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Bold as Love (Formerly "Untitled Marital Problems Story")

By DaybreakerAnon
Created: 1st September 2021 03:20:19 AM
19th September 2022 03:29:17 AM

  1. Latest update: line 4796
  3. Work in progress. Set in a pre-FiM alternate timeline Equestria.
  5. ACT I: Canterlot
  7. Chapter 1
  9. >"Look at how they view your son. Your own son, for pony's sake! If it's taken the Canterlot nobility this many years to begrudgingly accept his place in the hierarchy, how do you expect they will react to her?"
  10. >Straight Talk keeps pace with you while awaiting your reply.
  11. >For a high-born unicorn, he's remarkably down-to-Equestria.
  12. >But he doesn't mince words.
  13. >It's nice to have ponies at your service who live up to their namesake, even if they shine light on uncomfortable truths.
  14. >Not that you didn't anticipate his assessment- you simply wanted to hear it for yourself.
  15. >Speaking of uncomfortable truths, there was another that incessantly gnawed at your heart.
  16. >Your son's... "limitations".
  17. >Countless hours had been spent in the Canterlot Archives over the years, combing through Starswirl's journals, looking for something- anything- that might assuage your fears.
  18. >The best solution presented itself with the arrival your latest "pet project".
  19. >"Princess Celestia?" Straight Talk breaks your train of thought. "Orders, Your Highness?"
  20. "Proceed according to my original plans."
  21. >"And what of the nobility, Princess?"
  22. >You turn to your chief-of-staff and smile.
  23. "The Sun is unyielding, Straight Talk."
  25. -----
  27. >Today is the day.
  28. >"By the gods, just like that!"
  29. >Cirrus Wisp moans at your touch.
  30. >Your fingers dance around her slick entrance, teasing the pink pearl that would intermittently peek out.
  31. >She scoots away from you panting and face flushed.
  32. >"Allow me to return the favor, My Prince."
  33. >You bring her lips to yours, electricity practically sparking between you.
  34. >She breaks the kiss, only to plant a trail of sloppy smooches down to your waistline.
  35. >Your hands are a blur as you work to unfasten the cords that keep your pants secured and suspended around your hips.
  36. >Cirrus Wisp's mouth is hot, wet, and everything you hoped it would be.
  37. >As she bobs up and down your length, you groan, happy to run your fingers through her mane as she tends to your member.
  38. >Oh yeah, it's happening.
  39. >You're totally gonna lose your virginity today.
  40. >Nothing could ruin this moment.
  41. "Ah! Jeez!"
  42. >Cirrus pulls her head back, concern clear on her face.
  43. >"What's wrong?"
  44. >"I believe you were a touch careless with your teeth, my dear," the last voice you want to hear at this moment answers her.
  45. >Cirrus gasps at the newcomer.
  46. >"Please," your mother says, smirking. "Don't stop on my account."
  47. >Wisp screams, then prostrates herself at your mother's golden-shod hooves.
  48. >"Princess Celestia! I- I- I am so-"
  49. >Mom smiles at her.
  50. >"You're so 'what', my little pony?"
  51. >"Sorry?"
  52. >"You have nothing to be sorry for, my dear," Mom says in her signature motherly voice, "provided you have not robbed the Prince of his purity..."
  53. >Now's a good a time as any to voice your displeasure.
  54. "We were regrettably interrupted before it could come to that," you retort, scowling at her with crossed arms.
  55. >Your mother kicks off her shoes, sits on her haunches and clops her front hooves together.
  56. >"Splendid!"
  57. >She leans down to the still-prone pegasus mare before you and whispers in her ear.
  58. >"It would have been most unfortunate if you had."
  59. >Mom coaxes Cirrus off the ground with a hoof.
  60. >"Rise, my little pony. No harm, no foul..."
  61. >Cirrus bows to your mom, then turns to you, her face a dynamic mix of embarrassment and regret.
  62. >"I'm gonna leave now, Anon."
  63. >"A wise decision, dear." Mom answers for you.
  64. >With that, Cirrus Wisp darts out your tower window like greased lightning.
  65. >"*tut tut tut* What am I going to do with you, Anonymous?" Princess Celestia asks as the struts up to you.
  66. >Recognizing your shame, you move to cover yourself but an all-too-familiar gold aura restrains you.
  67. >She gazes down to your still-erect member and grins.
  68. >"So THAT'S what you look like fully engorged," she says in a low, almost-growling voice.
  69. >To your utter shock, she reaches out and pats your cock with a bare white hoof, making it rebound like a diving board.
  70. >"No medial ring, and the tip is quite different," she says to herself, barely above a whisper. "How interesting."
  71. >Her feathers join in to cradle your balls.
  72. >"But more than enough to do the job and please a mare," she adds. "Excellent."
  73. "Are you fucking kidding me, mom!?" you yell at her as she walks towards your closet.
  74. >"Language, Sunshine."
  75. "You cock block me, intimidate my marefriend, fondle said cock, then chastise me about my language?"
  76. >"Are you implying I did something wrong?"
  77. "Mother. You basically dipped a hoof into the cesspool known as 'incest' just now. As in sexual relations between family members, which happens to by VERY taboo, in case you weren't aware."
  78. >"Don't take that tone with me, young stallion," your mother scoffs. "I am more than aware of what it is. After all, I was around when it was not only practiced, but encouraged in certain circles."
  79. >You have no words.
  80. >Mom resumes her short trek to your closet, magic chiming as she enters.
  81. "What are you doing?"
  82. >"Finding something nice for you to wear."
  83. "Why? Are we expecting somepony important?"
  84. >She peeks out from behind the door frame, excitement barely piercing the veil of composure she normally wears so well.
  85. >"She's already here and waiting to meet you."
  86. "Hold on a minute," you begin, raising your hands for emphasis. "I'm not ready to meet some dignitary or whoever-"
  87. >"Whomever, dearest."
  88. "Fine. Whomever she is, she can wait."
  89. >Mom floats several shirts and pants out, inspecting them as she exits the closet.
  90. >"What makes you think you can dictate the terms of your obligations to me?" she asks in an almost-disinterested tone.
  91. "I'm not in the right state of mind for this! My own mother just fondled me like it was no big deal! You can't just go around touching cocks- it ain't right!"
  92. >She chuckles.
  93. "Not only that, but you did it after placing such a big importance on my 'purity'! Seriously, what gives?"
  94. >Magic-enveloped outfits float in front of your naked form.
  95. >Your mother hums to herself as she lines up various combinations of garments in front of you.
  96. >"Ah! There we go. I love how this shirt brings out your eyes."
  97. "Are we seriously not going to talk about this?"
  98. >"Anonymous," she sighs, "would you prefer that I finish the job your little friend started?"
  99. "What!? NO!"
  100. >In an instant her snout is pressed against your nose.
  101. >Far into the depths of her eyes you see the smoldering embers of a fire threatening to spring to life.
  102. >"Then I suggest you drop the issue, lest I traumatize you further. Perhaps I'd start with the declaration of a national 'Penis Inspection Day', hmm?"
  103. >She caps off the encounter by giving your neck a long, drawn-out lick.
  104. >Just like that, the fire in her eyes is gone, and her gentle smile returns.
  105. >"Quickly, Sunshine. We mustn't keep her waiting!"
  106. >What in Tartarus was that?
  107. >Sure, Mom's had weird outbursts in the recent past when you've challenged her, but nothing like this.
  108. >She's never outright molested or threatened you before.
  109. >It was almost as if...
  110. >Oh shit, she's saying something.
  111. >"... how excited I am for you two to meet!"
  112. >It's probably in your best interests if you swallow your misgivings and play along for the time being, difficult as it may be.
  113. "So, uh... what's she like?"
  114. >Mom giggles.
  115. >"You'll find out soon enough! Your imagination will have to do until then."
  116. >Pulling the shirt she selected over your head, you give a hum of contemplation.
  117. "I'm imagining a pegasus mare..."
  118. >"Not quite..."
  119. "Ooh! Please tell me she's a tauress with massive teats!"
  120. >"Heavens, no. But it is my hope that you two will work together to improve our diplomatic relations with the minotaur empire."
  121. >Mom notices your perplexed look and sighs again.
  122. >"Anonymous," she begins, "there's so much you don't know; don't understand. There are events that I must set in motion, not only for the good of Equestria, but for your own well-being."
  123. >Now that you're fully dressed, she uses her wings to fuss with your hair.
  124. "My own well-being? Mom, what are you talking about?"
  125. >"Trust me, son. Things may be... rough... at first, but as long as you keep an open mind and heart, in time you'll grow to love her."
  126. "Love?" you chortle. "Heh, Cirrus won't be happy about that."
  127. >"Who?"
  128. "Cirrus Wisp? The pretty petite pegasus you scared out of here five minutes ago?"
  129. >Mom scrunches her muzzle.
  130. >"What about her?"
  131. >You groan.
  132. "I was hoping to introduce you under better circumstances, but Cirrus Wisp is my marefriend."
  133. >Your mother lights her horn, but not before shooting you a stern look.
  134. >"Not anymore."
  135. "Hold on," you begin to reply with a stern look of your own, "you don't get to decide-"
  136. >That was all you managed to get out before the golden aura enveloped you.
  137. >The chiming of your mother's magic rings in your ears and the next thing you see is a kaleidoscope of colors.
  138. >Reality lurches back to normal an instant later.
  139. >It never gets any easier, and this time is no different.
  140. "Mom," you groan while struggling to maintain your footing, "you know how much I hate to teleport."
  141. >She uses a massive ivory wing to steady you, then kisses your cheek.
  142. >"Chin up, darling. We're here."
  143. >Her magic chimes again, opening the massive wooden door before you.
  144. >It creaks as it swings open, allowing a faint, sweet smell to greet you.
  145. >Mom enters first, ever the paragon of poise.
  146. >You adjust your posture and follow, hoping to radiate the calm, confident demeanor your mother was known for.
  147. >This conference room, if you could call it that, was smaller than most the castle had to offer; more intimate
  148. >A single window on the left wall permitted a fresh summer breeze to flow, its curtains dancing with unsteady undulations.
  149. >To your right is a hearth, cold from its summer dormancy.
  150. >A round, rustic hoof-carved table stands to your two o'clock, and behind that is a sofa upon which sits an...
  151. "Alicorn?" you blurt out in spite of your lifetime of etiquette lessons. "There's another alicorn in Equestria!?"
  152. >Mom glances back to smile at you.
  153. >"Indeed, there is."
  154. "But that would make her a-"
  155. >"Princess," Mom finishes for you.
  156. >Said princess rises from the couch and gives you a nervous smile.
  157. >She's young.
  158. >Well, you're young too, but she's got to be younger than you.
  159. >She wears a silk sky-blue gown that flatters her physique.
  160. >You smile back at the beautiful young mare in spite of yourself.
  161. >The new mare flutters her wings as she approaches you.
  162. >"Anonymous," Mom continues. "This is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, your betrothed."
  164. Chapter 2
  166. >Confusion.
  167. >Frustration.
  168. >Anger.
  169. >They are the most prominent emotions that make up the maelstrom currently raging within you.
  170. >Throw in a heavy dose of lustful thoughts for good measure.
  171. >For whom, it doesn't presently matter after being blueballed by your own mother.
  172. >That sounds worse than it is without the requisite context, though not by much.
  173. >A lesser stallion would cave to the overwhelming revelation thrust upon him, but not you.
  174. >You are Prince Anonymous, son of Celestia, the unconquered princess of the sun.
  175. >She is the epitome of composure, tact, and calculated action and as such, you have an example to emulate and perpetuate.
  176. >Granted, your outburst at the sight of this "Mi Amore Cadenza" was a misstep on your part, but could anypony seriously blame you?
  177. >After all, you thought Mom was Equestria's only remaining alicorn.
  178. >Precious few seconds have passed since your mother's announcement and in that time your eyes have darted from your mother to Princess Cadenza, and back to your mother again.
  179. >Mom's face is a strange mixture of joy and something that suggests, "Choose your next actions with utmost care."
  180. >You want to unleash your anger at her, to force her to understand what this unexpected hijacking of your life is doing to your psyche.
  181. >You want to roar with the fury of an enraged minotaur bull and flip the heavy wooden table that stands between you and this new princess.
  182. >You want to ravage Cirrus Wisp's cunt with your cock while your mother watches (purely to spite her and her schemes, of course), powerless to prevent you from usurping the dominant position in the family dynamic.
  183. >You want to do all this and more, but your gaze returns to Mi Amore Cadenza.
  184. >The young mare still wears her nervous smile, but it's faltering.
  185. >Try as she might, she can't hide her subtle trembling from your Celestia-trained eyes.
  186. 'Oh gods, don't cry,' your internal monologue says when you see the slightest hint of excess moisture accumulating in the large purple eyes that stare at you.
  187. >Mom always complimented your ability to charm strangers and familiar faces alike with nothing but a smile, so you play to your strengths.
  188. >Subtle breath in, brief pause, even subtler exhale, capped off by a transition to your "Prince Charming" smile.
  189. >The same smile that you used to break the ice with Cirrus Wisp when you first met in Cloudsdale.
  190. >Cadenza is a statue while you cross the room to greet her properly, her eyes growing wider with every step you take.
  191. >She finally moves when you come to a halt one pace away, tilting her head back as she fully comprehends your size.
  192. >As a human you enjoyed a substantial height advantage in this magical world of colorful little ponies.
  193. >Even Mom looks up if she wants to lock eyes with you, and she towers above everypony.
  194. >The pink princess's head barely reaches above your navel, a stark contrast from your mother, whose eyes are level with your collarbone.
  195. >You drop to a knee, maintaining eye contact until her irises are horizontal to your own.
  196. >She's lost in your stare, unaware of the arm that reaches for her right foreleg.
  197. >Only when your fingers have wrapped around her fetlock does she break eye contact with a gasp.
  198. "It's truly my pleasure to meet you Princess Mi Amore Cadenza," you say in the warmest voice you can muster whilst raising her hoof to your lips.
  199. >C'mon, Anon... sell it.
  200. >Still looking in her eyes, you plant a gentle kiss at on her coronet.
  201. >"I-I'm charmed, My Prince," she responds with deep blush. "P-Please, c-call me 'Cadence'."
  202. 'Let's bring it home, now," you think to yourself.
  203. "Anon," you reply with another kiss, this time on her pastern.
  204. >Cadence giggles and surprises you by lunging forward, throwing her forelegs over your shoulders.
  205. 'All too easy.'
  206. >It would be impolite to not return the embrace so you hug her back, prompting Cadence to squeeze you tighter.
  207. >Plus, it'll make for a more convincing performance to your mom.
  208. >Damn, this girl is strong.
  209. >Mom chuckles to herself.
  210. >"Well! What a lovely couple you two make!" she almost sings. "I take my leave. Take advantage of this time and get to know each other, for the wedding is only three days away!"
  211. "THREE DAYS!?" you and Cadence echo back in mutual disbelief.
  212. >"YES!!!" Mom squeals, prancing in place.
  213. "How can you possibly hope to plan a royal wedding in three days?"
  214. >"Don't you worry, Sunshine. I've taken care of everything."
  215. >She trots to you and wraps you in a warm feathery hug, effectively partitioning you off from Cadence with her wings.
  216. >"Remember what I told you," Mom whispers in your ear. "Cadence is a sweet filly and will love you beyond comprehension if you allow her to."
  217. "Mom, this isn't-"
  218. >"Go chat with your fiance, dear."
  219. "Fine," you hiss into her ear. "But you and I are going to 'chat' tonight after I've finished with her. Count on it."
  220. >Your mother pulls away from the hug and smiles at you.
  221. >It's too big, too toothy a grin to be genuine.
  222. >Further augmenting the offensive smile is the distant fire that's returned to her eyes.
  223. >The door's latch locks into place with a dull metallic "click" following Mom's exit from the room, giving a sense of finality to your fate.
  224. >Cadence's hooves clip and clop off the flagstone floor.
  225. >Turning around towards her, you see that she's returned to the sofa.
  226. >Your new fiance shoots you another uncertain smile, this time following it up by patting the couch cushion next to her.
  227. >So lost in your own racing thoughts, it seems you've gone from standing meters away to sitting next to her in the blink of an eye.
  228. >The news, these plans thrust upon you, the implications, the weight of it all- it's starting to feel real, making for a sinking feeling in your stomach.
  229. >You don't bother attempting to return Cadence's smile with one of your own.
  230. >It's fortunate you have the presence of mind to not be angry with her.
  231. >She didn't ask for this... you think.
  232. >Nevertheless, here you sit in silence, paying the mare who is to be your wife no attention besides the occasional glance.
  233. >What should you do?
  234. >What can you do?
  235. >Your thoughts turn to Cirrus.
  236. >How do you break the news to her?
  237. 'Hey honey, the last month has been great and all, but my mom went and found a princess that I have to marry, so, uh... have a nice life?'
  238. >Yeah, that'll go over well with a spirited high-born pegasus like her.
  239. >Cadence's magic chimes through the silence at irregular intervals, but so consumed are you by your meditations that they go unnoticed.
  240. >Only when a pink hoof comes to rest on the back of your hand does your attention return to the mare next to you.
  241. >"So, Anon... care to tell me about yourself?"
  242. >You open your mouth to reply but stop before uttering a single word.
  243. >Shaking your head, you rise and step away from the sofa.
  244. "I can't do this."
  245. >"What do you mean?"
  246. "This," you say, waving your hand at the confines of the conference room. "Having my mother dictate my life to the last detail, as she's always done."
  247. >What can you do?
  248. "You know what? Screw-"
  249. >Cadence leaps off the couch and rushes forward to cut you off, her tri-colored mane waving like a flag on a blustery day in her wake.
  250. >"Wait!" she cries, then rises to place her front hooves on your chest.
  251. >"Anonymous, please, don't leave! I know you don't want me-"
  252. >There's no hiding your grimace.
  253. >She nailed you square in the emotional gut.
  254. >"-but I *know* we were meant to be together! Please, please give me a chance! I want to get to know you, I want to lo-"
  255. >Your index finger taps the mare's nose, silencing her.
  256. "Boop!"
  257. >Cadence scrunches her muzzle and her eyes go cross-eyed at the contact.
  258. "That's adorable."
  259. >Cadence huffs.
  260. >Time to put your charm to work again, Anon, and tell her what you think she wants to hear.
  261. "You're going to be my wife soon..."
  262. 'For better or for worse,' you want to add, but refrain from doing so.
  263. " I'd like to get to know you too, silly filly".
  264. >This makes her smile.
  265. "However, I want to spend quality time with you on *our* terms, not my mother's."
  266. >"Okay... what do you have in mind?"
  267. >Seems your improvised damage control attempt was a success.
  268. "How well do you know Canterlot?"
  269. >"Not at all. I've been confined to the castle since I've arrived."
  270. "My mother's been keeping you as a prisoner?"
  271. >"No! No, she's been wonderful, but she said I'm not to be seen in public until after our wedding."
  272. "But what about the castle staff? I know for a fact that they wouldn't be able to keep word of a new alicorn living in the castle a secret."
  273. >Cadence lights her horn, and it subsequently disappears.
  274. >"Illusory magic! It was one of the first spells Celestia taught me after I ascended."
  275. "Ascended?"
  276. >"I was born a pegasus," she answers. "My ascension only happened a month ago."
  277. "I didn't know such a thing was possible."
  278. >"Neither did your mother."
  279. "Weird," you say, stroking your chin. "Shall we?"
  280. >"But Celestia said-"
  281. "Celestia can get over herself."
  283. -----
  285. >Your heart is pounding with such ferocity that you're surprised Anonymous can't hear it.
  286. >Only twenty minutes into knowing each other and your betrothed is taking you out on a date!
  287. >Well, he didn't call it a "date" per se, but it's just gonna be you and him alone, so that counts, right?
  288. >Right!
  289. >Where is he taking you?
  290. >You know nothing of Canterlot, other than what the ponies of your home village said about it.
  291. >They said it was a beautiful city, but that it also home to the snobby societal "elite".
  292. >What makes somepony elite?
  293. >You had always thought the term pertained to ability, borne of natural talent or desire, and cultivated through hard work.
  294. >Apparently "elite" in Canterlot meant you were born into a wealthy (and therefore, well-connected) family.
  295. >Celestia had warned you about the general attitudes of these ponies in your etiquette lessons.
  296. >The thought makes your heart skip a beat- what if Anon was taking you to an upscale restaurant?
  297. >They'd see right through you!
  298. >Noticing that you've stopped in your tracks, Anon turns and asks, "What's wrong?"
  299. "I'm nervous," you answer, unable to look him in the eyes.
  300. >He smiles at you.
  301. >"Don't be," he answers. "I'll be with you every step of the way. Nopony would dare bother you."
  302. "If you say so..."
  303. >"I do. C'mon."
  304. >Following his lead through the castle, you notice the staff and guards bowing to and saluting him respectively as you traverse the pristine halls.
  305. >How does he move so fluidly on two legs, and so quietly at that?
  306. >Meanwhile, your hoofsteps might as well be thunder echoing off the polished tile floors.
  307. >Great, another thing to feel self-conscious about.
  308. >Celestia's sun warms your fur upon exiting the castle proper.
  309. >Anonymous leads you down a narrow cobblestone path to what you assume is a carriage house.
  310. >What a gentlecolt- he holds the door open for you.
  311. >Suspicions are confirmed upon entering the building.
  312. >Several carriages are parked in a neat row inside their respective bays.
  313. >Some are ornate and ostentatious, others more subdued in both form and decor, but all are immaculate.
  314. >Anon walks past you, bearing straight to an office at your ten o'clock.
  315. >Not a meter behind him, you catch a group of unicorn stallions scrambling to their hooves when Anon enters.
  316. >"Group, attention!" somepony bellows.
  317. >Heavy brass armor rattles and clangs whilst the guards snap to attention, and then all is silent.
  318. >"As you were," Anon says in a manner that reminds you of Celestia.
  319. >He motions for you to join him by his side.
  320. >"Boys, this is Pr- this is Lady Cadenza," he says to the burly stallions that stand abreast opposite him. "You are to treat any request or command of hers as if it came from me. Understood?"
  321. >"Yes, Your Highness," ten voices reply in unison.
  322. >Though you barely know him, you can tell by the way he carries himself, the way he speaks, his mannerisms... he's Celestia's son, through-and-through.
  323. >"Excellent. The Lady and I intend to visit the city proper and thus require my carriage."
  324. >"At once, Your Highness," a stallion with a red mane answers. "Bravo Team, saddle up!"
  325. >The five stallions of Bravo Team give a short cheer and rush out of the office, the penultimate one lingering to hold the door for you and your prince.
  326. >Anonymous rests his hand on the side of your neck, pulling you ever-so-slightly closer to him as you walk.
  327. >His touch is unexpected, but absolutely welcome, as he guides you to one of the smaller carriages.
  328. >This one is unlike the others in that it's devoid of any decorations, be it gold or jewels, save for an all-too-familiar sun-themed cutie mark on its charcoal grey doors.
  329. >It's also smaller than all the others, more elegant in its simple, sleek design; aerodynamic, even.
  330. "Whoa," is all you say as you behold the carriage that looks like it came from one of the science fiction books you totally didn't love to read when nopony was looking.
  331. >"Do you like it?" Anonymous asks as he opens the door for you.
  332. >You climb inside and take a seat.
  333. "I love it." is your hushed reply to your stallion after he sits beside you.
  334. >"Thanks, I designed it myself."
  335. "Really?"
  336. >"Yeah, though it was heavily inspired by the carriages from-"
  337. "Half-Decay Two?" you finish for him.
  338. >Anon's jaw drops.
  339. >"You know about 'Half-Decay'?"
  340. "Of course! I love Leaky Valve's writing! Freemane is one of my favorite fictional heroes of all time!"
  341. >"You're kidding me right now."
  342. "I'm not! Ooh! What do you think happened to Doctor Preen at the end?"
  343. >Anon continues to look at you in wide-eyed disbelief.
  344. >"I- I'm not sure. He might have been killed in the magical explosion, or he just as easily could've made it to the Collective's realm."
  345. >You take advantage of Anon's shock to scoot closer to him until your legs are touching.
  346. "I don't think he made it off the spire."
  347. >"We'll have to wait until Half-Decay Three comes out to know for sure," Anon says, shrugging. "If Valve ever completes it."
  348. "Right!?"
  349. >There's a knock on the partition, which startles you both from your mini geek-out session.
  350. >Anonymous slides the partition open, revealing the red-maned stallion from the office.
  351. >"Bravo Team is ready to roll, My Prince," he says. "Where would you like to go? Upper Quarter? Artisan's District?"
  352. >"No," Anon replies with a smirk. "Take us to Dent's."
  353. >An expression flutters across the unicorn's face, but it's gone before you can identify it.
  354. >"As you command, My Prince."
  356. -----
  358. >Conversation between you and your fiance dwindled to naught after your carriage crossed the castle drawbridge.
  359. >Not that you minded.
  360. >In fact, you'd anticipated this.
  361. >Cadence's stunned silence affords you more time to strategize.
  362. >Should you continue to feign interest in the young mare and tell her what she wants to hear?
  363. >Is placating her the best course of action, or should you be more forthright and work towards establishing an understanding of sorts with her?
  364. >Cadence stares out the darkened windows as your carriage navigates the streets of Canterlot, not bothering to hide her amazement at the alabaster city.
  365. >The lavish mansions and penthouses of the Upper Quarter give way to the chic boutique shops of the Artisan's District as Bravo Team pulls your carriage down the streets cut into the rocks of Canterlot Peak.
  366. >Further down the mountain is Restaurant Row, then the modest apartments of Canterlot's middle class.
  367. >The carriage comes to a halt ten minutes into the ride.
  368. >Counter Charge, leader of Bravo team, opens the door of your ride.
  369. >Cadence follows you out, taking stock of her surroundings.
  370. "Welcome to Lower Canterlot," you tell the wide-eyed mare.
  371. >Her posture is less rigid in this working-class neighborhood than it was in the Upper Quarter.
  372. >"Is this the place?" Cadence asks, pointing to the dingy door that read, "Dented Shield's Inn".
  373. "Indeed."
  374. >You crook your arm towards her.
  375. >She looks at your arm, then your face, confusion apparent in her eyes.
  376. >It only takes a moment for her to understand your intent, and soon, you're walking towards the bar door, her right primaries hooked around your forearm.
  377. >Another member of Bravo opens the door for your entourage, allowing Counter Charge through first, then you and Cadence.
  378. >The bar's dim lighting and rustic decor make for the perfect relaxed locale to get to know this beautiful young princess.
  379. >Silence overtakes the establishment as all patrons' eyes are locked on you and Cadence.
  380. >Counter Charge and another Bravo stallion flank you, their spears pointed to the ceiling in their magical grips.
  381. >"ANON!" a gravely voice roars from behind the bar, making Cadence jump.
  382. >A massive earth pony stallion trots to you grinning ear-to-ear.
  383. "DENT!" you yell back as you stride towards him.
  384. >You drop to a knee and hug the stallion with every last ounce of strength you can muster.
  385. >"It's been a long time, my boy! Too long!" he booms. "And who is this lovely tall filly?"
  386. "Dented Shield, this is Lady Mi Amore Cadenza." you say as you return to your full height. "Lady Cadenza, this is Dented Shield. He was one of my bodyguards for most of my life."
  387. >Dent gives a curt nod to the mare.
  388. >"A pleasure, my lady."
  389. >Cadence wastes no time in closing the distance with the burly stallion.
  390. >She stops short of him, holds out her hoof and says, "I wish a good harvest to you and your family."
  391. >Everypony is watching Cadence with varying levels of shock etched upon their faces.
  392. >Dented Shield taps the warped floorboards twice with a massive forehoof, then touches it to Cadence's.
  393. >"The earth provides for those that tend to her," he replies, as is the custom. "May your strength endure for many seasons at the plow."
  394. >They shake hooves, and the ponies watching the exchange begin to whisper among themselves.
  395. >Dent looks to you.
  396. >"I *like* this one, Anon," he says with a grin. "I take it you and the lady will be wanting a private booth?"
  397. "Yes, please."
  398. >"Right this way."
  399. >Situated in the furthest corner away from the main entrance is the best private booth Dented Shield has available.
  400. >It's rather nice for a dive bar in Lower Canterlot.
  401. >A brass candelabra stands alone atop the table, tarnished brass finish glinting in the flickering candlelight.
  402. >Dent waits for you and Cadence to settle in your seats before passing you the drink menu.
  403. >"Don't know why I'm giving you this," he scoffs. "Cider to start?"
  404. "You know me," you reply, handing the menu to Cadence.
  405. >"Forgive me, but is she old enough to be drinking?"
  406. >Cadence drops the menu.
  407. >"Of course I am!"
  408. >"Alright, Miss, alright. Didn't mean no offense by it."
  409. >"None taken."
  410. >As Cadence looks over the menu, Dent mouths the words, "Who is she?"
  411. >After ensuring the mare is still reading, you mouth back, "Fiance."
  412. >Dent's eyes grow wide.
  413. >Not wanting to practice lip reading any more, you speak up.
  414. "Cadence?"
  415. >"Yes?"
  416. "I'm going to step outside with Dented Shield for a minute while you look over the menu. Be back soon."
  417. >Cadence giggles.
  418. >"Aww, how cute! A couple of big strong stallions sneaking off to gossip like schoolhouse fillies!"
  419. >You scoff.
  420. >Dent's booming laugh carries throughout the tavern.
  421. >Cadence shoots you a toothy grin.
  422. >"Have a nice time, sweetie!"
  423. >Dent laughs even harder as he gives you a shove to his office, a few paces away from your booth.
  424. >Counter Charge and two of his counterparts take up positions near the booth entrance following your departure.
  425. >The click of the door latching has just reached your ears when you're unceremoniously tossed halfway across the room into a worn canvas chair.
  426. "I see you haven't lost your touch," you say, noticing how you've landed perfectly in the seat.
  427. >"Just like old times," he growls back.
  428. >You've known him too long to be fooled by his faux-neutral face.
  429. "What's got your harness in a twist?"
  430. >"What do you think?" he replies in a half-whisper. "That ain't no high-born pegagsus out there."
  431. "How do you figure?"
  432. >"Heck, ain't no pegasus gonna know an old-fashioned earth pony greeting like that, I guaranteee you."
  433. "So?"
  434. >"So!? Last I hear, you're courtin' some petite Cloudsdale noblemare, then you walk through my door with that giant filly in tow? "
  435. >He stares in your eyes.
  436. >"That girl's taller'n me, 'n got a huge, smothering raw magical presence, not refined like your mom... clearly knows the old earth pony traditions."
  437. "What do you want me so say, Papa Dent? I just met her an hour ago!"
  438. >"But you're set to marry her."
  439. "Yeah," you say, sighing.
  440. >"Your mom's doing?"
  441. "How could you tell?"
  442. >"I figure I'm not supposed to know about that... or her, for that matter."
  443. "Right again. Nopony's supposed to know about her until the wedding."
  444. >Dent sighs.
  445. >"Alright, I won't press the issue. But if you need to vent, you come find your Papa Dent, just like old times."
  446. >He gives you one of his signature not-quite-bonecrushing hugs.
  447. >"C'mon, let's not keep her waiting."
  448. >Time to put your mask on again.
  449. >You follow the gruff stallion out of the office, back to your booth.
  450. >The guards part and give the booth a respectable berth following your return.
  451. >"Did you two enjoy your girl talk?" Cadence asks as she flutters her eyelashes at you.
  452. "Oh, ha ha."
  453. >She gives your shoulder a playful shove.
  454. >"Have you decided on what you'd like, my lady?"
  455. >"Yep! I'll have a large glass of your unfiltered wheat beer and a double shot of Labarynthian blood whiskey."
  456. >Neither you or Dent can help the queer looks you give her.
  457. >"Oh, and get the same thing for Anon instead of that weak cider he apparently likes."
  458. >Dented Shield smiles.
  459. >"Right away, my lady," he says with a polite bow before muttering under his breath, "Boy, what have you gotten yourself into?"
  460. >You don't know where to start with this girl.
  461. >Cadence is apparently content to wait for your drinks in silence if the demure smile she wears is any indication.
  462. >Your former bodyguard is quick to return with your drinks.
  463. >"Here you are, lovebirds," he says as he sets the drinks in front of you. "A promising start for a wild night, if that's what you had in mind."
  464. >With that, he bows once more and is gone.
  465. "What did he mean by that?"
  466. >Cadence raises her shot glass with her right wing, so you follow suit.
  467. >"Pour the blood whiskey slowly into your beer in a spiral path," she instructs.
  468. >You comply with her wishes and watch how the viscous liquid becomes suspended throughout the beer, but never fully mixed.
  469. >"To our future together," Cadence with a grin says as she lifts her glass.
  470. "To our future together," you echo with the best fake smile you can muster.
  471. >You clink your glass with hers, then take a deep swig.
  472. >Good heavens, the blood whiskey burns.
  473. >The beer helps take the edge off though.
  474. "What- what do you call this concoction?" you ask, wiping your eyes.
  475. >"Back home, we call this a 'Minotaur Battlefield'."
  476. "Back home, huh? Where is that?"
  477. >"Last Chance."
  478. "Last chance for what?"
  479. >"No, silly. 'Last Chance' is the name of my home village."
  480. "That's a rather foreboding name."
  481. >"But a fitting one, considering it's just outside the border of the Undiscovered West."
  482. >You nearly spit-take your Minotaur Battlefield.
  483. >Cadence gives your back a few firm thumps with her hoof as you cough.
  484. "You... *cough* you're from the western frontier?"
  485. >"Yep! Last Chance is in the forest nestled at the base of the mountains that marks the boundary of the Undiscovered West. It's literally the last Equestrian settlement on the western border, hence the name."
  486. >This doesn't make sense.
  487. "What was a high-born pegasus such as yourself doing living in a desolate area like that? As far as I know, none of the noble houses have a presence west of Las Pegasus."
  488. >Cadence looks away and fidgets in her seat.
  489. >Her wings flutter and her ears droop.
  490. "Cadence?"
  491. >"Anonymous," she says, taking her time to look back at you. "I'm not from a noble house. I'm an orphan."
  492. >What.
  493. "Excuse me?"
  494. >Cadence sighs.
  495. >She traces her hoof along the tabletop's wood grain.
  496. >"I was found just outside the border of the Undiscovered West when I was a newborn foal. The earth pony couple that discovered me looked everywhere for my parents, but nopony ever came to claim me."
  497. >Your fiance continues to stare at the table, not daring to look up from the marred wooden surface while she relates her tale.
  498. >"Those earth ponies... they had buried their own foal, their firstborn, days prior to finding me. I was starving, freezing, not long for this world, and they took me in without hesitation."
  499. >Cadence thumps her hoof to her chest, then to the table.
  500. >"Pine Bough nursed me at her teat like I was her own foal. Blue Spruce protected me and spoiled me as much as a poor lumberjack could possibly spoil his daughter. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them."
  501. "That explains how you knew that old earth pony greeting..."
  502. >"Last Chance is a very old-fashioned place," Cadence responds, nodding. "It's a hard place filled with hard ponies."
  503. "Hard ponies like you?"
  504. >She scoffs.
  505. >"I wish. Sure, I hauled timber, pulled stumps, and plowed clearings as soon as I was big enough to wear a work collar. But I was just a filly, and a pegasus at that. I didn't have the raw strength of my Papa and Mama."
  506. >You see a smirk creep over her face.
  507. >"But nopony had my heart," she adds as her chest puffs out. "I was never the biggest or strongest, but I always pulled my weight and then some."
  508. >It's your turn to stare at the table, as you've never felt more inadequate.
  509. >And to think, this pretty pink princess's origin story was all it took to throw your soft, pampered upbringing into sharp focus.
  510. >Being a bright pink pegasus in a town full of dull-colored earth ponies made her a prime target for bullies.
  511. >She had to learn to stand up for herself at a very young age, becoming adept at throwing hooves when the situation called for it.
  512. >Perhaps you should be the one in the silk gown and Cadence the one wearing the sword at your hip.
  513. >If her stories of foalhood scuffles had any truth to them, she could probably wield it better than you.
  514. >Whatever; beside the point.
  515. >Your new insecurities couple with the lingering emotions from earlier, making for a bitter brew in your gut.
  516. >Part of that could be the alcohol.
  517. >Regardless, it's left you uncharacteristically tongue-tied, so you let Cadence dominate the conversation.
  518. >She tells you of her home, her foalhood friends; the sequence of events that led to her ascension.
  519. >Throughout it all you both continue to drink, Cadence becoming more animated with every subsequent Minotaur Battlefield she puts away.
  520. >Say what you will about the minotaurs, their booze does what it's supposed to.
  521. >The blood whiskey carries your concerns away for future Anonymous to worry about.
  522. >You're able to forget about your new predicament and simply enjoy having a conversation with a pretty mare.
  523. >Cadence's magic chimes at infrequent intervals, but you don't see her aura or what she's using her magic for.
  524. >Inquiries into her magical activities only yield blushes and stammering.
  525. >She's reticent to speak to the nature of her magic, or fully explain her special talent.
  526. >If you weren't buzzed, you might press the issue more.
  527. >It's probably the booze, but you feel more drawn to her the more you look at her.
  528. >With every chime of her magic you become acutely aware of a growing need, a compulsion, to touch her.
  529. >Her eyes are inviting; her smile disarming.
  530. >That thick, fluffy chest fur peeking out of her low-cut gown is just begging your hand to explore it.
  531. >As if sensing your want, Cadence scoots closer to you.
  532. >You really shouldn't be doing this...
  533. >Another faint chime reaches your ears, but you think nothing of it.
  534. >You suddenly feel more cavalier about giving in to your impulses.
  535. >No words are spoken as you reach for her.
  536. >She shudders when your hand caresses her neck, eyes close in satisfaction when you run your fingers through her mane.
  537. >You hold a silent debate with yourself on whether taking this petting any further is a good idea.
  538. >Cadence brings about a premature end to your contemplation by scooting onto your lap.
  539. >Any remnants of inhibitions you clung to were banished to the moon when she licks your neck.
  540. >"I'm going to be your wife soon, Anon," she breathes in your ear. "Why does your heart feel closed?"
  541. >She plants a kiss on your neck, sucking softly on your skin before pulling away with a wet *smack*.
  542. >"I want to love you, Anonymous," she says before planting another kiss on your jaw. "Will you let me love you?"
  543. >You plunge your hand into that thick luxurious pink chest fur that's been teasing you since you met this pony.
  544. >Cadence gasps, flaps her wings a few beats, and hooks a hoof behind your head; pulling you to her.
  545. >Heavy, hurried hooves stomp on the hardwood floor towards you, causing you and Cadence to jolt.
  546. >She slides off your lap but leans against your chest, a deep blush set on her cheeks.
  547. >Dented Shield peeks behind the curtain that partitions your booth from the rest of the tavern.
  548. >"Head's up, Anon!" he growls just loud enough for you to hear. "Somepony's here looking for you."
  549. "Who?"
  550. >"I dunno," Dent answers with a shrug. "Some petite pegasus-"
  551. >"ANON! I know you're in here! Where are you?" a familiar mare's voice pierces through the tavern over Dent's whispers.
  552. "Oh, shit."
  553. >"Anon?" Cadence asks, rubbing a hoof over your chest. "What's wrong, honey?"
  554. "Cirrus Wisp," you groan.
  555. >"Who's Cirrus Wisp?"
  556. >"His *marefriend*!" Cirrus Wisp answers for you, fluttering over an apologetic-looking Dent. "Who are YOU, and why are touching my stallion?"
  557. 'Cirrus, this is Lady Mi Amore Cadenza.'
  558. 'Cirrus, I must speak with you privately.'
  559. 'Hey, Cirrus... a funny thing happened after my mom caught you blowing me.'
  560. 'Hey, listen up everypony! There I was, minding my own business when Princess Celestia pinned me against my bedroom wall and fondled my junk against my will. Funny thing is, I was rock hard for all of it!'
  561. 'He didn't fly so good!'
  562. 'Cadence, remember that part in Half-Decay Two when Freemane got his crowbar back? That was some good shit, heh heh heh...'
  563. 'Dent, if you ever truly loved me like a son, cave my head in right now. Please do me this kindness.'
  564. 'Let me bring you love from the field; poppies red and roses filled with summer rain~'
  565. 'Cirrus Wisp, I'm leaving you to start a harem with my mother, her new-ish assistant, and this fine leggy thing sitting next to me.'
  566. >Saying ANYTHING at this point would've been better than your present course of action.
  567. >Probably.
  568. >Instead you continue to sit in motionless silence, an arm still resting around Cadence's barrel whilst sporting a classic "I'm fucked and everypony knows it" expression.
  569. >Cadence takes the initiative.
  570. >"Hello there," she begins with an honest attempt at a disarming smile, "I am Mi Amore Cadenza."
  571. >Cirrus doesn't reply.
  572. >Understandably so- it's hard to talk when her jaw is clenched and her normally-cornflower blue face is turning red.
  573. >She's shaking now and wings are coming unfurled.
  574. >"Anon?" Cadence asks.
  575. >She nudges your shoulder.
  576. >"Anon, darling, I could really use your help right now," she whispers.
  577. >"WHAT did you just call him?"
  578. >Okay, maybe it wasn't a true whisper; more of a "you've got a solid buzz going and think you can still be discreet should the need arise" quasi-whisper.
  579. >Cirrus stomps up to your free side.
  580. >"Anonymous, get up. You're leaving with me."
  581. >You look to Dent.
  582. >He now stands further away from the booth with your guard entourage, all of them trying to hide their excited grins.
  583. >Assholes.
  584. >What should you do?
  585. >If you tell Cirrus things are over between you, she'll demand to know why and then you'll have to spill the beans about your betrothal.
  586. >Word of your impending nuptials would erupt across the land, making for a fiasco that you would be held accountable for.
  587. >Should you continue to do nothing, not only will it give Cadence the wrong impression, it'll afford these two mares an opportunity to escalate this tense confrontation.
  588. >That settles it; can't let things-
  589. >"He's not going anywhere." Cadence taunts. "He's mine and will be mine for all time!"
  590. >She wraps her forelegs around your torso and... starts gnawing on your shirt?
  591. >Wisp's jaw drops.
  592. >Bits are hastily piled in the center of the table from where Dent and your guards have gathered to observe the unfolding drama.
  593. >Weren't you supposed to be intervening?
  594. "Ladies," you begin, finally breaking your silence, "there's no need for-"
  595. >"Ladies!?" Wisp interjects. "If that foal is a lady, then I'm-"
  596. >"I'm not a foal!" Cadence retorts after spitting out a mouthful of your shirt. "I'm seventeen, thank you very much!"
  597. >She resumes nuzzling your chest and neck.
  598. >"GET. YOUR. HOOVES. OFF. HIM."
  599. >Cadence complies, if only to slam down the rest of her drink.
  600. >She licks her lips and smiles at Cirrus.
  601. >"Or else what?" Cadence asks in a sweet voice while fluttering her eyelashes at the other mare.
  602. >Cirrus looks like she's been slapped.
  603. >"Didn't think that far ahead, did ya?" Cadence asks as she slides out of her seat. "You high-borns are all the same- so quick to make threats but rarely possessing the fortitude to follow through when challenged."
  604. >Now free of the booth's confines and on all four hooves, Cadence shakes out her legs and begins to walk towards Wisp, who, to her credit, moves to meet her.
  605. >Dent and the boys have acquired popcorn.
  606. >Assholes.
  607. >Cirrus puffs out her wings.
  608. >Cadence responds in kind, her purple-tinged wingspan dwarfing that of her challenger.
  609. >Your (soon to be) ex-marefriend is undeterred by the obvious size advantage Cadence enjoys.
  610. >"'You high-borns'?" Cirrus scoffs. "You mean to tell me that you're not even from a noble house?"
  611. >"I'm not. I'm an orphan." Cadence declares loud enough for the entire tavern to hear. "I was found and raised by earth ponies on the western frontier."
  612. >You catch Dent nodding to himself, mouthing the words, "That explains a lot."
  613. >"Then let me explain something to YOU, 'Lady' Cadenza," Cirrus yells, giving Cadence a shove. "Peasants like you don't get to court royalty!"
  614. >Cadence growls at the word "peasants".
  615. >"And if you don't like it," Wisp adds, continuing to jab at Cadence's chest, "you can fly back to the hovel you crawled out of and cry to your mud pony mother-"
  616. >SMACK
  617. >Cirrus Wisp's head jolts from the impact of Cadence's hoof to her face.
  618. >"Say that again, noble bitch." Cadence spits at a stunned Wisp. "Insult my mom again."
  619. >Wisp rubs her cheek and smirks. "You're nothing, peasant. You're not even a true pegasus; just a filthy mud pony like your mom, only you've got feathers-"
  620. >Cadence roars and lunges forward, but Wisp is ready this time.
  621. >She dodges Cadence's heavy, alcohol-delayed foreleg blows and takes to the air, the tavern's vaulted ceilings affording her enough room to maneuver by wing.
  622. >Your guards move to intervene.
  623. >They're talked down by a smirking Dented Shield.
  624. >The bar's other patrons are quick to move to the room's perimeter as the fight develops.
  625. >For whatever reason you're enthralled by the spectacle of mare-on-mare combat and as such, stay where you are to watch the situation spiral out of control.
  626. >Cirrus Wisp presses the advantage of her speed and Cadence's intoxication, scoring several quick hoof strikes to Cadence's barrel and neck.
  627. >Cadence stands her ground- literally- choosing not to take flight.
  628. >She swings at Wisp with her forelegs and bucks when attacked from the rear, but none of her blows connect; all narrowly missing their target.
  629. >"You're going to have to do better than that, mud pony!" Wisp taunts. "I won Cloudsdale's 'Best Young Flyer' competition three years in a row!"
  630. >Cadence scowls, leaps back towards your table, and uses her wings to hurl empty beer mugs at the attacking mare.
  631. >Cirrus dodges the first and second, but the third hits the leading edge of her right wing with a heavy *thump*, sending her careening into the cushioned seat of an adjacent booth.
  632. >She's quick to scramble out of the booth and is immediately tackled to the floor by Cadence.
  633. >THUMP
  634. >Cadence lands a blow to Wisp's barrel, making her cry out in pain.
  635. >"That's for ruining my date!"
  636. >THUMP
  637. >"That's for calling me a peasant!"
  638. >Cirrus raises her forelegs to shield herself from the next blow, but they're immediately batted down.
  639. >Cadence grunts as she throws her final punch.
  640. >It connects with Cirrus's jaw, snapping her head to the side.
  641. >Bloody teeth escape from Wisp's mouth when her head bounces off the floor.
  642. >"AND THAT'S FOR MY MAMA PINE BOUGH!" Cadence roars over the unconscious noblemare.
  643. >Cadence flares her wings, snorts, stands up on her hind legs, then slams her forehooves on the wooden floor.
  644. >She throws her head from side to side, neighing at the top of her lungs; a clear challenge to everypony in the bar.
  645. >You're rock hard at what's transpired; so turned on.
  646. >This is hotter than the time Raven Inkwell lifted her tail and winked at you after she caught you oogling her flanks.
  647. >Fetish: acquired.
  648. >Oh yeah, you're totally having sexual thoughts about this later.
  649. >Cadence turns and struts back to your table, wings flared in an overt display of dominance.
  650. "Wow," is all you can say to the mare. "Cadence, that was..."
  651. >"Outstanding!" Dent finishes for you in his booming voice whilst securing bits won from your frowning guards. "You've done your kin proud, lass!"
  652. >Cadence squees and throws herself at you.
  653. >Your vision is awash with pink.
  654. >Bones, muscle, and sinew stand proud to Cadence's crushing hug.
  655. >There's her magic chiming again.
  656. >"Oh, Anonymous!" she coos in your ear as she clambers onto your lap. "I'm sorry, when she said those nasty things, I just- *gasp!*"
  657. >Cadence pulls away from her embrace to look in your eyes.
  658. >Her face is flushed crimson when she shifts her weight on the unexpected protrusion, eyes wide after confirming the source.
  659. >Rather than show embarrassment at your arousal, you own it, and seize her hoof in your firm grasp.
  660. >Your thumb strokes around her coronet and cannon; fingers simultaneously caressing the frog.
  661. >A small part of you wonders why you're being affectionate with the mare with who beat the shit out of your marefriend, when you should be rendering first aid to said marefriend.
  662. >Or be checking on her, at the very least.
  663. >Perhaps it would be best to calm Cadence down first.
  664. >Her blood is still up, so to speak.
  665. "Shh," you whisper into your shuddering fiance's ear, pulling her close.
  666. >Throwing caution to the wind, you follow that up with a kiss below her ear and another whisper.
  667. "You're a good pony, Cadence."
  668. >This good pony melts into you with a sigh, a dopey smile brightening her lovely face; chin resting on your shoulder.
  669. >One angry mare is out cold, the other pacified by your affections.
  670. >A cursory glance around the bar reveals Dent and the other tavern staff cleaning up after the brawl.
  671. >The bar patrons have gone back to tending to their own business, thank the Sun.
  672. >Counter Charge is talking to another member of your entourage who is scanning Cirrus with a lit horn.
  673. >An attempt to extricate yourself from the booth and join him is brought to a premature end by Cadence, who wraps all four limbs around you.
  674. >You snap your fingers and motion to Charge with your free hand.
  675. >"Orders, Your Highness?" Counter Charge asks.
  676. >"What's her condition?" you ask, pointing to Cirrus.
  677. >"Doc says she's got three broken ribs, a hairline fracture in her left cannon bone, broken jaw, and three missing teeth. Oh, and she'll undoubtedly have a concussion."
  678. "Shit."
  679. >Cadence ruffles her feathers in your embrace, letting out a soft, "Hmfph!" into your neck.
  680. "Can he patch her up?"
  681. >"It'd be a stretch with all those injuries, My Prince. Dental work can be very tricky. The safer course of action would be to take her to Canterlot General and let their emergency medical staff sort her out."
  682. "Is it safe to move her?"
  683. >"Doc's got an immobilizing spell set, but she needs immediate care."
  684. "How fast can you get her to the hospital?"
  685. >"Seconds if he and another one of the team take her in a joint teleport."
  686. "Very well. Make it happen."
  687. >"By your will, My Prince."
  688. >Cadence begins to peck at your neck; soft, short, kisses that tickle.
  689. >Doc and another unicorn lay down on either side of Wisp.
  690. >They charge their horns and yell, "No homo!" to each other before touching horns and teleporting themselves and Cirrus Wisp out of sight.
  691. >"Anon, my sweet..."
  692. >Cadence's breath is hot and smells of spiced whiskey.
  693. >She begins to grind her rump on your crotch.
  694. >"...aren't you going to pay attention to me again?"
  695. >By the gods, you can't allow this excursion to become more out-of-hoof than it already has.
  696. "Cadence," you say as you take care to lift her from your lap without touching any sensitive areas, "we need to leave. Now."
  697. >"But Anon..."
  698. "Charge! Where's the carriage?"
  699. >"Out back, Your Highness."
  700. "Good. Saddle up. We're leaving."
  701. >Charge and the remaining guards position themselves around you and a now-stumbling Cadence.
  702. >Heavy hoofsteps announce Dent's return.
  703. >"Off so soon?"
  704. "Well..."
  705. >Cadence stands on two hooves again in an attempt to pull your face to hers.
  706. >Dent chuckles while your fiance tries to kiss you.
  707. >"Good luck, Anon. Nothin' like a wild beauty to make you feel alive."
  708. >You toss a small sack to him.
  709. >He catches it, the contents jingling as he does.
  710. "Thanks for everything, Papa Dent."
  711. >Dent nods, smiling with a full sack of bits secured in his bite.
  712. >Cadence ceases her affections to bid your surrogate father figure farewell.
  713. >She returns to all fours then moves to give Dent a hug.
  714. >"Bye, Mister Shield! Hope to *hic* see you again soon!"
  715. >Dent drops his bit bag and laughs, returning Cadence's crushing hug with one of his own.
  716. >"You're a strong one, Cadence. I know you'll take good care of my boy."
  717. >The hug breaks.
  718. >Both ponies smile at each other.
  719. >"If you ever need anything, you come find your Uncle Dent, ya hear?"
  720. >Canterlot Peak's cool night air shocks your senses when you slip out the back entrance.
  721. >With the sudden drop in temperature comes a drastic increase in mental clarity.
  722. >You help Cadence inside the carriage while the guards hook up to their harnesses.
  723. "Take us back to the castle to drop off Lady Cadenza, then take me back into the city proper- Canterlot General," you say to Counter Charge.
  724. >"Yes, Your Highness."
  725. >The door has just closed and the carriage lurches forward, sending Cadence's face into your chest.
  726. >"Hey, you." She says with a coquettish grin. "Where were we?"
  727. "Cadence, let's slow down."
  728. >She frowns at you.
  729. >"Why?"
  730. "Because you're drunk. It's not right."
  731. >"You're drunk too, Mister," she retorts before sucking at your neck.
  732. >*pop*
  733. >That's going to leave a mark.
  734. >Once again, you try to gently lift her out of your lap.
  735. >The carriage hits a pothole, jolting you both.
  736. >Before you know it, Cadence has all four limbs wrapped around you.
  737. >"Why is your heart closed off, Anonymous?" Cadence asks as she rest her head on your shoulder. "Why won't you accept my love?"
  738. "It's not closed off!"
  739. >"Yes it is."
  740. "How would you know?"
  741. >You hear her magic chime again.
  742. >"Let me love you, Anonymous. I want you to feel it."
  743. >The chiming intensifies.
  744. >Warmth spills over your body; akin to slipping into a hot bath.
  745. >You feel surrounded by an overwhelming presence.
  746. >It envelops you; permeates your being.
  747. >You feel as if you're being hugged and you've naught a care in the world.
  748. >The dark confines of the carriage melt away.
  749. >Where once was the cold night is now the warm, comforting sun you've come to know and love.
  750. >Rolling hills surround you, covered by long grass that reaches your knees.
  751. >Soft giggling reaches your ears.
  752. >Whirling around to identify the source, you see Cadence prancing towards you.
  753. >She tackles you to the ground but the impact doesn't hurt.
  754. >You open your mouth to speak.
  755. >Cadence cuts you off with a kiss.
  756. >Raw, unfiltered energy courses up and down your limbs at her affection.
  757. >The colors of your surroundings become more vibrant; the features, hyper-focused.
  758. >Blue cloudless sky and green hills whirl around to form a kaleidoscope of sorts in the background.
  759. >'I want to love you, Anonymous,' Cadence's voice echoes in your mind. 'Why won't you open your heart to me?'
  760. >You force Cadence away from you, breaking the kiss.
  761. >'Anon? What's wrong, darling?' you hear her say in your mind while smiling at you.
  762. 'This! It's too much!
  763. >You try to yell for your guards to no avail.
  764. >'Anonymous, please! Don't fight me!'
  765. 'No! Stop this at once! I cant take it!'
  766. >With that thought, your veins are ice.
  767. >The interior of the carriage seems to warp and stretch into place around you, bringing Cadence back with it.
  768. >You push her away- not out of malice, but reflexive reaction to everything you've experienced.
  769. >Her rump hits the carriage floor and she grunts.
  770. "What- *gasp* was... THAT?"
  771. Cadence returns to the seat beside you.
  772. >"Anon," she begins, reaching for you, "that was me. That was..."
  773. >You recoil from her touch.
  774. >" love... for you."
  775. >She hangs her head and sighs.
  776. >"I guess you weren't ready for that yet," she whispers before turning away. "I'm sorry."
  777. "Cadence-"
  778. >The carriage comes to a sudden halt.
  779. >Familiar spires loom outside the windows.
  780. >Cadence tries to stifle her sniffling and wipes her eyes.
  781. >The door swings open.
  782. >"My Lady, Your Highness, welcome back to-"
  783. >Your fiance is a blur of blue and pink as she leaps from the carriage and into the air.
  784. >Despite the distance she's put between herself and the carriage, you can her pained sobs carrying through the still, silent night.
  785. >"Did we do something wrong, My Prince?" Counter Charge asks with concern in his voice.
  786. "No, Counter Charge." you say.
  787. >You brush yourself off upon exiting the carriage and scan the sky for any sign of Cadence.
  788. >She's nowhere to be found.
  789. "It was me. I fucked up."
  790. >There's a snapping sound and a blistering surge of heat beside you.
  791. >"Oh, my son. That doesn't even begin to describe it."
  793. Chapter 3
  795. >Thank Harmony for the numbing effects of alcohol.
  796. >It certainly took the edge off your unexpected teleportation to the throne room.
  797. >The heat radiating off your mother on the other hoof... that was harder to ignore.
  798. >Despite her public facade remaining perpetually unblemished, she had become more intense in private.
  799. >She hadn't always been like that.
  800. >Her subtle behavioral changes started recently; three months ago, perhaps?
  801. >There's the all-to-familiar chime of her magic, a blast of golden light, and finally, she stomps her hoof.
  802. >Great, she's sealed and soundproofed the cavernous hall.
  803. >"What do you have to say for yourself?"
  804. >No.
  805. >You're not going to allow her to control this conversation the way she's controlled your life.
  806. "I should ask you the same question. In fact, I will."
  807. >Mom looks like you just slapped her muzzle, though she's quick to hide her shock.
  808. >"Excuse me?"
  809. >You take several steps away, making a point to show your back to her.
  810. "Let's review the events of this afternoon, shall we?"
  811. >Following a fluid pivot on your heel, you step towards your mother, around whom the air is shimmering.
  812. "You interrupt what was going to be the most intimate moment of my life..."
  813. >Her eyes narrow.
  814. "...intimidate and threaten my marefriend, then you proceed to... ugh! You know what you did! What has gotten into you? It's like you turn into a completely different pony, then back to yourself, at the drop of a feather!"
  815. >She opens her mouth to retort.
  816. >No rebuke comes from her, though shock creeps across her alabaster face.
  817. >The heat around her has attenuated enough for you to move closer.
  818. "You know what? I'd be willing to let that go, but then you had to twist the knife."
  819. >Mom's stern expression falters.
  820. >You've never had this kind of immediate success in any verbal attack you've levied against her, so you continue to press lest you lose the initiative.
  821. "Everypony knows you as Princess Celestia, the kind, beautiful, benevolent leader that leads with a gentle nudge from her wing. But lately, you've become more of a iron-hoofed dictator than princess, at least with me!"
  822. >She gasps at the word "dictator", raising a hoof to cover her open mouth.
  823. >"Sunshine, I only wanted-"
  824. "Only wanted what!? To control me? To destroy the one relationship I made completely independent of your influence and approval? Why? Why am I being forced into this marriage!?"
  825. >"TO SAVE YOUR LIFE!"
  826. >The words hit you with a fresh wave a heat so intense that it actually knocks to you the floor.
  827. >Thunder rumbles through the throne room.
  828. >You pick yourself up off the floor to see Mom stomping to you, her eyes aglow with amber light.
  829. >"Did you honestly think I've enjoyed this? Having to invade your privacy with perpetual surveillance? Why, I've never scryed so much since I banished-"
  830. >She cuts herself off and clears her throat.
  831. >Your ears are ringing and your head spins.
  832. "Mom," you say, raising your hands to signal a temporary truce, "what do you mean, to save my life?"
  833. >Her eyes widen upon realizing her folly.
  834. >The furious heat that had been emanating from her body moments ago might as well be a distant memory.
  835. >You're quick to reach for her.
  836. >She sighs when your palm slides to her withers.
  837. >Mom closes her eyes and envelops you with her massive wings; a peace offering that you return with both arms.
  838. >"I've been dreading this day since the moment you were born," she says into your shoulder.
  839. >Another sigh.
  840. >Her hug tightens, and then she chuckles.
  841. >"You'd think after ruling as Equestria's monarch for nine-hundred and eighty-seven years that naively hoping to prevent the inevitable would be beneath me."
  842. >She pulls away, lighting her horn as she does.
  843. >"Come with me," she says, barely above a whisper.
  844. >The two of you walk through the castle halls in silence.
  845. >Mom leads you towards the castle's eastern wing.
  846. >You've never spent much time in this part of of the palace.
  847. >It houses the dungeons, and, well... come to think of it, you're not sure.
  848. >If the dungeons had a single occupant in your twenty short years, you'd be utterly shocked.
  849. >Mom holds out a wing, signaling you to halt.
  850. >She faces right, inspecting the bare wall and its unremarkable bricks.
  851. "What are we-"
  852. >Mom lights her horn again, causing a golden hemisphere to materialize from its tip; convex side facing up.
  853. >The magical dome extends to the floor to contain you and your mother.
  854. >Familiar feathers wrap around your torso, pulling you close to their owner, who looks at you.
  855. >"Ready?"
  856. "Um, I guess?"
  857. >She scowls.
  858. >Right...
  859. >Mama, *The Princess*, didn't raise no indecisive, timid stallion.
  860. >You straighten your posture; left hand rising to rest on your sword's pommel.
  861. "Onward!"
  862. >"That's the spirit."
  863. >Mom struts towards the wall with you secured in her wing.
  864. >You know better than to voice your concerns about walking face-first into a brick wall after being silently reprimanded for your lack of temerity.
  865. >However, you know she felt your body involuntarily stiffen before reaching the wall.
  866. >Good thing there's no guards here to see this.
  867. >Speaking of, where were all the guards on the way here?
  868. >That's the last thought you entertain as you make contact with the wall.
  869. >Only there's no wall.
  870. >Rather, it's still there, you've simply passed through it.
  871. >Bone-chilling cold cuts to your core as you phase through brick and subsequent meters of solid granite.
  872. >Had your mother's wing not been wrapped around your waist to guide your path, you would have become disoriented almost instantly.
  873. >After all, when walking through stone, you can't see a thing, as you've discovered.
  874. >But how can you breathe?
  875. >Magic, obviously.
  876. >You roll your eyes at how so much can be attributed to the catch-all explanation that is "magic".
  877. >Small points of light are now visible, and the cold subsides.
  878. >Though you can barely see, you're no longer phasing through rock- of that you're certain.
  879. >Additional points of light appear and come into focus from all directions; blues, whites, even reds and yellows.
  880. >They sparkle above, below, and all around you and your mother, who suppresses a violent shudder.
  881. "Mom", your voice echoes in what must be a cavern of sorts. "Where are we?"
  882. >She releases her hold on you.
  883. >Her hoofsteps echo like your voice did a moment prior.
  884. >Were it not for the multitude of star-like lights her body blocked, you'd have no way to track her movement, hoofsteps notwithstanding.
  885. >"A-Anonymous..." Mom's voice wavers. "I haven't set hoof here since the night you were born."
  886. >A cone of golden light erupts to your one o'clock, illuminating your mother.
  887. >Her eyes are closed; her head, bowed.
  888. "What-"
  889. >There's a new light source, a single truncated cone from high above.
  890. >It illuminates your surroundings, revealing a cavern.
  891. >The walls are rough, hewn in wide swaths to create a quasi-hemispherical cavity approximately fifteen meters high and forty meters in diameter.
  892. >Looking closer, you realize the "starlight" you had seen earlier was actually emitted from the rock itself, which meant...
  893. "We're under the mountain."
  894. >Mom nods.
  895. >"Near the heart of Canterlot Peak, to be precise."
  896. "What is this place?" you ask, looking around at the various objects the cavern contains.
  897. >There are chests, piles of books, crates... all bearing similar silver markings you can't quite identify in the dim light.
  898. >Mom's wings droop, as do her ears.
  899. >"This... is a monument to my greatest failure." is Mom's hesitant reply.
  900. "What do you mean?" you inquire, gawking at the spectacle before you. "You don't fail. You're Celestia, Princess of the Sun! The Unconquered One!"
  901. >Mom bows her head again.
  902. >"If only that were true..."
  903. "Of course it is! How else could you have ruled-"
  904. >Then you see it, another pony standing on a platform in the center of the cavern, directly under the light.
  905. >You gasp at the sight, then move with long, purposeful strides towards the imposing newcomer; ready to draw steel if need be.
  906. >Were you not so intrigued by this pony, mom's sobbing would have given you pause.
  907. >It's only as you ascend the stairs to the platform this pony occupies that you realize she's actually a statue.
  908. >Nevertheless, it's the most life-like statue you've ever seen; carved and painted with exquisite, unparalleled detail.
  909. >Shorter than Mom by a hoof or so, this mare is lovely, lithe, and sports a tight derriere that [spoiler]EXCITES YOU SO.[/spoiler]
  910. >Now within arms reach, the beauty of this mare is fully apparent, making your heart skip several beats.
  911. >You look into her teal eyes.
  912. >They're serene with a hint of playfulness, much like the smile she wears.
  913. >She takes your breath away.
  914. >So drawn are you to this gorgeous mare, you reach for and touch her before becoming fully aware of your actions.
  915. >Your hands try to brush away the midnight-blue bangs that partially obscure her right eye.
  916. >Mom joins you on the platform, as evidenced by her sniffling.
  917. "Who is she?" you ask, unable to tear your eyes from the statue.
  918. >"D-do you like her?"
  919. "She's the most beautiful mare I've ever seen."
  920. >Mom chuckles, wiping her eyes as she does.
  921. >"Don't let Cadence hear you say that."
  922. >Your heart drops into your stomach.
  923. "Yeah..."
  924. >"You know, I carved and painted her from memory..." Mom says, gesturing to the statue.
  925. >Wait.
  926. >It's only now you notice the statue's folded wings.
  927. "Do you mean she's-"
  928. >Mom sighs.
  929. >"Yes, Anonymous. That is your Aunt Luna."
  930. >Well, this is awkward, admitting to having the hots for your Aunt.
  931. >You turn to Mom with a defiant smirk.
  932. "I still stand by my earlier comments about her. She's absolutely gorgeous."
  933. >She laughs in spite of her somber mood.
  934. "You know I've never seen a realistic depiction of her."
  935. >Mom simply nods.
  936. >She doesn't elaborate, despite your silent desires for her to do so.
  937. >Chances are Mom is thinking about Luna's transformation into Nightmare Moon, a tale she's only told you once.
  938. >The memory is a wound on your mother's heart that you know has never healed.
  939. >You give Mom the time she needs, but the feeling something is wrong intensifies the longer you wait.
  940. >Your legs tremble, then buckle beneath you.
  941. >Golden magic catches you before you crumple to the ground.
  942. >"Are you alright?"
  943. "Yes."
  944. >Mom continues her wistful stare at Luna.
  945. "Not that I don't like basking in Luna's beauty, but what does she have to do with my betrothal to Cadence?"
  946. >"It stems from a moment of weakness from me."
  947. >You remain silent.
  948. >Mom takes her time to face you again.
  949. >"I wanted nothing more than to be reunited with Luna, to try to make things right after failing her as a sister."
  950. "Okay..."
  951. >"From my understanding of the Elements, their effects against foes last a millennium, give or take a few years. Naturally, I didn't want to wait that long to get my sister back."
  952. "Naturally."
  953. >"I spent centuries researching ways to extract Luna from her prison. Every potential lead was inevitably the same, yielding nothing of value to me. But one day, an archaeologist discovered a notebook of Starswirl the Bearded I thought to be lost- a notebook detailing his research into portals."
  954. >You don't like where this is going.
  955. >"I immersed myself in Starswirl's text at every opportunity. The majority of the work was theory, penned shortly before his sudden disappearance. It was up to me to test his hypotheses."
  956. >Unpleasant questions are bubbling in your mind.
  957. >Didn't she say she was last here when-
  958. >"Finally," Mom continues, breaking your train of thought, "I felt I had a solid enough understanding to experiment. I came here, to the very platform we're standing upon, to test the spell. The portal worked, only not in the way I anticipated."
  959. >Mom runs her feathers through your hair; the way she has your entire life.
  960. >"My human son... a being only known to ponies in legends prior to your birth."
  961. >Your blood runs cold.
  962. >"You could imagine my shock when the portal didn't bring forth my sister, but instead, a human woman from another world. My shock turned to absolute horror upon realizing that not only had I summoned a mythical being to my realm, but a pregnant one in active labor, at that."
  963. "Y-you mean to tell me that-"
  964. >"I did everything I could, Anonymous, but she had lost so much blood before I pulled you from her womb. As I held you, naked and bloody in my aura, your birth mother repeated a phrase several times in her native tongue. I couldn't understand her language, but what she said sounded very similar to 'Anonymous' in Equestrian."
  965. >Your vision is blurry.
  966. >Mom pulls you close.
  967. >"She passed before I could ask for an explanation," she says, fresh tears falling on your neck. "I thought you dead, like her. But then I said the word that became your name, and you took your first breath."
  968. >You pull away, not bothering to hide your emotions.
  969. >"Sunshine..."
  970. "Y-you mean I'm not your son after all?"
  971. >"Anonymous, look at me."
  972. >Her words are a command that you are powerless to disobey.
  973. >"I may not have carried you in the womb, but I have been your mother since the moment you were born. You were the foal I always wanted, but didn't deserve. I nursed you and raised you as my own. Make no mistake, Anonymous, you ARE my son. Nothing will change that."
  974. >You collapse into her waiting embrace.
  975. >Mom holds you until you lose track of the time.
  976. >Finally, you regain your composure.
  977. "Mom?"
  978. >"Yes?"
  979. "What did you do with her body?"
  980. >She closes her eyes.
  981. >"I cremated your birth mother's remains with a pillar of fire summoned directly from my Sun, an honor I've never bestowed upon anypony before or since. Then I personally scattered her ashes across every corner of Equestria."
  982. "Oh."
  983. >You contemplate this for a while before voicing your next question.
  984. "Why must I marry Cadence?"
  985. >She pulls away, her eyes somber.
  986. >"Every creature born of this plane is blessed with magic; the amount and capacity for utilization varying from species and individual. It's an integral part of our beings; crucial to survival here. Magic binds and sustains us..."
  987. "But?"
  988. >"But, as you are from a different plane of existence, you have no magic." Mom continues with a sad expression. "As such, your body's grasp on its life-force is tenuous at best."
  989. "That doesn't make any sense!" you counter. "If that were the case, I should have died as a child!"
  990. >"You almost did."
  991. "When?"
  992. >"Before your second birthday. You were playing with Philomena in the garden when you collapsed and fell into a coma. It was then that the doctors and I fully uncovered the extent of your magical disability. Fortunately, we also discovered that by channeling raw magical energy into your body, you could be revived, if only for a short time."
  993. "So how have I been able to go this long without-"
  994. >"You haven't, Sunshine," Mom interrupts. "Ever since that fateful day, I have been channeling raw magic into your body when you sleep at night. Every night, without fail. Why do you think I keep you on such a short leash, for lack of a better phrase?"
  995. >Your heart drops into your stomach for the second time.
  996. >How could you have been unaware your entire life?
  997. "So when you said the marriage was to save my life..."
  998. >"I wasn't exaggerating. As you've grown older, so has your body's requirements for magic to remain healthy. I noticed three moons ago that you suddenly required a drastic increase in magic to keep you sustained, a disturbing trend that has unfortunately worsened."
  999. "Then why would marrying Cadence fix that?"
  1000. >"Another Starswirl theory. Basically, by binding your life force to hers, your condition will be remedied."
  1001. "What do you mean by 'binding'?"
  1002. >"It's a two-part process. The first part is a spell performed during the wedding."
  1003. "And the second?"
  1004. >"His notes simply say, 'The binding is completed during the act of love'."
  1005. >Heat rises to your cheeks, though not for long.
  1006. "Wait. This is just a theory. How do you know it will work? If I just need to marry somepony, why can't it be somepony I choose? And why so soon?"
  1007. >Mom's face grow dire.
  1008. >"Anonymous, theory or not, this is unfortunately the only option you have. I've spent years researching and consulting with Equestria's brightest minds, trying a find a way to cure you. As for the spell, it would only work with beings of immense magical power. I assumed you'd much prefer Cadence to the alternative."
  1009. "The alternative being?"
  1010. >"Me."
  1011. >You explode into laughter.
  1012. "You can't be serious!"
  1013. >Mom stomps her hoof.
  1014. >"Unless you can think of a way to bring your Aunt back from the moon within a week, it's either me or Cadence, Anonymous!"
  1015. >This shuts you up.
  1016. >"The amount of magic I must transfer to you has begun to affect my ability to move the sun. Your needs grow exponentially."
  1017. >You hear fear in Mom's voice for the first time.
  1018. >"I won't be able to sustain you much longer."
  1019. >Ice runs through your veins at Mom's admission.
  1020. >Your body begins to tremble.
  1021. >"One month ago, in fact," Mom continues, "I was on my way to your chambers to finally inform you of your condition and to make you aware of my plans to marry you. I became aware of Cadence and her ascension as I raised my hoof to knock on your door."
  1022. "No way."
  1023. >"I can show you my sketches of my wedding dress if you don't believe me."
  1024. "But I'm YOUR SON. You can't-"
  1025. >A blast of heat from your mother evaporates the tears that lingered on your face.
  1026. >Her eyes are no longer magenta.
  1027. >"Can't? CAN'T!? Like Tartarus I can't! I am the Alpha and Omega! I lost my sister- I WILL NOT LOSE YOU!"
  1028. >As soon as is happens, it ends, and her eyes are back to normal.
  1029. >Your ears ring as her outburst echoes throughout the dim stone chamber.
  1030. >Mom grimaces, then continues.
  1031. >"There is NOTHING I won't do to keep you safe, Anonymous. Nothing. If I have to marry and make love to you to save your life, so be it."
  1032. >It's getting hard to stand again.
  1033. >You sit at Luna's hooves.
  1034. >Mom joins you.
  1035. >Neither of you speaks for some time.
  1036. >Another question rises in your mind above the others.
  1037. "If I need so much magic to survive, how will binding myself to Cadence fix that? Won't that just drain her too?"
  1038. >"The process changes you at a fundamental level. It'll make you capable of retaining the magic necessary for you continued survival."
  1039. "Are you sure about that?"
  1040. >"Yes."
  1041. >You scoot until you're touching front her, then lean aft to rest your back against her warm white coat.
  1042. >Her wing keeps the cavern's cold atmosphere at bay.
  1043. "I take it you know what happened with Cadence?"
  1044. >"Observed every second, heard every word."
  1045. "I feel bad for hurting her feelings, but she essentially tried to molest me-"
  1046. >Mom snorts in spite of herself.
  1047. >"Molest you?" Mom's voice is bright with amusement. "By the Sun, that couldn't be further from the truth."
  1048. "But you heard her! She was saying stuff like, 'Let me love you', and 'Don't fight me'!"
  1049. >"Anonymous," Mom responds, her tone now severe, "what Cadence mentioned was true- your heart is closed off."
  1050. >She strokes her hair before continuing.
  1051. >"I suppose that is another failure of mine. So consumed I was in protecting you, in trying to guard you from any form of distress, that I inadvertently kept you at wing's length from any pony that wasn't me."
  1052. "But not with Dent."
  1053. >Mom laughs; a genuine, musical outburst.
  1054. >"Ah yes, Dented Shield. What a card. You two connected so strongly from day one, who was I to interfere? Honestly, I should retain him on the guard payroll, as much time as he spends keeping an eye on you in 'retirement'."
  1055. "You're not angry with him for letting the fight continue, are you?"
  1056. >"Angry?" your Mother echoes, chortling. "Who do you think gave him the idea to talk your guards down?"
  1057. >Craning your neck around, you see Mom's horn glow.
  1058. >'I've got more tricks up my sleeve than you realize, Sunshine,' her voice rings in your mind. 'As far as I'm concerned, Cirrus Wisp got what she deserved from Cadence.'
  1059. >Laughter escapes you in spite of your continued concern for Cirrus.
  1060. "Still, you can't think that Cadence's reaction to Cirrus was becoming of a princess."
  1061. >"Perhaps. Perhaps not. To be fair, you're basing your standards of how a princess should act on what you've seen from me."
  1062. "Good point."
  1063. >"Cadence is her own princess. Her own mare. She'll need training, to be sure, but it's important she be allowed to remain true to her nature."
  1064. "Which is?"
  1065. >She ceases fussing with your hair.
  1066. >"As I am the embodiment of the Sun, so too is Cadence with Love."
  1067. >Your eyes grow wide at her statement.
  1068. "You mean-"
  1069. >"Yes," Mom interjects with a nod. "Cadence is Love incarnate. Everything she does, she does with unrestrained passion. Her actions with you in the carriage, she did them out of a genuine desire to reveal who she is to you, to forge a connection with her future husband; ill-conceived as her plan might have been. There was no malice in her intent, Anonymous. She *wants* to love you."
  1070. >This doesn't ease your concerns.
  1071. >If anything, they're exacerbated.
  1072. "She's so young."
  1073. >"And naive. But then again, so are you."
  1074. "Hey!"
  1075. >Mom licks your face and blows a raspberry at you.
  1076. "She thinks we're destined to be together. She honestly believes I'm her true love, like this is a fairy tale."
  1077. >"Can you blame her? Cadence- an adopted pegasus from a poor family- defeats a sorceress without any magical knowledge or training and spontaneously transforms into the zenith of pony forms. She's then summoned before me and informed she's now a princess. Sounds like a fairy tale, no?"
  1078. >Another good point.
  1079. "When did you get the idea to have her marry me?"
  1080. >"As soon as I was convinced that she was a genuine alicorn, and that her heart was pure. I meant what I said earlier, Sunshine. Cadence is capable of love beyond comprehension, for she is Love. And she wants to share herself with you."
  1081. >That reminds you of another concern.
  1082. "But why me? Because you told her to?"
  1083. >Mom frowns.
  1084. >"I can't be certain, but I don't think so. I think part of her is searching for family and a sense of belonging after the untimely death of her parents-"
  1085. "What!? She didn't say anything about that!"
  1086. >"It's still a tender subject for her. They passed shortly before her ascension."
  1087. "How did they die?"
  1088. >"It's not my place to say. Cadence will tell you when she's ready."
  1089. "If she ever talks to me again," you say, shoulders slumping.
  1090. >You rise from the platform.
  1091. >It takes more effort than it should.
  1092. "I need to talk to her."
  1093. >Mom hums and closes her eyes; horn alight again.
  1094. >"Unless you've suddenly gained the ability to fly and cloudwalk, you won't be reaching her soon."
  1095. >Opening her eyes, Mom stands to her full height and spreads her wings.
  1096. >"And the hour is late," she says, noticing your shaking legs.
  1097. >She charges her horn, then touches it to your head.
  1098. >Warmth spills over your body, making you tingle at the extremities.
  1099. >Mom grits her teeth, and you see her eyes change color again.
  1100. >But that doesn't seem to be the only thing that's changing.
  1101. >'Close your eyes, Sunshine,' you hear Mom's voice in your mind. 'Please... I don't want you to see me like this.'
  1102. >You respect her wishes.
  1103. >It hurts to see her like this.
  1104. >Though you can't deny you possess a morbid curiosity about what the process of charging you does to her.
  1105. >A chorus of hums rings in your ears as Mom's spell intensifies.
  1106. "Will you be alri-"
  1107. >'You needn't worry about me, my son.'
  1108. >Her lips press on your cheek.
  1109. >'I love you. More than anything.'
  1110. >Crackling sounds join the hums that fill your ears.
  1111. >The scent of ozone reaches your nostrils, then you feel yourself falling.
  1112. >You open your eyes in spite of Mom's wishes.
  1113. >Fire surrounds you but does not even singe a hair.
  1114. >There's a roar, then laughter.
  1115. >The sights and sounds come and go too fast for them to fully register in your mind.
  1116. >Your back hits something soft, breaking your fall, then the world goes dark.
  1118. -----
  1120. >So close!
  1121. >Who needs inhibitions?
  1122. >Certainly not you!
  1123. >Why have you been holding yourself back all this time?
  1124. >You are supreme; the Alpha and Omega!
  1125. >You are The Unconquered One!
  1126. >Anypony stupid enough to defy you will BURN.
  1127. >As you strut around the platform you spread your wings and laugh.
  1128. >Her face stops you in your tracks.
  1129. >Those teal eyes extinguish your burning passion in an instant.
  1130. >Damn those beautiful eyes.
  1131. >Curse your weakness.
  1132. >Curse your stupidity and arrogance.
  1133. >Curse your pride.
  1134. >Shame consumes you again, and you weep.
  1136. -----
  1138. >You awake with a jolt, gasping for breath and flailing your arms as you try to gain your bearings.
  1139. >Moonlight shines through a nearby window, illuminating the familiar decor of your room.
  1140. >Thank the Sun, you're-
  1141. >The Sun!
  1142. "Mom!"
  1143. >Grunting, you [spoiler]do a barrel roll[/spoiler] and flop off your bed with with the grace of drunken minotaur.
  1144. >Doors, guards, tapestries, windows, are a blur as you sprint faster than you thought possible, en route to Mom's chambers.
  1145. >The massive double doors bearing her cutie mark offer little resistance to your panicked entry.
  1146. >Mom rises from her bed, startled by your explosive entrance.
  1147. >"Anon!"
  1148. "Mom!"
  1149. "Are you alright!?" you ask each other in unison.
  1150. >You breathe a sigh of relief, then collapse on the mattress.
  1151. >Strong forelegs pull your chest to hers.
  1152. "Hi."
  1153. >She chuckles; amused but tired.
  1154. >"'Hi' yourself," she answers with a yawn. "Come to tuck me in?"
  1155. "I was worried about you after what I saw."
  1156. >"You don't need to worry about me, Sunshine. It was nothing I couldn't handle."
  1157. "Still," you say, scratching your head, "that was a lot to go through back in that cave. For both of us."
  1158. >"Indeed."
  1159. >Her eyes implore you to continue.
  1160. >There's so much to discuss, and you don't know where to begin.
  1161. >Might as well start with the first issue that comes to mind.
  1162. "I don't want to marry Cadence."
  1163. >"I know. But you must."
  1164. >You wriggle away from your mother to better look at her.
  1165. >But you can't look at her for what you have to say, so you roll onto your back and stare at the four-poster bed's canopy.
  1166. "Well, you did say..."
  1167. >"Anonymous. You don't want to marry me either."
  1168. "But wouldn't it be for the best?"
  1169. >"How so?"
  1170. >You frown; struggling to formulate a diplomatic response.
  1171. "Cadence ascended by her own merit. And what does she get as her reward? She has to marry me. Not for love, but to fix a problem she had no fault in creating. It's not fair to her."
  1172. >Mom follows your lead and rolls onto her back to join you in staring at the crimson canopy.
  1173. "If you ask me," you continue, "this marriage is as contrived as any done for political reasons. She and I share no love. At least I know you love me... and I, you."
  1174. >The words make you cringe.
  1175. >"That's a very different love than the kind shared by a husband and wife."
  1176. >An idea strikes you.
  1177. "Did Starswirl's notes explicitly say that a wedding has to be involved for this binding process to work?"
  1178. >Contemplation furrows her brow.
  1179. >"Well, not exactly..."
  1180. "So, in theory, you could just perform the spell and then we could... y'know..."
  1181. >You pull the pillow out from underneath your head and cover your face with it.
  1182. "...and nopony would ever have to know."
  1183. >You wait for her reply.
  1184. >It doesn't come.
  1185. >After a few minutes you drag the pillow off your face and tilt your head to the right.
  1186. >"I suppose you have a point."
  1187. >Another uncomfortable silence.
  1188. >"Are you sure?" your mother asks. "It's not too late to change your mind."
  1189. >You pause.
  1190. >You don't want this.
  1191. >Would marrying Cadence be worse?
  1192. >It's not like you want her either.
  1193. >And you don't like the prospect of being trapped in a marriage that would very likely be loveless.
  1194. >Yes, this is for the best.
  1195. >Nopony will ever have to know what happens here tonight, after all.
  1196. "Yeah," you say, turning towards those waiting magenta eyes. "Let's do it."
  1197. >"Very well."
  1198. >Celestia closes her eyes.
  1199. >A tear rolls down her cheek.
  1200. >She charges her magic, says something in Old Ponish, then touches the tip of her horn to your sternum.
  1201. >The light of her magic intensifies, then it disappears completely.
  1202. "Was that it?"
  1203. >"The first half of it, at least," she says with a slow nod.
  1204. "So now..."
  1205. >"Now... we make love," Celestia says, clambering off the bed.
  1206. >She returns to the bed, rests her forelegs on the mattress, and looks back to you, her face looking as conflicted as you feel.
  1207. >"Let's not make this any more awkward by delaying what needs to be done."
  1208. "O-Okay, M-"
  1209. >A bare white hoof presses to your mouth.
  1210. >"Celestia. Or 'Tia', if you prefer. Anything but what you're used to calling me."
  1211. >Her horn lights again, and you're lifted from the bed.
  1212. >Your clothes are removed in her aura before you're set down behind her.
  1213. >It's feeling real now.
  1214. >Too real.
  1215. >That you're not hard makes you cringe again and your soon-to-be lover frown.
  1216. >"Don't think about it," she tries to reassure you. "Just let nature take over."
  1217. >Your hands hover above her cutie marks.
  1218. >She nods her approval, then uses her magic to force your hands onto her rump.
  1219. >You give each full cheek a squeeze, then another, and another.
  1220. >"There you go..." Celestia says after a quiet moan as you knead her immaculate ass.
  1221. >Emboldened, you give Celestia's flanks one last squeeze before dragging your fingers rearward from her cutie marks.
  1222. >Her plot is so much hotter near her tail.
  1223. >A tail she just flagged to reveal...nothing.
  1224. >You frown at the distinct lack of genitalia.
  1225. "Celestia, what-" you begin to ask as you look from her rump to her face.
  1226. >Teal eyes glare back at you.
  1227. >"Taking the coward's way out, I see." a new, venomous voice growls at you.
  1228. >You yelp, stumbling away from the pony that's taken your mother's place.
  1229. >Dark wings spread, blocking the moonlight that had shined upon the bed.
  1230. >Those beautiful, terrible eyes shine with a blinding white light.
  1231. >"Is everypony in your life merely a means to an end? Have you no empathy? Have you no shame?"
  1232. >The floor beneath you dematerializes, and your gut feels like it's trying to escape through your mouth as you fall.
  1233. >"You do not deserve either of them!"
  1235. -----
  1237. >Once again, the familiar sights of the castle rush by you as you sprint towards your mother's chambers.
  1238. >This time, however, you're painfully aware that you're not dreaming, evidenced by the shallow cut on your forehead; droplets of coagulating blood trailing down your right temple.
  1239. >Considering that's all the damage you took after knocking your dome piece on the nightstand after flailing yourself out of bed in a panicked frenzy, you're rather fortunate.
  1240. >Guards notice your condition.
  1241. >They shout and run after you, but you're so focused on reaching Mom that their words don't register.
  1242. >Finally, you've reached those familiar doors that bear her cutie mark.
  1243. >They don't budge.
  1244. "Mom!" you yell, pounding on the doors with hammer fists.
  1245. >No reply.
  1246. >Two guard stallions are on scene a moment later.
  1247. >"Your Highness! Is something wrong? How did you get injured?"
  1248. "I'm fine, boys," you say, whirling around to face the guards. "Had a bad dream and took a tumble off the bed."
  1249. >The guards exchange quizzical looks.
  1250. "Have you seen the Princess?"
  1251. >"I'm afraid we haven't, My Prince."
  1252. "If you cross paths with her, please tell her I must speak with her immediately."
  1253. >"Yes, Your Highness."
  1254. >They bow, then about face to resume their patrol.
  1255. >Mom's chamber doors continue to deny you entry.
  1256. >You slide your back down the left one until cold stone meets your ass.
  1257. >The guards' hoofsteps grow quieter.
  1258. >Luna's words echo in your mind.
  1259. >For it being her first-ever appearance in your dreams, she sure gave you a lot to think about.
  1260. >Stupid subconscious.
  1261. >"Is everypony in your life merely a means to an end?"
  1262. >That question doesn't sit well with you.
  1263. >Not that anything Luna said left a warm, fuzzy feeling in your chest, but that one in particular was unsettling.
  1264. 'What is that supposed to mean?' you ponder in silence.
  1265. >For being royalty, there were not many ponies you'd consider to be part of your life, at least in any major, influential sense; notwithstanding Mom.
  1266. >You don't know what to think about Mom.
  1267. >Obviously, you love her- that's not the issue.
  1268. >Her overbearing nature and recent mood swings, however...
  1269. >At least Dent has stayed the same.
  1270. >Straight Talk is okay, but he's all business and you've never had much of a reason to interact with him.
  1271. >Your body guards are cool, though you don't talk to them unless you need something.
  1272. >Raven Inkwell is fun to flirt with, and you know she's aware of the fact that she makes your peepee hard enough to cut diamonds, but you've toned it down with her since Cirrus came into the picture.
  1273. >Cirrus...
  1274. >Shit, you need to check on her, especially if Cadence is still hiding in the clouds somewhere.
  1275. >Another unsettling question bubbles to the surface of your mind as you rise from the floor.
  1276. >What is it that you see in Cirrus Wisp?
  1277. >Sure, she's pretty and checks all the social boxes.
  1278. >Her athleticism is impressive.
  1279. >You get along well enough with her, but is that enough?
  1280. >Shuffling back to your quarters, you contemplate your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-marefriend.
  1281. >She more or less goes along with whatever you want to do; never wanting to challenge you or the status quo.
  1282. >You've never cared for how stuck-up she is.
  1283. >Not much different than any member of the nobility you've interacted with, truth be told.
  1284. >So why did you pursue her?
  1285. "Because Mom didn't ordain the relationship," you say out loud, stopping in your tracks. "I went after Cirrus because Mom wouldn't approve of her."
  1286. >That's it, then?
  1287. >Laughter escapes you; bitter and sarcastic.
  1288. >Your relationship with Cirrus Wisp was nothing more than an act of rebellion against your mother.
  1289. >Regardless, you can't help but feel like you've led her on, which will only make breaking up with her that much more difficult.
  1290. >It's odd that you were even able to carry on the relationship as long as you have, as Mom normally would've nipped that in the bud.
  1291. >Come to think of it, you asked Cirrus to be your very special somepony right around the time your fiance said she ascended.
  1292. "No wonder Mom didn't catch on. She was too distracted by Cadence."
  1293. >That can't be the case, as she admitted to surveilling your activities through scrying to the point of "invading your privacy" before that.
  1294. "Uh oh..."
  1295. >Your heart sinks as you realize Mon probably saw your fooling around with Cirrus before today.
  1296. >Which means it's likely she also witnessed your surreptitious finger-blasting of her trusted assistant in the Canterlot Archives two months ago.
  1297. >In retrospect, Raven really was painfully obvious in showing her interest in you.
  1298. >But you are Anonymous, and your ability to be tragically oblivious is unparalleled.
  1299. >Back to the topic in question, if Mom knew of your few unwholesome encounters with two of Equestria's eligible bachelorettes, why didn't she intervene before today?
  1300. "It's because Mom is a super rad lady, heh heh heh..."
  1301. >Yeah, that's totally the reason- Mom's not opposed to you experimenting with mares, so long as it doesn't go too far.
  1302. >Better that than you being a colt-cuddler.
  1303. >It's not like she's been pumping so much magic into you to keep you alive that it's been affecting her ability to tend to her responsibilities as she would normally.
  1304. >'I don't want you to see me like this.'
  1305. >That crazed laughter.
  1306. >You grimace at the recollection of what you witnessed in the cavern.
  1307. "I hope you're okay..." you whisper aloud in the deserted hallway.
  1308. >The past eight hours have been some of the craziest of your life and you have yet to fulfill your duties for the day.
  1309. >Might as well stop delaying the inevitable and get to the hospital, though you should freshen up first.
  1310. >Lethargic legs carry you up the final stretch of stairs to your chambers.
  1311. >Rounding the final corner, you see a familiar pink mare knocking on your door, still dressed in her gown from earlier.
  1312. >"Anon? It- It's me, Cadence. Can we talk?"
  1313. >She waits a few seconds.
  1314. >"Please?"
  1315. "Hey," you call to her.
  1316. >Cadence gasps and spins around.
  1317. >"Hey..."
  1318. >Neither of you move; each weighing words and strategy in silent observation of the other.
  1319. >"Will you please talk with me?" she asks, finally breaking the tense silence.
  1320. >Cirrus will have to wait.
  1321. "Yeah," you answer while moving to your door. "Come on in."
  1322. >"Wait. What happened to your head?" Cadence gestures to your cut with concern in her voice.
  1323. "I had a bad dream and fell off the bed. Hit my head on the nightstand along the way."
  1324. >"Are you okay?"
  1325. "I'm better now that you're here, really. You don't know how much I've been worried about you."
  1326. >Cadence turns away, but not before you see her eyes light up ever-so-slightly.
  1327. >You're not lying, either.
  1328. >Cadence follows you through the door.
  1329. >Her hooves clop against the worn stone floor, but stop soon after crossing the threshold.
  1330. "Is something wrong?" you ask, locking the door behind her.
  1331. >"Yeah," she says with a sniffle. "There's a lot wrong."
  1332. >So much for scoring any points by admitting you were worried about her.
  1333. >Your body stiffens as Cadence takes a deep breath.
  1334. >"I can't tell you how excited I was for today, Anonymous. To finally meet you after weeks of watching you from afar! I hoped today would be magical, that we would 'click', that you would be as excited to meet me as I was to meet you, but you weren't."
  1335. >Her words cut, penetrating the social armor you've acquired from a lifetime in the public eye.
  1336. >"Even during our date, your heart continued to focus on a mare who doesn't even love you. All while I was sitting by your side, desperately trying to connect with you, trying to unlock your guarded heart."
  1337. "Cadence, wait. I..."
  1338. >The words die in your throat.
  1339. >All you can think about is how bad you feel for disappointing Cadence.
  1340. >She flutters her wings and waits for you to continue with a cocked eyebrow.
  1341. >'You do not deserve either of them!'
  1342. >Those final words from your nightmare, that indictment- it steels your resolve.
  1343. >You must fix this.
  1344. >If not for you, then for Cadence... and Mom.
  1345. "Look. You have every reason to be mad at me. You deserved better from me today, and I am truly sorry that I couldn't meet your expectations."
  1346. >She huffs and looks away.
  1347. "You're right, you know. I was thinking about Cirrus Wisp throughout our date..."
  1348. >That draws a growl from the mare.
  1349. "...but I'll be honest, a lot of those thoughts dealt with how I was going to break the news of my betrothal, and, well... how I was going to break up with her."
  1350. >Cadence's ears perk up and swivel towards you.
  1351. "It's a lot to process, you know? Being told completely out of the blue that you're going to marry a princess you didn't know existed."
  1352. >"Try being transformed into one sometime." she retorts with a soft chuckle.
  1353. "I'm not pretty enough for that."
  1354. >The indirect compliment chips away at her lingering frown.
  1355. >Her eyes lock onto you when you dare to touch her neck.
  1356. "Above anything else, I'm most sorry for how I reacted to you during the ride back from the bar. I didn't know how to deal with something so intense- not that it makes it any better!"
  1357. >You take a step closer whilst sliding your hand along her long neck to cup her cheek.
  1358. "Had I known that you were trying to share the essence of who you are with me, I wouldn't have pushed you away. I didn't mean to reject you like that, Cadence."
  1359. >She doesn't reply, though she searches your face with a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
  1360. "Do you think we can start over?"
  1361. >Cadence appears to give it serious contemplation.
  1362. >"No. We can't."
  1363. >Her answer conjures a mix of disappointment, regret, and sadness in your chest, to the point of causing physical discomfort.
  1364. "Oh..." is all you can say. "I guess I'll-"
  1365. >Purple-tipped pink feathers press upon your lips.
  1366. >Cadence shoots you a mischievous grin.
  1367. >"But that doesn't mean you can't make it up to me."
  1368. "How?"
  1369. >Though your room is illuminated by naught but the gentle light from the full moon, her crimson-flushed face is obvious.
  1370. >"Cuddles."
  1371. "Really?"
  1372. >"Mmm-hmm!" Cadence replies with vigorous head nods. "In... in y-your bed."
  1373. >Those last three words send an adrenaline surge through your body.
  1374. >Your remaining internal reservations are vanquished by your desire to repair whatever damage you've done in your fledgling relationship with your fiance.
  1375. >There's also the fact that you've been repeatedly aroused today with no release, which makes the prospect of laying in bed with this gorgeous mare all the more enticing.
  1376. >Hopefully she can't hear your heart jackhammering against your sternum.
  1377. >With a trembling hand you reach for her left wing.
  1378. >Her primaries wrap around your fingers, allowing you to guide her to your mutual destination.
  1379. >Cadence stops short of the bed, retracting her feathers from your grasp.
  1380. >Her magic chimes, and her horn finally reappears.
  1381. >Tail swishing in a lazy figure-eight, she looks at you with fluttering eyelids.
  1382. >"Would you help me out of this?" she asks, tugging at her dress with her magic.
  1383. >It's your turn to blush.
  1384. "S-sure..."
  1385. >Cadence's deepening blush speaks volumes as your gentle touch guides her wings out of the slits in her gown.
  1386. >She stifles a gasp when your fingers rake up her spine, pulling the silky dress's hem over her rump.
  1387. >And what a rump it is- full and undoubtedly muscular, but sporting just enough fat to make for a shapely and feminine rear.
  1388. >"Like what you see?"
  1389. >She giggles at your attempt to stammer a response, then shuts you up by planting a soft kiss on your neck.
  1390. >"It's okay, Anon, you can look. I don't mind."
  1391. >Another soft kiss lands on your collarbone.
  1392. >"But how about you finish undressing me first?"
  1393. "L-lewd..."
  1394. >Cadence giggles harder.
  1395. >She bows her head so you don't have to reach too high when pulling her dress over her horn.
  1396. >Blue energy secures the garment from your grasp, depositing it on a chair in the far corner of your room.
  1397. "Well," you say, motioning to the bed. "Shall we?"
  1398. >"Not yet. You haven't taken my bow out," she chides.
  1399. >Your fingers caress her silky mane whilst your untie the sky blue bow.
  1400. >Now free of its binding, her long tri-colored mane falls around her neck, curls bouncing at the ends.
  1401. >Cadence stops you once again when you turn to the bed.
  1402. >"You forgot the other bow..." she whispers, giving her rump the slightest shake as she speaks.
  1403. >You're no stranger to a mare's anatomy, and it's not like your fingers haven't gone spelunking in two different mares' caves of wonder.
  1404. >The way Cadence asks you to undo her tail binding... she makes it feel like its the most erotic thing you've ever considered, hence your nervous, shallow breaths.
  1405. >A light blue crystalline heart adorns her flank; a flank your hands hover over.
  1406. >You make a point to keep your palms above her tailbone as your fingers struggle with the blue ribbon's tightly-bound knot.
  1407. >"Anon?"
  1408. "Hmm?"
  1409. >Cadence turns her rear towards you, her neck following to maintain eye contact.
  1410. >"Focus on my eyes as you untie it."
  1411. "But I need to see-"
  1412. >"Listen to what your fingers tell you," she interrupts with half-lidded eyes. "I'm in no hurry."
  1413. >You obey her commands and your fingers set to work, but Cadence has other plans.
  1414. >She sways her hips to and fro, forcing you to clamp your thumbs on her ribbon-wrapped dock to hold her steady.
  1415. >Cadence gasps, but continues to lock eyes with you.
  1416. >The mare changes her tactics, pressing her rump against you as you continue to fight the knot.
  1417. >Both of you shudder when Cadence makes contact with you.
  1418. >You decide to fight fire with fire and pull her tail.
  1419. >She lets loose a surprised squeal, then retaliates by grinding against your thighs.
  1420. >By the Sun, the heat permeating your pants from this mare is impressive.
  1421. >The knot finally relents, and you unravel the turns of ribbon around her tail.
  1422. >No sooner is the ribbon free of her tail does Cadence take several quick steps away from you and the growing heat accumulating in your trousers.
  1423. >"Thanks, Anon!" she says with an innocent, cheerful smile.
  1424. "What!? Hey! That's... that's not-"
  1425. >"Not what, honey?" Cadence asks, tilting her head.
  1426. "Tease."
  1427. >"I don't know what you're talking about. C'mon, let's get you ready for bed."
  1428. >Her aura surrounds you, pulling at your shirt.
  1429. >You lift your arms, letting it slide over your head and arms.
  1430. >Cadence allows you to finish disrobing, though she frowns when you keep your underwear in place.
  1431. "What?" you ask, sliding under the sheets.
  1432. >She follows you lead, scooting closer underneath the blankets until her chest presses against you.
  1433. >"Why didn't you finish undressing?"
  1434. >Her breath tickles your neck like it did at the bar.
  1435. "Because I'd be... um... exposing myself to you."
  1436. >Cadence giggles into your neck.
  1437. >"A little bit of tail-play and you can't keep it in your sheath?"
  1438. "Cadence... I don't have a sheath."
  1439. >"Oh... well that explains the underpants."
  1440. "Indeed."
  1441. >"You should take them off anyways."
  1442. >That you hesitate more than a second spurns the mare to snake her hind legs around you, pulling your closer.
  1443. >With no space between you, there's no hiding your reaction to her teasing and touch.
  1444. >"It's okay, darling," she breathes into your ear. "We're engaged, after all..."
  1445. >Cadence gyrates her hips and slides her legs down yours, pulling your drawers as she does.
  1446. >Her magic finishes the job, freeing your member to slap her belly once it clears the waistband of its cotton prison.
  1447. >"That's much better, wouldn't you say?" she asks, wriggling against you.
  1448. "Y-Yes, it sure is."
  1449. >Your bashfulness earns another giggle from the mare, though that might have been caused by your cock rubbing against her nipples.
  1450. >Cadence gives your jaw a light peck, so you respond by pulling her close.
  1451. >With your arms around her barrel, you stare into her eyes, which glint in the moonlight.
  1452. >"What are you thinking about?"
  1453. >You want to tell Cadence about everything that transpired with your mom following your return to the castle.
  1454. >You want to tell her of the hidden cavern, your Aunt Luna, the story of your birth...
  1455. >The reason the two of you are to be wed.
  1456. >But you don't.
  1457. >You've already ruined the mood once- you wont do it again.
  1458. >"Anon?" Cadence asks with another kiss to your neck, jolting you back to the present.
  1459. "I was thinking about our little bar adventure."
  1460. >"Oh yeah? Which part?"
  1461. "The beating you put on my marefriend."
  1462. >Cadence growls.
  1463. "Er... ex-marefriend."
  1464. >A fresh blush washes across Cadence's muzzle.
  1465. >"I guess I did take things a bit to far..."
  1466. "No. She shouldn't have said those awful things."
  1467. >"Damn right she shouldn't have."
  1468. "Besides, I..."
  1469. >You're not sure if you should finish voicing that thought.
  1470. >"You what, Anon?"
  1471. "Promise not to tell anypony?"
  1472. >Cadence nods.
  1473. >Her hoof slides off your shoulder and slips between your bodies.
  1474. >"Of course, honey. You can trust me with anything."
  1475. >She creates a bit of space between your lower halves, affording her hoof the space to reach your member.
  1476. >You gasp, a reaction that goes unacknowledged.
  1477. >"You were saying, love?"
  1478. "I uh..."
  1479. >She moves your cock from between her teats to between her legs, then wraps said legs around you again.
  1480. "I thought it was really hot."
  1481. >Cadence starts to grind her lips along your shaft, teasing it with occasional winks.
  1482. >"You thought *what* was really hot?"
  1483. >She's soaking every inch of you with her sliding.
  1484. >Not wanting her to do all the work, you begin to add your own slow thrusts, matching her rhythm.
  1485. "I was really turned on when I watched you fight. Beating Cirrus to a pulp. Seeing you act like a wild mare. It got me so hard."
  1486. >"I remember," she says giggling. "My poor Anonymous, getting all worked up without a chance for release..."
  1487. >Your tip is making regular contact with her ponut at the end of each thrust.
  1488. >"Too bad we're not married yet," Cadence continues, increasing her tempo. "Your mother was very adamant that we both must enter this marriage as virgins."
  1489. "Not to mention, she's been watching everything we do like a hawk," you add, after sucking air through clenched teeth. "Scrying on our every moment together; hearing every word spoken."
  1490. >You slide your hands to her rump and squeeze.
  1491. >It's better than you imagined, everything you could hope for; firm, yet pliable.
  1492. >"Could you imagine if we were up to no good?" Cadence asks, her voice giddy. "How would your mother react if she saw us engaged in premarital hoof-holding?"
  1493. >Her breathing quickens; growing more labored as she drags her winking pearl across your length.
  1494. >"Good thing we're *gasp!* be-haaaaving ourselves..."
  1495. "Cadence, I-"
  1496. >Sensing your peak drawing near, Cadence doubles her tempo, abandoning all pretense of innocence as she moans into your ear.
  1497. >Cadence clenches her legs around you, and flood of warmth rushes over your cock; dripping down your legs.
  1498. >"ANON! AH- HNNNNNNG!"
  1499. >Cadence rides out her orgasm whilst moaning your name, grinding her hips as she does.
  1500. >This brings about the end for you, driving you to buck your hips with reckless abandon.
  1501. >"C'mon, love! Don't hold back!"
  1502. >With one final grunt, you thrust as far as you can against Cadence.
  1503. >Your shaft, still standing parallel to her lips, reaches higher than before, sending your tip into her dock.
  1504. >The floodgates open, and you paint her dock and ponut with rope after rope of your thick seed.
  1505. >All either of you can do for a while is hold each other while catching your breath.
  1506. >There's only one thing left to do.
  1507. "Cadence."
  1508. >"Yes?"
  1509. >You cup her flushed cheeks in your palms, then pull her close.
  1510. >Cadence stifles a gasp, closing her eyes as your lips draw near.
  1511. >She sighs into your mouth when your tongues meet for the first time.
  1512. >Her magic chimes, and once again, you feel as if you're sliding into a warm bath while being hugged.
  1513. >This time you don't fight it.
  1514. >But you can't give yourself to the experience either.
  1515. >The best you can do is kiss your fiance and hope that this is a step in the right direction.
  1516. >Focused on kiss, you don't notice the tears leaking from Cadence's closed eyes.
  1518. -----
  1520. >"Miss Wisp, you really ought to stay overnight for observation!"
  1521. "I've made up my mind. Send the bill to my father in Cloudsdale."
  1522. >You don't stick around to hear any more of the doctor's protests.
  1523. >Magic is truly amazing.
  1524. >Without it, you'd be laid up in Canterlot General Hospital for weeks!
  1525. >Thankfully, this is Equestria, and you have access to the wonders of unicorn doctors.
  1526. >Sure, the past three hours were rough, as the procedures you underwent were anything but pleasant.
  1527. >That doesn't matter- you're fully healed and itching for revenge against that pink whorse.
  1528. >First things first, find Anonymous and let him know you're okay.
  1529. >He better have a damn good reason for not being by your side during every second of your hospital visit.
  1530. >The lights of Canterlot shrink to pinpricks in a matter of seconds, and soon, you're above the clouds.
  1531. >You watch the night shift guards make their patrols around the castle grounds, biding your time for the perfect opportunity.
  1532. >After a half hour of focused observation, you've got their patrol routes memorized.
  1533. >Ready... dive!
  1534. >The wind makes your eyes water as you descend straight for Anon's tower.
  1535. >You overshoot your destination- an intentional maneuver- corkscrewing to slow yourself without straining your freshly-healed wing.
  1536. >A few more flaps, and you're hovering by Anon's southern window; your favorite ingress point.
  1537. >What you see makes your blood boil.
  1538. >Anon is sleeping in the embrace of another mare- the mare responsible for putting you in the hospital.
  1539. >You're beginning to see red, but then you notice something else, something that makes you freeze.
  1540. >That pegasus isn't a pegasus.
  1541. >She's got a horn, too.
  1542. >You gasp in spite of your fury.
  1543. "Another princess?" you wonder aloud. "There's another princess in Equestria!?"
  1544. >"Indeed, there is." a vaguely-familiar voice answers from behind you.
  1545. >You try to turn, but your wings are seized in place, as is the rest of your body, though you don't fall.
  1546. >"You shouldn't have returned," the voice continues with a hint of remorse.
  1547. >It's hot... too hot for a summer night at this altitude.
  1548. "Please..." you grunt, struggling against your invisible restraints, "...let me *ugh!* go!"
  1549. >"I'm sorry, but you've forced my hoof."
  1551. Chapter 4
  1553. >"What is the nature of love?"
  1554. >Something isn't right... you're falling.
  1555. >Your eyes shoot open, revealing the open curtains of your massive four-poster bed, silver embroidery reflecting the moonlight.
  1556. >Sitting upright, you tap the crystal lamp on your nightstand and scan the immediate vicinity for the strange voice's owner.
  1557. >There's nopony here but you.
  1558. >Confusion overwhelms your mind as you attempt an impromptu analysis of the preceding minutes.
  1559. >The memories are muddied and fleeting; slipping through your mental grasp like fine sand through a sieve.
  1560. "Just a dream," you concede, flopping back onto the soft mattress.
  1561. >You pull a pillow over your face and notice its odd scent; a faint combination of perfume and sweat.
  1562. "Wait a minute... Cadence?" you call out to the empty room after tossing the pillow aside.
  1563. >Once again, you find you're alone.
  1564. >You look to your right to see an imprint beside you in the mattress.
  1565. >A few long strands of pink, purple, and yellow hairs litter the white sheets.
  1566. >Peeling the sticky sheets back allows a new wave of scent to assault your nostrils; musky yet undoubtedly feminine, the scent of a mare's arousal.
  1567. >You note the large, discolored stain on the bed sheet, as well as the colorful hairs and sticky residue that's all over your groin.
  1568. >The polished stone floor of your room is cold under your bare feet.
  1569. "Cadence? You in there?" you ask loudly, rapping your knuckles on your bathroom door.
  1570. >Several more knocks yield no reply, so you enter.
  1571. >Empty.
  1572. >Your closet and office also share a disturbing lack of pretty pink princess pony.
  1573. >A cursory glance at your clock reveals it's seven o'clock.
  1574. "Great. Cadence is missing, the sunrise is late, and I'm coated in dried mare juice," you groan to nopony.
  1575. 'Don't forget Cirrus,' your inner monologue chides. 'You neglected to check on her last night.'
  1576. >However, comma, if you can smell yourself, the hyper-sensitive snootles of your pony brethren absolutely can too.
  1577. >Returning to the bathroom -still empty, by the way- you get the shower running.
  1578. >You contemplate your potential courses of action while the water heats to your liking.
  1579. >Late sunrise notwithstanding, Mom's a big girl and can handle herself.
  1580. >Likewise, Cadence has shown she's got no problem throwing hooves if the situation calls for violence, though you are curious about the extent of her defensive and offensive magical capabilities.
  1581. >Cirrus is likely still laid up in Canterlot General, stewing in her anger.
  1582. >Of the three mares that require your attention, your marefriend is the lowest priority, callous as that sounds.
  1583. >You'll search for Mom and Cadence before departing the castle to dump the mare that your surprise fiance beat to a pulp.
  1584. >Fuck, that was so hot.
  1585. >The thought of Cadence fighting like a savage, possessed mare brings you to full attention.
  1586. >To be fair, the fact that you were vigorously scrubbing your junk free of gummy mare arousal probably helped too.
  1587. >It's too bad you didn't wake with Cadence by your side.
  1588. >After lending you friction in bed last night, you're confident she'd be willing to do the same in the shower.
  1589. 'Cadence truly is gorgeous,' you think. 'Even a cutie like Cirrus can't hold a candle to her."
  1590. >Truth be told, the only mare that rivals Cadence's beauty is your mother; a very awkward thing to consider when you're absent-mindedly stroking yourself in the shower.
  1591. >"Anon?" a muffled voice pierces through your closed bathroom door and shampoo lather-covered ears.
  1592. "Cadence?"
  1593. >Looks like you might get that chance to fool around with Cadence in the shower after all!
  1594. >"... there?" the voice asks, more muffled and quiet than before.
  1595. "In here!" you yell back, continuing to scrub your hair as you do.
  1596. >You hear the door open, and >hooves clip-clopping on the tile floor.
  1597. "Care to join me?" you ask, eyes sealed shut against shampoo.
  1598. >There's a stifled giggle when you turn your throbbing length to her.
  1599. >Reaching out blindly, your hand makes contact with the side of her neck.
  1600. >Your lips meet a second later, then you're pushed against the shower wall.
  1601. >Her tongue dominates yours; her hoof strokes your member.
  1602. "Hang on," you say, pulling away from her needy, aggressive kiss. "Let me rinse out so I can see-"
  1603. >There's another stifled giggle, then you feel more shampoo being poured and lathered into your hair, dripping over your eyes.
  1604. "Cadence, I-"
  1605. >She cuts you off with a kiss, then kisses her way down your neck, chest, stomach, and finally, her prize.
  1606. >By the gods, just how kinky is this barely-legal mare?
  1607. >If nothing else, this arranged marriage should provide an exciting sex life.
  1608. >Her lips kiss your tip, then hesitate.
  1609. >You feel her hot, rapid breaths on your shaft before she makes a noise- half-hum, half-growl- and her tongue snakes along your length.
  1610. >Your reach down to stroke her mane, but her magic restrains you, gently pushing your wrists against the shower wall.
  1611. >Being completely at her mercy makes your heart race faster than it already was.
  1612. >She begins to bob her muzzle up and down your length with reckless abandon.
  1613. >Already so close to your peak prior to her arrival, you buck your hips in time with her bobbing.
  1614. "Just a bit more..." you groan.
  1615. >"Anon! I need your help!" a mare yells from outside the bathroom.
  1616. >How curious, she sounds just like Cadence.
  1617. >You hear magic chiming in front of you, louder than before.
  1618. >"Anonymous!" Cadence's voice doppelganger shrieks, pounding on the bathroom door. "It's Cadence, let me in! I had an accident during my magic lessons with your mom!"
  1619. >Fortunately, or unfortunately, the mare servicing you is now more focused on bringing about your orgasm than restraining your hands.
  1620. >Several things happen in rapid succession.
  1621. >You frantically wipe your face to see who's been sucking your cock.
  1622. >With your face now clean, you look down to see magenta eyes staring up at you, sky-blue heart silhouettes scattered about the irises.
  1623. >You recognize the owner of those eyes; a very large white mare.
  1624. >A very large white mare who's sitting on her haunches, stroking your shaft with both forehooves.
  1625. >Princess Celestia, the Unconquered Princess of the Sun, looks at you with her possessed eyes and moans, "Cum for me Anonymous. Now."
  1626. >You groan, making a half-hearted attempt to pull away, but it's too late.
  1627. >Celestia strokes you faster and sticks out her tongue in time to catch the first rope that explodes from your cock.
  1628. "Fuck!" you growl, bucking your hips with your mom's stroking.
  1629. >She coaxes forth several more ropes of cum, coating her muzzle, landing in her mane, and painting her right eye closed.
  1630. "Oh, fuck..." you moan, sliding down to sit on the shower floor.
  1631. >There's even cum dripping from the tip of Mom's horn.
  1632. >Her long tongue snakes around her muzzle, cleaning the spunk within its reach before the shower rinses it away.
  1633. >"Anonymous! Talk to me!" Cadence yells again from outside the bathroom. "I accidentally hit your mom with a botched love spell! I need to find her and reverse the spell before she does something she'll regret!"
  1634. >You facepalm, then flop back-first onto the floor.
  1635. >Your surprise lover kisses your cock again.
  1636. "Cadence!"
  1637. >"Yes?"
  1638. >Mom stands over you, straddling your torso.
  1639. "Get in here!"
  1640. >"It's locked!"
  1641. >Mom's tongue wraps around your cock.
  1642. "My mother is sucking my cock, Cadence! AGAIN!"
  1643. >"WHAT!?"
  1644. >There's a primal scream outside the bathroom.
  1645. >The door explodes into the bathroom; a jet of splintered wood and blue magic.
  1647. -----
  1649. >These pancakes are delicious; Mom's always are.
  1650. >It's about the only thing good about this morning.
  1651. >That, and the blowjob... fucked up as it was.
  1652. >Now you understand the snippet of guard conversation you overhead when you were younger, "That feeling when you nut but she keeps suckin'."
  1653. >Oh, you also have pork bacon, so things aren't *all* bad.
  1654. >Cadence hasn't acknowledged your om-nom-nom-nom-nivorous ways yet, though her anger may be clouding her powers of observation at the moment.
  1655. >After obliterating your bathroom door, she burst inside to find Mom's muzzle sealed against the base of your dick.
  1656. >Apparently Cadence is a rather jealous mare, to put it lightly.
  1657. >Instead utilizing her magic to cast a counter spell, your incensed fiance took a much more "hooves-on" approach to dispelling her magical mishap in the heat of the moment; further cementing your newest fetish: mare-on-mare violence.
  1658. >If you hadn't acquainted yourself with Cadence's genitalia last night, you might wonder if she had bigger balls than Dented Shield.
  1659. >Fortunately for both Cadence and your mother, alicorns are made of much sterner stuff than your run-of-the-mill pegasus mare, though both mares walked away from the exchange with bloody bite marks and bruises.
  1660. >Mom made quick work of healing her own injuries after coming to her senses.
  1661. >Cadence refused treatment.
  1662. >So here you sit at the table; opposite Mom, Cadence parked to your immediate left.
  1663. >Both mares wear faint blushes and neither makes eye contact with the other.
  1664. >Despite insisting on keeping you close, Cadence won't look at you.
  1665. >All in all, this may be the most awkward breakfast you can remember; might as well add fuel to the fire.
  1666. "So," you say, breaking the tense silence, "anypony care to tell me how this all came to pass?"
  1667. >Mom straightens in her seat, then clears her throat.
  1668. >"I give Cadence magic lessons every morning before sunrise," she begins. "Today, we were practicing healing spells."
  1669. "How does a healing spell make her do... all that?" you ask turning to Cadence.
  1670. >I didn't mean for that to happen," she says, her ears drooping. "I was distracted when I cast the spell."
  1671. >Mom raises an eyebrow.
  1672. >"Distracted by what, Dear?" she asks, no malice present in her voice.
  1673. >"By, um..." she trails off.
  1674. >"Speak up, Cadence. You owe Anon and I an explanation."
  1675. >Cadence takes a deep breath, holds it for a second, then releases it while holding a foreleg in front of herself.
  1676. >"I wasn't focused on the spell. My thoughts kept returning to last night, when Anon and I, um... cuddled."
  1677. >Your poor fiance's face is now beet red.
  1678. >"Oh ho!" Mom says after suppressing a chortle. "That must've been quite the 'cuddle' session!"
  1679. "Please, Mom. As if you weren't watching every moment of it," you interject.
  1680. >"Ah, well... *ahem!* that would explain why I was overcome with desire for my son instead of having a paper cut mended," Mom says, her face rivaling Cadence's for the most intense tint of red.
  1681. "That also explains why you weren't in bed when I woke up," you say to Cadence. Facing back to Mom, you follow up with, "The late sunrise makes sense now."
  1682. >Both mares nod.
  1683. >Cadence finally looks at you; her eyes telling you something you can't decipher.
  1684. >Shit, she wants something.
  1685. >Great job, Anon, you're a cunthair less oblivious than you were yesterday.
  1686. >'Cadence fought for you, Anonymous.' Mom's voice whispers inside your mind. 'Express your appreciation.'
  1687. 'How?' you think back, still looking at Cadence's waiting face.
  1688. >'She refused my healing spell for a reason.'
  1689. 'Which means...'
  1690. >'For Harmony's sake, Anon! This is an opportunity to bond with your mare! Lick. Her. Wounds!'
  1691. 'Oh.'
  1692. >As you pivot in your seat to face Cadence, a glimmer of hope sparkles in her eyes.
  1693. >You cup her cheek in your palm and lean headfirst towards her neck.
  1694. >A shallow cut greets you, a dried droplet of blood coagulating at the bottom end of the inch-long gash.
  1695. >You sniff the wounded area.
  1696. >Cadence shudders.
  1697. >You drag your tongue across the wound, the unmistakable coppery taste of blood dominating your mouth.
  1698. >Short hairs from her pink coat tickle your tongue and some even stick to it.
  1699. >Cadence sighs after you finish tending to her cut with a kiss.
  1700. >The few other cuts, scrapes, and bite marks scattered across her neck and forelegs receive the same treatment, earning you knickers, sighs, and the occasional hum of approval.
  1701. >As you finish up with her last wound, purple-tinged feathers caress your jaw, coaxing your head up.
  1702. >"Thank you, Anon," Cadence whispers.
  1703. >You can taste the sweetness on her breath.
  1704. "Thank you for fighting for me, Cadence." you have the sense to say.
  1705. >This makes her smile.
  1706. >"I'll always fight for you, Love. For us."
  1707. >By the Sun, she means that.
  1708. >The girl has known you less than a day, and she is one hundred percent sincere in her promise to you.
  1709. >It's apparent in her voice and in her eyes.
  1710. >Either she's the most naive, idealistic mare in Equestria, or she truly is capable of love beyond comprehension, as Mom said.
  1711. >The reality is probably a mixture of both possibilities.
  1712. >No matter the case, in this moment, you're painfully aware of how much you don't deserve her.
  1713. >Does she even know why she's supposed to marry you?
  1714. >Does she even care?
  1715. >You want to be better for her; to stop being "closed off", though you're not sure how to begin.
  1716. >Cadence kisses you before you can overthink it; humming when your tongues meet.
  1717. >She breaks the kiss after a few seconds, following it up with several chaste pecks around the corners of your mouth and one on the tip of your nose.
  1718. >You respond with a final kiss to the tip of her cute pink snootle.
  1719. >A small "squee" escapes her after your final show of affection, and then she's pulling you close with her forelegs and wings; nuzzling your face all the while.
  1720. >Mom seems like she might burst from happiness and excitement at the mutual displays of affection between you and Cadence.
  1721. >She clops her forehooves together and giggles, her face radiant with a big, dopey smile that very few ponies have ever seen grace her visage.
  1722. >It's her smile of pure, unrestrained joy.
  1723. >This isn't Princess Celestia sitting before you; just Celestia the mare- your mother who will stop at nothing to ensure your health and happiness.
  1724. >The phantom in your dream was right- you don't deserve either of them.
  1725. >That thought is all it takes to kill the mood for you, but you try to hide it.
  1726. >Mom has undoubtedly seen through your subtle mask, though she has the tact to not mention it.
  1727. >"What's wrong, darling?"
  1728. >Uh oh.
  1729. "What do you mean? I'm fine."
  1730. >Cadence frowns.
  1731. >"No you're not," she counters, stroking your cheek with her right forehoof. "I just felt your heart drop. Something's upsetting you... I can feel it, you know."
  1732. >Note to self: don't lie to Cadence about what your emotions.
  1733. >Quick Anon, gotta think fast.
  1734. "I just remembered that I have to visit the hospital and officially break things off with Cirrus Wisp before the day gets any later."
  1735. >Well, technically that's something you've been dreading, even if it wasn't what you were just thinking about.
  1736. >Cadence's face stays neutral, but her body stiffens.
  1737. >"I'll come with you!" she says after a moment's contemplation.
  1738. "Not a good idea, since you're the one responsible for putting her there to begin with."
  1739. >"So I should apologize!"
  1740. "You just don't want to let me out of your sight around her, huh?"
  1741. >"I, uh... whaaaaat?" your fiance stumbles through her response with a sheepish grin. "That's not true..."
  1742. >Uh huh... suuuuuuure it isn't.
  1743. "Besides, she's probably got her immediate family there with her. It'd be like sending you straight into a hornet's nest.
  1744. >"He's right, Cadence," Mom adds. "This task must be completed by Anonymous, and him alone. You will have your chance to make amends with Cirrus Wisp, but not today."
  1745. >Cadence can't help but cross her forelegs and pout.
  1746. >It's enough to make you reconsider excluding her from your impending excursion.
  1747. >"You should get moving, my son," Mom says, preventing you from considering it further.
  1748. >She trots around the table to kiss your cheek.
  1749. >"Do give Miss Wisp my regards."
  1750. "Will do.
  1751. >"Anon?" Cadence asks after you rise from your seat.
  1752. "Yes?"
  1753. >"I... I..."
  1754. 'Don't say it,' you beg her inside your head. 'Please, I'm not ready for that yet.'
  1755. >Hopefully she can't read minds too.
  1756. >Cadence continues to struggle with her words, prompting Mom to come to the rescue.
  1757. >"Confidence, dear." Mom coaches her. "A princess is calm, collected, and confident. Your subjects won't have confidence in your leadership if you aren't confident in yourself.
  1758. >"Right..." Cadence whispers to herself.
  1759. >She stands up and plants a soft kiss on your lips.
  1760. >"Hurry back, Love. I'll miss you."
  1762. -----
  1764. >Anonymous strides away from the table and out of the dining hall; tall, confident, and with a purpose.
  1765. >He's so strange, so... inconsistent.
  1766. >In some ways there's no doubting who is mother is.
  1767. >It's very attractive when he's confident; in control of the situation.
  1768. >On the other hoof, he's also shown you glimpses of being a rudderless ship at sea; sailing in the direction of whatever wind is pushing on him the hardest in that moment.
  1769. >Not only in action, but in emotion, is he like this.
  1770. >The emotions you can detect from him, that is.
  1771. >He's unlike any pony you've ever met, so guarded, walled off.
  1772. >Is it a human quality, or just an Anonymous characteristic?
  1773. >Even before your ascension, for as long as you can remember, you've been able to feel, to truly empathize with whatever ponies around you felt in their hearts.
  1774. >The sensations of being inundated with so many external, foreign emotions was overwhelming as a little filly.
  1775. >Mama taught you how to calm your mind; how to breathe when the strain of your gifts became to much.
  1776. >Papa showed you how to filter out the unwanted emotions and focus on what mattered.
  1777. >Earth grant you strength, you miss them so much.
  1778. >If only you could have closure.
  1779. >"It's okay to mourn, Mi Amore," Celestia says, her voice blowing away the fog of grief threatening to envelop you. "I know you haven't had the time to properly grieve with so many changes thrust upon you at once."
  1780. >You don't say anything- your wide eyes do the talking.
  1781. >Celestia gives you a reserved smile.
  1782. >"When you're as old as me, ruled as long as I... you don't need the ability to experience a pony's emotions to know what's on her heart."
  1783. >The room shimmers.
  1784. >You look away from Celestia and her her damned eyes; wise and caring.
  1785. >Just like Mama's.
  1786. >Breathe, Cadence.
  1787. >A princess is calm, collected, and confident.
  1788. >Celestia's peytral and crown come to rest on the table in your peripheral vision.
  1789. >A princess mustn't let her personal feelings interfere with her duties.
  1790. >Your ears detect Celestia's unshod hooves coming around the table towards you.
  1791. >A princess must be strong for her subjects.
  1792. >"Cadence..."
  1793. >A princess puts others before herself.
  1794. >White feathers coax your face towards their owner.
  1795. >A princess...
  1796. >Forget princesses, frontier ponies don't show weakness.
  1797. >Mama and Papa weren't weak.
  1798. >You wish you were strong like them; constant and unyielding like the mountains you called home.
  1799. >Celestia's eyes are the wrong color, but the way she looks at you, for a moment, it's as if Mama is looking at you through them.
  1800. >Frontier ponies don't cry.
  1801. >At least, never in public.
  1802. >There's no room for unchecked emotions or softness in the West.
  1803. >You feel like a failure- both as a princess, and as the daughter of stoic, iron-tough earth ponies.
  1804. >Celestia's chest is warm, soft, inviting, and muffles your sounds of weakness.
  1805. >Her wings are strong; comforting.
  1806. >They pull you close, dampening the shudders of your barrel.
  1807. >Her voice is sweet and musical; hypnotizing even.
  1808. >She sings to you in Old Ponish as she rocks you in her embrace.
  1809. >Though you only understand a few words, her melody conjures forth images of a distant world in your mind.
  1810. >Suddenly, an unknown landscape flashes before your eyes.
  1811. >It's vast and beautiful with towering mountains beckoning you to explore its wonders in the light of the the full moon that shines from on high.
  1812. >Countless stars embellish the black canopy above, twinkling with the rhythm of Celestia's song.
  1813. >A sparkling sea calls to you from the horizon opposite the mountains.
  1814. >You stand upon a prairie that separates the two dominant terrain features; tall grass swaying in the nighttime breeze.
  1815. >Overcome with new emotions- namely deja vu, you soon identify Celestia's longing to return to this place.
  1816. >Melancholy creeps in upon realizing this place was lost to time eons ago, and you share in Celestia's pain.
  1817. >Despite this, you feel a calling.
  1818. >You feel Celestia's purpose, a reason for being.
  1819. >No sooner do you feel this, the song ends, and you're once again in Celestia's strong embrace.
  1820. "What... what was that?"
  1821. >Celestia releases you and her eyes glisten for an instant, but harden immediately.
  1822. >"As you lost your parents, so too did Sister and I lose our ancestral home. Our family."
  1823. >Her feathers lift your chin.
  1824. >"The loved ones you lose are never truly gone, Mi Amore Cadenza. They live on through you. There's no shame in grieving them, but always remember to honor them in how you live; how you love."
  1825. "I wish I was strong, like M-Mama and Papa were," you say as your breath hitches again.
  1826. >"You are, Cadence."
  1827. "I don't feel like I am."
  1828. >Celestia chuckles.
  1829. >"Your uppercut would say otherwise," she says, giving you a playful shove to your chest.
  1830. >Your ears droop.
  1831. "I- I'm sorry."
  1832. >"For what?" Celestia asks, cocking an eyebrow.
  1833. >Stand tall and look her in the eyes, Cadence... just like Papa showed you.
  1834. "I'm sorry for not being focused. For botching that spell know."
  1835. >Celestia doesn't move, her marble face doesn't divulge anything.
  1836. >Breathe in, breathe out.
  1837. >Focus.
  1838. "I'm sorry for attacking you when my first response should've been to cast a counter-spell."
  1839. >The Princess of the Sun's mask slips, then shatters.
  1840. >Soft chuckles turn into full-fledged giggles, then an all out guffaw.
  1841. >You're unsure if you should join in her merriment, though you want to.
  1842. >"Oh, dear Cadence, don't be sorry!"
  1843. "What?"
  1844. >"I can't expect for you to forsake your frontier upbringing after a few weeks of royal etiquette lessons! Besides, I haven't fought hoof-to-hoof for over a millennium. I forgot what it was like- the thrill of combat! The surge of adrenaline, the satisfaction from landing a heavy blow!"
  1845. >Princess Celestia, the perpetually-composed monarch of Equestria, squees and begins to prance around you.
  1846. >"Oh, I can't remember the last time I felt so ALIVE!"
  1847. >She comes to a halt beside you and rests a wing over your withers.
  1848. >"And I have you to thank for this 'happy accident'."
  1849. >Well then, this certainly wasn't what you expected.
  1850. "No hard feelings then?"
  1851. >"None whatsoever, though..."
  1852. >Her ears droop and her smile falters.
  1853. >"I do hope you can forgive me for my... indiscretion..."
  1854. >You stiffen under Celestia's wing.
  1855. >"To be fair, your spell was *much* more potent than I could have anticipated. You have tremendous potential, Cadence."
  1856. >She retracts her wing, and with it, her mask returns.
  1857. >"But it must be cultivated through careful, dedicated study."
  1858. >Just like that, *Princess* Celestia has returned; poise ponefied.
  1859. >"I trust we can move past this incident?"
  1860. "Yes, but..."
  1861. >Celestia's right, you can't be expected to abandon your heritage so quickly.
  1862. >You move until you're muzzle-to-muzzle with the towering mare.
  1863. "...princess or not, magical mishap or not, you get frisky with my stallion again, I won't go so easy on you."
  1864. >Something changes before you realize what you saw.
  1865. >Were you imagining things, or did something happen to her eyes?
  1866. >Far more disturbing is the sudden change or emotions that radiate from the elder princess.
  1867. >Though it only lasts for a fraction of a second, you know what she just felt.
  1868. >Rage.
  1869. >Murderous rage at being challenged.
  1870. >The desire to watch you burn.
  1871. >Her feelings dissipate as soon as they appear, but their effect on you linger.
  1872. >Nevertheless, you stand your ground.
  1873. >Celestia chuckles, low and sarcastic.
  1874. >"Anonymous could stand to learn a thing or two from you, *Cadenza*."
  1875. >The two of you stand like that, staring each other down, each waiting for the other to yield.
  1876. >You feel something new.
  1877. >You're confused- rather, she is, you merely feel it in her.
  1878. >"Cadence?" Celestia asks, stepping back and shaking her head. "What just happened?"
  1880. -----
  1882. >The more you contemplate how to break the news to Cirrus Wisp, the more daunting the task seems.
  1883. >All things considered, you'd be willing to bet that yesterday was one of the worst days of her life.
  1884. >And here you come to do your duty, almost assuredly adding insult to injury.
  1885. >Hopefully she was kept sedated all night.
  1886. >Otherwise, knowing her, she'll have some choice words for you regarding your absence from her hospital room.
  1887. >Not that you would blame her- she doesn't know about your surprise betrothal.
  1888. >Tartarus, you've only learned the root cause for your rushed nuptials a mere twelve hours ago.
  1889. >Mom has never given you cause to doubt her intentions... until yesterday.
  1890. >To say her reticence to disclose your life-threatening condition has shaken your trust in her judgment would be an understatement.
  1891. >Did she think she was protecting you by withholding that not-so-trivial tidbit of information?
  1892. >You want to give her the benefit of the doubt.
  1893. >Perhaps she didn't tell you because she wanted you to have a carefree childhood; unburdened by the knowledge of your tenuous grasp on life?
  1894. >It seems like a plausible explanation.
  1895. >Even if that were the case, why not level with you upon coming of age?
  1896. >Further troubling is her mood swings and drastic behavioral changes; unlike anything you've ever seen from her.
  1897. >You still haven't come to terms with anything regarding this morning's events.
  1898. "This is so fucked up." You say to the otherwise-empty carriage.
  1899. >Indeed, everything about the past twenty-four hours is wrong.
  1900. >Before yesterday, you didn't have a care in the world; never looking beyond the next day.
  1901. >To be brutally honest, nothing was ever expected of you before yesterday.
  1902. >That is, nothing substantial was ever expected of you.
  1903. >Being pleasant whilst mingling with nobles or foreign dignitaries was second nature.
  1904. >It's easy to maintain the veneer of charm when nothing is personally at stake.
  1905. >Mom did all the heavy lifting, as she had for almost a millennium.
  1906. >Now that you actually have skin in the game, it's become quite clear just how woefully unprepared you are to cope with such a massive change.
  1907. >'You do not deserve either of them!'
  1908. >Those piercing words become increasingly prescient the more you reflect on your life.
  1909. >Cadence certainly deserves better than you, the emotionally-detached, spoiled, oblivious prince.
  1910. >She's sweet- yet tough, genuine, has actual substance to her character, and is drop-dead-gorgeous to boot; much more so than your cute marefriend could ever hope to be.
  1911. >What do you have to offer her other than the perks of being married to royalty?
  1912. >You can't even offer her genuine emotions yet; only physical affection.
  1913. >Not that you're trying to shut her out- you simply don't know how to open up to her.
  1914. >Come to think of it, you never opened up to Cirrus in that way either; she was merely a prize to be pursued, nothing more.
  1915. "Gods help me," you say, hanging your head, "Aunt Luna was right about me."
  1916. >Rather, your subconscious projection of her was right.
  1917. >At least she's not around to see the disappointing stallion you are.
  1918. >Canterlot General Hospital appears outside your window following your carriage's exit from the Artisan's District.
  1919. >Though the guards hitched to your sleek carriage do an admirable job of coming to a smooth stop, the deceleration jostles your pancake-filled stomach too much for comfort.
  1920. >You glance down at the flowers arranged by one of the castle gardeners; a middle-aged earth pony mare who had made bouquets for Mom on your behalf in the past.
  1921. "I need something for my marefriend that says, 'Feel better soon, and... I'm sorry for not accompanying you to the hospital after the mare you saw me with beat you to a pulp." You said with a sheepish grin.
  1922. >"Oof," the gardener replied with a grimace. "Is that all it needs to convey, My Prince?"
  1923. "Well, I'm also breaking up with her, so if this could somehow soften the blow...?"
  1924. >"Double oof."
  1925. >You inspect the mare's work.
  1926. >Her talent is undeniable; shining through in this colorful, fragrant arrangement.
  1927. >Under different circumstances it wouldn't feel like a thoughtless, perfunctory gift.
  1928. >A guard opens the carriage door.
  1929. >"Canterlot General Hospital, My Prince." he says. "Will you be requiring the full entourage to accompany you inside?"
  1930. "No. One will suffice."
  1931. >You walk the distance between your carriage and the hospital's front doors for an eternity.
  1932. >Do you *really* want this?
  1933. >Does it matter?
  1934. >Not even you can contest the will of the Sun, especially when your survival is at stake.
  1935. >Still, not having a say in the matter bothers you at a fundamental level.
  1936. >Even having the illusion of choice would have been nice.
  1937. >Technically, you *do* have the choice of which alicorn you could marry...
  1938. >You shake your head in an attempt to purge that last thought from your mind.
  1939. >Yes, you've kept your heart walled off from all but a very select few ponies, and no, Cirrus was not among them, but... damn it, you still wish you could have the freedom to let that relationship run its course.
  1940. >Perhaps a little more time with her was all it would've taken to break through your defenses?
  1941. >"Your Majesty! H-how may we help you?" a bewildered unicorn mare with striking green eyes asks you.
  1942. >When did you get to the front desk?
  1943. >Focus, Anon.
  1944. >The time for reflection and self-pity is over- you've got a job to do.
  1945. "I'm here to visit a pegasus that was admitted here last night. A mare named Cirrus Wisp?"
  1946. >The mare behind the desk glances at your flowers, then back to you.
  1947. >"Cirrus Wisp... Cirrus... ah!"
  1948. >She frowns at her clipboard.
  1949. >"Your Majesty, it says here that a Cirrus Wisp was discharged at two thirty-three this morning."
  1950. "What?"
  1951. >Another unicorn mare drops a clipboard on the one her counterpart has suspended in her aura.
  1952. >"Readmitted at four-fifteen with second-degree burns and apparent head trauma."
  1953. "Hang on. What happened to her after she was discharged? And what you you mean by 'apparent' head trauma?"
  1954. >"Wish I could tell you, Your Majesty," the second mare answers with a shrug. "The doctor just went to administer her last round of healing spells, so he'll know. Room two-oh-four."
  1955. "Thanks."
  1956. >You don't stick around for the mares' bows and pleasantries.
  1957. >Wide eyed ponies gasp, dive out of your way, and bow as your long legs carry you through the halls and up stairs, your bronze-clad escort galloping in pursuit.
  1958. >200, 201, 202, 203...
  1959. "Two-oh-four!" you shout at the placard bearing Cirrus's room number.
  1960. >The door before you opens a second later, allowing a white-maned, bespectacled red unicorn passage.
  1961. >He jumps a little at the sight of you, but is quick to recover and offer a deep bow after shutting the door.
  1962. "Rise, please," you say, motioning with your hand.
  1963. >The stallion obeys.
  1964. "How is she?"
  1965. >"Physically, she'll be fine." he answers with a slight frown. "Mentally... well... poor girl's been through a lot in a short time."
  1966. >You cringe.
  1967. "What happened to her after she was discharged the first time?"
  1968. >"That's just the thing- I can't make sense of it."
  1969. "How so?"
  1970. >"Well, she was found by guards patrolling the Upper Quarter park. Delirious and burned, I thought she got in a fight with a dragon at first..."
  1971. "I sense there's a 'but' coming."
  1972. >"But...." he drags the word out, "if that were the case, she'd almost certainly have severe lacerations to accompany the burns. Then there's the fact that there's not exactly many dragons in Equestria. Even if there was one in Canterlot last night, an agitated, combative dragon would've drawn a lot of attention to itself."
  1973. "So there's no witnesses."
  1974. >"That's correct, Your Majesty."
  1975. "What of this 'apparent' head trauma the nurses at the front desk mentioned?"
  1976. >"Ah! That's the other mystery. She presented classic symptoms of a concussion; dizzyness, nausea, headache, memory problems- the works."
  1977. "By the Sun..."
  1978. >"However," the stallion continues, "we can't detect any sign of blunt force trauma acquired after her first treatment here last night. No whiplash, no physical damage to the brain, nothing. She was scanned by myself and three other doctors with identical results."
  1979. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
  1980. >"I'm afraid not, My Prince. Perhaps you could convince her to stay for observation this time? It's much cheaper than the consequences of not taking her doctors' advice and getting back into dire straights."
  1981. "The crown will settle her account. Send the bill to the castle."
  1982. >He nods.
  1983. "Is she awake?"
  1984. >The doctor shakes his head.
  1985. >"Nope. But if I know my sedative spells- and I most certainly do- she should come to in about ten or so."
  1986. "Thank you, Doctor...?"
  1987. >"I'm the one they call Doctor Feelgood," the stallion says with a grin whilst pointing to his syringe cutie mark. "I'm the one that makes them feel al-right."
  1988. "Ah. Well, I thank you for taking care of Cirrus, Doctor Feelgood."
  1989. >The doctor bows.
  1990. >"All part of the job, My Prince."
  1991. >Dr. Feelgood trots away, leaving you staring at Cirrus's closed door; the only thing separating you from whatever reckoning awaits on the other side.
  1992. >Your forgotten guard reminds you of his presence upon taking a position right of the door.
  1993. >His quiet professionalism helps settle your nerves; corny as it may seem.
  1994. >Only his ears twitch when you release a loud, exaggerated sigh before opening the door.
  1995. (Recommended background music: Men I Trust: "Numb")
  1996. >Sunlight pours through the window's open blinds; situated opposite of you and to the right of Cirrus's bed.
  1997. >The space is furnished with all the trappings you'd expect of a hospital room, including the faint scent of antiseptic.
  1998. >Cirrus lays on her side facing away from you; barrel rising and falling in a slow, steady tempo.
  1999. >She's not connected to any monitoring devices so all you can hear in this small, sterile room is the her faint breathing; barely detectable by your inferior human ears.
  2000. >White bandages wrap diagonally around her barrel and between her wings, looking like strips of cloud against the cornflower-blue sky of her fur.
  2001. >Her dark blue mane, normally long and layered to accent the white streak that ran through it, is cut ragged and uneven in places along her neck; no doubt where it was burned short.
  2002. >Now that you're finally here, seeing what became of your marefriend in the wake of the fight that you were too enthralled by to stop, the weight of your actions and inaction hits you.
  2003. "I did this," you murmur as the flowers in your hand fall to the floor. "This is all my fault."
  2004. >There's an uncomfortable tightness in your chest.
  2005. >Your eyes sting.
  2006. >Blinking a few times brings the room back into focus.
  2007. >At this very moment, there's nothing you want more than to travel back in time, if only a day; to have a few more hours of blissful ignorance.
  2008. >The bed yields to your added weight; molding to your left side.
  2009. >Being pony-sized, there's not much space for your larger frame, but that's fine considering what you want.
  2010. >A few quiet moments to be completely honest- with whom, it remains to be seen.
  2011. >Cirrus is your unconscious little spoon.
  2012. >You're careful not to put any pressure over her dressings as you snake and settle your arms around her barrel.
  2013. >Turning your face to the ceiling, you give a pleading look before speaking to the third party you're almost certain is watching.
  2014. "Please, Mom. Just... let me have this."
  2015. >Surely she'd respect your request for privacy; to let these fleeting moments with Cirrus be yours, while she was technically still your mare.
  2016. "Cirrus, I..." you begin to whisper into her mane.
  2017. >You know what you need to say, but the prospect of baring your soul to another pony (conscious or otherwise) terrifies you.
  2018. >This mare has become something else to you since entering her room.
  2019. >She's a mirror you can't stand to look in.
  2020. "...I regret treating you like a prize to be won. A trophy of my rebellion against my mother's micromanagement of my life."
  2021. >You cringe at this admission.
  2022. >Memories of your first date come to mind, along with your first shared kiss.
  2023. "I'm sorry I didn't cherish our time together as much as I should have."
  2024. >Your voice wavers as you dare to speak louder.
  2025. "I'm so sorry I took you for granted."
  2026. >Cirrus remains motionless, save for her steady, slow breathing.
  2027. >You run your fingers through her mane.
  2028. >She always loved that.
  2029. "Even if it wouldn't have worked out between us, I... I wish I could've opened up to you during our time together. I regret not knowing how."
  2030. >Her right foreleg twitches.
  2031. "I regret not being here last night."
  2032. >She twitches again, this time showing signs of coming to.
  2033. "You deserved better than what I gave you," is your final whisper before releasing Cirrus from your embrace and sitting upright beside her.
  2034. >Cirrus groans and rolls over towards you, her eyes slowly opening and focusing on your large form.
  2035. >"A-Anon?" she asks; voice hoarse.
  2036. "Hey you..."
  2037. >You can barely look into her sea-foam green eyes.
  2038. "How are you feeling? Any pain?"
  2039. >She shakes her head with sedative-delayed lethargy.
  2040. "What happened last night?" you ask curiosity getting the better of you. "They said you left here late at night, only to be found in the Upper Quarter park a while later; unconscious and burned."
  2041. >Cirrus closes her eyes.
  2042. >"I... I don't remember." she replies with a furrowed brow.
  2043. "Can you remember anything?" you reply, scritching behind her ears without thinking.
  2044. >"I remember looking for you in a dingy Lower Canterlot bar..." she says, her eyes narrowing. "I remember seeing another mare all over you."
  2045. >You grimace.
  2046. >"I remember fighting for you, *my* stallion." Cirrus adds, her voice becoming more of a growl as she pulls away from your touch. "And I remember seeing you sit idly by right before I took a beating my ancestors felt."
  2047. >You look away from her piercing glare.
  2048. >She doesn't speak again until you glance back at her.
  2049. >The anger that was once in her eyes has been replaced with sadness and disappointment.
  2050. >"Worst of all, I remember you not being here with me when I needed you most." she concludes, much more subdued in voice and expression. "What kind of a stallion leaves his mare out to dry like that?"
  2051. >Cirrus cuts you off as you open your mouth to respond.
  2052. >"How can I count on you as a mate, Anonymous, if you won't defend and support me?"
  2053. "Cirrus, I-"
  2054. >"Being a prince doesn't excuse any of that, you know. Mommy can't save you from everything."
  2055. >She's kept her hooves to herself so far, but she might as well have slapped you with that last remark.
  2056. >True to her hot-blooded nature, her anger returns in a flash.
  2057. >"How long have you been going behind my back?" she snaps at you; continuing her attack.
  2058. "I wasn't- Ugh! It's not what it looked like."
  2059. >"Could've fooled me, *Your Highness*," Cirrus spits back, sitting up on her haunches. "The way that 'Lady' was acting with you, I would've guessed you and her had quite the history together."
  2060. "Cirrus. I met Cadence immediately after you left my room yesterday."
  2061. >"Bullshit."
  2062. "I swear to Harmony, it's the truth. Mom dragged me off to meet her after she scared you away then told Cadence and I that-"
  2063. >You stop yourself just before you spill the beans that would set the Equestrian press into a frenzy.
  2064. >"Told you what, exactly?" Cirrus asks. "Hmmm?"
  2065. "Doesn't matter." you snap back. "It's not like I have a choice in the matter."
  2066. >"Bullshit again. You always have a choice."
  2067. "Cirrus, you don't understand... it's not that simple."
  2068. >"Then help me understand!" Cirrus grabs your hand with her hooves.
  2069. >You want to tell her everything; to relay the exact sequence of events that transpired after she left your room.
  2070. >But you don't, as you spend too much time contemplating how to begin that conversation.
  2071. >"I tried to ignore this part of you," Cirrus says, breaking your train of thought. "How detached you are. No matter what I tried, I always felt like you kept me at wing's length."
  2072. >Cadence's similar sentiments from last night echo in your mind.
  2073. >"I was so desperate to break through this... this... WALL you've got up... to finally feel like you truly cared for me... I was ready to give myself to you yesterday."
  2074. >You have no words.
  2075. >Cirrus holds her tongue, opting to study your every movement and expression with intense scrutiny.
  2076. "I'm sorry," is all you can manage to say. "You deserved better from me."
  2077. >She crosses her forelegs and huffs.
  2078. >"Yeah. I did."
  2079. >You can do better now and give her the explanation she deserves.
  2080. "Look," you say after steeling your nerves. "I owe you an explanation for last night."
  2081. >"Save it." she replies. "It's obvious which mare you prefer. We're done, Anonymous."
  2082. "Cirrus, please..." you begin, "if you'd just let me ex-"
  2083. >"Get. Out."
  2084. >Your foot crushes the flowers you'd forgotten on the floor.
  2085. >Just as your hand touches the doorknob, Cirrus speaks again.
  2086. >"Want to know how I can tell that I really don't matter to you, Anonymous?"
  2087. >You spin around to see tears rolling down her proud face.
  2088. >"Even now, you still won't fight for me. You'd rather take the easy way out."
  2090. -----
  2092. >The castle clock tower tolls its bells in a melodic sequence that you've become familiar with since making your residence here.
  2093. >You hum along with the tune until its completion, then pantomime striking the final bell, giggling at yourself as you do.
  2094. >1:00 PM.
  2095. >As eventful as the morning started, the hours following your brief exchange with Celestia at breakfast were rather dull.
  2096. >Not that you didn't find every facet of magic (especially love-related magic) fascinating- you did- it was simply difficult to study when your mind was somewhere else; with somepony else, as it was.
  2097. >Nevertheless, you doubled down and committed yourself to focused work, pouring all of yourself into your obligation.
  2098. >"If something is worth doing, it's worth doing with all your heart," as your parents always used to say.
  2099. >You close your eyes and blow a forceful exhalation through clenched teeth.
  2100. >Now is not the time to get emotional.
  2101. >It hasn't made things any easier; not having closure.
  2102. >The thick textbook that had (until now) consumed your attention slams shut under your magical influence.
  2103. >Your telekinesis has advanced in leaps and bounds under Celestia's expert tutelage.
  2104. >As for the more complex and nuanced forms of magic, well...
  2105. >"We practice for a reason, Cadence," Celestia said after one of your first lessons. "Why, even I practice various spellcasting drills every day. Magic is a blade that grows dull with neglect, my dear. As a princess, it is imperative your edge always be honed."
  2106. >Love magic came naturally, more so than telekinesis.
  2107. >It was like an extension of the abilities you possessed prior to ascending; to feel the emotions and desires of other ponies, to spread love in all its forms.
  2108. >The challenge with love magic was scaling back the intensity of your spells.
  2109. >A little goes a long way, as you've come to learn.
  2110. >You levitate the book above your desk, turning it about its three axes for your own amusement, then deposit it into its rightful place among the other tomes Celestia had gifted you.
  2111. >Rising from your seat, you shake out your stiff legs, then do the same for your wings.
  2112. >They've grown substantially since your ascension, undoubtedly necessary since the rest of your body grew during the process.
  2113. >The balcony curtains beckon you with their irregular undulations, as does the breeze that drives them.
  2114. >A quick illusory spell hides your horn.
  2115. >Next to basic telekinesis, it's the spell you use the most often, and you've quite adept at hiding your new appendage with it.
  2116. >Regardless, one can't be to careful, so a cursory glance in the mirror is in order.
  2117. >Satisfied that your spell is up-to-snuff, you stride onto the balcony.
  2118. >The tower's white protrusion gleams under Celestia's sun and is warm underhoof.
  2119. >You take a slow, deep breath and savor the crisp, almost-sweet breeze that sweeps around Canterlot Peak.
  2120. >It kisses your primaries as it flows around you, coaxing you to spread your plumage.
  2121. >Without a second thought, you're airborne, content to let the breeze and thermals take you where they will.
  2122. >You glide in a lazy, meandering fashion, flapping your wings only to avoid colliding with adjacent towers or the occasional pegasus guard.
  2123. >Back home, flying was a pleasure available only to you.
  2124. >The sky was your sanctuary when the colts and fillies of Last Chance became too much to tolerate.
  2125. >Coaxing lightning from clouds definitely would've tipped the scales in your favor during a confrontation, but Mama and Papa insisted you settle your disputes on the ground.
  2126. >Being the daughter of earth ponies meant you sometimes had to forsake your natural pegasus instincts to comply with societal expectations.
  2127. >Your parents nevertheless allowed you to fly- to walk on clouds, bust said clouds, and even practice making lightning- provided you were at least one valley removed from Last Chance.
  2128. >Reminiscing about your life among earth ponies must have influenced your subconscious, as you find yourself landing in a quiet corner of the castle gardens.
  2129. >A fountain bubbles to your right, its gentle babbling not unlike the brooks back home that grew swollen every summer with melting snow from higher elevations.
  2130. >Two marble benches sit at right angles to each other, offset a meter from the fountain's circular perimeter.
  2131. >Tempting as it is to rest upon one of these stone seats, the allure of a freshly-tilled flowerbed resonates more with your cultural upbringing.
  2132. >Loose, dark soil yields to your hooves' influence.
  2133. >Its cool, damp, loamy texture is a welcome sensation on your frogs.
  2134. >You sigh, close your eyes, and allow yourself to sink into the soft, fertile ground.
  2135. >The breeze has found you again, this time carrying with it the soothing scents of nearby lilac bushes.
  2136. >You prefer the smell of pine sap to flowers, but this will do.
  2137. >Small trenches form in the wake of your extending forelegs.
  2138. >A faint smile graces your muzzle as you focus on your communion with the earth.
  2139. >Breathe in, focusing on what troubles you.
  2140. >Hold the breath, then exhale, releasing your anxieties with it.
  2141. >Feel the earth restore your energy and strength as you inhale again.
  2142. >Mama taught you that- how a focused connection with the earth can rejuvenate an earth pony.
  2143. >Despite repeating the motions throughout your childhood, you've never felt the full effect of the practice until after your ascension.
  2144. >Celestia explained that as an alicorn, you now share in the natural gifts of the three tribes.
  2145. >Unicorn magic is great, but it doesn't make you feel connected to your lost parents the way that your newly-attained earth pony traits do.
  2146. >You continue to cast off your negativity, replacing it with the gentle, tingling sensation you feel flowing from the ground.
  2147. >The longer you spend in this position, the less you become aware of your own body and instead feel your consciousness expanding to encompass the flowerbed you lay in, the nearby fountain, the lilac bushes that provide you with their sweet fragrance, the breeze that carries pollen...
  2148. >You are Cadence, and for a fleeting moment, you are the garden too.
  2149. >Your eyes remain closed, yet you are aware of hummingbirds sipping nectar from flowers ten meters away.
  2150. >You feel a rabbit hop across a lush patch of grass- your grass.
  2151. >Bees pollinate your columbines behind the fountain.
  2152. >You sense four bare hooves walking along your path before your ears can hear them.
  2153. >The presence of another pony collapses your awareness back to your body, but your natural empathetic abilities take over, expanding your perception beyond that of your standard five senses.
  2154. >A mare approaches, you can tell by the way her heart feels.
  2155. >It's not just any mare, either, you realize as the pony draws near.
  2156. "Hello, Raven," you say, smiling.
  2157. >"How'd you know it was me, Cadence?" she replies. "I was downwind of you."
  2158. >Keeping your eyes closed, you turn your neck to face her and smile again, pointing to your cutie mark with a wing.
  2159. "I felt your heart approaching."
  2160. >Finally opening your eyes, you see Raven's jaw drop, though she's quick to close her mouth.
  2161. >"You can do that?"
  2162. "Mmm-hmm! That, among other things. I see with more than just my eyes, you know."
  2163. >"I see..."
  2164. >You giggle at her phrasing.
  2165. >"What are you doing down there?"
  2166. "Earth communion."
  2167. >Raven tilts her head.
  2168. "It's something my mom taught me," you explain. "A way to cast off stress and feel refreshed."
  2169. >"Hmm..."
  2170. "Care to join me? I'm sure working for Celestia makes for all sorts of stress."
  2171. >"I dunno, Candy, it's probably best if I-"
  2172. "Aw, c'mon!" you plead with your best pout. "We can rinse off in the fountain afterwards!"
  2173. >"Princess Celestia *did* release me early today," Raven contemplates aloud, already unfastening her red ascot with her magic.
  2174. >She deposits it and her collar onto the closest bench, then moves to join you.
  2175. >Her tentative steps into the brick-bordered flowerbed become more confident with every subsequent hoof that makes contact with the soil.
  2176. >"What now?" she asks, standing above you.
  2177. "Lay down and get comfortable!"
  2178. >She follows your instructions, even if it's clear by her expression that she's not a girl that likes to get her hooves dirty.
  2179. >You can't fault an upper-middle class mare like her for being hesitant to lay in the dirt like a common farm pony, but you admire her for being willing to give it a chance, despite it being unbecoming of a mare of her station.
  2180. >Raven stretches her forelegs out as you had done and releases a shuddering sigh.
  2181. >"So, what now?"
  2182. >You have her close her eyes, then take her through the steps, just as Mama had when you were a little filly.
  2183. >Again, it's apparent that there are mental hurdles Raven needs to overcome to be fully invested in the process, so you ease her into it, guiding her to a new step when her heart tells you she's ready.
  2184. >It's unconventional, the friendship you've established with Raven.
  2185. >She's shy where you're bold; calculated when you're impulsive.
  2186. >While there are many ponies employed in the castle, you were drawn to Raven when you first saw her.
  2187. >Her heart stood out to you as being exceptionally sweet, genuine and not jaded like other ponies who had worked for several years in Canterlot.
  2188. >Perhaps you wanted to establish a connection with her before her profession could wear her down.
  2189. >Whatever the reason, you're glad you introduced yourself to Raven.
  2190. >She's been great about making life in the castle more enjoyable.
  2191. >You both vent to each other, though you obviously have to be very careful about what you reveal.
  2192. >As you continue to reflect on your relationship with Raven, she touches your hoof with hers, drawing your attention outward.
  2193. >"How have you been? I haven't seen you in a few days. Anything exciting happen since our last visit?"
  2194. >You want to tell her everything; expose every saucy detail of the last twenty-four hours.
  2195. >Harmony forbid if word leaked about what happened this morning in Anon's bathroom...
  2196. >And then there was your wedding.
  2197. >What were you to do about that?
  2198. >You haven't picked a mare of honor yet, let alone seen your dress-
  2199. >"Cadence?"
  2200. >There's concern leaking through Raven's otherwise-neutral expression.
  2201. "Raven... has Celestia mentioned anything... 'interesting' to you?"
  2202. >"What do you mean?" she replies with a perplexed look.
  2203. "Has she spoken of... I dunno... a big event taking place at the end of the week?"
  2204. >"Hmm... Well, now that you mention it, the Princess has been working on something with Straight Talk. She has me leave when they speak about it. I figured it was above my pay grade." she concedes with a shrug.
  2205. >So, Celestia, Anonymous, Straight Talk, and you are ostensibly the only four souls in Equestria that are privy to your impending marriage, or your true alicorn nature for that matter.
  2206. >Why the secrecy, though?
  2207. >It it *really* necessary to shroud everything in mystery, to compartmentalize as many details as possible?
  2208. >"Why do you ask?"
  2209. "I uh... well, Celestia has been acting strange lately, and she-"
  2210. >Careful, Cadence.
  2211. >Luckily, Raven chooses this time to interrupt, saving you from having to dig yourself out of a metaphorical hole.
  2212. >"Oh! You've noticed it too?" Raven exclaims, jumping to her hooves. "I thought she was being weird, but I haven't worked for her long enough to be sure."
  2213. "Weird, how?"
  2214. >Raven sinks back into the dirt, but crawls closer to you, her ears folded down.
  2215. >"Like, scary weird."
  2216. >She scans your surrounding, then whispers after feeling confident that you're alone.
  2217. >"Two weeks ago, I was working in her study, transcribing her reply to a letter from the Minotaur Empire. One moment she was speaking calmly about why decreasing tariffs on Equestrian goods would be mutually beneficial for our countries, the next..."
  2218. >Raven closes her eyes and shudders.
  2219. >You can feel fear gripping her heart, so you try to counter it with a comforting touch from your wing.
  2220. "Raven? What happened?"
  2222. ***
  2224. >The princess paces around her study while you work at your desk.
  2225. >Your quill is a blur in your mauve aura as you do your best to keep pace transcribing Princess Celestia's words verbatim.
  2226. >"-an alternative which I think you'll agree is preferable..."
  2227. >Celestia's voice fades, prompting you to look up from your scroll.
  2228. >She stands a meter away, staring at something to your right.
  2229. >You track her gaze and find nothing of importance, so you look back to her for further instruction.
  2230. >Her eyes are now unfocused.
  2231. >You're about to ask if she's alright when they roll back in her head.
  2232. >Celestia sways side-to-side, muttering something unintelligible, though you think you heard some Old Ponish at one point.
  2233. "Princess!" you cry out. "Are you alright!?"
  2234. >Your voice is apparently enough to snap the princess from her haze, though her eyes seem... wrong.
  2235. >"Where were we?" she asks, her voice unusually harsh.
  2236. "You were about to propose an alternative to the Minotaur tariff increase?"
  2237. >"Ah, yes."
  2238. >She clears her throat, a signal for you to resume transcription.
  2239. >"Not that I should need to spell it out for you," she continues with a noticeable edge in her voice. "Who am I kidding? Of course I'd need to! My magic kindergarten class could grasp basic economic principles better than you, you damned fat excuse for a 'King'!"
  2240. >Your quill drops to the desk, marring the polished wooden surface with ink as you sit in wide-eyed disbelief at the mare before you.
  2241. >Celestia spreads her wings and struts around your desk, continuing her diatribe.
  2242. >"Why am I even wasting my time on you, cow?" Celestia spits. "It'd arguably be easier to kill you and plunge the Empire into chaos as the various tribes fight over the throne."
  2243. >You try to shrink into your desk as Celestia contemplates the idea, heat radiating off her white coat.
  2244. >"It's not like we'd let you go to waste. My Solar Prince loves to eat meat, after all. I'm sure he wouldn't know the difference between regular cow and sun-cooked minotaur."
  2245. >Celestia sits on her haunches, clops her front hooves together, and laughs.
  2246. >"That's it! It'll send a message to all the the other nations- all who oppose the Sun will burn! Burn! Burn!"
  2247. >Your scroll is enveloped in red, then bursts into flame on your desk.
  2248. >"BURN!"
  2249. >You cry out in terror and dive under your desk.
  2250. >"Oh my goodness!" Celestia exclaims in her normal voice.
  2251. >She extinguishes the fire, then coaxes you out from under your desk with her gentle magic.
  2252. >Your shaking subsides somewhat after noticing her eyes are back to normal.
  2253. >"Raven, what's wrong, dear? What happened to the letter?"
  2255. ***
  2257. "Wow."
  2258. >That's all you can think to say to Raven's tale.
  2259. >"Yeah."
  2260. "Did she have any other incidents like that?"
  2261. >Raven shakes her head.
  2262. >"Nothing as bad as that one. There were other times we were alone where she'd just start laughing to herself- a really scary laugh- or she'd start muttering nonsense. Sometimes it sounded like she was arguing with herself."
  2263. >You feel how much Raven doesn't like discussing the issue, so you stand, then pull her up with you.
  2264. "C'mon. Let's rinse off and find something to do."
  2265. >"Like what?" Raven replies, eager to change the subject.
  2266. "I dunno," you reply, stepping into the fountain. "Preferably something away from the castle."
  2267. >"The princess is finally letting you out, huh?" Raven asks as she scrubs dirt out of her coat with her magic.
  2268. >You give her a sheepish smile.
  2269. "Well... I did kinda go out last night and she hasn't said anything about it."
  2270. >"That's progress! Where did you go?"
  2271. "To a bar," you answer without thinking.
  2272. >"Really?" Raven responds before smirking. "Meet any cute stallions?"
  2273. >You turn away, but now quick enough to hide your blush.
  2274. >"You did! Ooh, what's his name, Candy? Do I know him?"
  2275. >You're not ready for this conversation.
  2276. "I don't want to talk about it."
  2277. >"Aww, come on, Cadence!"
  2278. "Raven, please. I promise I'll tell you later."
  2279. >"Alright, fine. I'll hold you to that." She concedes, frowning. "So, is there anything you want to do in town?"
  2280. "Nothing in particular," you say, stepping out of the fountain. "Any suggestions?"
  2281. >Raven follows you out of the fountain and dries you both off with her magic.
  2282. >"There is one thing you may be interested in..."
  2283. "What's that?"
  2284. >"Oh, just a little rumor I heard outside the throne room."
  2285. >She's shooting you a cheeky grin as she refastens her collar and ties her ascot.
  2286. >"Somepony's favorite author is supposedly making a surprise appearance at the Canterlot Sci-Fi Festival this afternoon..."
  2287. >You gasp.
  2288. >Raven saunters up to you until her lips reach your left ear.
  2289. >"Rumor is he's announcing the release of something he's been working on for quite a while."
  2290. >She grins as you prance in place at the news.
  2291. "Leaky Valve's finished Half-Decay Three! Finally! After all these years!"
  2292. >"That's what everypony in the know is thinking!"
  2293. "What are we waiting for? Let's go find out for ourselves!"
  2295. Chapter 5
  2297. >You tip the glass back and are disappointed by a lack of alcohol greeting your lips.
  2298. >Funny, you could've sworn you ordered another drink almost ten minutes ago.
  2299. >Though you and Cirrus Wisp were (hopefully) the only souls to witness the exchange in your now-ex-marefriend's hospital room, a peculiar weight of shame hangs around your neck.
  2300. >It pulls your gaze to the bar, this shame, and feeds an irrational fear that making eye contact with anypony will somehow instantaneously clue them into your many shortcomings as a stallion.
  2301. "Miss?" you call to the barmaid that had been serving you the past few hours as you nursed more than a few drinks. "Where's that Minotaur Battlefield I ordered?"
  2302. >"With a lovely young mare named 'Cadence', where you ought to be, boy." A gruff voice responds from behind you. "How long have you been here?"
  2303. "I dunno. Couple hours?" you say, shrugging, not bothering to turn around.
  2304. >Dent climbs up the stool to your right.
  2305. >He waves to the barmaid, a middle-aged, flaxen-haired unicorn.
  2306. >"Whatcha need, boss?" she asks Dent.
  2307. >"An explanation," Dent answers with a frown.
  2308. >"For what?"
  2309. >"Why you were serving alcohol so early in the day, for starters. Or why you even opened our doors before normal business hours for that matter."
  2310. >The mare cocks her brow and locks eyes with Dent.
  2311. >"'Cuz uh him," she says, pointing a hoof in your direction. "You expect me to turn away royalty?"
  2312. >Dent huffs and rolls his eyes.
  2313. >"We don't open early for anypony. Nobility, royals, it don't matter. They can wait like everypony else."
  2314. >"What if the princess wants in early? Should I tell her to get lost, too?"
  2315. >Dent smirks.
  2316. >"Should that ever happen, I'll tell her myself."
  2317. "Nopony can oppose the will of the Sun," you say, finally looking up for the first time since you sat at the bar.
  2318. >"I have, and I'm sure I will again before I return to the earth."
  2319. >Dent rests a heavy hoof on your shoulder.
  2320. >"What's got you in here drowning your sorrows, son? Never figured you for a day drinker."
  2321. >You take a deep breath, contemplating how to best relay everything that contributed to your current activity.
  2322. >Dent pats your shoulder and slinks off his barstool.
  2323. >"C'mon."
  2324. >Nodding, you pull two hundred-bit coins from your pocket and toss them to the mare that put up with your shit for however long you've been here.
  2325. >She catches them with her purple telekinetic magic then blows you a kiss before offering a more respectful bow.
  2326. >You follow Dent into his office and plop into your favorite chair.
  2327. >"Alright, son," Dent says after locking the door. "Spill it."
  2328. >So you do.
  2329. >Granted, you censor your "cuddling" with Cadence, or anything that transpired in the bathroom this morning, but everything else is fair game, and is vented about by you in due time.
  2330. >Dent, to his credit, is patient with your meandering account of your reckoning with Mom in the throne room and revelations in the hidden cavern.
  2331. >He speaks only to ask questions for clarification, always prompting you to continue after receiving an answer, but never steering the conversation.
  2332. >Something about his calm demeanor as you describe your precarious grasp on life bothers you, causing you to cut yourself off.
  2333. >Dent says nothing, but his eyes suggest he knows what you're about to ask him.
  2334. "You knew all along about my condition, didn't you?"
  2335. >The stallion closes his eyes and sighs, and for a second, looks much older than he actually is.
  2336. >"Yes. I did." he says after a long pause.
  2337. "Why didn't you tell me, Papa Dent? You looked after me most of my life."
  2338. >"For the same reason your mother didn't tell you- I wanted you to enjoy your childhood. No colt should have to grow up with the fear of death always hanging overhead!"
  2339. "So why not tell me when I came of age?"
  2340. >"Why do you think?"
  2341. >His tone is serious, deathly so.
  2342. "Mom."
  2343. >"Exactly."
  2344. >The way Dent looks at you now... it makes your skin crawl.
  2345. >"Son, I've never had a problem speaking my mind to your mother. In all honesty, there were times she could've court-martialed me for insubordination, but she always knew I only ever acted with your best interests at heart."
  2346. >He gets up from his seat and walks up to you, stopping when he's half a meter away.
  2347. >"After you came of age and I retired from the guard, I gave your mother an ultimatum: either she tell you the truth, or I would."
  2348. "What did she do?" you ask, leaning forward in your seat.
  2349. >Dent closes his eyes and shudders.
  2350. >"I won't speak ill of my princess, your mother."
  2351. "What happened?"
  2352. >"She... changed. Looking back, I'm not sure if it was real, or whether I imagined it. Regardless, I experienced pure terror that day."
  2353. >The stallion pauses, then opens his mouth, but no words are spoken; only a half-hearted grunt as he searches for the right words.
  2354. >You give him the time to continue at his own pace.
  2355. >"Let's just say your mom made it clear what would happen to me if I didn't keep your condition a secret. She insisted only she had the right to tell you, and she was rather adamant about that point... *believe me*."
  2356. "Oh."
  2357. >Neither of you say anything else for a while.
  2358. >"Enough about your mom. What about the other mares in your life?" Dent finally asks.
  2359. >You speak of Cadence, of Cirrus, and your feelings (or lack thereof) for each mare.
  2360. >Aunt Luna's words continue to gnaw at you, as do Cirrus's.
  2361. >It's no use withholding the unpleasantness of your prior visit with Cirrus, so you speak at length of all the uncomfortable realizations that encounter generated.
  2362. "...and that's what led to me coming here," you finish. "I didn't know where else to go. I don't have the heart to face either Cadence or Mom right now."
  2363. >"And why is that?"
  2364. >You repeat Luna's words to Dent, to which he closes his eyes and sighs in response.
  2365. >"I won't lie- you've got some serious growing up to do, my boy."
  2366. "Yeah. I know."
  2367. >"It's one thing to know," Dent says, pulling you out of your chair. "It's another thing to do."
  2368. "What should I do?"
  2369. >"Your mother will always love you, no matter what... but that doesn't mean you can't express your appreciation every now and again. Let her know how much she and everything she does means to you."
  2370. "It sounds so simple when you put it like that."
  2371. >"Sounds simple 'cuz it is. You just needed to hear somepony tell you straight up. Can't believe I'm having to tell you this at twenty years old, but it is what it is."
  2372. >Annnnddd there's that shame again.
  2373. >"Chin up, Anon. Cadence is about to be stuck with you, for better or for worse-"
  2374. "Gee, thanks."
  2375. >"-so you might as well start acting like the stallion she deserves."
  2376. "But how? I don't want to marry her, and I feel bad that she's 'stuck with me' as you so delicately put it."
  2377. >"You need to get over that real quick." Dent snaps, his voice suddenly stern. "You're gonna marry that sweet filly, and you damn well better make her happy. It'll be hard work, but anything worthwhile always is. Find common ground, and build upon that foundation."
  2378. "Common ground... common ground... common ground..." you mutter. "Well, she does like the Half-Decay series..."
  2379. >Dent facehooves, making you laugh for the first time today.
  2380. >"Harmony help me, tell me she isn't a sci-fi geek like you!"
  2381. "Fine, I won't tell you."
  2382. >Dent rolls his eyes at your grin.
  2383. "Hey, Dent?"
  2384. >"Yeah?"
  2385. "Will you be the Best Stallion at my wedding?"
  2386. >The smile Dent gives you, it could probably been seen from the moon.
  2387. >"It would be my honor, Anonymous."
  2388. >He then grabs you and starts to crush you in a hug.
  2389. "Thanks for always being there for me, Dented Shield."
  2390. >"Why wouldn't I be? You're my boy!"
  2392. -----
  2394. >Excitement bubbles within, threatening to overflow the vessel known as Mi Amore Cadenza.
  2395. >Raven sees you prancing towards the front door of Spell Caster Books and giggles.
  2396. >"Somepony's a little excited," she says, brushing against you as you walk abreast.
  2397. "I can't help it! I've always dreamed of visiting Spell Caster since I was a filly and now that I'm here, I... I can hardly believe it!"
  2398. >The famous bookseller chain has stores in all the major Equestrian cities, but the original Canterlot location is its crown jewel.
  2399. >That every book you borrowed from Last Chance's meager "library" had the words "A gift from the Spell Caster Charitable Foundation" stamped inside the front cover left an impression on you.
  2400. >Were it not for the books they donated, you might not have ever discovered the Half-Decay series, or your love for science fiction in general.
  2401. >Oh, how you can't wait to be bathed in the soothing scent of new books!
  2402. >Raven's mauve aura pulls the door open and you bound in, inhaling through your nostrils, ready for the sweet smells of paper and ink.
  2403. >A pungent mix of sweat, body odor, and the collective bad breath of hundreds of unwashed stallions assaults your pink snootle instead.
  2404. >Not prepared for such an offensive smell, your usually-strong stomach is shaken, forcing you to stop in your tracks.
  2405. >Likewise, Raven is taken aback and covers her snout.
  2406. >"Here," she says, moving in front of you, her magic lifting the end of her red ascot to your nose.
  2407. >Raven's perfume lingers on her ascot and is a safe harbor in the storm of unholy odors that surrounds you now.
  2408. "Thanks, Raven," you whisper to your stalwart companion.
  2409. >She nods, then closes her eyes, muzzle scrunched in concentration.
  2410. "*Busted plows*," you hiss, unable to refrain from using your late father's favorite curse, "what is that awful smell?"
  2411. >Magic chimes beside you, and a moment later a shining bubble expands from the tip of Raven's horn, growing until it surrounds both of you.
  2412. >The offensive smells are banished as soon as the bubble passes over you, then Raven opens her eyes.
  2413. >"Fresh air bubble!" Raven's soft voice squeaks.
  2414. >Indeed, the crisp air within the invisible bubble smells of lilacs after a spring rain.
  2415. "Wow, Raven... that's amazing!"
  2416. >"Aw, it's nothing." she replies whilst blushing and kicking at the carpet.
  2417. "No, really! Will you teach me that spell sometime?"
  2418. >Raven cocks her head to the side and scrunches her muzzle once more.
  2419. >Your blood runs cold upon realizing the implications of your absent-minded request.
  2420. >"Ha ha! Oh, Candy, you're too much sometimes." Raven giggles, then bumps her flank against yours. "Sure I'll teach you the spell if you can teach me how to fly, silly filly!"
  2421. "Ha, right..."
  2422. >Though you breathe a quiet sigh of relief, an unpleasant feeling persists in the pit of your stomach.
  2423. >Raven has been an unexpected, Harmony-sent friend in this strange new world, and having her as a guide and confidant has made your adjustment much more tolerable than it could've been.
  2424. >Guilt has displaced the excitement in your heart.
  2425. >Your only friend in Canterlot deserves to know who you really are.
  2426. "Hey, Raven?"
  2427. >"Yeah?"
  2428. "I need to tell you something..." you say, unable to meet her beautiful brown eyes.
  2429. >"What's wrong, Cadence?"
  2430. >Looking to and fro, you spot an empty row of bookshelves in the corner to your right.
  2431. "C'mon," you gesture her to follow with a wing.
  2432. >Upon arriving, you trot around the area to make sure there are no pontential eavesdroppers.
  2433. >Raven watches with a curious expression, but remains silent and ever-patient, Harmony bless her, as you patrol the area to calm your nerves.
  2434. >Satisfied with your temporary solitude, you return to the white mare and raise your wings to cover your faces.
  2435. "Okay," you begin, ignoring Raven's stifled giggles. "Raven, I haven't been completely honest with you."
  2436. >"What do you mean?" she replies, ears drooping.
  2437. >Deep breath.
  2438. "I'm... *sigh*... there's actually a couple things I haven't been honest with you about. About me. Who I am, or rather, what I am."
  2439. >"Go on..."
  2440. "Well, I can't speak to *that* here- you'll understand why later. But what I can tell you is this... I'm getting married on Friday."
  2441. >Raven gasps, then launches herself at you, throwing her forelegs behind you neck.
  2442. >"Cadence, that's wonderful news!"
  2443. >The mare's genuine excitement makes you smile, dispelling your lingering guilt somewhat.
  2444. >"Why haven't you told me before today? Who's the lucky stallion? Is this why-"
  2445. >A well-timed but light boop interrupts what was surely going to be a flood of questions you're not in the place or mindset to answer.
  2446. "I can't say more than that right now, Raven. I only just found out yesterday."
  2447. >"Ooh, an arranged marriage! Have you met the stallion yet?"
  2448. "Oh, I've met him alright..."
  2449. >You don't even bother to hide your bashful grin and blush.
  2450. >It's a good thing you still have your wings raised, lest anypony else see you blushing and giggling whilst gossiping like a couple of school fillies.
  2451. >"Candy, you don't mean you've already-"
  2452. "No! No, not yet."
  2453. >"That's good. Some parents can be quite strict about *ahem* purity going into the marriage."
  2454. "Tell me about it."
  2455. >You shoot your companion a smirk.
  2456. "But that hasn't stopped us from doing a little pre-marital... 'hoofholding'."
  2457. >"Cadence!"
  2458. >Raven's whispered rebuke is easily dismissed with a giggle.
  2459. >The poor mare is as red as her ascot.
  2460. "Aw, c'mon Raven. Don't tell me a mare as pretty as you hasn't canoodled with stallions before!"
  2461. >Raven's cheeks are now maroon.
  2462. >She looks away and waves at her face with a dainty white hoof.
  2463. >Laughing, you flap one of your large pink feathered sails to augment her ineffective hoof fanning.
  2464. >Unbeknownst to the mare, you feel her heart focus on somepony else... a stallion.
  2465. "So you have! Something recent, perhaps? Does Raven have a new coltfriend she'd like to tell me about?"
  2466. >Raven's smile falters and her ears droop.
  2467. >Confusion, uncertainty, insecurity, and disappointment radiate from her the longer she thinks of this mystery stallion.
  2468. >She closes her eyes and sighs.
  2469. >Rusty axes, you should've waited longer to listen to her heart's full story before pressing her, however playful and innocent your intentions!
  2470. "Hey... I'm sorry if that's a sore subject-"
  2471. >"It's fine, really. I just..."
  2472. >She huffs, then lights her horn to lift her glasses.
  2473. >After dabbing her eyes with her ascot, she sighs again.
  2474. >"I've always had a thing for him, y'know? And even though I always knew I'd never have a real chance for a future with him- me being from a middle class family and him being... well... it doesn't matter. He went and got a marefriend befitting of his station, leaving me and whatever we had without so much as an explanation-"
  2475. "Making you wonder what you did wrong..." you finish for her, echoing what her heart just told you.
  2476. >"Yeah," Raven sniffles. "Even if all we had was a fling, I'd still like closure. To know what I meant to him... if I meant anything at all."
  2477. >Though her voice trails to naught, her heart tells you everything.
  2478. >Instead of attenuating the external feelings that washed over you, as you had been trained to do in order to preserve your sanity, you welcome them; bathe in them, let them saturate your being.
  2479. >You hold Raven close and feel precisely everything she does regarding this stallion, and you understand.
  2480. >As you analyze and categorize her emotions, your own feelings take center stage; anger and resolve
  2481. >Anger, at this stallion for casting aside such a wonderful, caring mare- your friend.
  2482. >Resolve to make this stallion see the error of his ways and repent.
  2483. "What's his name, Raven?" you ask through clenched teeth.
  2484. >Raven pulls away from your embrace.
  2485. >She wants to tell you, that much is apparent from her eyes.
  2486. >Should you actively pry into her heart, you could uncover what you seek.
  2487. >It's not like she'd even know what you were doing, let alone be aware of it...
  2488. >No.
  2489. >Absolutely not.
  2490. >Raven Inkwell is your friend, and you won't betray her trust by sticking your nose where it doesn't belong.
  2491. >"Not here, Candy. Please? I'll tell you back at the castle when you share your other secrets with me. Deal?"
  2492. "Deal."
  2493. >A quick hoofshake seals the pact, but does little to dampen your irritability.
  2494. >Thankfully, your sweet companion senses your souring mood, despite your best attempts to conceal it.
  2495. >The way she nuzzles you- it's with the same tenderness you'd expect from Mama.
  2496. >"We're here to have fun, Candy," she murmurs. "Let's focus on that, okay?"
  2497. "Okay," you reply, doing your best to release your negative emotions. "Thank goodness for your spell. What's with the awful smell? I was expecting a bookstore to smell like, well... books!"
  2498. >Raven shoots you a queer look.
  2499. >"You've never been to a convention like this before, have you?"
  2500. "No. I've never been to a convention of any kind."
  2501. >"Ah. Should have known..."
  2502. >Raven adjusts her ascot, then turns her attention to your mane.
  2503. >She adjusts your bangs, fiddles with you mane's bow, then takes a deep breath.
  2504. >"Candy, I need you to trust me with what I'm about to say and do." She says with a serious tone. "Do you trust me?"
  2505. >Had you not possessed your particular gifts, you might have been hurt by the question, if only a little.
  2506. >You know her heart; probably better than she knows it, in a way.
  2507. >Though you've only been friends a short while, this young mare has established a deep bond with you, and vice versa.
  2508. >She doesn't expect anything of you; doesn't make you question her intentions.
  2509. >Raven simply enjoys spending time with you with no ulterior motives.
  2510. >Even though she's a small, somewhat-timid mare, you know she feels protective of you.
  2511. >You trust her implicitly... which is more than you can say about your fiance.
  2512. "Raven, of course I do!"
  2513. >"Good."
  2514. >Her short horn lights again, and this time, you feel her aura tugging at your tail bow.
  2515. "Raven! What-"
  2516. >"Cadence, events like these attract a certain... demographic," she says, frowning, while likewise pulling the binding from her own long tail. "Believe me when I say it would've been preferable if we wore dresses here."
  2517. >While you think you understand what she's hinting at, you're more interested in how she seemed to switch to "business mode" at the drop of a feather.
  2518. >The Raven before you now might as well be a completely different pony.
  2519. >It's like she's put on a mask; hidden away her true self, the mare you've grown quite fond of.
  2520. >Even her heart feels distant.
  2521. >Funny, you've seen Anonymous do the same thing around his guards.
  2522. >Unfortunately, his heart has always felt distant.
  2523. >Celestia was another matter entirely.
  2524. >Were it not for your abilities, you'd never suspect there existed a maelstrom of conflicting emotions that raged beneath the elder princess's immaculate, polished-and-poised porcelain veneer.
  2525. >Had she always been like that?
  2526. >That seemed unlikely- such sustained bipolar mood swings would drive any normal pony insane.
  2527. >But she wasn't a normal pony.
  2528. >Neither were you.
  2529. >Would your new alicorn power make you susceptible to such instability?
  2530. >You shudder at the thought.
  2531. >Raven's voice regains your attention, for which you are thankful.
  2532. >"Since clothes are not an option, we'll need to rely on our tails to preserve our modesty as much as possible." Raven elaborates. "Even at that, you're still going to be gawked at. We both will."
  2533. "Why? You say that like these ponies have never seen mares before."
  2534. >"With the exception of their family members, that may very well be the case for some of these stallions," Raven deadpans.
  2535. "Really?"
  2536. >"Cadence, you realize you're not a normal sci-fi fan, yes?"
  2537. "Um... no?"
  2538. >You're not trying to play coy... you simply don't know what is considered "normal".
  2539. >Last Chance might have been your home, but you were always keenly aware that you were an anomaly there.
  2540. >That doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon in your new life.
  2541. >Come to think of it, you've never really had a standard of what normal should look like for you.
  2542. >Was there truly such a thing as normal for an orphaned pegasus- adopted by poor earth ponies and raised as one of them?
  2543. >Would there ever be a normal for you now, post-ascension?
  2544. >What about after your marriage?
  2545. >An adjustment period is to be expected after marrying somepony, but your groom is a prince, the heir to Celestia at that.
  2546. >Can you possibly hope for a sense of normalcy, being a part of *that* family?
  2547. >...
  2548. >Will you ever *feel* like you belong?
  2549. >...
  2550. >"Candy? Are you still with me, dear?" Raven's voice pulls you from your internal monologue. "I was saying, most mares- especially mares like you- aren't usually into this genre. A gorgeous thing like you is going to attract all sorts of attention, whether you want it or not."
  2551. >You bump against her and giggle.
  2552. "Hey, give yourself some credit. You're a head-turner too, missy."
  2553. >That breaks through Raven's veneer, and you feel the bashful mare you know and love bubble to the surface with her faint blush.
  2554. >You can't ignore this- you must voice your concern.
  2555. "Raven?"
  2556. >"Yes?"
  2557. "Why are you hiding your heart?"
  2558. >"Wha- I... I am not!"
  2559. "Yes you are."
  2560. >"Cadence," she huffs whilst adjusting her glasses, "I don't know what you're talking about."
  2561. >Raising an eyebrow, you sigh and point to your cutie mark with a purple-tipped feather.
  2562. >Raven echoes your sigh and murmurs, "Right, you 'see with more than just your eyes'..."
  2563. "I read hearts like you transcribe Celestia's words." you say. "It's second- no- it *is* my nature."
  2564. >Your friend shakes her head.
  2565. >While she searches for the right words, you feel a tinge of regret emanate from her.
  2566. >"Sometimes it's easier to get through uncomfortable situations when you're cold and closed off." she finally relents. "It's like..."
  2567. "Putting on a mask" you finish for her.
  2568. >"Right! A mask that protects the real you. But for some ponies, they wear their masks for so long, they forgot what it was like to be their true selves."
  2569. >Raven's explanation more or less confirmed your supposition, but it doesn't make the taste any more palatable.
  2570. >Is this the reality you have to look forward to?
  2571. >Are you doomed to act, to pretend, to... lie... just to get through the day?
  2572. "I don't think I could do that," you admit aloud. "It seems so wrong."
  2573. >"Don't ever change!" Raven exclaims, suddenly grabbing you below the withers. "That's what I love about you, Candy- you wear your heart on your sleeve. You're genuine. If you're destined to stay in Canterlot forever, never let this city or its ponies change you!"
  2574. "I won't!" you're quick to respond. "Earth grant me strength, I'll stay true to my nature and my roots."
  2575. >Raven hugs you.
  2576. >After a quick nuzzle, you return to the previous topic.
  2577. "So... what were you saying about sci-fi fans?"
  2578. >"Oh, my sweet summer foal," Raven says, smirking. "As they say in the Smokey Mountains-"
  2579. >She juts her lower jaw out and squints.
  2580. >"-Yer gon' learn today!"
  2581. >Her exaggerated accent and expression elicits a quick chuckle from you, but it still doesn't explain anything.
  2582. >Seeing the confusion etched upon your face, she elaborates.
  2583. >"Cadence, the colts and stallions in your village... what were they like?"
  2584. >You're about to reply when Raven adds, "Physically speaking, describe an average stallion from Last Chance."
  2585. "Well, given they're all earth ponies, they're all strong and well-built-"
  2586. >"Ever see any chubby ones?"
  2587. "Heavens, no," you say with a laugh. "Between everyponies' physically-demanding jobs and their-"
  2588. >How would Celestia put this "diplomatically"?
  2589. "-'economic hardships', most stallions were very lean. They would be lucky to have any noticeable fat on their frame."
  2590. >"What of hygiene, Cadence? Did the colts and stallions of your village keep themselves clean and well-groomed? Outside of their working hours, of course."
  2591. "Of course they did!" you say, scoffing. "They're poor, not slobs!"
  2592. >The pieces are starting to fall into place in your mind, and the picture that's forming is not pleasant.
  2593. "Why do you ask?"
  2594. >"Why don't I just show you? Shall we?"
  2595. >You hesitate, then roll your eyes at your momentary trepidation.
  2596. 'I'm not here for the fans,' you remind yourself, 'I'm here for Freemane!'
  2597. >You can tolerate awkward encounters and much more if it means you'll finally get confirmation that your beloved saga will get the closure it deserves after years of speculation and rumors.
  2598. >As for what you'll have to put up with until then...
  2599. >How bad could it be?
  2600. "Lead the way!"
  2602. -----
  2604. "Are you sure you don't mind coming along?"
  2605. >"Of course I don't!" Dented Shield answers as he jabs your shoulder with a broad hoof. "Somepony's gotta look after you, after all."
  2606. >It's almost as if he deliberately ignores the entourage of guards that are pulling your carriage.
  2607. "And the bar? Happy hour will be starting soon."
  2608. >"Don't worry about the bar, son. Miss Keg can handle-"
  2609. >*Poof*
  2610. >A scroll bearing your mother's seal materializes before you and falls into your lap.
  2611. >"-herself." Dent finishes, frowning at the correspondence.
  2612. >You lock eyes with the stallion for a second before he motions for you to open the scroll.
  2613. >The wax sun sealing the letter yields to your fingers and the scroll unrolls in your grasp.
  2614. >[Anonymous,]
  2615. >It's Mom's perfect hornwriting alright, in pink ink, no less.
  2616. >How peculiar.
  2617. >[I know your business at the hospital was rather difficult-]
  2618. >That's putting it lightly, Mom.
  2619. >[and under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't ask anything else of you today after what you had to do.]
  2620. >You sense a "but" coming.
  2621. >[However,]
  2622. >Of course Mom would use "however" instead of "but".
  2623. >Heh- but; sounds just like butt.
  2624. >What, are you ten again?
  2625. >Speaking of butts, the generous, supple, alabaster flanks on your m-
  2626. >NOOOOOOO.
  2627. >Nope nope nope nope nopenopenopenope.
  2628. >Get you mind out of your mom's shapely-
  2629. >Harmony help you, this morning truly fucked you up.
  2630. >Or were you always fucked up, and the past twenty-four hours forced you to see yourself for what you are?
  2631. >The thought brings back the feelings that have become all-too-familiar (and unwelcome) since this morning.
  2632. >For all your power, wealth, and unparalleled family ties, you have nothing of true substance to offer Cadence.
  2633. >She deserves so much better than what you are.
  2634. "Help me, Aunt Luna," you whisper, looking up from the letter but at nothing in particular. "Please, show me the way."
  2635. >"What is it, my boy?" Dent's deep, growling voice pulls you from your mental tailspin.
  2636. "Huh?"
  2637. >"Your mom," Dent says, pointing to the letter. "What does she want?"
  2638. "Oh! Right."
  2639. >[However, these are extraordinary times-]
  2640. >You read "extraordinary" in the broken, unusual cadence that Half-Decay's enigmatic G-Mare speaks with.
  2641. >Cadence.
  2642. >You find that you... miss her?
  2643. >Focus, Anon; letter first, feelings later.
  2644. >Scanning through the remainder of Mom's message, you suppress a groan at what's she's requesting, though her closing generates an unexpected warmth in your heart.
  2645. >[I love you, Anonymous; more than anything. You are my Sunshine.]
  2646. >[Mom]
  2647. >A faint, clear stain glistens next to her signature.
  2648. >It looks like lips pressed upon the paper in a kiss, but you have to be certain.
  2649. >Raising the scroll to your face, you press the damp area to your cheek.
  2650. >The instant the paper touches your skin, it feels as if Mom is kissing your cheek in the gentle, loving way she's kissed you all your life.
  2651. >Warmth spreads from spell-stored kiss, and the scroll burns to naught.
  2653. -----
  2655. >At first, the denizens of the convention paid you no mind as you walked parallel to the row of booths spanning the periphery of the event proper.
  2656. >Some vendors are busier than others, the quality their merchandise readily apparent.
  2657. >With every step you take, you become acutely aware of the various ambient conversations trailing off as your and your companion pass.
  2658. >You can practically feel the gaze of every stallion in the vicinity lock onto you and Raven, making you aware of just how much you were keeping your tail pinned against your rump.
  2659. >"M'lady."
  2660. >"M'lady."
  2661. >"M'ladies."
  2662. >Why do so many of these unwashed stallions wear fedoras?
  2663. >Is it a uniform of some sort?
  2664. >"L-l-l-ladies- M'la, uh, oh h-h-horsefeathers."
  2665. >What fell out of that stuttering stallion's pockets?
  2666. >You turn for a second look, but Raven's voice makes you almost jump out of your fur.
  2667. >'Don't look at them, Candy.'
  2668. >Before you can vocalize a response, you hear her in your mind again.
  2669. >'Relax, I've just established a mind link with you. It's a neat trick the Princess taught me for times I need to covertly speak to somepony. Just think about what you want to say to me and I'll hear it in my mind!'
  2670. 'Wow! This is so neat!'
  2671. >"Right?"
  2672. >You notice Raven's horn shimmering with a faint mauve light.
  2673. 'Raven, was I imagining things or did I just see-'
  2674. >'Yes. That actually happened.'
  2675. 'But why would anypony carry cooked spaghetti in their pockets?'
  2676. >Raven sighs aloud.
  2677. >'I have no idea. Remember what I said earlier: tail down, eyes forward, and let me do the talking.'
  2678. 'Okay.'
  2679. >The relevance of the questions Raven asked you regarding the stallions of Last Chance is now apparent.
  2680. >Why does everypony feel the need to tip their orange-stained hats at you?
  2681. >Is this a Canterlot custom?
  2682. >A particularly rotund unicorn stallion makes eye contact with you.
  2683. >His greasy brown mane lays flat against the black trenchcoat that strains to contain the immense amount of body fat beneath it.
  2684. >'Oh no,' you hear Raven think. 'Please leave us alone, please leave us alone-'
  2685. >You notice that this gray pony's fur would actually be white, if he'd actually bathe.
  2686. >"Good afternoon, m'ladies!" the fat stallion says, drops of spittle flying from his mouth. "How might I be of service to you?"
  2687. >"We're fine, thank you." Raven says in a somewhat harsh tone while nudging you along.
  2688. >He doesn't take the hint and falls into step alongside you.
  2689. >"Is this your first time at the convention?"
  2690. >Raven doesn't reply.
  2691. >You're torn.
  2692. >Mama and Papa raised you to be courteous but Raven has been adamant about not engaging these ponies.
  2693. >Luckily, Raven comes to your aid again.
  2694. >"Please, let us be. We're just here to-"
  2695. >"Allow me to escort you, m'lady!" He interrupts. "Nopony would dare disturb your travels while you're in the presence of the ultimate gentlestallion."
  2696. >"It's a bit late for that." Raven deadpans.
  2697. >"What's your name, my fair lady?" he asks you, clearly not taking the hint.
  2698. "Mi Amore Cadenza," you reply after some hesitation
  2699. >Sorry, Raven.
  2700. >"A beautiful name for a beautiful mare." the stallion says.
  2701. >He trots ahead of you and stops, blocking your path.
  2702. >"It is my greatest honor to meet you, Miss Cadenza," he adds, bowing. "I am Puzzle Piece, but you can call me-"
  2703. >A grimy hoof reaches for your foreleg and all you can seem to do is watch in horror as he puckers his fat lips.
  2704. >Mauve light strikes the offensive hoof before it can reach you, causing its owner to retract it with a yelp.
  2705. >"What was that for!?" Puzzle Piece barks at Raven.
  2706. >"She doesn't want you to touch her!" Raven snaps back.
  2707. >The petite unicorn mare steps between you and the stallion.
  2708. >"You're painfully oblivious to the most basic social cues, so I'll spell it out for you: Leave. Us. Alone!"
  2709. >Puzzle Piece cowers away from the little mare, whose eyes burn with indignation.
  2710. >He looks from Raven, to you, then to the floor, then mutters, "Modern society has ruined mares," under his breath before walking away, his head hung low.
  2711. >Raven stares daggers at Puzzle's retreating form until he's five meters away.
  2712. >With the unwelcome party gone, she turns back to you; her face softening.
  2713. >"Are you okay?"
  2714. >You nod.
  2715. >"Good. Let's go." She says, nudging you along, less gently than before.
  2716. >Gone is the meek Raven you're used to interacting with.
  2717. >In her place is a mare that walks with authority, her stern countenance discouraging any other ponies from approaching.
  2718. >The ponies in the aisle you walk through part to the left and right before you, offering you both a wide berth.
  2719. >Who would've guessed that there was an alpha-mare hiding under that timid facade?
  2720. >Clearly, you don't know your new-ish best friend as well as you should.
  2721. >The same could be said for her knowledge of you, but that's not her fault.
  2722. >You really need to tell her.
  2723. >Keeping secrets from your loved ones wasn't something you felt comfortable with, even if there was a good reason for it.
  2724. >This thought makes you pause, the realization that you do love Raven in a platonic sense.
  2725. >It makes you feel light and bubbly, acknowledging your attachment to your friend, and you feel as if you may float off the ground.
  2726. >You tune into the sensation, becoming aware of Raven's attachment to you, how she feels responsible for and protective of you.
  2727. >She really is a true friend; interested in your companionship for you, not for what you are, or the power and influence your marriage will bring.
  2728. >Busted plows, the wedding!
  2729. >Not only do you not have a dress picked out, you don't have a mare of honor, let alone bridesmares!
  2730. >How could you have forgotten such crucial details?
  2731. >Chalk it up to the whirlwind the past twenty-four hours have been.
  2732. >With your parents gone and no living blood relations to speak of, who would be giving you away to be married?
  2733. >Celestia said not to worry, that she had everything planned.
  2734. >Now you understand Anon's sentiment from earlier; how he resented his mother dictating his life to the last detail.
  2735. >However well-intentioned Celestia's plans are, she's robbing you of your agency.
  2736. >"Cadence, why'd you stop?"
  2737. "Raven, will you be my mare of honor?" is your immediate reply.
  2738. >The little mare looks like she's been slapped.
  2739. >Her eyes scan your surroundings whilst her ears swivel to and fro- a tic that comes out when she's surprised.
  2740. "I'm sorry to spring this on you all of a sudden, but-"
  2741. >"Wha- well, yes! Of course I will!"
  2742. >Raven throws her forelegs around you.
  2743. >You feel her elation washing over you; a warmth akin to but distinct from the hug she grips you in.
  2744. >The joy radiating from her heart amplifies your own similar emotions; energizing and invigorating you.
  2745. >Pulling away from the hug, you feel empowered.
  2746. "Raven, about my wedding... The stallion I'm marrying, he's-"
  2747. >"Raven? Raven Inkwell?" an unfamiliar mare's voice interrupts you.
  2748. >To your right, a tan mare approaches- an earth pony by your reckoning, though the large purple cloak she wears leaves a lot to the imagination.
  2749. >"A.K.? Is that you?" Raven asks the bespectacled mare.
  2750. >"The one and only!" the newcomer responds, removing her hat with a flourish. "Who's your friend, Raven?"
  2751. >"A.K., this is my good friend Mi Amore Cadenza. Candy, this is A.K. Yearling, a friend of mine from college."
  2752. "Call me Cadence," you say, extending your hoof. "I wish a good harvest to you and your family."
  2753. >The mare tilts her head, recovers from her momentary confusion and responds, "Thank you Cadence, It's nice to meet you."
  2754. >You're very careful to not let it show; the twinge of disappointment that passes through you.
  2755. "Likewise."
  2756. >A.K.'s cloak shifts on her back; restless wings.
  2757. "Oh! Forgive me for using the traditional greeting. I though you were an earth pony, like..."
  2758. >Your face grows hot and your ears droop.
  2759. " me." you finish, whispering.
  2760. >"Like you?" A.K. repeats.
  2761. >"Cadence was raised by earth ponies." Raven begins to explain.
  2762. "Sorry, I... I forget what I am sometimes."
  2763. >You feel so stupid.
  2764. >"A.K., it might interest you to know that Cadence grew up on the border of the Undiscovered West." Raven states with perfect timing.
  2765. >"Really!?"
  2766. "Yep."
  2767. >"That is... SO COOL!"
  2768. >What?
  2769. "What? Really?"
  2770. >"Yeah, really! Did you know that there's rumored to be ruins of a lost civilization deep in the West?"
  2771. >Both you and Raven shake your heads.
  2772. >"Nopony knows for sure, but ponies have speculated about it for ages..."
  2773. >The excited mare draws closer to you two, lowering her voice as she does.
  2774. >"...some even think mythical creatures like humans used to live there."
  2775. "But humans aren't 'mythical' creatures," you correct her. "After all, Prince Anonymous is human and very real, I can assure you."
  2776. >You feel a flutter of sadness emanate from Raven after you say your fiance's name.
  2777. >"The Prince is the only human in existence," A.K. counters, distracting you from Raven's emotions. "At least, the only human we know of."
  2778. >A lock of greyscale rainbow hair falls across A.K.'s face.
  2779. >She blows it away with a sharp exhale through pursed lips and re-dons her hat.
  2780. >"Princess Celestia has never publicly spoken about the Prince's origins, or who the Prince's father is, for that matter." A.K. adds. She turns to Raven. "Did you ever think to ask Anonymous about that while-"
  2781. >"So what are you doing here at the convention?" Raven asks rather loudly.
  2782. >A.K. frowns, looking to Raven with a puzzled expression.
  2783. >You don't see the look Raven gives her old friend.
  2784. >"Oh! I- I'm here..."
  2785. >The mare shakes her head.
  2786. >"Sorry, got a little scatterbrained. I'm here promoting my book!"
  2787. >Raven smiles. "I didn't know you wrote a book!"
  2788. >You feel excitement and pride coming from A.K.
  2789. >Even before she elaborates, you feel how important this is to her.
  2790. >"Sure did! It's about my- my, uh... friend! Yeah, my friend, Daring Do! She's an archaeologist."
  2791. >There's something more to this- you can feel her concealing something.
  2792. >The urge to sate your curiosity is strong, but as was the case with Raven, you won't utilize your gifts to invade her privacy.
  2793. >Whatever her motivations for secrecy, you are certain she's not concealing anything malicious.
  2794. >If she was, well...
  2795. >As Celestia has told you many times, "A princess must always be prepared to defend her subjects from threats without and within."
  2796. >"Candy?"
  2797. "Hmm?"
  2798. >Raven giggles. "Head in the clouds much? C'mon, we're going to A.K.'s booth."
  2799. >The tan pegagus leads you and Raven around the periphery of the convention.
  2800. >She's set up shop on the opposite end of the massive bookstore, which, coupled with the amount of ponies present, makes for a surprisingly long walk.
  2801. >Despite this, the trek is far from boring, as you see many ponies sporting amazing costumes.
  2802. >Many are dressed as characters from franchises you don't recognize, but there are quite a few dressed as your hero, Golden Freemane.
  2803. >There's even a few mares present dressed as the mysterious G-Mare.
  2804. >You don't envy those girls, as they seem to be constantly swarmed by stallions similar to the one that tried to kiss your hoof earlier.
  2805. >Raven and A.K. reminisce a bit while you walk, from which you glean that A.K. double-majored in Equestrian Literature and Archaeology while at Canterlot University.
  2806. >She's quite the interesting mare, this A.K. Yearling, and you find that you admire her drive and all she's accomplished despite only being a few years your senior.
  2807. >As much as you hate to admit it, you're also envious of her; Raven too.
  2808. >These mares got to choose their paths.
  2809. >"Well, here we are." A.K. says with a sigh upon reaching her booth.
  2810. >The table is laden with dozens of untouched books.
  2811. >"Real-life adventure isn't science fiction, but you gotta start somewhere!" she says, forcing a smile. "I'll get my big break someday."
  2812. "I'll take a copy!" you tell A.K. with a smile.
  2813. >"Really?"
  2814. "Yeah!"
  2815. >Lifting your wing, you reach for your purse, only to pull back an empty hoof.
  2816. >Oh no.
  2817. >In your excitement to reach the convention, you neglected to return to your room to retrieve your purse and the meager sum of coins it contained.
  2818. >To be fair, it's not like you had to worry about money since arriving at the castle.
  2819. >Additionally, you haven't had the opportunity to spend money since your ascension, being confined to the castle and all.
  2820. >Thank Harmony for Raven, who comes to your aid before the mood grows awkward.
  2821. >"Actually, A.K., make it two copies," she says, giving you a subtle wink.
  2822. "Raven, you don't have to-"
  2823. >"I want to, Candy! Think of it as an early wedding present!"
  2824. >"Oh, you're getting married? Congratulations!"
  2825. "Thanks, A.K."
  2826. >The pegasus hums, takes a quill in her wing, then signs the inside cover of both books.
  2827. >"Who's the lucky stallion?" she asks after ensuring the ink is dry.
  2828. >Raven unleashes a faux-exasperated sigh. "That's a great question, A.K.!"
  2829. >Your unicorn companion scrunches her muzzle, lights her horn, then casts a translucent salmon-colored dome over the three of you.
  2830. "Another spell Celestia taught you?"
  2831. >Raven nods. "Nopony outside of this privacy bubble can overhear our conversation in case, y'know... you got the urge to tell us the identity of your betrothed. No pressure, of course."
  2832. >A.K. moves closer to you. "Ooh, an arranged marriage? You don't see those every day!"
  2833. >Both mares wait for you to reveal your fiance's identity with wide smiles and bright eyes.
  2834. "Are you sure nopony outside of this bubble can hear us?"
  2835. >"Positive. Sound can get in, but nothing can get out as long as I maintain the bubble. The Princess created this spell herself!"
  2836. "Fine," you say after a loud exhale. "First, you two have to promise not to tell a soul. Nopony at all. Got that?"
  2837. >"I promise not to tell anypony." Raven and A.K. vow together.
  2838. "Okay, good."
  2839. >Deep breath.
  2840. >You can do this.
  2841. "The stallion I'm marrying... it's-"
  2842. >"ATTENTION, LADIES AND GENTLESTALLIONS," a voice booms throughout the store, including your bubble, "PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE STAGE FOR A SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT!"
  2843. "Leaky Valve!" you exclaim, prancing in place.
  2844. >"Eww," A.K. grimaces. "No offense, Cadence, but you're marrying *that* fat, old stallion?"
  2845. >You share a glance with Raven before the two of you burst into laughter.
  2846. >A.K. rolls her eyes whilst you and Raven ride out the remnants of your giggles.
  2847. "No, silly," you manage to say before laughter takes you again.
  2848. >Raven finishes the thought for you. "Rumor has it that Leaky Valve is making a major announcement today. That's why Candy and I are here in the first place."
  2849. >"Ah," A.K. replies. "So, Cadence, you were saying?"
  2850. "I'll tell you after the announcement!" you say, looking back to the mares after leaping from the privacy of Raven's spell bubble.
  2851. >Your companions groan, but follow in your hoofsteps.
  2852. >The efficacy and benefit of Raven's fresh air bubble becomes sickeningly obvious when you stray two meters away from the mare.
  2853. >Suppressing a gag, you leap back to the magical hemisphere of freshness that surrounds Raven, who enjoys a giggle at your expense.
  2854. >With so many ponies migrating to the center of the bookstore, progress to the seats surrounding the stage is slow.
  2855. >A.K. brushes against you. "Cadence, how do you know Raven?"
  2856. "I met her after I asc- uh, moved to the castle."
  2857. >She lifts an eyebrow at your answer.
  2858. >"You just up and moved from the frontier to Celestia's palace, huh?"
  2859. "More or less," you say, preparing to recite your cover story. "I'm a student of the Princess."
  2860. >"How did that happen?" A.K. presses. "I mean, she's got a school full of magically-gifted unicorns down the street from the castle. How did you, a pegasus on the furthest outskirts of the realm, manage to capture her attention?"
  2861. >Raven watches you, unblinking, waiting for your response.
  2862. >Even her knowledge on what brought you to Canterlot is spotty at best.
  2863. >You stop and bow your head.
  2864. "Raven, is that privacy bubble still intact?" you ask, gaze remaining fixed on the floor.
  2865. >"Yes."
  2866. "I-"
  2867. >Pausing, you stop to consider if this is really what you want.
  2868. >This is certainly not the appropriate location to reveal such sensitive information.
  2869. >Celestia would be appalled if she knew you were actually considering revealing your secrets here.
  2870. >The thought brings a mischievous grin to your face.
  2871. >Come to think of it, she might be watching you via scrying spell at this very moment.
  2872. >Your grin grows into a full-blown smirk.
  2873. "Girls," you begin, "the truth is I'm an alicorn. I was born a pegasus and ascended after reversing a love-stealing spell a sorceress had cast upon the ponies of my village."
  2874. >Your companions listen with vacant expressions.
  2875. >Undeterred, you continue.
  2876. "Within seconds of growing my horn, I was whisked away from my home and appeared in midair above Canterlot, where Princess Celestia was waiting for me. Long story short, she took me in, began training me in magic and started grooming me to be a ruler. It was only yesterday that she introduced me to her son, Prince Anonymous, and informed us that we are to be wed this Friday."
  2877. >Wow.
  2878. >It feels so good to get that off your back!
  2879. "So there you have it!"
  2880. >The girls share a dumbfounded look.
  2881. >A.K. is the first to break out of her haze.
  2882. >"Ha! Ha ha!"
  2883. >She bumps her shoulder against yours. "Oh Cadence, that's a good one!"
  2884. >Raven doesn't look flabbergasted anymore, but she is looking at you with the strangest expression.
  2885. >A.K. continues to chuckle at your admission.
  2886. >"A little advice, Cadence? If you want somepony to believe a far-fetched story like that, you have to be able to tell it with a straight face!"
  2887. "Right. Heh heh heh..."
  2888. >After opening up like that you feel... a lot; all at once.
  2889. >Intense foreign feelings flood your being from all directions.
  2890. >They touch you, permeate you, these external emotions.
  2891. >Some engulf you like a thick, heavy blanket, others pierce through you like icy spikes, making you recoil.
  2892. >On occasion, some of these ponies' feelings come as whispers, audible only to you, drowning out your inner monologue.
  2893. >You lowered your empathetic guard too much, now you need to act fast before you start to see the cumulative emotions of everypony present.
  2894. >Fortunately, your little group reaches its destination, allowing you to sit and focus on the task at hoof.
  2895. >Closing your eyes, you concentrate on Mama's breathing exercises.
  2896. >As you exhale, you extend a foreleg.
  2897. >The memory of Papa's words come to mind, walking you through the process of purging the extraneous sensations.
  2898. >You hear his voice upon competing the process. "That's all there is to it. Well done, my Little Sapling."
  2899. "Thanks, Papa," you reply to the memory of his voice, wiping your eyes as you do.
  2900. >Grateful that Raven and A.K. kept each other engaged in small talk whilst you avoided a empathy-ability-fueled panic attack, you take stock of your situation.
  2901. >You've succeeded in closing yourself off, albeit more than you intended.
  2902. >This complete lack of connection to other ponies, it's so bizarre.
  2903. >Is this how Anonymous feels on a regular basis- emotionally insulated?
  2904. >Shaking your head, you clear your thoughts; returning to the present.
  2905. >A hoof rests on your withers.
  2906. >"Are you okay?" Raven whispers in your ear.
  2907. >The smile and nod you offer doesn't vanquish her concerned expression.
  2908. >"Candy... about what you said-"
  2909. >Busted plows, you're so emotionally isolated at the moment that you can't even intuit Raven's feelings.
  2910. >Looks like you'll have to rely solely on body language.
  2911. "What about it?"
  2912. >She opens her mouth, then shuts it, opting to reach for your head instead of speaking.
  2913. >You know what she's thinking and you don't move to stop her.
  2914. >Raven's beautiful brown eyes remain locked on yours, as if asking for permission, but already knowing the answer.
  2915. >Her hoof is centimeters from the base of your invisible horn.
  2916. >A single ominous low note from a guitar rings out from the speakers flanking the stage, making you and Raven jolt in your seats.
  2917. >It's followed by a creepy, unnatural-sounding melody.
  2918. >Excited hoots and hollers from the crowd join the sinister music.
  2919. >The note repeats.
  2920. >Raven retracts her hoof, blushing after the fact.
  2921. >Ponies that were milling about quickly find their seats.
  2922. >The event announcer's baritone voice rumbles out of the speakers.
  2924. >Stallions whistle and stomp their hooves.
  2925. >A.K. and Raven are likewise feeling the energy that fills the air; leaning forward in their seats.
  2927. >Excited screams drown out the music.
  2928. >"LEAKY-"
  2929. >You gasp.
  2930. >"VALVE!"
  2931. >Red curtains on stage shift.
  2932. >The convention explodes with cheers.
  2933. >From behind the curtains strides the fattest unicorn you've ever seen.
  2934. >He's old, if his white beard and shaggy white mane are any indication.
  2935. >He waddles to the microphone; steps slow and labored.
  2936. >This stallion is a far cry from the pony in the portrait on the back cover of your twenty-five year-old paperback edition of the original Half-Decay, but there's no mistaking his cutie mark- a red gate valve dripping black ink onto a blank sheet of paper.
  2937. >Valve stops short of the microphone to wave at all the fans.
  2938. >You squee at the top of your lungs and you don't care who hears it.
  2939. >It's him!
  2940. >It's really him!
  2941. >You've been waiting for this announcement since you were a little filly!
  2942. >Unable to sit back down, you prance in place, mere moments away from having a dream of yours literally come true.
  2943. >"Thank you, thank you," Valve's nasally voice is amplified throughout the room, as is his heavy breathing. "It's great to be here *wheeze* at the annual Canterlot... *gasp* Science Fiction Convention..."
  2944. >The crowd goes wild.
  2945. >Valve takes advantage of the enthusiastic cheering to fan his sweaty face with his newsboy cap.
  2946. >A member of the convention staff trots up to him.
  2947. >Words are exchanged out of range of the microphone, and the convention pony gallops off the stage.
  2948. >"Thank you, everypony."
  2949. >Valve waves down the applause, coaxing the crowd to settle.
  2950. >The convention staff pony returns with a glass of water, which Valve greedily drains.
  2951. >"Ah, wonderful. Thank you for that."
  2952. >Your favorite author looks into the crowd, surveying everypony present from behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses.
  2953. >He just... stands there!
  2954. >Several moments pass, leading to an awkward silence.
  2955. >It's so quiet that you can hear the chime of Valve's magic when he retrieves the microphone again.
  2956. >He chuckles to himself before saying, "I guess you're all wondering why I decided to make a surprise appearance..."
  2957. >Everypony cheers in response.
  2958. >"You see," he continues after a slight wheeze, "I've been working on something special... something that's been long overdue..."
  2959. >The crowd erupts into excited cheering again, louder than before, showing no sign of subsiding anytime soon.
  2960. "It's happening!" you shout at Raven while shaking her in your powerful grasp. "Half-Decay Three!"
  2961. >On stage, Valve fans his face with his cap again, then rubs his left foreleg.
  2962. >"I have one last surprise," he says after the crowd quiets, "Will the lucky pony sitting in seat K twenty-six please join me on stage?"
  2963. >So consumed are you in your speculation of how Valve is going to conclude character arcs in Half-Decay Three, you don't bother to check your seat number.
  2964. >Only when Raven starts shaking you do you pay attention.
  2965. >"Candy! That's your seat! You get to go on stage for the big reveal!"
  2966. >The trek onstage passes in a flash and next thing you know, you're standing beside your all-time favorite author.
  2967. >Is this real life?
  2968. >This close to the stallion, you can see the silver hairs that have lightened his midnight-blue coat, giving it a quasi-metallic sheen.
  2969. >Breathe, Cadence.
  2970. >You can feel the stares of hundreds of ponies fixed upon you.
  2971. >"My goodness, you're a pretty one," Valve says as he shakes your hoof. "What's your name, Miss?"
  2972. >The microphone floats to your muzzle.
  2973. "Mi Amore Cadenza, but you can call me Cadence."
  2974. >Earth grant you strength, is *that* what your voice really sounds like?
  2975. >"And where are you from, Miss Cadence?"
  2976. "The Western Frontier." you respond, unable to contain the pride in your voice.
  2977. >The unicorn whistles. "That's quite a journey, from the Frontier to Canterlot."
  2978. >You nod.
  2979. >"What have you enjoyed most about the convention so far?"
  2980. >While you appreciate Valve's attempt to make you feel welcome on stage, you only care about the next installment in your favorite sci-fi franchise!
  2981. >Besides, it's not like you spent a lot of time here, or actually checked out what the vendors had to offer, save for A.K.-
  2982. >A.K.!
  2983. "Well, Mister Valve," you reply with your most charming smile, "I met the most interesting up-and-coming author this afternoon."
  2984. >"Who's that?"
  2985. "A.K. Yearling!" you point to her in the crowd. "My best friend Raven introduced me to her and bought me a copy of her book, 'Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone', which I *can't wait* to read!"
  2986. >Through the stage lights you can make out A.K.'s shocked face.
  2987. >"That's wonderful, Cadence. Good for you, supporting a new writer like that. As a matter of fact, I think I'll follow your example and pick up a copy of her book for myself after I conclude my business here. Speaking of which..."
  2988. >Valve turns to the audience.
  2989. >"Folks, this has been a long time coming-"
  2990. >The air is practically shimmering with excitement.
  2991. >"-and I want to thank you for your patience as I've toiled away at my signature slow pace over the years."
  2992. >It's happening!
  2993. >"Have you been a fan of my writing for very long, Cadence?" Valve asks with a wink.
  2994. "For as long as I can remember!"
  2995. >"Ah, excellent! Then it's only fitting that you help me unveil my latest work!"
  2996. >Your heart skips several beats when the unicorn floats a glossy black paperboard box to you.
  2997. >Securing the box in your wing, you can feel it certainly has the heft of a book, though you can tell there's more than one item inside.
  2998. >"Ladies and gentlestallions..."
  2999. >Valve's magic lifts the box lid, which blocks your view of the treasure inside.
  3000. >"...I present to you..."
  3001. >"Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" the audience screams together.
  3002. >"...Relic!" Valve lifts a smaller package and a thin paperback book from the box. "A card game developed by yours truly!"
  3003. >"Ohhhhhhh..." the audience moans.
  3004. >No.
  3005. "You mean... you didn't finish Half-Decay Three?" you ask with a shaky voice.
  3006. >"Ha! That old thing? Haven't touched it in years!" Valve chuckles, shaking his head. "Folks, let me tell you about this game..."
  3007. >He can't be serious!
  3008. >Valve speaks, but you don't hear his words.
  3009. >So many strong emotions boil within that you feel on the verge of bursting.
  3010. >For the briefest, shortest, teensiest fraction of a second, you consider letting it all out.
  3011. >It would feel great to make Leaky Valve experience the crushing disappointment that had settled in your heart.
  3012. >Harmony knows you could utilize your gifts and do exactly that; thrust your emotions onto somepony.
  3013. >Another part of you wants to throw a swift right hook at the morbidly obese stallion.
  3014. >Shame... it fills your heart for even entertaining the thought- this pony has been nothing but kind and welcoming to you.
  3015. >But that doesn't change how you feel.
  3016. >You just feel so... UPSET!
  3017. >You want to scream.
  3018. >You want to incinerate the box that you still hold in your purple-tinged primaries.
  3019. >You want to run off stage, fly out of this foul-smelling bookstore and kick every cloud within one hundred kilometers of Canterlot.
  3020. >You want to do all this and more, but you don't... for you are a princess, even if nopony here realizes it.
  3021. >So you stand there, doing your best to swallow your bitter feelings whilst maintaining a plastered-on saccharine smile, hoping that nopony notices the few tears that escape your eyes and fall to the floor.
  3022. >For all your gifts, for all the magical potential Celestia says you possess, you've never felt so impotent.
  3023. >"-isn't that right, Miss Cadence?"
  3024. >Leaky Valve looks to you, his face conveying something along the lines of 'help me out here'.
  3025. >Seems the convention attendees hadn't recovered from their collective disappointment either.
  3026. "Sorry, what was that?" you ask in the most emotionally-neutral voice you can muster.
  3027. >"I said," Valve repeats with a nervous chuckle, "I bet you can't wait to play a few rounds with your friends!"
  3028. >Silence reigns.
  3029. >A pony coughs somewhere in the audience.
  3030. >The weight in your heart has given way to a pressure in your head.
  3031. "How could you do this to us, Leaky Valve?" you whisper at the floor.
  3032. >"I'm sorry, dear, what was that?"
  3033. "How could you abandon the story that meant so much to so many ponies?" You don't bother hiding the emotion in your voice, nor do you try to stem the trickle of tears that wet your cheeks. "You wrote Half-Decay Two before I was born, I- I've been waiting for you to finish the trilogy since I was old enough to read your books!"
  3034. >Several ponies in the crowd shout their agreement.
  3035. >A buzz of agitation grows in the air.
  3036. >"Now s-see here, I've been busy working on m-many series besides Half-Decay-" Valve stammers, "There's the 'Gateway' and the 'Forsaken' trilogies-"
  3037. "Both of which are missing their final volumes!" you shriek. "Do you even know how to count to three!?"
  3038. >Self control is slipping away like sand through your primaries, but you could care less.
  3039. >It's liberating, in a way; to release your inhibitions.
  3040. >You square yourself to the old stallion who looks at you with equal parts of shock and fear.
  3041. >To your right, you can hear the audience gasp and work themselves into a frenzy.
  3042. >There's shouting all around; at what, you don't know.
  3043. >The thing you've been bottling up is about to burst.
  3044. >Valve's eyes look like they might pop out of his skull as he points at you, wheezing.
  3045. "What happens to Golden Freemane? Doctor Preen? The G-Mare? Do you know what I've been through!? I just want closure, Mister Valve!"
  3046. >You grab the panicking stallion by the shoulders.
  3047. >The words flow unimpeded.
  3048. "Who killed my Mama and Papa, Mister Valve? I just want answers! Is that too much to ask for!? I need closure! I. NEED. CLO-"
  3049. >"Cadence, that's enough!"
  3050. >Two strong arms wrap around your barrel, pulling you away from Valve.
  3051. >With a panicked yell you twist and manage to pull free.
  3052. >Pivoting to the left, your forelegs leave the floor as you prepare to unleash a devastating blow on your would-be assailant.
  3053. >An assailant who happens to look a lot like your fiance.
  3054. "Anon!" you yelp, losing your balance from pulling your strike at the last second.
  3055. >He catches you, your big strong human, and pulls you close to his chest.
  3056. >Secure in his arms, you bury your muzzle in his neck and try to get yourself under control.
  3057. >Stifling your sobs, you notice an eerie silence now envelops you.
  3058. >"Cadence," he says, his voice deathly serious, "we need to leave... right now."
  3059. "Why?"
  3060. >He doesn't reply.
  3061. "Anon?" you ask, pulling away from him. "What's wrong, Love?"
  3062. >"It... it can't *gasp* be!" Valve wheezes from behind you.
  3063. >Whirling around, you see the old stallion gawking at your forehead.
  3064. "Anon?" You ask, keeping your eyes fixed on Valve. "Can... can you see my horn right now?"
  3065. >"Yes," he answers, sighing. "So can everypony else."
  3066. >Valve collapses onto the stage, gasping for air and clutching his chest.
  3067. "Oh, shit."
  3069. -----
  3071. >You really should dismiss your staff and take an afternoon to yourself more often.
  3072. >Philomena preens herself atop her perch in the corner.
  3073. >Sweet, crisp mountain air wafts through your open balcony door.
  3074. >Besides your intermittent humming, there's nothing that disturbs the silence of your room.
  3075. >It's quiet.
  3076. 'Too quiet,' your inner monologue frets.
  3077. >Nonsense!
  3078. >Stretching out on your bed, you look through the dress concept sketches Straight Talk had discreetly solicited from Equestria's best designers.
  3079. >Now if you could decide between two gowns that had caught your eye, it would be a productive afternoon!
  3080. >A bittersweet feeling washes over you as your gaze returns to the sketch you personally made before Cadence's arrival.
  3081. "For everything that has been thrust upon you, at least you'll have somepony to call your own and hold you close at night, Cadence." you murmur.
  3082. >As much as you hate to admit it, you were actually excited to inform Anonymous of your intent to marry him; giddy even.
  3083. >After weeks of silently wrestling with the morality of it all, that is.
  3084. >Pony culture had changed much since you banished your sister to her namesake, and despite necessity driving your plans, the public's perception of your hypothetical union still had to be taken into account.
  3085. >Unfortunately.
  3086. >Like consanguine marriage, herding was another practice that had all but disappeared from modern Equestrian culture.
  3087. >Perhaps Anon would be open to the idea?
  3088. >Who would be the alpha mare?
  3089. >You shake your head then scold yourself aloud.
  3090. "Really, Celestia, are you *that* lonely and desperate that you would consider pressuring your own son into bigamy?"
  3091. >Laughter echoes around your chambers.
  3092. >"Yes... you really are that desperate, Celestia." an unseen mare taunts.
  3093. >Philomena squawks, then flees your tower in a flash of flame and feathers.
  3094. "Who's there?" you bark, leaping from your bed, wings flared and horn alight.
  3095. >"Who do you think?" the mare chuckles, first to your right, then seemingly from your left.
  3096. "Show yourself!"
  3097. >She giggles, this impudent intruder.
  3098. >Scanning the room with your magic, you detect... nopony.
  3099. >With cautious steps you move towards your closet.
  3100. >"Colder."
  3101. >You about face.
  3102. >"Come play with me, Tia." the stranger moans.
  3103. >Something shimmers by your vanity, drawing your near.
  3104. >"Warmer."
  3105. >You take a step closer.
  3106. >"Warmer..."
  3107. >Closer.
  3108. >"Mmmm... almost there..." she teases you with a sultry voice.
  3109. >You square up to the mirror that sits atop your vanity.
  3110. >"So close!"
  3111. >"Approaching the mirror, you notice your reflection shimmering, almost like a desert mirage.
  3112. >Flames erupt from the mirror, surrounding you instantaneously.
  3113. >You project a golden hemispherical shield by reflex.
  3114. >Something emerges from the flame.
  3115. >It rests a hoof on your shield, shattering it a second later.
  3116. >The face that stares at you makes your heart stop.
  3117. >"Hellooooo, *gorgeous*!" she says, fluttering her eyelids.
  3118. >This can't be happening.
  3119. >Shaking your head does nothing to dispel the apparition.
  3120. >She smiles, revealing long glistening fangs.
  3121. >Her fiery mane and tail dance all around, yet don't burn anything.
  3122. >"What's the matter darling? Human got your tongue?"
  3123. >She smirks as she struts a circle around you, just out of range of your long, graceful legs.
  3124. "What do you want?" You make no attempt to hide the venom in your voice.
  3125. >"The same things that you do," she replies, feigning disinterest. "But you already know that."
  3126. >She touches up the edge of her left forehoof with a file from your vanity whilst humming a tune that dredges up memories you thought lost to time.
  3127. >Satisfied with her work, her red aura returns your hoof file to its home.
  3128. >"Want to know the main difference between you and I?"
  3129. >You don't reply.
  3130. >Instead, you search deep within your unparalleled magical knowledge for a spell that can destroy her.
  3131. >"Besides me being better, prettier, and more powerful than you, of course," she adds.
  3132. >An unconventional attack comes to mind.
  3133. >It might work... if you can get her to lower her guard.
  3134. "Enlighten me."
  3135. >She giggles, then brings her muzzle within a centimeter of yours. "I TAKE what I want."
  3136. >If you can keep her talking a while longer, you might be able to surreptitiously create a ward to augment your spell.
  3137. "And what do you plan on taking?"
  3138. >"Anonymous, for starters."
  3139. >Snorting, you shove your forehead against hers.
  3140. >Her eyes widen when your horns scrape each other but she smiles nevertheless.
  3141. "You stay away from my son." You growl at her.
  3142. >"He's my son too," she spits back. "Regardless of how much you try to deny it."
  3143. "No."
  3144. >"Oh, yes. You can't deny my love for him. I would do everything you're afraid to- all without a moment's hesitation."
  3145. >You know she's telling the truth.
  3146. >"I would've cured him already. What's more, I would've been carrying his foals by now." She smirks. "I know what Anonymous *neeeeeds*, Celestia. He needs his dommy sun-mommy."
  3147. >Forsaking the stealthy approach, you light your horn, only for her to scoff and blow it out as if extinguishing a candle.
  3148. >"Don't bother, honey. We both know who would win."
  3149. >Sauntering beside you, she drapes a wing over your back.
  3150. >"Besides, I don't want to fight! I only want to talk, Tia!"
  3151. >She pouts at you.
  3152. >"Why don't you ever want to chat with me?"
  3153. "You know why."
  3154. >Another sarcastic giggle.
  3155. >"Hmm... yes. I suppose I do. But now that I have your full attention..."
  3156. >She retracts her wing and resumes her original position opposite you.
  3157. >"Anonymous isn't married yet. You can still claim him!"
  3158. >You shake your head.
  3159. "It should be his choice."
  3160. >"*His* choice? Have you forgotten your power? You are the Alpha and Omega! The sun yields to your every whim! Why ask for permission when you can TAKE ANYTHING unopposed?"
  3161. "That's not who I am!"
  3162. >"Anymore," she counters. "I remember a certain alicorn who wasn't afraid to get her hooves dirty a few millennia ago."
  3163. "That- I... It was a very different time." you concede, eyes falling to the floor.
  3164. >She lifts your chin with a bare hoof. "I know how much you enjoyed it, O 'Unconquered One'."
  3165. >Regret weighs heavy on your heart.
  3166. >"Forget about it. There's nothing at stake in the past, unlike the present."
  3167. >Amber eyes bore deep into your soul.
  3168. >"If you don't act now, you'll lose Anon to that pink hussy forever."
  3169. >You swat her hoof away.
  3170. "Don't call her that! Cadence is a sweet, kind, loving young mare. I couldn't ask for a better daughter-in-law. She'll make a wonderful wife for Anonymous."
  3171. >This time it's her forehead pushing against yours.
  3172. >"She is a THREAT! The only one who could challenge your dominance! Yet you continue to cultivate her power! Did you ever stop to think that she might oppose you someday?"
  3173. "That will not happen!"
  3174. >"Just like Luna would never turn against you?"
  3175. >Almost a millennium later, the memory of your sister's betrayal still hurts more than her attacks ever did.
  3176. >Along with the pain of regret comes the fires of anger, stoked in your heart by the would-be usurper.
  3177. >The intruder waits for you to react, hoping for you to lash out.
  3178. >In all honesty, it's what you want- to bring the full measure of your might to bear against her.
  3179. >But doing that at this instant would be playing right into her hooves.
  3180. >"Well!? What do you plan to do about Cadenza?"
  3181. "Nothing," you reply, sighing.
  3182. >"Nothing! You can't be serious!"
  3183. "She's done nothing to make me suspect she'd ever try to rebel."
  3184. >"Then you'll be blindsided when she does!"
  3185. >She shakes her head with disgust.
  3186. >"You're weak. Too afraid of what the history books will say about you to do what needs to be done!"
  3187. >She struts away from you, consumed by her anger.
  3188. >The opportunity presents itself.
  3189. >You're ready.
  3190. >"It's thanks to your weakness that darling Sister is ban-AAAAAAHHHHH!"
  3191. >Her shrieking makes your skin crawl, but you do not relent in your attack.
  3192. >Not even ash remains after completing your spell.
  3193. >The room spins.
  3194. >All is dark.
  3196. -----
  3198. >Pandemonium rocks the convention.
  3199. >Your guards assist the event security in keeping unruly convention attendees from storming the stage.
  3200. >Pressure Bandage, your on-duty medic, alternates between pumping magic into Leaky Valve and thumping his forehooves on his chest.
  3201. >"My Prince, he's having a heart attack!" he informs you during a round of chest compressions.
  3202. >You point to the other unicorn in your entourage.
  3203. "Teleport Valve to Canterlot General with Doc!"
  3204. >The unicorn drops his magical barricade to come to your medic's aid.
  3205. >Like the pair of unicorns on duty for last night's beating, they lay on either side of a twitching Valve, touch horn tips and yell, "NO HOMO!" before snapping out of existence.
  3206. >One problem down, now for the next most-pressing issue: getting out of here.
  3207. >You're down to two pegasus guard stallions and Dent.
  3208. >They should still be sufficient to escort Cadence and-
  3209. >One of your pegasus guards is currently flying to block another pegasus who carries another pony with her to the stage.
  3210. >"Anon!" Cadence shouts above the din. She points to the two airborne ponies trying to evade your guard. "They're with me!"
  3211. >A quick whistle and hand wave instructs your guard to grant them passage to the stage.
  3212. >Raven drops from the clutches of her tan pegasus counterpart and rushes to Cadence.
  3213. >"You were telling the truth!?" Raven shrieks at her pink alicorn friend, still unable to believe the presence of a large horn protruding from the pink mare's forehead.
  3214. >Dent nudges your hip. "Anonymous! Egress!"
  3215. >Your piercing whistle recalls your remaining guards to your side.
  3216. >They join Dent, who looks like he's having the time of his life throwing ponies out of his path.
  3217. >Camera flash bulbs erupt all around you.
  3218. >They're like mini lightning bursts, making you see spots.
  3219. >Cadence stays pinned to your left side as you hustle from the stage.
  3220. >Reporters in attendance bark unheard questions at you and your bride-to-be.
  3221. >Regular fans are worse, in a sense, as they stand in your way, shouting "m'lady" at Cadence and tipping their stained hats to her- even while Dent launches them into the air.
  3222. >Dent- normally more sure-footed than a mule- slips and stumbles on something.
  3223. >Following in his wake, you realize you're treading on a mat of squashed pasta.
  3224. >"What in Tartarus?" Dent growls, shaking a knot of spaghetti noodles from his hooves.
  3225. >At your two o'clock, a rail-thin pegasus in an oversized trenchcoat is giggling whilst pulling wingfuls of spaghetti from his coat pockets.
  3226. >Your entourage stops as one to marvel at the blonde-maned blue pegasus as he throws his contraband noodles in the air, making it rain over everypony in a five meter radius.
  3227. >"HORSE PUSSY! A hahahahahahha! H-h-h-h-h HORSE!" He throws another wad of noodles in the air. "P-P-