Dusk-Lit Waltz

by Nicknack

First published

Gilda deals with her unexpected betrothal to King Sombra

In the capital city of Griffalia, Gilda leads a luxurious life of royalty—even if she doesn't care or know how good she's got it.

When she's suddenly thrust into an arranged marriage with the leader of another kingdom, she's going to have to learn some of the harder lessons of life, about family, and about herself.

This story was written as a commission for yamgoth, as part of the Las Pegasus Unicon Relief League Auctions. Tagged "Alternate Universe" because Sombra got nuked at the end of Season 3, Episode 2.

Chapter 1

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As I looked down over the city of Griffalia, I grinned to myself. Other cities only wished they were as cool as we were.

My favorite place in the city to perch was near the base of our huge flagpole that jutted out the top of—get this—a mildly active volcano. When I was up there, the only thing that was higher than me was our giant, flying banner: two wide, downturned angles that crossed each other, forming something that kind of looked like a flattened “M.” Being up by the flag gave me an eagle’s-eye-view of the city, which was really the best way to view things.

What I actually sat on wasn’t the flagpole itself, but the top of a huge, thin stone spire that ran the entire vertical length of Griffalia—from the frigid top to the glowing magma pools below. All of our homes and shops and stuff were built into the inner walls of the volcano; for convenience, they were connected to each other through bridges that joined the spire at several places. The bridges themselves were pretty wide, but they were built with the understood rule of “don’t fall off unless you’ve got wings.” And speaking of our non-winged guests, we’d built a huge set of spiral stairs inside the spire, so even they could get around the city by walking.

However, the only way to get to our flag was to fly up there. Which, technically, there was a law or something about perching up there like I was, but no one was going to say anything to me. My dad was the griffin in charge of the city, which was the capital of the griffin nation.

That technically made me “Princess Gilda,” but ew, no. The only dweebs who called me that were the ones who didn’t know me very well. That was most griffins, really, but whatever. Being the king’s daughter meant you got a lot of posers who just wanted to flock around you, ask for a favor, then never show their face again. It was better to just stay up and away from that whole mess, and I was happy to do just that.

Cenric, my younger brother by a year, called me “broody.” He was pretty cool, for a know-it-all egghead, and “broody” was pretty close to how things were for me. My two favorite things were flying and being alone, in that order, and not a lot of griffins could keep up with me in a race.

That morning, however, I couldn’t fly or do anything too fun. My mom told me to not get dirty, since there was a huge, public ordeal that I had to sit and look pretty for. I didn’t usually make a habit of listening to her nitpicking, but since my birthday was also being thrown into the gathering, I didn’t want to give her a reason to flip out. Without flying, that meant I had to revert to my usual standby hobby of griffin-watching.

I watched all the Griffalians below me, hoping someone would do something funny, like start a fight, or even a shouting match. No one seemed to be in the mood for drama today, though; everyone was hustling and bustling to make preparations for that thing I had to show up for. This year, we were expecting international guests, which totally meant we had to work harder to impress them.

It was a hilarious notion. If they weren’t impressed by a stone-carved city set in the middle of a volcano, they’d probably need a dragon fight in order to be entertained.

Dragon wrestling, my new pet idea for the late morning, grew into a more and more vivid scene in my mind. It got to the point where I started wondering what would be the best way to bring that up to my dad. He probably wouldn’t go for it, since we had that whole “thousands of years of terrible, warring relations” thing going on between us. It was a shame, since we were losing out on some pretty prime entertainment right there.

My mental dragon fight—there was a big green guy fighting a yellow snaky one—was almost over when it got interrupted by the sound of loud, hollow drums from below. That signalled that it was now eleven o’clock, which made me remember how I was supposed to be in my family’s great hall over half an hour ago. That realization came out as an exasperated sigh of, “Well, shit.”

There wasn’t much I could do about being late now, other than to limit just how late I was. So, without further ado, I kicked off my perch and dove into Griffalia. I had to be careful; the bridges connecting the spire to the city buildings had been built for walking, not for diving past. They randomly criss-crossed the chasm between the volcano and the spire, and hitting one at top speed would be a recipe for Mashed Gilda. It didn’t really bother me as they all rushed past me and I twisted to avoid them. I’d done that same exact jump a hundred times, regardless of whether my mom thought telling me to stop would actually mean anything.

About fifteen seconds after I dove off the highest point of the city, I got to the bridge I needed to be on. I flared out my wings, flipped over, and hit the bridge with all four walking limbs. Three griffins around me jumped back in shock, including one mother who fell over the edge. That made me chuckle, but there wasn’t any time to rub it in.

As I darted away, someone behind me called out, “Watch it, punk!”

I shouted over my shoulder, “Princess coming through, asshole!” As soon as I said it, I smiled at what my mom would think if she’d heard that one; the smile went away as I rolled my eyes up. I could already hear her nagging about how I was late; that was really all I ever really heard from her. She wanted me to live one way, I wanted to live my way, and the tie went to me since it was my life. Not hers.

Once I passed through the arched doorway that led towards my family’s home, everything around me got cramped and dark. I could see, but now I was just in a hallway. It wasn’t like there was anything exciting to look at.

Several fast-paced yet still-boring twists and turns later, I reached the side entrance to my family’s home. I had to knock, too, which only slowed me down. One of the servants let me in, but he knew better than to give me any crap if he even knew I was running late.

However, now I was in my home, I had to keep walking in a slow, careful manner. There were some treasures in there that money couldn’t replace, and I didn’t want to add anything else to my mom’s long-winded lecture that I was already bracing myself to be bored through.

The quickest way to get to my family’s great hall was through the servant’s quarters, or at least their hallways. When I got to them, I kept at my easy pace so I could both catch my breath and avoid anyone carrying food. The first and last time I bolted through those halls, I knocked someone over and ended up stinking like chili-spiced shrimp cocktail for a week.

At the speed of walking, it felt like it took forever, but I finally got to the end of the servant’s hallway. There, I climbed into rotating elevator mechanism thing, sat down, tucked my tail in, pulled the lever, and corkscrewed upwards while wearing a mock-exhilarated grin.

After my wild ride, I emerged on the right-hand side of my family’s great hall. Just like the rest of Griffalia, my family’s home had been carved into the thick stone of our volcano. Unlike the rest of the city, the great hall was lined with incredibly shiny obsidian. The walls and floor were as smooth as glass, and the high, vaulted ceilings were inset with webs up of hundreds of tiny crystals. Dozens of light fixtures ran down the three spines of the ceiling; they were made with a special type of precious stone that always gave off a soft, steady light. Because every surface in the room was polished to a mirror-level shine, the entire place lit up in a way that wasn’t completely lame, unless some poet started going on and on about it forever.

The four tables that ran the length of the hall were already full of both griffins and... I blinked, because my eyes were still going funky from being outside so long. After a few seconds, I realized it wasn’t me, it was that all the ponies sitting in the back of the room were actually reflecting the light from the fixtures above—just like the crystals in the ceiling.

It was weird, but I’d have time to sort that out when I got to my little throne.

In the front of the room, there was a raised stage that had four stone chairs of varying height. From where I stood, the closest chair was mine, next to it was my brother’s, then my dad’s, and then my mom’s. With a grin, I noticed that my mom hadn’t noticed me come up the spinning elevator on the side of the room. Score one for the stealthy route, I mentally congratulated myself.

I had to keep up with it for it to be worth anything, so I slunk along the side of the wall. It wasn’t incredibly bright in our hall to begin with, but back in the servant’s area, it was a lot darker. Given that it was dark black where I was, a griffin would have to be looking for me to see me—unless they caught a glimpse of my head’s white feathers. The weird, glittery ponies definitely didn’t stand a chance.

Things were pretty narrow behind the stage, but it was tall, so I could fit, unseen, if I stood on my hind legs and spread my arms up. It was uncomfortable to shuffle through the gap like that, which made me glad that my chair was the closest one to where I was.

Using the reflections on the back wall, I found my chair and took a deep breath. Then, I jumped, grabbed the back of it, pulled myself up, and slid around my chair. The whole thing was a quick, fluid motion, and I ended up in something that could pass for a “regal” posture.

As I scanned the room to see if anyone had noticed me, I took note of the seating arrangements. Four tables lined the room from back to front; three were split across six houses of nobility. Then, on the rightmost table, there was the group of “very important griffins” from Griffalia who weren’t royalty but would get pissy if they weren’t invited. Finally, in the corner of the room farthest from me, a group of pony emissaries were seated. A quick glimpse at their manes told me that no one I wanted to talk to had shown up, but with a mental shrug, I figured that ship had set sail long ago.

I risked a glance over at my mom, who sat three thrones over on my right. She was glaring at me out of the corner of one eye, so I grinned sheepishly at her. Whether she wanted to take it as an apology was up to her; she couldn’t do anything in front of the whole room like we were.

From my near-right, my brother quietly commented, “You’re late.”

I rolled my eyes, but I straightened my head back to look out over the guests. It was the proper thing to do, as it were; when you sat in those uncomfortable, stone chairs, you were supposed to move as little as possible. Still, Cenric was being fussy over nothing, so I whispered, “Relax, dude, Dad’s not here yet.”

“I don’t think that’s your deadline for arrival...”

“Eh. Whatever.” My brother was cool enough, but he’d get naggy if I gave him that chance. Instead of doing that, I asked about our sparkly guests in the back of the room. “What’s with the ponies? They’re prettier than normal.”

He let out a soft breath of a chuckle. “They’re the emissaries from the Crystal Empire.”

“Okay... who are they?”

Without turning my head, I knew that Cenric was shaking his head slightly and with a sense of superiority. “You’re seventeen, going on eighteen...”

He liked to play up his smarts when we talked about political trivia; none of that affected me, so I didn’t have to care like he did. I rolled my eyes at his pompous prince act. “Ugh, are you gonna start singing again?”

That got him to shut up.

“Besides,” I continued, “you’re the one who gets to lead this joint one day. None of this affects me, so why should I care?”

“That’s a blissful sentiment...” He paused, so I knew he was shaking his head at me again.

I grinned out of the side of my mouth he couldn’t see; that was just how we were.

“But fine, then. Several centuries ago, the Crystal Empire seceded from Equestria under the banner of King Sombra. He’s here now, like you could miss him...”

I looked back and, sure enough, one of the shiny ponies stood out from the rest. He was a dark grey stallion with black hair, and even while sitting, he loomed over his escorts. His red cape with white trim was a few months too late—it was late March now—but what I noticed most about him were his eyes. They glowed bright green, and a strange, wispy vapor flowed off them like fog. My eyes shifted to his blood-red horn, then back to his eyes; I could tell he had his hooves on a great deal of magical power—then again, he was at least a few centuries old, like Cenric said.

It would’ve scared me, but there was a room full of griffins between us. So instead, I scoffed quietly. For someone who was apparently powerful, the guy was a complete show-off.

Cenric continued, “Rumor has it that they’ve recently began looking around for allies to strengthen their foothold in the political realm. Apparently, our father—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Apparently?” I turned my head to grin at my brother. “You mean there’s something politic-y that you don’t know?”

He shrugged. “Father’s been quiet on this matter, and it’s not my place to pry. I’m actually hoping that his speech today will clear things up.”

Since I was hitting on the edges of my brother’s political knowledge, there wasn’t much more I could get to know about the situation. I straightened myself out for a minute, trying to wait patiently. When that got old, I started drumming my talons on my armrest. As interesting as it was to wait for my dad to come talk about stuff I didn’t care about, I consoled myself in thinking I could at least look forward to the stuff after his hour-long speech.

First, there’d a huge feast, and I was hungry. Then, after the meal, in front of everyone, my dad would give me my birthday present. Last year, he’d given me a crystalline music box for holding jewelry—which, I never wore jewelry, since it didn’t stay on during high-speed flight.

But even if I’d been forced to keep a grateful face to my dad in front of the crowd, it at least meant that he cared, if he took the time to disappoint me in front of all six houses of griffins like that. It had to.

As I sat there, I wondered what he’d get me this year. How would would measure up to last year’s gift? Would I at least want it this year? A shrill, distant trumpeting snapped me out of my lame daydreams about a perfect gift. At the other end of the great hall, the doors opened and the royal Griffalia honor guard began filing in. The whole room stood up—turning around if they had to—so they could properly welcome the king.

My dad walked into the room, standing tall and proud even among griffins. He wasn’t wearing any jewelry, but since none of his sleek feathers stood out of place, he didn’t need to. His bright red sash swayed as he walked down the great hall’s main aisle; between the crown on his head and his bold, hard expression, there couldn’t have been any question of who he was or which kingdom he ruled.

When he reached the front of the room, he walked around to the side of our stage and climbed up the stairs. As he walked past, I knew better than to try and get his attention. He was acting the role as king; my mom barely even got a little nod from him as he walked up to the pedestal that was waiting for him. Once he got situated and his honor guard stood at attention at the base of the stage, my dad motioned for everyone to sit back down. After a brief, massive shuffle as everyone obeyed, one voice—the voice—rang out in his great hall:

“Friends and allies, welcome to Griffalia!”

During the round of applause that broke out to accept his generous offer, I remembered my travels into lands outside Griffalia. I’d endured several speakers, most of whom used magically crafted tools to raise the volume of their voice. Having grown up with my dad, it had seemed weird to me; when he wanted to be heard, it wasn’t a matter of if you listened. Even in a room as big as the one we were in now, his voice bounced off the walls and up to the ceilings; you’d have to be deaf not to hear him.

Or bored. Like every other year, I tried—I really did—to keep track of everything he talked about. Like every other year, he quickly lost me when he started talking about boring crap in the past like “national history” and words like “armistice.” I just tried to sit there and look regal; however, even that conscious effort drifted out of the room and up towards places I’d rather be…

My dad came to a pause in his speech, which jolted me back to attention. A quick glance to my right showed that my mom wasn’t glaring at me, so I must not’ve twitched awake. That was a good thing. Even better, the shock clued me back into my dad’s speech, so I caught his next speaking point:

“As you have all surely seen by now, this year, we are graced with visitors from the Crystal Empire.” My dad gestured over to the shiny ponies, and murmurs broke out in the griffin portion of the crowd again.

What struck me as odd was how, when I glanced over at the foreign, glowy king, his creepy eyes was staring directly back at me. Directly. He had to be. I turned away because it wasn’t polite to stare, not because it was weird.

I caught more bits and pieces from my dad’s speech as he spoke about furthering relations outside our borders, and how the fear of tradition shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. However, my mind was stuck on those creepy green eyes, pointed right at me. Whether it was some sort of magic he was casting or if it were just his usual demeanor, it made me shift in my seat a little.

I blinked, hard, and tried to put my stupid fears away. So what if we had some new guests, and they were a little weird? That wasn’t new for foreigners. And we were here, in Griffalia, my home city. Mine. If it came down to a fight, my dad’s honor guard had been bred for combat and taught to fight since before they could fly. That wasn’t counting my brother, or of course, my dad. King or no, he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me.

There, on my stone chair, in my family’s great hall, I probably sat in one of the safest places the world had to offer. But I was still weirded out by those glowing green eyes. Not afraid; that would be dumb. Still, something tugged at the corner of my mind while simultaneously causing a shiver to bristle down the back of my neck.

I took a quick glance at Cenric, but his blank stare of loathing into the back of our dad’s head only made matters worse. That didn’t make sense; my brother wasn’t the type of prince to do the whole “forcibly inherit the kingdom” gig. He respected my dad, so why was he so pissed off?

My attention snapped back to my dad’s speech when I heard him mention “family ties.” That was possibly relevant to me. He continued: “And on that note, I would like to bring up something of a tradition for me. Or at least, how every year during this holiday, I always take a small amount of time to celebrate another annual occurrence.”

I sat up a little taller, in case anyone was watching.

“While I usually wait until after our feast, I am not remiss in taking a little time to explain how this year, my daughter’s birthday is a special occasion for all of us.”

There was a certain art to keeping up appearances while showing interest, and since my dad was talking about me, I didn’t think it was too far-fetched for me to raise an eyebrow. On the inside, I was beaming. I mean, if he were making this big deal out of things, it had to be something cool.

“This year, Gilda has entered the ranks of adulthood, and as such, she is finally able to accept some royal responsibilities for herself, her family, and her country.”

That deflated me a little; I didn’t like the sound of that at all. The extent of my royalty was how I was born into it; I didn’t want to have much more to do with it. “Royal responsibilities” sounded like they’d end up being a lame waste of my free time.

As off-putting as that all was, it took second place to the weird feeling I got when my dad turned to smile at me. Like, he was usually cool to me and stuff, but he didn’t usually smile at anyone, let alone me. Maybe a warm grin or something, back when I was little. But this...

This was definitely the first time he looked at me as if he were proud.

I gave his smile back as best I could, but it tasted like I were covering my own uneasiness. Or maybe that was bile.

He turned back to the crowd. “So, on this most venerable of our holidays, with all of Griffindom as witness, I am pleased to announce the dawn of a new era of peace between two great empires: my daughter’s betrothal to the leader of the Crystal Empire—King Sombra!”

I heard the words, but they didn’t make any sense.

Applause and cheers broke out from the rest of the room—including the crystal ponies in the back. Everyone took the announcement well, like it was something to celebrate.

To me, the applause was muted and distant, like... like everyone was far away from me. And they were happy for some reason.

I just sat there, stunned.

I mean... It was some sort of a joke, a prank... right? I mean, it had to be. I looked around for some answers. My mom wasn’t looking at me, but whatever, she wouldn’t have any answers anyway. My dad kept speaking, but damned if I could make out a word he was saying—I felt lightheaded and sick, like I wasn’t getting enough air.

Everyone was staring at me, which I tried to shut out. Then, the whole room started spinning slightly. I tried to keep it together. It would’ve been bad, I realized, to throw up, or to follow my instinct and fly out of the room, screaming, at top speed.

But what did my dad just announce to everyone?



As in, forced marriage? To some prick I’d never even met?

It didn’t make any sense.

I jerked away from a hand on my elbow, barely noting the sharp tearing as talons raked my arm. Looking over, Cenric wore a resolute frown. His gaze softened, and I realized he wasn’t mad at me. That just made the situation worse. Like, now it was real.

The realer it got, the harder it was for me to stay calm. I settled for trying to appear not-freaked-out. My arm was bleeding, I knew, but I didn’t care. I had bigger problems than more cleaning work for the servants later.

Married. Forced to. That... that wasn’t the sort of thing that just happened in our society. It had be some mistake. I mean, my dad didn’t even ask me, or tell me about it, or anything. So it was a mistake. That had to be it.

I’d wait until after the feast, then I’d get my dad alone and ask him what was really going on. Then, it’d all be cleared up. I mean, it had to be a mistake.

My dad loved me. He wouldn’t just up and sell me out to someone like that.


Chapter 2

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Wind whipped through my wings as I flapped higher and higher. From up here, Griffalia and the lands around it all looked tiny. A vast expanse of water surrounded our volcano on three sides; on the fourth, a thick stretch of jungle spread north all the way to the mainland.

Only there in the sky, where I was several miles above all the backstabbing and betrayal down below, did I felt a little better. A little.

It didn’t help. Three weeks after he’d made the announcement, I finally accepted that my dad wasn’t pulling some cruel joke. Still, I couldn’t believe he’d just sell me like that. I mean, he was always distant and never really talked to me, but I was his daughter. We had a word for the type of girl he was selling me as, and that was not me.

Plus, after all that shit in Ponyville, I never wanted to see any lame-ass ponies again, let alone live near one. I certainly didn’t want to marry one, or live in the capital of a whole frigging empire full of them!

Of course, I didn’t have a say in the matter. That would’ve made too much sense.

Midair, I banked hard to the left, trying to fly fast enough that the roar of rushing air would drown out my thoughts. It didn’t, so I had to let them fester.

The phrase that kept repeating in my mind was “damn politics.” When they got involved, things always got messy. They made griffins do stupid things, like abandon loyalties, conquer nations, or sell their own daughters.

I was a pawn in some international game of checkers or however that stupid game worked. That was the worst part; at the end of the day, all I was to my dad was a pawn.

I screamed to vent my frustration. At my speed, it felt like yelling into a pillow, but it didn’t help anything. I needed to go faster, I told myself, even though my wings were burning. I’d been up in the air for a good five hours already, ever since I woke up.

Damn politics! That was the other worst part of it. Politics meant that I had to go along with everything, or else I’d probably start some sort of war between my country and the Crystal Empire—wherever it was located. So I could fly, I just couldn’t go anywhere.

On that note, I banked left again to complete the giant square I had flown in several times that morning.

Most of what I knew about my situation, I’d put together from a lesson from one of my dad’s handmaidens. She was supposed to be teaching me the art of being “refined” and other worthless junk, which I already knew—I just didn’t care. If some asshole king wanted to marry me, he’d get me, not some dweeby, watered-down Gilda-lite.

Speed, I urged myself. I needed speed. That one was easy—go with gravity, not at an angle against it. I bent my head down and the rest of me followed into a dive. I flapped my wings as I fell, and for a split second, I knew peace as the rushing wind tore through my feathers and drowned out all thoughts.

While I fell, I could feel the pocket of air around me that I displaced. It wasn’t be very big; griffins were too aerodynamic for that. Still, as I tore through the air towards on my way to the ground, the rushing wind felt liquid, and the thought crossed my mind to just keep going.

As soon as that was out there in the open, I flared my wings and flew vertically. I wasn’t going out like that. I banked hard, this time to the right, and the force of my turn knocked the wind out of me. I didn’t care. Here, in the air, I was home. I was still alive.

I pulled up and slowed down, which let me get some needed oxygen. It was easy to breathe in when I was moving, especially up where bugs weren’t plentiful. I took a nice, deep breath. That was calm; that was soothing.

I still wanted to break something.

A warning screech from below proclaimed that I wasn’t alone in the sky anymore. I looked down in time to catch sight of my younger brother, flying on an intercept course with me. I hated being on the “prey” end of a chase. Those days, there were a lot of choices that were being made for me; “being caught” wasn’t going to be one of them.

Snarling, I rolled onto a new course. We were both decent fliers, but I was better. The general rule of outflying him was, obviously, keep my lead on him; that meant no sharp turns or other tricks. He could see me, which made the whole thing a lot easier for him. Losing him wasn’t going to be easy, but it was doable. I’d done it before.

I gave up altitude to gain speed, which sent me soaring towards a seaside cliff to the south of Griffalia. There was a system of caves near it; if I got into those caves with him, it’d be game over. Cenric spent all his time learning about history and politics from books, but I knew the local flying spots like the back of my hand. It was my home, after all. I’d lose him in there.

We were headed south along the coast of Griffalia’s peninsula; I just had to follow the beach until we got to the caves. I risked a glance over my shoulder; Cenric was gaining on me a lot faster than he used to be able to. That came as a surprise, and panic forced me to push my already-tired wings even harder.

I was close to my limit, though, and deep down, I already knew I wasn’t going to make it to the caves. The logical part of my brain told me to give up. My wings were almost spent.

That fear turned to anger, and in a flash, I banked upwards at a ninety degree angle. Cenric was behind me; he’d have to follow. In a chase, flying vertically like we were would always end badly for the griffin in front; there was only so much force you could put behind your wings to keep your speed when you were fighting against gravity. Then, you’d stall, and you’d fall into whoever or whatever was behind you.

Sure enough, at the peak of my flight, my wings burned as I felt that all-too-familiar, impassible weight that would either pull me down or force me to flip my wings around so I could hover. I grinned; that was exactly where I wanted to be.

When I started to fall, I balled my hand into a fist and brought it down in a full-body punch.

The blow caught Cenric square in the jaw, which dazed him for a moment—more than long enough for me to continue diving down past him. Or so I thought, before I felt his foot connect with my inner thigh. Pain spread, and a hand gripped the scruff of my neck, cat-style, as the two of us fell.

He tightened his grip on me, trying to lock his elbows into the insides of my arm shoulders. In that awkward grapple, I couldn’t really do anything except throw elbows. None of them connected, and really, I only succeeded in making it easier for him. Once he had me in a strong grip, Cenric flapped his wings and, with a lurch, we headed over to a nearby cloud.

I had about a second’s warning before he slammed my entire body, face-down, into it. Either for his security or my dignity, Cenric kicked my butt down into the cloud, too. He completed the motion by planting his feet on mine and gripping my upper arms in his hands.

When it was over, he stood on top of me, victorious. There wasn’t anything I could do about it except be thankful we weren’t that kind of siblings.

After catching his breath, Cenric leaned down into my ear; for a gross moment, I could feel him breathing on me. He spoke calmly, despite being in a dominating position: “I’m going to let you up. If you make me catch you like that again, I will clip your wings. Do you understand?”

That wasn’t an idle threat, nor was it a laughing matter. I’d had it done once to me once, growing up, and it was possible to fly, just not with the speeds or maneuverability that made it worth anything. It’d take several months for the feathers to molt, too, so it was a long-lasting embarrassment.

Prone as I was, I still seethed for a moment before sighing an exasperated, “Fine.”

Instantly, my brother’s grip on my arms let up and the weight from his feet vanished. I looked over at him, half expecting to have a hand out to help me up; instead, Prince Cenric, my brother the neat freak, spat a wad of blood out and over the edge of our cloud. I was about to mock-congratulate him on that, but he spoke first: “Where’d you learn to throw a punch like that?”

Memories flashed before my eyes, but I closed my eyes to throw them away. “That stupid flight camp. But the dive part, that just seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Cenric nodded, then held out a hand for me. “Effective, if short-sighted. But you never were much for learning the efficient ways to do things.”

I took it, and after I got up, we both sat down on opposite sides of our little cloud platform. I was grateful for his gesture, but I still had to cross my arms and shake my head to disagree with what he said. “The only good a book’s gonna do in a fight is if you throw it.”

“Knowledge is power, Gilda.” He smirked at me. “Both of us got off one blow, but who won that... can we even call it a fight?”

Stupid guys and their macho crap. “Yeah, but you’re a dude. Totally unfair.”

He didn’t have a response for that, either. He just got up, turned, and sat back down closer to me on my left—not next to me, but at a mutually safe distance that counted for “close” among griffins. Without saying a word, Cenric grabbed ahold of the cloud, unfurled his left wing, and gently flapped it a few times. Our cloud slowly turned until we were facing Griffalia, at which point I mocked bewilderment. “Ooh... What’s next, a sonic rainboom?”

“Is everything a joke to you?” he cut out, quick and loud.

It broke through my residual annoyance of being chased, caught, and threatened; it was replaced with a familiar weight of dread in my stomach.

Cenric shook his head to regain some composure before he started up again. “Or are you incapable of seeing a grave situation for what it is?”

I sneered, brought my left fist near my head, and raised my middle finger at him. “Don’t talk to me like you’re the one marrying some foreign asshole—”

“No, you’re right. Talk is cheap, I should spend a few weeks making a scene above the city and screaming like an animal. That will earn our father’s respect.”

Like he gives a shit!” I shrugged forward, at Cenric, with all four shoulders.

Instead of answering, he just turned away and looked back at the city. “Perhaps not. But some do. Not everyone in Griffalia agrees with his decision...”

I blew the disbelief out my nose. “Yeah, like who?”

He snapped his head back to me. “Like me.” Whether it was some leftover voice growth or something else, his voice cracked a little. For a brief moment, his eyes told the whole, hurt story, right to my chest. “But, you’d rather fly off or hide or brood than come talk about the situation with me.”

His guilt trip stoked my anger, so the first thing out of my mouth was, “Why, so you can make it all better with your books and logic?”

“You’re not the only one of us losing a sibling here!”

I glanced down at his fist; he’d grabbed a tuft of cloud and had squeezed it into a soggy, gray mush. I looked back up to his face. He was staring off at our capital city, fighting to keep a neutral, regal expression—even if it was just the two of us.

It seemed unfair for him to have to do that. For the first time, when I looked at Cenric, I saw the effects of the heavy reputation he had to live up to. He usually carried it well, but compared to our dad, right then, my brother looked... young. Scared, even.

I shook my head and sighed. The whole situation was screwed up on so many levels, I didn’t even know where to begin being pissed at it. But Cenric was my brother, and he tried to make an effort to reach out to me, so I could at least try to give him a little bit of comfort from it all. “So, uh, you tell me what’s bothering you, and I’ll tell you what’s bothering me?”

A smile touched the side of his mouth, and he blinked some mist out of the eye I could see. It was as close to a “thank you” as he’d ever give for something like that, and that was all I ever needed. “I fear this alliance—the one that your engagement is central to—is a mistake. My concerns fall on deaf, ‘experienced’ ears. But we’ve been on relatively friendly, if neutral, grounds with Equestria for so long; there’s nothing we gain by throwing that away.”

“What, does Equestria have beef with the Crystal Empire?”

Cenric turned and, despite his gratitude, he blinked at me. Instead of giving me crap about not knowing anything, he explained, “War. Prisoner torture. Slavery. The history between those two pony empires is surprisingly dark, given how...” He chuckled. “Bright and colorful they are.”

I turned my head and looked over to our huge flag that bore Griffalia’s emblem. “And there’s no good that comes from an alliance with either of them?”

“I didn’t quite say that. More that... Equestria focuses more of its resources on fueling a military supremacy. If we ally ourselves with their enemy, all of a sudden, those swords and spears point to us alongside them.”

I chuckled. “So that’s why you were boring holes into the back of his head during his speech?”

A soft sigh came from my left. “Indeed. It came as a shock to me, and it’s unsettling how our father is content to keep us both in the dark while he forges international plans that affect both of our futures.”

“Yeah...” I agreed. “I mean, heck, if he’d even just asked first...”

Cenric scoffed. I glared over at him as he frowned back. “Don’t act like you’d be any less pissed about the whole thing.”

“I might be.”

He shook his head like usual. “You’re my sister, and I love you, but you don’t know the first thing about international politics. If you’re mad that our father didn’t ask you, then ask yourself if you could even have made an informed decision to begin with that wasn’t just ‘No.’”

I scowled at him for a few moments before deflecting his point: “What, so I don’t get to choose who I’d marry? What if I wanted to stay here and find someone?”

“Remember the whole ‘suitors fiasco’ last September?”

“The nicest guy kept staring at my butt the whole time.”

“Then how many romantic interests have you ever taken the initiative on?”

“What, so that makes it right?”

“No. But don’t lie to yourself. There’s enough treachery awing as it is.”

I crossed my arms over my chest as I shook my head again. He had a good point there, I had to admit. Still, it was a good point about a crappy situation. “Fine. So I didn’t get a choice in the matter. Now it just sucks because it happened, and since I’m being sold off to some other country, my life’s over.”

Cenric gave me a sad little smile as he raised an eyebrow. “I hope not.”

I shrugged. “What if I wanted to travel?”

He started listing off places on his fingers. “You hate Equestria, Zebronia, and the other griffin cities. You’d be killed on sight in Draconia. Where, exactly, would you go?”

“I dunno! But it’d be my choice. And what about flying?”

“They... they have the sky, in the Crystal Empire, Gilda. That’s not really something you can lose.”

“Not if I’ve got a bunch of kids or whatever that I’ve got to look after all the time!” As soon as I shouted it, Cenric looked off into the distance, and I saw him blush under his brown feathers. I knew what he was thinking before he said it: “And no, I don’t know how that works with a pony! I don’t... want to.”

Tears stung my eyes, but if Cenric had heard me, he didn’t show any sign of it. That was typical for him; as soon as the conversation got to be about anything feminine, he clamped up.

I was about to damn the consequences and fly off when he whispered, “He can’t make you do that.”

In the world of forced, political marriages, I found myself severely doubting that. “Yeah? Says who?”

“Says me.” Cenric twitched his head to me with fire in his eyes. “I won’t let him. I would shatter his whole damn empire first, and to Hell with politics!

I sat there, stunned by my younger brother’s outburst. My gut reaction was to say something cute like, “Aww... you’d go to war, for me?” but for once, I realized that something a bad thing to say before I said it. We weren’t really in a situation to make jokes. I decided on a better reaction: I put a hand on his shoulder and quietly said, “Thanks, dude.”

He patted my hand twice, but then he plucked it off him, so I took it back. That was more that no griffin liked being touched randomly like that; the only reason I did it was because it was one of the weird habits I’d picked up in Equestria at some point.

Cenric’s hand kept moving, down to his waist, where I noticed he was wearing a belt with a satchel hanging from it. He undid the string on the satchel and chuckled. “With all this betrothal headache, I bet you forgot what day it was today.”

I hadn’t looked at the calendar in a while, so I nodded back.

He absently passed his satchel from hand to hand as he explained, “I wanted to find you today of all days because... well, it’s your birthday.”

“Huh.” I noted. It had been a rough few weeks since the announcement; I didn’t really care about what numbers went with what days, but I usually paid a bit more attention when it was... “Aw, crap, that explains the whole... big breakfast thing.” I vaguely remembered, earlier that morning, when I had toned out some of my mom’s words as I ignored her and stormed through our dining hall.

With a grunt, he agreed. “If it helps matters, I ordered it be given to the servants, so they enjoyed your meal.”

It did, a little, but I still didn’t feel too strongly about the whole situation.

He kept the satchel in his right hand as he turned to sit facing me. “Given our conversation, I still want to give you this...” He held up his hand. “But I’ve got one condition, now.”

“Conditional gifts? What, you’re a buffalo now?”

Cenric glared at me. “That’s... not how you use that phrase, and don’t... talk like that. You’re royalty; wars have been fought over less.”

I smiled at him, and kept it up until he had to shake his head to try and cover the hint of a smile on the side of his mouth.

Anyway...” He held out his satchel. “I want you to have this.”

I took it from him and opened the mouth. Reaching inside, I pulled out a dagger—I could tell, because its sheath was made of a clear, amber crystal, which let me see the blade. I set the satchel down on the cloud, which caused Cenric to grunt in protest for some reason. With two hands free, I could pull the weapon apart to look at the business end of it. Just like the sheath, the blade of the dagger was made of crystal; however, instead of amber, the blade was uncolored and as clear as glass.

It was pretty and deadly. I loved it.

Cenric explained, “Diamond doesn’t usually form blades like that, but I had a jewel alchemist who owed me for pardoning his son last year. Do you like it?”

“Yeah, dude, it’s awesome.”

He grinned. “Good. Then I want you to promise me one thing. This King Sombra pony? If he ever hurts you? Cut his heart out.”

The request was brutal—heck, for Cenric, it was barbaric—but I didn’t want to disagree with him, either. I nodded back, which sealed the deal.

After returning my nod, my brother silently dove off our cloud, leaving me alone and holding my new gift. Now that I was alone with my thoughts again, I had to admit I felt better about everything—Cenric’s gift to me had been an option in the whole ordeal.

It really shouldn’t have been that much to ask for.

Chapter 3

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

Not me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes flashed with pain.

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

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

I didn’t answer.

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

When it’s convenient.

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

That is an excellent reason to “turn bitter.”

“Have I ever told you about my betrothal?”

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

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

Shut up.”

She did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have responsibilities, and children—”

“And I don’t. And I don’t want any.”

“All you want is your own freedom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at her. “Huh?”

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

“Dad wouldn’t tell Cenric—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pony lives,” I grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Won’t you come inside?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

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The big day came, like I knew it would. Like knew I couldn’t avoid. I didn’t know if I was ready yet.

I spent most of the morning in my bedroom getting dolled up by three of my dad’s servants—my new handmaidens. I started to learn their names once it hit me they were coming with me to the Crystal Empire; other than letters and visits from my family, those three were going to be my main source of “griffin contact” for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, most of the preparation for the ceremony had already happened, with all my lessons and rehearsals. Today’s preparations weren’t really intricate work. I started by taking a bath, then I got assaulted by various perfumes, powders, and other things that made me look and smell pretty. One of my handmaidens—Lora—tried to speckle me with glitter, but I shook my head and chuckled. I was getting married; I didn’t need a permanent reminder of it.

There’d be a bracelet, given to me during the ceremony, for that.

Once I was physically ready, I got to begin the waiting game. I’d been dragged off my bed early “so that I wouldn’t be late,” which I understood. When we finished at eleven o’clock and there was a two-hour window before the ceremony, though, I had to question if I really couldn’t have slept in another hour or so.

Tayte suggested that I eat lunch before the ceremony, which almost made me smile. I felt too sick to eat, let alone do much besides sitting on my butt and waiting. I told my three handmaidens that they could go eat if they wanted to, which of course led to the whole “Oh, we couldn’t eat if you won’t” deal, which just led to me ordering them to go eat.

I did it nicely; I didn’t want to upset them. But I did need some time alone to think about stuff, so it was the best for everyone.

They took the hint—not like their oaths really gave them an option—and left me alone in my bedroom. My morning makeup routine had ended with me on a short stool in front of my dresser, facing a big oval mirror. Since I was alone now, I looked into it and reflected on everything that was going to happen today.

I was getting married to the king of a distant empire. He was a hard-ass or something, and I could apparently take the edge off that and make things better for our two kingdoms. In the five weeks since my mom’s little talk with me during that storm, I’d had a lot of time to think about what it all actually meant. It was a huge responsibility, and I didn’t know how a lot of it was going to work—let alone if it was even possible.

I just knew I had to at least try. It was too big for me not to.

During those five weeks—my final five weeks in Griffalia—I’d begun to pay a lot more attention to the official goings-on around our home. I’d also started bugging Cenric to teach me stuff, and he’d been happy to do what he could to help.

When I thought about my brother, my reflection turned into a sad smile. It reminded me of everyone I’d said goodbye to over the past few days. The list hadn’t been very long, granted: There were only a few griffins in the city I’d really miss; then, in my home, there were some of the cooler servants; and finally, there was my family.

My mom had cried with me when I said goodbye.

Cenric had responded by almost breaking my spine in what was either suffocation or a hug. Even if it was a sad one, I grinned at the memory; I was going to miss my egghead little brother.

I’d mostly avoided my dad for the past four months. I glared at myself in the mirror as I remembered my resolve: If he wanted to sell me out to another country, for whatever reasons he had, without telling me or asking first, regardless of how little a difference it would have made...

He could tell me goodbye if he wanted. It wasn’t bitter, or petty; it was just how I was going to let things turn out.

I shook it out of my head. I’d already said my goodbyes and packed my things; there wasn’t anything left to do but leave. I looked over to the table near my door. On it sat a small traveler’s chest of my personal belongings. My etiquette tutor had told me that Sombra would provide me with most of the essentials for living; that meant all I had were some sentimental knickknacks and doodads to bring along with me.

I thought about opening it and going through it, but I chuckled at how dumb an idea that was. I’d have time for that when I unpacked, and even then, I had already made sure the important things were in there: a picture of my family, my diary, and the knife Cenric had given me.

I really didn’t want to use that last one, but I still wasn’t certain about what would happen in the next few months. How would my marriage turn out? Would Sombra let me lead my own life to a certain extent? Or was he one of those ego-headed kings who was obsessed with continuing his line? Would he count hippogriffs—I’d had to go to the library to look up that scary word—as his line?

The only thing I could really do was wait and find out.

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts. After glancing at the door, my eyes turned to my clock. My handmaidens couldn’t have even gotten all the way down to the kitchen yet, let alone eaten anything. If they’d found some sort of loophole in my order, I was going to get annoyed; either way, I stood up and headed over to the door.

When I opened it, my dad stood on the other side. He was sharp as ever—he’d probably gone through a similar, male version of what I’d woken up to—but as close as we stood, he still loomed a good head taller than me.

Neither of us said anything at first until he finally broke the silence with, “May I come in?”

It’s your home now. I shrugged and stepped aside.

He stepped inside, and I watched his eyes quickly take inventory of my room. Right when he finished, he gestured at what used to be my living area. “Sit with me?”

There wasn’t anything I could lose by disobeying, but I didn’t really gain anything either. So I nodded, and the two of us headed over to my couch and sat.

Silence fell between us again, but I didn’t really have anything to say to break it. After all, he was visiting me; that meant it was his turn to speak, regardless of the whole authority thing.

Finally, he did. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

I wanted to throw back some poison along the lines of “How can you tell?” He’d always been a fixture in my life—there at meals, or in the hallway from time to time, but we never really talked unless it was about stuff I needed to do. But that wasn’t a fight I wanted to have today—or ever—so I settled on a meek “Yeah, a little.”


I sighed. There wasn’t really a good answer I could tell him, so I started putting one together by talking about my whole betrothal ordeal: “You know, I used to worry about ‘why.’ Like, why me? But then when I found out why, it still didn’t make up for how.” I turned to look at my dad. “You used me, and dropped it on me like a bomb. Why?”

His eyes turned somber, and he spoke gravely. “The risk of foreign turmoil forced my hand. If I had given you any sort of warning...” He chuckled lightly with a small grin. “I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that you would have had a volatile reaction to the news.” He sighed, and the humor left his face. “I had to chose between your feelings—and your ‘freedom,’ as your mother tells me—and the good of entire nations. I hoped you were strong enough to accept my failure as a father.”

It was weird to hear him speak like that; without his usual air of authority, he seemed... real, for a moment. I didn’t have anything to say to him, though.

He continued, “And you raged and you pleaded and you cried... but in the end, you’re still here.” After a short pause, he added, “Do you remember, during my speech, what I said about you being ready to accept royal responsibilities?”

I nodded, even though I remembered my original, heated reaction of “not wanting them.” That desire was still there, in the back of my mind, but I’d long since learned that it was pointless to complain about my situation.

“I was right, or rather, you proved me right.” My dad held his right hand out in front of him, palm up, and curled his talons in, one after the other. “So I’m overjoyed to be vindicated in my faith, even if I don’t deserve it. For what little it’s worth, this decision is the hardest I’ve ever made—and I hope it remains that way until my time as king ends. For what little more it’s worth, I’m sorry that this came to pass as it did.”

I mulled his apology over for a moment before I decided it wasn’t worth it to tell him the truth about how I felt. Then again, the more I thought about it, the more the truth had changed. I wasn’t really mad about being “sold out” anymore, I knew I had to go to the Crystal Empire, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it.

All I could do was choose how I approached the situation.

It still took me a little bit of effort, but I made up my mind. I reached out my hand and gripped the top of his still-outheld fist. “I... Okay. You did what you had to, and now... well, it is what it is.”

He smiled, and right then, his relief told me that it had been well worth it to forgive him. As we sat together, in warm silence, I realized that I also felt a lot better about my own situation.

“I’m going to miss you, Dad.”

He responded to me by taking his hand back, then wrapping that arm around my shoulders. He softly placed his chin on top of my head and whispered, “I’ll miss you too, Gilda. But I’m certain that you’ll do great things if I let you go.”

We stayed like that for a few moments, but it couldn’t last forever. When it was over, my dad stood up, and I led him back to the door. Before he left, he turned to me and said, “You look beautiful. I’m sure that Sombra will be pleased.”

I shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out later.”

He nodded. “Together?”


With that, he exited my room, and I walked back over to my dresser. My stomach churned—wedding nerves—and my mind still ran in about a million different directions at once. But when I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I found that I couldn’t help but crack a grin.

* * *

When Griffalia was first built, the king had ordered a huge platform installed over one of the lower magma chambers. Inside, there was only one thin, upward-sloping bridge that connected the massive doors to the hanging platform. Massive stone chains bolted the corners of the large, rectangular rock to four pillars around the room. The lighting in the room came from ancient, unicorn-forged pumps that brought magma up from the pools below to form several glowing streams that lined the walls.

The first king of Griffalia had made it his keep. Later, poets called it Hell. Today, I called it my wedding hall.

It was hot. My first few steps into the room took my breath and thought away as I wondered why my dad couldn’t have planned it in somewhere cooler, like maybe an oven or a bonfire or something.

I could have turned and asked him, too—he was walking me up to the platform, where I’d walk down an aisle between the representatives of two nations gathered. It would’ve been a pointless question, though, so I just walked along with him and figured that the location would be memorable, if anything.

For how big an international deal my marriage was supposed to be, I was glad to note how few guests there actually were. Granted, the feast after was going to be a city-wide event, but I didn’t need a ton of griffins present during my wedding. Luckily, only about a quarter of the platform was occupied, which I guessed to be only a little over a hundred guests on either side.

Every step we took got heavier and heavier, and I felt myself growing more and more aware that I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t want this. I kept walking, though. I had to. There was no way around it.

When I got to the front of the crowd, a Griffalian cleric began reading through the traditional rite of griffin marriage. It started with a long-winded explanation of how it was permanent, not to be taken lightly, all that jazz. I’d worried about it for months now; I didn’t need a refresher today.

The liquid heat of the room was useful, though. With how much everyone was already sweating, no one would notice if my eyes were glistening during the whole thing.

Not even my groom.

Up close, King Sombra was pretty much what I had gathered when I first laid eyes on him. He was tall, coal gray, and the owner of some seriously freaky eyes. He’d worn some royal armor to our wedding—which made me wonder if he’d known it was going to be in a volcano—and even though its steel blended in with his fur’s color, it made me feel exposed when I stood next to him. I took small comfort in my wings; they covered my spine better than his thick red cape covered his.

I turned and caught his eye for a moment and noted that he... also didn’t seem very interested in the ceremony. Even though we were just giving each other a sideways glance, I fought not to turn away; being a wimp like that was looked down on by both our cultures. Sombra wore a grim, almost hard expression as he looked down at me—he, like my dad, was a good foot taller than I was—but the longer we looked at each other, the more I felt he was curious about me.

The cleric in front of us stopped speaking, which gave me an excuse to focus my attention on him and his dweeby robe. He asked if anyone in the audience had any objections to this union, and I took a deep breath. As much as I wanted someone to say something, anything, it would only make the situation go from what it was to a whole lot worse.

After a polite, consenting silence from the audience, the cleric started in on the part of the ceremony where Sombra and I had to actively participate. All my lessons from the past few months came in handy; I knew the dialogue word-for-word, so I didn’t have to think about my answers or their implications.

In the end, I said yes, Sombra said yes, and that was the start of our life together.

As soon as it was done, I could’ve sworn that it felt like a weight was lifted out of my stomach. It didn’t make any sense.

When I offered a hand for Sombra to put his wedding band around my wrist, I noted how soft and gentle he was when did it. For an added touch, his blood-red horn glowed black, and the bracelet shrunk to a size where I’d have to get a blacksmith or a jeweler to cut it off.

If there was any consolation to have that day, it was that we were doing a griffin wedding, not a pony wedding. I didn’t want to have to do that tongue thing in front of everyone.

But at any rate, once we exchanged wedding bands, the ceremony was over and our marriage was official. Griffins applauded, and ponies gingerly stamped the ground—almost like they’d never been on a rock platform hanging several hundred feet above the molten earth before.

Right on cue, a swarm of servants bustled onto the platform, carrying trays, tables, and other assorted furniture to begin setting up the post-wedding celebration. That was a nice trick in griffin royal weddings; why waste everyone’s time moving to a new place if you could just change the room’s function? The switch-off was made official when the cleric made his way to the exit of the keep; he apparently had other, cleric-y things to take care of that evening.

It took less than a minute to turn the flat, plain platform into a functional, if hot, reception party. A traditional band of griffins—drummers, mixed with cut-taloned string players—set up stage in the back. There were two drink bars set up: one for fancy, fun drinks, and one exclusively for water. There were snacks to enjoy, tables to sit at, and all of this had been set up in a loose circle around where I stood with Sombra.

Both sides of the wedding started making their way towards the food and each other. If I were there alone, I would have hit up the water bar first, then grabbed some snacks. A whole day’s worth of fretting had left me starving, and the feast wasn’t going to be until after this smaller, social affair. However, I wasn’t there alone, and that was the main point of having a little introductory little party after an arranged wedding:

It let everyone get to know each other, including the bride and groom.

I turned to him, and he turned to me. We stood in front of each other, but I waited for him to say something first. Because honestly, I had no idea where to begin.

“You... look... pretty,” he grumbled in a low voice. Except it wasn’t really grumbling, because he didn’t sound annoyed with me; his voice was more like a low, rumbling earthquake that someone had added... not a whole lot of words to.

That was going to take some getting used to.

Still, he’d given me a compliment, which was a nice way to begin things. I nodded, gratefully, trying to make eye contact without staring at his eyes. “Thanks. And, uh, you look pretty cool too. I... like the armor.”

His eyes glanced downward for a moment, absently; then they came back to me. “Heirloom.”

“Oh,” came my response. I didn’t want to sound like I was mocking him, so I added, “Yeah, my, uh, dad got me a music box last year. Not, uh... not as good as the whole kingdom, but he’s saving that one for my brother.”

Sombra looked at me flatly for a moment, and my stomach twisted like I’d said something wrong. Before I could apologize, he asked, “Are... you... afraid?”

I blinked, and felt a tear fall. It would’ve been pointless to lie. “Y-yes.”

He lifted a hoof and dabbed away the drop from my cheek. “Don’t... be.”

I nodded, but his words caused a warm relief to wash over me—which, given the room, was saying something.

We didn’t really say much more to each other after that; either there was some language barrier going on, or he didn’t like talking in the middle of a crowd. Whatever it was, he guided me over to the water bar, where I got a much-needed drink to take the edge off being in what felt like a furnace.

When it was time for new festivities to begin, the guy in the band who was in charge of the biggest drum let out three booming raps. It signaled everyone else to clear off the middle of the floor to make room for the newlywed couple. We walked out onto the dance floor, the band started playing the quiet intro of something, and Sombra whispered, “Ready?” It was still kind of loud, but I nodded.

He stood up and picked me up with him, which kind of helped the height difference. Part of my preparations for the wedding had been dancing lessons, which included practice at balancing on my back legs without using my wings. It was tricky to do, but part of the reasons we danced like that was because it made it into a cooperative effort—leaning on each other, without making your partner fall over backwards.

Sombra firmly pulled me in close to him. I braced myself, expecting him to start crushing me, but that never came. He put some weight on me, but as I pushed back to balance myself, it felt a lot more equal than I would’ve imagined, for dancing with someone who was wearing metal armor.

The band picked up, with strings cutting in to start a deep, resonating tune. We began dancing—he led, I followed, and my feet didn’t get stepped on. He had a hoof on my back, near the top of my hips, but the more we moved, the more I felt it was a natural for us to be together like that.

For a quiet guy with freaky eyes, I had to give it to him: He could handle himself gracefully.

Our fire-lit dance in the depths of the earth took us in slow, steady turns. I felt myself floating away, and in a few moments, I had difficulty telling where my body stopped and his began. That was weird enough to snap me back into the moment, but I managed to do it without throwing our rhythm off.

The music built up to a peak, and at that point, it was the right time for me to dip backwards. Sombra leaned over me as I arched my spine backwards, and for a moment, we were horizontal, with him on top of me.

It didn’t bother me like I thought it would have.

After the first dance ended, other couples filtered onto the stone dance floor. Sombra led me off to the side, which was fine by me—after our first dance together, I guessed dancing could be cool, but it still wasn’t one of my favorite things in the world.

We stayed on the edge of the dance floor for most of the rest of the party, only heading back out at what felt like carefully measured paces to not be rude to our guests. The whole time, I was filled with a strange sense of inner calm. Everything ran around me in an almost-blur, but I kept coming back to the feeling that, given the situation, today definitely didn’t turn out as bad as it could have.

The party ended around five o’clock, when it was time for dinner. The whole wedding started to form lines for a procession to head up through Griffalia. Sombra and I were in charge of leading it, so the two of us linked arm in foreleg. I was ready to go.

Once everyone was in their two lines—one on either side of us—we headed to the exit. I smiled at my family as I walked past them, but it was a quick, fleeting thing. Before I could even dwell on it, I had passed them, and I kept walking with my new husband up to our wedding feast.

After that... well, I’d just have to wait and see how it all turned out.