“Do you remember when we were younger, Luna, and I would sing you to sleep? How did that song go?”
Celestia kept her voice light and made sure to smile, but she felt her heart thumping away, with her stomach tied in knots, and she could only hope she sounded more convincing than she felt. She stood in her chambers beside the bed, where her book sat recently put aside. The afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows, bathing the golden pillows in radiance. Across the room near the door, the indigo alicorn with the flowing starry mane and tail looked out of place in such a scene, and frowned at the question.
“This is a test, isn’t it?” the moon-bedecked and silver-shoed pony asked, her suddenly cunning expression looking alien on her face, “A probing trick question, to see if I’m who I seem to be.”
Celestia flared her nostrils unconsciously, planting her hooves wide. She held herself back from baring her teeth, but ground them instead. She might have known this day would come.
“Why have you taken my sister’s form?” she asked in a carefully controlled tone, drawing a steady breath.
“To get past the guards,” not-Luna replied without preamble, as if it were obvious. Which it was, all things considered. “I didn’t think they’d understand,” she said, rolling her eyes.
The nonchalance of the reply was infuriating, but also set some of Celestia’s worries at rest. She forced herself to be calmer, remembering the completely healthy and unsuspicious guard outside who had held the door for whoever looked like her sister to enter. As if there’s a long list of suspects.
“And Princess Luna is not only unharmed, but in fact completely unaware of this, I take it?”
Not-Luna declined to reply with words, only grinning malevolently. The expression did not suit her sister’s face, as if it were usually performed to display sharper teeth. However unsettling it was intended to be, though, the meaning behind it could only be a good one. Once again, Luna would get to sleep through a confrontation, blissfully unaware in her own chambers.
“Then why did you not revert to your true form upon reaching me?” Celestia asked, clenching her jaw. It had taken her a full ten minutes to wonder if something were different about her sister. She should have noticed the eyes straight away; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Luna at this time of day without her looking exhausted, and yet the pony opposite Celestia looked perfectly well-rested. So many centuries of knowing her sister, and it still took her that long to tell the difference between the genuine article and an interloper in disguise. Maybe it was best Luna had a habit of sleeping through these things; it saved Celestia some embarrassment.
“I just wanted to enjoy the pleasant conversation while I could,” came the surprisingly gentle reply. “Even in someone else’s skin.” Not-Luna rubbed her chest with a forehoof, as if pained, and she looked towards the window, staring at nothing particular as she spoke.
Reluctant though she was to do it, Celestia made herself remember how she had felt when Tirek had trapped her, Luna and Cadence in a Tartarus cell. She had lost her magic, she had lost her kingdom, and she had lost all hope but one; her most faithful student. The rage and anguish she had felt knowing that her ponies were suffering, and the impotence of the certainty that she couldn’t help them. But at least she had had that one hope spurring her along, letting her focus on the belief that her powerlessness might only be temporary. And having her sister and her niece for company had provided some small comfort in such solemn and disheartening times. The ‘pony’ in front of her didn’t even have that.
“Why are you here, Your Majesty?” she asked quietly.
Not-Luna dropped her eyes to the floor and shook her head to herself, hesitating for a moment as if lost in thought. Then she lifted her eyes again, and Celestia received another smile in response, but this one was broken, wry, self-mocking, bitter and tragic, all rolled into one. She knew the sentiment was misaimed, but it cut her deeply to see that coming from somepony that looked so like her sister.
“Where else would I go, Your Royal Highness?”
A flash of emerald fire erupted from the floor carpet in a circle around the hooves of the ‘pony,’ and Celestia shut her eyes against the bright flames, although they were gone as quickly as they had appeared. So too was the image of her sister, and in its place stood Queen Chrysalis.
She looked only marginally worse for wear, with her chitin bearing scrapes here and there but no cracks, and her dress dirtier and a less lustrously shimmering green than usual. Her mane and tail were much the same, and although the dainty crown she always wore was nowhere to be seen, the massive, jagged horn jutting from her head might as well have been a crown in its own right. For a creature exiled from just about everywhere for the last few months, her posture almost held the confidence Celestia remembered, only a little stooped following her defeat, her spine a bit more bowed.
“And thank you,” Chrysalis continued, softly. “I am aware of the diplomatic headache that that honorific causes at the moment.”
Applying titles to a former ruler that have since been stripped, and after you’ve made peaceful overtures to her incoming replacement from a rival faction? For an outgoing ruler who was removed unanimously by her people the second they tasted freedom, at that? And when the first move of the new leader had been to end the unofficial state of war existing between their nation and your own? Yes, headache ought to cover it.
“I can’t promise I’ll use it publicly,” Celestia replied, pressing her lips together in a slight grimace and averting her gaze.
“That’s alright, I can’t really show my face in public right now.”
Not the biggest of handicaps for a changeling. But she could imagine how it would wound Chrysalis’ pride, she who had been known for strutting around with all eyes on her while explaining her dastardly plans. And perhaps a strong sense of identity, a love of who you were and how you appeared, was important for creatures who spent much of their time looking like others. To not have that might increase the risk of being lost in the mask you wore, Celestia supposed.
“But it strikes me as cruel to overlook a simple courtesy when in private,” she said, “given how much else you’ve lost recently.” Never before could she have imagined Chrysalis accepting sympathy, rather than raging at the very thought of it being directed her way. She felt an ache in her throat. Did Chrysalis’ vulnerability make her less dangerous, or more so?
“The accuracy of the title ‘Queen of the Changelings’ being debatable is only temporary,” Chrysalis said sardonically, although there was a grimness about her as she said it that didn’t bode well. Her voice then dropped, and the grief in it was unmistakeable. “The loss, sadly not.”
She really did love her former subjects, then? Or was she lamenting them, and the power that went with them, being taken away from her, like a child with a favourite toy? Chrysalis stared down at her hooves, and Celestia wet her lips, not wanting to compound the loss but also knowing she had to in order to get a better understanding of what ‘only temporary’ had meant.
“I extended Thorax the hoof of friendship,” she stated, “as their new leader.”
“Yes, I thought you might,” Chrysalis replied with a raised eyebrow. “But is he still a changeling? Are any of them?” She tilted her head to the side, leaning slightly forwards. “They can’t change form anymore, our defining attribute as a species. They don’t look anything like changelings, and they don’t prey on ponies’ love.”
Ah, so the argument is one of definitions? Such a magnificent creature, Celestia thought in spite of herself, brought down to nitpicking legal terminology in the effort to retain some semblance of her self-esteem. However saddening the thought, Chrysalis’ response hadn’t provided the clarity Celestia had hoped for, requiring her to be more direct.
“And you expect the confusion to be cleared up in time?”
Chrysalis stood still, a pensive gaze straight ahead of her focused on nothing in particular.
“Yes,” she said simply, in a voice devoid of emotion.
Still no further enlightened, Celestia could only think how ominous it sounded. Would Chrysalis really go as far as to seek revenge on her former subjects? She might try to depose or remove Thorax, but she had to know that the changelings, or whatever she might now call them, would never follow her again. Celestia weighed up whether or not she should alert Thorax to the threat, but she wouldn’t be able to do so discreetly at present, and so might as well hold off making a firm decision either way until her conversation with Chrysalis was concluded.
But pushing the subject only appeared to make Chrysalis defensive, and Celestia knew she’d draw out no further answers that way. She let it go for the time being, hoping it might come out in conversation if approached another way.
“Why did you come here, Chrysalis?” she asked, using the same tone she would to a friend, furrowing her eyebrows and leaning forward on her hooves, intrigued.
Rather than replying straight away, Chrysalis moved from her spot near the door for the first time since her arrival, trotting around the far side of the bed from Celestia and then sinking down onto it, completely uninvited. Rather than the languid sprawl Celestia half expected Chrysalis to adopt, she sat like a cat, on her hind legs with her forehooves resting between them. In that position, her slumped shoulders were more apparent, giving her a slightly more stooped overall aspect than Celestia might have pictured.
This left Celestia in a very peculiar situation. From guest to would-be assassin, somepony in Celestia’s room making herself at home on the bed unannounced was most certainly new, and she wasn’t immediately sure how to respond. The thought of diplomatic protocol reminded her of the ambassadorial party from Yakyakistan, and the image of them trying the same thing made her want to snicker and shudder at the same time, which had the unexpected benefit of countering her rising body heat and reduce the risk of becoming too flustered from not knowing what to do. As far as power plays went, this was a return to the Chrysalis of old.
That wasn’t how it came across, though. While there was no way Chrysalis could have missed the significance of her move, the look on her face was far from challenging. It might have been tempered with probably-feigned disinterest, but beneath that Celestia saw what she could only describe as longing. Wordlessly, she lowered herself onto the opposite side of the bed, mostly mirroring Chrysalis’ pose.
“Because being an immortal is lonely,” Chrysalis finally answered, not making eye contact, “and after so many centuries, one yearns for the occasional company of another one.” Her voice was monotone, and after speaking she finally lifted her eyes to meet Celestia’s, adding, “I would have thought you’d know that.”
I wonder how long changeling drones live. Pony lifespans felt like weeks next to Celestia’s own, and she thought it unlikely that changelings would naturally live longer than the average pony. A big part of Chrysalis’ life was presumably the same procession of grief Celestia herself could never escape. The only mercy to her when facing that particular price of immortality was that she didn’t have to do so alone.
“I have a sister,” she said, glowing at the very thought of how much better her infinite life was with Luna in it.
“Perhaps I should rephrase,” Chrysalis chuckled, although there wasn’t much humour in it. “Being an immortal is lonely,” she began again, this time with a curled lip, her tone becoming more acerbic as she went on, “doubly so, it turns out, when your family turns against you.”
“I have but one royal duty now: To destroy you!”
The memory was as clear as it ever had been, even a thousand years on, and the words seemed to reverberate through Celestia’s skull. That day would never fade, in her mind, and for all the healing she and Luna had done since their reconciliation, she remained haunted by it. If there were one lesson she had learned in her life, it was that a millennium was a long time, and certain feelings she’d held onto during that period were now so ingrained she’d never be free of them.
One of the funny quirks of love was its ability to make you feel guilty, even when you knew you’d done the right thing. That was for the best, Celestia thought, discouraging ponies from using the ‘I had no choice’ argument to blindly justify an action without thought for the consequences. And while she had spent very little time questioning the necessity of what she had done to Luna, she had never stopped paying for it.
Something else she’d picked up over her time as ruler was that if you forget the crime but remember the sentence, then you come to see yourself as the villain for passing it.
She had forgiven Luna and received the same in return, and rebuilt the bridges between them as quickly and closely as she realistically could. But for as long as she had been haunted by the guilt of having to punish her sister, she had also had to remember the pain of the betrayal that had made it necessary in the first place. The circumstances were far from identical, but maybe that pain was how Chrysalis was feeling.
Celestia had been too well-trained in courtroom etiquette to show her change of mood through her body language, but it took some self-control not to tug at her mane with a hoof, or pull her front legs more tightly against her.
“I have a sister,” she said again, with a whole new weight in her words.
At that, Chrysalis met Celestia’s eyes and held them. Anything Celestia might have interpreted from Chrysalis’ expression paled in comparison to the wealth of feeling and compassion that passed between them in that gaze. Hurt was undisguised, loss raw, loneliness unflinching, and Celestia felt she knew and understood Chrysalis better in that moment than she had another head of state for decades.
“I don’t,” Chrysalis replied quietly.