• Published 26th Oct 2013
  • 12,798 Views, 378 Comments

Triptych - Daetrin

What does it mean to be a pony? A ruler? A god?

  • ...

From Far, From Eve And Morning, And Yon Twelve-Winded Sky

To live within the confines of duty is to have the length and breadth of the world defined. After long enough in that world, it is easy to lose sight of anything that lies outside those boundaries. The walls become invisible, the habits unquestioned, and the weight of responsibility turns to air - unseen, omnipresent, and impossible to live without. To be freed of that duty, then, is to be hurled into the vasty depths of the sea, a heaving, uncertain, and foreign world.

And Celestia was drowning. She floundered helplessly, suddenly weightless in a crashing tide of freedom as the immeasurable weight of the sun was lifted from her shoulders. The sudden shift in perspective was just as profound as the ripples of divine power shivering through her soul, a twinned shift in the world’s order.

Her face betrayed none of her inner struggle. After so long holding court, her expression was always precisely what she intended it to be. Celestia found that she rarely had to hide her feelings, but the fine shades and gradations of a smile or an inquisitive eyebrow rippled out into widely varying causatum, and she was keenly aware of how much influence a single misplaced frown could have.

So she did not frown, for the internal tumult was welcome. It was a feeling she had been pursuing since her first taste, when Luna had cracked their cage walls a thousand years ago and shattered her own bonds of duty. It was a revelation that, like most, had been born of pain and adversity, and despite its importance she had yet to share it with its progenitor.

It wasn’t that Luna wouldn’t understand; she was after all a very clever pony. But the princess of the night had struggled through so much that Celestia didn’t want to diminish her hard-fought understanding with what was perhaps a selfish consideration. A pony must claim her failures as well as her successes, and to reduce Luna’s most profound act to a mere seed in one of Celestia’s plots was to do her a tremendous disservice.

The sun settled into its track, and Celestia opened her eyes. Twilight, newly born into her powers, had described her perceptions as lights and shadows, a threaded skein over and under Equestria. To Celestia, after thousands of years of experience, there was little ambiguity left in what the goddess of the sun could sense. Every pony, every animal, every plant had a depth, the sum total of their connections to everything else, allowing her to see the tapestry of creation as it was woven. But she had neither premonition nor precognition, it was only the present she understood.

Twilight was almost painful to look at. It wasn’t just the brilliant, arcane inferno of her godhood, but the way she gathered all the world to herself. Scholar incarnate, the eternal student, everything touched her and she touched it in turn. She was not simply nourished by the world, but exalted.

Luna, by contrast, had worryingly few connections to the world. She had never been quite as grounded as even pegasi, but in the past she had made up for that by what she poured forth upon creation. The Muse, the artist, once she had spread inspiration over the lands. Once, she had hummed a tune that founded a nation. Once, six simple words had quarried ten thousand tons of stone and built the greatest cities of Equestria. Once.

Celestia believed she would return to that role in time, and the canvas Luna had spirited away lent credence to that hope. Tethered to Twilight, she would have the opportunity to flourish again without unsupported leaps into an emotional abyss, and Twilight would have a more appropriate guide to her new role than Celestia. They both needed a true companion, not a mentor, mother, or elder.

She let Twilight bask in the glow of her sunrise and absorb the congratulations of her friends without comment for a time. Even, or especially, in an immortal life, there were times to be seized, enjoyed, treasured. Celestia was tempted to leave them to their celebration, and ask no more. By that one simple act Twilight had done more for Celestia than she could possibly understand, yet the raising of the sun was only necessary and not sufficient. For both their sakes she had to pass on a greater burden.

“Well done, my dear Twilight Sparkle.” Celestia’s voice cut with scalpel precision into a brief conversational lull. “I knew you would find the truths you needed.” She smiled fondly at the unicorn as Twilight beamed proudly, flushed with her success. “I trust, then, that I will see you and Luna in Canterlot this evening?”

“Of course, Princess!” Twilight’s eyes sparkled with excitement, but Luna’s expression was somewhat more somber. Perhaps only Celestia could see it, but there was a certain dread buried deep in the turquoise of her eyes. She had not taken up the mantle of Equestria in a very long time, and she knew far better than Twilight what it entailed. But the naked fear that had dwelled there for far too long had been banished, and she even had a genuine smile.

“Then I will leave you to enjoy yourself with your friends. There is much to do before the announcement.” She watched Twilight’s expression flicker through surprise, surmise, and conclusion, but it was Luna who spoke.

“You have not announced the...scheduling shift yourself, Sister? Or Twilight’s new status?” There was a hint of well-deserved accusation in the question, and Celestia bowed her head in acknowledgement.

“I have not. It is not my place to make such decisions for either of you.” All the ponies were focused on her now, drawn inexorably by her voice. “You will not be simply filling in for me, but ruling in your own right. And Twilight, you must decide what role you will take, which secrets to hold and which to let go.”

Some of the anticipatory spark went out of Twilight’s eyes, replaced by the diamond glint of determination. “I understand,” she said firmly. It was the tone of voice that threatened the subject at hand with painstaking rigor; a uniquely Twilight approach to the responsibilities of godhood.

“So you’re not leaving any notes, or suggestions?” Luna’s voice was careful, tentative. The strained fragility between them tore at Celestia’s heart, especially as it was so fully justified. She longed to close that gap, but to confess all her machinations at once would shatter the relationship they had. But perhaps the vacation would give all of them the perspective they needed to mend those wounds.

“Not as such. There are the functionaries, of course, and I am aware Twilight has become well-versed in Equestrian Law recently.” She smiled as Twilight glanced involuntarily back at the library, where several stacks of weighty monographs bore evidence to the unicorn’s study. “But I would not impose my style of rule on either of you. It has been some time since we truly ruled as a diarchy, sister. T’would be better that you find your own balance before we establish the old ways again.”

Left unsaid was that Luna would be guiding Twilight as much as Equestria, and those duties were of equal importance not just to her, but to all the inhabitants of the land she safeguarded. Celestia watched the currents of emotion ripple across Luna’s face: speculation, skepticism, hope, and finally determination before her expression smoothed back to a playful smile. “So you’re going to let everyone be surprised.”

“I do not get to indulge in such theatre very often,” Celestia murmured. “It would be remiss of me not to seize such an opportunity.”

“Didja hear that, Dashie?” Pinkie Pie’s voice broke the spell cast by Celestia’s words. “Princess Celestia’s a prankster, too!”

“Uh...yeah.” Rainbow Dash looked ever so faintly panicked, as if she expected Pinkie to immediately drag her into a prank war with the goddess of the sun and the ruler of all Equestria. Celestia favored her with a reassuring smile, then surveyed the rest of Twilight’s friends.

“And I would like to extend my personal gratitude to all of you as well, for your support of my sister and of Twilight. Friendship is truly tested by change, and I can think of no greater changes than the ones that have brought us here.” She tapped her hoof lightly on the balcony in emphasis.

“Well, shoot,” Applejack said. “It doesn’t matter what titles anypony uses, Twilight’s still Twilight, and she’s still our friend. And o’ course she’s got herself a good sweetheart, princess or not.” Then the earth pony’s eyes flew wide as she realized what she’d said. “Er, I mean,” she spluttered, instantly flustered.

Luna laughed, soft and sweet. “I know what you mean, Applejack. Thank you.”

Celestia chuckled as well, a rich, throaty sound that hinted at the power held in her voice. Though no match to Luna’s, it still held the echoes of millennia spent controlling a court of fractious ponies. “Well, I shall let you make your preparations, and expect you in Canterlot this evening.”

“Of course, Princess!” Twilight’s voice was cheerful but still tinged with a trace of shyness, still not quite used to the public acknowledgement of her relationship with Luna. Celestia gave them one last nod before stepping to the edge of the balcony and spreading her wings. It wasn’t strictly necessary to put any distance between herself and the others before teleporting, but it was rude and unbecoming of a princess to simply vanish.

A few beats her wings carried her away from the balcony, and she reached out for the palace. Any place that had once felt the sun’s warmth and light, even briefly, belonged in some small part to her, a connection that could never be impugned or severed. Even with Twilight in charge of the sun, she was still herself, and so it was a part of her. Sunlight touched sunlight, and she appeared in her bedroom with a blaze of remembered radiance.

There was a pony outside of her door. There always was, in the morning. Over centuries necessity became habit, habit became custom, custom became law. Tenebrous Aurora held the conspicuously undernamed post of Dawn Aide, and was there at sunrise every morning to manage Celestia’s schedule and ensure any of her whims or wishes were seen to with minimal disruption. It was a post he had inherited only recently, but he shared the same brisk efficiency as his predecessor, and his predecessor’s predecessor, and on in an uninterrupted chain going back over twelve hundred years.

It was so mundane and familiar a thing that it seemed almost comical compared to the profound shift in the world that had come with the dawn. Or her world, at least. She had often had to gently remind ponies that no matter how profound their personal problems seemed the world went on, but it was rare she had to remind herself. Celestia took a breath and stepped through the door.

“Good morning, Your Majesty,” Tenebrous said brightly, smiling up at her from behind an exquisitely waxed moustache. “Dawn was different this morning. Trying something new?”

“There was something new about it, yes,” Celestia murmured, but Tenebrous was only half listening.

“It’s always good to try new things! But I’m afraid most of what I have today isn’t particularly fresh.” He glanced over at the clipboard that bobbed along beside him, glowing faintly with the same cream color as his horn. “The gryphon ambassador’s been delayed again, but they should stop having weather issues once they actually enter Equestrian territory.” A roll of his eyes showed what he thought about species that didn’t control the clouds and wind inside their territory. “There are three trade agreements that need your appraisal and signature, but since they’re just renewals that won’t take much time. Your meeting with the Canterlot Advisory Committee is scheduled to run most of the morning, starting an hour from now, but that can be cut short if there’s more pressing business.”

He looked over to her, as if expecting her to suggest such business. And in the past, she had; herding the aristocracy was a subtle balance of granting them some importance while denying them more of the same. But this time, Celestia let the silence stretch out a full three seconds before asking a question. “How is your wife, Tenebrous?”

His ears flicked nervously. Though he had submitted his need for eventual leave through the proper channels, he had never discussed his family directly with Celestia, so Tenebrous had no idea how to react to the sudden, personal question. “The doctors say she’s close,” he said after a moment. “It might be another few days or even a week, but there’s no real telling. With any luck it will be after the ambassador arrives so -”

“Tenebrous,” she interrupted him, and his mouth shut with an almost audible click. “Tenny,” she said gently, using a nickname that only three ponies had ever used for him, and certainly not in her hearing. “There will be other ambassadors. I will be here tomorrow, next week, next year. But the birth of your first foal is something that happens only once in the whole history of the world. Go home. Skyshine can fill in until everything is settled.”

Love and fear, gratitude and anxiety flickered over his face before he bowed to her, a deep and heartfelt genuflection. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“It is a princess’ duty to serve her people,” Celestia demurred, and Tenebrous looked up at her again uncertainly. She made a brief shooing gesture with her forehoof and smiled. “I’ll be fine.” She plucked the clipboard from his grasp, and he bobbed his head to her again and backed out of the room.

She gave him a minute to escape the royal wing of the palace, riffling through the excruciatingly precise writing demarcating her planned schedule. Rather than just the general points Tenebrous had mentioned, it was such a meticulous, minute-by-minute deconstruction of her day that it would make Twilight proud. There was even dead space for the unexpected, inked in neatly between appointments.

She shook her head ever so slightly at the clipboard before letting it vanish in a burst of light; the carefully constructed schedule would be completely invalid before the end of the day. She stepped out of her vestibule and two guards fell in on either side of her, their hoofsteps in time with each other if not with her. “Sergeant Cloudcover,” she said. “Find Skyshine and tell her I need her to fill in for Tenebrous Aurora.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The pegasus saluted and flexed his wings, speeding off above the polished marble floor. The other guard flicked his ears forward, focused ahead as if by sheer concentration he could prevent her from sending him off on an errand as well, and so leave her vulnerable. In truth the guards did more to safeguard her schedule than her; she rather enjoyed the occasional rogue reporter or brave supplicant, but it would be all too easy to spend all her time with individuals and neglect the actual rule of Equestria.

Her hooves clicked on the polished marble as she attended to just that. Celestia could not make all the decisions necessary to keep all the pieces of Equestrian government operating as expected, and she didn’t even wish to try. While the Canterlot Advisory Committee was the nominal governing board, they were not the only ponies that made important decisions.

She took an abrupt turn away from the glittering main hall and down a more modest corridor, all carpeted floor and dark wood paneling. The high ceilings swallowed what little sound there was, giving it an air of being separated and secluded even though it was not far from the throne room itself. The doors to modest offices had discreet lettering, blackened bronze on mahogany, declaring which department they belonged to.

She stopped at one titled Equestrian Department of Trade and Industry, shedding her guard as she slipped inside. The bleary-eyed, half-asleep earth pony behind the desk looked up irritably before instantly dropping into a cramped and clumsy bow as he saw who it was. “Your Majesty!”

“Hello, Cypress.” Celestia crossed to the desk, looking over the scattered paperwork. “I’m just here to see to those trade agreements.”

“Er, of course, Your Majesty.” Cypress began desperately searching through stacks of papers and rolled papyrus. “I, er, just wasn’t expecting you this early in the morning.”

That was a polite lie. He wasn’t expecting her at all; the clerks usually passed paperwork that needed her approval off to messengers and never saw her at all. Nevertheless every law and proclamation to do with trade or industry passed through his hooves.

“I thought I should simply take care of them this morning, instead,” she told him casually. “I may not get a chance this afternoon.”

Cypress froze in the act of putting the appropriate papers in front of Celestia, hoof outstretched, before sliding over an inkpot and quill. “I see, Your Majesty.”

He said nothing else, and neither did Celestia as she scribed her signature across the bottom of each of the documents. “That’s all I needed,” she told him with a dazzling smile. “Good day, Cypress.”

“And to you, Your Majesty.” The earth pony nearly stuttered under her gaze, relaxing only when she was back out the door. It would not be long before the brief hiccup of panic that she’d given him turned into full-fledged rumor. She did feel guilty for scaring him so, but it was the only way she could disrupt his habitual work. Like Tenebrous, Cypress was an extraordinarily efficient cog, but he was not particularly flexible.

“Sergeant Willowwood?” She said sweetly, and her remaining guard looked at her warily.

“Yes ma’am?” He didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic, but he knew her better than most.

“We’re headed for the archives. Could you make sure Cloudcover and Skyshine don’t get lost looking for us?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Willowwood nodded to her and trotted back toward the marble hall. Celestia knew exactly where the ponies in question were, and when they’d catch up to her, so she was in no hurry as she headed in the opposite direction, toward the core of Canterlot Castle.

The castle was, on one hoof, very simply laid out, with a single main hall and just a few corridors branching off of it, from which every part of the castle could be reached. And it was, on the other hoof, a veritable maze outside that main path, in the unseen hive where guards and functionaries and servants made the castle run. But Celestia had designed that maze, and lived in it for a thousand years, so she had no trouble at all picking her way through to the massive doors of the Canterlot Archives.

She breezed sunnily through into the stacks, and an older, blue-maned mare appeared in front of her with speed commendable for a unicorn without the ability to teleport. “Princess Celestia!” The librarian bowed hastily. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m just here on a minor issue, Chrysoberyl,” Celestia said soothingly. “Twilight Sparkle will be arriving this afternoon,” she began, and watched Chrysoberyl’s eyes widen in something between horror and apprehension. “And I think you’d be well-served on having all the books on Equestrian law and court etiquette available for her.”

“Yes, Your Highness!” Her eyes narrowed to speculative determination. Twilight was notoriously rapacious when it came to libraries, and Celestia had received letter after politely worded letter from the library staff protesting Twilight’s particular brand of enthusiasm. Despite that, the elder librarian was more familiar with the unicorn than any of the actual court, and had a good idea what that combination of topics implied. “Are there any other subjects I should have indexed?”

“Oh, I trust your judgement,” Celestia reassured her. Chrysoberyl beamed happily at the compliment, bowed again, and headed off to find her compatriots. In the brief quiet, Celestia paused a moment, considering the rows of bound paper and rich scent of aged papyrus. For all the accumulated knowledge, there was very little to anticipate what would unfold that afternoon. She could feel the building weight of the event, like distant thunder or the first scattered pebbles of a landslide.

She lingered long enough for wayward guards to catch up to her, followed by a somewhat winded Skyshine. The pegasus mare bowed to Celestia while she caught her breath. “How may I serve, Your Highness?”

Celesta summoned a clipboard in a brief flare of light, complete with a pectoral harness to keep in place, and slid it over Skyshine’s neck. “Tenebrous is home with his wife, so I’ll need to borrow you for a short time.”

“Er, yes, Your Highness.” Skyshine straightened and looked at the clipboard, leafing through the pages. “Marble Stripes can step in as Dusk Aide and - er, this schedule only covers up to noon.”

“I need you to remain as Dusk Aide, Skyshine,” Celestia said firmly, and the pegasus looked up with more than a hint of rebellion in her sunshine-gold eyes. The post was nominally a mirror to the Dawn Aide, but without Luna in her proper role it had decayed to at best a joke, and at worst a punishment, meant as an empty post for ponies too important to ignore but too incompetent to trust. It didn’t suit Skyshine at all, and Luna’s refusal to retake her post after the interregnum had hit her hard. To deny her even a temporary post as something else was cruel from any perspective.

“Trust me.” Some of Celestia’s regret at the bitter necessity bled into her quiet plea, and Skyshine drew a breath, protests fading.

“Yes, Your Highness.” She glanced down at her clipboard again, suddenly brisk. “Well, we’ll need to hurry so we aren’t late for your meeting with the CAC.”

“Then by all means, let us be off,” Celestia murmured.

Skyshine gave her a brief, suspicious glance before falling into step beside her. “Lady Spessartine has requested yet another hearing on Governor Kumquat’s expansion allotment. Lord Glimmerthread has raised concerns about beginning trade with Draconia and...” The sigh was not audible, but implied by Skyshine’s tone. “The Right Honorable Duke of Canterbury is petitioning to have ‘those powers solely retained by the Lunar Throne reviewed and released for distribution among the ponies of Equestria.’”

“Well, that should certainly be interesting,” Celestia said mildly. The only surprise was, perhaps, that the Duke was so brazen about it. But then, the empty Lunar Throne was itself rather unsubtle. Celestia would have preferred to see Luna on that throne from the moment she had returned, but it would have been a mistake to force the issue.

Skyshine’s mouth worked, soundlessly, but she refrained from an actual reply. Silence reigned as they walked down the hall, hooves muffled by the thick carpet. The palace never really slept, but as they walked the intermittent trickle of ponies rose to a steady stream. With dawn past, the machinery of Equestria’s government began to arrange itself around the mainspring of Celestia’s presence.

Ponies bowed as she went by and she distributed regal nods in return. Celestia had on occasion tried to break her subjects of that habit, but the very nature of her presence made it a lost cause. The merest whisper of her divine presence was enough to send many ponies to their knees, so she had settled for simply acknowledging it without encouraging them. The stream of guards, functionaries, and workers parted around her until she reached the door to the main conference chamber.

The nobles filling a third of the seats rose as she entered. For the most part she avoided the imbroglio of upper-court politics, but even those who felt wronged by her didn’t cross into open disrespect. Celestia took her place in the middle of the horseshoe of chairs, the guards flanking the royal box and Skyshine taking her own seat just below Celestia’s dais.

“Please be seated,” she said, the chamber filled with the rustle and scrape of ponies obeying her invitation. She gave Skyshine a nod, and the pegasus flipped through the papers on her clipboard.

“The twelve hundred and eighth Advisory Committee, hearing forty-seven, is now in session. The Throne first recognizes Lady Spessartine.” Skyshine stumbled briefly over the formula, but she did a commendable job for someone who had never actually performed the duty before. “You may now take the floor.”

Spessartine trotted out to the podium in front of Celestia’s dais, polished gems glinting from where they were twined in her vivid, red-orange mane. She bowed to Celestia, brushed a nonexistent wrinkle out of her grey business suit, and began speaking. “Thank you for hearing me. As we all know...”

The Canterlot Advisory Committee never used five words where ten would do, so the introduction to Spessartine’s argument alone chipped steadily away at the time reserved for the hearing. When she finally reached the content of her argument, it was relatively simple: she was jealous of Governor Kumquat. He was receiving money from the Crown, and Spessartine wasn’t.

Her argument wasn’t entirely invalid. The crown was showing blatant favoritism by providing one newly-founded town with funds and not another, even if there was a whole host of reasons behind it. Over the centuries Celestia had taken to using the lightest touch possible, for without Luna to balance her it was too terribly easy to deprive her ponies of choice. It was best if Celestia could guide them without ordering, promising, or demanding anything.

“Lady Spessartine, you are absolutely right,” Celestia told her. “Paddock does deserve the appropriate allotment of funds. I’m afraid the budget is fully spoken for at the moment...” She paused a moment, giving Spessartine’s indignation enough time to start, but not enough to fully develop. “However,” she continued, and the earth pony’s gaze locked on her.

“Historically, Draconia has been a significant importer of gemstones. If trade relations are established with them without any undue delay, some small tariffs on the trade of such could easily supply the funds.” Spessartine’s eyes flickered with greed, suspicion, and resentment, in order, as Celestia spoke. “But it may be easier to forego the tariffs as I believe Paddock would be a major supplier of those gemstones.”

Celestia needed only half an ear and half an eye to play the council and steer them into doing what was best for Equestria, and themselves. The minutiae of tax levies, trade agreements, declarations of intent, and general bickering weren’t particularly interesting, especially since Celestia had been playing the game for millennia. What concerned her the most was leaving Luna and Twilight with as compliant a nobility as possible. The moment Luna took the throne there would be ten thousand ponies asking a hundred thousand favors; nothing she did could stop that. But she could try and blunt the more poisonous toadying that always sprang up wherever there was power.

It was doubly important to Celestia to leave a clean house for Luna, for there was still poison lingering between them. If it were simply a matter of Luna hating or vilifying her, she would have addressed it long before. She was willing to bear any consequences that fell on her own shoulders. But to confess how much of the past few centuries were spent in machination, to put Twilight in that place at that time, would test the bonds between those two. Ruling Equestria was easy; talking to her sister was hard.

It was not a question of whether she would broach the subject, but when. She knew the experience of rulership would strengthen them both, but that experience could become soured if she waited until afterward. On the other hoof, to tell them before would make it more difficult for them both, especially since she would not be there as a target of their discontent. She had been wrestling with the issue for some time, and she fought with it still as she absently fenced words with the committee. It was not a decision she could put off for very much longer.

“...and do what Princess Luna can’t,” said Sir Gloaming, Duke of Canterbury.

“I think you will find my sister is quite capable of ruling,” Celestia said. Her voice was as calm as ever, but the precise timbre made Gloaming rock backward in his seat as if he had been struck. “However, she has indeed been lax in her duties. I have spoken with her about it and she will be addressing it this afternoon. I trust she will be able to satisfy you on all those points.”

A low susurration rippled through the chamber, and Skyshine’s head snapped around as she stared at her ruler. Celestia, in turn, offered her a brief, conspiratorial smile. “Is there any other business?” She asked into the shocked murmuring, and when there was no immediate answer she waved her hoof at Skyshine.

“This forty-seventh hearing of the the twelve hundred and eighth Advisory Committee is now ended,” the pegasus proclaimed hastily, notarizing her papers with a few quick scribblings and followed Celestia back out the door. “Your Highness?” She ventured. “I didn’t know that Princess Luna - I mean, she didn’t tell me...”

“I know.” Celestia lifted her head, looking at the stained glass set high in the palace walls. “Luna never did pay much heed to the court machine. She had far more important things to be doing when she was at my side, and I at hers. But your task is not entirely hopeless. Twilight Sparkle will be coming with her and she, I believe, will be able to serve as intermediary. She is...quite fond of organization.”

Skyshine blanched, flexing her wings nervously. “Twilight Sparkle, Your Highness? The Element of Magic?” There was a particular note of dread in her voice, one that all the functionaries of Canterlot reserved for Twilight alone.

“Oh dear,” Celestia said, amusement dancing in her eyes. “Surely she’s not as fearsome as all that.”

“Er, of course not,” Skyshine said hastily. “Your Highness.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow at Skyshine. “Well,” she said lightly. “I suppose we had best accomplish what we can before Miss Sparkle brings doom upon us all.”

Skyshine blushed and ducked her head to glance at the clipboard. “Actually,” she said, consulting the timetable. “It’s time for lunch. The meeting ran late...” The pegasus winced as her stomach growled agreement.

“It wouldn’t do to skip a meal,” Celestia agreed. “Have them prepare the east dining room for me, would you?”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The pegasus ducked her head and fled gratefully, spreading her wings and darting through the high halls. Celestia followed at a more sedate pace, winding through the bright marble corridors and passing near the great hall. There were more petitioners than usual, noble and commoner alike, attracted by the uncertainty she’d sown that morning.

Tenebrous’ absence had rippled out through the palace as the thousand and one little details he normally attended to went unaddressed. Ponies were forced to step out of their normal routines, think, ask, and improvise. With the Royal Archives and the office of trade preoccupied, the more indirect methods of petitioning the Crown were unavailable, so even more ponies were funneled into the audience hall. Luna would not be speaking to an empty and indifferent room.

Celestia continued on to the east dining room, stopping a moment to give her guards a smile. “Thank you,” she told them, earning a pair of slightly bewildered looks.

“You’re welcome, ma’am,” Cloudcover ventured, and she gave them a nod before heading through the doors. They would be gone by the time she finished lunch, their shifts over, and she wanted to at least give them her personal gratitude before she left.

Skyshine appeared only moments after Celestia entered, half out of breath and looking a little ragged. She opened her mouth to report something but Celestia preempted her. “Why don’t you join me for lunch?”

“Er, yes, Your Highness,” Skyshine replied automatically, startled, then glanced at the long table. There was a moment of clearly intimidated horror as she contemplated a meal alone with the ruler of Equestria before she recovered, following Celestia to the table.

There was a brief moment of awkward silence, and again before Skyshine could speak there was an interruption. “Ma’am?” Willowwood peered into the room. “Princess Luna has arrived, along with all the Bearers of the Elements.”

Celestia allowed herself a small smile. She didn’t always get the timing right, but when she did it was gratifying. “Have them join us, if you would.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Willowwood disappeared, and Celestia turned to catch Skyshine gawking.

“While I try not to tread too heavily on my sister’s domain,” Celestia said quietly. “I feel there is something I should tell you before she arrives. She has found herself a very special somepony.”

Skyshine nodded, her eyes wide.

“A fellow goddess.”

Skyshine stared.

“Twilight Sparkle.”

Celestia waited until Skyshine had recovered and the pegasus was a little less wild around the eyes before continuing. “There will be many revelations in these coming days, and not even I can foresee all of them. But I thought it would do you no favors to be caught blind by these.”

“I see,” said Skyshine, though shock still echoed in her voice. It was a testament to her constitution and years of experience that she was able to calm her expression before the door opened again and seven ponies came through. Their laughing chatter broke the quiet presence Celestia had projected, and she smiled to see that even Luna was enjoying the company.

“Please have a seat everypony, Spike.” Celestia waited for them to choose chairs, Luna almost unconsciously seating herself directly across from her sister. “I’m glad you’re here early,” she said. “There are just a few minor things while we eat.” She pointed her hoof at the pegasus seated to her left. “This is Skyshine. She’s the Dusk Aide, so she will be assisting you two.”

“Oh, good!” Twilight beamed eagerly. “I was hoping there would be someone to help me with all this court stuff. There’s a lot of it that just doesn’t make sense.”

“I’ll do my best,” Skyshine said helplessly, looking trapped. “But my duties are usually just ensuring Princess Luna’s needs are met.”

“Don’t worry, darling,” Rarity said in a conspiratorial tone. “You can rely on me. Rarity will guide you unerringly through the dangerous waters of Canterlot Court! She will be your captain, your -”

“We get the point, Rar,’” Applejack interrupted. “But I gotta wonder how you know so all-fired much about the Canterlot Court when you live in Ponyville.”

“Why, it’s a gift!” Rarity’s smile was not entirely convincing.

Luna’s voice cut through the conversation like moonlight through still water. “Skyshine,” she said. “I have been somewhat remiss in my duties of late, I know. But that changes today. It is time for the Lunar throne to take its place once again.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” Skyshine ducked her head to Luna, cautiously hopeful.

Luna left it at that, but it was enough. While Celestia had mastery of words, built over thousands of years, Luna had a mastery of her voice that could quite literally fell mountains, part oceans, and show the truth to the most stubborn pony’s heart. With that instrument, she had told Skyshine more than any dinner conversation could convey.

Voices flowed back in the wake of Luna’s words as the food was served, plate after plate being set forth in front of the ponies. Celestia found she had little appetite, even if she didn’t strictly need to eat. Luna noticed, even if nopony else did, and she lifted her eyebrows at Celestia. The sun goddess declined the challenge, speaking to Fluttershy instead. “Fluttershy.”

“Yes, Princess?” Fluttershy looked up quickly at her name. Even though she was nearly earthbound, her nervousness was profoundly birdlike.

“We discussed it before, but I wanted to make sure you still wanted to take care of Philomena while I’m away.”

“Oh, yes, please!” Fluttershy came instantly to eager attention. “I’d love to!”

“As soon as we’re done here I’ll have someone show you to the aerie. Philomena is looking forward to seeing you again.”

Fluttershy grinned an eager grin, her food forgotten, and Celestia let her eyes travel across the others. In the deep and distant fundament of reality, power thrummed from the bonds between them, friendship and love anchoring the bedrock of the world. Those bonds were what she worked for, one small piece of her purpose. Yet they were also her prison, one she had no choice but to construct.

There was only one alternative to no action at all, and that was to judge. To decide what should be so, and what should not. When Luna was there, it was different. Careful patterns swirled on a stormy sea, subtle manipulation intersecting the brash and the rash. But on her own, no matter how much choice she endeavored to give her ponies, her threads spun outward and outward without end. Single mistakes became scars of unasked-for cause and effect, stretching across the centuries.

And the closer she bound herself, the easier it was to shatter those bonds with a word or a gesture. It was not because they were weak. Friendship and love were more enduring than stone. But doubt and mistrust were destructive, and the possibility that a relationship was in some way not real because of her manipulation could never create anything else. It was destructive not because it was a lie, but because it was a truth.

Lunch wound down with clockwork precision, and Skyshine caught Celestia’s eye. “Your Highness? The schedule stops here.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it does.” Celestia took a breath and stood. “Luna, the decision - the timing - is yours. I will hold court until you are ready.”

“I am ready now.” Luna’s somber expression was broken by the brief flare of a smile. “I have never been much for preparation. How much do they already know?”

“Nothing.” Celestia shook her head. “It was not my place.”

“So they don’t know about...me? Or...me and Luna?” Twilight looked suddenly, faintly panicked.

“The court has not been informed of either your ascendance or your relationship. What individual ponies know depends on what you have told others.”

Luna’s eyes flickered with a dark humor. She knew Celestia, so she understood how direct a challenge that was. “There was a time,” she murmured, “when I was almost infamous for my flings. But this is different. I will not broadcast it if you wish it so, Twilight.”

“What?” Twilight blinked rapidly, her eyes wide. Then they narrowed as she focused her intellect, and slowly, she shook her head. “No. It is...I think it is better that it’s known. Ponies would find out anyway, eventually, so it’s better to start with the truth.”

“So what are we doing, Twi?” Rainbow Dash flexed her wings, ready to move. “I’m not sure we’re exactly court material.”

Twilight looked to Celestia, who merely waited impassively. “Right,” Twilight said after a moment. “Well, I’d like all of you there anyway. I haven’t even told my parents about all this, so I’m...kind of nervous.”

“The court is precisely what we make of it,” Luna suggested with a faint smile. “If Twilight says you belong, you belong.”

“You know, Twilight,” Spike added, sotto voce, “if you needed to write a letter to your mom and dad, I could totally -”

“Maybe later, Spike,” Twilight cut him off with a nervous smile. “One thing at a time.”

By mutual agreement they moved to the door. Celestia’s guards stepped to flank her, while a pair of Luna’s bat-winged lunar guards fell in to accompany the night princess. Skyshine hovered uncertainly, torn between attending Celestia or Luna. Finally she took a position opposite Twilight, on the other side of Luna, and did her best to look confident.

“After this I must have a word with you and Twilight in private,” Celestia said softly, and Luna’s expression turned momentarily to something masked and brittle.

“Of course, my sister,” she said, with a touch more formality than she had used before, and Twilight looked between them, frowning.

They swept into the great audience hall, which was, if not packed wall to wall, at least crowded enough to make movement difficult. Celestia came to a halt by the throne, but did not take a seat. Mutters and whispered comments spread as Luna came to stand on the other side of the throne with Twilight at her side, but they died away when Celestia spoke. “My ponies,” she said. “Before, we welcomed my sister back to Equestria, but today we welcome her back to court. I do not have a speech for you, but only a request that you to listen to her.”

Luna stepped forward. “My beloved subjects,” she said, deliberately echoing the first words she’d spoken upon her return, but this time with sincerity rather than mockery. Her voice carried to all corners of the room, cool and clear. “It is time for me to claim my place once again. I have not held court or fulfilled the duties of my throne since I returned, and while I will not say it was wrong for me to do so, it certainly was not fair.”

She looked slowly from one side of the hall to the other, meeting as many eyes as possible. Some looked back, some blinked, some looked away. “And not just to you, my little ponies. My sister has ruled by herself for a thousand years, faithful and true, shining star and guiding hoof. She has served tirelessly for so long. She has earned a respite.”

“My sister, your Princess Celestia, is taking a sabbatical, and I will be taking her place. I am not my sister; I will not rule the same way. But I will serve Equestria. I will listen, I will answer, I will act.” She gave the silent crowd a smile. “It is true that I have not exercised this power for many years, and that there are many things that I do not know. But I will have the assistance of a very special somepony. My very special somepony.” Luna put careful emphasis on the last sentence. “Twilight Sparkle.”

That caused more than murmurs. Celestia had tried to isolate Twilight from the court as much as possible, but there had always been speculation regarding her ultimate role. None had ever seriously proposed anything close to the truth, so the revelation hit them with physical force. Luna let the words wash back and forth through the hall, then tapped her forehoof on the marble. Silence spread outward like ripples in a pond, and Luna nodded to Twilight.

Twilight stepped forward to skeptical and suspicious looks. Some of them knew her as a student, most of them could identify her as the Bearer of the Element of Magic, but none of them knew her. So Celestia relished the reaction when Twilight met them with a hard and determined gaze. Her mane stirred, shifting in a nonexistent breeze, the colors bleeding into the air as it became ethereal, swirling back along her neck. Her body shimmered in turn, assuming a size close to that of Luna’s.

“Hello, everypony,” she said. Her voice did not cut like Celestia’s or carry like Luna’s, but it filled the room all the same. Her voice held the authority, not of a ruler, but of an expert, backed by the confidence and surety of unshakeable knowledge. “I am Twilight Sparkle. I am not a princess. I am not an alicorn. But I am Luna’s marefriend, and while I am only a unicorn, this morning I brought forth the dawn.” Twilight’s voice trembled with emotion and remembered experience.

“I am not a ruler, but I have studied under Princess Celestia. I am not the sun or the moon, but the spark of divinity has been woken within me, and the powers of the world count me among their number. I do not claim a throne but I will serve Equestria the best that I know how, and I will do it at Luna’s side.”

Luna looked over the hushed crowd with a sudden, fierce grin. “Court will resume in half an hour.” She turned to Skyshine, who was looking only slightly less stunned than the rest of the court. “That should give you the time to put together the list of petitioners.”

“Yes, Your Highness!” Skyshine brightened, turning to survey the court, and Twilight looked at her thoughtfully.

“Spike? Why don’t you help her.” Twilight gave him a smile before he had the chance to protest. “You can be the court herald.”

“Really?” The dragon’s eyes lit up with glee. “All right!” He scampered over to Skyshine, who eyed him speculatively as Celestia, Luna, and Twilight stepped back from the throne.

“That was an excellent speech, Twilight.” Rarity said approvingly. “Maybe you won’t need me for court after all!”

Twilight shook her head, the lustre fading from her mane and the extra height vanishing, leaving her ordinary once again. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” she confessed. “I just told the truth.”

“That may be all you need,” Celestia murmured. “Corporal Windrake, would you show Fluttershy to Philomena’s aerie?”

“Yes ma’am.” Windrake saluted and nodded at Fluttershy. “If you’ll follow me?”

“I’ll go too,” Rainbow Dash said abruptly. “I mean, unless you need me, Twi.”

“You go ahead, Dash. Princess Celestia needs to have a word with Luna and I in private anyway.”

“Ooh, Princess talk.” Pinkie grinned, and Applejack rolled her eyes.

“Come on, Pinkie. Let’s give ‘em a little space.” She led Pinkie and Rarity off toward the passage they’d come from, and Celestia nodded toward an inconspicuous door set in the wall behind the throne.

There were many rooms like it, scattered about the palace, oases of peace and solitude for Celestia and her advisors. The sounds of the court vanished the moment Celestia shut the door, and Twilight sagged slightly in relief. Luna, though, knew what had to come next, and she braced herself expectantly. “I am ready, sister.”

“Ready for what?” Twilight looked at them curiously, a trace of apprehension coloring her voice.

“Handing over Equestria is somewhat more than words, or sitting on a throne,” Celestia told her. “Open your senses, and watch.”

She felt the sudden blaze of Twilight’s regard, and so closed her own eyes, reaching outward. From far, from the borders of Equestria, from the vault of the sky to the roots of mountains, Celestia’s presence rolled inward. She gathered up the kingdom, every last blade of grass and drop of rain, every mare, foal and stallion, every fountain of joy and every stab of sorrow, and held it out to Luna.

The night princess took it, staggering as the yoke of Equestria came down upon her. And in that moment, Twilight did what Celestia had half-hoped, half-feared she would do. The kingdom had always been meant for two; two could shoulder it. As Luna struggled under the sudden burden Twilight joined her, pouring themselves into the heart of Equestria.

In flash and silent thunder the land’s magic swept back outward, washing against the borders in a foaming, crashing wave. Twilight wasn’t an alicorn, wasn’t a princess, but she was part of Equestria all the same, and it was part of her. Celestia could only barely feel the changes herself, lightheaded and disoriented from the world shifting under her hooves. She felt numb rather than exultant, unable to savor the victory.

Twilight always chose to say yes. It was not pride, or arrogance, or recklessness, but the genuine desire to help and do good, and no matter how difficult the task that Celestia had, she was there. Even though Twilight had built herself into a better pony than Celestia had ever dared to wish, it was still painfully unfair. That she was so eager to be about it only made it feel more terribly dishonest.

Celestia recovered first, waiting for the other two to struggle through the sudden, ineffable weight of land and sky. Luna inhaled deeply, straightening and planting all four hooves firmly against the carpeted floor. Only then did her eyes focus, meeting Celestia’s in mutual regretful understanding of what had happened.

Luna turned to Twilight, who was standing splay-legged and bleary-eyed, blind to the world, and pulled her into a close embrace. Twilight shivered, leaning into Luna, tremors of ethereal light flickering through her mane as she struggled to acclimate to the burden. Finally she sighed and looked up at Luna and, surprisingly, grinned. “Wow. I knew Equestria had magic, but I hadn’t imagined anything like this. How could I not have noticed it before?”

“It’s normally much more subtle,” Luna replied, smiling back. “In fact I doubt anyone besides us three noticed anything.”

“Equestria reflects those who rule it,” Celestia added, her voice sounding odd even to herself. “And I can think of no better ponies to fill that role.”

“But I’m not a princess!” Twilight protested. “I can’t rule Equestria!”

“You won’t have to sit on a throne with me,” Luna said, dipping her head down to plant a soothing kiss on Twilight’s muzzle. “What Celestia means is that who you are, what you are, will influence the kingdom. You don’t need to do more than help me as you would have anyway.”

“Now that I can handle.” Twilight looked instantly more cheerful, which made Celestia feel even more distant. She didn’t want to ruin the mood, but she had become aware she’d made a decision the moment the two of them had taken up the harness of Equestria.

“Before I go,” she said tiredly. “There is something I must tell you both.”

“Yes, Princess?” Both of them looked at her with concern, though Celestia suspected that concern sprang from two different sources. Or perhaps Celestia was seeing her own self-recrimination reflected in her sister’s expression.

“When I said I had not expected Twilight’s ascension, I was not telling you the truth.” Celestia took a seat on one of the divans. No emergency of state had ever made her feel so weary as confessing to the two of them. “I had been grooming her for that role from the moment she hatched Spike.”

Twilight stared, blankly, and Luna said nothing, but her mane roiled like a thundercloud. “You weren’t the only one, either, Twilight. The ponies who have the potential are few and far between and, until you, each of them chose a different path.” Celestia took a breath. That was the easy part.

“And each of you I raised to be a companion for Luna. Friend, sister, or lover, I tried to give you - give them - what was needed to understand and to love. Love you.” She shifted her gaze to Luna, who was still silent, but her lips were compressed and lightning flashed silently in her mane. “I started this nearly a thousand years ago. I had failed you, and I realized - far too late - that I could never be what you needed.”

“We are not some pawn in your schemes, Celestia,” Luna growled like frustrated thunder, her eyes flashing. “You go too far.”

“Yes,” Celestia agreed with a sigh. “I do. I cannot ask your forgiveness, only your understanding. It was the only choice I had.”

“So...none of this with Luna is real?” Twilight’s voice was incredibly small, with a plaintive note that pierced through Celestia’s heart.

No.” It came out louder than Celestia had intended, and she repeated herself more quietly. “No, Twilight, every choice, every victory has been your own. Everything you have built has been by your own hooves. Yes, I have showed you paths and given you challenges, but it was you who trod those paths and faced those challenges.”

She looked from one pony to the other, the two of them wearing matching expressions of betrayal, one colored by anger and the other by anguish. “I would trade the world to keep from causing you this pain, but the only thing within my power is to decide when to tell you.”

She rose to her hooves, bowing her head. “I wish I could bear this burden, but I cannot, and the only way to be rid of it is to tell you.” She found it easy to guide all the foremost nobles in Equestria, but in a room with only two ponies eloquence failed her. “I wish we had come here by a different route, one that did not hurt all of us. Yet we did not, and we must all face what I have done.” Celestia let out a slow breath. “But not today. It may be base cowardice, but I cannot face this now, and I do not intend to. Perhaps when I return...but until then I leave Equestria in your hooves.” Her horn lit, filling the room with a brilliant glow, and she was gone.