• Published 12th Jan 2021
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In Night's Garden - Sledge115

A gardener’s duty is to nurture and let their flowers bloom. Princess Luna learned that a long time ago, for Equestria is the largest garden of all.

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I ~ Mistmane




Princess Luna hated astronomy.

No, perhaps that was too harsh a word. It wasn’t an incendiary feeling. Luna liked it at first, watching the stars dance in the night sky, accompanying the Moon she now raised every night. Indeed, who wouldn’t want to spend their nights up stargazing, marvelling at the beauty of the field of stars?

Unfortunately, with time’s passage, it stopped being her pastime, and turned into her chore. Starswirl had turned her stargazing from watching and enjoying the stars’ company, to numbers and words, endless scrolls for her eyes to labour over. And fourteen was far too young an age to look at the world with eyes as old as Starswirl’s.

Now, as she galloped through the marble halls of Canterlot Palace – castle, really, but the Founders had agreed that ‘Palace’ had a grander aura to it – the sound of her hooves echoing throughout the halls, Princess Luna wished for nothing more but to be free of her teacher and her burden. Starswirl must already be wondering where she’d pranced off to, considering she’d abandoned their studies the very moment his back was turned.

Luna’s only regret was that she wouldn’t get to see the look on Starswirl’s face once he spotted her abandoned regalia, and the wide-open door. A crown and peytral could become so heavy to bear, after a time...

Tia can handle him,’ Luna thought, stifling a giggle. She flicked her mane, her black bow now worn proudly on it. ‘No one would miss me…

She had found several refuges here from Starswirl’s all-seeing eyes. The palace gardens were one of them. Experienced as Starswirl was in traversing Canterlot Palace, Luna hadn’t seen him venture into the gardens very often, so absorbed was he in evenings spent with his scrolls and magical experiments, when he wasn’t chasing wild princesses such as she. Granted, Luna hadn’t visited them either, in the few months since they’d all moved here. But that just made it likelier to be the last place he’d look into. He was getting wise to her other hideouts.

Speaking of, as she heard Starswirl’s furious shouts echoing a good three rooms behind her, Luna stopped dead, eyes darting left and right, before she dashed towards the nearest exit with nary a feather left behind.

Outside, as she descended a staircase at a rapid trot, the castle’s marble pillars and hanging tapestries gave way to a view of hanging leaves and potted flowers. The smell of freshly cut grass met her nose, overcoming the perfumes and scented powders which otherwise appeared to follow her everywhere she went. Staring at the churned-up gravel-path beneath her hooves, Luna shook her head. This was no time to faff around. She needed to hide. Who knew exactly what devious spells Starswirl could conjure to find her. Not that she would know – Tia was the one always paying attention. So Princess Luna spread her wings, taking off with a gust of wind into the nearest willow.

Perhaps she ought to have practiced her flight, Luna thought right at the moment she tumbled into the brambles. She stifled a gasp as she settled into an awkward, head-over-hooves position. But not a horn or wing exposed, and not a moment too soon, as she heard the sound of hooves pounding on gravel and muffled shouts pass her by. One, two, three different sets of hooves swept past the brambles. One pair must have belonged to Tia, if the chiming sound of ornate horseshoes was anything to go by.

Awkward and cramped though she felt, Luna had to stifle a strong giggle coming up. Somehow, Starswirl must have awoken Tia from her slumber, which few ponies would dare to do, especially this late in the evening, when she’d exhausted herself in lowering the Sun. Even their mentor might have warranted a burning pillow thrown his way.

Laughing freely at the thought, Luna tumbled out of the brambles, landing on her back against the grass. She didn’t mind, too caught up was she in her helpless giggling. She ruffled her wings, feeling the evening Spring breeze mingle with the touch of grass. All was right for her, before her laughter subsided, and her eyes settled upon the twinkling stars.

She groaned, feeling a surge of meaningless names pass her mind, stories that had faded into the recesses of her dreams. She’d gone through dozens of names in the last week alone, and still had plenty to go through in her scrolls. They weren’t going away, anytime soon. And when Starswirl ended up catching her, which he would, he’d be very cross, disappointed even.

Fine,’ Luna thought, after a moment’s pause. Or a few moments’ worth of pause, really. ‘You win, conscience.

It was only when Luna stood up, ruffling her wings to shake off any leaves stuck within, that she heard someone speak aloud.

“Good evening, Princess.”


Luna scrambled to her hooves, her horn aglow, illuminating her visitor in a dim blue light.

The unicorn mare stood tall, shrouded in a blue-green travelling cloak and hood, fixed to her frame by a flower-shaped brooch. Pale cyan eyes, patient and warm like the setting Sun, met Luna’s. Her face was weathered and wrinkled with age, her pale, grayish-pink coat just visible under the light that penetrated her hood..

She spoke, offering a white-tipped forehoof.

“I’m sorry, have I startled you?” It was a wizened voice with which she spoke, but soft as the rustling of Autumn leaves. Protruding from beneath the hood, the horn she bore was not merely longer, but sharper than any Luna had seen before, curving subtly into a crescent-shaped tip.

Luna nodded, accepting the proffered forehoof, and dusted herself off.

“Y-yes, ahem,” she said. She looked at the unicorn, deliberating not to call the guards, after all. She adjusted her bow. “I… did not expect to see anyone here. How did you get in here?”

“I have my ways,” said the unicorn. “Few ever visit these gardens, you know.”

The unicorn looked around. Her hoof brushed delicately against the grass, and she inhaled the night air, humming. When she turned back to Luna, she was smiling.

“My, how you’ve grown, Little Moon,” the unicorn said brightly. “How long has it been, since we’ve last met?”

Luna’s eyes widened. The unicorn’s smile grew soft, a twinkle in her eyes. And it all came to Luna then, how a stranger had come to their first dwelling outside the Northern Land of Adlaborn, begging that they listen to the pleas of the various denizens of the forest, large and small, for the two sisters’ planned castle had come between them and their own homes…

“... It’s you, isn’t it? You were there… you taught me what a castle should be like.”

“Indeed, and I’m certain the forest dwellers would remember that,” agreed the unicorn, nodding. “And you were such a grouchy little mare.”

“Was not!” Luna rebuked, then reconsidered. “Well, I didn’t know the animals’ tongue… and I’ve grown a lot, just like you said!”

“Oh, very well. It was… Hm, two, three Winters ago?”

“Three Winters, yes, we’ve raised Canterlot in that time,” answered Luna, with a dismissive little wave of her wing. “What took you so long? I’ve waited for you to come back, but you never did! It takes time to move, you know, and the least you could’ve done was to visit once in a while…”

Indignant as Luna was, tapping her forehoof on the grass impatiently, the unicorn merely laughed in return.

“Well, I am here now, aren’t I?” she said. “And often have I come here. A gardener must tend to their flora.”

She waved a forehoof, as if presenting all of the garden before them.

“I’ve been away for some time,” said the unicorn. Her horn glowed a very light, subtle grey, and by her side Luna saw a watering can and a pair of shears enveloped within her aura. She gave a curt nod. “Well. I shall be off, Princess.”

Luna looked back at the arched gateway she’d entered from, then back at the unicorn.

“W-wait, wait! May I come with you, then?” said Luna, affecting tiredness. “It’s been such a tiring evening already, and I haven’t got much sleep all day.”

“Why, wouldn’t you rather sleep instead?”

“Not that tired…” added Luna hurriedly. “Please? I shan’t be a burden, promise.”

“Of course, of course,” said the unicorn. “Come along, then.”

She turned to leave. But one last question was at the tip of Luna’s tongue, even as she steeled herself to follow.

“Wait,” said Luna. “I never caught your name.”

The unicorn paused in her steps, for but a moment. “I’m Mistmane, dear Luna. My name is Mistmane.”

* * * * *

Mistmane had little to say as they ventured further in the gardens.

Few words were needed, in these tranquil parts, the two of them treading past the undisturbed, trimly-kept lawns, the swaying trees, and the untouched flowers. Few visited these gardens – Starswirl had insisted upon it, grouchy caretaker that he was. Luna hadn’t minded that. It wasn’t her business to meddle with the garden, so she’d let it be. On they walked, side by side, down the cobbled path. The evening breeze brushed past them, its cool embrace prompting a shudder from Luna and another ruffle of her wings. But when she glanced at Mistmane, there was no sign of hesitation. Only her head held up high, with a confident stride despite her wizened old posture.

So Luna found it in herself to hold up her head, and proudly, if only to match the elderly unicorn. Though not without a scrunch of her muzzle, as another breeze tickled her.

“Careful now,” said Mistmane, without tearing her gaze away from the gravel-path. “A sneeze here wouldn’t be pleasant, with all the pollen about.”

“Huh, I think they’re why my nose feels all stuffed and funny,” retorted a grumbling Luna, followed by a sigh. “Don’t laugh, I can hear your smile.”

Mistmane glanced at her, said smile mischievous.

“Hm, but from what I see, you seem to be doing well enough.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “If you can call nighttime headaches or funny dreams ‘well enough’... But Starswirl said I’m meant to have them, and that makes it alright, I suppose.”

Perhaps something in her voice must have caught Mistmane’s attention, for she felt a gentle pat on the shoulder right after.

“Well, Starswirl can be demanding,” said Mistmane, her smile softening. She lifted her forehoof, brushing a column of vines aside to allow passage. “Fret not. We’ve arrived.”

Luna’s eyes followed Mistmane’s forehoof to the grove before them, lanterns dangling from below the willow-trees lighting one by one, shining their golden light.

Throughout their walk, they had passed hedgerows, rosebushes and other such flora common to the tastes of the unicorn gentry. But there were none such here, in this hidden grove. Strange, colourful flowers of every shade hung in pots from branches of small cherry-trees, sketches of which Luna only ever saw in Starswirl’s books, hailing from faraway lands to the South. Vines weaved in and around the hedges, mingling with the leaves. Even the ground was different here, for the grass ever-present in the gardens outside were replaced with moss in this grove, topping the soil and jutting rocks. A gentle stream to the far end completed the image, splitting the garden in half, its source a little fountain within a tall brick wall that marked the garden’s edge.

Luna took a deep breath. By the stars, such a scent. So enticing, alluring. From the entrancing flowers in the pots above her, to the pleasant, earthy odor of the mossy ground, all embraced her as if she’d always belonged...

Where had it been all her life?

“Over here!” cried out Mistmane, a change from her previous soft-spoken tones. Luna realised that she’d paused in mid-step. Mistmane was a good distance away already.

Beside Mistmane lay a patch where the soil was freshly dug and tilled. It was flanked with bamboo shoots, all of which looked freshly cut.

Luna tilted her head upon sighting it. “There’s nothing here,” she said plainly.

“The bamboo has been planted,” Mistmane remarked calmly. “So, not quite nothing. But indeed, this side is not yet finished, dear.”

She set her saddlebags down gently, by the bamboo. Her horn lit up with a light grey aura, leading colourful bulbs and bags of seeds out of the bag in a tidy line. The bulbs had more petals to them than any flower Luna had ever seen before, arranged in a crown around the centre. They danced towards where Mistmane guided them, falling inert where they were needed.

Mistmane’s eyes met Luna’s. Her lips curled into a smile.

“A little piece of home,” said Mistmane. “My home, Princess. They are chrysanthema, the chrysanthemum flower of the Eastern Unicorns, Neighpon’s imperial symbol.”


“A mouthful, yes,” Mistmane acknowledged. “Some call them ‘chrysanths‘, or ‘mums’. But to my people, they are ‘kiku’.”

“Huh,” Luna said again. She breathed in a whiff. The bulbs’ peculiar, herbal scent was quite unlike that of the rose-perfume worn by the gentry, whenever they came to visit the castle. “They do look beautiful.”

“They are, but they’re not solely why I am here,” said Mistmane. She pointed towards the bamboo shoots. “These bamboo too hail from my homeland. And they bloom once every hundred years. I believe the time has come for this grove.”

“Once every a hundred years…” Luna echoed. “That’s quite a long time. Even Starswirl can’t be that old.”

“Or perhaps he is,” said Mistmane, giving Luna a wink from beneath the hood. “You never know… I do wonder how long he’s had that beard for.”

Luna giggled. What a strange thought, Starswirl without his beard!

“Oh, then you must have waited for so long, Lady Mistmane,” said Luna. She tapped her chin, pondering briefly. “Hmm, you said you haven’t seen anyone here.”

“I have not,” said Mistmane. She shook her head. “It can be so very quiet here. But I do not mind. One tends to grow used to it, after a time.”

The unicorn’s voice trailed off, her gaze drifting towards the chrysanthemum bulbs. She was partially shadowed, beneath the warm lantern light. But there was no mistaking that longing look in her elderly eyes, a gaze that spoke of lonely Winters by the fireplace.

An idea came to Luna. “But… you don’t have to do it alone,” she said. “I’ve got time to spare, Lady Mistmane. I want to see the bamboo bloom, with you! Surely, such an occasion shouldn’t be enjoyed by your lonesome.”

“Well, that is a most tempting offer,” answered Mistmane, turning her gaze back to her. “But, what about your studies?”

Fate had a cruel sense of humour, as just before Luna could answer, another voice chimed in from behind her. An elderly, sharp voice that she’d rather not be hearing now, of all times.

“Your Highness, there you are!” exclaimed Starswirl, amidst rustling leaves and ringing bells off his pointy wizard’s hat. “We’ve been looking all over!”

Then another set of hooves galloped the garden path, passing through the vines into the grove.

“Luna, for goodness’ sake, where have you been!

And there she was, not at all as regal as she usually tried to be.

Groaning, feeling her will and plans ebb away under Mistmane’s confused stare, Luna turned to face Starswirl and Celestia. Their brows were furrowed, Starswirl’s wizard hat was ajar, Celestia’s wings held tightly against her own barrel, and most of all, their glares were keenly felt. Her sister’s eyes were manic, her flowing pink mane disheveled.

“... Hello,” said Luna, waving uncertainly.

Starswirl opened his mouth, but then Celestia broke rank. She tackled Luna in a crushing hug, sending them tumbling into the moss. Her forehooves wrapped around Luna, pressing her tightly against her neck.

“OW! Tia, stop it, I can’t breathe!” Luna cried out, gasping for air. So often did Celestia forget her own strength in their playful tussles. This somehow felt even worse.

“We’ve looked everywhere for you!” said Celestia. She let go of Luna, looking her up and down, running a forehoof through her mane. “The kitchen, your bedroom, my closet, everywhere! We thought you were abducted!

“I was gone hardly an hour, Tia. I can handle myself just fine!” Luna retorted, dusting herself off. “Come on. Can’t I mess around once or twice?”

“Mess around! Luna, you know what happened the last time you messed around! Starswirl and I were so worried, you know perfectly…” Celestia spoke, but she trailed off, when her gaze fell upon Mistmane, standing off in her corner awkwardly. “Who’s this? Who are you?”

Before either Luna or Mistmane could answer, Celestia had already stood between them, wings flared open.

“Luna! Get behind me!”

“There is no need, Princess.”

It was Starswirl that had spoken. Both Luna and Celestia looked at him, bewildered. He placed a placating hoof upon Celestia’s shoulder, his stern glare softening.

“What?” said Celestia. “But–”

“Starswirl,” said Mistmane, her face melting into a warm smile. “So good to see you, my friend.”

“Likewise,” said Starswirl. “Seems though I’ve found our mystery gardener. This is Lady Mistmane, from the Far East, Princess Celestia. Though I see you’ve already made yourself familiar with her, Princess Luna.”

“Y-yes, I am…” Luna replied. “I… you two…”

“Starswirl and I have met, yes,” said Mistmane plainly. “Quite often, too.”

“Not as often as I’d like,” Starswirl remarked.

“Huh?” said Luna, tilting her head. Celestia gagged.

“Oh, no worries, Luna, he and I are simply friends,” Mistmane added hurriedly, and Starswirl nodded his agreement. “The others are faring well enough, if you were wondering, Starswirl. You ought to see them more often.”

“A story for another time, my lady,” Starswirl retorted, before Luna or Celestia could even ask. “But for now, I must have my ward. Luna, come. We still have to review your charts.”

His voice left no room for doubt. Beneath the resumption of his and Celestia’s stern glares, Luna felt herself wilt, her shoulders sunk. But one last look at Mistmane’s kindly gaze was enough for Luna to go without further fuss.

* * * * *

As the three of them, a wizard and his two students, walked down the hallways of Canterlot Palace back to his tower, Celestia took little time to accost Luna once again.

“What were you thinking?” Celestia said, bopping Luna with a wing. “Sneaking away like that… if I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought you were spirited away again by some, some… I don’t know, something!”

“We’re at our home, Tia,” Luna bit back with a harrumph. “Do you expect me to be spirited away the second you turn your head?”

“The Reindeer could! And, and remember the last time you messed around with portals, oh, for goodness’ sake, Luna–”

“Oh, please, what harm could the Reindeer do? I’d sooner be with Sint Erklass up in Adlaborn than I’d be here, copying charts on and on and–”

“Children, please!” Starswirl exclaimed sharply, without looking back.

“Don’t call us that!” said Luna and Celestia in unison. All three of them paused in their walk. Starswirl let out a long, tired sigh.

“Then act your age, Your Highnesses,” said Starswirl, turning to face them. His grey eyes looked tired as ever, but he no longer wore a stern glare. Only a concerned gaze. “Sooner or later, the time will come for the two of you to sit the throne. The Hearthswarmers have long given their blessings. So have I, and so have the people. Would you let them all down by squabbling?”

Luna glanced at her soul’s mark, Celestia at her own. For the better part of their lives, from their childhood with the Reindeer in the North to their resettlement in Canterlot, this had loomed over them, a responsibility like no other. The unicorns had done their part, as had Starswirl, for so many years, until their time would come. Her eyes were drawn for a moment to Celestia’s pink mane, flowing despite the absence of wind. Celestia had gained it the first time she’d raised the Sun over the Canterhorn, her mark shining bright, to cheers of all their assembled subjects.

How very disappointing it was, though, when she’d raised the Moon the very evening after, before the eyes of a much smaller crowd, yet her mane had remained inert as before.

“Starswirl?” Luna said firmly, blowing a strand of her mane away. Her mentor raised an eyebrow. “If it’s alright with you, um… may I… ask Mistmane, to teach me gardening?”

Starswirl hummed, rubbing his beard. “Curious,” he said simply. “What brought this, then?”

“Well… Mistmane said, she said the bamboos are flowering, and they won’t flower for another hundred years, and I’d hate to miss it! And… and I love what she’s done with the garden, too.”

“But what of your tasks?” said Starswirl. “You’ve been slacking on your star charts. I had expected them to be done by this weekend.”

“Then, then I’ll do them tonight!” Luna countered. “I promise I’ll do them, and the gardening won’t come in the way of the next one. Please, Starswirl, you know Mistmane better than I do. I’m… I’m sure you trust her. I won’t be a bother to her. Please?”

“You haven’t explained to us, either, Starswirl,” added Celestia, “how you met this unicorn. A unicorn with a curved horn. Who is she, really?”

“I’ve seen her before,” Luna saw fit to add. “When we were building our first castle. It’s… um… It was how I got the idea to move our castle here instead...”

Starswirl said nothing at first, his expression unreadable. He sighed.

“Lady Mistmane and I, we first met two, no, three Winters ago,” said Starswirl. “A young scholar had sought us out. Us, and a few others, in order to aid his home village. It lay under threat by three Sirens, he told.”

“A few others?” Luna echoed. Starswirl nodded, idly stroking his beard.

“Rockhoof of Tall Tale Isle, Somnambula of Hill Top, Flash Magnus of Cloudsdale, Mage Meadowbrook of Hayseed Swamp, Mistmane of Seaward Shoals, and yours truly,” Starswirl recited expertly. “We drove those three fiends back, with that same Crystal Mirror you now keep in this Palace’s Vault, and I have never been alone in my adventures, since.”

“So much for going at it alone,” Celestia snarked. Starswirl fixed a sharp glare at her.

“There are things in this world you would do very well to confront in the company of others, Your Highness,” said Starswirl gravely, “and I do not regret meeting this good company.”

“Well, you could’ve at least told us…” Luna moaned. “You never tell us about your adventures.”

“It isn’t your time yet, Princess,” said Starswirl. “I certainly hadn’t planned on her meeting up with you here. One day, I shall. But not today, and I’m certain Lady Mistmane would agree.”

There was a fierceness in his eyes Luna hadn’t seen before, transfixed on the two of them. But it wasn’t one borne of malice. The warmth in his voice told Luna enough. However, before Luna could inquire further, he’d turned his gaze to Celestia yet again.

“Celestia,” said Starswirl. “You have as much say as I have with your sister. What say you?”

Celestia looked at Luna, then at Starswirl. Her brows were furrowed in thought. Luna’s heart throbbed in her chest, her own eyes wide and pleading.

“If you trust the Lady Mistmane, then…” Celestia began, a little hesitant, “there won’t be an issue, I suppose.”

“Then it’s settled,” said Starswirl, nodding. “I ought to ask her to stay longer than a few nights. A night or two wouldn’t suffice.”

No sooner than he had finished, though, did Luna let out a joyous, triumphant laugh. She pranced, and pranced, bouncing happily in a circle, round and round and round, singing thank yous. Celestia rolled her eyes, though her little smile did not escape Luna’s eyes. She stopped her little dance in front of Starswirl, beaming. Their aged mentor chuckled, shaking his head.

“Don’t get too excited, Princess, I won’t lessen your workload, gardening or not,” he cautioned. “Nor is gardening as easy as you might think, I believe. Lady Mistmane is a great sorceress in her own right, and you’ll do well to pay very close attention to what she has to say, and what she expects of you.”

Luna nodded vigorously. She moved and nuzzled Starswirl right then and there, feeling him respond with an awkward tap on her back.

“Don’t worry,” said Luna. “I’ll make you all proud.”

* * * * *

True to his words, the assignment Starswirl gave Luna that night remained as tedious and bothersome as ever, charting and matching stars to the tales of old. But Luna found she didn’t care very much about it this time. Her dreams, as the week went by, weren’t filled with stars nor with distant worlds, but with vines and exotic flowers, gentle streams and calming trees swaying in the breeze. Luna had come so close to touching these visions, too. Three times she had reached out, three times she was awoken, and three times she flopped down onto the bed again, trying in vain to picture the garden of dreams once more.

It had been agreed upon that twice a week, Luna would spend her night with Mistmane instead. She wasted no time in naming the first weekend after their encounter as the first proper lesson, three days later. So excited was Luna, indeed, that she’d procured a finely-woven, wide-brimmed gardening hat, purchased by the castle servants down at the marketplace of the new city, though part of her regretted that she could no longer visit the markets herself, as Starswirl cautioned.

No matter. Now, the hat lay proudly worn upon her head, as she made her way, pots and notebooks trailing in her aura.

“You’re looking pretty spry tonight,” Celestia had deadpanned, when they passed by one another round a corner, half-lidded eyes and a quill stuck on her mane, no doubt from a busy day’s work.

Luna had said nothing, skipping and laughing all the way to the gardens.

She was met by Mistmane at the garden’s archway. The old mare was still clad in her cloak, face partially concealed by the hood, though lit by the golden lantern she held aloft in her aura. Her smile was serene as the stars twinkling above.

“Good evening, Princess,” said Mistmane, answering Luna’s curtsey with a bow. Her eyes drifted towards her hat. “I see you’ve come prepared.”

“Of course, Lady Mistmane,” said Luna, giggling. “I hope I haven’t taken too much of your time.”

“Did we not arrange it for tonight? We have time, not to worry,” Mistmane answered. “Oh, and you won’t be needing those. Starswirl isn’t here.”

She pointed towards Luna’s little stack of notebooks, winking. Luna let out an awkward chuckle. Then her nose caught a pleasant, herbal scent emanating from the bags behind Mistmane.

“Lavenders!” Luna exclaimed happily, tapping her hooves on the ground. “Lavenders, I’ve always loved the scent. Shall we grow them, Mistmane? Oh! Or, or your chrysanthema, too!”

Mistmane shook her head.

“No, Little Moon,” she said, though not unkindly. “Not yet, and not so soon. In time, you will, but there are others you must learn of first. Besides, it is not yet the right time for the chrysanthema to be grown...”

Right then, Mistmane uncovered her bag, and Luna’s eyes were greeted by seeds and bulbs of a few dozen flowers.

“Now,” said Mistmane. “Let us begin.”

* * * * *

They went to work as the night went on. There was little which either of them said that night, only the occasional sigh of Luna, catching her breath after another bulb planted, and soil tilled. They started their labours with, of all things, potatoes.

Ridiculous! Potatoes weren’t pretty. They were ugly, misshapen little things. Tia would laugh if she knew.

But Mistmane was insistent. So Luna questioned little, and did as Mistmane directed her. That night faded into a quiet activity of tilling, watering, and other such activities Luna was sure had everything to do with gardening. Eventually the Sun rose to announce the morning, upon potatoes neatly planted where the flowers ought to be. And Luna bid farewell, her thoughts still lingering on the strangeness of it.

This would only be the beginning. There was plenty of other flora that awaited their care. And Mistmane wasn’t the teacher Luna had expected her to be. Where Starswirl expected an endless assignment of scrolls, bottomless charts, spell theory to be memorised and spell practice to be performed as he dictated, Mistmane did none of that. Only her words, her actions, from her gentle instructions in watering roses, to her gentle corrections whenever Luna had potted orchids improperly. Luna didn’t mind it at all. So long as the flowers would bloom, however long it would take, she was happy to follow.

After the potatoes, many others followed.

Some were pretty much what Luna had been expecting, like the roses she was familiar with from Princess Platinum’s entourage, or dandelions that were sold down at the marketplace, or even the jasmines brought from the Far South. Their herbal, pleasing scent blessed the gardens, clearing Luna’s mind as they grew one by one in their beds or scattered pots.

Many more were as strange as they came. The pineapples’ flowers were as rich in colour as they were in flavour. Such peculiar little things! Of many flowers, only one fruit would bloom, Mistmane told her, and Luna could scarcely believe that such vivid flowers could grow into a massive, delicious fruit. Time would tell if Mistmane was right, she decided.

Others took more care than others, but not to grow them.

The knotweed of Neighpon and lesser periwinkle shrubs grew wild and tangled around the little garden grove, their flowers charming Luna with rich colours. A practical side remained, as Mistmane spoke of the knotweed as providence for travelers lost deep within forests, or the periwinkle as herbal medicine for ailments. But Luna proved careless one night, letting them grow further than their allotted confines, their vines climbing up the brick wall. Fortunately, they were caught in time and pruned thoroughly. Nevertheless, Mistmane cautioned her after, for knotweeds and periwinkles, however useful, could turn against their caretakers, and strangle the life out of their gardens.

The bamboo also took Luna’s attention. They grew faster and taller than most in this garden, growing from tiny stems to rivaling trees within mere days. Like the knotweed, they needed pruning and care, lest they overwhelm the other flora. But bamboo, Mistmane mentioned, had its own varied uses for crafting, from flutes to woven baskets. So Luna took care not to destroy those she cut down, leaving them for the artisans to work their unsung magic.

Throughout all of this, Luna still pursued her studies with Starswirl, both in governance and in the magical arts. The burden was scarcely lessened, as her charts and numbers stayed much the same as they did before. But through Starswirl’s winding lectures and Celestia’s teasings, Luna’s pressed on with a smile, now she dreamt of lavenders and chrysanthema that would one night grow lush and beautiful beneath the sea of stars.

Then, on an evening in Autumn, Mistmane came to Luna at her room. The bamboo had blossomed at last, Mistmane said, her calm voice masking the giddiness in her weathered eyes. Not at Spring, as she had earlier hoped, and she was resigned to seeing it blossom next year. But it bloomed nonetheless, and that was more than good enough.

Luna had jumped out of her bed then, giving her new mentor in the craft a quick nuzzle, whereupon she’d dashed ahead of her, prancing and skipping all the way down to the gardens. What a glorious sight awaited her, beyond the archway! Perhaps the flowers were majestic as the faraway forested lands Mistmane had told her of. Perhaps they were as mysterious and enchanting as the stars that loomed over all in the nighttime skies.

Whatever they might be, Tia surely would be impressed at last. Her sister would understand, however long it may take her.

Entering the garden, Luna caught sight of all that had bloomed. The potatoes had at last grown their gentle, white flowers, beautiful in their own right. The scent of the roses and jasmine welcomed her, enticing her to roll on the mossy floor, laughing. But then her gaze fell upon the bamboo, and she stopped in her tracks.

* * * * *

Under the lanterns’ golden light, the flowers before Luna looked nothing like she had imagined. For one, they didn’t look like flowers at all. They grew out of the bamboo shoots, large, ugly and puffy clumps of brownish-green that reminded Luna all too much of moss on the water’s edge. There were a few dozen of these clusters, drooping like sad old curtains over kitchen doorways.

Mistmane strode past her, sniffing the flowers. Her forehoof went to caress them.

“How long have you waited, little ones?” she cooed, hooves as gentle in their touch as was any other of her flora. “It’s so good to see you all blossom…”

Shaking her head, Luna moved to her side. A closer look brought no comfort. The tiny, dull-green flowers had no petals, no scent, nothing that could be called beautiful.

“I… I don’t understand,” Luna whispered. She tore her gaze away, fixing it upon Mistmane. “What happened? Did… did we do something wrong?”

“Something wrong?” Mistmane repeated, looking back from where she stood. “No, nothing’s wrong. These are the flowers, Luna.”

“No, no, there, there has to be....”

“Luna,” Mistmane said, “nothing is wrong with these–”

“A hundred years of waiting!” Luna exclaimed, pointing accusingly at the bamboo. “A hundred years of waiting for… for this? We’ve toiled for months on end, chipped our hooves and smothered ourselves in dirt for, for what? They’re ugly and hideous and...”

But then her voice and anger disappeared, when she met Mistmane’s eyes, gaze piercing from beneath the shade of her cowl. There was no harshness to them, only they looked much, much older than Luna was accustomed to. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Luna lowered her forehoof. She looked away, finding her own hooves much more interesting.

“Luna,” said Mistmane, her voice wavering. Luna hadn’t heard her so hurt before. “I want you to look at them. Tell me what you see.”

Luna looked up from the ground, back towards the flowers. They were swaying quietly in the evening breeze. She glanced at Mistmane,

“I… I see them,” Luna answered. “Just… flowers, Lady Mistmane. Flowers that we grew together. But they are...”

“Ugly?” Mistmane finished for her. “I suppose they are.”

She lay down upon the moss-covered ground. In silence, she reached for her hood, and pulled it back, unveiling her mane in full. The beautiful grey strands flowed, even in the absence of wind, true to the name of the mare they belonged to.

Then Luna’s gaze drifted to Mistmane’s eyes, her words dying in her throat. She looked much older than Luna had imagined her to be, deep wrinkles etched throughout her face. She offered a forehoof, one which Luna accepted tremulously, as she joined her master in the craft of gardening in lying upon the moss.

“I know much about ugliness,” Mistmane began. Her smile was gentle, but wan. “I was beautiful, once.”

“You were?” Luna blurted out. “Sorry… I… guess I kind of know it… Um. Tia doesn’t like my freckles either. I know it doesn’t compare, but… sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

On instinct, she rubbed her nose, where she knew the freckles were.

Mistmane let out a melodious and melancholical laugh. “Young Luna,” she said, “there is nothing wrong with your freckles. They look marvellous, if you ask me, especially now, under the Autumn Moon! Bah… decorum, so very stifling…”

“If you think so,” Luna said, huffing with lack of conviction. Perhaps Starswirl had a spell for her own freckles, she thought fleetingly. “I don’t think you’re ugly either, Mistmane. You’re… you’re kind and wonderful, and I really do enjoy our time here. And that’s all that matters.”

Mistmane had nothing to say to that, only a wistful look to give. Her gaze moved towards the flower beds lining the wall. Luna’s own gaze followed, all the way to the chrysanthemum pots, hanging as ever from the trees.

“How I wish my friend Sable Spirit saw it that way,” Mistmane said wistfully. “She grew jealous of my beauty, even as Neighpon flourished under her rule as Empress. When her beauty was taken from her, she sought to take it from others, all the flowers in the land, and by that I mean not just flora, into her own garden. Her garden was beautiful, oh yes, it was... But what value, what meaning is there, if it isn’t shared?”

“You taught me that flowers have meaning to them,” Luna countered. “And… and I’ve done my reading, Lady Mistmane. I know a lot about them now.”

“Do you now?” Mistmane replied, not unkindly. “I’d certainly love to hear it.”

“Alright, let’s start with… uh, lavender!” Luna exclaimed. “Lavender, it’s graceful and elegant, and it guides those that wish to have a good night’s sleep.”

Though no lavender was to be found here, its scent, lingering from the market air, remained in Luna’s thoughts so vividly. She grinned at the memory. Perhaps she ought to ask Mistmane how to grow lavender next.

Her gaze fell upon the rose bushes, standing guard around the garden wall with thorny shoots.

“Roses, I know that a lot of the gentry like to feature them in their coats of arms, and I know they’re the symbol of true love…”

Next, she looked at the chrysanthemum pots, contemplating them for a moment, recalling lessons past.

“That’s what the chrysanthema have, too. Love, Lady Mistmane. Starswirl told me Duke Polaris Blueblood, the White Prince, planted them in his garden, longing for the maiden who would never come home to him...”

Mistmane tapped her chin..

“Hmm, well then, curious,” said Mistmane. Glancing at Luna, she pointed towards the bamboo. “What of the bamboo?”

Luna stared at the bamboo grove, then shook her head.

“If you’re asking me about the bamboo, what meaning I’ve found for it, then I have none.”

“And, tell me, Princess,” said Mistmane. “What meaning is there to the flora you’ve spoken of, if not what we have given them?”

Luna opened her mouth to retort, but found no words that came to mind. At this, Mistmane let out a short laugh.

“The bamboo may be ugly in bloom, Luna, but those buds are flowers as well,” Mistmane said, with a nod. “Flowers just like the roses resting on some upstart noble’s lapel. Flowers like the chrysanthema of my home. Flowers like the lavenders you seek. Different in their purposes they may be, Luna, but flowers all.”

Her horn lit up, her aura enveloping one of the many chrysanthema in bloom. Even in the Autumn chill, they bloomed proudly. The one Mistmane held was shaded a beautiful white. Gently, she fixed it in Luna’s mane.

“There are many meanings given to chrysanthemum, you see,” said Mistmane. “Your unicorn scholars think of it as a flower of love, and that is as fine a meaning as any. But for Neighpon, they mark longevity and the season of Autumn...”

She reached out with her magic, taking another flower. This one was red in colour, its many petals falling.

“I remember my first sight of them,” said Mistmane, her voice longing, as she beheld it. “They were at my mother’s funeral, when I was very young. It was Sable who showed me what they meant then. That much as they signify for life, so too do they symbolise those who have passed before us.”

“A celebration of life, to the end,” Luna concluded. Mistmane’s eyes brimmed with tears. A thought crossed Luna’s mind when she glanced at Mistmane’s brooch.

“Lady Mistmane?”

“Yes, Little Moon?”

“How did Sable’s story end?”

Mistmane set her flower down.

“When I returned to our home,” said Mistmane, eyes twinkling. “I saw how the land had decayed. Sable wasn’t blind to it, yet she was so filled with jealousy, even with all that was beautiful hoarded in her palace. So I faced her, and I bested her, but it could not return our home to how it was before. Thus I did what I must. I gave up what I had, to let our land flourish, as it had before. And when all was said and done, there was only one ugly flower left at the heart of it all.”

“You gave away your beauty…” Luna said, breathless. “You… you gave it up for her. But… I don’t understand. Sable didn’t appreciate what she already had. It was your beauty she envied.”

“But it was beauty without meaning, Luna,” Mistmane replied. “It was merely something I had, nothing more. Now it is Sable’s flower to cherish, after all she went through and suffered.”

Slowly, Mistmane’s touch moved to Luna’s mane, brushing it aside. Quietly, Luna pressed her cheek against the old unicorn’s comforting forehoof. It felt warm and soothing to the touch, just like the mare herself had always been for her.

“When you next look at the bamboo grove, Luna,” said Mistmane, her smile as warm as the rising Sun. “I wish for you to remember the long and winding road that led to their blossoming…”

* * * * *

Days and nights passed, through the changing seasons and the years, yet Mistmane’s words never left Princess Luna, even as their time gardening together grew scarcer, and Luna’s duties became greater and busier. Under Starswirl’s ever-present guidance, the stars in her charts were systematically converted into numbers on scrolls. From simple feats of levitation she progressed to the art of dreamweaving spellwork. Even Celestia’s company was, she had to admit, welcome as their studies continued arduously. Past a certain age, there were meetings, always dozens of meetings, with the Canterlot gentry, the Cloudsdale junta, earthpony lords to visitors from beyond their lands, from the graceful Reindeer of the North, to the cautious yet curious hippogriffs of the South. Compliments of her garden, though, were always welcome. Even Celestia, who was neither the best nor the worst of gardeners, had a few kind words to say, between her requests from Luna for fresh flowers whenever the Palace had an event to host, or whenever Luna passed her on the way to her garden.

Through it all, Mistmane never strayed far, both in mind and in presence. They never did plant a bulb of lavender amidst all their work elsewhere, but this did not bother Luna too greatly, not when Mistmane still found the time for work long into the night. And whenever her days were less than pleasant, Mistmane’s words of wisdom and comfort, whether it was for her garden or her throne, gave Luna strength in a world that often left her tired and weary.

It was when she turned sixteen that her first true dreamwalking began. Starswirl had taken care to prepare her, cautioning her not to venture too far beyond her own realm. Even he could not follow her then, for very few had been gifted with the art, though this troubled her less than it might have done. The dream realm was a blessing upon all Equestria, and the world. In her walks, there were plenty of dreams.

Many were wonderful. The unicorn children of Canterlot, dreaming of new realms of magic, earthpony farmers dreaming of bountiful crops, pegasus warriors dreaming of glory to be sung through the ages.

Others were not quite so. Near or far, children toiling in fields and sweatshops, who dreamt of escape from their laborious existence. Empty dreams of those fallen into despair, others of unspeakable fantasies. How Luna wished she could reach out to them, both here and in the waking world. But as Starswirl solemnly advised, and she reluctantly obeyed, she could only but watch. Not all battles could be won, not even in this peculiar realm.

Yet try as she might, Luna found it difficult to peer into Mistmane’s dreams, though she’d learned to tread discreetly into Celestia’s dreams of fancy castles and cake, and Starswirl’s endless fields of spinning quasars and nebulae. Her reach had its limits, she accepted that. It had been difficult enough to uncover her sister’s dreams amidst the primordial chaos of the mind. But it worried her. So often nowadays did Mistmane return to their gardening more haggard-looking than the last time Luna saw her. Many times, Luna pondered if she ought to follow Mistmane back to Seaward Shoals, the little coastal town she called home away from home.

And when Luna came to ask her, only once, when she turned eighteen, of the troubles that plagued her mind, Mistmane had refused to answer.

“You are my one and only concern, Little Moon,” Mistmane said then, her tone sharp as she looked up from her chrysanthema. “Nothing else that I do should trouble you so, and that shall be the end of it.”

Luna had only nodded in return. Mistmane’s usual smile hadn’t reached her eyes.

On the rare occasions she dreamt herself, she would see them all – Mistmane, Celestia, Starswirl, the staff of the castle, even the Six Hearthswarmers, to the Reindeer Erklass family that had raised them both, then the three tribes of ponykind, all of them mingling in the two fields of earth and sky. She’d be there, too, sitting amongst them, letting the great dream flourish till her night began. She never remembered what they told her, no more than most remembered dreams upon awakening, but the warmth in her heart remained.

One day in Summer, six years to the day since they had first met in the palace gardens, Mistmane came to Canterlot following a long spell away. To see her again was a comfort, but less comforting to Luna was how her aged eyes now had bags under them, her every step heavy and fatigued. More worrying still was how Mismane turned away Luna’s questions, even as she shared enigmatic glances with a steel-gazed Starswirl.

Though they gardened as usual in the light of the setting Sun, the grim ambience wore down Luna. It came to be that they ended much earlier than was their custom, and when they said their goodbyes, she couldn’t shake off the apprehension she saw reflected in Mistmane’s plastered smile.

That very night, as she delved through the dreams of Canterlot’s denizens, Luna saw a garden.

* * * * *

Luna had seen plenty of gardens in her time. Simple gardens in the countryside, livelihoods of the peasant folk. Opulent, grandiose gardens, the jewel of many a unicorn noble’s castle. And her very own, of course, a tranquil, peaceful corner all for herself and Mistmane. In the waking world and here in her realm, they all brought peace and calm to the troubled mind. But this garden was none of those – were it not for the gate and discarded seedbags scattered throughout the cobbled, cracked pathways, Luna wouldn’t have been aware it was ever a garden. In lieu of marble or metal, the entrance gate she passed through was one of wood, painted red. A meticulously cobbled path lay ahead, twisting in circles past raked, patterned sand and gravel. Looming over all were the carved statues of snake-like dragons, grim decorations all along the pathways as silent watchers.

It was the flora which gave Luna heartache when she set her eyes upon them. Eastern cherry trees, cracked and shattered into splinters. Wilted and shrivelled flowers lay where they had perished. Twisting myrtle and knotweed strangled the life of what was left, even as they too dried and blew away beneath the cold Moon looming above, as she passed them by.

Whoever’s fantasy this was, Luna thought, it was not a happy fantasy. But she did not need to wait for an answer. Just as she passed the rows of dead hedgerows and cracked pots, she heard weeping emerge from around the corner.

Amidst rocks and dead bushes, Luna stopped in her tracks, for before her sat the most beautiful mare she had ever seen. Her lush, sea-green mane flowed even in the absence of wind, like the early morning mist in the mountains, matching the mark of a cloud that lay upon her flank. Her luminous coat, a pale pink, shimmered like no other, eclipsing even Princess Platinum’s, and she was clad in an elegantly woven kimono that must have been made of finest silk.

However, her back was turned away from Luna, and her gentle sobs broke the desolate silence of the landscape. For a moment, Luna considered turning away. But this mare was alone, with nothing but her dead garden for company. Slowly, she approached, careful as to not disturb by stepping onto the cracked, dried leaves. Gently, she placed a hoof on the mare’s shoulder, feeling her shudder, and then spoke.

“Lady Mistmane?” she whispered. “What’s wrong?”

The mare turned to look at her, cyan eyes meeting Luna’s own. Her beauty was marred by tears that streamed down her cheeks. Yet even now, she managed a broken smile.

“Oh, Luna…” Unfamiliar as her voice was in its youth and song-like clarity, Luna recognised the warmth of all those years since that night in Canterlot. “I’m sorry you have to see me this way.”

“Don’t be,” said Luna, laying down beside Mistmane, offering an understanding smile. “You look… beautiful, Mistmane. Beautiful as you should be. As you once were.”

“I wish it was so simple,” answered Mistmane, shaking her head. “Because this… all this is not what it should be. And I am afraid…”

“Afraid? What is it?”

“It does not concern you so–”

“But it does!” Luna pressed on. “I know that you, that Starswirl… I know that you wish to keep both of us safe. But you don’t need to turn me and Celestia away, please. Let us help you, with whatever it is. Please.”

Mistmane tore her gaze away, looking instead at the garden around them, or what was left of it.

“I do not deserve this beauty,” she murmured. “If I had, then the land would not decay. If it was meant to be, then this garden would not fade so easily. Now the beauty is mine, once more… But what good would it do now?”

She pointed and Luna’s eyes followed. The chrysanthemum bush she was pointing at was nothing more than a bundle of decrepit branches now.

“Sable did this,” Luna whispered. “It was… it was her doing. She took everything.”

“It was. Because this is a nightmare, you see, for if I was beautiful, if I remained beautiful, then… then it must mean that I’ve failed my friends and family, and let her fall to jealousy and wrath.”

“It’s not your fault,” Luna replied, leaning against her. “You shouldn’t have to carry the burden.”

Mistmane drew a sharp breath, but she did not move. Her forehoof trailed circles upon the sand.

“I have a friend,” she whispered. “I believe I may have told you about him, a long time ago. He is intelligent and kind and… reminds me much of you and your sister. But… I’m afraid that I have failed him, and let him fall as Sable did. He only wishes for our safety, yet if he’s gone too far… then I wasn’t there for him when he needed us the most.”

“Starswirl spoke of him,” Luna said. “But he said no more than he does about you, or your companions. Don’t you trust Tia and I? Let us help, please.”

Mistmane’s gaze turned towards Luna. The elder unicorn brushed away the bangs hanging over her forehead, gently.

“The world beyond Canterlot and her allies is a dangerous one, Luna,” said she, “and experienced as we are, Starswirl and myself and all our companions… there’s so much we do not understand. And… and I worry about you and Celestia. You are gifted, the two of you, but this united realm should not be your burden so soon. There are times when dark forces from beyond or even from within our world will reach out to take you and your sister for their own purposes… And I won’t be there for you.”

Luna’s mind shifted, memories resurfacing and fading, of shadows that stirred in the darkness, whispering temptation, deep within an enchanted forest. Or perhaps it was only a fever dream, like so many others. Whether it was memory or imagination run rampant, she could not tell. Mistmane’s wavering smile turned mournful, her eyes glistening with tears.

But then Luna pulled away from her touch, shaking her head.

“I have seen nightmares,” Luna said. “Things that… things no one should ever have to witness or, or experience. Foals that shy away from their parents, or villagers afraid of things that lurk in the woods even in the day.”

“Starswirl told me you are gifted as a dreamwalker,” said Mistmane. “A most difficult branch of the magical arts.”

“Yet he expects me to stand by and watch idly as… as nightmares continue to plague the realm!” Luna bemoaned. “I don’t want to. I don’t want anyone to be so, so afraid…”

Heart beating, she stood up, and marched over to the dead bushes before them, the fallen chrysanthemum petals surrounding her hooves. They danced around her with each step, yet none caught her eye. None, that is, save for one last flower, precariously perched upon an especially shrivelled branch.

Stopping a stone’s throw from the bushes, she twirled on the spot, with flourish and grace, channeling the magic here, within the realm of dreams, so as to let it course through her from the oneiric soil beneath. It surrounded her, in this air filled with decay. But she embraced it gladly as she had on countless other nights.

And when she was done, breathing heavily, before her was a chrysanthemum bush alive as any in the Palace gardens. The petals had already started to fall, though, when she reached out to pluck one of them, the most beautiful of them all.

“Starswirl told me I was meant to be a dreamwalker, a watcher,” she said, “but… it’s not enough for me to stand by and let nightmares reign,” Holding the flower before her, she closed the gap between the two of them in a confident stride. “Dreamweaving is… hard, I know, and… and I may not vanquish every nightmare...”

“He means well, Luna,” Mistmane remarked softly. “It is a difficult burden.”

“I know it is,” Luna replied. Gracefully, she affixed the blooming flower onto her mentor’s mane. “But someone has to do it. Someone’s got to take care of this garden, no matter what it takes.”

Mistmane said nothing at first, watery eyes meeting Luna. Then she reached for Luna, and pulled her into an embrace and a nuzzle, sniffling as she did.

“I know you have your secrets, Lady Mistmane,” Luna choked out, hooves wrapped tight around Mistmane, “and I wish I could help you. I wish you would let us. But if I cannot know, if I shouldn’t know then… then I’ll make sure our garden blooms, through all of Equestria, no matter how hard it will be.”

Mistmane laughed, sweetly, somberly, amidst the falling petals.

“I’ve grown attached to you, Little Moon. I see you and I think of the daughter I’ve never had. But one day, perhaps we shall leave out the castle doors, never to return, and… and...”

“We’ll be here, waiting for you both,” whispered Luna. “Won’t… won’t you stay a little longer?”

Luna felt Mistmane tighten her embrace around her, warm as the Midsummer night. “You’ve grown so much, Luna, and I am proud of you. I only wish we had more time...”

It was all Luna heard, one last time, before the garden faded into stardust in the aether, and she found herself awake on her bed.

Nothing, it seemed, was out of place, as the rising Sun’s rays pierced through the blinds. Celestia must have lowered the Moon herself. Surely a scolding was to follow…

But when she ran her forehoof through her mane, she gasped with shock and wonder. For it now flowed in the absence of wind, and shimmered, though day broke outside, with the same light as the star-filled nighttime sky.

* * * * *

The dream eventually faded, but its trace lingered on. The starry mane of a Night Princess remained as it was, beautiful and ethereal, and Luna’s mark shone bright as the Moon above. So excited was she that she’d crashed into Celestia and gloated about her newfound purpose, prancing round her befuddled sister. She stopped, of course, only when Mistmane passed them by in the hallway, carrying pots and pots of chrysanthema, and given her a tiny, knowing smile.

All was right, then. But there was so much else to do, here and in the realm within. The lone chrysanthemum had been the first she cultivated. It would not be the last, Luna pledged. So in the year that followed, she went to work, now she knew what to do.

As her scrollwork and workload kept growing, her realm grew. Night and day she studied, practiced her magic and expanded her knowledge, under Starswirl’s watchful gaze, Celestia’s gentle teasing, and Mistmane’s steadfast advice. The day may have been Celestia’s to watch over, guided by the praises of the gentry and support of the common folk. But Luna had found where she belonged, away from the future burdens that awaited her. Deep, deep within the mind’s recesses, the Princess of the Night dwelled. With stardust that shimmered and flowed like water and mist, she found herself a canvas and field to work with. Practice would make it perfect.

First, Luna raised the Moon above. Simple and easy enough, given she was quite familiar with it. The silver glow of the Moon shone upon the expanse of stardust, twinkling against the shroud of inky darkness around it. So with strength in her heart and mind, she let the Moon shine brighter than any star in the night sky. When it settled, after many nights, or perhaps only a few, she descended upon the field of stars. With each step of her hooves, the stardust coalesced into the water it so closely emulated. She dove deeper than the oceans, rose higher than any star, bursting out of the water’s surface.

Then she swam to the water’s edge. Here it shifted, turned, expanses shifting into solid ground. All around her, mountains rose, fields of grass appeared. But at the heart of it, the lake remained. An ocean at the end of the lane.

Luna flew to the very centre, calling forth for the stars and moonlight to guide her path. An island formed with each step she took, rising above the waterline. Florid, fertile, it was as perfect as any little island could be, far away from any nightmare monstrosities she imagined would lurk beneath the waters. It was a silly thought, she knew. There were no monsters here. Only her. But the thrill was enjoyable. Perhaps one night she’d place them down there for practice’s sake.

Always, though, before she could plant so much a single bulb, the dream would fade, and Luna would find herself awake.

Every next time she dove deep, the shapeless expanse of stardust would greet her again. It wouldn’t take one night, or even two. On and on she toiled, repeating each step in this dance. Night after night, she would enter her realm to find it devoid of all the work she put into it. She hadn’t given up then, nor would she ever give up. The seasons passed, the nighttime dance continued. The stardust coalesced and faded and scattered away, but each night that passed, it would remain longer still than the night before.

On the longest night of Winter, a little over a year since she’d visited Mistmane’s nightmare, and the very night she was born, Luna entered her realm ready for another night’s worth of weaving. But there was no stardust to be seen. Pale blue water greeted her, twinkling beneath the Moonlight. Colourful, wild grass grew with vines hanging from the cliff’s edge. Even little bioluminescent mushrooms grew freely, all around the realm within. It was the central island that caught her eyes, when she flew towards it. Before her disbelieving eyes, she saw that even the tilled soil remained much as she left it.

She fell upon the grass, cast under the silver Moonlight, laughing freely, rolling around in a manner unbecoming of any Princess. When her giggles subsided, she plucked a seed from the starry skies and planted it, with gentle care. Before her eyes, the chrysanthemum bush grew, until it bloomed, red and yellow and white, all the colours of chrysanthemum.

She woke up soon after, but the garden, she knew, would not leave her so easily. Mistmane had gone away with Starswirl the week before, yet a little piece of her distant home in Neighpon would surely surprise her. A sanctuary to cleanse her mind of the nightmares that had troubled her for so long.

Truly, it would be the perfect gift.

But just as Luna came down for breakfast in their dining hall, that very same morning, she caught sight of Celestia waiting for her, carrying a scroll, with a bleak stare.

* * * * *

Luna had never seen Celestia so disheveled before. Her crown was ajar, whole tufts of her fur were frazzled, and she only wore two of her golden horseshoes – on the wrong hooves, at that.

“Celestia?” asked Luna, pausing in her steps. The two of them stood at opposite ends of the palatial dining hall, facing one another. “What’s wrong?”

Celestia shook her head. She levitated a scroll towards her sister, letting go as Luna’s aura enveloped it in turn. Her warm magenta eyes were filled with a sorrow that belied the radiant Sun she raised every day. Luna’s eyes fell upon the red chrysanthemum seal upon it.

“Read it, Luna,” In her aura, Celestia carried another scroll, unfurled. “Starswirl sent one for me to read. That one… It’s for your eyes…”

So Luna did, unfurling the scroll, her gaze falling upon the beautifully written letters.

Dearest Luna,

Starswirl and I may not return in time, as we had promised. We know not yet when, or even if we may return at all. Please, do not fill your heart with worry. Equestria needs you more than ever. They shall blossom under your guidance. I know they will.

Live your best life, Little Moon. Take care of each other, always.

Much love,

Luna read the scroll once over. Then again. Then again. Over and over.

It was impossible, Luna told herself right then and there. Mistmane couldn’t have sent this letter. She had promised to return. And the garden awaited her, after so long.

Mistmane had promised her.

Her lips quivered. Tears threatened to fall upon the delicate scroll. So she tore her eyes away from the letter, in time to see Celestia raise a wicker basket, filled to the brim with lavender bulbs.

“She… she left these for–”

Celestia’s words died in her throat, as Luna closed the insurmountable distance between them, pressing her head tightly against her sister’s neck. The scrolls they’d received clattered down onto the floor.

“It’s alright, it’s alright…” Celestia whispered in a broken little voice. Her mask too had cracked. “I’m here…”

Luna hugged her tighter still. Together, they remained there, with only her sobs to break the dread silence, echoing throughout the crushing emptiness of the castle halls.

Outside, the Winter snow continued to fall.

* * * * *

Luna’s birthday was the quietest it had ever been, with nary a word exchanged between her and Celestia as the day went by. But Luna hugged her closer than ever when the time came for them to rest, because Celestia had offered to take the reins for the night.

Then came their joint coronation, soon after.

The two of them stood tall by one another, when before all of Canterlot, they sat the throne they had been promised for so long.

“Long may they reign!” Clover the Clever declared. The other Hearthswarmers, older ponies whom Luna had known since she was very small, followed suit. And so did all the people that witnessed them, from the castle staff, to the many assembled farmers and merchants and humble workers, all called out for them both.

Cheerful and uproarious the crowd may have been, nothing took Luna off the sight of the empty chairs reserved for Starswirl and Mistmane, until Celestia wrapped a wing around her, whispering words of comfort.

She had her sister. That had to be enough.

Canterlot was only the first of many cities in Equestria. Soon, in the months and years to follow, more would join, united as one.

Even as her burden never left her, and Equestria continued to expand, there always was time for Princess Luna in her dear gardens, in the waking world and in the realm of dreams. Though the seat of her and Celestia’s reign moved from Canterlot to the Everfree – with proper care given to residence in the Everfree, on that occasion – Luna still found the time. There was much that Starswirl and Mistmane had left for her to care for.

To guard and nurture them all was a promise Luna wished to keep, for all of Equestria’s sake. And though Luna waited, day and night, season by season, the old unicorn never did return to their garden, even as it flourished and thrived under her care. Only her flowers remained, and long did the princess care for them, until one by one, they bloomed their very last.

Author's Note:

Based on the events of My Little Pony: Legends of Magic.