• Published 14th Feb 2019
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Cadence of the Crystal Empire - Coyote de La Mancha

Two ancient evils from the Age of Chaos. The lost princess they desire. And between them, stands Celestia. Alone.

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Introduction: Foals and Mares.

Celestia forced herself to focus again upon the tiresome fools before her.

No, she chided herself, that’s inappropriate. And such contempt only breeds blindness. It does nopony any good for me to judge the matter without impartiality.

Her heart sank. Not that such trivialities will matter much longer, anyway.

With a deftness granted by centuries of practice, she put the specter of Nightmare Moon aside. There were ponies whose entire lives were filled with minor, day-to-day trivialities. Small things that concerned them and brought them joy, and would never be remembered by anypony but themselves and those they loved.

It was easy to envy them. But instead, she would safeguard their joys as best she could.

Celestia glanced out the window nearby. Yet again, Twilight had wanted to attend court today. And, yet again, Celestia had said no. Royal Court was no place for a nine-year-old filly with more energy and magic than sense.

Now, Celestia was nearing the end of yet another grueling session at court. And, as with every other day she had refused her young apprentice, she was once again questioning her resolve. For all that Twilight might be a little disruptive at first, her curiosity would have quickly given way to her disinterest in social matters, and she would probably have vanished into a book for the rest of the session.

Well, mostly.

Celestia managed a slight smile as she imagined the little filly suddenly interrupting this self-important dolt with a delighted gasp, immediately followed by a gush of newly-discovered information about some metamagical theory, or Star Swirl’s penguin migration hypothesis, or the life cycles of seventeen-year cicadas.

“…and so,” the unicorn before her concluded, “it is as clear as the summer sun.” There were some polite chuckles throughout the court before he went on, “Any such attempt as my esteemed colleague suggests to impose greater taxes upon profits above one million bits, much less his idealized ‘maximum wage’ limitation upon the most successful among us, would not only destroy all social drive towards greatness by eliminating the promise of gaining wealth through merit, but also…”

Celestia sighed, once more watching the stallion drone on through half-lidded eyes. Ancestors before and beyond, she’d thought he was finally done! She would give anything to be hearing her excitable little apprentice talk about bugs instead of this pompous, self-important git droning on about economic theory as though it were a concept somehow new to her.

There had been a variety of modifications to the economy over the centuries, as he was no doubt aware. Strangely, what neither he nor anypony else in the room seemed to realize was that she, Celestia, was the cause of every change. Every generation, ponies managed to come up with even more complicated ideas on socioeconomic changes and the forces that drove them. But the truth was, she had simply altered the structure now and then, whenever she deemed it advisable. After all, no one system was perfect. So, as soon as one system started to break down, Equestria had simply moved on to the next.

And, she admitted to herself, she’d likely do so again in another few years. The current system had been in place, after all, for several generations already.

But to her old eyes, it didn’t look like it was time for an overhaul quite yet. Granted, there was the threat of a mild inflation next year. But that was hardly worrysome. If all else failed, she could simply destroy a few thousand bits to balance things out. She’d make more later, should scarcity demand.

“Your Highness? Is all well?”

The stallion was looking at her with feigned concern, having probably noticed that she was no longer even glancing in his direction. Again, she chided herself. Careless, she thought. Careless, and impatient.

And, above all, bored beyond description.

Celestia sighed again. She considered the two ponies before her, the unicorn and his earth pony counterpart. She weighed in her mind the odds that either of them had a line of reasoning she hadn’t already heard many times during her rule, and decided probably not. Granted, both gentlecolts were well-educated, well-briefed, and armed with excellent arguments well-rehearsed. The debate could easily continue, spaced among multiple sessions, for weeks. Possibly even months. And, in both their minds, no doubt it logically should.

No. Just… no.

“I have made my decision,” she said.

Both supplicants started, but were silent.

“For the time being, the current tax rate on wealth will stand.”

The unicorn bowed. “Your Highness.”

“That being said, I shall review the matter again in a few years’ time, at my discretion,” she went on. “Should I determine that, as has been suggested here today, an impoverished class is in danger of being created, I shall take whatever steps I deem necessary and appropriate to prevent such an occurrence.”

The earth pony bowed. “Your Highness.”

“I believe that is all for today. Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention, both of you.”

Both bowed, stepped back, then bowed again. “Your Highness,” they intoned. A moment later, the throne room was empty, the Princess herself gratefully exiting via a side door, her eyes watching her hooves as she walked. Ancestors before her, but she was so tired…

“Princess Ce-lestia!”

Celestia looked up to see the violet filly galloping up to her, books trailing behind her in her magic like the tail of a purple comet. A few of the hallway guards spared the foal a fond glance, but otherwise were still.

Celestia’s smile was tired, but for the first time in hours it was genuine.

Twilight screeched to a halt before her mentor, gave a quick courtly bow, and even as Celestia started to nod in response had already started in, prancing happily about as she did so:

“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh, Princess Celestia, I just finished reading all about hummingbirds, and did you know there’s a bee hummingbird that weighs less than an ounce – it’s a bird, though, not a bee, of course – and even though it’s so tiny it has to eat soooooo much sugar, which is really weird because sugar doesn’t normally fuel hovering flight very well…”

“Oh,” said Celestia. She was having the strangest sensation, as if a great weight was lifting off from her withers. “Really?”

As the monarch resumed walking, Twilight continued prancing about her, saying, “Uh-huh, it doesn’t metabolize well enough. Sugar doesn’t. But aside from insects, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any animal, at least the ones I’ve read about. And their wings can beat over twelve hundred times a minute, while they breathe over two hundred times a minute. I think they must be able to use sugars as soon as they eat them to fuel their muscles, which would be really unusual, oxidization of sugars in muscles like that, I mean, think about it, those tiny little wings beating more than eighty beats per second…”

“Do they indeed,” Celestia smiled. In her mind’s eye, a Twilight-headed hummingbird was buzzing happily from book to book, devouring the knowledge she found there.

“Uh-huh! Some professors theorize that hummingbirds are partial thaumavores, to supplement their sugar intake. But I don’t think so. I mean, if they did that, then they wouldn’t need to sleep so deeply at night when they couldn’t eat…”

“Twilight…” Celestia interrupted gently.

“And look how pretty they are,” squeed Twilight happily. The books suddenly orbited all around Celestia, pages turning through a constantly shifting display of colorful pictures. “Aren’t they gorgeous?”

“They are beautiful,” agreed Celestia. “But where is Spike? I notice he isn’t with you.”

The filly shook her head so that her mane flew. “He’s asleep. Kinda like a hummingbird in torpor.” She considered. “A dragon torpor? Do dragons torpor, hibernate, or just sleep? ‘Cuz they’re all different things. I think they sleep. Spike snores.” She nodded, then shrugged. “Anyway. He sleeps a lot.”

“Well, he is a baby dragon,” Celestia reminded her. “Maybe that’s why.”

Twilight cocked her head, thinking. “Well, maybe. But I didn’t sleep that much when I was a weanling.”

“I’m not the least bit surprised.”

“So, do you think maybe he needs more sugar? Like cookies?” A delighted gasp. “I bet dragons love cookies! And you know, I bet they’re not the only ones…!”

“Well, that is an idea,” Celestia intervened, “but we should probably make sure first. Why don’t you find a book about dragons—”

“I already read ‘em all.”

Celestia looked at the ceiling, struggling to keep a straight face. “Of course you have.”

“They mostly all say the same things anyway. Which isn’t much, really. And I think a lot of it may be wrong. Spike isn’t fierce or anything, and he likes ponies.” She frowned in thought. “We should go to the Dragon Lands and find out.” Another delighted gasp. “Princess, could we go on a field trip? Maybe we could ask—”

“No,” Celestia broke in hastily, “No, Twilight. Dragons like their privacy, and that would just make them angry. We don’t want any angry dragons, after all, do we?”

The foal looked down, disappointment making her ears and tail droop. “No…”

“But when you’re older, maybe you can find out more,” Celestia suggested. “And in the meantime, I could do with some lunch, and I imagine you could as well. Why don’t we see if Spike is awake yet, and you can tell me more about hummingbirds while we eat.”

Twilight gave a delighted gasp, and was gone in a purple trail of books.

“And don’t run through the…!”

Celestia sighed, and then gave a helpless half-smile, shaking her head. Oh, well. She would talk to Twilight later. But first, there was lunch to order for herself and her two young charges. And a place to choose for dining. Until Twilight, she had simply taken all her meals in her chambers. But now…

One of the balconies, she decided. Yes. That one with the winged carvings, overlooking the garden. The breeze should carry the flowers’ scents nicely, and there is water nearby.

It will be a perfect place to hear about hummingbirds.

Contented, she felt her steps becoming just a little lighter as she continued down the hall. Yes, the future might be bleak, and court was always dreary. And, certainly, the centuries were no less oppressive, staring at her with lonely eyes from past and future both.

But for just for today, she was going to enjoy some good food, and listen to Twilight Sparkle talk about her discoveries.

He really should have been doing his chores.

Bluebottle rolled lazily in the tall grass, watching the nest perched high up in one of the many trees that surrounded him. The great bird was fussing over her children – he’d counted only two, while she was away – and would be flying away again soon. Meanwhile, he got to watch her care for her chicks, feed them, groom them.

He stretched happily where he lay, spreading his deep blue wings as he did so. The valley was a great place to live, for the most part. At least, the cave was. And the woods, and the meadow he was in now. And the villagers were good ponies, all of them, athough they didn’t seem to know that. He hardly ever visited the village anymore, not since he’d gotten his cutie mark. But only because they didn’t like him.

Or Mother.

Or each other, really.

Mother had said it was because they were all earth ponies. Earth ponies were of land and stone, so of course they’d seem hard and cold to outsiders. He, meanwhile, she’d compared to the winds, shaking her head all the while. A wind, a breeze, a cloud floating in a zephyr.

My son, the dreamer, she’d said.

Bluebottle was the only pegasus in the valley; his mother the only unicorn. He’d learned long ago not to ask about his father. But on his rare sojourns into the village he’d measured the older stallions there, wondering which of them might be the one.

He’d especially liked visiting the tiny library, and playing with the other foals between the round huts and shops. He’d even thought about getting a job there, taking care of some of the little ones.

But Mother had said that books were for fillies and mares, so that was out. Which was too bad, he’d liked talking to the librarian. Likewise, mares were caretakers of children and knowledge, not stallions. Stallions were meant for fighting, for providing for their families. Books, songs, rocking little weanlings… such things were not for him.

Chewing on a buttercup thoughtfully, Bluebottle glanced down at the cut on his flank. He’d really thought that updraft would carry him over those rocks, not stall out like it had. Instead, he’d limped into their home late last night, and Mother had cut herself off in mid-lecture with an Oh, my poor child, and swept him up in her arms.

This is your proof, she’d sighed, sorting through various bottles till she’d found the ointment she’d sought. It’s time to put away your games and childish dreams. You’re on the cusp of stallionhood now. Stop playing around, and face the realities of life.

A few minutes later, she’d been angrily dabbing the mixture onto his cut flank. He still wasn’t sure what she’d been angry at more: him, for getting hurt when he’d fallen; or the cut, for hurting him. But even while treating his cuts, she’d been impatient at his tears.

Of course it hurts! She’d snapped. It’s medicine. Nothing good comes without pain!

He’d frowned then. That hadn’t made much sense. Then again, he knew he could be kind of stupid sometimes.

But she had only chuckled at his look and gathered him up again, suddenly kind once more. Oh, my beloved son, she’d said. Life is pain. The stars made it that way, to enjoy our torment. That’s why the strong take what they want, and punish the weak.

Then, she had looked at him, with that intent look she had when she said something important. Just remember this: pain is the price we pay for being alive. So, you take it like a stallion.

She’d set him down again, smoothing his mane as she added, And, whenever you can, you give some back.

Thinking of the village below their cave, he’d had to admit she was likely right. The cold and cruel did seem to have more power than the kind and generous, and they certainly weren’t shy about using it.

All the more reason, he’d felt, to not be like them.

So, he’d tried to change the subject. Well, at least I won’t have a scar over my cutie mark, he’d offered.

But she’d snorted. It might have done you good if you had. Serve as a daily reminder. Then she gave one of her rare smiles, her eyes filled with pride. Your mark is a strong one, strongest I’ve ever seen. Small wonder, I suppose, that you’re still growing into it.

He’d frowned. What’s so strong about it?

But she hadn’t answered. She’d just stroked his mane, saying, The soil of a stallion’s heart is stonier, my son. Not much may grow there, but that’s as it should be. Then she’d stared at him with a fierce intensity, adding, For that stoniness ensures that what you do grow… will survive.

Now, idling in the grass, Bluebottle looked back at his cutie mark: a red heart, wrapped tightly in black thorns. It wasn’t fair. Cutie marks were supposed to give answers, not ask more questions.

Sighing, he lay down, chin between his hooves. Why couldn’t he be the colt he was supposed to be? And when it came right down to it, what kind of Stallion was he becoming?

Not a responsible one, he admitted to himself. Mother gave him enough chores to keep him busy for most of the day: cleaning the cave that was their home, tending their tiny garden, on and on. But most of the time, she didn’t seem to notice if he did his chores or not. Or, she might have just ignored it. He thought he heard her muttering something like boys will be boys at least once, shaking her head as she did the weeding.

Still, she could switch him well enough, if she actually saw him shirking. So he played in the meadow far from the village and the garden, and he flew below the canopy of the valley’s forest so mother wouldn’t see him on her errands.

Rolling over again, he stuck his muzzle into a group of flowers, only to have it suddenly explode into a flock of butterflies. He reared back, sneezing and laughing as the kaleidoscope of wings swirled about him and then rose into the treetops. The early evening sun was warm, the forest creatures were playing, and the air was crisp and fragrant with autumn blossoms. Nickering happily, he began wandering about, gathering them into a bouquet. There were plenty of flowers, he didn’t have to worry about stealing away the meadow’s beauty. And they’d look nice on the table, when dinner came.

Unless, of course, flowers are for fillies too. Like books and music and weanlings.

He looked around himself, at the grass, the trees, the flowers and sky. He’d spent the entire morning there, just watching a spider spin her web: a beautiful creature of black and gold, meticulously creating a home that was also a work of art. Then he’d watched the hawk family throughout the lazy afternoon, the mother constantly in flight, sheltering and loving her children.

They certainly weren’t weak.

Of course, those were all females, he reminded himself. The soil of a stallion’s heart and blah, blah, blah. He snorted. Being a colt was stupid. From the sound of it, being a stallion was even worse.

As the sun slowly descended, Bluebottle continued his reflections, grazing on the blossoms absent-mindedly. After a while, he wove the bouquet’s remaining alyssum, sedum, and multi-colored heather into his mane.

He’d just have to be careful to remove them, before he reached home.