• Published 28th Feb 2018
  • 6,068 Views, 755 Comments

Northern Venture - Chengar Qordath

Sunset Shimmer journeys to Northmarch to meet the ancient dragon Argentium the Runescaled. Her dreams of becoming an alicorn clash with a threat that may require sacrifices—not just for her dreams, but survival.

  • ...

The Plot Thickens

My next move was obvious even if it wasn’t something I was especially eager about. I had no idea what I wanted to do about Celestia’s offer, and Puzzle was always a good sounding board and source of information.

The only problem was I already knew what he was going to say. The guy had a huge vested interest in keeping me in Freeport, and prospect of losing me as an asset was sure to get a reaction out of him. Going to him was a sure way to get a whole bunch of well-reasoned arguments for why I should stay in Freeport. Considering I was going to him for advice while I was fully aware of his biases ... well, maybe that was exactly what I wanted right now. Celestia’s offer was good enough that I couldn’t think of a single rational reason to turn it down, so I was going to the guy who would give me one.

Did that mean I didn’t want to take the deal? Why not? It was a prestigious post, it would give me plenty of relevant experience for accomplishing my larger life goals, and it was probably my best shot at becoming an alicorn. You’d think I would jump on an offer that good.

So why was I looking for a way out?

It couldn’t just be worries about Celestia’s influence. Sure, she’d probably try to entice me into staying in Canterlot for longer than I planned, but I wasn’t some weak-willed kid who had no control over her own life. Walking away the first time would’ve been a lot harder than doing it again, and Celestia knew me well enough to understand not to push too hard. And there was no denying that she could help me accomplish everything I dreamed of.

But ... I think that was the problem. She’d be helping me. A big part of why I’d left Canterlot in the first place was to do all these things on my own. Going back to her felt too much like I was giving up. I might be a teacher at the school, but I suspected I’d always be a student around her.

So now I was going to Puzzle in the hopes that he would give me what I needed to justify being too proud to go back to Mom for help.

I found Puzzle in his downstairs armory. Having any sort of basement in Freeport took a lot of work, between the water table and the fact that the islands were made out of solid volcanic rock. The fact that Puzzle could afford a large underground basement just to house his weapons collection said a lot. I looked over an impressively intimidating arsenal that was surprising just for how incredibly un-Puzzle it was: I really couldn’t see the subtle information broker parading around in full plate with a polearm and heavy shield. He usually liked his weapons concealable and subtle, albeit still deadly. Maybe he just believed in keeping a bit stockpile of any weapon he could possibly need, but knowing Puzzle I suspected that the big and obvious stuff was just there to distract from the real threats.

A second later, I realized that particular set of heavy armor looked very familiar. “Wait, is that the gear I borrowed for that duel with the stupid zebra?”

Puzzle glanced over at me and grinned. “It is. This one thought that the Shimmer-mare might want to make use of it again. And it serves as a pointed reminder to this one about just how dangerous and devious the mares in its life can be.”

“Never hurts to remember that.” I smirked and looked over the armor again. “Must have cost you a fair bit to buy that from the Doos.”

Puzzle smirked, showing his fangs. “This one prefers to see it as an investment. Forgetting the lessons it learned from that incident would cost this one quite a bit more than a single suit of armor.” He turned to me. “But this one doubts the Shimmer-mare came here to discuss old history. What brings you by? This one suspects it has to do with your meeting with the Council earlier today, but this one does have a rather pointed reminder of the dangers of making assumptions sitting on an armor stand.”

I grimaced. “Yeah, that was one of the things.”

Puzzle took one look at the scowl on my face and jumped to the obvious conclusion. “It went as poorly as this one feared, it sees. This one did warn you that the Council tends to be wary of both expense and acting quickly.”

“They didn’t jump on my offer,” I conceded. “But at least they didn’t completely shut me down, either. They just want proof I can actually do everything I’m talking about. A couple of them at least seemed interested in seeing what happens with Kukri once her education gets a bit further along, so that’s something. Maybe in three years I can sell them on it.”

“Perhaps, but this one doubts the Shimmer-mare wants to wait that long,” Puzzle observed with a wry grin. “Irksome as their refusal is, this one can somewhat understand their reasons. It is a large investment to make when there is no certainty of returns. Pity it’s hard to get experience building an entire school from the ground up.”

I frowned and got to the latest problem on my mind. “Yeah ... actually I might have something for that. I got a pretty interesting offer from Celestia by way of your girlfriend.” Puzzle met my announcement with a raised eyebrow, and I continued. “She needs new teachers at her school for gifted unicorns. You have to admit, teaching there for a year or two would do a lot to bulk up my resume when it comes to opening up my own school.”

“That is true,” Puzzle conceded, though I could already see the frown growing on his lips. “Were you thinking of accepting the job?”

I shrugged noncommittally. “It seems like a perfect solution to all my problems: I get teaching experience, and she’s implied she can help me out with a few other goals I haven’t made much progress with.”

Puzzle grimaced and nodded slowly. “That is also true. However, it would mean giving up a great deal of what you’ve built here. Reputations are fragile things, and a year or two away from Freeport is a long time for everyone to forget about you. At best, upon your return your current allies would be wary of renewing relations without some assurance that you’re here to stay. Not to mention what it would mean for your apprentice...”

“Actually, she included a full scholarship for Kukri as part of the offer.” I wasn’t sure if Kukri’s parents would actually be okay with her following me to Equestria, but Celestia had certainly done everything she could to make it happen. The prospect of a free high-quality education from one of the best schools in the world was hard to say no to.

“Of course she did,” Puzzle grumbled under his breath. He took a deep breath, then carefully said, “This one is sure you realize that the main goal of this proposal is to draw you back to Equestria, and keep you there long enough to make it easy for to convince you to make the stay a permanent one.”

“I’d be shocked if she didn’t try,” I conceded. Probably a little bit annoyed too. I mean, I didn’t want her to rope me into staying in Equestria for the rest of my life, but ... well, I’d lying if I said it wasn’t a bit flattering that she was going to so much trouble just to get me back.

Puzzle looked me over, frowning and nodding thoughtfully. “So it sounds like you already know what her intentions are. This one supposes you would know the White Pony better than it does, considering how long you were her student. However, it wonders what exactly the Shimmer-mare thinks about this situation.”

“I know she’s trying to play me,” I admitted. “But she chose very good bait. It sure looks like I get everything I could possibly ask for out of this deal. I don’t like the idea of leaving Freeport, but right now she’s giving me the clearest path to accomplishing everything I want.”

“As is her way,” Puzzle countered smoothly. “It is one of the most basic and effective means of manipulation: find out what someone wants, then offer it to them. Not only does it let you control your target, but often they will thank you for it.” He paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Of course, there are other ways to achieve your goals than going through the White Pony...”

In other words, Puzzle wanted to be the one who knew what I wanted and helped me get it, instead of letting Mom take over the role. “Yeah, sure, someone else could help me out. But are they going to? I’ve spent the last couple months looking at options, and so far the Council’s ‘Maybe in a couple years’ is the closest I’ve gotten to a positive response.”

“So far,” Puzzle repeated with a grin. I knew that smile of his all too well—it was the one that always showed up when he knew something I didn’t, and was enjoying the advantage far more than he should. Sure enough, a minute later he announced, “Good thing this one has found a new possibility that should help you achieve your desires at far less of a price than that demanded by the White Pony.”

“Right.” I had to wonder if he’d really just discovered this, or if maybe he’d been holding onto this idea for a rainy day. “Well don’t spare the details.”

His grin widened. “Have you ever heard of Argentium the Runescaled?”

That got my attention. “You know I’ve heard of her. My birth mother trained with her before she left Northmarch. What does she have to do with...” I trailed off as I remembered that, like any really old and powerful dragon, Argentium had amassed a huge fortune over the years. And, as my own biological mother proved, she had a certain interest in educational matters...

Puzzle smirked knowingly, no doubt following my train of thought. With a flourish he produced a letter. “This one thought that might get your attention. Even better, she recently asked this one to pass along an invitation. It seems she is quite curious about you.”

“She wants to meet me?” I hadn’t been expecting that, though maybe I should’ve. “Did she say anything about why?” Between everything I’d gotten up to in Freeport and her connection to my biological mother I could make a few guesses, but assuming anything when it came to dragons was risky.

Puzzle shrugged. “She didn’t give this one any specifics—she merely asked it to pass along the message. However, if this one could speculate, it severely doubts she would ask you to travel such a long way to see her for nothing.”

“That’s true.” And by the same token, turning down a dragon’s invitation without a very good reason was a surefire way to offend them. Argentium might be one of the nicest dragons around, but she was still a massive fire-breathing dragon who loved her hoard of treasures and had a gigantic ego. Considering the potential rewards of the meeting and the risks of snubbing her... “No reason not to meet her.”

“This one thought so as well,” Puzzle agreed with a self-satisfied smile. “She’s quite wealthy and powerful, on the level of the White Pony. This one imagines it need not elaborate any further on what she could offer you. This could give you a chance to achieve all your goals without paying the White Pony’s price.”

“Yeah, just Argentium’s,” I countered.

Puzzle shrugged. “Everything comes at a price, Shimmer-mare—it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to pay to get what you want. What you really need to ask yourself is if you want to be a school teacher for the rest of your life, telling your students about your glory days decades ago, or do you want to take a chance to do something great?”

I snorted and rolled my eyes. “Not the most objective summary of my options, but you know which one of those I would pick.”

Puzzle grinned. “This one did not think the Shimmer-mare would ever be content with anything so safe and prosaic. It suspects she would quickly grow restless and seek out some new danger to challenge herself against. Perhaps it should not worry so much about the White Pony making a teacher of her after all. Within three months, you would abandon your job to go chasing after some horrible beast just to break up the monotony of classes.” He fixed me with a knowing look. “Do you really want to spend an entire year drawing up reading lists, class schedules, and giving the same lectures to your students several times a day, or are you just thinking of taking the White Pony’s offer because it’s the sensible-seeming thing to do?”

“If it’s what I need to do to make the magic school happen then—”

Puzzle cut me off before I could get any further. “So you don’t want to do it, you just feel like it’s your only option to get what you really want.” He stepped over to my side. “If this one might be blunt, it thinks the Shimmer-mare would make a poor classroom teacher. You can be somewhat irritable, and have little patience for slow learners or those who do not show you the respect you feel you deserve. It is no coincidence that your first and so far only student is a young lady who all but worships you. A classroom full of rambunctious, bored, and troublesome children is another matter entirely. The Shimmer-mare doesn’t want to teach at a school, she wants to build one. The only point of teaching is that it might look good on your résumé when convincing others you’re qualified for what you really want to do.”

“In other words, there’s no need for it if I can get the funding for my school some other way,” I concluded. “And you’re going to keep trying to find a way to get me funded, so I don’t have to go to Celestia for help. After all, I’m such a useful friend to have around.” I smirked and nudged him. “I hope you realize you’re in no position to call anyone manipulative.”

Puzzle answered me with a relaxed smirk. “Has this one ever claimed to not be manipulative? That is why it recognizes when others attempt to manipulate its friends. And, of course, this one is only using such means to help the Shimmer-mare accomplish her goals.”

“And your own,” I pointed out.

Puzzle met my gaze coolly, raising a single eyebrow. “Of course. As the Shimmer-mare helps it because her interests align with this one’s. So far the partnership has proven a mutually profitable one, and this one intends for that to remain the case for as long as possible. It has never moved against her interests, and has gone to considerable trouble to advance them.”

“Yeah, and I bet Celestia would tell me the exact same thing,” I grumbled under my breath. “And yet, the two of you are giving me completely different and mutually exclusive sets of advice. Funny how that works.”

“Yes,” Puzzle commented dryly. “Almost as if we were two separate individuals with our own opinions about what would be best for you. The White Pony sees herself as a surrogate mother to you, while this one regards you as a valued friend and ally. Like all mothers, she seeks to nurture, guide, and protect you, and wants to draw you back into the fold so that she might do so more easily. This one much prefers to treat the Shimmer-mare as an equal partner.”

“Way to lay it all out in the most biased way possible.” I grumbled good-naturedly. “But I suppose you’re right. As long as I’m in Freeport I’m with you, but if I went back to Equestria I’d be working for her.”

Puzzle smiled and nodded to himself. “It sounds like the Shimmer-mare has already made her decision then.”

“Not so fast,” I cautioned him. “You bring up a lot of good points, but I’m not going to go with your advice without taking a while to think things over and let Celestia have her say. It’s not like I can really do much one way or the other until after the meeting with Argentium, so I’ll sit on it for a while as long as she doesn’t need an answer right away. After all, you’ve been implying Argentium might bankroll my school idea. If she does, great; if she doesn’t, then perhaps I’ll need to weigh my options.”

Puzzle grimaced. “This one cannot fault that reasoning, even if it dislikes the Shimmer-mare’s conclusions.” He shifted gears, his frown turning to a grin. “Well, if we’re going to visit Argentium, this one had best start making preparations. It will certainly need to start packing its winter wardrobe, and would advise the Shimmer-mare to do the same.”

“Yeah, I guess.” The last time I’d been through Northmarch I’d been fine just using magic to stay warm, but that had been back when money was tighter and I was a bit fonder of showing off my magical prowess.

Wow. I was still way too young to be thinking about the days when I was a bit younger and stupider. I bet soon I’d be telling Kukri about how when I was her age, Celestia made me walk twenty miles uphill to reach class for my lessons.

Speaking of my apprentice... “Oh, I’m going to have to figure out what to do with Kukri. Do you think I should ask her parents about bringing her along, or should I just let them know I’ll be out of Freeport for however long that takes?”

Puzzle shrugged. “That would be the Shimmer-mare’s decision to make. This one could certainly not mind accommodating Kukri if she will join us, and it cannot imagine Argentium would object to meeting your apprentice. The journey should be safe enough—Northmarch has its dangers, but few of them would dare to approach Argentium’s domain, and those that do quickly regret their error.”

No surprise on that front. Dragons tend to be incredibly territorial. That did raise an obvious question. “So what's Argentium like? I never really heard much about her from my biological mother, and Mom ... well, you know how much Celestia loves her cryptic answers. I kind of got the feeling there was some history between them.”

Puzzle nodded. “Most of the immortal beings in this world have crossed paths at some point. They share a curious kinship within their community, even the ones who are enemies. Argentium forged her bonds with the White and Dark Ponies during their war against Sombra. He thought that allying himself with the dragon Blackfyre would counterbalance the advantage possessed by the sisters, but failed to account for Blackfyre’s own enemies.”

I nodded along with Puzzle’s explanation; I’d learned that much from the history books. I’d asked Celestia about it once or twice, but she hadn’t ever been eager to discuss the details. She’d never outright said so, but our talks left me with the distinct impression that the war wasn’t one of her favorite topics. Really, any of the wars she’d been involved with. The one or two times she’d talked at all, it had gotten kind of ... weird. Hearing her talk about ponies who’d been dead for hundreds of years and recalling conversations with historical figures like they’d just happened yesterday instead of centuries ago.

Puzzle continued on, oblivious to my musings. “As for Argentium herself, now there is a question.” He paused, stroking his chin thoughtfully as he tried to find the right words. “She is majestic, powerful, and fantastically intelligent. A being who can make you or me feel like something very small indeed. It’s like being in the presence of a demigod, in many ways. Perhaps it is simply the size of her that makes her so striking, or the fact that her size makes her power that much more obvious.”

“I heard she can shapeshift to smaller forms when she needs the sort of subtlety you can’t manage as a giant dragon,” I commented.

“She can,” Puzzle confirmed. “Though this one has never seen it in action.” With a hint of pride in his voice he added, “Though from the accounts this one has read, her skill is inferior to a Free Mind’s. It is not so much true shapeshifting as altering a few aspects of her size and shape. She might be able to take the form of a pony, but one would hardly mistake her for an ordinary one, and anyone who had experience with her would know her at once.”

“So it’s really just for fitting indoors without tearing hole in the roof?” I suggested.

“Essentially,” Puzzle agreed. “And even if she had the skill to take on a less magnificent form, this one doubts she has the desire to do so. Argentium is a dragon, and a very big, ancient, and powerful one at that. She’s substantially more benevolent than the average dragon, but she still shares many of their traits, being territorial, acquisitive, and immensely proud. Argentium firmly believes she’s a higher life form, and she expects everyone to act like it.”

I grimaced. “Sounds pleasant. So does she expect us to bow and scrape?”

“Nothing quite so severe as that,” Puzzle assured me. “This one is quite certain the White Pony educated the Shimmer-mare in older styles of conduct and etiquette. Argentium places great stock in such things. She can be good company so long as you observe all the proper courtesies and show the deference she believes is her due. This one has certainly met people harder to deal with over the years. If nothing else, she has never tried to kill this one.”

“So as long as I’m polite and don’t forget to stroke her ego every once in a while, I should be fine?” I thought it over, then shrugged. “Sounds easy enough.”

Puzzle chuckled and nodded. “A few compliments will certainly help. She is extremely proud, and compliments are very well received so long as she feels they are are genuine. However, she will not be impressed if she thinks you’re engaging in false or empty flattery, and if she thinks you’re secretly trying to insult her with backhanded compliments...” He paused, then shot me a pointed look. “Don’t do that, by the way. It can end very poorly.”

I scoffed and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I’m not stupid enough to pick a fight with a dragon, especially when the whole point of going out there is to try and get her to help me.”

“Of course not,” Puzzle conceded. “This one merely thought it prudent to remind the Shimmer-mare of that fact. Argentium is not the only one with a measure of pride and a somewhat prickly attitude when her pride is wounded.”

My eyes narrowed. “Well if you know I can be a bit sensitive to insults, maybe you should try not insulting me. Just throwing that out there.”

Puzzle scowled in response. “Or perhaps the Shimmer-mare should grow a thicker skin. Others will take advantage of such a fragile ego.”

“Excuse me?!” I crossed my forelegs over my chest and glowered at him. “If you were trying to convince me to stick with Freeport, getting me pissed off with you is just about the worst way to do it.”

“If the Shimmer-mare is so quick to abandon her friends and allies, then perhaps this one was wrong to consider itself either,” Puzzle snapped back. “It does not enjoy being told it must find a way to convince a dragon to bankroll her latest grand plan, or risk losing everything it tried to build with her.”

“That’s not what I—” I cut myself off with a frustrated sigh. “I’m just trying to find the best way to accomplish what we both want. Maybe that means leaving Freeport for a while to talk to a dragon, and maybe it means leaving for a bit longer to work with Celestia. Even if I do have to relocate for a while, we’ll still be friends.”

“Friendship from thousands of miles away is far less helpful to this one that a friend close at hoof,” Puzzle groused.

I groaned and turned my back on him. “Well I’m sorry my life doesn’t revolve around always doing what’s most helpful to you, even if it means causing problems for myself. If going to Celestia for help is what it takes to get myself and Freeport in a better place, then that’s what I’ll do.” I whirled about, glaring at him. “The whole reason I came to you for advice was because I knew you’d make a good case against taking the deal, and I wanted to know every reason I shouldn’t do it. I don’t want to pull rug out from under you, that’s why you’ve got plenty of advance notice, and I’m not doing it unless I’m sure it’s the right decision.”

Puzzle opened his mouth, and I held up a hoof to cut off whatever he was about to say. “And that’s something I need to decide for myself. I don’t want you or Celestia or Strumming or anyone else bombarding me with arguments for or against it, or asking lots of loaded questions and providing unsolicited advice. And definitely don’t try to guilt trip me or get all passive-aggressive just because I want a while to think about a massive life-altering decision. Got it?”

Puzzle blinked and took half a step back, then slowly nodded. “This ... this one sees, Shimmer-mare. It was not this one’s intent to do such things, it merely sought to...” He grimaced, then shook his head. “No, this one had its intentions. It supposes that it let its concern for itself blind it to the Shimmer-mare’s own thoughts. This one apologizes. We all have our limits.”

Those words struck a nerve, considering my own recent concerns. “Yeah, I know all about running up against your limits.” I sighed and tried to put that out of my head—I had enough on my plate without adding that problem to the mix. “Anyway, how soon can you get everything ready for us to meet with Argentium? At least, I assume you’re coming too.”

Puzzle nodded along. “Argentium asked this one to arrange the introductions. It would be considered rude for the Shimmer-mare to arrive without the proper announcement and she is familiar enough with this one to accept its presence in her home. As for preparations, this one will need to arrange passage and clear its schedule. Not to mention we will need to see if the Heartstrings-mare and Kukri are coming. It presumes Strumming would like to participate, but it knows that assuming anything about a mare who delights in her own unpredictability is risky.”

“Yeah, point.” I frowned and rubbed my chin. “Any idea how long it will take for you to do all of that? I know you’ve got a lot of demands on your time.”

Puzzle shrugged. “Yes, but it also has lieutenants who can manage such things in its absence, and most of its clientele are used to it being unavailable when one of its more important clients makes demands on its time. Finding a ship of good reputation heading to Coldharbor should be simple enough. This is one of the greatest ports in the world, after all. If all else fails, this one could always just purchase some worthwhile cargo and make a proper merchant run of it.”

I smirked at him. “Handy when you’ve got those kinds of resources.”

Puzzle grinned right back. “The Shimmer-mare could help fund such a thing as well. Her bank account is not so meagre that she must refrain from investment.”

“But it is thin enough that one or two bad investments could hurt,” I countered. “And yes, I know you’d warn me off from any scams, but you’re not perfect and things happen. Investing in a merchant ship to haul cargo would mean I’m one bad storm or run-in with pirates away from losing everything.”

Puzzle grimaced and nodded. “That much is true. This one has a much easier time of things, as it can afford to diversify its portfolio to protect against such things. And it has the funds to spare for the occasional gamble, like helping an aspiring young magus get her start.”

“Never going to let me forget that one, are you?” I asked with a faint grin. “Pretty sure you’ve gained at least as much from our partnership as I have, if not more.”

“This one has done reasonably well for itself,” Puzzle agreed. “But it has earned every single ducat with all the hard work it does for the Shimmer-mare. Clearly you feel the partnership a worthwhile one, since you have never objected to granting this one its share.”

“Not yet, at least,” I shot back with a smirk. “Anyway, it sounds like we both have a lot of work to do. You need to get your plans for the trip together, and I better check in with Kukri’s parents and see what they want to do.”

Puzzle nodded along. “No sense making them mad by taking their daughter halfway across the world without their permission.”

“And if they want to keep her in Freeport, I should give them some advance notice I’ll be gone for a while.” I frowned thoughtfully. “About how long will that be anyway?”

Puzzle thought it over for a bit, then shrugged. “Between travel time to Coldharbor, and then to Argentium’s lair, and a bit of extra time for any incidental delays we might run into, this one would be surprised if it takes less than two months, and that is assuming Argentium wants nothing more than a simple meeting. If she has some task in mind for us...” He trailed off with a helpless shrug. “She has not told this one anything, but it would not be surprised if she wants more than a quick meet-and-greet.”

“On the other hoof, asking us to spend two months going back and forth just for a five minute meeting wouldn’t exactly be odd behavior for a dragon,” I pointed out. “From what Celestia’s told me about them, they don’t think much of inconveniencing others.”

Puzzle shrugged. “Argentium is more thoughtful than most. She would at least provide us with a proper meal and let us stay overnight before sending us on our way.”

“How generous of her,” I deadpanned. “Anyway, even if it’s a long journey for just a short visit, I’m pretty sure Kukri would love to meet an ancient super-powerful dragon. Whether Knives and Codex are alright with it...”

“That is the big question,” Puzzle agreed. “It would be longer than any of the trips she took on the Venture, and under substantially different circumstances. If you want to convince her parents to go along with this, you should pitch it as a unique experience she’s unlikely to ever get again.”

He was right about that. “I’ll keep it in mind. Any special preparations I need to make for the trip itself, beyond the obvious?” I did a quick mental inventory of everything I knew about dragons and old traditions. “Dragons usually like gifts, right? And it’s considered appropriate to bring something to thank your host for their hospitality.”

“Indeed so,” Puzzle confirmed. “This one was going to recommend you get her a gift before we left. She considers her tastes far more erudite and sophisticated than the average dragon, so traditional gold or jewels will have little impact. It suggest a piece of art, or a book.”

I smiled and nodded. “I’ll keep my eyes open for something nice.”

I stopped by Kukri’s house later that evening. One of Freeport’s evening showers had started up, and I’d conjured up an ice umbrella to keep myself dry. The streets were mostly empty when I got to the modest two-story structure that served as their family home. I felt a bit bad about dropping in on Kukri’s family in the middle of dinner, but I had to wait until her parents were off work. And really, the worst that would happen is that they’d invite me to stay for dinner.

I knocked on the front door, and a few seconds later a well-dressed pegasus stallion answered the door. I knew Codex well enough to recognize the disguise he used for most of his merchant business. He smiled when he saw me standing in the doorway. “Hello, Magus Sunset. What brings you around? And please, come in out of the rain” His eyes flicked up to the plane of ice shielding me from the rain. “Even though it doesn’t seem to be bothering you all that much.”

“Thanks.” I stepped in and dispelled my umbrella. “Hello, Codex. Hope this isn’t a bad time, but there are a couple things I wanted to discuss with you and Knives.”

“Oh?” Codex regarded me with a raised eyebrow, reverting back to his changeling form after he’d shut the door behind me. He looked just a touch thicker and less honed than Puzzle—not exactly out of shape, but he had the physique of an older merchant who hadn’t been forced into too much physical exertion for the last decade. “This is a fine time, we were just in the middle of making dinner. This one presumes you’re here regarding Kukri’s education?”

The kitchen door opened up just enough for me to hear the staccato tapping sound of knives hitting a cutting board. Actual knives, not Kukri’s mom, though Knives was presumably the one wielding them. That was confirmed when a second later she called out. “Who is it, dear?”

“The Shimmer-mare, Knives.” Codex shouted back. “She’s here to discuss Kukri’s lessons.”

“Okay,” Knives answered. “Did you invite her to stay for dinner?”

“Not yet.” Codex turned to me, then flatly asked, “Would you like to stay for dinner?”

“Sure.” My eyes flicked to the kitchen. “What are you having?”

Knives propped open the kitchen door so she wouldn’t need to keep shouting through it. I could see her knives flying across the cutting board with impressive precision as she sliced and diced several vegetables before impaling them on a metal skewer. Knives was a lean mare, but every inch of her body was packed with wiry muscle. Her coat being pink had probably made her years as a mercenary a bit more interesting, even if she was a darker shade of it than most. She kept her dark jade mane close-cropped just like most of the ponies from the Guard, even though she’d been retired for years.

Knives smiled politely, lifting up one of the completed kebabs. “I was just wrapping up. All the ones we’ve made so far have shrimp, but if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes I could whip up a few vegetarian ones for you.”

“Shrimp’s fine,” I assured her. I might have spent most of my childhood in Equestria with a meat-free diet, but I’d been in Freeport long enough to get used to adding the occasional bit of seafood to some of my meals. I wasn’t going to ask for it, but I also wasn’t going to demand she make extra vegetarian food just for me.

Knives nodded. “Right then. Let me just get these on the grill, and then we’ll have that talk.” She paused halfway out the door. “Which sort of talk is this about Kukri’s education? She’s upstairs doing her homework right now, so I don’t think it’s the bad sort.”

Codex frowned thoughtfully and took a seat at the kitchen table. “This one wasn’t aware of any problems in that regard. She’s only had good things to say about her lessons with you.” He smiled at his wife as she settled in next to him. “So what did you want to discuss?”

I cleared my throat and got straight to the point. “I’m going away to be out of Freeport for a while—at least the next two months. Argentium the Runescaled has requested a personal meeting with me.”

Both of them sank back into their chairs, evidently familiar enough with Argentium’s reputation to realize what a big deal that was. Codex managed to recover from his surprise first. “That’s certainly something. Does this mean you won’t be able to continue her apprenticeship while you're away?”

Knives frowned and shot a concerned look my way. “Or did you want to take her with you when you went to Northmarch?”

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with both of you,” I answered, trying to sound businesslike and professional. “As I see it, you two pretty much outlined what our options are. Either she remains in Freeport and our lessons go on hold until I return, or she comes with me as my apprentice.”

Codex grimaced and traded a look with his wife. “This one is not completely thrilled with either of those outcomes.” Knives nodded, tapping her kitchen knife on the table as she thought over her options.

I decided to make a soft push for what I would prefer. “I’d really hate to put her education on hold for so long, and meeting Argentium the Runescaled would be an incredibly unique opportunity. Of course, Puzzle and I would take every possible measure to ensure her safety, and just about nobody in Northmarch would dare to cause problems for one of Argentium’s guests.”

Codex slowly crossed his forelegs over his chest. “So Puzzle is going along on this trip? Anyone else we should know about?”

Knives scowled, her wings twitching. “Tell me you’re not bringing that EIS whore with you?”

Codex let out a pained sigh. “Knives, language please.”

I found myself frowning at her as well. “We don’t know for sure yet, but it’s quite possible Strumming will be coming along, yes.”

Knives scowled and muttered several less-than-courteous things under her breath. “I don’t want that mare anywhere near my daughter. She might have diplomatic immunity, but if I ever find her alone in a dark alley with no witnesses...”

“Then this one trusts you would not do anything that would cause a major international incident and cause a great deal of heartache and pain for your entire family,” Codex cut in. That said, he turned to me with a strained smile. “However, we do have some very good reasons to not want the Heartstrings-mare anywhere near our daughter.”

“I’m aware,” I answered tightly. “Don’t forget I was locked up along with Kukri. A lot’s changed since then, and Strumming was following orders from higher up.” I still wasn’t sure how true that was given the EIS’s nebulous chain of command and her massive prejudice against anyone who used dark magic, but bringing that up wouldn’t do my case any favors.

“I still don’t know why you put up with her,” Knives growled. “Between your influence with the Council and your connection to Celestia, getting her expelled or reassigned wouldn’t be that hard. So why haven’t you?”

I shrugged. “Knowing my luck, they’d just replace her with someone even worse. At least with Strumming I know what I’m dealing with.”

Codex grimaced and nodded. “The monster you know...” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Is Kukri even going to want to go if the Heartstrings-mare is going to be part of the expedition?”

Knives sighed and nodded. “More than likely, all things considered. She’d certainly hate the idea of not seeing Sunset or getting any lessons for months, and you’re right that meeting Argentium is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s hard to pass up. Balancing that against having to put up with Agent Heartstrings while she’s on the trip...”

I spotted movement out the corner of my eye, and confirmed my suspicions with a quick detection spell. I turned to Kukri’s parents with a grin. “How about instead of speculating on what she would want, we just ask her? She’s been hiding in the stairwell and listening in on us instead of writing that essay I wanted her to finish by the end of the week.” I shot a look up at Kukri’s hiding place. “You still have to do that, by the way. And you can bet I’ll draw up some lesson plans for you if you have to stay behind.”

Kukri remained undeterred by the threat of homework, abandoning any pretence of subtlety and came rushing down the stairs, promptly latching onto her father’s leg. “Dad! Can this one please, please, please go north with the Shimmer-mare?! Pleeeeeeeeeeeease?”

Codex blinked in surprise, staring down at the energetic young girl clinging to his leg. “You really want to go that much?”

“Endless night, yes!” Kukri squealed. “This one doesn’t want to lose months of work with the Shimmer-mare, especially when it has a chance to go north and meet with Argentium the Runescaled! She’s the greatest authority on runic magic in the entire world—she might have even invented it! This one heard she even helped train Torch Charger!”

I’d heard those rumors, and personally considered them pretty dubious. Historical heroes always seemed to get half a dozen extra myths attached to them, even when those stories made no sense and didn’t fit in with any of the established history. It was no different than the Kickers insisting that Shadow and Celestia had been lovers despite there being no hard evidence to support that claim, and the fact that Shadow had other known paramours.

Still, if national mythology supported getting Kukri to come along on this trip, I would be happy to play into it. “It is a pretty amazing opportunity.”

Codex frowned. “You still want to go, even if the Heartstrings-mare might be part of the group?”

Kukri frowned to herself, then slowly nodded. “This one doesn’t like her very much, but it won’t let her presence stop her from missing out on everything else it wants. Besides, Puzzle and the Shimmer-mare will keep her under control.”

Codex sighed and nodded. “That is true.”

Knives scowled and crossed her forelegs over her chest. “Maybe, but that’s not good enough for me. If that EIS nag is part of it, then Kurki stays here.”

Kukri blinked in shock, and her jaw dropped. “Mooom!”

Knives remained unmoved by her daughter’s outrage. “This is not negotiable. Strumming stays away or Kukri stays here. Period.”

Kukri stomped on the floor and glowered up at her, seeds of proto-teenage rebellion brewing on her face. “But that’s not fair, Mom!”

“Knives...” Codex put a reassuring hoof on her shoulder. “This one is absolutely certain the Shimmer-mare wouldn’t put Kukri in danger. It does not like the Heartstrings-mare any more than you do, but letting her take this away from Kukri would just be compounding the damage.”

Knives didn’t budge an inch. “Kukri or Strumming. I’m not sending my daughter off for months with any group including that nag.”

I sighed and tried to resist the urge to argue against her. If her husband and daughter couldn’t win her over, I probably wouldn’t, and it really wasn’t my place to intrude in a family discussion. “I assure you, I would never allow Strumming or anyone else to threaten your daughter. If she comes with us, nobody lays a hoof on her without going through me first.”

Kukri nodded along emphatically. “The Shimmer-mare has always kept this one safe when it was in danger.” Kukri clutched her hoof, shaking it. “Please let this one please go with her! Please!”

Codex fixed his wife with a pointed look. “This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to her, and this one would hate to interrupt her studies.” He leaned in and murmured something else I didn’t completely catch, but from what I caught it sounded like a warning about just how much Kukri would resent being left out of the trip.

Knives sighed softly, shaking her head. “I just want her to be safe.”

Kukri gave her hoof a reassuring squeeze. “This one will be, Mom. It promises.”

“The Shimmer-mare has done a good job of keeping her safe thus far,” Codex pointed out. “If she hadn’t been on the Venture when pirates attacked it...”

“Right, I know.” Knives took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “Not to mention everything she did when Cold ... right.”

Kukri’s ears perked up hopefully, and a second later Codex confirmed it. “Looks like Kukri’s going with you. This one had best go shopping for cold-weather gear.”

“Glad to hear it.” I mentally braced myself for what I knew was coming next.

Kukri didn’t disappoint. Her gleeful squeal was so loud and high-pitched I was surprised the windows survived it. First she hugged Codex, then Knives, and finally me. I’d hoped that being last in line would’ve diminished her enthusiasm a bit, but the pained groan my ribs let out when she hit confirmed that it had not.

Author's Note:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

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