• 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 6

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 6

Voltaire walked down the middle of a corridor. He formed the center of square whose corners were made up of guard unicorns, all of whom were aching for him to give them a reason to unleash their magic upon him. Walking in front of these were Eveningstar and Princess Celestia. The Princess had already sent a runner ahead to summon her magicians to meet her at the audience chamber where Voltaire had arrived in Equestria.

“I have concluded my research,” Voltaire overheard Eveningstar telling the Princess.

“And...” the Princess prompted.

“There is no question that all four of them are accelerating in their convergence, “ Eveningstar said, “one tenth of a percent faster every month, one hundredth of an arcsecond per month faster compared to last year. At this rate, the four stars will meet in late spring of the Year 7024. But before then will be the real interesting part: all four of them will be simultaneously occulted by the Moon two hundred and forty-nine years to the day after yesterday, exactly on the millennial anniversary of—”

“The universe is fond of round numbers,” Princess Celestia interrupted with a sigh. “You’ve done very well, Eveningstar. I shall handle the matter from here.”

“But what does it mean?” the astronomer asked.

“Nothing that anypony in your generation will have to worry about,” the Princess replied sadly. “Please do not ask me any more about this.”

“Very well, Your Highness,” said Eveningstar, bowing her head briefly.

~ ~ ~

The group arrived at the throne room and was met by a group of very old and very serious unicorns in very decrepit robes. Unlike the other pony robes Voltaire had seen so far, these were short enough to reveal that the magicians had marks on their haunches, all variations of a compass rose surrounded by stars, yet each one unique. He had already noticed the sun mark on the Princess and the astronomical mark on the Royal Astronomer.

The magicians spent a great deal of time studying Voltaire, part of it spent telling him how he couldn’t possibly be a human, because his hair was the wrong color, because he wasn’t the right height, and because he wasn’t wearing a toga. In this they resembled any number of human “experts” that Voltaire had encountered in his life.

Once they had been convinced of the fact of his existence, and he had spent ten minutes patiently explaining that a wig on his head did not in fact mean that he was too stupid to tell the difference between his own hair and somebody else’s, the necessary lock was cut off and the old unicorns got to work.

Voltaire rejoined the Princess, who he saw had been comforting a donkey. Realizing who this must be, the human kneeled down and offered his heartfelt apology for in any way being responsible for this family tragedy. Gordon was not quite ready to forgive him just yet, but it was a start.

~ ~ ~

“The creation of a new portal could take several days,” Princess Celestia told the group as they left the throne room. “If we are lucky, young Genevieve will work out how to use Voltaire’s magic pencil on her own before then.”

“Several...days?” Voltaire asked, blanching. He started imagining all the horrible things that humans could do to a talking equine, especially one too young to defend herself. Imagine if the King got his hands on her? he asked himself fearfully. Imagine if the priests got their hands on her?

Princess Celestia turned back around with a gentle smile on her face. Voltaire easily read this as something meant to calm the nerves of himself and the other ponies in the corridor. “Well, everything that can be done has been set in motion,” she said. “Besides, the flow of time between Equestria and Earth is variable. It’s entirely possible that the days that it will take to recreate the portal will only be a matter of minutes on Earth.”

Voltaire realized that if the flow of time between worlds was truly variable, then the reverse of the Princess’s scenario could also be true, that they could open the portal in a week to find that Genevieve was now an octogenarian. He kept this to himself, although from the look in Celestia’s face, it appeared that she saw him realize this.

“Well, now that the necessary business is out of the way, I believe we can move on to pleasantries,” Celestia said. “I’ve arranged a room for you, Voltaire, and the services of the Royal Tailor. As long as you are staying in Equestria, you will be treated like any other visitor. This is an open society, and anyone who crosses our borders into our lands will have the same rights and responsibilities as everybody else. I expect you to learn our laws and obey them.”

“Of course, Your Royal Highness.”

“Eveningstar will be able to assist you, but only as that fits into her other duties. As Astronomer Royal, she will only be unavailable on certain nights, but as Royal Translator, she will need to be at my side at many royal functions.”

“And my guards?” Voltaire asked carefully.

“My evaluation of you concludes tonight,” the Princess told him. “Assuming you don’t give me reason to think otherwise, they will no longer be your personal guards after that.”

“Then I sincerely hope that I live up to your standards,” he replied.

“You’re doing well so far,” she told him. “Now do you have any questions?”

“I have noticed a personalized mark carried by every pony I have seen, but not by your donkey jester. What is its significance?”

“A very good first question,” Celestia said with a slight smile. “That is a cutie mark, and they are the primary means by which ponies (and a select number of other equines) are distinct from all other speaking creatures on this world.”

~ ~ ~

Eveningstar watched with amusement as the Princess explained to Voltaire what a cutie mark was, and how it was acquired. At one point the human muttered the phrase “idiot savant” to himself in one of the languages which the white cap could not automatically translate.

She may not have known what the words meant, but she could make a reasonable guess. After all, she had been performing translation duties for the Princess for over a decade now, and she was well aware what non-ponies thought of the cutie mark system.

~ ~ ~

“Gemini has a special significance in Equestrian mythology,” the Princess continued, as she explained what the cutie marks of each pony in the party represented. “They were supposed to be the first earth pony and unicorn to ever meet, and together they had to work out each other’s languages. Afterwards they became so close that everypony joked that they were ‘twins born of different mothers’, hence the name.”

“And what is the meaning of your mark, Your Highness?” Voltaire asked.

“I control the Sun,” she said simply. “Each morning I set it on its path around Equestria, and I also control how hot the summers get and how cold the winters get.” She turned her head with interest to take in his reaction.

There was the briefest moment of hesitation, and then he said, “Ah, so you’re the one responsible for that. I’ll have to compliment you on last May. Someday when you have the time I’ll have to ask your secret to making a ball of incandescent gas with a diameter two hundred times that of the Earth go around the planet instead of vice versa. Also, you must be very wise if you are as old as the Sun.”

Unseen by anybody, the coin resting in Eveningstar’s closed box flashed, but the Princess didn’t have to see it. The fact that the human wouldn’t believe her was obvious. What interested her was how precisely he’d express his disbelief. “Oh, I’m not quite that old,” she joked, continuing to feel him out. “The Sun was controlled by a committee of unicorn mages before I came along. My lifespan can be measured in mere centuries.”

“Daylight controlled by committee? There are no words to express my trepidation with that concept. And personally I don’t think you look a day over 98. You know, for no reason whatsoever, that reminds me of a race of ancient humans that once mixed up their months and years and ended up believing that one of their sages lived for 969 years. That worked out to nearly 81 years after you divide by twelve, which is quite respectable for a human. How long do mere non-Princess ponies live?”

“Oh, about as long as humans live,” Celestia answered. It was pretty obvious to her by now, so she decided to voice her suspicion: “Do you by any chance work with royalty on a regular basis?”

“Why yes, yes I do,” the human replied. “However can you tell?” he added facetiously.

“Call it Princess’s Instinct,” she said. “If you’re going to be here for several days, and you’re willing to be discreet, I could perhaps find a place for you in the royal court.”

“I thought you already had a jester,” said Voltaire, with an absolutely neutral tone. If Celestia needed any further proof that this human was in fact discreet, the way he had uttered that sentence provided it in abundance.

“The court could use some shaking up,” she told him. “I desire a court that does what is best for Equestria, that achieves my goals without needing me to tell them how to think. I like to be surprised.”

“You like to be pleasantly surprised,” said the human. “No monarch likes the other kind of surprises.”

“No, I suppose not,” said Celestia. “But the other kind can’t be avoided, and if you are truly clever, you can make even those serve your needs.”

“You are indeed a wise ruler,” said Voltaire. “A consequence of your thousands of years of living, no doubt.”

“I try to learn from everypony I encounter,” Celestia said.

“Pardon me, but ‘everypony’?”

“A slip of the tongue. We ponies tend to use it instead of ‘everybody’.”

Voltaire briefly gave the Princess a look that made it clear that he was evaluating her just as much as she was evaluating him. “Well you call this place ‘Equestria’, after all,” he said finally. “It’s perfectly forgivable that you might occasionally forget that your population is not entirely composed of ponies, what with the dragons, and the griffons, and the donkeys, and the lone human.”

“Do you or don’t you?” Princess Celestia asked. She trusted Voltaire to know to what she was referring.

“I gladly accept your invitation to join your court, and I promise to be much more discreet in public, if I may be ever so slightly less discreet in private,” Voltaire replied.

“I do have other business to attend to beside you,” Celestia told him. “For example, there are plenty of proposals I could have been reviewing while we were standing here.”

Voltaire looked around him. “Oh, is this my new room?” he asked. “How long have we been standing outside the door?”

“Fifteen minutes,” she said with a laugh. “Well, I suppose we should be going.”

“Wait!” interrupted Eveningstar, who had been quietly taking in the entire conversation. “Don’t you think he ought to know about his predecessor? So he knows what not to do?”

“Oh, he wasn’t so bad,” said the Princess, not sounding entirely convincing. “He made a lot of positive contributions to pony civilization.”

“The Roman (as we called him) visited Equestria one thousand, seven hundred and forty years ago,” Eveningstar explained to Voltaire. “According to the memoirs of his translator, he was an egotistical bore who made life miserable for everypony...I mean everyone around him. He was convinced that he was the greatest writer of his generation, for one thing. And he constantly whined about how his emperor had betrayed him.”

“And the questions...” Princess Celestia added in a too-innocent voice.

“...and he kept asking borderline-obscene questions about species-transformation spells...”

“Ovid!” exclaimed Voltaire, interrupting. “You actually got to meet Ovid?”

Eveningstar groaned. “You mean to tell me he actually was famous?”

“Oh yes, if not the greatest writer of his generation, I’d certainly rate him as a close second,” the human stated.

Eveningstar and the Princess exchanged a look. “And who do you think to be the greatest writer of your generation?” the translator asked Voltaire, having a strong suspicion what his answer would be.

“Oh, well when it comes to greatest writer in all of Europe...that would be me.”

“Of course,” Eveningstar replied sarcastically.

“Only Europe?” Princess Celestia asked with a mock-look of disappointment. “If I remember correctly, Europe was a not-especially large part of the Earth’s surface.”

“Well...I’m probably also the world’s greatest, but the fact of the matter is, I haven’t learnt Chinese yet, and until I have done that, I cannot be certain that there are none greater than me, only reasonably certain.”

Celestia sighed theatrically. “I suppose that will have to do.”

The tall creature staring at Genevieve was a human.

Her father had told her a lot about humans a year earlier, including what they looked like.

Considering that she was going to spend the rest of her life here, Genevieve wished that she had remembered much more about them than what they looked like, but at the time she was so excited about the fact that she was about to turn nine that she hadn’t paid much attention to her father’s explanations.

She wasn’t sure if humans were any more willing to give donkeys jobs than ponies were, but if they were, maybe she could get a job as a portrait painter. In that case, she needed to learn a lot more about what humans looked like.

Seeing as this particular human was standing in place and barking, she had a chance to get a good look at him for drawing purposes. Like his world, he was oriented at a right-angle to all that was right and proper. Creatures were supposed to be longer than they were tall. That’s how it was for donkeys, ponies, Zebricans, and griffons. Even mythological creatures like deer and horses were oriented that way. The only creatures that stood upright were birds (beautiful but unintelligent) and dragons (clever but utterly untrustworthy).

The human was fidgeting, looking frequently over his shoulder. This made it obvious that what at first seemed to be a gray coat was in fact gray clothing. Actually, as Genevieve looked closer, it appeared to be multiple layers of clothing. Well that seems pointless, thought the donkey. Unless...of course! The humans must be cold-blooded! It is rather cold in this...where am I, anyway? Is this a prison cell that the human in Equestria came from? Oh no! I must warn the Princess!

The donkey quickly assembled all the pieces of paper she had scattered earlier and then reassembled them as near as she could remember to the shape they had when she had arrived. Unfortunately, no matter how much she moved them around, the window to Equestria would not reappear. Well, thought Genevieve, a human made that window, so maybe I can make enough bits drawing portraits to pay a human to make another one.

It was at this point that a second human joined the first. Genevieve stopped to watch them. Having a pair of creatures before her meant the opportunity to observe social relations, and that sort of thing always made for more-lucrative portraits. For example, the way the first human sniveled at the second human’s barking made it plain that Number Two was the boss. Number Two wore more elaborate clothing, showing that fashion was one way in which rank was expressed. Number Two looked mad, and frustrated, but he never once struck Number One, and even reached out to comfort him when he saw that his outburst had frightened his subordinate. This showed that they were a caring race. Also there was something indefinably familiar about this second human. He didn’t look anything like the human she had briefly seen at the palace, or like the drawings of the Roman, but nevertheless, Genevieve felt like the name of this human was on the tip of her tongue.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Number Two turned his attention to Genevieve herself. Humans had really tiny eyes compared with equines, so it was a bit hard to read him based on facial expressions. The vocal cues, however, were still abundantly clear, perhaps even easier to read for the fact that she couldn’t understand the words he were saying—Blue Belle was perfect proof that people could say one thing and mean another, after all.. This time, he was lecturing, using his hooves...no, claws, to gesture at different parts of her. Apparently, she was being used to settle an argument, in Number Two’s favor. At one point, Number Two uttered a human word that, for no reason that Genevieve could understand, made her think of her own name.

~ ~ ~

“...and finally, that donkey couldn’t possibly be the philosopher, because it is a she. A jenny, to be precise.”

“Oh, uh, of course,” said Edward, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “So, how did that get here, and where’s the philosopher?”

Jordan looked around, then rested his head in one hand in frustration. Other than the scattered papers on the floor, the cell looked as clean as it was last night. All that was missing was Voltaire, and all that was added was this young donkey. “Tell the others to keep their eyes open for the King’s ‘guest’ as they search for Ivan,” he said. After Edward had left, he studied the hat on the donkey’s head. The King had meant for that hat to be a joke at Voltaire’s expense, and there was no logical reason for anyone to wear it, unless maybe as a party favor. Perhaps she had been sent by the King for Jenny’s party, he thought, before his mind started to poke holes in this theory. And the secret agent sent to accomplish the task was so sneaky that he was able to break into the building undetected, sneak past the attendants while they were out searching for a missing patient, and then not only got this creature into the cell without making a sound, but also stole Voltaire out from under all our noses. Jordan laughed to himself. No, even better! This is the number one spy of Empress Elizabeth, a little girl, because who would ever suspect a girl of being a spy? She was sent to kidnap Voltaire, to use his philosophical musings as a secret weapon to conquer Prussia for Mother Russia! But then he turned Ivan against her, and turned her into a donkey, so that he was able to escape! She’s wearing the hat to tell me that’s she’s really human!

Or maybe she’s a demon in the form of a donkey. But that’s surely the most ridiculous theory of them all—right?

He looked over at the donkey, to see her deliberately put the pencil she was holding in her mouth into the satchel that was hanging from her neck, and then pull the drawstring shut. Then she looked up at him with an expression that was unmistakable: What now?

~ ~ ~

Genevieve was starting to get unnerved by the strange laughs that Number Two was making as he began to approach her with a length of rope. It was like he was going crazy or something.

Author's Note:

A third letter of criticism from the anonymous author to the translator.

By this point I began to feel that the letters as a plot device had become stale. Things start to pick up with the next blog posting.