Tales from Everfree City

by LoyalLiar

First published

Celestia's first student and Princess Platinum conspire to cheat the princess out of an arranged marriage.

Before 'Everfree' was a forest, it was Equestria's thriving capital.

In the city's earliest days, fresh off saving Equestria from an evil that threatened to steal the sun itself, Princess Platinum faces a new challenge. She and her undercover coltfriend, Celestia's apprentice Mortal Coil, set their sights on what seems like a much easier, safer, and happier task: giving the Princess a choice other than the seven horrible suitors her parents picked out for her.

Unfortunately for them, when it comes to the politics of a freshly founded Equestria, the romance of a princess is anything but simple, or safe, or happy.

Editing by The 24th Pegasus, Pega-Ace, and Ruirik. Cover art by Ruirik.

Foreword

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Once upon a time, most of these stories could be found in every history book in Equestria. The Royal Library of Everfree City could have provided you a dozen retellings—some of them would even have the audacity to be mostly accurate. That was back when there was an Everfree City, though; when a haunted forest hadn’t crawled its roots over the rubble that once made up the Royal Library, and when Nightmare Moon’s armies hadn’t wiped out most of a generation of ponies who could remember being told these stories as foals.

So as I sit here in my lonely tower in Canterlot, regrowing most of my skull, some of my neck and all of my right lung (missing because Nightmare Moon saw fit to help my complexion with some... ‘extreme exfoliation’), I find myself with nothing but time and a sinking fear in my gut that my love might be lost to the sands of time. Though writing this is painful both to my heart and the brutally shattered remains of my horn, I have resolved to put to page my memories of an era that only Celestia and I now live to remember.

Before I continue, dear reader, I do have one private note to one particular hypothetical reader. Please excuse my moment of therapeutic pettiness.

Dearest Luna,

I hope you never get off the rock in the sky, but if by some cataclysmic turn of rotten luck you someday find yourself reading this: in the next few mornings, I will have regrown the incredibly beautiful face that you accused me of loving too much. Once the scars heal, and I apply a bit of magic to cover it up, I’ll once more be the most handsome stallion in Equestria You, however, will be cursed with ponies looking up at your silhouette plastered on the moon and associating every beautiful crater, every precious pockmark of a meteor strike, every delicious hill and mountain,with a brutal case of facial acne.

Oh, perhaps someday I’ll get over our differences. Perhaps I’ll forgive you for Celestia’s sake—or at least pretend I’m over your betrayal long enough for her to stop sobbing on the roof every night. Right now, though, the hole where my right eye ought to be feels like it’s on fire. And every time my jugular throbs trying to pump blood that ran out a few hours ago and sends a twinge down my side, it helps ease the pain just a little to think that most of the paintings of you were lost with the rest of Everfree City. Why, somepony with a lot of time on his hooves could make you look any number of interesting ways… and as far as history is concerned, I’ll be right.

‘Love’
Morty

My apologies for that distraction, dearest reader.

Assuming Celestia hasn’t defaced this tome to censor it like my prior work, the book you hold in your hooves, wings, mouth (how unsanitary), or magic contains a collection of true stories about a young mare and her friends living in Equestria’s capital. These Tales from Everfree City may follow several of us in those teenage days of freedom when we had no idea how much of history we were shaping, but at the end of the day, this is the story of one mare.

To some, she was Platinum III, the daughter and heir of the Princess Platinum you probably know from Clover’s idiotic, ahistorical pageant. To others, she was Aura Gladioprocellarius, the rebellious youngest foal of the venerable Equestrian living legend, Commander Hurricane. But to me, she was Gale: the most inspiring mare who ever lived or ever will, and with the possible exception of Celestia, the most significant pony in Equestrian history.

You should understand, reader, that while the stories I’m about to record are true—taken from my own memories with the aid of magic to enhance eight-hundred year old recollections, along with the records that survived Nightmare Moon in Canterlot’s hidden libraries, and Celestia’s memories of events, supposing she ever decides to stop staring off into space—I will not pretend to be an unbiased narrator. Gale was the one true love of my life. And so while I have no intention of consciously lying to you—the fact that I record her foalish, foul vocabulary ought to be evidence enough of that—I cannot promise a historian’s untainted view of history. I can only promise the truth as I saw it.

On a related note, I should warn you: Gale could be quite creatively crude when she set her mind to it. If either my off-hoof mention of the damage Luna inflicted on my body in the course of yet another of my deaths, the implication of necromancy in the fact that I’m writing this story despite admitting to being ‘dead’, or the use of the word ‘fuck’ disturbs you, I encourage you to close this book now; your parents are probably looking for you in the picture book section of the library.

With all that prelude out of the way, my name is Mortal Coil, or if you prefer grandiose titles, Coil the Immortal. Gale gave me the nickname ‘Morty’ when I first met her, and it’s now stuck for going-on eight hundred years. At that time, I thought my special talent was necromancy; with the benefit of experience, I now know that it is actually ‘dying.’ It is a practice that I am by far the world’s foremost expert in, and much like a world-class painter or a first-chair violinist, that supremacy stems from repeated, deliberate practice.

Gale’s story begins where mine ended: with the two of us having just saved Equestria from my evil former mentor, Wintershimmer the Complacent, and my acceptance of Celestia’s offer to be my new teacher as I rounded out my magical education...

1-1 Princess Platinum and the Seven Deadly Suitors

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I

Princess Platinum and The Seven Deadly Suitors

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I - I

To Be the Worst Wingpony

“Sometimes I wonder if I ought to be wearing my mask around you, Morty.” Mage Meadowbrook finished that observation with a wince as she rubbed a soft spot on her cheek. It was quickly swelling into a bruise, where a test of my knee’s reflexes had gone off a bit better than she was expecting.

My wince of sympathy was genuine, but it also wasn’t much of a substitute for a block of ice. “I’m sorry…”

“You seem less infectious than most of my patients, but I’ve never treated somepony who’s actually died before. The other ‘zombies’ were caused by a fungus.” Then she forced enough of a smile to put me at ease, and gently pressed a hoof on top of my hind left leg, a sign I could lower it back to the bed. “Well, you seem to be healing well physically… how about mentally? How much can you remember from the last time you were up and about?”

“My mind’s fine, Meadowbrook. Though if I have to stay in this room one more hour, I suspect there might be permanent damage.”

“Is there something wrong with Celestia’s hospitality?” Meadowbrook asked, casting her gaze around the enormous chamber. I suspect it must have been built by somepony who had Celestia’s unusual proportions described to them, but had never actually met her in person. If they had, perhaps the doors would not have been built so wide that a full royal carriage would have fit comfortably into her closet.

“Oh, it’s a beautiful room the first two weeks, don’t get me wrong, but eventually one does get tired of counting the patterns on the wallpaper. So are we done?”

The blue earth pony mage (the idea of a medical doctorate hadn’t taken off yet in those days, and her skill as a physician made her more than deserving of a title of respect, hence ‘Mage’ without a horn) sighed. “You may feel that way, Morty, but magical duels involving illusions have a well established record of tampering with memory in the long term. Please, humor me.”

I sighed, sitting up on the lush blankets and pegasus-down-stuffed pillows of Celestia’s massive bed.

“Mortal Coil, age eighteen. Wizard. I trained under Archmage Wintershimmer in the Crystal Union until he decided to make himself immortal by stealing Clover the Clever’s body, so he faked his death and framed me for his own murder—all as a means to get me to leave instead of taking over his title. Then he taught me his famous spell: how to sever a living pony’s soul from the body. He wanted me to use it on Clover. I… objected. Unfortunately, that ruined Wintershimmer’s plans; he needed it to look like I killed Clover, so nopony would look too closely at him when he put his soul in Clover’s body and… Actually, I never asked what the plan was after that. I never mentally got past the ‘murder’ part.”

“Understandable,” Meadowbrook agreed with an amused look on her face. I, for my part, was just glad she had enough of a magical education not to interrupt me every two words, like most of my friends did when I tried to explain such a story.

“I wound up on a rather long journey, first to Clover way off in the draconic wastes past River Rock, and then back here to Everfree City. But to summarize, I met some friends along the way—probably most notably Gale. Er, you probably know her better as Princess Platinum the Third—”

“I know who you mean.”

“Right. Well, Gale helped me prove my innocence, and then we and Celestia went and fought Wintershimmer. I died… well, sort of… you probably don’t want me to explain that much necromancy. That’s the difference between a doctor and a necromancer; I define death as when the soul leaves the body—which is what did happen—whereas you would say death occurs when the… I’m going to guess when the brain stops functioning?”

“The heart, actually, but that’s a good guess.” Meadowbrook nodded. “I suppose in your studies it’s natural that you must have learned a few things about practicing medicine, so I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m sure there are a couple of other differences between us, though.”

I let myself chuckle before I replied. “Like the fact that I’m allowed to arrive fashionably late?”

“Why wouldn’t I…” Meadowbrook shook her head and then brought a hoof to her mouth, trying miserably to mask her amusement. “That’s horrible, Morty,” she told me between chuckles, before finally bringing her sense of humor under control. “You have to promise not to tell anypony I laughed at that. Especially not Somnambula.”

“If you tell me I can finally get out of bed, we have a deal. I assume that summary satisfied you that I’m mentally fine? Because I’m bored out of my mind in here, and if I don’t get up and do something, I’m worried there will be permanent damage.”

At that, Meadowbrook cracked a more satisfied, far less hesitant grin. “Well, Morty, I’m glad to inform you that by kicking me in the face, you’ve passed your physical. Let me just summarize a few things. You still have a few bruises that will need more time to settle, and the gash on your neck has its stitches in, so try not to be too aggressive with your movements. I’m not sure how you got alchemical quicksilver so deep in an open gash, but it’s going to likely be a few months before it’s fully closed up. In the meantime, since I couldn’t remove all of the liquid from your bloodstream, I had to counteract it with an antitoxin instead. You may experience some mild tremors for the next few weeks; if any motion sickness or shaking lasts longer than a few minutes, come see me right away. Otherwise, just try to get lots of rest, and that should take care of your physical health. But—”

It’s amazing how unsettling those three letters can be, coming from a doctor. Let the record reflect that Meadowbrook may have been a medical genius, but her tendency to pause and carefully select her words occasionally left a patient in a great deal of concern. I shifted upright in Celestia’s bed, getting up to a sitting position, if only so that I could look Meadowbrook in the face more evently. There, I saw concern that I did not want to see. “But...?” I prompted finally, drawing a little circle with my hoof as if reeling in a line.

I watched her throat bob, but finally she found her words. “It’s your body’s magical system that took the worst of it. Your horn most especially.”

I dared to run a hoof up my horn; there were a few unusual bumps on the surface where the cracks from my duel were healing, but otherwise it hardly felt out of the ordinary. Then again, my horn had never quite been ordinary. “You mean my groove? I know it’s spiraled too tight, but it’s actually always been like that. It’s a birth defect. My spells tend to flare up, so I can’t cast as many spells in a day as another wizard, but it does have the benefit of making them stronger.”

“That isn’t what I mean, Morty.” Meadowbrook shook her head, and once again I caught her hesitating. “Usually, overuse of magical energy damages the surface of the horn. You had quite a few cracks when you came in, though you’re probably already familiar with that experience from training as a wizard. As you can likely feel, the surface of your horn is mostly healed. It’s the core that concerns us.”

“Us?” I pressed.

“I’ve treated a few horn injuries in my day, but rarely one from your kind of overuse of magic. I asked Star Swirl to assist me in treating you. Now, normally, the body outright passes in unconsciousness from exhaustion long before you’re able to overuse magic to the point that it damages the core of the horn.”

I swallowed nervously and nodded. “Yes. Like I said, my usual limit is three spells a day. I had to work around that limit fighting Wintershimmer… Is the damage permanent?”

“We don’t know yet.” Meadowbrook knew it wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but she was brave enough a doctor not to look away. I could see the regret in her eyes when she continued. “Which is why, though I’m sure this is a disappointment for you, I have to ask that you not use your horn. At all.” She didn’t move particularly fast when she pressed her hoof on the bedsheets to emphasize that point, but it still found me surprised. My mind was elsewhere, wondering what damage to my horn might mean for my future. “Do you understand, Morty? No magic, not even basic telekinesis, until Star Swirl and I are able to finish a diagnosis.” She waited for a very long moment and then reached up onto the bed and put her hoof on my shoulder. “Do you understand?”

“Hmm? Oh; yes.” I nodded probably too vigorously, to make up for the awkwardness of staring forward into space. “Yes, sorry. I understand.”

“I’m sorry, Morty. But any use, even something slight, could cause further damage. So until we know—”

I shook my head. “You don’t need to apologize. If anything, I should be thanking you. Besides, now that Wintershimmer is gone, it’s not as if there’s anypony trying to kill me, to force me to use my magic. I’m sure I can fill the time studying with Celestia and finally learn to read.”

Meadowbrook cocked a brow. “You’re… illiterate? An illiterate wizard?”

“Wintershimmer had an interesting teaching style…” I gently massaged my temple, where I could feel a vein throbbing. Unlike Luna (may a constant stream of meteor showers grant her ten thousand years of migraines), Meadowbrook hadn’t meant any offense with her question. Still, the wound on my pride that I couldn’t read plain Equiish stung at the memory, and I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from snapping. “But now I have a much nicer teacher. It’s still odd to think I’m supposed to be Celestia’s apprentice…” Wanting nothing more than to change away from that topic, I voiced the last question on my mind. “Do you have any idea how long it will be before you have an answer?”

“Just a few days.” Meadowbrook put on a little smile at that. “Then, one way or another we can plan the rest of your recovery. Unfortunately, Lady Celestia isn’t actually in Everfree City. She travelled to the Crystal Union to help Queen Jade and Smart Cookie rebuild the Union with Wintershimmer gone. I’m afraid she isn’t due back for another day or two.” Then she smiled. “But there is actually somepony here to see you, if that’s any consolation. Since we’re done, I’ll go get her.”

Meadowbrook’s departure left me alone for about seven seconds of peace, which ended in much the same way an era of peace does in a more academic history book. Seven envelopes landed atop Celestia’s bedsheets and my life changed forever.

Perhaps ‘landed’ doesn’t do the motion justice; they were hurled like feline throwing stars in a magical rage that, had they flown a little closer to my face, would surely have put an eye out.

Not that the thought is as frightening now, all these years later, thanks to Luna… Then again, in my youth I could neither walk off missing most of my head, nor regrow a damaged eye in a vat. Sometimes, context is everything.

“Meadowbrook says you’re healthy enough to walk around,” Gale announced as she entered the room after her violent introduction, wearing a scowl that could have melted the gold leaf off of a noblepony’s birthday cake. Her lavender coat was wrinkled on a furrowed brow, though I knew the mare well enough to know that her done up blonde mane and earrings were probably better indicators of her anger than any facial expression. “Get up. We don’t have all day.” Though her vibrant yellow sundress had to be a sight more comfortable than the formal gowns she so despised, it still swished in imitation of her simmering rage as she failed to stand still.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “I’m guessing ‘go out for dinner when I’m healthy enough to walk again’ is cancelled?”

Gale’s nostrils flared with a huff. “I have to spend today delivering those.”

“Which are…?”

“It says right on the fucking front!”

“Gale… I still can’t read.”

Though I know Gale knew my humiliating secret, two weeks of bedrest must have been enough for her to forget; she reacted as if I’d slapped her across the face with an eel, snapping her out of her fuming funk with the power of surprise. “Oh shit! Right, sorry Morty.”

“It’s fine.” I couldn’t help but chuckle at the way her mood changed, and the little hint of red that tinged the tips of her ears as they folded back in embarrassment. “Really. What are they, though?”

Repeating the question, alas, undid my work, and Gale’s milk-curdling brow-furrow reappeared below her mane. “Invitations to a birthday party.”

“Ah. Your mother’s…?”

It needs to be understood that Gale, as the third Princess Platinum, had been brought up in a home with not just two accents, but two completely different languages. Furthermore, her youth was just as often spent on the streets of Everfree City as in the halls of its palace. Apart from her probably excessive preference for profanity, Gale’s word choice, diction, and preferred accent would rarely if ever give away her identity as the heir to the unicorn throne. While she was perfectly capable of respectfully wielding the more ‘elevated’ speech of unicorn nobility, when she did don that voice, she usually affected it as an act of bitter, spiteful parody, taking special care to pronounce the ‘ch’ in all of her ‘hayches’, and avoiding even the subtlest hint of an ‘r’ into the flow of her speech.

Thus, when Gale snapped “Mine,” in response to my question, I knew immediately by her voice that it was really the elder Platinum, the reigning Queen of Equestria, making the decisions surrounding the affair. A unicorn princess does not have the luxury of frivolity; a birthday party, much like a ball or a holiday, is a chance to strengthen your alliances and practice the art of diplomacy. It is not a time for drunken revelry, or adventure, or Sisters forbid, skullduggery. Besides, you’ve only just returned from rampaging across the continent with that… necromancer. Isn’t your appetite for rebellion satisfied? Isn’t your ‘thirst for adventure’ quenched?’” She concluded the imitation of her mother by sucking in a rather snort-sounding breath through her nostrils, and then spitting directly onto Celestia’s bedroom floor.

“I... see,” I said, staring at the ‘loogy’ and trying my best not to actually see it soaking into the carpet. Finally, my eyes escaped its sheer disgusting gravity, and I looked back to Gale. “So who are the invitations for?”

“My suitors,” Gale replied, picking up the invitations with her magic and flicking through them, showing me the names written on the faces of the cards as if the runes scrawled there meant anything to me. “Spice Ménage, of the House of Three. Secretary Peanut Gallery. Archmage Grayscale. Duke High Castle—he’s my second cousin or some shit, which is apparently ‘enough distance’ according to mom—of the House of Gullion. Caporegime Coral, whose grandmother runs the fucking mob, if you can believe that shit. Prefect Gray Rain. Oh, and joy… His Eminence, Count Halo, Knight of the Church of Celestia.” She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and I watched her hoof dig at the floor as if she was going to lower her horn and charge somepony.

“He’s the worst somehow, I take it?”

“He’s forty-five, Morty,” said the soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old princess.

“Oh…” I swallowed, picturing in my mind a heavy-set middle aged noble from my own very limited experiences with Equestria’s upper class. I could practically smell the folds of fat on the back of his neck as he tilted his head back to make sure his nose stayed in the air, where it wouldn’t be subjected to the stink of the common rabble.

“Yeah,” Gale answered. “It’s fucking disgusting. So here’s the deal. I don’t know if it’ll be them or me, but if I have to spend my whole day talking to these assholes alone, somepony is going to get killed. So you’re coming with me, to try and help keep me sane.”

Shrugging, I nodded, and then swung myself out of bed. My legs ached as they picked up my weight, just like they had in the past few days when I got up to use the bathroom or wash myself—my only reprieves from constant bedrest. Thankfully, at least this time, I could stretch them. “So do I get an invitation? Assuming I’m still in the running since we talked in the garden…”

“Okay, stop. Look at me.” Gale accompanied that demand by grabbing my shoulder, proving that despite my considerable height advantage, she was by far the stronger of the two of us (as even before two weeks of bedrest, I had always been svelte). “I am not a hugely shitty marefriend, and I am not an asshole politician. If we’re done, I’ve got the balls to tell you to your face. Got it?”

“Sure. Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“That means you don’t get to back out of this shit, though, Morty. I’m relying on you. If you get scared off by my mom’s bullshit or the other suitors, you’re going to leave me up shit creek. Understand?”

“We fought the most dangerous wizard in the world together; you think I’m going to run away from some stuffy nobleponies?” I had to chuckle as I considered the implicit threat in Gale’s words. “Oh no, it’s Princess Platinum from the Hearth’s Warming Eve pageant. What’s she going to do, whine at me?”

Gale looked at me like I’d proposed copulating with a nest of murder wasps. “Morty, I don’t think you understand how much of a petty asshole my mom is. She’d exile you from Equestria in a heartbeat if she thought you and I had a chance of ending up together. So we can’t let her know until you’ve got enough momentum that she can’t just exile you anymore.”

I raised a brow. “Alright… I’ll trust you know more about this than I do. How do I ‘build up momentum’?”

“Time,” Gale answered. “You need to spend as much time as you possibly can with me, around all these assholes.” To emphasize her point, she picked up her birthday invitations in her magic and waved them between us, fanned out, like a hoof of cards. “If you can, you need to get them to like you, though I can’t blame you if that’s just not gonna happen. What matters is ponies start to see you as part of the court.”

I quirked a brow. “You want me to fight Star Swirl?

Gale’s mouth hung open as her brain failed to follow. “I… what? No! Star Swirl is like, the least insufferable pony in court. Why the fuck would you want to fight him?”

“I don’t,” I answered. “But if you want me to have a position ‘in court’, the only one I’m really eligible for is Court Mage. And since Star Swirl is Equestria’s Court Mage, the only way I can take that away from him is to fight him in a duel.”

“Ah.” Gale slapped a hoof to her forehead. “No, Morty, I don’t mean you need a position with a title. Being ‘part of court’ just means ponies need to get used to seeing you around. Once you’re part of the fucking ‘social circles’ of all the nobles, even if they don’t actually like you, Mom won’t be able to just get rid of you, because it will look like she’s trying to take out a political enemy by brute force. She can’t afford to look that much like an outright fucking tyrant.”

“Ah.” I nodded. “Alright. I think I understand.”

“Good. Basically, just be my wingpony and stay out of trouble, and we’ll wait for the opportune moment. Aunt Celestia likes you, and you’re her student; that’s our ace-in-the-hole. That gives you a damn good excuse to hang around, since nopony wants to get on her bad side. When we know Mom can’t do anything to get rid of you, we’ll get Aunt Celestia to sponsor you, that puts way more weight behind you than any of the other suitors. But we have to wait for the right moment, or Mom might just do something desperate anyway. So don’t tell her. As far as my parents are concerned, we’re just fucking on the side or something.”

“Um… Can we pretend to just be friends then?” I asked. “I don’t want to get on your father’s bad side, and Commander Hurricane was pretty clear about what he would do to me if we…”

“Danced the horizontal tango? Had a roll in the hay?” Gale rolled her eyes. “Just say ‘fucked’, don’t be a chickenshit. And for the fiftieth time, don’t be afraid of my dad. He hasn’t been scary since before either of us were born. And he’s not Commander anything anymore. He’s just ‘Hurricane’ on a good day.”

Gale slipped the envelopes from her magical grip into a little saddlebag pouch she wore against her right side. “Might as well get this over with as quickly as possible… High Castle’s closest. Get up, we’re going.”

1-2

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I - II

The Noble

Along the way from Celestia’s bedroom to the elaborate manor-home that was our destination, I peppered Gale with questions on the nature of Equestria’s insane compromise of a political system. Rather than regale you a word-by-word retelling of her answers, complete with copious swearing (an analogy proposing the three races as stallions fighting over more preferable orifices on a mare’s anatomy, including a novel use of the phrase ‘earth pony brown’, stands out in my memory), I’ll simply summarize what actually matters to you, dear reader, about how Equestria worked before a singular monarchy took over.

Once upon a time, six leaders had an idea for a new nation; you know them from everypony’s least favorite winter story.

Well, really five of them had the idea; Smart Cookie was far too interested in establishing… strong international relations with Queen Jade of the Crystal Union. But we’ll get to him later.

It’s one thing for a group of influential ponies to put aside their mutual racist hatreds, though, and quite another to actually set down a new government. Even after the windigo threat and its fallout were dealt with, the three heads of the tribes still had to get support from their subordinates.

For Hurricane, it was easiest. Having saved the entirety of his nation and his pegasi twice at that point, Hurricane was practically a living god amongst the Cirran pegasi (much to his own discomfort). He could all-but dictate terms to anypony he pleased, and the Cirran senate would not dare to object; an open fight with Hurricane, even over a minor matter, was a quick way to lose re-election.

Chancellor Puddinghead had it a bit harder; he had quite the opposite problem of Hurricane, as the Parliament of the Low Valleys viewed him with roughly the same respect afforded a brightly colored ball of navel lint, perhaps scraped off a patchwork jester’s tunic. However, in some regards the earth ponies were also easy to manipulate; because political power in the Low Valleys flowed from the cinch-strings of a purse, Puddinghead had only to show off a few of the gemstones gathered from the untapped hills of Equestria, and a few samples of rich dark soil, and the representatives of his Parliament were practically trampling over one another in their desire to establish Equestria.

Young Queen Platinum I, though, had it the worst. As you surely know from the pageant, Gale’s mother departed on the expedition to find the new land that would become Equestria as Princess Platinum, and so upon returning to the Diamond Kingdoms (plural, despite the singular monarch, for historical reasons you don’t care about and I don’t want to summarize), her first grim duty was to bury her late father, King Lapis IV. Stricken by grief and not fully trained in the art of politics, Platinum found herself in a terrible place; for while the power of the pegasi flowed from military might and respect, and the power of the earth ponies (Puddinghead’s absurd persistence as their Chancellor notwithstanding) flowed from coin, power amongst the unicorns flowed from blood and from loyalty. And while there was no doubt of Platinum’s legitimacy in the first matter, she had (much like Gale) devoted little time building up the latter.

Thus, when this newly minted Queen turned to her noble lords and ladies for their support, the so-called ‘Stable of Nobles’ demanded concessions of power in return: land, resources, and privileges. The list Gale rattled off made my head spin, and you needn’t care about them all in-depth here; this isn’t a course text, and there won’t be a test. What does matter is the biggest of the offerings to which Platinum was forced to cave in to in order to create Equestria…

Equestria in those early days had three ‘bodies’ of government. The most famous, of course, was the Triumvirate: one representative of each race. At first, they were Platinum, Hurricane, and Puddinghead. By that summer day when Gale and I ventured out to meet her suitors, Hurricane had retired to give rise to his eldest daughter, Gale’s elder half-sister Typhoon. The Triumvirate had massive power in premise, most especially over Equestria’s foreign relations, the division of its lands between the races, and so forth. But, though it might surprise you, the Triumvirate did not actually make laws to govern Equestria itself; they merely issued ‘edicts’, which could be overridden by the other bodies of the government (though this was rare to the point of being nearly unheard of).

Lawmaking power belonged to a pair of lower bodies: the Parliament and the Senate—bodies taken from the earth ponies and pegasi respectively, though both changed substantially from their historical single-race forms. In short summary: all of Equestria voted for parties in the Parliament, and seats would be assigned to parties based upon their proportion of the total votes. Every seat, therefore, represented ‘all of Equestria’. The Senate, meanwhile, consisted of ponies who directly represented the ponies in Equestria’s domains. These domains were much smaller than the domains we have at the time of writing, usually consisting of a town or city and a few surrounding miles of countryside. Domains received senators based on their population, though with the exception of a few major cities (Everfree, Lubuck, etc.) almost all the new domains were sparsely populated enough to be allotted only a pair of senators.

There’s a reason the divisions are called ‘domains’ though; you see, for hundreds of years, under the overall rule of their kings and queens, unicorn nobles ruled duchies and baronies and other little chunks of land they collectively called desmenses - a word which is pronounced ‘domain’ for ponies who haven’t taken the silver spoon that emerged from their mouth, melted it down, and used it to coat their snooty tongues. In a world of democratic representation, these nobles would lose almost all of their power… but with young Platinum over a barrel in need of their support to bring Equestria kicking and screaming into the world, they weren’t so ready to give up that power. So, as a stipulation of lending their resources to the new nation, they demanded land of their own to, at least locally, rule.

The mare behind this brilliant plan to subvert an otherwise delightful governmental system (well, if you’re a believer in representative democracy; I think the history books make my stance as a monarchist quite clear) was the same mare in whose sitting room I found my hind quarters planted.

Gale’s first suitor was His Grace, High Castle, Duke of the Western Territories of the unicorns that would one day play home to the city of Vanhoover. Don’t let the title (or any other history you might have heard) fool you, though; Castle liked to play at the role of a powerful politician, but he was really a nineteen year old snob who lived with his mother, from whom he had clearly either inherited, genetically or otherwise, his snobbery. Even when the Crown Princess and I came to knock on their door, their butler’s butler (yes, really) made us sit in the waiting room until both nobles were presentable.

It was his mother, the Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, who actually single-hoofedly ruined the political system of early Equestria. I suspect by the end of this chapter you may understand why, when young mages bring up the age old philosophical question of who to use time travel magic to assassinate in order to make the modern day better, rather than proposing a popular choice like Chrysalis the Changeling Queen or King Sombra (or I suppose now Luna, may her acne blight her ass for ten thousand years), Chrysoprase is the mare I name.

As we waited to be graced with the presence of Chrysoprase and Castle, Gale and I were served mimosas in thin glasses and invited to enjoy ourselves. I suspect I might have been more comfortable if I hadn’t been forbidden from using my horn to hold the glass; instead, I got to awkwardly fumble with the thin stemmed glass as Gale daintily sipped her orange juice; I suspect instead the effect I gave off was more of a foal stubbornly trying to balance an egg on its head.

“And the earth ponies and pegasi went along with that?” I asked as I delicately applied a coat of orange dye to the front of my coat, and then shifted my weight to hide the fact that I had stained the expensive couch of these nobles I hadn’t even met yet with mimosa.

“Well, sort of. Dad could have put his hoof down and just dictated terms. He didn’t want to, because tons of pegasi would have starved without the earth pony food supply… but the Legion would have crushed mom’s knights and Puddinghead’s mercenaries if it came to that. Instead, he realized it would be a lot easier for everypony to band together and compromise. It was his idea—or probably actually my aunt Twister's, but he’s the one who forced it down everypony’s throats—that there would be more titles for nobles, and some of them would be given to the earth ponies and the pegasi, and they would still have responsibilities for local law enforcement, tax collection, that sort of thing. Same deal with the earth ponies; the parliament and senate would be responsible for making laws for all of Equestria, but all three races could vote. The earth ponies still have a bit of an advantage because they have the largest population, but that doesn’t cause as many problems as you think.”

“What about the pegasi?”

“Well, in theory he opened the Legion up to all the species.”

In theory? I mean, I haven’t met any soldiers who aren’t pegasi, but—”

“There’s more than you think if you look for them patrolling the streets; you just managed to make a huge enough disaster fighting Wintershimmer that you jumped to the top of Typhoon’s agenda. And it’s not like non-pegasi can keep up with her personal guard flying halfway across the country. But that’s not really an issue either. The real problem is that the commanders are all still pegasi.”

A distinctly soured voice warbled into the salon from its sole doorway. “An astute summary, given you weren’t even born when it was a problem major enough to be causing riots in the streets, your highness.” The mare who entered was a wrinkled green nag who you could tell, just at a glance, had a heart that was two sizes two small and a fashion budget at least three sizes too large, if four seasons out of fashion.

Beside the luxuriously dressed older mare was a colt about our age, with a muted powder blue coat under a mustard yellow vest. His posture as he entered the room suggested he had recently received a prostate massage with a steel girder, and he immediately approached Gale before extending a hoof, frog up, in her direction. Gale looked at it with obvious disgust for at least six seconds of painful awkwardness before placing her own forehoof shoe down atop it, and allowing him to kiss it gently. “Your Highness, it’s a delightful surprise to have you visit us. Are you here to take me up on my invitation for dinner?”

“Dinner? It’s barely fu—” Gale winced, and caught herself. Then, to my surprise, she donned her much more formal pronunciation. “It is barely even past time for breakfast, Duke Castle; I’m afraid I can’t stay long enough for it to be time for dinner, let alone to sit down and eat it. I’m just dropping off a letter.” Then she turned and nodded to the older mare. “Aunt Chrysoprase. It’s good to see you.”

“And you as well, Your Highness.” Chrysoprase dipped her head gracefully. “Even if it’s only for a moment.”

I suspect that the Grand Duchess might have had something else to add, perhaps in my direction, but her son beat her to the punch. “I’m afraid I haven’t made your companion’s acquaintance; is this a new fashion of servant’s jackets, or—”

Servant?” I asked pointedly. Gale opened her mouth to answer, but Chrysoprase beat her to it.

“It may not be as long or elaborate as you’re used to seeing on Archmage Star Swirl, my son, but that is in fact a wizard’s jacket. When I was younger than any of you young ponies, I remember Archmage Wintershimmer wearing its spitting image, addressing the late King Lapis.” She then fully turned her eyes on me. “Do I assume correctly that this makes you the young wizard all the newspapers and criers were on about a few weeks ago? What was it… Mortal Coil?”

I couldn’t deny it; her introduction did me justice. I rose from my couch and gave a short bow by way of introduction. “Coil the Immortal, in the flesh.”

The elder mare extended a hoof toward me, frog-down. I knew exactly what she wanted, and just wasn’t inclined to offer it, but to my benefit, my choice to respond by raising one eyebrow was interpreted as confusion instead of incredulity. She removed the lifted hoof as she spoke up. “In the event Princess Platinum hasn’t explained it to you already, I am Grand Duchess Chrysoprase of Oxfjord, Chair of the Stable of Nobles. This is my son, High Castle, the Duke of the Western Territories and I suspect, based on Her Highness' presence here, her foremost suitor. And, if my intuition serves well, that might just be the subject of your letter, Your Highness?”

Gale sighed and hefted the offending parchment in a glowing magical grip. “Castle, this is an invitation to my birthday party.”

A look of surprise splashed over Castle’s face like ice water, though like a polar bear it brought a smile to his muzzle rather than a scowl. “I’m flattered, Your Highness, and I will be glad to attend.”

Chrysoprase gestured her son toward the unoccupied couch opposite where Gale and I were sitting. Both mother and son sat with a posture that would make a gargoyle envious, and I found myself wondering why they bothered owning cushioned furniture if they were so afraid to be in physical contact with it. The elder of the pair spoke up once she was settled, first to a butler I previously hadn’t noticed. “I understand her highness has a refined palate for wine; you will fetch the thirty-eight Roanmorantin.” Then she turned back to Gale. “Remind me, Your Highness, is this your ascension year?”

“I’ll be eighteen, yes,” Gale replied with a nod. “And we’ve just had champagne.” From where I was sitting, it was obvious how hard the next words for Gale to force out, just as it was painfully obvious that they were a bold-faced lie. “I don’t think I should have any more to drink so early. Even if it is a distinguished vintage. Perhaps some other time?”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “My apologies. Look at you, Princess; growing up and gaining such a sense of responsibility.” I imagine most ponies could not fit more condescension into their voice if they tried. “And soon you shall be old enough to take on royal authority.” The substantially elder mare chuckled. “I might have sworn just last year we heard you take your vows, and now here you are.”

I turned to Gale, raising my shoulders in confusion. “Wait… I thought the whole point of this ‘suitors birthday’ exercise was to figure out who you’re going to marry. You’ve already taken vows?”

“Not wedding vows.” Gale huffed once through her nostrils, the most irritation she was willing to show. “They’re called ‘inheritance’ vows.”

“Fifteen is the age of ‘inheritance’ in the noble line, and a sacred tradition for the House of the Rising Sun,” explained Duchess Chrysoprase. When I raised a brow, she clarified. “Ah, the term isn’t used as much as our House of Gullion or one of the other great noble houses, but the ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is the formal name for the royal line, owing to our descent from Lady Celestia.”

Our?” I asked as I reached out my hooves for what remained of my beverage. Unfortunately, fumbling hooves and my attention being on the elder of our hosts meant that a moment later, the delicate glassware was shattered on the floor. “Oh, I’m sorry!”

Chrysoprase frowned, and her green magic lifted a little bell that rang just once. From around the room, no fewer than three uniformed servants appeared to clean up the mess of my spill.

“Tell me, Princess,” asked High Castle, breaking his mother’s silence. “Is your companion merely an imbecile, or has he forgotten he is a unicorn?”

I gritted my teeth to keep from expressing how I really felt to High Castle, and mercifully in that moment of restraint Gale interrupted on my behalf. “Morty injured his horn saving Equestria, and so he’s on strict doctor’s orders not to use his magic for a short time. I do apologize for the spill, but then I doubt any of us would be very graceful, if forced to use our hooves.”

“Of course not,” agreed Chrysoprase. “And we are grateful to the service Mage Coil has rendered our nation.” Then she forcibly elbowed her son with perhaps less subtlety than I would have expected of the mare… unless being too obvious was itself a front she was putting on.

It took High Castle folding back his ears and wrinkling his brow to force out the words “My apologies” in my direction, but he did eventually deliver them. By the time he was done, the servants had left us, and we were once again quietly sitting.

“You need not concern yourself with replacing it,” Chrysoprase added once Castle had spoken, as though the idea of paying had even crossed my mind. “It may be our finest crystal ware for her highness’ pleasure, but the House of Gullion has found great wealth in the riches of Equestria, and it will be a trivial thing to replace it.” Then she smiled at me. “You had been curious about why I claimed ‘our’ descent from Lady Celestia, I believe, before we were interrupted?”

I hated how much control she forced over the flow of the conversation, but even more I hated that she stopped and waited for me to acknowledge where we had left off. I gave her only a small nod and she began to speak again. “My standing as the head of the House of Gullion supersedes my place in the royal line, but I stand behind Her Highness as third in line to throne. Queen Platinum is my cousin.” Chrysoprase’s horn lit up in vibrant emerald, briefly adjusting her mane, and perhaps slightly massaging her temples as she continued. “When an heir to any of the noble houses, but especially the Royal Line, reaches the age of fifteen, they are recognized in a ceremony that involves a series of vows.” Then she donned a grin somewhere between teasing and predatory. “Perhaps Her Highness still remembers hers?”

“Of course,” Gale replied bitterly. After a moment of ensuing silence, she scowled. “You really want me to do this? Right now?”

“Would you rather I claim that you’ve already forgotten our most sacred vows, and challenge your legitimacy, before you even have a chance to ascend?” Chrysoprase’s tone, despite the threat, was delivered as good-natured teasing. It should be noted, however, that this does not mean its intentions were actually in good fun, nor good-natured; they merely sounded that way. It fooled me at the time, and given the political inclinations of the other ponies in the room, I suspect the delivery may have been for my… ‘benefit’.

Gale once more slipped into her formal pronunciation again—albeit delivered at a swift clip. “I recognize the legitimacy of my mother. I swear never to challenge her rule. I vow to take up the throne so that it—” Chrysoprase’s brow twitched into the absolute smallest hint of a frown, and Gale sighed. “the ‘yoke’ of rule is never left uncarried. If you insist I do it word for word we’re going to be here forever, Aunt. “We do have other things to do today.”

“The metaphor of the ‘yoke’ is incredibly important. You should not mock it.”

“It’s not going to mean shit—” Gale gritted her teeth and sucked in a breath as Chrysoprase’s brow fell just a hair’s width in her only show of reaction. “I promise you, Morty has not read The Seventeen Days on the Mountaintop. I’m keeping it simple.”

The elder mare chuckled. “Alright, I will concede that point, Your Highness.”

“I swear to furnish an heir for the Royal Line, worthy of that authority, so that the yoke never gets ‘put down’. I accept that my right to rule is given as divine favor, and if I lose my favor, I will abdicate the throne and allow a worthy successor to replace me. I accept my own mortality, and will take no action to preserve my life or my rule beyond my years.”

I scoffed, which earned me a swift glare, but it was Gale’s punch to my leg that saved everypony an earful. Without even looking at me, she continued “Should my deeds on the throne drive Equestria to ruin, should my arrogance reverse the fortunes of our proud nation, or should my rule give rise to any great atrocity, I swear to surrender my life to the masses in recompense. I shall remember the deeds of the Five Wise Kings and the stories of those who came before me, that I might honor my bloodline and carry our history as a gift, instead of facing the curse of watching it rewritten before me. With these oaths, I do pledge myself to the Platinum Throne.”

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, who until that moment might as well have been trapped in resin, twitched her brow just once. “The Diamond Throne.”

“The Diamond Throne is still in River Rock,” Gale answered, and I got the sense she was working very hard to suppress a grin when she added “The last time I saw it, my half-brother was still sitting in it.”

Until that moment Chrysoprase had been utterly stoic in expression. After that moment she snapped into a full scowl. “If you want the support of the Stable of Nobles in your rule, Princess Platinum, you would be very wise to disown that monster, and keep your reminders that he shares your blood to yourself.”

High Castle set a hoof on his mother’s shoulder. “Mother, gentle; I am sure Princess Platinum didn’t mean to imply a familial bond with the Betrayer. Nevertheless, she has Hurricane’s blood, through no fault of her own.”

Gale closed her eyes and just stared into darkness for a very painfully long moment. It let High Castle enough time to turn to me and raise an eyebrow, as if he honestly didn’t comprehend what was wrong. I, hoping not to offend him, replied with a forced smile.

I suspect that made things worse.

“Thank you for the advice, Grand Duchess,” Gale finally said, allowing her eyes to open and donning a much better forced smile than I can produce even now (though missing at least half the muscles and skin required for such an expression doesn’t help). She reached back to her side with a hoof, tapping the satchel she wore slung over her shoulder. “It’s been a delight to visit with you two today and teach my friend here a bit about noble customs, but I’m afraid I should be on my way.”

High Castle’s eyes flicked to the bag at Gale’s side and took note of the other letters within. “Ah. I take it my would-be competitors will also be attending, then?”

Yes, Duke,” said Gale in her ‘Princess Platinum’ pronunciation. “Much as I am certain we could find some way to keep entertained, it would hardly be much of a party with just one guest.”

High Castle chuckled. “Then I will simply have to be more charming for it. Tell me, Your Highness, is there anything in particular you’d like? Or should I surprise you?”

I cocked my head. “Are you two being that forward, or am I missing something?”

Both Castle and Chrysoprase shot me glares, but it was Gale who chuckled. “I can’t speak to Duke Castle’s intentions, but I had assumed he was asking about a birthday present.”

“You assume correctly, Your Majesty,” Castle noted, though he refused to break off his glare at me to look her way as he spoke.

“A what?” I asked.

This time, I got three strange looks, but none of them were especially spiteful.

“A birthday present?” High Castle half-clarified, half-asked. “A gift given in celebration of one’s birthday…”

“Is this some sort of tradition reserved for royalty, then?” I pressed. “I don’t think Wintershimmer ever gave Queen Jade anything, but maybe that was just because he didn’t respect her.”

Gale turned to me and completely dropped her regal pronunciation. “Did your parents never… right.”

“Is he an orphan?” Castle asked.

“I assume my parents are still alive somewhere,” I answered. “But Wintershimmer may as well have been my father. I became his apprentice when I was three.”

“Ah.” Chrysoprase chuckled. “I was fairly young when your surrogate father was still welcome in the court at River Rock, but even with what little I got to know of him, I can imagine he wasn’t the kind of pony who indulged in celebration.”

“Or he had some horrible version of birthday traditions just to ruin your ability to talk to anypony else. At least, if his wine glasses were anything to go by.” Gale and I shared a brief chuckle, much to the confusion of our hosts. “Morty, on a friend or family member’s birthday, it’s traditional to give them a gift. That’s really all there is to it.”

“Oh… stars, I had no idea!”

In response to my worry, High Castle scoffed. “You need not worry, mage; nopony expects anything of you. Unless you think you will be attending the party as Her Highness’ suitor… though I don’t recognize the family ‘Coil’.”

At once, all three of us present tried to answer him. My eye twitched in abject disgust at how spitefully he used the better half of my full name. Gale, nervously, stumbled as her tongue searched for some denial, perhaps worried that he suspected our plot already.

Chrysoprase, however, seized the initiative with calm, firm words. “I doubt the young mage is even eligible.” She nodded toward me to explain when I raised a brow. “Not just anypony can be Prince-Consort of the unicorns, Mortal.” If there is a name I detest more than any other, it is my given forename, yet I barely had time to even wince as the Grand Duchess carried on, obviously noticing and even more obviously not caring about my displeasure. “Foremost, I doubt you will easily find a sponsor, given that Wintershimmer is no more. But even if you won somepony’s favor, the Princess’ suitors are the scions of the highest lineages in our society; heroes might rise up from a common bloodline from time to time, as you surely know, but on the scale of history, blood never lies.”

I found myself gritting my teeth. “What is ‘as you surely know’ supposed to mean?”

A look of momentary hesitance crossed Chrysoprase’s features, though it quickly gave way to that same belittling tone. “I was under the impression that all young mages learned about the Five Wise Kings.”

“I probably know more about them than you do,” I answered pointedly, and finally managed to score a blow when a furrow appeared in her powdered brow. “I fail to see what they have to say about the value of bloodlines, given they belonged to at least three separate dynasties.”

I must have stepped into her trap, though I didn’t understand it at the moment, when she broke a small smile. “Our family is the House of Gullion, Mortal. We trace our lineage through a chain of firstborn foals stretching back to King Amethyst.”

Coil,” I corrected sharply.

With unfathomable ‘grace’, Chrysoprase nodded her head. “My apologies. But perhaps you see where I am going. If not, let me give you a more relevant example: Archmage Star Swirl was born to the House of Zodiac, the descendants of King Electrum the All-Seer. You likely know that Archmage Clover is his granddaughter; two excellent examples of a noble bloodline producing ponies above the common standard. And we need look no further than your late mentor for a perfect counterexample. He had all the same opportunities as Star Swirl, did he not? They shared even the same teacher, as I recall. Their only difference was their bloodline.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Wintershimmer was an incredibly powerful wizard.”

“Indeed. But he was precisely the opposite of noble. Deceitful, cruel, greedy, ambitious beyond his station… He sided with the crystal barbarians above his own tribe, and is it not true he tried to kill Lady Celestia for her divinity?”

“You think Wintershimmer was evil because he was born poor?” I rolled my eyes. “Oh, alms for the poor; be careful, if you don’t they might put out the sun, instead of using that power to make a living.

“Mind how you address your betters, wizard,” High Castle warned me, leaning across the coffee table between us and thrusting his hoof into my shoulder to turn me away from the elder of the two nobles.

I briefly lit my horn, only intending enough telekinesis to thrust the offending limb back to the ground, but the pain of the magic coursing through my horn stopped any hint of a spell short. Instead, I swatted the limb aside with my own, took a step back, and brushed my jacket off from whatever slime the noble parasite might have left on the fabric. “Ah, I’m sorry. It’s so easy to forget. In my mind, the fact that I literally saved Celestia’s life would carry a bit of weight here, but of course you pretentious, inbred, ignoble fossils are my ‘betters’.” Then I rolled my neck and met High Castle’s gaze, glare for glare. “If you want, we can see whose existence has any value to society—”

“Morty!” Gale interrupted, grabbing my shoulder from behind and hauling me back onto the couch. The stitches in my neck ached from the tug, and when my vision focused, my face was only perhaps an inch away from Gale’s. “Don’t say anything. Just go outside while I finish a polite discussion amongst nobleponies.”

“Gale, he—”

Go!” she shouted. “You fu—” Hesitation stole the word mid-yell, and then I watched Gale’s face contort like a foal forcing down a bite of an unwanted vegetable. “Listen, you… you smug, insufferable… crystal half-breed!” The pauses in her phrasing stole much of the momentum from the barb, but she still knew me well enough to dig deep. I caught the hint of her more formal accent slipping in as she visibly forced herself to continue, though anger at the unwarranted attack on my birth meant that I wasn’t quite calm enough to follow it’s meaning. “I may consider you a fu… a friend, but that is not an excuse to address your betters so… brashly. You may take a moment to learn your place outside… and I shall come collect you when I am finished here.”

I huffed. “If that’s how you feel.” I could feel myself shaking as I stood up to leave. I didn’t bother saying any sort of goodbye, either to Gale or my hosts. At least I refrained from stomping, though there is a certain click of hooves making a show of a swift gait that I would later learn was just as telling of one’s mood.

Over my shoulder, High Castle spoke in what I can only assume was intended to be a stage whisper. “Perhaps you might keep your pet home until he’s broken in, Your Highness.”

Gale answered fully in the swing of her royal diction. “Yes, well… when one grows up in the Crystal Union—” Then the doors to the manor swung shut behind me, at the horn of yet another otherwise unseen servant, and the rest of the thought was lost.

Outside, I paced past Chrysoprase’s elaborate gardens and birdbaths and out her brick and wrought iron walls to find a street lined on both sides with similar (though less elaborate) manors in the same style. Though I didn’t know Ridge Street’s name, I did recognize it for one particularly familiar manor four doors down the road. For those who’ve read my former narrative, the fact that my predecessor Solemn Vow’s ‘haunted’ manor sat alongside such wealthy noble company probably comes as little surprise.

In the moment, to me, it was a distraction—and a welcome one at that. Remembering wandering nervously through those halls with my friends just a few short weeks earlier took my mind off of my gritted teeth, and I found myself meandering down the street in that direction.

I’m still not sure whether the late Baron Vow had enchanted the front door to open to anypony, or if we had some special link in common, or perhaps just that that animus controlling the door could see I was ready to smash something and flung itself open out of fear, but nothing stopped me from stepping into the dusty sitting room at the front of the home. Sheets were flung over the furniture, and a clingy film of white powder covered all the walls and features overhead. I don’t recall if the chandelier lit itself with an orange aura that almost simulated flickering flame on my former visit, but it did that day. What the light showed me were the hoofprints of my friends and I. Three sets of hooves… and of course, Graargh’s grizzly cub pawprints. I could just picture how painful it would be when the little changeling tackled me with fuzzy forelegs. He always gave the strongest hugs.

Losing myself in those memories just a few weeks old, took the edge off of my feelings of raw betrayal enough to think straight. I should have known better, in retrospect, as you probably realized immediately dear reader. Gale would never say the things she said and mean them, so she must have been lying. Once I came to that conclusion, it was altogether too obvious why.

Mid-epiphany, I heard Gale call out “Morty!” behind me, standing in Vow’s open doorway. I let my shoulders rise and fall once before I turned around.

Gale was a wreck. She was trying to hold it in, but honestly that only made her look the worse. She was too angry to cry, too broken down to fight. Her legs were shaking like they were struggling to hold up her weight, and her neck certainly couldn’t lift her head. Either that, or she couldn’t bear to look me in the eye.

“I’m sorry…” she whimpered.

I’ve seen Gale both enraged to the verge of spontaneous combustion and broken down to tears (at least one case of each being my own fault). Nevertheless, this was her lowest point. No tears, no cursing. Just shuddering. I rushed over to her side, kicking up more than a bit of dust in the process, and pulled her into the long abandoned sitting room. There, we sat, side by side, as I held her with both forelegs and tried my best to support here.

And then, as you probably already have dear reader, I finally got over my own offense enough to put it together. Gale would never say those things—not just because I thought she was a better friend to me, but because Gale’s first instinct reacting to somepony she was mad at would be to find the single foulest attack she could manage; not to dig up their past and wave it around with a proper noble accent. Her hesitations, her stumbling over her words, were because she was putting on an uncomfortable persona.

“Are you okay?” I asked first, because sometimes trying to be sensitive can lead a young pony to ask very stupid questions with very obvious answers.

Perhaps the incredulity was enough to shock Gale into looking up, brows raised despite the deep furrow in her forehead. “Am I…? Fucking forget me, Morty, are you okay?” Then it was my turn to express my confusion, and as I cocked my head she threw her hooves around my shoulders and nuzzled her forehead into my neck (just barely managing to avoid impaling my stitched wound with her horn). Her words came like a pelting rain. “Gods, I’m so sorry; I was such an asshole! I just panicked! I needed to cover so they wouldn’t figure us out, and you were getting so mad—”

“Gale!” I called out to interrupt her, to try and steady her. “Gale, I’m fine!” When I heard her mumble some complaint into my right side, I pushed her away enough that I could look her in the eyes. “Look at me; I’m completely fine. I get it; it was an act. That’s fine. And if I’m mad at anypony, it isn’t you. I promise.”

“No, it’s not…” Gale hoofed at the ground in an uncharacteristic hesitation. “I hurt you, just by playing along. I saw it on your face. I…” Gale stumbled with the words “I’m still sorry.”

I shrugged. “Alright. Sure. Um… I forgive you?”

Gale let out a tiny chuckle which felt like an enormous win to me. “You’re fucking terrible at talking to other ponies, you know that?”

“Somepony once told me something like that, yes.” I nodded, and then wanting to avoid using my horn, stuck out my hoof and physically lifted her chin to force her to meet my gaze. Her eyes still ran away from mine in shame. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she answered, and sighed. “I turned into my mom. And I fucking hate being her.” Despite her voice spiking into a shout, she stayed terrifyingly still. “You see what these assholes do? You spend any time around them, and they just constantly wear you down rubbing each other off until finally you play along just to get them to shut the fuck up. Or gods forbid they have something you want and they hold it over your head until you sit up and beg like a good bitch.” I watched her swallow, and then she finally met my gaze. “Can you see who I’d turn into if I married that smug fucking asshole? That’s exactly what Mom wants.”

“That’s not going to happen, Gale.”

“Why? Because you’re here?” she jabbed half-heartedly.

I shook my head. “What do I have to do with it?” Though delivered better it might have been a suave way of leading in to building her up, I have to confess I was expressing a genuine confusion with that question. “You’re not like that, Gale. And if you have to bluff like you are to put up with them, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.”

Her body just started shaking like laughter without words. Relief spilled over her limbs in the form of her muscles going slack, letting out the tension that had her visibly shuddering just moments before. And then, mercifully, she smiled. “Thanks Morty.”

“It’s really nothing,” I answered. “I think I found them just as insufferable as you did.”

“Yeah…” Gale nodded. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.” Then she lit up her horn and waved away the cloud of dust that had been gathering around us and was slowly settling across our manes. “We should probably get out of this place before some other dead wizard comes to kill us?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I think I’m the only one left now. Where to next?”

“Cloudsdale,” said the young unicorn mare to her also a unicorn escort.

1-3

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I - III

The Crime Lord

As we walked down Ridge Street back toward the Royal Palace, Gale spoke to me in a whisper. “Okay, Morty; it’s important you’re here with me so the suitors can get used to seeing you around, but you can’t jump down their throats like you did with Castle. If they figure out you might be new competition, Mom will hear about it. You follow?”

“Understood,” I nodded. “Sorry; one of Wintershimmer’s rules was that you never let somepony attack your reputation undefended, or you lose all the weight behind your name.”

“Maybe you should stop following Wintershimmer’s rules; I know he was the best fucking role model in the world, but…”

“Just because he turned out evil doesn’t mean he was always wrong,” I noted. “Given how much you’re worried about what the suitors think of us, maybe his obsession with reputation was right.”

Gale lifted a hoof to massage her temple. “As long as you don’t gods-damn murder any of them... You’re amazing, you know that?” Despite the word choice, her tone wasn’t what one would call ‘flattering’. “I spend a few weeks away from you, and I forget that you’ve never given anypony a good first impression in your entire life.”

“That’s not true!” I protested before I had actually thought of an exception.

The objection earned me a roll of the mare’s eyes. “Your parents don’t count.”

I scoffed. “No, they hated me the moment I was born. My name is ‘Mortal Coil’ for a reason. My mother wanted another crystal foal. I have no idea what my father thought; he left the Union when I was barely old enough to remember him.”

“Holy shit… even your parents? Who liked you then?”

“Well… Wintershimmer…”

Gale was gobsmacked for a few seconds before she finally managed to get another pump of blood into her brain and restart her language centers. “I… I’m impressed, Morty. Somehow, you actually made it worse.” Then she shrugged. “But like I said, my fault. I should thank you, though, that at least you didn’t take the bait about our plans. That’s not a genie that I can put back in the bottle if you let it out.”

“It’s pronounced ‘djinni’,” I replied (because this is a written work, I should clarify: that spelling is pronounced ‘gin-ny’, like the pinecone-flavored alcohol), before wilting when Gale shot me a glare. “Sorry… It’s just a weird metaphor, because if you managed to enchant a bottle or a lamp or whatever strong enough to hold a djinni, you can probably get it back in again without too much repeated effort.”

“Morty, I know I asked you to marry me…” Instead of trailing off into silence, Gale’s words trailed off into punching me square in the cheek. I should reiterate, at this point, that despite being the smaller of the two of us Gale was in more than decent physical shape, and I knew from experience that she could pack more than a bit of pain into a punch. As I recovered my sense of equilibrium lying on my side on the street, I heard her conclude. “…but that doesn’t mean I don’t fucking hate you sometimes.”

“Ow! Easy, Gale; I’m still healing.”

“You’ll be fine,” Gale answered, hauling me back to my hooves. “Get up, come on. That was just one of these fucking errands.”

“Are the rest all nobles like them?” I asked.

Gale shrugged. “For a given value of ‘noble.’ Some of them aren’t even unicorns, remember? Now come on; Mom had to get two of the guards to pull a chariot for us, and if we’re late and waste the guards' time, I’ll be hearing about it for forty years.”

Having been in some state between bedridden, comatose, and dead for the past several weeks, I felt my breath fighting to keep up with Gale’s brisk pace on the streets of Everfree, past the normal citizens and goings on of the Equestrian capital. Dressed regally as she was, Gale caught more than a bit of attention, most of which she ignored in single-minded determination, offering no more than an “In a hurry, sorry,” or an “excuse me” to whoever she was halfway through pushing past.

On one street, though, I found enough breath and enough walking space to speak up. “Did you wind up asking High Castle for something?”

Gale chuckled. “You mean for a birthday present? Yeah, I decided to really fuck him over; you’ll love this. I told him if he wanted my hoof, I needed a castle from him—”

“Is that what birthday presents usually are?” I asked, incredulous. “Buildings?”

“What? No! Well, maybe for me, since marrying me would make him Prince-Consort.” I swallowed nervously, taking in the scope of an expected gift for the heir to the unicorn throne. Gale, still walking briskly ahead of me, failed to notice. “Anyway, I’m sure his family actually owns two or three, and I don’t actually want a castle, but then I had the best part of this fucking idea. I told him it had to live up to his name: I wanted a castle in the clouds.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. “That sounds… hard.”

“Right? And the party’s tomorrow! I can’t wait to see that fucker trying to buy out some pegasus architect’s business with a million bits. As if you can even build a cloudstone shed in a day.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Pegasi have to compress cloud by hoof to turn it into cloudstone, which is solid even for us non-pegasi. And it takes a ton of cloud to make cloudstone. That’s why Cloudsdale’s streets are just loose cloud, and we have to drink those cloud potions to walk up there. Besides which, most of the cloudstone that gets produced gets melted and forged into skysteel for the Legion, so there isn’t a lot to go around for construction.”

I must have looked like a confused puppy when I turned my head. “Wait, pegasus swords are made of clouds?”

“And their armor,” Gale nodded. “And the strips on wagon wheels that let them ‘roll’ in midair when they’re pulled by pegasi. Frankly, most steel in Equestria is smelted clouds; it’s so much easier to make than ‘ground steel’. Even Dad’s sword that you have a fucking complex about made of clouds; he tore it out of the eye of a hurricane.”

“Huh.” I nodded. “Clouds… Color me impressed.”

I will never understand how Gale could fail to hear the scraping of ten thousand gears and springs and little… clockwork widgets (no, I do not know how clocks work—presumably, some sort of pact with fey lords or things from outside of time if the sanity of most clockmakers is to be taken as evidence) springing to life inside my head as I began to process an impossible question. Namely, with no magic, no money to my name, and less than twenty-four hours, how could I make a gift suitable of Her Royal Highness, Princess Platinum III?

As that question dug away at my confidence with all the comforts and reassurances of a flesh-eating bacteria in your gut, Gale’s lead finally saw us back to the grounds of Everfree’s palace. Our objective was not far inside the eastern gate, just past the statue of Smart Cookie, Archmage Clover, and Private Pan-Sea, where on my first arrival to Everfree City Gale’s elder half-sister had threatened to impale me with an icicle.

Fun memories!

The two Cirran legionaries, wearing armor much like that of the Royal Guard today but without the magic-insulating gold plating over the steel core, gave Gale curt professional bows. The elder, probably thirty, then gestured with a wing to the chariot they were both already hitched to. “We’re at your service, Princess.”

“Thank you, gentlestallions,” said Gale.

As we climbed into the ‘seat’ area of the little wooden tray that would shortly be our only separation from a precipitous drop and a rather messy death, I could hear the younger of the two soldiers speaking to his partner. “I can’t believe it; we’re about to be flying the Princess! Commander Typhoon’s little sister; this is such an hon—”

The thought ended when the junior soldier was clipped over the ear with a wing. “Quiet, legionary; focus.” And then, in a more hushed voice, he added “She’s out of your league anyway.”

Gale, who had heard the comment just as well as I did, turned to me and grinned. “Oh, I don’t know…” she purred, layering on the acting more than a little bit thick. Leaning forward over the front rail of the chariot seat, she dared to brush a hoof over the croup of the stallion, just above his dock and the base of his tail. “He seems cute enough.”

When Gale’s teasing hoof brushed against the hair of the stallion’s tail, he startled into a suddenly much more formal posture. “Um… Princess, I—”

“Please be seated, Princess Gale,” the older soldier ordered with steel in his voice. “We should be in the air.”

And then, all at once, we were. Both stallions charged forward with not but a nod between them to match the timings of their hooves, and with barely ten strides on the ground, both leapt and spread their wings. The palace gardens raced below us, and then the streets of Everfree, and soon ponies became ants, losing all sense of size and buildings became painted rooftops, losing all sense of height.

I only barely avoided losing all sense of my lunch. I hate flying. Unicorns belong down on the ground. If, for some incredibly stupid reason, a unicorn wants to be in the sky, then by the stars he should use his horn to redefine the direction of ‘down’, the way nature intended. And no, Archmage Hourglass, picking yourself up with telekinesis and ‘flying’ yourself around like a used tissue on its way to the rubbish bin is not an acceptable alternative, since I know you will inevitably read this someday. Have some class.

On the way up, as the contents of my stomach were in the process of violating my understanding of the direction ‘up’, Gale produced a pair of fizzing green potions from a pouch built into the rail of the chariot. From one former visit to the pegasus city, I knew they were intended to let wingless ponies walk on the clouds. Unfortunately, reflecting on that as an ‘intention’ only made the predicament of my nausea worse—given vomiting would mean that in addition to the social shame of such a public display of my stomach’s contents, I would also fall straight through the street to my death.

I desperately drank down my potion, and then held my stomach as I worked with all my might not to let it escape back from whence it came.

“Oh, get over it,” Gale ordered as she yanked me out of the chariot and onto the cloud streets. There had been dozens of lurches during our flight (unavoidable even with the best pullers in a vehicle as lightweight as a chariot), so I missed the one that signaled the vehicle coming to a stop. I was therefore terrified that Gale was flinging me into open air until I felt the clouds under me with a hoof. My other hoof, being occupied covering my mouth in the event my life-protecting drink decided to re-emerge, was in no place to keep me from falling face first on the clouds from the force of Gale’s tug.

Thankfully, clouds are soft.

Tragically, cloud streets that have been pounded smooth, even if they aren’t real cloudstone, are less so.

“Ow!”

Gale, for her part, demonstrated again that she was in far better physical shape than my svelte form when she wrapped a leg over my shoulder and hauled me to my hooves. That much was appreciated. The accompanying comment to the surrounding pegasi walking the street of, “Don’t mind him, folks; he’s pathetic, but he’s my problem,” was less appreciated.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said,” Gale answered. “Now come on. Baths are this way.” Just before taking the first stride after the direction of her hoof, Gale glanced to the two soldiers who had flown us up. “We’ll be back here to meet you in half an hour. In the meantime, have a drink at the Lookout. You can tell Cirrus to put it on Dad’s tab.”

“Um…” the younger soldier hesitated.

Gale rolled her eyes. “If she doubts it’s from me, tell her I said ‘Hey, bitch.’” Then, with a wink, she turned and headed away down the blindingly white streets of the original cloud metropolis.

As I darted after her to catch up on my bedsore legs, I noted how much of the tension in Gale’s form had vanished since our last discussion with a suitor. In Cloudsdale, despite the horn on her head, Gale seemed at home—though I had to wonder how much was enjoyment of the clouds under her hooves, and how much stemmed from her teasing of a poor rookie soldier.

As I pondered that question, Gale caught me staring at her, rolled her eyes, and then made perhaps just a bit too much of a show shaking her flanks as she slowed to let me catch up. “See something you like back there?”

“I…” You should be reminded, dear reader, that my only prior experience with romance before Gale was the captain of the Crystal Union’s guard, whose idea of a romantic night involved bare-hooves boxing me into a coma. Thus, rather than admitting I thought Gale was beautiful and flattering her as she obviously wanted, I stumbled my way into an excuse. “Sorry; I was thinking about, um… what you said back there. We’re going to take a bath? I thought we were visiting a suitor.”

Gale stopped, turned, and dropped her voice to a near whisper. “Okay, listen, Morty. They’re public baths. It’s a huge building. The colt we’re gonna meet is named Caporegime. His grandmother is the Dawn of the Coral family.”

“Uh… ‘the Dawn’?”

Gale rolled her eyes. “She runs the biggest criminal empire in Equestria.”

I, as you can imagine, had several questions. The first one that came to mind was the one I voiced. “You know that and your sister just lets her?”

“I wish it were that easy.” Gale shook her head. “Look, maybe this will help you understand. Way back in old Cirra when my dad was still a kid, there used to be a whole bunch of crime families. I don’t really get why, but they tended to have really close ties with the Church of Celeste—that’s what the pegasi used to call Celestia before anypony actually met her. Anyway, ‘Dawn’ was the title you called a priestess in that church, so it started to mean the head of one of these families. You following me so far?”

“Taking your word that Celestia’s church was that corrupt, sure.”

“Right. Well, when Emperor Magnus and his griffons went to war with the pegasi, and Dad had to lead everypony across the sea, Dawn Coral saw a huge opportunity. She pretty much took over. And she had Dad up against a wall, because even if he didn’t like her, she was mostly working for the good of the pegasi; most of her work was against the Diamond Kingdoms and the Low Valley. Hell, she still usually goes after unicorns and earth ponies. When the pegasi were so worn down from losing a war and most of their population, I guess Dad needed her help, even if he didn’t want it. And by the time things were built back up for the pegasi to the point that they could afford to go after her, she had her hooks in enough of the Cirran Senate and the Legion leadership that if Ty took her down, she’d take half the country with her.”

“And you don’t want to take down the corrupt half of the country because…?”

Gale huffed. “Because a little bit of organized crime is a fuck of a lot better than a civil war, or something.”

Or something?” I pressed.

Gale shot me a pained side-eye before she answered. “This is one of those reasons why Mom thinks I’m not ready to be Queen. And fuck, maybe she’s right; I don’t know. I know the 'correct' answer is letting the Dawn be, because fewer ponies get hurt that way and the country is stronger and all that shit. But it still feels wrong to me to look the other way.” Then she shook her head like a dog tossing rainwater from its ears, frantic and violent, dispelling all lingering traces of the unwanted subject. “The point, Morty, is that you might, and probably fucking will, absolutely want to start shit with Dawn Coral and Capo like you did with High Castle. But don’t. I know ‘or they’ll kill you’ doesn’t really apply to you, but it would still be more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise, Gale, but I don’t purposely start arguments.”

“Maybe you should start? Then you wouldn’t cause so-fucking-many by accident. Now look, we’re here.”

Some twenty years before anypony had even spoken the name ‘Equestria’, fresh on the shores of the Diamond Kingdoms, a young Commander Hurricane had ordered those of his soldiers who were still able bodied to gather clouds and build a city for the refugees of Cirra. What began as a cobbled together encampment of villas would, over the following months, be quickly replaced by ordered streets of permanent homes, workshops, markets, and all the other buildings that would take any other species without access to cloudstone decades to build. ‘Cloudsdale’ had been an almost sarcastic name for the makeshift city, lacking any of the ceremony and honor of the great cloud-titled Cirran city-states, like the capital Stratopolis or Iron Rain’s beloved Nimbus. Despite its ignominious origins, the name stuck.

When Hurricane began to transform his ragtag city into a new respectable capital for the pegasi, his first construction was not a palace for himself, not a fortress for his legions, not even a grand monument for the losses of Cirra to the griffons. His first orders were for a Cirran bath, a common gathering place where pegasi of all social classes could be equal and share in shedding the sweat and grime of a long day’s work. I am told that in old Cirra, there were dozens of these baths in the capital alone, and every major city had at least three.

The Silver Sword Memorial Baths put them all to shame.

Even today, eight hundred years later, those baths are a feat of engineering that I cannot match with the mightiest of my architecturally-focused feats of magic. And, thankfully, at least at the time of writing they are still standing, spared the cruel fate Nightmare Moon had for all the buildings of Everfree that had the audacity to be built on soil. If you ever have a chance, reader, you must absolutely make the time for a visit. For now, though I have no intention of diving into the intricacies of their design, but forgive me for just a moment to describe in short this amazing wonder of the world. The bath’s genius is that, while the outside of the structure is the same compressed marble-grade cloudstone as most of the rest of the major buildings in Cloudsdale, the interior of walls are stuffed with uncompressed natural clouds - specifically, charged thunderheads in the caldarium and laconicum (the hot baths and steam rooms), and frigid nimbostratus for the frigidarium (the cold baths and swimming pools). Water run out of the baths is heated to a vapor, removing any sweat or dirt from the bathers, and then fed back into the clouds clean to congeal as rainfall, ensuring that the baths are perpetually full of purified, temperature-controlled water, pumped at whatever pressure a pony wants.

Hurricane’s youngest daughter had long loved the steamy halls, splashing in the pools or soaking beside her father and listening to him tell stories of his own youth in faraway Cirra. It was in those halls that Gale most often broke down Hurricane’s guard, getting him to tell his stories of his childhood best friend, Silver Sword—the pony who gave his life to spare Hurricane his death in the final siege of Stratopolis by the griffons. Perhaps Hurricane was on the back hoof, standing in a building named for his childhood friend; I can’t speak to the legendary stallion’s motives, only Gale’s occasional bouts of reminiscence about the building.

By the time we reached the back of the baths, I was increasingly glad for Star Swirl’s work enchanting my jacket, which repelled the sweat and moisture seeping through my coat. Had we come to actually bathe, naked as most bathers are, the air would have been delightful. However, dressed and with a mission, the air was instead stifling and oppressive.

Our final destination was fairly obvious once we found ourselves in the very rear of the structure, facing a doorway flanked by two burly pegasus stallions. If you have ever heard a word like ‘goons’ or ‘mooks’ used to describe the subordinates of a criminal organization, you can already picture this pair, with their overdeveloped forelegs and wings and their nearly shaved bristly short manes. They both glanced briefly at Gale, but spent much longer watching me. “You have business with the Dawn, Princess?”

“Capo, mostly,” Gale answered, holding up his letter, the waxed parchment envelope resisting the moisture well. “But I can say ‘hi’ to her too while we’re here.”

The two guards nodded to each other, and shuffled slightly away from the opening in the wooden trellis separators. Gale entered without giving the stallions a second look, but when I moved to follow, two wings shot out in front of my muzzle, barring my path.

“Your coat, sir.”

“I’d… rather keep it.”

More forcefully, the guard stated something that apparently everypony in Equestria knew except me. “No one goes into a steam bath in a jacket, capiche?”

After a brief huff of frustration, I realized that getting the thing off without the use of my horn was a lot harder than getting my legs into the sleeves in the first place. Gale turned around in the doorway as I fumbled with the sash around my waist, and after a good thirty seconds of watching me flail with the sleeves, offered a pinch of her magic to slide one foreleg free. I spitefully offered my most precious possession to the insistent guard. “Don’t lose it. It’s probably worth more than your house.”

The stallion scoffed, as he and his partner both removed their wings to let me pass. “Don’t insult us.”

“We’re professionals, colt," said his compatriot.

Gale gave me a small smile—I assume by way of silent thanks for playing along instead of insisting on keeping the garment—and then led the way into the next room. There, amongst marbled cloud pillars, set into a raised tub, an elderly mare and a young stallion were resting in steaming waters.

The pegasus mare was a wrinkly specimen, that was certain, though it was hard to tell how much of the folding in her coat was from her age, and how much came from long hours soaking in the warm water of her private bath. Atop the wrinkles, her coat was a muted scarlet, and above that her ochre mane had been styled slicked back not unlike her grandson's—though in lieu of greasy gel to hold it in place, the older mare’s looked much more like the effect of dipping her head under the bathwater and tossing it back with a wing. She was the oldest pegasus I had ever met, even edging out Hurricane by a good few years, though Dawn Coral wore her decades far more elegantly. A small cloth towel hung loose around her neck and shoulders.

Aura?” A smile broke on the old mare’s wrinkly muzzle, and though the movement was transparently difficult even with water supporting her weight, she stood up and bowed her head until it was nearly touching the water. “What a welcome surprise. It must have been ages since I saw you at the baths. And is this young stallion the ‘Mortal Coil’ that I’ve heard so much about?”

At the welcome reception, I folded a leg across my chest and gave a bow. “I am. Dawn Coral, I presume?”

“Such a gentlestallion. Yes, I am, but just ‘Dawn’ is fine if you prefer. This is my grandson, Caporegime. Capo, Mortal Coil is the pony who fought the mad wizard from the Crystal Union.”

Caporegime Coral was a flying ball of sleaze even when he had all four hooves on the ground and his wings folded at his sides. From his musky cologne—somehow powerful enough to survive the pools of the bath—to his slicked back black mane, I have rarely met a pony I more constantly wanted to reinterpret as a collage. “I read the news too, Dawn,” Capo observed dryly, before tilting his head back. “Nice ta’ meet ya.” Then he offered a wide grin to Gale. “Now what’s this I hear about a sweet young unicorn filly comin’ all the way up to Cloudsdale just for little old me?”

Gale extended Capo’s letter toward him in her magic. “This is an invitation to my birthday party.”

“Oh, just special for me? Gods, I must be blessed or something—”

“All the suitors get one,” Gale interrupted him. “Look, it’s waxed but I don’t think you should have it in the tub. Do you want me to set it somewhere?”

Capo snatched the letter out of the air with a dripping wing and tucked it corner-first into his mane, behind one of his ears. “It’ll be fine. You know what you want for a present?”

Gale grinned like a cat looking at a mouse. “Let me think for a second.”

Dawn Coral chuckled. “Well, you two are welcome to soak for a few moments. It might do something for Mr. Coil’s neck, at least.” When I raised a brow, Dawn Coral gave a small shrug of her wings. “You’ve got quite the scar healing there. I know it’s bad form to ask about scars, but I do have to express my curiosity if that’s a story you’re willing to tell.”

“It’s bad form to ask about scars?” I asked.

Capo chuckled. “You really don’t know your way around pegasi, do ya’? Most ponies the Dawn’s age don’t like talking about the Red Cloud War—eh, if you don’t know, that’s what we call the last war with the griffons, when we left Dioda and met all youse unicorns and earth ponies.”

“Scars usually bring up tough memories,” the Dawn concurred. “Even if the war was a lifetime ago, some wounds never set properly.” Then she nodded in my direction. “But you’re young and lively; will you humor an old mare, Mortal?”

I felt myself stiffen and what remained of the coat on my neck around the scar in question bristle at the use of my first name, but Gale calmed me quickly, placing a hoof on mine beneath the water’s surface. “He prefers ‘Morty’ or Coil.”

I shrugged, finding the slight much more bearable with Gale’s support. “You didn’t know; it’s fine. Most ponies who call me by my first name use it to try to talk down to me. And my parents didn’t exactly like me, which is probably obvious from the name ‘Mortal Coil’.” I let myself slacken a bit further into the pool, enjoying how nice the warm water felt on limbs that had been stuck in bed for weeks. “Wintershimmer—he was the archmage of the Crystal Union who I had to fight but also my master... I suppose I should say my former master.”

“Sensitive subject?” Dawn Coral asked, apparently reading into the hesitance in my voice. I was struck by the gentleness and sympathy in not only the question but her body language. Perhaps I had just been primed to expect less grandmotherly good nature from Gale’s introduction that the mare was a ruthless criminal. “I apologize.”

“Huh? No, it’s not sensitive. Just complicated. Trying to figure out where to start.” I bit my cheek for a moment before I spoke up. “The guard captain of the Crystal Union is a mare named Silhouette. She and I never really got along…” I very nearly launched into a list of the ways in which she was corrupt, but a squeeze of my foreleg from Gale reminded me who I was speaking to. “Wintershimmer framed me for murder, and she chased me all the way to River Rock and back here to Everfree. Eventually, I convinced her I was innocent; when she helped me fight Wintershimmer, he cut off one of her forelegs. Then he…” Another pause was filled with my pondering just how much I wanted to talk about the logistics of ripping out and re-inserting souls. I settled on “He took over her mind and forced her to attack me. So she gave me the scar, but it’s really Wintershimmer’s fault.”

Dawn Coral raised a brow as she turned toward Gale. “And is it true you were part of this, Aura?”

“Some, yeah.” Gale nodded. “Me, Aunt Celestia, Tempest… pretty much all of Morty’s friends. I actually cut that old fucker’s horn off, but Morty did most of the hard work.”

“I see.” Dawn Coral nodded with perhaps more enthusiastic approval than a story about gruesome dismemberment deserved. “For all the bone on your brow, you are certainly your father’s daughter, Aura.”

“Why do you keep calling her that?” I asked.

“It’s Cirran,” Caporegime explained, despite not clarifying the matter for me in the slightest.

“A sign of respect amongst us old bags from old Cirra,” Dawn Coral added, laughing. “Hurricane may hate being called ‘emperor’ to his face, but amongst ponies of our generation he’ll always be Cataegis Haysar. ‘Aura’ means a gale—like the wind—in Cirran.”

“Ah. So not a magical aura.” I let myself dip a bit deeper into the warm water still, sighing with irresistible relief at the feeling.

“What did you mean about me being like Dad?” Gale asked Dawn. “I assume you don’t mean he went around chopping off ponies’ horns?”

Dawn suppressed a laugh with a wing held arthritically in front of her muzzle, but I could still see the laughter lines tuck up on her cheeks. “Aura, how scandalous! Saying those things about your own father!” When her shocked humor faded away, she shook her head most emphatically. “No, no. I suppose I should say, I mean no disrespect to Hurricane. He has my utmost admiration as the leader of Cirra. He guided us through our darkest hours. But what I meant is that Hurricane was always terrible at delegating. Absolutely abysmal. I imagine it was a poorly learned lesson from the Red Cloud War. He always did everything with his own two wings.”

“How do you learn to be bad at delegating from running a war?” I asked

Again, my naïve question led to laughter from the Dawn, though I never got the sense she was laughing at my ignorance, nor at my expense. Hence, despite Gale’s warnings, I found myself liking the old criminal much better than I had the supposed ‘nobles’ of the House of Gullion.

“Hurricane was barely older than you three when he became Emperor of Cirra, and he inherited a government that schemed behind his back constantly.” Though her smile held for a moment, the Dawn’s expression began to grow leaner as she recalled a war most pegasi in those days hated to bring up. “The war was already lost by then, and most of the senate was more concerned with how to get peace out of Magnus and make Hurricane take the fall than they were thinking about how to win, or at least preserve the empire in a defeat. Now, I was hardly in Hurricane’s inner circle in those days, but from what I hear, the news that there was even land to flee to over the ocean was almost hidden from him in a footnote of some report. And if that message had never reached his ears… well, I have no doubt we would not be speaking today.” Dawn Coral let her mane dip into the water as she tilted her hair back, soaking the wrinkled coat of her neck and breathing deeply of the steamy air. “Perhaps he didn’t offer such a critique of his own leadership style, Aura, but I assume you already know the story otherwise.”

Gale scoffed. “I wish. Dad never talks about the Red Cloud War. The most I ever get is hearing about his best friend Silver Sword and his old wife Swift Spear, and how he used to be a wheat farmer in Zephyrus. I know tons of shit about Cirra before the war, but I get more about the war from ponies who weren’t even born yet than I do from Dad.”

“Hmm…” Dawn Coral sighed. “Perhaps you should visit me more often. I’d be glad to teach you our history. Your history. You deserve to know.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Gale countered. “But if I really need to know, I’ll just ask Iron Rain.”

That name rang some kind of bell in the back of my mind, though I couldn’t place it sitting in the baths. Instead, I sat quietly as Dawn Coral leaned forward. Her face said all sorts of things to me, like ‘you really think she knows as much as I do?’ or ‘Insult me again.’ But what actually came out of the Dawn’s mouth was “I’m glad you share such a strong connection with her, Aura. And I would never want to come in the way of that.” I really, really expected a ‘but’, but it never came. Dawn Coral laid back in the water again, submerging herself nearly to her chin, and sighed in contentment. “I don’t know if you young ponies can appreciate it, but the warm water is such a salve for old bones.”

“It feels fantastic to me,” I agreed. “The location’s a little inconvenient though.”

“Hah!” Dawn Coral nodded as she chuckled. “Fair and then some. Perhaps I should speak to the magistrate about taking the baths down to ground level for a day.” Then she sat forward again. “Then perhaps Cataegis would finally stop making excuses and come to visit with me again.”

“Cataegis?” Though Dawn had said the name once a few moments earlier, it wasn’t a term I was familiar enough with to place in a moment.

“Emperor Hurricane,” Capo clarified. “Cataegis Gladioprocellarius Haysar.

“Don’t say it to his face, though, Morty. He hates being called that.” Gale warned.

Capo shrugged and let out a non-committal huff. “It’s a sign of respect. The stallion saved Cirra, and throws bolts of lightning like spears—”

“Forty years ago, maybe,” Gale cut in. “And I still think the ‘lightning bolt’ thing is bullshit. If he could really do that, he’d still have both his wings. I know he did a lot of good things for Equestria, but come on: he’s still just some old stallion; not some ‘god’.”

Dawn Coral nodded. “With many, many ponies behind him who aren’t as well remembered. The same can be said of your mother, and of Chancellor Puddinghead, Aura. It’s a good lesson for a future ruler. For your father, yet another lesson from the Red Cloud War.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “I get the point, Dawn, thank you.” Then she chuckled, with just a hint of an edge to the laughter’s tone. “Well, if Dad learned all these lessons I’m supposed to pick up from the Red Cloud War, then I know exactly what I want for my birthday, Capo.”

“Oh?” He leaned forward, intrigued by the lead-in.

Dawn Coral, for her part, donned the first open frown of concern that I had seen on her otherwise jovially grandmotherly features; there was a mare who knew a trap was coming.

“Well, it’s simple. I want to meet a griffon, and see what all the fuss was about.”

Despite her sense of warning, Dawn Coral was struck mute by that request. Capo too was left stuttering in shock and confusion at the request. “You… you want me to what? You think it’sa good idea bringin’ a griffon here?” Some hint of a strangely Cirran accent slipped into his words as he fumbled with Gale’s audacious request. “Aren’tcha worried about restarting the whole Red Cloud War? Ya crazy! What if they attack Equestria?”

“Don’t be stupid, Capo. I’m not interested in starting a fucking war; I just want to meet one. Besides, if Magnus does decide to pick a fight, Equestria has two goddesses that Cirra didn’t. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this asshole could rip his soul out.” Gale tilted her horn to gesture to me. “So, yeah, that’s my birthday wish. Magnus, if you can get him, but any griffon will do. Maybe wrapped in a nice purple bow?”

Finally, Dawn Coral sat forward, finding both the posture and the words to speak. “Are you attempting to offend me and my grandson, Aura, or do you simply not understand the gravity of what you’re asking for?”

“Who knows?” Gale answered the Dawn with as ferocious a smile as she could muster. “Maybe neither; maybe I’m interested in seeing what I get from my suitors if I ask for something like that?” She had the audacity to wink at the older mare, and to my astonishment, it took just the edge off of the sharpness of the Dawn’s disgruntled features. “Maybe somepony who can do the impossible is what gets me turned on?” Then she chuckled as the Dawn’s eyebrows rose. “I’m sure somepony as familiar with history as you can find some damn metaphor for it. But for now, we’ve got places to be. It’s been nice. Come on, Morty; time to go.”

Dawn Coral sighed, but extended a hoof in my direction. “Coil, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“You as well, Dawn,” I replied, shaking her hoof, and then moving to her grandson. “Capo.”

“Coil.” He nodded. “I hope you are just her friend. I’d hate to be your rival.”

“Yeah, you probably would,” I replied, unable to resist myself.

After we retrieved our respective outfits from the guards at the door and left the baths, Gale and I found ourselves once again on the streets of Cloudsdale. Thankfully, Gale knew to pull a chain on the wall near the baths’ exit. The result was a burst of warm air from a series of holes on the walls of the baths, which dried our coats before we stepped out into the much thinner and much colder air of the sky city

As we made our way back to the waiting chariot that would return us to the sanity of solid ground, Gale spoke up. “So… Thoughts?”

“I think there’s a certain hypocrisy to asking me not to start trouble, and then telling the Dawn that you want to meet a live griffon, her sworn enemy. If you really want to talk to a griffon, why not just wait until my horn is healed, and I can seance you up any dead griffon you like?”

Gale scoffed. “Morty, it’s not about wanting to talk to a griffon… I mean, don’t get me wrong, that actually sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and we should actually have you do that. But the point is screwing over Capo. He’s never going to be able to get anything resembling a fucking griffon here. Half the legion would go apeshit berserk if he even tried flying back to Dioda. And I basically told the Dawn exactly why I was asking for it; believe me, if she were actually mad, she wouldn’t have looked that mad.”

“I…” I fumbled with comprehension for a moment. “I beg your pardon, but what?”

You can often judge the magnitude of a skilled politician’s emotions quite easily,” Gale recited in imitation of her mother’s voice, “simply by paying attention to how much effort they put into not showing emotions. If somepony has the talent to hide behind a mask, then any but the rawest show of strong emotion becomes just another mask to hide behind.

“Okay…” I nodded. “Wintershimmer used to talk about controlling your emotions to keep your reason in control. I guess that follows. I don’t get the point of pretending to be emotional when you aren’t though. He always said being stone faced and making ponies guess is better than showing anything at all.”

“Being stone faced turns ponies off,” Gale answered, with a hint of tiredness in her voice just from that short explanation. “One of the most important parts of succeeding in politics is getting other ponies to like you.” Then she nodded down our path, where the chariot and our two charioteers were waiting. “Gentlestallions,” she greeted them with a smile. “If you could take us down to the east side of the city, we’re headed to Chancellor Puddinghead’s home.”

“Puddinghead?” I asked.

Gale nodded. “The next suitor is his son, Peanut Gallery. Now quit squirming and get on the chariot.”

The ride down was no more pleasant than the ride up, but at least I knew my hoof wouldn’t go straight through the ground when I got off.

1-4

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I - IV

The Earth Pony

The only two earth pony guards I had seen in my time in Everfree City stiffened and stepped aside from the gates of a luxurious walled home, planted just past the edge of the city proper. Chancellor Puddinghead’s home (his ‘party pad’, as Gale claimed he was willing to describe it with a straight face) was honestly a more tasteful structure than I had anticipated. Wooden walls rose, slanted into angled roofs, and then rose vertically again, up and up, narrower and narrower until the whole structure culminated in a flat roof that no doubt was home to two swimming pools and a shuffleboard… board. Huge windows in a variety of shapes decorated the exterior, and grand balconies stuck off the sides of various floors, trailing flowering vines and plant life. The whole thing was built in different expensive woods, coloring it in beautiful shades of brown and red, white and gray, and even a few tasteful touches of purple, all without the need for paint or fabric.

In short, it was a beautiful, elegant structure that, while certainly grandiose, lacked the outspoken exuberance I expected from the leader of the earth ponies.

As we walked away from the chariot that had carried us down from Cloudsdale, and watched the two pegasi who pulled it fly away in total silence (though the younger dared to give Gale an awkward wave goodbye), we got quite the moment together to experience the view of the structure.

“I’m surprised,” noted to her.

“About the house?”

I chuckled. “About how egalitarian the Queen is. That she lets you have non-unicorns as suitors.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “Even letting Peanut ‘pretend’ was a political favor to Puddinghead; Mom doesn’t take him seriously. And she’s told me to my face I shouldn’t either. As for the pegasi, Dad actually put them forward.”

“Pegasi? Plural?”

“We’ll meet up with Gray Rain later.” Gale pointed forward. “For now, let’s humor Peanut. At least we can get some good lunch.”

Gale led us further into the grounds with no shortage of familiarity, but instead of heading for the door, she followed the wall around the exterior to the walled gardens. There, under a small gazebo surrounded by wildlife, I found two ponies talking over a wide glass-topped desk. One, a stallion about our age, seemed rather distracted as he plucked away at a harp. He wasn’t playing a particular song, at least unless he was so especially avante garde that I couldn’t follow any structure whatsoever; instead, I guessed he was concerned with trying to find the right notes for something he was composing. I think his most notable trait was that he was a particularly flaming hot shade of pink, with an only slightly darker mane. Thankfully, mercifully, he chose to wear a slimming gray vest and a similar bowtie that helped to restrain somewhat his aggressive colors.

His companion who stood with her back to us was an earth pony mare, not terribly older than us but certainly not a peer of ours; she had a forest green coat and wore a thick canvas jacket with a fur collar that seemed a bit warm for summer in Everfree.

Gale smiled and waved a hoof as she approached. “Good morning, Peanut!”

Peanut looked up from his conversation for a moment and donned a friendly grin. “Gale! Good to see you.” Then he looked at me and both his brows rose just slightly. “And who is this fine gentlestallion?”

It was the mare beside him at the table, turning at our approach, who answered. “Secretary, that is Mortal Coil, the stallion from Archmage Travail’s report regarding the… incident in Lubuck.” Then she offered a brief bow to Gale. “Your Highness.”

Gale answered with a swift nod of her own head. “Morty, let me introduce Secretary Peanut Gallery and… Grainwood, what is your title these days?”

“Miss,” Grainwood answered with a chuckle. “Being on the Taghfahrt doesn’t come with a title.”

“You seem to show up around Puddinghead a lot for a ‘miss’, Grainwood,” Gale observed.

“I own a shipping company,” Grainwood responded flatly. “So I have a lot to win or lose based on how parliament sets taxes on shipping up or down river, to say nothing of trading with Neighvgorod.” Then she nodded once to each of us and smirked a knowing smirk. “Sometimes you get opportunities in the capital that you wouldn’t in Lubuck, like lending a ship out to the crown to get a runaway wizard across the ocean to River Rock, in exchange for lessened tolls on harbor taxes.”

I nodded as I finally understood how the mare knew of me. “You own the Little Conqueror then? Thank you for helping our escape.”

“The what?” Gale asked.

I cocked a brow. “You don’t remember the Little Conqueror? The ship we took to Neighvgorod when we were running away from Lubuck? Come on, Gale, it wasn’t that long ago.”

Gale shrugged. “I guess I didn’t really bother remembering the fucking name. Sorry I forgot your boat, Grainwood.”

“Well, Captain Winterspell works for me, but it is actually his ship. Water under the bridge either way, your highness. Now, I’m sure you aren’t here to talk to some merchant, and I’m afraid I don’t outrank the crown princess when it comes to the importance of guests. Secretary, I’ll return later to finish up our business.”

Peanut chuckled, leaning back in his chair and briefly glancing at Gale before taking a… perhaps unexpectedly long look in my direction. “Well. Mortal Coil, the hero of Platinum’s Landing… I thought the statue was exaggerating.”

“Statue?” I asked, before remembering the time I had spent posing after my first battle with Wintershimmer. “Ah, right.”

“You get on my case for not remembering the name of a ship, but you can’t remember having a statue carved of you?” Gale massaged her temple with a hoof. “What the fuck, Morty?”

“Well, in my defense, I was interrupted by your sister accusing me of mass murder, and then getting the shock of my trial being prosecuted by the goddess Luna, so you’ll forgive me if some of my time in Platinum’s Landing escapes my memory.”

Peanut chuckled. “Please, both of you, have a seat.” His hooves gestured emphatically to a trio of cushions on the opposite side of his desk, before they returned to his harp, plucking a few strings at random. “Despite my father’s idea of good taste, I can’t bring myself to offer hard liquor while the sun’s still so high—”

“Damn,” Gale whispered.

“—but if you care for some cold pressed apple cider, I’d be glad to share a glass. As well as something for lunch.” Saying this, he stroked a series of strings in a piercing minor chord, and shortly thereafter I saw out of the corner of my eye an earth pony butler wearing a formidable beard nod once in silence toward Peanut before vanishing from sight. “Now, where are my manners?” He removed his right hoof from his harp and extended it over the desk toward me. “I’m Peanut Gallery, currently enjoying the title of Secretary-General of Equestria. I’ve heard a lot about you, sir, but the stories don’t do you justice.”

“...Thank you?” I frowned for a moment as I cleared my head at the unexpected (and frankly, unclear) compliment. “Um… ‘general’? I thought Gale’s sister was the head of the Equestrian military.”

Peanut chuckled. “Ah, ‘secretary-general’ is moreso about the title applying to all the races, generally. I understand you’re acquainted with my predecessor, Secretary Smart Cookie?”

“More than I’d like to be. I took care of his comatose body for twenty years.”

Peanut grimaced. “Yes… nasty business, that. Well, for ages we earth ponies have had a government centered around a Chancellor, elected by the general populace, and a Secretary elected as the head of what was then an all-earth parliament. When Father negotiated an earth-pony style parliament into the new government of Equestria, that title was amended to ‘Secretary-General’, since it would be a title voted on by all three races. Generally, you see?” Then he shrugged. “Because we earth ponies have the largest population, it stands to reason the Secretary-General would be one of us, but as for why it fell to me…” He shrugged, and plucked two odd notes that came out slightly sour on his harp. “I can only suggest nepotism. But I have to ask about you, Mr. Coil; is it true you survived being hung… sorry, hanged in the Crystal Union, and just walked away?”

I didn’t notice at the time that Peanut wasn’t quite meeting my gaze when his words slipped there.

I leaned back in my seat, grinning unabashedly at the praise. “Well, to be fair I teleported away. But in the spirit of the thing yes. I don’t recommend it; the rope burns are… Ow!” The latter noise was the result of my half-conscious massaging of my neck coming into contact with the stitched wound from my most recent battle with Wintershimmer.

“I see you weren’t uninjured, though,” Peanut observed, plucking a couple more notes, and then smiling. The same pair of notes rang twice more, and his muted expression grew wider by just hints each time.

“Well, this is actually more recent… The leader of the crystal army got into me with her claw.” As I explained, Peanut’s hooves suddenly began actually playing, and I caught his two repeated notes at the end of a particularly lilting phrase in waltz time.

“Claw?” he asked over his own music. “Is she… not equine?”

“Oh no, she’s a mare. All but one hoof, anyway. It’s a long story,” I answered.

“Well, I would certainly love to have you for dinner some time, Morty—can I call you ‘Morty’, or is that too personal? I wouldn’t want to intrude.” The music halted for a moment, though I hadn’t heard a wrong note, and then repeated with just a single note different, giving it a more solemn air.

I shrugged. “Whatever you like.”

“Wonderful. Are you free Thursday for... Ah, I see our drinks are here.” The comment was accompanied by Peanut’s face growing sour, and the next two notes he plucked on his harp got along like liquor and milk, curdling in my ears into something thick and sour and repulsive. “Good day, father. I don’t recall sending for you.”

Gale and I both turned on our cushions to see that, rather than the servant we’d witnessed before, the stallion approaching our place at the gazebo was Chancellor Puddinghead himself, deftly balancing four glasses, eight triangular sandwiches, and a large pitcher of cider on just one hoof. “Mornin’, Pea Pea! I heard Gale and Morty were here, and I just had to come say ‘Hi!’. So ‘Hi’, Morty and Gale!”

Something that often gets lost in historical representations of Puddinghead is his size. Whereas Commander Hurricane’s military stature often gets overstated in statuary and so forth (he was decently tall for a pegasus, but the ‘for a pegasus part’ is a big qualifier), Puddinghead, portrayed (accurately) as a bit of a dandy and a nincompoop, usually loses the fact that he was actually quite tall for an earth pony. I was reminded of this fact because he flopped down on the last remaining cushion, and even reclining on his flank he could easily look me in the eye, to say nothing of the extra height afforded by his bowl-shaped hat full of quite edible chocolate pudding.

“Hi, Pudding,” Gale answered, for a moment making me question the informality.

The tune Peanut Gallery picked up on his harp was much faster than its predecessor, in a minor key, but so presto that it came across more angry than sad.

“I’m super glad you’re coming to visit Pea Pea,” Puddinghead told Gale with a wide smile, using his free forehoof to pass out glasses, and then pour our drinks. I had to grit my teeth to avoid a chuckle at the incredibly terrible nickname. Still, I shot Peanut a look of silent sympathy. He nodded back to me with tired resignation in his eyes as he continued to play his harp, letting his apparently oblivious father continue to speak. “Stars knows he’s not brave enough to make the effort himself.”

“I’m plenty brave, Father,” Peanut snapped. “I’m just practical; we both know Gale isn’t a big fan of any of her suitors. And I don’t recall asking for your advice on romance.”

Puddinghead scoffed. “No, but you obviously need it; you hardly bring anypony home at night. You don’t even have any kids yet, Pea Pea!”

“Father… I’m nineteen.” Peanut rolled his eyes. “And it’s Peanut; I’m Secretary-General of our entire Parliament, not some four year old whose cheeks you can pinch!”

“Exactly! Look how stuffy you got; you’re not getting any younger or any hotter!” Puddinghead sighed and placed a hoof on his forehead. “Look at Morty here.”

“Believe me, I am,” Peanut whispered under his breath; I don’t know if he meant for me to catch it, or if it was only for Gale’s benefit, but she masked a small chuckle behind her hoof.

Puddinghead, apparently, didn’t hear his son over the harp marche. “He spent his whole foalhood learning from some geriatric jerk who probably died a virgin, but he still got the crown princess to give him a horn job in the middle of court, when he only met her like a week earlier! That’s almost as much game as I had when I was your age!”

That was one of the very, very few times that I had the joy of seeing Gale turn utterly red, ears to jaw, at the mention of her antics.

“I, um…” I hesitated to offer any useful comment, though the sinking in my gut made it all too clear I ought to have come up with something in Gale’s defense. At least Peanut’s music kept there from being an awkward silence.

“There’s no need to be humble, Morty. Live it up a little. I’ve got a couple of daughters you might like, since Pea Pea’s gonna end up with Gale. One of them is even almost as legitimate as Pe—”

Father!” Peanut snapped, accompanied by the sour twinge of an off-key note. The same hoof flew from his harp and crashed down onto the glass desk; spiderweb cracks spread in the transparent surface from the show of force, sending our drinks sloshing in their glasses, and outright spilling mine. “Firstly, given that she’s carrying a bag of letters, I suspect Gale is not here looking for a date, let alone a—”

“A threesome? Given she brought Morty?” Puddinghead suggested. Winking to Gale, he continued “I don’t mind sparing a bedroom for you young foals to have some alone time.”

Peanut fumed silently.

Gale groaned, and then dug into her bag with her magic. “Sorry, Pudding, but he’s right. I’m just here delivering an invitation to my birthday party; it’s tomorrow, so sorry for the short notice.”

“Oh, I know,” Puddinghead told us with a smile. “I might be Chancellor, but I’m also the best party pony in Equestria. You think I’m not helping decorate?”

Peanut took the invitation, tore it open deftly with a dexterity of hoofwork I have rarely seen on a pegasus or a unicorn, and retrieved the letter inside. As he read the lacy script that I assume Queen Platinum or one of her scribes had actually put down, he lifted his glass of cider and took a sip. Abruptly, his face contorted again, and he turned to the side to spit out the sip before lifting the whole glass and flinging it out of the gazebo and into the gardens. A moment later, the sound of glass shattering once again filled the grounds of Puddinghead’s home.

“I thought I made no liquor perfectly clear, father. It isn’t even noon yet!”

“Well, maybe if somepony would stop being so picky and make a pass at a perfectly beautiful young mare, I wouldn’t have to try and lubricate things,” Puddinghead answered. “Maybe she’s not a perfect ten, but she’s certainly an eight or a nine. For goddesses’ sake, she gave you an invitation to her birthday and you actually opened it before you agreed? I know I taught you better than this!”

“Oh, forgive me for not offending her trying to mount her the second I met her like you do with every mare who passes your field of view.” He rolled his eyes, and with some obvious struggle for willpower, looked away from his father. “Forgive me, Gale; I’ll be glad to attend. And I’ll even spare you any pathetically unsubtle attempts at romance; is there anything you’d like as a gift?”

“I—”

Gale’s brief attempt at an answer was trampled by Puddinghead, who shot his entire apparently alcoholic cider in one swig and then leaned forward. “Really, son? Which one of our methods had actually gotten us laid at your age?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Gale snapped. “If my future is marrying you and listening to you two bicker about me like I’m a hunk of meat with a hole in it, for a birthday gift, I’d love a crossbow bolt. You can shoot it straight through my fucking eye! Come on, Morty; we’re done here.”

Though Gale dragged me away, over both Peanut’s apologies and Puddinghead’s pleas for us to stay, their ensuing argument once we were out of sight was not at all hard to hear; in fact, I doubt I could have avoided eavesdropping on them without the aid of earplugs, or a particularly large marching band.

“I told you I’m not interested in her!” Peanut shouted.

“You’re so self-centered, Pea Pea! This isn’t about you! It’s about getting the earth ponies in on that action, since Ricky and Queen Platty already got together! This is for the good of Equestria! So you can absolutely go mount Morty, or whatever stallions you want, on your time. But as your father, I expect you to put away one too many beers with that filly, make some ‘bad choices’, rut her without protection, and give me a couple of grandfoals.” I could quite literally hear the sarcastic hoof-quotes around ‘bad choices’ in Puddinghead’s voice, but my attention was on Gale massaging the throbbing veins on both her temples in unspoken fury as we left the gardens around the earth pony estate.

“Do you want to—”

“No,” she snapped. “I do not want to fucking talk about it. Let’s just go find Gray Rain.” She leaned into my side, and I did my best to support her as we walked on, but without Peanut’s harp music or any kind of discussion, the silence that hung over us was as painfully rigid as Gale’s tensed shoulders.

1-5

View Online

I - V

The Alchemist

I felt like I was inside the eye of some sort of storm, walking beside Gale through the streets of Everfree. Even the random passersby going about their business in the city could sense it, rushing out of our way. All the while, I ignored the grumbling of my stomach from missing lunch due to Gale’s anger with Puddinghead. The wisest course of action, I thought, was not interrupting my companion’s anger with a request for her to buy us a meal. Besides, the silence gave me plenty of time to silently panic as I struggled to come up with any sort of an idea for a gift that might be appropriate for my friend with less than a day’s notice and almost no resources to my name.

About ten minutes back into the streets of Everfree proper, the silence finally broke when Gale snapped at me “Are you starting to see what I mean about these assholes?”

“Peanut seemed nice enough before his dad showed up,” I told her with a shrug. “Even if he made me feel more like he was my suitor. Not that I can blame him. He has a fine taste in stallions, but—”

My words collapsed into a groan as my body collapsed onto the street. Gale had clocked me on the side of my face with a full cross punch that left stars in my eyes. I wasn’t knocked out, but given I missed most of her ensuing angry words, I can only assume the blow got me good.

I don’t think it was damage to my ears, but my mind struggling to regain its footing that meant when I finally heard Gale speaking again, it was when her face suddenly softened into worry. “Shit, you’re bleeding!”

“Well, you punched me!” I groaned, trying to find my hooves on the cobblestone street. “You could at least aim for the jacket; then Star Swirl’s enchantments might help—” My first attempt at standing up sent a feeling like fire down my spine, and I slipped in something wet, clapping my jaw straight back down onto the street and biting my lip in the process.”

“No, your neck! Where the crystal bitch tore you up with her weird metal arm.” Gale struggled to help me up, not only with her magic, but by actually tucking her neck under one of my forelegs so she could support the weight of my chest on her back.

Once I had settled into a standing position, I brought my hoof up to my neck, felt the sting of touching an open wound, and brought it into view to find a modest, worrying, though hardly life-threatening smear of red. “Oh. Fun. Well, I guess we should go find Meadowbrook.”

“That’s too damn far.” Gale took about two steps under me before I lifted my leg and stepped away from her to try and walk on my own. Though my pace was slow and shaky, it was still much easier than trying to let her half-carry me. “This way; We’ll talk to Spicy; that’ll be faster.”

“Who?” I asked—really, more grunted in pain as Gale hauled me forward down the street by tugging on the shoulder of my jacket. “Who’s ‘Spicy’?”

“An alchemist,” Gale insisted. “Come on! You’re bleeding everywhere!”

“It’s really not that…” for just a moment, my vision went fuzzy and I felt a distinct sense of vertigo threaten to topple me from my stance. “Alright. I’m coming.”

The path toward this ‘Spicy’ pony saw us pass larger and larger estates on more and more egregiously decorated grounds on a road I would later learn was named Orichalcum Way. At last Gale stopped us in front of a wrought iron gate, styled to appear vinelike despite its cold metal material. It was obvious to me that ‘Spicy’ was another noble, yet the estate shared almost nothing in common with High Castle’s metaphorical castle, save their unnecessary size. While the former home had been a fairly standard, perhaps even boring elaborate estate, the home before me was anything but. Bricks not made of stone but baked iron-red clay supported towers and spires of smoky, blackened wood. Several of the the towers didn’t even touch the ground, instead hanging suspended between the taller structures; the net effect was something like a copse of three or four giant trees… if the trees were on fire. That latter effect was the result of more chimneys than I have ever seen in my entire life on a building; the vents of smoke seemed to be everywhere, to the point that I found myself wondering if there was any room left inside the building for ponies.

Gale showed not one whit of hesitation as she rushed me up to the door and banged on the heavy brass knocker—a circular knocker with a decorative cross hanging off the bottom—to signal our presence. It took only a few moments for the door to be opened; to my considerable surprise, the face behind it wasn’t there. In front of us stood what I immediately recognized as a homunculus—a pony-shaped mass of plant life and chemicals brought to life not with necromancy but alchemy. This one was especially well made, since instead of visible sticks and dead leaves and mud, it looked like it was comprised of a uniform, nearly dry, slightly shiny red-brown dirt—like a dorodango, if you’re familiar with the art form. In addition to its uniform appearance, the homunculus also appeared in a uniform: a black and white maid’s uniform, wrapped tightly around the shape of a mare.

“Can you—” Gale started to address the creature, before it preempted her request with a nod, beckoning us in and then darting off down the long hallway that served as the entrance to this home. About halfway up the hall, it skidded to a halt, made a show of slapping its forehead, sprinted back toward us, and closed the door behind me just as I had stepped inside. Then it… well, despite not having a mouth on the lump of its muzzle, nor even eyes to close in a friendly way, it cocked its head in a way that I could only interpret as an embarrassed smile, before flying back up the hall.

“Well.” I said. “That’s… one way to decorate.”

“They might not be as smart as your flying rock, but I think they’re cute.” Gale winked at me, and though I now know exactly what she meant, at the time I was nothing but confused. “Think you could make one?”

I looked at Gale with the absolute flattest expression I could manage, given my rather sorry bleeding, hungry state. “Are you asking if I should put Angel’s core into a body shaped like a mare and dress him in a maid’s uniform, or if I could make golems that are shaped and dress like that to keep around my home? Because I can do both, but I will do neither. The last thing I need is a reputation like that. And frankly, I don’t know what I’m expecting out of whoever made these, but he obviously doesn’t care about his own reputation one whit.”

Her reputation, sir,” called a voice from the far end of the hall, where it spiraled up into a staircase, clicking with a refined accent that would put even Gale’s exaggeration of a noble voice to shame. “Princess Platinum, to what do I owe the pleasure of a visit?”

The mare wore a white doctor’s coat, stained all manner of colors from powders and burns and liquids alike, and hanging from her neck like a macabre necklace was a plague doctor’s beaked mask, though rather than grim black leather, hers was colored in the pattern and fashioned into the shape of a vibrant red parrot. Clearly, she was an alchemist, and likely the one responsible for the homunculus who had opened the door; a fellow practical scholar of the magical arts. Underneath her practical working garb, however, she wore a beautiful, shimmering, almost liquid dress of silver. It complemented her burnt orange coat and piercing blue eyes, and accentuated the subtle curve of her horn.

“Well, to start with, Spicy, this is Morty.” I noted that, although she said nothing, a small twitch showed itself in the slight bag under ‘Spicy’s’ eye at that address. “We were hoping you could help him heal his neck.”

Despite my active bleeding, now dripping onto her floor, Spicy took the time to first approach Gale. The greeting the alchemist offered was two quick kisses, one on each cheek just below Gale’s eyes. “You look beautiful, Princess.” Only then did she turn to me. “Hm…”

“Coil the Immortal,” I introduced myself, giving as proper of a bow of introduction as I could without hurting my neck further. “But you can call me Morty like Gale does; it’s nice to meet you, Spicy.”

“My name is Spice Menage, Lady of the House of Three and Grandmistress of the Alchemical Sciences; you may refer to me as Lady Menage or Mistress if you prefer deference to my achievements; only Her Highness may address me as ‘Spicy’.”

“Whoa, Spicy,” said Gale, drawing out a huff of frustration but not a word of protest. “Easy. He didn’t mean anything by it.”

Spicy scoffed. “Stallions are rarely so innocent in their intentions.” Then she glanced at my neck for a moment, before immediately turning her back and pacing straight down the hall toward the distant stairs. “Follow me; I have some Flash-in-the-Pan’s Clotting Agent that we can apply to the wound; it will produce more scar tissue than natural healing, but it will resolve the injury.” Then, somehow more scornfully than her already icy demeanor, she added “Keep your eyes to yourself, colt.”

“Colt? I—” I wish I could say that I caught myself from snapping at being addressed so bluntly, but it was Gale’s hoof tapping my shoulder, and her silent shake of her head that actually stopped me from picking yet another fight with yet another of her noble acquaintances. “Who does she think she is?” I hissed in a whisper, once Spicy had taken enough strides to get out of earshot in front of us.

“Spicy’s family run the alchemists’ guild, on top of being nobility. I think she’s used to dealing with ponies who aren’t as educated as she is.”

“And her hang up about stallions?”

I had thought I was being quiet as we walked up the sturdy spiral staircase, but ahead of us ‘Lady Menage’ called back to answer my question. “If you have questions about my family, ‘Morty’, you would do better to address them to me than to waste Princess Platinum’s time. You’ll find that rather than humoring you, I know when to simply stop answering questions because they exceed the questioner’s intellect.” Spicy opened a door directly off the staircase that led into a room brimming with strangely shaped glass receptacles whose contents bubbled and frothed in vibrant and occasionally shifting colors, each sitting in a glass-faced cubby either alone or with matching vials beside it. Brass plaques would have told one the potions’ names, if one were literate. “Do not touch anything. Lay on the floor, away from any of the cases. And take off that jacket; I’ll need clear access to your neck.”

“Believe it or not, Lady Menage, being trained as a wizard means I know a thing or two about alchemy.” I worked to slide my familiar jacket off with my hooves, struggling a bit with getting my forelegs out of the sleeves without my magic. Again, Gale had to help with a pinch of magic, as she had at the baths, though this time there was less humor and more sympathy in the act. Once I was undressed, I rested as the alchemist requested.

“A wizard?” Spice Menage rolled her eyes in dismissal of the title. “I am well aware Archmage Diadem’s school teaches alchemy only as an elective; perhaps Archmage Star Swirl could manage to make a homunculus, but I doubt even Archmage Grayscale could manage a rudimentary one.” The mare did not look at me as she spoke, instead, her hoof traced along the labels of what I assumed were her own hoof-made potions, looking for the medicine she had offered me. “Do not try to impress me with your time at that school.”

“I’ve only been to the building twice,” I replied, honestly. “And once was to kill my mentor to save Celestia’s life.”

Spice Menage raised a brow, glanced over her shoulder at me, and then turned to Gale. “Typical of a colt to brag about murder. Is that what this wound is from?”

“No…” Gale let her eyes slide down at me and then she sighed. “Well, originally yes. But it was healing fine until I forgot about it. I kind of punched him. In the face.”

The alchemist donned a smile at the mention of her violence before she returned her attention to the wall. “That would explain the bump; it will bruise, but it should leave no permanent mark. As for the bleeding... Ah, here. Flash-in-the-Pan’s Clotting Agent.” Spice’s horn lit up, pulling a potion bottle from the wall, just as brown and square-sided as the rest. “Unlike the pure arcana of a wizard, it is possible to create true regeneratives in alchemy. That being said, your wound isn’t nearly life threatening or serious enough to waste such valuable ingredients. This potion—” which was all the lead in she gave me before pouring a sizeable portion of the liquid onto my wound, giving me a sensation not unlike being swarmed by literal fire ants. “—should suffice to close the wound before any dizziness or other complications arise from blood loss. Now, unless you have other business for me, Princess, I would be grateful if the next time you visit, you leave this one behind.”

As I glanced over to Gale for further word, I saw her shuffling with the envelopes for her invitations, and took the liberty to speak up. “I don’t think we have any business with you, but is your brother home?”

Spice scowled at me, showing by far the most spite of any of the expressions she had offered me since we arrived. “I have no brothers, Morty. There is only myself, my mothers, and my two sisters: ‘Sugar’ and ‘Everything Nice’.”

“What?” In confusion, perhaps stemming at least a bit from blood loss, I turned to the more helpful mare present. “Gale, what are you—”

“She’s one of my suitors, Morty,” Gale said, finally producing the correct invitation and handing it directly to Spicy. The other unicorn proceeded to produce a sizeable knife from somewhere inside her alchemist’s jacket, and wield it with surprising grace as a letter opener, before removing the folded parchment inside.

“Hmm...” the other unicorn noted.

As she read, I massaged my stinging neck, which felt cold, but the hard dry texture suggested scar tissue was already forming. It was wider than I would have liked a scar, and the hairless spot would probably damage my otherwise ideal appearance, but it was far preferable to bleeding to death. I climbed up to my hooves and began putting my jacket back on as I voiced the sole question on my mind to Gale. “Isn’t having her as a suitor kind of defeating the purpose of requiring you to get married at all?”

Gale cocked her head. “…no? Morty, what do you mean? She’s just as much a noble as High Castle.”

“Yes, but…” I nodded toward Spicy, taking a moment to bob my horn in an outline of her obviously feminine form. “How do I put this? You can’t take much meal if you have two mortars and no pestle…?”

Gale’s mouth hung open for a moment in confusion before she rolled her eyes. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“He is alluding to the fact that neither of us has a penis,” Spicy explained bluntly, not even looking up from her invitation as she continued to read. (Apparently, Queen Platinum had seen fit to write quite the narrative on the letter.). “He then falsely infers, as is so typical of a mage, that because the magic from his horn cannot remedy that problem to create fertile, functional genitalia, that it must be impossible for two mares to continue the royal line.” Only then did she look up from her reading to address me directly. “You had asked earlier what my ‘deal’ with stallions is, so let me clarify: your sex is redundant, a biological flaw that hampers society. Your loins consume too much of the blood that we can better devote to our brains. Your testosterone—since you likely do not know, that is the name of a chemical in the blood which generates brutish, physical, male bodily development—leads invariably towards violence and juvenile competition. If you need proof of our superiority, not only can I grow myself functioning male genitalia superior to yours in every conceivable metric, but I can be rid of it when it is no longer of use to me. If it were possible to produce enough of our family’s masterwork to be rid of the male sex entirely, I would gladly make it my life’s work, but alas the ingredients are rare. So I must settle for satisfaction in the fact that, stretching back to the days of the Wise Five Kings, my foremothers have not known a stallion, and we are the better for it.”

I don’t know if there was any merit to her claims about limited blood flow to the brain, given I didn’t feel particularly aroused, but I certainly felt like I needed more blood flow regardless given the flabbergasted empty feeling the sudden rant had left me enduring.

Unfortunately, the same blood flow was not lacking in my tongue, which grabbed hold of the very first thought my mind produced. “If you have two mothers and both of them only have female parents, but your family are the only ones who know how to make this potion, doesn’t that make you massively inbred?”

“Morty!” Gale snapped. “What the fuck?!”

Spice shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me, Your Majesty; if anything it might be his most reasonable question since I’ve met him. Since my family does not have paternal and maternal distinctions for grandparents, we refer to the line of mothers who already belonged to the House of Three at birth as our ‘foremothers’. We generally still have one grandfather, on the side of the mother who married into the family—in our case, that would be Prince-Consort Hurricane, for… I assume the foal would be Queen Platinum the Fourth?”

I could hear the gears in my brain churning for want of lubrication, and what my tongue spat out was “Prince-Consort Hurricane? That’s the title you’re going to go with?”

“It is a superior title to Commander emeritus, at least among true-blooded unicorns. What you think is most appropriate to call him does not concern me, wizard.” Spice Ménage made a show of folding up her birthday invitation and tucking it into her breast pocket as she addressed Gale again. “I’m grateful to be considered for your hoof, Your Highness, and I can’t say how glad I am to accept your invitation. I know it might be a bit blunt of me to ask you to your face what you would like as a gift, but given I already have you here in the repository, I can’t pass up the chance to let you browse with me, and find a gift you’ll truly appreciate.” Then she spared only a moment to glance over her shoulder at me. “Something a mere wizard could never match. Perhaps now that his wounds are tended to, we of nobility and the better sex can be left alone.”

Gale, to her credit, tried her best to stand up for me. “Spicy, Morty’s fine—”

“No,” I barged in, being very deliberate about my breathing and speaking slowly to make sure I didn’t say anything I didn’t truly intend. Wintershimmer would have been proud. “You two need to talk about birthday gifts, I assume? I wouldn’t want to intrude in something I know nothing about. I’ll just go find lunch. Or something.”

I was left hoping that Gale understood the implications of my painful overemphasis as I stepped out of the alchemical repository as gently as I could. Behind me, I heard Gale growl in frustration toward Spice “How about a sword? Can you do that? So the next time one of ‘us nobles’ decides to be that much of an asshole, I can fucking impale them.”

While I appreciated her support, I still knew that I needed my own answer to what gift to get Gale. Though my legs had only grown shakier from hunger and injury, I all-but-sprinted down the spiral stairs, past Spice’s uniformed dirt-mares (whose physical appearance now carried even stranger questions in my mind), and out onto the streets of Everfree City in search of an even greater wizard.

After all, even Gale could hardly turn down something enchanted by Star Swirl the Bearded.

1-6

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I - VI

The Archmage

I realized about thirty seconds down the road from Spicy’s home that I had only the vaguest of ideas where in Tartarus I was in the streets of the Equestrian capital. Of the weeks I had spent in Everfree City since my arrival, I think I had only been alive, conscious, and healthy enough to walk around for a grand total of three days. In that time, I had visited the ‘haunted’ house of my predecessor (Solemn Vow, Equestrian Baron, failed usurper, and unsurprisingly remorseful ghost, who had boldly offered me tutelage in exchange for rescuing his soul from Tartarus), the Equestrian Palace, Archmage Diadem’s Royal Academy of Magic, and Commander Hurricane’s personal home on the edge of one of the city’s two major rivers, the Coltlumbia. Star Swirl could have been in any of those locations, or none of them; I needed somepony more familiar with Everfree to point me in the right direction.

My first instinct for finding a friendly face and good advice was to seek out Celestia, before I remembered that, as Meadowbrook had told me that morning, she was hundreds of miles away in the Crystal Union. Failing Celestia, I considered that my next best choice was probably Commander Hurricane, a thought I dreaded because frankly, the stallion still terrified me. Growing up amongst the victims of his military success, in a crystal culture that most often referred to the old stallion as ‘The Butcher’, would do that. Even if I had no reservations about the stallion himself, though I didn’t actually know the way to his home, since Everfree City was built on a cross-shaped fork of two rivers. And with the city as large as it was (even in those earliest days), walking all the way along even one bank would take hours I couldn’t afford to waste.

That left fewer options than I cared to admit. To run over a few of the names that came to mind: Luna, Queen Platinum, and Commander Typhoon—who were all most likely in the palace—all thought of me with something between a mild passive-aggressive dislike and outright loathing. My other friends from my journey: Graargh the changeling ‘bear’, my golem Guardian Angel, Hurricane’s granddaughter Blizzard, and Gale’s lazy soldier ‘nephew’ Tempest; were all basically useless for advice even if I had the remotest clue where to find any of them in the city.

At Diadem’s Academy I could probably find the titular mare, though asking her for any kind of advice would likely just end with her digging through her library instead of actually thinking for two seconds. But then, as Star Swirl’s grand-apprentice (Diadem was Clover the Clever’s student), she had just as good a chance of knowing where to find the stallion as the next pony. And since her academy was obviously visible on the skyline, it was perhaps the ideal destination.

Perhaps I could even find food there.

The walk was, thankfully and mercifully, short. It might have been called luck, but there was a practical reason I quickly realized on my trip. To summarize from a philosophical bird’s eye view, part of the southwestern side of Everfree City was home to an unofficial district filled with elaborate iron streetlamps and narrow streets paved with rounded blue-gray bricks. Called Lighten Heights by its native unicorns, and Horntown (pronounced ‘horn-ton’) by the other two races, the area was a home for numerous alchemists, hedge mages, and working-class enchanters who lit the magical streetlights which colored the streets with arcane lamp light and the glow of luminescent liquids. I’m not sure whether their presence was due to the Royal Academy, or whether Diadem built the academy to be conveniently close to the families of magically inclined unicorns. Either way, professional bleed-over between working mages and alchemists is common all across Equestria (and even in other magical races; the elk don’t even have words to distinguish the two disciplines), and so Horntown was also home to the Equestrian Alchemists’ Guild’s guildhouse. Since the House of Three basically was the Alchemist’s guild, that their home would be nearby is likewise not much of a surprise.

I knew none of the names in question as I made my way to the Royal Academy, but the tall, skinny painted wood storefronts of unicorn architecture were the beginnings of a hint to that idea. Once I got close enough to a few of the buildings to see bubbling, colorful potions and gleaming gemstones set into otherwise everyday objects, though I couldn’t read any of the storefronts’ signs, the conclusion was obvious. Even my rather formal mage’s robe blended in on the streets of Lighten Heights, where few ponies went naked and most wore some form of robe or jacket. I received a few friendly waves I would never have dreamt of receiving in more noble districts like the Ridge where High Castle lived, and I found myself smiling a bit as my mind wandered, imagining how any of the items in the storefront windows might be improved by a real, formally trained wizard into something worthy of royalty.

That joy vanished when Lighten Heights’ storefronts ended at the edge of a wide grassy square. The city block-sized green might have made for a beautiful park, had somepony not decided to ruin it with a show of egregiously traditionalist, hideous architecture. The Royal Academy of Magic was both the iconic symbol and the platonic ideal of the phrase ‘ivory tower’; it was almost as if its architect had wanted to gift anypony criticizing its philosophy of academic, impractical magic with twenty thousand tons of whitewashed visual metaphor. In addition to my detest toward what the structure stood for philosophically, on shaky legs I got the additional benefit of being in considerable physical pain as I finally climbed the stairs that spiraled around the exterior of the building to the entrance halfway up its side, panting as I pressed my way in more with my body weight than the strength of my foreleg.

I didn’t actually know my way around terribly well inside the academy; I’d only been in the entrance hallway there, in one single library, and up the stairs to a large auditorium at the top. Not only that, but on my first entrance I had been teleported inside by Lady Luna, and on my second visit, a pegasus carriage deposited me at an external door near the top. Now there were hallways and doors and clear Equiish labels identifying the rooms of the structure, but no pictures for an illiterate like myself. Thankfully, a few scattered ponies in the halls and the murmuring of a dozen lecturing voices, accompanied by the scratching of hundreds of quills, told me that the building was still well populated with ponies I could ask for directions.

Amusingly, I didn’t need to. “Hey!” The voice that called to me belonged to a filly of twelve or thirteen, who grinned and rushed over. “Hey, mister; I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you new to the academy?”

I took a moment to look down to my hooves and back up my chest as far as my neck would allow, saturating the motion with incredulity, before I replied “Do I look like I’m new here?”

Some ponies, however, weaponize social ignorance. “Oh, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, most first years are ten or eleven, but any unicorn with an open mind is welcome at the Royal College! That’s what headmare Diadem says, anyway. You’re a little late for your class, but that’s ok. I’ll help.”

I raised a brow at the audaciously helpful little filly. “Doesn’t that make you a little late too?”

The filly chuckled with all the innocence and situational awareness of a mossy rock. “Nope, it makes me very early. I’m a second year, and second year classes start in the big auditorium after the first years are done. I can sit with you, though, and catch you up on what you missed. We’ll just have to be quiet and sit in the back. That’s where most of the good seats are anyway. I’m Exuberance, by the way, mister!”

“Morty,” I replied, shaking her hoof and trying to figure out how to fit in edgewise that I wasn’t interested in sitting through an introductory lecture to magic for a mass audience. Alas, the only thing my brain could provide to question was the strangest of details from her final string of thoughts. “The good seats are in the back? Wouldn’t you want to sit in the front?”

We have to whisper now, since we’re close to the lecture hall” Exuberance replied in a forced stage-whisper as she led me towards a stairway with which I was already familiar—it led to the large auditorium at the top of the tower where I had, not too many days prior, passed away. “Some bad wizard named Wintershimmer, who I think used to be friends with Master Star Swirl, when they were both students—can you imagine that? Master Star Swirl, our age? (as though Exuberance and I were remotely similar in age)—anyway, this Wintershimmer pony tried to kill Lady Celestia. Can you believe that? But Headmare Diadem and Master Star Swirl teamed up with one of the students from Wintershimmer’s school, named Mortal Coil, and they all beat him together. They broke a lot of the benches in the room, though.”

“Actually, I’m—”

Shh,” Exuberance interrupted me, holding a hoof in front of her lips as a surge of magic from her horn pushed open the doors to the auditorium.

Of course, I had no idea what I would be walking in on in any given room, but my guess was that as the biggest lecture hall in the academy, if I made my way up to the huge circular room where I had only a few weeks prior died fighting my late mentor, I would find one of the Archmagi who called the structure home. That meant more walking for my tired legs, but it wasn’t much farther before I reached the doors to the room in question. Sure enough, a lecture was ongoing in the room, audible through the doors. I eased them open as gingerly as I could manage, hoping not to gather much attention.

The first thing that caught my eye was how incomplete repairs to the room were. Wintershimmer, Silhouette, Solemn Vow, Luna, Graargh, and I had done a number on the room; that much was true. Whole rows of pews and benches and desks had been cut in half, and huge gouges had been taken out of the wooden steps that created a raised stadium or amphitheatre-style seating area. Several of the benches had apparently been bolted together roughly with scrap materials as a short term fix, given how awkwardly their broken edges were joined. Even more awkwardly, the hole I had smashed in the ceiling during our battle was still all-but gaping overhead; the only thing keeping the room from the direct sunlight of the Equestrian summer was a large tarp that had, at its corners, been nailed into the beams of the still intact roof surrounding the hole.

Missing (thankfully) from my last visit to the room was the open hole in reality where the Summer Lands, the afterlife for good little fillies and colts, had been torn open atop the dais in the center of the room. In its place were a lecturer’s podium overflowing with scrolls full of notes, and behind it, three huge green chalkboards. Beside this podium, but ahead of the chalkboards, a stout wooden table supported a number of trivial magical supplies and one large smooth and rather familiar stone. I did note with some amusement that, off to the side of the platform, a huge blob of half-blackened candle wax was still stuck to the floor where Luna’s candlecorn simulacrum and Wintershimmer’s spare body had violently merged together. I did not envy the janitor who would have to scrape that up; it might have had just enough magic left to develop sentience and fight back.

I might have kept surveying the room had the lecturer not shouted at me from over his own shoulder, keeping his eyes locked on the chalkboards where he was inscriping some sort of sigil theory or other—unlike Equiish, something I absolutely could read, were I closer to the boards in question. “If you are going to be so tardy, student, why bother showing up at all? Please be seated and shut the door, at least, so that I can focus on students who want to learn.”

“I’m sorry, Master Grayscale; I think he just got lost,” Exuberance called back over the heads of about three hundred unicorns more or less her age. “We’ll just sit in the back here, and—”

“Wait… Master Coil?” The voice that shouted across the room was tinny, artificial, and geological—fitting, since it issued from the stone resting on the table at the front of the class. About half the class seemed stunned at a voice coming from a rock; the other half turned over their shoulders to get a good look at me.

The lecturer’s chalk very firmly landed in the wooden drawer beneath the chalkboard, and he took a moment to adjust the eyeglasses resting on his dull gray muzzle before he turned to look at me. “Oh. You.” Then he removed his glasses entirely and massaged the bridge of his muzzle. “Well, now that you’ve thoroughly ruined the students’ attention, we may as well make a learning opportunity of this. Exuberance, please go fetch the Headmare. For the rest of you students, may I introduce Mortal Coil.”

Exuberance had been halfway turned around to go get Diadem when she stopped and looked up at me in awe. “Wait, you’re—why didn’t you say anything?”

I shot her a silent grin and a wink, which I suspect might have damaged the filly’s mind, given how much she was giggling as she fled. As the auditorium doors swung behind me, I lifted a forehoof, slowly swept it across my torso, and issued a bow to the class. “Coil the Immortal, the Pale Master, at your service.” Then I nodded to the other adult in the room. “I’m afraid I haven’t made your acquaintance, sir. And do you know where I can find Star Swirl?”

“Archmage Grayscale,” the lecturer replied tersely. “Archmage Star Swirl isn’t actually faculty here, Coil, but as a matter of fact he is present teaching a seminar on advanced transmutation. I’ll be glad to direct you to him once the lecture is over, but I would advise against so rudely interrupting his teaching; I have never been known to transmute a tardy student for the duration of a lecture.”

“…Stars, I just opened the door.” I then set my way toward the front of the class, where my pet rock was still laying on the table. “Angel, it’s great to see you, but what are you doing here? Where are your rings?”

Guardian Angel, for those who haven’t read my prior work, was at the time my greatest creation: a Ouijan ‘learning golem’. To summarize, that means that unlike most golems which blindly follow orders literally, Angel had what was for all intents and purposes a real soul. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at eighteen, one wouldn’t have been remiss to call him my ‘son’. And though he was quite literally a large rock, he most often hovered in the air, surrounded by a pair of enchanted golden rings—we sometimes called them ‘halos’ in keeping with his name—which allowed him to more-or-less fly, as well as to store up excess magical energy I could use in the event of an emergency.

“Just off to the side of the table, sir. Archmage Grayscale was giving the students a lecture on the magical applications of gemstones, and my rings are a bit of an interesting practical example, between the static hovering enchantments and the mana storing functions. So I took the liberty of volunteering my services. It’s… a bit more entertaining than hovering over Archmage Diadem’s shoulder in her office while waiting for you to wake up. For the record, sir, I’m glad to see you up and about as well. But I’m afraid you may want to address some questions from the masses before we catch up further.”

Angel’s note alluded to the number of hooves raised in the classroom, attached to ponies whose eyes were locked on me as I approached the front of the room. With a chuckle at their curiosity, I gestured to one pony at random.

“So you’re really the pony who broke the whole room and fought Winter Shimmer?” The colt didn’t seem so incredulous as just curious, given how wide his eyes seemed.

“Wintershimmer was one word,” I corrected. “But yes. In my defense, he was the one throwing most of the spells that actually cut the benches in half. Though I think the hole in the roof is my fault…” I awkwardly let a hoof scratch at the back of my neck to admit some sense of embarrassment, though the unusual chill of the hard flesh I found there made my hoof leave quickly. “Uh, you there, filly.”

“You said you were ‘the pale master’. What’s a ‘pale master’?”

“Well, have you ever heard Star Swirl be called the ‘emerald master’ before?” The filly shook her head. “Anypony?”

Archmage Grayscale sighed nearby at the question and spoke to me at a volume the audience had no chance of hearing. “Magical history is an elective for higher year students, Coil. Students this age don’t need to be worried about egos and titles before they know their cantrips. We start them on basic theory first, and then—”

“You there,” I interrupted quite loudly (and with a bit of joy I couldn’t quite hide) when one pony near the rear of the class raised a hoof. “Do you know what it means to say Star Swirl is the ‘emerald master’?”

“Well,” said the filly hesitantly. “Um, I read that Master Star Swirl was the emerald master ‘cause he’s the best transmuter in the world.”

I nodded. “Correct. Excellent. It seems you know more than your teacher gives you credit for.” Even if I hadn’t drawn glee from the irate glare Grayscale shot me, the beaming of the proud student would have been worth it. “Yes, transmutation is called the ‘emerald school’ of magic. Thus, being the best transmuter alive makes Star Swirl the ‘emerald master’.”

“Ooh, I know that!” another student shouted without being called on. “Then… wait, what’s the pale school?”

“Necromancy,” I replied, not thinking it a very controversial revelation. Whispers spread immediately through the class, correcting my mistaken assumption almost instantly. “With the arguable exception of Luna, who doesn’t count for any of the other schools anyway, I’m the best necromancer in the world. You’ve all practiced necromancy, right?”

Before any of the foals could answer, I got an earful from the adult standing beside me on the stage. “Are you insane!?” Grayscale snapped, this time fully loud enough to be heard by the class. “They’re first year students, Coil. You’re going to risk letting them disperse some poor soul learning to séance when they don’t even know how to draw a stabilizing glyph yet?”

I could feel my brow twitching as I turned to Grayscale. “Well, not unsupervised. But if you have that little faith in them, are you really expecting any of them to ever amount to anything as wizards? I made him—” I gestured toward Angel, still lying on the table, “—when I was younger than any of them. Wintershimmer taught me to séance when I was four, and by the time I was six, I could séance Archmage Comet without him.”

One particularly enthusiastic student in the front row of the lecture hall waved her hoof back and forth at that point, and after taking a short breath to keep from releasing my irritation at the school’s teaching methods on some poor foal who had no idea that there were other options in the world, I nodded in her direction.

“How old are first year students at Wintershimmer’s school, if you were only four when you started?”

“Ah. Wintershimmer didn’t have a school; in fact, wizards traditionally don’t learn in schools. I was Wintershimmer’s apprentice; if you don’t know that word, it means I learned from him one-on-one. I was his only student… at least, at the time. And I actually started learning from him when I was three. He gathered up all the unicorn foals in the Crystal Union and gave us a test to see who would get to be his apprentice.”

“That isn’t to say you should idolize Master Coil’s education,” Angel cut in with his piercing artificial voice. “Wintershimmer was not, perhaps, the best role model one could ask for.”

The questions went on like that for some time, pinging off the curiosity of the foals, until one of the foals asked “Why do you get to fight with your magic? We’re not supposed to hurt anypony with our magic.” Before I could answer, a commanding but gentle voice from the top of the auditorium stairs stole my momentum.

“Morty was defending himself,” Archmage Diadem answered in a commanding but gentle voice, perfectly suited for addressing a preteen foal. “And furthermore, he was in a very particular situation. One which I doubt will ever occur again. I don’t think any of you will have to worry about a rogue wizard like that in your lifetimes.”

For those who don’t have the misfortune of having known Celestia’s least interesting choice in apprentice, Diadem the Mentor (you may be familiar with her epithet being ‘the Enkindler’, but it was bestowed posthumously) was a mare in her late twenties or early thirties. She wore her teal mane in a shelf of bangs cut straight across her forehead, while behind her head she wore them tied up in a firm bun. The color blended well with a muted aquamarine coat, or at least as much as could be seen under her clothes. Oval glasses were perpetually perched on the very tip of her muzzle, seemingly on the verge of falling off at any moment, but obviously affixed by magic, given how quickly she could move her head or neck without losing them. In addition to her glasses, she accessorized with her namesake, a silver tiara with delusions of grandeur, set with six large aquamarines, resting just behind the bump of mane that formed her bangs. Over her whole body she wore wizards robes, whose baggy sleeves would surely have interfered with her if she needed to run, or even jog, anywhere at all. At least for her sake, unlike Star Swirl, the fabric was a relatively plain emerald green and devoid of bells or accoutrements.

I have the utmost admiration for Star Swirl, but I will never understand the stallion’s choice to drive himself frothingly mad by accompanying his every step with that constant jingling.

Diadem gave a quick glance down to Exuberance, who was practically clinging to the elder mare’s robe hem, and gestured for her to take a seat on most of a bench. Then the senior wizard nodded to me. “Morty, it’s good to see you up and about, and under better circumstances. I think this is the first time we’ve gotten to talk where your life was not literally on the line?”

“That sounds right,” I agreed. “I’m glad actually dying settled that.” At least six hooves shot up, and I sighed. “Right… I’m sorry I said anything. Until you know more about necromancy, students, I don’t think you’d understand that lesson. And I suspect Luna would kill me herself if I taught a bunch of foals to cast Wintershimmer’s Razor.”

As that ominous name sent a fresh wave of whispers through the class, Grayscale raised a brow and took a step away from me. “You know his spell?”

“How do you think I beat Clover?”

Grayscale looked like I had rammed a tin whistle down his throat—that is, in addition to looking shocked and short-of-breath, he was also extremely confused, and further making a slight squeaking noise when he tried and failed to breathe. “You fought Archmage Clover?”

“Clover is fine,” Diadem clarified to her student, offering him a warm comforting smile. “I’m certain knowing how to stop ‘the Razor’ was also very valuable to actually facing down Wintershimmer.”

“If I didn’t, it would have been a very short duel. And it would have ended very differently. For one thing, you’d have all of your benches in working order.” Then I offered Diadem a bitterly sarcastic wink. “But I can’t promise the sun would have come up this morning.”

Grayscale finally found his full voice after that. “I will grant that it was a dirty job that needed to be done, Coil. But if you’re expecting me to lift you up as the pinnacle of magical practice in front of young impressionable minds over an act of violence, instead of using your magic constructively, you are sorely mistaken.”

Leaping to my aid, Angel called out from his place prone on the display table. “Master Coil can be quite constructive when his life isn’t on the line, for the record.”

I, however, had a different perspective to the golem. “Acts of violence are the point of having wizards, Grayscale.” That claim, which I had thought was not especially controversial, elicited a wave of gasps from the students listening. “Certainly having to kill a power-mad archmage is an unusual task even for me, but the world will always have monsters and spirits.”

Grayscale scoffed. “And now ‘the world’ has a legion of soldiers and two living goddesses to address those problems, and unicorn magical education can be put toward positive ends. We need not be the barbarians of history anymore, Coil.”

“I see you two are getting on well,” Diadem observed wryly as her hooves—impeded as they were by the oversized robe of a wizard without a sense of taste—clicked on the steps up to the podium. “I think you both have very valid points to be made about the applications of magic, but I’m afraid they’re a little bit too philosophical for our class of first year students.” Then she coughed heavily into her hoof. “And I certainly can’t imagine the lesson it would convey if two esteemed senior mages stood arguing like foals and setting a bad example in front of so many impressionable young minds.”

Grayscale bit his cheek and briefly found his eyes locked firmly on the boards underhoof. “My apologies, Coil.”

“It’s fine,” I replied with a shrug.

Diadem nodded sagely, though I caught a bit of a judgemental edge out of the corner of her eye—likely the most condemnation she could show without it being noticed by the students—but before continuing to speak to us she turned to the class. “Alright, everypony; it might have been a surprise, but let’s give Mr. Coil a hoof for sharing his time with us and answering our questions.”

What I got in reply to that address was a fairly tame round of applause that I had no earthly idea whatsoever how to react to. As the noise of young hooves died down, Diadem’s voice picked up again. “I’ll arrange a time for him to give a lecture and teach us all some very different magic in the future, but for now that’s all the time we have. Remember to practice your cantrips; Archmage Grayscale’s test schedule will not be moving. And remember, in magic, like in life…” The final five words were delivered in a rhythmic, sing-song tone that would have obviously prompted some sort of reply even if the teacher had called it out in an empty cave.

In the presence of so many foals, however, she got back a cacophonous failed attempt at harmony. “Differences make us better.”

I quirked a brow in Diadem’s direction as the students shuffled out of the room. “Is that supposed to be some sort of political creed?”

“Oh, it’s just something cute Clover told me once, years ago. A while ago, I noticed some of the older students acting a bit… superior… to a couple of the pegasi I was paying to help paint the walls of the tower. I’m hoping if I end lessons with that, we’ll nip that problem in the bud with the younger students.” She gave me a gentle smile. “Not that you aren’t welcome anytime you want to come listen in on a lesson, Morty, but I suspect that isn’t what brought you here. Certainly not with the first year students, at any rate. Is there something we can help you with?”

“Something with Master Star Swirl,” Grayscale observed.

“Of course you aren’t here to collect me,” Angel muttered in complaint. “Well, let’s hear it, Master Coil.”

I had to double take at Angel when his biting sarcasm hit my ears. Angel was a learning golem, a recreation of the thesis research of the ancient necromancer Ouija, and up until the latter half of my most recent ‘adventure’ (a word which here means ‘procession of elaborate attempts on my life’), he hadn’t learned enough about the concept of emotions to understand sarcasm if I sent it his direction.

That made Angel probably the foremost work of enchantment in Everfree City at the time, and thus explained his presence in the classroom. Still, I was used to thinking of the golem as little more than a floating yes-mare.

In case I have not made this abundantly obvious in my writing, I hold a much higher opinion of Star Swirl the Bearded (his lacking fashion sense and hygiene notwithstanding) than I do of Diadem; nevertheless, cornered as I was by the two teachers, I didn’t feel strongly enough to keep my opinions close to my chest. “Gale’s birthday is coming up, and I’m told it’s customary to give a gift.”

“You’re ‘told’ it’s ‘customary to give a gift?’” Grayscale asked, brow raised to the point of joining it with his maneline.

Diadem frowned for a moment in thought, and then donned a sympathetic smile. “I take it Wintershimmer didn’t believe in celebrating birthdays?”

“Not especially, no. At his age, I can imagine he might have been happier not thinking about them.”

“Ah, I see.” Grayscale nodded slowly, turning his horn to cleaning up his teaching tools as we spoke. “I hadn’t considered how odd your upbringing must have been in the Crystal Union.” Then the wizard frowned. “How do you know Her Highness? And why do you call her by her pegasus name?”

“Well, that’s what she told me to call her,” I answered as flatly as I could. “Judging by how angry she got at me when I found out who she really was, I’m honestly surprised you’re brave enough not to.”

Diadem suppressed a knowing chuckle. “Morty met Her Highness when she last ran away a few months ago. I believe she may have even had a hoof in defeating Wintershimmer.”

“More or less the decisive hoof, if I’m being completely honest.” I nodded. “I should thank you for teaching her to teleport, by the way, Diadem. But regarding getting her a gift: Mage Meadowbrook may have cleared me to stand, but my horn isn’t healed yet. And without my magic, I don’t have a fantastic plan for how to make her a gift… or even what a suitable gift would be. I thought since Archmage Star Swirl’s enchantment work on my jacket was so effective—”

“You got Master Star Swirl to enchant that thing?” Grayscale asked over his shoulder.

I sucked down a deep breath as I felt a vein in my brow twitch. “My jacket tells you that I am the Grandmaster of the Order of Unhesitating Force, and unlike more academic robes, I can actually run in it without tripping. But please, do go on about the superiority of your pajamas.”

Grayscale made a bit of a show of turning fully away from the chalkboards to face me—either that, or the difficulty of turning casually proved my point about our apparel before he had even answered. “Well, for starters, my robes don’t make me look like I belong to a cult that sacrifices foals in the woods at midnight.”

“That’s what I fucking said!”

As a trio, all three of us mages on the stage turned to look at the doors into the auditorium. There, Princess Platinum III in all her glory was struggling to make headway against a tide of foals who had been making their way out into the hall. I use the past tense here because, in addition to painting both Diadem and Grayscale’s faces a variety of interesting colors, Gale’s colorful shout had also managed to halt the progress of the foals around her.

“Miss, what does f—”

Your Highness!” Diadem nearly shouted, her eyebrow twitching behind her glasses. “How nice of you to join us. And make your presence known. In a roomful of first-year students.” Though those three sentences were spoken at a much calmer volume than Diadem’s first greeting, their staccato delivery and occasional jump in pitch suggested that some part of the school’s headmistress’ sanity was fraying.

Then again, I have never met a truly sane school administrator, and I suspect I never shall. Some occupations inevitably attract the unhinged.

“Hi, Diadem.” Gale tried to take a step forward, frowned when she realized that the step would have put her hoof down on Exuberance’s face. She rolled her eyes, lit her horn, and appeared on the increasingly crowded podium with the rest of us adults with a mild pop and the scent of ozone. “Morty, how the hell did you know this was where I was headed next?”

“A wizard never reveals his secrets,” I replied with a small smile, since the real answer was ‘dumb luck’.

“Please tell me you didn’t spy into the future as a parlour trick,” Grayscale begged with an expression that seemed to stretch out his muzzle into a presumption of disappointment.

“Nothing so dangerous.” Then I slowly turned to Gale as, my response done, my mind caught up with what she had initially said. “Wait… him?” I asked, pointing at Grayscale.

Gale responded not with words, but by handing the irascible academic an envelope in the glow of her magic.

Grayscale chuckled as he beheld the envelope, not even bothering to open it in front of us. “Oh, didn’t you know, Coil? Yes, I’m one of her Highness’ suitors.”

I glanced at Gale with a raised brow. “If he’s allowed just for being a wizard, why was Chrysoprase so obsessed with bloodline?”

Gale sighed, but she answered by addressing Grayscale. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Grayscale, but Star Swirl is your great uncle?”

“Two ‘greats’, actually. He’s almost a hundred years old, your highness. To answer what I assume Coil’s question is building to, Archmage Star Swirl is the head of one of the great noble lineages, the House of Zodiac. Archmage Clover, my second-cousin-once-removed, is next in line as the actual head of the house, but as a senior mage closest to Your Highness’ age and of the appropriate sex, I was put forward.”

“Are all the wizards in Equestria related? Do you have some sort of—”. I took a moment of self-awareness to glance over my shoulder and check for any foals remaining before continuing “—recurring wizard orgy going on?”

Diadem blanched. “Morty!

“Oh, of course,” Grayscale deadpanned with a glare. “We take turns lecturing out of the Libris Amoris, and take copious notes on staff enchantment. It’s exhilarating.” Gale had to muffle a chuckle at the bitter sarcasm, which prompted the insufferable stallion to shoot her a wink. Then he turned his attention to me. “Nopony is going to think the implication of incest you were building towards is funny, Coil. It’s disgusting. Our family has a lot of wizards because given the choice between taking a relative or a stranger as an apprentice, most ponies choose the former; it’s an artifact of selection bias, nothing more. And even that will fade away quickly now that our education of new mages isn’t shackled by the apprenticeship system. If you have any more sophomoric barbs, you would be better off sharing them with the students. Perhaps you could even learn something about the value of peacefully applied magic from them.”

“Kindness, Grayscale,” Diadem chided gently. “We need to remember, Morty comes from a very different upbringing than we’re used to.”

Grayscale resisted the urge to roll his eyes, though by the way they dodged from matching Diadem’s gaze, it was obvious that’s what he wanted to do. “Of course, Master. Your Highness, I’d be glad to attend your party.” And then he asked the seemingly inevitable but dreaded question. “Is there anything in particular a wizard could gift you?” He chuckled. “If you truly enjoyed learning to teleport from Master Diadem, I would be glad to offer you a lesson or three.”

“Sure,” Gale answered. “You know any spells that will let me spar with this asshole?” She gestured her horn in my direction.

Grayscale swallowed nervously and adjusted his collar with his magic. “Your Highness… Um... like Archmage Star Swirl, I am a pacifist. I know a few dueling spells for academic purposes and theory, but I would certainly never use anything more than a stunning charm on another living being. And I can hardly best the pre-eminent duelist of our generation.”

“I can teach you anything you want,” I offered her, seeing my chance to figure out a gift of my own.

“One,” Gale countered, “No you can’t. You’re a shitty teacher, Morty. Remember the wine glasses thing?”

“How is it my fault I had never seen a ‘normal’ wine glass before?”

“And two, if I wanted to actually spar with you and win, it would feel awfully shitty to have to remember you taught me all the tricks I learned, right?” Gale rolled her eyes before turning toward Grayscale. “But I do have to ask: when I’m Queen, I want to go hunt down the last windigo, so we can finally free River Rock from eternal winter. What good is a pacifist wizard for that?”

“Well, to that purpose, I’ll admit: very little. But in the administration of a government, where secretarial quills could be enchanted to do work without error and crime could be anticipated and prevented, instead of merely punished, I would imagine you would find…”

Grayscale’s words trailed off as Gale yawned; to this day, I don’t know if the motion was a forced show or a genuine tiredness on her part. “Do you do anything interesting, Grayscale?”

“I…” Nervously, Grayscale looked to his mentor, Diadem, for support; her shrug was obviously not what he was looking for. “To be completely honest, Your Highness, I’ve always been more concerned for whether or not my research is practical, not whether or not it is interesting. Interesting does not light our streets, it does not put food in ponies mouths, and it does not save lives. Practical magic does all of those things.”

Gale sighed. “And how is fixing River Rock not practical? Because from where I’m standing, this asshole I found at random in a tavern in the middle of nowhere—” In case it isn’t obvious, the future queen was referring to me. “—can do all the shit you can do, making quills talk and seeing the future or whatever, and he can also go kill a monster or an evil wizard if there’s a problem.” Then she grinned, the evil grin of a deliberately difficult (if not outright impossible) birthday wish. “In fact, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want a court mage like Morty. Figure out a gift that shows me you can come through if things go sideways for Equestria.”

“I…” Grayscale swallowed as he tried to find resolve somewhere in his throat. “Your Highness, I accept your challenge, so long as I have your word that if my solution does not involve grandiose flashes of light and the shedding of blood, you’ll still accept it for its practical value.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Gale answered, a smirk still on her face.

Diadem glanced nervously at her student. “Grayscale, perhaps we should talk over lunch. Until then… Morty, Gale, if you’ll both forgive me, I do have a lecture to teach in a few moments.” Diadem lit her horn and vanished with a whiff of ozone and a crackling pop. Only a moment later, however, she reappeared. “Oh, right; Morty, if you’ll humor me in the future, I’d be more than happy to have you give a guest lecture or two on necromancy—especially golem-making. Angel is frankly fascinating, and since Wintershimmer had the only copies of Ouija’s work, I think you’re the only pony who currently has any idea how to create such an animus. I’d hate for the knowledge to be lost. If you’re ever interested, I’d be likewise happy if you wanted to sit in on some of the seventh-year classes; I have no idea how proficient you are in transmutation or illusion, but Star Swirl and Mistmane do occasionally offer some fascinating seminars on their respective subjects.”

“I…” My gut reaction to snap to a refusal, in deference to my skepticism of learning any kind of magic in a classroom, foundered when my mind caught up to what was being proposed. Mistmane the Beautiful was no mere footnote in the annals of illusion, and as I had mentioned to the students at the beginning of my discussion, it would be patently idiotic of me to turn down a lesson in transmutation magic from Star Swirl the Bearded, considered the greatest master of that school in all of equine history, living or dead. “I’ll have to find some time.”

“Excellent.” Diadem genuinely smiled; at the time I cynically thought of it as a reflection of her desire to enhance her school’s reputation by calling me a student, though I now can say in better faith of her character that she was just that passionate about education.

“Well,” Gale sighed. “See you tomorrow, Grayscale.”

“Farewell, Princess. Coil.” Grayscale nodded, and then likewise teleported away.

With the room mostly emptied, Gale grabbed my shoulder. “Come on, Morty. Next are the Rains.”

“One second, Gale. Could you lend me your horn?” After she gave me a brief nod, I made my way over to Angel and held his rock like a particularly low budget rendition of Shake Spear’s Piglet. “Lift up his halos with your horn, and you should feel them sort of ‘snap’ into place.”

“Ah; thank you Master Coil,” the rock in question voiced as Gale helped grant him his flight. “And thank you Mistress Gale.”

“I told you, don’t call me Mistress, rock,” Gale growled.

Though Angel had no nostrils and no breath, he still managed to emit a noise that was a decent approximation of a huff. “Shall I accompany you today, Master Coil?”

“No, Angel.” I shook my head, and slipped into a whisper. “You don’t want to be around these ponies. I’m only putting up with them to help Gale.”

“I see,” Angel replied with a similarly quiet voice. “In that case, shall I simply stay here and assist at the college?”

“Do what you want,” I told him. “I thought we had already settled that you had real free will, Angel.”

“Ah…” The golem seemed to hesitate, at least as much as body language can when the body in question is a mostly round stone. “I… suppose I don’t know what I want.”

I shrugged, and though it might be incredibly wise in retrospect, my response was delivered mostly full of teenaged sarcasm. “Welcome to ‘life’, Angel.” Then I nodded to the doors. “If you don’t want to hover around here, you could go find Graargh and Blizzard.”

“They’re staying with my dad,” Gale added.

Angel did a little spin in midair—his way of showing happiness. “Ah, our friends. That does sound like a welcome reprieve. I shall be off.”

Angel could move quite quickly; quickly enough in fact that he was already through the doors and out of the lecture hall before I could ask the next question on my mind.

It was clearly on Gale’s mind as well, since she asked me “Does he know the way?”

I shrugged. “He has a sort of magical compass that points to me, so he can’t get that lost. Now, where did you say we were headed?”

Though I tried to sound as chipper as possible, the facts that I hadn’t found Star Swirl, nor lunch, still ate away at the backs of my mind and stomach respectively.

1-7

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I - VII

The Soldier

Gale was practically giddy as we approached the home of the next suitor, a far-cry from the mixture of dread and disgust that had dominated her approaches to the former nobles.

“C’mon, Morty,” she called over her shoulder as she nearly skipped up the cobblestones toward a clay-red home that, despite sitting on the ground, was clearly pegasus architecture.

“Somepony you like better?”

“You remember ‘Finder?” Gale asked. “Pathfinder? From the Legate’s Lookout?”

While it had been a few weeks since the first and only time I had met the stallion in question, I had spent most of the intervening time in bed, so the image in my mind was still fresh. “The old stallion with all the scars? The one who named his sword ‘Sword’? He’s a little old for you, I think. Probably a little too senile too…”

Gale shook her head. “No shit, Morty. He’s probably not here anyway. But this is where he lives.”

“So, what, one of his grandfoals is the suitor?”

Gale held a hoof in the air and rocked it back and forth. “His youngest son, Gray Rain. He’s… well, he’s fucking weird. Better than the others, I guess, since I don’t hate his guts. I just can’t stand trying to hold a conversation with him.”

“Alright… so why’re you so giddy?”

“’Cause you get to meet Rain!” Gale rapped on the door to the house while I was still a few strides away, and then sat down, seeming genuinely happy to be addressing whoever awaited within.

“I thought you just said you didn’t like—”

I let my words drop off when the door was opened to reveal an aging steel-blue pegasus. Her most notable feature was an eyepatch over her left eye, failing to cover a gash that stretched from her mane line to the edge of her sharp chin. After one got past that wound, they might notice she was—like so many of the old soldiers who dominated the upper echelons of pegasus society—in impeccable shape despite the graying of her mane and tail. I think most of all, though, I noticed how large she was for a pegasus mare—so much so that, though I now know better, at first glance I assumed she was just an unusually shapely stallion. On the incredibly off chance you who are reading this have not met a pony before, or interbreeding between the tribes has changed our bodies, at the time I met the old soldier, pegasi were by far the smallest breed of ponies and mares tend to be smaller than stallions.

“Gale?” She spoke with a surprisingly gentle voice for such a scarred warrior, and as she spoke, donned the kind of grin that only shows up on older ponies whose faces can carry the wrinkles of a lifetime of practice. “Garuda be damned, it’s good to see you.”

Then, abruptly, she slammed the door in our faces.

“Um… what?” I turned to Gale in hopefully justified confusion. “Did we do something wrong? Did I offend him?”

“Calm down, Morty. She’s just getting her swords.”

“Swords? Plural?”

“Just stand back, unless you see an opening. I’ll keep her attention.”

“You want me to fight h—wait, her?!”

‘Rain’ opened the door before I could get an answer. Sticking out from under her right wing was the handle of a sword most of the length of my foreleg, and with a blade to match tucked under her feathers and past her flank behind it. For those unfamiliar with pegasus swordplay, there’s no value in a sword having a handle much larger than the width of their mouth, so this huge weapon caught my full curiosity with a raised brow—so much so that until she dropped a full five other swords onto her own doorstep with a cacophony of clangs, I didn’t even notice the small arsenal she had been carrying.

“I don’t know what you prefer, colt, so I brought a few. I don’t have a real ‘rapey-er’ like you unicorns like, but I brought both my straight blades, plus a cutlass if you’re a naval type and—”

“No!” I interrupted. “No, no, nononono! Nope! Uh uh. No.” I waved my hooves in front of me as emphatically as I could.

Rain frowned. “Oh, calm down. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Gale chuckled, picking up an apparently familiar curved blade in her magic and spinning it in the air just a hair or two… thousand… too close to my jawline. “Relax, Morty. I enchant the swords so they can’t cut more than skin deep. We barely ever draw any blood. Don’t be such a pussy. It’s just good fun.”

“Gale, even if I were allowed to use my magic right now—which I’m not, my horn is still healing from killing Wintershimmer—you want me to fight your…” I turned to Rain and looked her up and down more to catch my mind up to my words than for actual inspiration, before finishing “…your weird elderly lesbian pegasus cyclops suitor?” After a pause, I sighed. “Does she… you know... grind meal with two mortars and no pestle too?”

Rain started at Gale for a very long moment as Gale just hung her head, massaging her temple not with a hoof but the pommel of the sword in her magical grip. After waiting for an answer, I gestured to Rain’s gray hair. “Even if my horn were healed, I can’t fight somepony her age. Even if I just stunned her, it would probably stop her heart.” That seemed to break the silence, as in perfect synchronization both mares began to cackle without any semblance of control.

“Kid, I’m not—” Wheezing, Rain couldn’t even finish the sentence.

“Morty…” Gale rubbed her eyes to wipe away tears, but she finally managed to drag back enough breath to at least put out a full thought. “This is Iron Rain. Not Gray.”

“Ah…” I nodded. “I’m not sure if it’s better or worse then, that you want me to fight your suitor’s… unusually masculine grandmother?”

“O-kay!” Rain managed between her wheezing chuckles, before finally picking up a hoof and slamming it (with a sound I could only parse as bones cracking) against her own rib cage. “Right, kid…” Though the slap had slowed her laughter, it was still piercing through her words. “First, if you take another stab at my age, I am gonna stab back. Second, even if I am getting old and gray, I will still crack you like an egg if it comes to a fight.”

I raised a skeptical brow, which apparently got the older mare’s oddly jovial ire even further riled up. “You think you’re tough, colt? You want to know how I lost this eye?”

“Rain, easy,” Gale patted the old soldier on the shoulder. “Morty wants to think he’s above this argument, but he’s too fucking smug to keep a straight face. He’s right, but it’s not because he’s a good swordspony or practiced or anything. His asshole mentor taught him a spell to pull out somepony else’s soul and just kill them.”

It was Rain’s turn, then, to raise a skeptical brow—and it was a curious quirk of the old mare’s that she always lifted the brow over her missing eye when she was intrigued or disbelieving. “Alright… Sure. Why not?” Then she lifted her hoof, spit into the frog, and extended it towards me. “Iron Rain. I used to be Praetorian Prefect, but don’t worry about titles.”

“I…” Hesitantly, I clapped a hoof against Rain’s, making sure the bone of our hooves kept her spit well away from my clean coat. “Frankly, I don’t know what that means, but I’m Mortal Coil. Pale Master, Grandmaster of the Order of Unhesitating Force…” At Gale’s telling frown, I quickly concluded. “Et cetera. But you can call me Morty.”

Gale sighed. “Morty, ’The Legion’ is organized into legions of 640-ish ponies. The first legion is called the Praetorian Guard. They’re usually veterans of other legions, and they get better pay. The Praetorian Prefect is the pony in charge of them.”

Iron Rain emitted a snort of non-committal acknowledgement, as if she couldn’t give two shits about her own history. “So you’re ‘Morty’, huh? The colt Commander Typhoon was talking about?” Rain sighed. “I was really expecting better, Gale. He’s all skin and bones!” The old soldier stepped out of her own doorway and made absolutely no subtlety in the act of looking me over. “Not much battle damage… not really much to look at at all. Scar on his neck’s interesting I guess… Oh! Is that much muscle supposed to be showing?”

Not much to look at?!” I asked, incredulously before my mind caught up with my ears. “What do you mean ‘that much’ muscle showing?”

Rain shrugged. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a little hard to see past your jacket collar, but you’ve got about a hoof’s width of your neck missing, kid. No coat, no skin. I can see some of the tendons, and a little bit of the ligament for your jaw. It’s not bleeding or anything though. Actually, that maybe ought to be more worrying than if it were a normal wound.” Rain raised her blinded brow. “On the other hoof, I’ve seen a few ponies with wounds like that in my life, but I’ve never seen one standing up. They all bled to death… How are you alive?”

Before answering, I lifted my hoof to the apparently open wound and gingerly touched it. Just as it had been on previous touches, the flesh was three things: cold, dry, and increasingly, hard. If I held perfectly still, the exposed muscle felt more like metal, though the fact that I still had mobility in my neck suggested something else. “Oh… Huh, I never thought of that. I probably shouldn’t have let Spicy applied that ointment.”

“What? Morty, what are you talking about? Are you okay?” Gale pulled down the collar of my jacket to get a better look, and then similarly pulled my hoof away with her magic. “Holy shit! Why aren’t you freaking out?”

“It’s just a simple magical mistake, Gale. I’m fine; it just looks scary. I’ve never actually worked with Flash-in-the-Pan’s Clotting Agent; I should have asked Spicy what was in it… though with how she acted I doubt she would have explained. Since it clots the blood, though, if it’s based on lesser troll’s blood like how most healing potions work, the way it clots is dependent on the tissue it’s applied to. The most important rule with those sorts of potions is to make sure the wound is completely clean before treatment. But Spicy didn’t know I still had trace amounts of quicksilver in my muscles from Silhouette’s golem-claw-hoof... thing. Which means I now have a transparent metal neck.”

“Is that… okay?” Gale asked. “Isn’t quicksilver poisonous?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I nodded. “That’s probably why I needed so much rest to recover, instead of being back on my hooves in just a day or two. But if it’s formed a shell over my wound, it means now I can’t be stabbed there very easily. The only downside is I’ll have to wear high collars, or I’ll look like an amateur zombie for the rest of my life.”

Rain raised her same eyebrow. “An amateur zombie?”

“Any self-respecting necromancer knows it’s a sign of professionalism not to have chunks of flesh missing from your creations. Not that I’m actually in the business of raising dead corpses; I much prefer just talking to the dead and making golems of stone or clay or what have you. Much more sanitary.” I did my best to prop the collar of my jacket up fully as close to my skin as possible, and then extended a hoof toward Rain. “Sorry for that; ‘exposed muscle’ made me a little nervous I was going to drop dead. I guess calling me ‘skin and bones’ to my face is a little funny in light of that. Did you have any more judgments you wanted to make?”

Rain actually whinnied by way of a sarcastic laugh. “I’m kidding, Morty. Honestly, I’m just glad Gale finally met somepony she can actually stomach being around.” She then shot Gale the heaviest wink I have ever seen, before concluding, “even if it’s only for fun on the side.”

Gale shook her head, and then said something that nearly stopped my heart. “Oh, no; we’re gonna make him a suitor.”

The transparent metal spot on my neck made a sound distinctly like ice cracking as I whipped my head around toward Gale. “What happened to keeping that under wraps? After all the trouble we went through—”

“Rain’s not going to tell my mom,” Gale answered. “Right?”

Rain chuckled. “I try not to talk to her at all if I can help it. I sure as hell would not pick that fight if I were you, Gale.” Then she turned back to me. “Gale was never very good at picking her fights. I assume that’s why she keeps coming back to get her sorry flank kicked by a mare three times her age.”

“Or a necromancer and a grizzly bear,” I observed dryly, recalling my first encounter with Gale in the woods of the hodunk backwater of Manehattan.

“Well, I had to learn to fight somewhere,” Gale answered more spitefully than I was expecting. When I raised a brow to the daughter of Commander Hurricane, Gale rolled her eyes. “Dad’s too fucking creaky and crippled to teach me anything even if he were any good with a sword—which he’s not, he’s only famous ‘cause he’s good at pegasus magic—and Ty won’t give me the time of the fucking day, let alone a lesson. And regarding your sorry ass, Morty: one, you wear fucking evil cultist robes around all the time—and don’t you fucking dare say any shit about ‘orders’ or whatever when you got them from Wintershimmer—and two, you stunned an eight year old colt in the face mid-sentence when you were afraid he was going to say something you wanted kept secret. You were asking for it.” When I opened my mouth to protest anyway, Gale punched me in the muzzle. “Rain, is Gray home? I need to give him one of these stupid letters.”

“Oh? What for?” Despite the question, Rain stepped out of her doorway, beckoning us inside.

“My birthday,” Gale answered with a combination of depressed acceptance and spite that really belonged nowhere near anypony’s mention of their birthday. “All the suitors are invited.”

“Gonna make them fight for your hoof?” Rain asked with a grin and a wink. “If Finder hadn’t fought those giant spiders, I was gonna do the same thing to him.” Then she turned in the doorway of the home and shouted upward. “Gray! Get your ass down here!” With that, she stepped fully into her own home, beckoning us in again with a wing, which only momentarily got caught on the massive guard of the sword still slung under her shoulder. “We’ll have to see how much you learned on your trip another time, Gale. Why don’t you two both come on in and have a seat? There’s honey drops and berries on the table. I know I’m not as good of a chef as Pathfinder, but I can scrounge something up if either of you is hungry. Let me just get these put away.” And with that rather shocking change in tone, she set about picking up the swords she’d dropped on her doorstep.

I must have looked rather desperate when, the moment Rain was out of sight, I lunged for the bowls of fruit and ‘grandma candy’ on her coffee table. Trying to lift berries with my hooves ended in a sticky purple mess almost immediately, and very little of the food made it into my mouth.

“You’re pathetic sometimes, you know?” Shaking her head, Gale’s magic tugged me over to one of a trio of long lounging couches in a bracketed shape centered on the house’s massive fireplace. Without a word, she pushed me down onto one of the couches, and then lifted one of my forehooves with her magic, slid to rest her back against my chest, and lowered my leg over her shoulder.

“Comfy?” I asked.

“Rain’s right,” Gale answered, nuzzling into my immaculately groomed—and thus naturally fairly fluffy—chest. “You’re all skin and bones.” Then she nuzzled further back, sighed, and chuckled. “I’m teasing, Morty; you don’t need to get so fucking stiff.” I had to admit, though, I appreciated it when her horn lit up again and carried the bowl of berries over toward us. “Open wide.”

After enough of a snack to at least satisfy my immediate hunger, and more than a bit of comfort holding one another, I let out a satisfied sigh. “I could get used to this. A beautiful mare in my forelegs, feeding me berries.”

I heard Gale scoff. “When your horn’s better, you owe me.” Then, with a slight show of awkward discomfort, she rubbed her spine against my belly as she shifted. “Push your hind legs back; have you never spooned with somepony before?”

“I didn’t even know it was called ‘spooning.’ And who in Tartarus would I ever have ‘spooned’ with?”

I could hear Gale roll her eyes in the way she sighed. “I don’t know, that crystal bitch? What was her name?”

“Silhouette,” I replied. “And no, for a lot of reasons. To state the most obvious one, she has some jagged edges.”

“Huh. I never thought about that. I guess crystal ponies probably don’t cuddle much.” After a moment of silence, she added “That would make an awful fucking noise, wouldn’t it?”

“As I understand it, they usually use some… they call it oil, but I’m pretty sure it’s rock polish. If a crystal says to another crystal that they look especially polished, instead of a compliment on their appearance, they’re usually implying that the other crystal has just had an... intimate encounter.”

“You learn something new every day.” Gale’s eyes and my own were distracted from our conversation when a stallion emerged from a hallway on the far side of the room.

He wore plain steel legion armor (as I mentioned previously, the use of gold leaf plating as a magical insulator had not yet become standard in those days), and from the way his buzzed mane was tousled at the edges, I surmised he had only just removed his helmet. Beneath that, the pony I assumed (correctly) was Gray Rain matched his name. Unlike his mother, he wasn’t gray from age, since he was only a year or two at most older than me, but that fact did nothing to add any pigment to his appearance.

Dear reader, you may be enough of a student of history to recognize the name of Gray Rain, the Wolf of Cirra. And if you are familiar with Imperial Legacy’s Complete History of the Equestrian Royal Guard, you might find what you are about to read to be completely at odds with the characterization of the charismatic, self-sacrificing stallion who would become Equestria’s first Commander of the Royal Guard. If you wish to compare our two narratives, let me remind you of two facts. Firstly, I am an immortal necromancer with a magically enhanced memory. Secondly, Dr. Legacy was a stuffy academic who wasn’t even born until almost seven hundred years after Commander Rain died.

A naturally awkward pony, Gray walked up to the arm of the couch Gale and I were reclining on, fell into a rather stiff standing posture, and… just stood there. Staring. I should clarify, lest any reader misunderstand, that he wasn’t staring in shock or disgust that I had my hoof around Her Royal Highness, or anything of the sort. There was no surprise in his features. There wasn’t anything. His expression was as milquetoast as his coloration.

“Hello, Gray,” Gale greeted the stallion. “This is—”

“Mortal Coil,” Gray interrupted abruptly, as if acting on reflex. “Titled ‘the Immortal’.” He nodded his head just as stiffly as he stood. “Gray Rain. Praefectus Faborum, Legion Eight auxilia.” That string of unintelligible pseudo-Cirran poured out of his mouth at a near monotone, and when it was done, he resumed staring through us in absolute silence.

“Hello,” I offered.

“Hello,” he repeated himself, making my pet rock’s intonation sound natural by comparison. “Good day, Aura.”

Still nestled in my legs, Gale gave a slight chuckle. “Here’s your letter, Katagismos.” Gray snatched the letter floating in the air in Gale’s grip with his wing like a viper, or as if he were afraid she might yank it away at the last moment. He then ripped open the envelope with his teeth and maneuvered the letter out between his feathers.

“It’s an invitation to my birthday party,” Gale explained.

Gray read silently for a very long second, tracing over the words three times with an utterly steady pace, eyes swinging back and forth like a pendulum, until at last he lifted his eyes. “What would you like for a gift?”

Gale opened her mouth to answer and then abruptly shut it, catching herself from whatever thought first flew to mind. “I think,” Gale continued, before hesitating for a moment. “No, you know what, I know what I want.” Then Gale stood up from my legs, walked over to Gray, and laid a hoof on his shoulder. “I want a Legion commission.”

Normally, when one tried to dig into Gray Rain’s eyes and read, one could see gears whirring at a dizzying pace as his calculating mind raced a dozen times faster than a normal pony’s. After Gale’s words, however, I saw mud and wet sand clog those gears as his face at first considered the request, and then began to seize and shudder with the malformed input. “I think I don’t understand, Your Highness… Commander Typhoon is your half-sister, isn’t she? Why not approach her for such a request? My position as Prefect does not grant me commissioning authority.” His speech was surprisingly fluid, but in all the years I knew him, Gray’s word choice never grew less stilted, rivaling even the awkwardness of his tendency to stare straight through a conversation partner while waiting for them to speak.

Gale sighed. “For some reason she’s never explained, I can’t convince my own fucking sister for a job. She won’t even explain it.”

“If I may be so bold, why do you even want a posting in the Legion? Is being the royal heir not sufficient to keep you occupied? Are you short on coin and that desperately in need of employ?”

“Gray…” I sensed a bit of cursing coming on, and was genuinely surprised when Gale instead sucked in her frustration and addressed the pegasus in as absolutely soft of a tone as she could manage. “No, I don’t need coin. The problem is that being crown princess is useless as shit. I don’t do anything; I sit in on tea parties with my mom and all of her friends. The best thing I have ever done in my life so far was run off and meet Morty and help deal with Wintershimmer. But I’m not stupid enough to think I’m gonna make any kind of difference in Equestria. So while I’d like to ask you to snap your feathers and let me make some sort of decision that’s actually going to help Equestria and make a real difference, with real stakes, instead of kissing ass and selling my body to the highest bidder for power, that’s not exactly a ‘birthday present’.”

Gray scratched behind his neck with a wing. “I understand your frustration with the lack of value in being princess, but I imagine if you seek to impact Equestria for good, following in your mother’s hoofsteps will have a far greater impact than work as a hoofsoldier or even a legate.”

“So in the meantime, I wait what, thirty years? Forty? And I just fuck around becuase everypony knows that someday, oh someday all that wasted time will somehow be worth it? Fuck that.”

Gray bit his cheek. “I see. I… will see what I can do, Your Highness.”

“Yeah…” Gale walked back to my side on the couch and tilted her horn toward the door. “See you at the party, Gray.”

1-8

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I - VIII

The Crusader

In early Equestria, huge, elaborate temples to Celestia and Luna as goddesses were quite common sights, despite the former sister’s objections to being called a god. (Luna, it should be mentioned, actively opposed her elder sister by encouraging this perspective). In the earliest days after the pegasi were reunited with the unicorns and earth ponies, the fact that they shared these two goddesses (and only them, despite the considerable size of the Cirran pantheon), that strange overlap caused considerable confusion and speculation amongst the scholars of all three tribes of ponykind.

After Commander Hurricane showed up from his assumed death, not only alive but with both goddesses in the flesh, virtually all debate on the subject died away in the face of empirical fact.

Unlike most Equestrians, however, I was raised in the Crystal Union, where the deity of choice was the rather philosophically regarded ‘Artist’—not that I had any particular reverence for him either. Wintershimmer, the closest pony I had to a father-figure, was unabashedly atheistic, believing that Celestia and Luna were spirits assuming the forms of ponies to deceive and control us, or more likely mortal ponies elevated to apparent divinity by some imbued magic. Given how close his plan to steal Celestia’s control of the sun had come to fruition, I knew the latter fact to be empirical truth.

I emphasize this so that you understand the considerable trepidation that filled me as Gale led me into a massive stone cathedral decorated with enough stained glass to make a nigh-infinite supply of tacky lampshades, if one were in a destructive mood. There was no service in progress inside, but a number of priests and acolytes in white tabards with gilded trim flitted around the place, attending to a frankly impractical supply of candles, praying in the alcoves at the sides of the room, or providing the utterly necessary ambience of odd, archaic chanting that made the place seem really, really holy.

Oh, sorry; the word I’m actually looking for is haunted.

Have I mentioned I hate churches?

Gale seemed less perturbed by the architecture than I was, though some fragment of that likely stemmed from the fact that she was silently fuming at the apex of the day’s rage. I could practically hear her blood pressure in the click of her hooves on the polished marble floor, just on the threshold of whistling steam out her nostrils like a tea kettle, or a bull in a shop selling the same.

“Almost done…” I heard her whisper, and I don’t know if she meant it to me or to herself. Regardless, I didn’t answer, following silently along the ambulatory at the back of the structure until we reached a chevette with a stained glass depiction of Celestia holding a flaming greatsword in her magic, her eyes glowing in the day’s sunlight by the craft of an especially talented… windowsmith?

In the fragmented rainbow light of the work of art were two ponies: one probably thirteen years old by my guess, a young stallion in a slightly oversized tabard without the hauberk that a knight was supposed to wear beneath it. He had a tomato red coat that I would later learn was almost certainly his namesake, and a little tuft of messy green mane that certainly didn’t help.

The other was immediately recognizable as our undesirable objective.

Count Halo, His Eminence, reached the impressive achievement of being detestable to me even before we had actually gotten into earshot of one another. He wore a breastplate so polished it looked like silver, and a brace of rapiers (six in total, as though they provided any benefit other than making him look pompous) covered his flanks. Surrounding all that metal was a brilliant scarlet-and-gold jacket, rather similar to mine in cut, though trimmed to a far more muscular physique. On his back, the blonde-coated stallion wore a small kite shield with an actual mirror on its face—presumably for use in deflecting magical attacks—and another of similarly polished steel. But the most notable thing the stallion was wearing was the most ostentatious moustache I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing: a tufted, waxed, elaborate thing that stuck off both sides of his muzzle and sagged with the shape of a half-drawn recurve longbow, all in the same flaming red-orange as his thinning mane.

“Huhah!” he greeted us as we approached, wielding his own lungs like a blacksmith’s bellows. “Your Royal Highness; it is a delight to see you in Her Holiness’ church, finally. Praise the sun; will you join me in a prayer?” As he offered up that half-breathed phrase, he drew a circle on his chest with his hoof.

Gale gritted her teeth audibly. “If I wanted to talk to Aunt Celestia, Count, I’d go find her face-to-face.”

“Ah; the blessings of royalty, to have her blood in your veins and her ear in your deeds.” Halo nodded. “But still, Her Holiness’ time is precious; perhaps a prayer might be better received.” Then, as if finally noticing that he and Gale were not alone, Halo raised a bushy red eyebrow in my direction. “Ah, sir, you will have to forgive me my ignorance; as a knight of the Order of the Silver Chain, my eyes are first for my queen and her heir. I am Halo, Count of the House of the Rising Sun, under the Banner of Late Afternoon—”

“I’m sorry, but I’m gonna stop you there. The what?”

Halo opened his mouth to answer, but Gale (mercifully) held up a hoof to stop him. I watched her brow briefly furrow before she began to speak, though, as if the words (or the ideas they forced her to remember) were driving a nail through the frog of her hoof. “The great noble houses like Castle and Aunt Chrysoprase’s House Gullion and Spicy’s House of Three have families who are loyal to them, called ‘Banners’. Mom and I’s family is technically ‘the House of the Rising Sun’, and Count Halo belongs to one of our banner families.”

I quirked a brow. “No offense meant, but if you’re already one of Gale’s ‘banners’, why would the Queen want you to marry her?”

Halo guffawed a long, drawn out guffaw; that is, I think, the only way to capture the depths of his laughter… or at the very least, his lung capacity. “I am hardly a courtly mind of Her Majesty’s equal, but if I had to hazard a guess, it is that my leadership of the Church of Her Holiness makes me an influential enough member of our society for her consideration, praise the sun.” Halo again traced a circle onto his chest with a hoof, its shod steel surface ringing against his breastplate. “Forgive me my curiosity, sir, but what unicorn does not know our culture enough to understand the idea of a ‘banner’?”

Gale sighed. “Right. Count, this is Mortal Coil. He—”

“Her Holiness’ chosen?!” Halo bowed deeply. “Forgive me my ignorance, Lord Coil; it’s an honor to meet you.” Before I could even react, let alone formulate an opinion, the beefy unicorn had lifted my forehoof and bestowed a rather overly-mustached kiss to my fetlock. Then, his face still well within hoof’s reach, he bellowed over the church’s ominous chanting. “Squire Cherry, behold! Her Holiness’ Chosen One!”

The little red colt, ‘Cherry’, who had been surreptitiously watching us from behind his master’s outspoken presence, stepped up beside the Count and gave us a smile. “Hello. My name is Cherry Tomato. I’m Count Halo’s squire. It’s very nice to meet you, Lord Coil.” After a pause, he added “Hello, Princess.”

Despite his word choice being somewhat formal (or stilted?) I should emphasize that Cherry Tomato’s words were delivered smoothly and jovially. In fact, everything about the colt was friendly, to the point that he almost seemed ‘perfect’. I don’t mean that in the sense that he was unusually attractive, some sort of marble-jawed, chiseled physique at 13 years old. Rather, he had the perfection of innocence. His smile would put you at ease without any apparent effort on his part. Though his tabard didn’t really fit, it was ideally bunched to look adorable instead of the awkwardness every other thirteen year old in all of equine history has suffered under.

In short, I immediately found myself hating him. I don’t even know that I know why; something about him just felt… unnatural. But, judging by the fact that a small smile even broke onto the corners of Gale’s furious expression, I suspect I may have been the only pony in Equestria who felt that way.

“Is it true that you’re the chosen one? From the prophecy?” Cherry asked. He didn’t speak loudly, but a squeaky teenage voice—and the worst part was that it wasn’t even annoying to listen to—echoes in a certain decisive way around the stone walls of, say, a cathedral.

Now, it should fairly be mentioned that I have been ‘the chosen one’ a surprising number of times in my life for various cultures, sects, and yes, as Gale would so love to remind me, cults. I estimate that if the words ‘chosen' and 'one’ are uttered consecutively in my earshot anywhere, at any time in Equine history, there’s a solid two-in-three chance I am the subject of the prophecy in question. Still, in centuries of life, I have never, never been made as uncomfortable by those two words as I was when the faithful of Celestia turned as one toward me and the spooky chanting stopped.

“Um… Hi?” I offered, waving around the room over the deafening roar of echoed whispers.

“I must confess I envy you, Lord Coil—"

“You know he’s not actually a noble, right?” Gale interrupted her eldest suitor. “Morty grew up in the Crystal Union. He’s half-crystal, even if it doesn’t show.”

I leaned down to whisper into Gale’s ear. “I’m not exactly proud of that…”

I hadn’t seen Cherry step forward, but when I looked up he was just inside earshot of my whisper. “Oh, it’s okay, Lord Coil. Everypony has parts of their background they aren’t proud of. But it’s okay; all that matters to Lady Celestia is that we do the best with what we’ve got.”

Halo, unlike his squire’s comments and my own fears, seemed only the more impressed, raising his bushy eyebrows up his balding forehead. “To have overcome the blood of the barbarian heathens and rise to such heights! Your Highness, while his birthright may not be nobility, I assure you any pony who is the chosen of Her Holiness deserves all the respect we can give him. Tell us, Lord Coil, what was it like to be shielded by Her Radiance?”

I glanced over to Gale, who shrugged. “Well… I’ll be honest, I wish her aim was better.”

Rather than the laughter I had hoped for, the best I got were a few chuckles and an awful lot of blank stares or gasps.

“What… whatever do you mean?” Count Halo asked.

“Well… When we were fighting Wintershimmer, he created an illusion that Celestia didn’t see through, so she shot some sort of a fire beam from her horn that would have killed Gale. I pushed her out of the way…” I tapped my side. “So now most of my small intestine is only a few weeks old.”

Cherry cocked his head like the little confused puppy he basically was. “Oh my… wouldn’t that have killed you?”

Halo guffawed in what a less cynical author might have mistaken for good humor. “Compared to the wonders of raising the sun, I’m sure it’s only a trivial matter for Her Holiness to heal a mere wound, Cherry. Remember, all things are possible through she who giveth us the day.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”

Halo then turned to me. “It does. Though I’m just as certain Her Holiness must have seen through the illusion but wanted to give you a chance to prove yourself. Also, it is unfitting to use her name so… mundanely.”

I frowned. “She asked me to. Herself. To my face.”

“Morty, don’t pick this fight,” Gale warned as a vein in her temple visibly bulged, near to bursting from the stress of keeping her irritation at the older stallion in. “Count, here. An invitation to my birthday party.” Those words were accompanied by her presenting the envelope with so much violent, unnecessary force that it audibly sliced the air, coming not to a calm floating rest, but a visibly vibrating offering in her magenta magic.

“Ah… My goodness, Your Highness; I’m flattered. That you should hoof-deliver such an invitation.” He gently adjusted his moustache with his magic, a sort of fiery red glow that made him look almost like he’d blushed his cheeks. “Am I to understand this means I have your favor, or—”

“All the suitors got one,” Gale cut him off. “You’re welcome to play whatever games you want to try and posture with them in front of mom, but don’t assume I care.”

“Is that what the six swords are for?” I asked, hoping my tone carried enough good humor to avoid sounding especially petty.

“Holding six swords is hard,” said Cherry in his chipper little voice, ambling around his much taller mentor. “I can barely hold two.”

“You’re an earth pony…” I pointed out as dryly as I could.

Morty,” Gale hissed, punching me in the shoulder. “Don’t be racist.”

“I’m being realistic,” I answered. “I don’t claim I can outfly a pegasus, and I’m sure he grows a better garden than I do. I’m just saying holding six of anything with a horn isn’t that impressive.” Then I turned to Halo. “Unless you… weave them into your moustache or something? It does seem stiff enough.”

I like to think that it is obvious when I am intentionally insulting someone (primarily because such commentary is scathing and sometimes literally soul-crushing), but in that moment if I had to judge from the way in which the mustached knight snapped back at me, my comment cut to his quick. “These blades serve Her Radiance’s honor; I would not sully them with blood over the pursuit of a fair maiden’s hoof. Besides, that would hardly be sporting; I alone amongst Her Highness’ suitors have actually seen combat, Lord Coil. I earned my knighthood in battle in my youth, warring with the crystal barbarians.”

“I’m sure your father and your grandmother being knights of the order had nothing to do with it,” Gale muttered.

“I do take offense, Your Highness,” said the Count. “Ask Sir Chiseled Gem about our service together. Or, if you prefer a more authoritative—if more distant—tale, I’m certain your father remembers how I led my forces against Halite at Amber Field.”

I watched Gale open her mouth—presumably to expel some foul expression of her irritation—before she thought the better of it, clenched her teeth, and nodded. “Next time I find myself dealing with Sir Gem, I’ll be certain to have him share some stories, Count. However, with utmost respect for your service, I’m not really concerned with how you got your title, nor with whether your skill in battle will or won’t win you favor over the other suitors.”

The Count let out a little chuckle. “I’m not certain you have a choice, Your Highness. You are somewhat de facto the judge, given it’s your favor we are competing for.”

“It would be very nice if you picked my master, Princess,” said Cherry with an entirely innocent smile. “Then you could be like my big sister. I think I would like that very much.”

I’ve rarely seen Gale so torn as she was refraining from swearing out the thirteen year old colt in front of her (whose naivety more reminded me of somepony six or seven), but she finally managed to put on a smile. “Well then, Cherry, you’ll just have to help him be the best suitor he can be, won’t you?”

“I will do the best I can,” said Cherry. “Though I think it will be hard for me to make Master Halo a better suitor than Lord Coil.”

The wheeze that escaped Count Halo’s lungs and the hairy filter of his moustache could have collapsed a cavern. “Coil? A suitor?” By the time the ensuing storm of guffaws settled, and I felt my eyelids stop quivering like a plucked guitar string, there were tears at the edges of Halo’s eyes. “I… No offense meant of course, Coil, but your blood does rather disqualify you, Her Holiness’ favor or not.” He raised a hoof and wiped away his tears with a fetlock, before boldly placing it on Gale’s shoulder to steady himself as his chest continued to tremble. “Squires say the darnedest things, do they not, Your Highness?”

Gale looked at the offending hoof for a very long second, but Halo seemed not to realize he was troubling her. When Gale’s patience ran out (and it didn’t take long) she briefly winked to me. I watched as her horn lit up, and a bit of a glow built up around Halo’s leg.

“Oh my; I’m sor—” The Count’s apology devolved into a gasp as Gale picked him up by said hoof and hurled him into a spin, head over hooves, onto his back. Six swords and two shields made an incredibly satisfying noise when they clattered on the stone floor of the cathedral.

“Ah, no, I’m sorry,” Gale lied, her lips struggling to hide a grin even as the furrows of her brow suggested the motion wasn’t as satisfying as she had hoped. There was quite the edge to her formal accent when she picked it up to speak again. “A princess must insist her body not be touched by any suitor so forwardly, lest they get untoward ideas.” She couldn’t seem to resist rolling her eyes as she turned away, though. “Good day, Count.”

“Wait, Your Highness,” called the Count just as we’d turned. Gale offered him a tired glance back, and the fatherly (in that he was some twenty years her elder) stallion asked, “Given we are being so unabashed about discussing the competition, is there anything you might like as a birthday gift?”

Gale growled. “I’d love to not be talking about it. Think you can figure something out for that? Some way to keep all this political bullshit away?”

Perhaps it was her bluntness, or perhaps it was the sour word there near the end, but something about the brutal parting meant that as we paced out of Celestia’s hauntingly en-chant-ed church, no further words were spoken.

1-9

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I-IX

The Hero

Celestia’s temple compound sat on a hill on the eastern side of Everfree’s rivers, near a huge stone wall that had been meant to encircle the city when it was founded and charted out. At the time, before the mass evacuation of the old Diamond Kingdoms to escape the threat of eternal winter, the city’s planners and architects assumed the old population would largely spread out across the new Equestria, as evenly distributed as they had been before.

These predictions were impressively wrong.

As mass migration dodecatupled the expected population, the city’s quarry workers, masons, and architects kept demanding pay, and as is typical with representative government, the promise of ‘stimulating the economy’ was enough to justify finishing paying them, without any adjustments to the planned shape of the walls. Thus, instead of offering much by way of defense, Everfree’s wall sat with all the value of a fifth knee, awkwardly dividing the so-called ‘Temple District’ from the rich stench of the paper mills near Lumber Way.

I always found it surreal to reflect on the fact that, only a few years before I was born, the number of ponies who knew of Celestia and Luna by intellectual fact, rather than religious faith, could be counted on one’s hooves. Thus, even though both sisters had gone on record claiming they knew nothing of any other ‘gods’, in those brilliant days of Everfree’s youth, one could still find shrines to the deities of the Cirran Pegasi, the old purely unicorn incarnations of Celestia and Luna, the ‘saints’ of the earth ponies, and some even stranger things still.

“Well,” I told Gale with a smile. “I guess that’s done, then.”

“I was hoping you’d make it better somehow,” Gale replied, before shaking her head. “I’m not mad at you, Morty; it’s not your fault they’re so shitty. Just… After having you there dealing with Wintershimmer and Silhouette and all those assholes in our trip…”

“I dunno, Gale.” I shot her my friendliest grin. “None of these ponies are trying to kill me. And honestly, I don’t think any of them actually even could if they tried.”

Instead of cheering her up, the comment made Gale roll her eyes. “I’d take Wintershimmer over this any day. Nopony ever expected me to fuck him, and I was allowed to cut off his horn and beat his face in with my bare hooves when we won.”

I swallowed. “Sorry. Um… what do you want to do now? Is there something that can cheer you up? I’m not the heaviest drinker, but if you want to drown your sorrows…”

“I wish,” Gale snapped, before dropping into a harshly formal voice. “Alas, a princess doesn’t get time like that. I have to go sit with Mom to get sized for a dress for the party. And since she’s invited like four different dress-makers, there’s going to be a huge shitshow if I show up drunk or something.”

“Do you have to leave right now?” I asked, hedging my bets and gesturing my hoof toward the various… well, in retrospect the temples weren’t the most interesting surroundings to offer a theoretical date. Gale, thankfully, caught the nuance to my point.

“I probably ought to go see her now…” I caught just the hint of a mischievous glimmer in the corner of her eye. “But fuck it; you haven’t really gotten to see Everfree yet, have you? Hurry up, and I’ll show you around Riverward.” No sooner had the words left her mouth than Gale’s hooves were clopping on the brick streets downhill toward the heart of equine civilization’s greatest city.

Since the once beautiful city is now covered in a demi-planar haunted forest that’s bigger on the inside, and also full of wooden golems—and frankly I haven’t the slightest clue how Celestia and I are ever going to fix that problem—I suspect I shall have to describe my late favorite city in the world assuming the reader has never even seen a map. Everfree was founded shortly after the events we now commemorate with Hearth’s Warming Day, at the site of a geographical freak accident. Two rivers, the Coltlumbia and the Delamare, meet in the center of the city. This, of course, is not unusual; rivers merge all the time. What is peculiar about the Coltlumbia and the Delamare is that they simply refuse to do so; instead, Everfree was built atop their fluvial ‘X-marks-the-spot’, where both rivers continued their separate ways as though the other simply did not exist. The division did make finding one’s way around rather simple, however. Since the rivers mostly ran northeast-southwest and northwest-southeast, the city had four easy quadrants to refer to: one for each cardinal direction.

Riverward was a neighborhood on the usually sunny banks of the Delamare. There, two streets: North and East Riverward Way, ran parallel to the water on their respective shores. Current-smoothed cobblestones underhoof defined the roads, lined with carefully groomed maple and birch trees that cast the streets in a speckled, soothing shade. In the wide gaps between the trunks, a few vendors had set up stalls and wagons, thankfully keeping their voices down as they tried to entice the wanderers on the roads and bridges to step over and treat themselves to a candy apple, a glass bead bracelet, or any number of other momentary delights. On the far side of the twin streets from the water, more permanent storefronts promised bookbinding, floral arrangements, and other artisanal luxuries.

I was panting when Gale’s hooves finally slowed on those smooth stones and turned to face me with a grin on her face and her meticulously groomed mane fraying onto her brow. “Here we are, Morty! This is Riverward.”

“It’s…” I had to pause as my heart pounded in my chest and my ears alike; I was in no shape for running around after spending so long in bed, and it was beginning to get hard to pretend otherwise. “It’s nice. The shade’s well-appreciated.”

“Not used to Everfree weather yet?” she teased. “It’s been a few weeks now.”

I casually loosened the collar of my jacket. It would show off the gaping hole in my neck if anypony looked closely, but that was a price I was more than willing to pay for the breeze. “And before that, eighteen years in the Crystal Union, where it snows most of the year. What do you wanna do?”

She shrugged. “Walk around? Look in the shops?” I think I must have been staring, wide-eyed and gobsmacked, because Gale took three solid steps and then turned around. “What?

“Sorry, I just… I guess I figured you’d want to go to a bar, or start a fight, or—”

“A mare can’t enjoy a fucking walk now and then?” Gale rolled her eyes. “You idiot. Come here. We’ll get some chocolate or something. Then maybe I’ll feel better.”

“Choco-what?”

“Holy shit…” Gale shook her head as she chuckled to herself and steered me toward a tall storefront with its door set on the corner, at a diagonal to the street. “Okay, let’s blow your mind.”

I began to suspect at least one reason Gale might have liked Riverward when the chocolatier earth pony behind the counter called out to greet us. “Ah, welcome to Ruffle’s Truffles, sir; ma’am. You’re both looking fine today; might I ask the occasion?” For those failing to follow, it isn’t something the mare said; rather, it was that she failed to recognize either of us.

“It’s my birthday,” Gale answered with at least a hint of enthusiasm, though I literally watched her face sour as she unerringly reminded herself of the obligations that came with that date.

The mare behind the counter, mercifully, either missed that expression or knew better than to ask as she stepped away from her stool and over to a large glass case. “Well, perhaps we can find you something to really spice up the day, then? Do you know what you favor, or should I make a few recommendations?”

Gale slapped me on the shoulder and somewhat awkwardly held her hoof there. “Well, it’s this idiot’s first time having chocolate, so you should probably start with something simple. But I love almond liqueur.”

“Ah, amaretto, yes.” The mare opened the case with deft brown hooves, nearly the same color as the darker chocolates, and pulled out a tray of delicate orbs, each topped with a fragile sliver of white almond framed in woody brown. “You have refined tastes, ma’am; these are Queen Platinum’s favorites too.”

Gale’s face instantly wrinkled. “Eh… maybe something else then. Let’s help Morty first.”

Morty?” the chocolatier inquired with a raised brow, meeting my gaze fully.

By that point, I was already beginning to get used to explaining the appellation. “Yeah, it’s a nickname. My full name is Mortal Coil—”

“You’re the Hero of Platinum’s Landing?” she interrupted, boldly leaning over the case of chocolates to get a closer look at me. “Here? In my shop?”

“Um…” I had to completely reframe my position in the world, and coughed into my hoof as I tried to find words. “Well, yes. Were you there, or…?” My question quickly devolved into spinning a hoof in a circle in an attempt to find my thoughts.

“Oh, no; no. I live here. But cocoa pods only grow in the warmer climate down that way, so we heard a few things from the suppliers. But no, it was all over the papers.”

“The… papers?”

“Newspapers, Morty.” When Gale’s explanation only held my eyebrows suspended up by brow, she rubbed her own temple with a hoof and let out a sigh. “Do they still use fucking town criers in the Crystal Union?”

“No, Jade tended to do all the shouting herself if she wanted something.”

Gale frowned, and then turned back to the chocolatier. “You’d be amazed at the things he doesn’t know about how the world works.”

The other mare chuckled in the exact sort of good humor a merchant tends to practice with potential customers. “Well, I’m honored to be the one introducing you to the wonders of chocolate then.” Pulling out a tray from her display case, she carefully set a single truffle, dusted in cocoa powder, onto a tea saucer. “This one’s on the house, sir. That’s milk chocolate, which tends to be a bit sweeter, since purer dark chocolate can be a little bitter for a dessert if you aren’t expecting it. Put it in your mouth, but don’t chew; just let it melt, and you’ll get a much better sense of a flavor.”

“Treat it like you’re pleasing a mare,” Gale added unhelpfully as I dipped my head down and popped the morsel into my mouth.

The chocolatier stiffened. “I… well, um… ma’am, you must be a lucky mare to be that intimate with the Hero of Platinum’s Landing.”

“You haff no ide—” My awkward delivery around the chocolate in my mouth was interrupted by Gale’s mean straight jab, which both sent my chocolate flying out of my mouth, and left a smear of my drool down the facade of the glass display case, along with a wet slurping sound not unlike a yet-to-be-invented squeegee.

“Yeah, I’m so lucky to have found such a stuck up asshole.” Before I could even recover my hoofing, she hefted me up by the collar of my jacket, and started magically hauling me toward the door without even looking at my motion. Her attention was on the now horrified chocolatier. “Get us a box of six, please. Mint, orange blossom water, and daffodil. And I’ll toss in a little extra for the mess.”

“Y-yes, ma’am.”

—-

As I finally found all four hooves under me outside the chocolate shop, Gale tucked her chocolates into the small of her back, tightening her sundress with a few awkward lumps that she obviously could not have cared less about.

“What was that for?” I demanded.

“You’re not the only good thing that’s ever happened in my life, you know? You’re not ‘Celestia’s gift to Gale’.”

“I think I am.” I had the foresight that time, at least, to block Gale’s next punch. The process, unfortunately, proved that her forelegs were much stronger than mine, as I was left with a throbbing right fetlock and a scowl for my efforts. “I’d be dead if she hadn’t come to rescue me from Cyclone and Jade in River Rock, remember? And as much as she liked to play coy about it, I’m pretty sure she only bothered showing up in person because she thought you were happy running away with me. Or something. So saving my life was literally her gift to you. I didn’t mean it as some ego exercise.”

“Bullshit,” Gale replied, but the explanation did put a little grin on her face, so I counted it as a win. “Every word out of your mouth is about ego. Even a fucking idiot would realize that after a week on the road with you, and I had… what, two months?”

I shrugged. “Something like that. I didn’t exactly have a calendar.”

“Not like you could read one if you did,” Gale teased, taking my throbbing forehoof and pulling me into a casual saunter up East Riverward.

I watched the little rays of afternoon sun that made it through the maple canopy cast speckles on Gale’s hay blonde mane for a few seconds before my mind caught up to my ears. “I can read numbers, you know. I’m pretty good at math. It’s just Equiish text—”

“Morty, I’m just being an ass. I know you’re not an idiot… well, at least, not that kind of idiot. It’s just been a fucking long day, you know? Sorry if I’m taking it out on you.”

“You’re fine,” I told her with a smile that, blissfully, I didn’t think to force. “Just maybe lay off the punches? That’s, what, four today? I’m still a little fragile right now.”

“Right. Sorry…” Gale and I walked for a few more seconds in silence as that apology hung in the air, before she took the initiative to gesture around the streets with a hoof. “Well, Morty, anywhere you want to look around? Any shops interest you?”

I let my gaze sweep around the streets, but nothing caught managed to catch both my eye and my curiosity. “Gale, I’m just glad to be out of bed. Just don’t break off in another sprint, and I’ll be happy.” And then, nibbling on the inside of my cheek, I nodded to her. “What about you? Anything catch your eye?”

She led me briefly toward a vendor’s cart manned by a rugged pegasus in a checkered cap, his stand covered in little gray tubes that he served up to a few other pegasi in a short line. We were probably three strides from the back of the line when Gale shook her head. “Nevermind. Let’s find something else.”

“Something wrong?”

“Sausage is meat, and I know that’s not your cup of tea. Sorry; growing up with pegasi, it’s easy to forget.”

“It’s alright.” I had to focus more than I liked on swallowing before I spoke up. “How about this: is there anything here you’ve always wanted to get, and just… never felt like it was worth the cost?”

Gale looked at me like I’d grown a second muzzle for a few solid seconds before realization broke over her face like a wave does the face of an overconfident sailor. “I don’t need a fucking present from you, Morty.”

Of course, she’d hit my goal on the head, and it left me sheepishly staring at the surface of the river. “Gale, I can’t just show up empty-hooved, looking like—”

Gale sighed, and then her voice dropped to the kind of forced whisper that always reminds me of a tea-kettle just on the verge of a full boiling whistle. “Alright… I don’t want to come across like a total asshole, but if this is what it takes for you to understand: Meadowbrook told you not to do magic, right?” I nodded. “Right. And I know you don’t have a bit to your name right now. Now, remember, I’m the fucking crown princess. It comes with a lot of bullshit and baggage, like we sat through fucking all of today, but it also means I have ‘treasury privileges’. I can buy literally anything I could ever actually want. Frankly, Mom would probably be happy if I was more irresponsible with the money, too; she’d be ecstatic if I bought myself a ton of jewelry or something. So no, there’s nothing here I’ve ever looked at and said ‘eh, not worth it’.” Then she sighed. “Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t appreciate it if you bought me something someday, Morty, but right now if you showed up in front of the suitors and Mom and everypony with something you can afford, you’d probably just be embarrassing yourself for it being too cheap.”

“Well… assuming I could use my magic, what would you want?”

“No. Stop. Ok? What I want is for you to show up tomorrow, stand in the back, stay quiet, and be there if I need somepony to lean on—and ideally, to vent at when it’s over. That’s it. You’re not a suitor, you don’t need to make a scene, you’re just a friend. This party is going to be bullshit, I’m going to hate it, and I’m gonna be miserable tomorrow evening. End of story. No gift.”

“You really think I fought the strongest wizard in the world to death twice and I can’t come up with a gift?”

“This has nothing to do with how you look in front of the suitors! And you sure as fuck don’t have to prove yourself to me!” Gale slapped a hoof on her forehead, painfully striking the base of her horn, and then wrinkling up her face in a fury that only compounded with the self-inflicted pain. “If my plan is gonna work, it can’t be about you. So if your ego is that fucking precious to you, and you can’t bear to get shown up by my other suitors one goddamn time, then for my birthday, you can get the fuck away from me!”

I swallowed, and gave her a nod in silence. “I’m sorry, Gale.”

“So you can learn.” Gale rubbed her temples. “Fuck. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. Let’s just talk about something else.”

I was more than happy to oblige. “Alright… What do you do for fun?”

“What?” It was a question that found Gale blinking like a kitten having just discovered the function of its eyelids. “Morty, we’ve known each other for months; I’m not Tempest’s marefriend-of-the-week.”

“True,” I replied. “And in that time, I’ve learned you like drinking, running away from home, and starting fights, and you hate your mom. But I’m guessing by your lack of liver failure and black eyes that there’s at least one other thing you do for fun? A hobby? Do you just like to… wander around here?”

“Well, anywhere really.” Gale answered. “Anywhere to get away from the palace.” Then she rolled her neck, producing a few apparently satisfying cracks, unlike the ‘clinking’ mine still makes all these years later. “Let’s see… do you dance?”

“I—” I bit back my response. “I’m gonna go ahead and let you guess on that one. Do you think Wintershimmer, who was already eighty years old the day I was born, taught me how to dance?”

“Well, I dunno; maybe you had another friend. Maybe metal-leg… what’s her name, Silhouette?”

I raised a brow as high as it would go. “Seriously?”

“You must have had some friends, right?”

Stars bless the cricket who somehow got confused about the time and started chirping in the middle of the afternoon that day.

Really?

“I had Wintershimmer and Angel. Who were, basically, my dad and my… not especially well-trained butler? That’s really it.” I waved a dismissive hoof. “So no. I don’t know how to dance.”

“It’s not that hard; I’ll teach you sometime.” Gale nodded, casting her eyes across the street to a bigger building set between a haberdasher’s and a pet shop (that at the time, from the sign, I assumed was a butcher’s). “That’s the Sordid Affair; it’s a music hall. Most weeknights they’re playing mom’s kind of boring music or earth pony polkas, but on the weekends you can get something good to move to. Tempest and I used to go when we were younger. Sometimes Ty would even come along…” There was a wistfulness in Gale’s voice as she let the thought fade away in the summer breeze.

“Ty?”

“My big sister? Commander Typhoon?”

“No, I… I know who Typhoon is; my apologies. It’s just that she doesn’t seem the type to enjoy dancing.”

Gale chuckled. “You’ve only met her in uniform. She’s gotten stiffer as she’s gotten older, but there was a while there when she got over herself and started actually dating Frostfall, when she really loosened up like she used to be when I was really little.”

“Before she was the Commander?”

Gale shook her head. “Dad retired when I was born. Ty’s been in charge of the Legion my whole life.” Then she scraped her hoof on the street and kicked a rock down the road. “What about you? I assume that old bastard didn’t keep you busy with magic bullshit your entire life?”

I chuckled. “No, he did not. But at the same time… You only knew him when he was actively trying to kill me, so this is going to sound insane, but… he wasn’t my ‘friend’, but he was the closest thing I had. We used to love playing board games, and we’d grow bonteks…” I think I must have slipped into a wistful voice by the end of that, at least until I realized how incredulously Gale was looking at me. “What?”

“Well, one, what’s a ‘bontek’? But two, you and that old bastard actually just sat around playing chess and making golems all fucking day? Seriously?”

“No, Wintershimmer hated chess.” I lifted my hoof to gesticulate a board, and then paused. “I think he hated the idea of chess as the ‘kings game’ or whatever more than he actually hated the rules. But any time I mentioned it, I’d get another earful about how real conflict is never, ever symmetrical, and how King Lapis was an imbecile for pretending… No offense to your grandfather, Gale.” Then I made a brushing motion in the air with my hoof. “A bontek is a magical miniature landscape. See, way east of River Rock, the feline empires have this idea of a ‘bonsai’, which is an art form made by grooming a dwarf tree. And Tectonic was a unicorn archmage who figured out how to push earth to cause small earthquakes and make mountains and that sort of thing; really he couldn’t make much more than a molehill, but the theory was what mattered. So now it's traditional for wizards to make little replicas of the sites of famous battles or cities. It was really a lot of fun; Wintershimmer would animate these little tin soldiers and we’d ‘play’ old battles .”

Gale silently stuttered for a very long moment, her lips and tongue moving rapidly without making a single sound. Finally, she just shook her head. “You are, without a shadow of a doubt, the weirdest pony I have ever even heard of, let alone met. You’re telling me you and your ninety-year old asshole teacher sat around and played with tin soldiers like you were three? And that’s honestly what you did for fun?”

“Oh, come on, Gale; be fair. Half the fun is ‘growing’ the canyon or the forest or the plains. And tin soldiers are a lot more interesting when they move on their own and their lives are in your hooves. Believe me; you’d love it if you tried. Just imagine the thrill of watching your enemy’s commander conquered, your siege-engines pounding on his fortress walls, as you watch his little tin intestines spilling out on the miniature battlements…” I, thankfully, had enough foresight to realize that a few ponies in the street were staring at me and nervously moving to the far side of the street to keep their distances from us. “Maybe I’ll tell you more later. In private.”

“Yeah, that might be a good idea.” Gale sighed, and cast her eyes up to the sky. “You want to grab a candy apple before we head out? I probably ought to start heading back to the palace soon.” In accompaniment to her question, Gale pointed with her horn across the river to another vendor serving delicious red caramel-coated apples on thin wooden sticks.

“Absolutely.” I took two confident steps toward the river as my eyes searched for the nearest bridge before sighing when I realized that, as we were talking so blankly under the leafy shade, we had left the last good path a solid few blocks behind us. “You want to just teleport us across?”

“Morty, I’m still not that strong at teleporting. Last time we tried I nearly threw us both down a cliff; you do remember, right?”

I shrugged. “That’s true, but I also remember a certain wizard catching us in time, no worse for the wear.” As I said this, I placed a hoof on my own chest. “This time, there’s no danger to be worried about, so you can be calm and take your time. And even if you don’t make it, the worst that happens is we get our legs a little wet. The river isn’t even that deep here, is it?”

“Deeper than it looks,” Gale countered. “And I’d be getting my dress wet; Mom would be pissed.” Then, her concerned expression slowly morphed into a grin. I watched as scarlet magic built on her horn. “You know what, fuck it.”

The pop and the lurch of teleportation sent my gut twisting before I could even tell her I was ready, and a moment later my head was underwater. I gasped, brilliantly exercising the survival instincts of a fish, and then began flailing as I tried to swim upward.

This motion had two side effects; the first was that I punched Gale in her shoulder with most of my body weight. The second was that my other hoof almost immediately kicked me up out of the water; it was barely a couple of hooves deep.

After a few seconds of hacking and choking, I managed to get the water out of my lungs and gasp in a breath of fresh air. A moment later, I heard Gale do the same, and then I had just flicked my mane out of my eyes when I found a hoof flying for my face.

Ow!” I gasped as I managed this time to catch myself before I fell in the water.

“Teleporting was your fucking idea!” Gale snapped. “I told you I probably couldn’t make it. Why the hell’d you hit me?”

“I wasn’t trying to!.” I flicked my neck like a wet dog until I could see properly again. “Sorry, Gale. I was just trying to stand up. I wasn’t expecting my head to be underwater.”

Gale huffed, sending a spray of water from the hair around her nostrils, and I quickly realized that she too was completely soaked—not just her legs, but mane-to-tail. “Yeah… I think I got us turned sideways. Sorry for hitting you again.”

“It’s fine,” I answered. “Just remember I’m still not back to my usual self.” I took a few tentative steps on the river bottom to make sure I had my balance, and then reached back to offer her a hoof up out of the deeper part of the river toward the shore. “Well, you got what you wanted about the dress.”

After Gale took my hoof and found her own stance, she glanced back at her body. “I… oh shit…” I caught a hint of laughter in her voice. “Yeah, this is fucking ruined…” Then she laughed a little more, and suddenly the cracks in the dam broke outright. On the one hoof, looking back, the thought of Gale having ruined her dress just to spite Queen Platinum is a bit amusing, but more than that I suspect our laughter was her way of letting go of the day’s frustrations. By the time we climbed up the bank of the river and onto the far street, laughing together the whole time like a pair of complete idiots, it was already obvious that Gale’s movements seemed… lighter.

I couldn’t put my hoof on what single thing had changed then, and even now with hundreds of years of life experience behind me, I’m still not sure I can say. I just know that somehow I felt a little lighter myself too.

We put in our orders for the candy apples, dripping and getting strange looks from the vendor the entire time. I picked out a caramel apple with little stripes of white icing, while Gale opted for a brilliant red ‘fireball’ candy apple, dusted with cinnamon and a few flecks of pepper. Then we walked away from Riverward, her holding both apples in her magic to spare my horn, hardly even saying anything; just crunching bites of our respective treats and occasionally letting a little chuckle slip.

It didn’t take us long to return to the palace, and we parted ways after she led me to the kitchens. Though the chefs in the palace were some of the best in Equestria, and their food exquisite, all through the meal my mind lingered on that caramel apple, and as I made my way back up to Celestia’s bedroom for a night’s sleep, I found it hard to come by; my mind was still wandering the streets in Riverward, side-by-side with my thoughts of Gale.

1-10

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I - X

The Light of the Sun

I awoke to the gentle nudging of feathers against my shoulder, and in the mental haze of having just woken up, I responded by rolling directly into them.

“Morty, I’m afraid I’m already done up for the party this evening, and I’d hate to have to preen myself again.” I jumped, very possibly bucking the wing in question as I did, at the sound of Celestia’s voice. “But it’s good to see you too.”

I assume that any reader of this story in any time in the future will know of Celestia’s beauty, coloration, etc. and so I’ll spare you all a redundant description. Notably differing from her usual appearance in more modern times, rather than her usual gilded peytral (which, I believe, had not even been forged yet at the time of our story), Celestia in our day was usually as naked as any other pony of the day. I emphasize that so you understand why I was surprised to find her clad in a modest violet evening dress, emphasizing the slenderness of her form while drawing attention to her face and—thanks to its open back—her considerable wingspan.

“Celestia!”

The immortal, at least in theory my new mentor, muffled a laugh with the wing that I had struck. “I’m sorry for surprising you, Morty. I heard from Gale that Meadowbrook gave you a clean bill of health, so I thought I might wake you up and invite you to join me at a little party.”

“A party?”

“Gale’s birthday party,” Celestia confirmed. “I know in theory it’s only for her suitors and some of the more decorative members of the court, like my sister and I—” (again, it would be a full eight hundred years after these events before Celestia and Luna seized the Equestrian throne following the collapse of mortal rule) “—but I hear that it’s fashionable to have a young, handsome companion at your side. I thought that might be excuse enough to get you through the doors.”

I chuckled. “Oh. Right. Gale actually invited me.”

“Did she?” Celestia quirked a brow. “That… wasn’t very subtle of her. Are you admitting that because you trust me, or did Gale forget to tell you to keep it quiet?”

“The latter. Why would I need to keep an invitation quiet? Isn’t she allowed to invite who she wants, if the party is for her?”

In response, Celestia sat down and offered me a hoof. I took it gently, curious if she was expecting me to shake it or something, and instead found myself reminded of just how much brute strength there was in her slender build when she smoothly pulled me out of bed and beckoned me to sit facing her. “As your mentor, Morty, I mean to spend my time teaching you about magic. Equestria has plenty of statesponies who know more about diplomacy than me, and I suspect your talents would be wasted in politics. If you’re going to go much further up this road, I’m afraid Queen Platinum will be a better teacher than I could ever be… though I understand she largely has her hooves full with her current student.”

“Is Gale really that bad? I thought she was an excellent statespony. She did a fantastic job on our adventure dealing with the polar bears.”

Celestia ushered me over to a Celestia-sized vanity, which I was just barely tall enough to see the surface of. There, at eye level, I found a small oval picture frame, and inside a loving oil portrait of Gale, feathered strokes showing a face younger than I had ever known. It was no master’s portrait, no perfect mirror image of reality, but in the fuzzy edges of the strokes, it captured Gale’s distaste for sitting still so long. Her brow was creased, her eyes averted though her shoulders kept proper posture.

Celestia’s golden magic lifted the frame, pulling it closer to my view. “When her passions flare up and she actually cares, Gale is an exceptional statesmare. Unfortunately, she lacks subtlety and patience, and so as the Queen often tells me, she cannot see the big picture. Like hosting a bunch of suitors because of the friendships that could cultivate, even for the families she didn’t choose.” Celestia nodded in my direction, and set down the picture. “Which would mean that if she gave you an invitation, she’d be giving away the game and admitting she wanted you as a suitor, because that would give her immediate gratification. Unfortunately, at least from Queen Platinum’s perspective, that comes at a massive cost to her political influence.”

“And at that point the Queen finds some excuse to banish me from Equestria?”

Celestia chuckled, covering her mouth with the ridge of a wing. “I see I’m repeating something Gale has already explained. Probably with more cursing. I could probably protect you from outright exile, but I’d also advise you not to push your luck.” The gaze she cast toward the portrait on her vanity was wistful, heavy with memories I didn’t understand. “I’ve fought with the Queen before, and I lost bitterly.”

Some phrases beg silence, and I was more than happy to oblige. Celestia herself, though, seemed quick enough to recover, smiling and wrapping her wing over my shoulder. “On the other hoof, if you were to attend the party as my guest, I’ll be the only pony to blame. Without some evidence of what you two are trying, the Queen and the sponsors can’t do anything to affect your candidacy without looking extremely petty.”

I nodded. “Well then… The age gap might make this look scandalous, but I’ll be glad to accompany you.”

Celestia buried her whole face in her wing with laughter. “Morty, I can already tell you’re going to get me into so much trouble.”

“I hope not,” I replied, extending my foreleg as a stallion might when offering it to a date—though I knew full-well I could no more hold Celestia’s leg than a carry a tree trunk over my shoulder. “But as Wint… well, as it’s said, ‘a wizard who isn’t making some kind of trouble is wasting his horn.’ When does the party actually start?”

“Oh, not for another few hours. But I had a suspicion you would want time to have some proper grooming, perhaps get something tailored… after all, though you may be young and handsome, it wouldn’t do to have bed mane at my side, would it?” I caught the teasing tone on the edge of her voice, though even if I hadn’t the smile gave away the game.

“How long have you known Gale wanted me to become a suitor?”

In response, Celestia opened the door out of the bedroom with her golden magic and offered me a wink. “Known, not until you asked that question. Suspected… since before I had even met you in River Rock, when Hurricane brought her back to Everfree and she told me all about your adventures.” And then, as we stepped out into the hallways of the palace, Celestia leaned down to my ear. “But to teach you another small lesson in politics: even if Gale hadn’t asked you yet, and you had no idea about any of this business, I would still have invited you.”

“Why?”

“Because everypony has an agenda.”

Under Wintershimmer, I had always worn my mane fairly short, but without worrying much beyond that practical requirement; it tended to grow forward in a sort of shelf, and both I and apparently most of the ponies I had encountered in my life thought that looked good enough to put me in the top 1% of attractiveness of ponies. But, as I learned under the tutelage of one of the palace’s many numerous serving staff (Humble Servant, my friend from my trial during the Wintershimmer incident, in fact), there is a massive difference between swiping your mane down with a hoof, and looking like you don’t care enough that you swiped your mane down with a hoof.

The difference is about four hours of work, an almost sacrilegious number of bottles of bubbling mane tonics, and fewer hair brushes but far more paint brushes than you might think. As I was sitting there somewhat awkwardly next to Celestia, slowly realizing the real reason that nobles envied her magical flowing mane, she elected to distract me from my growing emerald streak of envy with a gentle question.

“I think I mentioned that I haven’t had a student in magic in a long time, Morty. So that you know what you’re getting into, it’s been seventeen hundred years. And you’re starting out far more advanced than anypony I’ve taught before. What do you want us to learn first?”

It was an intriguing question, though it had a fairly simple answer. “I think I’d like to learn to read. That’ll be a nice departure from Wintershimmer’s style to get us off on the right hoof… not to mention Meadowbrook said I can’t use my horn yet, since it’s still healing from the duel.”

Celestia nodded. “That sounds like an excellent choice. On the topic of Wintershimmer, you and I are going to have to take a little field trip back to the Crystal Union, once Mage Meadowbrook gives you a fully clean bill of health.”

I turned to raise a brow at Celestia, only to be slapped on the muzzle with a hairbrush for the crime of daring to turn my head. “I thought I made it clear I was turning down the title of being her court mage. And there’s nothing more I can do for Smart Cookie; now that he has his soul back, he probably just needs to stretch his legs and build up muscle mass from his coma, right?”

“Both true,” Celestia agreed. “That’s actually why I’ve been away these past few days, Morty: helping Smart Cookie catch up on the times. Queen Jade also needed some help getting affairs in the Union back in order. But there’s still a little bit of cleanup left for you, Morty. Queen Jade and Smart Cookie decided that since you were his apprentice, and technically his legal heir, you’re the best pony to inherit Wintershimmer’s belongings.”

I frowned for a moment, and then chuckled. “That might be the best idea, but I don’t exactly have somewhere to put all that stuff right now. I imagine you don’t want any of it in your bedroom.”

“No, I think I’d rather not,” she agreed with a slight laugh, before pausing pensively. “Well, except the bird stand.”

“Bird stand?”

“For Philomena.”

“Philo… who?” Before she could answer, enough memory came back to answer my own question. “Wait, you’re actually keeping that phoenix? It’s vicious; trust me. You don’t want it around. Throw it out the window and let it fly off or something. Ideally into a cliff face.”

For the record if you happen to know Celestia personally, yes, it is that Philomena, and yes, she still tries to burn off my eyebrows every time I visit.

I hate that bird.

“As I understand it she hasn’t been free in thirty lifetimes, so perhaps some unhappiness on her part is fair. I offered to let her go, but she needs a little more time to get used to being free again before she can go back to the wild. I told her she could stay with me as long as she likes. We’ll have to bring her back with us when we visit the Union; I flew by myself instead of taking a carriage, and she isn’t up to flying that far on her own wings yet.” Celestia smiled as she continued, though my mind was torn away from her by a rather foul smelling poultice being swiped through my mane by Humble Servant.

The alicorn, as ever, seemed unaffected even by the mane concerns of others. “I think the same decision has been made for a few of the physical effects he left here from your final battle.”

“What, the last two candlecorns?” I restrained myself from grinning as I nodded. “Trying to kill us aside, they’re incredibly useful. Especially to me, since they can cast basic spells for me without me having to flare up my horn and injure myself.” I frowned from deep thought. “I’ll have to figure out what illusion Wintershimmer was using to make them look exactly like him; I wouldn’t want to ruin this face trying to copy it with molten wax.”

A candlecorn, for those unfamiliar, is a type of golem which Wintershimmer invented (although this may be the last surviving record of that fact, as Celestia, Star Swirl, and I personally hid or burned most of his life’s work), which can essentially be summarized as a slightly oversized unicorn made of wax, with a candle in place of a horn. This unusual material and feature, while not as resilient or brutishly strong as a walking statue or as cheap as a dirt effigy, was capable of casting simple spells--and as Wintershimmer had proven to horrifying effect, could even cast fairly advanced spells, provided a real unicorn inserted his or her own soul to possess one.

“I believe Star Swirl also mentioned that he had set aside Wintershimmer’s jacket, which he suggested was lightly enchanted in a somewhat different manner than yours… and his staff.”

I winced. “Ah…”

The staff in question, for anyone who hasn’t read my preceding adventure, consisted of the skull and spinal column of an adolescent dragon. And I do mean that literally; at least if the story Wintershimmer had told me as a foal was true (it was, though I didn’t have a way to verify at the time), he had killed the creature it was made from, and then enchanted the bones into the terrifying symbol of his magical power that I had grown up seeing constantly at his side.

It was not, as you might imagine, an especially friendly symbol.

“You don’t need to worry about it right now, Morty,” Celestia advised, sensing my hesitance. “Have you had a chance to meet any of Gale’s other suitors yet?”

I briefly quirked my brow in Humble Servant’s direction, but Celestia seemed to trust him enough not to worry that he had clearly heard her use of the word ‘other’, so I shrugged and answered her question. “All of them, actually. Gale sort of... dragged me around to meet the suitors while she was delivering their invitations to the party.”

“That must have been an experience. What do you think of them?” I hadn’t, at the time, known Celestia long enough to tell the difference between when her blank face actually conveyed a lack of emotion, and when she kept her expression flat because there was no way to move the muscles of one’s muzzle enough to respect the implication of one’s words.

This was one of the latter cases.

But again, in ignorance I assumed she didn’t know the seven stal— ponies well enough to realize how loaded her question was. So, nervously, I swallowed. “Well… I think I can see where Gale is coming from.”

“That bad?”

“I may have gotten into a few arguments with them myself.” I swallowed. “Let’s see… first there was the unicorn noble Castle and his mom.”

“High Castle,” Celestia nodded. “I haven’t spoken to the young stallion much, but from my interactions with his mother I can see where Gale is coming from. I would have expected him to be the worst. Well, second worst.”

“For Gale, probably,” I agreed. “They expressed the opinion that you have to be born into a heroic family to be a hero. I, shall we say, disagreed.”

“No doubt talking about being descended from Luna and I?” Celestia asked with a mixture of dry distaste and fatigue in her voice.

I nodded as much as I felt comfortable without fear of being once again struck on the muzzle by an irate manedresser. “Is it true?”

“You think I’ve kept track?” Celestia scoffed, in an expression that, all these years later, I relate to much more closely. “I have had the joy of being a mother, Morty. And the first such joy was long enough ago that, conceivably, many ponies could be my great grandfoals many times over. But I have no idea if the noble families of the unicorns really are descended from me. And just between us, I think it’s silly to assume such a distant relationship with me means anything.” Celestia concluded the thought with a sigh, before pulling a cushion over from across the room and making herself more comfortable. “You seem to always know just what to ask to dredge up ancient history, Morty. I think we were talking about Gale’s suitors? That’s a more pleasant topic, I think.”

I raised one eyebrow into the mirror in front of me, which let me meet Celestia’s gaze without turning my head. “If you say so. After High Castle, we flew up Cloudsdale to the public baths.”

“Oh, that must have been fun for you!”

Though I didn’t want to be such a downer as to squash Celestia’s smile, I had to roll my eyes. “I’m learning not to like flying. At least, not in open chariots. But while we were there, we met the pegasus… Cap-something, I think, who might have been the nicest one of them all. It was something of a surprise; Gale led me to believe he and his grandmother were criminal masterminds.”

Celestia offered me a sage nod from her cushion, before giving Humble Servant a brief nod of approval at some tweak to my mane. “Not all cruelty is as overt as Wintershimmer’s. There’s more than one way to wield your reputation as a weapon.”

“If you say so.” If only I had learned the truth of that lesson faster... “After we got back on solid ground, we visited with Puddinghead’s son, Peanut. I’m fairly certain he would rather be with me than Gale.”

“Oh?”

“I mean… I’m not one for stallions, but if I were, I am the obvious choice.” Through the reflection of the mirror, to avoid turning, I winked at Celestia. “You’re doing great work, by the way, Humble.”

“I live to serve, sir,” Humble Servant replied curtly, more focused on my mane than our conversation.

Celestia let out the smallest of sighs.“Luna did tell me you were a bit enamored with her when she took on your form. Have you ever heard the story of Neighcissus?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going to starve to death looking in the mirror just because I know I look good.” Then, thinking back to my next encounter, I subconsciously brought my hoof up to my neck. “Not that looking increasingly like a corpse is helping.”

“Ah, you’ll forgive me, sir; I wasn’t going to comment on it if you didn’t bring it up.” Humble Servant nodded. “Shall I powder your… fatally open wound?”

“It’s not actually open,” I clarified. “There’s a thin layer of metal there. It just looks open.” Then I chuckled. “You’re welcome to put whatever make-up you want on it to cover it up, but I was just planning on wearing the collar of my jacket up more often.” I turned my head ever so slightly to look back to Celestia. “Gale hit me and opened up the stitches Meadowbrook had put in. The alchemist suitor… what was her name? Spicy?”

“Lady Menage,” Celestia gently completed with a nod. “I don’t mind nicknames between us, Morty, but if you learn to think of Gale’s suitors by their preferred titles first, it will spare you and Gale a great deal of pain in the future. Are you saying she deliberately put a layer of metal over your open wound?”

“Well, it was a forgivable mistake. She gave me something to clot it, but since there was still quicksilver in the wound from Silhouette’s claw…” I lifted my hoof, rapping on my own neck, and the faint metallic ringing in the room finished the thought.

“Sir, you will be pleased to note I took the liberty of selecting a few scarves and cravats, as well as an earth pony ‘neck-tie’, as accessory options for your outfit. Any one of them should be more than enough of an excuse for a taller collar to your attire.” Humble Servant smiled. “Once your mane is settled, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed in feigned comfort with the process, returning my attention to Celestia. “Um… Spicy had some strong opinions on stallions. Like why we shouldn’t exist.”

“I’m vaguely familiar,” Celestia answered dismissively. “The disagreement there seems obvious.”

“Yeah… After her, I had the delight of meeting ‘Archmage’ Grayscale.”

“You say that like you don’t consider his title valid?”

“Grayscale is…” I paused not to choose my words delicately, but to make sure they were at least (in my perspective) fair. “He’s the apotheosis of everything wrong with Archmage Diadem’s philosophy of magic. I don’t know that I care that much about using a school to organize education, if it actually put forward wizards who were capable of using their magic to protect society. But if Grayscale is who those poor students are going to grow up to be… Frankly, I think they ought to shut it down before the school does any more harm.”

“That is… certainly a strong opinion, Morty.”

“Just wait; I’ve got lots, now that I’m not worried about being framed for murder.” I chuckled. “After Grayscale, we met Gray Rain… I know I’m going to get those two confused. Mrs. Rain was… unusual. I think Gale honestly likes talking to her more than the stallion himself. I guess Mrs. Rain was the one who taught Gale how to use a sword?”

Celestia hid a chuckle behind a hoof. “Yes, much to Hurricane and the Queen’s annoyance. But then, given recent events, I suppose I owe her my gratitude for those lessons. You didn’t ask her about her eye, did you?”

“No!” I shook my head, to Humble’s annoyance. “She offered to tell me, but the Dawn warned me so I didn’t ask. Not about Mrs. Rain in particular, but just not to ask old pegasi about war wounds. She suggested they consider it rude?”

“Often, yes. And in Rain’s case especially it would be a poor choice. I thought I would warn you in advance, since you wouldn’t want to get on that mare’s bad side, but I’m glad you made a good first impression. Iron Rain is one of Gale’s few real friends, and she loves their sparring matches. Though I worry that one of these days, Gale will finally get good enough to put up a real fight, and Rain will hurt herself trying to win against such a younger mare.”

I raised a hoof to force an awkward throat-clearing cough. “No offense meant, but—”

“Point taken,” Celestia interrupted with a chuckle. “My age does have its flaws, Morty, but arthritis is not one of them.” After a moment of amusement, I watched Celestia’s face fall, and she picked up again with a laborious low tone to her speech. “I take it your last introduction was with ‘my’ knight, then?”

“Count Halo, you mean? Yes; he seemed to think you taking me on as a student made me some kind of ‘chosen one’. He and his little apprentice, both.”

“Cherry?” Celestia cocked her head, before smiling. “He’s a delight, isn’t he? Just so friendly. It’s a shame he’s squiring under Halo, but hopefully he’ll come into his own before he gets too blinded by the faith.”

I bit back my complaints about the colt’s weird ‘perfection’. “Isn’t it your church? Why not just walk in and tell them to knock it off, if they aren’t doing what you want?”

“For the most part, the church’s teachings aren’t harmful; I do agree with the moral lessons they put forth. And for many of the worshippers, unfortunately, dismantling the body wouldn’t just be an end of a false faith; I’d be destroying their social circles, some of their jobs… a huge part of their identities.” With a resigned sigh, she added “And… it isn’t as if they’re completely wrong. As you well know, Luna and I do judge the souls of dead ponies. But judgement of souls does not make us omnipotent, or infallible, or as you know, even factually immortal.”

Celestia leaned her head back on her long neck, until she was staring up at the ceiling and her mane was billowing down in its unfelt wind onto her wings. I can’t be sure if it was an expression of unspoken frustration or merely a stretch, but she held her head up that way as she continued. “It’s Halo, and the other knights and clergy, who cause problems. They’re always inclined to go past just following good moral rules, trying to do grandiose tasks in my name, or ‘defend my honor’, whatever that means. And Halo is by far the worst. I try to tell him off, but usually he insists that I am making a ‘test of his faith’, and goes on doing whatever it was he was going to do ‘in my name’ anyway.” Holding the leading feathers of a wing to her temple, she added “I have met more than a few stubborn ponies in my day, Morty, but I’ve never before met somepony who managed to be so obviously able to hear while also managing to be completely deaf.”

“He… well, I suppose I can see that. He insisted when you burnt out most of my belly, that it was on purpose, to ‘test’ me or something.”

Celestia’s head snapped down, and she had to mask her entire muzzle with her feathers to contain a laugh in response. “Oh no, Morty; I’m afraid you’ve failed your lesson on dietary fitness. I guess we’ll have to start over.”

Humble Servant was at least sympathetic when my laughter pulled me away from his brush.

“In all seriousness, Morty, I wasn’t lying when I told you I can’t stand being a ‘goddess’. I don’t even really like being a leader.”

Celestia, you have all my sympathy. I could never do what you are doing. And while Everfree City may be no more, Equestria still exists because of you.

Unburdened by such knowledge of the future, my younger self chuckled. “Well, if your ‘followers’ don’t actually listen to you, I can sympathize. Though I think Graargh is still easier to work with than Halo.”

The joke didn’t seem to amuse Celestia. “Even the knights who do listen to me make me uncomfortable.” Celestia shook her head. “I don’t deserve that kind of power. I don’t know if anypony does.”

“The power to move the sun?” I asked. “I mean, forgive me if I sound like I’m belittling you; I’m just trying to understand. From my perspective, it seems like an ageless alicorn body and nearly infinite magical power is a trade that would absolutely be worth it to miss out on sleeping in every morning to raise the sun. Is there some downside? Some curse? Some cost?”

Celestia gave a small sad laugh as she shook her head. “I suppose you could call ‘responsibility’ a curse. But no, Morty. There’s no magical cost to my form. The ‘curse’ is in how other ponies view me, what they come to expect the second they meet me. Much like a certain teenage colt who now knows how to send somepony’s soul to the Summer Lands with nothing more than a thought, I didn’t actually ask for this. And, much like I’m sure you’ll learn in the next few years—if not the next few hours—both of our magical powers come with expectations from the ponies around us. And unfortunately, even the power to move the sun doesn’t give me much influence on those expectations. As you’ve observed, I’ve been telling ponies for twenty years not to call me a goddess. And yet...”

“Hmm…” I raised a brow. “I can see your issue, but I don’t know if it applies to me. The Razor was the reason everypony respected Wintershimmer; that spell was his whole claim to fame.”

Celestia nodded solemnly. “As grim as it is to discuss, most of his respect was because he was more than willing to use his spell. Meanwhile, the fact that you didn’t kill Clover like Wintershimmer wanted tells me that the same cannot be said about you.”

“And the fact that I’m a good enough necromancer to use that spell, even if I’m not a sociopath or a serial killer, doesn’t count for anything?”

“I’m afraid it won’t mean much to the ponies who matter for winning Gale’s hoof.” When I frowned, Celestia patted me on the shoulder. “For what it’s worth, it means a lot to me.”

While our conversation went on for some time longer, making smalltalk and holding my neck at uncomfortable angles, the majority of our discussions were simply her catching me up on the politics and affairs of the Crystal Union, and my sharing awkward stories from my youth as a ‘softcoat’ amongst crystal teenagers. I’ll spare you the misery of how I had no friends before Gale, and cut to the only other discussion of meaningful note.

“Celestia, could I ask for your help with something before the party?” I asked her as my mane was just setting from the last of the thirty-something additions to its shape and texture.

“Hmm?”

“Well… I had an idea for a birthday gift for Gale, but I’m not sure I can arrange it on my own.”

Celestia chuckled. “I’m sure she’ll forgive you for not getting her anything.”

I nodded. “She practically ordered me not to. But… I’m just going to need some money, and somepony who’s known Gale longer than I have to help work out a few of the details.”

“I did hear that the crowns wanted to give you… I believe they said ‘a boon’, in thanks and apology for what happened to you.”

I raised a brow. “I don’t know this is worth a boon.”

“No,” said Celestia. “But it would certainly be an impressive gesture to give up something with that much worth for somepony else’s happiness… assuming that’s what you’re actually thinking of, and this isn’t just for you to save face in front of the other suitors.” The look Celestia shot me told me that the thought wasn’t hypothetical, and was rather more of a warning. Thankfully, that was at least one rare moment in my life utterly undefined by ego, and I was able to answer with a warm smile.

“If she’ll appreciate the gesture, then absolutely.”

I think I saw a shred of relief on Celestia’s expression when she answered. “Very well. What did you have in mind?”

So I explained myself.

1-11

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I - XI

The Party

The court herald announced in his most powerful voice “Announcing the Lady Celestia, and… oh goddesses…

“You can keep it short this time,” Celestia whispered.

The herald swallowed and whispered back “Thank you, merciful one,” before picking up again “The Mage Coil the Immortal of the Crystal Union.”

If the vinyl record had been invented on that day, I am certain one would have audibly scratched. As it was, in reverence to ‘her holiness’’ arrival, the lutists and psalterists and the hurdy-gurdian (along with the other, less amusingly titled musicians) ceased their performance of elevator music, and the more-or-less abrupt silence led heads to turn. Most of the room had the decency at least to feign their looks of confusion or disbelief as reverent glances to the living goddess who had entered the chamber, but from her place at the head of the room, Queen Platinum I could have stopped a lesser pony’s heart with the glare she shot me.

For those picturing the ballroom of Canterlot from familiarity with events like the Grand Equestrian Gala, I can say that the size of the Everfree Palace’s ballroom put that chamber to shame. This is likely largely owed to the fact that the architects of the latter structure had the advantage of building on flat ground, instead of projecting out of the side of a mountain. To make up for the lack of such a notable location, Everfree’s ballroom was host to a number of interesting decisions. Firstly, the room occupied three floors of the palace, with galleries overhead where those too old, infirm, or quadruply left-hooved to feel comfortable cutting a rug on the marble floor could nonetheless participate in high society. Despite being called a ballroom, the chamber had further been built with dining space and decoration in mind—the latter emphasized by a massive stone orrery whose depictions of the planets and the stars would one day be replaced by a set of six immensely powerful magical artifacts… but that’s neither a story about me, nor my story to tell. At the time of Gale’s birthday party, the orbs were glass, enchanted by some half-baked wizard or other to glow with an inner sparkle, the memory of which would one day inspire the invention of the disco ball following a period of ill-advised drinking and reflection on ages past. At the time, however, rather than gauche they could only be called avante-garde, and therefore utterly symbolic of the party itself: matching Queen Platinum’s taste over her daughter’s, and frankly, disgusting the younger royal.

Celestia delicately lit her horn, and seven notes rang out on one of the lutes hidden among the bandponies; apparently, that was enough of a sign to start the music back up, and soon the party had gone back to the discussions they were already having. She must have sensed my curiosity, as she whispered to me “You must have heard that some of Gale’s suitors belong to noble houses, right?”

I nodded. “I think I heard one or two. Spicy—” Celestia shot me a disapproving frown for using Gale’s nickname. “—is from the ‘House of Three’ or something?”

Celestia nodded. “Legend has it that Queen Platinum’s bloodline is descended from my foals, hence their name: ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ That song is in their honor.” Then her voice jumped about a dozen decibels and an octave as she lifted her head. “Ah, good day Luna.”

“Sister,” Luna replied with a nod of her head, before her tone turned a touch icier. “Coil.”

“Lady Luna.” I offered my best elaborate bow, only for Luna to yank me up by my collar.

“Save yourself the embarrassment and just be rude passively, colt; whatever overblown self-origami that was will not impress anypony here.” Then she chuckled. “Though I am curious how many bridges you even have left to burn.”

“Says the mare who accused me of murder.”

“I believe I already explained myself,” Luna answered. “And further, did I not aid you in your final battle?”

“Fair enough.” I nodded. “Thank you.”

“Do not forget that you still owe me a geas,” Luna answered, before turning back to her sister. “I’m curious, sister; do you intend to wait in line to greet Gale, like a mortal, or are you at least going to exert your authority to skip the line and walk up to her side?” Luna gestured with a wing to where a rather offensively long line of ponies had queued up the steps to a dais at the head of the room. There, Gale slowly shook hooves, made small talk, and visibly contemplated suicide beside her parents—Queen Platinum I and Commander Hurricane, for anypony who has forgotten—each flanked by a small cluster of hangers-on.

I had eyes for none of them. For all Gale’s complaints about the effort it took to appease her mother with her appearance, the effect was startling. She wore just a touch of makeup—a faint gloss on her lips and two arcs of a purple eyeshadow to add tone and depth to her lilac coat. I’m certain she had to fight to keep the effects at that, given that for all her beauty in her age, Queen Platinum was nearly caked in the stuff. Still, it added just the right touches to compliment her regal silver dress, scaled like dragonskin and glittering up to a metallic rose on her left shoulder, sitting on the only strap the garment had. Though the trail covered her tail (since in our adventures, she had cropped it far too short to be seen in ‘polite’ society), it was with a slimming fabric and no petticoat, in an almost Cirran style which alluded to her paternal parentage and also scandalously alluded to the fact that she did, in fact, possess hind fetlocks.

Society in those days could sometimes be astoundingly prudish.

I only caught the trail end of Celestia’s comments when my ears caught my name. “...for Morty’s benefit, I can survive mingling in line for a bit. If you’d be so kind, though, do send one of the ponies with the horse d'oeuvres trays over; that should tide me over until the cake, at least.”

Luna chuckled. “Never was there a greater evidence of our immortality, Sister dearest, than that you haven’t yet died of a heart attack.” Walking away, she waved a wing back toward us. “Fear not, big sister; you shan’t starve on my watch.”

“Shan’t?” I asked, incredulously. “Mareistotle would like her vocabulary back.”

“Luna thinks she’s a poet,” Celestia answered. “Morty, do my flanks look wide to you?”

Now, I should remind the reader that Gale was my first and only real romance, save a sort of ‘arch-nemeses-with-purely-theoretical-benefits’ relationship with the commander of the crystal guard. Hence, I had no idea just what sort of a bear trap had been set in front of my poor, unguarded sensitive parts when I heard that question.

Fortunately, by the sheer blind luck of a newborn foal at a construction site in a slapstick comedy, I managed to evade what might otherwise have been certain death when I answered “Um… Proportionally, no?”

“It’s refreshing to be around somepony so direct,” Celestia replied, patting me on the back. “Come on; let’s go meet Gale.”

However good Celestia’s intentions may have been, the reverence of the other ponies at the party was greater. “Please, your holiness, go ahead.” “Oh, I couldn’t dream of making you wait in line, Lady Celestia.” “I couldn’t live with myself if I stood in your way.” “Thank fuck you finally got up here; I want to die.”

In case it wasn’t obvious, that last one was Gale when we reached her at the end of the line.

Language,” snapped Queen Platinum at a volume that Celestia and I could both hear quite clearly over the music, but which at least I have to imagine the rest of the room could not. “Lady Celestia. I see you’ve taken the liberty of inviting Coil.” I don’t know if I could have fit so much derision into the last few of those words. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Queen looked in my direction, but she certainly addressed me from out of the corner of her eye, where her practiced smile seemed all the more malevolent. “May I have a word in private, Mortal?”

Coil, your Highness.” I tried to match her smile, calm and forced and porcelain, though I suspect the hint of teeth at the edge of my cheek showed I was an amateur up against a practiced master.

As I stepped past the Queen further up onto the dais and away from the line behind us, she corrected “Majesty” into my ear. “I don’t take offense, Coil, but if you intend to be around Gale and I for any length of time, you ought to know: Majesty is for the seated monarch, while Highness is for other members of her family.” By the time she stopped us walking, I was more than comfortably able to lean up against one of the marbled cloudstone pillars supporting the chamber. “And that is precisely what I wish to speak to you about.”

“Being around Gale?” I clarified.

Platinum nodded. “The crown apologizes for wrongly accusing you of Wintershimmer’s crimes, and we would like to reward you on another day in the near future: some funds, help settling yourself permanently in Everfree if that is your final plan, perhaps even a boon. That being said, I cannot encourage you enough to consider taking up Queen Jade’s offer and returning to the Crystal Union to serve as their court mage.”

“Are the rumors that bad?” I asked jokingly.

Silver nostrils flared as they sucked in a harsh gasp of air, covering over what might otherwise have been a very harsh response. “You will recall that when Lady Luna was making her case in court that you were guilty of Wintershimmer’s crimes, it was my daughter’s intercession that bought you another day to plead your case?”

“Well, apart from the fact that I ran off and actually fought Wintershimmer instead of coming back to court… but yes.”

“I am curious what spell you cast to be in two places at once. And why your substitute seemed so intent on eating the furniture and scratching itself like a dog…” The Queen shrugged; apparently, nopony had explained that I had a young changeling in my services to Her Majesty. I tucked that thought into the back of my mind as she continued. “But my point is moreso that by a means of distraction, the Princess took the liberty of… shall we delicately say romancing your horn in full view of an open court?”

“Ah…” The experience—my first real encounter between my horn and the inside of another pony’s mouth—would have been hard to forget even without the unusual and extremely public circumstances. “Yes, I can see how that would give the wrong impression…”

“I want this to be clear, Coil. I know you have not grown up around the subtleties of court, and if I speak to you in that way, you may not understand my meaning. So forgive my bluntness. First, you have done nothing to earn my ire, and I do not want to be a tyrant of a mother who tells my daughter whom she can and cannot befriend. But I must be the Queen first, just as she will one day have to be. And right now, your presence around my daughter is swirling with unpleasant, unwanted implications. So I wanted to make my stance clear.”

She drew in another slow breath, and then leaned forward, placing a hoof against my chest as she did so. “You are the sort of pony who sucks the air from every room he enters. But your hero’s story ended with Wintershimmer. I may not have your former teacher’s magical prowess, but do not make the mistake of thinking that means I am impotent. This is the most important day of my daughter’s life. If you pull the eyes of Equestria away from her in this critical time, I will treat you like any other enemy of our nation.”

“I…” I lifted my hoof to push hers away, only to feel the tingle of magic as her horn restrained my leg from doing just that. The force was trivial—as I may have mentioned, I was by no means a physically powerful young stallion—and after a moment I caught the Queen panting as my muscle strength overcame her telekinesis; I didn’t even have to push her hoof away in the end, as she lowered it to the floor to support herself. “Right. Queen Platinum, let’s not kid ourselves; you can’t even put up enough strength to stop my hoof. I know you mean to be threatening me with some kind of vague ‘political power’ warning and not blunt magic, but frankly, you’re not going to get far with that. I don’t really answer to you. And as we’ve already established, Celestia is on my side. I’m not going to pick a fight with you, so please, don’t humiliate yourself trying to threaten me.” I grinned. “I don’t mind keeping out of the spotlight tonight; you could have saved a lot of breath and just said that.” Then, when she kept panting, I offered her my foreleg as a brace. “Do you need a hoof? Or a doctor?

The Queen massaged her temple with the same hoof that had moments before been pressed against my chest. “I appreciate the offer, but no. I’m just not as young as I used to be.” Then she nodded. “Let it not be said, young stallion, that I did not give you fair warning.”

When we returned to Gale’s little entourage, we found Hurricane and Celestia sharing some humor which, judging by Gale’s blush, was at her expense.

“It was better when it was short! I—Right, Morty?”

“When what was short?”

“My daughter is asking for your opinions about her tail length,” clarified Commander Hurricane. “So I suggest you choose your next words very carefully.

“I…” I swallowed as I stared at Hurricane and, once more, my brain struggled to reconcile the aging scarred pegasus with the monster under my bed as a foal. Hurricane had not led the Equestrian armies in decades, having yielded his command to his eldest daughter Typhoon since before I was even born. However, growing up in the Crystal Union, I interacted with no small number of ponies who had stood on the opposite line from this dreaded stallion on the battlefields of a thousand tiny wars. It was no small testament to how badly he had beaten back the crystals that ponies called him ‘the Butcher’ in the north.

Thus, while I had (foolishly) brushed off the Queen’s warning, the former Commander’s threat left me with a surprisingly large knot in the apple of my throat. “I… like braids?”

Hurricane chuckled, nodding. “Well played, Morty.”

“Fuckin’ pussy,” Gale muttered under her breath. “I know you liked it when we were hiking to River Rock.”

After a moment to still my quivering legs, I addressed Hurricane. “For the record, sir, I’m sorry for lying to you about Gale being in danger.”

Hurricane shrugged (it always looked awkward when he did that, since pegasi usually use the base of their wings in lieu of their fore-shoulders, and one of his was completely missing). “You were right. I should have given you more credit. I suppose I’m sorry for our argument about your magic.”

Celestia patted me on the back with her wing. “Using necromancy, you mean?” When Hurricane nodded, she smiled softly, and rather sadly. “Your experience was… unique, Hurricane; I promise Morty isn’t doing anything so… drastic.”

“Wait… are you dead, Dad?” Gale looked briefly between Celestia and Hurricane. Celestia muffled a chuckle with her wing, while Hurricane’s reaction was to bury his entire face in his one remaining blue-black feathered limb.

“No ‘e’, Gale. I’m just Dad.” Hurricane chuckled, before the humor abruptly fell from his face. “I am not dead. And we won’t be discussing that further.”

“That’s exactly what somepony dead would say,” Gale teased.

I shook my head. “Undead are usually cannibalistic and almost always cold-blooded.” I reached out a hoof toward Hurricane, before realizing just who I was nearly touching. He rolled his eyes, and then extended a foreleg, which I dared to briefly touch. “Besides, with the apparent exception of Luna, I’m pretty sure I’m the only pony alive who could make an undead that could talk—and I’m not exactly inclined.”

Hurricane closed his eyes as he shook his head, and I watched a little knot build up on his back, just above his one wing—a common tell of disgruntlement in pegasi, though I didn’t know that at the time. “Is pulling somepony’s soul away from their eternal rest to pester them with questions better?”

“Hurricane, there’s no need to be so blunt,” Celestia chided. Then she turned to me. “You should know, Morty, that while I happen to know that Hurricane’s perspective is justified, there are also a lot of ponies in Equestria who look down on necromancy for less personal reasons; you might want to use a lighter touch when discussing it.”

I shrugged. “To be fair, it’s not something I do lightly. Seancing somepony is like walking into their bedroom without knocking; it’s rude, but if it’s important or you know the pony very well, it’s acceptable. Dragging their soul back to create an undead is like breaking into somepony’s bedroom, locking them in manacles, and dragging them out of their home, and forcing them to work for you.”

“Kinky,” Gale ‘helpfully’ added.

I rubbed a hoof across my face. “You know, I’m beginning to think Spicy’s weird mud-maids might be part of some complex all nobles have, and it’s not just her.”

“I assure you, Coil,” said the Queen, who had finally caught up to us and was doing an impressive job not looking worn out by whatever signs of age were showing under her makeup, “that it’s a product of age, and not birth. Now, with respect to our conversation, you have my daughter’s ear any other day of the year; those in line behind you cannot say the same.” She nodded. “If you need somepony to socialize with, I believe you’ve already met all of Gale’s meaningful suitors; I understand they’re in the drawing room there on the second floor above the bandstand, enjoying some sort of party game or other. Lady Celestia, if you would do us the honor of staying for a moment, we have some things I would like to discuss with you.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

The seven suitors always seemed an odd sight to me; even dressed their best, their respective ideas of ‘best’ were so dramatically, culturally disparate that they might well have been different species altogether. High Castle and Spice Menage seemed to be holding some sort of fiercely petty discussion in the finest unicorn fashions, all clad in lace and threaded metals and gemstone jewelry. Both also held drinks in thin-stemmed glasses, hovering aloft in their respective magical grips, though I suspect Spicy’s just may have been some sort of alchemical creation rather than alcohol, given its unnatural purple color and the way it visibly fizzed, well before the invention of modern carbonation. Count Halo spoke closely with the two much younger ponies, and from what I could see under his armor, he was attired similarly. The weapons and shield he wore were obviously some sort of formal uniform for a knight, covered as they were in sashes and ribbons, but I still found myself surprised he had been allowed into a party of any kind with that many weapons on his back and sides.

The next group, consisting of Caporegime Coral and Secretary Peanut, could not have been more foreign to their appearance. While Peanut was clad in a modest brown leather tunic with puffy green frills at the shoulders, the animation of his limbs certainly offset any restraint in his outfit; he could not have been further from the subdued business stallion I had met the prior day if he tried. And evidently Caporegime would have far preferred the former; dressed in a Cirran tunic, all dark gray with a pattern of lines that would, in more modern days, have been identified as pinstripes, the pegasus seemed to be completely interested in whatever small ball of cheese and vegetables was resting on the plate he had balanced on his right wing, and not whatsoever in the topic of Peanut’s interest.

Finally, whether confident enough in their value to society or just clueless enough not to know better, Gray Rain and Archmage Grayscale proudly kept to themselves as they fought for the apparently enviable title of worst-dressed suitors at the party. Gray wore what I would later learn was a Cirran dress uniform: steel segmented armor over a Cirran tunic. Unlike Count Halo, however, his armor was not further decorated with ribbons or sashes or medals of any kind; apart from a pair of cloth strips on his shoulders marking his rank, his torso was nearly dominated by the color of cold skysteel. Even worse, as a Cirran Praefectus Faborum (basically, an army engineer), the color marking his rank was also gray. The result was a dull monochrome stain on a lively, colorful party.

Archmage Grayscale at least provided contrast to his discussion partner. Really, that is the highest compliment I can pay the appearance of that sniveling excuse for an overblown hedge mage; he had enchanted his pajama-length robes to swirl in a whirl of colors all across the spectrum of the rainbow, unrestrained by order, or artistic inspiration, or good taste. Tie-dye would not be invented for literal centuries, and yet in the single figure of Grayscale, it was already ruined.

In short, the ponies assembled were dressed to the nines, for better or for worse. They should, therefore, have known to show me some respect, as I was a ten naked, and when dressed up formally, got dizzyingly close to the legendary heights of a twelve. Alas, with the exception of Peanut Gallery (who knew a proper stallion when he saw one… probably in an ancient religious text sense), the suitors were hapless as to matters of decorum, or taste, or when they were simply outmatched.

“Ah, Coil! Everypony, have you met her highness’ newest pet?” I gritted my teeth as that introduction from High Castle got the other stallions—and one mare—to look up from their focus on an as-yet-unformed slab of ice and toward my direction.

Castle…

High Castle wagged a hoof back and forth in front of his chest. “I believe I told you it was Lord Castle to you, Colt.”

To my surprise, it was Count Halo who came to my defense. “Duke Castle, Lord Coil is Her Radiance’s chosen; if anything, Her Highness is lucky to have him as her confidante.” Then, perhaps slightly deferentially, the knight covered in swords added “Not that he is not a bit rough around the edges, but such things are to be expected when one is raised amongst barbarians. Come, join us; we’re just about to play a round of Ice Castles; do you know the game?”

I scratched a hoof to my brow. “Build a castle out of ice with your magic and see whose looks best?” I’d played a game of that sort with Wintershimmer when I was a foal; for teenage unicorns who have regular access to ice as we did in the Crystal Union, it was a common way to teach telekinetic control. With the curious case of my horn, prone as it was to bursts of uncontrollable power that would often drain me into unconsciousness from overuse, it was instead an exercise in seeing how cleverly I could achieve an abstract goal in as few spells as possible.

Spicy answered as if speaking to the worst bred dog at a dog show. “Well, there are points to be had, for things like height and number of spires and so forth, but yes; that’s the gist of it. Secretary Gallery has volunteered to judge for us.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I told her, “but I’m afraid I’m on doctor’s orders not to use my horn right now unless there’s some sort of actual emergency; I could do permanent damage to it.”

“That’s no trouble at all,” offered Peanut, grinning ear-to-ear. “You can sit over here with me and judge.” In what I’m sure he felt was an inviting gesture, he patted the ground next to his flank.

“Well, that works.” I nodded, and though I didn’t sit quite as close as Peanut clearly wanted, I did take the offered seat. “Gray, Capo, will you two also be judging since you aren’t unicorns?”

Caporegime clicked his tongue. “Ice is one of the elements of pegasus magic, Coil. If anything, we’ve got ourselves an unfair advantage. Though since ice isn’t my strong suit, it probably evens out.”

Gray Rain nodded. “Commander Typhoon—who is largely considered the strongest ice empath in the Legion—is said to have once bested Archmage Diadem at such a game. I similarly lack a strength in the element, but we shall manage.”

I won’t bore you describing the slow and laborious process of building six castles out of blocks of ice, dear reader; despite sounding like a fun party game, it is really just about as fun as anything else that nobles do at dinner parties. That is to say, I would rather have had my old ‘Schroedingallop’s ex’ from the Crystal Union rip out the back of my neck again.

The one notable development in the process of about an hour, as spires and battlements and crenellations emerged from frigid pale ice, was when High Castle produced from inside his dinner jacket a small spindly vial, and from it released a thick layer of fog that coalesced into a rather dense cloud floating at about head-level in the room. His castle, just beside it, was unique amongst the shapes present for the fact that instead of leaving the base of his block of ice untouched, Castle had whittled it down into almost a wine glass stem, concerningly thin to support the weight of the bulk ice above it. Using his magic (since unicorn hooves tend to be useless for that sort of thing) he wrapped the bottled cloud around the underside of his tapered structure, and then with a show of magical force, snapped the ‘stem’ completely. Everypony turned at the sudden sound, but to all of our surprise, his creation floated in midair, suspended safely atop the cloud.

Caporegime was the first to acknowledge the trick with a short and muffled clap of his hooves. “Bellissimo, Lord Castle. Did you have that planned in advance to win our little game, or—”

Castle chuckled, grinning in pride at himself. “Sort of, pegasus.” I think my expression may have soured more than Capo’s at how haughtily the young unicorn raised himself up through that particular expression of blatant racism. “I arranged the ice to be here for the game in the first place, but I assure you it wasn’t out of any particular desire to overshadow anypony. But you see, Her Highness made a particularly difficult request of me for a birthday gift.”

“You too?” Spice Menage shook her head in frustration.

“I surmise that was her real challenge to all of us.” When Gray Rain’s monotone observation was done, he turned to me. “You accompanied her yesterday, Coil; am I correct?”

I shrugged. “Well… If I’m being honest, I don’t think she actually wanted most of what she asked for. ‘A crossbow bolt through the eye’ doesn’t seem like a real birthday wish to me.”

Grayscale sighed. “She should be careful what she wishes for.”

“Oh please; she’s going to be Queen some day, Archmage.” High Castle shook her head. “This isn’t some cautionary story about a fairy or a genie; it’s obviously a test of us as suitors. One I intend to pass.” He gestured to his visibly floating castle. “What do you think, Coil? It’s inarguably a castle in the clouds—and with less than a day to prepare I think she’ll be hard pressed to argue I failed her wish.” Then he turned back to his structure. “I assume the rest of you are keeping your particular challenges to yourselves? Certainly, I won’t blame anyone for saving face that they could not satisfy Her Highness’ whims.”

As the other suitors grumbled, I reflected on how satisfying it would have been to break High Castle’s nose. Peanut at least made for better company; despite how unsubtle he tended to be with his motions and body language (a fault shared by many party ponies, in my experience… though they tend to be surprisingly good at cards regardless), he was restrained enough in his dialogue that, if I took my eyes off of him, it was easy to forget he was hitting on me.

“So Gale told everypony she could find all about your adventures,” Peanut began as soon as the other suitors had started sculpting. “But I only know the story as far as River Rock, and what little I picked up from the gossip around town. Did you really fight an army of golems at Platinum’s Landing?”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “Well, I don’t know if it was an ‘army’; there were only a few dozen. But when they’re twenty feet tall…” I shrugged. “You tell me. I imagine I’m going to have to start earlier in the story, though…”

We talked for some time about my journey, interrupted by some waiters with plates and tiny cups of exotic juices—dragonfruit and starfruit and pomegranate (which at the time was an unheard of delicacy in temperate Equestria)—and finally, after my story was done and I looked up, I saw in front of us a half dozen mostly formed castles.

“So… how does this scoring work? I’ve never built an ice castle competitively.”

Peanut shrugged slightly. “There are competition rules, but between us, I don’t really know how they work. I just know what’s worth awards. In short, anything tall and narrow is to be awarded. Architecture is a must of course, and creativity. Color is a plus, but most especially if it isn’t from magic. I probably won’t give any points for Castle’s cloud thing, since he had the advantage of planning.”

“Anything for motion?” I asked.

The question earned me a raised brow from not just Peanut, but also Count Halo and Caporegime. It was the latter who spoke up. “Coil, it’s ice. I don’t know what you’re imagining, but I don’t think most of us can manage to make it move without actually having our wings or horns on it.”

I shook my head. “Sorry; I have no idea if pegasus magic can make something move on its own like that. But… Grayscale, you know what I mean, right? That it’s not that hard to make the ice move on its own?”

Grayscale huffed. “If you’re implying I would cheat by bringing a carved golem core into a perfectly fair competition, then the morals you learned from Wintershimmer are showing. Even if I had wanted to cheat, as Lord Castle already said, he was the only pony who knew we’d have the ice for a game set up in advance.”

“Of course not!” I rolled my eyes. “I apologize; I was assuming you were good enough to make the ice itself into a simple golem. But I forget you’re inept at necromancy.”

There was, suddenly, the loud clang of steel cutting through ice, as in a burst of surprised force, Count Halo drove one of his blades through the walls of his frozen redoubt and decapitated the keep into shards of snowcone base. Unlike Castle’s stem snapping, it was transparent simply from the volume of the noise that the blow had not been intentional. “Lord Coil, please! I knew you came from a dark past, but surely Her Radiance has taught you the error of such dark magic!”

“Necromancy isn’t—” I caught myself as my discussion with Celestia and Hurricane came to mind. I slowly bit my tongue and did my best to heed them. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Count. In my defense that is the magic I used to save Celestia, but—”

“And now you besmirch Her Radiance’s honor again?” If the shattering of the ice sculpture hadn’t gathered the room’s attention, then the increasing volume of Halo’s shouting did.

I held up my hooves to try and calm down the stallion. “Look, Halo… I’m not trying to besmirch anything.”

“Very good,” the stallion nodded. “Then if perhaps the Goddess has not yet seen your practice of the black arts, I shall educate you: such things are forbidden in her faith. If you are to be her chosen, you will renounce their practice forthwith.”

Peanut gently tapped me on the shoulder. “That seems like a nice way to settle things down, and—”

“It’s my special talent,” I interrupted, feeling my ears slowly flatten against my meticulous mane. “You want me to give up my mark?” I reached back with a hoof and patted my flank.

“Surely you’ve misinterpreted it, then,” replied Halo. “Her Radiance would never willingly accept somepony so fundamentally evil—”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted, my voice trembling as I held back the urge to shout. “But even if you were right, even if I stood here, the greatest living necromancer in the entire world, the pale master, younger than anypony who ever held that title before—even if I were somehow wrong, Halo, what happens to your idea of your supposed goddess when I tell you she uses the same spells I do?”

Halo’s face turned a startling shade of red. “You would blaspheme Her Radiance with an accusation of the ultimate sin?”

“Ask her yourself,” I answered, gesturing a hoof toward the door out of the room, where Celestia surely stood.

This, in retrospect, was very much the wrong move.

“Hmph,” Halo scoffed. “I know she speaks to the dead when she judges them; she is a goddess, and it is her right. She does not make corpses walk as you do, Coil.”

“The only corpse I’ve ever made walk is my own,” I snapped back. What I had meant to imply was that I had never forced a soul to act against its own will with my magic.

As it is said, however, implications make an imp out of lies… or something. Maybe that was about assumptions?

Regardless, when Halo drew all his blades in his telekinetic grip and pointed them toward me, along with a shout of “Abomination! For assaulting Her Radiance’s honor and her law, I will destroy you. Duel me, or yield your unnatural existence.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, I’m not undead; I meant—”

“I will hear no more of your lies!” Halo shouted to cut me off. “Serpent-tongued deceiver!”

“Can we not do this now?” I asked. When a sword cut through the air toward me and I had to hop back, skidding my shod hooves on the drawing room’s polished wooden floor, that answer was made painfully clear. “Well… alright. Can we call it a duel to unconsciousness, then? Or first blood? Something—” I rolled backwards when a thrust shot forward, aimed for my throat. “—sporting? And possibly more formal?”

As Halo swung his blades, the suitors scattered backwards. From somewhere on his outfit, Caporegime produced a small knife that he held in his teeth, but the rest were unarmed, and most did not even move as much as to light their horns. I was left to hop behind Spicy’s ice castle, and then wince as a shower of icy shards covered my face and chest—the result of the artwork exploding from a powerful blow from Halo’s swords. Without so much as a pant of exertion, the foppish knight suddenly seemed much more terrifying. His exorbitant moustache was the only part of his body that seemed to twitch.

“Count Halo, you need to stop,” Gray Rain ordered.

The knight merely scoffed as he thrust at me from two separate directions. I narrowly avoided the blades, falling backwards on my back and slightly twisting my hind right hoof in the process. When another sword slashed down from above, I was left with no choice but to roll over as fast as I could to get out of the way. I still felt the blade kiss my shoulder, and I heard the fabric of my new outfit torn open, along with the cold bite of frigid steel in my skin. The blow wasn’t deep, but it filled me with a nervousness, a fear for survival.

And so, taking the fight to Halo, I grabbed a hunk of ice off the floor and flung it at his face. Focused as he was on manipulating so many blades in midair, and I had to assume wary of my magic, he wasn’t prepared for an attack flung from my hoof. The sound of ice breaking on his muzzle was quite satisfying although it didn’t immediately do any meaningful damage. What the blow did buy me was enough time to scamper back to my hooves and throw myself away from his further slashes.

“Halo, stop this!” Grayscale hazarded a blast of magic from his horn—a simple stunning spell any idiot could have managed. In retrospect, it was an absolutely pathetic choice for somepony who called himself ‘archmage’ with a straight face, though I was hardly thinking so critically in the moment.

It hardly mattered; with a surprising display of speed, Halo literally slashed the spell out of the air. Either his swords were coated in a thin layer of a pure metal like silver that would insulate against magic, or the stallion had spent so much time polishing them to a mirror shine that they truly reflected enough of the light in the bolt to turn it away. Regardless, I realized I had underestimated the stallion.

Fortunately, I found myself with an opening when he turned to shoot a glare in Grayscale’s direction. “He has blasphemed Her Radiance; are you not a noble, mage? Where is your honor? You ought to join me?”

“In fighting Coil? I don’t have a…”

The drawing off of Grayscale’s answer was my fault. As he had been talking, I gritted my teeth and lit my horn, in spite of Meadowbrook’s orders. After all, I had to imagine a bit of damage to my horn would be easier for her to heal than my death by impalement. And with my horn lit, I let my magic build up into a surge.

My horn, you may recall from my first volume, had a peculiar defect: its grooves were too tightly placed together. Whereas the groove on a normal unicorn’s horn wraps around the horn three or four times from base to tip, mine wrapped something closer to a dozen. If you aren’t a unicorn, this might simply mean I had a subtle, unusual appearance, but in fact it had a far more tangible effect. When a unicorn casts a spell, they first saturate the grooves of their horn with magical energy, called mana; since magic is inductive to itself (like the relationship between electrical current and magnetism), this results in a powerful magical aura (the glow you see around the horn) emitting out the direction the horn is pointing. The more raw mana, the stronger the aura, which is what most ponies would actually think of as ‘magic’, such as speaking to a dead pony or turning somepony into a newt or a pair of socks, or in one particularly situational example, telekinesis.

Young unicorn foals, whose grooves occupy more of the surface area of their horns than adults, tend to exhibit magic by huge surges of brute power that can sometimes cast powerful, if basic, versions of a mage’s spells like teleportation or the inversion of gravity. These spells are vastly more powerful than a pony of that age ought to be able to wield, but they are also tiring; the blood only contains so much mana at a time, and using up too much begins to deplete calories one needs for tasks like staying conscious. Due to my unique horn condition, I never grew out of that phase; my spells were brutally powerful, easily the rival of Star Swirl the Bearded’s might in brute force (though even I won’t pretend I was his equal in complexity or education, at least at the time). The cost, however, was that I could cast only two spells without considerable rest—usually, a night’s sleep. A third spell would most often find me passed out unconscious as my body was drained of all the energy it could muster. This also delightfully came accompanied the following morning by a ‘sober hangover’, as Gale would term it.

I stressed this for two reasons, and the first one was that with a sudden surge of telekinesis, I removed Halo from the drawing room completely. I will emphasize that the previous sentence said telekinesis and not teleportation, because Halo left through the door. I will emphasize that the previous sentence said door and not doorway, because I did not use any form of mental control. I will emphasize that the previous sentence did not specify mental control of Halo, because the room into which I threw him, in a cloud of splinters and shattered drywall, was the massively occupied ballroom where any manner of music or small talk stopped with all the grace of a harp string snapping.

“...deathwish,” Archmage Grayscale finished, turning to me with a noticeably paler tone to his face than usual.

“Did you kill Count Halo?” Peanut asked hesitantly.

I shook my head. “He’ll be fine. At worst, maybe I broke a rib or two. But in my defense… well, it was self-defense.”

High Castle shook his head, disbelieving. “Coil, you threw him through the wall!”

Caporegime, who had a slightly better perspective out the hole in the wall I had created added “And straight through one of the cloudstone pillars in the ballroom. And then off the balcony and down a story of open air onto a marble dance floor. I mean, I could walk that off, but it’d hurt. And he’s not…” As the pegasus gesticulated and his words failed, more of his peculiar accent slipped into his speech. “Yanno, he ain’t no spring chicken.”

“I was holding him with telekinesis, so my magic would have blunted a lot of the wounds,” I explained to the assembled suitors. “Trust me; I used to hurl guardsponies through walls in the Crystal Union all the time.” This was not, in retrospect, the most helpful addition. Gray Rain, in a particular show of self-awareness, took a single step back.

I took a moment with my hooves to settle my outfit on my neck and shoulders. “Well… I should make sure that calmed his temper. Gentlestallions. Spicy. It’s been a pleasure.” Halfway out the hole that had formerly been a door, I glanced back and added “Oh, and… Caporegime, I think it was part of your castle I broke on his face, so for helping save my life, I vote that you won the contest.”

As I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the ballroom, all eyes were either on me or on Count Halo, who was slowly stirring in the quite visible crater his weight and my somewhat brute force ‘spike’ of his body had left in the ballroom dance floor. More than a few guardsponies had gathered around him, though when I appeared I saw their swords quickly aimed in my direction.

Halo flicked out a hoof. “No; he’s mine.” When the soldiers held their ground, he bellowed with a force that sent his blazing orange moustache bouncing like as much fire. “All of you; that is an order. I am Sir Halo, Knight of the Platinum Throne! Stand down!”

To my amusement, the guardsponies settled back, though a quick glance toward the head of the ballroom suggested Commander Typhoon and Queen Platinum were both on the verge of intervening themselves.

“Had enough, Count?” I called out. “I understand this isn’t how a duel to the death usually ends, but now you’ve got to realize you’re out of your league.”

“Coil!” Queen Platinum shouted. “What is the meaning of this?!”

“He’s an abomination, my Queen!” Count Halo helpfully explained in the form of a spiteful shout. “A walking corpse, in violation of Her Radiance’s will and all natural order, and—”

“No. For the last time, I died, but that doesn’t mean I am dead.” I shook my head as the old knight responded not with words, but by lifting his armaments with a glow on his horn. I had the foresight, at least, to realize that most of them had not come with him from the room behind me, and to roll to the side as they came flying, points-first, through the theoretical Morty-shaped outline in the air where I had just been standing.

“Stop this, both of you!” Celestia shouted, rushing forward from the crowd with wings flared wide and horn lit. “There’s no need for violence!”

“My Lady, my oath is clear.” Halo lifted his swords toward me and readied his shield. “Not only is he an abomination and a deceiver, but he blasphemes your power! I cannot stand idly by such sins! This can only end when one of us lies dead.”

“Don’t be so stubborn!” Celestia snapped, her teeth practically gnashing.

“I would rather die than betray your honor, my lady. My faith holds strong through any test. And he admits his own mark is heresy.”

Somepony in the crowd gave Halo a bit of applause. Celestia actually turned her glowing horn toward him, her brow furrowed and her wings raised. “Count Halo—”

“He’s too stubborn to listen and too stupid to see he’s outclassed,” I called out to Celestia. My own rage at his comments still seethed in my blood, but I managed to force it down enough at least to make a promise. “Let me finish this. I promise I won’t do anything permanent.”

Halo shook his head and nickered, scraping at the marble ballroom floor. “Do not think you can best me now that I know to expect your spells, necromancer.”

I made a show of letting out a sigh loud enough that most of the room could hear it, and turned fully away from Halo to raise a brow at Celestia. She sighed, shrugged her wings, and gave a single fateful nod. Then it was my turn to face Halo. “Last chance,” I told him. “You absolutely insist on this being to the death? You won’t give up even if I stun you and you wake up the day after tomorrow?”

Remember that I could only cast two spells in a day without passing out; that was the primary concern in my warning. Were I in possession of a normal horn like most wizards, and not on the mend from a far more dangerous battle only a short time earlier, I could have easily defeated a pompous imbecile like Halo blindfolded. It wasn’t fear of the stallion, but my concern for my dwindling supply of mana that prompted my warning.

Halo drew his shield. “Your spells are no match for my mirrored shield, Coil. You won’t take me by surprise again. I—”

And then he collapsed. Because I ripped out his soul. Six blades clattered on the marbled floor along with a mirrored shield (which, judging by the lack of shattering glass, must have been enchanted). I also let out a small scream as my horn burned like it had been dipped in molten skysteel, protesting the use of my magic. Most notably, though, the ethereal, faintly blue-tinged and partially translucent soul of the late Count Halo hung in the air above the room.

Several ponies screamed. One especially dramatic mare fainted. I just rubbed my forehead, both in physical agony and emotional irritation.

“There you go, Halo. You’re dead. Congratulations.” I turned to Gale and sarcastically added “Happy Birthday, for what it’s worth.” That comment earned me a lot more astonished, offended gasps than I had intended; in my pain, I had largely forgotten about my audience.

With some sheepishness, I turned back to the soul I had in my magical grip. As I spoke to Halo’s personality and will and consciousness, severed as it was from his more… meaty existence, I paced along the balcony and toward the stairs down to the dance floor. “Now, you’ve got two choices. If I let go, your soul goes… well, I guess right over there to Celestia, and she judges you. Presumably she lets you carry on into the Summer Lands, you get your eternal reward. That would mean you’re actually dead like I was, even though your body right there below you is still alive; comatose, but very much still breathing. If that’s what you want, I’ll smother your body with a pillow or snap its neck or something to put it out of its misery, and your family or whoever cares about your stubborn, puffed-up obsession with honor buries you. But if you agree to stop trying to murder me, and that your soul being out of your body counts as being dead, like I tried to explain while you were trying to stab me, then I can still undo this spell and put your soul back into your—and let me repeat myself—still very much living, breathing body right there on the floor.” I nodded down to the comatose stallion in question. “Which is exactly what I did to save my own life. So to reiterate, I’m not undead, and you won’t be either.” I sighed and gritted my teeth against the pain of my horn. “I am going to need you to make a decision soon, though; my horn still isn’t healed from the last time I had a magic duel, and it’s starting to get very sore.”

Halo—meaning his disembodied soul—looked down at his own ghostly hooves. “Unhand me with your dark magic, you—”

“Celestia, do you want to try and get it through his thick skull, or should I actually let go? My grip really is failing...”

“Please put him back, Morty.” Celestia outright flew down to his side. “Count Halo, I want you to listen to me very closely.”

“Hold on,” I interrupted her. “Getting his ears back will be a little disorienting. At least, it was for me.”

With a sort of slurping noise, I returned Halo to life. He immediately gasped, and then massaged his body as if checking for open wounds, or perhaps loose change.

“Let me make myself clear,” said Celestia, looming over him. “In the past you have insisted that I was ‘testing your faith’ when I disagreed with you, and then ignored my wishes and did things in my name I did not approve of. The truth is, I am not interested in testing your faith. I humored you because nopony was getting hurt until today, but you tried to kill Morty for being completely honest with you, and I cannot abide that. If he had been somepony weaker, you would have killed an innocent pony in my name, and if he had been less forgiving, you might have died. So I must insist that you never, ever again try to use violence to defend my honor. If I truly feel offended, I’m quite capable of defending myself, as Morty and Princess Gale can both attest.”

“I…” Halo hung his head. “Forgive me, Your Radiance.”

“Celestia,” the alicorn corrected. “Please.”

Halo swallowed, as if the simple name were like broccoli or asparagus to a young foal’s palette. “Yes, Celestia.” Then he lifted his head. “I must beg your mercy, Lord Coil; you have bested me in a fair knight’s duel. What recompense can I offer?”

I glanced up to Gale and winked. “Stop trying to pursue Gale’s hoof.”

“Her Highness…” Halo swallowed. “Very well.” Bowing his head, the forty-something knight turned toward Gale, standing above us in the ballroom. “Your Highness, Your Majesty, as a Knight, I must regretfully yield my suitorship. May you find worthy love with another in Her R—in Celestia’s grace.”

Queen Platinum took a bold step forward. “Count Halo, please wait—”

“Mother,” interrupted Gale, donning her ‘royal’ voice. “We cannot dishonor a knight of our own court by trying to tempt him into breaking his word, can we?”

Queen Platinum fumed, first at her daughter, and then very briefly in my direction. However, despite her irritation, her voice rang out over the room as clear as crystal (and as hard as iron). “Very well. Everypony, as I see this party has gotten… rowdy… I will request that we skip the continued pleasantries and gather in the throne room. The Princess and I have something to discuss with you all as our honored guests.”

1-12

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I - XII

The Queen

The ponies of Equestria gave me a wide berth as we moved into the throne room, but their whispers would have been audible even to the deaf, and maybe even the dead. “Coil the Immortal?” some of them asked, remembering my introduction to the court. Was it true? Could the barely adult colt really not be killed? Others spoke in scandal, that I was the Princess’ secret lover—remembering when she had flagrantly pleasured my horn in open court, with dramatic success in her twin goals offending her mother and distracting the court enough to save my life from a false accusation when my logic couldn’t save me. Still others wondered about my relationship to Celestia, and whether I deserved her favor over somepony more deserving—meaning, of course, somepony with pure blood from a well-bred and well-established family.

Queen Platinum I loathed all of it, and she made it known by glaring out of the corner of her eye whenever our gazes met. I found myself standing ever so subtly closer to Celestia’s side in nervousness, though I had no real reason to believe the Queen could do anything to me that Halo had failed to.

That self-confidence, incidentally, would be proven to be a massive lack of imagination on my part, but that’s another Tale.

Queen Platinum had meant for all eyes to stay on Gale that day, and I had ruined her perfect plan. For that, I had become an enemy. But even by literally killing a pony and resurrecting him in front of the entire upper echelon of Equestrian society, I still could not command public attention like the Queen.

She sat in the central of the three Equestrian thrones, a position she had no doubt won by being both Hurricane and Puddinghead’s superior in the great game of politics by just as great a gap as the one separating myself from Count Halo in the art of magical battle. Commander Typhoon sat to her right, comfortably filling the throne built for her father, and on the Queen’s left, Puddinghead, likewise reclined; the earth pony leader was clearly more focused on his plate of snacks than the proceedings.

Queen Platinum’s horn briefly lit, and let off a small spark; the sort of small tell of a failed spell. Truly, if I hadn’t spent so much of my youth struggling with my overgrooved horn, I doubt I would have noticed or recognized it for what it was, and I doubt anypony else in the room could say the same. Regardless, the Queen leaned over to Gale, and after sharing a few whispered words, Gale’s horn ignited; her magical aura briefly wrapped around the Queen’s throat. I wondered what she had said to offend her daughter that flagrantly, before Platinum spoke up, and her magically amplified voice revealed that her daughter was not, in fact, choking her.

“Gentlestallions and Noblemares, honored guests, family, and friends; thank you for joining us on this, the celebration of my daughter’s eighteenth birthday.” A small polite round of applause swept the room. “I understand you’ve been enjoying your meals and some music and dancing and company… amongst other pastimes…” She shot a glance at me, and the room issued a polite chuckle. “But,” the Queen continued, “I wanted to share a few words. Most of you will remember three years ago, when we gathered to recognize Princess Platinum the Third as the rightful heir to this throne.”

The Queen slowly tapped the chair, and over how silent the room grew, that metallic tink of a hoof on literal platinum rang like a bell. “And though like all teenagers, my beloved daughter tests my patience at times, I have no doubt that she has a heart that truly cares for Equestria and for the unicorns.” Queen Platinum shot a small smile to her daughter, although Gale wore a stony expression that gave barely so much as a glance in response.

“Twenty two long years ago I lost my first foal to the Scourge of Kings. Princess Platinum the Second, may her soul rest in the Summer Lands, was taken by the disease that runs in the blood of my family. It was nothing short of a miracle that when my beloved Commander Hurricane returned in the company of the Divine Sisters, we found ourselves fond of one another’s company. I know there has been some controversy around my marrying a pegasus, even one as selfless in his work to sustain our new nation as Hurricane, but he has given me the ultimate gift in my daughter; an heir free of the Scourge, and of my fear in losing another foal.”

Queen Platinum’s voice hitched, and as we all watched, she struggled to swallow. “Knowing another Princess Platinum is turning eighteen now brings hard memories for me; I was my daughter’s age when Cyclone’s rebellion took the life of my father, King Lapis the Fourth. And though I will always be grateful for the lessons he taught me before I took the throne, I sorely wish I had been able to learn more from him before he was gone. I am still in good health, and though I’m sure I’ve offended one or two of you in the past, I don’t think anypony has a wish on my life.” A small chuckle swept the room. “But still,” the Queen continued, “I want my daughter to be able to have that experience that I never had; not only for her own good, but for the good of Equestria, I would not have her find herself suddenly burdened by the crown, struggling to find her footing.

“Which is why, effectively immediately, I am stepping away from the throne and announcing my daughter’s regency.”

Gasps like thunder echoed on palatial stone. Even Gale’s head snapped toward her mother in blatant shock. Queen Platinum merely steepled her hooves, waiting for silence, as the whispers began. And seeing her looking out, obviously waiting, the noise that rose up quickly died again, as ponies looked to their… now former monarch, for some clarification.

“My daughter is, of course, a busy mare; I understand she has seven… six suitors in her consideration, and I have no desire to steal her youth from her completely. So, at her wishes, I will still be filling the throne to allow her time she needs for personal affairs. And on those days when Her Majesty is present, I will be present to offer her my wisdom whenever she seeks it. So please, dear mares and gentlestallions, please understand that this is not intended to be some great shock to Equestria. I assure you, life will proceed much as it has before today.” Then the Queen-Mother, as she had suddenly titled herself even without saying the term, swallowed again, and leaned forward in the throne to command the attention of the room. “Lady Celestia, would you please join us here on the dais?”

As Celestia stepped away from my side, leaving me feeling very much naked and exposed in the crowded throne room, Queen Platinum the First rose from the throne and took her place at its hoof, facing the now empty seat. “Princess Platinum, the throne is yours.”

Gale nervously glanced to her Celestia, and then to her mother; the latter nodded firmly once. It was amazing how different the act of swallowing could be between the two mares; for Platinum, it had been a sign of emotion, of focusing her will. For Gale, it was clearly a display of nervousness, of hesitance. Nevertheless, she stepped in front of her mother, and slowly lowered herself into the throne.

It took a few moments for Celestia to reach mother and daughter, but when she did, she took the surprising position of standing directly behind the throne. Its tall back covered up most of her torso, but her massive height meant that her head and neck rose above the throne. When she spread her wings wide, the display similarly gave the effect of those powerful white limbs emerging from the throne—an endorsement of Gale’s rule by a far more literal divine right than any of the hundreds of monarchs before her in her bloodline had held.

“Princess Platinum, the third of that name, you are already recognized by this court as the rightful heir to the crown of the diamond kingdoms.” The words were obviously rehearsed, not only because they sounded nothing like Celestia’s usual vocabulary but because of how forced she sounded in delivering them. Still, that slightly stilted pronunciation when delivered with forceful enunciation from the head of an immortal alicorn towering over the throne carried a sort of weight that few other ponies could manage. “Now the crown is offered to you as Queen-Regent. Remember your oaths: that you will rule for the good of your subjects above yourself, that you will offer your life in recompense if your rule leads them to ruin, that you will give the throne an heir to continue the line of kings, that you will yield the throne if you lose the favor of…” Celestia hesitated for a moment, before awkwardly concluding “...your gods. And that you will not seek to prolong your rule beyond the years allotted to you. Will you accept this yoke now, until death releases you or you lay it down to another willing?”

Gale swallowed. “I…” The Queen looked up from her place in front of her daughter and silently nodded. “I will.”

Celestia’s golden magic surrounded the crown on Queen Platinum’s brow and lifted it up from the silvery hairs of the elder monarch’s mane. “Then I, and Equestria, now recognize you as Queen-Regent of the unicorns, and co-monarch of the Equestrian ponies.” With just as much delicate care, the crown came to rest on Gale’s head, completing a look the Queen had obviously intended for its placement, judging by Gale’s manecut having a perfect place for the metal crest to rest. For all Gale hated being so dressed up, I had to admit the Queen’s plan had worked; Gale was glorious.

And then to add another heart-stopping shock to the already stunned room, the white wings behind the throne lowered. Celestia walked around to the front of the throne and took her place beside the elder Queen Platinum. Together the two mares slowly lowered themselves, until their horns touched the steps leading up to the thrones. “My Queen,” they said, first Platinum and then Celestia.

For the Queen to make such a demonstration was an obvious vote of confidence in her daughter. But for Celestia, the living breathing goddess of Equestria to lower herself in allegiance to Gale… well, to say that it broke the ponies in the room would be an understatement. Some ponies were so shocked that for a moment, they failed to recognize the prompt to bow, even as the rest of the room lowered themselves in recognition of the new ruler.

I had no such qualms. And when I said “My Queen”, for the first time, I felt I could call myself an Equestrian. In case I have not made the point obvious, I had no great love for Platinum. But for Gale, I had no hesitance in offering my loyalty.

I have made no secret that this collection, these Tales, are not really my story; this is why. I know many history books one can find in modern Equestria remember Queen Platinum III. Rare is the classroom syllabus that lacks a few paragraphs on the Warrior-Queen, founder of the Royal Guard, Equestria’s first true monarch…

But before she was all those things, she was my Gale; a strong-hearted, strong-headed, rebellious, nervous young mare who had just found herself pushed off the edge of a very tall cliff by her mother and told to spread her wings and fly. And though Queen Platinum would be proven right about her daughter’s heart, amongst many other things, it was these first two years that would define the mare who would come to define our nation.

If only I had known just how much those early years for Equestria would cost us.

1-13

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I - XIII

The Gift

As much as another orderly greeting queue could be called rampant chaos, the throne room exploded into anarchy. The political whispers were deafening. Backroom dealings swiftly filled up all the palace’s available back rooms and spilled out onto the buffet table, ensnaring the unfortunate palace staff and their trays of drinks in inky deals for half-explained favors and political maneuvering.

The new queen, the ruler of the unicorn third of Equestria, was half pegasus, and from the way the room reacted, you might have been forgiven for thinking she was also half fish or something. For all the effort that it had taken me to avoid Count Halo’s blades in our little duel, it was harder for me to stay standing and untrampled in that chaotic mess than it had been to keep myself un-impaled. So as the great queue formed, I ducked my way between the courtiers and the nobles and found my way to the side of the room and a quiet bench where I wouldn’t cause too much distress.

There I waited and watched as the room’s occupants funneled their way up the stairs for what seemed like interminable hours. And while the process was perhaps boring for me, I at least had the opportunity to sneak over to the buffet tables and devour a dinner or two, making up for both the exertion of a brief magical duel, and the cruel reality that I had once again been forced to skip lunch. I likewise made small talk with whatever guests weren’t either disgusted by my lack of a pure noble bloodline or terrified of the fact that I had literally killed a stallion only a few minutes earlier, but for the most part, I was left to be bored alone while the greeting line ground forward at a sloth’s pace.

Gale had no such small mercies. I watched through the hours as her face lost its expression of shock and grew visibly gaunter and flatter, her eyes growing glassy and staring further and further into the empty space behind the head of whoever was speaking to her. Three hours, four hours, five passed, and the guests began to slowly head back to their homes. I earned only a moment of Celestia’s time when she finally stepped down from the dais, but she shook her head as she passed, and simply uttered “I took care of it,” before fleeing the room entirely. So I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And, finally, when the line was finished, Queen Platinum whispered something into Gale’s ear, and she stood up from the throne. The crown glimmered on her brow as her magic wrapped around her own throat—and though I have no doubt in my mind that she wished she could have strangled herself in that moment, the magic she cast instead projected her voice around the room. “Friends, honored guests… Thank you so much for your time, and for joining me today. Alas, the night grows late, and I think our time together is at its end. If anypony traveled here from outside the city, I invite you to speak to one of the guards, and they can see to providing you with one of the palace’s guest rooms. Otherwise, I bid you a good night and pleasant dreams, and I thank you again.”

Then, without so much as a breath, she whirled with enough force to make the hem of her dress crack like a whip in the air and snuck out through a small doorway concealed behind the three thrones. I knew the opportune moment when I saw it, and rose from my seat to start walking against the tide of the last lingering guests up towards the thrones.

“Sir, I… oh; it’s you.” The speaker was a guardspony stepping into my path near the foot of the stairs, and upon recognizing me, his blocking posture became just a bit more nervous. “The party is over, and—”

“My ears do work,” I interrupted him. “I was waiting for everypony else to go home to go talk to her. So if you would excuse me,”

“Sir… uh, Mr? Archmage Coil…? I can’t let you past.”

I reached up to my temple and rubbed it gently. “Look… Would you let me by if Celestia vouched for me? Because I’d rather be friendly like that than threaten to hurl you through the wall.”

The guard frowned in a bit of concern and more than a bit of visible confusion. “Doesn’t bringing it up at all count as a threat?”

“If it is, are you intimidated enough to get out of my way? Or do I need to go find Celestia now?”

The guard shook his head in disbelief. “It’s a crime to threaten an Equestrian legionary—”

“Let him through, legionary.” The firm voice that spoke up belonged to Commander Hurricane, and the fact that the soldier in my way immediately darted to the side, offering the retired leader a stiff salute, indicated that calling him ‘Commander’ Hurricane despite his ostensible retirement was completely appropriate. “This isn’t the Crystal Union, Morty,” Hurricane told me as I proceeded up toward his place standing near what had once been his own throne. “Throwing your weight around like that in Equestria will come back to bite you.”

“To be honest, if my horn weren’t hurting, I would have just skipped the trouble and teleported straight past him.” I nodded to Hurricane. “But thank you for stepping in. I just need to give Gale her present.”

Hurricane chuckled. “I heard.” When I stopped and turned to the old stallion, surprise written plain on my face, he explained himself. “Celestia told me your idea; I got all the ponies together like you suggested, plus a few you probably haven’t met yet. Are you sure that’s really what you want to spend your ‘royal boon’ on?”

I shrugged. “If that’s what it costs, so be it. Now, I should get going before Gale kills somepony.”

“After your performance tonight, is that the best joke?” Despite the fatigue in his voice, Hurricane gestured with his one remaining wing for me to go on ahead.

The door behind the three thrones led to a small sitting room intended for the three heads of state and their attendants. Though Equestria had a parliament, hundreds if not thousands of bureaucrats and statesponies, and enough paperwork to make one fear for the extinction of papyrus reeds in its territories, it was this one tiny room that played host to nearly every major political decision in the nation’s early history. It was, in short, ‘the room where it happens’, for almost any conceivable value of ‘it’.

On that day, the room held three ponies: both living Queen Platinums, and the younger’s half-sister, Commander Typhoon. It was the elder Platinum who first looked up when I entered the room, and immediately her eyes narrowed. “Typhoon, please find out which one of your guards let him in here, so I can have him imprisoned.”

“It was your husband,” I told her with a slight grin, before stepping past Platinum to properly face Gale. It was before her that I gave the most respectful, sincere bow I knew how to manage. “Your Majesty.”

Gale groaned. “Not you too, Morty!”

“What are you actually doing back here, Coil?” The elder Platinum asked as I stood up. “Haven’t you already done enough with poor Count Halo?”

I glared at the mare, gesturing to my slashed open shoulder. “He started it by literally trying to murder me. And at the end of it I’m the only pony who was really hurt; I don’t know what more you want out of me, but I can’t imagine that having gone better.” Then I nodded toward Gale. “To answer your fairer question, I came to give her my present.”

Commander Typhoon, clad in her sleek black armor, raised her scarred brow. “You got Gale a present?”

Gale scowled at me. “So you’re fucking deaf? I told you not to bother. And I assumed if anything, getting rid of Halo was the best present you could have given.” When Platinum shot her daughter a soured glance, Gale made a rather rude gesture with her foreleg. “He’s closer to your age than mine. It’s completely disgusting!”

“Count Halo is a pinnacle of unicorn nobility, and an esteemed member of your court, Princess—” There came a forced cough from the older mare’s throat. “Queen Platinum; if you don’t favor him, that’s fine, but you cannot afford to burn bridges by openly insulting him or siding with this necromancer.”

I coughed into my hoof. “For somepony who mere hours ago gave an elaborate speech about how much she wishes she could have had more time to learn about ruling from her late father, you’re certainly quick to brush off my magic.” I then slipped my hoof into the breast of my vest and produced a long band of silk, which I offered to Gale.

She raised a brow. “Uh… thanks? Is it enchanted?”

“Either that, or he’s about to do some stage magic for you,” Typhoon noted dryly.

“Oh, sorry; it’s a blindfold. So it can be a surprise.”

Gale’s eyes briefly jumped to her mother before she looked back at me with a sultry grin. “Kinky.”

Absolutely not. We will not have your image sullied wandering through the streets blindfolded like a... a pet on a lead to this charlatan!” Platinum’s eyes narrowed as she observed Gale’s grin grow suddenly wider. “Daughter, if you say that word to me again, so help me I will end this game with your suitors and just choose one for you.”

I held up my hooves defensively. “Look, I don’t care about the blindfold; I didn’t mean to offend anypony.”

“It’s fine, Platinum,” Typhoon nodded. “Dad told me what he was up to earlier; I didn’t realize that was what you meant by a ‘present’. I promise, he’s not going to cause her any trouble--politically or personally. And Dad will be with them to make sure they stay out of trouble.”

“Fine. But no blindfolds.” Platinum ordered.

Gale made a great effort of making her ensuing “Aww…” sound as disappointed and as grating as possible, but she nevertheless made her way over to my side. It was in a whisper that she addressed me. “Get me out of here, Morty.”

We were nearly to the door, though, when Platinum called to me over our shoulders. “Oh, and Coil; I will be in contact. Soon.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Though I immediately led Gale away from her mother, Hurricane stopped us back in the throne room and pulled us aside to another of the palace’s many rooms, to give Gale some chance to escape the confines of her court-suitable outfit. That left me standing outside in the hallways of the palace, alone with Commander Hurricane.

He raised a brow in my direction. “So, Morty, I have to ask: did you really think of this yourself?”

I shrugged. “Gale told me about eighty times when we were traveling, that she wanted to get away from…” I waved my hoof in the direction of the throne room. “...all of this. I obviously can’t just run away with her again with my horn the way it is.”

Hurricane winced. “I’m not as skeptical of your friendship as my better half, Morty, and I know it wasn’t your fault the last time. But so that we are clear: if you deliberately put my daughter in that kind of danger again, I will kill you.”

Now isn’t the time to describe exactly how that made me feel, but suffice it to say the apple of my throat was suddenly substantially thicker than my esophagus. “O… of course not, sir. I won’t have time; not if I’m going to be spending my time studying with Celestia.” I sighed. “And especially not after today’s surprise, I imagine.”

“You know her better than all her other suitors, then.” Hurricane leaned against the wall, watching me skeptically. When one word in his phrase caught in the clockwork of my mind, he donned a slight grin.

“What do you mean—”

“I was young once too, Morty,” Hurricane non-explained. “As hard as that might be to believe looking at me now.” He gestured down to his braced foreleg, helping to support an arthritic knee that I had to suspect had also been injured in one of the countless battles of the stallion’s long lifetime. And then, seemingly off-hoof, he said something that has quite literally haunted me for more lifetimes than he could possibly have imagined.

“Have you looked closely at her marks?”

The context in which I heard that question: perhaps the most dangerous father in the entire equine species asking me if I had looked closely at his daughter’s flanks, should hopefully explain the resolute shake of my head ‘no’.

Hurricane chuckled. “You should.”

I have rarely had the opportunity to turn quite so red, or to be quite so interested in the pattern of the carpet. Hurricane must have been the tactical genius history remembers him as, given how easily he managed to find everypony else he spoke to flat-hooved. “I beg your pardon?!” I coughed into my hoof. “I mean, not that I don’t think Gale is beautiful, but...”

When Hurricane was sure I wasn’t going to finish that sentence, he shook his own head slowly. “Love is when you understand somepony’s mark—and what it really represents—like it was yours, and you put it ahead of your own.”

“Um…”

“As much as Gale might like to pretend she only has a rapier on her sides, there’s a crown there too,” Hurricane mused on, closing his eyes and leaning heavily against the wall.

“What do you—”

The door beside Hurricane abruptly slammed open with Gale’s magic; she emerged devoid of her entire outfit and all the makeup she could remove without struggling with a rag; only a touch of vibrant purple lining around her eyes remained. “Fucking finally.” She rolled her neck, and I was amused to note that Hurricane winced in just as much discomfort as I felt at the sound of his daughter’s joints popping. She glanced to me, and then to Hurricane. “Did I interrupt something?”

“I was just telling Morty that he’s welcome to one of the guest bedrooms at home,” Hurricane lied. “Since I have a hunch Celestia would like her bed back. And I was thanking him for helping bring Blizzard here.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “You’re such a fucking sap, Dad. Come on, Morty; let’s go.”

“Um… I don’t actually know where we’re going.”

“What?”

I shook my head and then nodded my horn at Hurricane. “I know the name of the place, but I haven’t actually been there…”

“I’ll lead,” Hurricane offered. “You’ll have to forgive me for my pace, though.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

As you likely recall, in the heart of Riverward one could find a dance hall named The Sordid Affair. The sign, colored with parasprite fuzz paint, glowed neon pink and blue in the summer night air of Everfree, as classy as a clown’s novelty water-squirting boutonniere at a wake. Even Gale, ever the afficionado of seedy bars and shadowy back-alley hostels, glanced at me skeptically as we approached.

“Morty, if I really wanted to go ballroom dancing, the one at the palace is a hell of a lot nicer.”

Hurricane quirked his brow. “I thought this was your favorite dance hall, Gale.”

“On the weekend, when they play good music. Most of the time it’s all the usual Waltzes and Boulangere and whatever the fuck that dance Mom likes where everypony trots in a circle.” Gale stopped just before the doors, and looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and then suddenly her face went rather sheepish. “I mean… look, I appreciate the thought. After all that bullshit, and what happened, doing something without all the pomp and prestige is a great idea. But honestly, let’s just go back home.”

“Give me a chance, Gale.” I took her hoof, pulled her the rest of the way over to the door, and (utilizing the absolute extent of my balance to support myself on only my hind legs for just a moment), pushing it open.

“Happy Birthday, Gale!”

Gale staggered back at the sound of a mass of voices coming from inside the dance hall, and then her face broke into one of the widest smiles I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing on her.

In the center of the cheap lacquered oak dance floor, a huddle of Gale’s friends and family were gathered around a chocolate cake with a mess of dribbly little candles sticking out the top. I recognized most of the faces: Graargh, Blizzard, and Angel, our other three traveling companions from the battle with Wintershimmer. Gale’s big sister, Commander Typhoon, with her adjutant and office romance Frostfall, and Typhoon’s son Tempest, who was amusingly Gale’s nephew despite his being a few years older than her, thanks the titanic age gap separating freshly eighteen-year-old Gale from her forty-five year old elder sister. Then there were the fresher introductions: cyclopic, masculine Iron Rain, wearing a sword by her side that really didn’t seem to fit at a birthday party of all gatherings, and her husband Pathfinder, the only stallion I have ever known to have lost more of his fur and mane to scar tissue than to aging. They had dragged their son Gray along, though I had the sneaking suspicion he was more of baggage, and that the elder Rain was the real ‘friend’. I recognized Somnambula as well, the ‘Pillar of Hope’ from the desert sands to the south, if you believe in that sort of thing, though at the time I had barely spoken to her for thirty seconds in my life. And beside her, a mare in a palace servant’s uniform who I had never met.

“Holy shit, Morty… how… Do you even know half these ponies?”

I shrugged. “Credit where credit is due, it was my idea, but I did hardly any of the legwork. And to be honest, I don’t know if it’s really worth a ‘holy shit’; you’ve seen me raise the dead, and a cheap cake and a rented out dance hall are what impresses you?”

“You really know how to ruin any moment, don’t you?” Gale kissed me full on the lips, slipping in just the slightest hint of tongue, right in front of all the aforementioned ponies.

Iron Rain, in all her sixty-something years of wisdom, wolf-whistled, joined by the mare I didn’t recognize. Apparently, that hadn’t been planned, judging by the way the two mares then turned awkwardly to stare at one another. The most notable voice, however, was a small, high pitched, scratchy one at about my knee height, yelling “Eww, yucky!”

The speaker was Graargh, my ‘little brother’ if you will—an adolescent grizzly bear cub as far as anypony’s eyes were concerned, but actually a very young changeling for anypony in the know. At the time, of course, the word ‘changeling’ meant nothing to me save that if he ‘pretended’ hard enough he could shapeshift, and that unlike a pony using magic to transmute their form, his changed shapes actually worked. I had only heard the word from Celestia and Luna’s mouths; I, and the rest of Equestria, had yet to encounter Chrysalis and her hordes.

Graargh leapt up on me and knocked me back, wrapping his forelegs around my neck and putting quite a lot of dense grizzly bear weight on my shoulders. Still, even if I was a skinny young stallion, I’d carried the little cub on my shoulders across about half of Equestria and back, so the weight wasn’t unbearable.

“What happen to Morty’s neck?” Graargh asked.

I had honestly forgotten about the gaping, apparently open wound, and had to chuckle at the question. “Magic accident; it’s fine, Graargh. I’m just finishing healing up. How are you?”

“I good!” Graargh answered. “I stay with Papa Cane and Blizzard!”

I raised a brow and glanced Blizzard, who had adopted her usual posture around strange new ponies: wings bunched up to her neck, trying to lower her not insubstantial height as much as possible, and attempting to sneak over to the Hurricane’s side as a source of relative stability in the gathering.

“Have you two been having fun, then?” I asked.

The mare in question jumped. “Oh! Morty. Uh, yes. Fun party. I, um… I don’t know anypony here really except Mr. Pathfinder, and Aunt Typhoon, so I was just going to leave—”

“Not a fucking chance, Blizzard,” Gale interrupted, awkwardly hefting a foreleg over the shoulders of her half-niece. “I’ve been trying to get you to leave Dad’s house for, what, three weeks? The least you can do for my birthday is stick around. Besides, like half the ponies in this room are family.”

Blizzard swallowed. “That’s… kind of what I’m worried about.”

For those unfamiliar with the mare from my prior story, Blizzard was the daughter of Hurricane’s eldest foal, Cyclone—or, as more modern history texts may recall him, Tsyklon. At the time, however, Cyclone had yet to become the father of Stalliongrad, but instead had the wonderful title of ‘the Betrayer’. At the time of the events of the first Hearth’s Warming Day, while Hurricane and co. were away from their respective frozen civilizations in the Compact Lands, Cyclone decided that as Hurricane’s heir, he was entitled to lead the pegasi of the Cirran Legions. And in all the infinite wisdom of an eighteen year old with virtually unlimited military power at his hooves and a desire to make a name for himself in the history books, Cyclone decided to declare war on the unicorns and the earth ponies, secure food for the pegasi by force, and return to the ancient homeland of Cirra to win the war with the griffons that Hurricane had famously run away from.

Which really just goes to show that the Queen should have been happy I only killed one pony in self-defense in the middle of Gale’s surprise coronation party.

Cyclone failed, of course, in no small part because Hurricane actually came back alive and well. From that point, as I understand it, simply ordering his forces to stop and telling them he wasn’t mad, but just disappointed, solved most of the problem. Nevertheless, he wasn’t fast enough to stop Cyclone from breaking into the unicorn throne room, killing Gale’s maternal grandfather, King Lapis IV, and making Gale’s mom into Queen Platinum I at a tragically young age…

Namely, as she had alluded in her monologue, almost exactly the same age at which she had now thrust that responsibility on her daughter.

Despite my harshness toward the elder Platinum, she did show a great mercy to Hurricane by sparing his son’s life—punishing him instead with permanent exile from the newly founded Equestria. Cyclone would instead watch over the old unicorn capital of River Rock that he had conquered, forced to defend those he had hoped to rule, through the hardships of eternal winter left over on those old lands from the windigoes’ curse.

Blizzard had only just been born at the time of her father’s attempted conquest, but that didn’t stop her from a (fairly justifiable) fear that she would be hated by ponies who knew her true heritage.

“Blizzard, it ok!” Graargh announced. “I protect!”

Hurricane, walking up behind us, couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m sure Blizzard is happy to know you’re there for her, Guhrargh.” Then, whispering slightly lower toward Blizzard, the old stallion continued “If you’re not comfortable here, Blizzard, I can take you home; but I promise you are safe with these ponies.”

Before Blizzard could answer her grandfather, Graargh announced “My name” and then let out a deafening guttural roar—some part of his changeling powers, I presumed, was that he could roar with the voice of an adult grizzly—and continued “Or ‘Graargh’ if have to say bad, like Morty. But not Guh-rargh. Not am spit noise.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “When are you going to learn that ponies can’t make that noise, Graargh?”

“Slestia make name right!” Graargh protested.

I patted Graargh on the shoulder. “Celestia is special, Graargh. Normal ponies can’t do that.”

Graargh shrugged in indifference, and then looked up at me with his adorably beady bear cub eyes. “You feel better, Morty? You sleep much. Too much. Not time to hibernate; it summer.”

“Graargh, why don’t you come sit with me over here?” Hurricane proposed. “Gale will want some time to say hello to her other friends, and then we can eat some cake.”

“What ‘cake’?”

Hurricane looked at me quizzically, to which I could only shrug. “I only learned what a ‘birthday party’ was yesterday.”

The old pegasus chuckled. “Today is going to be a good day for you, kid.”

Blizzard smiled at us. “You two go ahead and meet the others; I’ll just—”

Gale actually had the audacity to cut off her niece by grabbing the slightly older mare’s face with her magic. “Nice try, Blizzard. Come on; I’ll get you a drink to take the edge off, but you’re meeting these ponies.”

Like any good dance hall, The Sordid Affair had a well stocked bar, though apparently renting out the building did not include a pony to staff it. Gale obviously did not care, beckoning with a foreleg toward the elderly green grindstone of a pegasus in the corner to assist her. “Get over here, Finder.”

I had met Pathfinder only once in my life before that moment, and at the time our conversation had been somewhat clipped because I was concerned with Wintershimmer attempting to frame me for the murder of about three dozen Equestrian civilians. Thus, when the stallion wandered over to join us for introductions at the bar, accompanied by his wife Iron Rain and his son Gray, it was the first time I had really put together faces and seen the trio as a family, and it was a strange revelation.

Firstly, let me say that I don’t mean to disparage the stallion’s… masculinity. Though I only knew him for the latter portion of his life, I considered Pathfinder a good friend, and more than that an Equestrian hero. That being said, even simply by looking at him next to his wife, it was obvious who wore the figurative pants in that relationship.

For ponies who might not be familiar with that Abyssian phrase, and might be confused by the fact that most ponies don’t wear pants even in formal situations, to ‘wear the pants in a relationship’ means to be the ‘top’. And for those unfamiliar with the phrase ‘top’, you’re not old enough to be reading Gale’s vocabulary in this story, and I highly recommend you take my advice in the foreword and dig up a picture book instead.

Returning to my point about Pathfinder, the first issue in his relationship with Iron Rain is that he was fairly short for a pegasus—already the smallest race of ponies—and Rain was the second largest pegasus I had ever met, only second to the aforementioned Cyclone, whose size made me suspect Hurricane had once had an affair with a polar bear. If Rain wanted to put her wing over her husband’s shoulders, she could do so without the wing actually being parallel to the ground. Most notably, though, Iron Rain carried herself with the perfect military posture one earns either through years of disciplined practice, or medically by taking an I-beam girder as a suppository. Pathfinder, in contrast, carried himself somewhat hunched down. It wasn’t that he had the bad posture of somepony self-confident, so much as it was a sense of suppressed paranoia about his surroundings, but it was hard not to notice just how often his eyes would jump to the doors and windows of a room if you were making eye contact with him for the interest of conversation.

Gale was grinning ear to ear as she plopped down on a bar stool and kicked the legs to turn it around and face the bar. She put far too much strength into the blow, though, and was left spinning around, giggling like a six year old filly. “Thank fuck, I can get a real drink. Finder, if they have Old Cirran back there, get me that. If not, just give me a lick of whatever’s strongest.”

“I didn’t think the cocktails were that bad,” Iron Rain offered. “Now are you going to introduce me to your friend, Gale?”

“Hmm? You already met Morty.” Gale stuck out her leg, and with a rather painful scraping of hoof-on-wood, she finally came to a stop facing the bar. “That’s my cousin Blizzard.” Blizzard winced away at the introduction, to which Gale rolled her eyes. “Blizzard, this is—”

Blizzard?” Rain’s single eye widened, causing the lanky young mare in front of her to shrivel back further, futilely trying to use me to hide like a corpulent hippopotamus behind a lamp pole. Iron Rain seemed to see me in much the same way, as she had no hesitation in just shoving me aside with a wing to get a look at her. As I staggered to my hooves, Rain cocked her head. “You’re Summer’s daughter?”

“I… y-yes…?” What followed was a shriek of terror-turned-confusion as Rain pounced on the much younger mare, wrapping her in rippling muscled forelegs and huge feathery wings for a tight hug. Judging by the sound that escaped her chest, somepony must have shoved a dog’s chew toy whistle down Blizzard’s throat, and when she was released a moment later, she had to catch her breath.

“Your mom and I were like sisters growing up,” Rain explained, stepping back. “Gods, look at you; so skinny! Well, we’ll fix that. Thank the gods somepony brought you back to Everfree, even if you are twenty years late.” Without even giving Blizzard a chance to breathe, Rain looked up and shot a one-eyed glare at Hurricane. “You finally realize I should have been raising her to start with, you crotchety old bastard?”

Hurricane—Commander Hurricane—made a point of answering by turning his body around fully so that his back was facing the bar, before returning to whatever he had been talking to Graargh about.

“A-actually, it was Morty…” Blizzard blushed fiercely through her icy white coat, her wings pinching up so far they almost covered the sides of her face.

Iron Rain turned to me, raising the brow above her missing eye, before lunging forward and kissing me once on each cheek. I was completely unprepared for this ‘attack’, and froze as the older mare chuckled. “Well, I’ll be damned, kid. You kill a noble right in front of the Queen, you fight Cyclone to steal his daughter…” She turned then to Gale. “He’s still too scrawny, but you picked a fine one, Gale.”

“Oh, you should see him in a real fight; it’s hilarious.” Gale muffled a chuckle with a hoof. “Ask Tempest.” Then Gale leaned back in her barstool and shouted her preferred term of endearment for the stallion: “Hey, slut! Get over here!”

Some readers may not have any siblings, or like me, may not consider the siblings they have any kind of family, and so may be confused that I refer to the word ‘slut’ as a term of endearment. I certainly felt that way in the moment; though on reflection, most of my siblings referred to me as either ‘Half-Brother’ (emphasizing that most-important cultural distancing) or just ‘Coil’, if not my most detested ‘Mortal’ — all of which are fairly formal and proper forms of address.

Tempest and Gale’s relationship must have been much healthier, because the handsomely scruffy sky-blue stallion actually perked up with a grin, cut off his conversation with Somnamnbula, and wandered over our direction. “You rang, psycho bitch? Or is that Your Majesty now?”

“Go fuck yourself, Tempest.”

“Wallflower would be mad I was cheating on her.”

Gale stuck out her tongue at the somewhat older stallion, technically her nephew but to all the world her big brother. Tempest responded, still grinning, with a rather complex rude gesture that required more wing flexibility than could possibly be comfortable. Maybe that was the point.

“Tell Rain about how Morty kicked your ass with a barrel of fish in Lübuck.”

Tempest rolled his eyes, shooting me a glare. “I won that fight, Gale.”

“Really? Cause I seem to remember you let Morty and I walk away when you had us outnumbered with a whole patrol.”

Tempest rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, Gale. I don’t get paid enough to put up with magic tricks. Finder, you pouring?”

Pathfinder nodded from behind the bar. “That’s the plan. Why?”

“Because after I put away even one of Gale’s drinks, I can’t see straight.”

Pathfinder raised a brow at Gale. “You always drink Old Cirran with me, kid; what are you putting away behind my back?”

“Look, Finder… I can’t always get Old Cirran at mom’s parties; all the nobles are too snooty to just drink beer. But Puddinghead makes these mixed drinks; enough berries and syrup and fancy spices that nopony looks at me funny, but underneath they’re usually mostly vodka or mostly whisky. And then I can talk to my suitors without wanting to hang myself.”

“Well, you want something fun like that, you’re gonna have to tell me how to make it.” Pathfinder worked with his wings as he talked, producing a tankard of frothy beer for his wife first, and then for Tempest, and another for his son who hadn’t even approached the bar. He didn’t even make any mention of asking me either; he slapped a drink down in front of me and paid it no further mind. Then he looked to Blizzard. “Your father at least teach you respect for what’s good in life?”

Pathfinder,” Iron Rain scolded.

Blizzard shook her head nervously. “I, um… No, he didn’t drink. And I don’t.”

“Are you sure you’re Summer’s daughter?” Pathfinder asked with a chuckle.

Rain seemed to take offense on behalf of my friend. “Finder, you of all ponies know she never got to meet Summer. And you’re hardly one to talk. If you teach her to drink like you did Gale, I’ll break your wings, husband or not..”

“I love you too, sweetheart.” Finder then turned back to Gale. “So, this being your birthday, what can I do for you?”

Gale grinned ear to ear—there was an element of ‘I’m having a good time’ to it, but also more than a little bit of the predatory grin of a large tropical cat. “You know how to mix a lick of Luna’s—”

Gale was cut off when the doors to the bar slammed open to welcome in the last of the party’s guests: the arguably divine mare in question, and her elder sister. Celestia showed no hesitation in immediately turning to join Hurricane—or perhaps she just didn’t like to think of herself as a barfly.

The more nocturnal of the pair had no such inhibitions. “Now the party can truly begin!” Luna bellowed. “Bartender! What are you serving?”

“Whatever Gale’s ordering, Lady Luna,” Pathfinder answered with a shrug. “Old Cirran, mostly.”

“Hmm… That sounds a bit boring from what I know of Gale’s dreams; what is your new queen ordering?”

Gale turned very red and coughed into her hoof more than once. “A, um…”

“It’s no matter,” Luna cut in when Gale hesitated, an uncharacteristic mercy from the mare voted Equestria’s least eligible bachelorette eight hundred and fifty years running. “I did not come to lose my night to inebriation, but to revel with my favorite niece…” Her voice then picked up the ominous edge of a guillotine suffused with about three strides of potential energy. “...and to deliver a summons.” With that, Luna produced a scroll and slapped it into my chest, where I promptly failed to catch it and it fell on the floor.

I frowned as I struggled to lift the parchment with my hooves, trying desperately not to use my horn. “Was the paper some kind of formality, or did you just want me to have to embarrass myself asking somepony else to read it?”

Luna shook her head. “No, Coil; as hilarious as it is to consider a nearly-adult wizard could possibly be illiterate—”

Nearly adult?

“—you will find that drawn on that parchment is the ritual circle for a cold iron vow. Your presence is required outside.”

“A cold iron…” I found myself briefly speechless. “Is this what you want for your geas? Because if not, I would really rather enjoy the party; it is my first one.”

“It isn’t from me,” Luna answered. “I only prepared the magic. I want nothing else to do with it. And no, as I understand it, this cannot wait. Queen Platinum was quite specific.”

“Mom? What the fuck, she needs you now?”

I turned to Gale with a shrug. “I thought you were ‘Queen Platinum’ now. Do we still call her ‘Queen’ too?”

The question only earned me a roll of her eyes before Gale clarified “I’m sure there’s some bullshit formal title. What’s a cold iron vow? Is something actually wrong, or more crown crap?”

I shrugged, but stood up. “Something is very serious, but not necessarily very wrong. A cold iron vow is magic, but not unicorn magic. I think it comes from the elk...”

Luna’s brow raised. “I’m impressed; that isn’t something I had expected Wintershimmer to have taught you. But it’s actually fey magic.”

“Ah, delightful,” I noted. “Well, Gale, if I have to give up my firstborn foal, at least it will put the question of suitors to rest.”

“What did he mean about foals?” I heard Blizzard ask over my shoulder as I left the party behind, gritting my teeth as I went. “What’s ‘fey magic’?”

I didn’t catch Luna’s explanation to my timid friend, and my own will have to wait for the next chapter. Instead, as I left the room, I could only stew in frustration at the thought that this was Queen Platinum’s way of pettily denying me the fun of what would have been my first night out with Gale and my other friends without the imminent threat of death hanging over my head. But if the Queen wanted an agreement with such powerful (and dangerous) magic, who was I to say no?

It would not be the last time I gave up an evening in Gale’s company for the sake of Equestria, and looking back on eight hundred years, those are the most painful regrets.

Even if you live forever, you still can’t get time back...

1-14

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I - XIV

The Cold Iron Vow

I don’t know when you’re reading this story, or how much the world has changed, but I do know how much a few centuries have reshaped the world we live in between my escapades as a very much mortal young stallion and my current state, arguably alive with half my face missing, having made the horrible decision to try and stall a demigoddess despite knowing it was a fight I could not possibly win. Thus, I can speculate that you probably live in a world where there isn’t much, if any, blank space left on the map.

That isn’t the world we lived in when I was a foal. The lines on the edges of the world map faded away to ‘here be dragons’, and nopony knew if the other worlds of the Breezies and the Gray Woods of the elk and so forth were places one could actually walk to or magical demiplanes; the world was still full of mystery. And one consequence of that mystery was that the fey were far, far more common, slipping into our world through fuzzy edges in the way society understood the world around it.

That last sentence isn’t a metaphor, but you don’t want to read the amount of text it would take to explain it.

Fey are sapient corporeal magical creatures who have a curious relationship with ‘reality’—for a fey, things that we understand as ‘real’ like matter and gravity and unicorn magic, are somewhat subjective and philosophical. In the world they come from, things that are theoretical to us like promises and ideas, take on far more physical forms. Don’t feel bad if this is confusing; even the greatest mages in the world, like me, struggle with it from time to time. The more powerful a fey is, the more unhinged they are from how we understand reality. It’s perfectly reasonable to have a most-comprehensible conversation with a breezie, one of the weakest of the fey, but to speak to an archfey even over tea and make small talk about the weather is to gamble with your sanity and your life.

Consequently, the more rooted in reality something is to us, the easier it is to ignore for them, and vice-versa. Fey literally cannot lie, as one notable example, because the idea of a promise or one’s word for us is very fuzzy, but for them the idea can be likened unto chains. (That being said, most fey are very clever about using the truth to make false implications, so do beware taking this ‘advantage’ too far.)

One interesting quality of this relationship is that things which are really really ‘real’ to us—really ‘firm’ and ‘natural’, induce a sort of allergic reaction in fey creatures. The most notable example is iron ore—actual iron from the ground, mind you; not refined cloud skysteel as is more common in a more modern Equestria. The iron, however, must never be heated in a forge; to melt and reshape the iron is to make it stop being ‘iron’ in our minds and give it a new form, and this haziness of meaning removes the painful reaction the material has for the fey. Hence the idea of ‘cold iron’—iron which has never been heated (at least by equine hooves; most ponies don’t consider that level of plate tectonic thermodynamics, and thus neither do the fey), and is thus more deadly to these creatures and their strange powers.

A cold iron vow, then, is a way for two willing ponies to enforce the idea of a fey being unable to lie between one another. Breaking an iron vow has just the same effect on a pony that cold iron has on a fey: agonizing sores, at first on the skin, but then deeper and deeper until some recompense is made, or until death takes the poor soul due to organ failure.

An iron vow can be written down, but the magic has no interest in ink; it must be spoken aloud by both contractors, and sealed with a drop of their blood. And the words are important; the magic itself interprets them – quite literally, without regard to the intentions of either party. And once agreed to, only a similar agreement by both parties (or their true offspring, who shared some of the same blood) can end it.

It wasn’t something one entered into lightly; even Wintershimmer, who dabbled in magics strange and perverse enough that I dare not describe them here, regarded a cold iron vow as too risky to both parties to be worth the benefits. It also wasn’t the sort of magic that I imagined the Queen would have been familiar with, but her eclectic knowledge of obscure non-unicorn magic was hardly my primary concern, compared to what would bring her such desperation.

Hence, when I left The Sordid Affair and stepped out into the street to find Queen Platinum I’s Royal Carriage waiting with a full dozen guardsponies, I was prepared for nothing short of an apocalyptic suggestion.

“Will you step into my parlour?” said the Queen to the necromancer, as I approached the open door. When I had climbed up the step and found myself a pleasantly upholstered seat, she gestured a hoof to a tea set on a small wooden protrusion from the wall of the carriage. “Tea?”

“I’m afraid if I try, I’ll spill it.” I tapped my horn. “I’m on doctor’s orders not to use it.”

“Yet you made an exception to kill Count Halo?”

I sighed. “Yes, doctors do tend to make exceptions to their rules when the patient’s life is at stake. And as I explained quite fully in the throne room, he attacked me. If that’s what this is about—” I moved toward the door, but the Queen held up a hoof to stop me.

“No. My apologies.” Her horn lit, and I took notice that it seemed to falter and struggle a bit before forming enough of a magical aura to shut the door. Without a spoken word, I felt the carriage—thankfully wheeled and so not sending a lurch through my stomach—start to move. “I’m here about something much more personal.”

“You want a cold iron vow for something personal?”

The Queen let her eyes wander away from mine—and I should emphasize again for those who never had a chance to know her in life, that Platinum I never let such a show of emotion slip accidentally. “This is not about your budding romance with my daughter. Dangerous though I may think it is, I know that when the time comes, she will make the right choice for Equestria, and as I have said before, I have no intention of sabotaging your friendship, so long as you and she do not put it ahead of the crown. This is about the fact that you are a necromancer.”

“The best necromancer,” I clarified, “yes. It is my special talent.”

Platinum nodded with all the haste of an iceberg. “The Crown… that is, I, am prepared to offer you a sum of ten thousand bits, and a home of your own, in exchange for a year of your services.”

I cocked my head. “Is that… that sounds like a lot of money, but how much does that actually buy?”

While at the time of writing, it isn’t much, in those early days, it was a staggering sum to be offering a young colt.

“Sometimes I forget the things you won’t know about Equestria. It would buy you—not rent, but truly buy—a home with rather luxurious space for a bachelor in the better part of the city. Though given I’m also offering a home, I suspect you will be more interested that it will feed you and clothe you in considerable comfort for perhaps ten years.”

“Are homes normally expensive?”

The Queen gave a long sigh and lifted her teacup to her lips for a slow sip. To my astonishment, it was her magic which failed, and stained the beautiful cushions of the carriage. “I apologize, Coil; a slip of the horn. Yes, a house is normally the most expensive thing a pony buys in their life. And regarding my teacup, I would appreciate it if you didn’t make too much of a mockery of me in public.”

“Believe me, Your M… whatever you are now… if I wanted to offend you, a momentary hitch in your magic would be my last choice.”

“I retain ‘Majesty’ as the Queen-Mother, but thank you. And thank you for being civil.”

“Why wouldn’t I be civil? I am a mage.”

Platinum chuckled. “I’ve gotten too used to dealing with my daughter, where every sense of rivalry is answered with cursing and violence.” Then, at my raised brow, she clarified with an unsettlingly matter-of-fact tone to her voice. “I detest your influence on my daughter, Coil, and your outsized impact on the court without any sense of the consequences of your actions. I haven’t yet decided if I hate you personally, but my current leaning is toward loathing. And given that you aren’t practiced whatsoever in controlling your face, I don’t need you to say a word to know the feeling is mutual. This isn’t something that would normally ever be said aloud between two ponies in the orbit of the thrones, but given your lack of experience in politics, I thought it better to be blunt. We are enemies. But that does not mean we cannot be useful to one another. I wish to speak to my late father.”

“King Lapis?” I clarified.

She nodded. “As you heard in my speech, if you did not know before, my father was killed when I was about your age. I wish for his counsel now, but since he is dead, that conversation requires a necromancer. And, because the oaths of the royal line frown on necromancy, I would like to have our conversations discreetly.”

“So the iron vow is to keep me from telling the entire court that you’re doing something completely normal and respectful, because they’ll take offense?”

Platinum chuckled. “That’s half of it, yes. I also know that in order for you to seance my late father, you will have to remain present for the conversation. The other purpose of the vow is to ensure you don’t reveal the subject of our discussions.”

“I see…” I nodded. “We’ll have to discuss the exact words of the vow, of course; if we phrase it poorly, it could kill one or both of us. But first, I’m curious; I may be better than Star Swirl at this one spell in particular, but I’m certain he is capable of casting it, and he is your court mage. And we’ve both seen Luna use the spell. Why not go to one of them, whom you trust more, first?”

Platinum chuckled. “Both of them refused to enter into a vow for this purpose. And while I trust them both… well, suffice it to say I still had to insist on a more formal agreement.”

I lead with this snippet of our exchange before skipping a solid ten minutes because, frankly, you don’t want me to recount the discussion that followed. It was entirely legal-esque negotiations over phrasing of the rules. Platinum approached the terms much as a lawyer or statesmare might, whereas my training with Wintershimmer had taught me to see such phrasings in the same way one might a cautionary story about a wizard making a poor wish of a Tartaran demon, and unerringly selling their soul, or making some seemingly trivial wish aloud and ruining their life for their failure to realize its magical significance. This would be thrilling if my opponent was a fey or a djinn or some other creature actively trying to eat my soul or something, but the truth is that as much as Platinum and I did not see eye-to-eye, she was entirely benevolent in her desires and not planning anything remotely evil or even particularly cruel.

When we were done, I recited aloud the terms we agreed upon, making me the primary subject of the vow.

“I, Mortal Coil, vow to provide to Queen Platinum the First, my services as a necromancer for a period of one year, beginning at the time of my first seance on her behalf. These seances shall be provided at least once per week, for fifty two seances in total. The arrangements of these seances during each week shall be subject to my scheduling and convenience. However, if incapacitation or unavailability of either party prevent a seance during the relevant week, the seance shall be ‘made up’ at the first time both parties are available and able to participate in privacy, regardless of convenience to either party.

Either party may terminate the agreement at any time. If I terminate the agreement, or fail to meet its terms, I shall repay to the Queen a sum of the Queen’s choosing, up to the full total of one hundred thousand bits and ownership of the property originally provided for this service, or equivalent value. This sum shall be provided at the time of cancellation, and until it is provided, the contract shall be considered still in effect. If the Queen cancels the agreement, or if three or more seances are delayed due to her unavailability (so long as that unavailability is not caused by me), I shall be under no further compulsion to provide my services, nor to return any payment for this agreement.

Finally and most importantly, we both agree that any items discussed during these seance sessions shall be kept private between the two parties, and anypony invited by the Queen or the souls of those seanced. I shall be permitted to explain that I am providing magical service to the Queen in order to explain my obligations, but shall not provide details of the service, nor the magnitude of my compensation. If I become aware of any attempts to spy on or otherwise learn the details of these sessions, I shall inform the Queen, but I am under no compunction to provide assistance, magical or mundane, in preventing such active espionage beyond my adherence to this contract. This clause of secrecy is to be considered null and void in the event that disclosure of these details is necessary to prevent serious injury or death, provided there is no other reasonable and reliable way to prevent such a tragedy without revealing our secret.

This contract may be amended, such as to add others to the ‘circle of trust’, by the mutual formal agreement of all parties, to be indicated formally by placing hooves in contact and stating aloud the agreed to modifications. The contract shall be voided upon the death of Queen Platinum, or after one-hundred years time in the event of unexpected longevity or immortality.”

You may be surprised that I memorized that block of text if you yourself are not a classically trained wizard, but the ability to recite long tracts of specific text was my primary way of learning under Wintershimmer, since he had elected not to teach me the literacy necessary to just read such passages myself. When I was finished, I unfurled the parchment Luna had provided, and with a quick prick to the frogs of our respective hooves on a butter knife included in the ‘crumpets’ part of Platinum’s tea set (this took a lot more effort than you’d think; the knife was not especially sharp), the deal was sealed—no horn magic required on our parts. That left me to recline on the bench and explain to the Queen-Mother how it would be probably a week, at least, before the first agreed-upon seance.

“Let me ask now, so you have some time to think: has Star Swirl let you talk to your father since his death? Or was your last communication with him before he passed?”

I thought it was a fairly simple question, but a silver-gray brow rose on the Queen’s stern face. “I haven’t spoken with him since he died. Does that matter to the magic somehow?”

“No; I just want you to be prepared.” I steepled my hooves, careful not to touch my sore, slightly bloodied frog. “Judging by how much effort you put into ensuring my privacy, and how much you’re paying, I’m guessing you have some political questions or secrets you want to talk to him about. Many ponies who request seances have urgent concerns of that sort; inheritances, murders, that sort of thing. Few consider the emotion of the experience. If this is the first time you’ve talked since he passed, he may have heard some of what’s gone on in your life from the other souls who have passed into the Summer Lands since, but he will want to know a proper story first-hoof from you. At least, most family members do. Likewise, you’ll look fairly different to him; you are still a beautiful mare, but you are hardly twenty-one anymore. Souls experience the flow of time more abstractly in the Summer Lands, so he may be shocked. You should be prepared for some initial rejection or discomfort on his part; it usually passes quickly enough.”

“Ah… No, you’re right. I suppose I hadn’t given that any thought. I… thank you, Morty.” Then she closed her eyes and settled back in her seat. “I’m surprised you have such a good bedside manner, given your teacher.”

I shrugged. “We call it ‘graveside manner’, given my magical specialization.” Queen Platinum failed to find that old necromancer’s joke nearly as funny as Meadowbrook had the prior morning. “Wintershimmer could be quite the gentlestallion when he wanted to be. Remember, I did learn to be civil to ponies I detest, as you put it, from him. But more than anything, it’s practical. I don’t want to waste my magic bringing up a seance only for you to run screaming, so to speak. Necromancy isn’t evil, as so many narrow-minded ponies believe; it can even be therapeutic. However, if you haven’t thought the implications through, even I must admit that it can be unsettling at times. Now, can you return me to the party?”

Platinum shook her head. “I’m afraid by this point, your party is over. My apologies.”

“You aren’t sorry about that.”

The Queen-Mother raised a brow. “Perhaps I’m not… I’ll have the guards bring us around to my husband’s villa; I understand he’s offered to house you for the time being.” She rapped a silvery hoof on the wall of the carriage, and our path shifted subtly, though how the guards outside heard the faint noise I still cannot say.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

When I wandered into Hurricane’s villa in the dead of night through the cracked open door, I found Gale waiting for me by lamplight. In the time it took me to register her presence awake, she lunged off of her cushion and pressed her lips tight against mine.

“Thank you, Morty” were the first words I heard when our lips finally parted. “That was… It made today a lot less shitty.”

“Then it was worth it,” I wrapped a leg over her shoulders and hugged her tight. With our chests pressed together, my height put me at just the right angle to whisper my next thought beside her ear. “I hope the rest of the day wasn’t all bad.”

“No, I guess not.” Gale let out just a tiny hint of a laugh, a touch hollow and with a pinch of bitterness. “One down, six to go?”

“I’m not murdering the others,” I scolded. “All joking aside, I didn’t want to go that far.”

“You absolutely did,” Gale pushed me away, and then lifted a hoof to hit me. After a glance at my neck, the offending limb slowly lowered. “You were grinning ear to ear when he thought his shield was going to protect him.”

I sighed. “Well… He insulted my mark.”

“I’m not mad,” Gale replied, shaking her head. “You have no idea how often I’ve imagined bucking that old fuck in his stupid moustache. So it was a nice present. Mom losing her shit made it even better. Speaking of which, did you wind up making a deal with Tirek?”

“What?” I asked with absolute confusion on my face. “The centaur? No, Gale, I would never involve Tartaran magic! The fey contract with your mother was bad enough.”

“That’s who I meant,” she replied, flatly.

“Oh. Then…” I had to cut off my own thoughts with a long yawn. “...yes. Sorry; it’s been a long day. You didn’t have to stay up for me.”

Gale scoffed. “I didn’t. Can’t sleep.”

“Thinking about being Queen now?”

“No shit, detective.” I won myself the bitter sarcasm of one mare’s applause for my guess. “I heated up some milk—” she gestured to a steaming mug sitting on a coaster atop a glass coffee table (not that we called them that at the time; coffee was still quite foreign to Equestria). “—but it’s not going to get my head to shut the fuck up. But you don’t need to stay up with me. We can talk in the morning.”

“Hmm…” I shook my head, grabbed onto Gale’s shoulder with my hoof, and led her over to a long couch in the villa’s living room. “I can’t promise I’ll stay awake, but I can keep you company.” And with that, I pulled her down as I flopped myself onto the couch, pulling her back against my belly.

Our hug lasted at least until I drifted off into what was still, at the time, Luna’s realm of dreams. Even compared to Celestia’s bed, the warmth of Equestria’s new unicorn queen against my chest gave me one of the most comfortable nights I’ve ever had in my life, and even after almost a millennium of life, that night is still one of my most cherished memories. I remember her mane tickling my chin, and the way she squirmed just a bit to center her weight on the cushions and get more comfortable against me. For just that one blissful moment, though the matter of her suitors and our hypothetical marriage and whatever political nightmare the Queen had embroiled me in were all still pending threats to our happiness, they all faded away. We could just enjoy one another’s company and be together. And in that, though I wasn’t wise enough to see it at the time, I had won.

Interlude I - Regarding Somnambula

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Interlude I

Regarding Somnambula

On the morning of what would have been Gale’s one thousand eight hundred and thirty first birthday, or if you prefer, a full one thousand and seven years after the prior chapter of this tome was first penned, Celestia watched as another of her students held an earlier copy of this very tome in a magical aura of ‘moderate amaranth’ (that is to say ‘reddish-purple’, if you have never been asked by a court of law to indicate where a color wheel touched you).

Sunset Shimmer will not, I suspect, go down in Equestrian history—except, perhaps, for mages studying the field of portal magic. She had the misfortune of preceding the now overwhelmingly famous Twilight Sparkle in her role as Celestia’s pupil, and took whatever fame she otherwise might have had to the far side of a magical mirror whose creation and original intended purpose I shall discuss later in this book (and, confusingly, chronologically much earlier).

In appearance, she was an amber unicorn of about twenty, maybe twenty-five years, with a vibrant crimson mane split by a similarly sharp yellow stripe. Beyond that, and her talent mark of a blazing sun, (I refuse to refer to them by Dr. Cutie Pie’s name, no matter the significance of her contributions to that field of study) she had no particularly notable features. Though a perfectly capable mage, she never ascended to the level of magic where one might expect to find her having tampered with her own anatomy, as one would note upon meeting myself, or Star Swirl, or the aforementioned Twilight Sparkle. In fact, her only magical ‘side effect’ of note was her age—though she looked to be only in her twenties (which would have made her Twilight’s peer and not her predecessor), on that morning of Gale’s birthday Sunset Shimmer was actually forty three. The mismatch was the result of the unusual flow of time on the other side of her portal compared to its rate passing in Equestria.

I explain all this so that you can understand that when Celestia, by then the monarch of Equestria, nodded down at this tome—and all the secrets it contains—it was a show of incredible trust, but founded on their past relationship.

“You can share what you read in this with your team if you believe it is necessary,” Celestia told her. “But there are some things Morty wrote down that I don’t trust the rest of Equestria with knowing.”

Sunset Shimmer nodded somberly. “Is there anything in particular you want me to keep secret?”

“I think it’s fairly obvious, and I trust your judgement,” Celestia answered, managing to project warmth into her words without losing the seriousness in her tone. “Just… don’t try to cast any of the magic in there unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Sunset chuckled. “Well, it’s been a few years since I renewed my necromancer’s license. And even if I had, it was never really my field, you know?”

“I recall a certain filly could be quite crafty making golem cores when she wanted her bedroom to clean itself,” Celestia replied, before suddenly glancing to the door of the chamber, seemingly unprompted. “Come in, Somnambula.”

The door cracked open, and then the sandy orange pegasus who’d opened it started. “Oh, I’m sorry—I didn’t realize you were having a private conversation. I had just made some spiced shay, and I remember you used to like it…”

“It’s fine.” Celestia smiled, gesturing the ancient mare into the room with her wing. “Thank you for thinking of us. I’d forgotten how good your shay was.” Then she stepped away from the window overlooking Canterlot’s enormous (and quite fatal—more on that earlier) cliff, taking a seat on a cushion in the center of the room. “Come on, Sunset. Have a seat. I was going to suggest you go get to know the rest of your team today while my staff is preparing your airship; that way, you can leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

Sunset nodded. “Right… Somnambula, what is shay?”

“Oh, uh… I believe you would call it ‘tea’.”

“The more Equiish pronunciation is ‘chai’,” Celestia clarified. “Though Somnambula’s blend of spices is a bit different from what’s become popular in Equestria. Even in Saddle Arabia, nopony makes it quite the same anymore.”

“It has been… a long time,” Somnambula agreed with a nod, gently removing the tray on her back with her wings and setting it on a small coffee table in front of the massive alicorn. Then she took a seat on another cushion in the room, pausing just long enough to adjust her silk headdress. “Things change with time. It is not a thing to cry over. It gives us the hope that the world gets better.”

Sunset Shimmer took a third seat around the coffee table just as Celestia finished pouring a cup of the ancient spiced tea mix. By the time the young unicorn had gotten comfortable, a steaming cup was floating in front of her. “Well, I would say how wonderful it is to share a cup of tea with you after such a long time, Sunset, but compared to how long it’s been since I shared one with Somnambula it really hasn’t been that long at all.”

Somnambula chuckled. “Perhaps for you, Lady Celestia. For me, it has only been six… maybe seven moons?”

Sunset nodded after a sip of her tea. “That’s still so strange… Twilight told me about you and Star Swirl and the other pillars, but… It’s hard to wrap my head around. You really lived back then?” She nodded to her copy (probably this copy, though I can’t guarantee it won’t be duplicated in the future; I’m just skeptical Celestia would ever allow it) of Tales.

“It is hard for me to wrap my head around too, but yes.” Somnambula took a slow sip of tea from the cup cradled between her wings. “It was a… very eventful time.”

“So you helped Star Swirl banish the sirens to the other side of the mirror?” Sunset pressed. “Do you remember them?”

Somnambula nodded again. “That was how I first met Star Swirl. After he and Cyclone drove them away from River Rock, they came to my home, Mahrdina.”

“Where’s that?” Sunset asked.

“I… was surprised to learn that they had renamed it after me,” Somnambula answered. “It is still uncomfortable to be honored that way.”

“It’s on the western coast of Saddle Arabia,” Celestia explained more practically. “Close to the badlands, and the border with Suida.”

“Huh.” Sunset nodded. “I didn’t think Equestrian settlements stretched that far south that long ago.”

“Oh, you misunderstand.” Somnambula chuckled. “I did not grow up in Equestria. My family were not Cirrans. We are… were… called Pharonic pegasi, from the Kingdom of Mahrdina. Until the great winter pushed those ponies west from River Rock, the most we had heard of other kingdoms of ponies like us were stories from long-dead travelers. It was very much a surprise when Star Swirl arrived.”

“Oh?” Sunset raised a brow toward Celestia. “There were other pony nations besides the Three Tribes?”

“A few,” Celestia admitted, closing her eyes as she seemed to slip into a realm of memories. “The Kingdom of Mahrdina, the Crystal Union… Archmage Mistmane wasn’t actually from the Diamond Kingdoms either; she grew up in the Shogunate of… oh, the name escapes me.”

“Uma,” Somnambula noted. “They often fought with the kirin, as Mistmane tells it.”

“That’s right.” Celestia nodded back to Sunset. “The world was much bigger than just the three tribes that founded Equestria. But over time those other nations tended to get absorbed. Morty was not wrong when he predicted that much of our history would be lost after the Twilight War. Those nations that hadn’t yet been absorbed into Equestria couldn’t survive Nightmare Moon’s onslaught alone, and… when it was done, so much was lost. Both lives and histories. But because Hearth’s Warming Eve was such a strong tradition by that time, and because of the outsized influence of the the Low Valleys, the Diamond Kingdoms, and Cirra in creating Equestria in the first place… theirs are the histories that tend to be remembered the most.”

“It is my hope that with time, I can share the stories of our kingdom and begin to bring its history back. I have already helped to correct some embarrassing misunderstandings in your history books.” Then she glanced down to the rather elephantine history book that happened to be in the room at the time. “I am very excited to hear how Gale and Morty finally married.”

“You knew them?” Sunset asked. “Personally?”

“Very personally.” Somnambula chuckled. “I was… am... only a few years older than them. And I was quite familiar with Gale’s family even before Morty came to Equestria. I was almost her aunt… or perhaps her… what are the words, Lady Celestia?”

“Half-sister-in-law,” Celestia clarified. “Though whether she would have called you ‘aunt’ or ‘sister’... you might as well flip a coin.”

“Um… what?” Sunset held up a hoof, tracing an invisible family tree in the air. “Wait… you mean you were going to marry Cyclone?”

“It was a most embarrassing confusion,” Somnambula agreed with a chuckle. “Because Mahrdina and Saddle Arabia were neighbors, we shared a tradition. It was custom that when a prince or princess became pharaoh, they be married to a prince or princess of Saddle Arabia, and vice-versa. If one of our nations had no foal who could fill that role, a priest or priestess would do. So after Equestria was founded, and we first met them, our pharaoh decided to follow that custom to forge an alliance. And since Hurricane was the pegasus leader, and our royal family were pegasi, and I had been made the high priestess after I defeated the sphinx’s challenge, I was sent to secure our alliance.”

“I… wait, what? But wasn’t he already married?”

“As I said, it was embarrassing. The pharaoh could have many concubines of unicorns and earth ponies, but was only to marry one pegasus. And so when we heard that Hurricane was only with the unicorn queen, we… misunderstood. I was enamored by stories of this pony, who had tamed the sun—my apologies, Lady Celestia, I do not mean to imply; it was just what we thought we had been told.”

Celestia only chuckled as she shook her head. “No harm done, Somnambula.”

“So I was sent with an entourage, and when we arrived at Everfree City, as was our custom, they wrapped me in a honeymoon rug, carried me into the throne room, and presented me to create an alliance.”

“Oh… oh no…” Sunset had to press a hoof to her lips to chuckle.

“It was far worse than you fear,” Somnambula added. “I had been told Hurricane was the pegasus leader, but by then he had already retired. So, when I stood up dizzy from being unrolled from a rug, in the middle of the throne room in their palace, I looked up at the throne and I saw their leader. Hurricane was less masculine than I had been led to believe—”

“Oh no…” Sunset repeated.

“But he wore the black armor that we had heard stories of, and he had the scars and the rugged appearance I had imagined. So I did what my pharoah required of me. I bowed, and showed him the full shape of my body and my wings, and I offered to wed him and to carry his foals, so that we could have an alliance. And to show I was serious, I walked up the steps and kissed him.”

“You made out with Typhoon because you thought she was her dad?” Sunset asked through her laughter. “Nopony said anything?”

“Hurricane tapped me on the shoulder; he had been standing beside her the whole time, but I had just assumed he was some advisor since he did not wear a uniform. At least it was some consolation that he was barely able to contain his laughter to explain my mistake, instead of being angry.” Then she sighed. “What caused a real problem was that I had heard Hurricane’s eldest was a son named Cyclone, but not what Cyclone had done to betray his people. So when I realized Hurricane was not the right target for my offer of an alliance, I suggested him instead.”

“Ah…” Sunset’s observation trailed off into the sort of hiss through clenched teeth that only arrives from the most awkward of moments. “I’m sorry.”

“When the court realized that I did not know his story, they were quick to forgive me, and though I did not marry, I did secure an alliance with Equestria. Gale joked that I should have been one of her suitors, and that she would have taken me over the options her mother gave her, but Platinum made it very clear that would not be welcome, and I did not want to risk the progress I had made.”

“Huh… Well, if Typhoon didn’t hold it against you, I guess that worked out in the end.”

“I do not know if she was serious, but Gale later told me Typhoon had wished to take me on a date.”

What?” Sunset stared down at her book. “But… Morty made a huge deal in the other book about how she was obviously sleeping with her secretary. Was he just completely wrong?”

Celestia swallowed nervously—an expression so rare for the alicorn that it is worth a moment of reflection, dear reader—and glanced down at the book. “Sunset, it is an easy trap when studying history to forget that its heroes and villains are still mortal ponies, in every sense of the word. That includes romantic desire.”

“Ironically except the one whose first name was ‘Mortal’?”

“In the sense I’m referring to, Sunset, no. Very much including him.” Celestia sighed. “I’ll warn you, Sunset, that unlike in Beginner’s Guide, Morty is much more frank here about the fact that most of his subjects—himself included—are teenagers or extremely young adults. That is the only copy of Tales from Everfree City in the world—at least, that I know of—and unlike Beginner’s Guide, I haven’t touched it. It’s completely uncensored, exactly as Morty wrote it, in this room, a thousand years ago.”

“You mean to remove dangerous magic, like the directions for how to cast Wintershimmer’s Razor?”

“That is one definition of the word ‘censorship’, yes.” Celestia nodded. Then, more sternly, she added “And since you bring it up, yes: the only surviving notes on that spell are in that book. I trust you’ll be careful who reads it.” Then, after a sip of tea, she added “Please don’t share it with Twilight.”

“You don’t trust Twilight?”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘trust’,” Celestia replied diplomatically. “I know I can always rely on Twilight to do what she feels is best. But Twilight has always had an… optimistic view of where the appropriate balance lies between academic openness and public safety.” After another slow tip of her tea, she lowered her tiny cup to the table and refilled it. “Shall we speak of something happier? Or at least less… fatalistic?”

“Yes, lets.” Somnambula leaned forward with a smile on her face. “I know we are going to see Morty, but should we expect Gale to be with him?”

Celestia wilted like a timelapse of a flower snipped from its root. “Gale is… no longer with us.”

“Morty did not make her live forever too?” Somnambula asked. “They were such a happy couple when I left, I just assumed…”

“It’s alright,” Celestia agreed. “It’s a fair question, but it’s Morty’s story to tell.”

“Then the others? His little bear cub? Or the flying rock? Or—”

Celestia attempted to let out a passable ursine roar, like she had so proficiently almost two millennia earlier, only to find herself coughing and struggling to compose herself. “Apologies. You mean Graargh?”

Sunset tweaked her brow as she swung her head toward Celesetia. “Wait, it’s pronounced Grarg? Like the front of ‘great’ and ‘argument’? I thought it was supposed to be like ‘gruff’ with another r in the middle. Why would he spell it with an ‘h’?”

Celestia only shrugged and sipped her tea. When her throat was sated, she answered calmly. “There’s never any shame in mispronouncing a word you’ve only seen written down, my student. Unfortunately, your pronunciation isn’t likely to matter.” Then turning to Somnambula, she donned a sympathetic expression. “Graargh, like nearly everypony else you remember, have long since passed away.”

“Aren’t changelings biologically immortal, like lobsters?” Sunset asked. “I thought their shapeshifting magic meant they didn’t naturally age.”

Celestia frowned. “That is correct, Sunset, but there are other ways to die… While Graargh was more fortunate, the life expectancy of a changeling infiltrator in Chrysalis’ hive was only about thirty years, despite their lack of an upper limit.”

“So Graargh is gone too.” Somnambula sighed. “That is very disappointing. He was such a lively spirit. I wonder why Morty did not extend his long life to his friends?”

Celestia sympathetically refilled Somnambula’s teacup. “At the risk of telling you both more than he would like, Morty was not happy to make himself ‘immortal’... or whatever he is now. It is the one piece of magic he has refused to share with me, and my own efforts to understand it have only highlighted my relative lack of skill in the art of necromancy, even when working with fully understood magic.”

“Fully understood? What, like he didn’t finish it?” Sunset asked.

“By design, yes. He doesn’t know how to end it. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.”

“That seems much more serious and responsible than the pony I knew,” Somnambula noted.

“Perhaps,” Celestia shrugged her wings. “But I think you’ll find he hasn’t changed much since you last spoke to him.”

“Then it shall be fun to…” Sunset found herself confused when the ancient pegasus glanced her way and let her words hang in the air for a moment before she finished “...catch up.”

“I thought you might like to. And since you were closest to him among the pillars, you seemed like the natural choice.” Celestia smiled over her teacup.

“Not Archmage Star Swirl?” Sunset asked. “Not to say you wouldn’t be friends, Somnambula; I just figured he would get along with another wizard.”

Somnambula shook her head. “They had a grudging respect, but I do not think it is possible for two ponies to like each other less than Morty and Star Swirl. Especially after the lecture.”

Celestia cringed.

“What?” Sunset asked.

“It’s… you’ll read about it later, Sunset,” Celestia sighed. “A word of caution: if you choose to discuss it with Morty, make sure you’ve mastered the defense against the Razor first.” Then the alicorn princess rose to her hooves, completely dropping the (perhaps justified at the time) implication that I would murder a random stranger for bringing up the notorious experience. “That was delicious, Somnambula; thank you for sharing it with us. Now, I’m sorry for departing after such a short chat, but I need to check on the preparations of your airship. Sunset, if you’d like to join me, this is an excellent chance for you to speak with your pilot.”

“My pleasure, Lady Celestia.” Somnambula nodded once, and then again bobbed her head in deference to Sunset. “I am very excited for our journey, Sunset.”

“Me too, Somnambula. It should be fun.” Sunset only paused to pick up this tome before her hooves moved for the door. “I’m sure we’ll talk more later.”

With that parting, Sunset swept out into the halls of Canterlot after Celestia, passing a few gold-armored soldiers before finding the rest of the halls largely abandoned. It was always an interesting balance trying to match Celestia’s gait without awkwardly jogging, and Sunset found that she took the challenge most comfortably with exaggerated strides that produced an almost deafening click on the marble floors of Equestria’s newer royal palace.

Though the halls were never truly empty, what with staff and guards criss-crossing every which way in silent service to the unending grind of the gears of state, the wide halls—built to more than comfortably accommodate Celestia’s height, unlike most of the buildings in Everfree—only passed by another pony for mere moments at a time.

After a few quick turns on the way down from the sitting rooms of the palace toward the massive artificial plateau of the cliffside palace’s gardens, Celestia finally broke the silence of their walk. “I should give you one more word of caution about reading that book.”

“Oh? More dangerous magic?”

Celestia chuckled. “I sincerely wish it were just that.” Then, for just a moment, she hesitated. In the past, for a rawer and more openly mortal Celestia, that would not have been such an unprecedented show of emotion, but one thousand years as the God-Empress (‘Princess’ was always a preposterous show of false humility) ruling Equestria had taught Celestia to keep her emotions—and nearly any sign of weakness—well hidden behind a mask of neutral impartiality.

“Princess?”

“There’s no delicate way to say this, so bear with me.” Then, with a short breath, she added “There are some portions of Tales that I can only assume Morty included for his own satisfaction or enjoyment or… well, honestly, I don’t know why he chose to include them. He never reproduced them in any of the copies he created—”

“I thought you said this is the only copy.”

“Yes, Sunset. I burnt the others.” When Sunset recoiled, Celestia shook her head. “You’ll understand later. Regardless, this copy includes some entries Morty copied from Gale’s diary.”

“And those are especially dangerous because… she swears a lot in writing?”

“They’re not dangerous. Just… very thorough. Morty titled those segments ‘The Pillow Book of Princess Platinum’. I suggest you skip them. Especially if you want to look Somnambula in the eye again.”

Pillow Book? I don’t know if I've…” Sunset’s voice slowly drained away as her ears and mind caught up with the implication of the last of Celestia’s words. “Gale wrote about she and Morty having—?”

“I would assume so,” Celestia quickly interrupted. “I skipped that chapter as soon as I realized what she was describing.”

“But… He wrote this eight hundred years later?”

“Everypony has their own preferences, Sunset, and in my experience, immortality exacerbates them. I don’t mean to be a prude, but I have personal reasons to want nothing to do with it, so if you do indulge in reading that, I simply ask you pretend you didn’t anytime I am in earshot.”

“You’re not… in it, are you?”

“What? No! I would never!” Celestia shook her head. “Sunset, not only was he my student, but he was eighteen. It would be utterly improper.”

“No, but…” Again, Sunset’s voice drained away as her mind raced faster than her tongue could keep up. “When Somnambula said she knew Morty and Gale personally…”

“No comment,” Celestia replied almost instantly.

That’s why you picked her instead of any of the other pillars? Because she and Morty—”

“Somnambula is a very responsible adult mare, and I have no interest in speculating on her romantic life, especially as it relates to Gale. I merely wanted to warn you. Now, as Morty once said to me, let’s talk about something more pleasant, like botulism or genocide.”

Sunset chuckled. “That doesn’t sound right coming from you.”

“No. No, I suppose it doesn’t.” Celestia chuckled. “I re-read Beginner’s Guide before I called your team here, and found that even though it can sometimes be quite barbed, after not seeing him for two hundred years, I was missing hearing his voice. Now, let’s see how the airship is coming along.”

2-1 Queen Platinum and the Stable of Nobles

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II

Queen Platinum and The Stable of Nobles

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

II - I

A Breakfast of Champions

“Oh gods…”

I briefly considered opening my eyes, but in the groggy hours of the early morning, it was much easier to pretend the young stallion’s voice was coming from somewhere off in the distance. I suspected it might have belonged to Tempest.

“Shh.” That voice was unmistakably Blizzard. “Look how cute they are.”

“Uggh. Morty sleep so much!” With an ursine growl to his squeaky voice, Graargh elected to shatter the silence with an outright shout. “Morty! Gale! Wake up now! No more sleep! No more sleep for ten thousand years!”

I only came to enough consciousness to realize I was sleeping on a couch in Gale’s living room, her back held close to my chest, when her starting awake involved stabbing me in the neck with her horn. I found myself suddenly grateful for my patch of ‘bad zombie’ exposed muscle, when the layer of transparent metal deflected the painful blow from outright impaling my jugular. Instead, I just got a nice bruising for my trouble.

“Ow!” I hissed.

“What the fuck, Graargh?!” Gale collapsed into a flailing mass of limbs on the floor off the couch, where my own starting had tossed her, and struggled to find her hooves.

Too much asleep!” the little bear insisted.

“Graargh, it would be nice if you didn’t shout so much.” Blizzard, whose sympathy was only rivaled by her constant nervousness, gently laid a wing on Graargh’s back. “It’s very early, and that’s not a very nice way to wake up.” Then, looking up at us, she added, “Grandfather almost has breakfast ready, though.”

Tempest, Gale’s ‘big brother’ (though by blood, her half-nephew) rolled his eyes. “Grandpa would never delay breakfast this late for me. But I guess ‘the Queen’ needs her beauty sleep.”

Gale’s horn lit, and I was shocked when I realized her magic had grabbed her ‘big brother’ by the throat, not so much choking him as yanking him forward to where she could glare into his eyes without herself moving where she was standing. “Keep that shit up, Tempest, and I’ll ask Ty to assign you to courtroom guard duty. Then instead of flying around, you can be just as fucking bored as I am all the time.” Gale rolled her neck. “Morning, Blizzard. Graargh.” Then she turned back to me. “Well, get up, Morty. Let’s eat. Don’t want to keep everypony waiting.”

I have never been a morning pony (the solution, for those magically inclined, is to give up on sleeping altogether), so I was the last to stagger from Hurricane’s sitting room into his villa’s lavish dining room.

I’ll spare you all of the good mornings, because there were several. Seated at the long table I found Commanders Hurricane and Typhoon, Queen Platinums I and III, Blizzard, Tempest, Graargh, and a mare I recognized from the party the prior night whose name I didn’t know. Guardian Angel floated behind the seats before finally taking up his favorite place, hovering just about a leg’s reach up and to the right of my head. And to top it all off, sitting on the floor instead of in a seat at the table in order to get her head at the right height, even Celestia had joined us.

Only one introduction in the whole mess was worth mentioning.

“So… Can I call you Morty, or is that a personal thing?” said the unfamiliar young mare, sitting comfortably at Gale’s side. She was a unicorn of about my age (in fact almost three years older than I thought), but with a friendly chestnut face and a coltish short-cut yellow mane. Her palace servant’s uniform, tight fitting but modest, dyed a muted purple with gold accents, made her occupation obvious. But I think more than anything else, I noticed both the edge of keen intelligence in her brown eyes, and how rapidly they seemed to jump around the table at the slightest movement.

I shrugged. “Help yourself, ma’am.”

Ma’am?!” The unicorn gasped in shock, her horn shaking her glass of apple juice and nearly splashing it onto Tempest at her other side. “Is he making fun of me, Gale, or—”

Queen Platinum (the one I actually call ‘the Queen’ sincerely, not Gale) harshly rapped a hoof on the wooden table. “You should address Her Majesty with appropriate respect, even in less formal gatherings.”

Gale sighed. “You can ignore that; that is an order from the reigning Queen.” When Queen Platinum donned a small frown, Gale showed incredible regal presence by briefly sticking out her tongue toward her mother, before turning to me. “Morty, this is Lark. She’s my hoofmaiden. Lark, you can call him whatever the fuck you like.”

I raised a brow. “You have a hoofmaiden?”

“She is the Queen-Regent,” Lark answered, in between bites of runny yellow eggs. After a moment to swallow, she added “Not that I’m new; I’ve been with Gale for years.” Then she turned to Queen Platinum, actually winked at the older mare, and smiled. “With apologies, I have to defer to the crown.”

“Quite,” Platinum answered tersely.

“So… what are you going to do, now that you’re Queen?” I asked Gale. “Gonna go declare some laws or something?”

“Parliament passes laws, Morty; not me.” Gale… well, I can really only describe the motion as impaled a sausage on the blade of her butter knife, then took a rather feral bite off the side of it as her magic held it aloft.

“So… what, you judge some criminals?”

“Your case was somewhat exceptional, Morty,” Platinum told me as Gale chewed. “Normally, the thrones defer criminal trials to appointed judges.”

“Like Iron Rain,” Gale added after swallowing. “Being Queen officially means I just appoint nobles to the Stable and assign them to domains, plus I have one vote if something gets decided by just the thrones, instead of parliament—you remember what I explained when we met Aunt Chrysoprase?”

“Sort of.” I shrugged. “It was a lot to take in.”

Gale sighed. “Well, it doesn’t really matter yet anyway. In addition to all the hoof-kissing and brown-nosing bullshit last night, a new monarch has to go get ‘recognized’ by the five Great Houses of the Stable; there’s a whole fucking ceremony where I’ll have to answer some questions and all the nobles have to bow to me or something.”

“You remembered.” Platinum smiled. “Though to be fair, the recognition only takes an hour or so at most. Since the Stable was already meeting today, even before our little surprise, I imagine Grand Duchess Chrysoprase will want to discuss the Stable’s part in the Settlement Bill so that it can move forward.”

Gale genuinely smiled in reply. “Thank fuck; it won’t be a total waste of time then. What’s the debate on, Mom? Is there actually something with two real sides, or am I just cutting through the Stable’s usual tribalist bullshit?”

Hurricane and Typhoon both chuckled at that, sharing a knowing glance, while Platinum frowned. “Gale, the Stable are your subjects; you answer directly to them. And they could vote to depose you—”

“The day Star Swirl and Clover are dead, I’ll be worried about that,” Gale interrupted. Gale glanced down the table to where Blizzard was looking just about as confused as I was, and spoke in both our directions, slowly moving her gaze between us. “There’s five ‘great houses’ in the Stable of Nobles, which is basically just a fancy name for the collection of all the noble families. The great houses get to make rules for the other noble families, and if all five of them are unanimous, they can depose a ‘tyrannical‘ monarch. But since Star Swirl is an actually decent pony, and he’s the Duke of House Zodiac, I don’t have to worry about them pulling some backroom political bullshit to get rid of me.”

Blizzard cocked her head, but it was Graargh who spoke up over the clean plate his grizzly cub maw had utterly devoured. “If they bad ponies, Gale, you and Morty fight?”

“Sweet goddesses, no!” Platinum cried out. “Poor Count Halo was bad enough!”

Gale chuckled. “They’re not like Wintershimmer, Graargh. They’re more like Morty’s ex—you remember her, right? With the metal claw?”

Graargh nodded proudly. “I remember! Bad fuck!”

I narrowly managed not to spray a swallow of juice out of my mouth at the room reacted with similar displays of shock (and more than a few disapproving glances in Gale’s direction. After a hurried swallow, I cut in “Her name is Silhouette, Graargh.”

“That hard to say,” said Graargh, without the remotest hint of self awareness.

“The point is, there’s a difference between saying somepony is bad and needing to arrest them.” Gale shrugged. “Or in Wintershimmer’s case, outright kill him. And unfortunately, unlike Halo those crotchety old bastards are smart enough not to pick a fight with Morty.”

“Gale, I know we’re just family here,” said Hurricane, “but there’s a big difference between not liking other ponies and wishing them dead, even if you aren’t going to act on it.”

“Thank you for that rousing correction, husband of mine…” Platinum sighed, before turning to her daughter. “If you want to succeed as Queen, like them or not, you need their support.”

“Doesn’t mean she has to like them, though,” Typhoon noted.

The glare Platinum gave her step-daughter could have curdled water.

“What’s so bad about them anyway?” I asked Gale directly.

Gale waved a hoof to clear the air. “They aren’t all that bad. Duchess Glass—that’s Spicy’s mom—is kind of an elitist bitch, but I think she’s more worried about keeping her alchemy secrets in her family than she is about ‘unicorn supremacy’ or that sort of shit, so I guess she’s fine. You already met Aunt Chrysoprase, but for Blizzard’s benefit: she’s obsessed with nobles being somehow better than ‘commoners’, as if all the noble families didn’t just start with some king or queen pulling a title out of their ass. Duke House might be the best of the lot besides Star Swirl; at least the read I get on him is he actually cares about all unicorns instead of just the Stable. But he also probably gets off on re-reading the rules of procedure… he’d be a damn good judge, but instead he’s ruining my fucking life along with the rest of them. And then there’s Fire Power.”

Duchess Power,” Platinum corrected. “No matter your opinion, you ought to refer to the nobles by their proper titles.”

“Ah; sorry Mom. Greedy Little Bitch Fire Power, because she doesn’t deserve a noble title, isn’t even in it for the Stable. She’s just in it for herself; she shuffles around domains with her banners so she’s always raking in the most taxes she can, and she doesn’t even live on her own land.”

I couldn’t help but quirk a brow. “Wait… but don’t those other nobles we visited also live in Everfree?”

“Grand Duchess Chrysoprase’s domain is just past the eastern edge of the city,” Platinum explained. “And as chair of the Stable, it is more important for her to be near the Stable building in any case. And both Duchess Glass and Archmage Star Swirl have elected to forgo domains due to their other duties as head of the alchemist’s guild and court mage, respectively. But Her Majesty is correct; they are in the minority as exceptions. Most of the nobleponies live on their respective domains, and only gather in Everfree once a season for a week as the Stable meets to discuss business.”

“Anyway, they’re all tribalists,” Gale finished. “So if I want anything that isn’t actively screwing over the pegasi or the earth ponies, I’m fighting an uphill battle.”

Platinum took a long slow breath. “Your Majesty, isn’t that a bit reductive? Could you at least call them ‘traditionalists’, and be a bit less aggressive?”

Blizzard glanced between mother and daughter. “What does that mean? Traditionalist and tribalist, I mean?” When Platinum turned toward her, not even particularly aggressively, Blizzard shrunk back. “Um… sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt.”

“Stand up for yourself, Blizzard; it’s fine.” Gale took another mighty bite of the sausage still speared on her knife and shot it down in a single swallow like as much hard liquor. “A tribalist is somepony who thinks we ought to keep the three kinds of ponies—the ‘tribes’—separate. They say all kinds of bullshit like ‘it’s the only way to preserve our cultures and our traditions’; that’s why they like to call themselves ‘traditionalists’. But all the biggest tribalists are ponies in power, in all three tribes; the Stable, half the command structure of the Legion—you fucking know it, Typhoon, don’t even try to deny it—and the whole fucking city of Lubuck where all the bankers are.”

“Can I use this for a learning opportunity?” Platinum cut in. “Your Majesty—”

“It’s Gale, Mom.”

“Seeing as you’re criticizing your pegasus peer for her leadership, Your Majesty, you might find it is an appropriate time to be more formal.”

“She’s my sister!” Gale put a hoof on her forehead, shook her head fully, and turned to Typhoon. “Right, Ty? We’re just having fucking breakfast; this isn’t court.”

“We are,” Typhoon answered slowly, sternly. “But your mother and I had an agreement not to discuss politics unless we both agreed to it, and I would suggest we do the same.” Then, with a gentle sigh, the substantially older sister set her forehooves—both the still-natural one and its supernaturally mist-wreathed steel prosthetic counterpart—onto the table. “Since you brought it up, my first responsibilities as Commander are to keep my soldiers alive, and to keep Equestria safe. I don’t make promotions based on the officer’s politics.”

“Sorry,” Gale muttered. “I’m not trying to accuse you of anything, Ty.” Gale rolled her eyes, and then turned back to Blizzard. “My point is, there’s lots of tribalists who are in it to get rich or make themselves powerful, and don’t actually give a shit about traditions, or about unifying Equestria.”

“And the opposing philosophy is…?” I prompted.

“Dad, you wanna tell him?” Gale asked, turning to her father.

Hurricane cocked his head. “Why me?”

“Uh, because you fucking invented it?” Using what little remained of her breakfast sausage, Gale pointed straight at her father.

“I think you’re giving me too much credit, Gale,” Hurricane muttered. “Besides, I haven’t been a politician for twenty years.”

“Oh, so it’s somepony else’s retirement speech the unitarians quote in Parliament… when they’re getting their asses kicked.” Gale tossed Tempest a wink when he chuckled, then did her best impression of her father’s deep but notably smooth voice. “In every trial I have seen in my lifetime, I have witnessed our kind—pony kind, not pegasi, nor unicorns, nor earth poniesat our strongest when we unite.”

“You know I had Pan Sea write that, right?”

“I’m sure history will remember how inspirational ‘Private Pansy’ wrote that speech, and not how many grown-ass soldiers were sobbing when you gave it” Gale countered.

“How would you know?” Typhoon asked. “You weren’t even born yet.”

“Ponies like to write books about the founding of Equestria,” Gale answered. “Or biographies of Dad. Which didn’t mention that Pan Sea wrote the speech either. Funny how that works, isn’t it?” Gale took the final, decisive bite of her sausage, and again swallowed it almost whole.

“Well, perhaps they’ll have somepony else to quote, now that the queen of unicorns is among their number,” Hurricane answered dryly.

“Perhaps we should let Her Majesty’s actions speak for her, instead of deciding her political affiliations, and giving her potential opponents reason to dislike her early.” Platinum tapped her hooves together. “Now, this little discussion has been delightful, but I’m afraid we should think of being ready for an extremely important day. One never gets a second chance at a first impression.” She produced from inside the fur collar of her dress a letter and an ornate wrought iron key set with a single ruby, and to my surprise when she set them onto the surface of the table, her hoof flicked them in my direction.

“Per our agreement, that contains a set of Letters of Credit from the treasury. I took the liberty of dividing them up for you into more practical pieces, but the full sum is accounted for. And I understand you’re already familiar with the property, but that key goes to Twenty-Four Ridgeline Road.”

I raised a brow. “That doesn’t mean anything to me…”

Typhoon, thankfully, clarified—though perhaps not by intention. “You’re giving him Solemn Vow’s house?”

“Yes, Commander,” Platinum replied. “It’s an advance payment for his services; a personal matter, not an affair of state. When you… dealt with the prior owner, shall we say, because I had purchased it for the young baron, the property reverted to my name. And because of his history, popular perception is that the home is haunted. But I happen to know that a few intrepid young ponies recently went exploring around its basement—” Platinum shot a knowing glance… well, basically around the whole room; Blizzard, Gale, Graargh, Angel, and I had all been in on the trip. “—and while I don’t know if it is actually haunted, if there are ghosts there, I couldn’t think of anypony more suitable to deal with them.”

I shook my head. “There’s no such thing as ghosts like that, and I doubt there are any spirits. Just rubble now, and a big old block of ice… Once I get those tunnels excavated, Commander Typhoon, could I get your help melting that—”

“You could not pay me to go back into that damn house,” Typhoon cut me off with a scowl. “If you let me burn it down, I’ll pay to build you a new one.” I should perhaps emphasize that there wasn’t anger in the autumn-colored mare’s voice. Like nearly every hint of strong emotion I had seen from Typhoon, the words were icy, businesslike, and above all else, deadly serious.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t encourage arson, Commander,” Platinum muttered. “Especially in the middle of Everfree’s most valuable real estate. Coil, I’m sure Hurricane can assist you with this ice problem when the time comes. But for now, I must have a bit of time to speak with my daughter and the other statesponies here before we meet with the Stable of Nobles. So if you, Tempest, Miss Blizzard, the bear cub, and your flying rock—”

“Guardian Angel, Your Majesty, though just ‘Angel’ is perfectly fine,” Angel chimed in.

Queen Platinum looked more than a bit perturbed for a few long seconds, blinking blankly, before muttering under her breath “Of course it can talk…”

I heard Gale gag on a bite of ham she’d stolen (sans silverware, directly with her magic) before she shook her head and donned her formal voice. “That was quite insensitive, Mother. You should really apologize; you’ve hurt Angel’s feelings.”

“I… very well, yes, Angel, I apologize—”

“I believe Gale is teasing you, Your Majesty,” Angel replied, moving to hover above the table where he was more comfortably in her line of sight. “I assure you, compared to how Master Wintershimmer frequently referred to me to my ‘face’, as it were, a bit of surprise on your part is hardly going to hurt my feelings. I’m well aware my voice puts me in the minority of minerals.”

“You’re no fun, Angel,” Gale muttered.

“Perhaps not,” the golem answered. “I was not created to serve as a toy, but an assistant for Master Coil, and a store for his excess mana. In both those capacities, seeing as Master Coil is still alive, I would say I have performed more than admirably. Shall we compare to that the purpose you were created for?”

You could literally see Angel hit a nerve by the reaction on Gale’s face. “Listen, you little—”

Before she could curse him out (or something worse), I decided the time had come to intervene, which I did by dropping a hoof as hard as I could on the tabletop. “Angel.”

“Master Coil?”

“I didn’t realize you had followed along when Wintershimmer was teaching me verbal conflict. That was an impressive blow, but you shouldn’t talk that way to our friends. Especially when you know you’re going to hit a nerve like that.” I waited for a solid moment, and then nodded my horn toward Gale. “Well?”

“My apologies,” Angel hummed—not because of any particular joy the way you might use the word ‘hummed’ to describe a pony’s voice; I mean more so that his tinny artificial voice sounded more like a hum than usual. Coming from the flying rock, it made him sound more than anything like a foal who’d had a ruler broken over their face by a scolding teacher not paying enough attention to the force they were wielding.

“I… forgive you,” Gale forced out, in a way that would have made ‘yeah, sure’ sound like a moment of compelling redemption, if you believe in that sort of thing.

After a moment’s silence, I nodded to Angel. “Why don’t you head upstairs. I’ll come find you in a moment, when Celestia and I are ready to head out.”

“Ah, I’m afraid not,” said the Queen as Angel hovered toward the door. “Lady Celestia will be otherwise occupied today.”

I dared to raise a brow in Celestia’s direction—remember in my day, she wasn’t the all powerful monarch of Equestria. She was just a widely worshipped demigoddess with a thriving church, so such a show of demanding expectation was really acceptable in a way it isn’t anymore.

“You have my apologies, Morty,” said Celestia. “Today, Gale is being recognized by the Stable of Nobles, and my endorsement of her ‘divine right’ may not be comfortable, but it is… useful.”

“So you’re going to claim you’re a goddess when it’s convenient?” I had thought I came across with a friendly tease, but judging by how Celestia’s brow furrowed, it was obvious I hadn’t hit that jovial note.

“I made a promise to Hurricane and Platinum, when Gale was born and I became her godmother. I didn’t make it lightly, Morty, and I intend to keep it. If one day of delay in your lesson is too much to bear—”

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, holding up my hooves. “It’s fine. Didn’t realize I was getting to you that bad. Go help Gale. I can keep busy.”

Celestia nodded. “Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean I can’t still teach you something.” And then, lighting her golden magic, Celestia passed me a scroll bound tightly in red ribbon.

“What’s this say?”

“It’s a letter to Mrs. Aspirations. She teaches a class of foals about Graargh’s age in the palace district. I’d like you to take Graargh and go deliver this.”

“And then?”

Celestia nodded to the letter. “She’ll tell you what to do next. Graargh is likely going to be a new experience for her, so I trust you’ll help her if she needs it.”

I raised a brow, but nodded. “As you wish, Master.”

“Do I get to call you ‘Mortal’ now?”

I felt a knot form on my brow, just under my horn. “No, Celestia.”

In the next few minutes, I left Angel with Blizzard, Tempest headed off to whatever his duties were with the Legion, and Graargh and I made our way towards the palace in search of Mrs. Aspirations. But that sordid story of espionage, terror, extortion, and murder most foul will have to wait for another Tale.

For now, our focus remains with Gale, around the only slightly less crowded table of one Commander Emeritus Hurricane.

I will remind you just this once, reader: I am the foremost necromancer in the world, and probably sit comfortably in the top three mages of all time. So while I wasn’t present in the room for these conversations, or for many conversations to follow (I wasn’t even on the same continent as our next Tale), my accounts here are first-hoof testimony.

The aging Platinum looked down at her plate, which she’d barely touched, and then sighed. “Gale, since you feel this situation is suitable for informality, I shall oblige you. But I need you to understand this isn’t a joke. I have no intention of rescinding your regency unless you cause catastrophic harm to this nation. So please, understand that your image matters more now that it ever has.”

Gale nodded, spearing a piece of ham (poor creature; but remember, future reader, that she was half pegasus) with probably more force from her fork than was strictly necessary. “You could have warned me.”

Lark nearly spat out her eggs, though thankfully the threat of spit-take artillery remained merely a threat. “You didn’t tell her?!” After a very brief pause, she added “Apologies, Your Majesty… But seriously?”

“Nopony told me either,” Commander Typhoon noted. “This does kind of change my job a little; the slightest notice would have been nice. I assume you didn’t tell Puddinghead either, Platinum, since there weren’t any balloons for it?”

“Correct, Commander,” Platinum nodded. “Your father and I have been discussing this for some time.” It wasn’t clear whether she was speaking back to Typhoon or had turned her attention again to Gale, but since ‘your father’ was the same pony for both the forty-something leader of Equestria’s armies as well as its new Queen-Regent, the point was moot.

Hurricane paused midway into lifting his glass of milk to his lips, and slowly lowered it back to the table. “So I should be grateful I got any warning at all? Or am I allowed to be disgruntled you didn’t tell me you were actually going forward with it?”

“Wait, seriously, Dad?” Gale’s jaw dropped.

Glancing back to Platinum for a moment, the old graying stallion just raised a brow. “I was under the impression your mother had meant this was happening in a year or two, not right now.”

Gale set both her hooves firmly on the table, rattling her silverware. “Okay, time-the-fuck-out. Raise your hoof if you knew what was going to happen last night.”

Besides Queen Platinum, only Celestia raised a hoof.

Gale set her left foreleg atop the hoof of her right foreleg, and massaged the bridge of her muzzle as she squinted at the table. “Aunt Celestia… and let me guess, that was just so when Mom made the announcement, you could stand behind the throne and raise your wings? What’d she give you, two hours warning?”

Celestia nervously glanced to Queen Platinum, who shrugged. Then, with a resigned sigh, the alicorn shook her head. “Not much more than half an hour. Your mother had just finished telling me before Morty and Count Halo… had their disagreement.”

“Right before Morty kicked Halo’s ass?” Gale let that question hang in the air for a moment, then leaned back in her chair and sighed. “This is one of those things we talk about privately, where you try and give me some dumb fucking metaphor about chess or flower arrangment or something, isn’t it, Mom?”

The Queen frowned. “At least you’ve learned to recognize the situations. Though I would hope by this point you wouldn’t need to ask in front of everypony assembled.”

“The rest of the family? And Lark, I guess?” Gale shrugged.

Queen Platinum closed her eyes and drew a brief breath. “Gale, why don’t we retire to your bedroom and look after your mane?”

Gale sighed. “I guess I’ll be reading about it in the newspaper if I don’t do something fancy… Fine.”

Lark nodded. “I assume this is why you had me visit this morning, Your Majesty? Should I go prepare the brushes and perfume?”

“Ah, no.” Platinum shook her head. “You guess correctly, Lark; that is why I asked you here. However, Gale and I need to speak privately for a few moments. I’m certain my dear husband can keep you entertained, or at least well fed, until we’re ready.” With that note, Platinum and Gale rose, one noticeably more enthusiastically than the other, and headed up to the top floor of the family home.

2-2

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II - II

The Lesson of the Cruel Mirror

“So what do I have to wear today?”

Platinum sighed. “Whatever Your Majesty wishes.”

Gale whirled. “What?”

“I can offer my suggestions, if Your Majesty would like them, but I won’t—”

“Can you stop?” Gale shook her head. “I get you want to teach me to do the job… and honestly this is a lot better than just making me sit next to you all day. But everypony knows you’re still the one calling the shots.”

“Is that what you think?” Platinum wandered over to the humble wood-framed mirror Gale had hung on her bedroom wall. In it, she saw what she never allowed anypony else to see. “What would it take to convince you I’m serious? Should I send you to the Stable of Nobles alone? Take a vacation? I hear the new settlements you’re about to be debating over are lovely in summer. A few weeks at the lagoon sounds lovely.”

“Bullshit, mom. You’re not going to just leave me.”

Platinum shook her head. “No. No, I suppose not. But you must be prepared that some day I won’t be here. Suppose I choked on a cherry stone, or—”

“That’s the best you could come up with?”

“Will you stop fighting me for five seconds?” Platinum’s temple throbbed as she rounded on her daughter, and her shoulders rose and fell as the motion seemed to have stolen her breath. Only after a few long lonely moments did she finally find the air to speak again. “I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, Gale. And I know at times my methods trying to prepare you for rule have driven a wedge between us. But I promise you, and I pray you can trust me: this isn’t some trick. I hope you’ll have an ear for my advice, but if you decide to go your own way, I’m going to let you.”

The extent of faith Gale had in her mother was evident when her brow remained lowered, skepticism overflowing in the resounding flatness of her voice. “Really? So you’re not going to hover over my shoulder the whole fucking time? No ‘royal tea filly’ shit?”

“You were eight. Did you honestly expect me to let you make decisions when lives were on the line?”

Gale huffed when she failed to come up with an answer that matched her distrust.

Platinum, for her part, gently moved a cushion to the front of Gale’s vanity, and gestured with a hoof for the younger mare to take a seat. “I am going to be by your side, yes, but you are the Queen of Equestria now, Gale; not me. You may consider me an advisor… albeit the only one who actually knows the weight of the crown.”

Gale took a long second to stare into the mirror while she was still standing, and slowly a hint of a grin appeared in her cheeks. “Holy shit, you’re serious.”

“I… well, I have on a few occasions been as serious as I am now, my daughter. But never more. The crown is your burden to bear.”

Gale struggled to contain her grin as she took the offered seat, recalling the accessory in question. “With how much everypony goes on about it, I was kind of expecting it to be heavier.”

The Queen lifted a mane brush from the surface of the vanity, gently moving it up to Gale’s head. “It’s a metaphor, dear.”

“I know, Mom,” Gale chuckled as she retorted, pulling away from the brush to face backwards. “I wasn’t born yesterday. Give me a little credit?” Then she turned back to mirror and closed her eyes. “I can finally do something.”

“Oh? And what exactly are you planning on doing with your newfound power?” Platinum shook her head. “Changing the apparel requirements of the Stable? Perhaps having more exciting music at our galas, or—”

“Seriously, Mom? You think I’m that… fuck, I don’t know, petty? Thin-skinned?” Gale rolled her eyes, not wanting to shake her head if only to keep the brush her mother was using from tugging at her scalp. “I want to break down the tribal walls; get Typhoon to let non-pegasi into Legion command positions, break the earth pony lock on the banks in Lübuck, and appoint some non-unicorns to the Stable.” As an afterthought, she smiled and added, “Though you’ll never catch me dead in another one of those fucking high collars. I do need to able to breathe if anypony wants to hear me give a speech.”

“That…” Platinum blinked a few moments in shock as her mind processed her daughter’s abrupt announcement. “That’s a bold strategy, Your Majesty.”

“It’s literally just the two of us, Mom. Just call me Gale. And I know it’s not going to get done overnight; I’m not pretending I’m just going to clap my hooves and have it all done. It’ll probably be like pulling teeth with the whole fucking Stable… well, except Star Swirl.”

“Indeed… as you so succinctly observed over breakfast, they do tend to trend traditionalistic.”

A painfully awkward silence settled between the two as Platinum combed through the tangled mess of Gale’s mane in silence. I cannot say how long it might have gone on, had Platinum’s horn not sparked and dropped the brush. Tangled in Gale’s mane, though it wasn’t an especially heavy thing, it yanked her head to the side, and the young Queen-Regent hissed as she jolted.

“What the fuck, Mom?”

“I… I’m sorry; my grip slipped. Here, I’ll—”

“It’s fine,” Gale snapped. Then, turning fully around, she seemed to make a point of staring into Platinum’s eyes as she yanked out the brush from her own mane. “Lark can get it. Just tell me what was so important that everypony else had to be gone.”

“There are a few things. Firstly, the last time I addressed the Stable, while you were away on your… trip... we were settling the Settlement Bill. The earth pony delegation in parliament is demanding gem mining on domain lands be decreased in exchange for their support of the bill. But since—”

“Mining is part of land rights guaranteed by the Equestrian Constitution, so parliament can’t legislate it away from the Nobles without their consent.” Gale nodded. “So Aunt Chrys and House are for it because they have banners who don’t have domains that aren’t under six feet of permanent snow who’re begging for land, and Fire Power is against it because she’s a greedy bitch who wants her gems?”

Platinum coughed into her hoof nervously. “Again, a blunt description, but an accurate one. Chrysoprase alerted me that the earth ponies delegation in parliament might come to a point like this about a year ago, so we’ve been working through negotiations since.”

“How the hell does Chrysoprase know? She’s not in parliament.”

“No, but the Great House Gullion has the most banners of all the houses in the Stable. And she personally finances campaigns for her banners who want to get into either body of parliament. She controls quite a bit of the unicorn delegation; she’s a very valuable ally.”

“And a pain in the ass enemy, I’m sure.”

“On occasion, when we haven’t seen eye-to-eye, yes. In some ways, she holds much more power than the crown. So I would encourage you to cultivate that friendship as quickly as possible.” Platinum hesitated for a moment, and then added. “If you married High Castle—”

“Mom, I’m not using my cunt as a bargaining chip.”

Gale!

“See? You can use my name.” Gale rolled her eyes. “Same goes for Spice Menage and Grayscale. Though I’d be an idiot to pick Grayscale, because Star Swirl couldn’t give two shits about whether or not I marry his great grand nephew, and he votes on our side every damn time anyway.”

“Perhaps…” Platinum mused. “But he is also over one-hundred years old.”

“I might not have talked to Clover much, but everything I hear about her makes her sound like she’s just as good a pony as he is. She’s his noble heir, right? Not just his… ‘wizardly’ heir?”

“That is correct, But don’t make the mistake of conflating somepony being a good pony with them being allied with your cause; just like your assumptions about traditionalists, you’ll find that many ponies who disagree with you really do believe in the things that they say. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“If you say so.” Gale rolled her eyes. “So why are you telling me all this about the vote? Why not wait until it was settled before abdicating?”

“It is settled; the vote is just a formality. I already made the relevant arrangements. And an easy win like this should set you off on the right hoof for your rule. Much easier than trying to found Equestria a week after you put on the crown, at any rate. You should win three to one. We expect only Duchess Fire Power to vote against us.”

“There are five great houses; who’s abstaining?”

“As the chair, Chrysoprase’s vote isn’t counted at all unless there’s a tie. Sometimes she announces what she would have voted, and the newspapers take it down assuming she actually did, but on the official record, most Stable votes only have four counts.”

“Right… Alright, for the record, why do the earth ponies claim they want to spite the Stable?”

“Mass mining causes inflation, dear.” The dismissive term made Gale frown, but at least this time she held her tongue. “Equestria is still rich with gems and gold, in no small part because years ago the earth ponies were able to enforce a quota on how much any domain could mine across the nation per year. But as we’ve added new domains, the total amount of gems has grown, and it's starting to have a noticeable effect again; even on simple staples like the price of bread.”

“Oh!” Gale frowned. “Huh… so the earth ponies are actually right?”

“It isn’t that simple, Gale,” Platinum insisted again. “Life is rarely so black and white.”

“Seems like it to me; the nobles want to get keep getting rich while they fuck over the rest of the country, and we have to convince them to think of somepony else for once in their shitty lives, and if we don’t we piss off Puddinghead?”

Platinum shook her head, but she wore the grin of a mare too far removed from being able to speak her mind, having finally heard somepony else with the audacity to admit what she’d been thinking for years.

But what she said was, “I doubt Chancellor Puddinghead understands economics enough to be upset. However, I did signal to Secretary Peanut Gallery that he should be optimistic about our negotiations, so he might be irritated if this somehow fell through.”

“So the problem for Equestria doesn’t actually factor into the calculus?” What Gale had asked obviously wasn’t a question.

Platinum’s shiny legs dug at the carpet of her daughter’s bedroom in an uncharacteristic show of hesitance. Finally, though, she found the steel to swallow and face her daughter through the vanity mirror again. “I know you understand swordplay much better than the ‘great game’, Gale. I don’t know much, but I hope this makes sense. Even the greatest warrior, even your father—” When Gale rolled her eyes, Platinum wasted no time correcting “—or Typhoon or Iron Rain, or whomever else you look up to; even they are mortal ponies. They can’t hold their swords aloft forever. Politics may stretch different muscles, but you still cannot win every fight. Wise Queens know that sometimes, letting your opponents tire themselves out on a fight you can afford to lose is the only way to win the fight that matters.”

Gale said nothing, and so I cannot claim to know what went through her mind. But for a rare moment, her eyes were closed, and her face grew smooth and calm indeed. And then, decisively, she gave a single nod. “Alright. What else?”

“Hmm?”

“You said there were a few things, and the Settlement Bill was ‘firstly’; what else?”

“Ah.” Platinum returned to brushing her daughter’s mane. “I wanted to talk to you about trust.”

“Trust?” Gale shifted her weight back onto her hind legs, and her shoulders tensed slightly. “Oh boy, here we go…”

“Who at the table at breakfast are you sure you can trust?”

The question seemed to slap the new queen across the face. “What?!” Then, all at once, she collected her thoughts. “This is about Morty, isn’t it? You don’t like him.”

“No, but he’s the least of my concerns in that room.” Platinum nodded. “You presented yourself as ‘Gale’ instead of ‘Queen Platinum’, and drew attention to the fact that I had kept your regency a secret until the very last possible moment. I want you to think about that: was it responsible to say those things in front of those ponies?”

Gale let her mouth hang open for a moment, and then she shook her head. “So it’s about Typhoon? Because she’s a ‘rival’, even though she’s my sister.”

“In part,” Platinum nodded. “Typhoon is responsible for the pegasi first, and if she is doing her job well that responsibility will come before family ties. You two will be at odds often, even if it is usually over minor matters. It would still be unethical of her not to use any information she gives you for the good of her kind. You could think of it as a matter of respect that you don’t discuss business of state with her, unless you’re being formal in your capacity as the Queen.”

Gale rolled her eyes. “It’s not like putting on the crown turns me into a different pony.”

“Yes, it does,” Platinum chided. “Perhaps not literally, not in any magical sense, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Did your tutors ever have you read Mirror’s Mirror?”

They did…” Gale answered through gritted teeth. “What, do I owe you a book report now? In the Oxidium dynasty, Queen Apnea was betrayed by Archmage Nefarious because she didn’t realize he was obviously evil. She shouldn’t have even needed Archmage Mirror’s warning.”

“Apnea was the Duchess of Pearl Point from Divine Rights, not Mirror’s Mirror. You’re thinking of Queen Chroma. And yes, that’s a fair summary, but you’re missing the point of the story.”

“There was no point! It’s a made up story about a made up queen who died because she was made up stupid!

Platinum sighed. “That may be true, but it was written by a real Queen as a real warning of a trap you are dangerously close to falling into, my daughter. Why does the story call Archmage Mirror the Cruel, when Nefarious is the villain of the story?”

Gale waved off the question with a hoof. “Because self-reflection feels shitty.”

Platinum shook her head, and gestured to a box on the vanity. When Gale moved to open it, she discovered the lid was locked. With a chuckle, Platinum’s horn lit to lift the key from within her dress; though her magic stumbled a moment, it did not fail enough to drop the key. With a gentle click the lid popped open and she once more stowed the key.

Gale stared at the crown, and the crown stared back at her, freshly polished from a visit to the royal jewelers.

“This is the cruel mirror, Gale. Because when you look at it, you see somepony you don’t necessarily like. Somepony who at times may make you suffer, may steal from you, may drive away your friends. And you must let her, if you wish to be a good Queen.”

“Bullshit,” Gale muttered. “You don’t suffer all the fucking time. You’re happy.”

At times,” the Queen replied. “The mare in the cruel mirror isn’t always spiteful, or wicked. But she is always there. Always watching. And while you must always let her win, you also must not become her.”

Gale stared long into the polished metal as her mother spoke. But sitting at an angle on the vanity, when Gale stared into it, she did not see her own reflection, but her Mother’s behind her.

“I thought the whole point was to be Queen?”

“Yes,” Platinum nodded. “I did say it was a metaphor, dear; not magic. You will be the Queen. But you cannot be ‘Gale’ at the same time, running across the world and meeting… I shall gently say ‘renegades’ dear.” Gale rolled her eyes, but she didn’t speak. “Not anymore than I can be Platinum, who loves a good book and a box of chocolates and going to bed early. The Queen takes precedence. She wants nothing more than to devour your entire life. Either you can guard yourself from her, and keep her as a separate pony on the opposite side of the looking glass—a mask, if you prefer that metaphor—or you can give in and let her devour you completely. Both paths will lead to success as Queen, but the latter will destroy you, my daughter.”

“So clearly that’s your preference.”

Platinum!” the elder mare snapped, before shaking her head. “Gale… you know that isn’t true. I love you, no matter how often we might not see eye to eye. That is why I am trying to teach this lesson... though I can see I am irritating you.” When Gale’s brow furrowed at the accusation, Platinum shook her head. “I know you do not want to hear this from me this way, but there are only two ways to learn that lesson, and discovering why it matters firsthoof is incredibly painful. Trust me. That’s exactly why I made you Queen while I am still alive, here to guide you.”

“So why the fuck didn’t my tutors explain that was what Mirror’s Mirror was about?”

“Likely because they did not know,” Platinum answered. “Anypony can buy a copy of Mirror’s Mirror at a bookbinder’s, of course, but few understand what it means to carry the weight of the crown. When I was your age, my tutors taught me much the same as what you learned from yours. That was one of few lessons I got from my father before… Before he passed.” Platinum swallowed as the painful memory of her father’s murder, by a stallion who was now her step-son no less, hung like the acrid fog in a smoking den. “And even then, I didn’t understand it. I had never worn the crown. As I said, I learned that lesson the hard way.”

Gale nodded, extended a hoof, and flicked closed the lid of the crown’s cushioned box. With a click of finality, it locked shut again. “Fine. Don’t mix court with family with Typhoon. I get it.”

“Good.” Platinum took a moment to collect herself and then nodded. “Who else?”

“Who else?” Gale turned fully on her seat, actually facing her mother instead of the mirror. “What, you mean Blizzard? Because Cyclone is ‘evil’ and it’s in her blood or something? Cause she hasn’t left the fucking house, except that one time to help Morty, since she got to Everfree. She doesn’t meet anypony else to talk even if she wanted to!”

“True. I would advise you not to be too casual with her simply as a matter of discipline, but you are right that she poses little risk.”

Gale scoffed. “Graargh thinks I’m his mom, or at least his big sister. As far as I’m concerned, he and Morty are both completely trustworthy.”

“I cannot speak for the bear… cub… thing.” Platinum sighed, muttering “Life was so much simpler once…” under her breath. “But Coil clearly has an agenda, and even if he is your ally for the moment, he may not always be.”

“Yeah, sure,” Gale muttered.

“But again, no.”

“No?” Gale stopped and actually ticked in the air with her hooves as she thought through who was at breakfast. “Tempest. Of course. Since Ty is his mom and his boss, he’ll tell her anything.”

“True.” Platinum nodded, and Gale dared to sigh. Only a moment later, another word escaped the silver lips of the elder mare. “But—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake; that just leaves Dad, and Lark, and… no. Not Aunt Celestia. I refuse to believe—”

“I wouldn’t besmirch Lady Celestia’s devotion to you,” Platinum interrupted, shaking her head. “She has been a faithful godmother from the day you were born, and loved you almost as dearly as your father and I have. I would not expect her to show you favor as Queen over the other two races, but if ever you need a confidante, I believe she will be there for you.”

Gale huffed. “So I guess the point is Lark.”

Platinum nodded. “Your hoofmaiden has unique access to you, and her loyalty is measured in bits, not blood.”

“Screw you, Mom; it’s not just for the bits! She’s been my best friend for like… my entire life.”

“Three years, dear. Try not to be so dramatic.”

Gale groaned. “So what’s your point with her then? I’m supposed to lie to her? Just not talk to her?”

Platinum shook her head. “Quite the contrary. Some of the most fulfilling parts of my mornings are the times I spend with Marigold. I simply don’t speak on matters of the Crown with her. When I am with Marigold, I am not the Queen, and so I do not speak of what the Queen knows.”

Gale stomped a hoof. “Look, I know you get off on this political bullshit—”

“Gale!”

“—but I need somepony to vent at when I’ve been through a day of putting up with noble bullshit and flower ceremonies and debates. So forgive me if I trust my friends. And while you’re at it, send her in.”

Platinum stood her ground.

“What?”

“Lark was only part of my point.”

“Then what— wait, Dad? Ok, no, now I know you’re full of shit.”

“Your father was the Commander of the Legion and the leader of the pegasi—”

Was!” Gale slapped a hoof down on the vanity, and the mirror rattled, sending shockwaves over the reflection of the back of her head. “I trust him to give me advice about being a leader a fuck of a lot more than you; he didn’t bend over and let his nobles caravan his asshole—”

Gale!

“—and if you think I’m giving that up because he used to be your rival ruler, then you can fuck right off!”

“Queen or not, you will not address me so crassly!” Platinum took a moment, breathing ragged and shoulders clenched, to collect herself. “Remember. your father knows the weight of the cruel mirror too. Why do you think he hates to be called ‘Emperor’?”

“But it’s not his job anymore. And he’s my dad. He’s your fucking husband! Or do you pretend you’re not fucking him when you put on the crown? Is that your ‘great sacrifice’ for ‘the Queen’?”

“That’s quite enough! You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed for Equestria!”

“It can’t be much, or I’d be able to see it! Dad’s missing a fucking wing and he can barely walk for Equestria! So if I have to pick sides, I know where I’m going!”

“Princess Platinum—”

“Get the fuck out of my room!”

2-3

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II - III

The Hoofmaiden

The hoofmaiden to the newly minted Queen peeked her head into the door of Gale’s room, taking in the rather drab furniture. (Gale would have called it Nimban, after Iron Rain’s home city in old Cirra, but I hesitate to lean too hard on a term that’s fallen not only out of favor but history as well.) “So, do I call you Your Majesty in here too now, or—”

Not funny, Lark.”

“That bad?” Lark slowly approached Gale, who was resting her head on her hooves, forelegs braced against the vanity. “Well… maybe I can at least help?” Without so much as waiting for a hint of permission or a word of direction, Lark rose up onto her hind hooves, placing her forelegs on Gale’s shoulders and beginning to massage them.

Gale lit her horn and slammed the door behind her hoofmaiden. After a second of silence, a second surge of magic signaled another spell off her horn. “There. We can fucking talk, even if Mom’s eavesdropping or some bullshit.” With a sigh I wouldn’t call contented so much as comfortable, she leaned into Lark’s ministrations.

“You really think your mom is going to eavesdrop on us?” Lark leaned forward to put her muzzle just beside one of Gale’s ears, and then with just a hint of teasing mirth, nibbled gently on the soft skin. A shudder of surprise and pleasure traveled down Gale’s body as Lark ceased the teasing to whisper. “Come on, Gale. She’s not that petty.”

Whatever good faith the tease of a bite had earned vanished in an instant as Gale pulled forward from Lark’s hooves, then turned to match her eye-to-eye. “That bitch thinks I can’t talk to my dad because he used to be in charge of the pegasi, and he’ll sell me out.” Gale accompanied the bitter summary by slamming a hoof on the flat surface of her vanity. “So yeah, I do think she’s that petty.”

Well…” Lark swallowed, then with her magic gently grabbed onto Gale’s shoulder, pulling her back to sitting with her face toward the vanity mirror and her back to her hoofmaiden. “Here, I’ll do your mane, and we can talk about something else.” Then, as she investigated the mane in question, her brow rose. “Um… what happened? Your mane got worse since breakfast. Your mom didn’t... yank on it, did she?”

“No.” Gale sighed and scowled. “Well, she did—but not like she was pissed at me and trying to hurt me. It was an accident. I think there’s something distracting her, or she’s getting old. She keeps forgetting to keep up her magic.”

Lark frowned. “Whatever happened, it looks like it hurts. But...” Lark took a moment to roll her neck. “Nothing a mare trained for life to be the Queen’s hoofmaiden can’t fix.”

The comment put a bit of a smile on Gale’s face, though she shook her head dismissively. “You’re not fooling anypony, Lark.”

“I’ve been fooling the entire palace for three years running,” Lark answered as her horn lit to lift Gale’s brush. “So I beg to differ, my queen.”

“Didn’t I just say to lay off that shit?”

The brush dragged down Gale’s golden mane, straightening tangled threads into the beginning of order. The tension in Gale’s shoulders made no show of loosening, but she drew a much steadier breath and allowed herself to close her eyes.

“You said no ‘Your Majesty’,” Lark replied, making sure her muzzle was close enough that as she spoke, Gale could feel her breath on her neck. “But I remember a certain filly liking it when I called her ‘my princess’, and now that she’s got a new title, it seems like ‘my queen’ is what comes next.” Then she chuckled. “Or is Morty the only one who gets to call you that now?”

Gale blushed rather flagrantly for a mare I thought at the time had no sense of shame. “N-no…”

“If you’re about to try and tell me you aren’t into him, Gale, I will smack you with this manebrush, Queen or not.”

“No, it’s not—” Gale stumbled with her words as Lark tended to the knots in her mane. “Fuck, Lark, I’m the gods-damn Queen of Equestria, and you want me to sit here gossipping about colts with you?”

“Seeing how shitty it was making you feel to talk about being the ‘gods-damn Queen of Equestria’?” Lark asked with a raised brow. “I think sitting here gossipping about colts is the much better option—for you, and for Equestria. And if I happen to get some juicy details, well, that’s just an added bonus.”

Gale exhaled slowly. “I already told you all about him.”

“In front of your mom,” Lark nodded. “This is the first time we’ve been able to be alone. So tell me what actually happened. How’d you dig up the best ass in Equestria?”

Yes, she really said that. I only record it to be accurate to the conversation, since the hindquarters attached to me now are no more original than the other half of my face will be shortly.

“I don’t really think there’s that much else to tell than what I already said. I got pissed at mom’s bullshit, stole dad’s sword, met Morty in Manehattan—”

“Manehattan?” Lark asked.

“It’s a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere,” Gale explained. “I thought Morty was a bandit because he was acting sketchy as fuck… and if we’re being honest, he looked way too clean to belong there... but he proved me wrong. Well, really, Graargh beat the shit out of me.”

“The little bear cub?”

“He’s magic; he can turn big for a couple minutes. Like a full grown bear. Or into ponies, I guess… I don’t really know how it works. The bears we met outside River Rock called him a ‘skinwalker’ and Aunt Celestia said something about a ‘changeling’, but I don’t think Morty even knows what his whole deal is.”

“Weird…” Lark shrugged. “Okay, so what happened after that?”

“He convinced me he wasn’t a bandit, and then he wanted to travel together because we were both going to River Rock, and I told him to go fuck himself.” At Lark’s shocked expression, Gale chuckled. “I ran into him again in Lubuck, and for some fucking reason he decided to help me fight Tempest and his squad. And holy shit you should have seen the look on Tempest’s face.”

Lark looked up from her brushing to shake her head. “I heard most of this before, if not from you then from the gossip in the palace; Tempest’s report back wasn’t exactly secret. That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean, Lark?”

Lark actually leaned out from behind Gale’s head to make sure her reflection could be seen in the vanity mirror. “I mean how is he in bed, Gale. Do I have to spell it out for you?” Lark paused to wink at Gale’s reflection. “Was he better than that servant colt we cornered a few years ago?”

Gale slammed a hoof down on the vanity, releasing a wooden crack. “I haven’t fucked him, okay? I tried one time, in the Crystal Union, but Aunt Celestia walked in on us, and then Morty went off to go plan how to get himself killed, and since then he’s only been awake two fucking days.”

Lark raised a brow. “Weren’t you with him for like… two months?”

“Whatever it was.” Gale sighed. “Hiking through the woods of bumfuck nowhere on the way to Lubuck, and then on a freezing ass boat to Neighvgorod, and then hiking and rafting in the eternal snowstorm the rest of the way to River Rock. But we didn’t have a bed out in the middle of nowhere, and even if we did, Graargh was with us.”

“Ah.” Lark nodded sagely. “Yeah, I guess having a kid around kills the mood. But there must have been something, right? I mean, renting out the dance hall for a party with just your real friends was a pretty classy move. Is he usually like that?”

“He’s usually insufferable,” Gale answered. “But occasionally, he makes up for it. In River Rock, after he let slip that he knew who I really was and picked a fight with Cyclone—”

“He what?!

“Picked a fight with my brother, Lark; use your ears. Anyway, after that, I was pretty pissed at him, and I—”

“How is he alive?!

Gale groaned with growing irritation. “Maybe I didn’t make this clear. He was raised by ‘evil Star Swirl,’ and the only real skills he knows in life are how to kill monsters and how to talk to dead ponies. He’d probably be better off if he didn’t look good; every time he opens his fucking mouth, he gets into some shit like making Cyclone almost light him on fire or having to rip Count Halo’s soul out in the middle of court. So what’s a fucking miracle is that Cyclone is still alive—if I had to bet on Morty fighting anypony short of my fucking aunts, I’d bet on Morty. Got it?”

Lark nodded.

“Good. What I was trying to get to was that I got real pissed at him; I thought he was trying to take advantage of me like my suitors, and I told him to fuck off. Morty told me he only had a couple of minutes to talk before Cyclone kicked him out of River Rock, and when I told him I wasn’t gonna forgive him that fast, this idiot’s idea of a romantic gesture was to slow down time.”

“What, like… for everypony?”

“Well, he told me it was really just a trick for the two of us… but then he actually did it when he was bleeding to death after I chopped off Wintershimmer’s horn, so…” Gale shrugged. “We were out standing on the walls, and all the snowflakes just… slowed down. You could see the crystals in front of you. And he explained he doesn’t give a shit about me being Queen. He proved it too, letting me help him with Wintershimmer, even if it probably was a bad idea.”

“That sounds sweet,” Lark replied. “Romantic, in a way.”

Gale made a show of rolling her eyes. “It was a nice gesture, Lark, but I’m not six.”

“No, no, how could I forget? Real romance isn’t for the Princess—sorry, the Queen. Her Majesty just wants to get held down by a stronger pony and—”

“Lark, you’re going to shut the fuck up right now,” Gale snapped.

“Fine,” Lark answered, sticking out her tongue. “See if I’m free next time you need to blow off steam. Or am I out of a friend-with-benefits now that you’ve got this new would-be lover?”

“Why are you being such an ass, Lark?”

“Because if I try to be honest and genuine with you, you tell me I’m acting like a foal for not swearing and being grim and making everything as stark and absolute as it can possibly be.” Lark gently worked her brush through Gale’s mane. “So do you want to hear what I have to say the easy way or the hard way? Or do you actually want me to just shut up?”

Gale sighed. “Just say it.”

“Aww, and here I was hoping you’d pick the hard way.” Lark chuckled to herself. “Two things. First, I don’t know how serious you feel about him, or how serious he feels about you, but if you can’t get over your swearing, bad-filly act around him, you’re going to throw away a chance at something better.”

“So what, I should be the prissy princess everypony expects?”

“I’m not saying anything. You’re the one who dragged him home with you. But if you keep wearing this other mask around him, eventually one of you is going to get hurt. So I guess I am actually saying something: be honest with him. Doesn’t matter if that means you think you’re in love, or you just want a friend, or even just a piece of nice ass; I’m just saying you should tell him the truth.”

“I have.”

“Have you?” Lark pressed.

Gale groaned. “Fuck it. Fine. I’m gonna marry him.”

Lark’s brows rose, and then she let out a long whistle. “Oh.” Then, a few long brushes of Gale’s mane later, the slightly older mare cocked her head. “So… what noble house is he from, I guess?”

“Morty? A noble?” Gale scoffed. “He’s half-crystal.”

“What?!” Lark narrowly avoided yanking on Gale’s mane, and slowly removed the brush from her hair before she paced around to stand next to the vanity, where she could stare into Gale’s face as she spoke. “I heard he’s supposed to be Lady Celestia’s ‘chosen one’ or something from all the palace gossip about the damage he did to the wizard school. But… Is that honestly enough for your mom?”

“She doesn’t know,” Gale answered.

You could have kept time to a poco allegro marche by the twitching of Lark’s eyelid. “Your mom is going to have a heart attack. Honestly. You’re literally going to murder her.”

“I know.” Gale grinned. “Isn’t it perfect?” Then, closing her eyes, she took a solid breath. “Is that enough? Can we stop gossiping about colts like we’re fillies in our first heat? I know it sounds crazy, but I am actually trying to figure out how to rule—”

“Absolutely fucking not.” Lark shook her head. “This is literally the most interesting thing that has ever happened in the palace. You think I’m letting that go? Speaking of which, my second thing: I’m calling in my favor.”

“Your… fine.” Gale folded her forelegs across her chest stubbornly. “You did help me get out of town with Dad’s sword. What do you want?”

“When you do finally get with Morty, I need you to write it down for me. Like a diary.”

“A journal, you mean?” Gale then frowned. “You want me to keep a sex journal?”

“It’s a thing with nobles,” Lark nodded. “They’re called ‘pillow books’.” Then she winked. “But I want to hear about every gritty detail. And I want it written down, so I can come back to it if I want, since I might not have my best-friend-with-benefits anymore.”

“Ugh… fine.” Gale rolled her eyes. “If it’ll get you to shut up about Morty.”

“Well, I never promised that. Come on, tell me more.” Lark’s grin seemed to stretch passed the edges of her face, saccharine and cheshire and shameless.

“Like what? You already heard the story. I really didn’t leave anything out in front of my Mom. Except I guess that Cyclone was actually super nice to me.”

“Cyclone the Betrayer?” Lark asked. “Who murdered your grandpa and tried to enslave the unicorns?”

“He’s also my half-brother,” Gale reminded Lark. “Tempest is fucking terrified of him, which is hilarious.”

“Why? I would be too.”

“He’s not your uncle,” Gale answered, some more tension vanishing from her shoulders as she closed her eyes and leaned into the work of Lark’s magic.

Only a few strokes later, Lark set down the brush and went to work weaving Gale’s mane into a sort of braided headband. Lark, it should be noted, did not ask for Gale’s approval, nor her opinion. Gale, for her part, didn’t even open her eyes to see what Lark was doing, what style she had chosen.

“He’s fucking giant,” Gale observed. “Like, it’s weird. Cause Dad’s kinda big for a pegasus, you know, but Ty isn’t actually that tall when she takes her helmet off. So I guess I always assumed their mom was kinda smaller. But maybe not. Cyclone is really big though. Like bigger than Rain big.”

“Does your dad ever talk about her?” Lark asked. “His first wife?”

“Swift Spear?” Gale shrugged. “Not much. Not to me at least. Sometimes he and Ty do a little bit. But he hates talking about the past about anything.”

“You could ask Morty to introduce you,” Lark observed.

“What?”

“Well, he talks to dead ponies, right?” Lark observed. “You could meet all kinds of interesting ponies like that. Swift Spear. Your grandparents.”

Gale chuckled as she leaned back into her mane benign braided. “If I wanted somepony interesting, I’d have him call up Solemn Vow. Or maybe Warchief Halite.”

“Uh…” Lark swallowed. “Maybe don’t pick the most evil ponies anyone can remember?”

“Well, Cyclone was nice enough; maybe Vow’s nice too.”

“Cyclone’s your half-brother. I doubt he’s nice to everypony. Or even anypony.” Lark nodded. “Does… what’s her name from breakfast? His daughter? Does she like him?”

“Blizzard? Not really.” Gale shook her head. “But his other kids do. At least, the ones close enough to our age that I could talk to them. Sirocco and Maelstrom seem to at least respect him.”

Gale opened her eyes when the pressure of Lark’s magic on her hair disappeared, and smiled at the elegant but simple manestyle the older mare had chosen for her. “Don’t mention that Blizzard is Cyclone’s daughter. She’s super nervous about it. She’s hardly left the house since she got to Everfree.”

“So we should take her out for drinks?” Lark asked.

Gale chuckled. “My thoughts exactly. But somewhere quieter; I don’t think she’d have much fun at Pit’s.”

“Well, we’re almost done here,” Lark noted, moving to open the box that contained the crown. The box, however, resisted. “Um… Is it magic or something? Do you have to open it?”

Gale glanced to the box and dragged a hoof down her brow. “No, it’s just locked.” With a flick of her horn, she turned an ornate decoration of the royal crest on the front of the polished wooden box to reveal a small keyhole. “Mom keeps the key on her. I guess I have to go fucking talk to her again—”

“Well…” Lark glanced at the door nervously. “We don’t have to…”

“Hmm?”

Lark’s horn ignited, lifting a hoof file from Gale’s beauty kit, inspecting it skeptically, and lowering it in favor of a more delicate file. “Think I’ve still got it?”

Gale answered with a frown. “Lark, this isn’t some door in the slums. That’s the crown’s box.”

“You mean it’s magic?” Lark asked.

“No, I just mean it isn’t cheap,” Gale answered.

Lark scoffed, bringing the thin implement up to the keyhole and letting the magic on her horn grow brighter. “Even if you spent a thousand bits, you can only fit so many tumblers in that thin of a piece of wood…” The hoofmaiden squeezed one eye closed, lowering her head to stare into the hole of the box, along the thin edge of her hooficurist’s ‘weapon’. And then, seemingly lost the world, she began to hum a little ditty to herself.

“♫ All around the ferrier’s bench,
The busker teased the lockbox… ♫”

“Lark, seriously; how long has it been since you did this? A couple years?”

“♫ The lockbox thought its lock would hold, but… ♫”

Pop supplied the little wooden case.

“♫ …goes the lockbox! ♫” Lark finished, replacing the hoof file. “I’m not as out of practice as you think, Gale.”

Gale blinked briefly as Lark fully opened the lockbox, revealing the crown. “Why? Is Mom not paying you enough? I’ll make sure you get a raise, and—”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Lark shook her head. “My friends downriver would kill to be making what I’m getting taking care of you. But you of all ponies ought to know sitting around the palace all day is soul-crushing. Especially when your… closest friend decides to run off and ditch you.”

Gale fully turned around to face Lark. “Okay, that’s the second time you’ve brought it up. What’s wrong? Are you jealous? Are you worried I’m not going to have time for you or something?”

Lark shook her head. “No! I mean, if you’re gonna marry him and it’s not just having fun, you don’t want to cheat on him with me. But I’ll be fine. I’m happy for you. Besides, we both know a Queen can’t just fuck her hoofmaiden on the side her whole life. We were never going to be a ‘thing’. And it’s not like I can’t find somepony else.” Then she winked. “If you want to treat him to a threesome though, I’m just saying… Just don’t forget where you learned… well, everything you know.

“You’ll be the first pony I think of…” Gale added “Horny bitch.” under her breath, just loud enough she could be sure she’d be overheard. “Just pass me the crown.”

Lark’s horn lit, and then paused. “Uh… do you want me to just put it on you, or are you supposed to use your hooves or something?”

“Do I look like I give a shit?” Gale rolled her eyes. “It might ‘represent’ a lot, but it’s a fucking fancy accessory. Just make sure it doesn’t fall off.”

“As my queen commands—”

No, Lark.” Gale sighed. “Do you think I need something else too? Ear rings?”

Lark hesitated. “Well… the crown isn’t exactly subtle, so more jewels would probably just be distracting. I kind of always thought your Mom was going overboard. We could do some light makeup…”

“Forget it.” Then she let out a frustrated growl as she considered her options. “I assume I have to wear a dress?”

“I don’t know if you have to wear anything. You’re the Queen, Gale.” Lark gestured to the closet. “But I did grab a few options from the palace before I came over.” As she spoke, Lark pulled open the closet doors with her magic. She revealed three dresses.

The first was elaborate, the color of emeralds, and I’m certain it would have looked beautiful on Gale if she ever gave it a second glance; however, even I could tell with a look that its heavy collar, so tall it could have been mistaken for a headdress, and its somewhat puffed, quilted shoulders would never garner that second glance.

“I know you didn’t like this one when your mom ordered it, but since it’s more formal—”

“Fuck no; next.”

The second, a platinum-gray gown with long sleeves and a slight train, had what I would have assumed were Elkish inspirations, had Equestria actually made diplomatic contact with Rivendelk at that point in our history. Touches of silver maille (purely decorative) and triangular cuts near the fetlocks and at the back of the garment, drew attention not by bold colors, but by subtle variances in texture and hue on an otherwise deliberately restrained outfit.

“That’s not bad,” Gale noted. “How long have I had this?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s new,” Lark answered. “I, uh, picked things you haven’t worn yet. I know you don’t care, but the other hoofmaidens and servants in the palace can be real pricks if I let you show up to an event in a dress you’ve already used before.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll tell whoever the fuck your boss is that you’re promoted and they can kiss your marks—”

“I think that’s a bad idea...” Though the words might come across as calm, a painful urgency lurked in the undercurrent of Lark’s voice.

Gale turned, brow raised, at Lark’s outburst. “Why?”

“It’s one thing to claim I belong in the palace when I’m only doing my job in front of you. But the moment I’m in charge of somepony else it’s all going to fall down around my ears. I’m making more money than I ever dreamed of as a filly just being your hoofmaiden; can we just let things stay the same?”

“Of course!” Gale threw a hoof around the other mare’s shoulders. “I mean, you’re probably going to have your work cut out for you now that I’m in charge, but we don’t have to change anything. I didn’t mean to freak you out. I mean, come on, Lark! I’m not gonna fucking get rid of you; I’d have to put up with some snobbish asshole!”

“Yeah.” Lark nodded, chuckling. “Right. Sorry. I just…”

“It’s totally ok. Come on, what’s the third dress?”

“Well, it isn’t really—”

The third ‘dress’ Lark had acquired won the second Gale set eyes on it. This time, I’ll let Lark’s description summarize it.

“It, uh… well, I made myself.” Sheepishly, the hoofmaiden scratched behind her ears with a forehoof. “I saw it in one of the shops on the way home. It’s actually a stallion’s tunic, but the red reminded me of your eyes, and I figured I could probably take it in to fit your body a little more. The pauldron is from some spare Legion armor I got from the armory, but I had the edges gilded like the trim on your sister’s black. And I added the feathers around the edge of the pauldron to make it look a little more like an accent and less like… you know, like you’re wearing armor.”

“Did Dad and Ty actually lend you their feathers?”

Lark shook her head. “Just regular bird feathers; crow and… well, I don’t know where the pony in the market got the brown ones that look like your sister’s; maybe eagle? But it was kind of the idea that it looked like them.I thought the little touch might look good; I know you like the Cirran look—”

“It’s bad ass! Gale’s horn lit and snatched the outfit in question from its hanger. “I can’t believe you made this, Lark! I didn’t know you were this good with a needle!”

Lark shrugged. “Kind of… I mean, I just got a bunch of pieces and bits together like I used to in Leftend…” the thought just trailed off. “Anyway, it’s, uh… well, it was my idea of a birthday present, and since you’re probably going to be busy constantly this was the only chance I had to give it to you. But you probably don’t want to wear it in front of the Stable; I mean, it’s not like it’s from a proper seamstress’s shop.”

“No.” Gale smiled. “Lark, it’s perfect. It’s me.”

2-4

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II - IV

The Macculate Reception

When her time getting dressed had passed, and short goodbyes had been offered to Lark, Gale made her way to the royal carriage waiting in the street outside Hurricane’s home. There, an aged silver-clad unicorn knight stood beside the vehicle’s open door, offering a hoof to aid Gale in the rather small step up. She glanced at the steel-shod support, and moved to make her way up on her own.

The knight, it seemed, was determined to be useful. “Your Majesty, it is an honor. I am Sir Gauntlet. May I offer you my assistance?”

As the offering hoof extended forward further, Gale upgraded her glance to a full-on glare. “I’m eighteen, Sir Gauntlet, not eighty.”

“I… didn’t mean any offense, My Queen.” Gauntlet sighed. “In your family, the Scourge of Kings has meant that many queens and kings have needed some physical aid. It is, thus, the tradition of your knights to always offer our aid—”

Gale actively reached up, set her hoof on top of Gauntlet’s, and perhaps with more force than strictly necessary, forced it to the ground. “And I’m sure Mom and Grandpa Lapis appreciated it a lot. But since I’m half-pegasus, not only is my body fine, but I can also do this.”

With a flare of her horn, Gale vanished. Only a ‘pop’ of magic signalled her passing, and then a moment later a similar sound saw her standing on the roof of the royal carriage. “You can offer your help to Mom all you want, but I’ll pass.”

I should mention at this point that the royal carriage was equipped with a sunroof—a fact which was relevant not for the splendid optimism it filled the rolling wooden box with, but because Gale elected to use it in place of a door. With just a momentary flick of her magic, she slipped into the opening, and landed on her hooves on the carpeted floor, directly between Platinum and Celestia. It took her only a moment more wielding her magic to close the carriage’s open door and the sunroof. Then, a slight look of satisfaction on her face, she hopped onto the only remaining seat beside her mother (Celestia understandably taking up one entire side of the carriage’s seating space).

Platinum had steepled her hooves in front of her muzzle and was focusing on her slow, steady breathing. In the silence, one could notice (and Gale, ever the more observant of such things than I am, certainly did) that the newly retitled Queen-Mother was dressed far more subtly than her usual royal attire. It wasn’t just the lack of the crown; Platinum wore far less jewelry, and while the styling and cut of her outfit was no less regal, it utilized fewer colors and patterns than her usual fur shawls and diamond-patterned accents.

Celestia, as was her custom in those days except on the most special of occasions, went naked.

“So… off to deal with the Stable?” Gale asked, already sounding tired as her day began. “Hopefully this doesn’t take forever.”

Queen Platinum’s brow twitched. Well, perhaps it might be more obvious to say it throbbed, as if some vein had only just managed to break up a blood clot at the last possible second before it gave the mare a fatal stroke. Still, she held her eyes closed, and waited a beat to breathe once more before she spoke. “It was deliberately curt for me, Your Majesty. We were in the midst of evacuating River Rock after Cyclone’s rebellion and eternal winter.” Then another beat, another breath. “You should apologize to Sir Gauntlet.”

“For what? He was the one shoving his hoof in my face.” Gale adjusted herself in her seat, struggling to get comfortable. “And I told you not to call me ‘Your Majesty’, Mom.”

“If that is an order, I shall… regretfully obey. But even if it does not matter to you at the breakfast table, amongst family, it will matter before the nobles. The image of royalty is everything.” Another breath, and another, came before she spoke again. “Sir Gauntlet was only doing his job, carrying on with noble tradition. You did not need to be so blunt in turning away his help, and you especially did not need to be a showoff.”

“A showoff?” Gale slapped an irritated hoof against the wall of the carriage, and then jumped for a moment when it started moving. “I don’t need his help. Why is that so wrong?”

“There’s no weakness in accepting help,” Celestia observed. “Nor in needing it from time to time, Gale.”

“What? Yes there is. That’s, like, the definition of weakness. And it would be one thing if I actually needed the help getting up into the cart, but he’s… what, sixty? I ought to be the one helping him. He looks like he’d break if I leaned on him.”

Gale!” snapped Queen Platinum, opening her eyes. Then, abruptly, all thought on Sir Gauntlet washed off of Platinum’s face; you could even see it happen, just from looking at her. “What are you wearing?!

“Um… a shirt?” Gale shrugged. “I know somepony at the stable would drop dead if I showed up naked, but I’ve been in dresses constantly since I got back, and I thought this would be a nice change of pace.” She extended a foreleg, showing off the sleeves. “I take it from your tone of voice that I’ve committed some kind of war crime? Is a shirt somehow scandalous on a Queen?”

“It…” Platinum furrowed her brow and wrinkled her muzzle. “You understand, Your Majesty, that your wardrobe as Queen isn’t simply defined by a minimum level of formality?”

“More like a minimum level of discomfort.”

“Your attire is a statement,” said the elder royal. “And just as not all words are appropriate for all audiences—even if they might be true—no outfit is appropriate for every event, no matter how regal it may be.”

“Just get to the fucking point, mom.”

Platinum frowned. “Your ascension took the nobles by surprise.”

“Clearly that was your fucking intention, since you didn’t even tell me.”

“They are looking for signs of stability. That things will continue as they are. That I married a pegasus was already beyond some of their approval—”

This?” Gale asked, tapping on her shoulder, where a single Cirran pauldron was crested in her family’s feathers. After visibly biting her cheek for a moment in thought, she let herself suck in a deep breath and leaned back on the cushions of the carriage’s seat. “They can bite me. I’m not losing it.”

“I would encourage you to consider at least showing some flexibility—”

“You mean bending over and being their fucking doormat, like you are every time they decide they want more power? More money?” Gale rolled her eyes and let her head hit the wall of the carriage. “Personally, I’m hoping somepony questions my ‘divine right’—that’ll be fucking hilarious, with you standing right there, Aunt Celestia.”

Celestia frowned openly. “I… Gale, I promised I would support you, but I’m not comfortable forcing myself into politics that way. Please do not use me as a prop.”

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” Gale shrugged. “I’ll try not to drag you into the Stable’s bullshit, but standing behind me with your wings up yesterday was blunt enough of a metaphor, I think even Puddinghead understood it.”

Gale!

“What? He even admits it himself, he’s as thick as the shit he puts in his hat. Besides, that joke would land great with the nobles; they’re all racist enough.” Gale emulated a stuffy, over-enunciated voice. “Oh, how droll; the earth ponies surely ahh less intelligent than us. They should have stayed in the fields where they belong.

Again, Platinum refrained from swift words in favor of an obviously forced breath in and out. “So that’s how you think of your subjects? Yet you still believe rubbing your pegasus ancestry in their muzzles is the wisest introduction?”

“I think it’s going to come up anyway. Even if I change my shirt, I can’t change my parents. Because, believe me, if I could, you’d be the first to know.” Though Gale delivered that final thought not with a shout, but with the subtler barbs of a calm joke, it struck Platinum truer than her daughter could possibly have known.

Celestia, too, seemed wounded by the callous words. “Gale, I know you don’t mean—”

But before Celestia could finish her admonishment, the carriage lurched to a stop, and what seemed only a moment later, the door was pulled open.

“Your Majesties. Your Holiness.” Sir Gauntlet gave a perfunctory bow, before extending a foreleg toward a wide scarlet carpeted path, laid out over the cobblestones of the street to bridge the path between the carriage and the front doors of the Stable of the Stable of Nobles.

The Stable House, as ponies often called the building due to the mutual understanding of everypony in Equestria except its members that “the Stable of the Stable” was a naming atrocity almost as bad as mine, was built according to the ‘aspirational’ school of architecture.

For those unfamiliar, that meant the building really wanted to be a castle when it grew up.

Stone walls surrounded a diamond-shaped building (its awful shape guaranteeing it a monopoly on its block near the palace), each point capped with a tower which would prove utterly vital in defending the building in the event of a protracted siege from a threat on the order of a newborn foal, or perhaps some moderate to heavy rainfall. For anything greater, the huge number of elaborate windows on the ground floor made it clear any military aspirations the structure might possess were an architect’s equivalent of a game of ‘dress up’.

Ponies' relationship with royalty has not changed in one thousand years, it should be noted: as Gale hopped out of the carriage (again refusing Sir Gauntlet’s offered hoof), she found her red carpeted path swarmed on both sides with the ‘common rabble’ of the civilization. Two lines of armored unicorn knights kept the masses from rushing up to engulf Gale.

Now, I could (through the practice of necromancy) elaborate in considerable detail about Gale’s reception to her first gathering of the Stable of Nobles; however, given that I have loved her longer than lifespan of most dragons, I know that even in my best efforts I am not the most reliably neutral source of commentary on the subject of her, in general.

This is the first of several cases where, thankfully, I don’t have to be. In my youth, I made a habit of stashing away a few copies of The Everfree Gazette from days of particular interest to me. Newspapers were only a few decades old in those days, one of the most notable cultural contributions the earth ponies brought to Equestria. As the capital of Equine civilization, Everfree had four or five running presses around the time of Gale’s ascension—though one, The Pudding Enquirer, was already recognized as a sordid tabloid full of hearsay and rumor-mongering, financed entirely by the earth pony chancellor’s loins.

It is quite the grim commentary on our species that it outsold the other papers for the entire duration of Puddinghead’s tenure as Chancellor.

Tabloids aside, The Everfree Gazette was my personal favorite paper, for reasons that are a story for another Tale. My personal collection, mercifully moved to Canterlot before Nightmare Moon’s rampage, I shall share with you to let you see just how the city viewed Gale from less biased eyes.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Surprise Succession: Unicorn Nobility Caught Flat-Hoofed
By Editorial Bored

In the wake of Queen Platinum I’s surprise abdication, Equestria’s unicorns find themselves represented by an unknown and untested leader. Some fear Queen Platinum III’s reputation for small scandals will cost the unicorns influence in parliament; others praise her mixed heritage as an opportunity to weaken the barriers between the tribes.

Platinum III took her first official act today by heading a session of the Stable of Nobles, the gathering of heads of the landed unicorn noble families. Notable members of the Stable include Archmage Star Swirl the Bearded, whose return to public life as the head of House Zodiac caused some stir after his extended absence in the company of the informally named ‘Pillars of Equestria’. Lady Glass Menage, leader of the Equestrian Alchemist’s Guild and the head of the House of Three, also saw some commotion regarding the string of break-ins at Lighten Heights (see Alchemist Crime Spree Baffles Legion, pg. 3). However, Equestria’s eyes were all on the last ponies to arrive at the event, and most especially on the new Queen.

Without a single spoken word, Platinum III’s choice of outfit reinforced both the fears and hopes of the nation. Clad in a slimming shirt, devoid of cape or trail or the ornate jewelry that has come to represent Platinum I as an icon of the unicorns, she wore only two accessories. The first was the Royal Crown; the second, a single Cirran Legion pauldron, decorated with black and brown feathers. The symbolism of her father, Commander emeritus Hurricane, and her half-sister, the sitting Commander Typhoon, was obvious to the crowd immediately.

The first questions to the new Queen were about the day’s session of the Stable, and her expectations. “Besides wasting time on ceremony, we’re dealing with the Settlement Bill,” she said. Asked about the proposed compromise between the Stable and the earth pony delegation in parliament, Platinum III showed none of the hesitation or diplomatic vagueness this paper has usually received from the prior Queen Platinum or her representatives. “I’m going to get the Stable to take the hit [to mining limits]. I’m done with ponies using tribalism as a cover for corruption. If Equestria is really supposed to be somewhere anypony can thrive, regardless of wings or horn, it has to start from the top.”

Her words echo Commander Hurricane’s now famous final address to Equestria at the announcement of his retirement, and suggest the new Universalist Party may have found a sorely-needed ally in the new unicorn sovereign.

At the same time, the comments almost immediately produced some natural ire from traditionalists in the crowd. Upon inquiring about how she intended to balance preserving the distinct cultures of the tribes with her ‘erasurist’ agenda, the Queen replied “If you still want to live in the Diamond Kingdoms, there’s plenty of cheap real estate in River Rock.” Just before disappearing into the private confines of the Stable House, she added “Don’t forget to pack warm.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

The Stable House’s interior smelled like the elderly and was one thin coating of dust shy of looking like a particularly haunted sanitarium. The walls were wainscoted in antiqued fir, topped with a green wallpaper that alternated dark and dull pale stripes. Portraits hundreds of years older than the building, carried away by the unicorn nobles as they abandoned their ancient homes in River Rock and its surrounding cities to the last windigo and its eternal winter, glared down at their new monarch with undisguised contempt.

Gale didn’t care about the dead unicorns any more than she seemed to care about her mother, following after her in the moments since she had entered the building but increasingly struggling to keep up. Celestia too lagged behind, though I know with certainty that in her case it was a deliberate choice to support the elder Platinum, rather than a lack of agility on her part.

Though the Stable House had dozens of passageways and sitting rooms, as well as bedchambers for nobles who normally lived outside the walls of Everfree City, the monarch’s path was both straight and short. Even from the entry doors, Gale could see the two knights ahead of her on opposite sides of the doors that led into the Stable’s gathering chamber (also sometimes referred to as the Stable, because of course it was). They bowed and lit their horns in tandem—an obviously practiced motion, and in tandem the doors swung open, revealing the Stable of Nobles (the group of ponies) sitting in the middle of the Stable of Nobles (the gathering chamber), which was itself the central room of the Stable of Nobles (the building).

The room was constructed much like an opera house’s stage chamber: seven rows of shoe-shaped galleries rose up from the carpeted floor, divided into dozens, if not hundreds of what were essentially theatre booths. Each such booth had a few seats; some three, some as many as seven, nearly all filled with the representative nobleponies of the booth’s corresponding family. If you knew anything about heraldic banners and crests, the symbols hanging from the front of each booth and the colored stripes on the cloth awnings covering each booth would tell you exactly what families each booth belonged to. If not, it was still quite a dizzying sight of colors and patterns. At the front of each booth, sticking out from under its awning, was a small podium where a pony who wished to addressed the room could be seen even from those above them, without worry of being blocked from view by copious clothwork.

High overhead, an enormous oval skylight filled the chamber with natural sunlight, though a few dozen chandeliers, set with glass baubles in place of candles, offered magical lighting in the short days of winter and the long nights of the practice of equine kind’s most dangerous game: politics.

As with all opera houses and stages, the ground floor was the most notable setting for the action that took place. Five booths built in the same style, but in far more grandiose size and decoration, lined the curved wall. Each, of course, faced the grandest and most overblown of all the booths, decorated in the silver, gold, and purple of the royal family. It alone had no awning, offering nowhere for Gale to retreat from view for as long as she sat in what was for all intents and purposes another throne. This one, she would often tell me, was at least mercifully not made of metal as the famously platinum ‘Platinum Throne’ was, and so not prone to being entirely frigid on her back and flanks.

As Gale stepped into view, the court herald spoke up in his bellowing, practiced voice. “Mares and stallions of the Stable of Nobles, all rise in honor of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Platinum the Third.”

And then, as was almost inevitable, all Tartarus broke loose.

2-5

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II - V

The Five Questions

“Mares and stallions of the Stable of Nobles, all rise in honor of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Platinum the Third.” The herald’s words had only just left his lips, before Gale even had a chance to speak, and already the day was on a path to chaos.

The Stable rose, stepping to the fronts of their booths and bowing their horns, as was tradition. Hundreds—not quite a thousand, but almost—of heads were bent toward Gale in unison. But one, at least, did not.

“I will not serve a half-breed Queen!”

As you can probably imagine, those words were disruptive enough that all the bowed heads snapped upwards, searching for the speaker. Whispers and gasps turned the once pure acoustics of the chamber into chaos.

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, scowling at the disorder, produced a massive gong from the back of her especially elaborate booth, and slammed a hoof against it. “There will be order in the Stable! Quiet!” Then she waited for a very long moment before nodding to Gale. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”

“Not your fault,” Gale answered with a shrug, before tilting her head back to stare up the voluminous chamber. “Who said that?” she shouted. “Come on, don’t be a bitch! You’ve obviously got a lot to say; let’s hear it!”

“I am not afraid of you,” answered the firm voice of a withered gray old stallion standing at the front of a blue and purple striped booth with a crest picturing a bucket of blueberries.

“Lord Prance, the Stable did not recognize your outburst,” announced Chrysoprase. She, unlike Gale, did not shout; instead, her voice was magnified by some spell she held in the emerald glow of her horn. “You will offer your redress to the Queen.”

“I will be glad to when she arrives,” Prance answered. “But not to this abomination—”

In a testament to how short a few moments it had been between Gale’s entrance and the chaos that swept the Stable, it was only at that moment that Platinum and Celestia finally caught up with the young queen. Gale, however, seemed not to have even noticed them entering behind her. In a burst of violent cerise magic, her horn ignited, and a moment later her whole body disappeared.

Teleportation was advanced enough magic that it took the room by storm. But just as quickly as Gale disappeared from her place on the Stable floor, she appeared in hoof’s reach of Lord Prance. Her hoofing was unsteady on the thin railing of his booth, and for just a moment she stumbled as she found her balance. Then, staring down at the old stallion, she offered him a glare. “That’s better. Now, come on; say it again, to my face.”

“I—” Lord Prance, who looked a bit like a blue Wintershimmer if he hadn’t been quite so exaggerated in his skull-like gauntness, stumbled backward toward the butler and the niece or granddaughter or other relation he had brought to his booth that morning. “Queen Platinum—”

“Oh, no, you made it quite clear that was my mom.” Gale’s horn ignited again, and her voice projected through the chamber at speaking volume, just as Chrysoprase’s had. “Come on. I want to know exactly where I stand with you, Lord Prance. Let’s not mince words. Tell me how you really feel.”

“You…” Prance swallowed as his stuttering and mumbling reverberated through the room—also the work of Gale’s amplifying spell. “Just like a half-pegasus to threaten violence to solve problems.”

“Wow. You actually grew a spine. I’m impressed.” Gale paced forward into the booth, taking a bit of obvious pressure as Prance stepped back. “You’re mad that I’m half-pegasus? That’s it?” When it became obvious Prance wasn’t going to speak up, she stepped up to the exposed point of his booth and looked out at the Stable. “Anypony else feel the same way?”

In the absolute silence that followed, Gale’s horn burst into magic again, and she teleported back to her own intended place on the ground floor of the stable. “I know some of you are thinking it. Even Mom thinks about it.” Still, absolute silence reigned. “Alright, no takers. Well… let’s clear the air then. Because I’ve only been Queen for twelve hours and I’m already tired of talking about this. Nobleponies, you’ve basically got two choices. One of them is you grow up, admit that being ‘pureblooded’ is elitist bullshit, and be glad that me being half-pegasus means I don’t have the Scourge of Kings in my blood. I’m proud of my pegasus heritage.” Gale gestured to the feathers adorning the pauldron on her shoulder, and waited a moment, before she slowly lifted her hoof to her horn. “But I am a unicorn.

“If that isn’t enough for you, though, your other option is bending one of the Royal Vows.” This claim seemed to create some confusion amongst the gathered nobles, who spoke in hushed whispers between themselves. “Since you don’t seem to get it: if blood purity is what the Stable really cares about, more than vows and traditions there is another option I’m prepared to offer you.”

Ponies leaned over the edges of their booths trying to get a better look at this audacious new Queen, wondering if she was perhaps proposing some sort of abdication only a few hours after taking up the throne. Chrysoprase, who was next in line behind Gale to the crown, looked especially intrigued. Surely, her abdication so early would violate her vows, and that was what she was offering…

Judging by how many eyes shot to the leader of the Stable, she was hardly the only noble who had followed that train of thought.

Gale couldn’t resist donning a shit-eating grin before she explained her thoughts. “There is somepony in line to the throne with pure unicorn blood,” she continued.

“Daughter,” Platinum whispered forcefully, “you can’t seriously be considering…”

“It would be unprecedented. But if the majority of you agree with Lord Prance, then I’ll have no choice but to bow to the will of the Stable. I’ll even go get her myself. I’d just need somepony to lend me a shovel.”

“A… shovel?” asked Chrysoprase, who seemed to only just resist adding ‘I’m right here.’

“A shovel,” Gale repeated with a nod. “If we’re more concerned with blood than vows, the easiest vow to bend is ‘I accept my own mortality, and will take no action to preserve my life or my rule beyond my years.’ So if you want my mother’s pureblooded daughter, I’ll have to go dig her up.” Gale concluded that thought by standing up on her hind legs, extending her forelegs in a sweeping motion, and collapsing back onto the cushions of her throne. “Your choice.”

I am not certain I can convey the level of scandal carried in that proposal, except to say that the Stable (the building, the room, and the ponies in it) were far, far louder than they had been at Lord Prance’s words.

To remind those who have forgotten, Gale was Platinum III, and her mother was Platinum I (the ‘Princess Platinum’ from the Hearth’s Warming pageant, as much as one can say it portrays real ponies and not a fairytale). The name ‘Platinum II’ had been given to Platinum’s first daughter—not Hurricane’s foal, but some other noble Platinum had married just after taking the crown. Platinum II died an infant to an unusually rapid case of the Scourge of Kings, the hereditary disease of the royal line. Hurricane’s introduction of pegasus blood into their lineage spared Gale the inherited condition, though it was not without its corresponding costs to her political capital amongst the nobility.

In some sense, Gale’s move was brilliant. The Stable seethed, a pot of pasta on the verge of boiling over, all rage and heat and what nobles call ‘starch’ because pride is only a sin when ‘the rabble’ have it. Platinum stared wide-eyed at her daughter’s audacity. Gale simply steepled her hooves in front of her muzzle and grinned at the chaos. For almost three minutes, she just wallowed in it, letting condemnation from her mother’s whispered words slip in one ear and out the other. Only when the momentum of the scandal started to die down did she again light her horn and speak up, magically amplified so that her voice could cut through the noise.

“You done?” Then she waited a few more moments before nodding to Chrysoprase. The much older unicorn sighed, but rapped her hoof against the gong that served a gavel-like purpose to the Stable. As the reverberating note rang through the booths, Gale sat forward in the throne and firmly placed her forelegs on its arms, heightening her posture and focusing her forward. “Now, we’ve had our racist bullshit debate, and I’ve given you your options. It sounds to me like nopony here is interested in dipping their hooves in necromancy. That means you’re stuck with me. So let me be fucking plain.” Gale made a show of drawing in a breath, letting the air inflate her chest and build up her shoulders in her already tensed posture. “This topic is not going to come up again. You can tell me I’m being a shitty Queen, or that I’ve embarrassed the court because of something I’ve actually done any time you damn well please. That’s your right. But if you’re going to play the ‘blood’ card to me, I invite you to just stay home instead. Because if this topic does ever come up again, for as long as I live, I will tear the banner off your booth. I’ll burn it right here in the middle of this room.”

The implication was, as you might guess, that the seated monarch had the right both to appoint and to remove noble titles from unicorn families; to burn a banner wasn’t merely an act of petty arson. It was an act of tyranny, at least historically speaking, but the room (or at least the part that mattered, namely Grand Duchess Chrysoprase) seemed to be on Gale’s side with the threat.

“If anypony wants to challenge my divine right, well…” Gale gestured briefly toward Celestia at her side. “I’d say you’re an imbecile, but sure. I’ll even invite you to cross swords with me, if you want to test me the old way. Just remember that having pegasus blood means I’ve grown up around Equestria’s greatest swordsponies. So, with the exception of Archmage Star Swirl there,” Gale gave the hairy wizard a short nod, and got a tired huff in return, “if you want to duel me, the blood we’re going to see on the ground is yours.”

Slowly, laboriously, Gale brought her hooves back to that same steepled position in front of her muzzle. Then, just as slowly, she separated them… perhaps an inch or so. And with a dragging motion, she brought them together again.

Once.

It wasn’t a clap; more like the tick of a clock. There was barely any noise at all.

And apart again they went.

Her eyes moved faster than her hooves, though that isn’t to say they were darting or swift. First, she swept the five booths on the ground floor of the Stable, home to the five ‘great houses’ of the Stable. On her far left was the star-studded banner of the House Zodiac, represented by Star Swirl the Bearded. The old wizard was obviously amused by the level of chaos Gale had created in so little a time since her rise. He grinned around the mouthpiece of his pipe, flanked on his left by Mistmane the Beautiful (who wasn’t even half his age, though you couldn’t tell by looking at her) and on his right by Archmage Grayscale, looking far less amused behind his studious glasses.

Next was the House of Three, represented by Spicy’s ‘foremother’, Duchess Glass Menage. Widely held to be the most beautiful mare in Equestria, Glass’s almost distracting appearance and her personality both matched her name, possessing sharp edges that were likely to cut anypony who dared get too close. Her shimmeringly shiny sapphire coat (not literally made of gemstones, though, unlike a crystal pony) matched her piercing eyes, which she had given to all three of her daughters: Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice. None of the alchemist family’s members seemed nearly as amused as Star Swirl.

Twice. Gale’s hooves tapped together, and parted again.

The center booth, as mentioned, was home to Grand Duchess Chrysoprase and the House of Gullion. Her son High Castle, as well as the couple of servants and Stable staff she kept on hoof to help administer the proceedings of the Stable, were obviously irritated at Gale’s outbursts, but the Grand Duchess herself may as well have been trapped in amber for her forced neutrality amidst the proceedings.

The next of the booths held the House Divided, whose bureaucratic-looking stick of a leader, the frustratingly named Duke House, looked up from above a pair of half-moon pince-nez with mismatched green and blue eyes. They were the only quality of interest on the otherwise brown stallion with his graying, perfunctorily-styled mane. Seeing him by his complete lonesome in his booth, one might not have suspected his house was the largest of all the noble houses, or that his dozens of offspring had given him an unduly massive influence in the chamber.

A third time, Gale’s hooves clicked together and parted.

The last noble of the great houses who met Gale’s gaze as it swept the floor was the cinnamon-candy red Duchess Fire Power who took her first name from her family, the infamous House On Fire. Rather than dressing in an outfit that subdued her naturally vibrant color, the red duchess clad herself in a dress of what was essentially scale or mail armor, if one were to replace the links and plates of metal with rubies and fire opals. Though I didn’t meet her that day, our future interactions always reminded me of my youth spent in the Crystal Union, and the fact that crystal ponies were the first to invent sunglasses for a reason. To somepony less prone to the trap of surface appearances, her exorbitant outfight might just have alluded to her near monopoly on the richest gem mines of the old Compact Lands. Her constant warring with the Equestrian earth ponies over mining quotas could be the subject of a history unto itself—and I suspect, one with a higher body count than the story I am recording now.

After that, Gale swept her slow wandering gaze up the chamber, quickly making eye contact with the ponies at the head of each booth her attention passed in turn. I would have been lost in the colors, both of the unicorn nobility and the brilliant tapestries of their banners and awnings. But to Gale, they were all old hat. No blues and greens and reds and yellow; only Mice and Manes and Cruels and Cauldrons and whatever the other dozens of noble houses were named.

The fourth time her hooves clicked together, they did not part.

“No takers? Good. Just remember, we’re never discussing this subject again. I’m glad the Stable is done wasting my time.” Leaning fully back in her seat again, Gale nodded to the mare directly in front of her. “Aunt Chrysoprase, get started. Let’s actually do something today.”

Grand Duchess,” corrected Chrysoprase curtly.

“Hmm?”

Platinum sighed to the new Queen’s left. “There are always family ties in the Stable, Your Majesty. As a rule, we do not use them to refer to one another when in session.”

“Fine. Grand Duchess Chrysoprase, I’m not getting any younger, which says a lot for everypony else sitting here. Let’s get a move on.”

There were a few chuckles, but they passed quickly against the superior forces of dozens of wrinkled glares.

“Very well, Your Majesty.” Chrysoprase sighed. “Scribe, do you have the address?” A heavy book, bound in cloth framed by silver, floated up at the horn of another unicorn; Chryosprase took hold of it in her own emerald magic and glared down at it with the withered eyelids of a politician too stubborn to do society the decency of dying. “With the passing of—” Then the Chair of the Stable of Nobles paused, shot a burning glare over her shoulder toward the scribe who had handed her the book. The poor pony could only shrug. “With the resignation of another of our Royal Line into Celeste’s embrace…” She looked up, briefly making eye-contact with Celestia, and sighed. “I suppose that’s still accurate, even if it isn’t how the authors intended it.”

The comment earned a sensible chuckle from the room. Chrysoprase waited the brief second it took to settle before continuing. “With the resignation of another of our Royal Line into Celeste’s embrace, it is once again time for the Stable to recognize a new monarch. Before us, as she has been named by her mother before her passing… or rather, abdication… is a unicorn we know as Platinum, the third to carry that name. As has been the custom of this body, we Dukes of the Diamond Kingdoms…” Chrysoprase scowled at the ancient book, and then abruptly slammed it shut. A moment later, without even turning her head, her magic carried it over her shoulder back into her booth.

“It seems today is a day for the breaking of countless traditions, and the making of just as many new ones. I will not make a mockery of this occasion clinging to a narrative that no longer applies to us. Your Majesty, you are the first for this body in so many ways. When your Stable recognized your grandfather, King Lapis the Fourth, no unicorn of our lands had so much as heard of a pegasus, Lady Celeste was only known in the statues and windows of our churches, and the Stable still gathered in River Rock, as it had for centuries.

“When I led the Stable in recognizing your mother, though the building was freezing, we still gathered in what remained of River Rock, and we knew enough of the pegasi that their recent wounds had taught us to hate them.

“Now, twenty-three years of her rule later, we gather again to recognize your rule in a city that did not exist, on a continent our maps told us was plagued with monsters, beneath the gaze of a goddess in the flesh.” Celestia opened her mouth, only to shut it and wilt back a moment under the glares of both Platinum I and Chrysoprase. “Upon a new throne, wearing a new crown, and ruling over the unicorns of a new nation. And you, by your own admission, carry pegasus blood in your veins, though you are a unicorn. In your lifetime, and in all of ours, the entire world has changed. And now the unicorns look to you, Platinum the Third, as a leader, and as a defender, and a rock to cling to in uncertain times. As our Queen.

“It is by the grace of Celeste that you have been given to us—and I will do our Lady of the Sun the honor of not asking her to confirm that, as in her humility I can see it makes her uncomfortable. But the Stable acknowledges her presence and her support.” Briefly craning her neck to glare upward toward the booth of Lord Prance, she added “In a time of so many changes, I fully intend to keep this one tradition alive, to keep some continuity to our beliefs. Your Majesty, as you have learned in your studies to take the throne, each of the Dukes of the Five Great Houses shall now ask you a single question.

“These questions are not a test; we do not threaten to try and deny you the throne you sit in or the crown you wear, Your Majesty. Your answers are not to be taken as facts, but oaths. They are our way of seeing what kind of Queen you are, and will become. Do not speak rashly. Wise were your forebears who answered slowly and carefully. But remember your history; those kings and queens who answered these questions poorly, or who cast aside their answers, were seen to rule poorly, and more than once the Stable has had to cast them down.” Chrysoprase let that threat hang in the stuffy air for a moment before she raised a hoof to rest on the railing of her booth. “Are you ready, Your Majesty?”

Gale, bless her soul, put even my confidence to shame when she leaned forward in her seat and nodded. “I was born ready.”

“Very well. The floor goes to Duke House of the House Divided.”

Duke House nodded. “I thank the Chair for the right to question our new Queen first.” Despite the words, there was no thankfulness, nor any emotion at all except perhaps an omnipresent hint of annoyance in his voice. “Your Majesty, I am not interested in opening with a clever riddle that forces you into wordplay in reply. I simply want honesty about the most basic of your duties. The Queen-Mother, in tandem with your father and Chancellor Puddinghead, created a new nation. You are the first unicorn to rule it who has never lived without it. So, in plain language that any unicorn can understand, what future do you wish to see for our tribe during your reign?”

Gale leaned back at the frank question, as if she had honestly expected something more complex, or more threatening. “Well… To start with, just worrying about ‘our tribe’ is a mistake. Obviously, I’m not the queen of the pegasi or the earth ponies, and it’s my responsibility to care about the unicorns first, but trying to raise up the unicorns at the expense of the other two tribes is a mistake we can’t afford to make. I might not be old enough to remember River Rock, but I know most of you in this room do, so you understand me when I say that our tribe should care the most about keeping Equestria together. Because if the tribes go our separate ways, we don’t have the strongest army or the biggest food supply.”

Some voice overhead, belonging to a noblemare whose historical significance couldn’t get me bothered enough to look up her name, broke into Gale’s answer. “Are you suggesting unicorns are inferior—

A violent gong of the onomatopoeous instrument signaled Chrysoprase’s irritation. “The Stable will respect Her Majesty, and we will hear her out.”

“Thanks Aunt… Grand Duchess.” Gale huffed once through her nostrils and cast her gaze up, looking for whoever had interrupted her. The speaker wasn’t obvious, having retreated back to her booth, but Gale also didn’t really care. “I’m going to answer that question, and I’m going to be completely blunt doing it, so if you brought any foals cover their ears. Okay? Good.” She took a slow breath, and then raised her voice to a controlled shout. “No, you fucking idiots. The only superior kind of pony is that one—” Gale thrust a hoof in Celestia’s direction. “And if she wants to take this crown, I’ll fucking give it to her, because I damn well couldn’t stop her if I wanted to. But since that’s obviously not happening, I’m in charge now. And I’m not a big fan of long roundabout speeches, so here’s the point. Just two days ago, the Grand Duchess and I were talking about wanting unicorns in officer positions in the Legion, and if anypony has a chance of fixing that, it’s me. I may not have blood ties with the earth ponies who own the banks in Lübuck, but that’s the same trade for them. All three tribes are holding onto our stupid monopolies, and the best thing I can think of to make life better for the average unicorn—for my subjects if that’s what I’m supposed to say now—is getting rid of them. And I know there are ponies in this room who aren’t going to like it, but the cost of that is that we have to give up our monopoly too. That means letting non-unicorns have domain and noble titles.”

The gong rang quite a lot, to very little effect. The Stable boiled over, its burning will cloying together more than any single mortal body could hope to contain. Chrysoprase’s poor gong was out of its league. Even the Bewitching Bell would have had no hope in that room on that sunny summer morning.

In the center of it all, Gale grinned at the storm she had made (an expression which, I am sure, only made the chaos worse). Platinum I shifted closer to her daughter’s side and tried to offer some kind of advice, but the words were lost in the tempest of voices and hooves beating on wood.

It ended, finally, when Chrysoprase turned to Star Swirl. The old wizard, who was decidedly silent as he smoked on his pipe amidst the chaos, answered a silent nod with a silent nod, rose from his chair, and stepped through the gate in his booth and onto the floor of the Stable. There, he walked slowly up in front of Gale as his horn began to glow.

The glow of Star Swirl’s horn quickly became the only thing in the room. ‘It does not take a wise pony to pay close attention to a naked blade, or bared fangs, or the glow of a wizard’s horn.’ Those were words Wintershimmer taught me as a foal, which he learned from his own teacher, Comet the Furious, in his youth. Since Star Swirl was also a student of Archmage Comet, I assume he too knew those words, though his application of their lesson was infinitely different. Where Wintershimmer would gladly have cast his infamous Razor and threatened death by an icy feeling in the spine for the crime of wasting his time (or actually killed somepony he deemed least important as a way of sending a message), Star Swirl cast no harmful spell; in fact, he cast nothing at all. He was merely filling his horn with magic for the sake of the visual effect of the glow.

For the Stable of Nobles, that was enough. As the sheer power of Star Swirl channeling even a fraction of his full might created a light wind that tousled his age-whitened beard, the storm of voices collapsed to a mere murmur, and then like ripples on a lake, faded completely.

“For ponies who call yourselves nobles, I’m disappointed by your lack of composure,” the old wizard announced. “Most of your parents, or grandparents, had the decency to scheme quietly in their booths when the Queen, or the King before her, or the Queen before him, said something they didn’t like.” The infamous curmudgeon concluded by letting his horn’s glow fade. “So, if I may be so blunt, shut your traps! You might learn something...” he glanced back briefly to Gale. “Even if it’s only how to make a sailor blush.”

Platinum whispered something in her daughter’s ear, this time apparently more audibly, as Gale nodded and leaned forward. “The Crown thanks the Court Mage for his assistance.” Then she glanced to the Duke whose question had started the whole chaos. “That a complete enough answer for you?”

“I believe so,” he answered tersely, adding “and I hesitate to imagine what would happen in this room if I asked you to elaborate further.” Then he turned to Chrysoprase. “The House Divided is satisfied.”

“Very well. Duke Swirl, since you are already on the Stable’s mind, would you care to go next?”

Chrysoprase was perhaps the only pony who ever bothered to refer to Star Swirl as ‘Duke Swirl’, and even the stallion himself answered it with a dry chuckle. “May as well.”

“The floor goes to Duke Swirl of the House of Zodiac.”

“Well… I really ought to have been thinking of something while Duke House was talking, shouldn’t I?” A few of the less stiff nobles chuckled at the old wizard’s admission, though knowing the question he was about to ask, I suspect the joke was a lie entirely. “Since Everfree City has been full of hearsay for the better part of a month over what happened to the roof at my grand-apprentice’s school, I suppose I should set the record straight before I ask my question. A pony who used to be my best friend, Wintershimmer, attempted to kill Celestia.”

A few shocked gasps echoed in the room. I might like to pretend all were from shock at new information, but I am disappointingly certain that at least a few must have been from the fact that Star Swirl addressed Celestia by her given name, without a title or honorific.

“He might very well have succeeded too, if it weren’t for our then-Crown Princess, who I understand ultimately landed the decisive blow. I don’t want to praise Wintershimmer; he was a wicked stallion, but he was also an incredibly powerful mage. Facing him would have been dangerous for even another trained archmage, and it certainly was for Celestia, to say nothing of a young mare like yourself. So my question is this, Queen Platinum: if it happened today, would you do it again?”

“Of course,” Gale answered, failing I think to even comprehend the implication of the question.

Star Swirl waited a moment for some further elaboration, but Gale had nothing else to add. It was the truth, perhaps more than any other words she would say that day. At times, I wish it weren’t… but then, if it weren’t, she wouldn’t have been Gale.

Star Swirl stood stoically for a few more moments, and then turned to Chrysoprase. “The House Zodiac is satisfied.” Then, with legs both burlier than a hundred-year-old pony ought to have had, but just as slow moving as that age suggests, he returned to his booth.

“Then the floor goes to Duchess Glass Menage of the House of Three.”

Duchess Glass moved with a defined, perhaps practiced efficiency, and she spoke in the same way, refraining from long oratorical pauses in favor of a swift clip that conveyed a sense of (perhaps false, but compelling) urgency to the room. “Queen Platinum, you have conveyed to us a desire for unification over the culturally distinct co-existence that what you must be aware most members of this stable prefer. You must be aware, however, that there are some forms of unification that are practically impossible. There will never be an earth pony wizard not due to racism or exclusion, but as a matter of biological fact. Other aspects of our culture are not restricted by horns, but I suspect blood ties are no less a restriction for your purposes. I suspect you will find that few here are willing to marry outside our tribe purely in support of your objective. I for one have no intention of sharing the secrets of alchemy that my family has guarded for generations to use as a bargaining chip with the other tribes.”

Glass swept an upward-turned hoof symbolically toward the booths above her in the Stable, filled with nobles who were still her lessers. “I confess I fail to see how on a practical level your dreams of unification, of bringing non-unicorns into landed domain and titles, can be seen as anything but a political nonstarter—no matter how benevolent the idea might sound in speeches.”

As the nobles’ eyes shifted to Gale, she donned a slight frown, and a little bump appeared on her cheek—her usual sign, rather than a knot in her brow or steepled hooves, of being deep in thought. She didn’t close her eyes, though; she kept her eyes locked on whoever had brought about that depth of thought. In the numerous occasions I sat in front of Gale’s thinking gaze, I found it to be more than a bit intimidating; though as a young, newly crowned queen I suspect the stare carried less weight against Duchess Glass.

“I… Look, I don’t know. Duke House asked for what kind of future I wanted, not a step-by-step plan. I’m not stupid enough to think I’m going to sit down with Ty—” When Platinum tapped Gale on the side, she sighed. “With Commander Typhoon and Chancellor Puddinghead—and just make this all happen overnight. I know there’s some ponies in the room clutching their pearls and shaking in their shoes that I’m going to launch off on some kind of… ‘tyrannical escapade’, or whatever you’d like to call that, and I get the sense that’s what you’re really asking about. So to those ponies: calm down. Even if T—Commander Typhoon and Chancellor Puddinghead were on board tomorrow, I wouldn’t do everything I just said overnight. The point is to make life better for…” Gale rolled her eyes, and pantomimed quotes with her hooves. “‘...my subjects’. There’s a big difference between breaking a few eggs for an omelette and killing the chicken.”

The twisted idiom got another sensible chuckle out of the gathered nobleponies, though they quickly grew quiet as Gale made herself more comfortable.

“But since that’s a total cop out answer, I’ll tell you step one. Typhoon’s building a series of forts to try and secure the land we’re claiming over to the west coast. That much new land creates all kinds of new postings in the Legion, and I can think of a few knights who I think would fit in well in those posts. And in exchange, instead of assigning the land around those forts to new domains for the lesser banners here whose only land is still around River Rock, I’m planning on setting one—just one, before you all shit yourselves—aside and establishing a noble title and banner for some pegasi. I’m thinking the House of Rain would be a great start…”

Gale’s words trailed off when boos and stomping hooves filled the Stable. With a tired shake of her head, she turned briefly to her mother. “How do you say ‘shut the fuck up’ politely?”

“Your Majesty, perhaps you should consider how this proposal looks from one of the nobleponies’ shoes.”

“I’m not an idiot, Mom; I know how it looks. I don’t care; I’m not backing down, especially not the first day. They’ll walk all over me my entire rule, just like you.”

Platinum gritted her teeth. “Then clearly you don’t need my advice, daughter.”

Gale closed her eyes and bit down on her own cheek to keep from cursing. Then, resting her cheek on a hoof and bracing the attached leg on her chair, she waited for the noise to stop.

In retrospect, drawing a little ‘get on with it’ circle in the air with her hoof probably did not help the noise.

Chrysoprase let the noise go on far longer than she had any prior interruptions before she sounded her gong. “Mares and Gentlestallions of the Stable, I repeat, we will have order!” The elder emerald mare allowed a few moments to pass as she refilled her lungs and caught her breath before continuing in a calmer pace—the time also providing a chance for the last murmurs of the audience to settle. “I am certain Her Majesty now fully understands that the Stable objects; I would encourage anypony with more to say to seek out a more subtle audience. Duchess Glass, are you satisfied?”

Glass Menage scoffed, keeping her icy eyes on Gale even as she answered Chrysoprase. “Hardly. But in the interest of tradition, the House of Three is satisfied. Your Majesty will have to do me the honor of allowing me to host you for dinner.”

“You give up so easily?” The voice that spoke up out of line belonged to the fourth as-yet-unrecognized leader of a great house. Duchess Fire Power glistened like a crystal mare as she stepped forward from her booth, refusing to match Gale eye-to-eye and instead keeping her head on a calm swivel between the other four of her peers on the ground floor as she began to speak. “I find that I cannot agree more with the sentiment the Grand Duchess voiced when we began; most of the ponies present here today, and certainly the chairs of all our houses, were born in the Diamond Kingdoms, swearing our fealty to King Lapis. And in our lifetimes, we have watched as his descendants have bled away the inheritance, the lifeblood, of unicorn kind in service to some ideal of the unification of three cultures, three tribes, that could not be more culturally disparate. And we, the nobility of the unicorns, lent our aid to that cause as a matter of survival. Nopony would be fool enough to deny that Equestria was necessary, but a necessary evil is still an evil.”

Tiredly, Chrysoprase shook her head. “Though it seems that it no longer matters, the floor goes to Duchess Power of the House On Fire.”

A few ponies called out in muffled displeasure, and at least one clear voice announced approval with “Here, here!” Gale leaned forward harshly, only to have her shoulder caught by her mother’s hoof. “You’ll have your chance to speak,” the older mare whispered. “Don’t undercut your position by disrespecting her before she has her chance to finish.”

“She wasn’t even recognized; how would I be the one in the wrong?”

“Because the room is already against you, and you’d be giving them an excuse,” Platinum whispered back. “Be the bigger mare.”

The whisper truly was inaudible to the rest of the room, and Fire Power continued on with her words. “My blood tells me that to let unicorns be ruled by any other kind of pony—save, as the Court Mage rightly pointed out, a divine alicorn—is a travesty we should not suffer. But because we sought to preserve the lives of our subjects, we bowed our heads—just as the first Queen Platinum did—to the necessity of destiny.

“But now, my fellow nobles, I hear this mare, barely more than a filly—”

Her Majesty will be shown respect,” interrupted Chrysoprase, and though her face remained as neutral as one could possibly expect from a patient mare, no amount of discipline could hide the slight throbbing of a vein in her temple.

Fire Power barely paused; her sentence didn’t even lose its cadance. “—Queen Platinum the Third, a mare who has never known a world without the mistake of a united Equestria, tells us openly, unashamedly, that she intends to drive this unwanted, unwarranted unification further—and this time without the greater evil of a windigo, the threat of the slaughter of our nation at the claws of monsters and the spiked hooves of the crystal barbarians; no, she announces this is her intention because she thinks it is somehow right. Right that we should be beholden to those who are not like us, those who will never understand us. Right that we should bow our heads and pollute our blood.”

Careful…” Gale whispered, brow furrowed not in thought but fury.

Fire Power whirled on Gale; her dress glittered as it moved in the magical lighting of the Stable chambers with such force that she appeared to live up to her name by spontaneously combusting (though tragically only in a metaphorical sense). “Your Majesty, my question to you may be very blunt, but I suggest you give it more than a second’s thought. Why should the Stable support you in this fool’s endeavor? Why should we support, even permit you to further blur together our history, our culture, our very ways of life with the pegasi and the earth ponies? What compensation will this madness offer for the expense of our families’ histories, our wealth, and the future we’re building for our foals?”

Gale did not rush to answer. Leaning forward, tapping her hoof on the arm of her seat, she had listened quietly, but anypony looking could see that just behind her eyes was a building firestorm. And when the final question was asked, it took only a moment to burst forward, feeding on what little oxygen dared to linger in the room.

“Are you stupid, Duchess?”

A hiss of gasps suggested the last of the oxygen had been sucked out of the chamber. The pot itself had melted. The silence that followed defied the words of petty silvered tongues.

“You think if I put a couple pegasi in a booth, suddenly your foals are going to be out on their asses begging? Freezing to death on the streets? Maybe you think they’ll die of cooties? Or are you afraid I’m going to take away titles from the other nobles to give them to my pegasus friends? Does anypony actually think that?” Gale tilted her head back, looking up and sweeping her gaze over the booths. “Anypony?”

Gale did give more than a chance for the room to answer that question, but nopony did.

Then her focus returned to the Duchess On Fire. “Now, I’m probably not as good at debate as my mother, but if you aren’t stupid enough to think that, but you said it anyway, it seems like you’d have to have a reason. And, honestly, I’m tired of pretending it isn’t obvious, so instead of asking the room, I’m just going to say it. You’re stoking bullshit fears because you don’t want to admit the real reason you don’t want non-unicorns in the Stable is you’re afraid they’ll get in the way of your power games.”

“How dare you—”

“I dare because I’m the Queen, bitch.” Gale chuckled as the room somehow managed to suck in its collective breath again. “Apologies,” she clarified, entirely insincerely. “But I waited my turn, Duchess, so now you’re going to shut your mouth and wait yours.”

Gale pushed herself forward from the arms of her seat and rose fully to her hooves. A mere stride took her took the edge of the throne’s little podium, and when she reached it, she turned to pace along the precipice as she spoke—her magically amplified voice filled with unyielding sharpened steel in lieu of soft, precious silver and gold.

“I hate playing these games. I hate dancing around what we actually mean instead of just getting to the point. I might not give great speeches or dress with the kind of money most ponies would spend buying a house. I’m not interested in tea and flowers, and I won’t remember all your kids’ names. I know I’m not polished and… primrose or whatever, the way Mom is.”

When she had reached House Zodiac’s side of the horseshoe shaped room, Gale rounded and lowered her head in the same motion. It left her glaring directly into Fire Power’s eyes, and I suspect one might have found the space between their gazes as sharp as razor wire.

“But don’t think that means I’m going to be some figurehead queen. I know what’s going on; I’m sure it’s some kind of scandal, but I’ll say it too. I know some of you genuinely do care about our traditions, our culture, our history. I also know some of you are honest-to-Celestia unicorn supremacists, and even if you’re holding your tongues, you’re disgusted my half-pegasus marks are sitting in this chair. And I know some of you couldn’t even give two shits about blood and heritage, and that’s just your excuse because you don’t want to admit you’re only interested in money and power, screwing over whoever you possibly can to build up your family name.”

When Fire Power’s muzzle twitched at the blatant accusation, Gale smiled just enough to bare the back of her teeth, thirsty for blood.

“I don’t really care, to be honest. I’m more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, if you bring your issues up in good faith, like Duke Divided or Duchess Glass did. But don’t let yourself think I’m going to ‘play the game’ when you try and sell me a steaming load about how you’re worried your family’s going to be out on the streets overnight. Don’t waste my time.”

Gale finished her speech with her shoulders rising and shrinking with each subdued breath. Nopony spoke. Nopony even moved. Most faces were frozen, waiting for somepony else to make the first, tiniest move.

The new queen turned back to her throne, and was halfway through leaning back to relax when a flash of focus danced over her face. “Ah, crap. I guess I didn’t actually answer your question.”

“I think you rather effectively did, Your Majesty…” Chrysoprase noted drly.

Gale waved off the comment. “‘Why should the Stable support what I’m trying to do?’ is a good question, Aunt.”

“Grand—” Platinum tried to interrupt.

“Grand Duchess, right, sorry.” Again, Gale obviously wasn’t. “Well, the obvious answer for some of you is that it’s the right thing to do. But like I said, I know not everypony agrees with me on that. And some of you even mean it in good faith. But at the end of the day… I don’t care. I don’t need the Stable to support me.”

Platinum I staggered at that announcement. When the room began to stir, Chrysoprase sounded her gong preemptively. It didn’t silence the grumbling, but it did keep it far below a volume that Gale’s amplified voice could easily speak over.

Gale nodded when the ringing faded. “Thanks, Grand Duchess. Nobles, I’ll get to the point. I have the power to grant titles and domains; that power isn’t beholden to the Stable. My negotiations with the Triumvirate aren’t subject to anypony in this room. So when I say I don’t need the Stable’s support, what I mean is: if you want to stop me, you’re shit out of luck. If you want me not to have those powers, the only thing the Stable gets to do is try to force me to abdicate. Unfortunately for anypony thinking that, I’ve been watching Star Swirl nod along out of the corner of my eye here for the past couple minutes, and unless my memory of history is wrong, it’s only legal to force an abdication if the five great houses are unanimous.” Then she sat back with a full smile. “Plus the usual wording is that the Great Houses feel the monarch has lost their divine right, and it would be awfully embarrassing to have to tell Aunt Celestia what her opinion of me is supposed to be.”

Platinum drew in a short breath. “Lady—”

Gale briefly dropped her voice amplification charm to cut off the correction. “Mom, believe it or not, I did that one on purpose.” Her horn quickly snapped back to life, and her voice rose with it. “Is the House On Fire satisfied, Duchess Power? Or should I keep going?”

Fire Power sat down in her booth in fuming silence, which Gale chose to interpret as a victory.

Chrysoprase glanced with a hint of sympathy towards the other mare, and after a moment of their eyes locking, the green statesmare nodded. “Then at this time, as Chair of the Stable and Grand Duchess of the unicorns of Equestria, I find myself asking the final question. Before I begin, however, given the events of the very beginning of this session, I must warn you, Your Majesty: I ask this question in good faith, but I feel I must voice it in order to lay to rest a fear not only of the Stable, but of our entire race.”

“Alright,” Gale nodded. “Hit me.”

Chrysoprase kept her gaze locked on the young Queen, but she braced her forelegs “What will you do if your firstborn foal is not a unicorn?”

Gale winced. “Well, I guess I’ll have another kid?”

Though the room chuckled, Chrysoprase’s posture remained deadly serious.

“And if they aren’t a unicorn?”

“Point taken.” Gale sighed. “Look, I’ll give you my word: I’m not going to put a non-unicorn on the throne, since that’s obviously what you’re getting at.”

Chrysoprase pressed onward with the same calm, steady pressure to her voice. “Yet you would put them in the Stable, whose members vie for the throne when succession grows… less clear? Who, in the event of ill rule, remove the crown from an unworthy head?”

“I’m not going to supplant one of the Great Houses!” Gale protested. “I was just thinking a barony or something—”

“Perhaps your Majesty is too young to remember how close a baron can come to claiming the throne. Queen-Mother Platinum, can you remind me… was Her Majesty already born when you elevated the House of Cards?”

“He died before her birth,” the elder Platinum answered firmly.

“Who?” Gale asked, her voice ringing out in the room.

“I’ll tell you later.” Platinum placed a calm hoof on Gale’s shoulder. “It’s a long story, and not one we need dragged out in front of the stable.”

Chrysoprase waited for Platinum’s whispers to obviously end, and chose not to try to answer Gale’s direction, instead pressing her again. “As you put it, I wish to speak in good faith, Your Majesty. As the Chair of this Stable that has already seen so much change in my lifetime, it is my legacy that will be thought of when both of us are long dead, if some future king or queen is asked who will wear the crown and sit in the throne, and whether our tribe will be brought to kneel before somepony who is not one of ours. Given how you answered at first, I must suspect you see the massive difference between accepting non-unicorn nobles and accepting a non-unicorn ruler. But as you answered Duke Star Swirl, you have no hesitation to put yourself into danger when there is a need. What happens when the House of the Rising Sun is headed by a pegasus? Even if you yield their claim as your firstborn to the throne and I, or whoever else is next in line, takes the throne, what then? If the House of Gullion becomes the Royal Family, does the House of the Rising Sun become a Great House, headed by a pegasus?”

“What do you want me to say?” Gale snapped back. “Yes, it’s possible I’ll have pegasus foals. I can’t change my blood any more than I can change being a unicorn. If you want my word I won’t name a non-unicorn as my heir, you’ve got it. Happy Hearth’s Warming! What else can I do?”

Chrysoprase nodded, and with all the same calm pressure that had guided her words to that moment, she calmly pressed her dagger straight into Gale’s heart. “You could give the Stable your word you will marry a true-blooded unicorn.”

Though the Stable breathed easy, all the air was sucked out of Gale. Without making a show of it, she found herself leaning heavily on the arm of her seat, as her father might his cane-braced foreleg.

Platinum took a bold step forward. “Grand-Duchess, you know the matter of Her Majesty’s suitors is still an open question—”

“This is not your recognition, Queen-Mother,” Chrysoprase cut the former Queen off. “Her Majesty is under no obligation to forswear her suitors of other races. She must only tell me the truth, as is my right as Grand Duchess.” Chrysoprase nodded to Gale. “I would hope that, like Duke Swirl’s question, mine is one which does not require much thought. But hesitance is its own answer to the Stable.”

Gale gritted her teeth as Chrysoprase’s words ended and the silence settled in. Her hoof dug into the arm of her seat, pressuring her frog on the polished wood. Her brow furrowed, and she held her eyes closed for a few long seconds.

And then, with the Stable watching, all those tells faded away. It took effort; that much was obvious if only from how slowly the changes spread on the coat across her face. But her jaw evened, losing all expression. The knot in her brow vanished. The little pinch in her cheek from her habit of thinking popped back out. And when her eyes opened, her expression was a practiced neutrality. All save her eyes; though they locked on to Chrysoprase, they danced up and down the Grand Duchess’ outfit, distracted by each tiny motion in the other mare’s booth, struggling to meet the other mare’s willful gaze directly. “I will give the Stable my word that I will not give the crown to a non-unicorn. I don’t owe you anything more than that.”

“Very well.” Chrysoprase slowly lowered her hooves from the railing at the front of her booth, and she neither smiled nor frowned. “Then you have answered my question with honesty, and the House of Gullion is satisfied.” Chrysoprase opened her mouth, then hesitated. “Duchess Power, for the record, could you state your stance?”

Fire Power scowled. “The House On Fire is satisfied. If nothing else, Her Majesty’s answer was obviously honest.”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Thank you. Now… with all five Great Houses satisfied, and with the rights of our questioning of the new monarch fulfilled, we recognize Queen Platinum the Third, Heir of Platinum the First, Head of the House of the Rising Sun, Scion of the Royal Line of Electrum the All-Seer, as our rightful monarch in the light of Celestia. Long may you reign, and may it bring your subjects peace and prosperity.” The green mare concluded her words by bringing her hooves together in a gentle, formal applause. The room seemed to echo the sentiment, as seated ponies clapped and standing ponies stomped, but with an utter lack of fervor or feeling to the performance.

It only took a few moments to die down, and when it did Chrysoprase wasted no time in gathering the attention of the Stable. “And now, as Her Majesty has requested, let us move on to more tangible business.”

2-6

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II - VI

Politics, As Usual

“With the recognition of our new queen concluded, we now return to business as usual. Queen Platinum, since you were not present with your mother at the last gathering, owing to your appointment as ambassador to the Crystal Union—”

“It was a cover to hunt down Wintershimmer,” Gale interrupted. “We told Jade to her face, so there’s no point pretending here. And I guess it’s obvious I’m not going back to that job now.”

“Yes,” Chrysoprase replied calmly. “Owing to that, please feel free to stop us if there is any matter of discussion you don’t follow.” The Grand Duchess briefly cleared her throat, and then glanced back to her scribes, one of whom passed her a scroll. After a moment to apply her glasses, she continued “Nobleponies of the Stable, our first item of business is Queen Platinum… the First’s request that we agree to a lowering of the limit on gems mined per annum on domain land to no more than…” the old mare squinted through her lenses as she focused on the text. “…three tenths of one tonne per square league. This amounts to a reduction of twenty percent in the mining output of the lands assigned to noble families, and was requested by the now Queen-Mother on behalf of the earth pony delegation to parliament, as a mechanism to reduce the accrual of inflation. In exchange, the earth pony delegation agrees to their support for… The Statute of Equestrian Claim to, and Division of, Western Lands from Everfree Unto Typhoon Lagoon. Or for a shorter name, the new Bill of Settlement.” Raising her head from the parchment, Chrysoprase fluidly removed her spectacles and—though it was already amplified—lifted her voice. “Since our agreement in helping with the founding of Equestria gave our families absolute rights both to the land granted to us as domain, it is up to the Stable to agree or disagree to this restriction, as it was with prior limits. Hence, the matter will be put to vote. At this time, let anypony who wishes to take the floor step forward and make their voice heard.”

As Chrysoprase craned her neck to get a better look up the tall chamber for anypony wishing to be recognized, Gale leaned over toward her mother, ensuring her voice-raising spell was off before she whispered. “What were you planning on giving them to get this to work?”

“It’s not that simple,” Platinum answered bluntly. “Listen and see if you can figure it out while they debate, or just ask if you feel you need to. There’s no shame in admitting ignorance on your first day.”

Gale scoffed, re-enabled her voice amplification, and leaned back into her seat just as Chrysoprase spoke up. “The floor goes to Marquise Seal of House Club.”

Seal was a particularly sleek mare, naturally a sort of blue-gray color who obviously put considerable effort into maintaining the sheen of her coat. She wore her mane back, sweeping over her neck, and so seemed to always appear as though she had just taken a dive into water. “Fellow nobleponies, I ask once again for your ear in consideration. This is the third time in my tenure as the head of the House Club that the stable has considered bowing our heads to the earth ponies’ coin counters as they ask us to reduce our wealth. Why must we, the unicorns, always bear the yoke of lessening our rights? There are other means to address concerns of inflation, and yet I never seem to hear news of Lübuck having a bad year in the interest of the greater nation. And for what? So their delegation can hold another of our bills hostage? I say we put our hooves down and let them bear the discomfort. I, for one, find that my domain barely sustains my household and my family on the gems that my mines are allowed under our current limit. And I will not stand to see the principles of our nobility trod on by forcing noble-born, true blooded unicorns to take common work in the interest of keeping food on the table. I will not stand for it!”

As the room muttered out a chorus of “Here, here!”s and clip-clopped a round of applause, Gale leaned toward her mother. “Won’t the earth ponies get land out of this too? Not that much of each territory becomes noble land, right? So why are they using this bill for leverage?”

What Gale hadn’t realized is that her voice-amplification spell was still glowing, and so while the whisper didn’t pierce the whole room, it was quite audible.

Chrysoprase sighed, superseding the moment Platinum was taking to formulate an answer. “I would be hesitant to speak for the earth pony delegation to Parliament as a whole. And if Your Majesty is willing to accept a word of advice…” Chrysoprase let the offer sit for just a moment, and it clearly took Gale a few solid seconds to realize she was being asked a question before she shrugged and gave a single curt nod. The Grand Duchess smiled. “It is considered a matter of good manners to be careful not to lump the entirety of the earth pony tribe into the decisions of their elected representatives.”

“Alright…” Gale muttered, letting her spell drop and raising her voice mundanely at Chrysoprase, her tone saying ‘whatever’ even if her spoken words didn’t. “So the earth pony delegation wants you all to mine less on domain land, or they’ll… just sit on the bill, even though it’s to their advantage?”

“Yes, that seems an effective summary,” Chrysoprase agreed. “I would suggest either that they have calculated it to hurt us more than it hurts them, or they simply have no better way to exert leverage on the Stable. We rarely answer to their wishes, after all.”

Platinum took a step over to her daughter. “While strictly speaking, nopony can settle the land until it is divided into domains and opened, the Legion is still permitted to build any fortifications or improvements they need to control the land while it’s still unincorporated. That means Legion-employed craftsponies settle the land permanently before anypony else gets a chance. So the longer the bill sits, the more those territories wind up in pegasus hooves, which makes the pegasi stronger in the senate.”

“Which still hurts the earth ponies?” Gale pressed. “I mean, they’re the ones with the plurality to lose…”

Platinum nodded. “Between giving up some votes in the senate to the pegasi, or suffering increased inflation from our gem mining, it seems they prefer the former. Your suitor, Secretary Gallery, is quite calculating that way.”

“Wait, this is Peanut’s idea?” Gale shook her head as she tried to adjust her opinion of the young stallion, her attention pulled away from her mother as Chrysoprase gestured up to another noble seated high in the room.

“The Stable recognizes Baron Zin of House Red.”

Baron Zinfandel, whose nickname was so prevalent that even the normally stiff Grand Duchess used its short form in address, failed to live up to his house name; he was sort of a rose pony, though his pencil moustache and his incredibly short cut mane were both at least red enough to suggest he belonged in his own house.

“Your Majesty, fellow members of the Stable… Has anything of note changed since we last debated this subject? What I heard from Marquise Seal was the same argument that opponents shared when last we spoke. And I for one know that my argument in favor has not changed. In the interest of honoring our new Queen’s wishes that things be handled more…” Zin drew three circles in the air with his hoof before settling on the word “...efficiently, I move that unless anypony believes they have something new to add, we cease with our debates and let the Dukes vote.”

Gale let out a little chuckle, and gave the stallion a small clap.

“You approve, Your Majesty?” asked Chrysoprase.

“Hell yes,” Gale answered. “If you already fought about this, you don’t need to go over it again just for me.”

“Very well. Do my fellows object? Has anything new changed your minds that you feel is worth debating?”

She’s new,” Duchess Fire Power observed, pointing a hoof at Gale. “If the wealth cost doesn’t persuade you lot, maybe pegasus nobles will?”

“Would the House On Fire like the floor? Or must I remind the Stable that there are rules to recognition?” Under Chrysoprase’s blistering glare, the much younger noblemare wilted, but she nevertheless nodded. “Very well. The Stable now recognizes Duchess Fire Power of the House On Fire.”

Fire Power took a moment to draw in a deep breath, and in settling her shoulders she caused the light from her gem-crusted outfit to glitter like a chandelier (if not a disco ball) around her booth. “I already had my issues with this trade of ours with the earth ponies under the former Queen, but now from where I’m sitting, there is no debate to be had! Her Majesty told us not ten minutes ago what she intended to do if we put domains before her to assign! And I will have no part in it! And none of you should either!”

Chrysoprase calmly waited, her eyes watching Gale’s reaction rather than the nearly shouted words of the fiery spirited duchess. And though Gale said nothing, I think the Grand Duchess of the unicorns saw what she was looking for in my dearest friend. A hint of frustration, a wrinkle on her brow, a slight twitch in the hoof she rested on the arm of the throne. And then Gale’s eyes swung left along the row of nobles, and though she didn’t see it, Chrysoprase smiled.

Gale’s gaze came to rest on Star Swirl, who puffed his pipe and raised a brow. “Something you’re hoping for, little one?”

Chrysoprase frowned. “The Stable reminds Duke Swirl—”

“You’ll have to forgive me, ponies of the Stable, if I find that along with my sense of taste and some of my hearing, my sense of caring is beginning to fade.” Though the joke could have come across quite mean spirited, Star Swirl was a master of turning harsh words into good humor at his own expense. And, indeed, the Stable chuckled at the joke. “I delivered Her Majesty into this world, I personally guaranteed she was free of the Scourge of Kings, and I taught her… well, maybe not everything she knows about magic anymore,” Star Swirl winked. “But would you say most of it, Your Majesty?”

Gale chuckled. “Yeah, geezer. So, you got anything to say?”

“Ah, that’s what you want.” Star Swirl sighed, leaning back. “No.”

“What?”

“Was I unclear? No, Queen Platinum the Third, I do not. Being a grouchy old stallion isn’t an act. For somepony who makes such a big deal about not liking speeches, you’re a lot better at addressing the Stable than I am. I’ll gladly talk if it’s about magic, and I think the Stable knows you have my vote, but I’m not going to fight this battle for you.”

A look of visible relief passed over Lady Fire Power.

Quickly, though, that comfort seemed to vanish when another figure in Star Swirl’s booth spoke up. “If I may, Honorable Nobleponies.”

Archmage Mistmane the Beautiful, then Mother of Illusions, may have been a noblemare, but as her sharply curved horn and slight accent suggested, she was not a noble of the Diamond Kingdoms—and thus at least yet, not a noblemare of Equestria. Hailing from the island of Neighpon, the relatively young archmage (though, having already given up her beauty for her empress in yet another not-quite-true story you might already think you know, she looked more like Star Swirl’s peer than a mare sixty years his younger) of the Shogunate of Uma was not a member of the Stable, but merely Star Swirl’s guest.

“Hmm…” Chrysoprase nodded. “I see no reason to object. The Stable recognizes the guest of Duke Swirl of the House of Zodiac. Though I suspect we all know you, for the record, please introduce yourself.”

“My name is Mistmane… Oh, if I should be formal, my native name is Tategami Kiri, and I suppose my Clan Daikiri is similar to one of your Banner Houses.”

After Chrysoprase’s glance backward revealed a very nervous scribe, she nodded. “Archmage Mistmane will be fine, but the Stable appreciates your sharing.”

“It is my pleasure.” Mistmane nodded. “Unicorns, I have heard a great deal of worry today about whether or not it is right to raise up non-unicorns to a place of honor in your gathering. I know I do not come from your background, and so perhaps my comparison is flawed somehow, I thought that I might share a lesson from my life, if you will allow me.”

After a moment of awkward silence, when it became clear Mistmane actually was asking for permission, Chrysoprase nodded. “When we say ‘you have the floor’, it means you no longer need permission to speak, as long as you show the Stable and Her Majesty proper respect.”

“I see.” Mistmane nodded. “Some years ago, before Master Star Swirl came to Neighpon, I had an apprentice who was not a unicorn. And in our clan’s custom, because we have long been wizards, to take on another as an apprentice involves a ceremony to welcome them into the clan.

“Now, because my apprentice was not a unicorn, I could not teach her magic. Many of my clan felt that she should not have been welcomed into the clan. But I persisted. And surely enough, when we found ourselves arguing with other clans, as we seemed to always be doing, or worrying about the future of our magic, my fellows would often be mad at me because I was said to be our most skilled wizard, and I was not training a unicorn successor.”

Mistmane sighed. “But then we came to war with the kirin.”

Duchess Glass cocked her head and raised a hoof. When Mistmane nodded, the elegant mare cocked her head. “What is a ‘kirin’?”

“They are… the term ‘dragon-unicorns’ is not entirely accurate, but it is also the best explanation I can think to give. They were often at war with the Shogunate, and our clans land bordered on theirs.” Mistmane sighed. “My clan were not warriors; our magic has never been as violent as much of yours…” Mistmane hesitated. “I apologize; I mean no offense.”

“It’s fine,” Star Swirl comforted his guest. “In our history, studying magic was for killing monsters first and building up ponykind second. You aren’t wrong. Especially with Wintershimmer still on everypony’s minds.”

Mistmane nodded. “Well… My point, honorable nobleponies, is that we were sent to negotiate a peace with the kirin. But though we tried and tried, our talks did not get anywhere; the kirin were enraged and were not interested in peace, no matter what wonders of magic we produced to entertain or satisfy them. But my student, who did not know magic and all, but instead followed a warrior’s path, spoke to their leader in a language that she could understand: they fought, not to kill, but to earn each others’ respect. And in the end, it was that work that earned us our peace.”

Fire Power scoffed. “So you’re saying— ah, I’m sorry, Grand Duchess. May I have the floor, Archmage?”

“Go ahead,” Mistmane answered with a nod, making a bit of a show of pulling her hooves away from the edge of Star Swirl’s booth, as if ‘having the floor’ would somehow literally turn it to lava for those not intended to speak.

“We already have legions to pegasi to protect us without giving them noble titles,” Fire Power noted. “And even if I were to hire an earth pony bodyguard like Archmage Mistmane here, I wouldn’t give them a noble title for it.”

“My apprentice was not a pony,” Mistmane corrected, then frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry; may I have the floor?”

“Speak freely,” Chrysoprase muttered, waving her hoof. “What kind of creature was your apprentice?”

“Tsume was a griffon.”

“Holy shit, what?!” Gale leaned forward in her seat, and the entire Stable turned to her shock at the outburst. “You knew about the griffons?” At that point, Gale outright stood up. “Did you know Cirra? Did Emperor Magnus know about you? Why didn’t he attack you like the pegasi?”

Star Swirl sighed. “Mistmane, I tried to warn you: griffons are a sensitive subject. Remember how Flash reacted when you told him?”

“Yes, but these are unicorns, not pegasi.” Then Mistmane’s wrinkled eyes widened. “Ah, yes, your father is the Emperor of the pegasi, Queen Platinum. I should have remembered.” Mistmane shook her head. “The shogunate knew of Cirra at a great distance, but I believe I was two or three when they fled across the sea.” (Given Archmage Mistmane’s appearance of old age was the result of, essentially, a magical curse, this comment caught no small amount of the room off-guard.) “There was never much travel between us regardless. We were separated by the griffons, and the broken kingdoms of the great cats, and some part of the kirin lands. When Master Star Swirl and I traveled here, we did so across the great expanse of the dragon lands; to come more directly would be a very dangerous path for two ponies. So we did not speak to the Cirran pegasi, or rarely even the griffons. Tsume was an orphan of one of the griffon wars with the cats—they detest each other. And I have never met the griffon Emperor.”

“Probably for the best,” Fire Power noted. “Or he might be offered a noble title too.”

Gale actually got through to opening her mouth for a snappy retort, but it was the elder Platinum who claimed the initiative. “Duchess Fire, may I offer you a word of caution?” Despite the question, she did not wait for an answer. “The next time you consider making a joke about Emperor Magnus, and how his griffons slaughtered the pegasi, perhaps consider how you might feel if somepony were to make the same joke about what Warlord Corundum and the crystals did to your grandfather, and the thousands of other unicorns who died at Sapphire Pass.”

The Stable was struck mute as the Queen Mother seemed to loom over the assembly. “No pegasus knows exactly how many died; their census was lost with the rest of the Cirran lands. But my husband tells me it could not be less than half a million lives. So on behalf of our race, I will caution the entire Stable not to make light of these events, or propose diplomacy with the griffons, unless we wish to make enemies of the pegasi.” After a solid silent count to ‘five’, Platinum concluded by nodding to Chrysoprase. “Grand Duchess, my apologies for the interruption.”

“On the contrary, Your Majesty; on behalf of the Stable, thank you for reminding us all of the somber burden of our discussions.” Chrysoprase then nodded to Mistmane. “Archmage, we thank you for your lesson. Now, Your Majesty, while I had intended to call for a vote today, I believe the Stable may need another day before we are ready to vote. I move we postpone settling this issue until tomorrow morning.”

A few of the other nobles on the ground floor nodded, but Gale’s focus was quickly stolen by a slight glow on Chrysoprase’s horn. Though the older mare’s lips barely moved, her whispering voice magically reached Gale’s ears. “Your Majesty, we should speak privately, if you will make the time. Will you join me in my office?”

Then, her voice rising again to its magically amplified level, she again addressed Gale. “Does Your Majesty agree?”

Gale blinked briefly in shock at the double question, but then nodded.

“Then the Stable is adjourned until tomorrow morning.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase’s office in the Stable (building) could easily have belonged to a barrister, or in more modern parlance, a lawyer. Her sizeable C-shaped desk, with its ornate corners and magical lamps, was lightly decorated with well-organized paperwork in both scrolls and loose leaves, accentuated by a heavy copy of some ancient text on unicorn monarchic history. Rather than a set of two or three chairs, the other side of the desk had a small space for some unfortunate target of the Grand Duchess’ focus to stand, and then behind that a pair of sizeable couches flanking an oval coffee table (though it was called a ‘tea table’ in those days; coffee had just reached Equestria). A massive circular window behind Chrysoprase’s seat gave her a beautiful view of the streets of Everfree three stories below, flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with thick records of the Stable’s goings on, nearly every one filled during the seated Grand Duchess’ extended rule. Most of the other walls were likewise filled, though a few gaps gave spaces for elaborate portraits of Chrysoprase’s family and an enormous hearth that kept the chamber warm in Everfree’s harsh winters.

If I didn’t know the mare as well as I learned to, I might have thought that its slight oppressive weight was an unintentional byproduct of its sheer dedication to purpose. But Chrysoprase was not a mare who left such things unconsidered.

The Chair of the Stable of Nobles led a small team of servants into the quarters, and promptly ignored them as they placed a pair of pitchers—ice water and a bottle’s worth of precious vintage 352 Bon Sang, decanted in an open-topped pitcher because nopony had invented the hoof-blender yet.

“Nice office,” Gale noted, walking inside as the servants began to exit. “You’re going to spoil me with all this good wine. First you try to give me Romorantin, and now Bon Sang?”

“I forget you have not been here with me to discuss the Stable business before,” Chrysoprase replied, gesturing for Gale to take a seat on one of the two couches, before letting herself gracefully fall onto the other. “Your mother won’t be joining us?”

“I can rule without her over my shoulder,” Gale answered; the feathers of her pauldron fluttering as she cleared the air symbolically with a hoof.

“Perhaps that’s for the best,” Chrysoprase nodded. “I imagine we will be meeting here often, so I welcome you to make yourself comfortable. I know your mother prefers to separate her private writing space from meeting rooms, but I’ve found I can get more done in a day if I keep my work here.”

“So the books are all, what, records?” Gale nodded to the numerous bookshelves as she poured two glasses of wine and slid one toward her great aunt.

“Oh, no; our records go to the archives below… at least, the ones we rescued from River Rock. Most of the minutiae of our history are probably frozen shut now in the old Stable. These are histories of the noble families. Peerages and genealogies, stretching back to the Wise Five Kings—supposedly back to Lady Celestia’s youth. Do you think she would be offended if I asked her about whether or not they’re true?”

Gale leaned back into the couch and chuckled, enjoying the first sip of her wine; just slightly sour, the Bon Sang’s refined, distinguished set of flavors was interesting enough to the new queen that she almost missed the question. “Hmm? I don’t think she’ll care, but she’s not gonna answer the question either. Mom tried.”

“I should have guessed as much,” Chrysoprase nodded. “I was surprised to see her in attendance today.”

“I don’t know what Mom did to twist her ear and get her to keep standing behind me. But I doubt she’ll keep coming; she’s supposed to be teaching Morty magic.”

“Morty? Meaning your friend Coil? I had thought he was already trained.”

Gale shrugged. “I don’t get it either. And every time I ask, I wind up more confused, so I think I’m going to give up trying. I’ll just ask Star Swirl if it ever matters.”

“A wise use of delegation,” Chrysoprase noted. “I think I’m in much the same position.” Red stained Chrysoprase’s lips. “As a foal, I was a terrible magic student. I preferred arguing with my teacher over listening to him… I suppose in some way the practice paid off.”

Gale answered with a sip of her own, and then lowered the glass. “I don’t mean to be an ass, but I know you didn’t ask to talk to me so you could tell me stories of ‘the good old days’.”

“Ah, no. You’re correct. I wanted to offer you my assistance.” Chrysoprase waited for Gale’s response, and when the younger mare’s eyes narrowed skeptically, she continued. “I take it you don’t trust me?”

“You don’t want me to name pegasi to the Stable,” Gale explained dryly.

Chrysoprase sighed. “You’re correct. I don’t.”

“So you don’t actually want to help,” Gale continued. “Are you proposing a trade?:

Green wrinkles tugged back into a scoffing chuckle. “So transactional… Platinum—may I call you Platinum?”

“If you want to use my name, it’s Gale.”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Truly your father’s daughter.”

“Is that a problem?”

“It could be,” Chrysoprase warned. Then, lifting her wine toward her lips again, she spoke over the lip of the glass. “It isn’t to me; not here, at least. Not yet.” And then she took the pending sip.

“Not yet? It will be?” Gale asked.

“I do not want to be your enemy, Gale. We will be on opposite sides of issues at times… we may be on opposite sides of the one you’ve set before us. But to no small extent, what remains to be written of my legacy is in your hooves. And what remains of my ambition certainly is as well. I want you to succeed. I want you to raise up the Stable, and the unicorns, and if necessary, the rest of Equestria with them. I am willing to accept that you believe unifying the tribes further is what is good for Equestria. Because I don’t think it will destroy us, if you are willing to temper your efforts, and listen to my advice, I don’t need a trade. I am willing to support you. I tell you now, I will not move as fast it seems you would like. But you’ll find treading over me is far harder than moving with me.”

“You’ve got to want something.”

Chrysoprase nodded. “I want you to marry my son.” Then, when Gale’s face flashed with rage, she spoke quickly. “But that does not mean I am asking you to make that the terms of a trade. I am telling you because you are a smart enough young mare to know that if I told you I won’t want anything except to see you succeed, that I would be lying. From my perspective, I hope that if we work together as allies, over time you will see High Castle as a favorable suitor.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then one of my grandfoals will be Chair of the Stable, instead of King or Queen. But the strength I have built for the House of Gullion will persist, and my legacy will be secure regardless.” Chrysoprase offered a nearly grandmotherly smile—though unlike so many of the older mares of Equestria, it was more evocative of words like ‘hag’ and ‘witch’ and ‘cauldron’ than ‘chocolate-chip cookies’ or ‘those weird little strawberry candies with the gum inside’.

“Alright.” Gale nodded slowly. “So you don’t want anything from me right now. What are you proposing?”

“If I had held our vote today, you would have lost three to one, with only Star Swirl’s vote in favor, and the negotiations your mother and I have been perfecting for the last two years would go to waste. You would lose face for no benefit, and the pegasi will continue to deepen their hoofhold on the new territories without any unicorn influence. We need this bill to go through, and l have a solution, but I need your assistance to make it work.”

“Go on.”

Chrysoprase nodded. “While your mother hadn’t publicly guaranteed which noble families the new domains’ lands would be given to, there was a certain unspoken understanding that those lands would be divided up among the great houses, to be given to our banners instead of the banners of your house, or to the unaffiliated lesser nobles. At the end of the day, however, we both know that Star Swirl is a lock regardless and Duchess Fire Power is a lost cause. We have to win Duke House and Duchess Glass.”

“Not or?” Gale asked. “With just one of them, and Star Swirl, the vote will tie two for and two against. Then you cast the deciding vote in favor—”

“Gale, it is one thing for me to support you in private, and quite another for me to vote for you that way on the record in front of the whole Stable.” Chrysoprase sighed. “You made yourself represent incredible change with your speech today. That comes with bold new opportunities, but it also comes with a threat to those in power. In some ways, I have to represent the opposite, as a way to maintain my support and my influence.”

“What good is your ‘alliance’ if you aren’t going to vote when it counts?”

“While I cannot stand on your side, there will be times when I can allow myself to ‘lose’. Just as there will be times when you must do the same. Consider, for example: Duke House and Duchess Glass likely believe that they cannot vote in favor if you are going to assign even one domain and title to a pegasus family. Therefore, if we hope for their votes, we must give the appearance of promising away all our votes. But what if I tell you that you do not need to buy my vote with the promise of domains for my banners?”

Gale frowned for a moment in deep thought, and then cocked her head. “Won’t that hurt your reputation worse? If they catch on that you’re going behind their backs?”

“Oh, you misunderstand me. I intend to tell them both bluntly that I’m willing to forgo domains for my banners to make this pass.”

“Then what’s stopping them from demanding all the domains, and blocking me completely?”

Chrysoprase sighed. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Then why—”

“Because that is simply not how business is done,” Chrysoprase interrupted tersely. She and Gale stared at each other for a rather long moment, the younger mare only barely suppressing a glare. “I will not lie to them, Your Majesty. That would be damage I would never recover from. And the same is true for you. Your words today made you a good number of enemies in the Stable, but that is damage that can be healed with time. But if you promise them these domains and then you do not follow through, there will be nothing you can do in your entire life to earn that trust back fully. Some scars are forever.”

Chrysoprase finished her glass then, and set it down on the table. With a final, punctuated swallow, she once more collected her expression. “Do you agree?”

Gale took her glass—still far more full than Chrysoprase’s had been—and threw it back in a single gulp, before likewise setting the empty vessel on the table. “It’s not that complicated. You’re powerful enough that you can afford to pass on a round of domains for your banners. You’re going to go argue on my behalf with House and Glass so that they’ll let one banner go for my plan with the pegasi. But ultimately, we’re hoping they’re both going to play along with my plan, even though they both obviously don’t like it.”

“It isn’t just hope. I do have some political capital with my fellow Dukes and Duchesses. It isn’t a guarantee, but our odds are better than you fear.”

“And I’m assuming you want me to take whatever deal they offer, regardless?”

Chrysoprase nodded grimly. “You understand that whether you like it or not, the success or failure of this bill will carry your reputation with it? Your mother all-but promised the earth pony delegation she would see it passed, in exchange for lightening their demands about how much we would reduce mining, And since you now wear the crown, the onus of that obligation passes to you.”

“I’m not my mom,” Gale answered coldly.

Chrysoprase was quiet for a moment at that, then nodded. “Certainly not. I imagine you are more concerned with the impact of your actions on Equestria than your own personal reputation? Very well. This bill is vitally important to the unicorns. To Equestria, even. Your mother and I have been fighting for this compromise for years. It is… I don’t mean to make light of your goals, but to the ponies we pass on the streets, opening those lands to settlement will have a far bigger impact than any ideological debate about our tribal divisions.”

Gale sighed. “It’s not just some ideological debate. Believe me; somewhere out there, there’s some earth pony colt wishing he could make some change to the domains, or a pegasus whose mark is for banking or economics… or a unicorn filly who wants to lead the Legion.”

Chrysoprase cocked her head, completely able to see through every one of Gale’s political thoughts and yet utterly blind when the younger mare all but screamed at her. After the momentary display of confusion, she gave a slow nod. “You may be right, but I think we can both agree those dreams aren’t as practical a concern—at least, they won’t be for another few decades. This bill is now.”

Gale nodded, pushing herself up off the couch. “Those dreams aren’t as far away for those ponies as you think. I’m not making any promises, Grand Duchess; you can tell them that too. Let them decide if they want to do what’s best for Equestria, or if they want to be stubborn just to spite me.”

2-7

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II - VII

The Sordid Tale of the House of Cards

No more than ten minutes after Gale had left, Grand Duchess Chrysoprase delicately guided Duchess Glass Menage and Duke House Divided, as well as Glass’ daughter Spice and her own son High Castle, to the couches around her coffee table. A new decanter of wine, far cheaper but also frankly more gentle in taste, had been brought in, as well as new glasses; all else remained unchanged.

Nopony seemed quite certain who was going to speak first, and for a long moment as the servants flitted out of the room and clouds rolled slowly by outside the room’s huge window, nopony spoke.

Finally, Spice Menage took up the decanter of blood red wine, poured herself a glass in one of the number of empty glasses resting on the table, and brought it to hover near her lips without actually taking a sip. “Since we are obviously all thinking roughly the same thing, should we just say it?” She took a quick sip of wine, swallowing it back like as much distasteful medicine, and swept her eyes over the assembled nobles. “I was expecting a disaster, and she still managed to surprise me.”

“She is certainly… blunt,” Duke House concurred. “Not much like her mother at all.”

“She may be a unicorn, but she is her father’s daughter,” Chrysoprase agreed, pouring herself a glass of wine, then nodding around the couches. “Anypony else care for a glass?”

As hooves were waved and heads nodded, Duchess Glass steepled her hooves. “Since you obviously have some sort of enlightenment the rest of us are missing, Grand Duchess, would you care to share? I’ve never known Hurricane to behave like that.”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “No, perhaps not.” As the glow of her horn passed out drinks around the table, the elder statesmare leaned back into her couch, somehow managing to make herself comfortable and yet still appear entirely too stiff to not be suffering a severe case of rigor mortis. “The storm and the fury are all her, because she is young and she feels she has something to prove.”

Mother, with respect—”

“You may be young, Castle, but you have nothing to prove,” Chrysoprase interrupted. “Not like she does. Look at the legacies she has inherited. If you’ll forgive me for perhaps being a bit blunt myself, friends: in the history of the unicorn monarchs, Platinum’s only noteworthy achievement was Equestria. If she is even remembered in a century, it will only be because of the founding. And even in that Hurricane overshadows her. That’s to say nothing of what he is to the pegasi. He might as well be their King Electrum or Tourmaline. And make no mistake: behind all the yelling and cursing, he was the one speaking to the Stable this morning. The young queen shares his erasurist beliefs beyond a fault. If you wish to understand her, you need to understand the young stallion King Lapis humiliated in court forty years ago.”

“That seems to be a very poignant interpretation,” Duke House noted. “But I do not follow how it is useful. Unpleasant though she may be, her interpretation of the state of affairs is right, if perhaps short-sighted. If she is willing to spite the benefits of our support, then there is nothing we can reasonably do to control her. Star Swirl clearly won’t turn against her if we pushed to depose her.”

“Nor will I,” Chrysoprase replied. “And nor should either of you. Having an erasurist… rather, a universalist queen will yield some considerable dividends. We will simply have to adapt. Remember, for all the fallout we suffered after the fact, our position in parliament was never stronger than at Baron Card’s height.”

Duke House winced, and even Duchess Glass’ sharp-edged face frowned at the reference. Most notably, however, High Castle and Spice Menage exchanged a confused glance.

“Mother, you mentioned the House of Cards earlier as well, but I don’t recognize that banner for anything notable in our histories. Who was Baron Card?”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Duchess Glass, do you object if I tell them?”

“Go ahead; you are the greater historian,” the younger unicorn replied with a nod.

Chrysoprase took a long sip of her wine, then set the glass down on the table. “I suppose I should preface with this: Spice, Castle: though it is still occasionally relevant to our duties, this isn’t a story one talks about in polite company. As for why you haven’t read about it in our history texts, Castle, I suspect it is because the story is still too new. I imagine both of you have heard the name ‘Solemn Vow’ before?”

Spice Menage’s eyes widened, though it was High Castle who spoke first. “The traitor?”

“The very same.” Chrysoprase chuckled, and her horn ignited emerald green. “But this was before anypony knew that. You must have been barely a year old, I think.” Amidst the wine glasses and decanters on the Grand Duchess’ coffee table, three tiny illusions of equine figures met and shook hooves. Though they lacked much by way of details, the black furred pegasus stallion, silvery metallic unicorn mare, and chocolate brown earth pony stallion figures could not have been mistaken by anypony present—even without their respective jet black armor, glimmering platinum crown, and hat full of pudding. “The three tribes had agreed on the basic terms of Equestria, but the finer details were still being ironed out. Queen Platinum was pregnant with her first foal, married to a Count Creme… Duchess Fire Power’s cousin, I believe.” The illusion of Platinum, visibly pregnant, stepped away from Hurricane and Puddinghead to stand beside a cream-colored stallion whose stylized figure was most notable for his blunt muzzle.

“His line outranked Duchess Fire Power’s at the time,” Duke House noted, nodding in agreement. “Her parents were merely a baron and baroness.”

Chrysoprase turned to Spicy as she continued. “In addition to all of the chaos here, it hadn’t been long since the Battle of Onyx Ridge, where Queen Jade’s army defeated the last crystal warlord, Halite. And as you likely know from your studies of history, in addition to conquerors and thieves, the crystals were historically slavers. So when Jade created the Crystal Union out of the ashes of Halite’s ‘empire’, a huge number of former slaves came to the new lands of Equestria and founded Everfree City. That’s where the name comes from, by the way.”

The ponies disappeared from the table, and in their place a great curved wall of black stone crested with rime-lined battlements dominated the table. Onyx Ridge burned as the crystal alicorn Jade stood over the broken body of her predecessor, the Warlord Halite, at the top of its walls. (In fact, Chancellor Puddinghead actually killed the crystal warlord, but that’s a story for Typhoon’s journals, or perhaps a later Tale.) Through the gate, a swarm of faceless ponies ran past Jade, though one body stood out.

A muted orange coat and a fiery red mane would have stood out dull muddy bodies even without his black jacket—its inch-wide red ribbon hem a perfect match for my own. For want of a better description, Chrysoprase’s illusion ‘zoomed in’ on Vow, letting the surroundings of Onyx Ridge and the escaped ponies fade to focus on him. Unlike all the other figures, Chrysoprase put in the effort to ‘draw’ his real features: a slender muzzle, a striking jawline, a pronounced widow’s peak just below the base of his horn, a confident smile.

“So Solemn Vow was a crystal slave?” Spicy asked over her wine.

“No. But he led us to believe he had been. In fact, he was the apprentice to Wintershimmer the Complacent, and he left over some disagreement with his former master.”

Chrysoprase’s recollection of Wintershimmer was rather less detailed and quite a lot younger than I had ever known the stallion, but his gaunt, almost skull-like visage and sickly gray-yellow coat could not have been mistaken for anypony else, silently yelling at Vow as the pair pointed hooves at each others faces.

“The same ‘Wintershimmer’ that ‘Coil’ colt killed?” Castle asked.

“Yes indeed. Hence why all three wear that same black jacket you mistook for a servant’s coat when Coil and Her Majesty came to visit us the other day. But where the current rendition appears to share all Her Majesty’s lack of tact and propriety, Vow was a master of diplomacy. He made a name for himself arguing rather the same point Her Majesty is raising, too—though a one-sided variant. He wanted unicorns in the command of the Legion, but without granting them titles in the Stable in exchange. And after enough speeches and enough opinions in the newspaper, he came to visit then-Queen Platinum and I, presenting himself as the last scion of the lost House of Cards.”

Wintershimmer vanished from the illusion, and a banner with the coat of arms of a noble house—dominated, as its name suggested, by a four-tiered house of cards—unfurled behind the once-more smiling figure of Solemn Vow.

“So he wasn’t?”

Chrysoprase shrugged. “He likely took the truth to his grave. The House of Cards were thought lost to the crystals, from back before the pegasi arrived and turned the tide of Halite’s conquests, so it was certainly plausible Wintershimmer saved one of them. It was just as plausible he’d read about them in the footnote of some book. Either way, he was a polite enough stallion, and the Cards were a banner to the Royal Line with only a barony for their title, so we thought there wasn’t any harm in granting him the title—at first, the Queen didn’t even bother to assign him a domain, so we both thought there was no conceivable harm he could do. It wouldn’t be enough power for him to upset the balance of the Stable.”

A younger (and less defined) Chrysoprase and Queen Platinum approached Vow, and Vow dipped his head as the illusion of Platinum’s magic tapped each of his shoulders with a ceremonial sword.

Another slow sip of wine paused the Grand Duchess’ story, and only the chirping of summer songbirds outside broke the silence of her moment’s respite.

And then all three nobleponies disappeared, and in their place Chrysoprase’s illusionary storytelling depicted the unmoving body of a unicorn in a dark alley, her neck twisted at an obviously fatal angle. A much younger (and two-winged) Commander Hurricane and a trio of generic pegasus soldiers looked over the body and the space around the alley, and from their cocked heads, all were obviously lost.

“It’s obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t long after that the murders started. Commoners and nobles alike were being torn apart in the streets. Earth ponies, unicorns… but no pegasi. Most ponies assumed it was common thugs, or ponies opposed to a united Equestria, or perhaps loyalists to Cyclone’s rebellion who hadn’t been caught after River Rock fell. Regardless, Hurricane and the Legion seemed completely incapable of stopping them. Vow was all too happy to use their failure for his speeches, building his cause and his following.” Chrysoprase sighed. “And then Platinum the second passed.”

“Vow killed Queen Platinum’s daughter?” Castle asked in shock.

Chrysoprase’s illusion showed her figure of Platinum clad in a black lace veil, her head hanging over a coffin.

“No, no; not unless he somehow made it look like the Scourge of Kings had claimed her well enough to fool Star Swirl. The filly’s passing is a tragedy, but it wasn’t a conspiracy.” Chrysoprase sighed, and a second coffin appeared before Platinum’s illusory figure. “But killing Count Creme just after was, in a sick sort of way, inspired. Her Majesty was, understandably, inconsolable. And, again quite understandably, Vow’s condemnation of Hurricane and the Legion suddenly earned him a favorable place at her side.”

And the figure of Vow stepped out of the edge of the illusion, placing a comforting foreleg over Platinum’s shoulders.

“How did Vow get away with killing the Crown Prince?” Spicy asked. “Surely Star Swirl must have been able to tell magic was involved. Did he use the same spell Coil cast on Count Halo?”

“Hmm? Oh; no. Vow was… the wizards have a word for this, but I can’t place it. He used his magic to control a group of monsters, and they were what was actually behind the murders.”

To remind the reader, the word the Grand Duchess was searching for is ‘Warlock’.

To Chrysoprase’s credit, she was quite gifted with her illusory storytelling; as Vow still held Platinum, his head tilted to look backward over their shoulders, and his horn lit. The shadows cast by the two illusory figures shifted with his magic, before taking the shape of a scowling monstrous face with two triangular eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth.

“So while Star Swirl and his company suspected a monster was behind the attacks, that hardly gave any link to Vow. I’m certain Star Swirl could tell you more if you cared to know, though perhaps it isn’t a curiosity one should indulge.”

As if the details of powerful magic were some passing fad to be waved off, Chrysoprase flicked her hoof in the air. “The point is that Vow knew Her Majesty would be in mourning and unlikely to take action for herself, and that the unicorn populace of Equestria would be horrified by what had happened—the murder not just of a unicorn, but the Crown Prince! And so he took it upon himself to be the public face of outrage at the failure of the Legion.” Vow stepped away from Platinum, stepping up onto one of the coffins which transformed into a sort of wooden platform. Though he made no noise, from the way he pointed his foreleg and the movements of his mouth, it was obvious his speeches were incensed, powerful. And a crowd of faceless ponies quickly appeared before him, forelegs lifted and mouths shouting in silent assent. “As Hurricane continued to fail to catch Vow’s pet monsters, every speech made the young baron more and more popular. Not just with the unicorn public, but with the earth ponies as well—he was sure to kill a few of their favored sons and daughters too. And because the issue was one close to the Queen’s heart after the loss of her husband, he soon earned the favor of Her Majesty.”

Platinum’s figure stepped up beside Vow’s on the stage, and this time it was she who put a hoof on his shoulder in gentle support.

“But he was still just a baron…?” Castle noted. “Unless he started murdering other nobles to climb the ranks, what did he stand to gain?”

Chrysoprase looked disappointedly at her son. “Though you’re being more polite about it, you’re making exactly the same mistake as our new queen. A title recognizes power, it does not grant it. Vow understood that idea perfectly; despite being a ‘lowly’ baron, he had the Queen’s ear and enough popularity with the general public that he could sway the earth pony delegation in parliament. And shortly, we will have to teach Her Majesty the flip side of that coin: that though there are some powers that come with the crown, as Duke House pointed out, they are not the same thing as real influence.”

Chrysoprase cast her gaze out the window as memories of two decades past returned with her story. “I will say, though: ‘what did he stand to gain’ is an excellent question. Nopony really knows where it would have ended, but I suspect his plan would have seen him as the leader of whatever he envisioned would replace the Legion.” Vow held up the black-coated helmet now famous as Hurricane’s costume in the pageant, and slowly lowered it onto his head. The emerald mare shrugged. “Possibly he hoped for Queen Platinum’s hoof in marriage, to become the new Crown Prince. Or perhaps the more vague power he wielded, or the wealth and comfort that came with it, were his real goals.” Around the now helmeted orange stallion, golden bit coins fell from the sky like rain, and he let himself collapse back onto a muted pink chaise lounge. “He certainly accrued more than a bit of wealth and influence in the process. The abandoned home down the street from ours, next door to the Drawbridge estate used to belong to him.”

Spicy frowned over her wine. “With respect, Grand Duchess… while I appreciate the lesson, we ought to discuss what we are going to do about Her Majesty. What ultimately happened?”

“Ah, you’re right, Lady Spice. My apologies.” Chrysoprase’s magic fizzled from her horn, and in an instant the illusion of Vow was gone. “My point… pretend for a moment that you were as ignorant of his plot as we were at the time. For what we knew, Vow was a charismatic populist—more refined in his speech than Her Majesty, but just as fiery in the strength of his opinions. And his opinions won him favor amongst the other races. Favor which turned into votes in Parliament. Favor which let us break the earth pony establishment’s plurality, when it came to it, or dictate terms to the pegasi about how exactly we would permit the Legion to operate on our granted lands.”

Spice Menage glanced briefly around the room in the ensuing silence, and then nodded as her mind followed through on the story. “So Baron Vow—”

“Baron Card,” corrected her mother. “If you must refer to the stallion, to use his supposed house’s title is considered more correct.”

“Very well. I assume your point, Grand Duchess, is that you envision that instead of changing Her Majesty, we let her carry on the way she is inclined, and hope that turns into unicorn popularity in Parliament? Even if that popularity is for her policies?”

“Precisely,” Chrysoprase replied, accompanying the word with a firm nod. “In fact, it’s amusing how close Her Majesty and Castle and I were to having this exact discussion a few days ago when she came to visit, and yet she misses the point.”

“Hmm?” Duchess Glass pressed.

“She was explaining to Coil how the lack of non-pegasi in the Legion’s command had caused problems in the compromises each tribe made in order to create Equestria—I believe I mentioned it had nearly been causing riots in the streets before she was born, though I didn’t bring up Baron Card by name. I do wonder if she genuinely thinks the Queen-Mother simply rolled over and gave the nobility all the rights she seems to resent, or if she understands how many of those rights we won thanks to his influence?”

“If I may cut in,” said Duke House, “while I follow your illustration about the traitorous baron, I fail to see how his example is applicable to the young queen. Though his methods may have been barbaric, his personal desired ends were to the benefit of the Stable. He wanted to increase the power of the unicorns at the expense of the pegasi. If anything, it seems that any popularity Her Majesty garners with this bold, black-and-white perspective would be used against our goals; that she would be a Solemn Vow for the pegasi, against us.”

“If we consider that bringing some token representatives of the other tribes into the Stable is against us, yes. That’s also a battle we’ve already lost. We can delay Her Majesty if we refuse to compromise on the Settlement Bill and deny her domains to assign, for instance. But sooner or later there will be new domains, and once there are we have no check on Her Majesty’s authority. With Star Swirl voting in her favor, we cannot force her to abdicate. An assassination—” A few ponies in the room gasped, but Chrysoprase carried on, business-like, regardless. “—Oh, don’t be foals; we wouldn’t even be the hundredth Stable to consider it, nor the tenth to ‘take a stab at it,’ as it were.”

“That’s treason,” Duke House observed with only the slightest emphasis on the latter word, leaning forward.

“Yes, and it was treason when the Stable killed the tyrant Obdurium and Queen Beryl too; that doesn’t mean it wasn’t right.” Her emphatic point concluded, Chrysoprase let out a breath that seemed to let cooler air into the room. “I am not advocating we do anything of the sort. I was merely listing options so that we could honestly say we evaluated every possibility. However inept she may prove be, we have no way to remove her from the throne.”

High Castle made something of a face as he swallowed the last of his wine. “Mother, it sounds rather like you’re suggesting that despite being about as blunt as a boulder, she actually has outmaneuvered the Stable, and there’s nothing we can do.”

“Only if you mistake the battle and the war, my son,” Chrysoprase replied. Then she turned from High Castle to slowly sweep over the room, eyes narrowed as she did so. “My son and Her Majesty are both right; we cannot stop her indefinitely. If we try to face her with equal bluntness to our tactics, simply saying ‘no’ to whatever she asks us for, in the long run she will win. I propose three new goals: firstly, we train Her Majesty to understand the value of the Stable and our counsel. Secondly, we work to actively cultivate her popularity in the public sphere. And finally, instead of wasting our energy hoping to outright thwart her agenda, we delay it where we can and accept controlled losses where we must. Ultimately, our goal shall be not that the unicorns continue to stand alone as nobles, but that we come out ahead of the other tribes in entering this new world. It’s a Tartaran bargain, to be sure, but together we can survive it.”

“You’re certain there’s nothing we can do to remove her, Grand Duchess?” Spice Menage asked. “Some way to put you on the throne?”

Chrysoprase chuckled. “Beyond her death or a unanimous vote to force her from the throne, our only legitimate options are proving she is not of legitimate regal birth, or challenging her favor in the eyes of Lady Celestia. I hope I don’t need to say aloud why both are ridiculous.”

“To be Tirek’s advocate,” Duke House noted, “suppose we ignored the alicorn in the room, and challenged her divine right in the old way, by noble’s duel? Do we have a champion who could win?”

“You’re joking, right Duke House?” High Castle asked. “Remember, the crown gets three champions to the challenger’s one. The best case scenario is that our champion has to best Sir Chiseled Gem, the Queen herself, who I hear is none too shabby with a blade, and Hurricane. And in the worst case, Commander Typhoon fights on her half-sister’s behalf in lieu of the old stallion.”

“It’s worse than that, in the likely case,” Chrysoprase noted. “Since it seems some of you think that Lady Celestia’s presence today was a favor the former Queen bought somehow, I want you all to know that Celestia went with Her Majesty on her most recent trip to the Crystal Union hunting Wintershimmer. Celestia risked not only her own life, but open war with the crystals, to protect Platinum the Third.” The Grand Duchess let those words hang in the air for a moment before finally settling her gaze back on Duke House. “If you have a champion in mind who can best Hurricane, Typhoon, and Lady Celestia, I invite you to name them. If not, I propose we cease playing mind games of petty violence like commoner colts and discuss real tangible rule.”

Duke House wrinkled his muzzle like a colt a tenth of his age might have if it were struck with a switch. “As you wish, Grand Duchess. I will follow your lead; how do we turn this situation to the Stable’s advantage?”

“A much better question,” Chrysoprase replied with a nod, her horn igniting again. On the table, Vow and Gale appeared, standing side by side. He was probably a good decade older than her, but I had to admit even in the way they stood seemed to have more than coincidental similarity. “By way of comparison, Duke, Her Majesty is young, energetic, and bold—and most importantly, like Vow, she has appeal outside our tribe. So when I say that we should advise our banners not to press her on the matter of being half-pegasus, I mean it with deadly sincerity.” Chrysoprase leaned forward, perched on the very edge of the couch like a gargoyle glaring down at the other nobles. “In my mind, the removal of the Scourge of Kings from the royal lineage is already a boon worth its cost, so long as she bears a unicorn heir. That, more than anything else, is why I am resolute that she will marry one of our lines.” Chrysoprase nodded to her son and to Spice. “I request that the two of you form an ‘alliance’, as it were. You are already both heirs to Great Houses of the Stable, so rising to be Prince… or I suppose Princess-Consort is only a small step up. But I think we can agree that the cost of the Royal Line falling to a non-unicorn would be an enormous blow to the Stable.”

Duchess Glass nodded, placing a hoof on her daughter’s shoulders. “You propose we concern ourselves more with ensuring one of them wins over the others than competing with one another?”

Chrysoprase nodded. “Star Swirl’s scion Grayscale is also acceptable, though with the wizard’s preference for Hurricane’s idea of Equestria, I assume you understand why I did not invite him here.”

The room nodded as one.

“Good,” Chrysoprase replied. “Then Castle, Lady Spice, I’ll ask the two of you to leave us.”

“Hmm? Why, Mother? We’re perfectly capable of playing the great game.” Though he likely meant to come across firmly, High Castle instead sounded a bit whiny at the order to leave.

“At times, selective ignorance is a useful weapon,” Chrysoprase replied, refraining from acknowledging her son’s tone. “As the heads of the Great Houses, you can no doubt guess that we are going to have to take action that isn’t in the best interest of Her Majesty’s agenda. And if you intend to win her horn in marriage, you are best off not being involved in such discussions.”

Spice nodded, closing her eyes as she recited from memory “Far easier is it to truly be ignorant than to feign it, when one knows that ignorance will not bite them.”

“You know your Seventeen Days on the Mountaintop better than Her Majesty,” Chrysoprase noted. “Well put, Lady Spice.”

“Thank you, Grand Duchess.” Spice rose, and offered a formal bow, before turning to her counterpart in the room. “Come, Lord Castle; we should see if we can arrange an amusement for Her Majesty that she will actually enjoy.”

Nopony spoke until the two young nobles had left the room, yet there was hardly a pause from the click of the door against its frame before Chrysoprase again spoke up.

“Now, if I may be brief, let me summarize where I think we stand. Her Majesty is obviously naive, in two ways. Firstly, she fails to understand the nature of her power as Queen, and its limits, and the value of the Stable’s support. Secondly, she unapologetically believes in Hurricane’s doctrine of unification even if it means the erasure of our traditions and our establishments. However, her common speech and her passion, as well as her half-pegasus nature are likely to win over the populace.”

“You’ve made that point compellingly,” Duke House noted with a nod.

“Yes,” said Duchess Glass. “I think my concern is that you cast her gaining popularity as a boon.”

“I think more accurately, I would say that it is the least of several evils,” Chrysoprase corrected. “Her Majesty is a river at the top of a cliff. As you observed, Duke House, she is correct about her powers as Queen. And try as we might, we cannot invert gravity; instead, our only choice is to try and direct the flow of her actions. Without allies in the Stable and in parliament, she is still largely impotent. What she proposed in our gathering is the limit of the harm she can do unilaterally. Therefore, since we cannot stop her plan forever, we should instead be aspiring to direct it in a way that is most beneficial to us, and to the stable, and to the unicorn public… even if the idea of that public suffers a little damage from including non-unicorns in our membership.”

“As though that is only a little damage…” Glass muttered. “I see it as the first step to the complete destruction of the Stable; once the other tribes are in the walls, what mechanism do we have to keep them from climbing?”

“Accepting them as our banners. Managing arranged marriages selectively, the same way we do our current unicorn banners.” Chrysoprase donned the slightest hint of a grin. “Or is a pegasus mare more offensive to you than a unicorn stallion?”

Glass’ muzzle wrinkled at the stab, and Duke House had to suppress letting himself chuckle aloud with a hoof at his own lips.

“When the time comes, I fully intend to support Her Majesty on the condition that her precious House of Rain… or whatever the pegasi call their families—"

Genses?” Glass suggested, correctly.

Chrysoprase waved a hoof dismissively. “Regardless, I intend to demand they become my banner. In the immediate short term, that allows me to remove the Rain colt as a suitor to Her Majesty by arranging to marry him off to another family. In the longer term, we gain a hoof in the pegasus delegation to Parliament and the Senate. I simply have to… trim the ivy as it climbs. Just as our houses have done for generations.”

“Interesting…” Duke House noted, managing to sound entirely bored despite his word. “So we honor our deal with the Queen… er, the Queen-Mother now? And one of us yields one promised domain so Her Majesty can assign it to these pegasi?”

“Not yet,” Chrysoprase replied, shaking her head.

“Would you be plain?” Duchess Glass demanded, leaning forward. “Which is it, Chrysoprase? Do we yield seats to the other tribes or don’t we? Do we sink the settlement bill we’ve worked on for years or let it pass? You can’t possibly be suggesting we take the worse of both choices; that doesn’t even make sense!”

Grand Duchess Chrysoprase sighed heavily and shook her head. Then, lighting her horn, she wrapped not just the stem of her wine glass but the entire vessel in magic. Before the eyes of the other two dukes, the glass fragmented with spiderweb cracks, though no piece of glass fell. Chrysoprase slowly lowered the vessel to the table and released her magic. Perhaps from some enchantment or perhaps from simple tension, the vessel stayed together, and out of the debris her magic surgically lifted a single slender sliver of silvery transparent glass. With incredible care, it floated to the frog of her hoof, and there drew a single tiny slit. Before the three nobles, a single drop of the mare’s blood ran along the edge of the blade, and dropped down into the glass. That single tap, weaker even than a raindrop, shattered the broken glass onto the table in dozens of tiny splinters and fragments.

Sayeth Tourmaline, the Wise King First, ‘With noble blood cometh comprehension of powers soft and subtle; of influence and honor owed and soil and blood and mettle. But common mares and simpler minds do value only these; to blood and gold their hearts are owed, and their tempers can appease.” With her horn, Chrysoprase swept up the broken glass into a small pile, and then turned her attention back to the other two Dukes. “Do you follow?”

House and Glass glanced to one another, and then the latter answered Chrysoprase. “I don’t think we do.”

“What is that quote even from?” Duke House prompted.

Annals of the Divided Kingdoms, Volume II, if memory serves.” Chrysoprase shrugged. “I heard it first from King Lapis, though, Celestia rest his soul…” The thought, framed by the arrival of the mare in question, made Chrysoprase chuckle gently. “You will both recall I took the reins of the Stable just before Hurricane and his masses first arrived in the Diamond Kingdoms, and though I was well acquainted with dealing with other nobles—as you two both clearly are—when the King first tasked me to represent the Kingdom in negotiations with some of the pegasi, I confess I was just as lost as it seems that you two are in how to approach our new monarch. That quote was the first thing he taught me, and even though its language is so archaic, I remember it by heart. But for your benefit, let me restate it more plainly: we, as nobleponies, value a certain set of currencies that are utterly irrelevant to a more common unicorn, let alone a pegasus or an earth pony. As veterans of the Stable, we are all familiar with the idea of trading in favors and titles and honor and so forth.”

House nodded along; Duchess Glass raised a brow. “Why did King Tourmaline list ‘blood’ for both commoners and nobles, then? I have never known commoners to use bloodlines as… currency, as you put it.”

“He means a very different kind of blood,” said the grand duchess, lifting her wounded hoof. “And that is exactly my point.” After watching the other two dukes for a moment, Chrysoprase added “I’ll give you a hint: in this currency, Hurricane is the wealthiest pony in Equestria, and it is the entire basis of his power.”

“The Legion?” Duchess Glass asked. “Soldier’s blood?”

Chrysoprase shook her head. “I would have said Commander Typhoon if that were the case. No; the blood we speak of still sits with Hurricane despite his retirement. And if we play our cards right, our new queen will be the one to inherit it, and not Typhoon.”

Glass and House again looked at each other in confusion, before Glass again offered a suggestion. “The fact that his offspring hold two thirds of Equestria’s thrones?”

“No, that’s the noble understanding of bloodlines again,” Chrysoprase replied with a sternly set mouth.

“Then what?” Duke House asked. “I hope you aren’t suggesting his missing wing is somehow a currency.”

“In fact, that is exactly what I’m telling you,” Chrysoprase replied, steepling her hooves, and then briefly wincing at the pain of her slit frog touching its opposite. “A commoner’s understanding of blood is suffering. Or in perhaps a better word, pain. But not just any senseless pain; pain on behalf of others. Because while as nobleponies, we might respect a friend making a sacrifice on our behalf, our expectation is that we shall provide and care for ourselves. It would be foolish to expect suffering on behalf of one another. But when a commoner looks at a leader, there are really only two things that leader can offer them: wealth—the ‘gold’ Tourmaline mentioned—and the leader’s sacrifice on their behalf. And it is in that latter currency that Hurricane is an unconquerable icon of the pegasi, even despite his retirement: he gave up his wife, his body, his precious flight for his subjects. And I emphasize Hurricane and call Her Majesty his daughter because that is the currency she understands, and the currency she respects. She doesn’t understand our currencies—at least, not enough to place value in them—but I sense that most of the Stable also doesn’t value that of the common pony. After all, they so rarely have anything we want. But for a monarch to succeed, they must understand, and deal in, both.

“Given that Platinum the First failed to teach Her Majesty the value of our currencies, the duty falls on us as the Dukes of the Stable to instruct her, and that instruction, like the instruction of any petulant foal, will result in tension and, ultimately, pain for both parties. And while pain is largely meaningless to us, it is useful to Her Majesty, provided we cultivate the public image of our conflicts to frame her as standing up for the common pony. In that regard, causing Her Majesty selective pain achieves all our goals.”

“I think I see…” Duchess Glass leaned forward. “If we cause pain for her objectives, she learns to value the Stable. At the same time, the public sees her suffering for something they want… at least, the ones who advocate ‘universalism’.”

Ah.” Duke House chuckled.

Chrysoprase nodded with a smile on her own muzzle. “I see you are beginning to understand, Duke House?”

Glass scowled. “That makes one of us. Care to explain?”

“At the moment, the public probably cares more about the Settlement Bill than they do about Her Majesty’s higher plan. If we let Her Majesty have even one domain now, she wouldn’t gain any… ‘pain-currency’ for achieving that goal. But if we block her now, if the Settlement Bill we’ve fought for falls through, it’ll be all the news. And Her Majesty will have to defend her new ideas.”

Glass frowned. “It still seems a high cost to give up the Settlement Bill.”

“We will get the Settlement Bill passed, eventually,” Chrysoprase observed. “The bill will still be on the table in a month or two. The earth ponies want to play a hard game, but waiting for the bill hurts them almost as much as it hurts us. Sure, our delegation loses some face for failing to deliver what they promised… but the hoof ends up pointing at Her Majesty, just the way we want it to.”

“You’re confident you can salvage the bill?” Glass pressed.

“We may have to accept a harsher penalty to the mining quota, though if all goes as planned, it will be Her Majesty and not the Stable that has to make recompense to Secretary Gallery.” Chrysoprase stood up and placed both her forehooves on the table, looming forward as much as it was possible for the wiry older mare’s body. “We’ve discussed a lot; shall I summarize?”

“Please do,” Duke House replied.

Chrysoprase’s explanation was calm and steady, but there was an obvious energy in her body, an almost foalish sense of excitement, albeit tempered by experience, that seemed to leak through the way her shoulders slid forward as she spoke. “We cannot stop Her Majesty’s plan to introduce non-unicorns to the Stable, no matter how badly we might wish to. We can neither remove her from power, nor can we prevent new domains from being introduced to Equestria eventually. Instead our goal is to slow down that change, and to make it as painful as possible for Her Majesty. This achieves several goals, hopefully: firstly, it teaches Her Majesty that she does need to work with us instead of spiting us, or at least that she can achieve far more with us than without us. Secondly, the delay and the public conflict over her plan will raise public awareness of her cause, and as the foremost power advocating the universalist position, she will become the de facto champion of the cause. Once the public is aware of her cause and believes in it, any pain we cause her in our conflicts becomes currency for her use in dealing with the masses—not just our masses, but the pegasi and earth ponies too. And in time, once Her Majesty’s more… radical humors have cooled, that favor will be to our massive benefit in influencing Parliament. Therefore, with the matter of the Settlement Bill in front of us, we have no choice but to let our negotiations crumble for the time being and block Her Majesty. And in the longer term, there will be more small defeats we will have to endure in the interest of denying Her Majesty; this will not be the only pain. But to let her run completely free is no option at all.”

Chrysoprase took a long breath, and re-steepled her hooves. “Make no mistake, friends: I am more than comfortable being the villain of this tale, and if anything I fully intend to bear that burden to the extent I am able. But I cannot guarantee it will not slip onto you as well. Being cast as an elitist, even a regressive tribalist may hurt our memories in history books, but I doubt any of us will live long enough to suffer that reputation if we play well in life. But if we fail, it may be that the last vestiges of the Diamond Kingdoms we once knew will die with us. Are you prepared to accept that?”

“So long as you are serious about bearing the front role,” Duke House answered.

“I am. That is why I took the liberty proposing our compromise to Her Majesty a few hours ago.”

“You went behind our backs?” Glass set a hoof down on Chrysoprase’s coffee table, hard. “We are allies, Chrysoprase!”

“We are,” Chrysoprase replied, and leaned forward. “I could not afford to let her leave and take some unforeseen action without leading her to believe a compromise was at least possible, Duchess Glass. I told Her Majesty that I would be willing to give up all of the domains for my banners in our prior compromise with her mother, and use them to barter with the two of you, and that I would try to convince you to take her deal on those terms. Behind closed doors, as I alluded to before, I encourage something of the sort: between the two of you, we should demand all the available domains, so that none are left for her pet pegasi.”

“A deal she’ll certainly reject,” Glass nodded.

“Perhaps,” Duke House leaned back. “But we should not predicate our plans on what action anypony outside our number will make; even somepony as apparently predictable as Her Majesty.”

“If she takes the deal, she’s more reasonable than we thought, and we win exactly the way we intended. Your two Houses gain a bit at what is theoretically my loss, but it’s hardly heartbreaking. Life goes on as if her mother were still on the throne.” Chrysoprase shrugged. “If Her Majesty rejects the deal, as we expect, then we wait and let the pressure grow. She grows more ornery, her public support grows. And as she waits, we take every opportunity to remind her of her choice to spite us as we make other issues painful as well—though in the end, we do still work with her. We stifle her without thwarting her outright. When she compromises, even slightly, we reward her. When she remains stubborn, we bring her pain. And then, finally, when the pressure is on the verge of boiling, I bring forward our exact same compromise, with one tweak: I get the House of Rain. That will let Her Majesty ‘win’ without her worst impulses running amok. After all, if there is anything I know, it is how to manage a banner.”

“That is certainly true.” Glass chuckled. “Chrysoprase, your powers of oratory are terrifying. Every bone in my body warns me that you’re proposing we cut off our own muzzles to spite our faces with this deal, and yet I can’t help but see the logic in it.”

“Were that it could be simpler…” Duke House noted. “But I likewise concur with your plan.”

“If it were simpler, my dear House, it would not be the Great Game.” Chrysoprase glanced down to her broken glass, and then lifted an empty hoof symbolically. “To Her Majesty. Long may she reign.”

Perhaps with a bit of bitter sarcasm, House raised his glass of water, and Glass her glass of wine. “Long may she reign.”

2-8

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II - VIII

The First Lesson

“Your Majesty,” said Platinum, “I sympathize that you might not care about Lord Bond the Elder’s hoof fungus, but perhaps you could have exited that conversation with slightly more tact.”

“Mom, if I stayed in that room any longer, those ass...sinine conversations would still be going on.”

Gale’s awkward save was heralded by the doors to the Stable opening to reveal that the masses of public ponies and reporters alike were still present from her entry hours earlier. Though she may have found her way out of Chrysoprase’s office while the sun hadn’t yet even reached its apex, she had then found a throng of well-wishing (and brown-nosing) nobles separating her from the chamber’s doors. When she finally burst into free air, it wasn’t until almost four in the afternoon.

“Your Majesty, was the settlement bill passed?” somepony shouted.

“What promises did you make to the nobles?”

“Is it true you want to appoint non-unicorns to the Stable?”

Gale sighed, actively striding into the crowd. “Everypony, please shut up!” The magically amplified command caused the masses not just to grow silent, but to freeze. “Thanks. Look, I haven’t eaten in almost ten hours, so I’m gonna answer the questions I just heard, and then I’m not taking anymore or I might bite somepony’s head off. Got it? Good. We talked a lot about the settlement bill, we’re passing it tomorrow. Yes, I’m going to get some non-unicorns into the Stable as soon as the bill is passed fully. The promises I’m not going to stand here and recite; that’d take too long. You can get the full speech from the Stable records. Good? Thanks! Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

As Gale strode forward, parting the red carpet in a way that some powerful mage might have been said to part a sea, Platinum and Celestia followed closely behind. Nopony spoke, at least until the new queen reached the carriage.

“Heading back to the Palace, Your Majesty?” asked Sir Gauntlet. “Or to Commander Hurricane’s home?”

“Neither,” Gale told the stallion. “Well, Mom and Celestia can go wherever they want. But drop me off on the Ridge. Twenty-four Ridgeline Road.”

“Of course, I…” A slight murmur rippled through the crowd, who had heard the address, just at about the same time as Sir Gauntlet’s mental map of the city matched up with the address in question. “That home, Your Majesty?”

“A much better pony lives there now,” Gale answered, actively turning to make sure the response was heard by the crowd. “Come on.” Then, without even giving the stallion a chance to offer, she opened the door of the carriage by magic and leapt inside with a swift kick of her hind legs.

“My husband’s villa afterwards,” Platinum said much more quietly a moment later, accepting Gauntlet’s offered hoof to help her somewhat shakier step into the carriage. Then, as Celestia followed a moment later, the elder Platinum leaned toward her daughter. “I understand today may have been tiring for you, and that you want the company of your friend, but for the future, I suggest you wait until you’re inside the carriage to give surprise directions.” The former queen nodded her horn toward the sliding window on the wall of the carriage that would let its occupants talk to the knights attached to its harnesses.

Gale nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind next time.”

A moment of almost total silence passed, broken only by Celestia closing the door behind her and choosing the seat(s) beside Gale. Platinum and Gale stared at each other. Finally, the elder mare muttered “No objection?”

“Why? It’s good advice. Someday I’ll probably actually have something that it’s important to keep secret.” Gale shrugged, stretched out her forelegs, and braced them beside her head. “So what are you gonna do now that you’re retired? Gonna go have a romantic night with Dad?”

Platinum chuckled. “Not on such short notice, but now that you mention it, that isn’t a bad idea, Your Majesty.”

“Just Gale here,” Gale corrected tersely.

A sigh escaped the elder queen’s lips. “Sorry, Gale. So, what did the Grand Duchess have to say in private?”

“She thought House and Glass might not vote for the deal because I want to give a domain to Rain—or I guess any pegasus or earth pony in general. Anyway, she’s going to give up all the domains you promised her and use those as leverage to get House and Glass on board, but hopefully keeping one back.”

“And if they don’t let her keep one back?” Platinum asked. “If they force you to account for every single domain for their existing banners?”

“Then I refuse to make their promises, and it can be on their heads the bill failed.”

Platinum gritted her teeth. “The public won’t see it that way! And parliament certainly won’t! Why on earth did you promise the press you would pass the bill if that were still up in the air?”

“Because they don’t want to throw away two years of work and extra domains. Glass might not be as bad as Fire Power, but she’s still greedy as fuck for power, and House is enough of a pushover that Chrysoprase leaning on him should be enough.”

“Have I taught you nothing?” Platinum asked with a sigh.

“What? It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“Never, ever make a plan assuming you know how an opponent will act. Never.” Platinum emphasized both ‘nevers’ by pointing a hoof at her daughter.

“So it blows up in their faces, and—”

“It blows up in your face, Gale!” Platinum insisted. “They don’t have to answer to Parliament, because their parents weren’t the ones who made those promises in the first place!”

Gale rocked forward as the clicking of the carriage’s wheels came to a stop, and with a flash of her horn, she opened the door to reveal the elaborate homes of Everfree’s wealthy ‘Ridge’. After a quick hop out—again spurning Sir Gauntlet’s help—she turned back to address a final though. “Maybe this wouldn’t be such a disaster if nopony expected me to live up to your promises, Mom.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she added “Bye Aunt Celestia,” and shut the carriage door with a firm swing not of magic but her own hoof.

As the team of knights pulling the carriage offered Gale a synchronized bow (at least, as much as their harnesses would allow) and then rattled off down the road, Gale turned her attention to my door.

My new home, Twenty-four Ridgeline Road, was from its facade not all that different from any of the other houses on the Ridge. Its porch had a few worn benches and a small wooden table for two—all in rather good shape given that only the porch’s awning had protected them from the weather for something like twenty years since Solemn Vow’s death. Two pairs of bay windows were set equidistant from a pair of doors that offered entrance to the home, painted a bold red that stood out against the gentle forest green and limited stonework of the building’s facade.

Until somepony walked up and witnessed the doors opening on their own, they might have been forgiven for thinking the house wasn’t as haunted as every foal in Everfree quietly believed.

Though the home opened into a small entry hall with marble floors, three sets of Cirran pillars, and some assorted furniture, the double doors separating that room from the real main chamber were wide open. There, Gale could see a room with a towering almost twenty foot ceiling, where a pair of grand curving staircases connected an upper hallway to a lower main floor. The elaborate grand piano that sat between the two staircases might have been more of a beautiful sight, had I not been hunched on its bench, eating an assortment of take-out food from a canvas bag with my hooves as she entered.

“Morty!”

“Gmmph!” I forced myself to swallow, wiped my bean-stained muzzle on my sleeve (which, thanks to Star Swirl’s enchantments, protected its fabric from not only swords and arrows but also condiments), and smiled. “Gale! Welcome to my humble home!”

“You’re eating on a grand piano?

I shrugged. “So? I don’t play piano.”

You don’t…” Gale shook her head, letting out a chuckle. “Of course not.”

“You expected me to?”

“No. Just, for a second there, I forgot it was you, and I was going to point out that even ponies who don’t play the piano usually know not to eat off of one.” She nodded to the meal, spilled rather haphazardly across the polished wood, just as one might expect a pony used to his horn but forced to eat with his hooves to make. “But I’m guessing Wintershit didn’t value music highly?”

“No; actually, he was quite the harpist. Harper? Harp-player?” I shrugged. “Anyway, he taught me a bit as a way to learn math, but I never took to it.” I glanced at my food, and then back to Gale. “You want some?”

“Fuck yes!” Gale answered, bounding over toward me, before hesitating about halfway to the piano bench. As she removed her hoof-crafted tunic and its associated pauldron, the doors to the house magically swung shut behind her. Fortunately, the room was lit by a chandelier of enchanted glass orbs that glittered with what looked to be tiny undersea stars trapped in their inky blue liquid contents. “What is it?”

Again, I shrugged. “Graargh and I just wandered down the street until we found a restaurant that had a way for us to take the food home. I didn’t really pay attention to the name. It’s beans and some weird flat bread and salad.”

“Graargh’s here?”

“He and Angel are sleeping upstairs somewhere. Graargh eats a lot faster than I do. Especially without my horn.” I awkwardly pinched a piece of flat bread beneath my hooves, lifted it to my mouth, and took a probably unpleasantly large bite, if only to spare myself the need to pick it up again. “Ows er deh?”

“What?”

I made Gale wait a few solid seconds, in which time she managed to down two far more rational bites, before I could answer. “Sorry. How was your day?”

“Oh; good I guess. I’m working on getting the Stable of Nobles to include non-unicorns, and I gave some speeches. And I shook so many fucking hooves…” She shook her head, then gathered beans and assorted veggies onto her flatbread before folding it like a wrapped gift.

“Oh, that’s neat!” I noted. “You make a little package?”

“You… weren’t?” Gale asked.

“No, I was just eating… was I supposed to?”

Gale’s response was to fold me my own little pseudo-sandwich—I’d call it a ‘proto-burrito’ if it weren’t so squared off and so lacking in rich spices—and to kindly hold it aloft in her magic so I could take a bite. “You’re fucking hopeless, Morty.”

“Oh, sure; I’m like the second strongest unicorn in the world, but I’m hopeless because I don’t know how to fold a… bread box?”

That earned a chuckle from Gale. “No, Morty; a bread box is wood or metal or something you use to keep bugs out of bread and try to keep it fresh. It’s not a box made out of bread.” She took a bite of her own meal, and then let out a small sigh as she chewed. A quick swallow later, and she raised a brow. “Your day?”

“Don’t get me started,” I muttered. “Wintershimmer was right?”

“About what?”

“Killing Celestia.”

Gale, as one might rightfully expect, reacted by letting her eyes grow massively wide. “Uh… didn’t you just take Graargh to school?”

“Yeah, that’s what she wanted me to think was in the scroll, too,” I answered. “Not that I could have read it. It didn’t say ‘the cat ran’, or something trivial like that.”

“Uh… okay?”

I sighed. “Can we talk about literally anything else even slightly more pleasant? Hoof disease? Foal trafficking? Your suitors?”

Gale chuckled. “Okay, I get the point. What are you gonna do with the house?”

“I dunno,” I answered. “I probably need to figure out somewhere to buy furniture, since pretty much everything fabric in here is ruined.” I gestured around the room, where a few sizeable bookshelves and paintings were covered in white sheets.

“Yeah, probably want to go through Vow’s stuff, get rid of anything you don’t want,” Gale agreed, glancing up to a massive portrait on the wall of the upper floor, just beyond and centered between where the twin staircases opened onto the upper floor. Mostly covered by a sheet, the huge oil painting’s upper right third was all that could be seen, and it showed Solemn Vow proudly staring down at the room. “He’s, uh… not exactly the most beloved pony.”

“I need to go through Wintershimmer’s stuff too,” I nodded. “But all that can wait. Tomorrow morning I’m meeting with Star Swirl and Meadowbrook about my horn, and then I’m probably going to have to go back to the Union and go through our old laboratory and that vault we fought his candlecorn in, since I’m the only one left who knows how not to set off his traps. I think Jade just wants the good guest bedrooms back.”

“Well, you wanna explore this place tonight?” Gale asked. “I mean, we already went down in the weird ‘lair’ when we fought Wintershimmer and Silhouette, but I bet Vow had other weird secret rooms and stuff in here.”

I nodded. “Probably a good idea. And it could be fun, now that we’re not expecting Wintershimmer to jump out and kill us.”

Soon, the rest of our meal was finished. We turned to a small bathroom to clean up, a space I had found just before her arrival when I had to insist Graargh try to get the chalk dust out of his claws. As I washed my hooves from the stains of dinner, Gale gasped in shock. “Holy shit; I didn’t realize Vow was loaded.”

“Hmm?”

“You have hot water?!

I glanced down at the spigot pouring pleasant water onto my hooves, releasing a slight steam, and shrugged. “I suppose so? Is that unusual?”

“It’s expensive! You have to get skysteel pipes that can hold the right kind of clouds, and then run water through them… usually you only see that kind of stuff in big public buildings like the baths in Cloudsdale.”

“And you think he couldn’t have just heated them with his own enchantments?”

“Well, I dunno if you know how to heat up water with your horn, but for those of us who aren’t wizards, that’s kind of a pegasus magic ‘thing’. I know with our magic you can get a place to have running water, but it’s usually well water, so it’s still cold as shit, right?”

I shrugged. “I guess you’re right. In the Crystal Union we had hot water, but I know Wintershimmer and I had to enchant a boiler for that… and that took a lot of wood just for the two of us.”

Gale chuckled. “Yeah, there’s no way this isn’t pegasus work. Mom gave you a crazy nice house, Morty.”

“Well, the sun is still coming up in the morning,” I replied. When Gale shot me a flat glare, I shook my head. “You’re welcome any time, Gale.”

“Thanks. I might just take you up on that. Tempest always hogs the hot water at home.”

“Your dad’s house has… wait, of course it does. He’s Commander Hurricane.” I glanced to the towel rack, realized that after decades of emptiness, there was no way I wanted to wipe my hooves on whatever excuse for fabric was hanging from the silvery rail, and proceeded to shake my hooves dry as best I could over the basin. “Well, let’s see what else is here. I’m mostly worried about magic for the moment; I don’t want to stumble into anything trapped or enchanted that could be dangerous.”

“Fair enough.” Gale nodded. “I’ll keep my hooves to myself."

We proceeded from the bathroom back into the main foyer of the house, and from there, into its right-side wing—the path whose dusty floor lacked hoofprints from our prior hunt for Wintershimmer. Much like its left counterpart, what we found was a hallway lined with something like a dozen matching doors.

“Holy shit,” Gale muttered. “What are you gonna do with all this space?”

I shrugged. “Ignore it?” Then I paced over to the first door on our left, pushing it open with my hoof when it failed to open magically of its own accord. “Did Vow have kids or something?”

Gale shook her head. “I’ve never heard of them, anyway. Not that they’d admit it if he did. But I don’t think he was married.” Then the Queen of the Unicorns leaned over my shoulder to stare into the room I had opened. “Huh; looks like a billiards room.”

“Billiards?” I asked.

“It’s what the felt table is for. Well, there’s probably felt under all that dust; anyway, it’s a game.”

“He has a whole room dedicated to a table game?” I asked, stepping back as I shook my head.

“Lots of nobles do,” Gale replied with a nod. “Darts, card tables… It’s sort of the same idea with having a tea party or a ball; most real diplomacy doesn’t happen in a big room; that’s just where you tally up the score. So a room like that is an excuse to invite somepony else over and negotiate with them.”

I shrugged. “Seems like a waste of space to me.”

“It’s not the worst game in the world. I’ll teach you.”

“If you say so; I wouldn’t mind trying, but it seems like a waste of space for a wizard.” I picked the next door down the hall on the same side and heard its handle creak as it turned under my hoof. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

“A library? Says the pony who can’t read?”

“We’re working on that,” I replied through gritted teeth, stepping into the chamber. “It looks more like a reading room than what I’d call a library, but it’ll do for a start. Do you mind reading off some of the titles for me?”

“What’s the difference? Between a reading room and a library?”

“Books with magic in them tend to accumulate enchantment and magical energy, even if you don’t enchant them directly yourself. They aren’t the safest things in the world. A library is designed to keep the magic in powerful tomes from interacting.”

“Huh,” Gale shrugged. “And here I thought a library was just a bunch of shelves.” Then her hoof raised to the first row of books. “Let’s see, under all this dust—” Her thought was punctuated by a heavy sneeze, and the young Queen took a step back before swiping over all the books with her magic aura, wildly flapping the dust away as a pegasus might with a wing. “Blegh! There! Okay, let’s see… A History of the Emeraldine Dynasty. Erstwhile’s Annotated Commentary on ‘Seventeen Days on the Mountaintop’ Vol. I… Morty, I don’t think these are spellbooks. I’ve read some of these; they’re all political theory and history and crap like that.”

“I’m not surprised; if I were a warlock, I wouldn’t leave my research out in the open.” I nodded. “Do you remember what I taught you last time we were here, about how to detect enchantments?”

“You think he has another secret door? I’m pretty sure we know what’s on the other side of those two walls.” Gale gestured back towards the side of the chamber where the billiards room lay, and then to the opposite wall whose room, while unexplored, was surely only a door away.

“It isn’t that uncommon to use an illusion and disguise a book as another book. Where do you think the idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ came from?”

Gale looked at me like I’d had far too much to drink… or perhaps like she had, and by miscounting assumed I had sprouted a third nostril. “That makes sense even if you don’t use magic.”

“If you say so.” As Gale ran her magical aura over the spines of each of the books, I wandered over to the fireplace on the opposite wall, its back to the only side of the room that didn’t have an obvious space on the other side. The marble-grade cloudstone (complete with actual marbling) of the mantle supported a number of my predecessor’s nicknacks. On my far left, a very dusty ship in a bottle crested and plummeted down the slopes of magical waves. Beside it rested a small portrait concealed by dust, in a frame barely large enough to prevent it from being worn as a locket. When I blew on its surface, after the gray cloud settled, I found myself staring at a younger Wintershimmer.

“Huh… I thought he and Wintershimmer hated each other.”

“Hmm?” Gale asked. “Wait, is that a painting of the old asshole?”

“The one and only,” I nodded. As Gale paced over to take a look, I lifted my hoof to pull the picture from the mantle.

Only a moment later, there was a pop, and with a lurch of vertigo, everything went dark.

“What the fuck?!” wasn’t the most elegant way for Gale to inform me I was still conscious, but the noise in my ears was still more comforting than the words would normally be. “Morty?”

“I’m here, Gale.”

“Did you fucking teleport us? Where are we?” A slight light appeared as Gale lit her horn, though the natural borderline red glow of her magic didn’t exactly offer a pleasant light. At first, the shine only revealed the two of us and a rather blank stone floor. But after a moment of focusing, Gale increased the light to show us in another, rather larger room.

“Now this is a library,” I told her as my eyes swept the three rows of walkways divided by four rows of glass-fronted book cases. Rather than stacking them cover to cover, spines-out, the angled contents of the bookcases kept the tomes a solid few inches out of direct contact, as well as angling their covers at a pleasant reading angle for somepony perusing.

“Okay, shit; are we actually in danger, Morty?”

“Hard to say,” I answered. “I don’t know what we did, but If something jumps out at us, I’ll use my horn. For now, just keep your horn lit; I’ll see if I can turn on the lamps.”

As if by magic—and who am I kidding, it obviously was—the room immediately lit up with a faint yellow light, issuing from a number of candles set into the wall, each capped with a tiny glass orb.

“Okay, seriously, what the hell is going on?” Gale asked. “This house was not magic when I used to break in here as a kid.”

“How should I know? Maybe Vow taught it to recognize who owns it?”

“You think the house understands that Mom gave it to you?”

I shrugged. “I do have the key now. Maybe that’s it?” I pulled the key out of the sash at my waist and offered it Gale. “Here, take it; see if you can turn off the lights.”

Gale raised a brow, took the key and shrugged. “Uh… lamps off?”

Abruptly, nothing happened.

“Maybe try ‘lamps out?’” I suggested, and in that single set of words promptly disproved my hypothesis, as we were once more plunged into darkness. “Oh. Lamps?” Though my follow-up was less than confident, behold, there was light.

“So the key doesn’t mean shit,” Gale noted. “It’s you.”

“I’ll figure it out once I have my horn back,” I told her. “For now… well, let’s try something crazy. House, how do we get back to the reading room?”

After a few moments of silence, Gale muttered “Wow.

“Gale, even I can’t just close my eyes and guess exactly how an enchantment works. It takes work. And ideally a workshop.” I shook my head. “Well, I guess we’ve got two good options: I keep trying to figure out how the house enchantment works, and you try to figure out how to get us back out of this place, or we walk to the other side of the library looking for a door, and hope Vow didn’t enchant this place with something that will kill you, since it only thinks I’m him.”

Or I could just teleport us out?”

“What? Are you insane? Gale, that would kill us!”

“No it won’t; Diadem taught me the safe version of teleportation. If I try to teleport us into something solid, the spell will just fail. I can just keep trying until I guess somewhere safe.”

“Yes, but if you try to teleport us through something magically insulated—like, for example, the walls of a properly protected magical library—we’ll show up on the other side looking like scrambled eggs.”

“That’s… you couldn’t have just said it would kill us?”

“That’s how a wizard makes scrambled eggs,” I explained. “When I was learning to teleport, after we got past the lesson with the wine glasses that you didn’t like, Wintershimmer made me make our breakfast for three weeks to practice. I had to get the whisked yolks into the pan without cracking the shells.” I winked. “But I learned to make a mean omelette without breaking a few eggs.”

“Right…” Gale nodded. “I keep forgetting that your entire childhood was completely fucked up. I’d rather you work on the house than risk getting my soul ripped out or something. I’ll look at the wall over here and… I guess see if there’s a lever or something?”

I’ll spare you, dear reader, a recounting of my time spent shouting random phrases at the ceiling as Gale rapped her hoof against a blank stone wall, accompanied by some tugging at the few candlestick holders that were easily in reach. After maybe three minutes of tedium and frustration on both our parts, she leaned her head against the smoothed off wall and let it drag down in a show of defeat. “Okay… I guess we just take a risk and go poking around in the magic books? Have you asked Vow’s house if it wants to kill me, or if it just isn’t listening to me?”

“House, flicker your lights once if…” The fading of my words came as a grin spread over my muzzle.

“What?” Gale asked. “Morty, why are you looking like that?”

“I have an idea. You want to learn a spell?” I asked.

“Um… no? Remember, it was a complete fucking disaster when you tried to teach me to teleport?”

I put a hoof on Gale’s shoulder. “This will work better, I promise. I’m the best pony in the world at this spell.”

“You want to rip my soul out?” Gale asked, staggering back.

“I—No! Of course not!” I chuckled. “I suppose I’m the best at that too, but no. No.” I flipped back the trail of my jacket to reveal the mark on my flank: the seven-pointed star of a seven-school mage. “I’m going to teach you how to talk to the dead.”

“Who are… oh.” Gale’s eyes widened. “Oh shit, Vow?

I sighed, recalling the last (and only) time I had called up the soul of my predecessor from the depths of Tartarus. “I know he was a warlock, and a generally terrible pony, but unless you have a better—”

“Hell yes!” Gale cut me off. “How do I do it?”

“You’re… not mad?” I asked. “Tempest was pissed.”

“Yeah, well Tempest had also already been born when Ty had to kill Vow. I just want to meet him; Mom and Dad won’t tell me any of the interesting parts of his story, and Ty almost caught on fire when I asked her, so everything I know about him I heard from other ponies.” Gale, seemingly without realizing it, hopped from hoof to hoof in excitement at meeting the serial killer her step-sister had executed. “Maybe after him, we can do Warlord Halite? Or Yngvilde?”

“Maybe dead crystal warlords aren’t the best idea; it’s considered rude to seance somepony without a reason. And I don’t know who ‘Ingvilduh’ is…”

“Yngvilde,” Gale corrected. “She was a griffon leader that Rain and Pathfinder killed in the Red Cloud War.”

“Ah; that’s much harder. Griffons have their own afterlife, right? It would take some effort—or a live griffon, I suppose. With ponies we can just follow the ties of our own souls to the Summer Lands, but other races you have to know much stronger necromancy. I’m glad to teach you—” in truth, I was ecstatic at her interesting, grinning from ear to ear myself. “—and I’ll be glad to walk you through whatever you want, but for now let’s stick with ponies. Traditionally when a wizard learns to seance, the pony you call up is your teacher’s teacher. But since I dispersed Wintershimmer’s soul, that’s not exactly an option. I guess the right next option would be his teacher, Archmage Comet—she’s fun, . But skipping ahead to Vow will be fine, even if it means you’re seancing into Tartarus instead of the Summer Lands.”

“What difference does that make?” Gale asked. “Is it harder?”

“No, it’s just unpleasant. The Summer Lands is… we usually say ‘warm’, but it’s not actually heat per se. It’s like the feel of being in direct sunlight, but without the temperature. Sort of a glowy, tingly feeling. Tartarus is the opposite of that; I guess the best metaphor is being chest-deep in swamp water.”

“It’s wet? Cold?”

“Clammy?” I suggested. “But also freezing to the point you start to feel numb. Like the Summer Lands, there’s not actually temperature; you won’t get frostbite. But if we weren’t stuck in a haunted library, I’d teach you this next to a fireplace and have a bowl of candy for you like Wintershimmer did when he taught me.” I shook my head as I realized I was getting off topic. “I’m going to send just a tiny thread of my magic into the aura around your horn. I want you to hold onto it with your magic, just like if you were grabbing something telekinetically, okay?”

“Sure,” Gale answered. “Don’t you need to draw one of those stars on the ground, though?”

“No, those are mostly just for show. They help you hold your grip on the other pony’s soul if you’re going to be talking to them for a long time, or you need to cast other spells at the same time, but otherwise they just make ponies think it’s fancier magic. Now, close your eyes and light up your horn. Just focus on the feelings around your magic.”

I waited for Gale to ignite her horn before I pressed up next to her and put my horn against hers. I built up a tiny bit of my own magic, so small that its pain was no more than the sting of a too-hard pat on the shoulder from a close friend. Beside me, Gale tensed, and then let out a slight shiver, as she felt my pale blue magic slide into her raging aura. “Hmm…”

I nodded, letting her feel the motion on her shoulder. “Now, grab on to my magic and stay with me.”

As I moved my magic—and Gale’s with it—over her shoulder, she nuzzled against me. “Morty, is this some kind of foreplay?”

“Not in the middle of some library, but if you like it, I’ll remember.” I guided the magic further along, probably feeling like it was just under her coat (though in truth it no longer had a location in the physical sense), before stopping at the back of her neck, just below the base of her skull.

“Ooh, that tingles… wait, is this—”

“If it were cold, I’d be about to rip out your soul with the Razor, yes,” I explained. “A pony’s soul doesn’t really have a ‘location’ in the body, but when you touch it with magic, the mind tends to associate it with that spot. Nopony knows why. Now, focus; do you feel this?”

I felt Gale cock her head. “It’s like… like a thread? Or a really fine chain, like on a necklace?”

“That’s your body’s connection to the Summer Lands,” I explained. “Or, rather, the Between in general. When your body dies, this is what pulls your soul away to be judged.”

“What happens if it gets cut?” Gale asked.

“It…” I took just a moment to square away my thoughts. “It can’t. Without getting into too much detail, it’s not really a chain or a string or whatever you’re feeling. It doesn’t have length, or thickness, or texture, or anything like that. Even if I opened up the Summer Lands with the portal ritual, you wouldn’t be able to see it or touch it or hold it. Your brain only knows how to deal with sensations coming from the physical world. Since your horn is used to touching physical things telekinetically, your brain has taught itself to assume that the sensation of resistance against magic corresponds to a physical object, the same way it would if your leg touched a physical object. And since the bond between your soul and the Between is ‘tangible’ in a magical sense, your brain is making up its best explanation for what it's feeling in a way that makes sense in a physical world.”

“Huh.” Gale nodded again. “I think I kind of understand that. You actually can explain things.”

“This is my special talent.” I let myself nuzzle Gale a little bit forward, as if urging her to take a physical step, as I gave the next direction. “Now in a moment we’re going to move our magic along it. It’s going to feel like your magic is lurching away from you suddenly, very fast, but that’s just another of your brain’s mistakes, because the other ‘end’ of that soul cord is where we want our magic to go. When you’re ready, you push.”

“Okay.” I felt the slight lurch on my magic when she moved us, entirely comfortable and even welcome to me after a decade of practice, but beside me Gale tensed a moment as if worried she would collapse. “What is that feeling? It’s... floaty? Rippling?”

“Instead of physical air, our magic is just surrounded by more magic. The closest your body gets to having what’s inside it feel like what is outside it is when you’re swimming, so your mind feels all that magic like it’s water.”

“...you mean blood?”

“Well, you didn’t like the ‘scrambled eggs’ metaphor, so I was avoiding that. But yes, when I was learning, Wintershimmer described it as ‘floating in a sea of blood’. Which, in retrospect, should have made me less comfortable with him than it did when I was a little colt.” I shook my head to focus. “Alright; now here’s the hardest part for a beginner, so if you need me I’ll help. In the Between, what we think of as ‘weight’ comes from emotional weight instead of something’s mass. And right now, we want our magic to sink, since just like in the physical world, in the Between, Tartarus is below us.”

“Wait, Tartarus is a real place? Like, that you can dig to?

“You don’t need to dig; you can walk there. Well, climb; it’s mostly vertical, but there’s stairs if you know where to look. The upper layers really aren’t as bad as everypony thinks if you can get past the dog. I’ll take you some time when I need to make a trip for reagents. But for now, we’re going deep, where the damned souls are. So I need you to focus on something you hate. Something that makes you feel miserable.” I paused. “I’m gonna try not to be comforting, but if you need me to step away to focus, Gale, I can.”

“Not ‘Gale’,” she said. “Call me ‘Platinum’.”

“Really?” I asked, opening my eyes in surprise only to find her gritting her teeth and not just closing her eyes but squeezing them shut as hard as she could. “Alright, if that helps, Platinum.” When I saw her brow twitch, I realized exactly what she really wanted. “After what happened at the party, Your Highness, I’m afraid you really ought to marry High Castle—”

I gasped because of the ‘downward’ lurch on our combined magic; I had intended to hurt her enough to get our magic moving, but I hadn’t expected the rather shallow comment would send her plummeting so harshly. It took more than a bit of my willpower not to wrap a leg around her shoulders and try to comfort her as the clammy chill of Tartarus wrapped around our magic.

Refraining from praising her, though in every regard she was doing quite well for a non-mage, I focused on getting through the rest of the spell as fast as possible. “Now, focus on his name. Solemn Vow. Say it with me. Solemn Vow.”

“Solemn Vow.”

“Solemn Vow.”

“Solemn Vow.”

“Solemn—”

“Yes? I did hear you the first time.”

Gale gasped and I felt her nearly drop the spell. Like a coil of hose or cable under stress snapping under strain, the loss of her concentration snapped our magic back up from Tartarus, flying across the void of the Between and back to her horn in the physical world, where the sense of phantom inertia sent Gale tumbling back onto her tail. Still, her horn held the spell.

“Don’t let go of your magic, Gale,” I told her, shooting only a quick nod to the phantom of Solemn Vow floating a few inches off the floor in front of us. But apart from that brief flash of attention, my focus was on Gale. I spoke in a rush, the way one does when a joke lands poorly, when you see pain on a friend’s face. “You did great! I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that to hurt so much! It doesn’t need to be that bad; if we have to do it again, we’ll find a less painful thought. But the hard part is all over. I was lying, I’m still here for you.” I wrapped a leg over her shoulders and pulled her in for a quick but forceful hug, which she answered by latching on to me like a vise. “Now you just hold your horn lit while we talk.”

Behind my back, in plain view of Gale, Solemn Vow spoke with more than a slight amount of cheer. “Ah, I’m your first seance, miss? Congratulations. And I’m honored to be your first subject.”

Gale chuckled, and when she let go of me enough for me to pull back, I saw the hint of tears in the corners of her eyes before she wiped them away with a foreleg. “Holy shit; you’re Solemn Vow.”

“In the fl… well, no, I suppose ‘in the spirit’?” Vow folded one foreleg across his chest and offered a bow. “I’ve spoken to Morty once before, and slightly more recently had the misfortune of being forced to try to kill three of him, so he’s a familiar face… but I’m afraid my lady has me at a disadvantage.”

“Vow, this is Gale. Gale, Solemn Vow.”

Solemn Vow nodded, quirking a brow. “A pegasus name? Interesting. Well, Miss Gale, it is a delight. If nothing else, Morty, I’m astounded you’re alive. After Wintershimmer bound my soul to Luna’s candlecorn, I thought the fight was nearly over. Is Wintershimmer really gone, or did he escape?”

“He killed Wintershimmer,” Gale confirmed.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I responded.

“Forgive me for what might be an insensitive question, then; not that I’m anything but ecstatic to hear that, but how? You’re, what, eighteen? Twenty? And you killed Wintershimmer the Complacent?

“It would take a long time to explain, and I don’t know how long Gale can hold a seance, since it’s her first. So I’ll try not to waste time: how do we get out of your library?”

“How did you get in? There isn’t a door, and you’d have to have—oh. Hah!” Vow shook his head in amusement. “Of course.” Thankfully, the dead stallion had enough presence of mind not to simply leave us hanging as his mind raced ahead with his realizations. “I taught the house’s magic to recognize me by my jacket, since it’s a large enough visual pattern that I could use a second order divination matrix that could sustain itself on ley arcana instead of needing upkeep.”

“Does that explanation come in Equiish?” Gale asked.

“There’s a little bit of magical energy—’mana’ is the formal term—all around us constantly, in the air and the dirt. Some enchantments are magically cheap, like teaching a spell to ‘see’ our jackets and recognize them.” I gestured with a hoof in the direction of Vow’s spectre as I continued. “He could have used something that actually would have only identified him, such as by his soul, but that would taken more mana than the enchantment could pull out of thin air, so he would have had to recharge it every few months or years or so. That’s not the worst task in the world, but it is a chore.”

“Well said.” Vow nodded. “Keeping the enchantment self-sustaining also meant I could board up the wall where I drew the glyphs and embedded the crystals; I was going to some lengths to hide that I was a trained wizard, so I didn’t want it to be completely obvious my house was enchanted. And at the time I died, Wintershimmer and I had the only jackets from the Order of Unhesitating Force; and he wasn’t coming to visit any time soon.”

That’s why all the doors open for you!” Gale rolled her eyes. “You and your fucking evil cult robes, Morty!”

“They’re not ‘robes’,” Vow corrected sternly. “It’s a jacket.”

Gale very slowly let her gaze sweep from the ghost of Equestria’s most prominent murderer toward me. “So I’ve been told,” she said as flatly as possible.

“And you’ll be getting your own set soon,” Vow added. “Given you must be Morty’s apprentice—”

“She’s just a friend,” I interrupted. “I’m not training her. The seance was because we don’t know how to get out now that we accidentally teleported in.”

“Ah, yes. Well then… Morty, you know that as a fellow victim of Wintershimmer’s education, I’m always willing to do you a favor. Morty, you no doubt said Wintershimmer’s name while touching the little picture on the mantle in my reading room, correct?” Gale rolled her eyes, which caused Vow to glance over at her. “Something wrong?”

“Reading rooms, jackets… Just wondering if I should be worried that my coltfriend talks almost exactly like Equestria’s most famous serial killer.”

Vow shrugged. “I prefer to think of myself as more of a failed revolutionary, but point taken.” Then his shade turned back to me. “At the far side of the library, there’s a rather large portrait of Queen Platinum.”

“Why her?”

“My two mentors,” Vow explained. “They seemed as appropriate symbols for my place of learning as any. Say her name—just ‘Platinum’ will do, no titles needed—while you’re touching it. Or rather, while you’re touching the frame; obviously I can’t stop you, but I commissioned the portrait from Reinbray just before he passed, so it’s irreplaceable. If you’d be so inclined, Morty, I’d be grateful if you could give it to Her Majesty; no use letting it gather dust, and even if she may justifiably not want a gift from me, I had meant to make a gift of it to her eventually.” His idle note about the painting—I’ll note that I did eventually give it away, and that this is the same one hanging in the gallery at L’hoof today, and probably the one you picture when you imagine Platinum I—ended just as abruptly as it had begun. “And make sure your friend is in hoof’s reach when you do; you wouldn’t want to leave her behind.”

“Or Morty could keep it,” Gale muttered. “The house is his now.”

“Hmm…” Vow nodded. “Your reward for cleaning up Wintershimmer?”

“Something like that,” I agreed.

Vow nodded. “Well, I’d be more than happy to give you a tour and show you around the secrets; there are rather a lot. If you want to employ my services, that is.”

Gale chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure that would go over well. ‘Hey, Morty, where’d you hire your butler?’” Gale’s voice dropped into what I can only assume was her impression of mine. “‘I dragged him out of the depths of Tartarus. I save a lot on payroll that way.’”

“Joking aside, I’ll consider your offer, Vow. Right now, my horn is still healing, but I promise you that in a few days when I’m back to my magical self, I’ll seance you and we can settle things.” Then I glanced to Gale, decided (or rather, reminded myself) that I trusted her with my life, and continued “I do owe you for telling me the truth about Wintershimmer’s attack on Smart Cookie and Jade. If you hadn’t, Jade would have killed me in the Union. So in thanks, I promise you this: even if I don’t take up your services, I would be willing to disperse you rather than send you back to Tartarus.”

Vow’s eyes widened. “You’re just going to admit it in front of her—”

“Gale and I are good at keeping each other’s secrets,” I noted, before turning to her. “In the swamp outside of Platinum’s Landing, Vow offered to help me learn the rest of Wintershimmer’s magic, since obviously Celestia won’t know that.”

“And a few things Wintershimmer likely didn’t know either,” Vow added, with just a hint of desperation in his tone. “As well as helping maintain the home, all joking aside.”

“I get the point, Vow,” I told him, before turning again to Gale. “In exchange, he wants me to get him out of Tartarus. I’d probably bind him to a golem body—one without a horn, most likely.”

“Well understood,” Vow agreed. “I’m not asking you to trust me; we’ve only spoken the one time before, after all.”

Gale put a hoof on my shoulder. “You’re serious? You’re going to go behind Celestia’s back?”

“I’m considering it.” I chuckled. “I mean, I went behind her back when I fought Wintershimmer too. But we can talk about that more privately.” I turned to Vow once more. “Unfortunately, with my horn out of commission, she’s just going to have to end the seance and send you back.”

Vow raised a brow. “Can I ask what happened?”

“I pushed past Palisade’s Threshold and nearly killed myself from mana burn while I was fighting Wintershimmer.”

“Ouch,” Vow offered sympathetically. “Hence why your friend is holding the seance, I imagine. I had the ice box in the kitchen cloud lined, and I enchanted it to carve ice cubes for drinks. It won’t heal any faster, but if you wrap some in a cheesecloth and hold it against your horn, it may at least help numb it.”

I nodded. “Appreciated.” I glanced to Gale,and then whipped back to Vow. “One other thing: where do I buy a new bed?”

“What’s wrong with the one I left?” Vow asked.

“Nopony’s lived here since you died,” Gale explained. “So it’s dusty as shit, and most of the fabric’s musty, if not fucking rotting.”

“There’s no need to curse at me, but again, point taken.” Vow nodded. “Well, my information may be a few decades out of date then… what’s it been, thirty years?”

“Nineteen,” Gale explained. When both my predecessor and I raised our brows, she added “I was born almost a year after Ty killed him.”

“You know Typhoon?” Vow chuckled nervously. “Yes, well… our disagreements aside I do hope she’s doing well.” Shaking his head, the dead mage continued “On the corner of the Ridge and Wayward Way, a few blocks north of here, the Hold Up Sisters Upholstery makes the best furniture in the city—assuming they’re still open, but I can’t imagine they would have gone out of business. It’s expensive, but if Her Majesty is as generous to you as she was to me it shouldn’t be a problem. For linens, while it may seem a little pedestrian for a young noble like yourself, I cannot endorse enough going to one of the earth pony street markets, like at Rank Road and West File.”

“A young noble?” I asked.

Vow frowned. “Her Majesty didn’t give you a title?”

I glanced to Gale. “The Queen can just do that?”

Vow chuckled. “I mean, how else did you think noble titles got assigned? It isn’t as if Celestia herself descends from the sky.”

“It has more political consequences for the Queen than whoever is getting the title,” Gale muttered.

Vow glanced Gale’s way with a hint of amusement on his expression. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. In any case, Morty, you ought to just ask Her Majesty. If she gave you this house, I doubt she’d hesitate to grant you a barony. If it weren’t for the ties to me, I’d suggest you’d make an excellent Baron Card.”

“You’d be surprised,” Gale muttered. “Look, my horn is starting to sting; are we done? And do I need to do anything fancy, or do I just let go?”

“When you’re ready, just let go. And Vow, thi—” Vow’s soul blinked away as Gale’s magic finished before I could finish my thought. “Ah.”

“Sorry; I thought you were done.”

I shrugged. “It’s no skin off my back; I usually just make a habit of saying goodbye.” I chuckled. “Vow knew how to seance in life, so what happens won’t catch him by surprise, but for the average pony you want to give them a bit of warning about the lurch.”

“The lurch?” Gale asked.

“You’ll recall when we followed the tie from your soul to the Between, and then down to Tartarus, there was that sense of moving forward sort of suddenly? I don’t know if it’s a formal name, but we always called it ‘the lurch’. When I was a little colt, if I had spells left at the end of the day, I’d trace my magic up and down that bond because I thought the feeling was fun.”

Gale shook her head and chuckled. “Reminds me of when I was small enough to ride around on Ty’s back. Or Aunt Luna’s.”

“'Look upon me, mortals, and despair' let you ride on her back?”

“Honestly, Morty, I think she just hates you in particular.” Gale shook her head, taking a first step toward the far side of the library, and our exit. “I think she liked showing off her flying stunts to a little filly who couldn’t get enough of it. Ty too; when she was younger she loved stunt flying.”

“Huh.” I shrugged. “And you didn’t… throw up?”

“You fucking lightweight… How the fuck is flying worse than teleporting? Or ‘the lurch’ when you cast one of those spells?”

“Well… Huh. I guess because in those cases I’m in control of the motion. That, and it’s just not as protracted. Even if I have to reach into Tartarus, once you’ve practiced seancing for a while, you can find who you’re looking for pretty fast.” I shot Gale a grin, though she didn’t look back at me to catch it. “You should think of a family member or a friend who’s passed for next time we practice; somepony a bit less, uh…”

“Controversial?” Gale nodded. “Well, that asshole we just talked to killed Dad’s sister, Twister, so I’d like to meet her. And I guess there’s Ty and Cy’s mom, Swift Spear. Dad’s first wife.”

“What happened to her?”

“Cyclone,” Gale answered. “Same as my grandpa.” I nearly choked behind Gale as she followed that thought aloud, and what it might mean for my promise to keep the elder Platinum’s conversation’s quiet. “He’s probably the best choice. King Lapis IV. You think I can do that?”

“I’m… sure it’ll be easier than Vow,” I answered after a moment of nervous hesitation that, mercifully, she didn’t press me on.

“Well, I’ll think about it. But hopefully he gives better advice than Mom. Speaking of which…”

The prompt was accompanied by Gale gesturing to a much younger picture of her mother that hung on the wall in front of us on the far side of the relatively small subterranean hidden library. Heavily done up in makeup and wearing elaborate jewelry, about the only similarity I could see between the metallic mare and her purple daughter was in the shape of their jawlines. I placed my hoof on the side of the painting, stepped to make sure my side was brushed up against Gale’s and announced “Queen Platinum”.

A moment of lurching magic and a ‘pop’ later, we were back beside the mantle in the reading room.

“I’m going to head back to Dad’s place and clean up after all this bullshit today,” Gale told me. She took a solid stride away, and as she moved, unsubtly flicked her tail so it ran up my inner leg, just past me knee. “You don’t want to sleep in a rotting bed here, right?”

And that, dear reader, is not another Tale; at least, not one I’m sharing with anypony else.

2-9

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II - IX

Queen Platinum's Folly

Gale arrived the next day at the Stable clad in a plain burgundy dress that Lark had told her looked business-like, if not just a touch stern. Combined with wearing her mane back, the hoofmaiden had created an effect that forsook complicated imagery in favor of simple efficiency and directness. On the ride to the Stable, Platinum’s only commentary had been a nod after looking the outfit up and down, which was perhaps as close to a compliment as Gale could stomach from her mother on her appearance without feeling ill.

In what the newspapers would call an unusual show from the unicorns’ senior statesmare, Grand Duchess Chrysoprase was waiting outside when the Royal Carriage arrived.

“Aunt Chrysoprase,” Gale greeted, spurning Sir Gauntlet’s offered hoof in favor of leaping down almost into the Grand Duchess’ face. “Good news?”

“I wouldn’t offer anything else to my Queen,” Chrysoprase answered with a practiced smile. “Would Your Majesty and the Queen-Mother care to join me in my office briefly?”

“We’d be honored,” Platinum replied.

Gale shot a stern glance to her mother, and then frowned. “Of course, Grand Duchess. Lead the way.”

As the trio of unicorn mares made their way past the day’s reporters, questions were shouted in furious volume. “Will the mining quota be reduced today?” “Have you spoken to Secretary Gallery?” “Is it true you intend to appoint non-unicorn nobles?”

Gale’s instinct was to stop and answer the questions, but Platinum put a firm hoof on her daughter’s shoulder and encouraged her wordlessly to keep walking.

Only once two sets of doors separated the trio from the crowd outside did anypony speak. “Calling out random questions without acknowledgement like a mob; how do the earth ponies tolerate it?” Chrysoprase asked bitterly.

“It’s not that hard; you just pick the questions you want to answer and shout back.” Gale chuckled. “You’ve been using your gong too long.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Your Majesty.” Chrysoprase shook her head as they progressed through the Stable building. “I’m afraid I haven’t arranged for drinks or breakfast this morning.”

“That’s hardly an obligation,” Platinum answered. “Hurricane always makes quite filling breakfasts, especially now that the house is bursting at the seams. We’ve already had quite a bit to eat.”

“House guests?” Chrysoprase asked.

“Morty’s and his friends are staying with us,” Gale answered swiftly. “Mom gave him Vow’s old house, but all the furniture there is still rotten and musty.”

“Ah, Baron Card’s house, you surely mean?” Chrysoprase corrected, before letting her voice drop to a bit of a whisper. “It is an old custom not to speak the names of traitors. And Solemn Vow was a personal friend to many in the Stable before his treason was revealed, so for some the wounds are still quite brisk.” Then, lifting her tone again, she glanced back curiously toward Platinum. “You don’t think that was a bit on the muzzle, Platinum? Given the colt already wears one of Baron Card’s jackets?”

“I thought that if anypony is going to know how to use all the strange magic in the house, it would be him. I’ve been trying to sell it for nineteen years.” Platinum chuckled. “If anything, it was a liability to the treasury.”

“An excellent solution, then. I shall have to send our new neighbor a houseplant or something.” Chrysoprase did not look at Gale as she spoke her next words, but her tone was plenty stern enough. “I trust Your Majesty won’t be repeating your mother’s mistake and assigning him a barony? Baron Card, at least, wasn’t a half-breed barbarian—I’m afraid the press would eat the poor colt alive, to say nothing of the Stable.”

“I thought you would have preferred him to my other proposals.” When Platinum turned to her daughter with distress in her expression, Gale rolled her eyes. “I’m kidding, Mom. I’ve got more urgent assignments to make, remember?” And with that particular segway hanging in the air, Gale waited until the trio had actually made it the rest of the way down the last hall on the way to their destination and fully into Chrysoprase’s office before continuing “So what’d House and Glass say?”

“Your Majesty is certainly direct,” Chrysoprase noted, glancing to Platinum. “Did she learn it from Hurricane?”

Platinum shrugged. “Him or Typhoon; they’re both that way.”

“Yes, I suppose so—”

“I’m standing right fucking here, in case you two are done debating who taught me how to get shit done.” Despite the strength of her words, Gale refrained from shouting, though she lacked the discipline to keep wrinkles of frustration from her brow. “What. Did. They. Say?

Chrysoprase sighed. “The agreement can still be saved, but they need all the domains.”

“Then we’re done here,” Gale muttered.

“Your Majesty… Gale, wait!” Chrysoprase called out as the young monarch turned to leave. “Please, reconsider. You said as we were leaving yesterday you wanted to do what is best for Equestria; won’t throwing away two years of our work for your subjects be worse than butting your forehead into the Stable and declaring an eternal stalemate?”

“She asked you to call her ‘Gale’?” Platinum asked flatly, before walking over to her daughter and extending a hoof toward Gale’s shoulder. “Daughter, Chrysoprase is right. Your goals aren’t defeated forever just because they aren’t happening this very instant!”

“Your rule is only three days old,” Chrysoprase added. “You’ve taken the throne decades earlier than most of the great kings and queens in our history, and without the Scourge of Kings in your blood, Celestia willing you’ll rule longer than any of them too! You have fifty, sixty maybe seventy years in front of you.”

“Fifty years of kissing the Stable’s ass?” Gale asked. “No. I told them where I stood.”

“This will hurt you more than it hurts them,” Platinum warned. “This won’t make them respect you, Gale; you’re making enemies.”

“Please, Your Majesty, let me help you,” Chrysoprase pleaded.

Gale sighed. “Mom, you win.” As Platinum and Chrysoprase’s faces softened, though, she continued. “You finally got me to do it; I’ll quote Tongue and Horn at you. ‘To beg is to reveal that you have nothing better to offer; to fold and reveal that your hoof of cards is empty; to call your own bluff.’

Had they been outside, I fully suspect a timely wind might have swept between the three ponies gathered, batting at their clothes as they stared in silence, testing their wills where words had failed.

Rarely have I seen such a meeting end without bloodshed, and given what happened in the weeks that followed, perhaps Equestria would have been better had Gale been wearing a sword.

“Permit me one last thought,” Chrysoprase announced at last, mustering the will to cut through the silence. “Your Majesty, if you walk out of this office without an oath for Duke House and Duchess Glass, you will lose three votes to one. Tomorrow, or the next day, the earth ponies spurned by your failure to fulfill the Crown’s promise, will turn on you. The next time you seek to build a coalition in Parliament for any sort of compromise, you will find you are not trusted and the earth ponies will likely demand a steeper compromise to aid you. In the Stable, your intransigence will mean House and Glass—but most especially House, who at the moment is the closest to endorsing your position of the Great Houses—will be quicker to vote against you. My banners may include more of our delegation to Parliament than any of the other Great Houses, but those two, along with Duchess Fire Power, easily outnumber me. And if I am forced to choose between the Stable and the Crown, as Speaker for the Stable my position is quite clear. Understand, Your Majesty: you are choosing a path that will hurt you much more than it will hurt us. I want to be your ally, Gale, but I need you to let me.”

Gale scowled and grabbed the handle of the office door with her magic. “Do your worst; I’m not afraid.”

A moment later, the door clicked shut behind her.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Platinum made no further attempt to sway her daughter, nor did the elder statesmare accompany her into the Stable chamber proper. Gale entered alone into the chamber; it had been by her own insistence that Platinum not weaken the firmness of her position by whispering in her ear. So instead, for the first time before a full array of her subjects, she was truly alone.

The room could feel the tension that hung in the air between her and the dukes and duchesses. Where often one would hear the clicking of hooves on railings or the gentle creaking of chairs as nobles all but fell into them, now there was nothing. Ponies moved with all the delicate focus they could manage, for none wanted to become the focus of the floor’s attention.

“Mares and stallions of the Stable of Nobles, all rise in honor of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Platinum the Third,” announced the Stable’s herald. Ponies stood, and though Gale’s hoof moved as if to wave the motion away, she hesitated. She would later confess to me it was the first time, in the middle of a sort of stubborn rage at the density of the nobleponies, that she had realized the ceremony she so hated was useful. It forced the nobles to remember that she was Queen, and more than anything else she wanted that on their minds. So as they rose, she waited. Eyes sharp, she swept her gaze around the booths above her in the Stable, meeting as many eyes as she could find, trying her best not to betray her singular feeling.

And then, after twenty long seconds, she lowered herself into her seat, and the room breathed.

“Get started,” she ordered.

Chrysoprase stepped to the front of her booth and rang her gong once. “As Your Majesty wishes. When we left yesterday we were in the midst of discussions of the settlement bill. Given where we left yesterday, I bring a motion that we move directly to Her Majesty’s final thoughts, and then our vote. Do the other Great Houses approve?” Though it wasn’t a formal vote, a quick glance from Chrysoprase around the room saw a number of quick nods from the ponies on the ground floor. “Very well. Your Majesty, for the sake of a reminder in your first Stable vote as reigning Queen: it is your right to a last word addressing the Stable.”

Gale shrugged. “Why?”

What followed was a very long, very strange pause, as most of the room stared at the new queen with confusion, and perhaps a hint of pity. Finally, Chrysoprase leaned forward. “I confess, I don’t know when the right of the last word was originally given to the monarch off the top of my head; I would have to study a bit in our histories, and—”

“No, no. I mean ‘why bother’?” Gale leveled her focus heavily across the nobles—though mercifully sparing Star Swirl—as she gestured dismissively into the air with a forehoof. “You know what I’m willing to offer. You know why I hold my position. I challenge you all to do what’s right for Equestria. I’m not changing my mind, and yours are already settled.” Then she shut her eyes and sighed with a dry chuckle. “But feel free to surprise me.”

Chrysoprase sighed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. We now proceed to vote. Duke Swirl, I welcome your vote first on behalf of House Zodiac and your banners.”

Star Swirl nodded, setting the bells on the hem of his robe jingling, though he had omitted both his hat and his pipe for the proceedings. “House Zodiac is in favor.”

“One in favor,” Chrysoprase repeated. “Duchess Glass?”

“Against,” said the sharp-edged mare shortly, ensuring her piercing blue eyes were drilling into Gale’s skull, rather than facing the mare who had, ostensibly, prompted the question.

A few gasps and murmurs slipped into the room, but when Chrysoprase lifted the gong in threat, they were quickly suppressed. “Very well. One in favor, one against. Duchess Power?”

“I am against letting the earth ponies infringe on our domain rights, and granting domains to non-nobles,” said Duchess Power, her ruby coat replaced with a vest of gold and orange threads that, while more muted in the amount of physical light it reflected, was no less extravagant in its implicit price tag. Nopony seemed surprised by her vote.

“One in favor, two against.” Chrysoprase sighed. “And the Stable reminds the Lady of the House On Fire that the last word in argument belongs to Her Majesty, not our houses. Duke House?”

The bland stallion gave only the slightest of nods as he lifted his head to glance over his pince-nez. “Against.”

What had before been slight gasps and murmurs turned to quite audible shows of surprise.

Chrysoprase cut through the noise not with her gong but her uplifted voice. “It is settled. A tie-breaking vote is not needed. The Stable of Nobles rejects the crown’s request, as is within our rights.” Chrysoprase sounded her gong once. “And with our business settled, the Stable is adjourned until our scheduled autumn gathering, pending a sooner summons.”

As the mostly geriatric ponies of the stable rose from their booths and shuffled toward their respective private exits, Gale sat still for a very long moment, watching the room empty. Fire Power and Glass Menage and House Divided saw no need for further words with their monarch; in her own words, why bother? Chrysoprase at least sent Gale a parting glance, filled with a potent blend of disappointment and pity.

The sound of bells approaching snapped Gale from her brief fugue; by the time Star Swirl’s stride had reached her, the room was nearly empty.

“Well, kid, that was something.”

Gale took a short breath, and let it out in a chuckle. “I’m still ‘kid’ to you?”

The old wizard raised a brow. “Platinum Gale Gladioprocellarius… is that right, that last bit? Never really got the hang of Cirran...” Without waiting for Gale to correct him, Star Swirl shook his head and continued. “I’ve had the honor in my life of advising your grandfather, both your parents, and now you. I’m one hundred and two damnable years old. And sure, I’ll call you ‘Your Majesty’ in front of the others. But we both know that’s not me being honest. You’re still a kid to me.” He grinned through his thick whiskers. “I’m sure you’re about to get taken to task by your mother, and the earth ponies, and the unicorn delegation in parliament, and stars know who else. So I just wanted to let you know I’m proud of you for standing up for what you believe in. Your dad probably is too, if you need somepony to talk to who’s been in those shoes before.”

Gale sighed. “How long do you think it’ll take before I get the Stable’s support?”

Star Swirl raised his bushy brow. “If you carry on like you just did? Never.” The old wizard chuckled. “I never said I thought your plan was going to work. But in my experience, it’s a lot easier to teach a skill like diplomacy or magic than it is to teach morality.”

“I’m that bad?”

“Do you want me to be honest or comforting?” Star Swirl asked back. When Gale winced, Equestria’s senior wizard let out another small laugh. “I told you I was no good at diplomacy. Just wanted you to know somepony appreciates what you’re trying to do before you head out of here.” Star Swirl concluded the thought by lighting up his horn, and then he was simply gone.

Gale lingered there, in the tall empty Stable chambers. It wasn’t that she was afraid—she hadn’t been when she stood up to her mother and Chrysoprase before the vote, and nothing had changed since then. The future she had chosen had come to pass. But Star Swirl’s warning hung in the air. Would it work? Would the nobles really hold out forever to stop her?

Finally, the new queen turned to her doors on the back of the Stable floor and with a push of her horn, made her way toward the exit.

Platinum I waited calmly in the middle of the hall. “Are you interested in my advice?” the silver mare asked bluntly.

Gale sighed. “Go ahead.”

“You should make arrangements for you to take Peanut Gallery out to lunch, and offer him your apologies for the failure of the compromise.”

Gale sighed. “Alright. I can do that.”

“Good,” Platinum agreed. “See if he is willing to arrange some sort of a meeting for the major leaders of his delegation, and make the same apology to them. If Secretary Gallery is reluctant, Chancellor Puddinghead may be another way to speak to them. I encourage you not to make any promises whatsoever regarding the Settlement Bill, even if they press you. The Great Houses will want to punish you for standing up to them, so any deal they offer you will be worse than the one you rejected today. It’s better to let the legislators sort that out without interfering now.”

“Sure,” Gale nodded. “I thought you were going to tell me to apologize to the Stable or something.”

“No, I know a lost cause when I see one,” Platinum answered sternly. “Until we are able to find an issue that they truly need your support on, or you are able to offer some kind of material apology, I would give up on having the Stable’s support, or by proxy, any easy passage of bills through Parliament.”

“If that’s the only way to make them listen—”

“Queen Platinum the Third, I am not going to waste my breath explaining to you the damage you did today. The reason I am not advising you to throw yourself on the Grand Duchess’ mercy and offer to marry her son as a way to undo what you did today is that I know you won’t listen. It seems the only way you are going to learn is to experience the pain of your mistakes first hoof. So for the time being, my advice regarding the Stable is to interact with them as little as possible. Do not play this game of brinksmareship again and lose even more ground, do not attempt to persuade any of them in private. Wait. And until then, we will focus your education on how to interact with your half-sister and Chancellor Puddinghead.”

“I’m not afraid of pain!”

“No?” Platinum asked. “Very well.” As the mother and daughter neared the exit to the Stable, they found two knights waiting. Sir Gauntlet and the other armored unicorn both bowed to the approaching mares, and Platinum answered them with a nod. “Since you don’t seem to value Sir Gauntlet’s assistance, I’ll be having him walk me to the carriage alone, daughter.”

Hearing the barbs in Platinum’s voice, Gauntlet stiffened. “Um… Your Majesty, I don’t mean to contradict you, but we serve at the Queen’s pleasure, not the Queen-Mother; by oath, I cannot abandon her—”

“Go,” Gale interrupted. “Do it.”

Gauntlet nervously glanced at his fellow knight, and then nodded. “As Your Majesty commands. We shall wait for you by the carriage.”

Gale was left alone again after that, as Platinum and the two knights made their way out of the Stable. Between the doors, Gale caught a faint glimpse of a crowd gathered around the walkway between the Stable’s doors and the waiting carriage. In addition to knights, a few pegasus legionaries could be seen controlling the masses.

She waited long enough for her mother’s slower gait to reach the carriage, then steeled herself and opened the door.

A chorus of “Boo!”s greeted her. The crowd surged and shouted and pushed against the line of guards. “Race traitor!” someponies shouted. Another voice asked “What’s Typhoon giving you for the land?” More screamed incoherently, trying to reach the young Queen’s ears.

A reporter near the front of the mass leaned over a legionary’s blade-crested wing, risking a painful cut for the chance to be heard. “Your Majesty, I’m Held Presses, Ridgeline Review—What makes your demand for pegasus representation in the Stable worth destroying the settlement bill compromise?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do!” Gale answered. “We need to tear down walls—”

“Aren’t you putting pegasus interests above your subjects, though? Without a settlement bill, Legion control will become even more entrenched in the new lands.”

“The Stable could have solved that—!” Gale was cut off by the shouts and the rushed questions of the reporters.

“Some would say the common unicorn cares more about new homes and places to do business than who has a presence in the Stable; what do you say of accusations that your refusal to compromise is elitist?”

“I wasn’t refusing to compromise; I offered Glass and House more domains—!”


“We heard from other nobles from inside the Stable that you did away with dozens of Stable traditions; why?”

“Because—”

“Your Majesty, do you—”

“Do you fuckers want your questions answered or not?!” Gale’s curse would have been heard around the crowd with how heavily she shouted, but when her horn surged to amplify her tone, the young queen’s fury instead echoed around the entire block.

The crowd answered with murmurs, but they did not especially grow quiet, and Gale briefly found herself wonder how Chrysoprase’s gong was so powerful. “I offered those assholes a compromise; Chrys… Grand Duchess Chrysoprase was willing to give up her domains to satisfy them; I only wanted one. But apparently the idea of implementing a shared government the way Equestria was supposed to work from square one is some kind of war crime, because even that wasn’t good enough.”

Somepony in the back of the crowd, obscured by the mass of bodies, shouted toward Gale “Who cares about the Stable? Give us our new lands!”

“What?” Gale asked.

“Down with noble games!” somepony else shouted. “Give us the lands!”

“Lands!” the crowd shouted, one voice and then two and the a dozen. “New lands now!”

“But—” Gale winced when the chanting overrode her protests. Desperately, her eyes searched the crowd for the well dressed nobles of the Stable. But the masses surrounding her were no well-funded elites glad in finest fineries and decorated with precious jewels. The mass was full of the naked bodies of the common folk, most of them not even unicorns, who had simply come to hear the good news of new lands and new opportunities.

Somepony in the crowd lunged forward. Maybe they were shoved, maybe they really were taking a swing at Gale; even my magic can’t tell me, let alone give a name. History forgot who moved first. But the knights and the Legion took it as a threat, and as the knights abandoned their lines to wrap tightly around their Queen, and the masses began surrounding the remaining legionaries, inevitable chaos erupted.

Gale tried to shout “Stop”, to use her magic to warn them off, but there comes a point when words, even magically heightened, are no more use. A point when ears hear, but hearts refuse to listen. Her knights pressed her into the Royal Carriage, though surrounded by a now broken crowd the roads were too blocked to take it anywhere. Inside, Gale pressed her face against the window, helpless to do anything but watch what followed.

The next day’s newspapers would call it Queen Platinum’s Folly. History books, conflating those first three fateful days, took to calling it the Regency Day Massacre. As Gale watched the crowds shouting and dispersing and cursing her name, six civilian ponies were injured by Legion blades.

One mare, an earth pony named Satchel, bled to death on the Stable’s red carpet. It was a slow death, and when the crowd began to disperse enough that Gale was sure it would be safe to try, she teleported out of the Royal Carriage.

No reporters were left behind to write the story of how she held that poor mare in her dying moments. They only told the story of the stubborn queen and her bloodstained pride.

And so began the rule of Queen Platinum the Third.

Interlude II - Concerning Tempest Shadow

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Interlude II

Concerning Tempest Shadow

As you may have gathered from my own story, I had virtually unlimited sympathy for ponies with unfortunate names. And never was there a pony with crueler parents—at least when it came to naming—than one Fizzlepop Berrytwist.

Seriously… that’s four words. Deleting the spaces doesn’t make one a genius of coinage.

The poor unicorn filly later renamed herself Tempest Shadow, and as a fellow unicorn largely raised by the forces of evil, I will refrain from any mockery about the sophomoric ‘edge’ in that choice of name. Nevertheless, because Commander Typhoon chose to name her eldest son Tempest (in keeping with the family theme of inclement weather), I’m forced to remind you, dear reader: Tempest, grandson of Hurricane, was long dead by the time of these events. I didn’t prolong his life in any unusual way, he didn’t somehow ascend to godhood under his own power or some similar nonsense; in short, he was dead.

Tempest Shadow, meanwhile, was very much alive that day in Canterlot, a fact she seemed determined to demonstrate by hopping in place as she inspected the hull of the sleek airship hanging in dock off the cliff-side of the mountain capital. Her custom made cuirass of banded plates, polished almost to a black mirror sheen, reflected the object of her affections as Sunset Shimmer and Celestia approached; both slipping between the movements of a huge crowd of porters and dockworkers readying the vessel for departure.

“I take it the vessel is suitable?” Celestia asked with a chuckle at the military mare’s enthusiasm.

Immediately, Tempest’s hopping ceased, and with a bit of a red glow to her already rose face, she nodded. “It’s a beautiful airship. More than beautiful; uh, gorgeous? I’m not the best with words... I’m guessing it's your personal one?”

At that, Celestia laughed fully. “I’ve never been much of a sailor, no. If I’m being completely honest, when I get the chance to fly, I prefer to do it on my own wings. Can I ask what you made you guess that, though? I am curious what a mare with your experiences thinks, looking at an airship like this.”

“I’ve never met a soldier-type who’d bother with all the luxury of a ship like this; the galley’s huge, the quarters are massive; it’s even got a little hot tub. But I’m guessing rich ponies don’t usually opt to enchant their hulls or install the kind of rudders that let you take the eyewall of a tornado across the wind. This is...” Tempest turned her head back to it and grinned like a schoolfilly. “I’ve burnt down cities that would be cheaper than this beauty.”

“Uh…” Sunset swallowed nervously at that particular metaphor, and a visible chill ran down Tempest’s spine as she realized what she had just said aloud, and who she had said it in front of.

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Celestia noted. When Tempest raised worried brow, the alicorn explained “My Honor Guard confiscated the ship when Prince Blueblood violated the Palace’s airspace limits one time too many, and over the years they’ve made the occasional upgrade.”

Sunset Shimmer had to hide her schadenfreude behind a hoof. “Is he still as bad as he was when we were foals?”

“So much worse,” Celestia replied not with good humor, but rather a look of mild horror, before returning her attention to the vessel. “Since I assume you’ve had time to look it over, perhaps you could help a sailing novice understand what makes it such a fine airship.”

“Where do I even begin?” Tempest gestured grandly to the vessel’s stained dark wooden hull, natural tones evading the constant temptation of most Canterlot vessels to be painted in the city’s favorite white and purple. “I don’t know this ‘Blueblood’ pony, but it was obviously some kind of a rich kid’s pleasure yacht. Maybe he used to race it, if the hull treatment is original, though I’ve never seen a clipper or an interceptor in a catamaran shape—at least, not one that isn’t meant to land in the water. I’m guessing nobles don’t usually go diving?”

Sunset quirked a brow at that. “Not that I’ve been before, but why would you say that? It sounds like a ton of fun; Twilight said it was amazing to visit the seaponies—”

Tempest scoffed. “Yeah, it’s all fun and games until a sea serpent or a shark takes a bite out of the side of your boat, or pirates decide your fat pony pockets need to be lighter.” Then she shook her head. “The only place in the world shadier than Klugetown is the Reef, and that’s saying something.”

“The Reef?”

“It’s a city made of coral,” Celestia explained. “Ruled over by the octopus magnates who control most underwater trade.”

Rule is a strong word, Princess,” Tempest noted. “It’s more like you have to look over your shoulder to make sure one of the bosses isn’t literally right there before you do whatever you damn well please.” When Sunset winced, Tempest realized who she was talking to and flinched a bit herself. “Uh, sorry Princess.”

Celestia, for her part, seemed utterly unperturbed. “Perhaps the Reef has changed since I last visited. It has been nearly three hundred years. But while I’m sure Morty can arrange to breathe water if the need strikes him, I have no reason to expect you’ll need to make such a journey.” Celestia nodded back to the vessel. “You were saying?”

Immediately, Tempest’s glee returned. “Well, I’ve heard of glass-bottom boats, but I’ve never seen the entire trough between the two catamaran pontoons made of glass like that—much less up through two floors in that sort of… common room space, I guess? I hope nopony’s afraid of heights, ‘cause you’ll be able to see straight through the floor to the ground.” Then she shot a side-eyed glance to Sunset. “I guess you’d be the only one, since the old mare and Stalliongrad are both pegasi.”

“The ‘old mare' and ‘Stalliongrad’?” Sunset asked.

“The other two,” Tempest clarified. “Somba-whatever and the guardspony.”

“Somnambula,” Sunset corrected. “It actually means ‘sleep-walking’.”

“And your other companion is Lieutenant Commander Red Ink,” Celestia provided.

“Look, I’ll get them down eventually,” Tempest told the other two ponies. “My last job had kind of a high turnover, so I’m not the best with names. Anyway, are you afraid of heights, Sunset? Or do you get skysick?”

“I ride BMX back home; I can handle a lot of motion.”

“BMX?” Tempest asked.

Sunset sighed. “Right… um… Imagine if you had a chariot that didn’t need to be pulled, and went as fast as a pegasus flies—”

“Nevermind,” Tempest interrupted. “Wizard crap, I don’t care. Come on, I’ll show you around inside. You can have second pick of bunk.”

“Is the glass actually safe to walk on?” Sunset asked as Tempest led the trio toward the gangplank up onto the ship. “I mean, like you said, I’ve heard of glass bottom boats—but there’s no water underneath this to support it. What if it cracks?”

Tempest cracked a grin, and then glanced around the porters and dockworkers, until at last she set her eyes on a small ballista—the sort one might mount as a turret just behind the prow of a ship for launching harpoons or boarding tethers. It was an utterly modern model, and like most of the goods being loaded on the airship, of the highest quality, with a ‘clip’ of harpoons that would automatically slot into place as their predecessors were fired, like the chu-ko-nu repeating crossbows of the ancient feline empires. The guardspony who was carrying it gasped as Tempest yanked the thing out of his grip, and then in a considerable display of upper body strength, rose up on her hind legs so she could balance the weapon like it were a standard hoof crossbow across both her forelegs. Sunset was still mid-gasp when, with a decisive twang, the string was yanked back and snapped violently forward.

Quite a few more screams echoed around the docks when the bolt bounced off the glass with nary a scratch. Unfortunately, the bolt seemed not to have lost much momentum from its deflection; it pinged back off the stone of the docks beside the ship, and then up against a steel keg full of the magically charged sludge which fuels an airship of the era. The bolt was about half a stride from the eye of an unfortunate dockworker when, abruptly, it was caught in an aura of powerful golden magic.

With a rather deliberate motion and a completely even expression, Celestia reloaded the bolt into the bottom of the ballista’s ‘clip’, and then telekinetically relieved Tempest of the weapon, passing it back to the same dockhoof whose life she had saved.

“I think a verbal description will suffice, Tempest,” Celestia noted.

Tempest swallowed hard. “Right… Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious now but the glass is magically hardened. The wood too, actually, and I’m guessing the balloon canvas as well, though I haven’t climbed up the rigging to dig around in there yet. I guess the point is, I could probably fly her through a dragon’s breath and the only thing she’d need on the other side is a new coat of paint. I don’t know if she’d hold up to a dragon’s claws, but since we aren’t covered in metal plating, good luck catching us.”

The three ponies made their way from the docks up onto the deck of the airship, though the moment she set hoof on the wooden planks, Sunset leaned her head over.

“What happened to not getting airsick?” Tempest teased.

“I’m not; I’m looking for the ship’s name.”

“It’s not there,” Celestia observed. “Are you superstitious about names, Tempest?”

Tempest rolled her eyes. “Anypony who tells you that luck has anything to do with running a ship doesn’t deserve the helm.”

“Good.” Celestia glanced across the numerous crates and barrels being loaded down into the ship’s hull. “Prince Blueblood called the ship The Monarch Butterfly. Under the Honor Guard, it was The Stormrider.

“Well, your guard are good for something,” Tempest muttered. “But we’re going with The Constellation.”

“Ooh, that’s a good name!” Sunset pulled herself back from the railing and strode over to the doors in the face of the sterncastle. “So the quarters are down here?”

“Everything’s down there,” Tempest answered. “It’s like a normal ship; just upside down because the primary helm is on the lowest deck. Keeps cargo close to the top deck though.” Then the mare with the broken horn turned to Celestia with a hesitant expression. “On that note: Princess, I saw you loaded us up with quite a few bits, but if we want to keep a low profile south of the Equestrian border, we’re going to need some more local money. Can we get some saddles? Or some tusks, if you have them?”

“I don’t think the treasury keeps much Suidan money on hand,” Celestia answered. “Relations with the boars have been thin for a very long time. But our trade with Saddle Arabia should make saddles more than attainable. I’ll arrange a supply for you. Sunset, if you’d like to figure out your place on the ship, I’m sure you and Tempest can keep each other company for a few minutes?” When Sunset nodded, Celestia’s horn burst into golden energy and she vanished entirely.

Well…” Sunset muttered. “She must really be in a hurry to talk to Morty.”

“What makes you say that?” Tempest led the way into the belly of what she had named The Constellation. Though the stairs behind the sterncastle led down a floor, Sunset quickly realized that the uppermost floor was dedicated not to quarters or common space, but storage. It took a turn and the revelation of a second flight of stairs for her to realize just how big The Constellation’s bowels really were.

“The Princess never teleports anywhere unless she’s in a huge rush,” Sunset explained. “When I was her student, and she first taught me how to teleport, I always asked her why we had to take the long way to get everywhere.”

“What’d she say?” Tempest asked.

“Well, she told me it was to teach me patience. Which… may have been true, but even when she’s not taking somepony else, she almost never teleports.” Sunset shrugged as both ponies rounded on a hallway flanked by six doors , but most notable for its completely transparent floor.

“Well, here we are; quarters. Mine’s the one all the way at the fore on the port side—uh, far end on the left, sorry. You’ve got your pick of the rest, but between you and me, you want starboard fore, across from me.”

“Why?”

Tempest answered by pushing open each door on the right side of the hall she passed, before finally revealing the room she’d suggested for Sunset; while it nearly looked identical to the others in most aspects, the fact that it was adjacent to the righthoof ‘pontoon’ of the catamaran shaped ship meant that there was considerably more room on its sloped fore-facing wall. “More space,” Tempest clarified. “Next floor down is the common spaces: two heads—that’s uh, bathrooms. The hot tub I mentioned. A couple couches, the galley and mess, and the main helm. Though if I’m honest, I’ll probably steer from topside.” Tempest shrugged. “What do you think?”

“It sounds more like a vacation than a secret mission,” Sunset answered with a shrug, wandering into her quarters and flopping down on the bed. “Ooh, this is comfy. No pegasus down beds on the other side of the mirror.” Tempest was frowning when Sunset met the other unicorn’s gaze. “Something bothering you?”

“I’m just having a hard time with… all this.”

“You still think it’s a suicide mission?” Sunset pressed.

“No. It’s one thing to get a bunch of specialists for something like that, but it’s another thing to throw so much money at making it comfortable…” Tempest waved her hoof. “Look, I know Celestia’s ‘the best pony in the world’ or whatever.” The phrase was accompanied by some of the heaviest hoof-quotes I have ever seen wielded. “But the last time somepony offered to heal my horn, I got stabbed in the back. And all this talk about some two thousand year old dead guy… it just makes my coat stand up, I guess.”

Sunset nodded. “That’s probably fair. If you’re looking for advice, though, I’d talk to Celestia about it honestly before we leave. Just ask her what’s on your mind; better than worrying the whole way. And honest is one of the Elements.”

“Yeah…” Tempest glanced back down the hallway. “Well, the dock ponies are good at their jobs, but I still ought to be keeping an eye on them.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

While she may have left in a grandiose show of magic, Celestia returned walking, and carrying a small safe under her wing the way a more… mortally challenged pony might heft a gym bag. “I assume The Constellation will work for you, Sunset?”

“Like I said to Tempest, it feels more like going on a vacation than a secret mission.” Sunset offered the comment with a joking smile, but when Celestia’s eyes fell on Tempest, the tension in the air was obvious.

“Something wrong, Tempest?”

Tempest grit her teeth and glanced to Sunset, who nodded supportively. “Can I be blunt, Princess?”

“Certainly.”

“Just… I don’t know what to make of all this, I guess. You’re giving us all this money and this fantastic airship, but we don’t even know where in Tartarus we’re going. All you gave us is something about a locket; do you have anything else to go on? If Morty really is still alive, why hasn’t he come back on his own?”

Celestia frowned at the question, and for just a moment Tempest feared she had pressed too hard questioning Equestria’s ruler. Or perhaps, just perhaps, Celestia sensed the deeper unvoiced concerns beneath the question. But then Celestia glanced over her shoulders at the dock workers, and her voice dropped to an almost conspiratorial whisper—and the airship captain realized that, just perhaps, she wished Celestia had been angry instead. “The last time we spoke, Morty and I had a disagreement about my sister.”

“If this book is anything to go by, that’s putting it mildly,” said Sunset. When Tempest raised an eyebrow, my successor continued “When Morty wrote this book, apparently Luna had ripped off like half of his head, and he was still… growing it in a jar, I guess?”

Nightmare Moon,” Celestia corrected. “But otherwise yes, what Sunset said is true. A thousand years ago, when I used the Elements of Harmony to banish Nightmare Moon, we knew the magic wouldn’t last forever. The Elements wouldn’t answer me until it was almost too late, and it was the last time they ever heeded my call. And, if we’re being honest, even if they hadn’t rejected me for what I had to do to Luna, I don’t know if I could have brought myself to renew the seals that bound her to the moon.”

“Morty fought Nightmare Moon?” Tempest asked. “How strong is this guy?”

Celestia chuckled, though it was a surprisingly sad noise. “Morty occasionally jokes that his special talent is dying. I needed time to try and ready the Elements, and he volunteered himself to stall her, knowing he didn’t stand any chance of actually beating her. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that he died to stall for somepony else’s plan.” With a shake of her head, even the sad smile fell from the alicorn’s face.

“We knew her imprisonment would fail, but we didn’t know how long it would take. Two hundred years ago when I last talked to him, we gathered together because some of the faculty at my school’s astronomy department accidentally worked out exactly when Nightmare Moon would break free. Since the Elements had rejected me, we knew we couldn’t repeat our strategy to deal with Nightmare Moon again. I proposed grooming one of my students to make the necessary friends to use the Elements in my stead.”

“Twilight and her friends?” Tempest asked.

Celestia glanced nervously to the orange mare at her side. “Well, to tell you the truth, Twilight was a… last minute replacement. At least, compared to the thousand year scale we had to plan.”

“Wait, me?” Sunset nervously placed a hoof on her chest. “You wanted me to fight Nightmare Moon?!”

Celestia nodded timidly. “I had been hopeful you might make the right friends. And judging by what I hear about the other side of the mirror, it seems I was right—you just needed more time than I had to wait. Regardless, things worked out.”

Barely, from the sound of it,” Tempest commented. “What would have happened if you were wrong?”

“Thanks to Starlight Glimmer and Twilight, I actually know.” Celestia swallowed nervously before elaborating. “Nightmare Moon would have defeated me and conquered the world, bringing about eternal night and tyranny over Equestria.”

I will note Celestia was misrepresenting how using time travel to create (or more accurately, travel to) ‘alternate timelines’ actually works. In her defense, it is almost without question the most complicated subject in the study of magic.

“You were betting that on Twilight Sparkle?” Tempest asked. “And she wasn’t even your first choice?!”

“I see you would have agreed with Morty, Tempest,” Celestia observed dryly. “In the Twilight War, Morty had suggested that we kill Nightmare Moon. He argued that even if Luna was innocent, it was wrong to ask thousands to lay down their lives trying to save her. And no doubt he was right... it would have saved many ponies' lives. But I couldn’t bring myself to try to kill Luna, and he was sympathetic to that.” Then Celestia closed her eyes. “When the threat of Nightmare Moon came around a second time, more recently, he was less understanding.”

“But… she’s your sister,” Sunset whispered, more to herself than to Celestia.

“In his eyes, I was risking millions of lives and the freedom of Equestria selfishly. And perhaps he was right… but I still couldn’t bring myself to try and kill Luna, and as history taught him, he couldn’t best her alone. So he set off to… well, not to put too fine a point on it, but to find some way to kill Nightmare Moon.”

“Okay,” Tempest nodded. “Phew; I thought you were just sending us off after some locket, like you mentioned in the throne room.”

“How is this better?!” Sunset asked. “At least the locket is a physical object, not some… assassination scheme! Honestly, Princess, I’m a little uncomfortable that when you were looking for somepony who could think along those lines, you thought of me. I would never want to murder Princess—”

Sunset found herself cut off when a voice behind her and somewhat above head level interjected. “I apologize, young mare, but may I cut in? I need a moment of my sister’s time.”

Sunset and Tempest both went somewhat pale as they turned to see the only outright war criminal ever to be benevolently given co-rulership of Equestria approaching them. Giving the bitch more of the benefit of the doubt than she deserves, I will assume for future readers that Luna hasn’t fallen back into the magical corruption of being Nightmare Moon once more, and trust that you know what she looks like.

If I’m wrong, and you dug this out of the ruins of Canterlot instead of being given it by Celestia, there’s a rather foolproof strategy for assassinating your new tyrant and liberating the world later in this book.

“Luna, this is Sunset Shimmer, a former pupil of mine. And I believe you’ll remember Tempest Shadow.”

Luna nodded briefly to Sunset, and then refrained from even that show of acknowledgement to Tempest, only glancing her way for a moment. “Thou’re—”

You’re,” Celestia interrupted.

Looking back to this moment with my magic, I confess to no small joy at watching the twitching of a vein on Luna’s temple. “You are keeping interesting company today, dearest sister whom I hope I might someday again refer to with the casual thou instead of approaching you like you are my social superior.”

“...what?” Tempest asked.

Sunset dropped her voice to a low whisper, explaining without interrupting the sister’s conversation. “About a thousand years ago, during the ‘Linguistic Golden Age’ when all the branch languages of Equiish started spreading, plain Equiish developed ‘thou’ as a more informal version of ‘you’, when addressing somepony in the second pony. I guess Luna’s still used to that, since she’s only been back a few years.”

“But the pegasus mare from the past—Somnawhatever—she doesn’t talk funny.”

“She’s from before the linguistic shift,” Sunset explained.

As the two unicorns spoke in hushed whispers, Luna had pushed on to her point with her sister. “Can we speak privately, Celestia?”

“We can,” Celestia answered. “But I do trust Sunset and Tempest enough to discuss most matters in front of them. Is it something personal?”

“It concerns our respective personal guards,” Luna replied. “And I am afraid I do not trust your former student, to say nothing of that one, to discuss affairs concerning my Night Guard.”

Tempest Shadow fairly took being called ‘that one’ rather personally, and bless her heart, she responded with poetic beauty. “Why? Because you don’t want everypony to know you keep a bunch of dead ponies as guards?”

Luna’s eyes quite literally flashed white with the power of her magic, though her rage quickly turned not toward Tempest, but Celestia. “You told her?!”

Celestia, for her part, gently massaged her temple with her wing. “Luna… Let me start at the beginning. You remember the request you made of me regarding Rainbow Dash and the incident with Masquerade?”

Luna’s glowing eyes faded, and her sneer dropped to a mere frown. “A poisoning is not something one easily forgets,” she observed.

“Wait, this world’s Rainbow Dash was poisoned?”

Luna scoffed. “No, Miss Shimmer. I was. And I do not desire to discuss the matter further. Assuming my sister has not already spread that matter across every renegade and runaway in Equestria.”

Celestia hung her head, shaking it in mild disappointment. “Luna, these young ponies are going to help me fulfill your request. I haven’t discussed present matters, both to respect your privacy and Miss Dash’s—so Tempest, Sunset, when you stop in Ponyville I will request you to kindly not bring up this conversation with her.” When both young unicorns nodded, Celestia turned back to her sister. “The fact of the matter is that I spent very little of the thousand years of your absence actually studying magic myself. I can’t do what you’ve asked. And if neither of us can manage, that only leaves one option.”

Luna frowned, furrowed her brow in thought, opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, frowned again—deeper this time—and then finally her eyes widened in realization. Then her furrowed brow wrinkled yet further. “Coil? I thought Sombra killed him.”

“He did,” Celestia agreed. “So did Chrysalis, and the Queen of Silk, and Grogar—”

“And you,” Sunset added, apparently without thinking.

Tempest’s eyes widened in shock and Celestia winced, though Luna answered largely with a look of confusion. “I don’t… Ah, I see.”

Though the slip seemed to have taken Celestia by surprise, a thousand years of rule had taught her nothing if not how to recover from such a shock quickly. “In order to help my sister work through the memories that led up to… her absence…”

“To my becoming Nightmare Moon,” Luna cut in. “I am not made of porcelain, sister.” Then Luna turned to the other mares present. “When the Bearers of the Elements freed me, I inflicted nightmares on myself as punishment for my actions. But even those nightmares threatened the lives of our ponies. Now, Sister and I are trying to work through my memories in a healthier way to avoid any risk of those events causing Equestria further struggles. Unfortunately, that means many of my memories of those days are still sealed away by magic.”

Out of respect for Celestia, I will not comment here on my opinion of said choices.

Celestia nodded to both Sunset and Tempest. “I’m sending them to try and find Morty; he hasn’t been back to Equestria in a very long time. To help them, I provided a few copies of Morty’s autobiography.”

Luna’s brow fell. “Ah. Don’t take it too seriously; Coil is an incessant braggart, and his ego borders on psychosis.” Then she glared at Tempest. “And you will not discuss the nature of my Night Guard with anypony.”

“Sure,” Tempest agreed, rolling her eyes. “It’s not like anypony’d believe me, anyway.”

“Good.” Luna nodded and her expression loosened. “Lieutenant Ink of your Honor Guard was interrogating some of my servants about their lives prior to joining the Night Guard.”

“Doesn’t that just mean ‘their lives’ at all?” Tempest asked.

Luna shot her a harsh glare, before returning her attention to her sister. “I normally forbid such interactions, but I assume his curiosity is related to this mission to locate Coil?”

Celestia nodded. “At least, I assume so. I didn’t put him up to it, but if the Lieutenant Commander believes there is something to be gained from speaking to the Night Guard, I would ask you to let him carry on.”

“What in Tartarus is Stalliongrad going to find?” Tempest asked. “You didn’t save your guards from before being Nightmare Moon, did you?”

“No; such a thing would be impossible even for my powers.” Luna scoffed. “Coil had such a trick to achieve such a feat, but even before I became Nightmare Moon, he hated the Night Guard.”

Tempest grit her teeth. “So they all, what, died in the last five years? How could any of them possibly have met Morty? Unless your Night Guard is all super old earth ponies, it seems stupid to me.”

“I am inclined to agree,” Luna replied with a nod. “But I am also going to give Lieutenant Ink the benefit of the doubt in this case, given our past experience with him in Ponyville.”

Celestia cocked her head. “Was that ‘our’ as in you and me, Luna, or was that the royal plural sneaking in again?”

Luna answered by turning around fully and ignoring the question. “I shall inform the Night Guard that they have my blessing to answer his questions.”

Celestia shook her head, but she wore a smile as she did it. “Sunset, why don’t you go with Luna and get to know Lieutenant Ink a little bit better? I’ll help Tempest with the last few preparations for your trip here.” Then, igniting her horn, she added. “I can hold on to your copy of Beginner’s Guide so you don’t have to keep dragging it around the palace.” And saying that without the slightest hint of deception in her voice, she took this tome and tucked it under her wing.

“Come, Sunset Shimmer,” said Luna as she began to walk away. “I am curious, as a former student of my sister, if you are the more alike to Twilight Sparkle, or to the target of your search.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

I’ll note briefly before continuing for curious readers: everything you need to understand about the events surrounding the attempt on Luna’s life are included in this tome you’re reading. That being said, if you do find yourselves curious for more details, I have included a reference for the report Celestia’s Honor Guard compiled following those events. It doesn’t hold up to my talents of narrative, of course, but I do have the unfair advantage of far, far more experience.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

After Luna and Sunset were out of earshot, Tempest turned to Celestia with a raised brow. “Let me get this straight, Princess: last time you talked to Morty, he outright told you he was going to try and kill your sister?”

Celestia nodded.

“And, what, a couple years ago somepony managed to poison Luna? And almost kill her, I’m guessing?”

The pale alicorn drew in a very long breath. “That is also true.”

“But we’re going after Morty to do some kind of favor for Rainbow Dash? Not because you think he’s gonna try and kill Luna again?” When Celestia didn’t answer, Tempest pressed. “Because it doesn’t seem like that’s a really hard connection to make to me.”

“If you don’t know Morty personally,” Celestia answered after a pregnant pause. “At worst, I could believe this was some kind of mistake, but he would never try to hurt Luna after the Elements worked.”

“You’re sure about that?” Tempest asked. “Ponies change. Especially over, what, two hundred years?”

Celestia sighed. “What do you want me to tell you?”

“What do you actually want out of this mission? I’m obviously enough muscle, to say nothing of whatever magic Sunset can do, that you don’t need to send your secret special guardspony too. Is he there to kill Coil if things go wrong? How much do I need to worry about this whole thing blowing up—?”

“Tempest Shadow, please stop.” Celestia then sat down, and massaged the bridge of her muzzle, and spent a good few seconds breathing. “I understand given your history with the Storm King that these are probably reasonable concerns, but that isn’t how I do things. Yes, there is some danger in this mission, because Morty almost constantly puts himself into situations that would be dangerous to anypony else. Morty himself is not one of them. Even if your suspicions are right, and Morty really has given in to a desire to kill Luna, he won’t murder innocent ponies to get to her. Whatever else I may or may not know, I’m certain of that.”

Celestia then dared to extend a wing, resting it on Tempest’s shoulder as she looked the mortal mare in the eyes, taking a moment to flick her ethereal mane out of the way and grant herself a rare moment of depth perception. “I don’t know if you think that I’m deluding myself, or if you think I know something I’m not admitting, or something else. The truth is I really don’t know what part Morty had to play in the attempt on my sister’s life. I know what I want to believe. I know what I expect. But I’m not all-knowing; I’m just old enough that I’ve gotten very good at guessing. As for why I didn’t tell all four of you before more plainly, that was for Somnambula’s benefit. Morty may have changed a bit from when she knew him centuries ago, but I don’t want her falsely expecting him to be a completely different pony. And once such seeds of doubt are planted, they can be very hard to dig up again.

“And, since you brought it up: whatever Morty might believe about assassinations, that isn’t how Equestria works. Yes, we have spies and keep secrets, and yes at the end of the day the Royal Guard is an army. I fully admit I’m hardly the beacon of Harmony that Twilight and her friends are; sometimes I conceal things or manipulate the truth to try and teach a lesson or achieve an end. One doesn’t rule a nation for a thousand years and remain quite that naive. But murder, or assassination, or whatever form such an idea takes, is beyond an uncrossable line for me. If Morty really was behind this attempt on my sister’s life, she and I will be the ones to deal with him, not you four. Whatever else your journey may entail, on that you have my word.”

Tempest broke away from Celestia’s firm gaze to offer a nod. “I… thanks, Princess. I guess that does sorta help.”

“Good.” Celestia smiled. “I cannot promise to answer any question you might have, but I won’t be offended if you ask them. All I ask is that, until I have a chance to talk to Morty face to face, please don’t speak of your suspicion with Luna. As she mentioned, we’re working through her memories of the dark times of her life slowly, in a safe and controlled way. Her memories involving Morty will come from the darkest of times near the end of the Twilight War, and I am not certain she is ready to face them yet.”

“Alright. I won’t talk to her.”

“You’ll have to be mindful, even in your dreams,” Celestia noted.

“I’ll try. I… wait, if Princess Luna can talk to anypony in their dreams—he doesn’t sleep, does he?”

Celestia chuckled and shrugged. “Either that, or he has some trick to keep her away. I never bothered to ask.” Then, releasing her wing from Tempest’s shoulder, she stretched her forelegs. “I suppose I should actually get to those final preparations like I told Sunset I would. Honest is an Element, after all.”

Tempest rolled her eyes, but there was a hint of a smile on her muzzle when she did. “Sure, whatever you’ve got to do.”

3 - The Little Red Lie

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III

The Little Red Lie

Far, far to the east of modern Canterlot, in the snowy wastes where the last of the three ‘Hearths Warming’ windigoes still smothers the land in eternal winter, a reader will find the ancient city of Stalliongrad. With its own language, completely removed from any of the other dialects common in Equestria, and its own strange government ruled by ‘Tsars’ alongside the proper noble titles like Dukes and Barons, many denizens of Equestria treat Stalliongrad as if it were a completely separate country.

The name ‘Stalliongrad’ comes from the draconic ‘Стольный град’ meaning ‘capital city’, because while it has never been the Equestrian capital, it was at one time called River Rock, the capital of the unicorn Diamond Kingdoms. For centuries, if not millenia, the dynasties of the so-called Five Wise Kings ruled over the unicorns (and de facto if not de jure the earth ponies as well) from the mighty turrets and grand halls of Burning Hearth Castle on the hill overlooking River Rock and the mighty Volgallop river. That continuity of rule survived crystal ponies and dragons and earth pony rebellions alike, until finally it met its match when King Lapis IV was slain, still sitting in his throne by an upstart pegasus: Cyclone, firstborn son of Commander Hurricane.

Hurricane won mercy for his son by pleading with Lapis’ only surviving foal, the then-young Platinum I. Instead of execution Cyclone was left to watch over the city he had won, trapped in the frozen wastes with his little cabal of loyal soldiers and those earth ponies and unicorns too old or infirm or just plain stubborn to make the long snowy journey to the land that would become Equestria. Bitterly, Cyclone’s new subjects gave him the title his father had abandoned—’Haysar’, the imperial title of the fallen pegasus empire of Cirra—as a constant reminder of the legacy he had failed to live up to.

What followed were lean decades spent struggling to build enough of an economy to even feed his new bitter subjects. Aid ultimately came in the form not of ponies, but dragons. With the help of a merciful Archmage Clover the Clever, Cyclone Haysar negotiated with the dragons for the aid of their fire magic to bring up heat from beneath the earth—heat enough, at least, that with the construction of great greenhouses, his subjects could grow their own food despite the winter and not live in constant fear that starvation was only a few missed shipments away.

Cyclone is remembered in most modern history texts by the draconic form of his name, Tsyklon. The name ‘Stalliongrad’ likewise, obviously, comes from the city’s negotiations with the dragons under his rule (and if Cyclone is the father of Stalliongrad, Celestia is surely its mother; her absurd fondness for that ridiculous pun is certainly the only reason the name stuck). But as for the title of Tsar, its origins come from what I hold is the most selfless action Cyclone ever took: a single careful lie he told on the same day of the Regency Day Massacre.

This tale begins the day before that fateful day, though, when Gale had only just become Queen Platinum and was due to first present herself to the Stable of Nobles, as a figure limped over the frozen surface of the Volgallop. Despite being summer in the northern hemisphere, the namesake river of River Rock (for Celestia had yet to have the ‘epiphany’ of its modern name) was frozen into a solid sheet. It wasn’t an uncommon event, but as I alluded earlier, it was a terribly dangerous one even for the ponies safe in their brick homes. Without shipments on the river to carry food from the warmer climes of Equestria, Cyclone had more than once found the city’s more desperate denizens turned to cannibalism.

Through that blizzard and over the river staggered a figure, lost and freezing and utterly snowblind. He knew nothing of his location; not the name of the river whose surface he followed by the hard slippery chill beneath his strides (for eyes were no use in the miles of blank white), nor the name of the city he approached, nor even that there was a city to approach. His blind hope was that, since water was usually warmer than ice, if he followed the river far enough, he might eventually find somewhere that the ice was cracked, and he might be able to slip into the warmer water below.

Our figure was… perhaps not the most clever of beings in history.

Fortunately, while his strategy would have led to a swift death if it had succeeded, where his wits were lacking, he found himself blessed with luck. Rather than a hole into which to dip and freeze himself to death, he found (with his face, no less) an upright tree trunk, apparently stripped of its bark by lightning. Surprised at the sight of such a tree in the middle of a river, he spread his considerable wingspan and—demonstrating his considerable strength simply by not being swept away at the strength of the blizzard—used it to heft himself up the tree in hopes of branches and greenery he might be able to fashion into some vestige of shelter. Or, at least, that was his hope. Half-frozen and stiff, it took three solid tries and at least one painful slip that bashed his belly and chin onto the ice before he found the right combination of purchase and wing strength to leap upward. By the time he succeeded, the insides of his feathers, previously keeping his core insulated, were crusted white with snow and utterly useless and keeping him warm.

What he found, instead of pine needles (and again, with his face) were clearly hoof-worked flat planks. For much like the idiomatic blind monk feeling an elephant’s trunk, our momentary hero had not stumbled on a tree at all, but one of the pillars of a dock jutting out into a frozen river. And while his rather birdbrained mind might not have understood the relationship between soaking one's fur and fatal hypothermia, he was, evidently, clever enough to recognize that a dock implied some form of civilization, and therefore some shelter. And so, after pulling himself up onto the dock—itself a rather violent and awkward motion—and getting a feel for the texture of the frigid boards beneath him (so as not to lose his place in the whiteout of the blizzard), he began to walk forward and called out “Hello?!”

Well, to be entirely correct, he actually called out “Salve?!”, speaking heavily accented old Cirran—not “Hello” in Equiish as we would be accustomed to the term. But since nearly all our subject’s dialogue in this Tale comes in the form of Old Cirran, and that language is largely considered dead (nevermind the irony of a ‘necromancer’ calling Cirran a ‘dead’ language), I’ll spare the reader the need to translate themselves, and use italics to indicate its speech—though I’ll do my best to note its use as well.

Soon, the ground beneath our subject’s stride turned from frozen boards to frozen cobblestones. “H-h-hello?” he shivered out in Cirran again, folding his wings tight against his sides and wishing he had any clothing whatsoever to speak of. And while I (rightly) make a bit of light of his intellect, in this case I can hardly fault the poor fellow; he had no idea that he ought to expect cursed eternal winter in the height of summer when he departed on the journey that found him on the frigid streets of River Rock that day.

Stuttering in the dead language of the pegasi, he cried out “An-n-n-yon-n-ne? P-p-please?

With the heat of his wings lost, white was beginning to fade in on the corners of his vision. And so it was, again, that luck saved the wanderer, for on the road he had stumbled upon, running along the riverside dock district of River Rock, there sat a little bakery whose central chamber was well alight with life and heat and the delectable smells of honey and baked bread and rich spices. And inside that bakery, a mare only a few years older than I was at the time happened by chance to hear the desperate cry of our wanderer over the howling of the wind.

Readers of my prior record may remember Lefse, my friend Blizzard’s only real friend in her former home of River Rock. For those who don’t, she was an earth pony baker named after a peculiar but delectable potato flatbread still popular in Stalliongrad today. Her recurrence, I assure you, is purely coincidence from the location of her family’s shop being located on the waterfront. Regardless, hearing a voice in need—even if she didn’t understand its cries, the combination of obvious shivering and the simple fact that no sane native of River Rock would be caught dead outside in such a storm—meant that she knew something was surely wrong. And so, after informing her grandfather that she hadn’t suddenly been stricken with snow-madness, she looped a length of rope around her stomach, threw on a blanket as a makeshift coat, and strode out into the storm.

“Is somepony there?” Lefse bellowed out into the storm from the doorway of the bakery.

Though the storm made sight nearly impossible, the light of lanterns and ovens still colored a part of the white storm a warm yellow tone for the wanderer. And to the credit of his incredible strength, not only did he answer “Can-n-n I please come…?” in Cirran, but he even managed nearly to carry himself into the door before the cold finally overtook him and he collapsed, just in view of the young earth pony mare.

“Holy Celestia!” shouted Lefse at the sight. “What—what is it?”

“Does it matter?” her grandfather answered, rushing over from behind the counter of the bakery. “He’ll freeze there in the doorway. Help me pull him in.”

And with that short exchange, the two earth ponies each grabbed one of the wanderers golden claws at the end of his forelegs, and tugged. First over the threshold came his yellow beak and his bald white head, covered in snow-covered feathers. Then came a sudden line where feathers gave way to tan fur. And finally, at the end of his body, a pair of shivering lion’s paws and a tail managed to just squeak in before Lefse hopped over the frigid creature and slammed the door shut.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Do you think he’s a monster, Lefse?”

Lefse shrugged. “I think he was speaking Cirran, Grandfather. When the storm settles, I’ll go up to the castle; maybe one of the guards will know more. For now, we should get him closer to one of the ovens; he’s freezing.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Like so many blizzards in the lands haunted by the last windigo, though storm conditions could last for days, the great blinding winds that made it impossible to safely venture outside without a rope soon ran out of loose powder to blow, and the storm grew drier, and while colder, also quite navigable. And so, with the wandering creature—for while readers might immediately recognize my description, his species was known firsthoof only to the most senior generation of Equestria’s pegasus population—with the creature still asleep, Lefse departed the bakery bundled in two layers of scarves, coats, boots, and hats bound for Burning Hearth Castle.

Unlike the enlightened rule of Equestria, Cyclone was not the sort of ruler who generally held anything like ‘open court’ or really generally interacted with his subjects at all. Instead, his commands reached the populace by way of his extensive military—and though that ruling style would certainly have been seen as a harsh military dictatorship had he had any particular cruel ambitions, in practice the extent of his orders were largely ‘don’t eat each other’ and ‘ration your food’ and ‘behave yourselves’. So, instead, while the populace of River Rock that weren’t his soldiers generally hated him, it was a very vague, rather disassociated hate. In practice, there was a whole generation of young ponies in River Rock who had never even seen Cyclone the Traitor, and certainly had never heard the stallion give an impassioned speech or lead a military parade.

Lefse was one such young pony. Hence she was very much surprised when, halfway through describing the creature in her family’s bakery to one of the guards at the entrance to the castle, he had cut her off, and at spearpoint, demanded that she swear on pain of death she was telling the truth. Then quite terrified, as she attested to the truth of her story, she had been led directly past not only the gate guard, but even one of the guard officers, and directly up to a pair of huge iron doors, partway melted open so that even fully closed, they might offer a tall pony a glimpse into the room beyond. The guard escorting her muttered something in Cirran to the two guards flanking that pair of doors, and with considerable effort, the three soldiers together pushed open enough of a walkway for her to enter.

When she walked through, the guard who had threatened her didn’t follow.

The room beyond the doors was the throne room, as it had been for every unicorn monarch dating back to the capital fortress’ construction, and as it now was for Cyclone. And though he sat in the throne, letting his red crippled wing, scarred from the very day his rebellion had failed, hang over the edge of his chair, I fully suspect that anypony walking up to Cyclone would have recognized him as a leader even if were seated on a three-legged wooden stool.

How does one describe Cyclone? Perhaps I shall start by observing that I was neither the first nor the last pony to, upon first meeting him, wonder aloud whether or not his father, Commander Hurricane, had at some point in his youth copulated with a she-bear and passed the foal off as his own. In addition to his prodigious size and bulky build, Cyclone wore a full beard of bristly black hair that, together with his overgrown mane, only further emphasized his size. And, of course, beside his throne one could see his hoof-forged sword Infernus (a Cirran synonym for Tartarus, though I’m told most ponies translate it ‘hellfire’) resting where it could be easily retrieved in the event somepony needed to be bisected the long way—the sword being roughly the length of a sizeable oar, and the width of an average pony’s torso.

Lefse immediately blanched as the tyrant’s eyes leveled on her, smoldering like coals between his thick black eyebrows and the base of his muzzle. “Who are you?”

“Lefse, sir. Uh… Emperor Cyclone. Sir.”

Cyclone let his heavy brow cover his eyes and exhaled once through his nostrils. “My father is still the Cirran Emperor, no matter how much he might pretend otherwise. You may call me ‘Commander Cyclone’, Lefse.” Then, with another notable pause, he reopened his eyes. “You are my daughter’s friend? The baker?”

“Ah, yes!” Lefse smiled. “That’s me, Commander Cyclone. Blizzard’s friend.”

“Blizzard has left River Rock,” Cyclone told her. “She went to Everfree City to be with the rest of our family. I do not know when she will return; I’m sorry.” With a rather dismissive flick of his good wing, Cyclone nodded toward the doors behind the earth mare.

“Yeah. Um, I mean, yes, sir. Blizzard told me before she left. I’m, um, not here about her.” Lefse swallowed.

“Then why are you here?” Cyclone asked.

“Well… I don’t really know, sir.” When Cyclone’s brow lowered toward a skeptical glare, Lefse winced. “I mean, I came to the castle to talk to a guard. And he sent me in here. But I don’t know why the creature is so important that I needed to talk to you. But he threatened me with a spear about whether I was making it up or not, and—”

“Stop,” Cyclone ordered, and immediately Lefse fell into silence. Nodding in approval at her obedience, he instructed her “Start at the beginning.”

“Right. Sorry. So, during the storm a little bit ago, my grandpa and I were working at our bakery, and we heard a voice in the storm, like somepony had gotten lost outside. And it was speaking Cirran, which I don’t actually speak, but you know somepony caught out in a blizzard can freeze really quickly, so I tied a rope around me and put on some warm clothes and went out to see if I could find him.”

“Brave,” Cyclone commented with a single nod. “And commendable.”

“Th-thanks,” Lefse noted. “Well, I did find him. But he wasn’t a pony. Grandpa didn’t know what he was either, and he passed out from the cold before he could even get inside; we had to drag him in. But he’s really big, like bigger than even a big earth pony. Or even you, Commander sir.”

“A giant pony?” Cyclone asked with a raised brow.

“No; I don’t think he’s a pony at all. He’s, um, got a bird’s head. And front legs. And his back is like… I guess like a cat, kind of? I mean, I’ve never seen a cat with a tail like that, but—agh! Did I say something wrong?! Please don’t hurt me!”

Lefse’s abrupt declaration there at the end stemmed from Cyclone physically hurling himself out of the throne with his forelegs, and then pausing only to sling his enormous blade over his shoulder.

“No, Lefse. You did well to report this.” He took two strides forward, and then bellowed at the young mare—or rather, she realized a moment later, past her. “Guards, fetch Imperator Sirocco. Have her meet us at the gatehouse.”

“Us?” Lefse asked. “Wait, sir, are you going to kill him?”

“I don’t intend to, yet.” Cyclone answered. “But no wise Cirran trusts a griffon without a sword at his side.”

“A griffon?” Lefse asked. “What does that mean?”

Cyclone didn’t answer her more than gesturing with his good wing for her to follow as he walked straight past her toward the partly melted iron doors of his throne room. While they had been quite the obstacle for his guards, to his beastly physique they presented little obstacle.

Lefse followed closely after Cyclone, wondering all the while what she had gotten her family into, but not daring to voice her hundred curiosities out of a quiet terror of the mysterious ruler and his infernal sword. So instead, back through the halls of the castle she followed, rushing after his formidable stride. And though in truth the throne room of Burning Hearth is only a few hallways removed from its gatehouse, with her heart pounding and her hooves nearly at a gallop to match Cyclone’s stride, Lefse felt the trek took nearly a day.

Waiting in the icy wind just outside the gatehouse was a figure Lefse did recognize, if only from a distance. Cyclone’s right hoof in ruling River Rock was his second-eldest daughter, Legatus Legionis Sirocco. Wearing a coat of burnt orange that nearly matched her father’s red, she cut a slimming and imposing image clad in steel armor painted black that was certainly reminiscent to the Equestrian imagination of the day of her grandfather’s magic-eating black armor. Over it, however, the mare had wrapped herself in a crimson sash, the same color as her father’s coat. But perhaps most notable in her appearance was the way that she managed to don an expression of mild scorn for her surroundings while still holding to strict military discipline in her posture.

“You summoned me, Commander?”

Cyclone nodded. “This is Lefse; Blizzard’s friend.”

“What would I want with that traitor’s friend?” Sirocco snapped, openly glaring in Lefse’s direction.

Disappointment swept over Cyclone’s expression. “Your sister is not a traitor, Sirocco.”

“Blizzard isn’t my sister,” Sirocco replied, though she deigned not to meet her father’s disappointed look eye-to-eye. What she had said was true, if only in a technical sense; my friend Blizzard and Sirocco were only half-sisters—both Cyclone’s daughters, but to different mothers. And in all fairness, both in temperament and appearance the two could not be further apart.

Evidently, the matter of the griffon weighed more heavily on Cyclone than settling the differences of his foals, as he let the comment pass unchallenged. “A griffon has come to River Rock, Sirocco. Lefse’s family found him in the storm that just passed. I would like you to accompany me. Depending on what happens, I may need someone I can trust with a working pair of wings.”

“A griffon?” Sirocco gasped. “From Dioda?”

“I would assume so,” Cyclone answered with a shrug. “I have never met one either, daughter. We shall have to see if it is a scout for Magnus.”

“What is a griffon?” Lefse asked.

“You don’t know, peasant?” Sirocco asked. “The griffons are the ancient enemy of Cirra. They’re the reason Cirra crossed the sea to come here in the first place. And someday, Father will return and take back—”

Enough,” Cyclone cut his daughter off, and for just a moment, flames danced over his good wing before he restrained his pegasus magic. “My ambition was my folly, Sirocco; not something to be admired. Your grandfather was right; reigniting war with Magnus would be a mistake, even if Equestria were behind us—and if we are the ones who ignite war, they won’t be. Which is why we will not harm the griffon—at least, not unless he gives us cause.” Gesturing down the road with his wing, Cyclone nodded his head to Lefse. “Lead the way.”

Lefse nodded. “Yes, Commander, sir.” Swallowing, she took her place ahead of and between the two armed pegasi, and her hooves clicked on the road as she traveled into the winds of eternal winter. “The bakery is down by the docks.”

“He must have followed the river,” Cyclone observed.

“Or he has a map,” Sirocco suggested. “And he just got lost because of the whiteout storm. How do we know this griffon hasn’t already scouted River Rock?”

“We don’t,” Cyclone answered dryly. Then, to Lefse’s surprise, he stepped up beside her. “You’re cold?”

Lefse hadn’t even noticed the chill, as focused as she was on the discussion of the threat of war; she only realized the fact when she followed Cyclone’s gaze beside her and realized her teeth were chattering. So she gave the tyrant a brief nod.

Cyclone answered by extending his good wing over her back—not wrapped over her, but held aloft a solid hoof above her back. And then, with an audible crackle, his feathers burst into flame. The sudden appearance of fire arrested Lefse’s stride, though Cyclone shook his head and nodded forward. “The fire is my magic; it won’t burn you unless I want it to. Lead on.”

Though his phrasing was perhaps less than comforting, Lefse had to note that a fire hovering above her back, combined with Cyclone’s considerable frame breaking the wind at her side, really did cut back on the chill of the frozen air. So, as she walked on, Lefse had to admit how strange it felt, after having never even seen her ruler in the flesh before, to be walking the street at his side and under his literally flaming wing.

Less comforting were Cyclone’s directions as the trio approached the bakery. “Lefse, when we arrive, you will lead your family to another room. Sirocco, hold your tongue; I will be the only one to speak to the griffon. Even if he threatens me, do not draw your blade unless he draws my blood.” After some silence, as the trio rounded the corner to walk along the docks, where the bakery’s door was a mere few strides away, he finished “Do I make myself clear?”

“Y-yes,” Lefse answered.

“Crystal, sir,’ Sirocco replied.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

It came as some amusement, at least to me, that despite the ruler’s concerns about secrecy, the griffon was still quite asleep when Cyclone arrived in the bakery. And so, after a moment consoling and dismissing Lefse’s grandfather that nothing they had done was wrong, and that it was the griffon who had attracted Cyclone’s personal attention and not the family who saved him, the ruler of River Rock sent his second-eldest daughter and right hoof to retrieve a covered wagon, a Cirran legion medicus—essentially, a field doctor—and an old unicorn apothecary who had refused to abandon River Rock. All, it seemed, would be needed for the griffon, whose wingtips were missing feathers, and the flesh beneath blackened with frostbite, and whose paws and talons alike seemed a ghastly pale gray even with the heat of the bakery. Cyclone’s only grim command to the bakers as he left the bakery was that they were not to speak whatsoever of what they had witnessed until they heard otherwise from the city’s guards.

Transporting the griffon back to Burning Hearth Castle was handled with considerable care and paranoia, though ultimately there was little need for it. The ponies of River Rock knew better than to stick their noses into the affairs of Cyclone and his family—and even beyond that, though the whiteout effect of the storm had passed, it wasn’t as though anypony enjoyed the freezing temperatures long enough to linger in the streets just to gawk at a passing wagon, even if Cyclone himself walked alongside it.

So it was that, a full six hours after he passed out on the threshold of the bakery, the griffon wanderer stirred and yawned, and found himself surprised to be covered by a thick quilt, resting in a bed of straw with his head on a pillow of the same dry material.

“I see you are awake.” Cyclone’s rough voice drew the griffon’s attention immediately, though it carried with it a look of confusion.

“I… y-yes.” Even under his quilt, there was a slight trembling shudder to the griffon’s words. “Y-you prefer Cirran or… this?”

“Whichever,” Cyclone muttered indifferently, before switching tongues. “I speak Cirran.” With a sideways nod to Sirocco at his side, he added “As does she.”

The griffon smiled at that. “I was told it was p-proper to greet you in Cirran, if-f-f— If you have never heard a beak chatter in cold, it is a curious noise. Letting his head flop back against his pillow, the tercel breathed a sigh and focused himself.

“You will not come to harm here,” Cyclone assured. “Rest. I will send soup.”

“No, w-wait!” The griffon pulled himself to at least sit upright in his bed. “My message.”

“Griffon, you were frozen on Garuda’s threshold… or whatever griffon god sees to you when you die. My medicus assures me you will survive, but when your health is more stable, you have frozen tissue that needs to be removed or it will rot and infect you.” Cyclone nodded to the bed. “So lay down, spare your strength, and your message will still be here when you are more fit to speak.”

Artorius stubbornly shook his head. “I am sworn as a knight to deliver this message first. My name is Artorius, son of Theod. Thank you for saving me from the cold. When I am well, I will repay you. Please, forgive me for being in a rush, but it is urgent that I speak with Emperor Hurricane.”

Cyclone drew a short breath and then let out a long sigh—I suspect being more dramatic than he actually felt, given what followed in perfect Cirran. “Artorius, my father died some years ago. I am the Emperor of Cirra now: Gladioprocellarius Kyklon Haysar.”

More as a fact of historical amusement than necessity of understanding: Cyclone’s Cirran name was not actually Cirran at all, but the Nimban Kyklon—owing to fact that his mother, Swift Spear, was herself half-Nimban, and wanted to compromise the naming of her first foal between her own heritage and Hurricane’s family’s longstanding tradition of naming all their foals after generally foul weather.

Sirocco shot her father a sideways glance, which in a testament to the giant pegasus’ poker face, he didn’t even acknowledge with a glance of his own.

Nervously, Artorius shrunk back in his bed. “Oh, forgive me, Emperor Cyclone; I didn’t know.”

Cyclone answered by steepling his hooves, switching back to more casual Equiish and loosening his shoulders. Why are you here, Artorius? What message did you carry for my father that means so much to you?”

“My mother, Aela, has led a long rebellion against Emperor Magnus’s tyranny. But we have run out of knights and swords, and we will soon run out of food.”

Cyclone scowled. “I will not drag Cirra into another war.”

“I’m not asking you to, Emperor,” Artorius answered, rolling forward onto his claws and paws, before bowing his head low toward Cyclone. “We’re only asking for shelter. Somewhere to escape Magnus, as Emperor Hurricane years ago.”

Sirocco let out a cruel laugh, and despite Cyclone’s outright glare, she spoke up. “A griffon begging Cirra for shelter? What’s next? Will you pray to Mobius for mercy instead of your griffon gods?”

“I…” Artorius swallowed, and despite being bedridden, braced his shoulders as if he were prepared to come to blows with Sirocco… or at least, to indicate he didn’t fear her. “I had hoped Emperor Hurricane would be here. When I was just a hatchling, he and my father fought side-by-side as allies.”

This time, Sirocco was not amused. Her wings flared. Cyclone raised a hoof to silence his daughter—not that she heeded it in the slightest, stepping forward with murder in her eyes. “Grandfather may not be here, griffon, but don’t think that means you can lie to us about him. There were no griffons on our side in the Red Cloud War.”

Cyclone sighed. “Imperator, not only are you out of order, but you are also wrong.” Gently flicking his good wing downward in her direction toward the floor—as one might when ordering a dog to sit—he added “You will not speak again.” Then, returning his attention to Artorius, the tyrant of River Rock leaned forward. I take it from the fact that you have a Cirran name and a white head that your father was one of the Canii?”

“Dogs?” Sirocco asked, her rage tempered by confusion. “Father, are you calling him a bitch in Cirran?”

Cyclone opted for a curious and rare display of emotion by rolling his eyes. “The Canii were a group of griffons who served Cirra instead of Gryphus in our wars. They were used as auxilia, and often on dangerous high-risk maneuvers, but they were renowned through Cirran history as a powerful fighting force, combining the strength of griffon bodies with the discipline of the Legion.” Cyclone then turned to Artorius. “Most had white feathers like Artorius, and yellow-tan fur. And unlike most griffons, they took Cirran names—as Artorius is.”

Artorius smiled. “Thank you for believing me.”

“I didn’t say that,” Cyclone warned. “Though my Imperator spoke out of turn and in ignorance, she is right that my father never fought alongside the Canii. He served in the eighth legion offensive up to Hengstead… and of course he couldn’t have after that.”

Artorius quirked a brow. “Why not?”

Cyclone hesitated a moment, and then sighed. “Because the Eighth Legion had just reached Hengstead when Emperor August ordered the Legion to exterminate the Canii auxilia, along with all griffon slaves in Cirra, and all griffons in conquered lands. His idea of a fair punishment…”

Artorius winced, and glanced nervously to the side where he saw Sirocco smiling at the uncomfortable note of Cirran history, before turning his attention back to Cyclone. “My mother told me a bit about that history, but I didn’t know the timing of the offensives. I, um, I’m only twenty four; I wasn’t alive during the war. But, uh, both my parents were in the auxilia—though I get my Canii colors from my mother.” Taking a moment to swallow, seemingly to center himself, Artorius continued “We only met Emperor Hurricane later—twenty years ago or so, when he and the goddess Celeste came back to Dioda.”

“Grandfather never went back to Dioda!” Sirocco snapped. “He’s too much of a gods damn coward to take back Cirra!”

Cyclone turned in his seat so that his good wing could point at the door. Tongues of flame licked along his feathers. His eyes glowed like molten iron, and there was no kindness to be found in them. “Wait,” he ordered.

With a sour look on her face Sirocco stalked over to the door of the small castle bedroom. Still, defiantly, she took a parting moment in the doorway to turn over her shoulder and glare at Artorius before she finally slipped from view.

Cyclone turned back to Artorius and once more steepled his hooves. “While you are here, you will not speak of my father’s return to Dioda. If you do, I will kill you, and tell whoever sent you that you never arrived. I am the only pony alive besides Celeste… and now my daughter... who knows.”

Having stood on the other end of a death threat from Cyclone, I can sympathize with Artorius’ nervousness, pulling his avian neck back in a way that ruffled up the feathers of his ‘bald’ white head. “O-of course. I apologize. I did not realize it would cause such a problem.”

“It will not cause a problem once I speak to Sirocco. Bringing more griffons here will cause much more of a problem than airing my father’s secrets…” Cyclone frowned and leaned forward, until Artorius could smell his breath in the air. “I cannot take your story on faith, Artorius. For the time being, I will have to assume you are a scout serving Emperor Magnus, come to finish off the last remnants of the Cirran Empire. Fortunately for you, my father left considerable records from his time ruling what remains of Cirra.” Artorius breathed a small sigh of relief at that revelation. “Unfortunately, he kept them with a heavy cipher. And while I know how to decode them, the process is time consuming—especially when I do not know what volume will hold the relevant story. Until I have time to determine the truth, you will stay here.”

“I understand,” Artorius answered. “How long do you think it will take?”

Cyclone glanced to the door, closed his eyes for a few moments, and then answered “Three weeks at the longest.”

“If that is what it will take. I’m at your mercy, Emperor Cyclone, but I have to beg you to hurry. Magnus would love nothing more than to kill the rest of my family and friends while they wait for my answer.”

Cyclone nodded. “We shall see.” The crippled, but brutally powerful pegasus rose from his chair and took two solid strides toward the door before pausing. “To be clear, if my father’s records do not echo your story, I will kill you. So before I go, is there anything else you would like to add?”

Artorius swallowed. “No, sir.” As Cyclone took another step toward the door, he called out again. “Er, that is—”

With his face turned away from the griffon, Cyclone grinned a predator’s smile.

“When I was in the storm, there was a… a pony hen? What do you call your females?”

Cyclone turned and raised a brow. “The word is ‘Mares’. You mean the baker?”

Artorius smiled and nodded. “If she is the one who first saved me from the storm. I would like to meet her, and do something to repay her for saving my life—if that is acceptable. Under whatever restrictions you see fit, of course. But I am a knight, and it would help me to feel like I had kept up my honor if I could thank her.”

Cyclone chuckled, seeming genuinely surprised at the innocence of the griffon’s request after his attempt at a parting threat. “I will make arrangements for one of my offspring to accompany you when you are well enough to walk. But do not try to flee.” Artorius’ eyes widened in shock, and the pegasus shook his head. “A griffon may outfly a pegasus in a straight line, but even if you did escape, you can hardly cross the ocean back to Dioda without supplies. And I imagine you don’t even know the right direction.” With a brief gesture toward the griffon’s bed, Cyclone concluded “Rest now. You must be tired. I’ll have some food sent up. For now, do not try to leave this room.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Though Cyclone seemed pleased to find Sirocco still waiting in the hall when he left Artorius’ chamber—one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of guest suites in the halls of Burning Hearth Castle leftover from its time as the capital of the Diamond Kingdoms—he said nothing to her as he passed. His only indication in her direction was a flick of his good wing to signal that she follow him.

The two pegasi ultimately made their way to what had once been some unicorn monarch’s parlor for card games—a room which Cyclone had converted into, for want of a better term, a map chamber. The card table had been replaced by an elaborate wooden topographical map of the lands of the former Diamond Kingdoms, stretching from Neighvgorod and Arkhayngelsk in the far north all the way down to the Castle of Midnight in the south…

Forgive me; for those who don’t know what will someday be called ‘the history of the Twilight War’, but which I would still classify as ‘current events’, the location where I lost half my face still holds a special place in empty space beside my open skull where my memories would normally be stored. (Since somepony will inevitably be wondering: the brain and the soul both store memories, albeit in very different ways. I’m cheating a bit, double-dipping in the latter to make up for the absence of the former.) The Castle of Midnight was once the fortress of Tirek, ‘The Centaur’ you hear about in foals stories and sermons. More recently, it is where the final battles of the Twilight War took place.

In more ancient and relevant history, the map on the table was a masterpiece, though far from the only notable feature of the room. When Queen Platinum I and her servants had taken what they wanted from the structure, though they saved a considerable number of portraits, they left behind the largest and most ornate picture frames—the ones too metallic and too heavy to be worth making the long and frankly dangerous trip across miles of winter wasteland on the way to Equestria’s sunnier shores. Thus, being left with dozens of elaborate empty picture frames, Cyclone had repurposed them as holders for maps of the various cities in his newfound holdings. Opposite the door to the room was a beautifully painted map of River Rock proper, while the side walls were covered with carefully but less beautifully traced charcoal diagrams of the other cities in the territory.

In the center of the room as Cyclone and Sirocco entered was a third pegasus, slightly younger than the latter of the pair. In color, he was the spitting image of Cyclone’s sister, Commander Typhoon: a lanky, middle-sized tan pegasus stallion. His mane and tail were, like hers, tri-colored in the tones of autumn leaves: brown and orange-red and a golden yellow—at least, as much as one could see it. Very much unlike Typhoon, he wore his mane so short as to make one suspect he might be going bald at the ripe young age of sixteen.

Removing a pair of reading glasses from his muzzle and stowing them on the collar of his steel lorica segmentata armor, he asked a single simple question to the approaching pegasi: “Father or Commander?”

“Both matter today, Prelate Maelstrom” Cyclone answered. “And for the time being, at least in front of our guest, it will be best to address me as ‘Emperor’.” When Maelstrom recoiled, Cyclone nodded. “I don’t like it either, but it is the least of our necessary evils today. Sirocco, shut the door.”

Cyclone, like his father before him, had embraced a certain… overt nepotism in naming officers to his highest military titles—a pattern that was not common in greater Cirran history, lest any ambitious historian infer too much from this text. Hurricane justified the practice by the (probably reasonable at the time) inference that a young Cyclone would one day succeed him, and that military leadership was far more important to a Cirran leader of that era than it had been to emperors of the older, more decadent empire. For Cyclone, the matter was more pragmatic: following his rebellion, Cyclone had two Imperators and four Praetorian Prelates before he had given the titles to his offspring. All four had died violently; half, by Cyclone’s own hoof, after failed usurpation attempts.

Family, at least as far as the history of our story, had proven both more loyal and more permanent—though it did lead to some distance between father and foals.

As Sirocco silently obeyed her father’s order, Cyclone took a seat, and then spared a moment to adjust his crippled wing so that it would lay comfortably against one of the chair’s arms. Only once he was settled, and once Sirocco had likewise had a chance to sit around the table, did the pegasus father continue. “I assume you heard about our visitor?”

“The griffon scout?” Maelstrom nodded. “The fact that you walked down the street with Blizzard’s friend and came back with a covered wagon is making quite the stir; maybe more than just admitting the griffon’s existence would. Do you think more will follow?”

“He outright told us so,” Sirocco answered. Cyclone shot his daughter a sideways glance for her speaking up so aggressively, but without the strength of condemnation he had offered in Artorius’ presence. To Sirocco, that evidently meant she had tacit permission to continue. “He claims he wants to bring another group of griffons to keep them safe from Magnus.”

“They could be spies,” Maelstrom observed.

“They’re obviously going to be spies,” Sirocco countered. “Commander… Emperor… Look, Father, permission to speak freely?”

“You didn’t seem to need it a moment ago,” Cyclone observed.

Again, Sirocco took that light chastisement as permission to continue. “I don’t know why you’re giving him the time of day. No pegasus has been back to Dioda since the Red Cloud War. And if we know he’s lying to us, it’s obviously because he’s a spy for Magnus.”

Cyclone closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “That isn’t true, Sirocco. Before you were born… It was only perhaps four, five years after ‘Hearth’s Warming’.” Cyclone spat the increasingly favored name of the holiday with all the vitriol of the villain of a foal’s rhyme-laden parable about charity. “I think you may have been a year old; your grandfather came here with Lady Celestia and…” Cyclone’s already rather negative face took on not only a deeper frown, but also seemingly ten years of age. “…nevermind.”

Maelstrom and Sirocco exchanged a glance I saw many times in my youth, shot between Gale and Tempest. While I would normally be tempted to call it a ‘universal sibling experience’, there aren’t many parents in the world like Cyclone and Hurricane, and I suspect the average potter or baker or chandler lacks the kind of dark secrets to make such an exchange common. Regardless, it was evidently common enough for Cyclone’s 2nd and 3rd foals, just as it was for Hurricane’s 3rd daughter and his grandson (and, though I haven’t confirmed it, I suspect for Cyclone himself and Typhoon, in their respective youths).

“Father had just lost his wing; the wound was still rather ugly, and whatever took it had poisoned him. They were headed to Dioda to find Luna. Celestia believed Luna would know the cure.”

“Grandfather found the goddesses by going back to Dioda?” Maelstrom frowned. “Why didn’t they help us in the Red Cloud War? Celestia and Luna, I mean. If Magnus is truly the griffon god, why didn’t they involve themselves?”

“I do not know,” Cyclone answered. “It would be a question for your grandfather. When they returned to Equestria, they did not stop in River Rock. I don’t know if what Artorius claims about Father befriending griffons is true or not, but it is hardly beyond the realm of reason.”

“Why did you lie about Grandfather being dead?” Sirocco asked.

“To protect Equestria,” Cyclone answered. “If we do allow Artorius to go back to Dioda, I want him to believe the Compact Lands are all that’s left of Cirra.”

Maelstrom cocked his head. “You believe Magnus won’t attack us here, but he would attack Equestria?”

“As Father told me, the one time he spoke on the subject, Magnus is a creature of overwhelming pride,” Cyclone answered. “Equestria would be a much more tempting target than a frozen wasteland with a starving population and virtually no resources. And if ‘Emperor Hurricane’ is dead, there are no grudges left from the war…” Cyclone chuckled to himself. “I will have to find a way to mention in passing that Iron Rain is dead.”

“Who’s Iron Rain?” Sirocco asked.

Maelstrom shook his head dismissively. “Are you illiterate, Imperator, or do the words just drain out of your ears as you go?”

Sirocco gritted her teeth at her brother. “Listen, little Prelate—”

“Enough,” Cyclone interrupted. “We are a family, not bickering senators. Shame on both of you.” Then, with a shake of his head, he turned to Sirocco. “Iron Rain was my mentor in swordsmareship, a lifetime ago. But more importantly, if the story she tells is true, she is the only pony besides your grandfather to have survived facing Magnus in combat.”

Both younger ponies gasped. “Grandfather fought Magnus?!”

Cyclone snorted heavily and smiled just a little—it was as close a noise as the stallion seemed to allow himself to actually laughing. “If the story can be trusted, yes—I’m sure you’re both imagining all the stories the other legionaries tell about him bucking bolts of lightning and walking through dragon fire, but this isn’t like that. Even the parts of those stories that are true are from after we came here, and pegasus magic became more than a Nyxian mercenary’s secret. He was just a rank-and-file centurion, and the battle was just a chance meeting. And even then, he would have been slaughtered if it weren’t for your grandmother, Swift Spear, and his friend Silver Sword coming to save the day.”

Maelstrom nodded. “So if Magnus believes both Grandfather and this Iron Rain to be dead, and Cirra to be just a bunch of frozen cities on the verge of collapsing, you’re sure that’s a good enough reason for him not to care about us?”

“I hope,” Cyclone answered. “I can only hope. If the griffons do come, we can't fight them without Equestria’s help. And I can’t be sure they will come. So we have to do everything we can to appear beneath Magnus’ notice.”

Standing up, Cyclone made his way over to a cupboard set just below one of the maps on the wall. From one of its drawers, he retrieved a sheet of parchment and an inkwell. Combined with a red feather plucked from his bad wing, it gave him a complete writing set. He set the parchment on a particularly flat plain of the topographical map table and, demonstrating a somewhat frightening skill at multitasking, began to write as he continued to speak to his foals.

“Maelstrom, I’m entrusting Artorius into your custody. You should be better able to deal with him if he suddenly takes flight than I can with my bad wing.”

“What difference would it make, if he’s confined to the palace?” Maelstrom asked.

“He isn’t,” Cyclone answered. “When he’s well enough to walk, you’re to take him back to the bakery where Blizzard’s friend lives… you know the place, by the docks? Let him see the rest of the city too—closely supervised, though.”

Maelstrom’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “What? Commander, with respect, why?”

“Because we want him to see River Rock is half-starved and falling apart,” Sirocco answered with more than a hint of snideness. “It would be weird if we just told him that; nopony talks that bad about their own land even if it’s true. Maybe books just tell you everything, but that’s not how real life works. Like most things you read in books.”

Maelstrom rolled his eyes. “I see. What should I do to ensure his wanderings don’t expose the existence of Equestria?”

“You are my Praetorian Prelate,” Cyclone answered. “Direct your troops ahead of you, and have them give strict orders to whoever Artorius is going to speak to. And if necessary, lie to him. You’re a creative colt, Maelstrom. But I doubt there will be much risk; our weather century expects the storm to last another few days, if not into next week. Ponies aren’t likely to be out for chance encounters.”

“As you command,” Maelstrom replied, hesitantly. “I’m not certain if I’m confident in risking him catching wind of the truth on what three ponies are guessing about the weather.”

“You sure you want him watching a griffon?” Sirocco puffed up her scrawny teenage shoulders: it should be noted she had quite the defined musculature for a mare her age, but she was a far cry from an intimidating presence, especially compared to Cyclone. “We all know I’m the best fighter.”

“Your fire magic is the strongest we have,” Cyclone agreed. “Besides mine. But you also have two working wings, and aren’t forbidden on pain of death from entering Equestria. Which is why I have a special task for you.” Looking up from his writing, Cyclone left his plucked feather sitting in the inkwell. With a hoof and his good wing, he swiftly folded his parchment into thirds. “Sirocco, I need you to take this letter to Everfree City, and deliver it to your grandfather. We can’t wait for the weather to break, so you will need to light your wings on fire and fly straight through. Stop for nopony. Do not reveal the existence of the letter.”

“Relax, Father. I’m the best flier in the Compact Lands too.”

Cyclone snorted in humor. “You remind me of Typhoon.” Then, shaking his head, he shed the slight hint of that good humor and let his hair face turn serious again. “Do not pass this off to anypony else. Not your aunt, not one of her soldiers, not even Celestia or Luna. And not your older sister.”

“Half-sister,” Maelstrom noted spitefully.

Sirocco was even less forgiving. “Not even that. Blizzard betrayed us. She isn’t family anymore. I hope that unicorn asshole is as bad to her as he was to Aunt Gale.”

For those who have forgotten, it was in River Rock, perhaps a month and change prior to these discussions, that I had first revealed—accidentally—that I knew Gale’s true identity as Princess Platinum III. I… was not the most diplomatic in delivering that revelation. And Gale did not exactly take it well.

Cyclone seemed to age even further in front of his foals, his military posture and restrained expressions cracking under the strain of something like shame or regret. “I made a mistake once too. She’s still family. But you are to deliver this directly to your grandfather.”

The return of her father’s tone from fatherly regret to stark, cold command struck Sirocco, and she nodded decisively. “I understand, sir.”

“He will give you a reply to bring back to me,” Cyclone explained. “The same rules apply. Nopony else reads it, nopony else carries it. You are welcome to stay in Everfree City as long as you need to recover from the flight. I do not want you to wear yourself out and get lost, especially on the trip back with the storm at the end of the flight. But don’t stay longer than you feel you need.”

“Will she need to be worried about how Grandfather will receive her?” Maelstrom asked. “Given what you tried to warn Blizzard about before she left?”

Cyclone shook her head. “Your mother wasn’t involved in my rebellion the way Blizzard’s mother was. If Blizzard was able to find a welcome in Everfree, Sirocco will be fine. And even if not, my father will understand that this message is more important than any differences he and I may still have.”

Sirocco frowned. “What difference does some griffon make? They’ve abandoned us our whole lives. We’ve only met Grandfather, what, twice? And Aunt Typhoon has never even come to meet us once.”

“Typhoon has her reasons not to come back to River Rock,” Cyclone muttered, almost more to himself than his daughter. “More of my mistakes. I can’t fault her.”

“If anything you’ve ever said about family is true, Father, they don’t care about us.” Sirocco took the letter from the table and tucked it into her armor. “I’ll fulfill my mission as you command, sir. But I won’t waste time trying to reconcile with them.”

Cyclone hung his head just a bit, but he did give her a nod. “Tell Blizzard I love her. And I love you, my daughter. Fly safe, Sirocco.”

“If it were safe, you wouldn’t need to send me,” Sirocco answered by way of parting, before (rather awkwardly) adding “But, uh, I love you too, sir.”

Once Sirocco was gone, Maelstrom looked thoughtfully at his father. “If I may ask, sir, what are you going to do?”

“I need to learn how to fight griffons, in case this does come to war.”

“You don’t know?”

“You forget, Prelate: I was born here, in the Compact Lands. Some ponies say I was the first Cirran not born on Cirran soil. Artorius is the first griffon I have ever met. And by the time I was old enough to lead a century, let alone the entire Legion, Cirra was more concerned with crystals and dragons than griffons.” Cyclone rolled his neck, and then shook his head. “There’s no reason for me to keep secrets. When I was your age, I dreamed of making a name for myself, separate from my father, by returning to Dioda and reconquering Cirra. Father refused to even speak of the idea, but there were other veterans of the Red Cloud War who were more sympathetic. Blizzard’s mother Summer. Rust Shot. But only one of them was old enough to have held a command in the war and is still alive: Thunder Hawk.”

Maelstrom frowned. “I’ve heard those other names before, but I don’t recognize Thunder Hawk.”

“I may have been the leader of the rebellion, but Thunder Hawk was in many ways its architect. Where I had respect and talent and ambition, he had the cunning and influence to make the arrangements we needed quietly. When we believed your grandfather was dead on his journey searching for new lands, and we set our plans into motion, I tasked him with arresting your grandmother and your great aunt. His attempt failed, and your grandmother died resisting him. I haven’t spoken to him since. He was spared to exile along with me. I think he lives in Emerald Orchard, or what’s left of it..”

Maelstrom nodded. “Will you be taking an entourage? I can arrange some of the Praetorian to guard you—”

Cyclone shook his head and chuckled. “Son, I’m scarier than anything in the wilderness. I’d much rather all your legionaries stay here in case anything goes wrong. I’m entrusting the city to you.”

“And my siblings?”

“Bliz—” Cyclone winced. “Yes, that’s right. She’s gone now. Can you—?”

“With respect, speaking to you as my father and not my commanding officer: I can manage the defenses of a city and a disciplined command structure of legionaries, and personally babysit a griffon who may be a scout for a hostile enemy force, or I can focus my attention on a dozen and a half foals who have no respect for my command whatsoever. But I cannot do both. And given my marks are legion banners and not… I don’t know, foals balls or bottles or something, I think we both know which option I prefer.”

“You’re right.” Cyclone sighed and rubbed a hoof down the length of his face. “Do you have any ideas?”

“No… ” Maelstrom chuckled. “Have fewer foals? I don’t suppose you’re beginning to regret the one-night stands or the poisonings and stabbings?”

Cyclone was not amused. “Believe it or not, son, I don’t find the whispers on the streets amusing. The last thing I need is my own flesh and blood spreading those lies. But since I apparently must say it aloud: I loved your mother. And I loved Rampart after her. And as for the rest, you of all ponies know I’m too damn busy trying to keep order in this frozen hellscape to have time to father many bastards. To say nothing of how stupid I would be to kill parents to steal their foals. But they were orphaned by my mistakes, and I won’t let them freeze. Or be eaten. So now they are my foals.”

Maelstrom’s ears dropped. “I know, Father. I’m sorry… The orphans—” Those words too gave way when Cyclone glared. “Well, what do you want me to say? I can’t just call them ‘my siblings’; I’d be including Blizzard and Sirocco and—”

“The younger ones are no different than Blizzard and Sirocco,” Cyclone insisted. “Blizzard doesn’t share the same mother as you and Sirocco, after all.”

“No…” muttered Maelstrom glumly. “But at least you’re our real father.”

Maelstrom’s nostrils flared at the smell of smoke in the room, and then apparently knowingly, he responded by hanging his head and squeezing his eyes closed. For a moment, the room sat in silence. Maelstrom was sure he would have heard his father move; Cyclone was many things a warrior would strive to be, but quiet was not among them.

Then heavy hooffalls marked the grown stallion walking toward the door. The old unicorn door creaked on its hinges to make way for the castle’s conqueror. In the doorway, Cyclone stopped. “Since you clearly need a reminder of the importance of family, son, I know you’ll find a way to look after your siblings. Personally.”

Interlude III - Apropos of Red Ink

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Interlude III

Apropos of Red Ink

The last member of Sunset’s crew in her mission searching for me was Red Ink. Ink was born under the name Roscherk Krovyu, which in modern Stalliongradi would most often be translated as ‘bloody stroke’. To be clear, that is not ‘a pony from Trottingham describing the impacts of a blood clot in an elderly pony’s brain’, as in “Come quick, guv’nah; Gran’s ‘avin a bloody stroke!”. Rather, it means ‘to draw one line in a character or glyph, as will a quill or pen, using blood as the medium of coloring the paper’, as in “after I killed a giant wolf that was trying to eat me and my brother, I ripped a quill out of my wing, sharpened the end on a rock, and carved my name in the wolf’s back with the tip of the feather.”

Which, incidentally, was the real story of how Lieutenant Commander Red Ink, Equestrian Honor Guard, got his talent marks.

If that doesn’t tell you most of what you need to know about the stallion, don’t worry, it gets worse.

On the day before Sunset Shimmer, Somnambula, Tempest Shadow, and Red Ink set sail, or weighed anchor, or caught the tide, or whatever nautical term airship captains have stolen from the good and kindly seafaring ponies who know better than to artificially put a unicorn in the sky, Princess Luna and Sunset Shimmer found Ink standing in a long narrow hallway full of stained glass in one of the higher passages of Canterlot.

Red Ink was a short stallion whose stunted growth was owed to having been born in the middle of a series of draconic invasions over the Equestrian border that burnt down Stalliongrad twice and left the frozen city in famine as well as constant blizzard. Being a pegasus only worsened matters. As the middle foal of three colts, his stature had left him with something of a complex, which manifested obviously in adulthood by the fact that his legs were broader than the necks of most other ponies. Naturally a cinnamon-candy red, and wearing a darker red mane, he was rarely found outside the company of a black jacket—though unlike mine, his was fully for warmth against Stalliongrad’s permanent blizzards, with a thick fur collar and well padded shoulders. How he survived wearing it in Canterlot’s warm summers, I have no idea. Underneath it, not that Sunset could see, his mark was a quill writing fancy (but meaningless) cursive script in red ink.

The most important visual quality of Red Ink that day, though, was that he was not alone. Sunset Shimmer took note that amongst the many-colored rays of light cast by the stained glass, at least six other ponies were in the room… if one, indeed, did decide to call the creatures ‘ponies’. The only particularly common features the six beings shared were that their ears were tufted up into rough but sharper points than even the sharpest eared example of a conventional pony, and that their teeth were quite pointed and decidedly carnivorous.

Three of the number were pegasi, or at least had been. Now their wings were leathery, reminding the young mare (and everypony else who ever looked at one) of a bat’s wings.

Two of the group were unicorns, with curved horns like those common in ponies whose heredity favors the former Shogunate of Uma. Unlike even Mistmane or her kin, however, these horns were completely smooth, and though they matched the fur tone of their owners at their bases, their tips looked almost like polished crystal: partially translucent, and glowing with an interior magic that matched their owners' eyes.

The last of the number could have been called an earth pony. His only notable feature that Sunset recognized at a glance, other than his fangs and tufted ears, was that there seemed to be cracks in his forehooves running up his legs. After a moment of staring, however, she realized rather that the creatures’ legs did not end in hooves at all. Rather, he had something like a dragon’s talons, simply curled so tightly into fists that they took on the slender profile of forelegs; it was only in walking forward, when the light through the stained glass windows caught the razor-sharp edges of the claws, that she could truly tell how they fit together.

They were the Night Guard, and Sunset found her heart hammering in her chest as everything that I had revealed about Luna’s servants swept back into her mind.

“Princess Luna. Sunset Shimmer.” Red Ink nodded to the Night Guard he had been speaking with, turned, and gestured that the two ponies who had entered should approach with his wing. His heavy Stalliongradi accent tinged every word. “Something I can help you with?”

“There is not. In fact, perhaps I can help you. My sister has told me of the quest on which you will soon embark. Let me say, Lieutenant: I am glad my Sister hath chosen you and not one of the other Honor Guards.” With that thought concluded, Luna glanced up and down the line of her Night Guard. “For the purposes of assisting Sunset Shimmer and Lieutenant Commander Ink in their task, you are all permitted to speak of your lives before joining my service. You shall also pass this information on to the rest of the Night Guard, and fetch them as Lieutenant Ink, Sunset Shimmer, Somnambula, or…” Luna frowned, and her voice dropped. “Confound it, Celestia just named the mare… Assist me, my sister’s apprentice.”

Sunset nervously lifted her voice. “Tempest Shadow, Princess.”

“Yes, that is the name! Huzzah!” Luna jumped just a little bit, and if I didn’t know she were a millenia-old monster, I might have found the enthusiasm cute. “Tempest Shadow. If any of those ponies have questions or tasks for you, you are to heed them. This quest of theirs is most important to me.”

Sunset took a hesitant step forward. “So they’re really all…”

“Dead?” One of the pegasus Night Guards offered, closest to Ink. In her surprise at their shapes, Sunset hadn’t even noticed that in place of an armored black and purple breastplate, he wore what looked like a twenty year old tan trenchcoat, and was actively smoking a slightly bent cigarette. “As doornails. You can touch me if you want proof.”

“Uh…” Sunset swallowed, glancing up to Luna as if for permission. The alicorn nodded, so Sunset stepped forward, and to her own surprise, found the stallion’s body even colder than she’d been expecting. “Eeugh.”

“I know we get a little clammy, but I didn’t think it was that bad,” a dead unicorn quipped.

“Oh, uh… no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any offense.” Sunset jerked back. “Um, thank you, uh…”

The Night Guard shared a few chuckles at Sunset’s discomfort.

“Ninth Brother,” the winged corpse answered around his cigarette. “Or, if you don’t mind, since we’re apparently allowed to use real names with you, Chocolate Malt.”

“Do not become too comfortable, Ninth Brother,” Luna warned. “Thou art still on notice for how thou… fie and damnation, how you recruited Twelfth Sister.” Then she nodded to Sunset. “You need not fear them, Sunset Shimmer. They do not bite.”

Red Ink chuckled. “Well, not you, anyway.” Then, when Luna frowned at him, he held up his wings in mock defensiveness. “I’m not blaming anypony. I’m just saying, when I ran the Black Cloaks in Stol’nograd, usually if you didn’t find the perpetrator’s body, it meant something wild at them. And when I read incident reports with the Night Guard involved, well…” Ink shrugged and winked at Sunset. “Do svidaniya.”

Princess Luna frowned. “My Night Guard protect Equestria from magical terrors, not mortal ponies. And they do not write incident reports.”

‘Lack of accountability’ is a somewhat less damning criticism of a force of supposed protectors than ‘cannibalize the guilty’ (and at least under Nightmare Moon, quite a few innocents too), but it still ought to be condemned.

“Equestrian Intelligence is very thorough. I wish I had had spies like that when I led the Black Cloaks.” Ink smiled wryly. “Can I ask two favors?”

“You may ask,” Luna agreed.

“I need to speak to Third Brother and Twelfth Sister; can you retrieve them for me?”

“I certainly—”

Mistress,” another one of the pegasus night guards, a mare, interrupted. “I am sorry to interrupt. But I caution against summoning Third Brother here.”

“Oh?” Princess Luna raised a curious brow. “Do tell.”

“He and Lieutenant Ink… have a past. I would prefer not to discuss it further in his presence.”

Ink grinned. “Ah, I see. Thank you, Eldest.” Then he winked at the dead mare, before focusing once again on Luna. “I no longer need to speak to Third Brother.”

“Now I find myself concerned, Honor Guard. Who is my servant to you? Do I need to be worried you shall attack him behind my back?”

“What, because I killed him the first time?” Ink calmly placed a wing over his chest. “Princess, I promise you, I will not attack any of the Night Guard, even if one of them turns out to be somepony I really hated, like Baron Frostbite..”

Sunset Shimmer’s eyes widened. “Baron Frostbite is dead?”

Ink closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “Right. You’re actually almost fifty despite how you look. Blyat, I knew I should have paid more attention to that part of the report. And you were Celestia’s student so you would have met him… Well, there’s no point hiding it now. Yes, Baron Frostbite is dead, by my hoof. If that’s going to introduce some kind of tension for our mission, I can ask Commander Flag to accompany you instead. She’s less well versed in history and she probably doesn’t have as many underworld contacts, but she can teleport the heart out of a living pony, so she’ll do the fighting part just fine. And if we’re being honest, that’s probably why Princess Celestia actually wants an Honor Guard with you.”

“If I may, Sunset Shimmer,” said Luna. “I would prefer if you kept Lieutenant Ink. Out of the current Honor Guards, I think I can trust him the most for this task.” Then, with a tip of the tip of her wing to Ink, she turned for the door. “I will return with Twelfth Sister.”

Ink collapsed onto his flanks at the sound. “Night Guard, I’m done with all of you; thank you for your time. Give me some privacy to talk to Miss Shimmer.” After his request, the red pegasus waited a few long moments for the assembled dead to shuffle off before he finally turned back to Sunset.

“Okay. As first impressions go, that was not my best. Can I start over?”

“Um… sure?”

“I am Red Ink. Well, actually, I am Roscherk Krovyu, but ‘Red Ink’ is a lot friendlier to ponies who don’t speak the language. I am Lieutenant Commander of the Honor Guard, though I spend most of my time as a history and gym teacher at Sparkle’s Friendship School in Ponyville--sometimes it comes as a surprise, but she does teach more than just ‘kindness’ and ‘generosity’ there. That’s supposed to be my cover identity to watch Ponyville, since everything wrong in Equestria seems to happen there these days, though most of the time, Sparkle and her friends just go solve the problem anyway. ‘Overwhelming violence’ is what I bring to that kind of table, and it is not exactly an Element of Harmony, no?” Ink offered a smile. “How about you? What is life like where you get to skip twenty years of age and walk around on two hooves?”

Sunset blinked, and then chuckled, and then laughed, and then finally had to hold a hoof over her mouth. “Sorry… I… well, I guess to start with, we don’t have hooves. Humans—that’s what the species on the other side of the mirror is called—have ‘feet’, sort of like griffons or dogs or whatever. There’s no magic, so I’m a little out of practice with having a horn… Did you say your real name was ‘Roscherk Krovyu’?”

“Ah, you pronounced it very well.” Ink smiled. “Why?”

“I speak enough Stalliongradi—” Ink visibly gritted his teeth. “—to know that doesn’t translate to ‘Red Ink’. But also, everypony here in Equestria has a version of themselves on the other side of the mirror where I’ve been living, and your name kind of shows up on the news sometimes.”

Ink’s smile remained pinned, but it fell from his eyes, leaving him looking mostly like something had disturbed him. “I… take it he did not get sent by human goddess Celestia, on pain of death, to go learn friendship at Sparkle’s treehouse?”

“What?” Sunset took a few long seconds to stare at Ink, during which time the stallion cursed heavily under his breath in Stalliongradi. “No, no; Celestia’s not an alicorn on the other side of the mirror. She’s just a high school principal. And you’re, uh…” Sunset hesitated. “Well, there are some very handsome pictures of you shirtless, riding a horse outside of Neighvgorod.”

Ink’s face flickered through several confused emotions that I suspect most readers unfamiliar with interdimensional portals have shared, before finally settling upon simultaneously the most telling and the least acceptable clarifying question one can imagine: “Was the… mare of the night at least good looking?”

“What?” Then a rich blush swept over Sunset’s face. “No, no, not like that, eww! Not that kind of horse. No ‘w’!”

“Oh… Now I’m even more concerned; is a ‘horse’ at least a mammal? And this is in the newspaper there? And why do you even know about—”

“Not that kind of riding either!” Sunset was redder than Ink by that point, trying to hide her face behind her delicious bacon*-colored mane, and was not helped at all by the unsubtle chuckles from a few of the Night Guard, who couldn’t help but hear at least the shouted parts of the conversation. “Nevermind about other you, okay? Sorry I brought it up. Look, I’m just living a regular life over there, or at least trying to. I promise it’s not as weird as it sounds”

* It follows from a basic principle of necromancy that bacon, unlike beef, isn’t meat. And no, this isn’t a post-hoc justification because bacon is somehow that delicious. I explain further in a later Tale, so I won’t prepeat myself here.

“I can respect that.” Ink glanced around the room and nodded at the windows. “Did you just want to meet me, or to talk about the mission?”

If only at the prompt of a less awkward subject of conversation, Sunset smiled. “Sure, let’s talk about that! Have you found anything out? What did you want to talk to the Night Guard for?”

“Nothing yet. When the Princess mentioned the amulet Morty is supposedly looking for, I remembered something I read in a report from one of Celestia’s spies.” Ink chuckled at the mild look of shock on Sunset’s face. “You can’t be that naive, or you wouldn’t be on this mission.”

“I… no, you’re right. I mean, it’s not like S.M.I.LE. is that secret. It’s just weird hearing somepony say ‘Celestia’s spies’.”

“She is very good at giving that image, isn’t she? Sort of like the implication that the ‘M’ in the acronym means they don’t spy on ponies.” Ink winked knowingly before his husky accented voice carried on. “There was a pendant a lot like the one the Princess described that got stolen a couple of years ago from a noblepony here in Canterlot in the middle of a Nightmare Night party. I dug up the report; it didn’t say much. But Ninth Brother was in charge of the investigation.”

“Were you kidding about not finding anything yet? That’s huge!” Sunset grinned. “So what happened to it?”

“After the thief wound up dead and the fence got caught, the trail went cold.”

“Oh.” Sunset frowned. “I mean, I guess we still know somepony tried to steal it. Do you think Morty was the buyer?”

The black fur collar on Ink’s neck rose and fell with his shoulders. “I do not know the stallion enough to guess. Fortunately, he did give us an example to follow, of how a corpse doesn’t have to be a cold trail.”

Sunset grimaced. “You’re asking me to seance the thief? Lieutenant Ink, look, I’m a pretty good mage, but I only got my necromancy license because Princess Celestia thought it was important for me to have studied the theory, and it probably expired twenty years ago! I can’t just call up somepony from Tartarus!”

Red Ink rested his wing on Sunset’s shoulder. “You don’t have to. I already did.”

“You what? You’re not a unicorn.”

“And the thief isn’t in Tartarus. Princess Luna is bringing her to us right now.”

“She—wait, Twelfth Sister is that thief?”

“That’s what Ninth Brother had to say, anyway.” Ink glanced to the door where Luna had left, and then closed his eyes. “As Honor Guard, I’m supposed to look out for Celestia and Luna. They don’t make it easy even on a normal day, and all the secrecy around this ‘Morty’ pony is giving me chills. Do you know what Celestia actually wants him for?”

“Not really…” Sunset shrugged. “I mean, part of it, I think, is about Starlight Glimmer being in his story.”

“The guidance counselor cyka?!” Ink growled. “What does she have to do with this?”

“You did read Beginner’s Guide, right? She’s Archmage Hourglass. Twilight told me she already knew how to do some kind of powerful time travel magic, so I guess I just took it for granted that wasn’t that weird, but I guess if you don’t know about that kind of magic it would be pretty weird.”

“Glimmer knows how to time travel? What’s next? Applejack actually is a plant?”

Sunset chuckled. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just Starlight. And don’t talk to her about it. Remember, that one is an order from Celestia.”

“Damn.” Ink nodded. “So that’s it? Celestia wants to set up her old supposed-to-be-dead student and the guidance counselor for some sort of time travel thing? Maybe stop Luna from having to be banished?” The red stallion massaged the bridge of his muzzle with the two leading feathers of his wing.

“Given what little I know about time travel, which admittedly isn’t a lot, that would probably destroy the world. Especially since Morty was there the first time.” As Ink raised a very concerned brow, Sunset shook her head to dismiss the impending question. “The only other thing I know is that Morty’s supposed to help Princess Celestia do some kind of favor for Princess Luna. Something about Rainbow Dash.”

“Ah.” Ink nodded, tilted his head back, took a deep breath, and let his wings sag to the ground in an open show of both relief and regret. “And here I thought I had left that chapter of life behind.” When the comment prompted Sunset to frown in curiosity, he took a long breath. “It is a very long story, but I’ll try to sum it up. An assassin named Masquerade tried to kill Princess Luna. With a poison made specifically to kill the Princesses, if you believe it. She hit Luna while she was flying; Rainbow Dash had to save her from falling out of the sky and dying from hitting her neck on the ground. So she made one of her sonic boom rainbow things—”

“A sonic rainboom?”

Ink nodded. “About at ground level. The explosion pushed Luna sideways enough that she didn’t die. But… well, Rainbow hit the ground before her noise did.”

“Wait, what? Is this world’s Rainbow okay?”

“Well, she’s fine now. Celestia raised her from the dead.” Red Ink managed to keep a straight face for what I would call ‘two beats’ as Sunset sputtered and failed to vocalize her thoughts. Then, finally, his calm broke into laughter. “Obviously, at the time, she kind of looked like spilled strawberry jam.” When Sunset winced and her shoulders tightened, Ink’s brief humor started up again.

“But— but— Rainbow Dash here is undead?!

“Well, not like them,” Ink noted, tilting his head toward the door the Night Guard had left through. Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Princess Luna had entered said door accompanied by a pegasus mare’s corpse, and Red Ink had to double-take at what he had just indicated. “Blyat. Nothing rude, just contrasting you with… well, I suppose that’s classified.” Then, with a nervous glance to Sunset, he added in a whisper “Do not mention that to Rainbow Dash if you see her. She does not appreciate the subject being brought up. And when she punches, she punches hard.” Then, much louder, he gestured a wing. “Sunset Shimmer, may I introduce Twelfth Sister. Twelve, this is Sunset, Celestia’s last student. She’s older than she looks.”

Thanks,” Sunset noted with bitter sarcasm, before extending a hoof to the approaching Night Guard. “I’m Sunset Shimmer, yes. You must be Twelfth Sister. Um, do you prefer that or your real name?”

The corpse in question was a pale purple pegasus pony whose fangy grin somehow managed to be charming despite its implications. She took Sunset’s hoof earnestly and gave it a quick shake. “Well, my real name is Eyewitness so I used to go by ‘Eye’, but you can just call me ‘Twelve’. Most of the Night Guard skip the ‘brother and sister’.”

Ink raised a brow. “Most?”

“Well, we call Eldest ‘Big Sister’,” Twelve noted.

Luna nodded. “Eldest has been a great boon to me; I permit her to use her real name, but she prefers to follow my restrictions for the others.”

“Can I ask why?” Sunset asked the bad princess.

It probably hadn’t seemed like much of a troubling question to Sunset, but Luna recoiled at the simple words. “I… would prefer you speak to her, if you wish to hear her story, should she choose to share it. Suffice it to say, she has my eternal trust and gratitude.” Luna closed her eyes for a very long few seconds, and then placed a wing over Twelve’s shoulders. “As I directed, you are to help them however you can. Now, I should take my leave.”

Twelfth Sister nodded, and watched Luna depart before she turned back to the living ponies in the stained glass gallery. “So?”

Ink nodded. “I understand you know something about a locket that was stolen from an art collector in Canterlot a few years ago?”

Twelve nodded. “Yeah. I’m the one who stole it.” Then she rolled her slitted eyes and added, “Then my friend ‘Wax Mold’ stabbed me in the heart over it,” making the injury sound like a chipped hoof or at worst a black eye.

“What happened to Wax Mold after he took it?” Sunset asked.

Slitted eyes avoided her gaze. “Um… how much do you know about us, Sunset?”

“She can guess what happened to him,” Ink observed. Then, when Sunset raised a brow in his direction, the short pegasus added “Do svidaniya.” Sunset held a hoof up to her mouth at the realization, which made Ink chuckle slightly as he directed his attention to the corpse in the room. “We’re more interested in what happened to the amulet.”

“I don’t know,” Twelve muttered, suddenly very interested in the floor. “I was the face, and a decent cat burglar when the situation called for it, but I just got the stuff. I didn’t know how to get rid of it; Wax was the fence. He was the one who came up with the deal too; usually, we just stole stuff and sold it ourselves. I was never gonna meet whoever was buying it. And Wax didn’t exactly talk before… well, you know—”

Yes,” Sunset interrupted forcefully.

Red Ink donned a scowl that seemed to fit his broad red face quite comfortably. “So that’s it, then? The trail’s cold?”

“That’s everything I know. Malt and I—uh, ‘Malt’ is Nine’s nickname—”

“We know,” Sunset interrupted. “He’s got an… interesting getup.”

“If it makes it make any more sense, I think he’s actually that old. Malt’s the only one of us I know about who actually died of old age. Not that you can tell; I guess the magic makes us look younger, but I was only about your age when I died, Sunset.”

“Remember, she’s older than she looks,” Ink teased, but his comment seemed half-hearted, distracted even from the humor. “You really just gave up on looking?”

Twelve frowned even as Sunset glared at the red pegasus. “Well, Malt and I got assigned to try and find it. That was my first job after I, um, got recruited. We shook down everypony we knew Wax had contact with. Well, I guess Malt did; he actually used to be a guardspony. Being a thief didn’t exactly teach me how to play ‘bad guard’. But nopony knew anything. Wax didn’t exactly usually deal in magic things; just art and jewelry and stuff he could move easily. I didn’t even know the necklace was magic when I stole it; I just thought it was expensive for some reason.”

Ink waved a frustrated wing in the air. “Blyat. We’re back to square one.” Bordering on stomping, he stepped away from the Night Guard and the unicorn to stare at the stained glass windows on the nearest wall. “Thank you for your help, Twelfth Sister.”

“Sorry I don’t know more. But, I guess if I did you probably wouldn’t be having to do this?” Twelve shrugged. “It was nice to meet you, Sunset, I guess.”

“Wait,” Sunset asked, nibbling on her cheek. “You stole it from Canterlot, right? Who actually had Morty’s amulet? Who did you steal it from?”

“Oh, that was Lord Barnacle. He’s an art dealer and sort of a recluse in North Canterlot; he’s always on some trip or safari or something. It was kind of a big deal we were going to target him in our circles. Everypony said he had some of the best security in Canterlot.” Then she let her eyes drift away, and one could tell at a glance, her mind with them. “He’s got a cute accent, but he’s easy to distract.”

“That’s a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Grail Caballeron,” said Red Ink with an upswing in both his voice and mood as he turned away from the stained glass.

“From Daring Do?” Twelve asked with a raised brow. “You know those books are made up, right?”

“Only some of them,” Ink replied. “Trust one of those sorts to use an anagram for his name.”

“An anagram?”

“Lord Barnacle. Dr. Caballeron.” When Sunset raised a brow, he actually smiled. “I’m glad you didn’t think that was clever of him. Sparkle would have.”

“You learn that from those spy reports?” Sunset teased.

Red Ink groaned. “If only. I took a student to a Daring Do convention.” With a distant, glazed over look in his eyes, Ink noted “I lost five soldiers that day.”

“How do you…?” Sunset let the question trail off, shaking her head. “No, that doesn’t matter. You’re serious that this Dr. Caballeron pony is real?”

Ink groaned. “Yes. So is Daring Do.”

“Okay, Mr. ‘She’s-older-than-she-looks’,” Twelve interrupted. “We weren’t born yesterday.”

“No, hold on…” Sunset dutifully produced her copy of my prior work, A Beginner’s Guide to Heroism, and flipped to the back (though, obviously not the part featuring her that I wrote since). Finally finding Chapter 51 (Spoiler Warning, for those following along), she read aloud. “It’s part one of your autobiography. Oh, this is Archmage Hourglass… that is, Starlight Glimmer talking.” Then, with a wince, she added “I don’t know if you know her, Twelve, but Princess Celestia said not to tell her about this until Morty does… anyway, I think this is Starlight from our future, and she talks about this exactly. Let’s see… ‘A fun read, though personally I’m much more of a fan of the sequels. How To Make Undead and Influence Government…”

“You’re joking,” Twelve muttered.

“Nope. Although I don’t know why she lists them out of order. Tales from Everfree City should chronologically be next. She lists that and then continues with How I Learned to Stop Living and Love the SpellOh, and of course, Daring Do and the Very Handsome Necromancer. Though you had to ghost write that one.

“Where did you have that book?” Ink asked idly.

“Extradimensional pocket,” Sunset noted as casually as that phrase ought to be to a wizard, seriously concerning both pegasi in her presence. “That’s not important. Look, Morty writes a Daring Do book! There’s our link!”

“You think that there’s a link between Morty writing a Daring Do book someday maybe hundreds of years in the future, and the fact that Dr. Caballeron happened to have his amulet when she died.”

“Can we back up?” Twelve interrupted. “Daring Do is a real pony?! You two honestly believe that?”

“Compared to Morty, I feel like that’s fairly simple,” said Sunset.

“You’ll be happier if you just accept it,” Ink noted. “Even if you’re right, Sunset, what does that mean for us?”

“Well, it means we need to find Dr. Caballeron or Daring Do.” Sunset slapped her hoof on her (precious, arguably irreplaceable) copy of Beginner’s Guide. “I mean, Daring is a hero, right? And if anypony is going to know about weird ancient artifacts, or Morty for that matter, it's her.”

“She’s more of a tomb thief with good propaganda,” Ink noted flatly. “But you’re probably right that she’s a better lead than just trying to ask around for the amulet ourselves. And maybe she or Caballeron will have some idea who wanted to steal it.”

“Do your secret spy reports know where to find her?” Sunset asked.

Ink rolled his eyes. “I’ll ask Secret Service” When Sunset raised a brow, he sighed. “The head of the S.M.I.L.E.—and no, that’s not her real name. But I have a sneaking suspicion Princess Celestia’s advice about starting in Somnambula’s hometown is going to be the answer we get back. Past that, I would bet the other two are better off taking the lead.”

“Why?” Sunset asked.

“Somnambula probably remembers at least some of the tombs Daring Do would want to dig up. And as far as finding Caballeron’s latest job, I don’t have a lot of contacts in Klugetown, which is a big market for black market magical artifacts like the kind Caballeron is usually selling. Really, I don’t have contacts anywhere hot.” Ink then patted Sunset on the back with his wing—an action which involved a certain rather awkward reach up for the short pegasus. “You ask good questions, Shimmer. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about? Or should I go try and dig up what I can about Daring Do?”

Sunset raised both her forehooves frog-up. “That sounds like the best next step we have. Thank you very much for your help, both of you. I think that’s all we need for now from you, Twelve. I’m sorry to ask you about your, uh death...”

“No worries,” said Twelfth Sister. “I know normal ponies kind of get weirded out by it, but in the Night Guard it’s just kind of normal. So it was kind of fun… I still can’t believe Daring Do is real though…” Giving a flick of her leathery wing by way of a half-salute, half-wave goodbye, Twelve headed for the doors out of the gallery.

As the dead mare walked away, Sunset turned her attention back to Ink. “I’m gonna go back to my room and do some more reading before we leave tomorrow, and maybe brush up on my necromancy. I guess we might stop in Ponyville first to talk to Twilight.”

“That will be good for us,” Ink noted. “Rainbow Dash has met Daring Do a few times; she may know how to find her. And I need to drop off substitute plans.”

Sunset chuckled at the thought. “Are you going to do a unit on Morty and Gale?”

“I would be a lousy Equestrian history teacher if I didn’t cover Queen Platinum III. The Centralization Reforms aren’t something you can just skip.” Then Ink raised a brow. “Or did you forget you learned about ‘Gale’ in history class?”

Sunset winced. “I… I mean, I remember that, obviously. It’s just weird to be reading about her swearing all the time and compare that to who you imagine in history books. Morty definitely doesn’t make her look like that painting you always see pictures of—you know, the one with the pauldron and the fur cowl and her rapier.”

“By Hyacinth,” Ink replied with a nod. “Is Celestia allowing you to discuss it?”

“With you and the rest of the team, sure, but I’m not supposed to share it around too much.”

Ink grinned. “I’m not trying to spill state secrets. But since I teach history, I’m very interested in how Morty’s books feel different than what you learned in school. I want to make sure my students can remember history actually happened, with real ponies who aren’t so different from them.”

“Oh, it’s night and day. We definitely never learned about Morty, which seems weird. I mean, sure in the grand historical scale, killing Wintershimmer probably isn’t the biggest historical deal, and I can kind of see where Princess Celestia was going kind of covering him up. You wouldn’t want curious students trying to rediscover his spells. But it’s hard to believe after all that, that Morty just kind of disappeared from history. I’m kind of half-expecting to find out the history books are wrong somehow.”

“Because you think he must have had his hooves in Centralization?” Ink asked. “Or do you just want to believe he and Gale actually ended up together?”

Sunset winced, tellingly. “I—Kind of, yeah? It’s also really hard to believe Gale is the same Queen Platinum from history, since she’s so bad at politics. And with how much she loathes her suitors.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Ink answered. “I may have to ask Celestia if I can use Beginner’s Guide as a source. I’m sure Ocellus would love to hear about another good changeling in history. I bet she’d get a kick out of turning into a bear cub…” Ink’s words trailed off as he took a step away from Sunset, and he nodded her way as he passed. “Forgive me. I think I want to write this down before I forget.”

Sunset listened to the red stallion in the black coat as he walked away, muttering to himself. “Smolder’s angry enough to sympathize with Princess Platinum, and as for Morty… Heh. ‘Yaks best at necromancy?’ I wonder…”

4-1 Show and Hell

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IV

Show and Hell

or

The Death Sentence of Coil the Immortal

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

IV - I

The Crap Commencement

If you, dear reader, have had the fortune in life to study as Celestia’s personal apprentice, there is a threat you have likely heard from the lips of her immortal majesty. Certainly, she might sound like she is joking when, in your moment of childish misbehavior or petulance, she warned you that your attitude might need to be corrected with a return to ‘magic kindergarten’. Perhaps, if you were older, she might have issued those same words in what sounded like a joking tone. She had to be joking, of course, didn’t she?

Let me be completely clear on two points. Firstly, Celestia was deadly serious; I have heard her more jovial on a literal battlefield than when uttering those words.

And secondly: no matter what you were actually imagining, it is worse than you think.

Before we move on to the next few weeks of the events of our story, I fear I must once more rewind time for you and return our attention to that politically charged morning around Hurricane’s breakfast table.

Celestia must have thought she was being as clever as I usually am when she observed, after explaining that her obligations that morning were to Gale, “Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean I can’t still teach you something.” When Celestia passed me a scroll bound tightly in red ribbon, I was forced to take hold of it with my hooves instead of my magic (heeding Mage Meadowbrook’s warning) before tucking it into the bigger-on-the-inside extradimensional pocket plane breast pocket of my enchanted jacket.

“It’s a letter to Mrs. Aspirations,” Celestia explained. “She teaches a class of foals about Graargh’s age in the palace district. I’d like you to take Graargh and go deliver this.”

“And then?”

“She’ll tell you what to do next. Graargh is likely going to be a new experience for her, so I trust you’ll help her if she needs it.”

From there, I bid farewell to my friend Blizzard (to remind the reader: the elder half-sister of Maelstrom and Sirocco, whose opinions on their elder sibling would be voiced rather harshly later this same day, days and days of travel to the east). Goodbyes for Tempest were shorter; though I liked to imagine we had become friends, I had to admit that I had mostly been an inconvenience for the young soldier who was the theoretical heir to the pegasus throne. My flying golem Angel got the most parting discussion with me, though it mostly consisted of my amusement at just how effectively he had traded barbs with Gale over breakfast, and a stern admonition to choose his targets more judiciously in the future. He assured me he would be gentle with Blizzard as he accompanied her during the day’s adventures.

Graargh managed to hug all three, despite Tempest’s best efforts.

Though I still couldn’t call myself accustomed to the heat of Everfree, there was something calming about being back on my hooves, carrying Graargh on my back (at his insistence) the way we had on our original journey a few months prior. And while an undeniably handsome young stallion carrying a bear cub on his back drew more than a few curious eyes, most of them at least turned soft as Graargh offered them enthusiastic waves and called greetings in the disarming way only the very young can.

When he wasn’t calling out to everypony we passed, Graargh chatted my ear off about the goings on of Hurricane’s household while I had been asleep. In his broken Equiish, he ranted at length about how ‘Papa Cane’ had taught him to play some Cirran board game, ludus latrunculorum (though I learned that name from Hurricane’s mouth later; Graargh called it ‘lood latrinumum’ which raised some very troubling questions), and that Graargh was very proud to have beaten the old pegasus twice (very troubling questions). Whatever fear I still felt about Hurricane from my crystal upbringing, and despite how utterly fair he had been to me in the trials I first faced upon arriving in Everfree City, I think it was in Graargh’s tales of bedtime stories and snuck desserts that my ingrained terror of the stallion first began to chip away. And I found myself smiling along to his stories.

In fact, the experience of catching up with my fuzzy, beclawed little friend after being cooped up in Celestia’s bedroom for weeks was so pleasant, that by the time I remembered where we were going enough to actually ask somepony, the sun was so high in the sky that it had to be closer to noon than to dawn.

It may bring some amusement to a reader to consider that, at least under Wintershimmer’s tutelage, I had been the image of punctuality. But then, Wintershimmer did have that way with ponies, and perhaps we can be grateful that Celestia didn’t.

The palace district, despite the implications of its name, wasn’t as pompous or wealthy as the Ridge or ‘Horntown’. Just outside the walls of the palace’s immense grounds and gardens, one could find shops and inns and houses that, while by no means cheap or slummy, looked at a glance that a normal pony could, with some diligent savings, actually afford in their lifetime.

Quite unlike the home Platinum had given me, and whose key I held in my breast pocket.

Eventually, we did find the building in question: a small but well-painted structure that had surely been intended as a artisan’s workshop of some kind—perhaps some kind of smithy, judging by its wide double doors and attached, fenced-in yard. Mrs. Aspiration’s Class, the plaque on the door read, though at the time I couldn’t. Underneath, a smaller label added for Fantastic Fillies and Commendable Colts. If I could have read it at the time, I might have crushed the door into a hoof-sized ball of wood pulp and splinters, purely on principle.

“Morty, go in! We need to—”

“Hold on, Graargh.” I put a hoof on the back of my companion and friend. “One last reminder: what are we going to do if somepony asks you to pretend?”

Graargh frowned. “Pretend in mind; don’t actually pretend. No bad green fire.”

“Good.” I took a bracing breath, and swore that I could smell gravedust in the air. Then, as ready as I would ever be, I pushed open the door.

I almost immediately realized that my mental preparations were about as sufficient as the breath a turtle takes before entering the competitive world of ice hockey. I had been expecting a classroom of ponies largely older than Graargh, and only a few years younger than myself.

What I saw was a startlingly attractive unicorn mare a few years older than myself standing next to a chalkboard in front of a class of some seventeen foals ranging in age from, by my guess, maybe seven up to thirteen or fourteen. (But take that with a lick of salt, my margin for error in guessing ages is only slightly better than the average of ponies who try to guess mine by my appearance.) She seemed to be enjoying her work, if one judged enthusiasm by the energy with which she moved as she addressed her class—though she displayed considerable control of her expression as she did, refraining from showing anything more than a hint of an upturned cheek.

Aspiration’s slender eyebrows were an edifice unto themselves, sharply white in spite of her relatively young age framing her piercing eyes with more power than the frameless glasses she wore very near the top of her muzzle. Her coat matched the color of her chalkboards, though without their white blurs and stains. That particular comparison was what I most took in about her appearance as she concluded her active point to the class. “We call those sounds ‘vowels’. Now, class, try and see if you can sound out all five while I talk to our new students.”

“Plural?” I teased with a raised brow.

“I was told to expect two new students,” the chalk-white-maned mare observed. “Did you lose one, sir?”

I shrugged. “I’ve only got Graargh.” And then I handed her Celestia’s letter. After she raised a brow for a moment at the fact that I did so with my hoof and not my magic, she shrugged, opened the letter, adjusted her glasses, and quickly scanned it.

“Well, I’m Misses Aspiration, as you no doubt gathered from the door.” She made the comment ‘through’ the letter as she read, and I didn’t bother to correct her assumption about my literacy. “Judging by the name, I’m going to guess this young… cub is Graw?”

Graargh opened his mouth and let out an ursine roar, which produced quite a set of reactions from the class. Misses Aspiration alone seemed unrattled, though I suspect it may have been more a show of willpower to keep up an act than actual apathy.

“He answers to ‘Graargh’, though,” I explained.

“I see.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Then the missing student is one…” she paused for just a second on my name, parsing its unfortunate implications with a startling display of grace and ambivalence. “Mortal Coil?”

I’m Mortal Coil,” I told her, so confused by the implication of what Celestia’s letter had said that I didn’t even think to offer my preferred nickname. “So I suspect there must be some kind of mistake. Celestia sent me to watch out for him.”

Her eyebrows led a fierce guerilla offensive, devoid of casus belli, against the rich and fertile steppes of her brow. She looked me up and down, and then up and down again, and I briefly worried her neck had given out. But then she gestured into the room. “Mortal, I will ask you to take a seat near the back of the class, so that your height isn’t an impediment to the other students. Graargh, take any place you like.”

“But he’s a grownup!” somepony shouted as I walked across the room.

“I’m sure if Lady Celestia sent him here, he should fit right in. After all, school is for anypony who wants to learn, right?”

The foal who spoke up second was, in fact, familiar to me. And really, if I’m being completely honest, ‘foal’ wasn’t a completely fair way to refer to the cinnamon candy red young stallion whose mentor I had quite publicly killed in the middle of the Queen’s birthday party.

Seeing that I was staring in his direction, the young teenager offered a wave. “Hi, Lord Coil.” No longer wearing his religious tabard, it had taken me a good moment to recognize Cherry Tomato, but his perfect infuriating innocence was unmistakable once I caught his eye.

Cherry,” Mrs. Aspiration frankly snapped at the young stallion. “What is our rule about titles?”

“I’m sorry Mrs. Aspiration,” Cherry answered. “The rule is ‘everypony is equal when they’re learning’.”

“Correct.” Aspiration sighed. “So tell me, Mortal—” She clearly saw me wince at the use of my much-hated given name, and carried on regardless. “—are you here to learn to read? Or was Lady Celestia mistaken?”

“You can’t read?!” a younger filly called out, though she very quickly shot her eyes down to the thin book on her desk when Aspiration shot her a hard glare. Still, it was hard not to hear the snickers of the class at my expense.

Hey!” Graargh called out. “Mean ponies stop!” And, while he may have been just a bear cub, the prospect of having a bear angry at the class got those students quiet quickly.

“Well, Graargh…” Aspiration stopped, stared at Graargh for a moment, and flared her nostrils in a motion that gave me the sense she took offense at his ursine fragrance. “While it was rude for the class to laugh, we use respectful volume in the class. Do you understand?”

When Graargh made his answer quite clear by cocking his head like a lost puppy, I patted him on the shoulders. “Thanks, Graargh. But I can look out for myself.”

“I not am believe,” Graargh answered, quite to my surprise. “Always Morty say—” and then, much to my horror, while he didn’t shapeshift into an (uncomfortably handsome) copy of yours truly, he did slip into a perfect imitation of my voice—albeit with perhaps a less perfect imitation of my grammar. “‘I be okay, trust Morty, Graargh.’ Or ‘I sooo good at fight, bad wizard not hurt me.’ And every time, Morty get hurt, can’t walk good, make hurt sound when I give good hug. Not just sleep, but have big hibernate. Well, now I ‘look after’ Morty, so Morty not get hurt no more.”

“That’s…” Aspiration raised her brow. “Quite the talent for imitation, uh, Graargh. Did I say that right?”

Graargh nodded. “If not can roar like S’lestia, it is be best name.”

With Graargh’s admission, rigid posture and formal stance retook Aspiration’s body, and she regained vocal control of the room with a simple word. “Ahem,” was the word, and in her inflection I concluded I had to be dealing with a full military mare (rather than just military eyebrows). “Now, Mortal, I’m afraid I do have a class to teach, so either be seated and learn with the rest of my students, or the door is behind you.” And without even waiting for me to answer, she stepped back up to her place in front of the chalkboards.

With a sigh, and a resolution in the back of my mind to have a stern word with Celestia about outright lying to my face, I found my way to a seat at the back of the class, my seat right beside Cherry’s in fact. The wooden chair was, suffice it to say, just a bit small. I somehow wedged half my backside onto the miniscule surface, but when I lifted a hoof to join it, the whole chair groaned and something snapped, depositing me on the floor. Adding insult to injury over beneath me.

Somepony laughed. Mrs. Aspiration slapped a hoof down on her desk. Absolute silence and order. I have known dictators who were less oppressive. “I’ll arrange some other seating, Mortal, but for now, feel free to sit on the floor; I trust you won’t have any trouble seeing the chalkboard regardless.”

A young colt, perhaps eight or nine, raised his voice as I set myself down beside what remained of my chair. “Can I sit on the floor too?”

Even from the back of the class, I could see a vein in the teacher’s brow twitch. “What do we do when we have a question, Sprout?”

“We raise our hoofs,” Sprout muttered glumly. “I’m sorry,”

Hooves,” Aspiration corrected sharply. “But you are correct. And because you showed good manners with a timely apology...” The instructor paced over to a sidewall of the classroom and drew a tally mark in a small box, underneath letters that I would later learn spelled Sprout’s name. “It will be good for us all to remember that raising our hooves is important to keeping order and making sure everyone’s voice is heard, no matter how loud or quiet they might be. And no, Sprout; I’m making an exception for Mortal because— ”

Morty,” I interrupted.

Aspiration winced and turned away from Sprout. “Mortal, I understand you are new, but what lesson did Sprout just teach the class?”

“You’re serious?”

“I am absolutely serious, Mortal. I am always serious.” She once again raised her eyebrows at me, and I couldn’t resist rolling my own eyes before raising my hoof. “Thank you. Mortal, what would you like to say?”

“I go by ‘Morty’.”

“In this class, we call ponies by their names,” Mrs. Aspiration told me firmly. “We do not use nicknames, and we do not call ponies other names, because that could be rude. It is only fair.”

“I’m assuming nopony else’s parent’s named them hoping they would die,” I told her.

This time, cooler heads prevailed in the war council of Mrs. Aspiration’s eyebrows, as they maintained their present borders to give me a flat stare.

I waited a solid few seconds for further comment, then sighed and held my hoof in the air to repeat myself. “Am I incorrect, and somepony else in this class has a name like ‘Bucket Punt’ or ‘Six Hooves Under’? Maybe ‘Daisy Pusher’? ‘Worm Buffet’?”

“In addition to raising your hoof, Mortal, you need to wait to be called on before speaking. I see I should have made that portion of the rule clear. But I will answer your question. It is irrelevant what a name means, if it is your name. If you dislike your name, I suggest you take it up with your parents. I also expect you, as an older member of this class, to refrain from speaking on topics that impressionable young minds might not be ready to handle in a mature fashion. Do. I. Make. Myself. Clear?”

Each punctuated word of that sentence was accompanied by a stride between the rows of desks until the mare, barely my elder and certainly my shorter were I actually standing up, leaned to glare over my seated form.

Not wanting to offend her, I raised my hoof.

“You may answer when you are questioned directly, Mortal.”

“You’ve made yourself very clear, Aspiration,” I answered, gritting my teeth.

Mrs. Aspiration.” She placed a hoof onto my fallen chair, and pushed it aside. It grated on the floor, and my stomach writhed at the unpleasant noise. “You are here to learn,” she explained, continuing the grating sound. “This means you are a student. All students are equal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, it’s clear!” I hissed through gritted teeth.

“Excellent!” The mare smiled rather suddenly; not very widely, but with the sort of genuine enthusiasm I had briefly observed when I first opened the door. “Now, you and Graargh have both joined in the middle of a lesson, so if you have questions, please hold them for after class, and I can help you two catch up on whatever you haven’t followed.”

Mrs. Aspiration returned to the front of the room, picked up a piece of chalk in her green magical grip, and lifted it to the chalkboard. “Who can sound out this sentence?” she asked as she scrawled out what were, at least to me, an archaic and arcane series of indecipherable sigils and glyphs.

A filly near the center of the class with a bobbed pink mane raised a hoof. Mrs. Aspiration nodded in her direction, and the filly spoke. “Thuuuh… the. The!” A smile broke out on her face as Mrs. Aspiration nodded. “Cuhhh… aaaah… tuh… Um… cat?” Another nod, a slight jumping in her tiny seat from joy. “The cat… ruh… aaah... n. Ran. The cat ran.”

“Excellent, Festive!” Mrs. Aspiration nodded in the filly’s direction. “And what are the vowels in those three words?”

“Umm… ‘e’? Or, ‘the’ sort of makes a ‘u’ sound… but there’s no ‘u’?”

“‘The’ is a trick word; you wouldn’t guess how you say it looking at the letters, would you? But you were right, Festive. Keep going.”

“Cat, um, has the ‘a’? And ‘ran’... oh, that’s the same.”

“A commendation for you as well,” Aspiration announced with a smile. Then, walking toward the chalkboard of commendation and its sacred records, the teacher produced a stick of chalk from somewhere I can even now only assume must have been some kind of magic, and drew a single white line beside runes that I would only later learn to read as Festive's name.

Once the deed was done, with far more solemn reverence than a chalk tally mark deserved, Aspiration returned to the front of the class and tapped gently on a pile of stacked slates. “Now, students, you have an hour for lunch and play in the yard, as usual.”

Immediately, perfect discipline erupted into screaming, frenzied chaos. Chairs rattled as their former occupants lunged out of them, desperate for the salvation of an open sky and fresh air, or more likely to escape the oppression of the scholastic dictator who stood before the commendations board, drawing a single chalk tally mark.

Cherry Tomato, ever the sickening image of a perfect young pony, progressed not to the door but over to my side. “Mortal, would you and Graargh like to play four squares with me?”

I couldn’t help but raise a brow at the young stallion. “Wizards don’t play foals games, Cherry.”

Aspiration interjected into my conversation without the slightest shred of hesitation. “Mortal, I understand if you do not feel inclined to play with the other students at your age, but it may be good to step outside for a moment and consider what it is you hope to accomplish here.” The mare glanced over her shoulder, staring at me with just one visible eye. “I strongly encourage it.”

I sighed, rolled my eyes (to myself, not at the teacher I was quickly growing to hate), and gave a swift nod to Graargh, who seemed to have been left behind confused in the rapid departure of the other students. Graargh, however, stubbornly refused to be anything but the most supportive version of a walking teddie bear imaginable, and after waddling over to my side, headbutted me in the back of my right front leg. “You come play, Morty.”

“Graargh…” I sighed, though I did start walking. “I’m eighteen. Or something. Apart from the fact that I can’t fly like the pegasi, there’s not a conceivable competition I couldn’t destroy anypony in this class at… well, except you.”

“Playing doesn’t have to be a competition,” Cherry Tomato noted as we stepped out into the yard, before somewhat more quietly adding. “But if it is, I want you two on my team.”

The schoolyard was a dirt field pockmarked with notches dug up by hundreds of sprinting hooves; from the edges nearest the fences, I suspected there had once been a sort of rough field grass, though it was hard to say if it was deliberately planted there by the ponies of the palace district or simply been left behind when the city was first built. A group of the youngest ponies ran in a riveting game of tag, while the more middle-aged… that is, in the middle of the available age ranges foals enjoyed themselves trying to keep a sort of lumpy bag in the air using only their hind hooves. I found myself wondering whether it was easier or harder for the hovering pegasus in their number.

“So, you wanna play squares?” Cherry asked, indicating a series of four shapes—calling them squares would be both generous and actively dangerous to a real wizard—and a vaguely orb-ish ball of what looked somewhat like fabric. “We’ll have to get somepony else, but we’re three—”

“Do you really not care that I killed your master?” I asked Cherry, perhaps abruptly.

Graargh looked up at me with very wide eyes. “Bad pony Winshimmer teach him too?”

Cherry seemed to ignore that question completely, perhaps out of a lack of comprehension, and instead answered mine. To my astonishment, the little red earth pony answered with a potently apathetic shrug. “If it was supposed to happen, it was supposed to happen.”

“It good!” Graargh cut in. “I help!”

“We’re not talking about Wintershimmer, Graargh.”

Graargh cocked his head. “Morty be kill somepony else?

Killed, past tense,” I gently corrected. “That means it already happened—hence the ‘ed’ sound on the end. And it was only for a few seconds, but yes. At Gale’s birthday party. Uh, the one at the palace, not the one you were at.”

“Ah.” Graargh nodded. “Good. Ponies at birthday are friends. Make Gale smile!”

“Made,” I gently corrected. “Past tense again.” Then I turned my attention back to Cherry. “You have an awfully… laissez faire attitude for somepony so young.”

Cherry nodded, before cocking his head just as Graargh had. “At least… I think so. Does saying ‘lazy fair’ funny mean that I trust things to work out? Because that’s what I do.” Cherry wandered over to the red ball thing, picked it up, and demonstrated to my absolute bewilderment that it was both airtight enough and shapely enough to bounce on the dirt. “Sometimes, I just get a sort of funny feeling and I know what I’m supposed to do. And it always works out, so why bother worrying about it.” Cherry pointed to Graargh and I in turn with the hoof that wasn’t holding the ball, and then to two of the squares. “Here, I’ll show you how to play.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Play, Morty!” Graargh demanded. “We have fun!”

I made no secret of rolling my eyes, but if you have ever had the experience of being subjected to a literal puppy’s ‘puppy dog eyes’, then you have just the vaguest inkling of the power of Graargh’s ‘teddy bear eyes’ to invoke a mighty guilt trip. So, grudgingly, I took my space, noting only “I don’t know if this is going to be fair.”

“Maybe not,” Cherry noted. “But I have a funny tingle in my ear, so I’m sure we’re gonna have fun. Wanna play, Sprout?”

What followed were about ten minutes of an extremely unfair game.

Graargh and I were utterly destroyed by Cherry Tomato, and to a lesser extent, Sprout. I won’t bother transcribing the dialogue, given its utter inanity, but at some point in the process of those short few rounds and those foalish taunts, I somehow missed an odd transformation that I have rarely seen an adult pony form so quickly: when we paused to take a breather (at my behest, for which I was teased by Sprout for ‘getting old’—the audacity of foals!), Graargh rushed up to Cherry and bestowed on him a crushing bear hug. “We play again later, Cherry! I win next time!” Graargh announced.

Cherry just nodded. “Sure, Graargh. Did I say that right?”

Graargh grinned and nodded. “Yes, is right. Like Morty.”

“I think you’re supposed to call him ‘Mortal’,” Sprout observed. “Mrs. Aspiration said.”

“But it hurt Morty’s feelings. He get very mad at Gale when she call him that name; that why she be call him ‘Morty’ in first.”

At about that time, the pegasus filly playing with the lumpy bag had dropped it near us, and when she landed to pick it up, she quirked a brow. “Who’s ‘Gale’? Sounds like a pegasus name.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle when I answered the question. “Princess—er, I guess now Queen Platinum.”

“You know Her Majesty?” the filly asked, completely forgetting about her game.

She had directed the question at me, but it was Graargh who answered before I had a chance. “She good friend; like big sister. And Morty like big brother.” Graargh grinned when he got wide eyes not only from the pegasus, but also Sprout. And a moment later, the other foals who had been playing with the lumpy sack, and were wondering why it hadn’t returned, sooned joined the growing crowd as well.

“Are you and Her Majethty thpecial friendth?” asked a unicorn filly with a pronounced lisp (in case you somehow missed that in the dialogue).

I chuckled at the implication, raised a triumphant hoof for the beginning of a sort of subtly smug ‘why, yes’ gesture, and then caught myself. The absolute fastest possible way to ruin Gale and I’s secret was to spread it to a bunch of random foals whose parents I didn’t even know.

Graargh had no such compunctions. “Very yes!” he exclaimed (hence the punctuation) before I had a chance to do anything about it. “They gross; kiss in front of me and—” the abrupt pause came from me lunging forward to press Graargh’s muzzle closed with both of my forehooves.

“Graargh has a very active imagination, foals; Gale—er, Her Majesty is just our friend.”

Have you ever tried to lie to a large group of foals who already have a motivation—in this case, sheer amusement—to disbelieve you? It’s almost as difficult as holding a grizzly bear’s mouth closed with your hooves.

Graargh wriggled free of my grip without the slightest display of difficulty, took a moment to wrinkle and unwrinkle his muzzle to get his fur lying right or something like that, and then turned to the rest of the students. But by then, he didn’t even need to speak up for himself.

“Mortal’s coltfriend for the Queen!” somepony called out, before another child picked it up in a sort of idiotic ritual chant.

Mortal and Queen Platinum, sitting in a tree…” another sing-songed in my direction.

I stomped my hoof and turned around, and took two solid steps away from the group of taunting foals, and though they at first moved to follow me, my peripheral hearing found that they were stopped by something—or somepony.

“Mortal is telling the truth,” said Cherry. “Her Majesty has lots of suitors, but he isn’t one of them.”

“Aww…” the filly with the lisp muttered, and from the vague but audible deflation of the class, I gathered the mood was generally matched in their postures.

But then one punkish little shit—technical term, in this case, cut out from the disappointment. “Cherry’s right, obviously. It’s not like the Queen would be special someponies with a grownup who has to go to school with us.”

A couple chuckles escaped the group, but it was Cherry himself who actually brought the next words to the conversation. “Mortal, how come you’re here?”

I let out a very tired noise as I turned around. “Look, kids… When I was your age, I had a very mean teacher. He was very good at teaching, but he never taught me to read. That’s all I’m here for.”

“You don’t know how to read?” a teal pegasus colt held a wing over his mouth, and let out a sputtering sound as he failed to hold in a laugh. “A grownup doesn’t know how to read!”

I groaned when another pony started to laugh, and then another, and soon the entire class with the exceptions of Graargh and Cherry was rolling in fits of brutal hysteria, all at my expense. Graargh looked up at me with a curious expression and asked in perfect innocence “Morty, I laugh too?”

“You might as well,” I muttered back, rubbing my brow.

Of course, I hadn’t meant that. Graargh actually joining in, though, certainly did not help my mood. “Look, kids, there are a lot of things I do know that you probably don’t. I can do all kinds of magic.”

That claim got me a few curious eyes, though it died pretty quickly when the teal pegasus foal sputtered again. “But you can’t read!

“Which makes two of us.”

The teal pegasus—whom I had identified as the owner of the aforementioned miniature punkish voice—took the lead by cutting in again. “Nuh-uh! We can read great! The cat ran! That’s what the chalkboard said!”

In between the laughs, it took on the qualities of a tribal chant. “The cat ran! The cat ran! The cat ran!” I can still hear those words in my ears when I sleep. “The cat ran!”

For the record, I am not proud of this reaction, but that particular day in the yard outside the small school room, Wintershimmer’s voice in my head was a great deal stronger than my conscience (which had, oddly, already started to sound like Celestia).

“I may not know how to read, but there are more than a few things I could teach any of you. Things even high-and-mighty Misses Aspiration couldn’t explain. For example,” I led as I lit my horn, letting it flare up despite the drain on my body and Mage Meadowbrook’s warnings about my health. “Respect.”

Star Swirl the Bearded is considered the Father of Transfiguration thanks to his Omniomorphic Spell, allowing a pony to change their form without losing higher brain function. Unfortunately, I did not know how to cast the Omniomorphic Spell.

I did, however, know more than a bit of transfiguration magic.

The teal pegasus colt whose name I hadn’t even learned went from chanting to struggling as my magic lifted him a foot of the ground. And then, just on the verge of screaming, his body began to change. Legs retracted, growing slimmer and more sharply angled. His ears grew pointier, his muzzle shorter and its tip much darker. On and on the changes went until, before he could even scream, he was replaced by a small calico kitten, which promptly plopped back onto the grass.

I should have known it was coming. It was just my luck, really. But as the fillies and colts around me grew silent in awe and fear and curiosity, the inevitable happened almost immediately.

The cat ran.

As the calico kitten rushed away, I briefly considered trying to snatch it with my magic, but two facts rushed to mind to stop me. The first, since it has only come up once in this story, is that I had a natural tendency, due to the coiling of my horn, to use up too much of my magical energy (‘mana’ for you wizards out there) and pass out after three spells in a day—at least, without a large break and usually a meal in between. I would need at least one spell to undo what I had done, and ideally I would like not to be left completely unconscious for casting it. Secondly, when I used these huge sums of magic, my spells were preposterously powerful, even for a trained wizard—which, while handy for hurling corrupt crystal guardsponies through solid crystal walls back in my former home in the frozen north, was less than suitable for snatching a moving kitten without… well, not to put too gorey a point on it, but without ripping the poor creature in half. Thus, when my pitiful hoof lunge failed to catch, I was left to watch as it sprinted across the yard, scrambled up the side of a rainspout, and made off up the roof of the schoolhouse.

“Morty,” Graargh observed, pointing with one hoof. “You fuck up.”

I didn’t have it in me to scold his language, and so despite standing in the middle of at least a dozen impressionable minds, all I could think of for a reply was a terse correction. “Fucked,” I observed with a certain hollow finality. “I fucked up. We use the past tense, Graargh, because it has already happened.”

Sprout, who had apparently been standing close enough to hear our little conversation, asked “Mr. Mortal, what does ‘fuck’ mean?”

And, of course, taken by surprise, I channeled Gale and responded with the one word that could magically make the situation worse.

Shit.

4-2

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IV - II

The Dim Deception

“Umm… Mithter Mortal… when ith Theagrass gonna turn back?”

I glanced down at the filly standing beside me, and then back up at the calico kitten that had formerly been a teal pegasus colt. With each passing second, he grew further away, making an impressive show of scrambling across the palace district’s uneven rooftops.

“When I go get him,” I answered sadly, adjusting my jacket’s collar. “That spell would take a couple days to wear off otherwise, and somehow I doubt he’d survive that long on the streets.”

Graargh nodded eagerly. “Cats very tasty.”

At least one foal began to cry, and when I looked down to see that Graargh was looking back up at me with profound confusion, it was only the magnitude of my own staggering mistake that kept me from laughing. “Well, buddy… Can I count on your help again?”

Graargh beamed, and his grin… well, since I was still quite a bit taller than him and knew him longer than quite possibly any other living being in the world, I found it quite endearing. But to the smaller foals, he was decently sized for a bear cub, and showing quite a lot of teeth.

I guess the point is that even though the crying got louder, I appreciated his enthusiasm.

“I grow big?” Graargh asked.

I glanced past the fence of the schoolyard nervously. “No… I think you had better not. Somehow I don’t think an adult bear running on ponies’ roofs would go over well with the guards… Come on.”

As I walked toward a gate on the fence around the schoolyard, I discovered very quickly that not just Graargh (whom I wanted), but the entire class was following me.

“You can grow?” Cherry asked. “That sounds very useful! Sometimes I wish I could grow big; it would make my tabard fit better at church.”

“You’re still working at the church?” I wondered idly, before refocusing myself on the immense problem rapidly getting worse as the little kitten got further away. “Look, everypony… just, go back to playing your games or whatever. I’ll be back with Seagram before you know it.”

Seagrass,” one of the other students corrected.

“Can we come?” another small voice asked.

I looked at the foal, and then up at the roof. “You honestly think I’m going to try and drag…” A quick count gave me “...sixteen foals onto the roof with me?”

“Misses Aspiration says if not everypony can do an ac-tiv-ty, then nopony can do it.”

At that point, I’d had enough. “Misses Aspiration is a foalsitter with delusions of grandeur.” When I got blank stares from all seventeen of the foals around me (one of whom happened to be a shapeshifting bear in disguise) I dragged a hoof down my face. “No. I am not putting any more of you in danger. Come on, Graargh.”

The bubblegum pink pegasus filly of the group frowned, tugging at my hind leg as I tried to leave. “I’ll tell Mitheth Athpiration! You’re a meanie!”

I glared back over my shoulder at sixteen pairs of puppydog eyes. And while ‘you’re a meanie’ wasn’t the height of a rhetorical threat, unfortunately, telling the teacher—or any adult, really—was. While I was sure the pink filly was imagining time facing the corner or repeating phrases on a chalkboard, my mind wandered to the Everfree palace dungeons, or the trio of flung icicles from Commander Typhoon’s wing that had struck frighteningly true blows on a fountain in the gardens outside.

And then an idea struck me. A wonderful, awful idea. I’m still rather quite proud of it.

“Alright, fine; just Graargh is going to leave.” I patted Graargh on the shoulder. “If you’re willing to help.”

Graargh donned a massive toothy grin. “What I do do, Morty?”

“Haha, he said ‘doodoo’,” one foal helpfully added.

Another contributed with “Mrs. Aspiration says—”

“The next pony who brings up one of Mrs. Aspirations’ rules to me gets to join Seabiscuit on the roof as a cat.” Thankfully, I was at least self aware enough to realize in the pregnant pause that followed, that there were a great many foals in that moment mulling whether or not being turned into a cat would be fun, and before their respective infantile thought processes could run to fruition, I swiftly added an addendum. “And since I only have enough magic to turn one of you back, I’ll let Graargh eat the other one.”

Immensely helpfully, Graargh asked “Promise?” And it should be read to the little bear cubs credit that, when I sighed and massaged my temple with a hoof, he muttered “Aww…”

I made a mental note to ask Mage Meadowbrook about the throbbing of that particular vein in my temple; it seemed to be throbbing and bulging with growing regularity.

“Now, everypony, I have a deal for you." Reaching just one hoof into my left side pocket, I produced the envelope Queen Platinum I had provided me over breakfast. “These are letters of credit,” I explained. “Which basically means they’re money. Ten thousand bits, in fact. I’m somewhat wishing the Queen had given me a bag of coins for effect, but I hope you all understand anyway.”

“That many coins would weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds,” Cherry Tomato happily told me. When I raised a brow, he added “Or way, way more if she gave you anything other than gold bits.” When I raised both brows, he smiled. “Sometimes I had to carry trunks of gold for Sir Halo and the Church. A chest of a thousand gold bit coins weighs exactly seventeen pounds, but that’s counting the box.”

“Why do I even ask?”

“...Morty didn’t?” Graargh contributed.

Somewhere, a dentist turned in his grave at the sound of my teeth grinding. “Well, class, here’s the deal. I will buy each of you a whole candy apple, and all you have to do is go back to playing and promise not to talk to anypony about this. Deal?” I did not wait for an answer, turning toward the exit to the yard.

As those of you familiar with foals will know, not waiting for their agreement should have bitten me. Foals are insidious and treacherous creatures, and will gladly break any agreement not made explicit (or even some that are) if it serves their immediate, short-term interests. In that regard, one might note they are rather like fey. Still, I got a few solid nods, and it was enough for me to return my attention to Graargh.

“Alright, Graargh. Do you remember what Gale’s big sister looks like?”

“Miss Com-ander,” Graargh replied with a nod.

I shook my head. “‘Commander’ is her title, Graargh. Her name is ‘Typhoon’.”

“Oh!” Graargh nodded. “Miss Commander Typhoon. Graargh understands.”

“Good. Now, I want you to try something. Can you…” I nervously glanced over my shoulder, and noted the entire class was still staring at us. Still, there was nothing for it. “Can you pretend to be her?”

“Graargh do!” Graargh agreed. “Easier than S’lestia. Miss Commander is much smaller!” No sooner were the words finished than my bear cub friend was engulfed in green flame. It took scant more than a second to pass, and produced no heat, but I winced back at the light just the same, and when I recovered myself, the spitting image of Commander Typhoon stood in front of me.

Graargh’s impersonation was uncanny. I’d seen him make a more than passable copy of me, of a crystal guardsmare, and even a decent stab at Celestia (though she came across both without the magic of her mane, and far far smaller than the genuine article). But what most surprised me about Graargh’s riff on Typhoon was that she came clothed—or rather, armored. Wrapped over the tan mare with the tri-tone autumn mane was the jet black crystal-coated cuirass most well known for being worn by her father. I knew its coating as void crystal, always hungry for unicorn magic and, to a unicorn, massively painful to the touch. Still, a part of the back of my mind whispered that it couldn’t really be; I expected on touch that it would feel like some kind of flesh, or maybe dense keratin like the claws he had as a bear.

On contact, it was neither. It felt like a gemstone, but it certainly didn’t hurt me on contact.

“Huh. Can you feel that?”

“Morty push me,” said Typhoon’s commanding voice, and I quietly took note of how unfair it was that even in Graargh’s ridiculous excuse for Equiish grammar, the leader of Equestria’s military could still sound so powerful. “But not feel touch; it armor, not fur. How this help catch kitty?”

“Hmm? Oh, right.” I shook my head. “No, I want to try something with you. Can you, uh, flap your wings?”

Graargh nodded. “Sure, but not see how thiiii—!” the abrupt, slightly nauseated screaming of a fully grown pegasus military mare as he launched into the air told me my guess had been correct, albeit in the worst possible way.

“Oh…”

To elaborate on my thought process: Graargh had briefly been able to hover when he had taken the form of Celestia, in open violation of everything that I knew about the laws of morphic transfiguration. Therefore, my hope was that with larger wings and a fully-sized pegasus body, he would be able to more effectively use whatever magic let him fly. If so, while I didn’t expect him to fly the way a real pegasus could, the combination of full-length legs and wings to help with jumping and gliding should have been enough for him to catch the kitten.

Rarely have I been more immediately disheartened by a hypothesis being proven correct.

“What was that?” Cherry asked, stepping up beside me and craning his neck toward the sky. “Did you cast a spell? I didn’t see your horn light up.”

“I’m very fast,” I lied.

Cherry chuckled. “Master Halo said the same thing. Is… is Graargh going to come back down? It will be very hard to play squares if he doesn’t land.”

“I would assume he’ll land eventually. It would be weird if he were better at flying than Typhoon.”

A pegasus youth from the class body stepped forward. “Um… sometimes when pegasi are very little, and they don’t have control of their flying yet, they do things like this. Just shoot off somewhere.”

“And they usually land safely?” I asked.

The foal shrugged. “I mean… they usually aren’t all the way big yet. So they don’t go that far.”

Overhead, in the figurative distance, the sound of a grown mare screaming began to grow audible again. “Ah… perhaps we should all take two big steps backwards?” I suggested, only taking a single stride myself due to considerable height advantage.

Commander Typhoon, or rather Graargh, plunged out of the sky directly towards where we had been standing, and landed with a rather disconcerting crunch. Foals screamed at the sight of Typhoon’s obviously broken legs—especially the one jutting off at a right angle to…

Well, leave it to your imagination.

What matters is that Graargh seemed not especially troubled by this turn of events. That isn’t to say he wasn’t hurting, judging by the expression the mare’s face, but Graargh maintained far more composure than a rather permanently crippled mare ought to have in such a situation. A moment later, I learned why: after a burst of green flame, Graargh was still to all appearances the leader of Equestria’s military, but he was no longer a rather sickening pile of her broken bones on the school yard ground.

“I fly!” he announced, before rather casually adding “It kinda hurt, Morty.”

“You… can regenerate?”

“I play good pretend,” Graargh answered. “I pretend ouch not hurt, and it not hurt.”

I blinked in shock. “On our trip… you could do that the entire time?

Graargh nodded. “Many time try tell Morty ‘I protect’, ‘I keep safe’. But always Morty say Morty be one who go in front, who get hurt, get punched by bad fuck or Winnershimmer or Tempest or…. well, everypony Morty meet. Never let,” and then he roared, which sounded even stranger than usual out of Typhoon’s throat, before continuing “be one who get hurt, even though it not hurt me bad. I strong. Er, I is strong. Remember, I carry Morty and Gale in tunnel under Morty’s house. I fight Winnershimmer too.”

Typhoon’s prosthetic hoof—which felt to all the world like metal to me—came to rest on my shoulder as Graargh looked me nearly square in the eye (I was a good bit taller than Typhoon, but the height difference was far less than I enjoyed when he was a bear cub) and offered me a smile. “I help. Morty trust. We family, remember?”

“I… yeah, sorry Graargh.” I shook my head, trying to force down a note of worry in the back of my mind. “Um… so the point of you being Typhoon was that she’s the first pegasus I thought of who actually has two wings. Hopefully if you sort of… maybe not fly like that, but jump and glide and run, you can catch Seabiscuit before he gets away, and bring him back?”

“Seagrass,” Cherry Tomato corrected.

“I try,” Graargh agreed, before turning around and giving a much more hesitant pump of his new tan wings; the force propelled him flying probably higher than was strictly necessary to jump from the ground onto the roof, but it wasn’t so out of control that he was likely to disappear into the wild blue yonder, as it were.

With my friend gone from sight, I paced over to the schoolhouse wall and glanced in a window. For just a moment, my heart stopped to find Aspiration completely absent from the building, but then I let caution and good sense pull me back; the teacher surely needed a break to eat too, and likely had only stepped out of the front of the building or something. After all, if she had seen what happened, surely she would have shown herself immediately. I chuckled at the thought of her trying to fix it herself—what was some schoolteacher going to do against magic as powerful as mine, even if she had some way to catch the kitten? No, I was certain, she couldn’t have possibly seen anything. Which meant, as long as Graargh and Soybeans were back before her, everything would be fine.

I was staggeringly wrong, of course, but that doesn’t make the assumption less rational with the information I had on hoof.

With a sigh of relief, I turned my back to the wall and collapsed to a seat against it. I thought I might have a moment to collect my thoughts in peace, but Cherry Tomato, ever the persistent optimist, refused to give me such a chance.

“Graargh said you were family; are you his dad? Or just something like a brother?”

“I’m not his dad,” I muttered on instinct. “So… big brother, sure, why not?” Then I chuckled at the irony. “He’s more my sibling than any of my real siblings, that’s for sure.”

“He’s not your real sibling?” Cherry asked.

“Cherry, it’s not like we’re different breeds of pony; he’s a bear.”

“The scriptures teach us love comes in many forms, and Her Holiness is happiest when we don’t judge,” Cherry recited to me.

I found myself gritting my teeth. “No. He isn’t my real brother. I don’t have any real full siblings, but I have a couple of half-siblings back in the Crystal Union. I barely know them though.” I leaned my head back fully against the wall of the schoolhouse and let out a tired sigh. “I met Graargh three months ago. He fished me out of a river to save me from drowning. I tried to help him find his real parents, but… well, I’m pretty sure either they abandoned him or they’re dead. I brought him to a group of bears, but he decided he’d rather stay with me, and we’ve been together since.”

“Oh. So you basically are his dad, then?” Cherry asked. “You look out for him, and keep him safe, like he said?”

“If we’re being honest, Cherry, I mostly put him in danger, despite my best efforts. Although apparently he was in a lot less danger than I assumed, if he can just heal all his wounds whenever he wants.”

“Well, sometimes we have to have a little bit of danger to grow, and we trust our parents to know what we can handle.” When I pulled my head up from the wall to look askance at the sudden wisdom passing the young stallion’s lips, Cherry only offered me a smile for an explanation.

“You’re a strange kid, Cherry. Is that from spending so much time at the Church?”

“Oh, I don’t really think the Church is that important,” Cherry noted. “But being a squire to Count Halo seemed like the best way to find an adventure, and that seems like the best thing for me to be doing. After all my special talent is that I’m special.”

“I… wait, what?” I cast a quick glance to Cherry’s hindquarters, where I found he wore the symbol of a gold star—not a magical six- or seven-pointed star, but more like the sort of five-pointed shape, colored gold, that might be attached as a sticker to the work of a foal who succeeded in class. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know,” Cherry answered with a shrug. “Good things just happen around me because I’m special. So I have to be where the most important things are happening, because that way the most important things will turn out good. That’s how you are too, right? Since you’re Her Holiness’ Chosen One?”

“I…” I frowned as my instinctual objection failed under the realization that what Cherry had presented was not, in fact, a foal’s complete misconception, but rather a potentially sophisticated philosophical conundrum. “Um… I wouldn’t use those words, but I guess so?”

Cherry nodded, making a mockery of the word ‘sagaciously’ by applying it to a thirteen-year-old head, seemingly against the word’s own will. “It must be hard balancing that with taking care of Graargh, whether he’s your little brother or your foal.”

“I… to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it until now.” I swallowed. “When we were on the road, it was obvious he was better off with me than me abandoning him and making him go off on his own. But now we’re in the city, and… Tartarus, I don’t even know what I’m doing with myself now, let alone Graargh.” I scowled, shook my head, and then let my eyes fall on Cherry. “Why am I even telling you any of this, kid?”

“Ponies tell me things because I’m special,” answered Cherry. “It’s part of the talent, I think. Or maybe not; who knows?” He shrugged, then apropos of nothing in particular, fixed me with big puppy dog eyes that should never have existed on a teenage face, yet somehow managed to work for him. “Can I join your party?”

“I beg your pardon, what?”

“You know, your party? Your friends that hunt monsters and save Equestria? In the church, a group of knights who go out to hunt monsters is called an ‘adventuring party’ - is that the wrong words?” Cherry cocked his head, making the wide-eyed effect even more sickening. “I read some about you and your friends in the newspaper, and it was all the talk in the city for a while.”

“I… What are you, twelve?”

“Thirteen,” he replied. “And you have to start somewhere, right?”

I slammed my hoof into my brow, painfully catching the base of my horn. He was right, of course; I’d been five years younger when Wintershimmer first began to bring me along on his journeys to the edges of the Crystal Union, dealing with the various magical threats that crop up on the fringes of civilized society. “Do you even know how to fight?”

Cherry took no offense at the frankly dismissive question; instead, he nodded eagerly. “I’ve been Count Halo’s squire since I got my mark; I know how to wear armor and use a sword and a mace and bladed hooves. And I’m really fast, and pretty strong too. Like how I beat you and Graargh so bad at squares.”

I winced, in part at the memory of my recent humiliation, and in part because he was unquestionably right again. “And you’d rather run around with me than Count Halo? Even though he’s already teaching you?”

“Oh, he retired. He said he lost his honor as a knight, and he was going to go live in a farm up north, and he’d be very happy there, and that I shouldn’t worry about him.”

I stared for about ten very long seconds as I wondered whether or not Cherry knew what the idiom ‘moving to a farm up north’ meant, and then feeling enormously guilty over what had happened.

“It’s a nice farm; he took me once. I think it’s his family’s noble domain. They grow sweet potatoes.” When I breathed out a sigh of relief, Cherry added “Why were you holding your breath, Morty?”

“Nothing,” I answered far too quickly to be believed. “It’s nothing, really. I swear.” Then, desperately searching for literally any other topic in the world, I returned my attention to Cherry’s question. “Assuming I thought you were able to keep up with Graargh and Gale and I, why do you want to be putting yourself in danger?”

“Well…” Cherry’s eyes ran away from my face. “Like I said, I’m special. So I need to be where things are happening. And you’re going to be where things are happening. I can feel it. Like, in my ears and stuff.”

I raised a brow. “So you feel like you’re obligated to follow me around? That’s it? There’s nothing in it for you?” Cherry was very obviously avoiding my gaze at that point, so I pressed. “You’re not looking to get paid, or get famous or something? Not looking to have your name in the newspaper?” I jokingly cast my across the sky as if framing a headline (not that I could have read it): “Cherry Tomato, hero of Everfree City?”

To my surprise, when my accusation was done, it seemed a weight was lifted off of Cherry’s shoulders. “Oh, is this one of those temptations of glory like Count Halo used to warn me about? No, you don’t need to worry about me. I don’t need anypony to know me; I just need to know that I’m doing everything I can.”

Perhaps the reader should be reminded that, for all the casual dismissal Cherry gave that temptation, it was still something of a fresh struggle and an open wound for ‘the Hero of Platinum’s Landing’. So perhaps you’ll understand, if not forgive me, when I snapped what could have been stated in far gentler terms. “I’m sure that’s very easy for you, Cherry.”

“Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m not looking for an apprentice,” I noted. “And I may be one of the best wizards who ever lived, but even I can’t teach magic to an earth pony.”

Cherry Tomato’s expression soured in an instant. “I thought you’d be different,” he muttered as he stood up and walked away. And for all that I decided I hadn’t liked the colt, maybe it was something about his talent that made me feel worse about what I’d said to him than what I’d done to Seagrass.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Auditoris Frostfall was not the second-in-command of the Cirran Legion, nor even the third or fourth, but I will hypothesize that she was perhaps the second most powerful pony in the military organization regardless. This power didn’t come to the white mare with the frosty mane by way of magical powers, hurling icicles or breathing fire like Commander Typhoon or her father. As already mentioned it didn’t come from rank. The power stemmed from two far more mundane reasons. Firstly, she was Commander Typhoon’s Auditoris (that is, essentially, her secretary). And thanks to Typhoon’s spite for paperwork (a quality no doubt inherited from her father and predecessor, Commander Hurricane), Frostfall, like her predecessor Pansy before her, was trusted with the immense responsibility of deciding what major decisions were even worth the Commander’s time.

The second reason Frostfall held so much power was that in addition to Typhoon’s secretary, she was also the Commander’s lover. And lest anypony worry that I’m telling you this to demean either mare or their relationship, I’ll make two notes: firstly, she achieved the rank of Auditoris first. And secondly, that concern almost certainly colored Frostfall’s reaction when, while walking down the streets of Everfree city carrying a messenger’s bag full of the day’s groceries, she overheard two Legionaries speaking in hushed whispers.

“Was that…? No, it couldn’t have been.”

“It certainly looked like Commander Typhoon eating a cat.”

“Hopefully just carrying it in her mouth.”

“Hey, I’m not one to judge. And you shouldn’t be either; she’s the Commander for a reason, no matter what she likes putting in her mouth.”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you’ve heard the rumors about her Auditoris, right? Cause if anything, this looks like proof that the Commander likes licking pussy.”

Frostfall walked quietly up behind the two armored guards—though her present occupation was clerical, as evidenced by her quiet hoofsteps, she had once been a decently proficient scout—and coughed once. Not a real cough, mind you. More like a well enunciated “Ahem.” Then, when the soldiers jumped, she said “Legionaries.”

“Mobius have mercy…” one of them muttered as he snapped a salute. “Auditoris!”

“...for I shall give you none,” Frostfall completed with a bladed wink. “But I might, might forget what I just heard if you point me in the direction of the Commander. You said she was carrying a cat?”

“Uh… well, sort of trying to carry it, or catch it, or something,” the more forward of the two legionaries answered. “I don’t think it wanted to be caught. She was heading toward the palace.”

Frostfall groaned. “She doesn’t need another scar.” Then the Legion officer nodded to said guard and unslung a bag from her shoulder. “I’d better go help her. You can take these groceries home for me; it’s the red house on the north end of the Via Dioda in Cloudsdale.”

“You… want me to go into your house, ma’am?”

“It’s a friendly neighborhood. And I know nopony respects it, but Auditoris is an officer’s rank,” she answered as she set the bag down. “So that is an order, legionary. And you, cunning linguist: I still need a two bottles of marelot; you can expense them in my name.”

“You want us to do your grocery shopping?” the young stallion asked.

“Since you seem so invested in the Commander’s personal life, I thought you’d be honored. She and I usually prefer to drain a bottle after she’s had a trying evening dealing with her younger sister. And now that Gale’s the Queen, I thought two bottles might be necessary.” Her shoulders unburdened, Frostfall stepped forward between the two soldiers and patted each on their shoulders with a wing. “So the rumors you’ve heard are true. But if they stop being rumors, I’ll have you both crucified. Officer, remember?” And with that, Frostfall took flight.

There’s a reputation amongst former scouts that persists even to this day—that is, the day of writing—that pegasus scouts are universally hot-headed stunt-fliers. And while the stereotype is based in reality, like most stereotypes, it is hardly universal. Frostfall’s talents on her wings were less a matter of swift and agile flying, and more a tolerance for long, quiet glides. So when presented with the problem of pursuing Typhoon—a mare who absolutely had been a hot-headed stunt flier in her youth, and who was still known to outfly most of her subordinates into the increasing approach of middle age—was to gain altitude as quickly as possible, and then to simply glide, and look, and wait.

I could have, had I been so inclined, looked up and seen Frostfall adopting this position, had Cherry not still been holding my attention at that point in the schoolyard. And similarly, Frostfall had no particular reason to be focusing on the little school in the palace district when her eyes could instead focus in on the palace proper.

From there, it wasn’t hard to spot her quarry; magic-eating black armor and a tri-tone mane do tend to stand out even from a bird’s-eye-view. And sure enough, rather than flying like the genuine article surely would have in the face of such a threat, ‘Typhoon’ was sprinting and jumping in a sort of cat’s play, albeit with the actual cat filling the role of the prey in this particular exchange. Their battle had moved fully from the streets and into the gardens around the palace by the time her eyes found them, with the cat in question scampering up onto the dryer parts of a fountain depicting Private Pansy, Clover the Clever, and Smart Cookie—probably in hopes that the water would scare off the much larger predator. And, hilariously, it seemed to be working.

It really wasn’t like Typhoon at all, in Frostfall’s reckoning; something was obviously wrong. And when something was wrong with Typhoon, well, there might as well have been a spotlight in the sky with Frostfall’s quadruple snowflake talent mark shadowed across it. Angling her wings forward, the Auditoris let herself fall into a dive.

The cat never stood a chance. Frostfall’s hooves were swift and her wings were quiet, but her real advantage was that she actually owned a cat of her own, and knew the great secret of all skilled feline slaves—for what else could truthfully describe somepony with the hubris to claim that they are the owner in such a relationship?—that is, the fact that one can safely squish the cat without harming it.

“Oooh! Thank you nice pony! It hard catch.”

If there was any lingering question as to the invalidity of Graargh’s disguise, his grammar and distance to Frostfall cemented him as an impostor. “Who are you, and why do you look like Commander Typhoon?”

“I—” and then, of course, Graargh roared. “But can call ‘Graargh’; Morty say ponies not can—er, not is can make that noise.”

“Morty—the wizard kid from Platinum’s Landing?” Frostfall sighed. “I’m going to ask again: why do you look like Typhoon?”

“Hmm? Oh, I play pretend.” Graargh grinned with Typhoon’s face. Judging by the disgusted reaction that earned from Frostfall, his double-wide foalish bear grin was not an expression native to the pegasus leader. “You want I play pretend with—”

“Graargh!” Both Frostfall and Graargh turned as, panting and sprinting across the palace gardens, one Misses Aspiration approached. “Oh Celestia! I’m so sorry, ma’am. This isn’t really Commander Typhoon.”

Frostfall rolled her eyes. “I had gathered, Miss…”

“Aspiration; I’m Graargh’s schoolteacher.” Finally having reached Frostfall, Aspiration extended a hoof for a hoofshake.

Frostfall glanced down at the cat struggling in her forelegs, then raised a single eyebrow. “I know I’m out of uniform right now, but I’m an officer of the Legion. Auditoris Frostfall. Can you explain why this… foal, apparently… is impersonating Commander Typhoon?”

“Graargh help,” Graargh offered, and then—surely much to Typhoon’s continued embarrassment, despite her physical absence—bit down on the scruff of Seagrass’ neck to hold him like a mother cat. “Mmow oo cnn shk Mmph Affrtunf hff.”

Frostfall’s brow climbed higher. “Did you make that out?”

“He said now you can shake my hoof,” Aspiration noted with a sigh. “Look, I’m extremely sorry. Um… where do I even begin? Lady Celestia sent me two new students today: this little creature, who’s actually a bear cub under that magic—”

“You’re Morty’s bear cub?” Frostfall asked. “I heard about you. That makes a bit more sense.”

“‘Morty’ is the other student,” Aspiration noted. “I think he cast whatever spell did…” With her horn, Aspiration gestured to… well, all of Graargh. “This.”

“It does explain a few things,” Frostfall noted. “It also raises a number of further questions. The first of which being why?”

“Mm! Cnn Unnfwer.”

“What?” Frostfall rolled her eyes. “Hold him with your wings… if they’re real. Just squeeze him.”

Graargh in a body that wasn’t his own (not that bear form was technically his own either, but it was at least infinitely more familiar) was less effectual at holding a desperate kitten than Frostfall had been. Still, despite his discomfort (and the subsequent discomfort of its claws visibly drawing blood from ‘his’ wings—a pain he seemed completely able to ignore) Graargh held onto the little creature. “Morty say I need pretend pony with wings. Um… pegsus.”

“A pegasus,” Aspiration corrected.

Frostfall shot the teacher a glance out of the corner of her eye. “Is this really the time for a lesson?”

“Sorry,” Aspiration answered. “Go on, Graargh.”

“Need wings to catch cat. And Morty ask what pegasus pony I know. Papa Cane best, but not have two wing. Um… guess Morty could have say ‘Blizzard’, but maybe Morty not think that. Or Tempest.”

“Blizzard? ‘Papa Cane’?”

“Commander-Emeritus Hurricane, and his… a friend of Her Majesty’s,” Frostfall clarified. “Irrespectively. And Tempest is the Commander’s son. I had heard Morty and his friends were staying with the family, so I assume that’s who he means, anyway.” Frostfall sighed. “So Morty chose the single most high-profile pegasus in Equestria, turned you into a perfect copy of her despite lacking any kind of tact, and sent you to chase a stray cat through the streets?”

Graargh, bless his heart, may not have had a firm grasp of Equiish grammar, but he realized that, just perhaps, admitting why he had been sent to catch a street cat in front of both Miss Aspirations and a mare he would later describe to me as “scary friendly pegus” mare” would have been a terrible idea.

So he just nodded his head.

“That…” Frostfall sighed. “Sounds entirely believable. I’m guessing you have to go back to him to stop looking like that?”

“No,” Graargh answered, before offering Seagrass back to Frostfall. When the soldier took hold of the kitten (failing to notice that, just behind Frostfall, Miss Aspiration was fiercely cringing, shaking her head, and even gesturing a hoof back and forth across her throat), Graargh erupted in a quick burst of green flame. A moment later, he was back to his tiny ursine self. “See? All better.”

“Huh.” Frostfall shrugged. “Alright, I’m going to make a note to have a strong word with… Archmage Coil? Mr. Coil?”

“Morty,” Graargh suggested. “Everypony who call Morty ‘Coil’ mean. Like Winnershimmer or bad fuck.”

Frostfall snorted as her best effort at keeping a straight face for Graargh’s preferred way of referring to the leader of the Crystal Union’s military. “Not touching that one. Just ‘Morty’ works. Graargh, for now I’m going to have to ask that you not use whatever magic he cast on you. Just stay as yourself. Can you do that?”

Graargh nodded.

“And Misses Aspiration… well, I guess all I can say is that I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. Maybe keep a closer eye on those two?”

“I will be certain to, um… Adu… Adi…”

“Auditoris,” Frostfall completed. “Now, why don’t you two run along?” Frostfall handed Seagrass back to Graargh. “Um… don’t lose your cat again?”

“Not lose first time,” Graargh answered. “Morty lose.”

Frostfall nodded, turning toward the palace. “I’m just going to go set aside a drawer in our records room under ‘M’ now. Have a good day.”

“We’ll be sure to,” Aspiration answered, shuffling Graargh away from the Palace.

The first few dozen strides teacher and new student took were in total silence. It only ended when they had passed the walls around the gardens, and were back in the far less formal streets of the palace district.

“Are you insane, grub? What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nnmn Grb.”

“What?” Aspiration then glanced to see Graargh was still holding Seagrass in his teeth like a mother cat. Picking up the transformed foal in her magic, she glared toward Graargh. “Well?”

“Name ‘Graargh’, not ‘grub’.”

“I don’t give two…” Aspiration’s irate dismissal faded as some indescribably alien intellect crackled behind her green eyes. “I’m sorry, Graargh. Having to talk to the Auditoris was embarrassing for me, but I shouldn’t take it out on you. Before we go back to class, though I need to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”

Graargh nodded. “That okay. What ask?”

“That isn’t really Morty’s magic changing your shape, is it?” Aspiration led.

The question put a nervous expression on Graargh’s ursine muzzle. “Morty not get in trouble, right? You not hurt him?”

Aspiration chuckled. “Your guardian is a wizard, Graargh. I’m just a schoolteacher. I don’t think I could hurt him even if I wanted to. But if it makes you feel better, I promise, Morty won’t be in any trouble. I’m asking because I’m worried about you.”

“Oh.” Graargh nodded. “It… not really Morty magic, no. Um… when I pretend hard, make green fire. Mom say green fire bad, not make. Very not make… not be make in front of ponies, she says.”

“You knew your mother? Were there many other gru—er, Graargh’s with you?”

Graargh cocked his head. “That my name. There not be more of me. That silly… well, no, I guess there more of Morty one time, so could happen.” Then he chuckled. “Moon pony make me good Morty. Talk just like him too!”

“Moon…” Aspiration’s expression shifted from confusion to worry. “You can’t mean Luna?” Graargh nodded enthusiastically, which only made the teacher’s expression more worried still.“You changed in front of her and you’re still alive?!”

“Of course! Why not? Moona mean about it, not like Morty much, but she help.”

“Because her Night Guard eat—” Aspiration cut herself off with a sharp breath. “Graargh, do you know what you are?”

The question, as usual, soured Graargh’s mood. “Why ponies always ask this? Am bear! Can big bear or small bear, sometimes play pretend when Morty ask, but am bear. Ponies not have name like,” and then, of course, Graargh bellowed out a roar that in no way matched the size of his body.

Aspiration cast a rather nervous glance around the streets of the palace district—for in the course of their discussion, the duo had passed the walls that separated the palace’s extensive gardens from its surrounding streets. A few ponies had turned at the noise, to no surprise, but nopony seemed inclined to stick their muzzle where it wasn’t wanted.

“Alright… What I was trying to ask about before: did you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No. Just mom and dad.”

“You knew your father?” Aspiration asked incredulously.

Graargh nodded. “Why you ask like weird? Lots of pony know dads, right? Gale know dad; Papa ‘Cane very friendly, make good fish.”

“I… nevermind, Graargh. I’m just wondering if you have a proper guardian besides Morty. Somepony who looks out for you?” Then, that same grim intellect behind Aspiration’s eyes faltered for a moment. “This ‘Papa Cane’ is Commander Hurricane?”

Graargh nodded enthusiastically. “He good.”

“Perhaps,” Aspiration answered. “But I’m not certain he’s a good fit for a little… bear… of your life experiences.”

“Well, have Morty; Papa Cane just nice.”

“You seem quite attached to Morty. You… do understand he’s barely an adult himself?”

“Morty save world!” Then, with some momentary hesitance, Graargh added. “I help!”

“Yes, I have read the newspaper,” the schoolteacher observed. “And it’s obvious he loves you, in his own way. I can smell it on you, and you certainly aren’t starving.”

“That silly!” Graargh chuckled. “Love not smell. Not eat it either!”

“Ah, no, I suppose not.” Aspiration then looked away from Graargh to see her own schoolhouse fast approaching in their path. “Before we go back in, two last things, Graargh: where are you actually from?”

“Graargh and mom and dad live in cave by river. At least, before they leave.”

“A river,” Aspiration repeated flatly. “Do you know which river?”

“By where Morty come from. He say… um… Oh! Crystal Onion!”

“The Crystal Union?” In a quieter voice, very much to herself, Aspiration noted “There’s no hive near the Crystal Union anymore...” Then the teacher’s eyes slowly widened. “Wait, so you… you really don’t know anything about who you are?”

“Am,” Graargh offered before a roar that caught a few eyes of ponies on the street who had otherwise not paid much mind to the unicorn leading a bear cub at a distance. “Morty family. Gale family. That all.”

“Right…” Aspiration sighed. “I’m going to need to have a word with Morty in private about how best to make sure you’re being taken care of. But for now, can you keep a secret?”

Graargh nodded. “I keep secret good. Why?”

“Well, I promised you that Morty won’t get in trouble for any of this, right? Well, in order to keep that promise, I need you to make a promise too. I need you to promise not to talk about what we just talked about—not even to Morty.”

“Why not tell Morty, if Morty one in trouble?”

“Because if Miss Frostfall that we just talked to knew that Morty had turned a foal into a cat—” At Graargh’s wince, the teacher chuckled. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t notice a student was missing from recess, did you?”

“I… not think of that.”

“Well, I can keep a secret for both of your sakes. You can trust me. But only if you keep it secret too. Got it?”

“Graargh understand.”

“Good.” Aspiration patted Graargh on the shoulder, and then handed over the still-transformed Seagrass. “Now, you take this one back to Morty so he can get changed back, and I’m going to go in the front door and pretend I didn’t notice anything was wrong. And then we’ll teach you some math; does that sound fun?”

“Graargh not know,” the bear answered enthusiastically. “Can eat ‘math’?”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

When Graargh came marching back into the schoolyard alone, I was left to assume our plan had succeeded with perfect subtrefuge, and seeing that Graargh was carrying the subject of his mission in his bear teeth, I took it as a small miracle that he’d managed to catch Seagrass without harming the foal-turned-kitten—or, stars forbid, eating him. I didn’t even bother to question why Graargh wasn’t still wearing Typhoon’s form. I just took Seagrass aside, restored him to his natural form (with an unusually deep twinge of pain in my horn), and made him the promise of two candy apples in exchange for buying his silence.

The little runt bartered me up to three, but I got what I wanted. We returned to the mass of the other students just as Mrs. Aspiration announced our recess had ended—a timing which, at the time, seemed like another spat of good luck.

The class returned to our seats (or in my case, the floor), and looked at the board to see not Equiish prose, but a list of basic arithmetic equations. Addition, subtraction, even a set of multiplication problems involving fractions for the older students. “Now, students, this afternoon we’re going to be working on some basic exercises…” I tuned the teacher out as she described the full directions.

My mind wandered for some time as she set out wood framed slates and small pieces of chalk in front of each student. I recall reflecting on Wintershimmer’s method of teaching arithmetic when she reached my desk. “Am I boring you, Coil?”

I shook my head out of my daydreaming recollection, and then my mind caught up with my ears and my momentary interest, by virtue of shock, fell away. “I’m illiterate, not completely uneducated.” Then I glanced over Aspiration’s shoulder at the board. “Three. Twelve and a half. Three thousand nine hundred—”

“I will ask that you not spoil the lesson for the rest of the class,” Aspiration interrupted. “But point taken.” She gently nodded to the slate on my desk. “I’m curious; can you read the last one aloud?”

“The circle one?” I asked, earning a nod from the teacher. “Not really, given most of it’s a diagram. But I can describe it.”

“Go ahead,” Aspiration prompted.

“Given an isosceles triangle whose base is overlaid on a circle of radius three… uh, arbitrary units?” Aspiration nodded encouragingly. “Such that the arc of the circle intersects the height-line of the triangle. And the triangle’s leg length is five of those same units. I’m supposed to find… well, I’m guessing ‘X’ with the line to the shaded area means you want me to find the area of the triangle that isn’t covered by the circle?”

“That’s correct,” Aspiration noted. “The ‘ticks’ next to the numbers is a shorthoof way of indicating that the units are hooves of length. But more importantly, you know what X is.”

“Well, not quite yet...” I did a bit of brief mental arithmetic, and nodded. “It’s a little less than eight. The triangle has total area of twelve square hooves, and the arc of the circle we’re subtracting is about fifty-three degrees.” When I earned a look of astonishment, I decided to slow down. “Divide the triangle in half and you get a three-four-five right triangle, and then you can do the inverse sine of the height of the triangle over the three units of radius that make up half the base of the given triangle, or the full base of the divided right triangle we’re using.”

“Uh…”

“So… Seven and eight-hundred-seven thousandths should be the answer, I think. That’s as close as I can get without a quill and ink anyway, and if it’s good enough for magical work it ought to be sufficient for this exercise that’s devoid of any practical purpose.”

If you aren’t a wizard, that probably reads like I’m trying to brag about how smart I was most of a millennium ago. If you are, what you just read is a stupid parlor trick you can probably repeat, if not best. But that was hardly the point to Aspiration, who actually staggered back.

“You did that in your head?”

“When you’re a wizard and you screw up your math, ponies die. Well, usually that pony is you, but occasionally it’s somepony else. Did you have a point, or did you just want me to go through the ordeal of playing along that the rest of my academic skills are on par with a bunch of foals ten years my younger?”

Aspiration glared. “Mortal, I’m sorry I can’t drop my entire class to tutor you, but frankly, you’re nearly an adult, and of everypony here you ought to be the one pony I can trust to look after himself.”

Nearly?”

“Be happy about it; life’s all downhill from where you are.” Aspiration, who didn’t seem that much older than me, shook her head dismissively. “Play along with my rules until the end of the day, or excuse yourself. Either way, when class is over, we’ll talk. You are not my priority.”

Given the choice, I saw no point wasting any more of my or Mrs. Aspiration’s time, and let myself out of the classroom entirely.

The summer air didn’t exactly leave a native of the Crystal Union comfortable, but open air, and more than a bit of wandering just for the sake of stretching my legs, cooled my temper a bit. I cleared three city blocks in the palace district, just listening to the city, before I realized my usual trick—a habit I hadn’t learned from Wintershimmer, for once—wasn’t going to cut it for my current mood.

Fortunately, the palace gardens offered a calmer and more solitary place yet for those with boiling tempers. And as I glanced through the open gates in the tall stone walls and took in the sight of the gravel-lined paths and wide greens, dotted with topiary, my memory flicked to a hidden grotto in the southwest corner of the wall. And, with a slight smile of fondness for the memory of a shared kiss with Gale, I set hoof.

At the time, you may be amused to note, I assumed that the reason the guards let me through the open gate was because literally the previous day I had ripped a stallion’s soul out of his corpse and showed it off in a room full of the city’s rich and powerful. In fact, the reason the guards let me through was because the gardens and most of the ground floor of the palace were open to the public most weekdays, barring major restricted events like diplomatic meetings with foreign governments. Still, since I didn’t actually talk to the guards (and to be fair to my assumption, they did glance at me nervously, only to look quickly away when I met their gazes), I might well have been right regardless.

When I passed the gardens’ hedge maze, whose walls were made the more beautiful and the more interesting by interweaving flowering plants in the trellises that guided the growth of the hedges to form the walls, I plucked a purple hydrangea flower that reminded me of Gale, much as the lilac I had chosen on my last visit. It tucked nicely into the lapel of my jacket, and though the gently toned flower clashed with the utter black and the harsh red lining, I hardly cared what it looked like to anypony else; it was the thought that mattered. Finally passing the wall of the hedge maze, I came upon a statue of Hurricane and the divine sisters; I scowled at the marble expression on Celestia’s face, so benevolently joining the older soldier in their return to equine society, and wondered if perhaps she was just as cruel a would-be god as her sister, merely playing a longer game than Luna. Still, the point of the statue was not to stand and talk to stones, but to mark the hidden entrance to a private grotto.

The rose bush behind the statue, already growing up to entangle Celestia’s legs, was a thorny problem, at least until I remembered that Star Swirl had enchanted my jacket for my fight with Wintershimmer. If the garment could stop a blade, it could no doubt withstand a few flowery thorns. That, at least, would spare me the need to use more of my magic. And indeed, it worked; the fabric held like steel armor, letting me brush aside the branches of the bush with my foreleg and slip through into a quiet place, filled with gentle birdsong and the bubbling of water.

Though I wished for her presence, Gale was nowhere to be found—not that I had expected her. She was off becoming Queen, or being recognized, or whatever little else I could say I knew about the system at the time.

I walked up to the little pond in the grotto, lowered myself to sit, and then laid down fully on my belly, even resting my chin on one of the wide stones beside the water. And there, not to put too fine a point on the issue, I fumed for the better part of the afternoon.

4-3

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IV - III

The Awful Adoption

Water rose from the grotto’s pool in the shape of a sphere, wrapped in icy blue arcane energy. The hoof-width orb held for nearly a second before it splashed down into the ripples of the pond. I sighed, ignoring the twinge of mild ache in the core of my horn, not so much a proper pain as the discontent of an overworked limb, and lifted the water again.

Wintershimmer hadn’t taught the ritual to me as a way to find calm. Rather, it was a lesson tailored to my particular manner of horn; a way to try and develop some control over my magic without my horn flaring up. As a little foal, Wintershimmer sat with me as I raised marble-sized drops of water, listening as he lectured me on magical theory, or history, or whatever other subject struck our fancies.

“Why did you have to try and kill Celestia…” I muttered to myself as I remembered those days by the springs. They’d been one of the subjects of his lessons, the original reason the Crystal Spire had been built in the frozen north, long, long before the city was protected by a magical shield that kept out the worst of the winter storms. I’d asked him about shield spells, and over the next weeks he taught me not one or two, or even five or six, but a dozen variants on the common dueling shield.

I still remembered all of them.

“...unlike anything Aspiration tried to teach me…”

My bubble popped again, and I rubbed my temple as I made another. I couldn’t even convince myself that was fair; Aspiration was a pony with a job she was trying to do, and she’d been put in an incredibly awkward situation having to deal with me. Not that she’d handled the affair well at all. “Who expects a wizard to follow foals’ rules?”

This time, when my orb began to spill, in rage I flung it over my shoulder. I could practically hear Wintershimmer’s chiding voice at my lack of control over my emotions, but my mind kept coming back to the real problem: that behind this entire stupid affair, I couldn’t fairly blame Aspiration, and it certainly wasn’t my fault. No, the fault here lay with my new teacher.

And though it felt strange to think of the veritable goddess, Celestia was nowhere near a match for the standard Wintershimmer had set as a teacher.

A hoof gently settled on my shoulder, and I jerked at the presence. “Woah; no need to sneak up on a stallion like that. I thought I was gonna have this place to myself.”

“Perhaps if you had better control of your emotions, you would not have need to beg that others announce themselves to you.” The voice was instantly familiar, and in a lifetime of learning its forceful dry tones, I found my chest seize with impossible fear.

“M-master?!”

Where I looked, Wintershimmer stood, his hoof only slowly lowering back to the ground where I had lunged away from it. “Something wrong, Coil? I taught you better than to stutter from something as simple as surprise.”

“You’re dead!

“True,” Wintershimmer agreed. “And yet not an especially useful observation. Would you care to elaborate? Or are your emotions too heightened to understand?”

I scowled and lit my horn. “I ought to kill you.”

“As you just reminded us, you already have. But since I must evidently remind you, Coil, you have already cast two spells today: one, amusingly more according to my instructions than you would likely allow yourself to admit, was an attempt to frighten a group of foals into obedience and respect. The second was likewise wasted undoing that mistake.” Wintershimmer lowered himself to his flanks slowly; when not literally fighting for his life, it seemed he was still willing to indulge his sore, ancient joints with deliberate, controlled movements. “At the risk of rehashing a point you ought to remember, even if you did best me in our duel: if I had intended to kill you, and I had the advantage of my magic, and I was able to get so close to you silently as to make you jump by touching your shoulder, I would not have bothered announcing my presence before cutting you in half.”

“I dispersed your soul!” I snapped, but I let the magic fade from my horn regardless; this… whoever, or whatever this was, was right. “You can’t be standing here.”

“Ah, now we reach a useful observation.” Wintershimmer nodded. “Though I will observe that I’m seated now. Yes, you did disperse my soul. And yet, despite what you claim I cannot be, your eyes tell you that I am.”

I cocked my head for a moment at the pure logic my dead mentor’s mouth delivered, and then frowned. “I’m going insane,” I muttered. “I’ve lost my mind.”

“I taught you better than that,” Wintershimmer chided. “And, since it seems you require a hint, I know with certainty that you remember it. Insanity is a term so broad and reductive as to largely be unhelpful. Would you care to be more specific? Shall I ask you for three more intentionally chosen terms?”

The reminder of that exercise deepened the frown on my muzzle. “Psychosis?” I offered. “What difference does it make to you, if you’re just a hallucination?”

“Hmm… perhaps.” Wintershimmer nodded. “For now, it will suffice for an explanation. And tonight, when your curiosity has kept you lying awake, I welcome you to ponder if that reductive of an explanation is sufficient to explain your… symptoms, shall we say?”

“You’re claiming you’re not just a hallucination?”

“I have made no such statement,” Wintershimmer countered dryly. “Do not put words in my mouth, Coil. Now, since you are clearly having a moment of distress, and if your own hypothesis is true, it has shaken you enough that you are hallucinating your dead mentor, perhaps I can be of some assistance—real or otherwise.”

I rolled my eyes and lifted an orb of water from the pond, again ignoring the ache deep in my horn. “If you’re a hallucination, you can’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“True,” Wintershimmer agreed, having the audacity to wander over and sit at my side by the pond, as if his real body hadn’t only mere weeks earlier been actively plotting to frame me for murder. “And yet, as you will recall, hearing what you already know from an outside voice, even in slightly different language, can spur new ideas or new approaches to problems. Even great wizards benefit from apprentices.”

“That’s a roundabout way to compliment yourself,” I noted, just before my magical orb again leaked out its water. “Stars, why can’t I do this today?”

“Because you are taking an exercise that is intended to be performed while you are already calm and in control of your emotions, and perverting it in an attempt to reach calm when you are far from it. Stop hurting your horn and speak to me, Coil.”

“Look for a comforting talk from a hallucination? And a hallucination of you of all ponies?” I scoffed. “Even with present evidence, I’m not that crazy.”

“And I, as you have observed, am not really Wintershimmer,” said Wintershimmer. “But I am the teacher you are longing for, and you are clearly in need of advice from somepony whose advice you trust. Humor me, Coil.”

It occurs to me, in writing out these words, that my figment of Wintershimmer might have come across as paternal, even comforting. But while I do occasionally refer to Wintershimmer as being like a father to me—and he certainly was the closest of anypony in my youth to a parental title, simply by the scarcity of the field—that isn’t to say his tone of voice was in any way comforting or conciliatory. As it had been through nearly all of my youth, any comment he offered that, in a friendly or comforting tone of voice might have been well-taken as a friendly or loving gesture, he preferred to state in the same tone with which he taught the mathematical lessons I had demonstrated a mastery of in Aspiration’s classroom. His voice was not a monotone; he spoke eloquently and with a mastery of the Equiish language in terms of both vocabulary and grammar, but whenever he spoke it was with the distance of a formal teacher and a deadly wizard; never the comforting rises and falls of the voice of a beloved friend or parent.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “But you already know what’s bothering me.”

“State it regardless,” Wintershimmer ordered. “Your piecemeal mutterings while playing with water haven’t forced you to put your objections into words. And the act of picking words—”

“—forces you to order your thoughts; given that you know it and you’re my hallucination, I obviously remember.”

“You can present yourself as only one of a wizard or a petulant teenager, Coil. Do not think killing me excuses that kind of tone.”

I grit my teeth. “At least you recognize I’m a wizard.” Then I forced myself to suck down a deep breath. “Even when you were trying to kill me, you at least respected me. Today, because I wanted to learn to read, I was sent to a school for foals, and expected to act like I was one of them—completely lacking an education or any kind of title or respect. Nevermind that I literally saved Celestia’s life!

“I do recall, Coil; I was there,” Wintershimmer noted dryly.

Though I would forgive anypony who didn’t know the bitter old stallion as well as I did for missing it, I caught in a slight twitch of his eyes that this was an example of Wintershimmer’s humor, and it broke through the hard outer crust of my fury with a muffled chuckle.

The old wizard gently dipped a hoof into the water beside him—completely failing to make any kind of ripple or splash, which struck me as a bit odd, given I ought to have been more than capable of hallucinating such an effect if I were hallucinating the attached stallion—and continued on. “Setting aside that refrained from using any kind of force to earn respect, in service to your ‘heroic’ persona…” I caught a scoff in my mentor’s voice. “...where does the blame for the disrespect you suffered lie? With the teacher who put you in this position?”

“No…” I noted, hesitantly, and dipped my magic into the pond again.

Wintershimmer lashed out with a hoof, not especially quickly given his age and general atrophy, and though it met my horn, I felt nothing at all—though the blur of violent motion got my attention back regardless. “Your horn is not healed, and you are being a fool ignoring its pain. Trading the momentary satisfaction of your mood for the health of the one thing that makes you a wizard will see you soon spoil both.”

“It’s a little ache from mana burn,” I countered. “I’ve lived with worse before. If something were wrong with my horn, I could hardly have cast something as complex as Fauna’s Feline Form.”

Wintershimmer actually coughed back a laugh at that—a rare show of amusement from the old stallion. “Forgive me my amusement, Coil, but even after I betrayed you and tried to kill you, that was what made you snap? A bit of schoolyard mockery?”

I glared. “It was a moment of weakness.”

“Indeed,” Wintershimmer agreed. “A shame it was not the realization of the path to strength.”

“This was literally the last thing we argued about before I dispersed you!” I snapped. “Do we really need to rehash it?”

“No, I suppose we do not. If the blame does not fall with Aspiration, then where do you assign it?”

“Well… I think Celestia.”

Grayed brows pinched together on a sickly yellow-green brow. “I did not teach you such indecisiveness.”

I closed my eyes and drew in another breath to keep from snapping. “Celestia knew where she was sending me; otherwise, she wouldn’t have prepared the letter that introduced Graargh and I. Either this was her misguided attempt at some lesson in humility by way of humiliation, in which case I suppose she didn’t last very long as my teacher, or there’s been some kind of mistake.”

Wintershimmer nodded. “And given the way you phrased that, I don’t need to ask you what plans you have for each possible answer.”

I chuckled. “Yeah… I guess not.”

“Let me observe something you already know, then, but may not have considered: Queen Platinum gave you considerable wealth; more than enough to simply purchase the services of a private tutor. And that is assuming you don’t know somepony who would provide such a service—which, in fact, you do.

“I do?”

“Much as we both agree the mare is a sorry excuse for an archmage, Clover’s pupil’s school proves she may be a profoundly effective teacher of basic skills. Of which literacy certainly is, your special case notwithstanding. And you will recall if you think back, that when you first arrived in Everfree City and had to explain our Summer Lands’ portal ritual to her, she made an offer to the effect of mentoring you personally.”

“She did?”

Wintershimmer scoffed. “I—that is, the real Wintershimmer—was not present for that discussion. I pulled the memory from your mind, which it seems is my mind too. I am certain you will recall it if you focus. The only advantage I can claim to have is that, while your temper is still incensed from your day in the schoolhouse, I enjoy the objectivity of calm.” Then the old wizard stood up, slowly and rather achingly for a figment of imagination. “You could also tap your predecessor; Solemn Vow may not be a teacher of any particular talent, but even judging only by the fact that his home includes several libraries, the stallion was obviously literate, and his fate is quite literally in your hooves. But those are options for another day. Today, I would advise you to deal with the ‘changeling’ child you have been dragging with you on your adventures. And if possible, confront Celestia; that will settle your mood one way or another.”

“Where are you going?” I asked as he began to stride out of the grotto.

“Well, in a moment I imagine you will stop thinking of your late mentor, and the hallucination of me will fade; at least, I would be very surprised if it did not. So the strictly most truthful answer to your question would, I imagine, be ‘back inside your mind.’ Or, I suppose, your soul would be a more accurate descriptor.”

And with that, seemingly at his own behest, Wintershimmer faded away into nothing like a mirage in heated air as one approaches. And, wondering whether I would be considered less sane if I were heeding some real fragment of Wintershimmer that had survived his dispersal, or just a figment of my imagination and/or fading sanity made manifest, I too rose to my hooves to fetch Graargh and confront Aspiration.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

“Morty back!” I heard shortly before being slammed into the schoolhouse wall just beside the door by the weight of a young grizzly.

“You’re late, Coil,” Mrs. Aspiration observed drly from behind her desk, slowly lowering a quill into a pot of ink and letting it rest there. The rest of the classroom was utterly empty.

“You didn’t say when class ended, in my defense.” Not that I could have known regardless, given the pocketwatch had not yet been invented.

Aspiration’s temple throbbed visibly. “In this case, I would have been asking for more time to catch Graargh up to where he ought to be in his education anyway, so the time wasn’t wasted… but in the future, I endeavor to end class three hours after lunch. If you choose to return.”

“Well, I’ll need to pick up Graargh regardless.”

“Yes…” I watched Aspiration’s expression turn gentler as she turned toward my friend. “Graargh, could you step out in the yard for a few minutes? Mortal—” When I visibly winced, the teacher sighed. “Mr. Coil and I need to talk privately.”

“What you talk about?” Graargh asked with a pronounced frown.

After a moment’s hesitance, Aspiration answered “The future.”

“Oh, can see future? Use magic? Like Morty? What happen tomorrow? I can have good honey?”

“What?” Aspiration asked with less confusion than worry. “Coil, you can’t actually—”

“I can, in theory, but doing so is walking a fine line between useless and incredibly dangerous magic. That, and at least if you believe the legends, the reason the royal family is diseased with the Scourge of Kings is that Celestia punished King Electrum for his hubris overusing that kind of magic.” I chuckled. “So no, Graargh, not like that. She just means we’re going to talk about plans for the future. It’ll be boring, I promise.”

“Oh.” Graargh’s face fell. “Well, call if you fight with eel; not want miss funny.” And with that somewhat bizarre comment, Graargh pushed his way out of the room.

“Fight with eel?” Aspiration asked. “Do I want to know?”

“Some guardsponies in Lubuck were… well, I didn’t know Gale was the Princess at the time, I just knew they were basically trying to foalnap her. One of them came at me with a sword, and the first weapon I could find on hoof was a barrel of fish.”

“You got in a fight with Legion guards?” Aspiration pressed.

“Well, that was hardly anything compared to being accused of murder by Commander Typhoon, but I suppose so. It’s all water under the bridge now; they figured out I was right, and everypony learned their lessons.”

Their lessons?”

I nodded. “Don’t get in the way of wizard trying to save the world,” I explained. “Which, I believe, brings us to the point you’re about to make. Let me make this less painful for both of us: I’m not coming back tomorrow.”

A look of mild relief washed over Aspiration, and she nodded. “That… certainly makes things easier. I would be willing to tutor you privately in the evenings, after class lets out, but—”

“Can I go get Graargh now?” I interrupted, making my position quite clear in my tone.

“Actually…” The same relief that had swept over Aspiration was in turn swept away as her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “The other future we need to talk about is his.”

“Graargh?” I asked, and a sudden wave of nervousness found my belly as well—what did Aspiration know? Had she caught on to his part in our misadventure during the lunch break? “Is something wrong?”

“Presently, no.” I watched the mare’s throat tense as she forced herself to swallow what was surely about to be a painful topic—I suspected, perhaps, more for me than for her. “From what I understand, while Graargh may view you more like a sibling than a parent, he is currently your ward. Is that correct?”

I nodded. “I meant to find his parents at first, but…” As memories of our encounter with the bears north of River Rock came to the fore of my mind, I realized there was no real way to explain their rejection (or my suspicion that they had killed Graargh’s real parents—possibly even justifiably) without giving away his secret. “I’m almost certain he’s an orphan.”

“Then before I continue, let me say: if what he says about living alone in a cave is true, it was admirable of you to take him under your care, Mr. Coil. I’m concerned about the amount of danger your care put him in, but given he is alive and safe now, he’s obviously better off than he would have been alone. So when I say that I don’t think it is responsible for you to continue to be his guardian, it isn’t because I condemn the job you’ve done.” Then the mare sat down behind her desk, and gently steepled her hooves.

“I know,” I answered with a heavy sigh of my own.

“You do?” Then, with a shake of her head, the teacher smiled. “I’m sorry; it’s just that you’re defying the expectation I had built up of you this morning.”

“I think you’ll find I function better when I’m not asked to pretend to be an ignoramus or a foal.” A hint of an edge snuck into my tone. “Beyond my age, the life of a wizard is by definition dangerous.”

“It is?” Aspiration asked with more curiosity than confusion. “I thought most of the wizards were higher academics.”

“If you don’t use your magic to defend ponies from magical threats, you’re not a wizard,” I answered. “At best, you’re a hedge mage with delusions of grandeur.” When that comment prompted a raised brow, I nodded. “It’s a catch-all term for self-taught mages; unicorns who practice magic as a trade unto itself, but haven’t been through the formal training and apprenticeship process with a proper wizard or archmage, and who wouldn’t be expected to use their magic if, say, a monster attacked their city.”

“I see…” Aspiration answered in slow reply. “Regardless, it seems we’re in agreement about finding Graargh a more suitable guardian.”

“I was considering asking Hurricane,” I told her as I wandered over to the classroom’s windows. Outside, Graargh had found a dragonfly, and was chasing it rather more like a predatory cat than a bear. He paused for a moment to wave at me through the window when he noticed me watching, then went back to his stalking and pouncing.

Commander Hurricane?” Aspiration asked, incredulous.

I nodded. “He’s, uh, been hosting us. I know it sounds strange if all you’ve heard about him are the stories from the Weather Wars, but he’s rather friendly—especially with Graargh, and—”

Aspiration cut me off with a lifted hoof. “I’m quite aware that the… shall we say venerable ex-Commander is a friendly stallion. But… well there are two problems with his guardianship.”

“Oh?” I raised a brow, before letting out a small chuckle at the sight out the window: Graargh had caught the dragonfly, and managed to do so gently enough that when he opened his paws to check, it darted away again. “I didn’t see anything wrong.”

“The first is that Hurricane isn’t…” Aspiration visibly bit her cheek in hesitation before she found words she was satisfied actually uttering. “Hurricane’s track record as a statestallion and a soldier are both legendary, but as a parent? He leaves something to be desired.”

I rolled my eyes. “Because Cyclone turned out to be a problem, what, twenty-five years ago?”

“That is one example, yes.” Aspiration then sighed somewhere behind me. “You aren’t from Everfree, are you?”

“No. Why?” I turned at the question, leaving Graargh to his hunt.

“It’s easy to forget; you don’t have much of a crystal accent except when you’re upset. If anything, you sound like you’re old enough to have been born in River Rock, before Equestria was founded.”

For just a moment, in my mind, Wintershimmer faded into view over Aspiration’s shoulder, staying manifest just long enough to offer me a sardonic wink before fading from my view again.

“Something wrong, Coil?”

“Hm? No, no; I was just remembering. My, uh, my late father-figure was almost one hundred when he passed, and that’s where I got most of my diction.” I waved my hoof dismissively, as if warding off a foul smell. “Is there something I should know that I don’t because I wasn’t born in Everfree?”

“They’re just rumors,” Aspiration explained hesitantly. “But… Well, suffice it to say, Commander Typhoon’s youth wasn’t exactly happy either.”

“Even if we assume they’re true, I’m inclined to argue Gale turned out alright, and given the other two were foals while the old stallion was still running the army, I’m inclined to say she’s a better example.”

“She may be, but that raises the second of my objections: Her Majesty has just ascended the throne. She will likely want all the support she can get from family, and I fear… well, no, I shouldn’t say it that way. Hurricane would be right to focus his attention on Her Majesty’s growth as a ruler over a surrogate foal dumped on his doorstep.”

“Okay,” I nodded. “I don’t know if I buy that Gale’s going to magically take up all of Hurricane’s time, when it’s Queen Platinum—the older one, I mean—who’s actually running around everywhere with her. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m convinced; who do you propose?”

“I don’t know, yet.” Aspiration answered. “Let me be clear: I’m not trying to steal him for myself. School keeps me too busy for a foal of my own in the long term. But in the short term, I think having him stay with me would be the best option. That will let me keep overseeing his remedial lessons, and address any social lessons he’s lacking as well, in a more natural context.”

“You think I can’t teach him manners?”

Aspiration shook her head at that. “You are his friend, Coil. You would have to give that up to be his teacher.”

“Why?”

“Friends don’t discipline one another. Friends look past one another’s mistakes. For a simple example, consider how you would feel if Her Majesty corrected you any time you used a contraction. For a foal of Graargh’s… I suppose ‘equivalent development’ would be the best term, since I don’t know how bears age in comparison to ponies… regardless, for a foal like Graargh, adapting to see you as a teacher or a proper, parental guardian instead of a friend who happens to provide some basic needs could be damaging, both to your relationship and to his development into a young stallion. Or rather, a young adult bear.” Grabbing her quill from her inkpot with magic, the teacher took a quick note that, I only later learned, read ‘look up terms for bears by gender and age’.

“So you want him to stay with you?” I asked.

Aspiration again nodded, once and with pronounced finality. “If you’re willing. Not tonight; I wouldn’t have anywhere for him to stay set up even if I did bring him home. But more to the point, I wouldn’t want to spring that on him. Can you explain the situation to him tonight?”

I took a deep breath, and then offered a curt nod. “I will.”

“He’ll likely have questions and concerns; remind him that you aren’t abandoning him. You’ll still be welcome to see him, of course, and I’ll ask you to make a point to do so, daily at first. It’s important a foal feels stable, so however you choose to explain our decision, I urge you to be honest.”

The irony was lost on me at the time, thick as molasses though it may have been; I nodded once and turned toward the door. “What time tomorrow morning?”

“Seven. By the city clocktower, in case you have a clock that isn't set to match it. Please ensure he isn’t late.” Then, with a short breath in, she found final words. “Thank you for being understanding, Mr. Coil.”

“I do my best,” I answered, and opened the door. “Thank you. For… caring, I guess.” And with that delightful, painfully uncomfortable parting thought, I stepped out and slid the door shut behind me.

The dragonfly was not very smart, it seemed; Graargh was still chasing it, to the point that he didn’t see me leave. His rear claws dug into the rough, occasionally grassy dirt of the yard, and then he hurled himself at the insect. And, much to my surprise, he snatched it.

I spoiled the scene with a laugh when, bringing his paws up to his muzzle, Graargh moved to bite down on the thing. My distraction gave the little insect time enough to fly away again, and Graargh donned a pout on his broad brown muzzle. “Morty! Why laugh? I hunt!”

“You clearly did; I’m surprised you caught it twice. But it wouldn’t have tasted very good.”

Graargh shook his head. “Like bugs; they tasty! You done talk teacher? We go home now?”

“We’ve got a couple stops,” I told him, pointing my hoof to Equestria’s skyline, and more particularly to Diadem’s academy.

“What that?”

“It’s…” I paused to consider my phrasing, and then explained “Wizard school.”

“Oh! I learn be wizard?”

“You’d have to pretend to be a unicorn most of the time,” I answered. To which Graargh promptly erupted in green fire, and I found myself staring my own face. “Not…” Damn it, he was so distracting… “Do you have to be me?

“When be pegsus, Morty pick best pegsus for flying. Well, Morty best unicorn for magic, so I pick him,” said my own soothing, dulcet tones in Graargh’s broken grammar.

“Just go back to being a bear, Graargh. We’re not going to the Academy for you. I need to ask Archmage Diadem to teach me to read. And you wouldn’t want to learn to be a ‘wizard’ there anyway.” I gestured down the road and started on my way, making a point to look away from myself as I did. “They’re not real wizards; they don’t protect anypony.”

Graargh—in my voice—scoffed. “So not good friend pony like you? You right; I want learn help. Be like Morty!”

“You… seriously? I mean, I suppose I can understand; I’m sure most ponies want to be like me. Speaking of which, can you stop? Go back to being a bear, please.”

“No, it fun!”

I briefly grit my teeth and kept my eyes pointed dead forward, trying not only not to stare at myself, but also to ignore the discomfort of all the ponies staring at the two uncannily handsome, uncannily identical twins walking up the street. At least, mercifully, because my coat covered my talent marks, nopony was likely to notice that we impossibly actually matched even in that truly unique regard.

“Where we go after wizard school?” Graargh asked.

“Well, we should grab some food.” Then, after a moment of horrified imagination of what ponies would think seeing ‘me’ (that is, Graargh) using his rather ursine table manners while ‘wearing’ my body, I let out a shudder. “Maybe see if we can take food back with us to my house.”

“Morty has house?” Graargh asked. “But… not from here?”

I chuckled. “No. Gale’s mom gave me a house for dealing with Wintershimmer. You remember the key she gave me at breakfast? It goes to the house we went to when we were hunting Wintershimmer.”

Graargh nodded. “Graargh save Morty and Gale! Run fast in tunnel.”

“You sure did.” In blind instinct, I reached to pat Graargh on the head and only narrowly to miss punching my much taller alternate self, whose head was well above the height of a grizzly cub’s ears, square in the face. Instead I lowered the hoof to take another step toward Diadem’s academy. “Well, that’s where I’m gonna be living now.”

“Ooh! I get cave?”

“What?” I asked as I pulled open the yard’s fence with my hoof.

“Well, bear not live in house; but I help fight Winnershimmer. I get cave?”

“Where do I even start…? Graargh, the bears we met north of River Rock had beautiful houses. You remember that log cabin we stayed in when we met… Smokey?”

“Her name—” and then Graargh belted out a slightly different roar than his usual. “But yes, I remember. Er, I am remember.” Graargh beamed a smile. “I is learn!”

“Stars…” I muttered, but I couldn’t help wearing a bitter smile as I did. Graargh looked so proud of himself, (mis)using the word I’d taught him. “Graargh, there’s something we need to talk about, and I don’t want to put it off, okay?”

“Okay?” Graargh answered, with that upward tilt in his tone that suggested maybe a hint of worry; they learn so young.

“For at least a little while, instead of living with me or Hurricane and his family, you’re going to go live with Misses Aspiration.”

“Why?” Graargh asked rather suddenly and forcefully.

“Whoa, buddy, easy. I’ll still be around, you’ll still see… well, honestly I don’t know how much you’ll see Gale anymore since she’s busy being Queen, but I assume you’ll run into her some. And it’s not forever. It’s just, there’s some things you need to learn about how to live with ponies if you’re going to stay here with me and… well, everyone.”

“Family,” Graargh agreed. “But why Morty not teach?”

“Because I don’t know some of them myself, like how to read,” I answered off the cuff; the answer sounded funnier in my head than it landed on ‘my’ expression. “Aspiration is a teacher; I… well, I didn’t actually take a good look at her talent marks, but I assume it’s her special talent to teach young… well mostly ponies, but young creatures of all kinds. I’m a wizard, and if you want to learn magic someday, we can talk about teaching you that. But for just one example she’ll know how to teach you to talk better than I can… well, better than I can teach you, anyway; I doubt you’ll come out with quite my practiced diction or vocabulary even at the end.”

“But… I want Morty,” ‘Morty’ said; it really was getting quite distracting that he wasn’t the little bear cub I’d been imagining having this talk with.

“I know. And I promise, I will be around to see you and check on you and spend time with you, Graargh. You can come over to my house, we’ll go get food… whatever else young ponies who aren’t wizards do for fun… but it’s like you said; I’m like your big brother, right?”

Graargh nodded enthusiastically with my face.

“I can’t be your dad too.”

After a moment’s thought, and to my considerable surprise, Graargh just… nodded. That was his agreement, and though it was obvious he wasn’t happy, neither was he heartbroken over the decision.

If anything, I felt worse. “Look, Graargh, you wanna ride on my back? Like we did when we were traveling?”

Graargh cocked his head. “But… all morning Morty grumpy about it. ‘I hurt’ you say, ‘I fight Winnershimmer, not all feel better yet’. You okay now?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I’m just feeling sentimental. But it didn’t hurt me this morning. You just have to be a bear again if you do; I can’t carry me around.”

“Pppfff…” I rolled my eyes at the especially undignified noise leaving ‘my’ lips. “You try trick me, but it not work! I too smart! More fun be Morty! Two Morty! We play game! Get eels and fight!”

That was about the level of conversation that occupied our journey to the academy, across both of Everfree’s rivers on wide bridges covered in carts. We passed the wide open booths and wide greens of the Market Garden district. We passed a few blocks whose streets were covered in wide glass canopies, two stories above our heads, where the barrier between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ storefronts was completely lost. On a whim, I bought Graargh a bag of rock candy from a hawker who’d been offering the goods to another foal about my guess of Graargh’s age, shopping with her mother.

I nearly cried when he cracked one of my teeth on the treat, though he quickly and casually re-generated the injury before it could cause him anything more than momentary pain.

Finally, we reached Lighten Heights, with its tall skinny buildings and fascinating storefronts, where casual enchantments were common. And though, compared to the enchantments Wintershimmer and I had wrought in our quarters of the Crystal Spire, the magic on view was quite pedestrian, each bauble and cantrip enchanted Graargh, and I found more than a bit of joy in explaining the enchantments and how they worked.

I’m certain my friend had next to no understanding of the nuance behind what I was saying, but he pressed me with questions just the same, trying question after question to really deeply understand how the little illusions that danced on signpoles worked without somepony’s horn to keep them moving, or how the water in the fountains at the intersections of the streets stopped and started in such elaborate controlled displays—at least, he pressed until some new minor wonder distracted his admittedly short attention span.

And then, altogether too soon, the wonders of Horntown ended at the edge of the wide green that marked the Academy’s property. Still, Graargh seemed optimistic at seeing some grand feat of magic in the ‘wizard school’.

I was more pessimistic.

Unlike a primary school like Aspiration’s, Diadem’s academy of magic did not simply let out—while lectures might have largely stopped as the day progressed toward a late summer evening, the magically insulated workshops and laboratories were still filled by the countless aspiring apprentices and journeymages not only well into the evening, but through all hours of the night. Thus, it was no trouble to find a student not much younger than myself (who, thankfully, only looked twice at the fact that there were two of me) before offering directions to the Headmistress’ office, as Diadem had styled herself.

Diadem gave us a triple take when I entered her office (completely unbarred by any kind of secretary or assistant, or even a good old-fashioned sentient door to provide some line of defense against distractions). Her first look up was to see who was entering after a knock. The second was when she realized it was me, given how openly skeptical I had been (and even now, centuries later, continue to be) about her approach to education. And the third, perhaps most justifiably, was when I entered a second time without having exited first.

“Um…”

“It’s Graargh; you remember him, right? He thinks it’s ‘fun’ to be me today.”

“Ah.”

I do so love dealing with other wizards; at least they don’t respond to such a simple explanation with slack jaws and failing sanity.

Diadem’s office was, as if taunting me, lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on literally every wall save the door I had come in through, and a pair of windows set on the tower’s exterior wall that could provide her light while reading and writing on her desk. And even those windows were framed, both above and below their panes, by further bookshelves. The room even smelled like parchment and ink and burnt wax, in a way even a library doesn’t—I’ve always found a strong but oft unmentioned scent of a library is the scent of the stain or shelves, and in Diadem’s office it was completely stifled by the weight of the paper.

Diadem herself had set her namesake—which I was certain was enchanted, because otherwise why wear something so profoundly tacky?—on the desk beside a massive pile of parchment, one page of which had been pulled aside to live under her quill’s attentions. I couldn’t read the text, of course, but I did recognize some of the symbols.

“Well, Morty and Graargh, it’s convenient you should drop by; I was just transcribing some of my notes from the Summer Lands ritual you taught me into a more academic format.”

I raised a brow. “Coincidences like that make me a bit nervous…”

“Ah, Skeptic’s Third Law.” Diadem chuckled gently to herself; whatever I might have felt about her fashion, she had quite a pleasant voice (and lest I give the wrong impression, that is a much older, wiser, and more honest Mortal Coil talking; not only was I too prejudiced against her philosophies in my youth to see her beauty as a mare, but she was also about a full generation older than me, and beyond even that, in virtually every conceivable way she was the opposite of Gale, and so quite removed from any sense of infatuation that might have befallen another similar young stallion). Unaware of my future self’s commentary on the sound of her humor, Diadem continued. “Does it make you feel any better if I tell you I’ve been working on this every evening since your confrontation with Wintershimmer, and that I probably will be for another few months before I’m satisfied?”

“Considerably,” I answered.

“I not understand,” interjected Graargh.

I could see Diadem preparing to explain, but I beat her to the punch. “Don’t worry about it, Graargh. It’s just an old wizard’s saying.” Then I (barely) managed to pull my attention away from my own perfect jawline and onto the archmage in the room. “You had offered to teach me to read and write when we were going through writing that down the first time. I was hoping I might take you up on that offer.”

I admit, I was a bit surprised at how enthusiastically Diadem’s expression brightened from that simple request. “Of course!” Then, with a moment of confusion she added “Not that this is me objecting, but just out of curiosity: I had heard you were going to be studying with Lady Celestia. Why not ask her?”

I tried to control the active twitching of my eyelid, to at least not give away my fading sanity in my very expression. “Celestia seemed to think it was a reasonable idea for me to learn to read by wasting my time in a classroom with a bunch of foals half my age. So pending a strongly worded conversation I might be between mentors right now.”

“I can’t believe Lady Celestia…” Diadem grimaced. “My apologies, Morty. I don’t mean to doubt your word. Stars know you’ve been disbelieved enough. I’d be glad to tutor you—privately, of course.”

I nodded as I reached into my jacket with a hoof. “Is a thousand bits suitable payment?”

Diadem actually frowned at that. “One of my most fundamental beliefs, Morty, is that education should be free to anypony who pursues it. That might even be the meaning of my talent mark. And while that usually involves teaching in groups instead of one-on-one like the apprenticeship system, in your unique situation I do think an exception would be appropriate.”

I shook my head as firmly as I could manage. “I insist, Archmage, on paying something. If you would prefer some sort of magical debt, I’m not completely unwilling, but I do have a preference for payment in currency.”

Diadem raised a brow. “May I ask why? Is this something Wintershimmer taught you?”

“If I accept your lessons freely, that makes me your apprentice,” I explained.

“Ah.” Diadem sagaciously dipped her head and behind her glasses, held her eyes closed for just a moment in some sort of moral conundrum. “Well, now I’m torn. On the one hoof, unlike what Wintershimmer apparently taught you, I’m not an adherent of the lessons in The Isolation of Tutelage. Frankly, I think the world would be a much better place if those ideas died out. On the other hoof, I’m already making an exception for your very unique case, and those funds would go a long way to finishing off repairs to the grand lecture hall… So to ease my conscience, let’s say you’re offering some compensation for the damage your duel caused.”

I rolled my eyes. “I literally died in the process of saving the world; I think a few broken benches is a small price to pay. But if it lets you sleep at night, fine. I guess we’re both compromising a little.” I glanced down at the bills of credit I had pulled from my pocket, and passed her a note Queen Platinum had made out for one thousand bits from the treasury.

“How did you know this was the right amount?” Diadem asked.

I scoffed. “I can read numerals, Archmage. And, as we discussed, I’m quite familiar with magical notation. It really is just Equiish. Now, when should I join you?”

“Tomorrow at…” Diadem’s horn ignited and she pulled out a little booklet that I would later learn was her personal planner. “I don’t appear to have any lectures in the afternoon, so perhaps just after lunch you can join me here?”

I offered a flourishing bow. “I will speak to you tomorrow then, Archmage Diadem.”

“There’s no need to be so formal, Morty.”

“Yeah,” Graargh added helpfully. “Like you say, she not even real wizard.”

You could have heard a pin drop.