A My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Fanfiction by Foxmane
By the time Luna realized that the newspapers were against her, it was already too late to do anything about it.
In the weeks following the return of the Moon Princess of Equestria from her exile in the prison she herself had created, every newspaper headline throughout the nation had hailed her triumphal return. Luna knew this because her sister had every newspaper headline sealed under glass and put on display in the public halls of the palace; after passing them for months, each and every one was indelibly scribed into the Moon Princess' memory.
Princess Luna Returned from Moon; Nightmare Moon Reformed. That was the Canterlot Sun, the paper under the most direct control of Celestia herself.
Mare in Moon Seeks Revenge; Further Evidence of Celestia's Decay of Authority. That headline came from the Manehatten Post, an incendiary yellow rag that nonetheless dwarfed the more conservatively-oriented but nationally-circulated Equestria Today in its city of circulation.
Bat-Colt Emerges from Everfree Forest on Longest Night in Diarchy History; Full-Colour Photos Inside! Predictably for the Sunchaser, the real story about Princess' Luna's return and the dispelling of the vengeful Nightmare Moon was tucked away on the third page below an inset for an herbal supplement "guaranteed to add inches and natural shine to your horn in 3 weeks or your money back!" And this was still, somehow, the most widely-read paper in Equestria, Luna had thought dryly.
And for some months after the initial headlines ran, the papers (and reporters… oh, sweet skies, the reporters) had run stories on every little public movement of the younger Princess, some down to the minutiae of her lunch contents. Those that wrote about the latter could not be contented with strictly public information; oh, no, not at all. So it was that Princess Luna became acquainted with one of the new hazards of public life in Equestria: dealing with the paparazzi.
They swarmed around, most of them Pegasi, buzzing like wasps about this or that inane question whenever the Princesses were in transit alone or together. Celestia had only to look at them sternly and the offending pony would make a small sound of terror in his throat and immediately beat a vapour trail back to Cloudsdale. Try as she might, if she got cornered alone with one of those parasprites, Luna lacked the authority in her figure to command and threaten wordlessly. All they ever did was snap a photo of her disapproving glare – or what was interpreted as such, really all she was trying to do was ignore the cretins – which inevitably ended up on the front page of the gossip magazines a few days later.
The straw that broke the camel's back (though Princess Luna would never utter such a vulgarity in public) came one day when crossing the Heaven's Terrace after performing the ritual spell that would ferry the moon across the night sky of Equestria for another cycle. It was a beautiful Night; Luna had been unable to fall asleep that morning due to the light from the summer sun piercing through the thick curtains and preferred to be productive rather than just lay abed, tired and frustrated. So even though a night of petty court had required her attention as arbiter for more than eight straight hours (giving Celestia a much-deserved reprieve from that particular drudgery), the Moon Princess got up to work on some sketches to improve her Night. It had been one of the few times that she had had an opportunity to really work on one of her Nights since returning to Canterlot. To a patch of sky that was getting a bit light-worn, Luna darkened the firmament and polished the stars so they shone like cut diamonds glinting in the cavernous black. The arm of a galaxy that had drifted off its spiral – really, sister, couldn't you have taken care of the Night sky a little better – she stretched out and whorled and gave back its rightful place as a road between the horizons. The work wasn't all patch jobs, though, and to the deep reaches of space, which only those with telescoping lenses and the desire to look would see, Luna painted new nebulae across the black canvas of the firmament and set in motion two stars, whirling about each other in an endless cosmic dance. She pushed a new comet into orbit that would mark the passage of Celestia's birthday, which would become visible to the common folk in some weeks. She had given Celestia stars before… well, before Nightmare Moon happened, but never a comet.
Most ponies would not see or know about any of it; Luna knew that. But she would. More importantly, Celestia would know. That was what mattered. Luna's mind kept flashing back to these very recent changes as she crossed the flagstones of the Heavens' Terrace; perhaps the comet's period could be shortened just a bit? There were already so many long-lived ones, and it might do to have a new one that passed Equestria once in only a decade or so…
"Aack!" Luna squawked as a trio of magnesium flashes struck her squarely in the eyes, blinding her momentarily. A black pegasus pony with a stark white mane wearing dark sunglasses exploded out of a hydrangea bush, camera dangling from his teeth by a curved metal bar. From the light cast by the flashbulb, when she regained her sight, Luna saw that he wore dark square sunglasses and that his flank bore the image of an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. Despite the metal bar between his teeth, the colt bore a smug little smile. It was a face Luna knew all too well.
"Sudden Flash!" Luna growled, wrenching her eyes shut against the barrage of light that assaulted them. The chief photographer for the National Equine had an almost legendary reputation for being able to get any shot, anywhere of whatever the subject of his latest story was. It was his photos of the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville that made it onto the front cover of nearly every paper in the land. And, as Luna had found out, personally and often, it didn't matter one whit how illegal the getting of those photos were. "How did you get onto the grounds? Every guard and watchman in Canterlot has seen your picture! You are at the very top of the Royal Guards' blacklist!" The black pegasus only grinned wider in response and continued to flash his camera, taking to the air and circling around to take shots of the Princess from all angles.
"Ai grr inkess, uh uh ai" Sudden Flash muttered through his teeth, still snapping pictures as he talked, but Luna had had enough. The Moon Princess' horn was suffused with silver light for a moment, and there was a loud crack as the offensive camera was wrenched out of Sudden Flash's teeth and hurled skyward. The pegasus launched himself upward and caught the camera just as it reached its apex. Sudden Flash grinned down at Luna, but did not resume his manic photography.
"I said, my dear Princess, such a face deserves to be on the cover of every magazine in Equestria. With my help, it will be so. You've been gone ever so long, and you should see what it's like to be properly famous! I can help you there, if you would only let me." Great sea of stars, even his voice was smarmy.
"Flash, I don't want you around me. Not you, nor any of your 'journalist' colleagues. Please just stay away," Luna said, rising up into the air on her strong wings. In a few moments, the Moon Goddess was eye-to-eye with the black pegasus pony.
"The people want to know what their new Princess is like, highness. In the end, I am only a servant of that interest."
"And you'd risk arrest by the palace guards to do it?"
"Yes, Princess. The people are hungry for anything to do with their new sovereign. You have been gone for a thousand years, and no pony alive knows what you are like." Sudden Flash laughed then and turned a few loops in the air, casually tossing his camera about and catching by the strap each time as it fell. "We do seem to see each other like this a lot, though, don't we? In fact, other than the elder Princess, I'd say that I know you better than any pony alive!"
"Stop," Luna interrupted, reinforcing the command with magic. Sudden Flash's mouth champed down involuntarily, but even that did not interrupt his insolent smile, as if he had been expecting the command. "One chance, Flash. That's it for you now. Celestia doesn't know you've been following me, and I don't really know what she would do if she were to find out. But next time you jump out of the bushes at me, or find me coming out of court, or peek in at me through my window when I'm dressing for bed…"
"But Princess," Sudden Flash interrupted, recalling the last incident with another smarmy grin, "the public loves you in socks! You were adorable on the cover of Filly Fair!"
"I hate socks! I only wore the stupid things because Celestia got them for me as a present, but they bunch up around my hooves and I don't notice them getting too hot until it's too late to do anything about them except to dunk them in the wash basin! And because of your photos, I have ten packages of socks coming in the mail every day!"
"I broke no law, your Highness," Sudden Flash noted, sounding less sure of himself now. The black pegasus' ears stood at attention, swiveling toward some still-distant sound coming gradually closer as they talked.
"True," Luna nodded, eyes narrowing. Presently, the sound began to resolve itself into strong, authoritarian stallion's voices talking amiably to one another. "But that was then. Now you're on a short list of ponies barred from the palace grounds on pain of direct sentencing from the Princesses. In case you have forgotten, that includes me. Just go away, Flash! Guards!" Luna shouted as two of the golden-clad, muscular pegasi of the Royal Guard entered the courtyard, heads moving about to find the source of the disturbance.
"Lady Luna!" one called, as if startled to see the Princess about on her own. His eyes moved to the distinctive black coat and sunglasses of the other pegasus in the courtyard, and recognition dawned on him. As one, the guards leapt into the air and flew directly toward Sudden Flash, who slung his camera strap around his neck and turned a corkscrew to orient himself straight upward.
"Goodbye, Princess Luna!" he called as he careened up as if shot out of a cannon. "But though you must hate me, it is my job to feed a hungry public! When you are ready to let the public see you, come seek me out yourself! So long, adieu, farewell!"
Luna's eyes followed the black pegasus and the white-and-gold shape of the guard as they moved across the backdrop of her Night sky. The moon's light gleamed off of the guards' white coats in pale silvery light, but their quarry's own colouration made him just a dark shape moving across the firmament, one moving at an incredible speed. But Sudden Flash, true to his name, was soon lost to even her keen vision. Luna watched as the guards slowed and stopped, looking to each other numbly.
That infernal pony is faster than a Wonderbolt!
Just like every other time, Sudden Flash had gotten away. By morning, that ridiculous, ambushed, blinded pose would be in every tabloid and tawdry rag in Equestria, and Flash's readers would have something new to gabber about the "new" Princess whom nobody ever saw.
Princess Luna did not scream, which would have been indecorous, even out here. She was forced to settle for a sort of dignified whimper.
Eighteen. Eighteen of the national or city papers large enough to get circulation to more than fifty percent of the cities in Equestria had bought up one or more of Sudden Flash's last batch of candid photos and were running them, in full colour, at least somewhere on the front section of their early editions. Six were running them as a top story. Headlines were various. "Princess Luna Refuses Pony Contact" ran the front page story of Equestria Today. The Everfree Phoenix queried, "Co-Ruler Not So Equal to Ruling Challenges?" All the stories were of a similar bent: that Luna, an unknown figure from an unknown past, was not showing enough of herself in public, that nopony could truly trust her to govern fairly and competently after a thousand years in the moon if she could not even talk to a reporter like a normal pony. Eighteen stories, all alike. And that was just in the national papers. Luna had not even sent for any of the gossip papers, though their words were sure to be much the same and to cut more deeply. Perhaps the most maddening part about the matter was that Sudden Flash's words seemed to ring true in populo, or else ponies were willing to buy into Flash's deranged stalker mind's view of the Moon Goddess.
"Thank you, Captain," Luna said to the guard whom she had requested to bring the papers up. "That will be quite enough. If you are able, please keep my sister from seeing any of these. She doesn't need to expend any of her daily worries on me, especially over this."
"Understood, my Princess," replied the guardspony, a handsome white unicorn stallion by the name of Glimmerhorn. Luna supposed he was handsome, anyway; she had little frame of reference for such things. He had a slender build and a mane, horn and tail quite as white as the rest of him, and the only that disqualified him from outright albinism were his stern cypress-green eyes. And although the unicorn pony was one of the very few of that species in the Royal Guard, he was as serious and dutiful as any of Celestia's pegasi and never breached protocol around the younger Princess. Even for such a private consultation, he wore the full compliment of golden armour – helmet, breastplate, and flank greaves – that marked him as one of Celestia's own elite. Of her elite now, Luna reminded herself. "Please, if there is anything more I may do for you, you have only to command me."
"I know, Glimmerhorn. You are a good and faithful servant. But you are also dismissed."
Glimmerhorn bowed low on his front legs, then rose and exited the Princess' rooms. Luna rubbed her tired eyes with a forehoof and turned her attention to the papers, which were arrayed in neat rows on her night-blue bedspread dotted with embroidered stars. Her horn glowed with power, and in another moment the papers were simply not there any more, sent off to an old and hated prison.
I could stop all of this. I could just send Flash to… that place. No more front-page opinion pieces. It would be easy. But that would be too cruel. As difficult as Flash was, nopony deserved that.
Luna sighed and magicked a set of four fluffy, pink socks out of the drawer of a magnificent teak dresser and slipped them onto her hooves to prepare for breakfast with her sister. Sweet galaxies, I hate these things.
The lives of the two alicorn pony sisters – not a scientific term by any means, but one that had entered the colloquial nonetheless after Luna's return from banishment when it turned out that there were not one, but two ponies in Equestria who could boast of both wings and horn – did not often intersect. Princess Celestia rose before the dawn each day to raise the sun in the Heavens' Terrace, a ritual that, no matter how commonplace, always attracted at least a small crowd of tourists and watchers. Then, before starting in on any state affairs for the day, Celestia took a light repast on the balcony of the palace that overlooked the city – not the main one from which she made her official appearances and proclamations to the country, but a small, quiet ledge that had been constructed to be practically invisible to passers in the streets below. It was a centuries-old routine that was as reliable as the cycle of the sun itself. It was also one of the few opportunities that the sisters had to be together on a regular basis, though for Luna, the meal had to come before she retired for the day.
"Ah, Luna," Princess Celestia said warmly as Luna landed lightly on the balcony. Luna's elder sister looked radiant in the rays of her rising sun, as she always did. "I had begun to think you might not come. Please, sister, join me."
"Thank you, 'Tia," Luna said as she lay down at the small, round table set for two. A pot of wheatgrass tea lay between them, and Luna poured a cup of the hot brew for both of them. She sipped at the tea, enjoying its sweet, farmyard taste and looked out over the city at the pink-and-orange rays of her sister's sun just coming up over the distant mountains.
"You're taking your time with it today, 'Tia," Luna remarked, setting her cup gently down and picking up an apple scone with her mind.
"I'll make up for it in the afternoon. Don't worry, sister; I won't be late on my end for the moonrise," Celestia said with a chuckle in her voice.
"It will give the royal astronomers fits. You know that, don't you?"
"Well, perhaps I can convince them that all of the clocks in the land are running a quarter of an hour behind. It worked once before."
"You didn't, 'Tia. Tell me you didn't."
"Only once, sister. Only once. You and your preciseness," Celestia said, laughing at the horrified expression that came over her younger sister's face. "But, since you seem so worried, I will make a trip to the Royal Observatory today myself to let them know."
"Thank you," said Luna, who let out a short sigh of relief.
"Oh, and you wore the socks I had made for you! How do you like them, Luna?" Luna looked into her teacup.
"They're nice. Very comfortable."
"I'm glad. You've been so sullen since you've returned to the palace, little sister. I wanted to give you something to… make the day a little brighter."
"Your metaphor, 'Tia. Not mine," Luna replied, using her powers to spread a daub of apple jam on a warm nut muffin.
"Well, choose whatever suits. But you aren't happy, Luna. I can tell that much. Whatever's the matter, dear?" Luna looked up into the knowing eyes of her sister. Luna sighed and laid down her snack onto the table with a guiding glance.
"It's nothing you can help with, 'Tia. You know I'd tell you if it were," Luna said, choosing her words carefully.
"No? This wouldn't have anything to do with that disturbance in the Heaven's Terrace my guard detail briefed me on this morning, would it?"
"Erk!" The younger Princess felt the soft fabric of those socks suddenly get very, very warm, along with the rest of her.
"…'Tia, answer me something," Luna said at length. "You know that I have never lied to you, right? Not even once?"
"Of course," said Celestia, as if expecting the question. The answer was too quick, too smart. She suspected something.
"Then take this at its face value. It's this city, this… palace! Do you even remember what this mountainside looked like a thousand years ago, sister? No hoof had even reached this far. Things were so different back then, and you know what I mean. We lived in a castle that this palace could contain fifty times over, and even that was more than enough." Composure regained, Luna's horn began to shimmer and she sipped at her tea, looking calm and serene as ever. "The size of it all is a bit much to take in all at once."
"Is that what this is about?" Celestia said, then laughed. It was an ebullient, mirthful laugh, golden and clear as a bell, the laugh of the Sun Goddess. It was a laugh that could burst tension like a tender soap bubble, and Luna found herself smiling despite herself.
"I… suppose. I have not been a very good Princess, sister. I will admit that. But it is nearly impossible to be a ruler of a people that you have not seen for a thousand years."
"Oh, Luna… why did you not say so before? I should have realized. I do think that you are still hiding something from me, but it is not my business to know all of my sister's doings." Celestia turned her gaze out to the sprawling city of Canterlot below, where gilded roofs gleamed in the light of her sun. "It's a beautiful city, isn't it? I never will tire of it. Even today, our subjects add to it as their own numbers increase. It can't grow much wider unless the College of Engineers tears off the mountaintop, which would just be an awful mess, but every year the old is torn down and it grows taller. All of this in less than a thousand years."
"There's hundreds of others, 'Tia," Luna said quietly. "Maybe not as full of ponies as Canterlot, but you've seen them all. A thousand years is a long time to miss."
"I should have realized," Celestia repeated, shaking her head. The elder sister rose to her feet. "Luna, if you felt overwhelmed, you should have told me. I will do everything in my power to make this better. I think… hmm…" Celestia paused, casting one last look over the city, directly into the searing rays of the sun. She stood that way for over a minute then smiled down at Luna.
"Affairs of state call, sister. I'm afraid it's the price of such a beautiful land. But after you raise the moon tonight, a guard detail will meet you at the exit of the palace to take you somewhere that I think will let you breathe just a bit easier. Good rest, sister." And with that, Celestia bent her head and kissed Luna gently on the nose. The Sun Goddess then spread her wings and rose into the air, off to attend to meet whatever dignitaries or hear whatever appeals were on the royal docket for the day.
Luna waited until her sister's form could no longer be seen as she took one long, spiraling glide up into the sky before her day's work. When she was quite sure that Celestia could no more distinguish her from an ant on the ground, she tore off the loathsome pink socks and began to blow on her hooves to cool them.
"Good. You're right on schedule, Lady Luna. Please, enter the chariot. We've received very specific instructions on where to convey you," Glimmerhorn said to Luna as the Princess' hooves clicked across the flagstones of the courtyard just beyond the entrance to the palace walls, face impassive as it always was. The unicorn stood before Celestia's own white chariot emblazoned with the symbol of the sun, and two pegasi were already harnessed to pull its passengers wherever her sister intended for them to go. Perhaps not coincidentally, the guardsmen assigned to the chariot were the very same two in the patrol detail that had spotted Sudden Flash only a day-cycle before. Or perhaps not spotted would be more accurate?
"And where, might I ask, is my sister sending me off to, faithful servant?" Luna asked Glimmerhorn when the two were speeding through the air toward the southeast, drawn onward by the tireless pegasi of the Royal Guard. Even for this trip, the unicorn still dressed in full armour. Didn't that make it rather harder for the drivers? They were carting around essentially half an extra pony with the weight of all that metal.
"I am sorry, Lady Luna, but I am under strict order from Princess Celestia to not reveal that fact to you until your arrival." There was a glint in the unicorn pony's eyes that Luna thought she could see even though the glass of the flight goggles he wore for the trip. It was her sister's style to a "T" really.
"I won't ask, then. Were you able to keep Celestia from seeing any of the headlines?"
"It took a minor disaster with the celeriac soup at the state luncheon and more than a few bits in bribery for the MP's to play along, but isn't that just what the Guards' General Fund is for? I was by the Sun Princess' side from sunrise to sunset, as you commanded. If I saw no papers, she saw no papers."
"That's an if. I prefer assurances, Captain."
"Just the one. My brother visits the guardhouse each day for lunch, and he reads the Sunchaser religiously. I doubt Hyu-maan Battlecruiser Sighted Over Stalliongrad is quite newsworthy enough for a headline, myself."
"Good, Glimmerhorn. Very, very good."
"I live to serve my Lady, Princess," Glimmerhorn said, flashing a grin as his mane whipped in the wind.
The two flew on, drawn by inexhaustible guards, on, on over the darkened land, on to a town that Luna knew even under the silvery light of her moon -on to the town of Ponyville.
But what was this? They had passed over the town! From the maps of the new Equestria Luna had examined, she knew that Ponyville abutted the Everfree Forest, a few farms, and… and what else?
"Glimmerhorn! Just where is my sister having me conveyed?" Luna strove to remember what exactly lay in this region of the kingdom. There were a few gemstone mining operations fairly close to Ponyville in the Dock mountain range, but those encampments had all been abandoned years ago. Whatever else was out here?
"You will see, Princess! You will see very shortly!"
"Ugh! Sister, you are impossible sometimes!"
The cottage was certainly nothing that anyone would associate with royalty. Only one wall bore a window, but it was a picture window facing east with a clear view of the rolling hills on which the local apple orchard and some other smaller Earth pony family farms were nestled. More importantly, it offered a clear view of the moonrise and sky. To complement the viewing window, an artist's studio – an atelier – had been set up along another wall, with all assortments of brushes, pencils and paints for the more mundane – but relaxing - planning aspects of creating a new celestial body. Branching off from the main room were a small kitchen, which had but a small viewing window, and a pantry filled with…
"'Tia! You remembered!"
The pantry was stocked, from floor to ceiling, with various types of flours, grades of sugar from nearly black with molasses to soft white crystals, along with eggs, butter – all the accoutrements of baking. It was a hobby that Luna had not applied in over a thousand years, certainly not since she returned to the palace and had chefs and servants fussing over her every minute of the day. Everypony seemed to forget just who had done all the experiments with flour and water that resulted in the first puffy loaf of bread that was shared, warm and crusty and covered in wood ash, as a special treat between Celestia and herself.
"Is everything to your satisfaction, then, Princess?" Glimmerhorn asked, standing relaxed in the middle of the cottage's sitting room. "My men had very little time to arrange this place, but if anything lacks, I will make a personal trip from Canterlot to see that all of your comforts are satisfied."
"Everything is perfect, Glimmerhorn! Why, I could stay here for years and never grow bored. And nopony else knows about this place?"
"I give you my word, Princess. I have been a pony of utmost discretion. This cottage is not visible from below, so unless some pegasus on the Ponyville weather patrol happens across you while you happen to be outside, nopony will know you are here."
"I commend you, Glimmerhorn. Finally, I can – oh, I have so many ideas to work on now that I can have a reprieve from Sudden Flash!" Luna almost clapped her hooves together in glee at the thought. Still, a little decorum would do, just until Glimmerhorn and the guardsmen left.
"Do you wish for me to post a guard or two around the perimeter, Princess, before I return to the city?" Glimmerhorn asked, watching Luna closely for any signs of dissatisfaction.
"No. No, absolutely not," replied Luna, capering about the cottage, filled to the brim with nervous, creative energy. "In fact, the sooner you and your colts leave, Glimmerhorn, the better. I have so much I want to get started on that I can't work on with anypony else present, even you and your statues. You are dismissed." Glimmerhorn bowed and nodded, grave as ever, then turned about and barked an order to the stoic pegasi. Without comment, he boarded the chariot outside of the door, then seemed to consider something.
"I will… continue to monitor the situation from the city, Princess. If any new developments arise, I will report them to you straightaway," Glimmerhorn remarked.
"Yes, yes," Luna said, paying only little heed. The Princess was already seated at her atelier along the wall and was staring meditatively at the sheet of blotter paper. "I commend you for your vigilance, Glimmerhorn; you have served me well thus far. But you are, nonetheless, dismissed."
Glimmerhorn frowned slightly at this treatment but did not respond otherwise. The unicorn quietly shut the door to the cottage with a spell and Luna heard him give the order to return to Canterlot through the thin wall. Luna watched them recede into the distance through the picture window until they could no longer be seen, then let out a breath that she had not been aware that she held. A slow grin like that of the cat in the old story by Carecolt spread over her face, and all of the tension of the past days melted out of her muscles in an instant.
"Time to get to work," Luna said to the waiting silence. A graphite pencil among the supplies on the top shelf floated down and, carefully and methodically, the Moon Goddess began to draw.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Luna groaned pitifully, not only from the noise that had awoken her, but also because she had fallen asleep with her head on the edge of the little atelier, which had left an indentation in the side of her face. How did that even happen?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
What in a pulsar was that noise? Oh, the door. It must be, mustn't it? Still moaning, Luna rose sleepily to her hooves and walked toward the cottage's one entrance. Behind her, the first rays of the sunrise were peeking through the picture window, throwing a glare into the little room. Even with her immense powers, the Moon Goddess could barely focus enough to magick the door open. And when she had, she wasn't at all sure if that had been a wise thing to do.
"'peshal 'livry!" slurred a grey pegasus pony at the door. A package dangled from her mouth by a piece of twine, and a pair of well-worn canvas saddlebags sat around her midriff. The mare's mane and tail were fluffy and blonde, and her flank bore a cutie mark of… were those bubbles?
Most striking, though, were the pegasus' eyes. Princess Luna had seen some ponies that were born with or developed a "lazy eye", a sort of twitch in the muscles that moved the eye in question around restlessly and endlessly, but this pony seemed to have some other condition entirely. One eye would focus in on Luna, then the other, but in each case its partner would look off in another direction all of its own accord.
The strange pony cleared her throat and one eye looked straight into Luna's face, unblinking. "'peshal 'livry."
"What? Oh. Oh!" Luna blushed. How long had she been staring there? This must be the mailpony for Ponyville, of course. "Er, excuse me, but are you sure that package is supposed to go to me? I've only just arrived here after all."
"Yuppersh!" The grey mailpony set the package gingerly down and rummaged in her saddlebags for a moment before pulling out a slim sheet of paper. Her focusing eye shifted sides again to read it; the sight made Luna just a bit queasy. "I got the dispatch just this morning. It's the weekend, but this came with the royal seal on it, so I read the dispatch order and it said to come to - " here the mailpony paused for a moment, and when she spoke again the words came slowly and haltingly, syllable by syllable as she read, "'the c-cottage on the g-go-godess-fors-s-saken ridge on the wooded side of Haunch Moun-tain'. Since there's only one cottage on the goddess-forsaken ridge of Haunch Mountain, this must be it! Actually," and the focusing eye shifted again, staring once again at Luna, "there's only one ridge on Haunch Mountain, now that I think about it! But it can't be goddess-forsaken, otherwise Princess Luna wouldn't have come here alone with that unicorn Captain she's been seeing, would you ma'am? Would the word for that be 'unforsaken'? 'Nonforsaken'? 'Unforsook'?'"
"I… that's… what?" Luna stammered, tired brain struggling to take in what she had just heard. "Where… where precisely did you hear that, miss…?"
"Ditzy Doo!" the mailpony happily offered. "It was in the paper this morning. Getting up at four-o-clock to deliver the mail means I have lots of time before I go to read the first edition. It takes me a long time to read. My daughter's much better at it than I am."
"The… papers? Today's paper?" A lump like a rock settling into her gut, Luna looked down to the package, half-sure already what it contained. Sure enough, there in Glimmerhorn's flowing telepathic script was a note written directly into the brown paper covering the package itself.
I thought you ought to see this yourself. To best of my knowledge, Sun still doesn't know. –G
Luna paused as she thought of a celestial body that would properly express the feeling that a rock had just fallen into her stomach. There wasn't any. She would have to settle for a pithy swear.
"Thank you very much for the muffins Miss Moon Goddess, sir. These are screptacular!" said Ditzy, filling her mouth with her eighth wheatberry-and-oat muffin in the past six minutes.
"It… was the least I could do," Luna replied, too transfixed by the sight of the gorging mailpony to look away. The package from Glimmerhorn lay on the atelier, but she had not yet dared to open it with Ditzy still about. Still, what else was there to do? Glimmerhorn had dragged the poor girl out of her bed and away from her daughter on what would have surely been a lazy morning, perhaps a chance to watch her sister's sunrise with the daughter she had mentioned. When Luna had offered breakfast to the mailmare, she had acceded, walking the Princess through the steps required with astonishing specificity. Really, the most time-consuming parts of the ordeal were weighing out exactly 1.372 grams of baking soda ("just estimating, only to compensate for flour hygroscopicity and the relative humidity!") and mixing in the milk and eggs and butter ("you don't mix it, you fold it; that way you don't form an extensively cross-linked gluten network!"), and after that the rest of the process was easy enough.
"Would you mind if I took the rest of these to Dinky? That's my daughter, you see," said Ditzy, already filling her saddlebags with the remaining few warm muffins that hadn't disappeared in a baked-goods orgy. "You're a really good baker for somepony that's never baked before in her life, Miss Princess."
"Oh, well… I wouldn't say never. It was a long time ago now, though."
"One-thousand one hundred fifty-five years?" Ditzy asked, left eye roving.
"How did you-" Luna's jaw hung open.
"Simplex! The first stone mills were developed by Earth ponies in the middle years of the Antenacht, exactly one-hundred fifty-four years before the sole ascendancy of the Princess Celestia to the throne of Equestria. And since all novel technologies must be approved by both Princesses, you must have overseen it and tried out what you could make with the flour!" Ditzy beamed, but her eyes shifted focus again, and Luna went from feeling stunned surprise to the slightly queasy feeling that always accompanied this motion.
"Tried would be an appropriate word, yes," said Luna, a slow smile spreading across her face as she recalled those first few loaves, gummy and flat and black with soot. Ditzy giggled and closed her saddlebags.
"Considering that muffins weren't invented until five hundred years ago in Whinniena, you did right well, Miss Princess Ma'am! Thanks for the breakfast, and I'll be sure to tell Dinky about you. Maybe we can even come to see you together!"
Luna considered that. Her visceral instinct was to say that nopony must know about this retreat, no one could know about her hideaway – but what was the use? There were the papers. On the other hoof, this mailmare was altogether different from the reporters that plagued her and the courtiers back in Canterlot that swarmed around the two goddess-regents like bees. She was fascinating, if nothing else. Given the options, the choice was a simple one.
"I think that I should like that, Ditzy. I would like that very much."
Luna had hoped that the incident on the Heaven's Terrace, not even two days ago now, would have been the last chance for Sudden Flash and his loathsome ilk to snatch a furtive photograph of the Moon Princess for a long time. Celestia herself assured her that no one outside of the Royal Guard would know of this retreat, and even the directions that the mailmare had given made no mention of just who would be occupying the cottage. The contents of Glimmerhorn's package, though, dashed those hopes to the valley floor far below.
The box was much heavier than Ditzy had made it seem by carrying it so easily and was stuffed full of every paper, from national daily to screaming fringe political rag, available on Canterlot newsstands. Every one, every last moonstruck one, had yet more pictures of her. Pictures of the Princess stealing out of the palace at night – never mind that she was only awake during her Nights – pictures of the Princess riding off across Equestria in secret with her personal guardscolt Captain, pictures of the little cottage on the ridge. Luna was shaking by the time she got to the end with the Zebrawan Gazette, but whether from anger, fear, or… something else entirely, she could not precisely say.
It isn't fair… how did he know? How did he find us? I just want to get away, away, AWAY!
Then, all alone in her cottage in the woods, Princess Luna did scream. Down in Ponyville, a certain pegasus stopped, listened, and frowned meditatively.
"I don't understand it, Glimmerhorn. Where can I go that they won't just chase after me or track me down? I never asked for this!"
Glimmerhorn sat patiently at the very same table on which Ditzy had taken her breakfast earlier that morning and listened. He had received an urgent message from the Princess shortly after sunrise, when he knew that the early editions would be reaching her door if that mailpony did her job properly. He had been rather expecting it. But rather than travel with a retinue of guards and risk further scandal if the paparazzi were still hiding somewhere in the scrub, waiting for the Princess to emerge, he had made the journey to the outskirts of Ponyville alone and in a series of teleportation spells, even appearing directly in the cottage itself. After he did, the Princess had leapt to her hooves and, even forgetting to use magic, desperately closed the curtains on the magnificent picture window.
"With all due respect, my Princess, why have you not simply had Sudden Flash arrested? Your problems would be over with in an instant." Glimmerhorn asked, sniffing the air. Something certainly smelled good.
"You know the answer to that as well as I do," said Luna, perhaps a bit snappishly, turning to her atelier. "Celestia is kind, but what she considers kind or merciful can be a living hell. I was imprisoned in the moon for a thousand years, Glimmerhorn! Not on, like so many ponies seem to assume, but in it. Unable to move, unable to talk, my consciousness spread over the whole surface. I went mad! And I… I wouldn't wish that on anypony. I don't wish that existence on anypony, not for any length of time, and I'm not sure I completely trust my sister not to do something rash if she finds out the pony behind the reputation I've been smeared with."
"But Lady Luna, this is a clear case of libel! The courts have clear writ of procedure for such things!" Glimmerhorn protested. Luna did not speak again right away, but picked up a brush with her magic and dipped it into an inkwell. She began to draw broad strokes of black ink across the blotting paper as she spoke.
"Just who is it that presides over the courts? Ask yourself that. Only petty cases come in during the Night. Celestia says she doesn't want to worry me with the big cases so soon after coming back to Equestria, and there has been a great deal of law to re-learn. If I brought a libel case to the bench, who would sit, Glimmerhorn? Not me. I would say that a libel case involving one of the creator goddesses of Equestria would be of high enough profile to warrant my sister's attention, wouldn't you?"
"Lady Luna, what would you have me do? My influence only spreads so far. I can post patrols around this cottage, but your sister would surely notice that and might come herself to inquire what's the matter. You know how keen the Sun Goddess' eye is!"
"I don't know, Glimmerhorn. I truly don't." Luna closed her eyes, focusing solely on the blotting paper. She had drawn broad brush strokes of black ink and set the brush aside, instead lifting up a star chart to consult. Glimmerhorn watched as the Princess took up a smaller brush and dipped it into a bottle of white paint. Slowly, methodically, Luna began to just dot the tip of the brush onto the paper. The unicorn guardsman looked on in silence, but as he watched, familiar constellations began to take their places on the inky sky: Canis Major, followed by the Little Dog at its tail. Orion, the Great Plower. The Dragon encircling the northern sky. Soon the paper was filled with a perfect facsimile of all of the constellations over northern Equestria – well, perhaps not all. Astronomy never had been Glimmerhorn's strongest subject.
"What are you doing, Princess?" Glimmerhorn asked, striding over to her side.
"Creating." With her eyes still closed, Luna rinsed the brush in another green glass bottle of water and whisked away the moisture clinging to the bristles with a thought. She dipped only the barest tip of the brush into the white paint this time. Using only a feather's touch of magic, a new set of white dots appeared, tiny and compact, nestle between Orion and the Buffalo. Luna opened her eyes and let out a long, satisfied breath.
"Is that all there is to it?" Glimmerhorn said in a half-whisper that was half awe and half disappointment.
"Sometimes. Anything more complicated than that takes a good deal longer. Anything really complex usually means that I have to just plan on the sketches and do the actual spell later. A new constellation is nothing major. Come and look." Luna's horn glowed and she gestured toward the picture window, and the curtains split to show the tapering light of dusk. Celestia was handling the moonrise tonight, and she did a fine job of it, Luna had to admit. She had had a thousand years of practice, after all. Luna turned her eyes north to the skies over Canterlot. "There. It's still too light, but wait just a minute."
As shadows lengthened over the countryside and one by one tiny lights winked on in the windows of the distant city, the stars overhead gradually came into view alongside the silvery light of the moon, and Glimmerhorn and Luna saw them: six tiny twinkling points in the firmament arranged in a rough pentagon with a central unifying larger point of light.
"I call it the Elements," Luna said, but she did not sound proud. The Moon Goddess shook her head. "But I can already tell you that there won't be a whisper about it beside the article on the front pages questioning my judgement on traffic regulations in the city that runs underneath some doctored photo of the two of us… ahem… 'trading spit'."
"Princess!" gasped Glimmerhorn, unable to believe that his sovereign had just uttered such vulgarities.
"You'll live," Luna said flatly. She turned her head to the unicorn. "Captain, I want you to keep stalling my sister for as long as you can. I don't know how long I can hold out, but I need this retreat for the sake of my sanity. If I know her at all – if I know Flash at all – if either of them want to find me, they will come here. Go back to the palace, Glimmerhorn, and send me the same lot of papers as this morning as soon as they hit the newsstands."
"I…" Glimmerhorn's mouth hung open for a moment, as if struggling with something within himself, then he closed it. The unicorn hung his head. "What you order, Princess, I must obey, no matter how strongly I disagree with this course of action. Good night." With those closing words, Glimmerhorn's horn glowed with a sparking golden light. In another moment, the unicorn was no longer in the little cottage. There was no great sound or flash or rushing wind to accompany the spell, but that was Glimmerhorn's style through and through: all substance, no frills.
Luna stood in the silence for a few minutes just breathing in the still air left in the wake of Glimmerhorn's departure. She did not turn around, but simply looked up at the sky outside of the picture window. Behind her, the paintbrush began to move again…
Thump. Thump. Thump. "'peshal 'livry!"
Luna was prepared this time. A fresh dozen oat-berry muffins sat cooling in their tin, perfectly timed with the sunrise. The knock at the door had come nearly exactly 24 hours after the first. Ditzy was punctual, if nothing else.
"Enter!" Luna called, and pulled the door open to see the grey mailmare looking somewhat… off. She seemed to sway a bit on her hooves, and both of her amber eyes wandered freely. She held not one, but two boxes wrapped in plain brown paper tied together with twine from her mouth. She did not look to have set them down when she knocked on the door. Which would mean… did she really just knock on the door with her head?
"Ditzy, are you all right?" Luna asked, concerned, as the mailmare walked woozily inside.
"Autological!" said Ditzy brightly, which was answered by a quiet giggle from behind. Luna blinked and craned her head. Standing in the doorway behind Ditzy was, no other way to put it, a smaller Ditzy, but not quite. The little filly couldn't be more than a few years old at the most, probably not even of schooling age. She had the mailmare's exact grey colouration and blonde mane, but hers had the slightest curl to the tips, unlike Ditzy's, which was straight as straw. But perhaps most striking was that she was not a pegasus.
"Are you… Dinky Doo?" Luna asked the little unicorn. At the question, the filly smiled and nodded shyly. She walked on hoof-tips inside, standing directly behind her mother, who had now regained the use of her right eye and was attempting to undo the twine binding the packages together. Without the depth perception of two eyes, though, she only managed to fiddle with the empty air.
"I'll get it, mommy," the filly said quietly, using her hooves to pull apart the tight knots of twine.
"Thank you, Dinky. Sorry about that, Miss Princess Ma'am," said Ditzy, grinning sheepishly. The mailmare turned back to Luna before the smell of muffins wended its tantalizing way into her nostrils. "Are you exp-p-pecting someone else, or is that for… us?" Ditzy licked a thin trail from the side of her snout and gazed longingly at the fresh-baked pastries in the kitchen.
"That's all for you. I practiced using the method you demonstrated to me last time."
"Remember: it's quarter-turn, scoop, fold. One-two-three, like that," said Ditzy, her attitude one of grave earnestness for a moment. Then her features softened and she said, "Dinky, would you like a muffin the nice Princess made for us?"
"You go first, mama," Dinky replied, staring at Luna now. Ditzy did not waste a moment. Without another word, she began to swallow up the warm muffins in three or four bites each, making vaguely appreciative humming sounds in her throat. All the while, Dinky continued to stare at Princess Luna, the filly's expression unreadable.
"Er… yes?" Luna finally said, shifting her hooves uncomfortably. Dinky muttered something under her breath which was drowned out by the sounds of muffin gluttony coming from the kitchen. Luna brought her face closer to Dinky so that their horns were almost touching. "I'm sorry, little one, what was that?"
"…thank you for being nice to my mommy," Dinky repeated, turning her eyes to the floor.
Luna had lived for a long, long time. But, she reflected, there were some things that no amount of time could ever adequately prepare you for. Out of the mouth of foals…
Dinky didn't wait for a response from the flabbergasted Princess, who felt as though her mouth had been filled with socks and probably couldn't have answered if she had tried. The unicorn picked out a muffin for herself from the pan (what Ditzy's appetite hadn't already demolished into crumbs) and began to eat in petite child's bites. Luna simply watched the two carry on that way for a while until Ditzy had polished off eight muffins by herself. The mailmare licked her lips appreciatively.
"Oaklie! You be a good girl for the nice Princess, Muffin. I'll be back after I finish my route to pick you up."
"Alright, mama! Have fun at work!" Dinky replied, nuzzling her mother's snout in an affectionate gesture.
"What? Wait, Ditzy! Do you mean you're just leaving your daughter here with me?" Luna almost shouted, regaining her composure very quickly. Was this some sort of joke between the two? Had she made any agreement of the sort?
"Yepples! Playschool doesn't meet this week and Dinky needed a place to stay for the day while I make my rounds. You're a nice pony, Miss Princess Ma'am. I know I can trust you to be good to my Dinky. Thank you, good-bye!"
"Mama, that's a wall. Not the door."
"You've got such good eyes, Muffin."
Time seemed to pass very slowly during that first hour alone with Dinky Doo. Having been so long imprisoned in the moon, Luna was herself very familiar with time dilation in nearly all of its flavours. But, she had to admit, being stuck alone in a tiny mountain cottage with a young filly who would barely say a word was one of the longest. In the first hour, Luna had offered to have the filly help her bake something, perhaps even show her a thing or two in the art that she had missed in the last thousand years.
"'m not hungry."
In the second hour, Luna had tried to think of what games she and Celestia used to play together before the governance of a country took over the bulk of their lives. There was rock skipping, but that had to be done at the edge of the seashore or a lake, and this place was neither. There was hide-and-seek, but when she and Celestia played that, they had the whole wide world of Equestria to work in; Luna much doubted that Dinky could run for more than a league, and what kind of game was that? There was always magician's duels… don't be stupid! Luna mentally chided herself after giving that thought far longer consideration than it was due. Finally, she decided simply to ask. After all, surely the foals of today had invented many new games for themselves in the last thousand years.
"Dinky? Would you like to play a game?"
"'m alright, thanks…"
Well, if not games and not baking, what else was there to do to interest a young filly? The awkward silences seemed to stretch out the quiet minutes, and all the shy filly would or could do was shuffle her hooves uncomfortably on the floor.
And then, out of desperation, an idea emerged. Luna smirked, perhaps a bit too mischievously. The Moon Goddess took hold of the little paintbrush with her magic, dipping the tip into the bottle of white paint. Then, carefully, so, so carefully to not drop paint onto the drawing on the blotting paper, Luna moved the brush to Dinky and held it until she felt the filly's uncertain magic take hold of it. Dinky hesitated for a moment, but Luna gestured toward the easel. Dinky looked at the image on the blotting paper long and hard.
"What is it?" she said, for the first time not mumbling when speaking to Luna.
"It can be whatever you want it to be," said Luna. Dinky stared at the blotting paper in her quiet way for a long while after that, but the air in the cottage had changed. There was no more of the nervous tension that had infected the past hours. Now there was only thought and the germinating seed of creation. Luna held her breath as Dinky shakily brought the tip of the brush down toward the paper. The filly's ears were laid back, her brow furrowed in concentration.
In the next moment, there was a milky smear across the thigh of Canis Major. It was absurd. That was a thousand years of order in the cosmos – more, even – undone in an instant. Luna just threw back her head and laughed.
"Go on. Keep going," Luna urged the unsure filly. In another instant, Orion had another belt above the first. Ridiculous. That would take a whole night of ritual magic to repair, if it could even be done at all without the cooperation of Celestia. "Again! Go on!"
More streaks joined the first, and soon the night sky was a series of intersecting spirals, circles, and quadrilaterals of all shapes and sizes. Luna fell to the floor, laughing until tears flowed from her eyes. In only a minute, one immense, self-destructive minute, a filly too young even to be in school had undone the work of centuries. Oh, she could not wait to see the sky this Night. Let the papers make something of that!
There was a tapping on her shoulder. Luna stopped laughing and opened her eyes to see Dinky standing over her, apparently unconcerned with this wild behaviour.
"I'm out of paint, Miss Princess."
Not long afterwards, the alicorn goddess of the night and unicorn filly sat around the cottage's kitchen table, steaming mugs of sweet cocoa in front of each. The cocoa bean had been one of Luna's own plant designs after the foundation of the world, but it was Celestia's priests that really managed to do wonders with it. Luna had always been fond of the bitter, savoury drink of the priests made from the dried beans ground to a paste, but this new drink was nothing like that old treat. It was milky, thick, and rich with cream and came from a fine powder that only needed the addition of water. It was also much better.
The sweet drink did foam up rather spectacularly, and Luna had to lick away this tasty remnant from around her lips from the bottom of the mug before she spoke. There was something very odd about the grey mailmare named Ditzy Doo, something more to her that lingered just out of sight or observation, but Luna reasoned that these could all be answered by the reticent Dinky if she could only tease them out in the right way. "Dinky, I'd like to ask you a few things if I could. You don't have to answer me if you don't want to."
"Why wouldn't I want to, Miss Princess?" said Dinky, a dollop of sugary foam hanging on the tip of her snout. "You were good to my mommy and let me draw what I wanted to draw. Whenever Missus Cheerilee watches us foals we never get to make pictures of what we want."
"I'm just a bit curious about some things. Your mother certainly has her heart in all the right places, and I don't know if I've met anypony as warm as she is, or as, well…" Luna trailed off, unable to find a word that could encompass all of the tics and oddities that made up Ditzy Doo's unique bearing.
"Different?" Dinky provided. The filly's voice sounded sad in the way that only a small child can be.
"Yes," replied Luna, growing rather flush in the cheeks. Stupid! Why had she asked that? She could see Dinky retreating back into her shell before her very eyes-
"My mommy's a clever pony, Miss Princess," said Dinky suddenly, and Luna was jilted out of her thoughts. "Lots of ponies make fun of her 'cause she can't see too good and sometimes she doesn't say the right word to go with the rest of what she says. But you can't decide just on that, ma'am. You just have to know what to look for."
What did somepony say to that? Fortunately, she didn't have to. A torrent of words began to flow out of the filly like a trickle through a dam that had broken free of its prison and had become a freeflow once more. "Mommy says she doesn't know where I came from, but she lies when she says that 'cause whenever I ask her about it both her eyes go all shifty and that means she's thinking real hard about something, and she always says that one day she put a great big bowl of muffin batter in the oven and when she pulled it out there I was, but even I know that isn't true because she knows so much about muffins and you'd get a quick bread if you did that and not a muffin. Everypony in Ponyville knows that my mommy's job is to be the mailmare, but that isn't what her cutie mark is at all and I hear the other fillies at playschool laughing about her at recess about how she always flies into other pegasuses or walls when she's delivering the mail, but she's only got one good eye at a time so it's not fair! And sometimes I hear her at night talking to herself about 'frak-tulls' and 'un-ser-ten-tees' and other stuff I don't know about but she says she doesn't remember what she talked about, but you know what, Miss Princess? I don't think she wants to remember it, like there's something bad she had to get away from so she can't talk about it much, even to me. That's what I think."
Luna hesitated. The filly had certainly been… open, that much was sure, and the answers to some of Luna's questions were somewhere in that monologue, if she could remember it. That would have to wait, for Luna now had another problem on her hooves: a shy child on the verge of tears.
"Dinky." The filly did not even look up, her eyes staring into the dark-brown dregs at the bottom of her cocoa mug, but clearly not seeing. "Dinky." Still nothing. The filly's body began to shake, wracked by the beginnings of silent sobs. Luna hesitated, sighed, and drew in a long, deep breath.
"Dinky Doo, please, stop!" Luna said quietly, but the words carried with them the force of a thousand shouts. They were vested with the pain and sorrow of a thousand year exile, alone and isolated from her people, her children, though only the tiniest whiff of this stale suffering did Luna allow into the magic behind those words. She would not inflict the full force of that bleak time on anypony, let alone a child. The magic was only enough to give understanding to whatever it touched, and in this it was successful. Dinky Doo looked up at Princess Luna, her eyes growing wider than her hooves.
"W-what did you-?" Dinky stammered, but Luna cut her off, speaking in the soft, matronly voice that her sister often employed.
"Dinky, I want to show you something," said Luna, and motioned with a jerk of the head for the filly to follow. The two crossed to the atelier where the two packages from Glimmerhorn sat, discarded for now. Knowing well what was in the first, Luna tore the brown paper with her forehooves and upended the box onto the floor. Out of the box came a cascade of newspapers from all over Equestria, both national and local, full-colour and black-and-white, each tightly rolled and bound in packing twine. As before, as always these days, each and every one was plastered with one of Sudden Flash's clandestine photos, this one held in reserve from an unfortunate incident with a microwave oven that happened not long after Luna's return from exile. Where in Equestria had he hidden to get that one? Luna unfurled one of the rolls that turned out to be the early edition of the Baltimare Register. She had to fight the strong urge to apply a hoof directly to her own forehead as she quickly skimmed the text. Great pulsars, that was the first time she had seen microwave popcorn! How was she to know it popped and exploded that way without any warning, and how had anypony managed to extrapolate that to Princess Luna Balks at Modern Convenience; Cloudsdale Technologies Chaircolt Responds?
"Miss Princess, it's you on the paper!" Dinky said, as sweet and innocent and amazed as only a child could be.
"It is," Luna agreed. Just like every other day. "But it doesn't say nice things about me. Most of the time, the things they say might not necessarily even be true, except only in a very certain way. So believe me, Dinky: I know what your mother feels like. I once thought that no one in the whole wide world loved me, and not even the closest pony to me in my family could convince me otherwise. It wasn't true, though, and I ended up hurting everypony around me – and a lot of ponies I never even met – because I got so jealous and resentful and stored all that up inside. Your mama doesn't do that. I can tell a lot about a pony just by looking at them, and I know Ditzy doesn't have a spiteful bone in her body. Ponies like her don't do what I did. They might not have everypony love them or even like them; a lot of ponies still haven't forgiven me for what I did a th- a long time ago. But when ponies like her do make friends, they make them for life. Dinky, there's ponies out there that love your mommy dearly. You can trust me on that."
Dinky did not say anything for some minutes after Luna had finished. The filly seemed to be thinking deeply about something. She began to read the unfurled copy of the Baltimore Register, her unpracticed eyes slowly tracking across the page. Luna regarded the Dinky's handiwork on her atelier, grimacing a bit as the full force of what she had allowed to happen came home. She was apologizing silently to her sister, the royal astronomers – oh, there would be a happy bunch when she returned to the city – to all the sailors in the Equestrian Navy who would not have the guiding light of the stars in their proper places for the night, and cosmos only knew how long thereafter. That was interrupted by Dinky's quiet touch on her shoulder.
"Please be a good friend to my mommy, Miss Princess, just like you said. I think you understand her and I like you, too. You're pretty and nice and you smell good." Dinky pressed up close to the Princess, and they looked out of the picture window together. Luna felt as though something warm and liquid quite apart from the cocoa had dropped into her stomach and was spreading out, making her feel warm and peaceful all over.
"I… will try, Dinky. It has been a long time since I have been anyone's friend. I'm not truly sure that I remember how. You two will need to be patient with me," Luna said.
"That's alright, Miss Princess," Dinky replied with a giggle. "It's not that hard. But what's in the other box?"
"That's… actually rather a good question." Luna's horn glowed as she raised the box up into the air and gave it an experimental shake. The unmistakable sound of tightly-rolled balls of fabric bouncing against cardboard answered back. Luna had become all too familiar with that sound lately.
"Do you need any extra socks, Dinky?"
"Mama!" Dinky cried excitedly as Luna opened the cottage door late in the afternoon. Ditzy Doo stooped down and gave her daughter a quick nuzzle on the neck as greeting.
"Haillo, muffin! Did you have a nice time with the Princess?"
"I did mommy! We talked and played games and Miss Princess let me draw things and then we had cocoa!"
"And what do you say for the nice fluffy green socks?" said Ditzy, noting the fresh quartet of warm woolen socks on her daughter's hooves.
"Thank you for the socks, Miss Princess!"
Ditzy smiled and crossed the room to where Luna stood by the picture window, feeling rather self-conscious after the soul-baring talk with Dinky. The mother and mailmare fixed her with a stare that was surprisingly direct, and Luna saw that neither of her eyes were roving.
"I'm sorry for bringing all this on you without any warning like that, your Highness," Ditzy said, suddenly more coldly lucid than Luna had ever heard the mailmare before.
"Don't apologize, Ditzy. If anything, I should be the one sorry."
"Prepositions! You have nothing to be sorry about. You were good and kind to my Dinky, and that's all I need to know. You're a good Pony, Princess Luna. You are a very good pony."
"No, Ditzy, I don't mean that. I mean – well, I've been acting like a moonstruck foal these last few weeks. I've caused the people to doubt me, my own sister to worry over me, and now – well, I let something rather stupid happen today, something that will take me ages to fix. I just hope that Equestria can forgive me for being so self-" Luna could say no more, her words cut off by an affectionate nuzzle from the mailmare. The Moon Goddess stood shock-still, too surprised to move.
Unfortunately, it was just then that a familiar black winged figure chose to reappear, clicking that infernal camera and flashing the mares through the glass of the picture window. In the next few stunned seconds, Sudden Flash gave a cocky little grin, slung his camera round about his neck, and waved to the stunned Luna and Ditzy before rocketing off toward the towering spires of Canterlot blazing gold in the setting sun.
For a moment, there was only silence in the cottage, but Luna glared out after the pegasus, her eyes glowing teal in cold fury. Wordlessly, she spread her wings and her horn, and her whole body became wrapped in silvery light.
"I have had quite enough of this!" the Moon Goddess said, stamping her front hooves to the ground. The beautiful picture window shattered outward, the glass atomized to sandy dust in an instant. Luna crouched and tensed her muscles to leap out of the window, but Ditzy was in the air and out over the trees before she could spring. The cold glow in Luna's eyes died out in a blink. "I – Ditzy, wait!"
"I'll be fulsome, Miss Princess Ma'am! You just bring Dinky along and trust me!" Ditzy called back. The mailmare was clearly flying flat-out, though her flight path bobbed and weaved where Flash's was straight, and thanks to their late exchange Sudden Flash now knew of his pursuer. Even so, Ditzy was remarkably fast with empty saddlebags. The black pegasus glanced back to see Ditzy within a yard or two of his flanks, much closer than he would like, affixing him with the stare of one determined eye.
"Mule cloppers!" Sudden Flash said, gritting his teeth against the wind, twisting himself upward and ascending at a ninety degree angle to the ground. Ditzy followed, turning a few rolls in the air before she was properly oriented. Flash had gained a precious few seconds on the mailmare, but Luna saw Ditzy shake her head and redouble her efforts to get on a level plane with Sudden Flash, beating her wings with a sudden fervor that was almost frightening.
"You shallot swear like that. I have a filly, don't want her picking up the litter!" Ditzy responded, gasping a bit after regaining a bit of her advantage and sure that Sudden Flash could hear her over the rush of air around the two pegasi.
"Sod to you and your filly, madam! The royal guards have never caught me yet; what makes you think that you can?" Flash spat back. Ditzy made no reply. Any words would just be wasted breath.
"She'll never catch him on her own… what is that pegasus thinking?" Luna muttered, watching the two fliers jig and yaw all over the sky, caught up in their own efforts.
"She's thinking of you, Miss Princess," said a voice from around Luna's flanks. Luna turned and saw Dinky gazing out of the window, pride in her mother beaming out of every inch of the little filly. "That's what friends do."
Was that why she felt so... warm? Was this what friendship meant? If this was the power that had conquered Nightmare Moon, Luna reasoned, then she ought to embrace it at all costs. "There's something I learned about friends not too long ago, Dinky. Friends don't let other friends go it alone. Hold on!" Luna shouted, grabbing onto Dinky Doo with every ounce of concentration she could spare before leaping out of the broken window. The filly's startled screams soon turned to squeals of delight at the sensation of free flight without the need for a saddle. Luna heard none of this, however. Her eyes saw only the desperate dance between pursuer and pursued up among the clouds. Sudden Flash noted her coming and growled. Without warning, the black pegasus twisted his body downward and quickly reversed direction, this time heading back toward Ponyville in the valley floor below. Ditzy saw this but simply couldn't match the deft aerial maneuvers of her quarry she slowed to match Luna and Dinky's pace. The mailmare was panting heavily.
"I… just can't seem to… gratch at him, Miss Princess!" Ditzy puffed.
"Ditzy, we need to be quick. That pony is named 'Flash' for a reason! I'm going to catch up to him and try to make him careless. I want you to fly up as high as you can and wait until you see a good opportunity. Then do whatever you can!"
"Oakley… Miss Princess! Are you having fun… muffin?"
"Uh huh!" Dinky piped, grinning from ear to ear. At the affirmation, Ditzy and Luna nodded to each other and broke away, Ditzy upward, Luna downward. Luna angled herself into a dive, folding her wings around herself and Dinky. By the moon itself, why had she actually acquiesced to bring the filly along? This was ludicrously dangerous! But as if reading her thoughts, perhaps a worried twitch of the eyes giving her away, Dinky spoke up again. "Mommy takes me flying all the time, Miss Princess! It's alright! I know how to make myself fall real slow. Mommy made me learn how!"
Well, that was some small comfort at least. Below her, Flash had broken out of his dive and flattened out his trajectory over the roofs of Ponyville. He was cutting it very fine, Luna noted, lessening the chance that any pursuer would dare to follow him too closely. As she got closer, Luna saw that the ponies gathered in the center of town were pointing up to the display overhead; she imagined that she could almost hear their collective gasps from this height. Several weather patrol pegasi abandoned their clouds. Where was the Element of Loyalty? Surely she would have noticed the disturbance by now?
"Hey! Just what do you think you're doing, bud?"
Speak of the devil, Luna thought. A streak of blue and rainbow hues of a mane shot up from the ground toward the black pegasus, who spread his wings to slow his momentum and brought his camera up in one smooth motion. Three short successive magnesium flashes followed, each aimed directly at the eyes of one approaching Rainbow Dash of Ponyville. The shots, unfortunately, had exactly their intended effect. With a not-so-graceful cry of "Ack!" the new pursuer went careening spectacularly off-course and was stopped only by the outer wall of the local bakery. Flash replaced his precious camera and threw a glance behind him to see a very angry, rapidly-approaching alicorn. Oh, yes, how he flew after that, Luna mused acidly.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to Luna. She did not really need to stop him after all. The Moon Goddess smirked and looked upward. There! Ditzy was in position, stationary over Ponyville, just as directed.
"Flash! You've gone too far this time!" Luna shouted, making absolutely sure that she would be heard. "Look. At. Me!" Sudden Flash did. The black pegasus turned around, grinning his insufferable grin, camera already in hooves.
"I never thought to see you do something so reckless, my Princess!" Flash said, bright white flashes coming one after the other. "Isn't it rather dangerous for a filly to be carted about through the air with nothing but sheer magical will holding her in place? I do not say it is criminal, but some parties would pay dearly for the privilege of seeing what I memorialize here. Are you quite ready to let me photograph you on your terms, or shall we continue seeing each other like this?"
"You're a bad stallion," Dinky said, her child's body shaking from adrenaline or anger or some mixture of the two. "You're a mean pony. It was you who put pictures of Miss Princess into the paper, wasn't it?"
"Guilty as charged, my dear," said Flash, and tensed himself for another rocketing sprint. This time, Luna was expecting the motion, and as soon as she saw Flash's wing muscles begin to tighten, she acted. With a flick of her head, she sent Flash's camera hurtling skyward from the strap around his neck. Quickly, almost mechanically, Sudden Flash hurtled up after it, but this time he did not catch it. A blur of grey streaked past, and after is passed the camera was no longer falling along its original trajectory. Flash slowed and stopped, hovering with slow, strong wing beats, eyes widening as he began to take in just what had happened.
Ditzy had gotten the camera.
"No!" Sudden Flash shouted, casting about frantically for the grey mailmare. He found her hovering a bit to the west, grinning a sheepish, cross-eyed grin. Flash's expression was that of a wild pony as he barreled toward her, forehooves outstretched, but Ditzy was one step ahead. She gave a rather dopey grin of her own and tossed the camera into the air and bucked it downward, sending the accursed device off into freefall toward the ground with a shattering noise.
Sudden Flash slowed and stopped in the air, hovering numbly with slow, steady wing beats. He could dive for the camera of course, and could probably catch it with his speed, but what would be the point? He had heard the shatter as well as any of them. In the Ponyville streets below, those unfortunate enough to be in the path of the falling camera scattered, and a small sound quite precisely like a wooden box filled with delicate film and glass and metal components exploding on cobblestones floated upward into the air. Sudden Flash turned his head to face Luna with glazed eyes.
"You ruin me, Princess. You ruin me! Everything I have, everything I am, you have just broken! What am I going to do now?" Flash's voice was hollow, insensible. Luna shook her head.
"Ground, Flash. Then we talk."
"Way to go, mommy!" Ditzy cried, clapping her stocking hooves together. Ditzy just smiled that same dopey smile and looked embarrassed.
The citizens of Ponyville left a wide berth as the two pegasi and their Princess landed in the town square around the shattered remains of what had surely been a delicate – and expensive – piece of equipment. Sudden Flash simply stood staring at the remains, the film roll unfurled in the dusky light of the setting sun, completely overexposed. So much patience, so many hours wasted lay in the dust.
To her own surprise, Luna felt sorry for Sudden Flash. This was a shell of a pony, Luna thought. Sudden Flash might recover, but the perfect photographer had been bested. Would any of his clients still buy from a pony that had failed to "get the story" once, as he boasted?
Once on the ground, Dinky ran to her mother and hugged herself close, brimming with excitement. The citizens of Ponyville knew the grey pegasus, but the other shape in the sky had not been clear to them. When they saw that the mysterious pony was the younger Princess, a murmur ran through the crowd and gradually the ponies gathered in the crowd sank to their knees in reverent bows. Seeing the rest behaving in this way, Ditzy looked uncertain for a moment, then began to stoop her forelegs into a bow as well. Luna had to intervene.
"No, Ditzy. You are a friend, not a servant. You need not bow to me," Luna said, feeling happier than she had been in a very long time. Returning from the moon and accepting the grace and forgiveness of her sister had been one thing, but she found that to have somepony she could call a true friend was another sort of happiness entirely, one that she had forgotten after a thousand years of exile. At these words, another murmur ran through the crowd, this one of confusion and surprise. Ditzy? Had the Princess just said that to Ditzy, of all ponies? Luna sighed. She really ought to clarify before somepony spun that to make it seem as though the Moon Goddess had taken a lover on her clandestine retreat.
"Hear me, citizens of Ponyville! When I came to your town, I originally could not even bring myself to set hoof within its boundaries. I only wanted to be alone, and some ponies," and here Luna cast a meaningful glance at the near-catatonic Sudden Flash, "decided that my desire for solitude belied the fact that I am goddess and co-ruler of Equestria and thus fit to rule by right. Many ponies seemed to make their living off of perpetuating this lie, which drove me into seclusion because I could not handle the thought of being rejected by my own people. This ends tonight."
Luna spread her wings and her eyes again took on the teal glow of divine power, and when she spoke, her voice was amplified many times over. "I am Luna," she began. Uttering her own name brought with it a host of other associations, to which she also gave voice. "I am one of only two creator goddesses and co-ruler of all Equestria, giver of the Night and all its many wonders, mover of the moon through the heavens. I am the younger and lesser of the two lights to roam the heavens, but I stood with my sister at the foundation of the world. I grew resentful, rose up against my sister, and was imprisoned in my moon for a thousand years. I have lived long, and I shall endure to the end when even magic as strong as my own shall fail. I am sister to Celestia who sits in court in Canterlot and I am fit to rule this land!" Luna then closed her eyes and her whole body seemed to glow as the last of Celestia's sun fell below the horizon and her own moon rose up from behind, silvery and proud.
"Well done, Princess." The glow died from Luna's eyes and she whirled around. That voice…
"Glimmerhorn?" It was indeed. Her white unicorn guardsman was standing next to Sudden Flash, both of whom were looking at her with identical satisfied expressions on their faces. Luna blinked. "Glimmerhorn, what is this? What duty do you have in Ponyville?" Glimmerhorn only laughed.
"Oh, Highness, haven't you figured it all out yet?" Glimmerhorn said with fox-like mischief in every word. For once, Luna noted, he was divested of his armour. "Haven't you at least suspected that there was something strange in the fact that every newspaper in Equestria was running similar stories and similar photos? Isn't it clear yet how Sudden Flash could know of your every move and manage to outrun the royal guardsponies and sneak into the palace unnoticed in spite of every precaution? Haven't you ever yet noticed that I have never shown my cutie mark to you?" Glimmerhorn smirked and turned, now unencumbered by plates of golden metal, so that his flank would be visible to the Princess. Something within Luna's brain fell neatly into place when she saw it, for Glimmerhorn bore a cutie mark of a Palominian-style mask.
"You had orderlies to fulfill," Ditzy said, filling the silence. "It couldn't be done by lonesome if you wanted to!" Dinky was right, Luna thought. That is a clever pony.
"How did I not see all of this before? How long has this been going on?" Luna said, addressing both Sudden Flash and Glimmerhorn. This time, it was Sudden Flash who answered.
"The plan was in place from about a week after your return, Highness, after you started to hole yourself up in your library. I told you that your people wanted to know more about you, did I not? Now you can tell them yourself. Equestria needs both of its Princesses now. I regret nothing I did, but perhaps you can find a way to make use of me and my brother in the future if you ever have need of such duplicity yourself."
"Your brother?" Luna said, jaw hanging open for a moment before she caught herself and closed it.
"You never noticed the resemblance?" Glimmerhorn replied with a chuckle, moving himself closer to Sudden Flash. Now that Luna did look carefully, the build was slightly different, but the shapes of their faces were very similar, and – oh, sweet skies. The white manes were identical. "Pegasus father, unicorn mother. Princess Celestia has often made use of Flash and me when she needs two agents around a pony of interest that have no obvious associations with one another. As you can see, the ruse works."
Luna didn't say anything to that – not at first. Instead, the Moon Goddess simply looked up at the sky crisscrossed by lines of milky-white, shimmering light. Ugh. She had forgotten about that.
"Look, mommy! It's my drawing there, up in the sky!" Dinky said, the filly turning circles in delight.
"Aww, you drew me a tetracontaikaidihedron, muffin! That's my favourite shape!" Ditzy said, laughing with her daughter. Luna watched them carry on for a moment, then looked to see Sudden Flash and Glimmerhorn talking amicably to each other as they slipped off into the crowd. Luna turned her eyes back to the distant towers of Canterlot.
"Celestia, you devious little-"