• Published 14th Jan 2012
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The Price of Grace - Sparkle



As Luna is set to return, Celestia's thoughts go back to the one mistake that sealed their fate.

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Promise

Chapter 1
Promise

« ... a tiny speck of shadow against the vast, bright sunlight ... »


It was midnight, but the lights in Canterlot Tower were still burning.

Princess Celestia sat in her study and stared out through the window into a starless night. In front of her, atop the disorder that was her desk, lay unfurled a scroll of parchment which she had been studying meticulously. But even her attention span had been depleted by now, and she had felt her mind slip more and more often as she tried to focus on the letters in front of her; so she had given up on it to gaze aimlessly into the darkness. Midnight’s stroke did little to disrupt her thoughts; in her mind, she was drifting off to a faraway place, a faraway time...

The door was opened discreetly. She turned around: it was one of her numerous servants, a young, almost baby-faced stallion with a perfectly befitting subservient look. She couldn’t recall seeing him before, which was unsurprising; they changed constantly. He bowed and proceeded to clear up the tea service on her desk. She watched him in silence and smiled wearily.

“Any mail?” she asked.

He looked surprised. “Not that I know of, Majesty.”

“But it’s Tuesday —”

“By now it is Wednesday. Are you expecting anything in particular, your Majesty? At this hour?"

She gave him a long, searching look, then shook her head. She could hardly admit what letter she was really waiting for.

"I just came to check up on you," the servant went on. "And as always, you seem dreadfully busy.”

“I certainly am,” she said and wiped her eyes with her hoof. “News aren’t so good these days. I hardly feel like reading them anymore.” She pointed towards the parchment on her desk. Then she gave him a smile. “What about you? You’ve been here since dawn. You should call it quits for today, if you want to,” she said gently.

“Thank you," he said, surprised. "But it is an unwritten rule among servants not to call it a night before the boss does.”

She laughed. “How very courteous of you. I’m afraid, however, that it will be some time before I too can make it to bed. So now may just be your last chance to take me up on the offer before I change my mind.”

“Before you make it to bed? I was unaware Majesty ever slept.”

“Not when I can avoid it."

“Well, Majesty, if you need to stay up, I might instead make myself useful by preparing some more black tea.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst of ideas,” she said and smiled.

The stallion bowed politely and, hovering the service in front of him, trotted over to the door. But before he left the study, curiosity appeared to get the better of him, and he turned around. “I know my curiosity isn’t... befitting... but what is it that keeps you up so late?”

She looked at him absently, then at the parchment on her desk. Her apologetic smile slowly faded. “Nothing in particular, I’m just ... indulging old memories. Nostalgia. I guess I’m growing old, aren’t I?”

“You’re immortal, Majesty.”

His gaze remained inscrutable as she stared at him intently, weighing his words. When she spoke again, her tone careful and deliberate. “Yes... that is what they say, do they not? My body may be... but even the best of spirits is drained eventually by the fatigue that comes with time. Is weighed down by it... Every mind, even my own, has its expiry date.”

A thick silence fell between the ponies.

“Well, your Majesty,” the servant said finally. “Let us hope that your life will continue to be prosperous. I just hope you haven’t forgotten about tomorrow’s festivities.” And with that, he gently closed the door behind him.

The festivities...

It was the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration. Another year had gone by.

Celestia sighed deeply. She got up and walked towards the large, resplendent gable window; imposed on top of the darkness, her own feeble reflection stared back at her, like a ghost floating in the night sky outside. She placed a hoof against the glass and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.

She used her other hoof to comb aside her fur on her chest. Hidden under the immaculate coat, there was a tiny, perfectly circular burning mark. She lifted her head to stare out into the darkness that lay behind her reflection, into the starless night, where thick clouds drained any light.

And yet far off in the distance, a faint silvery crescent moon hung resplendent in the darkness, surrounded by a feeble aura of milky light. It was tiny, so tiny and so far away; but it looked tantalisingly close, as though she just had to extend her hoof to grasp it. The crescent stirred an insatiable yearning in Celestia. She soundlessly opened the window, and the sharp, fresh smell of night air permeated the room.

“Luna,” she tentatively whispered into the night.

Of course, no response came back. She sighed and closed the window once more.

Drooping her head, she looked once more at the circular scar on her chest. It was a merely superficial lesion; the true wounds, she thought, ran much deeper.

Her mind started to wander. As her own reflection in the glass seemed to fade into Luna’s, all those memories began floating to the surface once more. The sensation wasn’t at all unfamiliar. During endless years, she had grown accustomed to it. It was always the same memories; always the same question.

Where had it all gone wrong?

***

How she had first laid eyes on Luna!

Her mind traveled back to that day, more than a millennium ago. In her mind’s eye, she was a foal again. She saw herself from the outside, as an external observer. Her younger self stood in one of Canterlot Castle’s endless corridors, by the window, and looked out over the castle’s grounds. It was weird; the scene came to her vividly, not vaguely, as though she was really standing there once more, all those centuries ago. How old was she back then? Four? Five? In any case, she was anxiously waiting for something, her gaze terse with anticipation, about to be confronted with something she wasn’t familiar with yet.

Someone called her from behind; young Celestia took her eyes off the window and turned around. It was one of the servants who was beckoning her into the room. Apparently, the time had come.

The servant let her in and, with a nod, closed the door behind her. On the large, fluffy bed lay her mother; a large, spring green mare with a resplendent blue orb for a cutie mark. She had doffed her diamond collier and deposited it on the night stand. Despite her apparent exhaustion, she smiled weakly when she saw Celestia enter.

“Tia,” she said. “C’mere.”

Celestia timidly approached, unsure what to expect or how to act. In her mother’s hooves, closely cradled against her sleek, ample chest, lay a tiny foal of a creamy blue colour — the colour of the night sky when the moon was at its highest. It was fast asleep, eyes tightly closed with a bit of grit in their corner, its tiny chest raising and lowering peacefully. The stump of a horn protruded from the forehead, and the outline of tiny, downy wings was visible against the foal’s minuscule body. On its face was a peaceful smile that for some reason appeared incredibly profound to Celestia. She questioningly looked up at her mother, her eyes wide, saying nothing.

“She’s your sister, Tia,” her mother said, smiling, a watery glint in her eyes.

My sister...

Don’t be shy, Tia,” her mother encouraged her. “Come up here into bed.”

Celestia lightly hopped onto the sheets. She looked at the tiny filly in awe. She looked like something infinitely precious and delicate, something that you didn’t want to lose, but that you had to be sure to handle with the utmost care so as not to break it. The foal that was her sister looked so fragile that Celestia suddenly worried her mere gaze might hurt her.

But her mother lightly brushed the filly’s fur and downs, slightly ruffling them in the process; the little one was too tightly asleep to take notice.

“Does she... does she have a name yet?” Celestia asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” her mother said without hesitation. “Her name is Luna.”

Luna,” Celestia repeated, as if to commit the name to memory. Luna... the name seemed intimately familiar, like something she had known a long time ago and was now reminded of. As though it had always been a part of her, somewhere, in some faraway corner of her self. It sounded right.

“Did you pick her name?” she said with wide eyes. “It’s so beautiful.”

Her mother laughed lightly and raised a hoof to tousle Celestia’s soft rose mane. “It’s the only one that fits! Celestia Sunray... and Luna Moonlight. Look.”

She moved her hoof and revealed the foal’s tiny flank. It wasn’t blank; instead, it had the prettiest cutie mark Celestia had ever seen on any pony: a brightly glowing crescent moon, untarnished by clouds or stars, standing out clearly against the foal’s night-blue coat. It emitted a fine silvery light into the dim room, something that Celestia had never seen before on any cutie mark. Her mother looked attentively at the cutie mark and then smiled at Celestia.

“Your sister’s the night sky,” she said, her voice thick with happiness. “And you’re a morning’s dawn. I’m just the soil — I guess that can only mean you’ll both surpass me by leaps and bounds.”

She gently kissed the newborn’s forehead, who didn’t even seem to notice, and then bowed over to Celestia to kiss her, too, right between her eyes; Celestia returned her mother’s affectionate gaze.

“You and your sister,” she said slowly, making sure Celestia understood, “you will one day rule this land. But you have to do it together; just like the day needs the night to be day, you two are going to need each other to be strong.” She tenderly brushed a streak of stray purple hair from Celestia’s forehead.

Celestia looked at the filly’s tiny forehead, then could no longer hold back the question that tormented her. “But will you still love me?”

Her mother looked surprised, but then smiled. “Of course, Sunray. I’ll always love you.” She laid down on the bed, her one, newborn daughter in her arm, her other daughter lying beside her, and looked up to the chamber’s enchanted ceiling, where galaxies and nebulae were turning and swirling. Her smile faded, not disappearing, simply becoming weaker, more pensive. “I will always love you,” she repeated, this time addressing Luna, as if to make sure neither felt disadvantaged. But in reality, her words were addressed to herself first of all. “There’s enough love for both of you,” she murmured under her breath. “And there always will be.”

And there always will be.

***

Childhood.

Even the thousand years that came after did nothing to deter from the vividness of those earliest memories. The thousand years had left no visible footprint behind, strangely enough, but her childhood was still there in sharp detail.

She smiled as those memories resurfaced; back then, Celestia had been the happiest she could recall. Of course, when you are young, you don’t realise that things aren’t going to stay that way forever. You simply assume life remains all fun and games until the deathbed.

There was much fun to be had if you were a royal filly in Canterlot without a care in the world and a sister for your best friend. A foal’s world is to be found at half-height, from a different perspective; it’s a secret garden inaccessible to adults, however royal they may be, hidden from their sight. Everything was new and fresh in those early days. Every food was something new and exciting, every place they went to, even if it lay within Canterlot Castle’s confines, was like visiting a faraway planet, and every flower they smelled had the strongest and most invigorating scent of them all. It was these single, successive moments that formed the mosaic of memories retained in Celestia’s mind.

Alas, theirs was a foal’s world exclusively. Her mother had very little part in their early lives. Even looking back, Celestia couldn’t really find fault with that, sympathising with her mother now that she herself held this responsibility and knew what sacrifices it entailed. They had no father. Consequently, the only adults present in their early lives were the hoofful of nannies her mother had engaged and wisely instructed to watch over them, but not constrain their foalish enthusiasm too much. Their nannies’ hoofs-off approach, which was really more of a sideline service in case a wound needed mending or tears drying (usually Luna’s), suited the fillies perfectly. They soon became partners in crime trying to escape their nannies’ attention for longer and longer, conspiring to elaborate schemes that involved sending their caretakers on impossible errants while the fillies ravaged the royal pantry for chocolate.

Once, they had earned themselves two weeks of house arrest for releasing a pack of giant, famished parasprites from the royal bestiary into the pantry “to see what was going to happen”. By some mistake, they ended up spending most of it in one chamber high up in Canterlot Tower. That fortnight was probably the one she had been closest to her sister, Celestia thought. How they had passed the time! Celestia, as the older sister, was always eager to show off her more advanced magical abilities, while Luna responded with an adorable sense of absolute astonishment to the simplest of tricks.

“Look, Loony,” she said, closing her eyes in concentration, slowly levitating a tiny daisy she had found in a vase, all petals still cramped closely against the trunk. The plant rotated idly in mid-air, unaware of its own fate. Celestia looked on with intense focus, and then, her features contracted, made the flower open its petals until it stood in full bloom.

Luna gasped in amazement.

“It’s so pretty,” she squeaked.

“Yeah, it is.” Celestia grinned, pleased with herself.

Suddenly, Luna thought of something. “Tia,” she said. “Can you do it the other way too?”

Celestia frowned at her sister. “The other way?”

“Yeah. You know — make it lose its petals.”

“You mean kill it?”

Luna looked scared. “No! I just mean —”

“Where’d you get that?” Celestia said, shaking her head in mock disgust. “Why would you want to destroy that beautiful flower? Who gave you that idea?”

Luna lowered her head. “— nopony. Sorry.”

The daisy still hovered in full bloom, but instantly dropped to the floor as though made of lead when Celestia’s attention was suddenly diverted by the open window. She looked at it, then at her wings, who were already rather strong for a filly’s, and wondered why she hadn’t thought of this before.

“Hey Luna,” she said mischievously. “Feel like staying holed up in here any longer?”

“Yes…?”

“You’re supposed to say no,” Celestia said, frowning.

“D’you wanna get out?” Celestia tried again.

“Umm, out? But how — oh —”

Luna looked towards the open window and watched Celestia, who gave a silvery laugh and climbed onto the window frame. She also threw a quick, mildly disappointed glance towards her own wings, which as of yet remained slightly underdeveloped.

“But Tia, I can’t — fly—”

Celestia turned around, an impish smile on her lips. “You can’t fly?” she said. “Well, in that case, I will have to throw you!” And with these words, she pushed Luna out of the window. The filly screamed, but quickly broke into laughter, as Celestia was soaring after her to slow down her fall; prodding her with her muzzle, wrapping her hooves around her in mid-air, and pulling her along, the view beneath them dizzying, but invigorating.

Luna laughed as Celestia let go with one hoof, and they both dropped a dozen feet. “Come on, now by yourself, Luna!”

“But I can’t!”

“Just beat your wings!” Celestia cried out and let go of Luna.

Luna flapped them bravely, indeed managing to stay in the air for a couple of seconds, hovering on the spot like an oversized, periwinkle hummingbird. Celestia soared overhead and dragged her sister along with her, who laughed, then screamed, then laughed again. How free they had felt! How invigorating it was to escape from the confines of that chamber! And how wonderful it was to be here, soaring through the skies, the cool wind ruffling their feathers and fur, with her little sister, her sister! Celestia remembered the laughing most of all.

But something had gone wrong. As Celestia laughed, in a slip of attention, she hadn’t held the filly tight enough. Luna’s laughs soon turned into screams as she tumbled towards the castle grounds. Celestia only noticed at the very last instant that Luna had slipped from her grip, and as she dived after Luna, she realised she wasn’t going to make it.

“FLAP YOUR WINGS!” Celestia screamed, but the slipstream stifled her cries. Luna instinctively beat her wings, but at the velocity she was rushing towards the ground, the chance of overcoming air drag was very low. Celestia, whose heart was palpitating madly, pressed her own wings snug against her body and simply speared down, willing her muscles to be as tightly clenched as possible so as to be faster. In the very last moment, when she felt the ground approaching, she opened her eyes and grabbed Luna’s neck from right under her with her mouth.

They were barely two feet over the ground.

Celestia wrapped herself around her sister like a hedgehog to protect her from the impact, and the next instant, a blinding pain tore through her shoulder. She skidded a few feet before finally coming to rest on the lawn, her little sister wrapped in her hoofs, safe and unscathed.

They breathed heavily. Luna’s eyes were closed, and Celestia felt her tiny heart boom furiously in her chest. Celestia gasped for air. Only very slowly did her breathing normalise, her heart beat at a regular rhythm, and the adrenaline evaporate from her veins. She felt Luna’s warmth against her body, and the sounds of their raspy breathing intermingled.

After what seemed like an eternity, Luna started to cry.

“No,” Celestia said weakly, still out of breath. “Don’t cry...”

Luna rolled off Celestia with a thud. “I told you I couldn’t fly!” wailed the filly. “I told you! Why did you make me?”

“I didn’t -- Loony -- where are you going?”

“Getting Mom,” said the filly and stomped up towards the castle.

“To tell on me?”

“No,” squeaked Luna, her face full of confused tears. “Because you’re hurt!”

***

Celestia’s subsequent trip to the infirmary had ended with an acquittal by her mother, who apparently thought Celestia had been punished enough for any further house arrest to be necessary. “I don’t believe in punishment, anyways,” her mother had confided in Celestia. “It’s your nannies. But what can I do? They won’t be able to keep up with you if they can’t even give you house arrest.”

“Sooo... can you tell them... not to give us house arrest anymore?”

“Sure. I’m Queen Gaia, monarch of Equestria, remember?” And she gave an impish laugh.

Gaia’s nonchalant attitude, however, did little to hide the fact that she was first and foremost insanely relieved nothing worse had happened. Celestia’s shoulder was unscathed except for some superficial bruises. She could then already leave a few hours after her mother’s visit.

As Celestia trotted back to their chamber that evening, on the corridor, she saw her mother’s large figure sitting on the balcony, her back turned to the door, unflanked by any guards or adjutants and all alone; a rare sight. She simply seemed to enjoy the impending sunset, her spring-green plumage aglow with the soft evening light; a golden halo surrounded her entire figure.

But something else attracted Celestia’s attention: she heard animated laughter from inside of the guard’s quarters. That was often the case at this hour of day, but this time, she stayed, pricking up her ears when she heard the name Luna. She soundlessly approached the door and leaned in to listen, trying hard to discern the muffled voices on the other side of the door.

“Yeah, she flew today“, blurted a young, rough voice from inside. “I saw her fly with her sister. Seems like she’s teaching her.“

“Damn, she’s learning fast.“

“Too fast for my liking.“

“It’s not enough that she’s giving everypony the creeps with her weirdness, her whole creepy stare, now she can fly too! Great!“

“I tell you, that foal ain’t right.“

“Remember last week? Her little accident. I had a full two day of stomachaches afterwards. I keep saying, that ain’t right, but what can you do? She’s royalty. Can’t just say, nope, sorry, Gaia, not gonna be around that creep of a daughter anymore!”

“Keep it down some, guys,” a nervous voice tried to placate, but was quickly drowned out.

“Well, you can’t be right when you’re supposed to represent the night — I don’t envy that kid, no wonder folks are afraid of her!“

“Hey, I don’t mind the night!“

“Yeah, cause that’s the time to get drunk!“

With those words, roaring laughter emerged from inside of the quarters, and what sounded like beer mugs being clinked.

“Accident,” Celestia mouthed.

She had heard enough. Confused and intimidated, she hurried towards their chamber, certainly not with the intention to tell the vulnerable Luna what she had heard. And there was another, new feeling inside of her.

Anger.

***

There was no father in Celestia’s and Luna’s life, and especially Celestia soon tried to fill that hole by seeking out the friendship of the oldest and most experienced guards in the castle. The Queen had put this stallion in charge of castle security — a mostly consultative capacity — in recognition of his merit and experience in battle. Word on the castle grounds — which had not reached the filly — was that the respected old pony had suffered heavy wounds in battle, and not just of the physical nature. He was friendly towards Celestia and her sister, and since he himself had no family anypony knew of, ponies murmured that he started to regard especially Celestia as a surrogate daughter.

His name was Acier; everypony agreed that it must be foreign, although he had no discernible accent, and there was nopony still around at court to remember when he had first arrived to work as a guard; except maybe for the queen herself. Taciturn by nature, he did not take to ponies asking him about his past; and because young Celestia like any foal was thoroughly uninterested in the past, that was a perfect fit. Any glum lifestory he might have had thus remained hidden to Celestia; neither did it initially strike her as odd that he didn't seem to have a cutie mark.

Acier had an uncommon hobby for a war veteran, or maybe not as uncommon as could be assumed. He spent his free afternoons in his workshop — which was essentially his sleeping chamber — in front of his workbench, to work on intricate and fine jewellery. His specialty was gems. He had an intimate relationship with them, perhaps more intimate than with any pony, and when he spoke of them, his benign old eyes would light up, and his taciturnity seemed gone. Maybe, Celestia thought now, he needed the delicate beauty of gems to compensate for all the ugliness and horrors he had witnessed.

In any case, Acier was the one she turned to when she heard the guards’ whispers about Luna. She visited him, a habit she had taken on, in his workshop-chamber; it was always overfilled with cutting tools and gems and metals, in a state of constant disarray which Acier swore was actually a very cleverly thought out order. Along one side of the room, there ran a giant key-board, on which he kept the keys to all the castle’s major doors. In any case, there were so many gems in so many colours lying there that the room was constantly bathed in a rainbow-coloured sparkle: they refracted the sunlight.

She entered the workshop. “Acier?” she called. “I wanna ask you something. I was walking back from dinner today, and then … I ran into a couple of guards,” she swindled, preferring not to admit she had eavesdropped. “And they were making fun of Loony. Why were they making fun of Loony?”

The stallion froze.

“Making fun of her?” the sturdy pony said finally, interrupting his work for a while to benignly look at the filly. “How? What did they say?”

“They called her creepy,” Celestia said, spitting the word out as though it left a nasty taste in her mouth.

He sighed, then proceeded to close the door behind her. “They’re afraid of her is all. Bloody bunch of idiots.”

“Afraid?” Celestia asked. “Why are they afraid?”

He looked at her, weighing how deep the bond of trust between them ran, and whether it was worth telling the truth. He decided it was. “There’s been talk about funny stuff going on with that filly,” he sighed.

Celestia frowned. “That filly,” she said, “is my sister, and she has a name, Luna, Princess Luna, thank you very much.” She puffed her chest, which appeared ridiculous; yet Acier didn’t laugh, but just nodded earnestly.

“You’re right. I’m sorry, Tia.”

“Apology accepted,” she chirped with dignity. “But what funny stuff?”

“Well, she’s... apparently, she’s known to have some trouble containing her ... her magic. I don’t really know much, I don’t see her that often — and different from you she doesn’t really visit me here…”

“Her magic“, Celestia murmured and remembered Luna’s fruitless attempts to make the daisy blossom. “I didn’t think she was really good with her magic yet…“

The guard went back to work, chipping away the gem at hoof with a very finely controlled chisel, which he was moving in midair using his horn. He sanded off any rough edges. Celestia observed him, mildly interested, before asking him what he was working on.

“A brooch,” he said.

“For whom?”

He smirked. “Gonna be a present for you.”

“For me?”

“For the two of you. One for you, and one for your sister. You see, this is a very special stone that I’m working on here. Want to have a look?”

She came closer to the workbench and propped up her tiny front hooves so that she could see what was on the surface. The gem that lay there looked inconspicuous at first, but when she took a closer look, she realised its colour was divided neatly in two halves: one half was a bright white, the other a dark night blue. It had a beautiful sparkle to it.

“It’s a bistone,” he said. “Those are pretty rare to find, let me tell you. Pity it’s not going to stay whole.”

“Not whole?” she asked incredulously. “Are you going to... split it up?”

“Well, yes. How else could I make two brooches out of it?”

“But... if you split it up, it won’t be as beautiful, cause it’s not one anymore.”

“Is that so?” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “Or will it be even more beautiful than before? Wouldn’t I have made two beautiful pieces of jewellery out of a single rough stone?”

“It’s just not... right... to split it up,” she insisted.

“Well, sometimes, Tia,” he said conspiratorially, “two things that were apart will grow all the stronger when they find each other once more.”

She tried to understand his words, but no matter how much she mulled them over, they didn’t make any sense to her. So she simply brushed them aside while watching him sand the stone, cringing when he finally made the cut and started to polish the two halves until they had a smooth shimmer to them. In the end, they both had the forms of perfect half-orbs that could be put together at the intersection to form one perfectly round, two-coloured marble.

“D’you think I should tell mom?” Celestia blurted suddenly.

“You mean about the guards?” Acier asked in surprise.

“Yeah. Cause if I tell her —”

“— she’d surely send them to the moon, yes,” he said gravely. “Or rather, she’ll have me do it. But at the end of the day, that decision is up to you, Tia. Do you want to punish them?”

“Punish them?” She looked up at the stallion, surprised at the question. “Well... I don’t know... I don’t wanna punish them, I just want to know what problem they have with her. Because to be honest, it makes me a little angry to hear them talk about her like that. Well, very angry.”

“That’s normal. You’re protective of your sister.”

“I mean, it’s just not their business, you know?”

“Oh, I know. Well, if you want to, I can have a word with them. I’m sure they’ll get the memo sooner rather than later.”

But they never would.

***

Celestia distinctly remembered one day in particular from their childhood; she was nine at the time, and Luna six. It had been a mild summer afternoon, and the air around Canterlot was heavy and sweet with the odours of the ongoing fruit harvest; the apple trees planted all over the castle’s demesne were covered with apples and abandoned harvest baskets. Celestia had dragged Luna out into the castle grounds to investigate a rumour one of the castle guards had made her aware of.

“She said,” a breathless Celestia told Luna, her voice a conspiratorial whisper, “that there’s a phoenix around here.”

Luna’s eyes widened. “Woah,” she said, and then added: “What’s a phoenix, Tia?”

“A bird!” Celestia announced. “A huge red bird with really beautiful gold lines and stuff which is really pretty and really rare.”

“Woah,” her sister said again.

“And we two,” Celestia said mischievously, “we are going to catch it!”

“Catch it? But isn’t that — dangerous?”

“Pah, for the bird maybe.”

“But why do you wanna catch it?”

“Cause it’ll be really fun,” assured Celestia. “And you can practise flying. Okay, here’s our plan.” Like a general leaning over a map of battlegrounds, she bent over a tiny crayon drawing with a clumsily drawn map of the castle grounds. “The phoenix was seen here —” she pointed towards a horribly misspelt caption on the map “and if it’s still there, which it will be, we are gonna catch it and bam! We’ve got ourselves a new pet.”

Luna wasn’t entirely convinced about the viability of Celestia’s plan. “Won’t it just fly away when it feels threatened?”

“Well, yeah, duh. But we’ve got wings too, right? So then we’ll just fly after him!”

“I can’t fly,” muttered Luna.

“Oh yes you can, Loony, you flew great when we were grounded in that tower, remember?”

Luna stared blankly at Celestia, then shook her head. “Yeah, but that was different,” she peeped. “You pushed me out of a window.”

“Oh yeah... right... but I also caught you to make up for it! You just need a little more confidence, that’s all!”




They indeed found the phoenix, so their hunt ended not without success — and yet with mixed results. It turned out that Luna had been so afraid of the phoenix that she couldn’t hold it in place as had been instructed; she shrieked and ran away towards the castle in fear, leaving Celestia to catch the bird with her horn’s powers (which was considerably less fun). She put an apple crate over the bird to keep it in place, but for some reason that had everything to do with the intricacy of sisterly relationships, she didn’t feel content about her success, but rather let down by her sister.

“You didn’t do it right, Loony! You’re doing it all wrong!” Celestia spouted with tears of anger in her eyes at nopony in particular (since her sister was far off by now). “You were supposed to hold it!”

But Luna had run for it and wasn’t there anymore. Instead, it was somepony else who came striding over the hill: a large, sleek alicorn with a spring-green hue; on her chest there hung resplendent a gold collier with a large, rough diamond in its middle, of infinite beauty, of infinite purity...

Her mother looked at Celestia in the grass, blinking surprisedly, and then smiled when she understood what was going on, the phoenix trapped under the crate and Celestia’s angry cries. She lightly stepped down the hill and embraced Celestia.

“Shh, shh, shh,” made her mother and cradled her close against her chest. “No need to cry. Maybe, Tia, it’s you who’s doing it all wrong.”

Celestia said nothing but had stopped crying, feeling her mother’s warmth against her, breathlessly, her eyes wide open. Her mother extended a hoof through the broad gaps between the crate’s beams and carefully petted the sleek phoenix. The bird didn’t object in the slightest and responded to the caresses by craning its beautiful neck and cooing softly.

“What a proud and graceful bird. Do you really think she’ll be happy in that cage?”

“It’s… she’s… a she?” Celestia muttered sheepishly.

Her mother gave a silvery laugh. “Of course! You haven’t found a name for her yet then, I assume?”

Celestia shook her head.

“Well, maybe I can make a suggestion.” She patted Celestia’s forehead. “How about Grace?”

“I don’t know, mom,” Celestia said, confused by the prolonged attention she was receiving. “Grace … Grace is a weird name for a bird…”

“Do you think so?” her mother said softly. “I like it.” She traced the silvery patterns on the bird’s coat with her hooves. Its fiery and mysterious eyes looked back at her, moonstruck, as though an invisible band ran between them. Celestia felt her anger dissipate. What did it matter that Luna hadn’t caught the bird properly? Wasn’t that a luck?

“There’s only one thing that really counts,” her mother continued gently. “Grace. Grace, grace, grace, that’s the most important thing you can ever have. That you can ever share with the world.”

She softly kissed her daughter’s forehead. “Grace,” she repeated, and with a glow of her horn set the phoenix free.

The dazed bird looked around, incredulous about this lucky turn of fate, and tentatively moved its wings. When it saw all resistance gone, all constraints removed, it got up on its hindlegs, as though afraid of toppling over, and finally propelled itself into the air; its two large, scarlet wings fully outstretched, it rose high above them and finally let itself glide with the wind. It looked down at them and emitted a loud but pleasant-sounding cry that sounded almost grateful.

Her mother followed the bird with her eyes, then turned back to Celestia.

“I think you’re growing up, Tia,” she said mildly. “There’s no denying it. You’re growing up. Tears of anger really don’t suit you.” She lightly caressed Celestia’s rosy, flowing mane, then got up reluctantly when one of her adjutants, who had just appeared on the hill to interrupt their moment, called her.

“Queen Gaia,” he said nervously. “We need you in the castle, please.”

She nodded without turning to face him, still smiling at Celestia. “Grace,” she said again. “Don’t you ever forget, Sunray, what grace can do.” And then, after winking at Celestia, she let go of her to follow her servants into the castle. Celestia struggled to get up on her hooves.

“I’ll see you at dinner, mom!” she cried after her mother. The queen turned around and smiled, still striding away. “Yes!” she shouted back. “I’ll see the two of you, Tia!”

We’ll see you at dinner,” Celestia murmured, but her mother was already out of earshot.

“Grace...

She looked up towards the sky, where the faint outline of the phoenix was still visible, rising higher and higher; soon it was only a tiny speck of shadow against the vast bright sunlight, and then gone. There was a twinge in her heart: had all their work been in vain? To simply let free the phoenix they had tried so hard to catch!

But somewhere in her heart, she felt that her mother was right, and that letting go of something that wanted to be free was the only proper course of action; that clutching on to something could be selfish. And that grace could set yourself free, too.

“Goodbye, Grace,” she murmured. Then, not without a pang of guilt, she got up to look after her sister.





“A phoenix,” Acier said later that day and clucked his tongue. “That’s something.”

Celestia had visited him once again in his workshop and, somewhat overeagerly, recounted their little adventure, flailing her hooves about wildly to demonstrate the phoenix’s narrow escape and eventual triumph. When she described how she had nonetheless managed to trap the bird under the box, her excitement waned, and she felt a slight pricking of remorse.

“And then,” she hurried to say, “my mom came, and she said the phoenix wasn’t a he, but a she!

“Oh really? How did she know?” the old guard asked amusedly and continued beating the adamant he was smithing.

“I dunno… but my mom is really good with animals, I guess…”

He nodded sagely. “That is true. She’s very good with animals.”

“And my mom gave her a name, you’ll never guess what it is!”

“Mrs Steerforth?”

“What? No. She named her Grace!”

“That’s a weird name for a bird,” he acknowledged, and Celestia felt validated.

He stopped a moment, waiting for the adamant to cool, and took on a pensive expression as he fixed her with his gaze. “A phoenix,” he said again. “Those are really rare, powerful birds. Normal ponies would never be able to catch one, much less... on a whim...”

Celestia couldn’t help but smile proudly. His gaze, however, was at most only half praising, the other half being more curious or even analytic. “And Luna helped?” he asked after a while.

“Yeah,” she said, “but Luna’s not that good at flying yet…”

“And is she good at magic?”

Celestia shook her head. “Not yet…”

“She’s six now, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. I got three years on her, remember?”

“Oh, o’course.” He dipped the metal into a small bath of water to cool it down, then recommenced working on it. “You know, I’ve seen a phoenix, once. Just once.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. But that’s been a long, long, long time ago, in a faraway place. I had no idea that two lil’ cubs like you were just gonna go for a walk in the park and find one flying around these parts. Just like that!” He clicked his hooves. “You know what a phoenix can do?”

“What do you mean?” Celestia asked blankly. “Fly?”

“That too. But any bird can fly. And a phoenix isn’t just like any normal, run-of-the-mill fowl. They can do something amazing. Something that, now that I think about it, you can do, too.” He was looking at her directly now, as though he saw her for the very first time.

“What?” Celestia asked. “Well, I can fly, too, not very well, but—”

“Not that. A phoenix can live forever.”

“But I… oh,” she said, not without disappointment. Living forever didn’t really seem like any special power to her back then. Not necessarily because she herself had this property — which she would painfully struggle with later — but first and foremost because any child can only imagine the here and now and maybe at the most the next mealtime, but never the meaning of a term as abstract and obscure as “forever”. Accordingly, a lack of mortality didn’t really speak to her in particular. For example, she was blissfully unaware that the guard in front of her, her good friend Acier, would die one day, and sooner rather than later. Even if somepony had told her, what bearing would it have had on the here and now? And if someone had told her that things would change with time, that she wouldn’t always be with her sister -- would she even have understood the significance of that at that point? (She understood now. How things had changed!)




“And when my mother came and saw me, she said,” Celestia added proudly, “that I was growing up. That I’ll probably have magic lessons soon and stuff.”

He looked at her. “That’s what she said?”

“Yes.” Celestia cocked her head. “Then she had to leave go with her stupid adjutants again.”

“You’re not happy about that, are you?”

Celestia shook her head violently.

“Well, your mother… she’s very busy these days. I mean, she’s always busy, but now even more so than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Celestia nodded and lowered her gaze. If anypony had noticed, it was clearly her, she thought heavily.

“You know — there’s bad ponies who are trying to hurt her in Canterlot right now. Who aren’t keeping their promises. Who are talking behind your mother’s back.”

Celestia raised her head to look at the old pony. “What do you mean?”

“That they’re trying to —” He stopped in his tracks, then started anew. “Just that your mother is very busy right now, trying to deal with these ponies.”

“But why would they… don’t they… don’t they like mom?”

He sighed. “Most do. We’ll just have to wait and see.” And there was something apologetic, sympathetic even, in his gaze. Celestia was manifestly confused; realising for the first time that one’s parents weren’t universally loved — or that anything wasn’t, for that matter — was a troubling experience for any child.

“There we go,” Acier said as he pulled out the cooled and ornate metal from its bath. He looked at it approvingly and showed it to Celestia. “It’s for your bistone brooches, you know? I hope you haven’t forgotten about those.”

Her eyes widened. “Are they — are they ready now?”

“Oh, not yet,” he said. “That’s gonna take a while. Maybe in one, two years?”

“Two years? But that’s, like, an eternity…

“Well, Tia, maybe good metal needs a bit of time to ripen. To mature, if you so will.”

That, of course, was clearly nonsense. But maybe he had meant to say that she needed to mature first?





That evening, the two fillies both lay awake for a long time in their chamber. Celestia mulled over Acier’s words. There’s bad ponies in Canterlot who aren’t keeping their promises. Which bad ponies? Which promises?

“Tia,” Luna said timidly into the dark of the room. “Are you… are you asleep?”

“No,” sighed Celestia after a long moment of silence.

“Me neither.”

“I know, Loony.”

Celestia heard Luna take a deep breath. There was another moment of silence in which they both contemplated the stars on the enchanted ceiling above. The stars were teetering back and forth, as though affixed to some invisible, gelatinous substance. Their feeble light danced on the walls in mesmerising patterns. Somewhere off in the distance, a galaxy spiralled. Bad ponies who are talking behind your mom’s back...

“Are you - are you still mad at me, Tia?”

“Because of the phoenix? No,” Celestia whispered, her lids half-closed. “No, I’m not mad at you.”

“But you’re mad at somepony. Somepony else then,” Luna insisted.

“Why do you think that?”

Silence.

“Cause I know what being mad at somepony looks like,” Luna said finally. “What it feels like.”

Celestia said nothing. The only sound between them was their slow, almost inaudible breathing.

“And you, are you mad at me, Loony?”

“No,” Luna said after a while. “But I’m sad about you sometimes.”

Silence.

“I can’t sleep,” said Luna.

“Mhm,” said Celestia into her pillow.

“Can you … can you sing a lullaby?”

Celestia rolled over and exhaled deeply. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, time to fall asleep right now.“

Silence.

“That was… that didn’t even rhyme.” Luna tittered.

“Well, I’m not a poet,” grinned Celestia.

Above them, Earth whizzed past its giant mother star, a tiny, tiny speck of shadow in front of the Sun’s vast, bright light. And yet besides that, all was dark and cold in the universe.

Bad ponies trying to hurt your mother...

Celestia knew that Luna was still awake; but she felt her own lids grow heavy, her vision darkening, and her breathing slow down. “I love you, Luna,” she murmured, only half-conscious, before finally falling asleep.

***

Celestia’s dreams had been a vague amalgamation of shapes and light, indistinct figures walking towards her on shaky hooves; faces she did neither know nor could make out with any clarity. Her dream had started off grey and gloomy, but soon, more colours appeared: a soft spring green, a periwinkle blue, and then a flaming red that had almost blinded her with its refulgence, accompanied by a soothing, cooing call...

A phoenix, Celestia murmured.

The dream had burned in the image of the phoenix flying to freedom for good; it had managed to chase away any thoughts about Acier’s words and replaced them with undiluted beauty. Images have that proclivity. They tend to simply override words.

So that day, Celestia took it upon herself to find out more about the creature; she entered the castle’s library for what was maybe the first time and obtained a book on the Creatures of Equestria. It was leather-clad and certain to date back at least a century, but it would do the job. Celestia obviously knew how to read, but this was the first time she had delved into a book by her own initiative. There was something to opening a book, finding information and finishing a chapter that was strangely rewarding. Rewarding in a different way than catching a phoenix could ever be.

She stayed up late reading the tome; when she had finished the chapter on phoenixes, she simply went back and started over. But her lids were already heavy, and the letters in front of her started to blur.


The PHOENIX, or firebird, is an ornate bird approximately the size of an eagle. It is not a bird of prey and appears indeed independent of any kind of nourishment. Its specimens can be easily distinguished by their flame-coloured coat, with orange, yellow and scarlet red hues, as well as the intricate silver patterns that embellish their feathers; and no less by their distinctive, soothing cry, resembling the cooing of a dove...

Celestia’s head slumped onto the book and she finally dozed off. As the book bounced off the floor, another chapter sprang open.


But the most dangerous creature of all is the DRACONEQUUS, a mythical beast, an abomination against nature, an ancient being that by its very nature must not be... that thrives on disorder and strife, that feasts on undoing what others have built... cruel, cunning and reckless, its evasive and volatile disposition makes it invulnerable ... to almost any sort of attack ... indeed makes it impossible to recognise it for what it truly is.

***

As the years went on, Celestia’s conception of being a queen in the future changed from the idealised conception of a queen every little filly had, the fairy tale that everypony wanted to live, into the realisation that being a queen would entail a lot of responsibility and skill, and hard work on the road to that point. Since Celestia was three years older than Luna, that at some point meant they could spend less time together. This observation wasn’t yet obvious to Luna, who remained the foal she was; a loveable kid, but not yet embarked on the slow and long path to adolescence Celestia was already starting to climb. She felt stressed about her future, to say the least.

The book Celestia had consulted on the phoenix had instilled something else in her: a hunger for knowledge. What was more, she had at some point made the observation that academic success could be an outlet for her own feelings of inadequacy; they made her feel more justified in being a princess, as though she could earn herself the title through studious work. And they resulted in praise. Young Celestia thrived on it; words of praise from her mother were few and in between, and when Celestia was thrown that bone, she gobbled it up eagerly. Elogies about her academic progress were one of the few constants of their mother-daughter relationship, maybe because scholarly achievement constituted such a tangible and concrete measure of Celestia's mental development. Celestia then slowly started to spend less time outside with her sister and more at a desk, determined to do right by her future; even if those feelings of inadequacy would never go away, and the insecurity about her perceived ineptitude only grew stronger.

***

One day, the two sisters were on a trip to the Everfree Forest, where the castle was being built that was to become theirs one day. By the evening, Celestia found Luna on a cliff throning over the woods; she was crying. Luna had always been a weepy foal, sensitive, hurting; but the last year had been a time where things had been especially bad, where she would bawl her eyes out for no obvious reason. When she didn’t cry, she was silent and reserved, strangely removed from the goings-on around her in the castle.

Celestia walked up to the filly and sat beside her. Their silhouettes stood out against the twilight of the impending night, one slightly larger than the other. Celestia knew better than to talk to her sister. She knew there were times when silent comfort was all that was needed. She laid a hoof around Luna and joined her in staring down onto the peaceful forest. The woods’ tranquility was interrupted only by a birds’ concert to embrace the impending twilight.

After a while, Luna spoke up. “Tia...”

“Yeah?”

“They’re building this castle for us, right?”

“... yeah.”

“But I can’t stay with you here when it’s done. I’ll have to run away.”

Celestia was bewildered. “Run away?”

“Yeah.”

Celestia gave a silvery laugh.

“Why would you have to run away? Don’t be silly. You’re my sister. This will be our castle. We’re meant to rule together one day, Loony. That’s certain.”

But she saw in Luna’s eyes that that was a future the filly was already doubting; upon Celestia’s words, she averted her eyes, and instead looked out over the grounds in front of them. She was apparently scrambling to put her torment in words. “How do we know,” she said finally. “How do we know that we’re meant to become queens?”

Celestia lightly touched Luna’s flank, who shivered at the touch. “It’s our cutie marks,” she said. “We’ve got them since birth, have we not? They are our destiny. If anything is certain, then it’s this: One rules the light, one rules the night. The one can’t live without the other. We’re meant to rule together.”

Luna looked on doubtfully. “But night and day can never be together. One can’t exist with the other around.” Celestia’s smile faded. “One destroys the other. They’re opposites, they’ll never be together in the same place.”

“What’re you talking about, Luna? That’s nonsense.”

The filly shook her head. “There’s times,” she said, “when I’m all alone, when all around me’s silent, and then I can’t help but hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“That small buzzing in my head. It’s not really a voice... you can’t really make out what it says word by word. But I know that it tells me I’ll do something horrible. Like it’s telling my future. And it’s right. Sometimes I don’t even notice it. I’ll get angry for no reason, and I can make things happen to ponies. Bad things. Without me really wanting to.”

Celestia stared at her. She recalled Luna’s words that night in the chamber. She also recalled how she had been sure to have heard voices from inside their chamber when Luna had been in there all alone. But then she gave a small, bright laugh. “I’ve never seen you get angry, Loony. With or without a reason. Never.”

The two sisters looked down on Canterlot. Somewhere in the distance, a fleet of birds launched themselves into the air, crying out to announce their departure. The north star was already faintly visible.

“Tia,” Luna said finally, as though she had been searching for words all this time. “I want you to promise me something.” Celestia looked at her sister in surprise. “Anything,” she said.

“Even when nopony else loves me anymore, will you love me for as long as we live?”

Luna was biting her lower lips, her gaze furtive, shyly waiting. Celestia looked at her and realised that this question must have been haunting her for quite some time now; surely she had been searching for a long time for the right words to pose it to Celestia, for the right moment. The thought brought a weird melancholy to Celestia.

“Of course,” she said, her mouth dry. “I will always love you, Luna. Always.”

“Even when everypony else will hate me? If they hate me.”

“Even if they all hate you.”

Luna’s gaze was deep and searching.

“And if you let me fall, and I don’t manage to beat my wings by myself, you’ll catch me?”

“Like I did the first time and always.”

“And you will never hurt me?”

“Never.”

Celestia looked at her sister mildly; as she looked into Luna’s face, she was suddenly swept up in an extreme rush of affection for her sister, the kind of love your body seems barely able to contain. She pulled her sister towards her and hugged her tightly. Luna smiled bravely as she met Celestia’s gaze.

“You’ll always be my sister, Luna,” Celestia said, tousling and grooming the filly’s mane. “No matter what happens.”

Celestia, who had finally received the bistone brooches Acier had completed a solid three years ago, felt like this was the proper moment to share them with her sister. She levitated the two perfectly circular brooches in front of them. “Look,” she said.

Luna raised her eyes. There were two of them; one dark, the other bright like a morning’s sun; the first had a finely engraved, silvery crescent on it, the second a six-rayed sun... and both were made from the selfsame stone.

As she continued grooming Luna’s mane, she carefully affixed the dark brooch to her sister’s chest; the other one to her own. The brooches stuck by themselves. Their engraved marks lit up very faintly as they made contact with their warm skin. “As long as we live, Luna,” Celestia whispered. “As long as we live, we will have these, and no matter where we are, we will always be together.”

Night fell, and since the moon was still feeble and narrow, it were the castle’s torches that made them cast their shadows; and what giant shadows they cast, projected all over the forest in front of them, broad at their bases and tapering towards their ends. Celestia raised her hoof, vaguely waving it, idly marvelling at its monstrous size. Her own shadow was even bigger than Luna’s. “I’m an elephant“, Celestia blurted and held the hoof so that its shadow resembled a trunk. Luna giggled. Then they fell silent again. Luna’s eyes were filled with the faint outline of the moon.

They both stared out into the night, Celestia and her younger sister, mutually reassured by each other’s presence, but not without melancholy. They were posing themselves the same question.

For how much longer can this bliss last?

***

Three months later, a week before Harvest Celebration, 12-year-old Celestia was walking down the floors of Canterlot Castle, whistling a toneless melody, when she bumped into two guards that appeared disoriented, stumbling down the corridor as though they were drunk. But that clearly wasn’t the case: it looked more as though fear lay in their eyes.

Before Celestia could think too much about them, she crossed another, completely unknown pony that she had never seen before: a sleek, yellow, slightly meager stallion with a dishevelled long mane. On his flank, he had what looked like a sweetcorn for a cutie mark. His wild gaze was unmistakeable: it was the gaze of someone who didn’t belong here, but was nevertheless determined to make his way.

Celestia froze. “Can — can I help you?” she stammered, her voice high-pitched.

“I hope so!” he cried madly, glee flashing in his eyes. She directly returned his gaze, her own eyes wide with shock. “You’re little Celestia, aren’t you? Lovely. Well, Celestia, can you tell me where I can find your mommy?”

Celestia felt her own heart palpitate, trying to think fast. “Mom — my mother — is not at home,” she squeaked. She had always been a bad liar.

“Well, maybe you can relay a message to her,” the pony said. He approached her, and she retreated towards the wall, her eyes wide with fear. Her heart hammered against her chest. His head came very close to her own. “Or I’ll talk to you directly.” She felt his breath on her face.

“Did you really think you could live so large?” the pony whispered menacingly. “Live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us? Your life here is perfect in every way, isn’t it? But outside of this castle’s walls — and yes, outside of this oh-so-glamorous, oh-so-fancy town — things aren’t looking as bright. Ponies aren't all that happy. There’s a lot of discontent.”

He bared his teeth, his voice deteriorating into a gruff, angry whisper.

“Right now, life here is perfect for you. But you’ll see soon enough, little princess, how fragile this little court life you have here really is. How vulnerable. How volatile. How very quickly this can all fall apart. For you see, little princess, ponies out there are furious. They will do anything to remove your mother from her throne.”

“W-why?”

“Because ponies out there are suffering. You wouldn’t know it from your fenced garden, where everything and everypony is beautiful and happy, but in all her elegance and graceful bliss, your mother must have forgotten that everypony has a tendency. A tendency to want the most for themselves. A tendency to want more than what they already have. And that’s why, if you want to or not, something is going to happen sooner rather than later. Just imagine what would happen then! How different things would be if it all came tumbling down all of a sudden. And we are almost there! All the goodwill in the world won’t be enough to avert it.”

“To avert what?” she managed to say.

A dispassionate smile spread over his face. “Regicide.

He cocked his head when he heard the sound of galloping hoofsteps from the corridor. “But don’t you worry about your mom just yet! There coming to get me now, little filly,” he said and smiled weakly. “It’s okay, I’m unarmed. I got nothing on them. Not yet.” He straightened up and continued grinning. “Be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness!”

Celestia stared back at him, her eyes wide open; his wild, blue-eyed gaze had something spellbinding to it.

The hoofsteps grew louder. “Be sure to greet your mother from me, little Celestia.”

Two guards dashed around the corner and shouted at each other.

“And your lovely sister,” he added, half-whispering, and closed his eyes.

They charged towards him.

“Be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness,” the stallion muttered once more.

Celestia shrieked. The two guards had thrown themselves towards the stallion and hit him over the head with the blunt end of their blades. The stallion immediately went down towards the ground, unconscious, but the two guards nonetheless kicked him hard in the stomach. “STOP!” Celestia screamed. “STOP!”

The guards looked up at her, but they were already done: one of them grabbed the unconscious stallion by the neck and dragged him around the corner, while the other tended to Celestia.

“It’s okay, Princess,” he said bluntly. “You’re safe now.”

“Safe?” she shrieked. “DON’T TOUCH ME!”

“This must be very troubling for you. We’re making sure that he can’t hurt you anymore, and that you’re in perfect security —”

Me? But what about him? Why did you do that to him?”

“Princess, do you realize that he was intending to hurt you —”

“He wasn’t! He was just — just talking — where — where are you taking him now?”

The guard, whose all too paternal patience was driving Celestia mad, inclined his head. “To the infirmary,” he said.

“You’re lying,” Celestia said through tears of anger. “WHERE ARE YOU TAKING HIM?”

Before the guard could answer once again, there were more hoofsteps, and when they whirled around, Queen Gaia herself faced them, her expression serious and fierce. “What happened here?” she asked quietly.

“Your Majesty,” the guard said and bowed deeply. “There’s been an intruder.”

“How could this have happened?” she asked immediately. “How could someone have entered the castle grounds without my guards noticing him?”

“They were — they were apparently distracted. I know nothing about that. My apologies for this lapse. The castle is now safe once again, my Queen.”

“Distracted,” she said tonelessly. “I see.”

“Mom!” Celestia cried and galloped towards her mother. “They hurt him! They hurt him real bad, they hit him over the head, he wasn’t moving anymore!” Her eyes, swimming with tears, were as questioning as they were angry. They were saying: Why, mom, are you letting this happen?

Her mother returned her look with sincerity, before posing the question that Celestia had asked before: “Where did you take him?”

“To — to the guard’s quarters — for further — disciplining—,” the guard stammered.

“Disciplining,” she said tonelessly.

“What does he mean by that?” Celestia said tearfully and pawed her mother’s flank.

Her mother didn’t look at her, but instead stared the guard in front of her directly in the eyes. As Celestia watched her mother, she saw something lying in that gaze that she had never seen before in her mother, something that scared her enough to stumble away from Gaia: cold, fierce anger.

“I will talk to him immediately,” her mother said without raising her voice, but very distinctly.

“Yes, Majesty.”

“You will take me to him right now.”

“Yes.”

“Nothing will happen to him. You will immediately put an end to whatever it is you call disciplining.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Afterwards, you and anyone else involved in this can pack their things and leave this castle and town forever.” There was unmistakeable disgust in her voice. “I don’t think you’re fit to wear this,” she added and looked down the guard’s ornate gold-plated armour.

The stallion’s eyes widened in shock, and he gulped. Celestia noticed that the thick vein on his neck was pulsing violently all of a sudden.

“I — your Majesty, with all due respect! I was just doing my job, trying to protect —”

“Doing your job,” Gaia repeated. “Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I don’t see what’s going on here?” The diamond on her chest sparkled menacingly.

Celestia looked anxiously from the dumbfounded guard, who was about to open his mouth in protest, to her mother, who cut him off.

“You’re going to lead me to this pony now. Did I make myself clear?” she asked coolly.

“P— perfectly clear, Majesty.”

“Great. Then let’s go,” she said. She looked down towards Celestia, who was staring blankly at both of them, and lightly touched her mane. “You need to go find Luna, Sunray…”

“... Luna? But I want to come —”

“You find Luna,” Gaia said again, and for the first time in her life, Celestia understood that her mother had issued her an order, and not a mere suggestion. Then, on swift, strong hooves, the Queen followed the dumbstruck guard down the hall.

And so it came to pass that, notwithstanding the filly’s horror, Celestia indeed got to be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness. But another thing had happened at this point, too, something that Celestia would recognise only much, much later.

The smallest part of her innocence had been lost.



When her heart's wild palpitations had abated somewhat, she got moving.

Luna?”

Her voice resounded through uncommonly empty corridors, but the filly was nowhere to be found. Celestia opened the door to their chamber; it was empty. She gallopped down the corridor, slowing her steps to appear a little more dignified and mature when she met a stray group of guards apparently returning to their quarters. Once past, she raced on. “Luna!” she shouted again. “Where are you?”

She finally found her on the palace balcony. Luna sat motionlessly, her back to the castle, staring out over Canterlot’s golden roofs, faintly illuminated by what little light there was left from the day.

“Luna,” Celestia said. “Good grace, I found you, you’re safe — have you been hiding here?”

The filly turned around to look at Celestia. Celestia froze; her gaze was so tired and empty that it made her shiver slightly. At the time, she couldn’t pinpoint the feeling; but Celestia now decided that Luna looked like someone who had suddenly stopped caring. Celestia was taken aback.

“Someone’s entered the castle,” she stammered, recalling her mother’s words. “Someone bad. An intruder.”

Her sister didn’t react at first. Then she cocked her head and looked at Celestia through strangely distant eyes. How her sister had grown, Celestia thought suddenly.

“I know there’s been an intruder,” Luna said calmly.

There was a short pause. Luna threw Celestia a furtive glance. “Tia…”

“Yeah?”

“You remember the promise you gave me, right?”

“… of course,” Celestia said in surprise.

“And you stand by it? You won’t hate me?”

“Of course I stand by it. I’ll never hate you, you’re my sister!”

Luna nodded lightly, then stared out into the darkness. Off in the distance, a bird called out.

“I let him in,” she said.

Celestia froze.

She wanted to believe it had been a joke. But there could be no doubt that Luna had been serious. Luna never joked. It wasn’t in her nature.

As Celestia looked at her sister, a prickling, hollowing sensation spread through her insides.

Why?” she managed to say.

“I don’t know, really,” her sister said with a strange calm. “I guess I was — I was feeling angry.”

Celestia blinked and slowly shook her head. “This isn’t right, Loony,” she said quietly. “This isn’t right. Somepony could have been hurt — somepony has been hurt. You shouldn’t — you shouldn’t have done this.”

Luna grimaced as though she had just bitten on something bitter.

“You just don’t know what it feels like,” she said finally. “To always be the leftover, the good-for-nothing, to be overlooked, always — always in the shadows of — of somepony else.” She looked as though she was going to vomit.

A short silence fell, in which Luna gritted her teeth, palpably going through some painful internal struggle. “Do you want me to show you,” the filly finally said, her voice strangely distanced. “What I did to those guards. Cause I can show you.”

Celestia shook her head. “What you did to those guards?”

Luna threw her a look, then closed her eyes.

“What’re you doing?”

Luna’s face contorted in utmost concentration. Something very weird was happening to her cutie mark: the dark clouds that had always been there grew larger, swelled, and pushed themselves in front of the faintly glowing moon. Celestia blinked. Was this real? Soon, the dark clouds had enveloped the crescent, obscuring it completely. Celestia stepped back. Luna’s eyes looked on in utmost concentration; there was a ghostly white glow in them that Celestia had never seen before.

And then, the darkness left the confines of Luna’s cutie mark. It started to spread around Luna, compressing the dusk’s light that was all around them and crushing it into night, gradually enveloping everything around her in a thick, pitch-black cloud. All of a sudden, Celestia was afraid.

“Stop it, Loony,” she said anxiously. “This isn’t — this isn’t normal —”

What lay in Luna’s eyes? A plead for help? A trace of defiance? Fear?

“Stop that now,” she said again, more emphatically. Like a gas, the darkness kept growing, encroaching, obscuring everything around them. Luna looked on blankly. “STOP IT, LOONY —”

“DON’T — CALL — ME — LOONY!”

Celestia gasped for breath, a shiver racing down her spine as she was submerged in the black; it was suffocating, vertiginous, everything started to swirl, and then, it hit her like a solid wall. Fear. Like an anchor heaved from the most profound depths of her heart to float atop her consciousness. Fear. Not just any fear. Her own fear. Her mother, dead. Luna, dead. The castle in ruins. All the happiness seemed gone from the world. No more light. No more hope.

A gargling sound emerged from her throat.She struggled, drowning, kicking her legs desperately to get to the surface. And then, before she was over the edge, she managed to pull together all her willpower, to tap the one source of warmth and light inside her that would never go away, and then, in a panicked flash of light that burst from her horn, the darkness around her dissipated.

Celestia opened her eyes, catching her breath. It was over. The golden light of the sunset returned to them, the clouds disappearing from Luna’s flank. Luna was as tiny as she had been before, but this time, Celestia didn’t dare to hug and comfort her. No, this time, that glimmer of white remained in Luna’s eyes; even behind all that sadness, Celestia was sure of it.

Her sister looked at her with tears in her eyes. “My name is Luna,” she breathed. Tears were all over her face.

“You look so beautiful, Tia,” Luna finally said, searching for words. “Not like me. You look so pretty and... full of grace. Like a large and noble swan. So strong. And you’re… so loved. You’re so loved, god, you have no idea how loved you are.

Her voice was urgent, pleading, supplicating. But Celestia didn’t say anything.

Luna looked at her sadly for a while; then she got up and trotted off. She halted and very lightly turned her head back towards Celestia, without looking at her directly.

“They were talking about you, you know,” she said quietly. “They said you were going to ascend to the throne later. They also that I wasn’t reliable. That my mom wouldn’t want me to follow in her hoofsteps anymore.”

Celestia shook her head irritatedly.

“But they also said something else,” she babbled on. “They talked about Mom. They said she wasn’t gonna make it much longer. That she was too squeamish, too hesitant to make the tough choices.”

“So what did you say,” Celestia said, aware of the strange, foreign sound her voice had all of a sudden. “You agreed, didn’t you.”

“No, I told them to shut their dirty mouths or they were going straight to the moon,” Luna said, tears still running through her fur. She turned away with a jerk and disappeared inside of the castle.

Celestia could have followed her. She could have gone after her. Maybe she could have made it all right; maybe this possibility still existed, and the train hadn’t gone off the rails yet. But she felt too estranged, too alienated to go after Luna, and so she didn’t. Instead, she straightened up, her muscles tensing and stiffening, and turned to look out over the balcony’s balustrades, over the castle’s immeasurable grounds.

Night and day can never be together, said Luna.

Regicide, said the intruder with the sweetcorn cutie mark.

“Celestia Sunray,” said Celestia into the upcoming, cloudy night, “and Luna Moonlight.”

But no response came back. All was silent.


To be continued. Next chapter: Truth in Our Hearts.

My first fic. This took me quite a while, any comments are welcome. Thanks to Cadmium, Demetrius and gracious EqD pre-reader A1X3 for their helpful suggestions!

Amazing original artwork by CuteSkitty.

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