• Published 29th Dec 2011
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Night's Favoured Child - Municipal Engines



With her new apprenticeship under Nightmare Moon, Empress of Equestria and Queen of the Eternal Night, the orphan filly Twilight Sparkle plunges head-first into the conspiracies, secrets and intrigues of the Empire.

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Goodbyes and Hellos

Chapter Four:
Goodbyes and Hellos

“Hey Twilight, is it true?”

Twilight stopped cramming her books and clothes into the case and turned to the cream unicorn. She sighed and decided to indulge the filly.

“That depends on what you’re referring to, Moondancer,” Twilight replied without looking up, as if she hadn’t answered the same question at least a dozen times already.

“Um, that you’re gonna be a princess?” her voice simmered with excitement. “I mean, if the Empress adopts you—”

Twilight put a hoof up to pre-empt the flow of words. “Moondancer, this isn’t an adoption. I’m studying under her and living at the palace while I do it.”

“Oh, really?” Moondancer looked down her crimson swirl of a mane falling over one of her eyes. “Sorry I jumped to conclusions.”

“It’s all right,” Twilight said. You’d almost think it was her being not-adopted instead of me! “I’m actually really excited about the Empress teaching me. Imagine it; she’ll be showing me all her tricks and skills! Oh, I bet she’ll let me see her move the moon!” The purple unicorn bit her lip, stopping herself from getting lost in her excitement. Focus on packing, Twilight. “Anyway, could you just tell everypony else that I’m not a princess, and I’m not being adopted by the Empress?”

“Yeah, yeah. You have to admit, though, that it would’ve been kind of cool if you were going to be a princess. I mean, that’d mean I’d know a member of the royal family! And you’d be that royal family member and…”

“Uh huh,” Twilight raised an eyebrow and sighed to herself as she tuned out Moondancer’s gushing over the living fantasy that was royalty. Instead she concentrated on folding her things into the bags.

The ponies at the orphanage had received the news of Twilight’s departure with varying reactions. If Twilight had simply been adopted by a normal Canterlot family, then she would have left with very little fanfare. However, the orphanage was a compact place and when Twilight let it slip where she was going, everypony knew – staff and foster foals alike. Most had been happy for her, telling the unicorn how lucky she was. Others had been perhaps feigning happiness; Twilight could hear some whispers of jealousy as she walked the building’s halls. Some particularly nasty things had been said by the older ponies to each other when they thought she couldn’t hear. Not that I have to care about that, she thought, a small smirk curling her lips. Not anymore.

Then there were those like Moondancer – with imaginations that blew everything completely out of proportion. She internally scoffed at Moondancer’s notions of fancy balls and being waited on horn and hoof. However, there was something quite spectacular about living under the Imperial Household. She suppressed a squeal of delight as she pictured the palace, the servants and, of course, the lessons with the Empress. What would she learn under the tutelage of a pony as powerful as Nightmare Moon? Twilight shuddered with a mix of excitement and awe as she was once again drawn back to the moment of the eclipse. The Empress, silhouetted against the corona, terrible in her power and beauty. Twilight blinked away the image, but the Empress remained. The testing room at the Academy – she turned, looking up into eyes as cold and vast as the depths of space. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a unicorn with your raw abilities before, the Empress had said. What did that mean, “Ever”? In all the history of Equestria? Twilight Sparkle, the orphan bookworm, had more potential than Starswirl the Bearded, or Weathersky the Farmer, or even semi-mythical Marelin? How powerful was she, really?

Uneven hoofbeats behind her distracted Twilight from her thoughts. Moondancer was making for the door, skipping all the way.

“So yeah,” she said, cheerily oblivious to the fact that she had been ignored all throughout her monologue. “I hope you have a real good time at the palace. But don’t forget to visit us lowly commoners, ‘Your Highness’!”

Twilight humoured the Moondancer with a strained laugh until the door clicked shut. The lavender filly sighed and resumed her packing. She made a point to use magic to lift all of her belongings – practice makes perfect, as they say. Ever since the fateful morning before, Twilight felt as if there was a stream inside of her that had been recently cleaned and unblocked. Magic flowed freely and easily from her. It flowed so freely that sometimes she would open a door and almost tear it off its hinges. She really didn’t know her own strength.

After steadily filling her cases to the brim with accessories, books and what little clothing she had, Twilight stared at the telescope that sat in the centre of the window – in between both sides of the room. She couldn’t fit it in any container she had with her, and the unicorn did not trust herself with the task of dismantling it without breaking anything. She knew, intellectually, that the palace had whole observatories full of far better equipment. But she hadn’t used those telescopes to count the craters on the moon, or to watch Hackamore’s Comet progress across the sky evening after evening. Or to stare at the eclipse until her eyes ached, then trade off with—

The door opened and closed with barely a whisper. Twilight knew in an instant who had entered. She turned to greet a softly smiling Orion with a brief hug, pressing her neck to his.

“Do you need any help?” the white colt asked.

Twilight shook her head. “No, I’ve got this.” She focused on the cases, straining herself as she tried to lift them all at once. Having to divide her focus was more difficult than she thought, and she grunted under the strain. They hovered for several seconds before she had to let go, gasping from the effort. Potential or no, her magic didn’t seem very consistent. Perhaps it was less like a dam that had been opened and more like one that had been fixed up, and the operators closed and opened its floodgates at their leisure.

Orion chuckled. “It’s like weights, Twi; start with the lighter objects first and then work your way up. You’ll get better with time, I’m sure of it. Here, let me take a few.”

Once loaded up with Twilight’s baggage, the two deposited them down by the Home’s entrance and went back up to their room. The filly stared forlornly at what had once been her side of the room. Everything was gone, save the map and the star chart on the wall. Those were Orion’s now. The earth pony next to her motioned to the telescope at the window.

“I’ll help you take that apart for your trip,” he offered.

Twilight spun to face him, her mind abruptly made up. “No! You keep it.”

“Twilight, I can always get a new one if I want to,” Orion shook his head softly. “Please, you take the telescope. As a gift.”

“But the palace probably has loads of telescopes. I can’t take…”

“Please?” he smiled as he bent down to her level. “We built this thing together, and I want you to keep it. You know, as a memento of the time we spent together in this place. And mine will be your maps.”

The filly bit her lip. “Okay then,” she whispered. “I’ll take it with me.”

He nodded happily enough, but Twilight noticed his expression grow sombre as he turned to gaze at the telescope. He heaved a sigh as he stepped over to it. “Come and help me, then,” he called over to her. “I’ll need that fancy magic of yours for the fiddly bits.”

Together, they began to carefully dismantle their machine. Twilight dug its case out of the back of the wardrobe and dusted it off while Orion unscrewed the lenses. He directed her on which of the smaller pieces she needed to take apart with her magic, more than once wondering aloud how its creator expected anypony but a unicorn to assemble the thing. They both fell silent for a while as they went to work on the less delicate fittings of the tripod, then Orion suddenly spoke in a low, resigned tone.

“I guess she was right, then.”

Twilight stopped, looking at the earth pony in confusion. “Who was right?”

“The fortune teller back at the festival,” he replied. “She said we were going to be separated for a long time.”

“Oh,” Twilight’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah…”

“But it’s all right, Twi,” he gave her an assured smile. “Because we’re not really separated – I can write to you and you’re still in the same town. Besides, you’re going to have a great future at the palace, with the Empress. It’s all you’ve ever wanted, huh?”

“Yeah,” she returned his smile. “I guess it is.”

He gave her a quick hug. “And if you’re happy, I wouldn’t change it if I could.”

When the last piece was taken off, Orion folded up the tripod legs and laid them gently in the case. The lid snapped shut with an odd sense of finality, and Twilight followed the colt out of her room for the last time.

As the pair trotted downstairs once more, Twilight broke into a sudden gallop. My luggage is missing! Everything! For a moment she thought this was some final prank against the new “Princess”. Then the open door drew her eye and she spied Miss Loch waiting there, eyes locked on to the darkness beyond; the cloud-filled sky doing well in blotting out the Bright Moon’s light while she watched for the royal carriage that would take Twilight away. She glanced to Twilight as the two foals exited the building.

“I brought your things outside, Twilight,” she noted. “It’s best to not waste the Lord Captain’s time by popping back inside for them when your carriage arrives.”

“Thanks, Miss Loch.”

“Twilight, can I tell you something?” the mare asked after a long silence.

“Um, okay?” The filly shifted her weight nervously, not comfortable with her caretaker’s tense, brittle tone.

“If… if there’s any problem,” Miss Loch swallowed, clearing the way for a more fluent speaking. “If you’re feeling lonely, or sad, or in danger; come straight to me. Don’t go to the Empress, or anypony else in the palace. Come here – we can help you no matter what.”

“I... okay, Miss Loch,” Twilight said, hesitant with her words. “But the Empress will help me, I’m sure of it. I am her personal student, after all.”

“I know, Twilight, but I just want you to know we’ve always been here for you. And we always will.”

She leaned down to give Twilight a quick hug, which Twilight reciprocated. “I know you will, Miss Loch,” the unicorn foal murmured, before raising her voice to a chirpier tone. “Is there anything else you want me to do?”

“Be respectful to the Empress,” she warned with a hint of a crack in her voice, drawing back and giving Twilight a firm, worried look. “Don’t get on her bad side, and try to work hard. Don’t pester the staff or the guards. And…” Her tone dropped, grim and tight. “Stay away from anypony dressed in black.”

Twilight saw her guardian close her eyes and shudder at something in her own thoughts. The filly looked behind her to the windows of the building, seeing rows of ponies gathered at them, watching her. The sound of hooves beating on the cobblestone road and wheels trundling behind them turned Twilight’s attention away from the foster home.

The carriage was carved with intricate designs and varnished to make the woodwork glow in the moonlight. Silver and white gold could be seen on parts of the frame, placed just so for an aesthetic sense of grandeur. Of course, there were the tell-tale crescent moons etched into the carriage that told all who this vehicle belonged to far more than the precious metals adorning it. A strong pair of earth ponies, clad in matching armour – plates of silver overlaying what was likely a reinforcing layer of iron – pulled the carriage. A figure stepped out, his hooves making no sound as they met the cobbles.

In an instant, the ponies at the windows had disappeared and Miss Loch and Orion had stepped back. The white colt’s face was set with an intense mistrust whilst the mare’s was a mask of fear. The figure stepped into the light spilling from the doorway to reveal a tall unicorn stallion, dark grey like that of a corpse, with a mane the colour of char. He seemed on the thin side, though the folds of his voluminous black leather cloak could have concealed a good deal of muscle. A pair of tinted goggles rode high on his forehead, up against the base of his horn, giving the filly a good look at eyes so dark that the irises almost blended in with his pupils. Eyes so black and piercing they seemed to stare straight into her soul.

The pony smiled, revealing a neat row of teeth white enough that it seemed they should shine more than they did. A wry, almost boyish grin twisted his lips, but his eyes reminded her of the blank expression Orion got when he was holding something inside. The expression gave Twilight the unsettling feeling that she had tried to excuse bad behaviour with a lie so absurdly transparent that he would have to double her punishment, once he finished laughing at the idea that she thought he would actually believe it.

“I am here to accompany you to the palace,” he said, his voice unexpectedly silky and pleasant. It had a calming, almost sedative quality that set her at ease as immediately as his appearance had intimidated her.

What did I expect? the filly thought, almost giggling to herself. “I vant to suck your blahd!” Miss Loch had taught her not to “judge a book by its cover”, after all. She felt herself smiling back as the Lord-Captain of the Overwatch continued.

“Let me help you with your luggage.” A faint, black tint of magic formed around her bags as they were lifted off of the ground and slotted into their places in the carriage. The stallion then looked at her expectantly, standing aside to clear her way into the carriage.

“Just a moment, please, sir,” Twilight said sweetly.

She spun to Loch Mare and hugged her, snapping the pony out of her dread-filled petrification. The mare scooped Twilight up into a tighter hold. After a moment or two, she released the unicorn filly and smiled reassuringly at her, though what she was reassuring her of, Twilight was uncertain.

“Visit us soon,” she whispered.

“I will, don’t worry,” Twilight nodded.

The unicorn then sidled over to Orion and looked up at him. He smiled weakly as she pressed into him. He leaned down and rested his head on her withers. After this silent embrace, the colt stepped back and forced his smile wider.

“Have a good time, Twilight,” he said. “I’ll miss you.”

“You can always come and visit me, right?” she asked.

“Sure, and I’ll write to you until then,” Orion replied less dolefully. “Goodbye!”

Twilight grinned and turned back to the waiting stallion, hopping up into the carriage with an excited squeal. As the vehicle began to move, she waved back toward the orphanage and called out goodbyes to the ponies she was leaving behind. Soon they were out of sight and she sat down, her eyes meeting the black-clad pony’s own impossibly dark ones. He was still smiling, although this was much smaller and much less lively than when they had been outside the orphanage. She was too excited to remain silent. It would be the first time she had seen the palace up close, and she felt like she would burst from the anticipation of beginning her new life there, in the presence of the Empress.

“What’s your name, sir?” she asked suddenly, unable to take the silence any longer.

“The Inquisitor,” the stallion replied simply.

“’The Inquisitor’?” the foal knitted her brows. “Don’t you have any other name? A proper name, or a family name even?”

“Not really,” he answered, casual and bored. “I have only this name.”

“Why?”

His pupils contracted as he stared harder at the foal. His pleasant smile morphed into a smirk and he arched an eyebrow, regarding her with an almost patronising look, as if she had amused him.

“Because I want it to be so, little girl,” he said ominously, before turning away and looking out of the window.

Despite his light-hearted tone, Twilight couldn’t help but shiver a little. She turned to stare out the other window, electing not to bother him anymore. The city of Canterlot rolled by in a blur of ponies and buildings. The afternoon moon slowly broke through the clouds while long, silent ride gradually dulled excitement into boredom. She sighed and stared out aimlessly into the shapes and colours that came and went, trapped in the slowly rolling limbo between her past and her future.

============

The carriage rounded one final curve, and the Imperial Palace finally rolled into sight. Twilight couldn’t believe her eyes! She had seen the palace before, but as most of her life was spent on the other side of the plateau-bound city, it was never more than a cluster of tower-tops in the distance. She had always meant to go on a tour of the castle at some point in her life, but either never had the chance to, or always kept putting it off until later. Now, she was not only going to see the centuries-old palace, but to live there too.

It hung almost daintily off of the side of the mountain. Just to its side, from further up, a waterfall cascaded down the cliff face into a lily-filled pool that stretched to form a moat between the palace and the rest of the city. These waters tumbled off of the mountain into the valley below, the spray casting pale rainbows under the Bright Moon. Twisting, dark silver spires pierced the sky – lances with glittering emblems of stars and moons at their tips. Lavender marble and violet tiles had been sculpted into domes and pillars and towers; all amalgamated into a poetically chaotic yet stable complex. Curves and angles jostled each other for architectural dominance, but had seemed to settle their dispute amicably in the lassitude of old age.

“Quite something isn’t it?” A hint of disdain escaped with the words. “They say it’s beautiful, but I don’t really know about that. It’s far too… bulbous and… chaotic for my liking. Not what I would have designed at all; but those silver spoon-fed idiots never could stop competing long enough to do anything truly grand.”

The carriage stopped when it came to the courtyard and the doors were opened for them by servants. The Inquisitor was the first to step out. When he did so, the attendants stiffened and bowed low before him. Twilight followed, staring up in wonder at the opulent interior of the castle. Its courtyard was symmetrical and filled with flowers that complimented the colours of the palace – white roses, lavenders, violets and chrysanthemum. Once again, her attention was captured by the Inquisitor’s smooth voice.

“Take this luggage up to the royal apartments,” he ordered. The servants bobbed their acknowledgement and rushed to obey.

They had hardly taken a step, though, when a marsh-green pegasus glided to a landing beside them. She wore a uniform almost identical to the Inquisitor’s, save the raised hood and goggles planted firmly over her eyes. The cloaked pony bowed low.

“Master,” she began tonelessly. “The Imperial Council will be in session shortly.”

“Thundersong, do you have anything to report?”

“I have found out that the Hierophant is going to introduce a new bill regarding grants and tax-cuts to proprietors of Way property,” she answered. “I also believe the Duke and his faction will support it.”

The Inquisitor muttered something under his breath before raising his voice. “Very good, Thundersong, you have done well.”

The black-dressed mare waited in her place expectantly. Smiling, the Inquisitor held out a hoof, upon which the pegasus pressed her forehead in what seemed to be a look of pure bliss. After lingering for a few moments, she broke away, bowing and uttering her thanks as she left them. The Inquisitor turned to Twilight and offered a thin smile. “I have business to attend to in court, so the servants will take you up to your room.”

The filly’s eyes lit up with curiosity. She had never seen the Imperial Court in action before. She tried to imagine the sight of so many intelligent nobles and clever politicians verbally fencing with one another, but she had nothing to go on but a few old woodcuts from over a century ago. “Oh, can I come? I mean, I’d really like to see the ponies there and it’d help me know my way around the place.”

“You’re too young to be getting mixed up at court, even if you’re the Empress’s personal…” his face seemed to brighten with an idea. “Actually, I think it would be good if I were to… if you were to get to know the court and its inhabitants a bit better.”

“Thank you, sir!” Twilight chirped.

The Inquisitor nodded and beckoned for her to follow him. He led the young unicorn through a pair of tall, heavy doors that opened into the reception hall. A huge marble staircase sprawled across half the room, richly clothed in red carpets and railed with polished wood that Twilight Sparkle didn’t even have a name for. The rest of the room was tiled in white and violet, the walls hung with elaborate banners. Sprinkled about the room, chatting pairs and small groups of ponies mingled, all dressed in elegant fashions that screamed ‘aristocrat’. While all breeds were represented, Twilight noticed a disproportionate number of unicorns among the Canterlot elite. Servants waited on them with trays of wine glasses; there was a constant flow of traffic to and from what the filly assumed were the kitchens. A small group of courtiers were the first to become aware of the Inquisitor’s arrival. Their chatter stopped and Twilight noticed the ponies hesitate, looking towards a well-dressed mare for guidance. The Inquisitor smirked as this unicorn peeled off from her clique and strode over to the pair.

“Ah, Inquisitor, I did not expect to see you return so soon,” she said, her tone light and playful. “The Council is just about to convene, although Her Holiness has decided not to attend.”

The unicorn was definitely stylish, not just in clothes but also in looks. Her curly, dark lavender tresses had been pulled up and curled behind her head into a cylindrical bun, with the forward-falling hairs brushed to either side of her horn. Her soft fuchsia form was mostly covered by an elegant silvery-white silk dress, trimmed with indigo. She wore silver bracelets and necklaces that all sported the symbol of the crescent moon, and her head was lightly topped with a delicate silver circlet.

“Hierophant. You’re looking elegant as ever,” the Inquisitor replied, lowering his head in an overly respectful nod, his voice laden with a generous amount of sarcasm. “I hope that you will reconsider your proposal for tonight’s Council session.”

“Not in any way, good sir,” the mare looked at Twilight, finally noticing the filly. “Who is this? Your illegitimate foal? Oh, Inquisitor, this is hardly a ‘bring-your-daughter-to-work-night’ kind of place!”

“This,” his tone sharpened, “Is Twilight Sparkle. Twilight, may I present Hierophant North Star. As the leader of the Enlightened Way’s uppermost council, she deals with all the superstitious nonsense that manages to gain precedent in this country.”

“Nonsense!” North Star countered, her eyes lingered on Twilight, as if her next words were for the filly, before snapping back to the Inquisitor. “The Cult Imperia deals with the matters of the Gods themselves! That is hardly nonsense.”

“You can say whatever lets you sleep at night, Hierophant,” the Inquisitor snipped. “But talk of gods is, to me, nonsense that does not belong in court.”

“Even if the court is that of the incarnate god-Empress herself?”

The Inquisitor smiled smugly and nodded. “Especially then.” Incensed, the Hierophant glared daggers at Twilight, who had tried to distance herself from the argument. Now finding herself the target of the priestess’s ire, the filly shrank back.

“And may I ask why you have brought a child into the palace, let alone to court?” she growled.

“Twilight Sparkle is to live here at the palace. She will be studying under the Empress as her personal student,” he answered with the cool grin of a cat which has cornered a mouse. “I thought it beneficial to her coming education to familiarise her with the palace’s business and its lovely inhabitants.”

North Star stepped back a pace, eyes wide in surprise, her cheeks reddening as her face worked through a flurry of emotions. She seemed nervous at first, then glared accusingly at the leather-clad stallion, before directing an ingratiating smile toward Twilight. She performed a graceful bow that took the filly by surprise.

“It is an honour to meet somepony who has been chosen to take a coveted position so close to Her Holiness,” the Hierophant breathed. “I envy your position, Twilight Sparkle. You must be especially gifted if you have caught the attention of She Who Stayed.”

Twilight blushed at the compliments, but her curiosity quickly overcame the nervousness that had been plaguing her. She had read little on the subjects of religion, largely sharing the Inquisitor’s opinion on ‘superstitious nonsense’. “She Who Stayed?”

North Star’s eyes lit up. “Oh, how terrible it is that you haven’t been educated in the Cult Imperia! Such a young mind as yourself should not go without knowing the truths of the world; ripe for some cynics–” She flicked a glare towards the Inquisitor. “–to corrupt. Allow me to enlighten you. You see, the Empress is an alicorn, and we all know how she is so enlightened and powerful to have attained such a form. But she is especially unique, as she – while all her kin left mortals behind – opted to remain to guide us on through our destinies, which is why she is worthy of our utmost–”

The stallion of the group quickly swerved in front of Twilight, much to the filly’s intellectual disappointment. He raised an eyebrow at the fuchsia mare.

“As much as I’d love to listen to one of your rambling sermons, my dear, I’m afraid that it’s time for Twilight to be escorted to the Empress,” he turned to the lavender unicorn. “Try not to give too much thought to the Hierophant’s ideas, Twilight. Though she may be high up in the Enlightened Way’s institutions, her little Empress-worshipping sect is not exactly what you would call mainstream.”

“We would be if you and Marshall Silverstar wouldn’t keep getting everypony to block my proposals for reform,” North Star snapped, obviously irritated by the interruption and hoping for a new argument.

But the Inquisitor had already whisked Twilight on her way through the hall, towards the stairs. He turned back and called to her.

“We’ll discuss this another time, Lady North Star! But until then, I’d think about choosing reforms that make much more sense!”

Twilight’s head spun from the rapid switches from friendly banter to bitter rebuke and back. For a moment, the grand hall and its courtiers reminded her of the playground back at the orphanage, but with all the bullies and queen bees hiding behind bland smiles. She made a mental note to read up on courtly behaviour and learn about the court’s rivalries, and soon.
They had barely made it to the top of the stairs when a large white unicorn intercepted them. He wore a tuxedo and a sash, decorated with several golden emblems and a family crest. His golden blond mane was tied back in a reserved, practical fashion that still gave off a look of sophistication and a thin moustache-less goatee of the similar blond hair sprouted neatly on his chin. He regarded the Inquisitor with disdainful, icy blue eyes.

“Inquisitor,” he muttered, nodding stiffly. This was returned with a sly smile. The stallion looked at Twilight. “Who is this?”

“Twilight Sparkle,” the Inquisitor was nonchalant in his reply; as if the question was trivial. “She is to be the Empress’s personal student.”

“Her what?” the blond stallion bit off, narrowing his eyes.

The Inquisitor huffed, seemingly bored. “Her Imperial Majesty has decided to take on this young filly to be her protégée in the academic and magical arts. Twilight I am sure you are curious to know who this is. May I present Grand Duke Blueblood the Ninth. Now, I am already late, ‘Your Grace’, and I won’t be made even more so by you.”

As the Inquisitor began to move, the Duke put a halting hoof on his shoulder abruptly. The black-cloaked stallion narrowed his eyes at Blueblood, giving him a look that sent chills down Twilight’s spine. The noblecolt quickly put his hoof down, but continued seemingly unabated.

“What family is she from?” he insisted. “Is it the Hoofenzollerns? Or the House of Gildhorn?”

“Neither. Twilight Sparkle is an orphan,” the Inquisitor replied, grinning while Blueblood’s eyes widened with incredulous shock. “Now that your curiosity is satisfied, I’d like to get a move on. We’ll discuss things later when council commences. Come Twilight.”

The ashen pale pony brushed past the silently seething Duke with the filly close in his wake. They left the hall, passing beneath the arches, with Blueblood stamping off to commune with fellow aristocrats. From the top of the stairs, Twilight could already see ripples of excited conversation radiating out through the crowd from Heirophant North Star and Duke Blueblood. As a mahogany door frame cut off her view, she silently hoped she hadn’t made too much of a stir.

============

High above, in a tower that seemed to jut impossibly far beyond the edge of the cliff, dim candlelight flickered in the personal study of the Empress. Polished beams and ornate trim of rich, dark wood shone with reflected light. A fire roared in the hearth, warming the dusty air. The only sound in the room was the contented, steady breathing of an alicorn, the crackle of firewood and the rustling of paper. It was just bright enough for the Empress to read the parchments and scrolls spread out in front of her. They were mostly reports of domestic and foreign affairs that were important enough for the monarch’s notice. But no matter their importance, they seemed inconsequential at the moment for Nightmare Moon. She was thinking more about the newest arrival to the palace. Servants had come in to her office earlier to inform the Empress that Twilight Sparkle had arrived at the palace. The Queen of the Night hoped that the Inquisitor had warmed up to the filly. She shifted uncomfortably in her cushion as she recalled her last conversation with the Inquisitor.

“She’s a danger,” the Inquisitor stated. “A pony running around with that kind of raw power is a threat.”

“Oh seriously, Inquisitor – she’s only a filly!” the Empress retorted.

“But she can grow to become a mare with deadly control over that power of hers.”

Nightmare Moon huffed. “This is why Twilight is to become my student. Her mind is young and ripe – full of potential. I can teach her the ideals and values we hold dear. She will be a useful ally when she matures.”

“I understand her value as a tool, but what if she was manipulated by the wrong ponies?” the Inquisitor remained adamant. “We cannot afford that risk.”


“What would you have me do?”


“A quiet execution will permanently remove her as a danger,” the leather-clad pony answered. His words had no emotion to them.


The Queen of the Night froze and glared at the unfazed Inquisitor with an icy fire in her eyes. “I will not condone the murder of foals, Inquisitor!” She stamped her hoof, punctuating her disgust. “Do you understand?”


The Inquisitor bowed his head courteously. “It was merely a thought, Your Majesty. I apologise.”

Nightmare Moon continued walking, looking away from the stallion. “Twilight Sparkle will be my student. That is my final word,” she rumbled. “And you will treat her with the utmost care. Do you understand? Should she suffer an ‘unfortunate accident’, her fate will be yours.”


The Inquisitor closed his eyes and nodded graciously. “I understand perfectly, Your Majesty.”

A knock at the door wrenched Nightmare Moon from her memories. She flicked her eyes towards the origin of the sound, having a fairly certain guess as to who it was. A smile grew on her face, anticipating the meeting to come. “Come in,” she called, trying to not sound too forceful.

The ornately carved and inlaid doors opened, and The Inquisitor stepped in, followed by her new student, Twilight Sparkle. The Inquisitor was smirking – his most common expression. He was, in a way, quite boyish and easy-going. Even his mane, a smooth black and grey wave, seemed to have been lazily combed, yet fell back perfectly over the nape of his neck. His tail was also a handsome product of such apparently indifferent caretaking. From a distance, he seemed quite a catch for any young mare, but prolonged exposure to him quickly told a different story. He nodded courteously and trotted up to the Empress, leaning down to her ear.

“I’m quite sure that the Council knows about your new student,” he whispered, his hot breath tickling her ear. “I was unfortunately cornered by several of our court’s illustrious members and I had to tell them who Twilight was.”

“Who did you speak to?” the Empress groaned. She hadn’t had time to prepare for the filly’s proper introduction to court. Doubtlessly her new student would be a subject brought up by at least one of the Councillors.

“Hierophant North Star and Duke Blueblood.”

She groaned again, louder this time. “What did you tell the Duke?”

“Only that our little orphan was to be your personal pupil,” the Inquisitor replied, humour creeping into his voice.

Nightmare suppressed yet another groan. Now I’ll hear no end from Blueblood, she thought miserably. The stuck-up nag will be outraged that his son has been overlooked in favour of a commoner. She checked herself, forcing down the urge to lash out verbally at the Inquisitor. Her vizier seemed amused at the trouble he had caused her.

She glared down at him, her ears folding back in annoyance. “Leave us. Now,” she muttered, making a note to punish him later. Ordering him to make a goodwill visit to the Griffon Kingdoms would be suitable. The thought made her smile faintly. I’m sure he’ll love having to suck up to High King Lucien.

The Inquisitor gave a short bow and headed for the door. His cloak billowed like a sail as he whirled around, that insouciant smirk still plastered across his muzzle. He glided to the door, hoofsteps silent and smooth, as always. Not for the first time, the Empress found herself curious as to what the Inquisitor was hiding under his all-concealing Overwatch uniform. She had never seen him without it; she didn’t even know what his cutie mark was. Of course, Nightmare Moon could simply ask him to show her, but ordering her Chancellor to strip naked and bare his flank for her could easily be misconstrued by the ever-present scandalmongers. Gossip was terribly rife in the palace, and servants and nobleponies alike frequently blew such things completely out of proportion.

She found herself staring at the door, unfocused and lost in thought. A nervous shuffle in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Twilight Sparkle was standing near the corner of the room, looking down at the ground. She traced her hoof along the ground, nervous and abashed. Glancing up, she saw the Empress looking at her and quickly returned her gaze to the ground, lowering her head at the attention. It seemed that the filly had lost all the boldness she had in the Academy.

“Hello, Twilight Sparkle,” the Empress smiled awkwardly.

She tried to sound comforting. Nightmare Moon liked foals; it was a relief to see a bright young face, innocent and keen, in a palace full of scheming and grim courtiers. But the truth was, she had little experience actually dealing with them. In hindsight, she should have expected this reaction from Twilight. The foal was in the presence of the highest authority in the land. Even though she had set aside her armour and even her crown while reading reports, she supposed she remained an imposing figure. The mystique of power was not so easily shed.

The filly looked up at her. The mare still towered over her even while lying on her cushion. “Hello, Your Majesty,” Twilight replied, unsure of herself.

“Take a seat,” Nightmare floated over a cushion for the filly to sit on, which she dutifully did. There followed a brief, uneasy silence until the Empress continued. “How was your trip?”

“It was all right, Your Majesty.”

“Were you able to bring all your possessions with you?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Twilight nodded, still refusing to meet the Empress’s eyes.
Nightmare Moon offered one more attempt to strike up a conversation with the filly. “I heard you bumped into some of the figures in the Council.” Twilight did in fact perk up a bit.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said – the overuse of the address was actually beginning to grate the alicorn a bit. “We ran into the Duke and he seemed a bit rude. I don’t think the Inquisitor likes him all that much. Before that we met North Star, and she was kind of friendly, but kind of weird. It’s hard to tell if the Inquisitor likes her or not.”

“How so?” the Empress inquired softly, allowing the filly to carry the conversation. Twilight seemed to grow more courageous as she talked.

“Well, they joked around a little, even though they seemed like they were trying to insult each other – they even had an argument – but they were just really polite to one another. It was confusing. I mean, if you don’t like someone, you usually don’t joke around with them, right?”

“In the palace it’s different,” the sovereign of Equestria interjected, smiling easily. “Here you have to be courteous and friendly even if you don’t like the pony you have to be polite to. As for the jokes, well, it’s something that the Inquisitor does to everypony, but North Star always rises to the bait. I personally think they might have a thing going on…”

“What do you mean, a thing?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

Nightmare Moon backpedalled quickly. “Uh, nothing,” she said, hurriedly standing up. “How would you like to see your room now?”

“Oh, yes I would, Your Majesty!”

Twilight scrambled to her feet, nervousness evidently ebbing quickly, and followed the Empress out of the study. The entire wing of the palace was dedicated for the royal apartments – a collection of rooms set up as the Empress’s personal living space. The halls were more elegant and simplistic than the lavish designs of the more public parts of the palace. Nightmare Moon found the complex relaxing. A faint breeze trailed them through the corridors, warm and laden with the late spring scents of the gardens outside. The Empress greatly preferred this part of the castle to any other wing. Of course, it was her home, but there was also something that reminded her of a time long ago when she knew only innocence and leisure.

They stopped by a pair of double doors which faced one another across the hall. Nightmare Moon gestured to the more magnificent set, trimmed in silver, with the Imperial crest shaped into knockers.

“This is my room. You need to knock before you come in. And this…” She walked to the less extravagantly designed doors and pushed them open. “…is your room.”

Twilight let out a small gasp and stared around the room with a twinkle of wonderment in her eyes. Bookcases lined the walls, packed with texts selected to cater to a young filly’s education. The shelves were separated by an eclectic collection of paintings from many of the greats: Gust-off Crimp’t, Leonardo of Veneighce and even a piece by the griffon modernist Andy Warhawk. In the middle of one wall was a large fireplace, ornately carved from smooth, dark granite. Soft cushions surrounded a sizeable table, and against the far wall lay a bed large enough for four adult ponies, let alone one tiny filly. It was covered with sheets and pillows of the finest silk. This was a room fit for a princess.

“It’s… it’s beautiful,” Twilight murmured at last. Then she noticed her luggage stacked neatly in the corner.

She beamed and scampered over to the luggage, searching through the bags until she uncovered a battered wooden case nearly twice her size. The Empress craned her neck curiously as the filly tugged it free of the pile.

The alicorn’s smile softened as Twilight Sparkle dragged the case over to the balcony doors. Nightmare Moon, seeing the foal struggle to lift what was probably several times her weight, stretched out her magic to help her pick it up. Once it was near the balcony, Twilight gave her timid thanks and opened the case with an air of solemn reverence.
In it were parts; cylinders, tripod legs, lenses, knobs and screws and more. Twilight ran her eyes over the contents of the case, lingering on each fragment nostalgically. The Empress sat down and broke the silence, and the concentration of the foal.

“Is this a telescope?” she asked.

Twilight nodded and replied in a soft voice. “It’s the one my friend and I built together. He gave it to me.”

“Do you use it often?”

“Not as often as I’d like to,” the filly admitted.

“It looks like a good machine,” Nightmare Moon offered. “You must have worked at it for quite some time.”

“We did, yeah,” Twilight furrowed her brow. “But Orion did most of the work. I don’t even remember how to set it up, and I lost the instruction manual.”

The alicorn rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Her student had taken this thing out before unpacking everything else, and it obviously meant a lot to her. It would be a shame for the filly to be unable to watch the stars this evening. The Empress’s heart fluttered with joy as she realised that Twilight Sparkle did not simply live under her night, but actively took notice of its beauty. Somepony who appreciated her art was always welcome.

“Twilight,” the filly looked up at the Empress. “I think I see how it all fits together. I can help you set it up if you want.”

The lavender unicorn’s eyes lit up and a happy smile graced her lips. She sprung up to her feet. “Oh, yes please, Your Majesty!”

Nightmare Moon chuckled at the reaction. “But only if you promise me that you’ll look at the stars this evening.”

“I will, Your Majesty!” Twilight’s voice cracked with glee.

“Good, I’ll make it an extra special evening then.”

The teacher and her new student spent a healthy portion of an hour figuring out how to put the telescope together. It was a complex device, and no diagrams and instructions meant that most of their progress was trial and error. But when they were finished, the contraption stood proudly on the balcony, and it was time for the Queen of the Night to lower the Bright Moon to make way for the Dull Moon. And as she promised, the evening sky was a tapestry – nebulae and stars glittered in the crisp night alongside sparkling pinwheel galaxies and the ephemeral streaks of meteors. Nightmare Moon stayed with her new student into the late hours of the evening, and together they admired the night.

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Questions, Comments, Concerns and Criticisms are welcome!

Written by Municipal Engines, Assisted and Edited by LordOfTheWrongs