Vicereine Puissance sat in the conference room of the Equestrian Budget Office, a diamond-studded formal dress wrapped around her, and insisted to herself that she did not feel cold.
“…and as you can clearly see, in addition to the economic damage caused by Corona’s return and the decreased consumer spending caused by wartime anxieties among the populace, the disruptions wrought by the recent declaration of martial law have further damaged the city coffers,” droned a bureaucrat. There was angry murmuring amongst the other ponies in the room, and Puissance could sympathize--Archduke Fisher’s mule-brained idea to declare martial law and lock down the capital in response to a prison break had caused a great many problems--but given all her other projects at the moment, she found it hard to give the speaker her full attention. The cold was the castle custodian’s fault, she thought. He was paid enough; why couldn’t he heat the room properly?
“We propose that this year we add an extra three percent sales tax, above and beyond all existing taxes, to recoup the lost income,” said the bureaucrat. “While this may be unpopular—“
“It is monstrous,” interjected a harsh, flat voice with a thick Rushian accent. Puissance and the rest turned to the new Archduchess of Rushia, Svelte Lord-Fisher, the yellow-coated, orange-maned pony who had assumed command of her province after her husband had been disgraced, indicted, and fled to parts unknown. (Puissance personally guessed he would wind up in Zaldia, where the unicorn-centric culture agreed with him.) Svelte was a unicorn whose horn had been broken at the base in an accident long-ago; this prevented her from casting magic, which some ponies claimed led to her underchanneling and missing sleep, accounting for her grumpy nature. Puissance didn’t know about that, but she did know that Svelte was so cold to others that it was as if she'd had her capacity for friendship surgically removed. “The ponies should not bear the burden for governmental misconduct. I propose a reduction in the allowances to the nobility, and also a clawback of expenses allotted to governmental facilities in Canterlot such as Canterlot Castle.”
Count Mellow Dramatic gasped. “You can’t reduce the noble allowances! All of my funds are tied up in provincial investments, you know, developing better irrigation and so on. If the allowances are lowered I could default!”
Svelte glared at him. “Then you should have planned better.”
Mellow began to turn red and puffy, as was his wont whenever he didn’t get his way, but before he exploded Puissance felt somepony nudge at her elbow. She turned to see it was a castle page bearing a letter in Solar Flare’s hoofwriting, the message she had been awaiting for what had seemed like an eternity though it had probably only been a few weeks: ‘We have found her.’
Puissance’s heart thundered, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to abandon the meeting and leave the chattering idiots around her to their discussions. But she couldn’t do that. It would do her no good to attain immortality if she had previously demonstrated such irresponsibility that Luna removed her from the nobility; she would not live for millennia with nothing to do besides puttering around her assorted mansions. “Don’t do either,” she told the nobles just before Mellow spoke again.
“But… but Vicereine, we must make up the money somewhere,” said the bureaucrat. “Our laws do not allow us to go into debt for—“
Vicereine Puissance silenced the bureaucrat with a glare. “I am aware of our laws,” she said. “Raise no taxes and cut no expenses. Instead, sell bonds. Based on the calculations of my staff, provided we can make up this immediate shortfall, Canterlot province will return to profitability within six months and will produce a steady stream of revenue thereafter. Ponies know that our credit is good. Bonds will raise the immediate revenue we need, and provided we set reasonable interest rates, we will be able to pay them off without difficulty.” She stood. “And to demonstrate my certainty that the bonds are safe, House Optiebeurs-Golo will commit to buying one hundred thousand bits of bonds.” Somepony whistled at the amount, and Puissance smiled slightly. “At a minimum. If initial interest is weaker than expected, I will purchase two or three times that amount to incite demand.”
Svelte turned to Puissance. “You mean, House Optiebeurs-Golo will commit to exploiting the current crisis to make money via the bond interest rates.”
Puissance fixed her glare on the Rushian. “House Optiebeurs-Golo will buy the bonds with a waiver stating that any interest will be returned directly to the city coffers.” She nodded. “I do not seek to make a profit. I only wish to show my conviction that the bonds are safe, and thus to spur other investment.”
That was not, of course, quite true. Once the bonds were proven to be safe, they would sell very quickly, and Puissance could think of at least a dozen ponies that would likely miss out on the initial sale and start looking to buy them secondhand. Some of those ponies had things she wanted, such as tracts of land, artifacts, and mineral rights. But there was nothing illegal or corrupt about reselling bonds, and if Svelte was too naive to see that and too grouchy to have cultivated allies who would clue her in, that was hardly Puissance’s fault.
Svelte could say nothing in response, and the meeting adjourned with the adoption of Puissance’s idea. She swept out of the room without saying anything else, hurried to the carriage docks, and was on her way to her Canterlot estate in a matter of minutes. Her secretaries were at her side as soon as she disembarked at her mansion but she pushed past them and went straight to the inner quarters where she knew Solar Flare would be. “Where is she?” Puissance demanded as soon as she entered the room. “Is she far?”
Solar Flare spread a map out on Puissance’s coffee table, a Neighpon import which was magically enchanted to always smell of the most delicious cherry blossoms and to ensure that any food or drink placed upon it would retain its proper temperature for hours and hours without cooling down or melting, and pointed at a marked point. “No. Our agent saw her at the base of the Canterhorn, in one of the small craft villages.”
“Craft villages?” Puissance frowned. “What is an archmage doing there?”
“She doesn’t live there. Our agent trailed her back to her house. It is an… odd building in the Canterwoods.” Solar Flare slid photographs of the house across the table. The walls of the building didn’t seem to fit together at the right angles, and Puissance’s head hurt looking at them, so she pushed them aside. “She was probably just buying supplies.”
Puissance nodded. “Well, no matter. I will have the carriage readied for a trip down the Canterhorn and will see her as soon as possible.”
“I can come with,” said Solar Flare at once. “In case this archmage is dangerous.”
Solar Flare was a very capable bodyguard, as Puissance knew well, and the more the vicereine thought about it the more sense it made to take somepony along just in case the archmage proved… surly. “Very well,” she said. “Put on your traveling cloak and we’ll be on our way.”
The house in the Canterhorn was no less disorienting close up, and Puissance found she had to keep her eyes averted as the cloaked Solar Flare led her to the door. “Moondancer!” the Vicereine called once they were close enough for Solar Flare to start knocking. “We wish to speak with you!”
Solar Flare had to knock for almost three full minutes before the door finally opened. The pony inside was a cream-colored unicorn with thick glasses, a red and purple mane, and a deeply ugly sweater. She fixed Puissance with a glare and said, “What is it? I’m busy.”
Puissance, despite herself, was momentarily taken aback. She was Vicereine Puissance Noctilucent Optiebeurs-Golo. Ponies did not tell her they were busy! But snapping at the archmage wouldn’t help, and so Puissance said, “I am Vicereine Puissance. I wish to hire you… if you are, indeed, the pony who wrote those articles in the Journal of Experimental Magic Research.”
“I don’t do commissions,” said Moondancer, turning on her hoof and walking into her house. Puissance exchanged a baffled glance at Solar Flare before hurrying after her, revealing a house in which everything seemed to be in motion. As she watched she saw a broom and dustpan sweep up the floor and dump the dirt into a flying trashcan, which in turn meandered over to Moondancer’s side so she could drop a broken pencil into it. “If that’s all, you can leave.”
“I… I don’t think you know what I can offer you,” said Puissance as she fought to keep her tone reasonable. “I assure you, the ponies I hire are very well compensated for their time.”
Moondancer didn’t even look back, instead going to some whirling machine that Puissance couldn’t begin to understand. Several lights were blinking on its side, and within it a turnip was rapidly pulsing. “I don’t care.”
“One million bits?”
“Ten million,” offered Puissance.
“I said I’m not interested.” Moondancer did turn back at last, but only to frown at Puissance. “I don’t need money; everything I need I can create with magic.” As if to prove this, her horn glowed, and seconds later a big sandwich and a hay soda appeared next to her. “I don’t have a price.”
“Everypony has a price,” said Puissance. She settled into a chair, then flinched as it instantly reconstituted itself to confirm perfectly to her back. “And I can always afford it.”
Moondancer’s expression grew tired. “I told you, I don’t want--“
“Would you like a more secluded home?” Puissance asked. “It’s obvious you want to be alone; I knew that since I learned you faked your death in a train crash. Why—“
“I didn’t fake my death,” Moondancer said with an exasperated sigh. “I bought a ticket for that train but missed it because my experiment ran over. When it crashed they couldn’t find me and assumed I died. And I was going to complain, but then I realized I could finally get away from all the ponies bothering me, lying that they wanted to be my ‘friend.’”
Puissance perked up her ears. This, she knew, was important. “Why do you think they were lying?”
“Because ‘friends’ lie.” Moondancer scowled. “They tell you they like you and want to hang out with you, but when it really matters they’re never there. No matter how much you put into it, no matter how much you were there for them… they abandon you.”
Before Puissance could say anything, Moondancer’s horn glowed and she levitated a yearbook off of a shelf. “When I was in the Academy I was one of the best students. The other was this… this brat named Twilight Sparkle. She skipped a year, but even so, I thought we were friends. We were in all the same advanced classes, we were helping each other with our work, we ran all over town going to seminars and libraries… but when I had a really bad week, when my work had been rejected and I thought I was failing and I needed to go somewhere and have fun to relax? Twilight blew me off. She said she’d be there for me, but she wasn’t.”
Puissance and Solar Flare, the latter still cloaked, exchanged glances. “You gave up on friendship because one friend missed one party?” Puissance asked.
“It wasn’t just the party! I was Twilight’s only competition for valedictorian. That was why she skipped out on me, because she knew it would hurt me and I would fall behind her! And I did, and she got valedictorian and all the attention and everypony ignored me even though I was just as good as her!” Moondancer shuddered. “So I decided I was done with friendship. I’m doing my own research, without getting close enough to anypony that they could hurt me and derail my work. I’m going to be the greatest archmage in Equestrian history. And one day, when I’ve completed my work, I’ll show it to everypony and they’ll finally know: I’m better than Twilight Sparkle. I’m better than everypony.”
So that was what she wanted, Puissance thought. Recognition. She could offer that… but on the other hoof, it would be good to hold something in reserve in case Moondancer proved difficult to work with. The better move was to first offer something that Moondancer needed but wasn’t her heart’s desire. And fortunately, having worked with artisans and creators of this type before, Puissance knew just what to offer.
“I see you’ve made up your mind,” said Puissance as she rose to her hooves. “Very well. We’ll find somepony else. I suppose we can leave the star sapphires idling for a few more days.”
Moondancer froze. “Star sapphires?” she asked in a genuinely curious voice. “Those are incredibly rare crystals, used in the most difficult magic spells. You have them?”
“Of course,” said Puissance. “The work I am doing is of the highest caliber. I have spent the last month stocking a magic laboratory with every conceivable tool which could be useful.”
She began to walk with Solar Flare to the door, and Moondancer hurried after them. “Every tool? Do you have a rainbow cutter?”
“Certainly,” said Puissance.
“Three of them.”
“Crystal maturation chamber?”
Puissance glanced at Solar Flare, who nodded. “Your magic warehouse in Palomino has six,” the bodyguard said.
Moondancer looked back over her own laboratory. “I’ve been trying to get a crystal chamber for three years,” she mused. “But nopony makes them anymore, and they’re so fragile it’s almost impossible to ship them… if I had one of those, I could finish a dozen experiments…”
“Perhaps when my work is done I could loan you one,” Puissance said. They had reached the door. “Good day—“
“Wait.” Moondancer stepped forwards, and if her imposed-upon tone was no different, her next words were exactly what Puissance wanted to hear. “I am reconsidering. What is it you wanted me to do, exactly?”
Puissance smiled to herself. Moondancer was clearly still reluctant to work with other ponies, but that didn’t matter as long as she did what Puissance needed. “Well, I had read your theories for replicating some of Star Swirl the Bearded’s spells, particularly his efforts to make ponies younger and ultimately render them ageless… or, in other words, immortal. My experts agree that you seem to be one of the most knowledgeable ponies on the subject in the world. So what I had wanted was to grant you access to my laboratories and supplies in order for you to put your theories into practice. But, of course, if you truly don’t wish to take my commission, I will have to find another pony. Perhaps that Pferdreichian archmage…”
“If I did this, I would need your assurance that I could use your lab for my own experiments during my off-hours.” Moondancer said. Her eyes were flicking around and Puissance could practically see her imagining all the work she could finally do, all the experiments and discoveries and recognition that she could reach if only she had the rare equipment which Puissance was offering her. Yes, the mage might be an antisocial misanthrope, but Puissance knew she was thinking that, if she just put up with Puissance for a few months she could finally do all those experiments and show the world what it had gotten wrong in giving Twilight Sparkle the recognition that should properly have gone to Moondancer.
“As long as progress continued on the de-aging project, I don’t see why not,” said Puissance. “In fact, if you succeeded, I could let you keep the lab and all its equipment as a bonus. If you wanted.” Puissance held her gaze. “Do you wish to take this commission?”
Moondancer hesitated, as if tensing up to do something unpleasant, and then said, “Yes. I accept.”
And that was that.
One week later, Puissance was walking through the castle on her way to the Ministry of Finance when she almost ran into a dazed-looking Octavia outside of the musician’s quarters. “Excuse me,” she said, then paused when Octavia didn’t seem to move. “Ah, Miss Philharmonica?”
Octavia slowly turned to look at her, and Puissance was taken aback by how exhausted the musician seemed. It took a few more seconds for Octavia to bend down in a bow that was appropriate for a servant like her when meeting a Vicereine. “Yes, Vicereine?” she managed. “Did you… want me to schedule a concert for you?”
“Nope!” called a bright voice from behind them both.
Puissance stiffened and turned to see who had dared answer for her. The only pony behind her was a castle page, and for a moment Puissance simply refused to believe any common staffer would have that level of impertinence, but then the page walked around her and went to Octavia. “Orders from the princess,” she chirped in that same perky tone. “I’m to take you back to your room and not let you leave until you sleep for twenty-four hours!”
“‘M fine, Paperweight,” muttered Octavia. “Have duties…”
“You’ve already performed as many concerts as your contract requires for the month,” said Paperweight. “And Princess Luna wants to make sure you get your rest. Now come on! Your room is this way!”
Puissance opened her mouth to yell at the page when Paperweight, having more or less pushed Octavia through her own door, turned back. “Sorry, Vicereine,” she chirped. “But Princess Luna was real insistent Octavia get some sleep.”
“Princess Luna does not, in my experience, concern herself overmuch with the sleep habits of her staff,” Puissance managed.
“Sure, but this is a special occasion. You know how Viceroy Night Light is hosting that tapir delegation, and how one of the tapir calves is a baku and can walk through dreams?”
Paperweight just kept going. “Well, when a baku is in your dreams you don’t actually get any rest. And the baku calf has been in Octavia’s dreams every night cause he’s homesick and she knows lullabies that make him feel better, so she hasn’t been resting at all! And she didn’t tell anypony at first because she didn’t want to mess up the diplomacy stuff, but we’re real good friends so she finally told me why she’s been so tired and then I told Princess Luna and we agreed Octavia should get some real sleep before playing anymore.”
Puissance frowned. “But the baku will continue to invade her dreams—“
“Oh no, we took care of that. A few of us pages talked to the baku and explained the problem, and we all agreed he’ll spend an hour in each of our dreams tonight, but none in Octavia’s. That way nopony gets too tired and Octavia can sleep! And also, once Octavia feels better she’ll record the lullabies in the real world so the baku can listen to them as he falls asleep. That should help him be less lonely in the dream world too.” Paperweight beamed. “Princess Luna told me I was a really good friend for catching this! Now, I have to go into her room and make sure Octavia actually does sleep, but if you want to schedule her for a concert just leave me a note and I promise I’ll put it on her schedule!” She bowed. “By your leave, Vicereine!” And then she dashed through Octavia’s door as well.
The Vicereine stared. Paperweight’s answers may all have been correct, if Luna really had given those instructions, but the page lacked all deference. Nopony spoke to a vicereine like that, least of all a mere staffer. Why would Paperweight think she could get away with that?
Did Paperweight think that Puissance could be mistreated just because she was old?
Puissance bit back a fierce scowl, hunched her dress tighter around herself (resolving to yell at the castle custodian personally if that was what it took to deal with the inadequate heat), and promised that she would find some way to get revenge. It wouldn’t be easy, not with Luna still scrutinizing the Court, but perhaps once she looked up who Paperweight actually worked for and exchanged a few words with that noble, the page might find herself suitably chastened. Puissance nodded to herself, then turned—
And almost walked into Princess Luna.
“Vicereine,” said Luna warmly. “Good morning. How goes your special project?”
“Well, thank you,” Puissance managed. “My secretary has sent you my latest report.”
“Yes, I read it.” Luna tilted her head. “This Moondancer seems like a very interesting pony. Do you think she will be able to cast this spell you need on your own?”
Puissance took a breath. “If she can recreate Star Swirls’s spell, and if my Alicorn Armor works the way the legends say it does, all I would need is the four Golden Horseshoes to provide a magical source. The Horseshoes would emit magic, Moondancer would shape it, and the Armor would protect me from the backlash until I was…”
Like you, she thought but did not say. An immortal pony. A pony who could live and reign and rule for all time.
“I see.” Luna nodded. “And the Horseshoes? I confess, I have not seen them since the time of Mimic and I would love to look upon them once again.”
“I have sent agents out all over the world looking for them,” Puissance said. “Every story about a pony with a mysterious horseshoe is being investigated. If the Horseshoes still exist, I will find them. I was in fact just on my way to my estate in Califurlong to check on the status of my agents.”
“That is not the only thing you plan to do while there, I hope,” said Luna in a neutral tone. Puissance gave her a blank look, and the alicorn smiled. “Your weekly day with Flicker. I confess I did not see you write of it in your report.”
Puissance blushed. “I have been spending the time with him that you asked,” she insisted. “Last week we went to a Wonderbolts show.”
“I know you have,” said Luna. “I happened to observe his dreams, and he was very excited over how his ‘Granny Pu’ got him a Very Important Pony pass so he could be photographed with Spitfire and Soarin. But for the future, in case I do not have a chance to see his dreams, please do write of your excursions with him in your reports.” Her eyes twinkled. “That is all, Puissance. Have a pleasant trip back to Califurlong.”
Puissance watched the alicorn walk off, and she wondered once again what Luna’s angle was. Why did she care about her spending time with Flicker? Was this yet another hint that she should retire? A hint that Luna, too, felt that Puissance was old, ancient, three hoofs in the grave, unable to do anything but sit around and watch her great-grandcolt?
“I,” she murmured. “Have plenty of life in me yet.”
And she hurried off to her airship for the journey to Califurlong.
“That was so much fun!” said Scepter, bouncing from hoof to hoof as he followed Puissance out of the cooking lesson. “I love quesadillas! Cause you get to stick your hooves in the mixture and mix it all up really good!” He waved his hooves around for a moment. “And then when you eat it, it’s super cheesy!”
“Yes, dear,” said Puissance, smiling as the warm foal cuddled up against her before he hopped back to the edge of the sidewalk. “But please stop bouncing. It is undignified.”
“Aw, but I don’t wanna be dignified.” Scepter did cease hopping, however, and when he looked back at Puissance it was with a big grin. “Thank you so much for taking me to the grandmother-foal cooking class! And for eating the quesadilla I made you, even when I put in a little too much cheese.”
Puissance reached down and brushed a bit of salsa off of Scepter’s coat, wondering how he’d gotten it on his back of all places. “Of course. And if you want to continue learning to cook, I could find you a proper Prench tutor.”
“I don’t like Prench food,” said Scepter. “I like quesadillas and other fun food.”
“But…” Puissance began. “Scepter, dear, much is expected of ponies in our positions. We are permitted hobbies, of course, but only refined and elegant ones, and so if we choose to take up cooking then our food also must be elegant and refined. The sort of thing you could serve to visiting dignitaries. Beautiful dishes, carefully prepared, artfully plated…”
“I don’t care about having dignitaries over,” said Scepter. “I just wanted to eat it with you! And have fun making it with you too. What’s wrong with that?”
Puissance frowned, but before she could come up with an answer they reached her carriage, and she could hardly discipline her great-grandcolt with the driver listening in. So instead she listened to him chatter about how he had taken pictures of his quesadilla and planned to enter them in a photography contest. He was most of the way through his story when they reached the house of his father Banner, and he scampered out immediately. “See you next week, Granny Pu!”
Puissance waited until he had gone inside and sighed in contentment, feeling comfortably warm and unusually at peace. But then her driver asked, “Do you want me to take you to the new laboratory now, Vicereine?”
“Oh… oh, yes. Of course.” She nodded. “And hurry.”
It took about fifteen minutes for them to reach the Moondancer Laboratory and Research Center. “What is our status?” demanded Puissance as she entered. “Is everything set up?”
The laboratory administrator, a trained manager who had worked at Puissance’s various properties for decades, nodded and gestured around them with a hoof. The central room of the facility was a huge lab area with countless pieces of equipment lining the walls. There were genuine elkish runes, intricate devices crafted by Neighpon artisans, a massive cabinet full of every conceivable crystal, gemstone, and herb, and in the center of it all, a floor full of markings indicating where the leylines would need to go. Surrounding the central room were dozens of smaller facilities for refining individual ingredients or testing smaller experiments, as well as offices for the researcher herself and any staff or assistants she needed.
“Good. And Moondancer herself?”
“This facility is acceptable,” said Moondancer, trotting in from one of the side rooms with three clipboards floating near her head. She looked the same as before, except for the lab coat and goggles she was wearing. Quills scratched out equations on the clipboards thanks to Moondancer’s telekinesis, and over at one workbench, a big machine suddenly began to grind gems into some kind of shiny alchemical substance. “If you can provide a magical source such as the Horseshoes, I am confident in success.”
“The theory is absolutely sound?” Puissance prompted. “You are sure?”
“My equations for the de-aging spell are perfect,” said Moondancer primly. “I tested those back in college. Of course, I didn’t have the capacity to do more than turn a butterfly back into a caterpillar or a leaf back into a bud, but with more magic power, it’s guaranteed I could make somepony young again and keep them that way forever. And if your Armor does what you say it can, I am sure it will work perfectly as the shield portion of the spell. I should be set up to run my tests on it in two to three weeks.”
That was longer than Puissance would have liked, but she told herself it was fine. It wasn’t like she was dying the next day after all. “So all we need is the Horseshoes.”
“Yes.” Moondancer paused. “How do you plan on finding them?”
“Do not worry about that, Moondancer,” said Puissance. “I will handle it. Just make sure you are ready to cast your spell as soon as we have the needed materials.”
Moondancer nodded and returned to her work, by all appearances having totally forgotten about the Vicereine. Puissance herself went back to the carriage. “My estate. Now,” she said.
When Puissance got home she headed straight to her inner quarters, barely pausing to give her latest round of instructions to Perfect Precision and Precise Point before going to her private living room. Solar Flare was waiting for her and Puissance nodded at the mare. “Is there any news?”
Solar Flare gave Puissance an odd look. “Weren’t we going to discuss this earlier this morning?” she asked. “We’re a day behind.”
“I spent the day with my great-grandcolt, as per Princess Luna’s orders,” said Puissance. A slight smile came to her lips as she thought back to how happy Scepter had been when he’d finished the quesadillas and presented Puissance with the one he’d made for her. He still had to be trained, unquestionably, but he really was a good colt. “No matter. I am here now. Do you have any updates?”
The tall pegacorn seemed slightly put out, but she shook it off and swept a folder full of maps over the table. “Yes, Vicereine. We already have one probable location.”
“Really?” Puissance almost flew over to the maps. “Where?”
“Everlasting Peace,” said Solar Flare. “Red Rose’s religious tutor. According to the ponies we have going through the various libraries, there have been rumors for centuries that the Peace sect survived despite its relative lack of warriors and resources because its leader had a magical artifact given to them by their prophet. A horseshoe.”
Puissance took a short breath. “Is it golden?”
“The legends say that the horseshoe, called the Horseshoe of Truth, is a dull color. That is likely why nopony thought it might be one of Mimic’s golden shoes. But I went back through Red Rose’s letters, and in one of them she mentions that the leaders of the Peace sect have an aphorism in which truth is said to be like gold. So when they refer to the Horseshoe of Truth…”
“…they might mean a Golden Horseshoe.” Puissance frowned. “But it could still be coincidence.”
Solar Flare shook her head. “I asked our factor in Naqah to visit Everlasting Peace and attempt to obtain the horseshoe. When our factor asked where it came from in the first place, he said their legends spoke of a pony who faded in and out of sight giving it to their prophet in payment for a debt. The prophet then gave it to the sect’s founder, Glorious Peace, as a sign that their sect was to be favored above others.”
Puissance could not help but recall the stories of Mimic which her mother had told her as a foal. They varied, but one thing was constant: Mimic faded away when not wearing all four of her Golden Horseshoes. Either the Peace sect had heard the same legends, which was unlikely since they otherwise had very little contact with Equestria, or… or the Horseshoe really had been given to them by Mimic herself.
“What does he want for it?” Puissance made herself ask.
Solar Flare sighed. “Everlasting Peace refused all of our offers. He said that the Horseshoe is the only thing which saved the sect during various religious conflicts. He could not give it up without something else that could protect his sect.”
“We could hire guards—“
“The factor offered this and was rebuffed. Peace does not want outsiders. He said unless we have an artifact of similar power and religious significance, he will not give us his Horseshoe.”
And if they had an artifact of similar power, they might not need the Horseshoe in the first place. Puissance settled back in her chair. “We will come up with something,” she said. “If nothing else, we can hire archmages to craft something for him. What of the other teams?”
“They have nothing yet, but they are searching in places all over the continent and a half-dozen spots beyond it.” Puissance smiled to herself as Solar Flare spoke; as far as she knew, the scope of this expedition far exceeded any other that had happened in recorded history. She had dozens of teams all over the world looking for Horseshoes that would soon be hers. “And besides—“
Then somepony rapped on the door. “Vicereine,” called Precise Point. “A foreign dignitary wishes to see you.”
Puissance normally loved the opportunity to talk with foreign dignitaries. She could impress them with her, and by implication her nation’s, wealth, resources, and elegance. But now she wanted nothing more than to slam the door in the newcomer’s face while discussing the Horseshoe hunt with Solar Flare. “Who is it?”
“I do not know, Vicereine.” Point sounded slightly troubled. “He is, um… a cow.”
Puissance froze. “A cow.”
“Yes. And he has with him two hundred other cows. Most seem to have trade goods, but about a fifth are armed.”
If this was an assassination attempt, it was the strangest one Puissance had heard of. “I will be right out,” she said, before turning to Solar Flare. “Cloak yourself and come with me.”
In minutes they were headed back to the front door, then outside it to the outer gate of the estate. As Point had promised, two hundred cows were gathered there in a neat formation. The leader was a gigantic bull whose face was cut with a few dashing scars and who had a thick, luxurious mustache. He was heavily armored in what looked like the Shouma style, and If Puissance recalled her Shouma calligraphy correctly, the insignia on that armor denoted the wearer as a warlord or possibly a king…
And Puissance knew who this was. “Lord Cow Cow,” she said slowly. “The cow who would be king.”
“Ah, I see my reputation precedes me,” said Cow. He swept off his helmet and bowed. “Vicereine Puissance. I am deeply honored to make your acquaintance.”
Puissance thought back to what she knew of Cow Cow and wished that Vicereine Wallflower, who was in charge of the Royal Diplomatic Corps, was on hoof to advise her. Shouma, she knew, was currently in the middle of a protracted civil war between the Empress Fu Ling and a variety of warlords who were carving out territories. Of those warlords, most had been defeated by each other or Fu Ling, but three prominent ones remained: Liu Bear, Swan Quan, and Cow Cow. The last was said to be the most driven of the three, as well as the most cruel, and countless enemies had laughed off the idea of a cow monarch before being trampled under the hooves of his ever-growing herd. Equestria of course maintained relations with all three warlords (though none so heavily as they did with Fu Ling) just in case one of them really did reunify Shouma under their domain, and Puissance herself had several trading missions all over Shouma, but relationships between ponies and the warlords were still rather distant. To Puissance’s knowledge this was the first time a Shouma warlord had visited Equestria itself.
In fact, if Puissance recalled her knowledge of Shouma's current events, while Cow’s position was somewhat stronger and more stable than Bear’s or Swan’s, it was by no means totally secure. So what could be so important that it would induce Cow to leave his territory, cross the sea, and visit Equestria himself despite Shouma’s unrest?
“No doubt.” Puissance told him. Then her eyes narrowed slightly as Cow straightened and caught her eye again. His gaze was challenging her and sizing her up, and if he feared her power he showed no sign of it. She went on: “I am equally honored. You have journeyed far from home to visit me.”
Cow waved a hoof. “Oh, the journey took some time, yes, but I am confident it will be worthwhile for both of us.”
“I am sure it will. May I know your purpose?”
Cow beamed. “Why, after arriving in your port I could scarcely neglect my responsibility to visit the local lord and offer my respects.”
Puissance’s eyes narrowed further. If she accepted that compliment, somepony might think she was agreeing that she, not Luna, was the ‘local lord’ with sovereign power. Cow himself might tell Luna that; she knew that he had used similar tricks to convince Fu Ling to execute his enemies back before his open rebellion. “Then I will convey your greetings to Princess Luna.”
“Of course, of course.” Cow’s eyes twinkled. “And as for my purpose in the trip, well, I wish to expand the commerce between our lands. As you can see I have brought a wide variety of trade goods. These are only a sample, of course; our ship’s holds have many more. Perhaps you will buy something? I am told you have exquisite collections. Or perhaps some of your ponies wish to receive lessons in martial arts from my elite soldiers?”
“Perhaps,” said Puissance, who did not miss the implication that he was prepared to fight if something went wrong. “I would be happy to see your stores for myself. And I will of course notify the local guards, as well as their commanders in Canterlot.”
“I will make my ships and soldiers available at your leisure,” said Cow. “And now…”
Puissance frowned. “Yes?”
Cocw’s eyes twinkled. “I do have one more objective, of a more private nature. It concerns a certain artifact of gold I understand you’re looking for.”
A lifetime of diplomacy enabled Puissance to hide her shock. She had a few agents looking at two different sites in Shouma where the Horseshoes were said to be buried, but none were in Cow Cow’s lands. Apparently his intelligence was better than Puissance had thought. “Of course,” she said. “Why don’t you send your troops back to your ships while we share a pot of tea?”
It took a few minutes for Puissance to lead Cow to a parlor, especially since he kept stopping to loudly admire the furnishings and fixtures. “When I’m Emperor,” he told her as Solar Flare prepared some tea with an herbal-scented bag that Cow provided, “I think I will build an estate just like this overlooking Brayjing. It is exquisite.”
“Thank you,” murmured Puissance. Solar Flare set the tea in front of her and her guest, and they both drank. “What did you have to tell me?” she then asked.
Cow glanced at Solar Flare pointedly.
“My servant is completely trustworthy,” said Puissance. “She would not be mine if she wasn’t.”
“Mmm.” Cow considered, then shrugged and withdrew a stack of pictures from somewhere within his heavy armor. “I believe you are looking for this?”
The images showed a Golden Horseshoe in the center of what looked like an ancient temple. The reliefs on the temple walls all depicted scenes Puissance recognized from the legends of Mimic, including her battles against various monsters and her alliance with some sort of naked bear named ‘Mee-gahn.’ “I may have an interest in such a thing,” said Puissance, working to control her excitement. “But…”
“But what?” Cow grinned sardonically. “Would your Princess object? I hear she has been cracking down on her nobles'... antics... recently.”
Cow’s knowledge of Equestrian domestic politics was far better than Puissance had hoped for. She would definitely have to notify Wallflower. “If you wish to trade that artifact for Equestrian recognition of your claims to the Shouma throne, I am afraid such a thing cannot be done by my fiat.” Perhaps there was a time when it could have been… a few words to Wallflower, a few bribes to the right ponies, talking to Luna in just the right way…but no more. Not after that ever-exasperating Trixie Lulamoon had screwed everything up.
But to Puissance’s surprise, Cow brushed that aside with a wave of his gigantic hoof. “Good,” he said. “I don’t want your recognition.”
“Really.” Puissance’s voice was flat. “You don’t wish for Equestria to support your bid?”
“No.” Cow drank a sip of tea, smiled, and said, “This is my favorite Neighponese blend. Neighpon truly is a country with remarkable resources. When I rule Shouma I will make it my first priority to annex them.” He drained the rest of his tea and said, “When everybeast looked at me years ago, they said I could not be a ruler, because a cow could never be king. None would dare say that now. But if I accepted your princess’s help, they would again say that a cow could never be king and just add that I had only won because Luna had put me in power. I will not have that said about me. I will conquer Shouma on my own merits and nocreature will be able to think different.”
Puissance had the distinct impression that Cow was one of the most dangerous guests she could possibly have invited into her house. “Then what do you want?”
“Very little, really. Just a pony.” Cow leaned back. “I believe my former secretary Yang Chew is in your domain, is he not?”
Yang Chew was a kirin, a very rare species of pony that was almost unheard of in Equestria. Puissance had found him in a Califurlong port and offered him a home in the Vault, a small ‘artist’s colony’ in which very unusual ponies lived off of Puissance’s resources. She got nothing in return but their love… well, that and the knowledge that she had in her domain, her ‘possession,’ rare and unique creatures ranging from a four-winged pegasus to pegasus-unicorn hybrids to one half-windigo foal. And, of course, one kirin.
But the Vault was top-secret. Except for Puissance, Solar Flare, and a few trusted workers who kept it supplied, the only ponies who knew of its existence were its inhabitants, and they never left it. How could Cow Cow possibly know what it was?
“Before we continue this conversation, I would like to know how you learned I had Yang Chew,” said Puissance slowly.
“Of course.” Cow leaned in. “You just told me.” Puissance’s eyes widened and Cow went on. “Come, Vicereine, please. You are well known as a collector of the strange and exotic; even back in Shouma we have heard of your tastes. And you run the province which, by virtue of having Equestria’s largest port, Yang Chew was most likely to turn up upon fleeing Shouma. Furthermore I know Yang well; he would have sought out rich and powerful ponies to hire him as their servant so he could have the chance to mock them while spending their money. It was a simple deduction that you and he had found each other. But thank you for verifying my deduction. I appreciate it.”
Puissance let out a breath. “Very well. Yes, I know where Yang Chew is. What do you want with him?”
“Why, I want him back.” Cow smiled, but there was no warmth in his eyes, and Puissance felt a cold little chill building in her chest. “Give him to me and I will have your Horseshoe sent on the next boat over.”
“And what,” Puissance asked in a low voice, “will you do with him once you have him?”
“Nothing more than he deserves.” And now the smile was gone from Cow’s face. “And nothing less.”
The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Puissance glanced at Solar Flare, who was rising as if to push off her cloak and do something, and subtly shook her head before continuing. “He told me he did nothing more than embarrass you by solving riddles more quickly than you could.”
“Ah, then he did not tell the truth.” Cow’s eyes narrowed. “He interfered in my succession plans.”
Cow waved for Solar Flare to refill his teacup. “As I’m sure you know, in Shouma, the eldest child is the presumptive heir. My eldest in a brilliant bull named Cow Pike, skilled in battle and known for his valor. But Yang Chew became friends with my third son, Cow Zam, a poet of minimal use in battle. Zam promised Yang a high position in his administration should he, instead of Pike, be named my heir.
“And so Chew took advantage of his position with me. I held strategy meetings with my generals in which I determined how we should proceed with crushing our enemies; then, to evaluate my sons, I posed the same questions to them that I had posed to my generals and saw how they answered. And for a time Zam gave the most brilliant answers. I thought him a genius; I considered replacing Cow Pike as my heir. But then I learned the truth. Yang, who attended my strategy meetings, was recording what we said and teaching Zam to respond with answers that would impress me.” Cow scowled. “He betrayed my trust. I cannot tolerate that.”
Puissance spread her hooves. “Yang Chew has fled your land. He lost everything he owned. Surely he has been punished enough.”
“No,” said Cow in a flat voice. “In battle, reputation is more important than a million infantry. If word gets out that I was humiliated by my secretary and let him get away with it, my bulls will think I am a joke. They will not follow me, or if they follow, they will not obey me when danger rears its head. When all hope seems lost and Fu Ling’s armies are attacking, will they hold the line for the sake of a bull who was shamed by some clever kirin? No… unless, of course, the bull gets revenge on the kirin and shows what happens to those who make him look foolish.”
Silence again filled the kitchen until Puissance said, in a slow voice, “I will not give you Yang Chew so that you may execute him.”
“Such a shame.” Cow shrugged and then sprang to his feet, twisted joy once again evident in his features. “Well, think it over. Perhaps you will change your mind. I anticipate remaining in Equestria for several months as we establish our trade connections and political alliances, so if… circumstances convince you otherwise… you need just deliver Yang Chew to my boats and I will handle the rest.”
Puissance bit back a retort at the obvious threat. Obviously Cow planned to hang around and be a problem until Puissance gave in. For some nobles, the unexpected expense of feeding two hundred large cows in a manner befitting the dignity with which Equestria treated foreign diplomats could drive them towards bankruptcy; Puissance didn’t have that concern, since her resources were unimaginably larger than Cow could comprehend, but there were other risks. What if Cow instigated diplomatic incidents with the goal of causing Luna to think Puissance was messing up their diplomacy with Shouma? If she fell out of favor with Luna, she could lose her portfolios. Her titles.
Her chance at immortality.
“I can show myself out,” said Cow Cow. “Until next time, Vicereine!” And then he was gone.
“Vicereine,” said Solar Flare at once. “What do you—“
“Yang Chew is mine,” Puissance growled, her mind going down a dark passageway. “I will not let him be hurt. Even if it were not evil, even if Luna would not throw me in Tartarus for doing so, I will never let Cow hurt him. I will never give any of them up, not for all eternity, I—“
She managed to regain control of herself and stopped ranting. “Cow’s offer is unacceptable,” she said in a more controlled voice. “We will find something else he wants.”
“What if there is nothing?” asked Solar Flare. “Moondancer needs all four Golden Horseshoes for her spell. If Cow has one of the Horseshoes and refuses to give it up, we will have no way to extend your life. You could…”
Puissance said nothing as Solar Flare trailed off. And she insisted to herself, once again, that she absolutely did not feel cold.