Much Ahoof About Nothing Part 5 starring Princess Celestia and her faithful student Twilight Sparkle
Rarity grabbed Applejack and hustled her through the archway that led to the eastern battlements.
"Hey, yer hurtin' me!" the earth pony yelped.
"Oh, do come on, Applejack," said Rarity, pulling her along. "Our first foray has failed. We need to come up with another plan to get Twilight away from Princess Celestia so that she can spend some time with Rainbow. The battlements that Princess Luna mentioned are the perfect venue for some planning."
"Do we really need ta get involved?" replied Applejack. "Can't we just relax an' let love find its own way?"
"Love? Find its own way?" Rarity snorted. "Have you forgotten what dear Twilight is like? She'll start talking to the Princess about books and magic and history and, and... and whathaveyou, and before she knows it, the window of opportunity for her romance to blossom will be gone. Oh, it will be so terribly sad if that were to happen! Just like the story of the Weaver and the Princess."
Applejack frowned. "The who an' the what now?"
Rarity sniffed. "Oh, Apple-jack darling! Didn't your mother ever tell you the story? It's so terribly sad." She looked up at the afternoon sky and sighed. "I shall have to tell it to you once the stars come out."
"The stars?" Applejack frowned. "What d'ye need the stars ta be out for?"
"By way of illustration, of course," said the unicorn. "Oh, it will make so much more sense later."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Is it more o' tha' romantic malarkey?"
"It most certainly is," replied Rarity haughtily. "Although I don't take very kindly to such a heart-felt story being referred to as 'malarkey', whatever that is." She sighed, defeated, and sat back on the cool stone of the battlements. "Oh, you'll understand what I mean later. But now we have to come up with a way of getting between the teacher and the student."
Applejack sat down next to Rarity and watched as she threw herself whole-heartedly into the task. Bringing a forehoof to her chin, the unicorn began to mutter to herself as one after another idea was quickly conceived and then just as quickly abandoned.
Applejack sighed. She was glad Rarity knew what she was talkin' about - this romance stuff was far too complicated a business for a simple farm-pony like herself! All she knew about was love - and there were few more straight-forward things in the world than that.
As Luna flew over the battlements wreathed in purple mist and invisible to everypony, she chuckled with self-satisfaction. Oh, this was going to be the best 'fun' ever! And this time it would not merely be doubled, nor even tripled, but quadrupled!
She glanced down at the unicorn and the earth pony with the hat, huddled together on the eastern battlements, and chuckled softly.
Luna flew down over them, still invisible, and then, with a discrete sparkling of magic, she became a violent gust of cold mountain air which blew the lighter Rarity up against Applejack, who caught her in her forelegs.
"Oh!" cried the unicorn. "My apologies, darling! It was just that there was a gust of-"
Applejack smiled at her. "Ah felt it too," she said. "D'ye think maybe the night is tryin' to tell us something?"
The earth pony looked left and right, and, finding the battlements completely deserted, she leaned forward and kissed Rarity softly on the lips.
"Darling!" whispered the unicorn, blushing fiercely in surprise. "That's most unlike you!"
"Uh, yeah," replied Applejack. She chuckled self-consciously but didn't break the embrace. "Maybe it's somethin' in the air?"
"The air?" repeated Rarity. The two of them looked out across the clear spring evening that was settling over the landscape and she sighed. "Perhaps you're right. But, darling... can you hear somepony giggling?"
"Oh, that should keep those two troublemakers busy," giggled Luna to herself as she flew away. The two of them would do an exceptional job distracting each other. Luna didn't usually pry into the dreams of her subjects - after all, every pony needs their secrets - but she knew well the love that Rarity and Applejack felt for each other. It was hard to miss when you were the Princess of the Moon, passing over that little tent way out in the lonely emptiness of the Swayback Mountains as their dreams had joined together, lighting the skies with a great aurora of magic that only two hearts perfectly aligned could produce and which only Luna herself could see. They need never worry, though; not only was the night for love, but also for secrets - and, as Princess of the Night, their secret was safe with her.
Twilight gazed up at Celestia as the two of them walked out through the Western Gate of the palace and were straight away swallowed up by the throngs of partying ponies that filled the streets of Canterlot. Every little house and tower was decorated with banners emblazoned with the white disk of the moon, and flags and streamers of blue and silver hung from every eave and archway. The happy sounds of laughter and music filled the evening air, and everywhere the incessant background of cheerful voices, like the deep roar of the ocean, held them close as if in an embrace.
Ponies jostled the pair as they made their way down a narrow side-street and walked into a little square where rows of stalls were set up in the colonnades, their owners shouting out with boisterous good cheer and promoting their wares. It was an eye-catching, ear-splitting spectacle.
A group of giggling high-society mares came trotting along the street, and one of them a svelte, pink coated mare with a fleur-de-lis as her cutie mark, jostled Celestia as they pushed their way past.
Twilight glared at her in annoyance, her mouth open and ready to make a blistering complaint, when Celestia placed a forehoof on the angry unicorn's shoulder.
"Oh, don't let it worry you, Twilight," she said gently. "She didn't mean any harm."
The Princess's words did little to calm her indignation. "She didn't even say 'excuse me' to you! And you're the Princess, Princess! I really should-"
Celestia laughed, and the sound was bright and light and clear even against the backdrop of shouting and talking ponies. "Oh, Twilight Sparkle. The truth of the matter is that she has no idea it was me."
Twilight boggled. "But how couldn't she-"
Celestia brought her lips close to Twilight's ear and whispered. "Just a little spell. I don't often use it, since it strikes me as somehow being a little
well, underhoofed, but I thought that it would be nice to be able to spend some time with you as your
" She skipped a beat as she wondered at what she'd been about to say, but then quickly went on, "
your friend rather than as 'Celestia, Princess of Equestria'." She looked out at the great crowd of ponies. "As far as anypony here knows, I'm just another unicorn pony out enjoying the celebrations."
Twilight nodded, but for once she wasn't really listening to Celestia. The word 'friend' was still ringing in her ears and somewhere in her chest, a part of her felt as if it was melting away.
As they strolled together and looked at what each little stall had to offer, Celestia continued. "I know how disappointed you were at the Gala," she said. That old familiar guilt was welling up in her again, and she needed to express it. "When my duties as Princess got in the way of us spending time together. To tell you the truth, I was disappointed as well." She levitated up a little necklace made of semi-precious stones from the stall they'd stopped in front of and examined it. "What do you think, Twilight Sparkle?"
"I- I never knew you wanted to spend time with me," said Twilight, fighting off a blush.
Celestia chuckled. "I mean the necklace," she said. "What's your honest opinion?"
Twilight blinked and, embarrassed, turned her attention to the little piece of jewellery. "It's very pretty, Princess." It was. The stones were tiger's eyes, polished and glistening, and gave off an attractive warmth of colour that was unpretentiously beautiful. The Princess had impeccable taste.
"Well, I like it too," said Celestia. "Although I do wish you'd stop using your pet name for me, Twilight. Don't you think 'Princess' is a bit over the top?"
The smiling stallion in charge of the stall chuckled. "I'm sorry to pry, ma'am, but if you ask me, the name's quite fitting. You look a lot like Princess Celestia. If you had wings and if your mane was a different colour, why, you'd be her twin!"
Celestia brought a hoof to her mouth and giggled, and Twilight was almost knocked over to see a blush appear on the Princess's face. "Oh, what a lovely compliment!" she said. "It's this white coat of mine, isn't it?"
"And your eyes, ma'am," said the stallion. "And may I say that you share the Princess's excellent taste. That necklace you've picked out matches the colour of your fillyfriend's eyes perfectly."
Twilight's eyes boggled. "F-fillyfriend?"
The stallion blinked. "My apologies. I guess I was a bit presumptuous. It's just that
"Oh, we're just very close friends," said Celestia. "Ponies get confused all the time." She turned her attention back to the necklace, but her smile remained. "What are you asking?"
"Three bits" said the stallion.
"Sold," said Celestia, floating the money across to him. She brought the little necklace flying across to Twilight and, undoing the clasp, she slipped it around the unicorn's neck.
Twilight felt the tiger's eyes warm against her coat. She looked up at Celestia's cheerful mauve eyes, then suddenly turned her gaze away, her heart beating fast.
"I was right," said Celestia. "It does look lovely on you."
"Thank you, Princess," said Twilight, still unable to meet the Princess's eyes. "I- I love it."
As they walked away from the stall, Twilight was silent. The flush that had started with that word 'fillyfriend' and deepened with the gift of the necklace had continued to spread, and she felt as though her entire body would soon be a single blush. Celestia was immediately struck by how adorable Twilight was when she was embarrassed; her usual stream of observations dried up and her self-control was replaced with vulnerability. It was times like this that Celestia felt compelled to hug the little unicorn close to herself, but this time - like most other times - she resisted the urge. The last thing Twilight wanted was for her teacher to start treating her like she was a little filly again!
As for Twilight, she felt as if she'd been lifted off the ground by somepony's telekinesis and was floating above the street rather than walking along it. The swirl of colour and movement and noise of the crowd that surrounded them had become dream-like - it was as if she was back in the crystal caverns below Canterlot, gazing at a thousand splintered images spinning about her in every direction.
Suddenly, there was a grumbling sound, audible even over the hubbub that surrounded them, and Twilight and Celestia stopped in their tracks.
"What was that?" asked the Princess.
Twilight was suddenly distraught. "Oh, it was my stomach! Excuse me, Princess, but
Celestia looked at her with mock-fierceness. "Miss Sparkle, I've already asked you once not to call me Princess!"
"Wh-what should I call you, then, Princ-." Twilight asked in confusion. "Celestia?"
Celestia laughed. "Celestia won't work - as you know, it's only ever been given to members of the royal family," she said. "But why don't you call me 'Tia'?"
Twilight boggled. "'T-tia'?"
Celestia coughed. "I know. It's a little too cutsey isn't it? Luna came up with it
" She looked up at the sky, as if she would be able to see her mischievous little sister somewhere among the stars that were now winking into existence.
"Tia," repeated Twilight to herself. Could- could she really call the Princess that name? Well, it had been an order, hadn't it?
There was another rumble, louder this time, and Twilight started. Celestia looked down, mortified.
"I'm afraid that was my stomach this time, Twilight," said Celestia. "Why don't we go find something to eat?"
"That sounds like an excellent idea, Pr-" Twilight bit her tongue and, with a steeling of her will far greater than any magic she had ever performed in her life, she at last managed to say, "Tia."
With the two troublemakers Applejack and Rarity already dealt with, Luna decided that it was time to deal with the funny little pink pony and her companion, Twilight's little dragon. The last thing the Princess of Hearts wanted was for them to stumble upon Twilight and Celestia and cause some consternation or other with their hijinks. So, remaining in gaseous form, she did a loop-de-loop and swept in through the window of the castle kitchens, coalescing into the shape of a rotund blue-coated unicorn mare wearing an apron and a chef's hat. And just barely in the nick of time, as the cheerful pink pony came galloping in with the little dragon on her back.
In the kitchen, a modest feast by Canterlot terms (which was to say a gigantic one) had already been prepared, ready to be taken into the small personal dining hall that the Princess used on the few occasions that she entertained only a few guests. There were gigantic wobbling jellies in a plethora of colours and flavours; dandelion cupcakes, dragonfruit blamanges, pineapple danishes, strawberry soufflés, sundaes and ice-cream cakes and fruit cups and every kind of sugary treat imaginable, and even some that staggered the imagination, with intricate filigrees of icing and festoonings of fruits that only magic could have created.
Pinkie came to a screeching halt, her eyes bulging out. Oh, it was like she was back at the Royal Equestrian National Dessert Competition, surrounded by a wonderland of incredible edibles and delightfully delicious delights!
Spike was already clinging onto Pinkie's mane and so was able to prevent himself from flying head-over-claw onto the tables of confectionaries, but he still ended up dazed and confused by the little pink pony's abrupt stop. He raised his head and shook away the stars that filled his eyes, and as he did his gaze fell onto a veritable mountain of
"See Pinkie Pie," cried Spike, as Pinkie stood rooted to the spot, still staring cake-struck at the treats that hemmed them in. "I knew there had to be donuts. Canterlot's famous for them! Look!" The little dragon hopped off her back and ran up to one of the silver platters that were covered in piles of the tasty pastries. "Cinnamon-dusted crullers, double-jelly-filled strawberry-raspberry explosions, and quadruple-chocolate-mousse-donuts... with sprinkles!"
Pinkie's eyes began to sparkle with intensity. "Ooh, ooh, ooh! I want to try a double-jelly filled strawberry explosion!" She galloped up to the table the donuts were stacked on and licked her lips. "What're they like?"
"Careful, Pinkie!" Spike said, pulling her back. "They're called that because it's impossible to eat one without the jelly going everywhere as soon as you bite into it!"
"Oh, Spikey!" said Pinkie. "This is Pinkie Pie you're talking to, remember? I've never met a scrumptiolicious treat that I couldn't totally gobble up. I wonder if I stuff ONE double jelly-filled strawberry explosion with ANOTHER double jelly-filled explosion if that would make a DOUBLE double jelly-filled strawberry explosion? And I bet it would be double as delicious, too!" And with that she grabbed a doughnut in each hoof and, squishing them together, she took a huge bite out of them at the same time.
"No, Pinkie!" But it was too late. As soon as Pinkie bit into it, there was an audible bang and a supernova of raspberry and strawberry jam coated her, the walls of the kitchen and the little purple dragon himself, cut off in mid warning.
Spike licked the sticky red stuff off his face and smacked his lips. "You know, Pinkie Pie? I think you were right. It is doubly delicious!"
The two friends started to laugh and were busy wiping and licking the jelly off themselves when-
"WHAT in EQUESTRIA is going on in here?!"
Luna had been waiting for just the right moment. Still in the form of the portly blue chef, she leaped out from behind the pile of donuts and galloped up to the two jelly-covered friends, a livid ball of theatrical anger brandishing a rolling-pin.
Spike and Pinkie took a shocked step backwards as Luna shoved her now red and swollen face at them and yelled, "Did you just eat one of these donuts?"
"Uh huh," said Pinkie, lowering her jam-covered muzzle, overwhelmed with guilt. "Well, it was two, actually..."
"How dare you!" cried Luna, thrusting the rolling-pin at Pinkie who blinked at it impassively. The chef's round face grew redder and redder until it resembled a tomato that was set to explode at any minute. "How DARE you! These donuts were intended for the Princesses and their friends only! I should call the Royal Guard and have you dragged away to wash dishes in the royal scullery for the next six months for this despicable crime!"
Spike threw himself down on the floor. "We're sorry! Please, please, please don't report us! I hate washing dishes."
"Oh, c'mon Spikey!" said Pinkie, who was actually rather happy at being given the opportunity to make up for her mistake. "Washing dishes is almost as fun as making them dirty in the first place!"
"Then you can wash and I'll dry, Pinkie Pie," said the little dragon, who didn't really enjoy washing or drying dishes very much.
"Pinkie Pie? Spike?" Luna's expression straightaway changed from one contorted with anger to one of happy surprise. "Oh, but you're friends of the Princesses, aren't you now?"
Both Spike and Pinkie nodded rapidly.
"Well, then you've done nothing wrong," said Luna. Her face had returned to its original blue colour, and was now sporting a huge, friendly grin. "You just had a little taste-test before the dinner itself. No harm with that." Her eyes went wide as she mimed coming up with an idea. "Oh, I know! Why don't you try some of the other snacks as well? You can tell me if they're good enough for the Princess's friends or not." She grabbed the two friends and dragged them away with her through the maze of tables groaning under the weight of delicious dishes.
"Oh," said Pinkie, licking her lips. "If that raspberry double-destructive strawberry-sprinkles explosion was anything to go by, I'm sure they are!"
"Uh, Pinkie Pie?" said Spike. "It was a double-double jelly-filled rasberry-strawb-"
"But I insist," said Luna, and with that she pulled them in front of a table piled higher than all the others with every kind of delicious treat imaginable.
Spike and Pinkie raised their eyes to the roof, but the mountain of goodies was so impossibly tall that the summit of it wasn't visible. In fact, it almost looked as if it had snow covering the highest part of it - but maybe it was just powdered sugar.
"That's funny," said Spike, scratching his head. "I didn't see this table when we came in."
"Oh, enough with these tiresome questions," said Luna impatiently. "Please, help yourselves!"
Spike's eyes went wide. "Well, everything does look delic-" But Pinkie had already leaped onto the table and had thrust her muzzle into a massive, wobbling mound of jello.
"Come on in, Spikey," cried the little pink pony as she began to swim back and forth through the jello as easily if it was water. "The jello's fine!" And with that she grabbed the little dragon and dragged him inside.
A smile broke onto the portly face of Luna's persona as she watched the two of them burrow through the giant jello treat. This would keep them busy! She turned and, as soon as she was out of sight, she once again dissolved into mist and flew out the kitchen window.
Twilight and Celestia sat on the edge of the ornate fountain that was the centrepiece for an out-of-the-way square they had found, enjoying the little oasis of calm from the din and excitement of the main streets as they ate their snacks. The gentle tinkling of the water flowing from the mouth of the dolphin carved from the marble, which would otherwise have been so calming in another situation, did nothing for Twilight's rapidly beating heart.
The little unicorn took another bite of her deep-fried hibiscus flowers and braved a glance at Celestia. The Princess - or rather 'Tia' (Her heart pounded even harder at the thought!) - was enjoying a tofu-dog, taking dainty bites from it and chewing each mouthful so softly that it was hard to tell she was eating anything at all.
Twilight looked down at her own food and at the jagged bite-marks in it. It looked as if a beast had been gnawing on it. Oh, she'd tried so hard as a little foal to develop those exquisite manners that she'd seen every day from members of Celestia's court! It had been her dearest wish at one time, that she'd become one of them after some fashion. But her dedication to her studies, and her natural awkwardness, had put paid to that. Many of the daughters of the aristocracy had disliked her at first sight, jealous at how close she was to the Princess, and she'd retaliated against their coldness by shutting them all out and diving ever deeper into her books. Celestia had never forced her to try and follow the intricate set of rules that the nobility lived by, and Twilight knew that the truth was that the Princess found a lot of it silly, but was inclined to adhere to the old traditional ways to keep the peace among the volatile at-the-best-of-times court.
"It's what everypony expects from me," Celestia had told Twilight one evening when she'd been a foal. The Princess had arrived to her lesson late, and Twilight had been annoyed. Seeing the pout on the face of her favourite student, the alicorn had tried to explain things to her. "If I do things differently, then ponies will think that something is wrong."
"But you're the Princess!" Twilight had protested. "You can do anything you want!"
Celestia had laughed, and ruffling Twilight's fringe she'd told her, "Oh, I wish that was true, Twilight Sparkle. But you know, in a lot of ways you have more freedom than I do."
Twilight's eyes had lit up straight away. "Oh! So does that mean I can stay up late tonight? I'm in the middle of reading 'Derring Do and the Maze of the Manticore' and Derring's just found this strange key covered in ancient Eqquish hieroglyphs and
Celestia had laughed and replied, "Maybe just an extra hour, Miss Sparkle. You know how grumpy you become when you don't get enough sleep."
Back in the present, Celestia looked across at Twilight, who was staring at her, her mind obviously far away.
"A bit for your thoughts, Miss Sparkle?"
Twilight blinked and blushed, rubbing a forehoof against the back of her head in embarrassment. "I was just remembering back to when I was a little filly," she said.
A smile flashed across the Princess' face. "It seems so long ago now, doesn't it?"
Twilight was struck by a sudden thought. "Do- do you remember when you were a filly, Princess?"
"I had no idea you were so interested in ancient history," replied Celestia.
"What do you mean, Princess? You know I love history
Oh!" The unicorn flushed with the sudden realisation that Celestia had been making a joke. "I'm sorry. Oh! And I called you 'Princess' again, didn't I?" She shook her head in exasperation. "And I think I might have called you Princess earlier as well
"Oh, don't let it worry you, Twilight," the Princess reassured her. "There's nopony around to overhear us. And to answer your question, I-" She hesitated. "I don't really remember being a filly. I know I was one, once, but I can't seem to remember what it was like. I remember remembering it, though, if you understand what I mean."
"Memories are a strange thing, aren't they?" said Celestia. "I have so many years of memories that I guess there isn't really enough space in my head for all of them, and I've lost some over the years. Some days I used to feel as though my bad memories outweighed the good ones, and I wondered whether it might be best not to remember anything at all."
Twilight looked across at her. She'd seldom heard the Princess talk this way about herself.
Celestia met her concerned gaze and grinned. "Oh, but that's not true anymore, Twilight. Ever since you entered my life, the happy memories have far outweighed the bad ones."
Twilight coughed as a piece of her flower tried to go down the wrong way, but Celestia gave her a quick telekinetic pat on the back and the offending morsel was soon dislodged.
Twilight managed to mutter a 'thank you', but then a silence settled over the two of them.
Celestia's eyes were drawn to the half-eaten snack floating in front of Twilight and finally broke the silence. "I'm afraid I've developed 'food envy'," said Celestia with a sigh. "Watching you eat that delicious looking hibiscus flower. Would you mind terribly if I tried a little nibble?"
"Oh, of course," said Twilight. She floated it across to the Princess and was surprised to see the tofu-dog fly past it on its way to her.
"Oh, you don't need to
" started the little unicorn, but Celestia shook her head.
"I'm afraid the etiquette of food-swapping is quite clear," said the Princess seriously. "I can't just steal a bite of your snack - it must be reciprocated."
Twilight stared at the tofu-dog hovering in front of her face, complete with Celestia's dainty teeth-marks on it. She knew she couldn't argue with the Princess of Equestria, even if she was supposed to be 'plain-old Tia' for the evening.
Twilight brought her muzzle close to the tofu dog and a single droplet of sweat appeared at her temple.
The Princess, meanwhile, had already taken a bite from the hibiscus flower and was making appreciative mutters. "Mmmm!" She looked across at Twilight, her eyebrows lifted in expectation.
Twilight closed her eyes. She didn't like tofu-dogs at all, but it wasn't the reason for her hesitation. All she could see in her front of her were Celestia's lips, those divine lips which had touched the snack in front of her. And her lips were about to touch the same place. It was almost as if
Celestia's forehead furrowed. "Oh, I'm sorry, Twilight. I forgot that you don't like
Twilight immediately closed her mouth over the tofu-dog and took a bite, fearing the Princess would take it from her. As the mixtures of flavours hit her the creamy tofu, the sweet, tart ketchup, the fluffy bread, and... - she felt her knees tremble.
"So what do you think?" asked Celestia.
"It's delicious, Princess," said Twilight. It was all she could do to stop from falling to her knees in bliss.
Her mind reeled. What in Equestria is wrong with you? she berated herself. The Princess must think you're crazy! Standing there, chewing on a piece of tofu dog, almost out of your mind with pleasure at...
Celestia broke the moment by swapping the two snacks back. "Is it really that delicious? I guess I didn't make such a bad decision after all."
And soon the two of them had finished their meal and were again trotting along the ancient cobblestones of the city streets. Celestia looked up at the tiny stars that had begun to appear, and stopped.
"Let's go this way," she told Twilight, leading her to a laneway so narrow it was almost imperceptible in the rapidly softening light of early evening. "I have a place I want to show you."
"Good evening, Lady Fluttershy," said the tall pegasus guard at the gate that separated Princess Luna's private garden from one open to the general public. He bowed, and Fluttershy bowed quickly and awkwardly in reply.
'Lady' Fluttershy? Oh, it was far too nice an appellation for somepony as ordinary as her!
She stepped through the gate, still hesitant. Princess Luna had of course given her permission, but Fluttershy still felt as if she was imposing somehow. Then, through an archway in the hedge that screened the inner garden from the outside, she saw a flash of red, clear and bright even in the rapidly spreading twilight. It could only be one thing! The pegasus broke into an excited trot, and breasting the hedge she burst out into a sea of crimson blossoms.
The Canterlot tulips were even more beautiful than Fluttershy had ever imagined. Planted in perfect rows, each blossom standing high and plump on tall stems, the flowers spread in patterned waves that made her feel as if she was stuck in the centre of a kaleidoscope's lens.
She squealed in delight and rushed up to the nearest flowers. Oh, every one of them was perfect! Fluttershy loved flowers, and tulips were among her favourites. There was something so cheerful and bright about their round little blooms, and the Canterlot tulips, who pushed their heads forth out of the earth just as the warm days of spring arrived, were famous for the depth of their colour. Even with the sun setting, the dullness of the light did nothing to detract from their rich redness. It looked as if the entire garden was aflame!
She trotted from first one area to another, and it was then that she realised that the flowers were subtly different in colours - some were russet, with undercurrents more brown than crimson, while others drifted towards purple as well. Her heart filled with joy. Oh, what a lovely sight! She was so happy that the Princess had allowed her to come and enjoy it.
Breaking into a skip, Fluttershy began to hum to herself as she pranced between the rows of tulips, talking to each of them in turn. And then, happy to have been able to meet each of the little blossoms newly woken from the earth, she made her farewells and went to explore the rest of the garden.
Far above, perched on the top of the statue of Discord, Luna watched Fluttershy gambolling from one beautiful part of her garden to the next. The little pegasus danced among the roses, smelling each of them in turn with a delicate snout until a puff of pollen shot out of one and she sneezed in an adorable miniature explosion. Her long pink mane flopped in front of her eyes and she galloped about in a panic until she managed to poke her face out again and see where she was. From there, Fluttershy wandered about the night-garden, delighting in the scents of the jasmine and the violets and the angel's trumpets that filled the cool evening air. And finally, drowsy from the delicate fragrances, she daintily picked her way among the herb-maze, and Luna found herself more and more enchanted by the pegasus pony's long legs and awkwardly hesitant way of walking.
Truly, she has no idea of how beautiful she is, thought Luna to herself, and so her heart is as innocent as a child's. She sighed. Oh, how different she was from every other beautiful pony she had known! Timidity where Luna's gorgeous elder sister had power and confidence, gentleness where oh-so-many of the beauties of Celestia's court nursed a carefully-concealed arrogance. And she had a joy in simple acts, as Luna herself was just now beginning to discover, after so many centuries of being dismissive of such things as trivial foolishness.
And all at once the Princess of the Moon envied the shy little pegasus, and the tender spark that had hidden in Luna's heart, kindled back when the time they had first met in Ponyville, was warmed by the cool night air into a gentle glow. But just as quickly, Luna's laughing spirit leaped up and she at once began to think of a most delightful way to play a prank on Fluttershy. Oh, it would be so much fun to hear her frightened 'eep', to see those dainty hooves dance backwards in alarm!
But first the stage must be set!
With a nod of her horn, Luna set the hidden lights that festooned the trees and hedges of her garden alight, and all at once the entire place was turned into a sparkling wonderland of a thousand different colours.
At the sudden brightness, Fluttershy yelped and shied away, scrambling backwards with her hooves from the big oak that had suddenly become a fairy-castle of red and blue and yellow and green lights, as if a rainbow of stars had burst into life in its branches all at once. But her timidity was soon replaced with open-mouthed delight, and she trotted forward, gasping at the gorgeousness of the scene before her.
Luna watched, mesmerised, and the feeling of warmth in her heart deepened.
Not long after, a black-coated stallion, with a grey mane and stern green eyes, appeared in the gardens. With his great black-feathered wings furled against his sides, he walked slowly out of the nearby hedge-maze, admiring the many statues of famous ponies of history arrayed in rows around it.
Nearby, Fluttershy made an excited squeal, and the stallion turned to look. And when he caught sight of her, he broke into a gentle trot, a thin smile appearing on his ruggedly handsome face.
Fluttershy was admiring the veils of glittering lights, walking from one tree to another, her eyes growing wider and her heart fuller with each beautiful sight, and so she had no idea the stallion was approaching her from behind until he was almost on top of her.
"Good evening," said the stallion suddenly.
At once, Fluttershy leaped backwards against a nearby jasminum bush which, although it stopped her flight, didn't prevent her hooves from continuing to skitter beneath her.
The stallion stared down at her kindly. "I really must apologise. Did I startle you?" He gently helped the trembling pegasus out of the bush with a forehoof. "I was just surprised to find somepony else here, enjoying Princess Luna's garden."
At the mention of the Princess' name, Fluttershy's heart, which was fluttering madly, became calmer, and she managed a tiny, nervous smile. "Oh, you- you're a friend of Princess Luna's?" She caught sight of the wings furled at his side, and of the striking cutie-mark he bore that of a red scimitar wreathed in flames. "Oh, but of course you are," she continued, dropping her eyes.
"Let's not sit on ceremony," said the stallion kindly. "I may be a member of the nobility, but I've never been one to stand for all the tiresome protocols of the court." He smiled. "Would you care to join me? I came to the gardens to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the festivities, but I find that charming company is never unwelcome."
Fluttershy blushed at the word 'charming' and she nodded.
The dark stallion led Fluttershy between the rows of flowers, and together they stopped and admired them. The little pegasus was delighted to explain what each flower was, and the stallion nodded appreciatively at every comment.
Soon they reached a little pagoda on a raised lawn, and the stallion indicated to Fluttershy that they should walk up to it. As soon as they stepped within its marble-columned shelter, he gently turned Fluttershy's face so that she was looking out across the gardens. From this angle, the geometric shapes that the flower beds had been planted in became clearer - and the pegasus 'oooh'ed at the sight.
A smile played over the stallion's lips as he watched her child-like joy. "So, which are your favourite blossoms, may I ask?"
Fluttershy smiled shyly. With the stallion standing right next to her, she could smell his gentle scent. It was strangely feminine, the smell of jasmine, and it made her think of warm summer nights in her own home in Ponyville.
"Oh, I love all flora and fauna," she said at last. "But
I think I love the tulips the best."
"An excellent choice," the stallion remarked, and Fluttershy immediately blushed.
"Tha-thank you," she said, looking up at him, her eyes sparkling.
"Do you see the pattern that the blossoms are in?" said the dark stallion.
Fluttershy felt herself shiver under the gaze of his cool green eyes. "Uh
course." It was true - the tulips did make a pattern, one of a great, red heart.
"Glorious," said the stallion. "Simply glorious." He took a step closer to her. "As red as wine or maybe even blood, aren't"
it's so nice that a stallion can enjoy something like flowers," said Fluttershy shyly. "The stallions I know usually aren't interested in them at all."
The stallion laughed deeply. The rich sound had a hint of mockery, but it was not unkindly. "You know," said the stallion. "Everypony remembers me for my military conquests, but nopony remembers my love of flowers. This garden was a gift of mine, for someone special. But I'm glad that you are here to enjoy it with me now."
military conquests?" whispered Fluttershy. Her heart beat rapidly. The tall stallion's coat was giving off the most delightful warmth, and part of her wanted to move closer to enjoy it. But another part of her feared the coolness in his eyes, and was wary of the teasing nature of his words. "Are... are you a member of Princess Celestia's Royal guard?"
Again the deep laugh. "Oh no!" he said. "Quite the contrary. Actually, on many occasions I have been compelled to fight against the Royal Guard."
Fluttershy took a step back, her eyes going wide. "You
you've fought against the Royal Guard?"
The stallion nodded. "A very long time ago. In fact, I think It will be a nigh on one thousand years almost to the day."
Fluttershy's heart beat fit to burst from her chest. "But... but that means you're as old as Princess Celestia!"
"I'm not as old as the Celestia," replied the stallion with a sneer at the Princess' name. "But I did accomplish far more than she ever did. I expanded Equestrian territory from horizon to horizon in her name, and what did I earn for my troubles? Everypony forgetting my name and my deeds, that is what! But now I have returned to remind them all of who I am."
Fluttershy's ears went back and she began to tremble all over. "I know you! You're
"Yes!" The stallion unfurled his great black wings, and cutting off the world of fairy lights, they plunged Fluttershy into darkness. "I am Darkmane, Duke of Hoofington and true heir to Equestria!"
The pegasus yelped, took a single step backwards, and then turned and fled.
Darkmane's eyes flickered and turned teal, and his lips curled up in amusement as he watched the Pegasus fleeing. Then the illusion fully fled away, and the face of Princess Luna appeared, replacing that of the darkly handsome stallion.
Oh, what fun! The charming pegasus had reacted just as she'd expected. Soon she would be lost in the maze, unable to find her way out. But the game was not yet finished. The other ponies had been dealt with, so perhaps she could afford to indulge in a little fun of her own. It was not yet time for the moon to rise, and she would have plenty of time to see to it later.
Luna saw Fluttershy gallop back past the arched entrance of the hedge, her pink mane flying behind her in a most ravishingly beautiful display of feminine panic, and she smiled deep in her heart. Once again she assumed the form of Darkmane and with a deep, sonorous laugh she galloped into the hedge maze after her.
"Wait, my pretty!" she cried in the Duke's voice. "I did not mean to alarm you! Please, do not flee from me! I only wish to speak with you further."
There was a loud 'eep!' from somewhere ahead, and grinning, Luna galloped off in pursuit of her frightened quarry.
To be continued