• Published 22nd Nov 2011
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Lacuna - Drakmire



Visions of a dark future prompt one pony to seek help, but she cannot act alone.

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04 - Breakfast Politics

The discussion with her sister had left Luna feeling out of sorts. She paced the hallways, looking for some kind of distraction to keep her mind from churning. Though she found little to keep her thoughts occupied, she could keep moving, at least. With her setting such a brisk pace, her honor guard were forced to be less discreet than Luna had grown accustomed to, making a small clamor as they struggled to keep up. Coming to a stop, she turned on them.

“What are your names?”

The pegasi looked surprised, but only for a moment.

“Wrath, Your Highness.”

“Fury, Your Highness.”

Luna peered at them, trying to distinguish one from another, but it was no use. The enchanted barding they wore obscured their cutie marks and applied an illusion that made their wearers look and sound identical. She sighed.

“Forgive me for not knowing, but how long have you two been my guards?”

“Three months, Your Highness,” said Wrath.

“Two years, Your Highness,” said Fury.

Luna smirked as the two pegasi looked at each other in surprise. The magic didn’t just fool her, it would seem. She made a note to do something about the spells used in their armor. Presenting a unified front was all well and good, but if everypony looked the same in one of those, it would be easy enough to infiltrate their ranks by simply obtaining a set through more devious means. Luna paused in her thoughts. The better reason to change them would be that the barding suppressed what individuality each pony possessed, not for some ill-conceived notion of danger. Luna snorted at the idea of anypony more harmful than a prankster in this day and age.

“In that time, would you say I have been...friendly?” Luna asked.

The guards looked nervous, unsure of how to respond. That was answer enough.

“I see. Thank you.” She turned to continue walking, but stopped mid-stride. “And...I am sorry.”

Without waiting for a response, she set off so quickly that her guards had no time to ask her what she meant.

***

“Are you sure about this?” Sand asked.

“No. Are you?”

Sand and Twilight looked at each other, the tome laying unopened before them on Luna’s desk.

“Dawn, I know you’re uncomfortable with the idea. If you’re really against it, we don’t have to.”

Sand shook her head. “The situation has grown more complex by several orders of magnitude. I had originally thought to simply arrive, explain what needed to be done, warn Luna of her danger, then spend the rest of my days in quiet service to the throne. In the gardens, perhaps.” She stared at the book. “Now...I am not certain.”

Turning to look at Twilight, Sand wore an expression of deep concern, though she tried her best to be reassuring. “No matter what you read, please know that I...” what? Sand wondered. After a moment, she continued, “We fear that there might be many paths to the same destination, that what we do will be for nothing, but I believe that you have the strength to take us to a better future than the one described here.” She placed a hoof on the book. “I believe in you.”

Twilight hesitated, at a loss for words. Giving her friend a warm smile, she said only, “Thank you.” Steeling herself, she took as comfortable a seat as she could. Turning to the first page, Twilight began reading. Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria...

Sand looked around the room. Not wanting to simply sit and stare at Twilight for hours on end, she hoped that Luna kept some reading material available. Spying a treatise written by the princess herself, Sand settled into a comfortable spot on the floor, her book illuminated by a firefly lamp.

As the hours passed, Sand occasionally looked up from her reading to see if her friend might want to talk about anything, but Twilight seemed deeply engrossed. Lengthy as the story was, she appeared to be making steady progress, her face set into a mask of faint concentration. Sand decided to avoid disturbing her.

Drowsing, Sand became aware that with her fatigue from earlier in the day, she would be no match for Twilight’s endurance. Fully intending to call a halt for the evening, it wasn’t until she jerked upright that she realized she’d fallen asleep.

Blinking away her bleariness, Sand saw that Twilight was still poring over the tome, about half lying unread. Shrugging off a blanket, Sand stopped to consider that Twilight must have noticed her exhaustion at some point and covered her. Walking over to her friend, Sand remained silent, waiting to be seen.

Eventually, Twilight marked her place and closed the book. Her smile at seeing Sand awake was shadowed by a deep layer of fatigue. Twilight yawned and said, “Oh, hey Dawn. Did you sleep well?”

Sand studied her friend, trying to see what impact the tale might be having on her, but she found nothing truly amiss. That in itself was disturbing, but she brushed it off. “Yes. Thank you for watching over me. I’m afraid our situations were meant to be reversed, however.” Twilight gave another little smile at that before Sand continued, “How are you doing with the book?”

“Oh, it’s interesting,” Twilight said. “I mean, ponies killing each other isn’t my idea of a good read, but I’m happy to understand why you’ve been so cautious, and what I can do to help Luna and everypony.” Truth be told, she felt good. The story might be grim--bordering on hopeless at times--but when she removed herself from her personal attachment to the characters, Twilight could see the cause and effect of a world gone awry and the potential means to save it.

“So the fact that you and your friends feature prominently doesn’t bother you?”

“Should it? It’s just a story for now.” Twilight said. Sand looked cross, so she explained, “Look, I could write something about my day tomorrow, how a carriage runs me over, and then everypony cries. Possible as it might be, it’d still be just writing, not reality. That doesn’t have to be my fate--it just means I should look both ways before crossing streets. I think Fluttershy was right. This is something we can learn from to avoid the same things happening to us. I’m not even sure this could be our future anymore, not since we’ve been made aware of our involvement in it. Still, I can see enough of this coming true to mean serious problems for us if we don’t do something soon.” Twilight rubbed her eyes as she gave another yawn.

“You should rest,” Sand suggested as she looked at the sky, seeing faint signs of dawn approaching. Guiding Twilight to the bed, Sand wondered if she would argue about using Luna’s personal accommodations as her own, but Twilight fell asleep before Sand could even get the blankets in place. Making sure her friend would be comfortable, Sand closed the door with a soft click. Outside the chamber, she found Luna waiting.

“How is she?”

Sand looked back at the closed door, as though she could see Twilight still. “Her spirits are good, but I fear she’s unaware of how she’s changed already.” As they began walking together, she looked at Luna. “She is happy to know how she can help you, and to prevent the horrors described within the tale, but she is only about halfway through, and I fear the book’s influence on her is insidious.” She shook her head. “She talks about ponies murdering each other as if it were so much bad weather. She waves it off as ‘simply a story,’ but I cannot help but feel that anypony would be deeply scarred by just a fraction of what she’s read. Whether I underestimated her resolve or if I have done something terrible by exposing her to such things remains to be seen.”

Pensive, Luna said nothing as they walked, and Sand was happy to let the subject drop.

“So should I call you Dawn, then?” Luna asked after a time.

The question jolted Sand out of her reverie. “If...you’d like,” Sand said. “Twilight’s taken to the name, but...” A faint blush rose in her cheeks before she said, “It’s complicated.”

Luna gave her a knowing smile before saying, “Perhaps it would be best if I simply call you by the name you wore when first we met. I did not know you in your last incarnation, nor do we share the connection that you do with Twilight or my sister. Who you were isn’t as important to me as who you are.”

Sand nodded, not for the first time wondering at Luna’s subtle patience. Celestia had surely told her a great deal, but there were questions that only Sand would have the answers to. Yet as Sand studied her companion, she found that Luna either concealed her curiosity well or had none at all. Reminding herself that a thousand years is time enough to learn how to wait, Sand guessed the former.

They made their way to breakfast, but rather than going to the more private, informal chambers, Sand found their destination to be a section split off from the banquet hall. Intended to host the highborn and foreign dignitaries, it featured ornate brass sculptures, rich tapestries and gilded flatware--all in all, a distinct step up from their previous meals together. Giving Luna an inquiring look as they entered, Sand asked, “Should I know something I don’t?”

“That is a noble endeavor, I would say,” she replied with a smirk.

Sand rolled her eyes and said, "Are we expecting more formal company for breakfast?” She looked around at the elaborate layout, wondering if any of it was actually intended for use or merely to be appreciated from a safe distance.

Luna nodded and said, "Celestia will be joining us after she's finished raising the sun, but we're also expecting the zebra ambassador I sent for. It is our hope that we can engage in civil discourse and dispel any notions that the zebras have about me still being Nightmare Moon."

As they took their seats, Sand asked, “Why am I here then? Surely you and your sister are better suited to this kind of diplomacy. I only acted as a messenger.”

Luna regarded her in silence for some time, as if she wondered the same thing. When she spoke, it was not the confident answer Sand had hoped for. “I do not know. Perhaps my sister wishes to include you in more affairs of the state. Or maybe it is that for whatever your original purpose, you have become a worthwhile advisor.” She added, “You are, of course, free to decline at any time. You have more than discharged the duties you were sent to perform. We would not think to hold you here out of a sense of obligation.”

Sand shook her head, but before she could explain, Celestia could be heard approaching. “You are too kind, Ambassador,” Celestia said, her voice melodious and regal as she concluded some unheard conversation. She stepped into the room beside a well-manicured, but otherwise ordinary zebra. Trailing behind them, two of Celestia’s personal guards took up positions just outside the doorway. Redirecting her guest’s attention, Celestia introduced the two ponies already present. “Ambassador Zenio, may I present my sister, Princess Luna, and our friend Sand Shaper, herself an advisor of sorts.”

Zenio froze as his eyes fell upon Luna, but within a moment he recovered, giving them both a smooth bow. “I am honored to meet the Princess of the Night, and any friend of two of such magnificence must be held in high esteem by all.” He ended the motion by looking at Sand, finding a pair of mismatched eyes looking back at him with a polite, but otherwise unreadable expression. Noticing her short-cropped mane, he silently commended her on her fashion sense, if not her choice in company.

Luna spoke as the newcomers took their seats. “Thank you Ambassador, but the honor is ours. Your presence here is always welcome, and we hope that it fosters better relations between our peoples.”

Sitting across from Zenio at the small, round table, Sand felt distinctly out of place. While Celestia might have implied otherwise, her advice could not be shared without significant preamble, and certainly not with simply anyone who inquired. Wondering if it was the only way to justify her place at this formal meeting, Sand opted to remain silent as she shifted her attention back to the ambassador.

“Why, but you make it sound as if our nations were at each others’ throats!” Zenio said. His laugh was perfectly diplomatic: gentle enough to hint at his good-nature, yet so soft as to cause no offense. It was well-rehearsed. Continuing, he said, “I can only hope that this humble servant can strengthen the bridge between pony and zebra-kind, and what better way than a meal between friends, yes?” He finished with a generous smile that managed to encompass the other three at the table without looking forced. Sand distrusted him immensely.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Celestia said, matching Zenio’s smile with her own. As if on cue, servants began bringing in platters arrayed with exotic fruits, toasted grains, fragrant cheeses, and warm bread. Soundless except for the small noises of the dishes being arranged, it felt as though they were being served by ghosts. Picking up a slice of what appeared to be starfruit, Celestia continued, “We understand that there has been some...miscommunication between our peoples, and we hoped to alleviate any concerns you might have.”

“Ah, but of course you must mean the trade agreement,” Zenio said as a silent pony served him halved peaches and granola. Taking a thoughtful bite, he dabbed away some stray juice before continuing. “In truth, though I have heard many complaints from our labor chiefs, I believe that the change will benefit us greatly in the long run. Our reliance on a single export seems destined to end poorly.” Sand resisted the urge to share a look with Luna at just how much of an understatement that was.

“I am glad to hear that both our peoples will benefit from the new arrangement, Ambassador, but I speak of other matters,” Celestia said, showing none of the tension that Sand felt building in the atmosphere. Casually, Celestia floated a piece of cheddar and apple together, biting off a small mouthful.

If Zenio felt any irritation at having to draw out the subject piecemeal, he hid it well. “What matters might those be, Your Radiance?” Sand twitched an eyebrow at the honorific, debating whether it was too much or something she should start using herself. He elaborated, “From the lips of the people to my ears, I have heard of no pressing concerns.” He gave Celestia a gentle smile, and only then did Sand realize that he had been ignoring Luna, though whether by accident or design was difficult to tell.

For her part, Luna failed to be perturbed in the least at the slight, yet neither was she ready to intervene. Her sister might be the more diplomatic of the two, but Luna recognized the game they played at. Deciding to wait, she wanted to see which side would unveil their suspicions first. Either revelation would bring to light the subject that needed addressing, but Luna was curious to see who would buckle first. They all found their small amusements where they could.

“Our borders being where they are, what we hear could easily be misinterpreted,” Celestia said. Levitating a glass of juice to her lips, she took a minuscule sip before continuing. “We have heard it said that our rule here in Equestria is held under ill omens, and we hoped you might know more on the subject.”

Zenio smiled, but for half a moment, panic creased his eyes. Within their seat of power, he would find neither a means of escape nor refuge should he anger the princesses. Though they could fence with words until the end of eternity should both sides desire, Celestia had begun corralling him. Backed against a precarious drop, a single wrong step would mean not only his own fall, but that of his people as well.

“The ramblings of the lower class, Your Highness, and nothing that any zebra of learning pays attention to. Simple folk fear what they do not understand, and you are extraordinary, if I may be so bold,” Zenio said, hoping his praise would not be taken amiss.

“My sister is quite something, I will agree, Ambassador,” Luna interjected. As he turned to her, Luna could see that she terrified him, though he did an admirable job of hiding it. “But they do not fear Celestia. The ‘simple folk’ of yours are parents or lovers, siblings or friends, all sharing a common voice. Words have a way of building from a murmur to a roar with unanticipated ferocity, and we would know what they say. Why do your people fear me? Why do you fear me?”

Pinned at last, Zenio took a moment to regain a measure of confidence beneath the piercing stares of the alicorn sisters. “I...” he briefly considered lying, but decided that would be extreme folly. He sighed. “Princess Luna, with my own eyes I can see the truth of the matter. But to put it simply, my people fear that ponykind serves Nightmare Moon, with Princess Celestia either under her thrall or...” The Ambassador looked chagrined as he forced out the last words. “...or else she rules willingly beside the scion of evil.” Too well-trained to simply close his eyes and cower, Zenio nevertheless couldn’t keep his gaze from shifting back and forth between the two princesses.

“You do not believe your own words, Ambassador,” Sand said, surprising both Luna and the ambassador. Celestia only shifted her tranquil gaze, giving Sand a soft nod to continue. “What your mind knows, your heart rejects. How then are we to convince not only you, but an entire nation unseen?” In the ensuring silence, she felt the gazes of the others as they regarded her with their own veiled thoughts.

“I...do not know,” Zenio said, slumping in his seat. Turning to Luna, he gave her an apologetic smile. “Were you to meet with every single zebra directly, I still do not believe it would be enough. As you said,” he nodded at Sand, “what we see only takes us so far before our hearts resist.”

“Then we are at an impasse, it would seem,” Celestia said, her voice melodious and soft. When she turned to look at Zenio, she found him staring at his forehooves, lost in thought. “Unless you can think of one who would be better suited to solve our dilemma,” she suggested, receiving a slow nod in return.

“There are many who may yet have ideas, but there is one who rises above all the others in that regard.” Zenio looked at Luna. “We have a...” he paused, struggling for the right words. “..a learned elder, of sorts, though in truth, he is quite young in body. His spirit, however, is as old as our people.” His voice had grown defensive, expecting disbelief to mar their faces. Finding a muted sense of respect in their looks instead, he continued with far less hesitation. “His wisdom is sought after by everyone from the lowest commoner to our most powerful leaders. Though he holds no position of power officially, he is...” Zenio considered his next words, satisfied at their completeness. “...the soul of our people. If you were to meet with him, that would go a long way towards remedying the problem.”

Luna and Celestia looked at one another, seeming to converse without saying a word. As Zenio looked from one to the other, Sand broke the silence, “How would we go about arranging a meeting? If I understand correctly, this would not be some simple diplomat whose presence we could request at leisure.”

The zebra dipped his head in a brief nod. “He resides in a monastery, caring for his most devoted followers, dwelling on the mysteries of life and beyond. To reach him, however, one must travel an arduous path, the journey undertaken meant to teach as much or more than what words he has to offer.”

“A rite of passage,” Luna said, to which he nodded again. “I see. Am I to find the way on my own, or can I expect assistance?”

Zenio studied the princess before responding. “While I can scribe a map with the aid of one of your cartographers, I can only show you the destination. As with so many things in life, you must find your own path. And...” he hesitated, his gaze dropping to Luna’s sides. “I am afraid your wings will avail you little. If you are to demonstrate that you understand its purpose, the journey must be travelled as my people would--unaided by flight.”

Luna pursed her lips at that, but said nothing at first. “Must I go alone?” Her voice quavered the barest fraction at the last word.

If Zenio noticed, he said nothing untoward. “Though you may take whomsoever you choose, as this is meant to be a meaningful journey, I would advise that only those who share your heart accompany you,” Zenio said. Regarding her a moment, he ventured something rare for him: the unadulterated truth. “Princess Luna, I beg your forgiveness. I fear that I judged you as my people do, yet with my own eyes I see your earnest desire to prove yourself. My hopes go with you, and from my lips to the ears of the people, I will do whatever I can to have them see as I do.” He pushed himself back from the table, bowing so low his nose brushed the carpeted floor between his forelegs.

Luna’s calm exterior rippled at his heartfelt gesture. “Please, rise. You do me too much honor, but I thank you nonetheless. Between us, there is nothing to forgive.” Luna saw her world shimmer behind unshed tears as she said, “I have much to atone for, and I add your hopes to my own that the path I have chosen is the correct one.”

***

Within her dream, she twisted. Just lucid enough to recognize her surroundings as a nightmare, Twilight could no more restrain the images bombarding her than she could will herself into the sun. Struggling against a deluge of sights and sounds, she fought to keep afloat, to keep her self intact as she felt a thousand, thousand souls perish in flames. Yet deep within the cacophony, a bubble of nothingness grew, swallowing the madness as it expanded. After moments or lifetimes--Twilight couldn’t tell which--she existed only in a void, all reference to there ever having been stripped from her.

At the edge of her awareness, she began to hear a whispering. Turning in circles, she strained to hear it more clearly. Bit by bit, the noises began to resolve themselves into words, ones she could almost make out if she just...

Twilight flinched as she woke to Sand’s gentle hoof shaking her shoulder. Twilight almost cursed her friend for the interruption, but she caught herself in time, shocked to consider what she had been about to say. Instead, she groaned and rolled away, earning an unseen smile from Sand.

“You’ve slept away most of the morning, Twilight,” Sand said, nosing her friend. “In a way, you should be thankful.” Rather than simply trying to rouse her friend, Sand decided to let Twilight’s curiosity do the work for her.

Twilight rolled over, opening her purple eyes to see her friend giving her a tired smile. “Why, did something happen?” Lethargic as her body might be, her mind was already up and running.

Sand wore a cryptic smile. Finally, she asked, “How would you like to go on an adventure?”

***

“For having had breakfast already, you seem famished.” Twilight regarded Sand with a measure of awe as they sat in the informal dining area surrounded by scavenged foodstuffs.

Between mouthfuls, Sand explained, “I’d have liked to have seen you try to eat, sitting there at the table with the fate of two nations hanging in the balance. I still don’t know why they brought me to the discussion, or for that matter, why they even bothered bringing food out since all anyone did was make vague insinuations as they danced around one another.” Sand shoved a massive wedge of cheese into her mouth, though she didn't appear to be enjoying it.

Twilight studied her friend as she worked through her own meal. Sand seemed a wreck, a sort of nervous energy shaking her frame as though it was only now being given a chance to express itself fully. Taking measured bites from her own leftover fruit, Twilight couldn’t help but wonder what she had missed, and if she should be sorry or not. She asked, “Dawn...are you all right?”

Sand stopped chewing, marking a period of silence where she reflected on the question. Swallowing, she said, “I suppose it is only my nerves, Twilight, but thank you for your consideration.” She looked around at the decimated remains of her breakfast, finally taking in how much she had devoured. She gave a half chuckle, but her face kept a worried expression. “I’m getting to be as bad as Celestia.” Looking up, she saw Twilight’s look of curiosity. Sand waved a hoof, saying, “Remind me later and I will explain our first evening together. I think you might look differently upon your mentor then.” She smiled then, thinking back to a time when she still had the answers.

Wanting to keep her friend talking instead of gorging, Twilight asked, “So what do you know of this...elder?”

Sand shook her head, putting down an apple. “Erudite. The Erudite, by all accounts, of which we have but one. Apparently, he is the reincarnation of...well, himself, spanning countless lifetimes of quiet meditation and spiritual guidance. The ambassador has never made the pilgrimage to his monastery, but it is one of his life’s ambitions before he grows too old to do so. The trip is supposedly perilous to those who need it to be.” She snorted but continued on. “We cannot reach him purely by overland travel--the zebra provinces contain a few islands, of which his is the largest. Have you ever travelled by boat?” Twilight shook her head. Sand’s voice took on a dry tone. “Then I would advise you to stay away from acidic foods and eat only fruits that you think will taste as good coming up as they do going down.”

Twilight took a moment to understand, but cringed when she did. “Thanks, I’ll...look into that. Maybe I can find a spell for motion sickness before we leave...” she said, though she didn’t look hopeful.

Finished with doling out what she knew, Sand began looking worried again. “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” she said, looking around as though whatever it was would be found in the crumbs of their meal together.

Twilight resisted the urge to roll her eyes, knowing that Sand was only stalling now. “Come on Dawn, you’ve looked your gear over four times already. Books, food, saddle blankets, and small miscellany--we aren’t exactly packing for every eventuality here.” She reached over and nudged Sand with a hoof. “We’re friends, can’t you tell me what’s got you so anxious?”

“You noticed?” Sand asked, genuine surprise etched across her face. Receiving a disbelieving stare in return, she said, “Right, okay. It’s only...” she trailed off, trying to marshal her thoughts. “When I arrived here, when I met you, when I met your friends, when I explained who I was--for all that, I acted with knowledge of what I was doing. I wasn’t joking earlier when I said that my original plan, after all was said and done, was to simply settle down on the court grounds somewhere and live out my days basking in Celestia’s presence.” Twilight felt her ear twitch. That part had been left out before, but she let it pass for now. “Now, we go questing, ostensibly for a greater good matching my own purpose, but...” Sand lowered her gaze as she trailed off, her ears plastered to the sides of her head.

“You’re scared of the unknown?” Twilight suggested. Seeing the piteous look on her friend’s face, she wrapped one leg around Sand’s shoulders, pulling them into a sitting embrace. “You’re a silly pony sometimes.” Twilight considered saying more, but feeling Sand’s faint trembling, she decided simply to be there for her. After a few minutes of quiet companionship, Sand settled back on her haunches with a tremulous smile, though her body no longer appeared to be shaking.

“Thank you. You are a good friend, especially for all that I’ve brought down upon you,” Sand began, but Twilight cut her off with a raised hoof before she could continue her self recrimination.

“Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve said, your heart has been in the right place, and I’m not going to fault you for doing what you think is necessary,” Twilight said, eyeing Sand’s cutie mark. “To tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous too. Luna’s a dear friend of mine, and I feel safe with her, but with Princess Celestia staying at court to maintain the royal presence, I feel somewhat adrift myself.” Twilight floated the detritus of their meal into a nearby waste bin, beginning to stuff what food she could into their already-full saddlebags. She looked over, waiting until Sand acknowledged her gaze before saying, “For whatever faults we might have, when we’re with friends, we gain the strength to become better than we are alone.”

***

They set off after moonrise, leaving through a disused side gate that saw little traffic by day, and even less by night. They followed a path that wound down through the mountainside--a slow but steady trek that let them pace themselves for the travels ahead.

“Zenio was vague when he clipped my wings,” Luna said, regarding the offending appendages at her sides. “Flight might not truly matter until we cross into zebra lands, but I would prefer not to chance failure before we have even begun.”

“How long should we expect to be on hoof?” Sand asked.

“That depends on the weather at this time of year,” Twilight explained. “We’ll technically be travelling away from zebra lands to reach a small waterside town called Horsetooth, but if the conditions are good, we can catch a ferry downriver that should shave off three, maybe four days from our trip.” Lost in thought calculating distances, it wasn’t until Sand looked her way that Twilight continued. “I think it shouldn’t take us more than two or three nights to reach Horsetooth. The river’s an unknown, but we can guess maybe another three nights on the river, and then we only have the maps the ambassador drew up for us to navigate his lands. His information didn’t have any sense of scale, however, so we could be traveling for two days or two hundred, really.” Seeing Sand’s alarmed look, Twilight reassured her friend with a smile and a waved hoof. “I’m joking,” she said, but under her breath she muttered, “I hope.”

As they put an increasing distance between themselves and the lives they had known, the three ponies entered a vast rolling countryside. Covered in short grasses that shimmered in the moonlight, the hills murmured when the wind gusted over them in fits and spurts.

Even with her longer legs, Luna began trailing behind the two unicorns, eventually requesting their first stop of the evening. “Just a brief pause,” she explained. “I have not been ahoof for so long in ages. I had forgotten what it was like to be earthbound.” The others looked at each other, but decided against commenting. Luna missed the exchange, looking at her treacherous hooves with disdain. “I did not realize I had become so soft.”

Twilight stepped closer to the princess, saying, “Why wouldn’t you be, though?” Luna glared at her, causing Twilight to find a quick explanation. “No offense, Princess! I just mean that you don’t really need to put yourself under yoke and rein to do your duty.”

Luna willed her scowl away, seeing that Twilight meant no ill will. “Because we should strive to understand each other, Twilight. Not just you and I, but everypony. When the ruling class forgets what it is like to toil, to live by the sweat of their own brow, they become complacent, disconnected from the people they should be shepherding. You have only to look at fools like my nephew to see what becomes of those who have never had to work for themselves.” Luna rose from her prone position. Testing her footing and finding it satisfactory, she said, “When I returned and saw that the old class-based social structure had largely become defunct, I was happy.” She eyed her two companions, weighing what she said next. “Rarely have ponies simply treated me as one of them. Even you, Twilight, see me within my sister’s shadow. Not always, for which I am immensely grateful, but enough to be reminded that I am...different.” Luna narrowed her eyes as she looked at the ground, giving it a small sigh. As she began walking, the unicorns trailed in her wake.

Regarding each other for a moment, it was Sand who spoke first. “You are different, and no amount of self pity is going to change that.” Luna rounded on her, eyes flashing with hurt and anger, but while Sand frowned, she also offered an explanation. “None of us are the same--no two unicorns, no two pegasi, no two earth ponies. We do not let our differences define us. Rather, we acknowledge them and use them to accentuate who we are. There are few true narcissists, and even they only pretend at wanting utter conformity.” Sand poked Luna's chest with her hoof. “You cast a longer shadow than us, this is true, so you have more work to do. But you know us, and I’m certain you know others who don’t view you as a goddess first and a pony only as a distant second.” Twilight thought of a band of screaming children, led en masse by a clucking pink pony. “Spend some time out of the palace,” Sand said. She looked around, wondering if there was even any other soul around for leagues. “Okay, bad timing, but sound advice in general. Let others into your heart, and they will let you into theirs.” She added with a shrug, “It worked for Celestia.”

Luna cocked her head, peering down at the pony who had just given her a stern lecture--she had thought that to be Twilight’s forte. Saying nothing at first, she turned to continue walking, but paused long enough to say, “Thank you, Sand Shaper. You have give me food for thought this evening.”

Falling behind again, Sand felt Twilight staring her down. “What?” Sand asked.

In a loud whisper, Twilight said, “Where did that come from? This morning you were a gibbering wreck, and now you’ve gone and scolded the Princess as if she were a little filly!”

Sand bristled, looking hurt. “This morning I needed a friend, which I was immensely grateful to have by my side. Tonight, Luna needed one, and I was happy to pay that kindness forward.” Giving Twilight a dark look, Sand quickened her steps to keep pace alongside Luna, leaving Twilight to her own thoughts.

***

Twilight couldn’t sleep. She kept coming back to Sand’s words, unable to leave them be. With the other unicorn asleep across from her, Twilight had no way of talking things over unless she woke Sand up. Although she considered it once or twice, Twilight doubted it would actually lead to a satisfying resolution. Luna sat a ways off, wanting to be alone with her thoughts for the evening, but making sure to be within sight should they need her.

Twilight just wanted to get her mind off its current track, and barring a nice conversation with somepony, one idea kept popping into her head. Looking over, she saw a pair of saddlebags lying in a crumpled heap beside Sand. Well, shes close enough, and I bet she wont mind. I just hope I dont wake her up.

Horn glowing with a faint light, Twilight hoped that the noise of the wind and the grass would mask any sound her channeled magic created. Slowly, she floated the saddlebags upright, working at the straps that kept each one closed. Unable to tell one from the other, Twilight hoped the book would be in the first one she opened. Success! With gentle impatience, Twilight shuffled objects around as quietly as she could, hoping to prevent a tumble of foods and maps as she levitated the book out towards her.

The moonlight would barely suffice, so Twilight turned away, trying to block her spellcasting from view. She hoped that the illuminating light from her horn wouldn’t disturb Sand as she willed the book open, trying to regain her place. Before long, she had picked up where she left off, and soon all of her worries, cares, and concerns fell away as she lost herself in the story. She did not see the single green eye open, nor feel its gaze upon her. Sand said nothing, watching her friend in the argent light, feeling only a profound sadness.

***

They struck camp at sunrise. Neither unicorn complained at their diminished hours of sleep, but their bodies took longer to acclimate to their trek than either would have liked. For her part, even Luna looked fatigued.

“Are you getting enough sleep, Princess?” Twilight asked.

Luna shook her head. “I do not need sleep, Twilight, though it can help me recover faster. Aside from that, I would be loathe to think of any harm befalling you two while I studied the backs of my eyelids.”

Sand kept pace on the other side of Luna, trying to avoid making eye contact with Twilight. Sand said, “We should sleep in shifts. There’s no need to have you exhausted simply because you can be awake all night. The road ahead of us is long, and we care about your well-being as much as you do about ours.”

Still, Luna hesitated. “I...your words have wisdom, Sand, and I will consider them when next we need sleep. For now, however, we are still some distance from Horsetooth, and I would like to be there by moonfall tomorrow. We can likely rent a room to recover so that none of us need worry about our safety.”

Nodding her agreement, Sand fell into Luna’s wake again. Twilight looked at the princess as though she would comment on something, but with a brief look back at Sand, she slowed her steps to match stride with the other unicorn.

Neither of them spoke, though they cast each other furtive glances as they traveled in silence. Finally, Twilight snorted. “All right, enough of this. I’m sorry I snapped at you last night, Dawn. Luna was right--I do see her in the light of Princess Celestia, and it caught me off guard when you just treated her like any other pony.” Up ahead, Luna twitched an ear but said nothing. “We’re all friends here, and you didn’t deserve that.”

Sand set her mouth in a grim line, but she could see that Twilight was still hurting. “I...am sorry as well, Twilight. You are my dearest friend, and I have been unjust in treating you as anything less than such.” She considered bringing up Twilight’s late night reading, but decided against it. She wanted to give the worst wounds time to heal before opening another.

Twilight smiled at her, walking close enough to give Sand a playful bump with her shoulder. “Well, I’m glad that’s settled. We’ve got a long way to go today...do you think you could tell me what you know about what’s growing around us?” Her gaze swept over the rolling hills, the waving flora shining golden in the morning light.

Sand gave Twilight an appreciative grin before saying, “Of course. As long as you’re willing to teach me about the stars tonight, that is.”

Up ahead, Luna wore a secret smile, content in the knowledge that she had chosen wisely.

***

(Special thanks to Chris for helping me smooth out several transitions and mechanical problems throughout the chapter)

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