• Published 7th Oct 2013
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Diplomacy by Other Means - Georg



Princess Luna sends a diplomatic mission to the griffons in the hopes of preventing a deadly war. When disaster strikes, can their weakest member keep them alive?

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Ch 10 - Escape

Diplomacy by Other Means
Escape


“She who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects her ruin than her preservation.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess


The form of a Night Guard stood perfectly still in the shadows of the ambassadorial balcony, with hooves firmly placed where the other Night Guard had stood a few minutes before. His sides did not move, and his eyes did not blink, but other than that, Pumpernickel had to admit it was a nearly perfect replica of a living guard. He still did not trust the magical device enough to leave the gadget out there to stand watch by itself, but it did leave Pumpernickel enough confidence in their security to stay inside with his shaking wife and observe the outside world through a crack in the door as Primrose and Redoubtable attempted to calm her enough to speak.

“From the beginning, dear,” whispered Primrose as she pressed a cup of recently rehydrated coffee into Laminia’s trembling hoof. “From when you left the apartment.”

“I thought she was going to be alive, I really did,” sniffed Laminia with a gulp of the nearly sludge-like coffee. “I can’t imagine anypony—I mean anygriffon doing that to her. All I could think of on the way back was that they had already broken in h-here and k-killed you all, and when Lumpy opened the door I just… I want them dead, don’t you understand? As long as they’re alive, they can do that to other ponies. They just need to die.”

“All of them?” whispered Pumpernickel as he looked out into the motionless night. “Including Sunny?”

The silence stretched thin, with Laminia trying to respond several times only to smother her trembling voice with more coffee until she had reached the gritty sand on the bottom of the cup. “No,” she finally whispered, running one hoof over her belly in a soft caress of the unborn foal inside.

“Tell us what you saw, my wife, and I promise you justice, not vengeance.”

Laminia accepted a second cup of ersatz coffee and began to quietly speak, with only a hint of trembling in her voice.

“I left by way of the servant’s entrance again. I’m pretty sure it’s being watched, but I kept my head down and the lantern on, and nopony bothered me. Once I got a ways down the path, I put out the lantern and took off through the trees. It was a little slow flying, but I really didn’t want to fly over the treetops and be seen by any griffon patrol, so dodging between the trees was about my only choice. The clearing I saw was a little bit farther south than I thought, and it took me quite a while to find it. Every minute I thought a griffon was going to come dropping down out of the sky and land on my neck.”

She shuddered and took another drink, rubbing the back of her mane with one hoof. “I found her body in the clearing, wrapped up in a sheet and smashed into the ground like she had been dropped from some height. She’d been—eaten. Partially. Something big had ripped out her throat, and tore into her chest. I think it was her liver that was half-gone, I don’t know for sure.”

Ambassador Primrose twisted uncomfortably without taking her eyes off the trembling mare. “There’s a lot of things out in the forest that eat—”

“She wasn’t eaten in the forest,” hissed Laminia. “There was almost no blood on the sheet, and the weather has been cold enough she had barely started to decompose. Something killed her, ate on her dead body, and then dumped her in the forest wrapped in a sheet. Something, or somegriffon.”

Laminia trembled with anger, resting a hoof on Pumpernickel’s armor for support. “Sunny had to have found her. There were little griffon tracks all around, and she had put branches and flowers over the body. The poor thing. Her only friend.”

Primrose gave a sharp intake of breath and a near-silent curse. “Plummets has his nest on the south side of the castle. Sunny could never have found the body if she didn’t have a good idea of where to look. We’ve must take this to the Wingmaster.”

“The eldest griffon is entitled to the first bite of the fallen prey,” whispered Pumpernickel, looking out on the moonlit night, watching the puffy clouds in the distance who watched back. “There is one griffon who hates ponykind more than Plummets, and that is his father, the Wingmaster. The bonds of tradition are strong in their kind, much as it is for ours. If you really believe Wingmaster Talon is not involved, you could always take it up with him at the meeting he has called for his flock this evening in the Council Chamber.”

“There is only one thing that griffons will talk about under the moon in that chamber that they will not discuss during the day. War,” breathed Primrose. “Are you sure?”

Pumpernickel nodded grimly, not taking his eyes off the distant clouds. “Almost positive. Duke Plummets came by less than an hour ago and picked up our door guard for their meeting, and he specified it was taking place in the Council Chamber.”

Primrose considered for long moments before reluctantly rising to her hooves and going over to their baggage. She scratched at a note for a few minutes as the rest of them looked on, a sense of failure seeming to drape across her shoulders at the action. The note was short and succinct, with several references to a small black book, before the note was popped into a green bottle with a faint thump and consumed by a curling flash of dragonfire. The four of them watched the thread of smoke waft out the door, flowing invisibly into the night before the ambassador placed the book on the floor. With another flash of her horn, she lit it, watching the small, flickering flames that lasted long after the pages of the codebook had burned to ash.

“We’re leaving.”

“Not without the body,” hissed Laminia, sounding more like a feral animal than his wife. “I won’t leave her out in the forest to be eaten by the scavengers.”

“I agree,” said Primrose, finally managing to look away from the burning book. “I might have been reluctant to take the escape cloak(*) before, but we’re going to need the chariot now. It’s the only transportation large enough to bring Stargazer’s body to the Crystal Empire as proof of what has been happening here. Hopefully the rest of the griffon aeries will be unwilling to rise up in support of Wingmaster Talon if we can show them… this. It will be dangerous, but it’s a risk we’ll have to take.”

“And if that’s not enough to keep Talon from attacking the Crystal Empire?” asked Pumpernickel.

“Then they’ll die,” said Primrose. “As will far too many ponies. And this time the Royal Guard will likely burn their whole aerie to the ground.”

* * *

* * *

“I feel stupid,” whispered Pumpernickel from under what seemed to be several yards of frilly black fabric.

“You look stupid too,” whispered Redoubtable from under his own fabric cloak, creeping along behind his fellow guard. A quick spritzing of mane coloring had taken all of the white out of Primrose and Redoubtable’s coat, and hoof-polish had dulled his golden armor to a muddy mess, but the tension of the moment was playing havoc with everypony’s nerves.

“Shut up, you morons,” hissed Laminia, looking back to make certain their inflatable guard decoy was still stationary in front of the ambassadorial quarters door. “This stuff only blocks the night vision spell on the griffon helmets, not your yammering.”

“He started it,” grumbled Pumpernickel.

“Did not,” responded Redoubtable.

“Hush!” hissed Primrose as she held her cloaking material up over the door to the hallway and gestured for her guards. “Hurry up.”

Pumpernickel slipped out into the hallway in front of the rest of the group, pausing only momentarily to hold a steel-clad hoof up and regard the additional covering with masculine embarrassment. “Couldn’t you have come up with a bunny slipper in some color other than pink?” he asked, once the balcony door had been closed and they were all safely in the fortress hallway.

“I’ve got two extra for your mouths if you don’t shut up,” snapped Laminia with a glance backwards at where the ambassador was sprinkling some sort of powder on the door.

Redoubtable opened his mouth to respond, paused at the look of pure malevolence on Laminia’s face, and decided further attempts to lower the stress level of their late-night stroll were not worth having a pink bunny slipper forcefully jammed down his throat, or into any other convenient orifice.

With only the slightest of noises, the two bunny-slipper clad guards ghosted down the corridor, followed by the two mares, the only signs of their presence being the low green glints from Redoubtable and Primrose’s goggles. Their route to the tiny roof garage where the the chariot was stored seemed clear and unguarded.

Until they turned a corner.

Two stunned griffons wearing their own green-tinted helmets blinked in surprise at the two mismatched pony guards coming around the corner, all four of them sharing a moment of mutual shock, although it possibly took the griffons just a tiny fraction of a second more to get over their surprise at seeing bunny slippers on the supposedly ferocious Royal Guard hooves.

The first griffon opening his beak and inhaling to give a shout found a dark thunderbolt of pony fury exploding up under his chin, armored forelegs clamping around his neck in a vice-like grip while rear hooves swept up under his own extending wings, striking tendons and muscles in a paralyzing blow. The griffon gave a brief grunt, jabbing downward with his beak even as Pumpernickel heaved backwards, causing the griffon to tumble forwards and land on top of the Nocturne. It was only a momentary distraction to the suffocating griffon as he opened one steel-clad gauntlet and struck downwards at the entrapping pony, again and again in frustration as the Royal Guard had managed to use the griffon’s own body as a shield, and the steel-clad pony legs sprayed sparks from the protective enchantments as he struck. Something moving in the corridor caused the guard to look up, even with his neck being restrained by the pony underneath him, and he jerked backwards as two delicate pink-clad rear hooves smashed forcefully into his forehead.

Pumpernickel heaved his limp opponent to one side and rolled forward to where Redoubtable was wrestling with the second griffon. One coordinated wing-sweep and grapple under leonine hind legs knocked the female griffon off-balance enough for Redoubtable’s hard-driven hoof to the chest and two solid smacks of feathered head against stone wall to drop the griffon in a pile of twitching feathers. Redoubtable hopped backwards, shaking one forehoof which had somewhere been stripped of the associated bunny slipper.

“Hard-headed bastard. How’s the other one?”

“Out like a light,” said Laminia, shaking one hind hoof after another. “He tried to eat something that disagreed with him.” She pulled the griffon’s helmet off and checked his eyes. “Breathing, but I don’t think he’s going to be quite right for an hour or two.”

A faint groan escaped the second griffon, and Primrose held up a hoof to stop her guards from additional violence as her horn lit up. “Gimme just a second. Truthspell. Learned it from Luna.”

“Isn’t that just a little illegal?” asked Redoubtable, tossing the female griffon’s helmet to one side and wrapping her forelegs together with some restraints.

“Hush, dear,” mumbled the ambassador. “If I don’t get this right, she’s just going to monologue.”

Green light glowed from Primrose’s horn, mirrored by a soft green glow that shone out of the stunned female griffon’s eyes. Her body convulsed briefly, then settled into a quiet rhythmic pattern that sounded slightly raspy as she clicked her beak in time with her breathing and wobbled her head as if it had become loose on her neck..

“What are your orders?” asked Primrose in a commanding tone.

“Secure the door. Make sure the ponies don’t escape,” replied the griffon softly, as not to disturb whatever she was looking at.

“Were you to kill us?” asked Primrose, moving to stand dangerously close to the griffon’s beak.

“Kill you? No. Why would we do that? Plummets said he wanted you all alive.” The griffon clicked her beak and bobbed her head like she was listening to music only she could hear. “Said it would be better that way for everygriffon at the meeting.”

“What’s going on at the meeting?”

“Just a front,” said the griffon weakly as if she did not want to admit to the deception. “Wingmaster is getting them all fired up so when Duke Plummets drops you ponies into the council chamber, they’ll side with him on the attack. No idea why.”

“What do you know about Stargazer?” asked Laminia, the green light reflecting from the griffon dancing dangerously in her golden eyes.

“Some pony, I guess. Plummet’s servant and bedmate. A little creepy. He beats her, you know?” The griffon blinked and looked quizzical, seemingly entranced by the play of greenish light on the corridor ceiling. “During mating season, he couldn't do it. Clawed all over my back instead. Maybe ponies do it for him.”

“You mated with him?” asked Primrose in a shocked tone of voice that indicated it was not her intended next question.

“Oh, he mated with eeeeverygriffon,” said the female griffon with a long purring chirp. “Or tried.”

“Any guards on the chariot?” growled Pumpernickel, still silently staring down the empty corridor as if he expected it to be filled with hostile griffons at any moment.

“Nope.” The female griffon’s head shook, making her tousled plumes flop back and forth. “They’re all in the Council Chamber for now.”

“Good,” grunted Redoubtable, bringing one heavy hoof down on top of the griffon’s head with a solid thud. “Amnesia spell. Learned it from Lumpy. Come on, let’s go!”

The remainder of their dash upstairs was accomplished with less stealth, the click of un-slippered hooves on stone the result of several of the fuzzy bunny slippers being lost in the combat. The chariot was unguarded and thankfully ignored in the dusty garage since their arrival. Pumpernickel and Redoubtable slipped into harness in perfect synchronization, taking off into the starry night the moment they heard the two ‘clicks’ of their passenger’s safety harnesses being fastened.

The Royal Chariot swept soundlessly into the inky darkness, its silent departure nearly unnoticed.

Nearly.

--~-~-~--*--~-~-~--

“Down there and off to the left, dear. I think I see the clearing.”

The two guards turned as directed, dropping the awkward chariot through the treacherous nighttime gusts and placing it gently in the center of a forest clearing. It was a rare flat spot in the rugged trees that stuck so tenaciously to the side of the mountain, where snow had melted into a slushy mess around the raw, dark earth. The resulting open clearing was filled with the frantic blooms of spring flowers, an explosion of colorful life that clashed horribly with the low undertone of death in the air. A muddy brown sheet wrapped around a lumpy object at the edge of the flowers would not have gotten a second glance from them at any other time, but this was no ordinary time.

With a scattering of yellow and white flowers, Primrose pulled the sheet back in one swift motion, taking in the view of the pony corpse with only a muffled gulp of nausea. Stargazer had been a dark blue mare, so close to Luna’s coloration but with a brilliant white mane sparkled with dark specks. The wan moonlight that flickered through the trees seemed unwilling to illuminate the gory scene, as if even Luna was afraid of what she would see. Despite the wan lighting, the pale blue star of her cutie mark still glowed in the darkness, splattered with dark flecks of blood in silent accusation of her murderer. The low murmur between the two mares seemed surreal in the darkness, a three-way conversation, two living, one dead, while their guards watched the sky.

A long line of shivers traveled up and down Pumpernickel’s back despite himself while he looked up into the silent trees with his back to Redoubtable. There were eyes out there watching, an ominous presence in the forest that seemed hungry for violence and blood. The fire in his heart stirred in response, flaring dangerously high when his fellow guard touched him on the flank, nearly brushing their short manes together in the darkness.

“Hey, Lumpy. Do you hear what I hear?”

“Nothing,” growled Pumpernickel. “Not a cheep or a peep from the night birds or bats.”

“Yeah.” Redoubtable took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “How many of them do you think are out there.”

“Plummets is a coward. Given that three griffons could kill us all, maybe a dozen. Sounds like he wants us mostly alive. For a while.”

“Stubborn ass,” muttered Redoubtable. “You’ve got a family to think of now. You two should slip off into the night while Rose and I make a distraction.”

“Screw that,” snapped Pumpernickel in a low whisper without moving his head. “How about I stay here and kill them all while you and my wife get your marefriend to safety.”

“What? And let you have all the fun? The least I can do is choke one of them to death on my thick head when they try to eat me.”

Pumpernickel swallowed dryly. “I mean it. If I snap, I won’t be able to tell you from the griffons. Take my wife to safety, and whatever you do, don’t let them name the foal Pumpernickel.”

One of Redoubtable’s hooves shifted, if by accident or on purpose it was difficult to say, but his armored flank bumped up against Pumpernickel with a low ‘click’ that echoed around the clearing. “And I mean what I said too, Lumpy. I know you bats have a little bit of Nightmare Moon buried inside you, certain dumb stallions closer to the surface than others, but you’ve got a whole galloping giant lump of Luna buried in there with it. Probably scares the crap out of it. Probably where you get that annoying streak of self-sacrificing angst from too. Right now that chunk of Luna is a whole hell of a lot more comforting to me than that bit of Nightmare Moon.”

The red burning rage floated in his mind, hovering just out of reach. It would be easy to embrace it, lose himself in the enticing song of destruction and blood. It floated nearer as he thought, the warmth of the hatred making his breath pull at his chest. All his life he had fought against that enticing tug, the surrender of his self to violence. But this was different.

The griffons outside their door may have been told the ambassadorial party was only to be captured, but Duke Plummets certainly had other plans by now. There was no way Sunny could have found the body of Stargazer without knowing roughly where she had fallen. The imagery was entirely too clear in his mind: the little griffon arriving at her uncle’s rooms to see him carrying a lumpy shape in a sheet out into the endless forest, probably the same way they dumped the offal and refuse from other kills. The nagging suspicion in her mind about the disappearance of her friend, until Pumpernickel had opened his big, fat mouth and removed the one hope the little griffon had that Stargazer was alive. The trip out into the thick woods that surrounded the fortress, hoping not to find anything. Her return to the only home she had ever known with the knowledge that her friend was not only dead, but eaten by a relative.

Once Plummets became aware that his murder was about to become public, the lives of all of them were forfeit, and probably the little griffon princess too. All it would take is a quick push, and Sunny would plummet to her death on the rocks below the fortress. Just like her sister died when Duke Plummets first arrived, which seemed far too convenient for pure chance now.

She knew. The little griffon knew her uncle had murdered her friend, and yet she stayed silent. The fear that she faced as a helpless little griffon in the talons of her uncle, not knowing who to trust, it must have been unbearable.

Plummets had to die. But even if he were able to kill the larger griffon, their retribution would certainly kill everypony Pumpernickel loved. If he held a portion of Luna’s soul in addition to the Nightmare, was there even space for a soul of his own to fight in their defense?

That was where he had failed. He was far more than Nightmare, far more than Pumpernickel, even more than the cool touch of Luna on his soul. Where any one of them would fail by themselves, all three could possibly… succeed?

Overcoming fear was the key. Fear had driven him whenever he had needed to go beyond his own strength before, the fear of hurting his sister, the fear of leaving the Royal Guard, the fear of losing his wife and unborn son.

It would be very difficult, but there was no other choice.

* * *

The body was lighter than Primrose had expected from an earth pony, lifting the corpse in her magic as the frighteningly serious Nocturne mare guided their awkward package to a landing inside the chariot and began to tie it down. Part of her own gut twisted in terror at the thought of being held down while a griffon tore into her chest, biting out goblets of flesh before she died. The silent darkness around them seemed filled with hungry griffons, the only noise the whispers of their guards and the near-silent muttered words from Laminia as she finished tying down the body inside the chariot.

Standing in the middle of a dark forest while griffons silently gathered was not anything she had really expected, but it actually seemed less frightening due to the strange discussion she had with the Princess of the Night before their trip.

--~-~-~--*--~-~-~--

Primrose felt Luna’s eyes burning into her soul, their cool blue gaze contrasting with the quiet sounds of Celestia’s sewing, making an eerie undertone to the quiet discussion they had been having about griffons and the history of the Misty Mountains aerie. At some unseen cue, the Princess of the Night paused in her instruction, gesturing her diplomat closer, and closer, until she was literally touching the end of her nose, the breath of the princess tickling the hairs on her cheeks.

“There will come a time when you must speak truly with my voice, if you are to be my diplomat to the griffons. Are you prepared?”

“Yes, My Princess,” said Primrose, strangely at ease despite the close proximity of Luna.

“Close your eyes and breathe out.”

Primrose followed her directions, breathing out with her eyes closed, feeling her breath reflect in little tickles from Luna’s face, as a soft but warm set of lips touched her own.

“Now breathe in the breath of your Princess of the Night.”

There had been many lessons and stories Primrose had heard while learning the art of diplomacy at the hoof of Ambassador Earlyworm, but this was not one of them. She breathed in as directed, feeling the cool, damp breath of Luna on her tongue and into her lungs. Strangely enough, she could feel something else settle into her soul, a sense of purpose and solidity that filled her with tingling sparks that crept over her coat and made her knees weak.

Or maybe it was the kiss.

--~-~-~--*--~-~-~--

The mountain night breezes cut through Laminia’s armor as she bent to the task of carefully tying the wrapped body to the floor of the diplomatic chariot. Her designer mind attempted to distract her from thoughts about the corpse by planning wool inserts for the new armor, probably imports from Alpacastan or San Marino. The churning in her gut mixed violently with the normal nausea of pregnancy, but despite the desire, she did not throw up. She could not throw up. Her husband and Redoubtable were grouped together with their eyes on the sky, as proper Royal Guards should be in this situation, and they showed no sense of fear, so she would not either. Although she wished she could.

Putting in one final knot, she trudged over to the two guards, making sure to make noise instead of wisping silently up to them like normal, which would be an exceedingly bad idea right now. Pumpernickel was a furnace in the darkness, a furious heat fairly radiating off of him in the muddy forest litter as he held himself motionless, eyes up to the sky and the moon filtering through the tree branches while his fellow guard whispered in one ear.

She cleared her throat and put one hoof on Redoubtable’s firm flank. “Hey, Red. We’re ready to go, just let me talk to Lumpy for a minute.” The words had the desired result as the dye-stained stallion nodded and slipped off to the chariot for a few quiet words with his similarly darkened marefriend before fumbling with the harness.

“Are you afraid, my love?” asked Laminia, moving up beside him in the warm position Redoubtable had just vacated and placing one trembling wing over the back of his cold armor.

“No.” The word was cold and distant, as if it came from a different stallion than the one she loved, and it tore at her heart.

“You’re a damned liar, my husband. I’m so scared I could piss. Again.” She huddled closer, but no matching wing from Pumpernickel spread out to cover her back in response.

“I can’t afford to be afraid.” A faint tremble ran through the guard, and continued for several moments until he added, “I love you too much to think straight. It would be easier if you weren’t here.”

“Screw that. You’re stuck with me. Us. ‘Whither thou goest’ and all that shit.” Laminia paused for a few breaths before adding, “I love you too, Lumpy.”

The trembling continued. “They’ll hit us when we clear the tree line. I want you on the back of the chariot, flapping for all you’re worth. Maybe we can outrun them. Whatever happens, you will be safe. I promise.”

Laminia repressed a sarcastic statement and swallowed before speaking, allowing the silence of the forest clearing to speak for her. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m just damned glad you’re here, my husband. Even if we die.”

The trembling slowed, eventually stopping as Pumpernickel began to breathe in long, deep breaths. “I’m glad you’re here too, my wife.” One strong wing reached over her to squeeze ever so gently in one of his loving hugs that made her ribs ache, only this time it also calmed her churning gut and took away a trembling in her own knees she had not noticed until now. “We serve the Princesses.”

“We serve the Princesses,” echoed Laminia quietly. “In life and in death.”


(*) The escape cloak had been a clever idea by a pegasus a few decades ago, with loops of braid that could be unhemmed to provide the rear ankles a place to hook onto, and more braid around the collar that could be brought up the forelegs of a non-flying pony and grasped in the teeth of one or two escort pegasi, who would then fly their passenger much like a kite. It was a very uncomfortable position, and even though the passenger could be carried unconscious at nearly the top speed of the carrying pegasi, it had never become very popular among the ground-bound ponies for obvious reasons.