• Published 19th Jul 2012
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The Best of All Possible Worlds - McPoodle

The philosopher Voltaire finds himself in the most-frustrating place imaginable: Equestria

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Chapter 17

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 17

Blue Belle and her father entered the large outdoor tent that was acting as Princess Celestia’s temporary day audience chamber.

In addition to the usual sights of the Princess, the ministers and the petitioners, Blue Belle also saw several griffons in the crowd. They were attired in the traditional style: plain cylindrical brown boots over foreclaws and hindpaws, facial feathers carefully fluffed out to obscure the beak as much as possible, and an extensive styling of back fur and feathers to create the illusion of a mane. All of the griffon nobility in Griffonia were styled in this fashion.

This group of visitors was the official delegation from Griffonia, led by Sky Shock, seventh in line to Praiseworthy VIII’s ducal throne. Blue Belle liked Sky Shock: she led her delegation with absolutely no patience for horseplay, and unlike certain ponies, she managed to do this without making a foal of herself. She also always had a nice gift for Blue Belle when she visited Equestria.

The official ball in honor of the griffons would be held tonight. For now, they were merely observers.

~ ~ ~

Blue Belle and her father made their way easily through the crowd as it parted ways before them. Blue Belle stopped at the front of the crowd facing the throne, while Blueblood took his place beside his monarch.

~ ~ ~

In the gardens of Canterlot, there was a very foolish and lonely creature called a peacock. While all of the sensible creatures fled into the treetops and the bushes to avoid the ponies that tramped through their grounds, the peacock alone would actually leap out of the bushes, and spread its multicolored tail so that it could be seen, and complimented. If it did not get complimented, it would begin to scream...

~ ~ ~

Crouched on his heels next to Princess Celestia’s throne was the creature Blue Belle considered to be the closest relative the silly peacock had in Canterlot. He had dressed himself up like an apple farmer, and was sitting there in that undignified position, his chest puffed out and the thumbs of his hands hooked into the lapels of his suit, to make his chest look like it was even more puffed out. And what is he proud of? Blue Belle asked herself. Looking weird. That’s the only reason why everypony’s paying more attention to him than to the Princess. Than they should be paying to Father!

Voltaire was the creature that had humiliated her father, and caused jealous ponies to invent even more humiliations, like using logic to prove that his coat wasn’t the purest of whites. She had been hearing taunts of these humiliations from her classmates at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, the first time she had had to defend herself against somepony else’s verbal assaults. And the worst part, the most-infuriating part, was that Voltaire was always right. Infallibility was a trait that was supposed to belong to goddesses, not stupid hairless creatures too stupid to even know that forelimbs were for walking!

Just once, just once, thought Blue Belle, I want to be there when he makes a foal of himself. Leading ponies into humiliating themselves used to be my specialty! ...wait a second, maybe I can make him humiliate himself...

~ ~ ~

The current matter before the Princess was a land dispute between two brothers in the “no-mare’s land” between Canterlot and the Everfree. The father of the pair had established an apricot farm that had barely managed to support his family. After he died, he split his farm into two pieces too small for either to be sustainable, and now the brothers were petitioning the Princess to overturn the will and pick one of them as sole heir. The elder brother claimed his birth order as his sole justification for getting everything, while the younger brother claimed to have assisted his father for years, and to have given up the chance to form a family.

It was at this point that a third brother stepped forward, claiming the existence of a revised will that gave him everything. When the Princess asked to see this will, the newcomer had the nerve to look surprised, and claimed that he had it back at the inn he was staying in. He then left to retrieve it.

“Well!” said Princess Celestia good-naturedly, putting aside all the paperwork that had been presented so far. “Let us move on to the next petitioner while we wait for Pitt the Younger to return with the will.”

“No!” protested Pitt the Elder. “We have earned the right to be heard, and we do not wish to relinquish it.”

“My brother is right,” chimed in Pitt the Middling. “We shall all wait for Pitt.”

“Very well,” said the Princess. “You two do not mind if we are entertained while we wait?”

The brothers agreed that this was permissible.

“Good!” exclaimed Princess Celestia. “My concertmaster tells me that she has a small piece unrelated to tonight’s gala that she would like to premiere.”

“Excuse me, Princess,” said Blue Belle, stepping out of the crowd. “Before you do that, could I ask Counselor Voltaire a question?”

The Princess smiled indulgently at Blue Belle. “I’m afraid you missed the question and answer session with our human visitor. Perhaps I can arrange for a private audience with him at a later time.”

“Could you tell us about the Frog Princess of Fomalhaut?” the unicorn filly blurted out.

This caused a bit of a stir in the crowd, and an even bigger stir around the throne.

“Yes...” said Voltaire with some hesitation, “I’d be happy to tell you all about the Frog Princess...in that private audience.”

“But I want to hear about it now!” she protested.

“You promised a most-entertaining tale,” said Eveningstar.

“Well...yes,” said Voltaire, “but I think this is too broad an audience for the effect I was intending...”

“You were not thinking of telling my council a tale that was in any way...salacious...were you, Counselor Voltaire?” asked the Princess with a smile.


“Then I think this would be the ideal time to tell it. The inn that our missing Pitt is heading to is at least a half-hour’s walk away from here. We should have more than enough time for your story and my concertmaster’s sonata.”

“I...well...if you insist,” Voltaire said, rising up from his crouch slightly in order to bow to the Princess. He then fixed a venomous glare at Blue Belle.

Blue Belle for her part smiled in satisfaction. This ought to be good.

“Beyond forest, meadow and stream, beyond ocean, mountain and desert, lies the Swamp of Fomalhaut,” Voltaire began in a voice low enough that his audience had to lean forward to hear. He was putting his all into this performance—it may have not been the circumstances under which he wished to tell it, but that meant that the story had to be that much funnier, that much more serious, that much more tragic. The story must be the most-entertaining story he could possibly tell. Only in that way could he possibly succeed in getting most of these ponies to hear the story as just a story, and not as something fraught with terrible meaning.

“It is a little place, no bigger than this tent, and not marked on any map. That is because it is a place shunned by those few men who know of it, and I have no doubt that if ponies ever visited my world, they would shun that swamp as well. The place is damp and dismal. A pestilential vapor fills the space between water and zenith at all hours, so that the sun is never visible. The sky is filled with all manner of biting and sucking insects. Will-o’-the-wisps lead foolhardy visitors to their doom. And the water swarms with leeches.

“In short, it is a perfect paradise for the Frogs of Fomalhaut. I suppose I should ask, are there frogs in Equestria?”

“There are, Counselor,” replied the Princess.

“And do they talk?” asked Voltaire.

“No, they do not,” said the Princess.

“Well in general, frogs on Earth do not talk. But the Frogs of Fomalhaut do. They not only talk, they also sing, and in their ears at least, they are the most-beautiful singers in the whole world. Let me try to reproduce for you their most-famous song.” And in a voice pitched so deeply that only a Diamond Dog could have matched it, Voltaire croaked the following: “Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!”

The audience looked upon him in stunned amazement.

“Well,” he said bashfully, “my Frog is somewhat rusty. If I have failed to acquaint you with their voices, let me at least convey their appearance.

“A typical Frog of Fomalhaut is about this big.” And so saying, he touched his index fingers and thumbs together to create a circle that he held up to the crowd, keeping his other fingers curled into his hands. “His color is a mix of dark green and dark gray, which allows him to blend in well with his swamp. He has great big eyes on the top of his great big head.” Voltaire held cupped hands to the side of his head to illustrate. “A frog is mostly head, and the part that isn’t is converted into throat when he is singing.” Again, Voltaire used his hands to illustrate, moving them out and back from his chest to show how much a frog’s throat expanded.

Voltaire took a brief look around, to see that the ponies were eating all this up with big grins on their faces. He suspected this was just because they were not used to bipeds and the ways they could use their hands to illustrate their stories.

“There is a balance in all things,” Voltaire told his audience, “and in return for their ability to think and to speak, the Frogs of Fomalhaut are remarkably vulnerable, much more than even an ordinary frog of Earth or Equestria. For example, if a sleepwalking pony ever happened to walk closer than its own body length next to one of these magical frogs, the minuscule vibrations would be enough to send that poor frog to a hospital, to heal it of the resulting injuries. And that is a walking pony, mind you. A trotting pony could completely destroy Fomalhaut civilization before she had even realized what she was doing. Fomalhaut Frogs also only live for a single year, but I dare say that in that brief span they manage to fit in a full lifetime of happiness, for these frogs know of no predators, are never hungry, and always feel perfectly safe.

“The protector of these frogs was the Princess Fisby. Fisby was universally beloved by all of her amphibian subjects, who considered her to be the most amazing and wonderful creature in all of Creation. Fisby possessed a nearly unlimited quantity of magic: by exerting herself to her utmost, she could just about get that sleepwalking pony I mentioned earlier to topple over. She was also incredibly long-lived, having been around for at least thirty-five years! In size she was perfectly enormous, fully twice as big as any ordinary frog.” To illustrate this, he held up his hands with index fingers and thumbs touching as before, and them opened out his other fingers to chart out Fisby’s size. “Her hue was a sort of greenish-purplish mess that the frogs considered to be aesthetically the most perfect color possible. Her eyes glistened with the most divine of slimes, and when she spoke, her voice was a full octave deeper than her subjects—truly a voice of beauty and refinement!” Voltaire uttered these lines with the deepest of respect, which of course only caused the listening ponies to laugh all the more.

“What about her hair?” Blue Belle interrupted.

“Her hair?” Voltaire replied in confusion.

Blue Belle removed her Celestia wig and floated it over until it rested on top of Voltaire’s head. “She had the same hair as Princess Celestia of course, didn’t she?”

Blue Belle exulted as Voltaire squirmed. It was obvious to her that the human had only invented this story as a way to indirectly humiliate the Princess.

Well, now that motive has been made fully obvious to everypony.

“Err, yes...” Voltaire said, thinking furiously, “her hair.” He decided to take what he had been given, and run with it. “When Princess Fisby was young, she had a vision, a vision of the majestic Princess of Equestria!” As he said this, Voltaire suddenly stood, sweeping his arm to indicate the Princess beside him. This caused the audience, most of whom had not had the chance to see the human standing upright, to gasp in unison. Voltaire waited for the crowd to settle down before continuing: “Fisby saw that Princess Celestia cared for her ponies, protected them from harm, and helped them to achieve their hopes and dreams. Fisby had been born with powers beyond those of other frogs, and she decided to use those gifts to emulate her inspiration. Fisby was by no means a goddess, she couldn’t even defend herself against a foal, but she would use every ounce of the strength she had to try to make her subjects one-tenth as happy as you ponies. And as a symbol of this pact she made with herself, Princess Fisby fashioned a wig out of dyed swamp grass. Fisby’s subjects thought this only made her more pleasing to look upon. What do you think?”

Voltaire roughed up the multi-colored wig on his head before bulging out his eyes, puffing out his cheeks, and spreading his lips as far down and back as he could. He then opened and closed his mouth a few times and flicked his tongue out, darted his eyes a couple times in a “come-hither” sort of gesture, and in his deep froggy voice uttered the words “Am I not beautiful?” This got a good laugh out of the crowd, especially from Princess Celestia.

“Frogs were nocturnal creatures,” said Voltaire once he had their attention once more. “They sang and played by night, and slept by day. But Princess Fisby allowed herself only a few moments of sleep every twenty-four hours, and then only during the night. During the day, she had work to do.

“Princess Fisby’s magic created the fog that kept predators from finding Fomalhaut Swamp, and each day it had to be renewed. She personally tended the stinking plants that attracted the stinging insects that the frogs needed to live. She also cared for and pampered the spoiled tribe of will-o’-the-wisps, so that they would use their confusion magic on the frogs’ enemies, and not on them. Most importantly, she alone fought off any predators that were not deterred by fog or insects or wisps.

“And in return for this, every evening Princess Fisby would be greeted by a chorus of frogs singing ‘Brr-deep! Brr-deep!’ In Frog, this phrase meant ‘Hail, glorious Goddess of Frogdom!’

“Fisby hated to be called a goddess. Time and again she would try to correct her subjects, and time and again they would laugh her off. ‘How humble our Goddess is,’ they would tell themselves, ‘that She would pretend to be mortal in order to not humble us poor, worthless frogs!’ A group of frog priests set themselves up and surrounded their princess. They told her it was to protect her from any subjects that might try to hurt her, but in reality it was in order to become rich and powerful from controlling the means of access to their ruler.

“Meanwhile, froggy philosophers would debate the part their presumed goddess had in the nature of the universe. ‘How is it,’ they asked themselves, ‘that evil can exist in this, the best of all possible worlds? For surely, with Princess Fisby looking over us, this must be a perfect world. And yet occasionally a frog will accidentally wander out of the swamp, and meet an untimely end. And another time, one frog will seek to make another miserable, in order to achieve unworthy ends. And sometimes we are stricken by plague, and many of us sicken. How can this be? How can evil exist in a world where the Supreme Goddess is a frog?’

“When the priests heard these questions, they would laugh them off. ‘Foolish philosopher,’ they would answer, ‘your question comes from ignorance, nothing more. Everything that happens, happens by the will of Fisby. The frog that wanders out of the swamp is being divinely punished for being too stupid to live. Every struggle of one frog with another is to root out an evil or blasphemous thought that had entered into their heads. And when the plague comes, it only strikes those who deserve what happens to them. This is the best of all possible worlds, and the best you poor deluded frogs can do under the circumstances is to bless our Princess all the more for making this world the way it is, and pray that one day you might be delivered the wisdom of us priests, to know this fact for a certainty.’ And the philosopher frog would then be thrown into the prison to rot.

“Now I ask you all to consider the question of the philosopher frog.” Voltaire spread his arms wide, and swept them to include everyone in the tent. “Fomalhaut is on Earth, which is not a place visited by Princess Celestia very often.” The Princess laughed a little at this, which of course meant that all of the guests had to laugh as well. “In all of that swamp, the only creature who acts for the well-being of that swamp and its inhabitants is Princess Fisby. That means that, mortal as she is, she is the closest thing to a goddess that Fomalhaut has.

“Princess Fisby does not know all. She is not all-powerful. And she cannot be in all places at once. She knows her swamp better than any other creature in it, but she knows nothing of mathematics, or poetry, or haute cuisine, to say nothing of realms of knowledge that would be useful to her, like the origins and motivations of the many kinds of predators she has to face each day. Princess Fisby is roughly a dozen times stronger, tougher and more magical than the average frog, but the enemies she faces each day are easily more powerful than her. She succeeds through her wits, her courage, and a great deal of luck. The philosopher frog wanted to know, in the best of all possible worlds, why Princess Fisby would allow evil to exist in her Swamp. The answer is that the Swamp of Fomalhaut was not the best of all possible worlds. It was merely the best world that one mortal frog could possibly create for her subjects.”

Voltaire gave an apologetic and somewhat frightened look to his audience. “I wish to be very clear at this point. Fomalhaut is on Earth. A swamp on Equestria would have a completely different fate. Every spot on Equestria is guarded by our illustrious and perfect Princess Celestia. The Princess ensures that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds, and that everything that happens does happen for a good reason. I do not want my listeners for a moment to think that I was advancing Princess Fisby’s philosophy of life as one that anypony would wish to pay serious attention to. I simply wished to help you get inside the mind of my protagonist. Have we got that settled? Then I will tell you about the night that everything in the Fomalhaut changed.

“One evening, the frogs awoke from their sleep and began singing ‘Brr-deep! Brr-deep!’, only to find that there was no princess to hear it. They searched high and low, from the tops of the cypress trees to the bottoms of the bogs. Finally they found her, lying atop a lone lily pad. She was horrifically bloodied and just barely clinging to life. Nearby was the inert form of a monstrous crane, easily twenty times her size. The fight between them had been done entirely in silence, and frogs sleeping not a pony-length away dismissed those sounds as but figments of their dreams. Even when the Princess had been so grievously injured, she had not cried out, because she thought her blow was mortal, and wished to delay their grief at her demise for as long as possible.”

Voltaire spared another look at his audience, and knew he had them in the palm of his hand. There were even tears in a few eyes.

“The frogs looked upon this scene in horror, complete and utter horror. Never had they imagined that a monster like this crane could possibly exist. They could all see that if it had not been stopped then it would have gobbled up dozens and dozens of them in their sleep. All of the strongest frogs gathered together and, by working harder than they had ever worked in their entire lives, they were able to drag the crane out of the swamp, far enough away that they hoped that it would never return. They were the first frogs ever to leave the Fomalhaut and return alive, and the tales they brought back of dry land left the other frogs looking like this.” Voltaire gave his listeners his impression of a gape-mouthed frog, earning another laugh. It was a rather uncomfortable laugh, though, seeing as it came in the middle of the most-dramatic part of his story.

“And then there was their Princess,” Voltaire continued. “She was mortal! Mortal, and bleeding to death. The frogs that knew a little about medicine came forward. They were frightened, terribly frightened, frightened to touch their princess, and even more frightened of failing her. But eventually they stopped the bleeding. Together, all of the frogs who found the Princess built a bier, and putting her atop it, they solemnly carried her back to the log that their ancestors had given her to live in when she had begun her reign.

“The log was guarded by the priests, who quickly took the senseless body of the Princess. The Head Priest stepped forward, and told the frogs that what they had seen was an illusion, a test given them by the Princess. Princess Fisby was still a goddess, he said, and they were to go about their froggy business and pretend that all this had never happened...because it hadn’t.

“The frogs responded to this pronouncement by laying their froggy hands on the profane bodies of the priests, and throwing them bodily out of the swamp, never allowed to return. All of the priests’ prisoners were freed, and to add insult to injury, they were put in charge of Fomalhaut until the Princess recovered.

“It took a month for Princess Fisby to recover from her injuries. During this month, the frogs had to learn what it took to keep Fomalhaut safe for their kind. The day after the Princess was injured, her fog burned off, and the swamp was assaulted by a veritable army of predators, led by the very crane that had nearly finished her. The frogs tried to appeal to the will-o’-the-wisps, but those fickle creatures abandoned them, so they had to fight off snakes, turtles, herons and even raccoons all by themselves. The battle seemed hopeless, until a couple dozen young frogs discovered the magic that had been buried inside of them all this time, and summoned up the protective fog, so much thicker than Princess Fisby had ever been able to create, and complete with its own illusions to replace the wisps. Under cover of this fog, the assault was turned back at the cost of many many injuries, and Fomalhaut was saved.

“A month passed, and the only frog who got any sleep on a regular basis during this time was Princess Fisby, who was kept completely ignorant of what was happening. Finally, she emerged to speak with her subjects. She looked down from her log throne upon their faces, and was appalled. Her innocent subjects, once free from any care, now knew how truly unfair life was to them. They had all of them fought desperate battles against predators. They had learned how to work with nature to raise their food and shape the nature of the swamp to their liking. And they had learned that Fomalhaut was but a tiny part of a much larger and indifferent world. All of this pain and hardship showed in their faces, but those expressions were also tempered by hope.

“Princess Fisby told her subjects that she was taking back her responsibilities, starting immediately. She apologized profusely for failing them, and for forcing them to learn the unpleasant truth of her duties. She wished for them to go back to their former lives. Those lives were so very brief after all, while she had been blessed with a long life and great powers. Surely it was her purpose in life to shield her subjects from her cares.

“At hearing this, Princess Fisby’s subjects loudly protested. It had been irresponsible of them to reject her frequent hints at her true nature, and to never ask about the true nature of their world. It was true that she was a greater frog than they were, but only by a finite amount. One Fisby was equal to ten or twelve normal frogs, not an infinite number, as they once believed. Since there were ten times twelve frogs in Fomalhaut, one Fisby alone was not enough to protect them. From this moment forth, the Princess would be served during the day by a rotating contingent of frogs that would assist her in her tasks. It would be the proud duty of everyfroggy to share the burden of the Princess, and they even appointed days every month when the contingent would be extra large, so that the Princess would finally be allowed to sleep. She protested that as part of her special nature she didn’t need to sleep much, but they were quite adamant on this point.

“And so the nature of frog society was transformed. And that is why when Princess Fisby greets her subjects every evening, she no longer hears the chorus of ‘Brr-deep! Brr-deep!’, but rather ‘Ribbit! Ribbit!’ For ‘ribbit ribbit’ is Frog for ‘Thank You’.”

There was a moment of utter silence at the conclusion of Voltaire’s story, only to be followed by a thunderous applause from everypony present. It was the most-satisfying ovation the human had received in his entire life.

As he was bowing, Voltaire felt a hoof on his shoulder, and turned to see Princess Celestia looking at him, tears of grateful joy in her eyes.

As he took in that look, Voltaire failed to notice that in a small number of ponies, the looks of happiness at hearing a good story gradually turned to confusion and, in an even smaller minority, some of those looks of confusion turned to rage.

Blue Belle stumbled out of the tent in a haze.

Voltaire is deliberately trying to undermine the divinity of the Princess! her mind’s voice railed at her. And She actually wants him to do it!

Does he actually want the kingdom to collapse? If enough ponies believe such a lie, it will surely be the end of Equestria!

What could he possibly gain from such a plan? Is he truly that petty, that full of himself, that he’d be willing to say such a thing about Her, just to pull Her down to his level?

Celestia is the most powerful being in Equestria!

But She wanted him to tell that story.

Her power is infinite.

But She wanted him to tell that story.

Her knowledge is infinite.

But she wanted him to tell that story.

Her every action has always been just, and She has never been wrong. Her assumption of the title of Princess was justified, Her absorption of the Unicorn and Pegasus kingdoms and the Earth Pony republic were justified, her Judgment of Pinwin (which gave the home village of my ancestors over to the dragons in order to prevent a war) was wise, as was her decision to chase down the Meteor of 6748 by herself, subjecting herself to potentially fatal injury in order to save the whole of...it’s true! Celestia is mortal! Celestia is mortal!

~ ~ ~

Blue Belle was overcome by a tremendous generalized fear, and felt like she was going to be physically sick. But this was not the result of any spell of Celestia’s. Rather, Blue Belle had suddenly discovered herself to be completely cured of the “spell” of Princess Celestia herself.

She was the first pony to have undergone this miraculous mental transformation.

She would not be the last.

Author's Note:

This chapter alone is the reason why I started writing The Best of All Possible Worlds. I discuss my inspiration (an essay by Voltaire speculating on God's limitations) in the blog post "Power and Omnipotence".