Luna couldn’t remember a time this banal ritual had been more unpleasant.
Every stroke of the brush made the image in her vanity harder to look at, because she was applying her makeup perfectly. The night princess curled the brush upward, lengthening her eyelash. Finally, she set the tool down, finished with her paint job. It was actually quite lightly done, making the prettiest effect out of the least actual colour. It didn’t matter that the desire to wipe it all back off was stronger than it had been in years; that delicate blue eyeshadow and those long black lashes everypony knew so well, it was expected she show up wearing it.
Her dress was beautifully crafted. The alicorn in the mirror had on a silver gown that draped well, accentuating her feminine figure just enough to still be tasteful, and the slight reflective quality of the material reacted with her Klein coat in such a way to evoke moonlight. If Luna were looking at anypony else, if all the effort of tailoring the garment had been for another, she would have thought they looked wonderful.
But seeing it on herself, all she felt was sickened. She took a breath, and tried to think the feeling through; it wasn’t true disgust, not of her own. That segmented part of her mind, the colt whose door she’d opened, it was he who was upset and him alone. He foalishly resented anything that made her look less like him, anything that pulled reality further away from what he wanted. Uncovering his door and acknowledging him was worsening his influence, but a selfish child was all he was.
Rationalizing it did not ease the tight pain below her lungs, and she had to look down at the vanity table, away from the offending mirror. She let out a long sigh, knowing in advance that she’d be feeling that sad ache all night long.
Luna turned as her accompanying guard entered her room, his posture perfectly upright. “Hello, Curtain,” she said.
He nodded, and in a clipped tone, replied “Greetings, your highness.”
The thestral stallion was, as regulation required, solidly built and his tail banged short. His figure, chiseled and stripped of any soft fat, wore the unforgiving, boxy armor well. Everything about him was respectably masculine, from his powerful-looking wings down to his broad, shorn hooves. Not quite mindful of herself, Luna’s gaze dropped between his hind legs. Stars, he was admirable to say the least … He began to shift his forehooves uncomfortably, reminding her to look back at his face.
“Um … is there something the matter, milady?”
Luna barely kept from flinching; the word sunk deep, and she couldn’t help but feel insulted. Drawn Curtain was checking the straps of his backplate, unaware. “Is my armor on correctly?”
“Oh, I – yes, it is. My apologies, I wasn’t inspecting you, I just … my mind was elsewhere.”
It’d been ‘elsewhere’ more than usual ever since her inward journey a few days before. Accidental inappropriate staring kept happening around her male guards, and not only because they were appealing. Given what she’d learned, it had become obvious that attraction was only half of what they inspired in her. She, or rather the little boy, couldn’t help but fixate on their handsome features in deep longing.
She snuck another fleeting glance below his belly, hoping he didn’t notice. “Let us depart,” she said, nodding toward the door. As she exited, he fell into step directly behind her, forcing her to keep her eyes forward and off of him. He kept precise step with her as they went to the west wing ballroom.
It had become much harder to ignore these fixations ever since she’d found that hidden door. A great many of her fleeting strange thoughts and pangs of distress were understandable now when they hadn’t been mere days ago, which had an unfortunate magnifying effect. It was rather like wearing thickly tinted sunglasses long enough to become accustomed to it, then removing them and seeing the light and colours as they truly were, lurid and brilliant. There were keenly distracting thoughts throughout her day now, and they often led to awkward moments like that with Curtain. It might be quite some time before they stopped bothering her so, before that colt quieted down.
As such, the event she was about to attend conceivably could have come at a worse time, but she’d be hard-pressed to think of when it would be more unwelcome a prospect. True, if one were to take all the world-ending horrors she’d faced into account, this was not so much to endure, but … it would be difficult on a different level entirely.
“My humblest greetings, Princess Luna. How good to see you again. You look radiant this evening.”
“Thank you. It’s always a pleasure, Conifer Forest. Welcome to our home.”
“Why, thank you, your highness. It was I who suggested to our good Prince that he host the dinner here; I always look forward to the gracious company of our Princesses.”
“You’re too kind, Conifer. Now, I beg your pardon, but …”
“Of course, you must attend all your guests. Good evening.”
This exchange, up to and including the claim of credit for some aspect of the party, had repeated between Luna and several of the dozens of noble ponies throughout the secondary ballroom. There were many more and several hours to go, and they were already on the edge of intolerable. It didn’t seem possible that every mention of her title or remark about her appearance could be as uncomfortable and frustrating as the last, but the sting of it never dulled. She was careful not to give any outward impression of her growing exhaustion, at the cost of giving little outward impression at all. Listening to herself repeat the same polite greetings, she soon heard her tone slip into the slightly false and disinterested sound of an actor giving their fourteenth performance of the week. She knew she came off as rather cold and stiff to her public when she allowed this to happen, but better that than the truth.
Truthfully, she wanted to run away. To be held in the eyes of so many ponies, knowing what they saw when they looked at her … there was a small colt deep in her mind begging to hide in his room. All that kept her from leaving was her duty to be ‘the Princess’. How she longed to lie down in the dark and be nothing …
Later. Just tolerate this until the party is over. It didn’t help that the whole reason for this interminable get-together was the self-congratulation of a pony she had no respect for in the slightest …
The head of her wait staff entered, announcing that dinner was served. On the automatic, Luna proceeded to the round table in the middle of the ballroom, where she and Celestia sat side by side. Her sister was already there when she took her place, and she briefly touched one white wing to her back, smiling at her. Luna made the effort to smile back, despite being too emotionally dulled to find any comfort in it. Her ear turned at his voice, the stallion to blame for all this.
“Oak, I am so pleased we could reach this agreement. It was really for the best that the old growth area remain in unicorn holdings; it’s very important to the Blueblood family legacy. We simply couldn’t have it fall into the hooves of tradesponies. With all due respect for you and yours, of course.”
Oak Forest’s reply sounded much as hers had all evening, slightly false. “Of course, I understand completely. It was … generous of you to invite my family to your castle for the evening, my Prince.”
“Any time, my good friend, any – what is this? Colt!”
Luna turned to check what the matter was. Prince Blueblood sat at the head of his own table, yelling for the attention of a young-looking waiter; he appeared to be scandalized by the contents of his plate. Her jaw clenched with hate the moment she caught sight of him. Luna had never warmed up to that brat, and found it difficult to believe that anypony could. It never ceased to amaze her how his every single detail could jump out at her as individually detestable. The lines of his suit straight and crisp, so thoroughly cleaned of lint, his cufflinks shining, the soft wave of his professionally groomed mane … she’d never act on it, but the urge to give that square jaw a kick and spoil his perfectly angled, handsome face came up over and over again.
“I said, colt!” The waiter jumped and turned, wide-eyed. “Pay attention, chattel, or have you forgotten I’m a prince?”
His clear, trained voice, almost musical in its delivery and yet used to form such revoltingly rude words, made the whole effect much worse. Mentally, she aimed her hypothetical kick a little lower, right for that spot in his throat that his beautiful voice came from. That insolent foal didn’t deserve to be so outwardly perfect. To think, he got to be a –
Oh. He got to be a prince.
There was an embarrassing possibility: her gut hatred for Blueblood could have its roots in jealousy. Not true jealousy, of course, not her own feeling; something more that came from that sad, angry little boy. Of course he resented Blueblood, wanted everything he had by right of birth alone. The thoroughbred, masculine features and male title, that was all he wanted, and an unpleasant stallion like Blueblood had been the one gifted with them instead.
“I specifically ordered the kitchens not to include the stew sidedish; I don’t eat peasant food! You’ve mixed my plate up with one of my guests! If you ever fudge my order again, I can see to it you won’t find another position in the castle. I don’t tolerate any disobedient, stupid horses in my employ.”
At this, Luna couldn’t stand by. Perhaps it was just that her contempt was closer to the surface than ever, or perhaps she would’ve done this regardless; at the moment, it mattered not. She stood from her place.
“Ah, Lulu? What are you –?” She ignored Celestia’s hushed question and stalked toward Blueblood’s table, drawing curious and nervous glances from all other occupants aside from its host. He did not take notice of her until she pointedly brought one silver-shod hoof down next to his settings, making him jump at the ring that brought almost every voice in the dining hall to sudden quiet.
“Pardon, little prince,” she said, adopting a particularly condescending tone reminiscent of a disapproving schoolteacher, “but this waiter is not in your employ at all. In point of fact, you have no right whatsoever to threaten his station; that rests with myself and my sister alone. While we are speaking of this, I must advise you how unbecoming it is to be so discourteous to our staff. You are aware of how to conduct yourself like a gentlepony, yes?”
She paused, and the silence stretched uncomfortably long. The eyes of the room pressed upon them. “Well?”
“Y-yes, my princess …”
“Then I suggest you act like it, colt,” she growled.
His ears were visibly reddening, and he dropped his gaze, glaring in chagrin at his plate while a few other ponies seated at the table bit their lips to hide their smiles. Quiet giggles started up around the room as other guests didn’t suppress their amusement so well.
Luna took her hoof from the table, finally cooling down enough to realize she’d gone a bit far; Blueblood would surely be laughed at over this for days if not weeks, and his injured ego would make him doubly unpleasant for a long time to come.
She raised her voice, bearing the sound of the returning echo. “Pardon me, honoured guests, I will return shortly … carry on with your meals.” She swept out of the room and onto the small westward balcony. The door she closed behind her with her magic, shutting out their stares, and took a heavy sigh of the cool night air. Alone, finally, not a single pony able to see her … it wasn’t quite perfect relief, but it felt marginally easier to breathe. Just a little bit longer, and then she could go to her room, get this awful gown off and block her own existence out of her mind. Barely hours to go, and then much-needed peaceful nothingness.
Her ears flicked at the sound of the balcony door opening. Blueblood, come to protest?
Her ears dropped. Oh, no, much worse.
Celestia came up next to her, and Luna looked away over the western view. After a moment, the eldest spoke. “What happened in there, sister?”
Why did she have to use that word so much? Couldn’t she refrain for a few sentences? “Blueblood was a cad, is what happened,” she retorted.
“Lulu, come now …”
“I know! I know …” Her sigh bordered on a groan. “It was rash, I shouldn’t have …”
“I know you have trouble tolerating our nephew. I’ve the advantage of getting used to his, ah, unique personality since he was born. But you can’t let him anger you.”
“I’m not angry, he’s angry …” she muttered.
“Yes, I’m sure he is, and being berated in the middle of a party in front of all his peers, no matter what he may have done to encourage it, I would say he has the justification.”
Luna blinked, realizing what she’d said aloud and letting Celestia’s interpretation pass unchallenged, though she hadn’t been talking about Blueblood.
“Celestia?” she began. “I think it best if I take a moment away … if I am missed, might you invent some excuse? I won’t be long.”
Her sister paused, and Luna hoped it wasn’t a disappointed silence. “Very well. But you’ll need to return to see our guests’ departure.”
“Of course.” The moment she’d been given leave, Luna lit her horn and teleported away. When she rematerialized, she was inside her bedroom. It felt better to be here, but there was something she needed to do before she could relax enough to meditate. Promptly re-lighting her horn, she pulled at the fastenings on her gown.
Once she’d cast it off, she kicked the dress into a pile of soft, shining fabric in the corner, and wasted no time heading for her bathroom to scour the paint from her face, turning the hot tap as she approached the sink. After rubbing at her eyes with the steaming water, she checked the mirror to see that they were clean. Her fur was matted and wet, and though that insulting paint job was gone, it meant there was nothing to hide exactly how exhausted and sad she looked.
Well, she couldn’t think about that, nor could she think about how she’d have to put it all back on in less than an hour. Not if she wanted to adequately recharge. She went back toward the bed to lie down and meditate her body away.
She put both forehooves on the sheets – then stopped, struck with a peculiar idea. Perhaps it wasn’t stripping everything away that she ought to do. Looking to her left, her mirror looked back from the far wall. The hardest part, more than every pang of misery, was trying to ignore it all, tamp it down and pretend she didn’t feel the colt’s protests. It had been a rather unpleasant part of her life before, but now that he had surfaced, it may be that repressive approach would no longer suffice.
Perhaps she ought to put something entirely new on.
He wanted to see himself in the physical world; a delusion he might be, but it was an understandable desire. If she indulged his wants privately, it might soothe his nagging distress. Which meant, of course, she’d have to do what she’d never dared. All of Canterlot and Equestria beyond would think it was the fascination of a maladjusted and confused recluse if they were ever to learn of it, the very reason she’d never considered it before. She’d have to take the necessary precautions if this experiment was to go ahead. With a glimmer of her horn, she made certain that her bedroom lock was closed, and got to her hooves.
Very slowly, irrationally nervous that her fortress-like door would suddenly open at any moment, she began to layer a brand new illusion over herself. It had to be a subtle shift; it wouldn’t do to simply start constructing a generically handsome and muscular draft horse. She did want to appease the colt, but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t believable.
She considered what he’d looked like in her dreamscape, how a colt might look if he’d been through her training, her personal taste in stallion grooming … and carefully set about painting straighter lines over her feminine curves, squaring off her jawline, adding size where appropriate around her hooves and wings. She took the time to settle smaller details, making sure that his fetlocks were shorn and feathered neatly. There was the obvious matter of what needed to be drawn over her nether regions, and Luna realized with mild embarrassment that she couldn’t be sure what dimensions were appropriate. Without any male alicorn specimens in existence, nopony could be certain as to their proportions in that area, leaving her to make an educated guess. She decided to go so far as to craft his armour, and she allowed a little self-indulgence in this; the slender, ornamental peytral she wore daily was hardly impressive in a fight. She imagined a piece that covered her entire barrel, smooth and midnight black, her cutie mark inlaid in its centre.
She stepped back from the mirror, and looked over the new pony ear-to-tail, turning to the side to appraise the disguise’s profile in a sidelong glance. If she said so herself, he looked good; not only did he look strong, even studly, he also looked very much like her. She hadn’t taken the new look so far that he could be anypony; her subjects might see enough of a resemblance to think him a long-lost brother of the crowns. Not, of course, that they ever would see him, but she considered it a good job.
She cleared her throat, then remembered she’d done nothing to fix the voice. A quick auditory illusion layered over the visual ones remedied that. “Greeti – oh, dear, that won’t do.” Cringing at the ludicrously deep, dragon-like sound that came out of her muzzle, she made an adjustment to the hasty spell, mumbling as she did so to track its calibration. “Can’t even take myself seriously, what prince sounds like that? Ah,” she sighed, arriving at something closer to tenor. “That’s better … Greetings.”
She saw the stallion in the mirror give a little smile, feeling cautiously optimistic about her experiment. “So far, so good … now, we can’t very well call him ‘Luna’. Name … hmm …” Royalty never had names quite the same as casually spoken words back when she and Celestia had been born; at most, their names alluded to related words without themselves being words. Celestia, Luna, Amore, Sombra’s chosen name … they could only be used as proper nouns, never just nouns. Mi Amore Cadenza’s name even followed this pattern, though she went by ‘Cadance’ to keep with the times. Twilight hadn’t bothered with a hard proper noun at all, despite her ascension. That was well and good for younger ponies, but this prince, he needed a traditional name.
Unable to think of anything, she went to her window and looked over her constellations for inspiration. There was Orion, properly dressed as almost always. ‘Prince Orion’ had a nice sound, but … no. The character was largely undeveloped in the stories she’d invented around her star pictures, a hunting horse and little else, and she couldn’t see giving his name to such a personal creation. She’d only written him to be the companion of …
Ah. Of Artemis, hunter, guardian of the children and symbol of the lunar light by which all nocturnal creatures lived. She’d put a lot of herself into that character, almost embarrassingly so. The name was lovely, as was the association. But, Artemis was a mare.
“So what?” she muttered, discounting the problem. “Who is to say that the name is only female? Nopony. The name is my own invention, and its usage is up to me. In point of fact, I have even heard of colts receiving it before.”
It seemed a likely candidate. She went to look at the stallion in the mirror again, and he whispered “Artemis …” The name fit rather well. It was made of soft syllables and formed a comforting sound, it came from the times that were now called ‘ancient’ and carried millennia of meaning in Equestrian history. Now he thought of it, the name meant something quite similar to ‘Luna’: a guardian of the night long thought equally fictional.
“I am Prince Artemis.” His reflection cracked a smile, satisfied. “Ah, that flows well, doesn’t it? Prince Artemis …”
How else had he greeted his subjects? The stallion in the mirror got an embarrassed edge to his smile at the memory of that tiny Nightmare Night party, and the clumsily handled royal introduction that had interrupted it. “Citizens of Ponyville!” he bellowed, raising his hoof to punctuate his statement. He spread his great wings, adopting the striking image any royal arrival ought to entail. “Thy Prince of the Night –” he struck one hoof to his breastplate, “hath arrived!” He laughed at himself. “Oh, how would you look arriving in the Eventide Chariot?” Just to be thorough, he tried a few other simple things; cantering by to watch how his gait had slightly changed, kneeling in a takeoff position to reveal the new wing shape … he knew he was getting silly with it when he lay on his belly and tried for a seductive smirk.
I’m posing, he finally realized, and I’m actually enjoying it. It was surprising, but he was indeed playing with his visage; it had to be the first time he’d spent this long looking at a reflective surface without growing melancholy. Examining his looks actually felt like a bolster to his ego, not a blow. Was this vanity? Was this why Celestia could put so much effort into looking her best, to get this experience of looking in the mirror and seeing something she could be proud of? He finally understood every time he’d had to wait up for her; why would anypony be without this if they had the choice? And it was clear, he really had been without it up until this very moment. Correcting for his internal incongruity seemed to clear that blocked emotion, and the change felt so comforting.
He happened to look over his reflection’s shoulder at his bed, and remembered what he came in here intending to do. It didn’t feel quite so necessary to be nothing, not like an hour before when it’d been all he wanted. Right now, what he wanted was …
He looked himself in the eyes, searching that question, and found that what he wanted was to show off what he’d made of himself. He felt proud of it. What if he left the room now and returned to the party, still wearing this cover? He was more than up to it, even eager, and perhaps he’d make better company like this; not cowering from their eyes, but welcoming them. It was such a new thought, so unlike him, but he wanted them to see. He could tell them something to justify the cover, perhaps that it was an inside joke between him and Celestia. Maybe he could even get a few of them to go along with the ‘joke’, get them to call him by this new name that didn’t make him cringe, oh, that would be –
His heart sank with disappointment, his little fantasy shattering in an instant, at the simple fact that what he was doing was denying his natural state. It was quite literally unnatural. No, of course it would be met with horror and disapproval, and she ought to be grateful that she’d remembered that. This wasn’t like when Celestia was playing some imaginary character; what Luna had done was warp her own image, the very image her little ponies looked up to. Their princesses represented the very order of the world; nopony could defy nature, and it would be wrong of her especially to try.
And what was more, she didn’t need this. She’d lived her life in relative comfort for centuries, without taking solace in any of this strangeness. In truth, though it was harder to ignore now that the door was open, nothing had actually changed. That little colt had been locked away inside up until now, and he could and must stay there. She’d managed as she was this long, and she could certainly continue to do so.
With a flicker of magic, Luna burned the cover off, stripping away all the stallion features she’d designed, leaving her reflection just as it had been: a slight, tired, miserable mare. She felt suddenly choked, and bowed her head, unable to look, and threw a quick spell at the mirror to black it out. She really should have thought to do that before taking the cover off. The stress of this entire night all fell back on her at once, and she thought of her expectation back at the party with dread. Luna wanted to tell herself that it was little trouble, that she’d be fine, but the tightness in her chest insisted otherwise.
In fact, breathing was becoming a serious problem. It was getting harder to open her lungs when the room suddenly felt so small and suffocating hot. Creeping dread started to crawl up from her stomach, and the sound of her heartbeat was growing in her ears… oh, no.
Okay, no need to worry, she told herself, turning to her bed to lie down as her stomach pitched with fear. Don’t be afraid, you’re fine. Luna crawled onto her bed, trying to concentrate on slow, even breaths, on the chance it could calm her system. You’re only panicking, you’re perfectly safe, nothing’s wrong.
No part of her body believed that. That miserable feeling gripped her; her own skin didn’t just feel foreign, it felt revolting, and all her empty reassurances and rationalizations were falling away to leave one word: trapped.
And she was. Her very body was binding, every little thing about it sickening and wrong. Looking down at her shaking hooves, she had the most upsetting impulse to grab her pelt in her teeth and tear, rip this crawling skin away as though she could find the real pony underneath it. She shut her eyes, wishing she could banish the nauseating image as it played out in her head again and again.
What if this feeling never ended? She’d told herself it would wane, but she could never have what she needed to ease it. She’d always look like that mare in the mirror, always sound like her, the word ‘princess’ would follow her forever; anything else was impossible. So how could she be anything but horrified when all that awaited her were nights like this?
She tried to think of something, anything at all, that might distract her, and the answer was obvious. She only had one recourse that had never failed to purge her mind of everything, one source of pain strong enough to drown out all the rest and leave her with a modicum of peace. It would only be for tonight. Just a little controlled release, for a few hours; she could put it back to sleep when this had passed. Her promise to Celestia didn’t apply here. This was an emergency, and she needed the Tantabus like never before.
Luna brought a glow to her horn to go unlock the monster’s door … and froze, for a moment thinking beyond the lovely blankness to the crushing guilt that would follow. She thought of the moment she’d have to tell her sister what had happened. Worse even than that, if she ran back to the Tantabus now, it was as good as admitting that she couldn’t cope without that monster, nor be trusted to jail it.
It took a long time of sitting there, thinking of the regrets that awaited her, before she could let her horn go dark. Yet she hadn’t quite decided against it; it was still the only thing that could possibly make her feel better. She knew it was a matter of minutes before she changed her mind and went to its cage.
What she had to do now would be severely humbling, but it was the only safety measure sufficient. She brought a glow to her horn, and willed herself where she needed to be.
Her teleportation spell dropped her in the hallway, not far from her bedroom door, in front of a surprised solar princess.
“Oh! Hello, Luna, I was just coming to see how you were –”
“Celestia, I need your help.”
Her sister’s brow furrowed in concern. “What’s wrong?”
Luna set her jaw, and gave her next words in as matter-of-fact a tone as she could. “I need you to watch me. If I’m left alone, I’m going to wake it up. I need for you to be there to stop me.” A slight hitch crept into her voice as she concluded “I’m s-sorry to ask.”
Celestia’s expression had moved through sympathy and settled on reassuring calm. “No, you don’t need to be sorry,” she said. “I’m glad you told me. Of course I’ll stay with you.”
“What of the party?”
She shook her head. “It’s just a party. They’ll get on without us, I’ll invent some excuse.”
“Don’t tell them –”
“Of course not, I wouldn’t do that to you. Would you like us to go to our parlor? We’re certain to have privacy there.”
Luna cringed internally, remembering that Celestia would want to ask her what brought this on. “Yes … I suppose that’s best.” As they walked side by side through the hall, Luna felt her sister’s wing on her back; it wasn’t the gentle, friendly touch she often gave, but had a particular weight and tension, her leading edge curving over Luna’s shoulder, and she didn’t withdraw it. It felt as though she was preparing to grip Luna to her side. Celestia was keeping a smooth face, but that gesture gave away her worry.
In going to their private room, the two crossed paths with one of their staff, and Celestia called her over. “Clarity?”
She stopped in her tracks and turned to face Celestia. “Yes, highness?”
“A message to our guests in the west wing ballroom, if you’re able. Inform them that Luna and I must attend to a classified matter of national security –”
Luna swallowed; that wasn’t technically a lie.
“ – and while they are welcome to continue their dinner, their princesses will be away for the evening.”
Clarity nodded, and trotted off to deliver word to the nobles.
Celestia looked to Luna as they walked. “You missed the meal, sister. Would you like – what?”
She’d quite noticeably flinched. “Could you please not call me that right now? I can’t explain why, just – please.”
Looking confused, Celestia replied “I – alright. I was going to ask, should we have your food brought up?”
Her stomach was nowhere near settling. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry.” Luna looked at the floor as they got closer to the parlour, knowing that at the moment, she was focussed on handling the danger and preventing the monster’s release. But once they reached that little room and she had time to dwell on what had landed them here, the looming turmoil would come crashing down. This was going to be a very long day.