The next morning greeted Lillian with a feast; 'Ruffin's Requisitions' remained shuttered, occasionally there would be a knock at the door to which Mr. Ruffin would politely excuse himself and talk to whoever had come by. He must have been working all night; the amount of food presented to Lillian was prodigious and involved a great amount of work.
There were hay pancakes in stacks; she could tell from the taste that the hay had been imported from Equestria, along with Equestrian fruits and flowers. Oranges, apples, those weirdly large blue flowers that she never had gotten the name of - it was an entire Conversion Bureau at Hearth's Warming Eve cafeteria covering the shop's countertop. Lillian had no idea how Mr. Ruffin had managed such a spread, or how he had obtained the ingredients on such short notice.
There was no sign of Simon or Amelie; the blanket used to cover Lillian on her way down the stairs to the store had been removed to make her more comfortable. "There's no one here to see or to bother you, princess, you may eat in peace, dressed only in your own glory." Mr. Ruffin was acting strange, but there was nothing for it; Lillian had no where else to go, also, he had not returned her trenchcoat. Apparently, he was having it laundered for her.
"Mr. Ruffin?" Lillian felt intimidated by the sheer quantity of food before her; there was no way she could eat even a ninth of it all. "Will Simon and Amelie be joining us?"
"No, your highness. I have sent them to stay with a close friend; children can talk without meaning to, and accidentally reveal secrets. I wanted you to feel comfortable here, without the need to constantly cover yourself. I hope this simple breakfast is to your liking." Mr. Ruffin was still speaking in overly reverent tones; he had been that way since last night, when he had helped her out of her coat and first seen what she was. It was starting to become creepy.
"Mr. Ruffin... " Lillian stopped. She wasn't sure what she could say, what she should say. She knew that this change of attitude was bothering her, she felt uneasy about the massive pile of food spread out in front of her, and there were other issues nagging at the back of her mind as well. Something was going on, but as usual, she felt clueless. Lillian hated feeling that way. Even as a human she had never felt on top of events around her; somehow it was worse to feel that way now. She had vaguely hoped that she would feel smarter as a pony.
"Um... could... well for one thing, I don't think my Nanobars were worth this kind of room and board..."
That made Mr. Ruffin laugh out loud. "That was wonderful, princess Graycoat! Please, just enjoy your meal, I will return in a moment - unless you need me for something now?" This was definitely getting strange.
"Could you stop calling me 'princess'? It kind of, well, creeps me out. I'm just... Graycoat... like yesterday, right?" Lillian wanted everything to be like yesterday very much. Although she felt vastly better - the itch was gone, the rash was nearly gone, her wings were beautiful again - she was beginning to regret having Mr. Ruffin help her last night.
"If you wish me to, princess... uh... um. How would you wish me to address you?" Ruffin waited, Lillian almost expected him to suddenly bow down, the way he looked at her.
"Never mind. Whatever you want. I just... nevermind." Lillian was still waking up, and this was more than she could deal with. There was food here, it was supposedly all for her, and she was hungry. To hell with the attitude change; maybe she could think straight with some pancakes inside her.
The hay pancakes were delicious; she had tried them on a whim when she was human at the Bureau - it was an entirely different experience as a pony. The fruits were glorious, but then that was true whatever species one was; no one at the Bureau could get enough of the imported, Equestrian fruits. She had also tried the flowers as a human, they had not impressed her favorably; they too were an entirely new experience now, and she found she loved them.
In the end, she was more than surprised to find that she had devoured nearly a fourth of the enormous breakfast; she had no idea that she could actually eat that much. Now she was much too full; she really should have stopped eating quite some time ago. Rather than feeling more alert, Lillian wanted to go back to bed now.
She woke from a half-doze at the table when Mr. Ruffin returned.
"Princess Graycoat! Please excuse my interruption, but there is something I really think you should see. I think you will greatly enjoy it. Please, if you would, could you follow me?" Ruffin was being weird again, but Lillian was too full and content to care at the moment. With effort she roused herself and clambered off the crate and pillow she had been laying on to have her breakfast.
Mr. Ruffin led her to one of the side rooms of the store, where a carpet had been pulled aside, and a section of floor had been raised up. Stairs led down to a lighted tunnel. "We have our own underground means of travel, princess. Every important building is linked under the streets, and there are countless escape tunnels as well. As you can see, we have not been idle here in Assiniboia." Anderson said the words with not a little pride; the scale of the tunnel suggested that pride was not misplaced.
The underground tunnel system grew more impressive as Lillian followed Mr. Ruffin; the walls were plascrete and in some sections tiled, the floor was plascrete as well, and the lighting system was surprisingly professional. Some sections through which they passed could have been part of a maglev underground station. The amount of work was staggering.
"Nearly the entire town helped to create the underground; we used existing tunnels of course, but we also added our own - and of course we couldn't have done any of it without the constant support we receive from outside. There isn't much here in Saskatchewan anymore, if it weren't for... well, you'll see in just a moment."
The tunnel tour was allowing Lillian to gradually wake up from the heavy meal; she was now alert enough to wonder why she had allowed herself to be brought down here in the first place. Oh, yeah; she had no where else to go, she was dependent on Mr. Ruffin right now, and she had been half asleep when the journey through the tunnels had begun.
"Mr. Ruffin, where on earth are we going?" It was a reasonable question.
"You'll see, princess, you'll see, we're almost there. I apologize for the long walk right after eating, but everyone is just so excited that, well, please understand..."
They had passed through a doorway, large double doors which Lillian suddenly realized were being held open by two very muscular stallions. What the? Wasn't Mr. Ruffin supposed to be keeping her secret from...
"Mr. Ruffin!" Lillian felt angry and betrayed; it was clear that the human had not kept his promise to keep her status to himself "You promised me you wouldn't tell anyone!"
"Princess, the moment you revealed yourself, I knew why you had come. I understood what you really meant!" Mr. Ruffin had a strange, wild look in his eyes. "And I have kept my promise! Nopony in this world knows about you except your own beloved people!"
The chamber was nothing less than a stadium. It had once been an indoor hocky arena, when there had been electrical power enough to run such a thing, and the stands were filled with cheering ponies and humans alike. There were more ponies than humans in this crowd, perhaps three to one, but all were cheering and clapping and clopping their hooves and shouting, apparently at peak excitement.
The floor of the rink had been covered with plascrete to form a solid surface, and the protective plexiform walls had been removed; it was clear that the arena was no longer used for hocky. Banners and flags from Equestria hung from the ceiling and walls. The flag of Equestria had been painted across the floor of the arena.
"FILLIES AND GENTLECOLTS ALL, TOGETHER LET US GIVE A PROPER PONIFICATION FOR THE EARTH'S REBIRTH WELCOME TO OUR OWN ADVOCATE GODDESS, PRINCESS LILLIAN!!!"
The arena loudspeaker still worked, and the sound overwhelmed Lillian, causing her to shrink. Wait. The voice said 'Princess Lillian'. That was her name. That was her real name. How did they know her real name?
The cheering rose to a deafening roar; Lillian could feel the impact of the sound in her very bones. Glancing behind her, she saw that the double doors had been closed, she couldn't run back to the tunnels, which she very much wanted to do. The two stallions guarded the doors, and she could make out no other apparent exits; they must exist, of course, she simply couldn't see them.
Lillian stood still, looking around at the packed stands, her hooves planted on the painted Equestrian flag in the middle of the rink. She wished they would stop cheering. She wished she could understand what was going on. Mostly she wished she could flee. What could she do? She briefly considered trying to remove her ring and see if she could somehow teleport again, but discounted that option almost immediately. She had no idea how she had done it, and Celestia would find her immediately.
She tried the only thing she could think of; she gradually spread her wings. Maybe it would be like a human raising their arms, maybe they would think she wanted to talk to them and they would settle down and shut up. But this only seemed to inflame them more; with a sinking sensation Lillian realized that what she had really done is display her... difference... all the more prominently, and the crowd doubtless thought she was striking a dramatic pose. Dammit.
Lillian slammed her wings back to her sides again. This being seen as a goddess stuff was complicated. Any motion she made could be misinterpreted. Maybe the best thing was to simply stand still until the crowd got tired or blew their voice boxes out. The latter thought made Lillian grimly chortle; she pictured the lot of them with exploding necks, meat showering the stands, blood on the ice... well there wasn't any ice, but still.
That gruesome thought confirmed what she had suspected; unlike normal newfoals, her mind had not apparently been affected by conversion at all. She could imagine people's throats exploding showers of blood and meat; more than that, she could still actually think it was funny.
Lillian had mixed feelings about this confirmation; the same dark, brutal imagination that could make her laugh at gore and horror also plagued her constantly with dark and dismal thoughts; she had genuinely looked forward to conversion wiping all the darkness from her mind. Becoming an alicorn had stolen that blessing from her as well. There was no magical escape for her, then, from depression and suicidal thinking and violent, angry daydreams. She might as well have remained human. For a lot of reasons.
Enough! Lillian began stomping the plascrete floor with her right hoof. This seemed to get the attention of the crowd; after all, every eye was fixed on her. The crowd of ponies and humans rapidly quieted down, and fell silent, waiting.
This was awkward.
Mr. Ruffin was beside her, bowing slightly. "Everypony here is your subject, Princess Lillian." His words echoed from speakers around the arena. The crowd briefly cheered again; Mr. Ruffin had been radio miked; Lillian could see a small wire tracing his jaw, at the end of which was a tiny bulge. Everything said would be heard by the entire stadium. It was likely her own words would be broadcast as well. Remembering what had happened when she had spread her wings, Lillian decided to remain silent.
"We are all the P.E.R., princess. The entire city of Assiniboia is the primary staging base for the P.E.R. We seek to save the world by assisting princess Celestia's master plan; the ponification of the entire human species. Outwardly, she denounces and disavows us, as we know she must. We are her shadow warriors, acting in her behalf, the iron hoof beneath her velvet stocking. One day she will openly embrace us, and we finally have proof of this, for she has sent us you, our own guiding princess, our secret princess, our goddess in the shadows, to inspire and to lead us with your superior insight."
Ruffin turned to the crowd "All hail princess Celestia and princess Luna! All hail our own princess Lillian!"
Once again the crowd rallied, cheering and shouting praises all around.
When they had quieted, Ruffin continued. "Let me properly introduce myself, your highness. I am was once Agent Anderson Ruffin of the Corporate Intelligence Agency. I was part of the same group originally assigned to infiltrate Equestria to support human interests and, if ordered, to assassinate the princesses. I was part of the mission support staff, so I did not receive the genetic alteration that permits retention of human traits after conversion. You wondered why I have not yet been ponified; when I am, I will lose the ability to act with force and deadly intent. I am therefore of more use to the cause in human guise - like many of us here - because I can infiltrate the human world."
Agent Ruffin bowed down to Lillian. "But know this, my princess; every one of us here still in human guise is truly a loyal pony in our hearts. We defer our conversion to our true forms only to serve your sacred purpose, and we all yearn for the day of our liberation from our monstrous condition." Ruffin looked up at Lillian, tears in the corners of his eyes, his face one of worship and hope.
"Assassinate the princesses...???" Ruffin's earlier statement had horrified Lillian, even if she was on the run from Celestia and Luna.
Ruffin laughed "Oh, princess, do not worry; the moment that the initial CIA converts awoke, they realized their true loyalties; they served only the crown of Equestria, much to the consternation of the human corporate entity!"
The crowd laughed at this, apparently it was quite the joke to them.
"The last thing any member of the PER would do is harm the crown! We serve our princesses with our very lives, doing the work they cannot be openly seen to do; the dangerous, dirty, covert work that all governments require but can never openly admit to. We make sure that Celestia's vision of saving humankind comes true, and we fight her enemies and any who would oppose her great plan. We are the ponies, and ponies-yet-to-be who retain the human power of violent action where it is needed. We have been denied the grace of pony kindness and joy so that we may serve the crown as no other ponies in her service can."
Lillian shifted her hooves nervously; the look in Ruffin's eyes frightened her, and the sweat beading on his head made him look strangely wild.
"I have some old friends for you to meet, to bring you joy, my princess" Ruffin waved his hand, and three figures were escorted towards them from somewhere in the stands.
Two ponies and a human woman approached, escorted by two large stallions.
The brick red filly with the golden mane was Amelie. The dark purple pegasus colt beside her was... "Dad! I'm a pegasus! I'm finally a pony!"
It was Ruffin's son, Simon. The pegasus ran to his father, who bent to hug him. "Thank you dad! Thank you so much!"
Lillian raised her head to look at the dark haired woman. Suddenly she understood completely how it was the crowd knew her real name.
The woman was Olivia.
"Lillian, oh, excuse me, princess Lillian - I am so grateful that you are alright!" Olivia made a surprisingly graceful curtsy. "We've been waiting so long for the birth of a new princess. We've had agents in almost every Conversion Bureau, waiting, just waiting for you to come along. Once we learned about Code Majeste, we knew it was a possibility. We also knew that we would have to be ready to help you; Celestia would need to keep up the pretense of going after you, to capture you, to keep the world government off balance. I knew she would let you escape; I was so worried that the HLF might intercept you though."
Lillian's head was reeling. "I... I saw you grabbed... or taken... or something, by Celestia! And you told me not to trust Celestia or ever to go to Equestria and... I don't understand... what...?"
"All part of the act, of course! Celestia needs you out here, on the Earth side of the barrier, to inspire and uplift her agents. To use your power to accelerate the cause. In the Bureaus, there are cameras everywhere, monitoring devices in every wall; I had to make sure the humans watching were convinced that you were something Celestia meant to destroy. The princess cannot be perceived as openly sending all-powerful agents into the human world; the government would become frightened and likely go to war against Equestria. They would think that Celestia's actions were really part of an active invasion, rather than a gentle effort to rescue humanity. They just aren't able to understand how both could be the very same thing!" Olivia looked regretful "I'm very sorry for misleading you; it was a necessary part of the plan for your escape."
"Celestia... grabbed you... from the door!" Lillian was trying to understand, she was trying to make sense of all of this.
"Oh, she gave me a proper dressing down!" Olivia giggled. "She was furious! It was amazing to see her like that. If I hadn't been a member of the PER, if I hadn't known the truth, I would have been terrified. I acted frightened, of course. Just my part of the performance." Olivia smiled, glad of her part in the grand scheme.
Was this true? Was princess Celestia actually behind the PER, with all of their violent activities, forced ponifications, infiltration of who knows how much of the human world - and was Lillian's transformation into an alicorn not merely an accident? It seemed far too possible; there never was a government without a secret service of some kind, and all authority ultimately stems from the sword. Still, things didn't add up. Her conversion dream - that was private, that wasn't any kind of show for some hidden camera or sensor.
And Celestia didn't seem at all as if she were acting, back when she had chased Lillian.
The more Lillian thought about it, standing there in the arena, the more she became certain that these PER types were living a delusion; Celestia had publicly denounced them, and they were desperate to justify their actions. If Celestia wouldn't openly embrace them, they needed a replacement, and they had seized on her.
Not only was her existence an insult to the crown; now she was consorting with Celestia's enemies. If not enemies, then what was probably the biggest single embarrassment to her real, stated goals. In the newsfeeds, Celestia was always being hammered about the existence of the PER, and it was a constant issue as to what she intended to do about them.
Lillian looked around at the crowd. At Mr. Ruffin - Agent Ruffin, and his newly ponified son Simon. Little Amelie, Olivia who had helped her escape. Without Olivia's deluded assistance, it was certain that Celestia or the human government would have captured her already.
All these people. The stands full to capacity; an entire city of PER supporters. This was the main staging base for the PER! Assiniboia was the secret home of the PER; isolated, invisible to the world, the only way the city could even exist was because the PER supported it. Lillian felt torn now; Ruffin and Simon and Amelie and Olivia - they had shown her the only kindness she had known since her conversion. Celestia had rejected and pursued her. Yet she was an Equestrian now, and supposedly she was a subject of the crown, a subject of the twin princesses Celestia and Luna. What was her duty? What was the right thing to do about all of this?
Celestia might very well want to eliminate her. Lillian could understand that, after a fashion. Lady Jane Grey. Lillian was Lady Jane Grey; a little older at nineteen, but still in the same situation. A girl thrust into vying for the crown against her own wishes. Born royal, she didn't want the position; but others were only happy to use her for their own ends. Lillian was a pony version of Lady Jane Grey.
Lady Grey's mistake, the one that got her head removed, was that she had allowed herself to be manipulated. She was afraid to say no, so she went along with the gag. Lillian remembered reading about how she regretted that in her final words, stating that she was guilty of only one crime; going along with the gag.
History exists to learn from.
Lillian realized that in this moment she would have to decide whose side she was ultimately on. Did she want to serve the PER? Heavens, no. They were misguided; violence was never the Equestrian way - Lillian felt certain of that. She had to believe that. She needed to believe that. Celestia herself had made it clear that she meant no harm to any living creature, and that ponification must be a free choice and never forced.
Then again, Lillian was running from Celestia out of fear for her life. Of course, she could be entirely wrong about Celestia's true intentions toward her. Until she knew for certain, though, she planned to keep running. In any case, Lillian felt confident Celestia would never harm ordinary humans and ponies. They could surely never be a true threat to such a powerful being - just an annoyance. Celestia would be kind even to the PER, though she surely would shut them down if she could.
Did she serve humankind then? No! Lillian had already made that decision the second she downed that cup of purple nanofluid.
Did she serve only her self? Lillian tried to imagine taking the crown of Equestria, but it was an impossibility. Alicorn she may be, perhaps in some way she might just possess the powers of a Goddess, but even if she did, she had no time to learn how to use them; Celestia and Luna both had a thousand years on her, a thousand years of experience and understanding. Besides this, the last thing she wanted was to rule; she genuinely wanted a simple life as a happy, ordinary mare in Equestria. That was all she had ever wanted. Just a simple life of joy and happy thoughts and contentment. Power was anathema to that.
Then she must serve the proper ruler of Equestria. Even if Celestia was her personal enemy right now, the fact was that Celestia was the peace and prosperity of the land she loved, the world of kindness she so desperately wanted to be a part of. Lillian wanted to live, but she did not want to live at the expense of that beautiful, wonderful world. Not at the expense of the honor of Equestria. Not at the expense of her princess.
Despite everything, Lillian realized that she loved her princess still. Kind, gentle, beautiful Celestia. Even if it cost her her own life. Even if Celestia hated her. It didn't matter. She was loyal to her vision of Equestria, whatever the cost. If she was meant to fall, she would go down a loyal Equestrian. A loyal, true mare of Equestria.
The PER were an embarrassment to the crown. They threatened Celestia's peace, they threatened her political position with regard to the humans. They were probably her single greatest embarrassment.
Lillian bent her head low and placed her horn on the ground. She felt the sharp shock in her skull as the tip of her horn met the hard plascrete. She smiled at the realization; she was effectively bowing to the flag of Equestria, painted on the floor. Appropriate, considering her next action.
She raised her right hoof. With a bit of effort, she felt the edge of her hoof bite in at the base of her horn, pushing the ring away from where it had been tightly set. Loosened, the ring rattled down her horn until it hit the plascrete with a metallic ting.
Lillian lowered her hoof and leaned forward, taking the ring in her teeth. Raising her head, she sucked on the ring as she once had before; it was now her pacifier, and she needed one, because she felt very, very afraid, and very, very small.
It did not take many minutes before the feeling came. The strange feeling of approach, that curious pressure rising in the air.