• Published 15th Nov 2018
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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun - Dee Pad

When a newly-crowned Twilight Sparkle finds an old book hidden away in the royal archives, she discovers a piece of her mentor's past she had never been told about. And the more she read, the more questions arose. Just who was Sunset Shimmer?

  • ...

Chapter 14 - Sun Dance

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad

Chapter 14: Sun Dance


Halberd stood outside the door to the royal archives, a pensive look on his face and beads of nervous sweat collecting on his forehead and neck. There were so many times already where he'd tell himself he was going to do it, but just as he'd reach for the door, he would deflect his movements and start pacing apprehensively. He knew this was no time to second guess himself. He'd attempted this a few times already, but had always encountered an obstacle that stood in the way, or made him lose his nerve. He couldn't let an opportunity like this pass him by; this could very well be his best chance.

With a deep, shaky breath, Halberd wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then, steeling himself as though he were preparing to charge into battle, he grabbed the handle of the door. Contrary to the vigor with which he grabbed it, Halberd opened the door slowly and cautiously, careful not to let the hinges make a sound. He discreetly poked his head inside, surveying the room.

The royal archives of Canterlot Castle were leagues above what they had at the Castle of the Two Sisters. The room was enormous, perhaps even larger than your run-of-the-mill public library. The bookshelves lining the walls and forming the aisles reached up to the height of a two-story house, and above that still were catwalks that stretched overhead, granting access to even more bookshelves. However, despite the size and number of shelves, the number of books was comparatively low, as only the books from the old castle had been cataloged, and those didn't even take up half of the shelves at ground level. It was likely that the princesses had the royal archives built to be so immense in anticipation of expanding their collection of tomes.

However, it was not the books that Halberd was concerned with. Rather it was the pony sitting at one of the many reading tables near the entrance: Starswirl.

The bearded unicorn sat with his back to the door, embroiled in his research. He was studying a book of some description while also, somehow simultaneously, taking notes of his own on a scroll. He hadn't noticed the pair of eyes observing him from the door.

Halberd took another deep breath, stood up straight, and fully entered the room. He wasn't able to entirely push back the nervousness in his expression, but he couldn't risk not doing this now. "Mr. Starswirl, sir?"

Starswirl glanced over his shoulder. He flashed a pleasantly surprised grin at the pegasus. "Oh, Halberd. Good afternoon. I didn't hear you come in. How's the leg?"

Halberd glanced back at his right hind leg, a large patch of gauze still adhered over his injury and partially obscuring his cutie mark. "It's getting better, but it still hurts to put pressure on it."

Starswirl chuckled. "Then you're lucky, aren't you?"

The younger stallion raised an eyebrow. "I am?"

"Yes, because as long as you have that injury, you don't have to work security at the Grand Galloping Gala. You can enjoy it as a guest like the rest of us."

Halberd cleared his throat. "A-Actually, that's sort of why I came here, Mr. Starswirl, sir."

Starswirl cast him an amicable grin. "Now, now, there's no need for such formalities around me, son. Just 'Starswirl' is fine."

Halberd was reluctant. "I... I think it would be in poor form for a pony of my station to speak so casually with a superior."

"'Superior'?" Starswirl laughed boisterously and shook his head. "My boy, we both work for the princess. As far as I'm concerned, we are colleagues of equal standing, regardless of age or experience. And besides, you act rather casually around my daughter, and she's Princess Celestia personal protégé."

Halberd's silver cheeks suddenly flushed red at the mention of Sunset. "A-Actually, that's sort of why I came here."

"You just said that, son. But you said it was about the Gala."

"I-It's both... Sir—I-I mean, Mr. Starswi—I-I mean, Starswirl!"

As amusing as it was to watch the kid trip over his words, admittedly, Starswirl was getting a touch impatient. Either way, though, he had a feeling he knew what this was about. "Come on, lad, out with it."

Halberd inhaled a breath through his nostrils, letting it out slowly before looking Starswirl dead in the eyes with utmost seriousness. "I would like to request your permission to ask Sunset Shimmer to the Grand Galloping Gala."

Starswirl blinked, his silence causing Halberd's resolute expression so contort to an awkward grimace as he nervously broke eye contact. "Permission? That's what you came here for?"

Halberd nodded.

"Why in Equestria would you think you needed my permission to do such a thing?"

"B-Because you're her father," the pegasus stammered. "I-I just thought it was the respectable thing to do."

Starswirl gave the young stallion a sympathetic smile. "As much as I appreciate the intent, it's ultimately unnecessary. Sunset is the one you need ask, not me. For what good would my permission be if she turned you down?"

Halberd gulped. "Y-You think she'll say no?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to plant any doubts in your mind. But, we won't know for sure until you ask her, right?"

Halberd let out yet another sigh—his lungs were getting quite a workout this afternoon. "Yeah... Sorry. I'm a little nervous if you couldn't tell."

"Hadn't noticed," Starswirl replied with a sarcastic chuckle. "But if my permission is really that important to you, then you have it."

A wave of relief washed over the pegasus. "Really? That was a little easier than I expected. I thought you'd put up at least some resistance. You know, to protect your daughter and all."

"Protect her from what? You?" Starswirl laughed. "No offense, my boy, but I don't think you're any threat to my little girl. If anything, you might actually be a good influence on her. Now, hurry along and find Sunset. I'll be disappointed if you put it off any longer."

Halberd gave an instinctive salute at the command. "Yes, Sir." And with that, he performed an about face and left the royal archives once more.

With renewed confidence, Halberd marched through the halls of Canterlot Castle with purpose. He already knew where Sunset was. He'd gone over all of this with his brother early that day, and Lance agreed to keep Sunset busy while he talked to Starswirl.

And sure enough, the two of them were still hanging around the castle's entrance, Sunset with a pair of saddlebags on her back. Lance kept her occupied by discussing the Grand Galloping Gala, as Sunset was helping to plan the event and Lance was being appointed head of security for the evening. But, once Lance saw his little brother approaching with a perky smile on his face, he knew it was time to put an abrupt end to the conversation.

"Anyway, I'm sure we got this covered, Sunset," Lance assured her dismissively. "I'll make sure the royal guard is extremely vigilant."

"You guys are free to mingle, too, you know," Sunset told him. "But I guess I'll leave that up to you."

Lance nodded, bowing to her in a rather exaggerated fashion, which was an unusually formal gesture for him to give her. "Whatever you say, m'lady. But I don't wanna hold you up any longer. You've got errands to run, right?"

"Oh, right! Heh, almost forgot. Thanks for reminding me. I can get distracted pretty easily with the plans and stuff—"

Lance brusquely cleared his throat to interrupt her.

Sunset straightened up, nodding more seriously. "Right, sorry."

"But before you go, don't you think it would be nice to have some help?" Lance suggested.

The amber mare quirked an eyebrow. "I don't think it would be good idea for you to leave your post to help me, Lance."

Lance simply tilted his head to the side, directing her attention to the silver pegasus standing nearby.

"Oh, hey, Hal. Didn't see you there," Sunset greeted cheerily.

"I, uh... I hear you need help with something," Halberd said meekly, but with a friendly smile.

"Well, it's not like I need help," she responded, lolling her head back and forth. "But if you wanna tag along, I'm not going to stop you."

"Alright, then get to it," Lance commanded, giving his brother a firm and impatient slap on the back. Halberd staggered forward a few steps, getting him moving along while Sunset followed alongside him. "And don't come back until all your errands are done. The Gala's tomorrow night after all."

Sunset gave him a wave as she and Halberd made for the castle's outer gate.

Despite Halberd's intentions, the two of them were pretty quiet at first, but once Sunset passed through the gate, she realized why. She glanced over her shoulder to find that Halberd was lagging behind a bit, so she stopped to let him catch up, noticing the slight limp he had.

"Sorry," she apologized with a sympathetic smile. "I guess your leg's still bothering you, huh? I'll try to slow down so you can keep up."

"It's alright," he assured her with a smile of his own as they continued on their way into the city. "I know you're excited about the Gala, so I can't blame you for being a little impatient. I guess you're looking forward to a night of quiet elegance and sophistication."

"Eh, I'm not really that kind of girl. Fancy parties aren't really my thing." Her expression suddenly became more serious. "But the Gala is still important to me."

"How so?" Halberd inquired curiously.

"Princess Celestia said that the whole purpose of the Gala is to help reassure the people of Equestria that everything is going to be okay, even after what happened to Princess Luna. To put it in more broad terms, it's about putting the past behind us."

Halberd saw the somber, regretful look on his best friend's face, and had a feeling he knew what she was getting at.

"Princess Celestia and I haven't exactly been getting along great lately, and while I don't think my own actions are entirely unjustified, I do feel bad about what she's been going through and the extra stress my behavior has put on her."

"So you wanna use the Gala as a means to make amends with the princess," Halberd inferred.

Sunset let out a solemn sigh, speaking barely above a whisper. "I just want things to go back to the way they used to be... Everypony was happier before all this stuff with Nightmare Moon, and I can't help but feel a little responsible for it. The Summer Sun Celebration was the straw that broke the camel's back."

"I'd tell you that it's not your fault, but I have a feeling you've been told that already."

"The princess has been talking a lot about responsibility lately. So maybe it's my responsibility to get things back on track. If she's upset that I'm practicing my magic on my own, then I should do everything in my power to help us push forward so that she can get back to helping me with my training." She smiled at Halberd again. "I think that'd be the best thing for both of us, wouldn't you say?"

Halberd smiled back. "I can't disagree."

By now, Sunset and Halberd had found themselves amongst the hustle and bustle of the Canterlot streets. Posters had been affixed to streetlights and store windows advertising the Grand Galloping Gala, and it was likely that the citizens of the capitol were preparing for the event. Since the Gala was being hosted inside the castle, obviously it would be unrealistic to think everypony in Canterlot could attend. So, to compensate, it appeared that many people were preparing the city itself as a sort of auxiliary locale for those who couldn't get into the party itself, or to give visitors a taste of the capitol's goods and services. The Gala might inadvertently be a boon for Canterlot's tourism.

"Alright," Sunset said as she removed a note from her saddlebags. "First item on the agenda: catering. I've gotta meet with the caterers to see how meal plans for the evening are coming along." She looked to Halberd. "So, should we tag-team these errands, or divide and conquer?"

Halberd simply stared at her for a moment in silence, eliciting a puzzled look from the mare. He couldn't forget the reason he came along with her. If she got too distracted with these errands, he might never get the chance to ask her. He'd let too many opportunities slip away from him already. It was time to man up and just do it. "Um, actually, Sunset... Before we get started, there's something important I need to ask you."

Sunset tilted her head in curiosity. "What's up?"

Halberd swallowed the nervous lump in his throat. "Will you... accompany me to the Gala tomorrow night?"

Sunset simply raised an eyebrow. "What kind of question is that?"

The pegasus suddenly felt his confidence falter.

She gave him a playful smirk. "You say that like I wasn't planning on going. We're both going to the Gala, right? Who cares who we go there with? I mean, I know you're not going to be on duty or anything, but it's not like you need an escort."

Halberd could only stare at her in dejected bewilderment. There was a time when he might have considered Sunset's obliviousness a cute quirk, a glimmer of childhood innocence. But the more time went on, the more painful it became for him. She likely didn't realize it herself—rather, he knew she didn't realize it—but every time this sort of thing happened, it was like he was getting punched in the heart. It was really starting to look more and more like she just wasn't interested in romance on any level. Maybe it was his own fault for wording it the way he did; his request was too vague, so she'd interpreted it incorrectly. But at this point, he was ready to just give up. Maybe it was about time to accept the fact that he'd been relegated to being "just a friend" a long time ago.

"Right, stupid question..." Halberd murmured dejectedly. "Let's, uh... Divide and conquer, I guess..."

"Okay." Sunset tore her list down the middle, passing one half to Halberd. "We'll get this done quicker so we can help with things back at the castle."

And with that, she hurried off toward a nearby restaurant, leaving Halberd alone with his half of the list and what little was left of his self-esteem.

***** ***** *****

Lance was admittedly getting a little impatient. He couldn't remain still at his post and instead paced back and forth in front of the castle's grand entrance. Luckily Scabbard was stationed elsewhere that day, otherwise the unicorn guard would have likely gotten a bit irritated by his comrade's fidgeting. But Lance couldn't help it; he needed to know how things were going between Halberd and Sunset, and the wait was killing him.

But, thankfully, he'd have to wait no longer. A pair of figures—amber and silver—entered through the unfinished outer gate, and an anxious grin spread across Lance's face. He wanted to run out and meet them halfway, but resisted the urge to abandon his post.

Sunset skipped up the short stairway to the entrance with a chipper smile, ignoring Lance for the most part and heading inside. However, in stark contrast, Halberd sauntered up the steps lethargically, and with a distant, apathetic look in his eyes.

Halberd was about to just walk right by Lance without a second look as Sunset had, but Lance wasn't about to let him go past without finding out what happened between the two of them. The older brother stepped in front of Halberd to cut him off.

"So? How'd it go?" Lance asked impatiently.

Halberd gave his brother a long, listless stare. "She said no..." he answered quietly and dismissively as he brushed past his brother.

Halberd felt a hoof grab him firmly by the shoulder, turning him back around forcefullly. Lance was giving him a rather skeptical and stern glower.

"Like hay she did. You wussed out again, didn't you?"

With an aggravated scowl, Halberd pushed his brother's hoof away. "Lay off," he hissed as he tried to go on his way again, only to be pulled back once more.

Lance prodded an armored hoof against Halberd's chest. "No, I'm not going to 'lay off.' What's wrong with you? You keep coming up with excuses to put it off, and you're only hurting yourself like that."

"Look, it's not my fault that things keep getting in the way, like Luna interrupting us, or turning into Nightmare Moon," Halberd argued defensively.

"Yeah? Well, Luna's not around for you to blame anymore, so what's your excuse this time?" Lance challenged.

Halberd just stared straight into Lance's judgmental eyes with an argumentative glare, though the glimmer of pain was visible behind his defensive attitude. "She's not interested."

"You didn't ask her. I know you didn't," Lance countered.

"I did! I asked her, I swear! I mean, I probably could have made it a little more clear, but anypony with common sense should've been able to tell that I was asking her on a date!"

"So, what, you're saying she's stupid? That's your excuse?"

"No, obviously not! She's oblivious to it, that's all!"

"I refuse to believe that!" Lance argued with another firm prod. "She's just waiting for you to make a move! All you need to do is ask her!"

"Well, you're obviously wrong!" Halberd shouted in his brother's face. "We've been friends since the day we met! If she hasn't noticed by now the way I look at her, the way I care about her—the way I feel about her—then she clearly doesn't feel the same way.

"Then show her how you feel! If she can't see it, do something to make her see it!"

"It's not as simple as that! Anything I could do, she'd just be blind to it! You don't realize just how painful it is for me to try, only to have her ignore me. So, I'm done."

Lance stared at him, vexed by his declaration. "What?"

"I'm done. I'm done chasing after her. Like you said, I'm only hurting myself."

Lance let out a low growl at his brother's defeatist attitude, but kept his tone low. "So you're giving up, just like that? Then why bother coming back here with her? Why not slink back home with your tail between your legs?"

"Because even if she isn't interested in me romantically, she's still my friend. She's not some goal for me to achieve, like you seem to be making her out to be. She's a person."

Lance grit his teeth at the accusation. "Watch it. I care about her, too, you know. I'm just as invested in this whole thing as you are—or at least I thought I was. Obviously you don't care as much as you say you do. I've been behind you the whole way, giving you advice and encouragement, and now you're just gonna quit?"

"I don't even know why I'm taking advice from a guy who can't hold a girlfriend for more than a couple months!"

"Hey! At least I'm not too much of coward to ask a girl out! Thinking about it now, I can't blame Sunset for not being interested in somepony who doesn't know how to express his feelings. Honestly, I don't know how somepony with no conviction managed to become a royal guard in first place."

Halberd let out an insulted snarl and violently shoved Lance back, his hoof clanking loudly against the golden armor. Lance only staggered backward, glaring icily back at his brother. Halberd took a step back, expecting Lance to retaliate, but he didn't budge.

"Don't come to me looking for anymore advice," Lance growled. "Figure it out for yourself. If you're so willing to just give up, then why should I put myself out trying to help you?"

Lance turned his back on Halberd, returning to his post by the door and planting the shaft of his spear forcefully onto the stone step. Halberd sneered at the back of his brother's head before turning his own back on him and heading into the castle to rejoin Sunset.

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer eyed herself up in a standing mirror, analyzing every aspect of her look. She wasn't normally one to put much stock in outward appearances, but for tonight, she was willing to put some effort in. That said, she knew little about making oneself presentable for formal occasions—one of the few things that Princess Celestia knew that she had little interest in—so the princess had recommended some ponies to help her find a style fit for the Grand Galloping Gala.

Three ponies had been sent to Sunset's tower to help her prepare for the evening: a seamstress, a hair stylist, and a makeup artist. The latter of the three had little work to do, both due to Sunset's own natural, youthful beauty, and her client's aversion to makeup in general. The stylist, similarly, believed that Sunset's mane matched her character to a T, but its wild and fiery nature may not match the serene atmosphere of a formal ball. As such, he had simply styled Sunset's mane into a wavy ponytail that spiraled down over her shoulder.

But it was the seamstress that had outdone herself. As expected of the mare that Princess Celestia commissioned for all of her formal wear, the seamstress had put together an exquisite number for Sunset Shimmer. The dress was a flawless white with a silky sheen, and the hem was elaborately designed with identical reds and yellows to Sunset's mane. Sunset didn't exactly have an eye for fashion and never really had the ego to boast about her natural good looks, but as she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she couldn't help but grin at the mare staring back at her.

"Are you satisfied, Lady Sunset?" asked the seamstress for the three ponies.

"Absolutely!" Sunset exclaimed. "I can't wait to get down to the ballroom and show Princess Celestia."

"Run on ahead, darling," the flamboyant stylist insisted with a smile. "We'll clean everything up here."

Sunset gave a nod, but before heading toward the stairs she stopped at her balcony, stepping outside in her new dress.

The night air couldn't have felt more refreshing. Of course, the weather ponies had made sure that the conditions of this evening were perfect at the request of the princess, but it still felt unnaturally calm. What little breeze there was blew through Sunset's ponytail, swaying it gently as she stared out over Canterlot.

Despite the evening hours, the capitol was aglow with light. With the Gala underway, people from all over Equestria had come to enjoy the event, and Canterlot was buzzing with activity as a result. Sunset imagined the atmosphere within the castle would be much more subdued, but a part of her also wanted to check out what was happening in town. But that could wait until later.

If there was one thing that seemed out of place on this otherwise perfect evening, it was the moon. Sunset's smile faded briefly when she looked up at it. Given the intention behind the Gala, it seemed counter-intuitive to have the silhouette of Nightmare Moon staring down upon them all night. Princess Celestia had considered leaving it obscured behind the horizon for the night, but opted against it as she believed doing so would be disrespectful to her sister. Nevertheless, the light that it cast over Equestria was just as soft and calming as it always was.

Having lollygagged long enough, Sunset hurried back inside and down the stairs of her tower. While she was eager to show off her new look to the princess, she wanted to stop by her father's room first so they could arrive at the Gala together. A quick trek to the staff wing of the castle and Sunset found her father's room, knocking on the door, but not waiting for a response before entering.

"Dad? You ready yet?"

"Just about, dear."

"Then let's get going. I don't want to wait any—" Sunset cut herself off suddenly once she laid eyes on her father—or rather, what he was wearing.

Starswirl was wearing a cloak in two shades of blue, decorated with many golden stars and crescent moons. He also wore a matching pointed hat with a similar design, the front of the round brim upturned by his horn. But perhaps most offensively were the many, many golden bells affixed to the outfit. The hem of the cloak was lined with them, and so was the top of the hat's brim; more still hung down from the brim, swaying whenever he moved his head. There was even a larger bell hanging from the point of the hat that caused it to sag slightly. Starswirl turned to face his daughter with a proud grin behind his curly beard, the bells on his outfit jingling as he moved.

Sunset could only stare, flabbergasted, mortified, and only a little amused by the sight in front of her. "What... are you wearing?" she asked, her lips fighting between laughter and horror.

"Do you like it? I had it custom made," he stated proudly with a hoof to his breast.

"You look like you're about to go on a quest to fight the dark lord of all evil," Sunset mocked with a smirk.

Starswirl took umbrage with the childish comparison, turning his nose up at the insult. "I'll have you know that many great scholars in Equestrian history wore very similar ensembles. I'm simply following tradition."

"So, what, you're some 'great, royal sorcerer' now or something? You got a fancy name picked out yet, like... 'Starswirl the Bearded'?" Sunset laughed openly.

Starswirl stroked his prized facial hair thoughtfully. "You mock me, but I think I quite like the sound of that."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Could you at least lose the bells? People might think somepony brought their cat to the Gala."

"I'll consider it," he answered dismissively. He then took the time to look over her own attire for the evening, a soft, prideful smile showing through his beard. "But I must say, Sunset, you look positively stunning tonight. I suspect you'll be turning quite a few heads, and not just because you're the princess's student."

Sunset blushed bashfully, but couldn't keep the grin off her face. "Thanks, Dad. The people Princess Celestia hired to fix me up really knew what they were doing."

"I would think so. Only the very best for the princess, and by extension, you."

"Well, anyway, I was going to wait for you so we could get there together, but I'm, uh... gonna go on ahead," she informed him with a stifled snort. "I'm not sure I wanna be associated with you tonight. But don't worry, I'll let you know if I meet a warrior, a rogue, and a cleric to join your merry band of adventurers."

Starswirl grimaced slightly as he listened to his daughter laughing the whole way down the hall, but he didn't let it get to him.

As entertaining as that was, Sunset quickly put her father's questionable fashion sense to the side. She was much too eager to arrive at the Gala proper and join Princess Celestia. She first headed for the castle's entrance, as guests were not being guided through the front doors. The ballroom was located on the side of the castle overlooking Canterlot Valley, so soldiers were directing attendees around the outside of the castle to a side entrance than lead straight into the ballroom. And sure enough, when Sunset stepped outside, there was already a line of elegantly dressed mares and stallions making their way there. Sunset followed suit, though her pace was notably faster on account of her enthusiasm, earning her a few odd looks from the visiting ponies as she zigged and zagged her way through the crowd.

At the side door to the ballroom, Scabbard was assessing each guest as they entered. As was discussed during the Gala planning meetings, all guests who would be permitted into the castle had undergone brief checks and approvals and had their names written down, a list that Scabbard was checking with each visitor that approached. Of course, he had no need to check the list when an exuberant, amber unicorn trotted up to him.

Scabbard gave Sunset a polite smile. "Good evening, Sunset. You're looking lovely tonight, if I may say."

"Why, thank you, kind sir," Sunset responded in a voice of mock sophistication, holding her nose up excessively high.

He gestured for her to head inside and she did just that.

Despite the sheer number of people in the ballroom and still yet to arrive, the space was more than accommodating. The ballroom was practically as big as the throne room, but gave off more of an air of elegance as opposed to grandeur. A statue of a mare sat at one end of the room opposite the door in front of a set of large, curved windows that gave a clear and breathtaking view of Canterlot Valley below. To the right of the entrance was a fancy, carpeted stairway that split at the wall, leading off to two separate doors. The left wall was almost entirely comprised of glass, with multiple sets of doors that lead outside. These doors were kept open as there were guests going in and out to enjoy the night atmosphere in the gardens. A stage had been set up in one of the corners of the ballroom, and a four-pony ensemble of a cellist, pianist, tuba player, and a harpist were providing sophisticated ambiance for the Gala goers.

Finally, there were many small tables placed about the room, though not in the way; places for people to sit and chat or enjoy the food on offer, of which there was much. Most of the catering consisted of hors d'oeuvres and dessert pastries, with royal servers making the rounds with silver platters to offer morsels to the conversing guests. But for anypony who wanted to prepare a plate of their own, a long table with an assortment of delectable, bite-sized snacks was available, even featuring a chocolate fondue fountain.

Sunset was grinning ear to ear as she looked around the ballroom. As much as she insisted that she wasn't a particularly fancy or sophisticated individual, she couldn't help but feel comfortable at the event. A few guests even stared at her from a respectful distance as they talked; no doubt word had spread of Princess Celestia's protégé, and it seemed some people were recognizing her based solely on word of mouth. But she paid it no mind. When it came right down to it, the guests didn't matter to Sunset. This night was about Celestia and the kingdom as a whole, and was Sunset's opportunity to properly patch things up with her mentor. And speaking of whom, Sunset noted that the princess was not present as of yet. However, she did spot one familiar face amongst the crowd: a silver pegasus who looked like he was trying to blend into the marble walls.

"Hal! Over here!" Sunset called out, waving her hoof and earning a few raised eyebrows from the guests.

Halberd perked up immediately at the sound of Sunset's voice, making his way over to her and carefully avoiding bumping shoulders with any of the other guests. "Thank goodness you're finally here," he said with an embarrassed grin. "You have no idea how out of place I feel right now."

Sunset looked over the suit he was wearing. It wasn't anything elaborate—just a run-of-the-mill, black suit. "How come you didn't wear your armor? I thought soldiers usually dress in uniform for formal occasions." She glanced around at all the other soldiers present, stationed in various locations around the ballroom and keeping a vigilant—but not unwelcoming—eye on the guests.

"I'm not on duty, so I didn't see the point," Halberd answered. "Besides, in my condition, if something were to happen, I wouldn't be able to do much, so I don't want to mislead anypony here."

Sunset shrugged. "That's fine. You look pretty spiffy in that suit anyway."

Halberd blushed at the compliment. "Uh, thanks." He then found his own eyes wandering over Sunset's attire—perhaps lingering a bit too long. "And you look... radiant tonight, too."

"Thanks. You can thank Princess Celestia for that. She arranged all this," she said, bouncing her curly ponytail with a hoof. "If I had had to prepare myself for this, I'd probably end up looking like a clown."

"Well, you'd be the most beautiful clown here." Halberd suddenly froze when he said that, not realizing what he was saying before it came out of his mouth. He needed to remember that he had given up on vying for her affection. She was a friend, and nothing more. But despite his genuine compliment, Sunset let out a snort in amusement.

"Yeah, I guess by default I would be," she laughed.

Halberd forced an awkward smile, but let out a sigh. As oblivious as ever...

Sunset's ears suddenly perked up. She could have sworn she'd just heard the sound of bells jingling, and rolled her eyes with a groan. Sure enough, when she turned around she spotted a pointed hat sticking up above the crowd, the golden bell hanging off its tip swaying back and forth as it made its way over to her and Halberd.

"Good evening, Halberd," Starswirl greeted the pegasus with a chipper grin, oblivious to the looks he was getting from the guests.

Halberd, too, was a bit caught off guard by Starswirl's getup. "Uh, you, too, Mr. Sta—er, Starswirl."

"Dad, I thought you said you were gonna take off the bells," Sunset reprimanded him under her breath.

"I said I'd 'consider it.' And I did remove some of them."

Sunset noted that the only ones he'd removed were the ones that had been hanging underneath the brim of his hat. "That's not what I—you know what? Forget it."

Starswirl glanced around, looking for something. "Has the princess not arrived yet?"

"Scabbard said she'd make her entrance when all the guests had arrived," Halberd told him.

The bearded unicorn glanced back at the entrance. Scabbard appeared to have just let the final guest in, as the line of ponies had finally stopped flowing into the ballroom. "Then I suspect she'll be showing up any minute."

As if on cue, one of the doorways at the top of the stairs opened and a hush fell over the room. A pair of stallions—Quill, in a snappy tuxedo, and Lance in his golden armor—entered the ballroom. While Lance remained at the door, Quill stepped down to where the branching stairs met, overlooking the room with a barely-contained, ecstatic smile. The mustachioed stallion straightened himself up and cleared his throat.

"Presenting Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia!"

Quill gestured to the door as the princess made her entrance. Celestia looked out over the crowd with a motherly smile as she slowly descended the stairs to where Quill stood, her wings spread majestically and her flowing, purple and gold dress carrying elegantly behind her. While she wore most of her usual regalia—primarily her golden, metal slippers and, of course, her iconic, royal tiara—her golden chest piece was absent. Her mane and tail were untouched, however, but it wasn't likely anypony would complain; they were radiant enough without having to be styled. The crowd of ponies all bowed in unison in the princess's presence.

"Fillies and gentlecolts, esteemed guests," Celestia started, her voice soothing and comforting, yet reverberated with authority throughout the ballroom, "it is my honor to welcome you all to the Grand Galloping Gala. Tonight is to be a celebration of this new castle, and a testament to our hardiness as a people to persevere in the face of adversity and strife."

As Celestia gave her speech, Sunset couldn't help but notice that Quill was discreetly mouthing every word along with her. It looked like somepony had written her speech for her.

"With that in mind," the princess continued, "please enjoy the Gala to your hearts' content. Thank you."

With that, the guests gave their ruler a modest applause and went back to their mingling.

"Brief, but effective," Halberd commented with a small grin.

"Everypony came here to have a good time. I like listening to Princess Celestia's speeches, but even I think she can get a bit long winded sometimes," Sunset said with a joking giggle. "Right, Dad?" She turned to her father, but Starswirl wasn't paying attention. He seemed to be staring in the direction of the doors leading out to the gardens, a look of disbelief on his face. "Dad?"

"Oh, er, yes, of course, sweetheart," he responded absentmindedly. "Er, if you'll excuse me..." And that was all he said before disappearing into the crowd.

Sunset raised an eyebrow at her father's peculiar behavior, but a voice kept her from chasing after him for answers.

"I see Cross-Stitch did a wonderful job with your dress, Sunset," said Princess Celestia as she made her way down the steps toward her student and Halberd, Quill and Lance following behind her.

"More than 'wonderful,' it's awesome!" Sunset beamed. "Your dress looks amazing, too, Princess. Oh, and you're looking mighty handsome in that tux, Quill."

Quill adjusted his bow tie proudly. "I try," he stated with mock modesty, too satisfied with how the Gala was turning out to not have a smile on his face.

"So, how are you feeling about tonight, Princess?" Sunset inquired.

"Well, it's hard to say just yet—the night has only just begun. But I have a feeling that, while it may be exhausting by the end, it will wind up being a lot of fun."

As Sunset and Celestia continued their conversation, Halberd and Lance shared a brief glance, but neither of them said a word. Lance had been appointed head of security at the Gala, but was also acting as the princess's personal bodyguard for the night. That being the case, Halberd was going to try and keep clear of Celestia if he could help it. Lance gave his little brother a discreet, judgmental sneer, then looked up at the princess, interrupting her chat with Sunset.

"Your Highness, you said you wanted to mingle and speak to your guests?"

Celestia turned her attention away from her student reluctantly. "Oh, yes, I suppose I should remember why we're doing this." She gave Sunset an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Sunset, I promise I'll make time for us by the end of the night."

Sunset waved her apology off with an understanding grin. "Don't worry about it, we got all night. Keeping all these people happy is your job."

"Indeed. A burden that weighs heavily on one's shoulders after a time," Celestia responded with a sigh, already exhausted by the pure notion of having to converse with all of these ponies in such a relatively short time span. "But, a princess must do what she needs to for the good of her kingdom. Come along, Lance."

Her guard nodded, gave Halberd one more slight scowl, then followed the princess.

"What was that?"

Halberd looked at Sunset. "What?"

"That was a pretty sour look your brother just gave you," she pointed out.

The pegasus grimaced. That she notices? "Uh, yeah, we kinda... had a fight yesterday."

Sunset glanced at Lance across the room, then back to Halberd, as though they were two pieces to a puzzle and she couldn't fit them together. "You two? Fighting? Really? I have a hard time believing that."

"I remember thinking something similar about you and Princess Celestia not long ago," Halberd reminded her.

"Fair enough. What are you two arguing about anyway? Maybe I can help."

Halberd felt his chest tighten a little. As much as he wanted to get over her, he was finding it to be a monumental endeavor. But he had to push through the pain. "No, that's okay. We'll get over it eventually. It's not really something you need to get involved with anyway."

"You sure?"

Halberd nodded.

Sunset paused for a moment, but shrugged. "Alright, if you say so." She looked around, seeing if she could spot her father anywhere, but even his goofy hat was nowhere to be seen. "I'm gonna go see where Dad went. Catch up with you in a bit, okay, Hal?"


Sunset began to weave her way through the crowd. She knew she saw her father headed for the gardens, so that's where she decided to start her search, snatching up a few snacks from the servers along the way and stuffing them into her mouth. She eventually managed to squeeze her way outside where the population of ponies was considerably less dense.

The gardens were illuminated by firefly lanterns hanging from the hedges and trees, and the stone patio leading inside was connected to a wooden platform that extended out onto the grass so the guests' dresses and suits didn't brush with the grass and get stained. More tables with food and drinks were set outside as well, so people had little need to maneuver back and forth into the castle if they were feeling peckish, unless they wanted to see the princess, which may have been a contributing factor to the smaller number of people outside. Even still, it was difficult to walk around without brushing alongside somepony, or outright bumping into them.

Sunset craned her neck up to get a better view of the area. Sure enough, the golden bell hanging off her father's hat shimmered in the light of the fireflies—perhaps the only good thing about his attire: he was easy to find. Sunset squeezed her way further into the crowd to go meet up with him, but paused once she got a clearer view of him.

He wasn't alone. Starswirl was talking to somepony. Despite the dim lighting in the garden, Sunset could make them out fairly clearly, and could tell that it was somepony she didn't recognize. It was a mare. A tall, slender unicorn mare with a deep crimson coat. Even from this distance, in this lighting, Sunset could tell she was beautiful—perhaps the most attractive mare at the Gala, save for Princess Celestia, of course. Her mane, colored a flawless gold with pale pink streaks, was long and flowing, practically reaching down to her fetlocks, and shone in even the faint light as though the strands were made of actual gold. And it was clear that she was deliberately showing off her alluring figure; the form-fitting, purple dress she wore hugged all of her curves tightly, and the slit down one side showed off her cutie mark well: a blooming, pink rose with noticeable thorns on its coiled stem.

Sunset stared at this stranger from a distance, wondering why her father was talking to her. She deduced that he couldn't have been flirting with her; while she had a pleasant smile on her face, Starswirl looked rather disgruntled and uncomfortable.

Starswirl happened to glance in Sunset's direction, finally noticing that she was standing there. He looked back at the beautiful mare again briefly, seemingly excusing himself from their conversation as he began making his way over to his daughter. For just a brief moment, Sunset's eyes locked with the mare, and she flashed Sunset a smile before wandering away. The amber mare wasn't sure what to think.

Starswirl walked up to his daughter with a look of deep apprehension on his face.

"Hey, Dad. Uh... Who was that woman you were talking to? Do you know her?" Sunset asked.

He hesitated, almost unable to look his own daughter in the eye. With a reluctant sigh, he answered her question. "More than I care to admit."

Sunset blinked, a feeling of unease in her stomach.

"Sunset. That... was your mother."