Trav(ap)est(r)y

by Estee

First published

Moving Sun and Moon is an effort. Running a country is difficult. Getting rid of a so-called cultural heirloom is impossible.

Certain aspects of the palace have been stable for a long time, and the longer that time has gone on, the harder they are to shift -- no matter how badly Luna might desire it. But one tapestry is undeniably ugly. It's been ugly for more than a thousand years. And so she's going to do what should have been done centuries ago and simply kick it out.

Inanimate objects have a way of returning to the scene of the crime.

(A stand-alone, no prior-reading-necessary part of the Triptych Continuum, which has its own TVTropes page and FIMFiction group: new members and trope edits are welcome. )

Now with author Patreon page.

Dedicated to Bill Veeck

The Care And Feeding Of White Elephants

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She found Luna in front of that alcove.

Celestia tried to keep the entirety of her attention on her sister as she approached. It wasn't easy. The contents of the alcove had a way of getting noticed, or rather, they had several, none of which ever worked out to her benefit. For the most part, after so much time in trying to avoid dealing with it, she treated it much like an unwelcome, immovable rock somepony had shifted into the middle of her favorite garden stroll. She tried to remember it was there, but only on a level which would keep her from giving it any direct notice. She made a deliberate mental effort to maneuver around it. And inevitably, she would be passing through while tired, or aggravated, or thinking very specifically about anything else to the point of self-distraction, and the Tartarus-freed thing would do its best to put a crack in her hoof.

Luna was looking directly into that rather major alcove, which had been carefully carved into the palace's marble wall. This was, in and of itself, a significant accomplishment. There were very few ponies who could keep that up for long, and none who actually wanted to.

"All right, Luna," Celestia smiled, already feeling as if the expression was a little forced. (Not that her sister had noticed, with all visual attention focused on -- that.) "It's three hours after moon-raising, the hallway is clear, nopony's listening, and I'm frankly sick of reviewing the minutes from all the tariff discussions which the griffons' ambassador is refusing to finalize -- so what's this about?" Hoping it wasn't that. "Because if you wanted to guarantee we had some privacy, there were better places to meet." A lot of them.

"We are meeting here," Luna said with an entirely-forced steadiness, "to -- discuss that."

She nodded at it. And Celestia, distracted by both the worry and the confirmation of her fears, looked.

The elder sister winced.

"Oh," Celestia said. "That."

Luna nodded.

They both stared at it for a while, for there were times when it was genuinely hard to look away. Celestia had once added up a very rough estimate of all the time she'd spent staring at the thing since its arrival in the palace. That had immediately been followed by a four-hour soak in her private bath, which had been just enough time for the depression to pretend it might be thinking about leaving.

"Marble Whispers was a very talented sculptor," Luna stated. "A rather poor excuse for a pony, yes. But when somehow considered as a sculptor alone..."

Celestia nodded.

"The finest of his generation, sister. I have never argued that."

Again.

"I never understood why he chose to take up weaving."

Celestia sighed.

"It felt like such an honor, didn't it?" she quietly remembered. "Having him contact the palace and say he was designing a piece specifically for us. As a gift. To have a Marble Whispers sculpture... it would have legitimized us in a few pony eyes, having such an artist donate freely of his time and craft. And then he walked in with his entire family behind him, all of them pulling the fabric cylinder along because he could never be bothered with paid assistants..."

Luna nodded. "And then he ordered them to unroll it."

They were both staring now.

The tapestry was... well, it was large. You could definitely say that about it. It took more than a casual hoofstep to walk past. Slightly less time was required when actively fleeing from the thing. As for the images poorly woven into the fabric... they depicted a scene from what had never been reality. When the piece had been assembled, the true facts of events had already been lost: some deliberately buried, a few cloaked, and others displaced by legends which ponies had begun to convince themselves were actually history. And from all visual evidence, Marble Whispers had paid careful attention to the story which had existed at the time of creation --

-- before deliberately ignoring every last tenth-bit of it and very literally weaving his own version out of whole cloth.

"Breaking Dawn," Celestia sighed again. "His idea of what must have happened during the final battle against Discord."

"Did you ever work out if those... shapes -- on the lower left were meant to be ponies?"

"It's either some fallen part of the army we never led or a random collection of rocks. I never made up my mind."

"Likely rocks. I feel the actual corpses are somewhat easier to distinguish."

Both gazes simultaneously, unwillingly moved towards the center.

"He got in a surprising amount of detail on the intestines, though," Celestia noted.

"Yes. Well, I suppose that if one attempts to weave something all too close to an infinite tapestry, the odds of having one detail resemble reality increase accordingly."

Both forced a blink.

"Luna... why are we looking at this?"

"Because, sister... for some reason beyond my current ability to fathom, it is still here to be looked at. And I wished you to know of my intention to correct that. Immediately."

Which finally got Celestia's attention off the tapestry: she looked directly at her sister, and found the younger returning her gaze.

"Go on," Celestia carefully said.

"Tia... we hated this in the first second we viewed it. And yet we hung it on display, for it was a gift from the finest sculptor of his generation, and we did not wish to insult him. Admittedly, we did not learn about most of the reasons we would have had for insulting him until after he passed into the shadowlands -- and even then, we left it where it was. And then... abeyance for me... and upon my Return, the crime against art and taste and history and all those who traveled with us was still there. I am more than tired of looking at it. I barely wish to imagine how you must feel about it by now, having had it catch unwilling eyes again and again over so much time." The dark gaze narrowed. "Marble Whispers is dead, consigned to a history which only cares to remember his work. His family line no longer cares to track that ancestor. He is survived only by his creations, some of which are beautiful, fully worthy of contemplating for hours, desired beyond mere price by collectors -- and then there is this thing. Perhaps he would wish to be remembered by it: his ego would have hardly minded any extra recognition. But as one of the two owners for the piece, I feel my obligation for public display ran out quite some time ago."

They both looked at it again, although neither had wanted to. Back to each other.

"I am kicking it out," Luna said. "Tonight." And with every word openly carrying the dare, "Unless you happen to have a particularly fine excuse as to why I should not?"

Celestia let the wince come.

"Luna... the palace has a certain... inertia..."

"A tapestry at rest tends to remain at rest?"

She forced a nod.

"Then let us see what happens when it is put into motion. Again, sister: I am kicking it out. Tonight. As none of your words happened to sound like an objection...?"

Slowly, Celestia shook her head, felt the borders of her semi-tangible mane twisting against her body as she did so, a little faster than they should have been.

"You have my permission, Luna. For whatever that's worth. But..." It was proving very hard to get the wince fully off her face. "...more than that... good luck."

That got a minor snort, one filled with a mix of derision and mirth. "I believe myself capable of removing something from an alcove without triggering a major war." Luna's horn ignited, and a dark field shot through with stars surrounded the tapestry, which somehow only made it look worse. The fabric began to roll up from the bottom. "Note the total lack of instantaneous diplomatic incidents. Now, as windigos somehow fail to stampede through the corridors, I remove it from the wall hooks, and..."

She trotted past Celestia, with the obvious care in her motions exaggerated by no more than six thousand percent.

"...behold: Equestria yet survives," Luna declared. "And now? To the trash. Bid it farewell, Tia, but only if you truly wish to withhold a statement of good riddance..."

Celestia watched her go.

The wince didn't seem to be leaving.


"So I wanted to talk to you about the tapestry, Princesses," the Lunar Guard said. "Something weird has been going on for the last three nights, and I thought you should both be briefed on what's been happening."

All three of them automatically stared into the reoccupied alcove. A battle to find out who could be the first to look away immediately commenced, which Celestia easily won. Unfortunately, all three of them still required breath to live, and none were able to move away.

"Yes," Luna tightly said, her horn's partial corona starting to show light signs of spiking. "Odd events certainly have been taking place concerning this -- piece. I look forward to hearing your interpretation of them."

The Guard managed to tear his gaze away. His own horn ignited, and a nearly jet-black field levitated a piece of paper in front of Luna's eyes.

It triggered a small sigh. "Cluster... I believe you are forgetting a minor detail..."

Which produced a small smile. The unicorn, with coat the color of the sky under a half-Moon and short-cut mane reflecting the orb itself, had a ready smile, although it seldom came out on duty: it was typically reserved for his spouse and two daughters. "Sorry, Princess. You're right: it's not really a field anypony can read through." One edge of the bubble politely receded, giving her a place to get a field grip: she took it. "But you can see it for yourself -- well, now you can. For the last three nights, the tapestry was found in the trash pickup area by various members of the palace staff, who were dumping their own trash at the time. None of them have any knowledge of the others having found it, and all three reacted the same way: by getting as many ponies together as necessary to put it back into place. Now, I would believe one instance of having it thrown out accidentally: somepony new who'd just read an order wrong, and that's forgivable, especially since we got it back. But... three? I've been checking through the Lunar staff, trying to find out who could have done it. And the first time was just so I could deliver a minor lecture about being more careful, but..."

Grey eyes went back to the tapestry. Wrenched towards the siblings. It did nothing for his nostrils.

"...I'm pretty sure we're looking at theft."

Both sisters had a great deal of experience in maintaining a straight face, even in the wake of the fumes.

"Theft," Celestia carefully echoed.

Cluster nodded. "Attempts, accidentally thwarted. A two-part operation. An inside pony moves the tapestry, and somepony else comes along during the trash pickup and snatches it up, never to be seen again. We're just lucky that whoever did it was stupid enough to run the exact same method three nights in a row, along with the tapestry itself being so visually distinctive even when it's rolled up. That -- color... well, you know, along the edges..."

"Yes," Luna managed.

"It's amazing how Marble Whispers managed to make it look so much like clotted blood."

"Look like," Celestia wearily repeated.

"Oh, and there's one other thing, Princess," Cluster added, looking towards his own leader. "I had the tapestry checked for magic residue. I was hoping to get a feel for the culprit, just in case it was a palace unicorn whom I've run into before. And I admit, I've been assuming a unicorn, somepony with a lot of field strength -- the tapestry would just be too awkward for even several pegasi to move in a hurry, and... well, I guess a couple of extremely powerful earth ponies could potentially drag it -- very slowly -- but just yanking it down..." He shrugged. "But as far as field signatures went, things were very confused: it took a lot of ponies to levitate it back into place, and all the residue just started blending together after a while. In fact, the only signature I thought I could make out -- and I'm not even completely sure about that -- was yours. So I have to ask: have you moved it recently?"

Luna nodded.

"Any reason?"

"Upon finding it in the alcove after it had been rehung," Luna carefully replied, "I felt the need to make certain adjustments to the display."

Cluster smiled again and nodded. "Makes sense. You do trot by the alcove all the time. Okay, that's about all I've got for now. I'm going to keep looking into the Lunar staff, see if anypony's got into any sudden debts which need paying off. And I may switch to the Solar if nothing turns up on my own shift. I just wanted you to know the full situation, just in case it turns into anything worse, or the thieves start trying for other targets. But I've already started implementing extra security measures on the tapestry. We shouldn't have four nights in a row, not with extra Guards patrolling the area and the new security spell."

"Security spell?" Celestia asked. "Exactly which one did you use?"

"One of the more standard protections," Cluster told her. "It's on a lot of the artwork, and I was surprised it wasn't on the tapestry already. Mediary's Deflection -- any unauthorized fields used to try and move the tapestry will just slide off." The statement triggered a grin. "I had the enchanters leave out the part where the protected piece self-destructs to keep anypony else from getting it, though. It seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. So in summary, we've probably got an art thief -- or two -- but I'm on it, and the Guards are going to be looking for other unprotected pieces and having them enchanted accordingly. Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out why they were going for the tapestry. There's smaller, more portable pieces which every art collector on the continent wouldn't recognize on sight -- but just give me a few days, and try to relax. We're all on the job."

He started to trot away. Turned back.

"Oh," he added. "And... sorry about the smell. It was Sizzler who found it last night, and his trash... well, it's not as if we haven't begged him to use the little incinerator. But it turns out the Deflection and scent-blocking enchantments don't mix. We'll try to find a dry cleaner we can trust."

Once again, the Guard began to leave.

"Cluster?"

He looked over his left shoulder, the silver armor shifting accordingly. "Princess?"

"What if..." Luna carefully considered her next words. "...there had been no theft at all?"

"Three mistakes in a row is possible, Princess. But the pony doing it would have had to miss every notice sent out to the staff after the first one."

"No, that is not what I meant. I am proposing that somepony had simply been trying to -- kick it out?"

Which got him to fully turn around.

"That tapestry," he plainly stated, "is a heirloom. Not just for the palace, but for all of Equestria. A piece of art history from the deep past, and with what it displays, a testament to history. It's in hundreds of books, Princess. I see art students coming through here on tours and taking pictures of it. Not many, sure, but there's always a few who don't want to pay for the books. Sometimes ponies stand in front of it for ten minutes --"

"-- yes, it can be hard to look away," Celestia carefully cut in. "Cluster, Princess Luna is asking you to take a moment and consider the simple solution. It was with the trash because somepony threw it away."

"Threw away a heirloom," the stallion slowly said.

"Yes," Celestia replied.

In a tone that wasn't more than fifty percent interrogation, "Why would anypony do that?"

"Because..." Luna proposed, "...they felt it was ugly?"

And now he was staring at her.

"Ugly."

"I misspoke. When it comes to descriptive terms, I clearly should have begun with hideous --"

"-- a heirloom," Cluster firmly said, "is a heirloom. And anypony with the lack of taste to try and get rid of something with that much history just because they feel it's ugly..."

"And what do you think about it?" Luna challenged.

He looked at the tapestry and in time, managed to stop.

"I think it's art," he said. "I leave the interpretation to somepony else. Good night, Princesses." And he trotted away -- but not without several glances back over that right shoulder, and the armor glinted every time.

They waited until he was well out of both sight and hearing, plus an extra forty percent.

"Remind me," Luna slowly asked, "of what his spouse does for a living?"

Celestia's memory eventually sorted out the proper file. "He runs a gallery for experimental art."

"...of course..."


"Well," Luna announced at the start of their next, rather more secret meeting, "I have now officially been to every single art museum in Equestria, following up on my letters. Every last one of them was excited to hear that I had a Marble Whispers piece which I wished to freely donate to their exhibits. And in equal concert, every last one of them, when I finally told them which piece it was, regretfully turned down the donation, as they did not wish to deprive the palace of hosting such an important piece of our national heritage." Her left forehoof slammed into the ground, where it put a crack in the rapidly-spreading ice. "I would claim conspiracy, but I made sure to send all the missives at the same moment and they hardly had a chance to all communicate with each other at those distances, making this into either a rather common example of herd mentality or the rather rare appearance of taste -- and you are aware that your current smile has not the lightest touch of actual mirth in it?"

It had been a rather miserable specimen, and Celestia let it fade while she adjusted her position on one of the few garden benches which had been set out to accommodate her. "I know, Luna. I was just really hoping you could do it. I admit, I never tried the museum route, and as for just personally taking it out to the trash..."

Luna carefully arranged her own body on an opposing bench, all the better with which to more solidly plant her stare.

"You have tried this." It got a sad nod. "Once?" And a regretful head shake. "How many...?"

"I got as far as direct orders," Celestia sighed. "Orders which everypony, at least for those I didn't speak to directly, decided must have been misinterpreted, because I would surely never order the removal of art, especially not from such a renowned sculptor, forget that it's not even sculpture at all. It would come off the wall, get out of the alcove, it nearly made it all the way to the door once, but then there would always be somepony who hadn't gotten the news, or decided to make a valiant last stand in the name of art -- and then it would be back in the alcove. I haven't tried in so long that nopony remembers I ever tried at all. I... gave up, Luna. Because the palace has inertia. An object at rest remains at rest -- and one which gets moved returns to that rest."

They both took a moment for breathing in the scents of the dawn-lit blooms around them, which was a considerable improvement over being near the alcove again. Cluster had yet to find a dry cleaner whose background he was willing to fully trust.

"I," Luna solidly stated, "do not intend to surrender so easily."

"I'm still wishing you luck. But I don't know what's left. Somepony always seems to come along at the wrong moment. Something always happens -- and yes, I've checked for magic. Not a thaum anywhere, at least not until the security spell was placed. But things keep happening anyway. It's like the tapestry doesn't want to be moved."

Luna's right forehoof came up, tucked itself under her chin. "And yet I am still not surrendering. I thought of the museums when you did not, and while that effort has failed, it means there may be other methods which you did not consider, along with some potential means of disposal which we might think of together. Currently, we have eliminated those with taste, who would have accepted many other gifts freely -- and by freely, I mean at no cost to themselves. Knowing that has failed --" and this smile held only a longing for the presence of long-lost company "-- what would our most beloved tactician advise us to consider?"

"Reversal," Celestia immediately replied. "Flip those components around and see if the opposite has any chance to succeed. But that doesn't make any sense here, Luna. The other side of the coin for taste and seeking donations is no taste and wild overspending --"

Each looked at the other.

Both smiled.


"And sold to Duke Cinarest Cimarron!" The auctioneer instantly picked up on the furious glare of false disrespect and hastily added "Of House Quarant! Please come up and sign the claim form, Duke... and my gratitude to both yourself and your House. We'll have a brief pause before our next lot, a very special piece, a true one-of-a-kind item donated by the palace itself! I'm assured that we've got a real surprise coming up, everypony, I won't see the description until you see the piece, so this is going to be a genuine reveal! But if the palace is making a donation to our little charity event, you can be sure that it's an item every one of you will want to own! Just remember --" and the wink was actually audible to the balcony seats "-- only one pony here can. So everypony go and fetch a drink, enjoy our free wake-up juice, you'll want to be alert for this...!"

The sisters stared down upon the central auction floor from their shadowed perch in the balcony seats -- or rather, what was the auction floor for this night only, as the opera house had been rented for the occasion. Their host had said he would wind up needing the extra space to accommodate all those who would be coming out at his special request, and he had more than come through on his end of the bargain. It had been a long time since either sibling had seen that many nobles in one place, at least without having to constantly battle a desire to teleport away.

Celestia diverted her glance down and to her immediate right -- although somehow, the "down" aspect felt minor. It was a special trick of her old friend's, something she'd never been able to figure out, the way he could stand beside her and make it seem as if they were very nearly the same height. "Well," she told him, smiling, "we're about to do it --" but she still couldn't stop the next words "-- I hope."

"Please do relax, Celestia -- if you can," Fancypants gently assured her. "I do realize that after the story you told me, it's a lot to ask. But I've done my best to help write the final chapter. And if any minor effort I can give will help you two in any way at all..."

Luna was still focused on the milling nobles, half of whom were using the break for refueling, with the rest using that fuel to see how many old feuds they could pointlessly reignite. "Are we sure they will spend? A palace donation to your charity auction may sound rare enough to entice so many into coming from so far away, but once they actually see the piece we are donating... and smell it..." Which triggered an automatic sniff of the air. "Sister, you are sure it has not reached up to here?"

"Yes," Celestia lied. "But she has a point, Fancypants. It's one thing to think you're about to get something away from us, and another to find out what it is. I know you have faith in their desire to grab anything which might gain them any extra degree of illusionary status, but once they see the actual tapestry..."

"I stacked the deck," her old friend smiled. "Over in that corner. Do you see them, fighting with the waiter about the snack tray not having been done in a Prance style which doesn't even exist? Those two will bid on anything, at least for a while. And in any case... I can absolutely promise you that no matter what happens, the tapestry will be purchased tonight."

"That is a hard promise to make," Luna noted, having switched from testing the air to redirecting most of it. "How can you be certain?"

"Because if all else fails, I'll buy it."

Both sisters looked at Celestia's current seneschal, who gazed at each in turn, keeping the same gentle smile on his face.

"Fancypants," Celestia carefully said, "as your friend, there are only so many burdens I can ask you to carry --"

Firmly, "-- if it makes the two of you happy, it's worth it. Besides, this is an opportunity for me. And her."

"Her?" Luna asked, unable to keep the wonder and hope out of her own voice. "Who do you mean by 'her'?"

"Well," Fancypants smiled, "it's not as if Celestia's student is the only one who requires occasional testing."

He reared up a little, hooked his forelegs over the balcony railing, stared down. They both followed his gaze.

At the center of the great hollow gilded dome, two floors below, an exceptionally shapely mare felt their regard through the huge mass of ponies which surrounded her (all seeking a desperate solace which they would never receive), glanced up, and wryly tilted her head. An elegant mane gracefully shifted with her movement, and her personal entourage got a little larger.

"I... believe I am lacking a vital piece of information," Luna eventually said. "Who is that, exactly?"

"Fleur," Celestia blinked. "Fancypants, that is -- considerably more ammunition than I would have expected to you to use. And more unstable. Are you sure she's ready for this?"

"She's just going to lead the bidding, as my representative -- and the hare for them to chase. Or rather," and he smiled again, "the herder nipping at their heels. But if she ends the race in the lead, then I promise you, Celestia, I will make the purchase myself."

Luna was starting to look more than a little annoyed about having been left out. "And who is Fleur?"

"The third most terrifying mare in Canterlot," Celestia evenly replied.

"Third," Luna repeated.

"Yes."

"Who are the first and second?"

"Who do you think, Luna?"

"...very well. And of those two... exactly who happens to be in first?"

Fancypants, with the practiced skill of a pony who spent nearly half his life defusing arguments (and a significant fraction of the rest in arranging them), verbally stepped in. "She's my student, Luna. I saw a certain amount of -- potential in her. That she might have the ability to direct the herd to where they are truly needed, instead of watching them simply wandering about endlessly complaining about the quality of the graze while fouling the grass. So after we had talked for a time, she agreed to retire from her previous profession and take a chance on eventually assuming mine."

"She is rather young for any kind of proper retirement," Luna noted, staring down again. "What was her former occupation?"

He told her.

"You found her in the midst of teleporting ponies about the capital?"

Celestia sighed. "No, Luna, the other definition of -- hold up, they're starting..."

Ten pegasi and four earth ponies were making their way onto the stage. The earth ponies had a massive roll of fabric on their backs, and their knees shook slightly as they moved under the surprising burden. Eight of the pegasi were tracking them from just above that bolt. The other two went to sit near the edges, and their wings began to subtly move, redirecting the stage's air currents to flow away from the audience.

"Lot Forty!" the auctioneer announced. "Lot Forty about to start! Now, what could this be..." The nobles reassembled on the makeshift bidding floor. "Whatever we were expecting, everypony, I'm not sure anypony was looking for -- oh, thank you." One of the pegasi had just swooped down and deposited a sealed envelope on his pedestal. "One more moment, let me open this..."

Celestia glanced at Fancypants again. Softly, "Thank you."

In a whisper, "What are friends for?"

"...and here we go!" the auctioneer gushed. "All right, Lot Forty -- is a piece from Marble Whispers!" He deliberately paused in both reading and speech, smiling as he watched the rush of whispered excitement pass across the bidding floor. "Yes, I know, everypony, it's been a good eighty years since anypony was willing to let one go! Obviously one of his -- more oddly-shaped works, given that it's being protected in that fabric roll, but -- wait, what are you all doing? You can't just grab the top edge like that and try to fly straight up! What if you flip it out and it breaks? You can't just --"

Eight pegasi overcame inertia (at least in one form) and got aloft. The fabric unrolled beneath them, and the gasping earth ponies, desperate for both relief and untainted air, galloped off the stage.

"-- oh," the auctioneer softly said, and the single utterance was echoed in the expressions of the audience. "Lot... Forty... yes, I think this has to be..." A hopeless, unwilling glance finished off the description card. "Well, it certainly was the exclusive property of... the palace... for a very long time... and one of you lucky -- lucky... lucky? -- ponies can be the new owner..."

From overhead, two suddenly worried siblings were staring down at all the shuffling hooves, listening to every last clearing throat.

"So we have learned something today," Luna sighed. "Even a total lack of taste has limits. Well, at least it shall cost our host no more than a simple opening bid, along with an undeserved portion of pain every time he should happen to trot by --"

"Two hundred bits!"

The sisters blinked.

"That -- wasn't Fleur," Celestia noted with open astonishment.

"No," Fancypants smiled. "That was Jet Set. And now..."

He looked down, found Fleur glancing up again. There was a tiny nod at both ends of the exchange, and the wondrously-styled pale pink mane tossed with gleeful anticipation.

"A thousand bits!" Fleur countered. And, quickly, "Just to get us into somewhat less insulting numbers, yes? A mere two hundred bits for something from Marble Whispers...!"

Jet Set stared at her through tiny lenses, his expression already at its default state: that of somepony who found the entire world offensive and wasn't about to let that stand. "Hmph! You think I was trying to be insulting?"

"No," Fleur smiled. "Of course not. Rather, by offering a bid of a mere two hundred bits, I'd say you succeeded."

"I -- three thousand bits!"

"Ah, the petty country heard from!" Fleur smiled again. "Now perhaps, somepony who might actually be serious?"

That tactic got it into five digits as the siblings watched, with Celestia taking occasional side glances at the hovering, panting pegasi, who were desperately trying to manage the weight on as little oxygen as possible. But after that, it stalled out for a moment, with no paddles being raised or coronas ignited to signal any increase at all.

"And now," Fancypants whispered, "we see how far bad taste alone has taken us, with one form of direction guiding it."

"And stop?" Celestia asked.

"Not quite. This is a test, after all, and so..."

He once again looked down. Fleur looked up.

"Twenty-four thousand bits, going once!" the rather surprised auctioneer called out. "Twenty-four thousand bits, going twice --"

"Twenty-four five!" came the countering voice of Fancypants' student.

Which was when Fleur turned and looked at the stallion on her immediate left.

It was a quick look, as such things went. More of a glance, really, and a half-lidded one at that, the lovely purple eyes well-shaded. It should never have drawn as much notice as it did, and coming from any other pony, even another so attractive, it might have been missed entirely. But when it came from Fleur... well, that was going to be noticed. Everypony on the bidding floor paid special attention to just who Fleur might look at in any given moment, because those looks carried words for all to hear, and those words were something to be feared by so many of the nobles in the opera house.

Because when Fleur looked at you, those half-closed eyes very softly said I know the image you try to present.

I also know about all the little quirks -- yes, let us say 'quirks' -- which lie beneath.

Because when I was still an escort, I witnessed every last one of them from the center of your bedroom.

The stallion swallowed.

"Twenty-five thousand!"

The new pattern was established. Fleur would bid. A look would move across the opera house. Somepony else would bid, and whether they wished to was now immaterial. And so it went on as the numbers continued to mount against all expectations and more than a few desires.

"She is..." Luna swallowed.

"Terrifying?" Celestia proposed.

"I am not certain as to whether I would go quite that far. But for those others..."

"You're not going quite that far," Celestia responded, "because you haven't gone quite that far with her. Most of them have. That is a devastating little herding engine you have under your tutelage, Fancypants. And an expertly-assembled guest list. Are you sure you're not burning off too much on this?"

"Certain," he replied. "Fleur's not even tapping a true fraction of her resources. As said, it's just a test. She's doing rather well so far, isn't she?"

Celestia took a moment for listening to the echoes of rumor in her head before going with "So far..."

It got her a nod. "I know. Which is why she remains a student. And what she has yet to truly understand is the limits of various kinds of motivation. Because, as I think we are about to see..."

"Fifty-five thousand!" Fleur called out, and looked to her right.

Then she looked again.

The left. Ahead. Behind her.

Six dozen sets of hooves carefully evaluated priorities, and every last group carried their owner backwards.

"...even terror," Fancypants concluded, "only goes so far..."

A beautifully-hooficured foreleg stomped once in frustration. The stylish tail threatened to lash.

"And she's been denied," the stallion noted. "A very rare event, coming from anypony other than me. But it's part of the test, Celestia. Because this is a crutch I wish her to overcome, a tool to ultimately remove from her set, and now she knows it won't always work. We'll see how she deals with that when we're back at my home. But she's holding more of her reaction back than I'd expected. All things considered, this gives me hope for her, more than I've had in some time..."

"And costs you fifty-five thousand bits," Celestia groaned. "Even as a favor for a friend, Fancypants..."

"It comes off my taxes," he reminded her. And with a grin, "It does, yes?"

"Of course," Luna distractedly replied. "I originally wrote that part of the code myself. Incidentally, I do not like the way her tail is vibrating --"

"-- and sold!" the auctioneer called out with open relief as the exhausted pegasi carefully began to descend. "Ms. Fleur, please come up and sign the claim form!"

The most beautiful unicorn in the room (and quite possibly Canterlot) approached the pedestal, with everypony in the area instinctively clearing a path for the less-than-happy mare. They watched her field surround the quill, give a distinctive flourish to the signature, pass the form back to the auctioneer. And then she leaned forward, just enough for the lovely voice to deliver a private whisper meant for his left ear alone.

His eyes widened.

"Oh!" he smiled. "It would seem she has a surprise announcement to make! Ms. Fleur, the floor is yours!"

Fancypants' horn ignited. A shivering field, for lack of anything better to do, wrapped itself around the railing.

Fleur turned to face the audience, smiled, and spoke.


Fancypants had a rather unique form of interrogation. He never actually said anything. He just stood stock-still in front of Fleur, between his student and the silent Princesses, and looked at her.

"I thought it was the proper thing to do," Fleur said.

Fancypants didn't move.

"Something a true noble would have done. Isn't that the idea? That I should ultimately be acting as if a title means something more than just having one? Isn't that what you've wanted for me this whole time?"

He barely seemed to be breathing.

"A true noble should be charitable. You've told me that over and over. And the form of that charity doesn't matter."

Not an eyelash was stirring.

"So this charity already had your bits. They were going out into the world to do some good, and that's what's important, right? The other form of our charity... giving that -- thing -- a new home... didn't matter! So I thought..."

Or a tail hair.

"...that a true noble would have just donated the tapestry back to the palace! So I did! That way, everypony's happy! The charity has the bits, the Princesses still have their -- thing, and we... and I... and..."

His upper eyelids shifted, moving down no more than the length of a single mane strand.

And in an explosion of petulance, "You were going to hang it outside my bedroom! I saw the space being cleared! I'm not going to get up every morning and have to look at that -- that thing! You can't make me! I don't want to! I --"

The sisters closed their eyes and trotted away.


One by day, one by night. One by night, one by day...

It was an old mantra. And it wasn't doing the job. It was deep into Luna's night, and would eventually become her own day. But Celestia still couldn't sleep.

She kicked off her covers, not particularly caring where they landed, and carefully stood up. A walk, maybe. A little trot around the palace. If that didn't work, go outside after first ensuring that no Guards followed her, take a quick high-intensity flight over Canterlot. Anything to wear her out. Anything which would let her stop going through the frustration.

Her field interacted with the lock, and her left forehoof nudged her bedroom door open. Celestia carefully stepped out, began to trot down the too-familiar hallways.

Several minutes passed. None of them stopped to help.

If she'd just give up...

It had been a long time since Celestia had relegated the tapestry to background frustration. It was still there -- in fact, it was recently back. It would always be there. It might outlast her, Luna, and quite possibly Sun and Moon. She just tried not to look at it, and so often failed. She hadn't even been able to get it out of the alcove, because that was where ponies expected it to be...

But for Luna, the problem was fresh. Her sister still felt it could be solved, and with a fresh perspective on the problem added to the joy of having her sibling working on something with her... there had been a moment when Celestia had also believed it possible. But now Luna was finding out just how hard the simplest things could be, Luna was becoming frustrated, and Celestia... was going through it all again --

-- and I'm heading directly towards that part of the palace, aren't I? I didn't really think about where I was going and so I'm about to trot through a whole group of Guards, all of whom are so very carefully looking out for the safety of that precious piece of art after somepony, they just can't work out who any more than they'd ever believe the truth, 'accidentally' put the thing on the auction donation list and hired outside ponies to get it out of the palace, where apparently the plan was for the thieves to either steal the thing from the auction house or win it at a ridiculously low bid and then head off to meet their true buyer, for all the total lack of sense that secondary theory seems to make. And what did we wind up with? Fleur as the press-praised hero of the hour, because she donated the thing back and kept anypony else from getting it. And us with the thing in the alcove, still in the alcove, and me approaching more Guards than I want to deal with --

-- there should have been Guards by now.

She looked around.

The hallways were oddly -- empty. The Lunar shift was somewhat less staffed than the Solar on most nights: less sapients awake in the deep hours who might seek time with a Princess. But there was always traffic moving through the more public parts of the palace, especially the amount of it she'd crossed. She should have encountered a few Guards, and several members of Luna's staff. But instead... nopony.

Nopony at all.

And to Celestia's eyes, the hallway up ahead looked as if it had been subtly... shadowed.

She wouldn't.

Her own mind compared both words to an extensive selection of carefully-chosen memories, then sarcastically displayed the results.

...she would.

Celestia accelerated her trot. And it became a little darker with each successive turn, and darker still until she could barely see, and then until she couldn't see, until nopony could have seen anything except the one who was doing this, she was maneuvering on pure memory while hoping nopony had moved anything recently, ears straining, every sense extended, right up until the point where it became possible to track on smell, and...

...there. The air being disturbed. Somepony hovering. Somepony who was suddenly trying to be very quiet.

She kept it at a whisper. "I know you're there, Luna."

A long moment of silence.

"You can only block sight. I can feel you. Most ponies couldn't, not for just hovering in place. But we've known each other... for a while. And if we're going to be honest with each other, for somepony who's known you that long, the blackout is just a little bit of a giveaway all by itself."

It got her a snort of pure frustration, and then soft words came back -- if only for volume. "Tell me, sister: do you plan these things, or does fate simply love to send you trotting through my designs at the worst possible times? What are you even doing awake?"

"I couldn't sleep."

With every last bit of doubt pushed into a mere five letters, "Truly."

"Luna, what are you trying?"

"I would think that would be obvious." The shadows lightened, just enough to distinguish outlines. "And I do not have a great deal of time in which to do it. It took enough effort to subtly rearrange the patrol routes, and then I decided to shadow the region just in case somepony came stumbling through regardless, enough to give me time to teleport away and let them believe it was but their imaginary thief. But I am almost done, so if you would simply let me focus on my task..."

"You're taking the tapestry down?"

"Obviously."

"But you can't lift it. It's been secured. Your field won't --"

"-- levitation is not my intent." Luna's snout nudged another wall hook off-line: by Celestia's guess, there were two to go. "As I understand such workings, standard security spells only prevents me from exerting direct telekinesis upon it, or using any other field-surrounded object to contact and tow it." One now. "Other forms of movement exist, and I intend to use one. Once I part fabric from wall, I will teleport with it. Far away. And then --"

The last hook, and the fabric slumped to the floor. Very few details were visible between crumble and shadow, and what could be made out made things all the worse.

"-- and now, rather," Luna softly declared, and landed. "I will see you soon, sister."

"Luna, you don't understand --"

The dark corona flared. Mostly-blocked light flashed, and her sister vanished.

Celestia counted to four.

Light flashed again.

"...they have improved the security spell."

Celestia nodded.

"So that anypony teleporting away leaves the object behind."

Again.

Wearily, "Quite the sensible refinement, really."

They both looked at the pile of fabric.

"My altered patrol routes will only last so long," Luna sighed. "Well... rehanging by mouth and hoof are somewhat more difficult than dislodging. Perhaps my time remaining will be sufficient. Or not --"

The hoof gently touched her shoulder.

"No," Celestia whispered. "We've come too far. We've come too Tartarus-freed far..."

Luna looked up at her, and no amount of darkness would ever hide the hope in her eyes. "Your meaning?"

"Get your teeth around a corner. Try to pick something without a stain. I'll take another edge. We'll stretch it out, and then we start rolling..."

It took more time than they would have wished, and considerably more work.

"A mouth grip on each end?" Luna whispered.

"Too much material," Celestia answered. "I can't bite down on enough layers, and that means you can't either. It might unroll. It'll... have to be on our backs."

"Our backs."

"It's the only way."

"Sister, you may have noticed a certain slide-inducing discrepancy --"

"-- I'll trot, you hover. We can keep it level if we're slow and careful."

"Slow."

"We don't have time to argue about this. We need speed and stealth."

"Stealth."

"Yes! Help me nudge the roll up the wall! Get low, get your body against it, and just push --"

"-- stealth -- being practiced in concert with a mare who is notoriously bad at illusions, cannot see within my darkness, happens to be twice the size of anypony else in the realm with the heavy hooffalls to match and, in case another aspect of your being has also somehow temporarily slipped your notice, is white."

"Luna --"

"Extremely white."

"So kicking me on my size wasn't enough for one night --"

"-- cyphochilus beetles shield their eyes when you go by."

Celestia glared at her sister. Most of the effect was lost in the dark. "Do you want my help or not?"

"Bleach evaporates in shame."

"You get one more."

Luna considered.

"Your coat is where rainbows go to die."

"...are you done?"

"For now. Very well, up the wall... this is... actually rather awkward. Perhaps if we simply tried to break the security spell?"

"Do you know how?"

"No."

"Do you know if the original caster gets notified when it happens?"

"...no."

"Then shut up and push."

Some very awkward shuffling got involved.

"Is this smell becoming worse with time?"

"Yes. I think the security spells may actually be holding it in while it decays."

Fur scraped against the wall.

"This is... oddly heavy. Even for our strength."

"It's a big tapestry and he used some gold thread in it. Plus there's all the mane and tail hairs he used for some of the colors. They're very densely wrapped."

"Ah. Yes. He did believe in making sacrifices for his art."

"True. Funny how none of those sacrifices were ever his... but, looking back at the delivery, it does explain why his entire family was bald..."

Tails lashed in both frustration and concert.

"I believe my end of the roll is coming loose."

"I know."

"And how do you know?"

"Because it's echoing into my end and the whole thing is trying to roll down my wing -- oh, great, perfect! Fine... you get your mouth around the one corner..."

"Sister? Do you hear hoofsteps?"

"That's just us. Why did we use marble for the floors anyway?"

"In the hopes that any intruders moving on hoof would have their steps echo and be that much easier to find."

"...oh. Right."

"More carpets?"

"If I want to step on fabric right now, it'll be this. Get back to rolling!"

"Are you moving right now?"

"Not until you do!"

"So that would be a no."

"What do you think?"

"Then --"

"-- what are you two doing?"

Luna's darkness vanished. Normal lumens flowed back into the area, allowing them both to clearly see Cluster's shocked face.

The sisters, each of whom had been kneeling next to a different corner of tapestry, mouths open and ready to clamp down again, tried very hard to think of something helpful to say.

"We're taking it out to be cleaned," Celestia imperiously stated.

Cluster's new expression subtly suggested that when it came to helpful things which might have been said, the preceding sentence hadn't been it.

"Cleaned," the Guard said.

"Yes," Luna agreed. "Cleaned."

"The two of you," he tried, "were out here, by yourselves, in that -- darkness... fetching the tapestry. To be cleaned."

"I'm glad you understand," Celestia stated. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we're a little busy with rolling --"

"-- why?"

"Because," Luna stated just as imperiously, "this is one of our nation's treasures. A work of art. Pony heritage in the form of fabric. A heirloom. Princess Celestia has located a dry cleaner she trusts, a pony of character, the finest cleaning talent in all of Equestria..." The lies temporarily ran out, and she looked to her sister.

"And when it comes to delivery..." Celestia openly considered, "Well, you still believe there could be a thief in the palace, don't you, Cluster? And in that case, who can you truly trust except us? Who else should be responsible for its custody?"

He was staring at them.

"And the darkness?" the Guard asked.

"The darkness," Celestia repeated.

"Yes."

Celestia blanked. She glanced at Luna, found no words waiting there, and her mind scrambled for anything...

"Is for attacking," she said, and would spend long days afterwards in trying to get the taste of the words off her tongue.

"Attacking. The. Darkness."

"Yes!" Luna stated. "Because one attacks a defense, and the shadows were our defense against the thief. Would you wish the fiend to find their way and interrupt our attempt? It allowed us to work in peace. Nothing more."

He trotted around the perimeter of that one for a while.

"Princess --"

"You are my Guard, are you not?"

"...yes," Cluster eventually said. "And as your Guard, I have a duty not just to you and the thrones, but to ask questions when things seem to be a little weir --"

"Cluster."

"...yes, Princess?"

"I am giving you an order. Several. Help us roll the tapestry. Assist in placing it on our backs. Bring ropes to help keep it rolled. Perhaps locate an air sling which we might grip in our mouths or fasten around our bodies, if you happen to know where one would be handy. And then Princess Celestia and I will leave the palace, in stealth, while you keep all ponies from our path, from this area entirely until we are ready to depart, with no thieves knowing where we are going, with no Guards following us to give them extra bodies to track. We will go to the dry cleaner. We will drop the tapestry off. We will pick it up when it is clean. And you will tell nopony who works in the palace about any of this. By order. Unless you are sure that in doing so, you would be avoiding the thief...?"

The stallion took several slow breaths.

"...yes, Princess."

"Yes to what, exactly?"

"...yes, I'll -- follow orders."

"Good. Put your teeth around a corner. Try to avoid the stains."

And in time, they were flying through the warm Canterlot night, the pony-end loops of a hastily-modified, extremely stretched out air sling tight around their barrels.

"So now what?" Celestia called out.

"We find a dry cleaner. One who is open all night, should that be possible."

"And then?"

"Well..." She watched Luna's smile spread. "...it is not as if a dry cleaner is expected to have the security of the palace, correct? What a pity that the thief somehow figured out where we had gone and snatched the tapestry away during their best possible chance..."

"And what about Cluster?"

"He remains my Guard."

"Do you think he bought that story?"

"...let us find the dry cleaner. Do not worry so, sister. We will conduct the theft ourselves. We will hide the tapestry away where none will ever find it. We will do everything within our mutual power to make certain none can even approach it. And what will Cluster do, when under orders to tell nopony in the palace of our actions this night?"


The sisters silently watched as the last hook was fastened by an authorized field.

"I'm told it was quite an adventure," Cluster said.

They silently nodded.

"I'm certain your student and the other Bearers will be writing you with the details shortly," the Guard continued. "I don't want to spoil any of it for you. Just... if they happen to visit the palace before then, try not to stare at Rarity's mane. What's left of it. Or Fluttershy's tail. And I'm told the luster will be back on Spike's scales in a few weeks."

The action was quietly repeated.

"Twilight did mention having never seen defensive spells like that before. Excepting this one which she swore only Star Swirl must have known how to cast -- well, I'd better stop before I give the whole thing away, right?"

One final time.

"Really, considering where they had to go and everything they needed to do, it's a good thing we've got a few operatives who are completely independent from palace staff, right? Well, I'm going off-shift, Princesses. See you tonight!"

They silently waited together until everypony else had departed. Staring into the alcove.

"It's dirtier," Celestia quietly said.

"Yes."

"I guess that would be a natural result of the defenses we put up."

"Yes."

"And it smells worse."

"Yes."

"Same cause, really."

"Yes."

"Luna, when you repeat the same word four times --"

"-- I am... tired, sister. It is just past sun-raising. Your hours have come, and I believe I will be best served by taking to my bed."

Celestia wrenched her gaze away from the tapestry, looked at her sibling. Saw the dipped head, the droop to the wings. The resignation.

With a fully faked joviality, "This early? But you'll be skipping your dinner! Come on, let's just head for the kitchens. I'll get breakfast, your own cooks are just waiting to make you something before they go off-shift too, and then maybe we could --"

"-- sister. I -- am -- tired. And... I am going to bed. Good day to you."

Slowly, far too slowly, Luna trotted away.

Celestia watched her go. And then somehow, she found herself looking at the tapestry.

Again.

The same tapestry which kept catching her off-guard, year after year. The tapestry her sister now had to live with, and would have to live with for...


And now she was facing it again. Staring directly at it, in silence, under Moon. Because she wanted to get one last look.

It had been surprisingly... entertaining, subtly rearranging the Guard patrol routes to give her a few final minutes alone with the thing. Like a little game, really, a puzzle she had to solve in order to win, especially having to work against an unseen second player, one who would be on alert for anything more than the smallest opening. Or perhaps it had been more like being in a race, and knowing that if she just put in a little more effort, she could pull away from the rest of the pack and have the final stretch all to herself...

She hadn't told Luna. This was going to be a gift, and as such presents went, she felt this one would be all the better when wrapped in surprise.

Alone, facing the tapestry.

"If you're listening from the shadowlands, Marble Whispers," she softly said, "for what it's worth... you were a truly great sculptor."

She paused.

"But you were a lousy pony."

Celestia's horn ignited.

Or rather, it ignited first.


The sisters had two ponies to see in the Solar throne room, and it would have been hard to say which meeting they were looking forward to least. Both were with ponies they knew well, and perhaps a touch of the same could have been said coming the other way, at least in the first case. But beyond both being ponies they had to see during a single early evening, the two had nothing in common.

Or so they would have thought.

"So," Cluster slowly began, "this is the final debriefing which I was asked to provide you both with regarding the -- incident."

The siblings nodded. It was a very practiced nod. They had checked it in the mirror several times during their roleplay rehearsals.

"Now," the Guard continued, "I understand that the theory Princess Celestia presented to the investigation team, and which Princess Luna agreed upon, is that the thief had grown frustrated with their inability to steal the tapestry. And this pony decided that if they couldn't take it for themselves -- which, barring what the Bearers went through somehow having been an attempt to reach a transaction point, seems to have been their intent, at least as you both see it... well, that pony decided that nopony should have it."

"That was my theory, yes," Celestia steadily said.

"A theory you came up with through..." Cluster not-quite-asked.

"I have a rather extensive amount of experience when it comes to dealing with ponies," she told him. "I'd even go so far as to call it a significant amount. After a while, you begin to understand how some kinds of minds think, react, seek revenge -- all of it, Cluster. And given the sheer amount of that experience, I'm very confident in my deductions."

"So it's your belief that the thief decided to deny the palace, and the world, any continued existence of the tapestry."

"Yes."

He looked at Luna, who had been silent since the moment he'd entered. Back to Celestia.

"And the thief's chosen method for destroying it was through..." She knew he was waiting her out in the hopes that she would complete the sentence. She didn't give him the satisfaction, and so Cluster eventually finished with "...setting it on fire."

"Well, yes," Celestia answered with an equally practiced lightness. "That the tapestry was, in fact, on fire would seem to lend a little backing to that idea..."

"You know that the security spells we use provide a minor degree of protection against fire?"

"Yes."

"Just in case of accident. Oh, it's nothing spectacular, not without getting a pegasus to help... but it at least makes things harder to catch. A few seconds of deflection, long enough for somepony to notice and move a candle away. And give ponies a chance to get valuables away from a fire."

"That's comforting," Celestia said. "In case we happen to have any more fires."

Half a minute ticked by as they each failed to wait the other out.

"Do you know how long it normally takes for a tapestry that large, heavy, and dense to burn into a fine black powder?" Cluster finally asked.

"I can't say it's something I've ever really looked into," Celestia replied.

"I do. Because I asked a weaver to run me off something of a similar size and weight. Seven times, so I could try various ignition methods on all of them."

Luna blinked. Celestia simply said "Your dedication to your job is noted. Please give the receipt to the Solar staff, and I'll make sure you're reimbursed."

"Oh, it didn't match the original," Cluster slowly said. "I didn't worry about patterns, and I certainly couldn't get enough mane and tail hair. But... it was close enough, I think. And what I discovered is no matter what I did, it didn't work. I could burn them. I could destroy them. But bringing them down to powder... that required a heat I couldn't create. In fact, I went around to a large number of chemists, spellcasters, I even went to the prisons and interviewed a few arsonists, telling them all about the results -- and every one of them told me the same thing. That creating such a tremendous level of heat, at that kind of speed, and having it remain confined to such a small area, was impossible."

"We live in a land of magic," Celestia evenly noted, "with some science mixed in here and there. New things are being discovered all the time. I'm not surprised that arsonists who'd spent some time away from the general population would be a little bit out of date."

"And you personally know of nothing which could do it?"

"Not a thing. But as I'm rather busy with running a country, I do occasionally fall behind on reading research papers --"

"-- and nopony?"

He was staring at her again, in that way which only a parent of two daughters could manage. Staring at the mark on her flanks.

"Do I have a fly perched on me?" Celestia patiently asked. "Unfortunately, swishing my tail can sometimes do a little less than it would for --"

"The heat degraded the marble."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's just blackened limestone now."

"I'll have the alcove replaced."

"And because of that extreme heat... because you didn't know what could have started the fire and whether there might be enough left to cause another one..." Cluster continued, "you saw the need to keep everypony out of the area for five days. Just in case. For safety reasons."

"I look out for my staff, yes," Celestia agreed. "And Princess Luna's as well. Cluster, there is another pony waiting to enter, and as little as I want to see her, we're all better off giving her a few minutes instead of letting her publish some rather creative and dubious rumors as to why we couldn't. Oh, and naturally, as a member of the Guards, I would hope that your oath would gently discourage you from giving her too much in the way of exclusives. So, if we're about done --?"

"-- five days."

"Repeating yourself is just taking extra time."

"Which is more than enough for the signatures of anypony whose magic would have been involved in this to fade out of existence."

Celestia risked a shrug. "It couldn't be helped, Cluster. And with the target gone, I'm certain the thief has left the staff, or abandoned their post, or stopped sneaking in during tours -- there's a number of options, really, and no need to waste your time on any staff inquisitions. So if there's nothing else --"

"-- but I do understand there was a second theory. One Princess Luna proposed."

The younger sibling nodded.

"Would somepony care to refresh my memory as to what that was?"

"Spontaneous combustion," Luna said, and very carefully did not smirk.

Cluster looked from one sister to the other. Turned tail, headed for the doors --

-- stopped.

"Do either of you remember Ambassador Furtif?"

Both siblings blinked and Celestia, completely thrown by a question out of nowhere, dropped into honesty. "Sun and Moon, I haven't heard that name in... yes, Cluster, I've never forgotten him. Despite my best efforts to the contrary."

Luna, for her part, couldn't manage to completely repress the groan. "He was the very first ambassador we ever had from Prance. After we realized that we would in fact never be able to convince them that they should join Equestria, and... based on the history I reviewed since my Return, I cannot honestly say they ever entirely stopped trying to insult us into becoming subservient to them. They simply became slightly more subtle about it. Every so often."

Cluster nodded. "Well... when Princess Celestia first hired me to become one of Princess Luna's first new Guards, I was kind of nervous about working at the palace. About dealing with the two of you, to be honest about it. So in the two weeks I had before my first day here, I started looking for any material I could find about what it was like. To work with and talk to royalty every day. And I have relatives in Prance..."

Celestia went to the automatic response. "I'm so sorry."

It got a bemused snort. "Yes, I know. They generally look down on me, like something you would scrape off the bottom of your hoof. But still... one of them was concerned. And Ambassador Furtif wrote something... you know, I think I may have seen the first partial copy to ever make it out of Prance? They try to keep it a secret, and that tract is only shown to a few ponies in every generation. Still, my relatives are my family, and while they look down on me and find having any Equestrian part of the family to be an embarrassment which stops just short of justifying suicide, they love me... in their way. So my cousin, who works in their Parliament, copied a few things out from On Diplomacy With The Regretful Non-Nation Of Equestria. Ambassador Furtif's private guide to dealing with the two of you, passed down from generation to generation."

Celestia immediately vowed to get her field on a complete edition. "That's interesting, Cluster. I'd love to see what you were sent --"

"-- I memorized the contents," he casually interrupted. "It didn't take long: my cousin wasn't willing to send that much. But he told me that I had the exact opening line, unedited, that every diplomat from Prance has ever tried to live by in dealing with you. Would you like to hear it?"

"Of course."

The grey eyes came up. His neck arched. Celestia waited.

"'You must always remember,'" he slowly quoted, "'that the Princess is about seventeen.'"

And somewhere to her left, she heard Luna snort.

"Um," Celestia said.

"Insulting, I know," Cluster shrugged. "But what would you expect? After all, it's from Prance. And honestly, Princess, after spending some time working in the palace, and truly getting to know you... I've come to realize it's completely wrong."

"That's rather kind of you to --"

"-- it's more like eleven."

The snorting was starting to turn into a series --

"-- and nine."

-- which stopped.

Cluster turned back towards the door.

"I'm going home," he said. "To spend the rest of the night with my husband and daughters. With pay. But I'll be in tomorrow, and every night after that. Unless you fire me."

"Why would we ever fire you?" Luna sincerely asked. "You are my Guard. What have you done to warrant a change in that status?"

Cluster took a slow breath. Armor shifted, glinted. A jet-black field coated the doors, which began to open for him. He muttered two words, not quite under his breath, and left.


Which brought them to the second pony of the evening, and this one was something much less than welcome to be there, for any words they said to her would be typically turned against them: misquoted, taken out of context, twisted, spun, or, if what they actually uttered somehow managed to avoid any of that, simply made up. Wordia Spinner, as lead Solar reporter for the Murdocks Press Corps, was never all that concerned with accuracy. It was more about... reaction. The intended one from her target audience, and the slow burn which almost inevitably came when Celestia read the results on the following morning.

But still, it was better to have her inside, where they could at least maintain a personal record of the exchange, not to mention just keeping an eye on her. And if nothing else -- especially after Cluster -- she served as a distraction. Celestia often played a private game of Translation while Wordia was speaking, silently taking the words which were said and replacing them with what was meant. And as the unicorn mare entered the Solar throne room through the Sunrise Gate, Celestia braced herself for the dubious entertainment of another round.

"I'm not here for an interview or article tonight," Wordia immediately stated as she came to a stop at the throne's base.

'Because I have something much worse in mind.'

"I'm actually here on behalf of Mr. Murdocks."

'Correction: he has something much worse in mind.' "Oh?"

The reporter nodded. The long white mane shifted against the light red coat, and pale blue eyes had their steady, smug gaze reach Celestia at the same moment as the first faint fumes of alcohol. "As you know, Princesses, Mr. Murdocks is a proud sponsor of the arts."

'He will pay anyone to produce cartoons, paintings, sculptures, plays, and the occasional comedy album, as long as the subject matter is an attack on the palace.'

"I don't know if you're aware of it, but he's something of a collector himself."

'When he pulled those quasi-legal contract strings to bankrupt his original partners, he very carefully collected everything they had.'

"So when he heard you'd lost an original Marble Whispers piece -- and incidentally, he wanted me to say he's very sorry about the fire..."

'He's very sorry the two of you didn't die in it. Also, since you didn't have the grace to do that, you could have at least had an incident embarrassing enough that we could have kept the mockery articles about failures in palace security going for an extra two days.'

"...he wanted me to send his sympathies."

'Again: sorry you didn't die. Even sorrier that I didn't personally set the blaze which did it. But hey, maybe one day, right? Dare to dream!'

"But he also wanted me to offer his comfort."

And she smiled. It was a special sort of smile, when it came from Wordia. It had a way of suggesting that there were predatory points on every tooth, and they somehow just didn't happen to be visible at the moment.

'He --' wait. Celestia frowned. "Ms. Spinner, as much as I would normally look forward to seeing how you'd use my next few words, I'm still going to say them: I'm afraid you've lost me. His comfort?"

Wordia steadily nodded. The smile seemed to be spreading. "Well... in a way, nothing is ever truly lost, is it? Especially not with art. There are pictures of the tapestry in -- well, considered across centuries, it has to be hundreds of books. Some ponies who come through the palace during the tours get a shot of it. So in that sense, taken all together, there have to be tens of thousands of images, captured from every possible angle. He wanted you to know that the tapestry still exists. In memory and the hearts of so many art-loving ponies everywhere. And while the four of us may disagree on certain aspects of running the country --"

'Such as the part where for some unfathomable reason, you continue to believe you and your sister should be doing it instead of, say, being chained into the dungeon and forced to move Sun and Moon while he takes over everything else, presuming we can't just make you somehow change us into alicorns...'

"-- we can still come together as ponies over this, can't we? Mourning the loss of art? Even when that art is never truly lost?"

Celestia carefully noted that the smile had never faded, then considered her soon-to-be-mauled response. "It's actually -- a rather nice sentiment, Wordia." And while thinking about just how many sorbets it was going to take to get the next sentence off her tongue when the concept of attacking darkness still hadn't been entirely cleansed, "Thank him for me."

"Oh, I will," Wordia smiled. "And you can also thank him for this. Send it in, boys!"

The Sunrise Gate opened. Four extremely large earth ponies strode through in careful file, each bearing part of the load.

The sisters stared at the huge roll of fabric. They knew Wordia had caught them doing it. Neither seemed to have the strength to stop.

"Thousands of pictures," Wordia grinned. "From every possible angle. It's been studied so many times, in every way possible... well, all Mr. Murdocks had to do was present a selection of the best captures to a master weaver, and a few days later, we had it back! Oh, he and I know that on some level, it's just a recreation... but it's a faithful one, Princesses! Every stitch, every weave, every little warp which made it into the original. We even got a few of our Corps members to donate mane and tail hair! Because while Mr. Murdocks may believe that certain policies of the palace should change... along with, perhaps, certain occupants... he truly believes in art. So as long as the palace stands, no matter which ponies might happen to reside within, there should really be a tapestry, don't you think? And if anything should happen to this one... well, it's not as if we don't know how to get it back, again and again and again..."

Celestia started to stand. Luna began to move into a blocking position.

"No, no," Wordia smiled. "Please don't get up, Princess. We'll hang it for you. Exactly where it should go, even before you take the limestone out and restore the original setting. I'll even take a few pictures on my way out and print them in tomorrow's first edition, to reassure ponies that everything is just how it should be -- at least when it comes to art. And every time I come through, or one of the Corps enters, perhaps on a tour, we'll be sure to check on it, knowing that Mr. Murdocks did yet one more great thing for Equestria..."

She left, smiling all the way. The tapestry-carriers filed out behind her. And at the moment the doors closed, Luna carefully said "Tia?"

Celestia was still staring at the closed doors.

"Sister, it is... becoming rather warm in here. Please, try to concentrate, if only for a moment, focus on your breathing..."

"Luna," Celestia said, and marveled at the false calm in her voice, "do you happen to remember that little debate we had a long time ago? That minor tiff about why we weren't going to use assassins?"

"Oh, Tia..."

"We're about to have it again."

"Tia, the drapery is beginning to smoke."

"And this time, just for variety, you're going to take the 'against' side."


Sometimes the other side won.

Her lifespan had... done a lot of things for her, and few of them ever seemed fully positive. No matter how much time she had lived through, she still experienced it at the same rate as everypony else: a hour was an hour, and a thousand years -- was a thousand years. It could make taking the long view into something excruciating, especially when she'd had to try so hard to ensure she'd be around for every second of it.

But there were some problems you could simply outwait. Others were outlived: the first option with teeth added. And in time, some good things even came around again: Luna's freedom and Return was final proof of that.

And yet, still... sometimes the other side won.

Celestia, worn out from the final day of tariff negotiations and so much else, found herself trotting without thought, with no real conscious attention paid to where her hooves were taking her. But still, some part of her knew, and so it came as no real surprise when she found herself in front of the tapestry.

The company was a mild shock, and she quickly put on a smile.

"Ambassador," she greeted the griffon, less than twenty minutes after they'd originally exchanged their goodbyes. One of the polite farewells had been slightly on the edged side.

He nodded. It came across as somewhat distracted, and he didn't take his eyes off the fabric.

"I thought you were on your way back to the embassy."

"Oh, I'll fly over," Ambassador Gilcrest casually said. "In a few minutes, if that's all right, Princess. I just wanted to -- stop for a minute. And think."

"If it's about the tariffs --"

"-- no, we're done there." Feathers rustled. "Believe me, Princess, if there's one thing a griffon knows, it's when he's been dominated. You won this round: I'm not arguing that. But after you win a round, sometimes, I like to just come here. Especially today."

She blinked. He was looking in the wrong direction to notice.

"What's so special about today?"

"That it's -- still here," he said. "Even if it's just a replica. That a physical, full-sized form exists to take in. To -- take me away. You might find that funny, I understand that, but... it's always spoken to me, this tapestry. Some of my predecessors even wrote about it. Telling all who might come after to fly over to this particular marble alcove -- although I know it's going to be a little more -- limestoneish for a while -- and look at the tapestry."

The eagle head tilted slightly, allowing the bright eyes to take in another portion.

"It's amazing work, isn't it?"

"Yes," Celestia cautiously said.

"He invented abstraction centuries before anyone else had ever thought of it. Bodies turning into rocks and back again? A masterstroke."

"Yes..."

"And the cubism, down in that corner? You see that?"

"Yes?"

"Not to mention surrealism. Just choosing that completely impossible color for the sky..."

Actually, by pure accident, that's the one thing he got right. "Yes."

"It truly is a treasure," the griffon sighed. "So I come here to look at it, when I want to calm down, or just reflect for a while, and... I'm glad I still can, Princess. That's all."

"It's yours."

The words had kicked themselves out of her mouth before the rest of the plan could even begin to catch up -- but the shocked ambassador took his time in turning to face her, and it let her bring the entire group back together.

"...did you just say...?"

She warmly smiled at him. "Ambassador... our nations are currently friends. And I know that we're friends who frequently have arguments, who might always have a little trouble fully understanding each other -- but still, there's a friendship there. What's wrong with friends giving each other gifts? If it helps, think of it as a diplomatic overture, from Equestria to Protocera. Something you got away from me in the negotiations. You can hang it in the embassy, and you -- and all who come after you -- can look at it whenever they want to reflect for a while. So many ambassadors, Curtis -- but you were the first to ever say something to me about how much it had meant to all of you. I think that's worth something. So please -- take it, as my gift."

His beak opened, closed, chattered for a moment.

"I'm sorry, Princess -- but... I can't."

Her heart, so close to healing, began to fall.

And, with the slightly-parted beak that made up a griffon smile, "At least, not if it means leaving you with an empty space..."


"So we're meeting here," Celestia quietly told her sister, "to discuss... that."

Luna looked. And also, reluctantly, breathed.

"Oh," the younger said. "That."

"Now the tapestry," Celestia continued, "is gone. And that status is permanent. I gave it to Protocera as a gift -- a one of a kind gift. As much as Murdocks might be having his columnists scream about my desecration of Equestria's cultural heritage, I'm fully within my rights to gift it to another nation. And since it is a one of a kind piece, to create and display a duplicate would be perceived as a deliberate diplomatic insult, which becomes even worse if I somehow decided to ask if we could have ours back. So Murdocks can't make any more, at least not if he wants to maintain any routes his reporters have into the griffon halls of power, and he certainly can't make me display them. And for those in the press who were willing to listen, I made it come across as if the tapestry was the final piece necessary to gain the tariff advantage which we had anyway, plus any further attempts at theft or destruction are now the embassy's problem... basically, everything concerning the tapestry is solved, Luna. Forever."

All the speech gained Celestia was a single, somewhat unresponsive nod. Luna was still looking at -- it.

"But the ambassador didn't want to leave the space empty," Celestia went on. "He said there should always be art in the palace. And so, with a piece of Equestrian heritage in his embassy... he gave me a work of Protoceran art in what he described as fair exchange."

Another, slower nod. "Sister?"

"Ask me anything you need to, Luna."

"This kind of art did not exist before abeyance. Does the overall category have a name?"

Celestia nodded. "It's called a kinetic sculpture, Luna."

"Ah. So the beak is designed to repeatedly dip down."

"Right."

"And disembowel the statue's fallen opponent."

"...right."

"Over and over again."

They both looked at it for a while.

"Do you think," Luna asked, "the perpetually dripping blood is simulated? Or is there an enchantment to keep the true fluid eternally fresh?"

"Given that the smell matches," Celestia quietly answered, "I'm not sure it matters."

"A fair point."

Still looking.

"They got in a surprising amount of detail on the intestines," Celestia noted.

"And the buckets? Are those part of the work?"

"No. I added those after the first forty ponies went by. It was just faster than all that mopping..."

"So it is a gift," Luna slowly said. "From Protocera to Equestria. I would imagine it was personally placed by a griffon delivery team, yes? Which then took pictures of it in its new home, to create a record of this gift of friendship?"

"From every possible angle."

"And that for us to move it, conceal it, or alter it in any way would be seen as a deliberate diplomatic insult?"

"Pretty much..."

They were both staring now.

Celestia sighed.

"You heard what Cluster said when he left, didn't you? Just before Wordia came in?"

"Yes," Luna steadily replied. "He was apparently stating his belief that he now had, and I quote, 'Four kids...' Take that as you will."

And they listened to the dripping.

"Eleven..." the elder finally said.

"Oh, Tia... please do not take that seriously. You know that was nothing more than the angry insult of a frustrated stallion."

"I know."

"I myself have always believed the true number was much closer to... eight."