• 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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Truth in Our Hearts

Chapter 2
Truth in Our Hearts

« In all that doubt, she found certitude. »


The night everything changed, young Celestia had slept very poorly.

She remembered no dreams. That wasn’t because she hadn’t had any. On the contrary; only that her nightmares had not been of the visible, but of the visceral kind. Vague feelings of dread had gripped her. While her sleep was usually sound and peaceful, this night had been very agitated; her bedclothes were ruffled. She had thrashed about wildly, mumbled indistinct words, seen shapeless evils.

Maybe it was for that reason that when Celestia awoke, this morning felt very different from the previous one. As she opened her eyes to the feeble sunlight so hesitantly creeping into the room, she saw a tall, leaf-green figure standing in the doorframe.

For how long had her mother been watching her sleep?

“Tia,” Gaia said and smiled. “Come have breakfast with me.”

That was something Celestia needn’t be told twice. She immediately got up and stole a glance at her sister; she was apparently still fast asleep, and thankfully so, Celestia thought. Outside of the narrow gable window, dawn had barely broken, and traces of night still lingered amongst the fresh morning.

“Come with me,” Gaia said again.

The entire castle was silent as they walked down the corridors. Celestia wasn’t a late riser by any means, but this was early even by her standards. Judging by the sun’s position, it was barely five o’clock. She yawned heartily as she stumbled alongside her mother, while the Queen was already wide awake, her green gaze attentive as ever. “Are we going to the dining room?” Celestia asked groggily as she tried to keep up.

“No, Sunray... with this weather, I’d much rather go outside and enjoy the sunrise, don’t you think?” And they headed for the balcony where Celestia had sat just the night before and contemplated the darkness.

Seemingly overnight, autumn had befallen the castle grounds. Granted, the leaves still remained on the trees; but while most of them remained a summery green, some were starting to turn a pale shade of yellow. Birds were already up on their feet, speeding from tree to tree to feed their young. The air carried the lazy sweetness of early autumn. The first light of the morning cast them in a stark, abundant light; the heart-shaped diamond on Gaia’s chest sparkled mysteriously.

Gaia made an opulent breakfast appear out of thin air, and they ate in complete silence for a good quarter of an hour. The only sound between them was the clattering of dishes and silverware, and perhaps, the anticipation of words yet to be spoken.

When they were finished, Gaia spirited away the dishes. Celestia turned to look at her. There was something her mother wanted to tell her; surely, Celestia thought glumly, she didn’t simply want to share a breakfast with her daughter.

“You’ve brought me here, because —”

“Because I know you have questions, Tia. And I just — I just want to give you an opportunity to get answers to those questions. Because I haven’t been forthcoming enough in the past. It’s your right to get answers. I will answer everything.”

“So... because of yesterday—” Celestia started, but Gaia simply nodded.

“These walls are thick,” she said and pointed at the castle walls underneath them. “Very, very thick. And thicker than just simple walls of stone. There are other protections at work here; very, very powerful magic that I myself have put in place. Protections that will safeguard this castle — and us.”

“But they didn’t yesterday,” Celestia murmured.

Gaia sighed. “Things have changed by now. I was certain the castle’s shields were impenetrable, but there are some holes that — that you cannot close. And there are some ponies driven enough to go to insane lengths to have their way. You can only protect yourself against something like that so much. The stallion that you saw yesterday: he was foolish enough to risk his life trying to hurt me.”

“Or maybe,” Celestia muttered after a while, “he knew that you wouldn’t do anything to him, and wasn’t risking his life at all.”

Her mother turned to look at Celestia; there was curiosity in her gaze, and as she stared at her daughter, Celestia had the distinct feeling of being seen right through.

“He couldn’t really have done anything, though,” Celestia said and cocked her head. “He didn’t — he didn’t have any weapons. That’s what he said. But I don’t understand that,” she continued hastily. “Why would you do that... without a weapon? It makes no sense.”

“Do you really think any weapon he could have brought would have been a threat to me?” Her eyes sparkled profoundly. “You know, Tia, that I’m not just any unicorn. It’s not that simple to come and hurt me, no matter how well you’re prepared. So don’t you worry about me just yet. That’s not what he was after.”

“But what then?”

“Scaring us, no doubt. He wanted to prove that it was possible to enter the castle in the first place.”

Celestia drooped her head. “Then he’s done it, hasn’t he? He’s scared us.” She could not quite put her feelings in words: somepony had invaded her most intimate living space. Once more, the intruder’s face flashed before her mental eye; that wild, mesmerising gaze, full with dizzying compulsion; that savage, unkempt mane that clung to the face in thick, sweaty streaks. And the madness, the madness in his eyes...

“But who is he?” she muttered.

“We honestly don’t know, and nopony can tell me. It’s strange, normally we know who to look out for. But this pony, nopony has heard of him before. He doesn’t have a name, or at least, he won’t tell us what it is. The guards have conveniently dubbed him Sweetcorn.” Gaia gave a small, but unconvincing laugh. “I would not be surprised if that were his real name. Names like that are pretty common in the countryside. He’s probably a peasant from the outskirts of Canterlot, or from even farther away, if his accent is any indication.”

Celestia tried to imagine what that countryside was like; what would drive a pony living there to such extreme measures? She had never been to anywhere else but on the castle grounds and to the Everfree Forest, and on rare occasions, to Canterlot.

“I want to visit this pony,” Celestia said. “I mean, if that’s alright. I want to talk to him.”

“You want to talk to him? You can,” her mother said earnestly. “He’s in one of the dungeon jails, Acier can take you if you want. And don’t worry, he’s fine,” she added, when Celestia’s expression grew all too worried.

”The guards, they — they beat him up. That’s what they meant by disciplining, right?” Celestia said.

Gaia nodded; her eyes had narrowed, and her nose was scrunched up. “But I arrived in time. Nothing bad had happened. He is fine now, don’t worry about it.”

“That’s why you were so angry at the guards, right?”

“Yes. Because even foes deserve justice. Even enemies deserve compassion.”

“But those two aren’t the same thing,” Celestia argued.

“Sometimes they are.” But there was a certain obstinacy in her gaze; if Celestia hadn’t known better, even a certain spite.

Celestia frowned as she tried to recall the details of yesterday’s scene, which was hard, since the image of the intruder’s face madly grinning just inches from her own kept floating to the surface, and then, Luna enveloping herself in that cloud of night, and all that fear, that fear...

She willed herself to try and order her thoughts and memories.

“When you told off those guards,” she said carefully. “You said something like I know what’s going on here. And you asked Do you think I’m stupid. Right? What did you mean by that?”

Her mother sighed.

“That’s a long story, Tia.”

“You said you were going to answer my questions.”

“I did, you’re right. So let’s see, the guards,” Gaia said and took a quick sip of tea. “You see, guards are everywhere around here. They are responsible for keeping the castle safe. For keeping us safe.”

“Like the walls.”

“Yes, like the walls. It is their job to protect us. When you’re in a position like mine — like ours — you tend to have enemies, no matter how well you do; be it out of envy, be it out of disagreement. It doesn’t really make a difference. Being a queen is a very difficult position sometimes. You need to find common ground, mediate, compromise. And sometimes, people feel left out in the cold if they don’t get exactly what they want.”

“But the thing about the guards is this. They have their own little state here. In fact, almost the entire castle is inhabited by guards, servants and their families; and then the whole official apparatus. But I’m not worried about the latter two; they don’t have any military expertise. That is the tricky part. All my guards are skilled soldiers; a lot of them have been on the battlefield before they joined the guard. And they have a certain tendency of bonding. Keeping to themselves, amusing themselves in their merry little den. I don’t know what’s going on in there.”

Her expression darkened.

“Suffice to say that I tend to find them... unpleasant.”

Celestia looked up at her mother and narrowed her eyes. “But don’t you depend on them?”

“Too much so. The problem is that they’re easily swayed. You know, some fifty years ago, there was a big war. Long before you were born; but for me, fifty years is a mere batting with the eyelash. There was a big war, a horrible war, and I’ve had some... bad experiences with soldiers.”

“A war,” said Celestia and looked at her mother, who was herself staring out into the void that lay before them.

“That’s behind us,” Gaia said finally. “But even now there are powers at work that you wouldn’t understand; at least not yet. Normal ponies could never understand, let alone combat them. Forces of chaos that are trying to split apart Equestria at its very seams. That know how to sow discord and strife to suit their own ends.“

For a while, they were silent as Celestia contemplated what her mother might mean by “forces of chaos”. No matter how much she pondered the phrase, no image formed in her mind but Luna’s suffocating cloud of darkness. She sighed deeply.

“What about Luna,” she said finally.

“Luna,” Gaia repeated and pawed at the ground. It had been the elephant in the room. Somewhere in the back of her head, it occurred to Celestia that it was weird how quickly her sister had turned from the centre of her life to a mere elephant in the room. But she tried to push that thought out of her mind.

“I haven’t told you what happened,” Celestia said and anxiously looked up at her mother. “I never told you what happened after I went to find Luna.”

Gaia gave a sad, soft laugh. “But I already know. I have my ways of knowing; not just from your mouth.”

“You know what happened on this balcony?”

“I do.”

“I just don’t understand how it could come to this,” Celestia said and stared out over the balustrades. “I mean, I never — I never had any idea that she was even — even that good at magic. I always thought she was — well — lagging behind somewhat,” Celestia said, her face red: hadn’t she always felt a little superior to her sister? Was that why Luna’s outburst of magic had come as such a surprise to her?

“Well, I had expected that, too,” Gaia said after a while. “But as you can see, I was wrong.”

“This outburst all of a sudden, I’ve never — I’ve never seen Luna like that! Normally, she’s sweet and — yes, a little quiet, maybe, but that’s not — but now, she was so... so different. It’s just that, I was standing here, and I was talking with her and looking at her, but I wasn’t really — I was just looking at a — a complete stranger. Do you understand?”

But Gaia’s gaze was a bit too understanding.

“Of course, Sunray.” She locked eyes with Celestia. “But that isn’t surprising, either. There’s something I should have told you about. Both of you, and much sooner. It is my mistake that I haven’t done it earlier. My foolish mistake. You see, it was unavoidable that something like this was going to happen sooner or later.”

“You knew?”

“I didn’t know what exactly was going to happen, I just — I just had a feeling, you see.” She gave Celestia a feeble smile. How much older her mother seemed all of a sudden! Celestia thought. Especially in the harsh first light of the day, dark bags were visible under Gaia’s eyes.

“You know what happens to normal ponies when they reach a certain age, right? About the age you are right now. Some earlier, some later.”

Normal ponies, Celestia thought glumly.

“They get their cutie marks,” she murmured. Celestia was not at all uneducated on this subject: she had spent a lot of time in the library researching this very topic. “But we already have our cutie marks. We’ve always had them.” She glanced at the eight-rayed sun symbol on her flank; in the morning sun, it gleamed with a golden shimmer.

“And you understand what that means, right?”

“That... that our... that we are going to become queens.”

“Yes. And that is because your destiny is predetermined. Because your trajectory through life is already laid out. Do you understand?”

Celestia gave a jerky nod, as though she was trying to shoo off a fly from her shoulder.

“Luna has awakened. That means something has changed inside of her, and all that pent-up magical energy just finds its way, so to speak. It breaks free; it wants to find its way out into the open. That’s normal, but for some reason — I simply expected that you would be the first to awaken. Maybe because you’re older.”

She gave Celestia a searching look, which Celestia found herself absolutely unable to adequately handle; what was she supposed to say to that? Sorry that I’m so slow?

“Well, you know what I’m talking about. That explains her gloominess, and the whole... you know.” Gaia shortly closed her eyes and put her head back, seemingly breathing in the morning air that was only now warming. “Her mood swings, and her tendency to leave the castle at night to stray about the grounds.”

Tendency to leave the castle at night?

“She’s not leaving the castle at night,” Celestia said and shook her head. “I sleep in a chamber with her, I’ve never seen —”

“Well, you sleep too soundly. She’s been doing that for a while now, and there is nothing I can do about it; not much that I want to do about it, either. I believe in granting certain freedoms. There is so much energy inside of us, so much magical energy; and at your age precisely, it just all breaks free. You can’t keep that pent up inside of you. That’s why she needs a bit of freedom to live it all out.

And that’s also why I have decided that she won’t be — that there won’t be punishment. I’m sure she meant no harm. That kind of confusion is simply natural at that age, all your energy just bursts out. Sometimes with a bang. I can’t blame her for that; I’m sure her regret is punishment enough. She needs room to breathe right now, room to think.”

Room to breathe?

“And I also want to ask you not to talk to her about it, not to pressure her about it. Just give her time to come to grips with it herself, and she will seek your advice all on her own.” The look she gave Celestia was urgent. But Celestia wouldn’t have addressed the subject either way. After all, what could she well have asked her sister? No appropriate words would come to her.

She returned Gaia’s look and nodded lightly.

Gaia smiled.

“Sunray, I’ve — I’ve not spent as much time with you as I maybe should have. And yes, by that I mean both of you. I’m sorry for that. That will change. Okay?”

“Okay...”

“And I think I might have tried to protect you too much. I should have done otherwise, but that was difficult at the time. I was just trying to keep you safe, make sure you grow up happy. But of course, I can’t keep you locked up in here all the time. Not without you — finding a way out, at least.” She smiled nervously, and Celestia returned the smile.

“Because we have wings now, mom.”

“Yes,” Gaia smiled.

“And we’re not afraid to use them.”

“No,” Gaia said, and this time, her all-too eager smile was quivering suspiciously. She darted a sideway glance, then looked at Celestia directly. “You’ve grown so much, Sunray. I sometimes wonder where all that time went. It’s strange, I’ve got so much of it, but — these years I won’t get back.”

Celestia, who had no idea what her mother was talking about, just smiled diplomatically.

“Look, a green streak,” Gaia said and gently touched Celestia’s mane. And indeed: in that sea of rose, there was a single green length that she hadn’t seen before. Her mother slowly stroked it. “I think it’s time that I show you more of what I do. That I involve you more. After all, that’s what needs to happen sooner or later, anyway. After all, you are going to be queen one day.”

Celestia frowned. “But what if I don’t want to,” she murmured. “What if I’d rather be... something else.”

“It doesn’t work like that. Your life’s calling is already determined. Be grateful for that. For other ponies, finding their cutie marks is a source of great distress. You should appreciate that kind of certainty. And after all, who else is going to become queen if not you?”

“And Luna.”

“And Luna,” her mother affirmed, but her gaze darkened. She once more stared down onto the marble walls.

“These walls will stand,” she said again. “As long as one of us dwells in this castle, these walls will stand.” Only this time, it sounded more defiant than confident.

“Tia, I want you to come with me this weekend. To the Harvest Celebration. I want you to join me. Would you do that?”

“Yes,” Celestia murmured and looked at her mother. “Of course. I would — I would love to.”

Gaia smiled at Celestia. “I’m glad. I’ll be looking forward to go with you. I need to go back inside now. But it was nice having breakfast with you for once.”

Celestia nodded, taken aback, and watched Gaia disappear inside.

For a while, Celestia idly stared out over the castle grounds. Vague thoughts were hanging in her mind like wafts of mist. Finally, she, too, got up and walked inside. There was something she needed to attend to.

***

In the corridor, she met Luna. She froze; she had no idea what to say right now. She wasn’t prepared just yet, had no words at the ready. And it wasn’t just words she hadn’t settled on: her feelings towards her sister were undecided, too.

Now, in the daylight, Luna looked very different from how she had looked the night before — less menacing; younger; and, in a way, more real, more tangible. And what threw off Celestia even more was the fact that on Luna’s chest, there still was the dark bistone brooch Acier had made them; and on her own chest, there still was the other half. Celestia had increasing difficulties interrelating all those different images she had of Luna.

For a moment, they simply looked at each other, and did not say anything. Luna finally couldn’t uphold her gaze and looked towards the ground.

Celestia was confused, but she also couldn’t simply keep quiet; that wasn’t in her nature.

“Hey,” she said finally, trying to sound as cheerful and easy-going as she could.

“Hey,” Luna said very quietly. Her eyes briefly flickered over Celestia’s, then she looked down again.

“How are you?” Celestia asked and immediately bit her lips. She knew it was a stupid question, but right now, she preferred any question to silence.

“... I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.”

“No.”

Celestia nodded. On that account, they were in agreement.

Luna was still looking down. Celestia pawed at the ground and suddenly grew very conscious of the birds’ chirping outside. She couldn’t recall ever having felt like this with her sister; hadn’t they always been light-hearted and lively around each other? Or was that just her memories deceiving her?

She could feel it, that invisible barrier around Luna; and both of them were building it. To Luna, it was a sort of soft cocoon; to Celestia, a wall that posed an insurmountable obstacle, and she couldn’t bring herself to extend her hoof and shatter that wall.

“So, is it true?” Celestia said after a while. “I’ve heard you walk out of the castle at nights. To fly, or —”

Luna nodded hastily.

“That’s weird. I’ve never really seen you leave.”

For a moment, Luna was silent. Then she raised her head.

“I’m very quiet when I leave.” Her voice was quiet, too, but flat. It didn’t seem to carry any particular kind of emotion; it was more of a matter-of-fact statement.

“So what do you do outside?” Celestia asked. “You know, after dark.”

“...I listen”, Luna said simply.

“Okay. You listen — to what?”

“The song of the stars.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. The song of the stars? Really? She could barely begin to imagine why Luna would say something like that, what kinds of emotions she must be going through. In fact, she could not imagine at all.

“The song of the stars,” she repeated. “Okay. I didn’t — I didn’t know there was such a thing. I’ve never heard one, at the very least.” She smiled nervously. Luna didn’t smile.

“They are very quiet, too,” she said. She looked at Celestia, as if trying to make her understand. “You need to listen closely.”

Before Celestia could answer, a young guard passed by the two and shot Luna a malicious glare. Seeing her seemed to short-circuit him, and he barked at her. “There we have her, our little traitor,” he snapped. Luna flinched and lowered her gaze; if in shame, shyness or defiance, neither of them could see.

Celestia cut the guard a look. “Don’t talk like that to my sister,” she said. “You got that? I’m a princess, and she’s a princess, and you can’t talk to us like that. Is that clear?”

At least some of her confidence was feigned, and even though her words were very true, the guard seemed to sense that lingering uncertainty and latch on to it. He seemed on the verge of foolishly opening his mouths once more, when Acier turned around the corner. He instantly grasped the situation and looked daggers at the guard in question, who was his direct subordinate.

“There a problem here?” he asked gruffly.

The guard lowered his head, but still glared with spite. “Maybe,” he muttered and shot Acier an elusive look. “Look out, here comes — Commander Blank Flank —”

Acier nodded slowly, then approached. He moved towards the colt until he was mere inches from his face. He stared down onto him, which was effortless, since he was easily a head taller.

Consistency in our tongues,” he growled simply.

Celestia didn’t understand; but the guard seemed to struggle, as though he was on the verge of saying something, but didn’t quite dare. Their staredown continued for a few seconds. Then the guard averted his gaze and, with a jerk, disappeared around the corner.

Acier gazed after the guard; then he smiled mildly at Celestia and Luna and turned the key to his chamber.

Luna was still drooping her head; but Celestia imagined to have seen gratitude in Luna’s eyes. It was at that moment that she felt the urge to comfort her sister, and for a tiny while everything was as it always had been; but as she extended her hoof to touch her sister, she bumped into that invisible wall, and quickly retracted her hoof.

Luna smiled sadly at Celestia. Then, she disappeared around the corner, too.

For a while, Celestia looked after her. She sighed deeply.

Then she followed Acier into his chamber. Sitting down on one of the stools, she gave him a curious look.

Consistency in our tongues,” she repeated after his words. “What does that mean?”

“It means allegiance,” he said. “Allegiance to the pledge of the guards, and loyalty to the Queen. It’s part of the guards’ motto.”

He pointed to a banner on the wall; up to now, Celestia had never paid much attention to it. There were engraved three lines of golden lettering.

TRUTH IN OUR HEARTS
STRENGTH IN OUR HOOVES
CONSISTENCY IN OUR TONGUES

The stallion shook his head and chuckled. “Been our mantra since time immortal. Doubt that it’ll ever change. Then again, what ever does.”

“Why did you spare that guard?” she asked. “He... I mean... he was so disrespectful that you could have ... let him go, right?”

“For that, I could have done much worse than let him go,” he said glumly.

“But you didn’t, because you were merciful. Because of grace,” she said. “Right?”

He turned to look at her. My god, he thought. She’s still just a child. Not a queen. Just a little filly. His gaze was almost sympathetic.

“No matter how much your mom chews on that, you can’t run a country on grace, love, or cotton candy. No, this land is run like any other: with spear, bow, and sword.”

She looked up at him.

“I didn’t do anything to that guard,” he went on after the slightest moment of hesitation, “not because of some fit of mercy or whatever you might call it. That buys me nothing. No, I didn’t do anything because the guards need to be kept on our — on your mom’s side. They need to be kept happy. And that’s difficult right now, since they’re pretty upset. Now imagine if somepony who is jealous of your mother’s place would reach out to them. Would welcome them with open arms, give them freedoms, power, and yes, money. What do you think would happen then?

Without the guards’ support, your mom can close shop. And by close shop, I mean abandon the castle. Do you understand? She’s not that powerful that she can act as she pleases, with no consequences. It’s all about tradeoffs and compromise. Gotta keep the guards happy. You understand?”

Celestia gave him a searching look. “That’s why she’s employed you,” she said after a while. “To keep the guards happy.”

“Yes,” he said with a strained smile. “That is exactly why she’s employed me. That is my job. When I was young, I was in the army, that’s what got me into this, I earned my merits there. That leaves its marks. Idealism, fancy ideas — a fat load of use that is to me! I gotta work with truths, realities. Gaia doesn’t know what that’s like, she just has to smile gently and — ” He stopped in his tracks, then turned back towards his workbench. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.

Celestia watched him and contemplated what he had just said.

“But you don’t keep the guards happy,” she said after a while.

“Well, it’s getting more difficult by the minute when your mom keeps doings things like —” Once again, he fell silent.

“Like what?”

He turned around to face her. “You’re just a kid, Tia. A royal kid, maybe, but still just a kid. I can’t talk with you about that. You wouldn’t understand in any case, okay?”

That was the wrong thing to say to Celestia, who was already convinced of being much more than a kid.

“I rarely see you with the other guards,” she said with some spite. “You’re almost never in their quarters, except when you have business there. I never saw you drink with them. They always drink, right? But you never join them.”

He closed his eyes. “I don’t drink,” he said finally. “Not anymore.”

“What you cannot know, Tia,” he said after a while, with barely contained pain in his voice, “what you cannot know is what kind of pain there exists out there. What kind of wounds. What kind of scars. You cannot know anything about that, and that is as it should be. You’re just a foal.”

“I’m the future Queen,” she said, with more defiance than she had intended.

He snorted softly. “Yes, you are, Tia. I mean, uh, your Highness Princess Celestia. Congratulations. So what are you going to do? Discharge me for this lack of respect?”

“No, I need the guards’ support, remember?”

Her words had been incredibly hurtful, and she realised that only as she was speaking them. He lowered his gaze and nodded. “Exactly,” he whispered gruffly. “Exactly...”

But as Celestia turned around, she believed she could see a suspicious sparkle in his eyes. The thought struck her as odd; some ponies you simply don’t imagine to be capable of actual tears.

“Exactly,” he muttered once more.

“Why don’t you have a cutie mark?” she asked outright. The question had been preying on her mind for a long time now.

Silence.

“I had a cutie mark once,” he said after a while.

“You had one.”

He nodded. Outside the window, a bird passed by.

“Well, where’d it—”

“Away,” he said simply. Then he turned back towards his workbench.

She stared at the point where his armour left visible the part of the flank where a cutie mark normally was to be found. It was blank and immaculately grey, like the rest of his coat.

There was no point in waiting or pressing him on the issue. There was no chance that he would say anything else on the matter, and, with a pang of guilt, Celestia fell silent, too. For a moment, she contemplated Acier’s face, now illuminated in profile with all the colours of the rainbow; a stark contrast against the light filtered through all those gems, a carousel of hues and nuances.

“My mom told me you would take me to see Sweetcorn,” she said after a while, to break the silence. “Can you — can we go there?”

“Yes,” he said after a while and turned to look at her. “Yes, we can. We’ll go visit him in the afternoon. I’m busy now. Come back then.”

She nodded, then, not knowing what else to discuss, she left. Outside, she wondered why she had been so unkind. She was angry with herself; she was usually so good at talking. Why did she have to use words to hurt Acier?

Where did this new urge come from? And why couldn’t she just go back and say sorry?

She sighed. “Truth in our hearts, consistency in our tongues,” she muttered.

A passing servant gave her a funny look.

***

Later that day, together with Acier, she descended the stairs towards the dungeons for the first time. The further downstairs she went, the gloomier the light grew, the rougher the marble walls, and the ornate patterns that had been lining the upper flights of stairs soon disappeared. She had never been in this part of the castle before; in fact, she had always been only vaguely aware that the dungeons even existed. Further downstairs, the mild sweetness of the air gave way to an earthy, moist odour.

When they had arrived downstairs, an iron-barred door hindered their progress. Acier fumbled in his saddlebag for the keys to the door, then opened it with a clatter. The ground, too, was moist and muddy here; the feeble light, filtered through narrow, moss-covered windows, had a greenish hue to it.

There were gloomy cells left and right, each of them shut off by thick, dense iron bars that obscured their contents. Celestia didn’t look too closely, either; the subtle sound of breathing all around made her feel more than just slightly uneasy, and she kept her gaze centred on the aisle they were walking.

Finally, they arrived at the last cell. It wasn’t on the left or the right side of the dark hallway, but formed its back wall. Acier nodded to Celestia, and she timidly approached the bars, while he kept in the background.

Beyond the iron bars, on a mattress, there lay the pony they called Sweetcorn.

He appeared to be sleeping. It was unmistakably him; same scruffy, mud-beige coat, same messy, greasy mane. An oversized sweetcorn on his flank. She had to look very closely to see him move at all.

After she had contemplated his figure for a while, a feeble voice emerged from the cell. It startled her: his mouth was half-obscured, and had barely moved at all.

“A royal visitor,” he muttered dispassionately. “What honour. What can I do for your Highness.”

She plucked up all her courage and spoke. “Give me answers,” she said hesitantly into the darkness. “Just... who you are. Where you come from. Why you tried to break in here. You know... your story.”

He ejected a quiet, joyless snort. “My story,” he repeated, his tone unfathomable. She nodded, and he stirred slightly on his mattress.

“My tale isn’t very interesting,” he said after a while. But I can tell you a different one, if you want.”

“Okay,” she breathed.

“Have you ever heard the tale,” he murmured, “of the Eternal Flame.”

She froze. His whispering was as distinct as though he was standing right next to her; his voice still as strangely reverberant, even though it was hushed to the point of being barely audible.

“The eternal flame,” Celestia muttered.

He nodded almost imperceptibly. As far as Celestia could see, his eyes were still closed.

“No,” she whispered.

He took a deep breath.

“A long, long time ago, when the Earth was young and most of Equestria virgin land,” he began in a broken voice, ”three tribes populated the land: the tribe of the earth ponies, the tribe of the unicorns, and the tribe of the pegasi. As the earth they roamed was so immense, and their numbers so little, barely did they know about each other’s existence; they went about their own business and kept to each other. In their separation, there was harmony; and in their distance, peace.”

He stirred.

“But not all was well. Much of their harvest fell prey to bitter winters and hungry animals; and there was famine and disease. Soon, the ponies were looking for ways to overcome these evils, and some left the bosom of their homes and set out to find what the Earth had to offer. Quickly, rumour spread that in the heart of the land of Equestria, there was a great castle which had stood since the beginning of time, hewn into a great mountain. And in that castle, there was a mighty flame that would vanquish all the evil spirits of this world; that would bring an eternal blessing to the tilled fields.”

“And indeed,” he went on, “did such a castle exist: it had been hewn into the highest mountain by powers ancient and mighty, at the hub of the world, at the centre of all existence. In this castle, there lived since time immemorial Two Sisters, very, very powerful ponies that had wings as well as horns. And indeed did they have this mighty flame: the Eternal Flame, shaped like a beating heart, brought them eternal warmth and eternal spring, and it drove off famine and death forever.”

Celestia felt her heart beat in her chest.

“When the other ponies learnt of this Flame,” he whispered, “they thought it unjust that they should be victim to famine and catastrophe when there was a way to stave off such evils. And so each tribe equipped a half dozen of their most skilled warriors with weapons, and send them off to see if they might find a way into the castle and steal the Flame to bring it home.

"They marched for endless days and days. When they finally arrived, they saw that the Castle was far too strongly fortified and the Sisters too mighty for them to attack. But soon, they found the other tribes had sent their warriors, too. And when they met, there was a great discussion, and they found they had a common goal and bonded; the earth ponies’ raw strength, the pegasi’s wings, and the unicorns’ magic were sure to bring success.”

He turned over on his mattress.

“When the Two Sisters saw this, they grew fearful. They talked and talked and tried to find a way to fend off the intruders, but nothing occurred to them. Three days they spent thusly, pondering a way to keep the Flame to themselves and keep their castle safe. All the while, the ponies outside were preparing to attack the castle with joined forces to try and steal the Flame. After all, they argued, was it not the case that they needed it more urgently than the Sisters? What gave the Sisters the right to keep it to themselves, when the ponies had famines, winter and wilderness to fight?

"The Sisters pondered long and deep, but they could not think of any way to drive off the enemies without a fight; and even though they were very powerful, they did not like to fight, for the warmth of the Flame had made them complacent and tender.

"But when the clash appeared inevitable, when the attack appeared imminent, and the Sisters’ desperation was at its highest, there came another guest to the castle, a strange and high-grown creature of a kind they had not seen before. He was not as ponies are; stone walls posed no obstacle to him, and he entered the castle effortlessly like a ghost, as though devoid of physical substance.

"When the Sisters saw this, they were all the more frightened. But the Spirit had not come to steal something from them, or to hurt them. Instead, he had come to make an offer. He proclaimed that he knew a way to stave off the warrior ponies outside, and that he would do it without the Sisters getting their hooves dirty. He proposed them his help.”

Celestia’s breathing was rapid by now.

“But he wouldn’t do it for free. He demanded a price for his services, to be paid once the warriors were driven away: a bargain. He gave them a half day to consider this offer, but urged them to decide quickly; for outside, the warriors were already preparing their weapons.

"That afternoon, the Sisters argued and quarrelled about this offer. The one sister refused; calling it dishonest and ignoble. But the other sister worried about the Warmth in their castle, and wanted to hold on to the Flame at all cost. They had a heated discussion about it; but eventually, she came out on top. And when the spirit returned after twelve hours, she proclaimed that they would take him up on his offer. The spirit smiled graciously and told them they had made the right decision; but he also warned them that after he had fulfilled his part, they would have to fulfil theirs, and pay the price he had demanded.

Then he immediately got to work.”

“What did he do,” Celestia breathed.

“The sisters didn’t know. They waited anxiously in their castle for a full day, already bracing themselves for an attack; but none came. Then, at the end of the day, they saw that nopony was waiting to attack them anymore. The camp of the three tribes was still there, but only cadavers populated it. Every single one of them was dead.”

Celestia gulped forcibly. A sick feeling rose in her throat.

“He... he did that?”

Sweetcorn grimaced. “No,” he whispered. “They had done it themselves. For the Spirit was cunning; he had sown strife amongst the ponies and convinced them that their neighbours and comrades were in fact their enemies. And so, it was as the spirit had promised: without getting their hooves dirty, the Two Sisters got to keep their Eternal Flame to themselves.”

A drip of dirty water ran down the cell’s walls.

“But barely was the danger gone,” he whispered, “and the Flame no longer in jeopardy, did the sisters become complacent and bold again. And when the Spirit came to demand his payment, they refused and told him to get lost and never return to the castle. They feared no harm from him, for he had no hooves with which to strike, and no weapons with which to fire; only a tongue with which to speak.

"When the Spirit heard this, he became very, very angry. He fumed and spouted: ‘We had a deal! I asked you for a price to pay, and you agreed. Now where is my price? Where is my payment?’ But they simply told him to get lost and not bother them any longer, for he was vile and cruel, and they wanted no such spirits amidst the gentility of their castle. And so, he left empty-handed, and furious.

"But before he left the two sisters, he turned around and made a terrible promise of revenge. He threatened: ‘You have betrayed me, and exploited my offer. In return, I will exact revenge upon you, and ere too many suns rise, your enemies’ fate shall befall you, too! Watch out and know,’ he warned, ‘that a single moment will be enough to undo all eternity you have spent in this castle. That everything can fall apart with just the batting of an eyelash.’

Her eyes were wide open with fear.

He lunged at the iron bars and gripped for her face through the bars. A violent jolt ran through her body. All his fatigue and feebleness seemed gone all of a sudden; the madness had returned to his savage eyes, and his yellow gaze seemed to penetrate her very soul.

“Will you pay the price,” he panted out. “Will you pay the price?

Celestia was petrified. Her heart hammered in her chest as though it was going to spring out any moment.

“Okay, story time’s over,” Acier intervened and firmly pulled Sweetcorn’s hooves from Celestia’s neck, gently steering her away from the bars. “I think you’ve got something a little mixed up there, ‘Sweetcorn’. Time to go back to sleep.”

But Celestia was all churned up inside as Acier accompanied her back through the aisle. She looked back over he shoulder, back at the beige-coated earth stallion now gripping firmly at his bars; he, too, was watching her with enormously wide eyes that seemed never to blink.

“What happened to the sisters?” she called out over her shoulder. “What happened to them?”

But all he did was smile dispassionately.



“What a load of hogwash,” Acier said calmly when they reemerged on the castle’s lighter corridors. “Who knew a guy like that had such an overactive imagination?” He snorted softly.

But Celestia didn’t laugh. She saw the throne hall’s stained-glass windows before her inner eye; and there, on one of their panes, there was exactly such a heart-shaped Flame as Sweetcorn had described.

***

The week went by in a blur. Celestia couldn’t deny how much she looked forward to the Celebration; her anticipation mounted from weekday to weekday. It felt, in a way, like her childhood was going to be over now anytime soon, something that appeared highly desirable to her: she was going to finally join her mother and sit by her side in the most important royal ceremony of the year.

And so she was already eagerly waiting when her mother entered the Great Hall to pick her up. In front of the castle, a pony-drawn carriage was waiting for them; Celestia would have preferred to simply fly, but the ceremonials dictated otherwise. And as she boarded the carriage, she could not feel but get a little swept up in the glamour of it. The two earth-pony pullers got moving.

Canterlot Castle was a ways off from the city itself. It towered high above town, half-hewn into rock, half-extending onto the boundless green grounds that surrounded it, where Celestia and Luna had spent so much time together. They passed the spot where Luna had let go of the phoenix, and Celestia, for the first time, caught it using the levitating force of her horn. That had been three years ago; but to Celestia, those three years meant an eternity. Now, the lawn there was covered in golden leaves, sometimes shuffled about by a soft gust of warm wind like a final remembrance of summer.

But even the grounds that had been the confines of Celestia’s whole word came to an end; eventually, the meticulously kept lawn gave way to the proliferation of nature unattended, and the so smoothly cobbled road they were moving on grew bumpy and was finally nothing but a dirt trail, the further downhill they went. Soon, in the distance, the first gleaming round roofs of Canterlot appeared on the horizon, and Celestia pressed her muzzle against the window to see.

She sensed her mother’s gaze on the back of her head as she watched Canterlot approach. It appeared to her much bigger than she had remembered; a city of high-rising, wealthy half-timbered houses, ostensibly built for their beauty as much as for their use. And the roads were resplendent with banners announcing the Queen’s arrival.

It was such a surreal experience: a parade welcomed them, with ponies in a red uniform performing some elaborate, stiff march choreography. There were ponies all over the place, lining both edges of the street, their eyes only on their carriage. As they rode by, Gaia idly waved towards them, which was acquitted with reverberant cheering. When Celestia tentatively stuck a hoof out the other window, too, the cheering grew thunderous. She flinched and quickly pulled it back in.

It was weird, thought Celestia. Here they are cheering at us, but we pass by so quick that I can’t even discern their faces. Only a big, indistinct mass of ponies. Were they really all cheering? The sound seemed to suggest so, but in between, she thought to have caught a few glares instead. And the windowpanes put an entire world between the two of them and the people outside. But that mattered little; Celestia felt herself getting swept up in it, and she soon stopped wondering what she had done to deserve like acclaim, which was exactly nothing so far, and embraced the thunderous effects her hoof seemed to have. These ponies love me, Celestia thought. It was certainly a good feeling.

Soon, their trajectory took a turn, and they found themselves on a resplendent broadway that led straight up to the market square. Large banners were draped between the houses overhead, on which hung resplendent the Queen’s Crest, an ornate leaf-green rendering of Gaia carrying the globe of the earth in her hooves. They were also embroidered with stylised autumn leaves. The trees that lined the boulevard left and right were decorated with red and golden garlands.

Celestia cocked her head. There was so much splendour here, but to what end? It would all go to waste after the festivities, Celestia thought. All those garlands and banners and shields would be taken off and tossed away. Wasn’t that a waste?

But her mother smiled indifferently, and waved idly. If you had been doing something for a thousand years, the excitement wanes eventually.

“Sorry for the pompousness,” she whispered in Celestia’s ear, as though she had anticipated her thoughts. “It can’t be helped. A ceremony like this is rare, but it is very important. That’s what rituals are about, after all. Giving confidence.”

When they finally arrived on the square, Celestia whispered the question that had been preying on her mind for hours now.

“Mom? Will I — will I have to go on stage, too?”

Gaia laughed. “Of course! I didn’t bring you here for you to sit it out in the carriage. Don’t worry, I’ll do the talking. I’ve done this a couple of times before, so I should be fine. And by the way, don’t be scared. It’s a show, there is a certain... flashiness to it.”

She nodded at Celestia, then climbed the stage on swift hooves. Plucking up all her courage, Celestia did the same. The crowd erupted into cheering. The square was so packed with ponies that it was impossible to make out any individual faces anymore.

Her mother started to speak; some elaborate, ritualised sermon about autumn, harvest, and how hard everypony was working. Celestia found it hard to concentrate on Gaia’s words and instead stared blankly into the crowd; she was intensely conscious of all the eyes on her. To avoid any false moves, she decided it best not to move at all.


As the year comes to a close, we reap the harvest of our hard work; the seeds we’ve planted have blossomed and grown. Only our hard work allows us to enjoy its benefits now. Winter approaches, but our pantries are full...

Celestia’s attention waned, and she gazed once more into the throng. Most ponies looked bored; some faces were glistening with enthusiasm; and others yet with disdain, if she was not mistaken. She flinched: a few rows further back, she believed to have seen Luna for a moment. But as she did a double-take, she realised it was only a periwinkle unicorn filly. She shook her head. She wondered where Luna was right now. What was she doing? What had she been doing when she wasn’t with Celestia? Celestia had no idea.

The tension in her body had made her breathing fall flat, and the sudden urge took her to inhale deeply. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the speech was finally over.

Now is the time for the Harvest Blessing”, announced a pony in a ceremonial robe, and Gaia took the ceremonial position. “Gaia, o Queen by divine right, blesseth thou our yields and crops; and blesseth thou our fields, so they shall withstand winter; and blesseth thou...

The shallow words reached Celestia’s ears from far away. She soon found herself drifting off into a daydream; Luna and her were frolicking on summery green lawn. A phoenix was there, too, and they tried to caress it; but as Celestia stretched out her hoof to pet it, that wild face flashed before her mental eye once more, superimposed on the crowd, that messy and greased mane, that mad, pulsating look in his eyes — that seemed to stare into her very soul —



A shrill sound yanked her from her daze.

For a moment, she couldn’t remember where she was; then the image stabilised, and she saw that she was still on stage, with thousands of ponies in front of her. She realised that she had heard a sharp mare’s cry. It was shrill and bone-chilling and reverberated all over the square.

All ponies turned their heads to look for its source. The priest had stopped speaking and did the same. A quick glance to Celestia’s side revealed that her, mother, too, was looking over the crowd with narrow eyes. Something had gone wrong. Celestia’s heartbeat accelerated.

For a moment, all was dead silent. Then —



Boom.

An explosion. A detonation, she thought immediately.

Before she knew it, thick, black smoke was billowing up everywhere, and she yanked her hooves in front of her eyes. Chaos broke out in a matter of mere seconds. All of a sudden, there were screams everywhere; the entire square had turned into a crescendo of shrieks and cries. There was no stopping the crowd: everypony started to wildly trample off in all directions.

She ejected a hacking cough. Blood rushed into her skull, and everything around her seemed to assume an urgent clarity. As she focused on the crowd in front of her, she started to make out individual ponies running for their lives. She zoomed in on the blue filly she had spotted in the throng: the filly’s eyes were wide open with fear as ponies trampled recklessly about. Without thinking much about it, Celestia leapt from the stage into the chaos below.

“Tia,” her mother screamed behind her. “No! Tia! Stay here!”

Celestia dived headfirst into the crowd and made her way towards the filly, driven by an urgent sense of compulsion. The filly had difficulties staying afoot, and the crowd didn’t care one bit; it was everypony for themselves, and they were trampling her down. Celestia dashed forward, using the spread of her wings to cut a way through the throng and keep ponies at a distance. When she had arrived by the foal, she extended a hoof towards her. From up close, the filly didn’t resemble Luna at all. She looked at Celestia for instants of a second, blinking incredulously, then took her hoof and let herself be pulled up, her eyes wide open with fear.

Celestia nodded slowly and tried a brave smile, then positioned herself in front of the foal, keeping her wings outstretched, to prevent her from being trampled to death. She stared at the ponies that passed them by in full gallop, and saw that their eyes did not see; there was an elementary madness in them that scared Celestia. It truly was everypony for themselves. The few and in-between pegasi were fluttering up into safety like a flock of startled birds, and a few earth ponies that had made it to the sidelines tilted their heads back to squint at them resentfully. Celestia stayed firmly in place.

More black smoke started to fill up the square. Thick plumes of it were billowing from the terraces surrounding the square; no doubt explosives had been installed there, prepared in advance to go off when the panic was at its highest. Suddenly, one of the heavy terraces broke and threatened to fall into the throng. Gaia immediately stopped its fall with her horn’s powers in mid-air; but suspending the heavy terrace cost her all of her focus.

By this point, there was no holding back any longer; ponies screamed at the top of their lungs, bone-chilling cries of desperation, and mercilessly trampled all over each other in their frenzied attempts at escaping the dramatically overcrowded square through the far too narrow alleyways that branched off of it. The screams were drowned out only by the violent thunder of thousands of utterly uncoordinated hoofs, sending the entire place shaking as though by an earthquake.

It was hard to see through the thick smoke billowing up everywhere. The wooden stage that had been erected was now a mere smouldering jumble of broken sticks and beams. The screams of the crowd were dizzying; Celestia found herself turning around, turning around in endless circles, trying to find the way out through the stream of ponies that kept pounding toward her in panic; but there was no escaping the throng of people hurrying towards the presumed exits. Her heart was beating madly in her chest, but she managed to stay firmly in place and not budge, bracing herself and the filly with her wings.

The onslaught of ponies continued; Celestia closed her eyes and forced herself to keep wide open her shaking wings; but she had not seen this many ponies her entire life, and here they were all charging towards her — somepony knocked into her left wings, then more ponies starting bumping into them — one hit her violently and knocked her down — she fell to the ground—

“TIA!” her mother called out again. She was still levitating the terrace in mid-air, but Celestia couldn’t see that. She instinctively covered her eyes with her hoofs, her wings flapping around erratically. “FLY! YOU NEED TO FLY AWAY!”

But Celestia couldn’t bring herself to move her wings; they seemed frozen in place. “I need to,” she murmured, “I need to — protect — ”

Wide open eyes above her. Hooves right and left. Did they even realise there was a princess lying on the ground? Celestia pushed the thought from her head. That didn’t matter, all that mattered was to —

She vaguely saw the blue filly being picked up by the nape by a stallion. He shot her a look; it was more frightened than grateful. Holding on to his daughter, he disappeared back into the crowd. Celestia closed her eyes to try and shut out the thunderous hoofs so close to her face —

Then, all of a sudden, something very strange happened. Celestia found herself enclosed by some kind of force shield; a thin, but invisible field seemed to protect her from the crowd that kept bumping into her, like a dome of spotless, unbreakable glass. What a weird sensation that was! With wide open eyes, her chest heaving and lowering forcefully as she attempted to catch her breath, she looked towards the ponies that simply kept running against that invisible wall mere inches from her, only to bounce back and, a dazed look on their faces, stumble along.

But she quickly realised what had happened. On stage, her mother was directly staring at her, and there was no doubt she had put the protection in place. There had been a price she had paid for that, however. To protect her daughter, she had dropped the terrace she had been suspending in mid-air.

Royalty first,” reverberated a gleeful, oily voice all over the square. “Make sure our wittle, wittle princess is safe from the ghastly little peasants.”

The voice only spurred on the crowd. They screamed, ran wildly all over the place, in divergent directions. Celestia frowned. Keep calm, she found herself thinking. Just keep calm, move into one direction, don’t panic. She bumped her hoof against her invisible cage, but it was impenetrable. The wild galloping around her did not cease, but only grow stronger. She took down her hooves and turned around herself in frustration. There were others, too. Many barely moved. Celestia gulped, then cried in frustration.

Let me out of here, she thought, willing her mother to hear her. Let me out of here. I need to help. I want to help. Don’t keep me in here.

Then, out of the blue, all was calm again.

Everypony seemed to stop in their tracks, as though reason had unexpectedly returned to the throng. The crowd gasped as one. Everyone was gazing at a single point that Celestia could not see. She turned around, then realised why: somewhere further in the square’s middle, an eerily familiar earth stallion was hovering in midair, idly rising ever higher, and it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t of his own accord; for a leaf-green aura surrounded him. Gaia stood on what was left of the stage, a fierce expression on her face, her horn aglow with an intensely energetic green hue. She had simply pulled the stallion out of the throng.

Who is that? it bolted through Celestia’s head. Who is that? Exasperatedly, she hammered her hoofs against the invisible walls.

But there could be little doubt as to the stallion’s identity. For as he turned, on his scruffy beige flank, there was an oversized sweetcorn for a cutie mark.

She stopped beating against her prison and let her hoof slide to the ground. Sweetcorn?

How was that possible? How had he escaped?

For the tiniest of moments, Celestia detected that same incomprehension in Gaia’s gaze; but the Queen quickly recovered, and her trademark unfazed, attentive calm returned to her eyes. Gaia pulled the stallion up towards the stage. His expression remained blissfully detached. There was no fear in his eyes, neither towards Gaia, nor towards the chaos and cooling smoke surrounding him, nor towards the prospect of hovering twenty feet above ground. He smiled, then he addressed the crowd as though that was the most natural thing in the world.

“Before you lock me away once more,” Sweetcorn said, his tender, oily voice forcefully reverberating, “won’t you hear me out? All of you.”

Gaia clenched her teeth. Sweetcorn could be sure of the fact that everypony’s eyes on the square were now on him; at least, all eyes that retained their liveliness.

Still enclosed in her invisible dome, Celestia suddenly understood the conundrum her mother was facing: if she prevented the stallion from speaking — one way or the other — that would make her look very bad in front of the crowd, even though it was palpably him who had caused the attack in the first place. If she tried to silence him — wouldn’t the people want to hear what he had to say all the more? If she tried to muzzle him — wouldn’t the people ask what she had to hide that was not to be spoken aloud? She could only lose either way.

“I am here to announce,” said the stallion amiably, “that the resistance is real. It exists, and it is real. I know there have been rumours, and they are all true! I assure you that this will not stand. I assure you that the earth ponies have had enough of being the working horses for a class of unicorns, pegasi and, worst of all, our lovely godqueens here who don’t miss out on anything.”

A small flock of ponies started to stomp their hooves on the ground, weakly at first, then growing louder. Most others weren’t joining them; but they still looked at them with blank expressions. Sweetcorn smiled softly, and Gaia narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the crowd’s reaction. Where to cut him off, where to draw the line? When had he said enough?

“An incendiary,” she spoke, her voice clear and calm. “A fearmonger. Is that someone you want to listen to? Will you let yourself be swayed by his poisonous words? You see what he has done just now!”

“Sometimes,” the stallion said and glared at the crowd, “your voice is so repressed that you need a bang to make yourself heard.”

Some in the crowd murmured assent; others looked at them, some with unconcealed interest, some with blatant disgust and hatred. Celestia slowly shook her as she felt tears glisten in her eyes. Slowly, silently, the crowd started shuffling around, some of those who had stomped their hooves flocking together; others, whose gaze was blank or even disgusted, stepped away from the assenters to form a crowd of their own. As the ponies regrouped themselves, the image became more clear-cut; all of the dissenters were earth-ponies who were sticking together; amongst those who distanced themselves were earth ponies, too, but most of them were pegasi and unicorns. Eventually, with little sound, the crowd had dispersed into two opposing mobs. They were staring each other down, some with incomprehension; others with hatred. Yet others with tears in their eyes.

In their midst, only now revealed to the daylight, lay those who hadn’t made it through the stampede.

There was neither fear nor anger in Gaia’s gaze. It was blank; uncomprehending. She looked at the stallion who hovered in front of her, and Celestia could see that Gaia was coming to some sort of conclusion; that she arrived at some realisation Celestia could not fathom. It looked as though something inside of her mother clicked into place.

“Gaia’s walls could not hold me back,” the stallion jeered. “They keep her away from you so reliably, keep her locked off in her comfortable little world with her two cute little kids, not a worry in the world, while they reap the fruits of other ponies’ hard labour — ours! Harvest Celebration? A bad joke! We till the soil, they eat the Harvest!”

Celestia’s vision was twirling. How could he speak like that? After what he had done?

“If we do not stand united,” Gaia exclaimed, and it sounded like a mantra, “then all that we have worked so hard to create will fall apart! We are all different, and we have different needs, and that’s how it should be! This society is not perfect, and neither am I. It is not I who builds this land; all I can do is do my part to keep up peace and defend us against that very threat of falling apart. For how can we live at all, if not together! How can there be peace if we are not willing to find compromise?”

“Exactly,” he muttered slyly. “There cannot be.”

And she was on the defensive.

“For agitation against the people of this land,” Gaia’s unwavering voice called out clearly, “and for deliberate terroristic acts willingly accepting innocent ponies to be injured and killed, for murder, and for disrespect to the laws of this land, I hereby arrest you.”

“Laws that you made.”

She ignored that statement. “You will receive a fair trial. Is that clear? That is what is going to happen to you. A fair trial like any other common criminal. I know what you want, but I’m not going to give it to you. You cannot scare us with your fear-mongering. You cannot drive us apart that easily.”

“I think I can,” he whispered only for her to hear. “Or rather, it is you who is doing the driving apart.”

She spoke no more. The crowd was silent; the tension was palpable, electric, and you would have been able to hear a pin drop to the ground.

“You are hereby,” Gaia pronounced very clearly, “under arrest.”

“But I’m not coming. I escaped the first time, remember? Don’t make a fool of yourself again,” he uttered, still only under his breath. Then he turned to the crowd and shouted. “She cannot hold me! She cannot muzzle me — and most of all, she cannot muzzle you.” Here and there, hoofstomps of assent were heard. “I declare to you all that the resistance is real. The rebellion is real. At this very moment, as I speak, all over the country, there are ponies banding together to fight for a country that is theirs once more. That knows to honour the efforts of its people. That makes sure the seeds we sow so laboriously are reaped only by us. If that is a thought you share, then I urge you to join them. I urge you to break free.”

He turned to face Gaia. “Time to stop indulging in fantasies. Your self-perceived nobleness of spirit buys these ponies exactly nothing. Your world-weary idealism is slowly eating away at the very foundation of your power. Seems like the Eternal Spring is withering away. It seems the reins are slipping out of your hooves!” He giggled.

That was enough. Gaia’s eyes flashed. She sharply yanked the hovering Sweetcorn toward her, intending to apprehend him; but at that precise moment, still in midair, the stallion suddenly turned to face Celestia, and a small smile appeared on his muzzle for only her to see. His gaze seemed to stare right into her heart, and there it reared its head again, that weird fascination with the wild eyes and the disheveled mane.

He held a hoof to his mouth, as if to consign Celestia to confidentiality. Celestia flinched. She was sure she had heard his voice in her head.

Will you pay the price?

And before Gaia could grasp him, there was a sudden puff of white smoke. When it cleared, he had apparently simply disappeared in mid-air.

Gaia stared blankly at the spot where he had disappeared. So did Celestia and the entire square; what had happened was absolutely incomprehensible.

Smoke and mirrors. A diversion. But where had he gone?

Right now, everything was dead silent. But the silence didn’t last for long.

***

Gaia grabbed Celestia by the nape like a lioness her cub and disappeared with her in a flash.

They landed on the castle’s marble balcony. By now, dusk was falling rapidly, and the torches on the balustrades illuminated them, a frightening theatre of shadows on the castle walls.

“It wasn’t Luna,” Celestia wailed immediately, and cast a pleading look towards her mother. “It wasn’t her who let him out! Not this time!” Her voice was imploring.

Gaia gently set Celestia on the marble. She gave her a sharp look, then without a word, stormed inside. Celestia hurried to run after her mother, struggling to keep up.

Barely had Gaia entered the castle, did a burly guard approach them. “Stronghooves has told me they’ve got their soldiers down there,” he said emphatically. “He’s deployed them to keep the situation under control.

“How great,” Gaia remarked grimly. “Fantastic prospect to have a bunch of soldiers on Canterlot Square. Where do you think this road leads? Get your people in the throne hall right now. And go fetch Acier!” she exclaimed.

Some of her gentility had been replaced with the same cold, fierce anger Celestia had seen when the guards had beat up Sweetcorn. And that didn’t fail to frighten Celestia, this time, either. The three of them entered the throne hall, which was plunged in twilight and empty.

“What about this Sweetcorn?” she asked sharply.

“His cell was unscathed and simply empty. We have no idea — “

“How could he have escaped?” she cut him off. “We’ve got one mad earth pony in here — just an earth pony, nopony’s heard of him before! — I give orders to keep him safe and secure, and then, within mere hours, he wreaks an unprecedented attack on Canterlot Square! How could he have escaped!”

“Maybe you should ask your daughter about that,” the guard said quietly. She turned around and looked at him as though she had misheard. Then her gaze darkened, and she locked eyes with him.

“Quiet,” she growled menacingly. Celestia flinched: she had never seen her mother like this. “This is the guards’ fault. You’ve failed keeping him from breaking in here; you’ve failed keeping him from breaking out again.”

“With all due respect, Majesty, I cannot accept that”, the stallion retorted. “If I may remind you, the guards were bent on neutralising Sweetcorn when he made his way in here, but you thought it wise to discharge two fine servicestallions who were doing their job with the express intention of protecting you, you and your daughters! And now you reproach us guards with his escape? I know you believe in some sort of crazy guard conspiracy, that’s no secret, but there’s a line for everything, and you are crossing that line right now, Majesty —”

Her eyes were fuming. She approached; the guard flinched, but did not budge as the alicorn came closer. Eyes narrow, ears laid back, she looked like a ferocious animal ready to attack. Celestia retreated into a corner.

“Who do you think you are?” Gaia said very quietly. “You are forgetting yourself.”

But the guard was feeling adventurous. He responded with equally strained quiet. “So what are you going to do, Majesty? Are you going to discharge me, too, for stating things as they are for once? You’ve always had a problem with knowing who your friends are. Whom to be friendly towards, and whom to be hostile against. Are you going to dismiss me now? Or worse?”

His gaze was defiant. Celestia turned away her head; this time not in fear. She realised that her mother had just been embarrassed to the point of disgrace, and that was a painful thing to watch.

Her mother’s eyes seemed to shoot daggers as she approached the stallion until she was mere inches away; she was at least two heads taller than the stallion, and her figure much more impressive, in no small part due to her large, graceful wings. But as she, her teeth clenched together, ripped the guard’s ensign from his armour, she appeared small.

“Leave,” she said simply.

The guard’s lips quivered slightly. Then he nodded a few times, slowly, and stared her directly in the eyes.

And he did leave.



The exchange appeared to have exhausted Gaia. She simply sat down where she was; in the centre of the throne hall, on the marble floor in front of her throne. She seemed to be contemplating something. Then she looked at Celestia.

“I sincerely don’t believe that Luna was responsible for what happened,” she said. “She didn’t let Sweetcorn in. She can’t have, because she was with me at the time.”

Celestia froze.

“But why — why would she —”

“Why would she lie? I don’t know. Maybe to get a bit of credit for once. But she would never let in somepony who she knows is dangerous, who could hurt me, could hurt you. She did attack the guards, though. That much is true. So in the end, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

“But — how else could he....?”

Gaia gave her a blank look.

“Is it true what he said? Is there a rebellion?”

“Of course not,” Gaia sighed. “But there’ll be one now.” She drooped her head.

“You did something very brave on the Square today, Tia”, she said after a while; in the twilight, it was already hard to make out her face. “Something very dangerous, but very brave. I’m proud of you.”

But as she turned around, Celestia, for the first time, saw tears in her mother’s eyes. “But don’t you ever do that again,” she said. “You hear me? Don’t you ever do that again. I don’t want to — lose — ”

Her voice trailed off and she breathed in sharply.

“Please don’t stick around when they come, Sunray. I said I was going to involve you, but not ... not like this. There’ll be generals here and ponies from the city council and nobility and a whole lot of unpleasantness is going to be discussed. Unpleasant decisions. I want to spare you all that.”

“Will there be war now,” Celestia asked quietly.

Gaia didn’t budge. “Whatever happens,” she said after a while. “We’re at a crossroads now, and both ways lead into uncertain futures. But we know that neither of these futures will be pleasant.”

Then she fell silent.

Celestia understood that it was time for her to go. She looked back one last time at her mother sitting in the throne hall, not on the throne, but simply in its middle, weary and with grim decision. And in that moment, the final light of the day passed through one of the glass-stained windows, to plunge the entire hall into a most peculiar, harlequin light of every colour; and yet, since the day was already coming to a close, the colours were muted and muffled and halfway between light and shadow.

Celestia raised her head towards that glass-stained window; it was as though she was noticing it for the first time. It was divided in three parts. Its upper half was a bright yellow as the sun, and a long, drawn-out alicorn seemed to form the upper part of a circle: it had a leaf-green hue to it. Another alicorn in the lower half completed the circle; but it was a cold, wintery blue. The two appeared to chase each other’s tails endlessly.

And in its centre, guarded by the two ponies, there was a heart-shaped flame of exactly the kind Sweetcorn had described.

She sighed deeply and looked one last time towards her mother’s bent figure in the throne hall. Then she left the hall and stepped into the corridors.

***

Things change; whether you want them to or not. Most of the time, change comes slowly, over the course of years. But sometimes, it occurs suddenly and overnight — with the batting of an eyelash. Celestia realised that only now. You had to go with the flow, or time would sweep you away. Yes, change had brought doubt with it; but in all that new doubt, Celestia found certitude.

In the corridors, there was an unprecedented hustle. The entire court seemed up on their hooves and on their way to the throne hall; they were moving up and down, important-looking dark-robed ponies with white wigs for a mane, guards in knots of two or three rushing to the guard’s quarters, where talks were going to be held, and a group of wigged, distinguished-looking ponies that Celestia knew constituted the city council and senate of the Town of Canterlot. It was like her mother had said: important matters were going to be discussed, no question.

But right now, Celestia chose to ignore it. She walked through the overcrowded corridors as though in a trance; she did not budge when the other ponies approached her, knowing full well that they would be the ones to move and avoid collision. Instead, she had the most peculiar sensation of being on a preordained trajectory; of unwaveringly following a line that led straight to her destiny. To her vocation.

The further she walked through the castle, back towards her chamber, the stronger this feeling became; everything seemed to fall in place in front of her eyes, under her hooves, and all around her. Every pony who cleared her way seemed to feel it, too; nopony asked her in any way where she was going, what she was going to do, because that all felt perfectly like it should be. And the ponies walking towards her for the first time undoubtedly recognised the clarity of mission in her eyes; saw the purposefulness of the spring in her hooves. Somewhere in the back of her head, she realised that she was walking the path of her life’s calling at that moment. Because really, the crossroads lay behind her already; from now on, it was all a perfectly straight line. She believed to finally understand what her mother had meant by destiny.

Her steps slowed down when she passed by Acier’s door. It stood ajar; the master of the guards was nowhere to be seen. Still feeling steered by a strange sense of mission, she pushed open the door with her hooves and entered into the room. Diamonds sparkled on the walls as per the usual; but now, they reflected only the oil lamp and not the sun, a much less resplendent light. Nonetheless, the keys on the giant rack of key-hooks over the workbench glistened in it.

It was at that moment that Celestia felt very strongly drawn to the workbench; pulled there by some compelling force. She approached, and cocked her head in apprehension. There, on the worktable, lay a single parchment. It was folded in halves. Its outside was blank.

She frowned and picked it up. She unfolded it. The hastily scribbled handwriting thereon seemed so urgent, so driven, so impelled that it must have been forced onto parchment in mere minutes, in a feverish bout of frenzy. It appeared like an excerpt from a longer text. She furrowed her brow, and in the polychromatic light of the gems, she started to read.


... a purulent ulcer at the very heart of our nation, a proliferating growth that so vociferously devours the very essence, the soul of this land! The heavy air we breathe still hangs pestiferous with the resilient residue of gluttonous cupidity, of unbridled greed, of those few who clasp in their hooves the fate of a nation too splendid, too meritorious for them to hold in slavery any longer. We soldiers must take to the arms! take to the arms and take back what is rightfully ours! The battles we have fought with vigour and conviction, the pledges and sacrifices we have offered, all made in vain, all made to the enemy in disguise! They say we fight the enemy; but is not the enemy our own lady? Are those not one and the same, is our true ally and master not freedom, not self-rule?

And what better way to destroy a pestilential growth than from within? What better place to attack than from inside the enemy’s sanctuary? To earn the enemy’s trust, and then to unlatch the gates for the comrades to come in, to end this war before it even started, to extinguish that Flame that cannot perish on its own and take its place, to take back the castle and give it back to its rightful owners, the great ponies of this land! Only swiftness and surreptitiousness ensure an equally quick and discreet victory, before the enemy even grows aware that she has nursed and harboured the assailant on her own demesne. And what better way to extinguish a life thought to be interminable than by attacking what is closest to the heart. By becoming friends with them, and then attacking those who are closest to the heart ...

That was all.

Her eyes slowly wandered up towards the rack of key-hooks. There hung the keys to all the dungeons. There hung the key that he had used to lead her to Sweetcorn. For a moment, she simply stared at it, her expression perfectly neutral.

Did she feel disappointed? Betrayed? Was that what she felt? She contemplated the thought for a moment, but then she realised that she wasn’t; for it now seemed unavoidable to her, as though it had been laid out like this from the start. Wasn’t that, too, just part of that great plan? Wasn’t that all as it should be? That great sense of cosmic determination was too immense for any personal sense of betrayal.

She crumpled the parchment in her hoofs, then stowed it away under her wing.

As she left the chamber, she saw Acier come down the corridor; no doubt he was returning from the throne hall. He looked at her with surprise, and a mild smile appeared on his muzzle. But he had barely begun to speak when he saw her gaze and thought better of it. She looked him directly in the eyes, with an expression that must have been entirely unfathomable to him.

“Tia, is everything —”

Truth in our hearts,” she said, very slowly, uttering every single syllable with the greatest distinction. “Consistency in our tongues.

And she turned her back on him to stride on, ignoring his calls. Her expression was grim: she was not going to tell anyone anything about this parchment, not her mother, nor anypony else: that much was clear. It was her knowledge, for it was her bond that had been betrayed; the parchment was her secret, and it was her who would decide what to do with that secret, how to act on it, which conclusions to draw from it. For that, she needed time.

But where could she go now?

The answer came to her naturally; her hooves seemed to find their way all by themselves.

When she arrived at her and Luna’s chamber and opened the door, it was empty. She laid down on her bed and stared up towards the ceiling. The warmth restored lost comfort to her; the galaxies swirling overhead eased at least some tension. But soon, even they seemed to feed into that agonising sense of inevitability that had infested her, the sudden conviction that everything was already laid out, already planned. Every actor had their script already, and from now on, the only thing left to do was watching the play unfold. The thought made her feel strangely disconnected from her surroundings. There was no going back now. She finally believed to understand what her mother had meant by destiny.

But which role was she going to play? And which role was —

She waited and waited. After what seemed like at least three hours, the door opened, and Luna slid in. Celestia could only see her outline in the bright doorframe; but with her, she brought a slight, fresh note of night air into the room, and Celestia slowly breathed in.

For a while, Luna stood indecisively in the doorframe and stared into the darkness of the room. Then she soundlessly closed the door behind her and moved towards her bed. Celestia’s eyes were still wide open. Above, two stars were performing a very elaborate, drawn-out dance of gravity; as they distanced themselves from each other, they slowed down, but when they approached again, they accelerated.

Celestia breathed in and turned her head to watch Luna climb into bed; the rustling of bedsheets was now the only sound in the room. She could still not see her sister’s face, only her shadowy outline. But nonetheless, she watched her attentively. Which role was she going to play?

A particularly deep breath from Celestia made Luna turn her head. There, in total darkness, they gazed at each other, and yet saw nothing but silhouettes. Celestia could not fathom that Luna’s eyes were half-closed; perhaps with a mixture of expectation and weariness, of detachment and affection. But that mattered little. In her heart, she felt that everything was as it should be; but there was something else. Luna’s words resounded in her mind. You’re so loved, god, you have no idea how loved you are.

There must be a place for all this love, she thought suddenly. It must not go to waste.

Wasn’t that the only truth that mattered? Whatever would happen tomorrow, whatever choices needed to be made, whatever would change — wasn’t there one thing that was certain today?

She slowly got out of her bed and walked over to Luna’s. For a moment, she just stood in front of it, motionless, merely divining her sister’s gaze.

Then, without really thinking about it, she climbed in. Very gently, very hesitantly, she nestled up to her sister, who remained motionless as a stone. She felt her breath against her own chest; a breathing that was a little too measured to be natural. She vaguely sensed Luna’s subtle warmth against her own.

In this position, they froze, and moved no further, finally drifting off into a shallow sleep. It was not all the comfort they needed, but all that they could muster; it was not all the closeness they craved, but all that they could endure. For between their fur, there remained a minute distance Celestia dared not bridge, a minuscule gap she dared not close.

It was only a tiny fraction of an inch; but in all actuality, it was an entire world.



To be continued.

Next chapter: Invitations.


Many thanks to my tirelessly radical pre-reader Cadmium for his helpful comments.

And thank you, dear reader, for sticking with this tale — even though this chapter turned out ridiculously long. It’s your warm comments and support that keep me going. That means, yes, please do take the time to rate and comment if you liked this story. If you have the time, please also rate on EqD. Thank you very much.

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