As Voltaire walked into the council room, he heard the sound of clapping. It most certainly didn’t sound like whatever a pony would do to applaud. Looking around, he saw a foal’s chorus bowing and, across from them, a green dragon applauding from the other side of a pane of glass.
The human did a double-take. For one thing, this was a full-fledged dragon straight out of the European tradition: long neck (and presumably tail), spiny back, great folded bat wings, and triangular head. It was maybe twice the height of Voltaire, with only its upper body visible through the window. The really disconcerting part, though, was the fact that the window was set in the same wall Voltaire had walked through to enter the room. This meant that he should have walked past the dragon standing in a pit in the floor on his way in, but he saw no such thing. In fact, the dragon appeared to be situated in a small antechamber of a much larger cavern system. Glints of gold and precious jewels could be seen behind the dragon, and it appeared that its face was being illuminated from a light source high above, perhaps a chandelier, but a chandelier with a much steadier light than could ever be produced by candles. A gas arc light, perhaps? That must be obscenely dangerous, if this dragon could breathe fire like the legendary ones could.
“Is that a human?” the dragon asked in a deep voice. “I heard of one visiting during my first nap.”
Eveningstar led Voltaire to the window. “Ambassador Botvinnik, this is our newest councilor, Voltaire. Like the Roman, he is also a visitor to our lands.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Councilor Voltaire,” Botvinnik said with a slight nod of the head and a simple gesture with one claw. “Has Luna taken you to see the Moon yet?”
The door to the room magically shut, as everypony in the room started to panic.
Eveningstar sighed. “That is still a delicate subject, Ambassador,” she said quietly, “and one we do not wish to distress Princess Celestia about.” She blessed her stars that the Princess hadn’t heard the dragon utter the dreaded name.
The other ponies also realized that the Princess was not in earshot, and slowly resumed their composure.
“She still hasn’t freed herself?” the dragon asked. “A pity. I would have liked to have met her once more.”
The look of everypony in the room made it clear to Voltaire that their opinion on the subject was “oh no, you wouldn’t.”
Occam’s Razor suggested to Voltaire that Luna was part of Celestia’s immediate family.
Also, “Luna” meant “Moon”, and Equestria’s moon had the face of a vengeful pony stamped into it.
Conclusion: Celestia did indeed have a temper, and it was exceedingly unwise to cause her to lose it.
Experimentally, Voltaire reached up and touched the window separating him from the dragon, and found it to have the texture of rough fabric, despite looking completely transparent. Pressing on it lightly caused a faint yellow glow to briefly surround Voltaire’s finger, the same color as the dragon’s eyes. He noticed that the wall on either side of the window was covered with several other squares of what might be similar gray-colored fabric, but these did not look like glass. “Is this some sort of magical viewing window?” he asked.
“Indeed,” Botvinnik beamed. “It’s my own creation, in fact. Five potential wars between the dragons and the ponies have been prevented so far because of my viewer. It allows our two races to converse without endangering themselves.”
Well! thought Voltaire. Score one point for the dragons. “I assume then that you are a little bit larger than you appear to us on this side of your magical handiwork.”
Botvinnik briefly dropped out of frame, and came back carrying the statue of a pony that looked as if it had been carved out of a single ruby, with some sort of dark-colored flaw inside it. It was just big enough so that the claws of one hand could not close around it. “This ‘little pony’ right here? It’s life size,” he said, his broad grin easily showing his razor-sharp fangs.
The human swallowed audibly.
“The Princess is coming!” announced the voice of a guard from the other side of the door.
The door was magically opened, and the councilors all lined themselves up in front of the chorus. Several of them took this last chance to try and fix their manes.
Morningstar looked up at Voltaire. “There’s something else in that scroll you should have read,” she told him. “After the chorus finishes their song, each of us will offer up a brief prayer to Her Highness. Do you think you can open your mouth for once and not have something clever come out of it?”
“Now hold on a minute,” the human complained. “How am I going to know what to pray for? And at least where I come from, prayers are private things. I think what we are going for here is more like a hosanna.”
The councilors groaned in unison. “We don’t have time for this!” exclaimed Prince Blueblood. “Tell Her about something nice you’ve noticed in Equestria. Whatever it is, She was responsible for it.”
“What, everything?” asked Voltaire in mock incredulity. “I think it’s time I settled for myself once and for all what type of deity I’m dealing with here.”
The councilors groaned for a second time. Voltaire spotted a tuft of flowing hair, the very end of Celestia’s mane, peaking around the edge of the doorway. Several others had seen this as well, and waited for her entrance, but no further signs of her presence were made visible.
Several seconds of silence were finally ended by the voice of the Princess from beyond the door. “How many types of deities are you acquainted with?” she asked.
“Humans claim the existence of a wide variety of gods,” answered Voltaire, “but I’m not sure that most of them even exist. I believe in a deity that I call God the Creator, so that’s one deity I know of. There is of course the Great and Powerful Celestia, of which I learn new wonders every day.” He looked around to make sure he had his audience’s full attention before getting to the next part, the beginning of his grand plan: “And finally there’s the Frog Princess of Fomalhaut, the bravest of all creatures not born in Equestria. Oh, the stories I could tell about her! But this is neither the time nor the place for me to tell you about her.” There, he thought. With any luck, they’ll be asking me to tell the tale that will transform their lives. Then he noticed that “Fomalhaut” had not been translated. He looked over at Eveningstar, and saw her shake her head firmly in refusal, eyes wide with fright. A moment’s thought revealed the reason: Celestia was the solar goddess of the ponies. The phrase “Frog Princess of Fomalhaut” implied that a star is in fact a far-away sun. And that meant that Celestia would have a rival. That being the case, it was far preferable to imply that Fomalhaut was merely a far-away place with an unusual name.
Voltaire decided to return to Princess Celestia’s question. “The three traits that the Jesuits taught me belonged to God were these: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. How many of these does Celestia possess?”
“The Princess knows all and is all-powerful,” Blueblood answered. “Being everywhere, on the other hoof, is rather silly. She is quite obviously where you can see Her at any given moment. If She needs to go somewhere else, She walks, or flies, or teleports.”
“Omniscient and omnipotent,” said Voltaire in summary. “Got it.” And I’m going to hold you to those words, he thought, when I teach you otherwise.
Princess Celestia chose this moment to make her entrance into the council chamber, accompanied by the jester, Gordon. Despite the traditional outfit, he didn’t look very jolly this morning. She took her place at the far end of the council table, with Gordon standing beside her.
The Princess was greeted by the traditional “Sunrise Chorus” from the fillies gathered to greet her old friend Botvinnik. She thought the solos by Blue Belle and Zody were both in good voice, although they did appear to be trying to drown each other out.
If Blue Belle had been allowed to make a prayer to the Princess along with the councilors, it would be to thank her for the gift of her voice. It was the one part of Blue Belle that was not part of her destiny as a Blueblood, and not under the rigid control of her father.
Zody sang because he was a Sparkle, and a Sparkle was always loyal to the Princess.
But he was singing next to Blue Belle, and Blue Belle had ruined his best friend’s life, so he didn’t have to like it.
In Voltaire’s opinion, the only reason those two foals were soloists was because they were the children of the two competing clans controlling the pony aristocracy. Otherwise, they stunk.
Of course I should mention that Voltaire had a tin ear, so his opinion on matters musical was completely worthless.
After the singing came the hosannas.
“All hail Celestia the Great,” intoned Prince Blueblood. “Thank you for the life-giving rays of your glorious Sun!”
“Praise be to Celestia the Immortal,” said Eveningstar. “May the paths of Sun and stars alike guide all ponies on the path of Truth!”
“Glory be to Celestia the Wise,” proclaimed Morningstar. “May your council continue to lead Equestria to greatness!”
“Dear Princess Celestia,” said Voltaire. “I really like your mane!”
The sound of the collected facehoofs could be heard through most of the palace.
It wasn’t until Blue Belle was leaving the room with the rest of the chorus that the actual point of Voltaire’s statement of praise finally hit her: everypony else had praised things Princess Celestia had to do, to protect Equestria and keep the Sun from flying into the void, but only Voltaire had actually praised something She had a choice in: Her personal appearance.
“Now then, Ambassador,” Celestia said to Botvinnik after the foals had left and she had allowed the councilors to be seated. “I would like to speak with you some more, but I have some Equestrian business to get to with my council first.”
“But of course, Your Grand Royal Highness,” said the dragon, bowing. “Feel free to contact me at your leisure.” He waved his hand, and the image reverted into a square of gray fabric again.
“Forgive my paranoia,” asked Voltaire, “but how do we know that he isn’t still listening in on us?”
“Voltaire!” exclaimed Morningstar. “You are far too suspicious. Botvinnik is an honorable dragon.”
And as she said “honorable”, she winked at him with the eye not visible from the inactive window.
Voltaire bowed his head in mock shame.
This was entirely too much like politics in Europe.
Voltaire wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first order of business was the swearing in of Voltaire as a counselor. I won’t bore you with the words of the oath—it is the same oath used for most public servant positions today. Voltaire swore never to intentionally mislead his Princess, and never to act against the best interests of the Equestrian people. There was also the part setting the scutage of his military obligations to the Crown to two minuets and a madrigal in praise of the Princess, but considering that this particular clause has not been invoked for the past fourteen hundred years, that is neither here nor there.
“Now what position would you suggest I appoint you to?” the Princess asked. “Blueblood is chancellor, Morningstar is first minister, Eveningstar is minister of defense, Pensive Thought is secretary of pegasi affairs, and so on.”
“Perhaps I should observe the proceedings, and come up with a suggestion afterwards,” said Voltaire.
“Very well,” replied Celestia. “Gordon, could you read the minutes for the last session?”
The last session had primarily concerned the arrival of the griffon delegation. Since that would culminate in the grand celebration later this night, I’ll skip ahead to the first new order of business.
“Put before the Council is the matter of the renewal of the trade embargo against the Orange Clan of dragons,” said the pegasus Pensive Thought, reading from a scroll before him. He looked up at Voltaire, and explained: “The embargo was started during the Diamond Dog War of Independence. Since the dragons have continued, even after the signing of the peace treaty, to use economic means to sabotage the Diamond Dog Republic, Equestria has retaliated with an embargo of our own.”
“It’s a foalish measure,” commented Gordon, “and only hurts Botvinnik himself. With the exception of the ambassador’s pineapple crop, which no creatures but ponies will buy, there are no dragon products that cannot be profitably sold to the outer lands, which means that the embargo means nothing to them. The Trottingham and Stalliongrad regions of Equestria, on the other hand, are being devastated because they are dependent on trade with dragons.”
“It sounds like you’re in the pocket of Ambassador Botvinnik,” said Blueblood with a smile. “As for Trottingham and Stalliongrad,” he added with a dismissive wave of a forehoof, “the damage there is not economically significant.”
“Are you perhaps saying that only because the unicorn population of those two regions is also of no significance?” asked Gordon accusingly.
Blueblood judged that question to be beneath him, and declined to answer.
“Is there perhaps some way of punishing the dragons other than an embargo?” asked Voltaire.
“We never bothered to investigate that,” Morningstar admitted.
“But an embargo is a really obvious sign of displeasure,” added Blueblood, as if that fact alone was enough to decide the matter.
“Let’s bring it to a vote,” said the Princess. “All in favor of extending the embargo for one more year?”
The ponies all said “aye”.
The human said “nay”. (The donkey didn’t bother to vote.)
“Are you sure you want a lone vote of opposition to be your first official action as a counselor?” asked Eveningstar.
“Yes,” said Voltaire. “In fact, I know what position I would like to hold in this council. Princess, I would like to be the minister of the loyal opposition.”
“There’s no such thing!” protested Morningstar. “In fact the very concept of a loyal opposition is not scientifically possible!”
“On the contrary,” said Voltaire, standing up for maximum eloquence, “a loyal opposition is vitally important for the wellbeing of any robust government.”
“So what is it?” asked Eveningstar.
“It is the foil of the chancellor. Now Prince Blueblood, you lead the council, yes?”
“Princess Celestia leads the council, as she leads all of Equestria,” replied Blueblood.
“Ah, but she delegates the day-to-day functions to others,” Voltaire countered. “And you are at the top of that delegation. Her Highness has her grand plans of how she would like Equestria to function, now and in the future. The Royal Council acts to bring those plans to fruition in the form of proclamations and laws, but who selects the order and priority of drafting those laws? You do, dear Prince. But what if you’re wrong?”
“Wrong?” sputtered Blueblood. Then he collected himself. “If events were ever to prove that my leadership of this council was not in Equestria’s best interest, then She would give me a specific ministry, and appoint another councilor to be Chancellor. But that would only happen in a crisis.”
“Which would mean the individual selected to be the new Chancellor would have to be prepared beforehand,” said Voltaire. “That is the role of the loyal opposition.
“The Loyal Opposition exists to point out flaws in the Chancellor’s plans, and to propose alternate ways that Her Highness’s goals can be fulfilled. In the normal course of affairs, it is a job defined by frustration, because if these alternatives were any good, then the loyal opposition wouldn’t be in opposition to the majority anymore. I should emphasize that the function of the loyal opposition exists only within the council. In public, it is the duty of all councilors to support the actions of the majority.”
“I don’t like this idea,” said Morningstar. “You’re intending to lead a group with this position, forming a political party with no other goal but the overthrow of the current administration.”
“I agree that this isn’t the best possible use of a loyal opposition,” Voltaire admitted. “The position is designed for use in a representative parliament, but it doesn’t appear that the Equestrian government has one of those.”
“I agree with Morngingstar’s observation that this innovation could act to destabilize the Council,” said the Princess. “However, I think it would make for an interesting short-term experiment. All in favor? All opposed? The notion is passed, by a vote of four to two, with three abstaining.”
“What shall we call this little party of yours?” Eveningstar asked with a smile.
“That is simple,” Blueblood interrupted. “My party is the Equestrian Party, and Voltaire’s party of one shall be called the Idiotic Party.”
“That’s not the way it works on Earth,” said Voltaire. “There, each party tries to give the other the most-insulting name possible, but each party gets the final say in which one of these insults to accept with pride as their own.”
Blueblood smiled. “That sounds fair enough, in its own twisted way. Do you accept the name of Idiotic Party?”
“No. Would you like to be the Fathead Party?”
“No! How about the Bipedal Party? That one at least is not very insulting.”
“I hope to have more than bipeds in my party, so no,” replied Voltaire.
“Who will be in your party?” asked Eveningstar.
“Mine will be the party of all that disagree with the current social order. I will accept anyone who wishes to join. Unicorns need not apply.”
“Hey!” protested Morningstar.
“How about the Hey Party?” asked Blueblood with a mischievous grin. “After all, you appear to be full of it.”
“No. How about the Blueblood Party?”
“I’d rather not,” Blueblood said with a frown.
“Yes, can’t make the egocentrism too obvious,” joked Voltaire. “Robe Party?”
Blueblood looked with pride at the robes worn by himself and every other pony member of the council other than the Princess and the jester. “Accepted! What do you say to being called the Wig Party?”
“Accepted! A periwig is an ancient and respected symbol of wisdom in Europe.”
“If the matter is settled,” said the Princess, “let us bring back Ambassador Botvinnik to inform him of our decision.” She waved a hoof over a metal plate on her end of the table, causing the image of the dragon to appear once again in the wall. He still had the ruby statue of a pony in one upraised claw, but it turned out not to be a statue at all, but instead a hollow container, because its detached head and neck was being held between two claws, revealing that it was filled with a coarsely ground brown powder. A pinch of the power was held between two talons of the dragon’s other claw, being raised towards a flared nostril.
In an instant, the pinch of what was probably ground tobacco was dropped out of sight, and the top half of the container was back in place. “My dear Princess,” said the dragon with a bow. Then he gave a start as he saw that the ruby pony’s head was on the wrong way. The snuff container was slowly lowered out of frame.
“Ambassador Botvinnik,” Princess Celestia said (showing no sign of noticing the dragon doing anything out of the ordinary), “it is my sad duty to inform you that the Royal Council has decided to extend the current embargo on Orange Dragon imports for another year, starting tomorrow.”
Botvinnik inclined his head slightly. “A pity. And congratulations once again on becoming councilor, Voltaire. You’re going to have to get me one of those periwigs.”
So, Voltaire thought, not only do we know that he’s spying on us, he also knows that we know that he’s spying on us.
This is exactly like European politics.
“Final order of business,” Princess Celestia said a few minutes later in a serious tone, before breaking out in a grin, “I hear that Morningstar’s son Cognizant just got his cutie mark!”
The ponies and dragon applauded, the former in the form of stamping their forehooves on the floor.
“When’s the cute-ceañero party?” the Princess asked.
“This evening, after the Griffon Gala,” Morningstar replied. “You’re all invited.”
“I’ll try to be there,” the Princess said. “If there’s no other business...no? Then this meeting is dismissed.” And she rapped her hoof loudly on the table.
As the councilors left the chamber, Morningstar pulled Voltaire aside. “You, however, are not invited,” she told him, returning to the same angry glare she was giving him before the meeting.
Free to his own devices for a few hours, Voltaire made his way over to Nightingale’s shop to put in an order for several periwigs shaped for pony heads. As the official symbol of his new party, he hoped to be handing several of them out really soon.
He’d treasure the look on Nightingale’s face when he added Botvinnik’s measurements to the end of the list to his dying day.
He returned to his room to freshen up, only to find a peeved Morningstar and a buoyant Cognizant waiting for him.
“Morningstar?” Voltaire asked uncertainly.
“Voltaire, this is Cognizant, or ‘Cogs’ as he now wishes to be known,” the unicorn mother said with resignation. “He would like to be your apprentice, for as long as you remain in Equestria.”
“My apprentice?” Voltaire asked in shock. “Isn’t he your apprentice?”
“Not anymore,” Morningstar said in a dismal tone, then turned and walked away.
“So, uh...Cogs...” Voltaire began. And then he froze, because Cognizant’s new cutie mark was the flywheel from his watch.
“Hey, want to see my copy of your watch?” Cogs asked, pulling out a perfect replica of Voltaire’s watch from his saddlebag. “I’ve also got plans for scaling the mechanism up into a watch an entire city could see. It will be so big and grand...ooh, maybe we can name it a Grandfather Watch!”
Voltaire sighed. He wished somebody had warned him not to do anything impressionable in front of blank flank ponies.
Like I said before, Voltaire tended to miss the obvious sometimes.