• Published 29th Dec 2013
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Obiter Dicta - GhostOfHeraclitus

A collection of short stories, vignettes, and deleted scenes, mostly based in the Civil Serviceverse and tending to be either slice of life or comedy.

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The Game the Princesses Play

The Game the Princesses Play

a My Little Pony koan

“I’ll buy two hedgehogs, and then I’ll spin for two-fifty.”

There was a game the princesses played.

“You can’t do that! It’s Tuesday! We get to interrupt your turn and spin for four-fifty now!”

Every morning, just before Luna retired, they’d meet in the Entirely Unnecessary Hall[1] and play, with every possible sign of enjoyment.

“It’s ‘I get to interrupt,’ Luna. And if you spin four-fifty I invoke my Lettuce/Snail card and ask for an extra half-round, but since it’s an alternate Tuesday, I get an eight of a round over that. Point to me I think.”

[1] If you should happen to have a princess, and if she happens to have a...robust sense of humor, don't ask her to name things. An architect, long dead, didn't heed that piece of advice, sadly, and as a result his very finest work was forever called the Salon of Suspiciously Smug Statues.

The thing was…

“Nuh-uh! Vegetable exception! Half a point!”

The thing was, nopony in all of Equestria seemed to have the faintest idea what they were playing.

“Are you sticking your tongue out at me? Really. Anyway. I’ll begin. Remember, no northern approach. My first move is Finchley Central.”

Nopony in Equestria, or, indeed, outside of Equestria. Inquires were made—discrete ones, of course—with the ambassadorial staff of many proud nations of Epona. The Zebras were puzzled, Griffons confused, Qilin taken aback, and the Diamond Dog Imperial Remnant delegation may have entirely failed to grasp the question in the first place.

“We can stick our—my tongue at whomever I wish. ‘Tis a perfectly fine tongue. And you always play the same. Burnt Oak.”

Oh, there were theories. Protocol demanded that the princesses be always attended, and quickly the word spread and game had its first connoisseurs, every one of which was certain they had the firmest grasp of the rules. Many a learned debate was had over the advisability of playing with green cards[2], or just how many ‘clumps’ there were in a ‘boot.’

“It is a fine tongue, but it’s a bit foalish, isn’t it? Embarkment.”

[2] Apparently that was bad unless it was a Wednesday with an 'r' in the name, whatever that meant.

Some—and there were quite a few, for the game had built up quite the audience—claimed it wasn’t a game at all. There was a strong school of belief which maintained that it was a religious ceremony, meant to avert the end of the world. Though as to how, the details varied wildly.

“Foalish? We? Foalish? We aren’t the ones who balance buckets on doors! Chalk Farm!”

One particularly innovative theology claimed it was to calm a chaos spirit, parent to Discord, and keep him—or possibly her, hard to know with chaos spirits—from destroying the world. The game, this theology said, didn’t have rules, just pure chaos that fed the spirit and kept it safely sleeping.

“That one’s a classic prank, Luna. Classic. Morningto—”

Another theory claimed that this was the way the secretive, covert activities of the realm were discussed: in a code so intricate, so ingenious, so devious, that entire lifetimes went into its devising. This school of thought had little traction, however, mostly because its proponents were fidgety ponies, with intent expressions, and the unnerving habit of looking just up and to the left of the person they were talking to.

“—ah-hah! You can’t! The Euston Exception is in play, with the Brent Cross modifier. Foul! We get to draw two cards!”

On one celebrated occasion, one of these conspiracy-minded ponies heard Luna confidently state that the green cat was in play on the board of becoming. He went very pale and very, very still, pausing his frantic scribbling in a notebook. Then, after a moment, he rushed out, never to be seen again.

“Fine. Fine. You don’t have to gloat over it.”

It was later rumored that he started enlarging the basement of his house and stockpiling water, canned goods, musical instruments, and twine. Nopony knew why, though, of course, a great many ventured a guess.

“We aren’t gloating. We never gloat. A prince and a deuce! Fizzbin! Huzzah! In your forehead!”

Yet a third group of ponies thought that it was all a devious test. Whoever understood the rules well enough to sit down with the princesses one day and play with competence, they said, would be granted some sort of grand prize. Current favorites were ascension to royalty, immortality, and immorality[3], in that order.

[3] This last one said with a lot of eyebrow-waggling and suggestive elbows to the barrel.

“Face, Luna. In your face. And I’m so glad you never gloat. You can’t imagine. Okay. Fizzbin it is. Let’s rotate the board.”

Two big problems for everypony’s theories were the board and the pieces, of course.

“Shall I get the time-fracture wickets?”

There were so many. Most of them were in the Royal Museum where they’d been variously classified as farming equipment, early examples of abstract art, marital aids, and votive objects[4]. They made a staggering mess, arrayed across the main table and the many side-tables either randomly or through a system too intricate for even the most dedicated furtive notebook-scribbler to grasp. Some were fairly ordinary, like the cards from half-a-dozen mutually incompatible decks; some less so like the dice with an entirely unreasonable number of sides; and some made no sense whatsoever, like the magnetized spoon half-filled with salt, and the yarrow sticks.

“No, let’s play the counter-epistemological variant today.”

[4] Archeologist for 'we have no idea what this is for.' Other synonyms include 'probably ritual,' and 'of religious significance.' Many a scientist has remarked in the past about the curious fact that archeology had so many ways of saying 'no idea,' though it's prudent to make this sort of remark outside the earshots of archeologists, to better avoid a fusillade of exquisite antique potsherds.

And the board? Up until six months ago, it was proudly displayed in the Royal Gallery. Six doctoral theses, two books, and countless papers discussed its swirling, almost fractal patterns, and their significance: artistic, philosophical, and sociological. Pony academia was still reeling at the realization that it was not, in fact, a metaphor for the Pegasi struggle for identity in the post-reconstruction period, nor a study in oppressive social dynamics.

“Very well! I shall play as the solipsist premise.”

Though some outré academics were starting to suggest that using the picture as a games-board was actually an act of deconstruction and subversion that added fresh layers of meaning to an already meaning-laden artwork.

“Oh come now, Luna, you always pick—never mind, never mind, have it your way. I’ll play as the empiricist premise.”

Even stranger, were the instruments that surrounded the board. They weren’t anything out of the ordinary in and of themselves—

“Double sixes! Offensive, with plus two on sophistry. Credo.”

—but what was the compass for? Or the spirit level? Apparently consulting them cost a half-clump except when the turnbull was crosswise, when it cost six. This was well understood among the ponies studying the game.

“Defensive, plus four with esse est percipi aut percipere. Credo denied. Point to me?”

What was less understood was what a turnbull was in the first place, or what it could possibly mean for one to be crosswise. It was known that a certain number of clumps made up a boot, but theories as regarding to the actual number ranged from ‘three’ all the way to ‘forty-seven and a bit.’

“Point-and-game. W—I agree. Well played, sister.”

And then the game would be over, just like that. The sisters, who at that point seemed just about ready to re-fight the more stirring bits of the War of the Two Sisters would smile at each other, cross necks, spend a few minutes tidying up, and walk off, one to bed, the other to a full day of dealing with the permanent state of emergency that was Equestria. Behind them, they’d leave an entire hall of confused ponies who’d wait respectfully, until both the princesses were safely away and then get down to some serious arguing.

“And you too, Luna. Sleep well.”

Not today, though. Today one of the ponies followed Celestia with a purposeful trot, struggling to match the princess’ long stride with his own stubby legs. He finally caught up to her in the gently sloping corridor leading down to the Hallway of Easterly Radiance. It was a cozy, plush place—quite small by palace standards—and lit with thin shafts of sunlight admitted through embrasures as ornate as they were tactically unsound.

“Excuse me, Your Majesty, may I ask for a moment of your time,” he asked, huffing slightly.

“Mr. Secretary! Of course. I didn’t know you watched us play,” Celestia replied.

“Not frequently. But I do drop by from time to time, as errands take me past the hall,” Dotted Line replied, looking almost bashful to admit interest in anything not related to paperwork.

“How can I help you, then?”

“Well, Your Majesty, I was curious and, uh, I was meaning to… for some time now, ah,” Dotted trailed off a bit, but then managed to catch himself, “My apologies. What I meant to say is I was curious about the game you and princess Luna play. I—I mean if it isn’t personal, of course.”

“No, no, not at all. It’s perfectly fine, but—you mean ponies don’t know?”

“No, Your Majesty. Nopony does.”

“But…surely it’s mentioned somewhere in the chronicles.”

“There are references to ‘The Game the Princesses Play,’ yes, but that’s generally assumed to be chess. Hence the white and black pieces.”

Celestia laughed, and Dotted could swear that the shafts of light grew brighter and wavered.

“Me? Play chess with Luna? Oh, that wouldn’t end well. She’d beat me in five minutes looking insufferably bored while she did so, and then where’d we be? No, no, we haven’t played chess in…well, a very long time. So…nopony knew what we were doing all this while?”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“Why didn’t they ask?”

“Well the nobles were afraid of seeming ignorant before both you, your sister, and their peers, of course.”

“I see.”

“And the scholars were enjoying the arguments altogether too much. Asking you or princess Luna would quite spoil them, and would, as far as I can tell, be considered cheating.”

“But you did ask.”

“I did, Your Majesty. I argue quite enough in my day-to-day job, and if I were afraid of seeming ignorant before you, I’d never open my mouth.”

Celestia looked… It was hard to say. Pained? Worried? Sad? Dotted wasn’t sure. He always had trouble reading her face. The light kept getting in his eyes. Still, she was clearly distressed, so he hurried to cover over any offense he had caused.

“Then what is the, uh, name…?”

The princess seemed torn for a moment, as if she wanted to say something else, but then gave up and spoke, brightly.

“We never gave it a name. We called it ‘our game’ ever since we were foals. Oh, we had such arguments trying to give it a proper name, but in the end we never managed it, and ‘our game’ stuck.”

“Then what are the rules? Are there any?”

“Oh, a great many rules, but only one really important one.”

“Which is?”

“The rules may never be the same twice.”

What?” Dotted barked, surprised, and then caught himself. “Sorry, Your Majesty, I meant to say could you, uh, explain that?”

“Every time we play, we change the rules, at least a little bit. We are never quite the same from one game to another, why should the rules be?”

“That—I guess it makes sense. And you’ve been playing for…?”

“Hundreds of years. It’s gotten quite complicated over time.”

“I can imagine. So you—um… what’s the score?”

They had started down the corridor by this point, Celestia walking more slowly this time, so that Dotted could keep up. As he asked the question, she stopped suddenly with a surprised expression. She fluffed her wings and tapped her hoof absently. At length she turned back to Dotted with an unreadable smile on her muzzle and spoke.

“Do you know, Mr. Secretary, I’ve completely forgotten.”

And Dotted Line was enlightened.