“It always bugged me a little bit that you outrank me,” Celestia admitted, dipping her chin, as a blush crept across her cheeks.
Chrysalis, still sitting opposite on the bed, narrowed her eyes and gave Celestia a withering look.
“Bugged you? Really?” she sneered. Celestia blushed further and bit her lip to keep her smile from breaking into laughter. Chrysalis’ eyes widened in exasperation before she turned away, despairing about how put upon she was.
“Anyway,” she continued, drawing herself up straighter and facing Celestia again, chin up and shoulders back, “of course I do. I’m higher up the chain of command.”
Celestia gave a quizzical look, having never heard of a royal hierarchy that linked ponies and changelings in any order, changelings on top or not. When she offered no further reply, Chrysalis grinned wickedly, pulling her black lips back to expose all the teeth she could.
“The only one that matters – the food chain,” she whispered, the last three words dripping with malice. Her eyes lit up, too, but it was so deliberate that Celestia didn’t take the taunting seriously.
“You can’t survive without the love ponies provide,” Celestia scoffed. “Are you really the superior species?”
“Sheep might say the same to wolves,” Chrysalis purred, leaning in towards Celestia, separating their muzzles by only a few hoofwidths. Had they been standing, she thought Chrysalis might be circling her by now. “Predator or parasite, we exist to devour you.”
Did you have to bring that up? We were doing so well. The conversation up to now, both the sombre bits and the light-hearted ones, had been unquestioningly the most pleasant interaction she had ever had with the changeling queen. Despite being worlds apart in nature, their commonalities meant they could relate to sides of each other that nopony else could, and their talk had been groundbreaking not only in the geopolitical sense. But so much of Chrysalis was alien, and separated from Celestia by shockingly different ways of thinking. And now the subject of changeling natural behaviour had arisen, Celestia would have to try reaching out to Chrysalis.
Not that she didn’t want to reach out and help guide Chrysalis to a better path, but Celestia could picture how it would be received, and the abrupt end it was likely to bring to their conversation.
“You don’t have to, you know,” she said, trying to balance the soothing tone of offering to help somepony with the sternness of cutting down their excuses for hurting others. “You may not want to hear it, but Thorax found another way.”
Chrysalis’ face tightened as she snorted derisively, after which she pursed her lips waiting for Celestia to finish.
“By sharing love, he offered the changelings a different life,” Celestia pressed on, “one you never gave them the chance to try.”
“Goodness, I wonder why that could have been,” Chrysalis smiled, with cart loads of insincerity. She then became more accusative, “How long would wolves survive as a species if they only ate other wolves?” After a moment, she calmed herself, and explained, “The physics of it don’t work. We feed on the love of others; love is consumed when it is given to us, used as a fuel source to give us energy. That love can’t then be passed on, because it’s been used up.”
“But each changeling can create love, within their heart,” Celestia replied at once, “just like ponies can.” She was careful the swift answer couldn’t be seen as a snap, as Chrysalis had made the effort to rein in her own temper in its early stages of flaring, and keeping her calm was more likely to lead to a positive outcome.
“For you it’s a feeling,” Chrysalis said, “for us it’s a resource.” She took on a lecturing tone that reminded Celestia of Twilight, “We can generate love, yes, but resources can’t be created out of nothing; the process requires something to fuel it. And no resource generation process in the world gets out more energy than you put in.
“With love as our only food source, changelings cannot create enough love to be self-sustaining. It’s just not possible. If it were, we’d have done it millennia ago.”
Could that be true? Would the magical land of Equestria truly be so horrible to a species? She might brush up on her education from time to time to remind herself of things she had learned and since forgotten, as well as to cover any new ground in pony world knowledge, but Twilight was far more the physics expert than she. It sounded believable, though, Chrysalis’ argument, although Celestia could only wish that it weren’t.
In that context, changeling feeding habits of infiltrating pony settlements and preying on their love, unseen, were more justified. Even Chrysalis trying to take over Equestria on two occasions made more sense. Dirty hooves, she remembered: that was what the Canterlot scholars had called the political theory behind whether or not a leader could take extreme actions, those normally considered immoral, in order to save their civilisations.
“What will happen to them?” she asked gravely, her voice thick with concern. She couldn’t meet Chrysalis’ eyes for long, and so her gaze wandered while her thoughts shuddered.
“The same thing that always happens,” Chrysalis said wearily. “They’ll feed each other until all their love is used up, and then they will all die.” Her eyes were dull, drained of all the fire they’d held when discussing the food chain, and her dejected sigh suggested she was already resigned to the loss. “After which, I, undisputed Queen of the Changelings by virtue of inarguably being the only one left in existence, will lay my eggs again, and start a new hive.”
How many times has all this happened before, to warrant the label of it always happening? Celestia had thought of her own life as an endless funeral, but her experiences paled next to those of Chrysalis. It was true that, barring other alicorns, everypony in Celestia’s life alive at the start of one century would be gone by the start of the next, replaced by their descendants. But to lose them all at once, and in such traumatic fashion...?
“Inevitably,” Chrysalis carried on in the same tired tone, “sooner or later one of them will think of sharing their love, and how much happier that would make everyone. No more needing to feed on ponies, no more hiding from them, or living in the dark and cold, no more constant hunger.” She smiled ruefully, as Celestia had seen mothers with grown children do when discussing how those children had misbehaved when young. “I’ve never managed to stop the others from joining in once one of them has tried it. All I can do is try to keep a tight enough hold on them that they never consider sharing love in the first place.
“That’s why individuals like Thorax are so dangerous to the hive as a whole,” she said wistfully, “and have to be dealt with so severely.”
That did stand to reason, if one member could so easily threaten all of them like that. And no explanation could be offered, for fear of other changelings getting the same idea. All that Chrysalis would be able to do would be to condemn them for some vague charge, like ‘treason against the hive,’ and exile them. And yet, while the facts might be accurate, something about that didn’t ring true to Celestia...
“I don’t buy it,” she said, making her voice hard for the first time since they’d sat down on the bed. “I was half asleep, upside down in a cocoon at the time, but I saw your face, Chrysalis.” Celestia felt the muscles in her forelegs clenching at the thought, squaring her shoulders. “You weren’t reluctantly punishing a child for the greater good, you were enjoying tormenting a traitor.”
Much to Celestia’s further chagrin, Chrysalis did not appear perturbed by this, instead flashing a humourless smile.
“Turns out I’m rather cruel,” she shrugged. “Who knew?”
Celestia gave a flat look, with only centuries of patience keeping her temper in check. There was a pounding in her ears, synchronised with the pulsing in her jugular. But she made sure there was no outward sign of her rage beyond the taut muscles, otherwise not moving.
“Yes, I enjoyed it,” Chrysalis said, making her confession with the same casual scorn with which she might have admitted eating the last slice of cake. “Yes, I am cruel, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my reasons.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow, her eyes not leaving Chrysalis,’ straining not to glower at her while waiting for her attempt to justify her spite. This had better be good...
“Ponies, by their nature, thrive when empathetic and altruistic,” she began, a lot more serenely than Celestia had expected, “and so you, champion of those virtues, have become their ruler. I, with a different set of values, have become ruler of the changelings, because cruelty serves us best.”
Pleasant surprise at the calm delivery had quickly turned into seething. How could Chrysalis so coolly discuss being so vicious? How could she condone it? She didn’t even have Sombra’s decency to be indifferent to the suffering he caused, Chrysalis actively enjoyed it.
“What kind of twisted...?” Celestia spluttered, still pulling hard on her own internal reins to keep herself from boiling over. “Why would you possibly think that?” She swallowed, not noticing before how dry her throat had become from how heavily she had been breathing.
“Because preying on sapient creatures is hard,” Chrysalis snapped, “when you’re sapient yourself.”
Then she deflated, folding in on herself. Her chin dropped to her chest, and she did nothing to alter the way it made her mane fall across her eyes more than usual. If anything, Celestia was reminded of the way Fluttershy sometimes hid behind her hair. A lot of Celestia’s anger drained away quicker than she’d thought possible.
“We may not have evolved the sense of empathy that ponies have,” Chrysalis said in a voice so full of emotion it sounded like her throat might close up around the words, “but if you’re self-aware, then it’s easy enough to put yourself in another’s hooves. It’s all too easy to wonder what ponies are feeling, or how you’d feel to be treated the way you treat them. At which point,” she said helplessly, “you end up starving to death.” She dropped her voice, and added in a way that was both rational and bleak, “Cruelty, for us, is the most essential tool we have.”
They rely on malice to overcome an empathy they don’t naturally feel, but sometimes end up thinking about anyway? That sounded awfully like an insight into changelings being good natured deep down, and having to fight against that instinct to survive, Chrysalis included. And if that were truly the case, then there was hope.
“You don’t know that, not for sure,” Celestia breathed, leaning forward. She smiled encouragingly, raising hoof to her chest. “Ponies and changelings could coexist peacefully.”
“Do you think I haven’t tried that?” Chrysalis asked regretfully, rubbing a hoof down her face. “Every time I rebuild and repopulate the hive, I do something differently, convinced I’ll get it right eventually. At first, I tried every angle of having them share love.” She squeezed her eyes shut, looking pained. “They never lasted long.”
Celestia felt her hooves growing limp as the optimism leaked out of her, her posture sagging. There was a sour taste in her mouth, and her chin trembled as she looked down at her hooves.
“Whereas the crueller I go,” Chrysalis continued, her voice regaining confidence and clarity, but also some of her usual malevolence, “the better we do. I never intended to be a tyrant, but I can’t argue with the results. Or deny that it suits me,” she finished, with a wide-eyed, whispered dramatic flourish, sounding both self-praising and self-loathing at the same time.
“Is that why you rejected Starlight’s offer of friendship?” Celestia asked, remembering the vulnerability and uncertainty on Chrysalis’ face when Starlight stretched out her hoof. There’d been a split-second just before slapping the hoof away when Chrysalis’ eyes had narrowed, and the familiar proud and vengeful changeling queen had reasserted herself. Had she been considering making another attempt at running her hive on shared love, as she had in days of old?
Chrysalis’ expression hardened, her brows drawing down as she clenched her teeth, fixing Celestia with an intense stare. She said in a low voice, “How would you respond if someone handed your children a death sentence, and then offered to be your friend?”
Starlight hadn’t known of course. That was Celestia’s first thought. Followed by how little difference that would have made in that situation. The rage and grief of a mother made childless a thousand times over. How fortunate none had tried to stop her fleeing. She would have gone through them all.
“That doesn’t mean everything she said was wrong, though,” Celestia said, trying to salvage anything positive, “about you being able to be the leader your subjects deserve.” She felt a tightness in her chest, and her efforts to come across as open and embracing, rather than desperate, weren’t working. “You don’t have to rule through fear. They would obey you much more willingly if they loved you.”
“They can’t love me,” Chrysalis scoffed, “they’re changelings, and they eat love for breakfast. Having them love me would be taking food from the mouths of the starving.”
Celestia, who had been on the verge of wringing her hooves, stopped, frozen in place as she was hit by the full realisation of what it must mean to be a changeling.
It was the same thing. The bond that existed between her and her subjects, or her sister; the glue of happy feelings that held her entire society together, that was what changelings ate to survive. They couldn’t spare any of it to build similar bonds themselves. What wretched lives they must have to lead. Love was such an ingrained part of her kingdom that she could hardly fathom life without it, and as such all her preconceptions took it for granted. So her every thought on changelings had been inaccurate from the start, built around principles that simply didn’t exist for them.
“So I keep them in line the hard way,” Chrysalis said. There was a sadness to her, but her jaw was set. “Most are loyal, and dedicated, but it’s not love.”
She crossed her forelegs in front of her chest and sneered, sounding like iron made flesh. “That is not a luxury I can afford.”
Chrysalis took a single deep breath, held it for a moment, and then slowly let it out through her nose. She returned her front hooves to their former spot in between her rear ones as she sat, and gave a thin-lipped smile that could almost have been apologetic.
“And you saw how quickly they turned against me, after all the sacrifices I have made for them,” she concluded wryly, “so what they deserve is relative.”