Vicereine Puissance Noctilucent Optiebeurs-Golo stood perfectly still, with a million-bit ritual shawl wrapped around her barrel and silver threads woven around her legs, and told herself that she did not feel cold.
It was the nature of Elbphilharmonica Hall, she told herself while the university president read out her titles and accolades to the thousands of unicorns filling the building. The venue was one of the most prestigious auditoriums in all of Pferdreich, but it was drafty nonetheless, and the university had persistently refused to take up her offer of a full refurbishing in exchange for renaming it the Optiebeurs-Golo Hall. She’d need to speak to the chancellor again, she thought, and also the Board of Regents. They were due to visit Equestria in six months as part of an international conference on pedagogy, and she’d given enough money to the conference over the years that she knew they would let her speak to the attendees. With them in her hoof, she could return to Pferdreich a few months later, and…
“…and I would like to thank you all for agreeing to participate in this ritual to support one of our continent’s most beloved patrons of the arts,” the university president said. Puissance straightened imperceptibly; this was the reason she had come, the reason she had made herself sit through all those boring cocktail luncheons and interminable rubber-salmon dinners, the reason she had sponsored the university’s new gym, its swimming pool, its exchange program with Shouma. “All of you have well-established careers involving the magical arts, and we are honored you would take time from your lives to return to campus for the sake of the mare who has given so much to our university. Now, when the ruby glows red, cast the spell as we have rehearsed and direct your magic to the leylines carved on the stage.” The lines glowed as the president cast a spell of his own. “Three,” the pony counted. “Two. One!”
Every one of the unicorns in the room shot beams of magic from their horns at precisely the same time and hit the leylines dead-on. Then several archmages, senior instructors in magic whose tutoring was the primary draw of Burrlin University, began to shape and warp the energy as per the ancient spell Puissance’s agents had unearthed in a forgotten library. The magic raced through the leylines, up the silver threads, and into Puissance’s body, and the pegasus’s wings extended involuntarily as the magic hit her. It felt warm, and rich, and soothing, and Puissance thought she could almost feel it soaking into her body. The ritual shawl glowed as its components helped refine the spell further and--
But then one of the archmages sagged, exhaustion creeping over his face, and around the auditorium other unicorns began to collapse. The flow of magic into the leylines slackened, sputtered, and finally stopped as the rest of the unicorns slumped back in their seats. Puissance’s wings fell back to her body and she failed to hide the look of astonishment and annoyance on her face. “President Weisskopf,” she said in a superficially polite tone that failed to mask the absolute authority underlying it. “Is something wrong?”
Weisskopf looked nervous. “Why, no, Vicereine. The spell has been cast exactly as specified.”
“I seem to recall that same spell took several minutes to cast last time,” said Puissance.
“Yes, but, as I explained, the spell requires more and more energy every time it is reapplied.” Weisskopf tugged at the collar of his suit. “Substantially so.”
“It is… how do you say it?” one of the archmages asked. “Diminishing returns. More energy needed for same result.”
“So, because this time we needed more energy to keep the spell going, we used up all our magic faster.” Weisskopf managed a weak shrug. “That’s why it only lasted for several seconds.”
“I had thought you would have enough energy,” said Puissance slowly, sweeping her wing out at the exhausted unicorns around her. “Last time there were a hundred unicorns. This time—“
The archmage shook his head. “Even so. Takes one hundred times more energy than last casting. Even thousand more unicorns not change that.”
“I see.” Puissance took a breath and pasted a wintry smile on her face. “May I ask how effective the spell was?”
The archmage looked at the university president, who seemed to wilt. “Perhaps three months, Vicereine.”
“Three—“ Puissance began before cutting off what would have been a most undignified yell. “Three months?” she repeated. “The first time I underwent this… treatment… I was told it would extend my lifespan by years.”
“And so it did,” said the archmage. “The first time we cast it on you. But then second time, between one to two years, and third time, just under one year. Now three months.”
“Time after this, maybe three weeks,” said a second archmage.
Puissance stared at him. “What are you saying?”
Every other pony on the stage exchanged uneasy glances. Then Weisskopf moved towards her. “What I think we mean is… Vicereine… we may be at the limits of this particular treatment.”
Vicereine Puissance bit back several angry retorts and hid her scowl. Instead, she made herself say, “I of course understand that there are logistical difficulties. Perhaps if I relieved you of some other burdens… specifically, financial burdens… you could devote time to—“
Weisskopf began to nod, but then the archmages glared at him and he quailed before speaking again. “We of course will be grateful for any donations you give us, and will honor you in any way we can. But as for this particular ritual…”
“It too taxing,” said the first archmage. “To cast so many times on same pony. Not safe.”
“For us or you.” The second archmage gestured at the exhausted unicorns in the auditorium’s seats. “And no point anyways.”
“We could bring together every living graduate of this university next time,” said a third. “And get you three weeks. Maybe less.”
Puissance opened her mouth, but then shut it again. This didn’t happen. Ponies did not say no to her; no matter what she wanted, her stupendous wealth and power had always pushed aside any obstacle. This wasn’t allowed.
But it was happening anyways, and she could do nothing other than let Weisskopf go back to his podium and begin the endless minutes of thank-yous a ceremony of this nature required.
The wind blew through the drafty auditorium again, and she once more told herself she did not feel cold. This time, though, she was far less able to believe it.
“Purchase the vacant properties on the northern fringe of Palomino and prepare them to build the new farming complexes and the agricultural museum,” Puissance told one of the two pegasus mares who had met her airship while it was docking above her Califurlong estate. “The university’s chancellor let slip that Pferdreich’s quarries have recently been overproducing stone and iron ore; they will have to sell those materials very cheaply within the month. We will therefore be able to obtain building supplies for half the price we’d anticipated. Also, purchase the largest vacant warehouse near the Califurlong port to store those materials, and alert our factors in Shouma that they will be receiving large shipments of both stone and iron ore on the next boats over. Pferdreich will try to sell there too, but we have spent the last decade establishing trade relations with all the warlords there. We will beat them.”
“Yes, ma’am.” said Perfect Precision, Puissance’s personal secretary of thirty years. Precise Point, Puissance’s political secretary for an equal length of time, flew next to her. The two were twins, one having a purple mane and white coat and the other having the reverse, and both were just slightly on the gaunt side of ‘lean.’ Between them they managed all of Puissance’s business obligations and political affairs. Which, given Puissance’s nature, meant mostly that they copied down her orders and saw that they were carried out.
Puissance flew out of her airship as soon as it docked and headed directly for the window of her private office, her secretaries following closely behind her. “And Precise Point, tell the director of the Equestrian Revenue Service to audit Gladmane Importers. Their prices on Pferdreich goods are too low, judging by prices of the same goods in Pferdreich. Somepony must be falsifying the books. Also, tell the legislative team to file a motion for updating audits in arbitrage arrangements. I’ll send over the exact list of updates tomorrow.” The three ponies reached the window of Puissance’s office, and Precise Point waved a magical wardstone which deactivated the alarms and spells keeping it secured. The window smoothly rolled open to allow Puissance in. “Next—“
Then a small, warm, furry object leaped at Puissance from the floor of her office. “GRANNY PU!” screamed Scepter, her great-grandcolt. He wrapped himself around one of her legs and jumped up and down. “Dad knew you were coming back today so he brought me here to see you! Hi!”
Puissance hid the flash of irritation from her face as her secretaries flew in behind her. “Yes, Scepter, I am back.” she said in as matronly a tone as she could manage. “Don’t jump up and down. It is not dignified.”
Scepter pulled back a little. “It’s ‘Flicker,’” he complained. “Dad says my name is Flicker.”
“Dear…” Puissance put a hoof to her head. “Your great-grandmother has had a long journey and does not wish to argue. Please, just accept…”
“Fine.” Scepter sighed and looked crestfallen for a moment before recovering. “But anyways, I’m really excited you’re back! I’ve been getting a lot better at flying! Look!” He began to flap his wings and indeed rose a little bit off the ground. “What do you think?”
Puissance thought that his technique needed work and made a note to contact Wind Rider, a retired Wonderbolt who now served as an elite flying teacher to those lucky foals whose parents could afford him. But she just said, “It’s very good, dear. Why don’t you run along? Your great-grandmother is busy now, but perhaps after dinner you could let me know what you have been learning from Ink Blot.” Getting Ink Blot rehired as Scepter’s tutor after her wayward grandson Banner had actually tried to enroll Scepter in public school had taken far more work than it should have, especially with Luna breathing down her Courtiers’ necks, and she was hopeful that her efforts had actually led to something useful. She paused, trying to think of what else Scepter might like to do with her. “We can have ice cream,” she said at last. “With sprinkles.”
Scepter hesitated. “And liquid rainbow sauce?”
“Dear, that’s hardly a dignified topping…” But Scepter’s face fell and Puissance sighed to herself. “Very well. We will have a small amount of liquid rainbow sauce.”
“Okay, Granny Pu! You’re the best!” Scepter nuzzled against her and then dashed off towards what Puissance hoped was his father’s rooms.
Puissance took a breath and then turned back to her secretaries. “As for the Equestrian Budget Office…”
Detailing her instructions regarding all of her personal and political affairs took close to an hour, and her voice felt slightly hoarse when she was done. Perfect Precision immediately pressed the button that would send for the butler, who appeared thirty seconds later with a tall glass of distilled mineral water seasoned with an artisanal lemon. Puissance drank it without comment before looking at her secretaries. “Do you have anything for me?”
“Yes, Vicereine,” said Precision, stepping around Precise Point to retrieve a letter from her desk. Puissance would have preferred Point just do it herself, but given Luna’s newfound concern for political corruption, it would not be a wise idea to involve her political secretary in anything relating to her personal affairs, or vice-versa. “You received a letter back from Everlasting Peace, the successor to Enduring Peace, the Naqah sect leader who took your acquaintance Red Rose as an initiate.”
“Ah, yes.” Puissance had been reminded of Red Rose during a recent trip to Equestria’s northern city of Noam. Red Rose had used to write her every month, but Puissance couldn’t recall getting any mail from her in a very long time. Had Red Rose forgotten her? Or was something more insidious going on? Had, for instance, Everlasting Peace’s disciples been displaced by some new sect? “Did he say why we have not been receiving Red Rose’s letters?”
Then, for the first time Puissance could remember, her secretary didn’t give her an immediate answer. The gaunt pegasus hesitated for just a fraction of a second, face twisting like she didn’t know what to say. “Yes, Vicereine. Red Rose died three years ago. ”
“Died?” Puissance felt like somepony had slapped her. “How? What of? Did she fall sick? Was Everlasting Peace’s compound attacked by another sect?”
“No, Vicereine.” Precision took a breath. “She died of old age.”
“Ridiculous,” Puissance snapped. “Red Rose was just a few years older than me, and…”
She trailed off. Silence filled the room. And Puissance suddenly felt cold again, but this time, she couldn’t blame a drafty auditorium.
It took several seconds before Puissance recovered. “Very well,” she said at last. “Send Everlasting Peace a suitable donation on behalf of his sect for all they did in helping Red Rose. And ask him why I was not notified.”
“According to my records, you were,” Precision said. “Three years ago, Everlasting Peace wrote you to tell you Red Rose had passed away, and also sent you her last effects. I responded as per your standing orders: I sent back a letter describing how tragic Red Rose’s death was, how much you would miss her, and how you would be willing to make a donation to her favorite charitable cause. And I filed her last effects according to your formula.”
“I see.” Puissance took a breath. “Where was that?”
“The effects were a wooden beggar’s bowl, a plain headscarf from common wool, and other such items.” Precision hesitated. “So I sent them to Sentimental Valley.”
As a powerful pony, Puissance frequently received gifts from those who wished her favor, feared her displeasure, or simply wanted to thank her for all the good her wise managing had done for them. Puissance had long ago worked out a filing system so that the gifts could be placed in a proper, sensible place. Precious objects from foreign monarchs, for instance, were put in a special museum near the center of Califurlong’s capital city. Tokens of appreciation from colleges, museums, and other institutions of learning were placed in display cabinets in Palomino’s most prestigious university, which Puissance essentially owned thanks to her generous donations. Religious paraphernalia went to one place, family heirlooms to another, precious gems and jewels to a third, and so on
But there were some objects which just didn’t fit anywhere else, largely because they were sent by ponies who didn’t seem to understand that their gifts had no actual value. The townsponies who all chipped in to send Puissance the first chair carved with lumber from a mill she had bailed out of bankruptcy, the ancient citizen who knitted her an amateurish sweater as a ‘thank you’ for some equally-ancient favor, the foal who mailed her a doll because foals were just nice like that, and so on. Even though those objects were worthless she couldn’t just throw them out; if she was caught it would be political suicide.
(Plus, every noble knew the cautionary tale of one Countess Skinflint, who three hundred years ago had thrown herself a birthday party and kept the nice gifts but trashed the cheap ones. The legend went that she had thrown one particularly ragged dolly behind her and criticized the family of the foal who had given it to her as ‘not properly showing appreciation for the hard work of the nobles which allows even commoners to live dignified lives,’ only to discover that the ‘foal’ was actually Princess Luna in disguise, and the ‘family’ were similarly-disguised Shadowbolts. The resultant discussion on ‘who was not showing proper appreciation to whom’ had gone poorly for Skinflint, as had her new career as a sentry in Equestria’s Griffin Kingdoms embassy.)
So those presents had to go somewhere, and Puissance’s solution had been to put a warehouse in a Califurlong valley, store the gifts there in case anypony ever wanted to see if she had them, and never otherwise visit it. No doubt Red Rose’s beggar’s bowl and headscarf were neatly labeled and categorized amongst the other knickknacks various ponies had shipped her. That was precisely what should have happened according to her rules… so why was it disturbing her?
Puissance pushed the thought away with a whicker of annoyance. She and Red Rose hadn’t been that close at all, she told herself, and if she was faintly troubled by the thought of Rose’s things having been sent to Sentimental Valley without her notice, that was just because she was still tired from her journey. “Very well,” she said. “Send Everlasting Peace the donation anyways, and then carry out the rest of your instructions. Leave me now. I wish to rest.”
Her secretaries bowed and departed without another word, and Puissance debated trying to at least get a little work done before shaking her head and going to her room. She was tired, and if anything urgent came up while she napped, that was why she paid a small army of managers and bureaucrats to be ready for any emergency. There was no reason she couldn’t lie down, wrap herself in her exquisite Shouma blanket, and unwind by her fireplace until dinner and her meeting with Scepter.
She left her office and crossed the hallway to enter a large living room which in turn led to her bed. Before she reached that bed, though, she saw a familiar pony in the living room and smiled slightly. “Solar Flare,” she said. “Good afternoon.”
“Vicereine.” Solar Flare, the tall, white-coated pegacorn whom Puissance knew was her most loyal and devoted servant and whom almost nopony else knew existed, swiveled from the book she had been reading and almost jumped to Puissance’s side. The mare’s uncanny resemblance to the Tyrant Sun rendered it inadvisable for her to appear in public, so she usually stayed either in the Vault—Puissance’s home for the strange, the unique, the fantastic—or at Puissance’s personal residence for when Puissance needed the services of her dearest friend. “Did they treat you well in Pferdreich?”
“Hmph.” Puissance let Solar Flare guide her to an extremely comfortable chair she’d imported from Paardveld. “They barely cast the spell. They said it will only reduce my age by three months.”
“Three months?” Solar Flare’s outrage was genuine. “You deserve so much more!”
Puissance nodded. “I know,” she said. “But… I am sure we will find other ways.” She sighed as Solar Flare used telekinesis to float over a pot of heavenly-smelling Shouma tea to her. “Speaking of which. What of our agents in the libraries?”
“We now have researchers in all facilities we decided were the highest priority,” said Solar Flare at once. “Including, most recently, the Grand Academy in Zaldia, Fisher Industries Research Labs in Rushia, and the Imperial Library in Shouma.”
“Excellent,” Puissance said. “And Spellhold?”
“We still do not know where it is.” Solar Flare’s voice caught as if it was physically painful for her to admit failure to the Vicereine. “Our scholars say it might help us find it if we could visit Tambelon Island--"
Puissance sighed. “Yes, but Luna has ruled it off limits.” A year prior, that would barely have mattered; now, Puissance could suffer very serious consequences were she caught disobeying her princess. “And I can scarcely ask for an exemption without telling her why.” She waved a hoof. “No matter. I will think of something. The researchers?”
“They were all hired through a middle-mare. They believe they are looking for age-regression magic as part of some theoretical exercise. None of them know who they are working for, and the middle-mare is receiving instructions and payments via blind drop. She does not know we are involved either.” Solar Flare scowled. “We should not have to skulk like this. This knowledge is of immense importance to you.”
“Indeed.” Puissance smiled at Solar Flare’s support. So may ponies, she knew, would react to her quest with horror or bile. They would say she was stepping beyond the bounds of life, or acting out of desperate greed. But Solar Flare knew better. “After all, I cannot die just yet. I have barely started to live… and I have so much more to give Equestria. What I could do with these provinces given a few hundred years…”
Solar Flare nodded. “But I suppose Luna would rather be the only pony with the knowledge you seek.”
That was a sticky point. Researching the magic of age-reduction, life-extension, and even immortality was not inherently illegal. Puissance had made a very quiet and very thorough search through the law books to verify that. Of course, certain techniques for life-extension were in fact criminal, like that one Grogar lunatic who slaughtered his subjects to drain their life force, but providing nopony was hurt in the process, it was quite legal to hire some of the wisest and most-learned scholars on the continent to trawl through the world’s biggest libraries in search of magic which enabled a pony to live longer. From ancient legends of mythical beings said to have cheated death to modern experiments for extending life published in the most obscure journals, if somepony somewhere had knowledge of surviving past one’s appointed time without harming others, it would break none of Luna’s laws for Puissance to learn it.
Of course, even if something was legal, that didn’t mean Luna would like it, and Puissance was sure that Luna would be unhappy to learn that one of her nobles was trying to live for far longer than ponies normally did. She’d see it as a threat, if not to her reign, then at least to her power; after all, if Puissance had the secret to unimaginably long life and another pony tried to learn it, she’d be threatened by that, and why would Luna be different? The magic she’d had used upon her in Pferdreich was one thing—that was at least an established technique—but if Puissance did find something more effective, she was sure Luna would react badly. So it was important for her efforts to remain quite secret… at least until Puissance had already used them.
“Have the scholars found anything?” Puissance then asked.
Solar Flare sighed. “No,” she admitted. “Nothing yet. Of course, there is the one library we excluded from our list. You have access to the archives in Canterlot Castle—“
Puissance shook her head. “Those are overseen by Wandza Waving, who is known to be incorruptible. Were I to remove any books, she would record it, and Luna might learn.”
“Then don’t go yourself,” said Solar Flare. “The archives must have research staff who could be convinced to help you.”
“Any help of that nature must, under the law, be recorded with the archivist. And given how Luna reacted to her nobles’... intrigues… at the Gala, it would be inadvisable for me to bribe or coerce another pony with access into secretly doing the search and concealing my involvement.” Puissance slowly shook her head. “There is no point in using a third party. Perhaps I will risk visiting the archives myself if our other leads fail. But not until then.”
Solar Flare smiled. “Of course. After all, you are not that old, Vicereine. You will not die soon. You have time to wait.”
Puissance opened her mouth to agree, but then she saw the faintest flicker of some indescribable expression on Solar Flare’s face. It was a hint of…
Solar Flare said that Puissance had many years left. But, Puissance thought, Solar Flare might not believe it.
“Would you like me to have dinner prepared?” Solar Flare asked. “There is a visiting chef from Neighpon who has requested the honor of serving you.”
“Yes,” Puissance managed. “That will be fine. Please wake me in two hours for dinner. Thank you.”
Solar Flare bowed before leaving the room, and Puissance settled into her enormously comfortable chair while she tried to calm herself enough to rest.
But she was not successful, and despite herself, she could not stop feeling cold.
This was a stupid idea, Puissance thought to herself as she walked through the halls of Canterlot. She had probably just misread Solar Flare’s expression, and even if not, the mare was an able bodyguard and servant but not a trained doctor. And the doctors said she was as healthy as could be. Well, mostly. That one she’d seen after returning from Noam to discuss the chills she couldn’t quite shake, he’d been more pessimistic, he—
She cut off her thoughts with a sharp shake of her head. One doctor didn’t matter. The rest agreed that she was remarkably healthy. She had enough time and resources to solve this problem. She should probably just go back to her province.
But she couldn’t avoid the thought that she really should investigate the archives, just to be safe. Besides, she was a Vicereine. She had every right to be here. And if she conducted her study in the library itself, without checking anything out, then there would be nothing for Wandza to report. Yes, she was by no means a magical expert, but if she saw anything interesting she could pass that on to the other researchers. She might even be able to come up with an innocuous reason for getting the text herself, one that Luna wouldn’t suspect.
So she entered the archives, walked past Wandza without a word, grabbed a cart, and soon got deep enough in the stacks that she felt she could start collecting books without being observed. Her preliminary research had given her a list of places to start, the names of scholars ancient and recent who had looked into this very issue, and she fluttered from stack to stack collecting books. There was Clover the Clever’s On the Extension of Life, and Prancer John’s Properties of the Fountain of Youth. There was also an anonymous text on something called the Scholomane, a mythological school where students learned to cheat death by bargaining with evil spirits; perhaps the stories were really based on some teacher who had devised a secret for remaining young long after he should have aged. She found a journal which had republished the letters of the Rushian mystic Rasponytin, who was said to be able to heal from any injury, and a tract by some scientist who claimed to be able to transfer life essence from one pony to another. That last technique wouldn’t pass muster with Luna, Puissance knew, but perhaps there was some variation? Maybe the life force didn’t have to be taken from a pony; maybe it could be from something nopony cared about like an apple or a bear. She took that too and continued on.
After perhaps two hours she had amassed a good collection of books. She took them towards the study area and wished she could have brought somepony here to take notes for her, but Solar Flare would scare ponies, her personal secretary was handling other crucial business, and she didn’t trust the rest of her staff with this private project. Still, she was quite capable of doing this on her own.
Then she turned a corner and bumped her muzzle against that of Princess Luna Equestris.
“Puissance. My apologies,” said Luna as Puissance stumbled back in a hurry. “I did not know anypony else was in the stacks. Have you found what you are looking for?”
“Um…” said Puissance, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “Yes, of course.”
“Good. And how is your health?” Luna’s expression grew concerned. “Are you still dealing with the aftereffects of that windigo?”
She did not feel cold, Puissance told herself. She did not feel cold. “I have recovered as well as can be expected,” she managed. “Thank you.”
Luna gently smiled at that, then turned to Puissance’s cart, and Puissance saw the alicorn’s eyes widen. Then Luna shut her eyes for a moment, and Puissance raced to come up with some excuse, but then the princess’s mouth curved into a small smile. “You might also look at Star Swirl the Bearded’s Transformation and Replenishment of the Equine Form,” she said. “I am told that book is a good primer to the field of your interest.”
Puissance stared at Luna, struck dumb.
Then Luna actually laughed. “Vicereine,” she said. “You may be old, but I am far older. I have seen a great many courtiers come and go. Do not think you are the first noble who wishes to… extend your service to my nation.” She gently brushed against Puissance as she walked past her, and Puissance spun around to follow. “It is by no means unheard of.”
“I… yes, Princess,” Puissance said.
“And it is not as if I would object,” Luna went on. “I love all my little ponies. If they wish to live longer, spend more time with their friends and family, who would I be to say no? Oh, I suppose it could cause problems if everypony became immortal… but I would relish working to solve those problems. A world in which the best of friends could learn, and grow, and enjoy each other’s company for an endless time would be a beautiful world, would it not?”
“It would indeed,” said Puissance. “Then—“
“That said,” Luna interrupted, “You should also know that of all the ponies who embarked on similar research, none succeeded. Or should I say, none succeeded in what I would consider an… appropriate manner.”
Puissance inclined her head. “Are you referencing your former apprentice? The one who became part-windigo?”
“Yes. And Grogar, and a few others.” Luna turned to Puissance and her warm expression faded. “Please keep in mind that there are circumstances in which long life may be no blessing.”
The Vicereine winced. She could imagine herself locked in a jail cell not for years or decades but millennia if Luna decided that she had done something truly evil in the course of extending her life. “Yes, Princess.”
“Good.” Luna paused. “But to be sure you understand: I do not only refer to those who became corrupted or evil, and who I was thus forced to… deal with. I have known nobles who never lay a hoof on another but who nonetheless gave up everything in their quest to become immortal. They lost their friends, their families, their provinces, everything they ever loved. In the end they did not succeed, and if they somehow had, I do not believe they would have found any joy in the friendless eternity they had crafted for themselves. They would, I feel, have found it preferable to abandon their quest, retire from their responsibilities, and spend their remaining time with their loved ones.”
Puissance forced herself to stay steady. “I understand, Princess. But I am not ready to retire just yet. I have much more to give this nation.”
Luna let out what almost sounded to Puissance like a tiny sigh. “I thought you might say that… but still. Please keep my message in mind.”
“I will,” Puissance promised.
“Then, provided you do not neglect any of your responsibilities or break my laws in the course of your project, I wish you luck. And who knows?” Luna grinned. “Perhaps you will be the one to succeed where all the others have failed.”
Puissance opened her mouth to bid Luna goodbye, but then something occurred to her. “Princess, excuse me, but you said that other nobles tried to discover this knowledge. Did they perhaps leave records?”
“Do you have access to them?”
“I do.” Luna flicked her head up. “Some nobles leave their journals to the throne, as I’m sure you know. I have in my possession ten or twelve logbooks of nobles who went down this route.”
Puissance took a breath. “Your Vicereine formally requests access to those journals.”
Luna looked at her for a long moment. “Granted—“
For a moment Puissance felt like she was about to collapse with relief. “Thank you, Princess. I swear if I succeed I will faithfully serve you for as long as I—“
“—on two conditions,” Luna went on. “First, you are to send me written reports whenever you make progress.”
Puissance hesitated. “May I ask why?”
“You may.” Luna moved closer to Puissance. “You have served me faithfully for more than five decades. I appreciate that, and despite your prior indiscretions, I want the best for you. Of course, I want the best for all my little ponies, but given your decades of service… it would deeply grieve me were you to go astray in your quest and require me to punish you. So, if you wish my help, you will send me reports. Accurate, complete, honest reports. So that if I determine you are even starting to edge towards an action which I would be forced to correct, I could warn you well in advance.”
Unstated, Puissance thought, was the implication that Puissance would not be able to resist such an action on her own. That rankled, but those journals were important enough that she could tolerate such distrust. “As you wish.”
“And second… you are to spend one day a week with your great-grandcolt Flicker.” Puissance stared in surprise and Luna chuckled. “Yes, I mean it. No work. No duties. Just you, him, and any family members that wish to join you.”
“Er… begging your pardon, princess, but I don’t understand—“
Luna shook her head to cut her off. “As I said, I have known nobles who lost their families in pursuit of immortality. I do not wish for that to happen to you.”
“Of course, it’s just that—I mean, I do spend time with him already. Just the other day we had ice cream.“ The dessert meeting hadn’t gone that well, since Scepter kept prattling on about comic books and surfing instead of the lessons Puissance had fought so hard for him to get, but they had technically eaten together for almost thirty minutes. “And with my responsibilities—“
“Your provinces are among the best-managed in Equestria. You have plenty of managers and officials to take care of anything that might crop up during your day off.” Luna tilted her head. “I understand the Califurlong shoreline is hosting a festival soon. I am sure your great-grandcolt would love nothing more than to spend a day on the beach with his beloved grandmother.”
Puissance had nothing to say to that, and Luna smiled again. “If you agree, then it is settled. I will have a page bring the journals to your airship. Although, there is one more thing…”
“Please do call Flicker by the name his parents gave him.” Luna held up a hoof when the Vicereine began to object. “As a personal favor to me, if nothing else.”
“I… yes, princess,” Puissance made herself say. Inwardly, she couldn’t help wondering if Luna was watching Scepter’s dreams, or worse, spying on her, but of course she could do nothing about that .
And it wasn’t that big of a problem, the Vicereine told herself as she departed in her airship less than half an hour later. She had the books from the archives, she had the journals, and if Luna was being a little nosy at the moment, surely that wouldn’t last. Equestria had a million ponies. Luna wouldn’t be able to focus only on Scepter for long. And even if she did…
Well, then Puissance just had to finish her research. And then she would have all the time in the world to ensure that Scepter and every other member of her family lived long, healthy, productive lives with the dignity and maturity required of all members of her family.
The journals and books were of inconsistent quality, but that was to be expected, and Puissance soon had a small army of scholars going through the research and summarizing their notes. That way she could keep the project going while she managed her provinces and played with Scepter for her required one day per week. That last part certainly delighted Scepter to no end, and even though Puissance’s mind was increasingly consumed by her research, she couldn’t help feeling happy when she heard Scepter bragging to a friend that he got to spend an entire day walking with his Granny Pu on the beach, collecting seashells, taking pictures, and showing her how Califurlong colts surfed. Of course, Puissance tried to make the days at least somewhat productive—taking him along the Boardwalk and explaining how enterprising ponies could start businesses selling popsicles and renting surfboards, or chartering a boat out into the harbor so she could teach him about fisherstallions and how when he became a noble he’d have to look after them—and he didn’t like those parts as much, but he still seemed to enjoy being with Puissance even if he found this or that activity boring.
Still, though, Puissance longed to be more hoofs-on with the research, and she began going through the scholars’ summaries in her spare moments, paying particular attention to the summaries of the logbooks Luna had gotten for her. She soon found the nobles’ journals could be divided into three classes. One set had pursued strategies which they ultimately proved could not possibly work; this group included ponies trying to invent perpetual motion magic-generators and similar devices which turned out to be theoretically impossible. A second set had pursued strategies which might have worked but which Luna would have found unacceptable; one noble talked at length about how Luna’s old apprentice Snowy Night had become part-windigo and thus slowed down her aging, and another went into how, precisely, one could make a deal with Tirek for immortality and what kind of sacrifices he liked best. (That last one seemed to have been written from some kind of prison on the moon, judging by a few contextual references). And the third had come up with ideas that were neither proven impossible nor found to be workable but evil; those ideas just stopped somewhere in the middle, the noble having gotten bored, given up, or died in the meantime.
It was the last class of options which most intrigued Puissance. After all, ponies may have gotten stuck on a particular section of the path to immortality centuries ago, but magic and industry had been developing ever since. Perhaps some insurmountable problem back then had been solved during a completely different task in the ensuing centuries, resulting in a procedure for longer life or even immortality which was eminently achievable. If so, Puissance thought, she could have this problem solved very soon indeed.
A few weeks after her trip to the castle archives, Puissance and Solar Flare were eating a dinner of exquisite caviar and filets of trout when Puissance frowned at the summary she was reading. “This idea keeps coming up in the papers.”
“Ponies keep guessing that, since alicorns are immortal and are very magical, maybe their immortality is a side effect of their magic. So, they argue, a pony might be able to become immortal by absorbing a similar quantity of magical energy and binding it to oneself in such a way that it conferred a similar immortality effect.” Puissance flipped through the papers in front of her. “At least three of the previous nobles tried that.”
Solar Flare nodded. “Clover the Clever wrote about that too. She said that technique couldn’t work though. Even if you could come up with a spell that produced as much energy as an alicorn and you found a way to warp it so that it would have an anti-aging effect, that much energy would kill any mortal pony.” She paused. “Ah, Vicereine?”
“I just wanted to tell you, if we do discover a procedure, but we aren’t sure that it’s safe… I will volunteer to try it first. If it is harmful, let it hurt me, not you.”
Puissance smiled. “Solar Flare, I appreciate that very much. But I do not think Luna would appreciate me using another pony as a guinea pig.”
“I will tell Luna herself I consent if that is what it takes.” Solar Flare looked at Puissance with devotion. “You saved me when I was cast out. You gave me a home. You are the only pony I have ever met who can look past my appearance, who can love me.” She leaned forwards. “I want to do this for you.”
It was good, Puissance thought, to have another pony’s wholehearted love and devotion. “If it comes to that,” she said, “then we will tell Luna our plan together. But I’m sure we can find a safe way.”
Solar Flare nodded and looked back at the notes, then hesitated. “Star Swirl the Bearded mentioned something like this. I read it in that book Princess Luna recommended.”
“What did he say?” said Puissance, unable to keep the tension out of her voice.
“It wasn’t about de-aging, but his essay on the subject mentioned transforming ponies with alicorn-level magic in general. He theorized that, given a second source of alicorn-level magic, that second source could be used as a shield to strengthen the pony enough to survive the transformation.” Solar Flare smiled. “Vicereine. The Alicorn Armor we obtained four years ago. It’s right here in Califurlong, in your Military Treasures warehouse.”
Puissance’s eyes widened. She had gotten that armor when an archeological dig she was sponsoring had turned up a long-forgotten temple to the sun cult, complete with relics and documentation of the cult’s legends. Those legends said Celestia had made that armor for her highest lieutenants, and that it could take a blast from her or Luna without breaking. Puissance’s tests had already determined that the armor was made of solid gold and had powerful magic worked into its body, but if it could truly withstand an alicorn’s magical attacks… “We have never tested it,” said Puissance quickly. “We don’t know that it can do what the cult thought it could do.”
Solar Flare shook her head. “Surely we can find an archmage who would do that. Perhaps even Luna herself, if she truly means to assist you.”
“I don’t know.” Puissance frowned. “She said she does, but… I can’t be sure.” She couldn’t shake the idea there was some kind of trick in Luna’s offer, though she had no idea what it might be. “And besides. Even if we have alicorn-level protection, we still need an alicorn-level source for the immortality spell in the first place, not to mention a pony who can actually cast a spell using that source to decrease my age…”
Her voice trailed off and Solar Flare looked at her intensely. “What?” she asked. “What do you know?”
“One of the recent journals. Just a few years ago. Somepony was working on Star Swirl’s lost works.” Puissance rose to her hooves. “Excuse me!”
She hurried out of her private quarters and down to the lower level of her estate, where a dozen scholars were living in luxury at her expense while they worked through all the material. She grabbed the nearest one and said in a voice that was almost a shout, “Where is that work by the pony recreating Star Swirl’s experiments?”
“Ah, the Journal of Experimental Magic Research. I think it’s in that stack—“
Puissance pushed past the scholar, went to the table he’d specified, and searched until she found the article she wanted. Then she rushed with it back to her quarters and spread it out before Solar Flare. “I knew I had read about this!” she said. “Look. Just a few years ago, at the Canterlot Academy of Magic. A pony claimed to have redesigned the theory of Star Swirl’s most powerful spells so that they do not require alicorn-levels of magic to cast. She said that by ‘balancing’ the magic appropriately, breaking it up into components set in some kind of arrangement, Star Swirl’s magic can be reproduced even if none of the components is as powerful as an alicorn. And look here, at the validation section. She did experiments, not with changing age but with others of Star Swirl’s spells, and proved that her adaptations work!”
Solar Flare nodded. “I’ll have your private investigators find this pony at once.”
“Good. Offer her five times whatever she is making now. If she demands anything else, such as relocation expenses or jobs for her family, give them to her. Just get her here.” Puissance began reading through the article again, then froze. “And look at this!”
“What?” Solar Flare leaned over.
“She gives an example of a set of historic magic artifacts she says will work as magic sources for these spells,” said Puissance. “She says this set should already be properly balanced, and that there’s evidence it really exists even if it’s now thought to be a myth.” She almost laughed. “My mother told me stories about these as a foal. I never dreamed they might really exist!”
Solar Flare read the last paragraph of the article. “For example,” she read, “A set of artifacts that would prove perfect for this study are…” She took a long breath. “… the four legendary Golden Horseshoes of Mimic.”