• Published 19th Aug 2017
  • 6,432 Views, 201 Comments

Enemy of Mine - Ice Star



A few years after Luna's return it seems that Equestria will finally know an era of peace and appears to be on the verge of a new renaissance. Ponies are happy. Luna is recovering. Celestia is miserable.

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Chapter 6: Husband of Hers, Part 3

There were times when Celestia thought she was much like a little jam jar filled with bits. The glass was clean and clear, shining from a fresh wash and her little metal lid was popped off, allowing ponies to come and see the bright golden coins and look at them with the glee of school-foals who searched for candy money. And sometimes her friends did feel like foals, mostly because very few were nearly as old as she and not much more. Yet, because of this so many ponies did feel young after a while. They had not seen the things she had, lived through them, or been drained by them.

She might not even be the jar of bits, but when all was said and done, Celestia certainly felt like the jar. She might be the little sign instead. The one propped beside the jar, it clearly read 'TAKE ONE' and had a little smiley drawn next to it. There was no reason not to be nice. Ponies did take one. They needed a bit here, they wanted a bit there. Every time ponies left her presence with a smile, Celestia would smile too. She had given something away, tangible or intangible. She would be generous. Even when it hurt.

Maybe especially then.

Everypony would take a 'bit' eventually, regardless of what it was. She would smile in return, and say something too.

Generosity was such a good thing, and she would give so selflessly.

But nopony ever put a bit back. Bit by bit. That's how things went. Every day there would be a little less to have, and she would sit. It could be time. It could be energy. Anything.

Feeling, perhaps, was one such thing. She didn't like to think about that one.

Bit by bit.

Anypony could have something. They could be a simple subject, an acquaintance, a student, or a friend and a subject. A lover would apply to, but they were all her subjects in the end. And all took a bit.

Sometimes, she would even smile and wait for somepony to put anything back. Nopony ever did.

The jar of bits was always finite.

And she always gave.

Sometimes, this would nag her often. It was the many thoughts of a weary ruler oozed into foal-like imagery, but for some reason, it stuck with her.

Or maybe it haunted her. There was something creepily timeless about it.

Oftentimes, she would throw Luna into her little bit-jar thought. Were Celestia was open and appropriately given to everypony... Luna was not so. She would represent Luna with a jar with the lid screwed on so tightly that no coins could be seen. The only pony she ever shared anything important with or really seemed interested in cultivating any relationship with was the one she had been unfortunate enough to marry.

Luna shared something private and Celestia gave everything away.

She was empty now and maybe had been for some time. She still wanted desperately to be given something in return, and to give even more, regardless of if there was nothing left to give.

Unlike Luna, she had many subjects who had been elevated to the status of friend, and no matter how diminished she felt, there was always a friend within Canterlot. Her friendships were light affairs, with the tight illusion of extreme closeness that was in all her non-familial relationships, bending the impersonal to look truly personal. She confided nothing serious or dire in friends but spent so much wonderful time with them. She cared for them, really, but impersonal was always the best kind of personal.

She confided little of her troubles in her lovers too, letting each stallion get to know something just between the princess and Celestia herself. She never refused their reverent treatment of her, allowing every one of them to nearly worship the mare they loved. She loved them, too, and that was why they did not really know her. It was only with Discord could she really claim to have somepony know her, and to see something beyond her royal presence, and could still peer past it. He had known her long before the crown had claimed her head. Most of the time, that was a good thing.

Friends, too, were a good thing, and Celestia would never say otherwise.

Especially when she had Raven.

...

Celestia's levitation spell died down when her teacup came to rest on the marble surface of the table. A soft wind carrying the dulled crispness of February air against the soft bubble of golden aura that kept two mares warm in what was little more than a reversed snow globe. The steam from her tea drifted up and managed to slip past the barrier.

While it was not simple magic by the standards of a normal unicorn, it was certainly simple to the point of being nothing for Alicorn magic — a simple bubble to regulate the temperature in a designated area, nothing more! Godly feats of magic aside from the daily management of the sun were rare from her, as she liked it... even if it was far from natural.

She flicked one of her ears, feeling it brush against the cold metal of her crown. "After everything that you and I have seen together, and all the time we spent together, will this truly be how you treat me?"

There was the crisp chill leaking through her blasted bubble again before she heard anything from the petite mare across from her.

"Y-Yes, princess! This is how I shall fall!"

"Mortal," Celestia said, unable to imitate a properly grave voice, "is this really the hill you chose to die on? One that will make you my enemy for all time?"

The mousy mare across from her nervously wiped a few drops of sweat away from her cheek. "Y-Yes, of course, Your Highness!"

Pulling her faint smile just a touch tighter, Celestia nudged the ivory king in Raven's direction. "A game well played, then."

It was a rare thing for Celestia to lose games. She beat Luna frequently because Luna got bored halfway through games and didn't care, and she found more fun in swapping the pieces and between-move bantering than in the actual game.

Raven could best her on occasion. Celestia had first become acquainted with the maid's daughter years ago, when she found her as a distraught filly hiding in the gardens and played a few games of makeshift chess with her, eventually deciding to throw one in order to finally get the young one to smile and dissolve her worries.

Now, the filly was all grown up and the youngest secretary the princess had ever had. Dutiful and without pride, Raven was easy company, if often on the anxious side. These days, she could even manage to claim a game of her own in an honest victory from time to time, which was no doubt a product of their many years together.

Though, she managed less straightforward victories whenever Celestia's mind wandered, stumbling into the edges of its own shadow...

"Princess Celestia? Is something wrong?" Raven looked at her innocently with large, dark eyes through equally large, dark glasses. Her own forehoof accidentally came in contact with Celestia's to claim the ivory piece. An abrupt blush spread across Raven's face and she quickly recoiled, the piece in hoof, when she realized what she had done, murmuring an apology.

Celestia flicked a forehoof in a rare gesture of anything resembling dismissiveness. "Nothing at all, Raven. Or at least, nothing to really worry about... just some trouble with holiday preparation."

Raven wrung her forehooves and ducked her gaze to the game board and tea set perched on the table between them. She appeared quite interested in the remaining crumbs of her watercress sandwich, or maybe the dainty pattern on the plate that had held them.

"Is it anything I can help with?" she offered shyly.

Celestia smiled, knowing that of anypony who would be quick to help, it would be a friend. "I'm afraid that unless you have spare princesses lying around, not much can be done."

Folding her own forehooves politely on their table, Celestia let her gaze roam past swirls of steam from tea, crumbs from her scones and flower salad occupying their own fine plate, and the gloomy skeleton of the castle gardens that surrounded her. Frost crept across the bones of her favorite flower bushes and the other remains of once lush plants.

The streams of the many mountain waterfalls that wound through the castle grounds were frozen over and silent. Snow littered all that was left.

Sighing, Celestia turned back to Raven. She did not even wish to see the fog of her breath today. Winter was a season for feeling close to ponies, not for being miserable and alone, no matter how dull everything looked. Something about this barren time always gave Celestia such an unshakably bad feeling that tainted even lunch breaks like this just so.

"The last two seasons of holidays have not been going as I had wished, Raven." And lately, Celestia had been doing a lot of wishing. "Everything has been rather disorganized that I fear for the Palooza." And her smile dropped because once the warm feelings of Hearts and Hooves day had ebbed away into nothing, she didn't have much else to really look forward to as exciting other than the Palooza and Canterlot's grand, magical Winter Wrap-Up.

Raven offered a passive sigh of 'oh', before beginning to slowly reset the pieces with her magic.

Black and white. Celestia blinked. The promise of any holiday or party, no matter how many months away usually had her sincerely giddy under her sticky mask of forever-cheer, thrilled at any chance to be twirled into a conversation, and even forget all her problems with the intoxication of company. She had even begun to look forward to Summer Sun Celebrations in earnest now.

Family Appreciation brought the promise of a good season of holidays when she had finally convinced Discord that, though they were not wed, a proper family portrait to commemorate the occasion and be gifted to young Qilin would be a fantastic idea. And it had been, once the young kirin had stopped crying.

But on Nightmare Night, when her fine costume was picked out perfectly and she wanted to laugh with Luna and Dissy with pranks and treats in the spirit of their youth, she found out that Luna had been whisked away from the main celebrations on the castle grounds and streets by a stallion dressed as a plague doctor of old and passing out caramel onions before they both slipped into the city shadows, only for Luna and Sombra to reappear in the morning.

Hearth's Warming Eve had made Celestia barely refrain from the undignified behavior of leaping about like a little filly when Cadance and her family finally arrived. She nearly swarmed Cadance for the chance to hear any tips to get tips to lessen the infant's crying and see her dear great-niece Skyla, only to find the young one had been picked up by Luna and Sombra for doting, presents, and story time. Nothing had improved with Sombra, either. He still had no gifts to give to anypony and even acknowledging him was twice as awkward as last year.

She hadn't even had a chance to see Luna or Sombra on Hearts and Hooves Day, the closest she had come to catching sight of even their shadows was knowing that the moon was raised and lowered on time.

"Is it... because of him?" Raven ventured meekly.

"I..." Celestia paused, "I do not think that the Princess Pen Pal Palooza is anything he will enjoy, but no holidays are. Still, he's not actually going to be able to interfere with anything so much as he can just be a sullen, negative presence."

Raven snorted softly. "Isn't he always? Head Maid Moth Ball was telling me all about how any maid who can manage to get their hooves on a Sundrop Talisman has been scrambling to do so." She quickly tucked a dark strand of her mane back into her neat bun before her gossip resumed. "I don't blame them either. He's a beast, an arrogant, unbearable beast. He's yelling at them for wearing the Talismans of all things! Can you believe it? Just yesterday, Dusty Feather was going on about how she was yelled at for getting too close to him with one about her uniform like a brooch, all a-glow. And he yelled at her!"

"Oh goodness," Celestia whispered, a forehoof raised to her mouth. "Has he done anything else... or, said anything other than what he usually tells the poor mares?"

What she was uncertain of was why Sombra would be so angered about being in close proximity to a Sundrop Talisman.

They were small, inoffensive things meant to combat monsters. When the number of pioneers in Equestria was far greater, and many alliances not yet forged, those granted land by herself — such as Ponyville's Apple family — often needed aid to combat the wild beasts that could harm them. With no guard, no employed mercenary, and no magical arts, Sundrop Talismans were the key. Each a blessing from Celestia before she bit her little ponies good luck, watching them go with invocable traces of her magic and diluted with a touch of light magic to be held against the untamable.

He had to know that such magic was hers, no matter how many hooves such heirlooms were passed down to, or how many were acquired as antiques. Did her altruistic work anger him so? Was he repulsed by the good deed, by any display or connection of her power?

She did not know, but she did not worry. She looked to Raven instead, the latter's face was a bit flushed.

"No, Princess Celestia. He still calls me a submissive cur sometimes, or growls at the other staff, and dares to speak bluntly with them... that's not exactly irregular for the prince." She bit her lip. "The prince still won't let me look at any of his financial records. He absolutely insists on doing everything himself."

"Ah, yes. That does sound like him," Celestia muttered, idly stirring her tea.

"Isn't it just our luck he's a backward individualist?" Raven huffed, fidgeting with her glasses.

"Mhm, indeed. Just know that you're lucky you don't have to live with him. He's unbearable."

Raven blinked. "...Isn't he a recluse?"

"Yes, and it's horrid."

"Hmm, yes, that is certainly horrid on reputation. Still, I really would like to get a look at his finances. At least with your sister's, I get a taste of what she does with her bits, but with him, it's such a mystery. Don't you think it would really shed some insight into what wicked things he does? He's a dark sorcerer, but there is something tricky about less-than-magical things about him... I-I'm not really at the level to tangle with the magical things. It's not my place."

Celestia snorted mid-sip of her tea and hurriedly put the cup down and managed to avoid having the warm liquid squirt through her nostrils. "Oh, you have no idea! I'm convinced that his air of mystery is the only reason Luna fancies him."

"Oh no, not that. I apologize for any discourtesy, princess, but I was once again on the topic of his finances. It is very clear to me that he has some kind of steady income beyond what is expected of royalty, and I just find that odd. Why, even Blueblood has a clearer income than him, beyond inheritances."

Yes, Bluey has to get his rather extravagant allowances from his Auntie in order to secure necessities for parties, and whatever else tickles his impulses when he wants to write to me at all.

"And that stallion is bathing in derby bets, fine wine, and more parties than my father and his country club friends have thrown in all their lifetimes. But the prince? He may be far from extravagant, and nowhere near as refined as your nephew..."

Celestia was quite glad that she wasn't drinking her tea still, else she would've found it hard to resist a spit take. Maybe her friendships were not the horribly emotional affairs or particularly personal ones held by many ponies, but Raven was a friend as much as a servant, and part of a small group that could make Celestia really, truly laugh in ways beyond conversational titters.

"...and not even remotely willing to indulge in any luxury, as far as I can tell, he manages to acquire a lot more than I know he should. I simply must know where all those bits come from; he does not have the chance to engage in anything illegal, and he can't be in two places at once... but he's getting it from somewhere, and somewhere I could never know unless he allows me to see his finances. So, ponyfeathers to that."

"Oh dear, that is such harsh language, Raven," Celestia said with the barest hints of laughter, raising a forehoof to politely muffle her faint giggle, as was the gracious thing to do. "So profane."

"Oh..." Raven flushed, ducking her eyes instantly. "Oh gods, I do apologize, princess."

"I meant that in jest, Rae."

With their great divide in status, and Celestia's unwavering manner of mildness — at least, as far as Raven knew — there were always times like these. Raven befriended a mask, and below that mask, Celestia was fond of Raven. Between them were a thousand separations, and still, Celestia felt fond of the mare who managed to dance more closely to the edge of natural, tumultuous bonds of emotion than any other friend had in some time. They were united by duty, familiarity, and cheer. That was all Celestia needed, and she refused anypony undeserved disappointment.

With a sheepish nod, Raven took up her own tea to stave the awkwardness she so clearly felt for a few moments. The clink of a cup against a plate reached Celestia's ears, as did another chilly breeze, and Raven spoke once more.

"...Do you really think that there will be problems with the Palooza?"

Not wanting to risk a frown, all Celestia could do was sigh. "Yes, I think so. With only Luna, Twilight, and myself within Equestria, now there won't be as many princesses to write to, especially when I thought that Equestria would have four princesses..."

...for a very long time.

"Raven, I don't know if this year is going to be a good year. Ever since her ascension, Twilight has been flooded with letters. Colts and fillies always adored writing to Cadance, and now... I just wish we could still have four princesses."

Of course, Raven looked so surprised to hear even a hint of sadness in Celestia's voice. She was supposed to be a bright, ever-optimistic figure, and oh of course she faked it... but Raven had only heard worry from Celestia at most, and such a display was few and far between from her. There was a worry for everypony at some point — and nearly always for Luna — but it was not something she dumped upon her friends, and rarely revealed the depth of to them if she did it at all. Friends were not for such a selfish thing, especially when such troublesome things could be so neatly contained.

"Regardless, there's no halting a national holiday..."

"Well," Raven interjected, "you could... you're a princess."

Celestia shook her head, letting her rippling mane hide just enough of how much this troubled her. "I refuse to disappoint so many young ponies with an undeserved cancellation. The Palooza is what gives every foal a chance to write to royalty and get to know something about them and to be guaranteed an answer. The Palooza began four hundred and thirty-six ago..."

...because I was lonely and needed to talk to somepony.

"...so that young ponies could look forward to something in the dead of winter and come to understand their ruler."

One of Raven's forelegs shot up. "Wouldn't it be 'rulers' now?"

"Yes, thank you, Raven."

The other mare flushed slightly and once again focused on the remains of their lunch, and Celestia paid Raven's passivity no mind. She tended to enjoy the company of those who had this docility about them, for it was good and peaceful.

Assertive personalities absolutely exhausted her, and exceptions to this were few and far between.

Those that minded themselves and carried this admirable obedience, whether in general or to a fine cause, was something she could appreciate and relate to in a friend. It also meant that more often than not, she could drink her tea with ease around such types, saving chaos for where cotton candy clouds were most welcome.

"Princess...?" Raven ventured after some time, caution and worry both clear in her tone.

"Yes?" Celestia responded absently, feeling whatever spirits she might have had left slowly begin to dampen. It just... wasn't going to be a good year, was it?

But wouldn't next year hold... something?

She couldn't even offer herself some much-craved platitude. Things boded poorly.

"M-May I speak freely?"

"Oh," the princess said softly, blinking. "Of course?"

Raven swallowed nervously, then asked, "Are things well with the prince?"

Celestia blinked. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Is he not... terrible?"

Celestia looked away from Raven and tried her hardest to restrain her emotions. The terrible things were always better off concealed in times like these, but that didn't stop slip-ups from being an unfortunate occurrence. "I don't like him, Raven, but I do have to live with him."

Raven bit her lip. "...What's that like?"

"Hm? What is what like, Raven?"

Raven ducked her eyes so obviously that for a moment Celestia was worried her dear secretary was having a fit of some sort. "Living with..."

A monster. "...with a not-quite reformed pony?"

There, she thought, that is a good way to refer to him. It's quite soft and inoffensive.

It would be quite useful in the future, too.

"Yes, that is what I meant, princess."

"Ah!" Celestia exclaimed, forcing a small smile she knew Raven wouldn't see past. "Well, it is quite the experience. He's, well, he's a vegan!" Or allegedly one, I really can't be sure.

Raven blinked, clearly perplexed. "A vegan? The prince?"

"Yes, or so I'm told."

"...Is that something special about him, princess?"

"...Oh, no, I don't think so. A quarter of Equestrians are vegans, but it just seems unusual for him. A real shocker, yes?"

"I-I'm not so sure," Raven said meekly. "I just... you're so gracious to put up with him... and..."

"And what?" Celestia prompted kindly. "Is there something wrong?"

Raven squeaked.

"Did he hurt you?"

"N-No, he just calls me a dog and such, sometimes. But he is scary."

I know, I'm afraid of him too. "There's no need to be afraid of Prince Sombra, he cannot harm you in any way. I have no fear of him, and if I feared that any of my little ponies would be hurt by him, he would have no circlet upon his head."

Only one of those things was true.

Nodding, dutifully, Raven poked at the game board in front of her. "I remember your speech at his coronation. As always, I found your words to be so uplifting and ..." Raven trailed off, sighing. "You have a way of making everything seem like it will be okay, and all your words sound righteous... it makes me feel like such a fool for ever worrying."

Emotion had to be let out, and Celestia allowed her expression to soften greatly with concern. "What is it that bothers you?"

"Isn't Sombra still evil?"

Celestia paused and looked toward her secretary calmly. Would this prove a tricky question? Or could she work her way through it with ease? "Raven, I know that you know better than to suggest that anypony who is evil would ever sit upon the throne of Equestria, or even work for it. Perhaps you should consider rephrasing your question, and I'll be pleased to answer it."

"I apologize, princess," Raven all but whispered. "What I meant was something like... even though you made a noble choice to have him crowned, a matter in which Princess Luna contributed, do you think that it is right he is all but pardoned? You do not like him, and he is so different from how you rose to the crown, princess." Swallowing quickly, she added: "I-Is that any better?"

Celestia nodded absentmindedly, having been distracted by the sight of neat rows of chess pieces to have properly react to Raven's ramblings. "Yes, that is a bit better." She paused, and peered wordlessly at Raven, watching the younger mare compose herself to appear quiet and more mild-mannered than she already was. "Though, I would like to hear how it is you feel our paths to the crown are so different."

Raven's aura flicked to life so she could push her glasses back up her muzzle, and one of her ears flicked. "You... Well, it would be just like every history book and pony-tale ever said before, princess. All the things you've lived through and already know. I don't have a unique view of things, nor do I think one beyond the normal one is needed. You... helped ponies."

Celestia dipped her head a certain way so that she might look out at the gardens. Philomena often liked to roost, regardless of the weather. A few fish ponds were in each of the castle gardens too and were enchanted so their waters remained unfrozen and heated. In them was a variety of fish, including the present of koi from Neighpon. Sombra kept his own fish in one of them, and though Celestia had not seen it ever, she heard it liked to jump out of the water often. Any such stirring and sounds from the direction of the pond complex always caught her attention, and Raven must have taken the 'nod' of Celestia as a cue to go on.

"Every little colt and filly in Equestria learns about how you came to the Tribes as a wanderer from over the mountains, and that you brought light to the land."

Many ponies were prone to saying 'our ancestors' over 'the Tribes' but Celestia knew that if you lived as long as she had, and were nearly rooted to Canterlot as she had always been, you would find some very similar shapes in the leaves that rained down upon you over the years. She knew Raven unknowingly was prone to such word choice because she had been the one to approve the passage of some of Raven's Prancian ancestors into Equestria. Those papers were not fresh in her mind, but they were there. Little things like that always stuck with her, even if she did not find them to be of importance.

"The dark and cold land soon was exposed to you, and how you spoke of unity and Harmony to ponies that were hungry strangers and need only to learn to get along. You've... you've changed more than anypony ever could, princess, before you ever were one. I... It's something I admire." Blushing slightly, Raven continued. "Exposed to poverty, you spoke of better things and aided the peasants of the three Tribes, and met figures like the great Starswirl the Bearded in your travels."

Celestia's heart didn't sink so much after hearing 'great' and 'Starswirl' intertwined together after so long. Things felt eased by it, actually, and it soothed something in her to have something so innocent and good over the scar of the truth.

Starswirl got to be a completely different pony, one who was good and noble and had never hurt anypony.

So really, much of how she thought of things, and all the shadows of her memory and a periwinkle stallion that knew how to work his way into the edges of her thoughts was just quite silly.

And maybe it hadn't been real, too. Holding a confused and crying Twilight Sparkle while feeling so cold and far away had been real, but maybe the story — yes, the story — she had worked together with a few patches of memory, delivered impersonally and free of many details and information could be nothing more than fantasy.

And if it had been real? If those sensations of phantom bruises and the echo of a drunk stallion's screams and strikes had actually happened...

They simply didn't have to be.

"Luna was there as well," Celestia chimed in, looking upon Raven softly now that she no longer rambled so, and Celestia had managed to hoist her thoughts out of the dangerous edge of memory.

"Oh!" Raven exclaimed, adjusting her glasses again. "I'm sure she was! I'm truly sorry for any offense, I didn't mean to exclude your younger sister... she's just not in any of the books I had growing up. The stories about you, and how you heroically defeated Discord and... and when Equestria began... they've always been my favorite, and I'm just not used to the new versions, with Princess Luna in them."

'New versions'. Celestia held back cringing but ended up feeling worse for it.

"And you feel that Luna's husband is different, though he has had his own exploits that have aided Cadance in the past?"

Here she was, bordering on a demon's literal advocate. It made her feel sick.

"No, no it's not that. I just... because of everything he did in the Crystal Empire, does he deserve to be happy?"

Suddenly rapt with attention, Celestia gave Raven one long look. "I see you have listened to me as much as a Faithful Student would. Tell me, what lessons have you learned?"

"I learned a lot about happiness," Raven began delicately, hooves folded politely in front of her. She was not able to hide how her brown eyes darted about from the other side of her glasses. "Happiness isn't something a pony has, it is something that is earned by being good to others, and if you have been good as well, then there is happiness in store for a pony." Smiling, Raven went on. "Because it is a reward, seeing undeserved happiness is... I'm not the one who gets to decide these things, I'm a secretary, not a princess. Yet, I know that when I see somepony who has gotten what they want through means they should have, that it isn't right."

With the weight of the season and Raven's clear sadness, Celestia could not help but appear a touch somber as well, watching as the younger mare's expression crumpled. She had never had a way with words, but Raven was a delicate creature who could hide little, and Celestia knew that Raven knew that she disliked Sombra, even if most other ponies could never hope to guess at anything past her mask of sweetness and properity. Raven knew how to find the tip of the iceberg of sour thoughts Celestia had, at least sometimes, even if she was too naive to know there was anything else to them.

"He was supposed to change, wasn't he? The prince was supposed to be reformed and, oh..." Raven nearly whimpered, "how was it that you had put it?"

"Humbled," murmured Celestia between another sip of tea. Though her aura-bubble certainly kept the cold of winter away, it did nothing to reduce overall gloom or to keep her tea warm.

"He's still so proud and mean."

Celestia did not wish to speak of how she loathed Sombra's stubbornness so. She too had been expecting a breakthrough and instead was faced with a Sombra hardly any different than from any of their past encounters. She was faced with the same mysterious stallion and his incurably apathetic attitude.

She just nodded once she had drained her teacup of its contents.

"I don't want to see that any longer if it means I have to see you upset."

Raven finally looked into Celestia's eyes, a gesture so highly atypical that Celestia was too stunned to blink. There was something foggy to those brown eyes like they were trying to give Celestia an answer she did not know how to read.

Or perhaps that was exactly what they showed the princess.

And all Celestia knew was that the reflection of her own rosy eyes in Raven's glasses held the same absence of clarity. Even she could not discern what emotion was reflected back at her.

This was her friend, and every conversation between them was like the link in a chain pulled tight around them both.

She waited for the awkward feeling to diminish, the next cue to come, and the sense of feeling that came upon confiding anything in a friend.

Celestia felt lost instead.

...

Celestia and Raven had an arrangement. It was composed of three simple things and a routine built around these foundations. First, there was a door. This was no grand door, merely the door to one of Celestia's informal 'reading rooms' around the castle. They were out-of-the-way places, often with large sunny windows, plush pillows, tea trays, and all things plain and soothing.

Outside the door was where Raven stood, as she was asked by her princess. It was a duty Raven took on all too willingly, something that had initially surprised Celestia. No other secretary had been quite so apt to serve and stand like a guard would.

There was something touching about that aspect of things, and perhaps almost dangerously so.

Next came the spell. As uncommon as it was, such an enchantment was standard in high places. Noise-canceling spells were an expectation in any situation that called for discretion: from royal meetings, and interrogations of criminals, to encounters between lovers. So as long as one was an educated unicorn the spell would be present.

Celestia found them necessary to mask things. Loud sounds were problematic, especially when one had a reputation for particular things to come up in the whispers of conversation.

'She's beauty.'

'She's grace.'

So who could hear inelegant emotional responses from the mare who must always know restraint?

It was a simple understanding between two friends: one would stand outside a door and hear nothing, and the other would shave off just a hint of her mask, only to build up a wall again before stepping outside.

Celestia let the silence weigh down on her uncomfortably and the clogged feeling in her throat grow. With nopony around, she trembled faintly and told herself she was cold. A delicate fear sat quietly in her stomach, and she knew it showed in her eyes as well.

Of this entire ritual, it was the third and final thing that troubled her the most.

The modest pile of envelopes waited for her, as did cold tea.

Celestia hated cold tea.

Sighing shakily, Celestia pulled an envelope toward her with a forehoof. She was relieved that the sensation of manila was not one she actually felt, and the gold of her regalia offered her protection against something she could not name every time.

With Luna, there had not even been a few dozen letters, and they certainly were not like...

When Discord's reformation had first been known, there had been uncertainty, but no letters. By then, ponies were as optimistic as she was.

Her exhale was not practiced, graceful, and perfected. That troubled her.

Faint golden magic hesitated at the fastener. She had already glimpsed the stamps on the side, falling into the familiar pattern of snowflakes, Cadance silhouettes, and images of the Crystal Heart. On rare occasions, there would be Trottish stamps too, but she was not so lucky to have anything new to add to her stamp collection.

And maybe she shouldn't, not when it was these letters.

Tearing the letter open was painstakingly slow, and the sound lingered in her ears long after she discarded the envelope neatly into the wastepaper basket.

She didn't need to know the letter was from the Crystal Empire. They all were.

And maybe how they never told her to do anything was the worst part of them. Yet, there were so many other things that contended for that attribute.

Out fell a creased, folded parchment. Plainer papers were still quite uncommon in the Empire, and to Celestia they never felt any different. There were often ink dribbles, ring imprints from beverages, and the inevitable spots that marked where clear moisture had dried.

Celestia had seen too many of these to recall any distinction with needless details. Her stomach was no longer clenched at the words. Fear no longer struggled through her at the things these terrible words spelled out, it ebbed dully and was driven through the shattered bits of her resolve, wherever it may lay.

Most often, it was the words of a mother that was presented in each. Their ages always varied, and some were quite ailing and their pleas and recollections showed it.

They wrote about how their hearts broke, how their children only exist in their heads, and of violence. These were the ponies that lived in a world without anypony connected to them, in pockets of mourning and marked by violence that nopony in Equestria understood, not like they did, if at all.

Each letter had the same ghost story, written by somepony so desperate, haunted, and fraught with loss.

There were two nicely cut things to take away from this, a quiet black and white, as should be expected.

The first was that Celestia knew loss and much of her life was filled with it. However, she grew used to it, and some grief passed. It was quite nice, in the way you told the one whom you love dearly and trust most that you are doing quite nicely and so wonderful when you could not be more devastated, for to burden and personalize is a terrible thing.

That was a nice kind of loss. Neat, restricted, and contained.

But it was not all loss. There was better and there was worse. Celestia told herself she was content with that, and she wasn't always lying.

The second thing was that with all the loss, intensity, and devastation the crystal ponies knew, and how terribly familiar most of it was to Celestia, she still didn't understand them at all. Something so fundamental was missing from this. From her.

For that, she thought she might be terribly graceful. How good she was not so affected by such emotions, and yet not know the apathy of Sombra.

Celestia's throat clenched at that name. She put the letter down soundlessly and sucked in as elegant as a gasping, teary breath as she could manage.

She wanted to not care that she was going to have to spin a charm to restore all her makeup for the rest of the day and force some composure in all the right places. Perhaps the experience would simply take over, as it had in the past, and she would find the most tranquil white Alicorn mare staring back at her.

The fact that was the first thought to spear her haze of grief made her feel downright nasty. That was what came first to her, and it was so self-centered and stupid. Her kindness would flood in second, or maybe third when she wished to just drown it first and foremost. She would be a good mare in this if she could.

Allowing the mask to encase her again, the princess levitated the envelope at an angle so that the small object causing the notable bulge she had spotted fell out.

A trinket clattered onto the table. Celestia found that this was what sealed the awfulness of her feeling. Each of these objects had a ghost still anchored to it in her mind. Something about them was so extremely Crystalline as if their distinct cultural association was deliberate in the mind that selected them.

She did not find the usual sort of things like mane-snippets, miniature portraits, photographs, favored amulets, feathers, horseshoes, or cutie mark carvings sent to her. No, shuffled among letters that could span a dozen pages were jewelry, cutie marks assembled from gems, first crystals from crystallokinesis, and other curious things. There was a bizarre tradition of 'birthstones' in the Crystal Empire and often trinkets like lockets were embedded with those.

When a pony wasn't named for a gem or mineral, they always seemed to have a birthstone, or so Celestia guessed. Frankly, she had done little to delve into Crystalline culture. Such a thing was the duty of Cadance.

Few ponies sent birth records to Celestia, even though those still didn't 'help' with anything, but there was one very similar item she was sent that was quite similar.

It lay right in front of her. The smallest slap of sapphire had been polished, but not smoothed out. Imprinted on the surface were the prints of two rear hooves. For the popular keepsake was made when a foal's early burst of innate crystallokinesis was harnessed, and their hooves were pressed into the crystal, melding it.

Sometimes it was all that was left for the poorest of parents. It mattered not how prosperous the Empire was now, time could not be turned back, and certainly not to collect one more memento of a pony doomed to be murdered.

Violence. Murder. All these things could jump out at her with the hunger of phantom memories. Those hoofprints had belonged to a pony. No monster had made those; they were the mark of an innocent child stolen by somepony who cut against the calm flow of an undisturbed kingdom.

It was terrifying to think of all the things individuals could do.

When she was done staring at the shimmering piece, Celestia unfurled her wings and wrapped them around herself. The barrier of feathers made it easier for her to believe that she was protected. Her own breaths were made louder, and she felt pinpricks of dislike in her mind of how she did not like the sound. Something uncontrolled was in these sobs.

She was sobbing again. They were not dramatic things, or deep and woeful. She did not brim with feelings or get any catharsis from these tears. They wet her cheeks coldly, and she endured each awkward motion of her chest as best as she could. There was no unattractive element and antithesis to being a welcoming, benevolent presence like the fool who cried so openly and grossly.

Three steps led up to this routine that was little more than a transference of misery via mail to mare that let all of these things trespass into her contained and well-sorted being.

When Celestia was sure she could disconnect herself properly again, and appear relaxed and how she ought to, her wings fell away. She folded them quietly and rose. One thorough browsing later, she was sure that the rest of the letters were just the same as the first. Even if most of them weren't, there were ways to deal with mail.

She wiped at her tears with the insides of her feather, knowing that any smudges of makeup on them would be washed away with some extra mid-day preening and personal grooming.

Her mind was still foggy with the familiar pain of reading such sorrowful things, and she instead dragged her attention to adjusting her regalia, putting on a winning smile, and to where all things started: the door.

Her hoof moved with the clockwork grace of habit and gripped the handle. Out into the hallway she went, where Raven stood bearing the pallor of a ghost.

"I have reviewed my mail, Raven. Please be sure to write out the proper responses to each, and I shall add my signature over noon tea," the princess said warmly. "And do let the chefs know that I think today calls for a brew of passion flower, don't you? I shall take it in my office, undisturbed."

Celestia did not see what warranted the wide-eyed look of disbelief Raven was giving her for what was protocol between them. Yes, the last part wasn't common for her to request, but it wasn't it wasn't rare either.

Standing in the shadow of her princess, Raven nearly looked scared out of her horseshoes.

"My dear, what has upset you?" Celestia asked, calmly trying to find what could be troubling the smaller mare. Her eyes revealed little to be disturbed about, just that they were alone in the hallway, save for the guards Celestia knew to be around the next corner.

Raven swallowed and dipped her head in the effort of typical prostration. "Nothing, princess. I'll be sure your tea is sent right away."

"Oh, Rave. I'm an old mare. I can stand to wait a bit for some tea. Besides, if the tea arrives before me, I will most likely find it has already gone cold. There is little worse than cold tea. Have the chefs take their time. However, I still would like to know what is wrong."

Please tell me.

"...I-Is that an order, princess?"

Princess Celestia allowed her teeth to rest in a manner as close to allowing them to clench as one of her stations would.

"No, of course not."

It is what any friend would say.

Raven's withers sagged weakly. "All is well, princess. I'm just worried about things." She swallowed sharply as if she didn't understand she was being observed. "T-Things at chess club have been getting very intense, that's all."

Celestia blinked, unsure of what exactly could be said beyond awkward assurance. "Well, I'm sure things will sort themselves out."

Nodding far too quickly, Raven turned away and trotted toward the kitchens in a hurry. For that Celestia was glad, it meant her secretary didn't have to see the suspicion in the look her princess gave her. If there was one thing Celestia was thankful for, it was that Raven did not have eyes in the back of her head like the last one. Celestia could not so much blame a sneeze on Philomena jokingly with that stallion around.

With her gaze sharpened, she finally saw what spooked Raven in the form of a reflection in a minor gilded accent on the door.

Her reflection.

A bold imperfection faced Celestia, and she found the image of criminal disarray back at her: around her right away was the unmistakable smudge of mascara and evidence of tear stains still around her cheek.

The white mare who gaped back at Celestia had forgotten to maintain perfection and restore the finest touches of her mask.

There were three parts to his plan. The spell was dissolved with her exit.

And Raven?

Celestia couldn't even bite her lip now that she was alone.

Raven had learned something that shattered her beloved world and goddess.

Princess Celestia cried too.

The only worse than that information was what Raven might do with it.

...

The day of February twenty-second arrived with a morning full of promise. Celestia had risen before Discord, and though her mind yearned for coffee, it was a rare day she felt grounded within herself in a way that didn't feel terrible.

She put on a little gold eyeshadow. She watered the violets that she had propped around in little vases in her opulent chambers. She brushed her teeth three times instead of two.

This time, she felt her smile just a bit more than normal.

There was a minimal amount of comfort behind being the princess today, and the dawn came a bit lightly today. She was quick about it, for an efficient dawn was her kind of dawn. Luna was the one who dragged forth the night with this need to linger and insistence on 'craft'.

After so long pushing celestial bodies on their course around the planet, it was downright narcissistic to actually watch the same thing over and over again for centuries when it was you who made that phenomenon happen daily.

She fell into further routine after that and was thankful she never had to rouse her partner like Luna had to. Swift morning routines dominated her early hours, and she swept her Dissy into as many conversations about the Princess Pen Pal Palooza as she could. It was only days away, and a fragile eagerness rested in her. With Luna and Sombra taking different morning duties, all felt quite bright. She had been able to pass off young Qilin to her nurse with no chaos-magic outbursts or confused tantrums too! What a day this was shaping up to be!

There were preparations to be made, and purpose and order were clear.

Her path was set, and there was a buzz of sunny feelings at a holiday soon-to-be and usefulness found. Even the pastel colors of her mane did not look so faded.

She was optimistic. Nothing could prevail over timeless good cheer.

...

"We're going to try doing this without Cadance?" Luna asked, the skepticism in her tone clear, one eyebrow arched coolly.

There was a sinking feeling in Celestia's chest. "Well, yes—"

From Equestria's throne, Celestia looked down on Luna, who stood calmly at its base. Their roles were only thus because Luna and Sombra had arrived late. Philomena did dawdle when it came to ferrying scrolls around the castle. Otherwise, Luna might have staked her claim on the shared throne.

(Though, Celestia did have to admit that with Twilight and Sombra as less-adjusted and new additions to the Royal Family, there was something nervous and intense about having only one throne. She felt a possessive nature over the beautiful millennium-old structure, and truthfully still had a hard time feeling well about anypony but Luna sitting in it. As long as Sombra had no chance to lounge in the revered status symbol, she felt safe. That was what mattered most.)

Usually, the throne gave Celestia an extra boost of all authoritative feelings. From her mouth, the most gentle of words could come, or even the silliest if she was in the mood, and yet who would doubt the mare on the throne?

Luna did. She always had, and there was no way quite like hers and how she pushed over Celestia's creations with plain questions. Her efforts were a stick unfurling all the threads of effort Celestia wanted to spin.

Sombra did. Or, Celestia knew that behind his sharp eyes, he did. There was no need to second guess his nature, but it was hard to think he was currently doubting her when had not done much to acknowledge her when he showed up. If it were not for his dark coat, height, the scent of coffee, and the eerie presence that came with the stallion, she would have no idea that he was even in the throne room.

These were some of the things that made Celestia with many more Twilight Sparkles and Ravens in the world.

"Sister, she was the most popular of us to write to for your holiday, was she not?" Even the rippling of Luna's mane found a steady, quizzical way to flow that matched her tone.

And you have always been the least written-to... is this a matter of envy? Or will your attitude towards my holiday be constant?

"Yes, she was, and I'm afraid that because of how things have changed she won't be included. However, I'm sure that we can all pull this off with three princesses!" Celestia offered a smile of good nature to go against Luna's thoughtful frown because somepony had to be the one to look on the bright side.

"We could put the holiday on hiatus, Tia. There is no crime in giving our problem more thought."

Celestia let out a small, measured gasp and kept her back straight. "Cancel a national holiday? Luna, what makes you think that should ever be done?"

Celestia watched her daughter look at her with what could be the vaguest bit of boredom. She was certainly frustratingly introverted today, which did not make discussing a holiday centered around communication and the abolition of such needless asocial traits any easier. "Because we have the authority to? I think that would not need to be elaborated upon. Holidays have been done away with before, and you and I need no input to be rid of such a thing. I nearly got rid of Nightmare Night. You could have ended the Summer Sun Celebration if it troubled you so."

And endure the social backlash of such a thing? Or have confronted everything about your absence so long ago? Luna clearly did not realize that just because the Summer Sun Celebration had been a grim, saddening affair that the princess always forced her best smile for until recently did not mean she could do what she wanted. No, generations of ponies wanted the Summer Sun Celebration, so Celestia endured.

If there was any lesson that Luna had never learned and Celestia had, it was that it wasn't about you. Nothing was.

"That's selfish and impractical."

Luna's frown looked more striking, and she stood taller. "Celestia, how is doing something we can manage with less difficulty than attempting to do something well halfway impractical? It would save much time and effort, and we have days to do so. I think it would be a good idea, and the best one we have."

"And why can't we just make ponies happy? This is a centuries-old tradition, why must we do away with it this once when it has worked with different amounts of princesses in the past?"

"Celestia," Luna said with faint exasperation. "This worked with you alone because you founded this event. This worked with you and Cady because Cady was young, could be managed, and everypony wanted to write to the young mare who was unanimously declared the biggest celebrity of that millennium. Of course, little fillies and colts would have no difficulty writing to her! With Twilight Sparkle, I think you can explain. From there, everything has been needlessly complicated. Perhaps Equestria needs a rest, for it has had much news to get used to and an expanding royal family. We could spend the day together instead!"

Celestia bit her lip. She and Luna had not been spending nearly as much time together lately, and Celestia wasn't sure she wanted to. Lately, Luna was lively and busy herself, and Celestia was much keener on being the princess than having to do anything that required her to be 'Celestia' as of late.

It was true that Twilight always had a sizable outpouring of letters in each Palooza, whereas Luna only did in the year of her return. Like a seasonal fad, she soon became the one who came squarely in fourth place in all future Paloozas. Maybe it wasn't unexpected. Luna was hardly the sociable, modern, cutesy, and open princess that Equestria's populace would have fawned over. She hardly even seemed to enjoy the holiday. Celestia had to remind her to answer letters like she had to remind her to smile in public.

There was also the matter of the 'expanding royal family'. Luna's plans to have a foal by Sombra were sadly still in place. Perhaps they were halted. Celestia was not sure, and she dreaded inquiring about it, but from time to time she would hear Luna mention something so clearly related to the matter, or how Cadance already spoke to her of baby tips. (Once, she had even caught a distressed-looking Sombra eye a parenting book Cadance had left out.)

The royal family was expanding, though, and there was no way to deny that. It was so sensible for Twilight, Shining Armor, and Cadance to all have their foals. It was too late to do anything about the Matter of Qilin that Celestia's thoughts often skillfully combated, along with the Related Stress that stemmed from such a thing.

But Celestia and Luna (and, by extension, Sombra too) lived an heir-optional life. Unlike the dynasties of mortals and their inevitable heir requirements, politics, expectations, and the general necessity of offspring, one of the great efficiencies of being an immortal royal was how unneeded it was for children to be had. A loving partner for the eternal who wished it could be had, but no other family had to be. Such a thing meant that superior devotion to the welfare of one's kingdom and subjects could be had.

So, for Luna to try and have a child — and a biological one at that — when there was every reason for her not to, and solely because she 'wanted' to was so astonishingly selfish.

And Celestia wanted to dodge that matter more than she ever wanted to dodge thoughts of Qilin Stress.

"I know, Luna, but the Princess Pen Pal Palooza shall see no cancellation this year. We'll simply find a way around our problem."

Luna's ears flicked in protest. "But Celestia—"

In response, Celestia calmly held up a hoof. "Luna, I don't want to hear any more 'buts'. You are a princess of Equestria, and I expect you to play your part just as much as anypony else has to. Aside from this issue, what is it that you cannot let rest?"

Luna lowered her ears slightly, and her bright eyes looked to the side. A sudden sulkiness crept into how she presented herself. "It is just that this has always felt like a terribly inauthentic way of communicating with our subjects... and I feel it does not give the best implications to young ones. This day is too stressed in the minds of young ponies, and can communication not be achieved in much better ways?"

This, again? Celestia saw how Luna's downcast eyes followed the alternating patterns of light from the stained glass windows. Such details about the castle were never lost on Luna, but Celestia was not a mare for such things, and that included the odd remarks of Luna. She loved her dearly, but they had so little to agree on. "You say these sorts of things every Palooza."

"I know, sister," Luna said softly. She dipped her head slightly so that her forelock spilled over her eyes even more. "The feeling doesn't go away."

"Do you think that we should strip ourselves of our regalia, go into the streets, and walk among our subjects, pretending we are exactly like them, and chat with them?"

Sombra snorted from where he was, muzzle buried in the pages of the notebook he levitated and scribbled so furiously in.

Luna's retort was a flummoxed, immediate thing. "No, no! Of course not! That's absolutely ridiculous! It isn't what I meant, either, and that is perhaps even more inauthentic," Luna huffed. "Is it wrong that I wish we could improve upon things that might need it?"

Ah, somepony had to be the complainer. "Luna," Celestia said kindly, "why do you tell me how to run my holidays?"

Luna's muzzle scrunched ever-so-slightly. "I thought this would be our holiday, as I see no Summer Sun banners about, and all of us participate."

"Yes, we do all participate. Twilight lives in Ponyville and she participates, despite the distance between us. I am the founder of this holiday, though—"

"Tia, you founded most holidays in Equestria," Luna corrects brightly.

Celestia holds back a sigh perfectly. "Yes, I did, and I wouldn't tell you how to run Nightmare Night, would I?"

Luna drags one forehoof lightly over the floor. "No, of course not. However, I also didn't found Nightmare Night. Ponies did. I may be its sovereign, and I love it dearly, but I did not establish it. In fact, since I have returned, I have not established a single holiday, and especially not one for myself..." Luna trailed off sadly.

"...Do you not like the addition of the moon at the Celebration Platform? Is that what this is about?"

"No, sister," Luna said quietly, and that was when Celestia noticed that Sombra actually looked quite attentive by how his ears were pricked. "It is not about that..."

From where he was in the shadow of one of the throne room's pillars, Sombra quietly closed his notebook and watched Luna carefully. Celestia thought he might be annoyed.

Celestia looked at Luna and regretted that she had not been able to get dear, perky Twilight Sparkle to come. With two foals and an entire village in need of her attention, Celestia was without a fellow princess and friend for this meeting.

Luna's tail swished apathetically, and Celestia saw that she couldn't hide the disappointment in her blue eyes, even if her expression was neutral.

"Luna, could you please do this?"

Luna looked down at her hooves, thinking. "Can next year be different?"

"Maybe," Celestia said quickly and nicely, watching as Luna's noncommittal demeanor burst. Blue eyes sparkled as hopefully as though they had heard a 'yes', and even if she didn't smile, there was some exuberance back in her poise.

And I do mean maybe...

"Then this year I shall bear the event, and not even a thousand paper cuts shall stop me!"

And is that all you have been doing? Have you just been bearing things?

"That's good to hear," Celestia said instead, though all the morning's optimism had since crumbled. She saw how Luna didn't look forward to the holiday, too. She looked forward to it being different next year. It was only Celestia who wanted the Princess Pen Pal Palooza to go on in this room.

"Though, sister, we still have the problem of only three princesses. Everypony will be expecting four this year, and yet you've certainly stressed that nothing will be canceled. How are we to do things this year?"

And so the princess felt the tables turn back to her. There was the expectancy that she faced so often. Countless ponies needed her, after all.

She had an idea.

Her necklace felt much, much heavier.

She definitely had an idea.

"Well, I think it would be good—"

"—idea if we asked ourselves if further substitutes can be made for the fallen Pink One?"

Celestia looked toward Sombra, surprised that he had spoken at all, or that he had been listening to anything that had been going on. Luna smiled at the sound of his voice and turned her head to see him.

From the shadows, there was not much that could be seen of his expression, but the gleam of the emeralds on his circlet and the red of his eyes were noticeable. He did not look particularly irate and waved to Luna after slipping his notebook under his cloak, and Celestia did not see it again, nor did she see his coffee mug again once his magic had done away with it.

"I'm surprised you're still awake, Som."

Luna's warm, playful tone earned one teasing eye roll from Sombra. The princess sat in silence as Sombra rose and trotted over to Luna.

She let her gaze fall when it became clear he wanted to nuzzle his wife.

"That I am, and I think now would be the best time to get my two bits in."

Luna's ears perked forward. "Oh? And what is your idea? Do you think we should have some sort of special guest as this 'substitute' for Cady?"

Sombra shook his head.

"Skyla is much too young to be expecting hundreds of letters," Celestia said, giving Sombra a clear no-means-no look to strike off his possible princess replacement. "I'm afraid that we will also get complaints from the crystal ponies about 'claiming' their True Heir, as Skyla is born on their land from Cadance. If they see such a thing being done, they shall bite."

Sombra tilted his head to the side. "I never said anything about Skyla."

Luna's ears flicked and she gave Celestia a puzzled look before returning her attention to Sombra. "What Tia said is true, but did you plan to suggest Skyla?"

"No."

"Miss Rarity?"

"No."

"Then who will be the fourth princess?" Celestia cut in.

"I would like to be," Sombra said.

And he said it with a straight face.

Celestia opened her mouth a little. When she thought of nothing to say, she closed it quietly but was nevertheless very surprised to hear this.

Luna gave Sombra what Celestia took to be a look of concern. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Why did Luna make the holiday sound like some terrible risk? Why is she just accepting that he wants something and not questioning what he just said?

Sombra only shrugged. "It interests me enough to try."

"You aren't exactly princess material."

Luna and Sombra shared one of their looks, and Celestia watched as Sombra smiled slyly and Luna giggled at whatever passed between them.

"Tia, I think that Sombra can be a fine princess."

"He isn't exactly a princess, though, Luna."

Sombra's smile vanished. "The only reason that 'Princess' is in the name of this event is that this nation has never had any kind of ruler other than princesses, or am I wrong?"

Celestia hid a wince. "That would be correct, yes..." There had really never been anything to stop Equestria from having a prince before, or at least having a prince different from Shining Armor. Now, Celestia was not a mare for little things, but when it came to her nation she noticed the small complications, nitpicks, and corrections that had to be done now that Equestria had a ruling prince. There had never been any objection to Sombra being male, but Celestia felt like something personal she had with the others was lost now that she couldn't say Equestria was ruled by mares alone. She had felt it once before, but not as strongly, when Cadance married Shining Armor. Such weepy, peculiar notions subsided easily then, but...

Sombra narrowed his eyes. "Then either call me a princess or change the name if there's nothing sexist about your holiday."

...it really did feel like something was missing, and she had no idea what exactly it was.

Celestia nodded. "That can be done... but only if you can manage one thing."

Sombra looked unfazed. "What would that be?"

Luna still shot Sombra a skeptical look, a silent 'why' in her steady gaze. Sombra's response was to give her a sideways glance. "It could be fun," he told her quickly.

(Celestia wasn't sure how to feel about him saying that.)

The princess cleared her throat carefully. "In order for you to prove you can participate, I need you to write down a little information about yourself. Luna, Twilight, and I have always done this to offer potential topics for foals who have a hard time thinking of a subject for their letters, but this is your first year and nopony really knows anything about you."

Maybe she could have phrased that last part better. There was nothing wrong about the statement, nor was it offensive, but the truth was that could describe any of the royals quite easily. Save for Cadance, Shining, and Twilight, very little information about any of them was public. It was not as though ponies could find things like her birth date, for example, in their public library. Nothing went public about Equestria's royal family unless the information was intentionally released, and with their private lives quite guarded and personality rights beginning with Celestia and Luna it became part of the holiday subconscious to continue to foster a bond with one's leaders.

"That's all?" Sombra asked. "I can definitely do that—"

"Whatever you write must be fit for the eyes of colts and fillies. This means no references to immoral and illegal activities and you must supply the same information that Luna, Twilight, and I do," Celestia interrupted quickly, watching him scowl in response.

Luna certainly didn't look pleased when Celestia interrupted Sombra, but Celestia only looked innocently back at Luna.

"Please try and help Sombra if he has any difficulty with this task, and have him send it to my office afterward."

Luna didn't say anything. She didn't even nod. What was she looking at Celestia for?

"Sombra is right here and can hear everything you say," Sombra grumbled, flicking an ear in annoyance.

"Good," the princess said with clear composure, "I think that this little meeting can certainly be dismissed, then."

As collected as she appeared, distant as she was, and all her loathing of Sombra considered... Celestia had to admit that she actually was quite happy and eager for something to finally go smoothly.

With four royals cooperating — or coming close to it — she could finally feel optimistic again.

...

From the Desk of Princess Celestia:

Enclosed with this note is the sample I would like you to fill out. These questions will have their results printed and sent to schools throughout Equestria. Your answers must be clean, legal, and something that can be easily understood by a young student and stay fairly on-topic with the general interests of the fillies and colts. Avoid jargon, as these are nationally distributed. Do not be rude and write clearly. If you write anything potentially offensive, scandalous, or revealing you will not get to participate and be the recipient of a very strong lecture. This is practice for cultivating the royal image you must start to maintain.

I think of this much as a lesson I've given many of my Faithful Students and one you should keep in mind too. How you look is always going to matter more than how you feel. What ponies see when they look at you, at first glance, and on paper are what is going to stick in your minds. One must be tidy, polite, and modest in presentation, among other things. It matters not what you think, who you are within, or your feelings on the matter. The kindest little filly will make no friends on her first day of school if she shows up black-clad and frowning.

Be prepared to get letters on many topics, too. I did tell you that this will only be a guideline for those who want to reply, so be prepared for that. The last two questions change every year, so please do not ask why they look different. This is done to add something new to each year and to reflect how everypony changes. For example, when it was Twilight's first year, one of the questions was friendship lesson themed. However, because you are a prince, I've taken care of editing yours to make sure it reads accordingly and pick questions I'm sure you are capable of answering.

Give Philomena a reward for delivering this to you.

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Princess: Twilight Sparkle

What are your hobbies? Reading, spending time with my friends, organizing, letter writing, and teaching ponies to better understand each other.

What is your favorite food? Pancakes! As a filly, my mother made the best blueberry pancakes, but I've been going through an oat-burger phase again.

What is your favorite color? Normally I just say purple, or something similar, but I don't think I've ever actually thought about this.

What is your favorite book? I can't chose just one!

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? One thing I asked when I first earned my wings was if there were books about being a princess. It turns out there are! There's books on how to be good at almost any other occupation, but when it comes to being a princess, you have to read up on a wide array of things.

What do you have to say about your pet? Owlowiscious is my pet owl! He helps out around the castle, but sometimes he can make a bit of a mess because he is farsighted, so he'll sometimes knock over my inkwells. He can be very vocal, and I'll sometimes hear him calling to nearby parliaments of his kind when night falls on Ponyville.

What is the best vacation you ever had? As a filly, my parents used to take my brother and Ito Tall Tale. We rented a nice cottage not too far from the city. As a filly, the Whitetail Woods were no place for fun, and they scared me at night and made my anxiety act up. I didn't want to go in them at all! Because of this, my mom would walk with me to the nearest library every day of vacation. We would bring a wagon and check out just enough books to last me through the night. Eventually, my mother was able to get me to sit around the campfire for s'mores and stargazing on the last few nights of our trips there.

...

Princess: Celestia

What are your hobbies? Gardening, scrap-booking, properly maintaining a sensible diary, spending time with others, being helpful, collecting coffee mugs/jewelry/seashells, cooking, swimming, chess, sampling tea from around the world, flying, aerial sports, dancing, letter-writing, cloud-sculpting, bird watching, and mane-styling. I am a very busy mare!

What is your favorite food? Scrumptious, fresh banana bread. I am big on any sort of comfort food.

What is your favorite color? Orange is by far the loveliest of colors.

What is your favorite book? The Tomato Soup for the Soul series is something I continue to enjoy.

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? While it is not something most ponies would think about, having access to royalty suites allows me to see the effort ponies put into impressing somepony. It goes to show that even the face value of something has merit, and if something looks quite nice, it shall be.

What do you have to say about your pet? She is quite the little stinker! While that can be true, I do write in jest. She has been my faithful companion through many years, both bright and dark, thankfully. I don't know where I would be without my wonderful Philomena.

What is the best vacation you ever had? I've never been on vacation but have had my chances to see so much of the world as a princess. My visits to Prance have been some of my favorites, with many tranquil sights to see and delicious things to eat and drink.

...

Princess: Luna Galaxia

What are your hobbies? Hiking, sorcery, sparring, spending time with my husband, painting, storytelling, astronomy, cartography, and adventure. I also adore anything to do with airships and am fond of photography, and visits to the theater, symphony, and similar establishments. I find myself dabbling in music and classical art frequently.

What is your favorite food? Sheperdess pie is timeless! I will never turn it down!

What is your favorite color? I cannot choose a favorite, too many are so stunning and calming.

What is your favorite book? In recent years, it has been my collection of Saddlespeare's plays because it was one of the first gifts my sister gave to me when we were reunited and because I've been able to share them with my husband.

What is something about being a princess of Equestria that ponies might not know about? Being a princess and a prodigy of the arcane arts are, in fact, mutually exclusive. One cannot expect to lead a country and lack any understanding of one of the most basic aspects of the world. While there is no exact 'test' to determine this, each of us is greatly skilled in some form of magic. Though, I must admit that not everypony who wears the crown is as up for discussions on sorcery as others are.

What do you have to say about your pet? I have no pet but am quite fond of the various creatures around the castle grounds and in the woods of my kingdom.

What is the best vacation you ever had? I think most outings can be considered a vacation if you put your mind to it, and have enjoyed many respites from the presence of others when I need it.

...

Prince: Princess Sombra Galaxia

What are your hobbies? Travelling, magical arts, mathematics, reading, cooking/baking, sewing, and spending time with Luna. I'm also very interested in collecting, enchanting, and mastering weaponry. I'm not horrid at photography, either. Overall, I just love to learn.

What is your favorite food? Pizza is an extremely easy go-to, but I've gone on pasta binges before. Anything with pasta works for a while.

What is your favorite color? Green would be my favorite. It reminds me of some of my favorite places.

What is your favorite book? This is a loaded question that I refuse to dignify with a proper answer.

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? I have access to all the genealogical records in Equestria. I can know more about a pony's ancestry than most of my subjects. After all, very few ponies keep extremely extensive records past the first few 'greats' and degrees of cousins. Learning about obscure connections is something that fascinates me.

What do you have to say about your pet? My pet is a fickle entity known as Fish. No amount of enhanced assertiveness will get him to jump through a hoop. Yet. I actually can't get him to do much of anything, but we have this begrudging tolerance toward one another.

What is the best vacation you ever had? My first trip to Canterlot is a surprisingly pleasant memory.

...

Luna—

I would like you to tone down the language of your paper, please. It is far above what I would expect most school ponies to read and is alienating. We went over this last year. Perhaps you should also consider a more positive answer to the last question. It could send the wrong message to foals, or at least it feels so when I read it.

From,

Celestia

...

Tia,

Must I have to dumb down my own natural thoughts carefully transcribed for your holiday? These are young minds, not feeble ones. If there is something that they do not understand, I have no doubt that a teacher can help them too. I will certainly reconsider a few of my word-choices, but there is nothing to 'correct' in my last question.

I answered it honestly and concisely. It is not as though I would be permitted to write of how we saw the world in our youth, or how Sombra and I began our relationship outside of Equestria. Anything else would have similar problems, so I shall leave it as it is. Solitude is a fine vacation and experience for ponies, regardless of how queer many find it.

Grumpily,

Luna

...

From the Desk of Princess Celestia:

That qualifies as printable. Do not modify anything like this I send you in the future, and reward Philomena sufficiently if you please.

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Your damned bird doesn't get rewards for defecating in my study, and I think that at this point you can stand to write out my name instead of just having a middle-phoenix pass these 'from the desk of' notes to me.

-Sombra

P.S. A floral print stationery is just like you, too.

...

The princess nodded her head as the last of the guards saluted and took their leave of the throne room. The day of the Palooza had arrived, and with magic and flight, the proper banners were hung about the castle halls. She could still hear the echo of the tolling of bells from earlier this morning, when Canterlot streets rang with the melody of the city's various bell towers that signaled a national holiday, albeit one that signaled more fun than work in schools. Light snow fell outside, dusting the mountain city in a dazzling coat

Any lingering evidence of Hearts and Hooves Day was completely out of sight. Not even a single rose garland remained strung up and preserved with botanical magics, as the staff had properly managed the castle's appearance, guards and servants alike working in a unit to perfect things for their princess once again. Celestia felt a soft, kind, and wholly pleasant feeling at observing their naturally obsequious attitude and behaviors.

She liked to think that she could feel the excitement of every school-foal in Canterlot, too. February twenty-sixth, the great Princess Pen Pal Palooza, was a favorite of the young, and the princess had centuries of letters to prove it.

Rows of tables had been set up parallel to the carpet in the throne room for sorting through incoming letters, and the doors to the throne room were wide upon and ready for a pegasus guard to swoop in with a sack full of scrolls and envelopes.

Though the throne sat empty, there was still much activity to be seen in the great hall. The post-dawn sunlight filtered brightly through the shining glass of the windows, illuminating Luna.

Her daughter's horn was illuminated with her teal aura that twirled and combed through her mane in idle thought. She stared thoughtfully at the blank scroll unfurled before her and the letter resting next to it, near her silver inkwells. One hoof was propped under her muzzle in a decidedly un-princess-like way and a quill sat untouched. one sack of letters was already open, and it was from where Luna had drawn the first that she had opened.

Celestia hummed and looked at the clipboard she had clutched in her own magic. The itch of Philomena's little talons against her back made her coat twitch faintly, regardless of how familiar the sensation was, and Celestia's ear flicked at the sound of something clinking. She turned to see its source, for it was certainly not in the throne room's isle, where she stood.

Sombra was fiddling with his typewriter again. The plain black binary typewriter was not a terribly uncommon thing, though hoof, mouth, and horn writing was drastically more common, but many ponies could read the code without too much trouble, and it made an excellent shorthoof any competent secretary would know. She imagined he would use it to draft any of his letters, but refrained from dwelling too much on that sight when there was something much more notable near Sombra.

A rather large box, of the sort, that one would get from ordering furniture was placed prominently on the table, next to Sombra, with a slot at the top for inserting letters. And that was hard all that was prominent about it. The entire cardboard surface was drowned in many thorough coats of multicolored glitter that clashed so much with the overall aesthetic of the dark stallion that the princess would have suspected such a sight was Luna's doing. However, she was easily proven wrong by this ridiculous, flamboyant box that boasted green rhinestone letters spelling out two words: PRINCESS SOMBRA.

She gave no effort to ridicule the silly display and took her own seat at one of the tables where she could continue to passively observe things from behind a humble name card surrounded with many letter bags. Many more were still being brought in, and Celestia had to bite into her lip delicately to fight off the impulse to converse. If only faithful Raven had not volunteered to help elsewhere in the castle today for holiday preparation, and Celestia had no reason not to let her do so.

Even Philomena quickly flew off once Celestia had seated herself, chirping eagerly at the prospect of more excitement elsewhere. Perhaps she was off to find Dissy so that they might stir up a silly surprise for her later, or just keep themselves amused. She might even seek out the endless admiration of Qilin, who loved her mother's birdie just as much as that birdie loved her attention.

But Celestia would not know until later if anything fun had happened.

Luna and Sombra were unbearably quiet, making little in the way of noise as they busied themselves with their letter writing. Well, Luna worked on going through her letters. She smiled at some, laughed at others, and so on, and frequently hummed little melodies while she wrote patiently, though she often had large spans of what Celestia took to be boredom where she did nothing.

It was only odd, slight things that were hard to pick up that ended up being exchanged: couple's-looks, waves of paper, motions, and whispers Celestia couldn't possibly hear during the moments she glanced at them. She had figured that the reason they had been sitting apart from one another might have been because of a couple's spat or some other martial issue.

The longer the princess sat quietly writing her letters, the more she noticed that if that was the case, they were remarkably good at not showing that anything was wrong.

Maybe she would need to talk with Luna about that. Though, the knots that formed in Celestia's stomach at the thought thought 'maybe' should be 'definitely'.

...

Hours passed, and Luna had surrendered by the time evening neared. She had groaned, a sound that caught Sombra's attention before it had Celestia's, and the two of them looked up to watch as she flung her face to the table, her mane flipping forward and spilling over her so that she was buried under a mound of glittering blue and purple.

One tiara fell to the ground with a clink, and from underneath the thick canopy of mane, two forelegs shoved inkwells and paper away.

"Dinner calls, so I must be through with these for the day."

Sombra eyed the door. "Do you want me to sort your letters for you?"

"No, Som. I'll manage them tomorrow, but thank you," came Luna's muffled response from under her mane, and Celestia kept quiet about the unseemliness of presenting herself so.

While Luna adjusted herself and teleported over to Sombra, looking worn in ways that dull, sluggish days can manage to bring upon a pony, Celestia didn't comment that Luna looked bored on her holiday, and was so obvious about it when she couldn't bother to be franker about other things Celestia struggled to read, like the martial machinations her and Sombra had. No, instead Celestia focused on writing a letter to a schoolfilly who wanted to know what sunrise felt like to the mare who made them happen, and the nearby plate with a smattering of crumbs from a simple lunch Celestia had positioned near her writing materials.

Maybe Twilight is having a better time in Ponyville, Celestia thought for the ninth time today.

She tried to ignore that tiara-less Luna leaned over to nuzzle Sombra. "Do you want anything from the kitchens?" she asked with that lilting warmth Celestia had never heard her use for anypony before, her daughter's eyes sweeping over the many-times-used coffee mug as part of her question.

Sombra simply shook his head. "I can't say I'm hungry, so I'm going to refuse that offer."

Celestia especially didn't like their language of familiar, intimate looks.

She scribbled away, flourishes of horn-writing unfolding before her somewhat sleepy eyes.

"Not even if I have something brought up to our chambers for you?"

Sombra must've shaken his head because this time Celestia didn't hear anything. She did, however, feel the slight onset of a headache close to her horn.

"If that is what you wish. Try to get yourself something, though, you look rather tired." She spoke so softly to him, with a fondness that always made something in Celestia feel small, scared, and very far away.

"I'll have something, then, but it will be later. I doubt I look as tired as you think because I most certainly am not too tired for a movie tonight."

"Oh!" For the first time that day, Celestia heard genuine excitement in Luna's voice. "That will be lovely, Som! We can finally get through all the reels Cady sent us. I'll fetch us some popcorn—"

"No, you'll burn it, like always. Leave that to me."

"...And what if I start without you because you and the popcorn showed up late?"

"You know I'll find a way to exact revenge on you for your crimes."

The princess kept trying to naturally disconnect herself, to make their laughter, and the sight of them nuzzling and—

"I love you."

"I love you too, Luna."

—sound as far away as possible, and to tidily shut the door on whatever part of herself had dared to focus on them in the first place.

"Tia?"

Look at her.

Celestia did, and from the tiny corner of her mind where she had shuffled herself in so quickly, she looked at Luna.

Respond.

"Yes, Luna?"

"Would you like me to lower the sun for you today?"

"Yes, Luna, that would be very helpful." She really did intend the smile she gave her, even if she wasn't feeling the best anymore. "Thank you."

Luna smiled back. Her bond with the sun was better than any mortal's, of course, but she still had to wrestle with it, and her dawns and dusks were prolonged and horribly imperfect. They would suffice, though.

Luna left.

She opened up her focus again and found that a letter was in front of her. That was no surprise, given the day, and no surprise given how her headache had flared. She could zone out like this often... even when she didn't want to.

And no, it wasn't that she was on a different letter that surprised her, or that the one about sunrises was neatly in its envelope and finished now. That was normal.

She finally turned her full attention to Sombra. He did look a bit tired, and Celestia always wondered why. He was beyond adjusting to how different life functions changed with becoming an everlasting being, and from snippets of this and that with Luna, she knew that he slept. Still, she knew that he was exactly well-rested, regardless of how hard ponies like him and Luna could be to read. He had it in his eyes.

Luna was either spoiling him or suspected something today, he did not look so tired.

Sombra raised an eyebrow, having noticed she was looking at him. "Are you out of ink? I don't exactly have any." He nodded to his typewriter.

Celestia frowned. "You didn't get any letters."

Sombra's ears swiveled back somewhat. "Yes, I can see that. I'm not too surprised."

No, he wasn't. This must have been a likely outcome for him, and it wasn't a hard prediction to make. Maybe he had other ones, too. Maybe he didn't. What Celestia knew was that there shouldn't be a maybe to this. There were millions of ponies in Equestria, and many of them were young and full of questions. Not all of those questions were very well thought out, and not all of them were very nice.

Sombra should have at least gotten hate mail; there should have been one angry parent, powerless but oblivious, who scribbled in fury that Sombra was never to contact their foal and that he should also consider not showing up at their extracurricular activities for whatever reason. That was something these sorts of ponies placed great importance on.

Celestia did not mean to think that Sombra deserved hate mail (certainly not this time), but the total absence of any kind of mail was... suspicious, and incredibly so.

She was beginning to sense potential trouble, however vague, because she did not rule ponies correctly by ignoring her hunches.

"Participation still matters," Celestia said quickly, the fog of her headache receding. She knew that maybe Luna didn't just mean Sombra was tired, maybe she meant something else when she spoke to him so kindly, and mixed it in with her look and such a plain truth. Attempting to unravel that would be useless, and Celestia had not the mind for it, to see such meanings or to immerse herself in needless, fruitless wordplay.

What she did see was how Sombra frowned slightly, and the kind of frown it was. "That's a hollow thing to say."

"I think it does, and you did make yourself seem like a nearly pleasant figure with what you listed. You should consider that a good exercise in presentation. So, yes, your participation does matter."

Sombra looked at her with a pointed, flinty remark, but did not say it, and it died unknown.

What could have happened to his letters?

"You look like you had lots of fun," Celestia said sweetly. "Perhaps your letters are only a little late."

Extremely unlikely to the point of being a lie, but possible.

Liar.

"I'm not bothered by it," Sombra said, shrugging and typing away a few letters of nonsense absentmindedly.

Startled, Celestia stared directly at Sombra, all thoughts of her headache gone. She nearly felt the pinch of her serenity on her face from the realization threatening to burst behind it.

Liar liar.

Never had she had any sort of less-than-loathsome feeling towards this stallion, but there was something... something rather pathetic if some of her suspicions were correct. Had this been anypony other than Sombra... No, there was still something about the situation that did have a piteous streak to it. Who would hurt anypony on a national holiday? Such a deed was... why, it was hardly any different than hurting a foal, surely.

Sombra looked out one of the windows, aloof and even a bit glum.

"I think I'll be going as well," the princess said quickly, her mind still skipping in surprise at the fact that she caught Sombra lying...

Maybe Raven knows what happened to the letters.

But she did not let that show. She rose with grace and carried herself well, her gait normal as she left the throne room.

Unexpected lightness entered Celestia's mind and breast, she felt a whole breeze of rather confusing thoughts come with it, too. There was now something kindling in her slowly, and she knew not what exactly it was, or if it was good or bad, only what it was tied to, and the bizarre, unknown connection she felt was established.

I didn't know you could be a liar too...

...

The mind of the princess was troubled by thoughts of meddling hooves. Even as dusk came to Canterlot and she walked through the halls of the castle, her thoughts lingered on the edge of their usual shadows. She thought not of how obvious it would be to ponies that this night's evening would not be brought by her, or the unexpected crestfallen state of Sombra that stirred such malaise in her. What weighed so heavily upon her thoughts was that a pony would, could, and might have meddled with something on such an innocent occasion... among a few other things.

The soft glow of the magic that was in the castle hallway's lights felt more distant than Celestia would have liked.

She had asked each guardsmare and stallion that she saw vague, nice little questions loaded with pleasantries of the usual sort to draw out any information. Who had been seen where, when, and why? What had everpony been doing, and all the things that came across as nothing more than check-ins done out of courtesy? There was no need to cause anypony to worry or entice suspicion, and she knew everypony that was within the castle's walls today, so it was not as if anypony suspicious or unfamiliar would be in the castle.

She pushed the door open to her small writing room, exhaling calmly. She could already feel the warmth of the fireplace!

Thoughts of darker thoughts were pushed toward the back of her mind at thought of doing something more relaxing.

Her writing room had seen some of the direst letters in history and thousands of less-than-grim exchanges sent through the enchanted fireplace but never lost its soothing presence. It was the only dark-colored room in the castle that really felt calming and inviting to Celestia, with its warm atmosphere, cushy pillows, and the absence of clutter.

Some part of her was always welcomed with rare nostalgia when she set hoof in that room, and the recollection of all the Faithful Students of the past she had spent time with in there.

Her smile felt a touch less fake when she saw the pale backside of a petite mare sitting next to the fire. "Oh, hello, Raven. I've been wondering what you've been up to today. Lieutenant Swift Strike told me you would be here."

"Princess!" Raven said a bit too cheerfully to the point her voice almost squeaked. "How did everything go?"

Celestia paused and tilted her head ever-so-slightly to the side, feeling her muzzle scrunch delicately. "Is something wrong?" she asked cautiously, noting the slight appearance of sweat on Raven's brow. "You look a bit unsettled, Rae."

"I'm well," Raven replied very quickly. "Really, I'm doing just fine."

Celestia's inkling of doubt was not entirely quelled. "Well, I hope you're 'fine' enough to make room for me. I think something might have gone wrong with the Palooza, but nopony has come forward about anything. Oh, Raven, I can feel it in my bones that something just... it's not right. Can you feel it? Might it just be me that senses something?"

Raven flicked an ear in a gesture somewhere between confusion and nervousness. There was a pinkish flush to her cheeks, but that was not an unusual sight on Raven. "Umm..." Raven murmured, trailing off into inaudible noises.

"Goodness me," Celestia said as she took her seat next to the younger mare. "You're going to have to be a bit louder than that."

"...Might this be one of your premonitions, princess?" Raven offered with a sheepish grimace of a smile.

She paused, hearing herself sigh faintly, and almost wished she could take back the gesture. Did it make her sound too dreary? "No, I'm just worried. Nothing has ever gone wrong like this before."

"O-Oh... what happened? Was somepony misbehaving?"

"No," Celestia said, shaking her head slowly. "Not at all. There was a problem with the letters."

"Really?" Raven asked, her horn glowing with her soft pink aura as she scooped a nearby fire iron to prod at the logs. "Then what happened?"

"Sombra didn't get a single letter."

Sparks sounded and Raven's horn fizzled abruptly, and the poker fell from her grip with a sharp clang causing Celestia's heart to skip at the sudden tension and Raven to squeak.

When the echo had left her ears, Celestia's golden magic replaced the item to its proper place next to the fireplace, but something in her still felt shaken.

"Please," she whispered, "try to be more careful."

"I..." Raven swallowed, "...yes, princess."

Her expression was mostly composed, only showing a tasteful trace of worry, but for all the princess knew her eyes might've betrayed her. Surely something could've. "Out of all the ponies in Equestria, not a single colt or filly penned him a single letter. It simply isn't right!"

"It isn't...?" Raven echoed, the flames and her lingering wide-eyed nerve casting a ghostly look on her face.

"No. He should have gotten something, Rae. Anything. An angry parent was bound to write to him in their dear child's place, an innocent question could be asked, some little one might have lost a playground bet when they heard Sombra could be written to this year, and perhaps there is some silly, sweet little child who wants to know if their prince is related to the monster under their bed. I don't know, Raven, what would be said to him, but I know that there would be something."

"Really? Don't you think that maybe nopony wanted to write to him?"

"Out of millions of ponies? Rave, that's improbable to the point of impossible in this context, wouldn't you agree?"

"Well..."

What must she be so dodgy today? A mouse would be less hesitant in the shadow of my hoof sometimes. Though, maybe something is wrong. Poor Rave is acting a bit odd...

"What is it? I struggle to see how his letters have not been interfered with."

One white forehoof rubbed at the leg of its twin awkwardly, and Celestia felt a brief, almost oppressive warmth from the fire and her headache stir once more. "W-Would it matter if he didn't get his letters?"

Celestia froze, her eyes locked onto the small fire flickering in front of her. She didn't feel warm anymore. "Raven, what happened to Sombra's letters? Where did they go?"

Raven's whole body was trembling, and she still looked the princess straight in the eye, a startling gesture in its own right. Without regarding her own movements and with her dark eyes wide to the point of looking feral, Raven extended one foreleg towards the fire.

"T-There," she rasped. "Each one of them is in there."

"W-Who did this?" Celestia stammered, a hissing edge to her tone and her mind swarming with angry, panicked thoughts. Even her dreaded headache had dived into the mental brew, bringing pain to go with her alarm.

"Me," Raven said, and her eyes went even wider with the intensity she gave the word.

Between them, the roar of blood in the princess' ears and the soft sounds of flame were like screams to the ears of the goddess, whose mask fell to show off a fraction of how petrified she looked. "You..."

Raven nodded, a tiny smile on her muzzle. "I-I did it! I finally did something... I stepped up and did what my heart told me. This..." She exhaled with a wild, throaty puff, looking like a porcelain doll who shook and sweated in the firelight as she breathed so audibly. "This felt so good, and all I had to do was take them."

"H-How many were there?" Celestia asked, her mind screaming for her to scoot away and for the warmth of panic to leave her, and the nightmare she found herself in to end.

"Twelve," Raven whispered spookily. "I just... snuck them away, tore them open, and brought them here. Ponies did write to him, princess... and the letters... only two of them were like you said they would be, with a parent demanding no contact. But the rest?" Raven's eyes grew damp. "You should have seen them... and how angry they made me."

Celestia swallowed and tried to force her thoughts to ground themselves, for her mind to not want to curl up in on itself and to not want to curl up every bit of her in the dark head she had and just vanish, nodding, smiling, and letting things flow by...

"Why did they make you so angry?" She regretted not being able to keep some emotion from her voice.

"None of them denounced him, at least as much as children may denounce things. One letter requested his help, and it was from the family of an Element Bearer, no less. W-What else was I s-supposed to f-feel when I s-saw that the sister of the Element of Honesty wrote to the prince, asking if he knew a crystal pony ancestor she learned about? If her name meant anything to him, and what her heritage meant?"

Apple Bloom wrote to Sombra?

"But Raven..." Control yourself. Control yourself. You must have control. This is not about you, do not be so shocked. It is her that is wrapped up in this matter. Confront her! Question her! "What brought you to do this?"

Slowly, Raven tilted her head and shadows claimed her face as it was angled away from the light. "W-Why do you act like this was wrong?"

"Rae, I—"

"Princess, I did this for you."

There was a gross, heavy, rapid thump in Celestia's chest that made her feel so terribly present and horrid with how out of control she found herself, and what a grotesque sensation it was to her!

"Why?"

Is that all I can bear to ask her?

"You cried, princess," Raven said, sniffling. "I-I heard you crying. I didn't even know you could cry! Don't you know how that sound is... how it destroys me? I wrote to my grandmother when I went home if Princess Celestia could cry because the world was flipped on its back after I heard that. She told me you did not, and I knew that sounded familiar. You are Princess Celestia, our most calm ruler, that is what she told my mother. That is what my mother told me, and what most of my neighbors knew. I read of ponies who attended the funeral of your last lover, and they spoke of your bowed head and g-graceful presence like anypony else would, but you did not cry! Twilight Sparkle said you wept when you reunited with Princess Luna, but how could that not be an exaggeration? There was no proof, was there?"

...That was true. All of it was, that there were many who did not believe she had shed a tear in her eternity, for when you saw nothing, and ponies said there was nothing, and told their sons and daughters there was nothing, then came nothing. Details faded too, and nopony ever thought to mention some of the simplest things, so, of course, Twilight would not say Celestia cried or think much of it, and when she said such a thing? There would be plenty of ponies who would react with quiet disbelief.

Celestia stopped crying at any funeral in mortal memory, but she grieved. She wept when Luna was her daughter once more, and she had bawled when Twilight left her to go to Ponyville, not that she ever told her that. Every horrific letter of murder and woe from the Crystal Empire caused something in her to fall apart when there was nopony who saw her. There were not even modern statues of Celestia weeping. There were many of her mourning or somber, but always her eyes were as dry as the stone of the statue.

She was only careful about crying and did not burden others, but a legend burst from the body of this and wove its way in with true tales. Yet, Celestia often found that truth was just another product of ponies, or so it felt.

Luna cried more than Celestia ever could, regardless of how much Celestia hid her tears, but other than that? Other than those who paid no mind to doubts or speculations, other than Twilight, Luna, Discord, and a few others?

Who was to say that Celestia cried?

"Y-Yes, Raven. I can cry, and—"

"Then why didn't you tell me?" Raven's doe-eyes were dark, wet, and filled with the betrayal that hurt Celestia even if it was an irrational emotion to have to see in the other mare's eyes.

"When have I ever denied such a thing? Has it not been ponies who have fashioned such a tale about me? I have not lied about this, Raven, so I swear upon the sun I guide—"

"Princess, if you cried every time I locked that door, I..."

"You what?" Celestia asked so softly that she was surprised even she heard her own voice, as far-off as it sounded from herself. "You would have not done what I kindly asked of you? Must you quarrel with an old mare?"

"I-I... I don't know!" Raven squealed, her cries high and broken with a terrible grief Celestia had only ever seen in a mortal who learned something that hurt them when they saw a glimpse of what scared them, and all that lurked outside of Celestia's light. "I... I think disobeying an order... oh, gods! I couldn't do such a thing!"

"Raven, what is it that has brought you to such a thing?" With those pleading words, and Celestia's own obvious dismay.

"We spoke of happiness." Raven's voice was hoarse.

"We have on quite a few occasions," Celestia replied with an eerie calm, one she was surprised to have pulled from herself. It chilled the air in her room with the smooth, maternal sound.

"You told me the prince had seemed happy to participate."

Well, as happy as Sombra could be. "That I did, Rae."

"The prince shouldn't be happy."

Celestia turned her head away from the unbearable presentation of Raven. "...You find our conversations led to this?"

"Of course. Princess, you always talk about doing what is good and thwarting the actions and individuals opposite of this. The prince made you cry, a-and just look at everything else he's done!" There was no denying that Raven looked scared. "Is he a good pony? A decent pony, even?"

Celestia was never could to silence. It was like loneliness, and it leeched at something in her that should be buried when it was prolonged. She could not tame it, and if offered her no peace.

"...How are you any different?" Celestia asked, tone steely. Such was a sound that begged to be obeyed, though it was not wholly intimidating, when Celestia sounded so she invited a fraction of coldness reserved only for foes to be measured out to the recipient.

"W-What do you mean?" Raven squeaked, meek and simpering. Did she think Celestia did not see how she trembled in the firelight and the shaking of her delicate form?

Celestia wished that she wasn't so hurt by this sight, but if she wasn't, she knew that would be monstrous. This was her dear friend, how could she not feel broken up by this sight?

"You're crying again," Raven observed. Her eyes were moist and teary, and her whole pale body looked like snippets of paper swallowed up in darkness and flame. The hoof she pointed at the cracked mask of the princess was shaking faintly.

"So I am."

Raven sniffled again, and her voice wound up in regret... and yet it was not the regret that Celestia needed to hear. "...You think he deserves to have happiness?"

Never. He should not be happy in anything.

"You committed mail theft, and not just any mail theft, mind you. Raven, you stole from royalty, and that puts such a dire weight on what would usually be a less grievous offense."

"I-I did it to right a wrong! Is stealing from Sombra of all ponies really so criminal?"

Think, came that unruly slither of a whisper in Celestia's mind, the wiggling insecurities to seep where they pleased and at the worst of times, that in another circumstance, she would be praised quite mightily. Even by you, who have worked in ways similar to this...

And maybe she had. Maybe Solara had, any part of the lesser parts of her she locked up for centuries because she was a changed mare, princess and Celestia both had had their hoof caught in such deeds and then washed of them, and all would be done and quite justified.

This was not one of those times.

"He is an Equestrian prince, so it most certainly is. Do you think he will not suspect something eventually?" This, truthfully, was something she had asked herself to. She hadn't the faintest idea if the monster would draw no conclusions, and go about things without complaint. Unfortunately, he was a soul prone to skepticism. "There is most certainly a chance that he will uncover what has been done, and I will do all in my power to protect you, but Raven, do you not know that he is a god too?"

"O-Of course!"

"Do you think he will be pleased if such a thing is made known to him? Or that he will be kind?"

Raven's breathing was starting to become uneven under the princess' look, and one she could only bear to give her secretary from the corner of her own eyes.

"Have you forgotten that to be a good pony is to do good things? This is the action of a lesser pony, Raven, and not one who is above what you want to surpass. When you want to do something good, you surpass evil, and you do it by being good."

"Oh gods, oh gods... Princess, what are you going to d-do to me? Will I be banished?"

The greatest discomfort knotted up Celestia, making her feel soured and pressing the suffocating hopelessness she felt down on her. Even her mane flowed sluggishly and felt like a weight upon her, and whose colors did not feel as bright.

"No, I would never do such a thing to you over this, but what you have done... it is still a crime, and you knew this. None of this can spare you from a consequence."

At this point, Raven was on the verge of hyperventilating. Sweat was visibly budding under her dark mane. "Am I going to be arrested?" she asked hoarsely. "W-What's going to happen to m-me?"

"Raven, you will not be hurt, and I will not let Sombra know."

"Oh..." Raven exhaled raggedly, wringing her hooves together. "Oh, oh, princess t-thank you, I don't know what I would h-have done-"

The princess cut her off by simply raising one forehoof, letting her golden shoe catch the light of the flame and glow with a light that matched her imperial presence, one that persisted despite her fractured composure. "How is your cousin?"

Blinking and stunned, Raven only wrung her own hooves tighter. "C-Colombe?"

"Yes. You said she had a fever and she likely couldn't write a letter for the holiday because she wasn't at school. Is she doing any better?"

Raven nodded, confusion heavy in her eyes, and did so with mute obedience. Celestia had no doubt Raven was quite puzzled at how the subject of daily chatter and lunchtime discussions was brought up now.

"Did she ever manage to write a letter?"

"N-No," Raven mumbled. "She's still rather ill."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the princess murmured, letting a shadow of worry fall over the darkness and raw look upon her face. "Is she able to write?"

"Umm, yes," Raven said, muffling her voice by lowering her head close to her folded forehooves. "Colombe is in the soup and sniffles while r-reading her Foalsitter Club books on the couch, as Aunt Ivory said. She can certainly write... w-why, though?"

"Well, Rave, I'm sure she's disappointed in missing out on the holiday. Have her write a letter to Sombra for the Palooza."

Raven's jaw hung slack and she let loose a whimper.

"This," Celestia said with all the sternness she could bear, "is your punishment. Have her write a letter to him, and send it to me so that I may see that he gets it."

Eventually, Raven found a way to lower her ears even further, and she gave a nod of resignation. "Will that be all?" she asked in a raspy post-tear tone that the princess had to strain to hear.

Celestia knew it wouldn't be. This encounter had drained her, had beat her heart to bits, and she could not manage to break free from her horrid limbo of visible grief and her desperate attempts to cling to any ruins of composure.

She didn't ever want to say these words, but she would drag them through all the sickeningly sweet shreds of a maternal tone to cloy them with as much kindness as possible to make the poison they would exchange be any more bearable.

Orders would be wrapped up as options, as she often presented them as.

And she absolutely could not say it like she was still crying.

"Raven... I think it's about time you've taken a vacation. Don't you agree?"

...

Pleasant. Presentable. Perfect.

All three were the things she had to be, even when Raven was gone. Two days already felt like months, loneliness and emotions the princess wished would just disappear heaping on top of themselves.

She hated that she was able to explain everything to Luna and the rest of the castle so easily, pulling the strings to make sure she said the right thing when she watched this dignified exterior and her ivory mask obey every jerk and tug from the hollow inside where Celestia was quietly mourning.

Saying she was sad over Raven's departure was one thing, but actually being sad about seeing Raven leave for 'vacation' and her office cleared was to be a burden. Telling ponies what a shame it was, how she was going to miss her, and how good Raven had been were all extremely acceptable things too, but anything more was to set a bad example and to be negative. She would engage in so much unacceptable interaction when such social 'musts' were so obvious. The strings would be pulled, and the rein about her emotions would be drawn tighter, and who was she to complain about how the bit cut into her mouth?

Celestia was going to miss their chess games so much.

Now, the main memento she had of their time together was a few folders of paper regarding the royals' finances that had fallen into Raven's possession that she would have to go through eventually. The monotony of even more paperwork than the princess usually had to manage was not exactly desirable, but she would certainly get around to looking at whatever mundane things could be within papers on how she spent her personal funds.

Perhaps there were a few documents that still hadn't been transferred to the Crystal Empire for Cadance and Shining Armor because of some setback. She didn't really want to look through anything of Raven's yet, partly because of all the letters she still had to answer. They were just as good of a distraction as she hoped.

With a relaxed and perfectly normal smile intact, the princess knocked upon the door to Sombra's dreaded study.

Moments later, the door opened and a crimson-cloaked, circlet-clad, coffee-clutched-in-one-hoof prince stood. His expression was reserved, but he looked grumpy beneath it. Since the Princess Pen Pal Palooza had ended, there had been a faint disappointment lingering in his eyes that Celestia didn't know if anypony else saw.

He saw her, looked at her frankly, and sighed. "What is it that you think I've been doing wrong this time?"

He usually said that, or anything like it, whenever the princess had to speak with him about any unplanned matters where she had to fetch and summon him.

"There is some mail for you that I have."

Sombra looked at her skeptically after a long sip from his coffee. "...Nothing else?"

"No, just some mail. Were you expecting anything else?"

Sombra lit his horn, and Celestia heard the unmistakable sound of magic claiming something from within. Seconds later, a wastepaper basket was clutched in his aura. Quite a few crumpled papers were in it, as Celestia expected from the silly thing. A sign with 'Complaints Department' was attached to the side, where it was clear for anypony to see.

Most of the papers were not little notes but scrolls with a broken Eternal Crown wax seal upon them.

(She was honestly surprised he read them at all.)

"Only the usual, Celestia," he said, shrugging. "...Is it from you?" One of his ears flicked in a way that Celestia would have easily called anxious on a less boastful pon— thing.

"No, it is not."

Another burst of crimson later, and the trash can was gone. "May I see it, then?"

Celestia passed it to him with a wave of her magic and was careful to withdraw her glimmering gold light quickly before Sombra's aura snatched it up. Who knew if there were possible side effects from coming in contact with such energies, and from the kind of creature that he was?

Sombra tore the envelope open and flicked away the stray shreds of paper. They still remained within the grip of his magic, and his magic flared again, this time with a familiar dark aura. To Celestia's clear shock, purple and green fire consumed them in a rapid flash, and no ashes fell to the ground. She yelped and jumped back a little, and in response, Sombra made the faintest sound of annoyance in the back of his throat.

Still a bit nervous after the abrupt, flippant display of power, Celestia watched as he looked at the envelope quizzically, and then how his eyes read through the letter eagerly.

"I can't believe it..." he breathed, perhaps unaware that she was still there.

"Yes, this was misplaced on the day of the Palooza, though I was not informed of by who. Perhaps it was one of the mail pegasi, and maybe it was one of the castle staff. Either way, you have a letter."

"That was careless of them."

"They're ponies, and they make mistakes."

Sombra's tail swished with the attitude of a response he didn't give, and whatever he didn't say, Celestia was glad he didn't.

"...Are you just going to keep standing there all day?" Sombra asked upon finishing, his ears looking extra perky. In fact, after reading there was something about him that was much perkier overall.

"No, I shall not. Be sure to pen a reply quickly, and keep it within the guidelines of the celebration. Then, get back to work, if you please." A buried edge to her tone reserved just for him made it clear that the last three words were not added sincerely.

He opened the letter again. Nodded. Scanned it. Folded it.

Then, Sombra swiftly stood taller, lit his horn, and was gone in a flash of magic, letter and all.

She knew she wasn't that bright little jar any longer, and certainly not an intact one, for seeing how his eyes lit up at that letter did not feel worth it.

Author's Note:

[Revised for print on 4/2/2023-4/2/2023]

If you would like to read more about Raven, who recently had her own story written about her, I would suggest giving So Maybe a read, since it will once again take time between updates. So Maybe is a complete one shot offering Raven's perspective and story about how her and Tia became friends, among other things.