• 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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Tact and Wiles

Chapter Six:
Tact and Wiles

Dear Orion,

It’s weird; the last couple of my letters have been a bit late, even though you’re just on the other side of town. I think it might be because the mail system here at the palace is just so overloaded with all the letters and reports going in and out.

Everypony’s so busy here all the time. The servants don’t even have time to talk, less than the assistants at the foster home did. But they’re all really polite though. The chefs I told you about are pretty nice when I got to know them. Salt Wind is also very nice. At mealtime, she always gives me a little extra for dessert. Ram Sea doesn’t really talk to me, though. He always just excuses himself or apologises for being so busy and gets Salt Wind to do it.

It’s all so fancy, too! The ponies, the rooms and even the gardens are fancy. There are so many ladies and gentlecolts here. The city seems to get fancier and more elite the closer you get to the palace. They don’t really talk to me though, which is fine, because they don’t have anything all that interesting to say when I do talk to one.

It’s hard to think that it’s only been two and a half weeks since I moved here. It feels like forever since I’ve seen you. The Empress has been teaching me loads of things about magic, but we haven’t really done anything all that difficult. I’ve been catching up on my reading though. There are so many books in the palace; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read them all! Every evening before bed, I still like to use our telescope to look at the sky for a bit.

You don’t have to worry so much, anyway. I haven’t gone near any Blackcloaks if I can help it, although I run into the Inquisitor a lot. But I am perfectly fine. I know what Miss Loch says sometimes, but the government isn’t all that mean. All the ponies at Canterlot have been really kind.

Nightmare Moon has been making sure I’m okay. In fact, she’s been especially nice to me. Sometimes she can be a bit intimidating, but I think she’s a good mare underneath all that tradition and authority. The Empress showed me some spells earlier. The way she performed them was absolutely perfect! I can’t really describe it, but watching her do magic is kind of like attending a lecture by your favourite philosopher, or seeing one of those martial artist ponies you like to read about demonstrating their techniques. I really can’t wait for you to meet her!

I do think about Miss Loch and the foster home and you a lot, though. But I’m sure you can come over sometime soon!

Your friend, Twilight

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

The Inquisitor hated these mountains. Not because of the cold, or the height; he found those aspects quite exhilarating, in fact. No, he hated these mountains because they were the Eyrie Peaks – precisely in the middle of Griffon territory. From the top of the highest peak, he could look down on the ancient city of grey stone had been built on the mountain; not on any plateau or mesa, but right down the side. The griffon city of Highroost was, if anything, a feat of remarkable engineering. The buildings were dug into the face of cliffs, tottering thousands of metres over the ground, nearly vertical. There were plazas, many of which hung off the side of the heights like a very thick, very large balcony. A highway of stairs led right to the palace at the summit, where the Inquisitor was now, idly wondering how much of the mountain had been hollowed out to construct the capital of the Kingdom of Rodor.

The palace itself was cut right into the peak. Its front was dominated by a massive verandah that was lined with impossibly large columns several metres in diameter; well over four times that in height. If it wasn't the columns outside that gave a clue to what the architectural theme was, then it would be the smaller, skinnier but numerous columns of the interior that would. There was very little furniture in the main hall – which took up most of the palace’s first floor – just steps, columns and the circle of thrones right at the back. The ‘windows’ of the palace were in reality just large square holes, in the wall that served as easy access points for those beings that could fly. Ancestors, I’m high up, he thought absent-mindedly. The Inquisitor turned away from the open egress and headed for the thrones.

Climbing a set of stairs to the elevated part of the hall, he came to a round stone table surrounded by stone thrones. Stone, so much stone, he grumbled. It wasn’t even marble or polished granite – just generic, sturdy, dull stone. The whole palace, the whole city even, was grey; pragmatic and impressive, yet so dull. The largest of the thrones faced the main entrance of the great hall, and was studded with milky diamonds. It had scenes carved into it depicting fierce griffon warriors and kings, engaged in battles, flying high and proud, or accepting tribute. Without a doubt this was the Sky Throne of the High King of the Griffons.

These seats were mostly occupied, and the one directly opposite the Sky Throne was reserved for him, as was the Rodorian custom. The Inquisitor nodded respectfully to the griffons in attendance, and again to the male seated on the Sky Throne. When the stallion took his place, his fur-collared coat was taken away by a servant and he smiled dryly at the High King.

This particular griffon was old, yet looked young for his age. Around fifty or so years, High King Lucien was a portrait of a fine griffon. His feathers were stark black, a noticeable difference to the rest of the griffons gathered, and the feathers around his eyes and on his crest were of dark red. A circlet – a band of gold studded with rubies and emeralds – rested on his head. His unflinching gaze never left the Inquisitor, who blinked calmly and coolly as he waited for the High King’s reaction.

“Welcome, Lord Inquisitor, Chancellor of Equestria,” Lucien said at last, in Griffon Speech, his harsh voice thick and booming. “I invite you to attend this Hrófmoot as representative of your nation.”

“I accept humbly your invitation, High King Lucien, Lord of the Heavens,” came the traditional and expected reply from the Inquisitor. In truth, the pale grey stallion despised having to verbally humble himself in front of this foreign king – and a griffon no less. To make matters worse, propriety required that he use Griffon Speech himself instead of the nobler Equine language.

Lucien smiled coldly. “Shall we proceed to the Exchanging of Gifts?”

“Yes, of course,” the Inquisitor responded. The griffons were a people who had a particular love, one almost fanatical in proportions, of traditions. They were worse than the conservative aristocrats in Equestria when it came to adherence to custom. The griffons always exchanged gifts from host to guest and vice versa.

The High King began the exchange, beckoning for the attendants to carry forth a chest. Placing it next to the stallion, they opened it and revealed to him the treasure inside. The Inquisitor’s smile became a little more genuine. It was filled with feathers that shone an unnatural gold. Each one had been painstakingly enchanted and cleaned, and had likely come from some old wizard of a griffon who had recently died. Griffon feathers had potent medicinal properties even when they were not treated and enchanted. Griffons guarded their dead jealously, so the Inquisitor knew that this particular griffon had likely gifted his body to the pursuit of healing.

“This is a very special gift,” he smiled politely. “The Empress will be pleased.”

The Inquisitor ushered forth one of his black-clad retinue, who placed an ornate bottle on the table. The griffon kings’ eyes lit up and Lucien lent forward, mesmerised by the shifting, glittering liquid within. It glowed softly and subtly changed colour as it swirled around in the glass.

“Liquid magic,” the High King murmured. “I’ve never seen so much before.”

The High King was taken completely off-guard by the gift. The Inquisitor had been, too, when Nightmare Moon told him to present it to the Hrófmoot. He loathed giving away such a priceless and rare commodity, but the Empress was adamant about repairing the strained relations between griffons and ponies. The amount of the precious substance the griffons had been given was enough to warp the very world around them; shattering the constraints of physical and natural laws. The Inquisitor idly wondered what would happen if he were to ignite it within the palace. He would have loved to see the effects it would have had on the mountain and its inhabitants. He suppressed the thought and returned to matters at hoof.

“Shall we get to business?” the stallion asked. “I am needed back in Equestria and the sooner we get this wrapped up, the better.”

“Of course,” Lucien nodded and motioned to a servant, who spread a map of the region on the table. The griffon king made a sweeping gesture. “The Griffon Kingdoms are surrounded by the equine nations. The Equestrian-Rodorian border is the largest of our frontiers – made even larger ever since your country’s annexation of the Great Western Wilds (which we have not recognised as legal in any way). To the south-east, you can see here that the Cawcasus Mountains form our border with the Tsardom of Konnica, and we have already signed a treaty with them properly establishing our borders in the region.”

The Inquisitor rested his head on his hoof and wallowed in his thoughts. He knew where High King Lucien was going with this, and it angered him that the griffon would have the gall to even suggest such a thing. But nevertheless, he waited.

“The Western Wilds are rich in coal and iron. Not to mention diamonds,” the High King continued. “As I said before, your government’s settling of the land has not been recognised as legal by my government.”

“That may be so, Your Majesty, but the Equestrian people have settled there already. You should have laid a claim to the lands to the west before we began establishing towns,” the Inquisitor replied, coolly and calmly.

“But we did,” Lucien’s voice became stiffer. “And your government seemed to ignore the claim and decide that the entire Western Wilds were yours by right. The griffons have not shut their eyes and ears to the outside world; we know what your media has to say about your so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’.”

“Your Majesty,” the leather-clad stallion began, remaining as nonchalant as he could. He had a very good poker face. “While it is unfortunate that your people are unable to expand, I am afraid there is nothing we can do about it.”

“You can consider evacuating the northern half of the Great Western Wilds.”

Externally, the Inquisitor remained locked in a polite smile, but internally he felt his anger surging. Surely this creature wasn’t suggesting that the Equestrian Empire bow to the whims of outsiders? He cocked his head sideways.

“I’m afraid that what you’re suggesting is quite impossible. The northern regions of the Wilds are forested and rich in resources. That is by far the more valuable half.”

The griffon kings began to raise their voices, saying any number of things to counter the Inquisitor’s statement. It was all lost in a maelstrom of voices, which raged until Lucien banged a fist on the arm of his throne. Silence fell over the table and the ashen pony waited patiently for the High King to speak.

“We cannot accept that,” Lucien announced, his gravelly voice was firm and adamant. “Our claims were ignored by your government and the region was settled without regard for our intentions in the area. This has been a grave insult on Equestria’s part.”

“The Empire will not bend on its position in the Wilds. Our citizens are already settling in the north, and plans have been drawn up to settle in the southern deserts,” the Inquisitor steepled the tips of his hooves together. “We cannot surrender territory that rightfully belongs to our government and is home to Equestrian citizens.”

“The Wilds are not yours by right!” the High King barked. “Where else can we expand to but the frozen wastes of the north and the western icy seas that border our kingdoms?”

There was a chorus of agreement from the table. One griffon king spoke up. “The only way we can expand is south!”

“Either into the Wilds, or into Equestria!” shouted another.

This comment made, the chatter stopped abruptly. The Inquisitor grimaced bitterly as eagle-like eyes fell on him, gauging his reaction. The grey pony frowned and stood up, leaning forward on the table. His dark eyes locked onto the griffon that had last spoken, who shrank back as the piercing gaze seized his heart. The Inquisitor knew well how to intimidate and had perfected it to an art form. He had no need for the raising of voices or of show of arms, or even the need to speak. He required only that they look at his eyes; for once they did he seemed to stare into their very soul with contempt. In a way, this was true.

“Believe me when I say that I do not take threats very kindly. You would do well to remember the Five Years’ War and how poorly that turned out for the griffon kingdoms. I seem to remember that the military casualties on your side were over five times of our own. As for the damage to your civilian population, well, I think we both know how disastrous that was.”

The High King was roused to respond. “We have grown much stronger since then. Our armies are thorough in their training and in the doctrines of war.”

The Inquisitor shifted his glare to the red-crested griffon. He narrowed his eyes at Lucien and twisted his mouth into a bitter grimace. “I do believe there is a young daughter of yours studying in Cloudsdale as part of a little cultural exchange project. Am I right?”

Lucien was visibly taken aback by this sudden comment, but quickly recovered with a fierce scowl. “Threaten me and my nation all you want, unicorn, but don’t you dare presume to threaten my family.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then,” the black-clad stallion smiled wryly. “In any case, consider it a gift that she remains in Cloudsdale. I shall post agents making sure she is well cared for.”
The griffon snarled; his plumage curled in a hostile gesture. “I will not tolerate your insults, Equestrian. You have come to my home as a guest – sharing our fire and eating our food – and you try to intimidate my household. You will do well to remember your place.”

“And you would do well to remember yours, griffon,” the Inquisitor retorted, black fire in his eyes. “You may have learned from the mistakes of our past conflicts and improve your military, but our armies will still crush you. If you dare try to plant your flag in the West, then we will retaliate quickly and mercilessly.”

The angered voices of the griffon kings broke out again, some rose slightly out of their thrones – ready to pounce on the stallion. The guards surrounding the table too seemed ready to draw their weapons, talons wrapped firmly around the hilts of their swords. Behind him, the Inquisitor’s own Blackcloak entourage remained silent and still, but their master knew that at the sign of movement they would leap to the slaughter. ‘Hold,’ he told them, the voice of his mind projected into their heads. ‘I would rather this not turn into a massacre.’

They obeyed silently and the Inquisitor mentally went through his plans in meticulous fashion. The griffons, it seemed, were reacting as expected; that meant that this diplomatic mission would soon have to be cut short and he would need to stoke the flames just a little more. The fire in his eyes died as sat back down in the seat and gave a short smirk. The High King saw this gesture and gave a slow, careful nod to his fellows. The guards’ claws left their weapons and the kings settled back down in their thrones. Lucien cleared his throat.

“I think we have both made our governments’ positions clear on the matter of the Great Western Wilds. Perhaps it is best we move on to less volatile matters?” he suggested, his gravelly voice betraying a hint of hope.

The Inquisitor shook his head solemnly, smirking still. “I am sorry, Your Majesty. I think it would be best that I return to Canterlot, where my absence has gone on for long enough. Another diplomatic team can meet with your representatives at a later date to discuss more minor points of interest.”

The stallion stood up and looked to the Overwatch mare on his right, gesturing her over to the bottle of liquid magic. “I am again sorry, Your Majesty,” he said, voice heavy with sarcasm. “I’m afraid we cannot accept such a generous gift.” Tension filled the air as the mare whisked the bottle off the table. A stiff, heavy silence fell over the griffons as they held their breaths all together, eyes widening at the blatant insult. The exchanged gifts were supposed to remind each party of their amicable meeting; refusing the exchange was, to the griffons, as hostile an act as a physical blow. The Blackcloaks closed the chest of feathers and pushed it back toward the kings, ensuring there could be no mistaking their intent.

“Leave now, Equestrian,” he growled.

The ashen pony bowed mockingly to the gathered lords and abruptly whirled around to the entrance. He marched away from the table, flanked by his retinue of loyal Overwatch guards. As he prepared the spell to transport them all back to Canterlot, a victorious grin grew on his face.

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

The grass brushed against Twilight’s hooves as they waved in the stiff morning breeze. She stood in the willow grove – their usual place of learning – with the Empress lying down several metres behind her. The light of the Bright Moon was particularly strong that night, and the grove had hanging in its branches several lamps. Twilight could see the area around her clearly. The unicorn braced herself with a slightly wider stance and lowered her head, aiming her horn at the target before her. A casket of spherical weights lay open in front of her. She held her breath and focused.

“Relax, Twilight. You’re far too tense,” Nightmare Moon instructed. “Breath slowly; control your body. The spell will come more easily.”

Twilight obeyed. Her shoulders drooped as she softened her posture. The tiny filly sucked in the sharp forenoon air and levelled her breathing. Closing her eyes, she concentrated and, one by one, a shimmering purple aura enveloped the weights. Twilight lifted each out of the box and drifted them closer to her. The weights were really quite light, but Twilight wasn’t sure whether this was how it was supposed to be for unicorn fillies her age, or if they were supposed to be much harder to lift.

Nightmare Moon nodded. “Well done. Your form is improving. Continue with the next step of the exercise.”

Furrowing her brow, Twilight guided the weights into several rows, then arranged them to form the edges of a cube. Twilight held this shape as best she could, each ball hanging in its place. After quite some time, Twilight began to sweat from the exertion, her vision growing blurry from the mental discipline needed. The balls began to tremble as she struggled to maintain the cube.

“Focus, my student, and breathe.”

Twilight realised she was holding her breath again and tried to relax her body while keeping her attention on the weights. The spheres were wobbling with her slipping control now, the whole cube slowly deforming as she struggled to keep her focus split so many ways. The unicorn foal bit her lip and tried to push each sphere that dipped out of its place back into position. As she did this, she shifted her concentration from others and they too became loose. She growled at the effort it took to maintain her shape.

“You may release them.”

She gave a relieved sigh and immediately let go. The cube frame collapsed and each ball dropped heavily to the ground with a ceremonious thud. Twilight sat down, panting slightly despite the lack of physical activity. The Empress smiled and floated a carton of Sweet Apple Acres brand apple juice to the filly, who sucked it down enthusiastically

“Well done, Twilight,” the alicorn said. “You’ve improved since our last time together.”

Twilight wasn’t too sure about that. What does levitating a bunch of weights have to do with magic? she thought. I want to learn the good stuff! She held her tongue, though. It was important to respect the Empress, who had thousands of years of experience and wisdom in her. Still, Twilight wanted to get on to what she thought of as “real magic” sometime soon. She had been meeting with the Empress over the past week and a bit, but she had yet to attempt a spell more advanced than what any unicorn could do. All her lessons consisted of levitation practice, mental exercises and creative problem solving, and nothing much else. While these were all fine to Twilight, she desired more and had expected her lessons with the Empress of Equestria to be much grander, with powerful spells and long-lost magics.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said instead, unable to keep a hint of disappointment out of her voice. The Empress’s ears flicked toward her in curiosity.

“Is something wrong, Twilight?”

Twilight pawed the ground nervously with a forehoof. She almost denied it, but this was an opportunity. The Empress had asked, after all. Hesitantly, she replied. “Well… I was wondering… I mean, I’d just like to know when we’ll be moving on to the proper magic lessons.”

If the Empress was offended, she did not show it. Instead, the alicorn held a look of bemusement on her face. Twilight folded her legs under her body and lay down on the soft grass. Somehow, that expression was worse than a rebuke. It seemed to say she wasn’t… smart enough. That she was a disappointment. After a short but nonetheless awkward silence, Nightmare Moon spoke.

“What makes this lesson not ‘proper’?” she asked, her voice careful and calm.

Twilight gulped. “Well, Your Majesty, I just wondered when I’ll be able to learn all the big spells and the powerful magic.”

Nightmare Moon furrowed her eyebrows, preparing for a lecture. The filly braced herself as if expecting a blow, focusing on the grass in front of her as she dragged the tip of a hoof in small circles through it.

“Twilight, I am giving you these exercises for a reason.”

“I… I know, Your Majesty, but…” Twilight swallowed again and hesitated while she mustered the courage to speak. “But I have the ability. You told me I’m very powerful, that I’m capable of great things.”

“Just because you have more power doesn’t mean you are automatically better at magic than anypony else. Granted, you have the special gift of a natural aptitude for magic, but that is beside the point.” The Empress gave her a knowing smile. “Even if a pony has infinite power and magical reserves, she can still fail at the most basic spells if she lacks control and focus.”

Twilight listened intently, nodding as she took in the alicorn’s words. It made sense – she felt first-hoof how difficult it was to maintain her concentration. She wondered what it would have been like to try to perfectly hold a spell that was much more complex than a simple levitation trick.

“That’s why you have been giving me all these exercises to do,” the filly clarified.

“Yes, Twilight. Practice is what makes the magician great.”

Twilight nodded in understanding again, but she still had more questions. “What about those creative activities and problem solving? The night before yesternight you had me drawing so many random things. How does that have anything to do with magic, Your Majesty?”

The midnight black alicorn raised her head, looking up in thought. “Imagination is a very important part of magic. Ingenuity can help a unicorn invent spells and apply both new and old ones to unusual situations. It’s what separates the technicians from the true sorcerers. These activities are designed to help you flex and develop your imagination so you can find better solutions.”

“I see.” Twilight pondered this, digesting the information. There was so much she didn’t know about applying magic. Twilight realised just how far she had to go before she could become a master in the magical arts. She was certain that she needed a lot more study and practice before then.

As she lay there thinking, a subtle telltale crackle in the air alerted Twilight to Nightmare Moon’s own activity. A shimmering coat of translucent purple covered the balls as the Empress lifted them off of the ground. Twilight kept her eyes glued on the demonstration as Nightmare Moon expertly contorted the weights into perfect, motionless figures.

“It is always good to practice the basics, I think. You cannot be the best you can be otherwise,” she said, the spheres flowing smoothly into flawless patterns at her will.

She concentrated and brought all the spheres together. As her horn flashed, the metal surfaces of the weights rippled like liquid. When they floated together, and the spheres touched each other, they merged rather than stopping. Soon all the balls were gone, absorbed into what was now one large shimmering sphere of liquid metal. Another flash, and the rippling stopped – the ball solidified. Setting the large round weight to the ground, Nightmare Moon gave a proud smirk to Twilight.

“That way, you can excel at more advanced spells,” she said.

Twilight stared, awestruck, at the results. Overwhelming curiosity dragged her over to the metal ball, which she tapped experimentally with a hoof. It was still solid. Must be some kind of phase transition spell, she assumed. She turned to the Empress, excitement twinkling in her eyes.

“Can I learn how to do that?” she asked.

“One night, Twilight,” the alicorn smiled. “But for now, I think I’ve made it clear why we need to focus on the basics first.”

They continued with the exercises after that. Twilight lifted the new giant weight, seeing how long she could hold it. Nightmare split the weight whenever Twilight finished with her practice. The actual lifting was pretty easy, as Twilight found. The Empress said she had phenomenal reserves of magical strength within her. What was difficult was trying to balance each sphere as the Empress divided it again and again. The lavender filly began to wonder if there was a way she could pick up multiple objects without having to keep her focus on all of them at once. The thought of not having to constantly think about what she was holding appealed to her. She was already getting a headache from all this.

The next part of the lesson involved problem solving and more mental exercises. Nightmare Moon would present a practical problem for Twilight to solve in as many ways as she could.

“You are in a locked room, with no windows and no furniture. It is concrete, or stone, and not too large – around sixteen square metres in area. The only way out is a locked door which has been hexed with plenty of counter-spells; enough for you to exhaust yourself for weeks trying to find a way to open it. The floors, ceiling and walls are also hexed, so you cannot dig or blast your way through them using magic.” Nightmare Moon raised a brow at Twilight as she continued. “How do you escape from the room?”

Twilight bent her head in thought, before looking back up to the Empress. “What is the door like? Does it have a viewing hole or something like that, or a window?”

“It does have a rectangular viewing hole with a sliding cover, but other than that it is blank and featureless – no handle either. It is locked by a single large deadbolt.”

Twilight nodded and bowed her head, delving into her thoughts. Her first idea would be to teleport out of the room. She knew it was too simple for the alicorn’s taste, but she suggested it nevertheless, and it was expectedly shot down. This meant that the room was virtually inescapable. So my solution needs to stay inside the cell... “I can use an invisibility spell so they think I've escaped and leave the door open!” she declared.

“Do you know an invisibility spell?” the Queen of the Night asked archly.

“No,” Twilight sighed. How do I escape a room where I can’t blink out from, or dig through, and where the door is impenetrable? Twilight knitted her brow in frustration. Nightmare Moon gave such impossible problems. There was no solution. Why should she even try to escape? That thought led to another question: Why am I in there in the first place? She briefly wondered if following this train of thought would seem like quibbling over details, but the Empress had never discouraged her from investigating every possibility.

She voiced the question to Nightmare Moon, who was watching her with an intent, catlike gaze. The alicorn allowed the corners of her mouth to curl upwards very slightly. “You’re held captive by a group of ponies who want to ransom you.”

“Then I'll pay the ransom!” she answered with a grin. Nightmare Moon let out a throaty chuckle.

“A valid option,” she allowed. “Though it hardly counts as escape if you are released by your captors.”

The filly pressed her lips together. Held for ransom. Which would mean… “Then they wouldn’t want me to be hurt? Because I’d be less valuable to them?” Nightmare simply nodded, allowing the little unicorn to come to her own conclusion. Her smile grew larger and more encouraging.

“Do they come around to check on me then? To give me food and water?” Twilight felt a smirk of her own sprouting up on her face.

“Yes, they keep an eye on you through the viewing slide in the door.”

“So all I would have to do is cast a spell that gives me the symptoms of a disease bad enough that they would come in to check on me,” she answered, giving a victorious grin. “Then I can hit them with an offensive spell.”

The Empress smiled warmly, but rebuffed her answer. “What if they have shields against your little attack?”

Frustration growing, Twilight’s grin faltered, but she aimed to make her answer work. “Then I would use a sleeping spell.”

“And if they have wards against those?” Nightmare Moon asked.

“Then… then I’d just make a break for it!” Twilight sighed, exasperated at her teacher’s obtuseness. Her sense of victory had now completely vanished.

The black-coated alicorn chuckled and shook her head slowly. “I’m afraid these ponies will simply grab you with magic if you try to run.”

“Then what else can I do by then?” Twilight suppressed an irate groan.

“Well, you could let them take you to an infirmary, or whatever place they would use to treat you,” Nightmare moon suggested. “At least then you could plan your next move.”

“That’s not a solution though, I’m still in captivity!”

“But you did escape the room,” Nightmare Moon shrugged.

Twilight harrumphed. She did not like problem solving at all. It was always like this. No matter what solution she came up with, the Empress would poke holes in it, even having to invent the most unlikely situations in which her plans would fail. Twilight had to make the solution more and more audacious each time.

“These scenarios are implausible,” the small filly complained. “I mean, when would there ever be that many charms in place? You're... you're cheating just to make it complicated!”
Nightmare Moon simply gave a calm, sympathetic smile. “While it is good to remember that the simplest solution is often the best, a sorceress must know how to apply her imagination and ingenuity to solve even a seemingly insoluble problem. A single spell and the creativity to apply it to a hundred situations will serve you far better than a hundred spells used in only the most obvious way. Learning new spells is trivial compared to learning how to think like a master mage.”

Nightmare Moon rose and led Twilight down the winding garden paths as the lesson continued, leaving the levitation spheres behind with long, graceful strides. Twilight found many distractions along the way. Despite her fascination with the Empress’ lectures, the unicorn found her attention drifting to the many things that were happening around her. The gardens were abuzz with activity, whether from ponies or from wildlife. The patterned stone path acted as a thoroughfare for many wandering residents and workers of the Imperial Palace. The groundskeepers trimmed the hedges, moulded into elegant shapes, and pruned the artfully-positioned. Twilight found it curious that there were sometimes entire rows of plants that seemed to have been meticulously sculpted to aesthetic perfection and in other areas there were simply wild masses of vegetation studded with colourful buds and flowers.

A dapper pair of nobles parted to allow them passage, bowing almost to the turf as the Empress passed. Twilight noticed that many of the nobles walked with their necks craned uncomfortably, noses in the air and eyes apparently closed. How do they get around without bumping into things? Are nobles capable of echo-location? she wondered, suppressing a giggle.

The purple filly caught a glimpse of Duke Blueblood strutting along with his son. They were talking, but she couldn’t hear their words. Ever so slightly, she scooted closer to Nightmare Moon and turned away from the two unicorn aristocrats, in case they caught her staring. Their presence reminded her of a question she had been meaning to ask the Empress.

“Your Majesty,” she interjected when Nightmare Moon next paused. “How come Blueblood is a prince? I looked in the genealogies, but I couldn't find when you married one of his–”

“I’ve never married,” the alicorn cut her off sharply, eyes wide with surprise and something that looked almost like anger.

The foal cringed in the Empress's shadow, babbling a hurried apology. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t–”

“No, I’m not married, Twilight,” the alicorn repeated. Though her voice was not raised or angry, it was nonetheless strained and carefully flat. “I never have been. Nor do I have any children.” The black mare took a steadying breath and continued more gently, though her tone held the finality of a royal edict. “Please… don’t ask about it again.”
“I’m sorry,” Twilight repeated and lowered her eyes.

“It’s all right, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon sighed. The Empress began walking again, and her student tailed her dutifully. They meandered through the garden in silence for a time, and all the while Twilight grew increasingly worried that her lesson would be cut short. Then, as they crossed a bridge over a small stream that jutted out from the pool, Nightmare Moon paused and broke the quiet. “I know you’re curious about these things, but my past contains many bad memories which I would rather forget.”

Hearing some warmth come back into the Empress’ voice, Twilight looked back up to her and changed her tack slightly, careful to avoid the painful past. “But if Blueblood’s not family, then why is he a Prince?”

“When I first came to power, I needed a castle and some land to establish my capital. Canterlot was a prime choice, and I so took it from the Duke – the Bluebloods’ ancestor,” Nightmare Moon explained. “In return, I recognised him and his descendants as the 'Princes and Princesses of Unicorns' and gave them a few extra privileges.”

“Did you have to give them titles, though?” she glowered as she thought of the younger Blueblood, head held high with a kind of smarmy pompousness as he strode along with his father.

“I felt that at least some sort of compensation was in order, so that they would not be too bitter about the move,” the Empress chuckled. “It’s funny, in a way – the title is worth nothing without the weight that others lend it, but they still seem to prefer it over the land.”

“They’re kind of mean,” Twilight knitted her brow. “Prince Blueblood was really rude to me earlier this week.”

“I know, but that’s what happens when somepony is raised to believe that they’re a higher, better class of pony than others just because they have money, land and the privilege of a title. Duke Blueblood can be just as bad in his own way,” said the Empress.

The pair's wanderings brought them to a bench where one of the groundskeepers had laid out his lunch. The stallion almost choked on his dandelion and lettuce sandwich when he noticed Nightmare Moon so close by. Immediately, the pony leapt up from his seat, hurriedly bowed to his monarch. The alicorn smirked, but Twilight smiled sweetly over her shoulder as they passed the earth pony, leaving him to his break. They entered a less trafficked part of the garden, silence stretching as they left behind the bustle of the main path. This close to the edge of the plateau, clouds of spray billowed up from the first cataract of one of Canterlot's great waterfalls, refracting pale rainbows in the moonlight. Dense hedges and the roar of the cascade covered any noise besides the clop of their own hooves and quiet birdsong.

“Your Majesty, if Blueblood is so mean, why does he get to be so high up in the government?” Twilight asked suddenly.

Nightmare Moon sighed. “It’s part of being linked to the Royal Family. They hold enormous influence over many important and powerful ponies. If I don’t give them some concessions, they can make governing Equestria very difficult for me.”

Twilight was surprised by this admission. The idea that Nightmare Moon – most powerful equine in the world and custodian of the night – could be pressured by her underlings was a thought that was completely alien to Twilight. She seemed so beyond the constraints and vices of normal ponies; an untouchable force that commanded respect and loyalty from all.

“But can’t you just tell them what to do and they’ll have to do it?” the filly asked. “I mean, you’re so strong and if they try to disobey you can just, I don’t know… banish or imprison them or something.”

The alicorn winced, though this reaction passed over Twilight’s head. She sighed and shook her head lightly.

“It just doesn’t work like that, Twilight. I used to think it did, but even if I could use force to get ponies to do what I want, they still found ways of making things harder than they should be. Strength is, I found, not everything when it comes to ruling. You must also have tact and wiles if you are going to rule properly.”

Twilight was not sure if she could get used to the idea that the Empress needed to manoeuvre around her own government officials. She would have much preferred it if Nightmare Moon had absolute control over the politics in Canterlot. The unicorn didn’t much like the thought of ponies like Duke Blueblood being able to throw their weight around.

Nightmare Moon smiled reassuringly, seeing the perturbed look on her students face. “If it makes you feel better, Twilight, as Empress I do have everypony listening to me and obeying diligently most of the time. Anyway, how have you been finding life at the palace, besides the rude behaviour of local lordlings?”

Twilight pushed away her musings and beamed at the Empress. “Oh, it’s been wonderful, Your Majesty! The library is amazing, and the gardens are beautiful. It’s so nice to read outside. Everypony’s been so nice to me as well; so polite. Miss North Star has been trying to get me to come to her chantry services and she wants to introduce me to her Cult Imperia thing, though–”

“She wants to do what?” Nightmare Moon drew her shoulders up, tensing at the filly’s statement.

“She wants to show me the Cult Imperia,” Twilight repeated, her tone sweet and innocent, oblivious to the fire that was growing in Nightmare Moon’s eyes. “I think it’ll be really exciting to learn about.”

“I will have to have a talk with the Hierophant before you go anywhere near the Cult Imperia. If I am convinced that it will be beneficial to your education, I will accompany you to a service myself; you are not to attend one alone,” the Queen of the Night said in a firm voice.

Twilight blinked in surprise at the pronouncement. “Yes, Your Majesty?” she said, her tone inviting further elaboration, but the Empress said nothing more on the issue. She gave a mental shrug and decided to change the topic. “Mister Silverstar has been really nice to me.”

“Oh?” The warmth was back in Nightmare Moon’s voice, which brought back Twilight’s smile. She nodded.

“He’s been asking me about what I’ve been studying and how I am. He’s a lot nicer than some other ponies and he’s really fun to talk to.”

“Well, he certainly does have a certain gruff, down-to-earth charm about him,” the Empress said. “He’s been taking an interest in you, then?”

“Oh yes, he’s been really friendly,” the purple little unicorn chimed. The Marshal was one of her favourite ponies around the palace. He seemed like a gruff old stallion, but on the inside, he was really quite caring.

“That’s good to know. I’ve heard that the Marshal has always been good around foals.”

“Does he have any fillies or colts my age then?”

“No,” Nightmare Moon sighed. “His wife died in foalbirth. I don’t think he’s ever remarried.”

Twilight recoiled, her ears flattening at the horrible news. “Oh…” she trailed off, unsure of what to say next. They were both unsure; the alicorn’s answer left a gloomy air hanging over their heads.

The teacher and the student found themselves having followed the path to its completion, rounding back on the more familiar parts of the gardens. Twilight realised that the gardens were more uniform the closer they were to the palace; like a planned, geometric art piece with the very ground as its canvas. The outer bounds of the palace grounds were wilder and less tended to, but no less beautiful.

Then, she remembered a question that she had been meaning to ask the Empress all night. Mentally chastising herself for forgetting until now, she bit her lip as she thought of a way to properly phrase it. The silence grew between them, and Nightmare Moon was looking somewhat uncomfortable at the lull in conversation at such a depressing note.

“Your Majesty,” the foal began. “Would it be all right if I invite a friend from the foster home over?”

Nightmare Moon gave a soft smile. “Of course, Twilight. You can even have her over tomorrow.”

“Actually, Your Majesty, it’s a colt,” Twilight replied. “His name’s Flash.”

“Really? I would have thought that you’re too young for a coltfriend,” the Empress grinned, her eyes twinkling with mischief.

“N-no!” Twilight’s eyes widened at the assumption. “He’s just a friend!”

“Of course, Twilight, I was just kidding,” Nightmare Moon winked at her flustered student. The filly gave a weak smile in return.

“I knew that!” Twilight squeaked, her cheeks feeling hot. “I was just playing along!” It was a hopeless ploy against another foal her age; much less the millenia-old alicorn, but pride compelled the words.

“Indeed,” the Empress gave her a knowing grin.

A sharp crack of thunder rescued Twilight from her embarrassment, drawing her eyes upward to where a bright yellow pegasus mare was berating a brown stallion. They were so distant that the scolding played out in pantomime, but it was clear that he had been handling his cloud too roughly.

“It seems the weather pegasi are right on schedule,” the Empress said. A fat drop of rain landed on Twilght's nose, making her jump. “And that means our session is over for tonight. Hold still while I get us inside.”

Twilight blinked confusion at the dragon-eyed alicorn. “What do you mean by tha–?”

Before her eyes, Nightmare Moon evaporated into a glittering blue-violet cloud. The vapour swirled into a ring around Twilight, then began to spin like a tornado. The process took only a second or two; the whirling vortex scooped her up and collapsed around her in a flash of indigo light.

The next instant, they were inside the palace, in the main atrium of the Royal Apartments. Nightmare Moon stood as steady and regal as ever, but Twilight's stomach was reeling. She staggered a few steps in a dizzy circle, then threw up.

“Whoops. Sorry,” was all the Empress of Equestria could say.

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Questions, Comments, Concerns and Criticisms are welcome!

Written by Municipal Engines, Assisted and Edited by LordOfTheWrongs