• Published 17th Jun 2019
  • 858 Views, 183 Comments

The First Republic - Starscribe

One generation ago, a volcanic eruption nearly smothered all life on Equus. Ponies and griffons ended up deciding not to kill each other. Contrail is going to set down the history of the Migration War, if it doesn't kill him first.

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Chapter 4

The trip to New Accipio was uneventful, at least so compared to everything I’d been led to expect. There were no pirate attacks, though I did see plenty of other traffic along the route. We saw the Royal Navy more than once, patrolling our most important trade-route.

I had plenty of opportunity to ask follow-up questions to Bluejacket, though there wasn’t all that much to ask. He didn’t remember any specifics about the religious service, or know very much about the new griffon religion.

Beyond that, the trip took about a week. Bluejacket insisted we could’ve arrived in half that much time, but that would be bad for the engines and we weren’t in much of a rush. We would want the Wintergreen to be in good shape in case something did happen when we left the safer parts of the world.

Even someone with no navigational experience whatsoever would realize they were crossing into Accipian territory. Ponies spend so much time looking at our little part of the map, they forget we don’t even control a fourth of Equus’s land. Once, Accipio did.

It didn’t anymore. Mons Ignis produced a thick white ash, often mistaken for snow at a distance. I’m told by farmers the ash is great for the soil, but that’s about the only thing it’s good for. It will scrape and cut anypony who touches it, particularly if it touches skin. It burns the lungs, causing permanent damage if too much is inhaled. Those who spent too much time living in it often go blind from microscopic scratches against their eyes.

Along the coast, there were once great cities. We passed over one of them, a fortress of stone perched high in the mountains. It was all white now, lifeless even after all these years. No birds fly over the city, either animal or griffon. No plants can penetrate the shell, and the ash clumps together to resist being blown away. In places it seemed that the ash had buried whole buildings, with only their balconies emerging from the deadly sea.

I could hear strange sounds coming from the city below as we flew overhead, and I went to Bluejacket for his input. “Do you hear… howling?” I asked, camera hanging from around my neck. If I was coming all the way out here anyway, there was no way my book wouldn’t contain photographs.

“It’s nothing,” he said, unable to meet my eyes. “Don’t think about it. If the crew is telling you superstitions, ignore them. They speak when they shouldn’t.”

Yet Bluejacket refused to step away from the helm, guiding us well above the dead city below. I left him to it, returning to the lower deck. Gerta the griffon was waiting there, her feathers all flat and her eyes on the city below.

“You can hear them too,” she whispered. “Not many ponies can.”

I wanted to deny it, but she wasn’t wrong. I nodded. “What is it?”

“Ghosts,” she said, with complete sincerity. “Accipio was supposed to be evacuated, but… birds are stubborn. An entire clan refused the emperor’s orders. They had birds in every city. Their slaves, and loyal freemen too. All… down there. In the ash.”

It sounded like it might be the wind whistling through mountainous rocks. “No settlers wanted to take the city back. There must be… valuables down there, right? Accipio was a rich nation.”

She nodded. “The vultures. You’ll know them when you see them. Cursed by the ash… or the ones who live in it. Don’t fly there, pony. My dead will do worse to you than them.”

I nodded my appreciation, going belowdecks. But I could still hear the miserable howling until we had left the dead city behind. Needless to say, I didn’t plan on returning for interviews.

The land wasn’t an ashy wasteland from shore to shore, at least. Far from the mountain, there were signs that wind and rain had washed it all away, and that the wildlife was returning. Young forests sprouted in valleys that had once been farms, some already towering to fifty feet or more. I took a few more pictures of the natural recovery for the book, but generally did as much as possible to not think about the dead.

Another day later, and we were finally getting close to Caesarea. Like all bird cities, it had been built in the mountains, though this capital was missing much that had made the old one a part of their empire. A huge stone palace rose in the very center, much closer to Canterlot than the empty fortresses of war that I’d seen covered in ash. The city spread out around it along both sides of the mountain, the same way as the Crystal Empire.

“It’s the farms,” said a voice from beside me—Bluejacket rarely guided the helm himself, and apparently didn’t think he needed to right now. “That’s how you can tell if a city is friendly to ponies or not. It’s against their customs, but… Equestrian cities like to be more self-sufficient. A few hundred earth ponies can feed a place like this, done right. Starlight Glimmer makes judicious use of the serf population.

There were hundreds of airships in the sky above it, many moored to cloud platforms obviously built by pegasus hooves. A few even used metal, like modern Equestrian warships. Starlight Glimmer was certainly not sabotaging the kingdom from within in the interests of Equestria, that was clear.

“It’s bigger than Canterlot,” I muttered, taking a photo with as much of the slope in view as possible. “How?”

Bluejacket shrugged. “Question for a scholar. Caesarea is the friendliest part of their whole kingdom. A pony can be out there and walk around like they belong. Just don’t get tricked out of the city, or think that everywhere is like this. Further out we go, the… weaker the emperor’s power becomes.”

We landed just outside the city, at a dock so large it looked like it could hold a thousand ships. But for our visit there were few other vessels in our section, all flying Equestrian flags.

The docks were at the bottom of Caesarea, so that as we touched down the stone buildings rose like an aerie. Most impressive of all, I could see no ash anywhere, not even blown specks on nearby buildings.

The Wintergreen’s crew rushed around me, several pegasi flying around the edge to secure docking lines to the deck far below. But I barely even saw any of them—there was a bird on the dock, watching us.

Not a bird, not quite. A hippogriff, mixed pink coat and white feathers. I’d never seen such a beautiful creature in my whole life—not the models that performed in Manehattan shows, not the posters put up in seedy districts. I couldn’t tell what she was doing here at such a distance, or who she might be.

I might’ve taken her picture, if it wasn’t for Bluejacket behind me, clearing his throat. “I can see you’re appreciating Caesarea, kid. I’ll let you get back to it, soon as you tell me what your plans are. Need to know how long you plan to stay, so I can know how much leave to give the crew.”

“At least…” Was something wrong with my words? I turned away from the railing, and my head began to clear. I could still feel my heart racing, even so. “At least two weeks, possibly as long as a month. I sent formal telegrams to all the creatures here in the city, so they should be expecting me. Hopefully one of them will be able to point me towards the ones who aren’t local.”

“The crew will be pleased to hear it,” Bluejacket said. “Keep me informed—the crew will need a full day to return from leave if something comes up suddenly. Keep that in mind with any plans you make.”

A few minutes later and we settled into the berth, bumping lightly as lines were drawn tight. I went belowdecks to gather my meager possessions, fully intending to make this trip as authentic as I could. By the time I made it up again, a sturdy bridge had been set down and Bluejacket was speaking to a few dock officials in black and gold uniforms.

I walked past them all, content that the crew would take care of this. I was here for research, not to deal with the bureaucracy.

I was so distracted by my own thoughts I didn’t see the creature at the bottom of the bridge until I walked right into her. She squeaked in surprise right as I did, taking off into the air with a scattering of white feathers. I gasped, lowering my head awkwardly. Why was somepony at the bottom of the ramp?

“I’m sorry!” I called apologetically. “I’ve got my head in the clouds since—” Words failed me as I looked up and realized just who I’d hit.

It was the creature I’d been staring at from the railing. She wasn’t quite so graceful now, her chest puffed out and wings spread. But she landed again on the deck a moment later, grinning. “That’s okay, I know what that’s like. Your mind starts to wander and suddenly you’re somewhere else, and the world in front of you is barely even there. I get it!”

She grinned, sticking out a claw. A little like a griffon claw, though the talons weren’t nearly as long or sharp. Pony-griffon hybrids. Makes sense they aren’t as dangerous. “I’m Radiant Dawn, by the way. I watched you fly in—Wintergreen, just like my mother said. I’m supposed to take you to the castle. It’s… family tradition or something? Mostly I think she’s bored and wants a pony from her old home to talk to.” She sat back on her haunches, puffing out her chest again and tilting her head slightly to the side. “Who are you?”

“Contrail,” I answered, only just managing to say anything at all. Those eyes weren’t as large as ponies’, but sharper and incredibly focused. Otherwise she looked halfway between a pony and a bird, since that was exactly what she was. “Scholar for… guess the rest doesn’t matter. Your mother is…”

Now I felt like an idiot. Her mother had heard I was coming, and wanted her to take me to the castle. Radiant Dawn was… “Your mother is the queen,” I stammered, eyes widening in horror. My wings were probably puffing out too, the way they always did when I was nervous. I could never quite get them to stop. “And your father…”

Buck me. “You’re the princess. The heir to the throne, the…”

“Yeah, I guess.” Whatever she wanted me to say, that wasn’t it. “Please don’t get boring, Contrail. Everyone I meet gets boring as soon as they find that out. Suddenly they’re all stuffy and they tell me about their noble lineage and how loyal their families are to the state. Ugh.”

She grinned, reaching down and taking my hoof with a claw. Her grip didn’t press hard enough to hurt, but it was also too strong to escape. “Come on! I’ll show you the way!”

There was no chance I’d be able to get away from Radiant Dawn, not with how determined she was to bring me to wherever she was going.

More than that, I found I didn’t want to be. Sorry Twilight, I think I found something that isn’t going into the book.

“What brings you all the way to the Accipian Republic?” she asked, taking me to a set of switchback stairs carved in the cliff. This wasn’t where the other creatures were going, and as we approached we passed a few birds with weapons emerging from their clothes. Hidden guards, for a hidden path. “It must be really interesting! Mother says the Equestrian princess sent you!”

There was a stone door in the rock, concealed to look like just more stone. Radiant Dawn finally let go as she opened it, heaving with one shoulder. “She did,” I admitted. “Though I’m not sure if you’d be interested.”

How I was going to get anything done in the city now, with a creature like this nearby… I had no idea.