• 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 8 - Greed

Diplomacy by Other Means
Greed


“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from timberwolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten timberwolves.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess


“Uncle Plummets?” said Sunny, popping her head up from behind Pumpernickel’s wing to squint at the moonlit griffon crouched on the balcony. “What are you doing here?”

Moments passed while Pumpernickel calmed his heartbeat, thinking about how he would have preferred to ask the question Sunny asked in a more profane manner, with the griffon in a headlock and while pounding insistently on the top of his plume-decorated golden helmet with one armored hoof.

“Your father was worried.” Cold glints of green light flickered from the eyes of the helmet the griffon wore, a curious archaic relic dating back to many, many centuries ago when they had been costume de rigueur for the entire caste of griffon warriors, along with more fanciful armor which had been more of a hinderance than assistant to their combat skills. The large griffon could have been carved out of obsidian for as much as he moved, his razor-sharp beak pointed straight at Pumpernickel as if he were calculating the exact point to stab for the tastiest delicacies. Finally he moved, but only to talk again.

“You should not be here, Princess Sun Shines.”

“Yeah.” Pumpernickel could feel the little griffon princess slump behind his wing even as he remained with eyes locked on her uncle. “I couldn’t sleep. I miss Stargazer.”

“It is not proper to become attached to the servants,” said Plummets, turning his eyes deliberately from the Night Guard to look at his niece. “Others will talk.”

The response from the little griffon was nearly inaudible, but possibly included a sniff. Duke Plummets seemed to make a decision with a contemptuous twitch of his tail, striding to the hallway door past Pumpernickel by walking straight across the circle of dirty stones. “Come, Princess. Toast will carry you home.”

Sunny slid out from under his wing, but only after Pumpernickel gave her a quick reassuring winghug. Pony and princess passenger fumbled together in the darkness by the door before departing without a trace after their escort, only the sound of hooves and adult claws fading off into the distance of the hallway showing they had ever been here at all.

Waiting until he was certain the griffons had gotten out of range, and taking a peek down the hallway just to be certain, Pumpernickel locked the door again before turning to the other door leading from the balcony into the diplomatic quarters with a sigh.

“They’re gone. You can come out now.”

Three sheepish ponies walked out from behind the door, each trying with body language to indicate the others had been listening first. Both Laminia and Redoubtable were wearing their helmets and foreleg armored shin braces, the fastest pieces of armor to get on in a hurry and the most important in a fight, but Primrose held nothing more dangerous than a worried look. Pumpernickel cut across their carefully arranged excuses and began to take off his jacket.

“I’m going to get armored up and fly to that little village at the bottom of the mountain to talk with Stargazer tonight. There’s something wrong going on, and I want to get to the bottom of it.”

“You’ll endanger the mission,” said Primrose rather crossly. “I’m not going to let you do it.”

Ignoring the diplomat, he nodded at his fellow guard with a grimace. “The duke had the same night vision enchantments on his helmet as you do, which probably means there are more of them out there watching. You’ll need to guard the mares while I’m gone. I’m almost positive he was trying to attack me when he dropped onto our balcony, and I don’t think he knew Sunny was here. He came dropping in on me from an angle that would have concealed her.”

“You’re not going.” The diplomat took a position between Pumpernickel and the balcony, setting her jaw in a firm line.

Pumpernickel dumped the bag with the rest of his armor out on the floor with a clatter, picking up his breastplate. “If I’m not back by dawn, I’m not coming back. Make whatever excuses you need to, and get them out of here.”

The diplomat coughed quietly, and nodded to Laminia. “Get the envelope.” As Pumpernickel began the painful task of strapping his breastplate on, his wife trotted over with an envelope in her teeth and presented it to him. It was a very formal envelope, done in dark colors and with a smooth gloss that made it slick to the touch, adorned with the name ‘Lumpy’ on the front in silver ink much as an invitation to a formal occasion would be addressed. Pumpernickel turned it over in his hooves twice before opening it up and reading the enclosed letter out loud.

To my faithful and sometimes hard-headed Guard.
We have included this letter in case you have forgotten your lessons about how one of my diplomats doth speak with my voice. Thou shalt obey the words of Ambassador Primrose just as if you were to hear those words in my own breath, from my own lips, and with the promise that I shall have prepared a much thicker helm with which to adorn thy thick skull during our next sparring match.

To thy wife, who is reading this letter over your shoulder, I hereby order you to add thine efforts to Our Representative in the highly probable case your husband has been given this letter because he proposed doing something both foolish and dangerous.

And to Our Representative, we add the caveat that our guard quite often will make the wrong decision for entirely the right reason. His heart is right far more often than his head, so temper your decision with his wisdom, if not his stupid suggestions.

Until you return,
Princess Luna, Princess of the Night, Guardian of the Ebon Veil, Mistress of Dreams

P.S. Lieutenant Redoubtable, I have entrusted thee to bring Our Representative home safely. I am looking forward to attending your nuptials, and shall be most upset if anything happens to disturb our schedule.

“Nice to be remembered,” grumbled Redoubtable while his fellow guard just stared at the paper with the muscles in his jaw moving rhythmically. After a few moments, Pumpernickel wadded the paper up and popped it in his mouth, chewing with intense concentration before swallowing.

“Good,” muttered Primrose. “At least her words will soak into you one way or another. Now, what is it about that servant that has you all ready to fling your armored carcass out into the night where Celestia knows how many other griffons with night vision helmets are lurking? How do you know this isn’t some sort of trap to provoke us?”

“I don’t,” grumbled Pumpernickel. “It’s just — a feeling.” He hesitated before looking out the balcony at the glittering night. “I can feel something, I don’t know what, but it feels dangerous. My special talent is soaking up damage that would hurt the ones I care about.”

Laminia patted him on the shoulder as she moved to his side. “And you care about everypony, which is one reason I fell madly in love with you, Lumpy. I’m just still a little fuzzy about why you went off your gourd for me.”

“Madly in love indeed. I plead Contagious Insanity.”

Pumpernickel shifted uncomfortably as Primrose placed herself directly in front of his nose, so close he could feel her breath in the hairs of his muzzle. “Will you treat my orders as the words of your Princess of the Night, Optio Pumpernickel?”

As much as he wanted to prostrate himself flat against the floor and close his eyes, Pumpernickel remained looking resolutely into her piercing green gaze. There was one lesson he had been taught ever since the first day he had been adopted into his clan, one phrase that had been passed down throughout every generation of Nocturne since the very first night of creation. Four words that separated him from the monster that lived within his skin.

“We serve the Princesses.”

Primrose remained at the end of his nose, staring into his eyes as if she were a thousand miles away until she gave a sharp nod. “Good. I agree with you. This pony could be the deciding point to just what is going on here. Something has the griffons worked up, making them act more — griffony than normal, but I’m not sending a wounded guard stampeding down into the village to look for a pregnant earth pony. I’m sending his pregnant wife.”

“What!” Contrasting emotions stampeded through his body, but he kept his eyes focused and his breathing regular until Ambassador Primrose continued.

“She’s less threatening, more sympathetic, and more sneaky than any male in this room. Any objections?”

“Hundreds. Dozens. Several.” Pumpernickel wound down as his breathing slowed, the breath of the unicorn ambassador in his face seeming oddly calming to his frazzled nerves.

We serve the Princesses.

“The balcony is probably being watched,” he began, his voice sounding oddly detached to his ears. “But from a distance. Those night vision spells are tricky and have problems picking ponies up in the shadows, but if you’re in moonlight, you might as well be carrying a sparkly flag. If you’re spotted, freeze in place. Griffons see movement better than shapes. Wait until you’re positive they’re not watching, then wait some more. And for Luna’s sake, be careful!”

Laminia gave no indication she heard her husband, exchanging her bits of guard armor for a ratty hooded cloak that she extracted out of the luggage as if it had been waiting for just this moment. At a confirming nod from the ambassador, she gave Pumpernickel a kiss on the cheek and paused in front of the hallway door with a blinked away tear that she turned into a wink at her immobile husband.

“I’ll be back by dawn. Don’t worry.”

And then she was gone, slipping out the hallway door just as silently as a shadow.

He remained on guard while the ambassador went back to her bed and Redoubtable curled up just inside the door in his armor to get some rest. Morning was a long way away, and he composed himself into a guard stance outside the embassy door just as formally as if he were in the Academy.

Back straight. Eyes forward. Mind blank. Defending.

The night seemed to last forever.

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

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

Dawn had peeked over the mountains, burning into the thick fog that carpeted the lower peaks and valleys in a brilliant white, and reflecting off the spring mountain snowpack in a brilliant display that brought tears to the eyes without sunglasses. No tears marked the eyes of the Night Guard as he wedged himself uncomfortably into his unyielding armor, the sharp bite of steel across his healing bruises a comforting distraction from the absence of his wife, still not returned from her trip into the village. His fellow guard helped him with the more awkward pieces, casting the occasional nervous glance at the unmoving hallway door and nearly jumping out of his shoes when a hoof lightly knocked.

“Pardon me, Your Excellency. Are you ready for your meeting?” A rather timid pony in a thick cloak against the morning cold opened the door a crack, and when she saw the ambassadorial group already gathered together in a way to block line of sight to the griffons somewhere out beyond the balcony, slipped in the door and closed it behind her. “My hooves are killing me. Lumpy, the next time — Urk!” Laminia made only a token effort to escape from the armored hug she had become entangled within, blushing fiercely as her husband tried to suppress a sniffle.

“I was worried,” he mumbled from somewhere around her neck.

“Well, I told you not to worry,” she chided in return, slipping out of the thick wool cloak and wincing at the pinch of her husband’s cold armor against her coat. “I swear every house in that town is blue with green shutters. I must have talked to a dozen families before I found her parents, and still no Stargazer. Now let me get my armor on and I’ll—”

“No,” said Ambassador Primrose firmly, pointing at the door to the diplomatic residence. “Tell us what you found and go to bed before you fall over. Don’t make me get the letter,” she added as Laminia seemed ready to object.

“Um…” Pumpernickel looked uncomfortable as he attempted to get the diplomat’s attention.

“I said don’t make me get the letter. Neither of you would like it very much.” Ambassador Primrose fixed Laminia with a steely glare and the hoofmaiden decided rather quickly that she meant what she said.

Giving the ambassador a quick salute, Laminia detailed her trip down the mountain on the earth pony supply road in sharp detail, including observations on the watchgriffon who had been alert enough to watch her walk up and down the road, but not actually intrusive enough to talk with the cloaked pony carrying a candle lantern to discover her identity. The ponies of the village of Toenail were much like the servants in the griffon fortress, and rotated through their service with the griffons in exchange for proper rainfall for all the ponies in the valley, although for the last few years the bargain had become somewhat lopsided as the weather control became more slipshod and the demands for servants more insistent. Stargazer had actually been scheduled to return to the village for nearly a month now, and all of the ponies Laminia had talked to expressed concern about her late schedule.

“Troubling,” was all that the ambassador would say about the matter, even after Laminia had gone back to bed and the door to the diplomatic quarters sealed with a locking and trapping spell. There were more than a few troubled thoughts of his own rattling around in Pumpernickel’s mind as he escorted the ambassador to the morning meetings, but not enough to distract him when he was pulled aside by Sunny at their first break of the morning.

“Did you find out anything?” she asked with big, sad eyes once they were a short distance away from her family, although Milk Toast lurked by fairly close as if prepared to run away screaming when ‘Lumpy’ were inevitably to go suddenly insane.

“No, nothing. Sorry. She’s not down at the village.” The words were out of his mouth before he realized that Laminia’s little visit to Toenail was probably a horrible breach of security around the negotiations, and he had just blurted it out right to the Wingmaster’s granddaughter.

Fortunately, Sunny seemed preoccupied and blinked several times before murmuring something that sounded like, “...going to check out another possibility.” She excused herself from the negotiations once they resumed, turning down Milk Toast’s offer of a ride back to her rooms in order to simply plod out of the negotiation chamber on her own. The posture of the little griffon bothered him, as if she had some secret fear that she had been holding back with the idea that her friend was safe and secure, but now that hope had been brutally dashed.

Something else bothered him too, on a constant basis that itched at his subconscious all the while he stood motionless behind Ambassador Primrose. The tendency of the Royal Guard to blend into the background as they played ‘statue’ was something that never failed to amaze him, in particular legendary stories from his fellow guards who were stationed in the legislative buildings and the lewd antics of royals who conducted their private affairs where they thought nopony was watching. During the meeting, it had only taken him a few minutes of immobility behind Primrose for nearly every griffon to ignore the guards, all except two. Both Duke Plummets and Wingmaster Talon ignored Redoubtable, but each kept a constant flicker of brief glances in Pumpernickel’s direction, as if they thought the big guard was slowly creeping up on them whenever his attention was distracted. It was not until the ambassadorial party broke off negotiations for lunch until the subconscious itch worked its way up to the top of his mind, and then he held back on saying anything until they all had returned to their quarters and he had given his armored wife a brief hug.

“I told Princess Sun Shines about her friend not being down at the village,” he blurted out as they gathered the lunch meal things together.

“Well that explains why she looked like a kicked dog when she left the meeting,” said Primrose with a concerned frown. “And stop looking at me that way, I’m not blaming you. Now I’ve got two worries: a missing pregnant earth pony and a depressed baby griffon who knows one of us snuck out last night.”

“She’s not a baby,” said Pumpernickel absently while picking open a package of flavored oats from his supplies. It had seemed paranoid at first to pack their own food for the trip, but after the last two days in the aerie, he was beginning to think it was not paranoid enough. Despite being locked in the ambassadorial quarters, Laminia had not started preparing lunch before they returned, for which Pumpernickel was grateful since it gave his hooves something to do while he thought.

“She’s smarter than I am—” Ignoring the snort of derision from Redoubtable, he continued “—and smarter than most adults I know. I’m pretty sure she can even read—”

Pumpernickel paused, slipping back out to the balcony for a minute before returning to the lunch table. “She took your diary.”

“No she didn’t,” said Primrose, adding water to her own dehydrated lunch. “I loaned it to Red.”

“I left it out on the balcony last night after it got too dark to read,” said Redoubtable.

“It was still on the balcony when Plummets walked by, and I was watching him so intently I didn’t pay any attention to Sunny. She must have scooped it up on her way out and tucked it under a wing. I thought there was something missing last night when I was standing watch. My Academy instructors would roast me if I had been that unobservant during training.”

They ate the remainder of their lunch with few words spoken, the dry rations tasting even duller than before. Ambassador Primrose determined that for the afternoon negotiation session, she would take Redoubtable and Laminia, with Pumpernickel remaining behind to get some rest for the evening guard duty.

That was an unneeded decision as a hammering on the hallway door turned out to be a ruffled Ambassador Sharp Edge who greeted Ambassador Primrose rather hurriedly before panting out words that seemed to freeze on the chilly air.

“I have been sent to inform you to remain within the ambassadorial quarters until further notice. Sunny’s gone.”