It’s the same look the academy faculty had. They want nothing to do with me.

Over the next two hours, her parents dragged her from family to family, both noble and commoner alike. The colts expressed no interest and the fillies avoided her in lieu of her brother, uncaring of the age difference. Twilight was no competitor. By the twelfth family, Twilight was ready to cover her face with her wings for all the good they were doing. Her face burned red with embarrassment and her sparks were getting worse to the point some lightning was dancing between her horn and ears. Were it not for trying to act brave for her brother, she’d have run out of the castle by now.

She couldn’t take it anymore and tugged on her mother’s wing. “Momma, I’m hungry.” It was the best excuse she could think of in a pinch.

Of the three of them, Velvet was the most engrossed in discussion with the other families, and only gave a nominal response. “Honey, the first bell hasn’t struck yet.”

Shining Armor had been paying attention though and butt in when he saw Twilight’s eyes misting over. “Come on, Mom, you’ve shown her off to all of your friends, let me show her around some of mine.” He stepped away from the family, while pulling Twilight along with him with a touch of magic.

Velvet went to protest, but Night Light laid a foreleg on her withers. “Go on, son. Having connections with the military is always a boon isn’t it dear?”

“At her age?” The siblings were already weaving through the crowd, and were now far past polite speaking range. Velvet sighed in obliviousness, and returned her attention to the ponies she had been talking with. “Oh fine, sorry, where were we?”

They made it out of earshot of their parents before Twilight blinked her tears away to nuzzle her brother’s chest. “Thanks, Shiny.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. What good is a big bro if he can’t protect his favorite sister?” He flashed a winning smile as they cleared their way to the buffet. Since the gala did not have scheduled dining, food was left for all to take at their leisure.

“Favorite?!” Twilight stared at him with suspicion. “But I’m your only sister!”

He tapped her nose just hard enough to make her fidget with it. “Doesn’t mean you’re not my favorite. Come on, let’s grab a plate.”

To draw attention away from Twilight’s lack of magic, Shining Armor held both plates within his own telekinesis. The siblings loaded down their plates and were about to find a table when Shining Armor spotted a particular stallion and filly that made him freeze. Confused, Twilight followed his gaze to the pair who were watching the crowd from on top of one of the nearby staircases that led deeper into the palace.

The beige unicorn stallion had a casual ease in his poise, like a sated falcon flying over prey. He wore a long white and gold trimmed coat of a style Twilight was unfamiliar with. He also had a wide brimmed hat with one half of the brim clipped to the crown. On his lapel was a golden clip or perhaps a badge of a rearing alicorn with wings flared. The filly was also a unicorn with white fur and a curled purple mane. She lacked the hat, but had a similar jacket that was bereft of any identifying trimming.

Twilight saw nothing frightening about the pair and looked to her brother who was hastily retreating to a table they had skipped over. Twilight scampered after him with questions burning in her mind. “Wait up.”

He looked back and tried to flash that same winning smile, but it was clearly forced. “Sorry, Twily, just extra hungry is all. Have a seat.”

Pouting irritably, Twilight claimed her chair and stared daggers at him to make sure he wouldn't weasel out of an answer. “What got you all scared?”

Giving a halting laugh to exhale the built up stress, Shining Armor waited in answering until Twilight sat down. “Sorry, Twily, I spotted a nuckelavee. Had a run in with one last week, and I got spooked is all.”

“What?” Twilight didn’t stop giving him a stink eye, even as he magically brought over some utensils. “You mean that stallion on the stairs? Demon ponies don’t exist, big brother.”

“Is that what mom tells you?” He gave a half-snort/half-laugh and took a bite of some unidentifiable casserole to gather his thoughts. “But nah, I heard that’s what Lunarians call them from my instructors after one of them came around for inspection. But it’d be more realistic to call on them to take down a nuckelavee.”

A shiver ran down Twilight’s back, her food momentarily forgotten. “Nuckelavees are not real, you big faker!”

“Glad to see you’re missing the point as always.” Shining Armor seemed to shrug off the last of his tremors, and his good mood returned in full. “But don’t worry about them. Those ponies are your best friends, provided you don’t break the law. So how’s life been?”

Twilight pouted extra hard, making sure her cheeks were as poofed out as possible, but her brother remained defiantly mute on the silent demand for elaboration. “Why do you always do that?”

He chuckled and answered her pout with a smug grin. “It’s my brotherly duty to prepare you for the outside world in ways our parents won’t, but even I think you’re too young to know about ponies like that stallion. Instead I-” He stopped, eyes narrowing as a pale pink mare weaved through the crowd with eyes only for his sister.

Arching a suspicious eyebrow as well, Twilight followed his gaze and shrank in a bit at seeing the pegasus mare’s singular focus on her. She briefly looked back at her brother who gave her a brief nod, allowing the filly to relax, knowing he would protect her.

The mare arrived with a plate of her own, and a warm smile at the purple demicorn. “Miss Twilight, I hope I’m not intruding.”

“Do you know her?” Shining asked while keeping a calm posture. They were in the middle of the gala after all, no one would threaten a child here of all places. Still though, Twilight was not known to have much, if anything, of a social life, and the mare certainly didn't carry herself as an employee of the palace.

“Umm I don’t think so.” Twilight stepped off her seat to greet the mare properly. “Should I?”

A chuckle escaped the mare as she sidestepped and slid her plate onto the table. “Well, I look different right now, but we met last year at your father’s laboratory.”

Twilight jumped out of shock. “We did?!” She glanced up at the raised throne dais. The queen was on her throne along with her prized student, but more importantly, someone wasn’t there. She looked back at the mystery mare. “Your holi-”

Cadenza shushed her by waving a hoof over her mouth. “Not so loud. I’m in disguise to get some peace while I enjoy the food.”

“Oh. Oh!” Twilight covered her mouth with both hooves briefly then tugged on her brother’s sleeve. Childish conspiracy filled her with glee the only way juicy gossip could. Still giving the mare a dubious, if outwardly polite look, Shining let his sister pull him down so she could whisper in his ear. “She must be Mi Amore Cadenza. She was really nice to me.”

“Mi Amor-” Shining Armor jerked his head up at the mare who was flashing him her best smile that was more than just friendly. Quick on the uptick, Shining reassessed his approach. “It’s an honor to meet a friend of my sister, Miss?”

“Call me Cadance. The whole three worded name is just something stuffy that she-who-shall-not-be-named gave me when I came to the palace.”

“I - um - alright.” Shining Armor had to steady himself a moment. A literal goddess just asked him to refer to her casually, and no amount of officer training could have helped with that. “So,” he stopped, realizing a simple conversation starter and gave an easier smile. “I must say I’m impressed. I don’t think even the inquisitors are capable of casting illusion magic on themselves like that.”

Cadance huffed a laugh and shook her head, tossing her long mane over her eyes. “Nor can I.” she gestured with a wing elbow at a nearby stallion. He was talking with another stallion, seemingly ignorant of the group, but his horn was encased in a jade glow. “He’s doing it for me.”

“That makes sense,” Shining replied with a hum. He picked both his and Twilight’s plates up, not that Twilight was eating anyway. “Something tells me you’re more comfortable with quieter affairs, and to be honest, my sister is the same way. I’m sure you’d like to speak where there aren’t so many ponies expecting High Ponish from every word.”

“You’d be right,” Cadance snickered, claiming her own plate once more. “My hometown has fewer ponies than are in this room right now. I have a private dining room nearby, and I have an hour or two before I’m supposed to make a dedication, or some malarkey.”

The sound of a quiet room was music to Twilight’s ears. She hopped a bit and circled her brother as he moved away from the table. “Ooo, we should get more drinks and food so we don’t need to make a second trip!”

“My thoughts exactly,” Shining Armor replied while patting her head.

Cadance’s private dining room was the definition of cozy. The table could only seat four, and the tight walls barely allowed even that. Gentle candlelight in the tight room gave a warm atmosphere away from the opalescence outside. Cadance was the last to enter the room due to her personal guard gently taking her aside.

“Your holiness, are sure it is wise to be seen alone with a stallion. Even you know how fast a rumor can fly.”

“He is with his little sister,” Cadance whispered back with resolve the guard would be hard pressed to crack. “I doubt anypony with any sense would think ill of that.”

Knowing it was not a battle worth fighting, the guard only nodded. “As you wish, your holiness. I will give three knocks when the time for the dedication arrives.”

Cadance gave him a minimal acknowledgement and joined the siblings at the table. Both members of the Light family were waiting, unsure of how to act in her presence. Neither of them knew where she came from, and even the newspapers could only give rumors and speculation.

Now that Cadance was bereft of her illusion disguise, Shining Armor was captivated by her beauty. Most telling to him, was the casual warmth of her eyes that spoke of a pony who was more like some of the commoner soldiers he had trained with in boot camp before the drill sergeants got ahold of them.

Despite Cadance’s kindness thus far, envy ripped at the filly’s heart now that she wasn’t emotionally corralled by the crowds. Compared to her, Cadance was everything Twilight wasn’t. Strong, gorgeous, a working horn, powerful wings, and fawned over by everyone. Twilight didn’t particularly care about being the center of attention, but it was a far cry from the disdain everyone outside of her family showed her thus far. Everyone, but Cadance. Thinking it only proper, Twilight bowed before her. “Thank you for getting us away from the gala, I’m not really glad to be here.”

For his part, Shining Armor remained standing, but didn’t bow. He had a half-cocked grin that he hoped looked at-ease. “My thanks as well. Twily’s more of a bookworm than a socialite.”

“My pleasure, honestly, all the political tomfoolery is a distasteful waste of a party.” Seeing she would have to take the lead, Cadance went ahead and sat down. “I am absolutely starving, by the way, so sorry in advance.” She instantly went for her food with the same table manners as a competitive hot dog eater.

Twilight was utterly stunned by the wanton destruction of food, and her brother was left no better, but he recovered quickly enough and gave off a friendly chuckle at it. Still, it certainly brought some measure of good humor back to Twilight. I fasted all day so I could eat more of the army food. Seeing Cadance’s actions as a competition she’d enjoy, Twilight laughed and started eating with no less wild abandon.

Her brother got the same idea. This was no time to be prim and proper, this was a challenge. He maneuvered his plate to be opposite from Cadance and plopped it down hard enough to rattle the silverware he wouldn’t be needing. “Best not let the lovely lady have too much of a lead on me.” Shining Armor attacked his food harder than a starving child with a drill instructor yelling at him to hurry up.

Finishing at the same time as Shining Armor, Cadance bumped her empty plate to the center of the table. “Done!” She giggled madly at all the loose bits of food on the siblings’ faces. Her laughter started to peter out about the time the others stopped eating. “Like my dad always said, the best ponies you’ll ever meet are at the dinner table.”

“Did he also say eating like a swine was good too?” Twilight asked while using a wing to napkin her mouth clean.

“Ha, of course not. I did that to break the ice.” Cadance adopted a bit more of a devious touch to her expression while studying Shining Armor. “I admit when I saw Night Light was on the guest list, I was worried little Twilight here would have to come as well.” Cadance leaned over and tentatively rubbed Twilight’s neck, hoping the filly wouldn’t shy away. Thankfully, Twilight only leaned into the touch of the only non-family member who was nice to her. “When I saw you arrive with them in an army uniform, I was worried you might treat her like a late friend of mine’s sister did to him. But it looks like you love her as much as family should.”

Puffing his chest out a bit, and trying to hide the ache in his stomach, the lone stallion replied with a genuine tone. “Are you kidding? Twilight’s the second best thing to ever happen to me.”

Twilight’s ears perked up and she rounded on her brother. “Second? Second?! What about that day you left for boot camp and forgot your enlistment papers? You almost got thrown in jail if I hadn’t badgered mommy to fly over and deliver them to you the moment I found them!”

His bravado deflated like a balloon as he kowtowed to the little filly with flattened ears. “And I can’t tell you 'thank you' enough apparently. But that ranks number three now.”

“Exactly!” Twilight cried with a hoof raised to the sky and wild sparks frazing her hair. “So what could be better than me and that day?”

Cadance arched a playful eyebrow, half suspecting his reply, but remained silent.

Thankfully for his pride, Shining Armor smoothed down Twilight’s already erratic mane, and kissed her forehead. “When of all ponies, a goddess saw how wonderful you are.” That left the filly befuddled for a moment, half forgetting Cadance was an alicorn.

He gazed upon Cadance who had not quite expected that. “It’s rare to see a lovely lady such as yourself with a heart as gorgeous as her looks.”

“Oh wow.” Cadance blushed and giggled. “You actually... You’re the first pony to hit on me since coming here. No pony else has had the stones for it.”

“Well what can I say, I have to be brave if I’m going to change the military.” Shining Armor’s casual demeanor hardened to hard determination. A look that startled Cadance enough to make him briefly nervous. “Starting with tiny miniskirts!”

“What?” Cadance covered her mouth with a wing.

Twilight straight up thwacked him in the side of the head with a wing. “Again with the skirts? Be serious, Shiny.”

“Ow,” Shining smirked while rubbing his sore cheek. “Who says I’m not?”

Cadance laughed whole-heartedly behind a wing. A bout of hammy humor tickled her pink, and his demeanor was a far cry from the patronizing egotism she saw so very often in the palace. And yet... here was a stallion that looked set on a path up a mountainside. “Why do I get the impression you’re looking to do more than update the uniform?” she asked with a wiry smirk concealing some genuine concern.

“He was supposed to talk about the machines,” Twilight butted in with a glum, sullen frown.

“The machines?” Cadance couldn’t understand why she looked so depressed.

“Yes, them,” Shining Armor declared with enough energy to startle Cadance. He gently nuzzled Twilight to lift her spirits a bit, but to little effect.

"Are you trying to get the Royal Army to adopt them? Seems like a tall order," Cadence commented while cleaning her muzzle with a cloth.

“That'd never happen," Shining Armor stated bluntly. "More like adopt new ways to count them instead. All throughout officer training, I inquired what I could about any new tactics we’ve developed to combat the problems the last war revealed, and everything I saw was half-hearted at best. No one is taking it seriously enough thanks to the coup we miraculously pulled off at the figurative last minute.”

“A coup?” Twilight asked with her curiosity lifting her spirits. “But none of the history books says the emperor was removed from power.”

“Not that kind of coup.” Shining Armor looked away in thought, hoof tapping the ground. “We were losing. Badly. Lunarians finally figured out how to make those trains of theirs move without tracks. Their advantage on the ocean was finally being seen for the first real time on land in the last year of the war. King Flare was about ready to sue for peace in surrender, however, we caught a lucky break.”

"I heard about that from Corona," Cadence interjected with a solemn, flat expression that betrayed nothing. "A portal team was trying to hit a supply base or something along the Wild White River."

"That's right," Shining Armor responded with a nod of respect. "The Lunarians were using it as an artery because it’s navigable straight from the ocean. The portal team arrived at the depot right as the Lunarian field marshal was transiting through with most of his headquarters staff. Thankfully, the team arrived just far enough away that the depot's warding engines couldn’t destabilize the exit. They destroyed the depot and captured the field marshal. With their center army’s leadership gone overnight, and all of their offensive plans in our hooves, the Emperor decided to cut his losses and sued for a status quo peace."

"Seems like we still have the edge then," Cadence offered placatingly.

To that, Shining Armor sadly shook his head. "If only it was so easy. I’ve talked to as many senior officers I could about our future strategies, but too many of them see this fluke success as par for the course. We can't afford to keep thinking that way.”

Twilight puffed her cheeks and stomped the floor. “I still say we need to adopt machines too! There’s no reason we can’t have separate cities that use them!”

“Twily, that’s over simplifying it, and you know it. If we start relying on magic disrupting machines, and Equestrians start to favor them over magic like the Lunarians have done, how long will it take for our greatest strength to be cast aside?” Shining Armor sat back down and rested a foreleg on the table, giving his sister a patient head shake. “Not to mention we’d be playing catch up, and that’s a battle we’ll never win.”

Twilight’s tail swished back and forth irritably and more sparks shot off. “Like talking to a brick wall.”

Laughing it off, Shining Armor and smoothed her mane back down. “I know you like dad’s engine. I’m sure one day you can get a research permit for your own engine.”

“I can do that?” Twilight’s wings flared, and her mood flipped around in an instant. “Really!?”

“Well yeah, what with the queen favoring dad so much now, you’re bound to get one if you strike it out on your own some day.”

“Is that why he can keep one?” Cadance Tapped her chin in thought for a moment before leaning in close to Twilight with a wink and a smile. “Tell you what, when you grow up, and if you still like machines, I’ll make sure you get a permit. Deal?”

“You - you would do that?” Twilight was utterly stunned. A child though she was, even she suspected how difficult it must have been to get a permit like that. And yet here was a mare she barely knew, a goddess at that, trying to help her. It didn’t make sense. Tears started welling up, and she sniffed. “Why are you so nice to me?”

Cadance blinked, baffled by the question. With shaky magic, she claimed a napkin and cleaned off a crumb from the corner of Twilight’s lip. “I told you why. I had a friend who was a demicorn like you.”

“Yeah, but…” Twilight buried her eyes in her foreleg and started weeping. Shining Armor pulled her over to cradle her. “Only my family likes me.” The sneering or outright dismissive faces of the other children in the gala flashed through her mind. All of it came back to the condescending smugness of the academy testers. “Not even the staff want to play with me.”

“Well if you must know…” Cadance sat down on the floor so she could be as eye level with Twilight as possible. “I was the daughter of the matron to Brightshire’s orphanage, by blood I mean. I admit to having a soft spot for kids, so I had fully planned to take over for my mother when the time came. That demicorn friend I told you about grew up there. No matter how much I tried or punished them, the other children shunned him, and I would often find bruises on him. He’d never admit who did it either. No matter what I did, he kept getting sadder and sadder as he grew up, seeing the children who bullied him get adopted where he was left behind.

“Many prospective parents called him broken, and the other children picked up on it like wildfire. I saw some of the same signs in you that day, and I couldn’t just stand there without at least giving you some encouragement.”

Twilight gasped and practically jumped out of her brother’s hold as the perfect solution sprang to mind. “Adoption?” Fire sparked in her eyes. “That’s it!” Twilight flared her spindly wings and pointed directly at Cadance’s face. “I know what this means!”

“But, didn’t she just?” Shining Armor was at a loss for words and glanced at Cadance to see if she knew what his sister was getting at, only to receive equal bewilderment.

Grinning with a well solved mystery, Twilight grew more confident. “Only my family is nice to me. Which means you want to be adopted into the family!”

“I - I do?”

“Of course! But you’re too old to be adopted like an orphan, so there’s only one way for you to be adopted into the family.”

Shining Armor finally realized what she was saying and buried his face in a hoof. “Twiiiily.”

Deciding to humor the child, Cadance’s grin only widened, if only to make Shining Armor even more uncomfortable. “Oh, and do tell.”

Twilight pointed at her brother with a wing. “You two must kiss!”

Cadance erupted in laughter, which was made all the sweeter by Shining Armor burning red with embarrassment. Twilight wilted a little, not sure how to take that. “Oh my,” Cadance cried as she wiped away tears of laughter. “Well, know what?” She gently poked Twilight in the nose. “That sounds like a great idea.”

“It does?” Shining Armor’s head popped out from behind his hooves. “For real?”

A massive smile cleaved Twilight’s face. She giggled and bounced around in a happy dance. “I knew it! I knew it! I-I knew it!”

“What can I say?” Cadance said with a shrug. “A stallion in uniform leaves me hot and bothered, and one with a brain is a win if ever there was one.”

“Oh yeah, his brain is big and fat alright. You should have seen how much ice cream he puts down!”

“You’re killing me, Twily. Please stop.” Shining Armor was doing his utmost to keep his composure. “B-besides, I - you-”

“Oh I get it!” Twilight scampered over to the door. “Mommy and daddy don’t do grown up kisses when anypony is around. I’ll go get some ice cream from the kitchens, okay?”

Cadance raised a restraining hoof. “Hold on now, wait a second. The guards and kitchen staff won’t just let a filly run around willy nilly. Tell anypony who stops you ‘great green giants’. It’s the password for the evening. They’ll know you’re helping me out.”

“Like a secret spy mission!” Twilight did a pegasus wing salute. “Operation Ice Cream is a go!” With her brother’s protests falling on deaf ears, Twilight left the room to find the bodyguard waiting right outside.

The stallion grumbled at the filly. “And why are you leaving?”

“Because I need to go get ice cream! So, by the power of great green giants, can you tell me where the kitchens are?”

The guard was left with his mouth hanging open for a moment before his grumble got even louder. “Of all the… Why did the goddess have to come from some backwater where she wouldn’t learn any etiquette.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose to stave off a headache. “Go to the left, down the hall two intersections, then go right. You should be able to follow your nose or at least any passing wait staff from there.”

“Thank you kindly, good sir.” Twilight curtsied and sprinted away with the energy of a child on a mission. The thought of dessert nearly fell away from Twilight’s mind as her eyes drank in the luxury of the hallways. The rich red carpet, rows of armor and statues, paintings and glass murals of the regular palace decore, all of which spoke of both wealth and history. She reached the turn the bodyguard told her about, but something caught her ear. Laughing children brought her attention down only ten feet in the wrong direction. She skidded to a halt when she saw two fillies and a colt surrounding a strangely dressed pegasus stallion.

Curiosity got the better of her, and the ice cream fell from her mind completely. Getting a better look, she quickly realized the stallion was wearing a green and yellow jester’s outfit complete with a four pointed hat with bells on. She didn’t care much for jesters, but it was his utterly blank face that kept her from leaving then and there. His eyes had no life to them. It was as if his soul was long gone. A quick look at his mane revealed the prominent red stripes of a servant under tight control. It was a deeply somber expression that none of her family’s red servants possessed. It was typically reserved for Lunarian soldiers alone. It’s the same look our carriage pullers have. Their task was never exactly noble in her eyes, but at least it was necessary. But having a cold jester felt completely wrong.

Just looking into his cold, distant, and lifeless eyes chilled her to the bone. It was a look she often tried to forget about from the family servants, but here she couldn’t pull herself away so easily. She struggled, and found the strength to leave, only for one of the fillies to point at her.

“Well there’s a sight. And here I thought you ponies were lying about a demicorn being here.” The green and brown maned earth filly took a few steps towards Twilight who was already moving to leave, a defeated frown marring her expression. “Hey don’t go just yet. You might be on the bottom rung, but you should see the pony who's not even on the ladder.”

A colt ran up to stand beside the earth filly. ”Yeah, come over and meet the Royal Jester.” The unicorn colt’s smiling face was disarming, yet it only made Twilight even more suspicious.

“The Queen has a striped servant as a jester?” Twilight edged forward. She glanced further down the hallway, and spotted a soldier, not a guard, but a white and bronze uniformed unicorn soldier watching them from further down the hall. His uniform marked him as an enlisted soldier, and he had an Equestrian pistol strapped to his right foreleg. Unlike the Lunarians, his firearm was functionally very simplistic, being made entirely of wood, save for the barrel and flash pan. The trigger was a simple lever that would lower a burning wick when in use. She didn't trust the other children, but the presence of the soldier calmed her nerves.

“Well, of course she would have this stallion as a servant,” said the last colt with a smirk at her ignorance. “Name’s Kickback, by the by, of House Dawnstrider.”

“I’m Twilight Sparkle of House Light.” She curtsied, with the others begrudgingly reciprocating. “This stallion? What makes him different?”

Kickback marched over to be in front of the stallion. “He’s none other than Midnight Chill. Hey! Do that dance you did last week at the pageant.”

“As you wish,” came the voice of the lifeless stallion. His tone was so flat it almost hurt Twilight's ears.

The jester moved to the middle of the carpet. His face and voice jarringly shifted to that of a jovial clown and he started singing and dancing to a jolly tune, laughing foolishly as he wiggled and danced in an exaggerated fashion.

The colts and fillies either laughed with him or rocked back and forth all singing along. Twilight however, couldn’t bring herself to join in. She couldn’t help but be reminded of the red striped servants at her estate. There were only a few, and even then only for carriage duty. Is this how they always are?

The filly of the group finally noticed Twilight hadn’t joined them. She approached Twilight with a sneer on her lips. “Well what are you waiting for? What, did you think we invited you out of pity?”

“That’d be the day!” Twilight’s gaze kept getting pulled back to the jester’s eyes. In that moment, she could see past the fake smiles and forced laughter. Even though he was squinting from his massive grin, the eyes themselves remained emotionless, dead to the world. It haunted her to the bone. “Why is a jester named Midnight Chill anyway?” She asked the filly, just to stall for time. “That’s not a funny name.”

Kickback snort-laughed and stopped rocking with the other colt. “Sure it is. Midnight Chill used to be a Field Marshal for the Lunarian Army. And now he gets to pay his debt to Queen and country for his crimes against Equestria.”

“He was a soldier?!” Twilight nearly shrieked. She recoiled from the annoyed faces she got. Shining is a soldier. All of his friends are honest and brave. Soldiers can’t be criminals if Shining looks up to them so much. “But momma always said the striped are prisoners Lunaria sends us that were going to be in jail for really bad crimes or abandoned children.”

“That’s just a lie our parents tell us until we’re old enough,” Kickback stated far less teasingly than the others. “Everypony knows that.” He shook his head at her naïveté.

“Next you’ll be telling us the tooth breezie is real.” The earth filly snickered behind a hoof. “Listen up, girl, any soldier or really any other Lunas we captured from the last war gets striped.”

Twilight couldn’t believe it. She was on the cusp of hyperventilating and her sparks were getting worse. She might have said something were it not for the soldier coming up.

“Alright you rugrats, get going. The Crown will be calling for her jester any second now.” He stomped his left hoof on the uncarpeted side of the floor.

“Yes, Uncle,” one of the fillies groaned. “Stop dancing, Midnight.”

Kickback jumped to the head of the pack. “Hey, Twilight wanna come join us in watching the main show?”

“Why are you asking her to come along?” The earth filly growled. “She’s just dowry bait, come on.” The filly ran ahead, but Kickback at least lingered for a few seconds to see if Twilight was going to join them. When she didn’t move or say anything, he ran after the group.

Entertainment, let alone company was the last thing she wanted right now. She was staring at Midnight. She couldn’t get rid of the mental image of her brother wearing that costume and those cold, dead eyes. It left her trembling as a tear dampened her face. She could almost feel Midnight’s shame bearing down on her. Shining said he wanted to make Field Marshal one day. I hope when Midnight joins the Armada one day, they don’t hold this against him.

“Go on, Midnight,” the unicorn soldier ordered softly. He went around using his hooves to adjust the jester cap to put it back into place. “The Queen is waiting.”

“As you wish.”

Twilight watched the disgraced Field Marshall walk away, terrified at how empty his words were.

“I was the one who captured him, you know,” said the soldier, watching the servant leave. He pulled out a cigarette from a silver case he produced from his jacket, lit it, and took a long drag of it.

Twilight would have expected some measure of pride from such a claim from the unicorn. But what stunned her, was the pain his voice carried. A pain that latched onto her, making Twilight teeter on the edge of crying.

“Twenty long years… To this day, I wish I had just killed him instead.”

She pawed at the ground, her ears flat and her anger long gone. Only empathetic shame remained. “At least he got to…” For the life of her, she couldn’t remember the platitudes her mother taught her.

“Live?” the soldier guessed. He shook his head and huffed. His eyes stared far ahead, as if there was only him and the mountain. “The striped don’t live. Almost none of them are criminals, child. They’re nothing more than ponies we forcibly turned into golems. Golems that can never speak about the families we stole them from, if they’re allowed to remember them at all.”

“I… I didn’t know.” Against her will, Twilight imagined how heartbroken Shining Armor would feel if she joined the Lunarian army, never knowing who she was. She started sobbing as quietly as she could behind a wing. “Do… Do Lunarians stripe Equestrians?”

“No, they don’t.” A grim resolve suddenly fell over the soldier after seeing Twilight’s tears. Hardening his features to the point that Twilight’s veins were struck cold. “I should have done this a long time ago.” He took one last drag from his cigarette, threw it carelessly on the ground, and walked off to follow the jester.

Shortly after the soldier left, Twilight was in a daze. She may have followed after a pony pushing an empty food cart, but her thoughts were miles away. She couldn’t pull away from the mental image of Shining Armor in the jester’s clothing, made to sing and dance against his will. Why? She had never questioned it before. Stripes were just a fact of life. They were all criminals or the unwanted. But how could a Marshal be unwanted? He’s like royalty for the army isn’t he?!

“Hey, kid!” shouted a stallion.

Twilight snapped back to the world and frantically looked around her until she saw a pair of Royal Guards standing next to a set of double doors where the strong scent of food emanated from.

“You may have the run of the place back home, but here you’re not allowed in the kitchens.”

“Oh um, sorry, I’m here to get some ice cream for her holiness.” Twilight tried to shake off the malaise that hung over her. I really need some ice cream.

“Sure you are, kid. Go back to the gala, they should be serving some in an hour or two anyway.”

The powerful need for comfort food gave Twilight enough will to stand her ground. “Great green giants.”

The guards blinked, and the silent one spoke up. “Are you serious? She told a child the password just for some damn ice cream?” He groaned and rubbed his brow. “Why did it have to be some country bumpkin? Alright kid, what kind?”

“We would like-” Suddenly, a loud crack echoed through the castle. The unconcerned confusion Twilight felt was jarred when one of the guards cursed and nearly ran over her.

“That sounded like a gunshot! Dancer, keep watch over the door!” the runner ordered his partner before sprinting towards the gala.

“A gunshot?” Panic was slow to come to the filly. “Was there some kind of display planned?”

“I wish, kid.” The remaining guard only gave a distracted answer, his gaze dancing between each hallway, half expecting assailants to manifest at any second. “Go back to your parents or the goddess you’re in league with, you’ll be safer there. Password or no, you're not getting any sweets now.”

The rest of the evening was a rush of activity. Once Twilight got close to the gala, Shining Armor and her parents found her and the family were ushered to a carriage and sent home with all haste. The mood was so charged on the ride home, Twilight didn’t dare speak up, and the adults were loath to say anything in front of her.

As the night grew late, Twilight was left alone in her room, but she couldn’t sleep. Not even the book in front of her could grab her attention, she simply sat there on her bed under candlelight; her horn spitting the occasional bolt into a lightning rod roosting above her head.

It was close to midnight when there was a gentle knock on the door. Twilight knew that knock and, to be honest, was glad to hear it. “Come in!” Twilight shuffled down to the floor in time to see Pinkamena timidly enter.

“I saw the light under your door, Mistress, and - and I heard what happened at the party.” Pinkamena was trembling terribly, and could barely step inside far enough to shut the door. “I'm glad you weren't hurt.”

The soldier echoed in Twilight's mind. None of it made sense. Servants were supposed to be criminals or the abandoned. Not military officers. She wasn't sure what a field marshal was, but it sounded far too important to be either. It was all too much. Without even thinking about it, Twilight needed a hug, and Pinkamena right there. So she wrapped the earth filly into a tight hug, wings and forelegs included.

Pinkamena was utterly stunned by the affection. It was forbidden for her to ever touch her betters like this, and Pinkamena knew it was taboo for Twilight to do the same. And yet, while she felt the stripes urge her to stand still and passively accept
the affection, she found the will to return the embrace. She hugged Twilight as tightly as she did her pillows some nights, when she imagined it was her father or the sisters she could barely remember. For better or worse, Twilight Sparkle was all she really had anymore. Times like this, Pinkamena liked to imagine Twilight was a sister instead of a master.

“What did you hear?” Twilight said before breaking the hug. She sat next to Pinkamena with a hoof still resting on the pink filly’s foreleg. Genuine concern written over her sad face.

Something made Pinkamena avert her eyes away from Twilight’s own, so she settled for the hoof resting upon her. “The grownups were talking in the conservatory. Somepony killed the jester.” Twilight recoiled her hoof and gasped, giving Pinkamena a chance to look back into Twilight’s eyes. “A soldier shot him in the middle of an act. Right in front of the queen.”

Flashes of that soldier darted in front of Twilight’s mind. She looked at Pinkamena, and for the briefest of moments, Midnight’s lifeless eyes echoed themselves within Pinkamena’s own. This time, it was Twilight who couldn’t hold the other’s gaze. Why was he so sad? Don't servants rejoice in their service? Twilight struggled to ask, but she had to know. “Pinkamena, are you happy here?”

“Yes, of course!” Pinkamena’s sullen mood brightened a little at the distraction from grislier affairs she didn’t want to dwell on. “I mean, this place is a lot fancier than what bits I remember from my family home, and the matron’s boardinghouse doesn’t even compare.” Wringing her hooves a bit, Pinkamena flattened her ears and stared at Twilight as a whole. “Plus I get to serve an alicorn. How many servants get to boast about that, eh?”

“You’re still calling me that?” Twilight’s already dismal mood soured a bit, yet she was just as eager to avoid thinking about the gala. “I’ve told you one hundred fifty seven times I’m a demicorn.”

Pinkamena’s stripes glowed briefly, drawing Twilight’s attention. Pinkamena blinked and grit her teeth and tried to muscle through her next words. “Yyyeah, but I’m thinking that you keep plucking your feathers to keep assassins off your tail, and that you’re actually the long lost sister to Mi Amore Cadenza! Just like what happened with Princess Feathertail in the last Daring Doo book!”

Is she fighting the stripes? But how? Wait, is thinking I’m an alicorn how she’s doing it?! According to her parents, Twilight should have run off to tell them about this immediately. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. What if they red striped her like they did Midnight…? No, Pinkamena isn’t like that. I won’t let them do that to her, not ever! Twilight’s eyes hardened and she looked right at Pinkamena, who cowed a bit. “Pinkamena. Do you want to be my…” Twilight remembered many a time she went to Pinkamena’s room, and walking in on the pink filly desperately hugging her pillow. She doesn’t have anypony. Midnight didn’t have family or friends anymore, and neither does Pinkamena. In that moment, Twilight couldn’t care less about the rules. “Would you like to be friends, like actual friends?”

“Friends?” Pinkamena parroted with a quivering lip, and watering eyes. “Truly?”

“Truly.” Twilight nodded strongly with a smile. She placed a hoof between her mouth and the door, and whispered conspiratorially. “But the grownups will get mad if they ever find out. So we've got to keep it a secret.” Or they’ll take you away and give you red stripes. Twilight couldn’t bring herself to say the last part aloud. I just have to be careful is all.

Pinkamena’s face was getting drenched in tears and she was whining. “Reeeally!? Yes, I would! Thank youuu!” Pinkamena tackled Twilight into a crushing embrace. She started wailing, tears dampening Twilight’s shoulder.

For a moment, Twilight tried to imagine Pinkamena as Midnight Chill, giving the dead field marshal the comfort he had lost forever. But in the end, it was Pinkamena who she was glad to be friends with.

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