• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe



The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 44: Princess

Harlequin froze, utterly still as Prince Blueblood strode down the steps and up to the massive lectern. Every eye in the room followed him as he settled there, including the princess herself.

“In the matter of…” He cleared his throat. “The investigation following the… prison fire.” Blueblood spoke with utter contempt, with no more respect for what had happened than he’d used when ordering Harlequin around. You’re talking to the princess! Are you insane?

“Consider my offer,” Hydrus said, not moving from his seat. “Not just for you. Those two bugs depending on you. I haven’t forgotten about them. The swarm is mine.” He settled back in his chair, apparently unconcerned with her answer. “You may leave whenever you wish.”

He could blast me into paste if he wanted. But then the princess would see. He can’t hurt me.

Social convention was a flimsy shield, but it was something. If I leave this room, he’ll follow and kill me. She couldn’t read his mind, and his emotions seemed obvious, but she knew that as clearly as she’d ever known anything.

Princess Celestia spoke, and her voice stilled every whisper in the hall. A thousand ponies straightened, watching her. It had to be true that the prince was Celestia’s nephew, because she spoke with a disappointment that even Harlequin could feel. “I entrusted you with lives, Prince. Convicted invaders, certainly. The least deserving of our mercy, absolutely. But nonetheless requiring justice. How many died in your prison?”

He stumbled, whatever prepared remarks he’d been planning falling apart. “I, uh… they, we…” He shook his head, recovering his composure. “My investigation did not discover survivors, Princess.”

Gasps and mutters broke the silence in the hall, even from the ponies. Are there really that many of you who care if bugs die?

Celestia’s expression hardened. She didn’t move, didn’t threaten, yet somehow the warmth filling the room became less “spring day” and more “desert badlands.”

Silver Smith leaned in a little closer, apparently relishing the moment. Maybe out of concern for the dead bugs, or maybe just the satisfaction of seeing a rival punished.

“Wheels within wheels,” Hydrus whispered. Harlequin glanced behind her, and realized there wasn’t even a unicorn stallion there. Now it was a scrawny little pegasus mare, matching one of the messengers she’d passed on the way in. She even had a notebook.

“After our investigation…” Blueblood went on, though he couldn’t come close to the dignity and confidence from before. He was sweating in his fancy uniform now. “We did conclude the cause. The construction crew we hired used pine oil to seal the timber, far more than required. The prisoners… dislodged a lantern. The heat overwhelmed them far faster than they could escape.”

You’re lying, Harlequin realized. He was very good at it, because not even Celestia objected. But she could feel just how empty his words had become. Lying about what?

“I’ve already prepared a list of names for your pleasure,” Blueblood finished. “The, uh… foreman on the project, who permitted the use of so much oil. The safety inspectors who approved the building. The—” He lifted a scroll in his magic, holding half a dozen names in neat black ink.

Celestia raised a hoof, silencing him. The entire room fell silent with him, all watching. Harlequin among them. Not that she had high hopes for this. Celestia hated changelings, didn’t she? Their deaths would be a relief for her, even if she didn’t want to admit it. More than that, Blueblood was supposed to be related to her, somehow. She could put on a show of acting stern, but not much else.

The list of names vanished from beside him, reappearing in front of Celestia. She skimmed it quickly, before rolling it up again. “Surely these hold the weight of a terrible crime,” she declared. “The lives of…” she trailed off. “How many dead were there, Prince? In the ruins?”

“Sixty-five,” he said, avoiding her eyes again.

Another lie. Where before Harlequin had felt hopeless, suddenly she sat up in her seat. She had wondered before, but now—now she knew.

So did Hydrus. He hopped off his chair, scribbling something with his mouth on the sheet of paper. Even while he did it, he whispered quietly to her. “Right now, or they’re dead. You too—but slowly.”

Irongate turned to glare, expression hard as stone. He only whispered, though he did it without fear. “Get the buck out of my booth. Do I need to call a bailiff?”

Hydrus stumbled, momentarily taken aback. Finally he seemed to see Silver Smith for the first time, eyes going wide. “So you slipped out,” he whispered. “Clever, impersonating the family. There’s nowhere you can fly that I cannot reach. Maybe I misjudged you, Harlequin. Fine. So turn and fly away. Try to run—at least then I won’t have a reason to follow. Sovereignty matters more than revenge.”

He didn’t wait for a response, just slipped back out the doors and down the hall. To order Codex and Thorax killed.

A part of her really did consider flying off on her own. Her younger self might’ve done it. But now she was the reason that bugs were dead. She couldn’t run away from that, even if she made it to the other end of Equestria. It’s not just the two bugs depending on me. Every drone in the hive needs me.

She couldn’t save “S”, but there was “A”, and “V” and a dozen others. Harlequin didn’t run.

Down below, Celestia wasn’t done with Blueblood, either. “Certainly there will be a trial for every pony who neglected their duty in this case. Wouldn’t you agree, Prince Blueblood? Nothing would be more proper, more just?”

He winced, avoiding her eyes. But there was nothing for him to do but agree. “I am… of course, your servant in all things.”

“I like where this is going,” Silver whispered. “But no matter how it goes, it’ll be time for us soon. Are you ready?”

She shook her head weakly. “You didn’t tell me!”

“I’m the oldest member of our family, so I have standing. I’ll walk down there, and turn my time over to you. You’ll have… whatever’s left. And don’t give up now, because I won’t be able to do this for another year. One seat, once a year. That’s how it works.”

She swallowed, whimpering. Any moment their ruse would be discovered, or maybe Hydrus’s secret backup plan would rush in and kill them all. But so far, nothing happened.

“And, as it happens, protecting those prisoners was your duty,” Celestia went on. “There were many levels of delegation. Many ponies who failed. But at the root of it all was the pony who should have known. The pony whose hooves should have been there, to inspect all that was built personally. You should have been in that prison when it was filled. You should’ve been there to guarantee that emergency services could arrive. All these will be punished, but they don’t hold all the guilt.”

Blueblood glanced up at their box, eyes briefly lingering on her before moving on to the seats on the other side. Marquesa seemed just as confused as he was—and then Hydrus’s empty chair.

Maybe I won’t have to say anything, Harlequin thought, again seized by a fresh wave of desperate hope. Maybe Blueblood will tell them about Hydrus. They can murder each other, and I won’t have to do anything.

Blueblood finally looked back, lowering his head to the princess. Fury boiled in him, stronger than all the emotions she felt below. There was cold calculation, and planning, and a fierce desire for revenge. But all he said was, “I did all I could to ensure the safety of my prisoners, Aunt. I wished only to serve Equestria.”

Celestia waved a hoof, and at once a set of uniformed ponies appeared beneath the throne. What had Silver called them, bailiffs? This wasn’t that kind of court, was it? Ponies were so confusing!

They didn’t have to drag him out. “I turn over the balance of my time to the floor.” Blueblood stepped down from the stand with dignity, spinning and joining the bailiffs. They didn’t even walk him off to a cell somewhere—but right back up the steps, into the booth.

“Sincere apologies, Prince Blueblood,” one whispered, once he was sitting down again. “We’ve been told to escort you to house arrest when the occasion is concluded.”

Somepony below hammered a gravel. “On the matter of… railroad appropriations, we have Silver Smith, Lord of House Irongate. You have the floor for—”

Silver rose from his chair, acting firmly like the hostage situation just beside them wasn’t happening. But he didn’t even get it open.

Celestia herself rose from her seat, spreading her wings wide. The court fell silent. “I pray the good Lord Irongate will forgive my interruption and accept reassignment to another date. I wish to address the court on the matter of the changelings.”

Harlequin’s heart sank in her chest. The color seemed to fade from the world all around her. She’d done everything she could—sacrificed the lives of her friends, and for what? She wouldn’t even get to say anything.

“These terrible events must serve as a lesson for all of us. Few of you represent Canterlot, but the pain that afflicts one of us is shared by all. Even in Equestria’s remote corners, members of your families were cut off. We can’t let the evil of others define us.”

Harlequin met Silver’s eyes. There was satisfaction there, and for good reason. He felt Celestia’s sincerity, just as she did. These weren’t empty words.

“What happened in the Lower City yesterday… makes me second guess everything I have accomplished in my reign. I didn’t imagine there could be ponies so vile and heartless.

“I wish to make it clear to all of you, so that you might share my message with the ponies you represent. I will not judge any of you by the way you treat—”

Harlequin could practically feel the invisible thread trying to keep her down. She rose, and the chair jerked forward with her a little. Nothing magical at all—that was her imagination. It was just the oversized dress, not meant to be used sitting down.

Even so, the scraping attracted attention. Several nearby boxes—Blueblood himself, and even Celestia turned an eye towards her. She didn’t stop.

For a single moment, Harlequin resisted the sheer, mind-bending absurdity of her plan.

Then she did it anyway. “Princess Celestia!” She shouted so loud that even Celestia stopped midsentence. Ponies turned—mostly bailiffs, by the look of it. More indignant eyes watched her than had watched Blueblood’s apparent arrest.

Celestia’s emotions were a mask, almost as convincing as a changeling. Except that when she looked, Harlequin’s senses didn’t go numb. Instead her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she nearly fell over. She squeaked, almost turned and ran. I can’t predict what she’ll do. Here was one being with self-control so perfect that she could hide what she was feeling, if she wanted to.

A few bailiffs were already running towards her booth. But Celestia raised a wing, gesturing forward. Her face was flat. “Is this remark relevant, Lady Irongate?”

She shoved forward, stepping as far away from Silver as she could when she did. Hopefully that would insulate him from the backlash. Except that he brought me here. He’s toast either way. “It is, Princess!”

Celestia’s eyes narrowed. “And is it more important than one of the Diarchs of all Equestria addressing the elected and noble-born ponies who officiate it? Is it worth disrupting my court at such a critical time?” No mystery about her feelings. Harlequin almost melted under the sheer force of her indignance.

But all that energy could give her courage, too. Hydrus might be about to kill her friends—or maybe Celestia could save them. Maybe Silver Smith was right about the princess. She was about to find out. “Yes!” she said. “I have critical information! You’re wrong to judge your ponies for this evil! They didn’t do it!”

Three more blue-robed bailiffs reached the steps, practically clambering over one another to get to her. One already had a baton drawn—somehow, she didn’t think she’d be shown the same polite deference as Blueblood. You look so smug about it too.

Then Celestia nodded. “Then come forward, and Harmony help you if you can’t prove it.”

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