• Published 5th Aug 2019
  • 12,285 Views, 687 Comments

The Witch of Canterlot - MagnetBolt

Sunset Shimmer is one of the most powerful unicorns in the world, but that won't help her when she's far from home and facing a danger explosions won't solve - diplomatic intrigue!

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Chapter 1

My name is Sunset Shimmer. For a long time, I thought I was the strongest unicorn in Equestria. It was something I could hold onto even when I didn’t have anything else. Hurt, lost, alone? You can still be the strongest.

I could write an essay on how little it ended up mattering. I could set most of Canterlot on fire, but I couldn't make ponies actually like me. The few ponies I'd somehow managed to trick or bully into being my friends probably didn't want anything to do with me.

After what happened in Canterlot, I couldn’t stay. I ran away with my tail tucked between my legs and hopped on the first boat out of the city. Cadance had been nice enough to give me her job, but I think that was only because she knew I was going to just up and leave on self-imposed exile no matter what. Giving me something to do meant she didn't have to worry I'd vanish and never be seen again.

So I found myself standing at the bow of a ship, staring out over the sea. The salt air stung my eyes and made my old wounds ache. The black cloak wrapped around me kept the sun off my flank and had a few subtle enchantments to keep me cool even in the blazing sun. When I could actually face Rarity again I needed to remember to compliment her.

I regretted not keeping up with my physical therapy. It had been a week on the ocean and I still hadn’t gotten my sea legs. Every wave that hit the ship made me rock on my hooves. Naturally, that meant when somepony tapped me on the shoulder, it almost knocked me right over.

The deck pitched under me and I overcorrected, stumbling the other way and slamming into the pony who’d tried to get my attention. I couldn’t control myself, fighting to avoid falling, and almost all my weight ended up on the hoof I’d accidentally planted right on the fallen Captain’s chest, pinning him to the deck.

He looked up at me like I was something out of his night terrors and shivered.

“What?” I snarled, sounding more annoyed than I was. I’d bitten my stupid tongue and grimaced in pain.

The Captain winced at my expression.

“I- I just wanted to let you know we spotted the lighthouse. We’ll be arriving at the Saddle Arabian capital tomorrow!” He winced again, looking away from my eyes. “W-we can try to speed up, but the shallows can be dangerous in the dark--”

“Do whatever you think is best,” I said, stepping back. “It’s your boat. I’m going to be in my cabin.”

I was halfway there when I realized I should have apologized to the stallion, but I was annoyed and my leg was aching and by the time it crossed my mind it was too awkward to go back and say something. I made a mental note to say something the next time I saw him.

The royal cabin was the finest on the ship and I really hated it. It had been designed with a certain pony in mind. If I tell you that every square inch was some shade of pink and there were heart-shaped pillows on the bed, you’d be able to guess who without me telling you and you’d be absolutely right.

There hadn’t been any time to change the decor since I’d taken the mission out of Cadance’s hooves at almost literally the last minute, so I had to put up with it. It wasn’t that I hated pink or anything. It was just… it was spending weeks in what was essentially somepony else’s bedroom. I felt like an intruder.

I collapsed on the bed and threw a lacy, embroidered pillow across the room.

Even the first time I’d lived at the palace I’d never had a whole room on a ship decorated in red and gold--

I bit back the thought before I could put more words to it. I wasn’t jealous. I wasn’t! I’d just never done anything like Cadance’s diplomatic work. There hadn’t been a reason to put me on a boat because I spent all my time in the library. I hadn’t cared about other ponies. I hadn’t been...


I groaned into the rest of the pillows. There had to be a dozen still on the bed. It was geological, strata of silk and lace that went all the way down to the Earth’s springy pegasus-down core.

“How many pillows does a Princess need?” I muttered.

The pillows refused to answer, so I got up and kicked a few more off the bed into a steadily growing pile that would be put back by some unlucky cabin boy later.

“Too early to sleep. Too sore to stand on deck.” I sighed. “Too lonely to avoid talking to myself.”

I rolled off of the bed and onto the landing zone I’d made with the cushions, then got to my hooves and started going through Cadance’s desk.

“There has to be some kind of actual work here…” I muttered, unrolling the scrolls that had been left there for her. Technically since I’d taken over, they were for me, so I was going to pretend the glowing praise and compliments weren’t for an absent party.

Saddle Arabia. Technically we were trading partners with them, though it was more about cultural exchange than anything else. They were an isolationist nation that traded very little with their neighbors, but by all accounts the Arabians were incredibly rich.

A long time ago ponies had known where that wealth came from. They’d had the best silver mines in the world, pulling seemingly endless amounts of the stuff out of the ground. Then they stopped, and all their mines were seized by the state. It had been more than a thousand years ago, but the quality of their work had been so good that ponies still remembered it.

One pony in particular remembered it - Princess Luna’s return had meant a surge in demand for silver. It was needed to outfit the palace, for the Night Guard, for her own jewelry. Right now, silver was worth more than gold in Equestria, and it had been Cadance’s job to sweet talk the Saddle Arabians into re-opening their mines and getting exclusive rights to feed Equestria’s need for the stuff.

On the one hoof, it seemed pretty pointless. There were plenty of metals that would basically look like silver and wouldn’t tarnish. You could put a good shine on tin and nopony would know the difference! Well, nopony except Luna.

That was the sticking point, really. Luna wanted it. It was a royal request. That was the one part of the mission I was happy about. Luna and I had a lot in common - we’d both made terrible Celestia-related mistakes, we’d both tried to kill each other, we both looked good in black.

If she wasn’t a thousand years older than me and we weren’t in some kind of weird awkward quasi-family dynamic I’d have seriously considered dating her.

No, you know what? That’s probably just me catching some new species of stupid from being around Cadance’s junk. If I wasn’t careful I’d end up like her and have an obsessive little notebook filled with potential romantic pairings for everypony around her.

I didn’t even want to think about what her entry for me must look like. I knew she’d been trying to set me up with ponies ten years younger than I was. Either she was really wrong about my taste or she was projecting something about her own type. If she didn't have a coltfriend already I'd suspect she even put herself on the list of potential candidates.

I tapped a pen against the desk and wondered if she had any notes on Luna.

A knock on the cabin door made me jump and kick the drawer close like a foal with their hooves in the cookie jar.

“What?” I snapped. I cleared my throat and tried to put a less threatening tone. “I mean, sorry. What is it?”

I pulled the door open with my magic, not bothering to cross the distance.

The cabin boy, whose name I’d never managed to learn, stood at attention like this was some kind of formal military review.

“We’re about to make port, Ma’am! The Captain wanted me to let you know!”

The poor colt looked terrified. I almost felt sorry for him. He’d probably signed up hoping he’d meet Princess Cadance, Equestria’s perfect teenage alicorn. Half the colts in Canterlot had a poster of her on their walls. That wasn’t an exaggeration - she’d sold signed copies as fundraising once.

I never got asked to pose for a swimsuit calendar.

“Let’s go up to the deck,” I said, grabbing my saddlebags.

“I can carry that for you,” he offered.

“It’s fine,” I said. I slipped them on under my cloak. “They’re not heavy.”

They weren’t heavy mostly because they were almost empty. I’d just sort of shoved things in without looking and I’d ended up with a clean set of socks, the novel I’d been reading, and a bunch of letters that I was sorely tempted to throw overboard. If I hadn’t found the documents on Cadance’s desk I wouldn’t even know where I was going or what I was supposed to do when I got there.

I still didn’t have a plan on how to convince them to open up the mines. The official documents had been short on details on the actual trade deal and long on the schedule of parades and events Cadance was supposed to appear at.

When we got up on deck I had to stop and shield my eyes. The sun was hot and bright and somehow distant, but the rest of the landscape made up for it. The ocean waves and white sand bounced the blinding light back at me even when I looked away from the cloudless sky. It was like being on stage with the spotlight fixed right in my face.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the cabin boy asked.

I grunted, my eyes hurting too much to reply properly. It took almost a full minute for me to be able to see through the glare, and by then I was standing alone on the deck, the crew keeping as much distance from me as possible.

I’d read about Saddle Arabia in my studies. Even books a thousand years old and mouldering in the Castle of the Twins called it a mysterious and ancient land, a relic of another time. What they didn’t describe were the flawless white walls and the sprawl of buildings reaching all the way from the docks to the massive palace that loomed over the city like a mountain range.

“I just have to make a good first impression,” I said to myself. “Just don’t feather it up this time, Sunset.”

“I said get BACK!” I yelled, launching a burst of flames into the sky. The crowd screamed and scattered. The press of bodies around me turned into a stampede as panicking ponies ran in every direction including into and over each other in a mad scramble to get away from me.

I took a few deep breaths, trying to quell my own panic. All those ponies talking over each other and trying to get my attention and begging me for something I couldn’t give them. It had been too much like what happened in Canterlot.

Too much like what I was running away from.

“I suppose that’s one way to handle the beggars,” a voice said, with a clipped Manehattan accent. The retreating crowd broke like a wave on the shields of two ponies in the familiar gold armor of the Royal Guard, flanking a blue unicorn who looked less annoyed at me than he should have been.

“I’m--” I started.

He cut me off by clearing his throat and dramatically snapping a scroll open and reading the contents aloud. “Sunset Shimmer. Former personal student of Princess Celestia. Current status…” he trailed off and looked at me. “Mm. I’ve been informed you would be taking Princess Cadance’s place. I don’t agree with the decision but it wasn’t up to me.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I muttered. I didn’t bother offering my hoof to shake. I didn’t want to go through the motion when I knew he’d just sneer and say something snide.

“My name is Vuvuzela,” he droned over the crowd, which was slowly gathering again, though at a more tolerable distance than before. The guards flanking him pushed them back every time they got close. “I am the official ambassador and the pony in charge of the negotiations.”

That explained it. He was mad I came here to do his job for him. Maybe it was better Cadance wasn’t here. He’d have walked all over her.

“Great. You can fill me in on the details of the negotiations,” I said. “The reports I got weren’t really detailed.”

His expression brightened a little. “I would be happy to do so, once we’re at the embassy. I don’t think either of us would benefit from trying to shout over the beggars.”

I nodded in agreement. One of the guards trotted over to me and we started pressing back through the crowd, the armored ponies mostly keeping the horde at bay. Mostly.

“Alms for the ill?” asked a pony brave enough to press through the watching masses.

I reached for what little money I had on instinct, and the guard caught my hoof. He was young, probably only my age.

“Don’t,” he warned. “Don’t give them anything.”

“What? Why?” I frowned at him. The pony who’d broken out of the crowd coughed, blood splattering onto the hoof she used to cover her mouth.

“They’re all thieves and pickpockets. None of them are even sick!” The guard sighed. “I had my bits stolen my first day here by a pony who I thought was missing two legs. It was just a clever chair and a lot of acting. Everypony who comes here has a story like that.”


“If she’s coughing blood she probably bit her tongue or had beet juice or something,” the guard said. “Just trust me on this one, it just encourages them and it makes it worse for the next pony.”

He pushed her back into the crowd, keeping his eye on her as we walked past.

I don’t think he saw the other pony, because he was so busy watching the sick mare.

Behind the crowd, a pony watched from the shadows near one of those smooth white walls. Our eyes met, and I could feel how strong she was. It’s a kind of instinct unicorns have - you can just tell if somepony is on your level. It’s kind of like how wolves figure out a pecking order, I guess, all instinct and posturing and not really being able to explain it in words.

That pony, whoever she was, was almost as strong as I was. It wasn’t something I’d felt very often.

“Are you okay?” my guard asked.

I looked back at him. “Huh? Yeah, I was just--”

The mare I’d locked eyes with was gone, vanished like she’d turned invisible.

“--nevermind,” I finished. “Let’s just get to the embassy.”

“Oh no, it’s fine, of course I understand,” I said, trying to force a smile.

“I was worried you’d be offended,” Vuvuzela said. “I’m afraid the news was delayed getting here. Naturally we already had this set up in advance and, well…”

The embassy was decorated lavishly. In shades of pink. All pink. My eye twitched. Balloons and a cake in the shape of hearts. A giant welcome banner with the name not-so-carefully covered up with a sheet and my own name hoof-written on it so sloppily I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be an insult or if it just turned out that way as an accident.

I wanted to burn it.

“So, maybe I could just get started with the work,” I said. Anything to change the subject.

“The work?” Vuvuzela looked confused.

“Writing a treaty?” I rolled my eyes. “Does that ring any bells? I spent the whole boat ride here with nothing to do except come up with ideas. I’ve got a few thoughts but I wanted to see your notes and see if we can’t crack the whole silver mine issue.”

“There’s no need for that.”

“No need for what? I’m here to negotiate the opening of the silver mine, aren’t I?”

“Princess Cadance was coming here for the ceremonial signing of the final treaty,” Vuvuzela said. “Didn’t you at least do the research on what you were being asked to do?”

“The final treaty? But, I thought we were going to go over the numbers and pricing…”

“That was all done weeks ago,” Vuvuzela said. “A treaty isn’t something done by one pony. Well, not usually. We had a lot of help with the math and presentations on this one.”

“Is that so.” Technically it was a question, but I couldn’t manage to put curiosity into my tone when I was so busy biting back frustration.

“Yes, apparently Princess Celestia’s student - sorry, I mean her current student - helped quite a bit. She came up with an agreement that was beneficial to all parties just when we thought we were totally stalled out.”

“Twilight’s helpful like that,” I muttered. “I bet she even came up with some kind of friendship lesson about what she learned about sharing and mediation.”

“Ah, you must be familiar with the mare,” Vuvuzela said. He smiled, and I honestly don’t know if it was an honest smile or if he was trying his best to make me angry because I’d messed up whatever plans he’d made by virtue of not being a perfect pink princess. “Would you like a copy of the friendship report? She sent us the forms in triplicate--”

“No,” I snapped.

“Could I get you a glass of wine, then?” Vuvuzela offered.

“Buck yes.” I winced and corrected myself. No harsh language. “I mean, yes, I’d love a bottle.” Maybe saying bottle was too accurate. “Glass. A glass of wine.”

He gave me a look. I was too busy staring at the banner to tell exactly what kind of look it was, but even in the corner of my eye I could tell it was the kind of look a diplomat wasn’t supposed to let slip.

A glass was offered, and I politely sniffed it.

“This is from Equestria,” I said, after a moment. “Cherry wine from the Dodge Junction area?”

“I’m surprised you’re familiar with it.” He left unsaid whatever he really thought, but that was half the job of diplomacy.

“Hard to forget. I’m not a huge fan of dessert wine.” I downed the glass. Better than letting it go to waste.

“Perhaps we can find something more to your liking,” he said. “I’m sure we have some neutral grain alcohol.”

“Isn’t that the stuff that makes you go blind?” I asked.

“I’m told it’s wonderful as a disinfectant.”

I looked at the decorations. “Sounds good.”

I tipped the bottle back, the searing liquid burning all the way down. Whatever this stuff was, it was from Stalliongrad, the label was in a language I didn't understand, and it tasted strong enough to kill a Yak. It was just about enough to start taking the edge off my anger.

“Just smile and shake hooves!” I spat. “No wonder Cadance was willing to let me jump on this sword for her. Anypony could do it!”

“You’re making a scene,” Vuvuzela warned. “Mister Sentry?”

The guard who’d escorted me to the embassy started towards me.

“Why don’t we get you to your room?” the guard offered. “You’ve had a long trip and I bet you could use a night in a bed that’s not tipping from one side to another.”

“Not nearly long enough! Why did I even bother coming if you’ve got everything wrapped up in a neat little pink bow?!”

“It’s important to have a government official here in a ceremonial capacity,” Vuvuzela droned. “It has nothing to do with whatever personal skills you may or may not have. I’m sure that you’re more than bright enough to have helped with the treaty, but that work is done and we are not going to reinvent the wheel just because you want to have a hoof in it.”

“I’m not--” I toss the bottle aside. It shattered in the corner and the guard took a step closer to me. “That’s not the point! I thought there was something important to do here!”

“If you can’t see that the ceremony and presentation are important in and of themselves, then you are sadly incorrect,” the ambassador said. “If you learned nothing else from Princess Celestia you should have learned that appearances are important. She does not, for example, throw temper tantrums because she is asked to be pleasant and polite for a short while.”

He really shouldn’t have mentioned Celestia.

I tore the banner down and crumpled it into a ball.

“Princess Celestia wouldn’t be insulted to her face,” I growled. “You can smile and pretend you’ve been so wronged because I came here instead of Cadance, but there’s a big bucking difference between her and me.”

“A great many differences,” he corrected.

“The one you should be worried about is that she’s a doormat who would bend over backwards to accommodate you. She’d blame every little thing on herself and worry herself sick over the details. I’m the pony who knows you had to take this banner down to cover up Cadance’s name and instead of leaving it down you decided to doodle my name on it just to remind me that you don’t think I belong.”

I threw it at Vuvuzela hard enough to knock him down.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “Go ahead and lodge whatever formal complaints you want with Celestia. You’re not getting Cadance, you’ve got me. If you want me to smile and wave, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to put up with being insulted.”

I stormed out of the room like I owned the place, even though part of me was screaming about how much I’d screwed up.

“At this rate we’ll be at war in a week,” I muttered, as I paced around the embassy garden, wedged in the space between the outer wall and the inner manor. “I can’t believe I screwed up already.”

“Don’t worry so much, sister. Old saying goes you only start being good at something by being bad at it first.”

There was a flare of light and fire. I put up a shield on instinct, but the pony in the shadows didn’t react, busy in the act of lighting a black cigarette. She was taller than I was, as slim as a supermodel and wrapped up in green and tan robes that covered her practically from collar to tailtip.

“Cloves,” they said. They didn’t have an accent like the Saddle Arabians. If anything she sounded like they had a trace of the upper-class Canterlot accent. “Sort of a bad habit, but the smoke doesn’t linger as badly as the other options. You want one?”

She offered the rumpled, half-empty pack to me.

“I don’t smoke,” I said. “You’re the unicorn I saw at the docks.”

She shrugged and put the cigarettes away in the folds of her robe. “You probably saw a lot of unicorns at the docks. There was quite a crowd.”

“You stood out,” I said. I lowered my shield. They didn’t feel threatening. Objectively, they were only about as strong as I was, and I guess I’d been spoiled by having to face down ponies an order of magnitude more powerful than that.

“I’m flattered,” the mare said. “I wasn’t sure I’d really caught the eye of the great Sunset Shimmer.”

I was immediately on edge, because she didn't sound sarcastic when she said 'great'.

“You know my name?”

She shifted the cigarette to the other side of her mouth, blowing a puff of spice-scented smoke. “Hard not to know. It’s on the lips of a lot of very important ponies. You haven’t stayed out of the public eye as much as you think, Sunshine.”

She winked, and I bristled. There was something untrustworthy about her, aside from the fact that she’d apparently broken into the embassy and there were no guards anywhere I could see.

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said.

“Did I forget to introduce myself?” the pony sighed, shaking her head. “I am so sorry, bad habit of mine. You can call me, uh…” she glanced past me to the wall. “Arch. Arch Standin’.”

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow.

“I’m wounded! Sounds practically like you don’t trust me when you haven’t even heard what I have to say.” Arch shook her head. “I swear, ponies these days. And here I wanted to do you a favor.”

“I don’t trust anypony who comes out of nowhere offering to do me a favor.”

“That's good,” Arch said with approval, nodding seriously. “How about this - I want to make powerful friends, and sister, you caught my eye like nopony else. I saw you and I thought to myself that here’s a pony who could use a new friend. Am I wrong?”

“I’ve got friends.”

“Not here. Especially not with that crowd.” She nodded towards the embassy. “How about I take you to a real party and we have some fun?”

It was a bad idea. Going alone somewhere with a stranger, when I didn’t even know the country and had zero friends within a thousand miles. In most other circumstances I would have said no. But I’d also had half a bottle of pure grain alcohol and that might have softened my hard edges just a little.

“Sure,” I said, like the idiot I was. “Let’s go.”

Author's Note:

Kept you waiting, huh?

I have the whole story planned out in some detail, but I only have it about half-written at the time I post this. It's more than enough for regular updates for a month or two, which hopefully will motivate me to finish the rest. I just couldn't resist dropping this now that BC is over. Really feels like the end of an era, and I can't think of a better way to see it off than by posting something I've been working on for a long time.

Now for those of you not reading this in the far future where things are explained, no, you didn't miss anything. Whatever happened to Sunset in Canterlot, she doesn't feel like talking about it yet - but she will. The only important thing right now is that it was bad enough that she felt like it ruined her friendships, and that she had to leave Equestria behind just to escape her sins.

Bad news is, she's about to find plenty of new people, places, and things to really mess up.

As the story develops, I'll share some stories in authors notes about why certain events happened, other versions of events and chapters, and even a summary of the original story that I completely dropped before I came up with this plotline.

Stay tuned, and please join my Patreon if you want to support me as an author!