The Night Court. The elite ponies who were empowered by Luna Herself to administer the land. The lowliest member could overturn the rulings of elected officials on a whim; the highest had the ear of the princess and, through her, could dictate policy that would benefit or harm thousands of ponies. There was no criminal that could not be pardoned; no hero that could not be shackled, no business that could not be boosted into a massive corporation or seized and dissolved by the will of the Court. Indeed, those honored few who were admitted to its ranks could be said to control the lives of every being in Equestria. They were respected. They were feared.
And, sometimes, they were bored.
Duke Greengrass sighed and sat back on his flanks. “Honestly, Notary, why are we even here? This is the very definition of banal.”
Greengrass was a brown-coated earth pony, slightly shorter than average and just a pound or two more stout. His red mane somehow managed to be both dull and garish at the same time, although nopony, least of all Greengrass himself, could explain quite how he managed that. His cutie mark was a large red ‘X’ in the same color as his mane; trying to figure out what it meant had become a popular pastime among the gossips and whisperers of the court. “Good at marking tests” was the currently leading theory.
“Because you intend to vote on this measure in the morning, and felt that you should at least appear to be informed about it,” said Notary. She was a nondescript mare, also an earth pony, with a white coat and mane. Notary was from a long line of servants and secretaries who specialized in being neither seen nor heard except by their masters, and Greengrass found her enormously useful for precisely that reason. Her remarkable memory, superlative attention to detail, and candid honesty were also useful, of course. “Furthermore, you wished to ascertain whether Vicereine Puissance would be in attendance.”
“And she isn’t. It’s ascertained,” said Greengrass. “So I’d like to go now.”
The two were in the Duke’s booth, overlooking the large Chamber where ponies brought proposals before the Court. The chamber had a large floor area with seating for the lower Court members, the press, and whoever else had wrangled seats; there was also a raised stage in the middle with a dias for the speaker. The higher members of the Court sat in booths raised up along the walls. The booths were comfortable, and since becoming a Duke Greengrass had taken pleasure in enjoying his, but it didn’t really help in this particular case.
“Everypony knows how this vote will go,” muttered Greengrass to Notary. “Every single pony in these booths, and Builder Brick too. There’s no point in this speech. Puissance and Fisher have been trying to get that grant for months, and Fisher won last month. They should have just built it then and been done with it. ”
Notary shrugged. “I suppose Builder thinks some of the voting Court members might change their minds.”
“She needs three more votes for Puissance to get the grant, and she doesn’t have them. Whatever Puissance offered Builder to have the grant sent to her fiefdom, it clearly wasn’t enough – this dramatic last-gasp effort notwithstanding.”
“It would look bad for us to leave early,” said Notary. There was a hint of warning in her voice.
“I’m not actually going to leave. I won’t disrespect the Court over something so trivial.” Greengrass smiled slightly. “But it’s not disrespectful to complain if you’re the only pony to hear it.”
“I’m honored, sir,” drawled Notary.
After a few minutes, Builder began to wrap up. “And so, I thank this great Court in advance for agreeing to fund the construction grant, and I humbly request that the construction be positioned in Vicereine Puissance’s district, where it could be most useful. Thank you for your time!”
After the applause died down, Greengrass rose. “Do we have anything else scheduled for tonight?”
“Prince Blueblood is wasting your time at one, and there’s the vote at six.”
Greengrass sighed. “Why do they let that idiot call meetings still? He’s the dumbest pony in the Court.”
Before they could actually get out of the booth, there was a hurried thumping sound and a letter slid under the door. As Notary knelt to pick it up, Greengrass heard rapid hoofsteps fleeing. “And they say I’m unsubtle,” he said.
Notary opened the letter and began to read it. “Your presence is requested at nine o’clock in the western wing of the library.”
“The western… good grief, this is a secret meeting designed by somepony who’s read too much Daring Do. There’s a perfectly fine café five minutes from the castle.”
“Perhaps the writer is afraid of a waiter seeing you.”
“Waiters see hundreds of customers every day; that’s not notable. Two ponies skulking in the library?” Greengrass sighed. “Well, I suppose I should see what they want.”
“Would you like me to get Costume Change?” Costume was a skilled makeup artist who Greengrass hired on occasion to impersonate him, usually when trying to fool some third party.
“Not enough time.” Greengrass checked his watch. “But do get Ox and Bear. If this is some kind of setup, I want to be well defended. Thanks, Notary.”
Notary nodded and was gone.
Greengrass entered the western wing of the library at nine sharp, looking for all the world like he owned the place. Flanking him were Ox and Bear, two large ponies – one blue and from the earth tribe, one purple and a unicorn – who spoke little and bucked hard.
Greengrass’s contact was waiting for him in the library. It was Builder Brick. Builder was sweating slightly, and her breath was shallow – like she was very nervous. Interesting, Greengrass thought.
“Duke.” Builder bowed. “I’ve heard you’re powerful and influential in the court – that you get things done.”
As flattery went, it was one of the better attempts Greengrass had heard. The usual tactic was along the lines of “you’re handsome” or “I’m unworthy to even look at somepony as majestic as you,” both of which were obvious lies. Still, flattery only went so far. “Thank you,” said Greengrass. “But if you just wanted to compliment me, you could have done so in public.”
“It is very important to me that the grant be awarded in Puissance’s district. I would be quite grateful were you to… help with this.”
“Why does it matter to you?” asked Greengrass.
“Well, it’s a secret—“
“Then I can’t help.” Greengrass rose. This was a bluff, he’d turn around if he had to (and laugh it off, maybe compliment Builder on her ability to keep a secret), but he didn’t think he’d need to. Builder looked nervous and desperate for help; she’d crack, probably, and tell Greengrass whatever he wanted to know.
And she did. “Wait. There's a lot of building in Puissance's province, but the Vicereine will only be interested in me if I can show her what I can do -- with this grant. It's my only chance. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Oh, Puissance. I should have known. “That can’t be my consideration. I have to vote based on what’s best for Equestria.” Greengrass’s voice became a little more prodding. “Would putting the grant in that fiefdom be better than letting Fisher have it?”
Translation: I may want to help you. Give me a politically acceptable reason.
Builder nodded and began to rattle off a series of statistics that, Greengrass guessed, said nothing at all but sounded very impressive.
“Alright,” said the Duke, at the end, “I suppose those are good arguments. But I also have a specific duty to my constituents. This wouldn’t have any negative affects on them, would it?
Translation: what’s in it for me?
“On the contrary. In return for your help, the Builder Corporation – of which I’m in charge – would be happy to offer, say, a ten percent discount on masonry and construction in your fiefdom for the next year.”
Greengrass felt that he could get more. “We aren’t doing much construction these days.”
“Other -- other nobles too, then! Maybe nobles you need to vote with you.”
Now there was something Greengrass could use. He could think of at least four nobles who were both cash-strapped and wanted to embark on construction projects; holding this over their heads could be very useful. Plus, a debt from the Builder family would be very useful. It would be in Greengrass’s interest to intervene.
But could he do it? Fisher was canny; he might have a vote or two loose, but Greengrass would somehow need to find three courtiers to flip and vote for Puissance. Flip, despite Greengrass not having enough time to put together any kind of reasonable offer. Puissance had already tried everything she could, and frankly, she had more resources than the Duke. She was far older than him, and had been in the Court for longer. She had favors she could call in. If she couldn’t find the three votes, what could he do?
But on the other hand… well, he did like a challenge. Besides, he was one of the smartest ponies in the Court, and if you didn’t know that he would be happy to tell you. He could, he figured, swindle three votes over to the Vicereine’s side. He could at least try. The reward was high enough to make it worth the attempt.
He glanced at Ox, who nodded – at least as far as he could tell, no other ponies were in the library. Bear nodded too; no magical listening devices, then. It was safe to talk. “Very generous. Well… I might be able to help you.”
“Excellent!” Builder’s face broke into a relieved smile. “Thank you!”
Greengrass rose. “I’ll send you the list of fiefdoms in the morning,” he said, in a voice that made it quite clear that Builder would be expected to honor the list, no matter how many names were on it. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Out of the library, back to his quarters, where he found Notary filling out paperwork. “Notary!”
“Where is Vicereine Puissance?”
“Her quarters, sir.” Notary paused. “Dare I ask why?”
“I would hope you can guess.”
“You are going to try to change a vote that has been decided for a month, despite not having the slightest plan of how to do so, and knowing that it will be politically humiliating if you fail?”
“Exactly! Come on, Notary. This will be a great adventure!”
“You have the finest of battle cries, sir.”
“Greengrass, I’m honored for the social call, but really, if I wanted your help, I’d have asked you.”
Vicereine Puissance was an old mare, old enough that her mane had gone silver with age. Yet she still wielded an impressive amount of power on the Court. A son, two daughters, and a nephew had all schemed to usurp her and take the Puissance seat. None of them resided in Canterlot anymore, and for various reasons, none could return for years. Puissance’s remaining family knew better than to try to take her place until she was ready to give it up… which likely meant, when she was dead.
“Ah, but Vicereine, it occurred to me that you might not have realized quite how much help I can be. There are all these rumors that I’m just some arrogant, gauche stallion who is due to be drummed out of the Court any day now for my sheer gall.”
“I don’t think it’s a ‘rumor’ if it’s true,” said Puissance, dryly. “Really, there’s a way things are done here, and you haven’t quite grasped it.”
“My loss, I suppose. But in the meantime, I do seem to have accrued a bit of influence, and I’d like to demonstrate it. Show those ponies that I can play the Game just like them.”
“While I’m sure that will help you, I don’t see why you would select me for this particular demonstration of power. Unless Builder is bribing you?”
Greengrass didn’t respond right away, studying Puissance carefully. He hadn’t dealt as much with the old mare as he would have liked, and wasn’t as sure how to push her buttons as with some of the younger, more foolish nobles. He had little to bribe her with that she could not get for herself, she would laugh off threats, she was unlikely to be swayed by charisma. Pride, greed, revenge, love, none of them seemed quite right. But he wasn’t worried. This was where his special talent could come in, his talent honed by his acute political senses.
It was just one word, flitting across his mind, but the word brought with it a vision, and with that he saw the outlines of a plan.
“Nothing so gauche. I do confess I’ve an ulterior motive, but that brickhead has nothing to do with it,” lied Greengrass. Direct lies weren’t all that common in the Court – half-truths, lies of omission, creatively worded deceptions were much more common – but that was yet another thing that Greengrass never quite bothered to take into account. “May I come in?”
The Vicereine’s quarters were crowded with memorabilia of her long and storied career – awards she had won and honors bestowed upon her, souvenirs from the vast domains she had controlled at one point or another, a few trophies from defeated enemies. Greengrass, knowing he was in the presence of a political master who could easily have him exiled to the Mild West if she felt like it, felt a rare sense of unease. But he ignored it. The only way out was forward.
“I confess, I’d thought of approaching you for help in a scheme or two of my own in a few months,” said Greengrass. “About the time of the Galloping Gala. But seeing you in such peril—“
“Peril?” Puissance laughed, and Greengrass had to give her credit – it sounded genuine. “One grant won’t imperil my career, Greengrass.”
“It’s not the grant,” said Greengrass, with as much faked sincerity as he could muster, “But what it represents. Vicereine, think. You’ve been in the Court for so many years. When was the last time you lost a battle of any importance, to a pony like Archduke Fisher?”
“Oh, I’m not undefeated, whatever my publicist says,” said Puissance. But she smiled slightly, in acknowledgement of the compliment.
“But that’s my point exactly. You have this reputation of being undefeated, at least by any pony with a duchy or less. This one grant may not matter, but it will signal to your enemies that you’ve lost your touch. They will move in and try to carve up all the political power you’ve accrued.”
Puissance's eyes widened and she looked away --Greengrass had struck a nerve. It had been a long time since Puissance had fought a real battle; she probably hadn’t expected this one to be so hard, much less that she would lose it. She was probably, Greengrass thought, looking at her career and wondering if it was all downhill, if the next attempt by a family member to overthrow her would succeed and leave her as an old spinster in a drafty old castle. Yes, intellectually she would know that the grant was not significant in the overall Game, and that she could bury Archduke Fisher if she wanted. But emotionally, the first loss after a string of wins… that would be frightening.
“I’m touched by your concern, Duke. It’s so unlike you,” said Puissance.
“Like I said, I want to ally with you later. If you’re weakened from this, that hurts me.” Greengrass nodded, figuring out his next steps. “I’m not going to lie to you and pretend I have altruistic motives. We both know that nopony in the Court does. But we can help each other. If you let me help you preserve that reputation of yours now – perhaps even enhance it; I won’t mind if you spread the rumor that you duped me into helping you – then all I ask in return is your support for me, later, at the Gala.”
Puissance thought. “I suppose that there wouldn’t be much cost to me…”
“Of course not. I understand if you can’t spare—“
“That is not what I said!” Puissance looked indignant. Greengrass smiled to himself; another reminder of how tapped out Puissance was at the moment, to help her along the route he wanted her to take. Puissance, meanwhile, recovered and said, “Well, let me put it like this. What would you want from me?”
“You’ve been paying closer attention to this than I. Who are Fisher’s three weakest supporters? All I want is those names. And your agreement to help me at the Gala, of course.”
Puissance shut her eyes for a long moment. “Take care, Greengrass. If you betray me – or if this Gala vote is something inane like voting for you to be the new Emperor of Equestria – I will ensure that your destruction is so complete they will tell cautionary tales about you to new courtiers every year. ‘Pulling a Greengrass’ will become shorthand for an idiotic, devastating mistake from which there is no recovery and no hope of any end save resignation in disgrace.” There was steel in her voice. When the Vicereine threatened you, Greengrass knew, you paid her great heed.
Or you used to. In a few months, when all anypony remembered was that the great Puissance had been sinking and the bright young Greengrass had to bail her out, things might be different. But Puissance wasn’t thinking of that, and Greengrass wasn’t going to remind her. “Of course,” he said. “I’m not so foolish as to hurt you.”
“Then you have my word. And the names… well, Prince Blueblood for one. He’s an idiot; I’d flip him myself now if I didn’t need two more votes. I can’t think of any other votes that you could flip tonight.”
“Are there any factions besides you and Fisher? Some third group?”
“Duchess Posey leads the group that’s considering the grant based on the merits, rather than whether they would rather ally with Fisher or I.” Puissance shrugged. “They’ve mostly sided with Fisher. I won’t deny that conditions in his domain are more favorable, slightly, than mine.”
But if one or more of them can be bamboozled easily enough… Greengrass had a statistician who was very good at turning random numbers into a persuasive argument. He pushed that thought to one side. “What about ponies who aren’t in town now, who Fisher hasn’t had a chance to shore up?”
“None. But Archduchess Nobility will vote however Captain Lightning, of the Northern Army, tells her. And Lightning’s been at the border for a week now. He’s catching the early train to speak to her before the vote, but everypony knows that he'll tell her to vote for Fisher.”
Lightning would be hard; Greengrass knew him by reputation. He cared only about the safety of his soldiers and the province. Fisher had probably promised him more funding or soldiers to ensure the Archduchess’s vote. “I think that’s all I need.”
“Good luck,” said Puissance. “You’re going to need it.”
Greengrass grinned. “If I wanted a safe career, I wouldn’t have gone into politics.”
“Don’t worry. If you fail, I think you’ll have plenty of time to consider other careers.”
Greengrass chuckled and left.
Okay. Now I have to actually find them. The vote’s at 6 AM, and half of them are probably on other committees or out of the castle. Well… no time like the present!
“Prince Blueblood!” Greengrass, with Notary trailing him, stepped in front of the unicorn. “A moment of your time!”
“I have no time for you,” said the haughty unicorn. He didn’t even look at Greengrass. “I have a presentation to prepare for.”
“I wanted to talk to you about—“
“I told you, I am busy.”
“It’s a political—“
“I assure you, my political matters are far more weighty than those of your fiefdom,” said Blueblood. “Now, excuse me. You may speak to me after my proposal at 1, Greengrass.” He spoke as if bestowing a great favor. “Good night.” He turned a corner and disappeared into a private room.
Greengrass rolled his eyes. He still needed Blueblood, but it wouldn’t help if he irritated the unicorn by pestering him. He’d have to wait until after the proposal, then. “Okay. Who next?”
“Captain Lightning will not return for several hours yet,” said Notary. “Four members of Posey’s faction, though, are available to talk, or will be within the hour. Posey herself, and Duke Sand, will be playing chess with Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis at midnight. The Baron of—“
“Wait. Sand. He owes me a favor.” Greengrass smiled; the next steps of his plan were appearing in his mind. “Not a big enough favor to vote my way, but… yes, that’s it. Notary, come up with some errand we can ask Sand to take care of for us. Doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it will take him enough time that he can’t make his chess game.”
“How will his missing the chess game help us, sir?”
“I’ll explain on the way—“
“Because it sounds like you plan to use the opportunity to take his place and convince Posey to support you, in full view of Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis.”
Well, yes. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Fleur de Lis is a gossip who will reveal your plan to Fisher, Fancy Pants is, according to you, quite intelligent and will likely interfere with your plan for his own reasons, and Posey has little reason to want to help you.”
“That’s it?” Greengrass laughed. “I’ve had tougher fights.”
“Yes. The one that landed you unconscious for three days was one such fight.”
The brown stallion winced at the memory. “Be that as it may, flipping Posey isn’t necessarily my intention. I’d like that, but if I can’t, I have another idea in mind.”
“Very well, sir. Will you need me, or would you prefer me to attend to our plans for Lightning?”
“You start those. The bits are in their usual place; three hundred should do it, but take more if you need them.” Greengrass nodded. “I’m counting on you, here.”
“Of course, sir. I won’t let you down.” Notary looked determined. “You can depend on me.”
“Oh, Duke Greengrass!”
Greengrass turned to see the smiling face of Fragrant Posey. He’d been pacing the corridor for ten minutes, waiting for Posey to show up and bump into him, but he didn’t let that show on his face. “Duchess! Hello! How can I help you?”
“Apparently, you’ve stolen my chess partner,” said Posey, with a reproachful look. “Duke Sand sent me a note that he’s filing a census report you were neglecting?”
“Oh – I am so sorry! When I asked for his help, I had no idea he was to be otherwise occupied.” Greengrass looked abashed and bowed his head. “I deeply apologize, Duchess. Please, allow me to make it up to you.”
“Well, as it happens, I’ve played a few games of chess in my time. If you need a partner, I can set aside my plans and aid you.”
Posey smiled. “I suppose that’s fair. But I should warn you, Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis are quite good.”
“Well, I suppose a drubbing at the board is the least I deserve for inconveniencing as noble a pegasus as yourself.”
Posey laughed, and led the way.
The chess venue was a late-night café within the Canterlot courtyard. Posey and Greengrass ordered coffees and went to sit at one of the chess tables on the patio. Fleur de Lis and Fancy Pants were already there, sitting at the neighboring table.
“Greengrass! How good to see you again!” said Fancy Pants. His grin was the broad smile of a child. “Trip back from Trottingham went well, I trust?”
“Fine,” said Greengrass. “No problems.”
“Trottingham?” asked Posey.
“We were just at the big farm competition out that way,” explained Greengrass. “As the celebrity judges.”
“Splendid competition,” added Fancy Pants. “And the food was delicious. I must say, maybe I’ll do tasting competitions more often!”
Fleur de Lis chuckled. “A lovely idea, dear.”
“It’s just that the food is so sublime! All those plates, just to impress somepony like me. It makes you feel really valued.”
Greengrass managed to not roll his eyes. Ponies as dumb as Fancy Pants appeared to be didn’t last long at the Court; they were chewed up and spit out in very short order. Fancy Pants had been around for years; ergo, he wasn’t as dumb as he acted. Lazy, though. He’d held the same position for years, with seemingly no effort to move up. Greengrass found that incomprehensible.
It’s safe, I suppose, having no ambition, since nopony thinks you’re a threat. But what a wasted life, thought the Duke.
A waiter began setting up the pieces on the two chess boards. Posey explained that they played bughouse chess, in which the white player on one board partnered with the black player on the other. When one player captured a piece, he or she could pass it to their partner, who could play it on their turn instead of moving. Greenhouse himself liked this variety of the game, and he was intrigued to see that Posey did too.
They decided that the teams would be mares versus stallions, with Greengrass (as white) playing Fleur and Posey (as white) against Fancy Pants. Greengrass made his first move. “I see you’re wearing your locket, Posey,” he said.
“Oh, yes.” Posey smiled. “I just got it back.”
“It was stolen, I heard,” said Fancy Pants.
“Yes, by two unicorns. But they were caught in Fillydelphia.” Posey nodded as she moved a piece. “Thank you for your help, Duke.”
“No problem. When I heard what they’d tried I couldn’t do nothing.”
“What did they try?” asked Fleur. Now she, Greengrass thought, was as dumb as a brick. Fancy Pants’ trophy marefriend, probably for his cover as a shallow nitwit. How he could tolerate such a vapid gossip, Greengrass would never know.
“They wrote me a letter from prison,” said Posey. Her voice was sad… but also firm. It was the voice of a mare who would not be cowed. “They told me that, if I didn’t drop the charges, they would drag out the trial and make me look horrible. They even threatened to bring Fluttering Posey into it. Make up stories about her…”
“I couldn’t let that stand,” said Greengrass, in as sanctimonious a tone as he could muster. It was hard, since he’d dictated that letter himself (and gone to considerable trouble to make it look like Flim and Flam had written and sent it), but he managed. “I contacted the warden and the judge and told them what had happened, how those two were using their freedom to communicate to harass and intimidate Posey. Flim and Flam were moved to solitary confinement, their writing implements removed, and their trial will be closed to the public. They won’t be able to hurt the Poseys anymore.”
“I appreciate it,” said Posey. “I knew that if I had acted, it would have looked suspicious… after all, they stole from me, so some might think I’d want to interfere with the trial.”
“It was my pleasure to help,” said the Duke. The real reason he’d gone to all that trouble had been to make sure the unicorns wouldn’t be able to tell anypony that the Duke had hired them (which had turned out to be a rather poor decision in retrospect), but Posey’s gratitude was a useful bonus.
“Quite kind of you,” said Fancy Pants. “An honorable pony through and through, you are.” He captured Posey’s king’s knight’s pawn and passed it to the Duke. “You know, I think I heard about that case. Didn’t those unicorns kidnap a foal?”
“If so, I imagine they’ll be charged with it,” said Greengrass, neutrally.
“I wish there was some way to ask them. If they did, they ought to be made to pay for it,” said Fancy Pants, almost wistfully.
“Well, as they’re charged with treason and now with harassing the victim by mail, it might be difficult to talk to them,” said Greengrass. “I don’t think they can receive visitors or contact the outside world. Still, if you really want, it could perhaps be arranged.”
He probably wants to, but his idiot persona wouldn’t want to go through the work, so…
“Oh, not if it would be a bother,” said Fancy Pants.
They played for a half hour more, with Fancy Pants taking a quick lead over Posey, and Greengrass using the extra pieces to box Fleur in. “I say,” said Fancy Pants, “You’re quite good at this, Greengrass.”
“Thanks.” And then, feeling that it was time that he got on with what he’d shown up to do, he said, “By the way, Posey, I was just talking to Vicereine Puissance. Apparently you lead the swing faction in the vote this morning.”
“Me?” Posey giggled. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There’s a few of us who got together to do some fact-checking, that’s all.”
“Still, I heard you’re in charge.”
“We all came to our conclusions independently.” Posey frowned. “Wait. Are you trying to get me to change my vote? Because—“
“No!” Greengrass lied as he held up his front hooves. “No, honest. I might be new, but I know better than to try to manipulate you, Duchess.”
Posey smiled. “Flatterer. But my mind’s made up. I really do appreciate helping me deal with those unicorns, Greengrass, and I would like to repay you… but I can’t on this. Fisher needs the grant more than the Vicereine.”
“Understood.” Greengrass placed a captured knight on the board, forking Fleur’s queen and queen’s rook. Surely there’s some way to get through to her… use Fluttering Posey, maybe, or perhaps her husband’s business…
But nothing came to him. He couldn’t think of any way to get Posey to change her mind in one night. It didn’t help that Posey was unusually sensitive to manipulation; she was hard to maneuver into voting a particular way. He wouldn’t be able to get her vote.
On to the next plan, then. “But that’s just what I mean. With a personality like that, I bet none of the ponies in your faction wanted to question you.”
Posey laughed. “That’s not true at all. Even though I knew how I was voting, many of the others took a lot longer to make up their minds.”
Come on, thought the Duke. Tell me what I want to hear.
Posey, at ease, relaxed, and having fun with her friends, did so. “Baron Mounty Max only decided a couple of days ago, after all.”
Aha. Now I know who in her faction took the longest to decide… probably the least sure, the most conflicted about his vote. Excellent. “And he’s for Fisher too?”
“Yes, of course. The evidence really does lead that way.”
“Well… good luck, then.” Greengrass smiled. “I hope it’s the right choice.”
“Ah,” said Fancy Pants, apropos of absolutely nothing. “It’s always so refreshing when we can share camaraderie despite being on opposite sides of some issues.”
“…yes,” said Greengrass. “Yes, it is.”
Greengrass had sat through a lot of meetings on the Night Court, but this was, without a doubt, the stupidest one yet.
“Our nation is in peril,” Blueblood said from the podium. He was trying to sound authoritative, but he could only reach the level of ‘blustery’. “Corona, the Tyrant Sun, could return at any time! She could even now be striking at some frontier province.”
She attacked Canterlot directly last time; why wouldn’t she do it again? wondered Greengrass.
“But we wouldn’t notice, as we lack a sophisticated warning system. If some disaster strikes on our borders, such as fire, flood, or Corona herself, it can take hours – days, sometimes – for news to reach the capital. If the Tyrant Sun were to appear at our furthest reaches, how could we know in time to muster a response?”
Night turning to day for no reason. That would be a hint, thought Greengrass. “What’s he going to propose?” he asked Notary.
“He recently invested in a chariot company,” said Notary. “He will probably…”
“The Righteous Wing chariot company has offered to sell the Court one thousand chariots at a substantial discount,” Blueblood said. “These chariots can be positioned strategically all along our border. At the first sign of any trouble, they can be dispatched to Canterlot for assistance.”
“And pegasi alone aren’t enough because?” murmured Greengrass.
“That wouldn’t make him money, sir.”
“The chariots can be flown by pegasi and mounted by unicorns, unicorns with sufficient magic to ensure an escape from any conceivable disaster,” Blueblood was saying.
“Yes. All those unicorns we have in reserve that can fend off Corona,” whispered Greengrass. “Brilliant. If only they actually existed.”
Notary smiled. “May I ask what you think?”
Greengrass thought that he didn’t get Blueblood. Like Fancy Pants, Blueblood probably wasn’t as stupid as he acted, if only because any pony that stupid would have wandered off the castle ramparts by this point. So it was an act, at least in part. But it wasn’t an act that worked. Blueblood had been a viscount forever, showed no signs of advancing, and none of his schemes ever quite seemed to get off the ground.
Take this one, for example. It was terrible on the merits – if for no other reason than it seemed to assume that nopony in the government or military had thought of this problem and come up with some kind of frontier warning system -- but Greengrass could probably still have pulled it off. If he’d been proposing it, he would have gotten the others to support it as a PR stunt. Still, even he couldn’t have done it alone.
“He would need an ally to sell it,” said Greengrass. “Somepony to make a big deal about how this is the perfect defense measure and how anypony who disagrees doesn’t care about the safety of the country. If he had a few of those, then he could spin the others as not caring if the country burns, and that might get him enough support to pass the bill. But he can’t do it himself, because he’s obviously biased, and if he can’t get those first few supporters, even the press will know there’s nothing of substance here. This won’t pass.”
Allies seemed to be a perpetual problem for Blueblood. Every now and then he’d make a big deal about having the Baron of somewhere over for tea or investing with Count Suchandsuch, but within a few weeks, his partnerships invariably dissolved. Either Blueblood really was as useless as he looked, or he didn’t know how to keep good allies. Whatever the case, that sank him, like it was doing now.
“You know, sir,” said Notary, “If I may – if you helped him here, he might feel grateful…”
“But if I look as dumb as him, the others won’t listen to me later. His is not the only vote I need,” countered Greengrass.
Pride. The thought blinked into the Duke’s head, and he sighed. Yes, pride was Blueblood’s weak point. He would need to appeal to the unicorn’s pride. Which, at this point, meant keeping this stupid, stupid motion alive. Without looking as dumb as the unicorn.
If I pretend I’m Blueblood’s ally, then I’ll look a bit opportunistic, but then again, aren’t we all? I just need to make it very clear that I don’t believe this nonsense.
“I have to say, I’m pleased that somepony is finally considering the important issue of frontier defense,” said Greengrass. His gaze started on Blueblood, but he allowed it to drift down, to the press gallery. “I think this measure will make it quite clear that, though we live and work in Canterlot, we care about all Equestrians, even those on the furthest reaches of the land.”
Notary nudged Greengrass, who pretended to realize where he was staring and brought his gaze back up to address the rest of the Court. “Blueblood, you’ve my support, and – I would hope – the support of the rest of the Court. We’re all noble ponies, after all, and none of us want be seen – I mean, none of us want to be the sort to let the frontier fall into danger.” There. That should be a pretty strong indicator that my only concern here is PR. They won’t think I believe Blueblood’s nonsense. And now they need to support it too, lest they look like they don’t care about the country and lose favor… or at least…
“I’m not convinced of the economics,” said one Baroness. “Obviously, defense is important, but is this the most efficient way? Blueblood, we’ll need more figures.”
“Yes, I move we table this for a few days while Viscount Blueblood puts together a more detailed proposal,” echoed a Countess.
The chamber dissolved into discussion and whispering. Greengrass smiled to himself as he looked at the murmuring nobles. Tabling for a few days will give them time to try to spin the press the other way. Fine, I don’t care about this bill at all. All I need here is Blueblood. I just stuck my neck out for his bill, even he has to see that.
“I move,” said Vicereine Puissance, “That we table the motion for three days, and revisit it at that time.”
The motion carried.
“You!” said Blueblood, as Greengrass approached him in the hall. “How could you do that? I—“
“Alright,” said the Duke, looking both scared and, somehow, relieved to see Blueblood. “I bought us some time. The rest is up to you.”
“Did you see them? They were going to dismiss your idea without even listening! And then, if Corona returned, well, you’d be right, but it’d be too late!”
“The best I could do was to get you three days to build your case. Go to the press. Make it clear that Equestria’s very fate is at stake!” Look like an idiot! “Make it so they have to support you!”
“I – uh –“
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. I’m still a political neophyte, I guess.” He doesn’t think much of me. If I act dumb, he won’t worry about his helping me coming back to bite him. “But I hope I was able to give you enough help to, well, save the country.”
“Help save the country?” Blueblood, who was probably unused to actually being praised or told he did something right, smiled a little. “Well. I suppose your speech was quite acceptable. You performed admirably for one as new to the Court as yourself.” He paused, thinking. “I’d like to know, though, why you supported the bill. National defense was never your strong suit.”
“You’re a pony to know around here,” lied Greengrass. “With your family connections, influence, skill… well, I’d like to work with you. Consider this a token of what I could offer.
Blueblood smiled. “Hmm. Well, I think that… if you keep acting as you did… we could be useful allies.”
Greengrass nodded. “Thank you.” When I get enough power, I’m going to banish you, and auction off the right to pick where. It will be the greatest fundraiser in the Court’s history “Now – you did say I could have a moment of your time?”
“Oh, yes, well, what is it?”
“I’d like to ask you to vote for Puissance over Fisher in the vote at six, for the big grant. It would mean a lot to me.” Greengrass tried to look pleading and hopeful. “Obviously, you’re too noble to care that it was Fisher that was leading the chorus of ‘dismiss!’ motions, but—“
“He was?” He hadn’t been, but Blueblood wouldn’t know that. “That rat!”
Is he acting, or is he just that dumb? Well… I suppose it doesn’t much matter now. “But I do hope that you’ll show some of that Blueblood generosity I’ve heard praised so highly in all quarters and, though it’s far more than I deserve, aid me by supporting Puissance.”
Blueblood considered. “Alright,” he said. “I should show Fisher what he can expect from betraying me. And I will reward your support.” He sounded like a king giving a vassal some huge boon. “But I expect your loyalty again when this motion is brought back to the floor, Greengrass.”
“Oh, certainly!” By then, the papers will have spoken so poorly of this that even you won’t be dumb enough to bring it back to a vote.
Blueblood left, and Greengrass smiled. One down. Two to go.
“Baron Mounty! Thank the stars and moon I found you!”
Mounty blinked blearily at the Duke. “Was trying to nap,” Mounty muttered. “What’s goin’ on?”
Mounty Max was in charge of a very small domain up in the northern mountains. His family had held political positions for centuries, but Mounty had looked to be the first to buck the tradition… at least until he’d heroically saved a group of foals from a rockslide. With his heritage and his heroism, Mounty’s subsequent ascension to the Court had been more or less guaranteed, even though the pony would probably rather be climbing mountains than sitting and voting on measures he barely understood. Even younger than Greengrass, and somehow still a bit naïve despite serving for a few months as a voting member of the Court, he was still much more at home on the mountains than in a council room. Greengrass had been pleased to learn that his was one of the votes that he could try for – the neophyte Mounty would never see him coming.
“Urgent new information. I’ve been sent to you directly to make sure you know it!” said the Duke. He pushed his way into the baron’s rooms, which had a bunch of mountaineering gear and souvenirs from mountains that he’d climbed. “I overcame great obstacles to bring you these tidings of such great import!”
Mounty could only stare. “For the vote in a few hours?”
“Exactly the one!”
“Mind’s made up. I’m voting Fisher. Go away,” muttered Mounty.
“You made up your mind based on the information Fisher presented. But it’s all false!” Greengrass took a bunch of papers out of his saddlebag – his statistician had just finished with them. “Every thing he said to support his proposal was a complete lie! I did my own surveys of his land, just got the results.”
“Why’re you here? Go talk to Posey. She’s leading our faction.”
Posey, the thought popped into his mind – this wasn’t political intuition, he was pretty sure it was his special talent kicking in. He wants to help Posey. Probably feels he owes her; I know she helped show him the ropes. Okay. I can use this. But not yet. First I have to make him think that voting for Puissance is the ‘correct’ choice.
“Already have! But she’s committed and you know how seriously she takes her word. She wouldn’t even consider switching.” Greengrass paused. “Can’t you just look at the information? If you don’t find it persuasive, all you’ve lost is a few minutes. But if it is, you’ll have been saved from voting the wrong way and sending a large grant project to a district that doesn’t need it in any way.”
Mounty made his way to an easy chair and sat down. “Well… I mean, well, okay, if you’ve got really important information…”
Greengrass began to talk, chaining together strings of statistics for twenty minutes. Each one sounded more urgent and devastating than the last. Tax rates, salt-level rates, the price of tea in Shanghoof, everything was used, and the picture Greengrass painted was not good at all for Fisher. “His domain doesn’t need this grant, and couldn’t use it if they got it,” he said. “You need to vote for Puissance.”
“But I looked at all this already, and I decided—“
“Why?” Greengrass wouldn’t give him a chance to gather his thoughts. “What did you decide?”
“Based on the construction needed in both domains, Fisher needs it more.”
So Greengrass began to tell all kinds of lies about Fisher’s domain, about how he had more buildings than he knew what to do with, about rampant corruption in Fisher’s masonry groups, about how his castle was already the largest around. Puissance’s, he said, was small and falling apart – after all, look at her age, she couldn’t have the stamina to fight for the budget to fix it up. “Fisher swindled you,” lied Greengrass. “You don’t want to be swindled, do you?”
“But – but hang on, how can I trust you?”
That was an unsurprising objection, so Greengrass was prepared. “Every single thing I’ve told you, you can check for yourself,” he said. Provided Mounty remembered it; in his sleep-addled state, he’d be lucky to remember his own name. Still, it was at least theoretically true. “I know that we’ve had our differences, and I really do appreciate you being noble enough to overlook them and listen to me.”
“Huh? Uh, thanks…”
“So please, trust me a little more. Look at the numbers yourself if you have to, but you’ll come to the same conclusion – Fisher was lying. Puissance needs the grant more, and she can do more with it. And if that’s the case, you’ll vote for her, right?”
“Sure, if that’s the case,” managed Mounty. Greengrass held back a smile – that admission meant he was halfway home. “Lemme see those…”
So Greengrass passed him the falsified papers, which Mounty then examined. The numbers were changed just slightly from the ones Fisher had provided the Court, but all the changes together made it clear that Puissance was preferable to Fisher. The conclusion was just obvious enough that even a tired stallion could see it; the forgery, by contrast, was good enough that most awake ponies would have missed it. “Why me?” asked Mounty at last.
Bring it around to Posey, now. “Because the others all gave their word weeks ago to vote for Fisher, Posey included. She’d want to vote for Puissance if she had this information, but you know her; she’d feel dreadful about breaking her word to Fisher, even though he’d swindled it out of her. But you – I know you haven’t promised Fisher anything.” This wasn’t true, but as usual, Greengrass didn’t let that stop him. “Besides, if the grant goes to Puissance despite Posey’s vote, then she both keeps her word and gets the outcome she wants. Wouldn’t that be best?”
“Well… yes, but…”
“I know I can count on you to do the right thing.” And looking at the conflicted Mounty, Greengrass was sure that he’d vote just like the Duke wanted. His eyes were scanning the paper, like he was hoping to find something that would release him from his choice – but there was nothing there; all the evidence on the pages showed that Puissance was the better option. Mounty would think it over, would weigh making this decision against breaking his word to Fisher, and if that wasn’t enough, he’d also consider that he might be able to rescue Posey from a bad choice. He’d flip.
Greengrass smiled at Mounty. “Sorry to wake you. Pleasant dreams, and I’ll see you at six.” And he was gone.
“Everything is ready, sir,” said Notary.
“Splendid. Think it’ll work?”
“If it were any other pony, I would say ‘no’, sir. But if you plan to personally be on the scene, assisting the con... I would give it fifty-percent odds.”
“That sounds about right.” Greengrass smiled. “Newspapers? Actors and clothing?”
“Letters too, with the appropriate stamps and postmarks”
“Letters – really? Excellent work!” Greengrass blinked. “You continue to impress me, Notary.”
“I do my best, sir.” Notary smiled at the compliment. “But I do have one more matter for you. A message just arrived from your castle.”
“What is it?”
“The new gardener, sir. He failed the fidelity test.”
Greengrass, like most employers, preferred loyal employees. As such, whenever he hired new help – be it a castle servant, bodyguard, spy, or member of his political network – he arranged things such that they had an opportunity to somehow betray him early on, so that Greengrass could make sure they didn't take it. The gardener, who had money problems, had been left alone in a room with a pouch of bits. Evidently, he’d stolen the money.
Incompetence usually only merited a firing, unless the incompetent employee knew too much and had to be relocated elsewhere for the sake of Greengrass’s political career. Outright theft and disloyalty, though, carried harsher penalties. “That money was from the Equestrian Bank branch in my fiefdom, as I recall.”
Greengrass’s voice was calm and dispassionate, as if discussing a business report. “Have Brute inform the gardener that he will either volunteer for the Mild West settlement teams, or will go to jail for felony theft.” Greengrass was fond of sending his disloyal or traitorous employees to public works projects in other, far-flung districts. It got rid of the traitors, made Greengrass look good for supporting the public good, and would likely cause the ponies in charge of those districts headaches much later. The director of the Mild West settlements was on some influential committees; if he was saddled with a thief, Greengrass might be able to exploit that eventually.
Greengrass smiled, indicating that the distasteful part of the conversation was over. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll see you at five, then. I have some personal business to attend to.”
“Very well, sir. Have fun in your secret hideout.”
“It’s - -Notary, you make it sound like a foal’s clubhouse. I do serious work there.”
Notary raised an eyebrow.
“…but yes, I plan to unwind a bit in my private residence.”
“It’s a secret hideout, sir.”
Greengrass laughed and departed.
There wasn’t a lot of open land available in Canterlot, but Greengrass preferred to have his garden indoors anyway.
It was the basement of an old condominium complex that Greengrass had been able to buy cheaply. He’d knocked down the walls between the basement rooms, then installed pipes and sprinklers, artificial lighting, and soil. The Duke had then planted flowers, shrubs, and even a few small trees. By now, it was a surprisingly verdant garden, and Greengrass made it a point to stop by and do some actual gardening at least three times a week. The garden didn’t technically need it – he’d bought the latest in technology, the lighting and sprinklers ran on gear clocks and could run themselves for months if he had to leave them unattended – but he liked to.
It was, he knew, a weakness. An enemy could exploit his garden by threatening to torch it or something. But he was willing to accept that. He wasn’t going to be a career civil servant who schemed for power his whole life and never used it on himself. His father had been a pony like that – he’d gone into the Court at age twenty, retired at seventy, and had barely ever done anything for himself in the intervening fifty years. All his energy was directed at shoring up his own position and moving ever higher, which he did by accomplishing more and more for the government. And so, quite inadvertently, he’d wound up as one of Equestria’s unsung heroes, an industrious and intelligent pony who continually placed the country’s welfare above his own. The banquet they threw for him when he retired was the only time he’d taken in fifty years to do something for himself.
Greengrass snorted. His father had been a fool. But he wouldn’t make the same mistakes. He’d continue to move up, but he’d spend time on himself too, and if it made things harder later, so what? He’d meet that challenge.
The Duke had always wanted to have a nice garden, but he’d never been any good at growing plants in the outdoors. However, in the basement, in an environment that left nothing to chance, he was finally able to produce a garden. He set the temperature, lighting, watering… everything was tightly controlled, and that the plants flourished and the garden grew brilliantly was more a matter of course than a surprise.
Someday, he thought, smiling, All Equestria will be like this garden – one unified nation, controlled by me. I will rule over every bit of it, from the biggest corporation to the smallest house. I will build it into a mighty empire, and run it exactly as I wish. Not wanting to get too far ahead of himself, he hadn’t thought too much about exactly what ruling all Equestria would entail (besides doing something about the Everfree; he saw no reason why such an uncontrolled and chaotic area should be allowed to exist), but he was confident he would indeed rule it someday. Maybe, he thought, it was the earth pony in him, wanting to build something, and just setting its sights a little higher than most, who were content to muck around on a little farm for their whole lives.
In a few years, I will be atop the Court. That alone would be a great achievement and would give me vast power. And then… maybe a few years later, I will find some way to supplant Luna. Alicorns haven’t always ruled the land, after all. It wouldn’t be impossible…
But all of that would have to wait. At the moment, Greengrass was carefully examining a sunflower. Though the garden was almost perfect, with flowers and shrubs in just the right arrangements, this particular sunflower wasn’t doing well. It was drooping, giving the whole line of the flowers a weird look. Like a line of soldiers with one that didn’t quite wake up, thought Greengrass. Not acceptable. Not here.
He examined it carefully, putting his ear to its top, then a hoof to its roots. He took a deep breath. And he focused on his talent, because he had a strong intuition that was what would be needed.
Aha. He took a small spade and dug, very carefully, until he saw the roots. Yes, something seemed to have infected them.
Moving carefully, he placed the tip of his hoof against the rotten parts, and he focused.
I was never very good at gardening, he thought. Or growing anything, really. Kind of embarrassing, to be an earth pony that can barely keep grass alive… but my father taught me one useful lesson. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘Some earth ponies are good at making things grow. But that’s not all you need to run a farm. Somepony has to make the fertilizer. Somepony has to lay the water pipes. Somepony has to do the accounting. Maybe your talent’s in one of those areas.
The rot began to turn an odd shade of black and peel off of the root.
And it was. Weeding was mine.
Greengrass had gotten his cutie mark when he’d woken up one morning to find that his latest attempt at gardening, a plot of impatients – the easiest, hardiest flower to grow in the world – had been taken over by some weed that grew on everything. Greengrass had stepped into the garden plot in dismay, only to feel some kind of weird feeling come over him. In a daze, he’d walked through the plot, images popping into his head. And by the time he was done, he had a vague recipe – ingredients and proportions – for a crude weedkiller.
He hadn’t been able to save the impatients, but he’d made very sure that every weed was dead. His cutie mark, an ‘X’, the universal symbol of elimination and deletion, appeared immediately afterwards.
And since then, he’d nurtured his talent, taking it far beyond weeds. He could see the weaknesses of things – not just plants, but structures, even ponies. He could see what would break them. Some chemicals for a weed, a strong blow in a weak joint for a building, and something like age, pride, fear, or friendship for a pony. He could find those weaknesses and exploit them. It was just like weeding, but on a much larger scale.
He’d tried a few different careers. He’d been a great interrogator for the police up in Stalliongrad, during his days as a wandering youth, and he’d taken a turn as a lawyer in Amblerja a few years prior. But ultimately, politics was where he was most suited for. The other ponies had political skill of various degrees, but Greengrass also had his talent. He could see how to break the others, how to sink their careers and make room for his own. Hence his rapid rise… and his boundless ambition.
The rot was dead. Greengrass took a sip from a flask of whisky (a rare and expensive vintage; he only had the best when he was gardening) and began to carefully pack the dirt back in around the sunflower. He smiled, looking at the plant whose life he had just saved. It would heal. His garden would continue to improve.
“Perfection,” he said.
Captain Lightning’s train pulled into the train station exactly on schedule.
“Alright,” said Greengrass. “We have two votes, but we need his archduchess’s to make three. Where are the actors?”
“All along the route, sir,” said Notary. “I’ve also taken the liberty of seeing the Chamber President to manipulate the vote order.”
“… right, good thinking. We want Blueblood last, since he’ll end up being the deciding vote, and he’s thoughtless enough not to care.” He smiled. “I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
“In jail, sir, I would estimate.”
Greengrass laughed, and Notary smiled. “Alright, alright. Your indispensability is noted, and will be accompanied by a substantial Hearth’s Warming Eve bonus. Now. Let’s con this soldier!”
Lightning stepped out of the train and began to trot briskly towards the castle, brushing by a couple of ponies in torn clothes as he did so. “Excuse me,” he said, his voice clear and bright in the morning air.
Greengrass began to follow him, but discretely, and at a distance. Notary had vanished back into the shadows. I really should learn how she does that, he thought.
Lightning maneuvered through the crowds skillfully as he got out of the train station and began the short walk to the palace. He had to step around several sets of ponies in torn clothing as he did so, some with what looked like minor injuries. As he trotted, his steps began to slow. Greengrass smiled. He was taking the bait.
“Is something…?” began Lightning, pausing to examine a set of huddled ponies who looked quite frightened and disheveled. And then he started, having had a chance to examine their clothes more closely. “What happened?”
The ponies shrank away from him and vanished into the side streets.
“Come back!” yelled a bewildered Lightning. He approached another group, but they scattered as soon as they saw him coming. “What’s going on?”
Greengrass approached. “Captain, hello! Pleased to—“
“Shut up! Did something happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“Those injured ponies; they’re wearing clothes from the northern provinces,” snapped Lightning. “Was there some problem up north?”
Greengrass pretended to think. “Well, there was that special train that came in about ten minutes before yours… I think it was from the north”
“A lot of ponies got off it. They looked kind of like refugees. Shell-shocked and… well, you know.”
This was one of the bigger scams that Greengrass had tried to pull, but it seemed to be working. Lightning’s eyes darted about. “I don’t believe this. I left the front for two days to head back here to vote – if something happened, if there was an attack, they should have sent me a message onboard the train! Get me a newspaper!”
Lightning shoved his way past Greengrass and galloped to the nearest newspaper stand, which was just opening for business. “Give me that,” ordered Lightning, seizing a paper. “…no, look. There’s nothing here about it. If something had gone wrong, the papers would have the story before the refugees arrived.”
Greengrass paged through the paper. “Ah – there. Page seven.”
It had been worth getting that printing press, Greengrass thought. As silly as some might think the idea was, it could be very useful to be able to print up a fake page in a newspaper. He had an ex-editor whom he could call on at a moment’s notice to mock up a page that looked perfectly real. Then, all that was needed was to obtain several real newspapers, switch a page with the fake, and then get those newspapers back to the stands where they were needed. It was a lot of work, and it cost a lot of money, but what pony, even a courtier, would think that a newspaper sold at a public stand might be faked?
“Mysterious incidents in northern provinces. Reports sketchy. Possible injuries reported?” Lightning flung the paper away. “What is this? Don’t they know anything? Why isn’t this on the front page?”
“The Court doesn’t have the resources to deal with it right now - -Blueblood’s got everypony terrified of Corona, so most of the military is being positioned against her. They don’t want to panic anypony, so they’re downplaying it,” said Greengrass.
A pony in a tattered shawl bumped into them and dropped a letter as she rushed by. The letter had a stamp and postmark from the northern provinces. Lightning seized it and opened it, and though Greengrass hadn’t read it himself, he was confident that Notary had come up with some horrific tale of woe. “Downplaying this? According to this letter, one in four ponies was injured!” Lightning looked furious. “It doesn’t say what it is, but we have to defend against it!”
“The Court won’t listen.“
“Insane. I’ll make them listen. If ‘something’ happened up north, it’s nothing a few squads of the ground troops and the battle mages can’t fix."
“They won’t deploy them—“
“I didn’t ask your opinion.”
“Look, you know it’ll take a few days to get anypony sent up to the front. Like I said, they’re in full Corona-panic mode now, and they won’t listen to you. I wish it were different, I wish there was something I could do, but the Court’s frozen.”
Lightning ground his teeth. Greengrass nodded to himself – with details this sketchy, it would take days to deploy more than a token force, and Lightning would know it. “I hate politicians. And you’re included in that, Greengrass.”
“I have never done anything—“
“Stow it. If you really want to show you care about this country, give me some of the militia and military forces in your fiefdom. You’re not using them now, and they can reach the provinces in less than a day.”
“I can’t just give them to you; I’d be a laughingstock. That’s not how it’s done in the Court.”
“What’s more important, the whole country or your career?”
Greengrass shook his head. “Look, just give me a token and I promise to lend you half my guards for a month. Like – like this vote coming up. Ask Archduchess Nobility to flip her vote. That way I can say I got something for giving you my guards.”
“Are you that afraid of being accused of altruism?”
“It’s lethal in the Court.”
Lightning laughed at that, a harsh and barking sound. “Sorry. Already pledged to support Fisher.”
“He’ll still get the grant!” Greengrass tried to look frustrated, like he wanted to help Lightning but couldn’t because of the Captain’s own stubbornness. “He’s three votes up and you only control one. Just – just do this for me and you’ll have two squadrons of guards to supplement your forces up north. If you don’t, I can’t help you. And we both know it’ll take days to get any other force up there.”
Lightning glared at Greengrass, but the Duke already knew what Lightning would do. He wouldn’t leave his forces or the province hanging. “Fine. Now get the Hay out of my way.” He stormed off.
Greengrass looked around. The ‘injured’ ponies would disburse in a few minutes; they’d only been paid to act for a short while. None of them knew his real identity; Notary had handled hiring them, and as far as they knew, this was all just some big improvised street production, an ‘artiste’ thing. The newspaper vendors didn’t know either. There was nothing tying the scam back to him.
Perfect. All that was left was the vote.
“Not a bad night’s work,” Greengrass said, smiling, as Notary opened the door into his booth. “Not bad at all.”
“We haven’t won yet.”
“Ah, but we will. Now is when we can savor our triumph before moving on to our next adventure!”
“Of course, sir.” Notary smiled. “Would this be like when we were savoring our triumph in obtaining the services of Lyra Heartstrings?”
“… I should hope not.” Greengrass shook his head. “I admit it; I underestimated Lulamoon’s immaturity. To throw a fit and frame her ‘friend’ because Lyra was going to leave her… honestly, the thought of her controlling the Elements scares me.”
“It scares many ponies.”
“But she’s Luna’s favorite, so she can’t be targeted directly. Ah well.” He sighed. “Well, no matter. We’ll get them all eventually. None of them have the resources to beat me.”
“The vote is starting, sir.”
Down below, ponies were rising. “I vote that the grant be awarded to Archduke Fisher.”
“I vote that the grant be awarded to Vicereine Puissance.”
After several votes, Notary murmured, “All votes so far as expected, sir.”
There was a pause. “It’s your turn, sir.”
“Oh, right.” He stuck his head out of the booth. “I vote for Puissance!”
The first unexpected part was when Baron Mounty Max got up. He was nervous and shaking a bit, but he managed to say, “I vote – I vote for Puissance!” And there were whispers.
The second surprise was when Archduchess Nobility spoke. “Vicereine Puissance,” she said, her voice regal and strong. “Without question.”
Fisher was looking nervous and was whispering to his whole entourage – he was one of those ponies, Greengrass thought, who seemed to need at least five others to follow him around wherever he went. Greengrass thought it was a bit pathetic. He needed only Notary most of the time, and he could get by without her if he had to. Fisher, though, looked lost on the rare occasions that he didn’t have his crew. For that matter, he looked a bit lost now.
Blueblood voted last. He should have voted early, given his relatively junior rank of Viscount, but it seemed the voting order was somehow jumbled. “I vote for Puissance,” he said.
Puissance herself seemed a bit surprised, only belatedly rising up to thank the Court for bestowing the grant upon her lands. Builder Brick, in the audience, appeared to be restraining the urge to cheer. Fisher, from his booth, looked shocked and said nothing. The rest of the Court erupted into murmurs and whispers, as everypony tried to figure out how this sudden reversal had come to be.
Greengrass smiled. “Now can we celebrate?”
“I think that would be acceptable, sir.”
Greengrass had just poured himself a large tumbler of bourbon when Lightning stormed into his office.
“There was no attack up north!” he yelled. “You made it all up!”
“Made what up? I saw what you saw. Any ‘fakery’ fooled me too.”
Lightning ground his teeth. “Liar. I will end you!”
“End me how?” Greengrass smiled politely, as if the discussion were academic.
“I will tell the whole Court of your depraved efforts to fool me into repositioning Equestrian military forces! Had you succeeded, national defense—“
Greengrass held up a hoof. “Wait. First of all, do you have any evidence that I did anything?”
“Those ponies! The papers!”
“I had nothing to do with them, and if you have any evidence to the contrary, I would be quite surprised.”
“Then – then you lied about the special train. There was no such train!”
“I never said I saw it myself. I just told you what I’d heard. I suppose we were both fooled.” Greengrass smirked. “I wish you luck in finding the culprit.”
“Forget proof. I’ll tell the Court anyway.”
“You’ll tell the Court that I fooled you with a few actors and some newspapers? Go ahead if you want, but if you tell the world that you’re that foolish, I don’t see you having a long career,” said Greengrass. I don’t see you having a long one anyway. If I know the Archduchess, she’ll be furious when she finds out what happened. She trusted you, and you let her down by having her vote for the wrong pony in the name of a fictitious crisis. I predict you’ll be removed from the political scene and deployed to the middle of nowhere within two weeks. I can weather your anger until then.
The Captain hesitated. He wasn’t much good at politics, Greengrass knew, but even he knew that admitting he’d been fooled would destroy him. “I will ruin you,” vowed Lightning. “I don’t know how, but I will.” He swept out.
Five minutes later, Puissance entered. “Well done,” she said. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“I get that a lot. Bourbon?”
They drank a toast, and then Puissance smiled. “Whatever your plans are for this Gala, you may count on my support.”
“Splendid. Glad to be working with such an esteemed politician.”
“I think I like you, Greengrass. Please, take care not to overextend yourself. I would be quite sad to have to destroy you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
And after she left, when Greengrass was about to go to bed for the day, Archduke Fisher strode into his room.
“Please explain to me,” said the archduke, “Why I shouldn’t crush you.”
Greengrass carefully considered how to play his next move. He decided on a confident, yet slightly placating tact. In a calm voice, he said, “It was a small grant. We both know it won’t hurt you much to lose it. But I had to get your attention somehow.”
Greengrass nodded. “I’ve been trying to get on your calendar for months, but you seemed to think I was beneath your notice.”
“Ah. I see. Well… I’ve noticed you now. I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Let me make it up to you,” said Greengrass. “I have a few plans that could lead to handsome profit for us both, provided we work together. My secretary will send you the details. If you like what you see, and I think you will, I’d be happy to let you take a bit larger of a share of the profits as… well, as recompense for this.”
“Mmm.” Fisher frowned. “I suppose you are… interesting enough that I would like to see your offer. But take care, Greengrass. I do intend for you to make this up to me. And, if I don’t feel like you have, I can make your Night Court career nasty, brutish, and quite short.”
And then he too was gone.
Greengrass entered his room and sat on his bed. “Notary?”
“Yes, sir?” His secretary poked her head in from his office area.
“It seems that, whenever I talk with another pony in the Court, the conversation ends with them threatening to crush me. Do you think we could just let it be known that it’s understood? It would save me quite a bit of time in the long run.”
“I’ll look into it, sir.”
Greengrass laughed, a deep and warm sound. “Ah, but that was fun. Remind me to do that again sometime.”
“Of course. And congratulations are in order. That was a masterful plan.”
Greengrass chuckled. “Well, I do have them on occasion.”
He lay down and was asleep within moments, dreaming of an Equestrian Empire, perfect in every way, and ruled by him.