• 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 7 - Trust

Diplomacy by Other Means
Trust


Because this is to be asserted in general of Griffons, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and fledgelings, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.
— N. Marechiavelli, On Griffons


“Lumpy. Psst. Wake up, you lazy slug.”

He restrained himself to the great effort necessary to open one eye and glare at his guard partner, because it would have taken far too much energy to simply to slug the handsome pegasus and return to sleep.

“What do you want?” was too complicated to make it through his mouth, turned into a somewhat “Murghleth thumph” by the combination of fatigue and early rising. It took a long time to wriggle out from underneath the tight sleepy grip of his wife, who had obviously come to bed sometime after he had gone to sleep, but she barely protested when he finished getting all four hooves on the cold stone floor and slipped his duffle bag full of armor back into bed in his stead. With a subdued purr, Laminia threw a leg over the lumpy bag and snuggled in, resuming her quiet snoring even as Redoubtable helped him hobble out of the tiny guard bedroom.

“Sorry to wake the old married geezer, but we young and handsome guards have to get some sleep sometime.” Redoubtable yawned and stretched his wings, showing more than a few ruffled feathers that desperately needed preening.

“Geezer? I’m a month younger than you.” Pumpernickel suppressed a yawn of his own and felt for the moon, surprised at the lateness of the hour. “Sheesh, Red. It’s almost midnight. You should have gotten me up for my turn hours ago.”

“Doctor’s orders. You didn’t even twitch when Rosie gave you a quick dose of healing spell before she dropped off, so live with it. Now stick up a wing and let me look at you.”

Redoubtable conducted a quick examination of his fellow Royal Guard without a word despite the occasional grumble of “cold hooves” from his patient, finishing off with a gentle pat on the back that only drew a subdued wince.

“How is it, doctor? Will I ever play the piano again?” Pumpernickel stepped into his high-shinned shoes and adjusted them before putting on his helmet. The rest of the armor remained in the duffel bag being used as a pillow by his wife, because he still felt too swollen to get properly wedged inside, much like a clam too large for its shell.

“Accordion,” said Redoubtable. “With the way that you folded up when Luna hit you…” He trailed off before quietly shedding out of his own armor. “Master of the Post, I request relief.”

“Watch Guard, I am here to relieve you,” said Pumpernickel in the timeless cadence of the guard.

“I stand relieved. The watch is yours.” Redoubtable paused before heading to his well-deserved bed. “I’m glad you didn’t get killed, Lumpy.”

“It would have ruined Luna’s night,” said Pumpernickel with a nervous flick of his wings that only hurt in a good way. “Besides, this gives me an even bigger opportunity to screw up and get more ponies killed.”

“Don’t you say that!” The words almost hissed out of the pegasus guard, held to a low volume in order not to disturb either of the other two sleeping mares in the other rooms. “There’s no other guard, Day or Night, that I would rather have outside that door while I’m sleeping.”

Pumpernickel could not look the other guardstallion in the eye, but instead settled on glaring at the door to the ambassadorial suite in the vain hopes a vicious assassin would break through at any moment. After an awkward pause with no interruptions, he added, “Even after seeing what I did at the sparring ring?”

Particularly after seeing what happened in the ring. Sheesh, Lumpy. If you had fought like that against half the instructors, you would have pounded them into the — I mean — That’s why you always held back, isn’t it? You were afraid of letting that thing out.”

“Yeah,” muttered Pumpernickel. “Like the last mission to the griffon aerie here. That Pumpernickel died just outside our door in a pool of blood. Impressed them so much they haven’t ever mopped up the mess.”

“I’ve been reading Morning Glory’s diary,” said Redoubtable with a frown. “I don’t think either of us could take more than one or two griffons by ourselves, but he didn’t just beat them, he must have killed a dozen or more to scare the griffons so much even after this many years.” The guardstallion paused with his helmet half-off, taking a surreptitious glance backwards at the diplomatic bedroom to ensure he was not being overheard. “I meant what I said. You’re more than just a name, you’re my best friend, and Laminia’s Lumpy, and Luna’s…” Redoubtable paused with an introspective look. “You and her never—”

“No!” hissed Pumpernickel with a vivid blush. “Not in that way. She was having a really bad time for a few days, and could only sleep by holding somepony’s hoof, but that’s it. Nothing else.”

From the look on Redoubtable’s face, he was on the verge of asking for more details before shaking his head and turning for bed with a muffled yawn. Pumpernickel duplicated the motion in the other direction, slipping out the front door of the diplomatic suite and settling in for a hopefully quiet night on the balcony under the stars.

-----~^~^~^~^~^~-----

There was a sense of timelessness that slipped over a guard on duty, a tranquil state of mind where even the smallest movement was registered, evaluated, and classified while the body remained perfectly still, with only breathing and heartbeat to disturb the silence. A properly prepared guard was unable to be surprised even in the darkest night in the worst of weather.

Instead, Pumpernickel split his guard time between moping over his station in life and leafing through the slick pages of the book Redoubtable had left out on the balcony beside the guard position. The copy spell had always left a duplicated book feeling too smooth for his taste, and this book had been copied recently enough that the pages still tried to stick together. It felt oddly dividing to be standing in the same place that the writer of the diary had stood two centuries ago while her Pumpernickel had savagely defended the remaining members of the diplomatic mission.

Part of him could feel the red rage of his namesake being unleashed upon the attacking griffons even through the barrier of centuries, while part of him just stood in the frigid breeze and shivered under the light of the moon. His moon and the other Pumpernickel’s moon were more different than he was to the rage-filled monster who killed griffons until he could kill no more. That Pumpernickel had been looked down upon by the imprisoned Nightmare Moon, unwillingly held away from Equestria and unable to interfere, while he was only here as a representative of Princess Luna, who held herself back from the task by her own free will. After considerable consideration, he stood in the center of the dirty circle and tried to imagine himself defending his friend and his wife from the same danger.

After a minute, he moved out of the circle.

Reading on guard duty was strictly forbidden, particularly in a potentially lethal situation such as being in the middle of a griffon aerie that could attack at any minute. Still, there was something that touched at his soul, as if the ghost of his namesake long dead these two hundred years was sitting in front of him, maintaining his eternal guard over the ponies he had failed to protect, for the sole purpose that he understand his murderous sacrifice.

The diary of the diplomat, Morning Glory, was a complicated thing, filled with socio-political observations about griffons and ponies that she had met at the side of her mentor, Ambassador Stone. He flipped through it, feeling slightly ignorant at the large words that he only vaguely recognized, until he reached the section where she talked about her trip to the aerie. Apparently his namesake was not as important as he thought, as his name was mentioned only once in passing until the entry after the attack.

According to the diary, Wingmaster Silverbeak had not ordered the attack upon the diplomats. On the contrary, he had fought fiercely against the idea until the rebellious tercels, his own children and grandchildren, had flung themselves into the attack upon Celestia’s diplomats. There were only a few lines about the attack, the mindless violence thrust upon a peaceful unicorn diplomat that she was barely able to understand, but a great deal written about the aftermath and the resulting treaty which she had signed in memory of her fallen comrades. Flipping through the rest of the book, it became apparent that the diplomat had never returned to Canterlot, spending the rest of her days in the small villages of the area, falling in love with a hero of the battle, getting married, and eventually dying in a house filled with generations of her talented progeny.

There was a sense of disappointment in him that she had not named any of her children ‘Pumpernickel’ in reverence of the guard who saved her life, but he could understand. Survival was not enough; an attack like that would cling to the mind unless it could be forgotten, left only on dry pages in faded ink instead of nightmares. There was even a notation on the diary cover that it was to be kept sealed until all who would be affected by its contents were dead. He flipped back to the few lines that covered the attack, finding it entirely too easy to imagine the blood splattered across the feathers of the dead in the descriptive words. The image was so stark that it took him a moment to separate the imaginary scene from the real sound of light hoofsteps in the hallway. They seemed to move in little spurts, with slow, hesitant clicks as they approached, and rapid scuttling noises as they fled, but the approaching was more frequent than the fleeing, so he moved away from the edge of the dirty circle on the stones where only his ghosts walked and prepared to receive living visitors.

The hallway door clicked with the sound of a key being fumbled in the lock, and a familiar voice whispered, “It’s us.”

Having been deprived of his normal gruff, “Who goes there!” command, Pumpernickel settled on the less used challenge of a whispered, “What do you want, Princess Sunny?”

“To run away and hide in my room and never have to come in this terrifying place again,” a second voice whispered back. The whispered conversation in the hallway that resulted was just barely below the limits of Pumpernickel’s sensitive hearing, but he did catch several “You promised!” and at least one “I’ll tell on you!” before the door creaked open and a milky-white pony nose poked in. But just barely in. And the owner of the second voice still sounded terrified.

“Hi! Is anypony here?”

He was so tempted to whisper back, “No” just to see what would happen, but the humor of the situation eluded him among the whispers of the invisible dead. Still, if there ever had been an attack that began this way, it had never been covered in his Academy training, so Pumpernickel sighed and said, “Come in.”

Moving in little fits and starts, the rest of the milky-white earth pony emerged from the doorway, a familiar little griffon fledgeling sitting impatiently on her back. Princess Sun Shines glanced around the balcony with a squint and whispered, “Lumpy, are you there?”

He had been around his own kind so long Pumpernickel had forgotten just how inferior most ponies’ night vision was in comparison to the Nocturne. The overhang shadowing the back half of the balcony had been the natural place for him to stand guard, but he stepped out of the shadows into a ray of moonlight and announced, “Yes, I’m here. What were you needing, Princess?”

The earth pony mare carrying Sunny froze, her eyes shrinking to tiny dots while her knees trembled and a tiny squeak managed to force itself out of her lips. The little griffon patted the pony gently on the top of her frizzy cinnamon-colored mane and said, “Oh, don’t be so frightened. It’s only Lumpy. Did you think Pumpernickel was up here?”

“Pumpernickel?” asked Pumpernickel.

“Don’t say his name!” squeaked the mare. “He’ll hear you!”

“Pumpernickel, pumpernickel, pumpernickel,” said Sunny with a scowl as she hopped off her method of transportation and scurried over to Pumpernickel. “It’s just an old biddy’s tale. Hi, Lumpy. I see you’re wearing your armor tonight.”

“Hello, Princess,” said Pumpernickel, feeling more than a little uncomfortable in more than one way. “I had to leave some of it off, but these parts fit. What brings you out at this time of night?”

“Can’t sleep. Stargazer and I used to come here and look out at the stars when I couldn’t sleep. That is, when she felt good.” The little griffon scratched at the balcony rail, climbing up on top with little heed to the hundred foot drop below that her little fledgeling wings would be unable to stop. Pumpernickel tried to help her climb, but after Sunny’s strong protests, he merely held one wing out over the precipitous drop, just in case.

“There!” declared Sunny, sitting down on the stone rail with a contented sigh and fluffing her feathers against the cold.

“Um. Yes. There.” Pumpernickel glanced back at where the pale earth pony who had brought Sunny was huddling up next to the hallway door, obviously thinking she could not be seen in the darkness. There was a definite air of nervous tension tonight, much like whenever he had attempted the thankless task of entertaining young foals in his family home. Any moment now, Sunny was going to ask him to tell a story about the beautiful stars that were scattered about Luna’s sky, and the last thing he wanted to admit was his knowledge was limited in that regard to ‘North’ and ‘Orion, I think.’

“So, was your friend sick a lot?”

The fluffed-up feathers around Sunny lost much of their fluff. “No. She was bad. She had to be bad or she wouldn’t be punished so much. And she wasn’t a friend. She was just a pony.”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” said Pumpernickel, uncomfortable at having hit the little griffon’s weak spot. “I mean… When you couldn’t sleep before, what did she do?”

All of the previously flattened feathers fluffed back up and the little griffon looked up at him with bright sparkling eyes. “We used to fly!”

“Pardon?”

“Well, not really fly. She used to hold me out over the edge and I’d flap my wings just as hard as I could and imagine the wind in my face was really flying.”

Pumpernickel considered just what ideas would go through a battered earth pony servant as she held a flightless fledgeling over a certainly fatal drop, where one tiny slip would have bashed Sunny’s head on the rocks below. He wasn’t sure just what he would have done in the same circumstances, and he really didn’t want to know either.

“Could you hold me over the edge again so I can practice flying, Mister Lumpy? Please?”

-----~^~^~^~^~^~-----

A piercing voice echoed around the buildings in Canterlot, as ponies gathered to hear the latest news. “Extra, extra! Read all about it!” screamed the Canterlot newscolt, holding a newspaper above him as a crowd of ponies gathered around. “Butterhooves Royal Guard Kills Royal Heir! War Declared By Griffon Empire! Thousands Feared Dead!”

-----~^~^~^~^~^~-----

“No,” said Pumpernickel firmly. “No, Your Highness. I’m still recovering from my injuries, and I would not feel… safe in that role.”

“Oh.” The little griffon drooped again, scooting closer to Pumpernickel as a windbreak against the chill breeze that scattered ice crystals around the moonlit balcony in glittering swirls. Before she could somehow come up with another dangerous request that would shorten Pumpernickel’s life through suppressed stress, he quickly steered the conversation in a neutral direction.

“Stargazer sounds like a very interesting pony. What do you know about her?”

The floodgates were opened and the little griffon began to chatter, holding herself against the warm Night Guard with only the occasional covetous glance at the sparkling decorations on his jacket. Stargazer apparently had known Sunny for a few years now, almost ever since her hatching, and had been a constant companion until her uncle, Duke Plummets had arrived at the aerie nearly the same time her sister had died. Grandfather, or as Pumpernickel had to constantly remind himself, Wingmaster Talon had given the duke preferential treatment, including a personal servant of his own choosing.

To Sunny’s youthful ire, he had chosen Stargazer.

Grifflet and pony had been still able to talk on occasion, in particular during the rest of mating season when all of the adult griffons who could fly engaged in idiotic plumage displays and stupidly dangerous stunts in order to attract the attention of prospective mates. Sunny had taken the death of her older sister during mating season harder than most griffons, whose views on death and mourning were shockingly shallow to Pumpernickel’s judgement. One single day of mourning, a funeral in the crypts on the top of the mountain among the rest of the ancestors of her clan, and a short epitaph chiseled on a stone were all that most griffons received. Even Wingmasters merely received a few additional inscribed lines of their accomplishments before being placed within the vault of bones on the high mountain peak like any other commoner.

Pumpernickel nodded along as the little griffon talked, avoiding interjecting his own observations on pony funerals and mating rituals. Somehow he did not think it would be productive for Griffon-Pony relations to tell how Laminia used to kick him in the head just as hard as she could when they first met, or the rather interesting relationship Princess Luna had with her groomer.

The little griffon leaned into his chest more and more as she talked about how she missed her friend and her sister, and the loneliness of her position. Only royalty or the servants were supposed to interact with a princess in a proper fashion. Since her sister was gone, grandfather had become her frequent companion whenever he had time, although she avoided Duke Plummets as much as possible. Casting a cautious glance back towards the door showed her earth pony servant, Milk Toast, was still patiently waiting, but the edge of terror that the pale pony showed earlier had worn down to a series of silent fidgets, only rising to a spasmodic twitch whenever the duke or the wingmaster’s name was mentioned.

Finally Sunny let out a yawn, looking back into the darkness where her servant was waiting. “I just wish I knew why Stargazer left.”

“She’s pregnant,” said Milk Toast from the doorway, suddenly looking nervous once the words were out of her mouth. Sunny fluffed up her feathers and turned around, causing Pumpernickel a moment of fright as one hind leg kicked briefly in thin air before she regained her footing.

“Pregnant? How did that happen?”

“Well, when a mare and a stallion love each other very much,” started Pumpernickel, still a little distracted by Sunny’s near fall. There was a pregnant pause, and the guardstallion was abruptly aware of the piercing alert gaze of the little griffon, waiting for his next line.

“Well?” she added impatiently. “Then what?”

“They mate?” said Pumpernickel, who had expected to be giving a birds-and-bees lecture someday, but had expected it to be years in the future to his own progeny . “It’s not really that big a deal. My wife is pregnant. Like Stargazer, she’s probably going to want to take a few months off when the foal is due, and maybe a few months for nursing.”

“So has she laid her eggs yet?”

It was all he could do to avoid breaking into laughter, or possibly tears. Memories floated up of a delightful practical joke Laminia had pulled on a couple of annoying little bullies involving a melon, some grey paint, and a lot of gullibility on their regard, but the little griffon looked deadly serious, so he choked back the chuckle in exchange for a brief snort. “No, of course not. We don’t lay eggs.” Quickly catching Sunny’s crestfallen expression, he continued, “But I’m willing to go check up on Stargazer if you want. Toehold is the name of the village, right?”

“Toenail,” corrected Sunny. “She said her parents live in a two-story blue building with green shutters.”

The quiet voice of Milk Toast interrupted with a protesting “But you’re not supposed to leave…” The interruption died out into a dead silence as the young mare glanced back and forth between her predatory employer and the pony that she suddenly seemed to realize had much the same predatory instincts. From the expression on her face, she believed the guard was restraining himself from violence by only the smallest of margins. And she had nearly trod over that margin.

Sunny appeared oblivious to Pumpernickel’s glare at her servant, and rubbed her head up under the Nocturne’s chin with a happy, “You would? Thank you!”

He tried to nuzzle her back, but something inside crumbled at the affectionate gesture even as he heard the faint whisper of displaced air that did not belong in the still night. Swinging one wing forward to wrap around the griffon fledgeling, he tucked into a forward roll and spun around at nearly the same instant a huge feathered shadow from the sky dropped onto the balcony in the exact same place he had been standing just a second ago.