Journey's End

by GentlemanJ


Chapter 19

Chapter 19

Celestia hated paperwork, hated it with a powerfully pulsing passion. Her secretary had long known this and even managed to devise a barometer for the Solar Sovereign’s moods based on her reactions to a stack of documents. A weary sigh meant a pleasant mood, a muttered grumbled meant a foul temper, and a series of choice expletives that one would never expect to hear from a princess’s mouth signaled a retreat to the hills.

But when Celestia stopped complaining altogether? That was when you really had to worry.

“Um… Princess?” Day Planner called as she peaked a nervous head in. “A moment?”

From her overflowing desk, Celestia raised her head and fixed her assistant with a bleary eye.

“… Day,” she blinked, as if waking from a dream. “How are the Crystal Empire refugees?”

“Ah, still coming in,” the assistant replied, straightening her thick framed glasses as she glanced over her clipboard. “However, there is a significant backlog at the station. It seems there just aren’t enough trains to deal with the numbers.”

“Buck, of course there aren’t,” the princess muttered darkly. Raising her ivory wand, Celestia gave it an irritable flick to summon a specific document from the sea of papers before her. “In that case, have this order posted to all the transit workers in Canterlot. I want every bus, taxi cab, and courier service to head for the Crystal Empire within the hour.”

“But ma’am, what about the energy shortages?" Day Planner blinked. “Outfitting so many vehicles for the long drive will be a huge strain, and we barely have enough to keep the power on as it is.”

“Then turn some more lights off,” the princess replied with mounting exasperation. “I don’t care if we have to put Canterlot under rolling blackouts, I want those drivers on their way and fast or so help me, somebody’s going to the moon.”

Celestia probably hadn’t even realized she’d slipped into the Royal Canterlot voice and classical threats, but the stunned expression on her faithful assistance face made it abundantly clear. Immediately, her tone softened as she wearily closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Day, you didn’t deserve that. I’m just… a little stressed out at the moment. Stressed and tired.”

“Please don’t worry about me, princess!” Day Planner cried out, far more concerned for Celestia than a few harsh words. “Everyone in the palace – no, in the entire city, no, the entire country! – understands you’re doing your best. That’s why you can count on us one hundred and ten percent!”

Even worn out as she was, Celestia’s smile still shined with that same, radiant warmth.

“I know, and thank you,” she said in the gently regal tones her subjects all knew and loved. Rallying her strength once more, the princess sat up and rested a chin on folded hands. “Now, I know you didn’t come in to just let me vent. I take it you bring news?”

“Yes, princess,” Day Planner nodded as she quickly flipped through the clipboard. “The newest supply of gemstones and mythril came in. When Princess Zul’ hara and Security Director Roamanov heard our request, they emptied the storehouses and had them on the first transports en route for the pass.”

“Finally, some good news,” the princess said with a happy sigh.

“Indeed. Unfortunately, both apologize as neither are able to send military support. The ifrits suddenly began a new rampage against Saddle Arabia's borders and a new nether rift is keeping Stalliongrad's hands completely full. It seems that the source of our conflict is breaking out the world over.”

“Make sure to send them our sincerest thanks and tell them we understand completely.” Even as Celestia spoke, Day Planner’s enchanted quill was scribbling away. “Our job is to save the world, and we wouldn’t want to stop one threat merely to fall victim to another. The people and their safety must always come first.”

“Understood,” the attaché confirmed. “Also, we’ve gotten requests from the Tower mages to borrow some of the exhibits from the military history exhibit. Turns out, a few of the pieces have unique properties that will aid in the upcoming battle.”

“Have Professor Dewey give them full access to whatever they need,” the princess ordered. “But make sure they keep a careful log of everything. Honestly, if even a single piece is out of place when this is over, Dewey will never let me hear the end of it.”

Even in times of trial, there was always time for a quick giggle.

“Anything else?” Celestia inquired, a faint grin on her face as her mood improved considerably. In light of that mood, Day Planner was almost reluctant to continue. She would of course – it was her job to bear all news, both good and bad – but she didn’t have to like it.

“One last thing,” she nodded with a pensive nibble at her lip. “I’ve arranged everything for tea this afternoon. Your, um… guest…. will be waiting in the north parlor.”

And just as quickly as the mood had improved, it soured into old vinegar.

“Ah, yes,” Celestia grimaced. “I’d almost forgotten about that.”

Day Planner highly doubted that, but she knew a rhetorical statement when she saw one.

“I know you’re not particularly looking forward to it,” Day Planner offered gently. “But look on the bright side. While you’re having tea, I’ll be here dealing with your paperwork. Surely, that’s something to remember, right?”

“Danishes over documents?” Celestia sighed wistfully. “If only I could do that every day.”

“Hardly,” her assistant sniffed in the very terse manner she’d seen old Feather Duster sniff. “It’d hardly become a princess to lollygag about while the country ran itself.”

“You have a point there, Day,” the princess laughed, a rich, singing sound that seemed equal parts sunshine and song. “Well, I suppose I might as well get on with it then.”

“Take your time,” Day Planner smiled. “Just… not too much time, okay?”

With a decidedly roguish and un-princess-like wink, Celestia got up from her desk and went to meet her delightful guest for tea.

*****

The walk through the castle was a rather dreary affair. The halls that should have been a bustle of friendly faces and busy bodies now echoed with the footsteps of the lonely monarch. She’d known this of course. Hay, she’d ordered it, telling every liveried servant not tasked with crucial work to head on over to the amphitheater and help with the temporary shelter. It was a necessity of course, but that didn’t make the solitude a whit more pleasant.

Eventually, her graceful strides brought her to the parlor, an elegant room painted with pale rose and furnishings of a light golden wood and spring-hued fabrics. None of the lamps were lit, of course – the castle had been the first to cut back in these troubled times – but the strong afternoon sun that shined through tall, arched windows more than made up for the lack.

Not that Celestia really noticed any of this. Instead, all of her attentions were focused on her delightful guest sitting at the table with the poise of a queen on her throne. From the way she smiled over her porcelain cup, all cool amusement and haughty stares, you’d have thought Celestia were the prisoner and not the other way around.

“Well well well, look what the cat dragged in,” Chrysalis smirked as she set her china down with a delicate clink. “Now I know you’re busy, what with Armageddon looming and what not, but you could at least take the time to do up your hair, could you not?”

Celestia’s smile was a picture of perfect serenity only slightly marred by the faint tightness of her lips. Her hair was perfect and Chrysalis knew it. After all, how do you mess up hair that shined and shimmered like the aurora on a clear winter night? But the goad was obvious, and so, the princess held her tongue.

“Chrysalis, so nice of you to join me,” the solar sovereign graciously replied as she took a seat opposite the Changeling queen, as if the meeting hadn’t been meticulously arranged beforehand. “It’s not often I get to have tea with those who tried to have me killed.”

“Ever with the melodrama,” Chrysalis chuckled as she pulled a small petit four onto her plate. “All I wanted was to share a bit in Equestria’s love. Surely, you have enough to spare?”

“Perhaps,” Celestia primly nodded as she poured herself a cup of Earl Grey. “Although, launching an invasion is a rather peculiar way to go about asking.”

“Details, details,” the Changeling dismissed with an airy wave of her fork. “But I’m sure you didn’t come just to reminisce, did you?”

“Not at all,” the princess replied with a small shake of the head. “Rather than focusing on the past, I was thinking that we might look towards the future.”

There was almost no change in the queen’s beautifully haughty face, but the slight flicker in emerald green eyes and faintest of catches in her breath gave clear indication of her notice.

“Why, what ever could you mean?” Chrysalis rejoined with wide-eyed innocence as she took a dainty bite of cake. “You know as well as I that the Changelings are under Equestrian control. We have no future except what our gracious overlords provide.”

“And if you could change that?” Celestia continued, pointedly ignoring the biting mockery in those cold words. “If you had a chance to regain your kingdom and throne, would you?”

A flawless mask of marble stillness met the solar sovereign’s gaze. From the way Chrysalis sat, as cool and still as the glossy chitin on her limbs, it seemed that not even butter would have melted in her mouth. But in her eyes, a faint spark ignited.

“That depends,” Chrysalis drawled out with languishing ease, “on what the mighty Celestia would require of me.”

Fine porcelain clinked onto its saucer.

“The Changelings. All of them. Every last warrior drone and spell caster you have fighting with us in the battle against Nul.”

“You ask for our extinction.”

“I ask for our survival.”

“It would never work,” Chrysalis dismissed. “Were we to marshal all our forces as you wish, who would be left to gather food for the hive? We might survive the battle, but our powers would be drained in total. We waste enough away as it is and this would be thehair that shattered our backs.”

Celestia didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to, because she could hear the truth in everything she heard. Though Chrysalis sat tall, all cool pride and imperial regality, there was still a thin frailty about her slender form. Her time in Equestria had helped her recover, but not even the months of rest and care could fully remove the shadows beneath her eyes or the shallowness of her pale cheeks. Perhaps she exaggerated the direness of their straights for the sake of negotiation, but it hadn’t been by much, if any at all.

“I thought as much,” Celestia slowly nodded as she selected a small, strawberry cake. “And that is why I am prepared to help.”

A slender eyebrow arched in question.

“The Changelings may feed on the gathered armies. With thoughts of protecting their homes and loved ones foremost in every mind, your soldiers should be able to fill themselves with moral left to spare.”

“An interesting proposal,” Chrysalis nodded, no longer able to hide the gleam in her eyes. “And what of afterwards?”

“When the battle is won, you may refill yourself on the victory celebrations. Once fully replenished, you may take the Changelings back home if you swear to abide by our treaties once more. This includes keeping rogue agents from their more… colorful activities.”

Chrysalis smiled. No longer trying to hide her interest, that smile was one of a stalking predator, all fangs and hunger and delight over fresh prey. Celestia thought she might pounce on the offer there and then like a viper onto a chubby mouse.

But who was Chrysalis if not one for surprises?

“You offer good terms,” the Changeling queen smiled sweetly as she sipped her tea once more. “Ideal terms in fact, if not for one small detail.”

“Oh?” Celestia intoned. “And what might that be?”

“Me. Everything you’ve offered is for the good of my people, but I’ve yet to hear any offers to interest myself in particular.”

Teacup clinked against its saucer a little more loudly.

“I have already offered you your freedom,” Celestia replied, her words far too level and composed for anything but intentional control. “And you still say that does not interest you?”

“Oh, it certainly does,” Chrysalis smiled. “But then again, you’re the one who imprisoned me in the first place.”

The princess was tempted to meticulously explain that the imprisonment had resulted from an assassination attempt on her own life. However, considering that doing so would likely end with her taking swings at the Changeling monarch, it was probably not the most diplomatic of options.

“Well then,” Celestia sniffed. “What do you want?”

“Not a what,” Chrysalis smiled, all predator once more. “A who.”

Celestia’s hard gaze was definitely not amused. But then again, neither was the Changeling’s.

“… You may feed on me as you wish,” the princess finally acknowledged through gritted teeth, “but only so long as it doesn’t interfere with my duties.”

The laughter that arose from the Changeling was as grating as it was surprising.

“Oh my dear, sweet Celestia,” Chrysalis chuckled, “I don’t want you.”

“You… don’t?” Celestia blinked.

“My word, no. I got a taste of it during my last visit. Potent, yes, but terribly bland.”

“The love I have for my people has never wavered,” the princess answered as a subtle glow began to suffuse her skin. “If you’re suggesting–”

“Nothing of the sort,” Chrysalis smiled. “Your love as a ruler is admirable, and your affections as a mentor are simply luscious. But the taste of Celestia herself is, oh, what’s the word… stale? Yes, that’s it. You’ve let yourself go far too long without a little spice in your life.”

“My apologies for not suiting your tastes.” The frostiness in Celestia’s words could have frozen the teapot solid.

“All is forgiven,” Chrysalis laughed with her familiar, haughty chortle before she settled into a devious grin. “No, Celestia, I’m looking for a very particular taste, one I grew quite fond of in our tender month together. I’m sure you know the one.”

Silence.

Lavender eyes went saucer-wide.

“Surely you jest.”

“Surely I don’t,” the Changeling smirked.

“You’re asking for a married man.”

“As if it matters.”

“Who also happens to captain my royal guards.”

“Then replace him,” Chrysalis grinned, her fangs flashing almost as brightly as her viridian gaze. “Surely you have those who could take his place? What about the one with grey eyes, the scary one? Why, with him around, you’d hardly need a guard at all.”

“Cadance would never–”

“Cadance can take her objections and stuff them up her prissy little behind!” Chrysalis snapped with explosive force. Then, just as suddenly, she cooled, and a chill smile returned to its usual place. “You let me have my ex-fiance, and you get the might of the Changelings alongside you. You have to admit, it’s a very generous offer.”

“If we fall, you fall too,” Celestia breathed, scarcely believing what she heard. “Not helping us is as good as signing your own death warrant.”

“Only if you fail,” the queen smiled. “And judging by how hard you Equestrians are scurrying about, I’m willing to bet on the underdog in this fight.”

“You’d gamble the lives of your entire people for the sake of one man?” the princess gaped. Once more, Chrysalis bared a mouthful of fangs.

“I would,” she smiled, the expression as cold and hard as frozen chitin. “And that’s why you have no choice but to give me what I want.”

Visibly unsteady hands raised a tea cup to her lips as the princess of the day tried to think. It was madness. Utter madness. She couldn’t just... just give someone away like a stuffed bear at the carnival, especially not someone as crucial to their battle plans as he. It was an utterly preposterous proposal that sent Celestia reeling from the pure audacity of the demand.

Or was it?

“Why him?”

“Pardon?” Chrysalis blinked.

“Why Shining Armor?” Celestia asked, her lavender eyes focused once more as she fixed the xenomorph with a considering look. “I understand you’re familiar with him, but to go for such lengths to secure him is peculiar, wouldn’t you say?”

“I told you, I liked his taste,” Chrysalis replied, all cool and airy dismissal. “It’s not like I have a particular fondness for him, after all.”

“In that case, why not take Live Stone? He’s newly married, just like Shining Armor, but also dying to conduct an anthropological tour of the Changeling Hive. I’m sure he’d prove much tastier than a man forced to leave, would he not?”

“Well, true…” Chrysalis admitted, visibly surprised by Celestia’s sudden cooperation. “But that’s hardly all that matters. After all, Shining Armor is also an exemplar of military discip–”

“Then I’ll throw in Major Simo Hay as well. He’s a big fan of cold weather and the garrison we have would certainly suit his tastes.”

“Perhaps,” Chrysalis retreated, “but still, Shining Armor has a…”

“Great personality?” Celestia pressed. “Of course. In that case, how about we add on Fighting Sainthill? He’s a bit wilder, but there isn’t a soldier in Equestria who laughs nearly as much as him.”

“Maybe so, but...”

“And if you’re worried about the magical ability, don’t worry. Between the three of them, there should be more than enough to make up for Shining Armor’s talent.”

“But…”

“And this way, you’ll be getting four people to feed on instead of one, which means you can stuff yourself silly whenever you’d like.”

“But…”

“And if even they’re not enough, I’m sure we can find at least two or three more to round out the number. Why, I’m sure that after all of this, you’ll be–”

“But I don’t want them!” Chrysalis screamed, her gracious veneer snapping as she finally jumped to her feet in frustrated protest. “I don’t want Churchill or Simon or… or whoever those people are! I don’t care if you offered me a hundred others each more talented than the last, the only one I want is Shining Armor!”

Emerald eyes flashed. Breasts heaved with shortness of breath as the Changeling Queen’s tirade drew to a close. A stray wisp of verdant hair fell across her face, giving the usually graceful monarch a somewhat wild look, one that Celestia had not seen in many, many years.

“Why?” she repeated. “Why are you so insistent on Shining Armor?”

Chrysalis said nothing, perhaps because she had nothing to say or perhaps she didn’t trust herself to speak. But as she worked to regain her composure, a touch of color rose in her face. Understandable, really, considering her momentary exertion. It wasn’t surprising at all to see a rich hue come to those pale cheeks. Pale cheeks that steadily grew brighter and brighter even after she’d calmed down. Cheeks that…

And suddenly, Celestia understood.

“Chrysalis,” she gaped, glad she’d stayed seated or else she’d surely have fallen over. “Did you… Are you…”

It was strange to say, but the look on the Changeling’s face could only be described as sulking. Sulking and embarrassed as cheeks heated to points fit to shame the sun.

“Is it so surprising?” she shot back, though with borderline petulance replacing her usual barb. “I’m not so far gone as to have forgotten who I was. I still remember how it feels to be… well, you know…”

Celestia did, or at least she think she did. It’d been so long since she’d thought Chrysalis capable of such an emotion, so long since she’d last felt it herself. But she did understand, and to a point that surprised even her. Absentmindedly, she flicked her wand to restore the Changeling’s seat upright. Chrysalis looked like the last thing she wanted was to continue the conversation, but sit down she did, pouting lower lip stuck out and all.

Once more, Celestia refilled their tea. They sipped. The clock on the mantelpiece slowly ticked on.

“So… how did it happen?” Celestia asked delicately. Chrysalis mumbled something into her cup response.

“Pardon?”

“…”

“Could you repeat that?”

“…”

“I’m sorry, I still can’t…”

“Chocolates, okay? It was chocolates!” Chrysalis snapped as a fresh bloom of color rose in her face.

“… Chocolates,” Celestia repeated, unsure of what else to say.

“I know, silly isn’t it?” Chrysalis mumbled on through the flush. “They weren’t even particularly special chocolates, just something I’d nibbled on in one of the bridal shops. Well, you can imagine my surprise when a couple of days later, he just… waltzes on and drops a bag in my lap, grinning like a fool with magic beans.”

“That hardly sounds like much to me,” Celestia remarked. Chrysalis laughed.

“It wasn’t. But then I asked him why he did it. Do you know what he said?”

Celestia shook her head.

“He said, ‘What, I have to have a reason to see you smile?’”

Cheeks darkened till Chrysalis looked a week out under a blazing sun.

“Now I know what you’re thinking,” she continued, her words steadily picking up steam as she spoke. “You’re probably thinking, ‘gee, that’s nothing special, especially when you’ve got a man under mind control.’ Well, I hadn’t, alright? I only used mind control when it came to the shield he was holding up. Besides, it’s not like I could have even done it anyways. I didn’t know people could say such corny stuff, not even under a thrall. No, that was just him, being his usual, stupid, fool of a goof self. I mean, seriously, why was he even so happy that he’d gotten me a bag of stupid chocolates? Anybody could do that, you know? It’s not like he did anything special like… like–”

Realizing she was rambling, Chrysalis picked up her cup and downed the piping hot contents like she was dying of thirst. Only when she’d refilled her cup and repeated the process did she finally settled down to some semblance of normal control.

“So… there you have it,” she sniffed, a thin veneer of her usual haughty pride doing little to hide her colored face. “My stupid, silly reasons for insisting on an equally stupid and silly man.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid at all. Or silly,” Celestia replied. For a moment, it looked as if Chrysalis might actually believe her, which is what made the following so much harder to say. “But it would never work. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Don’t be so sure,” Chrysalis retorted with just a shade too much confidence. “I’m a Changeling, remember? The queen of a race who can take any form or figure she chooses. Why, with a mere though, I can make myself anything his little heart desires.”

“Everything but the one he really wants,” Celestia softly corrected. Those words brought a completely different sort of flush to Chrysalis’s cheeks.

“You don’t know that!” she snapped as spots of color marred her pale beauty. “You don’t know the sorts of things he told me, the promises he made.”

“The things he said to her, Chrysalis, not you!” Celestia shot back with just as much volume, if of a different sort. “You know that he never really saw you, so why chase after an illusion when you know it’s not real?”

Chrysalis’s laughter was seven shades of frost.

“Easy for you to say,” she smirked. “After all, it’s easy to criticize table manners when you’re not the one who’s starving.”

“You’re nowhere near that and you know it,” Celestia replied. “You have an entire people, a whole nation that adores you. How can you say you have nothing?”

“The Changeling’s worship me,” Chrysalis smirked, a look all dry mockery coming to her painted lips. “They idolize me and bask in my radiance because they have no choice. They pledge their allegiance and serve me to their dying day because that is all they could ever do. But let me ask you this. Which one of them actually cares about me? Which one of them would buy me trinkets on a whim or take me out for a stroll or… or just sit with me and cuddle because he wanted to be close? I have their loyalty, Celestia, and their undying admiration. I could use that to command them for anything my heart desired. But how is that any more real than the illusions I chase?”

Celestia wanted to reply. Somewhere through her long life, she must have heard something, some nugget of wisdom that would help Chrysalis understand. But as the Changeling spoke, something about her expression changed. The mockery faded and the barbs dulled till at last, there was only dim bitterness remaining in her smile. It was the same bitterness that had flickered behind the eyes of the Heavenly Lily, the one that had only grown as thousands upon thousands of admirers basked in the radiance of her beauty, basked before content to leave her all alone. It was the same bitterness she’d seen that final night before the rise of a baleful queen wreathed in viridian fire.

“Your brother wouldn’t want this for you,” Celestia finally said, the only words she could find. Chrysalis chuckled.

“My brother doesn’t want much besides crystals these days. But then again, we both know that, don’t we?”

Silence fell once more between the two as the tick of the clock slowly marked the passage of time. Celestia wanted to speak, but had nothing to say. Chrysalis had a thousand things to say, but couldn’t speak.

Slowly, the sunk sank towards the horizon.

“I will speak to Shining Armor,” Celestia finally said as she wearily rose to her feet.

“You… will?” Chrysalis blinked.

“It won’t make a difference,” the princess replied bluntly. “But the least I could do is pass on the message.”

What Chrysalis thought of the idea, she didn’t say. But the look in her eyes was not an angry one. At least that was something.

With a few final pleasantries and some obligatory formalities, Celestia left the queen in the parlor. For once, she was grateful for those empty halls. It was a long walk back to her room in the tower, and she wasn’t sure what she’d have said if she’d been forced to speak.

Finally within the sanctuary of her own room, Celestia sank into her chair even as the sun sank below the mountains. She almost didn’t realize she was moving, but a few flicks of her ivory wand opened a small cache beneath the richly embroidered carpet and the smooth marble tiles. She levitated a small wooden box towards her and in the fresh dark of night, opened its lid to sift through the contents as a thousand emotions and memories washed over her.

A small geode glowed as the amethysts within gave off a soft, warm light. The little boy who’d found it had loved shiny things more than any magpie, yet when he’d handed it over, all dusty and dirty and beaming with pride over his simple enchantments, he could have outshone the sun itself. Fresh as the day it was plucked, a pure white lily with the dew still fresh on its petals gave off a soft fragrance sweet as honeyed wind. She’d been older than he by then, but still just a timid little creature who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Yet when she’d given Celestia that flower, all flushes and shy glances away, the smile she’d flashed had been more beautiful than any bloom in creation.

Trinkets that they were, these were two of the treasures that Celestia had guarded through the ages, precious mementos of days long over. Perhaps it was because of their value that she never noticed the intruder until he spoke.

“You know, the whole brooding in the dark doesn’t exactly fit your sun princess persona.”

She didn’t need to look up to know that the voice was matched by glowing topaz eyes.

“Not now, Discord,” she replied, her words halfway between a groan and a growl. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” the trickster murmured as he took a measured step forward. “That’s why I thought I’d come and bring you a little–”

“Leave.”

Footsteps ceased.

“I beg your pardon?” he smiled, lips curved up but voice unsure. “I must have misheard, because I could have sworn that you–”

Celestia stood and rounded on the man, the aurora of her hair whipping about in an invisible gale as golden sunshine poured from her eyes.

You will go,” she ordered, her voice as sonorous as it was great and terrible. “And know this, traitor. If I ever you in my presence again, I will be the last thing you ever see.

Discord stood, topaz eyes wide as a mouth searched for words that would not come. So it was without a word that the man bowed, a graceful step as if to begin a dance before he vanished without a trace.

Slowly, the glow faded from Celestia’s eyes and her hair fell back to its usual, gentle billows. In the darkness of night that seemed twice as dim for the light before, Celestia once more sank into her chair, pressing palms to her eyes as the princess tried to ignore the return of an ache she’d thought long since forgotten.

At the very bottom of that chest, wrapped in cloth so that she might not have to look on it, lay the very first gift she’d ever received, a small, thin ring where gold and silver swirled about as freely as the clouds in the sky. It had been her favorite, once upon a time, and even without looking on it, she could have traced the infinite patterns she’d once held so fondly.

What was that Chrysalis had called her? Stale? Maybe she was right.

After all, what do you call a person who’d rather forget than regret?

**********