For the palace of the princess, Canterlot Castle wasn’t much of what she’d expected. It was really just a large room, with an elegant chair on one end and a few seats for witnesses along the wall. Sunset walked in at the back of the group, keeping her head down. I can see why the Princess is renovating. The throne room she’s building is way more impressive than this.
The trip into Canterlot had been uneventful, painfully so. She couldn’t have said which train Flash Sentry had ridden in, but she hadn’t seen him again. Maybe that was for the best.
She had taken enough of a detour to visit a proper clothing shop, and got herself a simple dress that fit. It opened at the back for her tail, and so far as preserving her modesty she’d probably have rated it a solid 3 on the scale. But Sunset didn’t blush while she walked around anymore, didn’t even think as much about how naked she was. Sunset Shimmer had been in this world long enough that the casual nudity of the place had just become another part of life. It was hard to stress about something that literally everyone else in the world ignored.
Even Princess Celestia. She was a regal creature, taller than any pony she’d ever seen and with wings so wide that when she opened them to shuffle and move they seemed to fill the space around her. Her mane was even stranger, blowing constantly to a breeze that Sunset couldn’t feel, like it were on fire but didn’t actually burn.
Sunset had dyed her mane again, a fresh blue that concealed the several inches of red she’d been growing on tail and mane. She hadn’t cut it this time, just styled it back in a way that the barber had told her was formal. Apparently it was, because nopony at the palace looked down on her more than any of the others.
The group of scholars was ostensibly led by Gangplank, who formally addressed the princess and presented a large case of artifacts to her after a lot of bowing and ritual. But once that was out of the way, most of the actual questions were for Daring Do, or for the professors. Gangplank was really just a face.
There were hours of questions, about the various threats they had overcome and what the island had contained. Princess Celestia listened intently to all this, as though she cared about nothing else in the whole world. All the while her advisors and assistants watched with annoyance and barely suppressed boredom.
But then they brought up her name. “Moonrise here saved the expedition not once, but twice. Her quick thinking was instrumental in preventing more serious injury once the guardians got loose.”
“Guardians.” Celestia sat up, suddenly alert in her throne. She’d gone instantly from simple amusement to laser-focused interest. “Clay creatures, two legs. Gemstones for eyes?”
Polaris nodded. She kept her face neutral enough, but through the makeup Sunset swore she could detect some of the anger there, frustration with Celestia at not telling them about a danger she had known.
“They attacked you?”
“Not… specifically,” Polaris admitted. “They attacked anypony who got in their way. But it was Moonrise who stopped each one.”
“Incredible.” Celestia’s eyes now turned on her. Her horn glowed a faint white, and those eyes… they seemed to be boring straight through Sunset’s dress and into her soul beneath. There was a whole world of definition behind those eyes that just kept going, deeper and deeper. “The guardians were built as the ultimate weapon against unicorns. Enough of them could even threaten an Alicorn, since they resist spells so well. A unicorn defeated them?”
She could feel the expedition’s mood turn on her. They shifted, backing away from her uncomfortably. Only Polaris was unafraid, standing a few feet away.
“Yes,” she said. “Tell her how, Moonrise.”
“With, uh…” Sunset cleared her throat. “Princess. I didn’t use magic. I used projectiles. I shattered their eyes.”
Princess Celestia nodded. “That would do it. Though the skill to hit such a shot is impressive. Very interesting.”
Sunset withdrew into the back of the group, or tried to. But the archeologists and professors would no longer let her blend in. They backed away from her, as though standing nearby would attract Celestia’s ire to them as well.
But Princess Celestia didn’t press. She let the presentation continue until the very end. “I… would like to add a few things,” Polaris said, once the professors were filing away with their medals and rewards from the crown. Sunset had one too, a little gold sun around her neck with a moon beside it for valor.
“Of course, Polaris,” Celestia smiled, and Sunset knew then beyond a doubt that Daring Do’s secret identity wasn’t secret to the princess. “What is it?”
“My friend Moonrise… she has something she’d like to say to you,” she said. “Before she does, I just want to add: she really did do everything I said. The expedition might not have returned without her help.”
Celestia raised a wing. “The suspense is killing me. Save it for your books, please.” She turned, and once again Sunset felt her eyes on her. “I think I know what it is, anyway. Those guardians… would not have become aggressive unless they sensed a threat. I know your technique, you’re methodical, respectful with the sites you investigate. I believe they sensed her.”
Sunset swallowed, retreating a step from the princess. But it wasn’t like there was anywhere to run—there were gold-armored guards on both doors, and in front of her this giant of a pony with power radiating around her like a physical force. There was nowhere for her to go, and no way to get there. They did come for me. In the mess hall, it ignored everyone else. Then in the ruins, it came straight for me until Daring Do outright attacked it.
“I didn’t come here to be a danger to anyone,” Sunset said, her voice weak. “I didn’t… threaten anyone. Didn’t hurt anyone.”
“Perhaps.” Princess Celestia’s voice was stern. Her eyes were two torches now, so bright that she had to look away. They could see her every fault. Every lie she’d ever told while here in Equestria. Every mistake she’d ever made. Flash Sentry’s disappointment. “Perhaps not. I’ll soon decide. Tell me what you came to say.”
“I, uh… I got here a few months ago,” she said. “In the middle of the night, just after the solstice. I’d been planning for a long time… but I didn’t know what would be on the other side of the portal. I only knew that everyone agreed there was magic here. That maybe, if I was lucky, I could come here to learn about it. There was nothing protecting the portal in my world, nothing to stop me, no warnings about what was over here. I just… passed through.”
“From the other side of the mirror?” Celestia’s eyebrow went up. “Oh, that’s all? Here I thought perhaps one of the echoes of the last generation had returned.” She grinned, though there was still darkness in her eyes. “I would’ve welcomed a visitor to my castle. But I… don’t remember ever receiving any. And I should know—the mirror has been under heavy guard, ever since—”
“It was that night,” Sunset interrupted. Shocking enough that Daring Do actually gasped, staring at her in horror. Obviously she wasn’t supposed to do that. But Sunset didn’t care. “That was when I arrived, Princess. See… when I got here, I ran. It seemed like… your whole castle was already searching for me. I was already a criminal and I hadn’t even stepped through the door.”
Celestia had fallen silent now. Sunset couldn’t read her expression—whether it was overflowing with anger about to scour her from the castle floor, or if she was amused, or maybe that she didn’t care. Sunset couldn’t tell. So she went on.
“I think someone with my name, my face… I think she did something really bad. I don’t know what it was. But I… it wasn’t me.”
“Your name,” Celestia whispered. “The name of someone with a bright yellow coat and a sun as her cutie mark?”
She nodded. “Sunset Shimmer.” Her magic was still weak, but not so weak that she couldn’t lift the side of the dress, just enough that the mark was visible. It was a good thing Celestia herself wore only shoes, or else she’d probably have felt incredibly stupid doing that.
But it couldn’t be stupider than everything else she’d done so far.
“You look…” Celestia blinked, wiping away a tear. It didn’t last long, only a second. The moisture steamed away on her feathers. “You look so much like her. That’s dye, isn’t it?” Celestia’s horn flashed, and Sunset felt a brief heat in her mane and tail. A quick glance told her what she’d suspected. Celestia had melted straight through the dye, leaving her hair bright red and yellow again, even back to the proper length. “Are you sure it… isn’t you? You’re really from the other side?”
She nodded. “I am. I came here to learn about magic. No one would believe me. My principal… god, she’s so much like you. It doesn’t make any sense. But I promise I’m not her.” She reached into a pocket, removing her few Earth artifacts she had left. Her levitation could hold all of them at once now, and not drop them. “This is my phone, my charger. The weapon I used to fight the guardians. It… won’t work again.”
A brief white glow from Celestia’s horn passed over the objects, then Sunset herself. She nodded. “Yes.” She sat up a little straighter, clearing her throat. “Of course. Sunset Shimmer—but not ours. Not the pony who defied my teaching. Not the one I wanted to save from herself. You’ve come to our world instead, and instead of needing rescue, you rescued others. But what do you want now? I take it you know the way the mirror functions. You know it won’t open again for over a year’s time.”
“I know,” Sunset answered. “Honestly, I… if you’ll permit me, princess… I’d like to stay for a while. Your world has so much magic, and mine has almost none. I hope one day I’ll find a way to bring magic back with me. But if I can’t do that, then…” She lowered her voice. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to go back.”
Celestia was silent for a long time. In the end, her eyes fell on Daring Do. “This pony, this member of your expedition. Is she a danger to Equestria? Would you trust her around my subjects? I have always known you to be a good judge of character.”
The “bat” nodded without hesitation. “She did good by my camp. Cooked good meals, did her work on time, saved my ponies. I don’t know about the guardians targeting her, but I know she stopped them. Saved my life.”
“Then… I think we can make room for her,” Celestia finally said. “For as long as she wishes to stay.”
A few months later…
Sunset Shimmer woke to the sounds of the birds. There was no radio to listen to as she woke, no television spewing the latest depressing bit of news, and no memes to scroll through on her phone.
By the time she’d finished washing her mane with strawberry soap and pinning it back in a bun, there was a faint knock on the door. She didn’t have far to go—the apartment had only the two rooms. She dodged around an old table, then opened the door wide.
“Mornin’ Sunset!” said the milkpony, offering a metal cart with her day’s groceries. A tiny glass container of milk, some fruit, and half a loaf of oat bread.
“Morning Speedy!” she responded, taking the tray and exchanging the six bits it was worth with the faint green glow of her magic. “Interesting route today?”
“Same as every day,” he responded, tipping his brimmed hat. “Which means it’s great. Nice to see everypony first thing in the morning. Enjoy your class.”
“I always do.” Sunset smiled politely, then shut the door. With no distraction but the birds and no light but the sun coming in through her window, Sunset read from a book as thick as her hooves about the “Transcendental application of tass modulation of low thaumic fields”, until her clock chimed for seven.
Then it was down three flights of steps, and out into the cobblestone streets of Motherlode. Well, “streets” was a bit generous—there was only the one, and dozens of little dirt roads that ran to various farms and little mining operations along the route. She smiled to all her neighbors, and enjoyed a few words of polite conversation with some.
She didn’t have far to walk—Motherlode’s old schoolhouse was only a block away, right beside the old brick of city hall. She unlocked the front door with a rusty key from around her neck, then spent the next hour or so preparing her classroom.
There were ten desks, but only six of them would be used. She greeted Limelight, Crimson Flame, and Zenith in turn, taking the little unicorns’ homework assignments and accepting a polished apple from one instead.
“You know I’m still giving you a zero, Limelight,” she said, taking a bite anyway. “I asked for a rune diagram, not for breakfast.”
“I know.” He stamped and pawed at the ground, ears flattened with embarrassment. “But I was gonna bring it anyway, I swears.”
“I’m sure you were.” Sunset patted him on the head, then returned to the front of the classroom. “Welcome to Motherlode magical kindergarten, class. If you’ll open your textbooks to chapter four…”
Class only lasted three hours—the children were needed for work at home, and that was all their parents would give them. Even that seemed like a great relief to her students. Sunset waved them goodbye a little before lunch, then went to work sweeping the little schoolhouse, cleaning the board, and preparing for the next day.
Somepony tapped lightly on the door as they stepped inside. “Afternoon, Sunset.”
“Not quite.” Sunset looked up. An earth pony stood in the doorway, with an oversized hat and a purple cape that seemed to go on for days. “You made it all the way out to Motherlode, AK Yearling?”
“Didn’t have much of a choice.” She crossed the room in a few strides, betraying the athleticism of the pony hiding in all that costume. “You could’ve picked a better town to hide in. You know the train up here only runs once a week?”
“Oh, I know. Had to eat grass the first time I thought I could just visit a convenience store for what I needed.” She winced at the thought, sticking her tongue out in disgust. Just because ponies could didn’t mean they should.
“The express leaves tomorrow,” AK Yearling went on. “And you’re coming with me.” She reached into her robes, and removed something wrapped in dark cloth, settling it onto Sunset’s desk.
It looked like a huge chunk of broken coral, except that it was covered in runic marks. Sunset could feel the magic still radiating from it, like an afterimage after looking into the sun.
“It’s from down south,” the pony went on. “Ever heard of the Hippogriffs? No, obviously. Well, they were experts with enchantment. Look of this thing… seems like some of their old creations might still be intact.”
Enchantment, the one kind of magic that could keep working even in a magical dead zone. “Looks interesting,” Sunset said. “Let me talk to the mayor. I think I could get some time off.”