• 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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A Harsh Deal

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase frowned when one of the Stable's servants entered her office. "I trust this is important?" she asked, depositing her quill into her inkwell.

"My apologies for interrupting; Queen Platinum is asking to see you." The mousy young mare, a third-daughter of some baronet Chrysoprase was sure she could come up with the name of if she spent a few seconds tracing family trees in her mind, kept her eyes locked on the floor of the office. "Should I tell Her Majesty that you will be out when you're done, or—"

"Oh, Sisters, no," Chrysoprase corrected with a gentle (and calculated) chuckle. "Her Majesty certainly counts as important. Please, see her in."

Nodding nervously, the filly departed, and when Gale entered a moment later, the way the only slightly older Queen carried herself told Chrysoprase everything she needed to know about how the subsequent conversation was going to proceed. Nevertheless, she quirked a brow, and asked the obvious question anyway. "How can I be of service to the crown, Your Majesty?"

Gale, failing to suppress a grin at the sensation of victory over the stubborn ways of the Stable, answered with a hint of pride much more befitting yours truly. "Things are going quite well for me, actually; I stopped by because I wanted to do you a favor by letting you know the state of some negotiations, and then I was thinking we might make a trade."

"Oh? Your kindness with the gift of knowledge is appreciated, then." Chrysoprase leaned back on her seat and steepled her forehooves. "But do go on."

"At tomorrow's meeting of Parliament, the settlement bill is going to pass," Gale explained.

Chrysoprase raised a brow. "Hmm… Are you certain? You'd need at least half of the unicorn body of votes, and while I'm certain you might have wrangled some to your cause—"

"I don't need any unicorn votes," Gale interrupted, bringing even greater surprise to Chrysoprase's brow. "I made arrangements with Typhoon and Peanut Gallery. I have enough pegasus and earth pony votes to get the bill through."

"Really? I'm very curious what you had to trade away to make that miracle a reality. But let's set that aside. What concerns me most is the optics of unity between the crown and the Stable. You would willingly go behind the back of your own tribe?"

"I'm not stupid enough to think that's a good look," Gale answered with a nod. "But I think I made it clear in my speech to the stable that if a bad look is what it takes to move Equestria forward, that doesn't bother me. That's what I want to make a deal about." Gale helped herself to a seat in front of her great-aunt's desk. "Peanut wants an earth pony on the stable before I name a pegasus. He suggested Grainwood. And because he presented her as just a Horseatic League representative, and the choice as his way of building up some unity and goodwill within the earth pony tribe, I'm pretty he doesn't know that I know who Grainwood really is."

"Which is…" Chrysoprase prompted.

"Puddinghead's spymaster."

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase raised her brows in genuine surprise, though perhaps not for the reason Gale would have liked to believe. A moment later, she leaned fiercely forward. "Your allegation does make a certain kind of sense, Your Majesty. But I assume you have evidence to back these claims."

Gale winced. "I… Well, a mare does have to have her secrets."

"Perhaps. But your offer doesn't seem especially valuable if I can't verify it." Chrysoprase glanced across her desk, lifted a piece of blank parchment, and unrolled it in front of her. "Do you have a better offer?"

Gale scoffed, and then stared deep into her Great Aunt's eyes. I generally refrain from digging too far into Gale's mind in describing these interactions, but I fear without some description of her thoughts, her next comment might seem insane.

I've highlighted before that Gale, despite her deep hatred of the idea that she might become like her mother, had learned more than a bit of the raw skills that underlie statesmareship: oratory, history, negotiation, and so forth. One skill she had practiced more than any other, however, and that was the art of reading another pony—honed not with Platinum's hired tutors, but in countless hours staring into Iron Rain's eye during their duels, and learning to read the thoughts in the older mare's head by the way she moved, and even more over card tables with Tempest and Lark, or whatever nobles happened to be at hoof, fleecing everypony of whatever happened to be on the table for coin despite probably being twice as inebriated as anypony else present.

Chrysoprase was a harder foe than any against whom Gale usually practiced, since she was trained in hiding such things—in cold fact, by Gale's own admission, Chrysoprase was far and away her better. The Grand Duchess, however, suffered a massive handicap to her 'score': the fact that her bluff had called up heavy and painful emotion in the aged mare. And so, Gale found herself at an advantage, and called.

"You already know," Gale prodded.

"I… beg your pardon?"

"You didn't doubt me at all. You were surprised when I said Grainwood was a spy, but you don't sound like you don't believe me. You're not asking for proof to convince you; you're asking because you want to know my source. And you let a little emotion slip; did I worry you? Which means this was a secret you were keeping from Mom, and you've lost an advantage you have over me."

Chrysoprase gritted her teeth for a second, took a short breath, and then nodded. "Your Majesty is more competent than I had given credit for; that's my mistake. You've read me like a book." That was a lie, but one which slipped past Gale effortlessly. "I will make arrangements with my representatives in the Stable in exchange for Grainwood. Congratulations on your victory, Your Majesty. Might I treat you to a drink before you depart?"

Gale did, in fact, take the offered drink—and despite how ominous Chrysoprase's timing might have been, it proved not to have been poisoned. Satisfied and wearing a smile after an exchange of political words—an hitherto unheard of reaction for the young unicorn monarch—Gale departed Chrysoprase's office.

No sooner was she out of earshot than the office's bell, summoning a servant, rang ferociously with Chrysoprase's urgency. The Grand Duchess' demands were simple, and in a matter of less than an hour, they were carried out.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Star Swirl the Bearded teleported into Chrysoprases' office about three-quarters of an hour after Gale left, carrying a gnarled wooden staff and wearing a bandolier (rather like the one he had arranged for me during my duel with Wintershimmer) equipped with an array of potions, scrolls, and miscellaneous magical accouterments.

"You said there was some magical danger?" the old wizard demanded before the noise of the 'pop' of his teleportation had even left his fellow noble's ears.

Chrysoprase sat with raised brows for a moment before she collected herself and nodded to a seat. "I didn't mean of the sort that needed violence for its resolution; I'm sorry if my messenger failed to capture the nuance of my request."

For that admission, Star Swirl let out a groan. "And I was rather busy… but very well; I'm here now. Am I to be wearing the hat of the Duke of House Zodiac for this meeting?"

"No, your pointy one will do just fine, Archmage." Chrysoprase chuckled, and offered the old mage a glass of wine from the same bottle which had been decanting on her desk since Gale's departure. "But I'm glad you came quickly; it is a matter of serious concern to me."

Star Swirl took a seat and refused the glass of wine with a wave of a forehoof. "Let's skip the pleasantries and get straight to the problem."

Chrysoprase gave a nod. "Earlier today, Queen Platinum came into my office to offer me Puddinghead's spymaster on a silver platter."

"The new queen, or—"

"Just as you are very precise with your magic, Archmage, I am very precise with noble titles. The elder Platinum is now the Queen-Mother. But for the sake of being explicit, I mean…" And here, Chrysoprase let out a sigh. "...Gale."

"Ah." Star Swirl raised a brow. "That seems uncharacteristically cut-throat of her."

"Towards me, perhaps, but certainly not toward…" Here, Chrysoprase hesitated. "What I am about to tell you, I need your word you will keep secret."

"So long as it does not lead to the harm of another pony, you have my word."

That, evidently, was good enough for Chrysoprase. "Miss Grainwood is Puddinghead's spymaster. That much I've known for something like twenty years. Puddinghead—or more likely, Grainwood herself—generally put forward the idea that her role belongs to Mr. Thrown Shade, who is generally successful in acting the part enough that those who go looking tend to wind up assuming he is the ultimate power behind the earth pony espionage apparatus. Their ploy is quite effective; it would probably have fooled me, had I not known about her appointment the very day Puddinghead granted it all those years ago."

"I assume you're referring to Solemn Vow?" Star Swirl asked.

"The very same. Obviously, I didn't know that he'd found out about the change in power because he assassinated Grainwood's predecessor—honestly, even now that's an assumption—but he did use the fact that he knew about the new spymaster as a piece of information to push himself into our good graces."

"Very well." Star Swirl nodded. "But Solemn Vow has been dead for all those years you're talking about—a brief resurrection by Wintershimmer in the recent debacle notwithstanding. So I fail to see your concern."

"My concern," explained Chrysoprase, "is that Her Majesty just isn't skilled enough to have figured this out on her own."

"So Platinum—the Queen-Mother, I mean… she told her?"

"Platinum doesn't know either," Chrysoprase explained. "Vow only told me. He'd already won her over with his speeches against the Legion and Hurricane, after what happened to her late husband. But all that is to say: I'm worried that Her Majesty might be… how do I put this? Cheating at the Great Game?"

Star Swirl cocked his head for a moment, his magically-oriented mental gears a struggling a bit with the political finery of the question, before he finally spoke up between his bushy beard and moustache. "You're worried Coil is following Vow's path?"

"From where I sit, the metaphor is painfully obvious. Wintershimmer's student, come to Equestria, seducing the Queen for his own political gains—"

Star Swirl chuckled at that. "I am quite confident that whatever relationship exists between our young new Queen and Morty isn't in the interest of a political career. I have my concerns about Morty's use of unethical magic, but it certainly isn't because he's a murderer or a conspirator like Vow. He's a young stallion facing a very difficult question about his future."

After waiting for a moment, Chrysoprase nodded. "Would you care to elaborate?"

"I wouldn't, no." When Star Swirl's comment earned a disapproving frown, he elaborated. "Morty is not a political threat to you."

"To me, I'm sure," Chrysoprase replied, before taking a sip of wine. "But you'll forgive me if I tell you that I learned a hard lesson from Solemn Vow twenty years ago, and I am not about to take it on faith that a stallion in a black and red jacket, willing to murder an upstanding member of the Stable in cold blood and in open court in front of the Queen and Lady Celestia alike, is simply 'a good pony'."

"He's not like Vow."

"I recall that in the aftermath of Vow's murders, you admitted that he had told you in confidence that he had been Wintershimmer's apprentice."

Star Swirl sighed. "He disclosed that to me in confidence, and because I believed Wintershimmer had mistreated him, I promised to keep his secret. Besides which, he was very convincing in demonstrating that he wasn't a competent mage."

"Precisely," Chrysoprase agreed. "You've been fooled before. And if we had pooled our knowledge then, perhaps we would have spared the lives of some of Vow's victims."

"This is different, Grand Duchess."

"It isn't to me," she insisted, before picking up the still-decanting wine bottle, and lifting it fully to her lips with magic in a rather ignoble motion. A drop ran down her lips like blood before she dabbed it away with a hoofkerchief. "Our new queen could topple Equestria, or she could truly make it a better place for everypony in it—unicorns especially. Even if the Coil colt isn't another Solemn Vow, though—and you admit you question his ethics, so that's hardly a given—even if he is truly good, I cannot take that on faith. I need to know your concerns, so that I know whether I need to suspect it is his influence on Her Majesty that is leading her down a bad path for Equestria, or if I need to pursue other leads. So let me reiterate: I am not asking you to divulge your secret because I want to hurt the colt. I am asking because you telling me will be far less painful for him than what he will experience if I am forced to… dig."

Star Swirl sighed, and hung his head. "I promised him."

"And I can see you intend to take that promise very seriously." Chrysoprase looked away from the old wizard and down at her desk. "I will have to pursue this by other means. Do you happen to know if Lady Luna is occupied this evening? Or, for that matter, if the guest house on the end of Muffintop Row is still occupied?"

Star Swirl frowned at the first question, and winced at the second. "There's no need to invade his privacy like that, I swear—"

"If it wasn't clear, Archmage, I cannot let this matter drop—neither in my obligation to the Stable, in pursuing what source was able to give the Queen this information, nor in the risk that Coil may be the next Baron Card. I apologize for presenting you with this challenge of your ethics, choosing between making Coil suffer my methods or breaking your promise to him. You have my sympathies. But my sympathies to you do not, and cannot, outweigh those I feel for Duchess Pearl, and Master Em Dash, and Senator Celsus, and Twister Stormblade, and all Vow's other victims. I trust you understand. That concludes our business; the door is behind you, though you are of course welcome to teleport back to whatever it was that had you so busy before my message arrived. Good day, Duke Zodiac."

Chrysoprase didn't even wait for a reply; she lowered her eyes to a blank sheet of parchment, dipped her quill, and began to scratch out a letter.

But Star Swirl seemed to disagree with his dismissal. The old hairy wizard drew in a heavy, guilty breath, and let it out through nostrils that rippled from the force of the huff. His wrinkled eyes closed and his already creased brow grew still more scrunched beneath the belled brim of his ridiculous hat.

"Mortal Coil didn't manage to defeat Wintershimmer without taking some harm himself. He has managed to contract the Scourge of Kings."

Despite having 'won', Chrysoprase was hardly pleased; instead, her magic dropped the quill, creating quite a blot of messy ink on the top-left corner of her page. "I don't follow."

"I cannot put it into smaller words," Star Swirl answered, raising his eyes to match Chyroprase's disbelieving gaze. "He is dying; his horn is rotting."

"I wasn't aware the disease was transmissible outside the royal line; is he contagious?"

Star Swirl shook his head firmly. "It was a side effect of the power of his magic, and its overuse in their duel. I doubt there are four other unicorns in Equestria who could replicate his unfortunate discovery. Alas, because of the peculiar shape of his horn, when he uses magic, it is far worse for him than any member of the royal line. I told him each spell would cost him a year, rather than just a day like it was for late King Lapis."

In perhaps the only display of sympathy I ever won from Chrysoprase, she muttered "Goddesses…"

"Which is why Morty wants to repeat Wintershimmer's last horrible experiment, and transplant a new horn onto his head."

"Ah." Chrysoprase nodded. "I do remember hearing about the victims of that experiment. But if Coil is proposing that kind of murder, surely—"

"The experiments would not need to be repeated," Star Swirl explained. "The only pony who would have to endure the suffering is Coil himself. I admit, on the topic of ethical dilemmas, his is more abstract than a question of murder. Some magic should not be preserved. And as Count Halo discovered, that is not the only element of Wintershimmer's research that I am hoping the colt will not pass on."

"Ah," was all Chrysoprase had to say in response. "So to reiterate, Coil isn't a player of risk in the Great Game because he is too concerned with the question of whether or not his horn will kill him?"

"That," Star Swirl agreed, "and however strong his friendship with the young Queen might be, I doubt her problems are worth shaving years off his life to solve with magic. Especially given I am at her disposal for those kinds of things." There was a bit of notable disgruntlement in Star Swirl's voice at that added comment, before the old wizard rose to his hooves. "Hopefully that spares you some work, Grand Duchess."

"If only," Chrysoprase answered with fatigue to match the wizard's tone, and then some. "The Stable's needs are never fulfilled. But I thank you for your time, Archmage, and for laying my fears at ease."

But after Star Swirl teleported away, the letter with the awkward blot on its upper corner was nevertheless finished.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

I won't bore you with yet more recitation of the politics that led to the creation of the Royal Guard, and the enshrinement of the House of Rain as banners of the House of the Rising Sun, or the House of Sticks (a made-up surname for Grainwood's benefit) as banners of the House of Gullion. Suffice it to say that Gale's conspiracy with Typhoon and Peanut went off without further major hitches.

There is, perhaps, some irony to those of you who know your history in the fact that the Commander of the Cirran Legion, and her entire delegation to Equestrian Parliament unanimously approved the creation of the Royal Guard. But at least in those lazy late-summer days in Everfree, the soldiers of the Legion were more than happy to have a proper force of guards fulfilling the role of civilian policing. The Equestrian newspapers celebrated Gale's statesmareship (though some more conservative editors still derided her erosion of the lines between the three tribes), and she found herself more and more busy with the matters of administration that followed.

If only this had been the culmination of the story of her early rule, and not merely a stepping stone.

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