Canterlot was as pristine as ever. To be anything less would be an affront to the city's status as the political center of Equestria and the land's foremost unicorn city. The streets were clean, the sky was being cleared after a refreshing rain shower had finished its work, and the sun shone down on a perfectly arranged gathering of upper-crust ponies waiting on the castles' upper viewing platform for the chariot bearing Princess Celestia on her return from a week's vacation. In the midst of this glamorous company, dressed in their finest gowns and suits, stood an ash-grey unicorn who had refused to do more than comb out his red-and-orange mane that ordinarily looked strikingly similar to real flames and wear the gemstone necklace he always had with him. Ashen Blaze was not a happy pony.

If there was one thing Ash hated (and there were actually quite a few things, most of them reasonable), it was pomp. He'd be the first to admit he had a flair for the dramatic and a tendency to dominate the scene, but he tried to avoid "fancy" and "eye-catching" like the plague. The problem was that the few months he'd been in Equestria had been punctuated by disasters that not only required him to take action to preserve his own life, but had resulted in him and his associates saving the Royal Sisters and Canterlot as a whole at least twice. One does not rescue royalty without rewards and admission to high society, and although Ash wouldn't turn down a reward, he could do without the society. He didn't have much choice this time though; Celestia wasn't the only pony about to arrive.

A few gasps and muted cries brought him out of his brooding and directed his attention to the sky as the orchestra situated on the edge of the platform began to play. Off in the distance he saw light glinting off shining gold armor as two ranks of pegasus guards flew into sight preceding a chariot bearing the great white alicorn princess and two other guards – one of them a golden-yellow, brown-maned unicorn – and pulled by yet another pair of armored pegasi. The guards landed and trotted off to either side as the chariot approached and settled softly onto the platform amidst a crescendo of music and cheers. Ash's stoic expression softened as he caught the eye of the golden unicorn guard, but he didn't join in the noise. Celestia stood up as the chariot came to a stop and raised a hoof, gaining instant silence from the crowd. Now, that I can respect, Ash thought.

"My beloved subjects," the princess said, "It is good to see you all again. My time off was most rejuvenating and I look forward to resuming my duties, assuming my dear sister is willing to relinquish them." The quiet cheers that greeted her first sentence died away, except for a few nervous, short-lived giggles.

A genuine, lady-like laugh turned everypony's attention to the platform entrance, from which Princess Luna emerged and walked toward her sister. "I will gladly give you back the day," she said, stopping in front of Celestia, "In fact, I'll give you the night, since it is my turn for a week off." Celestia laughed, inspiring some affected chuckles from the crowd, and leaned down to hug her younger sister with her neck.

"I'd wait a day or two before you leave," she said, "just to make sure the transfer of power goes smoothly." Luna nodded and the two separated. Celestia regarded her subjects again and said, "I will begin court in one hour, after I've had a chance to freshen up from my ride." She strode regally from the platform with Luna at her side, surrounded by her guards. Ash caught the golden one's eye again and the two exchanged a nod before the procession passed. Ash slipped out of the crowd and followed them at a respectable distance, and then turned aside as he entered the castle and sat down to wait near the staircase. A few minutes later, the golden unicorn trotted over to him, looking relieved.

"Oh man," he said, removing his helmet, "That was certainly an experience. How was your week Ash?"

"Probably boring compared to yours Soul," Ash said, "Just continuing the research." He reached up a hoof and nonchalantly fiddled with the gemstone necklace he was wearing.

"Figures," Soul Mage said, and then did a double-take, "Hold on. You updated that thing. It actually looks like a Rarity product now."

"She'd probably smack you for saying that," a voice said from behind them. They turned to see a female pegasus guard who, besides the obvious differences, was an exact match for Soul. She came over and sat next to Soul and heaved a sigh. "I'm not pulling the chariot for Luna if I can get out of it."

"I'd gladly take your place Heart," Soul said, "but…" Gold Heart rolled her eyes smacked him upside the head with a wing as he grinned at her.

"That new necklace does suit you better Ash," the pegasus said, "But does it measure up?"

"Marginally," Ash said, "I think Gale and I have hit the cap on how much these gems can enhance my magic."

"Where is Gale anyway?" Heart asked.

"Honestly, I have no idea," Ash said, looking slightly cross, "It hardly seems fair that I get roped into attending the homecoming and she somehow slips away from it… She's probably holed up in a workshop working on a new invention. Now, what say we go get lunch? I've finally found a place that can make decent fries."

"Sounds good," Soul said, "just give us a few minutes to get out of this armor." Ash nodded and the two guards trotted back down the hall. He turned toward the stairs and began climbing down. He'd have to find Gale before heading to lunch- the four former mercenaries of order only had a couple days before they had to go their separate ways again.