Twenty-Eight: Her Last Imbroglio
Two hundred and nine ponies of all ages waited in and around the Summerland Village fairgrounds. The foals, fillies and colts of the group fidgeted, ran about, or sat sobbing and frightened of something they couldn't entirely understand. The adults, stood or lay on the ground; some of them wept openly as well. Many had saddlebags filled with meager possessions; small mementos of their lives, little gifts given over the years, scrapbooks bursting with treasures. Others carried nothing, but just stood there, helpless, angry, powerless.
Today was moving day.
Summerland Village was being evacuated; ostensibly by Royal Decree but the real reason was basic practicality. The utterly isolated community had no future; inbreeding would destroy them over the generations, the only hope their offspring could have would be found in joining the rest of their kind. That this needed to be done, nopony disputed. That it was terribly sad and a little cruel that they should be forced to give up their homes, their farm, their effort, and leave it all behind was also beyond dispute.
"I said goodbye to the pears. Is that silly? I even hugged the little tree that we healed - you know, the one that got whacked with the rake? Poor little thing. That's silly isn't it, Goldrivet? I'm just a silly pony, aren't I?" Sweetpepper had been crying; he loved Galloping Gardens. He'd always wanted a farm, he loved every inch of the place.
Goldrivet pulled his husband close with his neck, squeezing the smaller pony as tightly as he could. "Not silly in the least, lovely. Not silly at all. I... I kind of apologized to the pumpkins, myself." This made Sweetpepper smile and weep at the same time. "We really did a good job, didn't we? I mean, our farm is really... good... isn't it?"
"It's the best farm I can imagine. The very best, Sweets. You did a magnificent job." Goldrivet rubbed his head slowly, comfortingly up and down the length of Sweetpepper's neck, feeling the tense muscles underneath with his chin and cheek. "No - we did a magnificent job. It's our farm, ours, together!" Sweetpepper pressed his face into Goldrivet; his husband's warm chest was the most perfect place to shut out the world for just a moment.
The Royal Unicorn Corps had translocated into the village a circular marble disk of Loci stones bordered with an elaborate golden fence; it was similar in design to the original translocation corral that had brought the villagers to this place in the Exponential Lands, but much, much finer. This rich, royal platform was clearly of Canterlot design; it was larger as well, and had appeared to the east, just past Alexi's Hill.
The villagers were to be transported in two groups, the process would begin at midday, just a mouthful of minutes away.
The Royal Unicorn Corps did not have power enough to even consider translocating an entire village; it was beyond reason to expect such a thing. However, the incredible success of the newfoal colonists had greatly impressed and pleased the princesses, and the newfoal's loss would be compensated.
They would be all be housed in Canterlot itself, in the finest of quarters, while a fashionable and stylish new village was constructed especially for them. Their new home would be well situated, on the border between the original boundaries of 'proper' Equestria and the beginning of the Exponential Lands; they could not possibly be more centrally located. They could even choose to name their new village 'Summerland', if they liked.
During their future months in Canterlot, they had been officially requested to tell their story, to mingle and mix, to be sure and let the court and the citizens fully appreciate both their struggle, and above all else, their great achievement. Indeed a complex itinerary of events, appearances, tours, promotions and lectures had already been planned for virtually every member of the newfoals to attend, to make sure their story was fully and completely heard.
It had been made clear to the newfoals that their collective assistance in these matters would be greatly appreciated by the princesses as it would support and validate their decision to rescue the human species through Conversion. This would assist in putting a permanent end to any pesky remaining concerns regarding the inclusion of former humans within Equestria. The newfoals of Summerland Village were a truly exemplary case, and by embodying the true spirit of Equestria had shown the absolute and perfect wisdom of Celestia in gracing humanity with pony bodies and pony lives.
For their efforts for the crown, they would also be given wealth; they would never lack for bits in the future, and could be sure of a very comfortable existence with only one proviso; that they might occasionally be called on in the future to tell their tales once more, if it should ever become necessary or useful to the crown.
They would be celebrities, and would never need to work again in their lives; their special reward for having endured such a terrible betrayal.
When this had been explained to the villagers, cheers and hoofstomps had been expected by the court official; he was quite shocked to find a restless crowd turning to each other in unease. Unable to comprehend this, the finely garbed stallion had left muttering about how ungrateful the greedy former humans must still be.
They had lived for five years as ponies, they had tried to be as Equestrian as they could be, living up to the ideals within the books inside the crates, the few books that made up their precious library. Now their previous life as humans had returned within them; this was a situation they understood all too well. No others of the rescued newfoals were receiving such benefits and attention; each and every newfoal understood what was happening all too well. They had heard how the other betrayed newfoals had suffered; while these ponies were being taken care of, it was nothing compared to the elaborate media circus that Canterlot had planned for them. This wasn't about compensation for suffering at all. It was so very, very... human.
"Caprice?" Alexi looked at her with worried eyes; the expression on her face was strange.
"Make a wish, Alexi."
"What?" Alexi was lost. "I... don't understand, Caprice."
"If you could wish for anything right now, this very minute, what would it be?" Caprice's eyes were cold and hungry, the eyes of some jungle cat, lurking in the shadows. When she had realized that they had been abandoned and betrayed by the pegasus Windfeather, Alexi remembered hearing Caprice swear for the first time. She had been so angry. What she seemed to be feeling now was not simple anger. It was something else. Alexi could not read it.
"I...I wish that this would not happen? I wish that we could keep our village and not be used in this way. That is what I would wish, if I could. I still do not understand." Alexi did not like the look in Caprice's eyes. This was not his peach princess.
Suddenly, Caprice smiled. "Thank you, Alexi!" she gave him a cute, sweet kiss, her strange mood somehow vanished. The odd look in her eyes did not return, even as the villagers returned to their homes, worried and complaining about this news. The wealth was nice, living well was always nice; but not one of them for a moment imagined that this was a true reward. This was propaganda; a life on earth had made every one of the newfoals keenly aware of the smell of it, the taste of it. Politics. They were disappointed; they had honestly, innocently, truly expected better of this new world.
The very next day, the fine and royal translocator with the golden fence had been installed, and the population had been herded out to await transport to their new lives. Moving Day.
Caprice waited in line with the rest of the crowd, her family around her. Droplet and Ren stayed close as well; if there were any problems, being near Alexi might be useful. Caprice constantly scanned the area, searching. Alexi had the strange feeling that she was waiting. She seemed as though she was expecting something, or someone, though he had no idea who or what it was. Asking her directly had met only with casual chatter; whatever was up with her was not something she wanted to share.
Suddenly he felt her stiffen beside him, her muscles rigid. He followed her eyes. There, walking with eerie, unequestrianoid grace were the two princesses, Celestia and Luna. The twin divinities were rounding the cottage that had, until now, served as home to Cherryblossom and her family. Celestia and Luna, the two princesses of Equestria, the living goddesses of this world, suddenly here in Summerland. Alexi had not seen them arrive; they had not come with the Unicorn Corps, somehow they had just... appeared.
The princesses were being taken on a tour of Summerland Village by Comet Tail; they seemed interested in seeing everything for themselves. Alexi found himself fascinated watching the distant princesses; their strange and insubstantial manes that fluttered and waved in some arcane breeze that did not exist in the world of ordinary ponies.
It was then that he noticed, to his horror, that Caprice was no longer by his side.
"It isn't real, you know, FAKE! Soooo totally fake. I've seen this sort of thing done at carnivals you know." Caprice was on her back, right at the feet of Celestia and Luna, pointing up at Cloudcastle with her hoof! Alexi's heart began to pound, what in Equestria was she doing?
"Big cloud city. PFFFT! That's clearly not true. It's just a story. No newfoal could ever accomplish THAT." Caprice rolled her eyes at the princesses, her voice dripping with utterly venomous tones. "They can talk all they want, but I'll never believe it. Not for a moment! It's a LIE. The princesses put them up to it."
Comet Tail was speechless. The sheer impropriety of this, the audacity of this was beyond all comprehension. This was beyond outrage; Comet could not even think of how to respond.
In an instant, Caprice was up on her hooves, staring intently into the face of Celestia herself. "This whole village, the whole story is a lie. Those newfoals, put up in a fancy special village, given all those bits to talk about their adventures; it's all a fanciful story, all just made up to make the newfoals seem acceptable! But I'm never going to trust those creatures! Where's the PROOF? Where's the evidence?"
By now all of the village had noticed the princesses; shocked by the presence of the regents, they found themselves involuntarily bowing; they couldn't help it, their bodies just... bowed. The mystical presence of the princesses was palpable, it pressed down upon the crowd like an invisible weight.
Alexi found himself bowing with lowered head, wondering how Caprice was able to stand, much less do what she was doing. What was she doing? He found himself afraid for her; this time she had gone too far. Much, much too far.
When he dared to look again, he could see the faces of the princesses; they were not the least bit amused.
Princess Luna was shouting something at Caprice with regard to her sanity, the voice she used was terrifying; Alexi saw Princess Celestia interrupt her sister with nothing more than a glance. Luna nodded and fell frighteningly quiet. Alexi felt a terrible dread; in some manner he was convinced that his precious Caprice was suddenly in some horrific danger, though he could not define what that danger was, or even why he felt the way he did.
Caprice dismissively turned her body in place, looking back over her croup at Celestia "Some pretend, storybook village out in the Exponential Lands? Surely SHE can do better than that!" Caprice finished her derisive turning in place and faced the princesses again. For the briefest of moments, Caprice dared to stare at Celestia. Then she looked down, instantly humble. Silent as death, she bowed as deeply to the ground as she could, her forelegs outstretched, her jaw on the grass. She looked up at the supernal Celestia, and let her Venice side drop away as completely as she could, allowed all of her internal defenses to drop, and became, inside, utterly vulnerable.
Celestia, ruler of all Equestria, living goddess of the sun, looked down quietly upon the fragile peach pony. Caprice lay down the rest of the way, and willed her heart to be as innocent, as pure, as devoid of guile as she could. She put herself fully into the Caprice she had gradually become, over the last five years. If Celestia was genuinely more than mere flesh, if she truly was a deity, then she should be capable of reading Caprice's true heart.
"My dear princesses," began the flabbergasted Comet Tail "I assure you that..." A single glance from Celestia cut the unicorn off. Comet Tail lowered her head.
Celestia's expression was utterly blank. Neither anger nor mirth showed now. "Comet Tail."
"Y-Yes... your majesty." Comet now knew how she had made Night Watcher feel. It was not a pleasant sensation.
"Have your teams remove the translocation platform, and return to your halls. Such services are no longer required at this juncture. We will speak at some length later, about road improvement."
"R-Road... improvement?" Comet Tail sputtered, unable to comprehend her princess.
Celestia turned slightly and nodded to where Hopeful Road ran around the northeast hill, where it ended abruptly. Beyond it was grass, stretching to the edge of Summerland County, just beyond that edge was the vast desert. The vast desert directly outside of Salt Lick City. Comet Tail could just see the tops of buildings near the horizon, far beyond the low, rolling hills. Tiny specks of distant pegasai soared in the air.
Comet Tail blinked. She looked around; the entire county of Summerland was now on the outskirts of Salt Lick City. As far as she could tell, it always had been here; the lands blended seamlessly into each other in all directions. Without any fuss, without any apparent effort, it all just, impossibly, was.
Celestia smiled at Comet Tail "You should also inform the court that your staff made a small clerical error. It seems that the last abandoned group of newfoals was actually discovered just outside of Salt Lick City. The poor things had simply never realized just how close to civilization they had actually been. Almost humorously tragic really, but also desperately heroic, don't you think?"
"Yes... your majesty. Right away". Comet Tail left, her tail literally between her legs.
Caprice closed her eyes. She rested now. It didn't matter what happened next. The community would stay together now. Everypony's work would not be lost forever, all of their love would be kept in one place. Celestia's political needs would be served; that was why, of course, this outcome had happened at all. Caprice had won her internal bet; Celestia really was a goddess and not just a pony princess with extra magic. It would be alright, in the end. Her only regret was for her family; they would miss her. She felt so very, very sorry about that.
But that was her gift. It had always been her gift. She wasn't good at anything else. She was decent with language, but not exceptional. She wasn't the best cook, she couldn't draw or write or invent. She wasn't very strong, she wasn't particularly intelligent, a little clever, perhaps. A little clever.
But Caprice knew how manipulation worked. Personal, political, social. She'd always known. She'd come out of the womb knowing. It was the one thing she was good at. It wasn't a very nice thing, but it was her thing. And she could recognize, instantly, another playing the same game.
But there would undoubtedly be a terrible price. Such rudeness to a mere monarch could be cause for imprisonment or even death. But to a goddess, a living goddess? Pissing off a goddess is not something anypony can hope to survive.
Please forgive me, Alexi. Forgive me, Buttermilk and Strawberry. Forgive me Pumpkin and Blueberry.
And she felt it coming, the suspense was ripping at her mind; any moment now, the terrible punishment - she would be torn apart, her very soul shredded like leaves in a tornado of terror, her precious pony flesh broken down into its constituent molecules, her organs pulled like taffy into long ropy threads only to be dissolved by impossible nightmare forces; the eternal wrath of a implacable horrific.... wait.
Caprice opened her eyes, just a crack.
Vast violet eyes gazed at her from inches away, a white coat surrounded by an eternally waving arcane mane of pastel violets, greens and blues. A faint mischievous smile.
Celestia, princess of Equestria, living Goddess of the Sun, walked quietly, daintily away beside her sister, Luna, the Living Goddess of the Night. Caprice watched them as they strolled off.
Just before they turned the corner, around Cherryblossom's cottage, she saw Luna stick her tongue briefly out at her.