He hated to see her cry.
He wished Frost Flower were there, for she always knew what to do. He wished she were there all the time.
“Have I told you about Frost Flower?” North asked, poking at the campfire with a stick.
She looked up, eyes sparkling with tears. “Your wife? No, you haven’t.”
“I met her a few days after I’d first left Equestria. We were both going to Lake Iridescence by boat, and she was my cabin mate.” He paused, and he ached for his wife. “Never seen a creature like her before! A pony with black and white stripes. I thought she was beautiful. Then she punched me right in the nose for staring too long.”
“She punched you? Dear stars,” she said with a laugh. “Better than a bookcase, at the very least.”
He laughed with gusto. “‘Wajinga! Stupid!’ she said. ‘You must be from Equestria’,” he continued and felt his eyes stain with tears. “I had a black eye for the rest of the trip, but I knew right there that she would be my first adventure.”
In her short time back in Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle knew two great pains.
The first was the pain of the past, of having to come to terms with the death of her family, of the disappearance of a life she once led. The second was a pain that rippled through her body, burned her cheeks, so agonizing it made her wish she was a ghost again. The worst of it was that it had been brought about by a very simple thing.
Stumbling upon her essays from ages past and being horrified to find they were bad.
Cadance had sent Twilight to her chambers to calm down and relax. It was just as she’d remembered it when she saw it through Rarity’s eyes during the mental connection. And yet, as much as she wanted to relax and gather her thoughts, there she sat on the bed with scrolls in her hooves, unable to tear her eyes away from these… these… attempts at writing.
It was horrific, embarrassing, and even lethal to realize all her mistakes! Prepositions were not words to end sentences with! Comparisons were as bad as cliches, which, incidentally, had to be avoided like the equine plague. She had been incredibly vague, instead of attempting to be more or less specific, too.
And to make things worse, her assertions… Ugh! One should never generalize!
With a groan, she pushed the scroll away and looked at anything but her desk. Thank goodness she was never able to finish that shameful excuse for a dissertation on Magic Thermodynamics. Once she was able to stand reading it again, she’d redline it, do a major rewrite, have Rarity edit it, and then she could publish it.
Her eyes roamed the room, analyzing the papers stuck to the walls—diagrams of the Elements of Harmony, back when she mistakenly believed they were aligned with the Princesses strengths. Just like with the essay, only in retrospect did she see and understand the mistakes she should have foreseen.
If only she could go back in time and prevent her younger—and shockingly less eloquent—self from making so many bad choices.
She looked away from the posters and back to the essay.
But, if I go back and change the past, how will I meet Rarity? she thought, her tail thwapping against the floor. Unless I take her back to the past with me? Hm.
Three knocks at the door interrupted her machinations on how to convince Rarity to go back with her in time, and with the perking up of her ears, she turned towards the door.
“P-Princess Twilight?” an unfamiliar mare’s voice called from behind the oak doors. “Are you there?”
“Y-Yes?” she called out in reply, hastily rolling and hiding the scroll away lest anypony came in asking to read it.
“Princess, Queen Cada—”
“Hyacinth!” a second feminine voice snapped.
“Aster, it’s fine,” a third male voice replied, which Twilight vaguely recognized.
Twilight’s brow crinkled. Queen Cadance?
“Princess Twilight,” the first voice called, louder and drowning out the discussion of the other two, “Princess Cadance requests your presence at the gardens, Yo-Your Highness!”
“Um, coming!” she replied, trotting towards the door and opening it to find three armed guards: a white pegasus who squeaked and quickly saluted her; a brown earth pony who saluted in a much more dignified manner; and, finally, Rift Shield himself, who grinned widely at Twilight.
“Princess Twilight! ” he said, bowing his head. He gestured to the guards. “I’d like you to meet Hyacinth and Aster.” A bright grin decorated his face, and Twilight felt some amount of relief at seeing it. She did know of the changeling’s feelings for Rarity, and she was glad it didn’t seem to be a concern. “Did you sleep well?”
“Er, yes,” Twilight replied, trying to keep her eyes on Rift but involuntarily shifting them towards the pegasus doing a disastrous job at not trembling like a leaf. “Is everything all right?” she asked her.
“Of course Princess Twilight!” The mare—Hyacinth—immediately jumped to salute her again. “It is an honor to serve you and the Equestrian royal family, as it has been for our village for generations since the founding of Heart’s Haven, and hope that you will please let us continue for generations more, please,” she said in a rush, and only after Twilight blinked at her did she clear her throat and smile nervously. “Yo-Your Highness.”
Aster rubbed a weary hoof against her forehead. “Oh, for the love of the Princess.”
Twilight was concerned, to say the least. “Why wouldn’t I…?” she asked Hyacinth, and the guard somehow seemed to shrink in size—which, considering she was all but indicating her true species, might have been a shrinking on the more literal side.
“I… Well, I…”
Rift cleared his throat, and the two guards resumed stoic positions.
“Princess Twilight, why don’t we discuss this later?” he suggested, subtly inviting Twilight to step outside. “I have strict orders from Princess Cadance and Rarity and a very excited Pinkie Pie to get you down there immediately.”
Rarity and Cadance she’d seen already, but Pinkie was the sole pony who’d yet to make an appearance since Ponyville.
She closed the door behind her and followed Rift into the hallway, Hyacinth and Aster following behind, the former looking visibly relieved. Twilight had many questions, starting from why was Hyacinth afraid of her.
“You two are changelings, aren’t you?” she asked, receiving in reply two vastly different reactions. A single calm nod from Aster, and Hyacinth nodding so effusively, Twilight was reasonably convinced the changeling would give herself a headache if she didn’t tear her neck off first.
“Aster and Hyacinth are two of fifteen changeling guards living in the castle, Princess,” Rift explained, opening the hall door and allowing Twilight passage.
“Do… Do the rest of the pony guards know?” she asked.
“No,” Rift replied, now leading Twilight down the once familiar hallway. Ornate frames hung on the walls, paintings she recognized from her foalhood. “Only Captain Silent Breeze.”
“Is that why you’re in disguise as ponies?”
Rift shook his head. “No, we—”
A flash of light and Twilight blinked at the newly transformed Hyacinth, her pony disguise shed in favor of her natural insect-like demeanor as she bowed her body repeatedly, eyes slammed shut.
“Pl-Please forgive us, Your Highness!” she blurted out, and Aster slapped a hoof against her forehead in reply.
“Forgive you?” Twilight asked, completely lost at what they’d even done, and yet somehow succeeding in agitating the changeling further.
“You won’t forgive us?!” Hyacinth exclaimed, tears welling in her eyes as she stepped back, staring beseechingly at Rift Shield. “B-But we—!”
“Aster.” Rift’s voice cut through Hyacinth’s stammering, his tone commanding yet not harsh. When Aster saluted, he smiled at Twilight. “Princess, Aster will escort you the rest of the way to the gardens.” Ignored the pained whimper from Hyacinth, he turned to the other guard. “Aster, tell Princess Cadance…” he drifted off, but Aster nodded regardless.
“Yes, Lieutenant!” she exclaimed. “Princess, please follow me!”
Twilight did not budge, distressed at the other’s distress. “But…”
“Princess, don’t worry,” Rift reassured, a grin again decorating his face as he stood next to the forlorn Hyacinth. “We’ll both be down soon.”
Though unconvinced, Twilight didn’t argue further, turning around and following Aster down the castle’s halls. It was an awkward and silent walk. The guard marched in clockwork rhythm while the princess debated the pros and cons of asking what had all of that been about.
I’ll ask Rarity, she thought finally, trying not to focus too much on it.
Instead, she shifted her attention to the changeling and bombarded her with questions, including but not limited to: when were the new portraits painted? Who was the artist? They were going to turn right at the next corner and then left, weren’t they? Had Aster noticed Twilight remembered the path to an almost eighty-seven percent accuracy so far? How long had Aster been working in the castle? Three years? How often was the turnaround for changelings? How old was Aster? Was that an impolite question? It probably was, but how old was she, anyway? Should Twilight add a thousand years to her current age? Technically speaking, her body didn’t actually age since it was time-displaced, but should she?
“I-I don’t know, Your Highness,” Aster helplessly replied, unable to keep up with Twilight’s racing mind and mouth. She opened the doors leading into the castle’s foyer and her expression somehow turned more distressed than when being questioned by Twilight.
Twilight followed her gaze, and she too was overcome with confusion at the beautifully disconcerting sight of two Raritys animatedly conversing by the castle’s front door, several saddlebags beside them. Twilight blinked, for a fraction of a second wondering if perhaps she’d somehow fallen asleep and was actually dreaming.
Or, so she wondered until the voice of the guard next to her reminded Twilight of the only possible way this could be happening.
“Er.” Aster cleared her throat. “Let me escort you to the gardens, Your Highne—Yo-Your Highness! Come back, please!”
Aster’s desperate plea went unanswered by the alicorn, who was far more interested in talking with duplicates of her marefriend, whom she dubbed Rarity-X and Rarity-Y to avoid any bias.
She carefully trotted towards them, noticing that both of them wore identical broken necklaces, making it harder to distinguish who was the genuine article—if one of them actually was the genuine article.
This would be a fun experiment.
“Oh, come now, darling, you must admit it’s a very interesting proposition!” Rarity-X said with a captivating smile. “We would have twice as many clients! It will be our most avant-garde idea yet!”
Rarity-Y raised her eyebrow. “Darling, you keep using that expression, but I’m not certain it means what you seem to think it means.”
Rarity-X rolled her eyes. “Hardy har har. Did you even see my designs? We’re so ahead of our time, we might as well have a time machine!” she insisted. “Trust me, darling.”
“Oh, I agree entirely,” Rarity-Y said, smirking. “A time machine to take the designs straight back to the Stone Age, you mean?”
Rarity-X scoffed. “Well, then! Everything I’ve done for you, darling, and this is the thanks I receive?! Unbeliev—”
The fact that they were both surprised to see her made it difficult to determine who was the real one.
“Well, well, well,” Rarity-Y purred, tilting her head and smiling. “If it isn’t Princess Twilight Sparkle herself, come to grace us mortals with her beauty.”
Twilight giggled, having found her marefriend. That was fast.
“Incantation!” Rarity-X gasped, stamping her hoof on the ground. “Will you stop flirting with my marefriend?! This is entirely inappropriate! You’ve just met her, for goodness’ sake! Honestly, darling, you know how important this was to me.”
Rarity-Y’s eyes widened. “Wha—? Me?!”
Twilight’s giggling stopped. Wait.
“Twilight,” Rarity-X said, turning to Twilight with a pained expression. “Darling, this funny little mare is Incantation, the assistant Pinkie and I hired back at our shop in Hollow Shades. She is a changeling, as I’m sure you’ve already ascertained.”
Twilight smiled insolently. “I think I have, yes.”
Rarity-Y blinked, her expression going from annoyance to curiosity. “Oh? I’m the changeling? I see. Well then, I shall find comfort in the fact that I have extraordinary taste in my choice of disguise.” She glanced at Twilight and winked. “Don’t you agree, sweetheart? Two of me? Doesn’t that rather sound like a wonderful dream?”
“Rarity!” Twilight gasped, cheeks flushed.
“Why, darling!” Rarity-X said, licking her lips and staring Twilight down. “I’d say it’s quite rude to reveal somepony’s nighttime imaginings like that, but I’m must admit I’m flattered by the idea.”
“I do not dream about that!” Twilight protested, which wasn’t untrue, mostly because she hadn’t even thought of it before, but now she had and— “I barely even sleep! And I couldn’t sleep for most of the time I’ve known you!”
Rarity-Y fluttered her eyelashes. “It’s hard to sleep when the thought of me keeps you awake, isn’t it?”
“Okay, okay!” Twilight pleaded, deciding on ending this spectacle before it got worse. She pointed to Rarity-X. “You’re the changeling!” And she then pointed to Rarity-Y. “And you’re Rarity!”
Rarity, previously identified as Rarity-Y, laughed victoriously, flipping her mane and shooting the other one a smug grin. “Well, well, well! And you insisted she wouldn’t recognize me! I don’t want to say “I told you so”, but I shall do it regardless! I told you so.”
Incantation, previously identified as Rarity-X, let out a resigned sigh. “Aw… I thought I was doing really well, though,” she said in a voice that was not at all like Rarity’s.
“It was a valiant effort, Ink,” Rarity said, offering Twilight the very odd sight of Rarity patting her doppelganger’s cheeks. “But one can’t hope to ever truly imitate perfection.”
“Pfffft, sure, Boss,” said Incantation, grinning at Rarity before turning to Twilight with an expectant stare. “So! What was it? What gave me away?”
“You said ‘darling’ six times,” Twilight replied.
Rarity blinked. “She did?”
“She used the term of endearment ‘darling’ six times in about two minutes of conversation, which conflicts with your usual diction and habit to call others dearest, sweetheart, and their names alongside ‘darling’,” Twilight elaborated, and so did Incantation’s cheeks taint pink. “Not only that, but she marked her real self as your hired aid. In your earlier conversation, she was trying to sell you on a design idea, which is something an employee would do to an employer, not the other way around.”
Ink stared with owlish eyes. “She’s good, huh?”
“Yes, she is,” Rarity replied with pride, lifting her hoof and brushing back Twilight’s bangs. “And she is also late to our get-together. Be a darling, and go tell the others please, won’t you, Ink?”
Incantation nodded, shifting back into her natural form right in front of Twilight’s very eyes. A cheery changeling grinned back at her, her carapace tinted purple. A large blue bandana was tied around her neck, the initials LD elegantly embroidered on it in a recurring pattern.
“It was nice finally meeting you, Princess Twilight,” Ink said, lifting her forehoof and shaking Twilight’s. “I’d say I’m excited to get to know you, but I’m pretty sure I learned everything about you that one night the Boss had too much to drink.”
Incantation burst out into a fit of giggles, grabbing her bags and rushing off. “See you later!”
“I’m firing you tomorrow!” Rarity thundered, her cheeks still burning brightly.
“You always say that!”
“I mean it this time!”
Once she was gone, Rarity rolled her eyes and turned to Twilight, whose raised eyebrow seemed to only fluster the unicorn more.
“Don’t you dare ask,” she warned, mellowing out at Twilight’s amused smile. “Well, that could have gone in worse ways, I suppose.” Her eyes grew tender. “How are you feeling?”
“What do you mean?”
Rarity’s brow furrowed. “Your meeting with Cadance…?” She seemed to be nervous about bringing it up, licking her lips as if choosing her words carefully. “She and Spike told me a bit about it, but…”
For a moment, Twilight’s heart shrank, and she could feel tears on the edge of spilling out. Is that how it was going to be from now? A single thought would bring back the pain?
“I’m fine,” she said, really wanting to avoid the topic, but at Rarity’s knowing stare, she amended her statement. “I’ll be fine. I think. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it right now. I’m just glad it’s over.”
Rarity played with her necklace. “I… Are you sure?” She looked down, apologetic. “I… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I thought you needed time alone with them, but—”
“I did,” Twilight cut-off, wanting to prevent any more worrying on Rarity’s part if she was able to. She then leaned in to nuzzle her. “But…”
Despite the pain, Twilight held her ground.
“Can you come with me when I…” She swallowed and took a breath. “Can you come with me when I visit them tomorrow?”
Rarity blinked. “Visit them…? Them where..” The meaning caught up with her and her expression fell. “Oh… Darling, I would be honored.” She lifted her hoof and pressed it against Twilight’s necklace, putting on a smile. “Let’s hope they approve of me, hm?”
Twilight couldn’t help but smile, leaning in slightly. “I don’t know,” she said. “Shining Armor is… Shining Armor is very protective.”
Rarity leaned in closer. “Oooooh? Well, Cadance has approved of me already, so I’m sure he does as w—”
“Come on, you guys!”
Twilight turned around to see Pinkie’s head peeking out from the hallway, waving what looked like an old rag.
“Everypony’s waiting for the party to start!”
The entire castle, as Twilight would later find out, had been closed not because she was coming—well, technically, it was because she was coming—but more so that somepony very important could attend.
“Pinkie, is the blindfold truly necessary?” Rarity’s voice came from somewhere around the left, her forehoof pressed on Twilight’s back as the alicorn cautiously moved further into…wherever she was going? The Gardens?
“Rarity,” Pinkie’s grave voice came from somewhere around the right. “Did you just ask if the blindfold was necessary?”
“I was simply making sure!”
“Geeeeeeeez, Rares. I can’t believe you asked that.”
“No kidding, boss.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake! You know what? I’m never asking a question again!”
“Are we there yet?” Twilight asked, finding the darkness wasn’t all that inviting. Paving stones had disappeared under her hooves, replaced with what she hoped was grass. It felt like it, at least, but it was still such a foreign sensation.
“Come on, let her look already!” an altogether new voice piped up, and Twilight’s trepidation was replaced with relief at the sound of Spike’s voice.
Despite Pinkie’s ardent protests, Twilight finally took her blindfold off, and a great smile spread across her lips at the sight before her. A wide array of tables had been set out in the castle garden, each hosting dozens of different kinds of extraordinarily-smelling delicacies.
Following that, she saw a whole cast of characters already enjoying the festivity: Fluttershy stood by the banquet, helplessly trying to stop three little owlets from pecking away at the food while Applejack helped their poor exhausted owl-parents stay awake in broad daylight; Rainbow flew towards Spike, scolding him for having devoured half of the gem hoard set out on a table for him; Rift Shield barked orders at guards, who saluted and marched into the castle; Pinkie and Incantation straightened out the banner that had been set out, “WELCOME HOME, TWILIGHT AND SPIKE” written on it in uneven pink letters; and, finally, Rarity…
Rarity stood next to Twilight, as she always had, yet her eyes twinkling with tears.
Twilight nuzzled her slightly, a quick verification that all was well. “Rarity? Is everything all right?”
“O-Oh, yes, of course,” she said quickly, rubbing her tears away with a hoof. “I’m simply, you know, overwhelmed by how delicious the food smells.”
“Riiiight,” Twilight said, returning Rarity’s grin before stepping toward the food which, to be fair, did smell like nothing she’d whiffed in over a thousand years.
Before she could even properly appreciate what there was, Pinkie Pie jumped up from behind the table.
“Hi, Princess Twilight! Ready to eat?!”
Twilight nodded eagerly.
“Weeeeeeeell!” Pinkie rubbed her hooves together. “Let me tell you what we got!” She pointed to the furthest left side of the table, where all kinds of pastries were littered. “On that side, we have vanilla, lavender, and raspberry cupcakes; there’s also almond-chocolate cake, and—”
“Pinkie, should you really start with the desserts?” Rarity interrupted, and when the pink mare did nothing but stare at her, she coughed and stepped back. “What was I thinking.”
Pinkie turned back to Twilight, as though she’d never been interrupted.
“And triple-milk vanilla cake, and apple pie, and fruits soaked with honey and frosting, and the Super-Ultra-Pinkie-Stomach-Flipping-Surprise, aaaaaaand!” She turned to the right side of the table, where Twilight could see vegetables cooked in all sort of different ways. “And that’s the no-fun side.”
Thankfully, the decision of what to eat first wouldn’t be hard considering Twilight’s stomach was whining for a taste of everything.
“Twilight,” Rarity warned. “Do I need to remind you the stomachache you had a few days ago?”
Twilight licked her lips. “I’ll be fine Rarity,” she said, taking in her magic a french fry that dripped with butter. “I’ll be fine.”
An alarmingly short time and overgrown belly later, she desperately wished she’d followed Rarity’s warning.
“Don’t say it,” Twilight warned, chin pressed on the table as Rarity sat next to her.
“Can I think it?” Rarity asked.
“No, you can’t think it, either.”
Rarity sighed. “There’s a lesson to be learned here, you know?” she said, watching as Twilight levitated a steaming plate of apple pie right in front of her nose. “Clearly, you haven’t learned it.”
“Seconds, Princess?” Applejack asked with a grin, putting a second plate of pie down on the table.
“I think you mean sevenths,” Rarity noted.
“Technically, it would be my twelfth plate,” Twilight corrected, her stomach growling both in gluttony and horror at the deliciously-smelling pies.
Rarity opened her mouth to reply, but stopped and stared ahead. When Twilight followed her gaze, she saw three changeling guards standing on the opposite side of the table, their intense stares set directly on her.
Before she could speak, they did.
“Princess Twilight!” they all but yelled in unison, their forehooves flying to their foreheads in salute. “It is an honor to serve you and the Equestrian royal family, as it has been for our village for generations since the founding of Heart’s Haven, and we hope that you will please let us continue for generations more!”
Just like with the earlier changeling, Twilight asked, “Why wouldn’t I?”
The three guards froze in place, but more than stumped by the question, they looked at each other nervously and seemed afraid of answering. A dark thought crossed Twilight’s mind. What had the changelings been told about her that would make them be so afraid of her?
And again, like it did and would no doubt always do, the three haunting words returned.
It’s my fault.
Yet, as soon as they came, these nightmares as Rarity called them, so did Rarity’s voice soothe them away.
“Twilight?” she asked, turning to the alicorn with a meaningful gaze. “Didn’t you say you wanted to fetch one of the books from your room?”
The reaction was instantaneous, though it was not Twilight who reacted.
“A book?!” one of the guards blurted out.
“Which one?!” the second asked.
“We can get it for you, Your Highness!”
Rarity continued, narrowing her eyes. “Oh, I don’t remember… You said any book on magic thermodynamics would do, didn’t you?”
Though Twilight didn’t understand what Rarity was trying to achieve, she still tentatively played along with her marefriend’s game. “Yes…?” she said, and no sooner had she finished, the guards rushed off, blurting out promises of returning with the book immediately, at once, in a moment, Your Highness.
“Hoo-wee,” Applejack said, looking towards the distant door they’d disappeared behind. “Rift Shield ain’t a liar.”
Twilight finally sat up, her stomachache replaced with an altogether discomfort in her chest. “What’s wrong with them? Why are they all afraid of me?”
Rarity’s eyes were fixed on her. “There have been others?” she asked, and Twilight noted she hardly looked surprised. It was more as though she were simply confirming an existing suspicion.
“Yes,” she replied. “Earlier with Lieutenant Shield… There was another guard, and she said the same thing they did, and the entire time she kept looking at me like…” She faltered, the words unwilling to come out. “Was it something I did?”
Rarity replied, “Yes and no.”
“Yes and no,” Twilight repeated. “That explains everything.”
Applejack grinned. “You ain’t done nothing bad, Princess. They just reckon’ you’re going to give them a pink slip right out of Equestria.”
The longest silence followed as she regarded Applejack with blinking eyes.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, but if you think about it a lil’ bit, you’ll see it makes sense for them to be thinkin’ that.”
Again, Twilight stared at her for the longest time.
“You ain’t got no earthly idea what giving somepony the pink slip means, do you?”
“Darling,” Rarity said, “the changelings are under the impression that now that you are free and about, their previously Princess-endorsed protected residence in the land now has an expiration date.”
And now that Twilight understood.
“What? They think I’m going to exile them?! Why would I do that?!” she demanded, finding herself hurt and confused by the mere thought that she would do something of the sort. Now more than ever, it seared her to see that she apparently did go down as an awful pony in certain places.
“It’s rather simple. The fact that you’re here opens up the possibility that Princess Cadance might get back her body’s physicality, so to speak, and if she does, then…” Rarity tilted her head to the side. “There’s no need for changelings to impersonate her, is there?”
Twilight faltered, looking down at her food and pushing the plates away. “I guess…”
“Not hungry anymore, Princess?” Applejack asked, and after Twilight shook her head, so did Applejack scoop up the pies into a single plate and take it away. “I’d been savin’ it for you, but if you ain’t hungry, might as well let Rainbow stuff herself.”
She watched in silence as Applejack trotted off towards Rainbow and Spike, letting out a rather audible sigh before turning back to Rarity and finding the unicorn fixing her an intense stare.
“Are you very upset, darling?”
Twilight snorted. “No. I’ve always wanted an entire race to be afraid of me.”
“Twilight, they’re not afraid of you. They…” She gestured with her hoof. “You have to understand them. You’ve been gone for a thousand years, and weren’t the changelings from those days half-responsible for the First Chaos War?”
“Yes, and? That’s even less reason to be afraid of me,” Twilight huffed. “Why do they think I’m going to hold against them something that happened a thousand years ago?”
“I don’t know, Twilight,” Rarity replied, levitating a cup of punch over. “Why do you expect everypony to hold something that happened a thousand years ago against you?”
When Twilight had no answer for that, Rarity simply fluttered her eyelashes and took a sip of her drink.
“Th-That’s different!” Twilight insisted. “I was actually responsible for what I did. They aren’t. They’re not the changelings from a thousand years ago.”
“Twilight, that doesn’t matter. The guilt isn’t… Actually, you know what?” She looked around and stopped at the distant sight of Fluttershy and Spike talking to two Rainbow Dashes. “Incantation!” she called out, and when one of the Rainbows turned to her, she flagged her over. “Incantation, would you come here for a moment?”
Incantation trotted over, her appearance changing from Rainbow Dash to, once again, the spitting image of Rarity herself.
Rarity sighed. “Here we go again.”
“What’choo be needin’ from me, Bossy-O?” she said in a near-perfect imitation of Rarity’s voice, the accent only cracking at Twilight’s badly muffled snort. “I gots everythin’ you be needin’ ‘n more.”
“You’re not even trying,” Rarity said in deadpan.
“What’choo be needin’ from me, Bossy-O Darling?”
“I be needin’ you stop this immediately.”
“Aw.” Ink turned back to her natural form, and finally spoke in her true voice, “What’s up, Boss?”
Satisfied, Rarity finally gestured to Twilight. “Well, Twilight and I were talking about Heart’s Haven and the…” She moved her hoof in a forwards-circle. “…the interesting reactions she’s been receiving from the other changelings in the castle.”
Ink breathed in through her teeth, looking at Twilight for further explanations. “Oooooh. That bad?”
“Somewhat, yes,” Rarity replied. “I’m trying to explain to Twilight that they’re not afraid of her so much as they’re… well, you were all taught about what happened a thousand years ago, weren’t you?”
“About how our ancestors sucked the life out of ponies under the rule of Queen Chrysalis? And then how it allowed Discord to spread his influence through Equestria while ponies tried to figure out who was their friend and who was a life-sucking thief?” Incantation asked, apparently unphased by Twilight’s uncomfortable expression.
Rarity coughed. “Well, darling, I wouldn’t have put it quite that way.”
“Yeeeeeeeeah. I’m pretty sure the only reason we have school back home is so we can learn about what we did in the war in detail.”
“Which is why they’re so deferential and overly-polite towards you, darling. It’s not because they’re sincerely afraid of you, but because they want to make it up to you,” Rarity said to Twilight. She leaned back and took another sip of punch. “This seems to be Discord’s M.O., unfortunately. Guilt that spans generations. It gets tiring after a while”—She lifted Twilight’s chin with a hoof—”as I’m sure you of all ponies know best.”
Twilight giggled. “I think I know it more than I’d like to,” she said, the tension she’d been plagued with finally ebbing away at Rarity’s affection. However, as per the norm, once her mind was clear of fear and doubts, it gave way to her usual state of mind—unrelenting curiosity.
Specifically, regarding changelings and their new society.
“I don’t understand something,” she said, and she now wished she’d thought to bring her notebook. Maybe she could ask the guards whenever they came back with the book? “Why haven’t you integrated into pony society yet? I know you’re afraid of me remembering, but wouldn’t modern ponies have forgotten by now?” She gestured to Rarity. “She had no idea of what changelings were until I told her about them.”
“It’s not that simple, Twilight. You can’t just integrate a species that has been in hiding for a thousand years, though we are trying, at the very least.”
“That’s what I’m here for!” Incantation exclaimed, flashing Twilight a fangy-grin. “Among other stuff, like helping with Princess Luna in Hollow Shades.”
“And teasing me relentlessly?” Rarity added.
“That too, Boss. That too,” she replied innocently.
Rarity harrumphed before moving on with the topic.
“Incantation was hired to be my and Pinkie’s assistant, but more importantly, she’s the very first attempt to see if changelings can indeed live amongst ponies.” She turned to Ink. “Darling, you’ve been living in Hollow Shades for how long now?”
“Five months and seven days!” Incantation exclaimed, standing up a bit straighter. “And I’ve been employee of the month all five months!”
Twilight frowned. “Aren’t you their only employee?”
“Yes,” Ink replied, flashing Twilight another fangy-grin. “I live with Rarity inside Lulu’s Dreamland.”
“And…” Twilight faltered, uncomfortable by the question and its potential answer. If Incantation was living with Rarity, then… “How do you…uh… how do you ‘eat’?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t about to find out Rarity was willingly giving her life…love-force away.
Incantation smacked her lips. “Weeeeeeeeell, I usually visit Princess Cadance whenever I’m hungry.” She frowned, rubbing a hoof against her mouth. “I used to come every…uhm… two weeks? But now I can last waaaaaaay more,” she said, and the innocent smile she’d been showcasing turned into a vulpine smirk. “Especially after that one time I mentioned when the boss got dru—”
“Regardless!” Rarity interrupted loudly, her cheeks tainted pink. “Now you see there is no reason to think that they’re afraid of you.
“I guess…” Twilight murmured.
She fell silent, just in time for her eyes to land on the guard fast approaching them. She prepared herself for another speech on how great she was, and how honored they were, and how he hoped she would let them stay, but was relieved and surprised to see him act differently. Well, a little differently, at least.
“Princess Twilight!” he greeted, saluting her briefly before turning to Rarity. “Lady Rarity, I have an urgent matter to discuss.”
“An urgent matter?” Rarity asked. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a stallion at the gate calling himself Knowledge Quill, and he’s demanding to be let in,” the guard replied. “He says he knows you.”
Rarity’s eyebrows knitted together. “Knowledge Quill? Who in Eques—” She let out a grand gasp. “OH!” She turned to Incantation with urgency, getting up from her spot. “He’s here!”
Incantation’s lips turned into a wicked smile. “I’ll get the camera,” she said, scurrying off, her excited giggling filling the air.
As she rushed away, the guard turned to Rarity, hesitant. “Er… What are your orders?”
“Bring him in!” Rarity said at once. “But take your time, and—” She moved to the guard, lifting her hoof and pressing it against his lips. “You are not to tell him what’s happening. Not a single word. You will only bring him here, and only when he’s here, you will go and tell Rift that we’re ready. Do you understand?”
The guard nodded, saluting Rarity and Twilight before rushing off.
Twilight, on her side, didn’t quite know what to do or how to interpret the events. “Who’s here?” she asked and felt the urge to step back when Rarity turned to her and regarded her with a smile almost as wicked as Incantation’s.
“Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity purred, moving in closer, lifting her hoof and placing it on Twilight’s chest. “Can you feel that?”
Twilight’s eyes shifted to the sides. “Feel what?” she asked, wondering if she really wanted to know.
“The winds of satisfaction,” Rarity whispered, inches away from Twilight’s lips, before almost violently turning around and allowing her shrill voice to pierce the air. “Pinkie Pie!”
From across the party, Pinkie stopped her conversation with Fluttershy and Applejack and excitedly waved at the unicorn. “Rarity!”
“Pinkie, he’s here!”
Pinkie processed it for one, two, three seconds before letting out a yell somehow even more shrill than Rarity’s. ”He’s here?!” She turned to the others. “Everypony stay still! Except for me! I’ll get the camera!”
“Rarity,” Twilight prompted, putting her hoof on the unicorn. “Rarity, what’s going on? Who’s he—” Her question was cut short when Rarity turned to her, an intensity in her stare the likes of which she’d almost never seen before.
“Twilight, stand up,” Rarity said, and then pointed to the next table. “Sit there!” she said, and when a very perplexed Twilight obliged, she furrowed her brow and pointed to another spot. “No, there. No, no, there. No, not that either, there! There, perfect.”
Twilight decided not to mention she was sitting in the exact same spot where she’d started. Instead, she watched as Rarity lit up her horn and quickly moved the welcome signs out of sight.
Rainbow Dash flew over next, sitting next to Twilight. “What?” she asked when Rarity gave her a pointed stare.
“Darling! What are you doing?! Go back to your place!”
“What?! And miss this?! No way,” she said, waving Rarity off.
“Miss what?” Twilight asked, desperate at this point. “Will somepony tell me what’s going on?!”
“Rainbow Dash,” Rarity continued, totally ignoring her marefriend and stamping her hoof against the ground “I’ve waited nearly three years for this! You will not ta—”
Her statement was cut short when Incantation and Pinkie rushed into the gardens.
“He’s coming!” Ink called. “He’s like right here!”
“Quickly!” Rarity yelled back to everypony as she herself sat on the opposite side of the table, brushing back her mane as Pinkie quickly sat beside her. “Everypony act natural!” She then finally turned to Twilight and pointed a hoof at her. “You! Don’t move!”
Twilight, obviously, paid little mind to her marefriend’s request and instead directed her gaze towards the grand doors, wanting to find out just who this stallion was that had the entire party in a frenzy. Incantation was at a ready with the camera, and even if they were at a distance, Spike, Fluttershy and Applejack were all watching with interest. She waited, and waited, and soon enough two guards stepped out and then moved to the side, revealing a very irritated-looking unicorn stallion.
Twilight furrowed her brow, watching as he stepped into the garden. Where have I…
“Professor Meanie-Pants!” Pinkie called, waving so effusively with her hoof, Twilight was worried her foreleg might come off. “Over here! Over here!”
Twilight’s hazy recollections began to fill with details. She had seen him, she realized with surprise, as he stomped his way over to Rarity and Pinkie Pie. She’d seen him once through Rarity’s mind, when they were linked together!
As he approached, the Professor paid no heed to Twilight or Rainbow Dash, his sights set entirely on the two smiling mares.
“Well, well, look what the guards have brought us,” Rarity said with a radiant smile. “If it isn’t Professor Brazened Awe!” She giggled and tilted her head. “Or, shall I say, Professor Knowledge Quill? I’m delighted to see you using your true name again, darling.”
He was not amused. “I’m sure you are.”
“I’m terribly glad you’ve joined us, Awe, even though I find myself confused by your irritation!” Rarity exclaimed, blinking innocently. “But before you explain, would you like a drink? Pinkie’s made some rather interesting fruit punch with just the right amount of vodka, and I do think it will help you, shall we say, mellow out a bit.”
The Professor’s eyes widened. “A… A drink?! Are you—?! I’ve been worried sick! Princess Luna has been worried sick, and you’re sitting here offering me a drink?! Is this a joke to you?!” he demanded with a tone Twilight didn’t appreciate much. “It’s been over a week and the first I hear from you is a letter saying nothing else but ‘be a dear and come to the castle’?! Really?!”
“Well, I say!” Rarity exclaimed, a hoof on her chest. “Are we supposed to tell you every single minute detail of our lives now? Shall I send you a letter every single time I do something?” She turned to Pinkie. “Darling, can you believe this?”
Pinkie shook her head. “No, Rarity!” She turned to Incantation, who was busy figuring out the camera. “Inky! Can you believe this?!”
Incantation looked up. “Huh?” She caught on and turned to the Professor, shaking her head with exaggerated disapproval. “What they said.”
“Rainbow,” Twilight whispered. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“Shhhh, keep watchin’,” Rainbow whispered back excitedly, gesturing in a shushing motion.
“I’m the one who can’t believe this!” Professor Awe shot back, indignant. “Are you somehow forgetting the state you two left in or that Princess Twilight summoned you?! I daresay I hope you did, because the idea that you remember and yet weren’t considerate enough to write me back immediately leaves me very unsettled!”
To this, Rarity sobered up. “You’re right, Awe,” she said, “and I apologize. It’s been… It’s been quite a week for me, as I’m sure you can imagine considering what…” She turned away and sighed in a comically disheartened way, completely missing Twilight’s raised eyebrow. “Considering what’s happened with Twilight and all…”
At that, the stallion’s anger evaporated. “Ah… I see,” he said, tone softening. “That’s… unfortunate.”
Rarity turned back to him with a gentle smile. “Now, now, it’s perfectly all right. You’ve arrived just in time! Twilight here was just telling us all about the wonders of being free, weren’t you, my darling?” she asked with a perfect smile.
No sooner had she done so, the Professor set eyes on Twilight, and his mouth fell wide open. Stammered, incomplete sentences came out of his mouth, intermingling with the sound of Pinkie snatching the camera from Incantation and taking a string of photos.
Seconds later, however, Rarity let out a ridiculously loud gasp.
“Oh, my dearest sweetest stars! I completely forgot to introduce you two!” She giggled, trotting towards Twilight. “Honestly, how silly of me! Where would my head be if it weren’t affixed to my neck, I ask you.”
“Rarity, what are you doing?” Twilight whispered urgently when Rarity reached her.
“Satisfaction, my love, sa-tis-fac-tion,” Rarity whispered before speaking up. “Twilight, darling, dearest, love of my desolate life!” She turned to the Professor and fluttered her eyelashes. “This fine stallion you see here is Professor Brazened Awe! And, Awe, darling, this—” She turned back to Twilight. “This beautiful creature is Princess Twilight Sparkle who, as you can see, is quite real and very much not dead.” She leaned forwards to kiss Twilight briefly on the nose before turning back to him, practically purring as she asked, “Well? Anything to say, Professor? Or are you too much in awe?”
The Professor cleared his throat. “Well then.”
Having had enough of… whatever it was that Rarity was even trying to do, Twilight cleared her throat and nodded at the stallion, trying her best to remember what she could of him. “It’s nice to meet you, Professor,” she said, taking initiative. “Rarity told me about you.”
The Professor smiled thinly. “Did she, Princess?”
“Yes,” Twilight replied. “I was interested in discussing something she told me. You’re the stallion who thought Princess Luna and Celestia and myself had been assassinated by Cadance, right?”
There was a brief pause.
“On second thought,” the Professor said, clearing his throat and looking nearly as white as Rarity’s coat, “I’ll take you up on that drink, Rarity. Princess Twilight, it’s a pleasure.” He quickly nodded to Twilight before trotting off, a giggling Pinkie following him with her camera.
Twilight blinked. “I… Was it something I said?” she asked, finding Rarity offering her an almost malicious grin. “What?”
Rainbow whistled. “Geez, Princess Twilight, you could have warned him before you wrecked him like that.”
“Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity said, leaning in and playing with Twilight’s necklace, “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
Twilight arched an eyebrow, wholly unsure of how she was supposed to interpret that question. Rather than try, she instead looked around the party, tuning out Rarity talking to Rainbow, and set her sights on Spike in the distance. She wanted to talk to him, mostly because it felt like he and Rarity were the only two individuals at the party who she really knew.
Well, technically speaking, Spike might have changed in a thousand years, so strictly speaking it was possible she didn’t know him at all, but she didn’t like the thought and decided not to dwell on it at all. Instead, she would go to him and prove she still knew him very well.
But what if she didn’t?
Her troubled thoughts were interrupted by noises behind her, more guards coming in. She heard prominently Rift’s voice, and thought she didn’t turn around, Rarity immediately did, smiling brightly at the newcomers.
“Well, hello there!” she said tenderly, and Twilight was surprised to find herself thinking that Rarity was being a bit too warm towards the changeling who had a crush on her.
Except, a moment later, one of the new visitors spoke up behind her and identified herself as the real target of Rarity’s warmth.
“Oh,” Cadance said, “I missed Knowledge meeting Twilight! Did somepony take pictures?”
Feeling more at ease in Cadance’s presence, Twilight initially intended on replying that Pinkie took dozens, but her reply was cut short when a single, much more important realization took hold of her.
Cadance was outside the castle.
Of the castle.
Almost violently, Twilight turned around and indeed found Cadance behind her, as free as ever. She was still displaced, though, and it had never been more obvious, never her transparency been more visible and jarring than under the blazing sunlight, but…
But the fact remained that she had somehow left the castle.
“You—! But—! How—!”
The words stumbled out of Twilight’s mouth, her mind desperately trying to make some sense about everything. Why was Cadance outside? How was she outside? Except if she was outside, then why wasn’t she freed? And where was her barrier?!
“Rarity!” Twilight blurted out, reaching out to tap her forehoof on Rarity’s shoulder, her wide-eyes turning back and forth between the unicorn and the Princess. “Rarity, she—! What—?!”
“I know, darling,” Rarity said, voice leveled. “Princess Cadance doesn’t have a barrier stopping her.”
Twilight fell to her haunches, her mouth hanging open, watching Cadance in a daze. Her entire world had been rocked in less than a minute. Everything she thought she’d learned from her own situation, all the information gleaned was… useless now?
She was only brought to reality when Professor Awe returned.
“Knowledge Quill!” Cadance exclaimed brightly.
The Professor flinched before bowing his head. “Your Highness.”
“Knowledge, have you met Twilight already?” she asked, gesturing to the alicorn still reeling from there’s no barrier. “You know, the Princess I assassinated!”
The Professor turned white again. “You’ve been sitting on that one for a while, haven’t you?”
Cadance giggled. “Actually, it was Rarity’s idea.”
The Professor shot Rarity a dirty look. “Of course it was.” He turned to Twilight. “Princess, I… Is she all right?”
Twilight blinked at Cadance. “You… But… What… But… Barrier…?” she stammered, only vaguely hearing Rarity giggling next to her.
“I see.” He cleared his throat. “Princess Twilight, if I may…” He hoofed over his large glass of punch and vodka. “I think you might need this more than I do.”