Nearly a month since the ‘laughter’ incident had passed before Solaria had learned something entirely unexpected about the ponies in the hidden village, at a celebratory event that the commoners called a ‘party.’
Solaria nearly tripped over the galloping herds of foals more than once as she made her way over to the familiar cloaked shape of Lulu. “What is the purpose of this event? I know of no significant event that requires such a gathering,” she asked as she surveyed the anarchy of the scene. A significant number of adults had apparently found time to leave their usual work to attend, and were all helping set up decorations and conversing with the others that were present.
“Cloudy and Skipper got their marks!” Lulu said, as though it explained everything. “And Pansy’s mark changed entirely! We used to have a party once a year to celebrate whenever ponies got their marks or whenever they changed, but I think it’s because of you that we have the chance to celebrate early this year!” The scarred unicorn’s wide smile was visible from the folds of her cloak.
Solaria had thought to inquire further, but something Lulu mentioned gave her pause. “Because of me? Why do you think that?” There were no parties while I was on the throne…
“Because of your mark!” Lulu exclaimed cheerfully. “You showed up, and then you were such a hard worker that the field crews could take breaks! Everypony’s also talking about how everything is starting to thaw out, which means the sun’s slowly coming back, which means that the field crews have even more free time to help everypony, which let us have this party!”
The thaw… that isn’t possible! Solaria stretched her senses to the heavens and celestial body that she controlled, and she nearly stumbled with the shock of her discovery. It’s moving closer to the planet! I still control the orbit, but the distance is resisting my commands. Traveller… your end shall be slow and painful once I recover from your curse. Despite the well-worn nature of that particular oath, there wasn’t nearly as much fire in it as before. While it is frustrating to lose even a modicum of control… this change is tolerable. It will make the work of the villagers easier.
That idle thought caused Solaria’s gaze to drift to the rest of the gathered ponies in the village square. Many of the adults in the square were either in the process of shedding their heavier clothing or already down to little more than a vest. The foals were almost entirely devoid of clothing as they galloped playfully about the square.
“Lulu, why don’t you spend time with your peers?” Solaria asked with an honest note of curiosity coloring her question. “I have noticed that the ponies here congregate into groups based on similar interests, age groups, and work environments. It seems odd that you would almost exclusively stay with myself or Starswirl.”
The foal’s smile fell just a little bit before she explained. “Well, the other foals think I’m… spooky. I mostly stayed indoors until Starswirl taught me a detection spell that let me feel stuff around me. I think my eyes, and not needing to see ponies to know where they are, makes them scared. Some think I’m some sort of ghost, I think.” She hesitated for just a second before continuing in a rush, “They aren’t mean or anything. Nopony has teased me after I learned how to create homing snowballs with telekinesis and an attraction spell!”
The image of Lulu surrounded by dozens of snowballs, punishing her enemies like a miniature version of Solaria herself was enough to make the disguised alicorn smirk. “They do not appreciate just how great you will become, Lulu. They will learn the error of their ways, in time.” The smile on her face slowly faded as well as another question came to mind. “Lulu, why don’t you shed that heavy cloak, at least? You must be rather warm under it.”
The happy expression on the foal vanished completely before she lowered her head to vanish within the shadows of her hood. “I can’t,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Why can’t you?” Solaria asked curiously, but no response came from the cloaked filly. She didn’t press the issue, as Lulu had continued to shrink into her cloak. Instead, Solaria took the opportunity to review some of the conversation that she had with the filly, and she nearly facehoofed when she recalled something interesting that had been glossed over. “You mentioned that this party is to celebrate those who receive their marks, but you also said that some… changed?”
“Yep! Some ponies that already had their cutie marks before, but they started to change!” Lulu explained excitedly, once again showing the good cheer that Solaria had come to expect. “It’s becoming rarer, and Starswirl thinks it’s because whatever magic governs the marks is finally settling down. Anypony that already has a mark would have changed by now, and anypony who doesn’t have a mark yet gets all these really amazing marks!”
How many times can a single filly shake the foundations of the world I’ve tried to build here? It must be deliberate! Solaria sighed in defeat. She cautiously began to inspect the ponies assembled in the square, and had to resist the urge to facehoof at her lack of perception.
More than a dozen ponies milled about the square, and now that she looked more closely, Solaria couldn’t help but notice the variety of the different flank marks present. While some of the expected marks were present, such as marks related to agriculture or physical labor for the earth ponies, they were easily matched by the number of those whose marks were... unique. A pegasus with a close-cropped mane and an hourglass mark conversed with Smart Cookie and Clover, whose marks appeared similar to their namesakes. Two of the most active foals in the clearing held a bouncing rock and a cloud. Even Pansy possessed a nonsensical mark of what appeared to be bubbles.
What do they mean!? Solaria screamed inwardly. The immediate implications were nothing short of staggering. The mark system was designed to provide purpose for everypony! How does this village function without clearly defined roles!?
Her attempts at making sense of the situation abruptly halted as she caught sight of a familiar peaked hat in the window of the common hall. Solaria took a steadying breath and asked, “Lulu, I’m going to go talk to Starswirl for a bit, alright?”
“I don’t know how much talking you’ll do, since he said he was studying. He never wants to talk or do anything when he’s buried in his books,” Lulu explained grumpily.
“I’ll come back out once I’m done with Starswirl, then maybe you can show me this fabled food called ‘cake’ that you love so dearly?” Solaria offered, and the filly grinned widely with anticipation. With the young one suitably uplifted, the disguised alicorn made her way through the crowd and entered the common hall.
Starswirl had commandeered a corner table, and all manner of written material was scattered around him. Scrolls and books were stacked in the other seats around the table, and every inch of its surface was covered by at least three layers of unfurled scrolls, minimum. The unicorn himself was seemingly lost deep in thought as he stared down at his work. His concentration was so complete that he didn’t react in any way when Solaria approached and looked over his shoulder at his work.
The spells and matrices laid out on the table were wildly complex and went far beyond the simple manipulation of the local environment that the majority of spells entailed. One incomplete spell caught the disguised Solaria by surprise, as it laid the foundation to undo the rigid control that she had instigated for the marks that the tribes were given. “Ah…” she said as comprehension finally struck her.
Any further inspection was interrupted as Starswirl nearly jumped out of his chair and whirled about before he caught sight of the mare behind him. “Sun above, child! Were you never taught to not sneak up on anypony? It’s been a few years since the fall, but some of us still have reflexes meant for battle. You could get hurt!”
The disguised alicorn floundered momentarily at being caught red-hoofed. She tried several times to explain, but stopped when Starswirl let out a sigh and smiled. “I apologize for raising my voice toward you. I would have thought you would be outside with Lulu enjoying the warmer weather?” the stallion asked as he cast a glance toward the papers on the table, then back to Solaria. “On that subject, I don’t suppose you know anything about why the weather is acting so?”
“No, I don’t,” Solaria said. Perhaps too hastily, however, as Starswirl’s eyebrow arched up towards his hairline. Without missing a beat, Solaria continued, “Though you are correct in that I do have a question. Lulu was just explaining the purpose of this gathering, and the marks that some of the ponies have don’t… they are not the typical marks that I would expect to see on the pony that bears them.”
Starswirl held Solaria squarely in his too-knowing stare. After a moment, the stallion nodded. “I suppose that’s to be expected. What with the cold weather, everypony has been too bundled up for you to see some of the changes that are taking place. You’re familiar with the typical marks that show up on each race, yes? And I imagine Lulu’s explanation only gave you more questions?” When the disguised alicorn nodded to both questions, he mimicked the gesture before pausing to collect his thoughts.
“Clover was the first, from what I’ve been told. Don’t tell me you thought a trio of clovers was a normal mark for a battle magi before Solaria’s absence?” Starswirl began, and a small smirk spread when he caught sight of the flat look she gave him. “Regardless, he was left to die after a skirmish and fell unconscious. When he awoke, he was in the care of our dear Cookie. Just between you and me, he said that when he opened his eyes and saw that mare for the first time, he felt that his rotten luck had finally changed. And when he was finally able to leave that bed, his mark had changed as well. Ever since then, he abandoned his old identity in favor of the one he has now.”
But… that… that makes no sense! If you have the power to undo the binding mark, why bother with something so meaningless as a lucky symbol? Solaria asked herself silently. “I’m not certain I understand. You were able to undo his mark, but--”
Starswirl raised a hoof. “I suppose I should be impressed that you were able to deduce that much from my incomplete notes, but you’re only partially correct.” The unicorn looked down at the aforementioned notes and shuffled them into the bottom of the stack. “I was researching for a way to break the mark system to free us from Solaria’s caste system when I became aware of Clover’s curious development. Soon after, the foals coming of age started getting their own marks that were far from the normal ones we were expecting.” He turned back to Solaria and let out a helpless laugh. “It seems that the mark system has broken itself. If marks are changing on their own, then it seems rather silly to develop a spell to force the change.
With his explanation apparently complete, Starswirl paused to give Solaria another one of his suspicious looks. “I’m afraid you’ve piqued my curiosity, Sunny. It is well within your rights to refuse my question, but I feel compelled to ask: Is your mark the one you’ve always had?”
“Y-yes! Of course it is!” Solaria asserted with as much confidence she could fake, though she withered under the weight of Starswirl’s stare. Does he ask these questions because he does not know the answer, or because he does? she thought, and a small amount of panic began to enter her thoughts.
“Yes, I imagine so,” the stallion said with a nod as he released Solaria from his visual grip. He again sat at the table and began to pour over his notes. “We’ve only been seeing this phenomenon for a couple of years, with a hooffull of foals and younger ponies to base our studies on. It’s nothing concrete, but there does seem to be a correlation between the marks that appear and the traits that the mark-bearer possesses. It all somehow ties back to the five… but five isn’t enough, is it? There’s something that’s missing.”
With the stallion’s gaze no longer upon her, Solaria once again stepped forward to look over his shoulder to inspect his work. “The five? Is this related to the traits you mentioned some time ago? Honesty, loyalty…” Her words gradually drifted off as she tried to make sense of at least a dozen spells that were partially finished or in only a theoretical stage. Time travel, unlocking true potential, translation and interpretation spells, plus the mountains of research on something called ‘the Elements of Harmony’ covered nearly every page in front of him. Unfortunately, any further inspection of the elder unicorn’s work was interrupted when the door flew open with a BANG.
“Sunny! Sunny! You’ve got to try this, it’s delicious!” Lulu shouted as she galloped up to Solaria with a plate of the mythical ‘cake’ being pulled behind her with telekinesis. Without any prompting, the cake was nearly flung into the disguised alicorn’s face. It halted an inch in front of her snout before hovering there patiently.
The filly seems to be quivering with anticipation for me to try this ‘cake.’ Perhaps I will humor her on this to see what excites her so, Solaria mused to herself as she took a nibble of the offered sweets. Then another nibble. Then a bite. Then a larger bite. “Lulu, tell me… is there more of this ‘cake?’” she asked as she finished off the last of what the filly had brought her.
“Yes, there is! But we have to hurry before it’s all gone!” Lulu confirmed happily before whipping around and bolting out of the building. “Because the crops turned out so well, they’ve got all kinds of awesome flavors and toppings! Like strawberries, and…”
Solaria trotted in the filly’s wake with a smile. Any concerns about just what Starswirl was planning were placed a distant second priority to securing more of the sweet confection that the mortals had apparently been hiding from her for all the years of her rule.