• 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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2-7

II - VII

The Sordid Tale of the House of Cards

No more than ten minutes after Gale had left, Grand Duchess Chrysoprase delicately guided Duchess Glass Menage and Duke House Divided, as well as Glass’ daughter Spice and her own son High Castle, to the couches around her coffee table. A new decanter of wine, far cheaper but also frankly more gentle in taste, had been brought in, as well as new glasses; all else remained unchanged.

Nopony seemed quite certain who was going to speak first, and for a long moment as the servants flitted out of the room and clouds rolled slowly by outside the room’s huge window, nopony spoke.

Finally, Spice Menage took up the decanter of blood red wine, poured herself a glass in one of the number of empty glasses resting on the table, and brought it to hover near her lips without actually taking a sip. “Since we are obviously all thinking roughly the same thing, should we just say it?” She took a quick sip of wine, swallowing it back like as much distasteful medicine, and swept her eyes over the assembled nobles. “I was expecting a disaster, and she still managed to surprise me.”

“She is certainly… blunt,” Duke House concurred. “Not much like her mother at all.”

“She may be a unicorn, but she is her father’s daughter,” Chrysoprase agreed, pouring herself a glass of wine, then nodding around the couches. “Anypony else care for a glass?”

As hooves were waved and heads nodded, Duchess Glass steepled her hooves. “Since you obviously have some sort of enlightenment the rest of us are missing, Grand Duchess, would you care to share? I’ve never known Hurricane to behave like that.”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “No, perhaps not.” As the glow of her horn passed out drinks around the table, the elder statesmare leaned back into her couch, somehow managing to make herself comfortable and yet still appear entirely too stiff to not be suffering a severe case of rigor mortis. “The storm and the fury are all her, because she is young and she feels she has something to prove.”

Mother, with respect—”

“You may be young, Castle, but you have nothing to prove,” Chrysoprase interrupted. “Not like she does. Look at the legacies she has inherited. If you’ll forgive me for perhaps being a bit blunt myself, friends: in the history of the unicorn monarchs, Platinum’s only noteworthy achievement was Equestria. If she is even remembered in a century, it will only be because of the founding. And even in that Hurricane overshadows her. That’s to say nothing of what he is to the pegasi. He might as well be their King Electrum or Tourmaline. And make no mistake: behind all the yelling and cursing, he was the one speaking to the Stable this morning. The young queen shares his erasurist beliefs beyond a fault. If you wish to understand her, you need to understand the young stallion King Lapis humiliated in court forty years ago.”

“That seems to be a very poignant interpretation,” Duke House noted. “But I do not follow how it is useful. Unpleasant though she may be, her interpretation of the state of affairs is right, if perhaps short-sighted. If she is willing to spite the benefits of our support, then there is nothing we can reasonably do to control her. Star Swirl clearly won’t turn against her if we pushed to depose her.”

“Nor will I,” Chrysoprase replied. “And nor should either of you. Having an erasurist… rather, a universalist queen will yield some considerable dividends. We will simply have to adapt. Remember, for all the fallout we suffered after the fact, our position in parliament was never stronger than at Baron Card’s height.”

Duke House winced, and even Duchess Glass’ sharp-edged face frowned at the reference. Most notably, however, High Castle and Spice Menage exchanged a confused glance.

“Mother, you mentioned the House of Cards earlier as well, but I don’t recognize that banner for anything notable in our histories. Who was Baron Card?”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Duchess Glass, do you object if I tell them?”

“Go ahead; you are the greater historian,” the younger unicorn replied with a nod.

Chrysoprase took a long sip of her wine, then set the glass down on the table. “I suppose I should preface with this: Spice, Castle: though it is still occasionally relevant to our duties, this isn’t a story one talks about in polite company. As for why you haven’t read about it in our history texts, Castle, I suspect it is because the story is still too new. I imagine both of you have heard the name ‘Solemn Vow’ before?”

Spice Menage’s eyes widened, though it was High Castle who spoke first. “The traitor?”

“The very same.” Chrysoprase chuckled, and her horn ignited emerald green. “But this was before anypony knew that. You must have been barely a year old, I think.” Amidst the wine glasses and decanters on the Grand Duchess’ coffee table, three tiny illusions of equine figures met and shook hooves. Though they lacked much by way of details, the black furred pegasus stallion, silvery metallic unicorn mare, and chocolate brown earth pony stallion figures could not have been mistaken by anypony present—even without their respective jet black armor, glimmering platinum crown, and hat full of pudding. “The three tribes had agreed on the basic terms of Equestria, but the finer details were still being ironed out. Queen Platinum was pregnant with her first foal, married to a Count Creme… Duchess Fire Power’s cousin, I believe.” The illusion of Platinum, visibly pregnant, stepped away from Hurricane and Puddinghead to stand beside a cream-colored stallion whose stylized figure was most notable for his blunt muzzle.

“His line outranked Duchess Fire Power’s at the time,” Duke House noted, nodding in agreement. “Her parents were merely a baron and baroness.”

Chrysoprase turned to Spicy as she continued. “In addition to all of the chaos here, it hadn’t been long since the Battle of Onyx Ridge, where Queen Jade’s army defeated the last crystal warlord, Halite. And as you likely know from your studies of history, in addition to conquerors and thieves, the crystals were historically slavers. So when Jade created the Crystal Union out of the ashes of Halite’s ‘empire’, a huge number of former slaves came to the new lands of Equestria and founded Everfree City. That’s where the name comes from, by the way.”

The ponies disappeared from the table, and in their place a great curved wall of black stone crested with rime-lined battlements dominated the table. Onyx Ridge burned as the crystal alicorn Jade stood over the broken body of her predecessor, the Warlord Halite, at the top of its walls. (In fact, Chancellor Puddinghead actually killed the crystal warlord, but that’s a story for Typhoon’s journals, or perhaps a later Tale.) Through the gate, a swarm of faceless ponies ran past Jade, though one body stood out.

A muted orange coat and a fiery red mane would have stood out dull muddy bodies even without his black jacket—its inch-wide red ribbon hem a perfect match for my own. For want of a better description, Chrysoprase’s illusion ‘zoomed in’ on Vow, letting the surroundings of Onyx Ridge and the escaped ponies fade to focus on him. Unlike all the other figures, Chrysoprase put in the effort to ‘draw’ his real features: a slender muzzle, a striking jawline, a pronounced widow’s peak just below the base of his horn, a confident smile.

“So Solemn Vow was a crystal slave?” Spicy asked over her wine.

“No. But he led us to believe he had been. In fact, he was the apprentice to Wintershimmer the Complacent, and he left over some disagreement with his former master.”

Chrysoprase’s recollection of Wintershimmer was rather less detailed and quite a lot younger than I had ever known the stallion, but his gaunt, almost skull-like visage and sickly gray-yellow coat could not have been mistaken for anypony else, silently yelling at Vow as the pair pointed hooves at each others faces.

“The same ‘Wintershimmer’ that ‘Coil’ colt killed?” Castle asked.

“Yes indeed. Hence why all three wear that same black jacket you mistook for a servant’s coat when Coil and Her Majesty came to visit us the other day. But where the current rendition appears to share all Her Majesty’s lack of tact and propriety, Vow was a master of diplomacy. He made a name for himself arguing rather the same point Her Majesty is raising, too—though a one-sided variant. He wanted unicorns in the command of the Legion, but without granting them titles in the Stable in exchange. And after enough speeches and enough opinions in the newspaper, he came to visit then-Queen Platinum and I, presenting himself as the last scion of the lost House of Cards.”

Wintershimmer vanished from the illusion, and a banner with the coat of arms of a noble house—dominated, as its name suggested, by a four-tiered house of cards—unfurled behind the once-more smiling figure of Solemn Vow.

“So he wasn’t?”

Chrysoprase shrugged. “He likely took the truth to his grave. The House of Cards were thought lost to the crystals, from back before the pegasi arrived and turned the tide of Halite’s conquests, so it was certainly plausible Wintershimmer saved one of them. It was just as plausible he’d read about them in the footnote of some book. Either way, he was a polite enough stallion, and the Cards were a banner to the Royal Line with only a barony for their title, so we thought there wasn’t any harm in granting him the title—at first, the Queen didn’t even bother to assign him a domain, so we both thought there was no conceivable harm he could do. It wouldn’t be enough power for him to upset the balance of the Stable.”

A younger (and less defined) Chrysoprase and Queen Platinum approached Vow, and Vow dipped his head as the illusion of Platinum’s magic tapped each of his shoulders with a ceremonial sword.

Another slow sip of wine paused the Grand Duchess’ story, and only the chirping of summer songbirds outside broke the silence of her moment’s respite.

And then all three nobleponies disappeared, and in their place Chrysoprase’s illusionary storytelling depicted the unmoving body of a unicorn in a dark alley, her neck twisted at an obviously fatal angle. A much younger (and two-winged) Commander Hurricane and a trio of generic pegasus soldiers looked over the body and the space around the alley, and from their cocked heads, all were obviously lost.

“It’s obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t long after that the murders started. Commoners and nobles alike were being torn apart in the streets. Earth ponies, unicorns… but no pegasi. Most ponies assumed it was common thugs, or ponies opposed to a united Equestria, or perhaps loyalists to Cyclone’s rebellion who hadn’t been caught after River Rock fell. Regardless, Hurricane and the Legion seemed completely incapable of stopping them. Vow was all too happy to use their failure for his speeches, building his cause and his following.” Chrysoprase sighed. “And then Platinum the second passed.”

“Vow killed Queen Platinum’s daughter?” Castle asked in shock.

Chrysoprase’s illusion showed her figure of Platinum clad in a black lace veil, her head hanging over a coffin.

“No, no; not unless he somehow made it look like the Scourge of Kings had claimed her well enough to fool Star Swirl. The filly’s passing is a tragedy, but it wasn’t a conspiracy.” Chrysoprase sighed, and a second coffin appeared before Platinum’s illusory figure. “But killing Count Creme just after was, in a sick sort of way, inspired. Her Majesty was, understandably, inconsolable. And, again quite understandably, Vow’s condemnation of Hurricane and the Legion suddenly earned him a favorable place at her side.”

And the figure of Vow stepped out of the edge of the illusion, placing a comforting foreleg over Platinum’s shoulders.

“How did Vow get away with killing the Crown Prince?” Spicy asked. “Surely Star Swirl must have been able to tell magic was involved. Did he use the same spell Coil cast on Count Halo?”

“Hmm? Oh; no. Vow was… the wizards have a word for this, but I can’t place it. He used his magic to control a group of monsters, and they were what was actually behind the murders.”

To remind the reader, the word the Grand Duchess was searching for is ‘Warlock’.

To Chrysoprase’s credit, she was quite gifted with her illusory storytelling; as Vow still held Platinum, his head tilted to look backward over their shoulders, and his horn lit. The shadows cast by the two illusory figures shifted with his magic, before taking the shape of a scowling monstrous face with two triangular eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth.

“So while Star Swirl and his company suspected a monster was behind the attacks, that hardly gave any link to Vow. I’m certain Star Swirl could tell you more if you cared to know, though perhaps it isn’t a curiosity one should indulge.”

As if the details of powerful magic were some passing fad to be waved off, Chrysoprase flicked her hoof in the air. “The point is that Vow knew Her Majesty would be in mourning and unlikely to take action for herself, and that the unicorn populace of Equestria would be horrified by what had happened—the murder not just of a unicorn, but the Crown Prince! And so he took it upon himself to be the public face of outrage at the failure of the Legion.” Vow stepped away from Platinum, stepping up onto one of the coffins which transformed into a sort of wooden platform. Though he made no noise, from the way he pointed his foreleg and the movements of his mouth, it was obvious his speeches were incensed, powerful. And a crowd of faceless ponies quickly appeared before him, forelegs lifted and mouths shouting in silent assent. “As Hurricane continued to fail to catch Vow’s pet monsters, every speech made the young baron more and more popular. Not just with the unicorn public, but with the earth ponies as well—he was sure to kill a few of their favored sons and daughters too. And because the issue was one close to the Queen’s heart after the loss of her husband, he soon earned the favor of Her Majesty.”

Platinum’s figure stepped up beside Vow’s on the stage, and this time it was she who put a hoof on his shoulder in gentle support.

“But he was still just a baron…?” Castle noted. “Unless he started murdering other nobles to climb the ranks, what did he stand to gain?”

Chrysoprase looked disappointedly at her son. “Though you’re being more polite about it, you’re making exactly the same mistake as our new queen. A title recognizes power, it does not grant it. Vow understood that idea perfectly; despite being a ‘lowly’ baron, he had the Queen’s ear and enough popularity with the general public that he could sway the earth pony delegation in parliament. And shortly, we will have to teach Her Majesty the flip side of that coin: that though there are some powers that come with the crown, as Duke House pointed out, they are not the same thing as real influence.”

Chrysoprase cast her gaze out the window as memories of two decades past returned with her story. “I will say, though: ‘what did he stand to gain’ is an excellent question. Nopony really knows where it would have ended, but I suspect his plan would have seen him as the leader of whatever he envisioned would replace the Legion.” Vow held up the black-coated helmet now famous as Hurricane’s costume in the pageant, and slowly lowered it onto his head. The emerald mare shrugged. “Possibly he hoped for Queen Platinum’s hoof in marriage, to become the new Crown Prince. Or perhaps the more vague power he wielded, or the wealth and comfort that came with it, were his real goals.” Around the now helmeted orange stallion, golden bit coins fell from the sky like rain, and he let himself collapse back onto a muted pink chaise lounge. “He certainly accrued more than a bit of wealth and influence in the process. The abandoned home down the street from ours, next door to the Drawbridge estate used to belong to him.”

Spicy frowned over her wine. “With respect, Grand Duchess… while I appreciate the lesson, we ought to discuss what we are going to do about Her Majesty. What ultimately happened?”

“Ah, you’re right, Lady Spice. My apologies.” Chrysoprase’s magic fizzled from her horn, and in an instant the illusion of Vow was gone. “My point… pretend for a moment that you were as ignorant of his plot as we were at the time. For what we knew, Vow was a charismatic populist—more refined in his speech than Her Majesty, but just as fiery in the strength of his opinions. And his opinions won him favor amongst the other races. Favor which turned into votes in Parliament. Favor which let us break the earth pony establishment’s plurality, when it came to it, or dictate terms to the pegasi about how exactly we would permit the Legion to operate on our granted lands.”

Spice Menage glanced briefly around the room in the ensuing silence, and then nodded as her mind followed through on the story. “So Baron Vow—”

“Baron Card,” corrected her mother. “If you must refer to the stallion, to use his supposed house’s title is considered more correct.”

“Very well. I assume your point, Grand Duchess, is that you envision that instead of changing Her Majesty, we let her carry on the way she is inclined, and hope that turns into unicorn popularity in Parliament? Even if that popularity is for her policies?”

“Precisely,” Chrysoprase replied, accompanying the word with a firm nod. “In fact, it’s amusing how close Her Majesty and Castle and I were to having this exact discussion a few days ago when she came to visit, and yet she misses the point.”

“Hmm?” Duchess Glass pressed.

“She was explaining to Coil how the lack of non-pegasi in the Legion’s command had caused problems in the compromises each tribe made in order to create Equestria—I believe I mentioned it had nearly been causing riots in the streets before she was born, though I didn’t bring up Baron Card by name. I do wonder if she genuinely thinks the Queen-Mother simply rolled over and gave the nobility all the rights she seems to resent, or if she understands how many of those rights we won thanks to his influence?”

“If I may cut in,” said Duke House, “while I follow your illustration about the traitorous baron, I fail to see how his example is applicable to the young queen. Though his methods may have been barbaric, his personal desired ends were to the benefit of the Stable. He wanted to increase the power of the unicorns at the expense of the pegasi. If anything, it seems that any popularity Her Majesty garners with this bold, black-and-white perspective would be used against our goals; that she would be a Solemn Vow for the pegasi, against us.”

“If we consider that bringing some token representatives of the other tribes into the Stable is against us, yes. That’s also a battle we’ve already lost. We can delay Her Majesty if we refuse to compromise on the Settlement Bill and deny her domains to assign, for instance. But sooner or later there will be new domains, and once there are we have no check on Her Majesty’s authority. With Star Swirl voting in her favor, we cannot force her to abdicate. An assassination—” A few ponies in the room gasped, but Chrysoprase carried on, business-like, regardless. “—Oh, don’t be foals; we wouldn’t even be the hundredth Stable to consider it, nor the tenth to ‘take a stab at it,’ as it were.”

“That’s treason,” Duke House observed with only the slightest emphasis on the latter word, leaning forward.

“Yes, and it was treason when the Stable killed the tyrant Obdurium and Queen Beryl too; that doesn’t mean it wasn’t right.” Her emphatic point concluded, Chrysoprase let out a breath that seemed to let cooler air into the room. “I am not advocating we do anything of the sort. I was merely listing options so that we could honestly say we evaluated every possibility. However inept she may prove be, we have no way to remove her from the throne.”

High Castle made something of a face as he swallowed the last of his wine. “Mother, it sounds rather like you’re suggesting that despite being about as blunt as a boulder, she actually has outmaneuvered the Stable, and there’s nothing we can do.”

“Only if you mistake the battle and the war, my son,” Chrysoprase replied. Then she turned from High Castle to slowly sweep over the room, eyes narrowed as she did so. “My son and Her Majesty are both right; we cannot stop her indefinitely. If we try to face her with equal bluntness to our tactics, simply saying ‘no’ to whatever she asks us for, in the long run she will win. I propose three new goals: firstly, we train Her Majesty to understand the value of the Stable and our counsel. Secondly, we work to actively cultivate her popularity in the public sphere. And finally, instead of wasting our energy hoping to outright thwart her agenda, we delay it where we can and accept controlled losses where we must. Ultimately, our goal shall be not that the unicorns continue to stand alone as nobles, but that we come out ahead of the other tribes in entering this new world. It’s a Tartaran bargain, to be sure, but together we can survive it.”

“You’re certain there’s nothing we can do to remove her, Grand Duchess?” Spice Menage asked. “Some way to put you on the throne?”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “Beyond her death or a unanimous vote to force her from the throne, our only legitimate options are proving she is not of legitimate regal birth, or challenging her favor in the eyes of Lady Celestia. I hope I don’t need to say aloud why both are ridiculous.”

“To be Tirek’s advocate,” Duke House noted, “suppose we ignored the alicorn in the room, and challenged her divine right in the old way, by noble’s duel? Do we have a champion who could win?”

“You’re joking, right Duke House?” High Castle asked. “Remember, the crown gets three champions to the challenger’s one. The best case scenario is that our champion has to best Sir Chiseled Gem, the Queen herself, who I hear is none too shabby with a blade, and Hurricane. And in the worst case, Commander Typhoon fights on her half-sister’s behalf in lieu of the old stallion.”

“It’s worse than that, in the likely case,” Chrysoprase noted. “Since it seems some of you think that Lady Celestia’s presence today was a favor the former Queen bought somehow, I want you all to know that Celestia went with Her Majesty on her most recent trip to the Crystal Union hunting Wintershimmer. Celestia risked not only her own life, but open war with the crystals, to protect Platinum the Third.” The Grand Duchess let those words hang in the air for a moment before finally settling her gaze back on Duke House. “If you have a champion in mind who can best Hurricane, Typhoon, and Lady Celestia, I invite you to name them. If not, I propose we cease playing mind games of petty violence like commoner colts and discuss real tangible rule.”

Duke House wrinkled his muzzle like a colt a tenth of his age might have if it were struck with a switch. “As you wish, Grand Duchess. I will follow your lead; how do we turn this situation to the Stable’s advantage?”

“A much better question,” Chrysoprase replied with a nod, her horn igniting again. On the table, Vow and Gale appeared, standing side by side. He was probably a good decade older than her, but I had to admit even in the way they stood seemed to have more than coincidental similarity. “By way of comparison, Duke, Her Majesty is young, energetic, and bold—and most importantly, like Vow, she has appeal outside our tribe. So when I say that we should advise our banners not to press her on the matter of being half-pegasus, I mean it with deadly sincerity.” Chrysoprase leaned forward, perched on the very edge of the couch like a gargoyle glaring down at the other nobles. “In my mind, the removal of the Scourge of Kings from the royal lineage is already a boon worth its cost, so long as she bears a unicorn heir. That, more than anything else, is why I am resolute that she will marry one of our lines.” Chrysoprase nodded to her son and to Spice. “I request that the two of you form an ‘alliance’, as it were. You are already both heirs to Great Houses of the Stable, so rising to be Prince… or I suppose Princess-Consort is only a small step up. But I think we can agree that the cost of the Royal Line falling to a non-unicorn would be an enormous blow to the Stable.”

Duchess Glass nodded, placing a hoof on her daughter’s shoulders. “You propose we concern ourselves more with ensuring one of them wins over the others than competing with one another?”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Star Swirl’s scion Grayscale is also acceptable, though with the wizard’s preference for Hurricane’s idea of Equestria, I assume you understand why I did not invite him here.”

The room nodded as one.

“Good,” Chrysoprase replied. “Then Castle, Lady Spice, I’ll ask the two of you to leave us.”

“Hmm? Why, Mother? We’re perfectly capable of playing the great game.” Though he likely meant to come across firmly, High Castle instead sounded a bit whiny at the order to leave.

“At times, selective ignorance is a useful weapon,” Chrysoprase replied, refraining from acknowledging her son’s tone. “As the heads of the Great Houses, you can no doubt guess that we are going to have to take action that isn’t in the best interest of Her Majesty’s agenda. And if you intend to win her horn in marriage, you are best off not being involved in such discussions.”

Spice nodded, closing her eyes as she recited from memory “Far easier is it to truly be ignorant than to feign it, when one knows that ignorance will not bite them.”

“You know your Seventeen Days on the Mountaintop better than Her Majesty,” Chrysoprase noted. “Well put, Lady Spice.”

“Thank you, Grand Duchess.” Spice rose, and offered a formal bow, before turning to her counterpart in the room. “Come, Lord Castle; we should see if we can arrange an amusement for Her Majesty that she will actually enjoy.”

Nopony spoke until the two young nobles had left the room, yet there was hardly a pause from the click of the door against its frame before Chrysoprase again spoke up.

“Now, if I may be brief, let me summarize where I think we stand. Her Majesty is obviously naive, in two ways. Firstly, she fails to understand the nature of her power as Queen, and its limits, and the value of the Stable’s support. Secondly, she unapologetically believes in Hurricane’s doctrine of unification even if it means the erasure of our traditions and our establishments. However, her common speech and her passion, as well as her half-pegasus nature are likely to win over the populace.”

“You’ve made that point compellingly,” Duke House noted with a nod.

“Yes,” said Duchess Glass. “I think my concern is that you cast her gaining popularity as a boon.”

“I think more accurately, I would say that it is the least of several evils,” Chrysoprase corrected. “Her Majesty is a river at the top of a cliff. As you observed, Duke House, she is correct about her powers as Queen. And try as we might, we cannot invert gravity; instead, our only choice is to try and direct the flow of her actions. Without allies in the Stable and in parliament, she is still largely impotent. What she proposed in our gathering is the limit of the harm she can do unilaterally. Therefore, since we cannot stop her plan forever, we should instead be aspiring to direct it in a way that is most beneficial to us, and to the stable, and to the unicorn public… even if the idea of that public suffers a little damage from including non-unicorns in our membership.”

“As though that is only a little damage…” Glass muttered. “I see it as the first step to the complete destruction of the Stable; once the other tribes are in the walls, what mechanism do we have to keep them from climbing?”

“Accepting them as our banners. Managing arranged marriages selectively, the same way we do our current unicorn banners.” Chrysoprase donned the slightest hint of a grin. “Or is a pegasus mare more offensive to you than a unicorn stallion?”

Glass’ muzzle wrinkled at the stab, and Duke House had to suppress letting himself chuckle aloud with a hoof at his own lips.

“When the time comes, I fully intend to support Her Majesty on the condition that her precious House of Rain… or whatever the pegasi call their families—"

Genses?” Glass suggested, correctly.

Chrysoprase waved a hoof dismissively. “Regardless, I intend to demand they become my banner. In the immediate short term, that allows me to remove the Rain colt as a suitor to Her Majesty by arranging to marry him off to another family. In the longer term, we gain a hoof in the pegasus delegation to Parliament and the Senate. I simply have to… trim the ivy as it climbs. Just as our houses have done for generations.”

“Interesting…” Duke House noted, managing to sound entirely bored despite his word. “So we honor our deal with the Queen… er, the Queen-Mother now? And one of us yields one promised domain so Her Majesty can assign it to these pegasi?”

“Not yet,” Chrysoprase replied, shaking her head.

“Would you be plain?” Duchess Glass demanded, leaning forward. “Which is it, Chrysoprase? Do we yield seats to the other tribes or don’t we? Do we sink the settlement bill we’ve worked on for years or let it pass? You can’t possibly be suggesting we take the worse of both choices; that doesn’t even make sense!”

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase sighed heavily and shook her head. Then, lighting her horn, she wrapped not just the stem of her wine glass but the entire vessel in magic. Before the eyes of the other two dukes, the glass fragmented with spiderweb cracks, though no piece of glass fell. Chrysoprase slowly lowered the vessel to the table and released her magic. Perhaps from some enchantment or perhaps from simple tension, the vessel stayed together, and out of the debris her magic surgically lifted a single slender sliver of silvery transparent glass. With incredible care, it floated to the frog of her hoof, and there drew a single tiny slit. Before the three nobles, a single drop of the mare’s blood ran along the edge of the blade, and dropped down into the glass. That single tap, weaker even than a raindrop, shattered the broken glass onto the table in dozens of tiny splinters and fragments.

Sayeth Tourmaline, the Wise King First, ‘With noble blood cometh comprehension of powers soft and subtle; of influence and honor owed and soil and blood and mettle. But common mares and simpler minds do value only these; to blood and gold their hearts are owed, and their tempers can appease.” With her horn, Chrysoprase swept up the broken glass into a small pile, and then turned her attention back to the other two Dukes. “Do you follow?”

House and Glass glanced to one another, and then the latter answered Chrysoprase. “I don’t think we do.”

“What is that quote even from?” Duke House prompted.

Annals of the Divided Kingdoms, Volume II, if memory serves.” Chrysoprase shrugged. “I heard it first from King Lapis, though, Celestia rest his soul…” The thought, framed by the arrival of the mare in question, made Chrysoprase chuckle gently. “You will both recall I took the reins of the Stable just before Hurricane and his masses first arrived in the Diamond Kingdoms, and though I was well acquainted with dealing with other nobles—as you two both clearly are—when the King first tasked me to represent the Kingdom in negotiations with some of the pegasi, I confess I was just as lost as it seems that you two are in how to approach our new monarch. That quote was the first thing he taught me, and even though its language is so archaic, I remember it by heart. But for your benefit, let me restate it more plainly: we, as nobleponies, value a certain set of currencies that are utterly irrelevant to a more common unicorn, let alone a pegasus or an earth pony. As veterans of the Stable, we are all familiar with the idea of trading in favors and titles and honor and so forth.”

House nodded along; Duchess Glass raised a brow. “Why did King Tourmaline list ‘blood’ for both commoners and nobles, then? I have never known commoners to use bloodlines as… currency, as you put it.”

“He means a very different kind of blood,” said the grand duchess, lifting her wounded hoof. “And that is exactly my point.” After watching the other two dukes for a moment, Chrysoprase added “I’ll give you a hint: in this currency, Hurricane is the wealthiest pony in Equestria, and it is the entire basis of his power.”

“The Legion?” Duchess Glass asked. “Soldier’s blood?”

Chrysoprase shook her head. “I would have said Commander Typhoon if that were the case. No; the blood we speak of still sits with Hurricane despite his retirement. And if we play our cards right, our new queen will be the one to inherit it, and not Typhoon.”

Glass and House again looked at each other in confusion, before Glass again offered a suggestion. “The fact that his offspring hold two thirds of Equestria’s thrones?”

“No, that’s the noble understanding of bloodlines again,” Chrysoprase replied with a sternly set mouth.

“Then what?” Duke House asked. “I hope you aren’t suggesting his missing wing is somehow a currency.”

“In fact, that is exactly what I’m telling you,” Chrysoprase replied, steepling her hooves, and then briefly wincing at the pain of her slit frog touching its opposite. “A commoner’s understanding of blood is suffering. Or in perhaps a better word, pain. But not just any senseless pain; pain on behalf of others. Because while as nobleponies, we might respect a friend making a sacrifice on our behalf, our expectation is that we shall provide and care for ourselves. It would be foolish to expect suffering on behalf of one another. But when a commoner looks at a leader, there are really only two things that leader can offer them: wealth—the ‘gold’ Tourmaline mentioned—and the leader’s sacrifice on their behalf. And it is in that latter currency that Hurricane is an unconquerable icon of the pegasi, even despite his retirement: he gave up his wife, his body, his precious flight for his subjects. And I emphasize Hurricane and call Her Majesty his daughter because that is the currency she understands, and the currency she respects. She doesn’t understand our currencies—at least, not enough to place value in them—but I sense that most of the Stable also doesn’t value that of the common pony. After all, they so rarely have anything we want. But for a monarch to succeed, they must understand, and deal in, both.

“Given that Platinum the First failed to teach Her Majesty the value of our currencies, the duty falls on us as the Dukes of the Stable to instruct her, and that instruction, like the instruction of any petulant foal, will result in tension and, ultimately, pain for both parties. And while pain is largely meaningless to us, it is useful to Her Majesty, provided we cultivate the public image of our conflicts to frame her as standing up for the common pony. In that regard, causing Her Majesty selective pain achieves all our goals.”

“I think I see…” Duchess Glass leaned forward. “If we cause pain for her objectives, she learns to value the Stable. At the same time, the public sees her suffering for something they want… at least, the ones who advocate ‘universalism’.”

Ah.” Duke House chuckled.

Chrysoprase nodded with a smile on her own muzzle. “I see you are beginning to understand, Duke House?”

Glass scowled. “That makes one of us. Care to explain?”

“At the moment, the public probably cares more about the Settlement Bill than they do about Her Majesty’s higher plan. If we let Her Majesty have even one domain now, she wouldn’t gain any… ‘pain-currency’ for achieving that goal. But if we block her now, if the Settlement Bill we’ve fought for falls through, it’ll be all the news. And Her Majesty will have to defend her new ideas.”

Glass frowned. “It still seems a high cost to give up the Settlement Bill.”

“We will get the Settlement Bill passed, eventually,” Chrysoprase observed. “The bill will still be on the table in a month or two. The earth ponies want to play a hard game, but waiting for the bill hurts them almost as much as it hurts us. Sure, our delegation loses some face for failing to deliver what they promised… but the hoof ends up pointing at Her Majesty, just the way we want it to.”

“You’re confident you can salvage the bill?” Glass pressed.

“We may have to accept a harsher penalty to the mining quota, though if all goes as planned, it will be Her Majesty and not the Stable that has to make recompense to Secretary Gallery.” Chrysoprase stood up and placed both her forehooves on the table, looming forward as much as it was possible for the wiry older mare’s body. “We’ve discussed a lot; shall I summarize?”

“Please do,” Duke House replied.

Chrysoprase’s explanation was calm and steady, but there was an obvious energy in her body, an almost foalish sense of excitement, albeit tempered by experience, that seemed to leak through the way her shoulders slid forward as she spoke. “We cannot stop Her Majesty’s plan to introduce non-unicorns to the Stable, no matter how badly we might wish to. We can neither remove her from power, nor can we prevent new domains from being introduced to Equestria eventually. Instead our goal is to slow down that change, and to make it as painful as possible for Her Majesty. This achieves several goals, hopefully: firstly, it teaches Her Majesty that she does need to work with us instead of spiting us, or at least that she can achieve far more with us than without us. Secondly, the delay and the public conflict over her plan will raise public awareness of her cause, and as the foremost power advocating the universalist position, she will become the de facto champion of the cause. Once the public is aware of her cause and believes in it, any pain we cause her in our conflicts becomes currency for her use in dealing with the masses—not just our masses, but the pegasi and earth ponies too. And in time, once Her Majesty’s more… radical humors have cooled, that favor will be to our massive benefit in influencing Parliament. Therefore, with the matter of the Settlement Bill in front of us, we have no choice but to let our negotiations crumble for the time being and block Her Majesty. And in the longer term, there will be more small defeats we will have to endure in the interest of denying Her Majesty; this will not be the only pain. But to let her run completely free is no option at all.”

Chrysoprase took a long breath, and re-steepled her hooves. “Make no mistake, friends: I am more than comfortable being the villain of this tale, and if anything I fully intend to bear that burden to the extent I am able. But I cannot guarantee it will not slip onto you as well. Being cast as an elitist, even a regressive tribalist may hurt our memories in history books, but I doubt any of us will live long enough to suffer that reputation if we play well in life. But if we fail, it may be that the last vestiges of the Diamond Kingdoms we once knew will die with us. Are you prepared to accept that?”

“So long as you are serious about bearing the front role,” Duke House answered.

“I am. That is why I took the liberty proposing our compromise to Her Majesty a few hours ago.”

“You went behind our backs?” Glass set a hoof down on Chrysoprase’s coffee table, hard. “We are allies, Chrysoprase!”

“We are,” Chrysoprase replied, and leaned forward. “I could not afford to let her leave and take some unforeseen action without leading her to believe a compromise was at least possible, Duchess Glass. I told Her Majesty that I would be willing to give up all of the domains for my banners in our prior compromise with her mother, and use them to barter with the two of you, and that I would try to convince you to take her deal on those terms. Behind closed doors, as I alluded to before, I encourage something of the sort: between the two of you, we should demand all the available domains, so that none are left for her pet pegasi.”

“A deal she’ll certainly reject,” Glass nodded.

“Perhaps,” Duke House leaned back. “But we should not predicate our plans on what action anypony outside our number will make; even somepony as apparently predictable as Her Majesty.”

“If she takes the deal, she’s more reasonable than we thought, and we win exactly the way we intended. Your two Houses gain a bit at what is theoretically my loss, but it’s hardly heartbreaking. Life goes on as if her mother were still on the throne.” Chrysoprase shrugged. “If Her Majesty rejects the deal, as we expect, then we wait and let the pressure grow. She grows more ornery, her public support grows. And as she waits, we take every opportunity to remind her of her choice to spite us as we make other issues painful as well—though in the end, we do still work with her. We stifle her without thwarting her outright. When she compromises, even slightly, we reward her. When she remains stubborn, we bring her pain. And then, finally, when the pressure is on the verge of boiling, I bring forward our exact same compromise, with one tweak: I get the House of Rain. That will let Her Majesty ‘win’ without her worst impulses running amok. After all, if there is anything I know, it is how to manage a banner.”

“That is certainly true.” Glass chuckled. “Chrysoprase, your powers of oratory are terrifying. Every bone in my body warns me that you’re proposing we cut off our own muzzles to spite our faces with this deal, and yet I can’t help but see the logic in it.”

“Were that it could be simpler…” Duke House noted. “But I likewise concur with your plan.”

“If it were simpler, my dear House, it would not be the Great Game.” Chrysoprase glanced down to her broken glass, and then lifted an empty hoof symbolically. “To Her Majesty. Long may she reign.”

Perhaps with a bit of bitter sarcasm, House raised his glass of water, and Glass her glass of wine. “Long may she reign.”

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