• Published 13th May 2014
  • 6,605 Views, 873 Comments

Tales From the Phoenix Empire - Chengar Qordath

A series of connected one-shots looking at an alternate Equestria where Celestia has been replaced by Sunbeam Sparkle, an efficient but amoral ruler.

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Study Buddies

I hate it when ponies waste my time.

“No, I don’t want to go to Moondancer’s birthday party.” I rolled my eyes at the crestfallen expressions on the faces of the three ponies in front of me. Really, what answer did they expect? “In case you weren’t aware, I am the Phoenix Empress’ personal student. That means I have far more important things to do with my time than go to somepony’s birthday party. I’m in the middle of revolutionizing teleportation theory—not that any of you would understand what I’m working on.”

“I was just asking.” The leader of the trio, who was presumably Moondancer herself, stepped forward. “If you don’t want to come to my party you can just say so. You don’t have to be mean about it.”

“I wasn’t being mean, I was just stating the facts.” I smirked at the three of them. “I do have more important things to do than your party, and I am studying advanced magic that’s way beyond what the three of you understand. Now, if you’d like me to start being mean then by all means, keep wasting my time and getting on my nerves. Otherwise, I’m going to go study.”

I started moving forward again, and the three of them wisely got out of my way. Though perhaps I was being a bit too nice in using the word ‘wise,’ because I heard one of them grumble under her breath, “No wonder she doesn’t have any friends.”

Normally I would’ve ignored that, but something about her tone got on my nerves. Not that I cared enough to actually stop, but I threw a response over my shoulder while I kept moving. “Where in the Empire did you get that idea that I want to have friends?”

Being Empress Sunbeam’s personal student is such a trial, sometimes. Not the actual student part of it, though. I like that. The idea that Her Imperial Majesty Sunbeam Sparkle, Empress of All Ponykind, the Eternal Flame, Guardian of Griffonia, and Defender of Zebrica would take time out of her schedule to train me in the ways of magic was extremely flattering. Even though she could only spare a few hours a week for me, the things I learned working with her were nothing less than incredible. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said Moondancer and her little friends wouldn’t understand any of my current projects—the Empress had taught me things the average pony didn’t even know existed.

Being the Empress’ personal student wasn’t a free ride though. The supreme ruler of most of the known world doesn’t take any random nopony off the streets to be her student. She only trains the best, and I was getting close to the end of my training. Not that I’d learned a fraction of everything she could teach me—I would probably have to be an immortal like her to actually learn all of it. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being a student though, and the Empress wouldn’t let me do that anyway. She was training me for a purpose. Whatever she had in mind, I planned to exceed her expectations.

From there ... ponies who serve the Empress well are justly rewarded for their efforts. I’d already planned on entering the Mage Corps once I finished my education, and with the Empress’ tutelage and favor I would probably make Archmagus within a few years. Maybe I could even manage it in time for the millennial celebration. That would give me a bit less than two years to pull it off, but I was good enough to make it happen. If I wasn’t, the Empress never would’ve picked me as her student.

That wasn’t going to happen unless I earned it, though. The Empress doesn’t let anypony just rest on their laurels. That’s why my work on teleportation theory was so important; it was my chance to prove that I deserved everything she’d done for me. This was my one chance to make a name for myself. If anything went wrong, that was it for me. I would just become a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris. I know a lot of ponies think I’m a bit full of myself, but the simple truth of it is that I am that good—but just saying that wouldn’t count for much. Anypony can say they’re good, but only a few ponies can back that up with facts. I don’t want anypony thinking I’ve got nothing but empty boasting.

That’s the hidden cost of being the Phoenix Empress’ student: to whom much is given, much will be expected. An ordinary student could just do something reasonably interesting for a graduation project. The Empress’ personal student needed to do something revolutionary. Anything less would be a failure.

Talking about it wasn’t going to make it happen, though. That was going to take study time. I nearly had my new long-range teleportation spell down, but nearly isn’t good enough. Teleportation spells are an exact science; if the spell formula is even a little bit off, you could end up killing yourself in very messy and unpleasant ways. After seeing what was left of the grapefruit I’d tried my first version of the spell on, I’d quickly ruled out casting the spell on myself until I was absolutely certain it would work.

So, that meant another trip to the secure section of the Queen Celestia Memorial Library, looking over all of my books to see if I’d accounted for every possible factor. Spending three hours reading just to possibly make a tiny adjustment to a single variable in a massive spell formula might not be the most glamorous work, but that’s how magic works. The results were what counted; if I could produce a stable long-range teleportation matrix with sustainable long-term energy requirements, nopony would care how many all-night study sessions I’d needed to pull it off.

The guards let me into the restricted section without any trouble; even if everypony important in Canterlot didn’t recognize me by sight, I was a regular visitor. The secure section of the library held all the books containing magic classified as a potential security risk. Advanced combat spells, books that skirted or even outright broke the Laws of Magic, and anything else that could cause problems if the general public had access to it. Normally only the Imperial Magi had access to all these books, but as the Empress’ personal apprentice I was a natural exception.

The secure section of the library itself wasn’t anything special. Aside from the guards at the front door to ward off any casual passers-by, and the fact that the librarian manning the front desk was a member of the Mage Corps, it was just like any other part of the library. There were bookshelves, desks, and all the usual fixtures. The only real difference was that I usually had the place to myself.

I trotted by the same bookshelves I’d passed hundreds of times before, picking up the books I needed with the ease of long-established habit. It would’ve been nice if I could just take the books back to my private quarters, but all of the advanced works about teleportation were in the library’s secure section. I suppose it made sense—teleportation magic could easily become a security risk in the wrong hooves. There were plenty of precautions in place to keep enemies of the state from teleporting into the palace, but the best way to keep that from happening was to make sure they didn’t know how to teleport in the first place. Besides, the last thing anypony wanted was a bunch of overeager apprentices reading teleportation spells, and then messing it up and getting themselves killed. When it’s for the good of the Empire, I can put up with a little inconvenience.

I settled into my usual spot in the corner. I was a regular enough guest in the secure section of the library that nopony complained about me leaving a few things behind. Obviously I wasn’t going to leave anything too important, but having plenty of paper, quills, and ink waiting for me was convenient. It saved me time worrying about mundane things, so I could focus on what was actually important.

After that, it was back to crunching the numbers. My last test had gone awry due to an unanticipated aetheric energy variance. Most likely, it was a side effect of my working environment; between the Empress and a certain extremely clumsy but powerful spellcaster, there was a lot of ambient magical energy in the palace. It wouldn’t be a problem most anywhere else in Equestria, but I didn’t want to leave potential weak spots in the spell matrix. Besides, I was pretty sure I could compensate for it by hardening the spell pattern against outside interference; the tricky part would be doing that without significantly increasing the power requirements. Sure, an Alpha-level unicorn like me could just juice up the spell a bit to deal with that kind of thing, but the whole point of this project was to make teleportation viable for ponies of average talent.

Thaumaturgic theory regarding self-displacement had been set in stone since before the advent of the empire, but up to now, each unicorn that mastered it had needed to follow their own special talent to create a conduit stable enough to take themselves from one place to another intact—a magus whose talents lay in fire, for example, would usually require a hearth, while one who specialized in light-based magic would more frequently than not use a mirror. Aside from the Empress, there were maybe only one or two ponies a generation with the skill, power, and intelligence to manage medium-less teleportation. Naturally, I'd managed it.

My new research had the potential to level the playing field, and make teleportation of oneself—and possibly more, depending on a host of factors that I would probably have to invent a new type of math just to reliably calculate—a comparative breeze. If it all worked out I would be able to build sustainable long-term teleportation circles that could take a pony between two fixed points in space with a relatively minor infusion of magical energy. In a hundred years, Equestria might be replacing its train stations with teleportation platforms.

Once I got to work on my project, I was so absorbed in my research that I didn’t even notice when she showed up. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I heard her voice. “Excuse me, are you done with A Magus' Guide to Managing the Minutia of Magica/Mass Manipulation? I just need to borrow it for a minute to check something.”

I glared up at the pony who dared to interrupt my research. Then glared twice as hard when I remembered who I was dealing with. Twilight Sparkle. The last thing I needed right now was to deal with the Empress’ other, less talented student. “Sorry, I’m using it. Maybe you should try Star Swirl’s Simple Solutions for Simpletons instead.”

Twilight responded with an irritated flick of one of her ears, but took a deep breath instead of snapping at me. “Can I just borrow a single book from you for five minutes, and not have to have a big fight over it? Please, Sunset Shimmer?”

I gave in, just so I wouldn’t have to put up with her pestering me for it every five minutes. “Fine, you can have it. But only because you asked so nicely.” I pushed the book over to her.

Twilight Sparkle let out a relieved sigh, her shoulders slumping “Thank you.” She used her magic to pick up the book, then turned her back on me and started walking for the opposite side of the library.

I suppose I could’ve just let her leave, but she’d broken my concentration and bothered me. She’d more than earned a parting shot, just to remind her of the pecking order. “If there's anything you don't understand, feel free to ask.”

Twilight paused, gritting her teeth and letting out a low grumble. When she answered, her voice was tight with barely concealed irritation. “I'll be fine, Sunset. Just leave me alone.”

I let out a chiding little tsk, as if she were a filly who was misbehaving. “And here I was offering to help the Empress' junior student. Really, you’re practically my apprentice—it’s my duty to look out for you.” I gave a haughty sniff. “You could be a little more grateful.”

“You’re not helping me,” Twilight grumbled, turning back around to face me. “You're just being irritating. Again.” Her eyes narrowed. “And don't pretend you're not doing it on purpose. You’re always throwing out some little barb or nasty comment in an effort to get under my skin.”

“Why, Twilight Sparkle!” I let out a gasp as if she’d said something horribly offensive, instead of just stating the blindingly obvious. “What would your mother think if she heard you were trying to start a fight with your betters?”

That got an angry snarl out of her. “I am not trying to start a fight, and you’re not better than me!” For a second I thought she might snap, but then she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. “I was only trying to do some research for one of my projects. Nothing more.”

“And I was just offering to help,” I shot right back. I would have gone through with it too, if only because it would’ve given me ample opportunity to remind her which one of us was smarter.

It’s a pity that, while she wasn’t as smart as me, Twilight was still smart enough to know what I had in mind. “Yeah, I'm sure you would just love to help me. Does that offer come with free condescension on the side, or is that just automatically assumed to be part of the package?”

That earned her a resigned shake of my head and a dramatic sigh. “Here I am, offering to help you purely out of the kindness of my heart, and you throw it back in my face.” I made eye contact with her, then smirked. “Don't think the Empress will expect less from you just because you're from her house. If anything, you’re under more pressure because of it.”

The Sparkles have always held a bit of an odd position in the Empire. On the one hoof, they were the Empress’ descendents from back when she’d been mortal, and they’ve never let anypony forget that. Thankfully, the Empress had largely done away with the idea that bloodline heredity actually meant anything. The Sparkles were still allowed to call themselves dukes and countesses and whatever, but the title carried no legal authority. If a pony wanted power in the Empire, they had to earn it.

The problem was, just because their bloodline and titles were meaningless didn’t mean everypony acted that way. While the Sparkles might not get any official favoritism, there were unofficial things. The Empress having her descendants over for a family dinner once every few months might not seem like a big deal, but a lot of ponies in Canterlot would sacrifice their firstborn to have regular private meetings with Her Imperial Majesty. Not to mention all the lesser officials who would offer a Sparkle extra opportunities in the hopes of currying the Empress’ favor.

The pampered little nag let out an angry grunt. “I worked very hard to earn my position as Her Imperial Majesty's student, thank-you-very-much. I study just as hard as you do—no, I study harder than you do, because I don’t waste any time being a petty bully.”

“Please.” I didn’t even dignify her obvious lies with a response. “You got into the Imperial Academy despite flunking the entrance exam, and then having a completely out-of-control wild magic surge. If you had any other name, you’d be lucky to find work as a street sweeper.”

That one finally got under her skin as she slammed a hoof down on the desk in front of me. “That isn’t true!” She shouted, earning her a condemning look from the librarian, which Twilight was far too angry to care about. “You take that back!”

I grinned at her, letting her know just how happy I was about finally getting to her. Which, naturally, only irritated her even more, thus further improving my good mood. “If it’s not true, then why are you acting like I touched a nerve?”

Twilight went silent for a bit, shooting an apologetic look at the librarian once she remembered herself. If not for the fact that she was a Sparkle and the Empress’ personal student, she probably would’ve gotten tossed out of the library for that outburst. “I’m angry because you're lying about me.”

“Oh really?” I offered an uncaring shrug. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, princess.”

That got an angry snort out of her, and soft guttural growl. “Why do you have to be such a nag all the time?” She walked up and jabbed me in the chest with a hoof. “No really, why? It’s like you just have to be as rude, nasty, and condescending as equinely possible every time you see me. I just don’t get what your problem is! Don’t tell me this is all about the stupid rivalry our families used to have centuries ago!”

“Of course not,” I snapped back, swatting her hoof away. “My problem is very simple. I don't like you. I’ve never liked you. I never will like you. And I don’t know why I’m wasting my time dealing with you.” I suited action to words, bringing up one of my books so it blocked my line of sight to Twilight Sparkle. The library instantly became a much more relaxing and pleasant place.

“Well the feeling’s mutual,” Twilight grumbled. Apparently that was the best she could manage as far as getting in the last word, so she turned around and stalked off to the other side the library.

Once I was sure she wasn’t going to bother me again, I got back to work on my teleportation project, going through my equation one variable at a time to make sure I’d accounted for everything. It was slow, tedious work, but that’s how it had to be done. Eventually, I would find some part of the formula I could tweak to get better results.

“Eventually being the key word in that sentence,” I groused to myself. I’d been working on this problem for a few days now, and I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. It was really starting to make my horn itch. The solution was obvious and simple, but every time I felt like I was getting close to it, it just slipped away. I really hate that feeling—I knew the answer. I was sure of it. But for some reason I just couldn’t quite go from ‘I’m sure I know this’ to ‘I know this.’ I think it would’ve been less frustrating if I just had no clue at all.

I was still stuck when Twilight Sparkle walked up to my desk again. “Here's your book back. And before you ask, no, I didn’t highlight the entire book, rip out any of the pages you need, or use a spell to translate it to some obscure language you don’t know.”

Amusing as it would have been to poke at her some more, I was too busy puzzling through my spell formula to bother with it. I could always go back to getting under her skin after I was done with my big project. “Thanks, just put it with the others.”

Twilight paused for a second, then slowly set the book down. Unfortunately, one of her many failings was far too much curiosity for her own good, and while she was putting my book up she looked at the other titles I’d picked out, reading each one aloud to herself. “Technical Tricks and Transitions Towards Traversing Teleportation, Making Matter Move More Materially, and Paranormal Phenomena and Porting Physics? What are you working on? A teleportation spell?”

“No, I just like surrounding myself with books on advanced teleportation theory for the ambiance it creates.” After giving that barb a bit to sink in, I decided to give her a straight answer just to spare myself from any more of her excessive curiosity or starting another pointless, time-consuming argument. “I’m developing sustainable long-range teleportation matrices between two fixed points in space.”

“Really?” To my intense irritation, instead of walking away and leaving me alone she leaned over and took a look at my notes. “Oooh, having trouble filtering out ambient magical energy in high-saturation areas? That would be a problem if you want to have a spell you can show the Empress. Have you considered the—” She must have finally picked up on the fact that I didn’t want her around, because she stopped talking. “Um, nevermind. I'll leave you to it.”

Instead of leaving like a normal pony, she just kept standing right next to me, bobbing up and down on her hooves like a schoolfilly who was waiting for the teacher to call on her. When she was still there after fifteen seconds, I decided to humor her so she would just go away. If nothing else, I could always just mock whatever stupid idea she offered. “What do you want?”

Twilight paused, one hoof scuffing along the floor, then quietly murmured. “Er, it’s just that, well, don't forget about Careful Conjure’s Conservation of Circular Causation theory.” She pointed to an area near the midway point of my spell formula. “You could probably tighten up these variables, if you need to squeeze out a bit more power.”

One of my ears flicked in annoyance. “Don’t be ridiculous, of course I didn't forget about...” I decided to have a look at what she pointing at, just to humor her. What I saw ... wasn’t important.

“I'm sure you just overlooked it.” Twilight shuffled a step back, a nervous little smile on her face. “I do that kind of thing all the time. Sometimes a pony just needs a fresh set of eyes, especially when you’re dealing with arcane formulae that long and complicated.”

I think she was worried I was going to rip her head off for pointing out my mistake. Not that a part of me didn’t find the idea viscerally appealing, but yelling at her wouldn’t change the fact that she was right. Making a big deal over the issue would just make me look like an idiot. “Right. Simple mistake. Would’ve caught it myself if I took a break and came back to it fresh.”

“Whenever I get stumped, I just take an evening off to spend time with my family.” Of course Twilight did. Her parents weren’t career magi in the service of the Empire, far away from Canterlot. Sure, her mother was still a magus, but stationed in Canterlot, and her father held a consulship. Hay, her brother was a colonel in the Phoenix Guard. Plus that brat of a little sister. Oh, and let’s not forget the Empress. She is a Sparkle after all...

While I was thinking over all that, Twilight had kept rambling on obliviously. “So you’re trying to set up some sort of long-term teleportation circles? Hmmm ... the teleportation platforms would likely need amber dust or some similar material added to their construction in order to prevent a critical loss of energy with multiple teleportation subjects.”

Rather than linger on old family matters, I got my mind back on task. “I was planning to go for a mix of amethyst, sapphire, emerald, topaz, garnet, and ruby.”

“Ah, tapping into the Rainbow Effect?” Twilight nodded along. “Of course, rainbows do have a lot of magical properties, and one of the things they’re commonly associated with is connections between two points. Not to mention the old mare’s tale about a rainbow bridge leading to—”

I held up a hoof to stop her from giving me a lecture. “I’m well aware of the magical properties of rainbows, Twilight. That’s why I’m using them in the first place.”

She responded with a sheepish smile and a faint blush. “Sorry, I’m used to talking to ponies who aren’t as knowledgeable as I am.” She paused and let a soft cough. “Anyway, if you wanted to get really fancy, you could use the gems to adapt the spell matrix so that it would draw upon outside power sources. Local ley lines would probably be your best bet. That way you could decrease the strain on the unicorn activating the platform—maybe even remove the need for one entirely, and just have a triggering device.”

“That would cut down on the power requirements,” I conceded, “but tapping into the ley lines would make it harder to filter out ambient magic, and I'm already having issues with that. We need less outside magic coming into the spell matrix, not more. Plus if we make the teleportation platforms dependent on ley lines we can’t set up a platform anywhere that doesn’t have them.”

“True,” Twilight admitted, “but every major city in the Empire has at least one ley line running through it. You might not be able to set up a circle in every single small town on the frontier, but at that point we’re talking about little villages where the expense of setting up a teleportation circle wouldn’t be worth it anyway.”

“That still leaves the problem of external energy contamination.” A second later the solution occurred to me. “Unless I could get the spell matrix to channel some of it the power it draws from the ley lines into passively hardening it. After all, the whole problem I was having with hardening the spell matrix was power requirements. A passive reinforcement would mean there would have to be a bit of downtime between jumps, but...” I took out a piece of scrap paper and jotted down some rough figures. “It looks like only a bit over a minute between jumps, right?”

Twilight took a sheet of paper and ran the numbers herself. “That’s what I’m getting too. It’s only a rough figure—obviously we’d need to do tests to get something precise. Still, needing a bit of downtime in between teleports isn’t a big issue when you’re covering distances it would take a pony days to walk, or hours on the train.”

I nodded along, not even trying to hide my excited grin. “It would probably take a couple minutes just to get the next group of ponies into position and make sure the platform's clear on the other end anyway. Not to mention the usual administrative issues and safety checks. Recharge time isn’t going to be much of an issue if it takes the platform less time to recharge than it would take to get everything else ready.”

Twilight smiled back at me, tapping against her chin thoughtfully. “The only potential issue I can think of is that if we have the spell matrix constantly gathering energy, we could get a buildup if the platforms go unused for too long. That’s small potatoes though. Just add in some eldritch capacitors to store any excess energy, and include a protocol to bleed off excess energy in a controlled manner if the capacitor is nearing its maximum capacity. Probably an emergency measure to ground it out too; we definitely want a bit of redundancy with something like this.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” I agreed with a satisfied nod.

“Right,” Twilight concluded. “I think that’s all the theoretical issues handled, at least.”

“Easily. Just a matter of testing and refining the design now.” I pulled out my quill and quickly wrote down everything we’d just discussed—the last thing I wanted was to forget any of this. After I finished putting everything down, I hesitated for a second, then added a note beneath all of that to give due credit to Twilight for the contents of the discussion.

Twilight was, unsurprisingly, looking at my notes while I did all of that. When she spotted the citation reminder, she shuffled uncomfortably on her hooves. “You don’t need to worry about that. We were just talking.”

“Relax, it’s not like I’m going to putting your name next to mine when I present my results to the Empress.” I glanced over to her and smirked, thought it felt a bit different from the usual smirks I sent her way. Hard to quantify what about it was different, especially since I couldn’t see my own face. It just felt different. “I’ll just mention you in a footnote.”

Twilight hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “That’s fair, I suppose.” She didn’t say anything else, but her smile slowly turned strained and awkward. “So ... I guess I'll leave you alone then?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I stared at her, suddenly feeling at a loss for words. Sniping at the stuck-up nag came naturally, but now we were on unfamiliar territory. It was kind of annoying, having her suddenly act all nice and helpful. I don’t like it when things suddenly stop making sense and working the way they always did in the past. “Er ... thanks?”

Twilight’s mouth opened and closed a couple times, and I took a bit of comfort from the fact that she was clearly as confused as I was. “Right, no problem.”

Huh. I’d just had a somewhat civil conversation with Twilight Sparkle. Actually, better than civil. She’d been helpful. I’m not sure I liked that; if nothing else, I needed to balance the scales. The last thing I wanted was to be in her debt. “There anything you're stuck on with what you're working on?” To be honest, if things went as well as they had when she was being a sounding board for my ideas, helping her might not be that terrible...

Twilight stared at me for a while, then slowly shook her head. “Nothing at the moment. I think I have a good grasp on my current projects. Speaking of which, I really need to be getting back to those instead of bothering you, don’t I?” She quickly turned around and trotted off, not even waiting for my answer.

So that’s how it was. She wanted to hold this thing over my head; save the little favor I owed her until she could get the maximum payoff from it. Fine. She could do that. I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else from Twilight Sparkle.

I had a meeting with Her Imperial Majesty the next day. We always met at least once a week to discuss my progress—it used to be more often than that, but she did have an empire to run, and I’ve mostly advanced to the point where I can learn on my own. Besides, she did have another student to take care of now—and a much less talented one too.

As usual, we were meeting in her private quarters. They’re not what you’d expect from the living area of a pony who rules most of the known world. If you listen to the talk on the streets, you’d expect everything to be made of solid platinum and covered in the rarest and most precious gems in Equestria. The truth was considerably more complex.

To begin with, there were two sections to the Empress’ private quarters. The first section was the part of her “private” quarters that wasn’t really private at all. There was a reception area, a dining room, and a few other locations suited to entertaining guests. This was all most ponies ever saw: a place where the Empress could honor various dignitaries and officials by allowing them into her private living area, without actually allowing them to intrude on her privacy. The area was nicely decorated, but in an understated way that lent a sort of timeless feel to it all—most of the walls were covered in tapestries depicting great moments in Imperial history, or portraits of prominent ponies. The Empress hardly needed to worry about keeping up with the latest Canterlot fashions, and trying to do so probably would have diminished her.

However, if the public reception area was modest for an empress, then the truly private rooms were downright spartan. That’s not to say that the Empress slept in a crude bed under a threadbare blanket or anything like that. All the furniture and other objects were of the highest craftsmareship, it was just that they were all very plainly made. I guess the best word to describe it would be utilitarian. Every single object in the room had a purpose, and was made to fulfill that purpose as effectively as possible. The few decorations in the room seemed to have a much more personal touch, including a rare portrait of the Empress in her mortal days, standing alongside her daughter. From the powerful preservation spells covering the painting, I suspected that it was not some fanciful artist’s imagining, but an authentic pre-Imperial painting.

The Empress herself met me in the dining area; as usual, our meeting took place over dinner. The meal itself was a relatively simple affair of bread and stew, likely to ensure that there would be no servants getting in our way and intruding on the private discussion.

Despite the fact that we had total privacy, and we’d been eating together for years now, I was still just a little nervous about meeting with the Empress. Even when we’re just eating stew together, it’s rather hard to forget that she’s the supreme ruler of the Equestrian Empire. Not to mention that my head only comes up to around chest level on her. At least I’d gotten a lot more comfortable with her over time; back when I’d first become her student, I would constantly worry that I was one mistake away from being dismissed and replaced.

Once we’d both settled in and gotten started on the meal, Empress Sunbeam asked her usual opening question. “How are your studies progressing?”

“Very well, Your Majesty.” I dipped a bit of bread into my stew. “I worked out a solution to the ambient energy contamination problem. It’ll require tying the portals to local ley lines, but that shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the places we’d want to set up a teleportation network are already sitting on top of a couple of ley lines anyway.” There was actually quite a bit of debate among scholars about why significant pony settlements were almost always on top of ley lines. It really boiled down to a variant on the old chicken-egg question: were ponies instinctively drawn towards ley lines when picking new places to settle, or did ley lines shift to pass through major population centers? Considering how inherently magical ponies were, both explanations were plausible, and nopony had gone to the trouble of building a major city as far away from any ley lines as possible to test the theories.

“Very good, Sunset.” I might not be a little filly anymore, but I’ll admit that I still felt a bit of a giddy thrill whenever the Empress praised me. I did have a bit of a filly-crush on the Empress when I was younger. Not really a romantic crush—more like I just really cared about her opinion and wanted her approval. I’d gotten over it once I grew up. Mostly. “I know you’ve been working on this for a long time, but it sounds like you’re almost done now. I’m looking forward to seeing the final result.”

“I have no intention of disappointing you, Your Majesty.” I took a moment to have another spoonful of stew before continuing. “I intend to make this new spell absolutely perfect.”

“I would expect nothing less, Sunset.” The Empress gave me an approving smile. “Your skill with magic has always been a credit to you. The greatest of your virtues, I would think.” I was riding a bit high after that compliment, and nearly missed her followup question. “How did you come up with that solution?”

For a moment, I was tempted to leave Twilight Sparkle out of it. There’s a big difference between mentioning her in a footnote of a hundred page report and discussing her contribution directly with the Empress. However, lying to the Empress, even by omission, is generally a very bad idea. She just knows things. For all I knew, she might only be asking me this question in the first place because she knew the answer, and wanted to see if I would tell the truth. So, I confessed. “It came up while Twilight Sparkle and I were bouncing a few ideas off of each other.”

“Oh really?” The Empress gave me a curious glance. “I was under the impression that the two of you had something of a rivalry. I take it you’re learning to work together now?”

“Not exactly.” Having one civil conversation with the nag didn’t mean we were suddenly friends. “More like we can get along a bit better as long as the conversation is strictly dealing with stuff like spell formulae and thaumaturgical design. Anything with enough objective facts to avoid the situation becoming messy.” The next words to come out of my mouth really took me by surprise. “It was actually almost kind of nice, in a weird sort of way. I mean, I might not like her very much, but at least when I was talking to her about what I was working on, I didn’t need to stop every minute to explain something she was too stupid to understand, the way I have to do when I work with anypony else.” I realized how that might sound, and hastily amended, “Well, anypony other than you, Your Majesty. It’s just that—”

“I’m a bit too busy running the Equestrian Empire to be available every time you would like somepony to talk things over with,” she finished for me, a knowing smile quirking at her lips. “I do wish I could spare more time for my students, but there’s always another trade dispute, monster problem, or some group of anarchists and cultists who’ve managed to slip past the Ministry of Heart and start stirring up trouble in the provinces.” Her Majesty let out a resigned sigh. “The burdens of leadership—there’s a limit to what I can afford to delegate to my consuls and praetors. Regardless, I’m glad you like having another pony who’s your intellectual equal.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d call Twilight my equal,” I objected, “I’d just say she’s not so far behind me that she’s completely incapable of keeping up.”

“Ah.” The Empress frowned at me, and I realized I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut. All that time poking at Twilight over using her family connection to the Empress, and I was still stupid enough to insult Twilight right in front of Her Majesty. I guess I’d gotten so used to denigrating Twilight’s capabilities that I didn’t even think about who I was speaking to before the words popped out of my mouth.

The Empress held her frown for several seconds, making sure I was well aware of her disapproval before she continued. “I had hoped that the two of you were finally maturing to the point where you could move past petty schoolfilly rivalries. I am disappointed to learn that this is not the case. I expected better of you. Much better.”

I flinched at that. I‘d been doing so well, and then one stupid comment not only burned away all the good will I’d earned with the Empress, but had put me in disfavor with her. “I’m sorry, Empress. I was just—”

The Empress cut me off before I could even get started. “I am not interested in excuses, Sunset. You have failed me. Personally.” I briefly considered crawling under the table, but it wouldn’t have done any good. “I had been considering taking action after I spoke with Twilight yesterday, and now I am decided on the matter. As of now, you will work alongside Twilight Sparkle as a full and equal partner on your teleportation project. You will treat her with the utmost respect, and give her full and equal credit for all of your discoveries.”

What? Working alongside Twilight would be bad enough, but I had to give her an equal share of the credit too? That wasn’t fair! I’d spent years working on this all by myself! Now, when I nearly had a working prototype, Twilight Sparkle got to come in and claim just as much credit as I was getting, even though she hadn’t put in any of the hard work? “Empress, I—”

Her Imperial Majesty’s eyes narrowed, and her tone turned distant, carrying the full authority of the supreme ruler of Equestria. “Was there some aspect of my instructions you failed to understand?”

The unspoken implication was plain enough—she wasn’t interested in hearing any carefully-worded objections to her ruling. The Empress doesn’t mind a little bit of healthy debate, but once she makes a ruling that’s the end of it. There was only one response to give. “No, Empress. I understand your wishes, and will do as you command.”

“I never doubted it.” An uncomfortable silence hung in the air for several seconds. “Now then, let’s finish our meal before we need a reheating spell.”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.” I dutifully went back to eating my soup, my mind furiously turning over what had just happened and trying to make sense of it. How could I have fallen so far out of favor on the basis of a single remark?

It wasn’t until I went back over exactly what the Empress said that I spotted the loose thread. The Empress said she’d spoken to Twilight yesterday. Probably right after we’d finished with our meeting in the library.

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. That nag must have gone running to the Empress as soon as I wasn’t looking, spinning up some fairy tale about how she’d done so much to help me with my project, and I was going to steal all of her ideas and not give her a lick of credit. That would be just like her, wouldn’t it? The Empress had probably asked about it to gauge my reaction, but Twilight had already poisoned her against me to the point where a single comment was enough to convince Her Majesty that I was guilty.

That did it. Stealing my personal project was going too far. That nag was going to pay!

I didn’t bother knocking on Twilight Sparkle’s door. It was locked, but it takes one hay of a door to stop a righteously pissed off Alpha-level unicorn. Magically reinforced adamantine or mithril would take me a long time to get through, but the door to Twilight’s room in the palace was only made out of wood. The only magic on it was a basic privacy spell. I barely even needed to slow down while I ripped it to pieces.

Twilight Sparkle had been curled up with a book sitting by the fireplace when I barged in, but she hastily scrambled to her hooves at my entrance. I wasted no time giving her a piece of my mind. “You complete and utter nag!”

She stared at me, her jaw hanging open in shock. After a couple seconds of just staring at me like an idiot, she finally snapped to her senses. “Sunset! What the hay are you doing!?”

I stalked into the room, glaring at her. If not for the fact that we were in the Empress’ palace, I might have started setting things on fire. It would’ve been the least Twilight deserved. “You know, for a second there I almost bought your whole 'I'm naive and socially awkward and innocent' act!” I walked up and jabbed her in the chest. “But then you go to the Empress behind my back and steal my project!” I poked her in the chest again, this time hard enough to send her staggering half a step back. “What, was it too hard to do your own original research? Or were you just too stupid?”

“What?” Twilight tried to back away from me, but I followed her every step of the way. “What in the world are you talking about Sunset? Have you gone completely insane?”

“Oh please.” I snarled and tossed aside a couch she tried to put between herself and me. “I bet the instant we finished talking in the library, you went running to the Empress to leverage the fact that you're from her house. Did you think that just because you’re a Sparkle, I’d let you get away with it?”

“I didn’t do anything like that!” Twilight stopped backing away from me and stood her ground, glaring right back at me. “I’ll have you know I'm doing more than fine with my own projects! I don't need to steal anything from you to make myself look good, especially not a project you can't even finish on your own!”

“I was doing just fine by myself, until you stuck your nose in!” My eyes fell on a writing desk full of notes. “Have you ever actually done any of your own work? I bet every single paper you ever turned in was plagiarized. After all, everypony knows that the only reason the Empress picked you as a student was nepotism.”

“That’s not true, and you know it!” Twilight stomped over to me, trembling in anger. “I’ve never stolen anypony’s ideas or work! Ever! What the hay gives you the right to break down my door and start throwing out crazy accusations without a lick of evidence to back it up?”

“Well somepony’s feeling awfully defensive,” I observed.

“Of course I’m feeling defensive!” Twilight snapped. “You broke into my room and started accusing me of things! Get out!”

“Why, do you have something to hide? Or maybe you’re just suffering from a guilty conscience.” I trotted over to Twilight’s desk, and started looking over her notes. “I might as well have a look and find out who else you're stealing from now.”

“Hey!” Twilight tried to snatch the notes away, but I countered her telekinesis with my own. “Let go! Those are my notes, and you can’t have them!”

“What’s the matter?” I sneered. “Are you afraid I'll find some incriminating evidence?”

“You’re not going to find any incriminating evidence, because I haven’t done anything wrong!” Since magic didn’t seem to be working, she tried to grab the papers with her hooves instead. I didn’t let her get close. “You're probably just going to set it on fire and ruin all of my hard work—or you’re just trying to steal my research for yourself!”

“Set your notes on fire?” I wasn’t stupid enough to start a fire in the Imperial Palace, but I could certainly use the threat to goad her a bit. “Tempting. Very tempting. Thanks for the suggestion. You stole three years of research from me. Turnabout is fair play.” I shot out a few sparks from my horn, just to make her sweat.

Twilight flinched, but when once it was clear no fires were going to start just yet she scowled at me. “Don't you dare. I’ve put up with your bad attitude, but if you think I’m going to let you push me around like a schoolyard bully...”

“Again with giving me ideas.” I planted my hooves on her chest and shoved her back. She staggered, but quickly recovered her balance and unleashed an absolutely furious glare. “Oooh, you don’t like that, do you? Well what are you gonna do to stop me, princess?”

She let out a low growl, her shoulders trembling with barely suppressed fury. “Don't push me, Sunset! You can't just break down my door and accuse me of things I didn't do! When the Empress finds out about this...”

“When the Empress finds out...” I mockingly repeated. “Is that all you can do? I bet you don’t have the first clue about how to handle any problem where you can't steal somepony else’s hard work or go crying to your family to back you up. You’re just a useless little bitch.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped in shock, then a second later she went absolutely livid. “You can’t talk to me like that!”

“I can talk to you any way I want.” I shot right back. “If you don’t like it, go cry to mommy. Apparently that’s the only thing you know how to do, princess.”

“That does it!” I was a little surprised when she stepped up and slapped me across the face, considering that was the traditional way of starting a magic duel. Not that I minded things escalating to a duel one bit. “I am beyond sick of putting up with your horseapples! You want to start a fight, Sunset? Fine! Despite what you think, I’m not trying to steal the credit for your work, but I am going to take full credit for kicking your plot!”

“You and what army?” Just to even things out, I slapped her back. “Sparring yard, ten minutes.”

“See you there,” Twilight shot back.

The two of us stomped over to the Imperial Academy’s sparring yard, in no mood for conversation or even the usual glaring at each other. The sparring yard was one of the few places in Equestria where I could pound on Twilight without needing to worry about burning her to a crisp. The yard itself was a fairly simple place; a large outdoor field with individual sparring areas marked off in the grass. It was the spells that mattered, not the facilities. The safety spells covering the sparring yard had been put in place by the Academy’s founders, and had been continuously updated and reinforced in the centuries since then. An instant before a lethal or severely injuring spell made contact with a pony, the wards would nullify the spell and declare a winner. That way, we could duel at full power.

Twilight and I picked one the unoccupied sparring zones and stalked to opposite ends of it. The other students using the yard wisely withdrew to a safe distance. “Ready? This is your last chance to go crying to mommy for help before I start teaching you a lesson.”

“I’m more than ready to kick your sorry flank,” Twilight snapped back, taking up a ready stance.

“Never gonna happen.” I smirked at her, and readied myself. “I said I was going to teach you a lesson, and class is in session ... now!” I opened the duel with a simple fireball. Nothing big or fancy; I wanted to get a better idea of what she could do before I went on the offensive. Right now I was still just taking her measure.

Twilight went with the obvious counter, and a blast of water hit my fire halfway across the field. Clearly neither of us wanted to tip our hooves too quickly. When the spells hit each other it produced a massive cloud of steam, which Twilight used a wind spell to send towards me. The steam would’ve cooled off by the time it reached me, but the last thing I needed was a steam cloud obscuring my vision. Thankfully, I had an easy way to stop it.

A lot of ponies think that fire magic is all about creating fire, but anypony who has heard of Snowflame’s theorem on the conservation of energy can tell you that just creating energy from nothing is impossible. Fire magic is all about redirecting and concentrating existing heat. In laypony’s terms, I take a little bit of heat from everything within five feet of me, and concentrate all that heat into a tiny little area. Most ponies would never think to apply this particular skill in any ways beyond the obvious, but I hadn’t become the Empress’ student by only being as smart as most ponies.

I leached away the heat from the approaching steam, converting it back into water while providing myself with more than enough fire to toss a couple more blasts Twilight’s way. This time Twilight tore up a chunk of grassy earth and used it to block my fire instead of just trying water again. No surprise she was trying a variety a different defenses; her biggest strength and weakness was that she had a very broad magical education, while mine was more focused on spells that tied back to my special talent for fire. Did she think showing off how many different types of spells she could do would impress me?

After my fireballs exploded harmlessly against the chunk of dirt, Twilight followed up with a darkness spell, completely extinguishing all light within the sparring area. Unsurprisingly, she immediately followed it up casting a spell on herself to let her see in the dark. Even if I couldn’t see her at the moment, I could still detect her spellcasting.

I was already starting to get a sense for how Twilight Sparkle fought, or at least how she was going to fight against me. Both her offensive spells had been intended to change the battlefield to favor her, rather than directly attacking me. Not a bad way to fight, but not exactly my cup of tea. Then again, fire’s not the most subtle of weapons; it’s a wonderfully effective tool for pure destruction, but about all it can really do to change the nature of a battle is set the battlefield on fire.

As far as I was concerned, all her subtle work to prepare the battlefield wouldn’t count for anything as long as I could negate her tricks and just pound on her with offensive magic. Arranging perfect terrain wouldn’t give her a win if I set her mane on fire before she was done. Besides, I had ways to counter her tricks.

Take this darkness spell. I imagined she’d been hoping I would do something stupid, like start creating fires to get enough light to see by, thus making me stand out in the pitch black. Instead, I broke out a simple spell to let me see into the infrared spectrum. When one’s special talent is heat manipulation, being able to actually see heat sources is useful, even before considering the fact that it let me see in total darkness.

It wasn’t exactly hard to spot the unicorn-shaped heat signature scrambling into a flanking position. I tossed a quick magic blast her way, drawing a startled yelp from the mare. Sadly, I’d only winged her; my aim wasn’t as good when I wasn’t using my heat-related spells. Sadly, fire was out for the moment—the last thing I needed was a spell that could hide Twilight’s heat signature. Unfortunately, Twilight managed to either identify my spell or make an educated guess, but either way her body heat started dropping, while the ground warmed up.

She was trying to siphon her body heat into the ground to hide her position. Adorable. Too bad I knew that trick way better than she did. I took all the heat she’d been redirecting into the ground, and threw it out towards her last position in a broad arc. It was a gamble, but I suspected Twilight intended to stand her ground for a bit, since last time she’d tried flanking me.

The gamble paid off, as my cone of heat rippled over an orb of cold air. Very cold air, in fact. From the looks of things, Twilight had set up her own miniature snowglobe. A very impressive one too; without getting into a bunch of complicated thermodynamics, let’s just say that it took her a lot less energy to maintain her ice shield than it would have taken me to crack.

However, she’d made one big mistake, and it was going to cost her. A lot of ponies think of hot and cold as some sort of cosmological opposites. The truth is quite the opposite; on a scale that ranges from absolute zero to the temperatures found at the heart of the sun, what ordinary ponies consider hot and cold are practically sitting on top of each other. Compared to pulling enough heat together for an exploding fireball that could melt metal, the amount of heat manipulation needed to make a single pony-sized sphere fifty degrees cooler was child’s play.

Shortly afterwards, I heard the sound of a unicorn teleporting, and there was a pony-shaped void in the local ground heat about fifteen feet to my left. I really had gotten a good start on freezing her. Given that I’d just frozen her, it was only polite to give back the heat I’d leeched away. In the form of a fireball, of course.

There was a yelp and the darkness spell dropped. I hadn’t landed a solid enough hit on Twilight to end the duel yet, but a chunk of her tail had been burned off and there were a few icicles hanging from her mane. “Looks like that’s first blood to me. Well, metaphorically speaking.”

I was a bit too busy reveling in my victory to notice the ominous rumbling overhead, or the fact that despite the fact that I’d gotten a few good spells in Twilight was grinning. It wasn’t until my mane started standing on end that I realized I was in danger, and by then it was almost too late.

The Empress once told me that lightning could be seen as just another form of fire. Something about how heat and electricity are closely related forces, so if a pony can control one, the other isn’t so hard. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite figured out how that worked. A lot of magic is purely mental—the Empress had come up with a way to relate lightning and fire, so she could use lightning a lot more easily. I hadn’t managed that, so I couldn’t manipulate electricity in any way other than the brute force approach. Considering Twilight had more raw magical power than me, trying to out-muscle her was an exercise in futility.

I threw up an ice shield to try and block the lightning strike, but it wasn’t enough. I managed to block enough of it to count as beaten according the safety spells, but what got through still made every single joint in my body start aching, not to mention making every bit of hair on my body stand on end.

Twilight Sparkle grinned triumphantly. “You’d think a pony who knows about fire would be familiar with what happens when you mix a lot of hot and cold air. Then again, from what I’ve seen of your spell repertoire, you don’t have anything beyond ‘hit it with fire’ and ‘hit it with ice.’”

I started slowly circling the sparring yard, with Twilight matching my movements. I wasn’t optimistic about finding any advantageous terrain or positioning in the middle of a perfectly flat sparring area, but I was mainly walking to work out the muscle kinks and soreness that the near-miss lightning strike had left behind. “Well, it looks like you aren't completely hopeless. This might actually be a challenge for a couple seconds.”

“Oh, I'm just getting started.” Twilight’s eyes scanned the battlefield, probably trying to come up with another trick to throw my way. I admit, using the darkness spell to cover for gathering all the energy she needed for that lightning blast, and using the effects of my own magic to help fuel it, had been a smart move. “I’ve got dozens of spells left. All you can do is throw energy around like a common thug!”

“I haven't shown you anything more than entry-level cantrips!” I snapped at the nag. “Once I start going all out, there’s not gonna be enough of you left to beg for mercy!”

Twilight glowered at me. “Fine, you want to move onto the more advanced stuff?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” I jumped straight into the offensive, but this time with a new twist to it. Instead of just hitting her with isolated fire attacks, I gathered up heat for my fire attacks in tight clusters, producing pockets of intense cold in the process. Then I sent both fire and ice flying at Twilight. To the uneducated, it might look like I was just throwing energy out wildly, but getting the pattern of fire and ice just right took a lot of timing, focus, and precision. It was worth the effort though; I had effectively doubled my casting speed while getting two spells for the price of one.

Twilight tried to block my assault with a bubble-shaped shield, but before long it was straining and showing visible cracks. I liked the way her eyes widened in surprise and perhaps a tiny bit of fear when she realized I was overpowering her. With her raw magical power, she probably wasn’t used to anypony other than the Empress being able to smash through her defenses. She might have more raw power than I did, but I was attacking with doubled energy efficiency, and while she had an edge on me she didn’t have twice as magical muscle as I did.

I smiled when she let out a frustrated yell, then teleported to try and get away from me. It only took me a second to find her again and get back into my offensive flow, but that gave her enough time to try a counter-attack. My own shadow suddenly came to life and tried to grapple me—if I’d been half a second slower it would’ve been a big problem, but now that I was back in the zone it wasn’t hard to just pull the ice portion of my offensive away and use it to create a defensive barrier around myself.

However, turning my ice to defense meant Twilight only had to block my fire. That bought her a bit more time to come up with something sneaky. Really, buying time was probably her best bet—my fire and ice combo style might be wonderfully efficient in terms of magic, but it was mentally taxing. If I tried to keep it going for too long I would eventually lose focus, mess up the timing, or mess up in some other way. Getting the timing wrong or losing focus would kill my energy savings and faster casting time, and without those there was no point in using the style. Not to mention that the amount of concentration required to pull it off wasn’t doing my situational awareness any favors.

Still, as long as I could keep it up Twilight was in trouble. Once I’d finished fending off her animated shadow I was free to go back to a full offensive, and then she had to teleport away again before I could smash her shield. This time, she tried something new, and instead of one Twilight popping back into existence a dozen copies of her showed up.

Great. One Twilight Sparkle had been intolerable enough.

I wasn’t in the mood to try some subtle trick to sort out the real Twilight from the fake ones, so instead I sent out a low-power pulse of energy to cover our entire section of the sparring yard. One of the trickiest things about any sort of illusion work is making sure that the illusions react appropriately to all outside stimuli. Even an experienced illusion specialist would find it impossible to keep up a dozen illusions being attacked at once at once—a pony can only split their attention so many ways.

Rather than even try to compensate for my counterattack, Twilight just let the illusion drop. A second later the wave of energy crashed into another bubble-shaped shield covering Twilight. Or at least, I assumed that was what the bubble-shaped void in my field of fire was. The illusion fell a second later, and I saw Twilight within it, scratching away at the ground. A quick look down at her hooves revealed a summoning circle. I wasn’t close enough to have a good idea of what she was trying to summon but I was pretty sure she was calling up something larger and more dangerous than a breezie. That meant I didn’t want her finishing that summons.

Stopping her was going to take some doing, though. This time she had altered her magical shield to resist fire and ice. I could still break through it, especially since she seemed more focused on her summoning spell than the shield itself, but it would take a bit. Not long, but possibly long enough for her to finish calling up whatever she was summoning.

Thankfully, her modified magical shield had a weak point. It would still hold up fine against most forms of magical attack, but it was only good against magic. Most ponies would think that’s not a big weakness in a duel between two mages, but one of the lessons my parents had given me was that a magus should always have some skill at physical combat. It’s usually smarter to rely on magic, but there are some problems a pony can’t solve with spellwork. Plus, ponies getting into a fight with a magus always expected to be attacked with magic, so you could catch them completely off-guard if you threw a punch instead.

So that’s exactly what I did. I teleported right next to Twilight, and got to work introducing my hoof to her her face. I’d managed to catch her off guard, and the punch did a fine job of disrupting the spell she’d been working on.

Twilight reeled back from the unexpected punch, but quickly got her hooves back under herself, then shifted to a defensive stance, glaring at me indignantly. “Hey! You’re not allowed to do that! This is a magic duel!”

I answered her with a smirk. “Who says I’m not allowed to hit you? I don't recall agreeing to any rules about there being no physical contact.” My smirk widened as I spotted a trickle of blood coming from her lower lip. “I already got the metaphorical first blood, looks like now I got the real version of it too.”

She brought a hoof up to her mouth and carefully wiped it, her eyes narrowing when she saw her own blood on it. Then she unleashed a death glare that would’ve impressed anypony with low standards. “Fine. If that's how you want to play it, then that’s how we’ll play it. My brother’s in the Phoenix Guard, and I’ve read about a lot of martial arts.”

And then she headbutted me.

I would’ve made a snarky comment about how that was probably the best use she’d ever found for her head, but I was a little preoccupied by the pain. For the record, headbutts hurt. Especially this one, since her horn had caught on mine. That was probably a bit of blessing in disguise though, since the horn-to-horn contact hurt her as much as it did me. Channeling magic makes a unicorn’s horn a bit sensitive, and we’d both been channeling a lot of magic.

Twilight seemed to recover a bit faster, since she’d at least known the headbutt was coming. She brought up a forehoof to rub her forehead and along her horn, groaning in pain. “Owww ... Shiny wasn’t kidding when he warned me that a headbutt can hurt you as much as the other pony.” A second later she tried casting a spell on me, but it fizzled, and she went back to rubbing her horn and wincing.

I didn’t even try to do any casting myself—we were both going to need a bit to recover after the mutual horn-smack. Since magic was out, I just tackled her instead. I didn’t really have much of a plan beyond knocking her over, then sitting on her chest and punching her in the face until the sparring yard’s safety spells decided to put a stop to it.

I got her down on the ground and put a few good hits in, but then she managed to work a hoof into my mane and yanked on it hard enough to wrench my head to the side. Since any pretense of this being a battle between two gentlemares had clearly gone out the window, I answered by chomping down on the offending limb. I didn’t let go until Twilight sliced open my cheek with her horn.

Things degenerated from that point on.

I’m not sure how long we spent just pounding on each other, but it was a pretty long stretch of time. Even once we got our magic back, we mostly just used it for stuff like magically-infused punches and kicks, or teleporting on top of each other while we grappled.

By the end of it I was lying in the dirt: battered, bruised, bloodied, and feeling completely beaten down. Much as I wanted to keep pounding on the nag, I could barely even manage to speak. “Bu ... bu ... buck you, Sparkle.” I tried to throw another fire spell at her, but all that shot out of my horn was a weak spark that barely even singed her coat.

At least I could take solace in the fact that I’d given as good as I’d gotten. Twilight was down in the dirt with me, and she certainly looked every bit as banged up as I felt, plus there were a couple patches of missing fur from her coat on account of some fire-infused punching. There were a few patches of ice on her too, but those would go away soon enough. Unfortunately, she was still conscious. “J... Jump in-into... a f-fire, Sunset.” She tried to fire off a spell but didn’t manage any better than I had.

I slowly rolled onto my side, mostly so I wouldn’t have to look at the nag anymore. That’s when I realized we’d picked up an audience. Mostly it was just students from the Imperial Academy; we were in a public sparring yard, after all. However, what was really important was that the audience wasn’t even looking at the two of us. Or at least, they weren’t anymore. They were too busy bowing.

Empress Sunbeam Sparkle stepped up to the two of us, looking down with an unreadable expression on her face. “Under the circumstances, I will forgive you for not rising.” She looked over the two of us, quickly taking stock of all the damage we’d inflicted on each other. Judging by the lack of healing spells, the sparring yard’s wards had done their job. Once she was done with her inspection, the Empress let out a disapproving sniff. “If you two are quite done, I think it's time we had a talk.”

I was grateful that having the Empress drag us to her quarters by our ears would’ve been beneath the dignity of her position. Following behind her like a filly who’d been caught raiding the cookie jar was bad enough, but at least I got to keep a tiny bit of my pride. It was a pretty safe bet that ponies would be gossiping for weeks about the fight I’d had with Twilight—any slim hope there might have been about keeping it quiet went out the window once the Empress hauled us through the palace. I wouldn’t even be surprised if that was the first stage of our punishment; dealing with the humiliation of having all of Canterlot know what we’d been up to.

I was briefly grateful that my parents were away on magus business. With any luck, they wouldn’t be back until after the gossip had died down. Then again, they had effectively given me over to the Empress’ care once I became her student; Her Majesty certainly wouldn’t hesitate to levy whatever punishment she felt was appropriate.

Once we’d arrived at her private quarters, she mounted the smaller throne she used for less formal occasions, glowering down at the both of us from it. Normally she never bothered with the throne when we were in private, but obviously she was making a point. When she spoke, the sheer weight of her words pressed down on my shoulders. It’s hard to explain exactly what the effect was—maybe it was an alicorn magic trick, or maybe she just knew how to project power and authority. Whatever the case, any thoughts of doing other than obeying fled my mind.

“Explain,” the Empress commanded.

I hastily averted my eyes from Her Majesty—if I’d kept looking, I might have started blubbering out apologies right then and there. Instead, I glowered at Twilight Sparkle. This whole mess was her fault, after all. “She stole my work!” I levelled a hoof at her. “When I confronted her, she refused to confess, and matters escalated from there.”

Twilight glared right back at me. “I did not steal any of your work, I wouldn’t want it anyway!” She pointed at me accusingly. “She busted down my door like a madmare, and started ranting and raving about how I had plagiarized all my work!”

“The fight was all her fault!” I countered. “She challenged me to a duel!”

“It’s not like anypony forced you to accept my challenge!” Twilight snapped right back. “Besides, you came barging into my room accusing me of being a thief and a plagiarist! I have a right to defend my honor! Hay, I bet you were accusing me of all those crazy things just so I would challenge you, and you could blame me for starting the fight!”

“Oh yeah! Well you—”

“Enough.” The Empress didn’t raise her voice, but the sheer authority in it was more than enough to cow myself and Twilight into submission. Her Majesty scowled down at us for long enough to communicate her displeasure, then rubbed her temple. “I swear, I’m getting too old for these horseapples.” She looked the two of us over, then sighed, “Very well, let’s settle this. Explanations, one at a time. You first, Twilight. Tell me exactly what happened.”

Twilight took a couple breaths, presumably trying to get her story straight. “I was just reading and minding my own business in my room, when this madmare broke down my door and started screaming at me like a lunatic.” She glared at me. “It was a little hard to make out what she was ranting about, but she accused me of plagiarizing her, and made up some story about how I had gone to you and taken credit for all her work. Then she started getting really aggressive, and threatened to set all of my papers on fire, and said the only reason I was your student was because of family ties. By that point I was beyond sick of it, so I challenged her to a duel to make her stop.”

The Empress nodded, then turned to me. “Sunset? Is what she said true?”

“Aside from the obvious bias about me being crazy and evil, she got most of the facts right.” I glowered at Twilight, and it was a struggle to keep my voice reasonably calm and even. “What she didn’t mention was that I spent three years on my teleportation project. Three years! And now Twilight's trying to get equal credit because she spent five minutes talking to me about it! Maybe I lost my temper with her, but she deserved everything I did to her, and more!”

“I am not trying to steal credit for your work!” She shouted back at me. “That's a lie, and you know it!”

“It is not a lie!” I yelled right back at her. “The Empress told me that herself!”

Twilight blinked and took a half-step back. “What? That doesn't make any sense.” Her confusion quickly faded, replaced by more anger. “I knew you were an evil nag, but I never thought you were a stupid evil nag! You could at least make up a lie that has some kind of logic to it. Why would the Empress do something like what you’re claiming? It’s completely illogical. I don’t deserve equal credit on your personal project because of a single conversation.”

“Exactly!” I took a step towards her, snarling. “You don’t deserve any of the credit for my hard work, and if you think I’m gonna let you get away with stealing it...”

The Empress’ voice snapped out like a whip crack. “Enough, children.” Twilight and I had both been squaring our shoulders and coming up with fresh insults, but the Empress’ voice killed any thought of that. “Twice, I have asked you to explain the situation in a calm and reasonable manner. Twice, you have failed to do as I requested. I do not like it when my students fail to obey my wishes. I advise you not to do so again.” She gave that warning enough time to sink in, then continued. “As for your current argument, I told Sunset that I wanted the two of you to work together. I had hoped it would put an end to your petty feud. Instead, I find you brawling in the streets like hooligans.”

Twilight very unwisely responded to her. “Well, technically we were sparring on a legal mage dueling ground, not brawling in the...” she slowly trailed off as her brain caught up with her mouth, and informed her that she was sassing the ruler of the Equestrian Empire. “Um, never mind.” Her voice came out as a small, terrified squeak.

Her Imperial Majesty said nothing, but her eyes narrowed and her attention was focused on Twilight. Words would have been superfluous; everypony in the room could feel the weight of Empress Sunbeam’s disapproval. Twilight slowly shrank down under the weight of her ancestor’s disapproval, until she looked like she wanted nothing more than crawl under the carpets.

That was when I made a very big mistake. I smirked at her predicament.

The Empress immediately turned on me, and I felt the same crushing weight of displeasure that had been turned upon my rival. “And you. Please, explain the logic of attacking your fellow student, after I instructed you to work with her. Given the choice between a calm and rational discussion of your intellectual property rights and provoking a fight that served no purpose other than to satisfy your bruised ego, why did the latter seem like the wiser course?”

Well, there was a rather loaded and terrifying question. I quickly scrambled to come up with reasonable answer. “Well, she pissed me off and...” I didn’t even need to look at the Empress to realize how completely inadequate that excuse sounded.

Twilight, for once seeming to possess an ounce of intelligence and common sense, wisely remained silent. It seemed to work quite well for keeping the Empress from noticing her.

The Empress looked down at me, then slowly shook her head. “I expected better from you, Sunset. Much better. Does all that I taught you have so little meaning that you would casually discard it simply because you’re in a bad mood? Is my student nothing but a common bully and thug?”

I flinched down at that. Apparently, being alive for more than nine hundred years had given the Empress ample time to perfect the guilt trip. I tried to think of something I could say in my own defense, but every excuse I could think of just sounded completely inadequate.

To my surprise, Twilight spoke up. “Um, Empress, can I ask a question?” The Empress turned to her and nodded, prompting Twilight to continue. “Is what Sunset said true? Was I really going to be getting equal credit for her teleportation project?”

“I wanted you two working together as equal partners,” the Empress confirmed, briefly pausing to give me a pointed look. “It would rather defeat the purpose of making you two learn to work together if Sunset treated you as nothing more than a menial assistant.”

Twilight shot a brief look my way, probably thinking about exactly how unpleasant I could make her life if I ever had authority over her. I have to admit, I had a few ideas. However, when she responded to the Empress, she caught me by surprise. “Why that project, though? Sunset already put in the vast majority of the work needed to finish it. From what I saw of her notes, she’s already finished all the theoretical work, and is just tweaking the prototype circle. There’s not really all that much I could do to help her other than being a sounding board for ideas on any little changes she needs to make.” She shrank down slightly, but slowly stiffened her shoulders. “If Your Imperial Majesty doesn’t object, could I suggest a different idea? It’s not that I'm questioning how you want to do things or anything, but couldn't we just start a new project together? That way we’d both be doing an equal amount of work, and we’d both deserve equal credit.”

“Neither of you has the time for a new ongoing project,” Empress Sunbeam answered with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “At least, nothing on the scale of Sunset’s current work. I don’t intend to have you two be full-time students for the rest of your lives.”

That got my attention. There had been a couple times in the past when the Empress had hinted at having some sort of plans for me, but this was a bit more concrete than some vague comment about how she intended to put my magical talents to use. Judging by her declaration that Twilight and I didn’t have time for a new project, it sounded like whatever plans she was hatching for my post-education career would come to fruition in the next year or two. Whatever she had planned for me, it had to be big. The Empress of Equestria wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of personally educating me unless she had some kind of plan to make the investment worthwhile. I suspected she might announce it at the millennial Summer Sun Celebration; it would be the perfect event for that kind of thing.

Twilight seemed to be puzzling through the same line of thought, judging by the blank, thoughtful look on her face. “Oh. Well, if a new project won’t work, then why can't I just get the partial credit for what I did for Sunset's project? I wouldn’t want anything more than what I’ve earned, and with all the work she’s done there’s no way I could ever equal her contribution. Even if I did all the rest of the work on my own ... well, there’s just not that much left to do.”

The Empress raised an eyebrow at that. “Are you questioning my orders?”

Twilight immediately shrank down. “Of course not! I’m just ... um ... asking for clarification. Because the way I understand your orders doesn’t sound right, so obviously I must have misunderstood what you meant.”

A faint smile quirked at the Empress’ lips. “So you are questioning my orders, but you’re trying very hard to make it sound like you’re not because you’re afraid of offending me?” Twilight didn’t manage much of a response beyond a nervous squeak, and Her Majesty decided to have mercy on her. “Relax, Twilight. My pride isn’t so fragile that I fly into a rage whenever somepony disagrees with me.”

“Er, of course not, Your Majesty.” She let out a nervous chuckle. “I wasn’t trying to imply anything like that, I just wanted to make sure you understood that I was... erm ... actually, I think I should just be quiet now, before I start digging myself deeper.”

While Empress Sunbeam chuckled at Twilight, I stared at my fellow student, trying to make sense of what she’d just done. It just didn’t fit the Twilight Sparkle I’d thought I knew. That meant one of two things: either she was up to something, or I’d been wrong about her. Naturally, I assumed it was the former. I stepped closer to her, and voice dropped down to a suspicious whisper. “Alright, what are you trying to pull?”

Twilight frowned at me, and she actually sounded a little offended. “What’s your problem now? I’m trying to sort this mess out and help you, and you still—” She abruptly cut herself off, probably because she was worried the Empress might overhear us arguing.

“My problem is that it doesn’t make any sense.” I scowled at her. “You’ve got a perfect opportunity to take advantage of me and get most of the credit for my work. Why are you passing it up?”

Twilight looked at me for a bit, then sighed. “You know, despite our history, I don’t hate you. I hate how you're always so mean to me. I hate how we can’t spend five minutes in the same room without snapping at each other for no reason. I hate the way you seem to take every single accomplishment I have as a personal insult. And I hate the way this rivalry makes me feel like I’m a worse pony whenever I’m around you, because when you’re nasty to me it’s hard not to be just as nasty back. But despite all of that, I don’t hate you.”

I wasn’t sure whether to roll my eyes at her little speech, or go all the way up to vomiting in disgust. “Well aren’t you just a perfect saint? What, am I supposed to thank you for not hating me?”

Twilight shook her head. “It’s not about you, Sunset. It’s just that I can't really think of an instance where I've ever read about anypony being made happy with revenge. Hurting you wouldn’t make me happy, it’d just make me feel even worse; I already told you how much I hate feeling like a nasty, petty, vindictive pony. That’s why I told the Empress I don’t want credit for your project. You put three years into a project I put a few minutes into. I'm trying to get along in the world based on my own work, not that of others.” She paused, and her ears drooped a bit. “I ... I’ll admit, there’s a tiny, nasty part of me that likes the idea of stealing your work just to hurt you. But I’m not going to listen to that part of me, because doing that means betraying my own principles. Maybe you think it’s silly, but staying true to what I believe in matters a lot to me.”

I frowned at her, trying to work what everything she said meant, in relation to what she’d just pulled with the Empress. “So you’re saying that you care so much about your principles that you’ll stick up for a mare you don’t even like, even to the point of disagreeing with the Empress?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment, then very slowly nodded. “Um ... yeah, I guess I am. I have to be true to myself and what I believe in, right? If I want to tell myself that I believe in earning my own way and only taking credit when I deserve it, then I can’t throw that out the window just to get a bit of petty revenge. If I did that, my ideals wouldn’t really count for anything, would they?”

“Indeed not.” Both of us jumped in surprise at the Empress’ voice. We’d gotten so caught up in our side conversation that we’d practically forgotten she was there. Empress Sunbeam smiled at Twilight, offering an approving nod. “Your loyalty to your principles does you credit, Twilight. Sometimes, I find the greatest test is not whether one will be loyal to friends or family, but rather whether they can stay true to themselves.”

Twilight blinked at the praise, and a smile slowly crept across her face. “Thank you, Empress.”

For my part, I was still trying to work it all out. Maybe I was a bit closed-minded, but I’d gotten used to the idea that Twilight Sparkle was a spoiled, privileged, and all around worthless nag who coasted by on her family name. That she’d taken advantage of being a Sparkle to become the Empress’ student, while I’d had to earn the position by working my plot off.

However, it was starting to look like I’d been wrong about her. Her whole spiel about being loyal to what she believed in had been way too corny and unpolished to be some kind of rehearsed speech, so the only explanation I could see was that she believed every word of it. She really believed in earning her own way in life. To hay with coasting to success on her family name, she probably hated the idea that anypony would show favoritism towards her. It would make all her achievements seem cheap and fake. We had more in common than I ever would’ve suspected.

As soon as that thought popped into my head, I felt this really strange sensation. It’s hard to describe exactly what it was; the best parallel I can think of is kind of like when you’re working on a puzzle, and you finally find this one piece that just slides perfectly into place. It would be a couple years before I finally figured out what it meant.

For that moment I was focused on the problem in front of me. “I was wrong about you, Twilight.”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “Hm? Wrong how?”

“You're not what I thought you were,” I explained. I would’ve done a better job of telling her what I meant, but I was still wrapping my head around everything that had just happened.

Twilight cocked her head to the side, clearly puzzled. “What did you think I was? I'm just a student of the Empress like you.” She paused, and thought that over. “Granted, just being the personal protege of the ruler of an empire is a bit of a big deal, but...”

“I know what you mean.” It was a bit strange to realize how jaded we had become about regularly associating with the Empress. Sure, she could still be very intimidating when she really projected her royal authority, but for the most part I’d gotten used to being around her. I guess Twilight was the only pony who could really understand exactly how I felt about the Empress. Or a lot of things, come to think of it. We both knew all the frustrations that come with being the smartest pony in the room, having to talk down to everypony else around us. We both understood caring more about obscure aspects of magical theory than the latest juicy gossip circulating through the palace. Or how ponies were intimidated by our raw magical talent, and the fact that we were the Empress’ proteges.

I’ve never put much stock in friendship. From everything I’d seen it was usually just a distraction from the stuff that really mattered, like studying. Still, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that if there was anypony in Equestria who I could maybe one day be friends with, it was Twilight Sparkle. And because of that feeling, I did something I wasn’t used to. “Sorry about your door, and all the yelling and accusations and stuff.” I awkwardly shuffled on my hooves, trying to figure out what else I should say. “In hindsight, I could’ve handled that better.”

“You think?” Twilight grumbled under her breath. She closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths, and calmed down. “Right, apologies. Well, if you're really sorry for it, then I guess I can try to move past it.” She took another breath, then slowly nodded. “Right. Okay. Apology accepted then. And as long as we’re on the subject, could you please stop being so mean to me all the time?”

My eyes narrowed at the last bit. “Okay, I started things more often than you did, but it’s not like it was all one-sided.”

Twilight frowned at me, but after a couple seconds it faded into a sigh. “Okay, fine, so I snipped at you few times too. But I’ll try not to do it anymore, as long as you don’t act like a na—as long as you don’t act unpleasant.”

I was about to snap at her for the barely averted insult, but I broke from my normal habits once more and let it pass. This whole trying to get along thing we seemed to be starting was never going to work if we kept going after each other over every little thing. “I think we both made some mistakes that we’ll need to be careful not to repeat in the future.”

“Yeah, I guess I can agree to that,” Twilight conceded. “You apologized, I accepted it. I guess we can try and give each other another chance—I’m willing to try starting over if you are.”

“That sounds like a good place to start.” I rubbed my forehead, then tentatively extended a hoof to Twilight. “It's weird, but it feels right in a weird kinda way. Not fighting with you, I mean.”

“Yeah.” Twilight gave me a faintly confused look. “I think I know what you mean.”

Empress Sunbeam smiled at the both of us, then surprised us by stepping off the throne and wrapping each of us in a wing. Her Majesty normally isn’t the type to show that kind of affection, but I guess she wanted to reward us for burying the hatchet. Or at least, that’s what I thought at the time. I wouldn’t really understand why she was smiling until the day after the thousandth Summer Sun Celebration.