• Published 14th Feb 2017
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Sun and Hearth - bookplayer

Princess Celestia and Smart Cookie have watched Equestria rise. They share a dream that’s entwined their hearts for two thousand years, and a love that’s given them the strength to see it realized. Now they face the ultimate test of that love.

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18 - The Battle One Always Loses

Just after sunset, Celestia climbed the stairs to the astronomy tower. She opened the door and entered the dim room lined with charts and tapestries, and the first thing that caught her eye was the field of stars twinkling brightly through the wide entrance to the balcony. Celestia paused in awe for a moment before a shadow at the edge moved, and Luna walked towards her, her mane seeming to drag a piece of the night sky into the room.

Despite having issued the request for this meeting Luna glanced at her with a frown, then stopped at a table in the center of the room to make a few notations.

Celestia smiled and took up the burden of pleasantries as she walked a few steps towards the welcome openness of the balcony. “Good evening, Luna. It’s a lovely night, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Luna just barely glanced up from the star charts on the table. “Sister, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course.” As Celestia reached the balcony, she took a deep breath of the chill winter air and looked up at those eternal lights.

Behind her, Luna spoke words that brought her quickly back to the present. “Tia, forgive me if this sounds absurd, but… are you considering a marriage to a lost prince of Griffonstone?”

“Oh, Luna. Where did you hear such a thing?” Celestia glanced to Luna and offered a gentle smile, silently cursing Discord to Tartarus and back.

Luna was still frowning down at the table, not so much as looking up to note, “That is not an answer.”

“I did hear that there was a lost prince,” Celestia said with a shrug. She turned and walked back towards the table to better gauge Luna’s reaction. “Chancellor Gunther thought that I should know about him, and that the griffons are considering a return to monarchy. He would like for me to meet him, but since that hasn’t happened yet, how could I be considering a marriage?”

Luna finally looked up from her scrolls and narrowed her eyes at Celestia. “That is surprising to hear, as I attended the state dinner where we sat with Chancellor Gunther, and your secretary has no record that you held another meeting with him.”

Celestia nodded. “It was informal. We met by chance in the gardens and had a brief chat.”

“I see.” She gave a nod, then looked back to Celestia and arched an eyebrow. “Strange, then, that your brief chat in the gardens inconvenienced the maids attempting to clean the dark study at three o’clock.”

“I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re saying,” Celestia said with a tilt of her head. Clearly Luna had done her research, but there was no reason to provide her more than she already knew.

“You had a secret meeting with the Chancellor of Griffonstone.” Luna frowned, the accusation plain on her face. “Discord offered a rather detailed account of it, and while I hesitate to lend weight to his words, I’m not sure why you feel the need hide this information or lie to me about it.”

Celestia turned to once again admire the view. The snow topped spires nearby and roofs below glittered in the starlight; a negative of the dark sky, it seemed even colder, though it was dotted with the warm light of windows and streetlamps.

She gave a casual shrug. “It was of little consequence and it slipped my mind. And whatever Discord says should be trusted exactly as far as you can teleport him.”

“A change in regime in a neighboring nation, and a lost heir to the throne that you were invited to meet while no such invitation was extended to me was of little consequence and slipped your mind?” Luna asked in a dry voice.

“Are you jealous?” Celestia asked, frowning gently over her shoulder.

Luna rolled her eyes. “No, I’m insulted that you continue to lie to me. It forces me to consider that Discord may have been truthful in his recounting.”

“I’m not lying, what was said was of little consequence to you.” Celestia came to the edge of the balcony and pursed her lips at the stars. “You hardly take a role in matters of state when they occur, I’m not sure why you’re so concerned with options that are simply under consideration.”

“I am concerned, so I expect the truth. What did you discuss with the Chancellor of Griffonstone?”

Celestia looked behind her towards Luna with a disapproving glare. “It was confidential.”

Luna stared at her for a moment, then raised her eyebrows and whispered, half in shock, “Discord spoke the truth. And you…”

“Fine.” Celestia turned to walk back into the tower room, watching Luna with a casual calm. “The chancellor suggested that Griffonstone might fare best under the rule of an Equestrian princess, and I’m considering the idea. The simplest means of achieving it would be marriage to an heir of Guto.”

Luna made no reply, but her wings ruffled and face twisted in disgust.

Celestia shrugged and came to the table, glancing down at the maps of the sky and the patterns she never was able to find in the stars. “It would bring wise rule and stability to Griffonstone, and offer us a strong military to call on. Is that so bad?”

“You know what I object to,” Luna snapped.

“I haven’t made a decision, but it sounds far worse than it would actually be.” Celestia said with a calm tilt of her head. “He’s a mortal griffon, it would only be for a few decades, and the union wouldn’t require heirs so we would never so much as share a bedchamber.”

“You would make a false oath of love before your ponies.”

Celestia looked up at her, raising her eyebrows. “Which would harm nopony, and the result would help ponies and griffons both.”

Shaking her head with a sigh, Luna’s voice softened. “Tia, love is magic, one we have used before in defense of Equestria. To betray it in this manner, even for the sake of your ponies, is not wise.”

“A single political union is hardly a betrayal of love,” Celestia said with a firm but gentle look of reproach.

Luna glared at her and rose to her hooves. Walking to the balcony, she stopped to look out at the night sky. “I’m not a master of love magic…” She glanced back at Celestia. “Perhaps we should ask Cadance?”

Celestia pursed her lips for a moment. She had been hoping that if she made her decision, she would have a chance to meet the griffon and establish a pretense before she dealt with Cadance. “Luna, you can’t tell anypony of this. It would be a political—”

Luna cut her off, whipping around to face her. “You know this is wrong. You know she would never approve.”

“She would. I would talk to her,” Celestia answered with a gentle smile.

“You would lie to her, as you tried to lie to me,” Luna said, taking a few steps towards her.

Celestia’s smile fell away. Not daring to look away or show shame, Celestia looked Luna in the eye. “We each have our domains, and matters of state fall to me. I would make sure you both saw the situation correctly when it became necessary.”

Luna gave a snort. “Very well. Please, what is the correct way to view this?”

Celestia sighed, allowing her entire manner to soften. She didn’t risk another smile, but she said gently, “I’m considering an alliance that will give us a new power to protect Equestria. The simplest and most peaceful way to cement this alliance is with a temporary and practically symbolic marriage. Nopony will be harmed and everypony will benefit. One could only wish every matter of our safety was this simple.”

“What about Smart Cookie? Would he not be hurt?” Luna raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps that is your point in this.”

The accusation brought a sharp frown to Celestia’s face. “Luna, you can’t think I would rearrange world politics to annoy my former suitor.” She shook her head. “Cookie told me to do what was best for me, and what is best for Equestria is what is best for me.”

Luna took another step towards Celestia. “Even so, he felt that the bond of your heart was true, as any lover should. That you would make an oath and present a love to the world that’s no more than a cold calculation cheapens every other love you have had or shall have.“

“Then let him find a pony more worthy of him,” Celestia snapped with more force than she intended. “I will do what I must to protect Equestria.”

Luna paused, the accusation on her face shifting to suspicion as she eyed Celestia. “This is not new, is it? When I asked you to seek out Smart Cookie’s power, it wasn’t the love of your students that swayed you, it was the defense of Equestria.”

Celestia composed herself and nodded. “That was a consideration.”

“That was the most important consideration.” Luna frowned in thought. “You never would have acted otherwise.”

“They never would have asked me to, it was you who pushed me in that direction.” Celestia raised her eyebrows at Luna. “When they heard of the situation, they both felt it was a matter worthy of serious consideration, and the start of that was best left to Cookie.”

Luna nodded. “So rather than leave it to them, you pursued the defense of Equestria in spite of love. And now you pursue it in its void.”

“Protecting Equestria is my duty.” Celestia turned to examine a tapestry on the wall; the sun and full moon in a sky divided between day and night. The moon was surrounded by its phases, but the sun stood bright and stark next to it.

“It is our duty.” Luna said behind her. “And this marriage would only make Equestria weaker, so I must object.”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “I’d love to hear how having a strong military at hoof might make us weaker.”

“Do you wish to reenact Mother’s death? To lead an army where nothing but true magic would be of use?”

Celestia drew in a breath, caught off guard by the bluntness of the question. She spun around to address Luna, but instead her gaze landed on the night sky and its vast eternity, its countless distant pieces in their own, precise, inexorable courses, too many for the mind of a pony to comprehend.

She lashed out, as much at the stars as at her sister, “Don’t you dare suggest that I have not learned from Mother’s fall!”

Only one pony in history had understood the movements and currents of magic and destiny. As Celestia went on she fought the feeling of being small and helpless as that wisdom, and the love that was held with it, was ripped away from her by the slight, steady turn of the heavens.

“Mother died because she never looked past what power she had. I think any pony who looks at Equestria today can see that I would never make that mistake. We have more magic than ever thanks to me. We have faced Lord Tirek, and Equestria survived because I arranged it so that we had the most powerful spellcasters close at hoof.” She drew a breath and let it out slowly as the feelings faded. “Having an effective military on top of that simply gives us more options, so that we might use the correct power for the situation we face.”

Luna’s face was a serious and stern mask as she drew herself up, still not matching Celestia’s stature. “This is not our power, sister! Our power is not in treaties or armies or political maneuvering any more than it is in spells and knowledge and magical talent. Our power is in the bonds we form. Our friendships, our families, our loves... these are what created Equestria and what have kept it strong all these centuries.”

They held one another’s gaze, neither flinching as Luna went on, “This marriage would make a mockery of those powers, and I am warning you it is folly.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows. “Those are our deepest powers, it’s true, but they’ve never worked alone. From the time Equestria was young, I’ve gathered them and positioned them for our use.”

Luna tilted her head, studying Celestia. “From the time Equestria was young? Is this why you courted Smart Cookie? A political maneuver to overcome your biggest detractor, and assure the founders would never question you?”

“No! Of course not!” Celestia clenched her jaw and narrowed her eyes at her sister. “I loved Cookie truly, how dare you—”

Luna cut her off with the same curious expression, “Then what has changed in two thousand years, that what was once offensive and unthinkable is now reasonable and logical?”

Staring at her sister a moment longer, Celestia then turned away with a sigh. She looked around the room, small and claustrophobic as her gaze avoided the balcony. The tapestry seemed crude and simplistic now, a mockery of the real heavens. “I have learned that sacrifices must be made, and I am the pony who must make them.”

Behind her she heard Luna cross the room to the table where her scrolls were laid out.

After several moments, Luna said plainly, “To sacrifice bonds of love for power is a treacherous path.”

Celestia sighed and turned towards Luna, now bent over the table with her quill in her magic. “It’s only temporary. One mortal lifespan.”

“I assure you, on this matter my wisdom exceeds your own. It is far easier to go forward down that path than it is to return.” Luna paused and glanced up. “Love grows weaker as you battle the objections of those who care for you, while other powers are always within your grasp.”

“Perhaps some of us are stronger than others,” Celestia said, drawing herself up to her full height.

Luna raised an eyebrow, then went back to her work. “I pray for your sake it is true, for none of us are stronger than the magics that protect Equestria.”

Celestia hazarded a glance at the stars, serene in their sky, and then looked back to Luna, framed by her mane full of them. She hesitated, then answered softly, “That’s as it should be…”

“Indeed.” Luna nodded as she wrote. “Have a good night, Sister.”

“You as well.” Celestia turned toward the door, then looked back to Luna with a suspicious glance. Luna was still hard at work, lost in her notes, and Celestia made her way to the stairs.

Celestia had drifted to sleep in Cookie’s forelegs, but found herself in a field of stars. It was a strange place, seeming infinite in all directions, but she felt almost as if solid reality was just beside her on one side; the kingdom she had ruled for a millenia and a half and the stallion who had been her only constant for that time were just a step away. It pulled her like a magnet, steady and firm and unyielding.

But something else grabbed at her from the other direction, grasping with tendrils of emotion and wonder and terror. It tried to drag her to whatever was pressing against her in the other direction, someplace strange and wild.

Between them she stood balanced in this starry landscape on the edge of both. And before her stood an alicorn, nearly as black as the far reaches of space, with a mane floating about her in the vibrant hues of distant galaxies.

Legends long ago had called her The Pegasus Who Touched the Stars, the pony who had deciphered the heavens and learned how the forces that drove them affected all the creatures of the world. Those legends were long forgotten, along with the kingdom that had formed around her transformation into a pony who was neither pegasus, nor earth pony, nor unicorn.

Even her name was lost to time, but Celestia remembered Princess Astra well.

“Mother? You’ve… returned?” Celestia hesitated, then nearly galloped across the short distance to bury her face against the warm neck of the other alicorn. “Oh Mother, I’m so glad, I’ve missed you so… and Father, and… I’m sorry, Mother. I’m so sorry, she…”

“There now, Celestia,” her mother gave a sigh, but she could hear the weary smile in her voice. “We choose our path, and the stars turn until its end. My path ended long ago, you know that.”

“Is this a dream?” Celestia whispered, feeling tears stinging her eyes.

“It is not.” Her mother’s leg wrapped around her and held her near. “This is the land that borders all lands: the waking world, dreams, and the worlds beyond. I am exactly as real here as you are.”

“Can we meet here again?” She risked pulling away just enough to show her pleading face.

Her mother chuckled with a twinkle in her rose eyes. “You look just as you did when you would ask for more sweets. But I can grant you neither now, I don’t possess that magic. I’m here only by the turning of the stars, and I can’t say when they might align again.”

“Very well.” Celestia gave a sigh and gathered herself against foalish theatrics, but she still pressed her cheek to her mother’s neck once again. “Are you content? Is father?”

“You know the answer to that in your heart.”

Celestia nodded. “Do you know my kingdom thrives and spans much of the world? I’m well liked by my ponies and known to be good and just in my rule.”

“I do know that.” Her mother’s hoof lifted her chin, and Celestia looked into her smiling face as she went on, “You’ve accomplished great things, Celestia.”

“Thank you.” Celestia beamed as the knowledge that she’d succeeded filled her heart. She’d been raised to be a princess of ponies, and had done her mother proud.

Her mother’s smile tightened, and a knowing look crossed her face. “Yet there is a shadow over it all that you can’t escape.”

Celestia’s face fell, and she swallowed a lump of guilt that threatened to choke into a sob. “Please, Mother. Tell me I did the right thing. I tried to save her, I tried to help her. She attacked me, and she attacked my kingdom. I had no choice!”

Her mother gave her a knowing look and said gently, “You’ve had many choices. Do not grant them to the stars so easily; they are cold and not inclined to correct their courses.”

“They are cold.” Celestia nodded with a grim frown. “And inscrutable. Who am I to fight them?”

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Would you fight them for the kingdom you are so proud of?”

Celestia cringed. They both knew the answer: there was no battle she wouldn’t enter for Equestria. That was the choice she had made; that was the path she set on.

Her mother regarded her. “Celestia, you are my daughter, and you are a Princess. You walk among the stars, but each step reveals who you are, and leads you to your destiny.”

Celestia drew herself up, but she could feel the surrender through her body. “I am Princess of Equestria. I had to defend my realm.”

A firm nod sent the bright nebula of her mother’s mane drifting. “That was the choice you made. Your realm is safe.”

“Yes.” Celestia looked down at the starry sky below her hooves. “And my sister… the Nightmare.”

“That was the choice she made,” her mother said with the same certainty. “She pays the price.”

“Yes.” The empty space below was almost dizzying. Celestia wondered if she could fall here, and if she might fall forever.

“But never expect the stars to remain in place. They move, and we face new choices.” A hint of a smile played across her mother’s face as Celestia looked up. “I’ve been sent to bring you warning, my daughter, so that you have time to consider.”

“To consider what?” Celestia asked, already feeling her feathers ruffle in trepidation.

Her mother went on easily, “What you might do next time you face her. The stars are not inclined to second chances, but sometimes they come all the same.”

Celestia swallowed but held her gaze intently on her mother. It felt like time stopped; eternities passed before the words came from the elder alicorn’s mouth:

“On the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape.”

“In her…?” Celestia looked at her mother, pleading, unable to form words.

Her mother’s cheek pressed to hers, warm and safe for a moment. “I love you, my daughter. I love you both. May you both choose your paths well.”

“No…” Celestia gasped. “No… I can’t face her again… You can’t ask me choose all over again to… I don’t want to hurt her!”

But her mother was gone, and Celestia was left alone in the vast emptiness.

“Mother?” she whimpered, tears stinging her eyes. There was no answer, only the pain of the past and the future, the pain of the empty places where her family should be. She felt it building inside of her until she let it out in scream, “Mother!”

Sitting up in the bed suddenly in the dark of Cookie’s bedroom, she nearly screamed again but caught herself in time. Panting, she stared wide eyed at the wall across from the bed. A painting of ponies working in a sunny field hung there, perfectly competent in its composition, and around the dark room sturdy wooden furniture anchored shadows firmly in place.

Cookie stirred, then propped himself up on a foreleg. His mane was messy from sleep, and a look of concern was painted clearly on his face. “Celestia? Are you well?”

“The stars shall aid in her escape,” Celestia whispered.

“Whose escape?” Cookie asked, laying a comforting hoof on her.

“The Nightmare. Nightmare Moon.” She tried to shake her head clear. “It‘s true, it must be. She appeared in my dream to tell me.”

His eyes narrowed in suspicious confusion. “Who, your sister?”

“No. Mother.” Celestia let out a breath and relaxed enough to lay back against the warm pillows.

Cookie gently stroked her wing. His hoof felt solid and real, and the room with its trappings of a common life added more of the same. Even his disheveled state and bewilderment were a comfort; the turnings of fate and eternity of the stars held no sway in his bed at three o’clock in the blessed morning.

“You trust it was her? Not merely a dream?” he asked gently.

Celestia closed her eyes, focusing on drawing breath and the feeling of Cookie’s hoof. “It was her. I could feel her presence. It is prophecy. She was the master of Fate magic, she knew the courses of the stars and the power of cutie marks.”

“That sounds like an impressive magic to master,” Cookie noted. He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “You said she fell in battle with a monster?”

Celestia cringed as the shadow of that long ago day fell over her; watching her mother and faither and their troop of guards fly towards the monster and…

She shook her head clear once more and answered Cookie, “Lord Tirek. He’s in Tartarus now. Star Swirl befriended his brother, and his brother betrayed him. Otherwise… I’m sure we would have fallen, and after us the rest of the world.”

Cookie offered a frown of sad sympathy, and shifted closer to drape a foreleg over her back.

Celestia nestled against him as she went on in a whisper, “I— I always felt as if she must have known her own fate. She flew to battle knowing she would fall.”

“Or knowing something greater would come of it,” Cookie said gently. “If she was as you say, she must have seen what would be born. She may have known you needed the teachings of Star Swirl, but also of grief and experience to bear the crown you were destined for.”

“Perhaps.” Celestia nodded reluctantly. “But why would she leave a task like that to me? I was barely a mare.”

“Because you were the match of Equestria,” he said with a gentle, fond smile at her. “You were young and fresh, you came to us on equal standing to assume a crown that demanded a new perspective, and to lead us into a future none of us could see.”

The corners of Celestia’s mouth twitched into a smile remembering those long ago days reflected in Cookie’s eyes. “But we could dream it.”

“That’s made it all the sweeter, hasn’t it?” Cookie said with playful nuzzle. “My grandmother used to say that half the joy of bread is the smell of it baking.”

Celestia chuckled, then sighed with smile. “How is it the long dead are always so wise?”

“We offer them the boon of forgetting their foolishness,” Cookie pointed out.

Celestia snuggled down between Cookie and her pillow. Perhaps she did dismiss her parents’ foolishness, looking for a way their death made sense, something that made them worthy of the hole it left inside of her. But there was another, and her foolishness could never be excused, and while she wasn’t dead Celestia had to admit she felt her absence just as keenly.

Eventually she whispered, “Cookie… I miss Mother. Both of my parents. And I miss…”

Cookie nodded and looked down at her. His mouth was a firm line, but his eyes held nothing but sympathy. “So, what does her escape mean?”

“I don’t know. Mother warned me so that I might have time to consider my choices, but…” Celestia paused and swallowed. “But I have none.”

“Might she be... reformed?” he asked with only a faint hint of hope in his voice.

Celestia answered him with a soft snort. “Alone, on the moon? Certainly not.”

Cookie sighed, his ears drooping as he tenderly nuzzled her neck. “Then I suppose you’re right, you have no choice.”

Celestia nodded, but she was quiet again, considering even the most desperate and outlandish chances there might be to change the course of the stars. Finally, with a sigh, she voiced the only one that seemed remotely possible. “In theory, there’s a way we might use the Elements of Harmony to clear the darkness from her mind. But I channeled all of my magic last time, I’m not powerful enough to do it.”

You’re not powerful enough?” Cookie arched an eyebrow. “You raise the blessed sun and moon.”

“You know perfectly well that I have the raw power of an alicorn and little talent at magic to match it.” Celestia frowned, remembering her long ago lessons with Star Swirl. It was Luna who had been the prodigy, and even Star Swirl was more powerful than Celestia in all but her talent with the sun.

She felt Cookie squeeze her. “I know I’ve seen you arrange agreements between ponies that must be powerful magic, for there’s no other explanation under the stars.”

Celestia smiled sadly. “Government is not magic. At least, not the kind we need.”

“So where would we find this magic?” he asked, settling in to his own pillow next to her.

She gave a resigned sigh. “We would need to find a unicorn with the talent of Star Swirl and a perfect understanding of the Elements, at exactly the correct time five hundred years hence.”

His face turned to a thoughtful frown, then he offered a shrug. “Then it is with the stars, but it’s something we might hope for.”

“The stars work against us here, Cookie,” Celestia answered with a much deeper frown, one that felt like it drove into her heart. “On the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape. She will cast us into eternal night, unless I stand against her once more.”

Cookie studied her for a moment, then he raised an eyebrow and noted softly, “You’re afraid.”

Celestia sighed and turned away from him to pretend to sleep for the few hours until dawn. “Of course I am. It’s the battle I always lose, no matter how Equestria fares.”

Author's Note:

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