• Published 9th Feb 2013
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The Next Level Of Your Studies - cleversuggestion

Twilight Sparkle gets a letter from Celestia that sets her on a quest for knowledge which will transform her more deeply and completely than she ever imagined was possible.

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13. Luna's Return Banquet

CE1215, the night of Luna's Return Banquet

In the cramped entrance to their home, Twilight Velvet adjusted Night Light's ascot for the third time. The banquet wasn't for another few hours, but they had a carriage waiting outside to deliver them to the palace early. Night Light's mind drifted to the previous day, when his brother-in-law had offhandedly remarked that it was surprisingly easy to manage good seats for all of them, including Shining Armor and Twilight Sparkle, when very few other families were sending multiple generations to the hastily arranged banquet. There was an air of mystery around the whole affair, with conflicting explanations for the delayed sunrise on the day of the Summer Sun celebration, occurring just before Luna's return. Night Light was the patient sort, who knew that it would take months for all the details from events like this to come to light, but the phrase "Mare in the Moon" was whispered with alarming frequency. They had rushed an invitation letter to Twilight by pegasus courier, imagining the Princess was too busy to relay a letter like she did in calmer times. Twilight had promptly sent her reply by dragonfire, delivered to them from the Palace by a Royal Guard. The letter was short:

Dear Mother and Father,

Thanks for the invite, and be sure to thank Uncle Velvet for me. I made some great friends here in Ponyville and am going to be continuing my studies here. Sorry that I can't make the celebration in Canterlot.

Love, Twilight Sparkle.

Twilight Velvet had been exasperated. “Of all the times to start making friends!” Night Light had noticed the odd specificity of the letter’s last sentence, saying nothing and filing that fact away.

She's the lucky one, he thought as Twilight Velvet adjusted his ascot for the fourth time, bringing him back to the present. Velvet Rope was dressed perfectly, a fashionable coat draped close to his slim frame, with a green carnation in the lapel pin as his only decoration. He was busy helping Shining Armor center his badge, which was shaped like a purple six-pointed star. Twilight Velvet was wearing her fanciest dress, the one she had commissioned for the celebration when she got tenure (and which had been altered several times since). Gemstones studded the midnight blue dress in the (technically accurate) patterns of constellations, and her earrings were a large ruby shaped like Mars and a massive cloudy jade shaped like Venus. Night Light had wisely refrained from pointing out that they just looked like mismatched ball earrings, though her fellow astronomers would happily note that she even got the relative sizes right.

Night Light preferred smaller gatherings, where each pony was interesting enough that he would be content to talk to just them for the whole night. Princess Luna's return banquet was not a social event so much as a historical one, and he supposed that if he didn't go, he would always regret it. Unfortunately, avoiding regret was not a particularly exciting motivation.

Which was what made Twilight's refusal so odd; she loved history, loved comparing the stories and unraveling the tangled knots, checking them against the old, thick tome Night Light kept in his study. She would never pass up the opportunity to see history in the making-

Night Light stiffened, and Twilight Velvet immediately let go of his ascot. “Too tight?” she asked worriedly.

“No,” he said, smiling. “I think it looks better now.” He looked over at Velvet Rope, hoping to change the topic. “Do you know who is sitting with us?”

Velvet Rope, still adjusting the many straps of Shining Armor's ceremonial outfit, spoke without looking away from his work. “We're at a twelve-seat table in the second tier. Cadance is seated in the first tier on the left, and we're seating Shiny so she'll have a clear line of sight.” Shining blushed furiously as Velvet Rope continued, entirely unconcerned with the younger stallion's embarrassment. “The others are: William Wright and 'guest', one Sapphire Shores. He thinks she'll be Mrs. Wright number five, and she couldn't get a ticket on her own.” Night Light had contracted for Wright before; he was an elderly stallion who had been a steady helmsman for his family business, widowed four times, and already predeceased by two of his many children. Night Light had never met Sapphire Shores, but vaguely suspected that she was a musician of some sort.

“Mosely Orange and wife. I suspect you've been keeping up with the Southern Colonization Company; he's been rising up the ranks in Manehattan and is now a director. Hoofworth and Chime Melody. They should be pleasant as always.” Chime Melody and Hoofworth had each built up industrial fortunes, their business interests clashing until they decided to marry and merge their empires. Night Light had never quite gotten the whole story, and was happy to let that stay buried. They were both old friends, though, and had hired him several times. Putting them at the same table with the Oranges and Wright sounded like a deal in the making, though, which considerably brightened the conversational prospects of the night.

“At Pierce's request, I gave Twilight Sparkle's seat to Deep Field.”

Twilight Velvet looked up from adjusting Night Light's ascot for the fifth time. “My old advisor? I didn't know he was coming.” I didn't know that Pierce knew him that well, Night Light thought.

Velvet Rope smiled as he finished gussying up Shining Armor. “Well, he wasn't until Twilight Sparkle declined.”

Deep Field looked at his mirror. An old pony stared back at him. The skull was still the same; he could recognize the pony who had grown up on a farm, whose parents had been so crude as to name their foal after the place of his conception. He knew that foal had looked up at the stars in the night sky and the gleaming rooftops of Canterlot, just visible over the horizon. But that smooth-faced foal was buried beneath wrinkles as deep as the furrows of his boyhood farm; the only shared features he saw were the same brown eyes, and that the flesh hung from the same sharp bones.

He had gotten his cutie mark late; he was well into his astronomical studies when he developed a way to resolve a very small portion of the sky. He had called the resulting view the Deep Field, and thus turned his shame to his pride. That he also got his cutie mark then had seemed almost like an afterthought.

He wondered at the magic of cutie marks; he looked like little more than bones in a sack of skin and hair, but his cutie mark was as bright as the day it had appeared. Was he the same pony, anymore? His research had required orbital magic, and as a unicorn with an Earth pony father raised away from the halls of power he had managed to get clearance to perform his experiment. It had also earned him the attention of the Moon's Horn, and led him to where he stood today. His life seemed dominated by burdens, now, not discovery, and a cutie mark of a discovery felt out of place on his skin.

But that young pony whose bones he inherited had carried burdens of his own; perhaps his cutie mark was that he found a way to turn his burdens to his advantage. Deep Field smiled. He had not expected to find another interpretation for his cutie mark at his age; perhaps he had the ability to reinvent himself again. He looked at the clock; it was almost time to teleport to the palace.

Sapphire Shores was a musician, Night Light rapidly discovered. Shining Armor’s favorite, in fact, and it wasn’t long after she learned that Shining Armor had all of her records that she gave up any pretense of paying attention to her ‘date’ (who was old enough to be her grandfather) to focus instead on the strapping young guardsman. Shining Armor was visibly torn between his desire to fawn over an idol and his dismay at having to deflect her flirtations. Night Light’s paternal affections prevented him from fully enjoying Shiny’s torment, but Velvet Rope and Sapphire Shores had no such compunctions, and he slowly fed her details over the course of the night.

Night Light had been worried that Wright would respond to the slight by getting drunk, but after a few failed attempts to capture Sapphire’s attention he harrumphed and then focused on the chatter between the commercial couples. Night Light paid close enough attention to interject something clever every now and then, but from Night Light’s perspective it seemed to be little more than all of them realizing that a colony in the Southwest would probably be profitable for all of them. That sort of blue sky planning (the sort that was important but not urgent) was the sort of thing he tried to do regularly and deliberately, rather than on the random occasions of dinners, subject to the whims of seating arrangements.

But as he looked around the room, he reflected that these occasions were anything but random, and the seating arrangements the result of enough focused brainpower that whim didn’t quite describe it. Yes, many of the constraints were accidental--move Cadance on the first tier, and their position could shift significantly--but someone stood to gain from these ponies sitting together, and so sit together they would.

And with that thought, he looked again at the table of honor. Celestia and Luna sat together, at a table that was in fact smaller than any of the others, but which seemed larger by the amount of space each princess was allotted. When they had all entered, Celestia had given a long speech, and then Luna shouted a short one, and then the servers had begun to deliver the first or many courses. Each table in the first tier- those closely related enough to style themselves Prince or Princess, as well as important government officials- had been ushered up to greet Luna in person over the course of the banquet. Night Light didn’t expect they’d do that for the rest of them- it looked like they were spending at least fifteen seconds per pony that spoke with the princesses, and each table sat twelve, and there were around eighty other tables. Fifteen seconds for twelve ponies was three minutes, or a twentieth of an hour, times eighty tables was four hours. They might interact with Luna while exiting- then, average time per pony would be closer to three seconds, which would still be interminable but more reasonable.

Night Light was somewhat disappointed, actually. He had imagined the event as historic, that he would tell his grandchildren that he was there when Luna’s return was celebrated, but now that he thought about it, with the way his children had turned out it was likely his grandchildren would know Luna all their lives. It was shaping up to just be a sumptuous dinner (the palace chefs did know what they were doing) in public. They had learned little about the Princess of the Moon besides that she was glad to be back. Doubtless many financiers had planned to excuse themselves and ‘visit the facilities’ if any details had been leaked about the implementation of the Princesses’s co-rule, but the speeches had been devoid of such details and Night Light had noticed no sudden departures from those ponies that spoke with the princesses directly. With little content to fuel speculations besides Luna’s bizarre lack of volume control, the conversation had rapidly shifted from the occasion to more personal matters.

Perry Pierce and Deep Field had both spoken little, Night Light noticed. They seemed otherwise lost in thought, frequently glancing at Luna’s table, though Twilight Velvet had grown bored enough to discuss work with Deep Field. Pierce was no doubt thinking about the political ramifications of Luna’s return, both for Equestria at large and within the Lunar Society. An emergency session of the Society had been called as soon as the invitations to this banquet had been received, and Night Light was not looking forward to also losing his next evening. Within any group of ambitious ponies, there would be talk of politics, and over the years there had been many discussions within the Lunar Society about how Equestria could be remade in the shape of a Griffon clan, or a convocation of dragons, a massive corporation, or something never seen before. Some had speculated about the return of Luna, and there were those in the society who insisted that Luna had been banished for seeking to implement a Republic in Equestria, allowing ponies to choose their own leadership, and thus hopefully choose her over Celestia. Night Light had found this difficult to square with what he could find of the historical record, or the widely accepted story that the banishment of Luna had been prompted by her feeling unloved by the citizenry of Equestria.

Perry Pierce had been one of the strongest voices in favor of republicanism in the Lunar Society, and was even willing to consider outright anarchy. He had many convincing points, and could argue the issue for hours on end, but most ponies, Night Light included, had come to the conclusion that Celestia had ruled for long before they were born, and would rule for long after they would die, and thus political speculation was not useful. Night Light went so far as to claim it was not useful because ponies grew so passionate while discussing it. In the annals of the society, they could see the progress of mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy, and business, but beyond a few administrative innovations, Celestia’s government remained as stable and tightly controlled as the orbit of the world around the sun. The unicorns had controlled that once, but it was not likely they would do so again.

But now Luna had returned, right when one of the many conflicting predictions said she would. This was the biggest change to the government of Equestria in centuries, and if Night Light knew Perry Pierce, the stallion would try to put himself at the middle of it. Night Light had his reservations, both about Pierce's theories and the demeanor of this returned Princess. Pierce’s preoccupied silence was probably fevered planning.

Perry didn’t like his coltfriend’s family very much; Velvet Rope’s sister Twilight Velvet was about as robotic a pony as he’d seen, more interested in things and ideas than other ponies. Night Light’s deference towards the rich had always grated against Perry. Even Perry would admit that, of the twelve at their table, Night Light was the cleverest; and yet he had a comfortable brownstone and a secretary against Wright’s mansion in the country and collection of concerns. A society that elevated Wright above Light was a sick society, but instead of seeking a cure, Light just made Wright richer. Perry knew Light’s work had earned Wright bits for every penny Light had been paid, and that this didn’t bother Light infuriated Perry almost as much as the situation itself.

Their foals were also too close to the heart of Equestrian conservatism for Perry to feel comfortable around them. Shining Armor was in the Royal Guard, and on the fast track to the top, likely to make captain in a year or two, and Twilight Sparkle was already there as Celestia’s personal student.

But Velvet Rope was as well-connected as anyone in Canterlot, and so Perry kept his opinions to himself and smiled along. Just by sharing Velvet’s bed Perry had dramatically increased the reconnaissance available to the Moon’s Horn. Velvet Rope had taken years to woo; Perry suspected that Velvet’s reluctance was because his uncanny ability to read other ponies had tipped him off to Perry’s ulterior motives. But Perry had been patient, and eventually Velvet had acquiesced. At the time, it had seemed a validation of the long focus and deep patience of the Moon’s Horn, but Perry’s faith in them had been deeply shaken and he was not quite sure he was going to land on his hooves.

The best case would be if he managed to get Luna to argue the case for an Equestrian Republic, he was elected its first president, and went down in history as Equestria’s most important ruler.

The next best would be if he managed to get elections inserted in the administration as part of the switch to co-rule, and was elected to the most important ministerial position. Then he’d finally be able to set things straight in this country.

Almost as good would be if he managed to become Luna’s right-hoof minister. He knew that Deep Field planned to raise the issue of their roles moving forward with Luna, but figured it would be easy to argue to Luna that he was more skilled than Deep Field, and figured that Luna should be biased against seniority systems anyway.

He had made plans in the event of an all-out war between Luna and Celestia; times of tumult were particularly useful for reordering things. But those plans should probably be discarded now.

He paid just enough attention to the conversation to not offend, nodding along at the right time, smiling at Velvet Rope whenever the stallion glanced his way, and sliding a hoof up his leg whenever the stallion had gone too long without looking his way. He found it hard to care about the new colony--really, they were calling it Appleloosa?--or the young mare flirting with Shining Armor, or his attempts to steer the conversation away from her lust and towards the meaning of her music. Neither growth nor love nor art could turn his mind from thoughts of control.

The dinner began to wind down, the conversations growing softer, ponies glancing around more. This is when the first guests would start to leave, during a normal banquet, but for an occasion like this, none could bear to be the first to go. With a new princess on the scene, none wanted to give offense, and what if something happened after they left? Celestia either noticed the mood or had expected things to go this way, and stood up as the hall entered a particularly quiet lull. Conversations stopped, ponies craned their necks to see, and Celestia gestured for Luna to join her.

Luna stood up, and shouted her thanks at the guests for attending, that she would begin to receive guests in her tower at a time to be determined later, and wished them all goodnight. Celestia bid them goodnight as well, and then the two Princesses departed.

With that, the night was ended, and ponies began to file out. Wright and Hoofworth stood and shook hooves vigorously. Night Light looked around, trying to sense the energy of the room and not getting a good read. He looked over at Velvet Rope.

“Tense,” Velvet Rope supplied, helpfully. “Very few people got what they were coming for, tonight.”

“I’ll say,” Sapphire Shores said, winking at Shining Armor, who blushed furiously.

Velvet Rope smiled. “Well, I did what I could to make the tables interesting. But no one knows how to plan around Princess Luna yet.”

“I’ll say,” Deep Field muttered to himself, softly.

“Princess Celestia, maybe,” Velvet Rope said. “But if so, she isn’t sharing, yet. And did you hear that invitation? ‘At a time to be determined?’ That’ll fuel the rumor mill for some time.”

“Well, that and her voice,” Perry Pierce added. “It looked like it didn’t go over well.”

“That’s putting it politely,” Night Light said as he stood up, “but with Princesses I find that’s the wisest way.”