Between the incessant questions from palace officials about guest accommodations, the mobs of ponies flocking around her demanding that she sign this invitation or offer her approval for the color scheme of that banner, and the constant hubbub of busy chatter that filled every room in the palace to bursting, Princess Aurora was beginning to wish that her birthday didn’t have to happen every year; the headache was more than she could handle.
Oh, she could tell that Glass Eye sympathized with her plight – there was that tiny, sentimental glint in his one visible eye that usually meant he was about to put a hoof on her shoulder and offer her words of wisdom – but today, even her old advisor was caught up in the excitement. His office was a buzzing beehive of bureaucracy as invitations, forms, and documents flew about the room in a telekinetic frenzy, while the unicorn himself stood behind his desk, quill in his magical grip, signing paper after paper that hovered before him and settling them into neat stacks that grew taller by the second.
“Don’t you think it’s all a little ridiculous?” Aurora asked. She was pacing back and forth in front of his desk, tail swishing nervously, brow furrowed in stress. A close onlooker might have noticed dark circles under her bloodshot eyes.
“I understand that everypony wants my input,” she went on, “but I’m barely sleeping and I can’t get a moment’s peace. And there’s nowhere to go to get away from it all! Just this morning, the decoration committee was proposing to put new, star-patterned curtains in my bedroom so the tower windows would look more festive when viewed from outside. They spent two hours just arguing over the color scheme.” She stopped, hanging her head, and heaved a tired sigh. “Can’t we just simplify things? Is all this stuff really necessary?”
“I assure you, your highness, I understand,” Glass Eye replied through his bushy moustache without looking up from his paperwork. “All the same – and I don’t mean to sound dismissive – but your workload is actually fairly light. In bygone years, Princess Celestia would oversee every aspect of Princess Luna’s birthdays, from the fonts on the banners to the flavor of icing on the cakes.”
Aurora ducked as a stream of documents flew from a filing cabinet on the far end of the room, narrowly missing her head. “How in Equestria did she manage all that?” she asked.
“Well, it is true that she had several thousand years of experience to perfect the art of multitasking.” Hastily, Glass Eye scrawled his signature on the documents as he levitated one after another down onto his desk, approving this request for funding, ordering that section of Canterlot to undergo renovation, signing letters, coordinating meetings. The stacks of signed forms were already high enough to obscure half of the wizened old pony behind his desk, and the well of new paperwork seemed bottomless.
“If I may remind you, your highness,” he went on, “this is your first birthday as monarch of the realm – and Princess Corona’s, as well. I understand the pressure it’s putting you under, and please believe me when I tell you I sympathize, but we mustn’t set a bad precedent with an inferior celebration. The world needs to know that the new Princesses of Equestria will continue the grand and joyous traditions of their predecessors.”
“I suppose you’re right,” the princess admitted, her expression softening into a gentle frown. If anything, Aurora and Corona’s dramatic ascension to the throne had given their reign a reputation for spectacle. And Corona loved parties, that was for sure, and she had been more excited than anypony at the prospect of a truly royal celebration.
“I really mustn’t disappoint her,” Aurora murmured, mostly to herself.
“Still, your highness, you do give the impression of being overworked,” Glass Eye said, eyeing the princess’s exhausted face. For a moment the flying pages slowed their frantic pace as the advisor’s voice took on its familiar grandfatherly quality. “And you certainly don’t need to be involved at every level of decision-making, regardless of what the decoration committee thinks. Perhaps you ought to take a short rest today.”
“I dunno,” Aurora murmured, looking aside. “Maybe it is all ridiculous, but – if it’s for Equestria… if it’s for Corona… maybe I’d better not slack off after all.”
“In any case,” Glass Eye said, telekinetically hefting a monstrous stack of unsigned papers onto the desk, “do remember to fill out these approval forms for the guest list. And, speaking of Princess Corona, her signatures are required as well, but I can’t seem to get a hold of her – perhaps you’ll have better luck finding her, your highness.”
“Wait,” said Aurora, stopping in her tracks. “You mean you haven’t seen her, either?”
“Not recently, your highness, no,” said Glass Eye. He paused again, his expression mildly troubled as another form hovered, waiting, in front of him. “Come to think of it, she has been somewhat difficult to find lately, hasn’t she?”
“You can say that again,” said Aurora. In the weeks leading up to the twins’ birthday celebration, Corona had been everywhere at once, chatting with the cooks in the kitchen about cake recipes, throwing out suggestions to the decorators in the courtyards, and constantly battering Aurora with questions about what she wanted for her birthday. But in the last few days, Aurora had seen little of her sister, hearing only from second-hoof accounts that the Princess of the Sun had been spending an awful lot of time at the Canterlot University, and that she had been seen more than once in the company of Professor Somnambula.
“I believe I heard from Captain Bell Toll that Princess Corona had last been seen near the kitchens,” said Glass Eye, “but that was some time ago. Perhaps you should go speak with Twospins. At any rate, it’s urgent – well, not quite urgent, precisely, but certainly important – that you get her signature on these documents. We need both princesses to approve of the guest list, or else the kings and queens of some important foreign land may find themselves barred at the doors.”
Aurora took the stack of papers, which was heavy enough to strain her own magical grip, and cast a sarcastic, half-lidded glance at her advisor. “Will that be all?”
“Ah! I almost forgot,” said Glass Eye, still not taking his eyes from own paperwork. “Pardon my absent-mindedness. I still need for you to confirm next week’s appointments. There are interviews with the new Night Guard lieutenants, a strategic conference with Queen Brising of the Valkyria, your keynote speech at the Magician’s Convention, agricultural trade negotiations with the ambassador from Gildedale – oh, and then the Gloomhold delegates are visiting to discuss what some appropriate menu items might be for their annual We’re-Sorry-for-Kidnapping-Your-Princess Banquet….”
By the time she was out of his office (and had dropped the stack of documents off at her own workplace), the piercing yellow sunlight that streamed in through the tall windows of the palace hallway was starting to sting Aurora’s eyes. Was she getting a migraine? She winced, shut her eyes, shook her head; when this was over, maybe she could grab a few hours of rest in a dark room, assuming the decoration committee didn’t barge in to change her curtains.
Suddenly, she stopped. Ponies – the same decoration committee from earlier, uncannily enough, to judge from the sound of their voices – were approaching from around the corner ahead. Their conversation was heated, almost angry, and growing more audible by the second:
“Do you think Princess Aurora would prefer southern constellations on her curtains, or northern constellations?”
“How in Tartarus am I supposed to know?”
“Well, then, why don’t you just ask her yourself?”
Maybe, Aurora thought, a different route to the kitchens would be preferable.
Calling up her mental map of the palace, Aurora crept with rapid, backward steps down the hall and slipped as quietly as she could through another door, silently chastising herself all the while for ignoring her responsibility, however trivial a matter it may have been. But she had to draw the line somewhere, she told herself. The curtains could wait; finding Corona was more important now.
The kitchens were in the same state of excited hustle and bustle as the rest of the palace, but here the chaos seemed to have reached a fever pitch. The moment Aurora set hoof inside, her ears were battered by the clattering, hissing, boiling, clanging hubbub that filled the air to the brim, and the heat of a hundred ovens (all busy baking cakes, soufflés, and other assorted pastries) caused sweat to start beading on her brow. By the time she found the pony she was looking for, even her flowing, starry mane had started to get frizzy.
As it turned out, Twospins, the head cook, was the only one who had seen Corona recently. She was a short, slightly pudgy earth pony with an aquamarine coat and a curly golden mane that somehow remained neatly coiffed even in the stifling humidity of the kitchen.
“Oh, ja, I just met her a few hours ago,” she explained to Aurora, half-shouting over the hubbub in her Svensk accent. She paused for a moment to grip a tray of cupcakes in her mouth and set it on a nearby table to cool. “Poor dear was in a frantic hurry, said she needed a certain sort of cake right away. Well, I tell her, ‘You know, your highness, a pound cake may be a simple recipe, but it takes a certain amount of time to bake, and not even a magician could make one ready before its time’ – well, wouldn’t you know it, even as I was telling her it couldn’t be done, up comes Tart Bakewell, saying, ‘Twospins, would you believe it, but I accidently made one too many pound cakes. Whatever will we do with this extra?’ Well, before she knew what hit her, Princess Corona had whisked it away with her magic and thanked us both kindly, and she was off.”
“Did she say where she was going?” Aurora asked.
“Oh, ja,” said Twospins. Now she had taken a wooden spoon and was busy stirring a bowl of batter, speaking around it as best she could. “Said something about needing to get to the library, your highness.”
“The library?” Aurora echoed in confusion. That wasn’t one of Corona’s usual haunts. What could she be doing there?
“That’s the truth, your highness,” Twospins confirmed. “Had to see a pony about a book, I believe she said.”
While Aurora pondered this new information, the cook set down the spoon, pausing for a moment, and a sad smile crept into her eyes as she gazed into the middle distance.
“She’s such a sweet dear, if you don’t mind my saying so, your highness, though a very lively one,” Twospins said. “Very excited about her first birthday as Princess of Equestria. And, ah, I don’t blame her. I used to look forward to the princesses’ birthdays every year, myself. And we used to have two of them, of course – two separate celebrations, I mean, one for Princess Celestia, and one for….”
Suddenly the cook’s voice hitched and faltered; Aurora noticed her eyes shining in the glaring overhead lights. “And, you know, your highness,” she continued, “I suppose this is the first birthday dinner I’ve had to cook for a princess other than their highnesses – ah, Princesses Celestia and Luna, I mean – and, don’t you know, it’s been just as bittersweet as extra-dark chocolate. But, well I suppose….”
Aurora sat down next to her, laying a comforting hoof on the cook’s back. “I’m sorry. I know you were really fond of them….”
Twospins sniffled once, but then started upright once again, focusing on her task. “Oh, dear. Well, that’s all in the past, and you’re here now. Now, tell me, your highness, what would you prefer in your biscuit tortoni – minced almonds, or crushed macaroons?”
“Oh, it doesn’t really – ” Aurora started to say. But then she stopped herself. Corona liked almonds, didn’t she? It seemed like a trifling question, almost as trivial as the decorative curtains, but it might make a difference to her sister, especially now that Corona had developed a real sweet tooth.
It was her birthday, too, after all.
“I can’t disappoint her,” she murmured to herself again. Then she turned back to Twospins with a purposeful gleam in her blue eyes. “Definitely almonds,” she said.
Well, that did it. Delighted to have gotten the princess’s input, Twospins began to bombard her with a long barrage of questions that Aurora simply couldn’t bring herself to ignore. The Princess of the Night spent the next fifteen minutes following her head chef around the kitchen, racking her brain in an effort to remember Corona’s preferences: her favorite spices in streusel, whether she would want her strawberry cake served chilled, what color icing would suit her best. Aurora was just starting to get tired of the noise and the heat and the mental taxation when, somewhere, through the shouting and clattering commotion of the kitchens, she heard a set of familiar voices:
“And I’m telling you, she’ll say that four shooting stars on one curtain will look tacky, especially if they have those ridiculous fire trails.”
“How do you know she’ll say that? She might think that level of artistic bombast is appropriate for a pony of her station.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re almost there, you can ask her yourself in a minute….”
“I’ve got to go,” Aurora said suddenly, thanking Twospins again and bolting for the door – although having to maneuver around the bustling cooks without making them spill anything slowed her escape. Not even a princess could part the crowd in a busy kitchen.
The library was some distance from the kitchen, and Aurora had to change her route many times along the way to avoid more roving bands of decorators. The princess’s weary mind was in a whirl all the while. What did Corona want with a pound cake? That had always been Aurora’s preferred pastry; she liked its humble simplicity, its laconic flavor. Was her sister planning to surprise her for her birthday with her favorite cake?
In any case, Aurora had hoped she could count on the library for some peace and quiet to contemplate these possibilities, but those hopes died even as she turned the corner. Long rows of ponies were wheeling carts overflowing with new books in and out the door, and inside was a mess – endless bookcases stretching into the distance on both sides with librarians buzzing around the shelves like bees around a honeycomb, adding books to this shelf, taking them off of that one, taking down notes, reorganizing, arguing. At length she spotted the head librarian, a unicorn named Stylus Reed (who looked the way Aurora had always imagined a librarian should look: purple coat, silver mane in a bun, horn-rimmed glasses perched on her snout, pen tucked behind one ear, the works), pushing a cart of magic textbooks toward the Starswirl the Bearded Wing, and flagged her down.
“Ah. Your highness,” said Stylus, voice curt and sharp according to her usual style. “Good thing you came by. The new shipment of antique volumes from the old Fillydelphia Archives just arrived for the library showcase.”
“Showcase?” Aurora raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What – oh!”
The princess slapped a hoof over her face. She had entirely forgotten: with so many ponies (and other denizens of the wide world) visiting Canterlot, and many of them scholars and intellectuals and plain old bookworms, it had been decided to put one of the palace’s most impressive features – the Canterlot Royal Library – forward as a public display. Consequently, there had been plans for it to undergo heavy renovation and expansion… just as soon as all the necessary volumes arrived.
“Ugh. I forgot that was today,” said Aurora.
“Indeed, your highness,” said Stylus. “Like I said, good thing you came by. We could use your input.”
The princess’s heart sank even further. “My input?”
“Certainly, Princess,” said Stylus. “Especially concerning the grimoires. You’ve had magic training more recently than any of the unicorns here. Do you think theoretical texts on Chance Manipulation ought to go in the ‘Magic as Entertainment’ section, or with the books on functional spellcasting?”
The librarian’s eyes darted away from the princess for a moment to some ponies on the opposite end of the lobby, and when her sharp voice rang out like a shot, it gave Aurora a jolt. “HEY! Those volumes should be arranged in alphabetical order, not numeric!”
“Actually, I was trying to find Princess Corona,” said Aurora, stepping forward and lowering her head into the librarian’s field of vision to get her attention again. “I heard from Cook Twospins that she was headed here, but that was a while ago.”
“Ah. Yes, she was. Pardon me, your highness.” Now Stylus was pushing the cart once again, indicating for Aurora to follow her. The two ponies joined a long stream of similar ponies, all pushing book carts through the arched wooden doorway of the Starswirl Wing. (Unlike the cooks in the kitchen, the librarians were not so absorbed in their work that they didn’t notice the princess, and they held up the line by bowing to her in turn.) Presently the pair found the appropriate bookcase, and Stylus began magically sorting books from the cart onto the shelves.
“She came here looking for a specific book,” said Stylus. “Fiction section. Historical fantasy, if I recall correctly. Something from the new shipment of older volumes out of Fillydelphia. I was surprised. For the past few weeks, the only books she’s shown any interest in are the grimoires.”
“Corona’s been checking out magic guides?” said Aurora, surprised. She sat down next to the book cart, lost in thought. “That’s unusual for her.”
“Indeed,” said Stylus, nodding. With almost uncanny prescience, the librarian’s eyes again darted away from Aurora to glare daggers at some ponies unloading books onto a nearby shelf. “HEY! Don’t just set the oversized books on the bottom shelf! Stack them longways! Longways!”
“So,” Aurora interjected again, “did she mention where she was going? I’m kind of in a hurry, and I need to find her as soon as possible….”
“Hmm,” said Stylus, putting a hoof to her chin and pausing to think for an agonizing moment. “Yes, actually. She did. Although I can’t quite put my hoof on what she said. Give me a moment, your highness, it’ll come to me.”
Aurora let a frustrated sigh slip past her lips. “Missed her again,” she muttered.
“Apologies, your highness,” Stylus said, turning back to her task. “It’s a busy day. I’ve a great deal on my mind.”
Aurora suppressed an exasperated sigh, and started eyeing the books still sitting on Stylus’s cart. “Well, do you remember what book she checked out?” she asked, lifting a couple of volumes onto the shelf with her own magic. As tired and stressed as she was, if she was going to take up Stylus’s time, it only seemed courteous that she should help out.
“I’m afraid not, your highness,” the librarian replied. “It would be in the records at the front desk, ordinarily. But she said she didn’t have time to check it out properly.” For a moment, she paused, observing the way Aurora had arranged the books. “Hmm. You placed S. Shimmer’s Magic & Politics alongside Big Top’s Grand Illusions and Glass Eye’s own The Moral Dimensions of Shapeshifting. I wouldn’t have thought to include it among those volumes. But it makes sense, I suppose.”
Now Stylus tilted her head and cast a pleading glance at Aurora through one of her gold eyes. “Are you absolutely certain you can’t stay and offer some input, your highness? You’ve got such a keen organizational mind. If I may say so, of course.”
“I really don’t have time – ” Aurora started to say.
But, once again, she found herself unable to finish.
She was busy, it was true. And she still needed to find Corona. But, at the same time, if Corona had been visiting the library lately – and especially the Starswirl wing – wouldn’t it be important to her if the place were back in order as soon as possible? What if she wandered in for some relaxed reading after the festivities, and couldn’t find the book she wanted because the shelves were still in a state of disarray? And how might she feel when the party came? What if some snooty, unimpressed visitor made a snide comment the library’s inferior quality, and Corona felt bad about the place ever afterwards?
Aurora bit her lip.
“Well, I suppose I can spare a few minutes,” she said.
Stylus’s face lit up; it was the first time Aurora had seen her smile all day (or any day, for that matter). Clearly, a chance to spend some time with another management-minded bookworm brought out her cheerful side. “Wonderful. If you’ll just follow me, your highness, the shelves are calling!”
Aurora ended up spending more than a few minutes helping Stylus Reed sort books. Just like Twospins, the librarian let flow a never-ending torrent of questions, though hers were about contemporary magic theory instead of pastries. With great effort, Aurora managed to call on every memory she had of her training with Lord Stargazer – his lessons, his ranting and raving, his offhand remarks about which magical scholars were worth paying attention to and which weren’t worth a single hair on his magnificent golden head. More than once she had to admit ignorance – she had no knowledge of illusory magic, she wasn’t sure what current scholars were saying about the authorship of Thrush Darkling’s source texts, she had never even heard of “spectral harmonics” – but, before long, the two of them had managed to fill five bookshelves under Aurora’s organizational guidance.
The princess was just about to admit to Stylus that her brain, already frazzled from stress and lack of sleep, was getting tired of stacking books, and that she really had to get going to find Corona, when, once again, a familiar chattering from the hallway broke out above the hushed murmuring of the librarians:
“No, no, a waning crescent moon doesn’t look nearly festive enough. It needs to be a waxing crescent.”
“But she’s already got that bedspread with her insignia! I’m telling you, it won’t match. Now, are you sure she’s in there?”
Aurora grimaced. “How do they keep finding me?” she muttered. Quickly she shelved the last few books on the cart, thanked Stylus again, and bolted for the other door – only to stop in her tracks before she had taken ten steps.
“Wait,” she shouted over her shoulder at the librarian. “Do you remember where my sister said she was going?”
“Ah – yes, actually, yes, I do!” Stylus called out. “I just recalled. She mentioned something about having to pay a visit to Cat’s Pajamas!”
“Thanks,” Aurora said, a little too curtly, and was gone.
Cat’s Pajamas, Aurora recalled, was the royal tailor, and one of Equestria’s premier fashion designers on the side. Her studio was actually outside the palace grounds, somewhere in North Canterlot within walking distance of the castle gates. Making use of what little knowledge she had of stealth, Aurora succeeded in sneaking back to her room to don her black hooded cloak, just to keep her mane and wings hidden while she was out in the streets so as not to cause a stir. She was already exhausted and frustrated and suffering from a splitting headache, and the last thing she needed now was a crowd of cheering ponies following her around town.
The streets, like the kitchen and the library, were bustling, and not just with ponies; griffons, kirins, zebras, minotaurs, and other creatures Aurora wasn’t even sure she recognized, crowded the sidewalks, darted in and out of glassy storefronts, chatted merrily around the fountains in the cobblestone courtyards. Thousands of creatures, and all of them here in preparation to celebrate her birthday – hers, and Corona’s.
The thought of it made Aurora blush, and with a bit of magic she tugged her hood even further down over her face. As she had felt so many times in the past year, she was flattered, but overwhelmed. All the attention, all the praise – it made her wish for the kind of birthday parties she used to have back home, before her ascension. Usually it was a picnic lunch with her family; occasionally their friend Whirlwind would join them, but most years it was just Blue Moon, Summer Sun, and their parents, sharing presents and eating cake and simply being together on a spread-out blanket under the old oak tree on the hilltop in their backyard. Now, looking at the festive banners strung between lampposts and the clusters of white and gold balloons that floated freely through the air, Aurora couldn’t help thinking that all these fancy trappings were an awful lot of fuss over nothing important.
After a short walk, the princess incognito managed to find the tailor’s home studio, situated at the top floor of a tall, upscale, white-stone apartment building. It had been built in the early days of Canterlot, just like the palace, according to an aesthetic of classical architecture. Inside were marble floors, spacious halls lined with Doric columns, and, in the heart of Cat’s apartment, a huge circular chamber – her workplace, her studio, her atelier. Here was a vaulted ceiling crowned with a glassy geodesic dome that allowed the noonday sunlight to spill into the room, illuminating sketchpads on easels, stray bolts of cloth lying in disarray on the checkerboard floor, half-finished prototype dresses hanging from faceless ponniquins.
Here, too, was Cat’s Pajamas, a tall, pink unicorn whose white mane was streaked down the middle with a thick purple stripe, and her face lit up at the sight of the now-unmasked princess.
But Aurora didn’t return her smile – because there, at the center of the room, striking a dynamic pose on a raised circular platform, was a green earth pony draped in an elegant white ball gown. Her short blue mane was swept back in a stylish coif, and her purple eyes, half-lidded, landed on the princess with an expression that might have been taken for disdain.
Aurora greeted her grade-school rival with glowering eyes. “Picture Perfect.”
“Your highness,” Picture returned in kind, managing (in her unique way) to blend appropriate politeness and respect with veiled, venomous sarcasm. “How magnanimous of you to pay our humble studio a visit.”
“It is wonderful of you to drop by, your highness!” said Cat’s Pajamas. “I was actually hoping to see you soon. I’ve been working on your gown for the birthday celebration, and – oh! – it’s a simply majestic design, worthy of a princess, I assure you. In fact, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d love an opportunity to see how it looks on you – I may still have to make adjustments here and there, of course….”
“Actually,” Aurora broke in gently, trying her best not to sound as impatient as she felt, “I’m trying to find my sister. I heard that she had paid your studio a visit earlier today.”
“Ah, yes, Princess Corona,” said Cat’s Pajamas. “You just missed her, in fact. She left only ten minutes or so ago.”
“Horsefeathers!” Aurora spat with a grimace, lightly stamping a hoof in frustration. Now this was getting ridiculous; it almost seemed like Corona was actively trying to keep one step ahead of her.
“Mm-hmm. She came by to pick up a dress,” Cat’s continued, either not noticing or politely ignoring the princess’s unbecoming outburst. “Not the dress for her birthday party, though, but the one she ordered last week.”
“Wait,” said Aurora, “Corona ordered a dress last week?”
“Why, yes! A deceptively simple design with an experimental fabric, actually, but, oh, a joy to make! Though I didn’t really think the color scheme suited her – it belongs on a pony with a much darker mane.”
“Well, Princess Aurora was always one with artistic sensibilities,” Picture interjected. “The way I remember it, Summer’s – sorry, Princess Corona’s art skills were, well, less than impressive.” She threw a caustic smile in Aurora’s general direction. “No offense, of course. I’m sure her highness would agree.”
Aurora’s blood boiled. She was seconds away from spitting back a venomous reply (or perhaps just summoning a lightning bolt) when Cat’s Pajamas spoke up again.
“Anyhow, she just came, grabbed the dress, and was gone,” she said. “I wanted her to stay for a spell – ah, your highness, you know what a fine model she’d make, and I still hoped I might persuade her to try on her own dress for tomorrow’s party – but she said she was rather in a hurry.” The tailor tilted her head and met the princess with questioning eyes. “You didn’t know?”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Aurora, brow knit in confusion. Now she turned her own eyes, glaring again, back to the model. “And what are you doing here?”
“Cat’s and I are getting ready for the Royal Equestrian Fashion Show,” said Picture, with the air of a pony who had practiced the art of bragging to perfection. “Cat’s is premiering a dozen new designs on Saturday. It’s absolutely cutting-edge stuff – most of her other models weren’t even sure how to put them on, let alone model them. Fortunately,” she said, tossing her mane and striking another pose, “she’s lucky to have a pony stylish enough to show them off properly.”
“Yes, and it’s the perfect time of year for this event, too,” Pajamas broke in, beaming brightly. “There are so many Very Important Ponies in town for the royal birthday celebration, and they’ll almost certainly stick around for the show. If it’s as smashing a success as I predict, your highness, then in a roundabout way I suppose we’ll have you and your sister to thank!”
At this, Picture’s eyes narrowed into purple slits that smoldered with subdued fury. Aurora had to fight back a smug grin at her old rival’s envy; Picture had always hated to be upstaged by anypony, even a princess.
For a moment, Aurora was tempted to stay and try on some of the fashionista’s dresses just for the chance of showing up Picture Perfect. But all at once, every hair on the back of neck stood on end when a familiar commotion echoed though the high marble halls from the distant lobby:
“She doesn’t need blackout curtains! Besides, the ones with the waxing crescent are already dark enough.”
“I still say we should show her the thick ones, with the inverted colors. Anyway, are you sure we’re going to catch her now?”
“Yes, she’s definitely here. And she can’t get away this time. There’s only one entrance, and the windows are too small for her to fly through!”
“What the…?” Aurora’s jaw dropped. “They followed me all the way out here?!”
“Who followed you, your highness?” asked Cat’s Pajamas.
Aurora didn’t bother to answer; she simply shut her eyes and applied whatever willpower was left in her tired brain to the task of cobbling together a spell. Professor Somnambula had taught her one for just such an occasion as this….
“Whoa, your highness,” said Picture Perfect. “What’s the big deal? What’s with the lightshow?”
By now, blinding bands of white light were weaving in a rapid circle about the princess, forming a spherical shell. Aurora could feel the enchantment taking its final shape, its complex pattern assembling itself in her mind like a jigsaw puzzle, and, right as the last piece locked into place, she focused her thoughts on the destination she wanted to reach.
“Gotta go! Sorry!” was all she managed to say before vanishing in a flash.
In an instant, gone were the vaulted ceiling, the ponniquins, the dresses, the tailor, the model, and the insufferable, implacable decoration committee. Aurora found herself in the small foyer at the top of the high tower of Canterlot Palace, with the heavy wooden doors to her and her sister’s bedchambers flanking her to the left and right.
The princess allowed herself to heave a sigh of relief: first, relief that the teleportation spell had worked without landing her on her head or depositing her in mid-air (again); and, second, relief that she had escaped getting drawn into a five-hour debate over curtains.
But the relief didn’t last more than a split-second. Aurora slapped a hoof over her face – she hadn’t even remembered to ask Cat’s Pajamas where Corona was headed.
“Argh!” she growled at herself, flinging off her cloak in fury and collapsing onto the cold stone floor. Hours of aggravation and disappointment mingled together with days of stress and exhaustion, and the resulting chemical reaction finally caused her temper to boil over. Now half the day was gone, the docmuments were still unsigned, and her guesses about Corona’s desert preferences may have all been wrong, and the library was still only half-organized, and she and Corona still hadn’t had a chance to try on their dresses for tomorrow’s party. And now here she was, completely in the dark, tired in her bones, irritated almost to the point of madness, and no closer to finding her sister than she had been –
“Oh! Hey, Aurora!”
Aurora wheeled around. There was Corona, standing right behind her under the archway that led from the spiral staircase of the high tower. She smiled, her shimmering, sky-colored mane floating in the invisible solar winds.
“Corona!” Aurora cried, rushing to her sister. “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you all day!”
“Sorry, sis!” said Corona. She stepped full into the hallway, passing Aurora on her way the door of her bedroom. A lengthy dress bag lay draped across her back. “I had to run some errands. Just got back from Cat’s Pajamas. Sorry I worried you!”
“It’s not that I was worried,” said Aurora, following Corona through the door and into her chambers. “I mean, I wasn’t worried any more than usual. But I have to talk to you! The guest list for the party – the desert menu – the library – the dresses – gah, there’s just so much to do!”
Aurora’s horn glowed, and in a flash a tall stack of papers appeared out of a puff of white smoke. “Glass Eye says we need to approve the guest list and sign these documents, or some of the guests might not even be allowed in the palace!”
Now they were in Corona’s room, a spacious circular chamber with sliding windows that opened onto a balcony and the princess’s round, sun-emblazoned bed positioned against the far wall. Ghost was there, waiting on the bed; she hopped to the floor as the princesses entered, insect wings fluttering as she leapt, and rushed over to her caretaker’s sides.
“Hey, Ghost!” said Corona, laughing as the little changeling nuzzled against her legs. With a bit of magic she lifted the dress bag off her back and laid it on the bed, then reached down a hoof to tousle Ghost’s green mane (now cut short and stylishly swept forward). “I’m back! And this should be the last of it. Now we’re ready….”
“Corona! The papers!”
“Oh, right. Sure thing, sis!” said Corona, enveloping the unsigned documents in the golden glow of her own magical grip. “Wow, there’s a lot them, aren’t there?”
Casually, almost dismissively, she set the pile of papers on her bedside table – right next to a covered, cake-sized tray – before turning back to her sister with excited eyes. “Oh! I got you a pound cake. I know how much you love those, and I wanted to make sure you got a slice or three. Or four.”
“Corona – ”
“And the dress I just picked up from Cat’s? That’s for you, too.”
“Corona – ”
“I was gonna surprise you with them, but then you kinda barged in and saw it all anyway, but that’s okay because – ”
“Corona, we don’t have time for this!” Aurora burst out, her voice almost frantic. “We’ve already lost so much time – I mean, I’ve lost so much time running around trying to find you, and then I had to help Cook Twospins with the deserts, and Stylus Reed with all the new books, and – ”
Corona looked at Aurora, cocking her head in confusion. “Huh? Why did they need you for that stuff?” Ghost, still at the Sun Princess’s side, mimicked her movement, fixing Aurora with a second set of curious eyes.
“Well, it’s not like I could just ignore it!” said Aurora. “It’s our first official birthday as princesses, and everything has to be – well, Glass Eye said that Equestria’s reputation depends on our maintaining the traditions Celestia and Luna kept, and if the party isn’t perfect – ”
“C’mon, Aurora! I’m sure it’ll be fine!” Corona trotted over to a bookshelf a short distance from the bed; her eyes scanned it for a moment before she seized one thick volume wrapped in brown paper and carried it back over to the bed. “I mean, it’s super-sweet of you to go around helping everypony, but it’s not like they can’t take care of that stuff themselves. Don’t you trust them?”
“It’s not just that!” Aurora protested, coming around to face Corona from the other side of the round bed. “The – well, I mean – you have to – it’s just that – I can’t – but you – ”
Corona’s smile faltered, and a glint of real concern shone in her eye. “What’s up, ‘Rora?” she asked, her voice suddenly soft and low. “Are you okay? You look – well, you look like you don’t feel okay. Real worn out, I mean. And you sound like your brain’s about to burst a valve or something.”
Aurora shut her eyes. With tremendous effort she drew in a deep breath, steadying herself, working to get her frenzied wits back under control. “I’m okay,” she said at length. “But I’m honestly surprised, Corona. You were so excited about all this birthday business! For the past two weeks, at least up until the last few days, it’s been impossible to keep you away from the kitchens and the design studios and the decoration committees! It was all obviously important to you, so I… I had to make sure that….”
“Wait,” her sister interrupted her, very gently. Her smile was all but gone, and there was a sad softness in her ruby eyes that Aurora rarely saw there. When Corona spoke again, her voice was quiet, tender, almost hesitant.
“You were doing all that stuff… ‘cause you wanted the party to be perfect… for me?”
“I – well – yes,” Aurora admitted at last. “Yeah, I guess I was. It’s your birthday, too, and I needed to be sure that, you know, you weren’t disappointed.”
Whatever Corona was going to say in response, she never got the chance. At that very instant, Aurora heard something, a sound from the foyer echoing up from the spiral staircase, that made her wonder for a moment whether the stress and sleep deprivation were making her hallucinate:
“This is getting ridiculous.”
“Fear not, friends. This is the end of the road. Now we’ll finally find out whether she prefers opaque or translucent!”
“But – but that’s impossible!” Aurora stammered, wide-eyed and pale, turning her terrified gaze to the door. “They were just there, and now they’re here, and – ”
“Don’t worry, sis,” said Corona. “Gotcha covered!”
And with that, Corona picked up the dress, the wrapped-up book, and the cake on the bedside table, and telekinetically carried the three items over to Aurora’s side, pausing only for a moment to slam the door shut – and to wink at Ghost.
“What’s going on?” asked Aurora.
“Surprise!” yelled Corona.
The Sun Princess’s horn began to glow, a sparkling aura of sun-bright gold. An instant later, for the second time that day, Aurora found herself surrounded by spinning, shimmering bands of light.
“Corona, what are you – ”
There was a blinding white flash.
“ – doing?” Aurora asked again.
But the question had been answered already. The walls of Corona’s chambers around them had vanished, along with the loud voices and echoing hoofsteps of the decoration committee. The sun was bright against Aurora’s face, but the air was cool, freshened by a light breeze that ruffled the white feathers of her wings. They were no longer in the palace, it seemed; in fact, judging from the landscape of rolling green hilltops, thick walls of forest in the distance, and scattered country houses, they were no longer even in Canterlot at all.
Aurora turned back to face her sister. “Where are we?”
Corona simply smiled. “Happy Birthday, sis,” she said. “Check it out!” And she gestured with her head over Aurora’s shoulder.
Aurora turned. Some distance behind her, the land sloped gently upwards into a low, soft hill crowned with a mighty, ancient oak, with friendly arms outspread and green leaves whispering softly in the breeze. And underneath the tree, sitting on a spread-out blanket, were two achingly familiar earth ponies. They were waving at her, and even from a distance, Aurora could see the white of their smiles.
“Mom? Dad?” Aurora whispered, wide-eyed again. She turned back to Corona. “What’s going on?”
“I, uh, kinda sent a letter to Mom and Dad, asking if we could have our own little birthday party. Back home, I mean. Where we used to.”
“Wait – we’re home?!” Aurora hadn’t thought it possible for Corona to surprise her even more today, but here she was, proving her wrong. “But that’s miles and miles from Canterlot! Corona, that’s – that’s amazing! I can’t teleport anywhere near that distance!”
Corona smiled bashfully, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof. “Heh, yeah. Professor Somnambula said we were getting into some really advanced magic. I thought maybe we had gotten past your level, but I didn’t ask.”
Aurora walked about, still reeling, taking in the scene with an awed expression. There were her parents, with the same old red-checkered blanket and picnic baskets that Aurora remembered from birthdays past; there were the deep, thick woods where Blue Moon and Summer Sun had lost themselves playing hide and seek so many times; there was their home, cozy and maple-shaded with its spacious front porch. The Moon Princess was speechless.
“I know you’ve been really stressed out lately,” Corona spoke up. “I always hate seeing you like that. And I’ve heard all that stuff you’ve been saying about the whole ‘royal birthday’ thing, about how it’s all unnecessary and a lot of fuss over nothing, and I thought – Hey, what if we, you know, go back to the basics? Oh, and I almost forgot!”
Quickly she lifted the dress bag, wrapped-up book, and pound cake that she had carried with them through the teleport. “I know you kept saying you didn’t want anything special for your birthday, but I found a few things I thought you might like. This is a first-edition copy of Dangerous Business by Jetfire. Remember that book? You used to read it and reread it just so you could draw those maps… And the dress! Lord Stargazer’s been helping Cat’s Pajamas design this black fabric that’s all wavy and shimmery, just like your mane. It’s so pretty, especially at night….”
“Corona, that’s… that’s wonderful.” Aurora finally managed to find her voice. “But we still have so much to do! The documents, the guest list….”
“Did Glass Eye say that stuff was urgent?”
“Well – no, actually,” Aurora admitted. “He said it was important, but not urgent. But what about the food? The decorations? The dresses? The library?”
“Aw, Aurora! You didn’t have to do all that for me,” Corona said. “I mean, yeah, it’s exciting and all. And I’m still looking forward to the cake and the dancing and the special guests and stuff. I mean, we’re princesses now! We get to have the kind of party that nopony else does, and that’s amazingly cool. But – c’mon, you know? Getting every little thing perfect isn’t worth killing yourself over!”
Still smiling, Corona turned her head, gesturing towards the hilltop where their picnic lunch waited. “This stuff – this is what I really care about. Okay? You, and me, and Mom and Dad. And maybe some of that pound cake.”
For a few moments, Aurora was silent. A rippling gust of wind whipped her starry mane back and forth in front of her eyes, and Corona’s smile – so warm, so sincere, and yet so wise, so confident – flashed before her like a beacon.
Then Aurora did something she hadn’t done in weeks:
She laughed. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
“Ah, I’m so sorry!” she said, collapsing onto the grass, hanging her tired head and grinning in spite of herself. “Wow, Corona. This is… this the nicest thing you’ve ever done for me. Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m so grateful, and I’m so sorry I don’t have anything to give you in return. But, wow,” she said, chuckling darkly at herself and shaking her head, “I just wish I’d known you felt that way earlier! I wasted so much time….”
Corona sat down next to her sister, wrapping a foreleg around her. “C’mon, ‘Rora! It wasn’t all a waste! If you went around helping everypony I visited, then I’m sure you brightened a lot of ponies’ days.”
Aurora smirked, leaning into the side-hug. “Well, except for Picture Perfect’s, obviously.”
“Yeah, obviously!” Corona echoed, laughing. Then she stood up again, taking a moment to bask in the sunlight, sky-blue mane floating and sparkling in the breeze. “Now, c’mon!” she said. “Mom and Dad are waiting.”
The Moon Princess rose to follow her sister, but stopped in mid-step, a troubled look coming into her eyes again.
“Wait – what about the decoration committee? What about, well, everyone, for that matter? We can’t just go off and leave the palace for a couple of hours.”
“Oh, they won’t be a problem,” Corona said with a smirk of her own. “I’m sure Ghost will cover for us.”
Back in his office, Glass Eye heaved a weary sigh as his hovering ink-pen scratched out the final signature on the final form of today’s paperwork. With a little glimmer of magic, the last document settled onto the sixth tall stack of papers that covered his desk. He took a moment to relax, breathe, and levitate his monocle off of his face to wipe it clean of the sweat that had fogged it up. Marathon paperwork sessions always took the wind out of him.
He was just starting to think about how he might spend the next hour – perhaps he’d settle down for a nice, soothing cup of tea, or perhaps he’d pay one of his granddaughters at the University a visit– when the sound of ponies passing by his office door caught his ears. The voices he recognized at once: it was that obnoxious decoration committee, and they were chattering amongst themselves in voices far too loud for this quiet wing of the palace, far too loud to ignore even if he tried.
Glass Eye frowned – he was beginning to regret commissioning that body in the first place – but his expression changed as their conversation passed through his ears:
“I had no idea Princess Aurora was so sick.”
“Neither did I! Did you hear her the way she spoke? Her voice was so hoarse, it was just this raspy shriek! She could barely even form a complete sentence!”
“And then there was that sickly, greenish glow in her eyes. I mean, not that I got a good look at her, just poking her head through the door like that, but, wow. That poor princess.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have chased her all over Canterlot.”
“In her condition? You can say that again!”
“Poor, poor Princess Aurora. And on the day before her birthday, too!”
A moment later, the noisy chatter had faded.
There was no way anypony could tell, of course, but behind his bushy gray moustache, Glass Eye was grinning. With a little sparkle of magic, he took up his pen again, quietly scribbling down a brief note on his agenda: at some point, he’d have to have a talk with a certain little changeling and remind her that Honesty is one of the most important Elements of Harmony.
But that, he supposed, could wait for another day.
Yup, I’m back. And so are my two favorite ponies.
This brand-new oneshot takes place a year after the final chapter of the original Successors fanfic. I suppose the premise bears some resemblance to Disney’s “Frozen Fever” short, though I didn’t notice the similarities until after I had outlined the story.
This story was originally intended as a birthday present for , creator of The Successors, but those old end-of-the-semester blues prevented me from finishing it in time. All the same, Happy Birthday, Val! I’m sorry your present’s a bit late! (And I’m also sorry if this story in any way messes with your ideas for what, canonically, happens in The Successors universe after the original conclusion. Just say the word, and I’ll rewrite it from the ground up!)