• 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 28

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 28

With the arrival of the Relief Expedition in Trottingham, the time for telling tales was put on hold. Nearly a hundred griffon nobles had set up camp in a ring around the town, and dozens more were expected to arrive within the next week. The Sparkles did their organizational magic, the Princess dazzled pony and griffon alike everywhere she went, and Voltaire began giving carefully prepared “impromptu” performances of “The Frog Princess of the Fomalhaut”.

The work was treated as a revelation by the pegasus and earth pony population. Those who had formerly been too terrified to be within a city block of their monarch now flocked to offer their services to her. Voltaire appeared at Blue Belle’s ear to offer a crucial piece of advice: “If you don’t want the unicorns to be permanently identified with the priests in my story, I suggest you become even more helpful to the common ponies than you already have been.”

Blue Belle took these words to heart, and set as her first order of business convincing Captain Hardheart of an idea she had often overheard from grumbling pegasi and earth ponies: that the Royal Guard should not be a unicorn-only force. The Captain resisted this concept at first, until she pointed out the obvious tactical flaw in having a defensive force with a great big hole in the vertical direction for deflecting attacks from winged adversaries, and without the strength to face off against magic-resistant foes.

Voltaire’s advice to Blue Belle proved to be timely. In merely a week, the proportion of Trottingham’s population that was equipped with blue scrolls had risen to nearly half, and the Royal Guard tryouts were packed enough that the Captain was cautiously optimistic that the candidates he selected might have a chance of surviving their hazing.

Author’s Note: The “Trottingham Induction” is an event long afterwards cherished in the traditions and ceremonies of the Royal Guard, and a certain individual who I have been prodding for quite some time really should collaborate with me to write the definitive guide. In any case, the predominance of Trottingham recruits and Trottingham accents in the Guard is the most-visible consequence today.

One night Voltaire had been invited by Pensive Thought to a pegasus watering hole, to give him yet another opportunity to tell the fable and so that the two of them could talk over the state of Equestria.

The pegasus counselor plied Voltaire with saltine crackers, bowls of tomato bisque and even some cured fish of questionable provenance, all while asking if there were any plans being developed by the Princess against the dragons that she wasn’t telling the Council.

Eventually, from seeing the effect that these salted foods were having upon the equines around him, Voltaire concluded that Pensive Thought was trying to get him drunk, and was failing miserably. As he was pondering the correct way to deal with this situation, the bad fish kicked in.

“How are you feeling?” Princess Celestia asked the bedridden Voltaire. He was staying with Mayor Wheatstraw.

“No longer sick,” he replied. “Pensive Thought is a spy for Botvinnik, by the way.”

“I know,” the Princess replied. “All of the Blueblood secretaries have been dragon spies.”

“Does he know?” Voltaire asked. “Did any of them know?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve always known, though. If he sees fit to keep secrets from me, I don’t see why I can’t keep secrets from him.”

“That sounds rather petty,” Voltaire observed.

Celestia shrugged. “The Bluebloods have a solid track record of stealing from the people’s funds, leaving me little sympathy for how much the spies have been siphoning off. At least they’ve been keeping their ill-gotten gains in Equestria, where they were maintained by Equestrian labor.”

Voltaire shook his head incredulously. “At times I wonder if any of you monarchs have the slightest idea what you are doing.”

“I could say the same for you,” the alicorn replied. “I hear you’ve been telling the Council another one of your stories…without informing me first.”

“Are my words so dangerous that they require regulation?” Voltaire asked sarcastically. “Do my lips need to be registered beside crème brûlée as instruments of war?”

He did not in the slightest appreciate the gravity with which she considered this question.

Voltaire spent the next day recuperating, waking occasionally at the sounds of construction outside of the window—the ponies were working furiously to expand Trottingham to house both the visiting ponies and the griffons. Unicorn nobles and businessponies from Canterlot worked side-by-side with the residents of the town, under the direction of the Mayor. The griffons, on the other hoof, were less than cooperative, a sign of how little control Countess Sky Shock had over them.

That night, the Princess brought the members of the Kebabbers over to visit…minus Pensive Thought, who had fled for parts unknown.

“Is there anything we can get you?” Cogs asked. “Any sort of food or mineral that has miraculous healing abilities for humans?”

From his bed, Voltaire shook his head.

“I bet meat would cure you right up,” Sky Shock offered.

The ponies all got uncomfortable.

“I’ve gone meatless for most of my life,” Voltaire said. “It’s true that I might be somewhat weaker than the average nobleman as a result, but I’ve always made sure to take care of the only muscle of mine I truly need.” And with this he tapped the side of his head with a finger.

“The Countess has expressed her interest in hearing the rest of the story of King Henri,” the Princess said. “Since you’ve caught me up on the first part, why don’t you continue where you left off?”

“I’d like to start by providing you for once with a piece of good news tied to St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” said Voltaire. “When the order of death went out to the city of Paris, it also spread to the governors of all of the provinces of France; so that in a week’s time, more than a hundred thousand Protestants were massacred all over the kingdom.”

“Voltaire…” warned Morningstar.

“Patience, Counselor. Two or three governors only refused to comply with the King’s orders; one among others, called Montmorrin, Governor of Auvergne, wrote to the king the following letter, which deserves to be transmitted to posterity:


I have received an order under your Majesty’s seal to put to death all the Protestants in my province. I have too much respect for your Majesty not to believe the letter is counterfeited; but if (God forbid) the order is truly yours, I have too much respect for your Majesty to obey it.

From the back of the room, Princess Celestia quietly facehooved. Voltaire had just provided a precedent for any of her enlightened subjects to disobey any order they considered “out of character” for her.

“Those massacres wrought in the Protestants who escaped, rage instead of terror; their irreconcilable hatred against the court seemed to supply them with new vigor, and the spirit of revenge increased their strength.”

The Princess looked over at the griffon countess, who appeared to be deep in thought. “How did Henri even survive that horrible night?” she asked.

Voltaire explained that the plotting Queen Mother had decided that the beloved Henri was to be spared so that he might become a captive, his life dependent on the good behavior of his followers. Henri then got Catherine to agree, in writing and in public, that she had to let him go on the death of the current king. But Catherine had in the current King of France a creature who was completely willing to carry out each and every one of her plans. This king was not going to die young.

“Not long after,” continued the human, “the King was taken with a strange sickness, which carried him off in two years. His blood was daily seeping out of his skin, and…”

The ponies simultaneously exclaimed in disgust. Sky Shock, to nobody’s surprise, hadn’t even flinched.

Must you go into detail?” asked Eveningstar.

“Well it was sort of a poetic justice thing, blood for blood and all that,” explained Voltaire. “But I can move on.” He explained that the new king was the last of the Valois dynasty and, thanks to a war wound, would never be able to father a child. This meant that Henri was in line to become the next King of France. But the King hesitated to formally announce this.

The Duke of Guise took advantage of this hesitation to advance his own agenda, pretending to be the most devout of all Catholics. In the words of Voltaire: “His liberality secured to him the common people, he had all the clergy at his devotion, friends in Parlement, spies at court, servants throughout all the kingdom.”

Princess Celestia saw Sky Shock’s eyes boggle.

“Botvinnik!” she exclaimed. “Um, sorry,” she quickly added in response to all of the eyes upon her. “I was thinking of something entirely different. Carry on.”

The Duke then created the Holy League to control the Catholics in the country. The King of France, afraid of Guise's growing power, tried to arrange his certain death by giving him a too-small army to face off an invasion of France by pro-Protestant Germans. The King then sent the majority of his forces to destroy Henri. Both of his plans failed—Guise won against overwhelming odds, and so did Henri. Henri was in a position to demand unconditional surrender, but he refused to be the bad guy, and backed down. As a result, Guise marched on and took over Paris, making the King of France his prisoner.

Voltaire looked comfortably around him at his captive audience. “Men are seldom good or bad enough,” he told them. “Had Guise attempted that day against the liberty or the life of the King, he had been in all likelihood master of France; but he let him escape after having besieged him, and thus he did too much and too little.

“The King fled to Blois, where he held the Estates General, the meeting of the three parts of the kingdom.”

The Princess saw Sky Shock nod in recognition. She remembered that the griffon kingdom also had an Estates General, and that its calling had started the countdown to revolution. She began to wonder what precisely the Countess was aiming to get out of this story.

Guise followed the King to Blois before the Estates General could get around to proclaiming him a traitor, and made a reconciliation with the King, but it was all for show. Little did the Duke realize, however, who would be betraying who first.

“The King was resolved to be revenged on him,” said Voltaire, “and upon his brother the Cardinal of Guise, the partner of his ambitious designs, and the most ardent promoter of the League. He provided daggers himself, and distributed them to some Gascons, who offered to be the ministers of his vengeance. And so…”

“You may skip the description of yet another massacre,” the Princess said coldly.

“Well, this is merely two Guises, but if you insist. Afterwards, the bodies were laid out under Catherine de’ Medici’s apartment; but she was totally ignorant of her son’s design, being at that time distrusted by all parties, and forsaken even by the King. She died a few days later.”

Since the King had ordered Guise’s death in cold blood, and had failed to try him for any of his actual crimes, the Catholics became even more disgusted with their king, and turned against him entirely. Thus the assassination of the Duke had the same effect on his followers as the assassination of Admiral Coligny of the Bourbons had had upon his followers.

The Guise cause was taken up by his brother, the Duke of Mayenne. This duke united Paris in his cause, which cheered in unison when the dead Duke’s widow accused the King of France of murder, and demanded he be tried in Paris and, in the event of his inevitable conviction, that he be executed like a common criminal.

The control of the city at this time was in the hands of some businessmen. “They were called the Sixteen,” Voltaire said, “not because of their number, for they were forty—”

The Princess was completely unsurprised to hear Sky Shock gasp at this point. She was rather surprised by this revelation as well, and paid close attention to the part The Forty were about to play.

“—but from the sixteen wards of Paris which they had divided among themselves to rule over. This group alone was in a position to stop the Duke of Mayenne, but treated him much as the Duke of Guise had treated the King, exploiting his cause to make themselves all-powerful. Moreover, the priests, who have ever been the trumpeters of all the revolutions in the world, thundered in the pulpit, and assured in the name of God, that whosoever should attempt to kill the Tyrant (that is, the King), should go infallibly to Heaven.”

“What or where is ‘Heaven’?” asked Eveningstar.

“The majority of Europeans,” answered Voltaire, “believe that their souls will go to one of two places after they die. If they are good, they will go to Heaven, there to be happy forever. If on the other hand they are wicked, they will spend eternity in Hell, there to suffer a torment personalized to their sins until the end of time. In general, murderers are believed to go to Hell after their execution. Declaring an exception as the priests in Paris were now doing, was…I believe the English would have called it ‘not very sporting.’”

Finally, the King realized that Henri was a friend instead of an enemy. The two united their armies, and marched on Paris. The League, its bluff called, was on the brink of ruin, when yet another assassin stepped forward. With relish, Voltaire described how the religious fanatic prepared himself for his “holy” mission, and how the priests of Paris assisted him. He told the ponies and one griffon how this man managed to bluff his way into the royal camp. “As the King was perusing the letter,” Voltaire continued, “the assassin stabbed him in the belly, and left the dagger flicking in the wound—“

“Ew!” the ponies exclaimed in unison.

“Alright,” Voltaire said with a grin, “some more glossing is required. The King, mortally wounded, grabbed the knife out his own body, and used it to strike down his assailant.”

Henri was now King of France, but all kings had to be anointed in Paris. Before he had even made a single move, half of his army, the Catholic half that had been loyal to the previous king, abandoned him. The leaders of this half did this not out of religious piety, but in hope of the kingdom falling apart, so that they might claim a large piece for themselves.

The Duke of Mayenne had no claim to the throne. So he picked out a doddering old fool who did have a claim, and had him anointed.

King Henri and the Duke fought against each other for years, with the Duke proving himself a worthy adversary in the field. But soon the King had Paris bottled up. He could have taken the city, he should have taken the city, but that would have meant it would have been sacked by his soldiers, and he couldn’t bear to think of himself as the man responsible for such an atrocity. So he merely besieged the town, hoping that the inhabitants could come to their senses and surrender.

But as Voltaire explained, “Mayenne, the priests, and the Sixteen Burgesses managed so dexterously the spirits of the people, worked up their hatred against the heretics to such a degree, and fooled their imagination to such an enthusiasm, that they chose rather to die by hunger, than to submit.” The priests put on old sets of armor and marched around, pretending that they were willing to fight King Henri’s forces to the death. Soon famine descended upon the town. “That prodigious multitude of citizens had no other support but the sermons of their priests, and the fictitious miracles of friars, who, by the way, had all things in plenty in their convents, while all the town was reduced to starve. The miserable Parisians, lulled at first by the hopes of being soon relieved, were singing ballads in the streets, and lampoons against Henri; a fact not to be related with probability of any other nation, but suitable enough to the genius of the French even in so desolate a condition. That short-lived wretched mirth was stopped quickly by the most serious and the most inexpressible misery. Thirty thousand men died of hunger in a month’s time. The poor starved citizens tried to make a sort of bread with the bones—”

“Stop!” ordered the Princess with a frown. “You’re doing it again.”

“Right, right,” agreed Voltaire with a sigh. “In short, they were starving, and they did some things they shouldn’t have, but still they refused to yield. Henri pitied their condition more than they did themselves; his good nature prevailed over his interest.

“He suffered his soldiers to sell privately all sorts of provisions to the town; thus it happened, which was never seen before, that the besiegers fed the besieged. ‘Twas a singular spectacle to see the soldiers from the bottom of the trenches send up victuals to the citizens, who were throwing down money to them from the ramparts. By these means, the soldiers got too much money, the besieged were relieved, and Henri lost the town.” Then the Spanish king, a man who had been a major source of funding for the Catholic League, saw this as the moment to reveal his true intentions, and invaded the country, with hopes of annexing it. King Henri fought him off and returned to Paris, only to find it even more strongly devoted to resisting him. This was despite the fact that Mayenne’s puppet king was now dead. Mayenne called for a meeting of the Estates General to pick another puppet of his choosing. But the King of Spain was calling the shots now, and the Catholic people hated the Protestants so much they were willing to cease being French forever rather than submit to a Protestant king’s rule.

“At last Henri,” Voltaire narrated, “tired with the cruel necessity of waging an eternal war against his subjects, knowing besides they hated his religion, not him, resolved to turn Catholic; for the priests were the only enemies he was afraid of. A few weeks after, Paris opened its gates to him, and what his valor and his magnanimity could never bring about, was easily obtained by going to Mass, and by receiving absolution from the Pope.

“And that is the end of my tale.” Voltaire sat back and closed his eyes. “Are there any questions?”

Celestia looked over at Sky Shock, who was deep in thought, and frowned.

As near as she could tell, this story really didn’t have any relevance. It was just a demonstration of the brutality of human nature. Applied more broadly, it could be taken as a warning of what even the ponies might have been forced to descend to if not for magic, and the special nature of Equestria.

She supposed that somebody might get something out of the story, if they were persistent, but they were equally likely to be misled. For example, it appeared that the forty-member “Sixteen” from Voltaire’s story did nothing that corresponded with the actions of Griffonia’s Forty.

Sky Shock sat very still and quiet for nearly a minute. She had a question she needed to ask, but she already knew the answer, and bitterly disliked it. Finally she spoke.

“Why is it that the choice of religion is so important to humans?”

Voltaire fidgeted uncomfortably. “I mentioned before about humans, at least the European ones, believing about two different eternal fates after death?” he said. “Well God’s the one in charge of judging where each individual soul goes. Since a religion describes who God is, and what He wants, and because humans have come up with thousands of different religions, most humans have got it into their heads that God considers the choice of religion more important than anything else they have done in life. Only one religion is the true one, according to this view, and the vast majority of humanity who chose one of the wrong religions…well, they are damned. It doesn’t matter how good they have been in life, without the right religion, you will be punished forever.”

Sky Shock sighed deeply. “So what you are saying is that King Henri threw away eternal happiness, condemned himself to the hatred of his Creator and the fate of endless suffering after death, in order to save his people from utter destruction.”

“No, no, no!” Voltaire protested. “The King was an intellectual, and most intellectuals know better than to think that God is so narrow-minded as to condemn someone on so narrow of grounds.”

“But you don’t know that for sure, or you would have said so,” countered the griffon.

Voltaire bowed his head. “No, I don’t. But it is what I prefer to believe.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” Sky Shock said with a heavy heart. She bid the others good night and headed back to the open-roofed house that had been built for her and her staff in Trottingham.

It turned out King Henri was not that different from the doomed King Carl that she had refused to hear about. She knew now what she needed to do. She merely needed to find the right setting.

Sky Shock’s son Leopold arrived in Trottingham from Stalliongrad two days later, accompanied by the rest of the griffon nobility. The leading ponies of both towns got together with the Canterlot ponies to host a grand open-air banquet in their honor.

The Countess was circulating among the griffons when she spotted Voltaire picking up a wooden shaker from a table for examination. In his other hand he was holding a bowl of salad.

Sky Shock quickly launched herself into the air and confronted the human, eye to eye. “What do you think you’re doing with the royal bone meal?” she demanded.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Voltaire, quickly putting the shaker down. “I didn’t know this was reserved for nobility.”

“Come now,” said Lord Whirligig, stepping between the two. “The biped has more than proved himself worthy of our friendship.” He had a blue scroll prominently displayed inside the rope webbing around his torso. “I also understand that he is an omnivore, and has been weakened by his pony-induced diet.” He picked up the shaker, and handed it over to Voltaire.

Sky Shock glared at the human once again. By now a substantial crowd of griffons had gathered around them.

“I was merely curious,” said Voltaire, putting down the shaker. “I can easily go without—”

“This is verging on disrespect, My Lady,” Lord Whirligig said, picking up the shaker once again. “Is there a particular reason—”

Sky Shock snatched the shaker from Lord Whirligig and slammed it down on the table. “I will not subject him to the shame—”

“What are you talking about?!” exclaimed Whirligig.

Unnoticed by the others, Lady Whirligig snuck in and grabbed the shaker of bone meal, applying its contents liberally to the vegetable shish kebab she held in her claw.

“Griffons, I have a confession to make,” announced Sky Shock. “The Forty were completely justified in turning against the griffon royal family. They have betrayed us all, and I will defend their shameful secret no longer!”

Needless to say, this had the full attention of the griffon nobility, none more so than Leopold.

“The Forty rebelled because they learned the second function of the Bakery,” Sky Shock explained. “The first function, as you all know, was to house peasants who dared to rise against the established order. These imprisonments were in most cases for life, and their lives were so arranged to ensure that they were not imprisoned for very long.

“The Bakery also housed all nobles who could not fulfill their duties to the Dukedom through flight or magic, as well as those who, like the prisoners, had become a threat to the State. They were housed in comfort for their entire lives. Those that wished to make themselves useful baked cakes and pies…or else they volunteered for rendering.”

With the exception of Princess Celestia, no ponies were in earshot for this part of Sky Shock’s testimony, as the two of them had arranged beforehand. The truth would eventually be told to them, but carefully, in better-controlled circumstances. After all, up to a couple of weeks ago, what was about to be revealed could not be contemplated by a pony without a violent physical reaction.

“The bakery produced two kinds of bone meal for the use of those griffons unable to obtain enough meat in their diet. The noble bone meal was made from the bodies of unthinking animals. But the royal family considered themselves better than that. They would eat no meat, because that was the way of the ponies, and they could not use the meal of common animals. That is why royal bone meal has a special composition: the bones of willing griffons.”

In the distance, Lady Whirligig spat out a cherry tomato, and launched the shaker of royal bone meal as far as she could throw it.

“And in the end, every nobleffony in the Bakery volunteered for rendering,” Sky Shock continued. “The fact of the matter is that the royal treasury could not possibly maintain all of those griffons in their chosen lifestyles for their entire life spans. At every waking moment they were besieged with propaganda about the glory of surrendering themselves for consumption, propaganda that I and my family were largely responsible for writing.”

Leopold stepped forward. “You mean that my sister, your daughter, Sky Spire…”

“Call her Grizelda,” answered Sky Shock. “It is what she would have preferred. You were weaned on her.” —Leopold turned away in shock— “We all had her for about a month. It was how they ensured my loyalty. Your father assassinated Duke Cumulous, and was sentenced to death by thunderbolt, the truth covered up because of our blood relationship with the Thunderwings. It was only my cowardice that preserved your life.”

She looked out among the crowd. Those griffons that were not throwing up were weeping.

That is the secret that the Forty stumbled onto as a result of the Night of Unsheathed Claws, and they demanded an end to it. Quite rightfully, they called it an abomination to both pony and griffon natures. Duchess Praiseworthy, rather than consider ending this practice, lured the ponies to their doom, and in so doing lost all support from the peasantry, who rose in revolt.

“What I have done for the Royal Family of Griffonia in supporting this monstrous practice is a crime against nature. I have thought deeply on this matter, and I have decided to surrender myself to the Griffon Republic, there to be judged by their laws like any commoner.”

“You cannot do this!” protested Lord Whirligig. “You are the legal claimant to the duchy!”

“I surrender that as well. I name my son Leopold as my successor, although you are free to call an Estates General to elect any alternative candidate you wish.”

Leopold stepped up beside his mother. “If I become duke, my first order will be to dismantle the aristocracy. Griffons were never meant to act like ponies, or dragons. I will not try to overthrow the rightful government of the Republic.”

“You could run for president,” suggested Voltaire.

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Leopold.

It would be an understatement to say that the griffon nobility were not pleased by this turn of events.

Author's Note:

The original form of Chapters 27 and 28 were a big fat mess, with massive quotes shoved in from one of Voltaire's few works that he wrote in English.

I eventually went back and massively streamlined his narration, but not before writing this blog post. There's no longer any need to read it, unless these chapters got you curious about the French Civil War and the St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre, and you wanted to know more about it.