• Published 9th May 2020
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For the Mare Who Has Everything - GrassAndClouds2



An extremely wealthy and powerful member of Luna's Night Court who is nearing the end of her life resolves to obtain the secret of immortality, no matter the cost

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4. Two Ancient Horseshoes, Some Medicinal Pills, A Grateful Letter

Vicereine Puissance gently eased past the guest bedroom where Scepter was sleeping and noted that, for the first time in a long time, she did not feel quite so cold.

She had spent the entire weekend in her mansion with Scepter, reading to him from the same fairy-tale and adventure books that she had inherited from her parents, instructing him on the finer points of appreciating some of her collections, giving him a pony-back ride while he chattered on about some kind of dance he was going to attend at school, and even reluctantly playing hide-and-seek with him through her mansion’s gigantic attic. It was fun, it was relaxing, and when Puissance had awoken that Monday she’d felt more at peace than she had in a long time.

But she could not stay with Scepter forever—not yet anyways—and now that the weekend was over, it was time to go deal with the cult. Puissance’s secretaries fell into step behind her as she left her mansion on her way to her airship. Banner was just arriving at the front gate as she left through it and she nodded at him. “Banner,” she said. “Good morning. Scepter is in the guest bedroom.”

“Great.” He started to go inside, then paused. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with Scepter these past few months.”

“Yes?”

Banner caught her gaze. “Why?”

Puissance frowned. Banner seemed almost suspicious of something. “I hardly need an excuse to spend time with my own great-grandcolt,” she said.

“Look, Grandma, if this is about Ink Blot…” he began in an exasperated voice. “We tried, but the teacher just didn’t work out for us, and I know you brought him back but…”

The Vicereine flushed. She hadn’t even thought of Ink Blot all weekend, although now that he mentioned it, she did need to check in with Scepter about his lessons. But that wasn’t the point. Who was Banner to be so suspicious of her? She had done so much for her family, kept them all on the right tracks to the very best of her ability, expended immense effort to ensure that each and every one of them grew up a proper, dignified pony who did credit to the House of Optiebeurs-Golo. And yet, with the exception of Scepter, all she got was scorn.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said primly. “Please take Scepter home. I must be off on important work.” And she stalked towards her airship, secretaries rushing to keep up, while Banner fell behind.

###

Before leaving, Solar Flare had taken one of Puissance’s artifacts: one of two magic stones which always pointed towards the other. With the other stone acting as a compass, Puissance was able to direct her airship’s captain to head for Solar Flare’s location. This turned out to be a forested clearing in northern Palomino, about three days’ walk from any civilization.

Puissance flew out of her airship about twenty minutes before it would have reached the clearing, mostly to avoid scaring the cult, and headed towards her bodyguard’s position. Soon she was close enough to see Solar Flare standing in the middle of about thirty ponies who were wearing white regalia and bearing a variety of golden jewels and trinkets. The leader seemed to be a tallish, thinnish stallion with a thin black mustache and a cutie mark of a sunbeam peeking out of clouds; he had no Golden Horseshoe visible on his body, but he did have bulging saddlebags slung over his back which could have contained it. “How do we know this is really a herald of Celestia?” he was saying in a slight Rushian accent. “She has bade us stay here for days! The real Celestia would want us to march on the capital and free her from her sister’s clutches! I, Sunbeam Truth, know this to be true!”

“But she looks just like her!” said another pony. “And she has her armor! She must have been blessed by our alicorn goddess!”

“Lies!” yelled Sunbeam. “I say she dyed her coat and stole the armor!”

Without wasting any more time, Puissance landed directly next to Solar Flare, who was wearing the golden Alicorn Armor but otherwise had no weapons. Solar Flare gave Puissance a grateful look before turning back to the crowd. “As I said, I represent the wishes of Celestia. She does not wish a march upon the capital. She would rather you resolve your differences with the government peacefully, and now one of the highest nobles in the entire government is here to listen to your complaints.”

“See?” crowed Sunbeam. “That’s Puissance, one of the most corrupt nobles of the lot! She must be here to buy us off!”

Puissance nodded at her bodyguard before walking forwards until she was almost muzzle-to-muzzle with Sunbeam. “I am here to hear you,” she said in a soft voice. “If you have any real complaints, I will listen.”

Sunbeam seemed taken aback, and Puissance frowned. She’d encountered a few sun cultists before, and they were usually passionately upset about some actual injustice (albeit equally passionately confused as to who was responsible for it), or they were just crazy. This pony seemed different. There wasn’t enough passion in his voice for him to be mad about anything real, but he seemed sane. So why was he here?

Other ponies stepped in to fill the void. “My farm is failing,” said one, also with a Rushian accent. “And when I applied for a government bailout they said other farms had used up the fund first!”

Puissance nodded at Solar Flare, who began to write down notes. “I see,” she said. “Anything else?”

“My colt’s school isn’t funded!” cried out a pony with a ‘world’s best mother’ ribbon in her mane. “I heard the nobles kept all the bits!”

An old mare yelled, “They closed down my assisted living center! Said they had no money!”

Puissance frowned. All of these ponies had the same accent; they presumably came from the same place. But it wasn’t possible that they were Rushian. Fisher, despite his corruption, had always made sure his provinces’ services functioned correctly, and the new noble Svelte was as incorruptible as a rock (and somewhat less personable). She too would have made sure her town had the funds it needed. And also, if they were Rushian, how had they gotten so far south? Had they gone straight to Canterlot they would have reached it long before getting anywhere near Puissance’s territory.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

Kalineighrad!” a few yelled.

Thinking back to her geography, Puissance remembered that Kalineighrad was on the very western border of Rushia. In fact, there had been some debate over whether Kalineighrad was even part of Rushia or whether it was just past the border. But that had never caused a problem before, so—

Wait. It hadn’t been a problem before because there wasn’t anything at all west of Rushia, so Rushia looked after Kalineighrad by default. That would also explain why these ponies said that the city had schools and nursing homes, which as far as Puissance knew no other cities in Nulpar had: Rushia had been running the city, Archduke Bobbing Fisher had been running Rushia, and he would have sunk as much money as needed into Kalineighrad in order to get it ‘modernized’ and push it towards an industrial footing. But now Fisher was gone and there was an actual territory west of Rushia: the new province Nulpar. Puissance would bet that the Rushian authorities under Archduchess Svelte Lord-Fisher thought that Kalineighrad was just barely in Nulpar, and the Nulpar ones… well, the Nulpar authorities were Baron Max, who probably didn’t know where Kalineighrad was or even how to spell it. But if he knew it existed at all he probably thought it was in Rushia and thus their concern. And so neither province supported the city, which as a result was falling into ruin.

“I know what the problem is,” she said. “I will inform Canterlot so that they can fix your issues.”

“That will take months,” insisted Sunbeam, who was now starting to sweat. “We don’t have months. Our town is dying!”

“Then I will immediately give Kalineighrad a one hundred thousand bit advance on the government’s funds.” Puissance smiled slightly. “I imagine that should make up your funding shortfall for the foreseeable future. If the government takes time to issue the funds, it is I who will be waiting, not you. And if the government pays out less than one hundred thousand bits… then please keep the remainder as an apology for the inconvenience.”

The ponies murmured excitedly, and a few even began putting down their sun-themed artifacts. Sunbeam, though, stomped his hoof. “You cannot buy us off!” he said. “We have traveled for weeks and—“

Puissance inclined her head. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you travel for weeks? The journey between Rushia and Canterlot is not that long. And our current location is on the other side of Canterlot from Rushia besides.”

Sunbeam began to sweat. “We had to, uh, get some things—“

“What do you mean?” asked the pony who had complained about the farms. “You said we had to take the long way around so Luna’s patrols wouldn’t see us. Took us all the way to Neigh Orleans by train before we started walking.”

“I see.” Puissance thought for several moments. A real cult might try to evade Luna by doing things such as only traveling on back roads or wearing disguises, but going that far out of their way wasn’t one of them. It made no sense if their goal was really to ‘free Celestia.’ If, however, the leader who designed their strategy had another goal…

“This isn’t your first time doing this,” she said at last to Sunbeam.

Sunbeam coughed. “Er, what do you mean?”

“I mean, you are a con artist.” She began to pace. “You find desperate ponies with grievances and tell them to follow you with any gold they might have so that you might free Celestia from the sun… or, now, from Canterlot. You arrange a roundabout route so they become more invested, and so you have time to gain their confidence. And then, when you are very near Canterlot, you will tell them to give you the gold so that you can perform your ritual to free her. At which point you sneak off.”

“That isn’t true!” yelled Sunbeam, his Rushian accent slipping into a Lancantershire brogue as the ponies around them began to murmur. “If I had done that, I’d have been arrested ages ago!”

“Not so,” said Puissance primly. “Ages ago, Celestia was locked in the sun and had been away for almost a thousand years. Even the most die-hard of the sun cults had given up, and those who called themselves cultists were usually just playing pretend or trying to stand up to ‘the establishment’ without meaning to do anything real. Your group would have seemed the same and nopony would have paid you any scrutiny. After Celestia broke free, of course, we began monitoring sun cults… but once she ‘reformed,’ you no doubt felt that the scrutiny would lessen and you could go back to your old tricks. However, you were quite wrong.” She gave him a thin smile. “I imagine when we get back to Canterlot we’ll find many criminal complaints against you, under a variety of names, for scamming ponies out of gold, won’t we?”

Sunbeam tried to say something, but the ponies around him were starting to glare and he couldn’t seem to get the words out. Puissance turned to the farmer. “How did he convince you he was legitimate?”

“He has this Golden Horseshoe. He says Celestia gave it to him in a dream as a sign of favor. When he put it on, he could do all these incredible magic stunts. It’s in his saddlebag!”

Puissance hid her grin. Distantly, she noted that Sunbeam’s artifact explained why his choice of con had been a sun cult; Celestia was known for her affinity with gold, and even a single one of the horseshoes would no doubt enable the con artist to do incredible things and thus trick his victims. Even if she was wrong about his reason, though, Puissance had him… and the artifact she wanted. “Sunbeam,” she said. “By the power vested in me as a Vicereine of Equestria, I am placing you under arrest.”

“No!” Sunbeam broke and ran, smashing past a few members of his mob. Puissance sighed and nodded at Solar Flare, who reared up—

And then, one blink of an eye later, the pegacorn knocked Sunbeam to the ground. Puissance smiled as the other ponies gasped. She had seen Solar Flare use the Alicorn Armor’s power a few times—it gave any pony the ‘alicorn level’ strength of their tribe, so for the pegacorn Solar Flare, it functionally gave her the flight abilities and magical reserves of an alicorn—but it never got old. She then turned to the others. “You were misled and have committed no crime. I will fly you in my airship to the nearest town with a train station. By the time you reach home, my grant should have been wired to your Mayor.”

“Thank you, Vicereine!” said the old mare whose retirement home had closed. “I feel really silly for falling for that scam artist…

“Think nothing of it,” said Puissance as Solar Flare dragged Sunbeam back towards the group and also shot up a flare from her horn that would draw the airship closer. “I am happy to help. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Solar Flare ripped the saddlebags off of Sunbeam and tossed them near Puissance. She opened them and found an actual treasure map which she guessed was to help Sunbeam find his loot stashes. Maybe, she thought, Luna could be persuaded to let Puissance have a percentage of said loot as a finder’s fee? And then, next to the map, was…

It was beautiful.

Puissance lost track of everything around her as she gently removed the Golden Horseshoe from the saddlebag. It sparkled with a brilliant luster, and when she held it in her hoof she could literally feel the magical energies in it vibrating. She was sorely tempted to just put it on and see what happened. But she knew that was unwise; the artifact had to be properly tested and inspected first. Besides. She had three more to go.

Still…

“Vicereine?” Solar Flare whispered, and Puissance realized ponies were staring at her as she hugged the horseshoe to her chest. “Should we go now?”

“Ah, yes. Of course.” Puissance nodded as the airship began to land. When Solar Flare began to march Sunbeam towards it, though, she held up a hoof. “You: one more question. Where did you get the Golden Horseshoe?”

Sunbeam scowled at her, but finally turned his head and muttered, “Inherited it. Mom says we’re Mimic’s descendants. She gave it to me, said I could do whatever I wanted with it ‘cause it was my birthright.”

Puissance let out a soft snort. That was the problem with overly permissive parenting. It led to ponies who were inadequate heirs, who could neither uphold their family’s dignity and heritage nor appreciate its treasures. That was why she had worked so hard to raise her family, especially Scepter, to be proper bearers of the Optiebeurs-Golo name, its power… and of course all of its wealth. (Of course, if she lived forever she would be keeping most of the power and wealth, but even so it was still important to bring them up properly. Besides, her family was hers, and she took great care to ensure that everything of hers was always the best it could be.)

“Hey, come on, don’t arrest me!” Sunbeam yelled as Solar Flare led him into the airship where he could be restrained. “You’ll ruin my reputation! I was up for Hoofington’s ‘Good Pony of the Year’ award!”

Puissance rolled her eyes but said nothing. It was absurd, she decided, how petty ponies like this got so worried about their reputations when they had so many more serious problems. It was like how that warlord Cow Cow, who called himself a great leader, had been so furious over the possibility ponies would think his former advisor had ‘gotten away’ with something just by virtue of staying alive—

Wait.

That gave her an idea.

The Vicereine smiled and hurried over to Solar Flare. “Let us get these ponies back to town as soon as possible,” she said. “Have Perfect Precision stay behind to handle the bank transfer. We are going back to Califurlong.”

“Are we doing anything in particular?” asked Solar Flare.

“Yes,” Puissance said. “We are going to get Cow Cow and his miserable entourage out of my province. And we are going to ensure he sends me his Golden Horseshoe on the next boat over.”

###

The trip back to Califurlong was fast, but when Puissance called at the hotel where the warlord was staying, she was informed by the desk clerk that he and all his soldiers had departed once Puissance had left to deal with the cult.

“That makes no sense,” objected Solar Flare, once again safely wrapped beneath a cloak. “If he had to leave urgently, why wait for you to leave too? Or, if he wanted to avoid your notice, why leave now instead of any of the times you were in Canterlot?”

Puissance thought furiously and then winced when she realized what it probably was. “Come on,” she growled, leading Solar Flare at a rapid gallop to the nearest telegraph office. She had never been there before, as she had a telegraph line connected to her estate, but there was no time to go all the way back to her home. If she was right, her most precious collection was in genuine danger, so a public line would have to do.

When they got to the office, twelve ponies were ahead of Puissance. She settled that by paying everypony one hundred bits to cut in line. Then she sent a message directly to Vicereine Wallflower, copied to both her personal line, the main castle line, and the Foreign Ministry’s line. After first sending her passcode to prove that it was her, Puissance sent, “URGENTLY REQUEST ANY RECENT NEWS PERTAINING TO SHOUMA UNREST STOP.”

The response came back ten minutes later. “REGRETFULLY CANNOT SAY STOP. TOP SECRET STOP.”

Puissance shook her head and sent her next message. “NEEDED TO SAVE LIFE OF PONY STOP. INVOKE PROTOCOL 10-304 STOP.” That would obligate her to justify her action to Luna, and lead to severe—possibly even criminal—penalties if Luna felt she had acted wrong and obtained classified information without a good reason. But that was secondary, because Puissance was certain she knew where Cow Cow was going and what he was doing, and once she had proof she—

The telegraph buzzed. “ACKNOWLEDGED STOP. COW PIKE VERY SICK STOP. LIU BEAR, FU LING CONSIDERING ATTACKS STOP.”

“I knew it,” hissed Puissance. Without even responding back she rushed out with Solar Flare. “Prepare my airship now!” she snapped. “We leave in five minutes!”

“Where are we going?”

Puissance met her bodyguard’s hooded eyes. “The Vault.”

###

The Vault, Puissance’s little village where she kept her rarest and most precious subjects, was tucked into a secluded mountain valley a half-day or so away from the nearest Califurlong city. But it was protected by far more than the mountains around it. It was also surrounded by miles upon miles of private land that the Optiebeurs-Golo family had held for centuries, and every inch of the territory surrounding it was heavily warded.

The only ponies with access, besides Puissance and Solar Flare, were about a dozen suppliers whom Puissance had selected from the most loyal of her personal staff. These ponies were issued wardstones keyed to their cutie marks that would allow them to pass through the reflections which made it seem as if there was no village anywhere in sight, and to walk straight amongst the curving paths which would otherwise inevitably deposit wanderers back at the very spot where they had begun. Cow could not have stolen a wardstone, for they would not work with anypony other than the one they were keyed to, and even if he abducted one of Puissance’s suppliers that would do him no good—the wardstones also would not work when the pony using them was in a state of heightened anxiety. But what Cow could do, if he was patient and had brought enough magical firepower with him, was blast away at the wards and slowly burn through them until he reached the Vault, and within it, Yang Chew.

“He did not leave because I did. He left because the situation in Shouma changed,” said Puissance as her airship flew towards the Vault. She would have to reveal its existence to her airship crew, and she didn’t want to do that, but she had no real choice at this point. “His son is sick and his position is weak. He must return as soon as possible, but if he does so without Yang Chew he will look even weaker. So he waited for me to leave and then moved to abduct Yang as soon as possible. No doubt he hoped to take Yang and flee Equestria before I returned, at which point he could further hope that I would be too embarrassed, ashamed, or fearful of punishment to tell Luna what I had allowed to happen.”

“How did he know where to find Yang?” Solar Flare asked.

“I do not know.” Puissance forced herself to think. “But the Vault is very heavily enchanted. Perhaps the most heavily enchanted facility in either of my provinces. He may have used his mages to check for magic and then guessed I would keep my most precious collection, my little ponies, in my most heavily warded area.” She took a breath. “When this is over I must buy another area the size of the vault and load it with even more magical protections so that any future enemies trying that scheme will go to the wrong place.”

Solar Flare nodded, and the two passed the rest of the voyage in silence.

When they reached the grounds surrounding the Vault Puissance could immediately see the trampled land that marked the march of Cow’s herd. “Let us out here,” she told the captain. “He will shoot us down if we approach.”

“Surely you should at least wait for the provincial guard--” the captain began.

Puissance silenced him with a glare. “I do not need them for this,” she snapped. “And they will not arrive in time. Let us out. Now.”

The captain let them out, and soon enough Puissance was flying away from her airship with Solar Flare by her side.

They reached Cow Cow and his hundreds of cow warriors just as that army approached the Vault. In front of the cows were a dozen giant scorpions who stood half again as tall as a pony, and their tails rippled with twisted magic as they swung around and tore through the wards. Puissance recognized this as Gu magic, a forbidden Shouma discipline in which hundreds of poisonous insects, vermin, and other creatures were forced to kill each other in a magical arena that transferred the strength and deadly powers of each defeated creature to the winner. The survivors became gigantic, monstrous beasts whose claws and tails exuded a poison so deadly it could rip apart almost any lifeform or magical spell.

The air seemed to shimmer as the Gu monsters tore at one final ward, and then the area in front of Cow’s army resolved into the bucolic village Puissance had worked so hard to create. Cow Cow gave a great shout, and some of the ponies in the village turned and gasped, but then one of Cow’s minions looked up and then yelled. “Enemy!”

The cows wheeled about. Dozens of crossbows were aimed at Puissance and Solar Flare. But then Cow Cow yelled, “Hold! We cannot shoot at our hosts! It would be most uncivilized.” He laughed. “Vicereine! Are you here to welcome me to this little village?”

“No.” Puissance and Solar Flare glided down in front of Cow Cow. “I am here to suggest that your soldiers have, perhaps, overstayed their welcome in my province.”

Cow Cow sighed theatrically. “Yes, I know. They do eat a lot, don’t they? They say an army moves on its stomachs, and our army certainly mooves on its cud.” The soldiers obediently laughed. “But have no fears. Once I obtain what I came for, I will be out of your mane.” He gave her a roguish wink. “Permanently.”

“Cow Cow?” Puissance glanced back to see the kirin Yang Chew peeking out of his house with terror evident on his features. A little half-windigo foal, Ice Heart, was on his back, and Puissance’s heart clenched when she saw the fear on his face too. These ponies were hers, they were not to be disturbed or scared or made uneasy, they were to be kept beautiful and refined like all of her things, and…

She cut herself off. Restoring the peace of mind of her Vault ponies would come later. For now she had to deal with the threat. “I think not,” she said calmly.

Cow Cow raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yes.” Puissance smiled. “You will not be leaving with Yang Chew.”

“But, dear Vicereine, I have come so far! To leave empty-hooved would be a grand disappointment. Not to mention terribly embarrassing.” Cow Cow shrugged, then made a little motion with a hoof. His soldiers began to advance. “And my soldiers too would find it most amiss.”

In response, Solar Flare stepped in front of the soldiers, and then Puissance walked to her side. Cow Cow’s eyes narrowed. “Vicereine,” he said. “Surely you don’t mean to take the field yourself?”

“I don’t mean to fight, no, but I am given to understand that your country considers it proper and honorable for a ruler to stand with the vanguard in battle,” Puissance said. “We Equestrians have the same custom.”

Cow Cow looked genuinely puzzled for a moment. “But Puissance, really, given your age and your, ah, lack of combat experience—“

“I,” she said in a low voice, “have some strength left in me yet.” She spread her wings, and then Solar Flare did the same. “You may not have Yang Chew,” the Vicereine continued. “I would advise you to turn around, lest you face the consequences.”

“Yeah!” Ice Heart called from somewhere behind them. “Go Vicereine! You’re awesome!” A few other Vault ponies, who had come to see the disturbance, cheered as well.

The cow lord sighed. “Very well. If you wish a battle, you may have one. But don’t worry. I will handsomely compensate your heir to smooth things over with your princess.” He waved his hoof. “Cows! Charge for your lord!”

The cows roared and stormed forwards, the ones in front driving the Gu monsters ahead of them, and the ones behind aiming crossbows and swords.

And then Solar Flare whipped off her cloak, revealing both her Celestia-like body and her Alicorn Armor. The cows gasped, and a few began to shoot crossbow bolts. But it was already too late for them.

Huge fireballs streaked out of her horn and blasted into the Gu monsters, incinerating ten of them and knocking two onto their backs where they flailed helplessly. The crossbow bolts that had actually fired were destroyed as they hit that same wall of fire. Then Solar Flare’s attack hit the crossbows and swords of the cows, burning the former to cinders and melting the blades outright. Before the cows could react Solar Flare flapped her wings, drawing on the Alicorn Armor’s power, and produced a gust of wind strong enough to send the army stumbling back. Cow Cow regained his hooves first and managed to say, “How can you—“ before Solar Flare was at his side and kicking him down.

Cows were starting to resume their advance, so Solar Flare began racing around their entire formation, moving faster than the eye could follow and slowly kicking up an actual tornado. The Vault ponies gasped—they had seen Solar Flare do tricks before, but never a battle like this—and Puissance held up a wing in caution to prevent them from getting too close. Solar Flare’s tornado was getting stronger and stronger, and cows were beginning to leave the ground with moos of terror.

“Leave Cow Cow here,” said Puissance pleasantly. “We have things to discuss.”

Solar Flare darted into her own tornado, seized the cow lord, and tossed him outside of it where he stumbled to a slow halt. Then she resumed building her tornado and began to shape it westward while the cows trapped inside rose higher and higher. Puissance heard their frantic mooing and smiled to herself. This, she thought, was the right and proper fate for any who tried to take what was hers.

Killing them wasn’t an option; that would invite diplomatic repercussions and possibly drag Equestria into a war with Shouma. Humiliating them, though, very much was. “Into the lake, Solar Flare,” called Puissance. “I wish to see how well they swim in that armor.”

The pegacorn guided the tornado towards a lake just outside of the Vault proper, then began dumping the cows inside it. The cows were forced to struggle out of their armor before it dragged them down and Puissance grinned; she knew that their culture held it to be the height of dishonor to lose armor and weapons on the battlefield, and now they had lost both. The last of the cows were splashing down as she turned back to Cow Cow. “I did warn you.”

All trace of good humor had left the cow lord’s face. “You realize, I hope,” he said, “That one battle will not end this. If you kill me here, my armies will avenge me with a force one thousand times the size of this one. If you let me go without Yang Chew, I myself will return leading a force that will crush all before us under our hooves.”

“I think not.” Puissance stepped in front of the cow. Now that the immediate threat was over, it was time to put into action the plan she had developed after dealing with the cult. “Your army will leave my province immediately. And when you reach Shouma once again, you will send me your Golden Horseshoe.”

“And why would I do that?” asked Cow Cow.

“Because if you don’t, I think Yang Chew might decide the Vault doesn’t always agree with him.” She let her voice rise so the Vault ponies could hear it. “In fact, Yang Chew might start taking walks outside the Vault. Seeing other ponies. Introducing himself. Letting them know his story. He is a kirin, and there are few of his kind in Equestria; I think he would be quite notable.”

Cow Cow managed a laugh. “Why should I care if a pompous old goat like him tells a few tall tales?”

“Hey!” called Lucy Von Tale, a goat from the Vault who could not only consume magic like others of her kind but could actually metabolize that magic and use it to grow multicolored fur with fantastic spell properties, an ability which was unique to her as far as Puissance knew. “Language!”

Puissance shook her head. “Because, you see, I have decided that I need to expand my operations in Shouma. I will be recruiting ponies from far and wide to travel to your land… and that of Liu Bear, and Swan Quan, and Fu Ling… to trade and spread news. Of course, it is quite possible those ponies will have met Yang Chew. It is even possible they may spread the word that he is alive, and that you still have not had your revenge.”

Cow Cow glared. “Do you really expect me to believe that you will pay ponies to do nothing but wander around Shouma and tell every creature around that Yang Chew is alive?”

“Yes,” said Puissance. “And you will believe me. Because I will.” She began to pace around him. “What would that do to your reputation, I wonder? You were so embarrassed by him to begin with. Then you left, probably telling every creature around you would be coming back with his head. If you were to go back without it, perhaps you could just say he died of illness before you could get him. But when pony after pony talks to your soldiers, your servants, your loyalists, and reveals that Yang Chew is alive and well?”

The cow lord took a breath and said nothing for several seconds before a slight smile crossed his face. “A clever scheme. But there is one problem.”

“Oh?”

“My loyalists know me to have a Golden Horseshoe. If I send it away, I must give a reason; if I admit it was extorted from me, I will suffer a loss of honor even worse than if I am revealed to have spared Yang Chew.” The cow king shrugged. “Unless you can find a way for me to give you the Horseshoe without losing honor, I am afraid I cannot accept your deal.”

Puissance waved a hoof. “Not a problem. For you will not return empty handed. Instead, you will return with a book of the finest strategy ever devised by cow or pony, written for you by Yang Chew. The book will be of such brilliance that not only will you publicly announce he has made up for his crime, but you will send the Golden Horseshoe to pay for it.”

Solar Flare whispered something to Yang Chew, who brightened, ran inside his house, and then came out again seconds later with a book. “Here you go, boss,” he said jauntily as he threw it over. “Good luck!”

Cow Cow caught the book. “Sun Zoo’s The Art of War? This is a historic text where I come from. It may be somewhat obscure, but it’s not new.”

“Ah,” said Puissance, “but your voyage home is a long one. I’m sure you must have a few thoughts on war which you would have loved to be known. Just jot them down as a commentary, and if any creature questions them, point out that they are the words of the famously brilliant scholar Yang Chew.” She smiled. “Write whatever you wish. Write endless praise of your own tactics. Then announce it is Yang Chew’s commentary and publish it. Ponies will see how he has praised your wisdom… and of course, the ponies I send over from Shouma will also talk about how Yang Chew wrote a book of brilliant strategy for the cow lord.”

She walked up to Cow Cow. “You will not be embarrassed. You will be seen as wise for sparing the life of a servant just so that, in exchange for an old horseshoe whose powers you don’t seem to know how to use anyways, you obtained a brilliant book of the most clever stratagems. Of course, having publicly accepted that gift, you could never kill Yang Chew thereafter. No creature would serve you if they thought their reward would be you taking whatever they gave you and then killing them. But why would you? You would have your reputation back, which is all you came here for.”

Cow Cow hesitated. “You propose that, in exchange for giving up on my revenge and accepting a book that I already have five copies of, I send you my Golden Horseshoe, one of the most precious artifacts in my kingdom.”

“Yes,” said Puissance softly. “Because that way you will retain your reputation. We both know you cannot stay here to do damage control, not given your weakening position in Shouma. So you must leave, and if you do not leave on my terms, if you do not send me the Golden Horseshoe, I will destroy your reputation all throughout Shouma. How long will the cow lord reign when his servants lose faith in him and defect to bear and swan? Or the actual Empress?” She made a tsking noise with her tongue. “I would expect to hear of your empire’s fall and your execution inside of three months.”

The two creatures, cow and pegasus, stared at each other for a very long minute. And then, slowly, Cow Cow sighed. “Very well, Vicereine. You win. I’ll send the Golden Horseshoe on the next boat back from Shouma.”

“Splendid.” Puissance smiled sweetly. “Then let us return to the city. I wish to be there to see you off. And on the way we can discuss a few things. Such as some potential trade concessions I think you will agree are in both of our interests. And information on caring for those.” She nodded at the two flipped Gu monsters which had not been destroyed. “They will go perfectly in my ‘Zoo of the Bizarre’ in Palomino, the one famous for its Ursa exhibits, and I wish to make sure they are properly cared for.”

Cow Cow grunted and waved to his troops, all of whom had staggered out of the water. They managed to give a salute in return before turning in the direction of town. “Fine,” he acknowledged. “But it will take some time to pack up all our remaining trade goods.”

“My servants will help. Besides, you need not pack all of them up. You will of course leave some to pay for the damages you caused.” Puissance gestured at the broken wards around them. “And to compensate my poor Vault ponies, who I fear are quite terrified.”

“YEAH!” Ice Heart was screaming. “That was so cool! Solar Flare just went ‘boom!’ and the cows were all ‘Aaah!’ and then they went ‘splash splash splash!’” He fell backwards on his flank and pounded the ground in laughter. “Best fight ever!”

“Well, most of them,” conceded Puissance. “Oh, and there is one more thing. I know you occasionally work with some subordinate chieftains in your battles. Please do send them a message for me. In fact, please convey this message to Liu Bear and Swan Quan too if you can.”

Cow Cow gave her a tired look. “What?”

Puissance moved very close to him. “Do not interfere with the affairs of Princess Luna of Equestria,” she said. “Or her Vicereine.”

The cow looked pained, but he nodded, and Puissance knew he would obey.

It took some time to return to town, and more time after that for the cows to leave, but when it was done Puissance felt good. A bit cold, perhaps, but that was to be expected after using so much energy. She had one Horseshoe and knew she would be receiving another within a few weeks. She was almost halfway there.

She took a step towards her mansion, thinking of having that new Prench chef serve her, when her right front leg went down a bit early. She had just enough time to look at it in confusion before the rest of her body gave out and she collapsed to the dirt.

###

A few weeks later, Puissance found herself walking through Canterlot Castle alone in the middle of a beautiful autumn day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the flowers Greengrass had arranged to be planted all over the castle grounds smelled delicious, and in short it was the kind of day that almost everypony loved. But Vicereine Puissance Noctilucent Optiebeurs-Golo had never felt more miserable, or indeed, more alone.

The doctors had attributed her collapse to her having a fainting spell. “Just one of those things that can happen to very old ponies,” the lead doctor had said, sweeping aside her protestations that she surely was not in fact old enough for such problems. He prescribed her bed rest, relaxation, and if at all possible to reduce her responsibilities. Perhaps she could have her daughter Regalia take them, he suggested. She was known to be eager to start assuming command of Califurlong and Palomino.

She hadn’t accepted that and had sought a second opinion. Her next doctor, a young prodigy fresh out of medical school, noted that she had started developing chills after encountering a windigo at Noam, and theorized that maybe the windigo was still affecting her. Windigos were known to be weak to friendship, so perhaps if she spent time with friends and loved ones she could eliminate the chills and strengthen herself. It was, he pointed out, at least worth a shot.

Puissance had taken his advice. She had thrown herself a massive celebration for her birthday, which had taken place a week after her collapse, and made sure that ponies from all over Califurlong who loved her were there. Her managers took the stage and praised her wise administration, ponies in her provinces proclaimed how grateful they were for all she did for them, foal choirs sang songs they had written about her, and the manager of a traveling gymnastics troupe which Puissance had saved from bankruptcy did a special routine just for her. Even her entire family—including those she’d fallen out with—had been invited, and if most of them hadn’t been able to make it for various ill-defined reasons, that was on them, not her. When that was done she went to Palomino and had another party of exactly the same kind. And after that, she went to the Vault so the ponies there could parade their special talents for her and tell her over and over again how much they loved her and how she was the best patron any creature could hope for.

The next day she woke up feeling colder than ever. So she fired her second doctor and hired a third, who prescribed her a series of pills and shots like a normal physician. But even this had only limited success, and Puissance’s spirits dimmed each day she woke up feeling as weak as ever.

Moreover, progress with the Horseshoes had hit a dead end. She had two, but while Bookmancer had finished copying the camel text and taken away the original (though not before Vorel, who had picked the one that Bookmancer could keep and inaccurately thought she had let Bookmancer take the copy, had hugged that copy close and whispered to it that she would miss it and hoped to see it again someday), Puissance still didn’t have Everlasting Peace’s Horseshoe. Indeed, she hadn’t even been able to get it herself; Luna wanted the Equestrian Budget Office to redo the budget now that the war with the Tyrant Sun was over and the military’s bits could be redirected to more useful things, and Puissance had to be on hoof for that. She’d gotten Everlasting Peace’s written promise to turn over the Horseshoe in exchange for the original text, but she’d been forced to let the Elements, of all ponies, take the text itself and actually transport it into the Naqah desert. They could certainly fight; their defeats of Corona and Discord had proven that, but despite all of Luna’s ridiculous favoritism (including a certain very recent act which had appalled Puissance when she’d learned of it), Puissance knew that Trixie was still an idiot at heart, and the Vicereine had suffered a few panic attacks at the thought of the blue unicorn getting lost in the desert or eaten by ghuls and thereby vanishing forever with her book.

As for the fourth Horseshoe, there was no sign of it whatsoever. Puissance had sent countless agents all over the world and found nothing. It was as if it didn’t exist. And if she couldn’t find it…

Puissance felt even colder and hunched her shawl around herself with a loud whicker. She wasn’t wearing that stupid cane the idiot doctor had prescribed her; to wear it would be a concession of defeat to… to something she could not even consider… and so she would not use it even if her leg was starting to hurt a bit. The shawl, though, was now unavoidable given Puissance’s chills. But it didn’t matter, she told herself. She would find the last Horseshoe; she had to. And then she’d have all eternity to forget the agony of the last few weeks.

The only positive was that Luna wasn’t focusing on her as much; at the moment, the princess had far bigger problems. Celestia’s return and pardon had aroused ire from many quarters, ranging from extremely powerful ponies in Canterlot to residents of obscure settlements like that Nulpar village which had been crushed when Celestia had accidentally melted dense snowpack during her return. That last one was especially damaging to Luna; if Puissance judged her princess correctly, Luna had been hoping that the ever-empathetic Max would help her persuade ponies of Celestia's true repentance, but between the villagers who had died in the avalanche and that unicorn named Tender Heart who was still comatose as a result of that incident, Max seemed to feel that despite his general support of Luna he was nonetheless honor-bound to object to Celestia's pardon. (That Luna had actually given Tender Heart's son Brave Heart a medal for his actions that day made it even worse, since that made it politically impossible for Luna to pretend she didn't know about the incident.) Max's position pushed the coterie of junior nobles who looked up to him as well as the powerful Duchess Posey into the anti-Celestia camp too, which only compounded Luna's problems.

And it wasn't just them. There was also Viceroy Night Light, who was fiercely angry at how Celestia was getting off much more lightly than his daughter even though her crimes were much more serious, and Vicereine Wallflower, who was increasingly questioning Luna's basic competence after Luna--when she was badly injured and needed somepony to step in and defend Canterlot from the Tyrant Sun--had pushed her, Wallflower, out of the 'lead the nation in Luna's absence' position in favor of a completely inexperienced replacement. Even some of the Elements, most notably one Dame Ditzy Doo, had made it clear that they did not think Celestia should be forgiven. (As for Puissance... well, she would publicly support Luna, at least for the moment, because she needed Luna to continue allowing her to conduct her research into immortality. But Puissance knew in her heart how Corona's attack had allowed Discord to escape and inflict horrible terror upon her ponies in her provinces. And she would never, ever, forgive the Tyrant that.)

Of course, Luna still had some supporters, and ponies ranging from Trixie Lulamoon to--oddly enough--Duke Greengrass were working with some success to allay the concerns of the others. It might take years, but Puissance figured that in time Luna and her loyalists would get most of the populace to go along with forgiving Celestia. However, not all ponies could be persuaded, and one of the least persuadable happened to also be one of the most powerful in the nation. That was Archduchess Svelte Lord-Fisher, one of the smartest, hardest-working, and most honorable of the Courtiers, and also a die-hard opponent of Celestia whose views at points verged towards the total abolition of the monarchy. Svelte made no secret of the fact that she felt the mercy showed Celestia was obscene; any other pony, she said, would have been severely punished for trying to take over Equestria, and Celestia was only being spared because she was the sister of the reigning monarch. She went on to argue that if that was how the monarchy would act, then Equestria might be better off without it.

Greengrass had helpfully chimed in that he had also confessed to trying to take over Equestria during his Truth-Is-A-Scourge induced confession, but he had been forgiven, so Svelte had clarified that perhaps it was the entire nobility which was getting special treatment and should be dissolved. Then others of Luna's supporters had cited many other instances of ponies committing crimes, even severe ones like treason, and being pardoned or otherwise given merciful punishments, but Svelte just insisted they all must have had special connections. A lifetime of working in the Kafkaesque nightmare that was Stalliongrad’s government had made her so cynical she truly could not believe that a regular pony might receive mercy from the government.

That was causing Luna serious problems. Svelte was regarded as a saint by most of Rushia; she was the only member of the political elite that had prioritized them above their industry (the only thing her fugitive husband Fisher had cared about) or their historical sites (which her brother Hirsute, Lord Mayor of Stalliongrad, was obsessed with). So Luna couldn’t get rid of her without arousing even worse ire, and besides, Svelte had broken no laws and did superlative work. That left Luna with little recourse but to sit at committee meetings and quietly listen to Svelte deliver jeremiad after jeremiad on how Celestia should, by the letter of the law, have been exiled and never permitted to return.

Puissance approached Svelte’s office and wondered bitterly why, if lack of friendship caused some sort of inner coldness, she had been afflicted with it and not Svelte. After all, Puissance was loved by so many, while she doubted Svelte had any friends or even believed in the concept. And—

Then she heard a bizarre sound come from Svelte’s office. It sounded almost like a laugh. But that was impossible. Svelte Lord-Fisher never laughed. Puissance hurried closer and peaked through a crack in her door to see what was going on.

Svelte was sitting at her desk with a smile on her face and genuine amusement in her eyes. In front of her was Baron Max, who was beaming and also collecting pictures from her desk. It looked like he’d spread out some photos, one of which had made her laugh, and now was picking them up. “See?” he said. “I knew that would make you feel better!”

The Archduchess took a breath and tried to get herself under control. “Max,” she said. “We are working, we have duties, we should not be playing—“

“Nopony will mind that we took five minutes to laugh with each other,” said Max. “And besides. We helped those foals a lot by getting that school fixed up, and if they send us back photos of themselves playing in the school and doing silly things, we have to look at them.” He chuckled. “I’m pretty sure we're not supposed to ignore letters and messages from the ponies we represent.”

“Da, da.” Svelte seemed to settle down. “Very well, you saw me laugh. Now, I have much work to do.”

Max shrugged. “Right. Good day, Archduchess.” He bowed and then left through another door. Puissance boggled for a moment but then hurried around the corner to catch Max, only to see him abruptly stop before he walked into Luna, who was waiting. His eyes widened in surprise. “Oh! Uh, good day, princess—“

“Thank you,” said Luna with genuine warmth in her expression.

Max blinked. “Um?”

“Svelte is hurt. She has been hurt for many years. But now she is starting to heal. Thank you for that.” Luna’s eyes sparkled, though Puissance could see weariness in them--no doubt she had just gotten another earful from somepony mad about Celestia. “As I have told you before, and despite our... current disagreement... I know you are a genuine asset to this Court.”

The Baron blushed, and then Luna turned to Puissance. “And I owe you thanks too, Vicereine. For stopping that cult without harming anypony. For arresting that con artist. For… dealing… with your cow guests without involving Equestria in any additional conflicts. And for helping Kalineighrad.”

“Oh, right,” said Max. “Thanks, Vicereine. I guess I should really make sure I know all the towns in my province.”

“Yes,” said Puissance, unable to keep the bite out of her tone. “That would be a good idea.” And then, because she had no choice but to make her next comment, she said, “And congratulations on your engagement, Baron Max. I am sure you and Duchess Posey will be very happy together.”

Max beamed. “Thank you!”

Then Luna managed a tired smile at them both. “I am pleased that my nobles are working so well together.” She began walking away. “I hope you and the Duchess have an enjoyable weekend together, Baron,” she called. “And Puissance, please say hello to Flicker for me.”

“I will,” said Puissance. She had spent the last weekend looking at museums with her great-grandcolt, and Puissance was so worn down from everything that she hadn’t even objected when, after touring the first fine art museum Puissance had picked out, Scepter had asked to go to a museum of cartoons and comics for their next destination. They had gone, and Puissance had watched as Scepter marveled at the art, and they had even gotten to hear a talk from a famous Neighponese cartoonist who was touring the country. It had been peaceful.

(Until the end of the day when Banner came to take Scepter back. Puissance had no idea why he was so cold to her. She had done so much for him, and… but it didn’t matter. He had not managed to corrupt Scepter. Scepter would appreciate all she did for him and love her forever.)

Luna left, and Max did too, resulting in Puissance being alone again. She advanced only to have her attention drawn by music from a side room. When she peaked through the keyhole she saw that Octavia was there, playing a spirited tune while Paperweight danced along with it.

After a few moments the music stopped. Paperweight blinked. “Hey, we agreed, you had to get all the way through the piece without any mistakes before I gave you a hug!”

“You give me hugs anyways,” Octavia observed, a faint blush coloring her gray coat. “Today you gave me a hug because you heard a jingle on the radio that reminded you of my music.”

“Well, you deserve a lot of hugs! And kisses too.” Puissance recalled that the musician and the page had started dating shortly after Corona’s attack; apparently the near-disaster had convinced Paperweight to finally confess her love, and with a little encouragement from Luna, Octavia had decided to give the relationship a try. “But you said you were having trouble practicing this song, and that’s why I agreed to motivate you by going on a hug-strike until you get it right. So why’d you stop?”

Octavia chuckled. “We have a visitor.” She nodded at the door. “Vicereine, I apologize. Did you want this room?”

Puissance sighed to herself, remembering that Octavia’s hearing was so good that she could identify ponies by their gait. She had no doubt heard Puissance’s approach. “No,” she said, unable to explain why she felt a biting sense of envy at two ponies whom she could have bought and sold a million times over. For that matter, both of Puissance’s husbands had been a thousand times the pony that either Paperweight or Octavia were. “Carry on.”

She almost made it back to her office before being distracted again, this time by Greengrass, who was leading some kind of class. When she looked in his room she saw that there had to be at least fifty foals from around Equestria in there, as well as maybe twenty adults. Snails and his friend Sprite were near the front and had little caps that seemed to indicate they had a measure of authority. Greengrass, wearing a bigger hat as well as a gaudy uniform with ‘Parks and Recreation Committee member’ stitched on its front, was marching about and stabbing a long stick at a chalkboard.

“Remember!” he said. “We are gardeners! We deal with beauty itself!” He reared back. “Whenever a pony takes a walk, we can make that pony smile with just a few tulips and roses! Whenever a businessmare goes out for lunch, we can delight her with daffodils and violets! And even if Luna herself trots through the town square, with just a few simple flowers we can ease the heart of this mighty alicorn!” The foals cheered and stampeded. “Thank you, thank you! Now I’ll discuss our committee’s decision on that ancient debate: are flowers for looking at, or for eating?”

Puissance groaned to herself and hurried back to her office.

Her secretaries were in their usual places. “Perfect Precision,” she said. “Any news on the Horseshoes?”

Perfect Precision took a slow breath. “Yes,” she said in the tone of admitting an uncomfortable truth. “The explorer teams have sent back their reports.”

“And?” Puissance demanded. “What of the fourth Horseshoe?”

“They do not know.” Precision looked away. “They have searched every location that the scholars found in literary sources, myths, and historic documents. They can find no trace of the Horseshoe. One of them speculates that perhaps a dragon ate it.”

Puissance felt her heart thundering and wondered if she was going to faint again, but she caught herself and did not fall. “If they are giving up… then fire them all. Find new ones, ponies who will not stop looking until the last Horseshoe is found.” She smashed her hoof into the desk. “They cannot stop! Not now!”

The secretaries looked at each other. “Yes, Vicereine,” Perfect Precision said. “As you wish. Ah, there was another update. From Naqah.”

Well, that was something. Puissance made herself sit down. “Yes?”

“Everlasting Peace has written back. He says he received the holy text from the Elements and used an ancient camel spell to verify its authenticity. It truly is the original, and he is very grateful.” Precision looked down at a letter, presumably the one from Naqah, and went on. “Apparently there was a concern that, if the original text were found and published, it could ignite more sectarian conflict if any of the different sects’ followers learned that their practices didn’t match the original text. Now, though, Peace will secretly meet with the leaders of the other sects and secure the original in a safe location in their territory. Then they will gradually bring their sects back together to match the true dictates of their prophet, without risking a violent conflict. The threat of sectarian war has been avoided.”

“Are they worried about Vorel’s copy leaking?” Puissance asked.

“No, because now they have the original. If her copy says anything that one of the sects disagrees with then they can just say there was a mistake in the copy.”

Puissance nodded. “And Vorel is so vain she will never believe she did not pick the original. She’ll think the camels have the copy and are just saying otherwise to save face, if she hears of this at all.”

Precision flipped a page in the letter. “Everlasting Peace ends by saying that all of camelkind owes you a great debt. They cannot properly explain why to their followers yet, but they are still putting up a large statue of you in their capital, naming a small city after you, and will give you a noble title if you can come to accept it as per their rituals.”

The Vicereine stared blankly as Precision stopped talking. There had been a time, she thought distantly, when she would have loved nothing more than to hear what her secretary had just said. In one day she had obtained a grand statue, a city’s name, and a noble title which no doubt carried with it various perks, benefits, and treasures. But now… “And the Horseshoe?” she prompted. “What of the Horseshoe?”

Precision frowned and again focused on the letter. “He says he sent the Horseshoe. But it is not here.”

The room seemed to spin around Puissance. If some idiot in the mail office had lost it, then it could be anywhere, sent to North Everfree or Ambelon or Neighpon or—

“Wait.” Precise Point held up a hoof. “I think I know what happened.”

Puissance fixed her with a glare. “Then tell me,” she hissed.

“That letter came from the same address as the last one we got from Red Rose,” Precise Point explained. “But it didn’t come right to us. It went to your estate, where your mail manager received it and forwarded it here. Now, if it came with an unexpected Horseshoe, your mail manager wouldn’t know what it was or that you wanted it, and depending on its condition it may not have looked valuable. He would just know it came from the same address whose last gifts had been sent to Sentimental Valley. So he likely sent it there.”

That made sense, Puissance told herself. That was understandable. She wouldn’t need to fire her mail manager and exile him to the bottom of the ocean. “Get on the telegraph,” she ordered Perfect Precision. “Verify that.”

Precision did, and in a few minutes she got back a message. “Your mail manager says that’s what he did: he sent the horseshoe to Sentimental Valley with Red Rose’s other things.”

Puissance nodded to herself. “Reschedule my meetings. I am going to get it.”

“Vicereine, surely another pony could—“

“No!” Puissance snapped. “I am not leaving this to any other pony!” She hadn’t even wanted to leave the first two Golden Horseshoes in Califurlong, but Moondancer had needed to run tests on them, so that hadn’t been avoidable. “I will get it myself, give it to Moondancer, and come back as soon as I am able. Handle my affairs, and if there is any news whatsoever about the fourth Horseshoe, you are to tell me at once!”

Before they could respond, she was rushing out the door.

Author's Note:

This chapter starts shortly after the beginning of Season 3, and ends a few days before the actual Golden Horseshoes fic begins.

Posey and Max becoming engaged happens during/after Corona's attack, according to Talon & Thorn, hence the reference in here.

For newcomers to the Lunaverse: the Tender Heart thing happens in Max's chapter of "Longest Night, Everypony's Day', and then is referenced again in the first 'Climbing the Mountain' when Max gets Luna to give a medal to Tender Heart's son.