Diplomacy by Other Means
The New Order
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hoof, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess
“Lumpy. Hey, Lumpy. Wake up.”
The world was pain. Giant lumps of throbbing agony that beat against every nerve ending in time to the beating of his heart, a dull throb of bruising that had no specific point upon which to focus, making it even harder to ignore. With a wince, Pumpernickel opened one aching eye and regarded his torturer in preparation of shouting him down.
His perky pegasus friend dressed in golden Royal Guard armor gave a grin that failed to hide a deep thread of nervousness while patting Pumpernickel on a foreleg in a manner that was supposed to be comforting, but only managed to strike new injured nerves.
“Rose says she dropped the pain suppression spell for a few minutes so the flight surgeon can release you for limited duty. We’re taking off in a few minutes for the Crystal Empire and then the Misty Mountain aerie. Hope you packed a toothbrush.”
Pumpernickel managed to open his other eye in order to look around. His surroundings were much different than expected, lacking angelic choirs and harp music, and including Redoubtable, who most certainly was not going to Elysium Fields when he died if there was any justice in the world. Instead, a dozen or so Royal Chariots were lined up neatly inside a large hangar, a thin padding of cloud along the floor with various guards and support staff scurrying around in the never-ending job of maintenance and operations. He had been inside the main hangar for the Royal Guard many times, but looking at it from this angle gave him a new perspective on the cavernous place. It was far too large, open, and lacking in obstacles to hide behind, and every pony within sight was watching him as if he were the newest carnivorous animal from the zoo who had wandered outside his cage.
Two of those ponies were Redoubtable and Primrose, standing just outside of hoof’s reach on the bottom step of a dark purple Night Guard chariot. Both of them wore the exact same insincere grin as if they were waiting to see which way he would jump, although they stood much closer together than a guard and his charge should.
After a few minutes of clearing his throat and licking his lips, checking for missing teeth, Pumpernickel managed to speak coherently.
“You two kids have fun playing with the chickens.”
“Oh, no. No way, Lumpy old buddy, old pal.” Redoubtable’s grin became real as he gestured to the open bay door of the hangar. “You’re coming along with us. Princess Luna’s orders. I even packed your regular armor.” He tapped a metallic bundle inside the chariot which rattled and clunked. “And here comes the pony who will make your dream vacation possible. Good morning, Flight-Surgeon Bone Spur. How are you this fine morning?”
“Peachy,” said a tired voice behind Pumpernickel, who paused, then added, “Lumpy? What in Tartarus are you doing out of bed?”
With a deep breath, Pumpernickel turned around while standing up, saluting the older Nocturne stallion in a precise motion that could have been used in any Royal Guard recruiting movie. “Pumpernickel of the Royal Guard, Optio of the Night Division, reporting for duty.” He swayed on his hooves and the hangar faded in and out of his vision, but the battered guard remained on all four hooves as the surgeon shook his head.
“Sit down, you stupid lunk. I’d be sent to Tartarus before I pass you for a mission. Sorry, Miss Primrose, but the guard will have to provide a different driver for you this morning.”
“He’s not a driver,” said Primrose firmly, taking a moment to float out a clipboard and give it to the flight surgeon. “He’s my adjunct.”
“Lumpy?” The surgeon flipped through several pages with a growing frown. “I wasn’t even aware he could write, let alone understand Griffon.”
The object of his derision folded his tufted ears back and growled several chirps and raspy squawks⁽*⁾ at the surgeon, which made Primrose break out in a short chuckle. “Now, that’s not the way a good adjunct talks. Besides, I don’t think that’s biologically possible for a pony.”
With an additional scowl, the surgeon hoofed the clipboard back over to Primrose. “Well, you’re still short a driver, so this chariot is grounded until—”
“Sorry I’m late! I had problems with the flight harness on this cursed thing, but I’m ready to fly now.” The noises that came from behind the flight surgeon matched a Royal Guard in the clatter of connecting straps and hardware that meshed with the chariot’s gear, but the voice was very much not a Royal Guard voice. It was far too high. And female. And it belonged to somepony who was very much not a Royal Guard, although she was closely related.
* * *
Laminia trotted around the side of the surgeon and saluted him in a slapdash fashion that would have given any drill sergeant a fit of apoplexy. “Hoofmaiden Laminia, reporting for transportation duty as assigned, sir. All we need is for you to sign off on the trip, and we’ll be on our way.”
Flight-Surgeon Bone Spur stayed mute, looking at the abomination in front of him in disbelief while Laminia remained standing casually with a defiant look—
Wearing the purple armor of a Night Guard.
He had always been aware that Nocturne mares could wear clothes, and on occasion even dresses, but this was… steel. Stallions wore steel. Mares wore… whatever wasn’t steel. The armor was not even cut the same as real guard armor. It… curved in places armor was not supposed to curve. Places where stallions had straight lines. There was even some… thing underneath her belly in the area he was trying not to think of. Actually it was two things in lieu of the proper chunk of steel that protected a stallion’s valuable area, only it was over… hers. He could not help but stare, the same way many of the other guardstallions in the hangar were regarding the display with jaws agape. Finally the words came blurting out of his mouth.
“Take that obscene thing off before somepony sees you in it!”
A second female voice came drifting over his shoulder, but where Laminia’s voice had been filled with happiness and anticipation, this voice was cold and stern as if the very Night was speaking to him. And in a way, it was.
“Lieutenant Bone Spur, would you like to rephrase your command to my hoofmaiden?”
All across the hangar bay, guards and support ponies found fascinating things to do that did not involve watching, listening, or otherwise being involved in Princess Luna’s conversation with the flight surgeon. The Princess of the Night stepped to one side of the older Nocturne stallion and regarded him as one would look at a piece of gum stuck on her hoof.
“Your Highness!” he yelped, backing up several steps.
“That is not an answer,” said Luna, stepping forward. “That is an evasion.”
“She isn’t… But that’s… Why is… Armor!” Bone Spur pointed at the offending chunk of curvy steel, unable to make any more words other than to repeat himself. “Armor. It’s armor.”
Laminia clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Eight years of medical training proves its worth. Look, all we need is for you to sign off on my ability to fly and we’ll be out of your mane. Here, I’ll show you.” She reared back and spread her wings wide, out to the fullest extent they could possibly reach. Flawless membranes rippled in the low light of the hangar, resulting in more than one low whistle of admiration from the distant non-observers, and low “Ooof” from Redoubtable as Primrose put a sharp elbow into the side of his armor before he could even get properly puckered.
“We shall abide by thy decision,” said Luna with a bit more force than usual to break through the stunned expression on the Nocturne flight surgeon.
It took a few moments for Bone Spur to gather his wits as he managed to tear his eyes away from the spread wings of Her Highness’ hoofmaiden. Princess Luna had been growing deferential to her advisors and the guard over the last few weeks, a far cry from the authoritarian presence she had presented after her return. The stern expression she wore gave little indication if she would actually follow his advice, but there was just no way around it. Mares were not meant to take on the dangers the Royal Guard faced. After all, she would be going into a tense situation with the griffons of the Misty Mountains, very well risking her life in the process, and that was no role for a mare, in particular Princess Luna’s hoofmaiden. A certain hesitation came over him as he considered the request was coming from the same Princess Luna who he had seen in the training grounds pounding Pumpernickel into the ground. His Princess. The one the Nocturne had waited a thousand years to return from exile. Still, it was for her own good. Bone Spur had the word ‘No’ all ready to say when a low noise drew his attention.
It was more of a rumble than a growl, a deep subsonic noise made by a pony-eating predator that stood the hair on the back of his mane on end. It only took a moment to realize the noise was coming from the battered Night Guard curled up in the back of the chariot like a cat, or more properly, a hunting cat, with narrowed eyes that watched him. Evaluating. The eyes of a pony who he had seen exchanging terrifying blows with Princess Luna just a few hours ago. They were eyes that said quite clearly, “If you make my wife unhappy, I will break you in half. Lengthwise.”
“Yes,” said Bone Spur, in a slightly higher tone than he expected. “Your flight is approved.”
* * *
Five minutes later after they landed on the Canterlot train platform, Pumpernickel watched in amazement while the train porters stowed the chariot in the baggage car.
“We’re not flying directly to the Misty Mountains aerie?” he asked Primrose, who was consulting a checklist while directing a porter where to put the bags.
“I would prefer to arrive at a potential diplomatic disaster with my escape route fully rested and ready to flee. We’re overnighting at the Crystal Empire and arriving at the aerie in the morning, which would only be a few hours later than flying direct. If nothing else, Luna thinks the griffons will avoid attacking for three days after our arrival, provided they adhere to their traditions.”
“And what happens after three days if you can’t make any progress on a diplomatic solution?” asked Pumpernickel with a pained wince, limping along after his new boss.
“We run like crazy and hope they don’t catch us.”
(*) Roughly translated from Griffon as “Stick your beak up your cloaca and bite me.”