“Yes. I am concerned.”
Philomena let out a low hoot.
Princess Celestia stood atop the balcony outside of her private study, looking down upon her prized student and her newest friend as they departed the castle grounds. She could not be sure if her words this evening had taken hold inside the young ponies’ minds. Even from here, she could see the signs. Twilight walking a little closer than necessary to Sunset. Sunset’s many glances at the other unicorn.
It would be difficult to dissuade either of them from this path. Such was the nature of the bond borne from a sudden ignition of unified harmony magics.
Philomena let out another questioning hoot.
“How was I supposed to bring it up, Philomena? You know how critical this stage is. How much depends upon her. I have no doubt the sixth shadow she saw in her vision was indeed Twilight Sparkle.”
Celestia’s eyes rose—as they did every night—to the silhouette within the moon she had raised only an hour ago.
“There should only be five others. Not six. I can already see the pieces falling in place for her other friends, but Twilight is an unknown.”
The phoenix on her back let out a hoot tinged with annoyance.
“I like her too.” Celestia sighed as the two walked out of sight. “It’s one of the reasons I broke a six-hundred-year-old rule and took her on as a second student. We need to watch her. If she ends up being a problem... By the grace of Harmony, I pray it will not be so.”
A knock came from the room behind her. Celestia took one last look at the moon before turning and entering her private study once more. She was sure to close the balcony doors tightly this time, and to reinforce the wards. Tonight was not a night for prying eyes.
Finally, she closed the curtains, blocking the moonlight from her study. Only the fire and candles scattered around the room provided any illumination.
“Come in, Raven,” Celestia called.
The ever-attentive white unicorn trotted in, a stack of files levitating beside her in a field of gentle reddish magic. However, upon sight of Celestia, her eyes widened and her glasses slipped down her muzzle.
“Your Highness?” Raven asked. “What’s wrong?”
I must be getting old, Celestia mused. It usually takes Raven at least a minute to discover if I have something on my mind.
“Am I that transparent, dear Raven?” Celestia laughed bitterly and sat down on the large rug in the center of the room. Philomena leapt from her back and settled herself onto her perch near the balcony doors.
“Only for somepony who’s known you as long as I have,” Raven replied.
“And apparently for my students as well,” Celestia murmured, thinking back to Sunset’s unusual insights yesterday and this evening. “I fear my eternal mask is beginning to slip.”
“And what would cause such a thing, Your Highness?”
Ah Raven, you have a unique gift for seeing the prize and going straight for it, ignoring all else around you. May that never change, no matter what befalls Equestria in the coming years.
“The usual.” Celestia shrugged. “Matters of state and prophecy.”
“How is Sunset doing?” Raven asked quickly, placing her stack of paperwork on a nearby table and sitting down across from Celestia. “I know she has been under a lot of pressure lately.”
“Indeed she has,” Celestia replied. “But it is a burden she must carry. I believe that very burden will be the key to unlocking her potential. A forced spark will never work. It must be natural.”
“Can’t you help her a little, Princess?” Raven asked. “I mean, she’s still so young…”
“I know. By Harmony, I know.” Celestia sighed again. “But if I interfere, years of searching will be destroyed in an instant and upon her return… there may be nothing to stand against her.”
Celestia smiled a little. “Have faith, Raven. It’s not all doom and gloom. I believe the final pony has revealed herself.”
Raven’s eyes narrowed as she studied Celestia’s face.
“Then why aren’t you happy?”
“Because I fear the final pony has revealed something far more troubling.”
“This is that ‘Twilight Sparkle’ you spoke of this morning, right?”
“You seemed quite excited to meet her,” Raven pointed out. “Why the sudden change?”
“I’ve seen her before.”
“She was a student at your school, Princess. Surely you’ve crossed paths with her. If not there, perhaps during one of your visits to the Royal Canterlot Archives.”
“While that may be so,” Celestia admitted. “It is more a matter of when I saw her.”
“I don’t understand, Princess.”
“I know.” Celestia stared at nothing as a silent battle raged through her mind. Yet there was one sensation that surpassed even the concern she held: exhaustion.
“For once, Raven, I do not believe I can shoulder this burden alone, so I hope you will assist me this evening. I am sorely in need of counsel.”
“I’m willing to do whatever you ask, Princess.” Raven lifted her head up high. “Always.”
“Indeed,” Celestia smiled. “Hence why I called upon you. First, of all, are those the reports I asked for?”
“Along with a few various mundane articles, yes.”
“The mundane can wait,” Celestia stated. She had no patience for politics at the present. “Please, summarize for me the academic record of Miss Sparkle.”
Raven nodded and her horn once more glowed with red magic. A large folder lifted from the top of the pile and floated over to them. It flicked open to reveal a page stamped with both the crest of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and the Royal Canterlot Archives.
“I took the liberty of reading through it earlier, Princess,” Raven admitted. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Ever anticipating, dear Raven?” Celestia smiled, a small warmth rising in her chest at the thoroughness of her aide. “That is simply wonderful. Please, then. Summarize. I trust you to not leave out any relevant details.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Raven cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses. “Throughout Miss Sparkle’s academic career, she received only a single mark lower than an A, which was a B plus in Physical Education during her third term.”
Celestia smirked. “I remember another unicorn who tended toward such scores during her days at my school.”
Raven didn’t rise to the bait. Too bad, since Celestia found it rather adorable when her aide went that particular shade of red.
“Her instructors all gave her extremely high marks. She was the only student to challenge several of Sunset Shimmer’s records. In a few fields, she even surpassed Sunset…”
Her aide frowned as she stared at the page. It didn’t take over a thousand years of diplomatic relations to understand something was bothering Raven.
“Raven? What’s on your mind?”
“Did you know?” Raven looked up and studied her Princess.
“That Twilight Sparkle would academically challenge Sunset Shimmer? Is that the real reason you made Sunset Professor Polish’s aide, so she would not destroy Twilight as she’s done with several others?”
“Ah, Raven...” Celestia chuckled slightly. “I’ll admit if I had foreseen the gifted nature of Twilight Sparkle, I may have done just that, but in this matter it is simply not the case. Sunset being assigned to Professor Apple Polish was a move of—dare I say—desperation more than anything else.”
“I don’t understand, Princess. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you desperate.”
“Then I am encouraged my mask is not as cracked as I may have feared.”
Celestia rose and stepped over to the fire, staring into the flickering magical lights. A tiny analogy of her charge during the day. A reminder of the power she wielded.
“Sunset was on the edge of a great abyss, Raven.” Celestia murmured. “Do you remember?”
“I recall you were deeply disturbed by what she saw in Starswirl’s Mirror,” Raven said from behind her. “You told me what she had seen, but you haven’t spoken of it since.”
“I brought up the image within the mirror for myself later that night, once she was asleep. Sunset saw herself replacing me.” Celestia reached forward to feel the heat, which welcomed her like an old friend. She and fire had an understanding. “Ascending on wings of flame. Darkness around her. Red steel in her eyes. Most of all… alone.”
Raven let out a strangled gasp. “You… you can’t be serious, Princess!”
Celestia nodded sadly. “She was desperate to know about the mirror for months afterwards. I deflected her again and again, which quickly turned to hostile refusal. I thought... Raven, I was almost ready to dismiss her.”
“But… you said she was your daughter in all but name!”
Celestia pushed a hoof into the roiling flames and adjusted one of the logs. The fire did not so much as singe her coat. The flames danced around her forehoof for a time before she lifted it back out, studying a few sparks cradled in her hoof.
“Few children obey their parents, dear Raven.” Celestia sighed once more. “Sunset has more trouble than most because of her own family. Just as a spark can light a hearth, it can light a forest fire. On the path she was walking, she would eventually burn all around her to ash and cinders. I needed to bank that fire. I needed to redirect it down safer paths.”
“So that’s when you came upon the idea of her becoming an aide?”
Celestia nodded. The sparks on her hoof did not fade, kept alive by her own innate powers. Finally, she turned and blew them towards her aide, allowing the sparks to dance through the air between Raven and herself.
“I was passing by the school on Admissions Day. A lovely summer day. A day I sensed to be important. When I looked upon the eager faces of the latest applicants, it came to me: Sunset desired authority and respect. The young students of my School could give her that… but without the danger of true authority, and with enough distance from the nobility.”
“That was quite a risk.”
Raven’s expression informed Celestia in no uncertain terms her words were an enormous understatement.
“When one has seen as much as I, and understands the stakes… certain risks are occasionally required.”
Celestia shook her head to push away the memories of that Sunset. They were not pleasant thoughts. In truth, Celestia had never believed her plan would succeed. If not for Moon Dancer at the end of that first term, Sunset likely would have ended up in an even darker place.
“I am sorry,” Celestia said. “I have distracted us from the topic at hand: my student’s new friend, not my student herself.”
Raven glanced down at the report. “Well Your Majesty, that seems to be most of it. She had several internships with the Royal Canterlot Archives, until Head Archivist Ink Method poached her right out of school. She graduated a year early as valedictorian.”
“She is close to her brother, Lieutenant Shining Armor. Currently stationed in the West Royal Garrison. To my surprise, she once had a friendship with Cadance, though it seems to have waned in the last few years.”
“What about friends?”
“Not many.” A few pages flipped in Raven’s magic. “Professor Inkwell notes she made friends with Jade Singer, and the two of them occasionally got together for tea. For the most part, however, she was a recluse. Several teachers believed she was actually afraid of other ponies. They tried to encourage social and extracurricular activities, but never got anywhere with it.”
“Alone because of fear,” Celestia murmured. “Fear can make ponies do horrible things, Raven. It drives them away from the light they so desperately need. It can drive them to actions they will regret for the rest of their lives.”
“But it sounds like that’s been resolved,” Raven protested. “You told me just this morning how Sunset and Twilight have made up with one another, even as far as to experience unified harmony magics!”
“There is one other thing about fear, Raven.” Celestia said as she glanced out the window toward where she knew the moon hung in the sky. She always knew where it was, and not simply because she was its present steward. “Sometimes it is well-placed.”
“I don’t understand, Princess.”
“Nor should you. Not yet.” Celestia caught the sparks still floating in the air in her magic and extinguished them with a thought. “But you will.”