• 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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Invitations

Content warning: contains minor swearing

Chapter 3
Invitations

« ... somewhere out there, there must be something that is both true and simple ... »


It is night in Equestria. Somewhere in the distance, the silhouette of a castle is visible against a black sky. The Everfree Forest is silent to those who don’t know how to listen, and almost devoid of movement. And yet, the silhouette of a pony moves over the lawn, a young, night-blue mare with wings and a horn.

A twig cracks. The figure pulls back her hoof, as though startled by herself; then she pricks up her ears again and scurries soundlessly over the soft blanket of wet leaves covering the ground. She moves more like a large cat than a pony, her sleek coat sometimes revealing the movement of lean muscles under her coat; and her movements are smooth and fluid, measured but swift. Sometimes, when she believes to hear a sound, she freezes, and her body ducks towards the ground, like a field animal seeking shelter from a bird of prey. After a while, she raises her head to perk up an ear and listen into the night; and her bright eyes float in the darkness like two full moons.

The real full moon that she looks up to silently, unbudgingly hangs suspended above the night, like the unblinking, unperturbed gaze of some great universal truth. This night, it is untarnished by clouds. She stares at it, as though she tries to elicit that truth; time and time again, she looks at the moon, if only to verify it is still there.

Then she slinks on, prowling through the night, and soon she finds that fluidity of movement again, that swiftness and spring in her hooves, that smooth shadowy grace of a silhouette; she seems to move to some kind of rhythm, a melody, even, that normal ears are oblivious to, but that seems to her as natural as the air she breathes. In her flowing suppleness, she seems to be swimming through the night, not just galloping.

Soon, she becomes more secure, swifter, more confident, and her halts to check for her surroundings become rarer and rarer. She runs alongside a small green fox, as though competing with it. The wet lawn she moves on starts to slope downwards, and she gathers speed as she darts downhill. Here, where the trees are less dense and there are less shadows, narrow beams of moonlight sometimes fall onto her figure and her face. The pattern they form on her figure and on the ground resemble that of a barred door: thin, linear beams of light alternate with somewhat broader shadows of trunks. But when her face does become visible, a smile is apparent, and her eyes light up with something else than the mere reflection of the moonlight. Sometimes, she huffs excitedly, for shortness of breath as well as for the exhilaration and thrill. In those moments, she can feel the night wind ruffle her fur and feathers, a slight tingle on her skin, and then, she feels one with the night around her, as if she were mere part of that one large movement that is the wind of the night, swiftly carrying hushed, unpronounceable messages from place to place ere the day breaks once more, messages audible only to those who know how to listen. Then, all her inhibition is gone, all her carefulness disappears, and all that remains is the excitement of moving under the cover of darkness, in tune with the stars.

Suddenly, she comes to another halt. Her muscles are taut in anticipation, and once more, she raises her head to listen into the night; this time, she has actually heard something, an unnatural, abrasive sound amongst the nocturnal tranquility. Her eyes narrow, and her ears remain pricked up as she cautiously stalks towards the source of the sound. Her expression darkens. Pony laughter. What more jarring sound could disrupt the night? What could be more misplaced amongst the grand universal truth of darkness than the terribly this-worldly, vulgar guttural guffaw from a pony’s throat?

The slope ends in a cliff. Keeping to the shadows as well as she can, she silently looks over the precipice onto the gravel road below. Her nose is wrinkled in apprehension, and she blinks a few times; even the feeble, but fiery roadside illumination of one torch every hundred feet is too bright for her now. She covers her eyes. Next to her, the fox has joined her, looking down as well.

Blankly, she stares down. Where does this road lead? For a moment, she is too caught up in the tranquility of the darkness to remember such mundane facts. Then her consciousness sharpens, and somewhere in the back of her head, she realises it connects Canterlot and Hoofington. Two earth stallions were walking below. They had scruffy, dirty coats, but their faces were ripe with some sort of glee. Their shadows danced in the illumination of the torchlight they carried.

She cocked her head, timid resentment on her moonlit face. Could they not see how misplaced their boisterousness was? She keeps to the ground, silently stalking alongside the cliff to follow their progress, and listens.

“Totally out of the blue,” said the one stallion, who had what seemed like a burlap sack for a cutie mark. His voice was harshly enthusiastic. “Like, nopony had any idea. If there’s ever been a surprise at the Harvest Celebration, this is it.” He guffawed.

“But this Sweetcorn guy — d’ya think he’s the real deal?”

“‘course he is! He’s the only one sticking up for guys like us. He’s right. She doesn’t care for us one bit, our glorious Her Majesty Queen Eternal Spring Gaia. I mean, I was there on that square. I saw what happened. She had her brat with her, Celestia, and when the chips were down, it was her that she protected, not us.”

“I didn’ even know she had a kid.”

“She got two kids. Knot, you been livin’ under a rock or what?”

Knot laughs. “In Hoofington, but that’s pretty much the same thing. Royal news don’t reach us back there. Never really cared much about them, too.”

“Well, this you should care about. There’s something going on there, too. She’s got two kids, but she only brings one! I mean, Gaia thinks nopony notices, but she’s wrong. Two kids, ‘meant to rule together’, least that’s what they told us some ten years ago. So where’s her other daughter? Dunno about you, but I ain’t stupid, something’s off at the royal court. Well, some stuff filters through. Rumours from the castle, I know a guy there. Apparently, the other princess, Luna, isn’t quite right in the head. There’s some nasty stuff being said about her. So Gaia hides her and shows the other one around, preps her for the throne. She’s embarrassed about her weirdo daughter. They call her Loony, and for a reason, I guess. ” He snorted.

A tiny pebble tumbled down the cliff, but in the night, it made a jarringly amplified sound. He stopped talking and put up his head to look towards the crag towering overhead. But the darkness was impenetrable.

“What is it?”

“Thought I heard something.”

“Just a stone falling.”

“Yeah....” He narrows his eyes and tries to make out shapes in the night; but when nothing moves and all is still, he turns back to his partner, and they trot on.

“So, like I said, seems they’re a bit short of domestic bliss over at the castle. Things not going as well as Gaia hoped, if yeh can trust the rumours. And that’s his chance. Sweetcorn’s. He’s gonna work from there. That’s his leverage.”

“His what?”

“You know, his hoof into the castle. If he’s got one hoof in, then it’s only a matter of time before he’s got the whole thing. And then he’s gonna rid us of her once and for all. Then the earth ponies are gonna call the shots here. Finally.”

“How d’you mean, rid us? Drive her away?”

“Yeah, that. Or worse.”

“Like what?”

“Kill her for good.”

There was a pause. The other stallion, Knot, looked at his conversational partner with unconcealed shock.

“That’s treason,” he said reflexively. But then, after a while, he added: “And you can’t kill the queen anyway. She ain’t... ain’t no normal pony. There’s no guillotine for her head. She’s immortal. Not even Sweetcorn can change that, even—even if that’s his stated mission.”

“Yeah, but this guy ain’t no normal pony, too,” his partner said, and in the torchlight, his face was glistening with unadulterated enthusiasm. “You weren’t there on that square, but I was. He gave her the full run-around. Couldn’t believe my eyes. She pulled him right out of the lot, yeah, but then he has his unbelievable speech, and right when she tries to grab him — poof — he‘s gone.”

“Gone,” Knot says and shakes his head incredulously.

“Yeah. Disappears into thin air, just like that. She can’t believe her eyes, too. Looks totally stupid up there on that jumbled stage. The most powerful alicorn lookin’ like a complete fool. I’m telling you, this Sweetcorn is something else.”

“That’s why you’re going to join him.”

“Yeah,” the other blurted and gruffly jabs his attendant in the side. “And you should join, too! If you know what’s good for you.”

“I dunno. Sweetcorn...” Knot is deep in thought for a while. “Funny, I once knew someone called Sweetcorn back in Hoovington,” he grins.

“But yah sure it wasn’t him?” Burlap asks eagerly.

“Nah, can’t be. That one was a total dope. Couldn’t string together three words. Not that sorta, like, genius you’re describing.” He fell silent, and his face glistened with some kind of admiration. “Man, that sure takes guts to do that to the Queen’s face...”

“And that’s just the beginning! He’ll make her look worse than that. I’m sure he can do it. He’ll capture the castle for us, he’ll tear down those gates, and then it’s curtains for Gaia, and to nip things in the bud, for her heir, too. Goodbye, little Celestia. And then, when those are out of the way, finally, finally will we —”

Suddenly, the light of their torch is gone with a hiss. Only the much feebler roadside illumination casts their glow upon them now. The sharp echo of Burlap’s unfinished sentence hangs uncomfortably in the air.

“What the...”

“Relight the torch, quick!”

“Where? I got no fire!”

“Take it from those!” Knot points at one of the roadside torches. But before they can approach it, those lights are extinguished, too, as though blown out by some invisible breath. They both freeze in place, suddenly scared at the sounds their hooves make on the gravel, and together, they perk up their ears and try to penetrate the darkness.

Burlap, acting on a whim, puts his head back to look at the moon. But something strange happens. A large and heavy cloud appears to push itself in front of it, to obscure any and all moonlight, and completely usurp any lingering light. All of a sudden, the darkness around them seems more dense than usual, more solid than a mere absence of light. He turns around to look for his partner, only to find that he can’t see him anymore.

“Knot?” he murmurs tentatively.

Nothing, as though the night has swallowed him.

He extends a hoof to feel into the darkness, but it finds no resistance. He is just groping about in nothingness. As he looks down, he realises he can’t even see the street under his hooves; neither can he see his hooves. A tingling feeling of fear starts to spread through his body.

He inhales sharply.

“Knot!”

For a moment, he is sure to hear an angry hiss, and then, a weird, gargling sound escapes his throat, and he feels as though some black tentacle tugs on his heart, squeezes on his soul, and there is fear, fear heaved from the most profound depths of his self, and the last thing he sees is nothing at all, just a wall of solid, crushing black.

***

Celestia awoke to the sound of rain.

She blinked, and immediately turned around to her side: Luna wasn’t there. Had they even laid in this bed together? Celestia wasn’t sure anymore. She retained a vague memory of delicate closeness, of awkward intimacy, but for all she knew, it could have been a dream or even a distant memory. Things look different in the daylight.

Her members hurt, which meant her sleep had been stiff at best. Groaning, she got up and walked over to the gable window. Thick, heavy clouds were hanging in the sky, pouring down something awful, thick torrents of water gushing down like solid grey walls. The first autumn rain had come with a splash. For some reason, that harsh weather reflected very much Celestia’s inner turmoil. Her expression darkened.

On a whim, she opened a window and put out her hoof. The cool rain immediately soaked it to the bone, but she didn’t pull it back in: there was something strangely invigorating about the harsh sensation of rain on her fur, a feeling of being alive, an opportunity of getting back in touch with reality, of being one with some greater truth that lay outside there, outside of the confinements of these castle walls...

Idle thoughts of no importance. She pushed them from her mind, and as she kept looking into the grey outside, the realities came back to her. Somewhere below her, very, very far off in the distance, she believed to divine the gleaming domes of Canterlot. What was going on down there? The rain hid it under a thick veil. Acier. A pang of pain ran through her heart, but her expression was grim. The note lay under her pillow, and she felt she needed to do something about it. What, she didn’t yet know, but she needed to make a decision. And then, Luna. What had she been doing the night before, what did she do all the nights? What was going on with her? Celestia sighed. The more she thought about all the things going on, the less clear everything seemed to become.

Whatever it was, holding her hoof into the rain wasn’t helping. Taken by a sudden need for action, she pulled it back in and absentmindedly held it to her her horn to dry it. She went over to her bed and checked under the pillow; there it still was, that scrap of parchment. To unlatch the gates for the comrades to come in... what better way to extinguish a life thought to be interminable than by attacking what is closest to the heart? She shook her head. How could she have been so stupid? At least, that might finally give a hint as to why Acier didn’t have a cutie mark, she thought glumly.

Once more, she safely stored away the parchment in her own plumage. She was determined to keep it safe until she had decided what to do with it, until she had staked out Acier’s objectives.

Hastily spreading out the blankets over her beds, Celestia went out, deciding to take it one by one. The corridors, too, were sullen with greyness creeping through the broad windows. But before she could do anymore, she bumped into her mother, accompanied by somepony she hadn’t seen before.

“Tia,” her mother said and smiled lightly. She looked fatigued, no doubt she had slept little; but her eyes were as alert as ever, and the heart-shaped diamond on her chest sparkled mysteriously. Her expression darkened, however, as she introduced her attendant. “This is General Stronghooves.”

Next to her stood a stocky, young stallion in full military armour, which despite his relatively young age, was covered in medals and ensigns. Thick muscles bulge under his stainless white coat, which was immaculately kept; his ebony-black mane was cropped neatly, giving his head a rather square appearance. While his face was starkly cut and his eyes a steely blue, an all-too eager smile had spread over his muzzle when he saw Celestia, and his eyes sparkled.

She gave him a wary look, but he stepped forward and bowed more deeply than would have been necessary, taking her hoof in one swift motion to plant a measured kiss on it. “Princess,” he said with oily grandeur in his voice. “It is an honour and a pleasure to meet you. I am entirely at your service.”

Celestia was unsure how to feel about his kiss and winning smile; there was an ostentation, a pretension in his gestures that made her wary, but then again, he had a certain aura to him, an undeniable charm. Looking at him, she slowly pulled back her hoof, while he smiled unabatedly. Gaia frowned.

“General Stronghooves,” Gaia said pointedly, “is going to stay with us for a few days here at the castle, in a merely consultative capacity. He’s brought a few of his friends with him, too. Isn’t that right, General?” The displeasure in her voice was unmistakeable.

“That is very right, my Queen. In the light of the recent events.”

Celestia’s eyes wandered towards the cutie mark on the firm flank, and it was a fairly predictable sword. The name was the game: parallel to each of his forelegs, there ran a smoothly polished, shining silver blade, pointing upwards and attached to his hooves by a gold ring at its end. The swords worked with the usual mechanism: when he would yank his hooves, the blades would fold out and snap into place to become a mortal weapon. When his work was done, he would fold them back in. Celestia grew wary of the thought how his white coat must look after their usage. But there was no doubt about it: in spite of his grandiose smile, they gave him a radiating air of intimidation, a vague inkling that there was something more dangerous behind that grin.

“Might I say, Princess, you are even prettier than they say.”

Celestia looked back at him, and Gaia, who appeared to have followed both Celestia’s look and Stronghooves’ overly eager smile, narrowed her eyes until they were mere slits. She pulled her daughter towards her to take her under her hooves and demonstratively tousled her hair. Celestia was taken aback; but soon, she wrested herself free from her mother’s, as it seemed to her, overly protective grip.

For a few seconds, awkward silence reigned, then Stronghooves clicked his hooves and said jovially, “We were on our way to breakfast, Majesty! Not to hasten you, but I am so hungry I could eat a... well... a horse really!” He laughed boisterously.

“I’m sure you could,” Gaia muttered under her breath, but if Stronghooves had heard it, it sure didn’t wipe the smile from his face. Instead, he looked at Celestia again, and this time, she was sure to have seen a wink. “Maybe your lovely daughter can join us!”

“No, I don’t think so —”

“I haven’t had breakfast yet,” Celestia said and looked at her mother. Gaia’s green eyes sparkled, but then she gave in with a deep sigh.

“What about Luna? Where is she, maybe she can —” started Celestia, in an attempt to make her desire to join them appear less weird, but she couldn’t finish her words before she sensed a warning in her mother’s eyes. She fell silent.

Stronghooves looked curiously from one to the other. “Your sister?” he said eagerly. “I’ve heard about her, of course she can join —”

“She won’t.” And that was that.

With measured, supple steps, Gaia led the way towards the dining room. Celestia trotted after her, soon looking at her mother, soon looking at Stronghooves, soon scanning the corridors for a glimpse of Acier or Luna. For some reason, her uncanny certainty of the previous evening was replaced more and more by confusion, and everything that had seemed to click into place fell apart once more. When Gaia opened the door to the dining hall, Celestia was surprised to not find it empty, as it was usually reserved for the royal family: two shifty-looking soldiers, they, too, decorated with ensigns and medals, had been talking quietly and now turned their heads to look at the new entrants. When they recognised Gaia, they scrambled to bow deeply, which the queen acquiesced with a nod. Stronghooves’ greeting turned out more expansive: he crossed hooves with each of them, pulling them towards him in the process. “Oh, Benedict here, and this is Arnold. I’ve known my lieutenants for a while,” he laughed when he saw Celestia’s look. But they stayed silent observers as Celestia, Gaia and Stronghooves sat down. With a nonchalant swipe of Gaia’s hoof, breakfast, finest china and silverware appeared on the table, much to the two lieutenants’ barely contained amazement. Stronghooves himself didn’t seem very surprised by that feat.

When he caught the Queen’s impatient look, his smile was quickly replaced by a blank, business-like attitude, as though he had flipped a switch.

“Okay, here’s the lay of the land,” he said. He laid his hooves on the table, but as he spoke, he would make measured, but forceful movements with them to underline his points. “The situation in Canterlot is tense. During the last nights, there’s been pillagers and agitators crawling through the city. Nothing very serious has happened so far, but that Sweetcorn definitely has succeeded in luring the troublemakers out of their holes. Apparently, they feel encouraged now by the, as they see it, lack of swift response on your part.” He coughed. Gaia said nothing. “And there’s something else going on. The situation on Canterlot Square yesterdays has calmed down and people dispersed into the streets, but early this morning, we found a small crowd of ponies there — apparently, they’ve camped out the night there. Not all too many, maybe a hundred. All of them are petty separatists and anarchists,” he spat out those words, “some of which have been well-known to the army before. Apparently, they see in that Sweetcorn some sort of leader figure or something to rally around. But now that he’s disappeared, all they can do is eagerly await his return, which is just what they appear to be doing now.”

“And where is he now?” she said, her tone sharper than would have been necessary.

“Sweetcorn?” Stronghooves put on an ostensible smile and made an apologetic, sweeping gesture with his hooves. “In spite of all my military expertise, if he manages to escape even from her Majesty’s hooves, there’s no way I or one of my folks stand a chance of finding him. Not that we aren’t trying!” he added , and his eyes lit up with an almost scary enterprise. “I can tell you, if by some miracle, we do get this bastard, then I will be sure to waste no time in crushing him like an ant under my ho—”

Gaia scrunched her nose. “A brilliant idea,” she said pointedly. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that that is precisely what he wants? No, he needs to be tried like any other petty criminal. Putting him behind bars will be enough. No crushing necessary. Or desirable.”

“Are you sure putting him behind bars will be enough? After all, hasn’t he already escaped twice?”

For a moment, Celestia wondered if her mother would scold Stronghooves; but she didn’t. “Yes, he has,” she said grudgingly. “He has.”

“See, for some ponies, handcuffs just aren’t enough, Majesty!” He guffawed.

“And for some ponies, the mere act of putting on handcuffs just isn’t enough,” she said darkly. “So they are pillaging already. And a hundred ponies on Canterlot Square, you say? He’s ensnaring them more quickly than I thought. They think he cares about them, but he really doesn’t. I’ve dealt with his kind before. I know the fantasy he’s trying to sell all too well: giving a voice to the voiceless, whoever that might be. He preys on vague feelings of discontent that are selfish more than anything else.” She looked tired. “But if that’s what they want, then let them. They are not content with me, so let them express it. That is their right. They’ll hopefully see soon enough what kind of pony this Sweetcorn really is. A criminal, a murderer, a rogue! What a person to rally around.” She stared at her hooves. “Besides, a hundred ponies on Canterlot Square isn’t all that much. What are they supposed to do? That’s not a serious situation.”

“Oh, it is very serious, Majesty,” Stronghooves said gruffly. “Because it won’t stay like this. More ponies are going to come, the crowd is going to grow. We’ve checked those who were already there, and they all have their own little motivations. A lot of them are already known petty criminals and misfits. Others are agitators trying to latch on to this ‘Sweetcorn’ guy’s notoriety. In both cases, there’s plenty of these left in this country who are sure to join the motley crew once they arrive.”

She shook her head. “All to wait for the second coming of this criminal?”

“He’s the one they want. There’s all kinds of rumours about him, but no one has seen him. Not only in Canterlot, nowhere. But apparently, he doesn’t need to be around to exert his influence,” Stronghooves growled. “It’s like the crowd acts on remote control, it forms all by itself to do his bidding.”

“Some ponies are too gullible. I am here to tell you that the rebellion is real! All over the country, right now, rebel groups are forming... and magically, rebel groups really do appear. Well, at least you can’t say he isn’t clever.”

Stronghooves seemed to lose the red thread and simply stared blankly at Gaia.

“I had my chance, though,” Gaia said. “I should have called him out on that. Sweetcorn, who knew a plain pony like that had such a silver tongue?”

“But Majesty! Let us keep the discussion on relevant —”

“Nothing is more relevant,” she cut him off, and there was that obstinacy in her gaze again, the slightest bit of spite, as though it was Gaia who had been personally wronged. “I had the chance on the Square to outsmart him, but he outsmarted me. He had the moment of surprise on his side.”

“Well, Majesty, if I might — offer my opinion. You should have been more forceful in your handling of the situation. You should have let him speak in the first place, but immediately make sure he never speaks a word again, then you would have avoided looking so, forgive me, indecisive and —”

“Enough,” she said quietly. “You speak like the soldier you are, Stronghooves, but I speak as a queen. You know nothing about that.” Stronghooves’ enterprising grin faded. “Yes, he did want to make me look weak,” she conceded after a while. “But what he really wanted to do is plant an idea in their mind. A crackpot idea, to be sure, one that is completely unrelated to any kind of reality, but a big idea nonetheless. That’s where strife first takes its course. In ponies’ heads. And then, once it has infested their minds, it becomes more and more real, until they are sure it really exists. And then, you can’t stop it anymore. Then the chaos in their heads becomes real chaos. He knew that. He knew where to send the first spark. And some ponies’ brains are made of rather inflammable material.”

Celestia looked at her mother, and Stronghooves gave an especially broad fake smile this time. “But Majesty!” he said jovially. “Some ponies might call that view pretty cynical!” His tone left little doubt that he wasn’t one of those ponies.

“This isn’t really about me, or this Sweetcorn, or whatever,” Gaia went on, looking straight through him, as though she hadn’t heard him at all; and in fact, this time, she seemed to speak more to herself than to either them. “Some ponies just want to see things happen. Yes, there’s discontent, yes, there’s some friction, but you can never do right by everyone. It’s always the same old story. But ponies forget where the road of chaos leads if you choose to follow it to the very end. They forget too quickly that that little stretch of excitement isn’t worth the consequences. We’ve been there before. We’ve had it all before. Ponies just forget too easily.”

Stronghooves, who also looked like someone who forgets too easily, gave her a curious look. “Are you referring,” he said with his gravelly voice, “to the war fifty years ago? I wasn’t born back then, Majesty, and they weren’t, too! So forgive us for not remembering.” He laughed boisterously. Gaia drooped her eyelids. She stared at the salad under her, but apparently couldn’t really find the appetite to eat it.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m referring to,” she said after a while. “It was the exact same back then. Earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi. Some ponies always believe that all society is on the verge of collapsing, even if everything is working just fine. You just need someone to come up and tell them, yes, you’re right, society really is collapsing! Let’s put the boot in!, and they will say, yes, we were right all along, let us do something to fix it. But they tend to take it too far. And they don’t see that they are not fighting for a good cause, but only for that one agitator clever enough to manipulate them. Peace is quiet, too quiet for anyone too notice. War is loud. And all it takes is one loud voice, and ponies believe that one loud voice has been the silent minority all along. I’ve worked so hard to have balance, to have equilibrium, but apparently, no equilibrium is stable enough that some Sweetcorn or whatever he calls himself can come along and throw it apart with one cowardly bomb attack. And the worst thing, some ponies will applaud him for that, too. Just a handful is enough. I know you’re exactly right. They will grow. Well, what can I do. I have the best intentions.” Her gaze was lugubrious.

Celestia had never heard her mother talk like this, and she detected fatigue in her mother’s voice. The purpose of her speech seemed entirely lost on Stronghooves, however, who just nodded eagerly with his square jaw, and then exclaimed: “Exactly, Majesty! That crowd will grow. Just a handful of them is enough, and before you know it, you have a wild mob out of control. I told you that right now it is some one hundred ponies we’re talking, but how many will it be this evening? Tomorrow? And all it takes for these ponies to become violent is one incident, one little occasion, and they can set Canterlot ablaze. There’s enormous potential for unrest. Just last night, two earth ponies have been found unconscious on the road near Everfree Forest! Apparently held up.”

Gaia looked at him. “What did you say?” she said absently.

“Two earth ponies. Have been assaulted last night. Knocked out. Not dead, but barely. That’s just the beginning, of course, I have someone on it to figure out what happened. In any case, whoever assaulted them, incidents of this kind are only going to become more frequent — inside of Canterlot, and all over the country. And that kind of thing happening will only incite the crowd even further. Bad news is a sting into the hive-mind. You don’t wanna take that risk.”

Gaia stared down onto her lettuce.

“Well, I will have to take that risk,” she said pointedly. “What is the alternative?”

“Preemptive action,” he said, like a shot. “I told you that my soldiers are on the sidelines. I have two battalions standing by in Canterlot, just waiting for my — I mean, your word. We could evict that square in two hours flat, and everything would be back to normal.”

“No,” she said simply. “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard. Evict them? Do you think they will just go if you ask them kindly? They’re too deep into this to simply walk away. Or what do you mean by evicting them? You can only mean permission to use force.”

“That is indeed exactly what I mean—” he started and nodded eagerly.

“You mean I should have my soldiers turn on my own people?” Her eyes sparkled dangerously.

“No, I mean—”

“You mean yes,” she said trenchantly and turned her head. Celestia could divine the irritation behind her mother’s eyes. “I find it enormously hard to work with your kind. Don’t you comprehend that I will never allow you to use force on my people? I will never give that kind of permission, let alone command. Am I clear about that?”

He bit his nether lip, as if to keep himself from blurting out a comeback. He slowly nodded. “Understood, Madam. We stand by and observe the situation then?”

“You do that.”

“And we will keep you posted.”

“You do that, too.”

“And when the situation changes,” he added hopefully, “we might need to reconsider and think of appropriate measures to take, of course, in consultation with Your Majesty —”

“Of course,” she said pointedly, without looking at him. She had instead started to look at Celestia, even though Celestia wasn’t sure why.

“Just make sure that you make the right decisions, Majesty. Remember, Sweetcorn is out to get you, and he will stop at nothing to mobilise his mob. He’s underground right now, but that poses a big problem. He’s out of anypony’s grasp, seems to call his own tune. Like the pied piper, he’ll rally round people until he has his own personal army. You can’t let it come to that.”

Gaia’s eyes sparkled dangerously. “A pied piper,” she mouthed. “Well, thank you very much for tutoring me, but I have little use for your advice in this matter. There’s different ways to go forward from now. It’s not too late to — for dialogue. Let them have their say if they are malcontent. I’ll lend them an ear. I’m not stubborn, I will listen to what they have to say,” she said defiantly. “There will be no need for violence.”

He shook his head, but somehow, it was clear that he didn’t agree with that statement. He looked over to his two silent lieutenants, who were still staring intently at the table plate, their long, black manes hanging in front of their faces like greasy curtains. Their faces were unmoving, but somehow, Celestia had the feeling that they had intently listened to every word that had been spoken. When they caught Stronghooves’ look, they seemed to exchange some kind of silent understanding in their gazes. Gaia seemed to once more stare into all directions at once with equal intensity.

Stronghooves, who had apparently decided pursuing the matter would do no good, relaxed his rigid posture and military demeanour, reaching out for his mug. He drank his coffee with big, greedy gulps. Celestia watched him in spite of herself. There was something raw about him that she couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

Stronghooves smiled when he caught Celestia’s eye. “A lot of heavy stuff being talked about, huh?”

“Yeah.” She indicated a nod, and tried a smile of her own.

“Maybe we should take about something more pleasant. What say you, Majesty? The Grand Galloping Gala is coming up sooner rather than later here at the castle, isn’t that right? Isn’t it a mere week away?”

“The Gala? I don’t know yet,” Gaia said, as if nothing was farther from her mind than that right now. “I ought to call it off.”

“Why?”

“For two very simple reasons. Firstly, I’m sure you will agree it wouldn’t give the best of impressions if high society has a big pretentious party here at the castle while Canterlot is slipping out of control. And secondly, somewhat independently, I just can’t stand these Galas and the insufferable crowd of pretentious snobs they draw.” Her regard left little doubt that she included Stronghooves in that category.

“Oh, Majesty, I for one think you should absolutely have it this week! For you, it would be an excellent opportunity to reconnect with your supporters in Canterlot. Rally them round you! Don’t forget about that, you need the support of the nobility if you want to stay afloat, and they might feel you’ve given them a bit of the cold shoulder in recent times. ”

“Excellent tactical manoeuvring as always, General. Well, if they think I’ve been giving them the cold shoulder, they’re right. My hoof still hurts from all the shaking, my cheeks from all the fake smiling.”

“You should still consider it. Purely personally speaking, I have to admit, I have been looking forward to this event the minute it was clear I was going to stay in the castle!” He guffawed and blinked at Celestia. “And maybe I could share a dance with the lovely Princess... what do you think?”

That was an ambiguous question that could have been addressed to either Gaia or Celestia. Celestia was faintly flattered. She hadn’t really been to the yearly Galas before, not taking much interest in them and instead staying with her sister, but times had changed. And it was undeniable that Stronghooves had a certain charm to him. Suddenly, the idea held a strange excitement to her.

“Maybe —”

But her mother cut him off. “No, I don’t think so,” Gaia said sharply.

Celestia did her best to sound mature as she turned to her mother. “I’m not a kid anymore, I can choose myself. I don’t need your permission.”

“She’s right! Majesty, your lovely daughter is growing up!” He guffawed once more, and this time, Celestia was sure he had his eyes on he cutie mark. While it was clear that Gaia was thoroughly annoyed, Celestia was faintly pleased.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Gaia said and looked at Celestia, and once again, Celestia had that disarming feeling of being seen right through. “We’ll talk about it later,” her mother said resignedly. “In any case, it’s still a week to the Gala. Things might look very different by then.”

“They might, but even in the worst times, there’s a little fun to be had in life. And in any case, I would be honoured,” Stronghooves said, and once more, he blinked at Celestia. Then he got up. “I need to go and acquaint myself with the castle now. Make a few friends over at the guard’s quarters! But Majesty — “ his smile once again disappeared and gave way to military properness — “think about your options. I urge you to attack. You don’t know what Sweetcorn is planning, you don’t know what the mob is up to.”

Thank you,” she said sharply.

“Well, you know where to find me, Majesty. Your Majesty, I will see you later — “ he bowed — “Princess” — he bowed even more deeply — “I hope to see you at the Gala. Oh, you two—” he said, less politely, to his two subordinates — “you can come along, too.”

And with another wink at Celestia, lieutenants in tow, he left the room. Celestia looked after him. For someone so intimidating, he had been very kind towards her.

“A charmer, isn’t he?” her mother said darkly, once they were all alone in the dining hall. There was no doubt she held some kind of grudge against Stronghooves, but Celestia couldn’t see why.

“Yes,” she replied, decidedly without irony. She realised that she hadn’t even touched her lettuce, but she didn’t even feel hungry. There was something else on her mind.

“Mom, where is Luna?”

Gaia looked at Celestia. “Luna is in the West Tower.”

“At the infirmary?

“Oh, please don’t worry, Sunray.” Gaia put on a reassuring smile. “Nothing bad, she’s feeling a little under the weather, that is all. A little cold. She’ll be back up on her hooves in a matter of days.”

“A cold?” Celestia remembered their awkward episode the night before and frowned. “But why — when I tried to talk about her with you just now, didn’t you... didn’t you try to stop me from speaking about her in front of this Stronghooves?”

Gaia looked towards the table. Her bright green eyes were unusually matte today; but that must have been due to the lack of sunlight streaming through the gable windows. It was just pelting rain. “Not everyone needs to know when you or Luna are a little under the weather,” Gaia said, with a hint of defiance. “That’s nopony’s concern but ours, and certainly not his.” For a moment, she was silent, but her narrow eyes made it clear that her train of thought wasn’t finished. “Besides, he wouldn’t understand.”

“Wouldn’t understand what?”

“Well — let’s just say that he’s not a sensitive one.”

Celestia frowned. Was her mother trying to hide Luna from Stronghooves? Was that the true purpose of Luna being in the West Tower? After all, wasn’t a simple cold easily curable by her mother? The thought made her feel strangely lonely.

Gaia breathed in deeply, her cursive, pale-green chest heaving in one graceful movement, and made the plates disappear for good. “It’ll be a busy day. They won’t leave me any rest.” She indicated a nod towards the door, which Celestia presumed to reference just about anypony. “I am going to initiate talks with their ringleaders. That’s what I’m going to do,” she said, as though laying the plan out as she spoke. “We’re going to have a meeting, at Canterlot Hall, and I will listen to what they have to say. They’ll see that it makes no sense to incense. They’ll see that violence makes no sense.”

It sounded strangely defiant. Celestia remembered how hateful some of the faces had been on Canterlot Square the day before, and how some, while terror was written on most ponies’ faces, had been eerily impressed by Sweetcorn’s stunt. He had had an eerie control over the crowd, even those that were horrified at his misdeeds, an eery charm of his own. In no small part due to his manic, pulsating gaze, those almost hypnotic yellow eyes, and the savagely unkempt mane left and right of his face...

“Sweetcorn’s charm will wear off eventually,” her mother said, as though she had read her thoughts. “Don’t worry about him.”

“But you don’t know what he’s up to next, he’s already been here in the castle, he’s—”

“A one-time lapse,” her mother cut her off. “Don’t worry about it. This castle’s walls are thick. As long as one of us dwells here, no evil can penetrate these walls.”

She looked towards the now empty table. “You know what, maybe he is right,” she said after a while and looked towards Celestia. Her familiar, warm smile returned to her face, something that Celestia had sorely missed. “Maybe I really should have the Gala. Just to take our minds off this whole wretched business for once.”

Celestia returned her mother’s smile and lightly nodded. “I would like that.”

“Plus, that means I get to send out these again...” She reached into thin air and pulled a single, folded invitation card out of nowhere. She passed it on to Celestia, and as Celestia looked at it, finely calligraphed, elegant cursive words appeared on the outside of the card, as though written with an invisible quill.

Your attendance at the Grand Galloping Gala is kindly requested
At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
To Canterlot Castle

Celestia smiled, but her mother wasn’t finished. “It’s not done yet,” she said and gave a silvery laugh. “Sorry!” An additional line formed on the card and pushed the last one downwards.

At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
And her daughter Majesty Princess Celestia

Celestia’s smile faded and the warm feeling ebbed away. The moment’s lightness had disappeared, and suddenly, Celestia felt very depressed. “You’ve forgotten—

“I’m sorry,” Gaia said quickly and looked at the tabletop. “I’m sorry.” She bit down on her lower lip.

At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gala
And her daughters Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna

“Better?”

“Yes.” Celestia tried hard to smile. “But now you’ve misspelled your own name.”

“Princess Gala,” Gaia said and laughed tensely. But Celestia saw a suspicious shimmer in her mother’s eyes. “Thanks for catching that, that would have been embarrassing.”

“It would,” Celestia agreed and nodded. She, too, had taken to looking towards the tabletop. There was a moment of silence. A lot of different thoughts and emotions were racing in Celestia’s head right now, and she kept feeling as though she was on the verge of opening her mouth, of speaking about one of them. She could already her herself saying the first word, but then she kept swallowing it down. For some reason, talking about her problems with her mother felt hard to do right now.

Gaia seemed to sense Celestia’s unease. “If you need to talk about anything at all, I’m here for you,” she said. “Just so you know.”

Acier’s parchment suddenly seemed to weigh heavily under her wings, but Celestia just smiled feebly and shook her head. For some reason she couldn’t quite understand, she didn’t want to break it to her mother just yet. And for another reason that she couldn’t quite put in words, having that parchment under her wings, knowing a secret her mother didn’t, felt strangely empowering.

“One thing,” Celestia said, and her mother looked at her expectantly. “You keep talking about this war fifty years ago. What is that about? What happened then?”

“Oh that, that’s rather unpleasant, Sunray, I don’t —”

“You promised me you’d tell me everything.”

“I did promise,” Gaia said and nodded slowly. “I did.” She looked at the pendulum clock and bit her lower lip. “I will show you. I’ll make time for you this afternoon.”

“I’ll go visit Luna, then.”

“All the better.”

Gaia got up to leave, and apparently, she hadn’t noticed that her lettuce was still completely untouched.

***

The West Tower was a part of the castle that Celestia usually didn’t frequent. The infirmary occupied its very top floor; it was a big checkerboard-floored circular hall full with curtained beds left and right, but in spite of its purpose, it retained a friendly, warm feeling. The hall felt unbecomingly open and welcoming.

Celestia remembered having been here when she had sprained her wing. She smiled to herself; that was the day they had escaped their house arrest in flight. She had wrapped herself around Luna to protect her. Even now, Celestia felt vague pride. But the memory seemed so long ago that it could just as well have been from an earlier life.

Luna was at the far other end, in the bed the farthest away from the door. The curtains around the bed were pulled back, and Celestia stopped in her tracks when she saw that somepony else was bent over Luna: Acier.

“Hey,” she exclaimed. “Get away from her!”

Acier froze, then turned around towards Celestia. Her gaze was harsh, but his very soft; it had that same simply sagacity that he had always been partial to. “Tia—”

“Don’t call me like that.”

Princess,” he said with a sigh. He looked strangely beaten.

“What were you doing there? To my sister?”, she asked sharply.

“I was just checking on her, that’s all —”

“Get out,” she said quietly. He knows, it occurred to her. He knows that I know. But what had he been intending to do? There was a perverse curiosity in her that Celestia couldn’t deny. She wanted to collect all the pieces of the puzzle herself and then assemble them herself and come up with some sort of ingenious solution.

For a moment, it looked like he was going to retort something, but then Acier simply nodded and left. Keys were clanging in his saddle bag. Celestia followed him suspiciously with her eyes, and also not without guilt. He was a traitor, and every second that she let him run around freely meant danger. It was a true pity her mother had taught her about grace, but not about subterfuge, she thought glumly.

When she was sure he was gone, she turned to Luna, who looked very exhausted.

“Has he been trying to do anything to you?” she asked.

“The master of the guards?” Luna whispered. Celestia realised that she wasn’t very familiar with Acier. “No...”

Celestia’s expression grew mild as she took in her sister with her eyes. Luna’s dark-blue mane was spread out around her head like a wreath, and her blue eyes had a watery shimmer like the rippling surface of a very profound lake. On Luna’s chest, there was that bistone brooch whose counterpart Celestia wore, Luna’s dark as the night without light, without a moon. Celestia slowly laid a hoof on Luna’s head to see if she really had fever, and for a moment, it was all as it had always been, just a big sister taking care of her littler one. Celestia sighed. If anything, Luna’s forehead was colder than usual. Celestia pulled back her hoof and carefully sat down on the bed’s edge. Luna’s eyes were only half-open.

“Luna, because of yesterday evening —”

Luna’s eyes lit up.

“I just mean, not that there’s any — awkwardness between us, or —”

“No,” said Luna. “I thought it was kind of nice.”

“Yeah, kinda nice,” Celestia repeated. “So how do you feel? Your fever doesn’t seem all that bad. What happened?”

“I got a little cold.”

“A cold,” Celestia sighed. “Luna, where have you been last night?”

Luna stared towards the ceiling. “I already told you,” she said after a while. “I listen to the song of the stars.”

“The song of the stars.” Celestia raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t partial to that kind of otherworldly nonsense when they had very real problems in the here and now.

“Yeah,” Luna said simply.

Unwittingly, Celestia pulled back her hoof some. Luna was floating away from her once more, getting lost in reveries, and Celestia sensed it again, that invisible barrier around her sister that seemed mightier than herself. But her sister was still her sister, and their distance tore at Celestia’s heart.

“I had a nightmare last night,” Luna said. “A horrible dream, it was...” Her voice trailed off as she seemed to order her thoughts. “This pony everyone is talking about, the one with the maize grain for a cutie mark...”

“Sweetcorn,” Celestia said impatiently.

“Yes, him. I heard ponies talk about him. They loved him. They wanted to help him. But he is evil, very, very evil.” Luna looked at Celestia imploringly, as if trying to make her understand, but Celestia’s eyes were impenetrable. “They said that — that he wants to — he wants to — kill —”

Celestia waited. Her sister was struggling; she didn’t usually get this emotionally worked up.

“— Mom, and — and you. He’s evil,” Luna breathed, and Celestia could tell from experience that she was on the verge of tears. “He wants to hurt us.”

“Yes, he does want to hurt us.” Somewhere inside of her, Celestia felt a small bout of anger rise. “Knowing that, maybe you shouldn’t let him into the ca—”

“I’m sorry,” Luna winced, and quickly turned away her face as a tear ran from her eye. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t — it was —”

The unexpected display of contrition took aback Celestia. “It’s okay,” she murmured, in spite of herself, as she saw how vulnerable Luna looked. “It’s okay.”

“He’s dangerous, he wants to hurt —”

“I understand that. It’s okay, Luna. It was just a nightmare. It’s over now.”

“NO! It was — it’s not over — “

For a moment, Celestia waited for Luna to calm herself. Luna was unusually agitated, but after a while, calm came back to her. “What has happened, has happened, Luna. I’m willing to put that behind, do you understand? Because you are my sister, and I still —”

There was a pause.

“— I still very much care about you. Do you understand?”

“I do understand,” Luna said calmly. Suddenly, Celestia had an idea. For a moment, Celestia wondered whether she should address the issue, but then she went ahead with it.

“You know what, Luna? We’ll have the Gala this weekend at the castle. The Great Galloping Gala, remember?”

“Oh,” said Luna flatly. “How can ponies dance when other ponies get hurt. Aren’t they calling it off.”

While that was certainly a good question, Celestia shook her head. “They’re not calling it off. And in any case, I have decided I’m going to go,” Celestia said firmly, remembering Stronghooves’ invitation. She felt Luna’s deep eyes on her. “And I wonder... I wonder if you might come too. If you feel better by then.”

Luna slowly shook her head. “I’m not good with so many ponies, and the loud music — well, you know — you know, Tia.”

“Yes, I know, but maybe just this one time. Maybe it would be fun. I don’t know, just — just a nice change from — from all this. To give you a bit of a break, well, both of us, really. That’ll take our mind off things.”

Luna looked up towards Celestia, staring at her for a long time, her eyes wide. “I don’t know,” she said simply.

“Well, think about it. We’re going to wear dresses, and everypony’s going to — well, we’ll have fun, for sure. In any case, I would be very happy if you came. It would mean a lot to me.”

She didn’t look at Luna, but instead stared at her hooves. “Just give it some thought.”

“I will,” Luna said irresolutely, but her voice seemed to float from somewhere far away.

“You can’t live your life up in the clouds,” Celestia said suddenly. “You need to live a bit in the here and now, dance to some real music, not that ‘song of the stars’ or whatever, but real music, made by real ponies. Not just you, I mean, either of us, really. Do you see what I mean?”

Luna said nothing.

“Well, get better soon.”

Celestia left the West Tower with a sigh. At least, she thought to herself, she had reached out to Luna. All that she could hope for now was that Luna would accept her offer.

***

Gaia was waiting for her outside, talking to Stronghooves’ hirsute lieutenant, whose name Celestia couldn’t even remember. When she saw Celestia, she finished his conversation and practically sent him away.

“Instead of telling you,” her mother said solemnly, “I’ll show you. Come with me.”

Celestia nodded and followed her mother out onto the castle balcony. Looking back at her daughter, Gaia jumped onto the balustrade and lightly spread her large wings, but not to fly away, rather using them like a large parachute to glide towards the ground. Celestia did the same. The rain had stopped, but the still-chilly air brought a feeling of lightness with it as the wind filtered through her feathers, fluffing up her plumage until it bulged like a feather bed.

Below her, her mother had landed silently on the grass, and Celestia did the same. They were on the castle grounds, on the lawns that Celestia and Luna had rollicked and frolicked about in their childhood; memories that now seemed an eternity away. Gaia was silent, and didn’t say a word as she led the way, and Celestia followed with equal silence over the pastures. They were behind the backside of the castle.

A large, immaculately kept hedge of boxwood and roses — at least ten feet tall — enclosed the sculpture garden that had been largely off-limits to the younger Celestia and Luna, not because it was forbidden, but because it had seemed to contain absolutely nothing of interest, just boringly plain hedges, roses, and a couple of old statues. Now, however, the hedge looked different to Celestia, an impression maybe fostered by her mother’s heavy solemnity: it seemed mysterious and otherworldly, as if to delineate the mundane from a mysterious, grander world, from the realm of some great beyond.

As they passed through the hedge’s gate into the park, Celestia felt a slight tingle on her skin, almost like the brush of some invisible veil that brought them to the other side. Something in the air seemed to change. It seemed denser, sharper. Birds were chirping unnaturally loud, it occurred to Celestia, even though she couldn’t see any. Above them, the noon sun, hidden before by heavy clouds, was suddenly burning heavily: there was no trace of rain left here, and yet, a feeble, thin rainbow extended in the distance like a bridge to the beyond.

They were standing on an impeccably kept gravel path that led through the sculpture garden, a straight line running from the gate through to the other edge somewhere in the distance. Weirdly enough, the inside of the hedges seemed to much bigger than it looked from the outside. Gaia went ahead, and Celestia followed, a slightly uneasy feeling in her stomach as she looked left and right: the path was framed with statues staring at them with blunt eyes, stone ponies on stone pedestals, some brandishing banners, some locked in some inaudible brawl, some thrusting swords into the air. On the pedestal beneath each of them, on ebony tags, there were illegible captions. The sound of gravel softly crunching under their hooves occupied every step they made. The further they progressed, the uneasier Celestia felt.

It became clear that Gaia was leading her to a destination at the very end of the garden. They walked for a good ten minutes. Celestia wondered why they couldn’t have traversed the garden in flight, but as she tried to lift her wings, they seemed to cling to her body as though affixed by invisible glue. She soon stopped trying and understood Gaia must have had a reason for walking, that different rules applied here. Their destination came into view: the path was leading up to a large statue at the very end that loomed over them ever more menacingly the closer they came. Finally, they came to a halt.

Gaia nudged wordlessly towards the statue. Putting her head back, Celestia looked at it in the bright sunlight. It was a good ten feet high, and it didn’t depict a pony; instead, a creature Celestia had never seen before. If she had been pressed to describe it, she would have said it was a sort of serpent or dragon, brandishing an assortment of wildly different members and limbs: it had what seemed like an eagle claw on the one hand, a lion paw on the other, and a long dragontail. It also had wings: one pegasus wing, one that seemed more in place on an oversized bat. But the most striking feature was its face. There was a dangerous element to it, a bizarre, lop-sided smile that was blissfully detached, beyond caring. A single fang stuck out at the mouth’s left-hand side. The entire creature seemed off, unbalanced, disharmonious, as if thrown together on the quick.

Suddenly, something clicked in place in Celestia. She was sure to recognise the creature.

A strange and high-grown spirit of a kind they had not seen before,” she murmured.

Her mother turned her head to look at her. “What?”

“Sweetcorn... when I visited him in the dungeons, he told me this strange story. About,” she frowned as she tried to remember, “two sisters living in a castle since the beginning of time. They had an Eternal Flame that warmed them and... made sure they were never hungry, or something like that, and then other ponies came to try and steal it from the sisters.”

Her mother’s gaze darkened. “He told you that story?”

“Yeah. And then... this Spirit came to visit the sisters. A strange and high-grown creature of a kind they had not seen before. He... made the ponies outside argue and fall out with each other, and then they... they killed each other before they could steal the Flame.”

The words hung heavy in the unusually dense air. Gaia frowned and looked at the statue, as if trying to glean some kind of information from it. Then she turned to Celestia.

“That’s him. And the game is his name. Discord. A spirit of disharmony and chaos. He turned ponies on each other, made them confuse friend with enemy, made them fight their own kind. That’s what’s happened in that war all those years ago. He divided: here the pegasi, here the earth ponies, here the unicorns, here the zebras. He built walls in ponies’ heads, and ponies embraced those walls and fought each other. A horrible, horrible war was the consequence.”

Celestia frowned. “So Sweetcorn’s story is... it’s true?”

Gaia didn’t say anything. She glumly looked at the statue towering over them. The leaden feeling in Celestia’s stomach grew heavier with every second she stared in the statue’s mesmerising, petrified eyes; they seemed to look back at her with some distant remembrance of life, and on the other side them, you could divine a mischievous sparkle. Celestia didn’t feel well at all, and that wasn’t lost on her mother.

“Let’s go,” Gaia said and turned her head away. Celestia could barely manage to avert her eyes; there was something about the stature’s gaze that left her spellbound. But as her mother nudged her, she turned her head and, almost reluctantly, stumbled alongside her mother back down the gravel path. The effect was immediate. With every step further away from the statue, her stomach grew a little lighter, and that strange feeling less and less noticeable.

“That war,” Gaia said, her voice muffled as they walked back towards the entrance, “that war has brought horrible sacrifices for everyone involved. Horrible, horrible sacrifices.” Her voice was gloomy. “But ponies forget too easily. This Sweetcorn uses the same methods Discord used, and the worst thing is that it still seems to work. If ponies follow this road further down, there’ll be war once again. If you do the same thing, only a fool would expect a different outcome. Not even my magic can do something against that brand of forgetfulness.”

“But Discord,” Celestia said, “you defeated him eventually, didn’t you?”

“I did defeat him,” Gaia said grimly. “But it didn’t come cheap.”

Celestia looked up at her mother. “What do you mean?” she mumbled.

“That I paid a price. A heavy price.”

Her mother’s gaze was obstinate, and it was clear that she would say no more. But Celestia remembered the story as if Sweetcorn was whispering it directly into her ears. He demanded a price for his services, a bargain...

For a while, only the gravel crunched under their hooves, and the birds seemed to have gone quiet.

“But how did you defeat... something like him? If he’s anything like the Spirit in the story... how can you... well... how can you kill a spirit?” Celestia tried again.

“You cannot kill a spirit,” Gaia said after a while, her expression glum. “Spirits have no solid body. No, all you can do is enclose them. Keep them in chains. That’s what I eventually managed to do with Discord. I built him a stone prison.”

“A stone prison? Where?”

Her mother looked at her, her green eyes sparkling profoundly, then nudged her head towards the statue far off behind them. Celestia gasped. Suddenly, the depressing feeling in her stomach made a lot of sense; she was sick, and what she wanted most in this world right now was to leave this cursed garden behind and get as far away as possible. She spoke no more with her mother until they had exited the hedge gate and the air became real and tangible again, the sun was once more draped in clouds, and the birds sang at a normal volume.

Once outside, Celestia took a deep breath. She tentatively tried to move her wings again; they worked effortlessly.

Gaia looked at her with an unfathomable expression. “Do you feel alright?”

“Yes,” Celestia said and tried a smile, that her mother soon returned.

“Being a Queen is sometimes quite wretched business. It’s not always just pleasantries and butterflies.”

Celestia nodded. “So the story is true?” she asked after a while, when she had regained some of her breath.

Gaia’s eyes sparkled profoundly. “Yes, and no.”

“You said,” Celestia said after a while and stared directly at her mother, “that you have paid a high price. That must have been it. The price the Spirit had demanded.”

Her mother narrowed her eyes and said nothing. She turned her head back towards the hedge garden, then looked at Celestia. “That is all behind us now. It’s a different time. Spirits and gods are no longer part of this world.”

“But the story isn’t true,” Celestia concluded. “I mean, there’s no Eternal Flame, right? A heart-shaped fire of incredible power that can stave off coldness and death forever, there’s no such thing —”

Her mother’s eyes widened.

“Oh, there is,” her mother said, and this time, her eyes sparkled especially bright. She slowly looked towards the heart-shaped diamond on her own chest. It shimmered with all the colours of the rainbow. “There is.”

That is the Eternal Flame?” It had been right there under her snout, the entire time.

“That’s what they call it,” her mother said. “It is a token of my power. It channels and amplifies my energy and magic. That is the reason why you don’t have to worry about the castle’s safety. I told you it was protected by very, very powerful magic. Magic that I myself have put it in place. Magic of no ordinary unicorn.”

“Prove it,” Celestia said after a while and looked at her mother. She was morbidly eager. For a moment, Celestia thought her mother would smile and shake her head, but she was proven wrong. Gaia accepted the challenge. She kept her eyes firmly locked with Celestia’s as the diamond on her chest lit up with all the colours of the rainbow.

Celestia gasped. The earth beneath them began to tremble, very lightly at first, but quivering with ever greater force. Gaia kept staring at Celestia, her eyes strenuously focussed, as mere feet behind her, an oak tree broke through the lawn and shot into the air with a deafening thunder, rapidly developing branches that themselves formed twigs, leaves unfolding at the tips and finally, flowers and acorns. Left and right, the same thing was happening, and the three trees seemed to compete with each other in reaching the sky first; foliage was forming rapidly and covering the gnarly branches under a coat of green. Finally, all three of them had reached the size of at least four stories. Gaia was still looking at Celestia, and the diamond on her chest ablaze, as the spectacle continued and acorns fell from the heights of the already erect trees onto the ground to spawn new trees with equal rapidity... six, nine, sixteen...

“Stop,” Celestia yelled over the thunderous sound. She was afraid. “Stop!”

Gaia blinked. The diamond lit up once more, like an echo, and now, the trees took the opposite direction; they seemed to regress back towards the ground, just as rapidly as they had sprouted, leaves turning brown and falling out, crumpled, the barks ridging and furrowing to death, and all the while, the trees shrunk, soon completely devoid of foliage, branches disappearing into their ancestors until only the trunk was left, and then, as the trunk’s diameter approaches zero, it disappears in the ground.

Once more, all was as it had been before, only perfectly kept, immaculate lawn. Celestia breathed heavily. Never, never, had she imagined her mother having this sort of power. But why hadn’t she? After all, her mother had awakened.

“Do you believe me now?”

“Yes,” Celestia managed to say, as she tried to catch her breath. The heart-shaped diamond’s light had evaporated, and once more, it only reflected and fractured the daylight. “That is why they call you — the Eternal Spring, right?”

“Right.” Her mother looked towards the castle, where apparently, nopony had heard a thing. “That is why.”

“But if you are so — so powerful, you could have simply destroyed Sweetcorn, he —”

Gaia turned towards Celestia and slowly shook her head. She looked almost disappointed. “The greatest power,” she said urgently, looking Celestia directly in the eye, “is the one you refrain from using. You understand?”

Did Celestia understand? She gave a noncommittal nod. But for a moment, she pondered whether it really had been the right decision to let Sweetcorn have its way if he could have been stopped this easily.

“This is the magic that protects the castle,” Gaia said and looked onto her own chest. “No evil can enter here as long as this magic stays in place. You’ve seen it. And no matter what that Sweetcorn has in mind, he won’t be able to enter. Not him alone — not again — , and certainly no army. This castle is impenetrable.”

For a while, they simply sat on the grass, each of them deep in their own thoughts and brooding. The grimness in Gaia’s eyes grew milder as she started to observe Celestia;her aloofness vanished in contemplation of her daughter. Celestia, in turn, still tried to process the new information she had gleaned, a plenitude of different emotions in her. Gaia gave her a diffident smile.

“Be careful with Stronghooves,” she said softly, and there was little doubt she had been waiting for an opportunity to say that all along. “I know what you’re looking for in him, but ... but he won’t give it to you. He hasn’t got that in him. All that matters to him are results. He knows whom to rally around him and whom to push away. He can be brutal if he needs to be — if he has the opportunity to be. I’d stay away from him if I were you.”

“But you’re not me,” said Celestia after a while, with more defiance than she had intended, and looked at her mother. What she had really wanted to say was that there must be something that was true and that was certain somewhere, and if not in her own heart, then in somepony else’s. “You’re not me.”

Her mother gave her a long, searching look.

“You’re right,” Gaia finally said. “Thanks for reminding me, sometimes... I just forget.” She once more extended her hoof to tousle Celestia’s mane, and this time, she let it happen. Celestia felt no less confused as she laid her own head against her mother’s leaf-green fur, feeling the warmth and energy inside of her, and they rested like this a good while.

“It’s just all so confusing,” Celestia said after a while.

“Yes.” Her mother nodded gravely. “It is all so very, very confusing.”

“I don’t know, I just want to know where my place is.”

“But that you already know,” said her mother and looked at her cutie mark. “You already know.“

“I don’t ... I know, but ... that’s not what I mean,” Celestia said and scrambled for words. “I feel like ... like I’m trying to hold it all together, but it just all tumbles down, you and Luna and... and my feelings, it’s... it’s as if I’m supposed to feel one way, but I feel something completely different, and then I’m just so thrown off. It’s as if I’m trying to hold water in my hooves, it just all — falls apart.”

Her mother smiled sadly. “That’s what it feels like to grow up, Sunray. Get used to it.”

Her words were kind, and they resonated deeply within Celestia.

“I know you can’t wait to awaken,” her mother went on. “I was the same, I still remember. But just give it time, and it will all come by itself. There’s no doubt about that.”

“That’s what you always say. Just give it time, it will all come by itself.”

“That’s the only thing that makes sense to say.”

For a while, they stayed silent. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Celestia realised that it had started to rain around them; but they didn’t get wet, it was like that one time on the Square. Her mother looked towards Celestia as the rain poured off from some invisible dome enclosing them. Celestia looked up towards the castle; for a moment, she believed to have seen a familiar face in a West Tower window. But after she blinked, it was gone.

Celestia realised that the entire castle, too, was enclosed in a dome, that they all were locked away under that dome, but that it was as fragile as glass, that it could all be gone with the batting of an eyelash.

***

Night spread over the castle, and as always, it was then that the silence in the corridors grew the loudest. But the tone of the silence had changed: it was no longer merely solemn, but downright depressing, a large and heavy cloak keeping the castle in a tight grip, keeping it wrapped in a somber sense of anticipation. The entire castle, like a living organism, seemed to echo the sentiment of its inhabitants.

Now at the onset of the night, voices are only heard behind closed doors, and maybe in passing from one room to the next. Corridors that had been so full the previous evening were empty. Celestia listened to whatever subdued voices she could catch up on as she walked the corridors; they were like a constant humming in the background, an unpleasant, inscrutable hiss, and whenever she picked up one of them, she tried to envisage its owner. She passed by the guards’ quarters. Muffled laughter came from the other side, and as she approached, she distinctly heard Stronghooves shouting something, to the amusement of the guards. Apparently, he was making friends quickly. For a while, she thought about peeking in; but what good would that have done?

She walked on, but soon stopped in her tracks. She was sure she had heard Acier’s voice from behind a study door. She frowned, and approached as quietly as she could, but there was no mistaking the voice that answered him: it was her mother’s. Both of them were speaking in subdued, hushed tones, but Celestia was sure to hear every word.

“I’m not going to do that,” said Gaia’s voice. She sounded weary. “Even if that’s the cost, I will not do that.”

“But I don’t have much wiggle room,” he replied calmly, but with insistence. “It’s either that or something even worse. And quite frankly, it’s the only way I see to get out of this mess right now.”

“And what about if I have the guards —”

“No! Sweetcorn is waiting for an opportunity, he’s waiting for his moment, and that would be an invitation right into the castle. And that’s just the start of it. You know the thing about Luna —”

Celestia frowned and moved her ear as close to the door as it would go, holding her breath to catch every word.

“— and it’s not gonna go on working like this forever, a decision needs to be made —”

“I’m not considering that.” Gaia’s voice was sharp.

“Well, your call, Gaia, but one thing is clear. You can't let letting feelings get the better of you. That won’t do anyone any good. You want to stay afloat — you need to make decisions. You already got Stronghooves in the castle, and if you make the tiniest mistake, trigger-happy guys like him will take the reins if that’s what it takes. They prey on indecision. Isn’t that what you want to avoid?”

There was a silence. Celestia assumed that her mother made some kind of gesture she couldn’t see.

“He wants me to do the Gala, but I don’t want to do the Gala, not now and not ever —”

“Haven’t you already sent out invitations? In any case, I’m with him on this account. You need support from Canterlot behind you. You need to butter up nobility if you want to keep things together. Stronghooves is thinking pragmatic here, and you should consider that, too.”

“He has no grace,” she said after a while. “No grace.”

Acier snorted.

“That’s not his fault. I know all too well what it’s like, and you know, too. He’s a warrior, and ‘grace’ has no place in war. Grace is pretty. War is ugly.”

Silence fell again. Celestia, who was breathing very flatly, tried to imagine the looks on her mother’s and Acier’s face behind that door. What had she just listened to? Why did Acier address her mother merely by her first name? Why did she have this discussion with him in the first place? What was he trying to tell her mother about Luna? How was he poisoning her thoughts? A bout of anger rose in Celestia, and she breathed heavily now as she waited for them to speak again.

But it didn’t come to that. A voice behind her made her flinch and whirl around. Stronghooves had emerged from the guards’ quarter and was calling her name. The door fell shut behind him; a jovial grin was still stuck on his face, no doubt furthered by alcohol, but Celestia felt caught red-handed for eavesdropping and quickly turned away.

“Princess,” he said again, and softer this time. Celestia, who was still furious and didn’t know how else to react, quickly strode away from the door and made an escape to the nearby balcony. Always that balcony, it shot through her head. She slowed down, took a deep breath to calm herself, and walked over to the balustrade to stare out into the night, for lack of anything else to busy herself with. Of course, Stronghooves hadn’t simply given up on her. She heard Stronghooves’ hoofsteps behind her, but her face was still red-hot.

“Princess,” he said.

She turned around. “General,” she said simply and bit her lip. It had been a while since she had used her voice this evening.

He smiled broadly, which showed to advantage his handsome features and steely blue eyes. “You were quick to walk out on me there!”

She succumbed to his smile. “That’s not it, I was just about to —”

“You were in a royal hurry, surely. In a hurry to step out onto this balcony for no good reason.”

“Yeah, maybe I was.” She chuckled and returned to stare out over the balustrade, turning her back to him. She heard him approach one or two steps. Her anger had receded somewhat and was replaced by vague flattery at the thought that he had sought her out. It was funny how quickly feelings could change. And while her mother had said that he had no grace, she found something very graceful about his concise and measured mannerisms.

“There’s a party at the guards’ quarters?”

“If by ‘party’ you mean guys getting distastefully drunk, there’s a party there every night!” He guffawed. “And you need to have fun from time to time. Especially in these serious times, what good is there in brooding and heavy thoughts? There’s a time to act, there’s a time to live, but there’s a no time to worry too much.”

“Maybe you’re right.” She smiled. “You’re getting acquainted with the guards pretty quickly.”

“Practically all of the guards here are former soldiers. It’s like coming home, I know a lot of these guys!”

She nodded slowly. “I wonder,” she said as she stared out into the night, “have you met the master of the guards?”

“Acier? Of course.”

“What do you think about him?”

“Strange guy,” Stronghooves said gruffly. “Seems to spend most of his days in his chamber working on diamonds or something? What the heck, as master of guards? I mean, what’s up with that?” He laughed.

“Yeah,” Celestia said slowly and narrowed her eyes. “What’s up with that?” She herself realised that she didn’t understand Acier’s role in the castle. That ignorance worried her, because she didn’t know what kind of influence he had over her mother.

“Well, apparently he’s a war hero, so...”

She turned around. “He’s a war hero?”

He nodded. “But that was before my time in the military. Still, I need to respect that.”

She frowned. She hadn’t ever heard that story. In fact, she knew next to nothing about Acier’s past. All they had ever talked about during all her countless visits to his chamber was her, her, her. She had done a lot of talking about herself in general, it suddenly occurred to her.

“But what kind of war hero —”

He coughed. “In the Discord wars,” he said with strange disinterest. “Apparently. That’s way back, though, so I can’t tell you about that, Princess. I’m too young for that.”

She frowned. What was Acier trying to tell her mother about Luna?

“You’re ‘too young for that’,” she said and turned to look at him. “How come you’re so young and a general already?” She looked him all over.

The reply came like a shot. “Because they say I’m the best, Princess.”

She smiled. Of course, that was an incredibly arrogant thing to say, but he had said it with such utter conviction and confidence, his armoured chest puffed out, that it sounded strangely credible. His charm drew her in. Her eyes wandered down to the blades on his hooves, and her smile faded slightly.

“What’s going on in Canterlot?” she asked.

“That’s a pot about to overboil,” he said darkly. “Pillagers and anarchists have found their champion in that Sweetcorn guy. They’re assembling on Canterlot Square, but that’s just the epicentre. The nights, they thrown in storefronts and set buildings ablaze. Right now, we can still control them. But Sweetcorn has really stirred up a bee’s nest there. If we don’t act quickly, Canterlot will fall to him.”

“Will fall to him?”

“Will burn. That’s what he’s after, isn’t he? Anarchy.” His steely gaze was unrelenting. “Well, I’m ready for the attack. I just need the Queen’s permission, and then we’ll clean up there for good.”

Her smile faded some more. She shook her head. “And Sweetcorn?” she said quietly.

He blinked at her a few times. “Sweetcorn,” he repeated. “He’s gone underground. But guys like him don’t like stay like that forever. They need attention. They wanna rear their heads and show the world their face. He won’t stay mum. I bet that guy will send us a message soon — even if just to state his demands, we don’t even know what he wants from us right now! And he’s going to make a mistake of some sort, and then we’ll grab and quash him.”

She sighed, vaguely repulsed. He was a hatchet pony.

“The Queen will come to her senses,” he said finally. “I live and die by her, and I would hate to see her make all the wrong decisions. She has the best intentions, but that Sweetcorn won’t share her qualms. He doesn’t hesitate. He’ll strike again, the question is only when. In the meantime, he doesn’t have to do anything but wait, while his army of anarchic minions forms all by itself.” He half-snorted, half-guffawed. His little speech was over, however.

She turned to look at him. “When you said you wanted to go to the Gala with me,” she said after a while, and turned towards him. “Did you mean that, or was it just—”

“Oh, I meant it,” Stronghooves asserted. “Of course I meant it! Who wouldn’t want the chance to share a dance with a young princess as beautiful as you are?”

She chuckled softly. She wanted to believe it. She wanted to have a simple truth to cling on to.

“So, what’s the deal with your sister?” he said after a while. “I’ve heard stories she’s not feeling so well? I’ve never seen her, and I’ve been her for a week now.”

Celestia’s smile faded. “Well, those stories aren’t true. Whoever told you them.”

She turned her back on him.

“I do hope Luna will come to the Gala, too,” she muttered out into the night, more to herself than him. “She said she might come. I would... I would like that.”

He pawed impatiently at the ground. “Well, as long as you are there, Princess, I’ll be happy.”

Without a further word, he disappeared inside. Celestia sighed and stared out into the night. “I would like that,” she murmured again. Above hung a waning moon. She wasn’t really sure what she was even looking for, but she stayed in place. Not a sound was to be heard, as if the night conspired everything to secrecy.

The song of the stars, she thought glumly. Wasn’t that what Luna kept saying? Well, if there really was one, she couldn’t hear it. She sighed deeply. Maybe Luna really was going mad, she brooded. She looked down onto her chest, where the white bistone brooch was sparkling, but now, as by some cosmic irony, it looked like the a full moon sphere. But it was proof that there was still a connection between them. Tangible proof. That consoled Celestia.

Sweetcorn doesn’t hesitate. He’ll send us a message. He’ll strike. The only question is when.”

She shook her head. Sweetcorn had already struck. He’d been in the castle. As she looked over the balcony, she believed to see Luna sitting there for a moment, confused, in tears, but it was only her memory. That hadn’t been too long ago, but it now seemed like an eternity.

Why did Sweetcorn try to enter the castle in the first place, only to escape a few days later? How could Luna have been so foolish? Yes, she had regrets, but...

Celestia firmly closed her eyes and shook her head. She was getting carried away. She was thinking with her head, but something warned her that that wasn’t how she was supposed to think about her sister. She sighed and looked down at her chest. She had made a promise, after all, but that now seemed an eternity ago...

For a while, she simply sat there, but the stillness was ever harder to suffer. She grew restless. The night held no answers for her. On the contrary, it was silent, too silent. The quietude was too oppressing, the night too cool, and soon, she decided to flee back to the warmth of the castle.

But barely had she entered, did she freeze when Stronghooves’ voice rang through the corridors.

“Fuck! Goddammit! Fuck!”

“What’s happened?”

The question was superfluous. Celestia’s heart missed a beat. There were two ponies laying on the ground. Stronghooves was kneeling over one of them. With apprehension in every step, Celestia approached, a sick feeling rising in her stomach. To the left of Stronghooves lay a young guard, unconscious, unmoving, his eyes closed. It took a while for Celestia to recognise him: he was the one who she had told off for shouting at Luna the other day. But Stronghooves was bent over a second pony, one that Celestia realised was his lieutenant, whom she had only ever seen very shortly during the breakfast.

Stronghooves was pumping his chest rapidly, the hoof on his heart, and hunched over him to check on his pulse. His face was contorted with a mixture of shock and rage, but most of it was rage.

“Princess!” he barked when he saw her. “Get somepony to help!”

“Are they—”

“Yeah, they’re alive! Barely! Get someone here!”

“But what — what happened —”

“I don’t know what happened! Okay? I have no fucking idea, but get someone here! Fuck!”

He let go of the unconscious lieutenant and bounded up to restlessly stroll the surroundings, as if he was expecting to find the evildoer hiding behind a flower vase. It was apparent that he could barely contain his rage; his gait was jumpy, and he jammed his hoofs violently onto the marble. He turned around and narrowed his eyes.

“I’ve just been drinking with them! Whichever bastard did this is going to —” He stopped. “Just — what is this? What the fuck?

Celestia saw it too. Her heart missed a beat as she realised fully how grotesque the scene was.

Both the guard’s and the lieutenant’s cutie mark appeared to have been pasted over with parchment. On the parchment on the guard’s flank, there was a crudely drawn moon crescent. On the lieutenant’s, an eight-rayed sun. Next to them, a piece of parchment laid on the ground. A leaden feeling permeated her insides as she approached. She realised it was a folded card.

Holding back her breath, Celestia picked it up. She had seen one of these before; it was an invitation to the Gala that were being sent out en masse to Canterlot nobility. On the outside, neat, cursive script announced:

Your attendance at the Grand Galloping Gala is kindly requested
At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
And her daughters Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna
To Canterlot Castle

Her hoofs were shaking. Apprehension rose in her just before she unfolded it; there was something that just wasn’t right about it. She slowly pried apart the card. When she had opened it, she was so shocked that she almost dropped it. Its inside was densely covered in tiny, narrow block lettering, rigid columns of the ever-same phrases repeated over and over again. But in the middle, in red chicken scratch, a single word was sprawled all over the letters.


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

CHAOS

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


“So there’s his message. That psychotic bastard,” Stronghooves growled. Then, letting out a hair-raising, frustrated groan, he pounded his hooves onto the marble. Celestia dropped the card. Left and right, doors flew open.

Sweetcorn had finally stated his demands.


To be continued.
Next chapter: The Song of the Stars.


My apologies for the long wait. It turns out middles are really hard to write!

Many, many thanks to Cadmium and RiffraffsElbow for pre-reading!

And thank you, dear reader, for sticking with this tale. It’s your warm comments and support that keep me going.

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