written by: Reginart-Renart
reviewed by: Swiftest Shadow
How in Equestria had she managed to get lost here? Her, Twilight Sparkle, star pupil... no, only pupil of Princess Celestia, getting lost in the Royal Castle of Canterlot which she had called home for so many years? This was surreal! Unthinkable! It made no sense! And yet here she was, surrounded by unfamiliar stone walls and twisting passageways that did not strike a chord or ring a bell anywhere in her mind. Either the castle was a lot greater than she anticipated, never having been much of an explorer in her youth, or she had been in Ponyville a little too long. Perhaps the corridors had been redecorated? She certainly remember the lighting to be brighter before. She had to resort to a lighting spell, making a headlamp out of her horn.
Twilight tried a door. It gave into a large but very unfamiliar library. That was surprising. There were several libraries she had never needed, thus frequented. But one she had never even heard of or seen once? That was unheard of. She had made it a point of being aware of the location of every single library in the castle and seeing them at least once. But she wasn't after books right now, as surprising as that may have been and this place wasn't helping restore her sense of direction. So she closed it.
Whatever commotion was still going on at the Grand Galloping Gala, it did not disturb the absolute silence of this place. Spike was taking everypony on a small quick tour of the castle, but essentially taking them to their quarters. Twilight was going to join them. She wasn't going to isolate herself in her personal chambers while her friends were still in the castle. But she wanted to fetch something. That little item she had not thought of taking with her all that time ago. Yet she ended up here.
Several doors later, Twilight closed the door that led to a small study, tried the next one a few meters further down and froze. It was absolutely cavernous here, like she had walked into a cathedral. Twilight stepped back and looked at the last door she opened and back in the large room. No mistake. This hall extended well past where that small study should have been and yet there was no sigh of it, not even a box-like intrusion. Just flat wall. Then she recalled the lesson: architectural magic. Powerful unicorn architects could build structures that seemingly defied the laws of classical physics, fitting more space than was physically possible.
This particular room looked big enough to get lost in again, so Twilight moved to close the door. But the glow of her horn had cast a small flicker of illumination on the room and what she saw put a death grip on her curiosity.
This hall really was like a cathedral. Long, boxy, rectangular, mighty pillars rose from the ground all the way to a ceiling so high, Twilight could barely make out the pillars spreading, meeting each other in gothic pointed arches. The place was so big, four pillars supported the high ceiling width-wise. Beyond them, little sparkles. Going to her right, past the two pillars revealed the source of the twinkle: reflection of her horn's light off gold and silver frames.
The lavender unicorn couldn't help it. She called upon a different lighting spell, one with a bit more power. There was once a unicorn colt who cast the same spell, albeit with much more difficulty in a large dark place, not unlike this one. And he had been frightened out of his mind by the experience. Twilight, on the other hoof, felt something closer to shock and awe.
Portraits absolutely everywhere. As far as the glow of her horn would reach, almost every bit of wall had been covered by the framed paintings, some of which even had gems. Not two of them had quite the same size, proportions or frame design, an oddity considering the consistency prevalent in the rest of the castle.
Unicorns, fillies and colts, mares and stallions stood in almost every conceivable pose. Some were sitting, by a tree, at a desk, on very fancy seats while other stood. Some were seemingly floating off the ground and some were sleeping. One was hanging upside in the frame the way a certain pink pony would have been proud of. And those were just the ones she could see.
The only truly consistent part of the portraits were the two bottom corners, where three circles had been drawn. On the right, red green and blue circles and on the left, magenta, yellow and cyan. Most of the them had the circles touching each other, creating various different colours, combining into white on the right and black on the left. Yet quite a few had at least one circle completely isolated from the rest. Beneath each portrait hung a metal plaque matching the frame upon which the name of he pony had been engraved.
The portrait that gave the sparkles that attracted her was by far the largest. Bringing her horn higher, Twilight took a hasty step back. It was a portrait of her.
Twilight could never remember posing to have a portrait of her done. She was still a filly when it had been painted and was wearing a dress that would have made Rarity weep if she had tried to make it. It couldn't be normal fabric. It just couldn't. The drapes of cloth seemed to flow off her back, down her flank and legs like mist pouring down a hill side. The forms went into impossible shapes and connected n ways that defied sight. Stranger still, was her expression. She didn't recall ever giving that face to anypony.
In the bottom two corners, Twilight saw that her two circles were missing entirely. No. Not missing. But so faded, they were difficult to see.
Quickly, she walked of deeper into the hall, hoping to find another portrait as big or even bigger than hers. Twilight had felt a twinge of pride when she saw her portrait, and how it was at least twice as large as the next largest one. But now, considering how wrong she looked, Twilight had a surge of self-consciousness and hoped there would be another portrait to take the attention off hers. In fact, had it not been for her name being written on the plaque below, she would have seriously reconsidered if that was her at all.
When the door left the lighting provided by her horn, Twilight wondered if she should been worried. But the hall kept stretching forward in a straight line, so she reasoned that if there was a corner, she'd turn and go back straight away. But for the time being, she kept going forward. Just like at the entrance, portraits covered almost every bit of wall. But as Twilight glanced at them, she realized something odd was going on.
It wasn't that the portraits had faded or that they had been poorly painted. But none of the unicorns seemed to have faces. Which was ridiculous. She could very well the places where the paint had been applied, where the face should have been. She could make out the shapes and shades. But somehow, the whole thing refused to cohesively come together as a face, like her mind wasn't capable of understanding those faces.
Twilight finally stopped when she saw the end of the hall and found what she was looking for. It wasn't just bigger than hers. It was a gargantuan. Covering the entire wall, its frame had been carved out of a single block of amethyst. Twilight increased the intensity of her horn's light and took several steps back on her way to the its centre, struggling to see it all at once. Far taller, it was also far wider. A green bubble threatened to pop inside Twilight. It protested that her portrait should have remained the biggest one here. That this portrait was actually cheating.
Indeed, the unicorn filly only took the right half of the canvas, the left remaining completely blank. Her face was the only other one Twilight could see. The filly couldn't be any older than any of he Cutie Mark Crusaders. She stood in a royal, practiced formal pose, but her right leg was slightly off and betrayed the fact that she didn't want to be there, that she wanted to run away and hide. Her coat was a pearly, almost ghostly white. Her mane, flowing down the sides of her cheeks down to her shoulders in sumptuous curves Fluttershy would have envied, shared a similar if a bit softer shade of pink. But most striking of all were her deep ruby eyes. Twilight could feel herself getting lost in them.
There was a strangeness about them. The painter had done a magnificent job of them, no question there. An unspeakable silence came through those eyes, like they stared and saw things nopony else did. And what she saw filled her with sorrow. But there was also determination and resolve. What Twilight felt the most, however, was an unrelenting sense of dread and resignation, like somepony who knew their end was nigh and wanted to accept it with dignity.
"Is that you, Twilight Sparkle?" a voice called from somewhere far back, left behind in the darkness. But it was all too familiar.
"Princess Celestia." The lavender unicorn answered as her mentor stepped into the glow her horn cast. She gave a bow.
"What are you doing here?"
"I... got a bit lost and saw this... chamber and... had a look."
The alicorn had a small smile. "I suppose this is what I get from encouraging your curiosity so much."
Twilight gave a nervous chuckle, as the princess turned to the painting.
"She is quite a sight, isn't she?"
Twilight nodded. "I have never seen such a large painting before."
Princess Celestia's smile turned to a laugh. "The painter absolutely hated doing it. She told me that every stroke was a torturous experience. She never actually finished it." Celestia nodded to the empty left half.
"She said that?" Twilight gaped.
"I asked her to speak freely."
"But why would anyone hate doing such a painting?"
"For one thing," Celestia said, "it is a bit larger than what she was used to. For another, she was afraid of heights."
Twilights left a few seconds go by. She didn't know if it was appropriate to ask, but Princess Celestia had told her that all her questions should be asked. But did that apply outside an academic setting?
"Who... is she?"
Celestia seemed to consider how to answer the question as much as Twilight debated asking it. "My first student." she finally said.
Twilight felt her heart sink about five centimetres. She always... supposed that Princess Celestia had to have had other students before. She had an entire school after all. But she never asked her mentor about that and in many ways, she had hoped that she would be special in having Celestia as her mentor. But now...
"What was..." Twilight squinted at the plaque beneath the painting, "... Solena like?"
The unicorn looked out for the slightest sign of going too far. If Celestia as much as twitched in the wrong direction, she would be more than happy to put an end to this conversation. It really only served to feed the green monster that wanted to know how much of a threat a filly that probably died eons ago was to her current position. It was stupid. She shouldn't have asked. But the white alicorn was already walking down memory lane.
"Solena wasn't her name. It was her title." Princess Celestia finally said.
Twilight gave her a quizzical look.
"The title of Solena was not unlike yours today. She was my personal protégé at the time."
"Oh. Well, what was her name?"
Princess Celestia gave a sad smile. "I don't know."
Twilight did a double take. "I'm sorry?"
"I never knew her name. Things were different back then." Celestia sounded almost apologetic. "Solenae were called only by their title and eventually, it would replace their name. It symbolized absolute commitment to the position. I don't know if she even remembered her own name."
Twilight felt her guts go empty. She always thought of herself as extremely committed to her studies. But this? Forgetting your own name? Forgetting yourself? What would be left behind after all that? Twilight suddenly felt a warm surge of thankfulness towards her friends.
"Solena was the last one of her kind. There were no other solenae after her. I was so incredibly stupid at the time. I never realized the damage it was causing her. In many ways, Twilight, she reminds me of you. Very studious and a hard worker. A little too much in fact. She struggled in spite of me, but never truly tried to go beyond the boundaries I had set, even if they were crushing her. She missed out on so many golden opportunities in her life. Things she could have felt, seen, experienced, she only discovered much later, but it was too late by then."
Princess Celestia gave a bitter laugh.
"She was also amusingly altruistic. Her little sister, a Selena, would get her into a world of trouble and more often than not, she would pretend it was her fault or idea all along. I've lost track of the amount of times she was punished for something she never did."
"She had a little sister?"
"Who was a student as well. A Selena, like a Solena, was simply called by her title. Selena studied under Princess Luna."
"Princess Luna had students?"
"You sound surprised."
"Forgive me, Princess Celestia. I meant no offence."
"Then why the surprise? Unless you are insinuating you believe Princess Luna unfit to teach?"
"No! Not at all!"
"Then explain yourself."
Twilight swallowed hard. "It is simply that I never really... knew Princess Luna and-"
"Know Princess Luna, Twilight." Princess Celestia cut sharply. "Princess Luna is alive and well. You do not know Princess Luna."
Twilight could feel the sweat start to bead and perfuse through the fabric of her ruined gala dress. "Forgive me, Princess Celestia. I do not know Princess Luna and it just never really occurred to me that she may have once... been a teacher and-"
"That's enough, Twilight." Princess Celestia said. Her horn gave a small puff of light and Twilight felt the light from hers leave as if air had been sucked out of her lungs. The room was plunged into complete and absolute darkness. A second later, snowflakes of light began to flutter in the nothingness, falling from a cloud unseen. They cast the feeblest of light. Twilight could just make out the outline of her mentor as they fell on her and nothing else.
"Please follow the light. It will escort you back to your friends."
A second cloud was dropping snowflakes and began to move away. One last look at her teacher and Twilight knew this was her only chance to leave before things would get dire. She gave a bow again and almost ran full gallop at the quickly fading light. Her hooves clacked loudly.
The snowflakes didn't give enough light to see them, but Twilight could just feel the countless pairs of eyes from the portraits follow her as she passed. When she reached the doors, they silently swung open. But before she went through, Princess Celestia's voice resonated.
"One more thing, Twilight." It sounded so distant, it was dreamlike. "Please do not come back here again unless invited."
"Yes, Princess Celestia" Twilight said and walked out. The doors shut behind her, the booming sound echoing down the deserted halls.
From the shadows of the pillars, a black cloud swirl into existence. It spun itself into a conical mass before dissipating just as quickly, leaving a Princess Luna in the room.
"You did not have to send her away like that." she said, but quickly saw that maybe she did.
Celestia had slumped herself almost down to the cold marble floor, her head hanging as though it were too heavy to carry. Her wings, usually folded neatly or spread regally now hung uselessly by her sides, the feathers picking up dust. The aura of beauty and grace that she normally had with her was now gone, swallowed by the shadows around.
"You didn't have to tell it that way either."
"I told her the truth." Celestia muttered.
"No." Princess Luna walked closer and sat by the white alicorn. "You told her a truth. But you chose the one that causes you the most pain. Why punish yourself for that which has already been forgiven?"
"Pardon... must first be accorded by the self. One who is guilty at heart will never be innocent."
Luna leaned against her sister, muzzling her softly. "My dear sister. Open your heart to me. Let me see what ails you. Show me your guilt. Share with me what haunts you. That I may excise the pain from your heart."
For once in her life, Celestia felt small. In here, in this cavern, she tasted the bitterness of insignificance. Suddenly, she felt unworthy of having a loving sister like Luna.
"How can you speak this way, Luna?" she said, her face hidden behind her falling mane. "You offer me forgiveness, compassion and love when I have given you none of these things. What kind of heart beats beneath your bosom?"
Luna pulled Celestia's hair out of her eyes, placing it gently behind her back.
"I used to ask myself the same kind of questions, Celestia. A wise ruler once told me that here should be no end of compassion in a princess' heart. That there should be no act she cannot forgive. A wise ruler once pardoned me a lifetime of evil, saving me from an eternity of damnation. She threw herself to a world of silent suffering, of pain she cannot scream to lament. I used to wonder: what kind of heart did she possess to show love to such a being? And she told me that a sister's love was unconditional. That a sister's love would never falter.
"Those were the words that kept me going for a thousand years. When the sun was taken from me by the world, when the stars failed and went dark, your words made me remember who I was: a loved one. When you came to visit me, Celestia, I was shielded, hidden from you. But I always saw you clear as the day you bring forth. And I saw the ache you carried with you for my sake. The screams you never gave, the tears you never shed, I have heard and felt them both.
"You saved me from eternal suffering. Now let me do the same, Celestia. No one should have to suffer alone."
Celestia slowly turned towards her sister. For the first time, Luna noticed that the passing of time had made their mark on Celestia. The face, which a thousand years ago seemed like such a fertile land from which love seemed to grow, now seemed to have dried and cracked beneath a merciless sun.
"This is not illness or pain, Luna, but atonement. It is mine to bear."
"You wish to atone for a sin you did not commit, sister." Luna said, putting a wing on Celestia's back. "Just like old times."
written by: Reginart-Renart
reviewed by: Swiftest Shadow
More is not always better, especially when it comes to the Queens of Equestria. So, in one sense, it was a strange kind of setup that ended up becoming the norm at the court of Everfree Castle, with the garbs of royalty humbled by the one of nobility.
Atop the Oval Tower, the thrones looked down upon the nobles which had gathered for this most prestigious occasion. On the left stood the members of the court themselves. The ladies were dressed in a mind boggling variety of colours and designs. Ironically, the endless vista of poofy dresses, dragging scarves, ornamental laces of satin silk designed to 'make each and every pony stand out' only made it harder to see just where one mare ended and the other began, proving that herding did work. The stallions were hardly better. The outfits were just as glamorous and decorated with enough golden cords to weave into a rope, enough ribbons to make a sail and enough medals to built a suit of armour.
On the other side were the military ponies of the castle. Decurions, centurions, some with heir trusty optiones and of course, the inevitable crest bearers: the aquifers, all lined up in perfectly straight ranks. Clad in dress uniforms, their golden armour shone so bright, staring at the soldiers was akin staring at the sun in a mirror. When the sun came in right and shone upon all of them, it would look like half the hall was on fire. Their sapphire blue plumes on their helmets even looked like blue flames.
But she didn't care about either of them. As far as Selena was concerned, this was all quite tedious. In fact, it was so boring, the carpet that ran down the middle of the room was more interesting.
It was weaved out of a really interesting fabric which shimmered depending on how the light bounced off it. And because the floor beneath was a red and golden wood parquet and it was flanked by mighty marble columns, Selena liked to think that this was no throne room. Instead, it was uncharted territory in the middle of a forest. Two forest came head to head, exposing soil and dirt, kept at bay from each by a raging river. Right now, however, the three step platform she was sitting on was actually a lake that was the source of the river water.
Queen Solera didn't seem to think much of the Pegasus princess' interpretation of the Royal Throne Room, but Queen Serena and Princess Solena seemed interested enough. In fact, just yesterday, the she and her sister were playing in this very room. Now, that was a way to use this room. This perilous river roared as it rumbled on and like a savage snake, it devoured all who dared come near.
But it would never be enough to stop them. No, for they leaped fearless across it from one shore to the other, laughing at the face of death, unfearing the perils hiding in the waves. Well, she leaped across anyway. Solena preferred to keep her hooves on the ground, even if that was supposed to be a river. Sure, Solena was a unicorn unlike her, but that didn't mean she could not have leaped if she didn't want to. But she chose to walk across the river surface instead, crossing the river by riding it right on its surface.
That was yesterday though. Now, with the room filled with all the ponies of the court to welcome the guest, running was absolutely forbidden to the young princesses. Queen Solera made that absolutely clear about that and Queen Serena tried to speak as much sense into the fillies as possible.
"Tomorrow, we will be welcoming the unicorn stallion Ever Vigilant to Everfree Castle and celebrating his new post as Legate. It is a very formal event, so you will have to do as Queen Solera said. No running. I want you on your best lady behaviour, okay?"
"Is it going to be a very long thing, Queen Serena?" Selena asked, worried.
"Ceremony, Selena. A ceremony. It may last an hour or two, but no more than three."
The Pegasus princess groaned at the news. Two hours?
"Do I have to be there? Ceremonies are waaaay too boring."
Queen Serena chuckled. "Yes, I know. But those are part of our royal duties."
"But why do I have to be there? Solena and me never do anything except stand there. Maybe you could put a picture of us there?" she asked hopefully.
"It's not about seeing you there, Selena. The Legate coming will be part of the ponies that protect us. This is our way of welcoming him and thanking him for all the dangerous and hard work he has done and will be doing for us. It's a chance for us to show him our gratitude. Okay?"
So here she was. The problem was, Selena glanced at her sister, she just didn't have that kind of patience. What little stock of it she had, it had been depleted yesterday when she and Solena were getting their dresses made.
"Oh curses! Of course! You little fillies grow up so fast! Curse my lack of foresight!" the tailor would burst out while searching through what looked like an infinite array of fabrics and cloths that covered up an entire wall. And it was a big one. In fact, the unicorn had several apprentices that pushed him left and right on his rail-mounted ladder was he climbed up and down the horizontal bars, in search of that perfect combination of cloth and colour. Solena thought he looked like a woodpecker trying to decide where to dig on a tree, looking for grubs. All he was missing were the wings.
"Sir, if you need to, maybe I can talk to the Queens and get the ceremony pushed a day or two back? If you need the time." she offered shyly.
"That is very kind of you to offer, Your Highness." The unicorn said, looking down from the top of his ladder, "But you need not worry yourself on my behalf. Making two dresses in one day is not difficult to do. Besides, this is the formal, traditional Princess' Dress. There's not much in terms of design if any at all." The last part, the unicorn said sounding almost disappointed. "I'm sure that there will be other opportunities for me to make something for you in the future, right?"
Solena gave a polite smile and said 'yes,' but Selena remained silent as one of the assistants with a tape measurer seemingly measured everything about her. Some seemed normal enough, but she couldn't quite put her hoof on why they needed to know the distance between her ears. It was not like there would a dress there. As it turned out, however, Selena forgot that the traditional princess' formal dress also included at hat and now, she regretted not having stood still as the assistant had asked her to do: her ears were now being uncomfortably being pushed apart. As far as she was concerned, the less sitting still she had to do the better and this dress was not helping the tailor's case. Just to begin, she didn't even like the dress.
The Princess' Dress was an old traditional design and it unfortunately showed. The choice of colour, to begin, was a very unfortunate shade of brown that just looked dirty minus the satisfaction of getting dirty. Solena didn't seemed too thrill with the dress either, or even the tailor for that matter. When they went to pick them up in the evening, he didn't even bother asking them if they liked them.
They really didn't go with either of their coats either. Princess Solena had a white coat that gleamed softly in the light while her pink mane caressed the beholder's eyes with a soft shade of pink. But with the dress on, the effect was like a fine vase that was still half packed in wrapping paper... or had mud thrown at it. Selena was thankful that Solena had put hers on first. Upon seeing her sister, Selena decided she would not look into a mirror as long as she was still trapped inside that thing. Somehow, she couldn't conceive of a way it could look good against her deep blue coat and slightly lighter mane.
Selena gave a long sigh. She had to do something... anything.
"How bad do I look?" she asked her sister. But just like the last two times she asked, Solena kept staring forward, right down and centre.
"Hello? Are you there?" Selena asked, waving her hoof in front of her sister's muzzle.
"Shh! We're not supposed to talk." she whispered.
"I'm sorry, what was that?"
"We're not supposed to talk."
"We can't talk!" the white unicorn hissed, but meeped just after. An unseen hoof had smacked her from behind. She stared forward again.
Selena was suddenly glad that the seating arrangement placed her sister to her right, putting Queen Solera out of arms reach though she wasn't sure how good a shield Solena would be against the Queen's magic. But she was Queen Serena's student, so Queen Solera wouldn't be allowed to hit her, right?
"It's alright, Solena. you can talk now. It's when the Legion Prefect comes that you have to remain silent." Queen Serena softly said.
The little filly glanced uncertainly at her own mentor, whose gaze remained fixed on the doors at the other end of the hall, as if she was trying to break them open just by staring at them. Turning back at Selena, she shook her head, missing the dirty look Queen Solera shot at her own sister who simply returned a raised eyebrow and an impish smile. The elder queen returned to her attempts at staring down the door.
"Are we almost done yet?" Selena asked her mentor. The navy blue queen gave her student an amused smile.
"Done? We haven't begun." she said.
The night princess just wanted to plop herself down in frustration, but caught herself in time. They had thrones, but right now, they had to remain standing. That was one of the biggies, much to her annoyance. She wasn't tired of standing, just bored of it.
"Why do we have to wait for him?" she said.
"There are procedures to follow. I'm sure he will be here shortly. We also have to give time for the ponies of the court to arrive." Queen Serena patiently explained.
"Then couldn't we have come later too? Why do we have to be here so early?"
"Royal duties." the Pegasus Queen said, trying not to laugh at her charge's frustration.
"And why do I have to wear this stupid dress?" Selena said, tugging at the fabric.
"It's traditional." Serena replied. She had a feeling she was going to need this answer very often.
"But you're not wearing anything. Why can't we do that too? And it's ugly... and too hot."
Queen Serena had no horn, but that did not mean she could not use magic. A Queen's power did not stem from the horn, but from the heart and soul, something all ponies had. So much mysticism, just so she cooled the air around the two of them every so slightly.
"Better?" she asked.
Not really. It was just one less reason she had to complain about the dress. And honestly, the tailor had done a really good job keeping the dress from being too thick. In fact...
"No. It's too cold now." the filly muttered. The air warmed again and with nothing else to say, she remained quiet.
When the royal horns announced the arrival of the soon to be Legate, Selena gave an explosive sigh. Finally, this was going to be over soon. A stallion called from out in the hallway.
"Presenting the Legion Prefect Ever Vigilant."
"Let the Legion Prefect pass!" Queen Solera's voice boomed. From the corner of her eyes, Selena could have sworn she saw Solena's hooves leave the floor for a split second. She couldn't blame her. Her own teeth gave a worrisome groan and her ears were still ringing. It actually shook some dust off the ceiling. She was pretty sure the entire castle had to have heard her. Thankfully, that voice was only used in ceremonies and even then, for this one declaration.
Two guards pulled the heavy wooden doors open and what had to the biggest unicorn stallion Selena ever saw marched in. He had to be a head taller than any other pony in the room and was far wider. There was probably enough space between his strong, muscular shoulders to fit two, maybe three Selenas. In spite of sitting on a three steps high platform, Selena still had to look up to meet his eyes. They were a striking grey that seemed to extend the rest of his jet black coat, where the only other bit of colour was the silver fetlock near his hooves.
Unlike the other dress uniforms in the room, his dress uniform was a matte kind of silver and the little gold present was limited to ornamental wreaths that extended across the chest plate. On his helmet, the plume was made of deep emerald green feathers, but unlike most soldiers', his was fixed horizontally, like the tail feathers of a peacock. Attached to his shoulders was a long matching velvet green cape that dragged behind him. Selena was certain that if she and her sister jumped on, he would probably keep walking as if nothing was. She wondered if he'd even notice. It was almost too tempting.
As he passed, the armour clad ponies would snap their head to their right and one row at a time, they raised onto their hind legs, performing the ceremonial salute: forehooves in the air, the right one held above the left, off set to create a diagonal line between the two. As he passed, they would snap down and when they landed, it sounded like someone had set off a firecracker. Solena jumped every time. Her poor sister just wasn't very steady on her hooves, Selena thought.
"Legion Prefect Ever Vigilant greets their Royal Highnesses. Golden Sun, Silver Moon! All hail to the Queens! All hail the Princesses!"
His voice had a melodious yet thunderous quality about it. It was a whisper compared to Queen Solera's earlier shout, but his voice resonated with a kind of power that was nonetheless awe inspiring, the kind that made ponies shout "Yes! My Lord!" even as they were ordered onto the brinks of hell and beyond.
But Selena soon began to look at everything but where she was supposed to. Ever Vigilant was big and probably strong enough to carry three other ponies on his back and still run at full gallop, but once Selena got past that, he simply became another pony like so many others. And ponies who stand still don’t entertain little fillies.
Instead, she turned her attention to the columns in the hall and immediately felt lighter at the prospect of flying through them. Sure, she couldn’t fly yet, but had to be just a matter of time. Besides, if he taught her, she was sure she would learn very fast. Selena’s heart fluttered, almost leaving the rest of the body behind at the thought of him teaching her how to take off and then slalom around all those pillars. She wondered if he was here. Where was the Decurion?
Looking around the hall, she studied every soldier in the room, looking for a white Pegasus, which essentially narrowed her search by one pony, the black one in silver armour. It also would have helped if they weren’t wearing Light Masks Queen Solera had created, which made even the ponies faces look alike. But Selena wouldn’t give up.
The ones standing by the door were not it, neither were the ones standing around the perimeter. So Selena resolved herself to go through all of the ponies that were now standing in rank. Where was he? The first row wasn’t too difficult to scan, but by the time she got to the third, half the faces were completely obstructed by the plumes of the ponies in front
She was pulled out of her search by an urgent tap on her shoulder.
“”Princess, your blessings!” Queen Serena hissed.
Selena realized that all the hundreds of pairs of eyes in the hall were now fixed upon her and she suddenly wished that the traditional princess’ dress also included a mask she could hide behind. Facing the prospect of having to fill this entire hall with words, her voice deserted her, as did any recollection of what she was supposed to say.
“I, uh, I…”
Selena glanced frantically at her sister, but the unicorn stared back eyes just as nervous as hers.
“What are you doing?” she lipped. The Legate had bowed his head and lowered himself onto his right foreknee.
“What do I say?” Selena replied just as noiselessly.
“Your blessings! Welcome him!”
Right. Now she remembered. But the Pegasus princess now had to contend with trying to give a speech while standing on what felt like four columns of cotton.
“Um… I, uh, Princess Selena, welcome you, decu-, I mean, Legate to the Everfree Castle.” The last words sounded like they had come out of a deflating balloon, squeaking out of existence. When nothing else was said, the hall gave a few stomps at the words of the princess, but they may as well have been booing her off stage. Princess Solena quickly stepped forward and all eyes in the room mercifully turned to her instead.
The little white filly felt her chest tighten, but she knew what was going to come to her if she failed. And looking back at her sister, she had to help her regain some honour. She cleared her throat. Just like she practiced, she kept thinking.
“Legion Prefect Ever Vigilant.” She began, her right forehoof shaking almost incontrollably, so much she could almost hear it beat against the floor, “The Princesses of Equestria hereby acknowledge you as Legate of the Royal Legion. Courage, Valour and Loyalty. Long may you defend the Royal House. Arise, Legate.” She resisted the urge to sigh in relief. It wasn’t quite over yet.
“Yes, Your Highnessses!” he bellowed as he stood.
For a second, there was silence. Solena had just delivered her sister’s speech. Normally, as she would step forward now, he would kneel automatically. She was already in front now though. She shouldn’t have asked him to rise. Now what?
“Kneel, Legate.” Solena ventured. He didn’t look surprised, so she guessed she said the right thing. If only she knew it was only because his face had years of practice in the art of staying perfectly stoic.
“Legate of the Royal Legion, Ever Vigilant, on this day, the Royal House of Equestria recognizes your valour and your bravery. Today, the path to the Hall of the Praetorian Guards opens itself to you.”
A few impressed gasps spread through the other side of the hall.
“Do you swear upon your life to uphold your loyalty to the Royal House?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Do you swear to forsake all desires and dreams to devote yourself to your duty?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Are you willing to act as shield and sword for Equestria, in times of peace and war?”
“Yes, Your Highness."
"Ever Vigilant. Past this moment, there is no turning back. From this moment on, it is either loyalty or death. Are you willing to seal your life and swear it by fire?"
The stallion gave a final mighty: "Yes, Your Highness!"
"Then rise, Ever Vigilant and submit yourself to the Flames of Iblis."
Solena retreated to her original position and though her eyes never left the soldier, she could have sworn that she saw the corners of Queen Serena's mouth curl into the tiniest of smiles.
Queen Solera stepped forward and swung her head as if tossing something away. There was a loud pop and some of the younger court ponies gasped. Four snakes of fire had landed with a thick thud and slowly slithered towards the stallion, who stood without moving. On one side, the court ponies nervously shifted away from the unnatural sight while the soldiers stood their ground.
The burning snakes wrapped themselves around the stallions hooves and coiled upwards. As they passed, the very metal of his armour was chewed away into a molten mass. But as the flames climbed upwards, the armour reformed itself. It remained silver, but now bore far more gold trimmings, sculptures of leaves and branches.
The snakes burned more ardently as they climbed higher. When they reached the shoulders, they split. Two spread quickly through the green cape. It looked like wild fire chewing through a dry meadow. The two that remained wrapped themselves around the stallions neck, tightening. Their flickering tongues snapped through their fangs and Solena felt her guts twist uncomfortably as they flickered in the stallion's ears.
Then, with the speed only venomous snakes could muster, the serpents lunged at the stallion's throat, piercing through the armour, plunging their fiery fangs into the flesh inside. Suddenly, flames spread everywhere inside the armour and the Legate vanished, consumed by fire, trapped inside his own armour. Some of the ponies screamed as they pulled away from the fireball. Then, even the armour went up in flames.
The temperature in the hall almost became unbearable. Mercifully, after what felt like an eternity, the flames extinguished themselves in one swoop. For a second, Solena thought that there were still ambers, but then realized that the ruby red was actually the colour that the Legate's cape and plume had turned to. On the back of the cape was the insignia of the Praetorian Guards: a golden sun with eighteen rays against a black shield with lightning bolts for wings. In unison, the military ponies alternatively stomped their right and left hooves three times and rose once again into the ceremonial salute.
Ever Vigilant looked shaken, his brow drenched in sweat that somehow had not evaporated. But even his practiced stoic face had cracked and showed that whatever he had gone through, he would rather not go through again.
With the fire gone, Selena, for her part, went back to her old ways. It took a few more daydreams and several more lapses of attention for the ceremony to finally draw to an end. By the end of it, Selena had lost track of the number of times she had flown through those columns, performing ever more dazzling tricks. Her tricks even impressed herself so much that she had completely forgotten to expect the Queens, or at least Queen Solera to be quite cross at her. That meant that if anyone cared to look at the dark blue Pegasus Princess at any time during the remainder of the ceremony, they would have found her eyes gazing far off into the distance, in some far off wonderland.
It also meant that the return from that wonderland was particular unpleasant, as both fillies sat with their heads bowed low as Queen Solera paced around them in her study, the one she reserved for these occasions. Every single wall was covered in books and the entire room had the proportions of a textbook, being incredibly tall and deep, but uncomfortably narrow, giving the impression that any second, both book-lined walls could start moving towards each other, crushing anypony in the room in what was quite literally a wall of knowledge. In fact, the only surface that was not covered in books was the farthest wall. Not actually a wall, it could have easily been one of the largest windows in the castle.
Stretching from floor to the almost-to-high-to-see ceiling, it gave a splendid if narrow view of the Western Mountains, on the other side of which, somewhere, lay Ignis Lacerta: Dragon's Fire, home to, no surprises there, dragons. The window's use was thus double. On one hoof, if the sun hit the window just right, anypony sitting before it would get a very nice 'evil overlord' vibe with the long, slender shadow against the fiery red background. On the other hoof, a bit more useful but more desperate use for the window was the ability to see the dragons come should they decide to launch an aerial attack on Equestria. Thankfully, that last one had never yet been used: in general, they preferred to fly higher, out of sight, on their way to the East where the Eastern Dragons established their own kingdom.
No, the ones Queen Solera had on her mind were those from the land of Stratos, where Griffins were getting ever more restless.
Back in the dark ages, foaling was always the most dangerous season for a herd. Those precious moments where the young ones could not run yet was as attractive to predators like griffins and wolves as teeth rotting candy was to children. Funny then, that even today, she felt like an old mare having given birth to a child, exhausted and stuck where she was, chained to her circumstances. It seemed like there were some things even thousands of years of civilization were powerless to change. Queen or not, she was the mare and her foal could not run yet. Of course, if hers couldn't run, her sister's couldn't even stand. An unborn foal would have been less trouble.
"I'm going to give the two of you three minutes to come up with a proper explanation as to what happened today, during Legate Ever Vigilant's ceremony." Queen Solera said, as the sun began to touch the top of her window.
Selena wondered what she could say that would satisfy the Queen, but as she glanced at her older sister, she saw that somehow, she had managed to become even paler in spite of her white coat. Her right forehoof shook ever so slightly, the same way it had during the ceremony. Whenever she was nervous or scared, she would do that. She then glanced at her own mentor, who simply sat by the window, staring sadly outside. Selena wished she would look at them.
“Princess Solena, you are the eldest. Care to tell us what you did wrong at today’s ceremony?” Queen Solera said. That could not have been three minutes.
“I…” she bit her tongue. Do not say ‘um’ before the Queen. Do not ever say that. “I… spoke out of turn?” she ventured, bracing for what she knew was going to be painful.
“Correct.” Queen Solera replied. Solena looked at her mentor with wide eyes. She had never been correct at those question before.
“But, since it seems you knew it perfectly well, why did you do it?” she asked. That was a curve ball. And it hit her right on the head.
Solena clasped her hooves to her mouth, but the cat was already out of the bag.
“I beg your pardon?” Solera hissed, as if she were a cat that had its tail stepped on.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Solena quickly said.
“A royal pony speaks with certainty and grace, young lady. When she has nothing to say, she remains silent. I thought we made this perfectly clear the last time we had this discussion.”
“We did, Queen Solera. It won’t happen again.” The little filly said, shrinking onto herself. It took all her resolve not to step backwards. Queen Solera had grounded her for three hours when she did the last time. Literally. In the burning sun for three hours, her hooves magically fixed to the ground.
“If memory serves, that is what you assured me last time as well. Do I need to give you a lesson in honesty again?”
“No! No, Queen Solera. I’ll try harder from now on!” Solena fought back tears. Not now. Crying after speaking to the Queen was borderline. During was out of the question.
“Harder does not imply ‘hard enough,’ young lady.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll do my best so it doesn’t happen again.”
“Well then, I hope your best is good enough. If I hear you utter that sound again, I’ll have your tongue turned to stone for a month. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal clear, Queen Solera. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Thank you for your forgiveness.”
“Yes, yes.” Queen Solera dismissed, turning to the other filly in the room. When the tears began to flow, Solena quickly stuck her tongue out to collect the ones that came near her mouth, just to make sure her tongue was not yet made of stone.
“And you, young lady. Perhaps I should turn your entirety to stone for you to learn to stand still?” she smiled. She may as well have been a wolf bearing its teeth.
“No, Queen Solera.” The Pegasus said. Why was she talking to her? She was Queen Serena’s student, not Queen Solera’s.
“Yes, you are her student, but she is my sister and you are also my student. Do not think that you can forever hide behind her overindulgence. You are a Princess of Equestria, Selena, and you will learn the proper ways, do I make myself clear?”
Selena broke out of her confounded daze. “Crystal clear, Queen Solera.” She said, echoing her sister. If it worked for her-
“It does not mean that it is applicable to you, young lady.” Queen Solera’ completed Selena's thought for her. “I find your lack of ability to come up with your own answers disturbing. Will I need to see you one to one from now on?”
“Very well. Then tell me, what did you do wrong at today’s ceremony?”
“I didn’t stand still?” she tried. Immediately, she felt the smack on her muzzle. The hit wasn’t actually that hard. It was just that she had absolutely no warning at all. Not even the raising of a hoof telling her to expect pain. It just came without warning. She could feel tears welling up.
“I will not be having attitude from you, young lady.” Queen Solera said.
Selena clenched her teeth tight. 'It wasn't attitude' she almost said.
In the little time they had between the Throne Room and the study, it was the one bit of help Solena had managed to slip to her sister. Selena didn't understand it at the time, but right now, it was clear.
"I'm sorry, Queen Solera." The Pegasus said.
“Maybe now you’ll be able to give a proper answer.”
“I forgot my speech during the ceremony?” she tried. It had to be that.
“You have neglected your duties as Royal Princess!” Queen Solera continued on about how her behaviour had been absolutely shameful and that a Princess should know better. But for young foals, it never was the words one said that mattered, but the tone in which they were said. Right now, more than anything else, Selena just knew she wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else but here. When she was done, Selena half expected her to storm out of the room. But instead, she turned back to Solena.
“Answer my question.”
Selena cast a nervous glance at her sister. What question was the Queen thinking about? But to Solena, this was back in familiar territory. The Queen had done this before too.
Not good. What Solena had wanted to start with was 'the ponies of the court.' But now that the word was out, she had to continue with it, built a cohesive thought with it no matter what. Every word was a struggle.
"... spoke... out of turn... because I... thought I was... supposed to when the ponies of the court clopped their feet. I thought Selena was done."
"Had she given her speech?"
"No." came the meek reply.
"Then she was not done! Regardless of what the ponies of the court thought or did, YOU should have known that your sister had more to say and should have held your tongue until she was finished!"
"It wasn't her fault!" Selena said. "I forgotten my speech! She was only trying to help! It was my faaauuahhh- aah- uuuuaah-"
Selena felt her mouth go numb and with the speed of a snake's bite, her hooves shot to her mouth. The full realization of what just happened to her dropped on her like a ton of bricks. It couldn't be. It couldn't. Probing past her teeth, sure enough, was hard and ungiving stone.
All form of restrain forgotten, overpowered by absolute fear, the little filly ran full gallop into the arms of her own mentor. 'My tongue! My tongue!' she wanted to scream, but it came out as a series of guttural ah's and chokes. Like a player ready for a pass, the Queen caught her little ball of tears and held her close, letting her cry into her chest.
"Please! I beg of you, Your Highess! Have mercy!" the little unicorn had thrown herself at her master's hooves, her own tears flowing freely.
“Stand up, Solena.”
“Please give my sister her speech back. It was my mistake! I should be punished! Not her.”
“Stand. Up. NOW, Solena!” the Queen roared. But it was like the filly had cemented her hooves to hers.
“Take my tongue instead! I’ll take double the punishment! Triple. Just give her baa- baaahh.”
Silenced, the filly could feel her master’s breath against her ear.
“I can easily take both.”
The Queen made a wave motion with her horn and suddenly, the Pegasus filly flew out of Queen Serena’s arms while Solena felt her hooves leave the ground. The Queen hung both fillies before her, right at eye level. Solena stared diligently at her mentor, but Selena needed to have her hooves pinned to her sides and her eyelids forcefully pried open with magic.
“The both of you have greatly disappointed me today. For normal ponies, there is a margin for error, there is room for mistake. Not for a Royal Princess. To lead Equestria, nothing short of perfection will do.”
Solera dropped the two fillies unceremoniously. Solena landed like a bag of cement, laying inert where she lay while Selena could have been mistaken for a rubber ball. Her first reaction had been to start running towards Serena. But when Solena did not follow, the Pegasus skidded to a halt before turning back. She wasn’t going to leave her sister behind. She dragged her by the tail all the way to the only place that could possibly be safe now, back to her own mentor who wrapped her wings around them in a protective blanket.
“Sister!” Queen Serena called out, holding her charges closely. “Do you truly intend on leaving them like this?”
“I think I made my mind quite clear.” Came the nonchalant response.
“That is cruel, my sister.”
“Are you questioning my decision?” Solera said, not even looking at her sister.
“Questioning? No. I’m defying it.” Serena said. Turning down at the two fillies, she gave them a warm smile. “It’s going to be okay.” she whispered.
“And what do you plan to do now? Forcefully undo my actions?” Solera taunted, turning around. Serena laughed at that.
“As if I didn’t already know you had trapped your spell to snap on the first one who would try. I wasn’t born yesterday, sister.” She said.
“So what are you going to do?”
“Set off the trap.” She said.
In a flash of understanding, Selena only had to give a sideways glance at her sister to see that she too had come to the same conclusion. Both fillies tried to leap away from the Queen before she did something so stupid. But the same wings that felt so protective earlier now trapped them and wherever they turned, it seemed like there was either an arm, a hoof or a wing in the way.
"Ong goee!" Selena begged to no avail, ears flowing again.
Serena softly shushed her charge, collecting a single tear from her cheek. By the time little Selena noticed, it was far too high to catch and Serena brought it to the tip of her tongue. The two fillies gave up their fruitless attempts at escaping, now keeping their eyes fixed on Serena’s muzzle. Looking quite pleased with herself, she gave Solera a satisfied smile.
“You didn’t even try to undo the spell.” Solera said. Her face was impassive, but there was no mistaking that tone in her voice. She was confused. Serena raised an eyebrow: So what?
“You always did stupid things like this, Serena. Acting like some sort of martyr. But, if that is your wish, then so be it. Remain silent with the fillies. I guess it’s what you’re best at.”
Serena stuck out her tongue defiantly at her sister who vanished in a twirl of light, but then found that unless she used a hoof, she couldn’t get it back in. That gave her an idea. Standing up, she almost laughed at the horrified expressions Selena and Solena bore, as if they had seen their worst nightmares become reality. For that, she gave them a wink. With a surprisingly light hoofing, she trotted to the door of the study, only to see that the little sisters, holding each other, had not followed.
“Nn-Hnn!” she made. Darlings!
Thankfully, there were no longer many ponies in the halls of the castle. Solena cast Selena a quizzical look, asking if she could explain what her mentor was doing. Queen Serena still had yet to push her tongue back in and had far too much fun answering any confused stares with that same arched eyebrow from earlier. No one dared say anything, but those who did a double take after they walked pass far outnumbered those who decided that maybe they had imagined the entire scene.
Serena led the fillies up a tower, into the main library of the castle and she walked immediately to the reference desk. The head librarian’s eyes almost widened larger than the lens of her glasses, but she managed to remain professional, even if her polite smile twitched every once in a while.
“Your Majesty, of what service may I be?” she said.
Queen Serena made a long string of hoof movements, waving them in front of the librarian’s face as if she were drawing some incredibly complex picture. Once in a while, she’d touch a hoof to a shoulder or to a head, sometimes clopping them together. After what seemed like a bit of an eternity, the fillies managed to find it in themselves to smile, laughter not far behind. The librarian’s expression was priceless.
“Um, two words?” she tried.
Serena’s shoulders visibly fell as she brought her hoof to her forehead. This, the librarian got.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’ll see if I can find someone who speaks mime.” She said, leaving her desk. Queen Serena made some particularly large movements, a mock frown on her face.
Sign Language! This is sign language, not ‘mime.’ And you don’t ‘speak’ sign language, you motion it! Get your facts straight!
The librarian soon came back with another mare, whispering urgently to her.
“This is Roselina, Your Highness. I think she’ll be able to help you further.” She said and took off just as quickly.
The mare called Roselina really didn’t look remarkable at all. An orange coat with a slightly curly mane of brown with a rolled up scroll as a cutie mark, there really wasn’t anything special about her until she started waving her own hooves around. Serena clapped her hooves together. Goodie goodie!
As best as she could tell, Solena figured they were having some sort of conversation, but her eyes were having trouble focussing on the ever moving hooves, let alone trying to glimpse any meaning out of this odd dance. Finally, Roselina left and returned with a hard cover book. Queen Serena magically held it before her and had the pages fly through and seemed satisfied with it. She nodded and made a few last movements that the other pony mimicked. Was that goodbye?
Serena quickly led the two fillies to her own room, up in the North-West Tower and, much to their surprise, jumped onto her large bed, inviting them to do the same. Selena was the first to do so and quickly plopped against a pillow. Smiling, Solena imitated her sister, shaking her rump slightly before leaping. But when she landed, she felt her hooves sink deep into the mattress and for a second, she thought she was going to fall through. Looking down, she saw that the mattress and bed sheets were not made of cloth like she expected, but of a wispy material that was semi translucent.
“Hnn…” Serena made in realization and spread her wings. Solena could feel her entire body tingle as little twinkles of light appeared and she felt the mattress firm up beneath her hooves until it once again felt normal, though this had to be the softest bed she had even been on.
Serena then brought the book out again and when both fillies were sitting comfortably before her, she held it for them to see.
Sign Language: Reference Guide
In truth, this was definitely not the best part to begin. Sign language had its own grammar, vocabulary, structure and poetry. But in one night, Queen Serena knew all they’d be able to do is look up words and make the signs for them, speaking their words using hooves. She first flipped the book open to the page on basic words. Serena spread her wings again, making the book glow light blue before it faded. When the fillies looked at the book again, the pictures next to the words were moving, motioning how to do sign the word. They squealed in glee.
Serena began with one phrase. It was a bit long and very often, the fillies flipped back and forth, trying to find that one movement. But when they did, it was with much excitement and pride as they’d stomp their hoof on the matching moving picture, motioning at the word next to it.
Solena almost grabbed the book from her sister, flipping through the pages back to the “Common Phrases” section, looking up “Yes.” Seeing the picture, she gave it a good hard stare before raising her hooves in the air and drawing the cryptic pattern. It was like watching a filly learn how to write with pencil and mouth for the first time, with the end result being less than pretty, but she had just put so much hard work into it, Serena clapped her hooves together.
Selena, in the meantime, decided she would do the smart thing and simply nodded. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t in the book, but it was sign language.
Giggles soon filled the large room, passing through the door in the halls.