Sending her aura into the bag, Celestia rummaged around and picked out one of the tokens. She closed her eyes and smiled at the unexpected surge of excitement - this modern age certainly did have interesting entertainments - before glancing down at the token. It was a model of a dromedary which represented Bogucu Yangin. Celestia allowed herself a smile as she glanced around her court while they all examined their own tokens. Then she began to wrack her own brain as to what she could get her ally.
“Is that every creature, Smoke?” Celestia asked as she hid her token from view beneath one wing. Her young student nodded, clutching her own token tightly in her hooves to keep it hidden. “Very well. I shall create a teleportation circle to Hope’s Hollow later today for any who wish to use it for their ventures. Until then, my Court.” She waved at them lightly with her wings, dismissing them. They went their own ways at their own paces, Solrathicharnon grumbling to himself as he left quickly, Terror Wing only slightly slower and looking just as displeased, Zecora offering a respectful bow, Kindle doing likewise - bowing much lower and, therefore in his mind, much more respectfully, and spending at least fifteen seconds on platitudes, with Smoke lingering near him and then following in his wake when he finally left.
“So on a scale of one to ten,” a voice said from beside Celestia, “I give this about a...five. That is, the likelihood of this all backfiring horribly.”
Celestia did not allow any surprise to show as she turned to look beside her throne, and saw Yangin had settled down on one of its arms, the jinn looking back at Celestia with one hoof beneath her chin. “That’s only if we’re counting the chances of an open fight breaking out, of course, but you’ll be there and can take every creature in the room at once, so that’s why the likelihood is low,” Yangin said as she hopped from the throne’s arm and onto the ground, bracelet around one fetlock rattling slightly. “If we’re talking the chances of lingering animosity and anger...ten. Ten out of ten. Eleven, even.”
Celestia regarded Yangin, grinding her teeth slightly. But then she noticed the slight glint in the jinn’s eye. “Tell me, if we don’t include Solrath…?” she ventured.
Yangin returned the grin. “Oh, well, in that case, it drops to a two or three. Would have been higher, but…” Yangin shrugged. ”Well, Smoke got who she wanted, so that’s one disaster held off.”
Celestia chuckled as she rose from her throne, stretching her wings and legs before descending down to the floor. “Yes, I noticed the width of her smile as well. Fortune favored her, it seems.”
“Yes. Fortune,” Yangin agreed after some hesitation. She looked Celestia up and down as the two trotted. “She’s the lucky one, of course. Even if Smoke wasn’t head-over-hooves for Kindle, they still know each other. Otherwise you do know that most of this is going to be complete guesswork, don’t you?”
Celestia offered a shrug of her own. “Perhaps, But...it is a start. When I finally move more openly, I will need a Court that knows and understands each other. And quite aside from the practical concerns…” She shrugged again. “It will be...fun.” She closed her eyes, casting her mind back centuries. “I...honestly can’t remember the last time I took time for myself...”
Yangin’s silence was notable, and Celestia looked to her. She found the jinn had one hoof to her mouth, almost like she was trying to hold in her words, fighting back a grin as well. When she noticed Celestia staring at her, she sucked in a breath and cleared it. “I am absolutely not going to say anything to that,” she said in a very even voice, turning and walking purposefully away, head held high.
Celestia squinted after her, before her wings flared wide as she realized what Yangin had been holding back. “My exile in the Sun does not count!” She exclaimed.
“Yousaiditnotme!” Yangin exclaimed as fire and magic enveloped the jinn, and she disappeared in a flash of teleportation magic..
Celestia stared after her - then found herself chuckling, as much at herself in surprise as over Yangin’s antics. Had any other creature broached the subject of Celestia’s wrongful imprisonment in such a way, Celestia would have immolated them on the spot. But even leaving aside the dubious usefulness of flame against a jinn who was made of fire, Celestia realized she felt no real outrage. Shock, yes, but not anger, because she knew Yangin was only teasing, meaning no insult.
Celestia resumed her own trek from her throne room, shaking her head, revising her earlier thoughts. Yangin was not merely an ally...to Celestia, she was a friend, or as much a friend as Celestia could allow herself to have in these trying times. Both knew the sting of betrayal from family, and both knew what it was like to live in imprisonment. They had a connection.
So...what gift could be worthy of Celestia’s friend?
Hours later, teleportation magic took those of Celestia’s minions who wished to make use of it to Hope Hollows, and they scattered into the nearby village. Celestia could only hope that none in town would take particular note of an unusual influx of new visitors so close to Hearth’s Warming, or write it off if they did. It was a minor risk of discovery at best.
Celestia took a moment to fold herself up upon herself, or at least that was the best way to describe what she was doing. Her form shrank and proportions changed to those more typical of the pony race rather than her alicorn stature. Her mane and tail both ceased their burning, becoming natural pink hair, while her cutie mark changed to become a wisp of flame. Her wings disappeared, but she retained her horn, albeit shorter than before. Finally, she wrapped herself up in conjured, warm winter clothing, or she assumed it was warm, anyway. Celestia had never been cold in her life. She conjured up a mirror and looked into it, glancing herself over. “Hmm...Firedancer,” she said, picking a name for herself. She added a bit of red to her mane and tail.
Thus disguised, Celestia made her own way into town. This was not the first time she had masqueraded as a common pony and mingled with the peasantry, not by a longshot. She and her sister had once made a habit out of doing so, though Celestia had to admit that even without a thousand years exiled into her Sun, she was somewhat out of practice. Affairs of state had become too pressing in the years leading up to Luna’s betrayal for such indulgences.
However it was a familiar habit, and one easily slipped into again. She offered a pleasant smile to the ponies she passed by, who returned it. Some of them might have been followers of her in secret, and she wondered idly how they would have reacted to to knowing that their true Queen walked among them. She was tempted to go over to them and try and broach the subject, linger among them and hear their thoughts on the matter as she and Luna would once have done.
But no. She was here burdened with purpose, not merely for a lark. Celestia stepped up her trot, seeking out the market of Hope Hollows. It didn’t take long to find, and though it was small the town did boast a surprisingly eclectic assortment of goods. But what to get for Yangin? This was always the trouble with finding gifts for immortal, magical beings. Strictly speaking there was nothing Yangin needed, her magic would allow her to create just about any mundane item. A more potent magical gift may have been better, some artefact of power, but between the purity of the raw ingredients and the often difficult to meet arcane requirements to ensure potency, there simply wasn’t time to create anything, and Celestia was certainly not going to gift Yangin with an I.O.U..
Then of course there was the trouble of storage. Immortals tended to gather all manner of trinkets and sundries and items of sentimental value, which could make storage difficult. Celestia was certain there remained some lost treasure vaults somewhere in the world that contained gifts that she or Luna, or both of them, had been given over the millennia - well, no doubt the archaeologist who found them would think them treasure vaults, though storage shed was probably a better term. Perishable goods were perhaps a better choice of gift…
Just as Celestia thought this, she found herself trotting on by a bakery, and when the sweet scents within reached her she almost subconsciously found herself veering towards it. The interior didn’t disappoint. The counter’s front was made of glass, allowing Celestia to see scones, muffins, and small pastries within, all of them frosted in the red-and-green colours of the season. Behind the counter were shelves containing various fruit pies and gingerbread houses, while the countertop itself had on display a three-tiered yellow cake covered in white frosting like snow, powdered sugar to add to the effect, and with small gingerbread ponies and houses looking like they were cavorting in the snow…
“Ah, it would be better if you bought it first, ma’am,” a male voice interrupted Celestia. She came to her senses with her hoof already reaching out to grab a slice of cake, the blunt knife to do so already in her aura.
Celestia had a sweet tooth. It was her one true flaw.
She turned to look at the pony who had spoken, and found herself regarding an older blue unicorn with a vibrant yellow mane, moustache, and tail. Despite his admonishment, he was smiling at her. “My apologies,” Celestia said, though she couldn’t keep herself from glancing back to the cake, then to pony behind the counter. “It looks...delectable.”
“I should hope so!” Another voice said, belonging to a green-coated-and-maned unicorn. She came up alongside the stallion, taking his hoof into one of her own. “Took Bakewell here all morning to make.”
“And you were my muse throughout, Deblas,” the stallion said with a loving nuzzle before turning to look at Celestia once more. “Bakewell and Deblas Hoofington. Welcome to our bakery.”
Celestia inclined her head. “Firedancer,” she said, giving her disguise’s name. She looked to the cake, feeling her mouth water. She swallowed “Is this cake already bought?” She couldn’t keep the hunger from her voice.
“No, just something to add to the décor,” Bakewell said, waving around and indicating the Hearth’s Warming decorations throughout the rest of the bakery that Celestia had hardly noticed. “But it is for sale. Do you - “
Celestia had reached into the saddlebags she wore as part of her disguise and withdrawn a money purse, which contained authentic coins that had been summoned from her treasury back in the palace, before any more syllables could be uttered. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had any cake - what with directing her forces and efforts to liberate Equestria from her sister’s rule, she hadn’t had the time for personal indulgences. She magically floated silver bits from the bag. “How much?” she asked.
The Hoofingtons stared a moment at her desperation, but Deblas chuckled, stepping forward. “For the whole cake? Sixty bits. We had been planning on portioning it out…”
The part of Celestia still trapped a thousand years in the past balked at the thought of paying so much - in her day a cake like this would likely not have cost even two silver coins - but she told that part of her mind to brush up on basic economic concepts and instead divided out the sixty bits for the Hoofingtons. “A bargain at half the price,” she said.
“I’ll get it boxed up, then!” Bakewell said happily.
Celestia was confused for a moment, but supposed that, yes, it would be unseemly to eat the entire thing right now, no matter that she easily could. Still, she did take up the cake-cutting knife once more, slicing out a triangle for herself. “I have to have some now, though…” she said, taking the slice into her aura and biting into it…
The Elysian Fields. That was the name that Celestia believed the next world possessed, the one that ponies’ souls passed to if they led good lives and died full of virtue. And there was no doubt in Celestia’s mind that in the Elysian Fields, the ponies always had cake this good. Maybe it was the centuries without it, but the crumbling sweet bread in her mouth, the delectable, almost gooey frosting, the gingerbread that she bit into, the tiny specks of sugar...Celestia was aware of falling back onto her haunches and letting out a hum of satisfaction, and she didn’t even care.
“That’s my Bakewell,” Deblas Hoofington commented, grinning with her head in her hooves while she regarded Celestia.
When I rule Equestria again, he will be my personal chef, Celestia decided. She finished her slice, and only with a supreme act of immortal will prevented her from having any more cake as Bakewell and Deblas boxed up the remainder. Once it was out of sight, however, the guilt set in. Not guilt over the cake, of course, the slice she’d eaten had been reasonably modest. But it was almost like a spell was broken, and Celestia realized that she had come into this town looking for a present for Yangin, her friend...and had instead bought a cake that she fully intended to eat herself.
But then she recalled her musings about getting gifts for immortals. Perishables did tend to be slightly preferred...at least at the moment, what with Yangin being a new friend whom Celestia didn’t know that well yet. Perhaps…
“Tell me,” Celestia said, “I am...looking for a gift for Hearth’s Warming for a new friend of mine. Do you do commissions? If I made a request, could you fulfil it before Hearth’s Warming?”
The Hoofingtons exchanged glances. “Hmm,” Bakewell said. “Well, in a town this small I don’t exactly have many orders ahead of me,” he remarked. “This would be very last-minute…”
“Money is of no consequence,” Celestia said, opening her saddlebags once more and producing three more money purses to compliment the still more than half-full one that lay on the counter. “If you cannot fulfil the request, I will understand. But this friend of mine, though new, is also very dear.”
Bakewell looked to Deblas. “Well...what did you have in mind?” Deblas asked.
Celestia grinned. “Have you heard of the Kuleler Sehri, the City of Spires? The capital of Naqah?” She conjured up several sheafs of paper, and charcoal to draw with. The two Hoofingtons looked startled at her magical display, but she paid them no mind as she began sketching - while she may have lacked her sister’s full artistic talents, she was not completely inept. “There is a particularly large temple to the Naqahn Prophet there, and as I recall, it looked like so…”
Celestia had produced sketches of the temple from multiple angles, her lack of natural talent made up for with forty thousand years - give or take a few centuries - of practice in doodling. It had been more than enough for the Hoofingtons to work off of, and she had not been lying when she said that money was of no consequence.
The principal building material for this recreation was gingerbread, of course, creating a square base that was two feet on a side, and rising in multiple tiers to nearly eighteen inches in height. Buttresses and arches adorned it, and it was topped with a great dome with lesser domes in lower tiers, while two-foot gingerbread minarets rose at each of its four corners. Details suggesting doors and windows had been added with frosting in various colours, principally red, while white frosting and powdered sugar spread across it gave it the appearance of having been recently snowed upon.
Given the timeframe it probably should have been impossible to make, but unicorn magic had helped to speed things along, allowing the baking and handling of multiple portions at once. Celestia had also enchanted the Hoofingtons without their knowledge to be instilled with vigour and wakefulness, an inability to sleep without the compromising side-effects. It was a dangerous spell if used too often, but a single extra night’s work was harmless enough.
So when Celestia returned on Hearth’s Warming Eve the following day, pulling a cart that strictly wasn’t necessary for her but which she would need to help sell her disguise as a unicorn, she entered the Hoofington’s bakery to find a gingerbread recreation of the Great Temple of the Prophet waiting for her in all its glory.
“What do you think?” Bakewell asked, smiling brightly, a slightly manic look in his eye that was matched by his wife’s. “Not bad for a last-minute commission! And I have to say one of the most unique things I’ve ever created!”
“I almost hate to see it go,” Deblas said, “and no time to advertise it! I’m sure there’s a contest going on somewhere that this could have been entered into. My Bakewell was up all night working on it, and I helped...we were like muses for each other!”
Celestia fought back a wince. Perhaps she’d put a little too much energy into her wakefulness spell. “You have outdone yourselves,” she said, and was quite truthful about that, at least, as she used her magic to lift up the gingerbread temple and set it into a waiting box, folding it up herself while the two unicorns jittered with energy. “I will definitely remember you in the future, but for now…” she subtly reached out with her magic, withdrawing her spell, “you seem tired. Perhaps an early night - “
“Sounds good,” Bakewell mumbled as the spell left him and his eyes fluttered. Both unicorns immediately fell as sleep overtook them. Celestia caught them in her magic before they could hit their heads, laying them down on the floor. Despite being unconscious, however, they husband and wife sought each other out instinctively, snuggling up to one another. Their breathing was steady and strong, and when Celestia poked Deblas she mumbled a little and reacted. Not in a coma, then, merely asleep.
Celestia clucked a little, letting her horn glow brightly, transporting the two upstairs to their bed. They’d earned the rest. She would definitely have to give more of a lead-time to any Hearths’ Warming activities in the future, particularly if Bakewell was going to be her personal pastry chef.
Speaking of, she double-checked the Great Gingerbread Temple of the Prophet in its box. Only the knowledge that she still had some of the cake she’d purchased the previous day waiting for her back in her palace prevented her from grabbing a bite. She closed up the box and brought it outside to her waiting cart, making sure to lock the Hoofington’s door behind her as she went.
Now all that remained was to give Yangin her present...her delicious present...her scrumptious gingerbread present...her positively divine looking Great Gingerbread Temple…
This was going to be a very long wait for Hearths’ Warming day.