• Published 11th Sep 2017
  • 3,380 Views, 328 Comments

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 2

One could learn a lot about a pony by looking at how they manage their paperwork: their finances, interests, worries, history, and innumerable other things laid bare. It could also be an extremely tedious and slow process, depending on the papers involved.

That was the case with the late Count Honeyfield. High Stakes’ paperwork was a terrible mess.

All around me in the castle’s study were stacked papers and books that I had only just begun to organize—mostly by making one pile of things that were of interest to me and another for things that were not. The room was quite dusty, and I had to delay mine investigation until I had cleared the cobwebs in the corners. Equally dirty and ancient books lined the shelves which covered the wall of the study, and when I first came to the study the desk had been covered by disorganized stacks of papers tall and unsteady enough to be a threat to the life of a small animal or child. It was clear that the room had seen little use for some time.

I had started discontented with the immediate task before me and had only become more displeased as the day progressed. Stalwart stretched his wings, watching as I moved to another stack of papers. “Ah, the unicorn obsession with paperwork rears its head once more.”

“The unicorn who wrote this needed to be more obsessed with his work,” I lambasted. I held up the book I had been reading and a trio of papers slipped out of it to fall to the floor. “These ledgers were written in a most confusing manner. Half the time only the barest information for the county’s income and expenses was written. Mother would have tanned my hide if I my recordkeeping were half this sloppy.”

Subtle grunted as she flipped through the book intended to contain the county’s tax records. “I can't find any patterns here. It's like all the records were just written on random scraps of paper and shoved into a closet.”

“Because half of them were.” I scowled as I picked up the papers from the floor. “Half a dozen pages fell out of this leger when I first opened it.” I held up one of the papers for the others to see. “This is an IOU written by Duke Blackwood, and it has been stained by something. How is anypony supposed to work with this?”

Subtle rubbed the bridge of her nose. “It could take us weeks to sort this out.”

Melancholy overtook me as I found myself agreeing with her. This county needed some serious help organizing all of this. I was tempted to ask Duke Ferme for assistance and allow me to look at his records for how much Honeyfield owed him, though I was cautious of trusting him. With how poor the records here were, the Duke of Blackwood could write just about any amount he wanted Honeyfield to owe him.

What I knew for certain was that Honeyfield owed Blackwood a very considerable sum of money, even if the exact figure eluded me. Some of it consisted of loans to help cover shortfalls to Honeyfield’s budget, something that I was sure had started even before the war, but those figures had only ballooned after the bloody conflict. But what was really hurting Honeyfield’s finances was the truly outrageous gambling debt High Stakes owed Duke Ferme. It was clear that the late count loved games of chance, and ‘twas equally clear that his love was unrequited. A quick overview of the numbers showed that he thought little of betting the equivalent of a normal farming family’s yearly income in a single afternoon.

I had to wonder if High Stakes merely suffered from unusually poor luck or if some darker conspiracy was in the works. ‘Twas possible that Duke Ferme had tricked the count into a series of wagers over the years, mayhaps even cheating during those games, with the intention of using that debt to gain a powerful leverage against Honeyfield. More than one noble family had been forced into sour deals over the centuries due to poor finances.

Stalwart grunted in sympathy for us. “I expect you are tired of hearing remarks like this, but I feel compelled to point out that in Pegasopolis this would not even be a problem.”

“Pegasopolis did not worry about where its food and other supplies came from,” I grumbled, not in a mood to hear of Pegasopolis’ inherent superiority yet again. “'Twas unicorn and earth pony accountants who took care of such things for them.”

“Oh, we had our quartermasters and armorers,” Stalwart countered. “Though ‘twas not what I spoke of. My point was there would not be any debate on who would be the count's heir. The count has a living child.”

“Ah, that..” I rubbed mine eyes as I switched my thoughts from finances to dynastics. “That is a different matter. 'Tis most bothersome that the count does not seem to have a will. But aye, thou hast a point: this matter would be no matter at all if this was Pegasopolis.”

The pegasi had few concerns about the origins of a pony. Whether the product of marriage, passion, passing fancy, or adoption, what mattered most to them was that the child belonged to the parent. Of course, pegasi did not have as much to pass on to their children as earth ponies and unicorns—before the Lunar Rebellion, in any event.

“Perhaps, but that hardly matters,” Subtle said. “We are not solving a Pegasopolan succession dispute.”

Stalwart shrugged. “I suppose not. Still, it sits poorly with me.”

“I admit, 'tis strange that High Stakes did not make Snowfall his official heir,” I mused, setting the ledger off to the side for the moment. “Leaving aside the fact she is not in her majority, she is as good a choice as any to succeed him.”

Subtle frowned. “You have a point. Bastards are normally disregarded from the line of succession, but ‘tis far from unprecedented for one to be legitimized when there are no trueborn heirs.”

I nodded. “I am proof enough of that. Princess Celestia readily accepted me as my mother's heir, and she has done so for many others over the years.” The whole ordeal for me had taken all of a few minutes, and most of it consisted of small talk with Her Highness whilst she read over the necessary paperwork.

Subtle blinked and was quick to speak up. “Oh! Right! I ... I hope you know I meant no offense.”

I waved the matter aside. “No offense was intended or given. I know when somepony intends to insult me with my parentage.” It had certainly happened enough to me over the years. I suspect part of it was intended as slights against Mother, but I could not count the number of times I had heard ‘bastard’ or other titles used in my presence as a denigration. 'Twas very tiring to have to deal with.

“That does raise an intriguing point,” Subtle said, steering the topic back to something productive. “Why has there been no discussion of the count's bas—ah, natural child? With the lack of any trueborn heir, she would certainly be a viable choice.”

“Freezy was quite emphatic about not pushing a claim,” Stalwart answered. “All she desires is enough monday to raise her child in relative comfort.”

“Money,” I corrected, stroking my cheek as I considered the situation laid before me. “Aye, I am curious why she would have no interest in her child raising in her station. There are unicorns who would kill for such a thing—and have, at times.”

“But she is not a unicorn,” Stalwart pointed out.

Subtle’s eyes narrowed. “Need I remind you of the numerous inter-clan succession struggles Pegasopolis experienced over the years? Many pegasi died in the past over who should lead. Ambition is not something exclusive to unicorns, my friend.”

“She is right in that.” There were plenty of examples in history when one pegasus or another had taken exception to a given superior for whatever reason, often resulting in bloodshed. “I would be surprised if Freezy’s position as captain of the Honeyfield Houseguard was unrelated to the fact she was bedding the count.”

Subtle nodded. “It is a time-honored method of advancement.”

I tried not to think too hard about what Mother had said of the advantages such methods could give a mare. Now was not the time for me to become flustered by such things. “‘Tis curious that Freezy would not desire her daughter becoming a countess. Such would secure both of their wellbeing, assuming the county’s finances can be sorted.” I sat back in mine old and slightly dusty seat and crossed mine arms over my chest. “I could advise Her Highness to make Snowfall the heir, but that comes with two problems. The first is that her mother disapproves of the idea, and that is no small barrier. Her protests alone could dissuade the Princess, and she likely could convince her daughter to decline the title when she came of age.” (1)

1. It is the right of any would-be noble to not accept a title of nobility, though such occurrences are uncommon.

“In which case we would be right back where we started,” Subtle said.

“No small issue, since that would promote chaos here.” I sigh. “Which brings me to the second problem: she is not in her majority. Snowfall would require a regent to rule in her name until she is old enough to assume the title herself, which could be a decade or more depending on her exact age And such arrangements have a history of trouble.” Times where children officially ruled were rarely happy times, even when they had fully competent regents to manage affairs.

“Not to mention it would just set everyone who wants the county for themselves to arguing over which of them should be regent instead.” Subtle frowned darkly. “And it provides plenty of time for the child to suffer an ... accident.”

I crossed mine arms, not at all happy with the idea of Snowfall suffering an non-accidental accident. “That might very well be the reason why Captain Freezy does not wish for her child to become countess. Asking for a stipend is a safer option in comparison, especially if she can take her child someplace away from Honeyfield.”

Stalwart nodded. “‘Twould make sense, aye.”

“Mayhaps I should speak with Freezy in person about the issue,” I mused. “I see no point in making a decision without at least trying to discover her motivations.”

“That sounds worthwhile.” Subtle closed her eyes and scratched the side of her head. “Shall I look into the stallion claiming to be the count's trueborn heir?”

“I was thinking to go to town to speak with him myself,” I told her. “Whoever this pony truly is, I wish to gain a proper measure of him.” Whether this so-called High Roller be the true heir, a con, or a madpony, ‘twould be good to know in which category I should classify him.

“Naturally.” Subtle stood up and stretched her back. “But while you talk to him directly, somepony should do a little unofficial digging.”

I thought the matter over for a moment. “I would approve of this. Any more information you could find would be useful. If he is the late count's son, then the matter of the succession will be easy to deal with; if not, then I would prefer to know who he really is. He might be a danger to the noble family of Honeyfield or be in danger from it. Whatever the case might be, I wish to know”

“I admit I am quite suspicious,” Subtle said. “The son has been missing for a decade only to return now? Even in better circumstances, an heir vanishing without a trace is a perfect situation for a deceiver.”

“The timing could not be more suspicious,” I agreed. “And his story for why he was gone is ... unique.”

Stalwart grunted unhappily in agreement. “Reminds me of the time my son insisted he ate a cake to keep an army of monsters from stealing it.”

“If ‘tis indeed a lie, I have heard far more convincing ones over the years.” ‘Twas certainly nothing like what I had seen amongst the master manipulators in Canterlot. Their lies were so carefully crafted that they would be considered masterwork items were they physical objects. If this stallion was a fraud, he was a terrible one. “Go ahead and make thine inquiries. I will stay here a bit longer to grant thee time to work and allow me to prepare ere I meet with him. Something is odd about this, and I would know the truth of it.”

An hour later, I was busy trying to finish up my work in the study when a knock resonated from the door and it opened. Duke Fierte Ferme stepped into the study with the calm assurance typical of an experienced noble.

He gave me a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Hello, Magus. I was wondering if I might have a word in private with thee?” His eyes briefly flicked to Stalwart, who was still at his post by my side.

It was not hard to figure out he must have wanted to talk to me about something he would prefer to keep to as few ears as possible. As anypony with any sense knew that while ‘twas all too easy to overlook one’s followers, servants talked, both among themselves and others. It was thus often necessary to take precautions if the topic of discussion was of a sensitive nature.

Seeing no issue with the duke’s request, I nodded to Stalwart. “I do not think the Duke will attempt to murder me whilst we are engaged in negotiations. If he does, I will put a spear of ice through his chest, and he will watch as his heart’s blood leaks out onto the floor.”

Stalwart stared at me with an expression I could not readily read. “So noted. I will be right outside if you need me.” He saluted me and turned to leave the study, giving Ferme a brief look as he passed him.

After he left, Duke Ferme sat opposite of me, his smile tight as he spoke. “I see thou hast little fear of me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Should I fear you?”

The Duke shrugged indifferently. “Most ponies would not speak of slaying a duke so casually, both for prosperity and fear of upsetting a pony of my distinction.”

“My mother slew a duke once,” I told him coolly. “She reduced his body to a puff of smoke with a single spell.” Whatever a pony’s status or titles, I had found that everypony was more or less vulnerable. Even Her Highness could bleed.

Ferme hummed unhappily. “Aye, something of a pity that had to come to violence. It does not set a good precedent for a duke to be slain outright like that.”

Mine eyes narrowed as I thought back to that foul incident where I had nearly been sacrificed to a dark goddess so that she could destroy everything I cared for. “Duke Line was a traitor and he received a traitor's death. But that is not what we are here to discuss.”

“No, 'tis not.” His eyes turned to the large pile of papers before me. “By the looks of it, thou wasted little time examining High's accounts.”

“I can hardly decide how his estate should be disposed of without knowing what that estate is.”

Duke Ferme nodded. “True. Sadly, I must confirm that my friend owed me substantial debts before his passing, and now I worry that Honeyfield might not have the means to cover them.”

“And I presume you wish some form of recompense for that?” I asked, hoping to get at the heart of the matter. After multiple hours of looking at the late count’s records, I was in little mood to beat around the bush.

“It is only right,” he confirmed. “Though I am willing to be flexible in how I am compensated.”

“Oh?” Ah, now we were getting to what he really desired to talk .

Ferme leaned back and the full self-assurance of his smile returned. “Considering it will be some time before Honeyfield will be able to work its way out of its debt, mayhaps there is another solution. I do have children of marriageable age, and I would be willing to rescind that debt if the new count or countess were to marry one of them. After all, ‘twould make me a poor soul to drive mine own family into poverty.”

So that was his goal. ‘Twas was not money he desired, but to see his grandfoal inherit Honeyfield. That would expand his family’s influence, and potentially bring the noble house of Honeyfield wholly under the Duchy of Blackwood’s control. No small prize, indeed.

“That, I think, would be a matter to settle with whomever claims the county,” I said, temporizing as I considered this new information.

“Mayhaps, but I would be indebted to thee if thou wert to convince the heir to make such a deal with me.” The Duke propped his elbows on the table as he spoke more quietly. “No doubt thou canst see the benefits of having a duke as a benefactor, especially with thine own house having only recently been ennobled.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you attempting to bribe me?”

“Hardly so,” the Duke assured me in a manner that did little to reassure. “We are merely ponies seeking to aid another while solving a problem we all wish to see pleasantly resolved.”

“I see.” I kept mine expression carefully neutral. Whatever he said, Ferme was indeed offering me a bribe, even if ‘twas not one paid in bits. Admittedly, ‘twas no small offer; I knew him to be a stallion of power, wealth, and influence, but I was not about to neglect my duties to see the best candidate become the count, whatever promises were offered. I was willing to trade favors under the right circumstances, but here the Duke of Blackwood was merely bribing me to have his way, and I would have none of it.

The Duke sat back in his seat and let out a long sigh. “‘Tis my hope you will be helpful, for ‘twould be unfortunate if I had to approach the Princess to have this debt resolved. Considering how much I am owed, I might even recommend that Honeyfield be added to my domains.”

And so he presented the stick to accompany the carrot. If I did not give him what he wished for, he would go over my head and attempt to grab even more. “Ah. So that is the way of it.” I paused to gather my thoughts. “Tell me, how exactly did the count come to be in your debt?”

Duke Ferme shrugged nonchalantly. “His county has suffered hard times as of late, and I loaned him bits to alleviate his people's suffering. Some generosity can go a long way, especially during lean time as these.”

“And yet, mine own review of the estate's accounts shows no such loans,” I countered. “In fact, his ledger stated that he was giving money to you with all the bets he made against you.” While High Stakes had never been the most organized of accountants, ‘twas plain enough to see where his money had been coming from.

“High did love his game of chances, as many gentlestallions do,” Ferme replied smoothly. “Sadly, his luck did not reflect his love of the games. He never did seem to come out the winner by the end of the night. I tried to encourage him to slow down a bit, but...” He shrugged. “Well, some ponies do not know when 'tis best to quit.”

I was starting to suspect that Duke Ferme had encouraged High Stakes to bet well beyond what he could afford to lose. From what I had discovered, Stakes rarely if ever won his games, and when he did, his winnings never overshadowed his losses. The law of averages said that he should not have had such terrible luck. Neigh, likely he was being cheated by the pony he thought to be his friend. Every month he would accumulate more debt, debt the Duke of Blackwood had apparently not collected so as to encourage the count to keep gambling, all the while holding onto that debt as leverage against him later—or now against his heirs, as things had turned out.

I blinked slowly. “You clearly did not try too hard, since you continued gambling with him and taking his money.”

Duke Ferme’s smile turned stale. “We all have our vices, and 'twas ultimately High's choice to continue. I am sure thy mother would have something to say about not preventing another from making a mistake that is to one’s advantage.”

“So she would.” I stood up from my cushion and briefly stretched my legs. I had heard all I wished to hear from the Duke for now, and now I desired privacy while I considered how best to deal with him and the debt he had noosed around the neck of the county. “I now understand how the situations stands ‘tween the Duchy of Blackwood and the County of Honeyfield. My thanks for your time, but there is other business I must attend to.”

“But of course.” He stood, his insincere smile having returned to his lips. “I am confident we can work together. I see no reason to make this harder on anypony than it needs to be.”

“Indeed so.” I stepped to the door and opened it. “Good day to you, Duke. And I assure you, I will find the best way to deal with your debt.”

After my mildly unpleasant meeting with the Duke of Blackwood, I headed to the town of Glazing with the intention of speaking with the pony who claimed to be the late count’s son. It was thankfully a quick trip to the town with the skycarriage, and soon Stalwart and I were before the town inn where I had instructed the Honeyfield house guard to take the stallion.

Ponies hustled about me as they worked to finish up their business before the sunlight waned. A few of the buildings along the main street of the town appeared abandoned while a couple others seemed to be in poor repair. The town had seen better days, though I noted that at least some business continued to run as a river barge was in the middle of unloading its cargo. The inn before me was named the Sweet Dreams, and also seemed to be doing respectably for itself. A dozen ponies enjoyed their food, drink, and company as I entered.

Among those ponies was Subtle, sitting at a table with a trio of farmers who were enjoying a mug of some beverage. We caught one another’s eyes and I sat at an empty table. Stalwart silently took position by the table. A waiter came by, and I ordered a cup of hot cider so as not to be seen as loitering in the establishment.

Subtle excused herself from the farmers and made her way to my table. She smiled in a easy-going manner as she slid into her seat. “Finally pulled yourself from those boring old ledgers?”

I shook my head. “Hardly boring. I learned several valuable things from them.”

“Anything of particular interest?”

I cast a privacy spell about us to ensure we could speak freely. “It seems the duke played the count for a fool.”

“How much of a fool?” Subtle asked, waving for the waiter. “From what I have heard, our dearly departed count was a kindly sort, and not a pony that demanded much respect from those around him.”

“He encouraged the count to gamble far too much.” The waiter placed cider in front of me, and I sipped it before continuing. “And now Duke Ferme plans to use the count’s debt as leverage against Honeyfield.”

Subtle stroked her cheek. “Hm. You think he deliberately ensnared High Stakes with debt?”

“It seems likely, yes. But right now I wish to know what thou hast learned.”

“Quite a few things.” Subtle leaned forward on the table, an eager grin on her face. “It seems ponies in town do not know what to make of this pony who claims to be High Roller. While he looks something like the count's son, but not overly so, looking far older than a stallion his age should be. That, and he is not the first to claim he was Roller; several ponies have tried to do so in the past and were exposed as charlatans.”

“I suppose that should come as no surprise,” I said. “Many ponies would like to be a count or countess, and there is no shortage of ponies who would deceive their fellow equines.”

“Indeed, and Émeraude was not pleased by the cons.” Subtle grinned impishly. “She made her displeasure known to them.”

Considering Émeraude was a fey guardian of her family, I doubted she had been kind to the ponies who had attempted to fool her. Fey could take that type of thing very personally. “And the count?”

“Each incident seemed to put him into a great melancholy,” Subtle reported. “The first time ponies worried he would destroy himself by hardly eating and not seeing anypony for a straight month.”

“Ah.” I sipped my cider as I contemplated this. “That explains much of why they received this claimant so poorly.”

Subtle nodded. “Aye, the house guard has already tossed him out of the county once when he started trouble. But he seems a determined sort considering he managed to barge his way into the castle to see you.”

“And there is nothing to indicate his claim is true?”

“If he is to be believed, the pirates took away all his badges of nobility, as well as everything else he had by which to identify himself.” Subtle shrugged helplessly. “It has been ten years since he left Honeyfield for the war, so memories are faded on what exactly he looked like. And even then, magic can change a pony’s appearance—even a cutie mark can be faked with the right spells.”

“Then it seems there is no reason to believe his claim,” I stated. There seemed little evidence to believe the stallion, whatever he said. Certainly nothing seemed to be working in his favor.

Subtle took a swig of her mug. “'Twould be simple enough to send him on his way then. No sense entertaining someone who cannot prove he is who he says he is.”

I frowned, not liking the idea of dismissing him out of hoof. “I would speak with him first, to be sure.” It was best to be thorough in this, and I had promised to speak with him when I let him be sent away from the palace. It should at least give me some information of value for my purposes.

“Your choice, but do be careful with him,” Subtle warned. “He might react poorly to another rejection.”

“I think I can handle him if he does,” I said.

Stalwart nodded. “And I will be with her.”

“If that is the case, I will see what else I can dig up.” She rose from the table and winked at me. “Just try and get back to the castle before nightfall. River port towns like these can get rough.”

“I do not think my business will take too long.” I finished my cider and then also stood.

We made our goodbyes, and Subtle left the inn commons while I made inquiries with the innkeeper about the stallion who claimed to be the long-lost son of the count.

‘Twas not long until I was knocking on the door of the room of the mysterious stallion. I needed only wait but a few seconds before the door opened, revealing the pony calling himself High Roller. He smiled widely at the sight of me. “Magus! 'Tis so good to see you!” He opened the door up further so that I could enter. “Please, come in. I have been waiting quite eagerly for you.”

“And I have been looking to speak with you.” I stepped into the sparsely furnished room, Stalwart closely behind me, and Roller closed the door after me. Stalwart took position by the doorway, and I turned to face Roller. “I have come to evaluate your claim to the county of Honeyfield.”

“And I assure you, I am indeed my father's heir.” His eyes narrowed and he looked out his window to Honeyfield Castle. “Whatever those vultures may say, the county is mine by right.”

“If that is so, then you will receive your inheritance,” I assured him. “Howe'er, you should be aware that you are not the first stallion to claim to be the count's long-lost son.”

I could all but hear Roller grinding his teeth. “Charlatans, every one of them. More ponies trying to take advantage of my father.”

I nodded. “Indeed so. But, given the circumstances, I am sure you can understand why we would require proof that you are not simply another one of them.”

Roller hesitated for a moment, and a flash of emotions flickered over his features. “B-but ponies can recognize me! They know my colors and cutie mark at least!”

“Both of which can be faked with magic,” I pointed out. “Either illusions or shapeshifting magic can make one pony look like another.”

“But surely you can discover if such a ploy is being used?”

I frowned and rubbed my chin. “Aye, ‘tis certainly possible. Though I would need to make some preparations to check for sure if there are any magics at work here. I will seek to work on that later, but in the meantime I would ask if you have any other means by which to prove you are who you say.”

“How can we prove I am who I say I am? I fear everypony is plotting to deny me of my birthright.” He shook his head and started pacing about the room. “The thought only serves to raise my choler.”

“And they will succeed if you cannot prove your identity,” I pointed out to him. “Can you think of anything that would lend credence to your claim?”

Roller scoffed and shook his head. “How can I when my family badge and papers were stolen from me a decade ago, and everypony refuses to acknowledge I am who I say I am?!” He stomped a hoof and continued his pacing like an animal trapped in a cage.

“Some family secret only you would know?” I suggested as I watched him pace about the room. “A birthmark that could not be replicated?”

Roller stopped in place, and a smile grew on his lips. “I know the secret passage into the castle! 'Tis how I entered my home when the guards barred me entrance. I also know where my family keeps its secret safe. All the secrets of the castle are known to me.”

“This is a start.” Honestly, ‘twould be more disquieting for him to know these things if he was not who he said he was. But if what he said was true, then it would give me something to work off of. “Perhaps demonstrating that would prove worthwhile. Certainly more so than your previous actions.”

Roller grimaced. “What was I supposed to do, Magus? What would you do to claim what is yours?”

“A great deal,” I admitted, “but I would choose the wisest course to gain it.” Running around desperately proclaiming I was who I said I was would not be my first course of action if I was in Roller’s place. 'Tis the type of thing that made a pony look mad.

Roller sighed and ran a hoof through his mane. “Mine apologies if my conduct has not been to your liking. I am admittedly desperate. I went through so much to return home only to find that Father had passed not but a couple of days before mine arrival, and then to find that my way was barred by the guards who should be aiding me.” He shook his head and resumed pacing.

“I cannot imagine.” I cleared my throat. “I advise writing down anything else you can think of that might improve your case. I will speak with Rumble and Émeraude regarding an evaluation of your claim. I will return to you once I am done speaking with them and the other claimants.”

“I will do so.” He frowned deeply. “Though I wonder if my traitorous uncle will be cooperative. And Émeraude is ... well, she can be difficult during the best of times, and these are not the best of times.”

“They are the only ones who can confirm your identity,” I stated. “I will do what I can with them in any event, for I intend on getting to the truth of this.”

His looked darkened as his eyes narrowed. “Then I pray to you that you can prove I am who I say I am, or a grave misjustice will be done.”

I nodded. “I will do what I can.” Whether that was proving High Roller was who he said he was, or confirming he was a fraud was yet to be seen. But that could only be be discovered with more work. Sadly, I could not confirm it either way right at this moment, but there were still layers of this onion I had not yet reached.

Mine immediate business concluded, I headed to the door. “Good day. We will speak later.”

Rollers ears wilted and his gaze fell to the floor. “Aye, good day to you, Magus.”

As I left the inn room, Roller sat on the bed, his head bowed.

My meeting adjourned with the pony claiming to be High Roller, I returned to the castle to meet with one of the other claimants. While I was far from solving the problem before me, speaking each of them in turn at least gave context to the issue. With a bit more work I might even be able to unwrap this complicated knot. Already I had some ideas on what to do, but I was not yet ready to act on any of them.

It did not take me long to find the next pony I wished to interview. Shining Quest was in the castle parlor working on a painting, having removed her dress lest it be stained by her hobby. In front of her sat a bowl of fruit which she was attempting to recreate on the canvas. I was no expert on such things, but the painting seemed at least adequate, if nothing special—though to be fair, ‘twas not yet complete. Near her sitting on the couch was her stocky earth pony companion. He was busy reading a book and, like his companion, didn't initially notice me or my bodyguard as we entered.

I cleared my throat as I addressed them. “Good day to you, Lady Shining Quest.”

Shining blinked and spun around to face me. “Oh! Good to see you again, Magus.” Her expression of surprise was replaced by a bright smile. “I take it you wanted to see me?”

I nodded. “Indeed so. I have come to speak with you regarding your claim to the County of Honeyfield.”

“Little surprise.” She quickly cleaned her brush and placed it to the side. “Then let us speak about it.”

“Gladly.” I flicked my hoof to encourage her to speak. “Make your case, then.”

“But of course,” Shining said. “I am from a family of nobility and distinction, and one who is related to House Honeyfield. While I might not be the eldest of my siblings, I am available to take over this house and am more than able to run this estate. I have been finely educated, and as I have experience helping run my family's lands, serving as a steward of Honeyfield is well within mine ability.”

“But your bloodline claim is the weakest of the lot,” I pointed out to her. “What legitimacy do you have?”

Her smile lost some of its luster, but she continued speaking with a polite and welcoming voice. “While I might not have the strongest bloodline claim, I am the most capable. While Snowfall is my late cousin's only surviving child, she is but a child, and not ready for the duties that would be thrust 'pon her. And while I do not wish to besmirch Rumble … well, an intelligent and insightful mare such as yourself can no doubt see the problems with him trying to rule Honeyfield.”

‘Twas not poorly argued, and no doubt another would find it a convincing rationale, but there was a significant problem to it. “The law is clear on the matter: the county passes to the proper bloodline heir, not whoever thinks themself most suitable. How distantly related are you to other claimants?” There was also the fact that I had to take her word that she was competent enough for the task, something I could not easily prove right at that moment.

“Significantly, if I must be honest,” she admitted, her smile fading yet further. “I am a sixth or eighth cousin once removed, depending on which part of the family tree you are looking. Though I still come from a family of distinction, and that I can prove for you easily enough.”

“That might be true, but like I said, the law is clear on the matter of succession.” I blinked slowly. “Mayhaps there are a couple of solutions to this succession crisis we find before us. If you are willing to consider it, you could always marry Rumble and rule Honeyfield together.”

Shining frowned slightly and her eyes flicked to her companion. “Rumble is a fair bit older than myself, Magus. That could be ... complicated.”

“You need not make such an important decision right at this moment,” I assured her. “But it is at least one way to solve this argument in a way that would let most everypony be happy. Rumble seems at least moderately disinclined to want to deal with the particulars of rule, which offers opportunities for you if you consider this opportunity. Another option is that you could simply serve as an advisor to the proper ruler.”

Shining grimaced. “'Tis an offer I thank you for giving, but I would desire—”

“Do not be too hasty, Shining,” interrupted her companion. He stood from the couch to address us. “While these deals might not be exactly what you desire, they do have potential.”

Shining’s eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, but a reproachful glower from the earth pony cut her off. “We can ... hear her out.”

“And you are?” I turned mine attention to the newcomer to the conversation, quite curious as to who this pony was and what his relationship was with Shining. Thus far he had been silent, but now he had entered at the critical juncture of the negotiations.

He smiled and gave me a respectful bow. “Coin Count, at your service. I am a friend of her ladyship, and her advisor. I also represent the Riverwall Consortium, which has some interest in the wellbeing of Honeyfield.”

I inclined my head to him. “A pleasure.” I had heard of the business consortium running out of Manehattan, though that begged the question. “If you will excuse me for dispensing with pleasantries, what brings you to Honeyfield?”

“I do not mind at all,” Coin said, continuing to smile. “In truth, I like being able to get to business when I can. Not that I mind a good chat now and again, but now seems like the time for us to work on a deal.” He pressed his hoof to his face as he cleared his throat. “First, I would advise my friend to take you up on that deal you offered. Though if that deal is less than optimal, there is another prospect I think worth considering.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And what would that be?”

“If you select Snowfall, the late count’s sole surviving child, as his heir then she will require a regent for at least a decade.” Coin turned a sideways look at Shining. “And I know exactly who would be ideal for such a duty.”

“An intriguing proposition.” Making Snowfall the countess was one option I had considered, though it had one significant problem. “The trouble is that her mother objects to the idea of her becoming the countess.”

“Have you spoken with her about the succession yet?” Coin asked.

I shook my head. “Neigh, I have not.”

“Then I suggest you seriously consider doing so,” Coin advised. “Making Shining the child’s regent would be an acceptable compromise. Do you not think so, Shining?” He gave her a meaningful look.

Shining blinked but hurriedly nodded. “Oh! But of course. It would not be my first pick, but ‘tis ... acceptable.”

“I see.” While at first I had given this Coin Count little credit where the succession was concerned, I now suspected he held far more influence than I originally suspected. Considering how readily Shining was demurring to Coin, it seemed that Coin was the one really in charge here, or mayhaps had sufficient influence to tell Shining what plan to go along with. I had seen more than one noble whom had depended heavily on a trusted servant to get anything of worth done. So why exactly was Coin here?

“This is something I will seriously consider,” I said neutrally. “Though naturally I have to speak with the others and see what they think.”

Coin nodded. “Understandable.”

“I do wonder why you are here, Coin.” I tilted my head as I studied him. “You said that you are here representing your business, so what is your purpose? I doubt Shining hired you merely to serve as her advisor or you would have said so.”

There was a sparkle in Coin’s eye. “I am here to look into the potential business ventures here in Honeyfield. For example, I believe I have a solution to Honeyfield's little money problem.”

I flicked my hoof to encourage him. “Go on.”

“The Consortium would be willing to give Honeyfield a loan with a very modest interest rate to help cover its debt,” Coin explained.

Ah, now I saw where this was going. “But, I presume, only if Shining is in a position of prominence in Honeyfield?”

Coin nodded. “I and my superiors know Shining, and know that she is an honorable and good mare who will treat my consortium properly for its aid. I can hardly do the same with a mere child or a stallion with no love for business.”

I frowned with deep suspicion. “I will be frank when I say that sounds unusually generous for a business that would normally seek the best profit it could for its investment. This loan will only earn you a modest profit over a long period of time—a paltry reward for the number of bits we are talking .” And I would make sure that this loan would have a very reasonable rate if I approved the idea. I was not about to give Honeyfield over to a scheme intended to turn everypony into debt-slaves.

“I consider it a long-term investment,” Coin calmly assured me, sounding like he was reading from a script. “Honeyfield has traditionally been a prosperous land, and Shining and I have discussed many possibilities for how it could become so again with some other investments. The loan is merely to make sure that we can act without Duke Blackwood’s interference, and that House Honeyfield will be able to make its own investments in its lands.”

“But you would only make these investments if Shining is put in some prominent position within the county?” I asked, trying to get a glimpse as to what his motives were.

“As I have said, the others are a significantly greater risk as an investment.” Coin shrugged. “One too big for mine associates to seriously consider without Shining being given a position of prominence. We are businessponies, and making a profit is what we do. Just like slaying monsters and dealing with warlocks is yours, if you don't mind me saying.”

There was something he was not telling me, that I was certain. I had seen more than enough machinations at work to know when somepony was scheming, and these two were most definitely plotting. The issue was that I did not know what their plan might be, and discovering what they were up to would require more investigating.

“I see.” In all likelihood, I had heard all of value they would disclose, thus ‘twas time to close the conversation. “Very well then. I will review the genealogical documents, and anything else you might provide to support your case. I will also speak with the others to see if some deal along the lines we have spoken to might be acceptable to them. That is not a promise that anything we have spoken of will happen—merely an assurance that there will be a discussion.”

“Of course, Magus.” Shining opened a bag near her painting stand and smoothly pulled out some papers. “These should be everything you need to confirm my credentials. If there is anything else you need, I am more than willing to be of aid.”

“There is nothing else for now,” I assured them. “I have more than enough to work with right at this moment.”

The early night found me back in the castle’s study sitting at its desk as I perused the county’s papers. It had been my hope that there would be something that would indicate Count High Stake’s wishes for what should be done with his estate, but I had found precious little to give me a glimpse into his mind. We had attempted to find any letters or journal he might have possessed, but there was little of the former and we did not discover the latter. Either he was a stallion who did not like writing, or someone had destroyed those records. It was all quite vexing, especially given the other mysteries I was trying to unravel.

There were a great many secrets in Honeyfield, though mine investigation was producing some results. Facts and context were all being put together to form the picture of the puzzle before me, even if it felt like I only had maybe half the pieces of the puzzle available. Well, I should be able to find some answers once everypony was fast asleep.

I was pulled out of my ruminations when I noticed somepony at the doorway of the study. A small head with white fur and a short-cropped azure mane peaked at me with one of her dark-blue eyes. I raised an eyebrow, and the filly gasped and jerked her head back out of sight.

I blinked slowly, curious why this child acted so. “Come on out, then. I have already seen thee, so thou might as well show thyself.”

The filly slowly poked her head back around the doorframe, but she was not quick to emerge. I pondered how best to deal with this child. I knew not why, but children always seemed frightened of me. It made no sense when I was hardly that formidable or scary ... right? Mayhaps ‘twas merely my title that intimidated ponies. Aye, that would make sense.

Still, I desired to have her approach me. Contemplating mine own experiences as a filly, I remembered how my master, Morning Star, had often gotten me to open up. I pushed the plate of honeycakes that had been sitting in front of me towards the filly. “Come in and have a honeycake. They are quite tasty and I would like to share.”

That seemed to do the trick, for the filly cautiously approached. The small pegasus appeared to be six or seven years of age, and was tall and willowy in build, having none of the muscle of a proper warrior yet. She stopped short of the desk and contemplated the plate of honeycakes. “May I have one?”

I nodded. “Yes, for I am full and could not eat this. 'Twould be a shame for it to go to waste. Dost thou not agree?”

The child finally smiled and devoured a cake near as quickly as she touched it, pausing only after for a belated, “Thank you.”

“Thou art most welcome.” I set aside the ledger to give the filly my full attention. “I am Magus Midnight. Who wouldst thou be?”

“I am Snowfall, milady.” Finding the first honeycake to her liking, she immediately started on another.

“Ah, Snowfall.” Excellent. I had desired to speak with the child without her mother, and now the opportunity had come to me. “I have heard a great deal about thee.”

Snowfall wiped her mouth and tilted her head in befuddlement. “You have?”

I nodded. “Thou art the natural daughter of Freezy and the Count, yes?”

“I am,” she said after a slight moment of hesitation.

I leaned back in my chair to help create a relaxed air. As Mother and Gale had told me, children were often a great source of information if one knew how to use them. They saw much, and were often unnoticed by the adults around them. “What canst thou tell me about thy parents?”

“Oh! Lots!” Snowfall smiled brightly, no doubt pleased that an adult was giving her attention. “Um, Mother is the captain of the house guard, and 'tis her job to protect—um...” Her ears wilted and she turned her gaze from me.

It was a struggle not to grimace, for ‘twas not kind of me to remind her of her father so soon after his death. I stood up from the desk to place a hoof on the child’s shoulder. “I am sorry for what happened to thy father. I realize it must hurt to have lost him.”

I could sympathize with the child. After all, I had never known the mare who had brought me into the world, beyond that she had passed soon after my birth. That much hurt, but likely ‘twas not nearly as painful as the ache that lay in Snowfall’s heart. She had known and loved her father, and now her he had been torn from her at such a tender age.

Snowfall’s shoulders slumped. “I miss Father.”

I guided the child to the couch, settling next to her as I levitated the plate of honeycakes over. “Thou wert close to him?”

She nodded. “Mhm. We'd go on walks through the forest, and visit town where he’d buy me treats, and then he'd play with me, and tell me stories...” A bittersweet smile grew on her lips as she spoke.

I placed a hoof on her shoulder and gave her another cake. “Did he ever say anything about ... thy future?”

Snowfall bit into the cake and spoke with a half-full mouth. “Mhm, he said I was gonna be countess someday.”

I quirked an eyebrow. “Did he now?”

Snowfall nodded vigorously. “That is what he told me—because I am his little princess. That is what he said.” She smiled more brightly for me. “And he said I was gonna be the best countess ever!”

“That sounds lovely,” I assured her. It also gave me an important piece of information. Assuming Count High Stake was being sincere with his daughter, which seemed most likely, then this was the first real indicator I had found for who he wished to succeed him. The issue was that I only had Snowfall’s word on the matter.

“Though I am curious,” I mused out loud. “Wouldst thou like to be a countess?”

Snowfall’s muzzle scrunched up in contemplation. “I am not sure. Mother does not want me to become countess, but Father did. “

“And why does she not want this?” A question I greatly desired to have answered, since the answer to that might hold the key to how to deal with the succession.

Snowfall looked at the honeycake she had been eating, frowning as she did so. “She said it was not safe for me—that unicorns often fight over titles. Also she wants me to be a warrior instead of a countess.”

“I see. Thou shouldst know that one can be both a warrior and a countess,” I informed her. “There are innumerable examples of nobles who have taken the life of a warrior, or some other profession. I am my mother’s heir, and yet I am also a magus and proud of it. Even if thou wert to become a noble, thou wouldst still have some control over thy destiny.”

Snowfall wiped some crumbs off her muzzle and looked up at me. “Really?”

I nodded. “I know it to be so. Though I am curious about what thy father thought.”

“He said somepony needed to take care of Honeyfield after he was gone,” she said. “He told me that somepony of his blood needed to be countess to maintain the Accord with the fey for some reason, which is really, really important because it makes sure all the honey is made and a bunch of other stuff.”

“I see. I shall bear that in mind when making my decision, then. Thou art being most helpful in answering my questions, and for that thou hast my thanks. Especially where thy father’s wishes are concerned.” It at least gave me something on which to reflect upon, and speak with her mother .

“Mhm! Though Mother said I should not tell anypony that Father said that he wanted me to be countess.” Upon those words leaving her mouth, her eyes widened. “P-Please do not tell her I said that! I would get into trouble!”

“Do not worry, it can be our secret.” I smiled to assure her that all would be well; however, instead of the desired effect, Snowfall immediately grimaced and turned her face away from me as though she were staring into the sun itself.

“Good?” she managed to squeak out.

I frowned at the curious reaction of the filly. “Yes, good.” Really, I did not know why children reacted as so around me when I was kind and smiled to them. Mayhaps ‘twas something that would always be a mystery to me.

Snowfall’s eyes gazed about the room and settled on the stack of papers on the desk. “What are you doing?”

“Just going over paperwork,” I told her. “I expect 'twould bore thee.”

“Father said paperwork was reeeally boring,” she readily agreed.

“He was not entirely wrong.” Admittedly, even I could find it tedious at times. Especially when it stood between me and something I desired.

She sat there in silence for a few moments, squirming in her seat as she ate another honeycake. “I heard you were gonna pick the next count. That is what everypony’s been sayin’.”

“I am. Why do you ask?” There seemed no reason to lie to the child, and it might be good to hear what she thought on the matter.

“I was wonderin’.”

That might help explain what had brought the child to try and watch me from hiding. ‘Twas only natural for her to be curious about the pony who might well decide her fate. “And dost thou wish to be the countess?”

Snowfall frowned in contemplation. “Maybe? I do not know for sure. Being a countess is important, but papers are sooo boring. And—”

Freezy entered the room, interrupting her daughter in the process, much to my consternation. “Snowfall, there thou art.” She gave me a polite nod of her head. “Mine apologies, Magus. I am sure she did not mean to bother you.”

I shook my head. “Not at all. She is a most charming young mare.”

“She is my little pride and joy.” Freeze smiled down at her daughter, then picked her up and placed her on her back. “And it is time for my little warrior to go to bed.”

Snowfall put on a most pitiful frown. “Mother, I am not tired.”

“Come now, no arguments. A young filly requires her sleep.” Captain Freezy bowed her head to me. “By your leave, Magus, I need to see my daughter to bed.”

I stood from the couch and nodded. While I wished to speak more with Snowfall, I was not about to argue with her mother about her bedtime. “Of course. While I would like to speak with you, Captain, the hour is late and it can wait until the morrow.”

Freeze stiffened slightly and her eyes flicked to Snowfall. “We can speak tomorrow. Until then, I wish you goodnight.”

“Fare thee well, young Snowfall,” I said. “And you, Freezy.”

Snowfall waved as her mother left to take her to bed. “Goodbye, Magus.”

As they left, I returned to my work. ‘Twould be some time before I would be ready to rest this night.

‘Twas some hours later when I had made my way to my room in the castle. Moonlight flooded in through the windows as I continued my work into the dead of the night, long after anypony else should have gone to bed. Stalwart had also come to our quarters, done socializing with his fellow warrior Freezy, and watched over me as I pushed all the furniture to the sides of the room and drew a circle on the floor with a piece of chalk.

“Is there anything you need, Magus?” Stalwart asked, watching as I did my precise work.

I finished my circle and contemplated my handiwork, ensuring the circle was unbroken. “There is something thou canst do.” I pulled a rune-covered silver bell out of my saddlebags and levitated it to my bodyguard. “I will be entering a trance in order to walk the Dreamscape, and I will need somepony to watch o'er my body as I do so. If anything should go awry, ring this bell. It should immediately awake me from my trance.”

This struck me as a wise precaution when I ventured into the Dreamscape from anyplace that was not absolutely secure. As long as my spirit was within that strange realm, I would hardly be aware of what was occurring to my body. No small risk when anyone could sneak up on me and slit my throat, cutting the veins and arteries within and spraying my blood across the room in uneven, pulsing arcs like a misaligned well pump. Thus, I had made this enchanted bell that would catch mine attention even from deep within the Dreamscape.

Stalwart took the bell and looked it over. “That is all I need to do, ring it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It struck me as counterproductive to make it any harder to use. Especially when I may not know to whom I might have to give it.”

“I can do this for you,” Stalwart stated.

“Good, then I will continue with my plan.” I reexamined my circle one last time and then lay within it.

‘Twas plain that the ponies around me were keeping their secrets from me. I could only guess what some of those secrets were, but I had every intention of discovering them by entering the Dreamscape. The minds of ponies were far less guarded while they slept, and thus gave me the opportunity to learn their deepest desires. Admittedly, this was a somewhat questionable form of magic; invading the mind of another was strictly forbidden under the Laws of Magic, but what made what I was about to do technically legal was that I was not really invading anything. The minds of all touched upon the Dreamscape, and ‘twas there that I can interact with the mind of another.

The problem was that not every magus in Equestria would agree with mine interpretation of the law, seeing what I was to do as breaking the spirit of the laws, if perhaps not the letter. (2) Of course, I was not going around telling everypony exactly what I was doing, and I could trust Stalwart’s discretion on this matter. Another issue was that there were any number of dangers with using oneiromancy. There were nefarious spirits within the Dreamscape, I could get my spirit trapped within that strange realm, and within another pony’s dreams I would be at a disadvantage should a conflict arise. This was not a magic to use lightly.

2. After Queen Luna’s banishment, many magi moved to make oneiromancy illegal altogether, if only with partial success. They believed that Luna’s fall was proof that the magics she favored were inherently dangerous and led to a pony’s inevitable corruption. It wasn't until after Midnight became an archmagus that the laws regulating oneiromancy were reconsidered in any serious light.

My course decided, I closed mine eyes and drew on my magic. I felt a lurch in my very being as the spell took hold, and opened mine eyes to find myself within the Dreamscape. All about me was an inky black void, star-like points of light dotted the vast space, the only unusual point of interest being the platform of stars that I now stood upon.

“Looking to make use of what I have taught thee?” a familiar voice asked from behind me.

I turned to face the familiar form of Corva. The raven dream-spirit appeared in an equine shape—if one covered with feathers as dark as the void around us—eyes like black pearls, and a short beak. “Naturally,” I announced simply. ‘Twas not a surprise to see her. This was her natural plane of existence, after all, and she had been teaching me much about it in addition to a range of other magics.

The corners of her mouth turned up in a smile. “Well then, what didst thou have in mind?”

“There are hidden agendas at play, and I aim to uncover them,” I told her. “Most of them guard their secrets well in the waking world. But in their dreams...”

Corva nodded. “Everypony is vulnerable in their dreams. All of those in Honeyfield Castle have their secrets and desires, and 'tis thy task to discover the ones relevant to you. Do that, and thy path will be plain before thee.”

“So I have heard. Let us put that to the test.”

Corva waved a hoof, and illusions of all the potential heirs appeared before us. “Who wilt thou investigate first?”

I frowned deeply as I considered mine options. “Coin Count, I think. His agenda is the most mysterious.”

“A fine choice.” Corva waved away the other illusions and they dissipated like so much sand in the wind. “For what thou dost not know is the most dangerous. A threat known is one thou canst prepare for, but the hidden dagger strikes unseen.”

“Those were mine own thoughts,” I agreed. “There is something queer in Coin’s interest in Honeyfield, and I would know his heart’s desire.”

Corva stepped to the side and revealed a score of star-clad roads behind her. “Show me what thou hast learned.”

I concentrated and cast my next spell. There was another lurch and I found myself floating above my body in the castle. Stalwart continued to watch over me while I remained in my trance, and nothing seemed amiss apart from the strange sensation of watching myself. A quick glance at my hoof showed it to be translucent, my psychic form now being an astral projection that would allow me to wander the physical world without being easily noticed.

Astral projections such as this were extremely difficult, both in terms of the skill needed and the strains it put on mind, body, and soul. Thus, I wasted little time to find mine objective. Passing through the walls of the castle as though through mist, I combed the rooms of the castle until I found the bedroom I desired. The merchant Coin Count was sleeping peacefully and did not stir as I approached him.

I placed a hoof on his head and closed mine eyes as I concentrated, probing for his dreams so that I might enter them. It was not long before I felt his presence within the Dreamscape, and with an effort of will, I transitioned back to the Dreamscape to enter his dreams.

I blinked as the world suddenly became bright, and I found myself in what appeared to be a small office. The bustle of ponies and carts rolled in from outside, and a glance out the window revealed a large city. Probably Manehattan, considering that is where Coin said he was from. The fact that most of the populace was made up of earth ponies certainly supported this guess. Of course, one had to be careful about how much one read into what one saw in the Dreamscape, considering so much was often based on the skewed memories of the subject’s dreams.

Thankfully, Coin did not notice me even though I stood but a few steps from him. I had desired to keep my presence hidden for now, as a great many complications could happen should Coin realize I was perusing his dreams. I would have to be careful to ensure that my magic kept me invisible to him; the main reason a pony’s mind was vulnerable while dreaming was that their thoughts are not guarded, and that advantage would evaporate should the subconscious become aware of the intrusion, and the conscious mind awakened to deal with the threat.

That all being the case, I passively watched the dream for a time. 'Twas not long before an older mare stepped into the office, frowning as she looked at Coin. “Coin, thou hast been working all day now. 'Tis past time thou went outside.”

Coin turned to the mare. “But Mother, I am—”

“Now, Coin.” Coin’s mother smiled despite her firm tone and gently prodded him away from his desk. “Besides, thy friends are waiting for thee.”

Coin grumbled and then went to the front door of the home. He opened the door and crossed the threshold, seamlessly transforming into a colt when he did so. Outside were half a dozen children, one of whom I recognized as Shining Quest at a far younger age. They all greeted one another and ran off to play a game of ball whose rules I did not immediately recognize.

“Ah, so Shining was a childhood friend?” I mused out loud. “Interesting, but perhaps not what I need.”

“Then dig deeper,” Corva told me as she stepped up from behind me. “Try and nudge the dream in the direction you desire. Ponies’ dreams are portals to what plagues their thoughts during the day, for it is here that such worries are subconsciously organized.”

I tilted my head. “And how would I do that?”

“We are in a realm where the mind shapes reality.” She nodded at Coin. “Here, fantasies can become reality. Set up the stage and the actors will play their parts.”

“I see.” I narrowed mine eyes as I digested this information. What I desired to know was what Coin intended for Honeyfield. Once I knew that, it should not become difficult to figure out what he was attempting by supporting Shining Quest.

All of that in hoof, I closed mine eyes and exerted my will and magic on the Dreamscape. The matter of this realm was mutable to those that knew what they were doing, and I felt it shift around me as I imagined a scene that might provoke Coin to reveal his intentions. When I next opened mine eyes ‘twas in the Castle Honeyfield’s courtyard. Coin stood before me in the suit of a well-doing merchant while Shining was opposite of him in a fine dress and the badge of Honeyfield on her breast. Off to the side was a copy of myself with Snowfall and Freezy, and my copy was busy bestowing the badges of office on Snowfall.

Shining smiled brightly for her friend. “We did it Coin, thy plan worked!”

“I knew it would,” Coin boasted, rubbing his hoof on his breast. “And with thee as regent of Honeyfield...” He turned, and suddenly there were a dozen carts, each overflowing with sparkling gems. Coin’s eyes sparkled almost as much as the gems as he scooped a hooffull of the precious stones.

Shining hugged him and made an undignified sequel of excitement. “Look at it all, Coin! We are rich!”

Coin hugged his friend back. “I told thee that there was a gem deposit here in Honeyfield. We just needed to get at it without House Honeyfield getting all the profits.”

Shining puckered out her lips in a pout. “Thou art going to let me and my ‘family’ have some of it though, right?”

Coin made a casual wave of his leg. “Of course, of course. It would be suspicious if thou gave me a deal that let the consortium net all the profits of the mine, and there will be more than enough wealth to go around for everypony. Besides, we do not want to give the Blackwoods the opportunity to move in on our territory.”

Shining smiled, now covered in expensive jewelry. “Right, but with the new mine we should be able to deal with them without issue.”

I frowned as I watched the scene before me. “‘Twould seem that wealth is Coin’s desire. Little surprise when he is a merchant representing a Manehattan consortium.”

Corva nodded. “Bits are at the heart of the actions of many ponies. After all, what pony does not desire a comfortable lifestyle with good food, a fine home, and all their immediate desires fulfilled?”

“Those who do not are rare and few inbetween.” As Mother had always told me, give the average pony a full belly, a roof over their head, and some extra bits in their pockets for entertainment and they would be more or less content. That did not even get into how many crimes and other misdeeds were committed because of money. Most of the court cases I had seen involved bits in some manner, so the idea that Coin’s motivations involved a gem deposit somewhere on Honeyfield lands was not surprising.

I was curious how he had discovered the deposit without the Honeyfields catching wind, but there were any number of spells that could help with that in addition to more mundane methods unicorns and earth ponies had developed. More important was that Coin was convinced there was a deposit to be had. This was going to be information I would need to contemplate before acting upon.

Coin grinned and poked Shining’s side. “Do not be worried. Thou wilt be doing quite well for a potter’s daughter.”

Shining grinned back. “I do get to rule Honeyfield—at least until that child grows up.” Her smile fell.

“We will deal with that problem in good time,” Coin answered with an uncaring wave. “We have better than a decade to work with, and we have plenty of options however the winds blow.”

Mine eyes narrowed, for I did not particularly like how unconcerned he sounded about the fate of Snowfall, to say nothing of the fact he was keeping valuable information from me. Such things did not engender trust where I was concerned.

Shining shrugged and turned a smile to her leg as she examined a gem-encrusted bracelets around her ankle. “Still, this is not bad for a potter’s daughter, aye?”

“Not at all, my friend.” Coin looked her over with an admiring eye. “This suits thee far better than being covered in clay all day.”

I raised an eyebrow. “A potter's daughter?”

Corva leaned her head towards me to whisper. “Try and move with the momentum of that thought. Moving with the tides of thoughts can reveal much during a time such as this.”

Following her advice, I focused mine attention of the idea of Shining being a potter’s daughter, blue magic misting from my horn as I molded Coin’s subconscious. The world around us changed to the inside of a potter’s shop. Shelves lined with ceramics ranging from pots and cups to plates surrounded me. At the far end of the room sat a counter, and behind that a trio of ovens and a mare applying a skilled hoof to create a pot out of wet clay. Besides her sat a Shining on the cusp of maidenhood, busy helping the older mare whom I assumed was her mother making goods for their store. For his part, Coin leaned on the opposite side of the counter.

“So, think thou wilt like being a regent more than making pots all day?” Coin asked with a grin.

Shining shrugged, rubbing a clay covered hoof against a sweat drenched brow. “'Tis not that bad.”

“Aye, but thou canst do that in thy spare time if thou enjoyest such work,” Coin pointed out. “In the meantime, thou canst help me and my siblings with our plan to make all of us very rich. Of course, what we really need for it to work is a unicorn who can convince everypony she is noble born—with the right training, of course. We already have an impoverished noble house willing to work with us to forge the documents we need in exchange for the necessary bits to ward off their creditors.”

Shining rubbed her chin, now back in the dress she had been wearing earlier. “How rich are we talking about?”

“Curious,” Corva mused. “It seems that Coin is quite the schemer, and a bold one at that.”

“Indeed so,” I agreed as the dream unfolded before us. “I will need to find usable evidence to corroborate all this, but now that I know his intentions and the basics of his plot, confirming it should be a relatively simple matter.”

“It is a start,” Corva agreed. “Mayhaps if we trigger the right memories we could—”

A sharp, unignorable ring of a bell slammed into my very being. All my hairs stood up on end, and I knew that it could be but one thing: Stalwart had seen reason to wake me.

I looked to Corva with a severe frown. “Mine apologies, Corva, but I need to go.”

“Go,” she said, the single word sounding like an imperious command from her.

I wasted no time exiting the Dreamscape, and I fell right through the floor of the potter’s shop and found myself plummeting through that strange realm as my spirit sought to return to my body. For a long moment it felt as though I was falling through an endless, starry void as some irresistible force pulled on me. Then, as though jerked to a sudden stop, I found myself back within my body, drawing in a deep gasp as my vision swam.

“Magus, are you well?” a voice asked which I vaguely recalled as belonging to Stalwart.

I took a couple of seconds to orientate myself. The transition between the material plane and the Dreamscape could be hard on a pony, especially when one wasted no time for the journey than was absolutely necessary to keep my very soul from being shattered to a thousand independent shards that would go on to scream in unending agony as an eternity passed by and each fragment slowly went mad.

Once I was confident I was in control of my faculties again, I answered my guardian. “Aye, I am fine. Why didst thou ring the bell?”

“There has been some sort of commotion.” Stalwart looked to the door and there was a tension in his wings as the moonlight reflected off his wingblades. “I know not what, but I suspect it has awoken the entire castle.”

“Then let us see what this is .” Part of me was irritated to have my work disrupted, but I trusted Stalwart to know when to pull me from the Dreamscape. Thus, I pulled my cloak around my shoulders and exited the bedroom to investigate.

It was not hard to discover the source of the trouble. The ponies inhabiting the castle were all heading in the same direction, as though drawn by some invisible force. As I neared the source of the disturbance, though, some started moving in the opposite direction I was going, their eyes wide and faces white. Still, there was a crowd gathered in front of one of the doorways, and each pony was busy trying to see what we inside or whispering to one another.

Not wishing to wait for the crowd to disperse on its own, I whispered to Stalwart. “Help me to see what is transpiring.” I then raised my voice to command the ponies about us. “Everypony, let me through.”

Between Stalwart’s bulk and mine authority, we managed to work our way through the crowd without too much trouble. Soon I was before the doorway and saw what had caused the disturbance. The bedroom was in shambles, the furniture was overturned and the window smashed in, littering the floor with glass and refuse. But all of that was mere details to what drew mine eyes.

Shining Quest lay dead on the floor in a pool of her own blood, her throat a bloody ruin as her terrified, blank eyes stared off into nothing.

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.