• 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 7

All this talk of noble houses and city lords was hard for me to wrap my head around—but as we walked into her office, I found myself finally relaxing in the presence of something familiar. Even on the other end of the world, in a civilization of birds that had once kept slaves, some things never changed.

Gina herself was an older bird, though like many of the griffons I’d met so far it was hard to tell her age with the signs that might work well for ponies. Most birds didn’t lose their feathers as they aged, and those tended to cover up the wrinkles.

I could see the signs of weariness on this bird. One of her eyes was white, and some of the scars in her coat ran so deep that the fur hadn’t ever grown back. Instantly I found myself grateful that I had brought my bookbag. This wasn’t just a bird I could learn the basics of griffon culture from, it was a bird who had probably seen the Migration War first hoof, while standing in a position important enough to have a useful perspective.

She was precisely the sort of bird I was looking for.

“Radiant Dawn,” she said, sitting back from behind piles of papers. She pushed them aside, knocking several identical telegram printouts into a waste bin. “What would your father say if he found out you were in my office?”

“I dunno.” She waved one wing dismissively, bouncing up to the desk and looking down at it. “Probably he’d say I was wasting my effort not learning poetry or history or science. Boring, lame, and ugh.” She shook her head, then seemed to remember I was there.

“But I’ve got a pony with me who wanted to ask about some of that stuff. I’m not very good at answering his questions, but I’m hoping you can.”

“You have a pony,” she said, finally seeming to notice me. There was some sympathy in her expression, as though she thought I’d been kidnapped. And maybe I had, I still wasn’t sure about that.

I could’ve done my interviews without involving the royal family at all. If they weren’t going to help me anyway...

I banished that thought, true though it was. Radiant Dawn might be getting me into more trouble than I would’ve faced otherwise, but she was still the prettiest creature I’d ever seen. I could put up with a little inconvenience if it meant I got to see her smile.

“A pony clipper arrived today, I remember. Did you find him there?”

“Yeah!” she said. “He’s here, uh… writing a book? Yeah, I know how weird it sounds, but it’s real. He’s got a bag with papers in it and everything.”

“I know stallions can often write, I won’t be disturbed.” She rose from her desk, turning aside to throw open the curtains behind her. The view of the city below, even in late afternoon, briefly floored me. It was so totally alien from anything I’d seen—all the verticality of Manehattan, but without any of the rigid structure. It was an organic thing, something that had grown by one nest at a time over many years.

“I’m here researching for a book,” I explained, before Radiant Dawn could twist my mission even further. “On the Migration War. I was hoping I might be able to learn a little from you. About Accipian customs, and… your memories of the war, if you have any.”

“I should think I do.” The bird slumped back into her chair. Her one good eye seemed to glaze over, looking at something that I couldn’t see. “I was an Officer of Imperial Enforcement, servant of Emperor Gaius himself. My claws enforced his will, so I was there to see the surrender to Equestria carried out. And I watched each house rebel against it in their own ways.”

“Surrender?” I hadn’t been invited, but I could see no reason not to sit. I pulled over one of the chairs, and nopony stopped me. Of course, there were no guards in here. Radiant Dawn’s own personal servants were waiting at the door. Maybe they aren’t suspicious of me after all. “You didn’t surrender to Equestria.”

Gina laughed, looking sidelong at Dawn. “He does need cultural lessons. Did he talk like this to your father?”

“Hasn’t met him yet,” Dawn said, matching her amusement. “But I would’ve told him not to.”

“I don’t understand.” I opened my case, removing a pad of paper and a fresh ballpoint pen. There were still some scribes who insisted on the old quills and bottles of ink—but I’d left those tools back in Equestria. There was no room for frivolities on a trip like this.

Just like that, my interview had begun.

I thought it was a matter of historical record that Accipio hadn’t surrendered. You would keep your autonomy in Equestria, rule your own land until Ignis’s wrath had passed and the climate was safe again.

That’s what all the paper said. But just because you write it on paper doesn’t mean that a bird believes she’s free. You know what else the histories record? We gave up all our weapons. We stripped the cannons from our warships and threw them into the sea. We wouldn’t even get to keep our fancy thrones to sit on, since the evacuation meant we had to leave most of our history behind. We were traveling against our will to the worst land in a country that wasn’t ours, to work under laws we didn’t like without weapons or representation. How is that not a surrender?

I don’t have an answer to that. I shuffle through some of my questions, trying to find anything I’d planned for Starlight that this bird might be able to answer for me. I can’t find anything, but something she just said strikes me. You worked for Emperor Gaius, didn’t you? Why accept the agreement if you saw it as a surrender?

She removes a gold coin from the table in front of her, flipping it up and down once before she answers. There’s a face stamped into the opposite side.

Gaius was not learned in letters like his wife, but he saw further than any bird that has ever lived—possibly further than any bird who will ever live again. He hated the surrender, hated the terms of the agreement. But Accipio had gone to war with Equestria before, and we never won. He thought it was better to submit to unconscionable terms for a little while than to risk extinction. That’s something else you need to understand about griffons—we’re proud, but we can be practical too. Gaius was.

Would you mind explaining the difference in behavior between your mares and stallions? I know that probably sounds disconnected, but I think it’s becoming critical to understand this story.

You ponies have your immortal alicorns to rule over you. We don’t, so we had to create something else. The Rex Imperium—our immortal laws. When followed, they create a society that is stable and peaceful.

While you ponies allow yourselves to follow any task you wish, we’re more… structured. Birds of both sexes have a place in our flocks. Our laws outline the boundaries, and give birds confidence.

Since the Republic, our restrictions have slackened. It would’ve been inconceivable for Radiant Dawn to learn to fight as she has in her father’s time. It would be unimaginable for males to study to become scribes.

I believe the trend is doomed to eventual failure. There are already some cities in the north formalizing sections of the Imperium again. I look forward to the Assembly making this trend national in the next few years.

I don’t know if it’s as bad as you think. It works for us ponies.

Exactly. It works for ponies. She flexes her claws, digging a deep gouge into the surface of her old wooden desk. We’re not ponies, if you couldn’t tell. We can learn from you, but we shouldn’t try to be you.

Even now, it’s clear this is a sensitive subject. If I don’t change it, I risk losing a source that’s highly informed about the things that actually matter.

Were you close enough to the last emperor to see any of the diplomacy between Equestria and Accipio?

All of it. I wasn’t part of the negotiation directly, that was mostly the emperor and empress. But he consulted with me a few times about certain administrative details.

I know there were other important houses at the time, besides the emperor’s own family. Invasion of Equestria was more popular than diplomacy, wasn’t it?

That’s right. Gaius decided from the first that he wanted an arrangement that would spare both sides from bloodshed. I remember him saying that Mons Ignis would take enough lives, we didn’t need to give him one more. That’s why he accepted your terms, even if they amounted to a surrender.

Do you think an invasion was possible? How close did history come to seeing a different kind of Migration War?

A knife’s edge. Or… a hammer’s edge. At the last, Emperor Gaius and one of his high lords took the dispute to trial by combat. If Gaius had lost that fight and house Virtue the emperorship, there would have been an invasion. Even Virtue would’ve supported it then, according to sacred tradition.

Many ponies wonder about the role of the empress, even back then.

Because you’re a matriarchy, and you think a stable government should look like yours. She doesn’t give me a chance to argue the point. And on some level, I’m not sure if I should.

I’m momentarily distracted watching my companion, who has begun stalking a mouse that somehow got into the room. She’s completely uninterested in the interview, and hasn’t said a word since it started.

Back then, the office held no formal authority. Historically, our empresses create their own authority. Guinevere did so by founding the Ordo Lexigraphica.

I know her name. Her work on the mathematical modeling of three suspended bodies was fascinating, even if the math was beyond me. I take it the Lexigraphica were involved in your research of Ignis.

I’m sure they were. But I wasn’t, so I can’t tell you anything useful there. Talk to Guinevere yourself. I’m sure she’d be thrilled to entertain a scholar who read her work.

Even a stallion?

I’m sure she would find it even more satisfying, for reasons you can’t properly grasp.

Last question. I’m sorry to take so much of your time. I can’t imagine how hard it is to run a city. But I have to ask—what about the slaves? Even Virtue kept them, despite its reputation for honor and respect. The emperor kept slaves in his own palace, didn’t he? How did you reconcile that?

Ponies always want to know about that. I don’t know if you can understand. It’s the same as the way we see males and females. Every creature has a place in our society, and that was even more true back then.

The noble houses have the power to protect their citizen members. Freemen formed links of employment and association with those houses. But fortunes were not always kind, and wars were constant. Before the innovation of slavery, the losing side of any conflict were summarily executed—often to fuel the creation of empowered artifacts that remain in use today.

Voidsteel. I intend to find out more about this object, but not from her.

If you study our history, you will see that war threatened to drive us to extinction. But then a bird—probably a clever female—figured that there was a way to stop her males from killing everyone. The losing side could be woven back into society in a way that left the victor rewarded and the loser’s children able to escape the shadow of their birth.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting any of that in the book, particularly calling slavery an “innovation.” You aren’t enslaving creatures anymore; you don’t seem to be going extinct.

Give it time. Birds don’t really change just because customs weaken and dull. You ponies took away our awful solution for an awful problem, but haven’t replaced it for us.

You should try friendship—it seems to work great for us.