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

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

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The Beastly Burden

As I have mentioned in describing Gale’s entrances and exits to the Stable of Nobles, Everfree had almost a dozen competing newspapers in its early years, with the intelligentsia of each of the three tribes using them as a way to thrust their political and social perspectives into the common square. While Everfree’s mayor did employ a ceremonial town crier, the odds of one receiving news from said vociferous young mare were terribly low; instead, if you walked the streets as I did that day, and you happened to find yourself being shouted at by a pony on a soapbox, the strong odds were that said pony was in the employ of the Willful Random Hearse at The Everfree Gazette or Yellow Journalism at the Timely Times or whatever other newspaper mogul and their take on the news happened to be holding history’s quill.

I made it a solid three blocks from the palace and toward my first reading lesson before I came upon the first crowd of ponies gathered around such a newspaper hocker. The filly looked like she belonged in Aspiration’s class, though from her lean cheeks and the rather patchwork hat she wore, I suspect finding her working wasn’t exactly a matter of distaste for the classroom. For such a small filly, her voice was piercing, and even without thinking much of the crowd as I walked past, I couldn’t help but hear her clippy accent (which I would later learn to associate with the neighborhood of ‘the Dregs’).

“Get ‘cha extra ‘dition of th’ Equestrian Journal! Riot outside th’ Stable o’ Nobles! One dead, six injured! New queen’s to blame! That’s it, sir, jus’ two coppa bits an y’ can read all ‘bout it! News not forty minutes old, but we’d a mare on the scene when it’d happened! Trust th’ ‘questrian Journal for all the news what’s fit to read!”

I found my hooves had carried me up to the edge of the crowd by the time my mind had processed the filly’s words; I watched her as she continued shouting, hoping for some further explanation, but all I got were the same trite advertisements for the paper, and a display of just how nimble even a young earth pony could be with her hooves, taking and counting small copper coins, slipping them into a pocket belted around her midsection, and handing out crinkly newspapers all in the same motion.

“Tinglin’ off the presses, folks; our editor’s got the horns workin’ overtime keeping things moving! But we’ve nothin’ but the best at the Journal.”

A few ponies took offense as I pushed my way forward through the crowd, until at last the filly’s eyes fell on me. “Two coppa bits, mistah fancy jacket, and—Luna damn, what in Tartarus’ happen’ to ya neck, mistah?!”

“My neck?” It being the least of my medical concerns, I had honestly forgotten about the gap of transparent metal ‘flesh’ until my hoof met it with a chill and a clang. “Oh; I won a fight.” I tried to wave off the question, but the filly’s outburst (and her casual blasphemy, unbecoming of one so young) had turned at least a few heads in the crowd my direction.

“Cor, I’d ‘ate to see what ‘appened to the othah colt then! Now, you buyin’?”

I shook my head. “Where did this happen?”

“I ain’t a tour guide, mistah no-neck; I’m a salesmare. If y’ain’t buyin’, move aside foh somepony what is. You, miss, you wanna read what’s the latest, unlike some cheapskate rube inna fancy jacket?”

I very nearly grabbed the filly by her muzzle to recapture her attention; only an idle throb of pain in my horn and the still present horrible news of the last hour held my magic. Instead, I took a deep breath and reached into my jacket with a hoof. Out came my treasury banknotes, and I flipped through them staring at the numbers until I found one I felt suitably small. “Fine, you want to get paid, here. Now tell me.”

“We don’t bartah; I take coins, mistah. Just buy a copy; they’re not pricy.”

“A paper…” I sucked down a frustrated breath, and finished “...isn’t going to do me much good right now. I’m new to Everfree. But—” and I emphatically waved the paper note with my hoof. “—I’m willing to give you one hundred gold bits to take me where this happened right now.”

The boisterous crowd grew hushed at that offer. The filly leaned down from the edge of her soapbox (though even with that advantage, she was only barely taller than me), glaring suspiciously. “Coin up front, mistah; show me what you got.” When I indicated my parchment, she scoffed. “No, sir, I don’ trust no papah money, and I don’ care what the old coots up in Lubuck say.” I quite enjoy that she pronounced the trading city’s name almost more like ‘lubbock’ than the peculiar accent with which it was meant to be uttered. “Metal bits is what I like, an—”

“This is a letter of credit from the treasury,” I interrupted. “Given to me by Queen Platinum herself.”

“An’ who’re you talkin’ to the Queen?”

“I’m Coil the Immortal,” I answered. And then, after a moment of that announcement summarily failing to take off, I added “the Hero of Platinum’s Landing.”

“Yer that stallion?!” the filly on the soapbox asked, before aggressively snatching my offered currency. “I tho’ you lived with the Crystals.”

Evidently, the newsfilly wasn’t the only pony who had heard the story of what was, in the grand scheme of my conflict with Wintershimmer, a secondary encounter. Ponies around us in the crowd whispered or gawked; a few tried to address me. I… wasn’t the nicest pony in the world in rebuffing them. I doubt I need to tell you that, despite it still not yet quite being lunchtime, it had already been a very long day. Thankfully, it took only a few moments for the newsfilly to toss her unsold papers onto her back and, with a wave, gesture me up the road. “Stable’s this way, mistah hero. ‘Course, y’ coulda just looked up at where all the guardsponies ah in the sky. But c’mon.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Perhaps it is prudent, now that we’re caught up in my half of our narrative, to return to where our second Tale left off; Gale had just fought her way past her own knights and her elder sister’s Legion guardsponies to reach the worst victim of the brief but bloody riot outside the Stable of Nobles. A few guards and knights moved to stop her as she rushed up to a mare whose name she didn’t know, seeing only the lifeblood pouring out of a jagged gash on her chest and staining the red carpet set in front of the Stable for royal hooves a darker hue.

A few guards still fought to stop her, but a gentle hoof and a glow of blue magic stopped them; when Gale looked up, she met the wrinkled but approving eyes of a senior knight, faded sapphire color and clad in steel armor painted in brilliant blue and trimmed in genuine gold. “I will stand by her,” he said to his fellow soldiers, stepping forward to fall in line behind Gale’s rushed pace. To his Queen, he only nodded approval. And though her eyes were locked onto the wounded, Gale did notice the pains to which Sir Chiseled Gem—for though she hardly knew the stallion personally, she certainly remembered his name—went to match her far more youthful pace.

As Gale and Sir Gem watched over Satchel’s final breaths, not a dozen strides away, the elder Queen Platinum sat back onto her cushion and gestured to Sir Gauntlet, standing where she had left him beside the carriage door, to step inside. The other knight raised a brow in curiosity, but he did as the Queen Mother commanded.

“Shall I join Her Majesty?” Gauntlet asked of Platinum.

“No. And shut the door,” Platinum ordered in reply.

Even as Gauntlet’s legs struggled to make the stride he had so often offered to help Gale with, he raised a brow. “Your Majesty… I am sworn by oath to your daughter now, not to you. You would ask me to turn my back on her in a moment like this?”

“Now that you have stepped into my presence, it is the best thing you can do for her rule. I would never ask you to cross her, and I promise, I will explain.” Platinum waited, and sure enough the door to the wagon was pulled shut in Gauntlet’s magical grip. Then and only then did she reach over to one of the walls of the wagon, and much to Gauntlet’s surprise, open a small hidden door to reveal a dry bar.

“Your Majesty!”

Your Queen had these put in,” explained Platinum, withdrawing a decanter of some smooth golden-brown liquor not with magic but by her hooves. “Nearly had them fully installed behind my back, if you will believe it. Had I not needed the carriage for an unexpected urgent trip and found her hired carpenter working, she might have kept them hidden… well, Luna only knows how long. Truth be told, at the time I was so proud of her managing the subterfuge to go behind my back, I didn’t bother to stop their installation.” Then, extending her hooves, she nodded down. “Spare my horn, Sir Gauntlet, and pour two glasses.”

“With respect, Your Majesty, is this the hour to be drinking?”

“I do not wish to make a habit of explaining myself to knights,” Platinum replied shortly. "But given my daughter’s love of strong drink I suppose I ought to be clear: I have no intention of letting go of my senses. But I hardly slept last night and tonight promises to be even longer. Forgive me if my temper is short today. I am only trying to lengthen it a bit.” When Gauntlet reluctantly took the decanter in his magic, Platinum retrieved and offered him two glasses. “Now, you pour and hold your tongue, and I will explain what is needed of you.”

“As Your Majesty wishes,” Gauntlet agreed. “I feel I should remind you though, Queen Platinum: it is your daughter the Queen-Regent who now commands my loyalty. I cannot promise I will keep what we say secret from her, or that I will obey any commands you give me, if I believe they run against her wishes.”

“Her wishes?” Platinum asked with a raised brow. “Or what is best for her?” As she asked the question, the silver mare took a glass in her hooves and took a long, gentle sip.

“I… My oath is to obey her commands, not to second guess her. But I suppose so long as they don’t run at cross purposes, I would try to fulfill both. I had thought I might suggest Your Majesty intervene. I know the Queen-Regent has rejected your aid recently, but perhaps in these circumstances, it would be better received. That said, I hardly claim to know what is best for her. She has the divine-given right and the burden of rule. I do not.”

“Indeed,” Platinum said after she swallowed. “Divine right…” Whisky spun in Platinum’s glass; she stared into its reflection for a long, pensive moment. “I hope you would agree that, having worn the crown myself, I do know what is best for her.”

“I… generally do agree, yes.” Sir Gauntlet stared down at his own glass distrustfully, as though unsure if it had been poisoned.

“It would be the worst thing in the world, right now, for me to go out there and to aid her. To intervene, as you put it, would make this situation worse.”

“How, Your Majesty?”

“The damage to life and limb is already done,” Platinum observed. “I can no more impact that than my daughter can. What is left is the crown’s reply. Who is to blame? Who shoulders guilt? Is recompense offered to the families of the injured, or do we treat them like criminals? Do the guardsponies of the Legion take blame, does it fall on our unicorn knights, or both?”

“Yes, but surely your wisdom would know the right answers to those questions.” Gauntlet finally built up the courage to take sip of his drink, though he only barely managed to swallow it when his former liege chuckled.

Platinum’s humor was bitter, dry as the desert and barren as a corpse. “Right answers? You share my daughter’s naivete it seems… though at least in your case, it is a virtue and not a failing.” Another drink dampened those hollow humors. “Even if we knew the objective truth, Sir Gauntlet… well, there is an old saying I’m fond of: ‘The truth may one day be written, but public opinion is illiterate.’ I know what I would do to create a sense of justice and fairness in this situation, certainly, but it is certainly not the only way, and the fact that it is my way does not make it ‘right’.” Platinum took another sip, and then stared down into her own glass—though rather than poison in it, the reflective alcohol might well have shown her a memory. “But there are wrong answers.”

“Then you could help Her Majesty avoid them!” Gauntlet pressed.

“Indeed. If she deigned to listen, I could.” Platinum nodded, raising her eyes to again meet Gauntlet’s gaze. “But if I did, in the eyes of the public, I would undermine her rule. If I step in when something goes wrong, and only let her rule on sunny days when all is well, I am still Queen, and not her. From that moment on, anytime I offered her counsel, they would see it as commanding her. All her successes would belong to me, while all her failures would hang over her head. And someday, when I pass, her rule would crumble like sand.”

Gauntlet nodded. “I suppose I can understand that, Your Majesty. Still, I cannot imagine going to my own foals’ sides in times of trouble.”

“That is one advantage knights have over queens.” Then a hint of mirth struck Platinum’s voice, and she looked up from her beverage to fully lock onto Gauntlet’s eyes. “Do you play chess, Sir Gauntlet?” As the question hung in the air, Platinum finished her drink, not quite throwing it back as Gale might have but certainly draining more than a sip. Gauntlet hadn’t quite answered when, midway through returning the glass to its resting place, she spoke up again. “It is terribly dangerous for two queens to get too close to one another on the board. Passing pawns, bishops, even castles between them is not without risk. But a knight can move in ways queens cannot.”

Gauntlet’s eyes widened, and then he nodded. “So you want me to carry a secret message for you?”

“Yes, but not directly.” Platinum nodded. “Simply tell her that I believe in her, and that I know she will survive this.” As Gauntlet finished his own drink and turned to face the door, she raised a forbidding hoof. “Leave the carriage, certainly, but do not go to her directly. Wait until the noise has settled down, and there are fewer listening ears around.”

“But… Your Majesty, if you are going to wait anyway, why not say it yourself?”

Platinum closed her eyes and sat perfectly still for just a moment. “The virtues of a knight and a queen are virtually identical. But among the things we consider to be breaches of honor, there is only one which is forbidden of knights, but fully expected of queens.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Your Majesty.”

“Nor should you,” Platinum answered. “Precisely because you are a good knight. When you leave, tell the stallions pulling the chariot that I wish to be taken home. I won’t ask you to point out to the newsponies that I’ve abandoned my daughter in her hour of tribulation, but if you happen to find a moment, I will observe that you would be telling the truth.”

Setting down his glass on a small railing near one of the carriage’s windows, Sir Gauntlet frowned. “I would hesitate to demean what I know is your good will with such uncouth words.”

“I suppose that was too much to ask.” Platinum sighed. “But in my defence, demeaning my name in tomorrow’s news is something of the point. Good day, Sir Gauntlet. Know that at least one Queen Platinum admires your service.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Outside the Royal Carriage, the first pony to arrive who dared approach Gale and her guardian was a sky blue pegasus stallion with a scruffy bit of white stubble to go along with his military-trimmed white mane. Scout-Centurion Tempest, who by blood was Gale’s half-nephew, was bold enough not only to approach the Equestrian Queen, but to do so flying with wingblades on his crests, and land within arms reach of her.

It occurs to me that with their falling largely out of fashion amongst the military during our most recent war, I should explain: despite their name, a ‘wingblade’ was not in fact a single continuous piece of metal as the name would imply. Rather, the weapons, popular throughout the reign of the Cirran Empire on Dioda, were more like links of scale armor that had been folded to a sharp angle—separate pieces, so that they could articulate with the fluidity of a pegasus’ wing, but shaped such that when the wing was fully extended, they meshed tightly together to form something nearly indistinguishable from a solid blade.

Tempest’s direct arrival did not amuse Sir Chiseled Gem, who stepped fully between Gale and Tempest and light his horn. “Who do you think you are, colt?”

“I’m her brother.” Not strictly true, but then, probably more honest than the strict truth. Tempest didn’t even bother to ask Gem to move, actively sidestepping the knight. “Gale, did you get hurt?!”

“It’s not my blood.” Gale’s voice was hollow as she slowly lifted her head from Satchel’s body.

“What happened?”

“I think a misunderstanding…” The young queen’s words shook. “The crowd was mad at me. I didn’t think anypony wanted to hurt me, but I wasn’t really looking for that… Somehow it turned into a fight.”

“Gale.” Cautiously avoiding his wings, Tempest took a step that was unusual for a pegasus, embracing Gale with his forelegs. “But you’re okay?”

“I don’t think so,” she answered in a whisper. “I… this is my fault.”

“What are you talking about? You just said somepony else started it—”

“Because of me,” Gale interrupted forcefully, yet quite quietly. Her eyes swept around the now rather barren yard that separated the Stable building proper from the street; most of the ponies who had been waiting for her were gone, but a few ponies less seriously wounded than Satchel remained, their wounds being tended to by the guards and knights who had first dealt the blows, and a small cohort of now far more distant bystanders and reporters still enthralled by the unfolding story. “It doesn’t matter who started it; it happened because of me. And now she’s dead. Fuck…”

“Ponies got pissed at your mom all the time, though, right?” Tempest pressed, putting on his best idiotic grin.

Gale briefly startled when the Royal Carriage began to pull away, only to shake her head and look back.

“What?” Sir Chiseled Gem scowled, less willing to let the carriage depart without its intended passenger. “Sir Ardent, get that carriage back here; the Queen—”

“Let Mom go,” Gale interrupted. “I don’t need the carriage.” Then, with an intake of breath, she gently lowered Satchel’s body back to the street and pushed herself up. “Ok… Shit, what do I even do first here? Um… Sir Gem, can you find something to put over the body? Or have one of the other knights do that?”

“I will see it done.” Gem nodded.

“Okay. Tempest; look, I know I’m not really ‘in charge’ of you or anything, but if you can help—”

Tempest rolled his eyes. “Gale, I’m here for you; what do you need? I can probably still carry you if you need to get out of here, or—”

“No, Tempest; I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

“Horseshit,” Tempest answered, before shrugging. “But we can pretend that’s halfway believable if that’s what you need. What can I do right now?”

“Her name is… was… Satchel.” Gale nodded to the late mare. “Can you find out where she lived, if she has family or anything?”

“I can try,” Tempest agreed with a nod. “Wallflower might know, and if not I’ll ask around town. It might take a while though. Do you want me to tell them anything if I find anypony?”

“No. Just come find me. You know Dad’s rules.”

“Grandpa’s rules were for when you get somepony under your direct command killed; it’s not like he personally went to apologize every time anypony in the whole Legion got hurt. And not only is she not a knight; she isn’t even a unicorn.”

“If I only try and rule to help the unicorns, what’s the point of Equestria?” Gale shook her head. “As awful as it turned out so far, that’s the whole point of my picking a fight with the nobles.”

“You picked a fight?” Tempest asked with a worried expression. “Gale, you can’t be serious—”

“Not literally, Tempest.” She then shook her head and chuckled. “Though that’d be a hell of a lot easier, come to think of it. Look, just go. I need to talk to the survivors and get ahead of this in the papers and… Is Ty coming?”

“I mean, I haven’t talked to Mom since breakfast, but this seems like the sort of thing she’d deal with personally.” Tempest spread his wings fully, and raised them up for a strong downward pump. But before taking off, he nodded to Gale. “Just at least think of taking care of yourself, Gale. Ask your mom for help, or grandpa, or somepony.” Then, with a pump of his wings, Tempest once more joined the blue summer sky.

Gale took a deep breath once he was gone, glanced over to the survivors and the newsponies, and across her own knights and her sister’s guardsponies, and felt immediately like she had fallen into the center of the ocean.

With another deep breath, she steeled herself and approached the nearest of the wounded soldiers, being tended to by a pegasus medic. When the wounded pony herself, a broad-shouldered unicorn mare, glanced up at Gale’s approach, it was the medic who spoke first. “Your Majesty… should I leave you to speak alone?”

“What, are you an idiot?” Gale asked. “She needs you a fuck of a lot more than she needs me.”

“It’s just a scrape,” the medic’s patient replied. “I’ll keep it wrapped a few days, it’ll be fine. Now what do you want? Your Majesty?” The official title was delivered snidely, even spitefully.

“I wanted to offer my apologies,” Gale told the mare.

“If you want to apologize, get us our land,” the mare snapped.

The demand put a frown on Gale’s face; she let herself slip into more formal, practiced pronunciation when she replied. “Then I also need to apologize for not being clear. I am not interested in playing the Stable’s game, and I firmly believe in what I’m doing there. But you, and all the other ponies here today, have a right to make yourselves heard without being harmed; I wanted to apologize for that.”

“I already told you it’s just a scrape; I’m fine.” The mare then deepened her already considerable glare. “And if you’re not going to change what you’re doing, I don’t really feel like I’ve been heard.”

“That isn’t what it means—”

“Whatever, ‘Queen’; just go away. Give the crown back to your mom.”

Fighting back the urge to choose stronger language, or to attempt to explain herself to a mare who (perhaps justifiably in that moment) was not interested in listening, Gale obliged the first part of that request, stepping aside and moving on to the next pony injured in the day’s events.

The next few conversations Gale held were, though perhaps not quite so harsh in word choice, largely identical in their contents. By the time she was done, though she hadn’t lit her horn, and had only taken two dozen steps at most, Gale felt spent and wounded.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

It was about that time that I finally managed to push my way through the crowd that had slowly been gathering at the end of the street. A line of guardsponies had formed to keep curious passerby away from the scene of the conflict. This led to a perhaps the most delightful moment of my day—or rather, the still relatively low high point in an otherwise miserable twenty-four hours: namely, when a guard tried to stab me.

The pegasus mare was just doing her job, in due deference, and I hadn’t yet developed the kind of fame to, at a casual glance, be assumed that I was not only welcome, but wanted at the site of any kind of event. Normally, I would have simply teleported past such an obstacle. However, wanting to spare my horn, I instead attempted to muscle my way past. For my troubles, the already on-edge guardspony drew her Legion-issue gladius and pointed it threateningly in my direction. “Stop, sir!” she ordered.

I casually lifted my foreleg, and my signature coat’s enchantments proved more than suitable to let me brush aside the weapon by running its blade directly across what looked like simple fabric.

The mare was astonished for just a moment, and I couldn’t resist but to quip “I’m a little bit out of your pay grade to keep out.” This was… shall we say ‘not helpful’ in an already tense situation. “C’mon, kid; I’ll introduce you to the Queen.” That last statement was to the newsfilly who was still quite eager to assist me after the preposterous sum of money I had provided her.

Before I had a chance to clear the distance to Gale, though, the same standard-issue skysteel sword that I had brushed away pierced into my side. Or, at least, poked it. My enchanted coat couldn’t care less about such an uninteresting weapon, but I did at least feel the pressure enough to turn my head and realize I was being stabbed. The Legion mare had good aim, too; she would have caught my liver and likely a dorsal colon.

Instead, I looked her dead in the eye, shook my head, and with a raised hoof, pushed her blade to the ground.

“‘E’s Coil the Immorta’, Miss Guardspony,” said the newsfilly behind me. “Tha’ ‘ero o’ Platinum’s Landin’!” Then she looked up at me. “But I didn’ think ya’d mean ye’ couldn’ die quite like tha’.”

“Well, I aim to please,” I replied, resisting the urge to give the filly a hug for how beautifully she’d introduced me.

By that point, our scuffle had caught the eyes of some of the ponies inside the assembled group, including at least one knight who must have seen me at Gale’s birthday party only a couple of days prior. One even had the decency of directing Gale’s attention in my direction, and when she showed the brief glimmer of a smile at my presence, I took that as permission to make my way over.

“Morty, holy shit!” Despite what the punctuation might imply, the young queen waited until I was well within hoof’s reach before announcing that in a rather hushed voice.

“I take it since you’re up and walking around that all that isn’t your blood,” I answered, looking her up and down briefly, before extending a hoof for a hug.

Gale took the offer rather chastely, putting her head over my shoulder instead of offering a kiss. “Thanks. It’s a little public for a better hug, though. The reporters are watching.”

“Ah, sorry.” I released Gale, and then chuckled. “Oh, speaking of which, this is… uh…”

“Name’s Reed,” said the newspaper filly. “Reed Allaboutit.’

I suppressed a sigh; Gale raised a single brow.

“Pleasure t’ meetcha, yer Majesty.” Reed extended an enthusiastic hoof.

Gale briefly offered a shake. “My pleasure,” she said flatly, before turning to me. “You picked up another kid?”

“I just paid her for directions here; I’m not planning on dragging her to Lubuck. Now, how can I help?”

“I…” Gale glanced around. “Honestly, you really can’t, Morty. I just need to talk to the reporters and to Typhoon, whenever the hell she finally gets here, and then I need to talk to Satchel’s family.” Gale nodded to the now fabric covered corpse of the mare in question.

“Good idea,” I answered with a nod. “Do you want my help for that, or do you remember how to do it on your own?”

“Do… do what?”

“A seance? That is what you wanted to do for her family, right?”

Gale shook her head. “No, I… you know, Morty, actually that’s a really good idea. But not right now. I’m still waiting to find out what family she actually has. I… Sir Gem!”

The stallion in question, who had been speaking to a few other knights nearby, stepped over. “Your Majesty?”

“Gem, this is Morty.”

“Your reputation precedes you,” Gem said, not especially admiringly.

“Morty, Sir Chiseled Gem. He’s the First Peer of the Order of the Silver Chain, and the former Captain of the Diamond Guard, so he’s more-or-less in charge of our knights.”

“I trust you’re using ‘our’ as the royal plural, Your Majesty?”

“I guess I mostly meant ‘unicorns in general’... whatever; just take Morty and Reed and… Reed?” Gale frantically glanced around at the realization the filly had wandered off, only to wince in horror at what she found: Reed, having tucked her head under the sheet covering Satchel’s remains.

“Young mare!” Sir Chiseled Gem announced, rushing over and lighting up his horn. Though he was an older stallion, Gem proved more than strong enough to pick up Reed by her barrel and drag her to hover in midair facing him. “That is not acceptable behavior.”

“But I know ‘er,” Reed protested.

At that announcement, Gale rushed to speak to Reed, and I followed shortly after. “You do?” Gale asked. “Does she have family or anything? Where does she live?”

“Oh, um… I mean, I don’ ‘know ‘er’, know ‘er, y’know? But I think she’s, er, she was my pal Paunch’s… aunt ‘r cousin’ ‘r somethin’. So, like, I saw ‘er around town and stuff now ‘n then. Not like I ever really talked t’ ‘er. But she lives around th’ west gate. ‘N I bet I could find where real quick.”

“Sir Gem, set her down,” Gale directed. Once Reed was safely on her own hooves, Gale lowered herself. “Reed, I will be very grateful if you would wait with Morty for just a moment longer while I finish a few things up here, and then if you could lead us to her family, I would be more than willing to pay you.”

“Deal,” Reed announced.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

It wasn’t long after our appearance that Typhoon, accompanied by Frostfall, two other members of the Legion’s high command in gold trimmed armor, and a dozen black-armored Praetorian legionaries descended on the ground in front of the Stable of Nobles. Well experienced with battlefields and crime scenes alike, Typhoon was decisive in all the ways Gale simply was not, gesturing quickly with her frost-fogged prosthetic hoof as she spoke in a quiet but iron firm voice to the ponies she had brought with her and the guards already present on the scene alike. Soon, the lines keeping the onlookers at bay were replaced with formations of the Legion’s best, a number of the guards already present found themselves in an even line in front of Frostfall, who took notes on parchment atop a small slate strapped to her arm as they provided their stories, and the two other commanders began speaking to the unicorn knights and the wounded survivors alike.

Typhoon directly approached Gale.

“Ty,” Gale nodded. “Holy shit, am I glad to see you.”

“Don’t be yet,” Typhoon answered, keeping on a stern face. “We can talk as family back home, but right now, it’ll be best for both of us to keep some distance.”


A cloud of almost misty haze escaped Typhoon’s nostrils when she sighed—a virtual impossibility in the heat of summer, were it not for the might of her trained magic—and she glanced briefly to the onlookers. “Somepony has to take the blame for this.”

Gale hung her head slightly. “I never meant trying to get the other races into the Stable to get anypony hurt, but I’ll take the blame.”

“No,” Typhoon answered firmly.

“I don’t need your protection, Ty; I can take it.”

“I’m sure you could,” Typhoon answered with a hollow chuckle. “But that’s not what I mean. You obviously didn’t throw the first punch—at least, assuming what I’ve heard is true, and you weren’t involved in the violence at all.”

“No, but—”

“Gale, ponies disagreeing with your policies cannot be an excuse for violence. Mobius only knows where that would get us. I understand you’re trying to be responsible, but I’m talking about whether or not I need to arrest the ponies who survived, or whether the Legion is going to get blamed for attacking civilians, or whether it's your knights.”

“Well, fuck playing politics about it, then; let’s just admit we don’t know who started it and not blame anypony. Let the injured ponies go free, I’ll talk to Satchel’s family, and—”

“Satchel?” Typhoon asked.

Gale simply nodded to the figure of a pony outlined by a sheet on the flagstones beside the Stable’s carpet.

“Ah.” Comprehension turned to concern on Typhoon’s face in an instant. “You held her as she was dying? Hence the blood?”

Gale nodded. “I tried to stop the bleeding, but whoever stabbed her got too deep, and there wasn’t a medicus around at first. She barely said anything; I only got her name.”

“I see.” The autumn mare removed her helmet with one wing, then ran the tan feathers of her other limb through her red, orange, and brown mane. “Are you alright now?”

“I’m not panicking or anything, but I feel completely in over my head. Talking to the Stable is one thing, but Mom never taught me anything about…” Gesturing rather wildly around, Gale simply concluded “...this.”

“You, Dad, and I should have dinner and talk; ideally tonight, if possible. But for now, we have to decide on what to say. Once the investigation is done, we’ll know as much as we can know, but we need to make some kind of statement now.”

“How much should I tell them?”

Typhoon firmly shook her head. “Gale, I understand you want to take responsibility, but even if I didn’t want to help take some of the burden off you, you’re not impartial to what happened here. Just tell me what happened from your point of view, and then we’ll treat it like any other Legion business in the city. And after the investigation is over, and—like usual—we really have no way of saying who made the first move, then I’ll work with you and we can let you deliver the final statement. That will mean at least some ponies on the streets will be blaming your knights, but in my experience there’s only so much we can do about public opinion. Is that an acceptable plan?” When Gale hesitated, Typhoon jokingly added “Your Majesty.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, Ty; nopony’s listening. Even if they wanted to, you’re wearing Dad’s armor, so they couldn’t eavesdrop with magic.”

“Is that a spell that exists?” Typhoon asked.

Gale tellingly swallowed very nervously. “...no?”

Tan feathers graced a tan temple as Commander Typhoon shook her head in a display of fatigue. “Alright, Gale; go deal with Satchel, and I’ll handle the rest of things here.”

“Thanks Ty.” Gale offered a small grin and briefly reached out to hug her elder half-sister, before hesitating at the presence of her black armor.

“Better not to be giving hugs here anyway, right? Puddinghead would think we were ganging up on him.” With a wink, Typhoon then stepped past Gale and moved toward the mass of onlookers. Gale, for her part nodded in my direction, and together, we and Reed set off to the west.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

The strange truth of the matter here in our story is that the last conversation between Satchel’s family and her spirit was, at least to the progress of our story, of negligible import. The family took the news poorly, unsurprisingly, but neither they nor Satchel’s own soul blamed the new queen for what had happened. In point of fact, there was virtually no discussion of politics whatsoever. I briefly explained the difference between raising somepony from the dead (that is, creating an undead) and actually raising them to life—in necromantic parlance, ‘resurrecting’ them—and why the latter was fictitious and the former would be undesirable.

The most notable thing to happen in the afternoon, in fact, was a total coincidence that I learned of only these centuries later, as my magic looks back on these events. Something like a third of the way toward Satchel’s home, Gale, Reed, and I passed a gruff looking mare with a messenger’s bag slung over her shoulder. At the time, she was just another pony on the street that I hardly paid half a glance to, but had I known what was in her bag, perhaps I might have thought differently.

In the contents—amongst other letters, for the mare in question was a courier for hire—one could find an envelope addressed to one Mr. Hagfish at the South Hoof Roadhouse. (While Everfree City proper had a formalized address system, most mail in the rest of Equestria was simply delivered to the nearest inn or public house, where somepony was likely to know the personal home of the intended recipient. In this case, the South Hoof was more-or-less on Equestria’s southernmost border, still somewhat freshly won in a war Commander Typhoon had waged with the buffalo, and it sat just on the edge of what we still call ‘the badlands’.) The letter purported to be from a Miss Red Herring, Hagfish’s sister, and consisted of three full pages, front and back, of life’s goings on in the big city of Everfree, and how busy things constantly were, and how one might at once wish for the simple life of the frontier and yet the same urge one’s kin to come and visit as soon as they were able…

I won’t waste your time with the actual text because both Red Herring and Hagfish were elements of fiction; no such real ponies lived either near the badlands, nor in the heart of Everfree.

That isn’t to say one couldn’t meet them, though.

If a pony were so inclined, in theory, one could find a small loft—large enough for a cramped mattress and a single nightstand, and nothing else—leased by a kindly family of pewtersmiths about as far from the Delamare’s banks as one could conceivably get while still calling their home district Riverward. This loft was rented for a generous price of two silver bits a night to the brilliant red Red Herring, who returned to it perhaps only every other night or so; the family assumed the young mare was simply active in the city’s nightlife, or perhaps had a relationship that was considerably more forward than their particular family values would approve of—not that they ever said anything of the sort to young Ms. Herring.

Herring, however, had no life outside of that loft; no family, no place of business; when she set hoof on the street and made it around the corner from the family, she tended to cease to exist in a burst of green flame. Most recently to the day in question, the mare who most often appeared out of that flame was the schoolteacher Ms. Aspiration.

So it was that, on the morning when I was first diagnosed with the Scourge of Kings, and when Gale’s rule proper began so ignominiously, Ms. Herring wrote two letters. One, to her host family, explained that she may not be around frequently thanks to a rather deliberately vague opportunity that had opened up for her—that letter, she left on a dresser beside their door, along with enough gold bits to pay for her room for months on end. It was the second, carefully crafted and seemingly perfumed (despite being intended for her ostensible brother) which was handed off to the courier who passed us in the street.

Changeling covert communications (at least in those days, though I suspect the trick has not fallen out of favor) prefer to avoid equine tricks like ciphers and encryption and secret messages, in favor of simply using a language the ‘host’ species cannot interpret whatsoever—namely, a sort of ‘written’ language of pheromones produced by carefully shapeshifting the scent glands in what is otherwise the infiltrating insect’s natural form.

It occurs to me, if by some means you have not encountered them at the time of reading this, that you may not know Graargh and Ms. Aspiration were both actually sapient shapeshifting insects—that being the natural form of a changeling. But I assume after our not infrequent historical conflicts, most readers will know enough by now to have at least guessed that Aspiration was a changeling infiltrator.

In any case, because the pheromones of a changeling are only detectable by other changelings and creatures with the absolute sharpest of noses, the most a keen nosed pony would be likely to gather from a piece of parchment being doused in such pheromones was that it had been romantically perfumed by the sender (as was the fashion at the time).

Hence, while there was no secret message hidden in the text of the supposed Ms. Herring’s letter, there was a secret message hidden on the parchment as it passed us on Everfree’s streets—one which I shall do my best to faithfully translate now. Just be aware: the conversion from splotches of deliberately placed scents to Equish text is not what one would call an exact science, even when compared to the already artful skill of translating any two conventionally written languages.

Infiltration Commandant Husk

I have taken [apprehended?] the rogue—though he is not a traitor like we feared. He is a drone from the failed Vesalipolis hive expansion—the one near the Crystal Union, not the newer one. I believe the dead hunters already know he is a changeling, but he has not been killed; instead, Celestia is treating him like a pony child. I was able to replace his teacher on short notice, and have cocooned her, but it was not a clean replacement. I will need either a memory sculptor or a replacement doppelganger infiltrator when I exfiltrate the identity.

I believe the drone may be of some value if groomed as an infiltrator, since he can act openly without being devoured by the dead hunters. However, he knows almost nothing of his own powers or his hive; he believes himself to naturally be some kind of bear, and is fiercely loyal to a group of young ponies who I believe saved him after the hive collapsed.

For the time being, instead of executing him, I will keep him nearby; while I am far closer to the pony gods than I would like, the scent of his magic [this might be metaphorical - I have no idea if changelings mean to imply residual magic has a smell to them?] seems to have thrown the hunters off of my trail despite my exposed position. His presence may open me to completing my harvest quota more efficiently than originally planned.

-Infiltrator Metamorphosis

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