The prickling, crawling sensation of something being off began to slowly creep up on Celestia about halfway through her supper. She couldn’t attribute it to anything particular at first beyond intuition; nothing jumped out to her as being wrong. Her appetite diminished slightly and she frowned in thought as she finished her meal, much to the worry of the ponies serving her.
“Is everything to your liking, Princess?” she was asked more than once, to which she automatically answered with a smile and a “yes, thank you very much” each time. After a few repeats of this the staff ponies stopped asking, content with the notion all was well and the princess simply had something on her mind. But Celestia wasn’t to have reprieve so soon. Loyal, fussy Kibitz was too observant a pony to simply accept that answer.
“Your Highness, you have looked troubled since you were served the main course,” he remarked, watching her hawkishly from nearby. “I do believe you are not dissatisfied with your meal, but everything isn’t alright, is it?”
Celestia carefully lifted her eyebrows as she glanced over to the fastidious unicorn.
“Why Kibitz, are you worried about me being worried?” she asked with a small smile, somewhat amused by the notion. His mustache bristled from side to side as she watched him.
“It’s my job!” he replied insistently, to which Celestia graced him with a warm chuckle. His mustache bristled a little further and he added, “And at any rate, anything that worries Equestria’s beloved princess ought to worry her ponies as well!”
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But not everything that worries me ought to worry my subjects. Please don’t get worked up, Kibitz. It isn’t necessary for you to get stressed; I’m not even sure what it is that makes me uneasy at the moment.”
Though he was clearly reluctant to back off, the unicorn quieted at this and for a short time Celestia was left to wonder still what could possibly be giving her such an unsettling feeling. It wasn’t until she was on her way back to her rooms that she glanced over a tapestry depicting the recent triumph over King Sombra and the return of the Crystal Heart that she wondered where her sister was.
Princess Luna was quite bewildered as they stole away from the palace. Sombra managed to remain calm as they slipped out of sight, but the farther they got into the wooded pathway winding down and away from Canterlot, the more he started to fidget and trot about. Luna watched in growing surprise and confusion initially. Yet the more she observed his eager, excited trotting, the more she realized how genuinely excited he was. How long had it been—truly been—since he had had the opportunity to get outside and simply enjoy the freedom and open air? There was something both amusing and sweet in watching his childlike jubilation at being out and walking. He was like a spring foal getting to see the world for the first time.
“It feels exhilarating, being able to breathe in the night air and feel a dirt path beneath my hooves!” his voice came out somewhat breathlessly as he tossed his mane back, holding his head high.
“Even though this is not the Crystal Empire?” she asked delicately, arching a slender brow. She kept her wings tucked in tight to her sides as she looked at him, resisting the urge to fly as she normally did. Sombra smiled brightly at her, a genuinely happy smile, and Luna felt a small swooping sensation in her stomach.
“Where we are at this moment hardly matters,” he replied. “I only care about savoring it, drinking in the experience.”
She pointedly looked away, pretending to study her stars and constellations. Something in the way the unicorn king worded himself suggested there was more to what he was saying than just enjoying freedom from his cell. There were several minutes of silence between them and then Sombra spoke again.
“It is a lovely night.”
Luna glanced at him again, surprised. “I beg your pardon?”
“It is a lovely night,” he repeated, crimson eyes not leaving her face. “You should take pride in your dominion, Your Highness. Its beauty is nearly matchless.”
“ ‘Nearly matchless’?” she echoed indignantly before she could stop the words from escaping her lips. He didn’t balk at this however; his smile grew warmer and he looked at her through a half-lidded gaze.
“Yes,” he confirmed with a respectful incline of his head. “Its beauty is only matched by your own, Princess.”
Her jaw dropped open in astonishment as she blinked in disbelief. Surely he hadn’t just said that! But no, no he had. But he head to be jesting, teasing her with playful flattery! Yet the look in those eyes, eyes for once devoid of the traces of his dark magic, revealed nothing but complete sincerity. Luna felt a blush creeping into her face and for once the silvery illumination of the moon for which she was named was of no help. She looked away, lifting her head high and trying to avoid meeting his gaze.
“Flattery is just pretty words.” She tensed, pulling her folded wings even tighter against her sides. “If we are going to talk with each other, I prefer we do it openly and plainly.”
“You think I meant to flatter you this time?” he asked quietly. “I meant what I said, and I have no intention to rescind my statement.”
Against her will her teal eyes flicked toward him to study his face. Again she read nothing in his eyes but complete sincerity. Her blush darkened as her cheeks grew warm. Her stomach twisting itself in knots, Luna relaxed as best she could and cleared her throat.
“Then… thank you, King Sombra,” she said, her voice coming out much softer than she had intended. The corners of his mouth tilted upward in delight.
“Of course, Princess Luna,” he replied just as gently. And on they walked, lapsing into a vaguely awkward, but not uncomfortable, silence.
“You’re getting worried, aren’t you?”
Celestia let out her breath in a quiet sigh. She wasn’t even going to bother asking why Discord had taken it upon himself to “visit” again, or how he had in some way picked up on her growing distress. The delighted tone was irksome but she could address that later. Opening her eyes, she favored him with a glance.
“Was I that obvious?”
She meant the question to be rhetorical, but from the sly grin spreading over the draconequus’s muzzle, she knew he was ready with an answer.
“Come now dear Celestia, I know you, and probably far better than anypony else.”
“Except my sister,” she retorted gently.
“The enigmatic Princess Moody-Moon,” Discord remarked, switching the heads of statues lining the hall as he floated alongside her, “is the reason you’re worried.”
Celestia tilted her head over her shoulder as she walked down the long hall, her horn shimmering with the glow of her magic as she restored the statues Discord kept switching. “Yes,” she admitted absently, doing her best to ignore him as he floated along on his back in midair. “Luna’s been a bit more reserved than usual lately, though I was hoping at some point she might open up to me. Now though I’m worried she’s gone somewhere without warning. It’s not like her to miss meals or at least check in if she’s going to be late.”
“Talking like that you sound more like a mother than a sister.” Discord gave a slight snigger. “Maybe that’s why she’s being so quiet.”
The Princess of the Day said nothing, pointedly doing her best to keep the jibe from getting under her skin. This sort of behavior was to be expected; it wasn’t exactly in Discord’s nature to be helpful, and certainly not in any conventional way. He took too much delight in irritating where he could. Still somewhere deep, deep down she half-wondered if maybe he had a point.
“Oh sure, fine,” Discord huffed, the silence getting to him. “Ignore Dissy when he’s trying to be helpful.”
“Why Discord,” she said in a voice of feigned surprise, allowing herself a small smile. “Perhaps Fluttershy and the rest of Twilight’s friends are having a positive influence on you after all!”
“I never said that!” he shot back quickly, a hint of affront and irritation in his tone. He regained his usual composure quickly though. “Listen Celestia, I know you prefer to stick to your boring little morals, but…”
He vanished in a pop and a flash of light before reappearing in front of her in the same manner. She came to a halt and realized he was yet again clutching Luna’s journal in his mismatched claws. Celestia’s breath caught in her lungs as a sense of unease stole over her.
“If you really want to help your gloomy little rain cloud of a sister,” Discord continued, watching her intently, “then shouldn’t you use your resources wisely?”
Steeling herself, the alicorn princess took a deep breath in and out before meeting those red-and-yellow eyes. Firmly she answered, “I wish to respect my sister. I worry enough already without having to worry about breaking her trust. And so because of that respect, I won’t read her journal.”
A flat, sullen look came over the draconequus’s face as he regarded her. He didn’t even bother hiding his disappointment. “Well, how noble of you.”
She graced his tone of mockery with a tiny nod, but then he grinned wickedly, slipping a talon into the journal’s pages and flipping it open.
“Luckily,” he trilled in a wicked singsong, “I don’t have that problem!”
A cold shiver ran down Luna’s spine that had nothing to do with the atmosphere or her present company. No, it was tied to a sensation she’d rarely felt before, one that was difficult to put a name to.
Like somepony walking on my grave.
She shuddered again and did what she could to push the morbid thought out of her mind. Unsurprisingly Sombra noticed, red eyes flickering as he looked at her.
“Are you cold, fair princess?” he asked, and without waiting for a reply, he pulled the magnificent royal cloak from his shoulders and gently draped it across her back before she could explain herself.
“Oh!” Heat buzzed in her cheeks and tingled between her wing joints at this. “I-I—thank you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” he declared, carrying himself with a bit more dignity and pride as he smiled at her. She averted her gaze to the ground as they walked, trying to hide the smile she felt growing in response. Thoughts tumbled around in her mind erratically, thoughts about the dark stallion walking beside her, thoughts she hadn’t wanted to admit to having.
Sombra was more of a gentlecolt than she had initially would have deemed possible. And despite her suspicions and uneasiness from before, she found herself drawn to him. The longer they walked with one another, the more comfortable she began to feel in his presence.
One of the thoughts resurfaced and she felt compelled to voice it.
“Forgive my asking, Sombra,” she began slowly, still keeping her gaze on the ground. “But I was wondering if by any chance you had given any more thought to the possibility of being reunited with the Cryst—I mean, your heart.”
She sensed his surprise but to the unicorn king’s credit, his strides never slowed or wavered. Still, it was a long moment before he responded.
“I have considered it, yes. Probably not quite as much as I could have but yes, I gave it thought after our last little chat.”
“And?” she prompted, and when it appeared he was going to possibly shut down and withdraw, she asked, “Does the idea still frighten you?”
“Isn’t it the fear of the unknown that keeps so many ponies up at night?” he murmured.
“Is that a yes?”
He looked over at her, the ghost of a roguish smile passing over his face. “It’s not a no.”
“You know,” Luna found herself saying as she looked up and gazed at the path ahead of them, “there is much you could accomplish, so many good things that could happen if you learn to face your fears.”
That deep rolling chuckle spilled over her ears, rich and warm as melted chocolate. “Words spoken with a practiced ease and familiarity. Do you say that to everypony?”
“I say that to a good many,” she admitted with a nod. “I visit them in their dreams to help them conquer what they fear, if I can.”
This time he did slow his stride a fraction and when she looked at him, the roguish grin was back in full force. Her heartbeat picked up and a buzz of heat returned to her cheeks.
“Why my dear Princess of the Night,” Sombra remarked with a sly tone, “are you offering to pay me a personal visit in my dreams?”
Her cheeks grew even hotter. “Not in the way your tone suggests,” she mumbled, glancing away. Of all the things! He couldn’t be serious! No, it was just more teasing. He probably enjoyed flustering her.
The toothy grin only served to prove this true.
“I only tease,” he said innocently. “Relax princess, I meant nothing by that comment.”
“Perhaps you are not so much of a gentlecolt as I thought,”she mused with a lofty sniff.
“Please relax a little, Princess. I don’t always like being serious to the point of stiff formality,” he explained, his smile becoming genuine again. “It allows very little room to get to know somepony properly. And before you naysay that, yes I do wish to get to know you, to know who Luna is, not just the princess all of Equestria sees.”
The sincerity and softness in his voice got her attention. She hesitated, just on the verge of doubt. This was Sombra, deposed tyrant-king of the Crystal Empire. This was the same unicorn who had cursed the empire even as she and Celestia had banished him to the Shadow, back when they had been united with the Elements of Harmony a thousand years ago. He was dangerous and unpredictable, and far, far more powerful than any pony ought to be.
Yet he was also the pony who had been locked in the oubliette after his re-emergence, alone and broken. He had opened up to her and told her his story, a story her heart told her was true. He challenged her calm façade and yet spoke to her as if she were the closest friend and confidant he could ever hope for. And all of this, to say nothing of how he had been on her mind for months already or the effect he was having on her now.
She relaxed completely, her heart swelling as the tension left her body and she smiled at him. His ears stood up in surprise and delight, and she walked a little closer to him.
“Well then, shall we talk? I imagine we have plenty of time on the path ahead to get to know one another, King Sombra.”
“Please… just call me Sombra.”
She rose the sun with the dawn, and still there was no sign of her younger sister, not hide nor hair. Breakfast came and went, and not a word. Royal duties called and she had to attend to them, escorted by two of her Solar Guards and flanked by Kibitz as usual… and still Celestia had no clue where Luna was at that moment.
This wasn’t to say she didn’t have her suspicions as to what had happened. But she hoped and prayed they were wrong. And even so, she couldn’t afford to spend her time dwelling on the possibilities. She still had her tasks as a ruler to attend to, and she couldn’t afford to allow herself to be distracted. She put the thoughts out of her mind and for a while this worked.
But around midday the proceedings of her scheduled were interrupted by an unexpected arrival, one that boded ill. She was being asked to give an opinion on an argument to be settled when it occurred. As a Canterlot designer protested her rival from Manehattan had stolen her fabric designs, a loud cry rent the air, almost feral in nature. All discussion was cut short by gasps as Celestia’s phoenix, Philomena flew into the room, a plume of crackling flames trailing in her wake. Instantly the Princess of the Sun was alert once more.
“Philomena?” she asked uncertainly as the phoenix flew up to her, the magical bird’s feathers burning white-hot in distress. “What is it, girl?”
The phoenix let out an agitated cry, flying away a few feet before circling back frantically. Celestia shot to her hooves, ignoring the shock and protests from those around her, and gave chase, following her loyal pet as Philomena flew from the room and took off through the castle, blazing a path like a comet. Their flight gained the attention of everypony they passed and it wasn’t long before many of the guards were shouting at one another to get moving and follow their princess. Celestia barely took notice; she could do nothing but follow her phoenix. And very soon, she realized where Philomena was leading her. Her heart and stomach gave a lurch as she recognized the path to the underground levels of the palace, particularly a single corridor.
The guards called after her and she slowed her pace as she drew nearer to the door that stood ajar. The door to the room of enchanted mirrors. In particular, where the two-way mirror linked to the prison between here and the Shadow was housed.
Swallowing and doing what she could to maintain her composure, she looked to the entourage of guards. “Hurry!” she urged. “Before we’re too late!”
Except we’re already too late, some part of her whispered as the seeds of doubt began growing. And too soon as they found the guards of the oubliette locked mercilessly in visions of their worst nightmares, Celestia realized she had allowed something into her heart that she hadn’t given power to in years.
Despite being midday everything was beginning to look gray and gloomy. At first Luna was confused, then assumed it simply had to be the weather turning. Thankfully it wasn’t a problem and it didn’t deter them from their path. If it could be called a path, of course.
“Blast!” Sombra muttered under his breath. “This doesn’t look quite right. Where are we?”
She pulled up short, glancing around. “I’m not entirely sure,” she admitted. Of course, how could she know? She had been too invested in the conversation to really notice which direction they had been going. The stallion let out a ragged sigh as he shook his head.
“I must apologize, Princess. I’m afraid I’ve gotten us lost.” He tensed and scowled, more than a little upset with himself. Luna offered him a smile, walking up to his side and giving him a little nudge with her shoulder. He gave her an inquisitive look.
“It’s alright. We were enjoying the conversation,” she said pleasantly. “There’s no point in getting upset over it. Besides, we’ll be able to get on the right path again; all it requires is some creativity, that’s all.”
His thick, dark eyebrows lifted. “Oh really? Is that so?”
She pursed her lips, frowning. “I can tell you don’t believe me,” she remarked, bordering on a sulky tone. “Well, disbelieve all you want; we’ll be able to get back en route with this idea. Just watch and see, Sombra!” She trotted past him, smiling and holding her head high. He made a skeptical noise behind her but she paid it no heed. She focused her magic into a single spell, weaving it into an enchanted compass to turn loose upon completion. Luna smirked, pleased as she felt the spell reaching out, ready to lead them. It had been a while since she had done this, but any doubt she had harbored that she wouldn’t have been able to pull the moon compass spell off vanished when it had come together so naturally. And she was certain it would work as intended...provided Sombra was willing to help instead of dismissing it.
“Sombra, can you cast a blanket of shadows to follow my spell?” she asked, looking back at him. His brows rose high again and she smiled sheepishly. “A moon compass operates better in the dark.”
A smirk turned up the corners of his mouth as he walked up to her side. “Of course I can. Foal’s play.”
She held back a chuckle as she watched him, but as she glanced around she did a double-take and lost track of the spell he was casting. What she was seeing baffled her. How had she not noticed earlier? How was it even possible? Even as the air around them darkened with his spell, she found herself unable to look away.
“There, nothing to it. And your compass is visible now. You were right, Luna. This is cleverly creati—are you alright?”
“I—you—” she stumbled over her words before looking away, shamefaced and embarrassed. “Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to stare. But you… you’re not… your flank…”
His eyes flickered, going half-lidded as he realized what she was getting at. “Ah, yes.” He glanced back, lifting a hind leg slightly. “Yes, I am a blank flank.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Luna murmured, unable to meet his gaze.
“Why? What is there to be sorry for?” he asked, not sounding bothered in the slightest. “I am not ashamed just because I don’t have a Cutie Mark.”
Luna jerked her head back up, brow furrowing. “You aren’t?” she asked in puzzled surprise. So many ponies made such a big deal out of Cutie Marks lately it took her a moment to remember things were different a thousand years ago. Today ponies seemed to put an almost desperate emphasis on ensuring fillies and colts earned their marks and discovered their talents before adulthood. But a thousand years ago late bloomers were more common, and it wasn’t rare to sometimes run into a mare or stallion who hadn’t found their Cutie Mark yet.
And a thousand years ago, Sombra ruled the Crystal Empire, her thoughts reminded her.
“Of course I’m not,” he snorted, tossing back his mane. “When rule passed to my brother, I threw myself into focusing on being his council. And when I took the throne I was too busy building my empire to care. I lost all idle time I could have spent focusing on that, but really, is it that important? Is it such a crime that I don’t know that part of myself yet, that I haven’t discovered my ‘special’ talent?”
“Well, no,” she replied. “It isn’t.”
“And there is no point in overreacting to the matter, in my opinion,” he remarked. “I am not bothered by my lack of Cutie Mark. One day I may discover it, or perhaps I never will. But it doesn’t bother me; I don’t need it to earn anypony’s approval, and in the meantime I am content with being a jack-of-all-trades.”
“A jack-of-all-trades?” Luna echoed, unable to keep a small chuckle out of her voice, and that roguish grin of his resurfaced.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Particularly where magic is concerned.”
She smiled softly, then drew in a breath. “I am sorry if I upset you. I didn’t mean to be… well, awkward, I guess.”
“Do you accept me as I am?” he asked patiently. “Cutie Mark or not?”
A thought, vague and buried, attempted to surface in Luna’s mind but she shook it off and it was forgotten. “Yes,” she answered, walking close to him again as they began to follow her magical compass. “With or without it, you are you.” On an impulse she gave his cheek a quick nuzzle, her own face growing warm.
“You not having a Cutie Mark doesn’t change how I look at you. I accept you for you, Sombra.”
He turned, catching her by surprise, and for a brief moment their muzzles touched before he pulled back, smiling.
“And I you, Luna.”