Esteem gently cast a spell to dry off his coat and mane as he rose out of his bath. He used his magic to open the curtains, and the white walls and floor of his room were bathed in the light of the early morning sun. He strode over to the mirror that dominated one wall as he opened his wardrobe and examined himself. A set of combs and picks, guided by his unicorn magic, began to pick their way through his dark red mane, styling it into a sweeping wave that fell to his right and ended in dozens of curled points. A complex harness floated through the air to sit beside him, and he stepped through the various loops, fastening the straps through the metal rings until the harness hugged his body tightly. He affixed his collar, each side of which supported a strip of five yellow sunbursts within white circles, the symbol of his rank. Lastly, fourteen irregular shards of enchanted platinum-iridium made their way from the top of his bedside table to tuck themselves into their various holding places on the harness.
Dressed, he pulled a pocket watch off of his harness and checked the time: seven fifty-seven. Three minutes to breakfast. He took one more look into his own vibrant blue eyes before exiting his expansive chambers into one of the Canterlot Palace’s luxuriously carpeted hallways. Outside, his assistant was waiting for him.
Esteem gave the green pony a sharp nod as he saluted. “Good morning, cadet.”
The officer cadet fell into step beside him as he made his way down the hallway. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “I have the intelligence report you requested on the outer city loyalists.”
Esteem opened a door and they stepped out into the morning air. He allowed himself a deep breath, and smiled at how refreshing it felt. It was a cloudless day in Canterlot, already warm despite the early hour.
“Sooner than I expected,” he remarked as they made their way down a white stairway and into the palace gardens. “I shall look forward to hearing it. Unfortunately, I am scheduled to have breakfast with Prince Blueblood in the sculpture garden in two minutes. I assume everything is in order?”
“Of course, sir. The kitchen staff were somewhat... unsettled by your specific request, but I had something arranged. How do you expect the Prince will react?”
They rounded a corner of the Canterlot maze, and a small table attended by several palace staff members came into view. “I knew I could count on you to see that my order was followed, cadet. You continue to exhibit commendable ability. As to how the prince will react-” Esteem considered his cadet’s question for a moment. “Hopefully, exactly as I tell him to,” he answered finally.
The cadet gave a slight nod, graciously accepting the compliment. Then, Esteem sat at the table as the palace staff unloaded their various trays of food and set him a place. When they were finished, he dismissed them, then checked his watch once more. Eight-oh-one. Blueblood was late.
Esteem looked back to where the cadet stood, waiting. “It would seem,” he said loudly, “that our Prince is running somewhat late.”
The cadet approached the table. “Prince Blueblood has a bit of a reputation among the nobles, sir. They say he has no interest in the Canterlot government and that he spends all of his times chasing mares.”
“I’m well aware of his reputation, cadet,” Esteem said as he covered the food on the table to keep it warm. “It’s why I chose him for this particular task in the first place.” He looked around before giving a drawn-out sigh. “Still, this tardiness is rather... excessive. You might as well give me your report.”
“Yes, sir.” The cadet straightened. “As you know,” he began, “the outer city was separated from the inner city, and the inner city from the palace, by Empyrean’s magical barrier roughly one month ago, when Nihilus Nix Naught was slain by Luna and her elite task force.”
Esteem did already know all of that, but he let the cadet continue nonetheless.
“Travelling through the barrier requires the accompaniment of a unicorn who knows a specific spell. The loyalist forces in the inner city have effectively been cut off from both the palace, and the outside world. As a result, they have mostly gone underground, and will be caught eventually.”
Esteem hated Empyrean’s barrier. Its presence made them appear weak. The Prince, despite being the second most powerful being in the world, was hiding from his enemies for fear of being destroyed the same way Nightmare Moon was. Nopony knew exactly how Nightmare Moon had been vanquished, but Esteem believed trickery must have been involved. Six ordinary ponies could not have defeated an alicorn with over a millennium of power in a fair fight.
The cadet continued. “The loyalists in the outer city, however, have recently been causing a great deal of... commotion. Initially we had thought that somehow the magical talents trapped in the inner city had broken through the barrier, but now the situation appears even worse than that. Intelligence confirms that the five ponies responsible for defeating Nihilus are also responsible for most of the damage caused in the inner city in the past two weeks. It is safe to assume, then, that Luna is leading them.”
“Princess Luna, cadet,” Esteem reminded him. “The title is important.”
“Of course, sir, my apologies.”
“Now,” Esteem said, “what do we know about these five ponies? Tell me everything.”
The cadet began to name the loyalists from memory. “Applejack,” he said, “is a powerful earthpony. In addition to extreme strength and durability, we believe she has the power to spontaneously regenerate wounds. Six days ago she tore down a two-story building in a fight with a unicorn puppet. She wears-”
“That will be enough on Applejack, I think,” Esteem interrupted him. “Continue on to the next member of Luna’s team.”
The cadet nodded. “Fluttershy,” he began again, “is a pegasus, but from out observations she rarely takes the skies or the field and fights. This would suggest that she is perhaps their commander, or a close advisor to Princess Luna, rather than a soldier. We-”
“Fluttershy is easily dismissed, then. Continue.”
Again a nod. “Pinkie Pie,” he said, obviously quoting the report directly seeing as he was naming them in alphabetical order. “-Is an earthpony who appears to be trained in some kind of obscure fighting art. She uses a number of complex apparatus in the field, including grappling hooks, smoke grenades, and even firecrackers and confetti. We aren’t precisely sure what her role is on the team, but-”
The cadet looked somewhat confused for a moment, but carried on nonetheless. “Rainbow Dash is a pegasus who appears to be the team’s major air power. Despite the fact that the airspace over the city is almost entirely inaccessible due to the large amount of puppets patrolling, she regularly takes to the skies and single-hoofedly defeats groups of pegasus puppets. She shows expert knowledge when it comes to hoof-to-hoof combat-”
“Rarity,” the cadet said finally, “Is a unicorn possessed of interesting traits. She is able to cast a fragmented blade made of enchanted diamonds, and wields it quite skillfully in the field. Intelligence indicates that she has slain more puppets than any of the other team members, in part thanks to the nature of her weapon.”
“Tell me more.”
“Rarity appears to enjoy public appearances and engagements, so we do have a great deal of information to work with. Her blade is made up of fourteen fragments, suggesting a high level of mental ability. She worked as a designer and shopkeeper before Nihilus destroyed her home.”
“A designer, you say? What is her cutie mark?”
“Three gemstones, sir.”
“Of course,” Esteem said quietly. He looked up to see a white stallion blearily making his way down the palace steps. His mane was disheveled and his coat was unbrushed. Esteem doubted he had even washed himself. He checked his timepiece again. It told him that Blueblood was eight minutes late.
“Prince Blueblood,” Esteem nodded politely to his tardy guest. “I’m glad you could make it. Please, sit,” he gestured to the other side of the table, then removed the metal covers from the food.
Blueblood sat across from Esteem, then looked down at the food before him. He didn’t greet the General, but rather grunted in disgust at his plate, recoiling slightly as though Esteem had offered him a plate of ground-up insects rather than a healthy breakfast.
“What... is this!?” He pushed the plate away from himself. “This food may be fit for a soldier, but my royal lips will not touch such peasant food.” Blueblood looked at Esteem, clearly expecting something.
Esteem did not react to the outburst in any way. Rather, he simply levitated his utensils and took a bite of his buttered asparagus. The spoiled Prince continued.
“Boiled vegetables, squeezed fruit juice! I don’t even know what this is,” he said, levitating a grey slab of something in front of his face.
Esteem delicately swallowed the asparagus before speaking, as etiquette dictated he do. “If you don’t know what it is,” he said, “how do you know it isn’t fit for a prince? That particular morsel is my favorite.” He sliced a piece off of his own grey slab and placed it in his mouth.
“I’ll pass,” the prince said in his haughty tones. “If this is what you had me wake up three hours early for, I must say I am disappointed.” He got up to leave.
“You misunderstand, Your Royal Highness. I didn’t invite you to breakfast so that you could eat. I have a proposition for you.” He took another bite. “Please, sit.” He did not act offended by Blueblood’s complete lack of manners.
Whether it was Esteem’s lack of affront at the prince’s atrocious behaviour, or the fact that he did not scrape and bow at the prince’s complaints, Blueblood seemed intrigued. He sat once more. “Be quick about it, would you,” he said contemptuously, “I have things I’d rather be doing.”
Esteem held back a laugh at the prince’s last statement. The first thing Blueblood was like to do after their conversation was to return to bed and sleep past noon. He waited until he had finished his bite of food before speaking.
“I will traversing the barrier in roughly a week to deal with the loyalists myself,” he said. “While I had intended to do this from the start, the erection of Empyrean’s barrier put a damper on my plans. While it keeps the loyalists from getting out, it also greatly increases the difficulty in communicating with our forces. We expected the barrier would render the need for my presence on the field obsolete, but recently the conflict in the outer city has been escalating. I will take the field.”
Blueblood had begun to look impatient almost as soon as Esteem had begun speaking. “Yes, yes, but what does that have to do with me,” he said.
Esteem took another bite, slowly savoring both the meal and the look of irritation that came over Blueblood’s face as he slowly chewed his food. “The nobles within the palace barrier carry quite a bit of weight within the city. Their bloodlines have also produced a number of talented unicorns.”
“Such as myself,” Blueblood said, puffing out his chest.
“Indeed.” Esteem did not allow his expression to change. “Many of the nobles went over to the loyalists side during King Titan’s reclamation. We believe that many would, still, were it not for the barrier dividing them from the main loyalist group in the inner city. It is imperative that order be kept in my absence, a task I can only trust to a capable pony. One who expresses ability. It would be best if they were of noble blood themselves, so as not to breach the status quo.”
Blueblood looked taken aback. He may have been stupid and egotistic, but Esteem suspected that even he realized that he was obviously not a pony possessing the qualities described.
“Well of course you came to me,” he said. “But you aren’t a noble,” he accused.
Esteem could barely contain his disbelief. Surely Blueblood did not actually think that anypony believed the prince was worth something? Esteem knew himself to be quite vain— his boon from Titan, had, after all, been eternal youth, restoring him to a permanent age of twenty-two years. Blueblood’s ego, however, seemed to be so preposterously large it blinded the pony to his obvious inferiority.
He would be perfect.
The warm sun rising in the sky, the picturesque green grass surrounding them, the deliciously prepared breakfast— things were shaping up to be a perfect morning. Esteem found himself looking forward to giving the Prince a lesson. He had not educated another pony in almost two weeks. The cadet was so skilled at his job he rarely needed to be taught.
He turned his attention back to the Prince, swallowing another bite of his breakfast and wiping his mouth with a napkin politely before speaking again. “I am, however, Sir General Esteem, Knight of the Natural Order, the high prelate of King Titan, the redeemer of ponykind and the right hoof of Prince Empyrean. The hoof of god is more than fit to run things in the palace.”
Blueblood furrowed his brow as Esteem spoke. The expression did not look good on him. Esteem wondered if the Prince was actually thinking for once. “I thought that Twilight was the right hoof of Empyrean,” he said after a time. He looked genuinely confused.
Esteem made a small noise. “Prince Empyrean,” he corrected. “The title is important.” He left out the fact that Blueblood had been failing to call him by his title all morning. “In any case, the only other pony who served directly under Prince Empyrean was not Twilight Sparkle, but rather Nihilus Nix Naught, and inversion of her created by the Sliver of Darkness and tasked with killing the ponies now on my doorstep.”
Esteem took a small amount of pleasure in the look of confusion that came across Blueblood’s face. He continued:
“Her failure was hardly surprising. She was complete psychopath, a waste of the power and privilege granted to her.” He gave Blueblood a meaningful look. “Completely pathetic and worthless.” The insult was lost on the confused Prince. “Be glad that she was not Twilight Sparkle. Celestia’s pupil, the leader of her task force, is undoubtedly a master tactician and war unicorn in addition to being a perfect ten on the Coruscare scale.”
Blueblood looked well and truly lost. “May I ask, Your Royal Highness,” Esteem continued. “How you came to know the name Twilight Sparkle?”
Blueblood seemed to think for another moment as Esteem enjoyed another bite of his breakfast and a sip of orange juice. Finally, the Prince spoke: “Celestia told me that I was to stay away from her and her friends after one of them humiliated me at last year’s Grand Galloping Gala. I tried to track her down to teach her to show a little respect for her betters, but the Princess ordered me to stop.”
Esteem sighed, “Princess Cel-” he stopped as the full gravity of what Blueblood had said struck him. “One of her friends? What was her name?” he asked suddenly.
Blueblood thought for another moment. “Rarity,” he said finally.
Esteem ran his tongue over one of his front teeth. It had, along with several of his other teeth, been magically manipulated into an incisor. He hid a surge of interest at the mention of her name. “Is that so,” he said, lifting another bite of his breakfast. “Tell me about her.”
Blueblood seemed baffled at the request, but complied nonetheless. Esteem had relied on the Prince’s love of hearing his own voice, and sure enough, he delivered, launching into a story:
“Well, he began, It was the day of the Grand Galloping Gala. I had... shall we say... warmed up for the celebration by having a tumble with some red-headed earthpony ditz who actually thought I was going to take a commoner like her to the Gala. I was coming out of the gardens when I saw this unicorn.
“I’m not sure what your ‘Coruscare’ scale measures, but this mare was a perfect ten on the Flank scale, if you get what I’m saying.”
Esteem got what he was saying. The prince had not been subtle in any way, shape, or form.
“I had to have her. She was absolutely gorgeous, and you could just tell by looking at her it was her first Gala. I figured she’d be easy.”
Carsomyr. The name of Esteem’s blade was Carsomyr. In his mind, he was acutely aware of each of the fourteen razor sharp shards of platinum-iridium sitting on his person.
“Imagine my surprise when I find her to be the rudest, most vulgar mare I have ever met. I had to prompt her to pay for our snacks and open a door for me. As if I ever pay for things. She expected me to step through a puddle when she had a perfectly absorbent cloak on hoof.” The prince smirked. “I got her back, however. At the end of the night I tossed her in front of a falling cake and her appearance was simply ruined. Teach her to dress up like a lady when she’d really just a peasant,” he said the last word with intense disgust.
Esteem ran his tongue over his incisor once more.
“But then,” Blueblood continued. “She shook the mess all over me. Like a dog. Honestly,” he said, “If she’d wanted to be a dog, or should I say bitch, she should have just told me in the first place. I would have happily obliged her.” He gave a sleazy smile. “Know what I’m saying?”
Esteem sat in silence for a moment, politely finishing up the food in his mouth.
Then he laughed.
It was a deep, rich laugh, filled with genuine entertainment. He looked over at the cadet, gesturing with a hoof, and the cadet began to chuckle slightly as well. Blueblood seemed confused at his sudden outburst, but eventually joined in despite not knowing what he had said that was clever. The three of them continued to laugh together in the gardens for some time.
“Oh,” Esteem said between bouts of laughter, “I know what you’re saying.” He stopped laughing suddenly, snapping his expression in one of total seriousness, and the cadet followed suit. “You’re saying,” Esteem said dangerously. Blueblood’s laughter died out at the tone of his voice. “That you tried to play my daughter.”
Again, Blueblood furrowed his brow in thought. He looked at Esteem, and for the first time, seemed to fully take in the unicorn he had been continuously disrespecting since before he had even sat down.
His pristine white coat.
His perfectly well kept mane, done in sweeping curls.
His deep, vibrant blue eyes.
Blueblood backed away from Rarity’s father. “You can’t be!” he said incredulously. “You’re so-”
Faster than Blueblood could close his mouth, Esteem mentally directed the left point-shard of Carsomyr to detach from its place on his combat harness. It blurred through the air between them, the piece of unnaturally bright metal flashing in the morning sunlight before moving straight into Blueblood’s open mouth. There, it stopped instantly before causing the prince any harm.
He had selected the point-shard for its diminutive size, so as to give it some maneuverability whilst inside the prince’s mouth. He lamented to himself that the prince probably did not understand how incredibly difficult the precision of such an attack was. He had just displayed legendary mastery over his weapon, and only the cadet was able to appreciate it.
The prince’s mouth closed around the shard as Esteem rotated it along its side so that Blueblood would not be able to remove it. Blueblood’s eyes widened in terror as he breathed heavily through his nostrils. Esteem gently floated the shard towards himself, and Blueblood was forced to move forward with it lest it slice its way through his face.
“Young?” Esteem provided with a smile. It wasn’t the false mirth of his laugh, or the tiny smile he gave to be polite; rather it was a full, lazy grin, his sharpened teeth pressing slightly upon his lower lip. Blueblood whimpered.
“You will forgive me, Prince Blueblood, for this rather dramatic assault on your person. I simply want you to shut up for once whilst I speak.” He tilted the shard and drew it gently towards the ground. The result was that Blueblood bent before him. “Ah,” he said, regarding the prince. “I see you have finally remembered your manners. It is polite to bow before your superiors, Prince.”
He took another bite of his breakfast before continuing. The cadet refilled his orange juice.
“My daughter and I have not seen each other for almost a decade, you see. Celestia herself forbade me from ever seeing her again when she found out how I had elected to raise her. She believed that she had more say than I when it came to my own daughter’s upbringing. I imagine she was reminded of the way her father, King Titan, raised her.” He took a sip of his orange juice. The citrus drink seemed somehow... fresher than it had before. “Forbidden to see my own daughter,” he said. “That doesn’t seem very fair to you, does it, Prince Blueblood?”
He moved the point-shard from left to right, and from his place beneath Esteem, Blueblood shook his head. Tears were running down his face, as well as a small trickle of blood that originated from the corner of his mouth. The prince was trying and failing to suppress his shaking.
“Nevertheless,” Esteem continued, “I think that I have raised my daughter well. I taught her to protect herself, you see. I did not shield my daughter from the world, but rather taught her to shield herself. And look at what she has done so far. She helped to defeat Nightmare Moon. She helped to defeat Discord. She helped to defeat Nihilus. She protected herself from you, when I was not there to do so for her.”
He telekinetically moved the table and all of its contents to the side so as to clear the space between himself and Blueblood. Then, he drew the prince upward with Carsomyr’s point-shard.
“I made her strong.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I made her... superior.” He shuddered slightly as his favorite word left his lips. “Still,” he looked down at the prince, “I have neglected many of my duties as a father.” Prince Blueblood looked up to Esteem, his eyes pleading. Esteem looked out in the direction of the city. “Rarity is coming home to me,” he said softly.
He turned back to Blueblood. “And I feel that since she is setting such a good example as a daughter, I must strive to be the best father I can be.” He leaned down. Blueblood was covered with sweat, and his uncontrollable shaking was causing him to cut his mouth on the point-shard. Esteem could sense, through his magical link with the shard, the blood around the blade. He could almost taste it.
“What was it you said, about my daughter? You wanted ride her like the peasant bitch she is?”
Blueblood tried to talk despite being unable to open his mouth lest the shard cut into the back of his throat. The resulted was a desperate, muffled cry. Esteem stood up straight. “I’m not sure exactly what punishment is appropriate,” he mused.
He drew the leftmost bridge-shard off of his combat harness. When Carsomyr was assembled, the bridge served no purpose but to fit with the point, core, and edge pieces and comprised the blade’s fuller. Despite its intended position in the whole, however, it was still made of extremely sharp edges and points for when he needed to use the shards as individual weapons. Being a bridge-shard, it was the longest, thinnest piece of his blade. Esteem had selected it for just that reason.
He lifted his point-shard so that Blueblood was forced to tilt his head back, then slowly levelled the bridge-shard so that it pointed directly into Blueblood’s pupil. “I could gouge one of your eyes out,” he said to himself thoughtfully. Blueblood was only able to draw his head so far away from the shard before it cut the inside of his mouth even more. More blood ran down the front of his face.
“Yes.” Esteem continued to speak as though they were having a casual conversation over breakfast. “I rather like the idea of disfigurement. It will encourage hesitation in the other nobles should they think to oppose me— as so many of you already have. But is a single eye really enough? I wonder, what would Rarity want? You know her better than I, Prince Blueblood, so tell me: would my daughter take more than simply your eye?”
Blueblood, unable to move his head for the point-shard in his mouth, managed only to shake his head by millimeters. Esteem moved the point-shard up and down, and a fresh set of tears ran down Blueblood’s face as he was forced to nod.
“I see. I commend your honesty, Your Highness. Were I in your situation I would have lied. Especially considering it is physical beauty at stake. Ah, well.” He sighed as Blueblood made another pitiful muffled noise. “I suppose I could also slit your tongue.” He rubbed his chin with a hoof. “Or sever your ears, or burn away your mane. Castration seems to fit the offense quite nicely.” Blueblood paled, and his shivering grew violent. More blood dribbled out of his mouth as he made a pathetic whinny.
“Stay still,” Esteem said suddenly. “Open your mouth, but do not speak.” He rotated the shard again as Blueblood did as commanded. He pulled the point-shard, dripping with blood and saliva, out of the prince’s mouth. Blueblood immediately turned and began to run.
Esteem sheathed both of Carsomyr’s shards and grabbed the Prince with telekinesis. He dragged him back as he gently moved the breakfast table back into place with another bit of magic. He forcibly turned Blueblood’s head so that the Prince faced him. “What kind of idiot foal,” he said levelly, “turns his back to his opponent and then does not use the spell that would protect him from said opponent’s telekinesis?” He took a sip of his orange juice, aware of the fact that Blueblood was suffocating under the iron grip of his mind. “When I release you, you will stay and be quiet.” He dropped the Prince.
Blueblood made no attempt to run, and did not say a word. “So even one as thick as you can be taught,” Esteem observed coolly. “Now sit down and eat your breakfast while I explain to you some crucial information.”
Blueblood’s breathing was uneven, and he was still shaking. The front of his face was covered in blood, tears, and spit. One side of him was dirty from where Esteem had dragged him across the ground. He sat, never meeting Esteem’s eyes, and began to forcibly swallow pieces of asparagus.
“You seem to be under the impression, Blueblood, that your royal blood makes you special. That you have an inborn amount of privilege and superiority. This is false.” Blueblood continued to eat mechanically, staring down at his plate as Esteem carried on. “You think that I am Prince Empyrean’s right hoof because it is my birthright? Do you think that King Titan has the power to rule the world because he is king? It is the other way around. King Titan is king because he has the power to rule the world. Because he has no equal. Power is privilege, Prince.
“The nobles disagree. They can stand a general who appears noble, who follows proper etiquette. But if I tell them that the palace is being left in the charge of a cadet, they will grow even more restless than they already are. It is a small problem, with an easy solution. I will grant you power over the palace when I leave. You will be a figurehead, however, and the cadet will ensure that things run smoothly in my stead.
“I chose you because I know that you are so inept, so incapable, that even if you had the moxy to use your new-found legislative powers against me, you would not be able to. You are simply too stupid. So, you are to do exactly as the cadet tells you, and the nobility will not object to your appointment. Do you understand?”
Blueblood, still shivering, nodded. He looked down at his plate, which was empty but for a single piece of food. He prodded it gently with his fork.
“It’s chicken breast,” Esteem said simply.
Blueblood gave him a look of absolute horror. “I figured it would emphasize not just one, but both of the points I am trying to make here today. I needed to be absolutely certain you understood, and you have a reputation for being rather thick, Your Highness.” Esteem leaned over the table and gave another smile. “I can, should I choose to do so, slaughter and eat any animal I wish. I do not do this for fun, or even because I like the taste, I do it because I can. There is nothing to make one feel superior quite like eating meat, Your Highness.
“There is nothing wrong about eating meat, just as there is nothing right about it. You think that Celestia’s old rules determine what is morally acceptable? Celestia is dead. Titan chooses what is right and wrong now, and he does so not because of his divine right, but only because there is not a force on this world capable of opposing him. The ultimate authority, the only true authority, is power. That is the first lesson.
“The second lesson stems naturally from the first: I am more powerful than you. When I return from the field, Carsomyr awash in the blood of my enemies, I will decide on whether or not to revoke your punishment based on your performance. This means that you will do exactly as the Cadet and I tell you. Should he require it, you are to nod along as surely as if my blade were still in your mouth. To start, you are going to eat your chicken,” Esteem finished, giving his guest an expectant look.
Blueblood winced, then slowly cut a slice from the piece of meat. He grimaced as the chicken touched his bloody tongue, then chewed before giving a thick swallow. “How does it taste?” Esteem asked the Prince with another smile.
Blueblood looked as though he was holding back vomit. “Delicious,” he said hoarsely.
“I’m glad we could come to an understanding,” Esteem rose, then turned to the cadet. “See to it that our Prince finishes his breakfast.”
The cadet nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“With any luck, you will prove to me that you are worthy of remaining in the pony gene pool.” Esteem turned towards the steps leading back up to the palace. “And I will not have to forcibly remove you from it. Have a good morning, Your Highness.”
Having enjoyed an excellent breakfast, Esteem set off for Empyrean’s throne room, not a hair out of place.
A unicorn puppet met Esteem outside of the wide double doors that led into the Court of the Sun. It approached Esteem with an unusual amount of autonomy, leaving its partner puppet to guard the doors alone. When it reached the General, it spoke in the metallic, hollow voice shared by all of Terra’s mindless soldiers.
“General Esteem,” it said. “My name is Puppet. I am to accompany you into the Court of the Sun, by the orders of King Titan.”
Esteem gave the puppet a once-over. “I see,” he said as he turned toward the doors. “Will the King be speaking with his son?”
Esteem raised an eyebrow. It was certainly shaping up to be an interesting morning. He opened the doors with a magical thought and they strode unannounced into Empyrean’s court.
Prince Empyrean did not look much like the deity who had controlled the sun before him. His coat was still white, and his mane was the flowing mass of multi-hued energy that Celestia had possessed. He wore a similar set of royal garments, and a tiny gold crown rested upon his head. Where Celestia had carried a regal bearing, however, Empyrean’s manner was that of a petulant child. He was sprawled comfortably across a cushion in the center of the room, rather than sitting with the posture that his station demanded. He looked bored.
Since citizens could not actually come to court due to Empyrean’s barrier, the only ponies in the large, well-lit chamber were the nobles who resided within the palace. There were perhaps a dozen of them, all trying to gain power by associating with the new prince, no doubt.
The door closed loudly behind him, and everypony in the room turned to look at him, their conversations coming to a halt. Esteem took the small group of noble-ponies in with a single, disdainful sweep of his eyes.
“Get out,” he said to the silent nobles.
Since Empyrean spent most of his time indoors socializing with the noblemen and struggling to control his godlike powers, Esteem had been, for the most part, ruling Canterlot for over a month. While he was not harsh or cruel, and did go out of his way to make himself feared, there was not a pony in the palace who did not know exactly who he was. He heard, through his subordinates, the rumors that ponies said about him.
Esteem killed Twilight Sparkle, Celestia’s favorite pupil, some said. Esteem was the one who released Titan. Esteem eats meat. Esteem eats pony meat. Esteem killed forty ponies alone on the night of Titan’s ascension, then licked their blood from his blade. Esteem is a forty year old stallion, but somehow appears to be twenty. Esteem killed a gryphon when he was nine.
All of them were at least somewhat true, and as Esteem looked at the nobles standing in the Court of the Sun, he could see their eyes flash with uncertainty, and knew that they were likely recalling the rumors. When Empyrean did not tell them to stay, they left, shuffling quietly out by way of the smaller doors lining the sides of the court.
It was only after they had left that Esteem dipped his head and bent his legs, bowing to his Prince. He was only going through the motions, however. He neither loved nor respected Titan’s whelp.
“Why did you have to send them away?” Empyrean whined as Esteem approached. “Lord Goldsworthy was telling me a story. It was about a silly filly who-”
“I will be leaving the palace this afternoon, your highness,” Esteem said simply.
At this, Empyrean eyes widened and his mouth hung open limply. “You can’t!” he said. “What if they come for me!”
Esteem resisted the urge to spit. “My prince, Luna and the five are safely on the other side of two impassable barriers. You have almost half of the sum total of all our puppets here to protect you at the palace. And you have more power than all of them combined.”
“You can’t know that!” Empyrean snapped impetuously. He shifted on his enormous cushion. “They defeated Nightmare Moon, and she was stronger than Cel-” He stopped in the middle of saying her name, working his mouth as though he had almost uttered a swear. “Me,” he finished.
Esteem ran his tongue over a sharpened tooth. “They still cannot reach you, Your Highness. I intend to take the field and crush the remaining rebels, the five included. I will not be taking many of the puppets with me. We already have more than a thousand in the field, my truepony soldiers not included. I will defeat Celestia’s elite, and then you will not need to worry.”
“But why not just stay here,” Empyrean stomped a hoof on the ground in the manner you might expect from a five year old refusing to go to bed. “They’ll all give up or die of old age eventually.”
Once again, Esteem had to restrain his frustration. Because I need to make war, my Prince, just as Titan needs to rule. It is my purpose. “I cannot keep the city running smoothly for much longer while it is under your barrier. The barrier must soon come down, and you will not do that until the loyalists are crushed. So I have taken it upon myself to crush the loyalists.”
Empyrean’s face twisted into a mix between a pout and a scowl, and he stood. “No!” he said, sounding more like a colt throwing a temper tantrum than a god. “I forbid you to leave the palace! The risk to my person is too great.”
Esteem barely kept his temper under control. Titan’s little whelp would not keep him from his eldest daughter. Rarely did Empyrean exercise his authority as Titan’s only son. Esteem simply needed to be firm. He gritted his teeth.
“My prince, the city can barely function under your barrier as things are. If it stays up any longer, Canterlot will collapse. The people will starve.”
“Then let them!” Empyrean shouted. “I am their god, and they’ll starve at my behest! You will stay here, Esteem, and protect me.”
Before Esteem could come up with reply to Empyrean’s childish declaration, he heard the slap of a pony hitting the floor behind him. He turned, to see that the unicorn puppet who had accompanied him into the Court of the Sun had fallen onto the ground and was shaking violently as seizures racked its body. As he watched, it spoke, but not in the hollow voice of a puppet.
“I am assuming control.”
It was a fluid, resonating voice that forced its way into Esteem’s mind, demanding his attention in an unsettling manner. It was the voice of their god.
As he watched, the unicorn’s eyes shot open, their usual red replaced with a blazing white. A ripple of incandescent energy travelled down the puppet’s mane, and it burst into a flowing mass of white ether. The puppet stood and regarded the two occupants of the room with an intelligent, dispassionate gaze. On its flank burned the ghostly imprint of a simple white circle.
Esteem already has his muzzle pressed to the floor of the court. His bow was not the mocking gesture he had used for Blueblood, or the controlled observance of etiquette he had given to Prince Empyrean, but rather a genuine act of obeisance. Titan deserved his respect. Behind him, he knew that Empyrean was doing the same.
“You may rise,” Titan said simply. Then he looked at his son with his unreadable expression. “Were I here in my true form, Empyrean, I would cause you pain.”
The Prince flinched. “Father, I-”
Titan waved a hoof and Empyrean flinched again, shutting his mouth. The king continued. “A month has passed since Nihilus died and you erected your barrier, Empyrean. Her death did not bother me— she had already served her purpose in helping us create you. The barrier did not upset me, either— you have every right to protect yourself from Celestia’s elite. Even I do not yet know how they defeated Nightmare Moon, an answer that I am certain will come to us in time.”
He slowly crossed the distance between himself and son, drawing each step out to an agonizing pace. “My displeasure comes at the fact that you have failed in your purpose. Ponykind is supposed to fear you, my son. Yet they fight Terra’s puppets in the streets of Canterlot, your seat of power. If you insist upon not leaving the palace to smite them yourself, then you will allow General Esteem to do it for you. Have I made myself clear?”
Empyrean bowed once more. “Yes, father, but-” Again Titan silenced him with a raised hoof.
“Celestia managed your task masterfully. She made ponykind respect her as a ruler and love her as a princess. She manipulated them into believing they ruled themselves even as they called her a god. She made them brand her enemies as their own and then thank her for destroying them. Even now, they still love her and rebel.
“I do not expect you to do as Celestia did, my son, but you will at least keep order. Chaos and discord among ponykind draws attentions that I would rather remain elsewhere.”
Esteem shrank away as the much smaller pony approached him. “I will do better, father,” he promised.
“You will,” Titan said simply. “I am currently at the heart of the Everfree Forest. It is taking more time than expected to undo the damage that Celestia did to this world over the course of a thousand years. Soon, however, the natural order will be restored. Ensure that Canterlot is in order when that happens. Ensure that ponykind is ready to accept its place. Or I will once again command Terra to strike them down.”
Empyrean opened his mouth as if to speak, and Titan once again silenced him with a raised hoof. The King could make the gesture seem very dramatic, Esteem observed. He supposed it came with three thousand years of practice. “Leave us,” Titan said.
Esteem realized that the king had been speaking to Empyrean, not himself. What would his king need of him that Empyrean couldn’t hear? The Prince gave an indignant pout, then flew over them and left by way of the main doors.
“General,” The possessed puppet turned to face Esteem, and he bowed. “You are not to completely destroy the loyalists,” he said simply.
Esteem raised his eyebrows, bewildered. “Your majesty?”
“Certainly, it is my wish that you destroy the remaining members of Celestia’s task force. You will also kill many of their members and aid in capturing Luna. But you will allow several of its leaders to escape and continue fighting for their cause. Enough of them must die that Empyrean abolishes his barrier, but I wish for a small amount of rebels to remain in Canterlot at all times.”
“If I may ask, my King-”
“Empyrean is an incompetent brat.” Titan said the words evenly, never putting any feeling behind them. “He acts like a spoiled infant. He lacks the decisiveness and temperament that a ruler requires. He erects a ridiculous barrier rather than crushing the rebel forces himself. He is not worthy of the power I have given him. Celestia’s power.”
Titan turned and strode to one of the many tall windows that lined the Court of the Sun. “He has the mind of a child now, but as he grows older he will mature. There will be rebels in this city when he does, and I will teach him how to crush them. It will take many years, and put strain on ponykind.”
Strain. Thousands of ponies would starve, if not tens of thousands. The economy would collapse. Esteem realized that Titan would gladly allow those things to happen in order to properly raise his son. He would do the same for his daughters, after all.
“In the end, however, Empyrean will grow up during a time of war. He will learn to keep ponykind in check, and ponykind will learn to fear him. Those are their places in the order.”
Esteem marvelled at the simple elegance of Titan’s plan. The majority of ponykind’s sympathies might lie with the loyalists at present, but in a decade? Would ponykind support the loyalists after ten years of conflict fighting for princesses that were obviously not coming back? They would likely welcome an end to the fighting. They would worship Empyrean for delivering them from war. Empyrean would grow up learning to handle dissent among his people.
“A fine decision, Your Majesty.”
Titan ignored the praise. “The last matter I wish to speak with you about is Luna, General. She is inside the city,” he said simply.
Esteem had no idea how Titan had gotten his information. “We suspected as much when her five began to attack our forces in the outer city, but we weren’t certain.”
“You are certain now, General. This form is fragile, and takes a great deal of power to sustain. I will, however, be able to defeat my weakest daughter without leaving the Everfree. Should you encounter Luna on the battlefield, you will leave her to me. Your task is to kill the five.”
The King did not give Esteem the chance to respond. He simply vanished into the cloud of dark smoke that all puppets produced upon death. Kill the five, Titan had said.
“All but one, you majesty.”
Tonight I went with the gang to see Starsworl’s comet. It only comes once every thirty-four years. It wasn’t as interesting as the meteor shower, but we still had a blast, even if I didn’t learn anything about friendship in the process. I don’t spend time with them just to learn lessons for the princess. I spend time with them because they’re my friends.
...Actually, that sounds like it could almost be a lesson. Maybe I should write to the princess. But then what if she doesn’t think it’s good enough and she accuses me of not committing to my studies! She could stop thinking I’m her most faithful student! I’d just be Twilight Sparkle, ‘student’. OR she’d abandon me altogether, and I’d have to find another way of life! I’d have to change my name out of shame and go into hiding! I’d end up working at Pony Joe’s to get by, a unicorn named Betty who dyes her mane because she’s secretly in EXILE! Best not to send her a letter about it. BUT what if she finds out that I didn’t send her a letter and she thinks that I THINK that she isn’t worth my time!? I could hurt her feelings so much that she-
Right, I just read that last paragraph out loud. I’ll just tell her about the meteor shower tomorrow. Which reminds me, tomorrow I’ll be in Canterlot to spend the night with BOTH of the princesses! Be ready for an interesting diary entry then!
Twilight sat at the centre of one of the dining hall’s long trestle tables. She was attended to by four of the palace guards, all of whom were unicorns. Aside from the guards and Spike, who was fast asleep on the table beside her, the large hallway was empty. She smiled as the sleeping dragon blew a bubble with his own spit, then shielded her plate as it burst.
“I feel bad making the four of you just stand around and watch me eat,” she said to the palace guards. “I know my way around the palace. I really don’t need an escort. Not that I don’t like having any of you around!” she said hastily, “it’s just that I’m sure you must be a little bored.” She piled fourteen peas onto her spoon, then happily put the food in her mouth. She hadn’t eaten since morning.
“A high-profile pony such as yourself being given an escort is tradition, Miss Sparkle.” one of the guards said breezily. “Besides, a soldier should always delight in doing his duty.”
Twilight flushed at being called a “high-profile pony”. “Me?” she said, “I’m just a student. And you can still do your duty sitting down. You must be tired of standing around.”
The guard who had spoken approached and sat, and the other guards gave him looks that suggested he was breaking some secret rule. Twilight noticed that under the ceremonial armor of the palace guards, he had on a complex harness.
Twilight swiftly swallowed her peas. “Is that a blade harness?” she asked with a surge of genuine curiosity. “I’ve read about those! You’re a bladecaster?”
The pony sat across from her. “Captain Esteem, at your service.” He gave a mini-bow.
Twilight scooped up another spoonful of peas. She counted thirteen, so she added a pea to her spoon before taking a bite. While she did this, the Captain removed his helmet and shook out a luxurious red mane.
Something about the action gave nagged at Twilight’s memory. “Have I... met you before? You look familiar.” Twilight wasn’t sure just what about the Captain Esteem she found interesting. There was definitely something about him that she couldn’t quite place, however.
Esteem stood and unfastened his cuirass with telekinesis. It clattered to the floor before him, leaving his front bare. “I imagine that I would,” he said, giving her a tiny smile. “I believe you know my daughter, Rarity.”
Twilight tilted her head slightly, confused. Beside her spike continued to sleep. “Rarity?” she said. “But her parents—”
“I know nothing about whatever couple took them in almost ten ago,” Esteem interrupted briskly. “But I assure you, Miss Sparkle, that I am both Rarity and Allure’s father.” He continued to remove pieces of his armor, letting them fall to the floor around him unceremoniously. The other three guards were exchanging glances.
Twilight examined the Captain closely. He did have a striking resemblance to Rarity. “Rarity doesn’t have a sister named Allure,” she said slowly. She started to get a bad feeling about the Captain. Where were Celestia and Luna?
Esteem regarded her for a moment. “She does have a sister though, yes? Unicorn, white coat, a mane of lavender and carnation?”
“Sweetie Belle...” Twilight whispered.
Esteem nodded once, then dropped another plate of armor to the ground. “What her mother wanted to name her,” he said simply. “That is, before I had her killed.”
“Captain!” one of the guards exclaimed. They began to move toward the centre of the room.
The unease that she had been feeling intensified into real fear. Twilight stood and began to back away. “Who are you?”
The last piece of Esteem’s armor fell to the floor with a clang. He wore only his harness, upon which sat several sharpened shards of an unknown metal. Platinum-Iridium, the logical part of Twilight’s brain though involuntarily. The only metal that is both hard and conducive to enchantments. “I told you,” he said, “I am Captain Esteem, redeemer of ponykind and father to Rarity and Sweetie Belle.”
The three other guards now surrounded Esteem. “Captain,” one of them said in a tone that was half warning, half pleading.
Esteem raised a hoof, and the guard stopped talking immediately as if out of habit. “I intend to cause harm to your charge, soldiers,” he said lightly. “Act.”
“Captain, is some kind of test? A joke? This is not—”
Twilight watched in horror as the soldier’s neck suddenly exploded, blood splashing outward as a piece of Esteem’s blade tore through the stallion’s throat. It continued along its trajectory, bursting through the other end of the guard’s neck and trailing blood through the air.
Before Esteem had even turned to face the other guards, a long, thin piece of his blade had thrust its way into one of the other unicorn’s eyes. Esteem had turned around before the body even struck the floor, facing the only remaining guard.
The last guard looked down at his fallen comrades, then back up to his captain with disbelief. His eyes flashed with a mixture of rage and terror, and his horn began to glow as he readied a spell. Esteem raised a single eyebrow, and the shard that had slain the first guard whipped across the guard’s throat so quickly it sent the other unicorn flying. A spray of hot blood struck Twilight, the fluid splattering across her face and the front of her body.
Twilight’s mind could barely register what was happening. She flinched at the blood, and her legs began to shake. A deep, primal terror welled up in the pit of her stomach. She had never seen somepony die before. She had certainly never seen somepony kill before. She knew she was in danger, but she just didn’t know what to do. She silently begged for Princess Celestia to come for her.
It had taken Esteem seconds to murder all of the other guards. Twilight watched in horror as the Captain lowered three more shards to surround Spike, who had slept through the entire ordeal. She let out a quiet sound that was halfway between a yelp and a squeak. The Captain ignored her, instead leaning down to speak softly to the final guard as he lay on the floor, gurgling and spitting as he died.
“No, soldier,” Esteem said quietly. “It was not a test.” He stood and faced Twilight. “If you teleport, or attempt any magic of any kind, I will kill your dragon.”
Twilight tried to move her legs, but they didn’t respond. She managed to nod weakly as she made a small whimpering noise. Please, she thought, Celestia.
“Any noise you make will not be audible outside this room,” Esteem said calmly. “Relinquish the hold on your body.”
Twilight shut her eyes. Unicorns could move anything with their telekinesis— including other ponies. A unicorn could only move something that another unicorn did not already have hold of, however. While it was considered extremely rude to grab another pony in most cases, almost every unicorn still kept themselves under a spell that made them immune to another unicorn’s manipulation. It was an effortless spell, after all.
“The dragon means as much to me as the guards did, Miss Sparkle. You have until the count of three. One.”
“Celestia,” she whispered, “where are you?”
Esteem tilted his head and regarded her with a curious expression. “Do not count on your god to save you. The only pony you can count on for protection is yourself. Two.”
Twilight didn’t know what Esteem was going to do to her, but if he had wanted to simply kill her, he could have used his blade. Spike was going to die unless she gave complete control of her body over to a murderer. Celestia, please! She looked at the Captain, then over to Spike, still sleeping soundly on the table. “You’re nothing like her,” she said as she disabled the spell.
Immediately she was pinned back-down to the ground beneath her. She heard hoof-steps, and Esteem appeared above her. She found she could still move her face.
“Understand, Miss Sparkle,” Esteem carried on as though they were still talking over dinner, “that this is nothing personal. I am simply following orders. Although-” He produced a black sliver, much tinier than any of the parts of his blade. It glittered as he moved it to float over her body. “A soldier should delight in following orders.”
Twilight knew that nopony could hear her, but she screamed anyway. “Celestia! Luna! Celestia!” Esteem continued to move the sliver, bringing it directly above her face. “Mom!” Twilight cried desperately. “Dad!”
The sliver stopped directly above her right eye, and Twilight tried to recoil from it. Esteem telekinetically forced her head to face upward, and pried her eyelid open.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked as he leaned down.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Unfortunately, you should survive the process. Goodbye, Twilight Sparkle.”
The sliver descended.
Dear Twilight’s Diary.
Aren’t you cute? Maybe I’d have a use for all of these saccharine writings if I didn’t already have access to all of Twilight’s memories, but I do, so I don’t. Tomorrow I’m going to assault Cloudsdale and hopefully become one step closer to godhood. Be ready for an interesting diary entry then!
How DISGUSTING. I’m going to laugh as I feed this to Rainbow Dash and Twilight screams. If the racket she’s giving me NOW is any indication, her agony will be quite entertaining. I’m surprised that after being with me a week you’re still sane, kiddo.
Twilight woke up screaming.
She felt a weight on her body, and thrashed around, desperately trying to push whatever it was away from her. Her eyes shot open, but something was covering her face, inhibiting her vision. As she flailed her forelegs, she realized that the slight weight she felt was only a blanket, and she had pushed it up over her head. She grabbed the fabric and pulled, tearing the blanket away from herself.
She didn’t spend much time taking in the room around her, instead immediately rolling herself out of the bed. She hit the floor, gasping for breath, then pushed herself across the room with her hind legs, coming to rest against a bookshelf that was beside the bed. Her head darted left and right, and she took in her surroundings. She was alone, in the library.
Alone. The surge of relief she felt at the though made it feel as though she had just been given a full-body massage. All of her muscles relaxed, and her breathing steadied. Nihilus was dead. Twilight was in control again. Rainbow Dash had been freed from the nightmare. Fluttershy was alive. All of her friends were alive.
So why weren’t they there with her?
She remembered the fortress crumbling around her as she had channeled the power of the Elements of Harmony. If it had collapsed, would Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash have been strong enough to carry them all to safety? Obviously somepony had brought Twilight back down, so the others were likely safe. She couldn’t have been unconscious for long. Why was nopony with her?
She closed her eyes and a flurry of much darker memories came to her. She remembered screaming in protest as Rainbow Dash writhed in agony on the ground below her, engulfed in dark magic. Nihilus had looked like Twilight, then. She had used Dash’s friendship to infect the pegasus with a nightmare, then destroy her.
She remembered tearing the Carousel Boutique apart, obliterating it with only a thought. Had Sweetie Belle been inside? Had Nihilus killed Rarity’s younger sister? She recalled the joy that the parasite had felt at the thought, and then the pure loathing she had felt at the sight of Rarity herself. All the while, Twilight had been powerless to stop her.
She remembered being forced to look into Fluttershy’s eyes— her wide, soft, innocent eyes— as Nihilus ordered Rainbow Dash to murder her. Twilight had been able to do nothing. The plan she had come up with to keep her friends alive had failed. Had Fluttershy not possessed earthpony magic, they would have all died.
Nihilus had done worse than try to kill them. She had done her best to make them suffer. All because they were her best friends. All because Twilight had not been able to stop her. All because Twilight had let herself become corrupted in the first place. Why would anypony want to be by her side when she woke up?
Slowly, Twilight unsteadily pushed herself to her feet. She hadn’t used her body in over a week. Nihilus had been doing all of that for them. She tested her legs, lifting each of them off of the ground before trotting slowly in a circle. She focused, shaping and weaving her unicorn magic into a spell. She released it, and it told her that there was no trace of foreign magic about her. Nihilus was gone. She was free.
She examined herself, noting with relief that her coat and mane had returned to their normal colors. Lastly, she conjured a mirror and checked the color of her eyes. They were both purple.
She was still the Element of Magic, and she had a responsibility. She would make things right again. She would find Luna and her former friends, and they would rescue Princess Celestia and defeat King Titan. For the first time since achieving freedom, she spoke.
“My name-”. Her voice came out hoarse and quiet from disuse, and she cleared her throat. She stood straight, meeting her own gaze in the mirror before finishing.
“-Is Twilight Sparkle.”