• 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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Queen Platinum's Ploy

Sir Chiseled Gem held the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Argent Chain, but even that prestigious title had been a hard fall for the stallion. Born a landed count to the esteemed House of Studded Gems, banners of King Lapis' House of the Rising Sun, it was a foregone conclusion that the young unicorn would receive a minor military command the moment he completed his studies as a squire of the aforementioned knightly order. What was hardly such a given—for even nepotism can only carry one so far—would be that his courage in battle would carry him to summary command of the entire Diamond Guard (that is, the historical unicorn national military) at the age of forty-two.

Unfortunately for Gem, by the time he was given his post, the Diamond Guard's days of relevance were already numbered; the campaign against the crystal barbarians in which he had earned both his fame and his commission had been fought alongside the then-mercenary forces of one reasonably well-known pegasus stallion: Commander Hurricane. And while it would be a historical disservice to demean Gem's capabilities as an inspiring leader, or a capable fighter in his own right, it would also be nothing short of utterly stupid to claim the Diamond Guard were useful as anything more than reserves in any conflict where the Legion, with their enormous mobility, air superiority, and ability to control the weather, were present.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that when Equestria was founded, and the decision was reached that a new nation should have only one organized military, Sir Chiseled Gem's duties vanished out from beneath his hooves, and he was left with only the titles of leadership over a knightly order almost entirely ceremonial in purpose ('ceremonial purposes' being the exact terms of the original constitution of Equestria under which the unicorn monarch was allowed to maintain the service of her historical knights).

It was this arc of the preeminent Equestrian knight's life that lingered in the forefront of Queen Platinum III's mind as she walked (the scandal!) from my home on Ridgeline Way to the Chapel of the Silver New Moon. The amusingly named structure was the successor to the Order of the Argent Chain's original headquarters, the Chapel of the Silver Moon, which had been 'lost' when River Rock was abandoned to eternal winter.

The Everfree chapel was a modest building compared to the temple to Celestia where Gale had first introduced me to Count Halo. It was still a stone building at its base, but up about the height one would mark a story, its walls switched over to wood. Only a single stained glass window could be found high on the wall, depicting glittering white stars in a dark sapphire night sky, and a single perfectly circular dark-tinted void where one might imagine a new moon, outlined in shining silver. Beneath its light, two rows of pews (cushioned, but hardly ornate) led up to a stone altar with a carving of Luna new enough that it depicted her with wings, instead of the old unicorn style where she was imagined merely to have a longer-than-average horn. Beside it, a silver ceremonial brazier and a basin sat unlit and unfilled respectively, and overhead, a silver chain with twelve links hung on a board mounted against the wall opposite the door.

Also very much unlike Celestia's temple, the chapel seemed to only be host to a single pony that afternoon.

Gale had expected to find Gem in an office or some sort of personal quarters—she had never actually been inside the chapel before, and so had no idea Gem's personal space consisted of a glorified broom closet off the side of the main chamber—but to her surprise and convenience, he was standing just before the altar when she entered. Well into his eightieth year, Gem had clearly put on a touch of weight since the campaigning days of his youth, though hardly so much that he looked like he had any trouble carrying on his days or his duties. He wore a single sword at his side, much as he had the day prior at the events outside the Stable of Nobles. Unlike those events, instead of a full suit of armor, painted sapphire and then sealed to a radiant shine, he simply wore a silver sash, wrapped in one loop around his waist and one that swept up across his back, over his right shoulder, and then down underneath his left foreleg.

The stallion was occupied polishing a length of much finer silver chain than the one hanging on the plaque overhead as Gale approached, such that she could probably have reached out and touched his shoulder by the time he noticed her presence. However, rather than stumbling or flailing at the presence of his sovereign, Gem maintained his focus and continued his task even as he acknowledged her. "Your Majesty. I apologize, I wasn't expecting your company."

"That's my fault," Gale answered. "I didn't know I needed to talk to you until a few hours ago."

"Oh?" Gem's horn gently faded as he lowered a rag damp with some polishing mixture into a small bowl on the side of the altar, before finally turning and lowering himself into a bow as formal as one could reasonably expect from a stallion of his age. "And how can this old stallion help the crown?"

"Well," said Gale, "Firstly, I wanted to thank you for your assistance at the Stable yesterday."

"Well," Gem answered with a moment's hesitation, before he offered her a gentle smile and a dip of his head. "I don't want to give the impression I'm happy about what happened yesterday, but it felt good to be useful as more than just a decoration in the corner of the throne room."

Gale stepped up to the altar fully, glancing down at the chain Gem had been polishing. "Sounds like this will be an easy question, then. Would you be interested in having a command again?"

Gem scoffed, raising a brow as he did. "Your Majesty, you flatter me… but I'm a stallion well past my prime." He glanced to the chain on the table, and lifted it momentarily in his magic as he spoke. "Don't get me wrong; I still relish the vows I took before your grandfather. It isn't a question of desire, I assure you; only ability. Romping around the frontier is a job for younger ponies with better joints."

"You kept up with my pace pretty well yesterday," Gale countered, though a flow of sympathy slipped into her tone.

The comment was answered by Gem with a heavy sigh. "I did… and I'm afraid I'm paying for it today. When I'm done with my duties here, I have an appointment with Lady Menage to get my hooves on some balm for my right hip. It'll be everything I can do to get home after that."

"I could lend you the Royal Carriage."

Gem chuckled at the suggestion, good humored but dismissive. "I think that might be a step too far for poor Sir Gauntlet, forced to cart around his old friend instead of the Queen he's sworn to serve." The knight shook his head, ruffling the silver sash on his shoulder with the motion. "I can hire a chariot if it comes to that, Your Majesty. Your stipend is quite generous. But I'm afraid I'll have to turn down your offer."

"You haven't even heard it," Gale answered, audibly frustrated, before taking a moment and a harsh breath to center herself. "Sir Gem… what I'm offering you will not require you to leave Everfree City."

Sir Gem looked at Gale very much as if she had grown another head. "I… forgive my skepticism, Your Majesty, but what kind of leader stays at home while his forces are in the field?"

"Well, you wouldn't have to do that either." Gale shook her head. "I'm sorry; I should have led with the idea. Typhoon and I were talking about what happened yesterday, and we were discussing the need for a city guard that isn't made up of Legion soldiers. Ponies who aren't trained to kill, so we don't have disasters like yesterday."

Gem again raised a brow, but there was far less skepticism in his expression. "Well… perhaps I shouldn't have turned you down so abruptly. But even if this is a good fit when I have heard all the details, my Queen, I still cannot promise you more than a few years of my services."

Gale nodded in agreement. "Look, the reason I need you is you're basically the only unicorn military commander still alive. It would be a pretty bad look if I grabbed somepony from the Legion after yesterday, when the point is not to have the Legion's style of fighting running the guard. So if I don't get you, I'm basically down to hiring a Horseatic League mercenary company to train up some guards. Which would work in a pinch, but they're pricey, and at the end of the day, they're not exactly the friendliest ponies either. But I promise, our first priority will be finding somepony who can take over full time, once we've got the basics built up."

"I think I can be of service for such a cause," Gem said, breaking into a grin despite his own best efforts. "But now I do have to stick my nose in your business... how do you intend to pay for this? We'll need to hire hundreds, maybe even a thousand ponies. And won't this offend the pegasi? Since the Legion is guaranteed to be Equestria's only military?"

"It was Typhoon's idea," Gale answered. "And the entire point is for it not to be a military. It's a force of guards, not soldiers. Which… kinda sounds like a nitpick, I know, but it's the kind of nitpicky bullshit I'm pretty sure I can get to stand up, especially since Typhoon was in favor of it. I'll deal with getting everypony on our side, don't worry. Yesterday makes the need for this pretty obvious. As for paying for it… I have a plan that should get funding into law. But in the worst-case scenario, I'll pay out of my treasury funds. Even if the best case plan works, I want you to get started as soon as possible."

Gem raised a brow. "Your Majesty, you might well bankrupt the House of the Rising Sun before the year's end. Wages for a thousand ponies add up terrifyingly quickly, I assure you—"

"It won't come to that. If it honestly comes to bankrupting the royal line or keeping the guard, I'll marry Peanut and we'll get the earth pony coffers to keep things afloat."

"I… I see you are determined. Very well." Gem took up his chain from the altar, and draped it over his neck, before magically joining it loosely in front—the effect was rather like a necklace lacking a pendant, though the magically joined links had just enough more weight that the symbol of his knightly devotion still dipped down in 'V' shape, rather than looking like an edgy collar. "By your leave, I shall begin to make some discreet contact with a few other ponies I think may be helpful. Do you have a name for the organization?"

The question caught Gale flat-hoofed. "Um… well, I guess in my head I was just thinking something like 'the city guard'. But I guess the point is eventually to be for more than just Everfree, so that wouldn't work. And 'Platinum's Guard' is a little dumb, isn't it?"

"Certainly, if you want to avoid the other problem of your sister's Legion, I would avoid any name that links the guard too closely to the unicorns. Otherwise, we may well end up ostracizing the other two races."

Gale shook her head. "Fuck."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Sorry, just… it's another case of Mom's way of doing things being right in a way that makes me feel shitty. Um, I think that after yesterday, if my plan is going to work, I need this to really be a thing I'm doing. But you're right about the Legion being all pegasus officers. We should make a point to make sure you fill out your staff with the other two tribes. Ideally, when you're done, we replace you with an earth pony, or maybe a non-Legion pegasus. But the name really does need to be about me—that way everypony will see this is the answer to what happened yesterday."

"Hmm…" Gem closed his eyes in deep thought, and then uttered three words that have survived a thousand years of Equestrian history.

"The 'Royal Guard'?"

A pause settled between the two unicorns, a meaningful weighty quiet. It was as if, somehow, they could feel in the air that the phrase Sir Gem had made up off the cuff would somehow change the way the very concept of a 'guardspony' would evolve for literal centuries to come.

"Eh," said Gale, "I'm not sure I'm in love with it, but it'll work for now."

There is nothing, nothing as permanent as a temporary name.

Sir Chiseled Gem stretched a hoof across his chest and offered Gale a bow. "Then let me thank you, Your Majesty, for finding a place for an old stallion one more time. Once I've made some inroads and found a few good candidates, I will request a meeting with your chamberlain. In the meantime, is there anything else I can do for the crown?"

Gale shrugged. "Just indulge a little curiosity. Yesterday, you acted like you didn't know Tempest."

"Well, I haven't met the young stallion—"

"Tempest said he knew you, even if it was a long time ago," Gale interrupted, pointedly maintaining momentum in the conversation. "It isn't a problem, Sir Gem; I'm just wondering if there's going to be some sort of issue…" Gale let the uncertainty hang in the air as she finally yielded space in the room.

Nervously, but also with notable confusion, Sir Gem frowned. "Is there an issue, Your Majesty?"

Gale sighed (theatrically, though with enough subtlety to give her plausible deniability). "I had your past looked into before I came here to ask you about this idea for the Royal Guard." (Lest anypony be confused about something I omitted from the story, this was a lie.) "Mom and Dad both speak very highly of you. But there was one concerning thing I read about, and I'm worried about a potential conflict of interest. When Tempest was a very young foal, I found a few records of you giving quite a lot of money to Typhoon… You're a knight, Sir Gem, and I trust you will be honest with me, so I suppose I'll just come out and say it. Are you Tempest's father?"

Gem winced. "No, Your Majesty! I…" Put awkwardly on the spot, the stallion swallowed. "I give you my word, I would never have violated my honor as a knight, nor the trust of my friend Hurricane, by taking advantage of his daughter."

"I'm glad to hear that," Gale admitted. "But because this is a sensitive situation, I am going to need more of an explanation."

Gem frowned, but his eyes refused to flee from Gale's gaze. "I promise, it is a purely personal matter. A shame for me, but not because of any action I took. At least, not directly. I give you my word, on my honor as a knight, and on the argent chain that symbolizes my oath, that I have not done anything to compromise my loyalty to Your Majesty, nor your mother before you, nor her father before her."

"Also good to hear," Gale pressed, "but I really do have to insist on an explanation, Sir Gem." When a flash of regret flickered over Gem's face, Gale mirrored the expression—albeit for a different reason. Thoughts of just how fully she had given in to her mother's lessons on interequine manipulation and diplomacy, and the pain they caused the objectively innocent old stallion before her, stung her with self-inflicted accusations of hypocrisy. Still, she pressed on. "I give you my word, the goddesses as my witnesses, that I won't spread whatever shame you're holding onto unless I absolutely have to." Again, Gale felt a pang of inward pain, neglecting to mention that her plans already called for just such a 'necessary' revelation.

But then, as Queen Platinum I had so wisely taught her, she already knew the answer to her question. The only purpose to the exercise was establishing that Gem had told her.

"Very well," Sir Gem answered, bowing his head slightly. "I am not Tempest's father; I am his grandfather. My late son was…" And there, hesitating on words, Gem's eyes broke from his sovereign's gaze for the first time, unable to sustain his pride and his knightly integrity. "...he slipped onto a dark path," the knight at last admitted. "I failed him as a father; I was too consumed with my career and my oaths, and I didn't see what he had become until it was too late."

Gale—fully knowing the horrible implication of what she was about to dig up—steeled herself and felt her core tighten in disgust even as she feigned ignorance. "So, what, he got Typhoon drunk one night? They had a little fling?"

Sir Chiseled Gem shook his head, and a slight tremor slipped into his neck as he did so. "No, he… Shattered's little gang thought they could get some kind of power if they helped Cyclone lead his insurrection. Cyclone betrayed Commander Typhoon into my son's care, and he—"

By that point, Gale's stomach couldn't take pushing her knight's pain any further. That, or she simply felt Gem had gotten far enough in his story that she could believably make the final jump. I cannot say for sure; I only know that she cut him off with "Celestia!" And then, in the ensuing moment of silence. "Sir Gem, I'm sorry; I didn't know…"

"Your Majesty has a right to know; it could affect my service," Gem offered by way of consolation to Gale's feelings, perhaps mistaking her own twisting gut at lying to his face and hurting him for some kind of bitter sympathy. "But if you will allow me to take my leave, I am afraid I find myself in need of my balm and a night's sleep."

"Of course," Gale agreed, and as she watched Sir Gem walk out of the chapel, she quietly wondered whether it made her a better queen or a far worse one, that she wanted to throw up.

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