• Published 17th Jun 2019
  • 859 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 6

I clutched my pack close as I wandered out of the throne room, taking one last glance at the imperious Empress on her throne before turning around the corner and out of sight.

She invited me here. She accepted the interview. But now Starlight was rejecting me, tossing me back into the city with what was either callous advice or thinly veiled threats. I couldn’t tell which, but either way didn’t bode well for the success of my project.

I didn’t make it very far, maybe a few steps, before Radiant Dawn caught up from behind. To my surprise, she seemed almost as horrified as I felt. “I had no idea she was going to—” she stammered. “My mother is usually so welcoming to ponies who visit. I was sure she—”

I stopped, letting her finish. But she didn’t seem to have anything else to say. “There’s something else going on here,” I said, and for the first time I hardly even noticed how attractive she was. Hardly—I wasn’t blind, and she was right there. But at this rate, anything I said would probably end up with me getting strung up. I would have to remember Starlight’s disapproving face before I said or did anything. “She barely even mentioned me. It was all about Princess Twilight, and the diplomatic situation between Equestria and here. It must mean something to her, something… political.”

“Ugh,” Dawn groaned. “I hate politics. The only thing more boring is sitting through an entire session of the Assembly. But…” She brightened, turning away. “I’ll make it up to you, Contrail. I promise. You wanted an… interview, you said? I’ll get it, promise.”

“Maybe don’t pressure her right now,” I said. This side-passage was totally unremarkable, just a dark stone room with electric lights on the ceiling. There was no telling that it connected with the throne room, or any defensive measures I could see. “I think the best thing for me to do is stay out of her mane. And maybe… maybe try to follow her instructions. She doesn’t think I understand the Republic very well. I wonder where I could go for a crash course.”

“Oh, I know!” Radiant Dawn recovered quickly, yanking me forward by the leg again and taking a sudden right. “We should go to the city lord, Gina! She knows ponies and birds, she could explain it so it makes sense!”

“City lord,” I repeated. I wasn’t resisting her, though I still felt profoundly nervous. “Are you sure that’s, uh…” How could I even ask? “Are you sure the city lord will want to deal with me any more than the empress does? City lord sounds important.” She’d compared them to mayors—if this was the capital city, then there was little chance she’d have time to talk to some random scholar here on a diplomatic trip.

“Oh, she’ll be fine with it. She always has time for me. So long as I take you, we can flap right in!” She took off into the air, pulling me up towards a door that was several stories up. I spread my wings instinctively, but flapping them did basically nothing.

“Oh, right.” She slumped to the ground. “We’ll have to walk. That’s… not a big deal! We can walk. Ponies love walking! It’s… part of my culture too or whatever!”

Walking is part of your culture? I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t question her. We wound our way through the palace for a few more minutes, until we emerged out in front again through a lower door. A pair of house guards appeared from nowhere as we walked out, surrounding us on either side.

“We’re just going into the city,” Radiant Dawn said, glaring at them both. “I don’t need you.”

“Emperor says you always need us,” said one. I knew the bird’s face, since he was the only black-feathered raven I’d seen since arriving. He’d been with Radiant Dawn on the dock. Yet somehow he’d been waiting out here when we made it out of the palace. Did he know I was going to get refused, or just always wait here when he didn’t have a charge to watch?

“You’re the heir, Radiant Dawn,” said the other. Male too, like every single guard I’d seen so far. This one wasn’t one of the two who had walked with us up the secret trail, but they all looked basically the same anyway. “Even if you weren’t making the trip with an outsider, your safety would still be a concern.”

“Outsider, please,” Radiant Dawn muttered, exasperated. “He lives in books and can’t even fly. He’s more dangerous to papyrus than he is to me.”

Why did that cut so deeply? It wasn’t like I was dangerous to her. I certainly wanted nothing other than a professional relationship between the two of us. And I was grateful she’d taken so much of her time to show me around. I certainly wasn’t puffing out my chest to look bigger, or trying to turn sideways to hide my bookbag. I’d never do that.

“Even still,” said the raven. “We’re going. Where are we going, anyway?”

“City hall,” she said. “We’re walking, since my pony friend Contrail can’t fly. You still want to come?”

“Yes,” the raven said, a little exasperated. “We’d come even if you were just going over the wall to stare at it for a few hours.”

“Fine!” Radiant Dawn rose into the air, letting go of me for a few seconds and doing a quick loop. She moved so gracefully and quickly that I could only stare, amazed. “Fine, you win! We get babysitters, Contrail. Even though I’ve been of age for two years now and I’m a better shot than half the birds in this city.”

She landed beside me, gesturing ahead. “Lead the way, Giorgio, oh loyal escort. However would we find our way to city hall without you?”

We passed back through the gate—but not down to the docks again. Now the city was before us, and I got my first good look at the rebuilt capital.

Like everything else I’d seen so far, it was both similar to the way ponies built and simultaneously distinct. The street level just outside the palace was packed with carriages and servants, probably waiting to attend on the diplomats that were working further in.

Further away from the palace and its surrounding diplomatic buildings, the city spread out as a series of closely packed towers. There weren’t actually routes between the levels, no stairwells I could see. I might’ve thought that most of them were just internal like pony buildings, except for the mostly identical front doors facing the street.

“You, uh… really built the city around flying, didn’t you?”

“I guess.” Dawn still sounded distant, and a little annoyed. Not with me, I hoped. “That right there is the citizen’s district, and they can all fly. In the old days they used to be on the ground, because most households had slaves. But we don’t do that anymore, so…”

Slaves. The word was still a nerve for griffons on both sides of the issue, and it was so unpleasant that most ponies didn’t think about it at all. But I had to—slavery went right to the core of the entire Migration War. Ending it had crushed the Empire, and formed the fertilizer that the Republic grew in.

“I guess you never, uh… you don’t know much about that, do you? You were born after the war. Your father is…”

“Emperor Velar,” she finished for me. “Yeah, I was. Born in Equestria, though. My mother and father didn’t want to wait until… well, I guess I can’t blame them for that.”

That was a subject I didn’t want to explore, so I stayed quiet as we walked. We weren’t heading out into the city, not to the unreachable roosts of the citizens tucked into the rock. The civic buildings around the capital were built more traditionally, and it didn’t look like I would have trouble getting in.

“You lived in New Scythia?” I asked. “Do you remember what it was like?”

“No,” she said, ears flat. “I know it was hard—even after the war killed so many birds, we had trouble feeding everyone. But I was too young to remember when it was hard. The first things I can remember were living in the palace during the excavations. Lots of digging and repairs and construction.”

I turned, watching her more closely. There was something here I hadn’t thought about yet. She did know some useful things. There were some questions I’d hoped to ask her mother that I might be able to learn from her instead.

“Why didn’t the Republic rebuild in Scythia? This city was…” I didn’t even know. “Somewhere else. Why here?”

“Caesarea,” she supplied. “I know ponies don’t have houses and stuff. Caesarea was the fortress aerie of house Virtue—my house. It’s further from Mons Ignis, so the damage was less severe. And there aren’t as many ghosts.”

But I didn’t get a chance to ask about what that might mean, because we reached our destination: a black stone building made to resemble the palace, but with much smaller pillars and without the fortress walls around it. There were also far fewer birds inside, most looking like functionaries to my eyes. Not the diverse representation of a massive empire.

Up the steps we went, past guards that wore blue and carried clubs instead of rifles. They parted around Dawn like we weren’t even there. “Here to see the lord?” one of them asked. “Don’t you have places to be, Radiant Dawn?”

“Nope,” she answered, grinning honestly. “I have a pony with me from Equestria! He wants to ask her some questions!”

“Really?” Suddenly I felt their skeptical eyes turn on me. Where before I’d just been background, now they closed in around us, subtly blocking the steps so that I couldn’t pass. “Has he forgotten we’re not in Equestria? We don’t care what ponies want here.”

“I’m not like that,” I said, not looking them in the eye. I didn’t know much about bird custom, but I had heard that could make them angry. “I’m a scholar, doing research for a book. I’m not a diplomat, or an interrogator.”

“Male scholar,” said another. Several other birds laughed. “Just because you could didn’t mean you should.”

What does that mean? I didn’t think it wise to ask him. “Please,” I said again. “It’s just an interview. I’m not here to try to enforce Equestrian law.”

“We’ll see.” One of them got out of our way. “One thing not many ponies know is honor. Your word mean anything, horse?”

I nodded. “I’m being honest. I could show you the proof if you needed to see it.”

He laughed. “It wouldn’t be proper to have the Emperor’s daughter read for me. Stars you’re insane, stallion.”

“Leave him alone,” Dawn said, raising her voice as she shoved through. She grabbed me by the leg again, and soon we were passing inside. The guards didn’t protest, though I could feel them watching me all the way up. Not nearly as well-behaved as the ones guarding the capitol. And those well-trained guards, who had treated me so well during my visit, they just stood beside and watched.

A large empty passage was open in the center, around a set of stairs that led up the building. I walked, while the birds flew around me, watching and grinning. “You’re almost there!” Dawn called, gesturing up. “Just two more flights!”

After what felt like an hour of walking, I finally reached the top. Past a floor of frantically writing scribes and packed records was another single guard, watching the stairwell. At least he didn’t harass me as we passed him, through the open door to the city lord’s office.