• Published 1st Oct 2020
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Equal Opportunity Ascension - Cast-Iron Caryatid



Twilight Sparkle is a bit underwhelmed with her ascension to alicornhood and, after a disastrous coronation ceremony, it becomes clear that something is missing. It'd be a shame if somepony else got to it before she did.

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Chapter 10

“Right,” Twilight Sparkle said, scanning down the list of local governmental elections that would be taking place over the next year. There was really nothing they had to do there, but it was interesting to note just how eclectic they all were. Apparently Princess Celestia had never instituted a standard election cycle, so terms and term limits varied wildly. Just in what she’d skimmed, she’d seen cities that elected a new mayor anywhere from every year to ‘whenever we feel like it.’ “I think that’s it, then,” she concluded, not daring to sound hopeful. “That was the last thing on the list.”

Princess Celestia ran her eyes over her copy of the agenda for the Princess Summit, nodding slightly as she mentally checked off each item to ensure that they had covered everything. Twilight edged forward on her seat, unable to contain her eagerness to be done with what had essentially been a week-long meeting. Amusingly, she wasn’t the only one to harbor such feelings; Cadance wasn’t quite squirming, but was sitting with a distinct lean, and while Princess Luna was the picture of collected poise, there was a distinct, intense air about her that said that the answer to Twilight’s question had better be positive.

Fortunately for all of them, Princess Celestia nodded one last time, set the scroll down and said, “Yes, I believe that we have covered everything. Twilight couldn’t be certain, but she wondered if she hadn’t heard a small amount of the princess’ own relief in that statement.

Twilight’s display of relief was much more obvious, involving as it did her flopping over onto the crystal table that she had become intimately familiar with over the past week and shouting her muffled gratitude into its glossy surface.

Cadance tittererd in amusement at the display, while the other princesses may have cracked their own smiles.

“That just leaves what we are to do about the ongoing search for Sunset Shimmer and the embargo on leaving the city,” Princess Celestia said soberingly. “The duke of Maretonia has been getting antsy about not being allowed to return home, and I expect that he isn’t the only one.”

For just a moment, Twilight wondered if the princess would defy expectations and declare some radical action, be it to continue the embargo until Sunset was 'found' or take some greater action that might actually be successful, but in the end, as Cadance had said, Princess Celestia would do what practicality demanded.

With a sigh and a shake of her head, the princess admitted, “I suppose there is nothing more that we can do, and continuing to inconvenience the city now would be shutting the henhouse after the fox has fled, as it were.”

“You think that she’s actually escaped?” Twilight asked, a sudden jolt of irrational fear running down her spine in concern for the princess’ previous student getting a head start on the magic of the Everfree.

“Unlikely,” Princess Luna declared with certainty. “But it hardly matters at this point. If we have not caught her by now—”

“Found,” Princess Celestia insisted tartly.

Princess Luna rolled her eyes at her sister. “If we have not ‘found’ her by now,” she corrected herself with some amount of sarcasm. “Then we are unlikely to do so as she forms a greater familiarity with the city and the guard. If there had been any sign of her, be it by sight or theft, then we might hope that she might be run to ground eventually, but it is clear by now that whatever her methods, they are not only effective at evading our 'efforts', but allow her a comfortable amount of leeway in doing so.”

“It’s not surprising,” Twilight commented. “If we didn’t think that we could stop her from boarding a train, expecting to find her in an entire city was probably optimistic.”

“What surprises me is that she has managed the entire week without doing something to call attention to herself,” Princess Celestia commented, not offended. “She never was a subtle mare.”

“Unless she was breaking into the restricted archives,” Cadance reminded her. “Or doing something else you wouldn’t approve of. She never had trouble sneaking around; it was the aftermath that got her in trouble—which makes sense, because she wanted the attention as much as she wanted to prove herself to you.”

“I suppose that I will simply have to hope that she one day comes to me,” Princess Celestia said with a melancholy glance out the window.

Twilight did her best to ignore the dismissal inherent in that remark, as if Sunset Shimmer was just going to live a quiet adult life and one day come to regret the impetuousness of youth.

“I was thinking about that, actually,” she spoke up. “We know that Sunset Shimmer is going to want to be on the first train south.”

Princess Celestia nodded. “Yes, as much as I don’t expect to be able to prevent her from boarding, that isn’t any reason to be lax on security. It is still the best bottleneck that we have.”

“I don’t believe that was Princess Twilight’s meaning,” Princess Luna said, motioning for Twilight to carry on.

Twilight, in turn, nodded. “Actually, I think it’s a very good reason to be lax on security,” she began. “She’s going to make it south eventually. If we stop her from boarding the first train then she’ll just take the second—or the third. She’ll want to be on the first one, though, if only to stick it to Princess Celestia.”

Cadance was nodding along. “So you want to let her on the train and focus on stopping her while she has nowhere else to go?”

“Yes,” Twilight agreed. “And if necessary, we stop the train in the ice fields to search it more thoroughly. As silly as it might sound—or because, of that, maybe—I guarantee that Pinkie Pie could ride a train by hanging onto the underside of one of the carriages, so we can’t assume that Sunset couldn’t do something similar. We just don’t know what she’s capable of after all these years.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that I would normally do…” Princess Celesia mused, but admitted, “But perhaps that is what is best in this situation. It is certainly a tactically sound plan, though it does rely on Sunset not becoming suspicious of the reduced security.”

The other three princesses all gave Princess Celestia their own deadpan looks.

“What?” the princess asked.

“Sister,” Princess Luna spoke up. “Given the attitude that we have received from you at the mere suggestion of implementing the sorts of security procedures that would have even the most remote chance of cornering this mare, I very much doubt that she will notice much difference. In fact, I think it likely that we can increase security by a significant amount and still go forward with this plan. Truly, she must think that we are imbeciles at this point.”

***

“Ah, but it will be sad to leave this marvelous architecture,” Rarity bemoaned as Twilight and her friends all packed to leave, piling their luggage up outside their rooms.

“Are you kidding me?” Rainbow Dash asked, sticking her head out of her room holding her single bag. “I like crystal as much as the next mare, but there’s such a thing as too much!”

“Well…” Rarity said, considering the point. “I have to admit, they do seem to lean into their theme a tad much, what with it being the Crystal Empire, north of the Crystal Mountains, home of the crystal ponies, ruled by the Crystal Princess and protected by the power of the Crystal Heart.”

“Ah’ll say,” Applejack heartily agreed. “Ah ain’t gonna question how other ponies choose to live, but Ah’ll be glad to feel earth beneath my hooves and get back to bucking apples.”

“Oh, yes,” Fluttershy said, supporting that sentiment. “I do hope all my little animal friends have been getting along without me.”

“Didn’t you get somepony to check in on them every day?” Twilight asked, already sitting out in the hall with Spike and their two bags, having packed the night before.

“Oh, I don’t mean to question Cheerilee,” Fluttershy insisted. “It’s just that some of them can be a real hoofful when I’m not around.”

Spike coughed something that sounded like ‘Angel’ and everypony pretended not to hear him

It wasn’t long until they were all headed to the train with a small squad of guards carrying their luggage.

“It was good to see you again, Twily,” Shining Armor said as they were unloading their luggage into the luggage car.

“Really?” Twilight said. “Even though you had to spend the whole time ‘searching’ for Sunset Shimmer?”

Shining Armor chuckled and waved it off. “No need to worry about that. If it hadn’t been Sunset Shimmer, it would have been something else, or we’d have just spent the entire week doing drills. I don't deny that Cadance has the harder job.”

“Ugh,” Twilight groaned. “Don't remind me. One week of that is about all that I could stand.”

Shining Armor leaned in and gave her a one-legged hug. “Aw, don’t worry, sis,” he said, half-teasingly. “I’m told you get used to it.”

Twilight shoved him off with a huff and said, “I don’t want to get used to it,” pouting. “I still say this whole thing is crazy! I’m barely an alicorn—what about me says that I should be a princess?”

“You've got to admit, it isn't as if you haven't been trained for this,” Shining Armor said.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Before I went to Ponyville to ‘study friendship,’” she said, making air-quotes with her hooves. “I thought that maybe I would become the princess’ advisor or something like that at best. I never imagined… this!”

“And what about after you were sent to Ponyville?” Shining Armor asked, curious.

“Well…” Twilight said, flushing. “To be honest, it’s been a little like I’ve been sent out to pasture—hey! Don’t laugh!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Shining Armor said, getting himself under control. “It’s just that I find the implication that you seem to consider being the hero of Equestria boring and that you'd rather get back to your studies instead hilarious”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’m hardly the ‘hero of Equestria’ all the time, Shiny,” she half-whined. “I like being a small-town librarian and spending time with my friends, but it's hardly… important work, you know?”

“Well, now you've gotten a taste of the important work,” Shining Armor said.

“And I'll happily go back to being that small town librarian and spending time with my friends, now, thanks,” Twilight responded.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Shining Armor said with some sarcasm as he reached over and gave one of Twilight’s wings a tug.

“I—” Twilight was interrupted from what would surely have been a witty rejoinder by the whistle of the train calling for all passengers to board.

“See ya, Twily,” he said, giving her a good-natured shove towards the train.

Twilight pouted at losing her chance to deny-deny-deny any implication that she was going to get caught up in anything remotely princess-like back in Ponyville, but it didn't last.

“See ya, BBBFF,” she said, waving back with a smile as she turned and boarded the train.

“That was sweet,” Fluttershy commented as Twilight joined the others on the train. “I wish I had a brother like that.”

Twilight scoffed and jokingly said, “You can have him.”

“She really can't,” Rainbow Dash called out from the front of the group as the six of them made their way down to the passenger car, which Twilight couldn't help but scan for that signature red and gold mane. “He’s kind of taken!”

Twilight sputtered, completely forgetting about Sunset Shimmer in that moment.

***

Two hours into the trip, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna both stood up from their seats.

“It looks like it's time,” Twilight announced to her friends, and stood up herself. “Rainbow Dash, Rarity and Pinkie Pie; head down to the front of a train with Princess Celestia. Applejack, Fluttershy; we’ll head back to the luggage car with Princess Luna.”

There were various sounds of agreement as the two groups split up and made their way out of the last passenger car. The other passenger cars would be searched by the other group, while Twilight’s—or was it Luna’s?—group would be starting with the sparsely-populated dining car.

“Fluttershy, if you could play Rainbow Dash for a moment and check everything from above, it would help,” Twilight said while Twilight and Luna carefully picked through the car, and Applejack guarded the door back the way they’d come.

As they made their way back towards the luggage car, though, they found few enough ponies at all, let alone the one that they were looking for.

“Ah suppose that we’re the decoy group?” Applejack eventually asked, just to fill the silence.

“I have no doubt that my sister chose the direction which she thought most likely to result in her meeting her old student,” Princess Luna said. “I am not so certain; the luggage car seems to be a prime location for our target to stow away.”

“Maybe a little too prime a location,” Fluttershy said as they all got a look at the boxcar full of bags, suitcases and even a few boxes. “We aren't going to search inside any of these bags are we?”

Twilight’s ears flattened as she saw Fluttershey’s point. “No. You’re right. She could be right here under our noses, but so long as she was inside something, we’d never find her.”

Princess Luna pressed her lips together in consternation. “Quite,” she said, glaring at the luggage as if it had personally offended her. “Regardless, we shall search as thoroughly as we can. Make a space on this side of the room, and we shall move the luggage into it one by one, leaving no suitcase unturned, and if one so much as squeaks, we shall investigate.”

They all nodded and got to work. Princess Luna, Applejack and Twilight all had the heavy lifting covered, so Fluttershy was once again assigned the job of watching from above to ensure that nopony slipped through the cleared area between the searched and unsearched areas.

As organized and efficient as their system was, they had still found nothing by the time the brakes of the train began to screech and the cars lurched, grinding to a stop.

This had been expected. In fact, it was a little late. Princess Celestia's group didn't have a car full of luggage to search at the other end of the train, so it had been decided that when they reach the conductor they would stop the train and begin the search of the outside with Rainbow Dash to spot and chase down Sunset if she tried to escape through the snowfields, Pinkie Pie to ply her contortionistic talents underneath the train and Rarity to… notice anything out of place? Okay, that was a bit of a stretch, but not everypony could have some skill specifically tailored to searching a train for a stowaway.

“Think they’ll find her?” Twilight asked Luna, who shook her head.

“I will allow myself to be happily surprised should our luck change at this juncture, but even with two squads of guards undercover inside, I fear that we do not have enough coverage to prevent a creative mare from simply slipping through our blind spots as we search.”

In the end, whether or not Princess Luna’s specific prediction was correct, both groups ended up returning to their car of origin empty-hooved.

Neither group said much after a short exchange of shaken heads, and Princess Celestia appeared to be quite down after having gotten her hopes up.

Twilight, too was rather upset, but for obviously different reasons than her mentor. Her friends did what they could to include her in their conversations, though, and by the time it was getting dark and the train was leaving the crystal mountains, she was laughing along with the rest of them as Pinkie Pie did impressions of certain ponies they all knew back in Ponyville.

“Miss? Miss! Are you alright?”

Twilight looked up at the panicked shouting down the car and craned her neck to get a better look. There was a young crystal pony collapsed in the center aisle, clutching her chest and breathing heavily.

“Oh my!” Fluttershy quietly exclaimed, immediately flitting over the gathering crowd to see if there was anything that she could do to help. Twilight soon lost sight of the mare, but something was bothering her about what she’d seen and she couldn’t put her hoof on what. She was barely aware of Rainbow Dash and Applejack pushing ponies away and telling them not to crowd Fluttershy of her patient, but it was the approach of Princess Celestia from the other direction that got them to finally back off and allow Twilight to get through to join them.

“Oh dear!” Fluttershy mumbled under her breath as she checked the mare over. “What do I do? What do I do? She’s so cold!” She turned to address the princess. “Princess Celestia—is there something you can do to warm her up?” she asked, but the princess was just standing there, shocked.

“…Sunset?” Princess Celestia managed to say, and Twilight finally realized what her subconscious had noticed.

This ‘crystal pony’ had a horn.

And yes, it was Sunset Shimmer.