Diplomatic Overtures

by Dave Bryant

First published

What’s the reward for a job well done? Another job. The junior diplomat keeping an eye on Sunset Shimmer and her friends gets a new assignment: Travel through the portal as chargé d‘affaires to open diplomatic relations with Equestria.

What’s the reward for a job well done? Another job. Cookie Pusher, the junior diplomat keeping an eye on Sunset Shimmer and her friends, has pleased his superiors with his diligence and competence. Deciding he’s ready for bigger and better things—and not wanting to brief in yet more people about the portal—they assign him a new task: travel through the portal as chargé d’affaires en pied to open diplomatic relations with Equestria.

Through the looking-glass

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I stood facing the plinth that no longer supported a statue of a rearing horse. Behind me feminine voices chattered happily; beyond the speakers lay the early-morning bustle of an ordinary, if rather sprawling and well-appointed, high school. In one hand I hefted a high-end bookbag, which clashed oddly with my expensive tailored suit; a patent-leather briefcase was a more fitting accoutrement for my profession and current assignment.

“Cook? Are you okay?” one of the voices asked.

I turned toward the bevy of girls who’d interrupted their conversation to await an answer with expressions mirroring the question. That alone made it easy to give them a small smile. “A diplomat isn’t supposed to admit it, but maybe I am just a bit nervous,” I replied honestly.

Relieved chuckles and giggles greeted this announcement. Princess Twilight Sparkle—who actually looked quite a bit different from her counterpart standing with their friends—laid a hand on my forearm. “Well, let’s see: It’s your first time as a chargé d’affaires, at an unusually young age, about to meet with a head of state, instead of a foreign minister, to open formal relations with a nation that isn’t even in the same dimension.” She ticked off points on her fingers, demonstrating an ease with the simian appendages I’d been told she lacked during her first visits. “Oh, and to get there you have to step through a weird magical portal that throws you around like a toboggan ride and turns you into a talking pony. Did I miss anything?”

“Gee, thanks,” I told her dryly. “You’re so helpful.”

She laughed and squeezed my shoulder. “You’ll do fine, Cook.”

The others gathered round to slap my back, shake my free hand, or offer other gestures of support. For a moment the buffeting made me feel as if I were already flying through that portal, but I endured it willingly. Every one of them, even the timid Fluttershy, was vivacious and lovable, each in her own way. As a case officer assigned to liaison duties—primarily with Sunset Shimmer, a foreign national of unusual (in every sense) importance, but extending to the rest of them as well—I should maintain a cool professional detachment, but I’d come to feel, well, an avuncular attachment to them, one and all.

As they finished their assurances, I glanced up at the imposing building before which we stood, then around at the grounds that still swarmed with students. By now they treated the otherworldly portal as part of their environment, giving the group clustered around it no more than a few curious looks or friendly waves.

The looks directed at me, rather than my companions, were more intent, ranging from bemused to protective. The whole student body, along with the faculty, did remarkably well at staying quiet about the strange doings at their school. Obviously it was impossible to keep the shenanigans completely secret, of course, but everyone clearly had decided tacitly not to blab about them more than absolutely necessary. More than once, I’d heard, people had deleted videos or other evidence when they could.

I shook my head and returned my attention to the girls—no, young women—before me. “Thanks, all of you. I shouldn’t be too long, since this is just an initial contact.”

“Sure wish we all could go with you,” Applejack observed wistfully.

Princess Twilight smiled. “That’s exactly what the other Applejack keeps saying, but today’s going to be all business, and I think you’d be bored stiff with nothing more to do than watching—what’s that television expression, Sunset?”

Sunset Shimmer, who also was a little more formally dressed than her usual jacket, short dress, and leggings, cocked her head. “What exp—oh, ‘talking heads’?”

“That’s the one. The meeting isn’t exactly secret, but just like here, we’re not making a big deal about it either, so you wouldn’t be able to wander around. Besides, we moved the portal mechanism to Canterlot Palace temporarily.”

Judging from the reactions, this came as a surprise to everyone else, even Sunset, who suddenly turned a little pale. “Twi! It woulda been nice to get a little warning!”

“Sorry, Sunset.” The princess bit her lip and shrugged uncomfortably. “My advice was to hold it in my castle, for several reasons. Celestia and Luna had some pretty good counterpoints, though, and they’re the ones who make the final decisions.”

I couldn’t blame Sunset. Facing the mentor from whom she’d parted under the worst circumstances had to be a daunting prospect, even if they’d made up since via correspondence. It looked for a moment like she would change her mind and stay, rather than accompany the princess and me, but murmurs of encouragement from her friends stiffened her resolve, and Princess Twilight went so far as to give her a gentle hug, which she returned, albeit with a taut face.

When Twilight stepped back with a last squeeze of Sunset’s hand, Rarity cleared her throat. “I simply must ask, Cook: Much as I admire your sartorial splendor, why did you bother with it if the portal simply whisks it away?”

I opened my mouth, but the princess beat me to it. “The portal seems to, well, interpret things like clothing and baggage. Cook’s and Sunset’s suits are formal wear, so the portal should treat their appearance accordingly on the other side.” Her brow furrowed. “At least, that’s what we think will happen, anyway.”

It sounded plausible to me, based on what they’d told me about the portal and how it apparently operated, so I just shrugged in acquiescence. It wasn’t like I had a lot of choice, after all. In any case, time, as they say, was wasting, so we finished our goodbyes and turned back to the unassuming polished-stone face that concealed a gateway to wonder.

“Ready?” Princess Twilight asked quietly.

I nodded as I slipped the pack’s straps over my shoulders.

Tremulously, Sunset said, “Not really,” but she stepped forward nonetheless. I gave her a bracing smile and wink when she eyed me sidelong. Then, one by one, we stooped to disappear into another world.

The halls of Canterlot Palace

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The passage was everything the princess had promised and more. I felt as if my body was being stretched—not on a rack, but the way astronomers talk about falling into a black hole—then turned inside out. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it certainly was a bizarre and disorienting sensation.

We tumbled out, one after another, onto a huge, sumptuous rug, where we lay for a moment, gathering our breath and our wits. Twilight, then Sunset, staggered to their feet. (Yes, ponies have feet; hooves just cover them, like giant finger- or toenails. I looked it up.) It took me a little longer, but I wasn’t surprised, since we’d discussed the transformation in as much detail as they could provide.

“Okay, so what tribe am I?” I asked a trifle woozily as I swayed on all fours, getting accustomed to the new and unfamiliar proprioception and kinesthesia of my changed body. (I looked those up too.)

“Look behind you,” came Twilight’s laughing voice. “The mirror’s right there.”

Well, that would be good practice, at least. I turned in place slowly, taking each rubbery-legged step carefully. It wasn’t until I was sure I was headed in more or less the right direction that I looked up from my four neatly groomed legs. No wings of any kind, and I wasn’t glittering with refractions and reflections, so that eliminated some possibilities, but at least two remained.

The mad-scientist quality of the arcane addenda around the mirror itself caught my attention first. After a fruitless moment of trying to make sense of them, I recalled my original intent and looked straight at the glass itself.

Looking back at me with pale eyes was a slight, graceful equine form of stone gray with dark, crisp mane and tail, little larger than the young fiery-colored unicorn mare approaching from the side. I’ve known most of my life nature blessed me with reasonably good looks, but this new, unfamiliar expression of them jarred me into a heightened awareness. Oddly, my immediate reaction was a sort of ambivalence.

Back to business; my wandering mind made it clear I hadn’t recovered fully from the transition. There, on my forehead, was an alicorn. So then: I was a unicorn, like Sunset and Twilight before her “ascension”, as everyone seemed to describe it.

That could be a partial explanation for my lingering bewilderment. I knew all the tribes had their own specific sorts of magic, but it was the unicorns who shaped it into spells that could act at a distance. Of necessity they also had the most conscious awareness of it in their surroundings, but that also meant they were most susceptible to sensory or cognitive overload in the event of big, abrupt changes, like sudden glare on dark-adjusted eyes. Such changes probably didn’t come much bigger than being taken apart and reassembled from the quantum level up.

I raised a hoof (all right, all right) to tap the alicorn gingerly. It was hard, as a horn should be; keratin clicked crisply on keratin. I couldn’t feel anything at the point of contact, but the slight impacts traveled down to the skin and skull of my forehead, a surprisingly unpleasant sensation rather like having one’s teeth rattled. The cross-section Sunset had sketched for me at one point wasn’t very detailed, since she’d drawn it from unaided memory based on anatomical science some century-and-a-half behind what I was used to. Now that vagueness loomed rather more in importance than it had then; all I had to go on was its overall function as a sort of magical “antenna” that received and emitted magical energy through a “pith” of neural tissue, not dissimilar to an optic nerve, between the outer sheath and the bony core.

The mares with me waited, Twilight patiently and Sunset apprehensively. I continued my self-inspection, noting the tidy collar and cravat the portal had decided was the most appropriate equine equivalent for my suit and the expensive-looking panniers draped across my back and sides; I couldn’t help but smile that the portal scrupulously passed through, intact, my national-flag cloisonné pin, still attached to a lapel. I turned and was not surprised to see, on my haunch, a silver serving tray with three large chocolate-chip cookies on it. The marks, and the way people in my own world seemed to gravitate to similarly distinctive emblems, were another point of discussion, but none of us could make sense of it, so mostly it was abandoned as one of those “whichness of the what” questions that didn’t seem to have a solution.

Also, I had on no other clothing. I’d known that likely would be the case, and I felt a mild discomfort, but part of being a good diplomat is the ability to adjust quickly to strange conditions and carry on regardless. It was gratifying that, while I was acutely aware of the really quite attractive young ladies beside me, I was able to consider that appeal in an abstract, intellectual manner, without any embarrassing emotional or physical reactions. Apparently the portal preserved identity and memory but did at least some reprogramming to adapt a user to his or her new body and world. Twilight and Sunset were existence proof practice would do for the rest.

Speaking of the pair, my next step was to look them over as well. Sunset was nearly my own size, but slightly more heavily built, just as she was in the other world. She wore rather more than I—a soberly colored jacket and what seemed to be a sort of dickey and string tie. Her distinctive mane-style made her instantly recognizable, but the similarities in her features, expression, and body language also were undeniable. She shifted her weight in a fidgety manner that somehow recalled the most charming aspects of both human and equine behavior.

Twilight had come up beside her to drape a comforting wing over her back. The princess was noticeably taller than either of us; her build was gracile but solid. She’d spoken of getting much more exercise than she had in foalhood, and I could see for myself the way all three of the major tribes were represented in her physique. She might not be the athlete some of her friends were, on either side of the portal, but still she cut an imposing figure, particularly in her golden regalia. She didn’t wear it often, I gathered, but this was a special occasion.

Next up for examination was the room in which the mirror and its attendant gewgaws and doodads had been placed. From its lay-out and moderate size I guessed it to be a parlor of some sort, though it had been stripped of furnishings other than the luxuriant area rug that had cushioned our forceful ejection from the portal and insulated us from the chill of the polished-stone floor. The soaring ceiling and high colored windows gave the chamber presence and character, even bare as it was. The tall, ornately paneled double-leaf doors were closed.

“How are you feeling, Cook?” Twilight asked in the same soft tone she’d used before we traveled. “Are you ready? If not, please don’t hesitate to say so. We can wait.”

“No, I think I’m good to go,” I replied. She nodded and turned to lead us to the doors, on which she rapped in a distinctive tattoo.

A glow enveloped first the keyholes, then the handles, and at last the whole leaves, which rattled, rotated, and opened in turn. Interesting. The security precautions were elementary and prudent, and I certainly wasn’t offended by them—I’d have done the same—but they bespoke a bit more depth and awareness than the more idyllic descriptions of their world and nation had suggested. I felt a little more optimistic about the conference to come.

Twilight perked up and called out, “Shiny! I didn’t expect you to be here.”

A handsome, quite husky, and well-turned-out stallion stood in the doorway, flanked by a pair of only slightly smaller guards, all of them clad in brightly polished ceremonial armor. I was put in mind of legionary lorica segmentata topped with galea-style helmets. “Twily! We decided to make it a surprise.”

With a furrowed brow, Twilight asked, “We? Cadance is here too?”

“Of course,” Shining Armor—for he could be no one, or nopony, else—replied. “It’s an all-princess conference, and we are an associated state.” A hint of teasing humor lurked in his tone, but his words were serious, and I regarded them as such. The phrase “associated state” is a term of art in my business, with a specific range of meanings, and I suspected his use of it was not at all accidental. This wasn’t the loving, easygoing big brother full of goofy jokes I’d heard affectionate anecdotes about; this was a prince consort and a senior military officer.

I stood tall and nodded to him when his sharp, assessing gaze passed over me. He swept it over all three of us and back, then added with a briskly hospitable air, “Right this way.” The trio of soldiers snapped to with parade-ground precision, then arranged themselves as an honor guard around us when we trailed out into the broad, echoing hallway.

It was amazingly busy. Functionaries and staff walked or trotted both ways, all intent on their errands of whatever sort. Uniforms of every kind, or none at all, were visible—military, domestic, bureaucratic. They swirled around us, giving our burly escort a wide berth, more to keep the traffic from snarling than anything else, and gave us curious, or incurious, glances as they went. Some stared in astonished recognition at Twilight, Sunset, or both; others made a point of looking blasé. Not very different from home, really.

Twilight and Sunset paced side by side ahead of me. The princess acknowledged all the nods and hurried bows directed her way with grace and assurance. It seemed plain to me she was sublimely unconscious how completely she’d grown into her new rank and role. Sunset, by contrast, all but jittered, head swiveling as she drank in sights she hadn’t seen in years and almost certainly missed more than she’d realized. I looked around curiously myself, hoping I didn’t appear the gawking yokel, and through a dramatic floor-to-ceiling mullioned window caught my first glimpse of the outside.

Gleaming white towers and tall narrow wings of the palace surrounded a cobbled courtyard immediately below, at the moment serving as a mustering ground for a guard unit; ranks and files of statuesque guardsponies in glittering armor faced a bellowing officer. Beyond sprawled a slice of the ancient capital city of Canterlot, cascading down the mountainside in terraces of stone and tile, wood and glass, a breathtaking and vertiginous storybook vista. The brilliantly blue sky was mostly clear, decorated with a few puffy white clouds, a few scattered airships, and what looked to be swarms of pegasus ponies. None of the air traffic, I noticed, came close to the airspace over the palace itself, which made perfect sense.

The window fell behind, but before we reached another, our little cavalcade turned a corner into a smaller, quieter side corridor that ended in another tall double door. Shining Armor stopped and, with the same magical glow I’d seen before, opened these doors as well while we caught up with him. I took a deep and unobtrusive breath. It was show time.

Letter of credence

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A confection of pink and purple trimmed with cream and gold greeted us, her voice nearly as youthful as Twilight’s. “Good morning and welcome to Canterlot Palace, all of you.” The tone was warm and slightly humorous in a knowing way. After all, I was the only stranger present; the other two were familiar faces and present or former habituées of the palace. “Please come in.”

This, then, was Mi Amoré Cadenza, the one princess I’d expected not to meet today. To an even greater extent than Twilight, she looked distinctly different from her counterpart, whom I’d met during my initial investigation after being assigned to ride herd on Sunset and company. Aside from the obvious equine-human differences, I realized after a moment’s scrutiny, she was more sharp-featured and less rounded.

In the formality of the moment, bows were exchanged, followed by more familiar greetings. Shining Armor and his wife did not touch, limiting themselves to sweet mutual smiles, before he and his subordinates arranged themselves to block the door as the rest of us passed. With everypony else’s eyes on me, I too bowed, more deeply than Twilight, less so than Sunset. “Your Serene Highness, it is a great and unexpected pleasure to meet you today.”

When I looked up again, her expression was impish and her eyes danced. “Especially the ‘unexpected’ part, I imagine.” Close up, I could see a latent tiredness in her eyes and hear it in her tone. No wonder, being only recently crowned a ruler and a new mother to boot.

I choked down a snicker, covering it in a clearing of the throat. “Your Serene Highness is most perceptive. I hope your daughter is well and thriving.”

She laughed delightedly. “Now that you’ve greeted me, just ‘ma’am’ is acceptable for a formal setting like this. And yes, thank you, Flurry Heart is doing fine; she probably is terrorizing the palace nursery even as we speak!”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed aloud, as did her sister-in-law. Even Sunset cracked a nervous smile.

Cadance stepped back and turned, leading us into the surprisingly modest chamber, dominated by a simple but beautifully crafted table, and allowing her husband to shut the doors behind us. Low cushioned stools with small rounded backs, better suited to equine fundaments than taller chairs, surrounded the table.

I looked to the table’s far end—and froze. There was no comparison between a pair of minor bureaucrats running a high school and the two . . . forces of nature seated in this room.

To the right of the table’s head, Luna towered over the three of us, dark and sober, midnight blue and jet black set off by moon-struck silver; stars and tiny nebulae spangled her flowing mane. Her eyes brimmed with spirit and determination, her small smile with melancholy and merriment, all tempered in the fires of a bitter personal journey to redemption. Here was the Walker of Dreams, the prodigal and returned, the warrior and guardian. It was all I could do to turn my eyes anywhere else.

At the head itself, Celestia loomed like a cloud, like the dawn, bright cumulus white and lambent pastels glowing in the promise of a new day sealed with the gold of the sun peeking over the horizon. Her eyes were patient and ageless. Her radiant smile encompassed the turning of centuries and all their travails and joys, witnessing and treasuring the generations as they built a vibrant, prosperous country under her guidance. She was the Mother to the Nation, the one who abided and at long last was rewarded for it, the conscience and memory. I was mesmerized.

Only when a sobbing Sunset flung herself forward did I snap out of it. Her former teacher stood, eyes suspiciously misty, as she galloped across the room, then slid to a halt and leaned against the great strong white arms. The phrase “I’m sorry,” repeated over and over in a choked voice, was barely intelligible, what with a face rubbing unabashedly against an upper arm and the words all but tripping over each other.

Not a one of us moved, or, I suspect, wanted to move. In a gentle, eerily familiar voice, Celestia murmured tenderly, “Hush, my dear wayward student. I know.” Her head lowered, and she nuzzled Sunset’s mane comfortingly as the filly—for such she was in this fraught moment—cried herself out, shivering with the intensity of it.

We held a respectful silence until Sunset fell back on her haunches, heedless of protocol, and blinked her eyes to clear them.

“Feeling better?” Luna then asked dryly but not unkindly.

Sunset’s eyes flew wide. “Omigosh! Princess Luna!” I was reminded she’d never met the moon princess before, having fled through the portal before Luna’s return. She scrambled up to bow hastily and not very neatly. I noticed her string tie and the dickey under it had come askew.

I wasn’t the only one. Celestia smiled and, with the golden glow I’d heard tell of, tidied Sunset’s garments, straightening the dickey and re-tying the tie. “These are lovely, Sunset, and very flattering.”

“Th-thank you. Rarity—the Canterlot High Rarity—tailored the suit I was wearing before we came through the portal.”

“Hmm.” Celestia eyed the clothing critically. “Yes, I can see the style. It does look like something our Ponyville Rarity might have created. How very interesting.”

It really was, but pondering it was a matter for another time and place. For now, all of us had more urgent considerations. Celestia glanced at her sister, who also rose, and they approached to face me from their intimidating heights.

At least the tearful reunion had given me time for my own recovery. I bowed deeply to both sisters. “Your Royal Highness. Your Illustrious Highness.” Celestia and Luna nodded gravely in return, one after the other, as I addressed them.

With that, I drew another deep breath and launched into the ritual of a diplomat meeting a foreign head of state for the first time—specifically, presenting my letter of credence. After a brief, and rather embarrassing, attempt to figure out how to levitate them out of my pannier, I resorted to stretching my neck back to fetch them out with my lips. My face burned hotly, but charitably none of the princesses took notice. Even Sunset, I saw out of the corner of my eye, bit her lip and held her tongue.

The first sealed copy I offered to Celestia, the second to Luna. The third, unsealed, copy went directly to Twilight, acting not only as a royal in her own right but as the de facto foreign minister. I had no copies for Cadance, and winced internally at the oversight.

Three different glows bore the envelopes to their recipients, and three different pairs of eyes read the contents. Most of it was diplomatic boilerplate, stilted and standard. Celestia looked at Luna, who nodded, and past me to Twilight, who also must have nodded, because she looked down at me and spoke.

“Thank you, Mister Cookie Pusher. We have read your letter of credence and accept it. You are accredited thereby as chargé d’affaires en pied representing your nation to ours.”

I nearly fell, weak with relief. I’d passed the first hurdle.

A frank exchange

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I sat at the foot of the table, facing Celestia at the head. Luna once again sat at her sister’s right, with Cadance facing her. Twilight was between Luna and me; Sunset between Cadance and me. The seating of the princesses, and Sunset, by seniority was exactly as I expected, though for such a small meeting it hardly seemed worthwhile. I had a sneaking suspicion at least half the room shared that sentiment, though of course no one breathed a word of it out loud. For all I could tell, it might have been for my comfort, fitting diplomatic expectations, rather than out of any strong desire on the princesses’ part.

“First of all, I would like to apologize to Princess Cadance for being unable to provide sufficient copies of my letter.” Might as well grasp the bull by the horns.

Cadance giggled. Undeniably. Then she cleared her throat and adopted a more serious expression. “No apology is necessary, Mister Cook. I understand. It’s not like you drafted and prepared the letters personally, after all, and I’m sure everyone expected you to meet with me later, not today. Auntie or Twi can give me access to their copies if I need it, and I can rule their accreditation applies in my territory as well, as an associated state. It’s part of the reason I’m here.”

Without comment, Twilight promptly levitated her foreign minister’s copy to Cadance, who read it with the same careful attention her adopted aunts and sister-in-law had applied. In the idle moment I mused how, here as in my own world, so much of royalty ran on family ties, by blood, marriage, or adoption—though at least here it seemed far less stiff and hidebound.

“It looks fine to me,” Cadance said in a verbal shrug. “Mister Cookie Pusher, I accept the accreditation extended to you by Equestria as chargé d’affaires en pied, representing your nation to mine as an associated state.”

Two for the price of one. Well. At least I’d accomplished that much. “On behalf of my nation, I thank you all for your accreditation. I also apologize they have sent a chargé rather than a full ambassador, but older and wiser heads decided, first, I was too young and inexperienced to be elevated to that position and, second, it was impractical to send a permanent resident mission. No insult was intended.”

Celestia and Cadance smiled, Luna looked cool but accepting, and Twilight looked faintly troubled. The white eminence looked at her juniors, then turned back to me. “Mister Cook, I believe I can speak for all of us when I say no insult was construed. You and your superiors are quite correct about the impracticalities involved, on both sides of the portal. Under the conditions that obtain, sending a chargé was entirely proper. For similar reasons we cannot send our own mission at all, and I hope you will convey our apologies for not reciprocating at this time.”

“I certainly shall, ma’am,” I assured her. I did not miss the significance of her qualification “at this time.”

Twilight leaned forward. “They thought you weren’t experienced enough to be an ambassador, but they sent you anyway—and all alone, without any advisors?” She seemed more outraged on my behalf than over any potential insult to her nation.

“Well . . .” Put that way, it did seem less than ideal, but then the situation was less than ideal.

“My dear Twilight,” Celestia interrupted with a tone of gentle rebuke. “They are in a difficult position. Without spreading knowledge of the portal farther than either they or we would wish, what are they to do?” She looked back at me with a maternal air. “And it speaks well of their faith in this young fellow, when one thinks about it.”

Twilight sat back, still looking troubled. “Well . . .” There was, I reflected, a lot of that going around.

“I may be provided a staff in the future, but for this initial contact, the decision was to limit potential complications as much as possible.” I decided to risk a little levity. “After all, not everyone is ready to step through a weird magical portal that throws you around like a toboggan ride and turns you into a talking pony.”

Twilight choked. Cadance snickered. Luna’s brows went up. Celestia smiled again and glanced at her student-turned-junior. Sunset looked like she was on the verge of diving under the table.

“An accurate, if rather pithy, observation, Mister Cook,” Celestia said serenely. I had no doubt she’d divined the source of my comment, though I wasn’t as sure about Luna or Cadance. At any rate, nopony chose to make an issue of my cheekiness. Thank goodness.

Celestia continued, “I surmise from your office of chargé and your statement about the impracticality of a resident mission you will be fulfilling your duties from the other side of the portal—as well as keeping an eye on our dear Sunset.”

Sunset sat bolt upright, clearly surprised, and not pleasantly so, to be brought front and center in the discussion.

“Yes indeed,” I replied steadily. “I have been relocated to a residence and an office space in the same metropolitan area, not too distant from the portal’s location.”

A small thoughtful frown manifested on the ancient face. “One residence among many poses no difficulties, but finding a sufficiently discreet office must have been a challenge.”

“It’s part of an existing facility in the city, and usually I can work from home—which I always do for sensitive matters. I presume Her Highness has briefed you on the technology available to enable that?”

“She has.” Celestia bestowed another affectionate smile on the youngest princess, who shifted in her seat. “She also has informed me our technology resembles your world’s as of nearly a century and a half in the past, though I would hazard a guess we may not achieve similar advancements for roughly twice that time. We do not have the same incentives pressing us to do so.” What a polite way to point out how much warfare drives technology—and that ponies apparently regarded technology in a woefully lackadaisical fashion. Still, it also was eminently nonjudgmental of both societies, more than was strictly necessary for diplomatic purposes.

“As you say, ma’am, though it brings up a point I wish to address, not as part of my mission but simply as a representative and observer.” I thought for a moment, but decided being blunt was best. “History has taught us when two cultures with dissimilar levels of technology come into contact, the results tend to be dire for the culture with the less advanced technology. In several ways this is a special case, of course, which may alter the dynamics, but my conscience will not allow me to keep silent on the matter.”

All the princesses exchanged glances, then Luna spoke. “My sister and I have discussed this matter extensively, and we agree in principle. It is one reason we are amenable to maintaining distant, if friendly, relations.”

“You may not be the only one who feels that way, Mister Cook,” Cadance put in shrewdly. “And the effects might not go all one way. After all, here we have more experience with magic, which could affect your world just as disastrously. It almost has.”

“That’s . . . a good point,” I replied. “I suppose I was so concerned with our own lessons of history I hadn’t considered that fully.”

Celestia took up the thread. “Your concern does you great credit, the more so because airing it goes beyond the letter of your duties. And you can hardly be blamed for not considering fully a problem for which you do not have complete information and to which you are not accustomed.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said with utmost sincerity. It was not hard to see why her little ponies regarded her with such reverence.

“And now to business,” she said briskly.

Brass tacks

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Diplomacy is boring.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say diplomacy is not a spectator sport. For a participant it combines the slow-moving suspense of a chess game with the sharp guesswork and bargaining of poker. Even then it can cause drooping eyelids; I wasn’t surprised when Luna and later Cadance succumbed to the tedium. Luna’s bedtime was approaching, after all, and Cadance was in a constant state of mild sleep deprivation thanks to her infant daughter. They stayed long enough to satisfy honor and to ensure Equestria’s sovereignty wouldn’t be bargained away for a handful of beads, but eventually first one and then the other excused herself.

Contrariwise, the eternal Celestia seemed unaffected and Twilight positively energized by the minutiae and proliferating details. Sunset hung on doggedly with an air of confusion, likely wondering why she was there at all, while the three of us negotiated the relationship our nations would enjoy. (Yes, that’s the right word; it means something rather different than it would in ordinary conversation. All too often it’s an exercise in irony.) Her patience was rewarded once we’d established certain ground rules about the movement of our citizens or subjects through the portal.

“And now, it gives me great pleasure to present this.” I leaned down to fetch another item by mouth from the panniers sitting beside my seat. After placing it on the table, I slid it toward Sunset with a hoof. She peered down at it a little blearily, then her eyes widened and she gaped.

“So?” Twilight craned her neck eagerly. “What is it?”

“It’s . . . it’s a visa,” Sunset breathed, incredulous.

I beamed, absurdly pleased by her reaction, as if I’d given her the best Hearth’s-Warming present ever, to use her native idiom. “It is indeed. To be specific, it is a courtesy visa conferring long-term residency status on a non-diplomatic representative of a foreign government. Sunset Shimmer has official standing to remain as long as she wishes in the land she now calls home, and not just as a private individual.”

Sunset was speechless. Twilight looked like she was about to burst. Celestia smiled as broadly as I yet had seen, but unlike the younger mares’ unbridled joy, her demeanor showed she plainly understood the subtext. “The Crown of Equestria offers deep and heartfelt thanks to your nation for its enlightened magnanimity.” She turned her attention to her former student. “Sunset. It is a gift of surpassing generosity—and practicality—but do be aware it is not, and quite understandably cannot be, unlimited in its scope.”

Both mares looked up at her, and she explained. “As Mister Cook has intimated, it offers no diplomatic immunity. I do not expect that to pose any difficulty in the future, but I do remind you to remain on your best behavior while you are a guest in his country.” She favored me with a searching look. “And I believe it is no accident he arranged to present it under these circumstances, with Twilight and myself as witnesses.”

I inclined my head courteously. “It is not. Doing so allowed the Crown of Equestria to take official cognizance of it immediately, which is the pragmatic reason.” I was still grinning like a fool when I raised my head. “And on a personal level, I couldn’t imagine a better time to do so. For all three of you.”

Sunset bounced off her stool and threw her arms around me. She squeezed surprisingly hard, and I wheezed, caught off-guard and suddenly breathless. She even gave me a chaste little peck on the cheek before returning to her seat.

I was warm all over. It really did feel like making a favorite niece the happiest person in the world. Twilight giggled.

“Cook,” Celestia said quietly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Celestia,” I replied just as quietly. Dropping the honorific told me she was serious, and deeply touched. It also told me she understood full well I was the one who pushed through the visa. I vowed then never, ever to play chess, poker, or sun and moon with her.

Sunset slid the visa back. “Cook, would you keep this safe for me while we’re here? I . . . don’t have any place to put it, and I don’t want to damage it by shoving it in a pocket.”

“Gladly.” I recovered the small but fancy folio booklet and swept it gently back into my pannier.

Twilight spoke up with a tone of epiphany. “Celestia, shouldn’t we issue Sunset a passport?”

“Yes. Yes we should.” She bestowed another smile on us all. “I suggest we repair to a more pleasant venue for a working lunch, during which I shall set those wheels in motion.”

This we did. Our peregrination through the halls resembled the previous journey, but squared and cubed. Midday, the palace bustled even more than earlier, and the tall form at the head of our little party garnered smiles and bows and murmured greetings. She found time to respond to each and every one, even if it was only a word or two. Somehow, somewhere, she managed to convey her intentions, and by the time we found ourselves on a balcony hanging over empty air, cantilevered from an onion-domed tower, we found a round table set for four, with a simple but generous and perfectly fresh luncheon spread across it.

Celestia sat at the outer place and nodded to us, letting us find our own seats as we wished. Perhaps not surprisingly I ended up facing her, with her former students on either side. It gave me a panoramic view of the far side of the axe-cleft pass that cradled Canterlot, steep and startling. The meal itself was informal, all of us serving ourselves and sometimes each other family-style. I was provided utensils, and fine ones, to circumvent my lack of proficiency with levitation.

After a few minutes another unicorn mare appeared—levitating a laden clipboard, a fountain pen, and a dry seal—and trotted straight to Celestia with an air of competent efficiency. Her coat was nearly as white as her mistress’, though without the faint glow. Her dark brown mane and tail were bound up in matching buns with red ribbons, and her collar and cravat strongly resembled mine, though in white and red rather than charcoal gray and dark blue. Spectacles rimmed with blued steel framed her bronze eyes. I judged her to be within a few years of my own age of thirty-one. She was quite pretty and I suspect I stared a bit more than was strictly polite. I was at that moment a stallion, after all, and besides, grace, wit, and pleasant features and conformation transcend species.

“Ah, Raven,” Celestia greeted her with a pleased smile. I was beginning to realize she had a smile for almost every occasion, and spent a great deal of time doing so. Many of those smiles were politic, I was sure, but a surprising amount of the time they seemed genuine. I suppose, when one has seen as much as she has, the choice is to enjoy life or go mad. “Mister Cookie Pusher, this is my majordomo, Raven Inkwell. Raven, this fine young stallion prefers to go by Cook; he is visiting from the other side of the portal and has been accredited as chargé d’affaires en pied from the nation hosting the portal’s other terminus.”

Raven scrutinized me as thoroughly as a three-dee laser scanner—not rudely, but appraisingly and as if committing my appearance to memory. While she didn’t smile, her expression was cordial. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mister Cook. Will you be staying long?”

“Alas, no, Ms. Inkwell,” I replied, and was surprised to find the “alas” was sincere. “This is merely a preliminary conference to present my credentials and to resolve the most basic and urgent questions that arise between two nations opening relations for the first time.”

“Perhaps you will have more opportunity to visit our fair country at a later time, then,” she replied with hospitable courtesy.

“I think I’d like that.”

She did smile then, if briefly, before turning back to Celestia attentively. That worthy began to issue orders, couched as polite requests, and Raven nodded occasionally. She took no notes but, when the stream of commands ended, repeated back the essential points flawlessly. Before departing to carry them out, she deposited the clipboard and pen on the table beside Celestia’s place setting.

Celestia took up the pen and began writing. “I doubt the palace press room will be able to produce a permanent document before you and Mister Cook return through the portal tonight, Sunset, but I can issue a provisional writ that will do for the nonce. Mister Cook, I shall entrust the writ to your temporary keeping for the same reasons Sunset requested you to hold onto her visa.”

“I’d be happy to,” I assured her.

Without looking up from her writing, Celestia added, “I seem to recall also this is a school day, is it not, Sunset?”

“Oh!” Sunset looked stricken for a moment. “Yes it is. Principal Celestia gave me a day pass.” Levitation glows surrounded first one pocket, then another, until finally a folded slip of paper emerged to make its way to the table beside the clipboard.

A minute or so later the fountain pen came to rest on the clipboard’s other side, and Celestia picked up and unfolded the slip. The computer-printed form on mass-produced ink-jet paper looked incongruous among the industrial-age impedimentia and paraphernalia around it. “Ah, so it’s your fault, Mister Cook. I cannot say that comes as a surprise.” Her mock-severe tone was undermined by her twinkling eyes. “Very good; my counterpart stresses Sunset’s friends have been tasked with providing her notes and homework assignments as needed.”

Sunset groaned, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it; I guessed her protest was pro forma, upholding the tradition of griping cherished by students and military enlistees from time immemorial—on both sides of the portal, apparently. Celestia’s new smile showed her understanding of this nuance.

“I’m sure you’ll make up the time with your customary energy and dispatch,” she told her former student teasingly. I was sure of it too; I kept tabs on the whole group’s grades and academic performance. Despite coming to a post-industrial school system late and having to learn a whole new world and national history—not to mention an extra century and a half of science and technology—on the run, Sunset still managed to place consistently in the top five percent of students nationwide. It was only those handicaps that kept her out of the top one percent, where the girl everyone nicknamed Sci-Twi placed despite her transfer from Crystal Prep Academy. Nobody who knew Sunset’s background held that comparatively “low” standing against her.

Sunset face-planted on the table and mumbled something. Twilight tried heroically, but ultimately failed to suppress her laughter. Sunset rolled her head just enough to give her friend a gimlet eye and grunted. Only my diplomatic training allowed me to maintain a determinedly grave expression. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’d be happy to help you study,” I offered in an elaborately helpful if not downright unctuous tone.

She turned the same baleful one-eyed look on me and I desisted. A few times I’d been drafted to assist in the group’s study sessions, with mixed results. I was sure she was recalling some of the less salubrious occasions. That she felt easy enough with me to react so informally delighted me, and I grinned teasingly at her in return.

Celestia finished the writ, signing it with a flourish and using the seal die to stamp it rather loudly. “There you are.” She levitated the stiff, fine sheet to me, and I looked it over. It was, as I fully expected, complete and correct, and I nodded. Without bringing it back toward herself, she folded it, slipped it into an envelope, and, once I opened my pannier, lowered it in. After the glow around it vanished, I nudged it with a hoof to be sure it sat neatly in the bag and wouldn’t end up wrinkled.

And then we continued with the meal, which was occupied mostly with more boring diplomatic details that don’t bear repetition.

Negotiations and revelations

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We stayed at the table on the patio—partly because it really was a more pleasant environment and partly, I think, to cast Equestria in the best light for my benefit. When some of the staff showed up to clear away the remnants of lunch, Celestia led us deftly into small talk suitable for ears not cleared to hear our sensitive negotiations. With their departure, she demurely suggested a short pause to attend to necessities. I was thankful to discover the palace not only had indoor plumbing, the fixtures proved simple and intuitive to use. Certain other parts of the process were more difficult, but I managed. After that came the real work of the day.

Twilight, of course, quickly began taking notes, co-opting the pen and clipboard supplied by Raven. It wasn’t long before she noticed I wasn’t following suit, and after a moment of puzzlement, figured out why: I hadn’t brought a tablet or computer, since input would be difficult or impossible for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sufficiently coordinated or practiced yet to write with levitation, hoof, or lips. Without further ado she promised to provide a duplicate copy of her notes. “If nothing else, I could come through the portal to use a photocopier!”

“Perhaps the palace press room would be a better choice,” Celestia pointed out. “It might not be as immediate, but I’m sure Mister Cook would agree the delay would be acceptable, considering the sensitivity of the contents.”

“Oh.” Twilight looked fetchingly abashed. “I didn’t think of that.”

“Of course you didn’t,” I told her with a grin. “You have a scientist’s view of information: It should be shared. It’s just a shame that can’t always be the case.”

Celestia smiled approvingly at me, which made me feel surprisingly good.

Through the long afternoon the three of us tackled one topic after another in a gratifyingly collegial manner. Celestia and Twilight made a point of drawing Sunset into the discussion, and she frequently did have substantive input. If nothing else, she’d lived, and taken classes, on the other side of the portal long enough to become well acquainted with conditions there—and had a sharply intelligent Equestrian’s slant on them. I winced occasionally at her rather blunt descriptions, and Twilight’s eyes narrowed a few times, but Celestia seemed unruffled. No doubt she’d seen worse many times over the course of her long life, and I’d learned that while Equestria was a pretty nice place, it was by no means a utopia.

The overriding importance of friendship as a cardinal virtue in Equestrian culture, tempered by the princesses’ understanding through hard experience it wasn’t always possible, gave the proceedings a refreshing air of frankness. It felt very old-fashioned, hearkening back to a time when phrases like “my word is my bond” had real meaning, and it had an interesting effect: For the first time in my life I understood on a deep emotional level what honor is and why it is important. I found myself wanting to be worthy of the trust and honesty my hosts were showing me, and to the limit discretion and national interests allowed, I reciprocated their openness measure for measure.

Of course, Sunset being available to offer a second opinion on any assertions I made certainly contributed, too.

Eventually urns of tea and coffee appeared, along with charmingly delicate cups, saucers, and cruets of sugar and cream. A tall pitcher of fresh lemonade and glass tumblers joined them. All were excellent, needless to say, and Sunset’s blissfully nostalgic reaction was a pleasure to behold. Even Celestia and Twilight sipped with an appreciation perhaps renewed by watching our delight.

With coaching from all three, I managed my first levitation, preparing a cup of coffee and raising it to my lips. For the record, my glow turned out to be a sort of very light gray, almost white. The coffee sloshed onto the saucer when I set down the cup, but they applauded the achievement and assured me it was a promising start. “Cook, you’ve never done anything like this before,” Sunset said firmly. “You’ve been a unicorn less than eight hours, okay? You can’t expect to be an expert just like that!” She clopped a hoof on the floor with a snap of the fetlock. (I had to look that one up later.)

I let myself be persuaded, and we resumed our negotiations.

Hours later the time came for Celestia to call a break. She rose and paced to the balcony rail; I caught my breath. I knew what was about to happen and counted myself fortunate to be a witness. I watched avidly as any native-born colt when she raised her head to the breeze and closed her eyes. Her alicorn glowed brightly enough to make my eyes water, progressing from her normal rich gold to an actinic white. And the sun moved.

In retrospect I realized it didn’t move any differently than it had throughout the day or even any differently than it did in my own world. Still, there was an ineffable quality to the moment, one I could feel with an electricity that danced in my hide and in my alicorn, and I no more could describe the sensation beyond that than I could describe vision to someone born without it. My newly awakened perception gave me a vague impression of the spell, rather the way one might look upon a mountain range, knowing it to be too vast and intricate to examine in detail. What it felt like, more than anything else, was a hand—or a hoof—on a potter’s wheel or polishing wheel or even a toy hoop, shoving it to keep it moving at the proper speed as it rotated. The system had momentum, but the spell kept its clockworks synchronized and fed energy into it.

The sun sank behind the mountains and Celestia’s glow faded. At the same time a distant singing became just audible, and somewhere on the other side of the palace, I knew, the moon would be rising. Celestia turned back to us, her hide shining faintly in the dimming light, wearing a gentle and slightly fatigued smile. “I think, now, it is time for supper.”

Twilight and Sunset eyed me with amusement; I looked back with a sheepish shrug. No doubt they’d seen the ritual uncountable times, but it was all new to me. Twilight winked at me, then told Celestia, “I think you’re right. I’ll bet we’re all famished.”

I knew I was, at least, and after such a large spell I felt sure Celestia was as well. It was no wonder the ancient unicorn tribe had burned out so many of its best and brightest doing the same job, and I spared a moment for that long-past sorrow. Pony history was no less colorful and tragic than ours, just in different ways. Sunset’s eyes met mine for a moment and we shared that understanding.

Supper was even more lavish than lunch. Ponies, I observed to myself, seemed to devote an almost religious attention to food. Fresh fruit, warm bread, ripe cheese, rich soup, crisp salad—the list went on. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw, among the other condiments, the anchovy sauce Sunset had mentioned to me to illustrate the breadth of pony dietary needs. I had to explain the laugh, but everyone else saw the humor as well.

Since our formal colloquy was mostly finished, and in record time, we were able to converse more freely about subjects of mutual interest, and, as with the anchovy sauce, the meal provided ample grist for the mill. Inevitably, much of it revolved around comparing and contrasting our societies, but even that served our purposes; true understanding is impossible without sharing such details. I imagined without difficulty the mass coronaries our casual, straightforward conversation would inspire among the stuffier personalities, human and pony alike, ruled by protocol and propriety.

Luna rejoined us in the midst of this, having finished her own breakfast. Seeing the relaxation around the table, she too settled in on cushions arranged for the purpose. Candles and gas lights, just bright enough to prevent stumbles, gave the balcony an intimate air, and the jewelbox of stars spilled across the night-blue skies arched over it all.

Sunset, I noticed, was beginning to nod off; it had been a long day filled with excitement and stress alternating with droning boredom, and she was, after all, still a teen, with an adolescent’s need for good, healthy sleep. Twilight was keeping up gamely, but being of a similar age she too was winding down, and occasionally slurred her words. I felt a bit stretched myself, but was not at all ready to end this wonderful evening quite yet. Celestia spoke more slowly and quietly, possibly feeling much the same as I. Luna, though fresher, was considerate enough to match our mood as we meandered from topic to topic, all but rambling. Finally we wandered onto history.

“. . . Their desperation was palpable,” Luna narrated absently. Her gaze was unfocused, her mind’s eye no doubt recalling the distant past. “Even Starswirl’s robes were ragged and travel-stained, with many bells missing. We were young, my sister and I, and their plea touched our hearts. Certes, their logic could not be gainsaid: To crown one of their own, of any tribe, would end in strife and a nation stillborn, smothered under snows unending, as the other tribes took umbrage over the perceived slight. Equestria was a newborn foal, still unsteady, and too many of its habitants would be quick to blame and slow to forgive. They had no choice but to seek rulers from outside their number.”

“And they chose us.” Her sister took up the tale. “We traveled with them from our own tribe’s small, distant demesne. It was well we did. On our arrival we found a country on the verge of collapse.” Twilight listened raptly. Sunset’s eyes were closed, but her ears still attended, twitching and turning to hear. I was enthralled.

“The coronation was hasty and politic. Even the most intransigent realized the value of the solution our presence offered and the urgency of accepting it. We made a circuit of what had become our realm, rallying its disparate peoples, promising accord. It was exhausting—and heartbreaking.” Even now, centuries later, Celestia’s voice caught. “We succeeded, somehow, and to this day it still seems a miracle.”

“I don’t remember seeing this in the old journal I found,” Twilight protested in a subdued voice.

Celestia sighed. Luna spoke up before she could. “Dear Twilight, recall we were very young. There was much we did not realize until later, when we could look back with a more mature eye upon our memories. Too, we were very busy, and very excited, and very determined to do our utmost and to put the best face on what occurred. The story we told in that journal was true. It simply was not complete.”

It was getting late. Twilight and Sunset dozed. I looked at them, then at their elders. “I must ask, Celestia.” I kept my voice low. “You have ruled this land a thousand years and more. Your sister spent much of that frozen in time, as I understand it—”

“And you wish to know of Twilight’s fate, and Cadance’s.” The wise face nodded. “Even Luna’s and mine, unless I miss my guess.”

“Yes. I’d assumed at first you were typical, but then I realized I was extrapolating from a single datum.”

The sisters exchanged a glance. “Our tribe is long-lived, it is true,” Luna replied. “Not so long as my sister, however. We do not understand, but perhaps the Tree of Harmony has something to do with it.”

“And a sister’s love,” Celestia added softly. “Will we live on indefinitely? Have I begun to age again now that Luna is back? We simply do not know—but then, no one knows the span she, or he, is allotted.”

“Cadance and Twilight are as mortal as their friends and families,” Luna pronounced. “Of this we are more certain. And one day Twilight will sit on our throne.”

I was startled. “Really?”

“Oh yes,” Celestia answered with a quiet ripple of laughter. “The Tree of Harmony made that as clear as it makes anything. But for now, we abide. It would hardly be fair to Twilight if we simply packed our bags, wished her luck, and departed. She has come so far, but she still has far yet to go before she will be ready to lead a nation, even with the aid of the friends who sit with her around the great map.”

“Hence she is the princess of friendship. An apprenticeship in rulership, if you will.” Luna flashed a brief grin, a stroke of lightning in the night sky.

“The . . . Knights of the Round Table,” I murmured in sudden realization.

Luna looked puzzled, but Celestia nodded. “The myth from your world of a fabled land and king?”

I chuckled. “Let me guess. Twilight mentioned it after her first visit to my world.”

“Indeed. And it is quite apt.” Celestia looked up to the sky, reading it as easily as a clock. “The hour grows late, Cook, and most of us need our sleep, I fear. Luna and I will accompany you and Sunset to the portal.”

The five of us stood in the parlor where the mirror resided. Twilight, when awoken, had gotten a bit cranky until Celestia gave in and let her come along as well. We said our farewells, warmer than I’d expected them to be when I arrived, and after a last embrace and hurried messages to pass to Sunset’s friends, Twilight stepped back to stand with the sisters.

Sunset and I looked at each other, then at the mirror, and held our breath as we leapt into it.

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

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Sunset and I landed on a pair of air mattresses zip-tied together, which certainly was an improvement over hard concrete. When we rose to our knees and looked around, we saw the dark and silent campus; even the street behind us and the suburban neighborhood across it were quiet at this hour. We’d assumed everyone would be home and probably asleep when we arrived so late, but under the unexpected mattresses was the huge red-and-white gingham picnic blanket Sunset’s friends habitually used.

On the lawn just off the walkway and plaza stood a mismatched pair of tents, one of which showed a dim glow through the fabric. On top of the plinth sprawled a snoring Pinkie Pie, who probably could sleep on a bed of nails. Sitting in lawn chairs on the pavement leading to the school’s front doors were Celestia and Luna, reading magazines with the aid of small book lights. The two principals looked up—the portal was not at all unobtrusive about announcing arrivals—and greeted us with muted enthusiasm. “Girls? Girls, they’re back,” Celestia added in a slightly louder voice.

The commotion that followed would have been funny under other circumstances. Well, no, it was just plain funny, but it also was heartwarming, to tell the truth. They tumbled out of the tents one after another to surround us and bombard us with questions. Applejack and Rainbow Dash helped us off the treacherous footing of the mattresses onto solid ground.

Sunset waved her arms and berated everyone indiscriminately, even the adults, for going to so much trouble, but her friends would have none of it. “We were worried, Sunset,” Twilight said humbly. “There was a lot riding on this meeting. We couldn’t stand the suspense.”

“And we did get Principal Celestia’s permission to remain on campus,” Rarity added primly.

Luna sighed. “She insisted on chaperoning them, which meant I had to as well.”

Fluttershy amended, “Well, really our parents insisted.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Give it up, Sunset. You know it won’t do any good anyway.”

Sunset deflated and lowered her arms. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. And I guess I should say thank you, shouldn’t I?”

“Yep!” Pinkie answered with a bobble-head nod.

“Does this mean we can go home?” Luna asked hopefully.

“Once we escort everyone off school grounds,” Celestia told her patiently. “Which we can do on our way back to the car.”

The mattresses and tents were packed away in a flurry of activity, during which I sent a brief message to the home office confirming the successful discharge of my duty and safe, if belated, return. When the whole gaggle reached the street, the principals turned over the duty of chaperone to me, which took me aback. A quick plebiscite decided the next step was to adjourn to the not-too-distant Sweet Shoppe, which still would be open for another hour, catering to the night-owl market. “Girls,” I groaned, “I’m beat, Sunset is beat, and all of you look beat.”

This swayed exactly nobody; even Twilight and Fluttershy refused to let us go without at least a summary of the day’s doings. I took off my slightly rumpled jacket and slung it over my shoulder; my retransformed bookbag hung once more from my other hand. Sunset’s suit also looked a bit the worse for wear, and Rarity clucked her tongue, but there was no permanent harm done.

So majority rule prevailed, and we repaired to the Sweet Shoppe for coffee all around and a debriefing. I refused to start, though, until arrangements were made to get them all back home. When most of them refused to pull out their phones, I pulled out mine and called every single household for pick-ups. Disappointed noises decried my perfidy, but I stood firm. Exhaustion helped.

One by one parents or older siblings appeared to reclaim their lost lambs, who invariably wailed they would miss the rest of my story. Only by swearing blood oaths I would make good the cliffhangers could they be budged, but at last only Sunset and I remained in the corner booth shortly before closing. We looked at each other wearily, and I mumbled, “I’ll call for a ride home. Let’s go.”

“Thanks, Cook.” She put a hand on my arm. “For everything. I needed to do that, didn’t I?”

“Sooner or later. And you’re welcome.”

With that, we rose to wait outside for our ride to our respective domiciles. I was in for a busy day tomorrow, full of conferences and reports—including this one—and I would need all the sleep I could get.