Freeport Venture: Shimmer-Mare's Birthday!!!

by Chengar Qordath

Chapter 1: Is it time to panic? Yes, yes it is.

This one was honored to be the one and only apprentice of the illustrious Magus Sunset Shimmer of Freeport. Since her arrival, the Shimmer-mare had repeatedly saved this one’s life and vanquished the forces of evil. The Shimmer-mare had been trained in the magical arts by the White Pony herself, one of the oldest and most powerful immortals in the known world. This one had never seen anyone with anything close to the Shimmer-mare’s skills, and since becoming her apprentice it had become even more amazed by the ease with which she commanded forces this one still scarcely understood. While this one knew that as a Free Mind it would likely never be able to truly master the magic of unicorns, it fully intended to learn everything that the Shimmer-mare wished to teach it. It was—

“Kukri!” the Shimmer-mare called out from her study. “Did you remember to clean up the alchemy lab once I was done?”

For example, this one had learned about cleaning. Cleaning the alchemy lab, cleaning the enchantment lab, cleaning the library, cleaning the foyer, cleaning the stairs... This one had received a great many lessons in cleaning since becoming the Shimmer-mare’s apprentice. This one was beginning to get a bit sick of the subject. “This one took care of the alchemy lab, Shimmer-mare,” it assured its master.

“Did you remember to put the firelily petals back in the bowl of water?” The Shimmer-mare fired off several more questions before this one could even answer. “What about putting the dragon scales and phoenix feathers back on the top shelf? And remember to keep them both far away from powdered sunstone, we don’t want any accidents.”

“This one did exactly as the Shimmer-mare requested.” It paused, frowning thoughtfully. “Except that it did not put firelily in a bowl of water, because it is supposed to be stored in the special oil mixture you keep in the purple jar. If immersed in water, it rapidly decays and become useless.”

There was a short paused before the Shimmer-mare answered. “Good work.” This one’s chest swelled with pride at the approval in her voice, especially since it had not been tripped up by the trick question. The Shimmer-mare frequently tested this one to see if it truly was absorbing the lessons it received. The actual lessons, not the chores.

This one was so pleased with itself that it almost missed the Shimmer-mare’s next request. “Go check the mail, and then we’ll get started on some spellwork.”

Its ears perked up, and it trotted down the stairs two at a time. This one always enjoyed the Shimmer-mare’s lessons, even if she was a rather strict teacher. She was only so particular about casting spells because she wanted to make sure this one did not make any mistakes. This one did not mind the difficult lessons. It had known when the Shimmer-mare took it in that the lessons would be difficult, but rewarding. If this one could not cast spells properly or made a fool of itself in public, that would make the Shimmer-mare look like a bad teacher. This one would never want to do that—it wanted the Shimmer-mare to be proud of it.

This one retrieved the Shimmer-mare’s mail without incident, leafing through the envelopes to see if there was anything it should bring to her attention. Most of them looked like the usual sort of mail. Requests for her services, payment records, and of course all the merchants who wanted to sell her something. However, there was also a small package, and the envelope attached to it made this one’s hoof tingle. A closer look explained exactly why: the return address was simply ‘H.R.H. Celestia, Royal Palace, Canterlot, Equestria.’

This one scampered back up the stairs, rushing into the study and waving the package to catch the Shimmer-mare’s attention. “The White Pony sent you something!”
The Shimmer-mare set aside the massive tome she had been perusing, her magic easily taking the package out of this one’s hoof. She opened the envelope first, and the Shimmer-mare removed something that made this one’s jaw hit the floor.

A birthday card.

A birthday card!

It was the Shimmer-mare’s birthday!

And this one didn’t have anything for her!

The Shimmer-mare opened up the card, smiling to herself. “Hopefully she won’t get too mad at me for opening it a day early.” She set the card aside, and got to work on the package itself. “Considering how much she used to lecture me about how I shouldn’t be so impatient, she should know that I would open it as soon as I got...” she trailed off, frowning as she pulled out a small card. “‘Dear Sunset: Strumming has your present waiting at the embassy and will deliver it to you on your birthday.’” She stared bemusedly down at the card, then chuckled and shook her head. “Huh. Well played.”

Wait ... the present was a day early? So that meant Shimmer-mare’s birthday wasn’t until tomorrow? Yes! There was still time! This one just had to find the perfect gift for her in less than twenty-four hours! How hard could that be?

As soon as this one finished tending to its duties for the Shimmer-mare, it rushed home to seek its parents’ help for resolving the crisis. Surely Mom and Dad would know what to do. Perhaps Kunai too, if she was home and ... well, perhaps not Kunai. This one had not seen much of its sister since The Monster, nor was it entirely certain it wanted to. This one was much happier when its view of its sister hadn’t been so complicated. It preferred not to think about anything that had happened that week.

This one rushed through the front door, its ears perking as it heard movement in the kitchen. It ran there and found its mother hard at work preparing dinner, her knives rapping sharply against the cutting board as she chopped up carrots and celery. She barely glanced up from the board at this one’s arrival, and did not even stop cutting. “Walk inside, little one, don’t run. Especially in the kitchen.”

This one screeched to a halt, its hooves briefly scrambling for purchase on the tile floor. “Mom! This one needs your help! It’s an emergency!”

Mom froze, slowly setting her knife aside and turning to give this one her full attention. She dropped down to this one’s height and gently gripped its shoulders. “What is it? Is something after you again?”

This one blinked in surprise at her question, then quickly shook its head. “No no no, nothing like that. But Shimmer-mare's birthday is tomorrow, and this one has nothing for her!” It rushed to its mother’s side, clutching one of her legs. “You have to help this one! If it can’t find anything in time for her...” This one could not even bring itself finish the sentence. It was too horrible to contemplate.

Mom chuckled patted this one on the back. “Calm down, Kukri. All you need to do is find a good birthday present for Sunset, and that shouldn’t be too hard. You’re her apprentice, I’m sure you know all kinds of things you could get for her. What were you thinking of?”

“This one doesn't know,” it admitted. “But it has to be perfect because this is for the Shimmer-mare, and it doesn't have any time to find the perfect gift!”

“You have until tomorrow,” Mom answered, far too calmly for such dire news. She washed her hooves in the sink, then put the meal she’d been working on to the side. “I'm sure we can find something nice for her by then. Just calm down, and we’ll think this through.”

“But what could this one possibly get her?” it asked, wringing its hooves. “The Shimmer-mare already has so many things...”

Mom slipped out of the kitchen, coming back a moment later with a pencil and paper. “Well, let’s think about this and come up with a few ideas. First off, how much of your allowance do you have saved up? There’s always a nice cloak, or a globe...” She jotted both of those down on her sheet, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “Maybe a ship in a bottle to commemorate your time on the Venture?”

This one grimaced and shook its head. Its mom simply did not understand! “No no no! It can't just be a normal present, it's for the Shimmer-mare!”

Mom sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Little blade, if it’s this important to you, you shouldn't have put it off until the last minute.”

This one groaned and ran a hoof down its face. “This one didn’t know until just a little bit ago!” It waved its hooves in the air, trying to make her understand the gravity of the situation. “The Shimmer-mare never said anything about it!”

“Oh.” Mom wrapped a wing around this one, pulling it over to her. “Calm down, little blade, calm down. That’s different. If she didn’t even tell you about it in advance, then I’m sure she wasn’t expecting you to do anything special.”

“But this one wants to do something special!” it countered.

“I know you do, little blade.” Mom gently rubbed the back of this one’s neck. “So in that case, we’ll just have to do the best we can on short notice. Since you’ve been real good about taking care of your chores and apprentice work, I can give you an advance on your allowance to help out with the present shopping.”

“Thanks, Mom!” This one gratefully latched onto her.

“Anytime.” She nuzzled this one. “Now we just need to think of what to get her. Maybe a nice set of knives? Kitchen, alchemy, fishing—there's no end of uses for a magus. I could look through my collection and pull out a couple that would be good for her.”

It frowned and shook its head. “This one does not think the Shimmer-mare uses many knives.” Even if she did, this one did not want to just give her a knife from its mother’s collection. That wasn’t a real present. It wasn’t something this one had done for her, and it wasn’t ... special enough for her.

Mom shrugged. “It was just an idea. If you’ve got something better...”

This one groaned and buried its face in its hooves. “That’s the whole problem! Whatever it gets for the Shimmer-mare has to be something special and amazing and perfect because that’s what she deserves! This one is her apprentice—it can’t mess this up!”

Mom put a hoof over her mouth, and this one suspected she was trying to cover a laugh. Why was she laughing at it? Didn’t she understand how important this was?! After a second she leaned down, gently rubbing this one’s back. “Kukri, settle down. She'll understand the short notice. Really, she'll be happy you did anything at all when she realizes she never told you, and even if you did know in advance, she wouldn’t want you getting this worked up over it.”

It groaned and slammed its hooves down. “No! This one can't just do something and make excuses! It has to make everything perfect! It can’t just make a token effort and say that’s good enough for the Shimmer-mare. That’s not ... good enough!”

Mom gently but firmly gripped this one’s shoulders. “Calm down. It will be fine, little blade. I promise.”

“How?!” This one threw up its hooves to the high heavens, as if calling the White Pony's sun directly. “How can this possibly be fine?! This one will fail the Shimmer-mare on her birthday! She might even be so upset with this one that she doesn’t want it to be her student anymore! What if she never wants to see this one again because it failed on her on the most important, most special day of the year for her?!”

“I think if she was going to get that upset about her birthday, she would have mentioned it sooner,” Mom answered flatly. “And do you really think she’d do that to you? I rather doubt you’d be so devoted to her if she would toss you out on your rump the first time you weren’t perfect. Trust me, she’ll understand.”

This one groaned and buried its face in its hooves. It’s mother just didn’t get it! “This one doesn't want the Shimmer-mare to understand why this one couldn't get her a good present. It wants to get her a good present!”

Mom sighed and patiently stroked this one’s head-crest. “Alright, alright, calm down, little blade. I still think you're overreacting, but don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.” Mom tightened her wing around this one. “Let’s just calm down and think this through. If you can’t come up with something and you don’t like any of my ideas, maybe you could try asking someone who knows her a bit better?”

This one’s face screwed up in concentration. “Who could—” The answer was so obvious that it felt stupid for even needing to ask. “Puzzle! His whole job is to know things, and he’s also friends with her, so he would know what to get Shimmer-mare!” This one quickly extracted itself from its mother’s grasp, rushing for the door. “This one needs to talk to him right away!”

This one had nearly made it to the door when its mother grabbed it by the tail. “Wait! You’ll need your allowance first.”

This one accepted a small bag of ducats from its mother, feeling quite foolish. The Shimmer-mare did always say that rushing too much lead to making mistakes, and this one had just proved that. “Oh, right, that. Anything else?”

Mom frowned, looking out over the city. “It’s getting a bit late. I want you back before dark, even if you haven’t gotten anything for Sunset yet.” This one was about to point out how completely unfair that was, but its mother held up a hoof to cut it off. “No exceptions. If you don’t make it back, you’ll be grounded for her birthday.”

“But Mooom!” this one complained. It was not whining. Only grubs whined, and this one was not a grub.

“Make it back in time, and it won’t be a problem.” This one knew its mother well enough to recognize when its pleading would accomplish nothing. A second later she smiled and opened the door for this one. “Once you find what you’re looking for, don’t mention it’s for a birthday tomorrow, and don’t forget to haggle. If the shopkeepers find out how desperate and eager you are, they’ll jack up the prices.”

“Yes, Mom,” this one acknowledged with a dutiful nod.

“And don’t go off the main island by yourself,” Mom continued. “I don’t want you wandering around somewhere like Sandy Shores, even if that’s the only place that has whatever you’re looking for. If that’s the case, come home and I’ll go pick it up for you in the morning.”

“Yes, Mom,” this one droned. Its eyes flicked to the door and noticed that the sun that seemed to be mockingly sliding towards the horizon far more swiftly than it usually did.

Mom took note of this one’s impatient squirming and released it. “Alright. Be safe, and don’t forget to be back in time for dinner.” She pecked this one’s forehead, then let it go.

“Okay Mom love you gottagobye!” This one scampered out the door, rushing down the streets to make it to Puzzle’s in time.

A short time later this one rushed into Puzzle’s office, not even remembering to knock until it was halfway through the door. It frantically smacked its hoof against the partially open door by way of apology as well as to announce itself. “Penny-mare! Are you in?!”

Puzzle’s secretary, an earth pony mare named Merry Penny, looked up from her desk occupied by several stacks of neatly arranged paperwork. She looked down at this one through a set of pince-nez glasses, not quite glowering disapprovingly at this one’s rather hasty and impolite entrance. This one dropped its disguise for a brief moment to help the Penny-mare identify it. “Obviously, I am here. What is it, Kukri?”

This one took a deep breath as it tried to compose itself and remember its manners. “This one needs to speak to Puzzle right away! Something important’s come up!”

“I see.” Merry set aside her current bit of paperwork with almost agonizing slowness, giving this one her full attention. “What is it?”

“The Shimmer-mare's birthday is tomorrow!” it quickly explained. “This one doesn’t have a present for her, so it needs to talk to Puzzle—he should know what she’d want.”

This one rushed to the door, only to find it locked. This one did vaguely recall hearing that the Penny-mare had installed extra security after the Shimmer-mare managed to bypass her and go directly to Puzzle’s office. The Penny frowned down at this one, grumbling something about how this one was picking up bad habits. “Mister Piece is in the middle of meeting with a client and doesn't have time for petty distractions.”

This one blinked in shock, scarcely believing its own ears. “Petty? Petty?!” This one let out an exasperated sigh at the Penny-mare’s complete inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation. “This is the Shimmer-mare! You know, his ... um...” This one frowned, trailing off uncertainly. “What are they, anyway? Partners? Conspirators? Friends?”

“I am quite familiar with her,” the Penny-mare answered calmly. “Puzzle sent me out to get her birthday present a week ago. If you’d had that much foresight, you wouldn’t be in this mess and bothering my boss to help you.”

This one was in no mood to be lectured by the Penny-mare, so instead it focused on the only useful thing she had said. “He got her present a week ago? So he knows what she'd want? Perfect!” This one tried to get a look at what was going on in the other room, but it couldn’t see anything through the keyhole and it doubted the Penny-mare would let it stand with its ear pressed against the door. “Um, how long is he going to be?”

“As long as the client needs,” the Penny-mare responded with a flat look. “He does have a business to run, and unlike your master, you don’t pay for his services. Take a seat, and he’ll be with you when he can spare some time for you.” She waved towards the office’s waiting area, which was thankfully empty.

This one groaned, but made its way over to one of the more comfortable chairs. “And how long is this client going to need?” it demanded, trying not to sound too petulant. The Shimmer-mare’s student should sound dignified. “This one doesn't have all day. Like, literally—didn’t this one say that her birthday's tomorrow?!”

“You did.” The Penny-mare huffed and pulled out some more paperwork.. “Not that I needed the reminder. If you weren't ready for her birthday, whose fault is that?”

This one growled and threw itself into the chair loud enough for the wood to squeak in protest. “This one didn't know it was her birthday until a few hours ago!” It scowled as another question occurred to it. “Why didn't Puzzle tell this one?! If he knew enough to send you out a week ahead of time, he could have warned this one as well!”

“I suppose you can ask him that once he's available.” The Penny-mare trotted back to her desk, but paused before resuming her paperwork, then grabbed one sheet from within the desk and trotted back over to it. “Puzzle drew up a list of presents for your master. Naturally he was able to obtain his first choice, but...”

This one’s ear perked up. “That means the rest of his choices are still on the list, and it could just get one of them!” It eagerly snatched the offered sheet of paper from her, its eyes quickly flicking over the contents. Puzzle had arranged it all with his usual thoroughness, listing the items, where to buy them, and how much they would cost.

This one whimpered as its eyes focused on the prices. This one had known Puzzle could afford nicer things than it, but it had no idea he spent that much. This one’s allowance wouldn’t be enough. Not even close. And if whatever Puzzle got for the Shimmer-mare cost that much, this one would never be able get her something as nice as he had. It was doomed.

“Um....” This one ran a hoof through its mane, then reverted back to its natural form to straighten its head-crest, then put its disguise back on. “Does the Penny-mare have any other suggestions?”

The Penny-mare shrugged. “Mr. Piece would be the one to ask, not me.”

Of course. So this one would have no choice but to wait for him. Why couldn’t the Penny-mare just go in and tell Puzzle about it? This one was sure that he would understand what a crisis this was, and would cancel whatever meeting he was in the middle of to help this one solve it. But unless she did that, this one had no choice but to wait.

This one groaned and shifted about in the chair, trying to think of any other solution. Perhaps somepony at the Equestrian Embassy could help this one? The White Pony had sent Shimmer-mare’s gift there, so obviously someone knew about her birthday. But this one would probably run into another secretary that would get in its way—and even if it did find anypony at the embassy that would help it, it would probably be the Heartstrings-mare. The Heartstrings-mare had locked this one up back when the Shimmer-mare had first come to Freeport, and it would rather wait for Puzzle than ask her for help.

This one sighed and opened up a few of the magazines, trying to find something reasonably interesting to occupy its time. Nothing worked. Unless Puzzle had a magazine about finding the perfect birthday present, none of them could take this one’s mind off the crisis at hoof.

This one’s eyes flicked up to the clock, and it groaned. The clock was obviously broken. There was no way this one had been waiting for less than five minutes. It felt like hours!

This one grumbled several words it had learned while serving aboard the Venture, impatiently tapping its hoof on the floor. How could this one just sit here, waiting as the precious little time it had before the Shimmer-mare’s birthday slipped away? It got up and started pacing, trying to come up with anything to keep its mind occupied while it waited.

After what felt like days, the door finally opened and a sharply dressed hippogryph trotted out. As soon as he cleared the doorway this one darted in, drawing a cry of protest from the Penny-mare. This one dropped its disguise as soon as it was inside Puzzle’s office so that he would recognize it and not allow the Penny-mare to remove it.

Puzzle was in the middle of putting away some paperwork when this one rushed in, the Penny-mare hot on its hooves. Puzzle turned to the two of us with a single raised eyebrow, and this one quickly made its case. “This one needs your help right away! It’s an emergency!”

Puzzle waved the Penny-mare away. “An emergency? What’s going on, little one?”

This one jumped onto one of chairs across the desk from Puzzle. “The Shimmer-mare's birthday is tomorrow, and this one doesn’t have anything for her!”

“Ah.” Puzzle answered, seeming entirely too calm for someone who had just received such distressing news. “It’s that sort of emergency.”

“Exactly!” This one paused, then scowled up at the older changeling. “Why didn't you tell this one when her birthday is?! It kinda needs to know that sort of thing if it's going to be her apprentice! It might have missed the day completely if it hadn’t found out earlier!”

Puzzle frowned at it. “This one assumed she would have told you before now if she was expecting anything. Plus, you never asked this one to keep track of such things.”

This one had heard that before. Maybe Mom was right, and the Shimmer-mare didn’t expect me to do anything special for her. But that just made it even more important to get her the perfect gift—this one needed to prove itself to her! “It doesn’t matter why this one didn’t know, it needs a gift for her by tomorrow! This one can't face her empty-hooved!”

Puzzle settled back into his chair, smiling patiently at this one. “True. That would be terrible, wouldn't it?”

This one growled at him—it could tell when adults were being condes ... conder ... when they were talking down to it. “It's not funny, Puzzle! This is serious business!”

“Oh yes,” Puzzle agreed, the corners of his mouth curling up in a poorly hidden smile. “Dreadfully serious. This one can tell.”

This one’s eye started twitching, and it groaned at the insanity of all the adults surrounding it. Why didn’t any of them understand?! “Then stop messing around! This isn’t funny! It ... it needs a gift for her. Please.”

Puzzle stepped out from behind his desk and trotted to this one’s side. “Okay, this one is taking you seriously, Kukri. Don’t worry, we will find you something to give her.”

This one took several deep breaths, slowly calming down as much as it could. “Thanks, Puzzle. This one appreciates your help.” It pulled out its coinpurse and emptied its allowance onto the desk. “It's ... not much, but if you know anything she'd like that might work...”

Puzzle looked the coins over. “Hm, we can definitely do something with this. Especially since I’ll waive my usual fee—this is for the Shimmer-mare, after all.”

“Like what?” This one pointed to the clock, which seemed to be moving far too fast now that this one wasn’t waiting anymore. “Please, Puzzle, this one doesn't have a lot of time!”

“Well, if you need something right away...” Puzzle grinned at this one and trotted back to his desk. “This one does keep a few baubles on-hoof—one never knows when a good gift might be useful for making a favorable first impression, or warming someone up before asking for a favor. It even has one or two specifically intended for the Shimmer-mare. It would be glad to give you one of those.”

That easy? Puzzle could just give this one something for Shimmer-mare right now? That would save this one a great deal of trouble, but... “It wouldn't be this one's gift.” It frowned and reluctantly shook its head. “This one appreciates the offer, but it wants to get the Shimmer-mare’s present itself. Taking something from you to give to her sounds like cheating. It wouldn’t really be from this one.”

Puzzle’s smile widened and he patted this one on the back. “Reasonable enough, and this one is sure you can get her something nice. It’s just a matter of deciding what to get. Considering you spend a lot of time apprenticing with her, this one is sure you must have noticed something she could use, or has mentioned needing.”

“Right, um...” This one closed its eyes and concentrated, trying to remember something like that. “A telescope ... no, she got one for herself a month ago. A cloak? No, nobody likes getting clothes for their birthday. Armor? No, she has some of that too, and this one couldn't begin to afford it. A visit from the White Pony? Even if the White Pony got this one's letter, it would take days to even get to Canterlot, much less pass through whatever screening her guards had. A birdhouse? No, she doesn’t even like birds that much—and besides, this one would probably just get the thing stuck in its leg-holes. Again. Maybe...” This one trailed off uncertainly, trying to come up with another good idea.

“There are always books,” Puzzle suggested. “That's within your budget, and the Shimmer-mare likes them.”

“Books, right!” This one remembered just how many books the Shimmer-mare had in her tower. “Oh by the seven stars, books! Which ones does she already have? Which ones would she want? How will this one know what to—”

Puzzle cut this one off with an upraised hoof. “This one can give you a list of books the Shimmer-mare might like and does not currently have.”

This one’s ears perked up. “That would be fantastic! Thanks!” It hugged him gratefully. “Can we go get them right now?”

“You’re welcome.” Puzzle gave this one a quick pat on the back. “Though this one is afraid it is rather busy, and in any case your parents are probably expecting you home for dinner soon.”

This one blinked, then checked the clock again. It was late—almost sunset. Not the Shimmer-mare, the actual sunset. If it didn’t get home before dark, all of this would be for nothing! “Thanks Puzzle, but this one has to go!” It took the list from him and fled out the door.

This one didn’t sleep very well that night, and woke up early the next morning. Too early, since its parents weren’t awake yet and none of the stores were open. It was tempted to sneak out and take care of the shopping on its own, but its father had insisted that he would accompany it on the shopping trip. This one did not agree with them, but sneaking out would just get it into trouble.

This one did not like being a child and forced to go along with its parents, no matter how silly or wrong they were. They clearly did not understand the importance of the Shimmer-mare’s birthday, yet this one had to go along with their decrees no matter how wrong-headed they were. It could not wait to be an adult like the Shimmer-mare, who was free to do as she pleased without any adults ordering her around.

Not only did this one’s father insist on sleeping far later than he needed to, but on top of that he insisted on showering and eating breakfast before leaving. This one lied and said it had already eaten to try and get out faster, but that didn’t seem to do anything. And now this one was hungry as well, since it had to sit and wait for its father to finish eating without having anything for itself. This one didn’t want to admit the truth, though—its parents would probably get mad at it for lying to them.

As soon as Dad took the last bite of his meal, this one rushed to the door, showing great restraint as it patiently waited for him to join it. Which made it all the more frustrating when Dad spent several minutes looking around the kitchen and drawing up a shopping list. Didn’t he understand that this one was in a hurry? It was Shimmer-mare’s birthday today, and this one still didn’t have a present for her!

This one shuffled on its hooves, checking the clock and groaning when it saw how much time had been wasted. It was almost seven already! “Daaad! This one needs to get Shimmer-mare's present before it’s too late!”

Dad sighed and shook his head. “Kukri, most of the shops won’t even open for another hour. I know you’re worried about getting the right present, but we’ve still got plenty of time. You don’t have to be at Sunset’s tower until after school hours, right?”

Yes, that was usually when this one went to the Shimmer-mare’s tower for its apprentice work, even when it wasn’t a school day. The Shimmer-mare insisted that this one continue its basic education on top of its work for her, which seemed horribly unfair. It had been excused from that sort of thing when it had served on the Venture, which it much preferred. However, that meant this one only had eight hours to find the perfect present for Shimmer-mare. This one couldn’t afford to waste any time!

After what felt like forever, Dad finally finished up with his list, rolling it up and sticking it into his saddlebag. “There, we're ready to go.” This one immediately ripped open the door and was halfway out when its father grabbed it. “Slow down, little one. There’s no point in going on a shopping trip together if you run off and leave me behind. Stay where I can see you, and don’t buy anything without checking with me first.”

This one groaned. It already knew all of this, why was Dad slowing this one down and wasting time going over it again? “Yes, Dad.”

Its father let it go, and the two of us started trotting down the street. The morning weather was nice and cool, but there was a strong breeze coming off the ocean that made everything smell like dead fish and seaweed. Dad looked this one over, raising an eyebrow. “When did you start disguising yourself as a unicorn?”

This one’s family normally adopted pegasus disguises, since that let us match Mom and the rest of her clan, not to mention the benefits of flying. However... “This one has been taking magic lessons, and pegasi can’t cast spells.”

“Not without raising far too many questions,” Dad conceded. He grinned, gently nudging this one’s shoulder. “I’m sure the fact that anyone who saw you alongside Sunset would instantly assume you’re her little sister is a complete coincidence.”

“This one had to choose someone to model its disguise on,” it answered primly. Besides, it didn’t look exactly like the Shimmer-mare; it had modeled its manestyle, build, and facial structure on hers, but it had a yellow coat instead of the Shimmer-mare’s amber, and its mane was scarlet and orange instead of red and yellow. Totally different. Besides ... this one wouldn’t mind being mistaken for the Shimmer-mare’s little sister.

“Totally understandable,” Dad agreed. “And watch those ‘this ones’ when you’re in disguise, Kukri. It’s fine when you’re in private or only with someone you trust, but there’s not much point in wearing a disguise if you announce yourself whenever you open your mouth.”

“This—I’ll work on that.” The street seemed pretty empty, so this one didn’t think there was any harm in talking normally. Calling itself ‘I’ just felt ... weird. This one had always called itself this one, and trying to change that wouldn’t be easy.

“Practice makes perfect,” Dad said. “It’s best to talk like a pony whenever you’re in pony form, even if nobody’s around. It’s a good habit to develop, and it keeps you from slipping up and giving yourself away at a bad time.”

This one sighed and patiently endured the unnecessary lecture. “Yes, Dad...”

Dad frowned at this one, shaking his head. “Kukri, getting your disguises right is important. The Old Mind’s agents could be hiding anywhere, and not even Freeport is completely safe. Not to mention that not everyone is aware of the difference between Free Minds and the Old Mind’s drones. Revealing yourself at the wrong time could get you in serious trouble.”

“This one's disguise is fine,” it grumbled under its breath.

My disguise is fine,” Dad corrected. “And a good disguise requires more than just shifting your form. It’s also about how you hold yourself, how you talk, how you walk, and a dozen other factors. Remember that one time you tried to look like a colt but still talked and acted like a girl?”

“This—I remember,” it grimaced and shook its head. Kunai had been trying to teach this one a few disguise tricks, but it hadn’t been very good at them. Pretending to be a boy was hard—this one did not like playing in mud with spiders, or whatever gross stuff boys do.

Dad sighed gently rubbed this one’s back. “I just want you to be safe. Most grubs need some extra lessons in disguising themselves.”

“This one isn't a grub,” it complained. “This one is only a couple months away from being twelve years old. That is not a grub.”

“Young lady, then,” Dad conceded. “But that’s all the more reason to work on this. If you’re almost a young adult, you need to start developing some of those adult skills.”

This one was really getting tired of its father’s lectures, especially when there were much more important things to worry about. “Okay, okay, this one will work on it. Can we please go get Shimmer-mare's present now?”

“Of course.” Dad led this one to a rather nice little bookshop, which was clearly respectable since it was a permanent establishment instead of just a stall set up in one of the market squares. “Now, you remember how you’re supposed to shop and bargain, right?”

“This one has not forgotten the lessons in the last five minutes,” it groused, looking through the windows to try and spot any of the books on Shimmer-mare’s list.

“So you remember not to seem too eager?” he prodded. “And not to make it look like you're too interested in buying? And everything about bargaining?”

“Yes, Dad.” It was certain it could see one of the books on its list, but every moment it waited out here was a chance for somepony else to sneak in and steal it from under this one’s muzzle. “Can we please get her present now?”

“Show me your shopping face first,” Dad demanded. “No daughter of mine is going to get fleeced by some book pusher.”

This one groaned, then took a deep breath and tried to make itself look as bored and disinterested as possible, as if it cared nothing for the particular book in question, even though this book was Shimmer-mare’s birthday present.

Dad looked this one over, taking far too long in his assessment. “Alright, good enough. Just don’t forget to keep it up while you’re shopping. If the shop owner realizes you desperately want a specific book and have a short deadline to get it, you’ll be walking away with a much lighter coinpurse. Your mother and I don’t give you an allowance so you can get cheated out of it.”

“Yes, yes, I know...” This one rolled its eyes as it trotted into the store, trying very hard not to immediately run over and check the shelves for Shimmer-mare’s books. It didn’t want to make its father unhappy with it, but trying to stay calm and do everything slowly was so hard when the stakes were so incredibly high.

This one slowly trotted up to the proper section, but as it closed in on its quarry it spotted a threat to its goal: a unicorn filly who looked to be about the same age as this one, and heading in exactly the same direction. Could she be…?

No, of course not. What were the odds that she could be after the same book as this one? Its parents were right; this one was getting a bit too worked up. There were dozens of books here, and the odds that this one and the other filly would both be looking for the exact same book were...

This one’s eyes lit up as it spotted one of the Shimmer-mare’s books. It rushed over and was about to pull it off the shelves when another set of hooves got in the way and snatched its prize out from underneath it.

The unicorn turned the book in her hooves, smiling. “I can’t believe they finally have it! I didn’t think I’d find a copy for months!”

I quickly checked the shelves to make sure there weren’t any more copies, then stomped up to the filly. “Hey, I was getting that book! I saw it first, and I need it!”

The filly rolled her eyes, cruelly ignoring this one’s plight. “Yeah, well I got it and you didn’t, so deal with it. Go find another, or reserve one for when they come in next. This one's mine, and I've been waiting all of, like, forever for this book.”

“This one needs it for a birthday gift!” it snapped out at the callous monster. “By the time another copy comes in, it will be too late!”

The callous unicorn shrugged. “Gee, that sounds like a big steaming pile of not my problem. Too bad, so sad.” She waved this one away. “Maybe one of the other shops will have a copy.”

She turned her back on this one and started heading towards the counter, carrying the book on her back. This one saw its chance and snatched the tome away while she wasn’t paying attention. However, as soon as this one took it she whirled back around to face this one. “Hey! That’s mine! Give it back!”

This one mockingly waved the book in front of the little nag. “This one has it now, and you do not.” It smirked at her and tossed her words back in her face. “Too bad, so sad.”

The filly’s horn lit up threateningly. “Give it back right now, or I’m gonna zap you with my magic. I know a spell that’ll make you barf up slugs for hours!”

This one answered her challenge in kind. “This one is apprenticed to the Magus of Freeport! It knows that no such spell exists, and it knows real spells that will buck you up!”

The filly gasped, then smirked at me. “Oooh, you said a bad word! You’re gonna be in so much trouble when your parents find out! No way they’ll let you keep that book now!”

This one’s parents had complained about some of the words it had learned while serving on the Venture, and would doubtlessly punish it for saying them in public. Its father had even threatened to dock its allowance if it continued using such terms. Still, this one did not think that he would go so far as to take away the Shimmer-mare’s birthday pre—

While this one’s mind was otherwise occupied, the unicorn filly snatched the book away with her magic, cackling evilly as she scampered towards the counter. This one gasped in horror as it realized it had been duped and chased after her, desperate to recover her prize. The filly was keeping the book firmly in her grasp so this one couldn’t just snatch it away again. However, the Shimmer-mare had taught this one a few other tricks, so instead this one reached and snagged one of the rugs, lifting it up enough to trip the thief and send her tumbling to the ground.

This one scooped the book out of the downed unicorn’s hooves and started running for the counter, but before it could get past her she grabbed its tail and yanked on it, halting this one’s progress as it yelped out in surprise. This one whirled around to face her, just in time to spot the unicorn magically pulling another book off the shelf and hurling it at this one’s head.

This one managed to dodge the attack, but the distraction gave the evil little nag another chance to try and take away this one’s book. It quickly reached out with its own magic, leaving the book trapped and hovering halfway between the two of us, glowing with both of our magical auras. After several seconds of struggle this one gasped in horror when it saw the cover starting to tear—that little thief was going to destroy the book at this rate!

It did the only thing it could to save the Shimmer-mare’s birthday present, releasing its magic and swinging a hoof at the unicorn’s horn. Its blow struck true, disrupting the spell and freeing the book from the vile thief who sought to take away this one’s property.

However, the stealer of books would not accept her rightful defeat. Instead of allowing this one to leave in peace, she pounced on this one with a feral shriek and yanked on its mane as she tried to wrestle it to the ground. This one tried to free itself from her, but it wasn’t used to having so much hair and having someone yanking on it.

So it got rid of that inconvenient hair, returning to its natural state. “Skree!” It snapped its fangs at her, warding the monster away from the Shimmer-mare’s precious gift.

The thief’s eyes widened and she recoiled away from this one, letting go of the book with a startled shriek. This one quickly secured the tome while the evil little filly fled the store, false tears gathering in her eyes.

Before this one had any time to celebrate its victory, its father rushed over to it. “Kukri Xenia Doo! What do you think you’re doing?!” This one instinctively flinched at hearing its full name—it knew from past experience that its father speaking its full name in such an angry, disapproving tone boded ill. He quickly wrapped a wing around this one, hiding it from public view. “Get your disguise back on right now!”

This one quickly restored its old unicorn appearance. With its father glowering down at it, it tried to explain itself as clearly and simply as possible. “Um ... I was ... I needed the book, and she was trying to take it from me.”

Dad frowned. “That book?” He pointed to the book I’d rescued from the thieving unicorn. The tome had clearly suffered from our battle: not only was the cover torn, but the binding had also been so damaged that half the pages were on the verge of falling out.

“Um ... this one can fix it!” It closed its eyes and concentrated, focusing on one of the spells the Shimmer-mare had taught it. After several seconds the book feebly twitched, but the damage didn’t seem to have gotten any better. Perhaps this one hadn’t practiced the spell as much as it should have.

As it continued its efforts to repair the damage, the store’s caribou owner tromped over to us, glaring at the damaged book this one was trying to fix. “Excuse me, is there some sort of problem? What was everyone shouting about?”

Dad groaned softly, then turned around to face the owner with the best smile he could manage. “Sorry, it seems one of your books fell apart.”

“Oh really?” The caribou met his gaze flatly. “The book just fell apart, all on its own? Right after I heard what sounded an awful lot like two kids fighting over a book?”

“Don't worry, this one can fix it!” it quickly assured the owner, trying the spell once more. This time it did at least seem to reattach the loose pages to the book’s spine, though they were still a bit off-center. At least the book wasn’t falling apart anymore. That was progress, right?

The caribou picked up the damaged tome, scowling as he looked it over. “This is too damaged to put back on the shelf. You going to pay for it?”

“I don’t see why my daughter would want to a buy a book that’s falling apart,” this one’s father cut in. “It’s not her fault if you wares are in such poor condition that they crumble as soon as somepony takes them off the shelf.”

“That book is brand new, sir.” The owner drew himself up to his full height, then stepped between us and the exit. “The book fell apart on its own? Do you really think I’m that stupid? Pay up, or I’ll call the condottieri.”

“By all means,” Dad shot back. “Right now it’s your word against mine and my daughter’s, and I’m sure shutting down your store for however long it will take for them to investigate the matter would be worth the trouble.”

As this one watched its father arguing with the owner, it felt compelled to say something. It had been partially responsible for the damage to the book, after all. While it appreciated its father’s efforts to protect it, lying to the shop owner about what happened to his book just didn’t seem right. “Um ... this one can pay for it. Though really, it was the other one’s fault.”

Dad sighed, running a hoof through his mane. “Alright. Fine, Kukri.” He turned his attention back to the owner and got to work negotiating a price. While he did that, this one continued its efforts to repair the damage to the Shimmer-mare’s present. After several more spells the book was ... well it wasn’t damaged anymore, but it had pretty clearly been damaged and repaired. This one would definitely need to ask the Shimmer mare for advice on book-repairing spells.

Once Dad was done talking to the owner, this one had to hand over most of its ducats to pay for the book. As soon as that was done Dad dragged this one out of the store, leading this one back towards home. While we travelled this one continued working on the book, trying to fix the last of the damage so that Shimmer-mare would never know what had happened. Despite several more attempts, it didn’t seem to be making any progress.

That’s when this one smelled something—something absolutely amazing. It smelled like chocolate, bacon, pancakes, pizza, garlic-lemon pasta, french toast, Mom’s home-cooked stew and shrimp all at once, except all those smells somehow worked together. This one blinked, then looked around to try and find where the smell was coming from. After a couple seconds it spotted a young gryphon couple nearby. Why did they smell so good? Maybe this one should go over and—

“Kukri!” This one stopped at its father’s voice, surprised to find that it was already halfway over to the couple. He grabbed this one by the scruff of its neck and all but carried it back home. This one halfheartedly struggled against Dad’s hold—it just wanted to find out what the gryphons had that smelled so good. Maybe see if it could eat a little bit for itself...

Dad headed for home at a fast trot, eventually taking this one out of range of the two delicious-smelling gryphons. Once we were home, Dad locked the door behind us and set this one down on the couch. “Kukri, what were you thinking? How much of your love magic did you burn up getting into a fight and using all those spells?”

“Um...” This one shuffled, not quite meeting its father’s eyes. “A lot?” Dad’s eyes narrowed. “And this one skipped breakfast. It ... it might be a little hungry.”

Dad groaned, running a hoof down his face. “Kukri, this one doesn’t know what’s gotten into you, but it stops right now. Don’t you remember what happens to a Free Mind that gets too hungry?”

This one’s ears drooped as it started to realize why those gryphons had smelled so good, and why it had wanted to go over to them. “They ... they eat whatever they can find. This one could lose control and become just as bad as one of the Old Mind’s drones.”

“No,” Dad snapped. “Not as bad as one the Old Mind’s drones; worse. Drones don’t know any better, and they don’t have any real choice. You do, and because of that you need to hold yourself to a higher standard.”

This one shrank down into the cushions. It had never meant to do anything like that, much less make its father so mad at it. It had just wanted to fix the Shimmer-mare’s book, and hadn’t been thinking about what would happen if it used too much magic. “Sorry.”

Dad sighed and settled down onto the couch next to this one. “Kukri, this one’s glad you’re enjoying your lessons with the Shimmer-mare, but you have to remember that changeling magic isn’t the same as unicorn magic. Unicorns have inherent magic, so they don’t need to use love energy to power their spells. If you cast too much you can go from fine to starving in a matter of minutes. It’s why we gave Sunset all that extra thymoplasm.”

This one wished it could find a way to just sink all the way down into the couch. “This one knows, Dad. It just didn’t...”

“You didn’t think,” Dad finished for it. “Which I think is a pretty good summary of everything that happened today. What were you doing with that filly in the bookstore?”

It stared down at the battered book. “This one ... just really wanted to get the right present for the Shimmer-mare.”

“That isn’t what this one asked, young lady.” Dad scowled down at this one, and it couldn’t bring itself to meet his eyes. After several long moments, he must have decided I wasn’t going to answer him. “Why did you get into a fight with another girl over a book? And that’s not even the worst part, you showed your natural form to do it!”

This one felt compelled to explain itself. “She was grabbing this one’s mane, and—”

Dad didn’t even let this one finish. “You can't do that, Kukri. Especially not over a book, of all things. Weren’t there half a dozen other books on the list that you could’ve gotten for her? And that was just the first bookstore we could have gone to! There was no reason to think things were that desperate. Wait until your mother hears about this...”

This one sniffled, and it could feel its eyes starting to water. “It ... this one just really wanted to get the right gift for Shimmer-mare.”

Dad sighed and hugged this one. “This one knows, but this isn’t the way to go about it. You need to keep things in perspective. This isn’t how we raised you to act. How do you think the Shimmer-mare would feel if she knew what you did?”

This one flinched, knowing exactly what she would have to say on the matter. “Please don’t tell her about this! It just wanted to make her happy, and now she’s going to be so disappointed in this one...” Its ears drooped, and then an even more terrible thought occurred to it. “Are you going to ground this one so it can’t see Shimmer-mare on her birthday?”

“This one is more than a little tempted to,” Dad’s eyes narrowed, but he shook his head. “Lucky for you, it’s not going to. Not because you don’t deserve it, but because she doesn’t deserve it. It’s her birthday, and she’d miss having you around. As soon as you get home, though, you’re grounded until this one is satisfied you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Okay.” This one was just glad it wouldn’t miss the Shimmer-mare’s birthday. It could live with doing extra chores. However, thinking of the birthday reminded this one of the sorry state of its current present. It sighed, holding up the damaged tome. “This one thinks it needs to get her a new present.”

Dad frowned. “Can you even afford anything after buying that?”

This one counted out its few remaining ducats. “Um...”

Dad groaned and ran a hoof down his face. “You need to build your love reserves back up anyway—this one doesn't want you out in public until it's sure you’re in control. And after your little performance in the bookstore, this one isn’t about to take you shopping again.”

“But...” This one looked mournfully at its battered present.

“This isn’t up for discussion,” Dad declared firmly.

It sighed, resigning itself to its doom. “Okay, Dad.”

With a heavy heart, this one made its way to the Shimmer-mare’s tower. It glanced down at the present in its hooves, wrapped up with some old newspaper because this one couldn’t go out to get any nice wrapping paper for her. Its present already looked bad, and when she unwrapped it to find a damaged book she would be even more unhappy. But what else could this one do? The only alternative was to not show up for her birthday at all, or not give her any present. Both of those would be even worse than a bad gift.

This one was doomed. Utterly and completely doomed.

After a very long and very unpleasant walk, this one finally arrived in front of the Shimmer-mare’s massive obsidian tower. It took a deep breath, then tapped the front door to announce itself before stepping in. As always, this one’s chitin tingled as it stepped through the front door and whatever spells the Shimmer-mare had on it. This one didn’t know what exactly would happen if someone tried to get through the front door without the Shimmer-mare’s permission, but it doubted the intruder would enjoy it. Fortunately, the wards had been keyed to allow this one entry ever since the Shimmer-mare built her tower.

This one stepped inside, looking for its master. “Shimmer-mare?”

This one heard movement from upstairs, and a few seconds later the Shimmer-mare teleported down to the foyer. Her mane was damp and uncombed, and she had two sets of robes on wire hangers. “Kukri, there you are,” The second set of robes floated over to this one, and it noted that they seemed small enough to fit this one’s unicorn disguise.

This one frowned uncertainly as it accepted the clothes. The robes were very nice, decorated with gold thread that made them much fancier than Shimmer-mare’s usual clothes. “This one thinks you have the tradition backwards, Shimmer-mare—you’re supposed to receive gifts, not give them.” This one mentally kicked itself for forgetting to use the first person while it was in disguise, though considering it was alone with the Shimmer-mare that was understandable. Still, its father had said that it needed to get better about using the right pronouns at all times to avoid building bad habits.

The Shimmer-mare chuckled and gave it a quick pat on the back. “Puzzle’s hosting a little get-together, and it’s fancy enough that we need to dress up.” Her horn lit up, and this one felt a sudden wave of hot air emanate from her. Now that her mane was completely dry, she levitated over a brush and got to work arranging it. “You’re lucky, you can just shapeshift your mane into whatever you want it to look like.” She conjured up a thin sheet of ice to check her reflection while she worked.

This one dressed itself while the Shimmer-mare worked, not quite sure what to think of the heavy and likely expensive robes it was wearing. At least the clothes would mark this one as the Shimmer-mare’s apprentice to the rest of the world. Oh! Right, apprentice! “What do you need this one to do to help get ready?” A second later this one realized its mistake. “Actually, no, wait, first thing’s first.” It trotted over and hugged her. “Happy birthday, Shimmer-mare.”

She smiled and gave this one a quick hug. “Thanks, kid.” This one had hoped she might say something more, but instead she just got back to brushing her mane, trying to get it back to its usual appearance.

This one stepped back to let her work. “Right, so, Puzzle's party.” It frowned in thought. “Um, so who else is coming? And what do you need this one to help with first?”

Sunset shrugged. “Puzzle drew up the guest list, so he’d know better than I would. Probably whoever he thinks we need to gain some influence with. Don’t worry, I don’t think you need to do much beyond be there, look happy, and not cause an embarrassing incident.”

“This one can do that.” This one hadn’t really known what to expect from a birthday party for the Shimmer-mare, but it had been hoping for a fun party with games and cake. From the sounds of things, this was going to be one of those boring fancy adult parties, not a fun one. Its parents had taken it to one of those for the clan’s paterfamilias once, and it had been bored the whole time. “So who will be at the party? Anyone this one knows?”

The Shimmer-mare shrugged. “Can’t think of anyone past Puzzle, Strumming, and a couple of your clanmates.” This one was gratified to see a faint frown flicker across her face at the mention of the Heartstrings-mare. It was pleased that she did not like that one either. “Puzzle said the Equestrian Ambassador’s gonna be there too, along with Goldtalon, someone from World's Port, and some big traders. Probably someone from the Council too, but unless they show up wearing their cloaks and masks there’s no way to know for sure.”

“Oh,” this one murmured, struggling to maintain a look of idle curiosity as it heard the guest list. Someone high-up in its clan, an ambassador and possibly a member of the Council? This one was utterly doomed. This one didn’t think Freeport’s high and mighty would be playing pin the tail on the pony or getting into cake-eating contests. It would all be boring adults talking about boring adult things, all while expecting this one to just stay quiet and out of the way. Not to mention they would probably all be getting Shimmer-mare something much nicer than a single battered book. The Goldtalon-gryphon ran an auction house—his entire business was built on having fancy, expensive things ponies like Shimmer-mare wanted.

Shimmer-mare’s voice tore this one from contemplating just how doomed it was. “Kukri, could you run upstairs and grab my brooch real quick? The golden sun one?”

This one’s ears perked up as it realized the Shimmer-mare needed it. “Right away!” It ran up the stairs fast enough for the Shimmer-mare to call out for it to slow down, and was back in less than a minute with the Shimmer-mare’s jewelry box. “Here you go! Anything else, Shimmer-mare?”

The Shimmer-mare took the brooch, using it to pin her robes closed. “That’s it for me. Anything you need to do before we head out?”

Unless this one could somehow stumble upon an ancient artifact of magical power or find a hidden tome of lost wisdom on the way to the party, it couldn’t think of anything. “No, this one's already good to go, let it just double-check...” It borrowed the Shimmer-mare’s ice mirror to look itself over, and couldn’t help admiring its new robe. It really looked like a mage apprentice now, instead of just a little grub the Shimmer-mare let spend time helping it. “This is really nice. Thanks again.”

The Shimmer-mare looked this one over, then pulled out another brooch from her jewelry box and used it to fasten this one’s robes. “If you’re going to be my apprentice, you have to look the part.” She turned her back on this one, then sighed and shook her head. “Alright, let's get this over with.”

As the Shimmer-mare headed for the door, this one tried to figure out why she sounded so unhappy. Maybe because she was going to a boring adult birthday party? No, she was an adult, so she would like that kind of thing. Did this one’s coat not match the robe? Did she not like the mane- and tailstyle it chose for the disguise?! No, she would have said something ... except she hadn’t said anything about her birthday either. She hadn’t even told this one about her birthday party until it was almost time to leave for it. Maybe she was afraid this one would embarrass her, and hadn’t said anything because she had hoped it wouldn’t show up for the party!

This one kept its worries to itself, trying to figure out what could be troubling the Shimmer-mare so much and how it could fix the problem. It still had not found a solution when we arrived outside The Sun and Moon. The restaurant reminded this one of the pictures of Canterlot that the Shimmer-mare had shown it. Judging by how fancy the building itself was and the earth pony waiters in fine suits, this one could already guess that this wasn’t cheap. As soon as it spotted the menu it knew that for certain; there weren’t any prices.

This one quickly double-checked its robes and made sure it was maintaining proper posture. It also reminded itself to be extra careful about getting its pronouns right. “I forgot about this place. They're not going to announce us or anything when we walk in, are they?”

Sunset frowned and shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that fancy. At least, I hope not. If this turns out like the Grand Galloping Gala, I’ll spend half the evening hoping some emergency comes up to give me an excuse to get out.” She gave this one a reassuring pat on the back. “Relax, it’s just dinner.”

This one took a couple deep breaths. “Right, it’s just a birthday dinner.” This one paused and shook its head. “Well, not just a birthday dinner, but ... right, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.” The Shimmer-mare trotted in, with this one following in her wake. It could not help but notice that she seemed a bit tense: her shoulders were clenched, and she was walking a bit more stiffly than normal. Or maybe that was just her acting appropriate for a fancy birthday party? This one tried to mimic her stance and posture so it would look like a proper Canterlot lady.

This one could hear the low buzz of conversation coming from within the dining hall, though it came to an abrupt end as the Shimmer-mare stepped through the doors. After a second of silence, all the guests politely applauded her. The Shimmer-mare smiled graciously. “Thank you all so much for coming. I hope you all enjoy yourselves.”

While the Shimmer-mare spoke, this one scanned the room. Things were exactly as bad as this one had feared: everyone else in the room was an adult, and even older than the Shimmer-mare. There weren’t any games, and aside from the cake all the food looked boring and fancy. This one wasn’t going to have any fun at this party. Still, if this was the sort of party the Shimmer-mare wanted, that was fine. It was her birthday, after all.

Since there wouldn’t be any other kids for this one to talk to, it focused on the only familiar faces in the crowd. “Shimmer-mare, Puzzle is this way if you wanted to start with him.” The Heartstrings-mare was there too, but there was little this one could do about that. “Its clan pater is over by the buffet table, so we can talk to him once you’re done.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Shimmer-mare started trotting over to Puzzle. “I should thank Puzzle for setting this whole thing up. Plus, it looks like he’s talking to the ambassador.”

This one followed her over to Puzzle and the Heartstrings-mare, along with a distinguished-looking older unicorn stallion who was presumably Equestria’s ambassador to Freeport. The ambassador stepped forward to greet her first. “Happy birthday, Magus Shimmer—both from myself and Her Highness. I’m glad you could make it today.”

“Well, I could hardly miss my own birthday party,” Shimmer-mare answered dryly.

“This one would be most put out with you, after all the trouble it went to setting this up,” Puzzle grinned at her. This one was surprised that he wasn’t being careful with his own pronouns, but it supposed that everyone involved in the conversation knew he was a changeling. “Happy birthday, Shimmer-mare.”

“Thanks, Puzzle.” She smiled at him. “And thanks for setting up the party. Didn’t know you were a good party planner on top of everything else.”

“Bug boy’s multitalented.” Strumming grinned and bumped him with her shoulder. “And happy birthday, bacon-mane.”

Shimmer-mare didn’t seem inclined to acknowledge the Heartstrings-mare, so this one made sure it would be included in the conversation. “Happy birthday, Shimmer-mare.” It paused, shuffling uncertainly. “Well, happy birthday again.”

Strumming snickered at this one, much to its annoyance. “Anyway, let’s get to the most important part of the birthday party. Presents are over there.” She pointed to a side table loaded down with presents. “I promise I didn’t open any of them for inspection.” She shrugged, then added, “Also, I was eating crisps, so there might be some crumbs. Sorry.”

The Shimmer-mare rolled her eyes, while this one snickered softly. She might be a terrible pony, but the Heartstrings-mare could be funny on rare occasions. This one glanced at the pile of presents again, then pulled out its own gift. “Thi—I'll go put this with the rest. Be right back.”

The closer this one got all the Shimmer-mare’s presents, the more self-conscious it felt about about its own contribution to the pile. Most of the presents were much larger than this one’s, and wrapped in fancy paper with bows and other decorations instead of an old newspaper. Some of the gifts probably had wrapping paper that cost more than the actual gift this one had brought.

This one set its gift down, noticing how small and pathetic it looked by comparison. One of the restaurant’s waitstaff would probably mistake it for a bit of garbage left on the table and get rid of it. It was tempted to just get rid of the present and come up with some sort of story to buy time for it to get something better, but it was too late. The Shimmer-mare had already seen it.

This one made a quick trip by the buffet table to get itself something to eat. The food was all traditional Equestrian fare: lots of fruits, vegetables, and sweets. Most of it was a bit too sugary for this one, and the complete absence of meat from the menu struck this one as a terrible oversight. This one did not understand how Equestrian ponies could survive without any proper protein in their diet. The one concession to other races was a small bowl of thymoplasm mixed in with the other spreads and sauces, which this one liberally applied to its fruit salad. This one hoped none of the non-changelings accidently put plasm on their food—from what Mom said the one time she tried some, non-changelings didn’t enjoy the taste at all.

After this one made a plate for itself and a plasm-less one for the Shimmer-mare, it trotted back over to her. She was in the middle of talking to several of her guests, including the auctioneer Goldtalon-gryphon. When she spotted this one she gratefully accepted the plate with a smile and a nod, but she didn’t break away from the conversation. From what little this one overheard, it seemed they were talking about some sort of new trade taxes. This one tried to follow the conversation, but it didn’t really know much about the topic and quickly grew bored.

Since the Shimmer-mare wasn’t available, this one went looking for Puzzle. However, he was in the middle of talking to this one’s pater, and the last thing it wanted to do was make itself look bad in front of the clan’s leader. It had only ever met him once, back when The Monster was ... it shivered and quickly put that from its mind.

With nopony to talk to and nothing to do, this one did the only thing it could: it found a seat and made itself comfortable, ensuring that it did nothing to disrupt the adult party. Even if it wasn’t having fun, at least it could ensure it didn’t do anything to embarrass the Shimmer-mare.

Just as this one was finishing up its food, it noticed the Shimmer-mare waving it over. Its ears perked up, and it eagerly trotted over to her. Once it arrived she stepped back, presenting this one to the adults she’d been talking too. “Everyone, this is my apprentice, Kukri Doo. Give me a decade, and she’ll be the second proper Freeport Magus.”

This one’s chest swelled with pride at her words. The idea that someday it would be a magus just like the Shimmer-mare, working alongside her ... yes. This one wanted that. It wanted to grow up to be Magus Kukri Doo, serving under Archmagus Sunset Shimmer.

The Goldtalon-gryphon looked down at this one, stroking his beak with one ring-covered talon. “An apprentice already? She looks like a good prospect, and I have no reason to doubt your talents, Magus, but as I understand it most Equestrian Magi don’t start training apprentices until a bit later in their careers.”

“I’m not an ordinary Magus,” the Shimmer-mare answered confidently. “Besides, Celestia always said one of the best ways to learn more about magic was to teach somepony else. I do like to think she learned one or two things while she was teaching me ... everything.” She chuckled and shook her head. “In any case, if I’m going to build a Freeport Magus Corps, I need to get started on that sooner rather than later.”

“This one won’t let you down!” it announced enthusiastically, realizing its mistake an instant after the words left its mouth.

This one hoped that its slip would go unnoticed, but the Goldtalon-gryphon’s raised eyebrow and the way he regarded it with renewed interest dashed its hopes. “I see. It definitely won’t be exactly like the Equestrian Mage Corps, then.”

The Shimmer-mare cleared her throat, then turned to this one with a strained smile. “Kukri, why don’t you go have a seat?” As this one slunk away, she turned back to the rest of the gathering, raising her voice a bit. “I think my apprentice is getting a bit impatient for us to get to the good stuff, so how about we cut the cake and open some presents?”

This one returned to its seat, with the Shimmer-mare joining it a few moments later. The Heartstrings-mare took the seat on the other side of it, winking and grinning at it. This one resolved to keep a much closer eye on its slice of cake, given the Heartstrings-mare’s notorious appetite.

The Shimmer-mare’s cake was definitely the best part of the meal. The cake had been decorated to look like a huge version of her cutie mark, with raspberry frosting on one side and lemon on the other. It tasted a bit weird when this one took a bite that had both flavors on it, but not bad. Plus the Shimmer-mare made sure this one got an extra-large slice, and the Heartstrings-mare tried to take some of Puzzle’s cake instead of this one’s. To this one’s great amusement, Puzzle was able to fend her off in a drawn-out, subtle, and stealthy conflict.

From there, the Shimmer-mare started opening her presents. Most of them were exactly the sort of thing one would expect to be given to a magus: a set of rare magical books bound in fine sharkskin and silver foil lettering; mithril-tipped etching tools for runecrafting; an ornate brass sextant with every feature this one could imagine built in, including a compass; several framed paintings, some of which were renditions of the Shimmer-mare’s own accomplishments; and finally, several expensive bottles of wine that the Heartstrings-mare joked about confiscating so she could test them all for poison.

Finally, we were down to just a few gifts left. The Goldtalon-gryphon stepped forward, offering her one of the most ornately decorated presents this one had ever seen. This one had to wonder how impressive the gift might be when even the wrapping paper looked so expensive. The Shimmer-mare carefully opened it, leaving the wrapping paper as intact as possible as she carefully removed the most impressive book this one had seen so far. The Shimmer-mare’s cutie mark was rendered on the cover in garnets and topaz, and the book itself was impressively thick. Goldtalon smiled proudly, turning to address the entire room. “The complete works of Magus—and later Basilissa—Morning Star. Well, almost complete—I’m afraid her most famous accomplishments have been lost to time. Still, this is the most complete copy ever assembled.”

This one noted the tension in the Heartstrings-mare’s muscles as soon as the gift was revealed, and heard her growl under her breath. “Not lost, locked away. And for damn good reason. That book belongs in the Sealed Repository. Or if we can’t manage that, the nearest fireplace.”

The Shimmer-mare shot an annoyed glare at her over this one’s head, keeping her voice low enough that it wouldn’t carry. “If you know your history, you know the Mage Corps went overboard by banning everything she ever wrote. You can’t ignore everything she contributed to magical learning just because of political—” She cut herself off, shaking her head in annoyance. “No, not having this argument with you, especially on my birthday. I’m keeping the book. It’s not going to turn me into a crazy warlock, there’s not even any dark magic in it. Deal with it.”

This one tried to remember enough of its history classes to figure out what the two of them were talking about, but before it could Puzzle presented his own gift to the Shimmer-mare. When the Shimmer-mare finished unwrapping it, she revealed a platinum circlet with a large emerald set in the center. Puzzle grinned, and much like the Goldtalon-gryphon had, took the opportunity to tell everyone about the gift. “This belonged to Archmagus Ocean Shimmer—it was a gift from Celestia to celebrate Ocean’s ascension to the rank of Archmagus.”

This one saw the Shimmer-mare’s eyes light up at Puzzle explained the origins of the circlet. It knew the Shimmer-mare wanted to be an archmagus herself one day, which gave the diadem value far beyond what it was worth in ducats. And, while this one was no expert on the topic, it knew enough to realize that the circlet itself was probably worth a lot.

What did this one have that could possibly compete with that? All it was offering her was a book available in any corner bookstore, and a damaged copy at that. This one’s gift seemed utterly pathetic compared to the riches the other guests had heaped upon the Shimmer-mare. How could this one have ever thought it could offer her a worthy gift?

This one got up to retrieve its present from the table, but noticed that its package was no longer there. For that matter, it hadn’t seen the Shimmer-mare open the White Pony’s gift either. Had someone stolen them? It didn’t think that likely—the White Pony’s gift likely had some sort of protection on it, and this one’s gift wasn’t worth stealing. But then what had happened to them?

With all the presents opened and cake eaten, the party seemed to pretty much be over. The Shimmer-mare spent a while saying goodbye to all her guests, until even Puzzle had left. After that, she decided that it was time for this one to study a topic that came up almost as often as cleaning: lessons in how to carry things for her. She did have a lot of birthday presents, some of which were quite heavy. She used a couple of spells to make the job less difficult for this one, but it still did not enjoy it. Especially since carrying all of the Shimmer-mare’s fancy, expensive gifts was just one more reminder of how this one had failed to find anything suitable for her.

Once it arrived back at the Shimmer-mare’s tower, this one carefully unloaded all of her very expensive and potentially fragile gifts. This one had already messed up getting her a present of its own. The last thing it needed to do was compound its error by damaging one of the real gifts she’d gotten at the party.

This one let out a relieved breath once the last of her presents was safely off its back. “Well, that was ... nice.”

The Shimmer-mare shrugged, removing her fancy robe and putting it up in the closet. “Yeah, it was alright.”

“‘Alright’?” this one repeated incredulously. It looked over the large collection of expensive presents. “If this much is only alright, this one wonders how much it would have to spend to actually impress you.”

To this one’s shock, the Shimmer-mare scoffed and shook her head, waving almost contemptuously at her massive collection of presents. “Kukri, you do know why they gave me all that stuff, right?”

This one frowned, confused by a question with such an obvious answer. “Because it's your birthday?”

The Shimmer-mare sighed. “That was just an excuse. You saw how Puzzle and Goldtalon acted when I opened their presents. They weren’t buying me something nice to show how much they cared—they were doing it to show everyone there that they had the kind of money and connections to get lost ancient books or Shimmer family heirlooms, and then just casually give them away as a present.” She pointed at the book Goldtalon had given her. “He could’ve sold that thing at auction for a hundred thousand ducats, easy. By handing it out at as a birthday present, he’s showing everyone in Freeport that he’s so rich and powerful that a hundred thousand ducats is nothing to him.”

She grimaced, scowling at her gifts. “That, and they’re probably hoping it’ll give them influence over me. Back in Canterlot, I’d always get tons of gifts from people who wanted something from Celestia. Do something nice for the kid she’s practically raising, and she’d like them and be more inclined to give them what they wanted. Hay, that’s why the Equestrian ambassador showed up at my party despite never being around before.” She slowly ran a hoof down her face. “For the rest of them, I’m the Magus of Freeport now. Just means I’m worth trying to bribe directly, instead of only being useful as a way to indirectly bribe Celestia.”

She pulled out this one’s gift, along with the White Pony’s. “That’s why I saved these two for later. They... they’re the only ones that that really count.” She smiled at this one. “Nobody else gave me a gift just because they wanted to do something nice for me.” She paused, then amended, “Well, maybe Puzzle also wanted to give me something nice that I’d like, but he wasn’t going to waste the chance to show off, make a public statement, and earn my gratitude at the same time.”

“Oh.” This one sat silently as the Shimmer-mare unwrapped its present. The book still looked battered and unimpressive compared to all the other gifts the Shimmer-mare had received, but she smiled and hugged this one anyway.

She opened up the book to have a look inside. “So ... Daring Do and the Sapphire Statue. Heard this series is real popular back home, but I didn’t know it had been released in Freeport.” She turned the book over, frowning at the damage. “Or did you pick it up second-hoof?”

This one hesitated, then told the truth. “There ... weren’t very many copies, and this one had a bit of a disagreement with someone else over the book.”

“Oh.” She sighed and shook her head. “You didn’t have to go to that much trouble for me. I mean, I appreciate it and everything, but I usually don’t read a lot of light fiction.”

This one slowly wilted as it realized that the Shimmer-mare had only been being polite before and was really disappointed with its gift. It should have known she would not be impressed by its efforts.

The Shimmer-mare abruptly cleared her throat and patched up the damage to her book with a quick spell. “That is, I don’t usually read light fiction, but I always like a good book, and I’ve heard this series is supposed to be really good. Maybe we could read it together?”

This one’s ears perked back up, and it smiled at her. “This one would like that very much!”

“Alright then.” She sat on the couch and motioned for this one to join her. Once it had settled down next to her, she began reading aloud.

This one listened eagerly, losing itself in the story; Daring’s injury depriving her of the ability to fly, the journey to the temple where she faced an army of evil cats, and the numerous deathtraps the intrepid explorer faced in her journey. This one was especially amused by the trap that involved alligators swinging down from the ceiling, though it did have to wonder how live creatures could be part of an ancient temple’s deathtraps.

This one was disappointed when she stopped just as Daring Do had finally reached the statue mentioned in the book’s title. “Just one more chapter! Please, Shimmer-mare?”

She chuckled and patted this one’s head. “Sorry, but it’s getting a bit late, and I still haven’t even opened my present from Celestia. Don’t worry, the book’s not going anywhere.”

This one stayed pressed up against her side, watching as she unwrapped her gift from the White Pony. From the outside, it looked like a fairly ordinary book, but thanks to the Shimmer-mare’s training this one could feel the magic coming off of it. “Two-way journal,” she explained. “Whatever I write shows up in the copy she has back in Canterlot, and vice versa.”

This one’s ears perked up. A direct line to the White Pony could definitely be useful, and this one knew the Shimmer-mare cared enough about her to appreciate having a way to communicate. It smiled and hugged her again. “Happy birthday, Shimmer-mare.”

She wrapped one foreleg around this one. “Thanks, kid.”

The Shimmer-mare looked so happy. Much happier with her last two gifts than all the presents she’d gotten from Freeport’s high and mighty. With those, there’d always been a sort of still formality to her reactions—the smile came half a second too late, and never quite reached her eyes. Now, everything was the way it was supposed to be.

Perhaps this one should have listened to its parents when they told it not to worry so much about the Shimmer-mare’s present. Clearly she didn’t care that this one hadn’t spent as many bits, or that the book wasn’t in perfect condition. What mattered to her was that this one cared, not that it couldn’t afford something as expensive as Puzzle or Goldtalon. Maybe that was the best birthday present of all.

Still, this one was definitely getting her something better next year. After all, this time it would have an entire year to save up its allowance and plan ahead. Now all it needed was a good idea for where to start looking...

Author's Notes:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

Click here if you want to join the list of awesome people who support my writing.

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