• Published 12th Jan 2020
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Distance Beyond Any Measure - Ice Star



How do you tell a child that she will never be enough?

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Chapter 2: Child of Vision

Philomena clucked contentedly from within the luxurious gilded cage she had in Celestia’s office. The spacy enclosure required a single column much like a tree trunk to house Philomena’s main home. Of all the particular bird cages scattered throughout the castle, this one was by far one of the nicest. The thought of letting Philomena stay anywhere less than comfortable when her phoenix ‘daughter’ was so adamant about keeping her company during the day was horrid. So Princess Celestia made sure to keep a variety of bird toys in the custom cage and in a basket in her office. This enabled her to rotate the various pieces so her 'Mena would never get bored.

Her quill twirled in her cheery magic aura, scratching out the last few letters and loops. Upon finishing, Princess Celestia levitated it out of the way, exchanging it for the next piece she needed to prepare correspondence for. One wax seal bearing the mark of Maretonia was broken and Celestia proceeded to squint at the contents, levitating her scroll close enough to catch the scent of the ink used, as odd as it was.

“’Mena, you won’t believe it! Mama’s letter says that the Duke of Maretonia finally took a bride! And so suddenly! Can you believe it?”

Philomena, not in a particularly chatty mood, offered a loud squawk.

“Goodness me! There is no need to be so harsh, young lady. He had a previous lack of interest, not a lack of manners.” Celestia let the paper lie on the surface of her massive and overcrowded desk, the light of her sun only making her current pile of work that much more glaring. “I’ll have to plan a proper gift for their honeymoon.”

A fussier and much more opinionated series of tweets left Philomena, whose coal-like eyes glowed with sudden alertness.

Celestia gave a tiny frown, tugging at the curl along her cheek in thought. “Yes, he and I did have much to disagree on at his last visit here, but that is no excuse to forgo something so important. I’m afraid that my kindness matters more than how we really feel about something. A show of goodwill to him and his new bride should be enough to persuade him to think more favorably of Equestria.”

Philomena's flaming feathers ruffled with uncertainty in the noonday light, and their tips cast dazzling glows of their own before she folded her wings for rest again.

Princess Celestia shook her head and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. The slightest twitch of agitation flowed throughout her mane once before vanishing. She returned to her work, idly selecting a modest bunch of papers secured with a ribbon. From where she held it, the princess could see rows of cramped writing out of the corner of her already-tired eyes. Thoughts of coffee, tea, and sugar wafted through the edge of her mind, where thoughts were foggiest.

Before she could properly undo the ribbon, something tucked among all those papers slipped out. The glitter leaking from somewhere within did too.

Celestia stared at the envelope blankly, and she felt how her smile had vanished, leaving an entirely lukewarm expression in its place. “Oh my.”

Mi Amore Cadenza had stuck another card in between the stack of papers at some point. For a few weeks, the little surprises found their way into Princess Celestia’s office, which was understandable, since she left the door open for everypony who might need her. Faithful Students never slipped her anything more than plain notes about homework and lessons – and not the kind Mi Amore Cadenza was receiving, a balanced blend of politics, rhetoric, spellwork, current affairs, etiquette, and similar subjects. It made up for the teenager’s failure to pass any magic academy exams to complement the education Princess Celestia so carefully customized for her, and while she found the ‘sweet spot’ where to keep her pink ward’s studies (somewhere above the Blueblood heir’s with more ruling focus but nowhere near as inflexible as the trials and academics of a Faithful Student, thus making Mi Amore an in-between).

However, it didn’t explain the constant stream of cards sandwiched between nearly everything Celestia needed in her day. Or why there was a different color of glitter poured into each envelope. On this particular one, the canary-yellow surface was the backdrop for a vast collage of smiling ladybug stickers. In the one space that hadn’t been bombarded with them was one name written in large, swirling script: Cadance.

The trace of a smile snuck across Princess Celestia’s muzzle and she worked her magic delicately under the envelope to tear it carefully. Nopony ever slipping her these kinds of notes before didn’t mean she didn’t like them. She could read them during her lunches and tea breaks in the castle gardens when she didn’t have company, and get a peek into the mind of the teenager who had been staying with her these past few months. Sometimes, they contained helpful tidbits, like the latest records the young mare wanted to add to her collection or if she was making friends.

Other times, there was no bridge-building to be made from the contents, and Celestia put down each card having nothing more than the rambling writing of a happy youth who had yet to wrangle her own horn-writing… and about whom Princess Celestia was still at a loss when it came to purpose.

Sunset Shimmer was a mare brimming with promise, and entirely unlike her latest ward. A unicorn with magehood certain in their future shortly after they got their cutie mark wasn’t normal, even among other Faithful Students, and for a time, Celestia had made sure Sunset knew this. Pure pyromancy was nothing to be trifled with and worth cultivating, lest it grow naturally - and dangerously. One had better keep a fire in their hearth than letting sparks fly outside, after all.

Sunset’s cutie mark had been a puzzle, if Celestia was to keep that path of thought short. When she had first selected Sunset Shimmer as her Faithful Student, she had thought that the filly might be the one and that her cutie mark had more than what Celestia eyes could see in its meaning. That was the puzzle she had expected, and the very one she had been wrong over. There was no doubt a filly in the castle wishing for her letter to be read.

Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I went out with Raven on her break instead of going for a jog. That doesn’t mean I’m neglecting my essay on the history of Qilinese philosophy, I promise! I just really wanted to see if I could draw Raven out of her shell some more. I see her around the castle so much, and she rarely talks about her life outside of secretary things. It made me wonder if she feels like nopony pays attention to her, kind of how when I was interviewed by The Canterlot Chronicle nopony was asking me about anything but what the insider's scoop on castle life was. There wasn’t even any focus on the best parts or what I enjoyed, only if I was living every filly’s dream.

I know I am living every filly’s dream, but can it be my dream too? Will ponies ever want to know about that? Should I write a book?

Sorry for rambling, Princess. I just thought that maybe Raven would like a friend to know what she really likes to do. We went to Restaurant Row for lunch and it was so big! Is there no end to all the places to eat in Canterlot? We only had a single inn in Wispgrove, and they kicked everypony underage out around dinner, when dry hours ended. I’m sure you already know that, though. Being Princess of all of Equestria means you’ve eaten everywhere, right? I bet you were there when they first built The Bleezin Breezie and had the first stew pie. I let this amazing mom pose her adorable little foals with me for a picture! I never would’ve imagined places as fancy as Restaurant Row would host foal birthday parties. The napkins were folded into amazing shapes: dragons, bugbears, and even a seapony! Could we make those in magic lessons? I don’t know if there’s certain spells for them, I just think they look like fun.

Raven wouldn’t let me pay for lunch. I would have asked her to let me more if she hadn’t gotten all adult-y and upset about proper behavior. She treats me like a princess, you know. I would have gotten something off the soup and salad menu if I knew she wouldn’t let me pay for my own food. I like Raven a lot, if the castle has ears, it’s her. I just wish she would do more than listen to other ponies. I really super-duper hope I didn’t make a scene just because we had a disagreement.

Did you know that Raven decorates her apartment like an office? Not just any office, but one of those tall Manehattan ones from the movies where all you can hear is quill scratches and typewriters clacking. Everything is a rainbow of off-white, which isn’t much of a rainbow at all. She does have a bright pink typewriter and even let me use it! Her kid sister dropped by. Do you know her? Colombe is nice too, with crazy real rainbow colors on her braces and her mane and tail are so white they look like they glow. She has the prettiest pink eyes and we wrote a dumb story on Raven’s typewriter.

I won’t bore you about it, but I wanted to know if I had your permission to go with Colombe to the movies on Friday? She invited me to go see a princess movie with her about a seapony. I know I’m probably too old for those, but I don’t care. She’s such a sweet little filly and I’ve never seen a real movie before. I didn’t know they had ones with moving drawings instead of real ponies. I promise I’ll pay for all the snacks and make sure to walk Colombe home. I don’t mind if some of the guards have to accompany me, I can buy them tickets too. I saved up a lot of bits!

Normally I wouldn’t mind if Sunset came along too. I’m just kind of peeved with her, and it’s not just because she stole my mane straightener from my room. She just isn’t very kind to me. I keep trying to invite her to things with me and talk to her, but I don’t want to be that chummy with her. Why is it so hard to just be polite with her? I wouldn’t ever be rude to your Faithful Student because I know she’s a very important pony and means a lot to you, but she’s nearly slammed a door on my wing before. I wouldn’t have minded if it was just in my face. I get that she’s all vinyl jacket and black eyeshadow now (so you’d think that she would have totally been into some cool music) but it’s almost like she wanted my wing to get caught. Isn’t that beyond bullying?

Now that I have this horn there are so many ponies paying attention to me and telling me how I’m a brave, witch-bashing, amazing filly. I don’t mind it too much, even if ponies acting like Missus Prismia was a rotten meanie (I don’t want to write anything bad!) really ruffles my feathers – she was just hurting! What I don’t like is a bully, even if they’re the kind of bully who lives in a beautiful castle. I was bullied for getting my cutie mark late, for being adopted, and trying to start a band with my friends back home. I don’t want to be bullied after all this. Princess Celestia, if Sunset Shimmer is bullying me, don’t you think she’s probably bullying somepony else too?

Maybe you know something I don’t and I’m not being singled out for anything. It just kinda feels like it. What do I have that Sunset Shimmer doesn’t? I’ve always done my best to be my best to her. Sunset is supposed to be like a cousin, isn’t she? Like Blueblood. He likes me, and so does everypony else. I think. Is it wrong for me to think that ponies don’t hate me because they treat me so well?

Do you want me to talk to Sunset Shimmer instead? I promise I will, if you want me to. We might still be able to be friends one day. Have a good lunch, Princess! Please say ‘hello’ to Philomena for me.

Yours truly,

Cadance

P.S. I would like you to please call me Cadance in the future. I don’t mean to be rude with my request, and if I have to be called Mi Amore Cadenza at formal events that is fine! Everypony calls me Mi Amore Cadenza, in that case. All my friends and family call me Cadance, and ponies that really like me, or just can’t say my full name. Raven likes to call me Princess Cadance, and I’m not sure I can handle being called this endless princess-princess-princess stuff. From her. I’ve been trying to introduce myself to Equestrian ponies as Cadance, and sometimes they listen after just one 'princess'. Cadance is my name as much as Mi Amore Cadenza is, and you haven’t called me anything except my full name since we’ve met. Everypony else in the castle isn’t on a full name basis with you. I know Raven only has one name and Blueblood hates his first name, but that’s different.

The lighter fare of Cadance’s usual letters had not made their way into this latest one. A different name would take some getting used to, but the request would not be ignored. Everything else had eased something sour into Princess Celestia’s mood. At some point, Philomena had flown from her cage and left the room. This left Celestia alone with Cadance’s words.

Letting out a weary sigh, Celestia set the letter on the desk and she let her magic aura die away. Sunset would be getting a talking-to later, that was certain. Nothing could excuse such blatant cruelty to another one of her peers.

A brief, pale stream of gold aura reached out and shut the door. Pulling open a drawer with her forehoof, Princess Celestia deposited a key onto the table, levitated it to the proper spot, and neatly locked her door. Some who wielded magic more prominently as a full extension of themselves and like another sense entirely would often master the ability to lock a door without a key. This required a finesse Celestia neither had and had long since given up any chance of trying to build. Sunset Shimmer had the infuriating habit quite similar to the impressive manipulations: often, she would seize the inner mechanics of the door to her chambers and wrench the door shut. She would then hold the lock in the oversaturated grip of her magical energy, leaving Celestia forcing down frustration at such opposition.

Without any chance of interruption, Celestia buried her face in her forehooves. Chilly gold spread its freezing sensation across her tired face. Celestia only let it sink in as she rubbed at her temples with sluggish strokes. Her whole body was a testament to the fatigue that went concealed throughout the endless hours, unseen and unsaid to everypony. Even her mane and tail rippled with limper motions, their sparkle lessening as there was a sudden sag to them.

Sunset’s many attempts at rebelliousness could be put off. The latest in a long line of Faithful Students she may be, but at the end of the day, Sunset Shimmer was a unicorn filly approaching adolescence and going through her share of harsh words and nastiness. Cadance, as the teen wished to be called, was no such thing. Goodness, the latter was in the very dusk of youth, no less! Marehood was only a blink away, and the mellowness of the much more compliant ward was a stark sign of maturity.

Prophecies were a cruel thing, and at the core of this were the tangled roots of one. Celestia did not hate destiny because she felt it was something that governed little in her life, rather the opposite. If anything, it didn’t govern enough. Too much was left to its own devices and there was a greater crushing malaise to be presented when examined as a ‘big picture’.

‘On the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars shall aid in her escape…’

Even if she was initially stubborn about the matter, she never needed to ask who ‘she’ was. Some time ago, her objective presented itself dully: find an answer even when that felt more like making one. Omens were an awful science, as they were often called. However, Princess Celestia preferred to think of them as detached, alien cruelty she needn’t fear with her every breath if such an integrating truth like science or magic were not bestowed to them. There was relief in knowing that they were already a rare thing, to be given out only when Harmony had something called hope to offer her.

Only, those were the times when it couldn’t be any crueler; hope itself was a painful thing to keep (if kept) and was merely held just above her like a starved cur was taunted with meat. Celestia couldn't remember a time in her life when she had trusted it.

Everything about a prophecy could be picked down to a few points. If somepony didn’t know better and had yet to be wrapped up in the cruelty of one, they might feel relief. No sense of purpose was ever meant to be a cruel thing… and yet, Celestia was hard-pressed to recall when purpose and helplessness were identical in her life. She believed in the reality of hard destiny, and riddles were a nuisance to that.

And so it was that the moon was the lock, to which there was a key. Why, the key was even color-coded for her convenience. All that she must do was find it as if the needed Spark could be demeaned to that as a name.

One magenta spark, six-pointed, unseen and entirely unknown to any eyes but hers for nearly a thousand years.

Once, she had almost a thousand years to find her key. Now those years were running out, and it had every bit to do with how much doubt Celestia had cast upon the prophecy for much of the time she knew it. Yes, she had doubted a prophecy of all things, and in hindsight, she was painfully aware of how costly and foolish it had been of her, for prophecies were not just few and far between, but to doubt them so severely was like doubting that fish couldn't drown. Could anypony blame her for the desperation that would lurk in her at the thought of this, knowing it was her one chance?

First, she had gone with selection. Her school was a fine filter, and then her method was to select the best few as wards, making the first Faithful Students. As a teacher, that was the garden she grew, and each generation brought greater refinement and involvement. Grades alone would not make the cut, there were tests established to remedy this.

Within a few generations of Sunset Shimmer, there was more to take into account. A particular affinity for names and their sacredness had arisen in Celestia. Anything that spoke out with the energy of a pupil determined to keep their hoof raised and waving for a question that ’I am the key, please pick me!’ would soon be very high on her list.

Sunset Shimmer was too perfect of a name to find on the roster for her school. There was always something endearing about a foal with a new cutie mark to sweep under her wing and grow in her own tutelage, leaving Celestia to muse on whether her shadow simply shrank or if the Faithful just grew up somewhere in the middle of the distance between teacher and student.

Eight pointed suns were almost six-pointed sparks, that is until she tried swapping ‘almost’ with close enough in an effort of consolation. Marks weren’t all that made a pony! Sunset Shimmer was very good at showing that – and not in the ways Celestia needed so badly. Nor had Celestia ever had two very magical youths under her care; all her past Faithful Students had been talented, but Sunset was powerful and Cadance was special beyond any of her past pupils.

Celestia liked Cadance so very much. She was a sweet, loving filly who made friends with everypony so easily. She cared about ponies, but not in any kind of way that was, erm, Sparky, if such a description could be offered. Cadance hadn’t a mind for magical arts. Oh, she was rare and talented but not enough. Princess Celestia couldn’t even offer herself a total picture of what her much-needed final Faithful Student would be like in their entirety, and the more she tried to explain their nature to herself, she always ended up more lost than when she started. She only knew what their hero-errand would be and the sign to know them by.

It wasn’t enough.

Cadance’s cutie mark was a gosh-darned crystal heart that Celestia could only think to compare to the jewel off the grandest wedding ring. What else could it be? Not anything close to her needed Spark, that was certain. The filly aside, Cadance was a pained bunch of sour grapes that Celestia couldn't understand the cruelty behind. A filly with promise above promise, accomplishing a ghost of what would be needed of her, and unique magic to awe Celestia. The depth and power of it were as marvelous as the originality of the talent, and still, if it had just been…

Had Cadance’s cutie mark only been…

What would it have been? If there had been anything different about the mark or Cadance herself?

Her remarkable, self-made metamorphosis was closer than Celestia had ever gotten with any of her Faithful Students. The only account she had to offer any insight into the transformation came from the mouth of a filly permanently wonderstruck by events, providing nothing to Celestia that she could ever attempt to replicate or understand.

She was only left with the curdled hope of what might have been a miracle filly.

And Celestia did find herself growing fonder of Cadance the longer she had her, different than studenthood. Cadance was bright and full of smiles. There was something left in her that was still eager to please – and that had left Sunset Shimmer long ago. The silly shenanigans that Cadance could pull her into carried echoes of youth that Celestia knew her young ward never intended. Romantic notions, easygoing antics, and getting to dip her hooves into a shadow of what a normal teenage fillyhood would have been like (albeit from a different perspective) boosted Celestia’s spirits in ways she couldn’t say to a young heart (even if she knew how).

Every bit of it came from a filly who still could do nothing to measure up to matters of stars and omens, and who didn't know that Celestia was still at a loss for what they might be to one another.

How do you tell a child that she will never be enough?

You don't.

Especially when it's true.