• 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 3 - Royal Control

Diplomacy by Other Means
Royal Control


“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the ponies she has around her.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess


It irked Princess Luna that her sister was still able to manipulate ponies so easily, a talent that had only grown over the centuries of imprisonment that had separated them. There was no doubt in her mind that Celestia trusted her, and trusted the Nocturne who had guarded her so well over those long years, but her recent words still brought ripples of fear down her flowing mane in little sparkles of disturbed stars and nebulae. No matter how much others trusted their Princess of the Night, there was still a shadow in her own heart. At least with this action she could vanquish the darkness in others’ hearts that she could not eliminate in her own.

Her eyes searched the sea of shocked faces surrounding the sparring ring, surprised at finding the remaining two ponies she needed to speak with this evening. With a growing fear twinging at her belly, she nodded to them and announced, “Diplomat Primrose. Lieutenant Redoubtable. We need to speak with thee also. Approach.”

It only took a few moments for them all to gather around: Optio Pumpernickel in his most uncomfortable resting stance, still dripping with stale sweat. Hoofmaiden Laminia, who had taken her place at his side with her draconic wings furled behind her and head bowed, awaiting whatever Luna would command. The pegasus Lieutenant Redoubtable and Celestia’s unicorn diplomat Primrose, who stood closely together as if it were still a secret that they had been spending a great deal of time together beneath her night sky while paying no attention to her beautiful stars. It still gave Luna a disconcerting twinge to see dissimilar ponies as couples, when during the time of her corruption to Nightmare Moon, it was almost unknown.

And then there was a fifth pony, who was beginning to annoy her.

“Commander Buttercup. You have my leave to speak.” Luna’s voice was cold and stern, and the elderly Nocturne lowered his golden eyes to give a polite bow, the lowest a serving Royal Guard was permitted to give. They had clashed several times since her return, both when she had insisted on the introduction of mares into the Night Guard, and earlier when Pumpernickel had infringed on his authority on her behalf, even though Pumpernickel’s actions had come uncomfortably close to treason. The Guard Commander was fiercely loyal but highly opinionated, with ideas about what his Princess would wish that frequently clashed against her will. Still, he fairly bubbled with concern, and she had learned through several hard lessons that the Equestria she lived in now was much more acceptive of criticizing their rulers than long ago. And it even seemed to work better, although she still had her doubts.

“Your Highness, I must protest. Your condition is still delicate, and I do not believe it would be advisable for—”

“I did spar with my guard on these very grounds long before your race existed, Commander Buttercup. At one time in my depravity, I accepted none to my service who could not stand against me for a full minute. Many a mortal shell was broken upon these sands in those dark times, and you may be fully assured that we do not plan on returning to those blood-soaked traditions. I wear the pads that my own hoofmaiden did craft for me, and give you my word that I shall restrain my blows to those of mortals. Now be off with—” Luna scowled only slightly around the corners of her lips, her restraint keeping her normal tranquil mask in place, but somewhat strained. “I mean, will that be acceptable to you, Commander?”

The elderly Nocturne pursed his lips and stroked his mustache in thought. “If I must, Your Highness.”

“Nay, guardstallion.” Luna scowled at the commander, meeting his eyes firmly and without an outward twinge of the uncertainty she felt. “I shall not pursue this course without thy approval. Thou wert placed in this position not simply as a puppet, but as a wise pony who knows the limits and capacity of my guard. Optio Pumpernickel may be an ‘obstinate bastard’ in your opinion, but I believe it is within his capacity to release the strength I can sense within him without harm. Now. For the last time. Do you agree?”

From Commander Buttercup’s expression, it appeared as if he had just inhaled a bug during a high-speed flight. A word traveled around inside his face, moving from cheek to cheek as he considered the concept of his liege getting into the sparring ring to do physical violence, or perhaps have it done to her. It took several uncomfortable glances at Luna and his two guards before he finally spoke.

“Yes.”

“Good. Now be off with you. I shall have words with thy subordinates. Private words.”

* * *

Once the commander had retreated to a safe distance, a hazy indigo bubble of a privacy spell formed around the five ponies remaining. The noise from outside cut off abruptly, and only dim shadows could be seen of the ponies watching. In short, succinct words, Luna described the situation with the griffon aerie, paying specific attention to how Primrose reacted to the news. To Luna’s relief, the unicorn diplomat merely nodded along as if it were a situation she had been keeping informed about, with an intense look about her muzzle that Celestia got whenever she was keeping track of a great number of difficult options to a complicated problem. Once Luna had finished her briefing, Primrose gave a sharp nod to the princess and paused with a questioning look.

“Speak, Lady Primrose. My sister doth place great weight upon your skills in this mission.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” Primrose shifted uncomfortably with a glance around at the very undiplomatic area before shrugging her shoulders back. “Are you familiar with the history of the mission your sister sent to this same aerie in very similar conditions some two centuries ago?”

“Yes,” said Luna in a flat voice that gave little indication of the fear that scurried around in her mind, scratching to be let out.

“And you still want me to go? I mean, the ambassadorial mission was nearly wiped out by the Griffons back then.”

“Nearly?” said Luna and Pumpernickel in perfect harmony, each looking at the other after their outburst. The Princess of the Night composed herself first, with her face as still as stone. “Ahem. I was of the belief that the entire mission had been slain by the griffons.”

“No, my great, great to the somethingth grandmother Morning Glory was an assistant on that mission. She lived to negotiate the Treaty of Rosebuds with the Misty Mountain aerie. I found her records back when I was researching my genealogy, and she’s the one who inspired me to become a diplomat.” The unicorn looked thoughtfully at Pumpernickel, who had turned his head to look away from anypony. “Come to think of it, her diary mentioned a Night Guard named Pumpernickel who saved her life. Relative of yours?”

“Yes,” said Luna in a flat tone before Pumpernickel had a chance to reply. “But that is neither here nor there. If we are to entrust the life of our diplomat to our guard, we must be certain of their minds. Redoubtable and Pumpernickel, thou art two of my most swift and resourceful guards, but before you are to take up this task, we must confront certain concerns thy Guard Commander doth have that parallel mine own.”

“Me?” said Pumpernickel, turning to face Luna with downcast eyes. “You should select somepony else then. Dandelion, maybe. He’s almost as fast as I am, and a lot smarter.”

For a moment, Luna considered his suggestion. It would be so easy to simply pass him over and send another in his place, somepony who would not bear the burden of his namesake having been killed on a previous mission. It would place her guard at a lesser station, where he could be observed until he could once again be trusted. If he ever was. It would be the easy choice, the decision that would not threaten to leave her hoofmaiden a widow, or make Luna relive that terrible night of blood and murder in her mind. It would be a first step in a direction she was unwilling to take. Again.

“No,” said Luna, her voice firming just short of a royal command. “This mission demands the best, and we shall not tolerate weakness in our guard. Thou shalt test thy mettle against your Princess of the Night in honored combat and prove thyself worthy of the task, or thou shalt be dismissed from the Royal Guard.”

The Nocturne stallion’s head yanked up as abruptly as if it had been kicked, and huge unbelieving golden eyes stared into her own.

“I would rather die than leave my Princess,” he breathed.

Far better to live, my child. Live and grow without this infernal weight of duty we place upon your fragile shoulders. Take your wife and flee my side to a place where you might find happiness instead of constant sorrow and pain.

Princess Luna turned away as the privacy bubble surrounding them vanished. “You have five minutes to prepare.”

* * *

Luna stood on the sparring mark, preparing her mind for the fight even as her hoofmaiden fussed over her pads, adjusting them properly over tense shoulders and trembling neck. Speaking in a voice so quiet that even the princess could barely hear, Laminia talked half to herself, and half to Luna as she worked to tighten straps that were already perfectly tight.

“...can’t believe you two idiots are going to go beat each other up over this stupid thing. I swear stallions have only two brain cells but that does not excuse your behavior princess...”

Beyond the muttering mare, her husband was being attended by nearly the entire medical facility of the sparring rings, as carefully as if they were embalming the body before a funeral. Pumpernickel seemed oddly calm, with his eyes closed, and his breathing regular while they applied new tape to his pads and washed off old sweat. Normally the observation stands would have more than one Night Guard exchanging casual wagers with each other over the outcome of the fight, but this evening even the compulsive betters were leaning against the fence in silence, their eyes flickering between the battered stallion they had all met at least once in the ring and their Princess of the Night.

Luna had not been exaggerating when she had spoken about those terrible times when she had faced ponies in the ring who had died by her hooves, and being in this place only made the ghosts seem real, on the other side of a thin sheet of reality where they could watch her every action. When Pumpernickel stepped away from the medics and strode to his starting spot, there was a firmness in his shoulders Luna had never seen before, as well as a set to his jaw that matched his sparkling eyes. Even Laminia stumbled a bit on the way to her seat behind the observation screen when she looked at her husband.

With a measured breath, Luna relaxed as much as she could to open her perceptions to the arena. Like glowing stars, the tiny flecks of her own soul that she had woven into her beloved Nocturne surrounded her on all sides. Their heat was nearly palpable, a gentle touch of familiarity that brought peace to her chaotic mind and focus for the coming fight. Her guard seemed to glow with the same internal fire within his own bubble of tranquility, relaxed and waiting. Watching her as she watched him. There was no outward sign of the awkward tension that he had constantly displayed ever since the first day he had come to her attention, and that worried her somewhat.

The announcer spoke, calling out the limitations of the upcoming fight and other meaningless babble. There was only one thing that mattered in a battle, and that was winning. To see your opponent dragged out by his heels while you savored the fruits of your — No!

This was a bad idea. She should stop it. Somepony was going to get hurt. Even remaining stationary as Pumpernickel normally did during his bouts would do the guardstallion little good if she were to strike him with her full strength. Even weakened by centuries in the moon, she was still too strong. Even now. Even after months of recovery, learning again how to simply be again, she was going to lose control. She was going to hurt him.

“Three minutes. Fight!”

As if that were touching the trigger of a highly stressed spring, Pumpernickel flung himself forward nearly too rapidly to be seen. It was only sheer reflex that allowed Princess Luna to bring up one padded foreleg to block his blow with a force that seemed to travel all the way to her flank, and even then her guardstallion had the audacity to flick her in the face with his tail as he flew by.

Spinning around in a spray of scattered sand caught a glimpse of Pumpernickel in a sharp wingover, obviously intending another shot at his ground-bound opponent. With a violent shove of her wings, Luna launched herself into the air, having to almost immediately bank into a tight turn to prevent wandering outside the confining boundaries of the sparring ring. Her guard spun into a counter-cyclical circling himself, and the two combatants eyed each other for a moment.

Luna felt her heart thud against her ribs, the strong beat of her wings sweeping through the air as she matched Pumpernickel’s circular course exactly. A red flush tinged her cheeks in exhilaration as her left foreleg throbbed and tingled in a sensation she had long forgotten.

Joy.

Laughter burst from her lips as she tumbled to her left, meeting the guardstallion in the center of the ring in a burst of strikes and counter-strikes, each blow met with a counter or dodge as they tumbled through the air, spreading their wings only an instant before striking the sandy ground. This time she took to the air with a mighty swoop, skimming only inches away from the screen that separated the observers and the combatants as she climbed to the very top of the ring and pounced. Pumpernickel met her descending assault with a twisting kick she had never seen before, catching her a glancing blow just over the right shoulder. Even the subdued pain of impact only caused Luna to hesitate in her own blow by a tiny fraction, but it was enough for the stallion to catch her hoof on his helmet instead of his chin, and he flipped twice before stabilizing himself on his wings.

I had forgotten this. All the time I spent in the moon, I had concentrated so much on my flaws and crimes that I never remembered the joy of matching my hooves against another just for the thrill of the competition. This is better than cake, better than love, even better than mating!

Well, almost.

There was a tendency for her own tail to raise as she felt the repetitive impacts of hoof against padding echo through her body, an urge that she carefully fought down. After all, this was no longer the age where a Princess could take one of her married stallions in public without rather dire consequences, including a very frosty reaction from Laminia and an acerbic lecture from Celestia. Not to mention the reaction of the Royals, who would beleaguer her with disapproving letters and words for years.

Pumpernickel fought with a controlled ferocity that defied her every expectation, his every blow was pure and accurate, his parries brisk, and when he tumbled away from her own blows, not a single trace of anger or hatred marred his features. Only the grim serious look of concentration that brought him back repeatedly against her defenses in a flurry of hooves and teeth that would have pressed her to fully defend against even in her best of days. The rhythm of their blows grew as a song, the ringing of hoof against padded steel growing as they matched themselves against each other in a rising crescendo. It was music. It was art. It was very difficult to keep her tail down.

The rest of the ponies watching faded into the background as they fought, only the stallion and the mare existing in a violent dance of sweaty bodies that dated back to the creation of their kind. Time did not exist, her terrible history did not matter, the ghosts of the Nocturne’s ancestors faded away as ghosts do in the light. There was only—

Pain!