A Matter of Matching Mares

by TheDriderPony

Chapter 1: Three-card Pony

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"Viper," I hissed as I stomped past the mare on my way off the rain. I doubt she picked up on the curse, much less understood it, but it made me feel better all the same. A three hour train ride journey's worth of stink-eye deserved that much at the very least. If she was a dragon I'd have thrown her across the train. Maybe break a few rocks over her head to make sure the message stuck.

But she wasn't, so I wouldn't. A Dragonlord was supposed to be better than that. Weird how being proclaimed the strongest of dragons meant I had to fight less now. Weird and annoying.

And it's not like I'd even done anything to deserve the glare anyway; I'd followed every pony social trick I knew. I bought a ticket—with my own actual money. When that pony in a jacket asked it, I gave it to him instead challenging him to a fight. I didn't tear out the cushions to get to the comfortable metal underneath or breathe so much as a wisp of flame. Not even to clean out the air! No way I'd been anything less than a perfect passenger. I even limited myself to only six of the complimentary gemstones from the ceiling as a reward.

Not that they were all that good, anyway. Tasteless ponies can't even get decent snacking crystals.

I stepped out onto the Ponyville station platform and stretched as the sun soaked into my stiff muscles. Nothing like a quick warm-up after having to sit in place for so long. Even if it was irritatingly chilly here, without a single magma flow in sight to bask by. Not that there'd been any magma flows the last time I visited, but I keep hoping that maybe eventually the ponies will pick up something of value from dragon society: anything would be an improvement.

Turning my attention outward, I scanned the crowd. Pony, pony, pony, pony, flying pony, magic pony, pony, pony. Aw, cracks. Just my luck. Spike was nowhere in sight.

I sniffed the air, hoping to catch a trace of his familiar scent. There was only one dragon whose natural musk was always buried beneath a layer of soap and paper, but unfortunately even Spike's distinct scent was lost under a cloying mess of smells that clogged up the air of every pony city like the haze over a sulfur pit.

For creatures that could barely smell a thing unless it was eye-wateringly overpowering, they sure put a lot of stock in the sensation.

Great. I was gonna have to find him the hard way then. And that meant walking.

The hard way—when you really got down to it—was mostly just walking up and down the maze of streets until I spotted something I recognized. A daunting task when every wooden pony house looked pretty much the same. Back in the dragonlands, outside of mountains and crags that split the horizon, you could always see everything around for miles. Getting lost wouldn't even be a concept if it weren't for the Great Migration. Meanwhile, finding my way through a pony town was like trying to walk through a canyon that kept splitting into multiple paths and doubling back on itself. The big crystal building was as good a landmark as any, but the roads never seemed to go right to it; always bending and snaking along twisty routes that all led back where I started.

My wings rustled irritably, eager to spread and launch me into the air so I could just fly straight there and be done with this mess, but a few bad experiences had proven that dragons flying inside a pony city usually ended in a lot more panic and screaming than it was worth. Usually.

That or you ended up with a lot of papers saying you were fine delivered by ponies who were always angry.

It was a small mercy that most of the locals gave me a wide berth as I wandered, clearly out of respect for my power and position. At least they had some awareness of a pecking order.

"Ember? Hey, Ember!"

Oh no.

I felt my blood run cold at the sound. I'd almost forgotten about the biggest threat that lurked in pony towns I'd visited before: ponies that knew me.

And it had to happen now of all times, didn't it?

No. I was a dragonlord. The Dragonlord. If I couldn't handle a little social interaction, what kind of a leader would I be?

...About as good as Dad, really, but that's not the point.

I took a deep breath to settle my definitely not shaken nerves and turned towards where the voice had come from to face the challenge.

There was a pony running—no, trotting—towards me.

So it was a pony. That was a good start.

That ruled out all the griffons, buffalo, yaks, and minotaurs I knew. Not that I knew all that many, but becoming the leader of a country had increased the amount from 'none at all' to 'several of each' in a very short span of time.

I turned my attention back to the pony, who was rapidly closing the distance between us. It had a long mane, so, a mare then. No, wait, some drakes—stallions—also had long manes, didn't they? Why couldn't they keep even that straight? The way it was styled didn't feel familiar, but they could change that on a whim as well so it meant nothing. I put a tentative pin in 'mare' and moved on.

No reason to even bother trying to intentionally smell her. The fabric-obsessed pony whose presence made Spike's scent change had once said it made me look haughty. I wasn't sure what haughty was but it didn't sound good. Besides, it wouldn't tell me anything anyway. Maybe there'd be a whiff of Spike in her scent—if I could dig through the soaps and perfumes and the last ten things she ate—but all that would mean was that she's a local.

There was a horn, glowing a little as it held up a pair of bags. That ruled out a lot of ponies from my mental list. The quiet flyer, the fruit one, the dragon-like one, and the insane one. Others too, but they weren't important enough for me to give them handy monikers.

But with that thought my time was up and quick assessment came to an end since the pony had reached me. Anything more I'd have to dissect from the conversation like prying a diamond from a lesser gem cluster. Only I had to do it without the cluster noticing.

Alright, stay calm, Ember. You got this. You will definitely figure out who this pony is and not bring shame to your title and also all dragons everywhere. Just figure out their name before you put a big stain on your honor. No problem. Now, start strong.

"Hey," I said before the mare could get the jump on me and start first. 'Hey' was a good, solid opener. It confirmed that I knew the pony I was speaking with without revealing that I didn't know who they were.

"Hey yourself," the mare replied, baring her teeth in a challenge to- no. Pony rules. A smile. She was happy to see me. "I thought that was you. What are you doing here?"

I shrugged, another good noncommittal gesture. "Visiting friends." Friends were also a handy excuse. Mentioning that to a pony would usually satisfy a lot of questions.

The mare's face twisted and warped. Ugh. Why did their faces have to be so... squishy? It was like looking at a newborn before their scales formed up. Lips went down, eyebrow up. Was that confusion? Maybe alarm?

"You have friends in Ponyville?"

Confusion then. Made sense. There was only one dragon in Ponyville and the idea of being friends with ponies was still a new concept, even to me. Still, I needed more. So far I'd learned nothing about this pony other than that she was surprised to hear I had friends.


I'm a Dragonlord. I can make all the friends I want.

"And what if I do? You got a problem with that?"

"No! No, of course not. Friendship is always a good thing." And the best situational scapegoat. The scrunched up expression returned. "But how'd you get here?"

I racked my brain for a suitable answer. "The usual way." Most ponies took the train, didn't they? A lot of them couldn't fly and I couldn't imagine having to walk between towns. Having to walk within a town was painful enough. This conversation was continuing to be frustratingly dry on social cues and hints as to how this pony knew me. I needed a clue.

"Huh. Guess Celestia must have loosened up the travel restrictions."

Cluster! And there it was! A motherlode of hints. Now to just claw out everything useful before the silence went on too long.

First, travel restrictions. That sounds like something that was probably discussed in one of those conferences of national leaders that I hadn't paid all that much attention to. Which was totally fair game cause they'd been so boring. But this pony knew about it which meant they were an important pony.

...Or just followed the news. Cracks. No luck there.

More importantly though; Celestia. Not Ponylord Celestia. Not Her Highness Celestia. Just Celestia. No title. She was casual. Whoever this pony was, she was someone who knew Celestia on a personal level. That narrowed down the list to three ponies I could think of. Twilight Sparkle, Spike's hatcher. Starlight Glimmer, his friend. Or Raritoy, the one he just hung around sometimes.

All of which were ponies who were really big on the whole 'friendship thing' and ones who probably wouldn't take it too well finding out I can't tell them apart. Doesn't sound like a very 'friendship' thing to do.


The pony was starting to give me a weird look again. Twisting the lip and moving her ears around like leaves folding in the wind. What was it now? Seriously, these ponies used subtext so much it was like a whole second language! They could have a whole conversation without saying anything and...

Oh. I'd let the silence go on too long, hadn't I? That was probably it. Gotta recover quickly.

"So did you want something or...?" I let the question hang in the air; hopefully it would wring out a more helpful answer than what I'd been getting so far.

The pony looked successfully caught off guard. "Oh! Uhhh... not really, I guess? I mean I was surprised to see you and you honestly look a little lost."

I hated to admit it, but she was right. I was lost. Both in this city and the conversation. I'd go so far as to say I was desperate for more clues. I wouldn't say it out loud, but still. I nodded, reluctantly granting her that point. "This place is like a maze." Would a local defend their hometown?

The mare nodded back. "It can be if you're not used to it."

Again, unhelpfully ambiguous.

Who was she? The princess, the villain, or the fashion one? Twilight, Starlight, or Vanity? Three especially identical ponies with no way to tell them apart. It was a risk I didn't like taking, but it was coming down to just making my best guess. I drafted three columns, one for each potential pony, and readied myself to tally up further evidence.

I nearly missed the next beat of the conversation.

"So, where is it you're trying to go?"

Taking the cautious route, I decided to merely raised a claw towards the distant crystal castle. Less chance of letting something slip.

The unicorn's eyes widened in what was probably either realization, hunger, or love. I hoped it was the first. "Ah. Right. Yeah, that makes sense. I can walk with you back to the castle, if you want?"

The castle. Not ‘my castle’. It wasn't as cut-and-dry as I'd like, but it was better than nothing. I added a mark to the Starlight and Charity tallies anyway. I nodded my agreement.

Taking the lead, the unicorn turned down a side road that looked like it shouldn't have lead anywhere near the castle. I followed. Not like I could get any more lost than I already was.

As we traveled through side streets and around plazas, the pony began, as ponies infuriatingly often do, to prattle on about some inane details of pony life. Things like the weather, what she'd eaten, and who she'd met recently. Things that, without context, offered no information and even less interest to me. Despite my best efforts, I began to instinctively tune it out. It was like listening to magma bubble. Even when you try to focus on it, one small distraction and it just so easily fades into the background. Just keeping track of the broad strokes of conversation in case I needed to reply to anything was a chore in itself.

Why couldn't ponies be easy, like dragons? You had tall dragons, you had short dragons. Burrowers and flyers. Snub nosed and bottle-nosed. Unique scents and scale patterns. Solid, unchangeable facts about who they were. But ponies—it was like looking at leaves on a tree. How did ponies even tell each other apart?

Height? Aside from a few giants like Celestia and Night Celestia, they were all about the same.

Horns and wings? That narrowed them down into one of three groups, but apparently sometimes even that could change if they felt like it.

Manes? Even easier to change.

Maybe ponies just had a magical sense that let them tell who was who. Didn't bees do something like that? And ants maybe? Only they used actual scents, like any decent creature would instead of slathering themselves up in greases and oils and perfumes.

What else did they even have that was distinctive? I shifted my line of sight from mystery mare's backside to trail across other ponies as we passed by. There was a stallion, probably, with a boring mane and no horn or wings. Now a mare, maybe, with an only slightly longer mane and a pair of wings. Even side-by-side the only real difference between them was...

Aha! That was it! Their cute spots! Or talent tats, or whatever they called them! Those were unique! My chest swelled with an immense feeling of pride at having found the solution to the pony puzzle. Wasting no time, I turned to stare at my companion's flanks...

...which were covered by a skirt.

Right. They also wore clothes sometimes. As if they needed another feature to arbitrarily change from day to day. Then again, even if I could see it, I'd never paid attention to the marks before and wouldn't know who it was based on them anyway. So no great loss then. The surge of pride I'd been riding on crumbled down into a quiet burn of embarrassment.

Sometimes I wished you could punch emotions.

As an afterthought I added a point to the Rarity—that was her name!—column. Other ponies could wear clothes but she was the only one who was really into it.

The castle was getting closer, or at the very least we'd definitely made more progress than I'd managed on my own. Hints were still slow coming, but most of what the mare said was either too ambiguous to make a call or just completely useless.

But at least I could keep it up and keep digging as long as she didn't ask-

"So how's Torch doing?"

I nearly tripped over my own feet as the question cut through my half-focused thoughts. There it was. The most dangerous trap of the conversational minefield. Specific information. The kind of question where what I say has to make sense based on what the pony already knows. Too much extra context? They're gonna wonder why I'm repeating obvious stuff. Too little? It'd only be a quick jump for her to think that I thought she was somepony else who knew more. It was a delicate balancing act in the best of times.

Leaps of logic weren't my specialty but my new leadership responsibilities had given me some practice. I just had to lay out what I knew, what each of the three potential ponies might know, and find a safe overlap. All in the next several seconds. Great.

Dad. He was the important factor here. She knew about Dad. As far as I could remember, Starlight had never met him but the other two had; Twilight and Rarity were both at the trials. So, banking on the idea that the mare wasn't Starlight, anything the other two would have learned from that one visit should be safe.

"He's fine. Been sleeping a lot." The pony snerked. Was that funny? Pony humor was almost as bad and annoying as their faces. "Figuring out what to do in his retirement."

The mare twisted up one eyebrow and pursed her lips but said nothing. Now what was that supposed to mean?

We walked in silence for a few minutes while I definitely didn't start going over my words again and again, checking each one for some hidden context or accidental meaning that would have thrown me off. Nothing. Nothing I could think of was wrong with what I'd said. So why had she reacted so weirdly?

Before I realized it, we'd reached the castle. The doors were open, held that way by magic or whatever, so we continued straight indoors.

Just as I was starting to feel confident that things might be about to go smoothly, a headache walked around the corner.

This headache came in the form of two ponies. Mares, unicorns, and inside Twilight's castle.

And both their faces lit up at seeing me.


"Ember!" One of them cried as she approached. At least she didn't go for a hug so that was something to be grateful for. "Since when have you been in Ponyville?"

The pony I'd walked in with tilted her head. "You didn't know she was here, Twilight?"

Twilight! Yes! I held in the urge to loose a victory roar. That locked down one pony for sure. Unless there were multiple unicorns named Twilight around, but what were the chances of that?

Still, that left either Starlight or Rarity as my pony, and I had a good feeling that whichever one she wasn't, Twilight's companion was. All I needed was a little more. One more scrap of information. I just had to keep the conversation going long enough.

Twilight's lips turned down—one of the bad expressions—and her tail twitched. "No, I didn't, but countless creatures visit Ponyville every day. I don't require a border check or anything."

"Plus I'm a dragon," I defended, crossing my arms. "I come and go as I please."

"Yes, there's that as well."

If her tensing muscles meant anything, the pony next to me was unhappy with this answer. Whatever her issue, I could deal with it later. After I had a name to put to a body.

"I was supposed to meet up with Spike to practice some dragon flight moves, but he wasn't at the train station like he was supposed to be." I might as well give her some friendly advice while I'm at it, that seems like a friendship sort of thing to do. "Your town is really badly planned."

Twilight grimaced—an expression surprisingly identical to a dragon's—and nodded. "Don't I know it. That's what happens when a band of farmers and traders pitch their tents wherever they feel like then spend a century growing a town around it. Next time some monster levels half of downtown, I'm pushing for a grid system."

I had no idea what that meant, but decided I'd friendshipped correctly. The pony beside me was also giving me a really weird look now. I need to pin her name fast before whatever she was brewing finally bubbled over. Twilight turned to the pony beside her. "Did Spike say anything about a visit from Ember to you?"

The unicorn shook her head. "Not to me, but I have been pretty busy lately. Want me to go check his room? He might've overslept."

Twilight beamed. "Thanks, Starlight!"

Starlight! Yes! And that left only one possible identity for the pony at my side.

I put my arm around her shoulder to emphasize just how good friends we were. "Thanks. Rarity here was just helping me find my way to the castle." I could barely keep the smug satisfaction out of my voice.

Then the room went silent.

The ponies all turned to me, their expressions bleeding such obvious confusion that even I couldn't miss it.

"Uh, come again?" said Rarity(?).

Oh no.

I cracked up! I cracked up! I cracked up! I'd guessed wrong! Backpedal! Reverse course!

"No, wait, I meant Starlight!"

Their gaze shifted towards the mare who'd been about to leave. Cracks, no! They'd already named her earlier!

I could feel the heavy weight of their eyes landing back on me. I held the record for deepest lava dive but even that pressure had nothing on this! How did they do it with just their eyes!? Some kind of pony magic?

I couldn't breathe. I was drowning. Drowning in my own failure and shame. I tried to speak but only managed a few choked noises. Was this how my legacy was to play out? Dragonlord Ember: That One Who Couldn't Remember a Pony's Name?

"Ember, are you... alright?" Twilight asked, her voice so sickeningly sweet with genuine sincerity that it cut right through me, tearing whatever was left of my pride to shreds.

What was the point? Why bother pretending? Might as well just take my lumps and admit it. Not like I could crack the situation up any more than I already had.

"Fine," I growled, channeling my shame into frustration. "Just... fine. I give up! You... whoever you are. I have no idea. I haven't had any idea this whole time. I tried to figure it out, but I got nothing. Not a clue to who you are or what your name is."

"Me?" she asked. I nodded. The mysterious pony that had caused me so much distress placed a hoof on her chest. "I'm Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset Shimmer? Who the crack was Sunset cracking Shimmer?

Sunset's eyes lit up and she raised a hoof to her forehead with a groan of realization. "Oh! I'm such an idiot. You're the local Ember, aren't you?"

Local Ember? Crack if I know but it sounds like as good an excuse as any. Maybe I could recover from this after all.


The unicorn groaned once more. "Seriously, again? Why is it that every time I drop by there's another mirrored person I didn't know about?"

Twilight spoke up. "Sunset, you know the Ember on the other side?"

She nodded, her face twisting into another of those complicated expressions. "We're not close, but I'd call us friends. She graduated two years ahead of me and works at her dad's store where I get all my jackets and motorcycle gear. Dragonland Gear and Outfitters. Pretty cool chick, if a bit standoffish."

Mirrors? Graduated? Motorcycles? I'd be the first to admit (at least to myself) that I don't get ponies, but this was a whole new level of confusing nonsense. But putting aside the strange terms, I think I could just about figure out what was going on. For once, I was the one getting mistaken for someone else. The feeling was... weird. No wonder ponies got upset when I did it to them.

Sunset had turned back to face me with a strained smile on her face as she rubbed the back of her head. "Yeah, so this is awkward. Sorry for the mix-up. I live... somewhere else, where there's a lot of ponies and creatures similar to ones around here, even down to names and personality. I've been going on all this time thinking you were the Ember I knew when really we're complete strangers. You must have been really bored listening to me ramble on for so long about a bunch of people you don't even know."

For a moment I was torn between the still thundering echoes of mortification at my mistake and a soothing relief that I'd only failed because it was a no-win scenario to begin with.

"No big," I said magnanimously. Part of being a ruler was knowing when to pretend like you'd done nothing wrong and if ever there was a time for that, it was now. "I'm sure it happens all the time."

"More often than you'd think."

I could see the light now. With her taking the blame, my mistake would be easily forgotten with almost no hit to my reputation. In a few minutes no one would remember I'd messed up at all. It wasn't the best outcome, but it was still better than I'd feared.

A trickle of laughter came out of one of the other two, drawing my and Sunset's attention to her. Starlight, assuming they hadn't switched places while I wasn't looking. "At least you're both in the same boat. Unless we're going to just gloss over how she thought you were Rarity and then me?"

They hadn't forgotten.


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