Chapter Thirty - The Solstice (Part Four)

Princess Twilight Sparkle conjured another blank journal. It was time to begin the next volume: Hamartia.

After teleporting away from the Old Castle, Lyra didn’t stop running from the nightmare until she made it to Canterlot. Once there, she immediately headed straight toward the government-issued apartment Bon Bon used whenever she needed to stay the night in the capital for her real job. She’d shown it to Lyra when they’d last come to town just in case.

It was empty.

Lyra didn’t panic. Of course it was empty! Why wouldn’t it be? Bon Bon had to work through the night to manage her branch of the EIS during this upheaval, so of course she wouldn’t be here. No, she’d be somewhere in the castle. That was where Lyra needed to go. How she was going to get inside, however, needed a bit of thought.

Then again, Lyra would feel very stupid if she didn’t try the simplest thing possible if it worked. She teleported across town and walked right up to the main castle gate, which was closed at this time of night while the rest of Canterlot celebrated their little holiday. The expected contingent of guards stood watch. She simply told them her name and asked to be let inside to see her marefriend.

It worked!

As the gate slowly opened, Lyra asked, “You’re really going to just let me in?” It was hard to believe this had actually worked. She’d been ready to try to force her way through had it failed. Had she started hallucinating or something? Was this a trap? Had the Royal Guard been compromised?

But no, the guard said, “Captain Armor cleared you for visits a few weeks ago. Don’t cause any trouble and you’re free to wander the castle. Within reason.”

That was convenient, and Lyra wasn’t going to question it any further. She had better things to do and shot off inside as soon as she could. Asking around for directions eventually sent her underground to the front entrance of the EIS’s headquarters. It was an unremarkable door with an appropriate sign and a mare seated at a desk just beside it. There she encountered a foe she did not have the right state of mind for right now: bureaucracy.

“As I said already, Miss, I can neither confirm nor deny that a Bon Bon or a Sweetie Drops works for our organization. Please have a nice day and do not come back.”

Lyra’s eye twitched at the receptionist’s response. She felt power rush to her horn. It’d been a long time since she’d used force for anything other than self-defense, but even in the form of a unicorn, long buried habits were starting to rise to the surface.

“Listen, you no-name bottom feeder.” Lyra drew herself up to her full height and radiated magic in ways she hadn’t in years. “I am a very powerful sorceress who happens to generously share her bed with one of your boss’s bosses. Around my neck is an ancient artifact of untold power. I’ve just come from a field mission with the archmage, the pony at the top of the top. You have one last chance to open that door before I blow it down.”

Said door opened with a soft click. Both Lyra and the obstacle turned toward it in surprise.

From beyond the entrance, Bon Bon appeared. “I’ve got this,” she idly said to the secretary as she passed the mare’s desk. She stepped forward and pulled Lyra into a warm, loving nuzzle. “Hey. You’re early.”

Lyra couldn’t give any good reason for feeling safe within Bon Bon’s embrace. Between the two of them, it was obvious who was the more polished instrument of death. Maybe safe wasn’t the right word. Maybe it was that she felt comforted, and that was close enough to confuse the two emotions. Either way, she’d finally found an island of peace within the storm.

Bon Bon reached up with a hoof and gently ran it through Lyra’s mane. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Lyra shook her head against Bon Bon’s neck. She’d known alicorns were strong, the strongest living beings on Equus. But when the Elements had connected her to her fellow bearers, a flawed team though they were, she’d felt the power behind them. It’d been like nothing she’d ever imagined. If Princess Luna could swat that aside like a gnat, not even a fly, then she was a far greater threat than everything that had ever clawed its way up from the abyss combined. Each and every living thing on Equus was very lucky alicorns had a mind and morals and liked to build civilizations instead of exploiting or smashing them.

Something of Lyra’s train of thought must have slipped out somehow, because Bon Bon made a gentle shushing sound. Accompanying a loving nuzzle, she said, “I have some time for myself right now. Why don’t we go to my apartment and relax together. Just the two of us. Does that sound good?”

Without a word, Lyra nodded.

It came as no surprise, but seeing the state Celestia had left her office in really made reality set in. She’d neatly organized everything and done so much more. There were helpful little notes explaining where to find something; lists of what needed to be done and when; ideas for where to take Equestria over the next few seasons, years, decades, and even centuries; dossiers on who to trust for what and how far; an amusing attempt at documenting Equestria’s secrets in code with ‘ask Twilight’ scribbled over it in large, stylized letters; and so much more besides. Where she found the time to do it all would remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Cadance wasn’t ashamed to admit that she’d finally broken down and cried for what felt like hours as she went through everything. No pony could ever accuse Celestia of not preparing for any eventuality, but with this mountain of evidence arrayed all in one place, neither could anypony deny that she’d not expected to come back from the Everfree.

But this was not the time to wallow away in grief. Cadance gathered up what records she needed to start preparing the uninitiated for the shift in power. It’d almost caused a bit of a relapse when she realized Celestia had unearthed and gathered all of the dusty old scrolls governing the diarchy into one place. But she powered through it and set out to find Raven Inkwell, Celestia’s seneschal and trusted adviser. Raven more or less knew the full story and, if she could weather the blow from the news, would be of great assistance.

The mare had barely reacted. She’d looked up from whatever she’d been working on, said, “Yes, I expected as much,” and then passed off a small pile of notes on what needed to be done. Cadance, however, couldn’t help but notice that her eyes had the slightest tinge of fading red to them.

Most of the castle’s night shift had the day off to attend the festival. Even so, the skeleton crew were already at work preparing a proper welcome home for Luna. Thanks to Celestia, all of Equestria knew she had a sister who was due to return today. She’d conveniently left out the part where she would not, however. Without knowing what story Twilight and Luna intended to peddle to the world, all Cadance could do to prepare everypony for the shock was to let them know that they’d had word of the ‘good news’.

As much as Sweetie Drops hated to leave Lyra alone, she’d done her best to comfort her marefriend and now had to report what she’d learned about the conflict between the royal sisters. The more warning the EIS had, the better prepared they could be for Princess Luna’s arrival. The fewer bases they had to cover, the less thin their resources had to be stretched.

Along the way to the director’s office, Sweetie Drops bumped into first Espionage and then Spitfire. The former had a report of his own from Queen Chrysalis, and the latter had one from the Wonderbolts. Given that all three of them had come in at roughly the same time, they probably all had roughly the same amount of information. It would have been helpful if Lyra had stuck around longer after the Elements of Harmony had failed, but this would be enough.

“Let me guess,” Spitfire began. “Nightmare Moon?”

Espionage nodded. “I’ve been listening in on the hive mind.”

“It’s not Nightmare Moon.” Now that Sweetie Drops had a firsthoof account, namely Lyra’s, she could clear up that misunderstanding amongst the EIS without exposing their new princess’s dreamwalking. “My source told me it was Princess Luna, fully sane, who came back.”

Spitfire asked, “Really!” in a tone that said she wanted to believe it but couldn’t quite force herself to without more of an explanation.

“Yeah. You didn’t hear this from me, but apparently, the princess went off on a monologue and was just too embarrassed to take back the whole Nightmare Moon–night eternal thing at the time.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, that got a snicker from the other two. A certain tension they’d been wearing since the start of all this faded from withers. If this embarrassing bit of information ever came back to haunt her, Sweetie Drops would point her hoof straight at Twilight. That was who she’d gotten it from, after all. If it wasn’t true, that wasn’t her fault or problem.

As they arrived at Incog’s office, they each adopted a more solemn and professional expression. They delivered their reports, and it wasn’t long before the director decided to call another general meeting of the department heads.

Chrysalis idly wondered why the royal couple had left without keeping the nymphs abreast of current events. Nothing good ever came of withholding personal information like that. Offspring, in her vast experience, had an infuriating habit of finding out things they weren’t supposed to at the worst time possible and held petty grudges.

Without a hint of shame or regret, Chrysalis informed Ocellus that the battle had already broken out and ended with, as far as her spies could tell at a distance, Nightmare Moon’s victory. It wasn’t the result she’d hoped for, but she would see how events played out before deciding on a course of action.

“Mother? Spike says there is no Nightmare Moon.”

Curious, Chrysalis asked for a more information from Ocellus. She, in turn, passed the inquiry along to her friend while Chrysalis listened in over the hive mind. Spike proved reluctant to part with the details, but he gave enough to paint a clear picture for someling who’d heard stories of the lost princess’s fabled abilities.

So, the little sister has been dreamwalking through her banishment. Interesting. I wonder how much support she’s managed to drum up for herself over the centuries. Between that and the archmage’s apparent approval, this may turn into a smooth transition of power.

If that was the case, then as far as Chrysalis was concerned, it would be business as usual for her. It may take some time for Princess Luna to warm up to the idea of a massive changeling hive living in her kingdom as it had for Princess Celestia, but Twilight would surely temper her behavior. One did not upset the princessmaker without expecting headaches all day every day in return.

A presence in the hive mind pulled Chrysalis from her thoughts. It waited patiently at the edge of her mind, requesting her attention but not intruding so much as to be annoying or demanding. Considering its source, this was not an emergency, then, but the information was considered important. “Yes, Pharynx?” As the commander of her personal guard, his only fault was an unfortunate relation to the hive’s greatest traitor.

“I have news from my brother.”

It did, however, make him good for passing information to and from Thorax when Chrysalis didn’t feel like taking the burden of suffering the traitor’s presence upon herself.

“The moon princess is sane. His source is one of the Element bearers, Lyra Heartstrings.”

“Old news,” Chrysalis replied. “If only by a few minutes.” It did surprise her, though, that one of the Element bearers had already made it out of the Everfree for long enough for that information to spread. She would have thought either Princess Luna or Twilight would have kept them close after the battle. “Did she say anything else useful?”

“Unfortunately not, Your Majesty. She left right after the Elements failed before the actual fighting occurred.”

Well, that was unexpected, but it hardly mattered.

“We do know, however, that Princess Luna assisted in healing the bearers after the castle roof came down on top of them before the fighting broke out.”

Oh? Chrysalis dismissed Pharynx with a feeling of recognition for performing his job up to expectations. So the real Princess Luna is just like the one in my mother’s stories. How very interesting.

A small number of the Royal Guard had gone to Ponyville yesterday to provide additional security for the princess this night. A not insignificant fraction had left with Shining to hunt down a lead on Eclipse and hadn’t yet returned. Those who’d headed into the Everfree before him had been debriefed and sworn to secrecy already. But the massive gathering in front of him upon their training grounds, many of whom had been awoken and dragged out of bed, constituted the vast majority of the guard. This was a meeting that had to happen, and it had to happen before the new reigning princess arrived.

The Royal Guard was meant to keep Canterlot Castle safe, to defend their princess from would-be assailants, and act as her sword and shield in times of trouble. Perhaps other agencies had largely supplanted them from that last point over time, but they’d served their princess loyally and dutifully nonetheless.

But the princess was no longer their princess.

This would not be pleasant even if it went over well.

Shining stood atop a small platform so all could see and hear him. After one last mental run through of the main points he intended to hit, he raised a hoof for silence. This was not to be a military matter, so he refused to put them in the wrong mindset with an order. Then, at last, he addressed the crowd.

“My friends, my comrades, those who have dedicated their lives to the defense and protection of the crown.” Shining saw that he had their rapt attention now, even those who’d looked like they’d want nothing more than to return to bed mere moments before. They all knew he never got flowery with his speeches. “I return to you with news. As Princess Celestia informed us all, she does indeed have a sister. Princess Luna has returned to Equestria.”

It took a will of iron to not even clench his teeth at the joyous cheering that erupted, but Shining kept himself from reacting. They were all just happy for their princess. In another world, this would have been the best response he could have hoped for. Once the crowd finally quieted, he spoke again.

“It is with a heavy heart, however, that I must inform you Princess Celestia has left us.”

Absolute silence fell.

“My sister has not yet made me privy to the full details, but suffice it to say, Princess Celestia will likely not return to us within our lifetimes.” Shining paused to allow himself to breathe and to let his audience absorb that shocking information. “Equestria will soon change in ways it has not in the last millennium. The coming years will be rough as we all adjust, but Equestria will endure and prosper as it ever has.”

And now came the difficult part. Shining wondered how many would leave and how many all these lies would trick into staying.

“When I took my oath, just as each and every one of you, I swore myself to my princess, to Princess Celestia, to serve her faithfully amongst the Royal Guard as a member of her Day Guard. Yes, that is our official designation. It’s been buried in paperwork and the Night Guard’s nonexistence for the past thousand years, but it’s true.

“And now you have a choice. In Princess Celestia’s absence, the Day Guard is unnecessary. If you wish to resign, you will be released from your oath with all due honors. For those of you who wish to remain, we will be reforming the Night Guard for the first time in a thousand years. The choice is entirely yours.”

The crowd remained silent for the longest time. Shining hadn’t given them instructions yet on how to go about following through on whatever decision they made, but he’d gotten caught up in studying their faces. With few exceptions, nopony knew quite what to think.

Then Spearhead, his friend, asked, “What about you, Captain?”

“Me?” It took a moment for Shining to reign his thoughts back in and process the question. “My sister is staying on, so so am I.”

Waves of whispers rushed through the assembled guards. Even those who disliked Twilight on a personal level loved her as the archmage.

“Will you still be our captain?” Shielded Strike asked next.

In all honesty, Shining had assumed that would be the case without ever examining that assumption. It occurred to him now that he didn’t actually know. It was entirely possible Princess Luna would want to pick somepony she personally trusted and got along with well. There were benefits to preserving the existing power structure, but the Night Guard was also a personal matter. He didn’t know which way the scales would fall for her.

“I’m uncertain,” Shining ultimately replied. “I’ve yet to speak with Her Highness myself. It would be her decision.”

A voice Shining was less familiar with asked, “Would Her Excellency accept us into the Evening Guard?”

That was an alternative Shining hadn’t given any thought to for good reason. “Almost certainly not,” he said, “considering she categorically denies such an organization exists.” That got some very light laughter despite the heavy mood. “The work they do is certainly exciting, and I appreciate your desire to make her gang of misfits more respectable, but she’s always turned away volunteers in the past. I wouldn’t put much stock in it when weighing your options for your future.”

When no more questions proved forthcoming, Shining delivered his final instructions as Captain of the Day Guard. “If you wish to resign, you can find me in my office. You have until Princess Luna comes to ask you for your oaths to make your decision.”

As Shining moved to depart, it started with his friends. They called out that they’d stick things out with him. One by one after that until it devolved into a great cacophony of noise, other guards declared their intent to stay. It probably wasn’t all of them, but it was more than enough to avoid being underponied.

There was one problem that Shining wished weren’t a problem, however. Amongst the names he heard – Princess Celestia’s, Twilight’s, his own – he never once heard Princess Luna’s. It didn’t come as a surprise, but he desperately hoped the mare in question didn’t find out and take it personally. Twilight had informed him only tonight that Nightmare Moon had never been real, but he had his doubts.

“Excuse me, are you Mayor Mare?”

The mare in question turned from the half dozen ponies demanding her attention to spare a few seconds for Moon Dancer. “Yes, what do you–” The look of realization set in. “Oh! Your Excellency, welcome to Ponyville. We weren’t expecting you and the princess for some time yet. How can I help you?”

“Actually,” Moon Dancer began, “I’m here to help you. Archmage Twilight will be returning to her post this morning, and Index Code is occupied with matters of state elsewhere, so I thought I’d stand in for her.”

The mayor breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much. Things are getting crazy here. Are you at all familiar with the situation?”

“Not at all.” For what it was worth, Moon Dancer offered an apologetic smile. She didn’t know how much actual use she would be here, but she wanted to help as much as she could to ensure things went smoothly. They needed Princess Luna to make a good impression. A lot of Equestria’s movers and shakers had come here following after Princess Celestia but would get her sister instead. Starting off Princess Luna’s renewed reign with a mismanaged festival wouldn’t be a good look even if she wasn’t the one responsible for any aspect of it.

Mayor Mare hung her head but recovered quickly. “Very well then. We have a…situation at one of our local taverns. Are you familiar with Sunset Shimmer?”

Well, there was only one honest answer Moon Dancer could give. She eked out a very hesitant, “Yeeees?”

The mayor waved two ponies forward and instructed them to relay what they’d seen. Apparently, a blue unicorn, a dragon, a kirin, and Sunset Shimmer herself had walked into a bar. It sounded like the setup to a bad joke. In this case, the punchline was that the dragon and the kirin had gotten into a fight and set the place on fire, because of course they did. Sunset Shimmer, the wanted criminal, and the unicorn had put the flames out together and repaired the Prancing Pony while its proprietor scolded the two who’d caused the trouble.

Moon Dancer facehoofed. During the trip to Ponyville, Sweetie Belle had filled in some of the gaps in her knowledge about the situation. She had a feeling that the unicorn was Princess Luna, the Sunset Shimmer was the one from the human world, and the other ponies were some of her friends. It was one thing to hear that she’d been dreamwalking during her banishment; it was another thing entirely the witness the consequences play out firsthoof.

“I’ll take care of it,” Moon Dancer said, although she honestly had no idea what she could actually do. Maybe she could convince Princess Luna not to cause trouble right before her big moment or something. She rubbed a hoof against her forehead, trying to think of a good argument to make that could trump enjoying one’s freedom for the first time in a thousand years. She wished Princes Celestia were here. She would know exactly what to say. But that was kind of the crux of the issue, wasn’t it?

When Moon Dancer arrived at the tavern, she found that everypony who’d fled from it had already come back. Ponyville citizens were a resilient lot, it seemed. Not much fazed them. Inside, she found the troublesome group almost immediately. They’d occupied the centermost table visible as soon as a pony walked in. Seated around it were the three mares and the dragoness from the report, all of whom appeared to be having a rowdy good time.

This was the exact sort of social scene Moon Dancer had avoided her entire life. She hated these sorts of parties. Worse, only one of them was native to Equestria.

“Twilight?” the kirin asked. “Cousin! Come join us!”

And worst of all, with that one exception, they were all drunk.

The dragoness pulled Moon Dancer to the table and handed her an ale, insisting that she finally share a real drink with them for once. Across the table, the unicorn who was definitely Princess Luna smirked and made absolutely no attempt to help her explain that she wasn’t Twilight. If she hadn’t already been strongly disinclined to like the princess for what she’d done to Princess Celestia, who Moon Dancer had been honored to count amongst her few friends, that would have settled it.

This was going to be a long night after an already long night.

The audience before her had eyes and ears for nopony else.

“Watch and be amazed as the Great and Powerful Trixie saws herself in half!”

She could feel their rapt attention upon her every move. It was what she lived for. She loved being the center of every crowd.

Sometimes it was best to indulge in the classics. Trixie’s act generally tended toward the theatrical. She filled it with illusions to boggle the mind and delight the eyes. But stage magic had its own charm from time to time. Not that she didn’t have her own twist on said tricks, if indeed they could be called that, being far more greater and more powerfuler than any garden variety magician.

As she’d proclaimed, so she did. It was amazing what one could do with real magic and not foalish parlor tricks.

The crowd applauded as both halves of Trixie took a bow. She then put herself back together and moved on to the next part of her show.

Trixie hated that she was just going through the motions.

It was all Luna’s fault. Trixie couldn’t get that pitying and pitiful smile from their brief reunion out of her head. She was just fine on her own! Her life had been perfect until Twilight Sparkle had come along with Laughter, and even that was Luna’s fault, really. Twilight Sparkle never would have descended from her ivory tower if not for Luna. Everything was her fault.

When Trixie finished her last act for the night, she packed up her wagon and prepared to skip town the moment she got paid. She’d even considered passing on the hefty bag of bits owed to her just to get out of this miserable backwater before moonset. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now was Luna hunting her down for a word about how hypocritically sorry she was about everything but how she would have made the same choices again anyway.

By the moon, Trixie needed a drink before she turned somepony into a rabbit.

The walk through town became a twisted nightmare. Her fans wouldn’t stop getting in her way with their adoring praise, and the fact that she couldn’t enjoy it only made the fire within burn hotter. How dare Luna do this to her! If she couldn’t even bask in the adulation of her fans, what point was there to life?

In hindsight, going to the Prancing Pony was an obvious mistake. Trixie had chosen her wine supplier out of habit. She knew the mare who ran the place and, being the Generous and Successful Trixie, preferred to patronize said establishment.

But it was Luna who had introduced them.

Trixie didn’t realize her mistake until she noticed the dragon in the tavern. It was Ember. Autumn was here, too, and the pair were engaged in a hoof-wrestling contest of all things while the simpleton spectators surrounding their table cheered them on. Berry Punch stood on standby with a barrel of water. Beside them sat Sunny and a blue unicorn who could only be Luna herself. For some reason, Moon Dancer was there as well, but it made some amount of sense. The nerds had gathered.

Trixie spun on her hooves and marched right out of the tavern. She was done with Ponyville. She would return for her pay another day if she absolutely had to.

Without magic for the moment, Twilight held Magic in her hooves. It was a reminder of her failure, but even if the call weren’t messing with her head, tossing it aside would feel wrong. It’d done its best for her. She couldn’t exactly walk around wearing it in her daily life, though. It’d be impossible to pass it off as anything less than a crown in the best of circumstances. With Celestia gone, her crown stolen, Luna’s ‘missing’, and who knew what other social factors Twilight was oblivious to, she couldn’t casually wear it in public without making a very significant fashion statement.

But she really wanted to.

An idea came to Twilight. Just putting Magic around her leg didn’t ignite the connection forged between them, but what about her neck? The band was flexible enough to fit and possessed a narrow enough radius to hold itself in place. The other Elements were necklaces. It’d look weird, sure, but Rarity could probably find a way to make it work for her. It was worth a try.

Sadly, no such luck.

Twilight heaved a heavy sigh and pulled Magic from her neck. She set it atop the miscellaneous odds and ends that had fallen out of her bag of holding while she’d slept for later retrieval. Then she nestled Celestia’s letter inside the band so that it might stand watch over such a priceless treasure.

At the door, Twilight turned one last look back upon her Element before she left. Thank you for trying. I’m sorry for calling you secretly evil even though you probably are.

The distinct impression of a mental eye roll came back from Magic, but there was gratitude and apology buried underneath it as well. Twilight didn’t think she’d ever get used to that strange form of communication. It felt somewhat like how she imagined a glimpse into a changeling hive mind would. Perhaps they used a similar basis for their magic. It’d be an interesting side project to look into in ten years when she finally had some free time again after settling Luna into her throne.

And on that depressing thought, Twilight returned to Sunset in the study beside the fireplace and announced that she was ready to go. Sunrise wasn’t too far off. She needed to be in Ponyville to explain why Celestia had shrunk, dyed her coat blue, and put glitter in her mane.

Sunset lazily lifted her head from the floor. “You sure you want me to come with? I don’t think I need to tell you walking around with me is a bad look.”

“I don’t care.” Even if she did, Twilight needed somepony she trusted to protect her and cast spells for her. She’d rarely – no, she’d never felt more vulnerable than she did right now, and nopony could be allowed to have any reason to suspect she’d been hurt fighting Luna. “I’ll just say Celestia pardoned you after your actions tonight.” Who would challenge her word on that? “Last acts should be respected.”

“Pardoned!” Sunset scoffed. “If we were different ponies, the world would have treated it as no more than a personal spat.”

While that had a certain amount of truth to it, Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yes, but you’re not. I’m sure Celestia gave you some variation of the speech about our actions having more weight behind them than regular ponies’.”

Sunset snorted. “How many times?”

A light blush formed on Twilight’s face. “I lost count. You?”


The pair exchanged a look before breaking into laughter. It felt so good to laugh. It made the loss clawing at the heart ache a little less.

Twilight brushed a tear from her eye as she petered out into giggles. “Just don’t get caught out as Eclipse,” she said. “I can’t wipe your record clean of that so easily.”

“Meh, it’s fine.” Sunset cracked her spine and legs, stretching as she got to her hooves. Then came a loud pop from her neck and a satisfied sigh. “Ole Sunbutt’s crown is a good heist to go out on. Anything after that is a step down. I’d intended to retire Eclipse soon anyway. It’s better if she disappears long before the empire comes back. Wouldn’t want anypony thinking those two events are correlated.”

Twilight couldn’t argue with that logic, although she would miss reading the new case files for Eclipse’s latest heist. Truly, this was the end of an era.

And that joke just made me sad…

“Hey. You’re okay to go, right? I can fill in for you if you’re not.”

Twilight forced a grateful smile onto her face. “Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” Really, what did she have to complain about? Luna was great and would actively want to take work away from her. That was a big step up from Celestia dumping more responsibilities on her plate!

“If you say so, Sparkles. Ready?”

With a nod from Twilight, they were off.

The trip to Ponyville passed in a blur. They moved in a rapid string of teleports high up in the air clear of any stray pegasi. Without her usual enchantments, Twilight only occasionally managed to place herself on a mental map of Equestria before they made their next jump.

When they arrived, it was on the doorstep of Sunset’s Ponyville cottage. It was a cozy little place on the edge of town. But despite its location, the Summer Sun Celebration had spilled past its official boundaries into the neighborhood and beyond. A half-dozen different songs filled the air with ponies singing along to their favorite tune in an awful but spirited cacophony at this nexus point between performances. Ponies danced. Foals played. Spirits were high and freely passed around. A slew of games, both informal and organized, had popped up literally overnight since Twilight’s last visit.

If she’d accomplished nothing else over the past two moons, then her half-hearted oversight of the festival at least hadn’t made it anything less than a clear and obvious success. Twilight was willing to take her wins were she could right now.

Of course, being one of the most instantly recognizable ponies in Equestria, Twilight caused something of a commotion as she made her way through town. A few ponies from the generation before hers gave Sunset an odd look or two before shaking their heads dismissively. The young mare she was leaning on for support couldn’t be who they’d first thought. Sunset, after all, was far closer to her mother’s age, not her own.

Then again, the one stallion who’d run away screaming probably knew the truth. Unless Twilight had done something to him or somepony he knew that she didn’t remember. He had looked somewhat well dressed. Maybe he was part of the nobility? Well, either way, he didn’t really matter.

The first task on Twilight’s mental list was to check in with the mayor to give official notice that she’d arrived. With any luck, Mayor Mare would also be able to spread the word quickly for her that Sunset had clemency. It wasn’t hard to find the mayor, although the very confused look on her face upon their approach did warrant a bit of concern. The skittishness she displayed when she glanced at Sunset, of course, was simply to be expected.

After they got through the formalities and a quick, no-questions explanation about Sunset, Twilight asked, “Is something wrong?”

“Ah, well, it’s just, um…” Mayor Mare dared a hasty glance at Sunset, prompting the latter to roll her eyes. “I sent your regent after, er, well, a Sunset Shimmer only a little while ago.”

Twilight shared a look with Sunset.

“Let me guess,” Twilight began. “They’re at the Prancing Pony? With a dragon and a kirin?”

The surprise on Mayor Mare’s face was easy enough for anypony to see. “Yes, actually. How did you know?”

“You have a case of mistaken identity. The other one belongs to a circle of friends hailing from every corner of Equus.” Twilight stopped herself from adding ‘and beyond’. “Berry Punch happens to rank amongst their number. Don’t pay them any mind.”

“If you say so, Your Excellency.” Judging by Mayor Mare’s tone, Berry Punch would be in for a number of pointed questions after Ponyville quieted down. “Now if you don’t mind my asking, when can we expect the princess to arrive?”

Twilight couldn’t quite suppress her flinch. “Yes, about that. We have a bit of a change in program…”

Rarity wasn’t entirely certain how she’d gotten into this situation or how to feel about it. On her left sat the disguised form of the titanic, freshly victorious Princess Luna. On her right, her precious, darling little sister, Sweetie Belle, stood atop her seat so that she might be more than just a head poking above the tabletop with her friends gathered around her.

Legally speaking, which was the most cut and dry way to look at it not requiring any quaking of the knees, Sweetie Belle and her friends weren’t allowed inside of Berry Punch’s tavern at this time of night. On the other hoof, they were with Princess Luna, and that surely trumped mundane restrictions.

“Why can you not simply accept that it was an accident? Princess Celestia never meant to banish you for so long.”

Oh yes, and that was the other thing. Sweetie Belle was arguing with Princess Luna.

“There is no such thing as an accident with magical artifacts,” Princess Luna replied. There was some heat to her voice, but she’d been very indulgent so far with Sweetie Belle. “That’s one of the very first things a student of magic learns about them. If you touch them, if you take possession of them, if you use them, you assume responsibility for whatever happens. With Generosity around your neck, surely your mentor already taught you that.”

Sweetie Belle’s lips pressed into a very thin line. From that reaction alone, it was easy to tell that yes, Twilight had indeed imparted a lesson to that effect.

“That’s not entirely true,” Sweetie Belle said. “Manufacturers are responsible for defective artifacts they produce.”

A scoff from Princess Luna met the argument. “Do not confuse or conflate product liability with personal accountability. The gap between modern trinkets and devices of power is as wide as the ocean.”

It seemed that Sweetie Belle had no ready response this time but furrowed her brow in concentration. If Rarity hadn’t found herself too stiff to even nurse a glass of water, she would have advised Sweetie Belle that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to get into a legal argument with somepony who’d helped write their laws or a philosophical debate with a pony whose very existence had probably shaped the formation of Equestria’s core moral values.

Then out of nowhere, Twilight said, “Stop picking on my protégé!” and threw a punch straight at Princess Luna’s face.

Princess Luna shifted to better take the blow when, to Rarity’s trained eye, she could have dodged it altogether or just as easily struck back. Twilight’s form, in all honesty, was simply dreadful. But she needn’t have bothered.

When Twilight’s hoof landed, she cried out in pain. Princess Luna didn’t even finch as she muttered, “Stupid earth pony magic,” under her breath. At her side appeared Sunset Shimmer, another controversial figure in this tale. She appeared to be letting Twilight lean on her perhaps more heavily now than when they’d walked into the tavern.

“Did that make you feel better?” Princess Luna asked blithely.

At a bitter mutter, Twilight replied, “It would have if you weren’t so durable.”

Princess Luna laughed as she took what must be described as a very unregal swig of her cider. “I’m glad we understand one another,” she said as she set her mug down. “Such a wonderful feeling, is it not? Shall we consider this justice?”

If there was some deeper meaning to that exchange than the obvious – and the sharp glare Twilight sent at the princess said there must be – neither of the mares involved elaborated.

A moment later, Princess Luna performed a double take. “Sunset Shimmer? How unexpected.”

“Yes, I can understand the sentiment.” The gaze of the mare in question had slipped to her seemingly older doppelgänger at the far end of the table laughing at something Ember had said. Apparently, she hadn’t noticed her pony counterpart’s arrival yet. “Sparkles insisted upon my presence.”

Princess Luna hummed in interest but didn’t pursue that matter any further. Instead, she cordially said, “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet such a fierce warrior. I hope we can spar together someday soon and finish our match.”

Sunset Shimmer made a noncommittal response, and that was the end of that for now.

“So? What brings you here?” Princess Luna asked Twilight. “Unless much has changed in my absence, by the position of the moon, I’m not running late.”

One might note that there were no windows by which Princess Luna could see the moon from her position. But Rarity had started to grow used to all the strange and wondrous things magic could do and didn’t question how she knew that.

“We ran out of stuff to do until you’re ready to introduce yourself,” Twilight replied.

“And so you came straight to me.” Princess Luna feigned delight. “I’m flattered. Are you here to take up your protégé’s position in our philosophical debate?”

Sweetie Belle very noticeably blushed under the attention she received upon that remark.

The moment passed, however, and Twilight said, “No, I’ll leave that to her. I wanted to know how you did that–” She mimed a strange sort of smacking motion with an even odder sound effect. “–to the Elements.”

“Ah. That’s a complicated matter better suited for less boisterous company. In short, I reached out through the Elements’ attack to disrupt their power. It’s somewhat similar to how I dreamwalk.”

For some reason, that made Twilight smirk triumphantly as though she’d solved some great puzzle.

“I wasn’t sure if it would work.”

“And if it hadn’t?” Sunset Shimmer asked curiously.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Princess Luna said, “Meh. I would have just resisted the attack, matching my power directly against their own. There was no need for anything more complex. It wasn’t well formed.”

Twilight, the poor dear, completely understandably heaved a defeated sigh.

“And the mirror?” Sunset Shimmer pressed. “How did you pull your consciousness out of it?”

Princess Luna directed a very hard stare at the mare, who refused to shrink under the weight of it. “That question I shall not answer. Whatever my sister has told you, you’d best keep to yourself.”

Rarity did not want to know what that was about. She didn’t want to recall Twilight’s interested reaction. She wanted precisely zero involvement, and so she forced herself to think about how exquisite Generosity looked with Sweetie Belle’s cutie mark on it. Really, that necklace was always good for a distraction if she let it be.

After that barely diverted debacle, the conversation shifted to a far more palatable topic which Rarity could actually contribute to: prepping Princess Luna for who she would meet this morning just before sunrise. Oh, she was already well aware of the current power structure in Equestria, of course – the who’s who and all that. No competent ruler would be caught dead without that information. But the finer points could make or break any good impression, and Rarity had plenty of harmless personal information about such ponies to provide. A little of it sprinkled into conversation would do wonders for her public perception.

It was nearly time for sunrise, and as much as Twilight hated to do this, the moment had come to inform the world of the new regime. She climbed up onto the stage with slow, solemn dignity as much to hide how weak she felt right now as to put on a show. Then, as she walked to the front dais projecting from the platform where Celestia would have raised the sun, she took note of the already gathered, seated, and notified notables’ expressions. They were, she was sure, trained from birth to hide their thoughts, but she managed to pick up a few clues here and there from a crack in the mask or from somepony who felt no need to conceal their emotions as she passed their row of seats.

Reactions were mixed. Some clearly relished the opportunities the change in power would create either in the political sphere or the economic sector. Some were obviously concerned about the shift, and they had every right to be. Celestia had ruled Equestria alone for a thousand years unchallenged, after all, and it had prospered under her for the vast majority of that time. Some didn’t particularly seem to care one way or another.

Then there were the reactions to Sunset’s presence. Unlike the average pony wandering around town, all of the politicians present had at least heard of her. Very, very few of them were happy to see her return to favor, which was just fine by Twilight, because that was largely how they’d treated her upon her ascension to the office of the archmage up until they’d realized that nothing they could do would remove her from power.

At the head of the stage upon the podium meant for Celestia, Twilight sent a surreptitious look back at Sunset. She couldn’t cast a single spell right now, but the last thing they needed was for that to become public gossip. Rather than give the game away and resort to a sound system, Sunset did the work for her and cast her voice out to her audience of thousands more than Ponyville had room for.

“Ponies of Equestria!”

The crowd slowly fell silent as Twilight drew their full attention.

“As any student of history will tell you, our physical records from the Harmonic Era are erratic at best. There are very few left living who remember that time, and most of them are dragons who had few interactions with our civilization during that period. The bulk of our body of knowledge concerning that era stems directly from somepony writing down something Princess Celestia offhoofedly mentioned.

“When she told me she had a sister, I was shocked as I imagine many of you were not even a week ago. It did not, however, surprise me that she kept that information to herself for centuries. I know I would hate to be separated from my family for so long. Worse, to be the pony who banished them? Even by accident? When we spoke, it was obvious how deeply she missed her little sister and how guilty she felt.”

Twilight was very, well, not glad, but perhaps relieved Celestia that had already laid the groundwork for this narrative with the public, because she really didn’t think she could sell it on her own.

“But today we find ourselves with long forgotten history leaping off the page. After a thousand years, Princess Luna has at last returned to us.”

The riotous cheering of the unfaithful crowd who’d loved their exiled princess nearly tore Twilight in half. As she waited for the fervor to die out, she reminded herself over and over again that they didn’t and wouldn’t know the truth. They had no reason to be anything but happy for Celestia.

“Yes, it’s all very exciting.” Twilight did her very best not to let that come out as snark and mostly succeeded. “Equestria will once again be a true diarchy. Princess Luna will return to her throne to rule once more.”

There was more cheering at that announcement, but it was shorter and more tolerable this time.

“During the sisters’ emotional reunion, however, Princess Luna offered to shoulder the full burden of both thrones so that Princess Celestia might, after a thousand years of unswerving devotion to us, take a long, much deserved holiday. She accepted.”

As there were no screams of panic or cries of treason, Twilight thought this was going well.

“For those of you who are curious, Princess Celestia will be off-planet. No, you didn’t mishear me. Now that she has free time, she’s decided to attempt to fix some of the damage Discord did to the heavens during his reign. It’s fascinating work. If you see something strange happening in the sky, it’s probably her. Feel free to wave and wish her well.”

Twilight breathed deep. This was it, the moment it all became real.

“And now, without further ado, Princess Luna.”

On cue, Luna coalesced from moonlight on stage beside Twilight. The audience, having bought every word of her gross misrepresentation of the truth, didn’t hesitate to voice their support. It was Luna’s first public appearance in a millennium. They were honored. Thrilled! This moment would go down in history, and they could all say they were here for it. Of course they were excited.

And why shouldn’t they be? She was Princess Celestia’s sister. Princess Celestia’s faithful student and incorruptible archmage endorsed her. It certainly didn’t hurt that Luna was just as beautiful as her sister with the same regal air, not to mention that she was an alicorn.

For the first time since Luna’s return, Twilight saw her with a real smile on her face.

Luna held up a hoof for silence before too long. She opened her mouth once she had it, and then introduced herself.

In Old Ponish.

The confused looks spread quickly, and Twilight fought not to facehoof.

Luna laughed and, with what probably constituted perfect comedic timing, said, “I jest.”

The crowd got the joke now and laughed with Luna.

It wasn’t a bad lead, Twilight supposed. Luna would never be Celestia in their eyes. At best she’d be a cheap knockoff. Ponies would expect a certain level of dignity and grace from their princess, but she had that in spades. There was no need to try to imitate her sister’s more distant rule when she could just be herself. She wanted respect, not awe. Love, not worship. If Celestia was the type of leader one would willingly bow to, Luna was the type one would follow unto the ends of Equus.

Or at least that was Twilight’s take on the matter. She’d learned a similar lesson long ago herself after becoming the archmage. Even so, she still rolled her eyes as she stepped aside. She found her seat only a few steps from where she’d started beside Sunset and fell under a subtle privacy spell. She might not be able to use her magic right now, but she could still tell that much at least.

“Not bad,” Sunset said. “For a shut-in.”

Twilight merely huffed in response. She knew what she was.

As the crowd quieted once more, Luna began her real speech.

“The world has changed since I last walked these lands. I see trains where once were dirt paths. The smallest of libraries overflow with more literature than I ever possessed. The terrors that lurked in the shadows have fallen back to the dark corners of the world. Ponies now follow their dreams without worrying if it will allow them to eat. Wild weather is a horror story you tell your foals.”

A strange sound caught Twilight’s attention. Is Luna…crying? Was she actually crying right now?

“For the past one thousand years, I have slumbered. In my dreams, I wondered what I would return to. I wondered what I would say. How I would feel. Rest assured, I stand before you now as a proud mother of this nation. You have grown so much since I left. I only wish I could have been there to see it with my own eyes.”

Twilight swore under her breath.

Luna stood a little straighter and spread her wings. “Citizens of Equestria! I swear to you now that you will not find me absent again.”

On that oath, Luna leapt into the air, her horn glowing a brilliant cobalt blue.

In the sky above, the moon set and the sun rose.

“Feeling conflicted?” Sunset asked with a pointedly casual air.

“No,” Twilight retorted. “She’s in the wrong. I just wish she didn’t make me feel bad to blame her.”

Chuckling, Sunset said, “This is why you don’t befriend your enemies.”

Twilight heaved a sigh. Rather than respond, she watched the last sliver of the moon disappear over the horizon, taking Celestia along with it. She’d played her hand, even cards she’d not known she’d had, and lost. Now she had to live with the consequences.