Chapter Twenty - Movie Night in Canterlot

With the last of the thieves teleported off to a holding cell, the ruins were hers to explore. With the recovered Key of Unfettered Entrance in her magic, no door would stand in her way. With no competing claims, whatever she found would be hers to keep.

“Now let’s see what on Equus these idiots wanted opened so badly that they’d steal such a ridiculously powerful artifact.”

Fully exploring the historical site without damaging it took hours, but at long last, she found it. Behind wards as powerful as they felt ancient, she discovered one of Star Swirl the Bearded’s workshops! It was a treasure trove of knowledge and artifacts the likes of which most ponies would never see. As usual, she’d need to be careful who she asked to help her sort it all lest something truly dangerous slip out to the public.

On her last sweep of the building, she noticed a strange indentation in the wall. She suspected that, in the workshop’s better years, it would have lain hidden and completely unremarkable amongst the resplendent wall carvings. She’d almost overlooked it even now when the stonework had crumbled, but it was too well preserved compared to its surroundings to hide forever.

Curious, she placed the Key of Unfettered Entrance into a perfectly carved recess in the wall. It fit snugly and flashed as it settled into place. Then a secret compartment in the wall that very much hadn’t been there before – she’d checked! – slid open. Inside lay a small pile of tattered documents.

With Cadance scrambling to finish her work for the day, it fell to Shining to collect the foals for movie night. Flurry happily fluttered up onto his back and landed with a heavy thump and an, “Oof!” from him. She was really getting too big to carry around, but he couldn’t deny that she had him wrapped around her not-so-little anymore hoof. Why did foals have to grow up? It’d been bad enough when Twilight had made the transition into marehood. How would he manage to let go of his own daughter when the time came?

Ocellus hesitated a moment before, with encouragement from Flurry, she transformed into a sparrow. She flew up to perch atop Shining’s head and nestled into his mane. When she’d first come here, she would have been far and away too reserved to do something so bold. His daughter was a bad influence, he feared, even if she had helped Ocellus somewhat with her shyness.

A sigh escaped Shining as he resigned himself to serving as the princesses’ personal carriage for the night. He supposed he might as well enjoy it while it lasted. Before too long, as was the way of things, she wouldn’t want anything to do with her lame, old dad.

At the gates to his home, Shining informed the posted guards that the entire family would be returning late as planned. He then looked up at the two ‘birds’ who followed Ocellus around perched atop the fence surrounding the property. He gave them a small nod, and they returned the gesture. Until he delivered their princess to their queen, he would take responsibility for her protection.

And with that, Shining teleported from his home to the great hall of Canterlot Castle. Ponies scurried about to and fro in a throng down the grand staircases, across the hall, and in and out of the adjoining corridors. Even as the workday neared its end for the vast majority of the staff, most everypony had last minute business to attend to before retiring for the night. It was just another day at the heart of Equestria’s government.

Shining himself had one such piece of business to see to before he joined up with the rest of his family. As he made his way up to his office, he nodded to those he encountered along the way who he counted amongst his friends. Most were fellow guards, but the occasional affable courtier or amiable noblepony also crossed his path. In between these brief moments, he ensured that Flurry knew to be on her best behavior. It wouldn’t just be family gathering tonight. Many of those present would be, of course, but not everyone.

Two guards stood sentinel at the door to Shining’s office. One, his friend Spearhead, smirked and remarked, “Hey, Captain, you know you’ve got a bird on your head, right? Maybe your back, too.”

“Yes, I seem to be picking up urchins.”

Her Royal Highness just giggled and wrapped her arms around Shining’s neck. As he cast the spells necessary to unlock and open the door to his office – a somewhat time-consuming process for security purposes – the guards greeted her both fondly and properly, and she returned the salutations as though nothing were out of place.

Shining left the door open as he walked inside. This wouldn’t take long. He was just here to double check that he’d updated the guard patrols properly to account for the greater attendance at this movie night. They’d needed to change rooms to fit everyone comfortably inside. Or at least comfortably as far as royalty was concerned. The theater they’d set up could easily seat a hundred ponies safely with plenty of leg room in other circumstances.

Now if I remember correctly, the file I’m looking for is…

Shining froze. As his eyes swept over his desk, he noticed a small orangish yellow envelope with a black border sitting upright in plain sight which did not belong. Worse, he recognized the design.

Leaping into action, Shining barked an order for the guards outside to come take Flurry from him. A quick flick of his head got Ocellus to flutter over to sit atop her instead before she dismounted. He wished them a pleasant night and asked them to pass on his regrets for being unable to attend. After Flurry agreed and Ocellus presumably chirped the same, he instructed the guards to take them to the new theater. Why did this have to happen tonight?

But defending the castle and everypony and everything inside it was Shining’s sworn duty. He’d not shirk it.

Shining thus approached the letter cautiously. Given that Twilight had some reason to worry about traitors, he wouldn’t risk the envelope’s design being nothing more than a mere ruse to lure him into a trap. The spells he cast to check for any dangerous magic all returned negative results, and when he checked for any dangerous chemicals, he found nothing. It was just a letter. And that, unfortunately, meant it was likely genuine.

With a muttered curse, Shining plucked the envelope from his desk. It was addressed directly to him in his capacity as the Captain of the Royal Guard. He ripped it open and withdrew the letter inside. It read thusly.

‘At the stroke of midnight, I will steal Celestia’s crown. Eclipse.’

The legendary thief had come to Canterlot.

“You know,” Twilight began in Old Ponish, “under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t have done that for you, but Shining deserves every moment he spends trying to figure out how ‘you’ got past his security.” She hadn’t left a trace of her presence in his office when planting Sunset’s ridiculous advance notice of her upcoming theft. With any luck, Shining would drive himself mad trying to figure out how it got there. It would serve him right.

Sunset chuckled. “Sibling trouble?”

“Hardly something so minor. He sent Flash to Ponyville to secretly watch over me.”

“Loyalty’s bearer?” Once Twilight nodded, Sunset added, “Serves him right.”

Twilight was so glad they were in agreement.

“Do you mind if I go take care of a few things? I can get to the theater on my own.”

With some reluctance, Twilight waved Sunset off. “Do as you wish, but I expect you to be there. If you send a magical construct, I’ll smash it on sight and then come drag you back by your ear.”

“I’d like to see you try,” were Sunset’s last words before she vanished from sight. With nearly full access to the castle, she could be anywhere already.

Twilight made a note to dispose of any security logs Sunset generated before she made her move. Most likely, nopony would check them before then as she wouldn’t be setting off any alarms. If somepony did, well, Sunset was a lady thief and a remarkably well prepared one at that. She could figure it out on her own.

“Darling,” Rarity said, reminding Twilight that she and the foals were waiting for her, “I’m sure your secret conversations are riveting – and I am curious, of course – but do we really have time for another diversion? Will Eventide be long?”

Having no idea how long it took to properly prepare for a heist, even knowing how Sunset intended to go about it, Twilight merely replied, “She’ll catch up,” before leading the group further down the corridor toward tonight’s theater. “She just went to go say hi to a friend who works here.”

Cadance just knew this was going to be the best night ever! It’d been too long since she’d heard a word from Twilight. They had so much to catch up on. Better yet, according to Celestia, the cute little filly who’d wormed her way into Twilight’s heart would be here as well. Rarity was a pleasure to speak with, although not the type of pony Cadance had expected Twilight to befriend, and she couldn’t wait to meet the little sister Twilight had taken on as a student.

But now was not yet the time for such daydreams. Cadance needed to finish just a tiny bit more paperwork before she could set aside her crown for the night. With how much her workload had increased lately, she wondered exactly how much work Celestia herself delegated to keep her own magic school running smoothly. Maybe the Equestria Education Association didn’t tie her up in as many regulations? She was Celestia, after all.

Regardless, educational administration, as it turned out, took a lot more time and effort than Cadance had expected even when only in the planning stage. It just didn’t help to have Chancellor Neighsay of the EEA sticking his nose into her business every other day.

Seriously, what is his problem? Cadance knew he held a less than pleasant view of every species but the three Equestrian pony tribes, but she was trying to help pegasi. Then again, it’s really the ingrained tribalism in our education I’m trying to combat. Is it so much of a stretch to assume he has some tribalist leanings as well? Either way, I suppose it’s still a direct challenge to current EEA policies and practices. I’m bound to have an uphill battle.

A knock came at the door to Cadance’s office. “I swear, if it’s the chancellor or his cronies again…”

One of the guards posted at the door stuck his head inside. “Your Highness, there’s a ‘Miss Sunny’ here to see you.”

Cadance dropped her quill in shock. It couldn’t be. “Send her in and see that we’re not disturbed.”

The mare who entered naturally looked nothing like the one Cadance remembered. The magenta coat and the orchid mane and tail were a far cry from her usual coloring, but then she could hardly waltz through the castle looking like herself, now could she? The cutie mark, however, was a dead giveaway. A cloudy sunset? A sunset obscured behind a cloudy facade? Surely that could belong to only one mare.

Cadance hopped from her chair and flew to land in front of the pony she believed to be her long lost elder sister in all but blood, heedless to the papers she scattered in her wake. It couldn’t be, but there she stood. There was one foolproof way to test it. Only three ponies in the world truly knew it by heart.

Lowering her center of gravity, Cadance hopped in place as she led into the secret hoofshake she’d invented as a filly. “Sunshine–”

“No,” the mare said flatly with immediate recognition.

It wasn’t really what Cadance had hoped for, but the inflection, that tone, and the posture were all unmistakable. She straightened back to her full height from the silly dance she’d started with all the confirmation she’d needed.

“Honestly, Cadey, you’re in your forties–”

That last word turned into a startled squeak as Cadance pulled Sunset into a fierce hug to make up for nearly thirty years of absence.

“Hey, come on. Let me go.”

The words lacked any force behind them, but Cadance still squeezed all the tighter and added her wings to the mix. There would be no escape. She brought her head up to nuzzle against Sunset’s, and to her delight, the mare relented and returned the affection. Sunset even slipped a hoof up to stroke against her mane. It brought back so many memories – too many memories.

“Where were you?” Cadance croaked out, her voice raspy and on the edge of failing. “I needed you. You – you were the only pony who – who–”

Sunset sighed but allowed Cadance to break down on her shoulder while she provided what comfort she could. They fell to the floor as Cadance’s legs gave out on her, but that only made for a closer embrace. Even so, it was different. Sunset hadn’t gotten any worse at this, but it felt so imperfect now that they were nearly the same height. They could have grown into this. They could have had each other through everything. Instead, they’d fallen apart, and it hadn’t even been because of anything between them.

As Cadance’s sobs slowly petered out, Sunset quietly said, “So? Married with kids, eh?”

“Just – just the one.” Cadance managed a watery smile.

“Not the point.” Sunset chuckled with a familiar dark humor. “Bet your parents threw a fit.”

Cadance laughed despite everything. “The biggest.” There’d been so many threats along the way, disownment amongst the least of them. “Twilight helped.”

“Oh yeah? Sounds like fun. I’ll have to get the story from her sometime.”

Yes, this was Sunset, all right. There could be no doubt. Cadance managed to pull herself together a bit more. Enough, at least, to form a few short but coherent sentences. “She was Shining’s best mare. ‘Dibs,’ he said.”

Cadance didn’t need to look to know the grimace that grew on Sunset’s face. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you.”

“It’s okay. I managed.” That hadn’t been meant as a guilt trip. “I wanted you for my maid of honor.”

Sunset no doubt rolled her eyes. “Yes, with Sunbutt officiating, I’m sure that would have gone over well.”

“Not the point,” Cadance retorted with as much of a teasing air as she could put into her voice right now.

They sat there in each other’s arms for a few endless yet all too short moments longer before Cadance finally permitted Sunset to break away and return to her hooves. She watched the mare with a wary eye, prepared to pounce should Sunset try to vanish on her again. It was impossible, of course. The wards on the castle would prevent Sunset from slipping out unexpectedly, but she…

Cadance’s brow furrowed. She rose to her hooves and smoothed her ruffled coat. Now that she’d had her long overdue moment of catharsis, questions arose – lots of questions. “How did you get in here? What are you even doing here? Why now?” She knew Sunset was good, but between the guard and the wards, nopony should be able to sneak their way into the castle via means magical or mundane. The few changelings who came and went were the only exceptions after Twilight had patched that unexpected hole in security, and even then, either Twilight or Celestia specifically had to key them in to the castle’s defenses.

“Well, it’s kind of a long story. Short answer, Sparkles brought me for movie night.”

“What?” An instant later, it clicked that Twilight and Sunset knew each other. “What! You – she – I don’t…” Cadance collapsed back onto her rear. Her wings sagged at her sides. “Why her?”

Sunset, not a sign of guilt on her face, placed a gentle, reassuring hoof on Cadance’s withers. “She found me. Apparently, the changelings have been tracking me for her for years.”

That only brought up more questions – so many more questions. “Why?” A horrible thought occurred. “She’s not protecting you for me, is she?” That sounded like something she would do in secret knowing Cadance would object if she found out.

Sunset hemmed and hawed before finally caving once Cadance took to a stern glare. “Eh, I guess it’s going to come out tonight anyway. Remember that time she got lost at the Summer Sun Celebration?”

Of course Cadance remembered! She’d given her now in-laws a proper royal scolding after little Twilight had wandered up to her, lost and alone, just after Celestia had raised the sun. That experience had changed the poor filly. She’d become even more withdrawn and focused on her magical studies, and who could blame her?

Then again, in hindsight, Twilight hadn’t seemed particularly distressed when she’d reappeared, and that was long before she’d managed to get her anxiety attacks under control. In a situation like that, Cadance would have assumed–

The truth clicked. Cadance understood the implication Sunset had left hanging in the air. “You found her?”

“Yeah.” Sunset awkwardly looked away. “I made her promise not to mention me.”

Suddenly, so much about Twilight made perfect sense. Cadance buried her face in her hooves and groaned. “She latched onto you as an early role model, didn’t she?”

“Hey, I behaved! I could have just left her crying on the street.”

It was well over twenty years too late, but Cadance asked, “What did you do to her?”

“Nothing! Honestly, it’s like you think I go around stealing candy from foals or something.”

In answer to that, Cadance deadpanned, “Nightmare Night, nine sixty-eight.”

“Those brats deserved it, and you know it.”

While true, that wasn’t the point. Cadance just glared at Sunset again.

Eventually, Sunset relented as she had before. “Look, I calmed her down, took her for a ride, showed her some magic, and gave her some good advice. Maybe I got a bit into the whole ‘people are idiots’ routine–”


“Oh, come on! She turned out fine. Better than fine!”

Cadance heaved an exasperated sigh. Of all the nonsense to spout off in front of an impressionable young filly, of course Sunset just had to give Twilight the idea that most ponies just weren’t worth bothering with. Who knew what she’d be like had Sunset not justified her reclusiveness and validated her obsessive studies.

A hoof rubbing at her temple, Cadance said, “So let me see if I’ve got this straight. You corrupted my precious little sister.”

“I deny that.”

Cadance ignored Sunset’s objection and carried on. “She’s known where you were for years. She’s kept it from both Aunt Celestia and me. Knowing her, she’s probably covered for whatever trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“Maybe once or twice,” Sunset admitted.

And now,” Cadance continued, “you two are…what? Hanging out?” And that while Twilight was in the midst of trying to make the Elements work?

Sunset waved her hoof back and forth and said, “Eh, more or less,” with a completely inappropriate cool.

“I see.” Cadance brought a hoof up to her chest, breathed in, and then let the air out as she extended her hoof in a smooth motion. She was calm. She was happy to have Sunset back. She wouldn’t lose her temper. Nothing she did now would change what had already happened. She pushed a smile back onto her face and asked, “So you’re here for movie night?”

“Well…” Sunset began.

Despite the decades, Cadance still knew that tone. They were both going to end up in so much trouble before the night was through. “Just tell me.”

“I may have a few errands to run while I’m here,” Sunset confessed with that devious smirk of hers. It hadn’t changed at all since Cadance had last seen it. “I promised Sparkles I’d spend time with everypony, and she promised me free rein of the castle. I thought I’d swing by your office first and catch up with my favorite princess. No pretending. No careful words.”

Cadance doubted she was Sunset’s favorite princess even after her infamous falling-out with Celestia, but Cadance smiled anyway and remembered fonder days. “Does that mean you want me to keep quiet tonight?”

“Yeah. We can chat, but I’m hoping to be in and out without Sunbutt catching on.”

Cadance bit her lip. It was classified information, but Sunset really should know. “You may not want to. Aunt Celestia has a sister, you see–”

Somewhat surprisingly, Sunset waved Cadance off. “Sparkles already read me in on the full situation. Sunbutt made her bed. Now she has to lie in it. It’s not my problem.”

As there was never any reasoning with Sunset when she got like this, Cadance let the matter drop. She didn’t want to spoil their reunion with a bitter argument or, worse, drive Sunset away. She thus instead finally offered Sunset a seat, plopped herself back into her extra comfy chair behind her desk, and then asked, “So what have you been up to during your time away?”

“Oh, you know. Scheming, mostly.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. When was Sunset not scheming something?


With a shrug, Cadance said, “Fell in love. Got married. Had a foal. Wrote some novels. Decided to actually work as a princess.”

Sunset snorted. “That reminds me. Say the word, and I’ll bury your parents as deep as you want me to.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, but no thank you.” Twilight had made a similar, though slightly less extreme, offer herself, but Cadance merely wished to wash her hooves of her so-called family. That part of her life was as over with as was practical, and she’d since found a better family for herself, one who’d welcomed her with open arms despite her baggage.

Yet in the darker corners of her mind, Cadance had to admit the temptation had its appeal. She couldn’t count how many times she’d cursed her parents. She couldn’t recall how many times she’d hoped for a tragic accident to orphan her. She hated to remember how many times she’d cried herself to sleep wishing she’d been born a unicorn. And everything had gotten worse after Sunset had left until Twilight rose to power. Celestia could only interfere so much without facing severe pushback from her own government.

But royal assassinations, no matter how deserved, weren’t worth the trouble. Her parents were old, anyway, and Cadance doubted anypony would step up to grant them an extra century or two of life through dedicated application of the magical arts. There were only a wingful of ponies she knew who could, and none of them bore those two any love.

Cadance shook off her dark mood and turned to brighter prospects. “Anyway, lately I’ve been working on a particular passion project of mine: a school for gifted pegasi.”

As it had Celestia, the idea caught Sunset by surprise. She recovered quicker, however, and chuckled. “Married a commoner. Spawned a pegasus. Now this?” She conjured a hat just to tip it to Cadance. “Let me know when you plan to spit on mommy and daddy’s graves.”

“I was thinking of dancing, actually,” Cadance replied in perfect innocence. She wouldn’t actually go through with it, but a little dark fantasy every once in a while was healthy for relieving such negative emotions. If nothing else, it certainly amused Sunset. “Regardless, Equestria inherited a unicorn-centric school system when education became a matter of public concern. I’m hoping my ideas can change the way we educate our pegasi on a national scale. It won’t be a fast change, certainly, but I think I’ll have the time to see it through to completion. Twilight says I’ve got at least a century left in me. More if I start exercising my magic regularly.”

“Ambitious. I like it.”

Of course that’s her reaction. Cadance shook her head fondly.

“Hypothetically,” Sunset began, “would you ever want to leave Equestria?”

Cadance arched her eyebrows. “Where did that question come from?” Nonetheless, when Sunset insisted she answer, she did. “No. Equestria is my home. My work is here. My family is here. My life is here. None of that will change anytime soon. Even if that weren’t true, I’m a princess, Sunset. I have responsibilities. ”

“You do know you’re technically not Equestrian royalty, though, right?”

That did ring a bell. While Celestia treated her line as an Equestrian one, Cadance did recall her parents mentioning something to that effect years and years ago. “Yes, I’m the princess of some long lost empire, aren’t I?”

“The Crystal Empire,” Sunset corrected, “of which you’re the Imperial Crystal Princess. And it’s coming back.”

“W-what?” Cadance felt herself pale. That couldn’t be. She didn’t want to leave, but she wouldn’t send her own daughter away in her place nor leave her parents to their own designs. “Surely not?” she tried.

Sunset, however, denied Cadance such sweet fiction. “The banishment spell Sunbutt and her sister cast over the empire will expire soon. Sometime in the next decade, and probably sooner rather than later.”

“No. No, surely Aunt Celestia would have told me if that were true.”

Sunset blew a puff of air from the corner of her mouth. “Yeah, sure.” She let that stand for all of an instant before moving on. “Anyway, Sparkles has already assured me Equestria will recognize me, but I like you too much to stomp all over your rights, however distant your claim may be.”

Rising from her seat, Sunset stepped forward. She then fell into a full formal genuflection as though Cadance were a head of state to whom she owed fealty. “Your Imperial Highness, I ask for you to renounce all claim to the Crystal Empire. Furthermore, I ask for your blessing to take the throne for my own. I will cast down the usurper King Sombra and liberate the empire’s people. I will not restore it to its former glory but rather usher it into the modern era with every resource at my disposal. I will be a true and faithful ally of Equestria for so long as our nations call one another friend.” After a long pause to let her request sink in, she added a final, “What say you?”

Flabbergasted, Cadance could only manage to tell Sunset to rise, but the mare remained stubbornly silent on two knees awaiting an answer. What was she supposed to say? She’d not given her line’s claim to a long forgotten throne any thought in her entire life. “‘Scheming’?” she eventually managed weakly.

Sunset smirked. “I’ve been preparing for this for a very long time. Be assured I’m very well equipped to defend and uplift your subjects.”

That was far more than Cadance had ever done. She hadn’t even bothered to learn the name of her empire.

And like that, her answer became clear.

“You truly want this?”

Sunset nodded.

“You swear to rule justly?”

Sunset didn’t hesitate. “To the best of my ability, I so swear.”

“Equestria and the Crystal Empire will remain friends – the closest of friends – regardless of any personal grudges?”

Sunset held her head high and answered, “I will not be the first to break our bonds.”

Cadance closed her eyes and took one last moment to breathe and reflect. None of this was on paper, and nopony except maybe Twilight and Celestia would believe Sunset over her, but her honor would not let her go back on her word once given. Sunset had attempted no trickery or deception, and she would offer none in return. Was this the correct decision for her empire?

Yes, it is.

Cadance rose to her hooves with all the dignity expected of somepony of her station. She then circled around her desk to stand in front of Sunset, whereupon she took the would-be empress’s full measure. Sunset neither flinched nor displayed her usual conceit under the scrutinizing gaze. Seeing her so serious was a rare and welcome sight.

“Very well,” Cadance began in full formality. This would likely be her first and last act as a member of the imperial family, and she had every intention of making it count. She would give Sunset the empire, but she would do it her way. Her parents would fiercely object, but if Twilight, Sunset, the entire empire, maybe Celestia, and she herself dismissed them, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. “Sunset Shimmer, if you wish it, I welcome you into the Crystal Imperial Family as my sister.”

Rarely had Cadance ever caught Sunset by surprise, but she certainly had with that declaration. The mare’s eyes widened, and her lips parted without words. Cadance committed the sight to memory. When she told this story someday, she would be sure to make mention of this moment in excruciating detail. Truly, royal adoption wasn’t that rare. It usually only occurred to ensure a smooth transition of power when a monarch lacked an heir, which she very much did not, but it still puzzled her that Sunset hadn’t at least considered the possibility.

“Furthermore,” Cadance continued as she forced herself not to crack a smile, “I bestow upon you the full right to inherit all lands, titles, and properties so associated.” Then because these things could become complicated if not spelled out ahead of time, she added, “Lastly, I cede any claim I have to the imperial throne and all rights therein to you, my elder sister, for so long as you abide by the terms to which you have heretofore agreed.”

Cadance managed a warm smile, if not a full one, as she thought of what this meant. They would be royalty of different countries despite the familial connection. Duty and distance would someday separate them once more. At least they could openly visit one another when everything settled.

“Do you accept the offer put before you?” This was Cadance’s price, such as it was, for stepping aside, but she wouldn’t force it onto Sunset. That mare had certainly gone out of her way to avoid adoption in her younger years.

“I…” Sunset wet her lips. “Yes.” All other words failed her, and that said more to Cadance than anything else.

Discarding decorum, Cadance wrapped an arm around Sunset’s neck and pulled her up onto her hooves and straight into a hug. “Rule well, my sister.”

Cadance felt Sunset swallow. “I’ll be sure to invite you to every Crystal Faire.”

Cadance had no idea what that was, which only proved how unfit an empress she would make. They would need to formalize this in writing at some point to satisfy all parties, but for now, she was happy to spend some time with the elder sister she’d always wanted until they had to get to whatever ridiculous ‘errands’ Sunset had in the castle.

In a rush, Moon Dancer scooped up all of the reports she needed to see delivered before she could clock out for the night, nearly half of them from Princess Cadance needing her to sign off on something. Not that the archmage, even a mere regent, ever officially got a real reprieve. They were always on call. Still, with a pile of scrolls, documents, and sealed envelopes, she hurried out the door.

The posted guards were kind enough to lock up Twilight’s office after her, so Moon Dancer took off down the corridor at a brisk trot. She weaved between traffic, hoping that she wouldn’t be delayed so long that she’d miss introductions. There were a lot of people she’d not met coming to movie night, and the last thing she needed was more social awkwardness from not even knowing who they were.

As Moon Dancer took a hard turn around a corner, she crashed straight into a maid moving at a much more sedate pace. They knocked heads and horns, and both of them went tumbling to the ground. Worse, the blow to her horn interrupted her telekinesis. The sound of paper scattering and scrolls bouncing filled her with dread, but at least the subsequent heavy thump meant most of her work had managed to fall in an organized pile to the floor.

“Ow…” A shake of her head cleared the stinging sensation in Moon Dancer’s horn. “Sorry. I should have been more careful,” she said quickly as she set about gathering her things. This was hardly the first time she’d dropped a stack of papers, and she knew a few spells to help her set things to rights.

“In a rush?” the maid asked. Moon Dancer didn’t recognize the voice nor the mare herself upon inspection, but given how many ponies worked in the castle, that came as no surprise. The only pony who might recognize everypony else was Princess Celestia.

Moon Dancer nodded absently. Paper and parchment flew through the air under the control of her magic. Sheet by sheet, scroll by scroll, letter by letter, the pile returned to proper order. Once the process was well underway, she said, “I’m running late. Again. And this time for a personal matter, not something I can reschedule.”

“Your Excellency, have you heard of delegation?”

For a moment, Moon Dancer froze. Then, upon realization, she blushed slightly. This wasn’t Manehattan University. She could just pass her grunt work off to somepony else without worrying about wasting her graduate students’ time. “Oh. Right. Sorry, I’m not used to having help, and I was just in such a hurry.”

The maid offered a friendly smile as she rose to her hooves. She extended an arm to help Moon Dancer to her own, and she gladly took it. Then the maid said, “Would you like me to deliver those? I have the time.”

Nothing in the pile contained particularly sensitive material, Moon Dancer recalled, so after a moment to double check her memory, she offered the maid a very relieved, “Thank you.” She passed off each document to the maid, from magic to magic, and one by one instructed her on where to deliver them. Lastly, she finished, “And this stack goes to Princess Celestia’s study in her apartment.”

“And that’s everything?” the maid asked.

Moon Dancer nodded. “Do you have any questions? No? Great. Thank you again for taking this off my hooves. I’m sorry to drop this on you and run, but I really need to get going.”

The maid assured Moon Dancer it wasn’t any trouble, and then she was off to the theater at a quick trot. It only occurred to her not long before she arrived that she probably should have asked for the mare’s name if for no other reason than to put in a good word with her boss.

The theater Princess Celestia had prepared for tonight had all the creature comforts Chrysalis had come to expect from Equestria.

In a side room far better lit than the main hall, the servants had prepared a wide array of snacks. The popcorn she especially appreciated despite it having zero nutritional value for her. She would have to ask after the recipe and ingredient sources later. It would do well for her to have them to serve it on the rare occasion she brought guests to Silver Bell’s mansion in Applewood for a private screening or party.

The lounge chairs had their own appeal as well, and if her chitin were as soft as pony skin, she might have greatly appreciated the massage function spelled into them. Considering her own size, however, she’d opted for one of the large floor cushions probably meant for lovers to cuddle upon. She certainly wouldn’t complain if somepony wished to fatten her up a little, but in the far more likely event she was left alone, she would otherwise stick to nipping at the stray affection that passed between family and friends.

At the back of the room sat the projection system upon a small table. It was an older model, she noted, meant for private viewings, but she could tell with nothing more than a cursory inspection that somepony had made a significant number of improvements. She suspected the absent prince consort had done the work, but perhaps either Princess Celestia or Twilight had made time for it. Regardless, considering the age, the attention it’d received, and the availability of newer models, the device was clearly well loved.

Chrysalis’s gaze lazily swept across the room, briefly lingering on each of its occupants before drifting onward. Besides herself, only three ponies had yet arrived, although she knew from the hive mind that Ocellus and her new pony friend would soon join them. Who knew when the archmage’s party would get here, however, and the miscellaneous attendees remained even more of a mystery.

“Your guests appear to be running late,” Chrysalis observed dryly.

Princess Celestia offered a resigned but patient smile in return. “An all too common occurrence, I fear. But better than the alternative in some cases.”

A snicker came from the other mare in the room, and she made some remark about Twilight’s former explosive issues with punctuality. Chrysalis wasn’t sure what to make of Twilight Velvet or her husband, Night Light. While Chrysalis knew perfectly well that Twilight came from humble origins, she tended to imagine something more dramatic. A tragic self-made orphan who threw herself into her studies to forget, or perhaps the bastard daughter of a legendary mage brought up by an eccentric recluse. Maybe Princess Celestia’s immortal but long lost lover returned in secret to rekindle their spark or, alternatively, her secret daughter raised in seclusion for her own protection.

That last one came the closest to believable. Those two certainly acted like a particularly tight-knit mother and daughter, and if Twilight ever told someone that she’d never met another pony before attaining her majority, most would simply nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

But reality sat before her in the form of two regular ponies. Velvet was a thrill-seeking philosopher who wrote fiction professionally, and Night Light had a quiet job in astronomy. They certainly explained Twilight’s love of science and literature, but so were they also dreadfully ordinary.

Chrysalis sighed inwardly. When she was young, the great sorceresses came from interesting backgrounds or, at their most boring, powerful lineages with access to ancient magics. In some ways, the world had become too tame for her liking. Her hive fed well in such peaceful times, but part of her would always long for the danger and adventure of her youth. Perhaps when Ocellus was older, she would take a holiday to the rougher corners of the world and leave the hive in her heiress’s hooves for a time.

The door to the theater opened, and after first moving through the corridor preventing light pollution, Moon Dancer arrived. In somewhat of a frazzled state, the hairs of her mane especially appearing wild and frizzy, she began to apologize for her tardiness before noticing how few guests were present. She adjusted her glasses and asked, “I’m not early, am I?” A glance at the dimly lit clock surely dispelled any such belief, but Chrysalis was prompt to inform her that everyone else was merely more late.

Moon Dancer was a strange case. She obviously looked to Twilight as a role model despite her half-hearted attempt to craft her own identity. Chrysalis didn’t need to taste the admiration rolling off of her when the subject of it arose in conversation to know that. She’d somehow managed to acquire most of Twilight’s more benign quirks without picking up any of the more unpleasant ones. It sounded like an improvement, but she just came off as quiet and relatively timid. Chrysalis did admit she had a shocking depth of knowledge on magical theory and an adequate ability to cast spells, yet her magical stamina and casting speed left much to be desired.

As the four ponies in the room chatted with one another, Chrysalis turned her attention to Ocellus’s presence in the hive mind. A nudge of her own against her heiress’s gave her an ETA no more specific than a deferential but clearly annoyed, “Soon.” With a pleased chuckle, she retreated from pestering Ocellus. If she’d known letting the nymph explore and meet ponies of all creatures would help develop her metaphorical backbone, she would have seen to it herself years ago. Clearly, Flurry Heart was a good influence on Ocellus.

Sometime not long later, Twilight’s party arrived and caused a major stir. It seemed Spike had undergone the molt earlier this morning and gained his wings. Not the best timing, that, but Chrysalis threw in her own congratulations. It was as big of a moment in a dragon’s life as gaining a cutie mark was in a pony’s. She doubted she would need to, but she would mention that bit of cultural knowledge to Twilight at some point during the night.

When Chrysalis drew attention to herself, the two new ponies – obviously sisters – reacted with only mild surprise, although the expected curiosity once pony skittishness departed remained to them. The younger she recognized as Twilight’s apprentice by Generosity’s presence, but the elder was an unknown. Chrysalis cast out for information in the hive mind as they made their introductions. Her resident changelings in Ponyville promptly flooded her with stories primarily about this Rarity’s fashion sense, vanity, ambition, and generosity.

As Princess Celestia called Sweetie Belle away to finally meet her student’s student, Rarity remained behind with a burning question that didn’t take long to escape. “Are you truly Silver Bell?”

Chrysalis absorbed some of the adulation leaking off of Rarity for a light snack. The good taste was likely what inclined her to give a full answer instead of merely confirming what the mare already knew. “For the most part, yes.” She ignored the squeal of delight. “I sometimes require a stand-in. As queen, my time is not entirely my own.”

“And nopony notices?”

“A few have, I’m sure, but I doubt their first explanation is to cry changeling.”

“True,” Rarity replied with a hint of self-reproach. It was the obvious answer when most ponies didn’t know changelings even existed. “Well regardless, would you mind answering a few questions? I must admit I’m dreadfully curious how you managed to create a formfitting garment that shifted with your monstrous transformation in Werepony of Canterlot. Does your own magic alter it, or was it the dress itself?”

Chrysalis blinked. That was far from the type of question she’d been expecting. After a few moments to consider it, she provided an answer with a bit of history. With centuries of ruined clothes left in their wake, a far more expensive annoyance in the past before the cost of textiles plummeted with the rise of manufacturing, she’d long ago commanded the hive to come up with a solution to the problem of transforming while dressed. The resulting spells were tuned to changeling magic, but Rarity listened with rapt attention regardless and likely intended to badger Twilight about it later.

For a while, Rarity asked strangely technical questions about Chrysalis’s theater work, most of which she chose to answer. A few were covered under nondisclosure agreements, an explanation Rarity politely accepted without protest. A few others required in-depth technical knowledge about some aspect of prop or costume design which she couldn’t care less about. None ventured near the blindingly stupid questions ponies tended to ask when they found out about changelings.

Chrysalis understood now why Twilight and Rarity were friends. They might have different obsessions, but they’d clearly recognized kindred spirits in one another.

Hoofsteps from the entrance drew Chrysalis’s attention. Princess Cadance entered with a weary look and a veritable storm of emotions swirling about her ranging from anger and exasperation to happiness and anticipation. Permeating the unstable state, however, was the clear presence of love. It colored everything with varying intensity. Chrysalis wondered what happened to put her in such a mood but quickly lost interest when Ocellus made her arrival known through the hive mind.

Flurry Heart, the littlest princess, fluttered in right after her mother bearing a plate of desserts with far too much sugar for a pony her size in her hooves. That might explain the tired look about Princess Cadance.

Regardless, the sparrow riding atop Flurry Heart’s head soon transformed into Ocellus, who then made her way over to Chrysalis for their reunion. The hive mind kept them in contact despite any distance, but it was always pleasant to be in one another’s physical presence, and Chrysalis had come to appreciate some pony customs. A hug from her most exalted daughter was always welcome.

“You have wings!”

It would seem Flurry Heart and Spike had bumped into one another.

“Go be with your friends,” Chrysalis insisted. “Sweetie Belle is with Princess Celestia as well. I’m sure she’s eager to meet you and Flurry Heart in person.”

Ocellus hesitated, but Chrysalis gave her a push toward the other children in the room. She gave her thanks – still far too meekly but better than it used to be – and promised to return later before scurrying off.

“Your daughter?” Rarity asked.

As ponies typically didn’t like hearing the specifics of changeling reproduction, Chrysalis simply said, “Yes.” It wasn’t untrue, and her relationship with Ocellus wasn’t that different from a pony’s with their offspring.

“She’s lovely.” From the stirring of Rarity’s emotions, Chrysalis knew she meant that. “Sweetie Belle has always kept such a small circle of friends. I’m glad to see her making more.”

Chrysalis was similarly pleased to see Ocellus happy, thriving, and integrating herself into the next generation of Equestria’s major players. Most likely, Sweetie Belle would end up the next archmage once Twilight’s patience for the job inevitably wore out. Spike would be around to influence the royal family indefinitely. Flurry Heart had a less certain role, but she was royalty from the right side of the family. What better group of friends could Ocellus find?

Joining the gathering group of adults, now segregated from the children, Princess Cadance said, “Shining won’t be joining us tonight. Apparently, he’s busy.”

Chrysalis didn’t miss the smirk that quickly passed over Twilight’s face.

“Then shall we start the movie?” Princess Celestia asked.

Twilight shook her head. “We’re waiting on one more.”

Chrysalis also didn’t miss the stirring in Princess Cadance’s emotions at the mention of this mystery pony. Clearly, she knew who would be joining them and held very mixed feelings about it.

“She should be here soon. If not, I’ll go find her.”

So far, the night had passed in relative quiet for a bustling castle. Unfortunately, being the heart of Equestria’s government, they couldn’t expel everypony but the guard, yet they’d secured Princess Celestia’s apartment well enough with plenty of time to spare. Shining doubted anything at all would happen until hours later at midnight. If Eclipse possessed no other virtues, at least punctuality remained to her.

As Shining paced outside the scene of the future crime, deep in thought, one of his more experienced stallions standing watch nearby approached. Shielded Strike, a veteran of both the griffon ‘campaign’ and Spike’s early years, gave a crisp wing salute and identified himself as an actual member of the guard via a secret code issued during briefing after everypony involved had been determined not to be impostors. Their thief’s MO involved disguises amongst her many, many other tricks and misdirections, and the last thing they wanted was her slipping past the cordon dressed up as a guard or spreading misinformation.

Upon Shining’s command to report, Strike said, “We’ve swept the room, Captain. No sign of tampering with the security. The only active magic is either the princess’s or the archmage’s.”

“The wards are still set to block all teleportation?” The princess had her own version unique to her that allowed her to slip in and out, of course, but Shining knew not even Twilight could drop in without walking through the front door otherwise.

“Yes, Captain, although if I may speak freely?” Shining gave the nod, and Strike continued, “Are you sure we shouldn’t inform Princess Celestia, Sir?”

Shining shook his head. “She gives of herself for all of us every day. This is her night off” – and potentially her last one in his lifetime – “and we’re not going to take that from her.”

That got through to Strike without any additional argument. He nodded and delivered a sharp salute before returning to his post.

Shining, meanwhile, returned to his pacing, although his thoughts lingered on what he’d said. This was their job. If they couldn’t defend the princess from a mere thief who, by all accounts, had never inflicted lasting harm on anypony, then what use were they?

It did trouble Shining, however, that Eclipse had picked tonight. Did she know that Princess Celestia cast aside her regalia, crown included, on these family nights? Did Eclipse know that one was scheduled for tonight? If so on either account, it meant she already had inside information. Conventional wisdom stated that nopony was stupid enough to try to steal from Princess Celestia, and while he wouldn’t put it past somepony as arrogant as her to try anyway, this was one of the few nights when she might actually have the tiniest chance of success.

Should we move the crown to the vault? After a few seconds’ thought, Shining discarded the idea. It was no doubt what Eclipse would be expecting, and she’d proven time and time again that locked doors meant nothing to her. The ones she couldn’t get through, she merely found a way around. He’d probably have better luck taking the crown out to the middle of nowhere and dropping it in a hole in the ground. That idea had merit, but he wouldn’t run the risk. It was too likely that Eclipse already had eyes on her prize one way or another, which made hiding it successfully an unlikely prospect.

Spearhead approached next. He had with him an uneasy-looking maid in uniform bearing a few scrolls and letters in her magic. Upon arrival he had the maid hang back for a moment to establish his identity. Once Shining gave his approval, he called her forward. “This is Quick Swirl. We checked, and she does work here. She has a few documents for Princess Celestia to deliver. We sent somepony off with the other ones she had in case you wanted to question her for a while.”

“They’re from the archmage regent,” Quick Swirl added with a nervous edge to her voice. “She asked me to put them in the princess’s study.”

“What she said.” Spearhead nodded toward the documents in question. “Figured you should check them out, Captain.”

Shining nodded and did as asked. From the seals alone, he strongly suspected they were genuine. Indeed, a quick check of the magic on them verified that, and when he examined them more closely for any magical tampering or other spellwork, he only found the standard security magic at work on them. “Thank you for the delivery,” he said as he took the documents into his own magic. No matter how innocent the maid was, there was no way he would let her past the cordon. “I know this isn’t part of your job. I’ll have a word with Her Excellency about it later.”

“Oh, don’t bother on my account,” Quick Swirl said. “She was in such a hurry. I volunteered after she crashed right into me.”

“Galloping in the corridors, then.”

Quick Swirl grinned slightly and almost laughed. The lightened expression, however, only lasted as long as it took for her to again notice the suspicious looks the royal guards moving about sent her way. Hesitantly, she asked, “Is something going on?”

“That’s a classified matter,” Shining replied, leaving no room for anything more to be said. “Thank you again for your delivery, but you do have to go now.”

With a nod, Quick Swirl allowed Spearhead to lead her off back the way she’d come without protest.

Shining, for his part, made his way to Princess Celestia’s study and deposited the documents atop her desk. She could deal with them tomorrow. Tonight – for her, at least – would be a night of relaxation.

Twilight stood waiting at the entrance to the theater alone but watching the interactions playing out before her and maybe doing a bit of eavesdropping with her magically enhanced hearing. It was hard to separate one conversation from the others, but she succeeded for the most part with some effort. Her time managing the Element bearers seemed to have turned her into something of a busybody. Then again, perhaps she always had been but had never congregated enough people she wanted to get along to care. Who would know? Regardless, she turned her attention between each new addition to the group to ensure all was well.

Moon Dancer sat on the edge of conversation, happy to listen but rarely participating as was her wont.

Rarity, to no surprise given her social grace, had managed to integrate herself with ease and was currently engaged in conversation with Velvet and Night Light about nothing of importance.

Chrysalis appeared content narrating some changeling tale to the foals all gathered around her.

Speaking of whom, those four had come together remarkably quickly. Twilight knew they all already had some level of familiarity with one another, but this was a nightmare scenario she had no power to stop. Worse, in time, Scootaloo would no doubt be joining them. All it would take is some excuse to move Apple Bloom to Canterlot to complete the set. She didn’t look forward to what chaos Canterlot’s troublemakers and the Cutie Mark Crusaders could unleash together with a young changeling queen’s assistance.

I really hope the city is still standing this time next year.

In less terrifying news, from what Twilight had observed, Celestia greatly approved of Sweetie Belle and had even taken the time to teach her a new trick earlier on. Twilight had expected it, but seeing it firsthoof meant so much more.

Perhaps best yet, Twilight’s parents had yet to bother her about looking for love. She didn’t think she could play it cool after embarrassing herself with Rarity, and she just didn’t want to think about where that would lead.

Hoofsteps approached from behind, and unless Shining had decided to come after all or some disaster needed their attention, it could only be one pony. Indeed, Twilight watched Sunset in her disguised form walk up beside her a few moments later while scanning the theater. There wasn’t so much as a hitch to her step nor a pause to her examination when her gaze passed over Celestia. She did briefly smile at Cadance, who noticed and offered a small wave in return, but the rest she politely dismissed.

“You’re late,” Twilight observed. They were almost all late, but that wasn’t the point. She wanted to hear what had kept Sunset.

Sunset, of course, clued in on that immediately. They took a step back into the corridor connecting the theater to the rest of the castle. There behind a silencing ward meant to keep noise out in both directions, she replied, “Your brother runs a tighter operation than I expected. I had to do a bit of research to find a temporary identity for myself.”

“Ah. That won’t come back to haunt anypony, will it?” Twilight doubted it, as Sunset had a track record of not framing anypony, but she felt compelled to ask.

“Nothing that a short investigation won’t clear up. Her alibi is rock solid.”

Satisfied, Twilight nodded her approval. “So what plan did you end up going with?”

Sunset had multiple options mapped out, although in order to alleviate the risk of leaving evidence behind, she had to choose but one to pursue primarily. In this case, she said, “The enchanted fabric trick. I slipped it into a delivery of official documents. Gave them to your brother personally to drop off.”

“Oh, Shining is going to kick himself so hard if he ever figures it out.”

That said, it was a very clever ploy to slip a spell past security, one Twilight honestly hadn’t thought of and might not have caught had somepony tried it on her before Sunset had offered an explanation. She couldn’t blame Shining for falling for it.

The first half of the trick was to create a magical artifact from a slip of fabric slightly incorrectly. Inert, magic wouldn’t flow through it, which made it harder to detect. And if one hid it behind an active spell such as the usual security magics placed upon sensitive official documents, something which Twilight had no doubt Sunset knew how to cast from her years with Celestia, it might not even show up at all on most scans.

Then the remainder of the trick was to activate the magic. Sunset used a chemical clock of sorts to eat away at the fabric until it destroyed the intentional design flaw in the artifact’s construction. Thus the spell activated sometime later with none the wiser.

“So you’ve already got the crown?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sunset replied, “Nah. I mean, I could have just snuck my way in and taken it, but where’s the fun in that? You know how I operate.”

Yes, Twilight did. Sunset was waiting to humiliate everypony involved and one alicorn in particular with a showy escape. So long as she made her move before Celestia retired for the night, she would probably succeed. If not, well, Twilight would wish her good luck.

On another note, as Twilight led Sunset back into the theater proper, she said, “You should speak with Rarity. She’s just getting into artificing.”

“Oh yeah?” Sunset eyed Rarity with interest and likely a bit more respect. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Rarity is a bundle of surprises. Give her a chance. You’ll probably like her.”

Now that they’d made their way into the center of the theater, all eyes were on the pair as the last of the introductions for the evening played out. Half the crowd had met Sunset in this form as Eventide. Chrysalis suspected her true identity, no doubt, but didn’t outwardly react. Cadance, however, did. She knew. Twilight eyed Sunset curiously from the corner of her eye before proceeding.

“Some of you know her already, but this is Eventide. Our time together was short, but she served as my mentor before Celestia.”

Approximately half the room showed some amount of surprise, Celestia perhaps most of all in her own subtle way. Most likely she’d spend some time processing and incorporating this new information before she moved to collect more.

“We recently reconnected,” Twilight continued, “and, well, we were opening this up to friends tonight, so…” She didn’t really have any more of an explanation than that, or at least not one without giving out information she shouldn’t share.

As Twilight trailed off into uncertainty, Celestia spoke up. “While I do want to hear why Twilight has never mentioned you when she clearly thinks so highly of you” – she sent a look Twilight’s direction, who in turn shifted uneasily on her hooves – “that can wait for another time. I would love to have a few words before the night is through.”

“I would as well, Your Highness,” Sunset said as though this were their first meeting. “Twilight has told me a lot about you.”

The mare in question just barely resisted rolling her eyes and calling Sunset a liar under her breath. At least it gave Sunset a good excuse if she happened to seem too knowledgeable about Celestia.

After a quick round of introductions to the ponies Sunset ostensibly didn’t know, Twilight settled down into a seat beside Cadance. It’d been too long since they’d had the opportunity to speak, and it was practically tradition to chat over whatever movie they ended up watching.

While the group voted over what movie put on first, Cadance leaned toward Twilight and had the first whispered word. “You’re playing with fire, you know.”

“Yes, I know. She came to see you?”

“Mm-hmm.” After a moment, Cadance’s eyes widened with a quiet, “Hey!” She smacked Twilight with a wing. “You gave away my crystal playground without asking me!”

Yeah, Twilight had expected that one was going to come back to haunt her. “Do you really want it? It needs a lot of love.”

“No, I officially relinquished it.” Cadance’s titter met Twilight’s surprised reaction. “Yes, she asked. She’ll take better care of it than I would.”

As good of a ruler as Twilight knew Cadance would make, she did have to admit that Sunset was far more prepared for the enormous burden of the Crystal Empire. An entire civilization over a thousand years out of time would pose no small task to get up to speed, and Cadance just didn’t have the necessary resources without leaning heavily on Equestria. Granted, Sunset’s wealth also came at Equestria’s expense, but it at least wouldn’t subsume the Crystal Empire in a crippling debt it could ill afford.

Cadance wrapped a wing around Twilight’s barrel and pulled them as close as their seats would allow. “Thank you for bringing her here.”

While their proper reunion hadn’t been part of Twilight’s expectations for the evening, she simply said, “You’re welcome.” This was too nice a moment to ruin with technicalities.