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



Celestia's first student and Princess Platinum conspire to cheat the princess out of an arranged marriage.

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1-3

I - III

The Crime Lord

As we walked down Ridge Street back toward the Royal Palace, Gale spoke to me in a whisper. “Okay, Morty; it’s important you’re here with me so the suitors can get used to seeing you around, but you can’t jump down their throats like you did with Castle. If they figure out you might be new competition, Mom will hear about it. You follow?”

“Understood,” I nodded. “Sorry; one of Wintershimmer’s rules was that you never let somepony attack your reputation undefended, or you lose all the weight behind your name.”

“Maybe you should stop following Wintershimmer’s rules; I know he was the best fucking role model in the world, but…”

“Just because he turned out evil doesn’t mean he was always wrong,” I noted. “Given how much you’re worried about what the suitors think of us, maybe his obsession with reputation was right.”

Gale lifted a hoof to massage her temple. “As long as you don’t gods-damn murder any of them... You’re amazing, you know that?” Despite the word choice, her tone wasn’t what one would call ‘flattering’. “I spend a few weeks away from you, and I forget that you’ve never given anypony a good first impression in your entire life.”

“That’s not true!” I protested before I had actually thought of an exception.

The objection earned me a roll of the mare’s eyes. “Your parents don’t count.”

I scoffed. “No, they hated me the moment I was born. My name is ‘Mortal Coil’ for a reason. My mother wanted another crystal foal. I have no idea what my father thought; he left the Union when I was barely old enough to remember him.”

“Holy shit… even your parents? Who liked you then?”

“Well… Wintershimmer…”

Gale was gobsmacked for a few seconds before she finally managed to get another pump of blood into her brain and restart her language centers. “I… I’m impressed, Morty. Somehow, you actually made it worse.” Then she shrugged. “But like I said, my fault. I should thank you, though, that at least you didn’t take the bait about our plans. That’s not a genie that I can put back in the bottle if you let it out.”

“It’s pronounced ‘djinni’,” I replied (because this is a written work, I should clarify: that spelling is pronounced ‘gin-ny’, like the pinecone-flavored alcohol), before wilting when Gale shot me a glare. “Sorry… It’s just a weird metaphor, because if you managed to enchant a bottle or a lamp or whatever strong enough to hold a djinni, you can probably get it back in again without too much repeated effort.”

“Morty, I know I asked you to marry me…” Instead of trailing off into silence, Gale’s words trailed off into punching me square in the cheek. I should reiterate, at this point, that despite being the smaller of the two of us Gale was in more than decent physical shape, and I knew from experience that she could pack more than a bit of pain into a punch. As I recovered my sense of equilibrium lying on my side on the street, I heard her conclude. “…but that doesn’t mean I don’t fucking hate you sometimes.”

“Ow! Easy, Gale; I’m still healing.”

“You’ll be fine,” Gale answered, hauling me back to my hooves. “Get up, come on. That was just one of these fucking errands.”

“Are the rest all nobles like them?” I asked.

Gale shrugged. “For a given value of ‘noble.’ Some of them aren’t even unicorns, remember? Now come on; Mom had to get two of the guards to pull a chariot for us, and if we’re late and waste the guards' time, I’ll be hearing about it for forty years.”

Having been in some state between bedridden, comatose, and dead for the past several weeks, I felt my breath fighting to keep up with Gale’s brisk pace on the streets of Everfree, past the normal citizens and goings on of the Equestrian capital. Dressed regally as she was, Gale caught more than a bit of attention, most of which she ignored in single-minded determination, offering no more than an “In a hurry, sorry,” or an “excuse me” to whoever she was halfway through pushing past.

On one street, though, I found enough breath and enough walking space to speak up. “Did you wind up asking High Castle for something?”

Gale chuckled. “You mean for a birthday present? Yeah, I decided to really fuck him over; you’ll love this. I told him if he wanted my hoof, I needed a castle from him—”

“Is that what birthday presents usually are?” I asked, incredulous. “Buildings?”

“What? No! Well, maybe for me, since marrying me would make him Prince-Consort.” I swallowed nervously, taking in the scope of an expected gift for the heir to the unicorn throne. Gale, still walking briskly ahead of me, failed to notice. “Anyway, I’m sure his family actually owns two or three, and I don’t actually want a castle, but then I had the best part of this fucking idea. I told him it had to live up to his name: I wanted a castle in the clouds.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. “That sounds… hard.”

“Right? And the party’s tomorrow! I can’t wait to see that fucker trying to buy out some pegasus architect’s business with a million bits. As if you can even build a cloudstone shed in a day.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Pegasi have to compress cloud by hoof to turn it into cloudstone, which is solid even for us non-pegasi. And it takes a ton of cloud to make cloudstone. That’s why Cloudsdale’s streets are just loose cloud, and we have to drink those cloud potions to walk up there. Besides which, most of the cloudstone that gets produced gets melted and forged into skysteel for the Legion, so there isn’t a lot to go around for construction.”

I must have looked like a confused puppy when I turned my head. “Wait, pegasus swords are made of clouds?”

“And their armor,” Gale nodded. “And the strips on wagon wheels that let them ‘roll’ in midair when they’re pulled by pegasi. Frankly, most steel in Equestria is smelted clouds; it’s so much easier to make than ‘ground steel’. Even Dad’s sword that you have a fucking complex about made of clouds; he tore it out of the eye of a hurricane.”

“Huh.” I nodded. “Clouds… Color me impressed.”

I will never understand how Gale could fail to hear the scraping of ten thousand gears and springs and little… clockwork widgets (no, I do not know how clocks work—presumably, some sort of pact with fey lords or things from outside of time if the sanity of most clockmakers is to be taken as evidence) springing to life inside my head as I began to process an impossible question. Namely, with no magic, no money to my name, and less than twenty-four hours, how could I make a gift suitable of Her Royal Highness, Princess Platinum III?

As that question dug away at my confidence with all the comforts and reassurances of a flesh-eating bacteria in your gut, Gale’s lead finally saw us back to the grounds of Everfree’s palace. Our objective was not far inside the eastern gate, just past the statue of Smart Cookie, Archmage Clover, and Private Pan-Sea, where on my first arrival to Everfree City Gale’s elder half-sister had threatened to impale me with an icicle.

Fun memories!

The two Cirran legionaries, wearing armor much like that of the Royal Guard today but without the magic-insulating gold plating over the steel core, gave Gale curt professional bows. The elder, probably thirty, then gestured with a wing to the chariot they were both already hitched to. “We’re at your service, Princess.”

“Thank you, gentlestallions,” said Gale.

As we climbed into the ‘seat’ area of the little wooden tray that would shortly be our only separation from a precipitous drop and a rather messy death, I could hear the younger of the two soldiers speaking to his partner. “I can’t believe it; we’re about to be flying the Princess! Commander Typhoon’s little sister; this is such an hon—”

The thought ended when the junior soldier was clipped over the ear with a wing. “Quiet, legionary; focus.” And then, in a more hushed voice, he added “She’s out of your league anyway.”

Gale, who had heard the comment just as well as I did, turned to me and grinned. “Oh, I don’t know…” she purred, layering on the acting more than a little bit thick. Leaning forward over the front rail of the chariot seat, she dared to brush a hoof over the croup of the stallion, just above his dock and the base of his tail. “He seems cute enough.”

When Gale’s teasing hoof brushed against the hair of the stallion’s tail, he startled into a suddenly much more formal posture. “Um… Princess, I—”

“Please be seated, Princess Gale,” the older soldier ordered with steel in his voice. “We should be in the air.”

And then, all at once, we were. Both stallions charged forward with not but a nod between them to match the timings of their hooves, and with barely ten strides on the ground, both leapt and spread their wings. The palace gardens raced below us, and then the streets of Everfree, and soon ponies became ants, losing all sense of size and buildings became painted rooftops, losing all sense of height.

I only barely avoided losing all sense of my lunch. I hate flying. Unicorns belong down on the ground. If, for some incredibly stupid reason, a unicorn wants to be in the sky, then by the stars he should use his horn to redefine the direction of ‘down’, the way nature intended. And no, Archmage Hourglass, picking yourself up with telekinesis and ‘flying’ yourself around like a used tissue on its way to the rubbish bin is not an acceptable alternative, since I know you will inevitably read this someday. Have some class.

On the way up, as the contents of my stomach were in the process of violating my understanding of the direction ‘up’, Gale produced a pair of fizzing green potions from a pouch built into the rail of the chariot. From one former visit to the pegasus city, I knew they were intended to let wingless ponies walk on the clouds. Unfortunately, reflecting on that as an ‘intention’ only made the predicament of my nausea worse—given vomiting would mean that in addition to the social shame of such a public display of my stomach’s contents, I would also fall straight through the street to my death.

I desperately drank down my potion, and then held my stomach as I worked with all my might not to let it escape back from whence it came.

“Oh, get over it,” Gale ordered as she yanked me out of the chariot and onto the cloud streets. There had been dozens of lurches during our flight (unavoidable even with the best pullers in a vehicle as lightweight as a chariot), so I missed the one that signaled the vehicle coming to a stop. I was therefore terrified that Gale was flinging me into open air until I felt the clouds under me with a hoof. My other hoof, being occupied covering my mouth in the event my life-protecting drink decided to re-emerge, was in no place to keep me from falling face first on the clouds from the force of Gale’s tug.

Thankfully, clouds are soft.

Tragically, cloud streets that have been pounded smooth, even if they aren’t real cloudstone, are less so.

“Ow!”

Gale, for her part, demonstrated again that she was in far better physical shape than my svelte form when she wrapped a leg over my shoulder and hauled me to my hooves. That much was appreciated. The accompanying comment to the surrounding pegasi walking the street of, “Don’t mind him, folks; he’s pathetic, but he’s my problem,” was less appreciated.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said,” Gale answered. “Now come on. Baths are this way.” Just before taking the first stride after the direction of her hoof, Gale glanced to the two soldiers who had flown us up. “We’ll be back here to meet you in half an hour. In the meantime, have a drink at the Lookout. You can tell Cirrus to put it on Dad’s tab.”

“Um…” the younger soldier hesitated.

Gale rolled her eyes. “If she doubts it’s from me, tell her I said ‘Hey, bitch.’” Then, with a wink, she turned and headed away down the blindingly white streets of the original cloud metropolis.

As I darted after her to catch up on my bedsore legs, I noted how much of the tension in Gale’s form had vanished since our last discussion with a suitor. In Cloudsdale, despite the horn on her head, Gale seemed at home—though I had to wonder how much was enjoyment of the clouds under her hooves, and how much stemmed from her teasing of a poor rookie soldier.

As I pondered that question, Gale caught me staring at her, rolled her eyes, and then made perhaps just a bit too much of a show shaking her flanks as she slowed to let me catch up. “See something you like back there?”

“I…” You should be reminded, dear reader, that my only prior experience with romance before Gale was the captain of the Crystal Union’s guard, whose idea of a romantic night involved bare-hooves boxing me into a coma. Thus, rather than admitting I thought Gale was beautiful and flattering her as she obviously wanted, I stumbled my way into an excuse. “Sorry; I was thinking about, um… what you said back there. We’re going to take a bath? I thought we were visiting a suitor.”

Gale stopped, turned, and dropped her voice to a near whisper. “Okay, listen, Morty. They’re public baths. It’s a huge building. The colt we’re gonna meet is named Caporegime. His grandmother is the Dawn of the Coral family.”

“Uh… ‘the Dawn’?”

Gale rolled her eyes. “She runs the biggest criminal empire in Equestria.”

I, as you can imagine, had several questions. The first one that came to mind was the one I voiced. “You know that and your sister just lets her?”

“I wish it were that easy.” Gale shook her head. “Look, maybe this will help you understand. Way back in old Cirra when my dad was still a kid, there used to be a whole bunch of crime families. I don’t really get why, but they tended to have really close ties with the Church of Celeste—that’s what the pegasi used to call Celestia before anypony actually met her. Anyway, ‘Dawn’ was the title you called a priestess in that church, so it started to mean the head of one of these families. You following me so far?”

“Taking your word that Celestia’s church was that corrupt, sure.”

“Right. Well, when Emperor Magnus and his griffons went to war with the pegasi, and Dad had to lead everypony across the sea, Dawn Coral saw a huge opportunity. She pretty much took over. And she had Dad up against a wall, because even if he didn’t like her, she was mostly working for the good of the pegasi; most of her work was against the Diamond Kingdoms and the Low Valley. Hell, she still usually goes after unicorns and earth ponies. When the pegasi were so worn down from losing a war and most of their population, I guess Dad needed her help, even if he didn’t want it. And by the time things were built back up for the pegasi to the point that they could afford to go after her, she had her hooks in enough of the Cirran Senate and the Legion leadership that if Ty took her down, she’d take half the country with her.”

“And you don’t want to take down the corrupt half of the country because…?”

Gale huffed. “Because a little bit of organized crime is a fuck of a lot better than a civil war, or something.”

Or something?” I pressed.

Gale shot me a pained side-eye before she answered. “This is one of those reasons why Mom thinks I’m not ready to be Queen. And fuck, maybe she’s right; I don’t know. I know the 'correct' answer is letting the Dawn be, because fewer ponies get hurt that way and the country is stronger and all that shit. But it still feels wrong to me to look the other way.” Then she shook her head like a dog tossing rainwater from its ears, frantic and violent, dispelling all lingering traces of the unwanted subject. “The point, Morty, is that you might, and probably fucking will, absolutely want to start shit with Dawn Coral and Capo like you did with High Castle. But don’t. I know ‘or they’ll kill you’ doesn’t really apply to you, but it would still be more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise, Gale, but I don’t purposely start arguments.”

“Maybe you should start? Then you wouldn’t cause so-fucking-many by accident. Now look, we’re here.”

Some twenty years before anypony had even spoken the name ‘Equestria’, fresh on the shores of the Diamond Kingdoms, a young Commander Hurricane had ordered those of his soldiers who were still able bodied to gather clouds and build a city for the refugees of Cirra. What began as a cobbled together encampment of villas would, over the following months, be quickly replaced by ordered streets of permanent homes, workshops, markets, and all the other buildings that would take any other species without access to cloudstone decades to build. ‘Cloudsdale’ had been an almost sarcastic name for the makeshift city, lacking any of the ceremony and honor of the great cloud-titled Cirran city-states, like the capital Stratopolis or Iron Rain’s beloved Nimbus. Despite its ignominious origins, the name stuck.

When Hurricane began to transform his ragtag city into a new respectable capital for the pegasi, his first construction was not a palace for himself, not a fortress for his legions, not even a grand monument for the losses of Cirra to the griffons. His first orders were for a Cirran bath, a common gathering place where pegasi of all social classes could be equal and share in shedding the sweat and grime of a long day’s work. I am told that in old Cirra, there were dozens of these baths in the capital alone, and every major city had at least three.

The Silver Sword Memorial Baths put them all to shame.

Even today, eight hundred years later, those baths are a feat of engineering that I cannot match with the mightiest of my architecturally-focused feats of magic. And, thankfully, at least at the time of writing they are still standing, spared the cruel fate Nightmare Moon had for all the buildings of Everfree that had the audacity to be built on soil. If you ever have a chance, reader, you must absolutely make the time for a visit. For now, though I have no intention of diving into the intricacies of their design, but forgive me for just a moment to describe in short this amazing wonder of the world. The bath’s genius is that, while the outside of the structure is the same compressed marble-grade cloudstone as most of the rest of the major buildings in Cloudsdale, the interior of walls are stuffed with uncompressed natural clouds - specifically, charged thunderheads in the caldarium and laconicum (the hot baths and steam rooms), and frigid nimbostratus for the frigidarium (the cold baths and swimming pools). Water run out of the baths is heated to a vapor, removing any sweat or dirt from the bathers, and then fed back into the clouds clean to congeal as rainfall, ensuring that the baths are perpetually full of purified, temperature-controlled water, pumped at whatever pressure a pony wants.

Hurricane’s youngest daughter had long loved the steamy halls, splashing in the pools or soaking beside her father and listening to him tell stories of his own youth in faraway Cirra. It was in those halls that Gale most often broke down Hurricane’s guard, getting him to tell his stories of his childhood best friend, Silver Sword—the pony who gave his life to spare Hurricane his death in the final siege of Stratopolis by the griffons. Perhaps Hurricane was on the back hoof, standing in a building named for his childhood friend; I can’t speak to the legendary stallion’s motives, only Gale’s occasional bouts of reminiscence about the building.

By the time we reached the back of the baths, I was increasingly glad for Star Swirl’s work enchanting my jacket, which repelled the sweat and moisture seeping through my coat. Had we come to actually bathe, naked as most bathers are, the air would have been delightful. However, dressed and with a mission, the air was instead stifling and oppressive.

Our final destination was fairly obvious once we found ourselves in the very rear of the structure, facing a doorway flanked by two burly pegasus stallions. If you have ever heard a word like ‘goons’ or ‘mooks’ used to describe the subordinates of a criminal organization, you can already picture this pair, with their overdeveloped forelegs and wings and their nearly shaved bristly short manes. They both glanced briefly at Gale, but spent much longer watching me. “You have business with the Dawn, Princess?”

“Capo, mostly,” Gale answered, holding up his letter, the waxed parchment envelope resisting the moisture well. “But I can say ‘hi’ to her too while we’re here.”

The two guards nodded to each other, and shuffled slightly away from the opening in the wooden trellis separators. Gale entered without giving the stallions a second look, but when I moved to follow, two wings shot out in front of my muzzle, barring my path.

“Your coat, sir.”

“I’d… rather keep it.”

More forcefully, the guard stated something that apparently everypony in Equestria knew except me. “No one goes into a steam bath in a jacket, capiche?”

After a brief huff of frustration, I realized that getting the thing off without the use of my horn was a lot harder than getting my legs into the sleeves in the first place. Gale turned around in the doorway as I fumbled with the sash around my waist, and after a good thirty seconds of watching me flail with the sleeves, offered a pinch of her magic to slide one foreleg free. I spitefully offered my most precious possession to the insistent guard. “Don’t lose it. It’s probably worth more than your house.”

The stallion scoffed, as he and his partner both removed their wings to let me pass. “Don’t insult us.”

“We’re professionals, colt," said his compatriot.

Gale gave me a small smile—I assume by way of silent thanks for playing along instead of insisting on keeping the garment—and then led the way into the next room. There, amongst marbled cloud pillars, set into a raised tub, an elderly mare and a young stallion were resting in steaming waters.

The pegasus mare was a wrinkly specimen, that was certain, though it was hard to tell how much of the folding in her coat was from her age, and how much came from long hours soaking in the warm water of her private bath. Atop the wrinkles, her coat was a muted scarlet, and above that her ochre mane had been styled slicked back not unlike her grandson's—though in lieu of greasy gel to hold it in place, the older mare’s looked much more like the effect of dipping her head under the bathwater and tossing it back with a wing. She was the oldest pegasus I had ever met, even edging out Hurricane by a good few years, though Dawn Coral wore her decades far more elegantly. A small cloth towel hung loose around her neck and shoulders.

Aura?” A smile broke on the old mare’s wrinkly muzzle, and though the movement was transparently difficult even with water supporting her weight, she stood up and bowed her head until it was nearly touching the water. “What a welcome surprise. It must have been ages since I saw you at the baths. And is this young stallion the ‘Mortal Coil’ that I’ve heard so much about?”

At the welcome reception, I folded a leg across my chest and gave a bow. “I am. Dawn Coral, I presume?”

“Such a gentlestallion. Yes, I am, but just ‘Dawn’ is fine if you prefer. This is my grandson, Caporegime. Capo, Mortal Coil is the pony who fought the mad wizard from the Crystal Union.”

Caporegime Coral was a flying ball of sleaze even when he had all four hooves on the ground and his wings folded at his sides. From his musky cologne—somehow powerful enough to survive the pools of the bath—to his slicked back black mane, I have rarely met a pony I more constantly wanted to reinterpret as a collage. “I read the news too, Dawn,” Capo observed dryly, before tilting his head back. “Nice ta’ meet ya.” Then he offered a wide grin to Gale. “Now what’s this I hear about a sweet young unicorn filly comin’ all the way up to Cloudsdale just for little old me?”

Gale extended Capo’s letter toward him in her magic. “This is an invitation to my birthday party.”

“Oh, just special for me? Gods, I must be blessed or something—”

“All the suitors get one,” Gale interrupted him. “Look, it’s waxed but I don’t think you should have it in the tub. Do you want me to set it somewhere?”

Capo snatched the letter out of the air with a dripping wing and tucked it corner-first into his mane, behind one of his ears. “It’ll be fine. You know what you want for a present?”

Gale grinned like a cat looking at a mouse. “Let me think for a second.”

Dawn Coral chuckled. “Well, you two are welcome to soak for a few moments. It might do something for Mr. Coil’s neck, at least.” When I raised a brow, Dawn Coral gave a small shrug of her wings. “You’ve got quite the scar healing there. I know it’s bad form to ask about scars, but I do have to express my curiosity if that’s a story you’re willing to tell.”

“It’s bad form to ask about scars?” I asked.

Capo chuckled. “You really don’t know your way around pegasi, do ya’? Most ponies the Dawn’s age don’t like talking about the Red Cloud War—eh, if you don’t know, that’s what we call the last war with the griffons, when we left Dioda and met all youse unicorns and earth ponies.”

“Scars usually bring up tough memories,” the Dawn concurred. “Even if the war was a lifetime ago, some wounds never set properly.” Then she nodded in my direction. “But you’re young and lively; will you humor an old mare, Mortal?”

I felt myself stiffen and what remained of the coat on my neck around the scar in question bristle at the use of my first name, but Gale calmed me quickly, placing a hoof on mine beneath the water’s surface. “He prefers ‘Morty’ or Coil.”

I shrugged, finding the slight much more bearable with Gale’s support. “You didn’t know; it’s fine. Most ponies who call me by my first name use it to try to talk down to me. And my parents didn’t exactly like me, which is probably obvious from the name ‘Mortal Coil’.” I let myself slacken a bit further into the pool, enjoying how nice the warm water felt on limbs that had been stuck in bed for weeks. “Wintershimmer—he was the archmage of the Crystal Union who I had to fight but also my master... I suppose I should say my former master.”

“Sensitive subject?” Dawn Coral asked, apparently reading into the hesitance in my voice. I was struck by the gentleness and sympathy in not only the question but her body language. Perhaps I had just been primed to expect less grandmotherly good nature from Gale’s introduction that the mare was a ruthless criminal. “I apologize.”

“Huh? No, it’s not sensitive. Just complicated. Trying to figure out where to start.” I bit my cheek for a moment before I spoke up. “The guard captain of the Crystal Union is a mare named Silhouette. She and I never really got along…” I very nearly launched into a list of the ways in which she was corrupt, but a squeeze of my foreleg from Gale reminded me who I was speaking to. “Wintershimmer framed me for murder, and she chased me all the way to River Rock and back here to Everfree. Eventually, I convinced her I was innocent; when she helped me fight Wintershimmer, he cut off one of her forelegs. Then he…” Another pause was filled with my pondering just how much I wanted to talk about the logistics of ripping out and re-inserting souls. I settled on “He took over her mind and forced her to attack me. So she gave me the scar, but it’s really Wintershimmer’s fault.”

Dawn Coral raised a brow as she turned toward Gale. “And is it true you were part of this, Aura?”

“Some, yeah.” Gale nodded. “Me, Aunt Celestia, Tempest… pretty much all of Morty’s friends. I actually cut that old fucker’s horn off, but Morty did most of the hard work.”

“I see.” Dawn Coral nodded with perhaps more enthusiastic approval than a story about gruesome dismemberment deserved. “For all the bone on your brow, you are certainly your father’s daughter, Aura.”

“Why do you keep calling her that?” I asked.

“It’s Cirran,” Caporegime explained, despite not clarifying the matter for me in the slightest.

“A sign of respect amongst us old bags from old Cirra,” Dawn Coral added, laughing. “Hurricane may hate being called ‘emperor’ to his face, but amongst ponies of our generation he’ll always be Cataegis Haysar. ‘Aura’ means a gale—like the wind—in Cirran.”

“Ah. So not a magical aura.” I let myself dip a bit deeper into the warm water still, sighing with irresistible relief at the feeling.

“What did you mean about me being like Dad?” Gale asked Dawn. “I assume you don’t mean he went around chopping off ponies’ horns?”

Dawn suppressed a laugh with a wing held arthritically in front of her muzzle, but I could still see the laughter lines tuck up on her cheeks. “Aura, how scandalous! Saying those things about your own father!” When her shocked humor faded away, she shook her head most emphatically. “No, no. I suppose I should say, I mean no disrespect to Hurricane. He has my utmost admiration as the leader of Cirra. He guided us through our darkest hours. But what I meant is that Hurricane was always terrible at delegating. Absolutely abysmal. I imagine it was a poorly learned lesson from the Red Cloud War. He always did everything with his own two wings.”

“How do you learn to be bad at delegating from running a war?” I asked

Again, my naïve question led to laughter from the Dawn, though I never got the sense she was laughing at my ignorance, nor at my expense. Hence, despite Gale’s warnings, I found myself liking the old criminal much better than I had the supposed ‘nobles’ of the House of Gullion.

“Hurricane was barely older than you three when he became Emperor of Cirra, and he inherited a government that schemed behind his back constantly.” Though her smile held for a moment, the Dawn’s expression began to grow leaner as she recalled a war most pegasi in those days hated to bring up. “The war was already lost by then, and most of the senate was more concerned with how to get peace out of Magnus and make Hurricane take the fall than they were thinking about how to win, or at least preserve the empire in a defeat. Now, I was hardly in Hurricane’s inner circle in those days, but from what I hear, the news that there was even land to flee to over the ocean was almost hidden from him in a footnote of some report. And if that message had never reached his ears… well, I have no doubt we would not be speaking today.” Dawn Coral let her mane dip into the water as she tilted her hair back, soaking the wrinkled coat of her neck and breathing deeply of the steamy air. “Perhaps he didn’t offer such a critique of his own leadership style, Aura, but I assume you already know the story otherwise.”

Gale scoffed. “I wish. Dad never talks about the Red Cloud War. The most I ever get is hearing about his best friend Silver Sword and his old wife Swift Spear, and how he used to be a wheat farmer in Zephyrus. I know tons of shit about Cirra before the war, but I get more about the war from ponies who weren’t even born yet than I do from Dad.”

“Hmm…” Dawn Coral sighed. “Perhaps you should visit me more often. I’d be glad to teach you our history. Your history. You deserve to know.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Gale countered. “But if I really need to know, I’ll just ask Iron Rain.”

That name rang some kind of bell in the back of my mind, though I couldn’t place it sitting in the baths. Instead, I sat quietly as Dawn Coral leaned forward. Her face said all sorts of things to me, like ‘you really think she knows as much as I do?’ or ‘Insult me again.’ But what actually came out of the Dawn’s mouth was “I’m glad you share such a strong connection with her, Aura. And I would never want to come in the way of that.” I really, really expected a ‘but’, but it never came. Dawn Coral laid back in the water again, submerging herself nearly to her chin, and sighed in contentment. “I don’t know if you young ponies can appreciate it, but the warm water is such a salve for old bones.”

“It feels fantastic to me,” I agreed. “The location’s a little inconvenient though.”

“Hah!” Dawn Coral nodded as she chuckled. “Fair and then some. Perhaps I should speak to the magistrate about taking the baths down to ground level for a day.” Then she sat forward again. “Then perhaps Cataegis would finally stop making excuses and come to visit with me again.”

“Cataegis?” Though Dawn had said the name once a few moments earlier, it wasn’t a term I was familiar enough with to place in a moment.

“Emperor Hurricane,” Capo clarified. “Cataegis Gladioprocellarius Haysar.

“Don’t say it to his face, though, Morty. He hates being called that.” Gale warned.

Capo shrugged and let out a non-committal huff. “It’s a sign of respect. The stallion saved Cirra, and throws bolts of lightning like spears—”

“Forty years ago, maybe,” Gale cut in. “And I still think the ‘lightning bolt’ thing is bullshit. If he could really do that, he’d still have both his wings. I know he did a lot of good things for Equestria, but come on: he’s still just some old stallion; not some ‘god’.”

Dawn Coral nodded. “With many, many ponies behind him who aren’t as well remembered. The same can be said of your mother, and of Chancellor Puddinghead, Aura. It’s a good lesson for a future ruler. For your father, yet another lesson from the Red Cloud War.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “I get the point, Dawn, thank you.” Then she chuckled, with just a hint of an edge to the laughter’s tone. “Well, if Dad learned all these lessons I’m supposed to pick up from the Red Cloud War, then I know exactly what I want for my birthday, Capo.”

“Oh?” He leaned forward, intrigued by the lead-in.

Dawn Coral, for her part, donned the first open frown of concern that I had seen on her otherwise jovially grandmotherly features; there was a mare who knew a trap was coming.

“Well, it’s simple. I want to meet a griffon, and see what all the fuss was about.”

Despite her sense of warning, Dawn Coral was struck mute by that request. Capo too was left stuttering in shock and confusion at the request. “You… you want me to what? You think it’sa good idea bringin’ a griffon here?” Some hint of a strangely Cirran accent slipped into his words as he fumbled with Gale’s audacious request. “Aren’tcha worried about restarting the whole Red Cloud War? Ya crazy! What if they attack Equestria?”

“Don’t be stupid, Capo. I’m not interested in starting a fucking war; I just want to meet one. Besides, if Magnus does decide to pick a fight, Equestria has two goddesses that Cirra didn’t. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this asshole could rip his soul out.” Gale tilted her horn to gesture to me. “So, yeah, that’s my birthday wish. Magnus, if you can get him, but any griffon will do. Maybe wrapped in a nice purple bow?”

Finally, Dawn Coral sat forward, finding both the posture and the words to speak. “Are you attempting to offend me and my grandson, Aura, or do you simply not understand the gravity of what you’re asking for?”

“Who knows?” Gale answered the Dawn with as ferocious a smile as she could muster. “Maybe neither; maybe I’m interested in seeing what I get from my suitors if I ask for something like that?” She had the audacity to wink at the older mare, and to my astonishment, it took just the edge off of the sharpness of the Dawn’s disgruntled features. “Maybe somepony who can do the impossible is what gets me turned on?” Then she chuckled as the Dawn’s eyebrows rose. “I’m sure somepony as familiar with history as you can find some damn metaphor for it. But for now, we’ve got places to be. It’s been nice. Come on, Morty; time to go.”

Dawn Coral sighed, but extended a hoof in my direction. “Coil, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“You as well, Dawn,” I replied, shaking her hoof, and then moving to her grandson. “Capo.”

“Coil.” He nodded. “I hope you are just her friend. I’d hate to be your rival.”

“Yeah, you probably would,” I replied, unable to resist myself.

After we retrieved our respective outfits from the guards at the door and left the baths, Gale and I found ourselves once again on the streets of Cloudsdale. Thankfully, Gale knew to pull a chain on the wall near the baths’ exit. The result was a burst of warm air from a series of holes on the walls of the baths, which dried our coats before we stepped out into the much thinner and much colder air of the sky city

As we made our way back to the waiting chariot that would return us to the sanity of solid ground, Gale spoke up. “So… Thoughts?”

“I think there’s a certain hypocrisy to asking me not to start trouble, and then telling the Dawn that you want to meet a live griffon, her sworn enemy. If you really want to talk to a griffon, why not just wait until my horn is healed, and I can seance you up any dead griffon you like?”

Gale scoffed. “Morty, it’s not about wanting to talk to a griffon… I mean, don’t get me wrong, that actually sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and we should actually have you do that. But the point is screwing over Capo. He’s never going to be able to get anything resembling a fucking griffon here. Half the legion would go apeshit berserk if he even tried flying back to Dioda. And I basically told the Dawn exactly why I was asking for it; believe me, if she were actually mad, she wouldn’t have looked that mad.”

“I…” I fumbled with comprehension for a moment. “I beg your pardon, but what?”

You can often judge the magnitude of a skilled politician’s emotions quite easily,” Gale recited in imitation of her mother’s voice, “simply by paying attention to how much effort they put into not showing emotions. If somepony has the talent to hide behind a mask, then any but the rawest show of strong emotion becomes just another mask to hide behind.

“Okay…” I nodded. “Wintershimmer used to talk about controlling your emotions to keep your reason in control. I guess that follows. I don’t get the point of pretending to be emotional when you aren’t though. He always said being stone faced and making ponies guess is better than showing anything at all.”

“Being stone faced turns ponies off,” Gale answered, with a hint of tiredness in her voice just from that short explanation. “One of the most important parts of succeeding in politics is getting other ponies to like you.” Then she nodded down our path, where the chariot and our two charioteers were waiting. “Gentlestallions,” she greeted them with a smile. “If you could take us down to the east side of the city, we’re headed to Chancellor Puddinghead’s home.”

“Puddinghead?” I asked.

Gale nodded. “The next suitor is his son, Peanut Gallery. Now quit squirming and get on the chariot.”

The ride down was no more pleasant than the ride up, but at least I knew my hoof wouldn’t go straight through the ground when I got off.