• 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 Noble Affair

Gale's next stop at the party was her de facto rival in Equestrian politics, the Grand Duchess Chrysoprase. She arrived at the duo only moments later than one of me did.

"Ah, Gale! Glad you could make it!" I told her with a smile.

Gale raised a brow. "Do the copies of you not actually know what each other are doing? You greeted me at the door."

"Did I?" I closed my eyes and scrunched up my face, though an astute eye would note that my horn did not light. Then, after about three seconds, I opened them again and smiled. "Well, my apologies for any confusion there. And thank you again for the painting."

"...what?" said High Castle, quite justifiably, adjusting the collar of a gray tunic that helped to mute his powder blue coat. "Coil, if I may be so blunt, what is the point of this?"

"Well, with so many ponies present, I felt it wouldn't be fair to deny anyone the pleasure of my attention." Gale's eye twitched heavily. "Thank you for coming by the way, Duke. Grand Duchess." I swallowed a bit of my pride (finding it went down particularly poorly sheathed in wax) and folded a foreleg across my chest for a short bow. "I, uh, wanted to offer my apologies for our disagreement at your home a few weeks ago."

Chrysoprase, who had chosen for the party a dress that was probably in fashion before River Rock froze (that is, predating the birth of all three other ponies in our little gathering), casually waved a hoof in the air. "Water under the bridge, Mister Coil. And thank you very much for hosting us; it's always good to meet a new neighbor, even if the home has… uncomfortable memories."

"Oh, on that note!" I said, an early contender for the worst segway in the history of the Equiish language. "Lest you think I'm spying on you or anything," I continued, only deepening the concern on the Grand Duchess' face, "I found an old cookbook in Vow's kitchen, and he'd written in the margins that a recipe for artichoke… meuniere… was your favorite dish."

Chrysoprase let out a hearty and genuine laugh (not that I had the skills to tell if she had been faking it at the time). "'Moon-y-air', not… well, nopony in their right mind would make the name of a dish sound anything like 'manure'."

"Point taken."

A glimmer of cunning flashed across Chyroprase's eyes then, though I missed it. "Though this question might be called intrusive, I do feel the need to ask: have you found anything else of particular interest from the late Baron Card's records?"

"Baron Card?" I asked.

Here, High Castle picked up. "Amongst his other sins, Solemn Vow used his reputation and his magical tricks to con his way into a noble title that he did not deserve."

Chrysoprase sighed. "As… unpleasant as this may be to hear, grandson, Vow probably was entitled to that title."

"He was?" I asked, having to refrain very hard from glancing across the room at the oaken form of The Professor.

Chrysoprase nodded. "Probably. Bloodlines can be a tricky thing to trace in times of even orderly war, let alone the ravages of the crystals." Then, with a heavy pause, she added "I mean no offense, of course," in my direction.

I raised a brow. "Why would I take offense?"

High Castle smiled a smug smile on powder blue lips. "I suspect Grandmother is concerned you might take offense due to your mixed-blood nature."

It was an obvious rib, a test to see if I would be as easily irritable on the subject of nobility as I had been in their home weeks earlier. I was resolute not to indulge Castle's games, though the temptation to briefly mute him as Wintershimmer had that palace maid on the day of his ostensible death did cross my mind. "I assure you, no offense taken. I don't exactly take after dear old mom… actually, on that topic, there was a favor I was hoping to ask, Grand Duchess."

It was at this point, I suspect, that Chrysoprase decided I was choosing my conversational pivots on purpose, though in truth talking to a young Morty was just like that. "That is a… troubling introduction to a request, but go ahead."

"I understand you keep a collection of older copies of Twerp's Peerage? I was hoping you'd let me borrow a couple, or at least reference them."

"You know about Twerp's Peerage?" Gale asked. "Morty, what the hell are you on about?"

Contrary to Gale's confusion, Chrysoprase reacted much more darkly to the request than Vow had led me to expect. The already substantial furrows on her brow wrinkled, and I watched a veritably legendary knot tie itself from the muscles at the base of her muzzle between her eyes. "The parallels in this conversation are making me uncomfortable, Mister Coil."

"I… confess I don't follow?"

Dropping all pretense of noble language or euphemisms, she fixed me with something just a step above a glare. "Solemn Vow asked me almost that same question. And I can't help but suspect a similar end."

"Oh." I forced a chuckle that I don't think Chrysoprase really believed, but it was the first of the 'disarming' techniques Vow had taught me which came to mind. "I can see how that would be an uncomfortable parallel, but you've got me backwards."

"What is that supposed to mean?" High Castle asked.

"Vow wanted to find a parent to prove he was a noblepony. I suspect, given my mother, that I might be of some minor noble birth, and I'm hoping that I can use it to find a parent. Namely, my father."

"I'm confused," said Castle. "I thought it was crystal stallions who usually… well, you know."

Chrysoprase sighed. "I don't think this is a topic that we as representatives of a noble family need to be dragging out of a stallion who is obviously their victim, in his own way. Especially not in front of Her Majesty."

"I can't speak for Gale—er, I guess that should be 'Your Majesty'—but I don't mind."

Gale rolled her eyes, and then she donned a suddenly predatory grin as an idea lit up her mind. "Tell you what, Morty. You can call me whatever you're brave enough to say to my face."

Chrysoprase winced. "Choose your next words very carefully, Mr. Coil."

"Despite the rather obvious bait, I'd never say anything untoward, Grand Duchess. But since my best friend doesn't object—" Gale blushed at that, which made me grin like an idiot. "—I'll be blunt: my mother is Castigate."

Chrysoprase cocked her head. "I feel like I've heard that name, but it's eluding me."

"One of Warlord Halite's lieutenants; before the Cirrans arrived, she won the title young with a reputation for taking more of her victims alive than the other commanders in Halite's army. But when the Cirrans arrived, she was the first to face them in battle. I had a rather funny conversation with… is it Baroness Rain now, beautiful, or does she still get to be Princess Rain because of whatever her city was called?"

Gale winced at being addressed by 'beautiful' and I mentally chalked up a point. "Okay, fine, you win. Just use my name." Then, with a sigh, she added "Rain will kill you if you call her 'Princess' to her face."

"She can try," I answered, before returning to the thought at hoof. "I grew up knowing my mother had a long, painful-looking scar on her back. I only learned recently it was our newest Baroness who delivered it. It's a small world, as they say."

"Indeed," Chrysoprase agreed. "But for all the unpleasantness behind your amusing anecdotes, Mister Coil, you haven't yet explained why you wanted to borrow my books."

"Oh, right." Then I let out a huff. "There's no 'polite society' way to say this, so I'll just rip off the bandage. In that older, pre-Jade crystal society, one sign of reputation was what 'softcoat' you, uh… took advantage of, to produce your offspring. Being one of Halite's lieutenants, and then in disgrace over how badly she was beaten by the Cirrans, my mother became obsessed with those sorts of status symbols. To that end, while I don't know my father's name, I have decent reason to suspect he was almost certainly a knight, and therefore likely a noblepony." I cracked my neck. "And while I suppose I could just ask her when Gale and I head north next week, I'd rather not give her the satisfaction. Between the books, a bit of hoofwork to track down addresses if anypony is living in Everfree, and some light necromancy if it comes to that, I ought to be able to piece things together."

"Some light necromancy?" Castle asked with a scoff. "I would think you'd be more careful admitting to such magic after what happened with Count Halo."

"Actually, I've been offering my services much more pleasantly in the evenings; the Count aside, ponies have been quite grateful." I gestured to a door on the ground floor of the main room that led to the southwestern side of the house. "I've got a little parlor set up, and I let ponies talk to their deceased friends and family for a few minutes at a time. I wouldn't want to presume, but if either of you have anypony you'd like to talk to, I can have the Professor pen you in for an appointment."

High Castle rolled his eyes, but Chrysoprase showed considerably more interest. "Is this your trade, Mr. Coil? Do you charge?"

"I'm a wizard first and foremost… but I do take some payment. Mostly, it's to ensure ponies don't abuse the service with frivolous requests. If it's a legal matter—settling a will or something—then I do ask a share of whatever is being settled, if only to make up for the time and energy it takes to haul my supplies out to a courthouse."

"You've been settling court cases?" Gale asked.

I nodded. "Six contested inheritances, two testimonies in arbitrary judgements, and believe it or not, a murder." For those curious, I omit that story because it is one thing to solve a murder mystery through intense and sophisticated deductions and analyses, and it is very much another to resolve it in thirty seconds by asking the corpse directly. The killing blow being a knife wound to the chest meant there wasn't even any risk the deceased was wrong, as there might have been with something more distinguished like poison.

"I may have to take you up on your offer," said Chrysoprase. "It would be good for my grandson to have the chance to meet his parents."

Castle winced. "I… suppose," he said, forcing away his concern with a small smile I was just starting to suspect was forced at all times I had ever seen it (and he wore the little thing constantly, like an undersized mustache). "By all means."

"If you're willing to lend me the books, we'll call that all the payment I require," I offered the elder statesmare of the House of Gullion. "Do we have a deal, Grand Duchess?"

Chrysoprase sighed. "As much as the knot in my stomach warns me about the memory of your predecessor, I suppose so. If you really are a noble, making you take the long way to discovering it won't change anything."

I offered a dismissive snort of amusement at that. "You've got no need to worry. If I wanted a noble title, I'm sure I could earn myself an Archmage's seat and then petition the Queen. Between literally saving Equestria and the tradition of archmagi being granted baronies, I doubt it would be a hard argument, even if I didn't already have her friendship."

"Don't talk around me, Morty; I'm right here." Gale rolled her eyes. "It's not clever."

"Sorry. Just… nevermind." I shook my head, and then told her "Maybe I'll ask anyway, if it turns out I'm wrong about my dad. 'Lord Coil' has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

"Don't push your luck," warned Chrysoprase, darkly.

High Castle, however, seemed amused. "I don't know, grandmother… the more I think about it, the more I think he's right."

"I beg your pardon?" Grandmother rounded on grandson, not angry but confused. "After your last debate with him at our home?"

"Water under the bridge, Grandmother. But in this case, I would rather say I believe Coil because he's all-but proven me right."

"I have?" I asked with a swift downturn to my thus-far-growing grin.

"Well, at the time we were initially debating Wintershimmer as an example of morality… but if we're being honest, I think the unstated subject of our debate was you yourself."

"You could make that argument, I conceded, nodding. "I'm not one to brag—"

"Fucking liar," Gale muttered, unable to resist.

"—but I did save the world. But I didn't know I had any claim to any noble title at the time."

"Ah, but you misunderstand," Castle corrected. "You'll recall my point was that nobility is a property of blood. It's passed down a line. It hardly matters whether you knew or not; if you're a born noblepony, it only proves my point all the more that you rose out of the horrors of youth among the crystals and the 'morality' imparted by somepony like Wintershimmer to save the day anyway. At that point, the only difference between you and any of us in the Stable is that you never had somepony to teach you the good graces and rules of our class—a lack of education we can hardly fault, and which I for one would imagine anypony would be more than happy to help correct. Especially for such an esteemed wizard and… 'hero', as yourself."

I had never before and have rarely since hated the word 'hero' as much as I did in that moment. I found myself glaring with my teeth slightly clenched as Castle's diatribe carried on. Finally, when he seemed to be done, I managed to restrain the urge to lash out with a shout when I said "Want to bet on that?"

"What do you propose?"

"If I prove not to be from some noble lineage, but a self-made half-crystal bastard who rose to this position under his own power and saved the world on his own two hooves, I win. And if it turns out the other half of my lineage gives me noble title, I admit—however grudgingly—that you might be right about hereditary heroism and birthright."

(If you find yourself at this point frustrated by a lack of logic in this progression of affairs… so am I. But the mind follows where the heart leads, especially for teenagers.)

"The prospect is amusing." Castle teased his chin, despite the lack of any facial hair to bother on his muzzle. "What do you propose to wager?"

"Well, I'm not familiar with what's considered fashionable to bet amongst the nobility. When wizards have an ideological dispute, the loser usually dies, and I'm guessing that isn't how things are settled when you don't train for that sort of thing your whole life. What's a reasonable sum? Twenty-thousand bits?"

Chrysoprase winced. "We certainly don't bet with coin."

"It's an easy trap to fall into that, just because most noble families are rich, that we care deeply about money. Quite the opposite; honor is what matters. To that end, we sometimes call a single bit a 'gentlecolt's bet'—but more often and more entertaining is something of honor. Suppose this: if you do prove to be a noblepony, you pledge your house as a banner to the House of Gullion—with the pledges of loyalty that entails. It solves your problem of needing an introduction to what it means to really be a noble, and we get the services of, as you so bluntly describe, a superlatively gifted mage."

"Castle, that's not fair," Gale interrupted. "He doesn't even know—"

"I think I can match that bet," I interrupted over Gale (putting a heavy frown on her face that would prove more persistent than many of my usual irritations). "But do I understand correctly that what you ask is no small thing?"

"It is a lifetime oath," Chrysoprase explained. Then, with a huff, she added "And lest you get any creative ideas, the noble understanding of a 'lifetime' does not have as many loopholes as your 'debate' with Count Halo surfaced."

"Ah. Well, then," I nodded. "Castle, if I win, you drop out of the running for Gale's hoof."

"What?!" Chrysoprase and Gale snapped in near-tandem. Only the latter had the audacity to punch me, and the blow was solid enough that it tore a chunk of my face off. A hoof-sized slab of undeniably handsome fur and the corner of tidy lips slapped onto the marble floor and began to ooze wax until I reached down, picked up the sticky mess, and placed it back onto my face as though nothing of note had happened.

"My apologies," I said.

"You can't just—" Gale slapped her own face heavily with her hoof as she groaned, her frustration overtaking her ability to speak functional Equiish. Some wax, still stuck to her hoof, dribbled down her muzzle until I gently lifted a hoof and slurped it back into my body. This won me no points with the queen; after a glare, she turned head and shoulders fully to face Chrysoprase and Castle. "I didn't put him up to this."

"There's no need to apologize, Your Majesty," said Chrysoprase, with a chuckle.

High Castle added wryly "Well, maybe for his face—though even that seems like a negligible concern… what are you made of?"

"Candle wax," I noted briefly, and briefly ran a hoof up my horn to reveal that, behind a bit of magic, it was actually a lit candle—before it once more resumed its disguise.

"Your distaste for the whole prospect of continuing the royal line is an… open enough secret," the Grand Duchess continued, blatantly not acknowledging the magic. "And from there, it's hardly a stretch to gather that Coil made this offer with his friendship in mind, and perhaps a less-than-well informed understanding of how the royal lineage actually works." Turning to me, the elderly mare added "I suggest you choose an alternate ask—"

"Well, now, I wouldn't say that," said High Castle. Immediately, his grandmother rounded on him not just with her eyes, but reorienting her whole body, and the lines that crossed her forehead grew pronounced even through the makeup she had used to disguise them.

"You will not throw away your standing, Castle, over some ill-advised bet that may well be decided by a coin flip."

"I hardly think the odds are so fair," Castle answered, evidently competing for my smugness. "I don't know if Coil's logic on the subject of borrowing from our library persuaded you, but it does compel me to think he's right. Beyond that, there is the matter of his history as icing on the proverbial cake—how does a colt raised by this traitorous archmage, surrounded by the ravages of the barbarians, come to have even the modicum of refinement we see before us, if there isn't something more factoring into his person? Frankly, I'd take this wager at even higher odds. And clearly, it's a matter of honor for him."

"I cannot stand idly by—"

"Then your objection is noted, Grandmother," said Castle, and he picked up my hoof from the floor in his magic in order to bring it into a shake with mine, before the older mare could actually do anything to object further.

In retrospect, I wish I had oozed just a little on his hoof if only to unsettle him, but alas there was hardly enough force in the motion to disturb my body's surface tension.

"Well, since I'm clearly just a prize here, let me just say: fuck you both," Gale said—deliberately maintaining her 'high society' enunciation despite the crass punchline. Then she turned and stormed away.

What followed was a moment of silence, before at last Castle spoke up. "Aren't you going to go after her? Try to apologize? I'd offer, but of the two of us I suspect she'll take it better from you."

"Oh, I am," I replied, gesturing to where another of me was making rather frantic excuses to step away from a group of other guests. "That's the one that isn't made of wax, since this is obviously… how did you put it? 'A matter of honor'?"

"You are without a doubt the strangest stallion I have ever had the pleasure of knowing," Castle replied. "The implication of a 'matter of honor' is that you're willing to duel over it, not just that you feel strongly."

"Oh." I chuckled. "Well, then I think I'm an inadvisable opponent even for Gale."

"Quite the contrary," warned Chrysoprase. "Nobles do not duel with spells—or rather, the conventional rules are that one never touches one's opponent directly with one's magic. Since the division of 'archmage' and 'king' into separate titles after the passing of King Electrum, tradition has held that nobles settle disputes with swords. And in that regard, I'm afraid Her Majesty is the pony to be afraid of… well, at least, I assume you aren't a student of swordplay. It is perhaps the one aspect of our culture to which she has taken any meaningful fondness; I suspect it's the pegasus in her."

"Wait, Gale's killed somepony before?" I asked.

Castle scoffed. "We aren't so barbaric. Only in the most extreme of cases do nobleponies duel to the death. We usually settle matters either by dueling to the touch with magically blunted blades, or to first blood. The point of the duel is to show that you're willing to risk death yourself, not that you're bloodthirsty against your enemy. Near as I know, Lord Tone is the only pony who's actually killed anypony in a duel in our lifetimes… Present company excluded, I suppose." What followed was a noise I will term a 'country club brunch laugh', which is to say a noise which consisted of laughter in the strictest sense, but where nopony—the laugher included—believed there to be any humor involved, and instead the noise was a signal of a sort of high-class social camaraderie to help wash down an otherwise off-color (or often outright racist) comment.

But this asshole had the unmitigated gall to suggest I was barbaric?


Ahem; my apologies. Thinking back on that rat-bastard Castle still gets my dander up even after a millennium of satisfaction about the especially painful events of his untimely passing. (Lest any reader be confused, his death was 'untimely' in that it should have happened sooner).

That day, I didn't yet know the extent of Castle's conniving nature, and was content to think that I was playing the so-called 'Great Game' with at least some level of proficiency. That, combined perhaps with the fact that for the first time ever I was finding myself welcomed into a social group of greater than perhaps three ponies, I looked past his awkward laugh. My wax body closed its eyes for a few seconds at a sort of 'ping' (I would liken the feeling to the tactile equivalent of a needle dropping, which was quite noticeable on a body where all physical sensation was dimmed as if being felt through layer of wax) and then I opened my eyes and smiled. "I've just had a great idea for cheering up Gale; would you like to join me, Castle?"

"For Her Majesty's sake? Certainly."

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