• Published 3rd May 2013
  • 4,671 Views, 79 Comments

Dusk-Lit Waltz - Nicknack

Gilda deals with her unexpected betrothal to King Sombra

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Chapter 3

Thunder roared as a massive storm ripped across the coast near Griffalia. As far south as we were, every summer usually came with one or two big storms. As I stared off into the distance, I mused that on some level, it was good that things were staying the same. In a storm that big, most sensible griffins were inside, locked away in the city.

Not me.

I sat on the rain-pattered edge of a narrow cliff, south of Griffalia. My vantage point let me look out over the sea. When I got bored of that, I bowed my head and lost myself in the steady rhythm of huge waves crashing into the rocks, five hundred feet below.

Not counting the rocks, the sea in front of me was empty, cold, and dark. I’d been out there for hours, while rain fell in sheets. My feathers and fur were plastered to me like a second skin.

It would’ve been the perfect time to cry. No one was anywhere near me, and even if they were, they wouldn’t have been able to tell because of how drenched I already was. However, I didn’t feel like crying. The only thing I felt inside was an overwhelming emptiness.

Back in April, on my birthday, Cenric had tried to help me feel better about my situation. His gift’s relief had lasted all of a week, until I started to really take notice the preparations that were slowly being made around Griffalia for an event—preparations for my wedding.

Now, at the end of July, I had slowly come to realize that I was dead inside.

There were things I needed to participate in during the wedding preparations: etiquette lessons, tailoring, pictures, and other stuff. My escape of flying finally got taken away from me after my dad threatened to either go where I was needed or to have guards escort me everywhere.

That had been a fun, loud conversation. In the end, it didn’t matter. It all came back to the same thing, the reason I hated my situation so much:

I didn’t have a choice.

After my dad’s threat, I spent the next few months drifting to and from where I needed to be. My etiquette tutor quickly taught me to do things in a neutral manner, since no king wanted a sad wife. Under her instruction, I learned to fake a smile, to fake enthusiasm.

Lightning flashed in the clouds above, followed by another liquid wave of sound that washed over me with a crushing sensation. Honestly, the weather scared me. It wasn’t because it was dangerous—something about a giant metal flagpole on the highest point in Griffalia meant I was safe—but because even there, in the midst of nature’s fury, all I felt was numb inside.

Was that how my life was going to be from then on out? It was only four months into my engagement, what was it going to be like to be married, with no choice or say in anything? According to traditions—both Griffalia’s and the Crystal Empire’s traditions—there were a lot of roles I was expected to fulfill. So I had a choice, but depending on the situation, I was forced make certain choices or risk being a bad wife.

It had also been explained to me that if I screwed this marriage up, it would reflect poorly on all of Griffalia. So, I was playing a huge role in international politics—a realm that I knew next to nothing about—and, given what Cenric said about this move “throwing away relations with Equestria,” it had the possibility of backfiring on us by turning all the ponies against us. It was a dumb thing to think about; one-on-one, a squishy pony would never outmatch a griffin, but when they were organized, industrialized, and militarized, that posed a problem for us. It only got worse if there were two empires pissed off at us.

I looked down at the waves below, and not for the first time, I thought about just leaning forward until I tipped over and fell. From this height, the fall probably wouldn’t kill me, but if it knocked me out when I hit the water, that’d end up doing the same thing. It wasn’t a healthy thought, or a fun one, but that was where I’d found myself in that moment: Did I want to live, if I didn’t have any say in the matter?

With a dark grin, I realized there probably wouldn’t be any international repercussions for a “drowning accident.” That would make it win-win, right? The Crystal Empire would pass along their condolences, which would sort of be like having stronger political ties, and I wouldn’t have to get married...

The back of my mind screamed at me, because it was all beginning to sound like way too good of an idea.

I shook my head, but I still looked down at the rough waters below. They didn’t have the answer for my problem. I leaned back and looked up at the sky above. Save for the occasional flare of lightning, it was pitch-black, despite it being the middle of summer, around six in the evening. Or so I guessed. I didn’t really keep track of time. By then, it felt too much like counting down towards an end—my end.

The storm gave me a weird sense of smallness as it raged. It wasn’t windy enough to be blowing debris around, but if I tried to fly during it, I’d be buffeted and rocked no matter how hard I tried to stick to a course. It would be impossible to fly in, but at that limitation was natural, not some side-effect of—


I could barely hear her shout my name over the wind, but I still knew who it was without turning around. I kept my head still and rolled my eyes. I was wet, wind-torn, and miserable, yet somehow, my mom could always find me at my worst and make me feel even crappier.

She called my name out again—this time, closer—and followed it with, “Your father and I have been worried sick!”

I’m sure you have, I seethed my doubt. If anything, the two of them were only worried about losing a bargaining chip.

When she was right behind me, her voice turned slightly softer, but still crisp enough to be heard over the storm. “Gilda? What’s wrong?”

Fury caught in my throat like a lump. She doesn’t even know! And here she was, trying to act like she cared about me! She always tried this, too—being a long-distance mother, but never trying to find out what I wanted or liked.

Her sudden concern for my was so fake, I almost turned around and shouted at her—but that would be giving her what she wanted. Instead, I glared off at where I guessed the horizon was.

Finally, my mom sat down right next to me, in my personal space. I could feel her hips against mine and see her outline in my peripheral vision, but I still didn’t acknowledge her presence. That didn’t keep her from talking to me. “This is the biggest storm in decades! You’re soaking wet! Come inside; you could get—”

“Hurt?” Something inside me broke, and I snapped my head to her. “Since when do you care?”

Her eyes flashed with pain.

It was good enough for me. I turned back to the ocean. “So why don’t you just leave me alone.”

She didn’t; instead, she whispered, “What is the matter with you?”

I didn’t answer.

Then, she started to get all sappy on me. “I’m your mother. I will always care about you.”

When it’s convenient.

“I know you’ve been... upset, recently, over this betrothal. And I‘ll admit, it came as a surprise to a lot of us. But that’s no reason to turn bitter.”

That is an excellent reason to “turn bitter.”

“Have I ever told you about my betrothal?”

I rolled my eyes up to the sky and begged whoever was up there to throw a lightning bolt my way. It would be so much less painful than... No, this whole heart-to-heart thing wasn’t going to happen.

“... and even though I didn’t like it at first, I still decided that—”

Shut up.”

She did.

I shook my head and worried, in the back of my mind, about how I didn’t get a more pissed-off reaction from her. But I had the advantage, so I pressed it. “I’m not you. I don’t want to get married. Ever. And even if I did, you got to marry a griffin. That’s totally different than some pony from some place I never even heard of.”

After a moment’s silence, my mom finally shook her head at me. “Are you really that selfish?”

I turned to her and cocked an eyebrow. “Uh, yeah? I never asked to be royalty. Why should I bend down and spread it just because I’ve got ‘royal duties?’”

My mom frowned. “Watch your tongue, young lady.”

I laughed. Hard. “Or what? What can you possibly do that’s any worse than what dad’s doing to me?”

She blinked at me a few times, then shook her head to look out at the water. “You think that marriage is the worst thing that can happen to someone?”

“When’s the last time you flew for fun?”

“I have responsibilities, and children—”

“And I don’t. And I don’t want any.”

“All you want is your own freedom?”

I nodded. “That’s kind of the whole idea.”

My mom didn’t have an answer for that at first, which made me think I’d actually gotten through to her. Before I could get too shocked, though, she started asking random, unrelated questions. “How many lives is your ‘freedom’ worth?”

I scowled and shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s... stupid. What am I supposed to say?”

“Any number. Ten? Fifty? How many would you let die, just to keep your own selfish desires?”

I turned away. “Since when’s it selfish to get to do what I want to do?”

Lightning tore the sky, thunder roared in answer, but my mom didn’t say anything back to me. By now, even she had to be drenched, but she didn’t seem to care. Finally, she asked, “How many, in the world, do you think are asking that very question right now?”

I looked at her. “Huh?”

She gave me a warm half-grin. “In all your balking at this marriage, did you ever seek out an answer as to why?”

“Dad wouldn’t tell Cenric—”

“Because it’s none of your brother’s business.” My mom frowned. “And Cenric wouldn’t understand, not yet. For how sharp he is, your brother sees ruling a kingdom in terms of numbers and tactics. He’s well along his way, but he has much to learn before he can be an effective king.”

“Okay...” I turned my palms up. “Why is dad doing this?”

My mom’s smile turned sad. “Because hundreds of thousands of Crystal ponies want what you have—to live free. Free of fear from Equestria’s armies, free from challenges to their sovereignty, and free to make their lives mean what they wish it to.”

I let out a little sigh. “Good for them. Why does that involve me?”

She matched my sigh. “Because their leader is... traditional. He’s lived for several centuries—”

“And that’s totally not creepy, by the way.”

“—and he adheres to old traditions. But those traditions are strangling the Crystal Empire, despite what is best for its citizens—and for the empire itself. If they fall to Equestria, then Griffalia will very quickly see a situation where it is either ‘join Equestria or perish.’”

“Huh.” I noted. “They seemed a lot... happier when I went there.”

My mom nodded. “I doubt they flex their military strength around guests. But our spies tell us they have something close to a sixty percent conscription rate for males. Perhaps they were so ‘happy’ because all their soldiers were off in barracks?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. But I still don’t see why I’m needed for an alliance. Why not just sign a paper?”

“Because true change comes from within...” I fought not to roll my eyes, but she finally clarified the clarified the zen with, “A military alliance would bring war. A trade agreement would only serve to make our banks richer. The easiest way to be able to soften their king’s traditionalist mentality and bring about real change to benefit future generations is if there is someone there, close to him, to whom he listens.”

I stared blankly at her. “So, you’re sending me in there, like a politician?”

She smiled. “Your father and I think that you’ll like it there, if you let yourself. But as for changing Sombra... obviously, you’re not going to be able to convince your husband to do anything until he trusts you. But eventually, you’ll be able to do great things for the Crystal Empire. You will ease the burden on the backs of the lower class, and you may even strengthen political ties with Equestria enough to save millions of lives.”

“Pony lives,” I grumbled.

“And the lives of your own race. Griffalia won’t be immune to the smoke if the flames of war break out.”

Rain continued pelting me as I thought about it some more. In the span of one conversation, my whole situation had gone from stupidly helpless to stupidly huge. I wasn’t cut out for any of this, and I didn’t want any of this. No one had seen it fit to ask me about it. But heck, now that didn’t matter, even. It was either my life or tons of others’. “I don’t...” My stupid voice cracked more than it usually did. It was pointless to complain anymore, anyway, so I just voiced one of my new fears: “What if I screw up?”

My mom answered by pulling me into a huge, sloshy hug. I grunted in protest, but it got lost in her chest’s dripping feathers; I couldn’t really do anything, though. She was my mom. I resigned to stay there and glare my left eye off into the distance.

She started stroking my left shoulder, and when she spoke, her words hummed against the right side of my head. “If there’s anything I know about you, it’s that if you set your mind to something, you can do it. I mean, we’re out here in a storm because you want to perch by the sea, and you’re too stubborn to come in during the rain!”

I blinked, then brought my gaze back down, to my mom’s arm as it kept brushing me. As much as I didn’t like being hugged, the longer we stayed like that, the less I wanted to protest it. I’d never admit that to her, but I did give her two limp pats on the forearm.

“Won’t you come inside?”

It sounded like a good idea. For a moment, in my mom’s arms, I felt like a little kid again. I missed those days, even though I knew they were long-gone. Back then, I had always known how much my mom did care, even if it was in her own, quiet way.

All of a sudden, it felt late, like I had been sitting outside for hours. There, in my mom’s arms, whether I liked it or not, I was starting to get sleepy. Plus, I was cold and wet; the idea of a hot bath actually sounded decent for once.

I nodded, but I didn’t make any other motions to stand up until my mom asked, “Do you want me to carry you?”

“No, I... I’m good.” I gently pushed away from her and she let me go.

Once we were both standing up and turned around, she led me back into Griffalia. We were quiet along the way, but when we finally got to one of the ground entrances to the place, she turned and said, “Just remember... No matter what happens, Gilda, I’ll always love you.”

Quietly, I nodded at the ground and mumbled, “Love you, too.”

When we got inside our home, I saw it was past ten o’clock. I chuckled, realizing that I hadn’t eaten since yesterday, but I made a beeline for my bathroom instead of the kitchen. Distantly, I noted that I was leaving a trail of water behind me, but that wasn’t my job to mop up.

One of the servants near the bathroom came up to me and tried attending to me before I told him, “Get lost, creep.” Bathroom time was Gilda time; I knew how the tub faucets worked without having some dude watching me bathe.

I filled up my tub; then I smiled despite myself as I slid into the steaming water. After the initial, fluid warmth wore off, my smile left me, and I looked down into the shimmering water I was in.

That night, there was a lot on my mind that I had to think about.