• 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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3 - The Little Red Lie


The Little Red Lie

Far, far to the east of modern Canterlot, in the snowy wastes where the last of the three ‘Hearths Warming’ windigoes still smothers the land in eternal winter, a reader will find the ancient city of Stalliongrad. With its own language, completely removed from any of the other dialects common in Equestria, and its own strange government ruled by ‘Tsars’ alongside the proper noble titles like Dukes and Barons, many denizens of Equestria treat Stalliongrad as if it were a completely separate country.

The name ‘Stalliongrad’ comes from the draconic ‘Стольный град’ meaning ‘capital city’, because while it has never been the Equestrian capital, it was at one time called River Rock, the capital of the unicorn Diamond Kingdoms. For centuries, if not millenia, the dynasties of the so-called Five Wise Kings ruled over the unicorns (and de facto if not de jure the earth ponies as well) from the mighty turrets and grand halls of Burning Hearth Castle on the hill overlooking River Rock and the mighty Volgallop river. That continuity of rule survived crystal ponies and dragons and earth pony rebellions alike, until finally it met its match when King Lapis IV was slain, still sitting in his throne by an upstart pegasus: Cyclone, firstborn son of Commander Hurricane.

Hurricane won mercy for his son by pleading with Lapis’ only surviving foal, the then-young Platinum I. Instead of execution Cyclone was left to watch over the city he had won, trapped in the frozen wastes with his little cabal of loyal soldiers and those earth ponies and unicorns too old or infirm or just plain stubborn to make the long snowy journey to the land that would become Equestria. Bitterly, Cyclone’s new subjects gave him the title his father had abandoned—’Haysar’, the imperial title of the fallen pegasus empire of Cirra—as a constant reminder of the legacy he had failed to live up to.

What followed were lean decades spent struggling to build enough of an economy to even feed his new bitter subjects. Aid ultimately came in the form not of ponies, but dragons. With the help of a merciful Archmage Clover the Clever, Cyclone Haysar negotiated with the dragons for the aid of their fire magic to bring up heat from beneath the earth—heat enough, at least, that with the construction of great greenhouses, his subjects could grow their own food despite the winter and not live in constant fear that starvation was only a few missed shipments away.

Cyclone is remembered in most modern history texts by the draconic form of his name, Tsyklon. The name ‘Stalliongrad’ likewise, obviously, comes from the city’s negotiations with the dragons under his rule (and if Cyclone is the father of Stalliongrad, Celestia is surely its mother; her absurd fondness for that ridiculous pun is certainly the only reason the name stuck). But as for the title of Tsar, its origins come from what I hold is the most selfless action Cyclone ever took: a single careful lie he told on the same day of the Regency Day Massacre.

This tale begins the day before that fateful day, though, when Gale had only just become Queen Platinum and was due to first present herself to the Stable of Nobles, as a figure limped over the frozen surface of the Volgallop. Despite being summer in the northern hemisphere, the namesake river of River Rock (for Celestia had yet to have the ‘epiphany’ of its modern name) was frozen into a solid sheet. It wasn’t an uncommon event, but as I alluded earlier, it was a terribly dangerous one even for the ponies safe in their brick homes. Without shipments on the river to carry food from the warmer climes of Equestria, Cyclone had more than once found the city’s more desperate denizens turned to cannibalism.

Through that blizzard and over the river staggered a figure, lost and freezing and utterly snowblind. He knew nothing of his location; not the name of the river whose surface he followed by the hard slippery chill beneath his strides (for eyes were no use in the miles of blank white), nor the name of the city he approached, nor even that there was a city to approach. His blind hope was that, since water was usually warmer than ice, if he followed the river far enough, he might eventually find somewhere that the ice was cracked, and he might be able to slip into the warmer water below.

Our figure was… perhaps not the most clever of beings in history.

Fortunately, while his strategy would have led to a swift death if it had succeeded, where his wits were lacking, he found himself blessed with luck. Rather than a hole into which to dip and freeze himself to death, he found (with his face, no less) an upright tree trunk, apparently stripped of its bark by lightning. Surprised at the sight of such a tree in the middle of a river, he spread his considerable wingspan and—demonstrating his considerable strength simply by not being swept away at the strength of the blizzard—used it to heft himself up the tree in hopes of branches and greenery he might be able to fashion into some vestige of shelter. Or, at least, that was his hope. Half-frozen and stiff, it took three solid tries and at least one painful slip that bashed his belly and chin onto the ice before he found the right combination of purchase and wing strength to leap upward. By the time he succeeded, the insides of his feathers, previously keeping his core insulated, were crusted white with snow and utterly useless and keeping him warm.

What he found, instead of pine needles (and again, with his face) were clearly hoof-worked flat planks. For much like the idiomatic blind monk feeling an elephant’s trunk, our momentary hero had not stumbled on a tree at all, but one of the pillars of a dock jutting out into a frozen river. And while his rather birdbrained mind might not have understood the relationship between soaking one's fur and fatal hypothermia, he was, evidently, clever enough to recognize that a dock implied some form of civilization, and therefore some shelter. And so, after pulling himself up onto the dock—itself a rather violent and awkward motion—and getting a feel for the texture of the frigid boards beneath him (so as not to lose his place in the whiteout of the blizzard), he began to walk forward and called out “Hello?!”

Well, to be entirely correct, he actually called out “Salve?!”, speaking heavily accented old Cirran—not “Hello” in Equiish as we would be accustomed to the term. But since nearly all our subject’s dialogue in this Tale comes in the form of Old Cirran, and that language is largely considered dead (nevermind the irony of a ‘necromancer’ calling Cirran a ‘dead’ language), I’ll spare the reader the need to translate themselves, and use italics to indicate its speech—though I’ll do my best to note its use as well.

Soon, the ground beneath our subject’s stride turned from frozen boards to frozen cobblestones. “H-h-hello?” he shivered out in Cirran again, folding his wings tight against his sides and wishing he had any clothing whatsoever to speak of. And while I (rightly) make a bit of light of his intellect, in this case I can hardly fault the poor fellow; he had no idea that he ought to expect cursed eternal winter in the height of summer when he departed on the journey that found him on the frigid streets of River Rock that day.

Stuttering in the dead language of the pegasi, he cried out “An-n-n-yon-n-ne? P-p-please?

With the heat of his wings lost, white was beginning to fade in on the corners of his vision. And so it was, again, that luck saved the wanderer, for on the road he had stumbled upon, running along the riverside dock district of River Rock, there sat a little bakery whose central chamber was well alight with life and heat and the delectable smells of honey and baked bread and rich spices. And inside that bakery, a mare only a few years older than I was at the time happened by chance to hear the desperate cry of our wanderer over the howling of the wind.

Readers of my prior record may remember Lefse, my friend Blizzard’s only real friend in her former home of River Rock. For those who don’t, she was an earth pony baker named after a peculiar but delectable potato flatbread still popular in Stalliongrad today. Her recurrence, I assure you, is purely coincidence from the location of her family’s shop being located on the waterfront. Regardless, hearing a voice in need—even if she didn’t understand its cries, the combination of obvious shivering and the simple fact that no sane native of River Rock would be caught dead outside in such a storm—meant that she knew something was surely wrong. And so, after informing her grandfather that she hadn’t suddenly been stricken with snow-madness, she looped a length of rope around her stomach, threw on a blanket as a makeshift coat, and strode out into the storm.

“Is somepony there?” Lefse bellowed out into the storm from the doorway of the bakery.

Though the storm made sight nearly impossible, the light of lanterns and ovens still colored a part of the white storm a warm yellow tone for the wanderer. And to the credit of his incredible strength, not only did he answer “Can-n-n I please come…?” in Cirran, but he even managed nearly to carry himself into the door before the cold finally overtook him and he collapsed, just in view of the young earth pony mare.

“Holy Celestia!” shouted Lefse at the sight. “What—what is it?”

“Does it matter?” her grandfather answered, rushing over from behind the counter of the bakery. “He’ll freeze there in the doorway. Help me pull him in.”

And with that short exchange, the two earth ponies each grabbed one of the wanderers golden claws at the end of his forelegs, and tugged. First over the threshold came his yellow beak and his bald white head, covered in snow-covered feathers. Then came a sudden line where feathers gave way to tan fur. And finally, at the end of his body, a pair of shivering lion’s paws and a tail managed to just squeak in before Lefse hopped over the frigid creature and slammed the door shut.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Do you think he’s a monster, Lefse?”

Lefse shrugged. “I think he was speaking Cirran, Grandfather. When the storm settles, I’ll go up to the castle; maybe one of the guards will know more. For now, we should get him closer to one of the ovens; he’s freezing.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Like so many blizzards in the lands haunted by the last windigo, though storm conditions could last for days, the great blinding winds that made it impossible to safely venture outside without a rope soon ran out of loose powder to blow, and the storm grew drier, and while colder, also quite navigable. And so, with the wandering creature—for while readers might immediately recognize my description, his species was known firsthoof only to the most senior generation of Equestria’s pegasus population—with the creature still asleep, Lefse departed the bakery bundled in two layers of scarves, coats, boots, and hats bound for Burning Hearth Castle.

Unlike the enlightened rule of Equestria, Cyclone was not the sort of ruler who generally held anything like ‘open court’ or really generally interacted with his subjects at all. Instead, his commands reached the populace by way of his extensive military—and though that ruling style would certainly have been seen as a harsh military dictatorship had he had any particular cruel ambitions, in practice the extent of his orders were largely ‘don’t eat each other’ and ‘ration your food’ and ‘behave yourselves’. So, instead, while the populace of River Rock that weren’t his soldiers generally hated him, it was a very vague, rather disassociated hate. In practice, there was a whole generation of young ponies in River Rock who had never even seen Cyclone the Traitor, and certainly had never heard the stallion give an impassioned speech or lead a military parade.

Lefse was one such young pony. Hence she was very much surprised when, halfway through describing the creature in her family’s bakery to one of the guards at the entrance to the castle, he had cut her off, and at spearpoint, demanded that she swear on pain of death she was telling the truth. Then quite terrified, as she attested to the truth of her story, she had been led directly past not only the gate guard, but even one of the guard officers, and directly up to a pair of huge iron doors, partway melted open so that even fully closed, they might offer a tall pony a glimpse into the room beyond. The guard escorting her muttered something in Cirran to the two guards flanking that pair of doors, and with considerable effort, the three soldiers together pushed open enough of a walkway for her to enter.

When she walked through, the guard who had threatened her didn’t follow.

The room beyond the doors was the throne room, as it had been for every unicorn monarch dating back to the capital fortress’ construction, and as it now was for Cyclone. And though he sat in the throne, letting his red crippled wing, scarred from the very day his rebellion had failed, hang over the edge of his chair, I fully suspect that anypony walking up to Cyclone would have recognized him as a leader even if were seated on a three-legged wooden stool.

How does one describe Cyclone? Perhaps I shall start by observing that I was neither the first nor the last pony to, upon first meeting him, wonder aloud whether or not his father, Commander Hurricane, had at some point in his youth copulated with a she-bear and passed the foal off as his own. In addition to his prodigious size and bulky build, Cyclone wore a full beard of bristly black hair that, together with his overgrown mane, only further emphasized his size. And, of course, beside his throne one could see his hoof-forged sword Infernus (a Cirran synonym for Tartarus, though I’m told most ponies translate it ‘hellfire’) resting where it could be easily retrieved in the event somepony needed to be bisected the long way—the sword being roughly the length of a sizeable oar, and the width of an average pony’s torso.

Lefse immediately blanched as the tyrant’s eyes leveled on her, smoldering like coals between his thick black eyebrows and the base of his muzzle. “Who are you?”

“Lefse, sir. Uh… Emperor Cyclone. Sir.”

Cyclone let his heavy brow cover his eyes and exhaled once through his nostrils. “My father is still the Cirran Emperor, no matter how much he might pretend otherwise. You may call me ‘Commander Cyclone’, Lefse.” Then, with another notable pause, he reopened his eyes. “You are my daughter’s friend? The baker?”

“Ah, yes!” Lefse smiled. “That’s me, Commander Cyclone. Blizzard’s friend.”

“Blizzard has left River Rock,” Cyclone told her. “She went to Everfree City to be with the rest of our family. I do not know when she will return; I’m sorry.” With a rather dismissive flick of his good wing, Cyclone nodded toward the doors behind the earth mare.

“Yeah. Um, I mean, yes, sir. Blizzard told me before she left. I’m, um, not here about her.” Lefse swallowed.

“Then why are you here?” Cyclone asked.

“Well… I don’t really know, sir.” When Cyclone’s brow lowered toward a skeptical glare, Lefse winced. “I mean, I came to the castle to talk to a guard. And he sent me in here. But I don’t know why the creature is so important that I needed to talk to you. But he threatened me with a spear about whether I was making it up or not, and—”

“Stop,” Cyclone ordered, and immediately Lefse fell into silence. Nodding in approval at her obedience, he instructed her “Start at the beginning.”

“Right. Sorry. So, during the storm a little bit ago, my grandpa and I were working at our bakery, and we heard a voice in the storm, like somepony had gotten lost outside. And it was speaking Cirran, which I don’t actually speak, but you know somepony caught out in a blizzard can freeze really quickly, so I tied a rope around me and put on some warm clothes and went out to see if I could find him.”

“Brave,” Cyclone commented with a single nod. “And commendable.”

“Th-thanks,” Lefse noted. “Well, I did find him. But he wasn’t a pony. Grandpa didn’t know what he was either, and he passed out from the cold before he could even get inside; we had to drag him in. But he’s really big, like bigger than even a big earth pony. Or even you, Commander sir.”

“A giant pony?” Cyclone asked with a raised brow.

“No; I don’t think he’s a pony at all. He’s, um, got a bird’s head. And front legs. And his back is like… I guess like a cat, kind of? I mean, I’ve never seen a cat with a tail like that, but—agh! Did I say something wrong?! Please don’t hurt me!”

Lefse’s abrupt declaration there at the end stemmed from Cyclone physically hurling himself out of the throne with his forelegs, and then pausing only to sling his enormous blade over his shoulder.

“No, Lefse. You did well to report this.” He took two strides forward, and then bellowed at the young mare—or rather, she realized a moment later, past her. “Guards, fetch Imperator Sirocco. Have her meet us at the gatehouse.”

“Us?” Lefse asked. “Wait, sir, are you going to kill him?”

“I don’t intend to, yet.” Cyclone answered. “But no wise Cirran trusts a griffon without a sword at his side.”

“A griffon?” Lefse asked. “What does that mean?”

Cyclone didn’t answer her more than gesturing with his good wing for her to follow as he walked straight past her toward the partly melted iron doors of his throne room. While they had been quite the obstacle for his guards, to his beastly physique they presented little obstacle.

Lefse followed closely after Cyclone, wondering all the while what she had gotten her family into, but not daring to voice her hundred curiosities out of a quiet terror of the mysterious ruler and his infernal sword. So instead, back through the halls of the castle she followed, rushing after his formidable stride. And though in truth the throne room of Burning Hearth is only a few hallways removed from its gatehouse, with her heart pounding and her hooves nearly at a gallop to match Cyclone’s stride, Lefse felt the trek took nearly a day.

Waiting in the icy wind just outside the gatehouse was a figure Lefse did recognize, if only from a distance. Cyclone’s right hoof in ruling River Rock was his second-eldest daughter, Legatus Legionis Sirocco. Wearing a coat of burnt orange that nearly matched her father’s red, she cut a slimming and imposing image clad in steel armor painted black that was certainly reminiscent to the Equestrian imagination of the day of her grandfather’s magic-eating black armor. Over it, however, the mare had wrapped herself in a crimson sash, the same color as her father’s coat. But perhaps most notable in her appearance was the way that she managed to don an expression of mild scorn for her surroundings while still holding to strict military discipline in her posture.

“You summoned me, Commander?”

Cyclone nodded. “This is Lefse; Blizzard’s friend.”

“What would I want with that traitor’s friend?” Sirocco snapped, openly glaring in Lefse’s direction.

Disappointment swept over Cyclone’s expression. “Your sister is not a traitor, Sirocco.”

“Blizzard isn’t my sister,” Sirocco replied, though she deigned not to meet her father’s disappointed look eye-to-eye. What she had said was true, if only in a technical sense; my friend Blizzard and Sirocco were only half-sisters—both Cyclone’s daughters, but to different mothers. And in all fairness, both in temperament and appearance the two could not be further apart.

Evidently, the matter of the griffon weighed more heavily on Cyclone than settling the differences of his foals, as he let the comment pass unchallenged. “A griffon has come to River Rock, Sirocco. Lefse’s family found him in the storm that just passed. I would like you to accompany me. Depending on what happens, I may need someone I can trust with a working pair of wings.”

“A griffon?” Sirocco gasped. “From Dioda?”

“I would assume so,” Cyclone answered with a shrug. “I have never met one either, daughter. We shall have to see if it is a scout for Magnus.”

“What is a griffon?” Lefse asked.

“You don’t know, peasant?” Sirocco asked. “The griffons are the ancient enemy of Cirra. They’re the reason Cirra crossed the sea to come here in the first place. And someday, Father will return and take back—”

Enough,” Cyclone cut his daughter off, and for just a moment, flames danced over his good wing before he restrained his pegasus magic. “My ambition was my folly, Sirocco; not something to be admired. Your grandfather was right; reigniting war with Magnus would be a mistake, even if Equestria were behind us—and if we are the ones who ignite war, they won’t be. Which is why we will not harm the griffon—at least, not unless he gives us cause.” Gesturing down the road with his wing, Cyclone nodded his head to Lefse. “Lead the way.”

Lefse nodded. “Yes, Commander, sir.” Swallowing, she took her place ahead of and between the two armed pegasi, and her hooves clicked on the road as she traveled into the winds of eternal winter. “The bakery is down by the docks.”

“He must have followed the river,” Cyclone observed.

“Or he has a map,” Sirocco suggested. “And he just got lost because of the whiteout storm. How do we know this griffon hasn’t already scouted River Rock?”

“We don’t,” Cyclone answered dryly. Then, to Lefse’s surprise, he stepped up beside her. “You’re cold?”

Lefse hadn’t even noticed the chill, as focused as she was on the discussion of the threat of war; she only realized the fact when she followed Cyclone’s gaze beside her and realized her teeth were chattering. So she gave the tyrant a brief nod.

Cyclone answered by extending his good wing over her back—not wrapped over her, but held aloft a solid hoof above her back. And then, with an audible crackle, his feathers burst into flame. The sudden appearance of fire arrested Lefse’s stride, though Cyclone shook his head and nodded forward. “The fire is my magic; it won’t burn you unless I want it to. Lead on.”

Though his phrasing was perhaps less than comforting, Lefse had to note that a fire hovering above her back, combined with Cyclone’s considerable frame breaking the wind at her side, really did cut back on the chill of the frozen air. So, as she walked on, Lefse had to admit how strange it felt, after having never even seen her ruler in the flesh before, to be walking the street at his side and under his literally flaming wing.

Less comforting were Cyclone’s directions as the trio approached the bakery. “Lefse, when we arrive, you will lead your family to another room. Sirocco, hold your tongue; I will be the only one to speak to the griffon. Even if he threatens me, do not draw your blade unless he draws my blood.” After some silence, as the trio rounded the corner to walk along the docks, where the bakery’s door was a mere few strides away, he finished “Do I make myself clear?”

“Y-yes,” Lefse answered.

“Crystal, sir,’ Sirocco replied.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

It came as some amusement, at least to me, that despite the ruler’s concerns about secrecy, the griffon was still quite asleep when Cyclone arrived in the bakery. And so, after a moment consoling and dismissing Lefse’s grandfather that nothing they had done was wrong, and that it was the griffon who had attracted Cyclone’s personal attention and not the family who saved him, the ruler of River Rock sent his second-eldest daughter and right hoof to retrieve a covered wagon, a Cirran legion medicus—essentially, a field doctor—and an old unicorn apothecary who had refused to abandon River Rock. All, it seemed, would be needed for the griffon, whose wingtips were missing feathers, and the flesh beneath blackened with frostbite, and whose paws and talons alike seemed a ghastly pale gray even with the heat of the bakery. Cyclone’s only grim command to the bakers as he left the bakery was that they were not to speak whatsoever of what they had witnessed until they heard otherwise from the city’s guards.

Transporting the griffon back to Burning Hearth Castle was handled with considerable care and paranoia, though ultimately there was little need for it. The ponies of River Rock knew better than to stick their noses into the affairs of Cyclone and his family—and even beyond that, though the whiteout effect of the storm had passed, it wasn’t as though anypony enjoyed the freezing temperatures long enough to linger in the streets just to gawk at a passing wagon, even if Cyclone himself walked alongside it.

So it was that, a full six hours after he passed out on the threshold of the bakery, the griffon wanderer stirred and yawned, and found himself surprised to be covered by a thick quilt, resting in a bed of straw with his head on a pillow of the same dry material.

“I see you are awake.” Cyclone’s rough voice drew the griffon’s attention immediately, though it carried with it a look of confusion.

“I… y-yes.” Even under his quilt, there was a slight trembling shudder to the griffon’s words. “Y-you prefer Cirran or… this?”

“Whichever,” Cyclone muttered indifferently, before switching tongues. “I speak Cirran.” With a sideways nod to Sirocco at his side, he added “As does she.”

The griffon smiled at that. “I was told it was p-proper to greet you in Cirran, if-f-f— If you have never heard a beak chatter in cold, it is a curious noise. Letting his head flop back against his pillow, the tercel breathed a sigh and focused himself.

“You will not come to harm here,” Cyclone assured. “Rest. I will send soup.”

“No, w-wait!” The griffon pulled himself to at least sit upright in his bed. “My message.”

“Griffon, you were frozen on Garuda’s threshold… or whatever griffon god sees to you when you die. My medicus assures me you will survive, but when your health is more stable, you have frozen tissue that needs to be removed or it will rot and infect you.” Cyclone nodded to the bed. “So lay down, spare your strength, and your message will still be here when you are more fit to speak.”

Artorius stubbornly shook his head. “I am sworn as a knight to deliver this message first. My name is Artorius, son of Theod. Thank you for saving me from the cold. When I am well, I will repay you. Please, forgive me for being in a rush, but it is urgent that I speak with Emperor Hurricane.”

Cyclone drew a short breath and then let out a long sigh—I suspect being more dramatic than he actually felt, given what followed in perfect Cirran. “Artorius, my father died some years ago. I am the Emperor of Cirra now: Gladioprocellarius Kyklon Haysar.”

More as a fact of historical amusement than necessity of understanding: Cyclone’s Cirran name was not actually Cirran at all, but the Nimban Kyklon—owing to fact that his mother, Swift Spear, was herself half-Nimban, and wanted to compromise the naming of her first foal between her own heritage and Hurricane’s family’s longstanding tradition of naming all their foals after generally foul weather.

Sirocco shot her father a sideways glance, which in a testament to the giant pegasus’ poker face, he didn’t even acknowledge with a glance of his own.

Nervously, Artorius shrunk back in his bed. “Oh, forgive me, Emperor Cyclone; I didn’t know.”

Cyclone answered by steepling his hooves, switching back to more casual Equiish and loosening his shoulders. Why are you here, Artorius? What message did you carry for my father that means so much to you?”

“My mother, Aela, has led a long rebellion against Emperor Magnus’s tyranny. But we have run out of knights and swords, and we will soon run out of food.”

Cyclone scowled. “I will not drag Cirra into another war.”

“I’m not asking you to, Emperor,” Artorius answered, rolling forward onto his claws and paws, before bowing his head low toward Cyclone. “We’re only asking for shelter. Somewhere to escape Magnus, as Emperor Hurricane years ago.”

Sirocco let out a cruel laugh, and despite Cyclone’s outright glare, she spoke up. “A griffon begging Cirra for shelter? What’s next? Will you pray to Mobius for mercy instead of your griffon gods?”

“I…” Artorius swallowed, and despite being bedridden, braced his shoulders as if he were prepared to come to blows with Sirocco… or at least, to indicate he didn’t fear her. “I had hoped Emperor Hurricane would be here. When I was just a hatchling, he and my father fought side-by-side as allies.”

This time, Sirocco was not amused. Her wings flared. Cyclone raised a hoof to silence his daughter—not that she heeded it in the slightest, stepping forward with murder in her eyes. “Grandfather may not be here, griffon, but don’t think that means you can lie to us about him. There were no griffons on our side in the Red Cloud War.”

Cyclone sighed. “Imperator, not only are you out of order, but you are also wrong.” Gently flicking his good wing downward in her direction toward the floor—as one might when ordering a dog to sit—he added “You will not speak again.” Then, returning his attention to Artorius, the tyrant of River Rock leaned forward. I take it from the fact that you have a Cirran name and a white head that your father was one of the Canii?”

“Dogs?” Sirocco asked, her rage tempered by confusion. “Father, are you calling him a bitch in Cirran?”

Cyclone opted for a curious and rare display of emotion by rolling his eyes. “The Canii were a group of griffons who served Cirra instead of Gryphus in our wars. They were used as auxilia, and often on dangerous high-risk maneuvers, but they were renowned through Cirran history as a powerful fighting force, combining the strength of griffon bodies with the discipline of the Legion.” Cyclone then turned to Artorius. “Most had white feathers like Artorius, and yellow-tan fur. And unlike most griffons, they took Cirran names—as Artorius is.”

Artorius smiled. “Thank you for believing me.”

“I didn’t say that,” Cyclone warned. “Though my Imperator spoke out of turn and in ignorance, she is right that my father never fought alongside the Canii. He served in the eighth legion offensive up to Hengstead… and of course he couldn’t have after that.”

Artorius quirked a brow. “Why not?”

Cyclone hesitated a moment, and then sighed. “Because the Eighth Legion had just reached Hengstead when Emperor August ordered the Legion to exterminate the Canii auxilia, along with all griffon slaves in Cirra, and all griffons in conquered lands. His idea of a fair punishment…”

Artorius winced, and glanced nervously to the side where he saw Sirocco smiling at the uncomfortable note of Cirran history, before turning his attention back to Cyclone. “My mother told me a bit about that history, but I didn’t know the timing of the offensives. I, um, I’m only twenty four; I wasn’t alive during the war. But, uh, both my parents were in the auxilia—though I get my Canii colors from my mother.” Taking a moment to swallow, seemingly to center himself, Artorius continued “We only met Emperor Hurricane later—twenty years ago or so, when he and the goddess Celeste came back to Dioda.”

“Grandfather never went back to Dioda!” Sirocco snapped. “He’s too much of a gods damn coward to take back Cirra!”

Cyclone turned in his seat so that his good wing could point at the door. Tongues of flame licked along his feathers. His eyes glowed like molten iron, and there was no kindness to be found in them. “Wait,” he ordered.

With a sour look on her face Sirocco stalked over to the door of the small castle bedroom. Still, defiantly, she took a parting moment in the doorway to turn over her shoulder and glare at Artorius before she finally slipped from view.

Cyclone turned back to Artorius and once more steepled his hooves. “While you are here, you will not speak of my father’s return to Dioda. If you do, I will kill you, and tell whoever sent you that you never arrived. I am the only pony alive besides Celeste… and now my daughter... who knows.”

Having stood on the other end of a death threat from Cyclone, I can sympathize with Artorius’ nervousness, pulling his avian neck back in a way that ruffled up the feathers of his ‘bald’ white head. “O-of course. I apologize. I did not realize it would cause such a problem.”

“It will not cause a problem once I speak to Sirocco. Bringing more griffons here will cause much more of a problem than airing my father’s secrets…” Cyclone frowned and leaned forward, until Artorius could smell his breath in the air. “I cannot take your story on faith, Artorius. For the time being, I will have to assume you are a scout serving Emperor Magnus, come to finish off the last remnants of the Cirran Empire. Fortunately for you, my father left considerable records from his time ruling what remains of Cirra.” Artorius breathed a small sigh of relief at that revelation. “Unfortunately, he kept them with a heavy cipher. And while I know how to decode them, the process is time consuming—especially when I do not know what volume will hold the relevant story. Until I have time to determine the truth, you will stay here.”

“I understand,” Artorius answered. “How long do you think it will take?”

Cyclone glanced to the door, closed his eyes for a few moments, and then answered “Three weeks at the longest.”

“If that is what it will take. I’m at your mercy, Emperor Cyclone, but I have to beg you to hurry. Magnus would love nothing more than to kill the rest of my family and friends while they wait for my answer.”

Cyclone nodded. “We shall see.” The crippled, but brutally powerful pegasus rose from his chair and took two solid strides toward the door before pausing. “To be clear, if my father’s records do not echo your story, I will kill you. So before I go, is there anything else you would like to add?”

Artorius swallowed. “No, sir.” As Cyclone took another step toward the door, he called out again. “Er, that is—”

With his face turned away from the griffon, Cyclone grinned a predator’s smile.

“When I was in the storm, there was a… a pony hen? What do you call your females?”

Cyclone turned and raised a brow. “The word is ‘Mares’. You mean the baker?”

Artorius smiled and nodded. “If she is the one who first saved me from the storm. I would like to meet her, and do something to repay her for saving my life—if that is acceptable. Under whatever restrictions you see fit, of course. But I am a knight, and it would help me to feel like I had kept up my honor if I could thank her.”

Cyclone chuckled, seeming genuinely surprised at the innocence of the griffon’s request after his attempt at a parting threat. “I will make arrangements for one of my offspring to accompany you when you are well enough to walk. But do not try to flee.” Artorius’ eyes widened in shock, and the pegasus shook his head. “A griffon may outfly a pegasus in a straight line, but even if you did escape, you can hardly cross the ocean back to Dioda without supplies. And I imagine you don’t even know the right direction.” With a brief gesture toward the griffon’s bed, Cyclone concluded “Rest now. You must be tired. I’ll have some food sent up. For now, do not try to leave this room.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Though Cyclone seemed pleased to find Sirocco still waiting in the hall when he left Artorius’ chamber—one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of guest suites in the halls of Burning Hearth Castle leftover from its time as the capital of the Diamond Kingdoms—he said nothing to her as he passed. His only indication in her direction was a flick of his good wing to signal that she follow him.

The two pegasi ultimately made their way to what had once been some unicorn monarch’s parlor for card games—a room which Cyclone had converted into, for want of a better term, a map chamber. The card table had been replaced by an elaborate wooden topographical map of the lands of the former Diamond Kingdoms, stretching from Neighvgorod and Arkhayngelsk in the far north all the way down to the Castle of Midnight in the south…

Forgive me; for those who don’t know what will someday be called ‘the history of the Twilight War’, but which I would still classify as ‘current events’, the location where I lost half my face still holds a special place in empty space beside my open skull where my memories would normally be stored. (Since somepony will inevitably be wondering: the brain and the soul both store memories, albeit in very different ways. I’m cheating a bit, double-dipping in the latter to make up for the absence of the former.) The Castle of Midnight was once the fortress of Tirek, ‘The Centaur’ you hear about in foals stories and sermons. More recently, it is where the final battles of the Twilight War took place.

In more ancient and relevant history, the map on the table was a masterpiece, though far from the only notable feature of the room. When Queen Platinum I and her servants had taken what they wanted from the structure, though they saved a considerable number of portraits, they left behind the largest and most ornate picture frames—the ones too metallic and too heavy to be worth making the long and frankly dangerous trip across miles of winter wasteland on the way to Equestria’s sunnier shores. Thus, being left with dozens of elaborate empty picture frames, Cyclone had repurposed them as holders for maps of the various cities in his newfound holdings. Opposite the door to the room was a beautifully painted map of River Rock proper, while the side walls were covered with carefully but less beautifully traced charcoal diagrams of the other cities in the territory.

In the center of the room as Cyclone and Sirocco entered was a third pegasus, slightly younger than the latter of the pair. In color, he was the spitting image of Cyclone’s sister, Commander Typhoon: a lanky, middle-sized tan pegasus stallion. His mane and tail were, like hers, tri-colored in the tones of autumn leaves: brown and orange-red and a golden yellow—at least, as much as one could see it. Very much unlike Typhoon, he wore his mane so short as to make one suspect he might be going bald at the ripe young age of sixteen.

Removing a pair of reading glasses from his muzzle and stowing them on the collar of his steel lorica segmentata armor, he asked a single simple question to the approaching pegasi: “Father or Commander?”

“Both matter today, Prelate Maelstrom” Cyclone answered. “And for the time being, at least in front of our guest, it will be best to address me as ‘Emperor’.” When Maelstrom recoiled, Cyclone nodded. “I don’t like it either, but it is the least of our necessary evils today. Sirocco, shut the door.”

Cyclone, like his father before him, had embraced a certain… overt nepotism in naming officers to his highest military titles—a pattern that was not common in greater Cirran history, lest any ambitious historian infer too much from this text. Hurricane justified the practice by the (probably reasonable at the time) inference that a young Cyclone would one day succeed him, and that military leadership was far more important to a Cirran leader of that era than it had been to emperors of the older, more decadent empire. For Cyclone, the matter was more pragmatic: following his rebellion, Cyclone had two Imperators and four Praetorian Prelates before he had given the titles to his offspring. All four had died violently; half, by Cyclone’s own hoof, after failed usurpation attempts.

Family, at least as far as the history of our story, had proven both more loyal and more permanent—though it did lead to some distance between father and foals.

As Sirocco silently obeyed her father’s order, Cyclone took a seat, and then spared a moment to adjust his crippled wing so that it would lay comfortably against one of the chair’s arms. Only once he was settled, and once Sirocco had likewise had a chance to sit around the table, did the pegasus father continue. “I assume you heard about our visitor?”

“The griffon scout?” Maelstrom nodded. “The fact that you walked down the street with Blizzard’s friend and came back with a covered wagon is making quite the stir; maybe more than just admitting the griffon’s existence would. Do you think more will follow?”

“He outright told us so,” Sirocco answered. Cyclone shot his daughter a sideways glance for her speaking up so aggressively, but without the strength of condemnation he had offered in Artorius’ presence. To Sirocco, that evidently meant she had tacit permission to continue. “He claims he wants to bring another group of griffons to keep them safe from Magnus.”

“They could be spies,” Maelstrom observed.

“They’re obviously going to be spies,” Sirocco countered. “Commander… Emperor… Look, Father, permission to speak freely?”

“You didn’t seem to need it a moment ago,” Cyclone observed.

Again, Sirocco took that light chastisement as permission to continue. “I don’t know why you’re giving him the time of day. No pegasus has been back to Dioda since the Red Cloud War. And if we know he’s lying to us, it’s obviously because he’s a spy for Magnus.”

Cyclone closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “That isn’t true, Sirocco. Before you were born… It was only perhaps four, five years after ‘Hearth’s Warming’.” Cyclone spat the increasingly favored name of the holiday with all the vitriol of the villain of a foal’s rhyme-laden parable about charity. “I think you may have been a year old; your grandfather came here with Lady Celestia and…” Cyclone’s already rather negative face took on not only a deeper frown, but also seemingly ten years of age. “…nevermind.”

Maelstrom and Sirocco exchanged a glance I saw many times in my youth, shot between Gale and Tempest. While I would normally be tempted to call it a ‘universal sibling experience’, there aren’t many parents in the world like Cyclone and Hurricane, and I suspect the average potter or baker or chandler lacks the kind of dark secrets to make such an exchange common. Regardless, it was evidently common enough for Cyclone’s 2nd and 3rd foals, just as it was for Hurricane’s 3rd daughter and his grandson (and, though I haven’t confirmed it, I suspect for Cyclone himself and Typhoon, in their respective youths).

“Father had just lost his wing; the wound was still rather ugly, and whatever took it had poisoned him. They were headed to Dioda to find Luna. Celestia believed Luna would know the cure.”

“Grandfather found the goddesses by going back to Dioda?” Maelstrom frowned. “Why didn’t they help us in the Red Cloud War? Celestia and Luna, I mean. If Magnus is truly the griffon god, why didn’t they involve themselves?”

“I do not know,” Cyclone answered. “It would be a question for your grandfather. When they returned to Equestria, they did not stop in River Rock. I don’t know if what Artorius claims about Father befriending griffons is true or not, but it is hardly beyond the realm of reason.”

“Why did you lie about Grandfather being dead?” Sirocco asked.

“To protect Equestria,” Cyclone answered. “If we do allow Artorius to go back to Dioda, I want him to believe the Compact Lands are all that’s left of Cirra.”

Maelstrom cocked his head. “You believe Magnus won’t attack us here, but he would attack Equestria?”

“As Father told me, the one time he spoke on the subject, Magnus is a creature of overwhelming pride,” Cyclone answered. “Equestria would be a much more tempting target than a frozen wasteland with a starving population and virtually no resources. And if ‘Emperor Hurricane’ is dead, there are no grudges left from the war…” Cyclone chuckled to himself. “I will have to find a way to mention in passing that Iron Rain is dead.”

“Who’s Iron Rain?” Sirocco asked.

Maelstrom shook his head dismissively. “Are you illiterate, Imperator, or do the words just drain out of your ears as you go?”

Sirocco gritted her teeth at her brother. “Listen, little Prelate—”

“Enough,” Cyclone interrupted. “We are a family, not bickering senators. Shame on both of you.” Then, with a shake of his head, he turned to Sirocco. “Iron Rain was my mentor in swordsmareship, a lifetime ago. But more importantly, if the story she tells is true, she is the only pony besides your grandfather to have survived facing Magnus in combat.”

Both younger ponies gasped. “Grandfather fought Magnus?!”

Cyclone snorted heavily and smiled just a little—it was as close a noise as the stallion seemed to allow himself to actually laughing. “If the story can be trusted, yes—I’m sure you’re both imagining all the stories the other legionaries tell about him bucking bolts of lightning and walking through dragon fire, but this isn’t like that. Even the parts of those stories that are true are from after we came here, and pegasus magic became more than a Nyxian mercenary’s secret. He was just a rank-and-file centurion, and the battle was just a chance meeting. And even then, he would have been slaughtered if it weren’t for your grandmother, Swift Spear, and his friend Silver Sword coming to save the day.”

Maelstrom nodded. “So if Magnus believes both Grandfather and this Iron Rain to be dead, and Cirra to be just a bunch of frozen cities on the verge of collapsing, you’re sure that’s a good enough reason for him not to care about us?”

“I hope,” Cyclone answered. “I can only hope. If the griffons do come, we can't fight them without Equestria’s help. And I can’t be sure they will come. So we have to do everything we can to appear beneath Magnus’ notice.”

Standing up, Cyclone made his way over to a cupboard set just below one of the maps on the wall. From one of its drawers, he retrieved a sheet of parchment and an inkwell. Combined with a red feather plucked from his bad wing, it gave him a complete writing set. He set the parchment on a particularly flat plain of the topographical map table and, demonstrating a somewhat frightening skill at multitasking, began to write as he continued to speak to his foals.

“Maelstrom, I’m entrusting Artorius into your custody. You should be better able to deal with him if he suddenly takes flight than I can with my bad wing.”

“What difference would it make, if he’s confined to the palace?” Maelstrom asked.

“He isn’t,” Cyclone answered. “When he’s well enough to walk, you’re to take him back to the bakery where Blizzard’s friend lives… you know the place, by the docks? Let him see the rest of the city too—closely supervised, though.”

Maelstrom’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “What? Commander, with respect, why?”

“Because we want him to see River Rock is half-starved and falling apart,” Sirocco answered with more than a hint of snideness. “It would be weird if we just told him that; nopony talks that bad about their own land even if it’s true. Maybe books just tell you everything, but that’s not how real life works. Like most things you read in books.”

Maelstrom rolled his eyes. “I see. What should I do to ensure his wanderings don’t expose the existence of Equestria?”

“You are my Praetorian Prelate,” Cyclone answered. “Direct your troops ahead of you, and have them give strict orders to whoever Artorius is going to speak to. And if necessary, lie to him. You’re a creative colt, Maelstrom. But I doubt there will be much risk; our weather century expects the storm to last another few days, if not into next week. Ponies aren’t likely to be out for chance encounters.”

“As you command,” Maelstrom replied, hesitantly. “I’m not certain if I’m confident in risking him catching wind of the truth on what three ponies are guessing about the weather.”

“You sure you want him watching a griffon?” Sirocco puffed up her scrawny teenage shoulders: it should be noted she had quite the defined musculature for a mare her age, but she was a far cry from an intimidating presence, especially compared to Cyclone. “We all know I’m the best fighter.”

“Your fire magic is the strongest we have,” Cyclone agreed. “Besides mine. But you also have two working wings, and aren’t forbidden on pain of death from entering Equestria. Which is why I have a special task for you.” Looking up from his writing, Cyclone left his plucked feather sitting in the inkwell. With a hoof and his good wing, he swiftly folded his parchment into thirds. “Sirocco, I need you to take this letter to Everfree City, and deliver it to your grandfather. We can’t wait for the weather to break, so you will need to light your wings on fire and fly straight through. Stop for nopony. Do not reveal the existence of the letter.”

“Relax, Father. I’m the best flier in the Compact Lands too.”

Cyclone snorted in humor. “You remind me of Typhoon.” Then, shaking his head, he shed the slight hint of that good humor and let his hair face turn serious again. “Do not pass this off to anypony else. Not your aunt, not one of her soldiers, not even Celestia or Luna. And not your older sister.”

“Half-sister,” Maelstrom noted spitefully.

Sirocco was even less forgiving. “Not even that. Blizzard betrayed us. She isn’t family anymore. I hope that unicorn asshole is as bad to her as he was to Aunt Gale.”

For those who have forgotten, it was in River Rock, perhaps a month and change prior to these discussions, that I had first revealed—accidentally—that I knew Gale’s true identity as Princess Platinum III. I… was not the most diplomatic in delivering that revelation. And Gale did not exactly take it well.

Cyclone seemed to age even further in front of his foals, his military posture and restrained expressions cracking under the strain of something like shame or regret. “I made a mistake once too. She’s still family. But you are to deliver this directly to your grandfather.”

The return of her father’s tone from fatherly regret to stark, cold command struck Sirocco, and she nodded decisively. “I understand, sir.”

“He will give you a reply to bring back to me,” Cyclone explained. “The same rules apply. Nopony else reads it, nopony else carries it. You are welcome to stay in Everfree City as long as you need to recover from the flight. I do not want you to wear yourself out and get lost, especially on the trip back with the storm at the end of the flight. But don’t stay longer than you feel you need.”

“Will she need to be worried about how Grandfather will receive her?” Maelstrom asked. “Given what you tried to warn Blizzard about before she left?”

Cyclone shook her head. “Your mother wasn’t involved in my rebellion the way Blizzard’s mother was. If Blizzard was able to find a welcome in Everfree, Sirocco will be fine. And even if not, my father will understand that this message is more important than any differences he and I may still have.”

Sirocco frowned. “What difference does some griffon make? They’ve abandoned us our whole lives. We’ve only met Grandfather, what, twice? And Aunt Typhoon has never even come to meet us once.”

“Typhoon has her reasons not to come back to River Rock,” Cyclone muttered, almost more to himself than his daughter. “More of my mistakes. I can’t fault her.”

“If anything you’ve ever said about family is true, Father, they don’t care about us.” Sirocco took the letter from the table and tucked it into her armor. “I’ll fulfill my mission as you command, sir. But I won’t waste time trying to reconcile with them.”

Cyclone hung his head just a bit, but he did give her a nod. “Tell Blizzard I love her. And I love you, my daughter. Fly safe, Sirocco.”

“If it were safe, you wouldn’t need to send me,” Sirocco answered by way of parting, before (rather awkwardly) adding “But, uh, I love you too, sir.”

Once Sirocco was gone, Maelstrom looked thoughtfully at his father. “If I may ask, sir, what are you going to do?”

“I need to learn how to fight griffons, in case this does come to war.”

“You don’t know?”

“You forget, Prelate: I was born here, in the Compact Lands. Some ponies say I was the first Cirran not born on Cirran soil. Artorius is the first griffon I have ever met. And by the time I was old enough to lead a century, let alone the entire Legion, Cirra was more concerned with crystals and dragons than griffons.” Cyclone rolled his neck, and then shook his head. “There’s no reason for me to keep secrets. When I was your age, I dreamed of making a name for myself, separate from my father, by returning to Dioda and reconquering Cirra. Father refused to even speak of the idea, but there were other veterans of the Red Cloud War who were more sympathetic. Blizzard’s mother Summer. Rust Shot. But only one of them was old enough to have held a command in the war and is still alive: Thunder Hawk.”

Maelstrom frowned. “I’ve heard those other names before, but I don’t recognize Thunder Hawk.”

“I may have been the leader of the rebellion, but Thunder Hawk was in many ways its architect. Where I had respect and talent and ambition, he had the cunning and influence to make the arrangements we needed quietly. When we believed your grandfather was dead on his journey searching for new lands, and we set our plans into motion, I tasked him with arresting your grandmother and your great aunt. His attempt failed, and your grandmother died resisting him. I haven’t spoken to him since. He was spared to exile along with me. I think he lives in Emerald Orchard, or what’s left of it..”

Maelstrom nodded. “Will you be taking an entourage? I can arrange some of the Praetorian to guard you—”

Cyclone shook his head and chuckled. “Son, I’m scarier than anything in the wilderness. I’d much rather all your legionaries stay here in case anything goes wrong. I’m entrusting the city to you.”

“And my siblings?”

“Bliz—” Cyclone winced. “Yes, that’s right. She’s gone now. Can you—?”

“With respect, speaking to you as my father and not my commanding officer: I can manage the defenses of a city and a disciplined command structure of legionaries, and personally babysit a griffon who may be a scout for a hostile enemy force, or I can focus my attention on a dozen and a half foals who have no respect for my command whatsoever. But I cannot do both. And given my marks are legion banners and not… I don’t know, foals balls or bottles or something, I think we both know which option I prefer.”

“You’re right.” Cyclone sighed and rubbed a hoof down the length of his face. “Do you have any ideas?”

“No… ” Maelstrom chuckled. “Have fewer foals? I don’t suppose you’re beginning to regret the one-night stands or the poisonings and stabbings?”

Cyclone was not amused. “Believe it or not, son, I don’t find the whispers on the streets amusing. The last thing I need is my own flesh and blood spreading those lies. But since I apparently must say it aloud: I loved your mother. And I loved Rampart after her. And as for the rest, you of all ponies know I’m too damn busy trying to keep order in this frozen hellscape to have time to father many bastards. To say nothing of how stupid I would be to kill parents to steal their foals. But they were orphaned by my mistakes, and I won’t let them freeze. Or be eaten. So now they are my foals.”

Maelstrom’s ears dropped. “I know, Father. I’m sorry… The orphans—” Those words too gave way when Cyclone glared. “Well, what do you want me to say? I can’t just call them ‘my siblings’; I’d be including Blizzard and Sirocco and—”

“The younger ones are no different than Blizzard and Sirocco,” Cyclone insisted. “Blizzard doesn’t share the same mother as you and Sirocco, after all.”

“No…” muttered Maelstrom glumly. “But at least you’re our real father.”

Maelstrom’s nostrils flared at the smell of smoke in the room, and then apparently knowingly, he responded by hanging his head and squeezing his eyes closed. For a moment, the room sat in silence. Maelstrom was sure he would have heard his father move; Cyclone was many things a warrior would strive to be, but quiet was not among them.

Then heavy hooffalls marked the grown stallion walking toward the door. The old unicorn door creaked on its hinges to make way for the castle’s conqueror. In the doorway, Cyclone stopped. “Since you clearly need a reminder of the importance of family, son, I know you’ll find a way to look after your siblings. Personally.”

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