• Published 19th Sep 2013
  • 5,318 Views, 214 Comments

Of Kingdoms and Cutie-Marks - GreyGuardPony



The threat of The Collector has been vanquished. However, the nations beyond Equestria's borders stare at the land of the dual monarchs in suspicion. Meanwhile Skitch-Sketch struggles to find purpose in her new home. Sequel to A Skitch in Time.

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The Emperor and the Cellist (Bonus Chapter 1)

Equis was a bright and happy world, or so the stories all said.

Gustav the Second hated those stories.

Looking out over the capital of his empire from his second story palace bedroom always reminded him why. It was mid spring and snow still covered the streets and houses; the night still coming hours early. The thaw wouldn't come till the beginning of summer, then would begin the frenzied rush to plant before the cold and the dark returned.

Casting his gaze down towards the city square that the palace was built off of, his eyes landed on the source of extended night. The six foot tall black stone pillar rose out of the ground of the palace courtyard, its inky blackness almost eating the light around it.

The parting gift of Nightmare Moon. The lesson for sticking one's neck out. Frowning and turning away from the window, he trotted back over to the couch that was before the roaring fire. The half read paper still lay across the fine cushions, the bold headline taking up most of the page.

Nightmare Moon Returns! Princess Luna Returns to Equestria's Diarchy!

Gustav sighed, shaking his head.

“Madness.”

Thinking, he let his mind carry him back to simpler times.

Gustav and his father stood in Martyr's Square, looking up at the black monolith as snow lightly drifted down on their heads. The younger Gustav was still very young; no older than eight years. Gustav the First was a tough, no nonsense elk; his long flowing beard almost down to his knees.

He looked down at his son, his gaze searching.

“And what does the pillar teach us, my son?”

Gustav the Second stared at it's glassy black surface, searching for deeper meaning within.

“Never trust ponies?”

The elder elk sighed and responded by giving his son a rap across the back of the head.

“I would never dare to teach something so foolishly simple minded and wrong. It's not a question of not trusting ponies. It's a question of being prepared, making hard decisions, and being willing to face the consequences of your choices.”

Looking back towards the pillar, he continued his lesson.

“We elk have shouldered the burden of defying Nightmare Moon more so than any other, save Celestia herself. And it is the burden that we must carry that because we came to Celestia's aid those centuries ago. And it is a problem we must fix ourselves. Always remember, the elk do what they must.”

“Gustav?”

He glanced towards the voice, seeing his wife, Anika, standing in the doorway.

“Gustav, we're going to be late for the concert.” She smiled. “Come my dear. The matters of state will wait until Lord Axal returns from Celestia's conference.”

Gustav nodded a genuine smile crossing his face. “Of course dear. You are correct.”

- - - -

Gustav and Anika got out of their carriage and walked stoically into the Agnafit Grand Opera and Concert House, followed by two of their guards. It was an old building, built around the time of Gustav's great grandfather, in a very Baroque style. Carvings and paintings of the old elk pantheon abounded.

Heading upstairs, he took a seat in the royal box and prepared to enjoy the concert. The Canterlot Royal Orchestra played outside of Equestria just as much as they did within the nation's borders; Celestia quite enjoyed sharing their music with the world.

Gustav loved classical music, and despite the political tensions between his nation and Equestria, he was quite looking forward to the performance. The lights went down and the curtain went up, Gustav settling into his seat more.

The hours of the concert seemed to almost speed by from the elk's point of view, the music that the ponies played dancing about the hall with supreme timing and skill, each instrument in the orchestra coming together to form a unified wave of sound that engulfed the emperor and bore his spirits aloft.

As the encore came to an end, the conductor took a few steps forward and bowed to the assembled audience.

“Ladies and gentlecreatures.” He said in a crisp voice. “Our first chair cellist has a special encore that she wishes to play for you all tonight. It is, with pleasure that I present to you Octavia Philharmonica.”

He stepped aside, one of the ponies picking herself up from the first chair and moving to center stage. Her dark gray mane and tail were impeccably styled, her light gray coat perfectly groomed. She bowed simply, before looking out at the crowd.

“I now present to you, a collection of pieces from old Coltland.”

Her voice was clear and she didn't engage in any additional comments. Instead, she just began to play.

It was a quick, rapid series of notes reminiscent of the sounds of cannon fire. Notes and sounds that took Gustav back to an earlier point in his life.

Twenty years ago...

Gustav surveyed the battle lines of his army, rank after rank lined up and prepared to throw themselves into battle. Each regiment fully equipped with new rifles from Dromedus, backed up by lines of canons, the whole army supported by Elkienhiem battle skalds.

He was situated under a small tree on the far eastern side of his battle line. Across the way, he could see the rows of earthworks that the ponies of Coltland had dug to protect their capitol, Horsaw. If he could punch through here, it would be a quick two mile march to the end goal.

Sighing, he sat on his haunches, picking up his custom rifle and raising the scope to his eye. He was still looking to try and minimalize casualties. Perhaps a sign of weakness?

“We all must face the consequences of our actions...” He muttered under his breath.

“Sir?” His personal battle skald- Anika, he believed her name was- asked, confusion clear in her voice.

“Nothing...just memories.”

They were dug in well, but he had a solution to that.

“Begin the artillery salvo. Signal the skalds to enchant with fear.”

The lines of robe wearing elk behind the gleaming 12 pounder cannons began to chant songs; songs of death and funerary marches. A moment later the thunderous salvo of cannons echoed across the battlefield.

Explosions rocked the ground before the entrenched positions, sending gouts of dirt and grass into the sky. Shot after shot tore and slammed into the ground, reducing it to furrowed and chewed rows. For all of it's noise, however, a canny observer would have noticed that the artillery salvo was being aimed short of the actual lines.

The reason for that were the massive explosions of magic that washed over the trenches with each cannon impact. Raw bursts of fear exploded outwards, inciting terror and panic through the ranks. Raising the scope back to his eye, Gustav watched the rows of ponies in the trenches waver and ripple, small groups breaking away. They were on the edge, but something was keeping the rest of the army from collapsing.

“Break, you fools.” He hissed under his breath. “You are out of your depth.”

The Coltland army was infamously under trained, under equipped, and riddled with incompetent leadership; this level of resistance wasn't normal. Frowning, he swept his firearm towards the left, looking for who or what was keeping them around.

After a moment, he found it.

A dark gray maned earth pony with a light tan coat was marching before the regiments; he caught a glimpse of a golden bugle cutie-mark as he walked. Gustav had to admit, that he was impressed. He had seen magic users applied to counter fear charms, but this pony was keeping them together by sheer force of will.

Keeping his eye on the stallion he could see that he was making grand gestures with his hooves as he talked, motioning to his assembled forces before pointing at the elk lines. Gustav frowned. Was he seriously suggesting a charge?

An open run across flat ground, towards a gun line backed up with cannon? It would be a massacre. The pony was very brave, but incredibly foolish. And it would fall to him to snuff out the poor stallion's life. Sighing sadly he rested his left hoof over the firing lever, ready to give it a sharp yank.

“I am sorry my friend. But know that you die so your countrymen may live.”

He flicked his eyes towards his battle skald. “Range enchantment, please. And may the words that allow me to strike him down be...funeral appropriate. He deserves that much.”

The skald nodded and began to chant.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.

As the magic coiled around his firearm, Gustav slowly tracked his target, keeping his aim fixed halfway up his flank. It would be quick and relatively painless.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift, uplifting rush

The spell had completed it's weave, though the skald would continue her chant anyway, as was tradition. The pony turned, gesturing towards Gustav's army again with an outstretched hoof.

And with a simple yank of the lever, he fired.

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

In the time it took for that line to reach his ears the bullet had crossed the distance between the lines and struck the pony squarely in the chest. His body jerked, a red stain appearing across his chest as he fell. The look on his face was shocked at first, but it moved towards a sad smile as he toppled.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

The pony's body hit the ground and the army broke; whatever courage he had provided gone in an instant.

Gustav remembered that battle well. The Elkienhiem press had cheered the praises of their emperor who had won the battle with only a single casualty. Of course, he hadn't ever entirely been able to forget the look on that stallion’s face as he died. It was the proper course of action, though. Better that one pony die then hundreds or thousands.

Octavia had switched pieces while he had mentally checked out. Moving to a slow and somber affair that almost seemed to be timed to match Gustav's changing mood. Though now that he looked at her again, her mane and tail color looked...familiar.

“...No...” He muttered as he lapsed into another memory.

The rush to Horsaw had been quick, the Elkienhiem army overtaking some of the stragglers from the retreat with how fast they moved. They had been taken prisoner, naturally. Soon enough, they were at the outskirts of the city, where a hasty militia had been drawn up.

Gustav had one of the skalds cast a vocal amplification spell on him, before addressing the militia.

“I DEMAND TO SPEAK WITH A REPRESENTATIVE OF YOUR GOVERNMENT!” He bellowed. “TO DISCUSS THE TERMS OF YOUR SURRENDER! SEND SOMEONE FORWARD, I GAURANTEE THEM NO HARM!”

He waited patiently. His army had plenty of time now. Their main city was surrounded. He could easily starve them out if need be.

Four hours later, the militia lines parted and a mare with a light gray coat, blonde mane and tail and scroll cutie-mark stumbled forward. Even more shocking was the fact that a young mare with dark gray mane, light gray coat, and purple treble cleft cutie-mark was running after her. She couldn't be more than eight years old.

He turned to his commanders, who had formed up near him. “No one fires but on my command. Any harm comes to these two and I will draw and quarter the offending solider myself. Is that clear?”

After the general murmur of ascent, Gustav strode forward, meeting the ponies halfway. He bowed to the pair. No excuse for not showing proper decorum, even to a defeated foe.

“Whom do I have the pleasure to speak with?” He began, speaking in Coltish.

The mare was frightened, but she was hiding it well as she quickly bowed to the monarch. “Silver Scrolls, sir.”

“Very well, Silver Scrolls. What is your role in the Coltland government? Diplomat, royal adviser?”

“I'm an alderpony for the south ward of Horsaw, sir.” She finished nervously.

Gustav raised an eyebrow. “I'm surprised the king would trust someone of your political level to conduct these negotiations.”

Silver Scroll laughed. It was a bitter, angry laugh.

“There is no king, your grace. He and most of the national leadership fled. I am the most senior politician left, that the militia could find.”

Gustav snorted in disgust. This mare and her daughter were showing more courage than a supposed monarch.

“And why did you bring the child?”

Silver Scrolls winced. “I'm sorry your grace. But my husband hasn't been seen since the battle, and I couldn't leave her alone with the panic beginning to sweep the city...”

Gustav paused, tilting his head to look at the child more closely. She was glaring up at him from behind her mother's legs, defiant, but unable to keep her body shaking from fear all the same. Her dark gray mane was both striking and familiar.

Returning his gaze to Silver Scrolls, he asked a question. “Your husband. What does he look like?”

She licked her lips. “Brazen Trumpet, your grace. Dark gray mane and tail like my daughter, light tan coat...”

Gustav gave a sorry sigh as he bowed his head. “My apologies. It is with great sadness that I must inform you that your husband was killed in the battle.”

Silver Scrolls looked like she had just been kicked very hard in the midsection; her filly beginning to whimper as she pulled herself closer to her mother.

“H-how do you know?” Silver managed to choke out.

“I was the one who the unfortunate task fell to.”

The filly let out a shriek of anger and despair as she rushed past her mom and threw herself against Gustav; needing to stand on her hind legs to futility beat her fore-hooves against the elk monarch's breastplate.

“Y-you killed my papa, you monster!”

Gustav just stood there, letting the young pony beat on his breastplate before her mother snatched her up, holding her close as she looked up at the elk. Her eyes were wide, a mix of fear for her daughter, and anger towards Gustav for killing her husband.

“Please, your grace. She is young and angry please...”

Gustav held up a hoof as he gave a weary sigh, a resigned sadness filling his eyes.

“I am not so cruel that I would punish a child for raging against the unfair circumstances of fate. On the contrary. It shows that she is strong, unwilling to roll over even for the likes of an emperor. But, Silver Scrolls, there is the matter of my terms of surrender.”

Silver Scrolls took a shaky breath, but nodded, motioning for Gustav to continue with one hoof as she held her daughter close with the other; the young one was sobbing into her mother's coat at this point.

“The terms that I am offering is that Coltland will surrender, unconditionally. You will be brought into the fold of the Empire as full citizens with rights equal to any elk.”

Silver Scrolls stared back, trying to maintain her composure. “Or, we could send a request to Celestia for aid and wait you out. Do you wish to fight the sun monarch?”

“Celestia's standing army is small. It will take her time to bring up more volunteers. All the while your people will suffer. And if Equestria is dragged into open war, even more people will suffer.”

He shook his head.

“I am not the monster you think I am, miss Scrolls. I do not take pleasure in death. So, please...help me spare more children your daughter's pain.”

Silver Scrolls squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back her own shuddering sob for a moment, tears leaking down her cheeks. But she quickly recovered, wiping her tears away and fixing Gustav with a steady look again.

“Gustav...the curse of Nightmare Moon has followed you with every acquisition. Your previous nations were mostly elk in population. We are ponies. We can't forage and draw nutrition from tree bark and lichen. So many will starve.”

Gustav nodded, acknowledging the concerns.

“We have been working on ways to offset the growing season issues. While they are not yet complete, I swear to you that Cotland will receive the fruits of our efforts first.”

Silver Scrolls looked back at the city and the militia, and then to her sobbing daughter, before looking to Gustav. She quietly sighed before nodding. “Very well. We accept.”

Coming out of his second mental walk down memory lane, Gustav looked back towards the stage, a stunned expression of realization crossing his face. Octavia had finished playing at this point and was taking her bow to raucous applause; and when she straightened back up her eyes locked with Gustav's.

The look wasn't an angry one, like she had fixed him with back on the outskirts of Horsaw. It was impassive...almost pitiable in a way. She turned around and walked off stage as the curtain fell.

- - - -

Gustav rushed backstage, having sent his wife on ahead to the palace. The guards had been weary about leaving the Emperor alone, but in the end they had no choice but to obey. When he got back there he found the cellist sitting in her chair, closed cello case resting next to her.

Gustav froze for a moment, for once unsure of what to say. Octavia ended the silence instead. He noticed that she had completely lost her Coltland accent, instead speaking with the crisp and even tones of Canterlot.

“Emperor Gustav. It's been twenty long years.”

“...Was coming here your idea?”

“No. It was not. Though I did ask for the solo encore once I knew that this was our destination. It seemed appropriate.”

Gustav frowned. “Celestia then?”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Celestia has better things to do with her time then bother you. The Canterlot Royal Symphony makes it's own appointments.”

“What do you want then?”

“I?” Octavia blinked. “I want nothing. I assumed you wished to speak with me about something.”

Gustav's frown grew deeper. He had to make some kind of offer. Something to make it up for that angry and broken filly.

“Allow me to give you a bonus to your usual fees. It's the least I could do.”

“Emperor Gustav...I don't need your money. I am quite comfortable as is.”

“I insist. Your family must have struggled growing up, without a father. Due compensation is due.”

She shook her head. “It was hard, in it's own odd way.” An odd little half smile played across her face. “I think that I had to work twice as hard to earn every orchestral position I received. Everypony always assumed that my prior listed experience were positions handed to me out of pity. Having a relative die in war is so rare.”

The half smile grew a little wider.

“But you were right about one thing Gustav. I am strong. And I am unwilling to roll over.”

Octavia got to her hooves and hefted her cello case, shaking her head. “This isn't about offering me due compensation. This is about you dealing with the guilt you are suffering from the path you've set your kingdom on.”

Gustav's fur bristled.

“The elk do what we must.”

“You must absorb all countries before you?”

“Not all. Just enough to be a reasonable counter-balance to Celestia and Equestria. The world needs a recourse if Celestia follows Luna into madness! You've seen what Nightmare Moon did to our country!”

He stomped a hoof, his emotions getting the best of him.

“Hate me if you must! But see that I do because it's what needs to be done!”

Octavia fixed him with that strange, even stare again, before shaking her head.

“I stopped hating you a while ago, Gustav. While killing my father was a tragedy and one that hurt me for years, his charge would have most likely ended in his death anyway. And the death of all under his command. What you did, did save lives. You may take absolution from that at least.”

“...But?”

“But, in the end, I more pity you than anything else.”

“P-pity!?” Gustav roared as he bore down on Octavia, stopping when his snout was an inch away from hers; she did not move a muscle. “I do this for the good of the world! Not all of us have the luxury of Celestia's immortal power!”

Octavia shook her head again. “If you think that's the secret to Equestria's success, then you haven't been paying attention. Goodbye, emperor.”

The emperor watched her leave, shock on his face, before he stumbled away as well.

- - - -

Back at the palace, in his war room, Gustav was looking over the map of the world. The war room was a large and well furnished room, full of maps, drawings and plans of attack and acquisition. To the north east were the twin island nations of Greenwurld and Icewurld. They were both settled by elk back in the day, and they were far enough north that they were already lands with short growing seasons.

But at least his next acquisitions wouldn't need violence. He could pull this off with some canny diplomacy. He had to push on. His eyes drifted to the border between Elkienhiem and Equestria, drawn where the old Cotland-Equestria border had been. The negotiations to reestablish that border had been...tense.

- - - -

Gustav walked towards the throne room of Canterlot, flanked by two of his royal guard. He had opted to come and re-negotiate the boundaries of the Elkienhiem-Canterlot border personally; Chancellor Axal Winterbite accompanying for support.

“The curse has swept over Coltland, as predicted.” Axal said. “Our magical solutions are still months out, assuming nothing goes wrong. What are we to do for them in the mean time?”

“Access the stores. Our new pony citizens will get the grown food, while the elk will tighten their belts and forage. When I speak to Celestia, I will see if I can negotiate for some food shipments for the short term. Once we return to Elkienhiem, we will make contact with the Dromedian ambassador and see if they can provide some technological solutions.”

Axal nodded, the sound of a pony yelling reaching their ears as they drew closer to the throne room.

“...And you need to provide us some support! When will Equestria help us reclaim our stolen land?”

“That remains to be seen.” Celestia responded. Her voice was calm and sweet, but Gustav could read the subtext in her statement. Axal snorted.

“So, Regal Sceptre has come begging to Equestria for a counter attack. Shall I inform the army?”

“No need.” Gustav responded as he approached the doorway. “I doubt that Celestia will indulge his whining.”

Gustav strode into the throne room with purpose. Regal Sceptre stood before Celestia's throne, his deep red fur contrasting greatly with his white mane and tail. He stared at Gustav in shock before managing to sputter out some form of response.

“Usurper! Stealer of a rightful throne!” He yelled, pointing a hoof at Gustav. “Smite him Celestia! Rain righteous fire upon his pronged head!”

Celestia frowned, getting to her hooves and rustling her feathers, before looking right at the offending pony. “No.”

Regal Sceptre boggled.

“He stole my throne!”

“Which you had been pillaging for years.” Celestia said simply. “Or did you think I was somehow unaware of how you had been stealing from your nations coffers to fill out your personal wealth? While the slums of Horsaw went unaddressed?”

Gustav smiled as Regal Sceptre fell into a very strong impression of a fish, Celestia beginning to pace around him in a circle.

“And then you have the audacity to come to my court and ask for me to shed Equestrian blood to give you your national bank back, when you abandoned it when your citizens needed guidance the most.”

She got very close to the quavering pony now, her voice devoid of it's usual warmth, instead sounding like a stern parent; if one was generous in their definition of “stern”. “Your request for an invasion is denied. Your request for political asylum is denied. As angry as I am with Gustav, even a blind pony could see that your people are better off without you.”

Gustav looked towards Axal and then towards his two guards. “Seize him. His former country-creatures will want him to answer for his crimes.”

Regal Scepter threw himself to the floor.

“Please! No! They'll kill me! W-what do I have to do? I'll do anything! Just don't give me back to those ponies.”

Gustav glared down at the blubbering would be monarch, thinking for a moment before speaking.

“Your finances, your wealth, and everything else you own. All will be liquidated and used to provide food and other supplies to your currently struggling people. An act of actual leadership and responsibility towards your people, that and nothing less, is the price for your life.”

Regal just nodded in silence as Celestia pointed to him with a wing. "Take him away. Gustav and I have matters to discuss and his own guards can collect him on the way out."

He watched the pony get dragged off before looking back to Celestia, who still looked quite angry.

“So, shall we redraw the border at the same place it was before?” He asked.

Celestia frowned.

“I am just as angry with you, Gustav. Nearly a thousand years without war on this continent and you open these realms back up to the sorted affair. Peace since the Age of Nightmares, shattered! And all for your own paranoia that I'll become another Nightmare Moon.”

Gustav glared back. "The elk do what they must."

Celestia's expression was very deadpan as she stared at Gustav. “Platitudes?”

“It is not a platitude. It is fact. You did what you had to with your sister. I will do what I have to with my nation. And, like you, I hope. I hope that this is the only time my armies have to rise up against anything other than an absolute tyrant. It is a tough world out there, and sometimes hard decisions must be made. Now...shall we discuss matters of state, or not?”

Celestia shook her head. “You, are a study in frustration. One of these days, Gustav, your “hard decisions” will cost you. And I just hope you don't drag the rest of us down with you.”

- - - -

“The elk do what they must.” He muttered to himself as he headed to bed.

Laying down next to his wife, he drifted off to sleep, the image of Octavia's pitying look still burned into his mind.

Equis was a bright and happy world, or so the stories all said.

Gustav the Second hated those stories.

Author's Note:

And thus ends the first interlude chapter. I have a few of these planned out to shed a little more light on the other major dramatis personae of my world.

Gustav the Second is rather complicated character. In temperament, he would probably get along well with Celestia. A strong sense of justice, dedicated to his people and a tireless worker. He also has a stubborn streak that would make Applejack boggle, has a massive streak of personal and racial pride and is somewhat of a pessimist, seeing the worst of the world.

He truly believes that he must build his own empire to act as a counter-balance to Equestria, should Celestia ever go crazy the way Luna did. Kind of a tragic figure that way.

Also, had to get some Octavia love in this thing. Been a huge fan of her as a character since I read GrassAndCloud2's Symphony For Moon and Sun, which is a feaking awesome fic and if you haven't read it you need to! Finally, the poem that was used is "Do Not Stand on my Grave and Weap" by Mary Elizabeth Frye.