This is written by Hannah
It was summer in Equestria, and the air was hot and still beneath a brilliant blue sky devoid of any clouds. The sun had reached its high point over Fillydelphia and all had gone still and drowsy—even the birds had ceased singing as they fell under the soporific haze.
Just outside the city proper was a small stream of crystal blue water where a trio of ponies lounged on the banks in the shade of a willow. One pony, a baby pink Pegasus with a blue-colored mane and tail, lay stretched along the edge of the bank, idly watching minnows dart about the hoof she trailed in the water. A purple and hot pink-maned unicorn sat on her haunches just behind the Pegasus, her horn glowing with a pearly iridescence as she delicately levitated strands of her friend's mane and wove them into elaborate plaits. Nearby, a dark purple earth pony was peeling strips of bark off a willow branch and dropping them into the current.
The Pegasus suddenly took in a deep breath and let it out in an anguished groan.
"So bored!" she complained. "Bored, bored, bored…there is absolutely nothing to do."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Firefly," the pale blue unicorn said sweetly. "You have your weather duties later, don't you?"
Firefly snorted and jabbed a hoof at the sky. "It's high summer. The only weather we have is sunshine, sunshine, and more sunshine. The forecast for the next five days calls for clear blue skies—I don't even get to deliver any clouds until next week, and those are all going to be small cumulus and high cirrus—those take almost no effort at all." She groaned again and laid her head on her foreleg. "I hate summer. Give me autumn storms any day."
"We could always go and tidy up my bedroom and get rid of all my unwanted junk," the purple earth pony suggested with a soft small voice. When the other two fixed her with withering stares, she chuckled and wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. "Well, it was just a thought. At least it's nice and we’ll cool down in my house."
"But it’s too hot to work," the unicorn pointed out. She tied off a strand of entwined blue hair, letting it fall down onto Firefly's forehead before selecting several strands of other blue hairs to start another braid. It was a sign of how utterly bored Firefly was that she tolerated this grooming without a snide comment and even turned her head to help her friend get the locks of blue she needed.
"Well, Sparkler, what do you think we oughta do?"
"I'm actually quite content right here. It's such a lovely day and I have spare time to just relax and unwind since I finished polishing a large order of silver bracelets yesterday. Although I suppose we could all go for a walk or have some lunch together or…" She gasped in delight and looked at her two friends with large, sparkling violet eyes. "I know! Let's all go and get full treatments at the spa! It will be my treat."
"The spa?" Firefly said incredulously. "You mean, like, covering ourselves in mud and cucumber slices and sitting in a box full of hot steam?"
"Uh, I don't know…seems kind of fancy to me. I don't exactly like the idea of falling in mud and wrappin myself in seaweed if you get my point."
Sparkler hmphed and lifted her nose in the air. "Well then, I'm out of ideas. Your turn, Firefly…and no, I have no interest in trying to break the Running around a Tree in One Direction record or whatever it is you find so fascinating."
"For your information, it was the ball bouncing record…and I finally beat it two weeks ago when Surprise had that cold and wasn't around to distract me. I just wish something interesting would happen—every day is just the same boring routine." She sighed heavily as her stomach growled. "If it wasn't so hot, I'd say we should try to talk Surprise into baking us some cupcakes and—"
"Did somepony say cupcakes?!"
A white Pegasus pony suddenly dropped from the willow tree, landing only inches from Firefly's nose. The Pegasus screeched, jumping a foot off the ground as her eyes bulged in shock.
"Surprise!" she shouted, scrambling backwards and pressing a hoof to her over her rapidly beating heart. "Don't do that! You almost gave me a heart attack!"
The orange pony laughed loudly. "Aw, c'mon, Firefly, if anypony should know the effects of dropping out of the sky all suddenly, it should be you."
"How long were you up there, Surprise?" Sparkler tilted her head back to look into the tree as Firefly sulked.
"Oh, only a minute or two," Surprise replied, making them all wonder how they had missed her. "Twilight was looking for all of us so, when she found me first, I told her I would help her find you and I did!" Surprise paused for a moment and tapped her chin. "Hmm, now I just have to find her again."
"It’s okay, Surprise! I'm right here!"
A baby pink colored unicorn trotted down the bank towards them, followed by a pretty pale yellow earth pony with a pink mane. "Excellent! You found them all!"
"Found us? Why, we would have come to you if we'd known you were looking for us'," Twilight Twinkle said. "We've been right here all morning, Twilight. We couldn't figure out anything better to do."
"Oh, really? Well then, have I got news for—Firefly, what happened to your hair?"
"Huh?" The Pegasus put both forehooves to her head, feeling the numerous braids that Sparkler had completed. "What? What's wrong with it?" She started to turn towards the river to check out her reflection, but Sparkler caught her by the tail and tugged her back.
"Nothing, Firefly. Nothing at all. Don't listen to her. It looks just fine!" Putting a foreleg around Firefly's shoulders so she couldn't pull away, the unicorn smiled brightly at Twilight. "You have news, Twilight? What kind of news?"
Twilight opened her saddlebags with the magic of her horn and lifted out a tightly rolled scroll tied with a black-striped ribbon.
"I got this from Princess Precious Gem about an hour ago. The ribbon color means that the message is urgent and that she desperately needs our help. It seems there have been reports from the borders of Equestria that our neighbors in Saddellia have been encroaching on our land and forcing Equestrian ponies into work as unwilling slaves. One of these slaves managed to escape and made it here, even though trackers from Saddellia chased him far within our own borders."
"Oh, my, gosh!" Twilight Twinkle exclaimed. She exchanged looks with her friends, who were equally shocked.
Posey nodded sadly. "It's so terrible. The poor pony. The letter says he was all worn out and tired and sick…and he had to leave his family behind him too."
"How terrible!" Sparkler mourned.
"Yeah, awful…but what does this have to do with us?"
"I'm glad you asked, Firefly. Princess Precious Gem has tried before to communicate with the King in Saddellia, a stallion named Oak Bough, but he refuses to reply to any of her letters or summons to a royal meeting. She would like to visit him herself, but she can't abandon her duties at the castle. She can't leave Fillydelphia…so she wants to send an official Equestrian envoy instead."
"Let me get this straight, Twilight…are you trying to tell us that Princess Precious Gem wants to send the six of us to this Saddellia place?"
"Exactly. She was a little worried about sending us because we're so young, but she decided we would have the best chance of working out a peace treaty with the king. She says here that we will travel officially under her banner to carry her terms to Saddellia." Rolling up the scroll, she stuck it back in her bags and faced her friends. "It means a long journey—Saddellia is on the eastern border and several weeks from here, but…"
"But nothing. If this king is taking ponies from Equestria and holding them against their will, then we got to stop him!"
"It's probably going to be dangerous," Posey explained. "Going all that way to treat with a king who has such little care or respect for other ponies, I mean."
"We've faced down danger before and never let it stop us!" Firefly leapt to her hooves. "I'm in! How cool that Princess Precious Gem trusts us with something like this? When do we leave?"
Twilight hesitated briefly before replying. "Actually, we would need to leave as soon as possible. Today in fact. If we're all in, I'll have Sunset Shimmer tell the princess and she can send us the documents we'll need. If we all go and pack what we'll need for the journey, we can meet back at the library in an hour."
"You can count on me!" Firefly stuck out her hoof. "I'll get Thistle Whistle to take over weather patrol for me."
"And Fancy Free can handle my work easily this time of year. I'm in too!" Twilight Twinkle clapped her own hoof over Firefly's.
"This is going to be so super-duper fun! I'll bet it's like that time we were in the Fillydelphia War…do you remember that? That was fun, especially when we found all those scary dragons and you were all "Aaahh" and I was like "Hahahaha"…"
Firefly sidled up to her chattering friend and, draping an arm companionably around her shoulders, clamped a hoof over Surprise's muzzle. "Yes or no, Surprise?"
Surprise giggled and placed her white hoof on top of Twilight Twinkle's.
"How about you, Posey?" Twilight Twinkle asked.
The yellow earth pony had ducked her head, hiding behind her think fall of pink hair. "Well…I don't really know. It sounds awfully scary and dangerous and it's such a long way—I would need to find somepony to watch over all my plants—but those ponies on the border obviously need our help, and I'll bet Saddellia has all kinds of new and interesting flowers…" She paused to take in a deep, steadying breath. "Okay." Her yellow hoof dropped over Surprise's, followed quickly by Twilight's pink one. The friends smiled at one another, then turned as one to Sparkler, who was still holding back.
"It's alright if you want to stay here, Sparkler," Twilight started to say. "You have the jewelry shop and who knows how long we'll be gone."
"But we are going there to talk with a king," Firefly pointed out. Some of the doubt in Sparkler's violet eyes vanished at that and she sat up.
"Well…I guess I could ask Star Catcher to watch the shop while we're gone…and it's for a good cause…oh, alright." She stacked her pale blue hoof on top of Twilight's. "I'm in!"
The others cheered and threw their hooves into the air, shouting, "Yeah!"
"Oh thank you, girls! I'll go tell Sunset Shimmer to tell the princess. I'll see you all back at the library in an hour!" Twilight turned and galloped away, her white, and purple mane streaming behind her.
"You got it, Twilight!" Twilight Twinkle called after her, waving. "We'll all be there!"
"Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!" Surprise exclaimed, bouncing up and down with each word. "An adventure! We're going on another adventure! This is going to be so much fun, won't it, Posey?"
"Oh yes, I guess…I'd better hurry. I'll need to talk somepony into watching over the garden while I'm gone. I'll see you soon!" She waved and raced off to her little home by the church.
"I'd better get a move on too," Twilight Twinkle told them. "It may a lot work at Sweet Shoppe this time of year with the sun the way it is, but I'll have to let my boss, Sweetberry know where I'm gonna be. See you guys at the library!" And she cantered away to the shop.
Sparkler and Surprise both lived in Fillydelphia Towne Square, so they trotted back together—or bounced in the case of Surprise—with Firefly winging just above them.
"Now remember to pack practically, Surprise," Sparkler told her friend as she and Firefly left her at the doorway to the party planning agency. "While I'm sure the king of Saddellia would love all of your jokes and balloon animals, we will be carrying our supplies ourselves and should travel lightly."
"Oki doki Loki!" Surprise said brightly, hopping through the door.
"I'll bet a bit she still brings a hoof buzzer and at least one pack of balloons," Firefly muttered. She performed a lazy backwards loop and landed lightly beside Sparkler, walking the rest of the way to the jewelry shop. As luck would have it, Sparkler's little cousin, Brights Brightly, was playing in the shade on the front lawn with her two best friends, Sunny Daze and Rose Blossom.
"Hello girls!" Rarity called out. The fillies looked up from their board game and their eyes widened in mingled shock and horror.
"Whoa, Firefly!" exclaimed a little yellow earth pony named Sunny Daze. "What happened to—?"
Sparkler hurriedly shook her head and cleared her throat, interrupting the filly. "Girls, we've just received a message from Princess herself asking us to go on a journey in the name of Equestria.”
“See y'all later! And don't listen to what anypony says, Rainbow Dash. I like your mane that way!" Rose Blossom yelled.
"Huh?" Firefly turned after the filly. "What do you mean by that?" she called, but Rose Blossom was already racing down the street as fast as her stubby legs could carry her.
"What did she mean by that?" Firefly asked again, turning back to look suspiciously at Sparkler and the remaining fillies. Sunny Daze opened her mouth to speak, but Brights Brightly nudged her, green eyes wide and innocent, and the little pony subsided.
"Oh, nothing, Firefly," Sparkler assured her friend. "You know little girls and how silly they can be." She tilted her head at the fillies, who exchanged looks and grinned toothily.
"Where are you all going? Can I watch the shop while you're gone?" Brights asked her cousin. "Will I get to run the cash register?"
Rarity laughed. "Oh no, Brights. I'll be letting Sky Wishes run the shop, of course. But do you think you could watch her for me?"
Brights Brightly hesitated, her eyes shifting nervously towards a window of the shop. "I…I guess I could.."
Firefly sighed and shook her head. "Bye Brights, see ya soon Squirt!" Sunny's blue eyes filled with admiration as her idol leapt into the air and soared effortlessly skyward, performing a loop de loop before winging to the cloud house she had recently pushed closer to Fillydelphia to avoid long flights in the summer heat. She was so close to the jewelry shop now that Sparkler, Brights Brightly, and Sunny Daze clearly heard her scream of horror when the Pegasus glanced into the pond by her front porch and finally caught sight of the braids standing in her mane like large tree branches.
"Sparkler! What did you do to my hair?!"
Below, the unicorn chuckled nervously as she ushered the loudly laughing fillies into the shop. "Let's hurry, girls! There's so much to do." With a quick glance upwards to assure no furious blue streak was heading her way, she darted inside and hurriedly slammed the door.
An hour later, Sparkler arrived at the library, which was built into a large, hollow tree. Brights Brightly and Sunny Daze came along to see the six ponies off and say goodbye.
They were greeted at the door by Sparkler's twin sister, Sunset Shimmer. The yellow coated unicorn grinned mischievously as Sparkler returned the grin and trotted into the main room to find Twilight Twinkle, Surprise, and Firefly already gathered with their saddlebags. Firefly's mane was loose again, but still bore slight curls from the braids. She was busy petting a large brown falcon but glanced up as Sparkler came in and wrinkled her nose.
"Not cool, Sparkler."
Sparkler pranced up to her friend and gave her an affectionate nuzzle. "Quite the contrary, Firefly. I thought you looked adorable."
Rose Blossom, who had followed Twilight Twinkle into town, joined Brights Brightly and Sunny Daze in laughing at what they considered a fabulous joke.
"I just wish we'd gotten pictures!" Rose said, grinning cheekily even when Firefly scowled at her.
"Oh Sparkler, good! You're here!" Twilight the unicorn trotted out of the archives with a stack of books levitating in the air before her. "Now all we just need is Posey."
"She's on her way, Twilight…she's just finishing off a few things with her all her flowers and stuff."
As if on cue, the yellow earth pony trotted through the door wearing a pair of saddlebags. "I'm so sorry, Cactus," the pony was saying. "I really wish I could stay with you, but Princess Precious Gem and my friends need me. Please try to understand. You can stay with Sunset Shimmer and help out in the palace. I'm sure she'll like that."
"What!" Sunset Shimmer exclaimed, running up behind the pony with a look of terror on her face. "B-but why does it have to stay with me?"
"Oh, Sunset, I was able to get ponies to help out with all my other plants, but for some reason nopony had the space for Cactus. I can't just leave him alone."
Sunset paused to stare at the little green cactus.
"Nopony wanted him, huh? Gee, there's a big surprise."
"Sunset, I'm sure you and Cactus will get along just fine. He'll probably be a big help while we're away." Twilight transported her books to a table and set them down. "Well girls, I've been doing some research into Saddellia this last hour, and I must tell you, this is going to be, uh, an interesting trip. The country has always been ruled by a monarchy following a patriarchal line, which means the crown passes down to the first born son. According to my books, the kingdom still works on a serf and lord system and the people are heavily taxed on their labors to support the royal family and its court in Royal Oak Palace."
Twilight Twinkle walked up to the table and selected a book with a stylized oak leaf on the cover. She opened it at random and read a few paragraphs, raising an eyebrow as she did. "Says here they're known for unique lumber and growing pumpkins, of all things. Now that's just plain weird if you ask me."
"Why's that weird?" Firefly wanted to know. She started hovering over the earth pony, reading the book over her shoulder.
"I don't know…they're just so…so big…and orange…and they grow there all along the ground."
"Do you have any maps, Twilight?" Posey asked. "I mean, if it's such a very long way…we wouldn't want to get lost."
"I've already thought of that. We're going to take the Super Express to Manehattan Junction, but we'll head north on foot from there." She produced a large map and pointed to a wide patch of green and gray. "We'll have to go through these forested hills on our own…and then there's a small mountain ridge called the Saddlebacks that we'll have to cross. Saddellia is on the other side."
"That's a fair bit of distance, Twi. We're not gonna be able to carry enough supplies all that way."
"We'll have to collect food along the way. Woods like that should be full of edible things this time of year."
"Yeah!" Surprise said happily. "There'll be watercress and wild carrots, berries, grass, flowers, maybe crabapples…"
"Yuck!" Twi Twin grimaced.
"That sounds…very rustic."
"It sounds like fun, Sparkler." Brights Brightly had stepped up behind Sunset to help her with Cactus. Brights wrapped her own arms around Sunset and tugged, saying, "I wish I was going with you."
"Yeah! It sounds so amazing!" Sunny got behind Brights, joining the chain. "Why can't we go too? We could help…Firefly, I could be your assistant!"
"Yeah, it doesn't seem fair that you all get to go on all kinds of adventures and we always got to stay here." Rose Blossom sidled up to Cactus. It wriggled and twisted, but finally lost its grip on Posey. Still tugging from behind, Sunset Shimmer, Brights Brightly and Sunny Daze went flying across the floor and crashed in a tangled heap against a bookshelf.
The fillies and Sunset managed to untangle themselves and looked incredulously at the yellow pony, who stared up at the balcony with adoring eyes.
"He's such a little angel. I'm going to miss him."
Shaking her head, Sunset turned back to her sister. "Well?"
"Well what?" Sparkler asked.
"Can't I go with you? I can help…and maybe something like this will be what I need to get honored by the king over there."
Twilight closed her book with a soft slam. "I'm sorry, Sunset. Princess Precious Gem just asked us to go…and things are pretty tense between Equestria and Saddellia right now. This isn't going to be a vacation. We're going to be treading some pretty delicate ground as it is and will have to be on our best behavior."
"But I can do that," Sunset Shimmer promised. "Now, Sunset…" Sparkler crossed the room to put a hoof around her twin sister's shoulder. "You know nothing would make me happier than to bring you…but we need you to at the palace. The princess depends on you."
"I think that sounds like a fun idea!" Surprise bubbled. She had her face stuck in her saddlebags, rearranging her supplies. When she pulled her head free, a long, thin balloon dangled from her nose and there was confetti in her hair. Firefly put a hoof to her face and shook her head.
"Bunny sitters, balloons…this trip hasn't even started yet and it cannot get any weirder."
"I'm beginning to agree, Firefly." Sparkler smiled amusedly. "Looks like you got your wish."
"Too right. Now let's stop wasting time." The pink Pegasus landed and walked up to the three young fillies. Standing straight and sticking out her chest, she shouted, "Fillies, atteennshun!"
The fillies immediately lined up straight, saluting the young mare. Firefly nodded and began to pace back and forth before them.
"I hereby charge you three with the absolutely, positively, enormously important job of cactus sitting while Posey is away. You will not play with the plant. You will feed the plant. You will even sing the plant a lullaby if it wants one. Is that understood!"
"Yes ma'am," the fillies muttered, all looking downtrodden.
Firefly snorted at the lackluster response and her violet eyes narrowed as she leaned closer to the girls. "Perhaps you didn't hear me," she said, her voice deceptively soft. "So let's try that again. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?"
The force of her shout blew the fillies' manes straight out behind them and nearly knocked Sunny Daze over. Scrambling back into formation, they yelled, "YES MA'AM!"
"That's better! When you are not busy with the cactus, you will be helping Sunset out as Palace Assistants and taking care of Feather Whip too. Is that understood?"
"Good! Now, aaaabout face!" The fillies spun about, each one turning in a different direction so their heads knocked together with an audible thump. Groaning, they managed to line up again. "March up those stairs and find that AWOL cactus. Ready? March…march…march!"
The three young ponies held their line until they reached the bottom of the stairs, and then a shoving match began over who got to go up first. Rose Blossom and Sunny Daze started racing, but fell backwards when Brights Brightly tugged on their tails and leapt over their heads. The mares heard them banging around on the balcony as they searched for Cactus.
"Wow, Firefly!" Twilight grinned at her friend, impressed. "Where did that come from?"
Firefly sat on her haunches and shrugged, her eyes wide with surprise. "I don't really know. But it worked." Feather Whip flew across the floor to her side and she swept him into a hug, laughing. "And it was kinda fun too!"
"Well…we have the fillies set…Cactus will be watched over…Sunset won't be overwhelmed…the princess has sent me the peace treaty papers…I'd say we're all set to go." Twilight looked at the clock on her wall and grinned. "Perfect. The next train departs in twenty minutes." She quickly rolled up the map and stuck it in her saddlebags, then levitated the bags onto her back. Cinching them tight, she turned to her friends. "Are we all ready?"
"Almost!" Surprise had her head buried in her bags again. There was a sudden explosion of confetti and whistles, causing the white Pegasus to jump back and land on her haunches. She looked briefly startled, then began to laugh and hiccup simultaneously. "Oh well, hic! maybe the confetti bombs, hic! weren't such a good idea, hic! anyway." Jumping up, she wriggled into her saddlebags and bounced towards the door. "Saddellia here we, hic! come!"
Sunset Shimmer and the fillies joined the six friends to the train depot to see them off. Leaning out the windows, Sparkler called last minute instructions to Sunset, while Posey waved goodbye to Cactus who dangled limply in Brights Brightly's arms. The little unicorn lifted the cactus's arm and waved back.
"Be good now, Cactus!" Fluttershy called. "And thank you, girls! I know he'll be safe with you!"
"Have fun with Cactus, Brights! I'll see you soon!"
"See ya Squirt! Bye Feather Whip! Have fun!
The train gave a lurch as the eight stallions hooked to the harness took a preparatory step forward. The conductor blew the whistle sharply twice and the stallions stepped out, pulling the train away from the station at a fast canter. The six young mares watched through the windows as Fillydelphia, and the prospect of a boring summer, quickly vanished behind them.
It was a full day and night's ride from the Fillydelphia station to the train junction where they would set out north. In that time, Twilight filled her friends in on more of the facts she had learned about Saddellia and showed them some of the treaty documents the princess and her advisors had written up.
"It's all very simple really. If you look here, you can see that Precious Gem is not asking for any special favors, or even to declare that Equestria is superior to Saddellia—she just wants the Saddellians to stay on their own land and to leave her subjects alone. She's asking for a truce agreement between the two countries and has even offered to open up trade routes through the mountains."
"Trade? You mean pumpkins, right, Twi?" Lounging on one of the plush, red seats in the private car they shared, Twilight Twinkle pulled a face and stuck out her tongue. Sitting across from her, Firefly laughed.
"What's with you and this sudden hatred of pumpkins, Twi Twin?"
The earth pony lifted her nose in the air. "I'm just a firm believer that only one kind of fruit belongs in a pie, thank you very much."
"Okay, but isn't a pumpkin a vegetable?" The Pegasus lowered her ears as Twilight Twinkle glared in her direction. "Well, I'm just saying…"
"Whatever…fruit, vegetable, it makes no matter. I just wish this wasn't all so last minute or I could have arranged to bring them some nice, delicious ice cream as a gesture of good will. Nothing breaks the ice quicker than a gift if you ask me." She opened her saddlebags and rooted around until she found a slightly crumpled cookie. "I s'pose I could give a couple of these for the royals…too bad they're crumbled."
A bright white, curly haired head suddenly appeared above the waitress pony, hanging upside down from the luggage rack. Surprise snatched the cookie off Twi Twin's hoof with a single bite and chewed loudly.
"Hmm! Still tastes good!"
"How in tarnation did you get up there?" Twilight Twinkle asked incredulously. She looked askance of her other friends. "Did anypony see her get up there?"
The others shook their heads, bewildered, and Pinkie Pie giggled, dropping back into her seat and wiping flecks of apple from her chin. "Silly, I flew up. Anypony want to play tic tac toe?"
The summer sun was late in setting, but the excited ponies could not relax despite Twilight's caution that they had a lot of hard travel ahead of them. To pass the time while the train rumbled down the tracks, they obliged Surprise with games of tic tac toe, hangmare, and I Spy, then shared a motley meal from their packed supplies before settling down to discuss what they might see on their journey.