• Published 10th Oct 2012
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Whom the Princesses Would Destroy... - GhostOfHeraclitus



Behind the scenes of a perfectly normal visit to Canterlot lies chaos. Also, custard.

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Chapter 1

"Quem reginae volunt perdere, dementant prius." — Classical Equestrian proverb, roughly translated: "Whom the princesses would destroy, they first drive mad." Their royal highnesses could not be reached for comment regarding how often this must have occurred to warrant its own proverb.

Dr. Spinning Top of the Cabinet Press Office pinged off a wall and steadied herself with an erratic burst of telekinesis. She reflected, not for the first time, that the Palace wasn't built for running. In fact, she thought, trying to distract herself from rising panic, the architect must have hated anypony who moved faster than a stately promenade. Nothing short of hate could justify making all the major corridors straight, uncluttered, and invitingly wide, and then giving them polished marble floors. With this thought still fresh in her mind she put her hoof carelessly on an inviting patch of carpet, discovered that it was apparently greased, and accelerated suddenly. A lot of things happened rather quickly, and she saw, if not her whole actual life, then at least the opening credits flash before her eyes. Before she could get to the really interesting bits, she found herself in the hooves of a bemused palace guard. He, obedient to his training, retained his stony expression but couldn't prevent the blush that turned his white coat into a simply fascinating shade of pink[1].

Spinning tried her best disarming grin and wiggled out of the stallion's hooves, provoking a fresh blush and what might well be a crack in the legendary unflappability of a Royal Guardspony. He could hardly be blamed. Spinning spent a number of hours every morning ensuring that just about any pony who saw her got weak in the knees. Today was certainly no exception. Her coat, the color of pale gold, was meticulously brushed and her mane was fashionably styled so as to best display the red and orange curls that she was always rather proud of. If she were to suffer an uncharacteristic attack of honesty, she'd have to admit she did it all at least partially out of vanity. But, above all, there was a hard-headed practicality about it. If your interviewer is drooling, it's simply amazing the sort of press statements you can get away with. In one incident, now enshrined in Equestrian Civil Service lore, she managed to use a rather fetching summer dress to get a fairly feckless young reporter for Canterlot News Nightly to report that there was no parasprite crisis and never had been.

"I am ever so sorry, my dear. I'm in the most frightful rush," she said, picking herself up and, after another smile, rushing off down the corridor skidding, slipping and sliding.

The guard said nothing. His grandfather did say that the uniform would mean that beautiful mares would be simply dropping into his hooves, but he suspected this wasn't quite what the old pony had in mind. Now that he thought about it, the old codger had mentioned something about beating them off with a stick, too. He eyed his spear speculatively. The blade could come off, after all...

Spinning picked up speed, panic threatening to overtake her. The news she had, well, emergency didn't begin to cover it. If she didn't get the information to the civil service status meeting in time they'd all be done for. She picked up the pace again, her hooves tapping out a staccato rhythm on the floor. She frowned fiercely. This was going to ruin her hooficure. The wide arched doorway that led outside was blocked by a tangle of ponies and gryphons, but she managed to slip past them all with relative ease. She had been working in and about the palace for years now, ever since she left Equestria Daily, and tourist-dodging and noble-avoidance were second nature to her. Happy to be under an open sky again, she ran out onto the shallow steps that led to the Sunrise Plaza. She had planned to rush down the stairs and make up time cutting across the lawns, risking the wrath of the gardening staff. Instead, she stopped, cold, when she saw...chaos. The plaza was overrun.

* * *

The cabinet briefing room tried much too hard, Dotted Line decided. The walls were paneled in hardwood, and discreet little firefly globes set in brass fittings lit the place with cold, expensive looking light. In fact, polished brass was much in evidence, even in places where it didn't, strictly speaking, belong. Also making an appearance were the contents of the entire catalog of snobbish fripperies: gold trim, sage green baize, semi-precious gems, and leaded glass doing its level best to pass for diamond. Every available surface was plastered with paintings depicting ponies engaged in various heroic acts wearing expressions of either steadfast noble purpose or constipated agony, depending on your personal level of ill-willed cynicism. Dotted's levels of cynicism, considerable even in the best of times, were particularly high today. He had to chair a meeting of the Council of Lords, which was the third least favorite of his duties as secretary to Her Highnesses' government. It was just under trying to keep Prince Blueblood out of the papers[2] and cleaning up the mess left by the Discord Incident, but above organizing the Light Anti-parasprite Symphony Orchestra[3]. Consequently, Dotted was frowning as his eyed flitted past the images of prancing heroics. His expression softened as he took in the ponies actually in the room. They were an odd bunch, it had to be said, officials of the Equestrian Civil Service of various and varying ranks. What they had in common was that Dotted thought them very, very good at their jobs indeed, and that they, together, ran Equestria.

Now some might call this a vainglorious thought, a treasonous one, even, but it was the honest truth. The princesses ruled the country, none disputed that, at least not for long. The nobles claimed, gamely, to lead it and, whatever Dotted's thoughts on the matter were[4], that was supported by any number of ancient covenants and hallowed agreements. The politicians of the government and the parliament governed Equestria, though this, Dotted suspected, was mostly theoretical. The success of Her Highnesses' Loyal Opposition and the no-less-loyal Party in Government at making reforms was legendary. At least in the sense that you may have heard of it, and it was certainly written down in a dusty old book somewhere, but you were exceedingly unlikely to ever see it with your own two eyes. Grudgingly, Dotted had to admit that it wasn't entirely the fault of the politicians. The ponies of Equestria, bless them, were quite taken with the political process. As a result, the average tenure for a cabinet minister was, at present, four months and falling, as popular opinion grew ever more mercurial.

The Equestrian Civil Service, now, the Civil Service ran the place. They made sure the bills got paid, they wrote down lists and pedantic reports. They kept minutes and filed things so that they may be found again[5]. They made sure that, no matter the crisis, no matter the chaos, tomorrow, when the dust settles and the casualties are tallied, normalcy can resume. It's quite one thing to welcome back Princess Luna from her exile and quite another to make sure all laws take into account two rulers. Not to mention getting the parliament to sign off on all the amendments. Still, it was Dotted's proudest day when Princess Celestia asked him to look into reinstating Luna's authority, and he could reply that all the problems were resolved, laws ratified, and changes made, and the relevant edict only required her signature. Her smile made all the sleepless nights and endless politicking worth it a thousand times over.

Dotted shook the thoughts from his mind. He was woolgathering again. Running his hooves roughly through his perpetually messy mane, narrowly avoiding a painful ding on his horn, he tried to focus on Leafy Salad's endless droning report on the minutiae of the Home Office. A run down of petty crimes addressed and fears of the populace assuaged. Reports of bushes rustled, stool pigeons interrogated, and a great many constables hitting the pavement so hard it complained of police brutality. Dotted adjusted the heavy silver chain that marked his office and fiddled with it. It was supposed to be clinched tightly enough around the neck to always be straight, and yet loosely enough so it would cause no discomfort. Such was the theory. In his case, no matter what he did to the clasp, he could get it to either choke him or to slip almost to his withers, hanging loose and crooked.

At length, Leafy's report came to a close. Dotted suppressed a sigh and leafed once or twice trough the notes in front of him, his horn flashing with its usual muted aura.

"Right," he said checking things off on various lists, "that seems to cover everything except...yes, except the Silverwing arrest."

"Ah," replied Leafy, his blue eyes suddenly growing cloudy. His hoof hovered an inch away from his perfectly coiffed blond mane. He thought better of it, and let the hoof drop. Instead, he settled on fluffing his wings a few times, doing his best not to appear defensive and failing. His white coat somehow contrived to look even paler.

"Yes. Ah. I remember telling you that you were to arrest young Silverwing discreetly. Quietly. Lord Silverwing promised to let the thing go through the courts without incident if we didn't make a fuss."

"We did arrest him without a fuss. A very neat job, I thought."

"Neat job? You call this neat, do you?" Dotted yelled. He levitated a dog-eared copy of Equestria Daily onto the table, turning it around to face Leafy with a vicious jerk. The front page was dominated by quite a lot of ponies in uniform carrying an expensively clothed colt on a pole. The colt was in manacles, wing braces, and several other forms of restraint, possibly obtained from a museum. He did not look particularly happy. Dotted jabbed an angry hoof at the headline that read "LONG POLE OF THE LAW". Dotted didn't look particularly happy, either. He directed one of his death glares towards Leafy. The kind of glare that warded off even the most persistent journalists and caused acute heart palpitations in provincial officials. Leafy was relatively unperturbed. He had gone to Uni with Dotted and had been on the receiving end of a great many glares over the years. They had long since ceased to trouble him in the slightest.

"Whose idea was," Dotted hissed waving his forehooves around in a vain attempt to encompass the magnitude of his unhappiness, "all this. Yours?"

"The details of the operation were the chiefly the product of the Canterlot Metropolitan Police Commissioner. But she has my absolute support."

"Does she, now? Forty constables? Forty, Leafy. How do you justify that?"

"Just five, I think you'll find. The other thirty-five were off-duty and, by freak of chance, were all in the area where the arrest was to take place. As young Silverwing is a violent offender, as per statute, the constables were entitled to draft a Citizen's Militia to help apprehend him safely. All nice and legal under posse comitatus. You know, hue and cry and all that."

Dotted's gray coat took on a disturbingly greenish cast. He opened his mouth several times, as if to speak, but finally closed it. Then, he spoke again, in a voice of somepony picking at a scab to see if the pain will come.

"The Royal Guard?"

"Crowd control. They have been sharing jurisdiction over that with the Met ever since the Unified Policing act of—"

"Crowd control! There wasn't supposed to be a crowd! How did the press, all of the press know to be there? You were supposed to keep it confidential."

"I did. However, given the sensitive nature of the operation I had to send a memo—a confidential memo, mind—to notify the Secretary of State for the Home Office and his principal private secretary, of course, and also the office of the Mayor and the Coordination Committee for Civil Unrest and the--"

"How many?"

"About one hundred and ninety eight ponies all told. Give or take the odd dozen. Of course, there was the chance of a leak but I had to follow regulations. Unfortunately, what with so many recipients there's no chance that a leak enquiry board will be able to identify the culprit. Alas." Leafy wasn't even bothering with false dismay at that last part. Instead, he settled on a stony expression of defiance. He was generally a pony of smiles and sweet disposition, despite the stern nature of his job. Seeing him frown had the shock of the unexpected and the unnatural.

"Fantastic. That's just brilliant. Lord Silverwing is going to run roughshod over all of the service. He has every right to complain to Her Highnesses now. You do realize that, right? What on Celestia's own Equestria possessed you to—"

"Dotty, I—"

"Don't you 'Dotty' me. I ought to—"

"I met the young mare young Silverwing tried to...well. She's fine, the doctors say, but she still flinches when somepony she doesn't know enters the room. She, well, she's the same age as my Rose, Dotty. Barely a mare. They have foals in the Met, too, you know. Sisters. Relatives. What do you think—"

Dotted had his mouth open, face twisted in anger, ready to say some truly unfortunate things. As he listened, however, his expression softened. After a while he held up a hoof, and Leafy grew silent. The briefing room was quiet, too. Usually there was always a background hum of conversation or the rustle of pages turning, but now there was nothing. Dotted took a deep breath. Then, another. Finally he said, "Fine. It's, uh, fine. I'll find a way around it. Somehow. I'll find some way to spike the appeal to the princess."

He paused for a while, fiddling with the silver chain around his neck. It still hung crooked. After a few moments during which Leafy looked distinctly worried, Dotted lifted his eyes from his notes and there was a definite gleam in them.

"But don't you think you'll get to walk away from this one. Oh no. You'll be right there when Lord Silverwing uses me as a punching bag. He'll be all over me like a cheap suit. He'll crawl right up my—"

"Uh, Dotty, do you think we ought to continue the meeting?"

"...right. We'll move on to the report from the treasury, then."

There was a subdued groan from everypony in the room. No such thing as good news from the treasury department.

* * *

Why her? Why here? Why now? Why a school trip?

Spinning Top was not a happy pony. Tourists she knew how to move past. Nobles worried her not at all. Even foreign dignitaries, no matter how exotic, barely slowed her down. But foals? Foals on a school trip? Impossible. Briefly, she considered asking the teacher to help. However, after a few frantic seconds trying to locate her in the chaos, she saw that the plum-colored earth pony mare had her hooves quite full just trying to stop the foals from damaging anything too badly. Grimly, Spinning set to her task. She ran down the stairs and then into the mass of foals running, playing, and strenuously avoiding the teacher. She was barely a quarter of the way across the plaza when everything went wrong all at once. It started with a shout.

"CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS POLITICAL PROTESTERS! SMASH THE STATE!"

Just as her beleaguered mind tried to process what she just heard, something orange, blurry, and really quite fast flew right at her. She realized that this was a foal and, without even thinking about it, leaped ahead to catch it before it cratered onto the flagstones of the plaza. She managed to grab the little orange missile from the air, spin with as much grace as was possible under the circumstances, and land on the ground on her own four hooves. More or less. There may have been some thoroughly undignified scrabbling. At this point a great number of thoughts could have occurred to her. Say, wondering what on Equestria was a 'Cutie Mark Crusader.' Or, why was the filly now in her hooves wearing a balaclava of all things. But the thought her slightly befuddled mind decided to go with was, "Where did the tree sap come from?"

She flung the surprised filly onto her back, hoping that the sap wouldn't stick too badly, and galloped towards the teacher. Then, with deft application of telekinesis, she dropped the filly into the surprised teacher's forehooves, exchanged frantic, mutually apologetic grins with her, and galloped past without having stopped for more than a second. As she ducked and weaved around, between and, on occasion, under the foals at play, she could hear, indistinctly, the teacher scolding the orange filly.

"If I find a circled 'A' on your flank rather than on the report about this trip, young filly, I shall be very cross."

Whatever the filly's response was, she couldn't hear it. With a final leap that took her sailing over what appeared to her untrained eye to be a cross between a game of hopscotch and civil war, she landed onto the narrow flight of marble steps that lead to her goal—the main administrative building and the civil service status meeting.

* * *

"How do you lose sixty million bits? That's a roomful of gold!"

Dotted found it difficult to concentrate on the discussion which wound itself, inevitably, around the upcoming vote about the annual budget. He should be thinking about ways to get political support. He should be pondering the effects of a possible new governor of the Royal Equestrian Bank. He should be listening to the clever ponies from the office of the treasury. He wasn't.

"Well tell the Right Honorable Member for Cloudsdale North that, despite popular belief, this government is not run on twinkly snowflakes, and the power of friendship. Quite a lot of bits are required."

He should probably be thinking about the fact that Leafy had to remind him, essentially, that he was a pony and not just a machine for implementing policy. Again. He should really be thinking about that long and hard, possibly with a glass of something quite potent close at hoof. But, he wasn't.

"He doesn't need roads because he's a pegasus? Are you kidding me? Does he not also need food? Is it pablum for his base, or is the pony really that thick?"

He let the words wash over him, arguments and counter-arguments blending together into a wall of noise. It was rather relaxing if you ignored the words. A bit like listening to foals at play, really. He should have been thinking about economics and parliamentary procedure, but he wasn't. He was thinking about a number.

"Where precisely does he think that the funding for the weather factories comes from? Griffonstan?"

The number was thirty-seven.

"Well how much of a cut does he want?"

Thirty-seven minutes to be precise. That's the time until the end of the meeting. And after the meeting came the tea break. Thirty-seven minutes to tea. It was all Dotted could think about.

"Fourteen percent? Is he on salt-licks? We'd have to cut the entire education budget. Please tell me that's his negotiating position."

He wanted that tea. He needed that tea. He could ask for some to be brought 'round, of course. But to drink tea during a meeting would...disrespect it. Tea was special. It was a refuge from the world, to be drunk in peace. And he had precious little peace these days.

"What do you mean there's no negotiation?"

But he couldn't just wait it out. That'd be grossly irresponsible. And, whatever Dotted's faults were, he was never irresponsible. The tea had to be earned. And that meant that the problem with the budget had to go away. The Right Honorable Member for Cloudsdale North, eh?

"Well you can tell that pompous old fool that the 'Historic Independence of the Pegasus Peoples' is a load of horsea—"

Dotted raised a hoof. Instantly, everyone fell silent and looked expectantly at him. He allowed himself a small, private smile. You couldn't demand something like this. You couldn't ask for it. Not really. No amount of obedience, no amount of fear could make it happen. It had to be respect. The ponies at the table may know his faults. They may know him to be, on occasion, surly, cynical, acerbic, and ill-tempered. But he had earned their respect. And that, at least, felt good. Even on days like this. He turned to the young earth pony mare who had the unfortunate job of representing the treasury on these meetings and gave her an encouraging smile.

"Balanced, tell me, is the MP for Cloudsdale North still Sky Slicer the elder?"

"Yes. This would be his...ninth term, I think," she replied, consulting her notes.

"Lovely. Here's what we do. We shave a percent and half off the budget. We can put the parasprite relief back with a supplementary funding bill, safely away from election season. The bonds those bits were meant to pay off don't mature for another six months, anyway. This will show willing, so the moderates can support it and save face. You get the Chancellor to sign off on the proposal and I'll get the PM to do the same. The PM's clever. She'll see it is the only way out of this mess."

"Sky Slicer still influences a large bloc of votes, Dotted. It may not pass. The crisis of confidence that will precipitate, well...The bit is going to take a nosedive for a start. Can't even imagine the consequences in domestic politics. A cabinet re-shuffle at the very least. Probably going to end up with a vote of no confidence."

Dotted let her finish. She was the newest member of this little group[6] and Dotted always liked to see how his new colleagues thought. He was pleased and let this show a bit in the friendliness of his tone.

"You are not wrong. He'll have fewer allies than you suspect, though. This is a risky move even for him. But, even with last minute changes-of-heart he still has a great deal of clout. Which is why I have a special mission for you. After the Chancellor gives the go-ahead, which he will, you need to go to the House and tell Sky Slicer that Dotted Line sends his regards and directs his attention towards the fact that the deeply unfortunate details regarding the Cypress Hall project fiasco are not buried as deep as the Honorable Member might wish. Mention, too, that he's up against some fairly stiff competition this election. Add that, given the recent spate of leaks from government circles, it would be both tragic and regrettable if he were to lose his seat over the aforementioned unfortunate details getting into the hooves of certain papers. Cloudsdale Post comes to mind. Now, he should be crying for his mother at this point, so what you tell him then is—"

Dotted was interrupted by the doors busting open, admitting a breathless and bedraggled Spinning Top. In the interest of honesty it should be pointed out that she was bedraggled by her own standards, which meant that perhaps four hairs in her mane were out of place. Dotted would have to be groomed, primped and coddled for upwards of six hours before he could aspire to 'bedraggled'. In order for him to get to what she'd consider winsomely dishabille, some sort of plasticizing agent would have to be employed. Liberally. She took in a big gulp of air, exhaled hastily and, quite uncharacteristically, shouted.

"Oh, everypony, I have the most awful news!"

"We know," said Leafy with a puzzled frown, "about the Equestria Daily headline. Where were you?"

"Not that! Worse! Twilight Sparkle's coming to Canterlot. Tomorrow! It's a surprise visit."

And at that, the briefing room exploded into bedlam. Everypony suddenly had a great deal to say and absolutely no time to listen to anypony else. Dotted found it difficult to focus again. He should have been thinking about the security nightmare that this posed. A personal friend to both Her Highnesses and a major asset in the defense of the realm were visiting bound together in one small, unassuming body. He should have been thinking about the logistics nightmare this caused, as a safe and suitably luxurious berth had to be found for the personal guest of the Solar Princess. Above all, he should have been thinking about the chaos this would cause both internationally and with the nobility. Every time Twilight Sparkle was scheduled to meet with the princess, he had to reassure pretty much every ambassador, legate, consul, and special envoy, often personally, that Equestria wasn't going to invade anypony just yet. And the nobles would go simply insane.

But he wasn't thinking about any of this. All he could think about was a number. The number, rather. And how it just got impossibly huge. He sighed. This was going to be a very long day.