The Sun Never Sets
The ponies assembled around the sleek, black, sharp-lined table waited in silence and stillness for fifteen minutes. At twenty minutes, the younger among them began to shift and fidget, shuffling their papers; the fillies checked their blush, the colts tugged on their ascots. The older ministers, with years of experience in cabinet meetings and policy negotiations, knew how to let their minds wander without betraying their composed decorum. The high-backed black chairs were not helping matters, as they were made with sharp lines and little give. The ponies' eyes wandered around the conference room, taking it in, noting that it, too, was sharp and sleek, white marble cut with tall, narrow doors and windows, ornamented only by the glint of aluminum at the corners of the ceiling, the metal cut into wedges. Stenography automotons clicked softly as they floated in the air, paper spooled and ink wet, ready to take down the minutes of the meeting; they were constructs of aluminum and carbon fiber, looking like two discuses colliding at an angle, held aloft by levitation spells constantly pulsing from synthetic magic circuits. At twenty five minutes, even the oldest and most patient among them were perturbed.
The Regent of the Sun was late.
A jet-black pony with a slate-gray mane and tail, an iridescent horseshoe on either flank, tapped his hoof on the table. His aluminum-frame glasses rode low on his snout. “Perhaps we should begin a brief summary of points-”
“Start without the Princess?” another pony, of cream-white with a golden mane and tail and a horn on her head, said. “She has the final say on this accord. It's pointless to start without her, Minister Iron Gaze.”
Iron Gaze gave his compatriot a gentle look. “We are not without the presence of royalty- and I'll thank you to respect Her Highness by remembering that.”
Here all eyes turned down the table, to the seat at the end nearest the door. It was larger than the others, and had a higher back, at the top of which there was a single large disc of pure silver. In it sat a goddess. A full-grown horse, when she stood she towered over the ponies present on her long, graceful legs. Her coat was deep purple, almost black, and it shimmered with flickers of light when she moved, twinkles of brilliance like stars in the sky. Three stars each adorned her flanks on either side, gleaming silver. Large, powerful wings, shaped like a great swan's, were folded against her sides; when the gaze of the room turned on her, she kept almost completely still, but the faintest of flutters from her feathers betrayed nervousness. Her mane and tail were almost white, with the barest hint of a warmer hue- pink, just barely present, such that her hair was the same color as a pearl. Both mane and tail were long and elegant, and fluttered around her as though caught in a breeze, despite the air in the room being still. Fittingly, she wore a crest around her withers that was also the color of pearl, because it was pearl- it was carved from a single, enormous pearl, pried from the shell of a Titan Clam beneath the azure waters of the Aerolean Sea. In the center of it was an oval onyx stone. There was pearl filigree wrapping around her lower legs as well, and she wore a pearl crown on her head in which another onyx was set. Protruding through the crown's circlet, from the middle of her forehead, a long horn rose like a lance. Her eyes, which blinked gently in the face of scrutiny from the rest of the table, were a deep sea green.
“Princess Shimmerstar,” the cream unicorn said, inclining her head, “do forgive my impertinence. I meant no offense.”
Shimmerstar gave her a small, warm smile; her smiles could make anypony forget their troubles in an instant. “You are full pardoned, Minister Gleamy Glades,” the princess said in a melodious voice. “It was no great slight. And I am sorry to say, Minister Iron Gaze, that I alone am not sufficient to proceed with this accord. The Chief of the Chousingha addressed his words explicitly to my co-ruler; moreover, as you know, all... expansionary business requires the consent of both princesses.”
“Have you any idea where the Princess could be?” Gleamy Glades asked.
“I am at as much a loss as you are,” Princess Shimmerstar said. “You know as well as I that she's typically early to meetings, waiting impatiently for us. I cannot say-”
Suddenly, the door behind Shimmerstar burst open. Loud footsteps clacked across the gray marble, and another winged unicorn, her size and stature equal to Shimmerstar's, entered the room. The assembled ponies rose from their seats and knelt toward her, all save Shimmerstar, who merely nodded. The new entrant inclined her head. “Forgive my lateness,” she said. “I received a personal telegram from Governor-General Marsh Mailer that demanded immediate attention. My response got rather... detailed; I lost track of time.”
Iron Gaze rose from his kneel and inclined his head. “My Princess Radiant Dawn, for you we would wait eternally.”
Radiant Dawn smiled. “Now, I wouldn't have that. You know I hate waiting.” She trotted down the table as the other ponies and Shimmerstar took their seats again. She took her own, a high-backed chair like Shimmerstar's, this one with a disc of pure gold at the top. Magically sensing her presence, the stenography automotons clicked into life, their hidden quills being placed on their rolls of internal parchment. “Let's begin. Iron Gaze?”
The black earth pony cleared his throat. “Yes, our first order of business, and most pressing. Chief Ton Nag of the Chousingha has at last responded to our entreaties.” Iron Gaze raised a piece of paper between his front hooves. “He welcomes Equestria's offer of development and investment; he and his Grand Tribal Council have decided that it is in the best interests of Tetredigol to unite their purposes to ours, and they have formally applied for incorporation.”
Radiant Dawn smiled even larger. “That is truly refreshing. I was worried the process would be drawn out, as it was with Tetredigol's neighbors in the Banav Islands.”
Iron Gaze blinked his gray eyes. “Yes, it will be a great boon indeed not to repeat that bit of unpleasantness.”
Shimmerstar's gaze drifted down toward the table. It was left unspoken, of course, that the Chousingha tribes that lived in Tetredigol had been under a strangling blockade by the Royal Equestrian Navy for the past month. Her own sources of intelligence had informed her that the nation, which was almost entirely coastal, had been forced to abandon the fertile islands where they farmed the bulk of their food crops. Additionally, the Royal Equestrian Air Corps had used their shadesails to block swaths of sunlight from the crop-growing areas on the mainland. She had not yet discerned how many of the Chousingha had wound up starving. Still, the lunar princess thought, I suppose Iron Gaze is right. It is better than what happened in the Banav Islands. She didn't like to think about what had happened in the Banav Islands.
“Ton Nag has agreed to full cultural and social incorporation,” Iron Gaze said, “and has furthermore declared that he will pay a tribute of sea sapphires to the Royal Treasury equivalent to one quarter of his tribe's annual collection.”
“A tribute?” a dark green pony with wings, wearing a bright orange ascot, remarked. “That's the third time we've seen these islander types offering to send us trinkets.”
“It is their way of showing sincerity,” Iron Gaze said. “In their cultures, written agreement is not a sufficient sign of trust. Gifts are exchanged.”
The green pegasus arched a black eyebrow. “Sounds like a terribly suspicious group of primitives.”
“That will be all, Vice-Minister Sable Swift,” Radiant Dawn said. “They can't be too terribly primitive- they have come to see things our way, after all.” She turned back to Iron Gaze. “Minister Iron Gaze, have the Ambassador deliver our response. Let Chief Ton Nag know that Equestria is happy to initiate a new era of cooperation, of friendship, with the nation of Tetredigol. It will be our great pleasure to assist in the education and modernization of his presently humble land. Furthermore, his desire to send us sea sapphires is a much appreciated gesture, but completely unnecessary.” Here the solar princess' eyes took on a barely-visible glint. “If he wishes to give us tribute, he understands what we desire: free and unfettered access by the Equestrian Trading Company to the aluminum deposits in the mountains of Tetredigol.”
Iron Gaze nodded, and adjusted his glasses. “I shall send a telegram to Ambassador Gabby Tab aboard the Peerless as soon as this meeting is adjourned, My Princess.”
Aluminum- that was what this 'friendship' was really about. More than a century and a half ago, Equestrian scientists had discovered that aluminum acted as both a conductor and an amplifier for unicorn magic. Magical energy passed through it could be stored and programmed, allowing spells to be cast within the metal that would linger and keep their effect. Spells passed through aluminum were also magnified several times beyond their original power levels. The discovery had prompted an explosion of magical and technological achievement unlike anything Equestria- or, as far as anypony could tell, the world- had ever seen. Towering cities, conveniences of light and heat and information, vessels that traveled on sea, air, and land- it had all been spun from the miraculous silvery metal that had previously been used only as blades for hoof-axes and kitchen knives. Modern Equestria would not be possible without aluminum, and so Modern Equestria craved it.
“I wonder...” Shimmerstar said hesitantly.
Radiant Dawn and the Cabinet glanced down the table at her. “Yes, Princess Shimmerstar?” the Regent of the Sun said. She was always friendly, always kind, always gentle to the Regent of the Moon. Their bond was unbreakable.
“Perhaps... couldn't we allow the Chousingha to be in charge of aluminum production? It is their land, after all.”
Sable Swift's black mane shifted as he chuckled. “Well, of course they'll be in charge. Some creature has to mine it, after all.”
“I mean, perhaps- with a bit of guidance from us, of course- they could form their own mining operation, owned and operated by them? They could sell us the aluminum, and use the profits to undertake their own modernization program.” She noticed increasingly cold glares at her down the table. “I mean, we of course would make them agree to sell it to us first and foremost, and they could give us an extensive discount...”
Gleamy Glades shook her head. “Your Highness, these creatures are so uncivilized- they still live in huts with dirt floors, for Cel- the sun's sake!” she shot a rapid glance up the table, but Radiant Dawn did not seem to have noticed her slip. “The amount of money and time it would take to train them to operate their own mining unit would be prohibitive. It's far more efficient to install the ETC as operators. And since they'd be the ones operating the mine, it's only proper that they receive the profits.”
“We do tax the ETC sufficiently to ensure that their profit serves the greater good,” Iron Gaze commented. “That was something you insisted on personally, I recall. I was just an assistant clerk at the time.”
“I remember,” Shimmerstar said. Her brilliant eyes betrayed her lingering unhappiness.
Radiant Dawn cleared her throat. “Perhaps we could ask the ETC to test their workers regularly?” she said. “Those that display exceptional competence could be taken on for training in the management side of the mining operation.”
Shimmerstar realized that Radiant Dawn had gently, softly trapped her. If she didn't agree to this proposal, she would be consenting to Chousingha workers becoming almost-worthless unskilled laborers. If she did agree, however, she would have to likewise agree to the incorporation of Tetredigol as a whole. I suppose I could at least guarantee the Chousingha a chance to better themselves, she thought. It still made her very sad. Especially so to see yet another display of her co-ruler's cunning. She didn't used to be this sneaky. “That sounds like a wonderful idea,” she said.
“So you consent, then?” Rose-colored eyes met sea-green across the table.
Shimmerstar sighed, and bowed her head. “I... consent,” she said.
“Wonderful!” Radiant Dawn said, smiling brightly. “Simply wonderful. Iron Gaze, make the necessary modifications to your telegraph. And include a special message from me, personally.” At that moment, the afternoon sun crept into view at the top of the west-facing window behind the solar princess. A single shaft of brilliant sunlight lit her from behind, seeming to enfold her in a corona like the sun that she controlled; it caused her whole brightly-colored body to shine. Her coat was a wild light blue, the very color of the heavens above. Her mane and tail, fluttering in a perpetual magical breeze, were streaked boldly with all the colors of the rainbow, no hues or values but sharp, bright colors. Her crest, her crown, and the filigree at her hooves were all of finest gold, and diamonds were set into the crown and the crest. At each flank there was a brilliant golden disc, but instead of sun rays, rainbow-striped lightning bolts emanated from them. “Tell Chief Ton Nag that Princess Radiant Dawn, Princess of Equestria, Regent of the Sun, Lady of the Daylit Skies, bids his nation welcome, a most fond welcome, to the Glorious Equestrian Empire.”
The moon shone softly through the high windows of the throne room in the Palace of the Sun. Canterlot, set high on a pinnacle of the Perennia Mountains, had a particularly magnificent view of the night, the capital city's great altitude permitting the observation of stars that would not be visible on the rolling plains far below. Sitting serenely on her sharp white-marble throne, Radiant Dawn gazed through the long, tall, sharp windows, marveling at the job her fellow princess always did at crafting the night. She had been at it for three hundred years now, and her gentle, delicate touch brought out the soothing side of the darkness, never permitting nighttime to grow oppressive or frightening. The Regent of the Sun especially loved the way the moonlight played across the clean lines of her palace.
The old Palace of the Sun had been in near complete ruin at the start of her reign, and she had been happy to finish demolishing it. She had never liked the gaudy, overwrought aesthetic that had so long characterized the Royal Equestrian Style- it was so complex it could literally tangle into knots, too caught up in its own cleverness and intricacy to be of any practical appeal. She had insisted on a new look for her palace: stark lines, angles, sharp curves meeting sheer surfaces. The aesthetic had not been ordered to be applied to the rest of Canterlot, but it had been strongly encouraged, and the city had mostly followed suit, replacing the gilded fairy tale towers with clean monoliths of white stone. The aluminum revolution had enhanced the style further, and now shimmering metal structures rose up to meet the stone towers of the refurbished Canterlot, while those same towers were made new again by the addition of lines and streaks of aluminum. It was, all told, a wonderful effect- at least she thought so. Now the whole city looked as the capital of a great nation should.
“Rainbow Dash?” the whisper echoed through her mind.
Radiant Dawn shut her eyes tightly. “Please go away,” she said softly.
“Now you know I can't do that, Rainbow Dash. You can't make me leave.”
The Regent of the Sun opened her eyes and turned her head to where she had heard the voice, or at least where she thought she had heard it. It was more like where the pressure in her mind had built the most. When she found that spot, she saw what she typically saw: a half-transparent image of a young unicorn. Her coat was lavender, her mane and tail dark purple streaked with pink. She had a cutie mark of a single pink sparkle surrounded by several smaller white sparkles.
“I would say you look like you've seen a ghost,” the image said, “but I know the great and mighty Radiant Dawn doesn't show fear to her enemies- or her friends.”
Radiant Dawn sighed. “You're not even a ghost. If you were, my magic would sense it. You're just in my head, Twilight Sparkle.”
“Which means everything I tell you is something you're trying to tell yourself- stop and think about that for a minute.”
“I don't want to think,” she said, turning away. The phantom of her old friend simply reappeared where she chose to look. “I would hope I could at least tell myself how to get rid of you.”
“If you haven't figured it out by now, I doubt you ever will,” Twilight said. Radiant Dawn had to give her that. The mental projection of Twilight Sparkle had been visiting her when she was alone for the past eighty years now, whispering uncomfortable things into her mind. There would be long stretches, weeks and months, when Radiant Dawn could be completely alone with her thoughts, and then Twilight would appear in every moment of solitude for weeks at a time. When it had all started, Radiant Dawn had thought her friend's spirit was trying to contact her from the world beyond the world. After eight decades of it, she realized it was just a sign that she was slowly going insane. “You know,” Twilight said, “that was a really brilliant move you made today- very devious. Of course, I doubt the nasty side of it occurred to Shimmerstar.”
“Tell me,” Radiant Dawn said. If she couldn't banish the phantom, she could at least engage it.
“If you had decided to make the Chousingha completely subservient laborers, they would have begun to build resentment to Equestria almost immediately- and they would have done so unanimously. But now, you've offered them a limited opportunity to prosper as Equestria prospers. Individual Chousingha can get in on the exploitation of their fellows and so earn their way out of their own exploitation. You've created a separate class of loyalists among the indigenous population.” Twilight Sparkle winked at her. “And of course, doubly brilliant, you're going to base this class creation on performance. It's going to be a competition! They'll fight each other for the management positions, which means they won't even think about fighting you.”
Radiant Dawn found herself in complete and unprotesting agreement. “So it keeps them in line. Good. I meant it when I said I didn't want a repeat of the Batav Islands.”
“That's right,” Twilight said. “Less work for you, more control for you, more territory and resources for the empire. Another layer to the coating of legitimacy you've slathered all over yourself.” The lavender unicorn cocked her head. “Don't you think it's getting a bit gaudy by this point?”
Radiant Dawn sighed again. “What do you mean?”
“I've told you this before- I tell you this every time I see you.”
“And I strive to forget every time I hear it. So go on, tell me again.”
“What I think,” Twilight said, “the way I see it, this whole project of the Glorious Equestrian Empire is one big distraction. You're trying to make Equestria forget about Celestia-”
“Don't say her name!” Radiant Dawn snapped, golden magical aura flaring to light and casting the throne room in brilliant dawn. “Her name is forbidden!” Radiant Dawn had tolerated talk of her predecessor for a hundred years before deciding to make the mention of Celestia an arrestable offense.
“But nopony's forgotten about her,” said the phantom Twilight Sparkle. “Her or Luna. You think that if you build this empire it will make them forget. You think if you make Equestria the mightiest nation in the world ponies will stop thinking of you as a fake.” Twilight came closer to her. “Usurper.” She whispered right in Radiant Dawn's ear. “Thief!”
“I had no choice!” Radiant Dawn roared. “Everything was about to end! Some pony had to do something!”
The voice didn't come from her head this time. The Regent of the Sun rose from her throne and walked down the steps, turning toward the sound. “Shimmerstar, I'm sorry. I didn't sense you coming.”
“I heard you talking to yourself,” the Regent of the Moon said gently, her sea-green eyes gazing with compassion on her friend and co-ruler. “Are you feeling all right, Rainbow D-”
“I said not to call me that name,” Radiant Dawn hissed, turning away from Shimmerstar. “I don't want to hear it again, understood?” She put an edge to her voice.
Shimmerstar nodded, her white-pearl mane wavering in the magical breeze. “I just want to know if you're all right. This isn't the first time I've heard you talking to yourself.”
Radiant Dawn forced a smile. “I'm fine, Shimmerstar.” She laughed. “I'm better than fine- things went really well today, didn't they? Tetredigol came along without any fuss at all.”
“We blockaded them for month from the sea and the sky. It wasn't really ‘without any fuss.’”
“I mean without major casualties, of course,” Radiant Dawn said. “It's a shame about the Chousingha, but... you can't move forward without a few hitches. Now that Tetredigol is ours, we can really expand our naval presence in the Boorean Sea. I bet we can have a proper naval base up and running in less than a decade.” She looked up to her right. “Then it's on to Salamar.”
Shimmerstar followed her co-ruler's gaze. Up on the righthand wall of the throne room, high above the pillars holding up the ceiling, an enormous map of the world had been set. It was enchanted to show the current state of the world as recorded by the high-altitude mapping automotons currently sailing the upper atmosphere. Additionally, magical dyes shifted and expanded in response to changes in the territorial holdings of the great powers of the world. Currently, a quarter of the world was shaded the dark blue of Equestria. Every year, that shaded area got a little bigger. Shimmerstar turned away, her heart sick at the sight. “And where will it end?”
“What?” Radiant Dawn asked.
“This conquest- this empire of yours,” Shimmerstar said. She leveled a beautiful sea-green eye at Radiant Dawn. “Where will it stop? When will you be satisfied with what you have?”
Radiant Dawn's rose eyes grew cold and hard. “When Equestria is free from even a hint of danger,” she said. “When nothing can ever threaten our home or our friends or our subjects ever again.”
“But that's impossible,” Shimmerstar said. “You can never completely get rid of threats-”
“Then I’ll never stop!” Radiant Dawn snapped, gritting her brilliant white teeth. “Not now, not ever! I'll conquer the whole world, and any worlds beyond it! Everything to ensure that Equestria is safe!”
Shimmerstar's own face hardened. “If you want to conquer the world, you can do it alone,” she said, turning away and beginning to trot through the throne room. “I've followed you this far- farther than I ever thought I could bring myself to- but I won't go that far.”
“Shimmerstar, it's all for-”
“I only want what's-”
“STOP!” Shimmerstar bellowed, and a silver aura of magic enveloped her. Her voice boomed through the whole throne room, rattling the bones in Radiant Dawn's chest. “Do not call me that name! If you won't answer to Rainbow Dash, then I will NOT, BY ANY MEANS, ANSWER TO FLUTTERSHY.” The aura faded, and her beautiful eyes wavered. “I have said things- done things- agreed to things that Fluttershy would never have gone along with. Fluttershy is gone.”
Radiant Dawn drew in a sharp breath. The sadness in the Regent of the Moon's face was breaking her heart. “But... you call me Rainbow Dash...”
“That's because I can still see Rainbow Dash in you,” Shimmerstar said. “You haven't changed as much as I have. Which gives me hope that some day... maybe... you might be able to end all this. You're still the same pony who wielded the Element of Loyalty.”
Radiant Dawn snorted. “I have made my nation great,” she said. “What's more loyal than that?”
Shimmerstar turned away from her yet again. “I can't answer that question for you,” she said. She spread her great midnight wings. “You must find your own answer- it's the only one that will satisfy you, in the end.” With a flap of her wings, she was airborne, and she soared down the length of the throne room and out onto the balcony. She wheeled twice in the air and dove over the side, soaring down over Canterlot and across the moonlit plains far below.
“She's going to betray you,” Twilight Sparkle whispered in her head. “It's obvious, isn't it? You can't trust her.”
“She's the only friend I have left,” Radiant Dawn said, trotting back up the steps to her throne.
“You're the ruler of the largest empire on Earth,” the phantom of Twilight said. “An empire that grows larger almost every day. You can't afford to have friends.”
Rainbow Dash sniffled. She wiped her nose with a hoof- she was still unused to doing little things with magic, even after all this time. Her eyes filled with tears, and since there was no one around to judge her, no one but herself, she decided to go ahead and weep.