The board had been set on the balcony of Canterlot Castle, as it normally was. Celestia found that chess was best played in the open air, where one could enjoy a scenic view of the most beautiful city in all Equestria. And when the cool breeze of dusk or the warm winds of dawn blew in, Celestia could consider the experience complete. The little touches like those mattered sometimes, almost as much as the games themselves.
It was evening in Canterlot; that strange twilight time when both day and night mixed together as equals. The blue in the sky was deepening fast and the first stars were shining through the sun’s fading light. The pale orange glow of the day was still present, just bright enough for a pony to see by, but it would go out in short order. Soon enough now the sun would set, the moon would rise, and night would fall.
Soon. But not yet.
Celestia stifled a yawn as she positioned her pieces. She was tired, and rightly so, but she knew she could fight it for just a bit longer. Time spent with Luna was far more important than time spent asleep, especially now. “White moves first,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Unless you’d like me to be Black this time...?”
Luna waited until she had finished placing her last pawn on the board to respond. “I am Black,” she said. “Always.”
“You don’t have to be, if you don’t want—”
“Suit yourself.” Celestia shrugged. The issue wasn’t worth a full-blown argument. “One of these days, though,” she teased, “you’ll want to go first.”
“One of these nights,” Luna corrected her. “And no, I will not.” She dropped her gaze to the black queen, and adjusted its position within its square.
Celestia sighed, disappointed. All she really wanted was to have her little sister back. She wanted the Luna she used to know, not this stranger sitting across from her. This Luna-but-muffled. Restrained. As distant and icy as the moon itself. She’d thought that a good, friendly game would help to bring that old Luna back, but—
“Please, Sister,” said Luna, interrupting the flow of Celestia’s thoughts. “Continue.”
Well, what else could she do?
“I believe it’s my move, then.” Celestia’s horn glowed and a tiny white pawn was lifted up from the board. It floated two squares forward and landed on its new home with the satisfying clack of marble against marble. “Now it’s yours.”
The game was on.
Luna’s horn glowed in turn and a black pawn moved to meet the white. “Such an odd pastime, chess,” she mused. “A thousand years, and still it hath yet to change.”
“It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?” Celestia said, flashing her sister a weary smile. She had, in fact, suggested chess specifically because it hadn’t changed since Luna’s imprisonment. “Everything else can come and go, but it’s chess—of all things—that’s eternal.”
Silence. Deep and heavy silence. She looked into Luna’s eyes and saw only an expectant stare, glassy and dull. Make thy move.
“A thousand years,” said Celestia, and it hit her exactly how long it had been since she’d been forced to banish her sister. “So much can change in a thousand years.”
She pushed a pawn within range of Luna’s own, daring her to take the bait.
But Luna did not bite. “I suppose so,” she said, her voice as cold and impassive as her own marble chess pieces. She avoided the offering and instead marched a pawn up to guard its brother. “Thou art correct, as is usual, Sister.”
Celestia sighed again. It had been worth a try, at any rate.
A few more moves were made without words. A knight, a pawn, a queen... Pieces preparing for the battle to come, their shadows lengthening on the board as the sun continued its long descent. That wonderful cool dusk breeze blew by, but it didn’t feel quite as fulfilling as Celestia had imagined it would.
A guard peeked his head out onto the balcony. “Twenty minutes to moonrise, Your Majesty.”
“I—Your—Your Majesties, I meant,” stammered the guard, his eyes widening. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry. Please, forgive me!”
“It’s fine, really,” said Celestia, and the guard seemed somewhat reassured. She turned to Luna and explained: “He’s new.”
“Thou art pardoned for thy transgression,” Luna shouted. “But leave us to our merriment!”
And quick as a bolt, the guard disappeared.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Celestia. “I keep telling you, the ponies of today aren’t used to the Royal Canterlot Voice.” She toppled Luna’s black pawn and advanced a white to replace it in the now-empty square. “They prefer kinder, gentler princesses now.”
“They prefer you,” Luna grumbled. She captured the white pawn and made the move an even trade. Again, the square was occupied by a black pawn. “They are determined to despise me regardless...” Her face fell. “As well they should, I suppose.”
And there it was: the heart of the problem. Poor little Luna, the younger princess; no longer the Nightmare Moon of old, but still living in the shadow of her past misdeeds, and starving for her subjects’ adoration because of it.
“I’m sure it’s nothing so serious as that,” said Celestia, trying her best to sound wise without yawning. “They’re just not sure how to approach you yet. Give them time, treat them well. Try. That’s all they need.”
“I see no point where I see no hope,” said Luna. Her features softened as she looked up at the sky and, for a brief moment, Celestia could see something of the sister she’d once known. “It is impossible, I should think. I have done too much wrong by them.”
“You only have to put forth the effort,” said Celestia. “That’s all anypony could ever ask of you.”
Luna’s expression hardened once more, any hint of the emotion Celestia had seen quickly sinking beneath her lifeless smile. “It is thy move, Sister. Make it quickly.”
Celestia allowed the subject to drop and quietly jumped a knight over her line of pawns. It was always important, when playing chess, to know the right time to press forward and the right time to fall back. She watched as Luna moved up a bishop, then casually pushed another pawn into danger.
“I grow weary of thy constant sacrifices, Sister,” said Luna. She sent one of her pawns to take the offending piece and frowned as it was captured by Celestia’s knight. “What advantage dost thou intend to gain by them?”
“It’s called simplification,” said Celestia. “Giving up pieces in order to achieve a better game-state. It’s a relatively new concept, only about two hundred years old.”
Luna, for her part, did not seem impressed. “A foolish strategy and a waste of thine efforts,” she said. Her knight knocked Celestia’s over and reclaimed the square. “One cannot win chess by losing their pieces.”
“Losing the battles to win the war. You’d be surprised.” Celestia gave her sister a knowing wink and took the knight with her queen. Another even trade. “That would be check, by the way.”
Luna’s eyes narrowed at her. “I can see that quite plainly, thank you.” Grudgingly, she moved her queen to defend her exposed king.
Celestia only smirked and sacrificed her own queen to take it. “I’ll admit,” she said, chuckling at the sight of Luna’s frustrated scowls, “it’s not a perfect theory, but it does make for some interesting games.”
“Pointless.” Luna harrumphed. “Thou art no closer to winning than before.”
“It’s not always about taking pieces,” said Celestia sleepily. Her exhaustion was starting to haunt her again. “Nor is it always about winning. We play games simply because we enjoy them.” The board made another ringing clack as a white bishop sallied forth. “At least, I think we do. Don’t we?”
“Winning is the amusement.”
“Among many, many other things.” Finally she could hold it in no more, and she let out a mighty yawn, long and loud. “Oh, goodness, excuse me,” she said. “I’m a bit tired.”
“If thou art so fatigued,” Luna suggested coolly, “Perhaps thou shouldst consider retiring, in favor of thy bed.”
“No, no,” said Celestia. “There’s some time—” Another yawn. Not as monstrous as the first, but powerful in its own right. “—some time left.” She gestured outward at the sun, which was still only halfway over the horizon. “Keep playing.”
The game continued on in the quiet of the gathering dusk. Black and white pieces shifted around the board arranging themselves in formations as they were directed. Occasionally, Celestia would take a black piece and Luna would capture the equivalent in white the next turn. Not that Celestia minded. Without so much as a care, she sold a knight off for a bishop and bartered pawns for more pawns, ignoring Luna’s glares as she did so.
All in the interest of simplification, of course. Every piece taken and every piece lost was part of a much bigger plan. Despite her drooping eyelids and aching head, Celestia was able to muster the energy for a genuine grin. Maybe she was enjoying this game more than she had expected.
“You know,” she said, taking Luna’s last knight with her bishop, “I think it’s good that we’re playing games with each other like this. It’s something we didn’t do often enough. In the old days, I mean.”
“Indeed,” agreed Luna, her voice strained. She claimed the capturing bishop with a pawn. “We did not often play games back then.”
“Or, maybe we did,” said Celestia thoughtfully. “Just... for higher stakes.”
In the city below and the sky above, lights were beginning to flicker. The sun had all but set by then, and the world was preparing for night. All the stars and lamps and little wax candles in Equestria were being lit now, bits of brightness to substitute for the failing sun.
And even though it would never come close to replacing the sun altogether, it still made for a glorious sight. Not a match for the day in sheer radiance, but surely a rival for beauty. Hundreds and hundreds of gleaming sparks burned in the distance, waiting only for the arrival of the soft golden moon. That was the sad truth of things, Celestia realized: most ponies simply didn’t see how majestic the night truly was.
If only, if only they could.
Suddenly, she heard a great crack and her attention was pulled back to the game. “I do not understand!” Luna burst out. “For what purpose dost thou make these meaningless exchanges? To what goal, what reason, what end?” She slammed her hoof down on the board and that same awful crack rang out again. Chess pieces rattled and fell to the floor. “Why?”
Celestia did not try to stop Luna, but she did light her horn; knitting the damaged board back to wholeness and floating the pieces back to their proper squares. “Temper, Luna,” she said softly. “It’s only a game.”
“I—” Luna’s eyes widened as she saw the cracks she had made in the board close up. “I... am calm. I am in control. It is but a game.” She took a deep breath and steadied herself. “I am calm. I am in control. It is but a game.”
“That’s it,” said Celestia soothingly. She raised a hoof and lightly brushed Luna’s starry mane. “Breathe in, breathe out. Everything’s going to be okay.”
She’d known that it would be a risk, drawing Luna out from her shell like that, but Celestia had done it anyway, goading her with sacrifices and senselessly aggressive plays. Somewhere in there was her real little sister. The Luna she knew and loved. The Luna she had waited a thousand years to see again. She would do anything to see that Luna again.
But also in there, lurking in the depths, was the root of the hatred, doubt, and envy that had led to her banishment. That desperate desire for attention. The Elements of Harmony had weakened it, to be sure, but it was still very much alive inside Luna, always ready to take hold and spread like a fungus. She was just as lonely as she had been before becoming Nightmare Moon, after all. If anything, it was worse. She was no longer merely ignored by her subjects. She was feared.
It was no wonder why Luna had shut herself away. She wasn’t yet sure how to fight her own demons.
Someday, Celestia hoped, she’d know how to save Luna from herself. How to navigate through the darkness and save the little sister suffocating inside it... Someday. In the meantime, though, she could only ask Luna to forgive her for what she was doing.
“If you want to stop playing,” she offered, removing her hoof from Luna’s mane, “I’ll understand.”
“No,” said Luna firmly. She took one last breath and shook her head. The quiet, tame Luna had resurfaced. “I am in control. We shall continue.”
“I won’t mind,” said Celestia, yawning. “Honestly. There’s not much left for the game anyway, and I’m sure you’re almost due for the moonrise.”
“If you insist...”
As Celestia had said, there really wasn’t all that much left to play out. One by one, the rooks on both sides were taken, leaving only a bishop and a hoof-full of pawns for both black and white. Then the bishops, too, were sacrificed, in last-ditch efforts to prevent the pawns from being crowned as queens.
“And now,” said Luna, “the game is finished.”
There were only four pieces left on the board: the two kings, and a pawn on each side. Luna’s pawn was much closer to the other end of the board.
“It does look that way, doesn’t it?” Celestia admitted.
“Doth thou wish to forfeit?”
“That,” said Celestia, “is something else entirely.” She pushed her pawn forward a square. “Your move.”
The game, in all honesty, was over. The only thing she could achieve by continuing to play was a forestalling of the inevitable. But that wasn’t important, all said. There were still a few things left she could do, outside the game itself. Every gambit she’d tried had failed her thus far, both on and off the board, but that wasn’t to say she was altogether without options.
No experienced chess player ever left themselves without options.
“Check,” declared Luna as her pawn reached Celestia’s side of the board. The piece was removed and replaced with a tall black queen. “I have won.”
“Odd,” said Celestia, pushing her king out of harm’s way. “I’d have figured that I’d have no more moves left, if the game were already finished.”
“Soon, then.” Luna’s queen slid down the ranks until it was level with Celestia’s king. “Check.”
“I’ve noticed,” said Celestia, “that ‘soon’ often means it hasn’t yet happened.” She circled her king around her last remaining pawn. “Check is not checkmate.”
“Surely thou doth not expect to win, still?”
“No. It’s certainly my loss.”
“Why, then, doth thou persist?”
“I’d just prefer to see the game through,” said Celestia. “That’s all.”
Again, check was declared, and again, Celestia danced her king just out of reach. A stalemate of sorts, but it wouldn’t last forever. Slowly but surely, Luna’s own king was crossing the board. The noose was drawing tighter.
“Sometimes, Sister,” said Luna, as Celestia’s king retreated once more, “thou art a mystery to me.”
“That’s not such a bad thing.” Celestia laughed. “We can’t know all each others’ secrets.”
The black king advanced another square. White was cornered.
“And that would be the end of the game,” said Celestia, making her final move.
The last of Celestia’s pawns fell to Luna’s queen, and there was nowhere left for the white king to run. Luna gave her a placid smile. “Checkmate, Sister. As I told thee.”
So it was, and it couldn’t have been at a much better time. The daylight had vanished from sight at last and the full dark of night had settled over the land. The sun was set and night had fallen.
Time now for the moon to rise.
“Well played, Luna,” said Celestia. She stood up and stretched, just about ready to collapse then and there. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll be off to bed.”
She made as if to go inside, but paused at the doorway. Not for very long. Only for a few seconds at the most. Just long enough for Luna to—
“Wait, Sister!” called Luna.
There it was.
“Yes, Luna?” said Celestia, turning around and walking back towards Luna. “What is it?”
“I still do not understand. Why didst thou continue to play, even in the face of defeat?”
“Well, I told you, didn’t I? I just wanted to see things through.”
“When you get down to it, Luna,” she said, “it’s not the end that matters. It’s how you play the game.” She leaned over and gave her sister a quick peck on the cheek. “And I’m glad we played. Good night, Luna.”
And with that, Celestia stepped inside, using her magic to shut the balcony doors securely behind her. She had no way of knowing if her gambit had worked, or if Luna would take any of her words to heart, but she felt rather good about it regardless. Though it hadn’t been the best game ever played, it had still been fun. There would be more games like it in the future, and hopefully, possibly, maybe... Luna would learn something from one of them.
If not today, then someday.
Celestia took one last look back through the glass panels of the balcony doors before she began making her way to her bedroom.
For a minute or two after the game had ended, Luna stared at the board. Checkmate. The outcome had been obvious from as many as a dozen—no—two dozen moves ago. It should have been over so many turns ago, as soon Celestia had seen that it was no longer possible to win. Only her sister’s strange desire to ‘see things through’ had drawn it out so needlessly.
Still, it was checkmate. Her victory. That much, at least, was obvious.
But somehow, doubt nagged at the back of her mind. Luna could not shake the feeling that her big sister had allowed her to win.
Surely, though, that could not have been the case. Surely nopony would ever want to lose on purpose. What fool would wish for the humiliation of losing—of losing anything? Even a game so trivial as chess? Certainly not her big sister.
No. She had won. Fair and square. It was her victory.
It wasn’t a true victory. She didn’t know how, but she had not won that game. Not in any way that actually mattered.
She wasn’t entirely sure that she’d lost, either. That was the most perplexing part of it. The end of the game had been neither triumph nor failure. So what had it been?
In an effort to purge the thought from her head, Luna looked out over the balcony, down at the city of Canterlot. From every window and every street corner, twinkling lights beamed back up at her, in defiance of the darkness. She looked closer and saw the shadows of ponies milling about on the streets. Many of her subjects would be going to sleep soon, no doubt, but it also appeared that many of them would be staying awake. Even into the night. Things certainly had changed since she’d been imprisoned. Some of them, maybe, for the better.
Briefly, Luna thought of visiting them, of descending into the city so that she might speak with the ponies who called her their Princess...
...The ponies who hated and feared her and ran at the mere sight of her.
She abandoned the idea in disgust. Silly. Stupid. They knew what she was capable of. They knew what she’d done. The terrible, terrible crimes she’d committed as the dreaded Nightmare Moon. They would never accept her. Never.
A small, simple little word came to mind. One her sister had only just spoken to her: try.
Luna turned her sights upward from the city and noticed that, though the stars were many and bright, there was not yet a moon hanging in the sky.
She was tired of hearing that. Tired of being told to fight a losing battle. Tired of struggling with forces too great for her to overcome. Hadn’t her sister just proven the folly of playing after the game was already over? Why should she even bother?
In her anger, she summoned her magic and put all her strength into raising a full moon, as brilliant and blinding as she could make it. Like a flare, the moon shot up into the sky, shining through the dark with an intensity that nearly matched the sun itself.
With a gasp, Luna slumped over on the balcony’s railing, exhausted from the effort of raising so bright a moon. Had it been worth it? Expending so much of her energy on what could only ever be a meaningless gesture? A futile show of frustration? She couldn’t say. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t even know why she had done it in the first place.
She usually did so well at keeping herself under control...
Again, her gaze fell on the city below. But this time, in the new light of the moon, Luna could see the faces of her subjects. One by one, they were stopping in the streets, their hooves pointing up at the sky and their mouths held open in awe. They had never seen anything so dazzling in the night sky before. And neither, Luna realized, had she.
A shout from the crowd. A cheer. Only just loud enough for Luna to hear from so high up on the balcony, and one clear voice rose above the cheering.
“Thank you, Princess!”
She stood there for a while, watching as her subjects slowly went back to their business. They had seen. They had noticed. Her efforts had meant something after all. It was not the same thing as accepting her, true, but... for just a moment, they had looked on her moon with joy on their faces, and that was enough for her.
She took one more look at the moon in the sky, so pure and white, and it struck her that perhaps there was still some hope left for her, however small.
Perhaps the game was not yet over.