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

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

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The Crusader

In early Equestria, huge, elaborate temples to Celestia and Luna as goddesses were quite common sights, despite the former sister’s objections to being called a god. (Luna, it should be mentioned, actively opposed her elder sister by encouraging this perspective). In the earliest days after the pegasi were reunited with the unicorns and earth ponies, the fact that they shared these two goddesses (and only them, despite the considerable size of the Cirran pantheon), that strange overlap caused considerable confusion and speculation amongst the scholars of all three tribes of ponykind.

After Commander Hurricane showed up from his assumed death, not only alive but with both goddesses in the flesh, virtually all debate on the subject died away in the face of empirical fact.

Unlike most Equestrians, however, I was raised in the Crystal Union, where the deity of choice was the rather philosophically regarded ‘Artist’—not that I had any particular reverence for him either. Wintershimmer, the closest pony I had to a father-figure, was unabashedly atheistic, believing that Celestia and Luna were spirits assuming the forms of ponies to deceive and control us, or more likely mortal ponies elevated to apparent divinity by some imbued magic. Given how close his plan to steal Celestia’s control of the sun had come to fruition, I knew the latter fact to be empirical truth.

I emphasize this so that you understand the considerable trepidation that filled me as Gale led me into a massive stone cathedral decorated with enough stained glass to make a nigh-infinite supply of tacky lampshades, if one were in a destructive mood. There was no service in progress inside, but a number of priests and acolytes in white tabards with gilded trim flitted around the place, attending to a frankly impractical supply of candles, praying in the alcoves at the sides of the room, or providing the utterly necessary ambience of odd, archaic chanting that made the place seem really, really holy.

Oh, sorry; the word I’m actually looking for is haunted.

Have I mentioned I hate churches?

Gale seemed less perturbed by the architecture than I was, though some fragment of that likely stemmed from the fact that she was silently fuming at the apex of the day’s rage. I could practically hear her blood pressure in the click of her hooves on the polished marble floor, just on the threshold of whistling steam out her nostrils like a tea kettle, or a bull in a shop selling the same.

“Almost done…” I heard her whisper, and I don’t know if she meant it to me or to herself. Regardless, I didn’t answer, following silently along the ambulatory at the back of the structure until we reached a chevette with a stained glass depiction of Celestia holding a flaming greatsword in her magic, her eyes glowing in the day’s sunlight by the craft of an especially talented… windowsmith?

In the fragmented rainbow light of the work of art were two ponies: one probably thirteen years old by my guess, a young stallion in a slightly oversized tabard without the hauberk that a knight was supposed to wear beneath it. He had a tomato red coat that I would later learn was almost certainly his namesake, and a little tuft of messy green mane that certainly didn’t help.

The other was immediately recognizable as our undesirable objective.

Count Halo, His Eminence, reached the impressive achievement of being detestable to me even before we had actually gotten into earshot of one another. He wore a breastplate so polished it looked like silver, and a brace of rapiers (six in total, as though they provided any benefit other than making him look pompous) covered his flanks. Surrounding all that metal was a brilliant scarlet-and-gold jacket, rather similar to mine in cut, though trimmed to a far more muscular physique. On his back, the blonde-coated stallion wore a small kite shield with an actual mirror on its face—presumably for use in deflecting magical attacks—and another of similarly polished steel. But the most notable thing the stallion was wearing was the most ostentatious moustache I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing: a tufted, waxed, elaborate thing that stuck off both sides of his muzzle and sagged with the shape of a half-drawn recurve longbow, all in the same flaming red-orange as his thinning mane.

“Huhah!” he greeted us as we approached, wielding his own lungs like a blacksmith’s bellows. “Your Royal Highness; it is a delight to see you in Her Holiness’ church, finally. Praise the sun; will you join me in a prayer?” As he offered up that half-breathed phrase, he drew a circle on his chest with his hoof.

Gale gritted her teeth audibly. “If I wanted to talk to Aunt Celestia, Count, I’d go find her face-to-face.”

“Ah; the blessings of royalty, to have her blood in your veins and her ear in your deeds.” Halo nodded. “But still, Her Holiness’ time is precious; perhaps a prayer might be better received.” Then, as if finally noticing that he and Gale were not alone, Halo raised a bushy red eyebrow in my direction. “Ah, sir, you will have to forgive me my ignorance; as a knight of the Order of the Silver Chain, my eyes are first for my queen and her heir. I am Halo, Count of the House of the Rising Sun, under the Banner of Late Afternoon—”

“I’m sorry, but I’m gonna stop you there. The what?”

Halo opened his mouth to answer, but Gale (mercifully) held up a hoof to stop him. I watched her brow briefly furrow before she began to speak, though, as if the words (or the ideas they forced her to remember) were driving a nail through the frog of her hoof. “The great noble houses like Castle and Aunt Chrysoprase’s House Gullion and Spicy’s House of Three have families who are loyal to them, called ‘Banners’. Mom and I’s family is technically ‘the House of the Rising Sun’, and Count Halo belongs to one of our banner families.”

I quirked a brow. “No offense meant, but if you’re already one of Gale’s ‘banners’, why would the Queen want you to marry her?”

Halo guffawed a long, drawn out guffaw; that is, I think, the only way to capture the depths of his laughter… or at the very least, his lung capacity. “I am hardly a courtly mind of Her Majesty’s equal, but if I had to hazard a guess, it is that my leadership of the Church of Her Holiness makes me an influential enough member of our society for her consideration, praise the sun.” Halo again traced a circle onto his chest with a hoof, its shod steel surface ringing against his breastplate. “Forgive me my curiosity, sir, but what unicorn does not know our culture enough to understand the idea of a ‘banner’?”

Gale sighed. “Right. Count, this is Mortal Coil. He—”

“Her Holiness’ chosen?!” Halo bowed deeply. “Forgive me my ignorance, Lord Coil; it’s an honor to meet you.” Before I could even react, let alone formulate an opinion, the beefy unicorn had lifted my forehoof and bestowed a rather overly-mustached kiss to my fetlock. Then, his face still well within hoof’s reach, he bellowed over the church’s ominous chanting. “Squire Cherry, behold! Her Holiness’ Chosen One!”

The little red colt, ‘Cherry’, who had been surreptitiously watching us from behind his master’s outspoken presence, stepped up beside the Count and gave us a smile. “Hello. My name is Cherry Tomato. I’m Count Halo’s squire. It’s very nice to meet you, Lord Coil.” After a pause, he added “Hello, Princess.”

Despite his word choice being somewhat formal (or stilted?) I should emphasize that Cherry Tomato’s words were delivered smoothly and jovially. In fact, everything about the colt was friendly, to the point that he almost seemed ‘perfect’. I don’t mean that in the sense that he was unusually attractive, some sort of marble-jawed, chiseled physique at 13 years old. Rather, he had the perfection of innocence. His smile would put you at ease without any apparent effort on his part. Though his tabard didn’t really fit, it was ideally bunched to look adorable instead of the awkwardness every other thirteen year old in all of equine history has suffered under.

In short, I immediately found myself hating him. I don’t even know that I know why; something about him just felt… unnatural. But, judging by the fact that a small smile even broke onto the corners of Gale’s furious expression, I suspect I may have been the only pony in Equestria who felt that way.

“Is it true that you’re the chosen one? From the prophecy?” Cherry asked. He didn’t speak loudly, but a squeaky teenage voice—and the worst part was that it wasn’t even annoying to listen to—echoes in a certain decisive way around the stone walls of, say, a cathedral.

Now, it should fairly be mentioned that I have been ‘the chosen one’ a surprising number of times in my life for various cultures, sects, and yes, as Gale would so love to remind me, cults. I estimate that if the words ‘chosen' and 'one’ are uttered consecutively in my earshot anywhere, at any time in Equine history, there’s a solid two-in-three chance I am the subject of the prophecy in question. Still, in centuries of life, I have never, never been made as uncomfortable by those two words as I was when the faithful of Celestia turned as one toward me and the spooky chanting stopped.

“Um… Hi?” I offered, waving around the room over the deafening roar of echoed whispers.

“I must confess I envy you, Lord Coil—"

“You know he’s not actually a noble, right?” Gale interrupted her eldest suitor. “Morty grew up in the Crystal Union. He’s half-crystal, even if it doesn’t show.”

I leaned down to whisper into Gale’s ear. “I’m not exactly proud of that…”

I hadn’t seen Cherry step forward, but when I looked up he was just inside earshot of my whisper. “Oh, it’s okay, Lord Coil. Everypony has parts of their background they aren’t proud of. But it’s okay; all that matters to Lady Celestia is that we do the best with what we’ve got.”

Halo, unlike his squire’s comments and my own fears, seemed only the more impressed, raising his bushy eyebrows up his balding forehead. “To have overcome the blood of the barbarian heathens and rise to such heights! Your Highness, while his birthright may not be nobility, I assure you any pony who is the chosen of Her Holiness deserves all the respect we can give him. Tell us, Lord Coil, what was it like to be shielded by Her Radiance?”

I glanced over to Gale, who shrugged. “Well… I’ll be honest, I wish her aim was better.”

Rather than the laughter I had hoped for, the best I got were a few chuckles and an awful lot of blank stares or gasps.

“What… whatever do you mean?” Count Halo asked.

“Well… When we were fighting Wintershimmer, he created an illusion that Celestia didn’t see through, so she shot some sort of a fire beam from her horn that would have killed Gale. I pushed her out of the way…” I tapped my side. “So now most of my small intestine is only a few weeks old.”

Cherry cocked his head like the little confused puppy he basically was. “Oh my… wouldn’t that have killed you?”

Halo guffawed in what a less cynical author might have mistaken for good humor. “Compared to the wonders of raising the sun, I’m sure it’s only a trivial matter for Her Holiness to heal a mere wound, Cherry. Remember, all things are possible through she who giveth us the day.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”

Halo then turned to me. “It does. Though I’m just as certain Her Holiness must have seen through the illusion but wanted to give you a chance to prove yourself. Also, it is unfitting to use her name so… mundanely.”

I frowned. “She asked me to. Herself. To my face.”

“Morty, don’t pick this fight,” Gale warned as a vein in her temple visibly bulged, near to bursting from the stress of keeping her irritation at the older stallion in. “Count, here. An invitation to my birthday party.” Those words were accompanied by her presenting the envelope with so much violent, unnecessary force that it audibly sliced the air, coming not to a calm floating rest, but a visibly vibrating offering in her magenta magic.

“Ah… My goodness, Your Highness; I’m flattered. That you should hoof-deliver such an invitation.” He gently adjusted his moustache with his magic, a sort of fiery red glow that made him look almost like he’d blushed his cheeks. “Am I to understand this means I have your favor, or—”

“All the suitors got one,” Gale cut him off. “You’re welcome to play whatever games you want to try and posture with them in front of mom, but don’t assume I care.”

“Is that what the six swords are for?” I asked, hoping my tone carried enough good humor to avoid sounding especially petty.

“Holding six swords is hard,” said Cherry in his chipper little voice, ambling around his much taller mentor. “I can barely hold two.”

“You’re an earth pony…” I pointed out as dryly as I could.

Morty,” Gale hissed, punching me in the shoulder. “Don’t be racist.”

“I’m being realistic,” I answered. “I don’t claim I can outfly a pegasus, and I’m sure he grows a better garden than I do. I’m just saying holding six of anything with a horn isn’t that impressive.” Then I turned to Halo. “Unless you… weave them into your moustache or something? It does seem stiff enough.”

I like to think that it is obvious when I am intentionally insulting someone (primarily because such commentary is scathing and sometimes literally soul-crushing), but in that moment if I had to judge from the way in which the mustached knight snapped back at me, my comment cut to his quick. “These blades serve Her Radiance’s honor; I would not sully them with blood over the pursuit of a fair maiden’s hoof. Besides, that would hardly be sporting; I alone amongst Her Highness’ suitors have actually seen combat, Lord Coil. I earned my knighthood in battle in my youth, warring with the crystal barbarians.”

“I’m sure your father and your grandmother being knights of the order had nothing to do with it,” Gale muttered.

“I do take offense, Your Highness,” said the Count. “Ask Sir Chiseled Gem about our service together. Or, if you prefer a more authoritative—if more distant—tale, I’m certain your father remembers how I led my forces against Halite at Amber Field.”

I watched Gale open her mouth—presumably to expel some foul expression of her irritation—before she thought the better of it, clenched her teeth, and nodded. “Next time I find myself dealing with Sir Gem, I’ll be certain to have him share some stories, Count. However, with utmost respect for your service, I’m not really concerned with how you got your title, nor with whether your skill in battle will or won’t win you favor over the other suitors.”

The Count let out a little chuckle. “I’m not certain you have a choice, Your Highness. You are somewhat de facto the judge, given it’s your favor we are competing for.”

“It would be very nice if you picked my master, Princess,” said Cherry with an entirely innocent smile. “Then you could be like my big sister. I think I would like that very much.”

I’ve rarely seen Gale so torn as she was refraining from swearing out the thirteen year old colt in front of her (whose naivety more reminded me of somepony six or seven), but she finally managed to put on a smile. “Well then, Cherry, you’ll just have to help him be the best suitor he can be, won’t you?”

“I will do the best I can,” said Cherry. “Though I think it will be hard for me to make Master Halo a better suitor than Lord Coil.”

The wheeze that escaped Count Halo’s lungs and the hairy filter of his moustache could have collapsed a cavern. “Coil? A suitor?” By the time the ensuing storm of guffaws settled, and I felt my eyelids stop quivering like a plucked guitar string, there were tears at the edges of Halo’s eyes. “I… No offense meant of course, Coil, but your blood does rather disqualify you, Her Holiness’ favor or not.” He raised a hoof and wiped away his tears with a fetlock, before boldly placing it on Gale’s shoulder to steady himself as his chest continued to tremble. “Squires say the darnedest things, do they not, Your Highness?”

Gale looked at the offending hoof for a very long second, but Halo seemed not to realize he was troubling her. When Gale’s patience ran out (and it didn’t take long) she briefly winked to me. I watched as her horn lit up, and a bit of a glow built up around Halo’s leg.

“Oh my; I’m sor—” The Count’s apology devolved into a gasp as Gale picked him up by said hoof and hurled him into a spin, head over hooves, onto his back. Six swords and two shields made an incredibly satisfying noise when they clattered on the stone floor of the cathedral.

“Ah, no, I’m sorry,” Gale lied, her lips struggling to hide a grin even as the furrows of her brow suggested the motion wasn’t as satisfying as she had hoped. There was quite the edge to her formal accent when she picked it up to speak again. “A princess must insist her body not be touched by any suitor so forwardly, lest they get untoward ideas.” She couldn’t seem to resist rolling her eyes as she turned away, though. “Good day, Count.”

“Wait, Your Highness,” called the Count just as we’d turned. Gale offered him a tired glance back, and the fatherly (in that he was some twenty years her elder) stallion asked, “Given we are being so unabashed about discussing the competition, is there anything you might like as a birthday gift?”

Gale growled. “I’d love to not be talking about it. Think you can figure something out for that? Some way to keep all this political bullshit away?”

Perhaps it was her bluntness, or perhaps it was the sour word there near the end, but something about the brutal parting meant that as we paced out of Celestia’s hauntingly en-chant-ed church, no further words were spoken.

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