• Published 11th Sep 2017
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Midnight's Shadow: Succession Crisis - Ponibius

Midnight Sparkle is given a new assignment when the Count of Honeyfield dies without a heir. Her task of finding a heir is complicated as the estate’s residents plot for the late count’s estate—and more than the late count might be laid to rest

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Chapter 1

The following selection comes from Midnight Sparkle’s journals from House Sparkle’s private collection. While Midnight published many of her more famous adventures in her memoirs, her personal writings are peppered with other exploits and assignments she took part in. These right here are her writings for the events that occurred around the succession crisis for the title of Count of Honeyfield.

I have decided to bring this particular story to the attention of my readers to show Midnight’s growth as a magus since the incident in Appleton. All available records say that Midnight spent much of her time after her confrontation with the Hags of Appleton honing her skills, in addition to several small assignments for her mother and Princess Celestia and taking part in a particularly memorable Snowball War at the Kicker Clanhold. However, this incident was Midnight’s return to being a proper field magus, and one tempered by her experiences at Appleton.

The summons from Princess Celestia reached me at midday, and while I had been busy working on an enchantment project for Mother I could hardly reject my princess’ call to see me. I thus headed to the palace to find Her Highness. The royal guards were awaiting me at the palace entrance, and they readily escorted me to my destination.

I caught up with Princess Celestia as she was leaving one of the meeting rooms of the palace. As was only proper, I waited while everypony left and Her Highness made her final parting words to her advisors. Once the others were gone, I approached Princess Celestia and bowed before her. “Your Highness, you summoned me?”

She smiled radiantly at me and motioned for me to rise. “Hello, Midnight. Walk with me. There is something I would discuss with thee.”

“As you wish.” I rose and followed her out to the palace gardens.

After the long winter, the spring brought a garden determined to make up for lost time with its vibrancy. Luxurious flowers and other plants surrounded us, many of them exotic rarities. Through hedgerow and shrubbery, ‘twas not long before we emerged where she kept the garden’s other decorations. I was always curious how many of the statues were merely statues and how many were her defeated foes—enemies forever trapped in stone and unable to act as their existence dragged on through the centuries as the elements slowly beat down upon them and madness slowly gripped them in their inability to interact with the world. Sadly, Her Highness’ answers were customarily cryptic to my inquiries. The habit made me wonder if her cooks had to decode enigmatic phrases just to determine what to make for her breakfast.

I stepped well clear of Discord’s statue. He had even spoken to me once when I had been wandering the palace gardens, and it was mildly disturbing to hear that I was one of his favorite ponies. (1) I could only pray he was only playing one of his games, and asked Princess Celestia to tighten whatever wards she had over the demigod.

1. I’ve spoken with Discord, and he confirmed to me that Midnight was indeed one of his favorite ponies. In his words, “Chaos and trouble followed her around like a lost puppy. What’s not to like?”

Eventually, I stopped before a statue of some fey noble wielding an elaborate bow and turned to Her Highness. “What was it that you wished to speak with me about?”

“How fare thy studies?” Princess Celestia asked as we walked past several statues.

“They have been going very well,” I informed her. “I have made several breakthroughs lately.” Mother, Morning Star, and Corva had been especially helpful in that regard. With the aid of such skilled teachers and my new drive to make myself a better magus, I had found that my spellcraft had become all the better over the last few months. I was admittedly quite proud of myself, even if I was not as skilled as I desired. My practice duels with Mother showed my limits too readily, and Corva regularly pointed out where I was ignorant. They were humbling experiences, even if I learned much.

“I am pleased to hear it.” The Princess smiled and then turned her attention to the fey statue. ‘Twas a female of striking beauty and grace that shone through even stone. It seemed almost, alive, and as though ready to loose the arrow from its bow. “Though I hope thou canst spare a while away from thy books and mother?”

I nodded. “But of course. As always, I am at your disposal.”

“It has been a while since thou embarked upon a proper magus mission,” Her Highness pointed out. “This one should be much less exciting than the last one.”

“That would be best,” I stated. “Nearly being slain by hags, put into their cauldron, and having my flesh gnawed from my bones by their crooked teeth was not something I enjoyed.”

“And certainly not anything I wanted to have happen to thee.” The princess started walking again, pausing before each statue ere continuing onward.

“‘Tis good to hear you desire my continued existence.”

“Naturally.” Princess Celestia smiled indulgently for me. “Besides, thy mother was quite upset with me. She was most wroth when she learned of the extent of thine injuries, and I hardly wish to endure that again.”

I frowned as I considered this. “Mayhap that is why I have not seen many serious assignments since Appleton.” Mother could be quite protective of me. She has burned the flesh from the bones of a number of ponies who had threatened me in the past. Not that I needed my mother to always protect me. I was a full magus now, and could take care of myself.

“It was certainly a consideration.” I noted some discontent in her words, but she cleared her throat and seemed to will it away. “Fortunately, she approved of this mission, so she will have naught but herself to bother if it goes awry.”

“That is ... good,” I hazarded.

The Princess stopped to fully face me. “On that topic: art thou familiar with the County of Honeyfield?”

I stroked my cheek as I recalled what I could. “‘Tis a county a little to the north of Canterlot, if I remember right. ‘Tis the source of a popular brand of mead, but little else of note comes to mind. I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting its count here in Canterlot, and I have not visited myself.”

Normally I knew more about the major title holders and their lands than that, but this one was too obscure for me. It helped when I had at least had words with the noble who ran the estate in question. Considering Mother was both the Archmagus of Canterlot and Grand Vizier, many among Equestria’s nobility sought her favor, and as a result I had met many of them during dinners and other social occasions. The Count of Honeyfield was one of the rare exceptions to that, though—at least among those ponies whom Mother counted as foes.

“Indeed so.” She sighed. “Alas, Count High Stakes recently passed away, and there is some dispute regarding the succession.”

I frowned. “Did he not have an heir?”

“Not a single unambiguous one,” she elaborated.

That did not sound like fortuitous words. Especially when Her Highness had called upon me with an assignment. “I have a feeling you mean to tell me that there is more than one ambiguous potential heir.”

“Yes. It seems to be quite a tangled mess.” Her gaze turned towards the sky and focused on something I could not see. “And naturally, it is up to the count's liege lord to solve it.”

And that would be Princess Celestia herself. Whenever the succession of a title came into question, it fell to Her Highness to resolve it. Such things happened now and again, usually when there was no proper heir to inherit the title. That had been unusually common in the years since the Lunar Rebellion. Many among the nobility had been slain during the war, and many lines of succession had been cut as a result. Mother had assisted Her Highness in sorting out more than one battered house in the aftermath of the war, and the problem had caused considerable discord among the nobility.

“Ah, I think I see the crux of the issue before you,” I told her.

Her Highness nodded. “Indeed, and I need somepony to untangle the knot of conflicting claims.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me about Honeyfield and those who would claim its title?”

“I could, but I would prefer not to,” Princess Celestia answered with a cryptic smile. “I do not wish to sway thine opinion, for 'tis thy judgement and honesty I value most here.”

“Ah, I see.” I saw the problems she was alluding to. Mother had complained to me on multiple occasions that too many of her advisors put more effort into determining what she wanted to hear than addressing the given issue of the day. Likely the problem was all the greater for royalty, when so many sought royal approval.

I hummed to myself as I considered mine assignment. “That does not sound so difficult. I merely need to assess each claimant, then come back to you with a report on their suitability to take up the county. The only problem I can forsee is that I might need to wade through a vile, bottomless pit of lies and deceit as each claimant seeks to manipulate and deceive me toward their own petty ends.”

Princess Celestia smirked. “That is precisely what I expect thou wilt need to deal with. But I would not have asked thee to do it if I did not think thou couldst. Thou mayest, of course, recruit whatever retinue feels suitable.” She levitated a sealed scroll to me. “And thy papers announcing thy status as an agent of the crown.”

“My thanks, Your Highness. I am sure there are some whom I could find use for in this endeavor.” A couple of names came readily to mind. “If there is nothing else, I will prepare to go to Honeyfield immediately.”

She nodded. “Best of luck then, Midnight.”

It was not long afterwards that I was combing the streets for the first pony I intended to bring with me to Honeyfield. With the aid of a tracking spell, I found myself before a tavern. Entering the establishment, I found it to be a well-appointed business with fine, sturdy, and comfortable furniture, simple paintings, and the welcoming smell of hearty food intended to attract the reasonably prosperous craftponies of the district. One of the first things that caught my attention were the sounds of a lyre and the beautiful voice of the mare playing it.

Subtle Song sat on a cushion near the hearth, plucking at her instrument as the ponies in the tavern listened. Most likely none suspected that Subtle was in fact an agent of the crown acting in the role of a bard, though it probably helped that she certainly had the skills to play the part. Even from across the room I could tell that I had caught her attention, for a smile grew on her lips.

Not wishing to be rude or draw too much attention to myself, I walked over to an empty table and sat. A waiter soon appeared before me, and I ordered some simple juice and fried potato slices so as to pass the time until Subtle’s performance ended. With little else to do but wait, I listened to her song.

And then fair noble Midnight,
did nobly strike the fiend.
And valiantly she battled.
She would not let the foul hags steal her famous beauty...

As I listened to the lyrics, I quickly determined that the song was that of my encounter with the hags in Appleton. Though mayhap her song was sprinkled with ... embellishment. Plenty of them, especially where I was concerned. (2)

2. The ballad still survives to this day in Songs of the House Heartstrings. I can also confirm that Midnight’s accusations of embellishments, especially when compared to her memoirs, is warranted. Especially any of the passages alluding to Midnight’s beauty or any part where Subtle Song and Midnight interacted.

I nearly jumped out of my seat when the waiter dropped off my order. It was all I could do to pass her the bits required for the meal without making a complete fool of myself, and I quickly pulled my cloak’s hood over my head to hide myself. It only got worse at the end. My meeting with Subtle after defeating the hags went from a simple talk to ... something altogether more illicit. Members of the audience hooted and hollered, and all I could do was pull my cloak tighter around me in the hopes that nopony would recognize me or notice mine inflamed cheeks.

Thankfully, the song finally came to an end before I did something extreme. Applause rose up, and a collection plate was sent around the tavern. Patrons dropped bits into it in thanks for Subtle’s performance, and I did the same. A pony of my station could not be seen as miserly, of course.

Subtle stood and bowed for her audience, gathered her pay for the evening, and headed over to my table.

I fixed her with a level stare as she sat. “I see that accuracy is not necessary for thy songs.” Gale’s presence had not been mentioned even once over the course of the song. Though I had to wonder if that had more to do with whatever drove the animosity ‘tween Gale and Subtle, rather than mere artistic license.

“If the facts get in the way of what makes an entertaining song...” Subtle shrugged uncaringly. “‘Tis what ponies wish to hear. In truth, it is becoming one of my more popular songs, for it has a little of all that draws ponies in. Adventure, a stalwart defender of the people, vile monsters to be slain, heartache, and...” A wry smirk worked its way onto her features. “Romance.”

“I find it difficult to believe that anyone would wish to hear a song about me.”

Subtle smirked proudly and placed her lyre on the table. “They will want to hear any song when I make it. A mare of my skills could enrapture a crowd with a song about breaking my fast.”

I could not say whether Subtle was merely exaggerating or speaking the truth. Near as I could tell, she had a great talent for music, so what she said might very well be true, but that was not the reason why I had come to her this day. “I see. Then I hope that thou art not so popular that I cannot pull thee away from thine audience to accompany me on a mission.”

“Well, I could always use some new material,” Subtle assured me, popping a sliced potato into her mouth.

“‘Tis unlikely that this will be something for the bards to sing,” I told her. “As of right now, Mother frowns upon me going out and slaying monsters, and the task before us is merely to decide who will inherit the title of Honeyfield. It seems there is some dispute on the matter, and ‘tis for me to resolve.”

Subtle’s smile lost some of its luster. “Oh. Well, in that case I can always apply a little artistic license.” She grinned and scooted closer to me, very close. “Though really, Midnight, if you wanted some time alone with me away from prying eyes...”

I spluttered at the indecent suggestion. “I assure thee, that was not mine intent!”

“Oh?” Her lips puckered into a pout. “Pity.”

“‘Twould be indecent for me to treat a pony serving me so,” I explained, trying to regain my mental footing. “A superior should not take advantage of her lessers.”

A smirk grew on her features and she leaned in to whisper into my ear. “Who said you would be taking advantage of me? And perhaps you could do with a little indecency.”

My cheeks burned at the suggestion. I had a feeling I was going to profoundly regret bringing Subtle along for this assignment. “B-but I would not! That is, such thoughts have not...” Words utterly failed me. This was exactly why Mother was pressuring me to find a pony to bed. The fact that she was right about me getting too flustered by the idea of coitus only made it all the more infuriating.

Subtle covered her mouth as she giggled. “You know where to find me if the desire strikes you later.” A final smirk crossed her mouth before she leaned back away from me. “So ... what task lies before us?”

Thankfully, recruiting Sergeant Stalwart Kicker proved much less embarrassing. Lady Protector Shadow Kicker had put him at my disposal, so he was more than willing to see to my safety. To cut down on travel time, Mother had given me permission to use the royal courtier sky carriages as needed—something I was thankful for, since that made traveling much more convenient.

The next morning saw us flying over the county of Honeyfield. Farms and patches of forest dotted the land below us as a pair of pegasi pulled the carriage through the air. I took interest as Castle Honeyfield appeared on the horizon. It sat on a hill dominating the river that ran through the county.

Further down the river bank was the town of Glazing, a small barge lazily pulling into its docks. As we approached, more details of the castle became apparent. It must have been some time since any of the lords of the castle had felt seriously threatened, for a great many extensions had been made to the original structure. Stone buildings had been constructed both within the castle wall and along its exterior in a manner that struck me as somewhat haphazard. Being familiar with Canterlot’s add-on-tower-obsessed architecture, I could readily recognized the additions to the castle as being that of the whims of generations of Honeyfield lords, with each successive count or countess adding to the structure as need or desire drove them.

Stalwart, who had chosen to fly besides the carriage rather than relax within its interior, motioned for the pegasi pullers to begin our descent. We made a gentle landing on the road leading to the castle, and I stepped out to stretch my legs from the flight. Subtle did very much the same, yawning loudly as she did so.

As I looked around to take in our surroundings, I noticed the fields of sunflowers with periodically placed crates, each nearly the size of a pony. Even from the road I could hear the buzz of the beehives within the boxes. Several of the farmers working the castleside farm stopped their routines to stare as us and talk quietly among themselves.

Having stretched my legs, I pulled my silver-and-blue-trimmed cloak out of the carriage and clasped it around my neck. As I did so, a trio of pegasus guards wearing the yellow and green of House Honeyfield approached us. Each of them was grim-faced at the sudden arrival of guests at their lord’s residence, though they seemed hardly threatening as far as guards went.

The mare at the center of the trio stepped forward. She was powerfully built, with faded orange coat and dark-green mane largely hidden by her helm. Her face had a striking fierceness to it that, while not particularly comely, was still what most would consider handsome.

“Greetings, travelers,” she said, her tone formal. “I am Captain Freezy Hail of the Honeyfield Houseguard. What brings you to our late lord’s home?”

I stepped forward to address her. “I am Magus Midnight, and this is my retinue: my bodyguard, Sergeant Stalwart Kicker, and over here is my servant, Subtle Song.” I motioned to each of them. “I have been sent here by Princess Celestia to assess the county and assist her determination as to who shall inherit the title of Honeyfield.”

Freezy’s eyes flicked over me and narrowed slightly. “And you have papers confirming this?”

“Of course.” I produced the necessary paperwork. Complaining about a bodyguard’s suspicion did about as much good as complaining that the rain was wet.

The houseguard captain looked the papers over and, unlike more than one illiterate guard I had been challenged by over the years, actually read the document. “Everything seems to be in order.” She returned the papers to me. “Shall I escort you to the castle, Magus?”

“I would appreciate it,” I answered. I motioned at the pegasi who had flown us here and the carriage. “Also, if I could have my luggage seen to and my retinue taken care of, I would be most appreciative.”

“Of course.” Freezy nodded to one of her fellow guards. “See to the luggage and get these ponies a warm meal.” The guard saluted and went about his assigned task, allowing the captain to turn her attention back to me. “If you will follow me, I will show you into the castle.”

We followed after her and took in the castle as we approached its gate. Up close it was easy enough to see that ‘twas an older castle, its stones weathered and splotches of moss growing up along the wall. There was also a need to maintain the place. One of the roofs of the adjacent buildings sagged quite noticeably, paint was badly faded and chipped in many places, and wood of the gate was in need of replacement.

“Looks like it's seen better times,” Stalwart observed.

“Aye, it does seem to be in mild disrepair,” I agreed, noticing cracks within the wall in bad need of a fresh layer of mortar. It made me wonder if Castle Honeyfield’s income had suffered, or if it had simply been neglected. There was more than one example of impoverished nobility in Equestria, and a county suffering from poverty would help explain why I had not see the late count at court. (3)

3. Most likely this was a result of Count High Stakes earning significantly less income than the county was accustomed to. Like most regions in Equestria after the Lunar Rebellion, records suggest that Honeyfield suffered from an economic depression that was typical of the Great Ennui. Census records indicate that the population of Honeyfield dropped by around 4-5%, with a disproportionate amount of those casualties being among the young adults of the population. There was also widespread property damage in the county as competing groups of militias attacked one another. Add all of this to the decrease in income across Equestria and a fall in trade, the end result was a 37% drop in taxes collected compared to the prewar period.

“It is still a lovely estate,” Subtle said as we entered the castle courtyard. Within we found a large floral garden typical in style to other country manors. This much at least seemed to be in good repair.

I decided to be diplomatic. “It could be a fine estate with some work.”

Subtle nodded in agreement. “It just needs a caring hoof.”

“Then mayhaps the next count will do so,” Freezy answered with perfect neutrality.

“Or countess,” someone called out from our flank. A striking figure stepped out from the garden that immediately drew my attention. At first glance I thought she was a unicorn, but a more careful look quickly dismissed that. She had the horn and equine form of a unicorn and a lithe and graceful body that seemed to flow as she walked, with a green coat like spring grass, and a long, flowing mane that was the yellow of sunlight. But there were a few features that dispelled the idea she was a pony. First and foremost were her yellow cat-like slitted eyes. Her facial features were also too angular and sharp for a pony, her ears more pointed than normal, and she possessed an exotic beauty that was normally only seen among the idealistic artistic portrayals of beauty.

A fey, unless I missed my guess. Though I was not sure what exact species. Mayhap she was one of the sidhe, a noble fey, and not a creature to trifle with. Either way, I had not expected to see one such as her in Honeyfield—at least not within the castle ground—and it was something to be cautious about. Fey were by nature tricky creatures, and a sidhe could be of immense power.

“Aye, it could be either,” I said diplomatically, taking her measure in as I spoke. “And with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

The fey gave me a wide and extremely inviting smile, and I got the impression she was quite happy to see me, something that only made me more nervous. “I am Émeraude Gracieuse, and I welcome you to Honeyfield. Might I have the pleasure of knowing your names?”

I inclined my head in agreement. “I am Magus Midnight, and 'tis a pleasure to accept your hospitality on behalf of myself and my followers.” There was little to be gained by offending the fey right at this moment, especially when she had offered me hospitality. Hospitality was a binding contract where fey were concerned, and while it struck me as strange that Émeraude could offer hospitality for the castle to start with, it still stuck me as wise to accept the offer. ‘Twould keep this Émeraude from immediately trying something like ripping my screaming soul from my body and dragging it to some foul realm of existence to torture for untold eons.

“Come, come. I am sure you are tired and hungry after your long journey.” Emerald motioned towards the main keep, and the rest of us followed her.

I felt the pang of hunger in my belly when I was reminded that it had been some time since I had a proper meal. “Some food and drink would not go amiss after our trip.”

“Then we will provide some for you.” Émeraude turned to lead us into the main keep. “So, what brings a royal magus to our fine home?”

“I am here to help Princess Celestia choose who will be the next Count of Honeyfield,” I announced. “She wishes for me to see all the proposed candidates and give a report announcing their suitability.”

Something I could not read twinkled behind Émeraude’s eyes as she tilted her head to look my way. “I am entirely certain you will make the right choice.” There was something implied in the words she had just said. A demand, mayhap, or a threat? It had been meaningful either way.

“I have every intention to be diligent in my duties,” I told her. “The candidates will be judged based on their suitability to carry out their duties and the legitimacy of their claims.”

“That is all we can ask for,” Émeraude agreed pleasantly. Soon we found ourselves in a well-appointed dining hall. Our hostess stopped at the head dining table, which had been situated on a podium to allow the master of the castle to oversee the guests in their hall. “Would you care for fresh mead and sweetcakes? I can have some brought for you all.”

Subtle leaned close to me. “Careful about fey and gifts,” she murmured.

“Yes, thou shouldst be wary of this one,” Corva whispered within my mind. “She is the most dangerous one here.”

Ever since I had made contact with Corva, the raven spirit had been able to speak with me with gradually increasing frequency. Corva said ‘twas merely that she was having an easier time speaking with me as I opened up to her. What this exactly meant or whether this was something to be concerned with, I did not know.

In any event, they were right to be cautious. Accepting gifts from a fey could easily indebt you to them, and the fair folk always collected their debts. It was but one of the ways that dealing with the fey was potentially dangerous.

The fey had any number of strange magics, and while they could tell no lies, that was not the same as telling the truth. More than one pony had been ensnared by misdirections, questions, implications, and assumptions. The danger was only heightened with the fey’s tendencies to make deals with mortals. Such deals rarely ended well for the mortals in question, and usually ended up with the individual being ensnared by the fey.

“Aye, I am aware of the dangers,” I whispered to both of them. “I will be cautious.”

Émeraude smiled knowingly. “I am offering hospitality, not a gift,” she told us, despite the fact we had been only whispering to one another. She probably had excellent hearing—far greater than any pony—now that I thought about it. I would need to be careful about what I said in front of her in the future if she could overhear everything I said in her company.

“Then I see no reason not to enjoy the hospitality of such a gracious host.” At least by the reckoning of fey, food and drink was an obligation for a host to provide her guests and thus did not qualify as a gift.

Taking his cues from myself, Stalwart gave a small smile. “I have never tried mead.”

“I have heard that Honeyfield's mead is quite good, even if I have never partaken myself.” My compliment elicited a smile from Émeraude, exactly as I hoped. As mother had taught me, compliments cost nothing, but could easily earn you the goodwill of others you had just met.

“Excellent.” Émeraude turned to Freezy with a poisonously sweet smile. “Freezy, be a dear and take care of getting refreshments for our guests, wouldst thou?”

Freezy stiffened at the request. “I am sure one of the servants can see to it.”

“Yes, but thou art here now.” Emerald waved dismissively. “Come now, be kind to our guests and see to it that they are treated well.”

Freezy frowned for a long moment before she relented. “Very well. I will be back soon.” She turned and headed to the kitchen.

That somewhat uncomfortable moment now passed, I said, “She seems ... suitably stoic for her position.”

“She is the old blood of Pegasopolis,” Stalwart said.

“Dost thou know her, Sergeant?” I asked.

Stalwart shook his head. “No, but I recognize how she carries herself.”

That knowledge in hoof, I turned to Émeraude. “I take it she was hired as one of the late count's guards after the war?”

Many a noble house had taken to hiring former warriors of Pegasopolis as their personal armsponies. Even accounting for how Mother and Her Highness had restricted how many guards they could staff, many a house had found themselves short. (4) In that light, I did not find it surprising to see one running Honeyfield’s guard.

4. This was due to a number of factors, one being the heavy casualties experienced during the Lunar Rebellion and especially amongst the nobility, knights, and their personal retainers. The shortage was only exacerbated when the greatly expanded Royal Guard offered better pay, benefits, and opportunities for the soldiers who signed up with it after the war. Though the noble houses of Equestria found a ready pool of warriors in the broken up remains of the Pegasopolian clans, considering many of them refused to work for the crown that had defeated them and many of them lacked skills beyond warmaking.

Indeed so, and one who has served very ... loyally.” Émeraude placed a special emphasis on that last word, and it made me wonder why she had done so. “She was highly devoted to the old count. More so than was even required by her oaths.”

“I could see that.” I took a guess at why that might be. “What with so many former warriors of Pegasopolis having to find another path when their nation was dissolved.”

Stalwart nodded. “We all had to find a place for ourselves.”

“Indeed, 'tis a sad creature that does not know its place in the world,” Émeraude observed. “And the count was ... trusting and warm to her.” She shrugged. “He trusted her enough to make her the captain of his guard.”

“How did Count High Stakes pass away?” I asked, and then added, “If I may inquire.”

Something flashed over Émeraude’s features as a deep frown showed itself on her lips. “I was told he passed quietly in the night. Quite suddenly, in fact. He had not been in good health before he passed away, of course. He always had a weak heart. Though his death still surprised us when it happened.”

It was difficult to read the fey, but I detected more in her words than mere grief. Though whatever it was, she hid it well behind a somewhat detached aura, even if there was an undercurrent of ... wrath, in eyes? Now what might provoke such a response?

“My condolences for your loss,” I said. “Especially when he does not seem to have left a clear heir to his house.”

Émeraude sighed and nodded. “‘Tis always sad to see one of my descendants pass, but ‘tis a pain I am used to.”

“Though that does make me curious about yourself.” I sat at the table as I spoke with Émeraude. “‘Tis strange to see a fey such as yourself walking quite so openly as this.”

Émeraude sat at the head of the table and grinned. “Not all of us are subtle manipulators who stick to the shadows.”

“Some of them know you catch more flies with honey,” Subtle said under her breath, sitting next to me. Her hostility to Émeraude made me wonder if she was merely suspicious of the fey or had some reason to dislike the fair folk. Though if Émeraude was the least bit perturbed by Subtle’s suspicion, she didn't show it.

“So what is your place here in Honeyfield?” I asked. “You mentioned you are related to the counts of Honeyfield.”

She smiled and nodded. “Why, the old count was my nephew. Many generations removed, but...” Her shoulders moved in a casual shrug.

“Is that so?” I said. “How long have you been with the Honeyfields?”

“Almost since the beginning.” Émeraude pointed to a mosaic that spanned the dining hall walls. It was an old painting, made in a style centuries old. It depicted a unicorn in armor, wielding his sword valiantly before a horde of barbarically depicted gryphon warriors accompanied by a score of wyverns. Behind the shining knight were a half dozen fierce companions, who in turn were followed by a mixture of knights, earth pony militia, and pegasi warriors, with a walled city behind them.

“Centuries ago, Sir Steel Grace discovered a gryphon reiver plot to sack Fillydelphia,” Émeraude explained. “With great skill and diplomacy, he managed to organize a defense against the reivers, and after a difficult siege, the defenders managed to hold off the attackers until a relief army led by Queen Luna repulsed the invaders—thanks in no small part to Steel rallying its defenders time and again.”

She pointed to another mural, this one depicting Sir Steel Grace kneeling before Queen Luna and then—Queen Celestia, a scroll being levitated from them to Steel. “As reward, our queens rewarded him with a new title of nobility, that of what would be called the County of Honeyfield. At the time Honeyfield was a wild land, filled with monsters and other dangers, but step by step Steel and his followers claimed this land. One of his greatest successes was when he met with the local fey and formed an accord with them. In exchange for certain tributes and guarantees of conduct on the part of ponies, the fey ensured that the land would be bountiful, and that there would be peace ‘tween the fey and ponies.”

I leaned forward, quite interested to hear the details of the founding of Honeyfield. “And I am to assume that you are somehow part of this accord?”

Émeraude smiled and nodded. “Indeed. For I am the first child of Count Steel Grace, born of the count and a fey lover to seal the binding of the Honeyfield Compact.”

I tilted my head as I considered this. “And if I had to guess, you are a fey whose duties are tied to Honeyfield and its counts?” No fey existed without purpose. Each served some role, great or small, within the fabric of reality, be it the managing of certain aspects of nature, like the dryads with their trees and forests or the muses and the promotion of the arts. It was tied into their very being.

“Indeed. 'Tis my duty to maintain the accord and protect the descendants of my father, and so I have for all these years.” Émeraude smiled with clear self-satisfaction. “And in addition to the great bounty of the land, Honeyfield produces the finest honey and mead in all of Equestria. As such, the Compact brings peace and prosperity to my home.”

“That is good to know.” It did help put some context to what I was dealing with in Honeyfield. At the very least, it showed that Émeraude was an important figure to the county, and a potentially useful source of information. With that in mind, I asked, “Then no doubt you would have some strong opinions on who should become the count or countess of Honeyfield.”

“I would hardly be here otherwise,” Émeraude confirmed.

“Who would you prefer to inherit the title?” I probed. “For if I understand everything correctly, while you were Sir Steel’s firstborn, you were not his legitimate heir. So I am to guess that your father eventually married and had a heir by his lawfully wedded wife.”

Émeraude gave me a wry grin. “That is correct. The Accord assigned me to aid those of my blood, not rule over them. I simply want to make sure the best candidate is chosen to be the lord of Honeyfield. Though considering none of them were groomed for the post, I would naturally be willing to provide the benefit of my centuries of experience.”

“In other words, you want to manipulate things from behind the scenes,” Subtle observed bluntly.

“It is only natural that I should wish for my descendant to know how to do his or her duties,” Émeraude calmly countered. “I have advised the counts and countesses for centuries, and plan to continue doing so.”

I nodded in allowance. She made a point, even if I would personally be wary of the manipulations of a centuries-old fey. But there seemed little I could do about Émeraude unless I wanted to act in an extreme manner. “That makes sense enough. Of course, we will need to find a suitable pony to take up the title and its duties. For that, I will need to interview all who desire the title so that I can find the best candidate.”

“But of course,” Émeraude readily agreed. “And if you should like ... any additional information.” She let the offer of a bargain hang in the air as she tried to entice me.

That would explain why she information about all the would-be counts of Honeyfield had been so sparse up to now. She wished to strike a deal with me to tell me what I would like to know. That was a tricky proposition, especially when I had only arrived. ‘Twould be far safer to see what I was deal with with mine own eyes before I made a deal for information with Émeraude.

Before I could reply, Song narrowed her eyes and spoke first. “If you think we would allow Midnight to be so blatantly manipulated...”

Émeraude smiled dryly. “Of course, I only meant to be of aid.”

“I will keep your offer in mind for the future,” I said graciously so as to not offend her. No sense being rude.

Before we could continue our conversation, Captain Freezy returned to the dining hall with a servant in tow. “Here are your mead and honeyed cakes, miladies,” she announced as the servant placed the food and drink before us.

We all thanked them for their hospitality. I tried one of the honey cakes and found it quite tasty. Better even than what I typically enjoyed in Canterlot.

Stalwart raised his mug to Freezy. “Thank you, warrior.” He took an experimental sip of his mead and, finding it to his tastes, took a deeper draft. “If I might ask, from which clan did you hail?”

Freezy stiffened for a moment, but then relaxed her muscles. “The Doos, if you must know.”

Stalwart nodded. “A good and noble clan. My late wife was a Doo.” He smiled, and a wistful look fell over his features.

The compliment brought a slight smile to Freezy’s lips. “Aye, I do miss it. Mayhap we could speak of old times over some mead later, Sergeant?”

“I would be glad to,” Stalwart said. “It has been too long since I spoke with one of your clan.”

For my part, I was far less nostalgic for the pegasi clans. But likely I was biased when Pegasopolis laid siege to my home, threatened to sack the city and engage in wanton acts pillaging, rapine, and burning, and had kidnapped me with the intentions of slicing open my entrails and bleeding me out for the purpose of feeding a dark god enough power to slay all those I so loved and cared for, and bring about an eternal night that would see Equestria slowly become a frozen tomb from which there was no escape.

I think my bias is more than rational, even if I would not disallow my loyal bodyguard from exchanging memories with a fellow pegasus about their fallen nation.

“Then we will do so later,” Freezy said. “It would be good to talk with a proper warrior that is not part of Honeyfield’s guard.”

Émeraude put on a smile that stuck me as forced. “I am glad to see everyone is getting along.”

“'Tis far better than us being in discord, I would think.” I picked up another one of the honey cakes. “‘Twould be most unbecoming for us to engage in great and terrible acts of violence that caused blood to drench your home in blood and gore.”

Subtle grinned. “Exactly.”

“Yes, we can't have any of that,” Émeraude agreed. “It would be a terrible mess for the servants to clean up.” One of the fey’s ears flicked and turned. “Speaking of...”

Before I could say anything else, a dozen dogs, large bloodhounds each, raced into the dining hall. They had clearly just been outside, for they were all covered in mud and foliage stuck to them. I did not have the time to raise an objection before they swarmed me. The first two stuck their muzzles right into my face to sniff me and lick at my face, and another snatched the honey cake right out of my telekinesis. The beast barely even bothered with chewing before swallowing the treat. Then, worst of all, the pack started rubbing themselves against me, coating me with a layer of mud, their tails smacking against my sides as they continued to assault me with more licking.

I knew not what to do in the face of this. All I could do was grimace and clench up in revulsion as the bloodhounds made me utterly filthy.

Émeraude smiled and idly patted one of the dogs on the head. “I see Rumble has returned.”

“Is that so?” I asked, my eye twitching as I was forced to maintain a decorum that had been thoroughly violated. “And pray tell, who is Rumble?”

My question was answered when a unicorn stallion strode in through the same doorway as the dogs. It was somewhat difficult to tell with his brown coat, but the barrel-chested stallion who must have been Rumble was as covered in as much mud as his dogs. There were even leaves sticking out of his bushy yellow beard and mane. “Ah, nothing like a good hunt to get the blood flowing!” He flopped down onto one of the tableside cushions, irrespective of the mud he was getting on it. Instead of being mindful of the mess he was causing, he raised a hoof to catch the attention of one of the servants. “Bring me some mead! I only return because I ran out.”

I forced my lips into something like a smile as the dogs continued bury me in a pile of wet and dirty fur, wet kisses and noses, and wagging tails. “I presume you are Rumble?”

“I am!” Rumble slammed a hoof on the table. “Sir Rumble Rapids. Count Rumble Rapids, soon enough. And you would be...?”

“I am Magus Midnight,” I told him as I tried to push one to the bloodhound’s muzzles out of my face, only for two more to take its place. “I was assigned by Princess Celestia to evaluate all the candidates to become count of Honeyfield.”

Rumble’s smile widened. “Ah, so you're here to confirm me as the new count? Good! You could just have just sent a letter, but I can see where our princess would want to send some pony important to tell everypony the good news.”

The frown I showed suddenly did not have to do solely with the dogs surrounding me. “I have confirmed nothing yet since I have only just arrived. There is still much work to be done before a decision can be made.”

“Of course, of course.” The would-be count waved dismissively. “All that paperwork nonsense the paper-pushers seem to love.”

Before we delved into any more of Rumble’s insistences that he would be count, I addressed a more immediate problem. “And could you retrieve your dogs? They are...” One of the hounds enthusiastically licked me across the face. “Excessively friendly.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Rumble whistled, and the dogs immediately obeyed him. They all took position a little bit away from the table sat in a neat row.

I let out a relieved sigh. “My thanks.” I grimaced as I looked over my mud-covered frame and cloak. The dogs had been most thorough in making sure nothing of me remained clean, and I could feel that my mane was out of place due to all the licking. This was ... undesireable.

“Of course, of course.” Rumble shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, they're friendly.”

I gave him a flat look. “I noticed.”

“Mine apologies, Magus.” Émeraude smiled as her gaze fell over the dogs. “Our hunting dogs really are quite well trained. Even if my nephew does tend to let them off the leash a little more than he perhaps should.”

Rumble snorted and rolled his eyes. “Oh, stop naggin’ me. They are dogs; they are meant to be let run wild now and again.”

Émeraude gave him a reproachful look but remained silent.

I decided to interrupt them so that I could get the conversation back to the topic I wished to address. “In any event, ‘tis my hope that I could meet with everypony who desires to take up the title of Honeyfield. Could this be arranged?”

Émeraude nodded. “But of course, honored guest.”

Rumble shot his great aunt a narrowed eyed glare. “Do you practice being so damned unctuous, or does it just come naturally?” he growled at her.

“She has been a model host thus far,” I found myself saying in Émeraude’s defense. Well, she had been far more gracious of a host than Rumble up to this point. One would think he would be a bit more concerned by my presence than not at all.

Émeraude smiled. “Thank you, Midnight.”

“Mayhap a bath could be drawn for me while that meeting is arranged?” I asked.

“Perhaps you could as well, Rumble?” Émeraude said with a pointed smile.

Rumble frowned as he considered the question and then lifted his leg to sniff at the pit of his leg. “Nah, I am quite fine.”

I gave Rumble a smile that perhaps showed a bit too much teeth. “I see that nature suits you.”

Rumble nodded, seemingly ignorant of my barb. “Of course.”

Émeraude sighed and stood. “Allow me to show you the way, Magus.”

“My thanks.” I stood and grimaced, as the sensation of being covered by mud did not suit me. “It seems I have ... developed some dirt.”

With the aid of Castle Honeyfield's servants, I was soon clean. After brushing out my mane and coat and putting on a fresh cloak, I was once again presentable. That done, I stepped out of the room provided to me, and found Émeraude waiting on me.

She smiled at the sight of me. “I see our baths agreed with you, Magus.”

I nodded. “That it did. Much more than being covered by mud.”

Émeraude sighed and ran a hoof through her mane. “Rumble has always had a touch more enthusiasm than decorum.”

“I noticed.” Diplomacy certainly did not seem to be one of his innate skills. There was more than one distinguished individual I knew that would have immediately departed Honeyfield's after the rough treatment I had received on his part—at least without some sort of profuse apology. But I had my duty to the Princess, and so would not do quickly abandons my mission regardless of my distaste for mud. “He strikes me as one more comfortable with the countryside than in any kind of court or formal affair.”

“Exactly,” Émeraude agreed. “To be honest, I do not even know why he even wants to inherit his uncle’s title. I can hardly imagine he would want to rule, as the burdens of rule would bring him no pleasure. Acting as a knight in his lord’s service seems to suit him just fine.”

“That would be a good question.” It made me wonder if Émeraude was suggesting that Rumble should not be chosen to become a count. “The burdens of rule are not to be taken lightly. Especially when they are to be borne for the rest of one’s life.”

Émeraude hummed in agreement. “Something quite a few of the others could do well to remember. Everyone has been gathered and is waiting for you downstairs in the parlor. If you would follow me…?”

I followed her down to the parlor. As to be expected of a count’s parlor, the room was luxuriously decorated. Paintings and animal heads adorned the wall. Unfortunately, none of skulls had been painted pink. The fine fireplace had been lit with a gentle fire, and all the furniture looked comfortable to recline on.

Within the room were over half a dozen individuals, including Subtle, Stalwart, Émeraude, Freezy, and Rumble. There were three others I did not know, besides the servants who were providing snacks and drink to everyone present. Many of them eyed each other warily, and there was a thickness to the air as I entered. Whatever their relationships might be, I could sense that this was no friendly meeting between family.

Corva spoke up in my mind as I made my way towards the fireplace. “Be mindful of those around thee, Midnight. See how they look at one another? How they trade words, and what is and is not said. Much can be gleamed with a watchful eye.”

“I will be sure to pay attention,” I assured the raven queen. Her lessons had not only pertained to magic; certain social lessons had been among the other things she had insisted on teaching me.

I cleared my throat and raised my voice. “Greetings everypony. I am Magus Midnight, and as you have probably heard, I have been sent by Princess Celestia to review everyone's claims on the title of count for Honeyfield.”

“Well, here we all are,” Rumble interrupted in what I was starting to suspect was his typically brusk manner. “Let us waste no time settling it.”

“The process will take as long as it takes,” I affirmed, reasserting my authority. “I plan on being thorough in my duties and will act accordingly. To start the process, I would like to hear everypony's claim. I have met with a couple of you already, but I do not know most of you or what brings you here this day.”

A unicorn mare stood up from the couch she had been using alongside a portly-looking earth pony stallion. She appeared to be in the prime of her youth, and was wearing a fashionable azure dress. Her bright smile accentuated a very comely and shapely face. With naturally regal bearing, white coat, and a pink mane done up in a meticulous bun, she could easily have fit in amongst the Canterlot elite.

She curtseyed for me, a bright smile on her face as she spoke. “I am Lady Shining Quest, and it is a pleasure to meet you, honorable magus. I am from a noble and honorable cadet branch of the Honeyfield family, and with the succession in doubt, I seek to take over from my dearly departed cousin.”

“‘Dearly departed’,” Rumble spat eliciting a scowl from Shining. “I have never met you, and I do not think my cousin did either.”

I loudly cleared my throat and gave Rumble a pointed look. “I ask that we refrain from comments for now. Debate can wait until after I have a firm grasp on who is who here.”

Émeraude smiled lazily as she sat on her own cushion. “Émeraude Gracieuse. Great-aunt to the former count, and long-time guardian of Honeyfield and its family. I merely wish to ensure that whomever takes over the county rules well and ably.”

The next to address me was a unicorn stallion with a dark-grey coat and icy-blue mane. His mane and rich moustache were well-groomed, and he carried himself with the air of nobility. “I am Duke Fierté Ferme of Blackwood.” He smiled confidently for me. “I believe we have already been introduced in Canterlot, Magus?”

I nodded. Indeed I had met the duke during a couple of social occasions within Canterlot, even if those meetings had not been long ones. The Duke of Blackwood had at least seemed an honorable stallion, even if he was not one of my mother’s allies. “We have, Duke Ferme. It is a pleasure to see you again. Do you have a claim on the county as well?”

“No, I am afraid the reason I came to Honeyfield is a different matter.” Duke Ferme let out a long sigh. “Unfortunately, I am sorry to say my old friend High has left a rather severe debt to me. I have tried to cover for him during the last few hard years of his life, especially as Honeyfield had trouble meeting its obligations, but I am afraid I am reaching a point where something must be done about Honeyfield's outstanding debts.” He shrugged helplessly. “It was my hope that some sort of arrangement could be made.”

I frowned as I wondered how much debt he was talking about. That was one more thing I would have to investigate. One of the tasks of a royal agent in these circumstances was to double check how the affairs of the title were doing. On more than one occasion Her Highness had stripped a title from a family that had proven to be poor stewards, especially where money was concerned—though the Princess did not do so save in extreme circumstances. Both because it upset the nobility, and because she did not wish to take away the legacy of the pony she had gifted the title to begin with.

“I will keep that in mind as I proceed,” I said. “While I am here I will see what can be done about the debt in question.”

“My thanks for that,” Duke Ferme said. “If nothing else, mayhaps a deal can be struck to leave everypony happy.”

That offer made me wonder what the duke really sought. I had a feeling that he wanted more than merely to be paid his money back. “Émeraude, I trust the county records can be made available to me?” I asked.

Émeraude inclined her head in a nod. “They can be.”

“Then I will be sure to look them over later.”

Rumble shifted in his seat, giving the others a narrowed eyed look as he spoke. “The count was my cousin—quite a bit closer than certain branches of the family.” His stared daggers at Shining. “Not to mention we were very dear, close friends. He asked me to look after his lands after he could no longer do so, and I intend to.”

Shining scoffed and sat back down on her cushion next to her earth pony companion. “Yes, and we can see how well Honeyfield has done when you advised the late count.”

“Meaning what, exactly?” Rumble growled.

“Meaning the county is on the brink of bankruptcy.” Shining absently played with her mane as she continued speaking. “If it gets any worse, Her Highness might very well take back the county and then give them to another family.”

“Something I intend to prevent,” Émeraude stated firmly. “I have not watched over this family and these lands for centuries just to see them lost now.”

Shining smiled and nodded. “What this county needs is somepony to govern it back to good health and then pass it down to our descendants. I have been raised since birth to help manage an estate, and can be a good steward of Honeyfield for our family and the people of the county.”

That certainly sounded like a noble ideal, even if I had to be wary about Shining’s actual motives. If I were in her place, I would seek to tailor mine argument for mine audience. Hopefully, an individual interview would help me find out more about her and her desires.

“Shame for you the law is perfectly clear,” Rumble shot back. “I am the closer relative, and the count's prefered choice. Therefore, I should become count.”

“A pity then that your finances would not aid the county at all,” Shining said as she dismissively brushed some dirt off her dress. “Meanwhile, my family can provide sufficient funds to relieve its financial obligations, and I have means by which to acquire more funds from friends of mine.” She smiled at her unassuming earth pony friend.

“You cannot buy a better claim, girl,” Rumble said with a scowl. “And being a count is about more than money.”

“True,” Shining said airily. “There is also the matter that you are not a young stallion. And yet, you are unwed and without an heir. There seems little point in giving you the title if we will face the same sort of succession crisis in a matter of years.”

Rumble shrugged. “Never needed a wife before now. I can assure you, my lady, my loins are still perfectly fruitful. I can do my duty if need be. And—”

I held up a hoof to forestall them. “That is quite enough. We can review the specifics of your claims once I have had time to study them. For now, what other claims are there?” ‘Tis not that I was overly eager to see more of them. The situation was already becoming complicated. It seemed there was little hope that I would quickly and easily be able to fix the county.

Captain Freezy stepped forward to address me. “I for one only seek to make sure my daughter is provided for.” She squared her shoulders as she continued. “My daughter, Snowfall, is the only surviving child of High Stakes, and while illegitimate, is still entitled to a stipend so that she will be taken care of.”

Duke Ferme looked out the corner of his eye at Freezy. “Something that might be difficult to arrange with the county's finances being what they are.”

Rumble scoffed at the suggestion, waving it off. “I am sure we can find a few bits to see that his child is cared for.”

“Thou dost not seek the title of countess for thy child, Captain Freezy?” I asked. “While she may be an illegitimate child of Count High Stakes, she still has a claim on Honeyfield with there being no legitimate children of the count.”

Freezy’s reply was a derisive snort. “I would not wish that fate for my daughter. She deserves better than to be chained down to this place. All I wish for is the bits to see for her wellbeing.”

That was a more hostile response to the idea of her daughter becoming a countess than I had expected. Especially from a mare Émeraude had described as quite loyal to the late count. Mayhaps the pain of his loss was driving her to leave the county once her daughter’s future had been secured? Yet another thing I would have to look into.

“‘Tis reasonable that Snowfall should get a stipend,” I stated. “No doubt her father would desire his daughter to be provided for. Does anyone here object to that?” None were raised among the ponies around me. Whether that meant they all agreed with me or did not wish to risk my displeasure I could not say. “Then if there are no objections I will hold whomever becomes the count to that promise. I know Princess Celestia will most certainly require it.”

“Good, that's one thing settled,” Rumble grumbled, leaning back in his seat. “Keep it up and we might actually make some progress.”

“Wait!” somepony yelled from an adjacent room. There was the sound of ponies scuffling outside the parlor, and then the doors burst inwards. A disheveled stallion stumbled his way into the room. His greying brown mane was wild and unkempt, his dark-green coat unbrushed, and days-old stubble covered his face. He was thin from hunger, and there was a wild look to his eyes.

Stalwart immediately took a position between me and the newcomer, and I prepared a couple of spells in the event they were needed to protect myself or the other guests.

The strange stallion took a moment to take us all in, his fierce scowl growing as his eyes swept over them. It was all the time needed for the house guards to catch up and come to grapple with him. Freezy hissed and motioned for the guards to take the stallion away. She turned me and bowed her head. “My apologies. This pony has been causing trouble in the town and—”

“Do not listen to these charlatans!” the stallion screamed over her. “I am High Roller, and I am the count's son and true heir! Do not let them—” He was silenced when one of the guards punched him in the stomach, blowing the air out of him.

They started dragging him away, but I held up a hoof to to them. “Wait.” This might very well be some madpony, but the fact he had claimed that to be the count’s true heir. That was something I had to address.

Freezy raised her voice up in objection. “Magus, do not entertain this troublemaker. He may claim to be High’s son, but High Stakes’ son died during the war.”

“This is certain?” I asked. “Was a body recovered, or can a reliable witness be presented for this fact?” I had heard of more than one circumstance where somepony had been believed to be dead from the war only to be found alive sometime later. One never knew for certain if a magus was dead until a corpse was recovered, and sometimes even then...

Freezy hesitated. “Neigh, he was with Duke Polaris’ army when it was destroyed, and he never returned to Honeyfield. It was assumed he must have fallen on the battlefield.”

Rumble grunted in agreement. “Aye, I was at that battle, and ‘twas nothing but chaos. I only barely avoided death or capture myself. Many fallen ponies were never recovered.”

A curious development. With this knowledge in hoof, I turned to the pony who claimed to be the heir of High Stakes and waved for the guards to release him. “Do you have any evidence to sustain that claim?”

“Aye! Ponies here will know me!” He turned a desperate gaze to Rumble. “Uncle, you remember your nephew, do you not?!”

Rumble’s eyes narrowed slowly. “I remember a young stallion going out to make a name for himself a decade ago and vanishing without a trace, leaving a heartbroken father.”

The stallion blinked and took a step back as though he had been slapped. “I was captured when Duke Polaris' army was defeated! I was taken to the prisoner camps, but then some of those damnable militia ponies at Manehattan sold me to Freeport pirates. They intended to ransom me back to my father. I would have returned sooner, but the ransom never came!”

“And you just now appear, of all times?” Shining asked, incredulity lacing her words. “That is an outstanding coincidence.”

“‘Tis the truth!” His gaze returned to me. “I only recently managed to escape from slavery in Freeport! 'Twas not by choice I have been away!”

“I will grant that he does resemble my nephew, or at least what I recall of the lad.” Rumble shrugged. “Though I expect there are dozens of stallions who do, especially with a decade for memories to fade and aging to account for. And the right magic can let a pony look like just about anypony.”

The stranger turned to the fey guardian of Honeyfield. “Émeraude! You remember me, do you not?”

Émeraude nodded and she spoke with a casual air. “I remember High Roller well, but you look a fair bit older than he should.”

His mouth worked wordlessly after Émeraude failed to produce a firm affirmation on who he claimed to be, a look of hurt betrayal on his face. “Y-you all are trying to steal my father's legacy from me! I should have all of you tossed out on your ears!”

Freezy shot me an unamused look. “Shall I have him removed, Magus?”

I nodded. “Remove him for now. Take him to an inn in Glazing, and get him a room at mine expense. I will investigate his claims later.” It seemed best to remove the stallion from the current situation, at the very least. Having him standing here before a hostile audience was not helping his case in any event. While the timing of his appearance was highly suspicious, I would still look into it.

Freezy frowned, but waved to the guards. “Do as the magus ordered.”

“B-but...” The stallion made a half-hearted attempt to resist the guards, but it was hardly sufficient to stop them from pulling him away.

“I will interview you later to substantiate your claims,” I assured him. “Eat a proper meal at the inn, and get some proper rest in the meantime. I am not going anywhere soon.”

The stallion said no more as he was carried away. Once he had departed, I turned to the rest of the group. “Now that the claim has been made, I am required to investigate it. I am sure you all understand.”

Freezy snorted. “You are not seriously giving that stallion credence, are you?”

“His claims seem far-fetched,” Shining added.

Émeraude shrugged. “The claim is outlandish and the timing deeply suspicious, but we must be thorough about legal matters of such high importance.”

Rumble snorted but nodded. “If it does turn out to be true, we've all wasted a lot of time and worry. Good thing High is not here, or he would be pissed, whatever the truth.”

“I suggest you relax and await for me to speak with each of you in private,” I told them. “There are a few things I wish to look into first, such as High Stakes’ will.” A look at his will should give at least some indicator on what he wished to be done with Honeyfield. ‘Twould at least give me some legal basis on which to act upon with my decisions, such as how much to give to his illegitimate daughter.

“High Stakes has no will,” Freezy stated.

I blinked slowly and tilted my head. “Excuse me? As a count, he was legally required to have a will.”

Freezy shrugged. “The count did as he liked.”

“Strange,” Émeraude said. “I could have sworn he had made a will.”

“I could find no will amongst his papers,” Freezy said. “I checked when I heard Celestia was sending somepony to determine who would be the next count.”

I frowned deeply. “That is troublesome.”

I had four ponies with claims to become the count or countess of Honeyfield. One was the illegitimate child of the count, but whose mother wanted her to have no part of the title. The second was the late count’s boorish favored cousin. The third was a mare with only a distant claim on the title. The fourth and last was a pony claiming to be High Stakes’ decade-long missing son, who might just be touched in the head. On top of all of that was a guardian fey with her own agenda, a neighboring duke to whom was owed a significant debt, and the count’s missing will.

I had a lot of work ahead of me.

Author's Note:

I'd like to thank my editors Chengar Qordath and Comma-Kazie, and my prereaders Trinary, Rodinga, Swiftest, Bronywriter, wolfstorm56, Stupidhand14, Alicorn Priest, and Poison Claw for all their help with putting this story together.