• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar

Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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The Cold Iron Vow

I don’t know when you’re reading this story, or how much the world has changed, but I do know how much a few centuries have reshaped the world we live in between my escapades as a very much mortal young stallion and my current state, arguably alive with half my face missing, having made the horrible decision to try and stall a demigoddess despite knowing it was a fight I could not possibly win. Thus, I can speculate that you probably live in a world where there isn’t much, if any, blank space left on the map.

That isn’t the world we lived in when I was a foal. The lines on the edges of the world map faded away to ‘here be dragons’, and nopony knew if the other worlds of the Breezies and the Gray Woods of the elk and so forth were places one could actually walk to or magical demiplanes; the world was still full of mystery. And one consequence of that mystery was that the fey were far, far more common, slipping into our world through fuzzy edges in the way society understood the world around it.

That last sentence isn’t a metaphor, but you don’t want to read the amount of text it would take to explain it.

Fey are sapient corporeal magical creatures who have a curious relationship with ‘reality’—for a fey, things that we understand as ‘real’ like matter and gravity and unicorn magic, are somewhat subjective and philosophical. In the world they come from, things that are theoretical to us like promises and ideas, take on far more physical forms. Don’t feel bad if this is confusing; even the greatest mages in the world, like me, struggle with it from time to time. The more powerful a fey is, the more unhinged they are from how we understand reality. It’s perfectly reasonable to have a most-comprehensible conversation with a breezie, one of the weakest of the fey, but to speak to an archfey even over tea and make small talk about the weather is to gamble with your sanity and your life.

Consequently, the more rooted in reality something is to us, the easier it is to ignore for them, and vice-versa. Fey literally cannot lie, as one notable example, because the idea of a promise or one’s word for us is very fuzzy, but for them the idea can be likened unto chains. (That being said, most fey are very clever about using the truth to make false implications, so do beware taking this ‘advantage’ too far.)

One interesting quality of this relationship is that things which are really really ‘real’ to us—really ‘firm’ and ‘natural’, induce a sort of allergic reaction in fey creatures. The most notable example is iron ore—actual iron from the ground, mind you; not refined cloud skysteel as is more common in a more modern Equestria. The iron, however, must never be heated in a forge; to melt and reshape the iron is to make it stop being ‘iron’ in our minds and give it a new form, and this haziness of meaning removes the painful reaction the material has for the fey. Hence the idea of ‘cold iron’—iron which has never been heated (at least by equine hooves; most ponies don’t consider that level of plate tectonic thermodynamics, and thus neither do the fey), and is thus more deadly to these creatures and their strange powers.

A cold iron vow, then, is a way for two willing ponies to enforce the idea of a fey being unable to lie between one another. Breaking an iron vow has just the same effect on a pony that cold iron has on a fey: agonizing sores, at first on the skin, but then deeper and deeper until some recompense is made, or until death takes the poor soul due to organ failure.

An iron vow can be written down, but the magic has no interest in ink; it must be spoken aloud by both contractors, and sealed with a drop of their blood. And the words are important; the magic itself interprets them – quite literally, without regard to the intentions of either party. And once agreed to, only a similar agreement by both parties (or their true offspring, who shared some of the same blood) can end it.

It wasn’t something one entered into lightly; even Wintershimmer, who dabbled in magics strange and perverse enough that I dare not describe them here, regarded a cold iron vow as too risky to both parties to be worth the benefits. It also wasn’t the sort of magic that I imagined the Queen would have been familiar with, but her eclectic knowledge of obscure non-unicorn magic was hardly my primary concern, compared to what would bring her such desperation.

Hence, when I left The Sordid Affair and stepped out into the street to find Queen Platinum I’s Royal Carriage waiting with a full dozen guardsponies, I was prepared for nothing short of an apocalyptic suggestion.

“Will you step into my parlour?” said the Queen to the necromancer, as I approached the open door. When I had climbed up the step and found myself a pleasantly upholstered seat, she gestured a hoof to a tea set on a small wooden protrusion from the wall of the carriage. “Tea?”

“I’m afraid if I try, I’ll spill it.” I tapped my horn. “I’m on doctor’s orders not to use it.”

“Yet you made an exception to kill Count Halo?”

I sighed. “Yes, doctors do tend to make exceptions to their rules when the patient’s life is at stake. And as I explained quite fully in the throne room, he attacked me. If that’s what this is about—” I moved toward the door, but the Queen held up a hoof to stop me.

“No. My apologies.” Her horn lit, and I took notice that it seemed to falter and struggle a bit before forming enough of a magical aura to shut the door. Without a spoken word, I felt the carriage—thankfully wheeled and so not sending a lurch through my stomach—start to move. “I’m here about something much more personal.”

“You want a cold iron vow for something personal?”

The Queen let her eyes wander away from mine—and I should emphasize again for those who never had a chance to know her in life, that Platinum I never let such a show of emotion slip accidentally. “This is not about your budding romance with my daughter. Dangerous though I may think it is, I know that when the time comes, she will make the right choice for Equestria, and as I have said before, I have no intention of sabotaging your friendship, so long as you and she do not put it ahead of the crown. This is about the fact that you are a necromancer.”

“The best necromancer,” I clarified, “yes. It is my special talent.”

Platinum nodded with all the haste of an iceberg. “The Crown… that is, I, am prepared to offer you a sum of ten thousand bits, and a home of your own, in exchange for a year of your services.”

I cocked my head. “Is that… that sounds like a lot of money, but how much does that actually buy?”

While at the time of writing, it isn’t much, in those early days, it was a staggering sum to be offering a young colt.

“Sometimes I forget the things you won’t know about Equestria. It would buy you—not rent, but truly buy—a home with rather luxurious space for a bachelor in the better part of the city. Though given I’m also offering a home, I suspect you will be more interested that it will feed you and clothe you in considerable comfort for perhaps ten years.”

“Are homes normally expensive?”

The Queen gave a long sigh and lifted her teacup to her lips for a slow sip. To my astonishment, it was her magic which failed, and stained the beautiful cushions of the carriage. “I apologize, Coil; a slip of the horn. Yes, a house is normally the most expensive thing a pony buys in their life. And regarding my teacup, I would appreciate it if you didn’t make too much of a mockery of me in public.”

“Believe me, Your M… whatever you are now… if I wanted to offend you, a momentary hitch in your magic would be my last choice.”

“I retain ‘Majesty’ as the Queen-Mother, but thank you. And thank you for being civil.”

“Why wouldn’t I be civil? I am a mage.”

Platinum chuckled. “I’ve gotten too used to dealing with my daughter, where every sense of rivalry is answered with cursing and violence.” Then, at my raised brow, she clarified with an unsettlingly matter-of-fact tone to her voice. “I detest your influence on my daughter, Coil, and your outsized impact on the court without any sense of the consequences of your actions. I haven’t yet decided if I hate you personally, but my current leaning is toward loathing. And given that you aren’t practiced whatsoever in controlling your face, I don’t need you to say a word to know the feeling is mutual. This isn’t something that would normally ever be said aloud between two ponies in the orbit of the thrones, but given your lack of experience in politics, I thought it better to be blunt. We are enemies. But that does not mean we cannot be useful to one another. I wish to speak to my late father.”

“King Lapis?” I clarified.

She nodded. “As you heard in my speech, if you did not know before, my father was killed when I was about your age. I wish for his counsel now, but since he is dead, that conversation requires a necromancer. And, because the oaths of the royal line frown on necromancy, I would like to have our conversations discreetly.”

“So the iron vow is to keep me from telling the entire court that you’re doing something completely normal and respectful, because they’ll take offense?”

Platinum chuckled. “That’s half of it, yes. I also know that in order for you to seance my late father, you will have to remain present for the conversation. The other purpose of the vow is to ensure you don’t reveal the subject of our discussions.”

“I see…” I nodded. “We’ll have to discuss the exact words of the vow, of course; if we phrase it poorly, it could kill one or both of us. But first, I’m curious; I may be better than Star Swirl at this one spell in particular, but I’m certain he is capable of casting it, and he is your court mage. And we’ve both seen Luna use the spell. Why not go to one of them, whom you trust more, first?”

Platinum chuckled. “Both of them refused to enter into a vow for this purpose. And while I trust them both… well, suffice it to say I still had to insist on a more formal agreement.”

I lead with this snippet of our exchange before skipping a solid ten minutes because, frankly, you don’t want me to recount the discussion that followed. It was entirely legal-esque negotiations over phrasing of the rules. Platinum approached the terms much as a lawyer or statesmare might, whereas my training with Wintershimmer had taught me to see such phrasings in the same way one might a cautionary story about a wizard making a poor wish of a Tartaran demon, and unerringly selling their soul, or making some seemingly trivial wish aloud and ruining their life for their failure to realize its magical significance. This would be thrilling if my opponent was a fey or a djinn or some other creature actively trying to eat my soul or something, but the truth is that as much as Platinum and I did not see eye-to-eye, she was entirely benevolent in her desires and not planning anything remotely evil or even particularly cruel.

When we were done, I recited aloud the terms we agreed upon, making me the primary subject of the vow.

“I, Mortal Coil, vow to provide to Queen Platinum the First, my services as a necromancer for a period of one year, beginning at the time of my first seance on her behalf. These seances shall be provided at least once per week, for fifty two seances in total. The arrangements of these seances during each week shall be subject to my scheduling and convenience. However, if incapacitation or unavailability of either party prevent a seance during the relevant week, the seance shall be ‘made up’ at the first time both parties are available and able to participate in privacy, regardless of convenience to either party.

Either party may terminate the agreement at any time. If I terminate the agreement, or fail to meet its terms, I shall repay to the Queen a sum of the Queen’s choosing, up to the full total of one hundred thousand bits and ownership of the property originally provided for this service, or equivalent value. This sum shall be provided at the time of cancellation, and until it is provided, the contract shall be considered still in effect. If the Queen cancels the agreement, or if three or more seances are delayed due to her unavailability (so long as that unavailability is not caused by me), I shall be under no further compulsion to provide my services, nor to return any payment for this agreement.

Finally and most importantly, we both agree that any items discussed during these seance sessions shall be kept private between the two parties, and anypony invited by the Queen or the souls of those seanced. I shall be permitted to explain that I am providing magical service to the Queen in order to explain my obligations, but shall not provide details of the service, nor the magnitude of my compensation. If I become aware of any attempts to spy on or otherwise learn the details of these sessions, I shall inform the Queen, but I am under no compunction to provide assistance, magical or mundane, in preventing such active espionage beyond my adherence to this contract. This clause of secrecy is to be considered null and void in the event that disclosure of these details is necessary to prevent serious injury or death, provided there is no other reasonable and reliable way to prevent such a tragedy without revealing our secret.

This contract may be amended, such as to add others to the ‘circle of trust’, by the mutual formal agreement of all parties, to be indicated formally by placing hooves in contact and stating aloud the agreed to modifications. The contract shall be voided upon the death of Queen Platinum, or after one-hundred years time in the event of unexpected longevity or immortality.”

You may be surprised that I memorized that block of text if you yourself are not a classically trained wizard, but the ability to recite long tracts of specific text was my primary way of learning under Wintershimmer, since he had elected not to teach me the literacy necessary to just read such passages myself. When I was finished, I unfurled the parchment Luna had provided, and with a quick prick to the frogs of our respective hooves on a butter knife included in the ‘crumpets’ part of Platinum’s tea set (this took a lot more effort than you’d think; the knife was not especially sharp), the deal was sealed—no horn magic required on our parts. That left me to recline on the bench and explain to the Queen-Mother how it would be probably a week, at least, before the first agreed-upon seance.

“Let me ask now, so you have some time to think: has Star Swirl let you talk to your father since his death? Or was your last communication with him before he passed?”

I thought it was a fairly simple question, but a silver-gray brow rose on the Queen’s stern face. “I haven’t spoken with him since he died. Does that matter to the magic somehow?”

“No; I just want you to be prepared.” I steepled my hooves, careful not to touch my sore, slightly bloodied frog. “Judging by how much effort you put into ensuring my privacy, and how much you’re paying, I’m guessing you have some political questions or secrets you want to talk to him about. Many ponies who request seances have urgent concerns of that sort; inheritances, murders, that sort of thing. Few consider the emotion of the experience. If this is the first time you’ve talked since he passed, he may have heard some of what’s gone on in your life from the other souls who have passed into the Summer Lands since, but he will want to know a proper story first-hoof from you. At least, most family members do. Likewise, you’ll look fairly different to him; you are still a beautiful mare, but you are hardly twenty-one anymore. Souls experience the flow of time more abstractly in the Summer Lands, so he may be shocked. You should be prepared for some initial rejection or discomfort on his part; it usually passes quickly enough.”

“Ah… No, you’re right. I suppose I hadn’t given that any thought. I… thank you, Morty.” Then she closed her eyes and settled back in her seat. “I’m surprised you have such a good bedside manner, given your teacher.”

I shrugged. “We call it ‘graveside manner’, given my magical specialization.” Queen Platinum failed to find that old necromancer’s joke nearly as funny as Meadowbrook had the prior morning. “Wintershimmer could be quite the gentlestallion when he wanted to be. Remember, I did learn to be civil to ponies I detest, as you put it, from him. But more than anything, it’s practical. I don’t want to waste my magic bringing up a seance only for you to run screaming, so to speak. Necromancy isn’t evil, as so many narrow-minded ponies believe; it can even be therapeutic. However, if you haven’t thought the implications through, even I must admit that it can be unsettling at times. Now, can you return me to the party?”

Platinum shook her head. “I’m afraid by this point, your party is over. My apologies.”

“You aren’t sorry about that.”

The Queen-Mother raised a brow. “Perhaps I’m not… I’ll have the guards bring us around to my husband’s villa; I understand he’s offered to house you for the time being.” She rapped a silvery hoof on the wall of the carriage, and our path shifted subtly, though how the guards outside heard the faint noise I still cannot say.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

When I wandered into Hurricane’s villa in the dead of night through the cracked open door, I found Gale waiting for me by lamplight. In the time it took me to register her presence awake, she lunged off of her cushion and pressed her lips tight against mine.

“Thank you, Morty” were the first words I heard when our lips finally parted. “That was… It made today a lot less shitty.”

“Then it was worth it,” I wrapped a leg over her shoulders and hugged her tight. With our chests pressed together, my height put me at just the right angle to whisper my next thought beside her ear. “I hope the rest of the day wasn’t all bad.”

“No, I guess not.” Gale let out just a tiny hint of a laugh, a touch hollow and with a pinch of bitterness. “One down, six to go?”

“I’m not murdering the others,” I scolded. “All joking aside, I didn’t want to go that far.”

“You absolutely did,” Gale pushed me away, and then lifted a hoof to hit me. After a glance at my neck, the offending limb slowly lowered. “You were grinning ear to ear when he thought his shield was going to protect him.”

I sighed. “Well… He insulted my mark.”

“I’m not mad,” Gale replied, shaking her head. “You have no idea how often I’ve imagined bucking that old fuck in his stupid moustache. So it was a nice present. Mom losing her shit made it even better. Speaking of which, did you wind up making a deal with Tirek?”

“What?” I asked with absolute confusion on my face. “The centaur? No, Gale, I would never involve Tartaran magic! The fey contract with your mother was bad enough.”

“That’s who I meant,” she replied, flatly.

“Oh. Then…” I had to cut off my own thoughts with a long yawn. “...yes. Sorry; it’s been a long day. You didn’t have to stay up for me.”

Gale scoffed. “I didn’t. Can’t sleep.”

“Thinking about being Queen now?”

“No shit, detective.” I won myself the bitter sarcasm of one mare’s applause for my guess. “I heated up some milk—” she gestured to a steaming mug sitting on a coaster atop a glass coffee table (not that we called them that at the time; coffee was still quite foreign to Equestria). “—but it’s not going to get my head to shut the fuck up. But you don’t need to stay up with me. We can talk in the morning.”

“Hmm…” I shook my head, grabbed onto Gale’s shoulder with my hoof, and led her over to a long couch in the villa’s living room. “I can’t promise I’ll stay awake, but I can keep you company.” And with that, I pulled her down as I flopped myself onto the couch, pulling her back against my belly.

Our hug lasted at least until I drifted off into what was still, at the time, Luna’s realm of dreams. Even compared to Celestia’s bed, the warmth of Equestria’s new unicorn queen against my chest gave me one of the most comfortable nights I’ve ever had in my life, and even after almost a millennium of life, that night is still one of my most cherished memories. I remember her mane tickling my chin, and the way she squirmed just a bit to center her weight on the cushions and get more comfortable against me. For just that one blissful moment, though the matter of her suitors and our hypothetical marriage and whatever political nightmare the Queen had embroiled me in were all still pending threats to our happiness, they all faded away. We could just enjoy one another’s company and be together. And in that, though I wasn’t wise enough to see it at the time, I had won.

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