• Published 21st May 2016
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Discourse on Fillies - Daedalus Aegle



Diamond Tiara and Princess Luna have a talk over tea.

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Power

The table was covered in royal porcelain, silverware, and crystal, piled high with cakes and fruits and candies, with juices and teas and bottles of wine that stood unopened. Diamond Tiara studied it closely to avoid meeting the Princess's eyes.

She traced the intricate floral patterns on the china plate in her mind. The vines branched and crossed and merged, occasionally erupting in an explosion of petals and leaves. Her crystal glass was similarly decorated with flawlessly cut geometric patterns, stars and rays of light.

There was a bowl of colorful candies which had once shattered, and had been repaired with veins of molten gold, and become more beautiful for it. There was the purr and glug of tea pouring into a cup, the clink of a pot being put down, and then silence.

Princess Luna sat across the table from her, watching the filly with worry. Diamond Tiara only looked down at the table, saying nothing.

“When I first came home to Canterlot after the Nightmare, my sister introduced me to the palace staff,” Luna began. “She told them this was a day of great celebration, that I was the pony dearest to her heart, and that they should all treat me as they would treat her. Well, they tried. But… There was so much to learn. So much time lost. So many changes. For the first months they all walked on eggshells around me, as if they thought I might explode into a rage or collapse into uncontrolled weeping at the slightest imagined injury. So I think I can understand.”

Diamond Tiara glanced cautiously up at the Princess, listened to the story as Luna made her memories come alive.

“I know what it's like to be dropped into a world and not know how to act, with everypony waiting for you to revert. I know how difficult it is to try to change yourself, and I'm sorry I did not respect that. Change takes time. Earning trust is a slow process, full of doubts, and doubt… hurts.”

Diamond Tiara nodded in recognition.

Luna stared into the distance, watching things only she could see. “After so long a time commanding the fear of my ponies, it takes work to earn their love instead.”

It may be answered that one should wish to be both,” Diamond Tiara recited, “but because it is difficult to unite them in one pony, it is much safer to be feared than loved.

“You've read Macavallo?” Luna asked, her face lighting up as Diamond Tiara nodded. “I have a fondness for the classics myself. Did you find it interesting?”

Diamond Tiara froze, staring at nothing, and when she spoke her voice was flat and dry. “It's the most important book there is.”

“It is heavy reading for a little filly,” Luna replied. “How did you come by it?”

“My mom gave me her old copy when I was little. She highlighted the important parts, but I read the whole thing.”

“Did she really…?” Luna asked slowly, gazing off to the side with a slight frown, thinking. “There is wisdom in The Princess… But it is clouded by history, and difficult to digest.”

“I thought it was pretty straight-forward.”

Luna halted her cup an inch from her mouth. She frowned. “Did you indeed?”

“Well, yeah. He's very direct. I mean, there's a lot of the history stuff I don't really know about, but he gives a lot of advice that's very clear. It's all about how you get your way with ponies.”

“I see,” Luna said. “I suppose I read him differently.”

Diamond Tiara scoffed. “How can you read him differently? That's all he talks about.”

Luna paused, and thought carefully before she spoke. “There are many reasons for us to read literature. One of them, it is true, is that it can help us understand the world around us, and give us new tools that we did not have before. But there is more to understanding than what's written on the surface. Are you fond of reading, Diamond Tiara?”

“Sure I am. I'm not stupid.”

Luna nodded. “I am sure you're not. Well, Macavallo liked to read as well. He was a historian, you know, and very fond of the classics. When he wrote his book he borrowed his form from a much older literary tradition. One which is still with us today… Do you know the 'books for helping the self'?”

Diamond Tiara's mouth fell open. “The Princess isn't a self-help book!”

“Oh, you'd be amazed,” Luna chuckled. “The principle is the same. In my youth they were called the 'mirrors of princes', and they were written since ancient times. The older ones stressed honor and virtuous behavior, to command the loyalty and admiration of ponies. They said that if you are just and fair then those around you will respect you, and you will prosper… Then came Macavallo, and wrote that if you are just and fair then you will be overthrown by someone who is not. That virtue is not rewarded. That ponies do not respect fairness, nor honor those who have honored them, but will flee from danger and seek safety under tyrants. Ponies were horrified, of course.”

Diamond Tiara scowled derisively at the thought. “They were stupid. He was right.”

“...I wonder.” The Princess shifted in her seat and thought for a moment, gazing off into the distance. “I have sometimes wondered… What would they do if the Nightmare had won? Would ponies stand together to oppose me, even if it meant their lives, to fight for the freedom they had lost? Or would they have done as Macavallo predicted, and pledged their loyalty to me in exchange for their survival and safety?”

Diamond Tiara listened intently, following the Princess's eyes. Luna shook her head, casting off the thought. “Thankfully we will never know.”

“They would have followed you,” Diamond Tiara said.

“You think so?” Luna asked, and the filly nodded. “What makes you so sure?”

Diamond Tiara's face hardened as she thought back to all the lessons of her foalhood. “Experience,” she said, and she began to tell the story.

She remembered kindergarten.

The colt was twice her size, the biggest in the playground, and a big bully. He could have pummeled her without a thought, as he had done to so many others who were bigger than her. As he threatened to do with his posture, his strut, the way he jumped and moved so he was always in front of her wherever she tried to run that time she had finally dared step out on the playground to play in his space…

She shook like a leaf in his shadow, and then she opened her mouth and began to speak, and by the time she was done he ran away crying, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the playground while all around the other foals watched her in silent awe.

She remembered her legs weak, shaking, and her heart racing. And the one pony who came up to her and asked if she wanted to play.

“Me and Silver Spoon were never apart after that,” she concluded. “We played together every day in kindergarten, and we visited each other all the time. We always got to play with the toys we wanted. Most ponies just gave them to us and went to play someplace else, if we wanted something. And if somepony didn't want to, I could send them off with just a few words. It didn't take long before nopony ever dared to stand against us at all.”

The filly felt herself sinking as the old knowledge came back as if it had never left. “Ponies are weak, and easy to scare. If you show them that you're stronger, they'll give you anything you want. I kept Silver Spoon by my side ever since then.”

“You used Macavallo to get a friend?” Luna asked. Diamond Tiara nodded. “I wonder what Twilight would say to that… I do not think that would occur to many ponies. Macavallo said very little about friendship. His descriptions of ponies were… unkind.”

“Well, I was a huge bully,” Diamond Tiara muttered. “And if I hadn't been, I wouldn't have anything. I would just be another nopony hiding out on the edge of the playground while the bullies played their games… and I would never have had Silver Spoon.” She shook her head. “Macavallo saw right through to the heart of ponies. We talk about friendship and kindness, but the truth is that you can't trust anypony. The world is full of traitors and deceivers, and when danger strikes they'll leave you to fend for yourself. If you don't want ponies to hurt you, you've got to have power to hurt them instead. But if you do, they'll follow you to the end.”

Luna listened silently to the filly as she gave her testimony. Her voice was flat, and heavy, and she spoke not with conviction but with resignation. “It's the same in politics, in business, even in the arts. Whatever you do, you've got to know the rules and use them better than your enemies. If you don't accept that you'll lose everything.”

Diamond Tiara stared down into her glass with that familiar feeling of being utterly unshakeable, her gaze of diamond. “Doing whatever it takes isn't just allowed. It's an obligation.”

“Hmm...” Luna sat deep in thought. “Tell me… Many have described the book as a manual for tyrants. Would you say that is a fair description?”

“Well, yeah,” Diamond Tiara said. “It's all about power. It's all about how you have to take power by being cunning, and hold on to it by dividing and destroying your enemies. Macavallo says that if you care about being good you'll lose your power and invite chaos and anarchy. That you mustn't let being good get in the way of reaching your goals.” As she spoke the words her muzzle scrunched up in distaste. “It's horrible. But it's also true. That's the way the world works. We can't get away from it, we just have to work with it.”

“There are some who say it is a satire,” Luna suggested.

“It's not very funny,” Diamond Tiara said.

“The best satire often isn't,” Luna replied with a smile. “The best satires can make you weep. But yes, some have said so. They argue that Macavallo was defying and attacking the rulers of his day by accurately describing their appalling behavior.”

Diamond Tiara scoffed. “He doesn't seem to be very upset at them. He cheers them on and calls them brilliant the worse they are.”

“Perhaps he was, but did not show it,” Luna suggested. “Remember that these ponies he talked about were not his friends. The ruler of his homeland, the Duchess of the City of Flowers, had overthrown the republican government Macavallo had served in, and had him arrested. He was falsely accused by his enemies, tortured, and exiled for life…” Luna raised her cup, paused, and glanced down at the filly opposite her. “Do we really think he would write glowing praise of their efforts?”

“But that's a weird idea,” Diamond Tiara said. “If he thought his rulers were so horrible, why would he give them advice on how to be worse?”

“Perhaps sometimes even great artists learn a harsh lesson,” Luna said. “Our arts have a life of their own, and they may betray us. I never meant for the Tantabus to hurt anypony but me... yet it did.” She sighed unhappily at the memory, and turned a mournful glance to the filly which sent a shiver down her spine.

“What you say is true,” Luna continued, speaking quietly, sadly. “There is much in The Princess that is horrible. And yes, amidst the horrors there is much that is undeniably true. That is Macavallo's mirror: he shows us our world and our selves, not as we want to be, but as we really are. What if it is not advice at all? Could it be that he is instead condemning us for our evils? If we take his book to heart and obey its commands – then who is the evil one? Him? Or us?”

There was silence for a minute. Luna turned to her all-but-forgotten tea and tried not to pressure the filly by her presence. Diamond Tiara sat, unhappy and unmoving for a long time before she whispered: “You shouldn't have to be stupid to be good.”

She looked up, her face flush with emotion, and continued. “You shouldn't have to choose between being kind and having a chance to get ahead in the world. But you do. I don't have to like that. I just have to accept it. If I treat everypony with kindness all the time they'll like me right up until it suits them to stop… and I'll lose Silver Spoon again.” She closed her eyes, her face scrunched up as she calmed her breath. “Kindness… Kindness and ten bits will buy you a cherry, my mother says.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Kindness? My sister holds kindness above all the other virtues. It was kindness that set me free from my prison,” she said softly. “I strive to follow her example, even when it is not easy. I think that Equestria stands upon a more solid ground.”

“Hmph,” Diamond Tiara grunted. “The frog was kind to the scorpion. The scorpion stung it, and killed them both. Ponies can sting you too, if you let them.”

“And therefore you must control them, and deal out the stings yourself to keep your fellows in their proper place,” Luna continued the thought, and Diamond Tiara nodded. “And I suppose if I say my sister shows kindness to all, even those who threaten her, you would say she never really has reason to fear them?”

“That sounds about right, yeah.”

Luna sighed. “Yes, I remember thinking these thoughts, Diamond Tiara. I have been there. Perhaps we are more alike than you realize. But I do not wish anypony to follow down that path.” She stirred her cup anxiously, deep in thought as she watched the girl. “What happened to you, little filly? What made you think this way?”

Diamond Tiara sat quite still, looking at nothing as she considered the question. She shook her head. “Nothing happened to me. That's just how the world is. I can see that, even if everypony else can't.”

“May I say what I think?” Luna asked. “I think the nature of kindness is courage.”

Diamond Tiara thought to the pegasus who was apparently the embodiment of kindness in Equestria, and saw a whimpering mass of feathers. “How do you figure that?”

“The frog was not ignorant of the scorpion's sting,” Luna began. “It allowed the scorpion to mount it, and carried it across the water, not because it did not know what the scorpion might do but because it was giving the scorpion a chance. The frog was willing to risk its life to show that kindness.”

Diamond Tiara listened skeptically as Luna continued. “To show kindness is to open yourself to others, even though they may harm you. Nopony, and no frog, is ignorant of danger. But to permit that danger to control your life… that is to succumb to fear. So where does kindness come from, then? Is it foolishness, for not seeing danger? Or is it courage, for going on in spite of it?”

“Are you calling me a coward?” Diamond Tiara demanded. “There's a difference between being afraid and being smart. Why should I just walk into danger and let myself get hurt? Nopony does that!” She shook her head. “Only a moron would pick up a scorpion just to be nice. If somepony could be dangerous you don't run up to them and say hi, even if you need them. You weigh the risks and wait for the right moment.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “You think that is what miss Fluttershy does?”

“She's an animal expert. She knows how to avoid danger.”

“Miss Fluttershy has had many scorpions in her home, and spiders, and wasps, and other things that others recoil from. Do you believe that she has never been stung?”

“Well, she can understand them,” Diamond Tiara said bluntly. “So she probably hasn't, at least not more than a few times.”

“Oh, but she has. She has been stung by every stinging creature that she has ever met, including ponies.” Luna smiled softly. “She does not let that stop her.”

“Good for her,” Diamond Tiara huffed. “Give me a magical necklace that says I'm an embodiment of a supreme force of nature and I'll stop acting like a real pony too! But normal life isn't like that! Nopony in their right mind would just pick up a scorpion and let it sting them!”

Luna sighed sadly. “These are treacherous thoughts, miss Rich. There is much fear in them. Every time a pony opens themselves to another there is a risk of being hurt. Yet ponies continue to do so, because that is what life is.” She gave an encouraging smile. “Can you imagine trying to see the world differently?”

“Differently from what it is, you mean?”

Luna sniffed. “My dear filly, you are far too young to think you know what the world is. Every day, you could see something different. Something new. If you dare.”

“Stop saying I'm afraid!” Diamond Tiara shouted, slamming the table with her hoof. “I'm not afraid! I dare anything!”

“Do you?” Luna asked. “Because you are describing the world from a place of fear. Everywhere you look, you see only things that can hurt you, not things that will bring you happiness. Macavallo taught you to see the world as something to control, rather than something to experience.” She was getting heated, her face lit up with conflicting emotions, anger and sadness and pity. “There is a price to be paid for taking his advice, isn't there? It takes its toll on the mind. When any change leads to war, chaos, uncertainty, then stability seems to be worth any cost. Peace, even if it means the peace of the graveyard… In a world like that there is no room for kindness anywhere, is there?”

And all of a sudden I wasn't allowed to speak.

Diamond Tiara whispered. “You don't understand me at all.”

“I want to understand.” Luna placed a hoof on Diamond Tiara's hoof. “Will you help me?”

Diamond Tiara felt a hole opening in the pit of her stomach as the words ran through her mind, and she remembered the day of the election.

Silver Spoon's face filled her memories, her most faithful companion, her loyal friend. Always there to follow her cues, always ready with a supporting laugh and a quick wit. She thought of the election, of how she had pulled out all the stops to win even though everything was stacked against her.

Diamond Tiara doesn't give up. Diamond Tiara never breaks, and never loses.

So what if the student pony president is the worst kind of popularity contest, where somepony like her, somepony who gets things done, could never stand a chance against some nopony who had never done anything at all? Somepony who had never had power, never had to make any decision of significance, who therefore inspired no resentment?

Somepony who didn't even have his cutie mark. Who could be anything.

She would run anyway, and she would win, and she would show them all.

She remembered how quickly and easily it had all come apart. How quickly she had lost everything, and been reduced to the mercy of her old victims.

Diamond Tiara felt herself shaking, her tiara sitting heavily on her head.

She thought of the look on Silver Spoon's face that she had never seen before, the contempt. She thought of that voice turned against her, abandoned.

She remembered walking home to face her mother, without her one supporter to back her up.

And then the Crusaders had approached her, and so quickly and painfully turned it all around.

The Crusaders, she thought. Her exact opposites, three nobodies who meant nothing and were going nowhere, who gave a chance to everything around them, who trusted everything, even when it would obviously lead to nothing good, who let themselves be hurt by everything they saw.

And for a day, she had been shown another world where everything was upside down, and she did not have to be afraid of loss, and a light would burn to show you the way and where anything was possible. A world bright and beautiful and full of love, where everything she had ever known was wrong and everything she wanted could be hers if she could just end herself and start anew.

So different from the world at large, where distrust was the norm, where different ponies would only work together if they were forced. Where outsiders only talked to you if they wanted something from you, and you had to get something from them instead just to show that you weren't weak – otherwise you'd be trampled underhoof. That's what the world is like, much as Diamond Tiara hated it.

She didn't have to enjoy it. She was only doing what anypony would, if they could – because she had to. That was the truth. Macavallo had understood that.

“I can't let go,” she whispered. “The Crusaders showed me that I can make ponies like me by being nice to them instead of making them fear me. But I still have to be in charge. Otherwise I'm nothing. I can never be on top if ponies don't think there's anything special about me at all. So I have to be smarter than the rest, wittier and sharper than everypony. I have to always know what's what, and be able to put everyone in their place with a few well-chosen words, or else nopony will care about me at all and I'll have nothing.”

“You doubt your own capacity for change,” Luna said.

It's my nature,” Diamond Tiara recited. A tiny whimper escaped from her throat before the words could form. “Mom is right. One good day doesn't change how the world works.”

“They should never have taught you this,” Luna said softly. “These are not healthy thoughts for a foal to have. But it is not your fault, Diamond Tiara. You only did as you were taught to do, and you could not know otherwise.”

“It's me,” Diamond Tiara replied. “What does it matter who did it? That's what I believed my entire life. I had all of that. It took years to build up. Then I lost it all in one day and I have no idea what else I can hold on to. It was everything I knew, and if I can't hold on to that then I don't know anything.”

Her voice was weak as she asked her question: “Where can you find kindness in all of that?”

Diamond Tiara only sniffed, fighting back the tears as she looked at her reflection in the light on the surface of her drink.

“He was imprisoned, and tortured, you know,” Luna said quietly. “He watched helplessly while his state was overthrown. He was accused of a conspiracy he knew nothing about, and banished from the city, left in house arrest to die. That was where he wrote the book. He was trying to convince the Duchess of the City of Flowers to allow him to return to the city, and work for her.”

Diamond Tiara blinked. “Work for the Duchess? Wasn't she the one who put him in prison in the first place?”

Luna nodded. “Indeed, and had him tortured. He gave one of the first copies of his book to her, told her everything he had learned about how she could hold on to her power, imploring her to let him come back and serve her.”

Luna sat back, and looked up at the ceiling in thought. “I always wondered, what was he thinking as he sent her the book? Was it spite, his way of lashing out at his enemy? Or was it a higher call?”

She turned back to face the filly. “I wonder if the book might say more about him than about the nature of power,” she continued. “Macavallo had lived through war and destruction. He had seen his state overturned, he had seen monsters and tyrants rise to conquer his lands. He had seen his own life's work overthrown by callous fate. To me his book said that if you lose hope, if you no longer have faith in compassion, love, and kindness, then this is what the world will look like.”

Luna’s wings ruffled on her back as she lowered herself down in her chair, her dark eyes fixed on the filly across from her. “Here is the other side of cold calculation, Diamond Tiara: that perhaps you have to forget your own pain, and show kindness to those who have harmed you, in order to serve the peace. I wonder if Macavallo was the frog, and that even after he was stung he tried his best to carry the scorpion to land.”

Silence hung in the air as Diamond Tiara's thoughts raced through her mind.

No way. That can't be right. Ponies don't work that way.

“Diamond Tiara? Are you all right?” Luna asked cautiously, and the filly noticed that her hoof was shaking.

I can't have been that wrong all that time. I know that book. It’s about power and fear.

“Diamond Tiara?” Luna asked cautiously. “Is everything alright?”

And Diamond Tiara thought back to the day she found friendship, and began to speak.

There are few things more vast in the mind than a kindergarten playground to the foals who play there.

Even though they were only yards away, standing in a loose circle around her and the colt, Diamond Tiara felt more alone than she had ever been in her life.

She cast her sight to the circle of foals who watched her silently, waiting for the inevitable outcome of the fight.

Pinecone was the king of the playground, and nopony got away with taking what he wanted. He held their fear in the frog of his hoof.

Her legs were wobbly with fear, but she couldn't show it. Never show weakness, she remembered, and look for shows of weakness in others.

She knew what she had to do. She remembered her lessons. Now was the hour, and she hoped that the sick feeling would go away once it was done. She opened her mouth to speak, and in a few moments it was done.

And then she was alone again, in the silence, and they were watching her now as they had watched him, and she remembered from her lessons that this is how it was supposed to be, that showed it was working, and surely the sick feeling would start to fade soon.

And then just one of the ponies stepped forward, a gray filly with silver hair and big awkward glasses that Diamond Tiara knew had gotten her no end of vicious teasing, and she said “Hi,” and “do you wanna play?”

And Diamond Tiara knew that it was working just as she had learned it.

Diamond Tiara's face scrunched up as she tried to sort out the garble in her head.

“All the other foals ran away from me. Only Silver Spoon didn't, and without her… I used every trick I'd learned. I was afraid if I didn't she'd leave me. I needed to have just one filly to play with – I mean, to follow me.”

The words rushed out of her mouth. “Silver Spoon was my follower. All the other foals were useless to me, but Silver was… different. They were peasants. I was the leader, and Silver Spoon was my vassal. She was my follower. I knew I needed to have those – ponies who stayed close to me, because we could do more together, because she'd back me up when I needed it. And...”

“And you enjoyed her company,” Luna said.

Diamond Tiara fell silent. There was a lump in her throat.

“You can't hold on to a pony with love,” she whispered. “Ponies can stop loving you whenever it suits them. I needed Silver Spoon to fear me because otherwise she'd leave me.”

Diamond Tiara scrunched up her face as she thought back to her early foalhood lessons in spotting weakness and opportunity in her kindergarten fellows. Her mother had a board hung up on her bedroom wall listing benchmarks she had to meet, things like 'make a foal cry without touching them', or 'make two friends stop talking to each other'.

She had never stopped to think about it before (and why hadn't she?), but that didn't seem normal.

“Like at the school election – she was stepping on my hooves. I was trying to make everypony fear me, so they'd vote for me. She was trying to make them love me. She wasn't useful anymore so I had to stop her.” By now Diamond Tiara was shouting and heaving for breath. “I needed to get her to stop! But it didn't work! It only made things worse!”

A little filly standing alone on a playground, her legs shaking. One colt running away, crying, and many eyes watching her fearfully.

Only one filly dared step forward, and Diamond Tiara turned, expecting a challenge, an attack, because that's what you get, that's why you keep ponies in their place.

“Hi,” said the filly with the silver hair. “Do you wanna play?”

Diamond Tiara was shaking now, fighting back the tears. “I went out of my way to be awful to her,” Diamond Tiara said, more to herself than to the princess. “Sweet Celestia – I was horrible to her. Because that's how you know you're in control – you push their buttons but make sure they have more to fear from leaving than from staying. But all that time she must have been… She… she...” Her eyes widened. “She felt sorry for me. She stayed with me no matter what I did because she felt sorry for me. Because she thought I looked like I needed a friend.”

Diamond Tiara didn't notice that Luna had moved until she felt the hoof gently touching her back. “It is difficult to face up to our mistakes,” Luna said softly. “But you did. You reached out to her to make amends, and she forgave you. I think you did very well, Diamond Tiara.”

“Did I?” Diamond Tiara asked uncertainly. “I don't know what I did. I used to feel that I always knew where I was, and now I don't know anything anymore.”

“Shh.” Luna shook her head. “You know that you have friends. Ones who are not bound to you by fear, who will not leave you at the first sign of weakness. You know that.”

Diamond Tiara was fighting to keep back the tears now. Big girls don't cry. “Why are you being so nice to me? I've done nothing but sit here and whine and disagree with you about everything.”

“Because I want to understand you,” Luna said. “Because you are not a scorpion. Because you are a little filly who has grown up much too fast, and who needs kindness.”

Diamond Tiara raised her head and looked to the Princess with conflicted eyes. Her voice was weak and uncertain. “Do you really think the world can run on just kindness?”

The Princess smiled. “Not only that,” Luna said, “I think it is the only way the world can run.”