Chapter Three - Welcome to Ponyville
“You promised! There’s no going back now!”
When traveling over land in Equestria, as in most other countries, if one lacked wings, then the train became the fastest mode of transportation available. Of course, there were rare exceptions. The archmage and Princess Celestia, for example, had enough power to teleport around the world as they wished. But for everyone else, the train remained the next best option.
Index Code was a unicorn mare in her mid-twenties with a butterscotch coat. Her milky-white mane she wore tied in a braid, and her cutie mark was a disheveled pile of three hardcover books. She sat on the Ponyville bound line reading an old book entitled Entering the Dream Realm. It drew a few curious or skeptical looks from the surrounding passengers and might have enticed their interest.
In contrast, it was her reading glare, her posture, and the general aura of solitude she exuded that kept the seats surrounding Index empty. Such were, unfortunately, not habits easily lost even when wearing another pony’s skin. Maybe Celestia had been right all along. Maybe this entire quest for the Elements of Harmony was merely an exercise in futility.
Twilight heaved a long sigh. She hadn’t even left Canterlot Central Station yet. It was far too soon to assume the worst. So what if she scared everypony off with mere body language? She’d always known it wasn’t just her titles that intimidated ponies. Slapping both cheeks with her hooves, she forced herself back into character. Until further notice, she was Index Code, the boring, bookish bureaucrat.
Index had begun to think nopony was going to sit next to her again – and that was fine; she wasn’t on the clock until arriving in Ponyville – when a purple earth pony mare appeared.
“May I sit here?” the mare asked.
Perhaps too abruptly, Index nodded her assent. She telekinetically shoved her own bag to the side in the storage overhead to make room for the other mare’s and received a word of thanks in return.
“I’m Cheerilee, by the way,” the purple pony said, hoof extended.
“Index Code. Index is fine.” The two mares tapped hooves, and Index went back to reading her book.
Cheerilee dipped her head down to get a look at the title. “What are you reading?”
Sighing inwardly, Index closed her book. She couldn’t afford to have a possible Ponyville resident primed and ready to spread bad rumors about her before she even arrived in the community. “Entering the Dream Realm. It’s about lucid dreaming. For the most part, it’s an instructional manual on how to recognize when you’re asleep and what to do once you have.”
Cheerilee eyed the book with more interest now. “I’ve had a few lucid dreams before. I don’t remember them very well, but I do recall that they were a lot of fun. Is there anywhere I could get a copy?”
“Well…” Index idly played with the book in her hooves, trying to think of a way to explain her possession of a very old restricted tome. In the end, she decided part of the truth would do. “This is probably the last copy in existence, so you’d have to go through the Canterlot Archives and their authorization process to get ahold of it. They’d throw a fit if I lent it out to anypony myself.”
“That’s all right. So you work for the government, then?”
“Eh, sort of. I get shuffled around so much that I’m more of a consultant, but I am officially on the crown’s payroll.”
“That sounds tiring. I can’t imagine having to change jobs at all, let alone frequently.”
Index shrugged. “It’s not actually that bad. I do odd jobs for the princess and the archmage that they’re too lazy to do themselves. There are some things I don’t get a chance for, but my job stays fresh and I get to see a lot of different places in exchange.”
“Hmm, that’s an enticing way to look at it. Celestia knows the paperwork an elementary school generates wears me down at times. Summer work especially. All the foals get to run around and cause mischief while I’m stuck inside.”
“I completely understand the feeling,” Index said, although summer meant all year for her. Every bit of free time she put toward her research was hard won in a country that had some national crisis crop up that she had to deal with at least once a week. As much as she loved magic, it sometimes caused more problems than it solved.
“You have foals? How old?”
Having gotten lost in her own thoughts, it took Index a moment to rejoin the conversation. “Just one,” she replied. It hadn’t been what she’d meant, but she would roll with it. She paused for a moment then to consider just how old Spike was in terms of pony development. Her usual approach was to treat him with the level of maturity he displayed on any particular subject, which varied wildly, but if she had to put a number on it… Well, he gets along well with Flurry, so “he’s a little over nine.”
“Nine?” Cheerilee inspected Index with a measured eye. Index realized a little too late that, as an elementary school teacher, she would be well used to parents of a particular age range, one which Index very much did not belong to.
“The circumstances were…beyond my control,” Index said. A second later, she realized the implications she’d just made with her cryptic response. Eager to correct that misunderstanding, she said, “That’s not what I meant. There was nothing non-consensual going on,” which only made things worse. Now she sounded like she’d gotten herself pregnant as a minor.
Index fought the urge to facehoof when the snarky part of her mind pointed out that she hadn’t even been pubescent when she’d gotten the bright idea to intentionally hatch Spike.
“There was nothing consensual either,” Index hastily added, because clearly Spike congealed from the aether. “I mean – look, he’s adopted. Let’s just leave it at that before I embarrass myself any further.”
Cheerilee, smiling and visibly fighting down laughter, said, “I understand. I’m sure whatever brought it about was terrible, but I’m amazed you took on that level of responsibility at your age. How old were you when you took him in?”
“There’s not actually a terrible backstory involved. I have no idea who his biological parents are. He just showed up in my life one day, and we bonded.” All true in the most technical sense. “He’s been mine for the past six years, which is the way it’s going to stay.”
“That’s sweet. I wish there were more ponies like you in the world. It would mean the world for–” Cheerilee stopped abruptly and looked away, no doubt realizing she’d been about to reveal a student’s confidential information. “If you could please forget I said anything.”
“My lips are sealed. For reference, you could’ve just played that out into a comment about orphans in general. I might not have noticed anything then.”
Cheerilee took a moment to reflect on what she’d said. “Oh, I guess you’re right. I’ve never been very good at that kind of word play. That aside, tell me more about your colt.”
“Do you actually want to hear me gush about him?” Index asked. She’d never enjoyed it when other ponies tried to tell her about their foals. Although to be fair, those ponies mostly consisted of nobles looking for an apprenticeship for their talentless, spoiled brat. And she did like to hear stories about her niece. Maybe this was the right conversation starter to help her make friends.
“Of course!” Cheerilee replied, all smiles. “Even if they drive me insane during the school year, I love foals. It’s why I’m an elementary teacher.”
Index took a deep breath. She figured it might be awhile before she got another one.
The Equestrian Intelligence Service, more commonly known as the EIS, was a young institution in a nation older than recorded history. It’d started out as a specialized branch of the Royal Guard to serve as an investigative task force for the crown before slowly acquiring more responsibilities as time dragged on until it did everything from informing the princess where she could find the best cake in Equestria to performing the rare assassination.
Then came the EIS’s worst nightmare, Archmage Twilight Sparkle. She had the ear of the princess. She had the love of the people. She had the support of the Royal Guard. She had the mystical might to crush armies. She had the most political power ever concentrated in one pony outside of the princess herself. Anypony with eyes could see she was taking over the government.
Except then she just didn’t.
Of course, this hadn’t happened in a vacuum. The EIS’s internal investigations had butted heads with the Royal Guard hard enough to come to blows. The nobles had been up in arms over some nopony commoner muscling in on so much of their territory. The people railed against one of their own being threatened. It’d been chaos until the princess had stepped in to calm everypony down.
In the midst of this, the archmage had gone about her business oblivious to it all. She really just didn’t care, to the surprise of many, and once the princess had gotten that point across, the EIS went to work with her. Most of what the service did these days was, on some level, at her direction. The princess kept Equestria running. The archmage defended it. Such was simply the new status quo. Most grumbled that the general lack of royal oversight meant she did whatever she wanted and left the princess to clean up her mess, but that had a corollary. She would do whatever the crown needed and left the princess to put the pieces back together as Her Highness pleased.
It was an effective arrangement. Opinions were still divided on how much of the archmage’s antisocial behavior was real, but nopony could deny that things had never run smoother since she’d risen to prominence, both for Equestria in general and for the EIS in particular.
Then the archmage had dropped changelings on them. There were thousands of them living in Equestria right under their noses. Figuring out how to deal with that mess had taken ages. Setting up a new subdivision of the EIS in absolute secrecy to monitor the situation had been a source of never-ending headaches, but at least it’d gone much more smoothly than when the Anti-Monster Division had been created a few decades prior when some idiot stirred up the beasts of the Everfree Forest.
Spitfire had only been around for the latter major shakeup in the service, but judging by the look on her boss’s face, she was about to experience her second. Incog, the director of the EIS, finished reading a scroll from the archmage. It’d been hoof-delivered to her in the middle of a directorial meeting by the only changeling technically on staff. Everypony knew he’d sold himself to the archmage, after all, in exchange for some favor and now served at Her Excellency’s pleasure in the guise of an ambassador.
Her face a stony mask, Incog looked up from the scroll to Espionage. “Have you contacted your queen yet?”
Espionage’s flinch answered that question. “Her Majesty was under the impression that, and these are her words, Celestia intended to spank her bratty little sister and send her back to her room if that didn’t work.” When he noticed the rest of the room staring at him, he awkwardly cleared his throat. “She was…displeased to discover otherwise.”
“I hope that means she’s willing to cooperate with us on this.”
“Probably. She, er, asked to speak with Princess Celestia first.”
Nodding, Incog said, “Understandable. Her Excellency’s stand-in should be stopping by anytime now to introduce herself. We’ll have her pass along–”
“Wait, hold up!” The relatively new head of the Anti-Monster Division, Sweetie Drops, broke from the stupor that had befallen the crowd first. She then asked one of the many questions on everypony’s mind. “Princess Celestia has a sister?”
“So it would seem,” Incog said. She glared down at the scroll on the table before her. “A Princess Luna, aliases Nightmare Moon and the Mare in the Moon.”
Where before Spitfire had been confused, now a distinctly anxious feeling far worse than even her first Wonderbolts performance settled deep in her chest. She didn’t believe any of the stories about Nightmare Moon, but what did somepony have to do to earn a reputation for wanton destruction and cannibalism?
“The princess and…” Frowning, Incog paused and reworded that. “The princesses are fighting over sovereignty. According to Her Excellency, we need to be prepared for either or both to be sitting on the throne when–” The frown intensified. “No, she wrote thrones.”
“Equestria is a diarchy, Boss,” Spitfire threw out flippantly. That previously unexplained fact which everypony took for granted was printed on the back of every gold and silver bit the state minted.
Incog ignored the remark and the uneasy laughter it produced amongst the rest of the department heads. “All right, what this boils down to is simple. If two alicorns want to duke it out with each other to the bitter end, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. What we can do is make sure nopony attempts to sabotage Princess Celestia’s chance at coming out on top. Her Excellency is off working her magic for the next six weeks to give our princess a better shot come the solstice. Are we going to do any less?”
A chorus of fervent noes met the question, and thus began a period of time wherein Incog issued orders to each department head in the EIS. Eventually, she came to the head of their aerial reconnaissance department.
“Spitfire, I want the Wonderbolts out on a ‘training exercise’ around Equestria. Look for anything out of the ordinary, but pay close attention to our borders and any domestic detachments which aren’t where they’re supposed to be. The last thing we want is the griffons taking advantage of the opportunity to get revenge for their recent embarrassment or some other such nonsense.”
After a few moments to internalize the order, Spitfire said, “Can do. What about our performances?”
“Keep what ones you can. We don’t want the public catching wind that we have reason to deploy aerial intelligence agents, but this takes priority.”
Spitfire nodded. Despite the disappointment, she understood the need. It would only be for a couple moons anyway from the sound of things.
“Sweetie Drops,” Incog said, turning to the mare in question. “We’ll call on your department as usual if there’s anything too big for us to manage on our own but too small to trouble the archmage with. Be ready. Other than that, business as usual for you.”
As the meeting wound down with them still waiting for the archmage’s stand-in to show up and say hi, Spitfire turned to Sweetie Drops at her right and Espionage one chair further down. “So, Esp, back from paradise so soon?”
The changeling in question leaned forward onto the table and buried his head in his hooves. “Don’t remind me,” he moaned. “Tavi was worse than the queen.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Sweetie Drops said. “If anypony interrupted my honeymoon with Lyra so early, I’m sure I’d be ready to bite heads off myself.”
Spitfire raised her eyebrows. “Did one of you finally propose?”
“No. It wouldn’t feel right with our secrets hanging over us.”
“You should just tell her that you know,” Espionage said.
Spitfire added, “Incog already okayed you being involved with a pony of interest.”
“You’re probably right.” Sweetie Drops sighed and adopted much the same posture as the changeling next to her. “To be honest, I feel more like Bon Bon these days than Sweetie Drops.”
Espionage, the one who’d gone through formally assuming his cover identity as his actual one, sat upright and placed a supportive hoof on Sweetie Drop’s withers. “You could always quit and take up baking professionally. Your confectioneries are so full of love.”
Although Spitfire agreed that Sweetie Drops had some serious talent, that was perhaps not the best choice of words when her primary clientele would be ponies.
Sweetie Drops asked, “What about you?” to change the subject. “Anypony special in your life yet?”
“Nah,” Spitfire replied. She’d had flings here and there, but her interest never lasted long. Besides, the life of a Wonderbolt wasn’t well suited to steady relationships even when they were only putting on flight shows for the public.
Before anything more could be said, the door to the conference room opened to reveal…an off-brand version of the archmage. She apologized for being late after Incog beckoned her forward to the head of the table. Now that Spitfire had gotten a better look, she wondered if this was the archmage’s secret long lost twin.
At any rate, they could finally get started with the original purpose of this meeting.
The train pulled into its first southbound stop with a mighty hiss of released steam and the screech of the breaks. Those sensitive to the flow of magic felt a large flux of thaumic energies being released until the train came to a halt in Ponyville Station. Several dozen ponies quit the locomotive for the platform, and at the end of the line came Index and Cheerilee. Their conversation, having eventually left Spike, had allowed Index to learn a lot about Ponyville. Most recently, they’d moved on to Index’s business in town.
“So where will you be staying while overseeing the festival? We don’t have any inns.”
Index was, in fact, not entirely sure. “I think I’m staying with the Ponyville hospitality director. Or something like that.” She’d been in a bit of a rush when snapping up this assignment and hadn’t worried about the fine details.
“Oh, you’ll want to find Pinkie Pie, then. You should have lots of fun with her. Just, uh, take her in small doses at first.”
Worried, Index gave Cheerilee a questioning look. That sounded like the kind of pony who would wear down what little patience she had very quickly. Rather than explain her remark, however, Cheerilee merely pointed across the platform.
Even through the crowd of departing ponies, Index saw what awaited her at the exit. An earth pony that oozed pink stood on her hind legs with a greeting sign held aloft in her hooves above her head. It read, ‘Welcome to Ponyville, Index!’ Surrounding the mare was what could only be called a flock of balloons, and at her side sat something so out of place, it boggled the mind.
Is – is that a cannon? Why does she have a cannon? What possible use does she have for a cannon of all things?
It was for but a fleeting moment, but Index and the pink pony locked eyes. Suddenly, as quick as teleportation but without any apparent use of magic, she was at Index’s side with their forehooves locked in the beginnings of an enthusiastic hoofshake. Reflexively, Index flung her away with enough strength to send her flying out of the station. In the back of her stunned mind, Index recognized that she needed to save the abomination, but a blink later, the pink one was already back and shaking her other hoof.
It was all Index could do to control her reflexes and not send the anomaly to Saddle Lake or teleport herself to a random location far, far away. The test increased in difficulty when the pink one moved in for a tight hug and knocked her onto her rear without breaking the embrace.
And then the pink one spoke.
“Welcome to Ponyville, Index! We’re so glad to have you here! I’m so sorry for surprising you like that. My name is Pinkie Pie, but I bet you already knew that. My friends call me Pinkie. I live at Sugarcube Corner where you’ll be staying with me and the Cakes. That’s a capital C, not that there aren’t lowercase C cakes there as well. Mayor Mare arranged for you to stay with us. We’re going to have so much fun together! Your welcome party’s tonight. You’ll be able to meet most everypony in Ponyville but not quite all of it. Sugarcube Corner just isn’t big enough to host a party for the entire town. If you want to make it in time, we’ll have to get going. We could be fashionably late to your own party, but the mayor wants to say hello to you personally, and who knows how long that will take. She’s always so bogged down in paperwork and red tape and all that. I’ve got your luggage, so let’s go.”
That had all come out at a speed almost faster than Index could process, which was a disturbing thought all on its own. Blinking, she realized that Pinkie Pie had indeed managed to get ahold of her bag. It had nothing important in it beyond the paperwork for the Summer Sun Celebration, but nopony short of Celestia herself, let alone an earth pony, should be able to take something from her telekinetic grasp without her even noticing. She must have dropped the bag at some point. That made sense.
At some point, the confetti cannon – that was weird, right, or had she fallen into some strange alternate reality? – had gone off, but Index couldn’t see any sign of the expected mess on the platform. In fact, where had the cannon gone? As Pinkie Pie all but dragged her away by a hoof, she stared pleadingly back at Cheerilee.
Cheerilee just waved goodbye.
After being dragged across town and given the name of every pony they passed on the way, Pinkie Pie gave Index over to the custody of a sympathetic looking unicorn mare. She introduced herself as Amethyst Star, assistant and secretary to the mayor. While Pinkie Pie waited downstairs, she guided Index upstairs to wait just outside the mayor’s office. It was a party free zone, a much needed and appreciated regulation after dealing with the local self-proclaimed party pony. She offered a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate despite the season, the latter of which Index accepted.
As the time passed without distraction, Index merely sitting and waiting patiently for the mayor to be free, her mind struggled to comprehend the enigma lurking in wait downstairs. Reality around Pinkie Pie seemed to behave the way the pink one thought it should rather than in any orderly fashion. It had to be the result of some form of magic, but for the life of her, Index didn’t understand it. It was, in equal measure, both exhilarating and terrifying. It was mysterious. It was fascinating. It was new. And she had absolutely no defense in place against it.
It’d been a long, long time since Twilight had felt even the slightest bit vulnerable.
Twilight took a sip of her chocolate. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she’d finally met a proper peer. Celestia, as her mentor, didn’t count. But what does she use all that power for? She snorted. Parties. It grated against her sensibilities. Sure, she by and large studied magic for its own sake, but the pursuit of knowledge was a noble calling, not some hedonistic–
Twilight brought her drink up to her lips and inhaled deeply, breathing in the sweet, calming scent of chocolate, before taking another sip. Everypony was entitled to pursue happiness in their own way even if it infuriated her to see so much potential go to waste. It was fine. Everything was fine.
A soft nudge to the arm brought Twilight back to reality with an accompanying, “Index?”
Ponyfeathers. I’m out of character. Sighing, Index turned her attention to the mare beside her. “Yes?”
“The mayor will see you now,” Amethyst Star said.
After nodding in acknowledgment, Index rose to enter the mayor’s office. On one wall inside hung a chalkboard with frantically drawn diagrams and a few dozen documents pinned to it by magnets. At a glance, it seemed to be trying to identify the ‘source of chaos’ in Ponyville. Pinkie Pie, unsurprisingly, was listed as a prime suspect just below the Everfree Forest. Upon closer inspection, it seemed the village suffered, to say the least, a weekly monster attack and some unrelated breakdown of social order every moon.
I haven’t even been here an hour, and I already know this place has orphans, an earth pony reality warper, and a population so inured to disaster that they shrug off things that would cripple most towns. Index warily eyed the hot chocolate floating along beside her. Is there something in the water? She made a mental note to cast a few spells later to verify the village’s mental well-being. If there were no obvious problems, she’d send a memo off to the EIS and have them look into things for her.
At any rate, Index took the seat available directly across from the mayor at her desk. The unfortunately named Mayor Mare – the name plate said Mayor Mayor Mare – was a tan coated earth pony with a white and gray mane and tail with an almost imperceptible hint of pink at the roots. Of particular interest were the browline glasses she wore instead of using a simple spell correct her vision. Such things were widely available on the market these days. Moon Dancer did the same for reasons Index would never understand. Overall, it seemed the mayor wanted to appear older than she naturally looked.
Mayor Mare noticed the hot chocolate still floating nearby. She pushed over a coaster for it and said, “Please accept my apologies for Pinkie Pie. I try to rein in her antics, but one can only do so much.”
“It’s okay.” Anypony who heard it could spot the lie. “I’ve coped with less friendly horrors.” A second after she’d said it, Index realized she’d forgotten her filter. Insulting the residents didn’t seem like a good first impression to make on Ponyville. “I didn’t mean–”
“It’s all right,” Mayor Mare said assuringly. “I fully understand and sympathize. You build up a tolerance after a while, but your first exposure to her is something you never forget.”
Index, glad to know other ponies felt as she did, asked, “Do you know how she does it? I would say she’s breaking the rules, but that would discredit me as an academic forever.”
“I have no idea,” Mayor Mare replied. “But I assure she’s harmless. She’s really very nice. I can understand if you’d like different accommodations–”
Index held up a hoof, paused a moment to have her second thoughts, and then waved it dismissively. “I’ll endure. Besides, I’m here for the next two moons. I can’t start out by snubbing the mare everypony in this town seems to like.” And I must study her. Pinkie Pie was entirely too fascinating to ignore.
Nonetheless, Mayor Mare said, “There’s nopony in town who would hold fleeing from Pinkie against you. You do look unusually shaken. We understand she can be a bit much.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but I’ll be fine. I just wasn’t expecting…” Index faltered for words, trying to find the most appropriate laypony terms for how she would describe the anomaly.
“Pinkie Pie,” Mayor Mare finished.
“Well…yeah.” The mare in question might as well be given her own category.
The smile Index received from Mayor Mare was likely meant to be reassuring, but it came off rather strained. “After your party tonight, she’ll cool off. A little.”
Index swallowed, nervous, but nodded. She did recall Pinkie Pie mentioning something to that effect somewhere in the endless stream of words that had assaulted her. She would take solace in the promised respite.
“Now then, on to business.” The mayor pushed a folder across her desk. “We started planning the moment we received word we would be hosting the Summer Sun Celebration this year. This dossier contains the details of what we’ve worked out so far. I can summarize it for you if you’d like.”
While Index could probably read the entire document faster than anypony could highlight it, she gave the nod anyway. She’d gone to considerable effort to dramatically undersell herself today and remain approachable – relatively speaking. She wouldn’t let a little impatience ruin all that work.
“There are two major parts to the celebration. There’s the usual festivities like street performers, dancing, plays, rides, food, et cetera. We’ve already contracted several specific entertainers to come. They’ll be arriving sporadically between now and the week before. The usual carnival events will arrive within a couple weeks but won’t be set up until a few days before the solstice.”
“Hang on a second.” As she read along through the dossier, Index paused on one particular name. “Who is Trixie Lulamoon?” The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite put her magic on it.
“She’s a traveling showpony. She performs a magic act under the stage name of the Great–”
And then it hit her. “Of course!” Index cried. She rose from her chair to pose dramatically on her legs. “Nopony could ever forget the Great and Powerful Trixie!” And then, since ponies were not bipedal, she fell back onto her seat. “She blew up the auditorium twice and the music room before they gave up and expelled her.”
“Er… Maybe we should reconsider–”
“No, no.” Index waved her hoof at the very thought of the idea. “This will be great. At a distance, there’s no better entertainment. And if she’s a showpony now, she must have developed some measure of restraint. Or swindled some poor insurance company. Either way, we would be remiss to deny the world Trixie.”
Mayor Mare accepted the disaster waiting to happen with a distinctly resigned mien. It would be just another day in Ponyville. “Right. Moving on. For the actual ceremony, Vinyl Scratch volunteered to manage the music and sound systems. You may know her as DJ Pon-3.”
Nodding along, Index internally frowned. She’d come here to get away from Canterlot culture. Vinyl wasn’t a snob or even a proper resident, but she still wondered how many more familiar names she would hear today.
“We also have no small number of carpenters, both professionals and hobbyists, in town building stages and other temporary structures. Big Macintosh of Sweet Apple Acres is in charge of that. His little sister, Applejack, is heading up catering for the reception of the notables. We’ve pushed her into working with a number of other ponies to even out her, well, her rather enthusiastic love of apples.”
Sweet Apple Acres, Index recalled, supplied the castle’s zap apple jam and cider. If that was their standard of quality for apple products, she saw no reason to complain.
“We also managed to get Octavia Melody and her group to come play at the reception.”
Of course. If you get one, you get the other. Octavia and Vinyl didn’t often do gigs together, but they did tend to take jobs in the same area and travel together.
Some of Index’s frustration must have slipped out onto her face as Mayor Mare asked, “Is that a problem?”
“Only for me.” In addition to having to avoid more ponies who knew the real her, Index knew Espionage was going to be a passive-aggressive pain in her flank when he found out Octavia would be so close to ground zero upon Luna’s return. Not that any of that mattered when it came to the festival. “Personal reasons,” she said in explanation. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay, then next would be decorations. When the time comes, Pinkie will be in charge of that. Good news for you,” Mayor Mare said in jest. “You’ll have some guaranteed freedom from her.”
Index rolled her eyes.
“Lastly, we have a promise from the Royal Guard to help out with security and peacekeeping. They’re scheduled to arrive the week before the festival and will stay until the day after it’s over. We expect a huge influx of ponies during that time, so naturally, we’ll need their help. Last I heard, they intend to send somepony a week or so prior to that to work out the details.”
Great, another pony to avoid.
“Along a similar line of thought, we’re building a number of temporary inns to house visitors in. We’re unsure if we’ll be able to make enough in time or if we’ll have to resort to simpler structures.”
“If that becomes a major concern, I’ll put in a request for some magical assistance. The princess and the archmage will likely help clean up their own mess.”
“About that…” Mayor Mare hesitated before throwing caution to the wind. “Why is Ponyville hosting the Summer Sun Celebration at all? And on the thousandth anniversary, no less. Not that we’re not grateful, but it’s always been held in a larger city before. And we’re admittedly not nearly as well equipped to host it.”
“An excellent question.” After a brief pause for dramatic effect, Index replied, “I have no idea. From what I understand, you’d have to ask Princess Celestia or Archmage Twilight directly to get an answer. But if you want my speculations, I think they just want a day or two in the country to relax for once.”
Both mares stopped to enjoy a laugh, one of them at the sheer amount of irony in the statement.
“Anyway, if that’s everything important–” Index waited for the mayor to nod. “–then I should explain my job since this is Ponyville’s first time hosting one of these things. I’m not here to take over. I’m only here to ensure you don’t crash and burn. Otherwise, you have complete creative control. If you need my assistance or connections, you have them. If you need the crown to provide anything, I’m the mare to speak to. I’ll expect updates once in a while, but not in real time. Have fun with this, and make it your own. If you do well, the powers that be might add Ponyville to the regular list for hosting events.”
“We’d appreciate that. We have a healthy local economy with the main branch of the Apple family here, but we could really use the tourism.”
Rising, Index said, “It was good to meet you.”
“Likewise. I’ll have Amethyst keep our records up to date, so whenever you want an update, you can just ask her for them. If you have any questions, I’ll be glad to see you as well.”
Sugarcube Corner was by no means a large store, but it dedicated most of its floorspace to a mere two rooms. There was the kitchen, packed to the brim with ovens and raw ingredients, and then there was the dining area which boasted no less than thirty tables. When cleared out, the latter provided plenty of space for celebrations of all varieties and a bit of extra revenue from the guests placing special orders beyond the provided party fare.
Pinkie Pie had gone all out and invited several hundred ponies. The whirlwind of introductions had gone by so fast that even Index had trouble remembering every name. To her relief, Pinkie Pie hadn’t insisted on escorting her the entire night nor forcing her to carouse, which left her free to find a quiet corner to, as her mission required, socialize in peace while the party went on without her. In that, at least, it proved more enjoyable than the Grand Galloping Gala, a torture Celestia dragged her to annually so that they might suffer together.
With some hesitation, Index approached Vinyl first. She wasn’t as familiar with the mare as with Octavia but knew Vinyl to be of a tolerable sort who might be able to introduce her to other ponies so long as she didn’t give herself away. Indeed, Derpy, a cross-eyed, gray pegasus joined the conversation soon after. She was…nice. A bit clumsy, but nice. That was about all Index could say about her so far. She worked as a mailmare and had a filly with a local inventor.
An earth pony approached next. She had a cream colored coat and, notably for its atypicality, a dark blue mane and tail with a large stripe of fuchsia running through the middle. Index swore they’d met before but couldn’t recall when or where. Upon inquiry, she introduced herself as Bon Bon, worked as a confectioner in town, and said, “No, I don’t do any governmental work. Why do you ask?” She did admit to having been in Canterlot earlier in the day, however, so Index let the matter go as a face who’d stood out in a crowd.
After a bit of small talk, the four of them sat down together to play some local card game with a name Index had trouble pronouncing. It was, to her great surprise, a partner trick-taking game with an engaging level of strategy she intended to bring home with her.
Play went from Derpy to Index herself. She eyed Vinyl on her left carefully, looking for a tell as to her game plan. With only five cards left, if Index misplayed, she could go out first and secure enough points for her team to win the game. The sunglasses she insisted on wearing both indoors and at night certainly didn’t help make the decision any easier, and reading body language wasn’t something Index was particularly good at to begin with.
Across the table, Index’s partner, Bon Bon, waited patiently and revealed little. She’d led a single full house this trick, and Index had no idea what her intentions were. Table talk wasn’t allowed, so it wasn’t like she could just ask. She might have a bomb left to counter the one Index was fairly certain Vinyl had, but then she might well be counting on her partner to be so prepared. Index had, after all, been in this exact same situation a few rounds ago.
Maybe I’m overthinking this. Hesitantly, Index lifted four sevens from her hand but stopped short of playing them. She pushed them back down, deciding to save the bomb in case Vinyl’s was smaller than–
Oh, horseapples. Now they know I have a four of a kind. No wait. I can bluff my way through this.
Index eyed Vinyl again, trying to double bluff her mistake away, only to see the mare smirk.
Curse these locals and their stupid game!
In a burst of frustration, Index plucked a full house from her hand and softly slammed it onto the pile. She looked at her opponent and noticed the small movements of Vinyl’s chest.
Argh! She’s laughing at me!
Vinyl laid her entire hand down on the trick. She had a five long straight flush.
Index gaped, stunned, and then collapsed onto the table. It didn’t even matter… Now even her own partner laughed at her. She groaned.
“You’re not that bad,” Bon Bon said reassuringly. “I’ve had worse partners.”
Derpy chimed in next. “I was terrible when I first played. You just need more experience.”
“Most of the game is learning how the other ponies at the table play,” Vinyl added.
“So you’re saying I could win if I get to know you better?” That’s conveniently in line with my mission.
“We,” Bon Bon corrected. “We could win.”
After a brief moment of hesitation, Index said, “Of course.” She supposed it was a partner game.
“Right.” Index didn’t check, but she felt certain Bon Bon rolled her eyes. “It’s not the only reason we lost, but your teamwork is abysmal.”
Index had no room to deny the accusation. She knew how to delegate, but she could barely remember the last time she’d worked in active cooperation with somepony other than Celestia.
“It’s too late to play again tonight,” Bon Bon began, “but I’m free tomorrow if you’re looking to kill time.”
It took a frustrating few seconds – perhaps the worst part of working undercover was the lack of public access to subspace storage – to find a clock on a wall. The night had barely set in. Ugh, that’s going to take some getting used to. Even without the magical modifications to her own circadian rhythm – something she would unfortunately be going without while in Ponyville – Index was a night owl by nature. Nonetheless, she accepted the offer.
“What about you two?” Bon Bon asked.
Vinyl replied first. “Nah. Mayor Mare is sending me to Canterlot for a few days. Apparently, the archmage pulled Tavi back early, so she wants the details of Tavi’s gig worked out asap.”
“I have to work late tomorrow. We’re expecting lotsa mail with the festival.”
Bon Bon hummed in thought. “Well, Lyra will want to play, of course. Octavia is out, obviously. Cheerilee will probably be busy…”
“Minuette mentioned she’d be in town,” Vinyl offered.
“Ooh, she hasn’t had time to play in a while. That’ll be fun.”
After cleaning up, Vinyl and Derpy excused themselves while Bon Bon explained when and where to meet tomorrow. It turned out that she lived on the outskirts of town, if a pony could call it that. Ponyville wasn’t big enough to warrant an outskirts. She also insisted on making the get together a dinner occasion as well.
With their arrangements made, Bon Bon left for home, and Index went back to prowling the fringe of the dwindling party. It wasn’t long before Pinkie Pie showed amazing restraint when she actually ended the affair and sent everypony home. To be honest, Index had expected the party to end only when the last pony left of their own volition.
“Now comes the after-party!” Pinkie Pie said, approaching at a springy bounce rather than anything sensible like a trot. “We’ll stay up all night playing games, telling each other about ourselves, and eating delicious sweets!”
“Er…” Index searched her mind for an excuse. She’d had enough of the pink one for today. “I’m pretty tired from my trip here and the party. I think I should just turn in for the night.”
“Okie dokie loki!”
Relief flooded Index. That had been much easier than expected.
“I’ll show you to our room.”
And there’s the rub. “Our room?”
“Yeah! The Cakes don’t have any extras, what with the restaurant and the kitchen, but don’t worry, silly. There’s plenty of space. I have the entire tower for myself.”
A tower? Despite herself, that aroused Index’s interest. Sugarcube Corner was built as gingerbread house with a cupcake structure sitting atop it. She’d written the latter off as decorative or maybe storage rather than livable space, but it seemed either Pinkie Pie or the Cakes had good taste. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad.
Up two flights of stairs, the pair entered Pinkie Pie’s cupcake tower. It had far too many balloons inside of it, but it otherwise looked remarkably normal for a mare’s room. It had a fireplace, surprisingly, as well as a staircase that led up to an internal balcony ringing the tower. The unusual design allowed for bunk beds with balcony access to the upper bed. Some remnant of foalhood innocence in Index approved.
There was also an alligator in the middle of the room.
Pinkie Pie, following Index’s gaze, said, “Oh, that’s Gummy, my pet. He’s super friendly!”
“‘Cause he’s got no teeth.” Pinkie Pie proved this fact by prying the sleeping alligator’s mouth open, which oddly didn’t wake it.
Index shook her head. I’m not even going to question the madness. She’d seen weirder things today.
“Soooo,” Pinkie Pie said, “top bunk or bottom bunk?”
“Top of course.” As if there were any other choice. She thought about floating herself up to the bed, but Index restrained herself from showing off and climbed the stairs to the balcony like a normal pony. Pinkie Pie, it seemed, had anticipated her decision. Her bag lay just beside the top bunk.
After Index hopped into bed, Pinkie Pie turned off the light. The sound of rustling blankets came from below, and then all fell silent for five blissful seconds.
“Hey, Index? Why have you been avoiding magic all night?”
Caught off guard, Index hesitated a little too long before she replied, “What do you mean?”
“Weeeeell, earlier when you offered to refill Vinyl’s punch with your own, your horn lit up for the tiniest fraction of a second, and then you decided to get up and go over to refreshment table to work at close range. You’ve been doing that all night and all day. Just giving off these little blips of magic that never do anything before then going off to do something.”
This mare is unnaturally observant. And yet Index had made a cursory scan of Pinkie Pie – nothing which would attract attention or appear threatening – only to conclude that the mare was either a regular earth pony or a very skilled mage pretending very poorly to be one. After ruminating on how to respond, she eventually decided on, “It’s personal.”
Pinkie Pie hummed suspiciously.
To deflect further questions, Index posed one of her own. “What about you?”
“What about what about me?”
“You’re… I don’t even know.” Index hadn’t yet had the time to really sit down and analyze Pinkie Pie’s abilities. “For one, you’re…very fast?”
Pinkie Pie, giggling, said, “Of course I am. How else would I be able to throw such great parties and bring smiles to everypony in town?”
Even expecting the nonanswer, it still made Index scowl. But part of her wondered if Pinkie Pie even knew how she did it all. If she really was just a regular old earth pony, then her magic likely worked without any conscious effort on her part. The power set could change, but Index had no evidence to conclude the rule set had as well. Perhaps, even, it was just a conceptual limitation holding other earth ponies back. While there were clearly a few screws loose in Pinkie Pie’s head, it could be that her mental disconnect with reality allowed her magic to do more simply because she believed it could.
“So, where are you from?”
Pulled from her thoughts, Index replied, “Canterlot.”
“Ooh! We get a lot of commuters from Canterlot like Minuette, and we have a lot of commuters to Canterlot. Vinyl moved here with Octavia years ago, but Octavia got married recently and moved back to the city. Bon Bon heads up there often herself, and Lyra says she’s from Canterlot, but she never had your accent, so I wonder if she’s from from Canterlot or if she only moved here from there.
“Myself, I was born on a rock farm west of Appleloosa. My dad is Igneous Rock, and my mom is Cloudy Quartz. You didn’t hear it from me, but they’re a little boring. I have three sisters, Marble, Limestone, and Maud. The first two still live with our parents and help run the farm, but Maud is way different. She’s a geologist and the life of the party.
“What about your family?”
It took a few seconds for Index to realize that Pinkie Pie had asked a question and finally stopped talking. This, she knew, was going to be a long night. “Well, there’s my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, my niece, and my son.”
“You’re a mom? What about your super special somepony?” Taking Index’s sigh as having asked the wrong question, Pinkie verbosely apologized for bringing up a missing partner.
Index corrected that assumption as soon as she could get a word in edgewise. “There’s nopony missing, dead, estranged, or otherwise out of touch with me. My son is adopted. And before you start up, there was no tragedy on his end either.”
“How old is he?”
I really need to keep a list of all the fabrications I weave to keep my story straight. Index surreptitiously kept a lot of lists and mental notes using a few nifty cantrips, not eager to let ponies see her OCD at its worst, but she’d never suspected she’d one day need to keep one for lies. Nonetheless, she recalled that she’d told Cheerilee that Spike was nine, so she did the same now with Pinkie Pie.
“He must be adorable!”
“Yes. He is. Very much so. He’s a wonderful son, but he can be a bit of a troublemaker. Even more so when he’s with his cousin.” Flurry wasn’t a bad influence, per se, but she did tend to lead them into trouble. “Though they’re nothing compared to the stories I heard tonight about the Cutie Mark Crusaders.”
“Oh, yeah. Those fillies really know how to have fun! Just a few days ago they put on a huge rock show for all of Ponyville, and the week before that they set fire to the pond across town, and before that–”
“You didn’t hear about that one?” Pinkie Pie asked incredulously. “It’s probably the bestest, most exciting, mind-boggling thing they’ve done yet. It all started eleven days ago when Diamond Tiara bet that they couldn’t jump the pond…”