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Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
-Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
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Canterlot Royal Palace, West Tower
Third Functionary Suite "The Ever-Fragrant Delphinium"
10 AM, 5th day of the Month of the Lyre (June)
31st Year of the Restored Sisters, Full Measure; 7 Cockatrice 93 Fetlock, Adjusted (Conversion N/A)
Along the bottom of the cup, almost irresolvably fine flakes of tea were still rocking back and forth. Did it still taste the same? One of the indigo curtains by the open window curled luxuriantly in the intermittent breeze, but nopony saw it, for they were all fixated on the teacup, or on the placid face of its owner. Celestia's lips felt dry, and she licked them unconsciously. Four heads leaned toward her in anticipation.
Celestia suppressed a grin, then with deliberate slowness craned her neck until her head was nearly on its side, her curious eyes never straying from the teacup. She mentally counted to seven, then began to raise her head once more, coaxing another round of leaning from her audience. As her head was nearly upright, she had to fight to keep her ears from twitching at the small intake of breath from Autumn Glow, then, giggling inside like a filly who just found the family sugar bag, she paused for a beat before, with preternaturally elegant slowness, rolling her head to the other side. Now even Autumn Glow held her breath, while Celestia held another seven count.
"You know..." she said, her head still suspended sideways, causing one of her curled sideburns to droop across her cheek and muzzle. Every mare in the room but Luna, failing to conceal her own amused smile, was a statue. "I think..." She quickly licked her lips again. "...That really, every cup of tea tastes a little different. ...Wouldn't you agree?"
The three Mares in Waiting seemed to melt with relief. Celestia closed her eyes and smiled with genuine amusement, before following their example and letting her own head pull her over sideways onto the black satin cushions, the air in them escaping with a soft hiss. She nuzzled her face into them for a moment before gently exhaling, feeling the tension in her body replaced by contentment.
No, it hadn't tasted the same, but it was still good tea, from good ponies, and that's what mattered. She let her mane waft over her face and replace the crisp yellow daylight filtering through her eyelids with its own subtle glow—She didn't need her work following her here.
But of course, as the ruler of Equestria, work would indeed follow her inside even her own skull. No. She was the co-ruler. Ensconced in her little mane fort, Celestia hadn't noticed her sister's approach until Luna nuzzled her exposed neck.
"Thou'rt a very imp of Tartarus, dear Sister!" Celestia heard her lilt, then felt her sister's weight tug on the cushions underneath her.
"I know..." she responded drowsily from underneath her mane, then languidly shifted, almost seeming to ooze among the disturbed pillows. Her exposed wing fluttered briefly as she found the right spot.
Luna leaned toward her ear. "Prithee drink, ere from the steaming cup hath steam its warmth and flavor sapped."
"I will... But you know I don't like it as hot as you... Right now... Right now I just want to ruin your cushions with little white hairs and feathers..." She shifted again and then nickered decadently for emphasis.
Luna laughed softly. "Betimes I think the younger station thine must be, and mine the older..." She glanced back at the low table, a circular slab of obsidian inlaid with elegant platinum constellations, which were at the moment covered by tray upon tray of confections, arrayed around a small plain white teapot. The things those three poor mares had gone through to recover such a seemingly common piece of cookware...
The Mares in Waiting around the other two thirds of the table were now giggling amongst themselves, partly from the tableau of the two sisters but overwhelmingly more so from relief—Celestia was kind and merciful and just, but her immense age conferred on her a perspective and grandiosity that often made her seem capricious or manipulative, and an aloofness from the everyday that kept her from even realizing it, like a farm pony never imagining what geographic calamities his hoofprints were to the ants in his field. While Celestia was only harsh with her subjects in cases of overt maliciousness or gross irresponsibility, failing or otherwise upsetting her simply involved a... drifting away. With her infinity of other commitments, a pony might simply find herself no longer on Celestia's mind, a position that hurt almost more in a way, because the sadness on both sides was so apparent.
While she used her own sociability as a powerful tool to coax good behavior from her ponies, you never knew exactly where you stood with Celestia, and "I'm tired" was the height of the vulnerability she showed to even her closest confidants—For one thousand years. Since the return of her sister she'd occasionally shown a new side in the presence of those she truly trusted. Or perhaps it was a very, very old side. Whatever had unlocked it, seeing it was admission to her innermost of innermost circles—The "Terminal Dogma" of the Sun Princess.
Luna levitated a crumbly wing-shaped biscuit off a tray and brought it close to Celestia's nose still peeking out from under her hair, making her nostrils briefly twitch. "Care'st thou for a cookie, then, child?" Luna cooed, moving the treat back and forth. Celestia gave a weary, truculent groan, but her nose still subtly tracked the moving cookie. "Heeere cometh ye ship of the air! 'Aye, a shiny bit for she whose eye first fixes the mouth of fair Celestia!'"
She brought the cookie closer, but with a faint, drowsy "noooooo..." Celestia tucked her head down into her forelegs, then folded a wing over herself—About as close as the towering alicorn could get to curling up into a ball. From under her wing came the tiniest whine, thoroughly colored by a smile. "...Stop talking like thaaat...you know I hate iiiit...!"
Luna laughed. "Thou plays't a waif again, as if by play could thine own royal carriage be free from artifice or guile!" She turned back to the other mares. One of them immediately grinned, and amid a flurry of giggles from her compatriots nosed forward a tray of tiny, individually baked cake slices, each frosted in a way that mimicked the stained glass of the palace. But she started back as, with almost predatory swiftness, Celestia snapped the now unattended cookie out of the air with a deliberate "nom," then just as swiftly retreated under her wing. Though her mouth was full, it was clear that what she mumbled from underneath was "gotcha."
"What's this!? Hast thy... OK, Tia, I s'pose you're right—This is getting rather exhausting. It's almost funny, I didn't think I'd take to modern Equestrian this quickly, but it really is simpler."
"That'f...mnufm... why we swiftched..." Celestia finished her cookie and then folded her wing before rolling onto her back.
"So plain, though."
"Hm..." A scintillating aura surrounded Celestia's teacup and it rose into the air before tracing a graceful arc to hover next to her. She raised her head and sipped. "Much better... I don't know how you drink it so hot." Another sip. "Mm, delicious as always." She turned her head to the three ponies at the table. "By all means, help yourselves, girls."
"Are... M..may we?" A petite unicorn named Tidepool sat up straight. "I mean, it's you and your sister's special..."
"It's all of ours, now. It was high time for the old thing to change, I think." Celestia closed her eyes and smiled warmly. Whether it was the snacks and tea or her sister switching out of Fancy Mode, something of Princess Celestia seemed to have reasserted itself.
The featureless white teapot was ancient, like the sisters themselves. It had always been "their" teapot—One of many, of course, but the oldest and their favorite. Like nearly all of the sisters' early lives, its provenance and original significance had been blurred by time to the point of erasure. Just as Celestia had "always" simply been the older sister and Luna the younger, the small white vessel was simply one of many things they had "always" shared.
And last week somepony broke it. An unnamed kitchen servant had shattered it while... well, that never came to light, actually, but the true offense was the conspiracy to hide the accident, orchestrated by the head butler on duty at the time, Consummate Poise. His determination to shield his subordinates was admirable, but at the same time his demanding of silence from them was the type of harshness and control Celestia did not want in her castle. The cleanliness of the halls and the aroma of the meals would not have their origin in fear.
The ancient teapot had so thoroughly insinuated itself into the castle's ambient Semantic Field that reconstituting it in a straightforward, material fashion was trivial for a magic user of Celestia's Olympian power, but as its history and intent of creation had become so scrambled over the millennia, perfectly recreating it in its every relational aspect to its surroundings, most importantly tea, would have been an undertaking on the scale of the Manehattan Project. That was for seals, or tomes, or the occasional suit of armor, but not teapots. Though the thought had flicked across her mind.
No, the project would be on the other end: She'd asked Consummate Poise to begin writing her letters, a method she'd developed about eight hundred years ago and since discovered dramatically improved her subjects' character and behavior, simply by getting them to be mindful of it. She never enforced compliance with the letter writing, though ponies generally kept up out of a desire to please or get close to her, or out of a fear of her she never seemed to be able to dispel.
Luna had been immediately on board when it was explained to her, and the relief to Celestia's workload was tremendous. Nevertheless, she always relished the final response she would send a pony, to the effect that the lesson had been learned and neither one of them needed to bother with any of this anymore.
The first letter from Poise had yet to arrive, but he was a busy stallion and likely hadn't had time to compose his thoughts. That wasn't important in the moment, though—A lull had appeared in both the princesses' schedules, and those were rare opportunities that couldn't be spent on anything but an entire day off.
Not that a part of her mind wasn't still grinding away at Equestria's problems—She was always the Princess, whether that aspect of her was in front or behind. Most recent on her list of troubles was yesterday's faint, incoherent pulse of magic from beyond the upper limits of the sky. It never reached Equestria proper, and nopony ever would have known about it but for the resonance it created in her sun, like a building ringing from a bird's tiny chirp. It was weak, simple magic—more a twitch than a spell—but from a place that should have been as magically frozen and unchanging as the glaciers that had entombed the Crystal Empire for all those centuries.
The thought of that thousand years of ice made Celestia savor the warmth of her sister next to her. She levitated her crown off her head and over to the table by the long couches built into the wall. Her hoof shoes followed, then her heavy, jeweled peytral, something she was always happy to shed, then leaned into her sister's side. "Missed you Lulu..."
"I was so tired..."
She used to cry every time. Weep, really—But almost fifteen years had passed since the last time her shoulders heaved and she hid her face and running nose from her sister's handkerchief. Now she would simply lie against her sister's chest, often under one of her wings, and sleep contentedly for an hour or so, but tiny snores still belied her discompusre. It would take more than a few decades to undo a millennium's heartbreak and self-reproach.
Luna wished she could disentangle her memories of her past with her sister from an eternity of dreams and hallucinations during her imprisonment, or the time-dilated visions she experienced while caught in the beam of the Elements of Harmony, but their early pasts were smeared into numberless different impressions, any or all of which might have some truth to them—Or none. Had Celestia always been so much taller than everypony else, and always so insecure about it at school? Had there even been schools when the two of them floated miles above Equestria and watched it slowly cool from magma constantly stirred by lightning and toxic rain? Were either of those memories true, or even memories? In a very real way, both sisters had lost Luna.
Luna gently stroked her sleeping sister's neck with a forelimb, the other tucked under her own chest as they lay on the cushions. Celestia's dreams could be just her own for today. Luna yawned and glanced across the table. It was the part of the afternoon where drowsiness seemed to have suffused the air itself: Autumn Glow was napping as well, no doubt intentionally in an arc of sunlight that made her auburn coat almost blaze, while Tidepool was using her telekinesis to unhurriedly comb the elaborate Manehattenite curls that Wandering Crescent had recently taken to wearing. Crescent herself had fallen asleep, her muzzle cradled in the spine of Voyages of Sea & Sky, Collected Tales vol. IV.
Some distant yelling in a thick Outer Cloudsdale accent made Luna momentarily raise her head. No doubt another airship captain had mistaken the local weather team's wide spools of unused cirrus clouds for a mooring spire, apparently not realizing that ponies aboard would then have to shimmy down the ropes that kept the spools from floating away. Luna could have projected her hearing to within a parasprite's breadth of the angry pegasus' lips, but the trust that ponies can work things out for themselves was one of the basic assumptions that made Equestria function.
It was fortunate she'd been pulled out of her reverie, because the sudden blast and shower of sparks might have otherwise made her launch herself into the ceiling. Wandering Crescent had in fact catapulted Tidepool's floating comb straight into her nose, which she was now rubbing between her fetlocks. The green smoke and sparks of the apparition quickly dissipated, revealing strip of paper that twisted in the spell's levitation field before falling at the sleeping Celestia's hooves. She stirred slightly but did not open her eyes.
It looked for all the world like a tiny scroll, and now that the fussy, pungent odor of the materialization fireworks had faded, she could tell it positively reeked of hemp. One edge of it was still sparking, little green tongues of flame racing along its edges before somehow slipping outside of the castle's local aether without actually dissipating. There was writing on one side, some of the letters obliterated by physical scorch marks that seemed to have nothing to do with its teleportation.
Dear Pr ess Ce st a,
Luna stared at it perplexedly—Neither she nor her sister had ever seen a letter arrive in this state, and she began tallying what she could discern about it. Likely from an earth pony or pegasus, judging from the practiced mouth-cursive script... The plant smell would seem to suggest the former. That butler Celestia had been expecting a letter from... Impeccable-Something... no, Consummate Poise, was an earth pony, but then so was Autumn Glow over there... And that charming Canopy Dew in the greenhouse, and Doc Coals (whenever you could actually find him), and Plowshares and his fat, weird little sister in the other greenhouse, and...
She was interrupted by a familiar magical aura intermingling with her own around the mysterious strip of paper. Looking down, she met Celestia's eyes, but only saw a flash of resignation before her face solidified into its royal impassivity. Luna, though disappointed, found herself adopting a similar expression.
Celestia calmly rolled away from her sister and brought herself to her hooves with a sharp flap of her wings. Luna released the paper, letting it float towards Celestia's face, then began to rise herself.
After a moment of examination, Celestia blinked and a frown flickered over her face, before her eyes suddenly shone with a brilliant white radiance and the regalia on the far table flashed back over to her with a bolt of searing gold light and a small thunderclap, suddenly resting on their owner as if they'd never been taken off.
Luna telekinetically parted the cushions between them, and walked over to stand beside Celestia. "What is it, sister?" She could sense Celestia's magic probing it, feeling along with her the tiny flames slipping through her grasp into invisibility.