Runt looked between the two, slightly confused as to what exactly the issue was. But the thought of seeing a city in the sky, and of getting to go to school and learn all those things he could only try to guess at before, that's what kept his focus—and his smile. He couldn't wait!
"I think," Sweetie Belle said. "That leaves us with one final problem. We just have to figure out how to keep things from getting out of hoof once sales of equium kick in."
"Okay," Scootaloo said. "Maybe I'm not thinking this through all the way, but... why don't we just ask Princess Celestia to help? Can't she just 'decree it so' or something?"
"Ya know," Apple Bloom said, smiling. "That just might work."
Throne Room, Canterlot Castle.
One Week Later.
Princess Celestia reviewed the files one final time. The Cutie Mark Crusaders would be arriving shortly, and she was making sure she had all the details straight beforehoof. Twilight had been keeping the Princess apprised of the situation ever since Sweetie had brought her the lead acetate sample and they'd realized what was happening to the diamond dogs. Celestia had been devastated when she'd read that first report.
When Luna had been banished over a thousand years ago, the diamond dogs had been a moderately powerful empire in their own right. Like the griffons, caribou, and other races, they'd had their ups and downs and mostly kept to themselves. Over the centuries though, their civilization had waned and Equestria itself had grown to cover the lands the diamond dogs used to call their own. As the remnants were mostly underground, there had been only minimal problems. Celestia realized she'd thought almost nothing of it at the time. The decline had been so gradual as to be nearly unnoticed, and as it meant less conflict, her few thoughts on the subject had been mostly positive. At some point, probably a few centuries ago, she'd basically forgotten about the old empire entirely, and considered the remaining diamond dogs to be part of her own nation, no different from the other myriad creatures and beings under her protection. And that's where she had failed them.
Somehow, she'd let an entire race poison themselves nearly to extinction while under her rule. She hadn't noticed. She'd seen the decline, and merely taken it as a blessing, rather than something to be investigated. How many had died of starvation as they lost their ability to plan for the future? How many were killed by senseless violence, driven there by the poison in their minds? How many children had been poisoned on her watch? How many could she have saved if, centuries ago, she'd merely taken a few minutes to dispatch a pony to investigate? The answer, she knew, was too many. It was always too many.
Now there were these three fillies. In a matter of weeks, they'd not only discovered the problem she'd overlooked for centuries, but had developed a solution as well. And not just some basic stop-gap. No, these young ponies had not only figured out something for the diamond dogs to enjoy instead of the poison, but they'd also developed an elaborate plan of trade that would ensure the diamond dogs had candy for years and years to come, and would also bring a revolutionary new source of energy to all of Equestria. Then, as if that wasn't impressive enough, they'd foreseen and compensated for the incredibly disruptive nature of the whole thing, and already made deals to protect not just the diamond dogs and their interests, but the Equestrian economy itself. She could've thrown an army of diplomats and economists at the problem, and they'd take a year or more to do what three fillies had done in under a month. The efficiency with which the Crusaders attacked and solved problems was, Celestia thought to herself, humbling, if not outright frightening.
Flipping through the files, Princess Celestia tried to focus on the upsides. For one thing, at least she finally knew what that most recent charge—"one biggest bestest every-flavor-we-have candy assortment"—to the Royal-Party Emergency Fund was for. The fund was one of the few treasury accounts she kept personal tabs on, as very few ponies were authorized to the account, and it was meant to be used only rarely. Pinkie Pie was one of those, however. And while about two thirds of her charges seemed to indicate that she had mentally put the hyphen in the wrong place—treating it as the Royal Party-Emergency Fund—the remainder often provided an early warning system of sorts for impending issues. It was, effectively, a crude way to harness Pinkie Sense for the national good, and well worth the cost of occasional bills for balloons, confetti, and pudding.
Celestia had seen the charge show up over a month ago, and at first dismissed it as the party-emergency type, but it had made her pay much closer attention to news from Ponyville anyway, just in case. Now it was pretty clear that it was related to an emergency worthy of the Royal Party. More importantly, the charge had, at least in some small way, helped expedite the work the Crusaders had undertaken to save the diamond dogs. In that regard, it was worth every single bit. If only somepony like them had been there eight hundred years ago.
"Good afternoon, sister!"
Celestia looked up to see Luna entering the room. "Good afternoon, Luna. You're up early."
"Yes, I thought it would be interesting to meet this diamond dog the Crusaders are bringing." Seeing her sister frown, Luna added, "That is, if you don't mind me intruding upon your audience."
"No no, of course not."
"Then what worries you?"
Celestia sighed. "How can I face him, Luna? How can I look this child in the eye, when I let his entire race poison themselves for nearly a millennium?"
Luna moved to hug her sister. "It's not your fault, Tia. You mustn't blame yourself."
"I know. I know. It's just, I could have done something. If I'd realized. If I'd just paid more attention all those years ago."
"No pony is perfect, not even you, dear sister. You can't be responsible for the whole world."
"But I am, aren't I?"
"Tia, you can't—"
"I raise the sun, and lower it every evening. Everypony in the world depends on me. If the great Celestia, Princess of the Sun, isn't responsible for the world, then who is?"
"All of us. Each and every pony. We are all responsible for the world."
Sighing, Celestia looked up and smiled at her sister. "Thank you, Luna. Have I mentioned how much I missed you while you were gone?"
"Yes, and I you. But really, Tia, the whole world? Apparently you let your head get almost as fat as your thighs while I was gone." Luna stuck out her tongue and ducked out of range before Celestia could swat at her.
"I suppose I deserve that one. Still, I just wish I could have done more."
Luna dropped her playful pose. "If wishes were fishes..."
"...the sea would be full." Celestia finished the quote. "I know, I know."
"Let us do what we can now though. It is never too late to improve things."
Celestia laughed. "I thought I was supposed to be the sunny, cheerful one."
"Mayhap thou should behave as such then?" Luna had, for the most part, adopted modern vernacular only a few years after her return, but felt the antiquated modes of speech were a great way to tease her sister.
"Aye, verily." Celestia, in turn, felt exactly the same way. The two were interrupted by the arrival of a palace guard.
"Your audience has arrived, Princess."
"Show them in, Corporal."
The guard nodded to his companions by the main doors, and they swung them open. He then unfurled a scroll in front of his eyes, puffed out his chest, and bellowed, "Announcing the arrival of the Cutie Mark Crusaders: Ms. Apple Bloom, Ms. Scootaloo, and Ms. Sweetie Belle; and their retinue: Mr. Runt, Ms. Diamond Tiara, Ms. Silver Spoon, Ms. Twist, and... Princess Twilight Sparkle." The guard nearly stuttered on the last name, taken completely by surprise that a royal princess was somehow merely in the "retinue" for three fillies. His duty complete though, he let the scroll roll itself up, and marched back to his post by the doors.
"Welcome, my little ponies!" Celestia said. They seemed taller than she remembered. Thinking back, she realized she hadn't seen the three Crusaders since taking them to visit the Caribou last winter. Had it really been the better part of a year?
"Howdy, Princess!" Apple Bloom said. "Good ta see ya again. You too, Princess Luna!"
The other ponies chorused their various greetings as well. Introductions were then made, mostly for the benefit of those ponies not accustomed to meeting royalty. Both Diamond and Silver were nearly at a loss for words to be having an audience at the Royal Throne of Canterlot. Twist was happy, but not nearly as awed by the fame. Then Runt was introduced.
"It is an honor to make your acquaintance Mr. Runt," Celestia said, nodding to him in a slight bow. But Runt's eyes just went wide, and he froze, staring up at her. Before him was the biggest pony he had ever seen. He didn't know they could get that big. Apple Bloom and her friends were already larger than him, if not quite as tall, and several other ponies he'd seen were bigger than him on all counts. But Princess Celestia, she could probably step on him by accident and not even notice.
An elbow caught him in the side. "I said, 'Runt, this is Princess Celestia!'" He looked to his side, at Apple Bloom, who through gritted teeth muttered "Yer supposed to say, 'hello!'"
"H-h-hello." Runt said.
"Not to me," Apple Bloom lamented, her hoof going to her forehead. "To her!" She pointed back at the enormous white pony standing in front of him.
Celestia smiled warmly, "It's okay, Apple Bloom." The Princess of the Sun then lowered herself onto her knees and then to the floor, bringing herself to eye level with the small diamond dog. "Hello, Runt. I know this must all be a bit disorienting. I'm sorry if I scared you."
Looking at her face to face, Runt couldn't take his eyes off her mane. It... It just kept moving. It was like it was made of the sky itself, rather than hair. It was beautiful, yet from it rose a horn so massive it could skewer him like a spit. He had to keep reminding himself this was a pony, not a diamond dog. Ponies didn't beat up smaller ponies just for fun. Just because she was bigger than him didn't make her a threat.
"I... I'm s-s-sorry," Runt finally manage to stammer. "You're ju-just so b-b-b-big!"
Behind Celestia, Luna exploded with laughter. "See, Tia! I told you! Too much cake! Your thunder thighs scare even a diamond dog!"
Twilight and the Crusaders had, of course, seen the royal sisters with their guard down before. The young ponies found it pretty funny, and laughed along with Luna. Twilight merely rolled her eyes. But for Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, this was world shattering. It was odd enough to see a Princess kneeling and then laying down before a young diamond dog, but then Luna's insult left both of them standing with mouths agape.
For his part, Runt had no idea what had just happened. "Never mind her," Celestia told him, while peals of laughter continued behind her. "She's just picking on me because I put instant pudding in her shower again."
"Y-you get p-p-picked on, t-too?" Runt said.
"Of course. She's my sister. It's what sisters do."
Runt tried to wrap his mind around that. Celestia was the biggest pony he'd ever seen. She was the biggest anything he'd ever seen. Yet even she got picked on and teased?
"D-doesn't it... h-hurt? Don't you g-g-get mad?"
"Sometimes, but not for long. It's easy with a sister, of course. I know she loves me, and I her. But I've also been called much worse by more ponies than one could count. I have been insulted, both in the flesh and in writing, by ambassadors, generals, viscounts, kings, queens, and everypony in between. They have ridiculed my personality, mental acuity, tastes, emotions, gender, species, and pretty much every physical aspect of my being up to and including—for reasons I'm still not clear on—my elbows."
"H-how do y-y-you p-put up with th-that?"
Celestia leaned in close, draping a wing over Runt. "You want to know the secret?"
"The secret is that such things, even the most vile of them, are only words. They may be true or they may be false, but their mere utterance does not determine their veracity."
Runt tilted his head in confusion.
"I may be fat. Or I may not be fat. Either way, my sister telling me I am does not actually change the fact. It is either true or not true, regardless of her insult. So why should it bother me? If I'm fat, then she's telling me the truth, and if anything, I should take issue with the fact itself, not with her. If I'm not fat, then she's lying. And why should I let the words of a liar bother me?"
And for that, Runt had no answer, even though he felt he'd been doing exactly that for almost his entire life.
A few lengths away, Twilight was smiling. Her own childhood was full of moments like the one she had just seen, Celestia confiding some secret knowledge of the universe that always seemed to be exactly what Twilight needed to hear. Standing now on the outside, as an adult—and princess—in her own right, Twilight felt she'd gained a new perspective on her lifelong mentor in recent years. Celestia was wise, of that there could be no doubt. And she really and truly did know great secrets about the universe. But what impressed Twilight more and more wasn't the arcane knowledge or seemingly infinite power that Celestia possessed, but rather the care and genius she applied to even the smallest of things.
There were plenty of unicorns that could learn probably any ancient spell that Celestia knew. There were hundreds of scholars that knew more about particular histories than she did. There were even other ponies, herself and Luna included, who could raise the sun. But would any of them have been able to kneel down in front of a frightened young diamond dog, and manage to make the "sticks and stones" lesson into a special "secret" that he'd likely never forget? Would any of them have known to even try? Twilight didn't think so, and that's what made Celestia so impressive.
Finishing her talk with Runt, Celestia folded her wings and stood, before turning to address Apple Bloom. "I believe you've come with a proposal you'd like me to assist with?"
"Yes, ma'am." Apple Bloom said. "Ah've been workin' the past few weeks, tryin' to figure out how ta get the diamond dogs a supply'a candy in trade for hotrocks, without 'em gettin' overwhelmed."
"Yes, I've read the basics in what Twilight sent me." While technically true, Celestia had actually read the entire proposal the young ponies had come up with. Twilight and Celestia had both agreed it would be best for them to all present it in person though, mostly as a learning experience. However, Celestia admitted to herself, she'd also asked for the face to face because she needed to remind herself why it was all worth it.
The Crusaders began their presentation with Apple Bloom explaining the basics. Twist, with a small capital investment to start with, would make candy. She'd then trade that candy with the diamond dogs in exchange for hot rocks. Filthy Rich's company—with Diamond Tiara managing things—would then purchase those hotrocks, and they'd be stored temporarily.
Diamond Tiara then stepped in to continue. She explained how after several months, the local stockpile of hotrocks would be shipped to the company's main facilities in Manehatten, and refining operations would begin. In the meantime, Sweetie Belle, with assistance from Twilight, would help train company unicorns in the process, and oversee the initial setup of a small lab to run the operation. The hotrocks would be refined and the resulting equium stored in special containers to prevent accidental activation.
Meanwhile, they'd also be building and testing equium powered locomotives, as well as looking into the difficulty of retrofitting existing steam engines for the new power source.
This would all continue, Apple Bloom explained, for several years. As soon as the workflow was sorted out and things were running smoothly though, the operation would then expand to other diamond dog warrens around Equestria.
"And that's where it starts to get kinda tricky," Apple Bloom said. "Diamond's company can handle—"
"It's my father's company actually," Diamond Tiara interjected.
"Fer now," Apple Bloom said, a slight smirk crossing her face. "Anyway, their company has the resources to handle all the refinin' and transport, but they ain't exactly got a diplomatic corps or anything. So that's the first bit we need some help on. Ponies that can talk them other diamond dogs into tradin' candy and stayin' away from that poison sweetrock. And ponies that can keep their mouths shut about it too."
Celestia nodded. "I'm sure I can find some trustworthy mares and stallions for the job."
"I reckoned as much. We're also gonna need a candy company."
"Isn't Miss Twist here your supplier?"
Twist stepped forward. "Umm, well your highness. I like making candy, and I'm really happy that I can maybe help out by doing what I already like to do. But I don't want to run some big candy company."
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "We tried to talk her into it. But she insists she doesn't want to be rich."
Twist blushed, then pushed her glasses back up on her nose. "I'm happy to help out in Ponyville, and if I can make enough money to open my own store here in town in a few years, that's great. But I just want to have little shop with customers I know, not run some huge factory."
Celestia smiled. "That's a very mature view of things, my little pony. I suspect you'll be much happier for it in the long run."
Twist smiled at the compliment. "Like I told Apple Bloom, I'll be happy to share my recipe with whoever you think can handle the big stuff."
"Couldn't your father's company do it, Diamond Tiara?" Celestia asked.
"Well, we're really more of an industrial and manufacturing company, and..."
"It's okay, Diamond," Sweetie Belle said. "You can blame it on me." Sweetie then looked at Celestia. "I basically told her they couldn't have that too. Originally I was thinking to not let Twist get pushed out of the deal, but... Well, bottom line is, I think the equium monopoly is enough for one company. Frankly, some other ponies deserve to get a piece of the pie, no offense to you or Filthy Rich, Diamond."
"None taken," Diamond said. "I actually think you're right. It's more fair that way. It also means we don't have to explain why an industrial company suddenly decided to expand into confections."
Behind it all, Twilight smiled again. She looked forward to telling Rarity about this. Her little sister was spreading the idea of generosity so infectiously, that even the formerly spoiled brat of an industrial tycoon was happily turning away from greed.
"So," Apple Bloom continued. "If ya know any ponies with a candy factory, or lotsa money to start one..."
"What about me?" Silver Spoon said. The others turned toward the previously quiet pony. She hadn't been part of the plan, just allowed to come along on the trip because Diamond was going, and she wanted to meet the Princesses as well.
"Huh?" Apple Bloom queried.
"I... I totally understand if you don't think I deserve it or anything, but... What if I ran the candy making business?"
Stepping over to her friend, Diamond Tiara looked Silver in the eyes. "You know you're my best friend, so please don't be mad, but... Well, first off, isn't your dad's business in shipping? Secondly, and it hurts me to say this, but your dad isn't exactly somepony I'd trust with this sort of thing."
"Not my dad. Me."
The others looked confused.
Silver looked around the room, realizing she knew most of those present and trusted them. Of the ones she didn't, well... if you couldn't trust the princesses and the royal guard, then who could you trust? Silver sighed, then started to explain. "Okay, yeah, my dad's current business is in shipping. But before that, it was in coal mining. Before that, sports equipment. Before that, agricultural supplies. And before that, encyclopedia sales. He's never made a profit in any of them."
"How's that possible?" Scootaloo said, "I thought you guys were rich!"
Silver looked down. "We are. But it's not because of my dad. All the money is my mom's..." Silver paused, steeling herself before correcting, "...was my mom's."
There was a brief round of mumbled condolences, and Diamond craned her neck around to hug Silver before letting her continue. "It's mine now though. Well, technically it's in a trust for another year and a half or so, but I have some access to it. That's why my dad's been going so crazy since mom died. He didn't get much in her will, just a small monthly stipend. Enough to live comfortably on, but not to be rich. The rest all went to me."
Ears around the room perked up. This was the first any of them, including Diamond and Sweetie, had heard of this inheritance.
"While she was alive, mom kept funding all dad's crazy ventures, but when she was sick there at the end... she told me that was it. The money she'd kept behind was for me, not him. He'd already gotten his share, she said. She told me to go out and be my own mare, and to do something worthwhile with both my life and the money. I promised her I wouldn't let either go to waste."
The Crusaders looked around at each other, unsure what to think of this new revelation, then Luna spoke up. "Forgive me for being so bold, but may I ask how much money we are discussing here?"
Looking toward the darker princess, Silver Spoon responded. "Around fifty million bits are in the trust fund, though some of that is reserved for schooling and some other specific purposes by the will."
Eyes were wide around the room. That was, Diamond Tiara thought, "a lot of money," even by her standards. Her own family's assets were probably around the same scale, but the majority of them were tied up in the company. Having that much in liquid funds was, well, impressive, Diamond thought.
Sweetie Belle was the first to shake off the surprise. "Sorry, Silver. That's just a lot to wrap our heads around I think. Why are you just telling us about this now?"
"Well... When mom died, I didn't want ponies just being nice to me because they knew I was rich."
"You do realize, everypony already knew you were rich, right?"
"It's just different," Silver said. "I'm rich now, not my parents. But Sweetie, you and Diamond... you were my friends though all this hard stuff anyway. I know I can trust you both, and I think my mom would agree."
The two aforementioned ponies smiled, as Silver continued. "I also think she'd like this idea. It's a business, and unless you're all outright lying to me, it should be a pretty wise investment. Secondly, it'll be doing some good in the world too. As such, I think it's exactly the sort thing the trust fund allows me to tap in early for. I'm sure the attorneys in charge of it would agree."
"And if not," Luna said, grinning, "I'm sure a letter from a princess—or three—might change some minds."
"Let's try not to strong-hoof anypony just yet, sister," Celestia said. "Besides, this is not ours to decide." Celestia turned to Apple Bloom and the Crusaders. "This is your plan, Apple Bloom. I will leave it in your hooves to decide if Silver Spoon is the partner you wish for this portion of the endeavor."
Apple Bloom, caught on the spot, wasn't quite sure what to make of this. She looked to Sweetie Belle, who of course nodded. Then she looked to Scootaloo, who merely shrugged. Luna and Celestia were exactly as unreadable as one expected thousand year old royalty to be, and Twilight... Well, Twilight just smiled happily. It really was up to her, she reckoned.
Thinking for a moment, Apple Bloom realized her real problem was still ancient. Silver Spoon had been filed under "enemy" for so many years, that it was hard to not get crosstalk from the past in her mind when thinking about the rich pony in the present. This was importantthough! The fate of the diamond dogs, of Equestria itself—or at least its near-future economy—hung in the balance. It was hard enough trusting Diamond Tiara, but at least that was mitigated by the fact that it was her father's company technically, and they were an established industrial juggernaut already. Silver was proposing to do all this from scratch.
On the other hoof though, weren't they doing all of this from scratch? So why couldn't Silver manage it? It was just making some candy canes after all. Heck, Silver was actually older than she was even. They were all nearly adults now. If she removed the thought of Silver as a former bully from her thoughts, Apple Bloom couldn't find any real reason Silver wouldn't have just as good of a shot at pulling this off as she herself would. Actually, she could think of about fifty million reasons that Silver'd have an even better shot at it.
"Okay, works fer me," Apple Bloom said, walking over to Silver. "Welcome aboard!" The two bumped hooves. "That fixes that bit up nicely then. Next part's a mite more difficult I suspect though."
"Do tell," Luna prompted.
"Well, if we manage to get the diamond dogs off sweetrock, them kids are gonna be growin' up smart, like Runt here. They're gonna need schoolin', despite what my dear friend Scootaloo might think."
"Hey!" Scootaloo said, sticking out her tongue. "I'm all about books now, remember?"
"Ya know I'm just kiddin'," Apple Bloom said. "But in all seriousness, if this works, we're gonna have an entire generation'a diamond dogs growin' up, and none'a their own are gonna be able to teach 'em properly."
Celestia and Luna both nodded. "So what's your suggestion there?" Celestia prompted.
"Well, we don't really know what they're gonna need to learn. I mean, unicorns get magic school, pegasi usually go to flight schools. Earth ponies, well..." Apple Bloom looked around at Diamond, Silver, Twist, and thought about the various other earth ponies she knew as well: Pinkie Pie, the Cakes, Carrot Top, even her own family. "I guess we tend to just jump right into work and business, don't we. Anyway, point is we don't know what the diamond dogs'll need. So fer now, I say ya collect like a twenty percent tax on equium, and put it in an educational fund. Then we can use it to take care of 'em when they start to be ready for school in a few years."
"Sounds quite reasonable," Celestia said.
"In the meantime..." Apple Bloom said, nodding to Runt to pick up the thread. He just shied away though.
"Go on," Apple Bloom encouraged him. "They need to hear it from you."
Runt looked up at the massive pony princess, took a deep breath, then sputtered out, "I want to go to school!"
"I thought he could come to classes with us," Scootaloo said. "But Twilight thinks that'd be unfair."
"And it would be," Twilight said. "Cheerilee has a hard enough time just keeping the lot of you under control. Runt... Runt has a lot of catching up to do. He's going to need a school and teachers that can help him with that."
Celestia once again knelt to eye level with the diamond dog. "There are many boarding schools throughout Equestria that offer education to multiple species, so I'm sure we can find a place for you. And while I think your desire is noble, I want to warn you, school may be very difficult. I know of no other diamond dogs that have attended one. You would likely be the only one of your species wherever you go."
"Th-that's p-p-perfect," Runt said. "I d-d-d-don't get along w-w-well with other d-d-diamond dogs."
That was, Celestia thought, so very, very sad. And her own fault as well. Here stood the one diamond dog that seemingly escaped the consequences of her negligence, and yet he was isolated and alone, even among his own species, because of it. Yet he was still determined to better himself.
"Well then," she said. "If it's what you truly want, then it would be my honor to recommend you to a school, and pay for your tuition as well." It was, Celestia realized sadly, almost literally, the least she could do.
"N-no," Runt said. "I m-m-mean... I w-want to go to sch-school, but I'll p-pay for it, m-m-myself."
Celestia blinked in surprise. The sort of schools that could provide the specialized education he'd need would be expensive, and she didn't think Runt quite understood just... Her thoughts tapered into a mental facehoof just as Apple Bloom interjected with the explanation.
"See Princess, ah figure Runt here, well, he sorta got this whole thing rollin'. So I figure we all owe him a bit of a finder's fee for all the business that's about to go down. Reckon one percent or so oughta be enough to pay for a boardin' school, dontcha think?"
Celestia smiled, even though it hurt inside. She was denied even that token gesture of compensation. Yet she had to admire the completeness of it. "Of course, of course," she said. "I'm sure that will be more than sufficient. And I applaud your thoroughness. You seem to have considered all angles in this venture."
"Thanks, Princess," Apple Bloom said. "We've all been workin' hard to sort it."
"So if I'm understanding correctly, all you need from me is to find a few trustworthy liaisons to contact and initiate trade with the other diamond dog warrens, and provide a letter of recommendation for Runt to a school of his choice?"
"Well," Apple Bloom said. "There is one more thing."
Celestia knew there would be, and she suspected it was the one thing these fillies, bright and thorough as they were, didn't fully understand. "Yes?" she prompted.
"Well, we need ya to make this kinda official. Like, yer hoofprint on things, promisin' all the splits and such go where they're supposed to. Diamond's father, Filthy Rich, well he needs that sorta guarantee."
Diamond spoke up. "We need to know that, if our company invests that much money in stockpiling a resource we can't sell for years, that we'll have exclusive rights to it. That... forgive me, your Highness, but my father needs to know we aren't being cheated. That you're not letting some other company stockpile equium too."
And there it was, Celestia thought. The request to make things official with a royal seal. Of course it made sense when taken piece by piece. Stockpiling buffered the market, which kept the diamond dogs from being overwhelmed. Letting a company do it made sense because they had the resources in place. Of course they deserve to profit from their investment. Of course it had to be secret too, or the economy was at risk until there was a stockpile. So of course they needed assurances that they weren't being swindled. It all made perfect sense, and it was a great solution to a difficult problem. It would help both the diamond dogs and Equestria itself in the long run.
These well intentioned fillies, brilliant, amazing, and clever, had the perfect plan. But it wasn't a perfect world. Celestia knew that they were only asking for something that was perfectly logical and reasonable. But if you didn't understand logic and reason—if instead, you were the type of pony that engaged in politics—then it looked like something much, much more sinister. What the Crusaders were asking for, and—Celestia had already decided—were about to get, was literally a secret, government-sanctioned monopoly on a highly valuable natural resource, which bypassed all normal government channels and economic safeguards in no less than fifteen different laws and treaties designed specifically to ensure that such things never occurred.
"So ya think ya can help us out?" Apple Bloom asked, after Celestia had paused longer in thought than expected.
"Of course, my little ponies. I'll be happy to sanction and guarantee the terms of the venture."
Luna gave a brief, side-eyed glance to her sister, and Celestia returned it with an eyebrow raise both knew to mean, "We'll talk about it later."
"Thank you!" Apple Bloom said. "I think that's all then. I know we gotta get ya some papers on all this, but Twilight said she'd help with that later this week."
"Will you stay and dine with us?" Luna asked, mostly to Twilight.
"I'd love to, Luna," Twilight said. "But I promised this group we'd go visit Cloudsdale once we finished up here. Apple Bloom's been begging to see one of the new mainline airships, and one of them is making the Canterlot-Cloudsdale run this afternoon."
"I understand," Luna said, then turned more generally towards everypony. "I hope you all enjoy your trip."
There was a chorus of thank-yous and goodbyes as the audience ended, with Twilight eventually ushering the group out of the throne room. Luna and Celestia were then left alone as the guards pulled the outer doors shut.
"You do realize what you've just committed to," Luna said. "Don't you, Tia?"
Celestia made a show of counting under her breath. "Seventeen violations of various anti-trust acts, three counts of conspiracy, and four different cases of treason. Though, technically, I'm not sure I can commit treason against myself, and the treaty with the Crystal Empire was before reunification, so maybe it's only two conspiracy violations as well."
"Very funny," Luna said, deadpan. "And you forgot the one about doing absolutely boneheaded things just because you feel like it."
"That's not a law... that was just something you decreed while drunk one night."
"And royal decrees are laws! You said so yourself when you insisted I take my half of the royal duties."
The two sisters smiled at each other. Then the smiles faded as reality once again set in.
"You're right, Lulu," Celestia said, sitting down on the floor. "I'm in deep on this one."
Luna nodded. "We are in deep."
"It's the right thing to do though, right?"
"The scandal. I know. I remember thinking that courtesan gossip was bad enough a thousand years ago, but since my return... These newspapers, Tia! How'd you let them get so out of hoof?"
"They kept me in check," Celestia said, with no trace of sarcasm in her voice. "They are ugly, in their own way. But they shine a light into any darkness, even my own."
"Oh Luna... I... After what happened to you, I saw the same darkness in myself at every turn. The Nightmare took you in a moment of weakness, a moment of darkness. But it could've just as easily been me. A thousand years by myself, and it was so easy to just brush aside concerns when they contradicted my own opinions, so easy to simply ignore the voices of ponies I was supposed to be caring for."
Luna sat down next to her sister and wrapped a wing around her larger sister, leaning into her warm side. "And the newspapers?"
"Vile. Awful. Rats, the lot of them. But like recognizes like. I realized that if those rats could get their claws into me, then I was probably doing something dirty."
"That's... amazingly pessimistic, Tia. Even for you."
"It's like I told that little diamond dog earlier though. If what the rats say bothers me, then perhaps it is what I'm doing that I should be bothered about."
"And this monopoly you've just granted? Surely you don't think that wrong?"
"No! No, of course not. It is, just as those fillies all explained, the best solution possible."
"And the rats?"
"Oh, they're going to tear me shreds when they find out. When equium sales begin in earnest, and everypony starts looking into things, they'll be demanding my head for interfering so directly in the market. Which reminds me..."
Luna looked up and made inquisitive eye contact with her sister by her side.
"You remember that 'suggestion' you, Cadance, and Twilight have all been trying to push on me since last winter?"
"Taking the title of Queen?"
Nodding, Celestia explained. "I think I finally see a reason for it."
"When this becomes public, ponies will be outraged. I'm violating so many laws, but more importantly, I'm violating the basic principles of openness and fairness that Equestria is founded on. Nopony is going to let me accomplish anything useful, assuming they don't find some way to just kick me out entirely. Yet this equium thing... it's going to be a revolutionary advancement for our nation. It'll need to be managed carefully, as things will be changing fast, yet I won't be in any position to say much, much less heard."
"You think they'll listen more if you're a Queen?"
"No! Just the opposite really. That's why I didn't want to take the title before. It'll distance me from others, put me above you, Cadance, and Twilight."
"You are 'above' us, Tia, both literally and figuratively, and you know it."
"Be that as it may, that was never my real desire. But now some use might be made of that. If I call myself Queen now, it may serve to distance me from you and the other princesses. This 'venture' can be my doing, and mine alone. When it's revealed in a few years, and the outrage ensues, you and Twilight can say you had no knowledge of it. You can say I'd gone mad with power, calling myself Queen, issuing monopolies, etc. 'Oh, if only we'd seen the signs,' you can say."
"Well, less ham-hoofed, but you get my point. You and Twilight can perhaps manage to steer the country for a year or two while I take the brunt of the scandal. Hopefully, if this all works as we imagine, all of Equestria will indeed benefit, and the outrage will fade quickly. If not though... It will make it easier to know that ponies I trust will still have the love of the populace."
Sighing, Luna looked up at her big sister. "You know that is never what we wanted you to be Queen for."
"I know, Lulu."
"It was meant to be an honor. First among us. A sign and symbol that you truly are the best of us."
Celestia felt tears start to well up in her eyes. "I know, Luna, and I love you for it."
"I love you too, Tia." Luna sniffled, and the two royal sisters hugged as they sat on the cold marble of the throne room floor.
Three months later.
Though it wasn't quite as impressive as the mainliner they'd ridden from Canterlot several months ago, Apple Bloom still admired the elegant craftsponyship of the smaller airship's construction as she disembarked. The other Crusaders stepped off the deck behind her, followed closely by Runt and Twilight Sparkle. Reaching the bottom of the gangway, Twilight led the group to the end of the dock, where they retrieved Runt's luggage—a single trunk, filled mostly with books—and then on toward the far side of town.
As they walked—the non-winged kept aloft by Sweetie's recently perfected cloudwalking spell—Runt was smiling ear to ear. The young diamond dog was so incredibly happy to be on his way to school, and in Cloudsdale no less! Twilight and the Crusaders had helped him look at various schools, but he kept circling back to the prep school in Cloudsdale. For one, it wasn't too far from Ponyville, and the friends he'd made there. It also routinely housed plenty of non-pony students, including many griffons, a couple of caribou, and at least one minotaur. More importantly though, it was up high!
Here, there was no ground at all to be seen. There were no tunnels closing in on him, no tight spaces to get trapped in. The ground under his feet was cloud, not dirt. No diamond dog bullies would be popping out of it to torment him. Here, he felt safe. He felt, against all stereotypes for his race, at home.
"Whatcha starin' at?" Apple Bloom asked, seeing Runt, eyes closed, with his face turned toward the sun in a grin.
"I just... I'm so happy to b-be here!"
"Heh," Apple Bloom smiled. "I kinda knew that, seein' as ya wouldn't shut up about it for the past three weeks."
"Yeah," Scootaloo added. "And I thought I had been eager to reach the sky the first time."
In the past few months, Runt had learned to take the light teasing as the friendly banter it was meant to be, so totally different from the mocking he'd dealt with most of his life.
"Okay, come along now," Twilight said, after turning and finding her entourage lagging. "We don't want to be late."
The group hurried to catch up with Twilight, and made good time to the school, finding they were actually a half hour early for registration, and decided to take a walk to the nearby park.
As the ponies walked past the swingsets and cloudboxes, past benches and trotting tracks, Scootaloo spoke up. "This looks familiar somehow," she said.
"Have you been here before?" Twilight asked.
"I don't think so, but... isn't that the university across the way?" Scootaloo pointed across the grassy part of the park and track.
"I think so, why?"
"Is there another park like this, this close to it?"
"I don't think so," Twilight said. "The maps only showed this one."
Collapsing onto her haunches in front of a cloudbox, Scootaloo said. "This is it then."
"What is?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Scootaloo pointed at the cloudbox in front of her. "Here. This. That's where I was... made."
The other ponies' eyes went wide in comprehension. This was the story they'd heard from Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, of how Fluttershy had sculpted a friend out of the cloudstuff, and later it'd been brought to life by a wish and a cupcake. This was where Scootaloo had started.
The orange pegasus stood and walked to the edge of the cloudbox, dragging a forehoof through the cloudstuff within, before picking some up and letting it drift back down off her hoof. "Hard to believe," Scootaloo said. "That somehow this stuff became me."
"At l-least you started in the sk-sky," Runt offered. "Not in the d-dirt."
"Hey!" Apple Bloom said, assuming the diamond dog meant mock offense in her direction.
"N-not you. I meant me," he said.
"I guess you're right," Scootaloo said, smiling. "I did start in the sky. Probably explains why I was chasing it for so many years. Just wanted to get back up here."
"Yeah, ya were pretty single minded," Apple Bloom said. "But I think our friend Runt here's got ya beat. He's been tryin' way harder to chase the sky than you ever did, and he started from underground too!"
Scootaloo looked at Runt. "But you know what? We both made it! That's what counts. We're both up here now, aren't we, Runt?"
Runt grinned, his tongue hanging out slightly, and his bent ear flopping in the breeze. "Yup!"
"You know," Sweetie Belle said. "We're all going to miss having you around, Runt. These past few months have been fun."
"I'll miss you all t-too."
"Promise you'll come visit?"
"He better!" Apple Bloom said. "After all the work we went through to get 'im up here!"
"Speaking of," Twilight said. "This time we really might be late if we don't head back."
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "Wouldn't want our friend here to miss the overwhelming joy of classes and homework!" The sarcastic statement was completely missed by Runt himself, who genuinely looked forward to classes and even homework.
The group returned to the school, and found the office now open. Twilight retrieved a clipboard with half a dozen forms to fill out, and was about to start writing when she thought better of it.
"Here," she said, passing the paperwork to Runt. "You'll need to get used to this kind of thing if you're going to study here."
Taking the clipboard eagerly, Runt sat down in the middle of the floor and began to fill out the various boxes and blanks. The scribbling was fast, but mostly legible, Twilight decided after looking over his shoulder. When the noise of quill on paper subsided though, she looked again. Runt had the end of the quill in his mouth, and was thinking about something.
"Something I can help explain?" Twilight asked.
"It says 'full legal name' here," Runt said.
"That means all your names together. For example, my full name is Twilight Sparkle, even though most of my friends just call me Twilight."
Runt continued to pause in thought.
"Are you trying to remember your full name?" Twilight prompted.
"No," Runt said. "I don't have a name."
"Well if you don't have another name, you can just put 'Runt.' Lots of ponies only have one name too."
"But I don't even have one name."
At this, Twilight hesitated. The odd statement also got the attention the Crusaders as well, who'd been distracted by an extremely obese griffon that was having trouble exiting the office.
"What do you mean?" Sweetie Belle said. "Isn't your name 'Runt'?"
"No. That's just what all the others called me since it's what I was, the runt. I never got a real name, and this form says full legal name. I don't have one."
Apple Bloom noticed then that Runt's stutter had practically vanished for this conversation, and started trying to figure out why.
"Wait," Scootaloo said. "Have we basically been insulting you by calling you Runt this whole time? I mean, ponies used to call me chicken and I hated it. I never meant to do that to you."
"No. It's okay," Runt said. "I know you didn't mean it as an insult, and I've been used to it for years. But... it's not a real name. I need a real name to go to school."
"Why dontcha just pick one then?"
"It... it wouldn't be a legal name though, would it?"
At this, Sweetie got a huge grin on her face. "I don't know... maybe we should ask somepony from the Royal Ponyville Library." When Twilight didn't get the hint, Sweetie elbowed the princess and tried again. "I said, maybe somepony from the Royal Ponyville Library might have some idea how to make something like a name change legally binding!"
Twilight looked at Sweetie Belle with a wrinkled brow. She knew the filly was hinting at something, but it wasn't quite—Oh, she thought. Then she laughed. Luna's drunken proclamation! Of course, Luna wasn't the only pony who was a princess.
"Are you suggesting that I, as a Royal Princess, might be able to issue a decree, and therefore make legal and binding a name of this creature's choosing?"
"Wait," Scootaloo said. "You can do that?"
"There are a few upsides to being a princess."
"So you could decree my name to be 'Scootaloo the Stupendous'?"
"More like Scootaloo the Stupidious," Apple Bloom muttered.
"Hey, I heard that!"
"Never accused ya'a bein' deaf, just dumb!" Apple Bloom said, smirking.
"Come on, guys, be serious," Sweetie Belle said. "This is a big deal here. Runt's trying to pick his own name."
"I can, r-really do that?" Runt asked, his stutter returning briefly.
"Yes, you certainly can," Twilight said. "And I'd be honored to make it my first royal decree."
"So," Apple Bloom said, "Watcha thinkin' about?"
"Yeah," Scootaloo added. "Pick something cool, like 'Ace' or 'Firetail'!"
"Just don't pick, 'Rupert'," Sweetie said, grinning. "Or we'll be here all night arguing about it."
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom both gave her a dirty look for that one.
"Can I pick a p-pony name?" Runt asked.
"Umm, sure," Twilight said. "You can pick any name you like."
"Well, I was thinking about what Scootaloo said earlier."
"Don't tell me yer goin' with 'Ace'!" Apple Bloom said, rolling her eyes.
"No. At the park. What you both kind of said, I guess." The ponies perked up their ears as he continued. "You said I'd been chasing the sky, and I think you're right. All I ever dreamed of since I first saw the blue sky and the clouds, was getting out of the tunnels. I imagined myself way, way up in that sky, away from the bullies and the dirt and ground. Free."
The ponies nodded in sympathy.
"So, yeah," Runt continued. "I think if there's one thing I've done with my life, it's chase the sky. Then, when you first brought me up here a few months ago, I thought I'd finally caught it. But that night, before we left, and we were waiting at the dock for the airship and the stars began to come out, I realized the sky goes so, so much further than I could ever imagine. But I still want to chase it."
"So?" Apple Bloom prompted. "What're we gonna call ya?"
"Sky Chaser," he said, smiling ear to ear with contentment.
Royal Dining Room, Canterlot Castle.
Three years later.
Looking down at the papers scattered on the table above her breakfast, Celestia scanned the headlines.
"Secret Royal Monopoly!"
"Equestria's Exclusive Equium Exposed!"
"Cadance's Griffon Love Child!"
"Teapot Dome Scandal!"
Thankfully, one of those was a celebrity tabloid, but the rest were well respected news sources. The day she'd been dreading had finally arrived. Queen Celestia sighed, and finished the last of her tea. For some reason, it tasted much more bitter today.
I know it was a long wait, but I hope it was worth it. As promised, I'm publishing everything as soon as it's ready, rather than saving half this to buy time. As a reader though, I'd prefer it that way, so I hope ya'll do too. As a writer though, that means I'm back to zero buffer (and full pressure) for the next chapter. It should be a bit shorter though, and hopefully that means I can get it completed sooner.