Royal followed behind the princess, his hooves tromping softly in the dew drenched night grass. The moon was high in the starlit sky, he found himself surprised to see the princess of the sun during the night. Somehow, he had just expected the two princesses would hoof things off to each other, one sleeping during the day, the other at night, and only being around each other during twilight or morning. Then again, Celestia was rumored to be far, far more than merely an exceptionally large and possibly immortal pony.
Walking behind the princess, in the night, was a very intimidating experience. Royal, in his earthly life, had seen images of Celestia in his holoset, on screens, at kiosks and he had wondered about her curious mane and tail, seemingly solid, clearly not made of hair, perpetually waving like a flag in some wind only She could feel. The reality, in front of him, was difficult to look at.
Celestia's mane and tail glowed with the light of dawn and sunset combined, rich colors shining off the grass, making the dew sparkle like diamonds of light. He had been drawn to stare into her tail - he was a four-foot tall pony, and Celestia's head had been measured at above eight feet - and found himself frozen in place. His vision passed through the apparent surface of the princess's tail, into infinity, as if he were looking into some distant, ethereal sky. It was not like some holographic trick, he could practically feel summer breezes flowing through that endless space and his mind failed him, trying to interpret what he was really looking at.
Celestia had seemed to sense his state, and had stopped and turned her head back, to give him a comforting smile. "Come along, my little pony. It is not far now." Her gentle words, kind and sweet, had calmed him almost immediately, and he found himself plodding along, leaving little indents in the damp ground from the weight of his passing. He had already noticed that Celestia herself, left no hoofprints at all.
When he looked up again, he found he was not anywhere near the small greensward that she had led him to, the little park across from Starswirl Hall, but instead found that they were passing through the Royal Maze Gardens. He did not remember walking the long distance up the terraces, through the tunnels carved into the mountain, and finally past the gates of the castle itself at all. They were just somehow... there, in the great garden outside the Royal Maze, as though the lower terrace green was directly connected to the top of the mountain in some impossible way. The hairs of his withers stood tall, an eerie feeling within him.
They were passing now through a small forest of statues, each magnificently carved in exquisitely perfect detail. Royal dimly remembered a story that Hot Topic had told him, that there was a rumor that the statues were not truly statues at all, but ancient enemies of the crown and political problems silenced by being turned to stone. In that moment fear gripped Royal's heart as the name of the organization he founded sounded loudly in his mind - RADWICKINS, The Reasonably Adamant Down with Celestia Newfoal Society. 'Down With Celestia', it was right on the marquee, it was on every show program. He mocked the solar princess every performance.
"This way, my little pony - I need to address something I have let go on too long." Celestia's voice was sweet as ever, but Royal's blood ran cold in his Newfoal veins. He found his legs weak under him. Ponies didn't kill, ponies never killed - Royal repeated the phrase over and over like a mantra of protection. Ponies didn't kill - but Celestia wasn't properly a pony, was she? She was something else, something far different than a mere pony. What if Topic had been right, what if the rumor was true - being turned to stone wasn't exactly like being killed. It was bloodless, silent, quiet. It could be reversed, Royal had heard of that once. Maybe to the pony mind, being turned to stone was a little excuse, a kind of soft-murder that didn't actually kill so that made it all right somehow... 'Down With Celestia' - could he have been any more blatant? Stupid, stupid, stupid...
"Are you all right?" Celestia had stopped. Royal had nearly run into her, barely stopping in time to avoid colliding with that shimmering, glowing tail - or more likely, stepping through it to fall forever in some endless, aching void of light and color. The thought made him feel queasy. Royal stepped back and instinctively looked into the eyes of the princess addressing him. That was a mistake. The last of his courage failed him against that unearthly, agelessly placid face, and devoid of restraint, he involuntarily lost control of his bladder.
Royal was shaking now, ashamed and terrified, the smell of his own wet rising from the steaming ground. He could not help it, his legs trembling wildly, he began to cry. Large tears slid down his dark purple muzzle and fell upon the close-cropped grass.
He felt warmth along his neck and shoulder and barrel. Then it was across his back, melting his raised withers. Celestia was comforting him, her long, elegant neck and perfect head gently stroking him, nuzzling him. The smell of his shame had somehow vanished, the steaming grass cool again. Around them the night was replaced with soft blue, coral and teal sky, Celestia's mane, forever rippling in whatever wind buffets the immortal.
Royal relaxed, and felt his courage and strength return. "I am terribly sorry, I really am. I let this... whimsy... on my part go entirely too far. No, my little pony, I am not here to silence you, I am not here to turn you to stone, or any of the other terrible things you have been thinking." Could she read his mind? Or had she simply lived so long that his thoughts were as predictable to her as the rising of the sun... which she... controlled.
The princess pulled away, leaving Royal standing perplexed in the moonlight. When she had embraced him, it had felt like sunshine and comfort and love. In that moment he had been a foal, and she his mother, making the world all right. The intensity of that feeling echoed within him, lending him ease and comfort.
Royal could now take stock of his surroundings, and he noticed that they were in a far corner of the garden, away from the Maze, and surrounded by statues. All were of ponies, some bore flags, one a horn. Another statue to Royal's side held a long scroll that rolled down from the hooves that held it. Directly in front of him was the statue of a mare, rearing up on hind legs, her hooves on a rough stone pillar. On the crude pillar was a flat, wide, rectangular capstone, and upon that was a rounded stone. She had one hoof upon the stone and her other hoof was raised high. She appeared to be in the middle of speaking, her mouth open, her eyes determined and wide.
"That is The Lady Soliloquy, one of the very first six baronesses of the very first age of Equestria. She lived in the year 53 After Discord, in the very first century of Harmony. In those days, the world you now know was still being... arranged... and life was difficult for all of my ponies. She was a good leader and a better speaker with more than a flair for the dramatic and the captivating. She had a magic about her, one that could sway those that heard her deeply. Among that early peerage, Lady Soliloquy was... without peer." Celestia gave a faint smile at her little jest. Royal stood still as a statue himself, completely unsure what, if anything, to say.
"Life was hard in those early times, little one. The land was not yet the green splendor you see today. The sky was not entirely settled, there were disputes about the purpose of night... suffice it to say there was dissension that would be unthinkable today." Celestia seemed sad now, a wave of sorrow passing over her muzzle. Like a cloud under the hoof of a pegasus, it vanished, replaced once more by implacable calm.
"You cannot fully understand those times, for it was not entirely the same world. Soliloquy served the crown well, but over time her love of the ponies she cared for overwhelmed her fealty to... me. Her dissent was not without some validity, but it could not be tolerated. Life in that time was far too fragile and precarious to suffer any disagreement - it was often the case that the ponies merely surviving another day could be counted a triumph. It was not possible for demands or complaints to be heard. In tending to minor injustices, the entire world could have been lost." Celestia stared deeply at Royal, and some of his previous unease returned. "A ruler must rule, little one, and there are decisions that must be made for the good of all that are not easy, and which do not offer a pleasant sleep afterwards. Do you understand?"
To Royal, in that moment, it did not matter one bit whether or not he could understand. He nodded, respectfully.
"We now live in very different times, and in this age it is prudent to allow such latitude as we could never have permitted before. With the Newfoals, like you, have come changes to Equestrian culture. Your culture and yourselves must be integrated into Equestria, so that Harmony can continue for all. Where there has been resentment or mistrust of Newfoals, your irreverence has won support and adoration. In mocking me, you have assured the acceptance of your kind. You have done what I myself could not. I am grateful." Celestia smiled warmly at Royal, leaving him utterly stunned.
The princess of the sun next gazed upon the open-mouthed statue. She laughed, softly, gently. "In her time, the Lady Soliloquy was the biggest thorn in my flank! She nearly brought the entirety of ponydom to utter ruin, because she yearned for freedoms and luxuries that literally could not be afforded at the time. Had I not acted, my little ponies would have starved and perished for the pursuit of her views, such was her influence in that harsh time. There was not a thing wrong with her demands - they were just inappropriate for their time."
"Royal -" Celestia once again looked down upon the nervous stallion "The Lady Soliloquy is no longer a baroness - all that she once held has turned to dust. In this age, she is just a pony, no more a peer than you, yourself. She is no less remarkable for her loss of station, though. She is brash, bright, immensely frustrating, funny and often unwise. She is poetry and song and prose that cannot be ignored. Her voice can spellbind the masses and her words can warm even the coldest heart. It is no exaggeration to say that she is one of the greatest talents Equestria has ever produced, and so very early in its history, too."
Royal looked over the ancient stone form, an elegant mare frozen for almost a millennium in an impassioned pose.
"I think you will find miss Soliloquy the most infuriating, brilliant and valuable member of your very important and needed troupe. It is our wish for you to take her in, help her adjust to this new Equestria, show her kindness and friendship, and above all, assist her to realize her great talent, now that the world is finally ready for one such as her to shine. Know this, my little pony - we never forget, we never destroy, and we ever seek justice. It is right that our precious Soliloquy finally know that abundance which she once yearned for with such magnificent ferocity." With that, Celestia's horn began to glow, bright and golden as her glorious sun. Royal stared, agape in awe as the statue before him gained a shimmering aura, the arcane light spilling out across the damp grass. Royal's eye was drawn to the tip of the statue's raised hoof, where the stone was rapidly changing color, turning from the hard gray of stone, to the vibrant hues of a living pony. A pony that would soon draw breath for the very first time in just over nine hundred years.
When Royal had first introduced Soliloquy to the RADWICKINS troupe, she had looked briefly them all over, marched directly to the planning desk and stared at the rectangular objects that covered it. She had seen ponies before in her life, they could wait - she was used to having others wait for her. The objects were what was of interest.
"This... we demand the purpose of this one!" It was Bucket's prompt book, which left several of the cast in shock - apparently there had been no books in Soliloquy's time. She had just come to understand that books were stored knowledge, and therefore represented power. Royal had been working to teach her to read, but it had been slow going initially - he barely understood how to read the commonplace writing of the earthponies himself, and there were two other forms of writing in use he knew nothing of yet.
The lack of familiarity with books in no way hampered the latest addition to the RADWICKINS troupe - perhaps in compensation, Soliloquy's memory was beyond phenomenal, and once something was shown or explained to the pale fuchsia unicorn mare, it became a permanent part of her. As months had passed, Royal ultimately had to accept her teaching him how to read. Soliloquy excelled in every respect, and she was not shy about letting everypony know this fact.
Celestia had not exaggerated. Soliloquy was infuriating and utterly brilliant. Within the first days of her release from stone she had almost completely grasped what her world had become. She had gasped at the beauty - in her day, Equestria was little but twisted rock with a churning horror above. Survival depended as much on what fell from the chaos above as from what they could grow from rocks crushed to make soil. When Soliloquy fully grasped the scale of modern Equestrian architecture, she had violently wept - she had lived in a walled cluster of large huts and called it a castle. A bed, for Soliloquy, was a divine luxury - she had slept on a pile of mats laid upon dirt and thought herself royalty for it.
But not a bit of this had crushed her indomitable spirit. Where others might have hidden, she stepped forth, demanding always to see more, to learn more. Royal had been run ragged catering to her as she discovered her new world - indeed her new universe - so utterly unfamiliar, so incredibly rich and magnificent.
"Our sky was not this sky." Soliloquy was drawn to watching the heavens, and would not miss a sunset or moonrise. "We knew no tranquil void decorated with cloud or star. Above us always was dark, swirling nightmare horrors grinding ceaselessly. Occasionally desire or disgust would drip from above, and bring with it either delight or danger. We see in this new sky such boundless sweetness that our heart can barely embrace it."
It was in moments like this, that Royal found himself transfixed - both he and Soliloquy were, in their own ways, refugees from other universes, trying to make sense of the one they had found themselves in. Equestria was as strange for Soliloquy as it had been for him four years ago. She had lived before Equestria was Equestria at all, and in this they both found vast common ground.
One thing Royal found he adored about Soliloquy was that she could fight. Modern ponies were, for the most part, a tranquil lot, peaceable and placid. Not so Soliloquy. She awakened in Royal some lost element of human nature, and their screaming, yelling fights, late at night, when the food was not perfect enough, or the rehearsal was flawed, or when she was angry at one of his friends for something she could not fully comprehend thrilled him in some fundamental way. He found himself grateful for her rages, and even sought them out. It quickly became clear that in her day, ponies were a different breed, one not raised in endless peace and plenty. Soliloquy was of a breed that could and did know what it meant to wrestle grim life from ever-waiting death. In some ways, Soliloquy seemed more human to Royal than most converted Newfoals.
In her, he discovered he had found the other half of what he had felt missing. He had needed to command attention from an audience - that was a fact. But he also had missed a certain edginess to reality that Equestria profoundly lacked. In Soliloquy he found that in endless measure, and it quickly became clear that she found the same within him. He was the one pony that would yell back. Where others cowered, Royal pounded the tables with his immaculate purple hooves. Where other ponies of this new Equestria fled from her tirades, Royal glared back, as fiercely as a deadly Griffon, as immovable as a mountain. Royal was the only pony she found she could respect in this new world.
When it was clear they had become a couple, Thunder Road seemed miffed - she had always had her golden eyes on Royal. Bucket had merely noted that 'Celestia works in mysterious ways', to which Thunder had snorted. "I think Celestia works in obvious ways." With that the crimson pegasus had stomped off in a huff.
Bitsworth was in the zone, reading from his sheet into the Bevelmeiter Microphone "...AND SPECIAL MUSICAL GUESTS ZAHQUO AND D. NOTIVE!!!"
As the music swelled, two dozen pony performers began to sing -
Another op'nin, it's time to share
In Phillydelphia, or Baltimare
A chance for New Foals to say hello!
Another op'nin of another show.
Another gig that we hope will last
Will help our foals to respect our past
And bring our grievances to the Throne
So that the New Foals won't stand alone
For months, how we wished we could curse
Swore that we could never feel worse
Two meek, yes, too frightened and shy
Feeling lonely and cold under Luna's sky
The friendly overtures that were made
Could not help feeling we'd been betrayed
We miss our fingers, we miss our toes
And that's the reason we give these shows!
The lights dimmed and a single, pale fuchsia unicorn, tall and elegant, dressed in an exquisite gown took the spotlight. Her voice was clear and proud as she recited her words, accompanied by the twenty-four piece orchestra playing softly, dramatically in the background. The scene was instantly mesmerizing, and the mare's voice wove itself into the vast theater space like the web of a spider, ensnaring every mind, every soul, catching them in its power.
"To remind us all of the Earth's devastation,
To unite all Newfoals within the Equestrian nation,
To denounce the evils of ponification,
To demand respect and full restitution,
We are The Reasonably Adamant Down with Celestia Newfoal Society!
We bring the news of the Newfoal's plight,
Celestia respect! or prepare to fight.
The RADWICKINS gallop toward what's right!"
It was no longer a song. It was no longer a laugh. Suddenly Bitsworth's light poem had become a eulogy for a lost world, and a proclamation of intent. In Soliloquy's intense vocalization, it was almost a prayer. The audience was silent, reflecting on the meaning of the words. In each and every pony heart the magnitude of what had been done, the scale of issue of the Newfoal refugees embedded itself like a dagger.
One prominent Canterlot business pony who enjoyed the RADWIKINS shows but refused to ever hire one of those strange, alien Newfoals suddenly found himself sobbing. In his foalhood, he had been picked on because he had been slow and clumsy, despite being sharp of mind. Few foals would play with him. He often felt like an outcast, and that had driven him into financial success. Soliloquy's magic voice had touched his heart, and in but a second, he had realized the Newfoals must truly feel the same way he had felt, as a foal. His shame had overwhelmed him.
A pegasus of the Royal Guard, in the audience with his exotic Newfoal marefriend, found himself turning to look, really look, at the earthpony he had been dating. She was not some trophy or whim to show off to his mates in the Guard. Her odd ways as she desperately still tried, after four years, to fit in to an alien, nonhuman culture suddenly did not seem so funny to him. The motto was not the joke it had been the last times he had taken her to it, eager to see how his freak of a marefriend might react. She wasn't a freak. Not one bit. She was a lovely and loving mare, and he realized that he had been hiding from himself how much he really cared about her.
Soliloquy's unique talent broke through the narrow-minded, traditionalist disgust within a wealthy upper tier stallion. He had secretly supported a renegade group that had once worked to send Newfoals off to random places in the Exponential Lands. The elite stallion had not been implicated when Celestia had discovered the plot and dealt with the obvious perpetrators. Driven by remorse, he quietly rose from his pillow and excused himself through the packed crowd. Once outside, he walked directly to the quarters of the Royal Guard and began his confession. Midway through, he broke down into tears, begging forgiveness.
Loquacity The Garrulous, one of Celestia's trusted Royal Unicorn Corps, the most prestigious mages in all of Equestria, found herself unable to stop hearing "Down with Celestia" in her head. Over and over the phase from the motto repeated itself, hammering within her as shame rose. She had secretly been part of a subversive group of unicorn mages dedicated to researching a means - any means - to overthrow the tyranny of an immortal alicorn government. They believed that the world should be run by unicorns, and that pegasai and earthponies existed only to serve... them. If Celestia could allow this, this open sacrilege, this open mockery of Her to exist... then everything the unicorn mage had worked for in secret was wrong. Celestia was no tyrant. She truly was the loving mother, and all ponies her children. Loquacity broke down, swearing on her magic that in the morning she would report to his princess and disclose everything, every name, every plot, every detail. She was mare enough... to admit her mistake.
The silence within the great hall was broken only by occasional sobbing and the sound of a few ponies begging forgiveness for something they had done, or failed to do, for Newfoals beside them.
Soliloquy herself, tall neck held high, gazed slowly around the crowded space. Then she briefly lowered her head in a half bow, and walked elegantly from the stage, her gentle hooves inadvertently sounding like drum hits in the dead silence.
It took some time for the orchestra to begin to play, and when it did it was not the number the script called for, but, at Bucket's insistence, a slow, gentle piece from Earth, a song called "My Old Kentucky Home." Bucket, in his low, gravelly voice sang the lyrics, and while not one of the native ponies understood the song, or the context of its existence, Bucket himself certainly did, and in any case, the music was somehow just what was needed.
Far above, in the left and right Royal Balconies, a midnight blue muzzle hidden inside a rich embroidered cloak looked across at a delicate, pale white muzzle hidden within another, equally splendid cloak and nodded.
The pale muzzle quietly nodded back.