Ember Goes to the Spa

by Starscribe

The Spa Comes to Ember

Becoming the Dragon Lord had brought Ember much in the way of responsibilities. Dragons were not like lesser creatures, easy to subdue and eager to submit themselves to anything that looked like qualified leadership. Every new day presented a new challenge, a chance to dominate those beneath her and cement her rule. Her father had been right to be reluctant to take the position, though she would never admit as much to him now.

But over all the challenges of her office, Ember had triumphed. No dragon in all the world, even beasts thousands of years old and many times her size, would question her rule. Where her father had struggled to stay afloat in the increasing complexity of an interconnected world, Ember was an unquestioned leader. Thanks to her, the dragons had not wasted resources or lives in pointless wars with inferior creatures.

Thanks to her, lesser creatures brought what they wanted to them.

Not that any of them knew what they were doing. Politics was a subtler game than she ever had to play with dragons. If you wanted to kill a dragon, you told him so, and you would fight, and one of you would win. That was the way dragons ought to be—it was simple, honest, pure. Ponies were none of those things.

But she could still get them to obey her. Ember used the same tools she used on her own kind, just dressed up in a different way. Instead of telling a pony, “I hate you and want you to die unless you change,” she would say, “We would be better friends if you did this.” Instead of burning a pony village and carrying away the spoils for her hoard, they would trade.

This latest expedition had been one such mission of “trade” between Equestria and the dragons, facilitated by Ember’s increasing grasp of their culture and her connection to Equestria. It had started with a letter, because she knew ponies liked to have things in writing.

“You will bring your best creations to my mountain. I will give you gems and metal in exchange. Dragons won’t kill you if you do what I say.

Spike will bring the ponies he took me to visit. He knows who they are.

-Dragonlord Ember”

Ember had been quite proud of her letter—few dragons had ever composed works so subtle and clever. The ponies would have no choice but to obey.

And so they did. She received a reply from Princess Twilight Sparkle long enough to fill a large book in dragon terms. Ember barely read it—pages and pages of nonsense about a cultural exchange, and strengthening the relationship between them, and fluffy pony friendship words. She could practically smell the pony words before she even opened it. But the important part was the obedience, and the ponies had obeyed. Ember sat a little straighter on her throne that day, knowing she had greater strength than any dragon who had owned this mountain. Those dragons had needed to fly out into the world and burn to make creatures obey. Ember just had to send paper.

She prepared her lands for pony arrival. Mostly this meant informing dragons who patrolled that any who hurt the ponies would face her wrath. That, and clearing away all the corpses from her mountain. Ponies were sensitive about that.

Ember welcomed the procession at the base of her mountain, where the Devouring Wyvern Aži Dahāka had crawled from the earth after feasting on its heart. Over a hundred of the ponies had come, wheeling carts and carriages and other vehicles. Only a small number of dragons waited to receive them in her mountain, those she could trust not to eat one of their visitors if they got too hungry. There weren’t that many who qualified, even after over a year of contact with Equestria. Dragons were slow to change.

“Welcome to my mountain,” she said when they had finally stopped before the massive iron gates, melted and warped by many ancient campaigns. Dragon Lords had died where she stood, the title claimed by rivals. But she doubted the only dragon who had come planned to do that—Spike had already given away the office once. There was no reason to fight him for it.

“Equestria is thrilled to make our second cultural exchange,” Princess Twilight said, landing before her with Spike on her back. Her friends had come as well, because of course they had. The pony princess never went anywhere without her friends. “We hope to make an even stronger friendship between Equestria and the dragons.” She kept talking, the way ponies often did. Said lots of nice things, complemented Ember, and the others there. That was nice, but not why Ember had invited them.

Eventually the pony finished talking. Ember might be learning to communicate their way, but she was in her domain now, so she wasn’t nearly as committed to it as she had been back in Ponyville. “I am a young Dragon Lord,” she said to Twilight, though she was sure that many others could hear. “I have the mountain, and the scepter, but my hoard is small. It is fitting for a new Dragon Lord to fight wars and fill her mountain, as my father did. I have elected to try something else first.” She looked down at the many carts the pony artisans had brought. No doubt filled with their creations. Much that ponies made was fragile, which made it more valuable. Gold the dragon lands had in abundance, but art? Little that could be burned survived here for long.

“I wish to exchange my gold for all that you have brought. Every dragon who visits will see the benefits of trade with ponies, and will know that I have done it. They will know that the wealth of the north flows through me.”

“That’s… great,” Twilight said, a little nervous now. “That’s great Ember. We’re glad to help. I did my best to bring what you suggested. But your letter was so vague…”

Ember looked more closely at the crowd of ponies Twilight had brought. “Spike, did you follow my instructions?”

“Yeah, Ember,” he said, nodding eagerly. “They all came. I guess you wanted to share with other dragons, huh?” He winked at her. “I see what you did there. Becoming more like a pony every day.”

“Something like that.” She gestured imperiously through the gate. At her command, the massive iron bars began to retract, digging new gouges into the earth. They probably hadn’t been opened for centuries. While her father owned this mountain, he tended to eat visitors instead of letting them walk in.

Ember led them past the feast, which she had instructed prepared according to pony tastes as best she remembered it. There was only one roasted cow here, and only a few pigs. Ponies didn’t eat enough meat.

She led the princess to her hoard, located in the heart of her mountain, where she could negotiate the surrender of their tribute (or the “trade” as the ponies called it). She felt a little self-conscious as they passed into the massive vaulted space. It was gigantic on a scale ponies would barely understand—large enough to fit several pony castles inside with room to spare, so that even her elder kin could have fit themselves in here.

It was embarrassing for a Dragon Lord to have a hoard empty enough that visitors could see the floor in places, but she ignored the warmth of her cheeks and continued to sound like she wasn’t embarrassed.

The ponies didn’t mock her. They stared at her pitiful pile of treasures, jewels, and gold, with shocked expressions. Like when they’d seen the roasted cow, only less afraid. Three carts were already waiting, each loaded with gold. Not just the most boring thing in her hoard, but the most boring kind of gold—in flat bars, or undecorated coins. Not the crowns, armor, and sculptures with real value.

But Ember was counting on the ponies being too dumb to realize what gave something real value. And to her enormous satisfaction, she could see from their expressions she and been right. “All of this we dragons give you in trade for what you brought,” she said. “If it looks worthy of my hoard, I mean. I’ll inspect it when we’re done. But I have come to trust you—I know you would not bring anything if it wasn’t worth showcasing here.”

“A-all this?” Twilight squeaked, levitating one of the flat, boring bars out of the cart and holding it up to inspect. “Ember, are you sure? This is gold. Gemstones would be one thing, but… all this?”

Ember nodded, grinning to herself. It was a good thing these ponies were so dumb, or else this “trade” stuff would never be worth it. She could never grow her hoard if she had to give them the value of what they gave in return, it would always stay the same size! Spike alone seemed to understand, but she gave him a meaningful look.

It didn’t silence him. “That’s all you want?” he asked. “All the art and music and stuff we brought? For all this?”

“You didn’t just bring me art,” she said, glancing at the passage leading into the feast hall. “You brought me ponies for the hoard as well. The ‘spa’ was so enjoyable, I know they will add great value to my hoard. Dragons for thousands of miles will be filled with envy!”

“Wait,” one of Twilight’s friends said. Ember didn’t know which one. She hadn’t bothered learning their names, when they were just ponies. They’d be dead so fast there wasn’t much of a point. Whoever they were, they sounded braver than most ponies around her. “You think Aloe ‘an Lotus ‘an the rest are here tah join the hoard? Not like… set up fer the weekend and give you folk a good time? Cuz’… I think they might be under the impression it’s more the latter.”

“Of course,” Ember said, matter-of-factly. “Most of this gold is for them. I had to guess at their weight, but…” she shrugged. “I won’t have them for that long, as dragon lives go. I’ll need more when they’re gone. But we can arrange that in a few centuries.”

Spike approached her, lowering his head in the closest thing to a bow he’d done. “Uh… Ember, that isn’t how it works.”

“Huh?” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about, Spike? Don’t forget who the Dragon Lord is here.”

“I’m not forgetting!” he insisted. “But you don’t trade ponies. That just isn’t the way it works! You can’t put them into your hoard!”

“Why not?” she asked. “Is my price not high enough? I could double the—”

“No,” Twilight cut her off. “It’s not that, Dragon Lord Ember. It’s that we don’t trade in ponies’ lives. The spa ponies have families back in Equestria, friends who would miss them. You can’t just pay them—money doesn’t replace a missing friend.”

Ember felt the heat rising in her belly. She exhaled a breath filled with smoke—not aimed at the ponies exactly, but certainly close enough that they’d feel the heat. “You’re… denying me?”

“No!” Spike stepped between her and the ponies. “Ember, I think I know what you really want. I know how much you enjoyed your trip to the spa… does it really matter if it’s the same ponies so long as you can still enjoy it?”

She stopped, cooling off a little. “I guess not. But who else could know what they know?”

“You could,” Spike said. “You and any dragons you want. Instead of adding the ponies to your hoard, you could add the knowledge instead. Have them teach you!”

“Oh.” Ember was silent for a long time, considering that. She had known the ponies were stupid, but she had never even imagined they could be this monumentally incompetent. Sharing a few tributes was one thing, but giving away the secrets of their relaxation-magic? Such wealth might not help fill up the mountain… but honestly, she hadn’t been sure how she would clean up after a dozen ponies living in here anyway. They’d probably have been eaten by accident at some point anyway, and then she wouldn’t have anyone to serve her.

But with their secrets… she would never need them again.

Ember smiled. It was good to see Spike knew who he was loyal to. He winked at her, and Ember winked back. “Yes, I think that could be arranged. But I retract my offer of doubling the gold. You will have to be satisfied with… four carts.”

Twilight Sparkle’s mouth hung open, stunned by Ember’s political genius. You ponies might’ve made me feel dumb when I was in your lands, but here? Here I am in control.