Drawn With the Night by Dan's Comments
DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.
The little, purple interrogator is in a particularly foul mood today. I am in no way stupid enough to suggest she not take her anger out on me. It would assure she would. Finding oneself in a land of seemingly happy, brightly-colored, toylike equines should be a romp in the park, right?
Their prison cells are not brightly colored, or amusing, and their interrogation techniques don't quite extend to waterboarding, but if you can just sift through a person's mind, you don't need any of that. I have no idea what atrocities they are capable of, or what is just bluff. Frankly I don't want to know, what I've been believably threatened with is frightening enough.
The first shift of questioning by Purple begins, mostly to probe my magical knowledge. She asks questions, I answer. She has yet to ask if magic is real on my world, and I've read enough fantasy novels, played enough RPGs table and computer, and written/read enough fanfiction I can honestly tell her what I've heard of. But that I'm no magician. Some of my answers stop her and force her to almost physically restrain herself. I suspect she'd prefer a more open debate style, but she's been schooled in interrogation and sticks by the rules. The first rule is never answer any question.
After two and a half hours (roughly), she leaves and I get a few moments to rest, until Green shows up. Green is the scary one. If you saw her on the street, most little girls would squeal with delight and hug the stuffings out of her. Across an interrogation table, with you chained to your chair, her hatred of you personally, and your entire species exuding from every pore and gesture, she stops being adorable. In fact, she could easily play the Gestapo character in any movie you'd care to name. Including the training films about what the real Gestapo was like. With her, it's speak only when spoken to. Answer just what she's asked. It's also give her a lot of misinformation. She wants to know about my home's defenses, weapons, troop concentrations, etc. For that, I have a generic answer 'I'm not part of the warrior caste'.
When she had first deviated from a 'discussion', as she insists on calling our sorties, on food growing to a brief mention of military capabilities, I told her that line. I then spent several hours explaining about caste systems, and how some families had an expectation that the members would enter the military. They received the training on military systems, tactics and strategy. Most noncaste members would never fully understand the military. From what friends of mine have said about attending Basic, I could say all of that and keep an aura of absolute truthfulness. The whole 'military caste' is bullshit, but it covers my supposed ignorance of things military. Much to Green and Purple's frustration.
After roughly two and a half hours of that, there's another break. I usually go to sleep at that point. Why they let me rest I don't know. I know enough about interrogations to know that exhausting and disorienting the target is an important part. It also gave me the excuse to ignore the 'food' they initially brought in. I have no idea what all the leaves and flowers offered were, but I recognized a few things from gardening classes I took in college to know that you don't eat them, or let your pets eat them. That's just one reason I never touched the stuff, and they simply quit bringing it. I go through two more such sessions, Purple and Green trading off at the two-and-a-half hour mark. So at the end, it's fifteen hours of answering questions, and trying to appear helpful, while I'm really spinning tales. As much as one can with a magical lie detector hovering over you. My defense is to treat anything I haven't actually seen as myth and legend.
They have a surprising knowledge of Earth's cities, commerce, infantry weapons, and other assorted data, but nothing concrete, and some of it laughably wrong. Green was driven half crazy when she gave a detailed description of the NATO alliance, and I responded with 'I'm not part of the warrior caste', or a breakdown of East and West Germany, and I responded that Germany was only a legend I'd heard of, I'd never been there. All absolutely confirmed by her handy-dandy magic.
Unfortunately, I have been providing enough information that they felt and still feel it's necessary to hold me and continue pumping me for anything I do know.
This has gone on now for eight days. I don't know how long I can hold out. I have intentionally not eaten anything. The fact that in every meal they've included something on the landscapers' 'do not plant unless you want to take your pet to the vet' list has helped. Even the water around here smells funny. I strongly suspect they have put something in the food and water to make me more compliant. I have to keep my misinformation simple and fact-based to keep all I've told them straight. And it didn't occur to me until the second day that I should have simply said nothing at all and feigned ignorance of their language. It isn't pleasant to know that in small ways I'm giving them information. Why they want it, I haven't yet figured out. Invasion is the obvious answer. I don't even mentally stack the military I've seen to any human combat force, for fear they are reading my mind.
The guards I'm guessing are males, at least from the timbre of their voices I've guessed that Purple and Green are female, and the white, armored equines are males. Or I could be completely backwards. The guards aren't as hateful as Purple and Green. I give them no trouble, and do what I'm told. My 'defiance' is a hunger strike. Since they know so little about my species, I doubt they recognize what I'm doing. The fact that I'm an absolute beanpole helps. I've never managed to put on any weight, not muscle or fat, so starving myself is easy. After eight days, I'm nearly ravenous, but as long as the food is as dangerous and unappetizing as it is, and is likely laced with 'medicine' to make their job easier, holding back is easier than I thought it would be.
At my cell, I find another unpleasant surprise. I have a roommate. It's big, I mean not cute, small horsey, but a full-sized horse. It's a white unicorn from what I can see, as are Purple and Green, and it gives me a mean look. I don't make eye contact. It's taken the lower of the two bunks. The one I usually sleep on, and the blankets. No matter. There's a stool that will let me lean back and keep my back in the corner, so it's not a huge loss. I also know that any cellmate is probably a spy, so I don't intend to have any real interaction with this creature.
"You think I smell bad or something?" she asks, she from the timbre of her voice.
"No, but I know I do," I reply as I settle in. That's the other thing, no means to wash. The sessions usually leave me soaking with sweat, but I haven't been able to wash or shave since I arrived. Eight days without a shave on some would give the beginnings of a beard. I've just got patches. Eight days of fear sweat has left me with a particularly unpleasant smell. None of the horsies like it, but none has been so revolted that they've done anything about it.
"Besides, you're using the other bunk as your pantry," I say. Our dinner is lying on two metal trays on the upper bunk. I am not going to do anything that might start a fight, and arguing over food and who touched it is a classic way to start an argument.
She looks me over with disgust, but lets it drop. I'm so exhausted from the day's session, I'm asleep fairly quickly. If she has designs on violence while I'm asleep, I don't care. I'm trying to kill myself anyway. I just don't want to be the obvious instigator.
Sleep in this place is weird. The dreams are in the same, pastel technicolor, but the personalities of the small horsies are completely different. They play in the meadows and chase each other with games of tag. Like a bunch of six-year-olds playing. I don't fall for that either. If you can pull thoughts out, you can put thoughts in. This is mental conditioning, that I'm supposed to accept that this is somehow their default state, and if I just cooperate, I can be part of their community.
As if I'd want to be in a community of sugar-fueled, six-year-olds with all the common sense of a rock in freefall. On seeing this dreamscape, again, I head off into the woods, and I keep walking. I ignore every hail, every offer to play, every challenge, and even the occasional growling animal. I just walk and keep walking. Eventually I hope to bore to tears whoever is doing this.
I awake the next morning to my own funk, and the sound of the guards opening the cell door. They are early for me, the interrogators don't like to start early. Instead, they escort out my cellmate. I note the big, yellow buzzsaw on her haunch and wonder. Again, not something in my control. Another guard changes the bedding. It's clear my stench is getting to him, but no offer to shower or even just hose me off is forthcoming, so I live with it.
Maybe someone couldn't stand the smell, I muse briefly and then prepare myself for the day. I do wonder why it's always plants and flowers. They're vegetarian, I get that, but no grains and cereals, no fruits and vegetables? An apple or a bowl of oatmeal would make my decision not to eat a lot harder. But it's always leaves and flowers. Fine, I'm not hungry enough to eat ivy just yet. Or what looks like poison oak. That would be an interesting experience.
My interrogator is different today. She's bigger, and dark blue, and she's got wings, a horn, a crown, and a very bad attitude. Her technique is all over the map. She gets angry and shouts easily. She is thoroughly disgusted with me, my evasive replies, and how badly I stink. I suspect her Highness was unsatisfied by the progress, and decided to show the professionals how it's done. Considering her crown, I keep picturing the 'pointy-haired boss' from Dilbert. The royal tantrum not withstanding, the day remains pretty much like the others. Questions, answers, more questions, more answers. There are no breaks today, it goes on straight through. I have no idea how long it actually is, but the constant browbeating, the accusations, decrying the 'obvious' fabrications, and so on are continuous. I early on realize this is good-cop/bad-cop, whether that is the intention is irrelevant. The other interrogators will be viewed as more reasonable.
I simply weather it. I ignore every accusation, and answer only when I am specifically told an answer is required. This seems to further infuriate the crowned ninny. I don't take that bait either. I have no intention of trying to push this creature's buttons. I am reminded about an old definition of government: 'They who can deprive you of life, liberty and property, and as long as they follow their procedures, will suffer no consequences.' That's what I have here, a furious ruler who could kill me herself, and only suffer a scolding at most.
So I answer only when specifically directed, and let everything else wash over me. At the end of it, I feel utterly drained and drenched with sweat, and am half-carried/half-dragged back to my cell. Buzzsaw looks up from her place on the upper bunk. But I retake my seat with my back to the wall. Exhaustion claims me before I can do much in the way of talking or looking around the room.
Sleep is dreamless, unless I'm dreaming I'm in my cell. The guards are leading the horse out, and there's a second group with a hose. As long as it's not a steam hose I don't care. Once Buzzsaw and the bedding are gone, they 'open fire'. Surprisingly, the pressure isn't uncomfortable and the water is blood warm. It's only missing soap. The horsies are rather amazed I not only cooperate, but seem to enjoy it, using the spray as both shower and laundry.
When they finally stop and take me into the interrogation room and chain me down, I feel clean for the first time in days. I also get to irritate Purple as I'm still soaking wet as she begins her questioning. She also seems seriously off her stride with the questions, going over subjects we've gone over several times before. Not fact checking or digging for inconsistencies, but as if she'd never asked before. I give her the same answers, for all I know, her emotional dishevelment is an act.
When Green is equally shaken, now I know it's a trick. She seems almost solicitous, and her previous hostility towards me is gone completely. They must have gotten screamed at by the boss, or the boss did turn up something that changed the rules. I can't think of anything I've given away, unless that's the problem. I've given them nothing of any use. This is the final debrief before they quietly dispose of me.
During her second session, Purple actually asks me about the history of my world. I mentally shrug and tell her some of the geological history, but limit my time scale to 'long ago', 'time of the dinosaurs', 'before the rise of humans', 'before recorded history', and 'during our time'. I tell her about the Devonian and Ordovician-Silurian mass extinctions, the Emeishan and Siberian Traps, the meteorite impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, the Deccan Traps that coincided with that event. The Zaclean flood refilling the Mediterranean Sea. The supervolcanoes of Yellowstone, La Pacana, Taupo, and Toba which nearly exterminated the human race. These blows fall on her head with such ferocity that she doesn't even ask for clarification on timescale or regional separation, what conclusions she draws on the temporal and geographic proximity of these events she doesn't share.
Then I add the theories of the Ice Age and subsequent melting that flooded out the great civilizations of Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu, the Garden of Eden and Leng. The volcanic disaster that wiped out the Minoan civilization. She's reeling as she leaves and Green takes her place. Purple assures Green I didn't get loose, I only answered her questions.
Green seems extremely nervous about asking about human culture. I explain that there is no one human culture but thousands, some in existence, some absorbed by others, some simply fading away while others spring up without anyone doing anything specifically to create one. This stuns Green, and I begin to wonder if they got their military information from someone else, and are now searching for psychological items for their invasion.
The last session of the day covers areas I am genuinely ignorant of. I have no idea what or who they are talking about. Groups, initialisms and especially the one they're most insistent about: Celestia, neither it, nor any of the other items/people/concepts they bring up ring any bells. I have no trouble feigning ignorance of these things. I have genuinely never heard of them, and neither Purple nor Green are forthcoming with information. I don't ask questions, but stick with the rules already established.
The guards taking me back to my cell seem extremely nervous. I have no idea what's gotten them shaken up, unless they're the ones to carry out my 'disappearance' and they aren't comfortable with the job.
The real answer comes when I arrive back in my cell. Buzzsaw is gone, although the amount of food there is enough for both of us. Once the door is closed, the Pointy Princess shows up.
"You will eat, or you will be forced to," she tells me.
Considering what I see on the plates, I know that my guess was right. I've outlived my usefulness. The amaryllis, holly berries, daisies and daffodil bulbs are bad enough. The lily-of-the-valley, rhododendron and nightshade are the clincher, all that's missing is the hemlock. I eat it, I eat it all quickly. This seems to satisfy the Princess and she walks away looking very proud of herself.
I manage to stifle the first few attempts to vomit. But when the convulsions set in, I can't control myself anymore. Before I pass out, I do get the view of Purple charging into view and screaming at the guard to get the door open. She needn't trouble herself, the dose I ate was enough to kill five men. Add the delay before 'help' arrived, and there's nothing to do. I have no idea what the synergy of the various poisons will do, but tumbling out of the bed vomiting everywhere with convulsions and hitting my head on the floor probably won't help.
Waking up to a cluster of worried equines in medical gear is definitely a change, but I quickly remind myself I am a prisoner. Nothing can be taken at face value.
"Idiot," one of the ponies in a nurse uniform complains, "Didn't it realize what it was eating was poisonous?"
The whole medical team freezes.
"And you ate it anyway?" the doctor pony asks.
" 'You will eat, or you will be forced to'," I say, and frankly, most of them now look worse than I feel. For a moment, I can almost sympathize, then I remember, these medics might not have been briefed on the interrogation routine, or they are the 'soft and comfortable' side. A privilege that will be taken away if I misbehave. Once you understand that everything is a game, it oddly becomes easier. You play your part, and you survive. Again I lament that I didn't just play dumb and keep my mouth shut from the beginning. But in hindsight, after what just happened, they might have just killed me and grabbed someone else. They may have done exactly that, and I was the first who talked. A question I will never receive an answer for.
Purple and Green arrive with a whole slate of apologies, statements that if they had known, and a few not-so-subtle jabs that I should have told them. I treat this as I have our other interrogation sessions. When asked a direct question, I provide a direct answer. Question: 'Is there something you'd like to eat', Answer: 'No'. Comment: 'But you must be hungry', no comment follows. They seem pretty upset that I'm treating this as a continuation of the interrogation. Although it took them quite a while to 'realize' this. I patently ignore every assurance about 'that being over'.
When I'm alone, or at least not under obvious surveillance, I do note that the windows have neither bars nor locks, although a hundred feet to the ground might act as a deterrent to someone. Especially if they are as weak and ill as I am. It would also be a perfect opportunity to punish me for 'attempting escape'. Again, I'm still a prisoner, my clothes are gone and replaced with a fairly distinctive uniform. Getting out will also have to wait until I can get some decent food. Even hospital food. And information. Which direction will take me out of the territory of this nation, and to a place with no extradition treaty if possible?
To say the escape plan is cliched would be to strain the word to it's breaking point. Slipping out pushing a laundry hamper I'm hunched over, disguising my legs with slacks dyed with some tea would have given any force on Earth the giggles. The local guards, the Equestrian Royal Guard, however have never seen it. So it works well enough for me to slip out of the castle, onto an airship on its way to the minotaur territories, and on discovery convert the threat of being thrown overboard to a working passage. None of the minotaur or griffon crew likes going out on top of the airship for repairs and inspections. Even with a partner to catch them. Griffons tend to deploy their claws, and minotaurs are heavier than I am.
Doing what no one else is willing to do, doing it well and without complaint means that on landing in Minotaura, I have some bits in my pocket, and the Captain willing to vouch for me on my emigration papers. I also have knowledge of Multicursal, a small city state even further from Equestria than even Minotaura is. Settling there, I have a few adventures.
The first is perhaps the greatest test of my life. I normally don't harbor hatreds quite so strongly, but when you've been kidnaped, forcefully interrogated, mind sifted through, and then poisoned, you tend to associate bad things with people or creatures who look like the ones who did it.
There's love and tolerance, then there's trusting something that is quite likely a spy or at least a trace to those you escaped.
"I need a job," the unicorn says. In one saddlebag is a foal still in swaddling, in the other a whole lot of baby supplies.
Every instinct I have is telling me to toss her out and slam the door. Ponies are why I am trapped on an alien world, and ponies are why I have nightmares that wake me up in a cold sweat half the time.
But I won't be like them. "Most ponies don't like metal work, and most who aren't pegasi don't like heights." Airship repairs and inspections were difficult and dangerous, unless you had a few tricks. Tethers and a good sense of balance were some of mine.
"You don't think I can do the job?" she sneers, then she sees my expression, "Please, I didn't mean it like that. I need this job." She looks at the foal. "She needs me to have it more. I apologize, working with tools if you have a horn is, looked down on. Unless it's something artsy-craftsy, like fashion, or painting. But hammering metal into shape, knowing the difference between a mill and a lathe, and know what a ball peen hammer is for aren't exactly status enhancers."
"You're not getting the job servicing these airships." I let her be crushed for a few seconds. "Now if all that 'I can use tools' isn't a minotaur flop sandwich you're trying to feed me, I have a small, private project. You prove what you can do, and maybe I'll hire you. In any case, I'll pay you a decent wage while you get the bugs out of the process."
She nods, too stunned to do anything else. At least for a day or two, she'll have some money coming in, and a place out of the weather for her and the little one.
The forge and machine shop are small. I repaired anything I couldn't replace, and anything that someone was overcharging for. The biggest things would have to be repaired at a major yard. The room is warm, which seems to improve her mood immediately. Her eyes fix on a few things and widen at a couple that she never expected to see in this little out of the way place outside Minotaura. She also has the common sense to not pester me with ten thousand questions. Too many ponies, even the few I've run into out here, seem to think they have the right to ask ten thousand questions about everything. I never answer the personal ones, and if they are business related, I suggest, if they want conversation, one of my very few competitors. I am there to work. Depending on how irritating they are, I send them to the inept, or the crooks.
I take down what I'd been fiddling with for the last few months. I've made three, but if they sold like I expect them to sell, I'd need hundreds.
"A spring?" she asks, clearly struggling to keep her sneer under control.
I set it on the tool bench and tip it over. The spring slowly transfers to the ground. The unicorn mare stares in amazement.
"Now, you think there might be a market for those?" I ask.
She figured out my approach to mass producing them was wrong, and got a rig set up to turn out two or three an hour. So she didn't get the job she'd been hoping for, she got another.
Once we had a thousand 'slinkies' ready for sale, we put them out. We sold out within a day. She helped me transition to manufacturing them. I sold the airship repair business to one of the better operators, and went into making these toys full time.
I found out, because God Almighty Himself can't keep ponies from talking about themselves, that she'd been essentially exiled from Canterlot for the unspeakable crime of going into a trade and getting herself impregnated by an 'ugh' commoner. I suspect that even the Blue Meanie wouldn't personally toss someone out for those crimes. What pressure her family put on her, she was thank GOD, not willing to tell me. The way she doted on her little one, I suspected she was to put her up for adoption.
To say that demand outstripped our ability to supply would be an understatement. I'd just offered them to the Griffon and Minotaur territories. Within a month, I was getting orders for a year's worth of manufacture from individual shops in Equestria and in Draconia.
If I had any thoughts about the sanity of ponies, I left it at the door. Now minotaurs are a strange group. They'll do anything, as long as it doesn't harm their honor, and it lets them prove how strong they are. Since they were the primary 'people' available in this town, that's who I had to work with. Although I didn't pick willy-nilly. I picked the old, and those who were struggling. Because I was inherently a decent person? No, because they'd actually listen to what I said and do what I told them, crazy as it seemed to them. Because their honor was completely tied up with bringing home their daily bread. They weren't doing 'proper' work, but often they couldn't, so this was lots better than nothing. The strength part? They were working metal, only the very strongest could do that. That the machines did most of the work was immaterial. It was all about respect, and now they had it.
We could still barely keep up with demand, but that's a good place to be. We never overpromised, so we delivered what we were supposed to, and kept people hungry for more.
It was during that time my partner, Fancy Thunder, explained that Equestrian toys have four seasons, and a 'winter' toy might not sell well in the summer, although spring and fall toys would sell fairly well in the other season. The Slinkie had been a fall toy. Sure enough, within a few weeks of winter coming, the demand from Equestria dropped off, although it remained strong in the other areas. So we filled back orders and slowly built up a surplus for spring, and I considered what to release for the spring. I should have felt guilty ripping off every good toy idea from Earth, but I doubted intellectual property rights carried over into a completely different polity, even another dimension. Besides, I could offer them my distribution routes and contacts as recompense.
While Fancy Thunder suggested we get out a toy for Hearth's Warming Eve, I want to get the back orders filled, and work on the spring idea. We didn't have the capacity to work out something else.
I remember seeing her face when the new idea percolated up from the depths.
"What is that?" Fancy Thunder asked as she entered the office.
I tossed the light metal disk across the room. I had foam tape around the edge so it didn't damage anything. She just stared.
"Where do you come up with this stuff?" she asked.
"My nightmares have to be good for something," I replied, "I somehow think this is going to extend into the summer, don't you think?"
This time, we were ready for the onslaught. A common joke was we were going to go broke buying places to store all the bits we were raking in.
It is the following fall when the compost hit the turbine. "Boss, boss!" Fancy Thunder comes in. Dipper Doodle on her back, or Diaper Doodie, as she is more commonly called. I don't even want to think about Dipper's future career. I can't get the vision of the Soup Nazi out of my head.
"Look at this?" she shrieks, Miss Dour and Serious is pronking like a filly.
Half the office staff have filed into my workshop/office at her cries. I finally manage to time the grab to get the scroll out of her mouth without gouging her eye. She still pronks excitedly as I unroll it. Whatever has gotten her so excited is beyond my ability to detect.
Then I start reading. "A Royal Commission."
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" she squeals as she bounces around the office.
"Okay, how soon can you be packed?" I ask, I swear on a stack of bibles to the Holy Ghost Herself, Fancy hung in midair for a good minute staring at me in abject horror.
She lands and slowly walks over as soon as she checks on Dipper, who is irritated at the handling, but still affixed to her back. "That's a Royal Commission. From Princess Celestia herself. Addressed to you."
"True, but I don't have your skill at design. This is to build someone else's design, not create something out of whole cloth. That's your skill not mine. And besides, you're my henkiystava." The word meant literally shield bearer in old Minotaur, the one who would protect the warrior while he fought. It is a partner who is closer than family. Yeah, she is. I don't sleep with her, but we got teased constantly that we should be married. "If they ask for me, they ask for either of us."
"But, a Royal Commission," she says, "I'd go back to Canterlot."
"You'd go back to Canterlot with the Princess herself recognizing your talent," I say, all of which is true, and the fact I wouldn't set foot in Equestria for love or money has nothing to do with it.
She suddenly looks like a filly searching for her mother. The rest of the office staff file back to their desks. Minotaurs and griffons gossip almost as much as ponies, so that the boss might return to the place that kicked her out, and return in triumph is a very Minotauric/Griffony thing to gossip about.
In my office, there is another story. "What if they don't want to transfer it?" she asks, "What if they don't want me?"
As one who'd built his life and success on navigating the odd paths of Minotaur and Griffon behaviors and honor-codes to build toys, I have gotten quite good. "That's easy. If you aren't good enough, then they obviously don't want me. If they turn it down, they want to derail this company before the fall season, and they're using this to cut into our time for the Hearth's Warming Eve rush. You've said, the court controls life in Equestria. Offering us a Royal Commission cuts down on the pressure on them."
"I can't imagine the Princess going along with this," she says and is pacing now.
"All they are doing is getting someone in for a design, they don't even have to know the other effects," I tell her, "Offer will be taken, or it will be rejected. Let's not ascribe motives to it that it might not merit." I also take my own advice. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is a plot to get me into Equestrian hands, for some reason. I refuse to let that suspicion overcome what might to a totally innocent offer.
Two days later, my suspicions are laughing at me. Fancy Thunder looks like Dipper had been foalnapped, but the little one is still on her back.
"Fancy?" I ask, the mare looks beyond humiliated.
She looks at me. "They refused to accept," she says quietly. She is too devastated even for tears.
I shrug. "Then they don't want me either," I say
That animates her. "You can't, it's a Royal Commission!"
"For another country," I say. I gesture around. "You and these people have been with me since the beginning, I'm not going to accept one of you getting a kick in the teeth, then go running off after a pat on the head from the one who did it." I stand and take the letter from her. "You get some rest on my couch, and then take a little time off."
"What are you going to do?" she asks.
"Draft a polite refusal, and give this back to the ponies at the consulate," I tell her. She is too shocked to stop me.
A few minutes later, I approach the office in the small building that serves as Equestria's official representation in this city-state. Fortunately, one of the secretaries is just going in. "Excuse me, someone dropped this at my office and I really don't need it."
She smiles, takes the scroll and disappears inside the consulate. I almost make it out of the building when some functionary flies screaming after me.
"I beg your pardon, but did you say someone dropped this?" The functionary, different from the one I'd dropped the letter with, is chasing me. Considering the cut of the dress, I assume it is somepony of importance.
"They delivered it, and I thank you for the compliment but it isn't really feasible. I explained all that in my reply."
"You do understand this is a commission from Princess Celestia herself," she sounds like she is explaining to a dull two-year-old.
"I understand that it was from someone who told my henkiystava she was utterly worthless in Equestrian eyes," I say levelly. The functionary shies, showing she understands what a slap in the face that was. Even in modern times, there are other ways to volunteer for concussive dentistry, but few as sure. "You can understand why I would be reluctant to accept anything from such a . . . person."
The functionary nods and withdraws without a word. I have just vastly complicated the bureaucrat's life, but maybe she'll transfer the pain to someone who deserves it. I also know that everyone in their office heard it, and they were going to spread it. I make a bet with myself who I'll have in my office in a few days.
"Councillor Oleaginous," I say, did someone name him right or what? "What can I do you for?" With anyone else that would be a malaprop, with him, it is only one in six it was.
"The Consulate expressed Concerns," he says.
This city councillor would have fit into Chicago politics despite the hooves and horns of a minotaur, nobody is as smooth a liar as a member of the Windy City's machine. He also has the ability to make capital letters heard. It is his only skill I envy. That and if you rendered him down, you could have put the Middle East out of business selling oil for a hundred years.
"They Deeply Regret the unfortunate phrasing, and wish to retender the offer of the Commission," he says and smiles.
I smile, and he smiles. "Great, I'll tell Fancy to start packing."
"The Commission is for you, not your corporation. The pieces are not so interchangeable as that. Your chief designer is not the recipient. You are."
"Fancy Thunder is my - "
"Yes, that ancient superstition, how someone not marinaded in that ridiculous idea from birth could come to hold onto it in Modern times is beyond me," he says and stares at the ceiling.
"If these were Modern time, there'd be a parliament in Equestria, not a throne," I reply quietly, "I don't make the rules and customs. I merely live in Harmony with my neighbors, customers and workers. This one has attempted to disrupt that Harmony, a pony sin, and insulted my partner, a minotaur sin. I see no purpose to walking into one so willing to break their own covenants and customs. There is too great a chance of never walking out again."
"You think this is a threat to the pony nobles and the Equestrian toy industry?" he asks as he gestures at the factory, and laughs.
I never said he was stupid. "I can think of no other reason that this would be pursued with such vigor and on such a narrow front," I reply, silencing him, "You do what you believe best for this city-state, someone is putting a great deal of pressure on you to have this meeting and press the issue. And damn the consequences if one of your most successful businesses is crippled or destroyed because of it. What else am I to think?"
He blanches at that. For all his sins, he does love this place. The taxes collected from me and my workers, and others, do not go into his pockets. Bribes yes, but he doesn't skim the tax money and is utterly ruthless to anyone whom he catches doing that. Ruthless in the old-school mafia way: you, and your whole family. He clearly hadn't thought it out as far as I had. He considers himself a genial wolf among sheep, but one of the fattest sheep has smelled a dragon.
"They urged me to discuss it, and if possible convince you. I have done so," he says, "And you've given ample reasons for your reluctance. Thank you. Good luck to you and all the good you do for the city." Someone is going to give the Equestrians an earful.
"And you, sir," I reply.
He nods, and leaves the office visibly shaken. I dearly hope that will put an end to this nonsense.
Fancy arriving as we are closing for the night changes the mood. "You turned them down again."
I kneel so we are closer to the same height. "When I got that, and looked at how happy you were, I wanted you to return to your home in triumph. I suspected they were after some of our trade secrets, but if it meant you could rub the noses of whomever chased you out in their own droppings, I considered that fair payment. Besides, the reason the nobles are behind us is they don't think. You could tell them everything, and it would be two years before they caught up, and then we'd be two years ahead of them."
"But, with all that's going on?" she asks.
"It doesn't smell right. So I'm not sticking my neck out," I tell her. "We'll survive without it. We'll survive if Equestria cuts us off. I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to go home."
"Thanks," she says, nuzzles me and leaves with her foal.
I honestly hope we have ended it.
We hadn't. The Consul herself showed up. I asked her who had spoken to Fancy, so I could offer a proper challenge. The Consul wouldn't divulge that, so I called the local police and had her escorted off the property. That put an end to it. Diplomatic immunity did not make you arrow-proof and horn-handling a citizen of a foreign country in that foreign country was assault. Horns get cut off for that. Around here it's more often late at night from ambush. If the crown dropped the matter or not, it stopped being a problem because the Consul wasn't going to press the issue.
The insistence of it was what began worrying me. It was possible that the hole they'd ripped me through to get here needed me shoved back through it to properly close. Or it could be that whatever they'd been interrogating me about had come to light and they needed my testimony. Fine, I'll testify, with you and your flunkies in chains at the Supreme Court, or before a military tribunal.
Fall came and the sale of Slinkies blossomed again, although not what it had been. We had no special toy ready for the winter. I decided to leave that season for the Equestrians. Although the sale of Slinkies and Flippie Discs remained constant. Considering what the Equestrian companies were offering as competition, I could believe it. We spent the winter with our new woodworking equipment, developing a knock off of Erno Rubik's masterwork. 2x2, 3x3 and 4x4 cubes would debut at the toy fair in Simbalyene, the biggest griffon port. All the nations would be represented, including the Crystal Empire. How you lose a country for a thousand years still amazes me.
Fancy Thunder remained behind, both to look after her daughter, and to work out the mechanics of the 5x5, 6x6 and up to 11x11 cubes. With wood and metal rather than plastics to work with, it was more difficult to make work, but she was making progress.
It is the presence of the alabaster ponies in gold armor that tells me I will be forced to confront the situation head on at the toy fair. Not too difficult, just have to clearly and diplomatically tell the demigod who raises the sun to go buck herself and the horsies she rode in with.
The absolute mob at the primary loading dock tells me that someone decided to be 'clever' and ambush me there. I let my team join the mob, and I head to a side entrance that actually is closer to where our booth is to set up. Rule one, know the terrain, that is, go to the place a day or two before and learn the layout. Rule two, don't get caught up in your own cleverness. I fully expect to have Pointy Princess, Purple or Green waiting for me at the side entrance and I am prepared for that. It doesn't happen. Rule three, when your opponent is trying to hand you the victory, completely derailing your plan to get it yourself, accept graciously and go on. Since nobody else is ignoring the Solar Diarch, the entire staff of the convention hall is available to help set up my booth, my victory condition for the day. Don't think I don't use them. My team are done and out of there before her Solar Highness gets untangled from the mob she caused. Rule four, don't be so clever you trip over your own knife and cut yourself. Celestia should have known she'd attract that kind of crowd. Staff is what that kind of thing is for. My group at the show/booth is me, three salesmen, and eight go-fers, for that very reason. I would be at the booth at all times, accompanied by either two salesmen and four go-fers, or one salesman and six go-fers.
During the show, the King of the Griffons shows he has a clearer idea of things. And I get blindsided by my own celebrity. People want signed copies of our toys, especially complete sets of all three cubes, so I'm not exactly infallible either. The griffon king, he sends a flunky to get his set, rather than stand in line himself. We send back 'home' for a massive additional infusion, and Fancy tells me she's got the 11x11 perfected and we have a few ready to deliver. I have her sign the package of S/N. 001, along with everybody in the factory, and signs a complete set of the other cubes, and send them down along with the entire run of the things (all twelve). Our team here signs the two sets, and donates them to the end-of-fair charity auction benefitting the Griffon King's favorite charity. Always a good idea to grease the skids, a lesson from my favorite councilman.
Honestly, the three days are a blur. Set up at 8, open doors at 10, a meal and a few snacks caught somewhere, close doors at 6, lock up at 8, and dinner. One nice thing is the availability of griffon food. Minotaurs, like ponies, are primarily vegetarians. Griffons are omnivores, where along the vegetarian/carnivore axis is a matter of personal taste and wealth. You can easily get some great fish and shellfish dinners here. That the smell of such places would turn even the hardiest pony's stomach has nothing to do with it. I want some comfort food. A nice, poached salmon, some lobster newburg, both kinds of clam chowder, even just a shrimp cocktail. Yeah, it was expensive and probably shaved a year off my life from the cholesterol, but I could afford it, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and it had the advantage of putting me right to sleep when I got back to the hotel. Up at 6 to start the new day.
What I've been dreading comes the last day. An invitation to Her Serene Solar Highness' table at the charity auction. In this case, she has me in a vice. I want to see how the cubes sell at the auction, and refusing to go would insult her and the griffon king. At least she has the good sense to do this in public. I would have simply torn up an invitation to any private meeting.
The ballroom is filled with an assembly of the local elites and a smattering of the nobles from other nations. Princess Celestia is holding court in one corner, the griffon king is in his private box above it all. Pointy Princess is also with her, along with Purple, now with new winged accessories! I can't help thinking about it being a way to rake in more money for the toys. Surely the beloved Princesses have dolls, pardon, action figures. I am not going to bring that up. Even in jest. Even if it would be screamingly funny to 'assume' that was the reason she was after me, and let no argument sway my opinion. Maybe a letter to Discord.
I wait in the line to see her Highness. The majordomo looks thunderstruck when I present my invitation. She grumbles that I should have known that my invitation would let me cut to the front of the line. I basically say that no one had told me, and it seemed terribly impolite. Grumbles from others about me 'knowing my place' reinforce what would have happened if I had done as she suggests. What follows I admit is a bit of full-bore, no-hold-barred Malicious Compliance, thanks to Councillor Oleaginous, and the best 500 bit 'donation' to a scholarship fund I ever made. Yes real scholarships, how else do you think he buys votes?
See, the city-state was never recognized as a separate nation, which means the people who live there, according to Equestria law, are at the same class as cows and sheep: unpersons. There are a whole host of laws governing how such a creature is supposed to greet the ruler. They are extremely demeaning, intended to put the nonperson in their place. And the stipulations that allow the city-state to exist are very clear on the matter of how a citizen is to greet any ruler.
So, I use every one of them. When it comes my turn, rather than a hoofshake, I do the full obeisance, down on all fours with my forehead against the floor. I wish I could see her face. From the stammers of the others in the line, on both sides, it is something to see.
"All hail, and all mercy from the most magnificent," I begin, and the rest of the address extolling Celestia's virtues and power, and my unworthiness to basically breathe the same air as her. The whole thing goes on for at least 30 seconds, and Celestia is too stunned to tell me to knock it off. Pointy Princess thinks the whole thing is hilarious, commenting that someone has proper manners. Until I do the same to her. Then Princess Purple gets it, and she is completely disoriented by it. Pointy had words in the law, evidently assuming her return, I had to guess what would be Purple's phrasing. So, a little over ninety seconds after I start, I finally stand. All three princesses are completely mortified. The griffon king is standing at the edge of his box staring down at the proceedings, and I don't think anyone in the immediate vicinity is breathing.
"Thank you," Celestia manages, a tinge of horror marring the studied serenity, "The form of address is more than a little outdated."
"The laws stipulating the address under penalty of imprisonment and worse still stand. The treaty between Equestria, the Griffon and Minotaur nations, and Multicursal are equally clear on the fate of the city, if a ruler of a 'real' country is not greeted properly by their own laws," I say.
While she is too flabbergasted to do anything, I hand my invitation to one of the guards, step out of the receiving line and stand at one of the tables where her other guests await her pleasure. Most of them are equally goggle-eyed at my performance.
"Your laws, not mine," I tell them and leave it at that.
The receiving line 'closes' as the auctioneer arrives and begins extolling the virtues of the griffon lords, the king, and the long history of the charity itself. During the virtues of the griffon lords, Purple approaches me with three cubes, a quill and ink well.
I wonder if the quill is some status symbol among unicorns, because no earth pony nor pegasus could easily use one.
"I've so much appreciated your devices," she gushes as she and her object entourage approach, to the point of practically shoving it my face. "If you wouldn't mind?"
Ponies 'speak' as much with their posture and facial expressions as they do with their words. So standing at parade rest giving a pony the flattest expression you can gives them no cues to work with and can be incredibly intimidating, because the pony's mind tries to fill in all the missing details. With Fancy, it almost forces her to tell the rest of what she's hiding.
With Princess Purple, her eager expression shuts off and her ears plaster back against her skull. It's a classic fight-or-flight expression.
I roll my eyes in a classic expression of pony disgust. "Your Highness. With all respect to yourself, your nation and your illustrious title," I lay it on with two dumptrucks and a coal excavator, "If you want a signed set, you bid, like every other noble here. This is for charity."
She withdraws with her tail between her legs, literally. The other princesses question her, but the table is abuzz about the faux pas, hers not mine.
The auction itself is spirited. I bid on a few things, but the noble collectors have deeper pockets than I. When the auctioneer calls a break, I know it is time for the confrontation. Strangely, so do the nobles. None leave the hall to do whatever, most meander over and 'happen' to form their little chat groups in earshot.
"You have prospered well," Celestia says, as aware of the crowd as I am. I nod. Behind her, Pointy Princess tenses as she recognizes the 'I am being interrogated' behavior.
"You are under no threat here," Pointy Princess interjects. That sets off murmurs in the crowd.
Celestia looks aghast from her sister to me and back. "Most certainly not," she assures me and extends a wing, which I step away from and keep my gaze on her. She pulls it back, finally getting the subtle message that should have been obvious to any three-year-old.
"You don't trust me," she says, seemingly shocked by the realization.
"You are not alone in this," I say, treating the statement as a question.
Pointy Princess gets the implication, she's about to launch a tirade, when she gets a moment of inspiration, and guesses what my answer will be. She falls silent, and seethes. She's not in the Equestrian capital where her actions can be easily smoothed over. And I am extremely careful to sound respectful and obsequious. The 'jet-setters' will long remember how she acted here.
"You left before we could talk," Celestia says, "If I could have explained. You might have understood."
"Your Highness, pardon, Highnesses, I came to tell you all, to your faces. I want nothing to do with you. Were I to lay dying on the roadside, I would not thank you taking me to a hospital, nor giving me a drink of water, nor sitting with me until I expired," I tell them in a calm and conversational manner, despite the desire to scream it to the mountain tops. "Any interaction would require a degree of trust, including any action to foster that trust. This is lacking. I am satisfied with the impasse, and would appreciate it that if you cannot be, then accept my rejections of any further contact as a failing of mine, and not yours."
"Don't you understand?" Purple says in anguished tones, "We might be able to - undo what we did."
"Princess Sparkle. That is wonderful," I say, "That is not sufficient inducement to return to Equestria, or your custody."
"This is a polite way of telling us all to go buck ourselves?" Pointy Princess says.
Celestia winces at the gasp from the crowd.
"I sincerely apologize if anything I said led you to that conclusion," I say and bow to Pointy Princess. Celestia and Purple's gasp is worth it, they must have figured I'd do the whole obeisance thing. From Pointy Princess' expression, she feared it too.
Celestia looks deeply hurt and turns the soft doe eyes on me. I can easily counter by remembering 'Princess Buzzsaw' took the one comfort I had in that place, solitude and a soft bunk, away from me for who knows what reasons. So she was as big a part in this as her sister who ordered me to eat poison or have it forced down. She also was a major crux of the entire episode, although how and why I neither know, nor care.
"Do you not want to know our side?" Pointy Princess asks, unconsciously falling into the interrogator's role we played long ago.
" 'The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,'" I tell her and gesture to the assembled nobles, "The calculus of rulership is of interest only to rulers and historians. To the one, they care not who was served or why, merely that they were served up."
Pointy Princess' retort is interrupted by the scratching of Purple's quill on a parchment. She looks around and realizes what she's doing. "Sorry."
It almost gets a grin out of me. But not quite.
"So there is nothing Equestria can offer you?" Celestia asks.
I'm getting tired of repeating myself, and I have to remind myself this is not just the ruler of the most powerful nation on the planet, but a thousand pounds of horse with a two-foot pig-sticker mounted on its skull. She doesn't need the guards, she can poke holes in vital pieces of me herself, with her allies to hold off anyone coming to my aid.
"There is nothing I would accept from the crowns," I say, "Without looking for the hidden hook." I consider looking at Pointy Princess and adding 'Or the poison' but her hairtrigger temper, 700 pounds of muscle, and foot-and-a-half long pig-sticker all dissuade me.
"But we can learn so much from each other," Purple whines.
I don't even bother to look at her. I'm too busy looking at Celestia. Not staring or glaring, or looking disappointed or angry, just looking. Celestia looks away first.
After a few moments, she looks back. "Uh, why are you?" she asks and waves a hoof vaguely.
"The law requires he be dismissed by the one who summoned him," Pointy Princess says, then mutters, "That law is going to be changed."
"Thank you for honoring my invitation," she says and then gets a horrified expression, "You don't have to do that whole business when you leave? Do you?"
The chuckle from the crowd makes her even less comfortable.
"Only if we part on good terms, if I am 'abjure ye from Our Sight shall ye Not vex Our Countenance again.', I can leave post haste," I tell her. I don't mention I am never to darken her doorstep again under pain of several punishments that no longer happen in Equestria. Honestly, after being drawn and quartered, why would I care about being beheaded. Of course, the reverse is equally true.
She looks to Pointy Princess, who nods. "Yes," she says quietly and I take my leave.
I can feel the looks on their faces even though my back is to them. But they are their own problem, and I have a business to run. I will enjoy telling Fancy that I was officially banished from Equestria by both Diarchs in solemn agreement.