• 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 35

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 35

“It appears that the new goddess made a few changes in my former capital,” Celestia remarked lightly, as she flew the chariot around the outskirts of Canterlot.

She wasn’t fooling anyone with this tone, least of all herself.

Canterlot was the city where she had spent the majority of her unnaturally long life. Its annoyances had become endearing over the centuries for her, but now they were all swept away.

“She took away the palace?” Blue Belle remarked in an aggravated tone as she peered over the side of the carriage. She was pointedly ignoring the most obvious and impossible change to the city.

“Hmm...doesn’t appear to be any bureaucratic quarter at all, from this elevation,” added Voltaire. “Or even a nobles’ quarter.”

“She’s managed to create a working government without a bureaucracy or a nobility?” asked the Princess with a smirk. “I might as well give up right now!”

Voltaire caught on to Celestia’s tone. Realizing it was as much for her benefit as for their own, he decided to match it as a way to get the truth he felt the Princess didn’t want to admit to. “Alright,” he said in mock annoyance, “I’ve been meaning to wait for a better time to ask this, but I simply must know: where exactly does one go to buy one of those?”

He pointed, but was unable to look in the direction he was pointing. The same was true of Blue Belle. Floating a hundred ponyheights above the center of the reshaped Canterlot was a blazing incandescent ball—a second sun.

“That’s the Goddess Genevieve herself,” Celestia said, staring right at it, “or at least I think it’s her. An adult donkey with my proportions.”

“What is she doing up there?” Voltaire asked.

“Why, basking in the light of her own glory, of course,” Celestia answered, her tone still light. “I’m going to see what else she’s up to.”

Of course she can look at it, Voltaire thought to himself. It would be a pretty poor sun pony who lacked that talent. “Well don’t do that for too long,” he said, leaning forward with a wicked grin. “You could go blind.”

Celestia took in a sharp breath, causing the unicorn and human to freeze. “You’re not my mother!” Celestia cried out in the tones of a whiny teenager, then broke out into laughter at her own joke.

Blue Belle gasped in happy amazement at seeing the Princess refer to her family for the first time in what must have been centuries in anything other than rage or regret.

“Unfortunately,” Celestia added as she continued her examination, “the mere city below is not all that she sees.”

The other two dropped their grins, preparing for the worst.

“She’s watching that city for two things in particular. The first is unicorn magic.” As she said this, Celestia made her horn disappear, using the same “aspect magic” she had used with Voltaire in Stalliongrad. “And the second,” she continued, “is criminal intent.”

Voltaire sighed in sarcastic wonderment. “Ah, the dream of busybodies everywhere!” he exclaimed.

“She can do that?” Blue Belle asked nervously. “See into the minds of any pony She wishes?”

“She is a god, remember,” said Celestia. “But we ponies have our defenses. It would be difficult for her to look into the mind of any pony that resists her. But after all—”

“No wait,” interrupted Voltaire in annoyance, “I’m well versed in this particular argument.” He switched to a thin piping tone, obviously an imitation of a woman’s voice. “‘But after all,’” he asked, “‘if you have nothing to hide, then why can’t I stay in your bedroom and write down everything you say in your sleep?’”

“A marefriend of yours?” Celestia joked.

“Yes. Also my first biographer. Unwitting and unwilling, might I add.”

“And was this before or after your first—?” prodded Blue Belle.

“It was the cause of my second imprisonment in the Bastille, if you must know,” the human snapped. “I’m mostly mad because I never saw any royalties. Those were my words! I should have made something from them, something other than an exclusive invitation to spend time at the top prison in France.”

~ ~ ~

“I think it’s finally time we set hoof in the new Canterlot,” announced Celestia as she brought the chariot into a landing.

They were in a small clearing, not far from the northern road into the city.

“I think we need to do something about Blue Belle first,” replied Voltaire.

“Yes, I think this will be the last chance for either of us to use our unicorn magic, considering the prohibition in place.”

“But if you place an illusion on me, won’t that be detectable?” the filly asked.

“If I used a unicorn illusion? Yes, but I think you know the one I’d like to use on you instead.”

“‘Somepony Else’s Problem’,” Blue Belle said, giving her name of the strange ability demonstrated by Uncle K. “Canterlot should be crowded enough for it to work. But beware of small groups.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Celestia reached up with one faintly glowing hoof, and ran it through Blue Belle’s impeccable coat in the wrong direction, causing the fur to stand up.

And just like that, Voltaire’s eyes bounced off of Blue Belle, and found a cluster of blackberries much more interesting to look at. A cluster of blueberries that seemed to be silently screaming in terror.

Now you need to remember not to look at me,” a cluster of bees buzzed in the distance. The honking of a nearby goose was eminently more musical, less doom-laden, and fit for hearing.

“Considering that my eyes are having a conniption anytime they get anywhere close to you, I think that I can manage to obey that command,” said Voltaire, fighting down an irrational impulse to run somewhere that didn’t feel so incredibly wrong as the spot right next to him.

“Hmm...” Celestia mused. “Not enough S.E.P., and too much T.J.C.”

“‘T.J.C.’?” asked Voltaire.

“‘That’s Just Creepy’,” explained Celestia. Closing one eye for concentration, she brushed about half of the furrow she had made in Blue Belle’s fur back into place, then deepened the little chasm that was left. “There. That ought to do it.”

Voltaire looked around him once more. “Well, that is an improvement. Now I can barely detect the skip my eyeballs are making, and it no longer feels like Satan has come to collect.”

“Halt, in the name of Our Lady!” cried the pegasus captain as the two visible creatures parted the bushes to join the royal road. She was wearing a pure brown blanket on her back embroidered with an image of the planet of Equestria on either side, and she was wearing a woolen cap the color of the sky that rose like a truncated cone above her head. Behind her were a troop of her soldiers, made up mostly of earth ponies and pegasi, plus a zebra and a donkey.

Celestia and Voltaire both kneeled.

“What were you doing in that clearing?” the captain demanded.

“We were merely getting our bearings, Ma’am,” Celestia replied humbly. She dared to look up at her, and caught a glimmer of surprised recognition, quickly suppressed.

“What is your business in Canterlot?”

“We come to pay respect to Our Lady,” said Voltaire, using the term for Her used by the captain. By a supreme effort of will, he managed to do this without rolling his eyes.

“Not with those you won’t,” the captain said, reaching forward to examine the hourglass pendant around Celestia’s neck. Reaching into her saddlebag, she pulled out a couple of paper packets with her mouth and dropped them to the ground. “Put those on, clean yourselves up, and then get to the back of the line!” she barked. There was indeed a long line of ponies and other quadrupeds making their way through a checkpoint into the city.

“Oh thank you, Ma'am!” exclaimed Voltaire in false reverence, picking up and opening the packets. Each contained a horseshoe pendant on a silver chain.

“If I might be so bold as to ask for another favor in addition to these priceless gifts,” Celestia asked humbly, “might we be directed to this city’s center of worship?”

“Of...of course,” the pegasus said, startled. She proceeded to give them directions to the Cathedral of the Sacred Steed. Then she turned around to confront the soldiers who were sniggering at her loss of composure. “And what are you all looking at, maggots?!

The soldiers quickly fell into position.

“Now go along your business,” she gruffly instructed the disguised alicorn and human.

“Of course,” said Celestia, raising her head briefly so she could bow once again.

“N...none of that,” said the Captain. “We are all equal in Our Lady’s Equestria.”

Celestia and Voltaire backed into the clearing once again, to “clean up”.

In reality, though, Voltaire began to examine the pendants they had been given. At the same time, Celestia held the trade sheet they came in, so that Blue Belle could examine the ads that were printed on it.

“I do believe we have met the resistance,” concluded Voltaire in a low voice.

But how is that possible?” nobody asked. “I thought you said everypony in Canterlot was converted.

“My ponies never cease to amaze me,” Celestia said, her remarks seemingly addressed to Voltaire. “If there was any possible way to do it, they would have figured it out. Now what are you looking for, Voltaire?”

“A hidden symbol,” the human replied. “In the early days of the Christians, they were persecuted by the Romans for their potentially treasonous beliefs. To survive, they adopted their cross-shaped holy symbol into another that cleverly hid the cross in plain sight, allowing them to identify each other. Something like this.” He held up the horseshoe so that most of it was covered up by his thumbs. What was visible was the bottom of the U-shape, where a tiny golden rivet decorated the silver shoe. The symbol had seven of these rivets, just like the symbol Voltaire had seen in Stalliongrad, but this single rivet was additionally decorated with eight infinitesimal little blobs. At first glance, they might look like stress marks, like the artist was going out of her way to show that this nail had been driven really hard into the shoe. Or, if you were a little more artistically inclined, the rivet and splashes might look a great deal like...

My cutie mark!” Celestia squeaked in surprise.

Vive la Résistance,” remarked Voltaire in French.

Celestia briefly brought back her horn, to reshape the time pendants to be identical to the Resistance pendants.

“Wait, are you permanently changing their shape?” Voltaire asked. “Will they still work after that?”

“They were not hourglass-shaped as part of their function,” Celestia replied. “Rather they were hourglass-shaped so I could tell them apart from...the eye-shaped pendants.” She gave him a provocative look, just daring the human not to ask.

At first, Voltaire didn’t want to ask. He was after all getting a bad reputation for asking useless questions. They were on a supremely dangerous mission, and the mystery objects in question had been left back at Stalliongrad, so there was no possible way that the information would be of any use whatsoever, and might in fact prove to be a dangerous distraction to a famously distractible brain such as his own. But he was already doing such a good job of self-distraction wondering about them, so...

“Alright, I’m just going to fall right for your obvious trap: What do the eye-shaped pendants do?”

The alicorn laughed. “They create the illusion that you’re wide awake. Very useful for Royal Council meetings.”

“Hmm...” Voltaire mused. “I don’t remember ever seeing you wearing one in any of the meetings I’ve attended.”

“That should tell you something, shouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Voltaire said with a smile.

Celestia looked down at the newsprint draped over her upraised hooves. “Now what are you looking for, Blue Belle?” she asked.

An answer to my question of ‘how’,” a babbling brook replied. “And I found it on the second row, third ad from the right.

See feats never before seen by pony eyes!

Impossible escapes, incredible stories!

It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

“Hoofdini!” exclaimed Voltaire.

“His next show is in a couple of hours,” said Celestia, “but I want to see this church first. Let’s get to know this goddess.”

The three visitors had a long way to walk to reach the Cathedral of the Sacred Steed, because it was located in the exact center of Canterlot.

Along the way, Celestia and Voltaire (and a nimbly dodging Blue Belle) walked by dozens of shops. The streets were crowded with a bewildering variety of talking animals: earth ponies, pegasi, zebra, donkeys, griffons, oxen, even reindeer and camels. The visitors spent a couple of vain minutes trying to reach a couple of humans in European dress that they had spotted on the other side of a crowded square.

The underside of Canterlot’s extra sun was nowhere near as bright as it appeared to be outside the city limits. Here, Geneveive’s glowing form could be actually be gazed upon without crying out in pain, Her shape only somewhat blurred. Her limbs were tucked under Her like She was sitting on an invisible couch. Around Her was a white circle of light. The entire effect was that of a large brown eye looking down at the city.

“T.J.C.” remarked Voltaire in a sing-song voice, before changing the subject. “Well that’s interesting,” he said, looking straight ahead as continued to walk.

“What is?” asked Celestia.

“The change in architecture,” Voltaire said. “The shops in Canterlot used to have the living quarters on the second floor, much like Northern European shops back on Earth. This is more like the Mediterranean model, with the shop in front and....” He paused to walk up to a fence and peek over it. “...And the living quarters in the back, next to a nice courtyard with a fountain.”

Is that bad?” asked an out-of-tune harmonica from a nearby stall.

“Not bad,” said Voltaire, “just different. It tells me something about Our Lady’s approach. Our Lady...or her adviser.”

A few seconds later, the sound of a dusty blanket being beaten by an earth pony subtly morphed into a lecture. “Well I think it is bad,” it seemed to say. “If your husband is on the top floor he can debate politics with the neighbors and greet perfect strangers as they pass. Putting the husband in the back keeps him in line, keeps him from getting above his station.” The sarcastic-sounding blanket was clearly not happy with this state of affairs.

“Well I think that’s a bit much to conclude purely based on a piece of architecture,” Voltaire said to Celestia. Then he stopped in his tracks. “Although, the fact that all the males are in all-concealing burlap robes while the females wear nothing more than jewelry does lend credence to your theory.” He might have even called those robes “burqas” if they had been worn by human females. “Now what could you have possibly done to make Her mad at males as well as at unicorns?”

There was an uncomfortable silence before the crunch of gravel finally answered him: “I hope Zody didn’t do something stupid.

The Cathedral of the Sacred Steed was an immense hoof-shaped building. To use a system of measurement decades before it officially existed, the building measured 130 m long by 50 m wide, and 25 m tall. Three portals, each 3 m tall and 2 m wide, were set in the western flat end: the central one was closed, but the northern and southern ones were open. Surrounding and separating the portals was a wealth of quadrupeds and bipeds in stone relief, and all raised up so that they looked down upon the humble visitor. Above each portal was a magnificent stained glass window, 8 m by 2 m in size, and above those was a 12 m diameter circular window, also in stained glass. Extending up another 25 m on the north and south corners were two spires: the north one a half-circle in cross-section, and the other forming an extended cone with a spiral groove carved around it. Both shapes were truncated at a 30-degree angle (or 1/6 π radians, but that’s delving far deeper into the metric system than the translator cares to go at present). For the north spire, the truncation turned a pillar into a hoof upraised to the heavens, a symbol of hope. For the south spire, almost certainly representing a unicorn’s horn, the truncation left a much more ominous feeling in the observer.

“Is that the Pony Last Judgment?” Voltaire asked out loud, pointing at the image depicted by the circular window. “Then that means She did base this on a Catholic cathedral, almost certainly Chartres. She’s got good taste, I’ll give Her that.”

After removing their shoes, the visitors entered the north portal.

It was between services, so the building was deserted. Occasional tourists walked around the outside, looking at the stained glass dioramas, but no one else dared to walk inside.

The reason was obvious once you tried to enter: an oppressive silence that seeped into the soul. It was like this spot, more than any other, was under the “Eye” of Genevieve.

Inside, a low railing outlined the to-be expected horseshoe shape along the outer border of the cathedral. Between those railings was the wide central aisle the trio was walking down, and far ahead of them was another low fence separating the nave (the central approach) from the chancel (the sacred end of the cathedral). The chancel in turn contained a low marble table with a large black book on it, illuminated by a scintillating light from above. An angelic voice hanging in the beam seemed to hold an eternal high note.

On either side of them were rows of deep benches. Attached to the backs of the benches were metal stands holding open books.

Celestia leaned over to examine one of the books. “‘The Lady is our shepherd,’” she read out loud, “‘I shall not want.’”

A frowning Voltaire flipped through a few pages. “Not very original with her hymns, is She?” he remarked.

“A ‘shepherd’?” Blue Belle repeated incredulously. “I think I found something even more offensive than ‘voltige’!” She then realized how small of a group she was in and ducked into the space between benches to avoid being seen.

Celestia smiled at the remark, then looked around in alarm. “Voltaire, you better not—”

The church got visibly dimmer as the chancel light winked out and the voice faded into an annoyed groan before cutting off. Voltaire hopped over the little fence and skipped back to join them, the black book under his arm.

Celestia sighed.

“Do you want to know about Genevieve’s religion or not?” Voltaire asked with an “I dare you to wipe this look off of my face” grin. He put the book on top of the hymnal and opened it.

The lettering was completely incomprehensible to Celestia and a cautiously peeking Blue Belle. It was made up of stark black shapes, alternating thick and thin, curved and pointed, like something carved out of paper instead of printed. “What is that?” the Princess asked.

“Middle Low German,” answered Voltaire with distaste. “I wouldn’t be surprised if...” He flipped a few pages. “Yes, of course. Printed by Gutenberg himself. Typical, absolutely typical. A religion of revealed truths, the ‘Good News’ proclaimed for the masses, and that truth is deliberately written in a language that the common public can’t read. Catholic logic at its finest, gentlemares. Well give me some time to examine this, and I should have all the answers you need.”

“You’re going to get yourself arrested,” said Celestia.

“So?” asked Voltaire. “That will just get us taken to where we wanted to go in the first place.”

“We could be hauled before a magistrate instead of the Goddess,” said Blue Belle.

“No, I get the feeling that Our Lady is a very hooves-on sort of jenny,” the human replied. “Leave me here while you catch that show.”

Celestia wasn’t very happy with this, but it was already clear that no actual alarm had gone off when Voltaire had grabbed the book, and they really needed to find out both what Genevieve was doing and what the Resistance was up to as soon as possible, so she reluctantly sighed and led Blue Belle out of the cathedral.

“‘Am Anfang schuf Göttin Himmel und Erde,’” they heard Voltaire read out loud. “Hmph...a likely story!”