For the Mare Who Has Everything

by GrassAndClouds2

First published

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

Vicereine Puissance has ruled as one of Princess Luna's richest and most powerful nobles for fifty years, but not even her uncountable wealth or legions of followers can save her from old age. As her health begins to fail and the doctors tell her there is nothing they can do, she rejects the suggestion of Luna and others that she should retire and spend her remaining time with her family. Instead she decides to solve this problem as she has solved all others: by drawing upon her stupendous resources and vast political power in order to obtain the one remaining thing she wants: the immortal, ageless life of an alicorn. But while she thinks she can afford any price, the journey she sets out on could prove to be far more costly than she had ever anticipated.

Lunaverse story. Setup for Golden Horseshoes.

1. A Beggar's Bowl, A Scoop of Ice Cream, A Set of Journals

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Vicereine Puissance Noctilucent Optiebeurs-Golo stood perfectly still, with a million-bit ritual shawl wrapped around her barrel and silver threads woven around her legs, and told herself that she did not feel cold.

It was the nature of Elbphilharmonica Hall, she told herself while the university president read out her titles and accolades to the thousands of unicorns filling the building. The venue was one of the most prestigious auditoriums in all of Pferdreich, but it was drafty nonetheless, and the university had persistently refused to take up her offer of a full refurbishing in exchange for renaming it the Optiebeurs-Golo Hall. She’d need to speak to the chancellor again, she thought, and also the Board of Regents. They were due to visit Equestria in six months as part of an international conference on pedagogy, and she’d given enough money to the conference over the years that she knew they would let her speak to the attendees. With them in her hoof, she could return to Pferdreich a few months later, and…

“…and I would like to thank you all for agreeing to participate in this ritual to support one of our continent’s most beloved patrons of the arts,” the university president said. Puissance straightened imperceptibly; this was the reason she had come, the reason she had made herself sit through all those boring cocktail luncheons and interminable rubber-salmon dinners, the reason she had sponsored the university’s new gym, its swimming pool, its exchange program with Shouma. “All of you have well-established careers involving the magical arts, and we are honored you would take time from your lives to return to campus for the sake of the mare who has given so much to our university. Now, when the ruby glows red, cast the spell as we have rehearsed and direct your magic to the leylines carved on the stage.” The lines glowed as the president cast a spell of his own. “Three,” the pony counted. “Two. One!”

Every one of the unicorns in the room shot beams of magic from their horns at precisely the same time and hit the leylines dead-on. Then several archmages, senior instructors in magic whose tutoring was the primary draw of Burrlin University, began to shape and warp the energy as per the ancient spell Puissance’s agents had unearthed in a forgotten library. The magic raced through the leylines, up the silver threads, and into Puissance’s body, and the pegasus’s wings extended involuntarily as the magic hit her. It felt warm, and rich, and soothing, and Puissance thought she could almost feel it soaking into her body. The ritual shawl glowed as its components helped refine the spell further and--

But then one of the archmages sagged, exhaustion creeping over his face, and around the auditorium other unicorns began to collapse. The flow of magic into the leylines slackened, sputtered, and finally stopped as the rest of the unicorns slumped back in their seats. Puissance’s wings fell back to her body and she failed to hide the look of astonishment and annoyance on her face. “President Weisskopf,” she said in a superficially polite tone that failed to mask the absolute authority underlying it. “Is something wrong?”

Weisskopf looked nervous. “Why, no, Vicereine. The spell has been cast exactly as specified.”

“I seem to recall that same spell took several minutes to cast last time,” said Puissance.

“Yes, but, as I explained, the spell requires more and more energy every time it is reapplied.” Weisskopf tugged at the collar of his suit. “Substantially so.”

“It is… how do you say it?” one of the archmages asked. “Diminishing returns. More energy needed for same result.”

“So, because this time we needed more energy to keep the spell going, we used up all our magic faster.” Weisskopf managed a weak shrug. “That’s why it only lasted for several seconds.”

“I had thought you would have enough energy,” said Puissance slowly, sweeping her wing out at the exhausted unicorns around her. “Last time there were a hundred unicorns. This time—“

The archmage shook his head. “Even so. Takes one hundred times more energy than last casting. Even thousand more unicorns not change that.”

“I see.” Puissance took a breath and pasted a wintry smile on her face. “May I ask how effective the spell was?”

The archmage looked at the university president, who seemed to wilt. “Perhaps three months, Vicereine.”

“Three—“ Puissance began before cutting off what would have been a most undignified yell. “Three months?” she repeated. “The first time I underwent this… treatment… I was told it would extend my lifespan by years.”

“And so it did,” said the archmage. “The first time we cast it on you. But then second time, between one to two years, and third time, just under one year. Now three months.”

“Time after this, maybe three weeks,” said a second archmage.

Puissance stared at him. “What are you saying?”

Every other pony on the stage exchanged uneasy glances. Then Weisskopf moved towards her. “What I think we mean is… Vicereine… we may be at the limits of this particular treatment.”

Vicereine Puissance bit back several angry retorts and hid her scowl. Instead, she made herself say, “I of course understand that there are logistical difficulties. Perhaps if I relieved you of some other burdens… specifically, financial burdens… you could devote time to—“

Weisskopf began to nod, but then the archmages glared at him and he quailed before speaking again. “We of course will be grateful for any donations you give us, and will honor you in any way we can. But as for this particular ritual…”

“It too taxing,” said the first archmage. “To cast so many times on same pony. Not safe.”

“For us or you.” The second archmage gestured at the exhausted unicorns in the auditorium’s seats. “And no point anyways.”

“We could bring together every living graduate of this university next time,” said a third. “And get you three weeks. Maybe less.”

Puissance opened her mouth, but then shut it again. This didn’t happen. Ponies did not say no to her; no matter what she wanted, her stupendous wealth and power had always pushed aside any obstacle. This wasn’t allowed.

But it was happening anyways, and she could do nothing other than let Weisskopf go back to his podium and begin the endless minutes of thank-yous a ceremony of this nature required.

The wind blew through the drafty auditorium again, and she once more told herself she did not feel cold. This time, though, she was far less able to believe it.

###

“Purchase the vacant properties on the northern fringe of Palomino and prepare them to build the new farming complexes and the agricultural museum,” Puissance told one of the two pegasus mares who had met her airship while it was docking above her Califurlong estate. “The university’s chancellor let slip that Pferdreich’s quarries have recently been overproducing stone and iron ore; they will have to sell those materials very cheaply within the month. We will therefore be able to obtain building supplies for half the price we’d anticipated. Also, purchase the largest vacant warehouse near the Califurlong port to store those materials, and alert our factors in Shouma that they will be receiving large shipments of both stone and iron ore on the next boats over. Pferdreich will try to sell there too, but we have spent the last decade establishing trade relations with all the warlords there. We will beat them.”

“Yes, ma’am.” said Perfect Precision, Puissance’s personal secretary of thirty years. Precise Point, Puissance’s political secretary for an equal length of time, flew next to her. The two were twins, one having a purple mane and white coat and the other having the reverse, and both were just slightly on the gaunt side of ‘lean.’ Between them they managed all of Puissance’s business obligations and political affairs. Which, given Puissance’s nature, meant mostly that they copied down her orders and saw that they were carried out.

Puissance flew out of her airship as soon as it docked and headed directly for the window of her private office, her secretaries following closely behind her. “And Precise Point, tell the director of the Equestrian Revenue Service to audit Gladmane Importers. Their prices on Pferdreich goods are too low, judging by prices of the same goods in Pferdreich. Somepony must be falsifying the books. Also, tell the legislative team to file a motion for updating audits in arbitrage arrangements. I’ll send over the exact list of updates tomorrow.” The three ponies reached the window of Puissance’s office, and Precise Point waved a magical wardstone which deactivated the alarms and spells keeping it secured. The window smoothly rolled open to allow Puissance in. “Next—“

Then a small, warm, furry object leaped at Puissance from the floor of her office. “GRANNY PU!” screamed Scepter, her great-grandcolt. He wrapped himself around one of her legs and jumped up and down. “Dad knew you were coming back today so he brought me here to see you! Hi!”

Puissance hid the flash of irritation from her face as her secretaries flew in behind her. “Yes, Scepter, I am back.” she said in as matronly a tone as she could manage. “Don’t jump up and down. It is not dignified.”

Scepter pulled back a little. “It’s ‘Flicker,’” he complained. “Dad says my name is Flicker.”

“Dear…” Puissance put a hoof to her head. “Your great-grandmother has had a long journey and does not wish to argue. Please, just accept…”

“Fine.” Scepter sighed and looked crestfallen for a moment before recovering. “But anyways, I’m really excited you’re back! I’ve been getting a lot better at flying! Look!” He began to flap his wings and indeed rose a little bit off the ground. “What do you think?”

Puissance thought that his technique needed work and made a note to contact Wind Rider, a retired Wonderbolt who now served as an elite flying teacher to those lucky foals whose parents could afford him. But she just said, “It’s very good, dear. Why don’t you run along? Your great-grandmother is busy now, but perhaps after dinner you could let me know what you have been learning from Ink Blot.” Getting Ink Blot rehired as Scepter’s tutor after her wayward grandson Banner had actually tried to enroll Scepter in public school had taken far more work than it should have, especially with Luna breathing down her Courtiers’ necks, and she was hopeful that her efforts had actually led to something useful. She paused, trying to think of what else Scepter might like to do with her. “We can have ice cream,” she said at last. “With sprinkles.”

Scepter hesitated. “And liquid rainbow sauce?”

“Dear, that’s hardly a dignified topping…” But Scepter’s face fell and Puissance sighed to herself. “Very well. We will have a small amount of liquid rainbow sauce.”

“Okay, Granny Pu! You’re the best!” Scepter nuzzled against her and then dashed off towards what Puissance hoped was his father’s rooms.

Puissance took a breath and then turned back to her secretaries. “As for the Equestrian Budget Office…”

Detailing her instructions regarding all of her personal and political affairs took close to an hour, and her voice felt slightly hoarse when she was done. Perfect Precision immediately pressed the button that would send for the butler, who appeared thirty seconds later with a tall glass of distilled mineral water seasoned with an artisanal lemon. Puissance drank it without comment before looking at her secretaries. “Do you have anything for me?”

“Yes, Vicereine,” said Precision, stepping around Precise Point to retrieve a letter from her desk. Puissance would have preferred Point just do it herself, but given Luna’s newfound concern for political corruption, it would not be a wise idea to involve her political secretary in anything relating to her personal affairs, or vice-versa. “You received a letter back from Everlasting Peace, the successor to Enduring Peace, the Naqah sect leader who took your acquaintance Red Rose as an initiate.”

“Ah, yes.” Puissance had been reminded of Red Rose during a recent trip to Equestria’s northern city of Noam. Red Rose had used to write her every month, but Puissance couldn’t recall getting any mail from her in a very long time. Had Red Rose forgotten her? Or was something more insidious going on? Had, for instance, Everlasting Peace’s disciples been displaced by some new sect? “Did he say why we have not been receiving Red Rose’s letters?”

Then, for the first time Puissance could remember, her secretary didn’t give her an immediate answer. The gaunt pegasus hesitated for just a fraction of a second, face twisting like she didn’t know what to say. “Yes, Vicereine. Red Rose died three years ago. ”

“Died?” Puissance felt like somepony had slapped her. “How? What of? Did she fall sick? Was Everlasting Peace’s compound attacked by another sect?”

“No, Vicereine.” Precision took a breath. “She died of old age.”

“Ridiculous,” Puissance snapped. “Red Rose was just a few years older than me, and…”

She trailed off. Silence filled the room. And Puissance suddenly felt cold again, but this time, she couldn’t blame a drafty auditorium.

It took several seconds before Puissance recovered. “Very well,” she said at last. “Send Everlasting Peace a suitable donation on behalf of his sect for all they did in helping Red Rose. And ask him why I was not notified.”

“According to my records, you were,” Precision said. “Three years ago, Everlasting Peace wrote you to tell you Red Rose had passed away, and also sent you her last effects. I responded as per your standing orders: I sent back a letter describing how tragic Red Rose’s death was, how much you would miss her, and how you would be willing to make a donation to her favorite charitable cause. And I filed her last effects according to your formula.”

“I see.” Puissance took a breath. “Where was that?”

“The effects were a wooden beggar’s bowl, a plain headscarf from common wool, and other such items.” Precision hesitated. “So I sent them to Sentimental Valley.”

As a powerful pony, Puissance frequently received gifts from those who wished her favor, feared her displeasure, or simply wanted to thank her for all the good her wise managing had done for them. Puissance had long ago worked out a filing system so that the gifts could be placed in a proper, sensible place. Precious objects from foreign monarchs, for instance, were put in a special museum near the center of Califurlong’s capital city. Tokens of appreciation from colleges, museums, and other institutions of learning were placed in display cabinets in Palomino’s most prestigious university, which Puissance essentially owned thanks to her generous donations. Religious paraphernalia went to one place, family heirlooms to another, precious gems and jewels to a third, and so on

But there were some objects which just didn’t fit anywhere else, largely because they were sent by ponies who didn’t seem to understand that their gifts had no actual value. The townsponies who all chipped in to send Puissance the first chair carved with lumber from a mill she had bailed out of bankruptcy, the ancient citizen who knitted her an amateurish sweater as a ‘thank you’ for some equally-ancient favor, the foal who mailed her a doll because foals were just nice like that, and so on. Even though those objects were worthless she couldn’t just throw them out; if she was caught it would be political suicide.

(Plus, every noble knew the cautionary tale of one Countess Skinflint, who three hundred years ago had thrown herself a birthday party and kept the nice gifts but trashed the cheap ones. The legend went that she had thrown one particularly ragged dolly behind her and criticized the family of the foal who had given it to her as ‘not properly showing appreciation for the hard work of the nobles which allows even commoners to live dignified lives,’ only to discover that the ‘foal’ was actually Princess Luna in disguise, and the ‘family’ were similarly-disguised Shadowbolts. The resultant discussion on ‘who was not showing proper appreciation to whom’ had gone poorly for Skinflint, as had her new career as a sentry in Equestria’s Griffin Kingdoms embassy.)

So those presents had to go somewhere, and Puissance’s solution had been to put a warehouse in a Califurlong valley, store the gifts there in case anypony ever wanted to see if she had them, and never otherwise visit it. No doubt Red Rose’s beggar’s bowl and headscarf were neatly labeled and categorized amongst the other knickknacks various ponies had shipped her. That was precisely what should have happened according to her rules… so why was it disturbing her?

Puissance pushed the thought away with a whicker of annoyance. She and Red Rose hadn’t been that close at all, she told herself, and if she was faintly troubled by the thought of Rose’s things having been sent to Sentimental Valley without her notice, that was just because she was still tired from her journey. “Very well,” she said. “Send Everlasting Peace the donation anyways, and then carry out the rest of your instructions. Leave me now. I wish to rest.”

Her secretaries bowed and departed without another word, and Puissance debated trying to at least get a little work done before shaking her head and going to her room. She was tired, and if anything urgent came up while she napped, that was why she paid a small army of managers and bureaucrats to be ready for any emergency. There was no reason she couldn’t lie down, wrap herself in her exquisite Shouma blanket, and unwind by her fireplace until dinner and her meeting with Scepter.

She left her office and crossed the hallway to enter a large living room which in turn led to her bed. Before she reached that bed, though, she saw a familiar pony in the living room and smiled slightly. “Solar Flare,” she said. “Good afternoon.”

“Vicereine.” Solar Flare, the tall, white-coated pegacorn whom Puissance knew was her most loyal and devoted servant and whom almost nopony else knew existed, swiveled from the book she had been reading and almost jumped to Puissance’s side. The mare’s uncanny resemblance to the Tyrant Sun rendered it inadvisable for her to appear in public, so she usually stayed either in the Vault—Puissance’s home for the strange, the unique, the fantastic—or at Puissance’s personal residence for when Puissance needed the services of her dearest friend. “Did they treat you well in Pferdreich?”

“Hmph.” Puissance let Solar Flare guide her to an extremely comfortable chair she’d imported from Paardveld. “They barely cast the spell. They said it will only reduce my age by three months.”

“Three months?” Solar Flare’s outrage was genuine. “You deserve so much more!”

Puissance nodded. “I know,” she said. “But… I am sure we will find other ways.” She sighed as Solar Flare used telekinesis to float over a pot of heavenly-smelling Shouma tea to her. “Speaking of which. What of our agents in the libraries?”

“We now have researchers in all facilities we decided were the highest priority,” said Solar Flare at once. “Including, most recently, the Grand Academy in Zaldia, Fisher Industries Research Labs in Rushia, and the Imperial Library in Shouma.”

“Excellent,” Puissance said. “And Spellhold?”

“We still do not know where it is.” Solar Flare’s voice caught as if it was physically painful for her to admit failure to the Vicereine. “Our scholars say it might help us find it if we could visit Tambelon Island--"

Puissance sighed. “Yes, but Luna has ruled it off limits.” A year prior, that would barely have mattered; now, Puissance could suffer very serious consequences were she caught disobeying her princess. “And I can scarcely ask for an exemption without telling her why.” She waved a hoof. “No matter. I will think of something. The researchers?”

“They were all hired through a middle-mare. They believe they are looking for age-regression magic as part of some theoretical exercise. None of them know who they are working for, and the middle-mare is receiving instructions and payments via blind drop. She does not know we are involved either.” Solar Flare scowled. “We should not have to skulk like this. This knowledge is of immense importance to you.”

“Indeed.” Puissance smiled at Solar Flare’s support. So may ponies, she knew, would react to her quest with horror or bile. They would say she was stepping beyond the bounds of life, or acting out of desperate greed. But Solar Flare knew better. “After all, I cannot die just yet. I have barely started to live… and I have so much more to give Equestria. What I could do with these provinces given a few hundred years…”

Solar Flare nodded. “But I suppose Luna would rather be the only pony with the knowledge you seek.”

That was a sticky point. Researching the magic of age-reduction, life-extension, and even immortality was not inherently illegal. Puissance had made a very quiet and very thorough search through the law books to verify that. Of course, certain techniques for life-extension were in fact criminal, like that one Grogar lunatic who slaughtered his subjects to drain their life force, but providing nopony was hurt in the process, it was quite legal to hire some of the wisest and most-learned scholars on the continent to trawl through the world’s biggest libraries in search of magic which enabled a pony to live longer. From ancient legends of mythical beings said to have cheated death to modern experiments for extending life published in the most obscure journals, if somepony somewhere had knowledge of surviving past one’s appointed time without harming others, it would break none of Luna’s laws for Puissance to learn it.

Of course, even if something was legal, that didn’t mean Luna would like it, and Puissance was sure that Luna would be unhappy to learn that one of her nobles was trying to live for far longer than ponies normally did. She’d see it as a threat, if not to her reign, then at least to her power; after all, if Puissance had the secret to unimaginably long life and another pony tried to learn it, she’d be threatened by that, and why would Luna be different? The magic she’d had used upon her in Pferdreich was one thing—that was at least an established technique—but if Puissance did find something more effective, she was sure Luna would react badly. So it was important for her efforts to remain quite secret… at least until Puissance had already used them.

“Have the scholars found anything?” Puissance then asked.

Solar Flare sighed. “No,” she admitted. “Nothing yet. Of course, there is the one library we excluded from our list. You have access to the archives in Canterlot Castle—“

Puissance shook her head. “Those are overseen by Wandza Waving, who is known to be incorruptible. Were I to remove any books, she would record it, and Luna might learn.”

“Then don’t go yourself,” said Solar Flare. “The archives must have research staff who could be convinced to help you.”

“Any help of that nature must, under the law, be recorded with the archivist. And given how Luna reacted to her nobles’... intrigues… at the Gala, it would be inadvisable for me to bribe or coerce another pony with access into secretly doing the search and concealing my involvement.” Puissance slowly shook her head. “There is no point in using a third party. Perhaps I will risk visiting the archives myself if our other leads fail. But not until then.”

Solar Flare smiled. “Of course. After all, you are not that old, Vicereine. You will not die soon. You have time to wait.”

Puissance opened her mouth to agree, but then she saw the faintest flicker of some indescribable expression on Solar Flare’s face. It was a hint of…

Doubt.

Solar Flare said that Puissance had many years left. But, Puissance thought, Solar Flare might not believe it.

“Would you like me to have dinner prepared?” Solar Flare asked. “There is a visiting chef from Neighpon who has requested the honor of serving you.”

“Yes,” Puissance managed. “That will be fine. Please wake me in two hours for dinner. Thank you.”

Solar Flare bowed before leaving the room, and Puissance settled into her enormously comfortable chair while she tried to calm herself enough to rest.

But she was not successful, and despite herself, she could not stop feeling cold.

###

This was a stupid idea, Puissance thought to herself as she walked through the halls of Canterlot. She had probably just misread Solar Flare’s expression, and even if not, the mare was an able bodyguard and servant but not a trained doctor. And the doctors said she was as healthy as could be. Well, mostly. That one she’d seen after returning from Noam to discuss the chills she couldn’t quite shake, he’d been more pessimistic, he—

She cut off her thoughts with a sharp shake of her head. One doctor didn’t matter. The rest agreed that she was remarkably healthy. She had enough time and resources to solve this problem. She should probably just go back to her province.

But she couldn’t avoid the thought that she really should investigate the archives, just to be safe. Besides, she was a Vicereine. She had every right to be here. And if she conducted her study in the library itself, without checking anything out, then there would be nothing for Wandza to report. Yes, she was by no means a magical expert, but if she saw anything interesting she could pass that on to the other researchers. She might even be able to come up with an innocuous reason for getting the text herself, one that Luna wouldn’t suspect.

So she entered the archives, walked past Wandza without a word, grabbed a cart, and soon got deep enough in the stacks that she felt she could start collecting books without being observed. Her preliminary research had given her a list of places to start, the names of scholars ancient and recent who had looked into this very issue, and she fluttered from stack to stack collecting books. There was Clover the Clever’s On the Extension of Life, and Prancer John’s Properties of the Fountain of Youth. There was also an anonymous text on something called the Scholomane, a mythological school where students learned to cheat death by bargaining with evil spirits; perhaps the stories were really based on some teacher who had devised a secret for remaining young long after he should have aged. She found a journal which had republished the letters of the Rushian mystic Rasponytin, who was said to be able to heal from any injury, and a tract by some scientist who claimed to be able to transfer life essence from one pony to another. That last technique wouldn’t pass muster with Luna, Puissance knew, but perhaps there was some variation? Maybe the life force didn’t have to be taken from a pony; maybe it could be from something nopony cared about like an apple or a bear. She took that too and continued on.

After perhaps two hours she had amassed a good collection of books. She took them towards the study area and wished she could have brought somepony here to take notes for her, but Solar Flare would scare ponies, her personal secretary was handling other crucial business, and she didn’t trust the rest of her staff with this private project. Still, she was quite capable of doing this on her own.

Then she turned a corner and bumped her muzzle against that of Princess Luna Equestris.

“Puissance. My apologies,” said Luna as Puissance stumbled back in a hurry. “I did not know anypony else was in the stacks. Have you found what you are looking for?”

“Um…” said Puissance, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “Yes, of course.”

“Good. And how is your health?” Luna’s expression grew concerned. “Are you still dealing with the aftereffects of that windigo?”

She did not feel cold, Puissance told herself. She did not feel cold. “I have recovered as well as can be expected,” she managed. “Thank you.”

Luna gently smiled at that, then turned to Puissance’s cart, and Puissance saw the alicorn’s eyes widen. Then Luna shut her eyes for a moment, and Puissance raced to come up with some excuse, but then the princess’s mouth curved into a small smile. “You might also look at Star Swirl the Bearded’s Transformation and Replenishment of the Equine Form,” she said. “I am told that book is a good primer to the field of your interest.”

Puissance stared at Luna, struck dumb.

Then Luna actually laughed. “Vicereine,” she said. “You may be old, but I am far older. I have seen a great many courtiers come and go. Do not think you are the first noble who wishes to… extend your service to my nation.” She gently brushed against Puissance as she walked past her, and Puissance spun around to follow. “It is by no means unheard of.”

“I… yes, Princess,” Puissance said.

“And it is not as if I would object,” Luna went on. “I love all my little ponies. If they wish to live longer, spend more time with their friends and family, who would I be to say no? Oh, I suppose it could cause problems if everypony became immortal… but I would relish working to solve those problems. A world in which the best of friends could learn, and grow, and enjoy each other’s company for an endless time would be a beautiful world, would it not?”

“It would indeed,” said Puissance. “Then—“

“That said,” Luna interrupted, “You should also know that of all the ponies who embarked on similar research, none succeeded. Or should I say, none succeeded in what I would consider an… appropriate manner.”

Puissance inclined her head. “Are you referencing your former apprentice? The one who became part-windigo?”

“Yes. And Grogar, and a few others.” Luna turned to Puissance and her warm expression faded. “Please keep in mind that there are circumstances in which long life may be no blessing.”

The Vicereine winced. She could imagine herself locked in a jail cell not for years or decades but millennia if Luna decided that she had done something truly evil in the course of extending her life. “Yes, Princess.”

“Good.” Luna paused. “But to be sure you understand: I do not only refer to those who became corrupted or evil, and who I was thus forced to… deal with. I have known nobles who never lay a hoof on another but who nonetheless gave up everything in their quest to become immortal. They lost their friends, their families, their provinces, everything they ever loved. In the end they did not succeed, and if they somehow had, I do not believe they would have found any joy in the friendless eternity they had crafted for themselves. They would, I feel, have found it preferable to abandon their quest, retire from their responsibilities, and spend their remaining time with their loved ones.”

Puissance forced herself to stay steady. “I understand, Princess. But I am not ready to retire just yet. I have much more to give this nation.”

Luna let out what almost sounded to Puissance like a tiny sigh. “I thought you might say that… but still. Please keep my message in mind.”

“I will,” Puissance promised.

“Then, provided you do not neglect any of your responsibilities or break my laws in the course of your project, I wish you luck. And who knows?” Luna grinned. “Perhaps you will be the one to succeed where all the others have failed.”

Puissance opened her mouth to bid Luna goodbye, but then something occurred to her. “Princess, excuse me, but you said that other nobles tried to discover this knowledge. Did they perhaps leave records?”

“They did.”

“Do you have access to them?”

“I do.” Luna flicked her head up. “Some nobles leave their journals to the throne, as I’m sure you know. I have in my possession ten or twelve logbooks of nobles who went down this route.”

Puissance took a breath. “Your Vicereine formally requests access to those journals.”

Luna looked at her for a long moment. “Granted—“

For a moment Puissance felt like she was about to collapse with relief. “Thank you, Princess. I swear if I succeed I will faithfully serve you for as long as I—“

“—on two conditions,” Luna went on. “First, you are to send me written reports whenever you make progress.”

Puissance hesitated. “May I ask why?”

“You may.” Luna moved closer to Puissance. “You have served me faithfully for more than five decades. I appreciate that, and despite your prior indiscretions, I want the best for you. Of course, I want the best for all my little ponies, but given your decades of service… it would deeply grieve me were you to go astray in your quest and require me to punish you. So, if you wish my help, you will send me reports. Accurate, complete, honest reports. So that if I determine you are even starting to edge towards an action which I would be forced to correct, I could warn you well in advance.”

Unstated, Puissance thought, was the implication that Puissance would not be able to resist such an action on her own. That rankled, but those journals were important enough that she could tolerate such distrust. “As you wish.”

“And second… you are to spend one day a week with your great-grandcolt Flicker.” Puissance stared in surprise and Luna chuckled. “Yes, I mean it. No work. No duties. Just you, him, and any family members that wish to join you.”

“Er… begging your pardon, princess, but I don’t understand—“

Luna shook her head to cut her off. “As I said, I have known nobles who lost their families in pursuit of immortality. I do not wish for that to happen to you.”

“Of course, it’s just that—I mean, I do spend time with him already. Just the other day we had ice cream.“ The dessert meeting hadn’t gone that well, since Scepter kept prattling on about comic books and surfing instead of the lessons Puissance had fought so hard for him to get, but they had technically eaten together for almost thirty minutes. “And with my responsibilities—“

“Your provinces are among the best-managed in Equestria. You have plenty of managers and officials to take care of anything that might crop up during your day off.” Luna tilted her head. “I understand the Califurlong shoreline is hosting a festival soon. I am sure your great-grandcolt would love nothing more than to spend a day on the beach with his beloved grandmother.”

Puissance had nothing to say to that, and Luna smiled again. “If you agree, then it is settled. I will have a page bring the journals to your airship. Although, there is one more thing…”

“Yes?”

“Please do call Flicker by the name his parents gave him.” Luna held up a hoof when the Vicereine began to object. “As a personal favor to me, if nothing else.”

“I… yes, princess,” Puissance made herself say. Inwardly, she couldn’t help wondering if Luna was watching Scepter’s dreams, or worse, spying on her, but of course she could do nothing about that .

And it wasn’t that big of a problem, the Vicereine told herself as she departed in her airship less than half an hour later. She had the books from the archives, she had the journals, and if Luna was being a little nosy at the moment, surely that wouldn’t last. Equestria had a million ponies. Luna wouldn’t be able to focus only on Scepter for long. And even if she did…

Well, then Puissance just had to finish her research. And then she would have all the time in the world to ensure that Scepter and every other member of her family lived long, healthy, productive lives with the dignity and maturity required of all members of her family.

###

The journals and books were of inconsistent quality, but that was to be expected, and Puissance soon had a small army of scholars going through the research and summarizing their notes. That way she could keep the project going while she managed her provinces and played with Scepter for her required one day per week. That last part certainly delighted Scepter to no end, and even though Puissance’s mind was increasingly consumed by her research, she couldn’t help feeling happy when she heard Scepter bragging to a friend that he got to spend an entire day walking with his Granny Pu on the beach, collecting seashells, taking pictures, and showing her how Califurlong colts surfed. Of course, Puissance tried to make the days at least somewhat productive—taking him along the Boardwalk and explaining how enterprising ponies could start businesses selling popsicles and renting surfboards, or chartering a boat out into the harbor so she could teach him about fisherstallions and how when he became a noble he’d have to look after them—and he didn’t like those parts as much, but he still seemed to enjoy being with Puissance even if he found this or that activity boring.

Still, though, Puissance longed to be more hoofs-on with the research, and she began going through the scholars’ summaries in her spare moments, paying particular attention to the summaries of the logbooks Luna had gotten for her. She soon found the nobles’ journals could be divided into three classes. One set had pursued strategies which they ultimately proved could not possibly work; this group included ponies trying to invent perpetual motion magic-generators and similar devices which turned out to be theoretically impossible. A second set had pursued strategies which might have worked but which Luna would have found unacceptable; one noble talked at length about how Luna’s old apprentice Snowy Night had become part-windigo and thus slowed down her aging, and another went into how, precisely, one could make a deal with Tirek for immortality and what kind of sacrifices he liked best. (That last one seemed to have been written from some kind of prison on the moon, judging by a few contextual references). And the third had come up with ideas that were neither proven impossible nor found to be workable but evil; those ideas just stopped somewhere in the middle, the noble having gotten bored, given up, or died in the meantime.

It was the last class of options which most intrigued Puissance. After all, ponies may have gotten stuck on a particular section of the path to immortality centuries ago, but magic and industry had been developing ever since. Perhaps some insurmountable problem back then had been solved during a completely different task in the ensuing centuries, resulting in a procedure for longer life or even immortality which was eminently achievable. If so, Puissance thought, she could have this problem solved very soon indeed.

A few weeks after her trip to the castle archives, Puissance and Solar Flare were eating a dinner of exquisite caviar and filets of trout when Puissance frowned at the summary she was reading. “This idea keeps coming up in the papers.”

“What idea?”

“Ponies keep guessing that, since alicorns are immortal and are very magical, maybe their immortality is a side effect of their magic. So, they argue, a pony might be able to become immortal by absorbing a similar quantity of magical energy and binding it to oneself in such a way that it conferred a similar immortality effect.” Puissance flipped through the papers in front of her. “At least three of the previous nobles tried that.”

Solar Flare nodded. “Clover the Clever wrote about that too. She said that technique couldn’t work though. Even if you could come up with a spell that produced as much energy as an alicorn and you found a way to warp it so that it would have an anti-aging effect, that much energy would kill any mortal pony.” She paused. “Ah, Vicereine?”

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to tell you, if we do discover a procedure, but we aren’t sure that it’s safe… I will volunteer to try it first. If it is harmful, let it hurt me, not you.”

Puissance smiled. “Solar Flare, I appreciate that very much. But I do not think Luna would appreciate me using another pony as a guinea pig.”

“I will tell Luna herself I consent if that is what it takes.” Solar Flare looked at Puissance with devotion. “You saved me when I was cast out. You gave me a home. You are the only pony I have ever met who can look past my appearance, who can love me.” She leaned forwards. “I want to do this for you.”

It was good, Puissance thought, to have another pony’s wholehearted love and devotion. “If it comes to that,” she said, “then we will tell Luna our plan together. But I’m sure we can find a safe way.”

Solar Flare nodded and looked back at the notes, then hesitated. “Star Swirl the Bearded mentioned something like this. I read it in that book Princess Luna recommended.”

“What did he say?” said Puissance, unable to keep the tension out of her voice.

“It wasn’t about de-aging, but his essay on the subject mentioned transforming ponies with alicorn-level magic in general. He theorized that, given a second source of alicorn-level magic, that second source could be used as a shield to strengthen the pony enough to survive the transformation.” Solar Flare smiled. “Vicereine. The Alicorn Armor we obtained four years ago. It’s right here in Califurlong, in your Military Treasures warehouse.”

Puissance’s eyes widened. She had gotten that armor when an archeological dig she was sponsoring had turned up a long-forgotten temple to the sun cult, complete with relics and documentation of the cult’s legends. Those legends said Celestia had made that armor for her highest lieutenants, and that it could take a blast from her or Luna without breaking. Puissance’s tests had already determined that the armor was made of solid gold and had powerful magic worked into its body, but if it could truly withstand an alicorn’s magical attacks… “We have never tested it,” said Puissance quickly. “We don’t know that it can do what the cult thought it could do.”

Solar Flare shook her head. “Surely we can find an archmage who would do that. Perhaps even Luna herself, if she truly means to assist you.”

“I don’t know.” Puissance frowned. “She said she does, but… I can’t be sure.” She couldn’t shake the idea there was some kind of trick in Luna’s offer, though she had no idea what it might be. “And besides. Even if we have alicorn-level protection, we still need an alicorn-level source for the immortality spell in the first place, not to mention a pony who can actually cast a spell using that source to decrease my age…”

Her voice trailed off and Solar Flare looked at her intensely. “What?” she asked. “What do you know?”

“One of the recent journals. Just a few years ago. Somepony was working on Star Swirl’s lost works.” Puissance rose to her hooves. “Excuse me!”

She hurried out of her private quarters and down to the lower level of her estate, where a dozen scholars were living in luxury at her expense while they worked through all the material. She grabbed the nearest one and said in a voice that was almost a shout, “Where is that work by the pony recreating Star Swirl’s experiments?”

“Ah, the Journal of Experimental Magic Research. I think it’s in that stack—“

Puissance pushed past the scholar, went to the table he’d specified, and searched until she found the article she wanted. Then she rushed with it back to her quarters and spread it out before Solar Flare. “I knew I had read about this!” she said. “Look. Just a few years ago, at the Canterlot Academy of Magic. A pony claimed to have redesigned the theory of Star Swirl’s most powerful spells so that they do not require alicorn-levels of magic to cast. She said that by ‘balancing’ the magic appropriately, breaking it up into components set in some kind of arrangement, Star Swirl’s magic can be reproduced even if none of the components is as powerful as an alicorn. And look here, at the validation section. She did experiments, not with changing age but with others of Star Swirl’s spells, and proved that her adaptations work!”

Solar Flare nodded. “I’ll have your private investigators find this pony at once.”

“Good. Offer her five times whatever she is making now. If she demands anything else, such as relocation expenses or jobs for her family, give them to her. Just get her here.” Puissance began reading through the article again, then froze. “And look at this!”

“What?” Solar Flare leaned over.

“She gives an example of a set of historic magic artifacts she says will work as magic sources for these spells,” said Puissance. “She says this set should already be properly balanced, and that there’s evidence it really exists even if it’s now thought to be a myth.” She almost laughed. “My mother told me stories about these as a foal. I never dreamed they might really exist!”

Solar Flare read the last paragraph of the article. “For example,” she read, “A set of artifacts that would prove perfect for this study are…” She took a long breath. “… the four legendary Golden Horseshoes of Mimic.”

2. An Archmage’s Services, An Extra-Cheesy Quesadilla, A Pot of Neighponese Tea

View Online

Vicereine Puissance sat in the conference room of the Equestrian Budget Office, a diamond-studded formal dress wrapped around her, and insisted to herself that she did not feel cold.

“…and as you can clearly see, in addition to the economic damage caused by Corona’s return and the decreased consumer spending caused by wartime anxieties among the populace, the disruptions wrought by the recent declaration of martial law have further damaged the city coffers,” droned a bureaucrat. There was angry murmuring amongst the other ponies in the room, and Puissance could sympathize--Archduke Fisher’s mule-brained idea to declare martial law and lock down the capital in response to a prison break had caused a great many problems--but given all her other projects at the moment, she found it hard to give the speaker her full attention. The cold was the castle custodian’s fault, she thought. He was paid enough; why couldn’t he heat the room properly?

“We propose that this year we add an extra three percent sales tax, above and beyond all existing taxes, to recoup the lost income,” said the bureaucrat. “While this may be unpopular—“

“It is monstrous,” interjected a harsh, flat voice with a thick Rushian accent. Puissance and the rest turned to the new Archduchess of Rushia, Svelte Lord-Fisher, the yellow-coated, orange-maned pony who had assumed command of her province after her husband had been disgraced, indicted, and fled to parts unknown. (Puissance personally guessed he would wind up in Zaldia, where the unicorn-centric culture agreed with him.) Svelte was a unicorn whose horn had been broken at the base in an accident long-ago; this prevented her from casting magic, which some ponies claimed led to her underchanneling and missing sleep, accounting for her grumpy nature. Puissance didn’t know about that, but she did know that Svelte was so cold to others that it was as if she'd had her capacity for friendship surgically removed. “The ponies should not bear the burden for governmental misconduct. I propose a reduction in the allowances to the nobility, and also a clawback of expenses allotted to governmental facilities in Canterlot such as Canterlot Castle.”

Count Mellow Dramatic gasped. “You can’t reduce the noble allowances! All of my funds are tied up in provincial investments, you know, developing better irrigation and so on. If the allowances are lowered I could default!”

Svelte glared at him. “Then you should have planned better.”

Mellow began to turn red and puffy, as was his wont whenever he didn’t get his way, but before he exploded Puissance felt somepony nudge at her elbow. She turned to see it was a castle page bearing a letter in Solar Flare’s hoofwriting, the message she had been awaiting for what had seemed like an eternity though it had probably only been a few weeks: ‘We have found her.’

Puissance’s heart thundered, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to abandon the meeting and leave the chattering idiots around her to their discussions. But she couldn’t do that. It would do her no good to attain immortality if she had previously demonstrated such irresponsibility that Luna removed her from the nobility; she would not live for millennia with nothing to do besides puttering around her assorted mansions. “Don’t do either,” she told the nobles just before Mellow spoke again.

“But… but Vicereine, we must make up the money somewhere,” said the bureaucrat. “Our laws do not allow us to go into debt for—“

Vicereine Puissance silenced the bureaucrat with a glare. “I am aware of our laws,” she said. “Raise no taxes and cut no expenses. Instead, sell bonds. Based on the calculations of my staff, provided we can make up this immediate shortfall, Canterlot province will return to profitability within six months and will produce a steady stream of revenue thereafter. Ponies know that our credit is good. Bonds will raise the immediate revenue we need, and provided we set reasonable interest rates, we will be able to pay them off without difficulty.” She stood. “And to demonstrate my certainty that the bonds are safe, House Optiebeurs-Golo will commit to buying one hundred thousand bits of bonds.” Somepony whistled at the amount, and Puissance smiled slightly. “At a minimum. If initial interest is weaker than expected, I will purchase two or three times that amount to incite demand.”

Svelte turned to Puissance. “You mean, House Optiebeurs-Golo will commit to exploiting the current crisis to make money via the bond interest rates.”

Puissance fixed her glare on the Rushian. “House Optiebeurs-Golo will buy the bonds with a waiver stating that any interest will be returned directly to the city coffers.” She nodded. “I do not seek to make a profit. I only wish to show my conviction that the bonds are safe, and thus to spur other investment.”

That was not, of course, quite true. Once the bonds were proven to be safe, they would sell very quickly, and Puissance could think of at least a dozen ponies that would likely miss out on the initial sale and start looking to buy them secondhand. Some of those ponies had things she wanted, such as tracts of land, artifacts, and mineral rights. But there was nothing illegal or corrupt about reselling bonds, and if Svelte was too naive to see that and too grouchy to have cultivated allies who would clue her in, that was hardly Puissance’s fault.

Svelte could say nothing in response, and the meeting adjourned with the adoption of Puissance’s idea. She swept out of the room without saying anything else, hurried to the carriage docks, and was on her way to her Canterlot estate in a matter of minutes. Her secretaries were at her side as soon as she disembarked at her mansion but she pushed past them and went straight to the inner quarters where she knew Solar Flare would be. “Where is she?” Puissance demanded as soon as she entered the room. “Is she far?”

Solar Flare spread a map out on Puissance’s coffee table, a Neighpon import which was magically enchanted to always smell of the most delicious cherry blossoms and to ensure that any food or drink placed upon it would retain its proper temperature for hours and hours without cooling down or melting, and pointed at a marked point. “No. Our agent saw her at the base of the Canterhorn, in one of the small craft villages.”

“Craft villages?” Puissance frowned. “What is an archmage doing there?”

“She doesn’t live there. Our agent trailed her back to her house. It is an… odd building in the Canterwoods.” Solar Flare slid photographs of the house across the table. The walls of the building didn’t seem to fit together at the right angles, and Puissance’s head hurt looking at them, so she pushed them aside. “She was probably just buying supplies.”

Puissance nodded. “Well, no matter. I will have the carriage readied for a trip down the Canterhorn and will see her as soon as possible.”

“I can come with,” said Solar Flare at once. “In case this archmage is dangerous.”

Solar Flare was a very capable bodyguard, as Puissance knew well, and the more the vicereine thought about it the more sense it made to take somepony along just in case the archmage proved… surly. “Very well,” she said. “Put on your traveling cloak and we’ll be on our way.”

###

The house in the Canterhorn was no less disorienting close up, and Puissance found she had to keep her eyes averted as the cloaked Solar Flare led her to the door. “Moondancer!” the Vicereine called once they were close enough for Solar Flare to start knocking. “We wish to speak with you!”

Solar Flare had to knock for almost three full minutes before the door finally opened. The pony inside was a cream-colored unicorn with thick glasses, a red and purple mane, and a deeply ugly sweater. She fixed Puissance with a glare and said, “What is it? I’m busy.”

Puissance, despite herself, was momentarily taken aback. She was Vicereine Puissance Noctilucent Optiebeurs-Golo. Ponies did not tell her they were busy! But snapping at the archmage wouldn’t help, and so Puissance said, “I am Vicereine Puissance. I wish to hire you… if you are, indeed, the pony who wrote those articles in the Journal of Experimental Magic Research.”

“I don’t do commissions,” said Moondancer, turning on her hoof and walking into her house. Puissance exchanged a baffled glance at Solar Flare before hurrying after her, revealing a house in which everything seemed to be in motion. As she watched she saw a broom and dustpan sweep up the floor and dump the dirt into a flying trashcan, which in turn meandered over to Moondancer’s side so she could drop a broken pencil into it. “If that’s all, you can leave.”

“I… I don’t think you know what I can offer you,” said Puissance as she fought to keep her tone reasonable. “I assure you, the ponies I hire are very well compensated for their time.”

Moondancer didn’t even look back, instead going to some whirling machine that Puissance couldn’t begin to understand. Several lights were blinking on its side, and within it a turnip was rapidly pulsing. “I don’t care.”

“One million bits?”

“No.”

“Ten million,” offered Puissance.

“I said I’m not interested.” Moondancer did turn back at last, but only to frown at Puissance. “I don’t need money; everything I need I can create with magic.” As if to prove this, her horn glowed, and seconds later a big sandwich and a hay soda appeared next to her. “I don’t have a price.”

“Everypony has a price,” said Puissance. She settled into a chair, then flinched as it instantly reconstituted itself to confirm perfectly to her back. “And I can always afford it.”

Moondancer’s expression grew tired. “I told you, I don’t want--“

“Would you like a more secluded home?” Puissance asked. “It’s obvious you want to be alone; I knew that since I learned you faked your death in a train crash. Why—“

“I didn’t fake my death,” Moondancer said with an exasperated sigh. “I bought a ticket for that train but missed it because my experiment ran over. When it crashed they couldn’t find me and assumed I died. And I was going to complain, but then I realized I could finally get away from all the ponies bothering me, lying that they wanted to be my ‘friend.’”

Puissance perked up her ears. This, she knew, was important. “Why do you think they were lying?”

“Because ‘friends’ lie.” Moondancer scowled. “They tell you they like you and want to hang out with you, but when it really matters they’re never there. No matter how much you put into it, no matter how much you were there for them… they abandon you.”

Before Puissance could say anything, Moondancer’s horn glowed and she levitated a yearbook off of a shelf. “When I was in the Academy I was one of the best students. The other was this… this brat named Twilight Sparkle. She skipped a year, but even so, I thought we were friends. We were in all the same advanced classes, we were helping each other with our work, we ran all over town going to seminars and libraries… but when I had a really bad week, when my work had been rejected and I thought I was failing and I needed to go somewhere and have fun to relax? Twilight blew me off. She said she’d be there for me, but she wasn’t.”

Puissance and Solar Flare, the latter still cloaked, exchanged glances. “You gave up on friendship because one friend missed one party?” Puissance asked.

“It wasn’t just the party! I was Twilight’s only competition for valedictorian. That was why she skipped out on me, because she knew it would hurt me and I would fall behind her! And I did, and she got valedictorian and all the attention and everypony ignored me even though I was just as good as her!” Moondancer shuddered. “So I decided I was done with friendship. I’m doing my own research, without getting close enough to anypony that they could hurt me and derail my work. I’m going to be the greatest archmage in Equestrian history. And one day, when I’ve completed my work, I’ll show it to everypony and they’ll finally know: I’m better than Twilight Sparkle. I’m better than everypony.”

So that was what she wanted, Puissance thought. Recognition. She could offer that… but on the other hoof, it would be good to hold something in reserve in case Moondancer proved difficult to work with. The better move was to first offer something that Moondancer needed but wasn’t her heart’s desire. And fortunately, having worked with artisans and creators of this type before, Puissance knew just what to offer.

“I see you’ve made up your mind,” said Puissance as she rose to her hooves. “Very well. We’ll find somepony else. I suppose we can leave the star sapphires idling for a few more days.”

Moondancer froze. “Star sapphires?” she asked in a genuinely curious voice. “Those are incredibly rare crystals, used in the most difficult magic spells. You have them?”

“Of course,” said Puissance. “The work I am doing is of the highest caliber. I have spent the last month stocking a magic laboratory with every conceivable tool which could be useful.”

She began to walk with Solar Flare to the door, and Moondancer hurried after them. “Every tool? Do you have a rainbow cutter?”

“Certainly,” said Puissance.

“Starlight extractor?”

“Three of them.”

“Crystal maturation chamber?”

Puissance glanced at Solar Flare, who nodded. “Your magic warehouse in Palomino has six,” the bodyguard said.

Moondancer looked back over her own laboratory. “I’ve been trying to get a crystal chamber for three years,” she mused. “But nopony makes them anymore, and they’re so fragile it’s almost impossible to ship them… if I had one of those, I could finish a dozen experiments…”

“Perhaps when my work is done I could loan you one,” Puissance said. They had reached the door. “Good day—“

“Wait.” Moondancer stepped forwards, and if her imposed-upon tone was no different, her next words were exactly what Puissance wanted to hear. “I am reconsidering. What is it you wanted me to do, exactly?”

Puissance smiled to herself. Moondancer was clearly still reluctant to work with other ponies, but that didn’t matter as long as she did what Puissance needed. “Well, I had read your theories for replicating some of Star Swirl the Bearded’s spells, particularly his efforts to make ponies younger and ultimately render them ageless… or, in other words, immortal. My experts agree that you seem to be one of the most knowledgeable ponies on the subject in the world. So what I had wanted was to grant you access to my laboratories and supplies in order for you to put your theories into practice. But, of course, if you truly don’t wish to take my commission, I will have to find another pony. Perhaps that Pferdreichian archmage…”

“If I did this, I would need your assurance that I could use your lab for my own experiments during my off-hours.” Moondancer said. Her eyes were flicking around and Puissance could practically see her imagining all the work she could finally do, all the experiments and discoveries and recognition that she could reach if only she had the rare equipment which Puissance was offering her. Yes, the mage might be an antisocial misanthrope, but Puissance knew she was thinking that, if she just put up with Puissance for a few months she could finally do all those experiments and show the world what it had gotten wrong in giving Twilight Sparkle the recognition that should properly have gone to Moondancer.

“As long as progress continued on the de-aging project, I don’t see why not,” said Puissance. “In fact, if you succeeded, I could let you keep the lab and all its equipment as a bonus. If you wanted.” Puissance held her gaze. “Do you wish to take this commission?”

Moondancer hesitated, as if tensing up to do something unpleasant, and then said, “Yes. I accept.”

And that was that.

###

One week later, Puissance was walking through the castle on her way to the Ministry of Finance when she almost ran into a dazed-looking Octavia outside of the musician’s quarters. “Excuse me,” she said, then paused when Octavia didn’t seem to move. “Ah, Miss Philharmonica?”

Octavia slowly turned to look at her, and Puissance was taken aback by how exhausted the musician seemed. It took a few more seconds for Octavia to bend down in a bow that was appropriate for a servant like her when meeting a Vicereine. “Yes, Vicereine?” she managed. “Did you… want me to schedule a concert for you?”

“Nope!” called a bright voice from behind them both.

Puissance stiffened and turned to see who had dared answer for her. The only pony behind her was a castle page, and for a moment Puissance simply refused to believe any common staffer would have that level of impertinence, but then the page walked around her and went to Octavia. “Orders from the princess,” she chirped in that same perky tone. “I’m to take you back to your room and not let you leave until you sleep for twenty-four hours!”

“‘M fine, Paperweight,” muttered Octavia. “Have duties…”

“You’ve already performed as many concerts as your contract requires for the month,” said Paperweight. “And Princess Luna wants to make sure you get your rest. Now come on! Your room is this way!”

Puissance opened her mouth to yell at the page when Paperweight, having more or less pushed Octavia through her own door, turned back. “Sorry, Vicereine,” she chirped. “But Princess Luna was real insistent Octavia get some sleep.”

“Princess Luna does not, in my experience, concern herself overmuch with the sleep habits of her staff,” Puissance managed.

“Sure, but this is a special occasion. You know how Viceroy Night Light is hosting that tapir delegation, and how one of the tapir calves is a baku and can walk through dreams?”

“Of course—“

Paperweight just kept going. “Well, when a baku is in your dreams you don’t actually get any rest. And the baku calf has been in Octavia’s dreams every night cause he’s homesick and she knows lullabies that make him feel better, so she hasn’t been resting at all! And she didn’t tell anypony at first because she didn’t want to mess up the diplomacy stuff, but we’re real good friends so she finally told me why she’s been so tired and then I told Princess Luna and we agreed Octavia should get some real sleep before playing anymore.”

Puissance frowned. “But the baku will continue to invade her dreams—“

“Oh no, we took care of that. A few of us pages talked to the baku and explained the problem, and we all agreed he’ll spend an hour in each of our dreams tonight, but none in Octavia’s. That way nopony gets too tired and Octavia can sleep! And also, once Octavia feels better she’ll record the lullabies in the real world so the baku can listen to them as he falls asleep. That should help him be less lonely in the dream world too.” Paperweight beamed. “Princess Luna told me I was a really good friend for catching this! Now, I have to go into her room and make sure Octavia actually does sleep, but if you want to schedule her for a concert just leave me a note and I promise I’ll put it on her schedule!” She bowed. “By your leave, Vicereine!” And then she dashed through Octavia’s door as well.

The Vicereine stared. Paperweight’s answers may all have been correct, if Luna really had given those instructions, but the page lacked all deference. Nopony spoke to a vicereine like that, least of all a mere staffer. Why would Paperweight think she could get away with that?

Did Paperweight think that Puissance could be mistreated just because she was old?

Puissance bit back a fierce scowl, hunched her dress tighter around herself (resolving to yell at the castle custodian personally if that was what it took to deal with the inadequate heat), and promised that she would find some way to get revenge. It wouldn’t be easy, not with Luna still scrutinizing the Court, but perhaps once she looked up who Paperweight actually worked for and exchanged a few words with that noble, the page might find herself suitably chastened. Puissance nodded to herself, then turned—

And almost walked into Princess Luna.

“Vicereine,” said Luna warmly. “Good morning. How goes your special project?”

“Well, thank you,” Puissance managed. “My secretary has sent you my latest report.”

“Yes, I read it.” Luna tilted her head. “This Moondancer seems like a very interesting pony. Do you think she will be able to cast this spell you need on your own?”

Puissance took a breath. “If she can recreate Star Swirls’s spell, and if my Alicorn Armor works the way the legends say it does, all I would need is the four Golden Horseshoes to provide a magical source. The Horseshoes would emit magic, Moondancer would shape it, and the Armor would protect me from the backlash until I was…”

Like you, she thought but did not say. An immortal pony. A pony who could live and reign and rule for all time.

“I see.” Luna nodded. “And the Horseshoes? I confess, I have not seen them since the time of Mimic and I would love to look upon them once again.”

“I have sent agents out all over the world looking for them,” Puissance said. “Every story about a pony with a mysterious horseshoe is being investigated. If the Horseshoes still exist, I will find them. I was in fact just on my way to my estate in Califurlong to check on the status of my agents.”

“That is not the only thing you plan to do while there, I hope,” said Luna in a neutral tone. Puissance gave her a blank look, and the alicorn smiled. “Your weekly day with Flicker. I confess I did not see you write of it in your report.”

Puissance blushed. “I have been spending the time with him that you asked,” she insisted. “Last week we went to a Wonderbolts show.”

“I know you have,” said Luna. “I happened to observe his dreams, and he was very excited over how his ‘Granny Pu’ got him a Very Important Pony pass so he could be photographed with Spitfire and Soarin. But for the future, in case I do not have a chance to see his dreams, please do write of your excursions with him in your reports.” Her eyes twinkled. “That is all, Puissance. Have a pleasant trip back to Califurlong.”

Puissance watched the alicorn walk off, and she wondered once again what Luna’s angle was. Why did she care about her spending time with Flicker? Was this yet another hint that she should retire? A hint that Luna, too, felt that Puissance was old, ancient, three hoofs in the grave, unable to do anything but sit around and watch her great-grandcolt?

“I,” she murmured. “Have plenty of life in me yet.”

And she hurried off to her airship for the journey to Califurlong.

###

“That was so much fun!” said Scepter, bouncing from hoof to hoof as he followed Puissance out of the cooking lesson. “I love quesadillas! Cause you get to stick your hooves in the mixture and mix it all up really good!” He waved his hooves around for a moment. “And then when you eat it, it’s super cheesy!”

“Yes, dear,” said Puissance, smiling as the warm foal cuddled up against her before he hopped back to the edge of the sidewalk. “But please stop bouncing. It is undignified.”

“Aw, but I don’t wanna be dignified.” Scepter did cease hopping, however, and when he looked back at Puissance it was with a big grin. “Thank you so much for taking me to the grandmother-foal cooking class! And for eating the quesadilla I made you, even when I put in a little too much cheese.”

Puissance reached down and brushed a bit of salsa off of Scepter’s coat, wondering how he’d gotten it on his back of all places. “Of course. And if you want to continue learning to cook, I could find you a proper Prench tutor.”

“I don’t like Prench food,” said Scepter. “I like quesadillas and other fun food.”

“But…” Puissance began. “Scepter, dear, much is expected of ponies in our positions. We are permitted hobbies, of course, but only refined and elegant ones, and so if we choose to take up cooking then our food also must be elegant and refined. The sort of thing you could serve to visiting dignitaries. Beautiful dishes, carefully prepared, artfully plated…”

“I don’t care about having dignitaries over,” said Scepter. “I just wanted to eat it with you! And have fun making it with you too. What’s wrong with that?”

Puissance frowned, but before she could come up with an answer they reached her carriage, and she could hardly discipline her great-grandcolt with the driver listening in. So instead she listened to him chatter about how he had taken pictures of his quesadilla and planned to enter them in a photography contest. He was most of the way through his story when they reached the house of his father Banner, and he scampered out immediately. “See you next week, Granny Pu!”

Puissance waited until he had gone inside and sighed in contentment, feeling comfortably warm and unusually at peace. But then her driver asked, “Do you want me to take you to the new laboratory now, Vicereine?”

“Oh… oh, yes. Of course.” She nodded. “And hurry.”

It took about fifteen minutes for them to reach the Moondancer Laboratory and Research Center. “What is our status?” demanded Puissance as she entered. “Is everything set up?”

The laboratory administrator, a trained manager who had worked at Puissance’s various properties for decades, nodded and gestured around them with a hoof. The central room of the facility was a huge lab area with countless pieces of equipment lining the walls. There were genuine elkish runes, intricate devices crafted by Neighpon artisans, a massive cabinet full of every conceivable crystal, gemstone, and herb, and in the center of it all, a floor full of markings indicating where the leylines would need to go. Surrounding the central room were dozens of smaller facilities for refining individual ingredients or testing smaller experiments, as well as offices for the researcher herself and any staff or assistants she needed.

“Good. And Moondancer herself?”

“This facility is acceptable,” said Moondancer, trotting in from one of the side rooms with three clipboards floating near her head. She looked the same as before, except for the lab coat and goggles she was wearing. Quills scratched out equations on the clipboards thanks to Moondancer’s telekinesis, and over at one workbench, a big machine suddenly began to grind gems into some kind of shiny alchemical substance. “If you can provide a magical source such as the Horseshoes, I am confident in success.”

“The theory is absolutely sound?” Puissance prompted. “You are sure?”

“My equations for the de-aging spell are perfect,” said Moondancer primly. “I tested those back in college. Of course, I didn’t have the capacity to do more than turn a butterfly back into a caterpillar or a leaf back into a bud, but with more magic power, it’s guaranteed I could make somepony young again and keep them that way forever. And if your Armor does what you say it can, I am sure it will work perfectly as the shield portion of the spell. I should be set up to run my tests on it in two to three weeks.”

That was longer than Puissance would have liked, but she told herself it was fine. It wasn’t like she was dying the next day after all. “So all we need is the Horseshoes.”

“Yes.” Moondancer paused. “How do you plan on finding them?”

“Do not worry about that, Moondancer,” said Puissance. “I will handle it. Just make sure you are ready to cast your spell as soon as we have the needed materials.”

Moondancer nodded and returned to her work, by all appearances having totally forgotten about the Vicereine. Puissance herself went back to the carriage. “My estate. Now,” she said.

When Puissance got home she headed straight to her inner quarters, barely pausing to give her latest round of instructions to Perfect Precision and Precise Point before going to her private living room. Solar Flare was waiting for her and Puissance nodded at the mare. “Is there any news?”

Solar Flare gave Puissance an odd look. “Weren’t we going to discuss this earlier this morning?” she asked. “We’re a day behind.”

“I spent the day with my great-grandcolt, as per Princess Luna’s orders,” said Puissance. A slight smile came to her lips as she thought back to how happy Scepter had been when he’d finished the quesadillas and presented Puissance with the one he’d made for her. He still had to be trained, unquestionably, but he really was a good colt. “No matter. I am here now. Do you have any updates?”

The tall pegacorn seemed slightly put out, but she shook it off and swept a folder full of maps over the table. “Yes, Vicereine. We already have one probable location.”

“Really?” Puissance almost flew over to the maps. “Where?”

“Everlasting Peace,” said Solar Flare. “Red Rose’s religious tutor. According to the ponies we have going through the various libraries, there have been rumors for centuries that the Peace sect survived despite its relative lack of warriors and resources because its leader had a magical artifact given to them by their prophet. A horseshoe.”

Puissance took a short breath. “Is it golden?”

“The legends say that the horseshoe, called the Horseshoe of Truth, is a dull color. That is likely why nopony thought it might be one of Mimic’s golden shoes. But I went back through Red Rose’s letters, and in one of them she mentions that the leaders of the Peace sect have an aphorism in which truth is said to be like gold. So when they refer to the Horseshoe of Truth…”

“…they might mean a Golden Horseshoe.” Puissance frowned. “But it could still be coincidence.”

Solar Flare shook her head. “I asked our factor in Naqah to visit Everlasting Peace and attempt to obtain the horseshoe. When our factor asked where it came from in the first place, he said their legends spoke of a pony who faded in and out of sight giving it to their prophet in payment for a debt. The prophet then gave it to the sect’s founder, Glorious Peace, as a sign that their sect was to be favored above others.”

Puissance could not help but recall the stories of Mimic which her mother had told her as a foal. They varied, but one thing was constant: Mimic faded away when not wearing all four of her Golden Horseshoes. Either the Peace sect had heard the same legends, which was unlikely since they otherwise had very little contact with Equestria, or… or the Horseshoe really had been given to them by Mimic herself.

“What does he want for it?” Puissance made herself ask.

Solar Flare sighed. “Everlasting Peace refused all of our offers. He said that the Horseshoe is the only thing which saved the sect during various religious conflicts. He could not give it up without something else that could protect his sect.”

“We could hire guards—“

“The factor offered this and was rebuffed. Peace does not want outsiders. He said unless we have an artifact of similar power and religious significance, he will not give us his Horseshoe.”

And if they had an artifact of similar power, they might not need the Horseshoe in the first place. Puissance settled back in her chair. “We will come up with something,” she said. “If nothing else, we can hire archmages to craft something for him. What of the other teams?”

“They have nothing yet, but they are searching in places all over the continent and a half-dozen spots beyond it.” Puissance smiled to herself as Solar Flare spoke; as far as she knew, the scope of this expedition far exceeded any other that had happened in recorded history. She had dozens of teams all over the world looking for Horseshoes that would soon be hers. “And besides—“

Then somepony rapped on the door. “Vicereine,” called Precise Point. “A foreign dignitary wishes to see you.”

Puissance normally loved the opportunity to talk with foreign dignitaries. She could impress them with her, and by implication her nation’s, wealth, resources, and elegance. But now she wanted nothing more than to slam the door in the newcomer’s face while discussing the Horseshoe hunt with Solar Flare. “Who is it?”

“I do not know, Vicereine.” Point sounded slightly troubled. “He is, um… a cow.”

Puissance froze. “A cow.”

“Yes. And he has with him two hundred other cows. Most seem to have trade goods, but about a fifth are armed.”

If this was an assassination attempt, it was the strangest one Puissance had heard of. “I will be right out,” she said, before turning to Solar Flare. “Cloak yourself and come with me.”

“Yes, Vicereine.”

In minutes they were headed back to the front door, then outside it to the outer gate of the estate. As Point had promised, two hundred cows were gathered there in a neat formation. The leader was a gigantic bull whose face was cut with a few dashing scars and who had a thick, luxurious mustache. He was heavily armored in what looked like the Shouma style, and If Puissance recalled her Shouma calligraphy correctly, the insignia on that armor denoted the wearer as a warlord or possibly a king…

And Puissance knew who this was. “Lord Cow Cow,” she said slowly. “The cow who would be king.”

“Ah, I see my reputation precedes me,” said Cow. He swept off his helmet and bowed. “Vicereine Puissance. I am deeply honored to make your acquaintance.”

Puissance thought back to what she knew of Cow Cow and wished that Vicereine Wallflower, who was in charge of the Royal Diplomatic Corps, was on hoof to advise her. Shouma, she knew, was currently in the middle of a protracted civil war between the Empress Fu Ling and a variety of warlords who were carving out territories. Of those warlords, most had been defeated by each other or Fu Ling, but three prominent ones remained: Liu Bear, Swan Quan, and Cow Cow. The last was said to be the most driven of the three, as well as the most cruel, and countless enemies had laughed off the idea of a cow monarch before being trampled under the hooves of his ever-growing herd. Equestria of course maintained relations with all three warlords (though none so heavily as they did with Fu Ling) just in case one of them really did reunify Shouma under their domain, and Puissance herself had several trading missions all over Shouma, but relationships between ponies and the warlords were still rather distant. To Puissance’s knowledge this was the first time a Shouma warlord had visited Equestria itself.

In fact, if Puissance recalled her knowledge of Shouma's current events, while Cow’s position was somewhat stronger and more stable than Bear’s or Swan’s, it was by no means totally secure. So what could be so important that it would induce Cow to leave his territory, cross the sea, and visit Equestria himself despite Shouma’s unrest?

“No doubt.” Puissance told him. Then her eyes narrowed slightly as Cow straightened and caught her eye again. His gaze was challenging her and sizing her up, and if he feared her power he showed no sign of it. She went on: “I am equally honored. You have journeyed far from home to visit me.”

Cow waved a hoof. “Oh, the journey took some time, yes, but I am confident it will be worthwhile for both of us.”

“I am sure it will. May I know your purpose?”

Cow beamed. “Why, after arriving in your port I could scarcely neglect my responsibility to visit the local lord and offer my respects.”

Puissance’s eyes narrowed further. If she accepted that compliment, somepony might think she was agreeing that she, not Luna, was the ‘local lord’ with sovereign power. Cow himself might tell Luna that; she knew that he had used similar tricks to convince Fu Ling to execute his enemies back before his open rebellion. “Then I will convey your greetings to Princess Luna.”

“Of course, of course.” Cow’s eyes twinkled. “And as for my purpose in the trip, well, I wish to expand the commerce between our lands. As you can see I have brought a wide variety of trade goods. These are only a sample, of course; our ship’s holds have many more. Perhaps you will buy something? I am told you have exquisite collections. Or perhaps some of your ponies wish to receive lessons in martial arts from my elite soldiers?”

“Perhaps,” said Puissance, who did not miss the implication that he was prepared to fight if something went wrong. “I would be happy to see your stores for myself. And I will of course notify the local guards, as well as their commanders in Canterlot.”

“I will make my ships and soldiers available at your leisure,” said Cow. “And now…”

Puissance frowned. “Yes?”

Cocw’s eyes twinkled. “I do have one more objective, of a more private nature. It concerns a certain artifact of gold I understand you’re looking for.”

A lifetime of diplomacy enabled Puissance to hide her shock. She had a few agents looking at two different sites in Shouma where the Horseshoes were said to be buried, but none were in Cow Cow’s lands. Apparently his intelligence was better than Puissance had thought. “Of course,” she said. “Why don’t you send your troops back to your ships while we share a pot of tea?”

It took a few minutes for Puissance to lead Cow to a parlor, especially since he kept stopping to loudly admire the furnishings and fixtures. “When I’m Emperor,” he told her as Solar Flare prepared some tea with an herbal-scented bag that Cow provided, “I think I will build an estate just like this overlooking Brayjing. It is exquisite.”

“Thank you,” murmured Puissance. Solar Flare set the tea in front of her and her guest, and they both drank. “What did you have to tell me?” she then asked.

Cow glanced at Solar Flare pointedly.

“My servant is completely trustworthy,” said Puissance. “She would not be mine if she wasn’t.”

“Mmm.” Cow considered, then shrugged and withdrew a stack of pictures from somewhere within his heavy armor. “I believe you are looking for this?”

The images showed a Golden Horseshoe in the center of what looked like an ancient temple. The reliefs on the temple walls all depicted scenes Puissance recognized from the legends of Mimic, including her battles against various monsters and her alliance with some sort of naked bear named ‘Mee-gahn.’ “I may have an interest in such a thing,” said Puissance, working to control her excitement. “But…”

“But what?” Cow grinned sardonically. “Would your Princess object? I hear she has been cracking down on her nobles'... antics... recently.”

Cow’s knowledge of Equestrian domestic politics was far better than Puissance had hoped for. She would definitely have to notify Wallflower. “If you wish to trade that artifact for Equestrian recognition of your claims to the Shouma throne, I am afraid such a thing cannot be done by my fiat.” Perhaps there was a time when it could have been… a few words to Wallflower, a few bribes to the right ponies, talking to Luna in just the right way…but no more. Not after that ever-exasperating Trixie Lulamoon had screwed everything up.

But to Puissance’s surprise, Cow brushed that aside with a wave of his gigantic hoof. “Good,” he said. “I don’t want your recognition.”

“Really.” Puissance’s voice was flat. “You don’t wish for Equestria to support your bid?”

“No.” Cow drank a sip of tea, smiled, and said, “This is my favorite Neighponese blend. Neighpon truly is a country with remarkable resources. When I rule Shouma I will make it my first priority to annex them.” He drained the rest of his tea and said, “When everybeast looked at me years ago, they said I could not be a ruler, because a cow could never be king. None would dare say that now. But if I accepted your princess’s help, they would again say that a cow could never be king and just add that I had only won because Luna had put me in power. I will not have that said about me. I will conquer Shouma on my own merits and nocreature will be able to think different.”

Puissance had the distinct impression that Cow was one of the most dangerous guests she could possibly have invited into her house. “Then what do you want?”

“Very little, really. Just a pony.” Cow leaned back. “I believe my former secretary Yang Chew is in your domain, is he not?”

Yang Chew was a kirin, a very rare species of pony that was almost unheard of in Equestria. Puissance had found him in a Califurlong port and offered him a home in the Vault, a small ‘artist’s colony’ in which very unusual ponies lived off of Puissance’s resources. She got nothing in return but their love… well, that and the knowledge that she had in her domain, her ‘possession,’ rare and unique creatures ranging from a four-winged pegasus to pegasus-unicorn hybrids to one half-windigo foal. And, of course, one kirin.

But the Vault was top-secret. Except for Puissance, Solar Flare, and a few trusted workers who kept it supplied, the only ponies who knew of its existence were its inhabitants, and they never left it. How could Cow Cow possibly know what it was?

“Before we continue this conversation, I would like to know how you learned I had Yang Chew,” said Puissance slowly.

“Of course.” Cow leaned in. “You just told me.” Puissance’s eyes widened and Cow went on. “Come, Vicereine, please. You are well known as a collector of the strange and exotic; even back in Shouma we have heard of your tastes. And you run the province which, by virtue of having Equestria’s largest port, Yang Chew was most likely to turn up upon fleeing Shouma. Furthermore I know Yang well; he would have sought out rich and powerful ponies to hire him as their servant so he could have the chance to mock them while spending their money. It was a simple deduction that you and he had found each other. But thank you for verifying my deduction. I appreciate it.”

Puissance let out a breath. “Very well. Yes, I know where Yang Chew is. What do you want with him?”

“Why, I want him back.” Cow smiled, but there was no warmth in his eyes, and Puissance felt a cold little chill building in her chest. “Give him to me and I will have your Horseshoe sent on the next boat over.”

“And what,” Puissance asked in a low voice, “will you do with him once you have him?”

“Nothing more than he deserves.” And now the smile was gone from Cow’s face. “And nothing less.”

The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Puissance glanced at Solar Flare, who was rising as if to push off her cloak and do something, and subtly shook her head before continuing. “He told me he did nothing more than embarrass you by solving riddles more quickly than you could.”

“Ah, then he did not tell the truth.” Cow’s eyes narrowed. “He interfered in my succession plans.”

“How so?”

Cow waved for Solar Flare to refill his teacup. “As I’m sure you know, in Shouma, the eldest child is the presumptive heir. My eldest in a brilliant bull named Cow Pike, skilled in battle and known for his valor. But Yang Chew became friends with my third son, Cow Zam, a poet of minimal use in battle. Zam promised Yang a high position in his administration should he, instead of Pike, be named my heir.

“And so Chew took advantage of his position with me. I held strategy meetings with my generals in which I determined how we should proceed with crushing our enemies; then, to evaluate my sons, I posed the same questions to them that I had posed to my generals and saw how they answered. And for a time Zam gave the most brilliant answers. I thought him a genius; I considered replacing Cow Pike as my heir. But then I learned the truth. Yang, who attended my strategy meetings, was recording what we said and teaching Zam to respond with answers that would impress me.” Cow scowled. “He betrayed my trust. I cannot tolerate that.”

Puissance spread her hooves. “Yang Chew has fled your land. He lost everything he owned. Surely he has been punished enough.”

“No,” said Cow in a flat voice. “In battle, reputation is more important than a million infantry. If word gets out that I was humiliated by my secretary and let him get away with it, my bulls will think I am a joke. They will not follow me, or if they follow, they will not obey me when danger rears its head. When all hope seems lost and Fu Ling’s armies are attacking, will they hold the line for the sake of a bull who was shamed by some clever kirin? No… unless, of course, the bull gets revenge on the kirin and shows what happens to those who make him look foolish.”

Silence again filled the kitchen until Puissance said, in a slow voice, “I will not give you Yang Chew so that you may execute him.”

“Such a shame.” Cow shrugged and then sprang to his feet, twisted joy once again evident in his features. “Well, think it over. Perhaps you will change your mind. I anticipate remaining in Equestria for several months as we establish our trade connections and political alliances, so if… circumstances convince you otherwise… you need just deliver Yang Chew to my boats and I will handle the rest.”

Puissance bit back a retort at the obvious threat. Obviously Cow planned to hang around and be a problem until Puissance gave in. For some nobles, the unexpected expense of feeding two hundred large cows in a manner befitting the dignity with which Equestria treated foreign diplomats could drive them towards bankruptcy; Puissance didn’t have that concern, since her resources were unimaginably larger than Cow could comprehend, but there were other risks. What if Cow instigated diplomatic incidents with the goal of causing Luna to think Puissance was messing up their diplomacy with Shouma? If she fell out of favor with Luna, she could lose her portfolios. Her titles.

Her chance at immortality.

“I can show myself out,” said Cow Cow. “Until next time, Vicereine!” And then he was gone.

“Vicereine,” said Solar Flare at once. “What do you—“

“Yang Chew is mine,” Puissance growled, her mind going down a dark passageway. “I will not let him be hurt. Even if it were not evil, even if Luna would not throw me in Tartarus for doing so, I will never let Cow hurt him. I will never give any of them up, not for all eternity, I—“

She managed to regain control of herself and stopped ranting. “Cow’s offer is unacceptable,” she said in a more controlled voice. “We will find something else he wants.”

“What if there is nothing?” asked Solar Flare. “Moondancer needs all four Golden Horseshoes for her spell. If Cow has one of the Horseshoes and refuses to give it up, we will have no way to extend your life. You could…”

Puissance said nothing as Solar Flare trailed off. And she insisted to herself, once again, that she absolutely did not feel cold.

3. A Bag of Fertilizer, A Holy Text, A Bolt of Terror

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Vicereine Puissance spread her wings slightly in order to shake out the faintest of wrinkles in her deep purple dress and lied to herself that she did not feel cold.

It was just exhaustion, she told herself when she could no longer maintain the lie. She had been staying up late going over her agents’ reports on the Golden Horseshoe hunt, and was also taking lessons with a retired teacher of magic so that she could better understand the complicated and technical lab reports that Moondancer was producing on a weekly basis. Add to that all of her regular duties in managing two provinces, multiple powerful Night Court committees, and innumerable properties, as well as the one day a week she lost doing things like playing frisbee, painting, or reading storybooks with Scepter, and it was perfectly understandable why she might not feel as warm and full of energy as the other ponies.

Perfectly understandable, she repeated to herself, and managed to make herself believe it.

“Vicereine?” said Precise Point as she reentered the room. Perfect Precision was sitting next to her and handling some of Puissance’s private correspondence. “I have distributed your notice, the one announcing you have taken an interest in Naqah relics and will pay top bit for any ancient or powerful artifacts from that part of the world, to all the nobles.”

There had been a time when Puissance could have just gone to Vicereine Wallflower, traded some favors, and used the Royal Diplomatic Corps to lean on Everlasting Peace until he gave her what she wanted, but that time was gone. Furthermore, even if Puissance operated entirely on her own, she still didn’t dare draw upon Equestrian resources in order to get Everlasting Peace’s horseshoe. If she promised him, for instance, that Equestrian soldiers would back him in battles against the other sects, that might get her the horseshoe, but it would also likely end in Luna dropping a meteor on her house and hauling her away.

So that meant Puissance was limited to private resources in terms of what she could offer Everlasting Peace, and unfortunately, she didn’t actually have anything on hoof which he wanted. She’d already sent him a list of possible options, including some of the most powerful magical trinkets she had in her warehouses, only to be rebuffed. That was galling, but Puissance could not let things end there, so she was now reaching out to her fellow nobles for anything they had which might be of use. If ponies like Night Light or Wallflower happened to have an ancient Naqah relic moldering in a cabinet somewhere, they would know she was willing to pay handsomely for them, and then she could—

“Oh, Vicereine!”

Puissance jumped at the shout, then turned and had to hold back a sigh. “Baron Mounty Max,” she said to the pony trotting through the door to her quarters with a goofy hat on his head and a goofier grin on his face. He was carrying a paper bag with what looked like a jam stain on it. “Good morning.”

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Max smiled at the window of Puissance’s quarters, which was open and letting in the spring air. “I was about to head home for the day, but your secretary gave me your note and I thought of something so I wanted to tell you right away.”

Puissance’s eyes narrowed. “You think you have knowledge of Naqah artifacts?”

“Maybe.” Max shrugged. “After I got ennobled I did a tour around my province, and I came across this book which I think is from Naqah. Its cover had that writing the camels use a lot, anyways.”

It was probably a cookbook, Puissance thought. Or, knowing Max, a book of nursery rhymes for foals. “And you have it?”

“Not exactly. But I saw its cover, and after my secretary Mrs. Grobhar told me about your note and I told her about the book, she introduced me to a sketch artist at her favorite teahouse. The artist cast a spell on me to remember the book’s cover really well, and then he drew it while I described it.” Max opened the bag and pulled out a jelly donut, then blinked. “Oh. I, um, may have grabbed the wrong bag at Donut Joe’s.”

Puissance raised an eyebrow, because Luna was less likely to punish her for that than if she yelled at Max or had servants throw him off the castle battlements.

“Well, I can still remember it. Here.” Max took a blank piece of paper and a nearly-empty inkpot from Precise Point’s desk, looked around, saw that both secretaries were currently using their quills, and so grabbed a fresh quill from an ornate holder on a shelf. Puissance’s mouth dropped, because that quill was an extremely rare relic said to be crafted from one of Commander Hurricane’s pinion feathers, but Max didn’t notice and nopony reacted in time before the baron started sketching. “The cover was rectangular, and it had these squiggles here, here, and here…”

Perfect Precision walked over to Max. “That is the cover to the holy book of the camels,” she said.

Max brightened, but Puissance frowned. Forcing herself not to grab the quill out of Max’s hooves--on the off-chance he really did know something, she couldn't risk offending him now-- and said, “Copies exist all over the world. Why should I believe there is anything special to that one?”

“Well it was hoof-written. Doesn’t that mean it’s probably important?”

“No,” Puissance said. “Many religious orders task their initiatives with writing out holy texts by hoof. The book you saw could have just been some random novice’s attempt at copying a text.”

Max sighed. “Oh. Maybe you’re right.” He saw the inkpot was empty and so dipped the quill into the donut before adding a last few details in jelly, then set the quill down and backed up. “Sorry to waste your…”

“Wait.” Perfect Precision’s voice was tense as she pointed with a hoof to a small jelly sigil Max had drawn at the bottom of his picture. (Meanwhile, Puissance had grabbed the quill and put it safely behind her where Max couldn’t get his hooves on it, and was already thinking of a quill repair expert who could make sure the jelly didn’t damage it.) “Why did you put this here?”

“Because that’s what the cover I saw looked like.”

Puissance turned to her personal secretary. “Why does it matter?”

“Copies of the camel holy book never have that sigil on them. It was supposedly inscribed on the first holy texts by their prophet; and copying it is considered blasphemy by all of the major camel sects. Subsequent copies have a different sigil, here.” She gestured at a part of the cover which was blank in Max’s picture.

Puissance’s mouth opened and she forgot all about her precious quill as she considered what this meant. Either Max knew that detail about camel religions and was making his story up, which seemed unlikely given the Baron’s general cluelessness, or the volume was some kind of heretical copy, which also seemed unlikely since the Naqah sects had thoroughly destroyed heretical dissidents during their various battles, or… or it was real.

Then something occurred to her. “What did Princess Luna say when you told her you may have found an original holy text of the camels?” asked Puissance in a low voice.

Max blinked. “Um… I didn’t… do you think she likes to know about things like that?”

###

Princess Luna of Equestria was deep in the middle of a discussion with Duchess Posey about clouds when a distant thumping noise echoed through the corridor, causing both of them to turn.

After a moment, Vicereine Puissance came around a bend in the hallway with Baron Max’s tail gripped tightly in her mouth. As they watched she dragged him forwards by the tail while he, stuck on his back, stared up at the ceiling and said ‘ow’ occasionally when his head bonked off a stone in the floor. Behind them came Puissance’s secretaries, as well as half a dozen nobles and two dozen castle staff who were curious as to why Puissance was dragging another noble somewhere.

When Puissance reached the correct distance in front of Luna she disdainfully spat out Max’s tail and met the Princess’s gaze. “Baron Max,” she said in a flat, exasperated tone, “wishes me to invoke the Right of Approach on his behalf so he may tell you about an item of potential national significance which he discovered in his province.”

Max rolled to his barrel, got up, and blushed as Posey and Luna both stared at him. “Erm… so, about that…”

###

“A dragon!” Puissance ranted while she walked through Canterlot’s garden district. “He left the book with a dragon!”

“What’s wrong with dragons?” asked Scepter as he ran about sniffing at flowers. He was in front of Puissance, and Perfect Precision and Precise Point trailed behind them both. “They’re cool!”

“Yes, dear, but that book is very important and must be secured in the right hooves.” The book could also be useful for Puissance’s personal ambitions, but Puissance had known that Luna would have had conniptions if she’d tried to keep something that potentially influential from her. And things had worked out regardless. If Puissance could convince the book’s owner, the dragon, to give it up, then Luna was prepared to let her use it to get Everlasting Peace’s Golden Horseshoe, provided she did not interfere with Equestrian diplomatic interests when she did so. But that meant she had to get the book from a dragon, and dragons were known to be greedy, avaricious beasts who would never give up anything if they could help it.

Still, there was no need to burden Scepter with all the details. He had met Max at the Gala and had surely realized the baron was an idiot; now she had reinforced that, and teaching him the rest of her message would not be hard. “See, dear, when you grow up and become a noble, it will be your responsibility to assess the contents of your province and identify resources which may benefit the national interest. You must know of every important item in your domain, no matter how small or well hidden. Good nobles spend as much time as needed to learn this information.”

“But that sounds boring…”

Puissance gently pat Scepter’s cheek. “Sometimes it is. But as nobles we have many responsibilities. The lives and welfare of all the ponies in our domains depend on us. We must spend the time required to ensure that our ponies prosper.”

Scepter inclined his head. “I know,” he said, and Puissance felt a warm wave of relief flow through her. It seemed that Scepter was finally starting to understand he couldn’t just play forever; that he would one day have to work, and work hard, to administer the provinces Puissance now ruled. “But that won’t take all our time, right? I mean, even nobles have to have fun!”

“We do,” said Puissance. “We have fun by being patrons of the arts, by attending refined banquets, by having those refined hobbies I told you about, by socializing with the proper sorts…”

“And by playing in the mud!” Scepter said suddenly, pointing a hoof ahead where a brown-coated stallion was up to his barrel in a muddy patch. “Look! That pony’s a noble, right? He’s that Duke Greengrass guy! And he’s in the mud!”

Puissance groaned to herself, but Scepter was already running towards the muddy Duke of Caneighda, and she had to hurry to keep pace.

“Ah, Vicereine Puissance!” called Greengrass as Puissance and her heir approached. Now that they were nearer, Puissance could see that there were around a dozen foals helping Greengrass plant flowers and crops into the patch. “A splendid afternoon to you!”

“And to you,” said Puissance dryly. “You seem to be having fun.”

“Oh, I am!” Greengrass heaved himself out of the mud patch with enough force to splatter a few of the foals with him, and also Scepter, with mud. They burst into giggles and Puissance had to fight not to put her hoof to her face. “Nothing like a little hard work to drive away the doldrums.”

Puissance nodded. “I suppose, given your removal from committees, it makes sense you would fill your time with… other pursuits.” She wrinkled her muzzle at the mud.

“Haven’t you heard?” Greengrass beamed. “Luna reconsidered. As of last week, you are looking at the newest member of the Parks and Recreation Committee!”

“…the junior-most member of the least-powerful committee in the Night Court,” managed Puissance. “Congratulations.”

Greengrass beamed as if he thought Puissance meant the compliment, then swept his muddy hoof out at the foals. “It’s not just about ensuring that all of Equestria’s public parks and gardens have the beauty and grandeur our populace deserves from their public spaces,” he said. “It’s also about helping our future generations learn the glories of gardening! For instance, take Snails here.” He reached out and grabbed a muddy, gangly unicorn with a long horn and a dopey expression. “I took him on as an apprentice just a short while ago and he’s really bloomed. You might say he’s blossomed into a proper gardener!”

Snails smiled. “Hi Vicereine Puissance,” he said. “My big sister told me all about you!”

“Oh? What did she say?” Puissance asked.

Snails paused. “Actually, she said I’m not supposed to repeat it in ‘civilized company.’” He tilted his head. “Are you civilized company?”

Puissance mentally counted to ten before letting herself respond to the inane colt. “Perhaps we should be going.”

“No, Granny Pu! I want to help!” said Scepter, who was already working with a blue-coated, red-maned foal to maneuver a large sunflower into a hole.

“That’s Sprite!” said Snails suddenly. “She’s a friend from back in, uh, Hoofington! I’m teaching her the stuff that Duke Greengrass told me about gardening!”

“Dear…” Puissance moved towards Sprite and Scepter with a sigh. Sprite opened her mouth like she was going to eat something, then suddenly shut it with a painful wince, as if she’d bitten something which turned out to be inedible.

Snails blinked, then said, “Oh,” before pulling Sprite aside. And then he whispered something which Puissance could have sworn sounded like “Don’t feed on her, Raindrops said she doesn’t have any love,” but that made no sense, so she decided she must have heard him wrong and put it out of her mind.

“But I’ve been talking only about myself,” said Greengrass suddenly. “How have you been?”

“Well, I—“

“Of course you’ve been well!” Greengrass went on. “After all, I understand you’re now hosting one of the largest Shouma delegations which ever visited Equestria! What’s it like having a few thousand cows roaming around your lands?”

Puissance grimaced at the reference to Cow Cow, who had devoted himself to annoying her and was proving a tactical master at it. Shortly after her initial rebuffing of Cow’s demand, more ships from Shouma had arrived and disgorged hundreds upon hundreds more soldiers and traders. They were faultlessly polite and willing to make excellent deals with Puissance’s merchants… and were also rapidly filling up all of the luxury hotels and residents in the province. Puissance was a hoofful of cows away from being obligated to let them move into her own properties just to have somewhere to put them. As for paying for his delegation’s costs of living, it still wasn’t anything close to a real burden to her, but it was certainly annoying for her to order breakfast and then learn that no grapefruits were available because cows had eaten every one of them in the province.

Luna might have been able to help, but that would have caused its own problems. If Luna knew that Cow Cow had demanded the death of an Equestrian citizen she would have been obligated to react by, at the very least, expelling Cow Cow from Equestria and possibly even supporting the other warlords or Fu Ling against him. That would be disastrous, since Equestria could not afford to alienate potential allies or split up its military strength with the Tyrant Sun so close to attacking. Luna, Puissance knew, would expect her Vicereine to resolve the issue without giving up Yang Chew and also without doing something that forced Luna to get involved in a war halfway across the world. So, in her report to Luna, Puissance had frankly written that Cow Cow had ‘asked for something morally unacceptable, which for the sake of political expediency I cannot disclose in this message,’ and promised to find a way to deal with him without giving into the unacceptable demand. Luna had let it go at that for the time, but Puissance knew she would be watching her very carefully until Cow Cow went home, and extra scrutiny was one thing she most certainly did not need.

(And of course, he still had the Horseshoe, and if she couldn’t get it there was no point in anything else… but if she got it via an evil deed and then got deported to the moon, that wouldn’t help either. She had to do something else, find some way to beat him, and if she hadn’t come up with a way to do that she’d just have to think harder…)

“It has been enlightening,” she said as she forced her thoughts back to the present. “Cultural exchange between us ponies and the citizens of Shouma has always been something encouraged by the House of Optiebeurs-Golo. I could even direct a few of their traders to Caneighda, if you wished to see them for yourself.”

“No need,” said Greengrass. “I’m sure they’re just fine in your capable hooves.”

Puissance managed a grimace of a smile. “Well, let me know if you change your mind. By your leave—“

“Hold on!” said Greengrass. “Wouldn’t you like to join us? I’ve been to Palomino, you know and I’m well aware of how important it is to you that all the parks and public areas be absolutely perfect from a… horticultural perspective.”

“Oh, can we please, Granny Pu?” begged Scepter. He had somehow gotten even muddier in the few seconds since Puissance had looked away from him. “This looks really fun! And—and you said I’ll need to know about how the farmers in my provinces grow stuff, right? So I should try it myself and learn!”

She had indeed said that, and Puissance was distantly pleased that Scepter was paying attention to her… but still. If he was to learn farming there were sophisticated agricultural schools where he could do it. He didn’t need to mess around in a muddy patch within one of Canterlot’s less-prestigious neighborhoods.

“Please?” Scepter reared back on his hooves and widened his eyes in the way that only foals could pull off. “It’ll be fun!”

Puissance sighed. “Very well,” she said. “And—ack!” Scepter had jumped forwards and given her a big, muddy hug. At first she recoiled, but then she relaxed into it and let the warm sun beat down on them both as they embraced. Distantly she saw Greengrass chuckling at the sight, and that odd Sprite pony was licking her lips for some reason, but she ignored that and just embraced her heir. “Yes, dear, I am glad you are happy, just please try to stay clean—“

Then Greengrass pushed a shovel at her. “I’m glad you’re staying!” he said. “And, seeing as how we’re adults, we should be setting a good example for the next generation, don’t you think?” He gestured and some of the foals carried gardening tools to the secretaries as well. “Why don’t you all come over here and I’ll show you how to spread fertilizer!”

Puissance’s glare at Greengrass promised revenge, and his bright, amused grin indicated that he knew it but didn’t care. After a few moments, she finally sighed to herself and stepped into the field.

“Thanks again, Granny Pu,” said Scepter as he worked with Sprite to drag a hose over. “You’re the best!”

Puissance smiled at that, and then she braced herself to begin spreading the fertilizer.

###

The sun seemed to be larger lately, Puissance mused. That meant the weather should be hotter. Why didn’t she feel it?

She stood with her retinue on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, or more precisely, the middle of Nulpar. A little below them on the slopes was a tiny settlement of ponies which seemed to have more dormitories and small inns than a town of that size would normally boast. Above them was an opening into the mountain, in front of which was a big sign reading “REFERENCE LIBRARY OF THE GLORIOUS DRAGON OF THE BOOK TREASURE.” A small booth had been set up near the opening where a few ponies were waiting in line to go in.

As for Puissance’s party, it mostly consisted of the Vicereine herself and two dozen pegasi of her staff carrying six oversized palanquins, each full to bursting with materials. In addition to them there were also Puissance’s secretaries, her bodyguard Solar Flare (wrapped in a cloak so nopony would see her unless the worst happened), three scholars of camel society, a unicorn artisan named Bookmancer, and a squadron of heralds. Baron Max of Nulpar was also present, as this was in his province and this mess was basically his fault besides. And Duchess Posey of Cloudsdale was next to Max, because she seemed to be worried that otherwise her new coltfriend (or newly-acknowledged coltfriend, anyways), would say the wrong thing and get himself eaten by the dragon.

Well, Puissance mused, there was always hope.

“This place has really picked up since I was here last!” said Max brightly. “Sealbhach must be working well with Vorel.”

“I suppose all the dormitories are on account of the library?” Posey asked.

“Yes,” said Max. “Sealbhach wrote me and said that ponies are already coming from all over the continent to look through Vorel’s books. And they bring books of their own, so her collection keeps getting better… and of course they buy things in town. Oh, look, they got the souvenir stand open!”

Puissance looked where Max was pointing, saw a unicorn hawking ‘I went to see the Dragon of the Book Treasure and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ clothing, and sighed to herself but did not otherwise react. A few of her thoughts were preoccupied with Moondancer’s last report, which had stated that she had finished her tests of the Alicorn Armor and found it would work just fine as the shield component of the spell they were trying to cast, but for the most part she tried to focus on the coming encounter with the dragon. “Indeed,” she responded. “Now, when the dragon comes out, do not embarrass yourself.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “Don’t worry. We’re friends. She likes my massages.”

Posey frowned. “You’ve done this before?” she asked Puissance for at least the fourth time.

“Yes.” Puissance thought back to the dragon she’d hired to guard the vault where she’d kept, among other things, the Alicorn Amulet. Granted, that hadn’t worked out as she’d hoped, but the point was that she knew how to negotiate with dragons. “I have everything under control.”

Posey glanced at the distant valley where Puissance’s airship was hidden. If the dragon turned hostile, Puissance had decided, she didn’t want her to be able to shoot down their best means of transport home. After all, she had no intention of spending days flying through endless mountain wastes on the way back to civilization, even if Max assured her that the province was ‘really nice when you got to know it.’ So she had hidden the airship some distance away, and even if Posey very much wanted to get back on it, it would stay in the distance until Puissance was done.

Which would hopefully be soon. “Let’s begin,” she said. “Heralds! Play music to summon the dragon!”

“Wait!” protested Max. “Why don’t we just get in line to see her?” He gestured at the line, where a goat--Sealbhach, Puissance assumed--was ushering in a bespeckled pony with a scholarly bearing.

“I find that, to work with dragons, it helps to appeal to their vanity,” said Puissance. “She will appreciate being beckoned by a beautiful song instead of being waved up by her doorgoat. That will also show her that we are not just common scholars, but are here on a mission of great importance.”

Max frowned. “I don’t think--”

“Heralds, play!” ordered Puissance, and they began.

Concerti Brilliante’s famous ‘Ode to a Dragon’ was on its fourth verse, and the ponies in line were staring at them as if they were crazy, when the mountain in front of them seemed to roar and then a dragon with golden scales burst out of it. “Who dares disturb the library of Vorel’aurix-levethuix Maekrix-book-rasvim?” she demanded. “Who dares?”

Posey clenched. “Where is the anti-dragon detachment again?” she muttered to Puissance.

Puissance gestured with a wing to the valley where many of Equestria’s finest pegasi warriors and unicorns who specialized in anti-dragon spells were waiting just in case something went wrong before she turned back to the dragon. “I am Vicereine Puissance,” she said in a formal voice. “I represent Princess Luna of Equestria, the ruler of this land. I have heard legends of the library of Vorel’aurix-levethuix Maekrix-book-rasvim and wished to see if they are true--”

“You are here to see my books?” interrupted the dragon. “But then you could have just joined your other ponies in line. You would not need this horrible music. Why… ah!” She sniffed. “I smell your greed, pony! You are here to steal my hoard!”

Puissance frowned and took a step back, Solar Flare rushing to her side. “No, I--”

“I am the Ruler of the Book Treasure! I will not let anypony take them!” Vorel roared. She then turned to Max. “You! Why have you told this thief where my treasure is?”

“I, er, well…” Max tugged at his collar. “She’s not a thief… and besides… we brought books for you!” He gestured to the palanquins. “In exchange for looking at your collection. Not actually taking anything without your permission, but just looking, and maybe, uh examining one in very close detail. We’ll give you lots and lots of books to do that. What do you say?”

The dragon carefully examined the ponies before flying to one of the palanquins. Puissance’s driver quivered slightly but did not otherwise move as Vorel tore the roof off the palanquin and then let out a loud hiss of pleasure. “Mine!” she said as she ripped the palanquin apart and clutched several old tomes from within it to her chest. Puissance had sent agents all over Equestrian to find old first editions which, based on Max’s report, Vorel would like best, and it seemed to her that she had chosen correctly. “All mine!”

“So,” said Max in a slightly calmer tone, “oh wise dragon, whose gold scales shimmer even in the darkest night, may we look at your collection now and inspect one of your books very closely?” Posey frowned at the compliments but didn’t say anything. “Please?”

The dragon hesitated. “Yes,” she said at last. “But if you dare try to steal any of my hoard, you will face the wrath of the Ruler of the Book Treasure!”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” said Puissance, and led her party, minus the palanquins and their carriers, to the mountain’s opening.

Once there, the goat in the booth frowned. “You know, you could have just gotten in line,” said Sealbhach. And you didn’t need twelve thousand books. The going rate here is one or two for short visits.”

“With dragons, I find it best to be generous,” Puissance said. “And I have no wish to wait in line. Please clear these ponies aside.”

“You can’t just cut,” protested an old scholar. “Even if you are a Vicereine. There’s no law stating that Vicereines can cut lines whenever they want!”

Solar Flare telekinetically floated a lawbook out from her cloak, opened it to a certain page, and showed the scholar.

“...oh,” said the old pony. “I guess there really is such a law.”

“Indeed,” said Puissance. It was rarely used, except for when Wallflower wanted to get a new chew toy for one of her two-headed dogs and the pet store had a three hour line, but it was there. “Now let us pass. We have important work to do.”

Vorel led the party into the mountain, and soon Puissance, Max and Posey, Solar Flare, Bookmancer, and the scholars found themselves in the heart of the dragon’s cave. Puissance’s drivers began to fly down the palanquins of books as Max pointed at the pedestal upon which the camel text was mounted. “There it is,” he said. “The one we talked about. Although I don’t know how you’re going to…”

“Watch and learn, Baron,” said Puissance. Then she nodded at the scholars. “You. Test it.”

Two of the scholars rushed to the book, backed up quickly as Vorel growled at them, and then advanced again at a slower rate upon receiving a pointed glare from Puissance. Once there, one waved some kind of magical crystal over it and the other produced a magnifying glass to inspect it. The third stayed back and cast a magic spell that caused her eyes to glow blue while she looked at something nopony else could see. The pony with the crystal exchanged it for another and then a third; the pony with the magnifying glass flipped the book open, leaned in to sniff the pages, and scraped the tiniest fragment of ink off of one page to plop it into some kind of portable chemical kit. (This earned another growl from Vorel, but Max hurried forward and managed to mollify her with a long stream of compliments that deepened Posey’s frown.) Meanwhile Puissance and the disguised Solar Flare looked around the cave, watched scholars reading through the other books, examined the pile of jewels, and learned, from an offhoof comment by Max, how he’d given the dragon a long back massage.

Max, Puissance determined, had a decidedly odd life.

It took more than twenty minutes before the scholars nodded to each other. “It’s authentic,” said one. “This is the original holy text of the camels.”

Puissance let herself smile just the faintest amount before turning to Vorel, who was now ripping apart more palanquins and hugging the books inside to her body. “Truly impressive,” she said. “Vorel’aurix-levethuix Maekrix-book-rasvim, your hoard is indeed beyond compare. It is the third or fourth greatest book collection I have ever seen.”

Vorel paused, books falling out of her claws. “Third or fourth?” she hissed. “Impossible! I am the Ruler of the Book Treasure! No little pony could have a better book collection than me!”

Puissance caught the dragon’s gaze, drew on her special talent of exerting authority and did not back down. “As an Equestrian noble I must speak the truth,” she said. “And it is nothing to be ashamed of, having the fourth-best collection.”

“I must have the first!” roared Vorel. “I will not settle for the fourth!”

Posey moved protectively towards Max, and the scholars cringed under their rough tables, but Puissance did not flinch. “I have many books myself,” she said. “And perhaps we could work together to make a collection greater than any other.”

“No!” Vorel jumped up, sending books tumbling around her. “You want us to combine our books! But I will not give them to you! These are mine!”

Puissance held up a hoof. “Please let me finish. I propose this: your collection currently consists of more than fifty thousand books--“

Vorel hissed and cut Puissance off, then said, “I have fifty-one thousand, six hundred and twenty-eight books, counting the ones you just gave me.” The dragon’s voice indicated that trying to take those books back would be decidedly unwise. “And I will not give any of them up.”

Puissance smiled, “To that fifty-one thousand, six hundred, and twenty-eight book collection, I will add two hundred thousand more that I have obtained over the years.” That was being a bit misleading, since Puissance had actually gotten this new collection over the last several days by having her agents buy out the entire inventories of bookstores around Equestria—again with a focus on books that were rare, old, or first edition, as per Max’s notes on which books Vorel found most attractive—but the date she’d gotten them was hardly the point. “These books will be yours, free and clear. Now, I understand they may fill up your cave, so I will of course help you find a larger one… or a building fit for a reference library, if you prefer.”

Vorel tilted her head. “I do not need a new building. I can simply dig out my cave, pony. Besides, these ponies tell me how wonderful I am, and I can hardly move to a new building and leave them to wilt in the absence of my glorious treasure and person.”

Even for dragons, Puissance thought, Vorel was rather vain. Although judging from the way Vorel had glanced up to her cave’s opening, where Sealbhach was watching them, maybe there was one creature in particular she did not want to leave. “Either way, I would be happy to give you the two hundred thousand books.”

The dragon fixed her gaze upon the purple pegasus. “And in exchange?”

“One single book from your collection.” Vorel stiffened, and a small jet of flame escaped from her nostrils, but Puissance held her ground. “Come, Vorel’aurix-levethuix Maekrix-book-rasvim. I am giving you two hundred thousand books, some of them quite rare. Why, in that palanquin there is a unique journal written by an Equestrian noble; it is the only copy in the world.” The journal in question was an ancient journal written by Supremo Blueblood, the great-great-grandfather of Prince Blueblood. It was indeed unique; the writing was so vapid and dull that nopony had ever had reason to copy it. In fact, it has sat in the Blueblood estate for decades upon decades without anypony reading it until Blueblood, evidently having forgotten to get Puissance anything for her birthday a few years back, had crammed it into her hooves as a gift and insisted it was an enlightening read. However, given that Max had reported Vorel being delighted by a Daring Doo book, Puissance suspected Vorel would find the journal acceptable as well. “Think of how great your treasure will be.”

The dragon froze, clearly torn between two options. Then she wheeled around and pointed a claw on Max. “You! Do you trust this other pony’s deal?”

Max’s mouth dropped. “Um, me?”

“Yes, you. The pony with the good back massaging technique.” Max blushed and Posey looked very unhappy, but neither said anything. “You were honest with me when you entered my cave last summer. Now speak. Can this pony be trusted?”

Puissance calmly looked at Max, hoping to telepathically convey that there was only one response which would not result in her throwing him off the mountain.

Max gulped. “Uh… er… I haven’t looked at her book collection myself, but Vicereine Puissance is known for being really good at collecting valuable things. If she’s made a collection, it’s a safe bet it’s really valuable, so if she gives that collection to you you’ll definitely be getting something amazing!”

Vorel was silent for several moments. Finally, though, she made herself nod. “Very well, Puissance. You may have one book… but not the camel text.” She stabbed a claw at it. “You may pick from any other in my collection.”

Puissance sighed to herself. This wasn’t wholly unexpected, but it was annoying. “And if the camel text is the one I want?”

“Then… then you may transcribe it if you wish, in exchange for two hundred thousand books. But you may not have the text itself!” Vorel’s eyes flashed. “It was the first book in my hoard. It is the greatest treasure in my collection. I will not give it up, not for every other book in Equestria!”

Max frowned. “What now?” he whispered. “I thought you said on the way here copying it wasn’t enough?”

“As I said, watch and learn,” Puissance answered. Then she turned back to the dragon. “You drive a hard bargain,” she said. “But what if I could find a way to take the text while also leaving it with you?” Vorel stared, and Puissance beckoned the unicorn artisan over. “It can be done, and I will prove it. You, Sealbhach. Are there any books here that multiple scholars are trying to use at once?”

The goat frowned. “Uh, sure. There’s a big collection of old Caballerian spells; a few different scholars are fighting over who gets to use it first.”

“Somepony bring that book here,” Puissance ordered, and then waited until an owlish scholar hurried over with it. “Now, Bookmancer, please show this dragon of the Book Treasure what you can do!”

Bookmancer spread out a collection of papers, inks, and bindings in front of himself before examining the spellbook very closely. He peered at it, sniffed it, and even licked it (earning another growl from Vorel). After several minutes he nodded and began to cast. As ponies watched, a few pieces of parchment gradually disappeared along with a bit of ink… and then, several more minutes later, the pages reappeared with writing on them. Vorel gasped and snatched them up, then flipped open the spellbook. “An exact copy,” she breathed.

“Indeed. Bookmancer can, if provided with the same materials that were used to make another book, create an exact, indistinguishable duplicate of that book.” Puissance nodded. “What I propose is this: I will send you the two hundred thousand books. If they are to your liking, you will allow Bookmancer to create an exact duplicate copy of your camel text.”

Vorel slowly inclined her head. “Very well. You may do this, and keep the copy in exchange for the two hundred thousand books.”

Puissance hid her grimace. She needed the original; she couldn’t take the chance that Everlasting Peace one day found out she had sent him a copy, even a perfect duplicate copy. That would severely damage her reputation and could even harm relations between Equestria and Naqah, which could lead to Luna becoming very unhappy with her. “If they are exactly the same, what difference does it make?” she asked.

The dragon glared. “I would know.”

“Then I propose this: when Bookmancer is done he will present you with both the original and his copy, and you may choose which one you will allow me to take,” said Puissance. That would be fine; Bookmancer knew how to force a choice and make ponies picking from several objects choose the one he wanted them to choose. As long as he himself didn’t mix the two copies up--and he wouldn’t, Puissance had gotten him to create copies of her own books and then tested to see if he could pick his copies from the originals; he’d proven he could magically tell his own books from the originals even if nopony else could--he’d ensure that Vorel would let him leave with the one Puissance wanted. “How does that sound?”

Vorel was silent for almost a full minute before finally inclining her head. “Very well, pony. You have a deal.”

Things wrapped up quickly after that. Puissance’s party ascended from the caver and Solar Flare shot a flare into the sky so the airship crew would know to head their way. “That was interesting,” mused Posey as the airship rose up in the distance. “And you really don’t mind giving up two hundred thousand books?”

“No,” said Puissance. “Not if I get the one I want.”

“That’s not like you.” Posey smiled softly. “I suppose you’re finding that physical possessions aren’t as important in your… ah… silver years?”

Puissance bit back her response. She was not old, she shouted in her head. She was not old, and why would she not care about possessions? Was it the old bromide that her time would be better spent with friends and family? She had plenty of time left for both! Even were she not about to become immortal, she could spend months and months collecting things and still have all the time she needed to be with her family. She—

The wind whistled through the mountains and Puissance felt very cold.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said to Posey at last. And indeed, she knew Posey wouldn’t. She knew Posey wasn’t considering that Puissance’s donation would justify her having an increased presence here, in a place that was--against all odds--becoming a hub of scholarship and literary research. Obtaining even an informal amount of control over it would prove to be very beneficial, especially if she could start to base one of her research teams here. Nor was Posey considering how the grateful Vorel would likely prioritize Puissance’s researchers, allowing them to obtain the information they needed before any rivals.

And, of course, Posey had no idea that Puissance planned to live forever… and knew that Vorel, long-lived as dragons might be, would not. If Puissance’s plans worked, then there would come a day sometime in the future, centuries distant but there nonetheless, in which Vorel would die of old age but Puissance would live on. Dragons tended not to leave heirs in the legally-binding sense of the word, and she would certainly outlive Sealbhach and any other coltfriends she might make in the settlement. That meant that, when Vorel finally did die, the library’s fate would be determined by the courts, where Puissance would have an excellent legal claim to assume ownership of the library. After all, the vast majority of its contents had been donated by her. After having done so much to build it up, the courts would see that--in the absence of any legal heirs--she had the most right to it by virtue of having invested the most into it. She would thus regain every book she had just lost to Vorel, plus all of Vorel’s current collection, and of course all the books Vorel had gotten as admissions fees in the meantime. It would be one of the greatest deals she had ever made.

But Posey wouldn’t understand, and besides, Puissance wanted to get out of the cold. So she got onto her airship as soon as it opened up its doors and spent most of the route back in seclusion.

###

“We must see if Moondancer has any updates,” said Puissance to Solar Flare the next day. “Check in with the team transporting the books. There are to be no delays. And—“

Something loud crashed outside of Puissance’s estate, and she whickered in annoyance before leaving the inner quarters and looking outside. Ponies were running around screaming and she saw at least three crashed taxis. “Corona is attacking!” somepony yelled. “Luna is badly injured! Run!”

Puissance looked towards the castle, where panicked guards were rushing around, and felt a cold wave of despair take her. She couldn’t be too late, she insisted to herself. She couldn’t die now. Surely she had more time—

But then Solar Flare grabbed Puissance with her telekinesis. “We must run!” she yelled, and they did, but Puissance barely saw where they were going.

“It’s not too late,” she whispered. “Not too late. Not too late.”

###

In the end, as it happened, she was right, and it was not too late. At least not then.

Corona was defeated by the Elements, as was Discord, the monstrous beast that one of Corona’s unhinged minions had released. The battle had been terrifying, and the… transformations… Discord had wrought more so, but at last the situation was resolved.

Well, except for the fact that Luna seemed to have forgiven her sister and was letting her live in the palace. Puissance knew she wasn’t the only pony deeply concerned or even angry about that, but Luna had flatly rejected the tentative efforts by a few other nobles to banish her, so there was nothing they could do.

Except, Puissance thought, become a pony that could not be killed, not even by Luna’s formerly-deranged-and-now-wandering-around-Canterlot-claiming-to-be-good-again sister.

Late one night a few weeks after the battle, while she reclined in the inner quarters of her Califurlong estate with a thick blanket over her, somepony knocked on her door. When it opened she saw it was Solar Flare. “Vicereine,” said the pegacorn, still in the same downtrodden tone which she’d had ever since Corona’s attack. “I once again have to apologize. I was unable to protect you, or the other ponies you entrusted to me in the Vault…”

“Solar Flare,” said Puissance gently. “Nopony could have protected me from Discord and Corona. You did everything you could. You have nothing to feel ashamed of.”

“Still.” Solar Flare bowed her head low. “I failed you. I am sorry…”

Puissance paused, because Solar Flare seemed to have something more to say. “Yes?”

“But I also do have good news to report.” A brief smile flashed across her face. “We—“

“GRANNY PU!” The door banged open and Scepter raced in, knocking aside both Perfect Precision and Precise Point, before jumping up against Puissance’s barrel. “I had a nightmare about Discord again! I need a hug!”

Puissance unthinkingly began hugging her great-grandcolt, who was sleeping over at her house as part of the one-day-a-week thing Luna was still insisting on. (Puissance had hoped Luna would at least let up on that given the extenuating circumstances, but when she’d dared approach Luna the alicorn had just sweetly mentioned how Puissance must be looking forward to her day with ‘Flicker,’ and that was that.) “Of course, dear.”

“It was awful!” Scepter wriggled as close as he could against Puissance’s coat. “I dreamed he turned you into a cabbage and I accidentally ate you and never got to see you again!”

The Vicereine looked at Solar Flare, who had hurriedly yanked her cloak back on as soon as Scepter entered the inner quarters. “I can come back later,” the bodyguard said.

But it looked to Puissance like Scepter would be there for quite a while, so she said, “No. You can keep telling me about the… things… we were discussing.”

Solar Flare nodded, though when she spoke again Puissance thought her tone sounded annoyed for some reason. Surely the bodyguard wasn’t jealous of Scepter? “As I was saying, Moondancer reports that her construction of the apparatus needed to cast Star Swirl’s spell for… the things… is on track.”

Puissance nodded. “Good.”

“Your shipping staff have sent the two hundred thousand books to Vorel, and Bookmancer has started crafting his copy of the camel text. He expects it to take some time because of the complex methods used to construct the original text, but does not foresee any problems that would prevent him from finishing his job.” Puissance nodded again and Solar Flare went on. “Another hundred cows have arrived. City officials are trying to find accommodations for them that could not be construed as insulting. Cow Cow has again sent word that he will leave with his cows, and send you the thing you wanted, if you give him what he wants.”

“So, no change.” Puissance settled back with Scepter still nestled against her. She felt very tired, and for a moment she wondered if she could just stay like this. Let the others look for immortality on her behalf, let her stay with her heir in the warmth of her rooms, and…

“But there is one more update.” And Solar Flare smiled at last. “News of Corona’s return has roused some of her old cults. You received a letter from the Shadowbolts earlier reporting that one such group is due to march through Palomino on their way to Canterlot. They have various artifacts they believe will re-empower ‘Celestia’ and return her to her ‘Corona’ form. One of those artifacts is a… thing… which the cultists seem to believe has immense power.”

Puissance’s heart began to beat faster. She shifted and began to stand, though Scepter clutched against her and made her fall back down. “They are sure?” she said as she draped a wing over Scepter’s little form.

“One of them is closely monitoring the cult. When the leader showed the thing in question to the cult in order to prove he truly had Celestia's favor, the Shadowbolt spy was able to magically analyze it from afar and determined that its power approaches that of Princess Cadence of Cavallia. Plus, it looks identical to how the legends say it should. They are sure.”

“Good.” Puissance smiled slightly. “The guards will arrest and defeat them, and then I need only requisition—“

Solar Flare shook her head. “The Shadowbolts’ letter said that Luna is hoping that there need be no battle, or even many arrests. She does not want there to be further pain or punishment after the recent battles, and as the cultists have done nothing so far besides walk towards Canterlot with several artifacts, she is optimistic that you… or another noble, if they leave your territory… can find some way to talk them into going home.”

Puissance sighed to herself. “Let me guess. If we can stop them peacefully, Luna will let us keep the ‘thing.’ But if they leave my territory or if we have to call out the military and use force…”

“It will become the property of the next noble to stop them, in the former case, or the Equestrian military, in the latter.” Solar Flare paused. “She may still let you borrow the, um, thing, even if it is acquired by the government.”

“No.” Puissance immediately shook her head. “First, requisitioning an artifact of that power level would take months. There are countless regulations and bureaucratic checks to make sure we nobles are not ‘misusing’ Crown resources, and given Luna’s newfound focus on us, those could not be avoided. I…”

She cut herself off. She was not so short of time that she had only months left, she told herself. No, she was objecting over the principle of the thing. Why should she have to wait months to get her new lease on life?

“And artifact requisition requests are public,” she went on. “Imagine that the fourth thing we are looking for is in, say, an old vault belonging to Blueblood or Greengrass. Once they knew what I wanted and why I wanted it, they would extort me for everything I had in exchange. Or they would just refuse to give it to me and laugh at my upcoming… you know.” She sighed. “We will have to stop the cult. Well, we can leave tomorrow. I—“

“NO!” Scepter held Puissance tighter. “Can’t you stay with me a few more days, Granny Pu? Please? I was so scared when Discord attacked! I thought I’d never see you again! And I was so happy to be over at your house today but it went by so fast and I was really hoping we could have a couple more days!” He tried to burrow deeper into Puissance’s coat. “Please don’t go anywhere!”

“But dear,” Puissance began, “your grandmother has some very important business to take care of. We nobles must prioritize our ponies above—“

Scepter shook his head. “I’m one of your ponies!” he pointed out. “And I want you to stay with me for a little longer!” His eyes grew teary. “Please, Granny Pu? Everything was so scary when Discord attacked, but when I’m with you I’m not scared. Just a few days?”

Puissance hesitated, torn. She needed that Horseshoe, needed it badly, but Scepter was so scared and so sad and so in need of her…

“Solar Flare,” she said at last, “Could you go to the cult and find some way to slow them down? I will head up there myself in two days.” She carefully lifted up Scepter and nestled him under the blanket she had. “I would appreciate it.”

To her surprise, Solar Flare did not immediately rush to obey as she did with all of Puissance’s other orders. In fact, when she swiveled her gaze over to Scepter, it seemed almost… resentful? But then the moment passed. “As you command, Vicereine,” she said and left.

Puissance nodded, then moved herself and Scepter over to the fire before starting to sing an ancient silly lullaby her mother had once sung to her. It was fine, she told herself. She had enough time. She could have everything. The Horseshoes, her family, and everything else she wanted.

Everything.

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

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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.

5. A Binder of Letters, A Choice of Loves, An Alicorn’s Warning

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Puissance violently jolted awake, almost flinging herself across the hard metal floor, and gasped for air against the horrid frigid pressure that was crushing in against her barrel. It was cold, it was colder than anything she’d ever felt, colder than when that cursed windigo had frozen her in a solid sheet of ice, and she didn’t know how to stop it or whether she would just have to endure it for the entirety of the terribly short portion of life she had remaining—

Her vision finally began to resolve, revealing dim shadows and endless shelves that could have held anything: trash, or rot or long-dead corpses. She let out a high-pitched whinny of terror as she tried to get up, overbalanced, and crashed down onto the shelves behind her, dropping several objects on her head and body. One was a little doll, and the sight of such a strange thing in such a dark place terrified her all over again.

Then she finally remembered. She had flown in her airship directly to Sentimental Valley, refusing to sleep despite her exhaustion and instead pacing her luxurious quarters until her hoofprints were worn into the exquisite imported carpet from… from… from somewhere she would surely remember in a moment. As soon as the ship had stopped she had ordered her staff to wait behind while she went into the warehouse herself. Once there she had looked up the location of Red Rose’s things from the records in the front office and then gone straight to the specified location, making her way through row after row of the various knickknacks ponies had been sending to Puissance over the last fifty years. After what felt like far too much walking she’d finally found Red Rose’s beggar’s bowl, her headscarf, a binder of those silly letters Rose had sent her for years detailing minor good deeds Rose had done and trivial ponies she had befriended, and next to them, the precious Golden Horseshoe. So she’d taken what she’d come for, sagged with relief, and decided to sit down for a moment to catch her breath…

She’d fallen asleep. That was all. She wasn’t dead, she wasn’t dying, she was just tired. Puissance managed a sort of jerky half-nod to herself and began picking up the dropped things. It wouldn’t do to leave her things on the ground; they were hers and thus must be maintained, burnished, treated properly. That was the Optiebeurs-Golo way.

One of the objects she’d knocked down was Red Rose’s beggar bowl. She picked it up and took a moment to just look over the simple wooden construction. Red Rose had once been quite wealthy, Puissance mused, and yet when she died, this was her most valuable possession. A silly little bowl that anypony at all could afford. Of course, that was what happened when you joined a sect and took a vow of poverty. You would spend the rest of your life with nothing of value, just tiny trinkets which would end up in this, the least of Puissance’s warehouses. Puissance, by contrast, had innumerable objects which were worth thousands of times what the bowl cost.

And which, she thought distantly, were also stuck in her warehouses. Nicer warehouses, yes, with carpets and cafeterias and soft lighting and docents to tell you their history and lineage. But when you stripped out all the trifles, they were in warehouses nonetheless.

She tried to stop thinking along those lines, but the thoughts kept coming. Red Rose, she realized, hadn’t lived in dusty warehouses like this. She had lived the little life of an impoverished mare, supporting her friends, doing charitable deeds, and finding spiritual fulfillment. Puissance had made many friends and done many deeds too, of course, and far grander ones. But all for the sake of putting another thing in another warehouse… so she could spend more time in more warehouses looking at her things.

Puissance’s gaze swept around the poorly lit room, with countless rows of shelves laden with worthless sentimental junk she had barely ever looked at, and for a brief-heart stopping moment, she wondered what it was she had done with her long, privileged life.

And then she thought no more, because she was running as fast as she could, racing to get out of the horrible building she found herself stuck in. Shelves raced past her on either side, stretching so far out that they seemed to converge in the distance as if she was running into a net that would trap her and keep her forever, like a grave, for a grave is just the place you go after you finish living your life, and she had spent decades in graves just like this, polishing and primping her headstone…

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of running, she saw the distant light of the front office. She raced towards it, smashing through a small table of things that had been taken out for cleaning, and knocking the janitor aside when he poked his head out to ask if she was okay. Then she reached the front doors and crashed through them, literally knocking one off its hinges, and burst out into a bright autumn day that froze against her like a winter blizzard, and—

“Granny Pu?”

Her gaze swiveled. She saw Scepter there with one of his bodyguards-slash-babysitters, looking at her curiously. She couldn’t say why, but suddenly she wanted nothing more than to hold him in her hooves and wrap him close, so she changed course to swoop down upon him. He let out a pleased squeak as Puissance grabbed him up and tucked him into a big hug before falling to a heap in the grass. “Granny Pu!” said Scepter, returning the hug. “I missed you!”

“Yes, dear,” Puissance said. Her great-grandcolt seemed so warm, and when she held him, it was like the ice that had formed around her heart was starting to melt. She could breathe again. She could think again. “Your grandmother missed you too. You know… you truly are a wonderful colt.”

Scepter brightened. “You’re great too, Granny,” he said. “Hey, did dad tell you? A few of my friends and I in school decided we wanted to be entrepen… uh… business-ponies like you talked about on the beach. So we pooled our allowances and we’re starting a surf school business! We’re gonna teach tourist ponies how to surf!” He paused. “That’s why I’m here; I thought you might have a cool trinket we could use for a logo or something, and dad said you probably wouldn’t notice if we borrowed one from this warehouse.”

Normally, Puissance’s first reaction to Scepter’s new ambition would have been to give him all sorts of advice—for getting licensed, for buying out competitors, for discretely contacting newspapers to preemptively ensure that any negative reviews of the surf school would never be printed. But Puissance found she suddenly cared about none of that. “It sounds like a lovely idea, dear. Tell me when it is set up, and I will come to the beach to see it.”

“Great!” Scepter paused. “This is a long hug.”

Puissance just drew him in closer.

“…are you okay?” Scepter asked after a minute. “Are you scared?”

“I…” The words hovered on Puissance’s mouth before she dismissed them. She would not tell a foal she had been scared, not even for a moment. She had her dignity. “No, dear. Your grandmother is just… very tired. She has been working hard on an important project that has taken her all over Equestria.”

“Really?” Scepter wriggled a little bit. “What project?”

Puissance thought of the Golden Horseshoe that was now in her saddlebag, the one that she’d managed to finally recover from Naqah. “Just a project.”

“Hmm.” Scepter tilted his head, inadvertently scratching up against Puissance’s barrel. “Well, I don’t like it. I think Luna is working you too hard.”

The Vicereine couldn’t help but laugh at her heir’s genuine indignation. “Do you think I should ask her for a vacation?”

“Yeah! Or I’ll tell her if she shows up in my dreams again.” Scepter giggled. “You’re a really good Granny Pu. You've done all kinds of amazing things! You shouldn’t have to work so hard now!”

Puissance said nothing.

“Maybe if you ask her she’ll let you take a break,” Scepter continued. “And then we can do lots of fun stuff together! Like, we can do our weekly days out every day!” The joy in his voice was like a warm blanket around Puissance’s body. “We can go through the gardens, and go to the beach, and you can show me business stuff and fancy art and I can show you the really cool comic books and this trick my friend taught me for drinking ten sodas at once without getting sick…”

The Golden Horseshoe in Puissance's saddlebag suddenly felt very heavy, and though Puissance opened her mouth to reject the offer, she paused before she said anything. What if, she could not stop from thinking, she truly could not find the fourth Horseshoe? What if she took her last few months, or weeks, or however long she had, devoted them to this quest—flying to forsaken caves in Nulpar, battling unhinged cultists in distant woods, crawling through dusty warehouses—and died before she finished, falling cold and alone in some distant spot? If there was no hope, if there was no fourth Horseshoe, did she really want to waste the last remnants of her time in the sun, the last few drops of what had once been a long and glorious life, a million miles away from her family or anypony who loved her?

What if she just stopped? Accepted that, if the fourth Horseshoe really existed, she almost certainly couldn’t find it? She could stop, and retire, and love her great-grandcolt. Maybe even reconnect with her family, yes, they were all a bunch of ungrateful fools who didn’t know what she’d done for them, but perhaps if she stepped out of the way, let them exercise their share of power, they could grow closer. She could be invited to family events without having to first threaten to disinherit the hosts. She could discuss her grandson Banner’s old hobby of fishing (wasn’t he taking that up again?) or her daughter Regalia’s brilliant fashion sense, or… or anything, really. She could stop.

For the first time in her life, she could live.

But to stop would require abandoning her hope of living longer, of accepting that she, a mare who had everything, would someday very soon have nothing. She would never again be able to visit Neighpon to see its cherry blossoms, or watch a Cavallian parade honoring her for her many achievements, or track down a famous work of art that she needed to complete yet another gorgeous collection. And of course, if she died she couldn’t watch Scepter grow up and keep him on the proper path. She wouldn’t even be able to stop him from sneaking out of a politically-important wedding to go photograph flowers, as he’d tried to do last year before she’d caught him.

“Granny?” asked Scepter. “What are you thinking?”

“I…” Puissance felt frozen, not by cold, but by indecision. Stop or go? Give up her quest, or pursue it and risk letting it consume the rest of her life? She hugged her great-grandcolt closer and smiled slightly as he warmed her. “I think I will…”

“Vicereine.”

Puissance swiveled to see her two secretaries trotting up behind her. She frowned. “I thought I told you to handle my affairs in Canterlot.”

“Yes, Vicereine,” said Perfect Precision. “But you also told us to give you any news on the Golden Horseshoe project. When such news came, we hired a chariot and pursued you at once to tell you.”

The reason didn't make a lot of sense, but the Vicereine ignored that as her heart began to beat faster. Could it be…? “Well?”

“Based on my magical research, it should be possible for Moondancer to locate the fourth Golden Horseshoe given the other three, since they are all powerful artifacts from the same magical set.” Perfect Precision removed a book from her saddlebag. “The spell is enormously complex, but doable. Moondancer should be able to adapt her laboratory equipment to perform it.”

And Puissance grinned. She didn’t have to choose after all! She’d get the fourth Horseshoe, win eternal life, and then have as much time as she could want to play with Scepter and monitor his growth. For that matter, she didn’t need to just acquiesce to her family’s eccentricities. She could live long enough to make them understand that she was right, they were wrong, and if they just listened to her they would live far happier and more productive lives than the alternative.

“What’s a Golden Horseshoe?” Scepter asked.

Puissance lifted him up and smiled at him. Why keep the secret now? She was within inches of doing what mortal ponies had sought to do for millennia, but which only she would manage. She could let her most precious heir in on the surprise. “A set of very powerful magical artifacts. They will enable your Granny Pu to stay with you for a long time.”

Scepter brightened. “That sounds cool! Can I see them?”

“I don’t see why not.” Puissance helped Scepter clamber onto her back, then nodded at Perfect Precision. “Get us transport to Moondancer’s lab at once. Also, contact my estate and have my bodyguard meet us at the lab.”

“Yes, Vicereine.”

Precision trotted off to obey and Puissance had a skip in her step as she went to the road. She didn’t need to worry about some stupid nightmare she’d had in a dirty old warehouse—and, in fact, she should look into tearing that warehouse down and putting up a bigger, grander one, maybe making it into a real museum which showed off the objects she’d gotten from common ponies who were wise enough to love her. All she needed to do was get that last Horseshoe, and then settle in to enjoy her eternity and all the wonderful treasures it would offer.

###

“Moondancer!” called Puissance as she cantered into the laboratory, Scepter riding on her back and gaping in awe as he stared at all the fancy machines and intricate equipment. “Moondancer, where are you? I have a job for you.”

Moondancer poked her head out of her office, revealing that there were at least half a dozen clipboards floating near her. Puissance could see spells and machines being monitored by labcoat-wearing ponies in the other rooms, though the central area seemed largely free of activity. “What is it?”

“My secretaries have found a way for you to find the fourth Horseshoe.” Puissance looked back at Perfect Precision and Precise Point, who had followed her in. Solar Flare, who had apparently gotten Puissance’s message to meet her, rushed in a few moments later covered by her cloak. “You are to use the spell they found and the three Horseshoes we have on hoof to locate the fourth.”

The archmage sighed and then trotted forward to read the paper that Perfect Precision hoofed over. Her eyes flicked across the text, and then she shook her head. “This spell is already refined. It does not need further development,” she said in a voice that sounded almost bored.

Puissance exchanged an astonished glance with her secretaries. “We know,” she said at last. “That is why we want you to use it.”

“And I want to pioneer new developments in magic.” Moondancer gestured with a hoof at the lab rooms around them. “You hired me to recreate a spell of Star Swirl’s that had been lost for centuries, which nopony less brilliant than him could create. You also said that, until you obtained the materials I would need to perform my recreation, I could use this equipment for my own work. I am doing so, and am refining over a dozen spells of my own devising. When they are published, they will serve as further evidence that I am the greatest crafter of magical spells since Star Swirl.” She turned on her hoof. “Why would I spend my time casting some spell whose technique is already well-established, just because it would help you? That’s the kind of thing a friend would do, and I learned at the Academy of Magic that friendship isn’t real. I have no interest in wasting time on magic that will not benefit me.”

"If you don't cast that spell, we can't get the material you need to recreate Star Swirl's work," said Puissance slowly. "You will be unable to prove your abilities on the most difficult spell of them all."

"I know how badly you want me to cast that spell, so I am sure you can find some other way to get the fourth Horseshoe--one that doesn't involve taking up my time." One of the machines began to flash orange and Moondancer made another set of notes on her clipboards. "Once you find it, bring it to me and I'll cast my recreation of Star Swirl's spell, but until then, I will continue with my own work."

Nopony had ever spoken to Puissance this way, and she felt a nugget of cold fury building in her chest. "You will cast any spell I want you to cast," she ordered. "When I want you to cast it."

"No."

Puissance began to turn a slight shade of red. “I pay your salary,” she hissed. “I fund the lab in which you work.”

“And you will continue to pay me and fund it, because if you fire me you will never be able to cast the spell with the Horseshoes,” said Moondancer in the same disinterested tone.

"The laboratory notes you have been making are work-for-hire and thus my property, as per our contract, and I could hire--” Puissance began before cutting herself off. As tempting as it was to coerce Moondancer's assistance by threatening to replace with her hated rival Twilight Sparkle, it wasn't a viable option, and Moondancer probably knew it. Twilight was confined to Ponyville and was under the direct supervision of one Trixie Lulamoon, meaning that any efforts to involve Twilight would be likely to result in Trixie learning of those efforts. Luna may have accommodated Puissance's research into immortality thus far, but the Alicorn had a bizarre soft spot for the showmare and might order Puissance to stop if Trixie complained hard enough. Trixie even had the Right of Approach now, so Puissance couldn't keep her away from Luna, and Trixie was also easily influenced by her 'friends' like that ridiculous Cheerilee pony who hated Puissance for absolutely no legitimate reason. It wasn't Puissance's fault that the small-minded teacher couldn't see the benefits of her educational scheme--

But that was another topic, one best addressed after Puissance had become immortal and enabled herself to maintain personal control of the nation's educational system long after Cheerilee and all who knew her were bones in a grave. For the moment, she had to deal with Moondancer. “I could hire any other pony,” Puissance corrected herself. “To complete your work. And the pony to finish this project would, I fear, receive far more credit and acclaim for the procedure than the pony who began it, even if the one who began it did in fact contribute more.”

“You could try.” Moondancer levitated a thick stack of papers that were laden with dense, scrawling writing Puissance couldn’t begin to understand even with the magic training she’d been taking. “But I have ensured they are completely incomprehensible to anypony who isn’t me. It’s standard practice among magic engineers and archmages.”

For a moment Puissance was almost overcome with rage, and she wanted nothing more than to advance across the room and throttle Moondancer. But if she did, Moondancer would never make her young, and she would die and lie cold forever…

“Wait,” said Precise Point suddenly. She walked past Puissance on her left while Perfect Precision mirrored her on her right. Solar Flare trotted up behind Puissance, and Scepter watched the argument from atop the Vicereine’s back with a puzzled expression. “Even if you do not want money, Moondancer,” added Precise Point, “we could pay you something else.”

“I told you,” began Moondancer “that I don’t need your payments. I can summon whatever I want or need. What can you offer me?”

“Anything,” growled Puissance. The world seemed to have narrowed to just herself and Moondancer, with reddish shadows surrounding them. “What do you want?”

But then Precise Point shook her head. “With respect, Vicereine, that is not the right question.” She turned back to Moondancer. “What do you love?”

“Yes,” said Perfect Precision. “What do you love?”

“Love?” Moondancer turned back around to face the others. “What I would love is to finally get the respect I deserve. To finally be appreciated as a top-level mage. Not second-banana to Twilight Sparkle, of all ponies! I was smarter than her, and I would have won valedictorian if she hadn’t betrayed me. I am going to prove that I am her superior!“

Precise Point inclined her head. “That can be arranged.” And then she and Perfect Precision trotted back to Puissance and whispered something in her ears.

The Vicereine listened, then smiled. “Ah, yes. Thank you.” She looked at Moondancer. “Are you familiar with the Grand Register of Archmages?”

“Of course,” said Moondancer blankly. “It is an award given to the most powerful mages in Equestria, and before it, Old Unicornia, but it is so hard to get that it is only awarded once every ten or twenty years. Star Swirl the Bearded is the most famous pony to receive the award; others were Clover the Clever and Red Magician. To obtain it a pony must work as a practicing mage for at least forty years, publish a certain number of new spells and inventions that have been certified as meritorious by the Academy of Magic’s scholars, and as a capstone, perform at least one novel spell which approaches in complexity or power the kind of magic Princess Luna can do.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” said Puissance as she approached the archmage. “However, there is an alternate path. The ‘forty years’ requirement may be waived if, in the opinion of the Academy of Magic, the pony in question performs a spell which does not just ‘approach’ the level of an alicorn but actually surpasses that level. Nopony has ever been found to meet that standard, but it is right there in the rules, just waiting for a pony who can surpass the alicorns themselves.” She bent down a little to whisper into Moondancer’s ear, speaking so quietly not even Scepter could hear. “And Princess Luna has made it clear to me that she is not able to make a pony immortal.”

Moondancer’s breath caught in her throat. “Well, yes… but a pony also needs sponsors. Somepony in the nobility, and then ponies in the Academy or similar institutions. Surely Twilight will have her Viceroy parents prevent anypony else from sponsoring me so that nopony will know I surpassed her. That's just the kind of selfish mare she is.”

“Do this for me and I will sponsor you myself, Twilight's House notwithstanding, and also use the immense leverage I have at my disposal to ensure others do so as well.” Puissance paced around Moondancer. “You have the requisite new spells and inventions. You need not worry about the timespan requirement. If you can find the fourth Horseshoe and then cast the spell you say you can cast, you will become the youngest pony in Equestrian history to enter the Grand Register of Archmages. And whenever anypony ever brings up the name of Twilight Sparkle, you can honestly say that if she works very hard, she might possibly catch up to where you are now… after she completes the forty-year working period which the Grand Register requires of lesser talents such as hers.”

Moondancer stood as still as if she too were frozen. Puissance backed up, smiling brightly. Then Scepter whispered in her ear, “I don’t get it. What just happened?”

Puissance gently pat Scepter with a wing. “She wants something and I want something, dear, and I’m helping her understand that if we work together we can both get what we want. It’s called business.”

“And she wants to be on the Grand Register thing?” Scepter tilted his head. “What do you want? I mean, what is she working with you to do?"

“Find the Golden Horseshoes, and as I said, use them to help me be able to play with you for a long time to come,” said Puissance obliquely. “You need not worry about it.”

“Oh. Okay.” Scepter looked at the secretaries. “You should pay those two ponies more, Granny Pu. They don’t eat enough. They’re super skinny!”

Puissance shushed Scepter, but she decided that when this did work out and she became immortal, she would indeed give them—and Solar Flare—a hefty bonus. Perhaps then they would stop whatever strange diet they were on and indulge a little.

Moondancer seemed to come back to herself, and for the first time since meeting her, Puissance saw a smile form on her face. “Alright,” she said. “I will do it. I need the three Horseshoes, the spell components listed in that document, and… and maps. Lots of maps. And trained cartographers. This spell will produce pictures showing the way to where the Horseshoe is, so we’ll need cartographers who can look at it and see if they recognize the locations.”

Puissance turned back to her secretaries and Solar Flare. “There is a university three blocks from here with a geography department. Get her what she needs.”

The trio ran off, Moondancer began setting up equipment for the spell, and meanwhile, Puissance showed Scepter around the laboratory. She herself didn’t know what many of the machines did, but Moondancer had several assistants, and they proved a lot more willing to explain the various experiments than Moondancer had been. Scepter was amazed, and by the end of it he was asking Puissance if there were maybe after-school classes he could take to learn more about some of the super-cool magic things going on in the lab. Puissance agreed and decided she might even take some more classes herself to become a true magical expert. Why not? She was about to have all the time in the world.

It took less than an hour for Monodancer to set everything up and for Puissance’s servants to return with a small army of cartographers, lured away from their actual jobs by the promise of vast payments. Moondancer directed ponies to open up the maps, starting with those nearest their current location, and explained how she would be projecting images as her spell tracked down the Horseshoe. When everything seemed ready Moondancer did a quick trot around the laboratory area while spreading out a few more maps, including hanging one over the muzzle of a new pony who had just entered the room.

Puissance recognized the new pony a half-second before the others. “Princess Luna!” she gasped. Then she wheeled on Moondancer. “Do not drape a map over the muzzle of Princess Luna!”

Moondancer, who hadn’t seemed to recognize the princess, blushed, but Luna just smiled and used magic to levitate the map over to a storage cabinet. “It is no matter.”

Solar Flare backed a few steps away from Luna, but if the alicorn was looking beneath her cloak and forming comments on her appearance—or the Alicorn Armor she wore—she did not make them. Instead, it fell to Puissance to speak. “Your Vicereine greets you,” she said with a bow. The other ponies mostly did too, even Moondancer after a few moments. The only pony who didn’t was Scepter; the foal seemed more interested in gawking at the alicorn than bowing. Puissance quickly thrust out a leg and nudged him down. “May I ask why you are here?”

“You may.” Luna smiled gently. “I was worried about you. I heard reports you had suddenly left Canterlot in an agitated state.”

Scepter gasped, but Puissance waved a hoof as she rose from her bow. “Just a small miscommunication that has since been resolved.”

“I see.” Luna looked around the laboratory room. “Am I interrupting something?”

“We’re about to use magic to find the fourth Golden Horseshoe,” said Moondancer.

The alicorn looked surprised, and Puissance wondered if perhaps Luna hadn’t thought she could really do it. “Fascinating. May I watch?” Luna asked.

“Of course,” said Puissance, as if there was any other answer to give the nigh-omnipotent monarch of the land. “By all means.”

Luna nodded, and then Puissance turned back to Moondancer, whose horn started to glow. “Let’s begin,” the archmage called. “First picture coming… now.”

Her horn glowed with a piercing red light, bright enough to force Puissance to look away lest she be dazzled. She noted that the other ponies were turning away too, except for Luna, and she made sure to cover Scepter’s face with a wing so he didn’t hurt his eyes. It took almost a full minute for the light to fade. When it did, Puissance glanced back to see the three Golden Horseshoes she already had were glowing and floating in a large triangle, within which an image of a mountainous forest appeared.

“I recognize that place,” said one of the cartographers. “It’s the Foalsome Forest.”

“Agreed,” said another. “The south part of the forest, actually. Near the big waterfall.” He marked a spot on the map just outside the boundaries of Califurlong proper. “Here.”

“Second picture,” said Moondancer, and cast again.

Slowly but surely Moondancer advanced her magic in a very rough line towards wherever the Horseshoe was hidden, and every time the cartographers identified the locations shown in the space between the Horseshoes. Some of the locations were very hard to identify, such as a few that were just empty plains or motionless lakes, but that was why Moondancer was moving so methodically; the cartographers knew the pictures were in a rough line, so even when they were not familiar with an area they could peruse the maps closest to the last location and find the most likely landmark now being depicted. At two points Moondancer had to stop and gulp down bottles of purified concentrated ether which Puissance had stocked the lab with, but at no point did she seem ready to give up, and no matter how much magic she expended she refused to let herself fall.

“This is so cool!” said Scepter when the image resolved on a beautiful mangrove forest. “Magic is awesome!”

After what felt to Puissance like hours, though she could not truthfully have said how long it really took, Moondancer suddenly straightened. “We are getting very close,” she said. “This might be the location.”

Puissance knelt over the maps. They were near the north-eastern border of Equestria, or possibly just beyond it; the cartographers had been unsure. “Then cast,” she said.

Moondancer did so, straining with effort, and the Horseshoes once again floated up into a triangle formation to reveal a picture. This time they showed a windswept mountain with a little shelf leading into some kind of cave. Some distance below the shelf was a tiny hamlet, and there were also smaller mountains surrounding it.

“I think that’s the Skyshaper Peaks,” said the lead cartographer. “It’s the right general location, based on the previous pictures. And look at the color of the stone.”

“And the foliage.” A second cartographer pointed to some trees whose trunks seemed strangely curved. “Those are only found near the Skyshapers.”

“But that range is twelve hundred miles long,” added a third. “Where in the Skyshapers is it?”

Puissance turned to the ponies around her. “Somepony take a photograph of that image before Moondancer loses it. You, Moondancer’s assistants. Go to the nearest libraries and take every book you can find on the—“

Solar Flare blasted out using the full speed of the Alicorn Armor, creating a miniature sonic boom as she went. Luna blinked, but before she could say anything the cloaked pegacorn returned with three dozen books floating behind her.

“Wow!” yelled Scepter. “You’re fast!”

“How intriguing,” said Luna quietly. Puissance tensed, but the alicorn raised no questions about how the cloaked pony had done that. “Shall we begin looking through the books?”

A laboratory assistant took a photograph of Mondancer’s image while the other ponies began going through the texts, with even Luna participating as they all worked to find the exact location Moondancer had shown them. Scepter scampered over next to Puissance with one of the books, a thick and heavy tome, and flipped it open. “It’s okay if I help, right?”

“Of course, dear,” said Puissance, tucking him under a wing while they searched. In the corner of her eye she thought she saw Luna smiling, but when she looked up the alicorn’s face was a neutral mask as she went through her own book. Puissance frowned, then returned to her work.

In about ten minutes Puissance flipped a page and saw an image that exactly matched Moondancer’s, including the cave, the shelf, and the hamlet. “Found it,” she called. “It says that mountain is called Mount Golem by residents of its hamlet, though apparently nopony knows why.”

“Hmm.” Luna inclined her head. “You know… centuries ago, when Red Magician was alive, he was said to have worked on building golems in some secret laboratory deep in the mountains. Nopony knew where he built it, but when he was done he also hid some of his more precious and powerful magical artifacts within that same hideout. He called it his Deepest Dungeon. Perhaps this is its location.”

“That would explain the mountain's name,” mused one of the cartographers. “And would also explain why such a powerful artifact happens to be there.”

Scepter gasped. “So the fourth Horseshoe thingie is in his deepest, darkest dungeon?”

“Just his deepest,” said Luna absently as she came over to look for herself. “Red Magician’s darkest dungeon is a different one; it’s a couple hours south of Canterlot. It’s actually very nice, except that he couldn’t get the lighting system to work.”

Puissance tried to ignore the jabber. “Regardless of what it is called. We know where it is. Now we can go there.”

“It says that there are rumors Red Magician set up traps, spells, and monsters to ‘keep out the unworthy,’” read Scepter from Puissance’s book. “That sounds scary.”

“I’m not worried.” Puissance glanced at the cloaked Solar Flare, who nodded. Solar Flare in the Alicorn Armor, Puissance was sure, could beat any centuries-old trap by Red Magician. “We can leave at once.”

“No you can’t,” said the cartographer. Puissance swiveled to glare at him and he quailed. “Er… sorry… but there’s a problem. This part of the Skyshaper Peaks is technically in the demilitarized zone between us and the griffins. Under the terms of our treaties with them, only so many ponies can go there per year, and only under certain conditions, and only with the approval of our respective Head of State.” He paused. “Meaning Luna.”

Puissance decided not to snap that she knew perfectly well who the monarch was. She quashed down her feeling of sudden terror—that Luna would pull her support now, on the cusp of success, and condemn her to death—and turned to her monarch. “Princess,” she said, only to take a step back when Luna fixed a strangely inscrutable gaze on her. It was like she was trying to peer into Puissance’s soul, and Puissance found she did not like that. “Princess, your Vicereine asks… your Vicereine implores…”

Luna said nothing.

And then Puissance bowed. “Your Vicereine begs for permission,” she said. “Please, Princess Luna. After 50 years of service your Viceriene begs…”

“Puissance,” whispered Luna. The vicereine looked up to see Luna extending her hoof, like anypony would do to help a fallen friend. “Rise, Puissance. I will not make you beg.”

Puissance got to her hooves, acutely aware that everypony was staring at her. “Thank you,” she said, somewhat lamely.

“Now, let’s see.” Luna tilted her head. “Shortly after my sister’s… return… a small detachment of griffons entered the demilitarized zone. That detachment included their more aggressive leaders and also those leaders’ heirs. They were clearly hoping that we would be too weakened from the Battle of Canterlot to defend Latigo, thus enabling them to break it into chunks and set up their sons and nephews with their own fiefdoms. When we proved able to block them, they told us that they weren’t attacking but were just ‘training a few of their heirs for operations in the field.’ She nodded. “We accepted that explanation, which means we can demand parity. I cannot send a full military contingent to excavate the site. That could be seen as an act of war. But a few ponies could go using the same excuse that the griffins had used.”

“I will leave at once,” said Puissance. “And I will represent to all who ask that I am training heirs—“

“No,” said Puissance with a smile, “You will actually bring heirs there to be trained. We must be honest with the griffins.” She looked at Scepter. “How would you like to go on an archeological dig with your grandmother?”

Scepter brightened. “That would be awesome! But, um… what about the monsters?”

“The hamlet seems okay,” said one of the cartographers. “And it’s right outside the dungeon. How bad could the monsters be?”

“And my bodyguard will protect you,” said Puissance with a nod towards Solar Flare. She had no idea why Luna wanted Scepter to go on this dig, but she didn’t care. It might even give her the chance to train him without his pesky father undercutting all her decisions. “She has defeated a hundred-cow army in less than a minute. She can handle an old monster or two.” Then she turned to Luna. “Then I will take Scepter with me—“

“And Trixie too,” said Luna with a smile. Puissance opened her mouth to object but Luna raised a hoof. “As I’m sure you know given… recent events… I see Trixie as one of my heirs, and I am very keen to continue her training. I am confident you would have much to teach her, especially given the variety of challenges which may present themselves on this dig, and I can promise you that she will enthusiastically assist your efforts to the best of her abilities. And after all, if we want the griffins to believe we are training heirs we must bring multiple heirs to train.”

Puissance sighed to herself, but there was no alternative. “Very well,” she said. “Do you wish me to take anypony else?”

“I can think of a few possible options,” Luna said. “But you need not wait for them. Gather the ponies you wish to take with you and leave for the Skyshaper Peaks. I will contact Trixie and anypony else I feel could assist you, then send them there independently.”

“Thank you,” said Puissance, already making the list in her head. Herself and Scepter, obviously Solar Flare, Moondancer—so she could cast the immortality spell the very moment they obtained the fourth Horseshoe; why wait until the return to Califurlong?—and maybe a few others. She recalled a pair of mercenaries Solar Flare had once mentioned, with names something like Silly Shimmer and Lightning Dolt. They weren’t military, and there were just two of them so they wouldn’t offend the griffins, but if they were genuinely capable and quickly available they were a possibility.

Luna turned to leave. “I will let you begin. But, one more thing. Puissance?”

“Yes, Princess?” Puissance hurried to her side. “What is it?”

The alicorn turned back to look at her, and there was still a smile on her face, but her gaze was deeply serious. “Artifacts like these sometimes come at an unduly high price,” she said quietly. “I truly do not know what will be waiting for you in the Skyshapers. Or if this… ritual… you intend to cast may have side effects. But if the cost is too high, I trust you will remember what is truly valuable.”

“Of course,” said Puissance, and she realized she felt less troubled than she had in a long time. After all, she’d heard that speech from so many ponies before. ‘Don’t pay more than you can afford,’ they all said. But they didn’t know her.

She was the mare who had everything. She was the mare who could afford anything. And no matter what price the Skyshapers and Star Swirl’s magic exacted, no matter what price eternal life…

She knew she could afford it.

Epilogue. One Pony's Life (in Worn Condition)

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Solar Flare looked out a window of the airship as they moved to hover over the hamlet just below the entrance to Red Magician's dungeon. She had spent the trip reading through a few of Red Magician’s journals that Luna had teleported to them, but those books had little useful information. For instance, take the last journal Solar Flare had looked through. There was a section on his dungeons, and even advice to prospective explorers on how to get through them, but they were just nonsensical gibberish. What did lines like “Remind yourself that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer’ even mean?

But no matter, she thought. It was just a little longer until they went into the dungeon. Just a little longer until she could finally give a truly valuable gift to her master, her mistress, the only pony who could love one such as her and thus the only pony worthy of her love.

Vicereine Puissance and Scepter were back in Puissance’s luxury quarters. Scepter almost hadn’t been able to come after all, as there had been an argument between Puissance and Banner regarding whether it was truly safe for Scepter to go on this trip. In other words, Puissance’s ungrateful family had once again tried to spurn the wonderful opportunities she had painstakingly arranged for them. However, Scepter’s impassioned begging and the promise that at least one Element of Harmony would be on hoof for Scepter’s protection won Banner over, and the foal was with them, just as Puissance and Luna had wanted.

The next set of quarters contained Moondancer, about a dozen clipboards which now seemed to be perpetually orbiting the unicorn’s head, and all the equipment she needed. She had come alone, without her assistants, but had promised that if Puissance could get her the fourth Horseshoe she would have everything she needed to cast the immortality spell. And that was good. It would be unfortunate if Moondancer tried holding out again, although Solar Flare was sure she could… convince her to see reason.

From over a neighboring ridge Solar Flare saw an approaching chariot marked with Luna’s crest. That no doubt contained Trixie and whichever other ponies Luna thought should help them. She’d heard the airship crew exchanging theories on who else Luna would send, some much more sensible than others. Other Elements, like that Ditzy mare who had gotten on so well with Puissance’s Vault ponies? Twilight Sparkle, to back up Moondancer as the expedition wizard (though that would no doubt infuriate Moondancer) and because they were basically in the backyard of the province she could one day rule? That crazy metal musician who had done some dungeon crawling before, Thrash Metail, and also Octavia to keep Thrash under control? Other nobles, like the mountaineer Baron Max? There were truly a large number of options.

But ultimately none of them mattered. Even if she and Puissance were alone, she knew she was strong enough to destroy Red Magician’s defenses and find the fourth Horseshoe. Strong enough to compel Moondancer to cast her spell, no matter how recalcitrant she got. Strong enough to truly serve her master.

Including, she thought, in ways her master would never know about.

She thought back to those reports from the scholars about the Golden Horseshoes. She had gone through them before Puissance had, and while she hadn’t initially intended to make changes, there was one segment she had ultimately decided to remove and burn. Its warning had been stark, and in her mind’s eye, Solar Flare could still see it.

“The legends vary,” the scholars had written, “as to whether using the Horseshoes may cause side effects. Some say the Horseshoes may be worn by anypony, but others say they can cause great damage if worn by one who is not a descendant of Mimic. Two myths state that the Horseshoes, if worn by a member of the family, will draw their power from the ambient environment, but if worn by an outsider, will drain the life force of those in proximity to the wearer—or those closely related to the wearer. In extreme cases improper use of the Horseshoes could result in the severe injury or death of others…”

Solar Flare did not, as a rule, hide things from Puissance, but she had destroyed that paragraph for three reasons. First, as the paragraph noted, the legend may well be false, and there was no point in worrying her master unnecessarily. Second, if it was true and Puissance really did hurt or kill somepony while becoming immortal, it would be important that they could prove to Luna she hadn’t known. Luna could exile Solar Flare to Tartarus over the matter, she could have her hung in the town square, but if Puissance hadn’t known, then Puissance could not be held responsible or punished. And if sacrificing her life was what it took to save her master, Solar Flare would gladly give it up.

And the third reason…

Her ears perked up as she heard Scepter make some joke. Puissance laughed, and Solar Flare permitted herself a scowl. Her master was incredibly loving, of course, but sometimes she loved so much she lost sight of her own value. If she knew that wearing the Horseshoes could hurt those around her, or her family, or Scepter specifically, she might not put them on. She might let herself die so that yet another member of her hateful, ungrateful family, could live. Her family would never appreciate Puissance’s incredible sacrifice in denying herself eternal life just because a few of them might die, of course. They’d still hate her, and Puissance would die, and Equestria would have lost the best pony it had ever produced.

But if Puissance didn’t know, if she put the shoes on and Moondancer made her immortal and they only later found Regalia or Banner or Scepter dead… well, Puissance would have eternity to get over it. And what’s more, she would have an eternity to create a better family, one that truly loved and respected her as she deserved.

Down below, Solar Flare saw somepony--perhaps the hamlet's caretaker--waving them down, so she pushed thoughts of Puissance's family out of her mind and extended her wings. It was time, she thought. Time when she could finally repay the mare who had saved her life. Time when she could finally give something worth having to her master. After all, she had finally found a worthy gift for the mare who had everything. And she intended to make sure the gift was received.

At any cost.