• Published 7th Oct 2013
  • 32,497 Views, 226 Comments

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?

  • ...
8
 226
 32,497

Ch 6 - A Mighty Fortress

Diplomacy by Other Means

A Mighty Fortress


“It has been a custom with princesses, in order to hold their states more securely, to build fortresses that may serve as a bridle and bit to those who might design to work against them...”

— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess


While the chariot bumped towards the mountains, the cool air flowing over his bruised body felt good to Pumpernickel, but not nearly as good as the sensation of armor over his bare hide would have felt if he had not swelled up on top of the bruises. A formal military jacket of darkest purple and silver substituted for steel this morning, let out in several places by his seamstress wife and decorated with the medals he had been awarded in his short but meteoric career. There were the usual small clips of silver and gold that signified the usual accomplishments: graduation, assignment, honors, and the like, for which he was quite glad they did not have to be returned when he inevitably screwed up. Then there was a treasured silver ring that showed his assignment to Princess Luna’s personal protection unit, and a tiny red fleck of painted steel that reflected his promotion to the rank of Optio. He still had no idea just exactly what rank that was supposed to represent, and since he had received it immediately after accidentally smashing a door into Her Highness’ face, he was not certain if Luna knew what the rank was supposed to be, but it came with ten more bits in each pay period, so he had decided it was best not to press the issue and simply remain quiet.

He had thought that was going to be the most embarrassing medal he would ever have to explain, but today there was a little three-quarters moon done in silvered steel that was going to be worse. Laminia had explained in excruciating detail how the Commander of the Night Guard had given her the medal, quickly cut and polished out of the broken remains of his helmet in a new Tradition that was probably going to be known as ‘The Night Pumpernickel Got His Flank Whupped.’ The commander had explained the four different configurations of the medal as a quarter-moon for simply having the nerve to face Luna in the sparring ring, a half-moon for lasting a full minute, three-quarters for two, and a full moon for actually beating her.

It galled him somewhat that the rest of the guard, and in particular his own wife, could take his murderous loss of control so casually. The angry fire that burned in his chest had never been closer to the surface than now, and the chill breeze of high altitude only made it simmer into the background as if it were waiting for an opportunity to strike.

The tall spires of the Crystal Empire had been left far behind them this morning, an irrational fortress of crystal built to be defended with magic instead of steel and flesh. It was an uncomfortably naked feeling to walk the cool halls and walls of that ancient fortress, held away from the world longer than Princess Luna. The familiar battlements and portcullis of Canterlot had been as absent as his own armor, and he had not been able to help looking out of the crystalline windows as if griffons were about to fill the night sky and attack while the defenseless city was sleeping.

Ahead of the chariot now stood the aerie of the griffons, tucked away high on the Misty Mountain’s tallest peak in a familiar rugged lump of solid stone that almost brought a tear to his eyes. Battlements and portcullis in large numbers lurked beneath the grey stone skin of the hulking structure, seeming far too large for the few griffons who circled on the violent thermal updrafts that were scattered through the dangerous mountains. Ahead of the chariot was their single guide griffon, a short spear tucked in one taloned claw as she directed the diplomatic mission around the downdrafts and gusts. Violent short drops and bounces made the delicate pink coat of Primrose more of a bilious green by the time the chariot landed, just as softly and professionally on the landing pad as if the performance were being watched by both Princesses of Equestria.

Their welcoming committee consisted of two griffons who sat impassively at the landing pad with an unbending expression indicating a tolerance of the interlopers into their aerie that was just barely greater than the desire to kick them off the mountain. The slightly taller of the two had a dark neck ruff with little silver feathers scattered throughout it that contrasted well with the silver armband of office that he wore, showing his royal position within the aerie. The female griffon to his side bore nothing that indicated her position except the way she spread out her snow-white ruff in an attempt to look more important, but just wound up making her neck look fat. They both observed the nauseous unicorn who stumbled off the chariot and knelt at the edge of the landing pad, before turning their golden eyes to look at Pumpernickel.

“<Will your ambassador require any assistance?>” chirped and squawked the larger griffon in a tone just short of insolence.

“<Her Excellency requires few minutes to recover. Our ride here was much unpleasant.>” replied Pumpernickel slowly, picking his way through the Griffon language as if it were a minefield.

In truth, it took about five minutes for Primrose to get enough control over her bodily functions to officially introduce herself and the rest of the diplomatic mission to Duke Bravely Plummets Upon Groundbound Unknowing Prey and Princess Gilded Clouds Raising Gloriously Into The Dawn Sky Signifying Upcoming Storms, otherwise known as Duke Plummets and Princess Gilda. Leaving her ‘adjunct’ to oversee the luggage and the storage of the chariot in the decrepit rooftop garage, the queasy unicorn diplomat and her two guards trotted off to meet with the Wingmaster, King Talon.

According to the briefing that Primrose had drummed into him, the griffon aerie was thick with self-appointed royalty, with almost every golden-eyed griffon claiming one title or another. It was complicated enough he had almost resorted to writing all their names on one hoof, but fortunately griffon formal names were only used once in formal occasions, after which they could just be called Princess Sunny, Ambassador Sharp Edge, King Talon, etc…

While in the Academy, Pumpernickel had taken nearly every course on Griffon and Minotaur culture and language he could find, a welcome extension of his youthful concentration of studies in the same topics. The Night Guards who had served in the loose-knit Griffon Empire were as close to role models as his youthful mind could understand, and a sense of worth had trickled into his mind while studying the violent history of the two races. After all, embassies needed guards too, and the career of a Night Guard far from home had appealed to him at the time. Contrary to his wishes, he had also received some minor training in diplomacy in a forlorn attempt to counter his innate ability to say just exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, but most of it had been promptly forgotten except for the summary: “Shut up, nod, and let the big ponies talk.”

In that regard, he was doing an excellent job so far. Two sentences spoken and no major diplomatic incidents was probably pushing the limits, and he made a resolution to remain mute for the rest of their trip just in case three times was not the charm.

After the ambassadorial party and the griffons trotted off to the warren of tunnels that led to their quarters, he oversaw the griffon’s earth pony servants as he had been commanded, making sure they got the chariot properly stored in the small, dusty hanger and all of the luggage moved.

There was something about the meek earth ponies that rubbed him the wrong way. The few servants he had seen so far were all dull and faded, as if the elevation were a draining experience on both their colors and their energy. The fortress was at a slightly higher elevation than Canterlot, but that did not explain the hunted look about the servants, and the fearful way they treated their employers.

He was used to a certain degree of passive royalty worship, having no small amount of it in his own self in regards to Princess Luna, but that was nothing like the few terrified glances they cast at the taller of the two griffons, Duke Plummets, if they looked at him at all.

After a few minutes outside to soak his bruised body in the warm sunshine, Pumpernickel turned to go into the chilly warren of tunnels that would lead to the diplomatic quarters where he had been ordered to sleep, both to heal up and to be prepared to guard this evening. That is, if he were able to find the place, as he had been foolish enough not to follow the servants when they left. There would have been a certain indignity appropriate to his life so far to become lost inside the ancient castle, and starve to death while trying to find a way out.

One of the skills a Royal Guard was supposed to have was the ability to know when they were observed. Due to his fatigue and physical condition, it was perfectly understandable for him to have missed the cues and yelped a little bit when he swept through the doorway and nearly ran over a small fledgeling griffon, who backed up so fast she almost tripped and fell down the stairs.

“Careful there!” said Pumpernickel abruptly as he darted a wing forward to herd the little griffon away from a fall down the cold stone steps. He almost finished knocking her down the steps instead, hissing in pain as his bruised wing refused to open correctly. After a few moments of labored breathing, he very carefully lifted the wing back up for examination. His bruising was somewhat covered by the dress jacket and some artfully applied cosmetics that he had complained about to no avail, but the stretched-out wing was a blotchy array of reds and blues shifting to purple where the healing spell had made the most progress.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Mister Peggysus!” The little griffon looked up at him with a mournful golden gaze, sweeping her eyes across his battered body from blackened eyes to a mottled rump that brought out his silver heart cutie mark in dramatic contrast. She reached out one tentative taloned claw to touch his membranous wing, so different than her own feathered, or more accurately pinfeathered wings. “I’m sorry.”

With a suppressed curse, Pumpernickel tucked his wing back up at his flanks and managed to look down at the little fledgeling without too much of a frown. “That’s fine. No harm done, sorry to be an inconvenience. I’ll just be on my way to the diplomatic suite with the rest of our luggage and get out of your mane. Ruff. Feathers. Whatever. Goodbye.”

“Wait.” The little fledgeling looked at him with an air of command in her voice, mixed with a plaintive begging that froze his hooves to the cool stone of the staircase before he could get more than a few steps away. He tried to smile in a diplomatic way as he looked back, managing only a pained grimace in the dim lighting of the stairs that silhouetted the little griffon fledgeling in a halo of sunlight. She reared up on leoine rear paws, resting her talons against his bruised flanks in an action that caused a wince of pain, even though she seemed to be touching as gently as possible. Tiny talons traced the circular bruises that covered his flanks, in a tentative brushing as if the sad little griffon were terrified of breaking him, or guilty of his injuries.

“Are you going to go away too?”

“What?” Pumpernickel managed a painful turn, facing the little griffon who sat down with a thump on the staircase landing. “We’re only here for a few days until we can get a diplomatic agreement, if that’s what you mean.”

“No.” The little griffon sniffled. “I just thought…”

As the little griffon sat drooping at the top of the stairs, Pumpernickel considered his options, eventually deciding an introduction was an appropriate way to continue the conversation without causing some diplomatic incident. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Pum—” Pumpernickel cut himself off with a painful cough and a moment to adjust his collar. “Please excuse me. I am called Lumpy, Adjunct to Her Excellency, the Ambassador Primrose, Representative of Princess Luna.”

It had been decided by female forces greater than himself, that the name ‘Pumpernickel’ was perhaps less than diplomatic for the occasion, because of the bloody history behind his namesake. ‘Lumpy’ had been deemed an accurate and painfully appropriate substitute, much to his chagrin at having to wear the disgraceful nickname in an official capacity. At least his title was understandable, as opposed to the title of ‘Optio’ which Luna had bestowed upon him and never explained.

“What’s an adjunk?” asked the little griffon, curiosity overcoming sadness for a brief period.

“It’s an assistant, of a sort,” explained Pumpernickel. “I make sure the bags are packed, the carriage put away, all of the paperwork is in order, things like that.”

“Oh, you mean a servant.” The griffon sniffed, and looked away. “Does your misstress beat you for misbehaving?”

The angry denial died on his lips in a wave of guilt. The little griffon fledgeling was right, but for all the wrong reasons. His mistress, in a highly metaphorical way that would never become reality as long as he lived, was Princess Luna, and she did ‘beat’ him for misbehaving, although not in the way the little griffon was probably thinking. In order to prevent any misunderstandings, he opened his mouth again to deny the charge, only to have the little griffon continue.

“You must have been bad. Like Stargazer. I didn’t think she was bad, but…”

A rustling and scratching at the bottom of the stairs preceded a strong voice calling, “Sunny? Are you up there?”

“Yes, Father. I was talking to Lumpy.” With a scratching thud of paws and claws on stone, a tall slim griffon with silvery ruff and piercing blue eyes hurried up the stairs, brushing past Pumpernickel without hardly a glance as he scooped up the little griffon in a quick hug. With a shock, Pumpernickel realized the father was Ambassador Sharp Edge, a griffon he had encountered several times around the court over the past year, and in particular just a few days ago when he had accompanied King Talon to Canterlot in the ill-fated diplomatic negotiations over the newly-emerged Crystal Empire. At which time, he had been accompanied by his daughter—

“<Princess Sun Shines on the Misty Mountains at Dawn Through Early Morning Hazy Skies>,” squawked out Pumpernickel in Griffon, as if it were the answer to an exam question.

Her father turned rather deliberately on the stairs to face the unarmored Royal Guard with a speculative look. “Lumpy?”

“Yes, sir. Your Excellency, that is. Sir. And Your Highness. Ma’am.”

The griffon was nearly impossible to read, a study in immobility except for his piercing blue eyes, which looked the battered Night Guard over from nose to tail. His gaze only paused when taking in the guard’s crisp new uniform, hesitating momentarily on the unfamiliar medal before looking at his injuries with a dispassionate examination that felt vaguely medical to Pumpernickel.

“A very diplomatic name,” said Ambassador Sharp Edge. “Lumpy.”

“Ahh. Yes. Well, I must be going to our quarters. It was nice talking to you, Ambassador, and your daughter.” The Nocturne hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, looking in both directions in the vague hope the earth pony servants had dropped a trail of bread crumbs on their way to put away the diplomatic luggage.

“Left,” said Ambassador Sharp Edge in a particularly dry tone. “Or perhaps you would like me to guide you there. I appear to be between tasks at the moment, as King Talon is relying on Duke Plummets for this afternoon’s negotiations. After all, we would not want an agent of a foreign power wandering our halls unescorted during this time of tension. Unfortunate accidents can happen from misunderstandings.”

It only took the ambassador a few minutes to escort Pumpernickel to the Equestrian ambassador’s quarters, a small collection of rooms that would have easily held a dozen ponies. Even with the spacious balcony built for parking a chariot or two, the frigid gusts coming off the mountain made Pumpernickel feel better about having their transportation tucked away on the roof of the fortress. After all, even if Laminia had been driving, somehow a dent in the chariot would be his fault. The rooms were spotlessly clean and the ambassador was quite detailed in his description during the tour, with one exception that seemed to pluck at some unseen nerve within his chest.

“What about there?” Pumpernickel pointed at a section of the balcony about ten yards in front of the main door to the quarters. Where the rest of the balcony was swept and cleaned within an inch of its life, about a wingspread of stones remained untouched, with a dark smear of dust and accumulated debris that indicated years of disuse.

“That? Oh, you would not be interested.” The ambassador turned to leave, and paused, considering the silent little fledgeling on his back who had not moved during the entire tour. “Then again, I believe Sunny knows the story, having heard it from her grandfather several times.” A chill breeze blew through the balcony, sending a single leaf skittering across the dirty patch of floor.

“Really, Father?” Sunny looked up at from where she had been huddled against her fathers feathers, considering the bruised Nocturne stallion standing tensely at the edge of the dirty circle. “Well, if Lumpy wants to hear it, I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Sharp Edge, picking up his daughter and placing her on the floor next to him. “‘Lumpy’ wants to hear this.”

The little griffon sat back on her haunches with eyes closed and pinfeathered wings tucked up in the posture of Griffon storytelling, took a breath, and began to speak in a low cadence.

A long time ago, many centuries in fact, there was a dark and mysterious pony who visited our aerie. His eyes were like royal gold, and his wings were as a dragon, strong and powerful. Many other proud ponies traveled with him, supposedly on a mission from the Fire Queen, Celestia, to bring tribute and slaves to our Wingmaster as he deserved, but this pony was not as he seemed. One day while the Wingmaster was throwing a celebration in the Council Circle, the dark pony struck! With his companions at his side, the dark pony attacked in the middle of the party, slaying many innocent griffons and servants.

But the Wingmaster was wise, and had armed his children before the party, allowing them to fight back and slay nearly all of the treacherous ponies. The dark pony fled before his vengeance, retreating to this very balcony where he made his last stand.

Tercel after brave tercel attacked him in honorable single combat, but the dark pony scattered them all like frightened quail, until the rising of the moon. Then his demonic form could be seen, a hideous creature of darkness and evil. Only the Wingmaster was brave enough to defeat him, talon to hoof, in a deadly fight that stained the very stones red with blood that will not wash away even to this day.

The next morning, the aerie rose as a wave and descended upon the traitorous ponies who had attempted to destroy them. We captured and held the towns and villages of the Misty Valley, holding them even against the revenge of the Fire Queen, for the dark pony slain that night was her mate. That is why we remain on watch at night, for someday he will return, and only the talons of the Wingmaster will be able to slay the demon again.

“But, Father,” said Sunny with a dry sniff as she opened her eyes and turned away from Pumpernickel. “That’s only a story. They’re not like that, you know it! You were with us in Canterlot, you talked to Celestia. She’s nice, like Stargazer. She’s not evil, she doesn’t want to burn our nest down and kill us. We had dinner with her, I shared my fish with her, and she even had her batponies take us on a nighttime trip around Canterlot in a chariot—”

“Sunny—” started her father in an admonishing tone.

“—but you don’t listen to me! They have stories and histories like ours, but they say we’re the monsters! They say we attacked and bit and e-e-eat them!”

“Sunny!”

The little griffon burst into tears and darted out the door into the hallway, her father dashing after her but stopping momentarily at the door.

“My apologies for the words of my daughter, Optio. She is worried about the absence of her friend. Excuse me.”

And he was gone.

Pumpernickel walked painfully to the door, listening to the noises of father and daughter echo through the halls as they faded into the distance. He had not forgotten the feeling when he saw the two fires in Laminia’s chest, the knowledge that he would someday have a son or daughter who would bear his curse. The ambassador had lost a wife and an older daughter to the simple rigors of the dangerous life of griffons. Someday would he be in the same situation, raising a colt without Laminia for assistance?

It was difficult enough thinking of becoming a father, the thought of losing his wife was a crushing rope that threatened to choke the life out of him. The fire in his heart guttered to low coals as if the circle of dirty paving stones were sucking the heat out of it. The Pumpernickels of centuries ago were not him, a thought that comforted him as he prepared for bed with the various potions and pills that would numb his body more than his already numb mind.

Why should I forgive Sunny for believing a lie?

His bed was very cold as he curled up and attempted to sleep.

And not to dream.