• Published 14th Feb 2017
  • 1,980 Views, 244 Comments

Sun and Hearth - bookplayer

Princess Celestia and Smart Cookie have watched Equestria rise. They share a dream that’s entwined their hearts for two thousand years, and a love that’s given them the strength to see it realized. Now they face the ultimate test of that love.

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6 - A Fine Kingdom

Cookie surveyed his tea service on the low table between the seats in the front room of his cottage.

The teapot was silver, about a hundred years old, and a bit tarnished around the filigree. He’d picked it up the first year of the Trader’s Exchange as a spare and broken his porcelain one the next day, so he considered it lucky. He’d never liked that porcelain set, anyway. The teakettle was recent and unassuming and very well made, both quick to heat and well-insulated. It was a Hearth’s Warming gift from Celestia, though obviously selected with the help of somepony who knew their way around the making of tea.

He had two matching teacups left from the old porcelain set, white with blue flowers, which allowed him to look moderately formal when a pony stopped by to visit. Unfortunately for Cookie, there would be four ponies this afternoon, which meant he had to pull out the best of his other cups—an old piece of pottery from a set he remembered using when visited by Hay Carts and a crystal cup he was fairly sure he got in the Crystal Empire before it fell to Sombra.

The cream pitcher was a small gray one he’d bought from a potter in Manehattan when it was just a small village. He didn’t have any particular affection for it, but it looked fine next to the sugar bowl, which was among his prized possessions. It was gray stone, worn polished, and had once served as a mortar in Clover’s laboratory. He was always a bit nervous about using it, but in nearly two thousand years nopony had been turned into a toad, though he knew Clover would have found it hilarious if they had.

Together, the collection looked a mess. But it would hold tea and fixings, which was the important thing; that, and the trays of food he had spent the past two days preparing. His grandmother always said that nopony ever left an earth pony home hungry, and he’d never disappointed the old mare in two thousand years.

A soft knock at the door announced that his guests had arrived, and he walked over and opened the door.

Celestia stood there, and in front of her were two smaller alicorns. Cookie recognized them from photographs and brief glimpses at public events, but he could have just as easily told them apart based on Celestia’s stories; Cadance stood with a relaxed grace that resembled Celestia herself, while Twilight Sparkle’s eyes darted about with an eager curiosity, taking in every detail of her surroundings.

“Hello and welcome, please come in.” He stepped back and offered a gesture with his foreleg.

The mares entered the large front room and Cadance glanced around, her face relaxing into a warm smile. Twilight Sparkle smiled as well, but hers remained energetic, and she looked around as if she was searching for something.

Celestia smirked at him. They’d agreed not to reveal his nature to the girls until later; both so they’d have a proper chance to explain and answer questions, and—Cookie suspected primarily in Celestia’s case—because it would be funny. If Celestia had been honest in her assessment of Twilight Sparkle it must have been driving the young alicorn mad wondering why Celestia requested that she make time to have tea with a baker in the middle of nowhere.

“Princess Twilight, Princess Cadance, this is Chocolate Chip,” Celestia announced.

“It’s very nice to meet you!” Twilight said, her focus landing on Cookie with that same darting curiosity. Cadance nodded her agreement and smiled fondly at Twilight.

Cookie smiled and ushered them over to the couch and sitting cushions. “It’s nice to meet you as well. Both of you.” He gestured to the tea and treats on the table. “Please, help yourself to some tea.”

“Thank you,” Cadance said with a smile, not missing a beat in pouring herself some tea and selecting a tea sandwich. Celestia did the same, giving Twilight a gentle nudge to distract her from examining the teacup she held in her magic for clues. Cookie smiled as he noticed that Twilight had selected the crystal one and wondered if she knew enough about marks of trade to begin to guess its age.

Twilight looked up with a slight start, then offered an embarrassed smile and set her tea cup gently on the table in front of her. “So, Chocolate Chip, Princess Celestia tells us you’re a baker?”

Cookie raised his eyebrows as he fixed his own tea. “I hope so, or you’re likely to have an unpleasant time with this food.”

Twilight eyed the trays. After a moment, she smiled at Cookie. “It looks very good.”

He nodded as he sat down. “Please, help yourself.”

“Oh.” She blinked, finally looking at the ponies around her with their full plates and teacups. With a grin and a blush on her cheeks, she used her magic to gather her food and drink. “Thank you.”

Cookie chuckled, and he could see the amusement in Celestia’s eyes. Cadance glanced at Twilight, then smiled pleasantly at Cookie. “You have a very nice house. It’s more open than I would have expected from a little cottage like this.”

“Thank you.” Cookie settled back on a sitting cushion. “I’ve found that open spaces are useful when you have alicorn guests to tea.”

“Do you have a lot of alicorn guests?” Twilight asked. She took a sip of tea but stared at Cookie, waiting for his response.

Cookie calmly took a bite of his sandwich and finished before answering, “Just Celestia, but I see her frequently.”

Twilight raised her eyebrows. “You mean Princess Celestia?”

Cookie returned the expression. “No, I mean Celestia. But I understand she does some princessing in her spare time.”

It appeared to Cookie that whatever power was required for the movement of Twilight’s body had been diverted; she sat frozen except for the blinking of her eyes, while the gears in her head were almost visibly turning.

Celestia nearly let out a laugh at Twilight’s expression and caught herself just in time with a sip of tea, though Cadance shot her a suspicious glance. Composing herself quickly, she offered Twilight a gentle smile.

“You seem shocked, Twilight. I know for a fact that you’ve asked your friends not to call you Princess.”

Twilight slowly turned to look at Celestia. “But that’s different. You’re the princess of all Equestria! I mean… who is he?”

Celestia’s smile didn’t change. “A very dear friend.”

Twilight considered Cookie again. “How long have you known Princess Celestia?”

“Nearly all of my life,” he answered, then took a sip of tea, offering an amused glance to Celestia over the rim of the cup.

“Are you from Canterlot?” she asked, her eyes never leaving his face.

Cookie smirked and shook his head. “No.”

“How did you meet her?”

He raised his eyebrows as he stood to gather more food and drink. “At an interview. Am I being interrogated?”

Twilight blushed and glanced at the other alicorns, then back to Cookie. “Sorry,” she said, shrinking back and taking a sip of the tea she held in her hoof.

Cookie chuckled, returning to his seat. Making up his mind to offer Twilight a new clue, he turned to Cadance. “So, Cadance, I understand you’re ruling the Crystal Empire?”

Cadance smiled and nodded. “I am. With my husband, Shining Armor. We’ve restored the Crystal Heart.”

“Wonderful.” Cookie offered a sad smile, making an effort to not glance at Twilight. “We were crushed when we heard that it fell—”

“When you heard it fell?” Twilight wasted no time speaking up, as Cookie expected. “The Crystal Empire fell a thousand years ago.”

“Yes, Twilight.” He regarded her out of the corner of his eye. “I admit I do sometimes lose track of time, but I try to keep up with the rise and fall of empires, at least.”

She looked back at him with eyes narrowed in suspicion, then glanced down at her teacup with the same expression. “So you’re saying you were alive when the Crystal Empire fell?”

“I was.” He nodded. “And as I was saying to Cadance before I was interrupted, that was a sad time.” He returned his attention to Cadance. “I’m not alone in wishing I’d seen the danger of Sombra before it was too late.”

“It’s always easy to see danger in hindsight. I know how easy it is to make a mistake, and I can only hope that I won’t make any that lead to a disaster like that.” Cadance gave a sad smile, but Cookie noticed the nervous fear behind her eyes. Anypony else might have missed it, but nopony else had spent millennia peeking through the cracks in Celestia’s stately facade.

He offered his warmest smile. “Celestia speaks highly of you, I know you’ll do everything a pony can do.”

Cadance nodded and opened her mouth to speak, but it was Twilight whose tongue was ready first.

“So you were alive when the Crystal Empire fell… but you’re an earth pony?”

Cookie had to chuckle again. “Yes, I’m an earth pony through and through. I understand neither of you were born alicorns?”

Cadance looked at Twilight with a fond smile, rolling her eyes, then turned to Cookie. “I was a pegasus, until I mastered love magic. And Twilight was a unicorn.”

“And you mastered friendship magic,” Cookie said, nodding to Twilight.

“Yes, I’m the Princess of Friendship,” Twilight said absently, looking lost in a puzzle in her own head.

“Friendship is a fine kingdom, if I do say so myself.” Cookie looked to Celestia and winked. “Lovely in the winter.”

Twilight’s eyes opened wide, and she stared at Cookie as if seeing him for the first time. “I know your cutie mark.”

He smirked. “Do you?”

“It was on the cover of a tome of Clover the Clever’s writings in the library of the Castle of the Two Sisters, along with…” She gaped at him, nearly dropping her teacup before catching it with her magic. “Your name isn’t Chocolate Chip!”

Cookie grinned. “She really is too clever, Celestia.”

“I forgot she’d been exploring that,” Celestia said with a smirk and no small amount of pride as she took a sip of tea.

“So, who are you?” Cadance asked, her head tilted in curiosity.

“He’s Smart Cookie!” Twilight smiled, her eyes lighting up. “The Hearth’s Warming Smart Cookie.”

“The same,” Cookie said with a deep nod.

Cadance looked with wide eyes from Twilight to Cookie. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“This is amazing!” Twilight squealed. “You were there when the Hearth’s Warming spell was cast! What was it like?”

Cookie considered for a moment how much he wished to say. “Cold.”

Twilight leaned forward eagerly. “Can you elaborate?”

“Very cold.” Cookie raised his eyebrows. “I’m afraid it’s not something I like to talk about much. Perhaps some other day.”

“I would love that! It’s one of the first known instances of friendship magic, and even Clover the Clever’s writings on it aren’t very detailed.” Twilight’s eyes widened again as if presented with a Hearth’s Warming present. “You were friends with Clover the Clever!” She clapped her hooves together, nearly bouncing, before realizing that everypony present was staring at her. She shrank back with an embarrassed grin. “… um, excuse me. I’m kind of a history buff. This is exciting.”

Celestia chuckled and gave her young student one of the warmest smiles Cookie had ever seen from her. Just watching it made him smile himself, and he could feel Celestia’s affection for Twilight spreading to his own heart.

But he was pulled from those thoughts when Cadance cleared her throat and said plainly, “Smart Cookie, if you don’t mind me asking… how are you still alive?”

Cookie frowned slightly and took a sip of tea before answering. “We have no idea.”

Twilight looked at Celestia in shock. “You’ve never looked into it?”

“We’ve looked into it many times,” Celestia said, using her magic to refill her tea and replenish her plate. “Clover studied it, of course. I also brought Meadowbrook, Candlelight, Hay Carts, Moon Beam, Zellena the Wise, and Glow Worm to speak with him. Nopony has been able to figure it out.”

Twilight stared at Cookie again, and the probing curiosity seeped back into her countenance.

Cookie pursed his lips in a firm line and barely parted them to issue a warning grumble, “Celestia…”

Celestia paused with a honey cake halfway to her mouth. She sighed but said quickly, “Girls, I have to ask that you don’t pry into it. Cookie has his reasons for declining to pursue it further.”

“Of course,” Cadance said with a simple nod.

Cookie examined her face, but if it held any disappointment she had mastered it thoroughly. He nodded in return. “Thank you.”

Twilight was another matter. Her eyes shifted, and she fidgeted in her seat, and Cookie could imagine the clouds of ethical and philosophical protests forming in her mind.

“You as well, Twilight Sparkle,” he said, hoping to clear those quickly. “I would expect that as master of friendship magic, you would know better than to pry into a pony’s personal business, no matter how mysterious.”

She frowned at him and hesitated, biting her lip. “But what if it’s related to friendship magic?”

Cookie gave a dry glare. “My only dealings with that matter involved five other ponies. If that’s the case, friendship magic made a startlingly bad choice to offer this life to only me.”

Twilight’s ears drooped as she looked away with a cringe. When she looked back at Cookie she was in the process of composing her face, but hadn’t managed to conceal the shame and pleading in her eyes. He recognized it too well and remembered quickly that she had mastered the Elements of Harmony, but not alone.

Cookie met her eyes with all of the empathy he felt. “I spoke without thinking. It’s my habit, and I’m sorry. I simply meant that of the six of us, if one of us was to live, I had the least claim to it.”

Twilight looked down at her teacup. “I understand. I won’t try to find out, but… I think I’d really like to talk to you privately one day.”

“We can arrange it before you leave today, and I’ll be at your service,” Cookie said with a gentle nod.

An awkward quiet tried to settle between them, but Cadance gave it no room. "Smart Cookie, have you been an advisor to Princess Celestia all these years?"

Cookie took a breath. "Please, call me Cookie. Both of you. And I do advise Celestia, among other things.” He smiled as he went on, “I don't think she could keep me from advising her if she wanted to."

"He's my most trusted advisor, which is one reason I wanted to introduce you,” Celestia said to Cadance and Twilight. “Cookie has seen even more of Equestria's history than I have and from a very different perspective. He's a valuable acquaintance to have, and his opinion is always worth considering, even if you disagree."

"Why don't you live at court?" Twilight asked, using her magic to select a cinnamon roll and carry it to her plate.

Cookie relaxed, glad to engage her more pleasantly. "For the same reason I live under an alias. I prefer the company of common ponies, and I'd like to interact with them as equals. Celestia has plenty of ponies who can tell her what the ponies at court are thinking but very few who consider their opinion based on what's being said at Russet Red's potato stall."

Twilight smiled. "Having ponies you trust with different opinions is really valuable. Hard, sometimes, but valuable. I should have guessed that Princess Celestia must have good friends to talk to."

Cookie grinned as a blush rose to Celestia’s cheeks, a rare occurrence these days that sparked pleasant memories of times long ago when it was more common.

She composed herself and said casually, “I suppose I should mention that Cookie is a very special pony to me.”

Twilight swallowed a bite of roll. “He’s special to everypony in Equestria!”

“Twilight.” Cadance smirked and caught the younger alicorn’s eye to give her words the correct emphasis. “She means he’s a very special somepony.”

Her eyes wide, Twilight looked between Cookie and Celestia.

Cookie laughed. “If Twilight can answer the mystery of why a pony like Celestia would bother with an ill-mannered cart horse like me, that I would love to know.”

“You know it perfectly well,” Celestia said, smiling at Cookie. “You shared my dreams, and understood my fears, and always spoke to me from your heart. None of that has changed in all this time, and I cherish it.”

“How long have you been together?” Cadance asked with an eagerness that seemed borrowed from Twilight’s earlier expression.

“Since soon after she was crowned.”

Celestia smirked at him, then said to her students, “He hadn’t wanted princesses for Equestria, you know. He told Princess Platinum he would throw the crowns in the river at the ceremony.”

“That’s why I was positioned between Hurricane and Clover. It was lucky for me I didn’t sneeze, they had threatened my life and limb in some fabulously creative ways,” Cookie chuckled. He caught the worried question on Twilight’s face and explained, “I dislike noble titles on principle. If ponies of all tribes are to be equals, let us start from that and earn one another’s respect. That’s why I address neither you nor Celestia as ‘Princess.’”

He smiled at Celestia as he went on, “Of course, I came to see that Celestia needs neither crown nor title for her nobility to shine, and I found in her so many admirable qualities that I now know that Equestria is blessed to have her rule, and I am blessed to have her love.”

"That's beautiful. I—" Cadance began, then stopped herself abruptly. Cookie pulled his gaze from Celestia in time to catch the brief longing in her eyes before she focused on taking a sip of tea, then selecting another treat.

He took a sip of his own tea. All day he had seen in her Celestia’s grace and self control; whether she learned it from her mentor or was naturally gifted, he wasn’t sure. But where a slip like that from Twilight might have spoken of a small mental stumble, for ponies like Celestia or Cadance it was as near as they came to collapse outside of their private chambers.

Given the subject of conversation, it was easy to guess the cause. She had a husband, and a mastery of love magic, yet what Cookie and Celestia had seemed out of her reach. Cookie remembered Luna’s worries, but knew his own even better, and steeled himself against revealing his sympathy to Cadance, or worse, Celestia.

With a shake of her head, Cadance smiled and once again returned the conversation to a safer path. "So, Cookie... what do you do now? I mean, besides advising Celestia."

Cookie shrugged. "Garden, bake... I do a lot of reading, and I write books from time to time."

"You must write under a pen name! What have you written?" Twilight sat forward, her ears perked.

“Philosophy or political theory. Most eventually found their home on the dustiest shelves of the Canterlot library, and rightfully so. But I wrote Wherefore Cloudsdale? under the name Scriptus, and The Descent of Canterlot as Ink Blot, and With Cautious Hope as Rookwood. I understand ponies still discuss those from time to time.”

Twilight frowned in confusion. “But… The Descent of Canterlot is considered a refutation of Wherefore Cloudsdale?. It dismantles all of Scriptus’s arguments.”

Cookie smirked. “I changed my mind.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Ink Blot called Scriptus a blithering mad pony with a foal’s understanding of pony society.”

“I don’t like it when I have to change my mind,” Cookie said with a chuckle.

“I didn’t like it either,” Celestia said, taking a sip of tea and raising her eyebrows at him over the rim before she went on. “It set off that awful faction that wanted me to expel Cloudsdale from Equestria.”

Cookie nodded and went on to Twilight, “I apologized to Celestia for that long ago. I never had a problem with Cloudsdale, personally, but if I was arguing that it was harmful to consider Canterlot a unicorn city, I couldn’t very well ignore how that would apply to Cloudsdale.”

Celestia offered him a wry smile. “Common sense is no excuse for intellectual dishonesty.”

“And how many famous philosophers have you been?” Cookie asked her with a grin.

She chuckled. “I’m afraid I’ve been too busy governing ponies who acquired unfortunate philosophies to try my hoof at it.”

"Well you should.” He turned to Twilight and Cadance, the grin still on his face. “All of you should. I’ve found no better way to waste centuries than in philosophy—you spend ages working out the idea and a century watching ponies scoff and rip it apart only to see it spread like a plague and evolve into something horrifying and unrecognizable.” He chuckled and added, “And the only possible reaction to that is more philosophy.”

Twilight gave an uncomfortable smile and shifted in her seat. “That sounds… um…”

“Don’t worry, being frustrated and unproductive is my special talent.” His grin faded to a smile and he leaned in. “So, I understand you have an interesting position, spreading friendship across Equestria?”

She nodded, relaxing. “Yes… I have a magical map that shows me and my friends where there are friendship problems we can help solve.”

“That sounds fascinating. I’d love to hear about some of the ponies you’ve encountered.”

The fire had burned low in the council chamber of the Castle of the Two Sisters as the Princesses’ Council came to their last order of business for the night. A map of the current nation had been spread in the middle of the long table. A small crystal dragon figure sat in the middle of the map, representing a much larger and scalier dragon that had been discovered in the area near the Rock Hoof Settlement.

Celestia sat at the head of the table with Luna by her right hoof, but everypony else had abandoned the pretense of formality hours ago. Hurricane paced in front of the fireplace while Puddinghead and Pansy moved between the table and the chessboard where their game had been going since a particularly dull bit of budget talk. Clover’s spot at the foot of the table was covered with open scrolls, though Cookie could see over her shoulder that most of her scribbling was being done on a poem about the frustrations of trying to teach grown unicorns how to use a cup measure for potion components. To her credit, what Cookie was able to read of “The Damnable Measure of a Mage” was quite funny.

Platinum relaxed on a stool in front of the map, wrinkling her nose at the symbolic dragon. “He's got to leave.”

“Yes?” Cookie raised his eyebrows, leaning against the table. “Well, I suggest you go tell him that.”

“Perhaps I shall,” Platinum said with a toss of her blonde mane.

“Do you want us to sprinkle salt and pepper on you first?” suggested Puddinghead as she returned from putting Pansy into check. As she looked over the figure on the table, the enormous bun that held her mane on the top of her head wobbled.

Cookie smirked. “A nice maple glaze, I think. I'll send him a red wine to go with her.”

Platinum smirked right back. “There is no wine fine enough to compliment me, Smart Cookie.”

“I think she means ‘strong enough,’” Clover said, barely looking up from her scroll.

Luna spoke up from the end of the table. “The treaty with the dragons says he may not stay. We shall simply send a proclamation.”

“Perfect.” Cookie nodded. “He can use it as a napkin.”

Celestia’s sister had only recently begun attending council sessions in earnest, and she still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of things. Her face twitched into a frown, as it often did when her input was met with anything but studious consideration.

“I'm still confused why we're talking about this and not gathering troops.” Hurricane’s large gray form cast a shadow across the table, and he used a wing to give the dragon figure a stab.

“Stars above, Hurricane,” Clover groaned, setting down her quill. ”Between your troops and Star Swirl wanting to send everything to another dimension, it's a wonder there's a creature left in this realm.”

He smirked and raised an eyebrow. “Can we kill it after it eats Platinum?”

“It'll probably die of indigestion first.” Cookie chuckled. “We all know Platinum can be hard to swallow.

“We do have a treaty with the dragons,” Celestia said with a smile and a glance at Luna. “It promised safe migrations in exchange for not otherwise impeding ponies. Perhaps we can consider how we might enforce it in this case?”

Cookie got the impression that the rephrasing of Luna’s point was supposed to be educational, but from Luna’s stony expression he couldn’t tell if it had had the slightest effect.

“Maybe we can get another dragon to ask it to leave.” Pansy landed in the seat next to Celestia, opposite Luna, having conceded the chess game to Puddinghead.

Cookie turned his attention to her and raised an eyebrow. “So you're suggesting we find a pony to go to the Dragon Lands, which are not coincidentally full of dragons, to ask a second dragon to come to Equestria to ask the first dragon to leave?”

Pansy frowned at him. “It would be a diplomatic mission. They'd be under the flag of Equestria. Any attack would be an act of war.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure the dragons tremble at the very thought of a war with ponies,” Platinum said, rolling her eyes.

“Do you know what else is under the flag of Equestria?” Hurricane slammed a hoof on the table. “Equestria! And we already have a dragon attacking us here!”

Celestia gave him a skeptical look. “‘Attacking’ is bit of a stretch…”

“I'm pretty sure he's specifically not attacking us, being asleep and all,” Puddinghead pointed out.

“Look, you can't run a nation with a dragon smack in the middle of it,” Hurricane said firmly.

Pansy cleared her throat. “Actually, Sir, the Dragon Lands—”

He pressed a hoof to his face. “You can't run a nation of ponies with a dragon in the middle of it.”

“Why not?” Puddinghead said with a shrug. “We could just tell ponies not to go near it.”

Clover raised her eyebrows at Puddinghead. “Have you met ponies? You might as well set up a stand nearby offering sticks to poke it.”

Cookie grinned and gave Clover a nudge. “Now that sounds like a problem that would take care of itself rather quickly.”

Platinum bit her lip in thought. “Did we ever establish if dragons actually eat ponies?

“Not regularly,” Clover said, rolling up several of her scrolls with her magic and placing them in a bag by her hooves.

Platinum shrugged. “Well in that case—”

Clover continued, “On the other hoof, they're perfectly willing to cook ponies. I'm not sure the ponies much care about the difference, though.”

“I would.” Puddinghead frowned, leaning an elbow on the table. “I'd hate to go to waste.”

Luna pretended to clear her throat, waiting for the attention of the council before speaking. “He must leave. The charter of Equestria says that no thinking being may stay in Equestria if it brings harm to other thinking beings.”

“Yes, Luna. It does,” Pansy said with a gentle nod.

Cookie frowned in thought, considering Luna’s words. “But has this dragon ever brought harm to another?”

“It’s the size of a small keep, and dragons aren’t the nicest sort.” Clover frowned. “I'm going to say it's probably brought some harm to some creatures.

“But thinking beings,” Cookie went on. “If you're banning anything that bothered any creature, we'll have to burn the treaty with the griffons too.”

“I'll get a candle,” Hurricane offered.

“We are not having the griffon argument again,” Clover said sternly.

“I have no interest in the griffon argument,” Hurricane said, to relieved sighs around the room, before going on forcefully, “I'm interested in the griffon solution!”

“Well, you’re in luck. We have a solution, which is that you don't get to fight the griffons anymore.” Cookie smirked at him. Nothing got the old war pony riled up faster than griffons.

Clover looked from Cookie to Hurricane. “Can we please not have the griffon argument again?”

Hurricane just glared at Cookie. “I don't see how that solves anything.”

“It solves everything, because the only problem we could find that needed solving was the pegasi and griffons looking for reasons to fight,” Cookie said with a wave of his hoof.

“But the treaty of Tartarus—”

Cookie stepped up to the table across from Hurricane and leveled a dry stare. The pegasi’s long history of complex treaties with the griffons, which seemed written specifically to be broken, happened to be a pet peeve of his.

Clover slumped back in her chair and rolled her eyes. “Oh blessed darkness, we're having the griffon argument again.”

“The griffons have never even landed at Tartarus,” Cookie said slowly. “They don't go within a mile of the gates. And if they did, there's Cerberus there to stop them.”

“But they won't stay out of the air space!” Hurricane pointed out, leaning over the table towards Cookie.

“Why do you care!?” Cookie shouted in exasperation, leaning towards Hurricane in turn.

Hurricane crossed his forelegs, using his wings to hold himself up. “It's the principle of the thing!”

“Exactly!” Cookie slammed a hoof on the table. “The principle in this case being that the pegasi and griffons are looking for reasons to fight!”

Celestia spoke firmly, “Gentlecolts, I think you were advising us on the dragon issue?”

Cookie looked over at her, a sheepish smile on his face. “Actually, I was advising Hurricane on where he can shove his spear. But, to the matter at hoof, it is not in the dragon. It may be fun to play soldier against the griffons, but the dragons are quite a different matter.”

“Cookie is lucky I don't find a home for my spear in his flank.” Hurricane frowned. “But I have to agree on that point. One dragon is not a problem, but a war would be a tactical nightmare.”

Clover nodded. “So we’re not going to attack the dragon. That leaves sending an envoy to the dragon, or the dragon lands, or leaving him be.”

“I have decided,” Luna said.

Cookie looked over with trepidation. Luna’s input thus far hadn’t exactly been authoritative, but the cool, regal look on her face indicated that she may have had a different impression of the tone of the room.

“What have you decided, Luna?” Celestia asked, her face showing a similar worry.

“We shall send an envoy to the Dragon Lands, under the banner of Equestria. We shall avoid war with the dragons by making it known that, if attacked, we shall refuse to move the sun or moon.” Her mouth twitch into a self-satisfied smile.

Platinum stared at Luna, then looked to the rest of the council with raised eyebrows. “She’s serious?”

“Luna…” Cookie said gently. “Leaving aside the fact that it’s an empty threat, as it would destroy all of ponykind and everything else in the world as well as the dragons—”

Luna glared at him. “War with the dragons may very well destroy ponykind.”

“It’s against the Treaty of Olympony,” he finished, frowning at her. “That one was accepted by representatives of all pony tribes, and most of the knowing beings in the world.”

Hurricane nodded. “The only threat that can be answered with cessation of celestial movement is an attempt to open the gates of Tartarus.”

Her expression remained serious, but nerves began to show behind Luna’s eyes as she seemed to realize her misstep. “In a war with the dragons they might—”

Clover shook her head. “The dragons aren’t bright, but they aren’t suicidal. They don’t want to try to face down Tirek and Meloveant and the rest all at once. They might burn every pony they can find to a pile of ash, but they wouldn’t go near Tartarus.”

Pansy gave Luna a sad smile. “It was a fine try, Princess Luna.”

“So what are we actually going to do?” Platinum said, looking to Celestia.

Celestia cast a worried glance at her sister, then looked at the map for a moment, considering. “I feel we should compromise. Allow the dragon to stay for a year, and if there’s no impact on ponies he may remain indefinitely. If we sense there may be a problem, if the settlement there grows too close, or he’s found to be moving about the countryside then we will send an envoy to the dragons. I’m sure Commander Hurricane has soldiers brave enough to make the journey, and I trust our treaties will hold well enough to allow a small diplomatic group free travel in the Dragon Lands.” She turned quickly to her sister. “What do you think, Luna?”

“It shall have to do,” Luna muttered, refusing to look at Celestia.

“I like it, myself,” Clover announced, her magic gathering the last of her scrolls into her bag.

“I do too!” Puddinghead said, slapping the table with a grin.

“I like any decision that means we can leave this blasted room and get something to eat,” Hurricane said with a smile. “Princess Celestia, will you join us?”

Cookie added quickly, “Luna, you’re welcome, too. We’re just going down to the kitchens.”

“I wonder if there’s any of that crusty bread left after dinner.” Platinum said to Pansy as they walked together out to the hall. “Governing always makes me crave something filling.”

Luna shook her head and rose to her hooves. “I must study.” She barely looked at Cookie or the rest of the council as she hurried out the door.

Watching her leave, Celestia frowned, deep in thought. After a moment she looked over at Cookie with an apology written on her face. “Enjoy yourselves. I have another counsel to attend.”

He nodded, and walked over to give her a tender nuzzle. “I understand. But do try to get some sleep, my love.”

Celestia smiled and relaxed as she nuzzled back. “I shall do my best.”

By the time they parted, Cookie found his friends had disappeared. He made his way down the stone halls and staircases to the kitchens on the lowest floor. Opening the large wooden door, he was greeted by a much happier version of the council chamber, with Hurricane relaxed by the large fireplace which had been coaxed back to life, and Pansy, Puddinghead, and Platinum all seated at the servants table, playing a game with cards and watching the pantry door.

“Nothing promising,” Clover said, emerging from the pantry with a frown. She grinned as she noticed Cookie. “Oh, there you are! We were worried Princess Celestia had stolen you. Can you make something delicious appear?”

Cookie smiled and trotted into the pantry, glancing at the shelves. “Give me a half of an hour and we’ll have fresh scones.”

“Perfect. I’ll stoke up the oven,” Clover called as Cookie loaded ingredients on his back.

He returned to the kitchen and laid them out on the large counter, adding dishes and measures to his workspace, and set about assembling the dough.

“I’m opening a cask of wine.” Platinum stood and headed into the pantry. “Dragons make me thirsty.”

Hurricane made no move to leave his spot by the fire, but nodded in agreement. “I’ll have some of that. Dragons I can deal with, but you ponies make me thirsty.”

“Pansy is disapproving again,” Clover said, as Platinum used her magic to set the cask at the other end of the counter and gather goblets.

“Now Pansy, I’ll replace anything the cooks need before lunch.” Platinum opened the cask and filled enough goblets for everypony. “And you know Cookie will be leaving scones for the princesses’ breakfast, so really, we’re helping them.”

“It’s not that.” Pansy shook her head. “It’s that you all should be more forgiving of Princess Luna. She’s trying very hard.”

Platinum returned to her seat with the rest of the mares, but not before leaving a goblet next to the spot where Cookie was working and floating one to Hurricane by the fire. “She’s trying too hard. She needs to learn to listen.”

“And not try to throw the sun and moon around,” Cookie added as he mixed the dough. “What in the seven gates of Tartarus was she thinking?”

Pansy took a small sip of her wine. “She’s young.”

Clover nodded. “Yes, and she has an awful lot on her plate with Star Swirl. Very advanced magic. Something to do with dreams.”

Hurricane turned to face the rest of the ponies, letting the fire warm his wings. “That’s a fine hobby for a princess, but hadn’t she ought to get better at ruling first?”

“Well, you must admit she isn’t that bad. She hasn’t even begun to drive us all into eternal winter yet,” Pansy said with a pointed look at Hurricane.

“Very funny, Captain,” Hurricane grumbled, then took a large drink of wine.

“Hurricane is right.” Cookie dumped the dough on the counter and began to pat it to shape. He glanced up and noticed the raised eyebrows from his friends. “What? It was bound to happen sooner or later. Magic is all well and good, but Luna doesn’t understand the complexities of government, and the stars know she doesn’t have Celestia’s way with ponies.”

Platinum nodded. “The stars may know, but does Princess Celestia?”

Cookie frowned as he sliced the dough into triangles. “She does, and it worries her. She hopes that whatever Luna and Star Swirl are cooking up might make up for it, but… personally, I think her time would be better spent attending a play or a festival, or conversing with us. She can’t learn all that she needs from books and spells; a mind must be tested against other ponies to be fit to rule.”

“Well at least we have one princess fit to rule, and it’s bound to rub off on Princess Luna someday, right?” Puddinghead shrugged.

“Of course.” Platinum gestured to Puddinghead with her goblet. “The danger is that she’s trying to rule now. If she loses the trust of ponies, it will be hard to earn back.”

Smirking, Cookie loaded the scones onto a baking dish and carried them to the oven. He called over his shoulder, “You know we wouldn’t be having this problem if we’d decided on—”

“Cookie, you awful pony, do not start!” Clover rolled her eyes and took a long gulp of wine.

“Very well. I won’t.” Cookie made his way to the table, stopping to grab his goblet. As he sat down he glanced to the fire. “Instead I’ll remind Hurricane of the many fine qualities of griffons.”

Hurricane gave a snort and downed the rest of his wine.

Clover glared at Cookie, trying not to laugh. “I hate you.”

He smiled sweetly at her. “But I’m making you scones.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine, I love you, too. But I still hate you.”

“The pony knows the way to a mare’s heart.” Puddinghead chuckled. “I understand he even has the scones to court Princess Celestia herself... Get it?”

Pansy and Clover both groaned with smiles on their faces. Cookie laughed and shook his head.

“Let’s discuss democracy again,” Platinum raised an eyebrow at Cookie with a smirk. “You all elected Puddinghead.”

Cookie nodded with a straight face. “Many ponies are quite fond of puns. Don’t ask me rye.

The groans were even louder this time, and Clover smacked him on the foreleg.

“You say you donut know, yet you rise to the occasion!” Puddinghead pounded a hoof on the table.

Cookie drew himself up straight. “I am well bread enough that I knead to defend my honor!”

By now the groans were mixed with chuckles, and even Hurricane had cracked a smile as he asked, “Clover, Pansy, are you really sure Cookie was necessary to stop the Windigos?”

“You wound me, Hurricane!” Cookie put a hoof to his heart with a grin. “Implying that I was the yeast necessary to our de-frosting? I may loaf about sometimes, and come across as tart, but when it came to dough or die I played a pivotal roll!”

Puddinghead clapped on the table. “Bravo! Well bun!”

Cookie stood and gave a bow, then headed to the oven.

“Are you two quite finished?” Platinum asked.

“I am,” Cookie called back as he peered into the big stone oven, “and so are the scones, so that should keep Puddinghead quiet.”

He returned to the table with a tray of warm scones to find that Hurricane had joined them, and Platinum had refilled everypony’s goblet. The smell of the baking and warmth of the fire, not to mention the wine and fine company, had a smile on everypony’s face as Cookie slid the treats onto the table and scooted into his seat next to Clover.

Hurricane raised his goblet. “Here’s to friends.” He paused and chuckled. “The ponies you choose to drive you mad.”

Agreement and knocked cups rang around the table, as well as laughter that echoed long into the night.

When Cadance and Twilight left the cottage, Celestia remained under the pretense of helping Cookie get cleaned up. Cookie was well aware, as they took the dishes to the kitchen, that she was much more interested in hearing his thoughts than doing the washing. Of course he intended to tell her anyway, and he wasn’t about to turn down magical assistance.

She stood next to him by the sink, the warm breeze of her mane drifting against him, using the golden glow of her magic to wash the dishes while he dried.

“They’re both lovely ponies,” Cookie said with a smile. “I can see why you care for them so much.”

“I knew that you’d feel that way.” She returned his smile with just a hint of self-satisfaction.

“Yes, yes. I know. You were right, my love.” He ran the dishtowel over a plate, considering his guests. “You know, Cadance reminds me more than a little of you, when you were young.”

“She’s far more confident.” Celestia chuckled. “I was just very good at hiding my insecurities.”

Cookie smiled as he dried a second plate and stacked it on top of the first. “I would argue that it never mattered, because your insecurities were baseless.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Then Cadance is wiser than I was, since she’s been able to dismiss those at a fraction of my age.”

“Perhaps, but I think you’re stronger for having faced them.” He leaned over and nuzzled her shoulder as he moved for the next dish, and a warm smile crossed her face. He chuckled as he began to dry a teacup, and went on, “As for Twilight Sparkle… she’ll keep a pony on their hooves, no doubt about that.”

“I’m well aware,” she said, catching his eye so he could see the amused glint. “It will be good for you.”

Cookie nodded. “Oh, I think I’ll relish it, but I’m sure she’ll eventually grow weary of poking holes in my philosophies.”

Celestia laughed. “Knowing Twilight, I doubt that. I can foresee many years of the two of you being intolerable to everypony else as you determine the exact nature of ponies and the universe.” She seemed lost in that happy future as she added, “I do hope we can arrange more occasions like this.”

“As do I. Perhaps Luna can even join us.” Cookie smiled and raised his eyebrows.

“That would be wonderful.” A grin flashed across her face, but it faded to a perfectly neutral expression. “...and Cadance’s family as well.”

Cookie frowned and dried the tea kettle with more vigor than necessary. “I fear that may be awkward, for the time being.”

“I suppose it would.” Celestia sighed. She gave a slight shake of her head and seemed to focus on the cream pitcher she was washing. “So, what do you intend to tell Twilight on your next meeting?”

“I intend to be honest with her,” he answered plainly, taking the pitcher to dry.

“And what are your honest thoughts, these days?” Celestia quirked an eyebrow at him.

“I’m not sure. That will depend on what she asks me.” He frowned and shook his head. “Twilight and I have a lot of unpleasant ground to cover. You can’t ask me to sugarcoat matters to protect innocence that she’s smart enough to recognize she’s going to lose.”

“It’s not only Twilight I worry about,” she said quietly, as her magic floated him the next dish.

Cookie took Clover’s mortar and turned it around in his hoof. He took a deep breath as he began to dry it.

Celestia went on, “Twilight is looking for a map to guide her through unpleasant ground. You’ll be the one retreading it.”

He set the mortar to the side with another deep breath, then looked to Celestia with a sad smile. “We’ll both live.”