The Equestrian Spring

by Chocolate Milk

First published

Nine months was all it took for one earth pony to put Princess Celestia on the defensive.

Nine months was all it took for one earth pony to put Princess Celestia on the defensive. A fledgling protest movement and its wily leader have risen to challenge both her and Luna's age-old rule. And though Celestia harbors many doubts about her adversary’s true motivations, she can't shake the feeling that her own frantic strategy to restore order just might be proving the protesters’ point. As she and a devoted Royal Guardspony race to tamp down the flames from Just Cause’s torch, the princess will discover firsthoof what happens when her sister’s regrets and resentments are set free, when the loyalty of Equestria’s bravest is pushed to its limits, and when a few ponies’ genuine fears are ignored for just a moment too long. Featured on Equestria Daily!

Voicing Opposition

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The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
Chapter I: Voicing Opposition

“I’m very sorry to trouble you today, Your Highness, but, well, I really don’t have anypony else to turn to.” The gray unicorn’s mane was long and bedraggled, and his forest-green eyes seemed glued to the astonishingly white marble floor that lay beneath his blackened hooves.

“I’ve tried to find work, Princess. I have applied for every open job I could find for the last six months. But the longer I’m unemployed, the less anypony wants to hire me. Your Majesty, I’ve never been one to ask for help. But I’m afraid, Princess,” he admitted, his voice beginning to crack. “I’m afraid.”

Celestia listened attentively, standing atop the staircase in her castle’s Grand Hall. Her luminescent mane glimmered in the light that shone through the bright stained glass behind her, and floated as it did like a billowing cloud caught in an unfelt, perpetual wind. The downtrodden pony lay low on his haunches at the foot of the staircase, forelegs outstretched, a prolonged and deep bow that was as much a show of his respect as a display of his desperation. On both sides of Equestria’s daytime ruler, with narrowed eyes and blinding gold-plated armor, two royal guard pegasi kept watch over the growing line of ponies waiting respectfully for a moment of Princess Celestia’s time.

She spoke: “It pains me to learn how much you’ve been struggling, my little pony. What is your name, dear?”

The poor unicorn tried hard to raise his head, but at the first glimpse of his princess’s ornate horseshoe he blinked hard and his eyes were once again tethered to the marble floor. “M- my name is Night Dancer. It is a true honor, Your Highness.”

“Well,” she began, “I’m very glad you’ve come to see me, Night Dancer. In fact, I wish you’d have come a great deal sooner. The castle has a few bits set aside specifically for helping the long-term unemployed get back on their hooves. We provide anypony in need with a place to live, food to eat, and job training built around the special skill their cutie mark denotes.” Her voice brightened. “All you have to do is fill out a few forms from your mayor's office.”

Celestia’s policies had rendered involuntary unemployment virtually nonexistent in Equestria, and thus most ponies spent their entire lives unaware of the safety net their princess had put in place centuries ago for those rare few who found themselves without a means of support. When ponies did go without jobs for extended periods of time, they invariably wound up joining the scores of others attempting to speak with Princess Celestia during Day Court Open Hour, which she set aside each morning in order to hear directly from her subjects about the challenges they were facing.

Celestia was always happy to explain the hardship fund, partly because she enjoyed the occasional break from the typical Open Hour petitioners: die-hard parents trying to get their children into one of her schools for gifted ponies, overeager stallions asking to join the Royal Guards on the spot, and armchair meteorologists complaining about the minutiae of pegasi weather policy. But mostly, she liked explaining the hardship fund because doing so endowed her with a rare honor: faced with Equestria’s most vulnerable, she had the distinct pleasure of personally vindicating the trust she asked of them as their ruler.

Night Dancer raised himself back onto his forelegs. From some unblocked wellspring within him, he found the courage to meet the day-bringer’s eyes. “Your Majesty, I...,” he stammered, struggling against welling tears. “I don’t know what to say!”

His face curled slowly into an uncontrollable grin. “I had no idea something like that existed. And to think, all this time! Th- Thank you, thank you my princess!”

My princess. She’d always liked that form of address.

Celestia gave the pony a slight smile: not too narrow as to seem impersonal, but not too wide as to appear unrestrained. Celestia always strove for the perfect balance of consistency, order and warmth. “I’m very happy I’ve been able to help you, Night Dancer.”

“Next petitioner!” the guard to her right intoned. The exuberant gray pony below gave one final bow and trotted out through the castle’s arched marble entrance with a new spring in his step.

The princess kept her smile and closed her eyes in contentment. This was among the most important—and most rewarding—parts of her day. To rule fairly and wisely, it was imperative that she never lose sight of the way her subjects lived. The Open Hour was her way of learning about the most pressing issues of the day from the very ponies most affected by them. Of course with the crime rate approaching zero, major international conflict relegated to the annals of history, and the food supply plentiful and diversified, the most pressing issues of the day tended towards the mundane. Except....

“Hello, Celestia. It’s me.”

Celestia’s contented smile began its departure. Here we go again, she thought to herself. She noticed her guards’ faces grow visibly sour at the sight of the newest petitioner; she hoped her own reaction hadn’t been as blatant as theirs. She gave her head a little shake and allowed herself a light sigh. “Hello, Just Cause.”

At the foot of the stairs stood an earth pony the color of dark walnut. On her flank she bore a red and gray cutie mark in the shape of a torch. Her black mane licked along the frame of her scowling face like a wildfire, and stopped abruptly at her chin as though it were cut in one swift motion by something far sharper than a pair of scissors. She was a bit short for a full-grown mare, but one could be forgiven for failing to notice, especially at this moment.

Just Cause stood stock still at the center of the Grand Hall, all four of her hooves rooted defiantly to the brilliant marble. Her light gray eyes were locked into Celestia’s. “I am here to voice my opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government. The tyrannical diarchy you share with your sister is an affront to the individual rights to liberty and self-determination possessed by all ponies, and your rule is devoid of legitimacy. Many of my fellow countryponies may bow to you and honor you as their princess. But know this, Celestia: you are not my princess.”

The brown mare had recited these exact words, with the same scowl on her face, at every one of both her and her sister’s Open Hours for the past nine months. Still, Celestia had been ruling over Equestria for more than 1,000 years. She felt neither offended nor threatened by this perseverant pony’s words. She was learned enough to understand what perspective Just Cause was trying to convey with her daily confrontations, and she was objective enough to see the validity of its underlying argument.

Yet there were no more capable and experienced leaders than her and Luna in all of Equestria. This was something of an established fact: not even Just Cause seemed to dispute it. Yes, the philosophy behind government is important. But not as important as a pony’s day-to-day life. Would elected leaders have set bits aside for the long-term unemployed? Of course not—those ponies would turn into pariahs, and the better-off ponies would call for their bits to be spent on something else. Something like tax cuts. Self-determination is not worth condemning a pony like Night Dancer to unending poverty.

The day-bringer cocked her head to one side, and gave an understanding nod. “Your concerns are noted, my little pony.”

The mare shook her head. “I thought I’d have made it clear by now that I am not ‘your little pony’, Celestia,” she said, her every word dripping with spite.

Behind her golden crown the princess’s ears perked up. Well, this is certainly a feisty little addition to our choreography, isn’t it? She composed herself, and measured her response.

“While I am truly sorry you feel that way, I understand your concerns. As I stated before, they have been noted. Thank you.”

The royal guard drew a breath. “Next peti—”

“Just a moment, Whitestone.” The guard fell silent. Something was nagging at the princess. Her daily visitor was a bit more... animated today, she thought, and she wanted to try and figure out why.

“Just Cause. I’m sure by now you recognize that I have already considered your position at length, and have reached the conclusion that the costs associated with democratizing clearly outweigh the benefits. I’ve expressed my judgment to you on multiple occasions.”

Celestia took a slow, deliberate breath. “I’m sure you also recognize that I have lived and ruled for over one millennium, and that it would be extremely unlikely for me to change my mind on any issue over the course of one day, to say nothing of an issue as important as this. My sister, too, has found your assertions interesting yet unpersuasive in the context of modern-day Equestria. Why, then, do you take precious time out of your day to attend each and every one of our Open Hours, solely to reiterate an accusation that has already been considered and rejected?”

The faintest of smiles began to play across Just Cause’s lips. She was unnervingly calm—unusual for her. Her eyes were still locked tight into Celestia’s. She drew a hard breath through her nostrils, and her softly-spoken, almost whispered reply echoed through the hall as if the chocolate mare had excavated some dark prophecy:

“I'm repeating my accusation, Celestia, because it is an unanswered truth.”

Just Cause turned and began a slow walk towards the castle’s entrance.

“Next petitioner!”

Odd, the princess thought, she’s usually in such a rush to get out of here. Why this protracted exit? Celestia stretched her expansive wings and watched as a beige earth pony colt walked to the center of the Grand Hall.

He did not bow.

“I am here to voice my opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government. The tyrannical diarchy you share with your sister is an affront to the individual rights to liberty and self-determination possessed by all ponies, and your rule is devoid of legitimacy. Many of my fellow countryponies may bow to you and honor you as their princess. But know this, Celestia: you are not my princess.” Without waiting for a response, the colt turned around and began his exit.

Celestia felt a quick kick from inside her chest. She looked at her guards. They were professionals, trained not to react to anything that was not a direct threat to a pony’s safety. Still, it was clear to the princess that they were on edge. She saw Whitestone clench his jaw.

This is obviously not coincidence. But it’s not that big of a deal that Just Cause managed to bring a friend. She gave her wings a quick flap and folded them back against her body.

“Next petitioner!” Whitestone called, disguising his nervousness with volume.

In strode a light green pegasus mare. She stood up straight and looked Celestia in the eye. “I am here to voice my opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government. The tyrannical diarchy you share with your sister is an affront to the indiv—”

Whitestone forced a rumbling snort through his nostrils. “You and your friends will respect the princess!”

The day-bringer brought her front hoof down hard against the marble floor, producing a loud, crisp sound that reverberated throughout the Great Hall. Not a single pony spoke; a few near the back of the line bowed instinctively. The guard stared straight ahead, struggling to hold himself upright amid the onslaught of adrenaline coursing through his veins.

My little agitators here are one thing. But the Royal Guards need to be better than that.

For what were perhaps five of the longest seconds in Whitestone's life, Celestia coolly looked the poor guard over. Then, in a voice so sweet and motherly that the whole room heaved a sigh of relief before she'd uttered no more than a syllable, the princess corrected her charge.

"Now, Whitestone. The petitioners may say whatever they like, even if we disagree with them. Isn't that right?"

“Yes,” the shaken guard replied, before quickly adding: “Y-Yes, Princess.”

Celestia chuckled quietly. “Don't worry. We all make mistakes. What's important is how we learn from them.”

The princess turned to face the petitioner. “Now then, please contin—”

Standing at the center of the hall was a blue unicorn. The pegasus mare was making a silent, flighted exit through the marble arch.

“I am here to voice my opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government.”

On the rounded balcony of Canterlot Castle’s tallest spire, Celestia stared out at the waning sun as its light refracted across the distant sea. She was very fond of the twilight hours and came here every day to savor the last remnants of her daily labor, before Luna took to the Moon Platform and wrought the nighttime sky overhead.

Celestia furrowed her brow, deep in thought. After a few minutes, a circular flash of magic opened barely one foot from her nose at the other end of the balcony, and from out of it stepped Equestria’s midnight ruler.

The princesses met on this circular balcony nearly every day to share these beautiful and scarce minutes of ambiguity in the sky. On most days, it was the only time they shared together. Luna was not yet wearing her spiked black tiara, and her light blue mane still fell in its natural way, flat along the sides of her face; even having just woken up, though, her poise was unmistakable.

The elder sister smiled. “Good evening, Luna. Did you sleep well?”

"Yes, thank you for asking. Much better than yesterday."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Luna," Celestia said, taking a step forward and nuzzling her sister affectionately.

One could be forgiven for assuming this exchange to be little more than a courtesy. But Celestia knew how difficult it could be for her sister to sleep soundly. Ever since the Elements of Harmony brought her out from the mental cage Nightmare Moon had trapped her in, her dreams were filled with memories of profound loss and helplessness. Most ponies in Equestria did not quite understand how much suffering their younger princess endured.

It wasn’t that Celestia had excused her sister’s actions, nor would Luna ever try to avoid blame for what she had done: the dark mare understood that it was her responsibility to curb her own worst impulses. It was she alone who had let her anger and jealousy overtake her, 1,000 years ago. But once she transformed into Nightmare Moon, she was no longer in control of her own body. Luna described the experience to her sister as a "lucid trance": she was fully aware of everything she was doing, but completely powerless to stop. The day-bringer had long since stopped trying to comprehend true powerlessness.

The two sisters turned to look beyond the balcony as the last slice of sun held its ground above the horizon. What does Luna feel when she sees the sunset? Me and the rest of Equestria see in the falling sun the end of our grind, and the beginnings of our daily respite. She shifted her eyes towards the dark mare. It’s the worker’s whistle for you, isn’t it Luna? It tells you when you’ve got to go to work. All by yourself.

Since Luna’s return, Celestia had repeatedly found herself stumbling upon new ways to understand her sister’s isolation. Each one sent a pang of guilt deep into the white mare’s stomach. She well understood that she had acted in the best interests of Equestria and its subjects. Still, her sister’s banishment hadn’t been easy on either of them. Would it ever be?

They watched as the last sliver of sun slipped into the sea. Celestia took a long, slow breath, and kept her eyes transfixed to the spot where the sun had taken its final bow. “An interesting thing happened in Day Court Open Hour.”

Fifteen. It had been fifteen ponies. After five in a row had “voiced their opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government”, those further back in line began to boo the protesting ponies as each launched into their polemical mantra. Celestia had put a hoof up to her lips, and her subjects’ boos respectfully subsided. Then, she’d accepted each member of the group graciously and courteously, and thanked each of them for their visit to her castle. Love and tolerance, Celestia, she had thought to herself at the time. I’ve got to lead by example. All in all, hearing out the repetitive group had taken only 10 minutes, and in response the princess had extended the Open Hour accordingly.

But something still didn’t sit right with her. That pony is stubborn, but she isn’t dumb. She knew full well that today’s little display wouldn’t change anything.

“I'm repeating my accusation, Celestia, because it is an unanswered truth.”

I can recognize a taunt when I hear one. She was so much more smug today than she usually is. All that cockiness, just for wasting a few minutes of my day?

Her eyes grew hard. No. This isn’t over.

Luna turned to face her sister. “What happened, Celestia?”

The white mare held her eyes closed for just a bit longer than a blink. She had to be careful here. “Just Cause,” she breathed.

“Is she getting to you?”

Celestia glanced at her sister. Luna’s face was full of worry, though she was making a valiant effort to hide it. She fixed her gaze once again towards the distant sea. “No, dear. She pulled something of a stunt today.”

Luna bit the inside of her mouth. “Nothing serious though?”

“No,” she said. “Not too serious.”

“What happened, sis?” said the midnight mare.

“She brought some other ponies with her. That’s all.”

Celestia saw her sister take a hard swallow. The elder sister had developed a thick skin against criticism in her time, and while nothing like Just Cause’s show today had happened before in Day Court Open Hour, she was able to take it in stride.

Luna was a different story. She had never truly felt sure that her subjects respected her; out of this suspicion, Nightmare Moon was born. But even after her return to the throne, she’d still hadn't fully dismissed the lingering doubt in her heart. Sure, she had fun participating in scare games with the Ponyvillians last Nightmare Night, and some of those ponies genuinely seemed to like her: Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, that adorable little foal Pip. But Equestria was more than just Ponyville. Deep down, Luna understood that Equestrians only accepted her as their princess because of the trust they placed in Celestia’s own judgment. She owed everything to her big sister. Everything.

Luna shifted her hooves to rebalance her weight. “How many ponies did she bring? What did they say?”

“It was about 10.” She rounded down: this was a delicate situation. “They all said pretty much the same thing, the type of thing Just Cause says every day.”

Five seconds of silence.

“That’s completely unprecedented, isn’t it Celestia? You’ve never told me about anything like that—are you OK? Were you able to handle it?”

The last rays of light were fading fast. She didn’t have much time. Turning to face her sister, Celestia lowered the tone of her voice. “I didn’t bring this up for my own benefit, Luna. It’s very likely that Just Cause will try something like this at midnight, during your Night Court Open Hour. You should probably prepare the Night Guards beforehand, to ensure that they’re well-behaved.”

The younger sister took a step back, and dropped her head slightly. “OK, I understand. Thanks for the advice.”

“Also, Luna.” She had tried to speak these words cleanly and with little weight, as if she were about to impart a gentle aside. But instead, she hesitated: “A—also, Luna?” The dark mare couldn’t recall the last time she’d heard her sister succumb to hesitation in her speech, and her eyes widened almost imperceptibly.

The white mare softly cleared her throat: “Luna. Please prepare yourself, too. I know how hard dealing with Just Cause can be for you, especially given how empty Night Court usually is. It will be harder than you can yet imagine to deal with a group of ponies who are blinded by the unreasonable hate they feel towards you and me. But keep in mind that they are a small, vocal minority. They do not speak for all of Equestria, nor do they speak for a majority of Equestrians. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but keep your poise, composure and grace intact tonight. This could be a great opportunity to lead by example, like we’ve spoken about.”

A long silence. “Yes, Celestia.”

“You know you can wake me up at any time if you want my help.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I love you, Luna.”

“I know.” Silence. “I love you too, Celestia.”

One circular flash of magic later and the moon began to stir. It crept up from behind the elder sister standing motionless and alone, staring out over the pitch-black expanse of nighttime Equestria.

A small spark of magic from the tip of Celestia’s horn neatly rolled her covers off of her and into a tight cylinder at the foot of her large bed. She squeezed her eyes closed and let out a tiny, high-pitched yawn as she extended her front hooves above and behind her head to wake herself up.

The elegant mare slid herself off of the side of her bed. Her hooves noiselessly slipped onto the purple-carpeted floor.

“Good morning,” the princess said aloud to herself, as a white glow enveloped her horn. Immediately her various morning-prep accoutrements began to glow as well before gliding through the air towards the ceiling, waiting patiently to be called upon. The princess walked over to her bedroom window as the curtains parted for her, and looked through it. A gorgeous crescent moon shone back and weakly illuminated her room with its peculiar light.

Each and every night, Celestia marveled at her sister’s work. Hers was a unique appreciation, having been forced into Luna’s role by circumstance until recently. The princess’s first attempts at crafting the night sky were disastrous. Raising the moon was relatively easy, but correctly placing each star along the vast night sky was impossible for her to do alone. In those first few weeks, several navigators and explorers had become hopelessly lost—some went months before being found by Celestia’s commissioned rescue teams. Before long, she convened a council of 10 astronomers and 10 architects to help her in her duties, yet even with her well-studied team she was only able to properly place the most important stars, like Polaris and Sirius; as well as a few constellations like Orion. Most of the stars were left out of the sky altogether.

From the jumble of items she kept floating near the ceiling, Celestia brought a mirror and hairbrush down to her level. She took the hairbrush to her mane, which floated low along the contours of her back. After three quick passes with the brush, it caught the magical gusts that surrounded the mare and fell naturally into its perpetual wind.

The first sky that Luna crafted after reaccepting her crown had drawn ponies from Cloudsdale to Fillydelphia out of their homes, where they stood with their heads upturned in awe of its magnificence. Hidden in Luna’s mind were charts, graphs, and grand plans nopony else in Equestria would be able to comprehend. Her work was very different from that of her sister: to bring morning, Celestia drew upon her magic in full and hauled the sun up from its resting place by sheer force in an explosive 30-second display of power. Luna had a similar (though far easier) start to the night in raising the moon, but her real work was setting the stars in the sky, slowly and meticulously, with painstaking care given to how she changed their positions from night to night, and the relative intensities of light she gave to each one.

What her task lacked in physical exertion was easily made up for in time spent. It took her nearly five hours at the start of each night to perfect the layout of the stars on her celestial canvas, and she rarely left the Moon Platform any earlier than mere minutes before midnight. Just as Celestia was a truly inspiring administrator and leader, always seeking to optimize Equestrians’ quality of life; so too was Luna an unparalleled mathematician and artist, relentlessly aching for the respect of her subjects.

The daylight princess’s royal carcanet settled against her chest and clasped itself behind her withers, as the crown set itself upon her head. She extended her wings and gave three slow flaps, maintaining a low altitude while her golden horseshoes snapped one-by-one onto her hooves, each with a satisfying click.

She touched back down on her bedroom floor, as the last of her morning jumble—the daily newspaper—flew down alongside her and unfolded itself.

Celestia’s eyes grew wide. Her horn took on a faint yellow glow, and her curtains slowly drew themselves back together.

Princess Luna: Night Guards acted on my orders

Special thanks: KitsuneRisu | Eakin
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Civil Disobedience

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The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
Chapter II: Civil Disobedience

Knock, knock, knock.

Celestia shifted her gaze to the door. With her magic she folded the newspaper closed and placed it face down on her bed. “Who is it?” she called: a question to which she already knew the answer.

“It’s me.”

Her massive chamber door of dark mahogany gained a white glow and swung slowly inward on its hinges. The torches lining the wall outside her bedroom flickered wildly around Luna’s silhouette.

Princess Celestia glided across the room to the doorway. Like a mother examining her crying toddler’s face for cuts or scratches, she put a hoof up tenderly to her sister’s cheek. The dark mare was shivering and grimacing, and breathing through her tightly clenched teeth. Her eyes were puffy and reddened, but amazingly still dry.

As if some valve had become unstuck deep within her, the nighttime princess threw her hooves around her big sister, gasping for air as though she had been holding her breath. Squeezing her eyes tight, she buried her face in the great princess’s multicolored mane.

Celestia gently brought her head down to the back of her sister’s neck. “There there, Luna, don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” In some long-unknown chamber of her heart, a special fire raged for Just Cause. Yet her demeanor was the epitome of calm. Even for a mare with as many gifts as her, acting was among the most important of the day-bringer’s talents.

The midnight princess looked up at her big sister’s reassuring face, and Celestia could feel the shaken mare’s breathing grow slower and more relaxed. Luna sniffed, and smiled weakly. “Let’s lie down for a bit,” offered the elder. “You can tell me what happened when you’re ready.” Little Sis looked up at her and nodded.

The two princesses moved to the large floor cushion in the center of Celestia’s room. The curtains took on a dark purple sheen and slid apart, and as she looked out at the world Luna hung her head.

The daylight princess took note. "Hm? What's wrong?"

“You’re going to have to raise the sun any second now,” she murmured as the smile faded from her face.

Celestia lowered her head to Luna’s eye level and contemplated her sister in genuine wonder. So vulnerable. So dejected. So foreign to anything she had ever felt herself. “The sun can wait a few minutes, little sister.”

Luna sniffed again and nodded quickly. She folded her legs to lie down along the golden floor cushion before her, and Celestia followed suit. The two lay beside each other in parallel, facing the window, and turned their heads to watch as the tip of the crescent moon dipped below the horizon. Were it not for the circumstances, the princesses would both have been delighted to spend time together exactly like this, in hushed admiration of Luna’s fleeting opus in the sky.

On the outskirts of Canterlot, Tempered Steel sat on a stool at his dining room table next to the love of his life. The sun wasn't scheduled to be up for another 10 minutes, but he and his wife had been awake for nearly an hour. It didn’t happen very often that Steelie—as she called him—was able to secure a whole day away from the castle, and these two pegasi had no intention of wasting a minute of it.

The pink mare’s own back was flush against the back of the chair in which she sat. It was an odd way of sitting for a pony, she knew, and it would probably be uncomfortable for most. This particular pegasus didn’t feel a thing.

“Oh, stop it!” she exclaimed as he reached his hooves across the table to grab her bowl of oatmeal. She was trying to feign irritation, but nopony looking at her would have been able to tell. The mare was grinning from ear to ear. “Eat your own first, you dope!”

“Hrm,” he hummed aloud, tapping a hoof against his chin in an exaggerated display of deep thought. After a few seconds of mugging, he brought his hoof down against the table and shook his head, dishes clattering at the impact. “No, I’m sorry but that just won’t do,” he declared, scooping up his wife’s bowl and sliding it towards himself with his foreleg. “See, if I did that, then your oatmeal would get cold while I was eating my own. I’m afraid I just can’t stand for that, my love.”

The beaming pony threw her head back and laughed the hardest she had in months. “Is there anypony sillier than you? You know I couldn’t care less about how hot my oatmeal is!” She craned her neck and playfully nipped the stallion’s muzzle, and he nipped her right back.

“You know what, Steelie?" she whispered. "I think I might be the happiest mare in Equestria."

But that wasn't quite correct. In truth, she knew she was.

“I put a lot of work into the night sky this evening."

“Yes, Luna. It’s beautiful.”

"I really tried to bring out Gemini tonight against Monoceros and Cancer. Can you see it?"

Celestia did not respond. They weren't here to talk about stars.

For a while, the two sisters sat in silence. Then, eyes down, Luna was ready to speak.

“Night Court Open Hour has never been as well-attended as it was tonight. The most petitioners I’d ever had in a single night was 40, and that was a millennia ago, during the draconic war. Usually it’s more like 10. But tonight, the line in the Grand Hall went all the way out through the archway.” She looked up at her sister, and added half under her breath, “sort of the way I’ve always imagined your Open Hours to be.”

“I could count about 50 ponies inside the castle, but I had no idea how far the line went on outside.” She kicked a velvet throw-pillow near her front hoof. "That Just Cause pony was the very first one in line. Of course.”

Celestia thought about what would have happened if she had decided against warning her sister. "All these ponies, here at midnight to ask for my help?" she'd have asked herself. She’d be so happy. She’d probably even shrug off Just Cause. Then she’d have to stand there, listening to these protest ponies one-by-one tell her she’s not their princess.

Who knows what she would have done. The white mare’s uneasiness dialed up, just by a notch. Whatever happened tonight, it could’ve been a lot worse.

“Clamor and Choler were on duty. I called them over and warned them like you suggested: ‘Whatever the petitioners do,’ I told them, ‘as long they stay nonviolent, be as respectful as you can.’”

“It was so quiet in there,” she said, turning to her sister. “They were all staring at me with such serious faces. Just Cause started by giving a little speech about how she’d organized this demonstration for me, to ‘show me how Equestria really feels about my rule,’ in her words.”

Since Luna’s return to the throne, Celestia had noticed that her little sister had yet to speak ill of another pony in front of her. Why do I get the feeling that streak’s about to be broken?

“Clamor called the next pony up, this big gray earth pony stallion. He stood there and stared up at me for a few seconds, and then he started repeating that same exact vitriolic tripe Just Cause has been saying for months, word-for-word. But he wasn’t just speaking it. He was sort of whispering it. And while he was speaking,” she said, “they were whispering along with him.”

Celestia cocked her head slightly. “Who was whispering, Luna?”

“The other ponies in line. They were all staring and scowling at me, and whispering along with him to accentuate some of the words.”

“I’m sorry Luna, I don’t quite understand. Would you mind demonstrating?”

As with her booming Royal Canterlot voice, Luna’s magic allowed her remarkable control over her vocal folds. With the same attention to detail involved in crafting the night sky, she was able to replicate any sound she could replay in her mind. Luna took a breath and closed her eyes. “I am here to voice my opposition to Equestria’s totalitarian form of government. The tyranny of your nighttime is an affront to the individual rights to liberty and self-determination possessed by all ponies, and your rule is devoid of legitimacy. Many of my fellow countryponies may bow to you and honor you as their princess. But know this, Luna: you are not my princess.” Her recitation was swift and exact, punctuated with the unnatural swish of a whispering crowd. After tonight, she would not soon forget the sound of these words.

“Thank you, Luna. That must have been quite disorienting,” Celestia said. Her face showed nothing but love and concern for her sister.

But behind it, the wheels of thought were spinning furiously. “The tyranny of your nighttime?” I’m sure I’ve never heard Just Cause talk about the tyranny of my daytime. It took her a mere second to recall the variant she knew. When she’s in day court, she says, “the tyrannical diarchy you share with your sister....”

“It was disorienting, and I tried to do something about it, too. Before the next pony could speak, I put my hoof up to stop her and requested that everypony remain silent while a petitioner is speaking. But they completely disregarded what I’d said. As soon as the next pony spoke, they all started right up again.”

Suddenly, it clicked. Those ponies at Night Court Open Hour—they weren’t even democracy activists! They were just there to protest Luna! Celestia shook her head. I wonder if they even know that Just Cause wants me gone, too?

She remembered the Equestria Daily. “120 Anti-Luna Protesters Detained at Night Court.” Of course. I’d thought that the newspaper had just jumped to conclusions and rushed out a story to hit deadline. But those really were anti-Luna protesters: nothing more, nothing less. Her thoughts returned to yesterday’s Day Court Open Hour, and she felt herself draw back: well, at least 15 of them really are trying to get rid of me. But this is going to be a lot more manageable than I thought.

Celestia wished she could be relieved. But something was wrong.

“The guards gave me a look, but I waved them down. I just wanted to get through the hour.” Luna put her head down. “I don’t know. Maybe that was weak of me.”

There’s no way she could’ve planned this far in advance, is there? The princess’s mind churned, and after a while so too did her stomach. ...Is there? Celestia’s assessment of the situation had been seriously flawed until just this moment. She may have overestimated the problem for a few minutes this morning, sure. But she’d been underestimating its orchestrator every day for the past six months.

Spinning this sticky nine-month web, day in and day out. Getting me comfortable with her screed about our “tyrannical diarchy”. All for today, so that I’d assume that 120 ponies were here at midnight demanding my head. The princess glowered at the floor. Just Cause... this mare just brought out more than 100 ponies to work towards a goal they probably don't even want. Celestia had a hard time remembering the last pony she’d underestimated this badly. It was killing her.

“What do you think, sis? Would you have let them whisper like that?”

“Luna, ignoring your direct request within the castle walls is as illegal as it is completely immature and utterly unacceptable.” A touch of something different resonated in her voice, and she noticed her little sister’s ears prick up. Easy, Celestia, she thought to herself. Don’t let your anger at Just Cause bleed into conversation with Luna. Internally, she began to compose herself.

“I’m sorry. I hate to hear of anypony treating you so rudely.”

A moment of silence passed between the mares. “My opinion isn’t important, Luna. What is right for me is bound to be different in your case. You are sovereign in your court and you alone lead the Night Guard.”

Luna smiled. “I know, Celestia. Thank you.”

The structure of Equestria’s armed forces was not a consideration in the mind of the typical pony. Most were able to recognize Royal Guards when they saw them, but a good number of Equestrians were entirely unaware that the Night Guards even existed. And almost none had any comprehension of what those ponies did. There existed a nearly universal misconception that the task of these guards—specifically, the two guardsponies with which each sister was usually seen in public—was to protect their respective princesses, as though the most powerful beings known to ponykind were at risk of becoming damsels in distress. The fact that either alicorn could, if she were so inclined, end the lives of the two ponies thought to be guarding her with a degree of effort roughly akin to plopping down on a fluffy floor cushion, or sinking one's teeth into a particularly soft slice of apple pie, had apparently not been reasoned through by the majority of the populace.

Celestia propped herself up onto her forelegs, resting on her haunches. “How did your guards handle the situation?”

"They were livid, sis. They tried hard not to show it, but a Night Guardspony’s patience can only be stretched so far.” Luna looked up. “They aren’t quite as... tame as the Royal Guard,” she added with mock derision.

The two ponies who traveled with each sister were not bodyguards. They were adjutants. The Royal Guards and Night Guards were protectors of all Equestria: they represented the last vestiges of war in a land that had known peace with all foreign nations for centuries. In times of strife long past, the armies of Equestria were legendary, and it was Luna's inception of the Night Guard, Royal Guardsponies voluntarily reformed by her magic into masters of nighttime warfare, that made them so. The result of her military inventiveness was an unparalleled deterrent to all invaders. Nocturnal opponents faced elongated days and the relentless Royal Guards, while diurnal enemies suffered prolonged nights against the devious effectiveness of the Night Guards. But most importantly, all attackers were locked into a never-ending battle with a constantly changing, perpetually well-rested force that was at all times in its preferred element. Together, they could lay waste to whole brigades in a single 24-hour cycle if necessary.

“Tame?” The elder sister chuckled. Whitestone’s not exactly Matrotma Gandhi, Celestia thought. But if she’s picking this little fight again, then she must be feeling better. "I wasn't aware that military discipline was a weakness," she said sarcastically. The two grinned at each other, savoring a brief moment of normalcy, before the very abnormal circumstances they faced reasserted themselves.

Luna thought of the Night Guard as her crowning contribution to Equestria. In times of war, she would don their armor and fly with the pegasi infantry into battle, and though the ponies who had themselves fought alongside her all eventually passed on, the institution was forever imprinted with the memory of her devotion. In times of peace, her pride and love were expressed primarily through sibling arguments about which branch of the military would win in a fight.

“Sis, those ponies kept going for the whole hour. First it was a whisper, then a murmur, and then a regular speaking voice. Then they started getting loud. By the end of the hour, Choler was so angry that she had her bat-wings open and bared her fangs at anypony brave enough to look at her.” The dark mare sighed. “I would have cooled her down, but by then they were chanting at full volume. I couldn't really blame her for being upset."

But Luna had left something out. Halfway through the hour, Clamor had turned to his midnight princess to ask a simple question: “Your Majesty, would you like us to wake up Princess Celestia?” The dark mare had fallen silent at this for a few seconds, before her head snapped over to her guard and spat, “Call up the next petitioner, Clamor.” Not two minutes later, Choler bared her fangs at a protester for the first time that night.

“We got through the hour without incident. But when I called Night Court Open Hour to a close, all the ponies from outside ran into the Grand Hall. They must have been waiting outside until the hour was up, because Just Cause was right there with them. They got into a line across the hall standing side-to-side, refusing to leave and yelling about how they were there to take back their castle.”

Luna shook her head. “I gave them plenty of time and warning, sis. I told them they would be removed by force if they did not leave of their own volition. I told them the method of their removal would not be pleasant. But I knew from the moment they’d formed this barrier that they weren’t going to leave. We tried a peaceful, single-file arrest procedure first, but they linked legs and resisted, yelling and screaming the whole time. So I gave the order.” Big Sister inched closer to bring her front leg over the smaller alicorn’s back in a half-embrace. She looked down at her sister, and was struck by how resolved she appeared to be. Celestia brought her foreleg back against her own body. This is not a mare in need of comforting.

“Choler rounded up the other 28 guards in the castle tonight, and they got the job done.”

30 Night Guards were able to arrest 120 uncooperative protesters? Of the many questions Celestia had for her sister, one took on newfound importance.

“Forgive me for asking a mechanical question at a time like this, but how did—”

“We used the sheet-freeze system.”

Princess Celestia gasped.

The sheet-freeze system was developed by Luna shortly after the Night Guard’s formation. It solved the unique problems faced by a force that was at once both quite small, and bound to the Equestrian principle of minimizing the casualties of war. The operation was composed of three main phases: isolation, incapacitation, and transport. Like all of Luna’s military innovations, the sheet-freeze system was impossibly efficient: a fresh Night Guard platoon of 50 once captured an exhausted Griffon battalion of 400 with nothing more than four crates of thick sheets, 100 yards of rope, and the element of surprise. But achieving this degree of efficiency was not without its cost. The power of the technique came from its combination of psychological and physical debilitation. Many targets of the sheet-freeze system would experience irrational and crippling fears of nighttime and the dark, iceboxes, and heavy bedspreads later in life.

To isolate, Night Guards surrounded the targets while under the influence of cloaking magic and conjured a domed negative firewall, deeply cold to the touch. Within the dome a grid of negative flame slowly formed, forcing the targets to separate. Upon separation the dome imploded, flash-freezing the targets to the point of severe hypothermia. Next, the Night Guards essentially mummified each target in a sheet, returning their body temperatures to safe conditions, but leaving them incapacitated: shivering and blindfolded and with their limbs wrapped tight against their body. Transport was a matter of tying the bone-chilled pupae together into clusters of 10. Because some creatures have mental links with others in their species, targets were given no information: the Night Guards worked in absolute silence. Some guardsponies would fly back and forth, delivering bundles to their destination; others would guard the remaining targets until all had been moved. Depending on the size of the operation, some targets spent over five hours mummified and bound to nine other mummified creatures. Tonight was the technique’s debut appearance against the citizenry of Equestria.

“We took precautions, Celestia. The negative firewall was less cold, we didn’t wrap up their eyes, and I teleported them to the Canterlot outpost instead of having them bundled and flown. The Night Guard took their names and photos and released them straight away.” Luna closed her eyes and twisted her neck to stretch it out. “The last time I’d seen ponies that scared, I was Nightmare Moon. This time, it was all me.”

Celestia fought against her instincts to keep her ears from pricking straight up. Is that pride that I’m hearing in her voice?

“You seem to be handling this much better now than only a few minutes ago, Luna.” Celestia watched her sister closely. “Considering how dedicated you are to protecting and defending our little ponies, it must have been very hard on you to use such force against them.”

Eyes facing straight ahead, the midnight princess considered her sister’s words. Then she turned to her and tilted her head. “You know, all night I had been so worried that I’d done the wrong thing. I was blinded by the scale of what happened today, and I assumed that it was all my fault.” She inhaled deeply, then allowed herself to exhale normally. She’s completely untroubled. Almost serene.

“But it’s like you said, Celestia: these ponies were breaking the law. Nopony today is used to laws being broken, which means nopony is used to them being enforced. Of course these protesters were shocked to see me enforce the law: it’s you and I alone who understand that law is nothing without enforcement.”

Luna stood up and walked to the bedroom window. “The truth is that I hated arresting those ponies. I gave them exactly what they wanted. I let them manipulate me into validating their fears.” The princess drew herself up to look down through the window and across the Equestrian landscape.

“But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Just Cause is a nuisance with no argument. She may think she’s right, but we know she isn’t. We’re the ones who have proven our ability to keep Equestria safe and happy. So maybe it is right for her to be afraid of at least one of us.”

Scanning the sky, her eyes settled on the twinkling stars of Gemini. “I think I’m starting to get why you’re such a good leader, Celestia. All of Equestria loves you, and rightly so. Ponies don’t break the law any more because they simply don’t want to. They don’t want to do what you don’t want them to. The rest of the world loves you too, I think. That’s why we’ve had peace for so long.”

The daylight princess watched in silence as Luna gazed at her own reflection in the full length mirror, half-illuminated by the waning moon’s peculiar light. “Sometimes I wish I could inspire like you do. Other times I wish I could just let you do it all. But we were meant to rule together, big sister, and I can’t rule with you if I don’t have my own authority. I cannot rule with you until I can command Equestria’s respect.”

Luna turned her head to face Celestia, and stared straight into her eyes. “I will never be as loved as you are, sis. If I once had that opportunity, then I squandered it more than 1,000 years ago. Today, my choices are limited. I can evoke only two emotions in the minds of our civilians: fear, and pity.” Luna’s pupils tightened in the approaching gloom.

“And nopony respects the pitiful.”

The peculiar light of the crescent moon faded and disappeared, and soon afterwards Luna did too.

We were meant to rule, together.

In the darkness of a moonless sky, Princess Celestia’s horn glowed a soft white to draw forth a quill and parchment, and by the luminescence of its magical aura, the princess began to write.

Seven years ago, a pink filly named Temperance was visiting Canterlot to tour the colleges in the city, when her inn caught fire in the early hours of the morning. A Royal Guard cadet on his way to the academy saw smoke billowing from the building and ran in to help. The first pony he saw was Temperance, cowering in the corner of her bedroom. The colt charged towards her, but a large support beam fell from the ceiling and hit Temperance square in the back, pinning her against the floor as she screamed in unimaginable pain for two mercifully brief seconds before succumbing to shock and fainting.

The cadet wrested her free of the flaming debris before flying her out of the building and to the nearest hospital. He had undoubtedly saved her life, but from the neck down she was dead. The support beam had splintered four of the cervical vertebrae near the base of her skull, and her spinal cord had been severed in two places.

Every day for three weeks, Tempered Steel would bring flowers to the poor paralyzed filly in the hospital, spending as much free time with her as he could fit between cadet training. When she told him one day that she was being discharged and that her sister would be bringing her back to Cloudsdale, in a moment of panic and desperation he dropped onto two knees and proposed to her. They were married by a hospital chaplain 30 minutes later.

Tempered Steel was the model Royal Guard candidate. He was tall, a strong flier, and well-disciplined. But cadets live in small, castle-owned dormitories in Canterlot, and there was no way Steelie’s wife would be allowed to move into academy housing. It was true that Temperance could apply for Princess Celestia’s generous disabilities program and receive assistance at a live-in facility. But she was here in Canterlot to be with him. He felt a strong obligation to care for his wife himself. Much as it hurt him, there was only one option.

As Tempered Steel made his way through endless corridors to his CO’s office with a detailed resignation letter poking out of his cadet’s uniform, he nearly ran headfirst into an esteemed and highly unexpected guest. In the resulting state of confusion and abject fear at having just barely avoided bowling over the ruler of all Equestria, the trembling pony dropped his letter. The princess levitated it off the ground to return to him as she waved away his stammered apologies, but before handing it back, gave it a quick once-over. A month later, Tempered Steel was granted his own private induction ceremony to the Royal Guards officiated by Princess Celestia herself, who had fast-tracked him through his last year of cadet training. The only pony in the audience was his wide-eyed wife, never prouder than on that day.

The years slowly faded, and so too did Tempered and Temperance’s habit of spending each and every morning, night and weekend together. The guardspony was a natural in the organization and moved up the ranks with ease, to eventually be named Commander of the Pegasi Infantry, one of three positions in the Royal Guard answerable solely to the daylight princess. Accordingly, Temperance spent more and more time with visiting nurses, and less time with her dedicated husband. But his absence only made her heart grow fonder, and every moment they managed to spend together was worth waiting her whole life for. Even when he was away for days at a time, the memory of his parting kiss was enough to keep her warm.

“Oh-kay, Tepp-er-ache, viss is yor wast fpoon-ful,” Steelie struggled out, teeth clenched around the handle of a spoon.

Temperance opened her mouth with her face upturned like a happy baby bird, while her husband scraped up the last bit of oatmeal from her bowl and slowly guided it towards her. On the other side of the table, a bowl of room-temperature oatmeal sat untouched.

“Thank you, Steelie,” said the pink pony. “Now please, go reheat your own oatmeal and eat it before you do anything else for me!”

Tempered gave his wife a kiss on the cheek and a peck on the lips, and got up from the table to do as she’d told him.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Who is it?” the white pegasus bellowed from the kitchen.

“Lieutenant Whitestone, sir.”

Tempered Steel rolled his eyes, then trotted to the door and yanked it open with his teeth. “I swear, Whitestone, you better be here on orders from Celestia herself,” he breathed, exasperation heavy in his voice.

“Yes, sir.”

The commander grappled with Whitestone’s response. He gave his head a little shake and blinked fast.

At once he felt his stomach leap into his throat. “W- what was that, Lieutenant?”

“I am here on orders directly from Princess Celestia to deliver this letter, and to request that you read it as soon as possible, sir.” At this, the young pegasus pulled a slim envelope from under his golden breastplate and handed it to the commander. Emblazoned on the back of the envelope was the Royal Seal pressed in wax. It was still warm.

Tempered Steel brought the interaction to a close with a curt nod, his mind racing. He had been so happily distracted that he'd completely failed to notice how late the princess was to raise the sun. Whitestone took a step back, gave his bewildered superior a crisp salute, and flew off at top speed in the direction of Canterlot Castle. The commander kicked the door shut, and ripped the letter open with his teeth. It was clearly written by the princess herself; he could recognize those large, immaculate loops underneath her cursive letters “g” and “y” from a mile away. Somehow, they reminded him of her weightless mane.

Steelie walked slowly into the dining room and to his wife. If she hadn’t heard Whitestone at the door or noticed the letter on Canterlot Castle parchment tucked under his wing, his face would still tell her the whole story. And so would hers: she was in awe of her Steelie, so much so that any disappointment was completely overshadowed by how blessed she felt to have him. Her husband and best friend had just gotten a special assignment from the most important pony in the world.

“It’s OK,” she reassured him. “Go right on ahead. I love you, Steelie.”

“I love you, Temperance,” he said, embracing her tightly as sunlight suddenly flooded through their dining room windows. Sometimes he’d swear he could feel his wife’s presence on a different plane, hugging him back.

Standing on the limestone Sun Platform under a pitch black sky and surrounded by ceremonial Royal Guards, Celestia thought about her sister.

She’s not there yet, she determined, but she’s getting awfully close. She’s figured out that she needs fear to rule. That’s good. The princess moved her eyes upwards along the Eastern Spire, atop which Luna slept. And she’s realized that if she has to wake me up to solve her problems, she’ll never learn how to lead. Celestia quietly sighed. But she has no concept of the way I lead. It’s not whether to use fear. It’s how.

The white mare’s gaze fell upon the land that she ruled. All leadership is fear, Luna. When ponies truly love you, there is nothing they fear more than your rejection. And all of Equestria loved their daylight princess.

Well. Almost all of them. She frowned.

Celestia raised her hooves one at a time, and brought each back down to the Sun Platform decisively. She closed her eyes in focus. The tip of Celestia’s spiraled horn began to glow: a faint yellow initially, but growing richer with the passing seconds. The spark reached a saturation so extreme as to become opaque, and then streamed through the princess’s whole body, veiling her in a brilliant, pulsating gold.

With her wings still folded tight against her back, Celestia drew herself up until she stood fully on her hind legs, at which point she began to levitate. As she ascended into the sky, so too did rays of light escape over the horizon, painting a hazy purple-pink dome that expanded behind the radiant mare. She slowed her ascent to a stop when she reached the height of the Sun Statue behind her, and hung there for one breathless second.

Celestia threw her front hooves above her head and snapped open her wings. The golden glow burst outward like a cocoon as the sun broke magnificently over all Equestria, bathing her subjects from Manehattan to Las Pegasus in the glorious light of day. Panting softly, the princess brought her front hooves down below her and descended towards the platform, as the titanic heavenly body moved upwards to replace her in the sky. She landed with four quick taps of gold against stone, and opened her eyes.

Just Cause. I have more unanswered questions than I am comfortable with, and they all begin with you. But I do know this: whether born from idealism or malevolence, your goals would undermine Equestria. For the sake of all my little ponies—even you—I will not let you succeed. The day-bringer exhaled in staccato through her nostrils. You have some neat tricks, Just Cause. But you do not understand who you are dealing with. Not yet.

“All done,” Celestia proclaimed amiably to the guards in phalanx around her. And with a flare of bright white magic, she was gone.

Special thanks: KitsuneRisu
Comments, art, and randomness always appreciated; please send to

War Games

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The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
Chapter III: War Games

My dearest Tempered Steel,

Allow me to begin by apologizing profusely to both you and Temperance. The two of you deserve far more time together than your work allows. Please understand that the decision to call you to duty on this day was not taken lightly.

At present, we are faced with a rare threat to our nation’s unity and peace. I don’t mean to worry you needlessly: the threat is, for the moment, minimal. Still, we did not build our current prosperity by ignoring threats and hoping for the best.

Established procedure would have me ask you to convene the other commanders at my castle. In this instance however, our threat is not militaristic in nature. To best handle this particular difficulty, it is imperative that no others are aware that I have contacted you. I’m afraid that due to time constraints and complexity of execution I cannot afford you the courtesy of explaining the reasoning behind my requests in this letter. This is all the more regrettable because much of what I am asking you to do is unlike any previous request I have made of you. I can instead only give the orders, and ask that you trust me as much as I trust you.

My first request is that you hug your wife, and tell her that everything is going to be fine. You may not be fully aware of this, and she would never express it to you, but I can assure you that Temperance worries every time I send you on a mission—especially one that is out of the ordinary, as this one most certainly is.

Once you’ve seen to it that Temperance is cared for, I would like you to go to the basement levels of the Canterlot post, where the Night Guard operates. Look for a Night Guardspony named Choler—she will probably be the only one there, and will probably be busy filing paperwork. Ask her for the photo and details collected from the detainment of an earth pony named Just Cause. My sister must not find out that you have done this. Truthfully, I do not know how you will prevent Choler from informing her superiors of this highly unusual request. But, if at all possible, you will. I trust you.

My next request is that you go to The Hoofington Post’s Canterlot bureau on the corner of Starswirl St. and Honeylane Ave., without your armor. Ask for Scoop, and identify yourself as a Royal Guardspony. Scoop will almost certainly recognize you as Commander Steel. Please give him the lead that one of the protesting ponies has been agitating at Day Court as well as at Night Court for more than three months. Offer the suggestion that those who followed her to Night Court may not be aware of her true intentions. Do not give him Just Cause’s name. Above all, ensure that he believes this tip is coming from you, and not from me.

My final request is for you to retrieve your armor and track Just Cause. Ideally, her home address should be listed with the information gathered during her detainment, but I find it unlikely that she provided entirely accurate information to the Night Guard. Still, I ask that you find her. And when you do, I ask that you be as courteous as possible. Introduce yourself as Commander of the Pegasi Infantry. Remove your helm. Bow in salutation. Treat her with the respect you would show an ambassador from a foreign land, and do so regardless of the level of respect she—or anypony she may be with—shows you.

Extend to her an invitation to meet with me personally at the castle tomorrow, immediately following Open Hour. Leave as quickly as you can, and come straight to the castle afterwards. Write me a summary of the day’s events and slip it under my chamber door.

Tempered Steel, I know that many of these requests may not seem to be entirely in keeping with the purest form of our ideals. Such is the nature of war games, my dear: difficult problems have difficult answers. But as long as we are acting in service to the lives of all Equestrians and reject our personal preferences, we can be confident in our own ethicality. If you trust that I have the ponies’ interests always at heart, then you can trust that in carrying out these orders you are working in the best interests of the nation.

On behalf of Equestria, and on behalf of myself: thank you.

Sincerely yours,


The commander read the message loud and clear. “War games”: the deception that pony diplomats had used on their counterparts in foreign nations during the prolonged night of Nightmare Moon, in order to keep the Equestrian crisis under wraps. For her to use that term so casually... that was a hint at something larger. Whatever the true threat Celestia perceived, she was playing it down in her letter. And whatever actions she was prescribing to maintain the nation’s peace were nopony else’s business.

Piece by piece, Tempered Steel began ripping the missive into strips small enough for him to swallow. None of this sat right with him. Why the cover-ups? Why the lies? Under different circumstances he might even have thought the letter to be a forgery. But in the princess’s own handwriting, bearing the Royal Seal, hoof-delivered by Whitestone, and written in that unmistakable tone of hers? It was almost as if she had addressed his suspicions before he’d even had them. Actually, he was pretty sure that was exactly what she had done.

As long as the letter really was from her, there was nothing else for the commander to concern himself with. His own reservations were irrelevant: he didn’t have all the facts. And even if he did, he would never claim to know better than Princess Celestia what was right for Equestria. He trusted the princess more than anypony he could ever hope to know. His course had been written in Celestia’s impeccable script, upon the very parchment the commander was now consuming.

Forcing down the last bit of the letter, Tempered Steel threw open his closet doors. Behind them—resting on a long shelf all its own—was his golden breastplate, painstakingly smelted to match the contours of his body. The commander’s ornate armor rested on his back, surrounding the flank and tapering upwards along the sides to leave room for his wings. Both sides curled past his neck and met at a single whorled point just in front of his chest, clasped by three interlocking stars of azure, violet and jade.

The stallion shook his head. “Alright, Steel,” he whispered to himself, slipping the breastplate over his head and onto his back. “For Equestria.” His horseshoes sat lined up on the closet floor, and with four quick snaps his hooves too were clad in brilliant gold.

As he moved to return to the dining room, he caught a glimpse of his own eye in the mirror behind the closet door and froze. Only then did he realize that his brow was rife with lines of anxiety, partially hidden underneath his black mane. He watched as his every exhalation sent a shiver down his spine. The commander took a few seconds to fix his expression as best he could before trotting out to face his wife.

“I guess you can’t tell me what the princess has you doing, can you?” Temperance asked from her chair at the dining table, listening to his golden horseshoes click against the dining room tiles behind her.

“Sorry, Temperance,” he sighed, drawing near to her. “For what it’s worth, I should be all finished with this one by tonight. Who knows? We might even have time for stargazing.”

Temperance waited for her Steelie to wrap her in his strong embrace, and when he finally did she pressed the side of her face against his powerful neck.

“I’d like that,” she whispered in reply. The mare kept him there until she was sure she’d have a vivid memory of it to carry her through the long day ahead. Eventually, Temperance brought her head back to deliver to him one of those faint kisses that drove him mad, and then gently nudged his muzzle away with her own.

“Alright, alright,” he said, responding to his wife’s unspoken exhortation: the sooner he left, the sooner she’d get him back. Stepping into the living room, Tempered Steel took up his gold-smelted, silver-plumed Royal Guard helmet in his front hooves.

Temperance frowned. “I don’t know, Steelie,” she called as he returned to the dining room. I still think it looked better with the purple plume.”

“Yes my dear, but the commander’s plume pays the bills,” he opined. “It’s still the same wonderful gift, Temperance.”

Turning towards the door, Tempered Steel came upon a thought he felt needed expressing: “You do know this is still the nicest gift anypony has ever given me, don’t you?”

“Yes, dear,” she replied through bashful chuckles, smiling from ear to ear. “You tell me as much every morning.”

“Good. My first stop is the visiting nurse offices, to go get Nurse Tenderheart. Will you be OK by yourself for 10 minutes?”

“Yes, sir!” she replied, her words crisp with vim and vigor.

“Are you sure, Temperance? Do you want me to move you anywhere?”

“I’ll be fine, Steelie, really!”

“Alright.” He spun the helmet upside-down in his hooves and pulled it over his head, wriggling his ears back and forth until both were poking out of the perfectly sized holes reserved for them. “How do I look?”

Temperance blinked twice against the gleam of the gold-plated armor, and said out loud the first thought that came to her mind: “You look like my hero.”

Behind his helmet, the commander blushed as he started backwards out the door. “I love you, Temperance. See you soon.”

“I love you too, Steelie,” she breathed, her dutiful husband flying off for reasons only he and Celestia knew.

Pacing the decorous carpeting of the Canterlot Castle drawing room, the daylight princess grappled with her thoughts. It had been four hours since she’d written to her pegasi commander, and it appeared that she was right to choose him for the day’s work. Her guest would be arriving shortly.

As expected, Just Cause was nowhere to be found at this morning’s Open Hour. All the media coverage served to further enhance her appeal to misguided anti-Luna ponies, and would continue to do so until Celestia herself alerted Equestria to Just Cause’s true mission.

“Politics,” she spat out to the empty room. She hated it all: the avoidance of accountability, the half-truths and outright lies, the inevitable pain. The disrespect. For a tool best used with subtlety and misdirection, there was something awfully brutal about politics. But now that a dangerous political mind was working to disrupt Equestria’s hard-won peace, the good of the nation demanded a leader willing to use politics in service to the nation’s unity. And like many other skills of hers that she would have preferred never to need, Celestia was the best. She was the best politician in Equestria.

Only once had the princess let her personal biases keep her from doing what was right. One mistake was all it took. It wasn’t an honest mistake, either. She hadn’t missed the signs: Celestia’s assistants had reported back to her with every troubling change in her sister’s behavior. Luna canceling Open Hour, leaving 15 petitioners—some had traveled from as far as Baltimare—without so much as a community liaison officer to hear their problems. Luna raising the harvest moon out of season, forcing the tides into disarray and endangering several small vessels at sea. Luna pinning one of her Night Guards against a wall until his shift was complete, after she’d caught him trying to punch out five minutes early.

Celestia had tried everything she could to halt the emergence of the nightmare within her sister’s heart. But though she eventually came to recognize the change as an impending inevitability, she had failed to do what was necessary until a terrible price had been paid. Her unwillingness to take preemptive action—hoof stayed by blind faith in “Little Sis”—had cost Equestria the lives of four courageous Royal Guardsponies. Never again would she let her feelings stop her from acting with the greater good in mind. Never again.

She had no intention of letting them now, either: her opinion of whether politicking was appropriate for a princess was a personal matter. For the greater good to be served, she had to make sure that Just Cause did not succeed in subjecting the lives of her little ponies to democratic politics and its outcomes.

Elections. Politics. Endless manipulation, self-interest, pandering, power-brokering, superficiality. That’s what you want for Equestria, Just Cause. Whether you recognize it or not, that is your cause.

Knock, knock, knock.

Celestia turned to the door. “Come in, Scoop,” she called, swinging the door open.

“Hey, thanks for meeting on such short notice P. C.,” he shot through the corner of his mouth. The beige pony’s fedora gained a sheen of yellow magic, then flipped quickly off his head and back over his horn as the unicorn gave a brisk bow. Before allowing himself to finish the greeting he charged into the room, nearly tripping over his own front hooves, and rested his haunches on the smaller of the two ottomans in the room.

The princess chuckled. Scoop was a rare breed: a pony consistently busier than the princess herself. “In a bit of a rush, are we?”

“Well, you know. Your sister’s little brouhaha last night’s got all us hacks running around like headless chickens,” Scoop remarked, rummaging through his saddlebags to pull out a yellow steno pad. “Got six stories I need done for deadline tonight instead of the usual two. But hey, I’m a speedy writer, P. C. That’s what I do. That’s why I’ve got these two tiny typewriters on either side of my butt. The beat goes on.”

“Indeed it does,” Celestia said, working to keep her own speech at a normal pace amid Scoop’s machine gun delivery. She took her place across from her interviewer.

Scoop cleared his throat. “Alright then, Princess. Just to make sure we’re on the same page: I’m interviewing you for a feature story on the modern-day Royal Guard and Night Guard that I’m writing in light of recent events, but the news piece I’m doing about the detainments at Night Court is a totally separate article and this interview isn’t gonna go there. Sound good?”

“Sounds good.”

“Alright. Now, I’d just like to make sure we’ve got this quote from the press release right, and then we can get started.” Pages flipped wildly as Scoop’s notepad floated in front of his face. Eventually he settled on one and began his dispassionate recital: “‘It is not my place to comment on or criticize particular actions taken by the Night Guard. However, I have full confidence in Princess Luna’s leadership ability, including her ability to lead the Night Guard.’ Do I have that right?”

“Yes, Scoop. You do.”

“OK then, P. C.,” he said with a quick head-tilt head and a smile, turning to a fresh page and slipping a pencil out from under the brim of his fedora. “Let’s talk about the military, shall we?”


CANTERLOT—The Equestrian Peace, the colloquial name given to the current period of 200 years without war or major internal unrest, is well known and well studied in Equestria and beyond. But the ponies who dedicate their lives to maintaining it are rarely given the same level of attention.

Princess Celestia’s Royal Guard, along with the Night Guard commanded by Princess Luna, serve as Equestria’s military and police force at a time when both services are rarely needed. The nation’s violent crime rate has been at or below 0.01 per 1,000 ponies for over 50 years, and Celestia has signed pacts of non-aggression with every other major foreign power in the world.

Yet the daylight princess believes that the longevity of the Equestrian Peace itself is due in no small part to the Guardsponies’ dedication: “Our peace is underwritten by the loyalty of the Royal Guard and the Night Guard,” she said. “I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but who can say what any given world power might do if presented with an undefended Equestria? The fact that we have not been attacked in the past few centuries does not mean that we would have been able to enjoy the same peace without our military.”

Indeed, the beginning of the Equestrian Peace was marked by swift military victory over invading Griffon forces, ending what is commonly known as the Sixteen-Hour War. Many historians believe that the ease with which the Equestrian military dispatched the invaders served as a warning to other would-be aggressors: a major factor in motivating other nations to make peace with Equestria. “Even now, at a time when our land has never been safer,” Celestia added, “the Guards are dedicated to ensuring it stays that way.” (continued on A9)

The Canterlot Post, or "CP", to those who worked there, was the central hub of all non-ceremonial Royal Guard and Night Guard activity in Equestria. Yet for a building with such an important function, its form was incongruously mundane. Everything about it screamed “mildly successful accountancy firm”: the six-story building had no spires, no columns, and no archways to its name. Not a single gargoyle adorned its sandstone façade. It was so corporate that every once in a while a determined pony from out of town would wander in, ranting and raving about some defective saddlebag they’d bought or hellishly long train delay they’d suffered, requesting—nay, demanding!—both a refund and a personal apology from the company’s CEO; before coming to the slow realization that they weren’t where they thought they were, helped along by the fact that the pony to which they were venting their saddlebag- or train-related frustrations was wearing not a suit and a scowl, but rather a golden helmet and a facial expression of bemusement and confusion.

Flying through the front doors, Tempered Steel began waving away salutes before even seeing them. And, as always, the disciplined Royal Guardsponies rejected his silent entreaty: they stopped dead in their tracks, backs straightened, with their right front hooves held just above their eyes. The obligation to salute an officer of higher rank did not come from him but from the prescribed rules of Princess Celestia, and in the Royal Guard, nopony but the great mare herself had the authority to dismiss it.

Royal Guardsponies never used the door at the end of the Western corridor leading off the main hall. Well, not never. But not very often at all. Tempered Steel himself had certainly never used it, and he couldn’t think of anypony he knew who had, either. It had probably been years—literally, years—since that door was last opened. But it made sense: after all, the Night Guard were down there, and it was extremely rare for a Royal Guard to have any business with his or her dark counterpart that couldn’t be more easily handled through the internal mail system.

Naturally then, as Tempered Steel made his way directly through the Western corridor, the guardsponies around him grew increasingly intrigued by the question of whether this silver-plumed pegasi commander was actually going to where it was really starting to look like he was going.

If the princess had asked him to keep word of his trip to the Night Guard away from everypony, this would have been a poor performance indeed. But she hadn’t asked him to do that, and he really didn’t need to lie to these ponies, did he? There was no rule against him going down there. And even if one of the more overzealous guards decided they needed to tell somepony, who were they going to report it to? Him? Somepony under him, who would then relay the message to... him? Even if they did manage to pry that unicorn commander away from the military archives, or track that earth pony commander down in Celestia-knows-which part of the world he was in today, the worst his peers could do would be to report it to the princess herself. Which would be, of course, no problem at all.

With more than a few pairs of eyes on him, the commander walked straight through the dingy doorway without so much as a glance over his shoulder and trotted down two flights of stairs to the basement.

Tempered Steel walked through the basement-level door slowly and cautiously. It wasn’t that he thought there was any danger down there. But something about losing the ability to see one’s own hoof in front of their face even with the extremely temporary assistance of the light seeping in through the open basement door, does have the potential to put a pony on edge.

Thud. Darkness. The pupils of his eyes grew wider and wider, yearning in vain for even the slimmest ray of light in the abyss they now had to contend with.

“Who the hay is that?” somepony called from the depths.

Or so his reasoning and experience told him: his ears had heard a sound not easily recognizable as that of a pony. To those unfamiliar with Night Guard speech, it is best described as a four-tone chord from a violin section comprised entirely of first-time musicians fed through a speaker system and inharmoniously accompanied by white noise and feedback. Just one of the many reasons why Luna’s Open Hours were so sparsely attended.

“Tempered Steel,” he bellowed. “Commander of the Pegasi Infantry.”

“You don’t say…” was returned, quieted this time into an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, strummed with something that was clearly neither a pick or a hoof.

At once, the perfect darkness was broken. Directly in front of him—not six inches away—floated two globes of golden light, side-by-side, each slitted top to bottom by some dark blade. It took him nearly ten full seconds to process the message his eyes were sending him.

“Choler, is it?”

Tempered Steel felt a wisp of warm breath brush past the left side of his muzzle and collide harmlessly with his cheek. It took a particular kind of gloom to bring out a pony’s latent and underused senses. This definitely qualified as that kind of gloom.

The yellow lights held utterly motionless in the space in front of him. “The one and only,” he heard, as the eyes blinked out for a split second.

Something in her stare told him that his host had more to say. But the seconds ticked on, and all either pony heard was the dull beating of Tempered Steel’s heart.

The commander was a learned pony, well-versed in both history and military tactics. On an intellectual level, he was acutely aware of the importance of the Night Guard as an organization to the security of Equestria. But he didn’t like them, and his was by no means an uncommon sentiment. Most Night Guards had very little concept of how best to interact with ponies that didn’t sleep during the day and couldn’t see in the dark. Nor did they have much interest in learning.

That cruel mockery of a melodic voice returned: “Look at you. You’re just as handsome as the day we met, Temp.”

Without thinking, he shifted his weight and brought his two left hooves back one step. The eyes followed as though they were tethered directly to his own.

“I—excuse me. Do I know you from somewhere?” he replied, an indignant twinge creeping into his voice.

“Married life hasn’t slowed you down one bit.”

Tempered Steel’s pale white ears quivered. Slowly, he began to draw his head up to stretch his neck. Gone were the infernal tones of disorientation; in their place sounded a normal pony’s voice—one he thought he recognized.

“That isn’t....” He plumbed the recesses of his mind. She must have once been a Royal Guard cadet, he reasoned. So then, maybe he knew her from—

“Summer? Summer, is that you?”

The slits drifted to the corners of her eyes in thought. “Well, yes and no. That isn’t an easy question to answer.”

“But,” she continued, “I do still have my memories.” The cat’s-eyes flicked forward again, and then glided deliberately downward before beginning a painfully slow crawl back up to his eyes. “And oh, do I remember you.”

One brushstroke at a time, Tempered Steel recreated his portrait of her from his memories. As it began to come together, he was reminded of that inclination towards flirting that had always gotten under his skin. He had a hard time imagining she had been this bad, though.

The commander closed his eyes, and considered the implications. The stallion was many things; unfocused was not one of them.


“Feel free to call me ‘Summer’, if you’d like. Commander, you can call me whatever you want.” He didn’t need the benefit of sight to know a coy smile lay somewhere underneath those yellow pools of light.

Tempered Steel gave a slight smile of his own, and he knew she could see it. “Choler. Let’s turn a light on in here.”

“There are no lights down here, Temp.”

Without waiting a beat, the commander advanced: “Let’s go upstairs, then.”

“I’m the last one here, Temp. Can’t leave the basement, I’m afraid.”

He took a moment to regroup. “So what you’re telling me,” he summarized, “ is that you and I are stuck here, with no light and nopony else around, until we finish our business.”

“And since when has that been a problem, hmm?” she asked, her every word saturated with misbehavior. “Such an intriguing proposition, Tempered Steel.”

For a few seconds, the two lights blinked on and off at an impossible speed. “Whatever business did you have in mind, commander?”

He gave his wings a stretch, and folded them tightly against his back. “I’m sure you know that I’m here about the detainment last night.”

“Oh, Tempered Steel, what kind of business is that!” she whined. Yet in the dark, she caught sight of something dart across her old friend’s face. As she spoke, her kittenish tone fell prey to a creeping seriousness.

“Alright. Yeah, I figured.”

Tempered Steel thought of himself as a straightforward pony. He was firm believer that in some cases, the only way out of an impasse was to smash through it.

The commander twisted the kinks out of his neck and returned Choler’s gaze. “I need all the photos and details the Night Guard collected from one of the ponies you detained. The name is ‘Just Cause’.”

Whatever remnants of playfulness remained fled the scene at the mention of that name. Her eyes narrowed sharply.

“Really.” She took a long and considered pause. “What do you want with her?”

There. That little touch of... something else, buried deep in her tone and in her eyes. Apprehension, maybe. Or perhaps it was anger. Either way, this was something she cared about.

It made sense, though, didn’t it? Of course she’d hate Just Cause after last night’s little stunt. If she felt about her princess as he did about his.... And if she thought that keeping a secret would help to bring this pony in....

He began putting form to the budding deception that would keep this morning’s deeds a secret. But he knew Summer, and he had no desire to lie to her. Sure, she was a Night Guard now, and Tempered Steel had no idea what had made her choose this path. But she was still a friend, and he was still a Royal Guard. And yet here he was: at once the orchestrator and the orchestrated in some grand scheme of unknown ends but clear and odious means.

This could have been so much easier, if he’d understood why he was being asked to do it. But it wasn’t his place to question the princess. And who knew how many times this “Choler” had lied and misled other ponies to get what she wanted? He gave his head a light shake. Maybe it was time for Tempered Steel to fight fire with fire.

The commander drew a deep breath. In the darkness he leaned his whole body forward and leveled his eyes with Choler’s.

“This is actually a bit under-the-radar.” He stepped forward to bring his head next to hers. He could feel a faint heat emanating from the side of her muzzle. “It’s something of a... personal initiative.”

“What are you—”

“Shh,” he reassured her. “Just listen.”

He spoke to her in hushed tones—he was telling her a secret, after all. “I’ve actually been paying attention to this Just Cause pony for a while now. I don’t have any defensible reason for believing she is planning to commit a crime, which is why there’s never been a record for her here in CP.”

The stallion let a sliver of a breath escape from his mouth. “Still, ever since I heard about her coming to Day Court I’ve been... suspicious. I want to see if what I have on her matches up with what she told you when you detained her. But I’m not supposed to have what I have, so I don’t want anypony finding out that I’ve asked for these. Do you understand?”

Again, he felt a weak breath against his cheek. They stood together in a long and blackened silence.

“I understand,” came the reply, and seconds later the only two lights in the room blinked away.

He was careful not to sigh out loud. But in that moment, Tempered Steel’s heart fell stricken to three emotions it was not accustomed to: guilt, fear, and a strange sort of isolation. He wondered if this was not what it must feel like to become a Night Guard.

For Equestria, he reminded himself.

The commander felt something slip into his breastplate and the eyes flicked back on a second later. “Those are copies. You can keep them.”

Tempered Steel blinked his own eyes a few times. “Thank you,” he said. “Summer.”

The globes brightened, not in luminescence but in timbre. “Those are two very lucky mares, Temp. Please tell them I said so one day, won’t you?”


A little laugh—almost a giggle—poured from those slowly-shrinking headlights in the dark. “Temperance,” she said, “and that princess of yours.” She sighed through a smile; he could hear it. “How could I ever compete with them?

(continued from front page)

With the exception of the once-in-a-decade peacekeeping mission, the Royal Guard and Night Guard’s duties can now be categorized in two ways: ceremonial and policing. The guardsponies’ ceremonial duties include announcing arrivals and departures of the princesses, transporting the princesses to official events in chariot processions, and standing guard during the Summer Sun Celebration.

Policing, however, is relatively new duty for the organization, at least in its expanded scope. It was only five years ago that Canterlot’s city manager made it the final municipality to dissolve its police force and turn security over to the Royal and Night Guards, citing obsolescence and budgetary concerns. Many believe that Princess Celestia silently supported the centralization and consolidation initiative.

Though she has never taken a public position on the matter, the princess is willing to acknowledge that she is pleased with what it signifies. “In my opinion, the fact that every municipality in Equestria has individually chosen to assign to the guards responsibility for security and criminal investigation demonstrates a profound level of trust,” Celestia said. “The Royal Guard and the Night Guard have earned that trust—city by city, town by town—with their competence and their unrivaled integrity.”

“I’d like to speak with a pony named Scoop please, if he’s available.”

“Who should I say is here?” the receptionist replied, headset microphone resting over one cheek and unimaginably large wad of gum lodged in the other.

“Just tell him it’s a Royal Guardspony.”

She sat back and crossed her legs in front of her. “And does this Royal Guardspony have a name?”

“Yes. He does. But right now, it’s ‘Royal Guardspony’.”

Mercifully and menacingly, the receptionist stopped chewing. She stared at the armorless commander with her lips curled tight, allowing her jaw a brief respite.

“Alright, siddown,” she sighed, ambling off into some distant backroom.

Tempered Steel took a seat in the wide, clean lobby of the Hoofington Post’s Canterlot bureau offices, and habitually ran a hoof through his mane. It was no problem for him to leave his breastplate in his office back at CP, but he hated having to go anywhere without that helmet either safe on his head or safe at home.

It was his most prized possession. Sweet Temperance had known that he was devastated by the sacrifice he was making for her, no matter how hard he had tried to hide it. It was his dream to be a Royal Guardspony since he’d been a little colt, he told her. He’d joined the first day he was eligible to do so. His cutie mark was the image of a golden shield, for flank’s sake. How could he not have been upset about leaving the academy?

She couldn’t take that from him. She’d never have been able to live with herself. So, she scraped together some money selling old jewelry and bought him a Royal Guardspony helmet from the Canterlot Armory, even as he was preparing to resign his officer candidacy. It was her commitment to him: if not now, then later. But someday, he would be a Royal Guardspony. Inside she’d had it engraved:

For my selfless hero: never forget who you strive to be. I love you. -T

She’d seen a side of her husband entirely new to her upon giving him the helmet. With the very manifestation of his childhood dream in his hooves, he’d broken down before her and cried into her lap. No act of kindness had reached the depths of his soul like this: this thoughtful, important, truly selfless act from a pony who had gone through so much, so recently. They had been married for a week by then, but it was this moment that truly sealed their union. This was their bond. This was their vow.

“Hey! I know you! What’s your name again... hm...” fired Scoop, a ridiculously small pair of glasses balancing atop his muzzle. The commander stood straight up and shot a warning glare down at the beige pony.

“Uh, right. Well, guess you have your reasons. Come with me, ‘Royal Guardspony’,” he said, rearing back to hang quotes in the air with his hooves.

In an attempt to turn around before letting his front hooves return to solid ground, the fast-talking pony found himself flat on his face on the ground. He got right up and charged through the newsroom anyway without the faintest hint of embarrassment; Tempered Steel followed behind him, barely keeping up in an awkward half-trot half-canter.

All around him were cubicles, ponies yelling and typing away. The noises brought to mind, oddly enough, a tattoo parlor. There wasn’t much opportunity for comparison or exploration however, as Scoop quickly ushered him through a glass-paneled door and into a glass-walled room.

It really was a waste of glass, though. This room—evidently Scoop’s office—had wallpaper, which is to say that various newspaper clippings, scribbles, magazine covers, drawings, pictures, posters, charts, graphs and timelines adorned the entirety of each wall, as well as the ceiling. But hey: at least there was a light in here. It was the little things for Tempered Steel today.

“So what’ve you got for me Tempered Steel? Don’t hold out now, I know you didn’t come down here for nothing.”

Tempered Steel nodded and sat back onto a chair. Five seconds earlier, the pages of what appeared to have been a pile of several dozen manuscripts had sat there instead, before glowing yellow and flying in more or less every direction but towards the seat from whence they came.

“Just out of curio—”

“I do my research, buddy. You want a coffee? Tea? Water? No? Good to hear. Let’s go then, T. S., on with the show. Time’s money and all that jazz.”

Tempered Steel thought he heard his brain actually creak inside his head.

“I don’t have much to tell you, Scoop,” he said. “But if you want to use it for color in a different article, I’m afraid it’s not for attribution.”

“Alright. ‘A senior Royal Guard official’, it is.”

“‘A senior official’.”

Turning his head away, Scoop frowned hard. “Oh, come on. Fine. ‘A senior military official’. Good? Good. So: what does a senior military official say?”

“A senior military official says nothing.”

The shocked journalist pondered this for two seconds. For him, that was a long time to reach a decision. “And what does a senior official say?”

“He says, ‘I have some information about one of the ponies who was detained at Night Court.’”

Scoop raised his eyebrows so high that the tiny spectacles balancing above his nose tumbled onto the floor. He didn’t seem to care. “Oh, hey now! This could be juicy. Lay it on me, Steels: what’s the skinny?”

“One of those ponies—one of the leaders, I think—she’s been coming to Day Court to protest, but by herself. She’s been doing so for a few months now, actually. And as I understand it, she comes every day.”

For a few highly unnerving seconds, Scoop stared straight past the commander’s eyes, zoned out, with a facial expression giving no indication of emotion. Then, as if punched in the gut he aspirated: “Whoa.”

Another pause. “Yes. That’s a good one. Yup. Yup. Yes. That’s a good one. Keep ‘em coming, Steelmeister. Whatcha got? Speculations? Motivations? Insinuations?”

“Well, I don’t know much about these ponies. But I have to question whether they know that one of their leaders isn’t just anti-Luna, but anti-Celestia, too.”

“That’s a fine point there, Steelerino. A fine point indeed. Anything else for me?”

“Sorry, Scoop. That’s all I know.”

“I’ve just got to ask you one more question, then.” Scoop cleared his throat. “Did anypony put you up to this?”

He’d prepared himself this time, mentally and strategically. “Nope, this is all me. I breezed through the photos of the ponies that were detained, and I recognized one of the protesters from when I was supervising my guards at one of the princess’s Open Hours. I figured she was a leader because she was the very first pony the Night Guard processed. That’s all.”

“So why are you here then, Steelster?” Scoop narrowed his eyes.

The commander smiled amiably. “I just think it’s important for context.”

“Really, Steelie? That’s why?”


“Well, alright then, Steelhead. I’ve never known a Royal Guard to lie, and you’re a Royal Guard’s Royal Guard. So I’m gonna take you at your word on this one.”

Scoop’s horn glowed yellow, and a typewriter in the far corner of the room set to work. “Thanks for the tip, T. S., don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Really, don’t. It’s got a quick swing.”

Tempered Steel waved to the pony, then rushed out of the office, out of the newsroom, and out of the building at a speedy trot. He hadn’t even had to think twice about telling a blatant lie to an established journalist. Why had it been so easy for him?

For Equestria, he remembered. For Celestia.

When asked about the decision to dissolve their police forces, leaders from nearly every city and town in Equestria will mention among their reasons the level of courtesy Royal Guardsponies show civilians in their town. “They’re so down-to-Earth,” one senior Fillydephian official remarked. “They treat you like an equal, because that’s what we are. We’re all equals.”

This is no coincidence. “One of the qualities I and my commanders look for in our Royal Guard cadets is the ability to look out for others in a competitive environment,” said the daylight princess. “Ponies who only know how to win by dragging everypony else down are not admitted to the Royal Guards.”

“It’s about respect,” she added. “It’s all about respect.”

It was roughly one hour after the moon began to rise that Tempered Steel found his target. He circled high, way above any earth pony’s field of vision. And as it happened, Just Cause, a short, dark brown mare with a black mane if the picture from Choler was to be believed, was traveling with just a few other earth ponies. Not a single pegasus was in sight.

He always ran a short mental checklist before an approach. Very rarely had he ever gotten into a physical altercation with another pony outside of training, but those few times he did were helped immensely by his preparedness. And while he wasn’t expecting a fight with these ponies, he was grateful to be back in his armor for this meeting.

The commander mouthed to himself quietly: “Seven earth ponies. No pegasi. No unicorns. Total weight: around 400 pounds. In an alleyway behind Green Street, 300 feet long. Low visibility. Two exits at either end.”

“Objective: Just need to deliver a message without altercation. Seems pretty straightforward.”

He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was overlooking something. Some unexplored possibility. But there was nothing he could do about it now: they were on the move, and he was running out of time.

Tempered Steel began his descent. For the first 1,000 feet he pulled in his wings and hastened his pace in a spectacular skydive. As he approached the ground, he let his wings naturally spread behind him and angled himself into a spiraled arrival for the final 500. He came to a halt hovering just above the uneven ground of the alleyway.

The alley was dark but not impossibly so, errant light bleeding through the tiniest of splits, chips and fractures in the wall of buildings that separated the scene from the streetlamps. Before him stood a troop of earth ponies at an appropriate distance from him for an old-fashioned duel. Four young mares and two stallions stood behind their torchbearer, whose flickering light-gray eyes sifted through this new guest’s soul.

Oh yes. Just Cause was the leader.

The commander—the Royal Guard commander, that is—took a deep breath and broke the silence. “Greetings, Just Cause.”

He slipped his helmet off with his front hooves.

“I am the Royal Guard Commander of the Pegasi Infantry,” he announced as he began a swift, yet calm advance. “My name is Tempered Steel. I hope the night is treating you well.”

A hoof up to the mouth here, a bit lip over there: the followers showed more and more nervousness with each further flap of his wings. Just Cause showed nothing.

Three clinks rung out a few yards from the agitators as Tempered Steel turned his landing into a deep and chivalrous bow.

He brought himself back to full height. “Miss Cause. Princess Celestia would like to extend to you an invitation to meet with her personally at the castle, immediately following Day Court Open Hou—”

“Why are you here?” she asked abruptly. He was not entirely sure if he had yet seen her blink.

Tempered Steel counted to five in his head. “Perhaps I was unclear. I apologize. I am here to invi—”

“You don’t understand what I’m asking. Why are you here, ‘commander’?”

She stated his rank like a mockery. “I was asked t—”

“Do you know why a top-ranked Royal Guard like yourself would be out here playing messenger colt with me right now?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Cause, I ha—”

“Your princess is paying me lip service.”

Tempered Steel was supposed to leave as soon as he’d relayed the message. And the message had indeed been relayed. But he was hungry for answers, explanation. Anything to make sense of what he was being asked to do. And though he told himself not to trust a word out of her mouth, something screamed from inside him that this pony had a hoof on the truth.

Just Cause continued: “I know full well that Celestia has no intention of making any of the changes we want. So there’s no real respect here. Not for us, and not for our opinions.”

“Sending you here, in all your splendor? That’s a show.” Eyes unwavering, she pounded on the dimly-lit cobblestone in applause, and her followers took the cue to do the same.

“Bravo, Tempered Steel. Bravo.”

But the applause continued to grow. Just Cause cracked a tiny smile as she caught the spark of panic in his eyes.

Behind him. It was coming from behind him. It was loud. And it was close.

He whirled around to face nine ponies standing in a line across the width of the alley, not two feet away from him, each one staring and applauding. How could he have—

Tempered Steel’s heart stopped. His right foreleg lost its charge and slipped under him. His breastplate hit the cobblestone with a loud clunk. Eyes narrowed. Nostrils flared. Wings unfurled. He spun automatically to face his initial targets, wings swinging round and forcing the nine new additions to back up.

He ignored the laughter. The commander fixed his gaze on a light-blue mare scampering on three legs to the back of the pack: a cowardly insect seeking safety in numbers. From the pony’s extended right hoof dangled the perfect symbol of Tempered Steel’s whole universe: his country and his princess, his wife and his dreams.

With one flap of his powerful wings he shot up 15 feet in the air, and the two crowds below took the opportunity to merge directly below him.

“Give it back,” was all he could think to say. “Give it back.”

“We pay your salary with our taxes!” called one pony through a smirk. “This is as much ours as it is yours!”

“Yeah, property of Equestria!” shouted another.

“Property of Equestria,” a few repeated.

“Hey, look at this: ‘For my selfless hero’? Aww,” a stallion mocked.

“Aww!” the crowd replied.

“You ponies have no idea what you’re doing,” he warned. “Do not put me in a position to have to hurt you.”

A stallion near the back: “I’m sure you’d love to smack us around a bit, wouldn’t you?”

Mischievous shouts erupted from the wound-up crowd as the helmet disappeared below the mob of ponies. Thonk. The cheers grew louder. Thoom. Ping. Tempered Steel felt each noise physically hammer at his chest.

He reared back in the air and extended his wings fully.

“Think this through.”

The commander forced a jet of air through his nostrils.

“Quiet,” Just Cause ordered, just loudly enough to be heard by all. Her tool was firmness, not volume. At once the followers obeyed.

“Think this through, Tempered Steel,” she repeated, slowly and deliberately, as the crowd parted around her. At her feet he saw the helmet: dirty, but undented. “This morning, the Night Guard were on the front page of every major newspaper for detaining 120 protesters. Are the Royal Guard going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s, because their commander couldn’t hold it together over a piece of armor?”

She circled around to survey her troops, then scooped the helmet up in her hoof and surveyed it as well. “We aren’t giving you this helmet back voluntarily, Tempered Steel. You have just threatened us with a disproportionate and violent response. We are not inclined to sympathize with you, whatever this helmet’s significance may be.”

“So, the outcome is in your hooves. You can charge at us and fight us for this helmet,” she offered, turning her head upwards to face her aggressor.

“Or you can leave.”

He couldn’t tell if it had been worse to hear his helmet being kicked around like a toy, or to see it draped over this infuriating pony’s hoof. Such disrespect—and with what reason? They lived lives of guaranteed contentment: neither they nor anypony else in all Equestria would suffer true poverty or hunger again. He saw nothing in their actions but selfishness and ingratitude.

A novel thought came to Tempered Steel at that moment: what would Temperance do? Of course, she’d never find herself in a position like this anyway—not with that olive branch cutie mark of hers. But if she were here, the very last thing she’d do would be to charge in there and start beating ponies up for, as Just Cause put it, a ‘piece of armor’.”

Just Cause was right, too: the last thing his princess needed was for his day’s work to produce a headline. And it really was just a helmet. To leave it with these thoughtless ponies would be like tearing off a piece of his soul. But did he really have a choice?

“Very well,” he intoned as his wings carried him higher and higher into the sky, until his helmet was scarcely a glint of moonlight in Canterlot’s metropolis. And when his eyes finally lost its gleam among the city’s lights, the commander started for the castle, choking down a hollowness that grew with each flap of his wings, in the name of Equestria.

“Alrighty, I’ve got all I need. Thanks for your time, P. C.”

The pencil floating in the air slipped neatly back under Scoop’s fedora. He rose from his ottoman, and started for the door.

Just before he reached the doorway, he stopped and craned his neck to look behind him.

“One more thing,” he began. “I had a pony come to me this morning saying that one of the protesters from last night also shows up at your Open Hours and wants you gone. There any truth in this?”

Celestia cocked her head. “Off the record?”

“You got it, P. C.”

This question—this one little question—was the diligent journalist’s entire reason for being here, she knew. And she didn’t just know it: she’d been expecting it.

Well done, Tempered Steel, she thought to herself.

“Well, yes. That’s true. Good to see you double-checking your leads.”

Scoop winked. “I’m the real deal, you know. No half-baked pap under this pony’s byline.”

He rubbed his hoof against two days’ worth of stubble. “Hey, we gonna be alright, princess? Seems like a whole lot’s been happening all of a sudden.”

The great white mare brought her head down to meet Scoop at his own eye level. With a matronly smile shining across her face, she assured him: “We’re going to be fine.”

(to be continued)

Special thanks: KitsuneRisu
Comments, art, and randomness always appreciated; please send to

Community Organizing

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The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
Chapter IV: Community Organizing

“This isn’t over.”

Across the nighttime sky he raced, periodically moonlit through breaks in the dense cloud cover overhead. Just one minute ago he had been flying towards Canterlot Castle. Now, he had no idea where he was going.

To leave the helmet was to sacrifice for the good of his princess and his nation; he understood this. He also understood that the protesters had acted unjustly and dishonorably. Conflict heavy in his heart, he was forced into the only conclusion that would allow him to continue functioning: “This isn’t over.”

Thoughts of his life, his work, his princess and his love melted away with the rapidly increasing altitude. At around 6200 feet he shot through the stratocumulus pall with a satisfying poom. Some weather pegasus wouldn’t be too happy about the unsightly hole he’d left. But it was worth it.

Up here on an overcast night, divorced from Canterlot’s constant noise and motion by billowing shields of vapor that shone silver in the moonlit sky, the stallion was not Commander of the Pegasi Infantry. He was not a guardian of the realm; he wasn’t even a subject of it. He was not a husband.

Up here, he was Tempered Steel. And Tempered Steel wanted to lie down.

He landed silently on a well-formed cumulus a few seconds’ continued climb upwards, folding in his wings to lie on his side. At the moment his head hit the cloudy haze, the entirety of his vision compressed itself into an absolute simplicity: on one side, Tempered Steel saw nothing but a white as pure as any he had ever known; on the other, the unfettered black of the universe hastened to greet him.

“Hah,” he breathed.

“Wouldn’t that be nice.” His eyelids fluttered and then fell, and Tempered Steel allowed the cloud to bear him slowly along through the sky and towards a much-needed sleep.

For one full hour Luna waited in silence, standing atop the stairway of her castle’s Grand Hall. On either side of the hall were Lieutenants Clamor and Choler, and behind them were their platoons at attention: 40 guardsponies each, straight backs and bat wings up, two pairs of shackles in each of their black saddlbags.

One could be forgiven for assuming their presence to be none more than a blunt demonstration of military might. In fact, Luna had requested the extra presence so that the sheet-freeze system would not have to be employed, should the protesters attempt an encore performance. That said, she was not unaware of the intimidation factor—nor was she particularly perturbed by it.

But tonight there was nopony to intimidate, and Luna was left to affix her eyes on the empty archway and beat back the creeping sense of foolishness that grew with the painfully slow progression of the moon across the sky. Not since her first few nights after returning to her midnight throne had she suffered through a completely unattended Open Hour. Luna was not fond of wasting time. Nor was she fond of being ignored.

“Princess,” called Clamor from across the hall, “it’s been an hour.”

“Yes. I know.” She did not stir. In her mind played countless disjointed thoughts, all variations on a similar theme.

“At ease,” called the commander-in-chief. The clangs of shifting metal armor rung out across the room and raked against her pride.

“Lieutenants.” Clamor and Choler darted to be at their princess’s side, racing for the honor of her proximity.

“Take your guardsponies out for drills. Loud ones.”

In a poorly lit living room on the third floor of a Green Street brownstone, 27 ponies fell into conversation with whoever was next to them. They dotted the room in no particular order: sitting back into their haunches on the graying rug; lying on the ragged constructions of cloth, wool and wood that were barely fit to be called couches; leaning against the patchily painted walls, legs crossed in front of them. None of them knew the other guests’ names, and none asked. All of them knew the name of the mare in the dimmest corner of the room, who sat alone and in silence, a single brown rag draped over her neck, surveying her guests.

They talked of freedom and of justice. They spoke of the unbearable chill they had felt at the hooves of the Night Guard, indignation and pride vying for dominance within them. They compared their thoughts on the newspaper coverage of the incident, and they agreed that it was biased towards the diarchy. They whispered to one another conjecture about the place in Equestrian history they were making for themselves at this very moment. They practically tittered over mean-spirited jokes at their midnight ruler’s expense. And together in that artless den, sharing their hopes and their fears for themselves and their nation, 27 ponies became more than acquaintances. More than friends. They became brothers and sisters, born anew of a vision for the future that had stirred them to unite, and had called them to action.


The task of silencing a crowd of ponies engrossed in conversation is a difficult one. Success is a question of balance: one must usually convey both the power and thoughtfulness of a pony worth listening to before a rabble will acquiesce to the orator and settle in to become an audience.

Apparently, Just Cause did not have this problem. She had spoken softly and with no force behind her words. In fact, most of the ponies didn’t even hear her, but instead reacted to the abrupt halts in conversation that radiated outwards from her corner of the room. And as for thoughtfulness: well, all she’d said was “hey”.

“I would like for each of you,” she uttered, pausing for a deep breath, “to explain to us why you are here today.”

What was once a modestly jovial living room had become in one fell swoop a courtroom. All eyes darting and all necks craning frantically this way and that, each pony’s claims to knowledge and authenticity had been put on trial by Just Cause.

Finally, amid the silence, a unicorn colt of dark gray and on the cusp of stallionhood rose from somewhere near the middle of the room. He didn’t need to look around to know that he was being watched. But though he was happy for them to listen, it was not his intention to speak to his new family.

Locking eyes with the stoic earth pony in the gloom, the colt began to speak:

“I don’t trust Pri—” he started, catching himself before granting the mare her honorific.

“I don’t trust Luna. I didn’t trust her before the thing last night, and now I really don’t trust her. Nopony in my family does.” He cleared his throat.

“Me and my dad, we’re descended from one of the Royal Guardsponies Nightmare Moon killed a thousand years ago. We’ve never forgotten it. And now that same mare... she killed four ponies. But now she’s a princess again.”

The colt bit his lip. “I don’t know why I care about it so much. I know it was a very long time ago. But it’s still my family.

“And if I can be honest with you, I’ve never really thought anything bad about Prin— uh, Celestia. But I’ve been talking to these ponies, and they make a really good point: it was Celestia who made Luna a princess again without even asking us.”

He stamped his hoof hard into the floor. “And for what? Who cares if she can make a prettier night sky? Who cares if she makes us a little bit safer with her magic? Celestia didn’t even ask our opinion about letting a murderer rule our country. So something has to change. We need to be able to pick our leaders. That’s why I’m here.”

As soon as he finished speaking, the colt turned his eyes down and away from Just Cause’s unfailing stare. Through shallow breaths he struggled to fold in his legs and lie back down on the mottled rug. Again, silence overtook the room and choked it with anxiety.

“Did any of you hear about that dragon in Ponyville a few years back?” asked a tall, blue earth pony mare near the stairwell, leaning casually against the wall. The room’s silence continued, and then so did she.

“There was a dragon sleeping in a cave up on a mountain near Ponyville. It was snoring and blowing smog into the sky, and if it had been left there for too long it would have taken decades or maybe even a whole century for the pegasi to clear up all the smoke.”

She uncrossed her legs as she pulled herself off the wall to stand on her own four hooves. “Yeah, the fact that none of you seems to have heard about it speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I was visiting family in Ponyville at the time, so I witnessed firsthoof how Celestia handled the situation. Our wise and powerful leader thought it’d be a good idea to tell the six young mares who stopped Nightmare Moon to go scale the mountain and get the dragon to leave. I guess she thought taking on a dragon could be some sort of a ‘teachable moment’ for her star pupil and her friends.”

The mare’s eyes hardened and her back went straight. “Celestia’s smart, sure, but she does makes mistakes. Otherwise your ancestor wouldn’t have had to die,” she reasoned, gesturing to the gray colt with a tilt of her head, who nodded back to her.

“This time, they were OK. But that’s not the point: if she had been wrong about this one, she would be responsible for more deaths than Nightmare Moon. Six ponies dead—just barely too old to be fillies—because she wanted them to learn something.” Her tone fell with the weight of her closing remarks: “Maybe she’d be more sensitive to the fact that she can be wrong about things if she had an election to worry about every once in a while. That’s why I’m here.”

After a final glance at her new family, she leaned back against the wall and returned to her casual pose.

It didn’t take long for a third pony to join in. A slender pegasus mare with an airy sage coat and and thick-rimmed glasses framing her eyes spoke from her seat on one of the room’s couches.

“Hi, everypony,” she whispered through a bashful smile.

“I think this makes me very different from the rest of you, but I think that Celestia and Luna are both decent ponies, even if they have made mistakes. What I’m really worried about is what happens to Equestria without Celestia.”

Her eyes flicked to as many other ponies as were visible to her from the couch, and her voice was soft and sweet. And as she spoke, everypony but Just Cause found themselves involuntarily leaning towards the quietly confident pegasus.

“What if something happens to her? What if she just decides to leave? I’ve asked her this a few times at Open Hour, and she always says the same thing: ‘Your concerns are noted, my little pony.’ ”

She shook her head. “But she hasn’t done anything. How does Equestria stay safe without Celestia? Nothing’s permanent, and we’re going to have to go without her someday. I hope we’ll be able to get her to see that she needs to help us learn how to run the country ourselves. But if she won’t do that, then it’s better for us to be thrown into the deep end during the Equestrian Peace than during some sort of war, right?”

Her eyes continued to shift around the room, now with heightened energy. “If she won’t help us, then this is the perfect time for Equestria to learn how to govern itself. And that’s why I’m here.”

In the dimmest corner of the room, Just Cause smiled.

“Mrrph. Wha— what time...”

Tempered Steel reached way back behind himself and extended his wings as far as was comfortable. Before him was a disorienting monochromatic swirl: wisps of the dissipating cloud licked along the outlines of the abyss, rendering in sharp points and rounded edges; off-whites, heavy grays and every shade in between.

“Look at that moon,” he said to himself. “I must have been out for two hours, at least.”

He tried his hardest to shake off his murky headache, but only succeeded in aggravating it. Taking flight, he used his hooves to cover his eyes, then ran them up and through his black mane with a wide, unrestrained yawn. Spiraling around and below his wispy hammock, the addled stallion began his return to Canterlot Castle. His mission was not yet complete.

As he approached the castle, violet flashes and sparks broke over its outline like subdued fireworks. They were Night Guard drills, and he’d recognize them anywhere. Had it been any other night, or had he been a bit less depressed, Tempered Steel would have remembered that magic-heavy Night Guard tactics like these were never drilled near populated areas, much less in central Canterlot. And if he had been really on-the-ball, he would have been able to surmise that whatever the reason for these intense drills taking place in her backyard, they were highly unlikely to signify that Princess Luna was particularly content with the state of her affairs. But tonight, all he saw were drills.

With a hoof to his mouth in preparation for another yawn, he glided through the magnificent archway and into the Great Hall.

“Stop!” he heard, in a voice sharp enough to pierce armor.

A large, dark figure framed by unilluminated stained glass stood at the nexus of staircases that wove along the sides of the circular room and met opposite the arches. On either side of its marble platform were torches with blue flames that seemed to curl away from the figure. Even more so than usual, ritualism and power suffused the Great Hall on this night.

“Come here,” she called, and he obediently complied. He landed on the stairs a few steps below her, and bowed deeply to his midnight princess. Fears of how much she’d learned of his day’s work fired through his mind and jabbed at his insides.

“Your name is Tempered Steel, correct?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“You are my sister’s Commander of the Pegasi Infantry.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Luna shot a burst of air through her teeth. “Unbelievable.”

The princess took two steps forward. “A Royal Guardspony of the highest rank thinks it’s acceptable to fly right through the Great Hall at night—at a time when he should not even be in the castle without my explicit permission—and apparently has decided that formality is unimportant when Princess Luna is on the throne. Where is your helmet, Tempered Steel?”

“I apologize, Your Maje—”

“Save it. Please.” She raised one hoof and turned her head away from him.

“Do you know what my sister said to me about the Royal Guard, just a day ago? She told me that what makes her proudest about the Royal Guard is your discipline.” Each sentence stung like a needle; each pause primed the words to come with venom. “I’m sure she would be interested to hear that one of her handpicked commanders is standing before me right now after careening through the Grand Hall past midnight with only a breastplate on. Why are you here, commander? Where is your helmet?”

“Your M—”

“This is completely unacceptable. Do you hear me?” Luna looked down at her punching bag through narrowed eyes. “Do you understand me? Completely unacceptable. I don’t care how good of a commander you are, Tempered Steel. I don’t care what you think about me, and I don’t care what you think about the rules. Your opinion isn’t important. You are my subject, and you are subject to the rules of Equestria, and you are subject to the rules of Canterlot Castle. Get it? You don’t get to decide when to follow the rules and when not to. You follow the rules all the time. Not just when it’s convenient, Tempered Steel. All the time. So what are you doing here? Why are you here? And where is your helmet?

From her perch atop the marble landing, she brought her head down to mere inches above his upturned face and bore into his eyes with her own. “Speak! Speak, Tempered Steel! I’m telling you to answer my question! Where is yo—”

“Stolen!” he cried out. The commander’s ears twitched in anticipation of a royal roar that did not come. He broke the silence himself: “It’s been stolen, Your Majesty.”

Long before the word had escaped his lips, he knew that it was not what Princess Celestia would have wanted him to say. He could have taken the blame. He could have feigned absentmindedness. He could have admitted to assuming nobody would be around to see him, and told her he was here to pick up some paperwork he’d forgotten. There were any number of ways for him to have taken his rebuke and been on his way, with Princess Luna none the wiser.

But Tempered Steel had his limits. He could lie to a Night Guard lieutenant if he had to, and he could lie to a journalist if it was called for. What he could not do—would not do—was lie to the ruler of all Equestria. And in the midnight hours, that ruler was Princess Luna. The stunned mare before him had assumed that he did not respect her. And in truth, he didn’t feel one way or the other about her. He’d never spoken to her before. But her crown, her title: there was nothing he respected more.

“Who has your helmet, Tempered Steel?”

He looked up at his princess.

“Just Cause has my helmet, Your Majesty.”

The princess’s mouth hung slightly open, and Tempered Steel could see her tongue slide back and forth along her teeth as her eyes focused on something distant.

After a few seconds she snapped back into the conversation, jaw set and eyes on the commander. “Tell me exactly what happened. Leave nothing out.”

Temperance stared out through the window, gazing at the clouds and trying her hardest to wish them away. The stars were just behind them, and every so often she managed to catch a glimpse of a few delicate pinpricks of light escaping the gloom as the clouds raced and stretched along the sky. Across the street, the lit windows of her neighbors’ houses blinked away one-by-one, each lost light sending her heart sinking further down. When the last of them died, it took a bit of Temperance’s breath with it.

“I’m so sorry to have kept you here this late,” she said, her smile failing miserably to belie her disappointment. “I’d like to go to bed now, Tenderheart.”

The nurse rattled her head. “No, no, dear; it isn’t a problem at all. I’m happy to wait a little while longer if you are.”

“No,” she sighed, “it’s alright. If he’s not back by now, then it’s probably just one of those nights. I had a feeling it might end up that way. Thank you, though.”

Tenderheart set her book face down on the couch and crossed the room to join her patient and her friend. Her eyes watered as she swallowed a yawn, and she turned away from Temperance to wipe off her eyes with a hoof.

“Pardon my asking if it’s out of place, dear. But what does ‘one of those nights’ actually mean?” Tenderheart clambered up onto her hind legs, planting her hooves on the handles of the wheelchair. “What exactly is it that Commander Steel is doing on a night like this?”

A single cloud caught Temperance’s attention as it crossed the midnight sky. Through the middle of it was an unsightly hole, anguishing and violent like a piercing or a puncture. She fixed her eyes on its wound, tracing its tranformation from circle to oval to thin, straight line as its bearer sailed from one end of her window to the next.

“I have no idea,” she said at last.

The noise from inside the apartment was deafening. Some ponies laughed uproariously. Other ponies were deep into retelling their own life stories to still others who were actually listening. Gone were the polite murmurs of an hour ago, the symptoms of unfamiliarity and trepidation replaced with the shared exhilaration of a newfound home. Not a single one of Just Cause’s guests had failed the character test. And now, though names largely remained a mystery, none could call any other in that room a stranger.

“Hey, I have a question for you guys.” The crowd quieted and turned to face their host; a few snickers and whispers remained to perforate the silence. Just Cause reached behind her and pulled out a dull dome of shaped metal. Its lustrous golden sheen was masked by a thin earthen coating that reduced it to a muted bronze, and much of its silvery plume had been left strewn across the nearby alleyway.

“Which of you took this helmet?”

A sly, knowing laughter overtook them, and most of the eyes in the room turned towards the doorway that led to the stairwell. A few ponies back there gave playful nudges to a blue mare leaning against the wall.

“That was me,” she informed the crowd with as much nonchalance as she could muster. Yet as the sounds of raucous cheers and hooves pounding on the floor reverberated through her consciousness, her full cheeks brightened and reddened. The corners of her mouth wrested themselves from her control and reached for her ears. It was all she could do bring her hoof up to her mouth, but even that was unable to hide her widening grin.

Just Cause made her way towards the center of the room with the helmet draped over one hoof and a rag hanging around her neck, and though the ponies parted to allow her to pass, their attention remained squarely on the blushing blue mare at the back of the room. When she reached the epicenter, she placed the golden artifact gently down on the rug.

“Come,” she intoned, beckoning to her with a hoof. The mare moved to join Just Cause, head held high, all auspices of indifference cast away. She strode through the throng, stopping before her host and the dull metal she had laid on the floor. Just Cause raised a hoof, and the crowd fell to a dull hum.

She nudged the helmet towards the blue mare with her muzzle, and the ponies once again burst into applause. The mare brought it towards her and rested her hoof atop its dome, the redness returning to her cheeks.

Just Cause reached behind her neck, pulled the rag over her hoof, and extended it outwards.

The mare’s eyes vacillated between the rag and the stoic pony who was offering it to her. Tentatively, she reached out and accepted the unconventional gift, pausing for a moment before delivering an apprehensive “thank you.” Snickers escalated to guffaws.

Then Just Cause spoke, and all fell silent. “You can use that to clean it off,” she said.

“I’m sorry? I... don’t think I understand.”

Just Cause locked eyes with the mare. “You dirtied that helmet, and it doesn’t belong to you. So clean it off.”

“But, Just Cause, he was—”

“He was doing nothing until you stole his helmet,” she replied, cocking her head to one side and leaning forward. “He is not the enemy. He is a pawn. And what you did was foalish. So clean it off.”

The rag fell to the floor, partway covering the sullied armor. The accused pony’s face reconstructed itself into a scowl and the crowd’s silence took on a new edge. “Who died and made you princess, Just Cause?”

Staring up at the blue pony towering over her, Just Cause blew away a stray lock of her frazzled mane out of the side of her mouth and smiled the smile of a seasoned gladiator, one who’d long since lost count of how many lions had lost their lives at her hooves.

“You’re here because of”—she stroked at her jawline—“dragons, right? You’re upset that Celestia sent some young ponies to a dragon’s den. ‘Think of the fillies,’ is that it?”

“Yeah,” she rumbled.

“That’s a very noble concern. Caring, selfless, honest. I’d love to meet the pony to whom that really belongs. Because it certainly isn’t you.” The few smiles that had survived until this point took their leave—Just Cause’s included. A few gasps fled from the spectators’ mouths.

“What are you talking about?”

“You see one of Celestia’s highest-ranking Royal Guardsponies, and the first thing that comes to mind is that you should steal something from him.” Just Cause scoffed. “Concerned with the safety of your fellow ponies? You put us all in physical danger. You’re not concerned with anypony but yourself.”

“That’s not—”

“So what is it, then? Let me guess: are you angry with your parents?” she sneered. “They want you to take that gavel cutie mark into studying law, but you want to drop out of school and live off the trust fund so you’ve decided to join a group of protestors that want to overthrow the government? Because ‘that’ll show them!’ Something like that, right?”

The mare said nothing.

“Clean it off.”

Her breathing had grown shallow, and her teeth were clenched together so firmly that it was beginning to hurt. But all it took was a heartbeat for her to fold. All at once her jaw grew slack, her head hung limp, and her knees buckled as she lowered herself to the floor at the hooves of a powerful mare indeed, who looked down on her with unbridled contempt.

She slipped the helmet onto one hoof and lifted the rag with the other. Slowly, deliberately, the mare set to work with the rag, managing at first only to brush away the loose clumps of dust and dirt that had stuck to the helmet’s exterior. As time passed, with Just Cause and her new family watching her in silence, the mare began to apply more pressure, revealing more and more of the gold’s originial splendor with each pass. Grime from the city streets had snaked its way into the many grooves of the armor’s traditional carved patterning, and once the smoother sections of the helmet shone as they ever had, the mare crumpled up a corner of the rag and ran it through each carved line until all traces of mud and sludge had been removed. Cleaning out the engraving from “-T” had proven especially difficult.

After all traces of what she had done were scoured from the gleaming article, she offered it to the mare who stood above her.

“Well done,” she said.

“Now, leave.”

The mare rose to her hooves, her head low and shaking slowly left and right. She stammered into incoherence any rebuttal she may have been trying to articulate: “I— um... uh... uh—”

“Consider this a grand lesson in humility. And a much more basic lesson in cleaning up after yourself.”

“But— b-but I thou—”

“We are not here to justify your personal rebellion. What we fight for is bigger than you. You do not understand that yet, and therefore you have no place in our struggle.”

With wide eyes, the mare turned her head to inspect a changed mob. The ponies who had cheered her mere moments ago for an act of defiance now met her with silence and glares for that very same act. Her eyes developed a red tinge and her knees began to shake as she battled with all her strength against her body’s automatic response to shame and humiliation. Under the haunting eyes of rediscovered strangers, the blue mare shuffled her way through the crowd, which parted noiselessly, granting her one last gift: an unobstructed path to the exit.

Princess Celestia woke up.

She woke up for no easily discernable reason: there had been no noises, lights, or drafts that reached her tower and disturbed her in her sleep, no letter slipped under her chamber door by a dutiful Royal Guardspony. Nor had there been any spell cast or potion quaffed with the effect of rousing the Princess of the Sun from slumber when matters of urgency or interest arose in the nighttime hours. But, for whatever reason, Princess Celestia woke up.

Rubbing at her eyes, she could feel the weakness in her muscles. What time is it? A lone spark jumped from the tip of her horn and the curtains parted to reveal a moon partially shrouded by cloud-cover, yet unmistakably at its apex.

The princess chuckled, Oh, thank you, Luna! she mused as she allowed her head to fall unceremoniously back down onto her overstuffed pillow.

She couldn’t recall the last time she’d woken up early enough to be able to enjoy the quintessential pleasure of going back to sleep. And on any other night, that might have been enough of a disconcerting thought to spur her to investigate: to check up on Luna, say, or to stretch her wings with a quick fly-over of Canterlot. But Celestia’s day had not been a laid-back one. The mare was tired; and further, she was all too well aware that the day lying ahead of her would be very tiring as well.

Snuggling back under her covers, the princess spoke aloud through a tiny, high-pitched yawn. “Whatever it is,” she said, “I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

And deep within Canterlot Castle’s solid stone walls Princess Celestia returned to a wonderful and refreshing sleep, afforded to her by a blissful, short-lived ignorance.

After flying over every street within a 500-foot radius, an armorless Tempered Steel touched down in the same place he had four hours earlier. And he was not alone. Wandering aimlessly in the alleyway behind Green Street, violently shaking her head and murmuring to herself with sharp syllables, was a light-blue earth pony mare, one who the commander recognized well. Clip, clop, clip, went his hooves against the cobblestone, but it wasn’t until he was almost close enough to reach out and touch her that she noticed him there.

“What do you— oh!” was all she was able to get out before he lunged forward and covered the mare’s mouth.

“I’m only going to ask you this once, and if you answer incorrectly, the next thing you remember will be waking up with a severe headache in the castle dungeons. Do you understand?” The commander spoke quietly, in low tones.

The mare nodded. Tempered Steel withdrew his hooves.

“Where is my helmet?”

A weak laugh escaped from deep within her chest. “That’s no problem at all, commander. I’ll even walk you there myself.”

“If there is even the tiniest hint of an ambush, mare, you’ll be waking up with much more than a headache.”

“Honestly, commander,” she said, eyes glinting in the moonlight, “you don’t have to worry about that.”

Tempered Steel motioned with his head to lead the way, and through the semi-illuminated haze of the city, the mare and the stallion trotted in silence. They made their way through the back entrance to the alley and turned right onto Green Street, and about halfway up the block, the mare stopped.

“This is the building, commander. They’re on the third floor.”

“Get out of here,” he muttered, and she silently obeyed.

“Third floor...” the commander whispered. His eyes trailed upwards along the exterior of the unremarkable red-brick brownstone’s five stories. On either side of it were taller, more modern buildings, heavy on wood, chrome, and class. The brownstone’s facade featured two windows per floor, and it would be reasonable to assume that there were two windows per floor along the back. Regulation stipulated that there would be a fire escape along the back as well.

A single lock of hair was blown by a light gust, just above the commander’s ear. “Let’s go,” he whispered, walking up the concrete steps to the brownstone’s dark oaken door. Using both his hooves, he turned the knob and found the door unlocked. He stepped into the small, dimly-lit entrance area, shutting the door behind him, and began climbing the stairs with a pall of darkness flowing behind him, each move upwards heralding his approach with a loud, prolonged creak.

Knock, knock, knock. He heard a faint rustling from inside, and then significantly more. One yawn, two yawns.

A crack formed between the door and its frame, and a piercing light-gray eye shot through. “Hello, Tempered Steel.”

“Hello, Just Cause. You know why I’m here.”

The door swung halfway open, revealing to the commander a slew of ponies strewn about the ground, some awake, some waking up, and some completely conked out. Those that were awake had their eyes fixed on their new guest. Through a visible window at the back of the room, he took note of how much darker it appeared to be outside than usual.

Just Cause waved a hoof at a gray unicorn colt, who promptly disappeared from Tempered Steel’s view. “You’re lucky that we don’t operate like your government. The decision to return your helmet was made collectively, by all of us,” she said, flicking her head back at the hastily awakening group of ponies behind her. “But how’d you know we’d give it back?”

“I didn’t.”

“And what would you have done if you’d come here to find we still weren’t going to give it back to you?”

The commander hummed a note of contemplation. “I wouldn’t worry about the hypotheticals if I were you, Just Cause. You’re confused enough as it is.”

Encased in gray magic, the helmet levitated past the window, which now displayed a pitch-black darkness, and onto Just Cause’s hoof. “Here,” she said, extending it towards him.

Tempered Steel looked at the frazzled and picked-apart plume and then back at Just Cause. He pulled it off of her hoof and looked inside:

For my selfless hero: never forget who you strive to be. I love you. -T

He tucked it underneath his foreleg, against his body. “I am appreciative of you and your ponies seeing reason. Thank y—”

The darkness had extended beyond the confines of the window, gleaming out of the corners like a negative burst of sunlight. As he stared, he saw the dark shine rapidly increase in intensity, within mere seconds engulfing the entirety of the apartment’s back wall in an impenetrable darkness. He returned his attention to the ponies at the door, who were slowly backing away, eyes focused no longer on him but around him. He turned to see the hallway behind him likewise filling with darkness, before four yellow headlights appeard from within it.

“Lieutenants, stand down,” he stated calmly. “They gave me the helmet already; we can go.”

“Oh, I’m afraid we can’t, commander,” returned the voice of Choler. Just Cause pulled hard at the doorknob, but to no avail: some unseen force kept it frozen on its hinges, the ineffectivity of her pull sending her tumbling backwards and into the apartment.

“Listen, Choler, we’ve got what we came for. There’s no need for us to make any arrests.” Six golden globes of light appeared momentarily in the darkness at the back of the apartment before blinking out of view, and Tempered Steel’s voice took on a new urgency. “Pitch-black ops are dangerous, Choler! You know that!”

“I’m sorry, commander,” she replied, the sound of her voice filtered through an unseen smile. Just Cause bent her knees and stood stock still, her eyes scanning the darkened stairwell furiously. “The law’s already been broken. Nothing left to do but enforce it.”

The darkness from the window spread out and over those ponies who had backed away the furthest. “Lieutenants Clamor and Choler, I am ordering you to stand down!”

“Sorry again,” said Clamor this time. “This one comes from Princess Luna.” And in a display just as magnificent as any of that great midnight mare’s star-filled nights, the abject gloom of the stairwell was broken in a split second by the sudden and synchronized appearance of dozens upon dozens of shining golden globes, a black slitted pupil running through the middle of each.

“Step aside, commander,” came Choler’s sing-song voice. “Now then. Clamor. Let’s have some fun, shall we?”

(to be continued)

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