• 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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I - II

The Noble

Along the way from Celestia’s bedroom to the elaborate manor-home that was our destination, I peppered Gale with questions on the nature of Equestria’s insane compromise of a political system. Rather than regale you a word-by-word retelling of her answers, complete with copious swearing (an analogy proposing the three races as stallions fighting over more preferable orifices on a mare’s anatomy, including a novel use of the phrase ‘earth pony brown’, stands out in my memory), I’ll simply summarize what actually matters to you, dear reader, about how Equestria worked before a singular monarchy took over.

Once upon a time, six leaders had an idea for a new nation; you know them from everypony’s least favorite winter story.

Well, really five of them had the idea; Smart Cookie was far too interested in establishing… strong international relations with Queen Jade of the Crystal Union. But we’ll get to him later.

It’s one thing for a group of influential ponies to put aside their mutual racist hatreds, though, and quite another to actually set down a new government. Even after the windigo threat and its fallout were dealt with, the three heads of the tribes still had to get support from their subordinates.

For Hurricane, it was easiest. Having saved the entirety of his nation and his pegasi twice at that point, Hurricane was practically a living god amongst the Cirran pegasi (much to his own discomfort). He could all-but dictate terms to anypony he pleased, and the Cirran senate would not dare to object; an open fight with Hurricane, even over a minor matter, was a quick way to lose re-election.

Chancellor Puddinghead had it a bit harder; he had quite the opposite problem of Hurricane, as the Parliament of the Low Valleys viewed him with roughly the same respect afforded a brightly colored ball of navel lint, perhaps scraped off a patchwork jester’s tunic. However, in some regards the earth ponies were also easy to manipulate; because political power in the Low Valleys flowed from the cinch-strings of a purse, Puddinghead had only to show off a few of the gemstones gathered from the untapped hills of Equestria, and a few samples of rich dark soil, and the representatives of his Parliament were practically trampling over one another in their desire to establish Equestria.

Young Queen Platinum I, though, had it the worst. As you surely know from the pageant, Gale’s mother departed on the expedition to find the new land that would become Equestria as Princess Platinum, and so upon returning to the Diamond Kingdoms (plural, despite the singular monarch, for historical reasons you don’t care about and I don’t want to summarize), her first grim duty was to bury her late father, King Lapis IV. Stricken by grief and not fully trained in the art of politics, Platinum found herself in a terrible place; for while the power of the pegasi flowed from military might and respect, and the power of the earth ponies (Puddinghead’s absurd persistence as their Chancellor notwithstanding) flowed from coin, power amongst the unicorns flowed from blood and from loyalty. And while there was no doubt of Platinum’s legitimacy in the first matter, she had (much like Gale) devoted little time building up the latter.

Thus, when this newly minted Queen turned to her noble lords and ladies for their support, the so-called ‘Stable of Nobles’ demanded concessions of power in return: land, resources, and privileges. The list Gale rattled off made my head spin, and you needn’t care about them all in-depth here; this isn’t a course text, and there won’t be a test. What does matter is the biggest of the offerings to which Platinum was forced to cave in to in order to create Equestria…

Equestria in those early days had three ‘bodies’ of government. The most famous, of course, was the Triumvirate: one representative of each race. At first, they were Platinum, Hurricane, and Puddinghead. By that summer day when Gale and I ventured out to meet her suitors, Hurricane had retired to give rise to his eldest daughter, Gale’s elder half-sister Typhoon. The Triumvirate had massive power in premise, most especially over Equestria’s foreign relations, the division of its lands between the races, and so forth. But, though it might surprise you, the Triumvirate did not actually make laws to govern Equestria itself; they merely issued ‘edicts’, which could be overridden by the other bodies of the government (though this was rare to the point of being nearly unheard of).

Lawmaking power belonged to a pair of lower bodies: the Parliament and the Senate—bodies taken from the earth ponies and pegasi respectively, though both changed substantially from their historical single-race forms. In short summary: all of Equestria voted for parties in the Parliament, and seats would be assigned to parties based upon their proportion of the total votes. Every seat, therefore, represented ‘all of Equestria’. The Senate, meanwhile, consisted of ponies who directly represented the ponies in Equestria’s domains. These domains were much smaller than the domains we have at the time of writing, usually consisting of a town or city and a few surrounding miles of countryside. Domains received senators based on their population, though with the exception of a few major cities (Everfree, Lubuck, etc.) almost all the new domains were sparsely populated enough to be allotted only a pair of senators.

There’s a reason the divisions are called ‘domains’ though; you see, for hundreds of years, under the overall rule of their kings and queens, unicorn nobles ruled duchies and baronies and other little chunks of land they collectively called desmenses - a word which is pronounced ‘domain’ for ponies who haven’t taken the silver spoon that emerged from their mouth, melted it down, and used it to coat their snooty tongues. In a world of democratic representation, these nobles would lose almost all of their power… but with young Platinum over a barrel in need of their support to bring Equestria kicking and screaming into the world, they weren’t so ready to give up that power. So, as a stipulation of lending their resources to the new nation, they demanded land of their own to, at least locally, rule.

The mare behind this brilliant plan to subvert an otherwise delightful governmental system (well, if you’re a believer in representative democracy; I think the history books make my stance as a monarchist quite clear) was the same mare in whose sitting room I found my hind quarters planted.

Gale’s first suitor was His Grace, High Castle, Duke of the Western Territories of the unicorns that would one day play home to the city of Vanhoover. Don’t let the title (or any other history you might have heard) fool you, though; Castle liked to play at the role of a powerful politician, but he was really a nineteen year old snob who lived with his mother, from whom he had clearly either inherited, genetically or otherwise, his snobbery. Even when the Crown Princess and I came to knock on their door, their butler’s butler (yes, really) made us sit in the waiting room until both nobles were presentable.

It was his mother, the Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, who actually single-hoofedly ruined the political system of early Equestria. I suspect by the end of this chapter you may understand why, when young mages bring up the age old philosophical question of who to use time travel magic to assassinate in order to make the modern day better, rather than proposing a popular choice like Chrysalis the Changeling Queen or King Sombra (or I suppose now Luna, may her acne blight her ass for ten thousand years), Chrysoprase is the mare I name.

As we waited to be graced with the presence of Chrysoprase and Castle, Gale and I were served mimosas in thin glasses and invited to enjoy ourselves. I suspect I might have been more comfortable if I hadn’t been forbidden from using my horn to hold the glass; instead, I got to awkwardly fumble with the thin stemmed glass as Gale daintily sipped her orange juice; I suspect instead the effect I gave off was more of a foal stubbornly trying to balance an egg on its head.

“And the earth ponies and pegasi went along with that?” I asked as I delicately applied a coat of orange dye to the front of my coat, and then shifted my weight to hide the fact that I had stained the expensive couch of these nobles I hadn’t even met yet with mimosa.

“Well, sort of. Dad could have put his hoof down and just dictated terms. He didn’t want to, because tons of pegasi would have starved without the earth pony food supply… but the Legion would have crushed mom’s knights and Puddinghead’s mercenaries if it came to that. Instead, he realized it would be a lot easier for everypony to band together and compromise. It was his idea—or probably actually my aunt Twister's, but he’s the one who forced it down everypony’s throats—that there would be more titles for nobles, and some of them would be given to the earth ponies and the pegasi, and they would still have responsibilities for local law enforcement, tax collection, that sort of thing. Same deal with the earth ponies; the parliament and senate would be responsible for making laws for all of Equestria, but all three races could vote. The earth ponies still have a bit of an advantage because they have the largest population, but that doesn’t cause as many problems as you think.”

“What about the pegasi?”

“Well, in theory he opened the Legion up to all the species.”

In theory? I mean, I haven’t met any soldiers who aren’t pegasi, but—”

“There’s more than you think if you look for them patrolling the streets; you just managed to make a huge enough disaster fighting Wintershimmer that you jumped to the top of Typhoon’s agenda. And it’s not like non-pegasi can keep up with her personal guard flying halfway across the country. But that’s not really an issue either. The real problem is that the commanders are all still pegasi.”

A distinctly soured voice warbled into the salon from its sole doorway. “An astute summary, given you weren’t even born when it was a problem major enough to be causing riots in the streets, your highness.” The mare who entered was a wrinkled green nag who you could tell, just at a glance, had a heart that was two sizes two small and a fashion budget at least three sizes too large, if four seasons out of fashion.

Beside the luxuriously dressed older mare was a colt about our age, with a muted powder blue coat under a mustard yellow vest. His posture as he entered the room suggested he had recently received a prostate massage with a steel girder, and he immediately approached Gale before extending a hoof, frog up, in her direction. Gale looked at it with obvious disgust for at least six seconds of painful awkwardness before placing her own forehoof shoe down atop it, and allowing him to kiss it gently. “Your Highness, it’s a delightful surprise to have you visit us. Are you here to take me up on my invitation for dinner?”

“Dinner? It’s barely fu—” Gale winced, and caught herself. Then, to my surprise, she donned her much more formal pronunciation. “It is barely even past time for breakfast, Duke Castle; I’m afraid I can’t stay long enough for it to be time for dinner, let alone to sit down and eat it. I’m just dropping off a letter.” Then she turned and nodded to the older mare. “Aunt Chrysoprase. It’s good to see you.”

“And you as well, Your Highness.” Chrysoprase dipped her head gracefully. “Even if it’s only for a moment.”

I suspect that the Grand Duchess might have had something else to add, perhaps in my direction, but her son beat her to the punch. “I’m afraid I haven’t made your companion’s acquaintance; is this a new fashion of servant’s jackets, or—”

Servant?” I asked pointedly. Gale opened her mouth to answer, but Chrysoprase beat her to it.

“It may not be as long or elaborate as you’re used to seeing on Archmage Star Swirl, my son, but that is in fact a wizard’s jacket. When I was younger than any of you young ponies, I remember Archmage Wintershimmer wearing its spitting image, addressing the late King Lapis.” She then fully turned her eyes on me. “Do I assume correctly that this makes you the young wizard all the newspapers and criers were on about a few weeks ago? What was it… Mortal Coil?”

I couldn’t deny it; her introduction did me justice. I rose from my couch and gave a short bow by way of introduction. “Coil the Immortal, in the flesh.”

The elder mare extended a hoof toward me, frog-down. I knew exactly what she wanted, and just wasn’t inclined to offer it, but to my benefit, my choice to respond by raising one eyebrow was interpreted as confusion instead of incredulity. She removed the lifted hoof as she spoke up. “In the event Princess Platinum hasn’t explained it to you already, I am Grand Duchess Chrysoprase of Oxfjord, Chair of the Stable of Nobles. This is my son, High Castle, the Duke of the Western Territories and I suspect, based on Her Highness' presence here, her foremost suitor. And, if my intuition serves well, that might just be the subject of your letter, Your Highness?”

Gale sighed and hefted the offending parchment in a glowing magical grip. “Castle, this is an invitation to my birthday party.”

A look of surprise splashed over Castle’s face like ice water, though like a polar bear it brought a smile to his muzzle rather than a scowl. “I’m flattered, Your Highness, and I will be glad to attend.”

Chrysoprase gestured her son toward the unoccupied couch opposite where Gale and I were sitting. Both mother and son sat with a posture that would make a gargoyle envious, and I found myself wondering why they bothered owning cushioned furniture if they were so afraid to be in physical contact with it. The elder of the pair spoke up once she was settled, first to a butler I previously hadn’t noticed. “I understand her highness has a refined palate for wine; you will fetch the thirty-eight Roanmorantin.” Then she turned back to Gale. “Remind me, Your Highness, is this your ascension year?”

“I’ll be eighteen, yes,” Gale replied with a nod. “And we’ve just had champagne.” From where I was sitting, it was obvious how hard the next words for Gale to force out, just as it was painfully obvious that they were a bold-faced lie. “I don’t think I should have any more to drink so early. Even if it is a distinguished vintage. Perhaps some other time?”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “My apologies. Look at you, Princess; growing up and gaining such a sense of responsibility.” I imagine most ponies could not fit more condescension into their voice if they tried. “And soon you shall be old enough to take on royal authority.” The substantially elder mare chuckled. “I might have sworn just last year we heard you take your vows, and now here you are.”

I turned to Gale, raising my shoulders in confusion. “Wait… I thought the whole point of this ‘suitors birthday’ exercise was to figure out who you’re going to marry. You’ve already taken vows?”

“Not wedding vows.” Gale huffed once through her nostrils, the most irritation she was willing to show. “They’re called ‘inheritance’ vows.”

“Fifteen is the age of ‘inheritance’ in the noble line, and a sacred tradition for the House of the Rising Sun,” explained Duchess Chrysoprase. When I raised a brow, she clarified. “Ah, the term isn’t used as much as our House of Gullion or one of the other great noble houses, but the ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is the formal name for the royal line, owing to our descent from Lady Celestia.”

Our?” I asked as I reached out my hooves for what remained of my beverage. Unfortunately, fumbling hooves and my attention being on the elder of our hosts meant that a moment later, the delicate glassware was shattered on the floor. “Oh, I’m sorry!”

Chrysoprase frowned, and her green magic lifted a little bell that rang just once. From around the room, no fewer than three uniformed servants appeared to clean up the mess of my spill.

“Tell me, Princess,” asked High Castle, breaking his mother’s silence. “Is your companion merely an imbecile, or has he forgotten he is a unicorn?”

I gritted my teeth to keep from expressing how I really felt to High Castle, and mercifully in that moment of restraint Gale interrupted on my behalf. “Morty injured his horn saving Equestria, and so he’s on strict doctor’s orders not to use his magic for a short time. I do apologize for the spill, but then I doubt any of us would be very graceful, if forced to use our hooves.”

“Of course not,” agreed Chrysoprase. “And we are grateful to the service Mage Coil has rendered our nation.” Then she forcibly elbowed her son with perhaps less subtlety than I would have expected of the mare… unless being too obvious was itself a front she was putting on.

It took High Castle folding back his ears and wrinkling his brow to force out the words “My apologies” in my direction, but he did eventually deliver them. By the time he was done, the servants had left us, and we were once again quietly sitting.

“You need not concern yourself with replacing it,” Chrysoprase added once Castle had spoken, as though the idea of paying had even crossed my mind. “It may be our finest crystal ware for her highness’ pleasure, but the House of Gullion has found great wealth in the riches of Equestria, and it will be a trivial thing to replace it.” Then she smiled at me. “You had been curious about why I claimed ‘our’ descent from Lady Celestia, I believe, before we were interrupted?”

I hated how much control she forced over the flow of the conversation, but even more I hated that she stopped and waited for me to acknowledge where we had left off. I gave her only a small nod and she began to speak again. “My standing as the head of the House of Gullion supersedes my place in the royal line, but I stand behind Her Highness as third in line to throne. Queen Platinum is my cousin.” Chrysoprase’s horn lit up in vibrant emerald, briefly adjusting her mane, and perhaps slightly massaging her temples as she continued. “When an heir to any of the noble houses, but especially the Royal Line, reaches the age of fifteen, they are recognized in a ceremony that involves a series of vows.” Then she donned a grin somewhere between teasing and predatory. “Perhaps Her Highness still remembers hers?”

“Of course,” Gale replied bitterly. After a moment of ensuing silence, she scowled. “You really want me to do this? Right now?”

“Would you rather I claim that you’ve already forgotten our most sacred vows, and challenge your legitimacy, before you even have a chance to ascend?” Chrysoprase’s tone, despite the threat, was delivered as good-natured teasing. It should be noted, however, that this does not mean its intentions were actually in good fun, nor good-natured; they merely sounded that way. It fooled me at the time, and given the political inclinations of the other ponies in the room, I suspect the delivery may have been for my… ‘benefit’.

Gale once more slipped into her formal pronunciation again—albeit delivered at a swift clip. “I recognize the legitimacy of my mother. I swear never to challenge her rule. I vow to take up the throne so that it—” Chrysoprase’s brow twitched into the absolute smallest hint of a frown, and Gale sighed. “the ‘yoke’ of rule is never left uncarried. If you insist I do it word for word we’re going to be here forever, Aunt. “We do have other things to do today.”

“The metaphor of the ‘yoke’ is incredibly important. You should not mock it.”

“It’s not going to mean shit—” Gale gritted her teeth and sucked in a breath as Chrysoprase’s brow fell just a hair’s width in her only show of reaction. “I promise you, Morty has not read The Seventeen Days on the Mountaintop. I’m keeping it simple.”

The elder mare chuckled. “Alright, I will concede that point, Your Highness.”

“I swear to furnish an heir for the Royal Line, worthy of that authority, so that the yoke never gets ‘put down’. I accept that my right to rule is given as divine favor, and if I lose my favor, I will abdicate the throne and allow a worthy successor to replace me. I accept my own mortality, and will take no action to preserve my life or my rule beyond my years.”

I scoffed, which earned me a swift glare, but it was Gale’s punch to my leg that saved everypony an earful. Without even looking at me, she continued “Should my deeds on the throne drive Equestria to ruin, should my arrogance reverse the fortunes of our proud nation, or should my rule give rise to any great atrocity, I swear to surrender my life to the masses in recompense. I shall remember the deeds of the Five Wise Kings and the stories of those who came before me, that I might honor my bloodline and carry our history as a gift, instead of facing the curse of watching it rewritten before me. With these oaths, I do pledge myself to the Platinum Throne.”

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, who until that moment might as well have been trapped in resin, twitched her brow just once. “The Diamond Throne.”

“The Diamond Throne is still in River Rock,” Gale answered, and I got the sense she was working very hard to suppress a grin when she added “The last time I saw it, my half-brother was still sitting in it.”

Until that moment Chrysoprase had been utterly stoic in expression. After that moment she snapped into a full scowl. “If you want the support of the Stable of Nobles in your rule, Princess Platinum, you would be very wise to disown that monster, and keep your reminders that he shares your blood to yourself.”

High Castle set a hoof on his mother’s shoulder. “Mother, gentle; I am sure Princess Platinum didn’t mean to imply a familial bond with the Betrayer. Nevertheless, she has Hurricane’s blood, through no fault of her own.”

Gale closed her eyes and just stared into darkness for a very painfully long moment. It let High Castle enough time to turn to me and raise an eyebrow, as if he honestly didn’t comprehend what was wrong. I, hoping not to offend him, replied with a forced smile.

I suspect that made things worse.

“Thank you for the advice, Grand Duchess,” Gale finally said, allowing her eyes to open and donning a much better forced smile than I can produce even now (though missing at least half the muscles and skin required for such an expression doesn’t help). She reached back to her side with a hoof, tapping the satchel she wore slung over her shoulder. “It’s been a delight to visit with you two today and teach my friend here a bit about noble customs, but I’m afraid I should be on my way.”

High Castle’s eyes flicked to the bag at Gale’s side and took note of the other letters within. “Ah. I take it my would-be competitors will also be attending, then?”

Yes, Duke,” said Gale in her ‘Princess Platinum’ pronunciation. “Much as I am certain we could find some way to keep entertained, it would hardly be much of a party with just one guest.”

High Castle chuckled. “Then I will simply have to be more charming for it. Tell me, Your Highness, is there anything in particular you’d like? Or should I surprise you?”

I cocked my head. “Are you two being that forward, or am I missing something?”

Both Castle and Chrysoprase shot me glares, but it was Gale who chuckled. “I can’t speak to Duke Castle’s intentions, but I had assumed he was asking about a birthday present.”

“You assume correctly, Your Majesty,” Castle noted, though he refused to break off his glare at me to look her way as he spoke.

“A what?” I asked.

This time, I got three strange looks, but none of them were especially spiteful.

“A birthday present?” High Castle half-clarified, half-asked. “A gift given in celebration of one’s birthday…”

“Is this some sort of tradition reserved for royalty, then?” I pressed. “I don’t think Wintershimmer ever gave Queen Jade anything, but maybe that was just because he didn’t respect her.”

Gale turned to me and completely dropped her regal pronunciation. “Did your parents never… right.”

“Is he an orphan?” Castle asked.

“I assume my parents are still alive somewhere,” I answered. “But Wintershimmer may as well have been my father. I became his apprentice when I was three.”

“Ah.” Chrysoprase chuckled. “I was fairly young when your surrogate father was still welcome in the court at River Rock, but even with what little I got to know of him, I can imagine he wasn’t the kind of pony who indulged in celebration.”

“Or he had some horrible version of birthday traditions just to ruin your ability to talk to anypony else. At least, if his wine glasses were anything to go by.” Gale and I shared a brief chuckle, much to the confusion of our hosts. “Morty, on a friend or family member’s birthday, it’s traditional to give them a gift. That’s really all there is to it.”

“Oh… stars, I had no idea!”

In response to my worry, High Castle scoffed. “You need not worry, mage; nopony expects anything of you. Unless you think you will be attending the party as Her Highness’ suitor… though I don’t recognize the family ‘Coil’.”

At once, all three of us present tried to answer him. My eye twitched in abject disgust at how spitefully he used the better half of my full name. Gale, nervously, stumbled as her tongue searched for some denial, perhaps worried that he suspected our plot already.

Chrysoprase, however, seized the initiative with calm, firm words. “I doubt the young mage is even eligible.” She nodded toward me to explain when I raised a brow. “Not just anypony can be Prince-Consort of the unicorns, Mortal.” If there is a name I detest more than any other, it is my given forename, yet I barely had time to even wince as the Grand Duchess carried on, obviously noticing and even more obviously not caring about my displeasure. “Foremost, I doubt you will easily find a sponsor, given that Wintershimmer is no more. But even if you won somepony’s favor, the Princess’ suitors are the scions of the highest lineages in our society; heroes might rise up from a common bloodline from time to time, as you surely know, but on the scale of history, blood never lies.”

I found myself gritting my teeth. “What is ‘as you surely know’ supposed to mean?”

A look of momentary hesitance crossed Chrysoprase’s features, though it quickly gave way to that same belittling tone. “I was under the impression that all young mages learned about the Five Wise Kings.”

“I probably know more about them than you do,” I answered pointedly, and finally managed to score a blow when a furrow appeared in her powdered brow. “I fail to see what they have to say about the value of bloodlines, given they belonged to at least three separate dynasties.”

I must have stepped into her trap, though I didn’t understand it at the moment, when she broke a small smile. “Our family is the House of Gullion, Mortal. We trace our lineage through a chain of firstborn foals stretching back to King Amethyst.”

Coil,” I corrected sharply.

With unfathomable ‘grace’, Chrysoprase nodded her head. “My apologies. But perhaps you see where I am going. If not, let me give you a more relevant example: Archmage Star Swirl was born to the House of Zodiac, the descendants of King Electrum the All-Seer. You likely know that Archmage Clover is his granddaughter; two excellent examples of a noble bloodline producing ponies above the common standard. And we need look no further than your late mentor for a perfect counterexample. He had all the same opportunities as Star Swirl, did he not? They shared even the same teacher, as I recall. Their only difference was their bloodline.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Wintershimmer was an incredibly powerful wizard.”

“Indeed. But he was precisely the opposite of noble. Deceitful, cruel, greedy, ambitious beyond his station… He sided with the crystal barbarians above his own tribe, and is it not true he tried to kill Lady Celestia for her divinity?”

“You think Wintershimmer was evil because he was born poor?” I rolled my eyes. “Oh, alms for the poor; be careful, if you don’t they might put out the sun, instead of using that power to make a living.

“Mind how you address your betters, wizard,” High Castle warned me, leaning across the coffee table between us and thrusting his hoof into my shoulder to turn me away from the elder of the two nobles.

I briefly lit my horn, only intending enough telekinesis to thrust the offending limb back to the ground, but the pain of the magic coursing through my horn stopped any hint of a spell short. Instead, I swatted the limb aside with my own, took a step back, and brushed my jacket off from whatever slime the noble parasite might have left on the fabric. “Ah, I’m sorry. It’s so easy to forget. In my mind, the fact that I literally saved Celestia’s life would carry a bit of weight here, but of course you pretentious, inbred, ignoble fossils are my ‘betters’.” Then I rolled my neck and met High Castle’s gaze, glare for glare. “If you want, we can see whose existence has any value to society—”

“Morty!” Gale interrupted, grabbing my shoulder from behind and hauling me back onto the couch. The stitches in my neck ached from the tug, and when my vision focused, my face was only perhaps an inch away from Gale’s. “Don’t say anything. Just go outside while I finish a polite discussion amongst nobleponies.”

“Gale, he—”

Go!” she shouted. “You fu—” Hesitation stole the word mid-yell, and then I watched Gale’s face contort like a foal forcing down a bite of an unwanted vegetable. “Listen, you… you smug, insufferable… crystal half-breed!” The pauses in her phrasing stole much of the momentum from the barb, but she still knew me well enough to dig deep. I caught the hint of her more formal accent slipping in as she visibly forced herself to continue, though anger at the unwarranted attack on my birth meant that I wasn’t quite calm enough to follow it’s meaning. “I may consider you a fu… a friend, but that is not an excuse to address your betters so… brashly. You may take a moment to learn your place outside… and I shall come collect you when I am finished here.”

I huffed. “If that’s how you feel.” I could feel myself shaking as I stood up to leave. I didn’t bother saying any sort of goodbye, either to Gale or my hosts. At least I refrained from stomping, though there is a certain click of hooves making a show of a swift gait that I would later learn was just as telling of one’s mood.

Over my shoulder, High Castle spoke in what I can only assume was intended to be a stage whisper. “Perhaps you might keep your pet home until he’s broken in, Your Highness.”

Gale answered fully in the swing of her royal diction. “Yes, well… when one grows up in the Crystal Union—” Then the doors to the manor swung shut behind me, at the horn of yet another otherwise unseen servant, and the rest of the thought was lost.

Outside, I paced past Chrysoprase’s elaborate gardens and birdbaths and out her brick and wrought iron walls to find a street lined on both sides with similar (though less elaborate) manors in the same style. Though I didn’t know Ridge Street’s name, I did recognize it for one particularly familiar manor four doors down the road. For those who’ve read my former narrative, the fact that my predecessor Solemn Vow’s ‘haunted’ manor sat alongside such wealthy noble company probably comes as little surprise.

In the moment, to me, it was a distraction—and a welcome one at that. Remembering wandering nervously through those halls with my friends just a few short weeks earlier took my mind off of my gritted teeth, and I found myself meandering down the street in that direction.

I’m still not sure whether the late Baron Vow had enchanted the front door to open to anypony, or if we had some special link in common, or perhaps just that that animus controlling the door could see I was ready to smash something and flung itself open out of fear, but nothing stopped me from stepping into the dusty sitting room at the front of the home. Sheets were flung over the furniture, and a clingy film of white powder covered all the walls and features overhead. I don’t recall if the chandelier lit itself with an orange aura that almost simulated flickering flame on my former visit, but it did that day. What the light showed me were the hoofprints of my friends and I. Three sets of hooves… and of course, Graargh’s grizzly cub pawprints. I could just picture how painful it would be when the little changeling tackled me with fuzzy forelegs. He always gave the strongest hugs.

Losing myself in those memories just a few weeks old, took the edge off of my feelings of raw betrayal enough to think straight. I should have known better, in retrospect, as you probably realized immediately dear reader. Gale would never say the things she said and mean them, so she must have been lying. Once I came to that conclusion, it was altogether too obvious why.

Mid-epiphany, I heard Gale call out “Morty!” behind me, standing in Vow’s open doorway. I let my shoulders rise and fall once before I turned around.

Gale was a wreck. She was trying to hold it in, but honestly that only made her look the worse. She was too angry to cry, too broken down to fight. Her legs were shaking like they were struggling to hold up her weight, and her neck certainly couldn’t lift her head. Either that, or she couldn’t bear to look me in the eye.

“I’m sorry…” she whimpered.

I’ve seen Gale both enraged to the verge of spontaneous combustion and broken down to tears (at least one case of each being my own fault). Nevertheless, this was her lowest point. No tears, no cursing. Just shuddering. I rushed over to her side, kicking up more than a bit of dust in the process, and pulled her into the long abandoned sitting room. There, we sat, side by side, as I held her with both forelegs and tried my best to support here.

And then, as you probably already have dear reader, I finally got over my own offense enough to put it together. Gale would never say those things—not just because I thought she was a better friend to me, but because Gale’s first instinct reacting to somepony she was mad at would be to find the single foulest attack she could manage; not to dig up their past and wave it around with a proper noble accent. Her hesitations, her stumbling over her words, were because she was putting on an uncomfortable persona.

“Are you okay?” I asked first, because sometimes trying to be sensitive can lead a young pony to ask very stupid questions with very obvious answers.

Perhaps the incredulity was enough to shock Gale into looking up, brows raised despite the deep furrow in her forehead. “Am I…? Fucking forget me, Morty, are you okay?” Then it was my turn to express my confusion, and as I cocked my head she threw her hooves around my shoulders and nuzzled her forehead into my neck (just barely managing to avoid impaling my stitched wound with her horn). Her words came like a pelting rain. “Gods, I’m so sorry; I was such an asshole! I just panicked! I needed to cover so they wouldn’t figure us out, and you were getting so mad—”

“Gale!” I called out to interrupt her, to try and steady her. “Gale, I’m fine!” When I heard her mumble some complaint into my right side, I pushed her away enough that I could look her in the eyes. “Look at me; I’m completely fine. I get it; it was an act. That’s fine. And if I’m mad at anypony, it isn’t you. I promise.”

“No, it’s not…” Gale hoofed at the ground in an uncharacteristic hesitation. “I hurt you, just by playing along. I saw it on your face. I…” Gale stumbled with the words “I’m still sorry.”

I shrugged. “Alright. Sure. Um… I forgive you?”

Gale let out a tiny chuckle which felt like an enormous win to me. “You’re fucking terrible at talking to other ponies, you know that?”

“Somepony once told me something like that, yes.” I nodded, and then wanting to avoid using my horn, stuck out my hoof and physically lifted her chin to force her to meet my gaze. Her eyes still ran away from mine in shame. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she answered, and sighed. “I turned into my mom. And I fucking hate being her.” Despite her voice spiking into a shout, she stayed terrifyingly still. “You see what these assholes do? You spend any time around them, and they just constantly wear you down rubbing each other off until finally you play along just to get them to shut the fuck up. Or gods forbid they have something you want and they hold it over your head until you sit up and beg like a good bitch.” I watched her swallow, and then she finally met my gaze. “Can you see who I’d turn into if I married that smug fucking asshole? That’s exactly what Mom wants.”

“That’s not going to happen, Gale.”

“Why? Because you’re here?” she jabbed half-heartedly.

I shook my head. “What do I have to do with it?” Though delivered better it might have been a suave way of leading in to building her up, I have to confess I was expressing a genuine confusion with that question. “You’re not like that, Gale. And if you have to bluff like you are to put up with them, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.”

Her body just started shaking like laughter without words. Relief spilled over her limbs in the form of her muscles going slack, letting out the tension that had her visibly shuddering just moments before. And then, mercifully, she smiled. “Thanks Morty.”

“It’s really nothing,” I answered. “I think I found them just as insufferable as you did.”

“Yeah…” Gale nodded. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.” Then she lit up her horn and waved away the cloud of dust that had been gathering around us and was slowly settling across our manes. “We should probably get out of this place before some other dead wizard comes to kill us?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I think I’m the only one left now. Where to next?”

“Cloudsdale,” said the young unicorn mare to her also a unicorn escort.

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