• Published 17th Jun 2019
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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 5

Through the maze of rock and stone we climbed. Though I had little in common with many other pegasus ponies, I did share one particular discomfort: being trapped indoors. I kept adjusting my wings in agitation as we walked, glancing up as though by doing so I might be able to lift the ceiling from over my head.

“It’s not much further,” Radiant Dawn said, her voice sympathetic. Did she understand what bothered me, or just think I was bored? At least the latter would mean she didn’t think I was a foal who couldn’t handle some time underground.

It was dark and cramped, the stairs cut by hoof and only a few electric bulbs that flickered and dimmed at random.

The stairwell ended with a heavy vault door, its steel knob unyielding. One of the house guards began to work it, while Radiant Dawn herself turned back to face me. “What do you think of Equestria, Contrail? Do you like living there?”

What kind of question is that? I nodded feebly, unable to entirely hide my confusion. “Of course I do. It’s a great place to live. I don’t spend much time outside of Manehattan myself, there’s just so much work to do and so little time to get it all done.”

“Manehattan,” she repeated. “How many birds live in that territory? Two million? Three?”

The vault door clicked open, and the griffons on her either side began pushing against it. It took both of them working to get it to slowly swing open, revealing the merciful sunlight waiting for us on the other side.

“Almost a million ponies in all,” I answered. “But it’s not a territory, it’s a city. Everypony lives inside it. There are lots of suburbs out around it, and towns out past those, but those aren’t in Manehattan.”

“I think…” Dawn made a face. “My mother told me about some of it. You don’t have city lords, and you don’t have noble families. I think they’re called… mayors?”

Finally the door was open. She took me to another corridor through the rock, but this time there was sunlight to lead us forward. I emerged into the light, blinking away the disorientation of our trip through the gloom and looking up at the palace.

This was the capital of the Republic, a civic center for ten times as many creatures as all the ponies who lived in Equestria.

The griffons certainly had a different sensibility in the way they built things. Everything had been cut from the same huge stone blocks, assembled together with much more attention to strength than to the way they looked. A low outer wall surrounded a towering inner structure, at least twice as high as Canterlot Castle, and with several smaller sections that obviously weren’t physically connected at all. A creature would have to fly to reach some of those upper buildings, there were no walkways for anypony who was trapped on the ground.

“I, uh…” I winced, but there was no way I could successfully pretend to have powers I didn’t. “This might be a bad time to mention that I can’t actually fly.”

Radiant Dawn stopped dead on the path ahead of me, turning to gawk. Even showing her disbelief, that little beak somehow made her look charming. “You have wings,” she said. “I know ponies can fly. We have a weather team and everything!”

“Ponies can fly,” I agreed. “But I never learned how. I was…” I turned away. “More of a scholar. Time spent in the air was time away from my books.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t know how you got down from your nest every morning, but…” She leaned forward, gripping one of my forelegs with both claws and yanking me. “How long are you going to be in Caesarea, Contrail?”

“A few weeks, probably,” I answered. “Long enough to conduct all the—”

“Long enough to learn how to fly,” she responded. “Don’t even say a word. My mother will know some bird or other who can teach you. She’s very well connected, you’ll see.”

She dragged me up the switchbacks, which were built unevenly and sculpted into the rock. A casual observer would not have seen anything other than more rock if they looked down, weathered and occasionally covered with patches of ash.

We reached the low gate, which opened for us as we approached. The guards didn’t even inquire about who I was, they just saluted with their sturdy metal rifles and got out of our way.

There were hundreds of birds moving in and out of the wide palace steps. I stopped suddenly enough that Radiant Dawn lost her grip on my leg, staring at the flow of creatures in and out of the building.

There were far more than I’d seen at Canterlot Castle during my single visit there. I couldn’t forget that the Republic was an entirely different form of government. Their emperor and empress weren’t absolute the way Celestia and Luna were, but they relied on an assembly.

Apparently an assembly meant constant traffic in and out of their capital building, full of creatures wearing ceremonial robes in several colors. There were so many of them here that at least they didn’t stare at me too long. I was just another creature in a crowd of many.

Dawn, on the other hoof, attracted more than her fair share of eyes. Whispers too, though I couldn’t tell if they were talking about something official, or noticing her same traits that I had.

“Something wrong?” she asked, tilting her head to one side. “The Assembly will still be in session until evening, if you’re—”

“It’s fine,” I answered reflexively. Though what I could’ve said to her even if I had been genuinely disturbed, I didn’t know. “You said… Empress Starlight Glimmer is expecting us, right? I shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

The griffons didn’t hide their assembly hall behind many doors and security areas. Instead, we just had to go right through the huge double doors, to where a set of tiered steps looked down on the assembly hall from above.

There looked to be fifty of them on each side of the room, each one wearing one of a few colors and basically shouting at each other.

Did they really think democracy was a good idea? That looks like a nightmare.

“This way,” Radiant Dawn urged, pointing towards a stairwell in the back. I followed her to the door, then squeezed through just behind another few house guards.

I followed Radiant Dawn into the throne room, feeling the relief as my ears were no longer assaulted with the clamor of the assembly hall.

It had obviously been modeled on Canterlot Castle, with a long hallway and stained glass on either side. But the ceiling was higher here, with several doors flush with the wall above some of the windows. Most were blank, though there were scenes on the first few.

An erupting Mons Ignis, thousands of retreating ships, and a fierce battle over Canterlot. The defense of New Scythia, and the triumph of the current Emperor. One thing I didn’t see was any record of Starlight Glimmer’s own… involvement.

What records I had found about her before now were exceptionally vague. They didn’t even agree on what spells she had used to save the city as Vengeance tried to burn it. The Old magic, or something learned from Sombra. It was one of the things I most wanted to accurately record.

The throne at the far end was even more luxurious than Canterlot Castle—not just gemstones, but apparently made from solid gold, with a smaller seat beside a taller one. Only the smaller seat was occupied, by the pony I’d hoped to meet.

Starlight Glimmer wore the same robes as the griffons did, at least from afar. But where theirs came in many colors, hers was white, with diamonds along the collar and a hood she wore down, exposing her mane. She’d taken to wearing it short and wild, with thick strands poking out from behind her head like the feathers from a griffon. But no griffon came in pink, or would fill the space with so much magic.

There were half a dozen others here too—an older bird with white feathers, a zebra with a chain necklace of gold, and numerous birds flapping around them with bookbags, easels, and pens. All female. Interesting.

“Mom, I got him!” Radiant Dawn called, bounding up into the air and quickly crossing the distance to the throne. She landed at the base, not crossing the edge of the gold. “This is Contrail, from Equestria! He’s here to learn about us!”

“I know.” I half-expected Starlight Glimmer to sound more like a bird, but she spoke no differently than any other pony. She wasn’t old, but her voice was still profoundly weary. Her eyes on me had none of the supernatural piercing quality that Twilight had. But she also wasn’t trying to talk past me so fast I blew away.

She waited for me to reach the throne, where I stopped and bowed. I didn’t really know what they expected, so I had to hope that the respect I would’ve shown to Twilight Sparkle would be enough here. The soldiers to either side of the throne didn’t move, so I had to assume I’d done something right.

“Rise, Equestrian. Long trip all the way out to the Accipian Republic. You must be a very determined scholar.”

“I am,” I answered. “Though to be honest with you, uh… Empress… Princess Twilight made this trip possible. I was just going to send my questions by mail and hope you decided to answer.”

“But she made you an envoy of the court,” Starlight said. She sat up, looking down on me from ten feet or so high. I couldn’t quite tell what that expression meant. Was it annoyance? Skepticism? “And so we’re forced to receive you or else give the appearance of dissatisfaction towards our Equestrian allies. It is just like Twilight to make such a big deal over a book.”

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding here,” I answered, head still down. I dared a glance to one side, at the older bird watching me from the wall. At least the emperor isn’t here. He’d probably make this even worse.

I wanted to see Emperor Velar of course, but not meeting two of the most important creatures in the world at once would do wonders for my stress-level.

Starlight almost seemed able to hear my thoughts, because she nodded suddenly. “My honored husband will be supervising the Assembly until today’s session is concluded. You’ll have to arrange a meeting with him on your own, if you can somehow manage to do it without frightening him into flight.”

“Uh…” I dared to raise my head. “I’m not very frightening, Empress. I’m just here to ask questions. This case is only full of paper.”

“Precisely,” Starlight said, with just the hint of a smile. “A male scholar. I don’t know how much you know about the cultural aspects of the Republic—I suggest beginning a practical crash course. If you don’t know what’s frightening about that, you don’t know enough to write about our motivations accurately.”

Our, I noted. I guess getting banished didn’t help her loyalty to Equestria much.

“I would be honored if you would give me the chance for an interview,” I said. “I have some questions about the Migration War, and a first hoof perspective to those events would—”

Starlight raised a hoof, waiting for me to fall silent. “Now isn’t the time, scholar Contrail. It’s possible I’ll be able to find time in my schedule, stars permitting. But even if I don’t, you have the run of the palace while you’re here. My daughter has little exposure to ponies outside of Equestria’s formal ambassadors, and I have no doubt she’ll harass you endlessly for information. Consider it my special pleasure to grant her full permission to do so as long as you’re in the capital.”

She leaned in, just over the edge of the throne. “You’re not in Equestria anymore, Contrail. Learn quickly, or this trip might get you killed.”

She sat back, turning her head away. Just like that the guards emerged, pointing towards a side door. “The empress is done with you,” one said. Not rudely, but absolutely confident. I wandered out, stunned and confused with every step.

I thought she wanted to see ponies.