A/N: Well, after quite a long hiatus, I am finally back with a new chapter!
The two disguised changelings glanced at each other, attempting to hide their feelings of utter irritation. This first morning already wasn't going at all the way either of them had hoped.
"Are you two okay?" Blaze Storm asked, concerned etched on his face as he stared at the food-scattered pair. "You seem a little... irritated this morning."
"Well," Metamorphosis said dismissively, "our wedding is coming up in a few days, and there's a lot for us to think about!" The changeling king couldn't help but be reminded of the times when the members of his swarm had tried to bug him - Scraenar especially. "Not to mention the fact that I also have the added pressure of thinking about this new threat to Canterlot!"
"Yes," Chrysalis agreed, "and you all shouldn't be pressuring me when my groom and I have a lot on our minds!" Her pink eyes looked at them all with a gaze of indignation.
Blaze sighed, shaking his head before looking at the two in resignation. "Shining Armor, I think you ought to take a short break."
"What?" Metamorphosis was surprised at the suggestion. He stood up taller, attempting to appear assertive. "You know that I am Captain of the Royal Guard and therefore it's my solemn responsibility to-"
Silver Cloud laughed and arched his brow incredulously, giving the "captain" a shoulder-nudge with a hoof. "Don't try to suddenly go all formal on us now."
Metamorphosis frowned and inwardly scolded himself for his mistake. To think that he had nearly blown his cover by breaking out of Shining's usual mannerism! Okay, so he's not the most formal of ponies despite being Captain. The changeling king nearly sighed aloud. At least he seems more competent than some certain changelings in my ranks. He had to remember that, for now, he wasn't Metamorphosis, King of the changelings, but rather Shining Armor, Captain of the Guard.
The problem was that Metamorphosis wasn't used to upholding a lack of a formal manner, but he knew he had to make do with the situation if he wanted all of this to work.
"I can tell as well as everypony here that you're stressed. Your shield is holding up fine, and it seems all clear from what we've ssen." Silver managed a smile at the irritated-looking captain "Just take time to be with your bride for a little while, to be in each other's company. Maybe that'll help you feel better and take a little stress off your minds."
As happy as Metamorphosis was for the opportunity to spend more time with the alicorn he had his eye on, he forced himself to be a bit more lax about it. He resolved to do better now that he was aware that Shining Armor wasn't too formal. "Well, I-"
Princess Celestia smiled gently at the pair. "You two deserve to relax for a short while, Shining Armor. It's okay."
"Yeah." The changeling king forced himself to keep up this slightly more laid-back demeanor. He had to remind himself that he wasn't supposed to be his usual, commanding self here. This was a very important mission for him, and he had to keep up the ruse of this new personality he was to adopt, or the plan would never work - a balance between authoritative and casual.
If he messed up drastically, he would lose the chance to rule Equestria. Lose his chance to finally beat Chrysalis. And lose his chance to claim that young, attractive alicorn as his bride. She'd be his one way or another.
Chrysalis, meanwhile, didn't seem to be that bothered about the prospect of Shining Armor taking a couple hours off to be with her. In fact, she was thankful - this way she'd get to spend time alone with the groom and try to figure out why the tartarus he seemed to have little love energy, if any at all. What use was Shining Armor for love energy if he didn't seem to feel love for Cadance in the first place?
Maybe I could find a use for him even then... Well, she thought to herself as the pair of them said short good-byes to the rest of the party, perhaps I'll have to undermine it out of him. There has to be some way to get that hidden energy of love that he seems to be concealing! It has to be there somewhere. She recalled the way that the real pair of ponies had interacted with each other, looking at the Captain as she did so. But if he genuinely doesn't feel love for her... he's really good at deceiving.
So the disguised queen attempted to make conversation now that the two of them were alone for a few hours.
"Um, Shining Armor, dear," she said in a clear inquiry as she got close to him, "now that you have a few hours off, is there anything you'd like to do?"
For a split second the smile on the unicorn's face seemed a bit less like a caring smile and more of a desiring one, but it faded before the pony he believed to be Princess Cadance could notice. Thinking fast, Metamorphosis attempted to think of some kind of thing that girls liked.
His mind briefly lingered on what kind of things she used to like, but the thought quickly left him. That was the past - any feeling of that was gone to him.
He had to think... what do mares like, what do mares like... what would Cadance like?
Metamorphosis suggested the first thing that came into his mind.
"We could go to the gardens out back, if you'd like," the changeling king offered, trying to keep his voice as gentle as possible. He didn't want to sound as if he were being too demanding of Cadance, and he put on an expression of placation as he glanced at the young alicorn.
'Cadance' smiled. "Alright, ."
Metamorphosis had to force himself not to smirk as the alicorn princess called him by the name that she believed him to possess. For the moment, he seemed to have her completely fooled. Excellent.
As the pair trod down the castle's many pathways to make their way to the gardens, the two disguised changelings walked close together, side by side. Or rather, Chrysalis was leaning against Metamorphosis slightly, nudging him with a light smile.
The king did his best to act like the caring husband-to-be, and planted a light kiss on the pink alicorn's cheek. He forced himself not to tense up and recoil at the action of faux affection - love like this was such a revolting thing.
Chrysalis smiled, forcing herself not to look too sinister as the stallion at her side kissed her. He doesn't suspect a thing! the changeling queen thought joyously. He'll be mine for the taking soon enough! Love or no love, I'll use him to allow my changelings to break through that blasted shield as his spell grows weaker!
Though she had to admit... the kiss actually felt rather interesting.
Metamorphosis made the small gesture of affection quick, not wanting it to linger for too long. He forced a gentle smile across his face, the kind that a loving stallion would give his bride-to-be. [i]I just have to keep up this act for a few more days...[/i]
Soon enough the pair stepped out of the bustling castle and into the peaceful gardens, the wildlife their only living accompaniment. The birds hopped from branch to branch in the trees as the flowers appeared to raise their petals to the sky as they soaked up the rays of the sun.
Oddly enough, it was a nice contrast to their ordinary dwelling places.
While Chrysalis tried to hide the surprise on her face, she briefly shuffled a hoof on the ground, feeling it carefully as her hoofstep flattened a few of the blades. The grass under their hooves was bright, leveled, and clean-cut, rather than being half-twisted in undergrowth and remnants of rocky outcropping.
After about a minute of silence, gazing at the scenery of the garden, Metamorphosis forced himself to speak, adopting a gentle tone of voice which he swore to keep up around the young alicorn as he maintained his guise as Shining. He needed to fool her as long as he possibly could, and if he could pull off the beginning steps well it should be easy to keep up his character as the days went by. "It really is peaceful out here, isn't it?"
Chrysalis was broken out of her thoughts by the inquiry of the stallion beside her, turning her attention toward him with a smile on her face. "Yeah... it is..."
Unlike her deception overall, Chrysalis's reply wasn't a fabrication - she had to admit that it was very serene here, much more so than the more dense and dark parts of the forest where few changelings dared to tread. It was almost a refresher to see a sort of calm beauty such as this in contrast to the often twisted environment of the forest where they lived. The flora and fauna here were less exotic than what she was used to, and yet it was kind of... charming. Unusual, yes, but not unbearable.
Even so, she knew that she'd be more than happy to help these gardens get its own forest-flair to it when she and her changeling Hive had the opportunity to take over Equestria. A thin smile crossed Chrysalis's face as her eyes sparkled in anticipation of her triumph. [i]Oh what a glorious day that's going to be...[/i]
Stepping beyond the boundaries of the sector where parties took place outside the castle, Chrysalis and Metamorphosis entered into the largest section of the Canterlot Gardens.
This particular section was adorned by a myriad of statues, which surrounded the expansive labyrinth within the gardens' center. Metamorphosis knew enough about the history of the surrounding regions to know that the statues represented various things - victory, friendship, chaos, among others. Who knew how many different representations of traits and forces were embodied in these sculptures?
The changeling king smiled a little to himself, recalling a story that he had heard many times when he was a colt. It was said that there once was a garden where wayward souls were encased in stone when the one known as the Monarch had deemed some worthy of punishment. It had even been said that the Monarch placed these statues in a large graveyard, as if to showcase them as a warning to the worlds of the living and the dead. But in the variation of the tale that Metamorphosis and the others had heard, the statues were sometimes brought into life, swearing vengeance and freedom from their cursed state.
It was an old story, true, but one that had always intrigued him. And he wouldn't be surprised if Cadance knew a similar story, considering the vast amount of knowledge that her aunt possessed. It would seem that nearly every culture had a story about some sort of seemingly inanimate object coming to life.
Metamorphosis cleared his throat as he noticed the pink alicorn's gaze linger on the statue of a creature known as a draconequus. He knew that if he was too careless he could get himself into deep water, but he had to be caring and thoughtful like the real Shining seemed to be. And part of that had to be shown through carrying a conversation that wasn't about military tactics. "You know, these statues remind me of a story I read about once."
Chrysalis turned to face him, arching her brow in curiosity. "What story are you talking about, Shining?"
The disguised king knew that he'd have to choose his words carefully. Giving her the full details of a changeling tale would be out of the question, but surely ordinary ponies likely had a similar story. At least, he had to hope now that he had voiced his remembrance. "A story where a powerful pony had the ability to turn others into stone."
Chrysalis managed a slight laugh that she figured would be a suitable response. "I've heard that story before too. An alicorn who ruled over the entire country and anypony who disobeyed his orders was turned to stone."
The surprised expression on the stallion's face was completely genuine. "You know it?"
The alicorn nodded. "Looking back on it though, it sounds a little silly, don't you think?"
Metamorphosis shrugged, wearing an almost involuntary smile at the irony of the situation. "I guess. Then again, there have been many powerful leaders over generations, so it could be based on something that actually happened."
Chrysalis returned the smile. "Could be." As she spoke, the queen's gaze then moved over the surrounding statues, their stone faces staring blankly at the direction they were eternally fixated on. And yet, Chrysalis somehow had the uncanny feeling that the statues were eyeing them. As if they'd surround her and Shining if they so much as blinked.
Thank Circe it's not dark out.
As soon as she thought the words, Chrysalis chided herself for her foalish thoughts. Perhaps it was the fact that she genuinely remembered a story much like the one that Shining and her had mentioned, but she couldn't help being reminded a little of her younger days. Sharing stories like this with others in the Hives, getting more than a little freaked out on occasion, and endless discussions of "What would [i]you[/i] do if [i]this[/i] story happened to you?"
But the changeling queen shook herself out of her memories, noticing that her fiance was looking at her with a quizzical expression. She smiled and leaned her head against him, nuzzling his neck lightly.
Metamorphosis chuckled. "I'm guessing you want to get out of this little statue-filled garden, huh?"
Chrysalis nodded, her mind wildly inventing something else that she figured Cadance would like. Something that would at least allow her to get to know Shining Armor better and know a bit more of how to act. "Maybe we could... eat at one of the small cafés in the city? It would give us a chance to get to catch up more on things." The changeling queen suppressed her relief, as she had nearly said that they could "get to know each other more" - the real Cadance likely knew Shining like the back of her hoof.
That, she realized, could either work out really well or extremely terribly.
Metamorphosis briefly considered this request. He had to honestly admit that cafés weren't his thing - they were too small, and often one of those "everypony knowns everypony else" atmospheres that he really didn't need to be around. On the other hoof, he figured that it would be a good way to get a feel for Cadance's more sociable mannerisms, analyzing how she acted and reacting accordingly. If going for a nice bit of small talk was what Cadance requested of him, then he'd go along with it for now.
"Sounds good to me."
Giving the stallion a smile that she hoped looked affectionate enough, Chrysalis led the way out of the gardens, both wondering just how she would properly pull this small talk stuff off and secretly glad to go away from the blanched sculptures that dotted the landscape.
Unknown to the pair, a blue-green pegasus was glancing down below, only able to make out a few shapes through the large magenta shield protecting the city. In particular, the pegasus's blue eyes were focused on the statues. He shuddered slightly.
"Those statues give me the creeps."
A smack on the wing from another pegasus caused him to look over, startled, staring into the orange eyes of another that he knew rather well.
"Screnar," the green-coated pony hissed, "what did I tell you about focusing?!"
"I was focusing on the King and the Princess, Boshrok," Screnar replied with a sigh. "And then I saw-"
Boshrok held up a hoof as he blew a tuft of yellow mane out of his eyes. "I don't want to hear about your foalish fear - just stay on top of the mission and don't mess it up."
Obviously reluctant, Screnar followed behind Boshrok as they moved away from the shield so as not to appear to inconspicuous.
As the two scouts flew off, hoping to at least catch a few glimpses of King Metamorphosis with the Princess just to make sure they seemed to be getting along, Boshrok had one thought on his mind:
When our Hive takes over Equestria, the first thing I'll do is request that Screnar is paired with someone else.