Berry Punch’s grin had not faded in the slightest since our arrival, but then she had another feather for her wall. Seeing one of my lavender secondaries on a plaque behind the bar always put my teeth on edge. I understood in the abstract that to Berry I was Princess first and Twilight second, but that made it no less unsettling. In a way it lessened the bar in my eyes, Berry’s was special because of all the memories my friends and I had made there, not just because I had been there.
Still, I hadn’t found a reason to say no in time when asked and it was easy enough to wave it off in time. She’d never acquire a second; after all there was no logical reason for another Princess to visit Berry’s. Alas, that logic had proved to be in error, as fifteen minutes ago a single, impossible, white secondary feather had joined mine on the plaque.
The bar was quiet and dim, filled with the comforting scent of woodsmoke and the low buzz of conversation. Berry had few regulars on a Thursday evening and those who had braved the winter chill kept to their cups, leaving our little group well alone. I couldn’t blame them. First, nopony got near Pinkie Pie when she had a pool cue in her grasp, and second, well...
A crack echoed through the room as ivory struck ivory and Celestia let out a miniscule huff of annoyance as the eight ball bounced off the cushion. Applejack let out a throaty chuckle and ambled over to the table.
“Well, a mighty fine effort there Princess,” she said, smirking. “But Ah reck’n you haven’t quite knocked all the rust off yet.” With a flick of her hoof she lined up an easy shot on the corner pocket and sunk the eight-ball with a swift, sharp tap. “Ah think that means you owe us another round.”
There was something deeply unsettling about seeing Princess Celestia playing pool. She was a creature of marble halls, to be surrounded by stained glass and elegant tapestries. There was no world in which a creature of such grace and beauty stood in a dimly lit taproom—head slightly bowed due to a low hanging lamp—scowling at a faded pool table. I would have declared it impossible, no more likely than finding a van Goat hanging in an outhouse. Ponyville had a way of stretching impossibilities to their breaking point.
Princess Celestia shook herself. “Indeed. Ms Berry, another round for my friends please!” she called out, her voice cutting through the low buzz of conversation. “And mine should be a double, I think. It seems my luck has deserted me for the evening.”
“Oh shoot, Princess,” Applejack said, doffing her hat. “Ah’m sure it’ll pick up again soon. What do you say to a third time?”
A tiny frown crossed the Princess’ face and I fought down the urge to snap at Applejack for putting her on the spot.
“I’m sure the Princess has had enough for one evening,” I cut in briskly, stepping forwards. With a little luck we could wrap the ‘night on the town’ up before ten. If I could get her back to the castle in seven minutes we would still have time to go through the new translation matrices that I’d been working on for modeling high speed particles.
“No, I think one more,” Princess Celestia interjected, blocking me with a wing. “I need to win back some dignity tonight, not to mention maintain the royal finances. On that note, Applejack, what do you say about making our next game more interesting than just the price of a few cocktails?”
Applejack smiled, leaning her cue against her shoulder. “Oh shoot, Princess, my granny raised me better than that.” A broad smirk spread across her face. “Something about not taking candy from foals or some such.”
My jaw dropped. In Court a pony could lose their career for such a slight. I opened my mouth to protest but Princess Celestia got there first.
Her laugh was clear and pure, cutting across the bar like a struck bell. “Oh, I do believe those are, as they say, fighting words, Applejack.”
“Hey, what are we laughing about?” Pinkie Pie cut in, bounding back over with a tray of drinks balanced on one upturned hoof.
“Oh, just the Princess getting too big for her britches,” Applejack said, chuckling. She took her drink from the tray, a tiny glass of something she insisted was made from apples—well mostly apples—though I nursed the theory it was paint stripper.
I tried to ignore the remainder of the tray, even as I levitated off my peach cider. Pinkie’s enormous ice cream sundae, complete with licorice and bourbon glaze that tasted about as good as it sounds, was one of those oddities that I’d grown accustomed to. My mind kept skipping off the brightly coloured cocktail, however. Princess Celestia drank only the finest wines, not Grasshoppers, or she should have. At least I’d managed to expunge the memory of her suggesting she order a Screaming–
I took a deep gulp of my cider as I stamped down on that thought. There were some words you never wanted to hear from your Princess’ lips.
“Um, Applejack,” Pinkie stage whispered, holding up a hoof to shield her mouth from Princess Celestia. “The Princess isn’t wearing any britches.”
Applejack shot her a flat look and declined to dignify that with a response.
“My lack of pants notwithstanding,” Princess Celestia continued, a soft smile on her face. “I believe that I must ask you to put your money where your mouth is. Let us say... fifty bits.”
“Let's say a hundred, if you’re so keen on giving away your money,” Applejack shot back, knocking back her shot. “Ah’m thinking Team Pony’s on a hot streak.”
“Applejack,” I cut in, stepping around Celestia. “Can I talk to you for a moment?” I didn’t wait for a reply and seized the tip of Applejack’s ear in my magic, dragging her over to the bar.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, once I was sure we were out of earshot.
Applejack rubbed her head and shrugged. “Well, Ah was angling for a little tax rebate. Boy howdy, she may raise the sun but our Celestia stinks at pool.”
I felt my ear twitch. “You can't gamble with the Princess!” I exclaimed, stamping a forehoof.
“Oh come on, Twi,” she said, putting a hoof on my shoulder. “We play pool all the time. It ain't so different. Just relax and enjoy it, Celestia seems to be managing.”
“And I said oatmeal, are you crazy?” Pinkie’s voice and an accompanying polite titter from Princess Celestia drifted across the bar. I ignored them.
“Look, Applejack,” I pressed, pushing her hoof off of me. “You can’t fleece Celestia out of her money, you just can’t. It’s beneath her dignity.”
Applejack cocked an eyebrow for me. “Ah would have thought that’s something for her to decide. Besides, everypony loses a little money gambling in the bar now and again, it’s part of the experience.”
I bit back a retort that Princess Celestia wasn’t even supposed to be experiencing any of this. That perhaps I understood what the Princess should and shouldn’t be doing a little more than Applejack. That we were undermining a century of royal authority just by being here and probably traumatising the Princess of the Sun.
“Twilight, are you almost finished trying to talk Applejack out of losing?” Celestia enquired from just behind my shoulder. I leapt in surprise.
“P– Celestia. I didn’t... I mean,” I sputtered.
Applejack just laughed. “She’s trying your Highness, and Ah’ll be honest, if this is stressing out Twi so much, maybe we should just let it be.”
A disappointed frown crossed Princess Celestia’s face, but it vanished in a moment. “Oh, well that is probably for the best. As it turns out I don’t have a hundred bits on me.”
“Ack! Let’s not say that too loud now,” I cut in, visions of the Equestrian economy crumbling around our ears if it got out that Princess Celestia didn’t have pocket change. “How about we just accept Pony-Princess two-nil and head back to the castle?”
“I suppose,” Princess Celestia said, letting out a sigh.
I was unable to keep the relieved grin off of my face. At last, progress.
“Oh!” Princess Celestia’s face lit up as a thought occurred to her. “But I do have this.” She levitated the slim presence crown from her head and placed it on the bar. “I think this should more than cover a hundred bit bet, wouldn’t you say Applejack?”
My jaw dropped. The crown was a slim band of white gold with a plumb sized solar ruby set at the centre. It was not the formal crown of state but that hardly made a difference. My treacherous brain duly added up the numbers and estimated it to be worth more than forty thousand bits to the right collector. Applejack could have bought half of Sweet Apple Acres with that kind of money.
For a moment you could have heard a pin drop in the bar. Applejack broke the silence first with a long whistle.
“Phew~we, that’s Tartarus’ own offer there, Princess.”
“Oh my gosh!” Pinkie exclaimed, racing to the bar and stopping so suddenly her whole body shuddered. “It’s so pretty. Applejack, you’ve got to take this bet!”
“Now hold your horses Pinkie,” Applejack interjected, pushing Pinkie back a step and fixing the crown with a glare. “My granny always warned me about taking deals that look too good to be true.”
“And my granny always said, ‘Don’t look a pony giving you gifts in the mouth, Pinkie, because that’s just rude’. Also, she told me to ‘Carpe jugulum’!” She grabbed Applejack by the shoulders and dragged her forward until their faces were a mere centimeter apart. “You know what that means? Seize the day, Applejack! Seize the day!”
I declined to correct her ancient unicornian. The more I learned about granny Pie, the less I wanted to know.
Applejack pushed her off. “Okay, okay. Ah suppose Ah’ll do it. Apple Bloom has always wanted a tiara of her own, anyway.” She reached under her hat and withdrew a felt purse. Weighing it in one hoof for a moment, she tossed it onto the bar. “Right. Berry, if’n you’ll just keep an eye on these.”
Berry nodded enthusiastically and set her cudgel, Peacemaker, on the bar. She glared at all the other patrons with a wary intensity that would have put half the Royal Guard to shame.
“Come on,” Pinkie exclaimed, bounding over to the table. “Let’s do this.” She began to rack-up the balls with blinding speed. I intercepted Princess Celestia as she made her way towards the scene.
“P– Celestia,” I hissed, catching her foreleg with my own. A hint of panic had crept into my voice. “What are you doing?”
She smiled, gazing down at me. “Just having, as my sister would say, some ‘fun’.”
“Fun?” I echoed, my ear twitching again. “P– Celestia, you’re gambling with your crown. No, you’re going to lose your crown in a pool game. Don’t you see what’s wrong with this picture?”
“Relax, Twilight,” she said, her enigmatic smile widening. “It's just a crown.”
“But you don’t gamble,” I pressed, my grip tightening around her fetlock. “You’ve never done anything like this as long as I’ve known you.”
For just a moment, a shadow passed across Princess Celestia’s face. “Well, perhaps it’s time to change that. Relax Twilight, I know what I’m doing. I have to be lucky eventually after all.”
She stepped out of my grip and glided over to the table.
“That’s the gambler's fallacy,” I called after her. “Something that you taught me about!”
“Oh, don’t be a spoil sport bringing fancy math into this, Twi,” Applejack said, as she handed me a cue. “Now are you going to break, or do you want Team Pony to lead off?”
I glanced over my shoulder at Princess Celestia. She was paying no attention to us, however, too busy attempting to chalk up her cue. Judging by the alarming shade of blue the tip was going, she wasn’t going to stop until she had a full pound of dust on it.
Fighting down a shudder I turned back to Applejack. It was clear that Princess Celestia had gone insane and it was going to fall upon me, once again, to save Equestria. Reason and common sense had failed to win over the forces arrayed against me. So, to prevent a fatal loss of royal dignity that could undermine the very fabric of modern society, I was going to have to win a pool game despite Princess Celestia’s best efforts.
“I think Pinkie would enjoy breaking,” I said, a sly smile creeping across my face.
“Oh boy, would I!” Pinkie exclaimed. With far more enthusiasm than good sense, Pinkie reared back and in a single wild motion, slammed her cue into the white ball. The ball went sideways, ricocheted off a cushion, briefly caught air, and then slammed down onto the rack, scattering the balls across the table. Not a single one went down a pocket.
It was a fair start for Pinkie, at least this time she’d managed to keep all the balls on the table. Applejack pressed a hoof against her head and muttered under her breath.
Advantage to Team Princess it seemed.
I cast a quick eye across the table, estimating the best set of plays. The key was going to be keeping Applejack from achieving much while accepting Princess Celestia’s turns as a loss. My mentor was not a natural at the game, missing simple plays and going for wild long shots that succeeded far more due to luck than actual skill. As such, the logical solution would be to ensure I sabotaged Applejack’s shots, rather than push for a risky victory.
Picking the easier colour I swiftly sank two balls. My third shot was a little too optimistic and the nine ball bounced off of a cushion, the white spinning away into the middle of the table. I let out a groan as Applejack sauntered up to the table.
“Nice start Twi, gonna need more than that though.”
Applejack’s style of play was simple and honest, taking the easiest shot and setting herself up for the next with the minimum of fuss. With mechanical efficiency she potted three balls before finally coming up short on a tricky slice. Shaking her head, she stepped away from the table as Princess Celestia stepped forwards.
“Hmm, sorry, what colour where we going for again Twilight?” Celestia inquired, frowning at the table.
I managed to keep the horror from my face, even as Pinkie Pie broke out into giggles. “Stripes, P– Celestia,” I said. “Just the stripes.”
She smiled. “Ah, that’s right. Forgive an old mare for her absent mindedness.” She blew on the tip of her cue and took a wild shot at a distant ball. The white missed, bouncing off two cushions before somehow finding its way to strike the eleven ball. Miraculously, it dropped into a side pocket with a thunk.
Princess Celestia let out a delighted laugh. “Ah ha, there’s my beginners luck back,” she said, beaming.
Beside me, Applejack dropped her hat over her face to hide her smirk. “Reckon you’re not the only pony in town to have a crown in a few minutes,” she muttered to me, pitched low enough that Princess Celestia couldn’t hear.
Before I could answer there was an awful ‘twang’ from the table as Princess Celestia miscued and the white ball spiralled into a pocket. I groaned as Princess Celestia stepped back, frowning at her cue.
“Not enough chalk I guess,” she said, sighing. She glanced down at me and frowned. “Twilight, you shouldn’t worry so much, it’s only a game.”
“Only a game?” I echoed, a hysterical lilt creeping into my voice. “Princess. You could lose your crown!”
She laughed, even as Pinkie potted a ball. “I have a lot of crowns, Twilight. Relax. I know what I’m doing.”
The evidence suggested otherwise. Before I could verbalise that, however, there was a sudden crack and I had to catch the white ball as it leapt off of the table and towards my nose.
“Sorry Twilight!” Pinkie called, bounding around the table. “That last one was just a little bit tricky.”
I rolled my eyes and stormed up to the table. Team Princess was one down, a bad start but not impossible to overcome, and I slammed the ball onto the table. I couldn’t allow Princess Celestia to lose her crown, I just couldn’t. Perhaps nopony else cared about royal dignity but I would fight to the last to defend it.
My first shot was far too aggressive and, though the ball slammed into the pocket, the white went spinning halfway across the table. With a rattle of faux ivory it scattered the rest of the balls, setting me up for a incredibly tricky shot right up against the cushions. For a moment I considered whether time travel would be an appropriate response. Alas, ponies frowned upon that kind of magic in pool games, as well as teleportation, accuracy charms and telekinesis. The low hanging lamp was even charmed to prevent such cheating, though, it was a cheap charm and easy enough to circumvent.
I shook myself, trying to banish that train of thought. Even if nopony noticed, I would. Instead I took a deep breath and took the longshot, which missed utterly. Hanging my head I stepped back from the table.
Applejack sauntered up, eyeing the remaining four balls with a slight frown, and then smiled as she spotted an easy shot. With the metronomic regularity of apple bucking, three solid thunks rang out as she sank ball after ball, leaving her with just the eight remaining. My heart leapt to my throat as she took that final shot, but with four stripes to work around it wasn’t a simple one. Applejack rattled the two ball off the edges of the corner pocket and the faint hope for saving Celestia’s crown remained alive for another round.
“Twilight,” Celestia whispered, leaning down to put her head by my ear. “Breathe. It’ll be fine.” She wore a serene smile as she took up position by the table.
I took a shaky breath. We were doomed. Royalty in Equestria would be dead within three minutes and it would all be my fault. I put my wing over my eyes, unable to watch Princess Celestia’s crown slip away.
Hesitantly I peeked over my feathers. Princess Celestia was smirking, even as Applejack scowled at the table.
“Lucky shot,” Applejack muttered.
“Perhaps, though perhaps my luck is here to stay,” Princess Celestia replied. She glided around the table, lining up a tricky long shot on the thirteen. Putting a measure of spin onto the white ball, the Princess made it dance, sending the white sliding around the two and with another ‘crack—ka’thunk’ the thirteen vanished into the pocket. As if summoned, the white came to rest before Princess Celestia, whose grin had become decidedly smug.
“Of course, as I’ve always said one should make one’s own luck.”
She made her next shot without hesitation, sending the white gliding across the table. With a pair of rapid-fire cracks it struck the final two striped balls, which disappeared down the side-pockets leaving only the eight ball still to pot. Princess Celestia paused a moment to admire Applejack’s dropped jaw, before sighting down the length of her cue.
“Eight ball, in this pocket,” she said, pointing at the corner pocket the furthest from the ball.
Another crack echoed through the silent bar. The white ball sailed across the table striking the eight perfectly and, after a single bounce of the far cushion, it dropped into the named pocked with a satisfying clunk.
“And that’s the game,” Princess Celestia said, leaning her cue against her shoulder. “Care to make it double or nothing?”
Applejack shook herself, unable to tear her eyes from the table. “Holy hay,” she exclaimed. “Did Ah just get hustled by a princess?”
The world seemed to shift beneath my hooves. My throat was suddenly dry as the desert and my ears pressed flat against my head.
“By the Princess of Pool, specifically.” Princess Celestia smirked, it was an alien expression and only served to swell my rising panic. “Or at least that was what they called me back in eight-eighty two.”
“Well shut my mouth.” Applejack tipped her hat in respect. “Who’d have thought our Princess is a regular old pool shark.”
I opened my mouth to leap to the Princess’ defence but was cut off by a delicate laugh.
“Oh you flatter me,” Celestia said, waving off the insult as if it were nothing. Her horn flared and her crown and and Applejack’s bag of bits floated over from the bar. “I’m sure there’s Manhattanites who’d beat me with one hoof tied behind their backs. Still, it’s nice to know I’ve still got the knack. I don’t think I’ve had the chance to pick up a cue since I won the land grant for Ponyville off of the Duke of Trottingham back in your great-grandparents time. He fell for a similar trick.”
“You what!” I exclaimed, vanishing in a flash of light and reappearing before the Princess. I grabbed her by the shoulders, as if trying to assure myself that it was really her in front of me. “You, you, tricked a stallion out of Ponyville? How?”
Princess Celestia smiled. “The usual way. Offer the world in exchange for a sure thing and a pony will bet their own mother, and I did offer the good Duke Canterlot in exchange.”
My eyes shrank down to pinpricks and I staggered backwards, the world vanishing in a haze of grey as I began to hyperventilate. This couldn’t be happening. Princess Celestia never gambled. She never lied. She never drank.
“Twilight? Whatever is the matter?”
I looked up at Princess Celestia, saw the confusion and hurt writ across her face, and had to get out.
My magic flared and, in a shower of pink sparks I was outside, staring at Berry’s door. I stood frozen for a moment, my breath coming in ragged gasps, before I whirled and began to gallop away from the pub.
Princess Celestia’s arrival was blinding, magic rolling off her radiant form in waves as she teleported into the street before me.
“Twilight!” she boomed, casting around. “Wait.”
I dropped to the floor, covering my eyes with my forehooves and wings as memories of the ‘Smartypants Incident’ came rushing back. “I’m sorry, Princess!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’m sorry I...” I choked, trying to fight back tears.
The words tumbling from my mouth stilled.
“Twilight,” she interjected in little more than a whisper. “Please, tell me what is wrong.”
I pulled my wings back. “I... I failed your test.” Seeing the Princess’ confusion I swallowed the lump in my throat and continued in a rush. “Because it had to be a test. You don’t do that–” I waved a hoof in the direction of Berry’s. “–you don’t do any of that!”
Princess Celestia let out a deep sigh that made my heart shrivel. “Oh Twilight, I’m so sorry. Please, stand up.” Her magic wreathed me, a comforting warmth that tickled my belly as she lifted me back onto my hooves. “You haven’t failed anything. There was no test.”
“W-w-what?” I blinked owlishly, struggling to believe my ears. “No test? I don’t understand.”
“Twilight.” Princess Celestia hung her head, the etherial winds that payed around her mane falling still. “Dear Twilight, is it so hard to believe that I just wanted to play a game of pool?”
I stared. “Yes! Yes it is. The game, the drinking, even the feather, they’re not you. They’re something the Princess Celestia I know would never do.”
A bitter chuckle escaped the Princess. “Never is a very, very long time Twilight. And I am a very, very old mare. There are few things that I have never been.”
She let out a deep breath and shook her head, her wings sagging at her sides. I’ve seen many terrible things in my time, but never before had I seen a pony seem so crushed by the weight of the world as Celestia did in that moment. And she was Celestia then, not the perfect Princess and mentor of my youth, just another pony.
I wondered how long it had been since a pony had ever seen her as more than the Crown. Equestria’s living idol. A porcelain doll. Perfect, unmarred by the world and to be protected from all its ills.
“Princess, I–” I began, immediately saying the wrong word.
“No Twilight,” she interrupted, straightening. As sudden as the moment of vulnerability had come it was gone again, vanished behind a wall of dignity. “If you’ll forgive me, I think that the alcohol has rather gone to my head. I should be going before Equestria ends up with the sun rising in the south again.”
“But, Celestia–” I stammered, leaping forwards before it was too late.
“It has been a pleasure, Twilight.” she said, with her standard warm smile. She held up a hoof to forestall me and I skidded to a stop. “We must do this again.”
Before I could say another word Celestia spread her wings and leapt into the sky. In a blaze of sunlight and magic she vanished into the night leaving me alone in the darkened street.
“–I... I’m sorry,” I finished lamely. Groaning I pressed my hoof to my head. “Urgh, stupid, stupid Twilight.” I punctuated each word with a harsh rap.
“Hey Twi, what’s going on out here?” Applejack’s drawl cut through the still air and jolted me out of my bout of self recrimination. She ambled over, Pinkie in tow. “What happened to Celestia? Last I saw she was chasing after you after you lit outta Berry’s faster than Opal in room full of rocking chairs.”
“She’s gone, Applejack,” I said with a deep sigh, tearing stinging my eyes. “Back to Canterlot I suppose.”
“Aww,” Pinkie added, bounding over. “I wanted to see if she knew any trick shots.” She paused next to me, cocking her head. “Twilight, what’s wrong?”
“I messed up.” I hung my head, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I think I really hurt her feelings this time. She must be so disappointed in me.”
Applejack put a solid hoof on my shoulder. “Twi, that mare has known you since you were knee high. Ah don’t think there’s a thing in the world you could say to the Princess that she wouldn’t forgive.”
I let out a bitter laugh. “She always does. I’m not sure it’s Princess Celestia I hurt, though.”
Pinkie and Applejack shared a knowing smile. “Well, sugarcube, it may not be mah lucky day, but it is yours. Ah know just how you can fix this.”
Celestia landed on her balcony with the grace of long practice, folding her wings at her sides. A deep sigh escaped her as she trod the familiar path across her darkened office and towards her private chambers. There would be no late night paperwork or midnight snack for once, lethargy dogged her step and she wanted nothing more than to drag herself into bed.
“You are back early, sister,” Luna observed.
“Eek!” Celestia shied back, with an unprincessly shriek.
Luna kindled her horn, banishing the pool of shadow that had wreathed her and the desk. She cocked a brow at her sister, sipping from a deep cup of coffee.
“Oh, Luna, you startled me.” Celestia let out a deep breath. “Were you reading in the dark again? I’ve told you before, it will ruin your eyes.”
“I am the Princess of the Night, sister,” Luna replied, fixing her with a flat look. “We doubt a little darkness will trouble us.” She glanced up at the clock. “You are back early, I was under the impression that you intended to carouse until dawn.”
Celestia covered her eyes with a fetlock. “Not ‘carousing’, sister. It was just drinks with Twilight and her friends, and a game or two of pool. ”
“Oh.” Luna cast an eye over her sister. “You do not appear to have been swimming.”
“Swimming...” Celestia shook herself. “Luna, you did read that book I recommended you, ‘Funnelcakes’ Fun Fundamentals’?”
“I skimmed it. It was a remarkably dry read.”
Celestia sighed, rolling her eyes. “Look up ‘pool’ sometime. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to bed. It has been a very long day, I’m afraid.”
“Oh? Perhaps you would prefer to receive your mail before you do.” Luna lifted a scroll in her magic and waved it at Celestia. “I think you might be pleasantly surprised.”
“If it's about the flightpath for Cloudsdale again I–”
“Actually it came from Sir Spike,” Luna interjected. “Though, I don’t believe he realises I receive these scrolls in the moonlit hours.”
Celestia frowned. “I’m afraid I’ve laid too much at my faithful student's hooves tonight as it is. I’ll read it it the morning.”
Luna glared at her, a look Celestia bore with quiet serenity.
“Oh, pull the stick out of your plot and just read it already,” Luna snapped at last, tossing the scroll at her sister.
It bounced off Celestia’s head before she caught it in a shower of magic. Sticking her tongue out at her sister she unfurled the scroll.
Are you free the same time next week for the rematch?
Her smile lit up the room.