• Published 4th Dec 2016
  • 1,415 Views, 52 Comments

Diplomatic Overtures - Dave Bryant

What’s the reward for a job well done? Another job. The junior diplomat keeping an eye on Sunset Shimmer and her friends gets a new assignment: Travel through the portal as chargé d‘affaires to open diplomatic relations with Equestria.

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The halls of Canterlot Palace

The passage was everything the princess had promised and more. I felt as if my body was being stretched—not on a rack, but the way astronomers talk about falling into a black hole—then turned inside out. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it certainly was a bizarre and disorienting sensation.

We tumbled out, one after another, onto a huge, sumptuous rug, where we lay for a moment, gathering our breath and our wits. Twilight, then Sunset, staggered to their feet. (Yes, ponies have feet; hooves just cover them, like giant finger- or toenails. I looked it up.) It took me a little longer, but I wasn’t surprised, since we’d discussed the transformation in as much detail as they could provide.

“Okay, so what tribe am I?” I asked a trifle woozily as I swayed on all fours, getting accustomed to the new and unfamiliar proprioception and kinesthesia of my changed body. (I looked those up too.)

“Look behind you,” came Twilight’s laughing voice. “The mirror’s right there.”

Well, that would be good practice, at least. I turned in place slowly, taking each rubbery-legged step carefully. It wasn’t until I was sure I was headed in more or less the right direction that I looked up from my four neatly groomed legs. No wings of any kind, and I wasn’t glittering with refractions and reflections, so that eliminated some possibilities, but at least two remained.

The mad-scientist quality of the arcane addenda around the mirror itself caught my attention first. After a fruitless moment of trying to make sense of them, I recalled my original intent and looked straight at the glass itself.

Looking back at me with pale eyes was a slight, graceful equine form of stone gray with dark, crisp mane and tail, little larger than the young fiery-colored unicorn mare approaching from the side. I’ve known most of my life nature blessed me with reasonably good looks, but this new, unfamiliar expression of them jarred me into a heightened awareness. Oddly, my immediate reaction was a sort of ambivalence.

Back to business; my wandering mind made it clear I hadn’t recovered fully from the transition. There, on my forehead, was an alicorn. So then: I was a unicorn, like Sunset and Twilight before her “ascension”, as everyone seemed to describe it.

That could be a partial explanation for my lingering bewilderment. I knew all the tribes had their own specific sorts of magic, but it was the unicorns who shaped it into spells that could act at a distance. Of necessity they also had the most conscious awareness of it in their surroundings, but that also meant they were most susceptible to sensory or cognitive overload in the event of big, abrupt changes, like sudden glare on dark-adjusted eyes. Such changes probably didn’t come much bigger than being taken apart and reassembled from the quantum level up.

I raised a hoof (all right, all right) to tap the alicorn gingerly. It was hard, as a horn should be; keratin clicked crisply on keratin. I couldn’t feel anything at the point of contact, but the slight impacts traveled down to the skin and skull of my forehead, a surprisingly unpleasant sensation rather like having one’s teeth rattled. The cross-section Sunset had sketched for me at one point wasn’t very detailed, since she’d drawn it from unaided memory based on anatomical science some century-and-a-half behind what I was used to. Now that vagueness loomed rather more in importance than it had then; all I had to go on was its overall function as a sort of magical “antenna” that received and emitted magical energy through a “pith” of neural tissue, not dissimilar to an optic nerve, between the outer sheath and the bony core.

The mares with me waited, Twilight patiently and Sunset apprehensively. I continued my self-inspection, noting the tidy collar and cravat the portal had decided was the most appropriate equine equivalent for my suit and the expensive-looking panniers draped across my back and sides; I couldn’t help but smile that the portal scrupulously passed through, intact, my national-flag cloisonné pin, still attached to a lapel. I turned and was not surprised to see, on my haunch, a silver serving tray with three large chocolate-chip cookies on it. The marks, and the way people in my own world seemed to gravitate to similarly distinctive emblems, were another point of discussion, but none of us could make sense of it, so mostly it was abandoned as one of those “whichness of the what” questions that didn’t seem to have a solution.

Also, I had on no other clothing. I’d known that likely would be the case, and I felt a mild discomfort, but part of being a good diplomat is the ability to adjust quickly to strange conditions and carry on regardless. It was gratifying that, while I was acutely aware of the really quite attractive young ladies beside me, I was able to consider that appeal in an abstract, intellectual manner, without any embarrassing emotional or physical reactions. Apparently the portal preserved identity and memory but did at least some reprogramming to adapt a user to his or her new body and world. Twilight and Sunset were existence proof practice would do for the rest.

Speaking of the pair, my next step was to look them over as well. Sunset was nearly my own size, but slightly more heavily built, just as she was in the other world. She wore rather more than I—a soberly colored jacket and what seemed to be a sort of dickey and string tie. Her distinctive mane-style made her instantly recognizable, but the similarities in her features, expression, and body language also were undeniable. She shifted her weight in a fidgety manner that somehow recalled the most charming aspects of both human and equine behavior.

Twilight had come up beside her to drape a comforting wing over her back. The princess was noticeably taller than either of us; her build was gracile but solid. She’d spoken of getting much more exercise than she had in foalhood, and I could see for myself the way all three of the major tribes were represented in her physique. She might not be the athlete some of her friends were, on either side of the portal, but still she cut an imposing figure, particularly in her golden regalia. She didn’t wear it often, I gathered, but this was a special occasion.

Next up for examination was the room in which the mirror and its attendant gewgaws and doodads had been placed. From its lay-out and moderate size I guessed it to be a parlor of some sort, though it had been stripped of furnishings other than the luxuriant area rug that had cushioned our forceful ejection from the portal and insulated us from the chill of the polished-stone floor. The soaring ceiling and high colored windows gave the chamber presence and character, even bare as it was. The tall, ornately paneled double-leaf doors were closed.

“How are you feeling, Cook?” Twilight asked in the same soft tone she’d used before we traveled. “Are you ready? If not, please don’t hesitate to say so. We can wait.”

“No, I think I’m good to go,” I replied. She nodded and turned to lead us to the doors, on which she rapped in a distinctive tattoo.

A glow enveloped first the keyholes, then the handles, and at last the whole leaves, which rattled, rotated, and opened in turn. Interesting. The security precautions were elementary and prudent, and I certainly wasn’t offended by them—I’d have done the same—but they bespoke a bit more depth and awareness than the more idyllic descriptions of their world and nation had suggested. I felt a little more optimistic about the conference to come.

Twilight perked up and called out, “Shiny! I didn’t expect you to be here.”

A handsome, quite husky, and well-turned-out stallion stood in the doorway, flanked by a pair of only slightly smaller guards, all of them clad in brightly polished ceremonial armor. I was put in mind of legionary lorica segmentata topped with galea-style helmets. “Twily! We decided to make it a surprise.”

With a furrowed brow, Twilight asked, “We? Cadance is here too?”

“Of course,” Shining Armor—for he could be no one, or nopony, else—replied. “It’s an all-princess conference, and we are an associated state.” A hint of teasing humor lurked in his tone, but his words were serious, and I regarded them as such. The phrase “associated state” is a term of art in my business, with a specific range of meanings, and I suspected his use of it was not at all accidental. This wasn’t the loving, easygoing big brother full of goofy jokes I’d heard affectionate anecdotes about; this was a prince consort and a senior military officer.

I stood tall and nodded to him when his sharp, assessing gaze passed over me. He swept it over all three of us and back, then added with a briskly hospitable air, “Right this way.” The trio of soldiers snapped to with parade-ground precision, then arranged themselves as an honor guard around us when we trailed out into the broad, echoing hallway.

It was amazingly busy. Functionaries and staff walked or trotted both ways, all intent on their errands of whatever sort. Uniforms of every kind, or none at all, were visible—military, domestic, bureaucratic. They swirled around us, giving our burly escort a wide berth, more to keep the traffic from snarling than anything else, and gave us curious, or incurious, glances as they went. Some stared in astonished recognition at Twilight, Sunset, or both; others made a point of looking blasé. Not very different from home, really.

Twilight and Sunset paced side by side ahead of me. The princess acknowledged all the nods and hurried bows directed her way with grace and assurance. It seemed plain to me she was sublimely unconscious how completely she’d grown into her new rank and role. Sunset, by contrast, all but jittered, head swiveling as she drank in sights she hadn’t seen in years and almost certainly missed more than she’d realized. I looked around curiously myself, hoping I didn’t appear the gawking yokel, and through a dramatic floor-to-ceiling mullioned window caught my first glimpse of the outside.

Gleaming white towers and tall narrow wings of the palace surrounded a cobbled courtyard immediately below, at the moment serving as a mustering ground for a guard unit; ranks and files of statuesque guardsponies in glittering armor faced a bellowing officer. Beyond sprawled a slice of the ancient capital city of Canterlot, cascading down the mountainside in terraces of stone and tile, wood and glass, a breathtaking and vertiginous storybook vista. The brilliantly blue sky was mostly clear, decorated with a few puffy white clouds, a few scattered airships, and what looked to be swarms of pegasus ponies. None of the air traffic, I noticed, came close to the airspace over the palace itself, which made perfect sense.

The window fell behind, but before we reached another, our little cavalcade turned a corner into a smaller, quieter side corridor that ended in another tall double door. Shining Armor stopped and, with the same magical glow I’d seen before, opened these doors as well while we caught up with him. I took a deep and unobtrusive breath. It was show time.

Author's Note:

As a child in the 1960s I once visited Neuschwanstein Castle, the basis of modern visions of the classic fairy-tale castle and one of the inspirations for Canterlot Palace. Built by “Mad King Ludwig” II in the late nineteenth century, it was conceived as a completely artificial, well, fairy-tale castle, and it ballooned hugely in scope and cost as the project went on. By the time of Ludwig’s untimely death, everyone else was so heartily sick of the thing all construction was abandoned with indecent haste, and as far as I know the guided tours still lead visitors through unfinished sections as part of the history lesson.
   Neuschwanstein was only one of several German castles my family visited while my father, at the time a USAFE officer, was stationed in what was then West Germany. We also visited, several times, the iconic city of Rothenburg, and I have stood at the famous intersection that has inspired so many photos and paintings. It is those memories, many of them still vivid almost fifty years later, that informed my descriptions of the palace and the city below.

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