"Come on Star Swirl, you can do this!" Star Swirl splashed herself with another hoofful of water from the sink, clearing away a few more cobwebs from her tired mind. The events of the past hour raced past in her mind like the pages of a rather awful story. Had she really tried the coconut trick on the king of the unicorns? What was all that about trifles? And what the hay did she think she was doing?
The comforting weight of the moneybags against her sides gave her the answer. She had the gold, that beautiful precious gold. Nothing else mattered, now all she needed to do was keep both it and her head.
She took a step back and looked at herself in a large, ornate mirror, taking some time to adjust her beard. Thankfully the guards had seemed unwilling to follow her in to the bathroom and so she had at least a brief moment to be herself. The room itself was a minor miracle white tiled walls, private cubicles, mirrors everywhere, and even running water! It was like magic (and probably was). There was no expense spared, even the handles on the taps were made out of gold. Or at least they were until Star Swirl removed them to put in her moneybag. She looked around the room for more detachable fittings. At any moment the guards would drag her out and force her to perform magic in front of the king, she would be discovered to be a fraud and potentially executed. If she was to die, she would make sure she would die as rich as possible.
She was just removing a golden plaque next to the towel rail, when she was startled by a trotting of hooves into the bathroom, and she dived into a nearby cubicle, slamming the door shut behind her.
Sitting down on the closed toilet seat, she covered her face in despair. Greed. That was what had led her to this place. Her granddad had always warned her that she never knew when to stop. For all their differences she missed that grumpy old stallion. He'd know what to do. He wouldn't be sitting in the bathroom of a royal palace dressed as a wizard and about to be ripped apart by a hundred angry unicorns.
The thought of her fate sent another shiver down Star Swirl's spine. Would it be quick? Would they make an example of her? The bags of gold pressing against her body were now a demonstration of just how big a hole she had dug for herself. As panic welled in her chest she found herself hyperventilating again, loud, rasping breaths. The tears suddenly came thick and fast. She started to thump her hooves against the bathroom door in a loud rhythm to control herself. "Come on Star Swirl!" she muttered , rocking back and forth against the wall. "You can do it! You can do it!" She gulped hard, half-gasping out with a sob as tears ran down her hot cheeks. "I don't want to die!"
" there was a gentle rapping on the door. "Are you okay in there? Are you ah, having problems? I recommend prune juice."
Star Swirl immediately stopped her self-pity and froze in panic. The voice from outside was most definitely female. The realisation slowly dawned on Star Swirl that she had wandered into the ladies loos, which was understandable given that she was a mare. But Star Swirl the Bearded wasn't!
The hooves knocked on the door again. "I say, you've gone all quiet, do you need help?"
Star Swirl took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her blotchy eyes. She remembered something the king had said after the coconut trick, about how her 'teleportation' of the stone hadn't fooled him. They thought Star Swirl was a unicorn, and so saw a sleight-of-hoof trick as actual magic. She thought of something else her grandfather had told her. She knew what she had to do.
She flung the door open and stared at a young mare who leaped back in surprise at seeing a bearded wizard in a cubicle in the ladies' toilets. "Apologies madam!" Star Swirl uttered confidently. "I, Star Swirl the Bearded, greatest wizard of the age had teleported myself to the furthest star to harvest the essence of twilight. It seems given the great distance, I misjudged where I would teleport back to. Good day!" She gave her cloak and impressive swirl and marched out of the door.
that's quite okay
" the mare called after her.
Star Swirl trotted out to the guards, ignoring their quizzical looks. The outside of the door did indeed have the silhouette of a mare on it. "It's a wizard thing!" she announced to the guards, puffing out her chest. "You wouldn't understand. Now, I believe the king is waiting for me?"
The words of her granddad stood out loud and clear in her mind:
If you're going to lie, make it so big, so ridiculous, so outrageous, that nopony could even comprehend that you might not be telling the truth.
This time, there was no fanfare. Star Swirl didn't wait for the stumbling court announcer to declare her entrance as she strode boldly into the throne room, clearing her throat loudly. "Star Swirl the Bearded has returned to dazzle and amaze!" she shouted to the king at the other end of the room.
King Caractacus was lying on his throne, giving off an occasional snorting, snoring noise. Princess Platinum was slumped in her own throne, idly filing her hooves. The reason for this became apparent as Star Swirl approached them, noticing a quivering Puddinghead standing in front of the royal family, her voice nervously wittering on about something.
"A-and so we earth ponies thought it might be nicer for everyone if we paid less tribute, because ah, because we're all friends and friends get along well, and Chancellor Mudhooves really wants to be best friends and have a tea party
" She immediately stopped talking as Star Swirl approached, shrinking backwards.
Star Swirl quickly ran her eyes over her fellow earth pony. Puddinghead was nominally the Vice Chancellor of the earth ponies, though did not share nearly as much support as Mudhooves. In fact after the success of her Mudhooves portraits, Star Swirl had a consignment of Puddinghead portraits printed up. To say they did not sell well was an understatement, but it was not a total loss: with a bit of creative carpentry she had managed to sell them as novelty litter trays for cats.
The king suddenly made a great show of awaking with a start, stretching out his hooves with an exaggerated. "Ah, Star Swirl!" he roared in appreciation. "You've saved me from Puddingface's attempts to cure my insomnia!"
Star Swirl gave a bow, her cloak billowing behind her thanks to a quick and stylish flick of the tail. "At your service your majesty!" she beamed, sending a quick smug smile to Puddinghead, who shuffled meekly out of the way. "Shall I explode her head for you?"
Puddinghead gave a squeak of shock, but it was a calculated, empty threat. The king just waved it off. "No no, can't have mud pony stains on my carpet!" He rocked forwards on his hooves. Platinum's interest seemed to have increased too, and she put away her file. "Now, about this magic show!"
"Oh no, not a show
" Star Swirl turned to address the entire court, which had slowly fallen into a hushed silence after her arrival. "This will be an experience! A life-changing event the likes of which none of you will have never seen before. If it pleases your majesty, I will cast a medley of the greatest spells in my itinerary! The Light of Drachma! The Forbidden Chalice! Even the
" she faltered. "Even the Uncertain Kitten!"
The king had perked up at this, rubbing his hooves in anticipation. "Oh, I must say, that does sound fantastic. I've ah
I've not seen the Uncertain Kitten for years, I'm sure!" To Star Swirl's wry satisfaction, even the laid-back Platinum had seemed enthralled at the announcement.
"Of course!" Star Swirl continued. "This will be the finest display of magic ever seen in Unicornia! My manipulations of magical auras will be so advanced, so complex, that only unicorns of the most noble blood and refined magical taste such as your majesty will be able to see it!"
"Yes yes, splendid!" The king grinned widely, levitating a nearby goblet into the air and hurling it at an unsuspecting Puddinghead's head. "Hear that Puddingbrain? Your mud pony brain won't be clever enough to see this spectacle!" There was a startled yelp as the goblet impacted on Puddinghead. "Star Swirl, please, proceed!"
"By your command!" Star Swirl took a deep, respectful bow and slowly raised her hooves. This was it, the big gamble. She could hear the collected intake of breath from the court as all the gathered nobles of Unicornia awaited the show. Star Swirl continued to hold her hooves in the air in silence. Nothing happened. There was a long, awkward period of quiet as the watching audience peered above Star Swirl in confusion, straining their eyes to see any glimpse of the promised magic.
A sudden applause burst out from the king's throne, breaking the silence. "Oh yes!" the king bellowed enthusiastically. "Oh yes, I do say, that is excellent stuff, very advanced! Very subtle!" The king's clapping was very soon joined by a smattering of other claps from around the court, slow and polite at first, but then building in volume as more and more of the courtiers, glancing around at their fellows, joined in.
Soon the room was a din of rapturous applause, and gasps of astonishment. Star Swirl could see various unicorns pointing above her, muttering to their peers about her techniques, and nodding enthusiastically. Even the king's advisors were joining in, each keenly telling each other about Star Swirl's techniques, each attempting to outdo the other with their knowledge of her magic.
"Oh yes, very nice!" she heard Greybeard tell the king. "I mean, I could do that of course." The old pony strained his eyes as if hoping to actually see something. "It's an excellent ah, Uncertain Kitten, I'll give him that!"
There was no magic show of course. The entire court was applauding the empty air above Star Swirl's head. But none of them were prepared to believe that there was no magic Star Swirl's credentials had been proven by her past exploits, there was no reason to doubt she was casting advanced magic, ergo the advanced magic must be there, only they were unable to see it, and no pony wanted to admit that they weren't noble or clever enough to see the show. The lie was just too big not to be true.
As the cheers grew and grew, Star Swirl started to wave her hooves with great gusto as if building to a massive climax, and then she collapsed onto the floor in mock-exhaustion. "Your majesty!" she puffed as if having undergone a great exertion.
"Bravo, bravo!" King Caractacus continued to clap in a standing ovation, and the room roared its agreement. Princess Platinum was sitting bolt upright, her eyes shining bright as she watched Star Swirl. Star Swirl turned to bow to each area of the court in turn, receiving too many calls of admiration and praise to parse, feeling the pride welling up in her chest. The sea pony even blew her a kiss from her mobile tank, causing a slight crimson blush to spread across Star Swirl's cheeks.
It was only Puddinghead who didn't seem to share in the celebration, instead fixing Star Swirl with a baleful scowl and ducking out towards the back of the room with the Goatlandian ambassador, presumably to drown their sorrows. Star Swirl didn't really care though; the elation of her victory had her fired up. She had done it! Two bags of gold and she'd tricked the entire court of Unicornia! There was nothing she couldn't do! Nothing!
"Star Swirl!" the king boomed out, his rich, authoritative voice immediately quieting the applause from the court. "That was absolutely spectacular! We invite you to stay in the palace as our guest! We would see more of your powers, and we are sure that you could teach our advisors a thing or two about magic!" He gave a quick glare towards Greybeard who sat down on his haunches, looking slightly shamefaced. "Some large gaps in their knowledge of magic have come to light, which we are sure you can fill!" The king considered slightly. "You can have the eastern tower. We do believe it has been empty ever since Starshine the Unready blew himself up with that bootleg Zebrian spell book!"
" Star Swirl shook her head. She had planned to make her escape with the gold. It wouldn't do to tempt fate and risk her being uncovered as a fraud, not now that she had her gold.
And of course you would get a monthly bursary of half a bag of gold, for living expenses" the king continued.
"Yes!" Star Swirl's mouth responded before her brain had a chance to stop her. Fate could afford to be tempted a bit more when easy gold was on offer. "I mean, I would be honoured to serve, your majesty!" She could just lock herself in her room for a few months, pop out to perform some more fake magic and then leave with more gold than she had ever dreamed of. A rich, easy life soon unfurled before Star Swirl, enticing her forward with dreams of luxury.
"Obviously you'd be expected to take on a student too, but I'm sure a wise scholar like yourself wouldn't find that much of a hassle!" The king waved to a nearby courtier. "Quick, bring me the best and brightest students of magic!"
" Star Swirl tugged on her beard nervously. Having a pony following her about all the time, especially one adept in magic and eager to learn would surely soon mark her out as a fraud. "
I wouldn't want to interfere with the studies of any of your students, I'm not university accredited."
"Nonsense, nonsense!" The king rolled his eyes. "Don't worry Star Swirl; a wizard of your calibre should be more than suitable for a teaching role! Don't be modest!"
"Oh. Good." Star Swirl muttered glumly, regretting her earlier decision not to just run with the gold. "I can't wait to begin!"
"Then it's settled!" King Caractacus rolled forward on his cushion, and then paused, narrowing his eyes. "What?" he exclaimed, his voice tinged with anger "is that?"
Star Swirl noticed that the king was pointing past her to her cart, which was still sitting next to her. To her horror, she noticed that sitting atop all the junk and bric-a-brac there was a beaming portrait of the earth pony Chancellor Mudhooves. "Oh
" she trailed off, suddenly aware that the atmosphere had changed instantly from pleasant to downright nasty. "Oh, that's a gift for you, of course!"
"A gift?" roared the king, leaping to his hooves as if to summon a legion of guards to drag Star Swirl to the deepest dungeon and give her head a long vacation from her neck.
"Of course!" Star Swirl smoothly picked up the portrait and trotted over to the horrified king with it. "It's a magical target, sire, to ensure that your weapons will strike true should ever the need for war arise!"
The portrait was snatched out of Star Swirl's grasp by the king, who telekinetically floated it up to his face, breaking into a wide grin. "Marvellous!" he boomed. "A perfect gift! Could you make more for my army?"
Star Swirl gave a quick glance to a large cardboard box at the back of her cart, full of unsold portraits. "Oh, I'm sure I could, your majesty. If, of course, I could be reimbursed for the cost in creating these rare objects!"
"You see this!" The king floated the portrait above his head, calling after the still departing Puddinghead. "Unicorn technology! Bet you wish you had magic instead of sticks or whatever it is you have!" The entire room joined the king in laughing at the departing earth pony. Star Swirl even found herself laughing along, though it was a rather uncomfortable laugh that came from her mouth. Puddinghead and Beardius finally pushed through the throng of unicorn nobles towards the exit and left without a word.
As the earth pony departed, the courtier returned, trailing behind him half a dozen eager scholarly looking unicorns. Star Swirl's heart sunk they all looked rather clever.
"My lord!" the courtier chirped out in clipped tones, bowing to the king before turning to Star Swirl. "Star Swirl. Please find a selection of the most brilliant minds our city has to offer. I am sure any one of them will prove to me a most fitting student for your arts!"
The students all lined up before Star Swirl and the king, each of them trying to catch her eye with their neatly coiffured manes and pressed robes. Star Swirl looked to the king, who gave a proud nod, and then stepped towards the first student. "So, ah
" she began. "What makes you think you're worthy to be my apprentice?"
The pony in front of her stood to rapt attention. "Sunset Studies at your service sir! I have mastered over twenty seventh level spells and feel that together we could discover-"He trailed off as Star Swirl wandered over to the next pony.
The next hopeful student, a fiery yellow mare with large black rimmed glasses and covered in various medallions raised a brow coolly. "Midnight Oil, holder of three first-class degrees in magical research, winner of the awards for best young talent three years in a row. I am certain that I am the perfect candidate to learn all-"
" Star Swirl continued down the line, shaking her head at each stunningly qualified candidate. They were all so smart. And smart often meant dangerous in her books. Finally, after chatting to perfect student after perfect student, she reached the end of the line, and took a step back at the sight that met her. Standing next to the row of immaculately dressed students was a slightly smaller green mare, dressed in a simple crumpled black outfit and staring away from Star Swirl. She could have only been a few years younger than Star Swirl, but in demeanour she couldn't have been further apart.
"Ahem." Star Swirl cleared her throat. The pony didn't respond. "Ahem! And you are?" Star Swirl said a bit more loudly, aware that the eager eyes of the court were still on her, waiting to see her choose her student.
The pony looked around confused and then as if seeing Star Swirl for the first time, blinked. "Me?" she squeaked.
"Yes, you!" Star Swirl gave an exasperated sigh. "Tell me about how great you are at magic!"
The pony looked as if she had been caught in the headlights of a runaway cart. "Oh, ah
I'm Clover sir!" she muttered, tugging at the neck of her robe. "And I
I want to be a great wizard, I do!" Her eyes suddenly shone with enthusiasm. "I saw your show just now; it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen! But," her face fell. "I'm not that good at magic, I failed all my exams. I think I know where I went wrong though! If I could just have another chance!" She looked up at Star Swirl full of hope.
Star Swirl stroked her beard, considering the offer. If she had to have a pony following her about, it would be far better to have a sufficiently stupid pony who wouldn't realise if they were being fed complete rubbish, and this Clover seemed to fit the bill perfectly. She looked over Clover's awkward, unkempt form a bit more critically, and then paused, feeling a breath catch in her throat. Around Clover's neck was hung an incredibly ornate golden necklace, completely at odds with her plain appearance. It wasn't just the gold that caught her eye though; it was the jewel inset into the centre. A brilliant blue midnight sapphire, she could recognise it by sight. It was one of the most precious jewels imaginable - it would fetch over twenty bags of gold easily if the right buyer could be found - and here it was hanging idly on a unicorn's neck. Perhaps such riches were commonplace here? Or perhaps the silly pony didn't realise what she had?
"Hey, that's a nice trinket," Star Swirl smiled warmly, pointing to Clover's neck. "Mind if I have a look?"
Clover's eyes trembled and a hoof went to her neck. "O-oh no, that's a family heirloom!" she whispered back. "I'm not supposed to take it off
"Not a problem," Star Swirl responded with her warmest grin, a greedy sparkle in her eye. "Clover, I think we could have a wonderful future together. I can see our time together proving very
valuable." Slowly, she led Clover by the hoof to the king. "My liege, I have chosen my student!"
The king looked at Star Swirl in surprise, peering around and over Clover. "I
I don't understand
" he muttered. A courtier quickly darted forward with a look of concern and muttered in the king's ear. The king gave a double take. "Star Swirl
" he gave a loud harrumph. "That's the cleaner."
Star Swirl suddenly saw that all the noble unicorns were staring at her in bemusement. She also noticed that the outfit Clover was wearing did resemble a cleaner's outfit somewhat. There was a mop and bucket lying on the floor beside the line-up of students where Clover had been busy cleaning a stubborn stain out of the floor. That was why she had looked distracted and distant, and how she had seen her magic show when the other students hadn't yet arrived.
Clover shrunk back before the king and blushed bright. "C-Clover the Cleaner," she murmured. "I'm sorry
" she started to slink away. "I'll go back to cleaning
Star Swirl suddenly gripped the shy pony and pulled her forwards. She wasn't about to let the riches around her neck go so easily. "Oh no, your majesty!" she retorted, striding forwards and presenting Clover again. "For you see, my mystical powers have detected within this young mare such raw potential and power the like of which I have never seen before!"
Clover looked shocked at this, and then a wide smile broke over her face. The king nodded sagely at Star Swirl's words, apparently satisfied. "Very well!" he exclaimed. "Star Swirl the Bearded, you shall take this young pony, Clover the Cleaner under your tutelage!"
"No, not Clover the Cleaner!" Star Swirl regarded Clover with the most lofty look she could conjure up. "Clover the Clever! For she is such a clever pony!" Clover started to shake with joy, cupping a hoof over her mouth. Star Swirl's eyes were once more drawn to the glittering jewel that hung invitingly around her neck.
Half a bag of gold a month to live in luxury, time enough to somehow con the vulnerable young Clover out of her necklace, and Star Swirl would be set for life. The entire court burst into one loud, long round of applause as Star Swirl started to bow, turning around and giving a winning grin at every pony in the room. All of them looked so happy, so awed by her presence. Clover beside her, half sobbing with palpable happiness and pride.
Star Swirl grinned a dark grin. It was almost too easy. She would take them for all they had.
And then some more.