"What?" Celestia said, taken aback.
"I said no," Rarity said, with an air of finality. "I am not going to cut my mane and tail off for some bucking monastery!"
It was an impasse. The mane six had made such incredible discoveries. The Box of Secrets had been opened; they had been imbued with the power of the Rainbow of Harmony, they had been given a new home in the form of the Castle of Friendship. Then Celestia and Luna had arrived, informing them that their training was almost complete... all that was left was a pilgrimage to a long hidden monastery-- the same monastery where Celestia and Luna had first learned of the Elements in their quest to defeat Discord. Here they would learn the final secrets of the Magic of Harmony from the monks and their ancient tomes. They would be gone for only a few days or weeks, but that was not the problem.
The problem was that to gain entry, all of them-- even Celestia and Luna themselves-- would go as supplicants. Which meant that they would be expected to shave off their manes and tails. Most of them were resigned to it.
There were two present who were not so happy about it. The lone male in the room was of a different opinion. "This is horrible!" Spike said, clutching his head. "Rarity? Shaved bald? It's-- it's a desecration!!" He stared in horror at Celestia. "Say you're joking!"
Rarity, predictably, was not happy either. "Indeed, tell us this is some sort of jest," she said.
"Rarity, this trip is essential," Twilight said. "We need to go to this monastery to learn more about the rainbow powers we now have, to gain more enlightenment in what they mean and how they are used..."
"And to do that," Rarity said, her ears folded back and her eyes wide, "It is necessary that we have our manes and tails shorn off? In what cosmology does that make any sense?"
"It is a symbolic gesture of humility," Luna said, frowning.
Rarity's eyebrows tabled. "A gesture," Rarity said scornfully, "Which I shall be left out. I am sorry, your Highnesses, but I shall not do this." She got up out of her seat. "Now that that is settled, I must return to the boutique. Good day, your Highnesses." With that, she left the throne room, her imperiled mane tossed haughtily as she passed out the door.
The rest of the mane six were shocked. The princesses were floored. Twilight was practically going into vapors that anypony would outright refuse a request by Celestia. Celestia, to say the least, was equally flabbergasted. She had never received an outright refusal from any of her little ponies for anything in multiple lifetimes. She was was so shocked she had no idea quite how to respond. Luna was equally stunned... but, still a bit at sea in this more lenient era, followed her sister's lead and let the fashionista depart.
The others watched her leave, stunned. Applejack was the first to speak up. "Well, shoulda figured she'd be the one who'd spit her bit," she snorted.
"Yeah, I sorta saw that one comin' too," Rainbow Dash said. "Sorry, Princesses, but the minute you said we hadda show up there 'with our manes and tails shorn,' I knew Rarity would freak."
"This is outrageous," Luna said angrily, stamping a hoof so hard that the crystal floor of the Friendship Palace chipped. "Are we to forego this vital path of enlightenment for the sake of one mare's petty vanity??"
"Well I'm with Rarity," Spike proclaimed defiantly. "Forcing her to shave off her beautiful mane and tail--"
"Spike, this is necessary..." Celestia said, exasperated.
"Says who?" Spike demanded. "Some old fart in a monastery?"
Twilight danced on her hooftips anxiously. "I'll... I'll go talk with her," she said.
"And I with you," Celestia said. "I'm sure we can talk some sense into her between us."
"That goes double for the rest of us," Applejack said, setting her hat and following after. The others soon fell in behind. They made a beeline out of the castle. The group, led by Twilight and Celestia, marched through Ponyville to the Carousel Boutique-- and found the door barred by Rarity. The fashionista stood in the doorway, hoof held out.
"Oh no no no, no you don't," she said scathingly. "You are NOT going to mob me and try to bowl me over with sheer numbers. If you want to talk to me, you want to persuade me to submit to this, this DESECRATION, you'll speak to me one at a time like civilized ponies. One at a time. That's all you get. That goes for you three too, your Highnesses," she said to an astonished Celestia, Luna, and Twilight. "Decide amongst yourselves who will speak first, but I'm not going to be bowled over by numbers-- or tiaras. I will be waiting inside. Knock when you've decided." The door slammed in their faces.
Once again, the royal triarchy found it flabbergasted. "I cannot believe she would do this," Celestia said, miffed.
Twilight shook her head. "You really don't know how fanatically devoted she is to fashion, Princess," she said. "There was one time she read about this one Canterlot fad in a magazine, and she made us help her take this carved ginger root and.... and... made us swear not to tell anypony ever oops..." the purple mare blushed raspberry.
Celestia stared at her former pupil, her eyes round. "She didn't," Celestia said. Twilight and Fluttershy looked at each other. The proverbial cat was out of the bag. They nodded. "...Ouch," was all Celestia could muster.
"It was awful," Fluttershy said. "She didn't sit down right for a week." She was understating the matter. Ten seconds after the fateful ginger application, Rarity's boutique had looked like someone had taken Opalescence, grown her to manticore size, and sprayed her with a riot hose. Even once the ginger had been dislodged the only thing that had ended the tears and calamity had been planting her rump in a tub of ice cream. Rarity looked askance at raspberry ripple to this day.
"Could we please move on," Twilight pleaded, rubbing her forehead with a hoof. "The point is that yes, she will go to incredible lengths for the sake of fashion and beauty. And if she thinks her vanity is threatened, she could dig her heels in hard enough to put Tirek at a standstill."
"That's it, I'm going in," Rainbow Dash said. She shoved past the others and went inside. The others heard voices raised for a few moments. Then shouting. Then a minor fracas. The next moment Rainbow Dash, bound and gagged in a roll of dress fabric, came flying out the front door on a wave of magic. She managed to untangle herself and spit out the wad of tulle. "She, uh," the pegasus said. "She didn't take it well when I told her we'd make her go, if we had to."
"No," Celestia said firmly. "We are not making her do anything."
"Forsooth, why not?" Luna said, incensed.
"What good would it do?" Celestia said. "We ourselves had to go the first time of our own free will. You cannot coerce somepony into enlightenment, sister, and if we forced her to participate..."
"You mean you can lead a pony to wisdom but you can't make them think?" Pinkie Pie said.
There was a long, painful pause. "Er, I wouldn't put it that way," Celestia said, wincing. "Not if I could at all avoid it... No. This calls for a gentler touch. We shall do as she asks, and speak to her one at a time."
They all reluctantly agreed.
It took three days before the message finally got through.
Twilight was the first to approach Rarity.
She found Rarity in the kitchen in the back of her shop, setting out tea and biscuits. "Ah, hello, Twilight," Rarity said. "I suspected you would be the first. Have a seat."
Twilight pulled up a cushion and sat at the table. This was an entirely different Rarity from the one who'd been throwing histrionics over her hair just a couple of hours ago. "And why did you figure that?" she asked, taking a biscotti.
Rarity poured them both a cup and sat down with a sigh and a roll of the eyes. "You're the self-titled Princess of Friendship, darling," she said. "That was a big hint." She picked up her cup, "Besides, I know you. And in a way I figured you were the one who would understand the least." She sipped. "And when you don't understand something, you just simply cannot leave it be."
"Understood the least?" Twilight said.
"Twilight darling, of all the ponies in our little group, you are the one who understands beauty and fashion the absolute least," she said. "Oh, the others can be dreadful at 'getting it,' but.... well for you everything is utilitarian. Not to say you aren't lovely, dear, but...
"Well, consider your mane-do, darling." She reached over and flipped at Twilight's bangs. "Fluttershy's hair is meticulously cared for. Pinkie actively cultivates her perky, fizzy look. Applejack may not do much with her mane or tail but she does take care of them; She thinks it's a waste of time but she at least knows what style IS. Even Rainbow Dash's windblown, careless style is a style. Though she'd die before she admitted it, of course."
"Your mane and tail, on the other hand--" Rarity gestured to Twilight's mane. "Square cut, with bangs. Even as a princess, you give no thought to it beyond what is functional enough to keep your tail from under your hooves and your mane out of your eyes." She looked regretful, patting Twilight's cheeks. "And you have such a pretty face; if you would just try a different style, one that framed your face properly-- oh well." She sat back and looked Twilight in the eye. "My talk of fashion and beauty and glamor, it isn't just a different language to you, it's as if I was talking on a wavelength you can't even hear. I might as well be speaking in dog whistles."
Twilight flushed, it was hard to say whether at the compliment, or the implication she couldn't understand something set in front of her. "I'm not completely ignorant about that sort of thing, Rarity..."
Rarity shook her head. "No, not ignorant. It's just invisible to you. To you, that mane and tail are just, just thatches of hair stuck on your head and rump. You don't see what I see when I look at a mare's mane and tail."
"And what do you see?" Twilight said.
"Her crowning glory," Rarity said. She looked down, her cheeks red. "You all think I'm vain and foalish."
Twilight humphed. "Of course I do. Princess Celestia and Luna are asking you to do one small thing--"
Rarity couldn't help but sniff. "Twilight, I do believe you'd chop off your own head if Celestia asked it of you," she said, vexed. "But more accurately, darling, it's not Celestia or Luna who's asking this of us. Its those ponies at the monastery." She sat up and slapped a hoof on the table. "And they should damned well know better!"
"Rarity, Celestia herself is going to participate," she said. "She did it herself, the first time she and Luna went to the monastery to learn of the Tree of Harmony and the Elements. Weren't you listening?"
"Yes, and I heard things you didn't apparently," Rarity huffed. "They're demanding this of their Princesses. And they've done it once already! And they're doing it AGAIN! And to you! And to the rest of us! Why do you think I'm balking so hard? Because none of you have the nerve to! You can't tell me that even YOU aren't a little upset at having yourself sheared like a sheep?"
"Rarity, if this doesn't matter to the Princesses, why should it matter to you?" Twilight groaned.
"Because it doesn't matter to them, and it SHOULD," Rarity said. "Or it does, and they're hiding it so deep that it doesn't show. That ANY mare of their era, or of all the eras they have passed through, should be asked to do this--" she stopped, looking down at the cup gripped between her hooves.
Rarity gently set down her teacup. "Twilight," she said. "How much do you remember about the Gryphon Wars?"
Puzzled at the random topic, Twilight nevertheless rattled off the facts from memory. "The most recent one took place in 908-910, Celestian era," she said. "The Seventh Emperor of Gryphonia staged incursions into Pony territory, seizing---"
"No, no, dear," Rarity said. "Not the dates and names and numbers. The real stories. The personal ones. What happened to the ponies involved." At Twilight's stumped look, she continued. "Ah yes, it's easy to remember the Ponypedia entry, but not the blood and tears, isn't it?
"Tell me, Twilight," she said. "What happened to the prisoners of war?"
Twilight's eyes darted to the side and she tapped the floor with one hoof, uncomfortable. "The gryphons committed a number of... of war crimes and--"
"I'll tell you, darling," Rarity said. Her voice was soft but her tone was unyielding as steel. "About the mares, in particular. Those that were captured... were turned over to the Gryphon soldiers for their.... amusement." Rarity's voice skipped but she went on. "As slaves. Pets. And I don't think I need to tell you how the population of hippogriffs in the region jumped eleven months after the war, or why." Twilight cringed.
Rarity locked eyes with Twilight. "Among the other indignities they suffered, the first was deliberate. They were dragged in chains to the public square of their ruined villages, held down, and their manes and tails shorn off. Those who resisted were flogged-- and then shorn anyway." She paused, stroking her mane with one hoof. "My grandmother's mane grew back long ago, of course-- but she could still show me the scars from the whip."
Twilight's eyes went wide with sympathy and horror. But Rarity was far from through. She got to her feet and began pacing. "Do you know why they resisted being shorn so hard?" she challenged. "Because after all, they had just seen their loved ones slaughtered and their villages burned-- what could a little hair matter, after all? Because having your mane shorn like that marked you as a whore, Twilight. As sexual livestock. A... thing, to be owned and used. It was an act of utter defilement."
"It's an old tradition, shaving those meant to be defiled; you can find it all throughout history, all over the world. Mare or Stallion, it is a mark of degradation...Post unification, in the Pegasus communities the easiest way to spot a prostitute was by her shorn mane and tail. In the pre-modern times it was the mark of a slave-- done immediately after they were chained, to strip them of any individuality from any of the other living meat traded on the block. In the Moonlight rebellion in the 550s, it was the fate of any mare accused of 'collaborating' with the Lunar rebels. It's also done by fanatical cults as part of their rituals, to strip the initiates of their esteem and identity." She tossed her head. "One doesn't learn fashion and style without learning a little history behind it. Oh, the cultural background and the symbolism changes, but in every era, in every land, a mare with her head and tail shorn was being shamed."
Twilight tried to rally. "I know in times past what it meant..."
"And you think those monks, in their millennia old monastery, don't?" Rarity said. "After their Order has passed through all those epochs? Do you think they've forgotten? They make you shear your mane as an act of abasement, to strip you of your dignity, your individuality, to disgrace you as a mare..."
"It doesn't MEAN that anymore, Rarity!" Twilight cried, angry and frustrated.
"It doesn't?? Since when?" Rarity exclaimed. "Tell that to my grandmother. Tell that to every prisoner or slave who has their mane and tail clipped before they're even fitted for their prison garb. Tell that to the Saddle Arabians, who still 'shame' their 'adulterous' mares by shaving them bald.
"And in the here and now? One of the cruelest acts I ever saw was when I was still in school. A spiteful bunch of fillies cornered another, held her down and chopped off her mane. Her self-esteem was shattered, her humiliation complete." She looked away. "I know you're naive and insulated, Twilight, but even you have common sense. You don't need to be told how awful it is for a mare to lose her hair. Nopony needs to be told what a violation that is."
"A mare's mane and tail are her crown of glory as a mare, one that no throne can give. They violated her in an unspeakable way... tearing away a part of who she was.
"Ask yourself, Twilight; what sort of 'holy order' demands that a mare do that to herself?"
The next day, Fluttershy found herself at the boutique. Once again the tea set was out. Once again, Rarity found herself sitting across the table from an antagonist. It was all the crueler because of who it was. Fluttershy could be merciless with her gentleness.
Not to say that Fluttershy was cruel, or even happy to be doing this. She was one of Rarity's oldest and closest friends; she could see things in Rarity the others couldn't. Like how strained Rarity's eyes looked, or the faint sleepless lines forming under them. She knew that asking Rarity to do this was a crueler cut than anything they had asked of her before. But the others had been so adamant about the importance of this pilgrimage. And they had been in the right. Hadn't they?
She did her best. "But Rarity," Fluttershy said. "You once cut off your tail to give to a sea serpent. How is this any different?"
Rarity regarded her old friend. "Tell me, Fluttershy," she said. "Why do you wear mane and tail extensions?"
The butter yellow pegasus blushed at the sudden turning of the tables. "You know why. I told you."
"Say it anyway," Rarity urged. "Say it out loud."
Fluttershy blurted out the secret. "I... I give my hair to Locks of Love every year," Fluttershy said. "Then I wear extensions till it grows out again. They use my mane to make wigs for ponies that have lost their own manes and tails to sickness..."
"Some would say that's a rather trivial thing," Rarity said, sipping her chamomile. "It'll all grow back when they recover, won't it? Why could that possibly be important to you?"
"But it is important!" Fluttershy protested, upset. "Think of those poor fillies who have... lost their manes and tails.. and..." she paused as it started to sink home.
"And their dignity?" Rarity said, smiling meaningfully over the rim of her cup. "Here's something to think about, darling; how many mares and fillies have had their dignity stripped away by this monastery the way those fillies have had it stripped away by sickness? How long has it been since somepony told them 'no?'
"That is precisely why I cut off my tail for that sea serpent's mustache-- to preserve his dignity, though the rest of you didn't seem to see it that way." The corner of her mouth quirked up."And that's why I'm putting my hoof down now. I won't let somepony else have their self-esteem stripped away... and I won't let somepony else strip away mine, no matter how precious or special or superior they think they are." She sipped at her tea.
"You know, this is part of the problem ponies have. They can't tell the difference between humbleness, and self-loathing. And they think that being generous means having to give away everything of yourself until there's nothing left. But there's a bit of wisdom even older than that monastery, a bit that most people don't remember:
"If your compassion does not extend to yourself, then it is incomplete."
"Doggone it, Rares," Applejack said. "I'm gonna lay it on the line. If saving Sweetiebelle's life depended on you giving some old fart your hair, would you hesitate?"
Rarity didn't even look up from her sewing machine. "If some old fart was withholding something that important for something so petty, would you take his side? And more importantly, why?
"We've gotten by so far without one lick of advice from these Sages of the Ages. And now you're going to claim their wisdom is a matter of life and death for us? That I am imperiling my friends and family? That was low, Applejack, and you know it."
Applejack's jaw flapped a couple of times, then shut with a click. She tried to say something, but gave up and left.
Rarity looked up from her sewing machine and caught her reflection in one of her dressing mirrors. That little confrontation had been the shortest, and most blunt thus far. She let out a pent up breath and unconsciously stroked her hair, looking at herself. Her, all alone, standing against the wills of her friends and the Princesses themselves. Invoking Sweetiebelle had been underhanded and cruel...
She was right, wasn't she? What if she was wrong? Was she holding them all back, because of foalish vanity? Maybe even endangering--- NO. She got to her feet and walked over to the mirror, staring herself in the eye from an inch away. "Resolve, Rarity," she said under her breath. "You know you're right. You know the reason you're doing this."
"It's just hair!" Rainbow Dash yelled, clutching at her own mane with her forehooves in frustration.
"And it's mine," Rarity said firmly, pushing a sandwich across the table to the scowling pegasus. She sighed. "Let me try to relate here.... Rainbow, what if I told you all you had to do to enter the Wonderbolts was kiss Discord's rump in town square?"
Rainbow Dash gaped, then glared. "No chance in Tartarus," Rainbow Dash snarled.
"You got it in one, sister," Rarity said. She picked up a cucumber sandwich and paused in mid bite. "You know, I've had to wonder from time to time: you can fly circles around any pony in the Wonderbolts. You can do things that none of them can even attempt. And in every crisis where you and they have both been there, you saved the day while they fell on their, ah, faces. Why aren't THEY seeking YOU out? Why do you have to go begging, hat in hoof, just for their attention?"
"Yeah, I gotta kinda ask that myself," Dash said, picking up her sandwich and taking an enormous bite. "But wash dat got to do wif anyfing?" she said with her mouth full.
"I occurs to me this 'monastery' is full of ponies (and donkies and gryphons and whatever else) that have dedicated their lives to studying the Elements of Harmony. But we ARE the Elements of Harmony. We're the ones who released the Rainbow. WE have gone further than any of those members of the Order have imagined they even could. Yet we are expected to go and prostrate ourselves before them?" Rarity gave a ladylike snort. "So why aren't they sending monks on pilgrimages to US?"
"It shouldn't take any thought to see that something is badly off in that balance of power and authority there. And these high lords of wisdom are NOT getting my hair." Her voice cracked a bit and she hastily bit into her sandwich.
"....Soooooo," Pinkie said slowly. "Why dontcha want your hair cut?"
Pinkie... Rarity wasn't sure what she had expected from the pink party pony. She had in fact been dreading Pinkie's visit a little bit; the filly was the life of a party, but she could be so wearying, even at the best of times. And Rarity was certainly not at her best right now.
To her surprise Pinkie was actually behaving herself... well, for her. Rather than bursting out of the closet or dresser drawer like a Jack-in-the-box or something else ridiculous, she had shown up early at the front door with a box of breakfast muffins and politely--- if way too boisterously for this hour of the morning--- asked to be let in. She was sitting at the kitchen table now, dangling her back hooves like a foal and nibbling at a muffin while she watched Rarity with curious eyes.
Rarity shuffled around the kitchen in her slippers and robe, pouring them both a cup of coffee. It said worlds about her state of mind that she still had her curlers in and no makeup, and actually didn't care at the moment. She passed Pinkie a mug and sat down while Pinkie proceeded to scoop half the sugar bowl into it. "I mean," Pinkie babbled as she shoveled sugar into her coffee. "You get mane cuts all the time. And there are lots of ponies who wear their manes really short like Thunderlane.... And like you said with your tail, it'll grow back later, right?"
Rarity chewed over what to say. Pinkie Pie really wasn't on the same level as most ponies. How to get this across to her? "Pinkie," she said. "Is it fun to be laughed at? Not for you, or with you, but AT you."
The response was immediate. Pinkie's smile drooped and her stirring spoon stopped. "Um, no," she said quietly. "It's not the same thing at all. I know that, Rarity."
"And cutting your own hair because you want to, and being made to cut your hair off, aren't the same thing at all either." Rarity eschewed the sugar and cream and took a sip of her bitter black brew straight. She needed the fortification.
"Well it doesn't bother ME getting my hair cut," Pinkie said.
"Pinkie, if someone cuts you and you don't feel it, are you still cut? They're 'putting you in your place', under their heel, whether you notice it at first or not. Like those foals who stick a 'kick me' sign on other ponies' tails where they can't see it." Rarity saw the light of comprehension go on in Pinkie's eyes. It was all a matter of knowing how to address your audience, Rarity supposed.
"I don't think the monkeys are going to laugh at you, Rarity," Pinkie said earnestly. "Monkeys aren't that mean. They're especially nice if you give them a banana--"
The wheels in Rarity's head spun for a minute. "That's MONKS, dear," she said. "Not monkeys."
"Oh, the little brown mousy things that stuff things in their cheeks, right?" Pinkie illustrated with two muffins, cramming one in each cheek so they ballooned out.
Rarity facehooved. "That's chipmunks, dear. Monks are.... ponies in robes who...never mind." she gave up and plowed onward while Pinkie washed her headful of muffins down with coffee sugar slurry. "No, I don't think they'd laugh at me. But what they're wanting to do to us is still just as cruel. And yes, it would grow back... but tell me, Pinkie-- if somepony does something cruel to you, does the hurt ever really go away?"
"Well yes! I mean-- usually-- eventually..." Pinkie deflated. Even her hair started to droop. She cast her eyes down and fiddled with her mug. ".... Not really." She looked up suddenly. "You were the little filly in school, weren't you. The one who got her hair cut off."
Rarity blinked. "Twilight told you all, did she," she said. It shouldn't have surprised her that Pinkie made the connection; Pinkie Pie's brain made so many lateral moves that Rarity sometimes suspected she was a chessboard knight in a previous incarnation. "And yes, I was." She took a deep breath. Even all these years later the memory still hurt. "A group of fillies at my school... They took a disliking to me. Resented me. I'd never done a thing to them, but they hated me. So one day they cornered me in the bathroom, pinned me to the floor and chopped my mane and tail off."
"Why would anypony do that?" Pinkie said, sympathetic.
"They were jealous, and thought I was 'uppity.'" Rarity said. "I wasn't trying to be; I was just new, and shy around other foals, and I didn't have much in common with them.... so I kept to myself. When the teacher asked why, all the ringleader would say was 'she thought she was better than us.' " Her voice was as bitter as her coffee.
" The hair grew back, of course. That's what bodies do. Bones knit, cuts close, bruises heal. But that doesn't make the hurt someone else did you go away."
Rarity paused. "You know why I didn't tell Twilight that little filly was me?" Pinkie shook her head. "Because she would have insisted that old hurt was making me 'biased.' " Rarity snorted into her coffee mug. "What foolishness. As if personally suffering the thing one is fighting made one LESS qualified to speak on it.
"Those bullying little girls cut my hair off, for the same reason these monks want me shaved," Rarity said. "To put me in my place. And isn't it interesting how one's 'place' is never on an equal plane with them, but somewhere underneath their hoof?
"Pompous asses. Let them bray all they want. I swore long ago that nopony was going to 'put me in my place' ever again. And that includes any bunch of self-anointed Wise Ponies sitting in a monastery on a mountain."
"Ponies hurt me once, Pinkie," Rarity said. "And I'm not going to let them hurt me--- or my friends--- like that ever again."
It was difficult for any pony to be less subtle than Pinkie Pie or Rainbow Dash. Princess Luna managed.
"Rarity, thou art failing thy duty to thy country with this... this bull-headedness!" Luna shouted. She always shouted. She'd been shouting for her entire visit.
Rarity managed to not grind the pins between her teeth to dust. The last two days had been grueling. She'd had little sleep; she'd spent the nights sitting in front of her mirror trying to bolster her confidence. She hadn't left the boutique in the entire time for fear of running into her friends and having it explode into a conflict right in the street. And now here was the Princess of the Night, flaunting every inch of Spooky, Scary and Intimidating in her arsenal, bellowing into her ear.... Rarity felt her self-control crumble.
She spat the pins out and stepped away from the ponniquin. She stalked forward till her nose was all but scrunched against the moon princess' own. "My duty? Don't talk to me about my duty to Equestria! If you'll recall, Your Highness, the only reason you're standing here and not on the Moon again is because I fulfilled my duty!
"I've stepped up every time Equestria has needed me. I've been dragged through mud and filth and dragon pits doing my duty to Equestria, and to your sister and to YOU. I've had my health, sanity, reputation and self-respect all but battered out of me by every Sealed Evil in a Can and Crisis of the Week you and Celestia have left lying around Equestria. And now, after you've demanded, and gotten, all that from me, you want to take my HAIR?" Rarity's face was cherry red and her eyes were practically aflame. "Well here's where I draw the line, your Highness! Not one inch more! Not one single LOCK of my hair is going to this!"
Luna actually drew back, stung. She looked down at the harried mare in front of her and actually felt a twist of guilt; truly, Equestria HAD asked so much of Rarity already. Too much, in fact; more than it had asked of countless others. Was this last indignity really.... no. Luna had to be strong. Authoritative. She pushed back, snarling. "The monastery of Harmony holds secrets that may save all of Equestria in the future!"
Rarity pushed back harder. "THEN WHY DON'T YOU GO GET THEM??" she shrieked. "Are you a princess or not? You should be at their front door demanding they bring their secret tomes out to you, not groveling in front of them like a shorn sheep!"
Nothing hurts quite like the truth. Luna's mouth dropped open and her eyes flared with outrage as the words lashed her pride. Her spectral mane billowed and her moon-white eyes flared. "How DARE you!"
Any other time, Rarity might have cowered before this display of anger. But she was too far wound up for that. She was literally quivering with rage. "How dare I? How dare THEY!" Rarity said. "Where were these marvelous sages with all their knowledge for Nightmare Moon, for Discord, for Chrysalis, for Tirek? Hiding in their monastery, hoarding knowledge that could have saved us, because we hadn't genuflected for it properly! You should be taking THEM to task!
"But no, here you are harassing me! Tell me, Princess Luna, is it because you're really concerned about what we have to learn from them, or because you don't think it's fair that WE might not have to go through the public mortification you did when you retrieved the Elements the first time?"
The facade did not so much crack as shatter. Luna stopped, shocked. She backed off and shook her head in anger. "Dost thou think I wish to do this to thee?" she cried, enraged and unhappy. "Or to do it at all? Dost thou think I look forward to being shorn again? To being dressed in sackcloth, and forced to march on a damnable pilgrimage like debased mules, that I could o'erfly in a day? To supplicate before their elders, yet again, for whatever secrets they yet hoard?" She turned her back on Rarity to hide her emotions.
Rarity's observational skills were as keen as ever. Her anger fizzled away in her surprise. She reached out a hoof and carefully put it on Luna's shoulder. "Oh... oh dear. Was it truly that bad?"
Luna stiffened at the touch. "Celestia hath had a thousand years more than I to forget," she said, in a surprisingly normal volume. "I have not. I still remember. Shorn like a common strumpet. Dressed in burlap rags. Forced to kneel and bow and genuflect to every jumped-up little officiate in their order. All for the sake of another tiny little bit of their 'wisdom.' " She seethed.
"We were not princesses then, and Discord had taken away our mastery of the Sun and Moon. We were nothing, and every member of the 'Holy Order' was bound and set to prove it to us, oer and oer again. We had no choice. And.. out of some imagined respect... respect they have never shown us... despite our crown and our centuries of age, we must endure this yet again. Holy order? They were an order of archivists," she said with blistering venom, " commissioned by Princess Platinum, who became convinced of their own holiness with the passing of centuries merely because they sat upon a pile of long-lost books."
"Luna, if you feel this way, then why aren't you supporting me?" Rarity said.
Luna sagged a bit. "Because my sister feels that it must be this way," Luna said. "Because the kingdom must come first. Because she is convinced that humility 'would do us all good.' Because it would be too disruptive to change their traditions. Too selfish to balk because we resent some... petty cruelty..."
The hoof on her shoulder didn't move."You mentioned being called 'mules.'" Rarity said. "Tell me, did you learn about the Mule Rights movement during your, um, recuperation?"
Luna flushed a bit. A lot of history had happened while she was gone; non-ponies and half-ponies had actually been treated fairly well in her own long-lost century, but there was still a bit of awkward adjustment on her part. Still, to hear of some of the outrageousness that had cropped up in her absence was rather shocking.
Rarity went on. "It was, well, a fairly poor period of history, really. Not too many decades ago, mules and other half-bloods weren't exactly treated well in a lot of Equestria. There was a lot of prejudice... Towns and cities had a lot of laws, the Half-Breed laws, that made them second-class citizens. They had to drink from separate wells and fountains. They had to step out of the walkway when a pureblood pony came up the path. They were forced to give up their seats to any pony who demanded it. For no better reason than who their parents were. It was all petty, and all cruel."
"Till one day a hinny by the name of Rose Garden took the Canterlot train home... and refused to give up her seat to a pony who boarded. She was tired and she wasn't going to stand for the entire trip home. They arrested her and threw her in jail. One thing led to another, and a petty little misdemeanor-- a two-bit fine-- turned into the trial of the century, and then into a sweeping civil movement that brought about the end of the Half-Breed laws.
"And that's where the saying 'Stubborn as a Mule' came from," she finished with a wry smile.
"Now think about it, your Highness; Rose Gardens was being asked to do a trivial thing, wasn't she? And wasn't it petty of her not to do this tiny, little thing, to give up her seat on the train?
"But would anything have changed, if she hadn't been stubborn about it?
"All cruelties and injustices are petty, your highness. That's precisely what makes them so horrible, and persist so long. Great perils and evils are like crushing boulders-- obvious, and easy to avoid. But petty injustices are like sand; they get in everything, everywhere, clogging and abrading and ruining...
"...until some petty, detail-obsessed, fussy mare or stallion comes along and sweeps them out. One grain at a time, if need be. That's precisely why I have to be an obstinate, stubborn nag about this petty, trivial little thing. Because nothing changes until you do."
Luna suddenly grew cold. She shook her head and shrugged off Rarity's comforting hoof. "Do not muddle the matter with meaningless words, or trying to appeal to our own... our own petty vanities and pride," she said stiffly. "Thou knowest our own anxieties and uncertainties, and seek to exploit them---" she twitched angrily. "Thou knowest the need, and thy duty. Yet thou refusest to yield like those who have gone before you. We have naught to say to thee till thou relinquish this foalishness." She spun about and marched out the boutique door, slamming it behind her.
Rarity's head sank down. She'd never felt so alone.
"Please, Rarity," Celestia said. "You should not be such a slave to your vanity."
Rarity looked over her cup rim. "They told you the ginger root story, didn't they," she deadpanned. Celestia half-grinned. "And what was the lesson?" Rarity asked, cocking an eyebrow. "I never did it again. Even though there are mares in Canterlot right now who still have corks of ginger up their--.. well." She set the cup down. "Which goes to show I'm not a complete slave to my vanity. I'm not a complete fool, as all of you think of me."
"It's only a haircut, Rarity," Celestia said. "It's only temporary. It's just your mane and tail. It's a trivial thing. "
Yet again the tea set was in play. It was probably the first time in history that Rarity's heirloom tea set had graced the lips of royalty. A pity, Rarity thought blearily, that she could not appreciate the moment. Rarity tried to summon up her carefully groomed etiquette and grace... but she was worn to a nub and there was none left. She went straight for the throat.
"Oh really, your Highness?" Rarity said tiredly. "Then why do they want it so badly?" Celestia started to speak. "No, don't try to answer that," Rarity said, holding up a hoof. "I'll answer it for you. EGO. THEIR Ego. An ego they've been stroking for nearly two thousand years, after forcing your sister and you to abase yourself before their order. Having their supplicants march before them, heads shorn, showing the world their mastery over those poor supplicant's wills.
"You know history, Celestia. You lived most of it, after all. Forcing a mare to shave herself bald isn't an act of humbleness, it's an act of humiliation. It's the act of a brute. An act of CONTROL. A way for those monks-- who sat in that little monastery doing nothing, I might add, while we all shed blood, sweat and tears saving Equestria from its enemies, who would sit in judgment of us, despite the fact that WE, not they, were selected by the Elements and by the Tree of Harmony--a way for them to debase the Bearers and the Princesses themselves, and not-so-subtly remind everyone who the Stallion of the house really is."
Her tone turned scornful. "I'll wager anything you like that they have the tresses you cut LAST time on display somewhere in their monastery. Like a frathouse colt with a garter hung over his bedpost... So they can point, and brag, and gloat how they made the alicorn of the Sun and Moon grovel to them. Just like they made every mare for two thousand years mortify themselves, mar their beauty, strip themselves of their crowning glory as mares-- all to appeal to their bloated egos!"
By the time she was finished she was panting for breath, chest heaving, eyes wide... and brimmed with tears. She regained control of herself slowly, and wiped her eyes on her foreleg. "I didn't have to be taught that my mane was my crowning glory as a mare," she said softly. "And I didn't have to be taught that somepony trying to take it away wasn't just cutting hair, they were defiling me. Why can't you see that?"
"Rarity," Celestia said. Rarity's shocking bluntness had set her aback. She was still stern, but trying to be compassionate. "This is your foolish pride speaking. It ill befits you as a Bearer."
"Not pride," Rarity said firmly. "Self Respect. But if it is 'foolish pride,' the Element of Generosity can bloody well pick another bearer. I am still not going to let anyone shear off my tail and mane." She looked Celestia square in the eye. "And if you were wiser, you'd refuse as well. For the sake of your dignity as the crown, and the sake of every mare who has been shamed like this. Where is YOUR pride as a ruler of Equestria, that you let this happen without dissent? What? Do you fear overturning their millennia old traditions? You're older than any traditions they might have!
"Change CAN be a good thing, Your Highness. Maybe it's time we had some."
Celestia said nothing. She got to her hooves and dipped her head. "Thank you for the tea, Rarity," she said, and left. Her tone could have meant anything. Rarity resisted the urge to weep. Would it have been too much to ask that one, just one of them had been in her corner? She dragged herself to her hooves and began cleaning up the tea set once again.
The princesses and the bearers were gathered once again in the Palace of Friendship. Over the past days they'd confronted Rarity, wheedled with her, argued with her, reasoned, begged, bribed. She still refused. They had all returned defeated; some angry and sulking, some brooding. More than one looking doubtful.
"Well this is a fine kettle of fish," Luna said. "Shall we then go without her?"
"It seems that we may have to," Celestia sighed. "It would do her no good to go to the monastery if we coerced her, anyway."
"But what good will it do for only PART of our group to go?" Rainbow said. To her thinking it would be like having one of the Wonderbolts sit out a training camp. Sure they could try and train with the others when they got back, but the loner would always be one step behind the others...
"Can't we just ask the monkeys--" Pinkie Pie started.
"Monks," Twilight corrected. She looked uncomfortable. "Celestia? I hate to say it. But I think she... kind of has a point. These monks are making us do something...something that seems degrading, just to go to speak to them."
"Oh Twilight, not you too--!" Celestia pleaded. She threw her hooves in the air. "All this over something as trivial as a haircut--!"
"Goin' bald as an onion ain't exactly trivial," Rainbow snarked. She pulled a lock of her rainbow mane down between her eyes and regarded it. "And like Rarity said-- if it's so trivial, why do they want us to do it so bad? Sounds kinda creepy, now that I think about it."
Luna growled. "You are too lenient with them, Tia," she said under her breath. Her temper was poor today; Rarity's words had gotten through to her. She wasn't happy in the least with being shaved bald... again... just to walk through the front door of a monastery she'd passed through over a score of centuries before. She was an avatar of a celestial body for pity's sake, she deserved a little dignity didn't she?
"Dang it," Applejack said, tugging her hat down. "Ah dunno anymore. It's... it's stupid, it'll grow back-- but--"
"Can't we just ask the monks if Rarity can keep her hair? Just this one time, pretty please?" Pinkie Pie gave her best endearing grin and held her hooves up together."Can't they just bend the rules just an eensy weensy bit..."
Celestia chuckled. "I'm afraid it doesn't work that way," she said.
"Why not?" Rainbow Dash said. "I mean what's the big deal? Just ask them to bend a little bit just this once."
Twilight gnawed her lip. "I don't want to sound contrary, Princess Celestia but really I mean--" she hesitated. "Could it really hurt to ask? Just for Rarity, at least? I mean she does have something of a practical reason too, It can't do her business any good to run around bald--"
"I'm with Twilight," Applejack said. "Just ask. And if those monks running that monastery get their jimmies rustled over it--- well, if they're that petty..." she shrugged. THAT little thought put a pall in the air; more than one filly found herself asking some pointed questions about the accreditation of these alleged sages.
Celestia looked doubtful. "Whether we agree or not with the monastery's practices, my little ponies," she said, " there is one thing I must agree with them. Approaching the powers of the Tree-- of Harmony and Friendship-- should be done ponies willing to humble themselves. And Rarity is clearly full of pride and vanity."
Applejack looked uncomfortable. "Ah gotta say yes.. an' no, Princess," she said soberly. "Yeah, she's fussy an' prissy an' obsessed with her looks-- so ayeah, she's vain an' prideful. But you know what popped in my head when you said that?" Celestia tipped her head inquisitively. "The memory of Rarity at the Sisterhooves Social, wallowing in the mud just to mend fences with her little sister." The farmpony's gaze riveted Celestia's own.
Slowly expressions in the room changed as certain memories surfaced. "Or her cutting off her own tail, just to mend that poor Sea Serpent's mustache," Fluttershy offered.
"Eating Sweetiebelle's cooking just to keep from hurting her feelings," Spike chuckled.
"Swallowing her jealousy and applauding Fluttershy at that awful fashion show-- because she thought it was what she wanted," Twilight said.
"Making those dresses we wanted for OUR fashion show, even though Hoity Toity was in the audience..." Pinkie Pie said.
"Dumping all her rep to stand up for us with those Canterlot snobs at the lawn party," Rainbow Dash said.
"Wallowin' up to her armpits in cherries," Applejack chuckled.
"Making that crazy dragon costume and dressing up in it, just to look out for me at the dragon migration," Spike said.
"Wading through the dust and filth of our old castle, just to save our tapestries from ruin," Luna added, to general surprise. It had apparently meant more to the moon princess than they had thought.
"Ah think what we're gettin' at, Princess," Applejack said, "Is even though Rarity's fussy an' vain an' silly a lot of times, an' she'll kick up a fuss about getting even a speck of dirt on her and she'll do the silliest durn things for fashion-- an' thanks for that story about the ginger by the way, Twi, I ain't never gonna get that outta my head-- but when it comes right down to it, she don't think a thing of sacrificing it all and getting right down in the mud to help lift somepony else out of it. That's REAL humbleness, you ask me. If that ain't the kind o' humbleness they're lookin' for, what is?"
Celestia chewed that over, heavily seasoned with what the vain little fashionista had said to her in their little tete-a-tete. Fie on it. Maybe it was time to push for a change. Just a small one. "Very well my little ponies," she said finally. "A slight delay won't hurt. I'll send a letter off to the monastery inquiring about the matter. Spike...?"
To the Abbot of the Monastery of Harmony;
Due to unforseen circumstances and particular issues, your request for the Bearers of the Elements to present themselves as supplicants has hit a minor snag. It seems that some of the traditional requirements will prove an untenable hardship for at least one of their number, and so we would humbly request that Rarity Belle, Bearer of the Element of Generosity, at the least be permitted to attend the pilgrimage without the traditional shearing of her mane and tail.
Co-regent of Equestria,
Ruler of the Sun
The scroll returned within the half hour. "Ah!" Celestia said as it appeared, catching it in midair and opening it. As she scanned it her smile fell. It was replaced with a rather disturbing scowl by the time she finished. Luna peeked over her shoulder and began reading as well; her eyes went round and her jaw dropped.
From the desk of the Abbot Costello,
Most High Cleric of the Order of the Sacred Harmony
To Princess Celestia, Sol Invictus, etc.
Words cannot express the impertinence inherent in this mare's request, or in the fact that a former supplicant such as yourself should attempt to breach protocol by relaying this sacrilegious proposal to her on her behalf. I must express disappointment that the leader of Equestria should be so lightly swayed to such womanly vanity.
As to the content of her request; The practice of the shearing of supplicants is to show their humility before the magic of Harmony, the Tree of Harmony , and the Elements thereof. If they cannot bring themselves to submit to this, then they are UNWORTHY of the content of the tomes or the teachings of our order. We do not allow such indulgences for anyone regardless of their rank outside these halls, and we certainly do not allow for any foalish indulgences to the sentimental weakness of mares.
No further discussion on the issue shall be brooked. She shall present herself at the doors of the monastery on the approved date along with the others, wearing the garb of a supplicant, and shorn of mane and tail in the manner appropriate to their gender.
Most High Cleric of the Order of the Sacred Harmony
"What's wrong, Celestia?" Twilight asked carefully.
"Stay here, my little ponies," Celestia said. Her voice was calm. Too calm. "I need to go have a word with the Abbot." She disappeared in a flash of light.
"Omigosh," Fluttershy said, putting her hooves to her mouth. "That did not look good."
"Okay, now what?" Rainbow Dash said.
"You all stay here," Luna said with a wry snort. She readied a teleportation spell.
"What, you're going too?" Twilight said.
"Absolutely," Luna said. "No bucking way am I missing this." She vanished with a pop and a burst of indigo light.
The Abbot's office was large, simply furnished, spacious and austere. It was also at the moment rather overcrowded with two full-grown alicorns, one with a neutral expression (which was as close to scowling as Celestia generally got), and one looking on in amused anticipation. "Abbot Costello," Celestia said. "We are a bit... displeased with the missive we received from you a short while ago. The tone was far less than respectful."
The Abbot, a brown earth pony with a considerable paunch, was surprisingly not looking very impressed or intimidated. He was in fact not even looking up from the scroll on his desk. The two friars behind him stood, stolid and impassive, adding nothing to the conversation but their silent support. "I may have been blunt, but I do not retract the sentiment," he said. "We do not alter our traditions. For anypony."
Celestia counted to three to rein in her temper. "We do understand," she said. "Your traditions are nearly as timeless as we are, and you must husband them carefully. However, this is not about some acolyte filly. These are the Bearers of the Elements; surely their affinity with the very Magic of Harmony which you revere would suggest some leniency--"
Abbot Costello snorted. "The monastery has been observing them since they first obtained the Elements," he said, flicking his quill over the scroll. "If anything I am less inclined towards leniency. Those fillies need a stern hoof to rein them in."
There was a sudden, chill, and what most ponies would have recognized as dangerous silence. "...Rein them in, you say?" Luna couldn't resist prodding the bear in the room with a stick.
"Yes," the Abbot snorted again. "Learning in this revered place is reserved for those who show proper reverence and humility before the principles of Harmony," he said officiously. The words were pious, measured, and rang as hollow as a matryoshka doll. Celestia didn't miss it. "And these mares? Irresponsible, reckless, morally lax... a glory-hogging athlete with unfeminine tendencies... that mannish one running a farm that properly should be under the authority of the stallion of the house... that wanton yellow pegasus who flaunted her body about as a fashion model..."
Celestia stared at him as if he were a strange lifeform she'd found under a Martian rock. "Wanton" and "Flaunting" were two words nopony from this local galactic cluster would associate with Fluttershy.
"That frivolous pink hedonist... and really, that bookish one-- she reflects poorly on you, Celestia..."
Celestia's eyelid twitched. She'd expected some resistance. She'd expected to have to deal with sleepy, obstinate old leaders who were set in their ways, and to have to wheedle and chivvy with them until they finally admitted the headshaving rule was silly and outdated and let it slide. She hadn't had the foggiest notion that she would be dealing with an organization run by an arrogant, sexist, hidebound zealot who was a raging parody of himself. Truth be told it was bringing back a great number of memories. Unpleasant, two thousand year old memories. This raging jackass was every bit as obnoxious, arrogant, and misogynist as the prats who had run the place two millennia ago.
But who else but a raging zealot jackass would have the audacity to demand that his own Princesses shave their heads?
She cast her eyes upward so as not to be looking directly at the source of her ire-- who kept right on talking-- and her eyes fell on the wall behind and above the Abbot's desk. Mounted on the wall were two long shimmering streamers of hair. One pale pink, with faded hints of pastel stripes; the other a pale blue, that almost seemed to sparkle from time to time. Both tresses were waving in an unfelt breeze. Below them was a plaque engraved in old Equuish: "HUMILITY BEFORE THE POWERS."
It was not lost on her that the word "powers" also translated, in modern parlance, to 'rightful authorities.'
The words rang in her head like the tone of a bell in Tartarus. Mounted on the wall like a trophy of war... like a frathouse colt with a garter belt on his bedpost....
"---will do all of them a world of good to be brought here and properly humbled, shorn of their vainglorious attitudes...." Costello went on.
Remember where we said it took three days for the light to dawn on somepony?
"So there is nothing I can say to persuade you?" Celestia asked calmly. Too calmly. Luna grinned and barely resisted rubbing her forehooves together.
The abbot turned red. "Did I stutter?" he burst out. "Confound it, Celestia! I am giving no special consideration to them, period. If this batch of libertine strumpets wants to access the tomes of the Tree of Harmony, then they'll come here and learn their proper place fir-- agk." He didn't finish his sentence; he was too busy dangling by his neck three feet off the floor. His eyes bugged out.
"First of all, Abbot Costello," Celestia said, glaring at him eye to eye. "The proper form of address for your rulers is 'Your Highness' or, less formally, 'Princess Celestia' or 'Princess Luna.' Or in your personal case 'Your Highness please oh please don't launch me to the Moon agk agk agk.' Understood?"
He nodded. The golden aura around his neck eased up. He choked and spluttered. "What was that?" Celestia said sweetly.
"Yes, your Highness," he hacked.
"Good." Celestia's smile returned. It wasn't a very warm one. "Second, if you open your mouth to defame my pupil and her friends because of their careers, pastimes, or especially their gender ever again, I'll squeeze until your bucking head pops off." The Abbot squeaked.
"Third, there are going to be some changes around here. Particularly to your traditional treatments of supplicants and acolytes, but we'll progress from there."
One of the monks standing behind the abbot (who had all VERY wisely started backing up when the Abbot failed to shut up in a timely manner) spoke up. "Y-you can't do that! You're--"
"An acolyte of this order, a ruler of this kingdom, a former bearer of the Elements themselves and the motherbucking Princess of the motherbucking SUN," Celestia said. "I can send a solar flare that could toast this entire monastery like a marshmellow. Or my sister and I could work together, cast it in a permanent eclipse, wait until it froze into a block of ice, and then come back and chip out whatever we wanted.
"OR, I could simply have you all hauled away in chains for concealing information essential to the safety of Equestria." Those who hadn't blanched already proceeded to do so. "As I was reminded recently, we have been attacked by four world-shattering threats in less than a decade, while you sat on your hoard of knowledge about the most essential part of our national defense and did absolutely nothing.
"Now, you can make up for that TERRIBLE OVERSIGHT right now, and start bringing out your tomes of knowledge... or I can proceed to have the Equestrian army march up here and do it for you." The co-abbots gulped. "Well, what are you waiting for? Start bringing out the Tomes into the main vestibule. All of them." the co-abbots scattered, galloping off down hallways.
"And do not think thou shalt hide them in secret vaults from us," Luna called out merrily after them. "We have the magic of ages, and all the time in Creation to winnow thee out..."
"And now on to more personal matters." The golden glow vanished and Abbot Costello dropped down into his chair with a thump. "First off, congratulations, you just became a lending library. Every last tome is going to be taken to Canterlot, transcribed into multiple copies, and distributed throughout Equestria before being returned here. From here on out, your archives are PUBLIC ACCESS."
"You can't do that!" the abbot whimpered. "For countless centuries we've kept the knowledge of those tomes safe from those that would destroy it--"
Celestia rolled her eyes. "The surest way to keep knowledge safe, you obnoxious dunce, is REDUNDANCY. And the key to that is to make as many copies as possible, and put it in as many HEADS as possible. And as to your traditions for how supplicants and acolytes are treated--"
"You can't dictate how our order is run!" Abbot Costello wheezed, turning purple.
Celestia leaned in over the desk. "Yes I can, as a matter of fact," she said. "It dawned on me a few minutes ago, so I can't blame you for not figuring it out earlier either; I'm an acolyte of this order. As is my sister. Or at least we were TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO."
"Y-you can't mean--"
Celestia nodded, and gave him a smile that made him feel faint. "The leadership of the Order is decided, as I recall, by seniority. We outrank you by CENTURIES. On top of that, we're former bearers of the Elements which makes us, oh, a few light years ahead of any monk who just sat around studying them from a distance." Costello gabbled in shock. "Now mind, you can still go off on your own and start up your own little order, you misogynistic runt-- but the Tomes stored here are now, and always have been, government property, clear back to PreModern times. You were entrusted with them by Starswirl the Bearded and Clover the Clever, but ownership remained with the unicorn royalty, which is now the Equestrian crown. That means if you want to keep guarding and caretaking and studying the original manuscripts and archives, you'll bloody well run things the way I tell you."
"You're overthrowing millennia of tradition..." Abbot Costello pleaded.
"Am I? Need I remind you that the original Order was staffed entirely by castrata?" A VERY large pair of scissors materialized in midair and thunked, point down, into the hardwood desk top. "Shall we proceed to get REALLY old school, Abbot? Or shall we roll with the times and implement some changes?"
"Change is good," the abbot squeaked, his bulging eyes never leaving the shears.
"Good, let's start with the basics. No more forced fasts, no more days-long punitive "meditation" sessions, no more forcing supplicants to climb stairs on their knees-- let's make it simple, no self-mortification of any sort. The monastery, its teachers and all its contents are to be perpetually open to myself, my sister, the Bearers of the Elements (whomever they may be in that generation) and whomever the Crown sends in its name. No more ritualistic nonsense to get at what should have been given to them on day one." She levitated his quill to him. "Write it all down so you don't forget, now." He began scribbling fervently.
"Oh, and in case you didn't figure it out," she said coldly. "NO MORE SHAVING THE MARE'S MANES AND TAILS.
"That, I believe, does it for now," Celestia said. She looked out into the vestibule; the monks and acolytes had stacked a good dozen volumes, enormous ones in heavy, gold-embossed covers. "We will return the original volumes once they've been transcribed. And have a summary of your Order's practices and policies on my desk at the end of next week." She turned to go.
"You have violated everything the Order stands for," the Abbot said weakly.
She paused at the door and turned back. "Have I?" she said. "This institution was created to preserve, protect, and teach, not to debase, degrade and shame. It was to pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the Elements of Harmony and the Magic of Friendship. What does this Order's practices even have to do with those things?
"When my sister and I came here, two lost souls in the midst of Discord's realm of madness, we..." she bit her lip and corrected herself in shame, "no, not we, I-- I convinced myself that the humiliations we endured were for a greater good and for our own betterment. And I spent the last twenty centuries forgetting just how conceited, misogynist, and PETTY it all was. The world was ending and your predecessor thought like you: that it was more important to "put the mares and lessers in their place" than to impart knowledge that would save us all. And to my eternal lamentation and shame, after twenty centuries under my watch, nothing has changed.
"It took one vain little mare digging in and refusing to cut her hair to get me off my plot and change that. Treasure the little things, Abbot. They make the world go round." Celestia left the room, followed her sister, who seemed obscenely cheerful for some reason. A moment later Luna came running back in. She jumped up on the Abbot's desk, yanked the two tresses on the wall off their mounts, and all but pronked back out the door, the preserved manes rippling like banners in the wind behind her.
They reassembled at the Castle of Friendship again. This time it was a touch more informal. They were all present, Rarity included, and they were in one of the cozier bedroom suites rather than the throne room. The air was far more festive than it had been in a long while... it might be said to resemble a sleepover. But of course Proper Pony Princesses don't do such things.
Not officially anyway.
They were relaxing, lounging about, enjoying Pinkie Pie's ever-present array of party snacks and yes, of course-- doing one another's hair. It was to be expected; their manes and tails had all barely escaped a terrible fate and they all felt the urge to pamper their tresses a bit in celebration. The relief in the air was almost palpable. Even Rainbow Dash was yielding to having her rainbow mane groomed and shampooed.
Rarity was proving to be the center of attention. She was surprisingly humble about it, chuckling and blushing as the others congratulated her on a successful one-mare campaign. "I am so sorry I was such an obstinate nag with you all," she said for what had to be the fourth time. "It's just... a mare just has to have lines that she just won't cross."
"It was for the best, Rarity," Twilight said. "Sometimes you have to take a stand. Even when nopony else thinks it's important." She looked reflective. "Maybe especially when nopony else thinks it's important...."
"Well said, my faithful student," Celestia said. She sighed and shifted comfortably on the cushions laid out for her. "In retrospect, I feel foolish that I was so surprised that the Abbot was such an ass," she said-- eliciting a squeak of shock from Fluttershy and Twilight at her language. ""My own fault truthfully. It'd been 2,000 years since I'd dealt with them personally; more than enough time to forget what jackasses they could be-- or to think their manners might have improved.
"And well, really... they spent two thousand years hoarding knowledge vital to saving the world, and had the audacity to demand that the very embodiments of the elements they revere-- not to mention the rulers of the Moon and Sun-- shave their heads before they'll allow access to it." They she lay her head down on her forehooves so Fluttershy could continue braiding her pastel mane with more ease. "In the end, they valued their rituals and traditions more than the principles--- Honesty, Generosity, Kindness-- they supposedly revered." She looked sad.
"Strewth," Luna said. She regarded her reflection in a mirror. Thus far she'd only emboldened enough to pull her mane back in a hairband-- a 'scrunchy?'-- but she thought she liked the look. What an odd name for a hairstyle, a 'ponytail.' There was a jest in there somewhere. "And let me add, sister..."
Luna buried her face in her forelegs. "I am so, so, so happy that we do not have to go through with shaving our manes and tails again," she moaned. Everypony laughed.
"Don't think anyone was actually happy with it, Yer Highness," Applejack said. She was lying on her back, her golden mane soaking in a bowl of water as the coloring took hold, her tail soaking in another. "We may have given you grief, girl, but y' did the right thing."
"Hold still Twilight," Pinkie complained. "These glitter highlights are hard to get right." The party pony was sitting up behind Twilight. Her own pink fluffy bouffant had been done up in two enormous head-buns. It looked both cute and alarmingly silly at the same time; in short it suited her perfectly.
"And think of all the changes that have happened because of it," Fluttershy said. She had taken out all her hair extensions; her pink mane and tail were half their normal length. Angel Bunny was grooming them with a comb and brush for her. "I'm sure that the fillies in the Order are much happier now that they don't have to shave their heads..."
"Hey, don't discount the stallions," Spike said. He was trundling in with an enormous tray of nachos. "Us guys don't show it as much but we care about that stuff too."
"Uh, sugarcube," Applejack said, lifting her head slightly out of the color rinse to look at the dragonling. "Ain't y'all naturally bald?"
Spike shrugged. "Well yeah, sure," he said. "But that doesn't mean I don't get it." He set the tray down.
"Give him credit," Celestia said in amusement to Rarity. "He's been ceaselessly championing your cause since he found out you'd have to go under the shears."
"Well... more like nagging. Nagging, snarking, making sarcastic little asides..." Celestia rolled her eyes.
"Why, what a little champion I had, and never knew it!" Rarity said, amused.
Spike muttered something and dug his toe into the floor. "Can I get you ladies anything?...Rarity?" he looked over to the object of his affection with a goofy smile. "Um, something to drink? Anything?"
"No, darling, but that's very sweet of you." Rarity was lovingly grooming her own mane. She looked over at the dragonling; he was watching every stroke of the brush with dazzled eyes. She grinned impishly. On a whim, she pulled out a single lock of her hair and snipped it off. "For you, my Spikey Wikey." She levitated it over to him. "A memento for my little champion... a lock of the mane and tail he helped save from ruin."
His expression as he clutched the lock in his claws was indescribable. "D'awwws" went up around the room.
"Gnerfh," he said. He blushed like a rose and fled. Affectionate laughter chased him out.
"So what happens now, Celestia?" Twilight asked.
"Well, once things have settled down at the monastery-- say in a month or two-- we will be making that little pilgrimage," Celestia said. "But we will be going not as supplicants, but as honored guests. As it should be, frankly." She shifted on her cushion. "The monks will have some little bit to teach us themselves, after all. But when we return, it will be with a complete transcribed set of the tomes, one for each of us. Back when bookmaking was so laborious, it made some sense to keep the volumes in secrecy, but now it foolishly imperils our future to have all our eggs in one basket. Even back then, knowledge was best preserved by sharing and spreading it-- not by hoarding it."
She frowned. "And certainly not by putting it in the hooves of those who use it to bloat their own egos, at the expense of others' self-esteem. Any 'spiritual' order that demands you mortify yourself to obtain their enlightenment, doesn't have any enlightenment worth having." She looked over at Rarity. "You've done Equestria a service by reminding me of that, Rarity."
Rarity reached a hoof over and ran it through Celestia's mane. She cooed. "Even if for nothing else than this," she said. "It would have been a crime against fabulosity itself had this glorious mane been cut!" She looked over and noticed Twilight pondering a fashion magazine lying between her hooves. "Twilight darling, what are you thinking?" she asked.
Twilight looked at the magazine. A lot of what Rarity had told her in their little discussion had stuck with her. About how pretty she was, and if only she would try something new with it. About how Rarity's grandmother had fought like a wildcat to protect it, despite what it cost. What Rarity said it was to every mare, even to Twilight.
Her crowning glory.
"I'm thinking... maybe a Prance braid?"
A lot of people here and elsewhere have said that I undermined the message of the story by making the Abbot Costello such an incredibly unpleasant and bigoted character. In my defense I made him, as Celestia puts it, "a bad parody of himself" for two very important reasons.
One: because it's both cathartic and funny to see the Motherbucking Princess of the Motherbucking Sun put an obnoxious wanker in his place.
Two: because you almost always have to play to the back row of the theatre. There's a reason most forms of storytelling put the villain viewpoint in a Snidely Whiplash mustache and stovepipe hat. Had I made the antagonist of the story some smiling, mild-mannered and benevolent old patriarch who gently chided Celestia about the issue, a depressingly large percentage of readers would have completely missed that all his arguments for the practice had already been debunked, and would have gone on at AGGRAVATING LENGTH about how Celestia and Rarity should knuckle under and agree with him "because he was so REASONABLE." Call it the Dumbledore effect: have the character twinkle at the protagonist, talk in grandfatherly prose and offer them a sherbet lemon and the audience will agree with even the stupidest things they propose.