Paper Tigers

by MidnightDancer

The Hardest Truth

Paper Tigers
By MidnightDancer

"And you see, Princess, by allocating the bits currently being spent on such frivolous things as music for the public schools, we can beautify Canterlot and bring in more tourist revenue besides." The overstuffed unicorn stallion drew himself up to his full height, smiling confidently at Princess Celestia from in front of his easel, a posterboard covered in bar graphs settled upon it.

Celestia sat quietly for a moment, keeping her expression carefully schooled. She considered, briefly, sending his petition to Luna instead. With a small sigh, she discarded that idea—she didn't need Luna thinking everything had gone to pot in her absence, nor did she want to pay the stallion's therapy bills after Luna was done with him. Tilting her head, she gave off the impression of deep thought, rose eyes slightly unfocused as the stallion waited patiently for her answer.

"I see. Stuffed Shirt, do you mind telling me why we should stop a program proven to help nurture a foal's ability and willingness to learn in favor of some pretty paint on old houses?" She smiled down at him gently, keeping the pulse of anger buried deep within her breast.

Snorting, he began to roll his eyes before catching himself and clearing his throat. "Ah, as I said, it would bring in tourist revenue for Canterlot—"

"Canterlot is the richest city in Equestria, with a record high surplus of bits." Her assistant hoofed the relevant documents to the stallion, who gave them only a cursory glance. "I don't see a reason why we should cut this education funding."

"Because the surplus won't last forever—what if Canterlot falls on hard times? Or a natural disaster hits, like that hurricane off of Hoofwaii some years back?" That was actually a fair point, and Celestia began considering it, before his next sentence stopped her cold. "Besides, your highness—it's not as though ponies need to be educated to take out our trash or sweep our streets."

The anger flared again, and in her head, Celestia fantasized, briefly, about immolating him on the spot. A small ruffling of her wings was the only outward sign of anything being amiss with the Princess, and she forced the bile back down again with a small swallow. "You are suggesting that the ponies in the public schools are kept ignorant?"

"I'm glad you asked." He pulled up another poster in his pale blue aura, settling it on the easel. "As you can see by these figures, test scores are going down year by year. Granted, they're still higher than most cities, but the foals are not performing to standards. They don't appear to care about their education—I don't see a reason to keep funneling money to poor schools and districts when they don't appreciate it."

"I see." Celestia peered at the graphs, making a large show of examining them carefully. "And tell me, how much of this is the fault of lazy foals versus a large influx of foals from our recent population boom? We haven't sent money to the schools for hiring more staff in quite some time; I can imagine that the schoolteachers are getting overwhelmed." Stuffed Shirt shuffled nervously as she turned her gaze to him instead. "In those facts and figures there, do you have the average class size?"

He pulled one document out of his sheaf, eying it distastefully. "It would appear that the average class size is forty-two."

Celestia blinked, something finally managing to surprise her. "Truly?"

"Yes. But back to my proposal—" He was cut off as Celestia raised a wing.

"I know precisely what to do with it." Stifling the urge to request that the proposal be sent to her personal lavatory, she turned to her assistant. "Quill Feather?" The pegasus came to her side once more, pulling out a quill and parchment from under her wings. "I am ordering that extra money to account for the population boom be sent to the school districts of Canterlot, districts one through seven. I want you to find out how many teachers they need to get the class average down to twenty students maximum, and then send them enough to hire the teachers. This does include teachers for gymnastics, art, music, and the sciences."

Quill Feather scribbled down the note cheerfully, Celestia smiling beatifically at the now stammering unicorn. He stared back, mouth slightly agape. "Princess, even with conservative estimates, that's hundreds of thousands of bits per year—"

"I am aware of my country's finances, Stuffed Shirt." She eyed him coolly, one eyebrow raised as a small smile appeared. "In fact, I must thank you for bringing this to my attention. Why, with your selfless act of bringing this to me today, I am certain the schools would love to give you recognition for all your help."

Stuffed Shirt paused, seeming to think about it, while Celestia's gut churned. Gods, how I hate diplomacy in this age. There was a time, many hundreds of years ago, that one of the sisters merely saying something and stamping a hoof was enough to make it so. If a few ponies were upset by that, well, they had dungeons. Nowadays, it's all lawsuit this and jailtime that.

She sighed. Shaking the errant thoughts of days gone by from her head, she forced a kind smile down at Stuffed Shirt at his nod. "I'm so glad we could come to an agreement. Thank you for bringing your proposal to court today, even if the outcome wasn't quite what you were expecting."

The stallion bowed hastily before gathering up his now moot facts and figures. "Thank you, Your Highness." As he made his way back to the throne room doors, Celestia brought her head beside her assistant's to speak privately.

"Quill Feather. My use of the word 'you' in my proclamation was literal. I am entrusting this to you." The pegasus balked, golden eyes widening as she nearly lost her grip on her papers.

"I... Your Highness, I don't mean to contradict, but we have a Minister of Education for that—"

"A Minister of Education that is clearly not doing his job. If he were, this wouldn't be happening." The temperature in the immediate area rose by several degrees—yet Quill shivered at the look in her sovereign's eyes. "You've served me loyally in all things during your time here, and I have nothing but the utmost faith in your ability to carry out my decree." Celestia smiled warmly, allowing one wing to brush fondly over her assistant's back.

Quill Feather smiled, bolstered by her Princess' faith, and fluttered her mottled feathers excitedly. "I won't let you down, Your Highness."

Celestia looked into the pegasus' eager face, full of hope and determination, and it took all of her considerable might not to crack and sag beneath it. She smiled instead, never showing that it was only the gritting of her teeth that kept her from screaming.

Purple hooves clacked eagerly across the smooth stone floor of the castle, golden shoes shining by the lights hung in alcoves along the walls. As she approached her mentor's quarters, she slowed, not wanting to appear too eager. Twilight Sparkle smiled, using her magenta magic to smooth down some stray hairs in her mane and tail. She breathed deeply before standing straighter, bringing one elaborately-shod hoof up to knock gently on Celestia's door.

"Come in." Celestia's voice, normally as warm as the sun and twice as bright, was dull and nearly listless through the heavy wooden door. Twilight hesitated for a second, before slipping into the room quietly.

Celestia laid upon a large golden pillow, snuggled down into the soft material. An exquisite tea set, painted with roses and vines, sat on a small table beside her. Small squares of colorful paper littered the table, one side colored while the other was a matte white. Celestia raised her head from her contemplation of the merry fire in the hearth, and smiled warmly at the newest Princess of Equestria. "Twilight Sparkle! You know you do not need to knock."

Hooves shuffling awkwardly, Twilight blushed. "I know, but it only seemed polite. But, you wanted to see me, Princess?"

Celestia motioned to the table with a foreleg. Twilight approached, settling down on the cushion across from her. She felt a little thrill of nostalgia—how many times, as a filly, had she settled onto this exact cushion with this exact tea set in front of her? She lifted her teacup to her lips, savoring the delicate aroma coming up in small curls of steam for a moment before sipping. Celestia mirrored her actions, the two content to merely drink and be in each others presence for a time.

After a few moments of silent bliss, Celestia turned to Twilight. The purple alicorn could see the bags under her mentor's eyes, and the strain of ruling was for the first time fully evident on Celestia's face. "Twilight, do you enjoy origami?"

Lifting a blue square in her magenta aura, Twilight nodded happily. "Yes! I've read a lot of books on it, but haven't had too much of a chance to try it myself."

Celestia chuckled, drawing a green square to herself. She moved the tea set gently to the stone floor, clearing the table for the two to work. "It has been a favorite past time of mine over my years of rule. I find it very calming." Her golden magic folded her square expertly, leaving her with a paper swan in a matter of moments. Smiling, she animated it with her magic, flying it over the table to boop Twilight on the nose.

Twilight giggled, beginning to fold her own paper carefully the way she'd seen her mentor do. Celestia smiled. "Now, while you've got something to occupy your mind, tell me what's bothering you."

Jerking her head up, Twilight blushed. "I'm fine, Princess, really." Another corner of the paper folded down carefully. "It's just that ruling is a little stressful, but it's nothing I can't handle." A piece to the side came up, folding into a wing.

"Is that why you rushed to my study so quickly that you sounded more like a herd of antelope than one pony?" Arching her brow, Celestia took a deliberate sip of her tea, eying a stammering Twilight over the rim.

"Well... I... it was just..." The smaller alicorn sighed, shoulders drooping. "It's just hard. All this new magic, and I'm so much stronger than before! I helped Luna with the beginning of Night Court, just to get my hooves wet, and there was this awful petitioner..." She trailed off, blinking back tears as she stared at her paper. "She just... she didn't care that her blacksmith shop was polluting the local river. We—we had to force all these restrictions on her, and we have to send somepony to check up on her periodically now to make sure she's doing what she's supposed to do."

Celestia nodded. "These things will happen, Twilight."

"I know, she just... she made me so mad! I lifted her paperwork with my magic and it imploded. Literally imploded. I didn't... I didn't mean to do that." She lifted her paper again, frustrated, and the tiny folded swan tore in half. Twilight stared at it, letting it drop to the table as tears welled up in her eyes.

The two sat together for a time, Celestia watching Twilight with sad eyes as she cried out her frustrations. Twilight pulled her wings around herself, cuddling in close to them for comfort. After awhile, the sobs turned to sniffles, and Twilight wiped her face quickly with a foreleg. Mumbling an apology, she drank deeply of her tea, letting the jasmine smell calm her.

"We are like tigers, Twilight." Celestia settled back, taking a sip of her own tea again as her student's red-rimmed eyes met her own. "Incredibly strong, fierce, and protective of our kin. For us, our kin includes all of our little ponies here in Equestria."

Uncomprehending violet eyes met calm rose ones, Twilight searching her mentor's for clarification. "Why... what?"

With a chuckle, Celestia pulled another paper to herself in her golden magic. "What I mean is that we are a strong, and very dangerous, force. The smallest slip in a time of stress, and entire cities would be wiped clean off the map." She calmly folded her paper, studiously ignoring Twilight's gaping mouth.

"Have... have you..." A warning glance from Celestia stopped her cold, her mentor's steely gaze boring into her.

"Have I what, Twilight?" Celestia's voice was calm, even loving, entirely at odds with the cold, flinty look in her eyes. "Have I killed populations, reduced landscapes to ash and glass, and burned away countless frail mortal bodies?"

Twilight sat quietly, mouth working soundlessly as she blinked at her mentor. The warm, loving light she associated with Celestia had been changed; it was now that she could see the harsh, blinding side of the Sun. That, mixed with Celestia's obvious fatigue, struck Twilight speechless for once as she floundered in her own mind to come to grips with everything.

Abruptly, the older alicorn turned back to the papers on the table, expression smoothing over expertly as she lifted an orange one. "What can you tell me about paper tigers?"

Twilight clicked back into the role of student with practiced ease, mind clearing at the direct question. "It comes from a Chineighse phrase meaning something that is as threatening as a tiger, but is ultimately harmless." She watched with some awe as Celestia spun the paper in her magic, mountain and valley folds both executed with ease. "It's often used in literature or politics as a descriptor for somepony such as..." She paused, tilting her head.

"Such as?" The paper was taking shape, a larger rounded section stemming from a thinner one.

"Such as... such as a king, queen, or other ruler." Twilight met her mentor's eyes, confusion and reluctant comprehension warring on her face.

"Very good, Twilight." Celestia gently folded down the tiger's head, the smooth, blank face staring out across the table.

"But... Princess, we're not... not ultimately harmless, are we? I don't understand." Twilight gently prodded the tiger with her magic, drawing back as Celestia levitated a bit of charcoal over.

Drawing deliberate, harsh stripes down the tiger's side, Celestia shook her head. "We are not. We must hobble ourselves, change from tigers of flesh and blood to those of paper. Did you not wonder why you and your friends were sent to save the Crystal Empire?"

"I... it was a test for me?"

Celestia inclined her head slightly. "It was. But, Twilight... when the gods fight, only mortals lose. The truth is simply that yes, Luna and I could have easily disposed of Sombra. He was laughably weak after being imprisoned for so long. We would have made very short work of him. The problem is that we would have also made very short work of half of the population of the Crystal Empire."

The tiger stood proudly on the table between them, coal smudge eyes glaring fiercely at Twilight. The purple alicorn met its gaze, wings ruffling slightly as she shifted. The silence settled in, broken only by sips of tea from Celestia and the soft shifting from Twilight.

"Something doesn't make sense." Twilight poked the tiger with her magic, turning its gaze to Celestia. "If we're so dangerous, why do we need Royal Guards? I know about using them as a police force, that's fine, but why do they guard each and every door and hall in the palace?"

Celestia beamed, eyes sliding shut as she nodded. "An excellent question. In return, I posit one to you. Let's say there's some group of ponies that doesn't like the monarchy. And let's say that in order to make a point, to score a blow against the Royal Sisters, they decide to assassinate the Princess' most faithful student." Nudging the tiger to look at Twilight again, Celestia opened her eyes. "What, do you suppose, an alicorn mad with grief might do?"

Shoulders slumped, Twilight looked down at the table, mind working. "I... I guess you'd forgo a trial..."

"The accused would never even make it to trial. That is why we have Royal Guards. They protect the more foolhardy of our little ponies from us." Celestia rose, stretching out her legs and wings before looking back down at the newest Princess. "You must always be mindful of your emotions, Twilight. You must always be in control. And most of all, you must never, NEVER forget that a tiger is only truly dangerous when she is not caged."

Celestia folded her wings back down, and feeling her student needed some time alone, trotted softly out the door. It thudded shut behind her, and Twilight barely moved, simply watching the little tiger with haunted eyes.

A few moments later, the door opened and closed again, leaving nopony behind but the ashy remnants of an origami project.