Celestia didn't know how long she and her sister stood in relative isolation from other ponies. The days seemed to merge together like smeared paint. At first, they held out hope that some of their errant ponies might return or even visit, but eventually that hope dimmed and died. In time, the pair had cannibalized the abandoned buildings surrounding them to build onto the Town Hall -- now not so much like its namesake than the house of the two sisters.
Their magic proved sufficient to keep them both well fed; it seemed though it wasn't particularly obvious, the pair had absorbed the earth-pony knack for growing things. Other materials, when required, were fairly easy to acquire as well; there were enough metal ores within easy reach of their homes that the two alicorns could replace and expand worn out materials fairly easily.
Fortunately, while Stardancer had taken a large portion of books from the library with her wagon train, she had made copies of most before doing so and left them in Celestia's care. Now with little else to do, Celestia spent most of her time in the library and research wing, trying valiantly to find some new answer or clue as to how to fix the Spell that had been cast so many decades ago. Occasionally, she would find some interesting avenue of research, but the work was still slow and painstaking.
Luna had helped at first, but as the days dragged on the dark alicorn began to lose interest in the endeavor. Celestia understood perfectly; it was discouraging to go so long without any real advancement and then, when a spark of interest came along, it took so very long to develop it. Most of the time these tiny lights in the dark sea of ignorance would snuff out, further making the whole enterprise seem pointless. In truth, Celestia suspected that Luna thought there simply was no way to reverse the Spell. In her heart, Celestia felt she was right.
But that didn't mean that Celestia was going to give up. There were always possibilities and until she exhausted them all, she would not be satisfied that the Spell was irreversible.
Still, with her interest in the work waining, Luna required something more to take up her time. The maintenance of their small farm and the Hall of the Two Sisters was fairly rote and didn't take much anyway. It was then that Luna came to Celestia in the laboratory.
"I think I shall take a lengthy trip," Luna declared, "Tomorrow."
Celestia looked up from her work and blinked at her sister, "A trip?"
"Yes," Luna affirmed, "It has been quite some time since I had last explored beyond a day's journey of our home, dear sister. I find my wanderlust is in need of being satiated."
Celestia knitted her brows in concern. "Why?" she asked, "Do we not have everything we need right here?"
Luna shifted uneasily in place before answering. "It is true, dear sister, that we have everything we need. But a pony does not live by carrots alone." Her face scrunched up as she struggled to find words to give to her internal plight, "It is... difficult to stay here, doing the same things night after night. With our needs so easily cared for, I find myself... desperate for a distraction. I feel as if travel will help."
Celestia almost reminded her sister of their Great Work, but thought better of it. It had been some time since Luna had ceased to be an active assistant; not that she refused any request or aid when needed, but Celestia could tell Luna had long since given up hope. It would be unfair to shackle her to the same task she herself had doubts in. Instead, Celestia smiled and nodded, "It sounds like a good idea. Just be sure you take enough supplies with you when you go. Oh! And perhaps some armor and weapons. I doubt there is much out there, but better safe than sorry, right?" Tilting her head, the white alicorn regarded her dark sister curiously, "Any plans on where you're going?"
Luna hesitated before answering, her head dipping slightly. "I... was thinking of, perhaps, visiting one of the pony communities. The ones set up by our errant friends."
Celestia was silent for a long moment, peering intently at her sister. "I see," she said slowly, "Well. That might be a good idea. Catch up on how things are going with them." Celestia hesitated then added cautiously, "Just remember not to wear out your welcome, dear sister."
"I will not tarry long at any one settlement," Luna affirmed with a nod, "Though I hope that any ill-will might've been mitigated with time."
"Let us hope so," Celestia replied with a small, somewhat sad smile. Pausing again briefly, Celestia brought forth a bright smile, "Why don't you go towards the coast where Brown Betty took her family?" If they were to recontact other ponies after so much time, then heading in the direction of one who unequivocally held them no malice would be a good first step.
Luna appeared thoughtful for a moment then nodded with a smile, "Yes, I believe that would be a good first trip."
Almost three lonely weeks passed, the time only made significant by Luna's absence. Celestia continued her solo researches into the arcane, dutifully searching through the beach of ignorance for that one grain of gold among the sand. Celestia almost felt off her work stool in surprise when the door burst open and a very animated Luna strode into the laboratory.
"Sister!" Luna cried excitedly, "I am returned!"
Celestia blinked and couldn't repress a laugh at Luna's obvious good spirits. "So you have!" she said, "I take it your trip was a success?"
"Oh, more than you know, dear sister," Luna replied happily, reaching behind her to the saddlebags she wore and telekinetically pulling out a set of books, "I bring gifts!"
The white alicorn blinked again as the books were deposited in her hooves, Celestia looking at the covers curiously. They were obviously newly printed, but she didn't recognize the titles. "Are these copies of books Stardancer took with her that didn't already have a copy in the library?"
Luna shook her head, "No. These are new books. Books written by our little ponies!" Luna smiled widely as she settled on another stool, "A group of earth-ponies in the town -- a place they have called 'Manehatten', by the way -- have a publishing business. These are reprints from Unicornia." She leaned forward and her smile grew even more, "Look closely, sister, at the author."
Celestia canted her head then did as asked, peering at the books. Her eyes went wide. "Stardancer?!" Celestia exclaimed, "As in, our Stardancer? She wrote these?" The white alicorn scrutinized the cover a bit more, "'Her Majesty Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia'. She has come up in the world."
"Indeed," Luna said, "It seems she and Silverhoof have installed themselves as monarchs."
Celestia stared at the book cover for a long moment before speaking again, her voice giving away her conflicted sentiments, "I'm glad that she's happy, anyway."
Luna's ears went flat against her head, concern flooding her face. "Anyway," Luna said, quickly moving onto a different topic, "Manehatten is quite an interesting place. Although small, it is quite bustling. Most of the population actually exists outside the town limits among a myriad different farms and plantations. It is an eclectic place, full of traders selling things from all over the land."
Celestia brightened at the description. "Did you see Brown Betty?"
Luna's excitement ebbed slightly, though she nodded. "Yes, I did see her. She owns one of the larger farms outside Manehatten proper. Her family has grown significantly and you will be happy to hear that she is as friendly as always." Luna hesitated then spoke again, "Though... she is older."
"Older?" Celestia asked, canting her head curiously.
"Yes," Luna replied, hesitating a bit more before continuing, "She is still hale and hearty, but the... weight of the years is definitely upon her. Her coat is not as lustrous, and skin has, perhaps, a few more wrinkles."
Celestia frowned, "Oh."
"But I assure you she is quite happy," Luna said quickly, "And, as I said, her family is quite large. She has had three more foals since we last saw her, and two of her children also have bred."
"Has it really been that long?" Celestia asked, mildly shocked.
"By my estimation, nearly two and a half decades," Luna said, "Though the calendar is somewhat in flux due to regional differences." Luna returned the smile to her features, "At any rate! Let me regale you with tales of my adventure!"
Celestia smiled and settled into the telling. While she listened, though, her eye caught a distorted reflection of herself in some of the glass work nearby.
She, herself, hadn't aged a day since everyone left.
Luna continued her expeditions out into the world, visiting various pony communities and bringing back books, artifacts, and stories. Occasionally, Luna would help a community with some problem: removing bandits or monsters, helping to find additional water for new wells, or resolving squabbles between ponies.
"Celestia, you should come with me on an excursion," Luna had prompted one day after returning from the cloud city of Cloudsdale, "It would do you well to break from your toils."
Celestia seriously considered it, but eventually shook her head. "No, dear sister," she had said, "It would not be right for me to take a vacation when my little ponies are still counting on me. I will work until I have exhausted all avenues."
Luna had been less than thrilled with that answer, but had accepted it.
Some time later, though, while reading one of the latest tomes Luna had retrieved from her visits, Celestia heard a strange noise. It was clearly pony-made and sounded loud a clear -- a trumpet's clarion. Celestia lifted her head and blinked, confused at the sound. Setting the book away, she stood from the comfy reading chair and headed towards the foyer of the Hall.
Looking out onto the small section of street (most of the rest of the paving stones in town had already been cannibalized by Luna and herself for the Hall), Celestia saw three ponies. All three were unicorns, and two of them were harnessed to a golden carriage while the third stood to one side, a bugle held telekinetically before him.
Both harnessed unicorns were blue, one a mare the other a stallion, with the stallion being a slightly darker shade and their manes where a light purple and striped blue-green respectively. They looked similar enough in build and facial structure to be related; brother and sister, perhaps? While their cutie marks were partially obscured by the harness that connected to the carriage, Celestia could make out a stylized wing on the stallion's rump and a ring of multicolored circles on the mare's.
The third unicorn was a light shade of grey with an equally light peach mane. He held himself with rigidity, his chest and hindquarters draped in a cloth composed of four squares of wildly different colored fabric: one red, one yellow, one orange, and one blue. Crossing the borders of the garish garment was a strange flowing symbol that Celestia recognized as the alchemical symbol for mercury. The same heraldry hung from the trumpet that floated in air, wafting slightly in the faint breeze.
Celestia stared at her three visitors for a moment before deciding to exit her home proper and trot down the stone steps towards them.
"Elder Celestia?" the cloaked pony asked, though it seemed more of a statement, "Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia, does hereby demand you and your sister immediately present yourselves to Her Majesty's home. We are here to convey you to the capital and to our Queen's Grace." Still keeping the trumpet floating in front of him, the herald stepped to the side and opened the door of the carriage, bowing deeply and motioning inside.
Celestia blinked twice at the show before her and couldn't help but let out a string of laughter.
All three unicorns exchanged looks of confusion at this reaction. The herald cleared his throat and spoke again: "Perhaps you misunderstood me, Illustrious Elder Celestia. The Queen--" the stress on the word was quite pronounced, "--demands your presence immediately. Please, retrieve your sister and we will convey you to her."
Celestia laughed harder.
Again, the three unicorns looked at each other in mounting bewilderment with a growing undercurrent of affronted pride.
Before the herald could repeat himself a third time, Celestia held up a hoof. "I'm afraid, Mister... um... what was your name?"
"I am Her Majesty's Royal Herald Clarion Call," the herald stated with a note of pride, lifting his head officiously, "Second heir to the Duchy of Crystal Cove, son of Duchess Clear Call of Her Majesty's Royal Alarum Auxilleries and--"
"Yes, yes, thank you," Celestia said quickly cutting off the unicorn, who seemed at once surprised and annoyed by the sudden dismissal of his titles, "Pleased to meet you, Clarion. Now, then, I'm afraid both my sister and I must decline your invitation. Thank you so much for coming. Goodbye." And then Celestia turned to go back into the Hall.
If the three unicorns were confused before, now they were shocked, staring at Celestia's retreating form in stunned silence with mouths agape. Clarion recovered first, "Wait! Please, Honored Elder Celestia, please wait!"
Celestia paused in her walk back towards the building and looked over her shoulder questioningly at the pony.
Clarion hesitated, seemingly quite at a loss at what to say next. The stallion cleared his throat and again took the rigid posture previously, "Honored Elder Celestia..." his voice faded off for several beats before he spoke again, "... if I may ask, why do you refuse a lawful and generous order given by Her Majesty? If I have given offense in some way, I humbly beg your pardon, but I must not return without you and your sister."
Celestia turned around to face the pony again, a smile cracking at her lips, "Well, since you asked so nicely, Clarion... the fact is that I don't particularly like being ordered to do anything. Really, Stardancer should've known that. Secondly, I can't go with you because I have work to do. And thirdly, my sister can't go because she's not here and I have no idea when she will return. I am sorry for your wasted trip, but I'm afraid I will have to decline." Celestia bowed her head to the herald pony briefly then winked, "Besides, I'm hardly an 'elder'. I'm not any more old than your Queen." Again, Celestia began to turn away to head back inside.
She was surprised when Clarion quickly galloped up beside her, a look of panic on his features; if nothing else, Celestia could admire his persistence. "Honored Eld-- Honored Celestia, please," Clarion said, desperation coloring his tone, "Won't you reconsider. It is, indeed, unfortunate that your sister is elsewhere, but I beg of you, please come with us. The Queen's ord-- The Queens request is most urgent." Clarion hesitated, eyes shifting over to the other two unicorns and he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, leaning closer to the alicorn, "It is not well circulated, but Her Majesty is in dangerously poor health. I beg of you, come with us. There may not be another chance."
Celestia stared at Clarion for a long moment, frowning faintly at this news. After a while, she sighed and bowed her head, "All right. Just let me get my saddlebags, leave a note for Luna, and I'll come with you."
Clarion Call let out a relieved breath, "Thank you, Honored El... Honored Celestia."
Celestia was most impressed with how fast the carriage went, the two harnessed unicorns in front utilizing their magic to speed quickly over the terrain. While she couldn't be sure, she thought that she couldn't even fly as fast. Luna, however, might be able to.
Celestia turned her gaze away from the terrain whisking by so fast and to her carriage companion. Without another alicorn inside, the carriage interior space was quite roomy, and Clarion had decided to make use of that space by being as far away from Celestia as possible. She caught him stealing occasional curious and confused glances her way, though he seemed unwilling to strike up a conversation.
So Celestia did. "You didn't introduce your two companions."
Clarion blinked, jumping slightly at being addressed. He turned his attention directly to Celestia and bowed his head. "Forgive me, Honored Celestia. Someone of your esteem is not usually interested in the identities of simple knights. They are siblings as you might've guessed; both are knights in the service of the Duchy of Crystal Cove. The stallion is Fast Flight -- a curious name, indeed, for one of unicorn stock. The mare is Straight Shot." Clarion smiled in scandalous glee as he scooted a bit closer and again lowered his voice into a sotto tone, "There are rumors that they are both the result of dalliances the Count of Gem Peak, one of the vassals of Crystal Cove."
Celestia blinked. "Oh," she said, uncertain as to the reason why Clarion displayed such joy, "That's... good?"
"It is good for somepony," Clarion stated with a smug nod as he leaned back, "Should the Count ever get ideas above his station, a scandal like that would definitely damage his reputation. My mother was fortunate to have discovered them early. The fact that they are both useful knights to our House is an added bonus."
Celestia stared oddly at Clarion. "Oh. All right, then."
"I am curious, Honored Celestia," Clarion said peering owlishly at the alicorn, "Do you have any ambitions yourself? I'm certain that a county or even a small barony could be yours if you merely asked the right pony."
Celestia's mouth turned into a frown, "I'm not interested in anything like that."
"No?" Clarion asked, tilting his head, "Surely you cannot be content living alone in that hovel? Someone of obvious grace, breeding, and power as yourself--" Clarion's eyes briefly focused on Celestia's horn, "--Deserves to be recognized and wield some degree of control over the world, no?"
"No," Celestia stated flatly, turning her attention back to the outside streaking by, "I have my own research to attend to."
"Ahh, an academic," Clarion replied with an understanding nod. He paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully, "Perhaps you should look into the Royal Academy of Magical Arts, then? Again, someone of your obvious talent and power could rise quickly through the ranks. Maybe even to the Council of Magi. Perhaps even to Archmagus of Unicornia." He smiled genially, "As long as you had the right sponsor and friends, of course."
Celestia narrowed her eyes, but continued staring out the window.
You should consider the offer, the Voice said almost causing her to jump in her seat -- again, it had been so long it had spoken to her that she had almost forgotten it existed.
"I know what power does and I know what power costs," Celestia stated, though in truth it was more for the Voice than for her traveling companion, "The one is never equal to the other."
It took nearly three days of traveling to finally reach the city. As the sun set, the two ponies pulling the carriage would stop and make a small campsite (aided in no small way with the application of magic), the four would sleep, then wake and continue the journey. Clarion had occasionally further breached the subject of aristocratic ambition, though Celestia had only responded in uncommitted noises and eventually he stopped, instead engaging in meaningless but relaxing repartee. Still, there were times when that conversation dried up and the pair had lapsed into silence. Celestia, fortunately, bring a book to read so she wasn't excessively bored; she did wonder how Clarion could've stood the trip to the Hall with no one to talk to and nothing to read.
It was late afternoon when the city first came into sight, part of it carved right out of the mountain it snuggled up against. A wooden palisade stretched along the outer rim of the city with two large iron gates at the front. Even from here, a second (much more sturdy looking) ring of grey stone walls could be seen further inside the city, sitting atop a stepped dais of quarried stone. Peeking above even that was a square, white limestone keep with four spires jutting out at the corners.
"Behold!" Clarion announced, puffing up with pride, "The capital city of Unicornia, Ivory Spire."
"It's very nice."
"Nice? Nice?" Clarion looked to Celestia with an affronted frown, "This is the most wonderful city in all the land, Elder Celestia! It is a city of wonder and magic! Of unicorns. It goes far beyond merely 'nice'."
As they neared the gates, Celestia peered curiously out at the guards checking other carriages before waving them through. "It seems to have a fair number of earth-ponies as well," she observed.
Clarion waved a hoof dismissively, "Of course we need those kind to do the mundane work. It would be a colossal waste to have any unicorn use their magic on such lower pursuits. Not that unicorns couldn't do it, and do it so much better than mere earth-ponies, of course. But why lower ourselves to such common labor when there is a ready pool available?" He smiled, clucking his tongue in pity, "Really, it is a kindness of ours to allow earth-ponies such work within our vaunted city, despite their inefficiency."
Celestia stared skeptically at Clarion but said nothing in return. Instead, an earth-pony guard walked up to the carriage and peered through the window. "Diplomatic courier?"
Clarion passed a tetchy look to the guard, "Yes, yes. Let us through will you? We have business at the palace."
"Right, right," the guard said in a bored tone, "All diplomatic couriers are given first-class treatment, don't you mind. We still need to do a routine inspec--" The guard's voice died as he stared at Celestia. She smiled in return and waved a hoof in greeting. "You have an Elder on board!?" the guard exclaimed in shock.
Looking more than a little smug, Clarion haughtily nodded, "Yes, and as I said we have urgent business at the palace. With the Queen."
"Sorry," the guard quickly said, bowing and hurrying away, "Forgive me, sir and Illustrious Elder. I'll clear the queue at once." The guard hurried off and Celestia heard yelled orders. Clarion looked even more smug.
A few moments later, the carriage was in motion again and entered through the iron gates into the city proper.
One thing that Celestia noted as the carriage trundled through the busy city streets was how the organization of the city changed as they got closer to the palace. The parts of the city closest to the gate and wooden palisade were much how she imagined Manehatten to be when Luna described it to her: eclectic and busy, but streets and housing settled in a ramshackle of blocks and districts. The buildings seemed almost entirely made of wood, except for the foundations that occasionally peeked up from the ground which were made of irregular rocks cemented together in haphazard ways. The streets themselves were little more than depressions in the dirt, stomped flat by the constant tread of hooves and wheels.
Farther from the palisade, things became more organized; streets ceased being organic creations stemming from the islands of buildings into orderly set and paved roads of cobblestone. The buildings themselves started becoming more stylized and ornate, composed mostly of brick or occasionally cut stone. Celestia noted that quite a number of the buildings had signs hanging from them denoting a shop or trade was done within.
Close to the second wall, things changed again with the streets now paved with tightly spaced quarried rocks, obviously set by a master craftspony. The buildings here were taller than in the previous sections, most being three stories and composed almost entirely of cut limestone.
Near the palace, the roads became straight and wide, meeting at precise angles and at regular intervals. The buildings were still three stories tall at least and made of limestone, but here the slabs of white rock were polished to a gleaming shine. A few of the buildings seemed to be predominantly marble. Celestia couldn't help but notice that this section of the city was comprised entirely of unicorns.
As the palace itself came into view, Celestia's eyes were instead taken by a large wall off to the side with another set of iron gates and a large domed building with a golden roof visible through them. Clarion saw the alicorn's interest and smiled. "That is the Royal Academy of Magical Arts," he said, "Someone as interested in academic pursuits as yourself may wish to visit it once the Queen is finished with you."
Celestia nodded absently, "Yes, I am curious about it." She turned away and looked towards the palace proper; the building was large and dominated this entire section. The four spires seen from further below near the gates pierced the sky and Celestia could faintly make out ponies watchfully surveying the area from them. Another wall of stone surrounded the keep, though this one seemed more decorative than functional, being thinner and lower than the inner wall she had already passed. Still, unicorn soldiers walked back and forth on patrol along the battlements, casting a wary eye towards the carriage as it approached. An archway covered by an iron portcullis barred entry to the palace proper and a guard atop the thinned wall called down, "Halt! State your name and business!"
Clarion leaned out of the carriage and called up to the unicorn guard, "I am Clarion Call, Her Majesty's Herald. I come with Honored Elder Celestia, one of the last alicorns, summoned by Her Majesty herself!"
A pause ensued as Celestia vaguely heard the yells of orders and confirmation before there was a metallic clunk and the portcullis began to rise, "Come forth and enter, Clarion Call and Celestia. Her Majesty awaits!"
At the keep, Celestia was ushered out of the carriage and guided by Clarion up a set of shining marble steps to a large arched double doorway. The wooden doors swung open and Celestia entered the keep proper; it was a grand entry hall with high, vaulted ceilings and a set of stone staircases that curved up the sides to a second landing. In front of her was another set of doors and Celestia stepped forward towards them before Clarion stopped her.
"No, Honored Celestia," he said, "That way is the servants quarters, kitchens, and other such unsavory places. The throne room is this way." Clarion Call led the way up the stairs to the second landing. There, another set of large double-doors (these made of iron) awaited, which opened with a strained creak. There was a long hallway leading to another polished marble dais where two thrones made of gold sat.
One held a sleeping, elderly stallion, his white coat greyed and skin wrinkled. He wore a crown of rose gold studded with jewels and a cloak of red velvet about his shoulders. A scepter of gold lied to his side, leaning against the throne.
The other throne was empty.
Courtiers gathered around the base of dais, chatting quietly to each other while at the side of the stallion was a young unicorn mare, her coat a very light lavender with blonde mane. She eyed Clarion and Celestia's arrival with cautious curiosity, and the other courtiers began to turn towards the pair, their own conversations silenced and the crowd parting for them.
Clarion stopped a short distance from the dais and bowed deeply before the two ponies on the dais. "Princess Geode, I bring Honored Illustrious Elder Celestia by order of Her Majesty, Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia."
A long silence ensued as everypony except Clarion stared at Celestia. It took her several moments to realize they were expecting something from her. She hesitated, then imitated Clarion's genuflection before the thrones.
Princess Geode smiled faintly and nodded her head, "We bid you both welcome. Rise." Both did so. The Princess stared at Celestia for a while longer before turning to Clarion and speaking again, "Clarion Call, you were sent with instructions to retrieve both Elder Sisters. You have not done this. We would have your explanation."
Clarion winced and again bowed deeply before the Princess, "Forgive my failure, My Liege, but Honored Illustrious Elder Luna was not to be found. She had left and her sister could not tell when she might return."
Princess Geode frowned faintly, but nodded, "This is unfortunate, Herald, but understandable." She looked again towards Celestia and once more offered a faint smile, "We trust your journey was pleasant, Honored Elder?"
"It was pleasant enough, I suppose," Celestia answered honestly.
The unicorn princess blinked once, seeming at a loss from the answer. Before she could formulate a response, there was a loud snort and cough and the aged pony on the throne startled awake.
"Who, what?" he said, looking around himself wildly, "I wasn't sleeping. I was just meditating."
"Of course, dear father," Princess Geode cooed, absently brushing his mane with a hoof.
"I was!" he said like a petulant child, "I can... I can meditate for days. Weeks! I can--" His words were interrupted by a loud flatulent sound that reverberated in the throne room. All the courtiers froze and an uncomfortable silence reigned. "Oh no, not again," the aged pony whined with a frown, looking down at himself.
Princess Geode's poise became a bit stiffer and she motioned to one of the courtiers who quickly marched up the dais with a golden pot and a towel. Everypony politely looked away.
Once the cleanup was complete, the old pony fixed his eyes on Celestia, squinting at her. "I know you," he said after a moment, "I know you... you... you are..." The aged pony frowned, looking confused, "Are you one of my children?"
Celestia blinked and shook her head, "No. I'm... Celestia."
"Celestia," the old stallion repeated, his frown deepening, "I know that name. From... long ago. I think... yes, it had something to do with the stars." His frown slid into a vacuous, wan smile, his eyes becoming unfocused and staring off into the middle distance, "My wife loves the stars. She dances on them. I think. It's been so long since I..." His voice faded off and a string of drool began to ooze down his mouth. Again, awkward silence filled the hall until the aged pony's attention snapped back to Celestia and he peered at her with guileless gaze. "You there. I know you. Are you one of my children?"
At this, Princess Geode set another hoof on the old pony's shoulder, her horn softly glowing and his eyes slid closed, body slumping against the throne. She smiled tightly at Celestia and bowed her head slightly, "You must forgive my father, King Silverhoof. He is... out of sorts."
Celestia couldn't disguise her surprise. "That is Silverhoof?"
"King Silverhoof of Unicornia, yes," Princess Geode replied, her voice a bit curt and frosty. She quickly thawed and offered another smile, "We will conduct you to Her Majesty personally. Please, follow me." Having been dismissed, Clarion bowed to the Princess then turned to mingle with the rest of the courtiers who were quickly returning to their previous murmured conversation.
Princess Geode stepped down from the dais and led Celestia towards an alcove which sported a door. She entered and the pair began to ascend a spiral staircase. Here, Celestia managed to get a good look at the Princess' cutie mark: it was, indeed, a pictograph of a geode sliced in half and filled with six glittering purple gems arranged in a starburst.
"How is Stardancer?" Celestia asked as they continued up the staircase, "I had heard she was ill?"
Princess Geode paused then let out a sigh, "I suppose it wouldn't take long for you to hear the rumors. I had expected it to take longer than five minutes after entering the city, though." She cast a look behind her at Celestia briefly, "Yes, mother is very much ill. I fear it may be her deathbed."
"She's dying?" Celestia asked in surprise and worry. Whatever problems she and her ex-friend may have had, she certainly didn't want her to die.
"That is why she sent for you, I think," the princess said as the pair reached a landing, now moving along a vaulted hallway lined with rooms on either side. Geode paused then turned to favor Celestia with a smile, "She told me stories of you and Luna when I was but a filly. My father was... less than charitable regarding you and your sister, but mother always made you both sound so... interesting."
Celestia hesitated then asked, "What happened to Silv-- King Silverhoof?"
Princess Geode sighed, shaking her head. "Many things," she replied, "Though his current state is, I think, a combination caused by stress at ruling the realm and raising the sun, moon, and stars. He insisted on being part of the magi who performed that task whenever possible. I... I think it might have... damaged him over time." She quieted then let out a short cascade of trilling laughter, "I remember when I was small, he always seemed so huge and intelligent. A giant among ponies, with an intellect to match. To see him so... diminished as he is... fills me with a sorrow you can hardly imagine."
"He's certainly different from the pony I remember," Celestia stated, wincing a bit. As much as she disliked Silverhoof, even as much as being the primary cause for the breaking up of their community, seeing him as an incontinent, addled old pony was disheartening.
"For years, my mother handled the affairs of state," Princess Geode said, "But after her latest bout with illness, I had been named regent. She can no longer hold court and, as you saw, my father is in no condition to." Geode frowned faintly, "I... confess as to not feeling up to role." She paused then let out another short bit of laughter, this one tinged with faint bitterness, "Something my enemies no doubt would pay a handsome price to know, no doubt."
Princess Geode waved a hoof idly as they walked, "The many dukes, counts, and barons underneath me. All of them are constantly wishing to push me off the throne and put themselves onto it. If the raising of celestial bodies did ruin my father's mind, then it was the constant politicking that ruined his spirit."
Celestia frowned faintly, "I'm sorry. If it's any consolation, I understand the pressure involved." She canted her head to one side, "Though I am a bit confused as to why you would tell me all this. We literally met a few minutes ago."
The princess remained silent for some time before speaking again. "In truth, I know not myself. Perhaps because I needed to confide into somepony, and you are an outsider. Perhaps because I feel I know you from the tales my mother told me and I judge you to be an honorable pony. Or maybe just because I'm lonely." She sighed heavily, "It is a sad fact, Honored Elder, that as one accumulates power one also accumulates enemies."
Celestia smiled faintly. "Well. I will happily be a confident for you, Princess Geode, should you need one. I have been... lonely, myself. If you need advice or merely wish to talk, I would be honored to do that."
Princess Geode smiled again, "The stories mother told do you little justice. And thank you. I... I think I'd like that." She stopped before a rather innocuous looking door and motioned to it, "We are here. My mother's private laboratory and study. She insisted on convalescing here rather than in the Royal Suites." She raised a hoof and knocked on the door.
The door opened and a set of three unicorns quickly exited, chased by a string of curses and invectives and finally an earthen pot that smashed against the door frame. "... enough of your pokings and prodings!" The voice floated through, creaky and weathered, the owner quickly collapsing into a fit of hacking coughs.
Princess Geode brightened. "Ah! We're in luck! Mother is in a good mood!"
Celestia peered down at the wizened form of her former friend tucked in the bed. Like Silverhoof, her coat was greying and skin wrinkled, though her emaciated form made her look even worse. The fact that her eyes were now a clouded, milky white and every breath she took sounded like a death rattle made Celestia uncomfortable.
"Leave us, child," Stardancer said to Princess Geode.
The princess nodded and turned to exit the room, leaving Celestia alone with Her Majesty, Queen Stardancer. Celestia took a look around the room and couldn't suppress a smile at the slightly messy, cluttered interior; it reminded her very much of the initial stages of the research wing. Various apparatus lie in piles around the large, circular room, some connected others seemingly set in storage. Books and papers littered nearly every nook and cranny, having long since run out of room on the bookcase that nearly encompassed the wall. A large writing desk sat nearby a stain-glass window, magical gem sending out light from atop a lantern. And then there was the bed itself; luxurious, certainly, but surprisingly simple in design. Just four posters and a gauzy trim.
Stardancer reached out with a trembling hoof and ran it along Celestia's muzzle before letting out a cackling laugh and dropping the hoof to the bed. "So, you don't age, either?"
"It appears not."
"Figured," Stardancer stated with a smirk, "And the same for Luna, right?"
Celestia nodded then realized her old former friend wouldn't be able to see it so said, "Yes."
"Well, at least I had that part of the whole thing confirmed," Stardancer said with a sigh. She rested there for several moments before croaking again, "So how do you like the mighty empire we forged, eh?"
Celestia hesitated then spoke again, "From what I've seen, it's quite... um... majestic."
"It was mostly Silverhoof's doing," Stardancer said, "He was always good at that sort of thing. Before... before his mind slipped away." Stardancer's face twisted into a frown, "You've seen him, I suppose?"
"Yes, in the throne room."
Stardancer snorted derisively. "Even in his current state, he refuses to give up those idiotic thrones. They're not very comfortable, you know? I always hated sitting in them."
Celestia wasn't sure what to say, so she said nothing.
Stardancer's voice softened, "I know you never particularly liked him, Tia, but he was still a good pony. Oh, he had his flaws. He was definitely calculating, manipulative, and arrogant. But you were wrong when you said that he only wanted to use me. I mean, yeah, he did, but he also loved me. Or came to love me." Her voice quieted further, "And I always loved him. Even now with his addled mind, I love him."
Celestia smiled, "I'm glad you both had some measure of happiness with each other." It was an honest statement.
Stardancer let out another cackle of laughter. "I'm not sure Luna would see it that way. She was really hurt when Silverhoof took the task of the moon and stars from her." Stardancer frowned, "Where is Luna, anyway?"
Celestia bowed her head, "I'm sorry, Stardancer. Luna was away when your herald came. I don't know where exactly she went or when she would be back."
A sigh rose from the old earth-pony. "Oh well. I had hoped to see her one last time before the end, but perhaps this is for the best."
Celestia pursed her lips, shaking her head, "Don't say that. You don't know this is the end."
"Oh, yes I do," Stardancer snapped before calming her voice, "I'm tired, Tia. Tired in a way that goes beyond just the physical. I can... I can hear my parents calling for me. Faintly. But it is there. I know my time is up." She sighed again, "But I wanted to make things right between us before the end. I... I was cruel to you, Tia, and I had no cause to be."
"You've already said all this," Celestia said gently.
"Well, I'm going to say it again," Stardancer said stubbornly, "You get to do that when you're old and dying." She cleared her throat, "Sorry. Anyway. I have a lot of regrets in my life. A lot. But the one which harrows me the most is the loss of your friendship. It was petty of me, I knew that then. But knowing is not the same thing as feeling." She quieted for a moment before continuing. "In truth, I think I forgave you in my heart a long time ago, but... pride got in my way of seeking you out to tell you so." She frowned, "No. Not pride. Fear. I was afraid. Afraid that when I forgave you, you'd not forgive me. That it'd all be a waste and that I'd never be able to... to be your friend again."
"That's not true, Stardancer," Celestia replied softly, "I always wanted to be your friend again."
Stardancer snorted in bitter amusement. "Yeah, I thought so, too," she said, "But, unfortunately, that fear got in the way of my head and I waited until now to seek you out. When it's almost too late." A desperate tone entered the earth-pony's voice, "I can't in good conscience ask you to forgive me, Tia, but I want it just the same. I threw away our friendship through bitterness and then, when that bitterness finally ebbed, I was too afraid to seek it back. I don't deserve your forgiveness nor your friendship. I'm... I'm not a good pony."
"Don't say that, Stardancer," Celestia was quick to respond, "You are a good pony. You have flaws, sure, but I would be lying if I said I didn't. I should've sought you out as well. The fault is as much mine as it is yours."
A faint smile winded its way on Stardancer's lips. "You really are too kind, Tia," she said softly, "I wish... I wish a lot of things. But I can't do anything but say how sorry I am, for everything. And to thank you... for being my friend, even though I don't deserve it." Stardancer's unseeing eyes closed and she motioned with a hoof to the desk. "Look in the third drawer down. There's a present for you."
Celestia paused briefly then left the bedside for the desk. She opened up the third drawer and discovered and oversized, dogeared notebook. Curiously tilting her head, she levitated the notebook from the drawer and began to scan over the contents, flipping the pages with widening eyes. "You kept researching the Spell!"
"Yup," Stardancer replied, grinning broadly, "It was quite an interesting conundrum, after all." She waved a hoof, "Everything I've found out about the Spell, chaos magic, and the changes it gave to us. Take it, it's yours."
Celestia hesitated. "Are you sure? You don't want your daughter or the Academy to have this?"
Stardancer snorted derisively. "My daughter will have her hooves full tending to the kingdom. And the Academy, while full of talented ponies, is still a den of politicking that saps the pursuit of knowledge. No, Celestia, my old and dear friend, I can think of nopony more suited to carrying my legacy than you."
Another hesitation settled over Celestia, but she eventually nodded and floated the tome into her saddlebag. "All right," she said gently, returning to the bedside, "Thank you."
"No, Tia. No thanks," Stardancer murmured, "I'm just happy I was able to finally, finally be your friend again after all these years." She quieted again then smiled, "I do have a request, if you'd listen."
"A request? Not an order?" Celestia asked teasingly.
"Bah. I never give orders," Stardancer stated with a wave of her hoof, "But somehow the court always seems to interpret them that way." She cleared her throat, "Anyway. Could you... could you check in on the royal family from time to time? Even just once a generation would be nice. It's the closest thing I can think of to being there myself. Just... be there for them."
"I think I can do that," Celestia replied with a smile.
"Good," Stardancer replied before going quiet again. The wheezing of her breath hung in the air for a long while before Stardancer spoke again. "I'm tired, Tia. I think... you should go now," Stardancer murmured, a smile forming on her features, "Thank you and goodbye, my friend."
Celestia hesitated a few moments more before turning and heading towards the door.
Princess Geode and the three unicorn healers stood talking quietly to each other when Celestia came out of the room. Instantly, the three unicorns rushed back inside. The princess merely looked sadly at Celestia.
"We... became friends again," Celestia said awkwardly, "It's taken a while, but..."
A moment later, the three healers were back in the hall, looking grave and solemn. "The Queen is dead."
Celestia decided to stay for the funeral and coronation of Princess Geode. It seemed the right thing to do. In spite of her protests, the court managed to convince the Princess to hold both ceremonies on the same day, a week after Stardancer's passing.
The funeral proved to be as sad an affair as one might expect, though with the added pomp and circumstance that a state funeral required. A parade carrying the coffin of the late Queen Stardancer was marched through the streets to a disused mine that had been converted into a catacomb for the aristocracy. The Queen would be interned in a specially prepared area just for the Royal Family. The only ones in attendance here were the Royal family, the court, and Celestia.
"I want my Queen," Silverhoof had said as the casket was being set in the stone sarcophagus.
"Father, mother has... gone away," Geode replied to her father.
"I want my Queen!" Silverhoof had said again, petulantly stomping a hoof into the stone floor, his expression floating between lucid understanding and terrified ignorance. Geode comforted him as best as possible.
The coronation was also a much public affair, though clearly meant to be a joyous one. Princess Geode became Queen Geode with stoic poise and grace while her father the King was quietly abdicated. He slumped miserably in his throne, muttering about wanting his queen. Celestia could feel nothing but pity for him.
Celestia stayed in the castle for another week, occasionally visiting the Royal Academy of Magic Arts and learning the institution. Thanks to Queen Geode, she even got her hooves on some new works on magic, direct from the Academy's library.
Eventually, however, it was time to leave. Her saddlebags filled with books and rations, Celestia walked out of the palace for the final time, the Queen in attendance.
"Are you certain you won't stay longer?" Queen Geode asked.
"I have to be getting back," Celestia replied with a laugh, "My sister will no doubt be worried about me."
"If you must go, then please, let the Kingdom offer you a carriage,"
"I appreciate the offer, Queen Geode," Celestia stated with a shake of her head and a smile, "But I want to fly back myself."
Geode sighed and nodded. "Very well, Honored Elder," she murmured, "Please, do visit again soon. You will always have a place here in Ivory Spire." The Queen hesitated then enveloped the larger alicorn in a hug, which Celestia returned with a smile.
With one last wave, Celestia extended her wings and took to the air.
Several days later, Celestia was back home and she landed in front of the Hall. She had no sooner entered the foyer when her sister raced out to meet her.
"Tia!" Luna exclaimed, looking her sister over briefly before gathering up the other alicorn in a fierce hug, "What happened? I saw your note, but it's been so long! Were you injured? Did a monster attack?"
Celestia laughed and hugged her sister back, shaking her head, "Don't worry. Nothing... well, something bad happened, but it was expected." She smiled, "And for once, I have a tale for you, dear sister."
As she began to regale her dark sister the story of her journey, Celestia knew that she would no longer be hiding herself away. Life was too precious to be afraid of going forward.