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Anon von Bismarck: The War Without

By Clarissa
Created: 18th December 2020 09:02:53 PM

  1. >Day 133, year five in Equestria
  2. >You are Anonymous, and you've been here for over half a decade now
  3. >Even now you remember coming here like it was yesterday
  4. >During a visit to a historical ritual site of a state cult, you had accidentally pricked your finger while examining some of their tools
  5. >You'd never been one for a “look don't touch” approach
  6. >And you had been right all along, just look at you now!
  7. >In Equestria, working in the high stress position of Foreign Minister
  8. >Who knows how many ulcers, strokes, and minor aneurysms you had accumulated in the two years since taking the position
  9. >After appearing in the middle of Ponyville with a flash of light, nearly lynched by its inhabitants and subsequently almost being blasted by the Elements of Harmony, you'd eventually managed to talk everyone down to a good old interrogation
  10. >Once they realized that you weren't going to be any kind of threat, nor were you some bio-engineered monstrosity from the Gryphon Empire, they were quite kind
  11. >After learning you had been a student undertaking a double major of history and political science, Twilight had practically begged you to work at her library
  12. >It didn't pay good, and Purple Smart never stopped picking your brain, but it was still a job
  13. >So you'd been quite content in the humble position of assistant librarian
  14. >Until news came about a massive diplomatic blowup with the Gryphons
  15. >Such a simple statement from one diplomat or another about Equestrian ore independence had apparently been blown out of proportion
  16. >The damage control was done so poorly that you offered to give a consultation about it to Twilight
  17. >Not even a day later you were in the throne room, surrounded by dozens of diplomats and Celestia herself, telling them possible options to return the diplomatic ties to their normal status
  18. >To your surprise, they followed the suggestions nearly to the letter
  19. >Soon after this, you were offered a place in the Foreign Ministry and soon had risen to the position of the lead minister
  20. >Various ponies had described your methods as anywhere from dishonest and rude to downright unethical
  21. >However, no crisis had ever arisen from a case that had landed on your desk
  22. >Even if she didn't agree with how the results were obtained, Celestia agree with the results themselves
  23. >And so it was that you were now rushing to the throne room, before the sun had even risen, at the personal request of Celestia herself
  24. >The alicorn seemed to be in a tizzy, completely different from her usually well composed self
  25. >Her mane was frazzled and there were heavy, dark circles under her eyes
  26. >As soon as she spotted you, she levitated a suitcase and trotted up to you
  27. >”Anonymous, my apologies for the short notice but I haven't the time to explain. I need you to step in as governor of Equestria for the time being.”
  28. >As she spreads her wings, you hold up your hands to give her pause
  29. “Whoa, hold on Celestia. This is a bit much to spring on me all at once. First off, why not Luna, and why would ponies accept a human as their leader?”
  30. >She rolls her eyes
  31. >”Did I not just say there's no time? Luna has not yet had time to garner the trust she lost in the Fall, and they will accept you because there is a royal decree drafted and being announced come sunrise. I've wasted too much time as it is, I'll be taking Twilight as well. Good luck, Anonymous.”
  32. >With that, she takes off into the pre-dawn morning and rockets away from Canterlot
  33. >You turn about and find an auburn coloured, bookish looking pony behind you
  34. >She looks as terrified about this as you feel
  35. >But you're the leader now, you can't let such things show, you had to follow Celestia's usual example
  36. >With a deep breath, you give her as gentle a smile as you can
  37. “Good morning, who might you be?”
  38. >The pony, an Earth pony to your surprise, takes a deep breath before speaking
  39. >”My name is Cursive Quill. I'm one of Princess Celestia's assistants, she appointed me to ease you into this position.”
  40. >You notice the nearly bursting saddlebags, paper sticking out from the openings
  41. >Looking about the throne room, you see the sun has begun to rise and the sounds of the early morning of Canterlot hum in the distance
  42. >With a long suffering sigh, you give Quill a hollow smile
  43. “Well then, let's get to work running this kingdom.”
  44. --
  45. >Not even an hour into filling in for Celestia, and you already had a headache
  46. >And of course, Equestria hadn't developed Tylenol
  47. >So you were treating your near migraine with some cider
  48. >Quill had balked at first when you'd asked for a pint this early in the morning, but with a pointed glare she'd done as you told
  49. >A glance at her position told you she was wishing she'd taken a pint for herself
  50. >The first thing in the packed schedule had been a meeting with the other ministers to discuss exactly what was going to happen
  51. >The first half hour had been a combination of bellyaching that they were more deserving of the position, yelling at you for having the position, and questioning your competence with racial slurs you'd never even seen on /pol/
  52. >After that it devolved into the ministers yelling at each other as to why they'd done nothing to stop Celestia
  53. >But enough was enough
  54. >You slammed your now empty mug of cider onto the oak table with enough force to crack the wrought iron hoops holding the staves
  55. >The loud smash drew the attention of everyone in the room and silenced the arguing in an instant
  56. >Finally, you stood and took a deep breath
  57. “My fellow ministers, I don't know why Celestia singled me out among all of us. Perhaps it was all your petty bickering, perhaps it was your utter inability to make your ministries excel at their work.”
  58. >The shock from you slamming the mug had clearly worn off, but the ministers remained silent, jaws agape at your words
  59. >So you continued in the silence
  60. “Whatever the reason, the fact remains that I am acting in her stead. And I cannot run a government alone, so put aside how much you hate me, and each other, and let's get to work. We'll start with reports on various projects.”
  61. >With that, you sat down once more and folded your hands, doing your best to remain composed
  62. >After a silent moment, the defense minister begins his updates
  63. >The rest follow suit afterwards, delivering their own progress reports, ideas for new projects, and concerns
  64. >Finally, you come to one of the key reasons for the high tensions this morning
  65. >The budgetary debate was due to take place today, in fact the rest of the schedule had been cleared for it
  66. >Clearly the other ministers had concerns about where you would authorize funds to go
  67. >The cultural minister began her impassioned plea for more funding
  68. >”Since the last budgetary period, Equestria has enjoyed a fantastic upswing in the arts, in fact a recent report from the foreign ministry noted an increase in tourist visas being issued, and the revenue from tourism has increased by 3%. With more subsidization, Equestria stands to become a monolith of the arts and a cultural bastion.”
  69. >After she had finished, there was polite clopping for her, and then the minister of industry spoke
  70. >He noted that there had been a decrease in productivity in many factories, blamed on the lack of new equipment, as well as a great downswing in the quality of imported ores
  71. >Again, a pause, then the next minister
  72. >It continued for another half hour, and the ensuing debate raged on well into the night
  73. >Finally, after many hours and with an intensely sore throat, you announced the final proposal
  74. “So then, it is decided by this parliament, with a five percent increase in national revenue, that the following budgetary changes are in order. Cultural ministry: eight percent lower; industrial ministry, four percent higher; transport ministry, two percent higher; employment ministry, one percent lower; science and research ministry, ten percent higher; defense ministry, thirteen percent higher; health ministry, one percent higher; and finally the foreign ministry, no increase or decrease in budget.”
  75. >Ignoring the grumbling of the other ministers, you signed the final paper to issue the decree of the budget and added it to the rather minuscule stack of decrees that had actually been finished today
  76. >One detailing the person who would fill in for you, and several more detailing the circumstances under which you would step down from your position
  77. >It all essentially meant that if you did anything illegal you'd be removed prematurely, and unless that were the case, then you'd step down upon Celestia's return in good health
  78. >With that, you called the session to a close, and remained seated until all the ministers but the science, industry, and defense heads remained.
  79. >They all moved up the long table so that no one would have to raise their voice to be heard
  80. >You had asked them all to stay behind so you could address exactly where their large budget increases would be prioritized
  81. >Clearing your throat, you began to speak in a quiet, but firm tone
  82. “Gentlecolts, your departments have been stagnating for the past decade. I fully understand that it is due in no small part to funding cuts and various other factors, but make no mistake I will be far more vicious if you waste this opportunity. Am I clear?”
  83. >The three shared a look, then nodded
  84. >You gave them a warm smile and continued
  85. “Excellent. I want you all to work together to improve your various jurisdictions. In industry, we can build more factories yes, but work with the researchers to make more efficient furnaces, smoke filtering enchantments, and other things like this. Further, the defense forces can both expand in numbers and update equipment. Again, work with the researchers to push the cutting edge, and the industry for rapid prototyping. Share your budgets, your information, and make weekly reports on your progress. Do you have any questions?”
  86. >The defense minister, Colonel Stalwart Shield, coughed quietly and raised a hoof before speaking
  87. >”Anonymous, why the sudden increase in these three ministries in particular? It's hard to complain about having sufficient funds for once, but I'd like to know your reasoning.”
  88. >You sigh and lean back, looking up at the mural on the ceiling
  89. “Stalwart, in the five years I've lived in Equestria, I've seen two dragon attacks, a dozen Diamond Dog attacks, though they were closer to insurrections, and close calls with an invasion from the Gryphons. All these events were thankfully averted, but only by the action of the Elements of Harmony. They won't be around forever, and even now we can't leave the defense of an entire nation to five mares.”
  90. >He nods, apparently accepting your answer
  91. >He'd taken over from Shining Armor as the defense minister, but had left the Royal Guard to focus more on his position in government
  92. >Ever pragmatic and blunt, you had enjoyed working with him on the many assignments that your jurisdictions often crossed
  93. >You look around the table and see the other two apparently satisfied, so you dismiss them with a wave
  94. >Finally, you're alone in the room
  95. >Except for Quill, of course
  96. >She clears her throat quietly, and you look over at her with tired eyes
  97. >”Well that went better than most debates over money. I can't believe you got them all to agree on such drastic changes!”
  98. >You smile indulgently and scratch your cheek
  99. “It's amazing what you can get people to agree to when you say you won't be taking a piece of their pie for yourself.”
  100. >She nods at your words and looks down, scuffing a hoof on the stones of the floor
  101. >”Do you...really believe what you said? About the expansion of the defense forces and all the departments sharing budgets?”
  102. >You nod your head, solemn now
  103. “Equestria is at the forefront of culture in the world, but we've fallen behind the gryphons in sciences, and especially in military. As it stands, they're the largest threat, and there have been some disturbing reports from the frontier about confrontations with their villagers. The Elements can't enforce a border, so we need military parity at minimum to keep the homesteaders safe.”
  104. >She grins widely at your words, before checking a timepiece in her ever present saddlebags
  105. >”Well, we've got another early start tomorrow. You're due for a tour about the nation, greeting important people and putting on a friendly face and all that. We'll be taking off tomorrow at dawn for that.”
  106. >Again you nod, sleepiness finally taking over your brain and making you yawn loudly
  107. “Alright Quill, I'll see you tomorrow at dawn.”
  108. >With that, you both head you separate ways, you heading back to your bedchambers and immediately faceplanting on the mattress
  109. >Before you drift off to sleep, you allow yourself a moment of pride
  110. >You'd actually managed to do better than Celestia at something
  111. --
  112. >The buzzing of your timepiece pulls you from a pleasant dream
  113. >You'd been relaxing on a small ranch sitting back in a chair and watching the sun set
  114. >So comfy
  115. >With sleep caked eyes, you stare at the offending machine before remembering why you'd wanted to be awake an hour before dawn dared to peek over the horizon
  116. >You dress yourself in a set of dark, formal clothes that Rarity had made for you when she had heard you were taking a job in Canterlot
  117. >'You can't be seen as a shabbily dressed ape! I won't allow it.' She had said
  118. >She wasn't really the worst pony
  119. >After reminiscing, you steal away into the dark corridors of the palace
  120. >Some time later you finally reach your goal and enter the throne room as quietly as you can
  121. >As expected, Luna is perched atop the throne she shared with her sister, eyes wide and empty
  122. >A dead giveaway that she's dreamwalking tonight
  123. >You wait patiently, this was why you were awake so early after all
  124. >Finally, she stirs and her gaze fixes firmly on you
  125. >”Anonymous.”
  126. >You give her a short bow
  127. “Luna. You had a productive night I trust?”
  128. >She gives you a cold smile and snorts in amusement
  129. >”We are always productive, whether you believe it or not.”
  130. >Years earlier, you had expressed that dreamwalking may not be the best use of her time
  131. >Neither of the sisters had let you live it down since then, even after you realized that it was actually helpful for the ponies
  132. >Luna especially tended to approach you with a cold distance after the incident
  133. “I'm not here to bicker, Luna. I came to ask something of you.”
  134. >Again she snorts and walks to the veranda of the room, and you follow behind her as she speaks
  135. >”Having trouble with my dear Celestia's station already? I'm surprised she could possibly pick someone with so little resolve for the role.”
  136. >You grit your teeth and take a deep breath before responding
  137. >You wouldn't let any of her barbs get to you, not tonight
  138. “We both know the reason for her passing over you, Luna. It has nothing to do with you, or with me.”
  139. >She turns and gives you a disbelieving look
  140. >”Oh no, I'm certain my sister passed up her own flesh and blood for someone that's not even a pony out of the goodness of her heart.”
  141. >With a heavy sigh, you step forward to the railing of the balcony
  142. >This was as much a test of your resolve as it was of her
  143. “Luna, if you were suddenly the sole ruler of Equestria, there would be riots in the streets. The rebel princess, exiled for a thousand years and now on the throne she betrayed her sister for not a decade after coming back? They would believe you had forged the documents and taken the throne by force.”
  144. >The princess of the night looks away, the steel of her gaze buckling at your words
  145. >”But it wouldn't be true, I'd never do such a thing again.”
  146. >The protest is weak, sounding petulant and childish despite the being it came from
  147. >You give her an understanding gaze, and your face softens before you speak again
  148. “I know that Luna, the fact that you haven't shoved me off the balcony is good enough reason for me to trust your word. But the ponies outside Canterlot, even outside the palace, haven't let go of the past yet.”
  149. >She stares up at you, the fire in her gaze returning, but flickering weakly
  150. >”But I visit their dreams every night! I help them, guide them, and ask nothing in return.”
  151. >You nod solemnly and continue
  152. “Yes, but even you have your limit to how many you can see a night. And for whatever reason, both Celestia and the government as a whole have neglected to even attempt to right ponies' outlook on you.”
  153. >Luna opens her mouth, but quickly shuts it, looking down at the stone cobbles of the floor
  154. >You kneel down to be at the same level as her and rest a hand gently on her withers
  155. >Her wings twitch, but she remains staring at the ground
  156. “Listen, I'm starting a tour of the country today, something to bring this sudden change down to earth for ponies to understand. And I want you to come with me.”
  157. >Luna looks up suddenly, her look full of suspicion
  158. >”And why is that? You want to show the country that my sister picked you over me?”
  159. >Your face twitches in annoyance
  160. >For a several thousand year old being, Luna, and for that matter Celestia, could be astonishingly childish
  161. “No, because I want to show that, despite an unfamiliar face as the head of state, there is unity in the capital. Celestia neglected to show ponies the cooperation of the throne and the ministry, and that's something that I feel must be corrected.”
  162. >You stand and return your gaze to the horizon, light beginning to appear over the mountains in the East
  163. “I also feel the record needs to be set straight about you. I want ponies to realize as I do that you're trustworthy once more and have their best interests at heart.”
  164. >You hear Luna plod up beside you
  165. >For a moment, there's nothing but the sound of birds chirping and a gentle breeze rustling the leaves
  166. >”This is something that you truly feel strongly about, isn't it Anonymous?”
  167. >You turn your head and see her gazing up at you, a new emotion on her face
  168. >There's caution, but she is distinctly excited about the prospect of being trusted by her people once again
  169. “It is. Now more than ever, Equestria must be united. Not only under the royalty, but by every stallion, mare, and colt. Pegasi, unicorns, earth ponies, alicorns, must all become Equestrians first. And as leaders, we must set the example for them. So what do you say, Princess Luna?”
  170. >At the saying of her title, a spark of confidence returns to her, and she stands tall chest thrust out
  171. >She extends a hoof to you, a far warmer smile now gracing her features
  172. >”I'm with you, Anonymous. Let the people see that we ARE united.”
  173. >With a grin, you take her hoof and shake it
  174. >As the sun rises and you both go back inside, a feeling of calm focus descends on you
  175. >There was no way you would be able to rule a kingdom without help
  176. >And now, you had all the help you could ask for
  177. --
  178. >With Luna in tow and the sun breaking over the mountains, you head towards the foyer
  179. >As you approach, Cursive Quill widens her eyes at the sight of Luna
  180. >”So you actually managed to convince her? I'm impressed, sir.”
  181. >You pat Quill's head condescendingly as you pass her by
  182. “Of course I did, I told you I was a very persuasive person.”
  183. >Quill sighs at the contact and turns to follow behind you and the princess
  184. >”Yes you did, sir. I arranged the expanded carriage as you ordered.”
  185. >Luna looks up at you indignantly
  186. >”Was I just the subject of a bet, Anonymous?”
  187. >You feign shock and place a hand on your chest
  188. “Absolutely not, my princess. We would never dream of gambling about royalty!”
  189. >Quill hides a smirk at your performance behind a hoof
  190. >Luna sticks her snout up in the air, but the spring in her step makes it clear that she's not actually offended
  191. >As the three of you board the carriage and take off, the mood is light
  192. >Not long after takeoff, Quill scoots closer to you and takes a sheaf of papers from her bags
  193. >”Alright sir, let's go over the schedule. Our visit today will be Ponyville, first step is a meeting with the mayor. After that, you'll have a tour of industry and shops, sampling goods and whatnot. Then visiting farms, a meeting with the Elements of Harmony, a trip to the Castle of the Two Sisters. And finally we'll end with the speech for the town and monument announcement.”
  194. >You nod along with her as she goes over each point
  195. >At the mention of the monument, Luna interjects
  196. >”What sort of monument are you establishing in Ponyville, Anonymous? It's where the Elements were found, but what other momentous events took place in that little town?”
  197. >You give her a warm smile, as Quill puts the schedule away and takes out another bunch of papers
  198. “Why it was where you returned to us, Luna. Quill, show her the plan.”
  199. >Quill turns a piece of draft paper over to Luna
  200. >Luna spends long minutes gazing at the sketch, occasionally flicking glances up at you and Quill
  201. >”You designed this?”
  202. >You shake your head
  203. “I suggested the monument and a possible composition about four months ago, Quill was the one who actually did the work. Apparently she was quite taken with the idea.”
  204. >For her part, Quill gives a curt nod in affirmation
  205. >Luna's eyes mist over, and her voice trembles when she speaks once more
  206. >”I don't know how...It's wonderful, I cannot thank you enough for this.”
  207. >Quill hops over to the seat Luna is on and sits beside her
  208. >Even as Luna is barely keeping herself together, Quill places a comforting hoof on her withers
  209. >Much of the ride is  in solemn silence, you going over your speech notes, Quill checking and double checking the schedule, and Luna clutches the monument blueprint to her chest
  210. >Before long, you arrive in Ponyville
  211. >You rise first and stretch out your limbs
  212. “Well, time to put on a show. Shall we?”
  213. >They nod, and the door opens, letting in the light of a beautiful spring day
  214. >As you step from the carriage and wave to the large crowd of ponies, instead of applause or cheering, you're greeted by a wave of murmuring and whispers
  215. >To be fair, you hadn't expected any sort of ecstatic welcome
  216. >You were known only as the old assistant librarian, and many were still unsure of you
  217. >But you knew they would come to appreciate you
  218. >When Luna steps out however, the crowd cheers enthusiastically
  219. >Even with many regarding her poorly in other cities, the ponies here knew that she was reformed
  220. >Quill steps into your shadow, even as Luna strides beside you with her wings outstretched
  221. >The three of you wave to the crowd as you make your way into the town hall and to the mayors office
  222. >When the doors click shut behind you, the sounds of the crowd die away
  223. >You're escorted to the meeting area and left alone
  224. >It's not long before you and Luna are joined by Mayor Mare and a camera crew
  225. >Finally, it was time to get down to business
  226. “Good morning, Ms. Mare. I trust you're well today?”
  227. >The elderly matron bows to you before taking her seat and responding
  228. >”Quite well indeed, Anonymous. Who would ever have thought that a lowly librarian from Ponyville would one day sit on the throne of Equestria.”
  229. >Ah, the politicking had begun already
  230. >You knew that Celestia's decision wouldn't be popular, especially among leadership
  231. >But that didn't matter, you had to be sure to sway them to your side
  232. “You flatter me, Ms. Mare. In truth, Princess Luna is the sole occupier of the throne at the moment. My duty is merely to keep the ministers from killing each other to secure their own power in Princess Celestia's absence.”
  233. >Mayor Mare smiles politely at the joke, and the camera crew share a quiet chuckle
  234. >The mayor continues after you
  235. >”I see you brought her along as well. How are you doing today, Princess Luna?”
  236. >Luna gives the mayor a pleasant, if chilly, smile
  237. >”We are most pleased to once more return to the place of our redemption. It carries mixed feelings, but we appreciate the efforts of Ponyville's great citizens to a degree we can hardly express.”
  238. >The mayor bows her head to Luna, before turning her attention back to you
  239. >”So what can the citizens of Ponyville do for the rulers of the nation?”
  240. >You glance at Luna, before turning back to the mayor
  241. “Well Ms. Mayor, we have plans to meet with some of the ponies that provide Ponyville with services, bakery workers, store owners, farmers. We plan to speak with the Elements of Harmony as well, visit a couple landmarks, and conclude the day with a special announcement.”
  242. >The mayor's gaze narrows at you
  243. >”And that is all? A bunch of meetings and an announcement? Please pardon me if I have the opinion that there is something else you want.”
  244. >You shake your head and a sad smile touches your face
  245. “We're here to make connections with the ponies of Equestria. I have no doubt that such a sudden change in leadership after a thousand years under one monarch is jarring. I hope that with this tour, I can ease the transition through and ensure peace and unity in uncertain times.”
  246. >Both Luna and Mayor Mare nod approvingly at your words
  247. >The mayor pauses for a moment, as though gathering her thoughts
  248. >”Fine words, but words come cheap. I sincerely pray that you follow through on your desire.”
  249. >The camera crew signals that they've cut filming, and you lean back slightly in your chair
  250. >Mayor Mare's face hardens the moment the camera cuts
  251. >”Let me be perfectly clear, Anonymous. I do not agree with Princess Celestia's decision in the slightest. You are utterly unqualified, have no values that you share with other ponies, and aren't even a pony yourself. I don't know what sort of wool you're trying to spin, but I want no part of it.”
  252. >Your easy smile cools at her sharp words
  253. “Ms. Mayor, in my world I studied politics for three years. I've been a part of the Foreign Ministry for three more years here, and I've done a fine job in that regard. What I am trying to do with this trip is get a grasp on the state of the nation.”
  254. >Mayor Mare opens her mouth to respond, but you cut her off quickly
  255. “Furthermore, I'm attempting to do something that neither Celestia, nor anypony else in the government has even made an attempt to do. I am going to show Equestria that Princess Luna is no longer Nightmare Moon, that she is trustworthy and an equal to her sister.”
  256. >The mayor scoffs at your words
  257. >”Ponies already understand this, it is merely a matter of time before trust in her returns.”
  258. >You lean forward in your chair, the smile wiped from your face
  259. “If that were the case, Ms. Mayor, then Nightmare Night would have been abolished years ago. You may believe that everyone has forgotten the past because many in this singular town have. But elsewhere? Well, I believe the princess can tell you better than I.”
  260. >Mayor Mare looks to Luna sympathetically, but the princess betrays no emotion on her face before speaking
  261. >”It is no lie, Ms. Mare. When We dreamwalk, ponies react with fear when they see us. Their dreams twist and distort the first time We enter in. Certainly, after some time they calm down and understand that We are there to help, but there are hundreds of thousands of ponies in Equestria, and We cannot visit so many in a single night. Anonymous is right in his intention, and his execution is sound.”
  262. >The mayor's face softens at Luna's words, and the fight leaves her body
  263. >You take the monument blueprint from your coat and hand it to her
  264. “I suppose I can spoil the surprise for you; this is what I intend to announce at the end of our day here. It is a monument to Luna's return and redemption, an expression of the new found unity and wholeness of Equestria with the return of their lost princess. Of course, we need your approval for zoning the land, but it is my hope that you can appreciate the importance of such a memorial.”
  265. >The mayor gazes silently at the piece for some time, then turns to look at you with a warmer look on her face
  266. >”I still don't believe you're the right being to take Celestia's place, Anonymous. But I wholeheartedly agree with this. If nothing else, this action will be seen as one that benefits Equestria. I will be watching closely to see what else you can do as ruler.”
  267. >With a warm smile, you lean back once more and take the picture when she offers it back
  268. “As I said, Ms. Mare, I have no intent to keep this position. I am where I am in order to provide a stern voice to the ministers and keep the nation from ruin. When Celestia returns to us in good health, I will immediately abdicate my position and return to the Foreign Ministry. In this, you have my word.”
  269. >The mayor nods, and the three of you rise from your seats, heading back towards the entry of the hall
  270. >”Rest assured that I will hold you to that promise, Anonymous.”
  271. >At the door, you give her a short bow and turn to exit
  272. “I have no doubt you will, Ms. Mare. Have a pleasant day.”
  273. --
  274. >The moment you exit the front of the town hall, a pink blur takes over your vision
  275. >”Hi Nonny! I haven't seen you around here for a while! Did you forget about us?”
  276. >Pinkie, because it's her of course, gasps loudly
  277. >”Did you forget about Ponyville? Is that why you came here, to remember? Is it like that Roboclop movie where he forgets everyone?”
  278. >As Pinkie opens her mouth to launch another tirade, you put a hand gently on her muzzle
  279. “Hello Pinkie, you seem cheerful as ever.”
  280. >You've learned by now that the best way to deal with Pinkie Pie was to push the conversation straight through her odd questions
  281. >She backs off a bit, and you see the rest of the Elements are close by
  282. >The moment you stop physically shushing Pinkie, she starts talking again
  283. >”Why wouldn't I be cheerful? Nonny is back in town, and he's bigger than ever! Aww, you're still wearing the suit Rarity made. You see that Rarity? He hasn't forgotten us!”
  284. >Rarity steps forward and pats Pinkie's withers
  285. >”Yes, dear, I see he's still wearing that drab thing. Honestly Anonymous, four years in Canterlot and you haven't found a seamstress? I ought to make you a new outfit while you're in town.”
  286. >Out of the corner of your eye, you can see Quill tapping her hoof impatiently
  287. >You knew there was a schedule to keep, but you still wanted to talk with your friends as friends, not like national assets
  288. “Come now Rarity, as if I could find someone to do a better job than you. Besides, I haven't had the time to even visit a tailor between preventing diplomatic blowups and traveling to all corners of the world.”
  289. >Rarity's smile widens and she scuffs a hoof on the ground
  290. >”You flatter me, Anonymous. I'm no better than most of the designers from the big city, and worse than most. But still, I insist on designing you a new suit. Stop by, won't you?”
  291. >You nod to answer her question and she lets out a small sigh
  292. >Dash hovers over to you and slugs your shoulder
  293. >”So you're a stuffy politician for real? I thought Twi was pulling our legs when she told us, but hey whadya know. I guess that means you're not coming back for real huh?”
  294. >You laugh at the shocked look on Luna and Quill's faces when Dash punches you
  295. “Unfortunately not for now. Maybe when Celestia gets back she'll finally give me a vacation, but until then I'm just spending a day or so.”
  296. >Dash looks dejected and lands, kicking the dirt
  297. >Fluttershy peeks out from behind her, but stays quiet
  298. >You squat down and smile at her
  299. “Hey Fluttershy, has Angel been treating you well?”
  300. >She smiles shyly, blushing and looking down
  301. >”He's still sweet, but he's getting older. I don't have to gallop to keep up with him anymore, but it's sad to see him like that.”
  302. >You had gotten on with Fluttershy better than anyone else
  303. >Any time you could get away from the library, you visited and helped her with the animals
  304. >It had been fulfilling for you, deep down
  305. >Maybe it was like the farm dream you'd had since you were young, but whatever the reason, you had loved it
  306. >You put a hand, gently, on her back and she looks up at you, her smile sad
  307. “I'm sorry to hear that, Shy. If you ever find the time, you should come by Canterlot. We could always use volunteers at the shelters.”
  308. >She nods and looks back down at the dirt
  309. >As you stand again, Dash nuzzles her comfortingly
  310. >You look around, but Applejack is nowhere to be seen
  311. >As though reading your mind, Fluttershy pipes up in an apologetic tone
  312. >”Um, it's planting season so Applejack wasn't able to make it. Sorry.”
  313. >You give her another smile and stretch out your arms
  314. “That's alright, I'll be paying farms a visit anyway. I'll be sure to stop in to say hello while I'm out there.”
  315. >Fluttershy nods and steps back a few feet as Cursive Quill walks ahead of you
  316. >”Sir, we need to go. We do have a schedule to keep.”
  317. >You wave your hand dismissively
  318. “Relax Quill, schedules can slip. I believe talking to my friends without getting work involved can be fit in.”
  319. >She snorts and scribbles on a planner she has attached to a harness
  320. >You glance over your shoulder and see the Elements chatting amicably with Luna
  321. >It's still shocking how easily they carry casual conversation with her
  322. >But even more surprising is how well she gets on with them
  323. >You suppose it shouldn't be surprising, considering they were the ones that we they key to her redemption
  324. >Even so...
  325. >You're pulled from your thoughts by Quill clearing her throat
  326. >”We really do need to go sir, especially since we have to be in Baltimare tomorrow.”
  327. >You frown and scratch your chin
  328. “I don't believe one day is enough to actually accomplish everything that you've planned, unless we do it at absolutely breakneck pace. It's already past noon, Quill. At this rate I'd be making the speech past sundown.”
  329. >Quill grumbles and kicks at a rock in frustration
  330. >”I guess my schedule was a little...idealized. I'll change it and future ones to reflect certain delays.”
  331. >You rest a hand on the top of her head
  332. “Thanks Quill. Why don't you take the night off after we've done the tour of industry? Or at least don't spend it fretting about timings, alright?”
  333. >She sighs and turns away from you
  334. >”Fine, fine, but let's get on with the tour. We still have to accomplish something today, sir.”
  335. >She's being surprisingly lenient
  336. >You can't really fight her on that one though, but it's an easy compromise
  337. “I agree. Princess Luna, shall we go?”
  338. >Luna looks up, startled
  339. >”Uh, yes! Let us carry on, I'll speak with you another time girls.”
  340. >The Elements say their various goodbyes, and Quill leads you away from the hall
  341. >Soon you're in the commercial area of the town, visiting many of the small shops and talking with their owners
  342. >The topics vary from how healthy their business has been, to the impact of events on their income, and of course how government policies affect their business
  343. >For the most part, the shop owners are quite happy with how the government has been, and even moreso that you're visiting simply to ask their opinions
  344. >A few discuss the difficulties of some of the unnatural disasters that have befallen Ponyville and remark that it may be better to have some Royal Guardsmen stationed in the town
  345. >You assure those few that a defense review was one of the first things you discussed when you began filling in for Celestia
  346. >The seem quite satisfied with the answer, so you continue on
  347. >You conclude the day with the visit to the Castle of the Two Sisters, touring the grounds but avoiding the interior of the decaying citadel
  348. >The visit seems to hit Luna the hardest, and she spends much of the visit quiet and frowning
  349. >It's understandable that the castle would revive bad memories
  350. >You curse yourself internally for not giving her the option to stay behind while you, Quill, and your guide visited
  351. >But before long you head back to town, as the sun sets behind you
  352. >Your last stop is the Golden Oak library, and you notice a new face at the front desk
  353. >She's a lavender coated pony, smiling widely at you
  354. >”Good evening! I'm sorry to say that the library is going to be closed soon, so you'll have to be quick!”
  355. >Quill scrunches up her muzzle and takes an indignant step forward
  356. >”Excuse you! Don't you realize who you're speaking with?”
  357. >The lavender librarian blinks and looks at the three of you
  358. >”Well, uh, I recognize Princess Luna, who is of course welcome here anytime! But I don't recognize the tall one, Mr. uh...”
  359. >You hold out a hand to her and smile
  360. “Call me Anonymous. I'm the fellow filling Princess Celestia's shoes while she's off on...business. And who might you be.”
  361. >The librarian's eyes widen and she lowers her head reverently
  362. >”Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry! My name is Starlight Glimmer, I am...was Twilight Sparkle's student. I'm filling in as librarian while she's away traveling.”
  363. >You take your hand back and scratch your cheek sheepishly
  364. “Relax, relax. It's nice to meet you anyway, I guess you took my role after I left. I used to be Twi's assistant librarian before I got a government job.”
  365. >Starlight nods slowly
  366. >”Yes, I believe she mentioned you before. I don't recall her saying you were a...uh.”
  367. >She trails off, pawing at the desk absently
  368. “Human?”
  369. >Her ears perk up
  370. >”Yes, exactly! Anyway, what can I do for you, sir? We do have the largest collection of rare books outside Canterlot. However most of them do belong to Princess Twilight so I don't believe I can loan them.”
  371. >You wave away the offer
  372. “Not to worry, I'm simply here to visit. Though since you're a new face, I'd like to ask your opinion of some things if you have a moment.”
  373. >Starlight nods ecstatically
  374. >”Oh absolutely, ask whatever you'd like and I'll answer as best I can.”
  375. >You scratch your chin and start with something generic
  376. “What do you think of the current government policies on defense and law enforcement?”
  377. >In and instant, her demeanor changes entirely
  378. >Her eyes cool several degrees, and her lips become pensive and flat
  379. >”Quite frankly, especially given Equestria's recent history, it's utterly appalling. Defense has been an entirely neglected government sector for far too long, and outside the big cities, law enforcement is sparse at best. The system needs a total overhaul and rethinking of Equestria's place in the world.”
  380. >Your eyes widen in surprise
  381. >This definitely wasn't what you'd expected from this mare
  382. >Her way of thinking is totally different to the other ponies in town
  383. >And it's taken your interest
  384. “I can't say I disagree with that. What of industry, especially factory production and foreign trade.”
  385. >She scoffs at the question, as though her answer were obvious
  386. >”Equestrian heavy industry has been neglected for as long as I can remember, and longer if the history books are to be believed. As for trade deals, they seem to inordinately favour the nation we're trading with above ours. Perhaps it's to curry goodwill, but as shown by the incident four years ago, it's given rise to a sense of foreign entitlement.”
  387. >Quill's jaw drops as Starlight speaks, Luna's eyes look like miniature moons, and even you are shocked into silence, unable to even think of your next question
  388. >Starlight's eyes flick between the three of you, and she shakes her head
  389. >In a moment, her cheery attitude has returned and there's no sign of the pony that had answered your questions
  390. >”Sorry about that! Politics is something I studied for years, and I get a bit passionate when discussing domestic policy!”
  391. >You straighten your suit jacket and clear your throat
  392. >This is the first time you've met a pony like Starlight, and it's aroused your curiosity
  393. “Your opinions are certainly different than other ponies around here. Where are you from, Ms. Glimmer?”
  394. >She shrugs and gives you a nervous grin
  395. >”Oh, just a little town a ways North of Manehattan. A real nowhere town, if I'm truly honest.”
  396. >You narrow your eyes a bit, suspicious at the answer
  397. >It doesn't line up with her intense interest in politics
  398. “Indeed, how did you come to study under Twilight?”
  399. >Again, Starlight shrugs and looks at the desk
  400. >”I got into some trouble and she helped get me out of it. Since then I've been under her tutelage, and it's helped a great deal.”
  401. >You want to push her more heavily for answers
  402. >But you can feel this isn't going to go further than it already has
  403. “That's quite the story, I must say. Thank you for the insight, it's always helpful to hear the opinions of ponies who are directly affected by policies that I help establish.”
  404. >Starlight offers you a curt bow
  405. >”Of course sir, it's a pleasure to help those who serve us all. Was there anything else I can help you with tonight?”
  406. >You shake your head, despite the looks your companions give you
  407. “That will be all, now we'd best be off. Goodnight, Ms. Glimmer.”
  408. >She waves as you exit the library
  409. >While you head to your inn, Quill speaks to you in a quiet voice
  410. >”You know she was hiding something, don't you? None of that adds up.”
  411. >You nod in response
  412. >It was a valid question after all
  413. “That much was obvious. However, there was no way for you or I to get that information from her. I'm certain Luna or a unicorn could get it by force, but I'm not about to invade the privacy of our citizens to satisfy personal curiosity.”
  414. >Quill lowers her head, seeming to agree with you
  415. >As she does, Luna speaks up
  416. >”I'm certain she could be goaded or otherwise manipulated into revealing such information. There are more subtle ways that I can act in without abusing my magic.”
  417. >Again, you nod in response
  418. “True, but ultimately it's not information we need. What we did get was quite valuable, and shows that we certainly can't disregard even small towns when we're asking about public opinion. There may be valuable insight anywhere.”
  419. >Luna nods her head in agreement
  420. >The rest of the walk remains quiet
  421. >You check into the inn, two rooms reserved in advance of your visit
  422. >Luna takes one with a single bed, and you and Quill share the twin bed room
  423. >As you lay down, fatigue quickly catches up to you
  424. >It has been a long day, after all
  425. >Before long, you're fast asleep, dreaming of a quiet life
  426. --
  427. >Your eyes crack open, and already you feel like going straight back to sleep
  428. >But as you shut your eyes and try to slip back into slumber, you hear the rhythmic scratching of a pen on parchment
  429. >You lay still for a while, waiting for it to stop
  430. >But after some time, it's clear that it won't
  431. >Pushing through your fatigue, you slowly look around the small room
  432. >At first, you're confused
  433. >This isn't your chamber in the castle, it's some quaint little room you'd expect to see in a one-horse town
  434. >Finally, your brain starts waking up properly and you remember where and why
  435. >The room is lit by the glow of a pair of candles on a desk opposite the twin beds
  436. >A flickering shadow is cast by the figure sitting at the writing table, and you quietly rise from the bed
  437. >The moment you do, the persistent sound of the scratching quill stops, and the silhouette at the desk stills
  438. >”I'm sorry to wake you, sir. Please, go back to bed, I'll be done in just a moment.”
  439. >It's Cursive Quill, of course
  440. >You're not sure why that little detail had slipped your sleep-addled mind
  441. >Rubbing your eyes against their desire to shut once more, you push the covers off yourself
  442. “Don't worry about it Quill. Just what time is it anyway?”
  443. >Looking over, you see her tapping a hoof against her chin
  444. >”I believe it's a couple hours past midnight. You really ought to get some rest, sir. We have quite a busy schedule tomorrow.”
  445. >You yawn loudly, your body obviously agreeing with you
  446. “You're right, but you ought to get some rest too. It wouldn't do to be late because you fell asleep and forgot to needle me onto the next event of the day.”
  447. >You chuckle tiredly at your terrible humour
  448. >But Quill merely shakes her head in the gloom of the night
  449. >”I'm just finishing up some last minute details, I'll sleep after that.”
  450. >With a roll of your eyes, you get up from the bed and slowly walk over to the desk
  451. >By god, you were going to get this pony to bed or fall asleep trying
  452. >It's not clear which is more likely at this point
  453. “Well let's go over it together then. I could do with an advanced review, it may even keep me on time for once.”
  454. >As you approach her, she hurriedly shuffles some papers around and leans over top of them
  455. >You frown as you peer down at her, and she refuses to meet your eyes
  456. >”Don't worry about it sir, I'll keep you on time like always. Just go back to bed.”
  457. >You narrow your eyes at her obvious hiding
  458. >It's way too late for this shit
  459. >You push her hooves off the paper, even as she protests against you
  460. >”Come on sir, it's really nothing we can't cover tomorrow! Just go back to sleep and be done before you know it!”
  461. >Finally, you manage to snatch the piece of parchment she was trying so desperately to keep hidden
  462. >Ah, sweet triumph
  463. >Quill has her mostly face covered up by her hooves, but she looks absolutely mortified
  464. >You wonder why, as you begin to read the schedule
  465. >Then your eyes widen as you actually take in what is written down
  466. >The script is gorgeous, cursive writing, befitting the name of the writer you suppose
  467. >From that alone, you infer that it's certainly not a schedule
  468. >It takes you a moment to get used to reading the calligraphic letters
  469. >But once you finally understand what you're reading, it's crystal clear why she was so intent on hiding it, and her absolute embarrassment
  470. >It's a poem
  471. >Not just any poem, but probably the sweetest, charming love composition you've ever read
  472. >Granted, you hadn't exactly read much poetry, ever really
  473. >But even inexperienced as you were, you could appreciate the piece
  474. >It was clear that Quill had put a great deal of effort and passion into the poem
  475. >And it made you feel a bit uncomfortable to read
  476. >There was something deeply intimate about the words, even as they obscured who it might be about
  477. >The verse was clearly meant to be read by only a single person besides its author, and you felt like you were intruding on it
  478. >Now you felt like an asshole
  479. >But there was no way to take back reading it, so you had to go for the next best thing
  480. >You put the poem back on the desk, and lay a gentle hand on Quill's withers
  481. >She flinches when you touch her, and tries to cover her face more thoroughly
  482. >You simply stroke her back, as gently as you can, and keep your voice quiet and kind
  483. “It's a beautiful poem, Quill. You ought to be proud of that, it's a gift to have that kind of skill with writing.”
  484. >She shakes her head silently
  485. >Clearly she's still hung up on you reading it
  486. “I'm sorry I snuck a peek at it, it's obviously meant for someone very special to you.”
  487. >She finally uncovers her face and looks up at you
  488. >Her lower lip wobbles as she nods to affirm your statement
  489. >It breaks your heart to see her like this, so you keep trying to comfort her
  490. “I can't take back reading it, but if you want I won't bring it up again.”
  491. >Probably almost definitely
  492. >Maybe to tease her, every so often
  493. >Sometimes you couldn't help it, she was just so adorable when she was flustered
  494. >Her lower lip stills as she speaks up at last
  495. >”You just don't--! I can't even begin to--! Rrr, why are you so frustrating?”
  496. >She growls as she pushes her head into your chest
  497. >You're surprised at the display
  498. >Quill is usually cold and composed, hardly even reacting to your light jibes
  499. >But now, it seems her mask has fallen off and she's being entirely genuine
  500. >You continue stroking her back, and you feel her heave a deep sigh
  501. >”It's fine, I guess. I shouldn't have been working this late anyway so it's my own fault.”
  502. >She trails off, and you interject with a firm but still kind tone
  503. “Don't blame yourself, I shouldn't have been so nosy. That said, we do seriously need to get some sleep. Like you said, we've got a long day tomorrow.”
  504. >You feel her rub against your chest as she nods
  505. >Dammit, when did this mare get so cute?
  506. >As you stand to go back to bed, she clings onto you
  507. >It brings a smile to your face, and you lift her up as you blow out the candles
  508. >Maybe it's just her being tired, but she seems far more clingly than you'd expect
  509. >You lay her down, gently, in her bed before sliding under the covers of your own
  510. >Not two minutes later, you feel the mattress bounce
  511. >Silently, a warm weight settles down against your back
  512. >Reactively, you almost speak up to ask what she's doing
  513. >But, as you hear her begin to breathe slow and deep, you feel a little twinge in your heart that keeps you quiet
  514. >After what you did, it's only fair that you simply let her get comfortable again
  515. >And besides, you can't imagine anything more pleasant than a pony cuddling up to you while you sleep
  516. >Finally, you close your eyes and drift into a dreamless sleep
  517. --
  518. >When you pry your eyes open, it's to a score of whistling birds and the sounds of merchants setting up market stalls
  519. >Sleepily, you stumble to the bathroom and begin washing up with the large basin
  520. >No running water for a shower, but then this wasn't exactly the lap of luxury
  521. >Maybe you could draft some kind of bill with the industrial minister to expand quality of life standards?
  522. >It's something to think about to be sure
  523. >You dry off with a rough towel that had been hung off the hook of the door
  524. >It was a bit wet, you assume it must have been from Quill, since she'd been nowhere in the room when you had awoken
  525. >As you pull on your pants, there's a knock at the door
  526. “Just a second!”
  527. >You hurriedly throw a shirt over your bare chest and pull open the door
  528. “Oh, good morning Quill. Did you sleep alright?”
  529. >Outside a slight blush as you mention 'sleep' she retains a look of a cold businesspony
  530. >Still, it was better than no reaction at all
  531. >”Yes sir. You're almost ready for the day, I presume? We still have a half hour before the farm tour begins, so I took the liberty of booking the three of us in for breakfast at a little cafe down the block.”
  532. >You finally notice Luna peering over her shoulder
  533. >It had never occurred to you that Quill was significantly taller than most earth ponies
  534. >Not quite as tall as Luna or Celestia, but certainly near challenging them
  535. >But you nod in agreement with her choice
  536. “That's some good thinking, Quill. Let me just throw on my jacket and we can head down then.”
  537. >Before you turn to get your jacket, you see the blush on her cheeks deepen a fair bit
  538. >Damn she's cute
  539. >Also your secretary
  540. >And you aren't some fat man in a doujin, you're a straight and honourable politician dammit!
  541. >But she really is adorable
  542. >You snap yourself out of that endless cycle as you step out the door
  543. >Looking down at the lunar princess on your left, you smile
  544. “How did you sleep, Luna?”
  545. >She smiles right back, though you see some heavy lines under her eyes
  546. >”Terribly! I believe the mattress was, in fact, made of several large boulders!”
  547. >And despite her complaints, she's incredibly chipper
  548. “That sounds awful. Why in Equestria are you smiling then?”
  549. >Her grin widens further
  550. >”I'm quite excited for your announcement today, the first step towards the princess of the night once more being beloved of the people!”
  551. >That is a fair reason to be excited
  552. >You can't even imagine what it was like to be totally isolated for a thousand years
  553. >The madness that could have taken root and destroyed her
  554. >Thank goodness the Elements of Harmony existed
  555. >But as you walk to the cafe with your companions, that thought starts a cascade
  556. >What was it that originally led to Luna becoming Nightmare Moon?
  557. >Sure the history books say it was jealousy, and that probably played some kind of role
  558. >But history is written by the winners, and Luna definitely hadn't won in her rebellion
  559. >In a weird way, it was as though you were talking with Milton's Lucifer
  560. >Though to be fair, Luna was far more penitent than he ever had been
  561. >But it brings you to wondering about the entire mythology of Equestria in general
  562. >Wait a minute, you had one of the first gods right here
  563. “Luna, what was Equestria like in the beginning? Before Discord, before you two, before all that.”
  564. >She looks up at you, confusion evident on her face
  565. >”What ever do you mean? That's all in the books, ancient history by now.”
  566. >Her tone is dismissive, but carries an undercurrent of curiosity
  567. >It's clear she regards it as a pointless topic
  568. >Before you can answer her, you arrive to the cafe
  569. >It only takes a moment to be seated and order
  570. >Quill takes a number of papers from her bags almost immediately and begins working
  571. >You take the quiet moment to return to your conversation with Luna
  572. “I mean what was it really like. The books don't go into any real detail. It merely says you met Star Swirl and were crowned, some time after the Crystal Empire had been founded, and well after Equestria existed. So where did you come from, and why?”
  573. >Luna's ears press against her skull, and she looks down at the table
  574. >”Truly? I know not. For one, a millennium of isolation with my only company being the voice of darkness itself in my mind did not treat my consciousness kindly. Second, I am truly not certain even my sister knows. When we met Star Swirl, we but were fillies. He called us the shards of the Cosm, said we fell from outside the sky itself. I do not know if he was telling us true, or simply telling a tale.”
  575. >She pauses for a long moment
  576. >It gives you time to digest what she's said
  577. >While you're not surprised that her thousand year imprisonment had taken a toll, you hadn't realized how deeply it had dug into her mind
  578. >It makes you wonder how much the ponies of Equestria knew about their princesses
  579. >How much they cared to know
  580. >Luna raises her head, and begins speaking again
  581. >”Star Swirl was already old when he found us. And it wasn't long before he gave over to us the duty of raising and lowering both sun and moon. It was what earned us our marks. Though before he had mentioned us to the ponies that followed under him, it was only now he truly introduced us as rulers to the masses. He tutored us in his mystic and mysterious ways of magic, imparting his arcane knowledge, much of which we cannot dare reveal. Truly, I believe he burdened us as much as he gifted us.”
  582. >She trails off as your food arrives
  583. >It had taken some getting used to, but you'd adjusted to a vegetarian diet many years ago
  584. >Meat was a rare treat, reserved almost exclusively for time spent with the griffons
  585. >But somehow, you survived taking your eggs without bacon
  586. >The meal passes in solemn silence, and it gives you time to mull about your impromptu history lesson
  587. >It's hard to separate truth from reality sometimes
  588. >Especially when you're living in a world that you had once thought fictional
  589. >That's certainly something that wakes you in a fit of cold sweat and fear sometimes, even now
  590. >Oftentimes, the deeper you delve into this world, the closer you brush with true madness
  591. >It certainly was, on the surface, idyllic and peaceful
  592. >If you had stayed in Ponyville, who knows how long you could have seen it so simply
  593. >Sure the occasional monster attack would have been frightening, but it would have become so much as any other rare event in time
  594. >But near as soon as you had entered Celestia's court, the veil had begun to peel back
  595. >The immense undertaking of the leadership to keep that ideal life a reality for ponies that were nominally their subjects
  596. >The absurdity of deliberating with predators the likes of dragons and griffons
  597. >Perhaps that was why you had excelled, unlike ponies you were predatory in nature
  598. >Was it that aggression and drive that had thrown you to the top so quickly, and now forced you into the position of the fulcrum of the most imbalanced scale in history?
  599. >Or was it a mere cosmic quirk; a bizzare, but truly random event that merely placed you at the logical head of a line of succession riddled with greedy, incompetent, or untrustworthy fellow
  600. >A prod in your arm drags you away from you dive into the ocean of entropic philosophy
  601. >Quill is staring at you pointedly, and as you begin to register your surroundings, you see a number of ponies staring at you
  602. >Another heartbeat, and you realize that you have your egg, still whole, hanging half out of your mouth
  603. >Your eyes widen and you quickly gulp it down, smiling sheepishly at the onlookers
  604. >At the very least, you had known many of the ponies in town
  605. >You had been the town oddity for a year, after all
  606. >As you make eye contact with your embarrassed grin, many of the ponies smile and giggle before turning back to their meals
  607. >Being the single example of your species did have its benefits sometimes
  608. >Without running back into your introspection, you finish your breakfast and lean back, looking up at the perfectly blue sky
  609. >You wonder if Celestia, wherever she is, is still raising the sun
  610. >You wonder if she is really responsible for it
  611. >In the corner of your eye, you see Luna looking up at the sky as well, a beatific smile on her face
  612. >A pang of happiness touches your heart
  613. >The idea of someone receiving redemption, true redemption, and finally becoming loved once more is beautiful
  614. >It almost makes you jealous, it was a feeling you would never know
  615. >But how far she had come, she had more than earned it
  616. >At your other side, Quill has her eyes closed
  617. >Not asleep, her occasional shifting told you that, but perhaps collecting her thoughts?
  618. >Such an organized pony as her, you'd never think to be able to be confused
  619. >And yet, she was a pony, a mortal
  620. >No matter how you saw her, she was like you, muddling her way through life as best she could
  621. >Clearly she muddled better than most, it was rare to see an earth pony in the palace, let alone serving directly under Celestia herself, and now you
  622. >She had a deep drive in her, something that had made her grind her way up the ladder of society until she was looking down at most other ponies
  623. >At some point, you certainly intended to ask Quill about herself
  624. >But as the clock tolls out eight times, and her eyes snap open, you understand now is not the time
  625. >The three of you stand without a word, all of you understand what the plan is for the day
  626. >Quill places some bits on the table to pay for the meal, with a generous tip, and you walk away from the cafe
  627. >A small crowd begins to follow behind you as you three walk into the countryside of Ponyville
  628. >And as you reflect, a small grin of satisfaction on your face, you know that they will be getting a show
  629. --
  630. >You've finally come to the last stop on your tour of Ponyville farms
  631. >It's been quite a long day for the three of you, there were dozens of farms around the town
  632. >After hearing the opinions of so many farmers, you had already begun formulating a bill that may help them
  633. >You would need more input, of course, but you could at least begin to wrap your head around their hardships
  634. >You knock on the door of the last farmhouse and put on an easy smile
  635. >A small, yellow coated pony opens the door and her eyes brighten as she sees you
  636. >”Howdy Mr. Anonymous! We ain't seen you around these parts for a long time! Oh wow, you brought Princess Luna too? I shoulda got on my formal bow! And howdy there miss uh...well I don't know ya, but if you're a friend of Mr. Anonymous I'm sure you're a good pony!”
  637. >You ruffle Applebloom's bright mane and your smile widens
  638. “Hey Applebloom, is your sister home?”
  639. >You hear a tired voice call down the stairs
  640. >”Who in tarnation is at the door?”
  641. >Applebloom turns around and hollers back up the stairs
  642. >”It's Mr. Anonymous and Princess Luna, an' they wanna talk with ya!”
  643. >The sudden noise of galloping hooves comes from the house
  644. >Within a few seconds, Applejack is in front of you and panting
  645. >Her mane is tousled and there are dark bags under her eyes
  646. >But she has an eager smile on her face all the same
  647. >”Howdy yer majesty and uh...sir? What can I do for ya today?”
  648. >Your smile shrinks a bit, you hadn't wanted to impose on her but she was important to talk to
  649. >Where other farms may employ hands, Applejack did most of the work by herself and with Big Mac
  650. >She likely knew the needs of a farm better than anypony around
  651. “Come on AJ, just Anon is fine. We came here to learn of way to help out farmers with our policies in government and wanted to speak with you, if that's alright.”
  652. >She nods and gestures for you to come inside
  653. >You do, and your companions follow, sitting at the kitchen table as she asks you to do so
  654. >Finally, she gives a weary sigh and sits down herself
  655. >”Applebloom, you mind getting some milk for me and our guests?”
  656. >The little filly perks up and scampers away
  657. >Applejack turns her attention to the three of you and smiles warmly
  658. >”Now, what can I do for y'all?”
  659. >You glance at your companions, and then take the lead
  660. “We'd like to know how current government policies are effecting farmers, and how we can help you out.”
  661. >Applejack purses her lips and scrapes her hoof on the table
  662. >Her unease is clear, but eventually she finds her voice
  663. >”Well, I can't speak for the others around town, but this here farm's been through a few bramble patches in the last couple years. Vampire fruit bats, family illness during the harvest, poor crops, timberwolves. We've been hit by just about every natural and unnatural disaster you care to name. Insurance only covers so much these days, and no matter the state of the crop, taxes are based on the usual crop for an orchard our size, whether or not it fails.”
  664. >Applejack massages her temples as Applebloom comes back balancing a tray with glasses of milk on her head
  665. >The three of you take a glass each, and Applejack pats her sister on the head
  666. >Finally, she turns back to you and continues
  667. >”Now I'm not sayin' we shouldn't be paying taxes, but maybe there could be a local arbitrator. Someone who knows farming, who could decide what's fair depending on what's been happening in the season. It ain't always an exact science around here.”
  668. >You nod in agreement, Ponyville was never a regular place and that likely made it hard for people who depended on predictability
  669. >And her suggestion wasn't an unreasonable one, especially compared to some of her peers
  670. >Nothing of subsidies, heavy protectionist policies, or price regulation
  671. >Applejack must have misinterpreted your silence, though
  672. >”I know that setting up somethin' like that ain't a priority or anything, it's just a suggestion. Y'all probably have more crises up there than I could dream of.”
  673. >You take a breath and smile warmly at Applejack
  674. “Not at all, Applejack. In fact, I was more surprised by how reasonable your idea is. I believe that would be a wonderful thing in fact. I'll be sure to bring it up when I return to Canterlot. Off the topic of business and politics, how have you been? The girls said you were busy with planting, so you didn't come down to the hall.”
  675. >AJ looks less exhausted when she looks up again
  676. >It seems she's happy to get off the topic of work
  677. >”Well it's been a heck of a time if I'm honest. I wasn't mentioning them things in vain, Ponyville's practically been under siege with strange happenings. And none of it has done my crop any good. But the Apple family ain't quitters, and we ain't complainers.”
  678. >You nod to her and begin to rise from your seat
  679. “I'm glad to hear, AJ. Well we've taken enough of your time, and judging by how you look you need to get some sleep.”
  680. >She smiles and nods her head slowly
  681. >”I'm plum tired from all the work over the past couple weeks, but it's all done now. I could use a nap, but y'all are welcome for dinner if you'd like.”
  682. >This time it's Luna who interjects, giving Applejack a matronly look
  683. >”We couldn't impose on your family more than we already have, Applejack. Perhaps another time, when you're not so exhausted.”
  684. >AJ nods her head in agreement with Luna
  685. >You all rise from the kitchen table and Applebloom walks you out as her sister heads back to bed
  686. >The filly seems disappointed that you're leaving so quickly
  687. >”Y'all could really stay around for dinner, I'm sure sis wouldn't mind!”
  688. >You stop in the doorframe, behind your companions
  689. >Applebloom looks up at you with the look of a pleading puppy
  690. >You kneel down and ruffle her mane cheerily
  691. “Don't you worry Applebloom, I'm sure we will sometime. But your sister needs to get some rest, and we still have some work to do before we head to Baltimare.”
  692. >Applebloom looks down, disappointed
  693. >Luna notices your dallying and turns around, trotting up to Applebloom and holding out a hoof
  694. >”How about this, little one. Hold onto this for me, it's a rock from the moon itself. We carry it with us as a reminder, but we want you to hold on to it. Think of it as a promise for our return, hm?”
  695. >Applebloom takes the rock and sniffs at it
  696. >”A-are ya sure princess? I don't wanna take anything that means so much to ya.”
  697. >Luna shakes her head and pats Applebloom
  698. >”Just be sure to take good care of it for me. We will be expecting to see it the next time we visit.”
  699. >Applebloom clutches the pebble to her chest
  700. >”Yes ma'am! It'll be safe with me!”
  701. >Luna smiles indulgently and you both leave to catch up with Quill and head back to town
  702. >Quill gives you both a questioning look
  703. >You wave away the concern
  704. “Just saying goodbye, Quill. Has everything been set up for the speech?”
  705. >She gives a long sigh, then nods
  706. >”Yes sir. The criers were dispatched before we left, and the crew has been working on it since the morning. Everything has likely been ready for an hour or more.”
  707. >At her words, your shoulders tense up
  708. >It always happened before public addresses for you
  709. >No matter how prepared, how much practice, how many times you made a speech
  710. >You were still afraid
  711. >But as you enter town and approach the stage that had been set up for you, another feeling joins the fear
  712. >As tense as you were now, as you walk up the steps to the podium in front of what must be half the town, you recognize it
  713. >Now, for the first and only time, you feel excited to be in front of a crowd
  714. >You lean on the podium, before a near silent crowd of ponies, waiting to see what you had gathered them for
  715. >You start with a smile
  716. --
  717. “Good afternoon, Ponyville!”
  718. >There are a few nervous mumblings from the crowd, and you hear Pinkie shouting 'Hey Anon' from the back
  719. >You had expected this, however
  720. “I understand that many of you have trepidation over my appointment to Celestia's position, and I can appreciate why. After all, not only am I relatively new in the government, but I'm not even a pony!”
  721. >You see a few nods from the crowd, and more than a few downward cast gazes
  722. “But rest assured, I know my duty all too well.”
  723. >Now those ponies that were once looking about, anywhere but the stage, begin to focus at your firm tone
  724. “I came her as a stranger, a species nopony has seen before or since. But you, you were kind, accepting, and friendly towards me. You, ponies of Ponyville, gave me shelter, work, and you were diligent in integrating me to your town.”
  725. >You see Spike, standing on Rarity's back, giving you a wide grin and a thumbs up
  726. >He had been the one to suggest to Twilight to give you a place to stay initially
  727. >No doubt he knew what it was to be the odd one out
  728. >You smile and nod back at him before continuing
  729. “With your help, I became a man in good standing in Equestria, the first man in fact! And so, when the opportunity to serve Equestria was offered to me, I accepted without hesitation.”
  730. >You see more nods through the audience, and a few chests swelling outwards
  731. >This was exactly the reaction you had wanted to see
  732. “That was four years ago now. Through tireless work and an endless desire to pay the debt I incurred by accepting your kindness, your friendship, I rose to become a head minister. And when a time came that Celestia needed to vacate the seat of power temporarily, she saw that I would not be one to abuse such a position. And I promise you that, in no uncertain terms, I. Shall. Not.”
  733. >Several ponies in the crowd begin to slowly applaud, but before it can spread you hold your hands out, spread to quiet it
  734. “However, no one can rule a country alone. In this regard, I thank my fellow ministers for their support in these unstable times. Though I may be above you in rank, I will heed any advice you care to give me. You are all the heads of ministry for a reason. Further, I wish to thank Princess Luna for supporting her sister's decision. I will show all Equestria that you are indeed trustworthy once more, and a fine equal of your sister!”
  735. >Luna bows when you address her, but a nervous mutter runs through the crowd
  736. >Again you quiet them before continuing
  737. “My friends, many of you saw her reformed, and many more have heard it through the Elements of Harmony. I beg of you, as you once did for me, accept her. Cherish her. Allow her to once more be YOUR princess.”
  738. >You walk over to her and place a hand on her withers
  739. >Quill walks up on your other side, and you place your hand on her as well
  740. >This was an important image to embed in their minds, to have shown to all Equestria
  741. “Let us not allow mistrust and discord to run amok. Now, more than ever before, since the time when the Windigos ruled, we must all be united as one people. As Equestrians!”
  742. >A scattering of applause runs through the crowd, and begins to build
  743. >Eventually it breaks into a full ovation
  744. >You hadn't thought your speech was that good, but it seemed to hit all the right notes just so
  745. >When it calms down, you return to the podium
  746. >You still have one more thing to reveal after all
  747. “Citizens of Ponyville, friends, I have an announcement as well. Your town was the place of redemption for Princess Luna. It was here that the Elements of Harmony removed the sickness that was Nightmare Moon. Until now, this has been unfairly ignored. But no longer. My friends, it is with a humble heart I reveal to you, the Redemption Memorial!”
  748. >You pull a large drape off a posterboard with the plan for the monument on it
  749. >The picture shows a large statue of a redeemed Luna touching hooves with the six Elements of Harmony, all smiling beatifically
  750. >There are a number of gasps through the crowd
  751. “With this, all may know that this is the ground where our princess of the night returned to Equestria. All may know this is the home of the ponies that saved her from darkness. And all may know that Princess Luna is once more one of us.”
  752. >The applause and cheers come in a massive barrage of sound
  753. >It takes a long while for the noise to die down
  754. >Finally, you gesture to Luna to take the podium
  755. >She hadn't originally wanted to give a speech, but you insisted so that the ponies understood this was not a sole undertaking
  756. >She clears her throat and begins speaking hesitantly
  757. >”Ponies of Ponyville, We thank you from the bottom of our heart. It was five of you who helped us come back to you. And for this, we owe you a debt we cannot ever repay.”
  758. >She pauses for a moment, before blinking a few times and swalling
  759. >Then she continues, her voice becoming thick with emotion
  760. >”The madness that took us was a terrible, vile sickness. And though we were cleansed of it by the Elements, it left us broken for a long while after, and our bonds of trust with you were shattered. It is for this reason that our sister's position was entrusted with Anonymous over us. We do not begrudge our sister for this choice.”
  761. >You can see her eyes begin to well up with tears
  762. >Her voice becomes more hoarse as tears begin to streak the fur on her muzzle
  763. >”W-we...I do not know if I will ever be worthy of your trust again. But it is my prayer, that with determination and dedication to Equestria, I can one day be truly redeemed in your eyes. It is my greatest desire to finally atone for all the pain I caused, for the damage I did, both to Equestria as a whole, and to the ponies I see as my family.”
  764. >She finally breaks down, and you kneel and place a gentle hand on her back
  765. >Quill comes and hugs her as you look out into the audience
  766. >Many of them are openly crying, many more are struggling to hold back their emotions
  767. >But as one, they applaud for Luna
  768. >As their applause continues, you lead your companions off the stage and towards the train waiting in the station to whisk you towards Baltimare
  769. >Just before you board the train, you hear the galloping of hooves behind you
  770. >Turning about, you find four of the Elements
  771. >Pinkie and Fluttershy have streaks on their muzzle from fresh tears, and Rarity is wiping away mascara from her face
  772. >Even Dash's eyes are misty, though you know she'd never cry so openly
  773. >Pinkie hugs your leg on the platform
  774. >”Don't go so quickly Nonny! Can't you stay for just one more day?”
  775. >You pat the top of her mane with a gentle hand
  776. “Sorry Pinkie, we still have a lot of cities to visit, and a great many more ponies to talk with.”
  777. >You kneel down and open your arms
  778. >They pile in to hug you, even Dash alights and embraces you and her friends
  779. “I miss you all, but I still have a lot of work to do. I promise, the next time I'm in Ponyville, I'll treat you all to dinner and we'll hang out, like old time. How does that sound?”
  780. >They step back and all nod
  781. >You put a hand on Fluttershy's back, she seems to be taking you leaving again harder than her friends
  782. “When I'm back, I'm going to come give you a hand with your furry friends again, okay Shy?”
  783. >She looks up at you with a sad smile, and nods quietly
  784. >After a moment, you rise and step of the platform and onto the train
  785. >You pause in the doorway and look back to see your friends waving at you
  786. >Deep down, you want nothing more than to get off the train
  787. >But with a jerk, the train pulls away from the platform, leaving the town, and your friends, behind you
  788. >With your mood soured by the sight, you turn into the car and find a seat, alone
  789. >For a long while, you simply gaze out the window, lost in your own thoughts as the scenery passes by
  790. >As the sky begins to darken, you feel someone slide onto the seat beside you
  791. >”Sir...Anonymous, are you alright? You've been back here for a while.”
  792. >You turn to find Quill giving you a look filled with worry
  793. >With the biggest smile you can muster, you put a hand on the top of her head
  794. “I'm fine Quill, just...thinking about this. About Ponyville.”
  795. >She doesn't ask you to elaborate, nor does she even offer any words to you
  796. >Instead she huddles up to you, nuzzling against your chest
  797. >Wordlessly, you place an arm around her and embrace her tightly
  798. >There's no need to speak, both of you know exactly why
  799. >And as you gaze out into the newly born night, you find it easy, for the first time in a long time, to find the sleep you're looking for
  800. --
  801. >You open your eyes to the sound of squealing train brakes
  802. >Morning already?
  803. >It feels like you'd barely fallen asleep but now the sun is rising over the train platform
  804. >You smile as the rays of the early morning hit your face
  805. >Finally, you were back in Ponyville
  806. >It had been a long, three month tour of all Equestria
  807. >You had been run ragged with speeches, consultations, petty politics, and polling
  808. >But it was over, and you were on your way back to Canterlot at long last
  809. >First though, you were making a little stop
  810. >With an impressive amount of begging, cajoling, and nearing the point of bribery, you'd managed to convince both Luna and, more importantly, Quill, to make stop for a day in Ponyville again
  811. >With Luna, you'd impressed upon her the need to make a second appearance to see how ponies were accepting her, and to see the finished monument
  812. >Quill though, you'd had to persuade that a day of vacation after three months of work was acceptable
  813. >It had been a concerted effort, but you had eventually managed it
  814. >The secretary in question stretches out in your lap and yawns loudly
  815. >She had got in the habit of falling asleep on you when you were traveling between cities and towns
  816. >And you certainly didn't mind it
  817. >As she opens her eyes and looks up at you, a smile graces her face
  818. >”Good morning, sir. Ready for your vacation?”
  819. >It's clearly too early for her to muster any sarcasm, and you're not about to poke fun at her for it
  820. >So instead, you just rub the back of her neck gently
  821. >She lets out a noise that makes you wonder if she's part cat, and stretches out once more
  822. >Finally, she hops off the bench and makes her way forward to the dining car
  823. >Looking out the window once more, you realize that the train had merely been slowing for a curve in the track and you were nowhere near Ponyville
  824. >So why not join her for breakfast?
  825. >You stretch out your legs and stand, making your way to the next car
  826. >When you clamber inside the undersized door, you find Quill and Luna chatting amicably
  827. >All three of you had become less formal with each other over the course of the trip
  828. >The nature of living in such close quarters for so long, you suppose
  829. >Fortunately, you all got along well together
  830. >Doubly fortunate was that the more open you were, the more ideas seemed to come up almost from thin air
  831. >Luna's total refusal to attend a dinner that Quill hadn't been invited to in order to show solidarity between the royalty and common people resulted in the three of you avoiding a massive blowout as one of the city councilors had been arrested, resulting in quite a messy chase around the dining hall
  832. >No injuries, fortunately, but a great deal of embarrassment for all involved
  833. >It was little things like this that had kept your spirits high over the course of the tour
  834. >And now morale had soared to greater heights as the lengthy trip was at a well deserved end
  835. >As you approach, you catch snippets of their conversation, but they hush up when you join them at the table
  836. >Mare talk, you assume
  837. “Alright ladies, what are they trying to poison us with today?”
  838. >Luna and Quill giggle at the memory of the day you'd spent in the lavatory after eating some bad eggs
  839. >They hadn't quite stopped teasing you about that either
  840. >Quill pipes up with an answer for you
  841. >”They're making waffles for us, and using that syrup we picked up in Mountpelier!”
  842. >An easy grin touches your face at the mention
  843. “Excellent, a good start to the last day out of Canterlot hm?”
  844. >Quill nods as the sous chef and his cooks come through the door with three platters
  845. >They lay them on the table and beat a hasty retreat
  846. >You imagine the staff are feeling the length of the trip as well as the rest of you, probably more so
  847. >None of you had anyone waiting for you in Canterlot besides government officials, unlike many ponies on the staff
  848. >You resolve to give the crew that had accompanied you on this tour a bonus for their efforts
  849. >Small incidents aside, they had all done excellent jobs
  850. >The three of you dig in eagerly to breakfast, filling your mouths too fast to hold conversation
  851. >Before long, you've all finished and are stacking your plates
  852. >You pause and look out the window, seeing the farms bordering Ponyville passing by
  853. >Excitement builds in your gut, you would actually get a chance to just relax for the first time in nearly five years
  854. >As you pull into the station, Quill and Luna have got back to conversing quietly
  855. >When you ask what it's all about, they wave you off and tell you 'filly stuff' dismissively
  856. >Obviously it's something, but you aren't going to pry
  857. >You have bigger things on your mind
  858. >As you exit the train, you're greeted by a number of ponies
  859. >Most of them immediately crowd around Luna and, by default, Quill
  860. >But five of them immediately make a beeline for you
  861. >It's the five Elements, of course, and they crowd around you with smiles on their faces
  862. >For half the day, they drag you around town to various places
  863. >Pinky makes you try a new kind of sweet she invented, and by its taste it had probably given you diabetes
  864. >Applejack and Rainbow Dash treated you to some cider
  865. >It was far less strong than what you had drank back before you'd come to Equestria, and even weaker than most drinks at a Canterlot dinner party
  866. >But it was enough for the two who were treating you to become friendly with a few stallions
  867. >Rarity drags you into her dress shop for an hour and takes your measurements to ensure they were still the same as when she'd first tailored for you
  868. >After that, she shows you a design for a new suit more fitting to your role in the political sphere
  869. >A white jacket with gold coloured cuffs, trim, and sash across your chest with a matching pair of pants similar to old riding pants
  870. >The jacket was emblazoned with a large icon of the sun on the right breast
  871. >A pair of knee high black boots completed the look, and made for an all around imposing look, at least on paper
  872. >Rarity explained that she desired it to invoke the image of Celestia, in order to remind ponies of who it was who was their ruler, but also that you were her current successor
  873. >You give her the okay and she immediately kicks you out of the shop and gets to work
  874. >Finally, Fluttershy takes you with her to her place
  875. >You spend hours with her, feeding the various animals she took care of, helping her treat their injuries, and then cleaning up their enclosures
  876. >It's not easy, but you enjoy both the work, and simply spending time with Fluttershy
  877. >Finally, you finish the work she had for the day, and are able to simply sit inside relaxing and catching up with her over tea
  878. >Eventually, your conversation lapses into silence, and she joins you on her little loveseat, resting her chin on your lap as you stroke her mane
  879. >You jolt awake suddenly, as a sharp knock sounds from the door
  880. >Fluttershy jumps at the sudden sound, huddling against you immediately as a shout comes from the other side of the door
  881. >”Open up this door immediately, we have an emergency telegram for Anonymous.”
  882. >You calmly pull away from Fluttershy and walk to the door, though the shy pony huddles up against your legs as you do
  883. >Opening the door, you see a grey stallion in a mail carrier uniform huffing for breath
  884. “What's the emergency?”
  885. >Without speaking, he hands you a sealed envelope and sits on the doorstep, trying to catch his breath
  886. >As you open and read the telegram, Fluttershy stands on her hind legs, trying to get a view
  887. >”W-what's the emergency, Anon? Did somepony get hurt? Oh dear, I hope that your friends are alright!”
  888. >As you read the lines of ink, your hand begins to shake and your eyes widen in shock
  889. >You read it several times over, just to be sure that you weren't hallucinating the whole thing
  890. “When did this come in?”
  891. >The stallion puffs out his chest and takes a deep breath
  892. >”About ten minutes ago, sir. As soon as I found where you were, I rushed right over!”
  893. >You look down at him and nod grimly
  894. “Good work, run back and tell them I'll be there shortly. Make sure the train is prepared for immediate departure.”
  895. >The mail worker nods and gallops off towards town as you clench the letter tightly
  896. >Fluttershy tugs on your pant leg, speaking up with worry in her voice
  897. >”What's the matter? Why do you have to go so suddenly?”
  898. >You kneel down and place a hand on her mane
  899. “An emergency meeting of the ministers was called today. Apparently we've received an ultimatum from the gryphons. I need to get there as soon as I can.”
  900. >Fluttershy looks at the floor, her eyes misting over
  901. >”B-but you were finally back, a-at least for a little while. And you already have to go? Can't they handle it without you?”
  902. >You can't meet her eyes, so you end up looking at the floor as well
  903. “I wish I could, but for this I need to be there to take control of things. I'm sorry.”
  904. >As she sniffles and tries to hold back tears, you wrap your arms around her and embrace her tightly
  905. >Her voice is thick with emotion when she speaks again
  906. >”It's not fair, you finally came back after five years and you're leaving already! Why can't you stay for just another few minutes?”
  907. >She sobs as you hold her tightly, not objecting when you rise and pick her up with you
  908. >You hold her in your arms as you walk back to town, back to the train station
  909. >The conductor is waiting for you, tapping his hoof impatiently
  910. >”We're holding up other trains to get this into Canterlot as soon as we can, sir. And frankly we've already delayed too long.”
  911. >Without waiting for an answer, he boards the train, leaving you alone on the platform with Fluttershy
  912. >She had calmed down some on the walk into town, now just sniffling quietly
  913. >It had surprised you, you hadn't believed she thought this much of you
  914. >And despite its suddenness, it broke your heart to make her cry
  915. >You lift her chin up and give her the warmest smile you can, even though there's ice in your guts
  916. “Don't worry Shy, it's probably just a trade dispute. After I help the ministers settle things down, I'll make time to come back again, okay?”
  917. >She nods and smiles back, her tears finally slowing
  918. >”A-alright. I'll hold you to that, Anon! Y-you'd better be back as soon as you can to help with the animals!”
  919. >Your smile grows as you stroke her mane gently
  920. “Of course! I know you have such a hard time without me after all.”
  921. >Neither of you bother to say what remains unspoken
  922. >You both know, deep down, it's going to be a long time before you come back
  923. >The train whistle blows, and you hop aboard the train just as it starts to move
  924. >Looking back, you see Fluttershy waving from the platform, a sad smile on her face
  925. >Neither of you had said what both of you felt
  926. >And deep down, you knew that those feelings were going to be left unspoken for a long time
  927. >No matter what lies you told yourself
  928. >With a sigh, you walk into the dining car and find Quill and Luna gathered with a messenger around the table
  929. >Steeling yourself and straightening your jacket, you take your place and address the pegasus courier with a grim tone and a hardened face
  930. “So, what is this ultimatum?”
  931. --
  932. >”That's about it, sir.”
  933. >You clasp your hands in front of you, and a headache begins to well up behind your eyes
  934. >If you're really honest with yourself, it's hard to fault the griffons
  935. >With Celestia gone, you gallivanting about the country, and the recent reorganization of the military, it was the perfect time for them to press for better trade deals
  936. >You could feel the train straining to push itself faster as the ponies overloaded its furnace and stressed its boiler to the absolute limits
  937. >Once more, in silence, you go over the information given to you
  938. >The griffons were displeased with the reduction in ore exporting to Equestria, which had been brought about by their giving of low quality ore
  939. >They were demanding an immediate increase in Equestrian ore importation, acceptance of poor grade ore, and an inflated price
  940. >On top of that, they were attempting to order a size restriction on the military, and arms limitations
  941. >All absurd demands, impossible for you to accede to
  942. >And they knew it
  943. >They wanted control of the shipping lanes on the sea, and to wrest the Northern Narrows from the joint Equestrian and Crystal Empire control
  944. >A decade ago the griffons had shown themselves to be militarily powerful, defeating the neighbouring Capras in what was being called 'lightning war'
  945. >You knew they wouldn't be negotiating their terms, you had been the Equestrian representative in the Griffon Empire for much of your political career
  946. >So a country that hadn't fought a war in centuries was now forced to the brink
  947. >You see Luna and Quill staring at you, worry highlighting their faces as the sun began its slow rise
  948. >You had been up all night going over the information again and again, reviewing possible options you had with the others
  949. >At long last, you take a deep breath and close your eyes
  950. >A plan was beginning to come together in your mind, but you needed more information
  951. >You weren't a strategist, not in the military sense at the very least
  952. >Fortunately you had Luna, but she was still most likely out of date with the new technology of the day
  953. >And being so long out of touch with the ministers, you didn't know if research and prototyping had progressed to where you had a technological edge
  954. >So you had to wait
  955. >In solemn silence, you waited to reach Canterlot, hoping against hope that you could still somehow defuse the situation without war
  956. >After what felt like an eternity, the train screeched to a halt at the platform nearest to the castle
  957. >You, Luna, and Quill charge off the train and begin the sprint to the castle
  958. >As foolish as it must appear, Luna had told you there were certain magical defenses around the castle now to prevent teleportation
  959. >It figured
  960. >So when you stumble through the main gates, heaving for breath and sweating heavily
  961. >You take a moment to collect yourselves, you would not allow yourself to appear panicked or exhausted before your peers
  962. >Finally, you were ready
  963. >Steeling your face and straightening your clothes, you have the guards open the doors to the Chamer of Star Swirl, the meeting place of the government
  964. >The heads of ministry are already seated about the large table, looking terribly worried, and terrified of the being at the table whose presence surprises you
  965. >”Well if it isn't my old diplomatic nemesis, Anonymous the Human. How is the new position treating you, my good man?”
  966. >Grinning like a particularly smug cat, Alistair, former liaison to Equestria and now head of the Griffon Embassy in Canterlot, sat on a cushioned chair
  967. >Instinctively, you grind your teeth together when you see him
  968. >He had been the toughest part of any diplomatic assignment you'd been a part of
  969. >So of course he would be sitting in on this session, most likely he had delivered the ultimatum at the request of his betters
  970. >But you would not allow him the satisfaction of seeing you off kilter
  971. >So you give him the most predatory smile you could muster
  972. “Ah, so it was you I smelled when I entered the palace. I wasn't sure whether it could possibly be someone of such low status here, but yet again you've surprised me Alistair.”
  973. >You see his face twitch when you mention status
  974. >Pride was an easy nerve to tweak with griffons, and it was something you were always ready to pounce on
  975. >But even at that, his smile grows as he gestures for you to take your seat
  976. >”Well now that our last guest has so lately arrived, I can make my announcement at last.”
  977. >He rises from his chair and clears his throat obnoxiously
  978. >”Whereas the Equestrian government has not acceded to the reasonable demands of the Right Emperor Gunnar and the Griffon Empire; therefore be it resolved by the Grand Council and the Griffon people, that the state of war between the Griffon Empire and the Kingdom of Equestria, which has been demanded by the peoples of the Empire, is hereby formally declared; and that the Emperor be, and he is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the Griffon Empire and the resources of the Grand Council to carry on war against the Kindgdom of Equestria; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged to the Grand Council and the Griffon Empire.”
  979. >A pounding echoes on the door of the chamber, and the ministers jump to their hooves shouting at Alistair in disbelief, anger, and fear
  980. >Your hands grip each other tight enough that your bones begin to creak in protest
  981. >And Alistair gazes at you, his smile growing ever wider
  982. >The door to the chamber is finally flung open, and an exhausted looking pegasus guardsmare gallops over to you and whispers in your ear
  983. >”Sir, we've just received word that a large force of griffons has laid siege to and taken Trottingham. A naval task force was dispatched but we've yet to hear anything. What should we do sir?”
  984. >The icy ball that had been growing in your stomach becomes a boiling sphere of lava
  985. >Without provocation, a war, and without any experienced troops, or war industry to speak of
  986. >It was worse than a nightmare
  987. >You rise from your chair, and the other ministers begin to quiet down as you do
  988. >With as much acid in your tone as you can muster, you address Alistair directly
  989. “So, the mighty Griffon Empire is reduced to surprise attacks and childish demands? How galling that we must be neighbours with such creatures as you.”
  990. >Alistair simply shrugs at the barb
  991. >”This announcement was supposed to be made earlier, Anonymous. Unfortunately, you were busy on vacation so I had to delay until now. Truly unfortunate for you.”
  992. >The guardsmare remains at your shoulder, trembling noticeably
  993. >As calm as you can, you address her directly and loud enough for all in the room to hear
  994. “Lieutenant, I want you to gather a platoon of guards and blockade the embassy. As well, send runners to the barracks around the city, every griffon in Canterlot is to be placed under detention inside the embassy. Ensure they are fed and watered, but they are not allowed to leave the embassy grounds until further notice.”
  995. >The pegasus guard salutes and gallops out the door, and Alistair rises, his smile noticeably less smug than before
  996. >”You know this won't have any--”
  997. >You raise your voice over his, now addressing the ranking guard left in the chamber
  998. “Sergeant, it seems that a griffon has infiltrated the palace. Arrest him and throw him in the castle prison.”
  999. >The sergeant and his fellow immediately move on Alistair, even as he shouts at you
  1000. >”You can't do this! My fellow diplomats and I have immunity!”
  1001. >The guards hesitate at the protest, but you simply shake your head at the griffon
  1002. “You lost any right to claim immunity when you decided to announce your declaration of war after the invasion had already begun. Congratulations Alistair, you've become Equestria's first prisoner of war in centuries. I'm certain you'll be remembered for ages to come.”
  1003. >He continues to rant and rave as he is dragged from the room
  1004. >Finally, the room stills
  1005. >The other ministers are in various states from nervously tapping their hooves on the table to outright nervous breakdowns
  1006. >Even Luna is showing how frightened she is at the prospect of war, you can hear her teeth grinding together
  1007. >It was time to take control of the situation
  1008. >Even you are beginning to feel ill at the situation you've been thrust into, but now was not the time to freeze in place
  1009. >Now was the time to fight, to win
  1010. “Stiles, was a dispatch sent to the Crystal Empire when the ultimatum was issued?”
  1011. >Shaky Stiles, your replacement as foreign minister, looks up from the table
  1012. >”Uh, yes sir. They sent word back that Shining Armor was coming to Canterlot with a detachment of troops, while another battalion went to ensure the security of the Northern Narrows.”
  1013. >You let out a relieved sigh
  1014. >At least you wouldn't be alone in this unexpected fight
  1015. >The Crystal Empire had a far better trained military than Equestria, so you wouldn't have to worry too much about the Northern theater
  1016. >And with Shining Armor coming straight to Canterlot, you could expect to have a level of experienced command staff to assist you
  1017. >You walk over to where a grim faced Stalwart Shield sat, his forehoof tapping the table in an odd pattern
  1018. “Colonel, as soon as we finish up here, I want you to show me how far our reforms have come. Understood?”
  1019. >He nods and you continue around the table, speaking as calmly as possible
  1020. “Heavy Hammer, I want you to oversee the shift into war industry. We must be prepared to give over much of the industrial base in order to out produce our enemy. Flashy Image, establish a department of propaganda and ensure the people understand that this war is not by any choice of ours, but forced by the griffons. Stir up some patriotic fever and assist the defense ministry in a recruitment drive. I don't want to chance anything by suddenly engaging in mass conscription.”
  1021. >The minsters of industry and culture acknowledge your words and seem calmed by the solid direction they've been given
  1022. “The rest of you, continue on as normal as you can. I understand that none of you are experience in matter of war, and neither am I. But with determination and unity, we will prevail. Now, let us adjourn and face the people with fire in our hearts and steel in our gaze. We must show them that even in times of crisis, they can trust in the resolve of those elected to rule them.”
  1023. >The ministers give you a short, polite applause before immediately departing to take care of their respective tasks
  1024. >All but Colonel Shield, who waits for you as ordered
  1025. >You gesture to Luna and Quill, both of whom remained still after you'd adjourned the council
  1026. “Accompany the good colonel and myself, wouldn't you? We ought to address this nightmare together.”
  1027. >They nod and follow you out the door, even as you follow the defense minister
  1028. >There was no doubt, this entire scenario was a total disaster
  1029. >But you would all face it together
  1030. >No matter what the outcome
  1031. --
  1032. >Stalwart Shield brings the three of you through a military depot, the only one in Canterlot, explaining the progress they had made in the relatively short time you'd been gone
  1033. >”As you can see, Anonymous, while we have settled on a weapon design, but serial production has only started recently. We have two hundred rifles and 150 harnesses to go with them. With the harness, anypony could use one, but without it would be exclusively for unicorns.”
  1034. >He takes a cartridge from a box of ammunition, handing it to you to inspect
  1035. >”We had our alchemists devise a way to stabilize mercurial fulminate and put a small amount inside this paper cartridge. Inside the rifle, there is a pin that, when the trigger is pulled, strikes the fulminate, which in turn ignites the powder in the cartridge and propels the projectile out the barrel.”
  1036. >You don't totally get it
  1037. >Guns were never really your 'thing'
  1038. >But it sounds like they've developed an old style rifle
  1039. >Which considering that until this point, most of their weapons looked like flintlocks was quite a jump
  1040. “But that's barely enough to equip a battalion.”
  1041. >Stalwart grimaces and faces you
  1042. >”That is the problem. We don't have the industrial capacity to produce more than maybe a hundred guns per month, currently anyway. We're expanding as quickly as we can, but until then stocks are going to be limited.”
  1043. >The grimace gives way to an almost sheepish smile
  1044. >”The good news is that ammunition is easier to produce than ever, so we won't lack for shots.”
  1045. >You scratch at the short stubble growing on your face
  1046. >In the past two days, you hadn't even seen a razor to take care of it
  1047. >But that was the least of your concerns
  1048. >You were miles outside of your depth of skills, and Shining Armor was still a day away at best
  1049. >”What if, instead of planning to equip our entire force at one time, we draw upon a single battalion and use it to augment our forces instead?”
  1050. >Luna's suggestion interrupts your thoughts
  1051. >Immediately you berate yourself for not even thinking to ask her thoughts
  1052. >”If we give it to a force of ponies who have military experience already, we can cut down on training time. As well, a single light battalion is far more mobile than large divisions would be.”
  1053. >You, Stalwart, and Quill all stare agape at Luna
  1054. >She looks stunned for a moment, then blushes and paws at the ground, looking like an embarrassed filly
  1055. >”I studied the Griffon-Capra Conflict extensively on my return, it was the most recent war after all. If the griffons have remained static in their strategy, a highly mobile and well trained force would be most effective against them.”
  1056. >Stalwart shakes off his stupor, blushing himself for not thinking of such a deployment strategy
  1057. >”W-well princess, that certainly is a logical decision. But how would such a force act as it stands to a regular army?”
  1058. >Luna puffs her chest out, more confident with the approval of the defense minister
  1059. >”As regular units engaged in battle, this battalion would work to outflank and encircle the enemy, forcing them to either retreat or become completely encircled. Either choice results in heavy casualties for them and, so long as our regular troops are entrenched, minimizing our own losses.”
  1060. >A feeling of relief washes over you
  1061. >It's so strong that it triggers a bark of laughter from you
  1062. >Your companions look startled at the outburst, but that doesn't wipe the smile off your face
  1063. “Well Luna, I sure hope you were aiming for a promotion. Congratulations general, as long as Stalwart here approves, I say carry out your experiment.”
  1064. >Stalwart looks to Luna, then back at you
  1065. >”Well, I suppose she does merit the promotion, even if her service was thousands of years past. And we most certainly need qualified strategists now. Very well, I only ask that, should an idea of yours be opposed by the entire defense staff, please at least consider us, princess.”
  1066. >She nods her head eagerly
  1067. >Excitement seemed to pour off of her in waves of energy, and her mood was infectious
  1068. >Stalwart breaks into a grin himself and leads you out of the arms store
  1069. >”I'll push the resources through to you, General Luna, and look forward to the results of your experiment. Go join the other staff officers at HQ, if you would. I believe they may take some persuasion.”
  1070. >Luna nods and gallops off to the headquarters across the plaza, while Stalwart leads you onward to the cannon stores
  1071.  >”We've had some marginal success in designing a new, large bore gun for the troops. We've made it breech loading as well, through use of a heavy block that seals up the end for firing. Add to that the new storage we have for powder and the ignition system and it makes for a highly effective weapon. A fair bit more complex to produce than older models, but promising. Development has begun on an even larger gun to be fitted on the new ship that's been laid down, EGS Celestia.”
  1072. >Your eyes widen, naval development hadn't even occurred to you when you had been debating the budget
  1073. >Your own concerns leaned more towards securing land borders with the sea being an afterthough
  1074. >Foolish, in retrospect
  1075. >Stalwart Shield continued, unaware of your introspective moment
  1076. >”She'll be the first fully iron-hulled ship we've produced. Four boilers and two steam turbines larger than we've ever produced before. A new design, able to outgun anything on the high seas for years to come. They plan for her to displace an astonish ten thousand tonnes! She'll be the heaviest ship put to sea in history.”
  1077. >He sighs heavily and scuffs a hoof against the stone floor
  1078. >”Unfortunately she won't be finished for at least a year or two, even with additional labour. We have several smaller ironclads under construction however, to augment our fleet. We should at least outstrip the damned griffons in naval power if nothing else.”
  1079. >He continues on, showing you the operation of the new cannon, how it only required a single unicorn in a full crew to function optimally, how the amount of powder could be increased to fire further, and that it elevated more than any other gun in the inventory
  1080. >They had managed to design and all around excellent gun
  1081. >The drawbacks were many, however
  1082. >Production was slow because the currently poor quality of steel coming from the factories required the barrel to be wire wrapped, then sleeved with harder steel to stand up to the rigours of firing in a battery
  1083. >That meant only four were available immediately, with production numbers only projected for ten a month
  1084. >You were assured that, when the ore quality improved as new shipments came in domestically, those numbers would easily quadruple
  1085. >They were still producing conventional cannons alongside it, but had changed their bore to accommodate the new powder loading
  1086. >The more he tells you, the more your head begins to ache
  1087. >Wrapping your mind around foreign diplomacy was one thing, but trying to sort out the details of military logistics was mind-boggling
  1088. >Even Quill, for whom logistics came easy, was clearly becoming troubled as she crunched the numbers
  1089. >As Stalwart wraps up the briefing and tour, he gives you a wry smile
  1090. >”It's not as simple as putting bullets in guns and pulling the trigger, is it sir?”
  1091. >You massage your temples and take a deep breath
  1092. “So let's just make sure I'm understanding everything. We can currently field two regiments of regular infantry, plus Luna's battalion when it's ready. We have around a hundred large bore guns, and three hundred medium bore guns for artillery support. Two wings of pegasi lancers, plus the Wonderbolts if we dare to put them on the line, and finally sixty ships of varying tonnage. Overall, we can outmatch the griffons at sea, but have no hope of a protracted land or air campaign without massive expansion. Is that about it?”
  1093. >Stalwart's grin falters at your grim tone
  1094. >”That's about the size of it, sir. We don't lack for food at the very least, but that's a small comfort. Perhaps we ought to join Luna and the general staff to actually discuss how to wage the war, hm?”
  1095. >Right now, all you want to do is have several stiff drinks and go back to Ponyville for a nice visit to the spa
  1096. >But this was war, and you had a role to play in it
  1097. “Yes, colonel, let's go figure out how to win this war.”
  1098. >Because you knew, winning was the only option you had
  1099. --
  1100. >When you walk into the strategy chamber, Luna is already engaged with the staff officers
  1101. >You're surprised to not see a single one with the laurels of a general
  1102. “I thought you said this we were here to meet the general staff.”
  1103. >Stalwart Shield clears his throat and answers you bashfully
  1104. >”Yes sir, this is the General Staff of the Equestrian Defense Force. Colonels Brave Buck and Black Buck, Lieutenant Colonel Steel Helm, and finally Major Glancing Blow. Gentlemen, I don't believe you've personally been introduced to the new Commander in Chief.”
  1105. >The four interrupt their conversation to salute you
  1106. >One of the colonels, Black Buck you assume, speaks up as he lowers his hand
  1107. >”Technically sir, we're just the HQ staff. Even though we're officially the general staff, Equestria hasn't had a general in command since the Great Eastern Rebellion around eight hundred years ago. After that, the army was disbanded and the new defense force was instated. Admirals are the closest to ranking generals we've had since then.”
  1108. >An army without a general
  1109. >Well, with Luna there was one now
  1110. >But still, why would a ruler purposely weaken her nation in such a way?
  1111. >An over reliance on a strong naval arm and diplomacy, or perhaps she simply staved off war by being the goddess of the sun
  1112. >Whatever the reason, it was here to bite you
  1113. “Well that's no good, we're raising an army and we need leadership. Stalwart, congratulations on your new position of Major General. I trust you'll be able to run this place without too much of my input, I don't exactly have experience in these matters.”
  1114. >Stalwart Shield's jaw hangs open, and the rest of his staff look stunned
  1115. >Only Luna seems unruffled by your words, and more than slightly amused by the reactions of the others
  1116. >Finally, Stalwart regains his composure enough to respond
  1117. >”Y-yes sir, I believe I can do that. If you would please join us, we can begin planning.”
  1118. >You and Quill join the staff around a large map of Equestria and its surrounding countries, far more detailed than most would be
  1119. >Major Glancing taps the map on a small island in the North of the Celestial Sea
  1120. >”As I was saying, the reasoning behind the griffons taking Trottingham is sound. They wish to land a large force in Equestria, but lack the naval resources to contest the open sea. So instead they wish to secure passage over the Northern Narrows, and to that end took the naval outpost here.”
  1121. >The others nod, and Lt. Colonel Steel speaks up next, gesturing to the southern tip of the island
  1122. >”They seem to have focused their forces around the city, if the escapees reports are to be believed. Landing a force here and marching through the forests to surprise them may be the best course of action.”
  1123. >The other colonel, Brave Buck, shakes his head at the suggestion
  1124. >”Out of the question, we don't have the ability to move the heavy guns through that sort of terrain. Even with our entire air and ground forces on the island, we wouldn't be nearly a match for the griffons without artillery.”
  1125. >Black Buck speaks up, tapping the empty shoreline to the East of Trottingham
  1126. >”Why not here? If our ships could suppress the griffons long enough, we could land the entire strength of the land forces, heavy artillery and all.”
  1127. >Luna takes a step closer to the table and nods
  1128. >”And if we brought the pegasi along on the ships, they could provide cover from any marauders the griffons may send from the sky.”
  1129. >The others nod, seeing the wisdom in the plan
  1130. >But Luna taps the southern tip of the island again
  1131. >”However, even with the full might of our forces, we would still find ourselves outnumbered. I suggest something slightly different. Instead of marching to meet whatever forces the griffons surely would have in wait, we have a small, lightly equipped force draw them in as soon as we have fortified positions. Moreover, I would land my battalion on the southern tip. We would be unburdened by heavy guns and more than able to make our way through the forests.”
  1132. >She places the tip of a hoof on a small, marked lowland between the shore and Trottingham itself
  1133. >”And were we able to draw them to this area, my force would easily be able to outflank them, even as your cannons break the back of their pursuit. With them kettled in, it would be a simple thing to totally annihilate their force and retake the city.”
  1134. >You see nods from all at the table
  1135. >It's refreshing to see that there are at least some ponies in high places that take pride in efficiency instead of arguing for its own sake
  1136. “Well it seems like you have it under control. General Shield, General Luna, I leave it to you to determine the specifics of your operation. When it's ready, please ensure a copy is delivered to me for a final review. I may not be well versed in strategy, but who knows what a fresh pair of eyes may bring.”
  1137. >The staff salutes you, and Luna gives you a warm, genuine smile
  1138. >With that, you take your leave
  1139. >After a few moments of walking down the streets of Canterlot in silence, basking in the glow of the evening sun, Quill speaks up
  1140. >”Sir...Anonymous, are we really at war?”
  1141. >You turn your head, surprised that such a usually reasonable mare was asking such a seemingly absurd question
  1142. >But as you think about it, you understand
  1143. >Eight hundred years, that was when the last war was
  1144. >How could it seem like anything but a legend at this point?
  1145. >It must be utter madness to other ponies that didn't even have the benefit of knowing they were relatively safe, protected by the nature of geography
  1146. >The sudden realization strikes your heart, and your voice goes hoarse as you finally answer
  1147. “Yes, Quill, we are.”
  1148. >You see her ears flatten against her head, and your walk continues in silence
  1149. >Even as the two of you return to the castle and walk through its eerily silent halls, no sound comes from either of you but the echoing footsteps
  1150. >Fatigue seems to slow the pace down to an utter crawl, and the halls seem to stretch into infinity
  1151. >But in reality, it's hardly any time at all before you arrive at the door to your chambers
  1152. >As you push the door open, finally allowing yourself to succumb to the exhaustion fast approaching, you feel a tug on your pants
  1153. >Quill is staring up at you, her eyes beginning to mist over
  1154. >”Anon...I'm scared.”
  1155. >Maybe it's the sleepiness, maybe it was the madness of your newfound reality, but you reached out and caressed her mane, gently, soothing
  1156. “Come on then, we could both use some sleep.”
  1157. >She gives you a nervous smile as you both enter your bedroom
  1158. >The doors swing shut, their closure echoing in the halls, as the sunset paints the castle in blood
  1159. --
  1160. >The past month has gone by in a blur
  1161. >To your utter surprise, outside some probing attacks in the North, the griffons had not launched any major campaigns
  1162. >Even those attacks had been non-commital and easily repelled with the joint garrison
  1163. >In the intervening time, your military production had quadrupled, factories once producing non-vital infrastructure changing over to wartime supplies
  1164. >Metallurgy issues had been solved, and steel was of a higher quality than before thanks to the contributions of a team of unicorn alchemists
  1165. >Four ironclads had been completed, and work was progressing well on the EGS Celestia
  1166. >The army had grown explosively, with numbers rising from three thousand to thirty thousand
  1167. >Five new infantry regiments had been established, taking names and colours from units long past
  1168. >The artillery too thrived, dozens of guns were being produced weekly, many of them of the new breech-loading type, and seven batteries had risen to organize them
  1169. >Of course, the majority of ponies in the military were still in support roles, as the combat arms grew they needed exponentially more support staff
  1170. >Luna's personal battalion, the Black Bats, had been undergoing grueling training until just two days ago, when she finally deemed them prepared
  1171. >And so it was that you were sitting at your teak desk, Quill at your side, reviewing their final plan to retake Trottingham
  1172. >A beach landing at dawn, when the low morning sun would blind the eyes of observers and defenders alike
  1173. >Luna's group would be landed a day earlier on the Southern tip of the island and proceed to wait near the lowlands East of Trottingham
  1174. >Pegasi would be providing air cover and harry any scouts the enemy may send
  1175. >What's more is that a part of the fleet, mostly ironclads, would besiege the Trottingham port, drawing the enemy away while also blockading their ships and supplies
  1176. >The landed forces would push inland and occupy a ridge ten miles Southeast of the city, digging in and drawing up prepared fields of fire for the guns
  1177. >And finally, with all pieces in place, a small force of ponies would attack the griffons in a wide line, and once engaged would draw the enemy out, into the lowlands, where they would be under direct assault from every gun that could be brought to bear
  1178. >On top of that, Luna's force would break from the forest and begin to outflank the griffons, kettling them in and holding off any reinforcements that could be mustered
  1179. >There were further contingencies for all sorts of scenarios, some possible, some ludicrous, but it did seem to cover anything you cared to imagine
  1180. >Stalwart stands before your desk at rapt attention, Luna beside him
  1181. >They had both answered any questions you'd asked, pointing out what certain symbols represented
  1182. >And, with a wry grin, you hand the sheaf of papers back to Stalwart
  1183. “I can't find anything wrong with your plan, Stalwart. You and your staff have done an excellent job with the plan. When will you be ready to carry on with it?”
  1184. >The general relaxes and smiles viciously
  1185. >”Three days, sir. One to muster the troops, one to equip them, and then we sail, landing in the morning. Princess Luna's troops have been ready since their training was complete.”
  1186. >Luna nods and takes a step forward
  1187. >”Stalwart Shield is correct, Anonymous. My troops are ready to sail at the order. Their ammunition stores and weapons and never further than a quick trot away.”
  1188. >After a month of quietude, the first large battle of the war was ready to go
  1189. >Finally, after all the fear of the citizens, the sweat and blood of the troops holding the North, and the pain the residents of Trottingham had surely been through, action would be taken
  1190. >And it would be truly telling
  1191. “Alright, do it. I pray to see the Equestrian flag raised over the city by next week. Good luck, and do be careful. I don't want to see my friends hurt.”
  1192. >Stalwart salutes and turns sharply, Luna turning after him after giving you a warm grin
  1193. >Luna had been in fine spirits ever since getting a command of her own
  1194. >She seemed to thrive in a military environment, easily catching onto new strategies and coming up with her own in remarkable time
  1195. >When all is said and done, she will have earned the trust of the people a dozen times over, you're sure
  1196. >Quill nudges your leg, looking pointedly at her schedule, then to you
  1197. >She had hardly left your side since the war began
  1198. >Every night, she curled up beside you, and most of them you were woken by her shivering and crying under the cold moon
  1199. >Even when you silently comforted her, you never bring it up
  1200. >She would talk about it when she was ready, and not a moment sooner
  1201. >And all the while, you would keep soothing her, lulling her back to sleep, and stay silent all the while
  1202. >No matter what rumours ponies came up with after seeing her enter your chambers night after night, no matter that it may damage part of your image
  1203. >”Sir.”
  1204. >She interrupts your reverie with a word
  1205. >”Shining Armor is waiting for you to receive him in the council chambers. Shall we go?”
  1206. >You stand and stretch out your back, yawning
  1207. “Yes we had better. I need to get out of the office today anyhow. Anything else on the agenda after meeting with him?”
  1208. >She flips through several pages before looking back at you
  1209. >”No sir, the evening is clear.”
  1210. >You nod as you two walk down the hall towards the chamber
  1211. >Looking down at Quill, you give her a cheeky grin
  1212. “Well if the evening is free, how about you join me for dinner in town?”
  1213. >She gasps and immediately starts coughing loudly
  1214. >You can't help but chuckle at her antics, and she regains her composure quickly
  1215. >”I'm not sure that would be appropriate, sir. Not with the state of Equestria as it is now.”
  1216. >Well damn
  1217. >It's hard to argue, since she's objectively right
  1218. >You had just wanted to treat her to a night out, and maybe distract her from whatever had been eating away at her
  1219. “Fine, fine. Once we win though, I'm taking you out. No matter how much you object.”
  1220. >You see her cheeks flush before she turns her face away
  1221. >”I believe I'd like that, sir.”
  1222. >And finally, you're at the doors to the council chamber
  1223. >You push them open wide and smile jovially at the white coated pony sitting at the table
  1224. “General Shining Armor, how are you doing today?”
  1225. >He smiles back and puts his hoof in your hand when you offer it to him
  1226. >Shining begins speaking as you and Quill take your seats across from him
  1227. >”Well enough I suppose. There hasn't been any action in the North for a few days, and the last sortie of griffons didn't even inflict a single casualty. I don't believe they have it in them to even attempt and invasion.”
  1228. >Your grin only widens at the new
  1229. “That's wonderful news, general. And how is little Flurry Heart doing? It's been a while since you've returned to the Empire hasn't it?”
  1230. >Shining's grin shrinks and you see a touch of sadness on his face
  1231. >”Yes sir, it has. Cadence—...the princess says she misses me and keeps wandering about the castle calling out for 'dada'.”
  1232. >You offer a gentle pat on his foreleg and a reassuring look
  1233. “Don't worry too much, general. Even as we speak, preparations are being made to retake Trottingham.”
  1234. >Shining looks surprised as you mention that
  1235. >The plan had been on lockdown since its inception
  1236. >Even with all the griffons either holed up in the embassy or outright deported, the General Staff wasn't taking chances with information leaks
  1237. >They had been clever to design drills around sections of the plan, but disguise them as simply part of their new basic training scheme
  1238. >”That's great news sir! Once you take back Trottingham, we can force them into peace talks and end this war.”
  1239. >You grimace and look at Quill, who wears a similar expression
  1240. >Shining Armor simply looks confused
  1241. >”That's the goal isn't it, to get them to accept a peace treaty?”
  1242. >You sigh and furrow you brow
  1243. “It is, but Shining...we're not stopping at Trottingham. That's why we asked to meet you here today. The overall war strategy is to conduct a naval invasion in the South, while simultaneously conducting an operation in the North. The current ruler and government of the griffons have shown themselves to be warmongers, first with the Capras and now with us. We plan to take Griffonstone and force them to give up their holds and overthrow their current government. After that, we can mandate a proper, abiding peace.”
  1244. >Shining Armor looks totally shocked at your straight delivery of the plan
  1245. >Quill hands him several papers, one of them a treaty that would give him command of Equestrian units in the North for the duration of the campaign
  1246. >He takes a long while reading them, shuffling back and forth between the sheets several times
  1247. >At long last, he puts the papers down and looks back at you
  1248. >”You're serious about this. Anonymous, we ponies aren't warriors; we don't march into enemy lands and take them for our own. There's no way that everyone will accept this plan, it goes against our very nature.”
  1249. >You frown at his statement
  1250. >It seems he would be harder to convince than you'd thought
  1251. “General, I'm not entirely sure you understand our position. It has been eight centuries since the last war, and though ponies may have forgotten its ways, no doubt they now remember its horror. If we merely take back Trottingham and leave it at that, the griffon leadership will nurse feelings of resentment, strengthen their military to a point we can't contest it, and roll over us inside twenty years. I will not allow that to happen. With this plan, they will only be under our administration until a new Grand Council is elected, and then they will be their own country once more.”
  1252. >Shining Armor looks slightly less incredulous, but no more inclined to agree with you
  1253. >”This still isn't going to be widely acceptable. And what about the griffons, don't they get a say in this? Are you going to throw every single one of them out of the country?”
  1254. >You share a look with Quill, now starting to get annoyed with these wild accusations
  1255. “General, the current strategy is the one outlined in those pages. The only deportations have occurred in Canterlot, and only because of the delicacy of the military reform and of the new strategies. And they will get a say when the war that THEY started is over, not a moment sooner.”
  1256. >Shining Armor sighs and rises from his seat, trotting to the doorway
  1257. >”I will discuss your strategy with Princess Cadence. If some madness takes her and she agrees with it, we shall see if such an offensive is in our interests.”
  1258. >With that, he marches out, presumably to find the telegraph station
  1259. >The moment the door shuts, Quill jumps into your lap and curls up
  1260. >Without thinking about it, you find your hand stroking her mane, and she sighs deeply
  1261. >She had been getting more clingy as the days went by
  1262. >Not that you minded of course
  1263. >As you stroke her, she speaks in a quiet, calm voice
  1264. >”I'm sorry about all this, sir.”
  1265. >A confused look comes over your face as you continue to run your fingers through her silky mane
  1266. “What do you mean, Quill? You've done excellent work over the past month.”
  1267. >You feel her shift in your lap, and she rests her chin on your thigh
  1268. >”No sir, I mean this. Always clinging to you whether inappropriate or no. I'm not sure why you haven't reprimanded me yet, so feel I should apologize.”
  1269. >You lay your hand at the base of her neck, gently stroking her soft fur
  1270. >She makes a contented coo and rolls her head to the side, looking up at you curiously
  1271. “You haven't done anything wrong, Quill. If I'm honest, I've felt a fair bit less stressed than I ought to be as of late. And outside the occasional midnight wake up, I've enjoyed it.”
  1272. >Wait shit
  1273. >You hadn't meant to mention her late night episodes
  1274. >Immediately, your brain begins both cursing yourself and thinking up damage control for the statement
  1275. >But Quill just sighs sadly, resting her forehead on your leg
  1276. >”I knew that would come up eventually. I was hoping I wouldn't have to talk about it at all.”
  1277. >Her resignation stops your brain for a moment
  1278. >That was what you had figured she wanted, but you messed it all up
  1279. >Before you can reassure her that you don't mind her silence, she speaks up again
  1280. >”You know I moved here when I was a filly right? Well I was born in a little hamlet a ways outside Trottingham. It's not there anymore, but it used to be a nice, quiet little farm town.”
  1281. >You feel little droplets strike your leg where she rests her head, and she takes a shuddering sigh before continuing
  1282. >”At the time, the island was a joint jurisdiction between Equestria and the Griffon Empire. So when a group of griffons tried to settle on the Equestrian side of the island, there was a significant dispute.”
  1283. >She sniffles and you see her body shudder at the memory
  1284. >”One thing led to another, and a bunch of griffons in that settler group attacked our hamlet, the closest one to the border. Burned a bunch of barns and most of the crop before they got driven off; hurt a lot of ponies too. After that, my mother packed our bags and bundled me off to Canterlot. We stayed with some family for a while until we got our hooves back, and that's that.”
  1285. >She takes a deep breath, and when she speaks again her voice is steady and soft
  1286. >”I still get nightmares sometimes, about the burning barns, about finding...It's been worse since the war started, the constant reminders about Trottingham being taken on the radio, in briefings. I'll be glad when this war is over.”
  1287. >You scratch her behind her ears, and she makes a sound that almost sounds like purring
  1288. “We all will. Maybe you can bring this up with Shining Armor? It may have more mileage coming from another pony.”
  1289. >Her ears flatten against her head and she snorts
  1290. >”I don't want word getting out about this. Next thing you know, ponies are going to be staring at me with pitiful looks. 'There goes that mare who survived the griffon attack. Oh the poor dear.' I don't want something like that in my life.”
  1291. >You understand her sentiment, simply wanting to be left alone to her life
  1292. >It was something you idealized too, but life had strange ways to get around what you wanted
  1293. >The door of the chamber clicks, and Quill hops off your lap and sits back in her own seat without a fuss
  1294. >Shining walks back in and takes his seat across from you and Quill, looking incredibly displeased
  1295. >”I suppose it's good news for you, Anonymous. Princess Cadence, while not liking your plans, sees it as the only way to ensure lasting peace. However, she wanted me to deliver a warning, and it's one I would have given you anyway. If you in any way abuse the griffons or your administration of their land, the Crystal Empire will not hesitate to intervene, treaties be damned.”
  1296. >As angered as you are by his suspicious nature, you plaster a warm smile over your face
  1297. >You had to put on a show of friendliness, even at such bald-faced accusations
  1298. “I assure you, general, we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of the griffon people. And as soon as their occupation of Capra territories is ended and their leadership changed, we will return administration to the griffons. Simple and secure. All I want is to ensure the security of Equestria, even when I will no longer be holding this station.”
  1299. >Your words seem to mollify him, and he levitates an ink quill over the new treaty
  1300. >He signs the papers, as do you, then rises from his seat
  1301. >”I'll be holding you to your word, Anonymous. Let us pray for a swift end to this war, for both our countries.”
  1302. >You give him a smile and a curt bow before responding
  1303. “And for the safety of generations to come.”
  1304. >He snorts and walks out the door, his hoofbeats echoing in the stone halls
  1305. >Finally, you allow yourself to collapse into a chair and let out a deep sigh
  1306. >You had done it, you had managed to ensure that the Crystal Empire dedicated forces to helping the war effort
  1307. >Even though a small number of volunteers had been asking at the Equestrian embassy in the Empire to join the Equestrian army and aid the war effort, you aren't sure what public sentiments were
  1308. >A few rejected, foreign volunteers does not equate to approval
  1309. >Already you were thinking of how you were supposed to sell the offensive to the public
  1310. >You knew it was doable, the polling on the war was closing on a hundred percent support, and the cultural ministry was doing a fine job with their own campaign
  1311. >Hell, you had just manged to sell it to the princess of love
  1312. >As you sit idly in the seat, Quill once against hops onto your lap, this time laying her head against your chest
  1313. >You're happy to indulge her, satisfied that you did your job as best you could
  1314. >Now, it was up to the military to accomplish what they had sold you on
  1315. --
  1316. >You are Freidrich van den Tann, general of the Griffon Empire, marshal of the Grand Army of the East
  1317. >It was you who Emperor Willem Gunnar had charged with taking and holding the Island of Griffisch, that the ponies called Trottingham
  1318. >And you had done so in spectacular fashion
  1319. >Not a day after the war declaration was supposed to be announced, your forces had already crushed the meagre garrison and either seized or scuttled their ships in port
  1320. >After that, it was simple police work until the next movement order came
  1321. >But then, things slowed to a standstill
  1322. >For reasons still not known to you, you hadn't received further orders
  1323. >Word came down through gossip that General Wiborg had failed to take the Northern Narrows, despite commanding an army larger than your own
  1324. >The fool
  1325. >But then it had come down that the Equestrians were mobilizing an army, and the Crystal Empire had expanded their forces as well
  1326. >So you gave the order that you had never desired to give, for it meant defeat was a possibility
  1327. >You ordered your soldiers to dig in
  1328. >A mile outside the city, you'd had your thousands strong army establish a front of trenches, embanked guns, and pitfalls
  1329. >Your initial supplies had not included any proper fortifying equipment, so you had confiscated shovels, picks, and hoes from the farmers on the island
  1330. >There had been complaints, but no real opposition
  1331. >Even more worrying was that the supply runs had been sending fewer ships through as the Equestrian Navy began to close a noose around the harbour
  1332. >Just this morning, they had begun to bombard the few ships you had at anchor
  1333. >Fortunately you'd had the foresight to move most of what supplies were left off the boats
  1334. >But you'd still lost twenty griffons and perhaps five hundred tonnes of supplies, much of it food
  1335. >And now you were running out
  1336. >Discipline was starting to fall apart, and more cases of abuse of the pony residents had begun to crop up
  1337. >And despite your crackdown on movement of the troops, you knew that it would continue
  1338. >This was the nature of an army that had been on the warpath, and now was relegated to standing still
  1339. >Professional or conscripted, no soldier could stand up to boredom for long
  1340. >And so it was you found yourself on the battlements, staring out at the masts and funnels of enemy ships
  1341. >A tap on your shoulder reminds you of the company you're keeping this morning
  1342. >”Sir, shall we get to it?”
  1343. >Your adjudant, Major Granwall, stands behind you with a colonel from the disciplinary corps
  1344. >The same colonel that had refused to give him anything but his rank, simply producing the crest of the emperor to prove who he was
  1345. >A pain, but you know why it was as it was
  1346. “Yes, we may as well.”
  1347. >The major nods and turns to the inside of the fortifications
  1348. >”Brigade, atten-tion! Prepare for general inspection!”
  1349. >A thousand griffons snap to attention as one, lined up in ranks with muskets at the ready
  1350. >With a quiet sigh, you begin to walk down the first rank of troops, giving quick glances to their equipment and randomly picking an individual to inspect in more detail
  1351. >Overall, and to your surprise, the majority are in good order
  1352. >You had expected a poor turnout because of the lack of discipline, but this was a pleasant surprise
  1353. >You would have to be sure to compliment the CO of this brigade, Griffonstone Homeguard judging by the unit insignia
  1354. >They're living up to the name of the capital, it seems
  1355. >The inspection continues for another two hours, perusing line upon line of troops
  1356. >It's actions like this that truly give you a sense of scale for your force
  1357. >Five brigades of the eastern group, a total of seven thousand infantry, four hundred heavy guns with their crews, forty squadrons of airborne cuirassiers, and various support personnel
  1358. >The largest gathering of the military might of the Empire since the Capra Wars twenty years ago
  1359. >You'd been a cuirassier yourself back then, eager to get your bayonet into the enemy after the opening volley
  1360. >But this would be a different war
  1361. >The ponies, though seemingly weak, still challenged the might of the griffons
  1362. >But with their precious sun goddess gone, and her sister a barely sane degenerate, this was the time to strike to their heart
  1363. >So as you walked down the lines of your troops, the question still weighs upon you
  1364. >Why did the government delay sending orders to move?
  1365. >A sounding bugle snaps you out of your reverie
  1366. >You recognize the series of notes, a scout had caught sight of the enemy
  1367. >The soldiers on parade look around in confusion, unsure of whether to stay in line or man the battlements
  1368. >A ragged looking runner comes on the wing, shouting urgently for your attention
  1369. >Despite the sudden knot forming in your stomach, you calmly turn to face him
  1370. “Report, corporal.”
  1371. >The low ranked NCO thrusts out his chest, breathing heavily from the flight
  1372. >”Corporal Kriggsen reporting, first squadron, Blackhearth Shrikes sir. A large enemy force has been sighted heading straight for us. Numbers unknown, but their front is a mile wide sir!”
  1373. >You can't stop your eyes from widening at the report
  1374. >Certainly, you had heard the ponies had been mobilizing forces, but to muster a number to cover an entire mile of front?
  1375. >This was not something that you had planned for
  1376. >Having heard the report, Major Granwall is already shouting order to the troops, having them get to their positions and prepare for immediate combat
  1377. >The dust and chaos of thousands of griffons taking to wing to get to their posts to quickly is overwhelming
  1378. >But through it all, you stand still, a rock in a stormy sea of madness
  1379. >This was what it meant to be a general at war
  1380. >The corporal takes off to join his own squadron, and you walk back to an observation tower behind the battlements
  1381. >You needed your own assessment of the enemy before you made any immediate decisions
  1382. >You climb the tower and are joined at the top by the major, the colonel from the discipline corps having disappeared like a ghost
  1383. >A slight shiver runs through your spine, noticed only by Granwall
  1384. >”I know sir, those discipline members are certainly something.”
  1385. >Major Granwall had been with you for a decade now, and understood you better than even your wife did now
  1386. >He was an officer well on his way to one day becoming a general in his own right
  1387. >But for now, you were glad to have his help
  1388. “Indeed, now let's get a look at what these ponies have mustered.”
  1389. >You take up a spyglass from a table with several optics and signal flags and put it to your eye, scanning the horizon
  1390. >There, you couldn't see the ponies themselves, but there was an immense cloud of dust, with unit pennants flapping in the wind
  1391. >It was as the scout had said, a mile wide front
  1392. >The sight chilled you, for so many troops would be an incredibly difficult fight
  1393. >At the very least, they couldn't be too well trained, they'd only have had a month to train for this
  1394. >In the distance, you hear the muffled thud of artillery
  1395. >Scanning for the source, you see several odd looking ironclads with lumps on their decks
  1396. >As you continue to observe the ships, there are puffs of smoke issuing from those lumps at a steady rate
  1397. >Guns, you realize
  1398. >But what could they be firing at?
  1399. >The answer comes seconds later as a pillar of dust rises from positions a few hundred yards down the line from you
  1400. >Another shiver runs through your bones, and you find your wings twitching at your side
  1401. >How in the name of the gods were they able to throw shells so far?
  1402. >Even the largest guns on your ships could only fire perhaps a mile, and certainly not accurately
  1403. >That ship was at least five miles distant, and it was pounding your troops
  1404. >What devils were the ponies dealing with these days, you wonder
  1405. >No matter, your troops were better disciplined and as well equipped as the enemy, surely you would triumph
  1406. >The staccato noise of volley fire runs up and down the lines as at last the enemy is in range
  1407. >Return fire is meagre at best, a few shots coming in every so often
  1408. >Such was the nature of assaults such as this, troops on the march had to conserve as much ammunition as possible
  1409. >But you had the benefit of fortifications and an excess of ammunition and powder
  1410. >What's more, you think at the thuds of artillery sound off, you had the guns
  1411. >The kings of the battlefield
  1412. >The sounds of battle ebb and flow for the next fifteen minutes, a familiar rhythm
  1413. >Far down the line, further away from the shore, you hear a bugle sounding, but confusion swells over you
  1414. >Why was it sounding the pursuit of a retreating force?
  1415. >Sighting in the source, you see the pennants of the enemy falling back on that flank
  1416. >Clearly the attack had broken there, but that was no reason to leave the battlements
  1417. “Major, signal to the Imperial Legion to reign in that charge. We mustn't allow ourselves to be drawn into a foolish opening so quickly.”
  1418. >Even as Granwall takes up the flags and begins signaling, you can already see it's too late
  1419. >Half of that brigade was already out of their trenches and pursuing the enemy
  1420. >You sigh heavily, Colonel Aachen wouldn't be holding his position for long after this
  1421. >But even as you vow to send the offender home, you can see the other pennants begin to shift backwards
  1422. >It seems the threat of even an ill-advised charge was enough to force a general retreat
  1423. >Another bugle sounds, this time on the side of the trenches that had weathered bombardment
  1424. >It seemed yet another brigade was preparing to join in the pursuit of a fleeing enemy
  1425. >Even as you sympathize with their desire to escape the inexplicable barrage, you grind your teeth quietly
  1426. >Though it may not have been evident in the inspection, it was clear that discipline issues were in all ranks of your force
  1427. >Fortunately, the three central brigades at the core of the lines had seen the signals and remained in the defenses
  1428. >But it didn't change that nearly two and a half thousand troops were running away from their posts, and away from the cover of the cannons
  1429. “Granwall, signal four squadrons to fly cover for those idiots. I don't want them getting picked to pieces because they fled their cover.”
  1430. >He nods and turns to relay the message with his flags
  1431. >You continue to observe the retreat of the enemy, and subsequent advance of your own forces
  1432. >As mad as the charge was, it didn't seem anything was going wrong with it
  1433. >It was a rather disciplined march at double time, not a headlong dash of glory
  1434. >Perhaps this would result in a crushing victory and you'd be seen as an overly cautious old man
  1435. >Perhaps
  1436. >But deep down, you knew it was better to be cautious than reckless
  1437. >You knew too well the price of being rash
  1438. --
  1439. >You are Thunderous Hooves, captain of a small platoon of the Equestrian Army
  1440. >And right now you were longing for the stodgy boredom of Canterlot
  1441. >You had been charged with making your platoon seem like a far larger force
  1442. >To that end, they had been spread as wide as they could be while still being able to be commanded
  1443. >You'd been given three different unit pennants as well, to further confuse observers
  1444. >And finally, you were kicking up as much dust on the march as you could
  1445. >Overall, it made for quite the convincing illusion of strength, especially with half a regiment spread all across a massive front line
  1446. >No heavy guns of course
  1447. >The mission was simply to get within maximum shooting distance, engage for a little while, then retreat in a seemingly disordered fashion to lure out the griffons
  1448. >Casualties would be minimal, according to the generals that planned this
  1449. >It still didn't stop you from shivering when the dull thuds of heavy guns reached your ears
  1450. >Fortunately, the griffons seemed to be holding their fliers in reserve, instead of using them to spot where shots were landing
  1451. >That meant that, at the very least, their shells weren't landing with any kind of accuracy
  1452. >Finally, the crackle of shots from the defenders means you're in rifle range
  1453. >You lay on your belly, planting the banner in the ground and fire off a round in the general direction of the griffons
  1454. >Slowly, smoothly, you load another round just as you've been trained
  1455. >Rotate bolt open, draw back, place round inside, rotate bolt closed, aim, fire
  1456. >You continue the rhythm for what feels like ages, until you hear the sound of a bugle in the distance
  1457. >The enemy, you realize, signaling a charge
  1458. >But they wouldn't charge unless they felt they needed to give chase
  1459. >And that meant it was time
  1460. >Shouting to the ponies nearby, you call for a retreat, picking up your pennant and slinging your rifle
  1461. >You begin falling back, away from the enemy rifles and guns, through the smoke and dust of a barrage
  1462. >Not running flat out, but going fast enough to keep ahead
  1463. >Another bugle sounds behind you, on the opposite flank to the first
  1464. >A second charge, from a different unit
  1465. >Perfect
  1466. >No more horns blare, and outside the quieting shellfire and panting of your own breath, things begin to hush
  1467. >You didn't have far to go, just a couple miles until you're safe
  1468. >Internally, you damn the policy that makes young nobles automatically officers in times of war
  1469. >Worse was that you had simply drawn the short straw to be deployed
  1470. >No time for griping though, you had to stay ahead of the enemy
  1471. >The march feels as though it goes on forever, the shrieks of the griffons dogging your heels the whole way
  1472. >But at long last, you come over the last hill and jump into the waiting trenches
  1473. >You barely have time to catch your breath, finally beside your fellow soldiers once more, before you hear the griffons drawing close
  1474. >A voice echoes down the line as you stand over the lip of the trench, rifle ready
  1475. >”Hold fire!”
  1476. >A bead of sweat trickles down your face, stinging your eye
  1477. >You could see the griffons charging down the hill across from you now
  1478. >It was just like the generals had planned
  1479. >A cacophony of noise assaults your ears as the big guns open up, just as the griffons hit the middle of the lowland
  1480. >Through the ringing  in your ears, you can hear the order
  1481. >”Fire!”
  1482. >You don't hesitate, and along the line the deafening volley blasts forth and tears into the ranks of the charging griffons
  1483. >Their entire first rank collapses, even as their fellows push on
  1484. >As fast as you can ram cartridges into the chamber, you're firing
  1485. >You don't even take careful aim, simply sending lead into the seemingly endless horde of griffons
  1486. >Distantly, you register the dirt and bodies sent skyward by detonating shells as your artillery zeroes in
  1487. >But in almost an instant, the big guns cease firing, and through the settling smoke you see there are still innumerable enemies standing in the field
  1488. >You hold your fire, as does most of the line, letting your weapon cool
  1489. >They seem to be milling about aimlessly, and in the distant sky you see small, flapping shapes approaching rapidly
  1490. >It was only a matter of time till they charged again, and the fliers were on you
  1491. >But for whatever reason, you cannot bring yourself to load and fire again
  1492. >You dive for cover as a number of bullets strike the dirt and ponies around you
  1493. >Their screams echo in your ears as you huddle in the bottom of the trench
  1494. >You just want to go home
  1495. --
  1496. >In the distance, you hear the cacophony of battle
  1497. >Your blood rises, and your wings instinctively spread at the noise, both from excitement and fear
  1498. >As the guns thud in the distance, your heart beats in time
  1499. >You want nothing more than to get in there and make sure the battle is won
  1500. >But Princess Luna has ordered you to hold position, and you dare not question her, no matter how anxious you are
  1501. >You are Spitfire, leader of the Wonderbolts, and you are impatient
  1502. >More than that, your nerves are alight even more than your first day at the academy
  1503. >Half of the reserves had been called up to bolster the ranks of the newly organized Equestrian Army Air Division
  1504. >At least you had avoided the burden of any rank higher than commander
  1505. >It meant that you could still see action
  1506. >Being handpicked for a mission by the princess of the night helped with that too, of course
  1507. >You and the Wonderbolts First Squadron had been selected as the air arm of Luna's Black Bats, and had received extensive training with the use of both lances and specialized carbines
  1508. >Your orders were to break the spine of any enemy air assault with a violence that left them unable to continue to dream of fighting
  1509. >You had grinned when Luna outlined your mission like that
  1510. >Since fillyhood,  you'd been far more aggressive than most ponies, and your first CO had even remarked that you must be part dragon
  1511. >It was hard to argue when you'd topped the combat drills and set records that stood for years
  1512. >And now, finally, your years of training would be put to good use
  1513. >Your second in command, Soarin, comes up beside you and chuckles quietly
  1514. >”This is getting you all hot and bothered, eh boss?”
  1515. >You can't stifle the sudden burst of laughter, and you punch him in the shoulder
  1516. “And what about you, is that a cannon in your pants or are you just happy to see me?”
  1517. >He's quick with a response, like always
  1518. >”You know me, I'm a sucker for a woman in uniform.”
  1519. >You both share a laugh before quieting down and staying awkwardly silent
  1520. >Pre-fight jitters were getting to you, and him as well
  1521. >It didn't take a unicorn to see the slight tremble in Soarin's frame, or Fleetfoot further down the line, fiddling with her mane
  1522. >Even Blaze, usually more reckless than even you were, is clicking her teeth together nervously
  1523. >Only Luna, standing a few feet in front of you, seemed to be calm
  1524. >She stands firm, resplendent and intimidating in her deep blue armour, her usually flowing mane restricted by a tight ponytail
  1525. >Others lay in wait beside her, unicorns and earth ponies who had passed the rigours of her vicious training
  1526. >Even you with your years of experience with such methods was taxed by how far she took it
  1527. >But here you were now, waiting to fight
  1528. >You shift your legs to lower yourself into a more stable stance, only recently having become used to the small metal plates that had been added to your uniform for protection
  1529. >A light helmet with a metal guard for your muzzle had been issued as well, protection against fragments that were sure to come
  1530. >You see her raise her right hoof, straight into the air as though beckoning the stars themselves to aid her
  1531. >You know the signal and put the metal guard over your mouth, your pulse echoing loudly in your ears
  1532. >Luna holds her hoof up for several heartbeats that drag into an eternity
  1533. >But then, finally, it falls
  1534. >In an instant, you and the other Wonderbolts burst through the treetops, winging towards the enemy as hard as you can
  1535. >Immediately, you zero in on exactly what you were to attack
  1536. >Four squadron sized elements of griffon cuirassiers were moving to support their badly mauled and retreating ground forces
  1537. >The wind rushing against you rattles the long lance held at your side with a brace
  1538. >Four to one odds?
  1539. >Easy
  1540. >Adrenaline surges through you as you charge forth, the near mile distance vanishing rapidly
  1541. >You push yourself to go fast, your wings straining to keep up such a speed
  1542. >As you push even further, it feels as though the air is turning into syrup, sticking against you and slowing you
  1543. >You strain to push yourself faster, but you recognize just how close you are to the enemy
  1544. >Pure reaction drives your movements, your wings snap tight against your body, your head lowers, and you clench your teeth for the terminal strike
  1545. >With a force that rattles your skull and seems to shake the earth, your lance slams home into the griffon you had been charging
  1546. >As designed, the weapons midsection shatters, leaving you free to carry on as the head falls to the dirt inside a very dead griffon
  1547. >A rapid succession of crashes and screams of pain echo around you as the other Wonderbolts all strike their targets
  1548. >But you've pushed beyond, wings wide open and dragging you higher
  1549. >Your wings still and, at the peak of your glide, hold you steady
  1550. >From your left side, you take the carbine from its cradle and sight in on a griffon who was floating in the air, stunned by the sudden attack
  1551. >The weapon in your hooves recoils and the overwhelmed avian plummets to join his fellows on the ground
  1552. >What griffons remain in the air after the alpha strike mill about in disarray that mirrors the chaos of their fellows in the infantry
  1553. >But you and your squadron continue to fire
  1554. >Before long, the broken enemy wings away as fast as they can
  1555. >You take a moment and draw a long, shuddering breath
  1556. >Below you, Luna's forces have engaged the flank of the enemy, ensuring there was no retreat for them
  1557. >You and your fellow Wonderbolts climb to higher altitudes to observe the movement of any reserves the griffons had
  1558. >But there were no more coming
  1559. >And suddenly, there is naught but silence over the fields
  1560. >Looking down, you see numerous griffons waving whatever white cloth they could find
  1561. >You're pretty sure one is even swinging his underwear wildly in the breeze
  1562. >A foalish giggle winds its way out of your throat, and a moment later you're laughing like a lunatic
  1563. >Soarin comes over to see what the fuss is about, and you simply point out the one griffon
  1564. >He too joins you in a giggle fit, and it's not long before all of you are laughing like fools
  1565. >The battle had been won, and so easily!
  1566. >All that worrying, comforting ponies who were terrified to actually fight, staring sleeplessly into the night on watch praying that no ambush comes
  1567. >Eventually, the laughter subsides and you see Luna gesturing for you to come down
  1568. >As you lazily descend in a wide circle, you take in the remains of the griffon forces being rounded up
  1569. >You note, with a bit of squeamishness, the number of stretcher bearers coming onto the field
  1570. >Before long, you're standing before Luna, breathing heavily even as she smiles down at you
  1571. >”Excellent work, Commander Spitfire. You and your Wonderbolts did a fine job of shattering their aerial forces. We are most impressed. Take your squadron and get a meal and some rest, but do not let your guard down. We still have a city to capture.”
  1572. >You salute her smartly
  1573. “Yes ma'am!”
  1574. >Your voice echoes terribly inside the mouth guard you still haven't removed, and Luna stifles a giggle with a hoof
  1575. >Embarrassed, you remove the offending equipment, salute again, and trot away to join the rest of your fellows
  1576. >They've landed on the crest of a nearby hill, chatting amicably with each other
  1577. >You see a great deal of gore coating their right sides, and you imagine you look much the same
  1578. >It was the drawback to weapons like lances, but after today it was hard to debate their effectiveness
  1579. >The follow-up of climbing and shooting too was highly effective, and less dirty
  1580. >The Wonderbolts greet you with cheers as you climb up to them, and you take it with good grace
  1581. “Yes, yes, I know how amazing I am already. Give it a rest.”
  1582. >They chuckle at you, and you continue
  1583. “Alright, we've been ordered to grab some grub and take a breather. I guess we're leaving clean-up to the infantry. But don't drop your guard, we've still got a town to liberate and I bet hay to horseapples we're not stopping till we take Trottingham.”
  1584. >Your audience nods solemnly, still smiling from the high of battle
  1585. “Alright, get outta here. Rest up and be ready to go.”
  1586. >They salute and respond as one
  1587. >”Yes ma'am!”
  1588. >With that, they trot past you, heading towards the trenches behind you
  1589. >You take a moment, staring at the city in the distance, and the banks and towers in front of it
  1590. >Yes, you had won a serious victory today, perhaps THE victory that would push the griffons out of your homeland
  1591. >But as you stare back at the carnage, seeing not just griffons on stretchers but ponies as well, you wonder just what that ultimate victory would cost
  1592. --
  1593. >The clock ticking is, mercifully, the only noise in the room right now
  1594. >You are Anonymous, and you've been listening to the various ministers yell at you all morning
  1595. >It was only when you convened today that you had told them of the ongoing military operation in Trottingham
  1596. >Certainly not that you thought they would give information to the enemy
  1597. >No, it was simply that you didn't trust them not to speak of it within earshot of less trustworthy ponies
  1598. >So until now, it was only you, Quill, and the military involved that knew of the battle of Trottingham
  1599. >Of course, your fellows took it to heart
  1600. >”You dared to approve a war plan without taking it to cabinet first? Do you plan on conducting a coup next?”
  1601. >Flashy Image, ever the diva even in the face of something so minor
  1602. >”Fool, we could have organized supplies for this campaign far easier if you'd told us. Perhaps we could have even made way for more arms to be produced, but now who knows how they fare?”
  1603. >Heavy Hammer, pragmatic but quite the worrywart and a micromanager to the core
  1604. >”Half of the new equipment was forced into early production. Who knows what kind of flaws could still be in their systems.”
  1605. >Sharp Mind, excellent at directing research where it needed to go, but totally neurotic and sure of failure
  1606. >And on and on with the rest, complaint after complaint, each one building on the case of the last
  1607. >But you sat there stoically, not letting your annoyance show through
  1608. >You placed your absolute trust in Stalwart Shield and Luna, they were experts of their craft and surely they would prevail
  1609. >Right?
  1610. >As the clock continues ticking, you notice Quill becoming antsy
  1611. >Usually as cool and collected as you in these situations, the mare has begun to subtly paw at the table, and her brow has a crease of worry
  1612. >It seems others in the room have noticed, their own nervous tics coming to the fore
  1613. >Even you begin clicking your molars together, an old and terrible habit you thought long gone
  1614. >Another ten minutes passed in silence, then Heavy Hammer jumps to his hooves
  1615. >”So that's it then! We've committed our force to a doomed attack, and now we only have a few reserve troops left to defend ourselves. Brilliant work, human, by going around us you have ensured our defeat!”
  1616. >You see a vein pulsing in his forehead, and his hooves tremble on the table
  1617. >Taking a deep breath, you look him in the eyes, your face tight with stress
  1618. “You misunderstand, Mr. Hooves. As much secrecy as possible was absolutely required for this operation. The more ponies that know, the more ponies that can accidentally mention the wrong thing to the wrong being. Keeping you all in the dark was necessary till this point. Even now, I dare not discuss battle plans I was shown, in case the campaign drags on.”
  1619. >He grits his teeth, but Flashy Image speaks before he can
  1620. >”And you our forces suffer defeat, what then? You simply shrug your shoulders and carry on as though it never happened? No, Anonymous, you can rest assured that this little farce will be laid squarely at your feet.”
  1621. >To that, you have no response, simply breathing deep to calm yourself
  1622. >Eventually, Heavy Hooves sits back down, laying his head on the table
  1623. >The mood in the room has gone from tense to dismal in just a few moments
  1624. >But, despite your nerves, you still have faith that the military will prevail
  1625. >They have to
  1626. >Moments later, the door to the minister chamber bursts open, and a tired looking pegasus wearing a Messenger Corps uniform bolts and and snaps to attention
  1627. >He faces you and salutes sharply, then barks out his message in a precise manner
  1628. >”Sir, we've received a telegram addressed to you, high priority. Permission to proceed?”
  1629. >You simply nod at the exhausted pony
  1630. >He takes a deep breath before practically shouting
  1631. >”Tyger, Tyger. Repeat, Tyger, Tyger.”
  1632. >You stand from your seat at the head of the table, smiling ferociously at the assembled ministers
  1633. “Ladies, gentlecolts, I am pleased to inform you that Operation Red Harbour has been successful. As of this moment, Trottingham is back under the control of Equestria and the enemy has been completely routed. Another operation is planned as soon as our valiant soldiers rearm and rest. I assure you, a follow up report will be on your desks soon. This meeting is adjourned.”
  1634. >The room explodes into noise, all the ministers trying to shout over you
  1635. >But you simply turn and leave, Quill following behind you
  1636. >It's all you can do to not break into a run as you walk through the palace
  1637. >In a matter of seconds, you had gone from doubtful and nervous to ecstatic and already planning how to spin this
  1638. >You'd need to make an appearance in Trottingham to be sure
  1639. >For the ponies, seeing their leader in their recently liberated city, confident and charismatic, would serve to make the next stage of the war more palatable
  1640. >Your grin widens as you remember the delivery from Rarity that had arrived only a few days past
  1641. >That was definitely going to strike a chord with the ponies
  1642. >After a while, you arrive at the war room in the East wing, walking in on an atmosphere of celebration
  1643. >When you enter, despite the cheer, the ponies there immediately snap to attention and salute you
  1644. >Your smile grows once more as you return their salutes and then gesture for them to relax
  1645. “Fine work, soldiers! Capturing the city within two days of beginning the operation is nothing short of miraculous. I'll order the cooks to prepare a feast for you, it's the least I can do to reward your efforts.”
  1646. >The staffs cheers redouble at the announcement, and you exit the room while they roar in celebration
  1647. >You breathe a long sigh as you head back to your room
  1648. >Your heart beats like a war drum, making you eager to rush straight to the front and join in the fight
  1649. >You can imagine the feeling will be much the same for the ponies when the liberation of Trottingham is announced
  1650. >On your way to your quarters, you speak up to Quill
  1651. “How soon do you think we can be in Trottingham?”
  1652. >You hear her hum as she considers the answer
  1653. >”Well sir, by sea it will take a full day. An early train to a port, then taking a vessel across and we'll arrive late in the evening. It would be about half that time were we to take a pegasi chariot, but with the war, I wouldn't risk that even over areas we control.”
  1654. >Nodding your head, you consider the options
  1655. >Certainly air would be quicker, but as she said, the war made such transport riskier than you'd like
  1656. >But a full day of travel wasn't conducive to the quick arrival in the city you wanted to have
  1657. >Suddenly, you snap your fingers
  1658. “What if we took a civilian train today? When does the next one leave for Manehattan?”
  1659. >You hear her rustle some papers, surprisingly not questioning your thoughts
  1660. >”Forty minutes sir. We'd have ten minutes to prepare and be on our way to the station.”
  1661. >You slow down and look at her
  1662. “Alright Quill, in ten minutes we'll meet up at the main gates. Let's go!”
  1663. >You take off sprinting down the halls, leaving a hesitant Quill in the dust
  1664. >Even leaving so suddenly, you know that she would be ready before even you were, somehow
  1665. >Despite being an earth pony, that mare was damn near magical when it came to keeping time
  1666. >It takes two long minutes for your headlong sprint to bring you to your room, and leaves a trail of confused servants in your wake
  1667. >But you don't care, you think as you stuff well folded clothes into a suitcase
  1668. >You were giddy as a child, and no number of weird looks could stop that
  1669. >Another five minutes, and you're sprinting from your room, a change of your regular suits and the special outfit from Rarity packed away safely
  1670. >You skid to a halt before a serving cart, remembering your earlier promise
  1671. >Letting out a quick breath, you speak quickly
  1672. “Pass this message along to the chefs, they're to prepare a celebratory banquet. Ensure the ministers and general staff are all invited to attend. Understand?”
  1673. >The two stunned unicorns nod in unison, and you take off once more, determined to finally be earlier than Quill
  1674. >You finally arrive in front of the gates, heaving for breath
  1675. >It was about time you got in shape
  1676. >After the war, you promise, you'll have Quill schedule an hour for exercise every day
  1677. >No matter how early or late it was!
  1678. >But only after the war
  1679. >Grinning to yourself, you look around and don't see Quill anywhere nearby
  1680. >You finally did it, you had beaten the mistress of schedules to a timing
  1681. >Oh how sweet victory would be when you--
  1682. >”Ah, you've arrived sir, and a full minute early! Let's be on our way then.”
  1683. >For once, you're glad you don't have the appearance of a pony
  1684. >At least like this, you didn't have ears that would be pressed against your head in despair
  1685. >”Sir?”
  1686. >You pat her head and begin walking down the road
  1687. “Let's be going, Quill. No time to waste.”
  1688. >She smiles up at you and trots along beside you
  1689. >It's not a quick pace, but you manage to arrive at the train station with plenty of time to spare
  1690. >Quill goes to the counter and orders a pair of tickets to Manehattan, and you take a seat on one of the benches
  1691. >Almost immediately, you're aware of the stares from the other ponies waiting for the train
  1692. >For a moment, you're confused, but you quickly remember that you're not exactly inconspicuous in a land of pastel ponies
  1693. >No matter what they called you
  1694. >But that was no problem, you simply grin amicably and wave to those who are staring
  1695. >Celestia probably had to deal with the same things when she was in charge, though it was likely easier for her given that she at least looked like a pony
  1696. >As Quill comes and sits beside you, a few of the bystanders timidly approach
  1697. >They ask questions about the war, about what's going on with the military, if you know when their son will be home he had already missed a few dinners
  1698. >You deftly deflect the questions, speaking of military security, and reassuring them that as soon as resolution came, it would be back to business as usual
  1699. >They seem satisfied with the answers and go about what they were doing before, leaving you and Quill waiting quietly
  1700. >It's not long at all before the train pulls into the station
  1701. >You and Quill get on as soon as the arriving crowd thins, and a conductor shows you to your seats in an economy car
  1702. >The two of you sit on a firmly cushioned bench, and you try to get comfortable in the furniture made for beings half your size
  1703. >Quill gives you an apologetic gaze
  1704. >”There weren't any other tickets left, sir.”
  1705. >You wave her remorseful words away and give her a warm smile
  1706. “It was my idea to leave so suddenly. But this way we ought to arrive in the city around noon tomorrow, right?”
  1707. >She nods her head and begins scratching a quill on a sheet a paper
  1708. >You leave Quill to her notes and namesake, shutting your eyes as the train slowly chugs away from the station
  1709. >As you try to rest, your worries prickle you in spite of the incredible news of the day
  1710. >Certainly, the liberation of Trottingham was a great victory, perhaps decisive in nature
  1711. >But how many more would there have to be before the war finally ended?
  1712. --
  1713. >It's early in the morning, and you and a very sleepy Quill have boarded a military ship in Manehattan bound for Trottingham
  1714. >It was part of a resupply convoy, and they were more than happy to have you aboard
  1715. >The captain even gave up his quarters to you two
  1716. >What a kind stallion!
  1717. >After the rather painful half day on the train, you certainly weren't going to complain about a bit of extra cushion
  1718. >Still, you had managed to get a bit of sleep on the ride
  1719. >Not like Quill, who stayed up for the entire trip, then what was left of the night you arrived
  1720. >She told you it was all to make the schedule as efficient as possible
  1721. >You're pretty sure you saw her drawing, though
  1722. >Of course, you weren't going to admit to her you had peeked over her shoulder once or twice
  1723. >That would be stupid, never mind that it would go against the very nature of a politician to admit to any perceived wrongdoing
  1724. >From what you saw, she was pretty good at it though
  1725. >Not to mention a very lewd little pony
  1726. >But you certainly hadn't watched for any longer than five minutes
  1727. >Probably
  1728. >Whatever the reason she hadn't rested, it made for a very tired, grumpy mare
  1729. >As soon as the boat sounds its horn and sets sail with the other ships, she takes to the bed and lays down with a huff
  1730. >”Damn that train and its uncomfortable seating, I couldn't get a wink!”
  1731. >You sit on the bed beside her, dropping your suitcase at the foot
  1732. “You could have slept when we got into town. We had a good three hours until the ship was set to sail.”
  1733. >She shakes her head and rolls onto her back
  1734. >”I know my luck, sir. I'd have overslept and you wouldn't have been able to wake me up and been forced to board the ship alone.”
  1735. >You cock an eyebrow at her
  1736. “That's a very specific this to be afraid of.”
  1737. >She gives you a strangely whimsical smile
  1738. >”I have very specific dreams.”
  1739. >You scratch the tuft of fur that puffs out from her chest
  1740. >She lets out a contented coo as you do, her breath slowing
  1741. “Very peculiar ones too.”
  1742. >She lets out a little giggle, truly relaxing for the first time since the war began
  1743. >”I'm a very peculiar pony, Anon.”
  1744. >You grin, enjoying the easy banter
  1745. “I'll say. Who else could I find that enjoys making schedules so much?”
  1746. >She snickers again, giving you a cheeky smile
  1747. >”Who else could you find that would actually manage to keep you on schedule?”
  1748. >You scratch your chin, as if pondering a deep question
  1749. “I suppose I could get one of the guards to, I hear they're quite good at keeping timings.”
  1750. >Quill pushes a hoof against your side, her face twisting mock disgust
  1751. >”I suppose you could if you wanted him to follow you everywhere, even the toilet.”
  1752. >Now it's your turn to give her a smug grin
  1753. “Come now, a mare can be a guard as well.”
  1754. >She scrunches her muzzle in annoyance at your comment
  1755. >It takes her a moment, and you realize that you finally had gained the upper hand
  1756. >”I suppose so, but imagine what kind of battle axe she'd be. I mean, what kind of mare goes into a line of work like that willingly?”
  1757. >Both of you share a laugh, and the conversation lapses into a cheery silence
  1758. >You lean back against the hull as the boat gently rocks, massaging Quill's chest as she hums contentedly
  1759. >After a while laying in silence, Quill speaks up in a quiet, timid tone
  1760. >”You wouldn't actually replace me, right?”
  1761. >You almost riposte her with a snide remark
  1762. >But something in her tone, some deep kind of insecurity perhaps, stops you from making a mockery of it
  1763. “Of course not, Quill. I'm a firm believer in not fixing what isn't broken.”
  1764. >She huffs quietly and nods her head in affirmation
  1765. >”Good, I don't want to go around trying to get a new job.”
  1766. >Her tone suggests she's simply brushing it off as an extension to your earlier teasing
  1767. >But her face suggests she's genuinely relieved
  1768. >You pull her onto your lap and start stroking her mane gently
  1769. >She lets out a little 'eep' as you do, but soon settles into the new position
  1770. >After a while relaxing in your lap, Quill opens her mouth and lets out a ferocious yawn
  1771. >You chuckle and muss her mane
  1772. “Ought to catch up on your sleep. We'll be in Trottingham before you know it, and I need somepony to keep me on time.”
  1773. >She smiles and nods at you slowly
  1774. >”Yeah, I suppose I could do with a nap. Promise you won't leave me on the ship?”
  1775. >You boop her muzzle, much to her annoyance, and smile warmly
  1776. “Of course not, don't be silly. Now get some sleep.”
  1777. >She snorts and lays her head down on your lap, yawning again
  1778. >It's not long before she's fast asleep, her ears flicking as the boat continues to rock like a cradle
  1779. >You let out a yawn as well
  1780. >The short, uncomfortable nap on the train hadn't been enough, and the excitement of yesterday was finally catching up with you
  1781. >Shifting Quill to the side, you lay down in the bed and curl yourself around her so you both fit
  1782. >She nuzzles against your chest, letting out a long sigh
  1783. >As you begin to nod off, Quill's mane burying your face, you know you'll be in Trottingham before you know it
  1784. >But for now, you would enjoy your time with your sweet secretary
  1785. --
  1786. >The blaring of ship horns brings you out of your comfortable nap
  1787. >You blink away the sleep encrusting your eyes and sit up in the miniature bed, stretching your limbs and yawning
  1788. >Quill stirs beside you, standing and stretching out like a cat
  1789. >You scratch behind her ears, and she pushes her head against your attentive fingers
  1790. “Did you sleep well, Quill?”
  1791. >She nods her head silently, hopping off the bed and walking over to the dresser of the cabin
  1792. >You stand from the bed as she begins brushing her mane
  1793. >You're rather impressed that she's able to do it so well without any magic to assist her
  1794. >Even managing to style it into a neat ponytail, all without the kind of dexterity you'd expect that to need
  1795. >You wait your turn, taking out your straight razor in the mean time
  1796. >It doesn't take long for Quill to finish up, nor for you to clear the stubble from your cheeks
  1797. >You shoo her from the cabin and open up your suitcase
  1798. >You know you'll be pulling into the harbour soon, you can hear the faint echoing of other ships responding to the blares of your own ship horn
  1799. >When you arrive, you ought to arrive looking the part of a leader though
  1800. >Certainly, your suits had been enough for working in the foreign ministry, even as the minister you hadn't been expected to meet with anyone above your office
  1801. >But now you were the ruler, and you needed to look the part
  1802. >As you take out Rarity's creation and look it over again, you can't help but whistle
  1803. >It more than looked the part
  1804. >The suit, no the uniform, was made of stark white cloth, softer than silk to the touch, but surprisingly elastic
  1805. >On the shoulder were two gold coloured epaulettes with great curtains of bullion fringe hanging from them
  1806. >The cuffs and seams too were gold in colour, as was a long, braided sash of rope that ran from shoulder to waist
  1807. >On the right breast of the uniform, a large sun in the style of Celestia's cutie mark was embroidered, invoking the lineage you represented
  1808. >A peaked cap with a badge of the Equestrian crest and laurels around the brim and a pair of white gloves were worn alongside the ensemble
  1809. >And finally, a pair of jet black jackboots were worn over the pants, coming to mid thigh, the toes polished to a mirror finish
  1810. >It was a striking uniform, not truly gaudy, but certainly created with letting ponies know who you were at even a sidelong glance
  1811. >For the first time, you don the uniform
  1812. >You're surprised by how comfortable it is, and incredibly light
  1813. >It fits like a glove, not astonishing given that Rarity had insisted on getting your measurements the last time you were in town
  1814. >You hold the cap at your waist and look at yourself in the mirror
  1815. >It's even better than you'd hoped
  1816. >The figure you cut was striking, especially with your natural height
  1817. >This uniform was more than fitting for your role, and even better to present yourself to the ponies of the newly liberated Trottingham
  1818. >Without delaying any further, you walk outside onto the busy deck, suitcase in hand
  1819. >Quill, upon seeing you, freezes in her tracks, seemingly stunned by the new outfit
  1820. >The captain of the vessel, who had been conversing with her, snaps sharply to attention and salutes you hastily
  1821. >You return the salute and give the two a grin
  1822. “It's a good look, eh?”
  1823. >After looking you up and down slowly, Quill returns your smile
  1824. >”I couldn't agree more sir. It's about time you had some clothes befitting your new station.”
  1825. >The two of you walk towards the bow of the ship, returning the hasty salutes of ratings as you pass them by
  1826. >Finally you arrive, and just in time to catch a spectacular view of the Trottingham port as the ship begins to pull in
  1827. >The harbour is a truly massive affair, befitting the role of the city as a trade port between Equestra, the Crystal Empire, and the griffons
  1828. >Around the mouth of the port, and prowling its waters, various armed ships-of-the-line and ironclads belch smoke from their boilers into the fresh sea air
  1829. >You note the turrets on one ironclad tracking your ship as it sails into the harbour proper
  1830. >It bellows its horn, as if warning you against doing anything foolish in the city
  1831. >As the ship passes through the mouth into the bay of the harbour, the view becomes even further crowded
  1832. >The tall masts of sailing ships clutter the sky, and the cries of hundreds of gulls pollute the air
  1833. >Looking towards the shore, you can see a number of captured griffon ships, their distinctive construction sticking out among the more conventional Equestrian vessels
  1834. >Beneath the waves, dark silhouettes of sunken and scuttled vessels litter the entire area
  1835. >It truly illustrated just how dominant Equestria was on the seas, and despite the victory here, that may be the only guaranteed place of power
  1836. >In the distance, thick clouds of smoke billow outside the city, and the breeze carries the scent of burnt fat
  1837. >That would certainly be one of the first things you'd ask about once ashore
  1838. >The shouts of sailors and wharf hands echo over the noise of the gulls, calling for mooring line to be set
  1839. >As the deckhands hurry about securing the vessel, a ramp is lowered to the dock below
  1840. >The captain comes and guides you and Quill out of the way and to the dock
  1841. “Thank you for having us aboard, captain. I wish you all the best in your voyages.”
  1842. >The elder pony smiles and salutes you
  1843. >”Thank you sir, a pleasure having you along for the trip.”
  1844. >With that, he turns back and begins directing the crew, and you turn to greet the two stunned soldiers at the end of the pier
  1845. >You approach them with a calm smile and wave away the hasty salutes they throw up
  1846. “Relax, troops. Could you point us in the direction of your headquarters? We'd like to congratulate the commanders personally.”
  1847. >They look at each other, nervous, and one of the two speaks up hesitantly
  1848. >”I can escort you there sir, if you'd like. This city is a bit of a maze.”
  1849. >You clap your hands together
  1850. “Splendid! Let's be on our way then.”
  1851. >With another salute, the private that had offered to escort you turn about and starts walking into town
  1852. >You and Quill follow him, and the slow pace he sets gives you some time to admire the scenery
  1853. >The buildings are quite reminiscent of old port towns back on Earth, all thick timbers and stone
  1854. >Around the wharf, they buildings crowd together, but they thin out as you move further in town
  1855. >The ponies you pass by gape at you, some of the younger fillies and colts smiling and cheering as you pass by
  1856. >It still surprises you sometimes how easily recognized you are
  1857. >That was why you went on tour, you suppose
  1858. >For a city that had gone through two sieges in the span of a month, Trottingham is remarkably intact
  1859. >Only one or two buildings you've seen have serious damage, and only a few more have smaller scars of battle
  1860. >The fighting must have not taken place inside the city proper, or if it had, it had all been repaired quickly
  1861. >Here and there, you see work crews of griffons in tattered uniforms, cleaning the streets, repairing some damage, or even tilling gardens
  1862. >All under heavy guard, of course
  1863. >The soldiers are stoic and professional, snapping quick salutes when you pass them, but never taking an eye off their wards
  1864. >Eventually, you come to the center of town and lay eyes on the city hall
  1865. >Here, you finally see where the fighting happened
  1866. >The plaza is heavily damaged, craters all over the stonework, the fountain shattered
  1867. >The building is half burned down and lined with sandbags and wooden obstacles
  1868. >It seems this was the last stand of what few soldiers the town had garrisoned in it when the griffons arrived
  1869. >Judging by just how much damage there was, they must have held out for quite some time before finally giving up
  1870. >You'll be sure to commemorate their valiant efforts
  1871. >The guards outside the building usher you inside, and more damage is revealed
  1872. >Bullet strikes all over the walls and floor, burn damage everywhere, and most doors clearly blown off their hinges
  1873. >It will be quite the effort to fix it, but you're sure the ponies of Trottingham are up to the task
  1874. >The guards guide you to an intact set of heavy oak doors, struck but unbroken by stray rounds
  1875. >You raise a fist and knock heavily on the portal, and the noise echoes in the long halls
  1876. >The hinges creak, and the doors open to reveal an exhausted looking Luna
  1877. >When she lays her eyes on you, her face brightens and a great smile grows on her face
  1878. >She pushes the doors full open, revealing a great table with a number of officers around it with a sweeping motion of her foreleg
  1879. >”Welcome to Trottingham, Anonymous.”
  1880. --
  1881. >You return her smile and clap a hand on her withers
  1882. “Thanks Luna. And congratulations on taking the city so quickly. The ministers were near in conniptions when I left.”
  1883. >Her smile grows more malicious as you mention the ministers
  1884. >”They couldn't handle being left in the dark, hm?”
  1885. >You nod and step inside the room
  1886. >The meeting table is covered with a large map of the city that's been littered with all sorts of markings
  1887. >The rest of the room is crowded with all sorts of electronic and assorted materiel
  1888. >You recognize a telegraph station and some bulky radio machinery crowding up half the room
  1889. >Most of the remaining space is occupied by various crates, which several of the officers have taken as their seats
  1890. >You join them at the table, meeting each of their eyes in turn
  1891. “Gentlecolts. First of all, let me extend my congratulations to you as well. Your professionalism, dedication, and courage has ensured a swift end to the griffon occupation of Trottingham.”
  1892. >Nods all around and some happy muttering
  1893. >You allow them to quiet down before continuing
  1894. “But don't rest easy. We have merely taken back what was ours. The Griffon Empire will not stop until they have taken it from us once more. We must continue to push them back, and make it so they do not threaten our country and its citizens again.”
  1895. >The response this time is louder and far more firm
  1896. >The officers at the table, and even the technicians manning the machinery shout their approval
  1897. >You grin at the response and raise your hands for quiet
  1898. “I am confident that the general staff have developed a strategy that is sure to bring our nation to victory. And I am confident that your bravery and skill shall bring it to fruition.”
  1899. >A resounding 'yes sir' echoes in the chamber
  1900. >You gesture to Luna who comes over to your side
  1901. “Well then, princess, if you wouldn't terribly mind I'd like to see the site of the battle.”
  1902. >Luna smiles at you and gives the officers an apologetic look
  1903. >”Of course Anonymous. I'd be more than happy to show you around.”
  1904. >You return your gaze to the officers seated around the map table
  1905. “I'm sorry to cut my time short troops, but there's quite a bit of business to attend to. And I'm sure you have your own duties to attend. Good day.”
  1906. >You turn and walk from the room as they salute, followed by Quill and Luna
  1907. >The two of you do your best to avoid the well populated halls, neither of you wanting to be held up by anything
  1908. >Eventually, you reach the foyer and leave without pause
  1909. >As you walk through the streets towards the exit of the city, you catch up with Luna
  1910. “So it only took you a day to recapture the city. How in the world did you accomplish that? Surely the griffons were dug in.”
  1911. >Luna chuckles as you pass by a building with a large hole in the wall
  1912. >”Indeed they were, like a tick. But just as with ticks, we simply applied a liberal amount of heat. The plan to lure them out worked incredibly well. We drew near half their forces into the ambush and further damaged their morale and support base with a full night of artillery fire. Those new guns easily outranged the griffon cannons and made it a breeze to harass them all through the evening. Come the morn, it was a simple thing to encircle them, even with their defense built so in depth. They simply did not have enough troops to cover their defenses thoroughly.”
  1913. >Your eyes widen at her descriptions of the situation
  1914. “Surely you're exaggerating. Was the expectation not that they would only commit a light force to the pursuit?”
  1915. >Luna nods eagerly, grinning like a wolf
  1916. >”That was indeed what we'd though. According to the general in charge of their force 'the blasted fools thought they could have an easy victory were blinded to the very idea they could be beaten.' He's quite the clever strategist, actually. We would do well to learn from the techniques he's employed here.”
  1917. >You're not sure whether you're more surprised at the plan working so flawlessly, or that Luna was praising a griffon
  1918. >Before this battle, she had long advocated an invasion and total takeover of their country
  1919. >'The only way to ensure a permanent peace' she had argued
  1920. >And though you didn't disagree, you knew that it would just create more enemies for the future, so you'd taken her idea with a grain of salt
  1921. “What sort of strategies do you mean?”
  1922. >As you reach the edge of the city, she gestures to the field in front of you
  1923. >Though churned up with shell craters, it's immediately apparent what she means
  1924. >Perhaps half a mile ahead, though clearly visible, a large series of dugouts has been worked into the landscape
  1925. >Some are still filled in with the wreckage of a cannon, and connecting them all is a long, snaking trench line
  1926. >The trench worms its way around the city until it vanishes from your sight at both ends
  1927. >Immediately ahead of you is a tall observation tower, pockmarked with shrapnel scars but otherwise untouched
  1928. >A series of flags hang from it, but the centerpiece is a large, white cloth draped from the roof
  1929. “That was an officer's tower?”
  1930. >Her grin grows as she stares up at it
  1931. >”The general's in fact. He stayed up there to the bitter end of the fighting when I suppose he'd had enough of his troops dying. In some ways, it takes a braver stallion to surrender than to fight to extermination.”
  1932. >Her grin falters and her eyes seem to be seeing something a thousand miles away
  1933. >You gently tap her shoulder and she shakes herself out of it
  1934. >”Anyway, his initial defense would have been much harder to defeat, and probably would have taken weeks and cost many more lives. The deployment of his guns is such that each one can fire grapeshot and essentially cover the entire line. And of course, between each gun is an astonishing number of infantry. What's more, there was a further garrison inside the city itself, ready to reinforce the line when necessary.”
  1935. >You whistle quietly, impressed by the thought of just how many griffons had been defending the city
  1936. “It's a good thing everything worked as planned then. What were the final tallies for casualties?”
  1937. >She looks up, clearly trying to recall the exact number
  1938. >”I believe it was four hundred ponies lost, and a further eight hundred forty-three wounded. The griffons took far more casualties due to their charges, with 1352 dead and 4980 wounded or missing. Their aerial forces alone took perhaps eighty percent of their strength in casualties. It was a good thing I was approved to bring the Wonderbolts, they did more than their share of damage.”
  1939. >As you approach the trench, you notice numerous pillars of black smoke rising in the distance
  1940. >You recall what you had meant to find out as you were coming into the port
  1941. >You gesture off towards the pillars while speaking
  1942. “What's going on over there.”
  1943. >Luna turns her head to follow your gesture, and you see her jaw tighten
  1944. >”The griffons requested they be allowed to tend to their dead as tradition dictated. We allowed it, of course. Do not worry, we have a great number of soldiers keeping watch over it, but it seems they have no intention of trying to escape.”
  1945. >You nod in understanding, it would have been unlike the ponies to deny such a thing
  1946. >At the very least, they were taking precautions
  1947. >Luna turns her gaze up to you, nervously tracing circles in the earth with a hoof
  1948. >”Anonymous...what do you plan to do with these enemy soldiers? We have them in work parties, but after that we don't have any idea where to house so many. There are nearly eight thousand left, and the ponies of Trottingham certainly won't allow them to quarter in their city.”
  1949. >You scratch you chin, pondering the question as the smoke in the distance thickens
  1950. >It was something that not even you had considered until now
  1951. “Perhaps we can set up some sort of camp outside the city? We could put them to work tilling the soil and planting short harvest crops. That would keep them busy and prevent any food shortages should this war drag into the winter. And I'm certain we could bring a detachment of guards from the mainland so as to not tie up the bulk of our forces. We'll need soldiers to garrison in the city anyway.”
  1952. >She nods and returns her gaze to the horizon
  1953. >”Perhaps so, I'll bring it up with the officers and I'm certain we'll figure it out before leaving the city. Of course, you'll have the final say in it if you wish.”
  1954. >You hold up your hands to her
  1955. “No no, I trust you and the officers to make a good decision. I don't know anything about keeping prisoners, so better to leave that to people with some understanding of it.”
  1956. >She nods and smiles approvingly
  1957. >Most of the military had been quite happy about your approach to their craft
  1958. >For the most part, you let them run everything as they saw fit, so long as they submitted major proposals for review first
  1959. >It seemed they were used to a tight leash
  1960. “Say Luna, what was the military like before Nightmare Moon?”
  1961. >Her body goes rigid, and you immediately curse yourself for your wording
  1962. >”Excuse me, Anonymous?”
  1963. >You hold up your hands to forestall any snap she may have
  1964. “I mean what was it like say, two thousand years ago? How was it run and stuff like that?”
  1965. >She relaxes a touch, her face softening a bit
  1966. >”Ah, well, my sister left that mostly to me. I was quite happy with the arrangement if I'm entirely honest. We enjoyed many years of security and overall peace, outside small incursions from the likes of diamond dogs and the occasional dragon raid.”
  1967. >She blushes and scuffs her hoof on the grass
  1968. >”I will admit, I tended to...micromanage a bit. And according to Stalwart Shield, my sister did as well, even after the reformation. He quite enjoys the breathing room, by the way.”
  1969. >You smile at her, then sit down on the grass
  1970. “I'm more than happy to let him and the officer corps run the war. I'm merely here to set a firm objective and take the blame if anything terrible happens.”
  1971. >Luna chuckles and joins you on the grass, her eyes glossing as she stares towards the forest
  1972. >You pluck at strands of grass, and Quill lays her head on one of your legs, heedless of Luna's presence
  1973. >For her part, Luna doesn't question the closeness of the two of you
  1974. >It's refreshing to not have to hide your affection, for once
  1975. >Together, you watch the smoke begin to fade in the dimming sky
  1976. >The day hadn't been eventful, but it certainly had passed quickly
  1977. >You look over at Luna, and you notice a shining tear fall from one of her eyes
  1978. >Gently, you place a hand on her withers, and her head snaps around to face you
  1979. >Her eyes are glistening with tears and red rimmed
  1980. >But just the same, she's not looking at you, her gaze is far away from where you are now
  1981. >Her voice is quiet and shaky, when she speaks up
  1982. >”I didn't meant to do it, I swear. It was just too much, you understand right? It was all too much for me to do alone.”
  1983. >She may as well be talking Hebrew for all you understood
  1984. >But you simply stroke her back, from the base of her neck to her tail, gentle and repetitive
  1985. >She continues to babble, and you continue to comfort her
  1986. >Quill had fallen asleep at some point, and Luna hadn't woken her up
  1987. >You're quite glad for that
  1988. >Slowly, to not disturb the sleeping pony on your lap, you pull Luna closer and shush her, stroking her mane with a calm hand
  1989. >Eventually, she quiets down, her quiet sobs giving way to shaky breathing
  1990. >As the sun drops below the horizon, she's calmed down to a steadier place
  1991. >But neither of you move or speak
  1992. >You're comfortable with that, if you're honest with yourself
  1993. >You'll wait with her as long as you must
  1994. --
  1995. >After a long time, you feel Luna pull away from you
  1996. >The tone of her voice makes it clear she's fully recovered from...whatever that was
  1997. >”Thank you, Anonymous. It goes without saying that you don't mention this to anypony.”
  1998. >You smile and ruffle her mane playfully
  1999. “Of course not Luna.”
  2000. >She returns the smile and nuzzles your hand
  2001. >After a moment, she looks to the rising moon
  2002. >”We had best be getting back to the city now.”
  2003. >You nod and give Quill a gentle shake to rouse her
  2004. >She stirs and rises from your lap, stretching her limbs and back with a yawn
  2005. “You go ahead with Quill, I want to enjoy the night air for a bit longer.”
  2006. >Quill gives you a questioning gaze, but says nothing as Luna gestures her along
  2007. >They were so very understanding
  2008. >You take a moment and stare off towards the forest, noting the blaze of pyres had subsided to a faint glow
  2009. >It's hard to believe the day had passed so quickly
  2010. >But here you were, alone under the moon, feeling the night breeze on your cheeks
  2011. >After a few minutes, you stand and begin to walk along the trenches
  2012. >You have a strange desire to see firsthand what your approval had wrought on the land
  2013. >The stark glow of the full moon, accompanied by the faint lights of the city, cast the trenches in an eerie light
  2014. >The shadows of blown-up cannons stretch in twisted forms, unknown but obvious stains denote things best left unthought
  2015. >After a few moments of walking, your route grinds to a halt
  2016. >In front of you lays a crater, unlike any of the others that dot the landscape
  2017. >It's gargantuan
  2018. >Even in the dark, you can see it's easily twenty meters across and at least half that deep
  2019. >As the sounds of clanking chains drift by on the breeze, you kneel down at the edge of the veritable sinkhole
  2020. >You run your fingers through the dirt of the pit, rubbing a pinch between the tips
  2021. >It feels like crushed glass, all hard edges and corners
  2022. >”Inspecting your handiwork?”
  2023. >A quiet but commanding voice behind you gives you a start and you leap to your feet, spinning to face the speaker
  2024. >You see, just a few feet behind you, an older looking griffon in chains and flanked by two bored looking soldiers
  2025. >The griffon is dressed in an ornate, if tattered, uniform decorated with all manner of gilded thread and medals lining its breast
  2026. “General den Tann, I presume.”
  2027. >You see his teeth glint in the moonlight, and he gives you a short bow
  2028. >”As you say, and judging by your non-pony appearance and the wild descriptions Alistair has waxed about many times at meetings, you must be Anonymous.”
  2029. >You raise your hands in mock surrender
  2030. “Guilty as charged, sir.”
  2031. >He scratches the feathers under his beak, looking you up and down
  2032. >Sizing you up, it feels like
  2033. >”Indeed, though I must say any being who can vex that pompous mule of a griffon cannot be so bad as one may think.”
  2034. >You shrug your shoulders, perhaps not the most eloquent gesture but you had long run out of steam to act your part today
  2035. “I certainly try. I will admit to a small amount of pleasure in frustrating him.”
  2036. >The general's smile shrinks as he comes to stand beside you, staring into the depths of the crater
  2037. >”I must say though, you must see us as a grave threat to unleash such destruction on us.”
  2038. >You follow his gaze and see the moonlight shimmering on the glassy earth of the pit
  2039. “I don't know what you mean, sir. My troops had guns and rifles, nothing more.”
  2040. >His voice grows grim and filled with venom
  2041. >”No, you had a goddess.”
  2042. >It clicks together for you
  2043. >This was Luna's work
  2044. “What happened here, general?”
  2045. >He sighs and sits on the grass, motioning for you to join him
  2046. >You do, and he looks up at the moon, then begins his tale
  2047. >”It started when those damnable upstart commanders on the flank ordered a charge. I did my best to order them back, but they either did not see or ignored my flags. And then they got themselves outflanked and annihilated. My entire order of battle had to be shifted, ranks thinned, reinforcements forced to the front early. A bloody mess.”
  2048. >He scratches at the glassy dirt, drawing an outline of the front
  2049. >”Then an entire night of being blasted by your artillery and ships. It didn't cause many casualties directly, but not one soldier could get a wink of sleep. And as if things couldn't possibly get worse, coming right on the heels of the dawn, a full assault. I deployed my cuirrasiers immediately, but, and I cannot believe I'm saying this, they were outflown and beaten inside four minutes. You have some fine lancers, sir.”
  2050. >His tone becomes bitter once more as he carries on
  2051. >”Besides the aerial combat, we were managing to hold down rather well. Somehow even the flanks stayed intact. But no good thing lasts forever. She came from the night side, like a black valkyrie. The first spell from her annihilated this flank, there was nothing to recover of the griffons who were stationed here. Four guns, their crews, and near fifty griffons in the trench, gone in a heartbeat. Once I saw that, I broke. I would not, could not, subject my troops to a massacre of that nature. The flag was struck, and we laid down our arms.”
  2052. >He stares into the pit, a mix of shame and sorrow twisting his face
  2053. >”I wondered what sort of being could order such butchery, but it seems you had no idea what you had wrought. I hope you have some understand of the power under you, Anonymous. Good night.”
  2054. >Without another word, he turns away and walks back to the city with his two guards
  2055. >You're left alone at the crater, the sounds of the night drifting gently on the breeze
  2056. >It's hard for you to digest the words of the griffon general
  2057. >Surely is was just some sort of mine that the ponies had laid the night before
  2058. >Even an alicorn couldn't bring this much magic to bear
  2059. >Whatever this was had turned the earth to glass, and there was simply no remains of anything inside the crater
  2060. >But what else besides magic could it be?
  2061. >Perhaps some team of unicorns had enchanted an artillery shell with fire magic?
  2062. >You can't be sure, but it can't be Luna
  2063. >This is what you tell yourself as you slowly meander back to town
  2064. >Putting your hands in your pockets, you find a small scrap of paper
  2065. >'Albatross Inn', it must be where you're staying the night
  2066. >Incredible that Quill had managed to get this into your pocket without you noticing
  2067. >And that she knew where in town to stay
  2068. >Though she had been Celestia's scheduler for a solid five years before she fulfilled the same role for you
  2069. >So you wander through the streets in the harsh glow of lamps, looking for your quarters
  2070. >It doesn't take too long to find, it's quite near the city hall in fact
  2071. >You walk inside and find yourself in a rather quiet bar, a tired looking barkeep wiping down the counter
  2072. >As you approach, he notices you and puts on a wide, if false, smile
  2073. >”Good evening, sir! Princess Luna and your other companion have already checked in. You're in the Monarch Room, top floor, can't miss it sir!”
  2074. >He places a key on the bar in front of him and goes straight back to cleaning
  2075. >You can't fault him for that, it's late
  2076. >So you simply thank him, take the key, and head up the stairs  at the back of the room
  2077. >At the end of the stairs is an out-of-place, ornate door with an emblem of the sun on it
  2078. >The barkeep was right, you really couldn't miss it
  2079. >As quiet as you can, you open the door and walk inside the room
  2080. >In the moonlight through the window, you see your friends laying on the single, massive bed in the suite
  2081. >Tiptoeing, you grab your suitcase and go into the bathroom
  2082. >As quiet as you can, you change from the grand uniform into your simple sleepwear
  2083. >Despite your mind still racing from what the general had said, you cannot deny how tired you are
  2084. >So putting aside your uneasy thoughts, you slip into bed between the two mares
  2085. >Silently, Quill rolls over and nuzzles against your chest, and you feel one of Luna's wings lay on top of you
  2086. >It still takes you near an hour to find the sleep you crave
  2087. --
  2088. >You've never been one for early rising, sleeping as long as you possibly could was more your speed
  2089. >But for some reason, you find yourself rising with the dawn, and unable to get back to sleep
  2090. >Luna had shifted during the night, furling her wings around herself and curling into a ball
  2091. >Quill now had her back to you, but was still pressed tight against your chest
  2092. >Smoothly, quietly, you crawl out of bed and grab a shirt and slacks from your suitcase
  2093. >You weren't planning on going out, but your stomach was growling audibly
  2094. >There was a bar downstairs
  2095. >You wonder if they had breakfast
  2096. >You open the door silently and tread lightly down the stairs to the pub on the ground floor
  2097. >Just as last night, a barkeep is wiping down the counter with a cloth
  2098. >The only difference is this one is a mare
  2099. >She notices you and smiles matronly
  2100. >”Good morning, sir. How did you find your room?”
  2101. >You take a seat at the bar and return her smile
  2102. “It was quite comfortable, thank you. I'm rather surprised beds as large as the one up there even exist.”
  2103. >She giggles and sets the cloth down, grabbing a glass from behind the counter
  2104. >”So what can I get for you this morning, coffee, tea, something perhaps a bit stronger?”
  2105. >She wiggles her eyebrows at the last part, making you chuckle
  2106. “I'd best not start on that so early, I won't stop. Just a coffee will be fine, perhaps with some honey.”
  2107. >She nods and gestures to a jar of honey with a wooden spoon before turning to get your drink
  2108. >When she sets the coffee down in front of you, she gives you another smile
  2109. >”Perhaps some breakfast as well? I have some fresh bread that I made just this morning, still warm!”
  2110. >You nod, considering what to eat
  2111. >Something simple and quick to make would probably be best
  2112. “How about some scrambled eggs and a couple slices of that bread.”
  2113. >She nods her head, grinning widely
  2114. >”Comin' right up, hon!”
  2115. >She walks to the back, and you hear the sound of hooves on the stairs
  2116. >Without speaking, Quill hops up on the stool beside you
  2117. >She looks at you with tired eyes, then looks down at your coffee
  2118. >You don't say a word, simply pushing the cup over to her
  2119. >Quill gives you a tired smile and takes a small sip, grimacing at the bitter taste but looking all the more awake for it
  2120. >The barkeep comes back and smiles at you and Quill
  2121. >”Well look who's come to join us. I'll get you another coffee sir, and would you like anything to eat dear?”
  2122. >Quill shakes her head and, after putting another coffee in front of you, the bartender returns to the kitchen
  2123. >You dole a copious amount of honey into the black liquid and take a long draught
  2124. >Perfect
  2125. >It doesn't take long for the mare to come out of the kitchen with your food
  2126. >She places the plate in front of you, smiling all the while
  2127. >”Just holler if you need anything else.”
  2128. >With that, she lets you and Quill alone
  2129. >Quill continues to drink your-- her coffee as you gaze down at your meal
  2130. >The eggs are perfectly scrambled and the heap on the plate is properly massive
  2131. >Two slices of golden, fluffy bread lay on top of it, smeared with rich looking butter
  2132. >You couldn't imagine a more gorgeous breakfast
  2133. >Out of the corner of your eye, you see Quill gazing longingly at your plate
  2134. >With a sigh, you hand a slice of the bread to her
  2135. >No way were you sparing more than that though
  2136. >And so, you both tuck in to your meal
  2137. >Despite the portion, it barely takes a few minutes to finish it all, and before long you're left with an empty plate and full belly
  2138. >You lean back on the stool, sighing contentedly as you finish your coffee
  2139. >Quill looks pointedly up at you, then at the door, and back to you
  2140. >It doesn't take a genius to figure out what she wanted
  2141. >With another sigh, you place a few bits on the bar, enough to cover the meal and a healthy tip on top of that
  2142. >Having paid for your food, you leave the inn with Quill trailing behind you
  2143. >The two of you wander the streets for a time, quietly enjoying the early morning sun coming over the rooves of the town
  2144. >After a while, you take a seat on a park bench, warming yourself in the now fully risen sun
  2145. >Quill keeps a bit of distance between the two of you, but eventually speaks up with a quiet voice
  2146. >”You ought to make a speech today, sir.”
  2147. >You look over at her lazily
  2148. “What makes you say that?”
  2149. >She looks back, her face neutral and eyes bored looking
  2150. >Her business look
  2151. >”Word has begun to spread of your arrival, but I heard more than a few ponies wondering why you hadn't made a properly public appearance. At this rate, the other ministers are going to claim that it was the council that made decisions on this, not you.”
  2152. >You blink slowly, the gears turning in your head for a moment before you shoot upright
  2153. “Blast, I forgot about those bloody vultures.”
  2154. >Appearance bought more political clout in Canterlot than any other kind of physical or imaginary currency
  2155. >For whatever reason, the nobility of Canterlot, the ponies who channeled a great deal of money into the coffers of the country, had felt less apprehension about you and more curiousity
  2156. >You were exotic to them, instead of alien as you were when you had first appeared
  2157. >It had given you a fair few supporters in the upper crust of the country, but that had begun to dry up after a time
  2158. >More pull had been gained when you had started to solve diplomatic issues with tactics the ponies had never dreamed of, and even more when you had gained the position of foreign minister
  2159. >And now that you were at the head of government, you needed that more than ever
  2160. >With the war, you had nearly forgotten the games of petty politicking and schmoozing that came with a position in government
  2161. >But with Quill's reminder, your mind was already changing gears
  2162. >You straighten your face and smooth some of the creases on your shirt
  2163. “Quill, I need you to go down to the mayor and get him to plan a time for something to be set up. Rope in some officers, and as many reporters as you can get your hooves on, the place ought to be swarming with them. I'm thinking we use that observation tower outside the city as a backdrop, really get the message out of their surrender. Meet me at the inn when you're ready, alright.”
  2164. >Her stony exterior cracks and a predatory grin spreads over her face
  2165. >”Understood sir. And you had best get something written down, and make sure that fine uniform is well pressed. I'll be sure to go over whatever notes you make before anything, ensure there's nothing you've missed.”
  2166. >Without further words, the two of you head off to your goals, Quill to the city hall, you back to the inn
  2167. >It doesn't take long before you arrive, and you head straight up to the suite
  2168. >Luna is still sleeping, so after wiping some stray grass from the uniform, you wake her up with a gentle nudge
  2169. >She stirs, and her wings draw back to reveal a very sleepy looking princess
  2170. >”Whazzat? I'm up, I'm up!”
  2171. >You smile and point to the timepiece on the drawers beside the bed
  2172. “We've got a presentation to plan, Luna. No time for sleeping on the job.”
  2173. >Her eyes brighten immediately, and she hops off the bed as you begin dressing yourself
  2174. >She circles around you, an expression of curiousity on her face
  2175. >”What presentation, Anonymous? I thought we had nothing planned for the day.”
  2176. >As you balance on one foot, donning your boots, you reply with a fair amount of effort
  2177. “We didn't have anything planned until just a few minutes ago. I've been so busy with the war I forgot I had a job as a politician too. Quill is setting up a time and place to make a presentation, and I've got to write a speech and figure out some way to promote the military and my own part in all this, all while sidelining the ministers.”
  2178. >She narrows her eyes at your wording
  2179. >”Did they not have a part in all this too, Anonymous? Why in Equestria would you try and write them out?”
  2180. >You sigh and scratch your cheek
  2181. >As easily as the thought of pushing aside the other ministers had come, it wasn't a welcome one
  2182. >You understood politics, even embraced them, but you had never enjoyed the vile things you had to do in order to achieve your goals
  2183. “It's simple, Luna. If I don't, they push both myself and the military to the side. The majority of the ministers didn't at all want the expansion and reformation of the army. And the only way I was able to ensure the larger budget for the war was using the veto I technically have in Celestia's place. The fact is, in order to make sure that we can win this war, I need the total approval of everypony. That means I need to be seen, alongside the military, as the upholder of Equestria. I don't like it, but it's simply a cruel necessity of politics.”
  2184. >Luna takes a long moment, mulling your words over silently
  2185. >You can't imagine that she of all ponies likes the idea of manipulation and guile to get the better of others
  2186. >But she has to understand the urgency of the situation
  2187. >Finally, she raises her head and looks into your eyes
  2188. >Very well, Anonymous. I accept that this is the way things must be done, but only for now. We must not abuse such trust often.”
  2189. >You smile and guide her over to the desk before you sit down at it, taking up a quill and sheet of paper
  2190. “Of course not, Luna. Now let's get to work.”
  2191. --
  2192. >Three hours and two full revisions later, you were ready
  2193. >Forty minutes ago, Quill had burst into the room, demanding to see your draft of the speech
  2194. >She had forced the second revision, giving you note along the way of how to direct the flow of your words
  2195. >But finally, you had finished it
  2196. >Possibly your most calculated speech to date, you made sure to keep certain sections of it on cards so you didn't mess anything up
  2197. >This would be astoundingly important to get right
  2198. >The first major victory in the first war in eight hundred years
  2199. >The liberation of the third largest city in all Equestria, and the forced surrender of its occupying force
  2200. >Momentous events like this simply did not happen every day
  2201. >The ponies monitoring radio and telegraph transmissions had not found any statements given by the ministers as of yet
  2202. >But even with their bickering, that window of opportunity would soon pass you by
  2203. >You go over the plan as the three of you storm out of the room and romp down the stairs, only slowing once you reached the pub below, even though it's empty
  2204. >Quill had strong-armed the mayor into setting up an attendance-encouraged rally on the outskirts of town this afternoon
  2205. >You imagine that it didn't need to be too highly encouraged, word had spread of your arrival in town like wildfire
  2206. >In addition to roping the mayor into doing the actual set up, she had got the guarantee of General Stalwart Shield and a number of high ranking officers for their own part in it
  2207. >And finally, she had even managed to cajole the radiomen to relay to Canterlot a message for everypony to tune in and listen to the speech happening live
  2208. >And so, as professionally as possible, the three of you were rushing to the outskirts of town
  2209. >The streets were quiet, and once the buildings start thinning out you can see why
  2210. >In front of a stage set up before the observation tower that was still flying the griffon flag of surrender is the largest single gathering of ponies you've ever seen
  2211. >It appeared that the entire city was in attendance
  2212. >At the very front of the crowd there were several ponies with film cameras and some with microphones
  2213. >On the stage itself, a podium equipped with half a dozen microphones stood as a centerpiece
  2214. >Flanking that were several high ranking officers and the mayor himself
  2215. >But the crowd was what really drew your eye
  2216. >There must have been tens of thousands, appearing to cover the entire site where there had been a battle raging hardly two days ago
  2217. >So when they see the three of you approaching the side of the stage, a quiet murmur turns into a dull roar, and finally rises into a cacophony that must have rivaled the battle itself
  2218. >When you take to the stage, Quill and Luna join the others up there as you approach the podium with your arms outstretched
  2219. >The cheering continues for a solid minute, somehow growing louder, until you slowly lower your arms
  2220. >A few stray cheers still echo from the back, but near every pony is awaiting you with bated breath
  2221. >You can feel you back dampen instantly with sweat, and your head becomes so hot that you remove your cap
  2222. >But after a moment, you manage to steel yourself with a long, slow breath
  2223. >Finally, you smile out at the crowd
  2224. “Ponies of Trottingham, you are free!”
  2225. >The crowd explodes with noise, and it takes them quite some time to calm back down
  2226. >But they do, and once more gaze up at you with eager smiles
  2227. “You have weathered attack, occupation, and abuse at the hands of the griffons. You were overrun in a cowardly sneak attack, stabbed in the back by an empire we once forged great trade routes with. But now here you stand, unfettered before, and I see such strength that I am humbled. Humbled by the thought that such strength lies in even the lowliest of ponies, by the knowledge that you placed trust in me to lead you. And now that I stand before you, have I not fulfilled that sacred trust?”
  2228. >Another, overwhelmingly positive cheer from the crowd, lasting longer than even the last
  2229. >It makes a bubble of pride swell in your chest, but you push it down as best you can
  2230. >To be prideful was dangerous, especially with the seat you occupied
  2231. >The ponies quiet once more, and you carry on
  2232. “But even with all your trust vested in me, I could not hope to bring the enemy low on my own. It was the bravery and ingenuity of the mighty Equestrian military that put the griffons on their knees and forced them to strike their colours! With great sacrifice, they broke the yoke that had chained you, and for every pain caused by the occupiers, they paid it back a thousandfold! For this, the grand divisions that fought on your behalf shall be well rewarded, but such decoration must be put on hold for the next phase.”
  2233. >An uncertain mutter runs through the crowd, and you see more than a few smiles falter
  2234. >But now was the time to strike, while the iron of their hearts was still hot, and their blood was aflame with passion
  2235. “This treachery, this underhanded cowardice, must be answered for. Many of you are old enough to remember the griffon invasion of Capra, a wrong that Equestria did nothing to right. But now they stab straight at our heart. I know I speak for every pony when I say, this is too much! The leadership of the griffons has shown their true heart, and we must put these wrongs to right. We will march on Griffonstone itself, we will excise the vile monsters that have mislead the griffon peoples, and we shall guide them back to the righteous path! So what do you say, ponies of Trottingham, ponies that I am glad to once more have back in the fold, what do you say?”
  2236. >There is a beat of silence, enough for you to feel a bead of sweat drip into your eye
  2237. >But then, a roar of approval that could shy a charging army breaks out
  2238. >It swells over the open fields, seeming to shake the very earth
  2239. >Even the officers and officials behind you seem to be swept up in the feeling, standing and cheering along with the crowd
  2240. >As you surrender the podium to General Shield, the cheer still goes on
  2241. >It takes a long while before he's able to speak over the crowd
  2242. >His own speech doesn't seem to get nearly the response from the citizens, but his troops are caught up in the excitement of it
  2243. >After him, Luna makes a very short speech extolling the ease with which you had filled Celestia's role, and the strong bond between yourself and the brave soldiers of Equestria
  2244. >And finally, the mayor made his own speech thanking you and especially the military for the liberation of Trottingham, and promising a monument to the brave fallen who gave everything to free his city
  2245. >At long last, the great ceremony is over
  2246. >The crowd disperses, the officials and officers return to their duties, and you're left alone with your companions once more, basking in the sunset
  2247. >You've finally calmed down from the excitement of the day, and you're left with an odd sort of pressure in your chest
  2248. >It's not a feeling you can describe well, but as you stroke Quill's mane, you realize you don't need to
  2249. >Because as long as you're with these mares, it can't possibly be bad
  2250. --
  2251. >After a long while, Luna speaks up in the silence
  2252. >”Well, it has certainly been a pleasure to be with you both again. Unfortunately, I must get back to the other officers. With the next phase of the war coming on fast, we will need every moment we can have to ensure a swift victory.”
  2253. >She stands from her position beside you and gives the pair of you a short bow
  2254. >”I pray you will make it home safely.”
  2255. >You smile up at her, feeling tiredness clinging to every move you make
  2256. “And we'll pray for your safety and quick success. Good night, Luna.”
  2257. >Luna returns the smile, then trots away towards the city
  2258. >You and Quill are left alone to enjoy the last rays of the sun as it falls below the horizon
  2259. >There's an air of finality in the air, and despite the warmth of the sun and the rush of the day, a sense of creeping dread weighed heavy on your heart
  2260. >It's formless, coming from nowhere in particular, but everywhere at once
  2261. >You rest a shaking hand on Quill's mane, breathing deeply to calm yourself
  2262. >This was sometime new, and something you didn't understand
  2263. >And that only led to more fear
  2264. >As though she knew what you were feeling, Quill cuddles against your side and sighs deeply
  2265. >”You know you can talk with me, sir. I'm good for more than just writing your schedule.”
  2266. >You look down and see a cheeky grin on her face
  2267. >Giving her own shaky grin, you scratch behind her ears to distract yourself
  2268. “I know, but I don't want to just foist my own thoughts on you. Besides, I wouldn't even know how to start.”
  2269. >Quill sighs and lays her chin on your leg
  2270. >”How about you start with why your hand was shaking like you were eighty?”
  2271. >You grimace at the confrontational tone
  2272. >Not only had she noticed your physical response to what you felt, but she wasn't going to let this go
  2273. >You speak as nonchalantly as possible, even with how weak your tone is
  2274. “Come on it's not that bad. I'm just tired.”
  2275. >Quill stays quiet, but her look clearly shows she doesn't believe you
  2276. >With a sigh, you start again
  2277. “I don't really know what it is. Something just isn't sitting right with me. Maybe it's how easy everything has been, maybe it's something that griffon general said, maybe I'm just paranoid.”
  2278. >Her hoof gently rubs on your thigh, encouraging you to continue
  2279. “That griffon, General den Tann, approached me that night after you and Luna went back to the inn. He talked about the conquest, about the battle, about what Luna did. He told me he wanted to see 'what kind of being could order such butchery'. I guess it had a greater effect on me than I thought.”
  2280. >Quill climbs on your lap, stretching up and nuzzling your chin
  2281. >”But that's not all is it?”
  2282. >You let out a heavy sigh, slumping in your chair
  2283. >Without another word you stand, picking up Quill as she yelps from the sudden movement
  2284. “It's getting late, we ought to head back into town.”
  2285. >You put her down before starting the walk back to Trottingham, Quill trotting along beside you
  2286. >You stay silent for the entire walk to the inn, despite Quill continuing to ask questions
  2287. >While a part of you wants to talk, just to see if it would help, more of you is scared to be overheard
  2288. >Moreso, scared to stress Quill even more with what you're thinking
  2289. >Despite the late hour, the streets are still crowded
  2290. >Ponies are reveling with mugs of cider in their hooves, and you can hear fireworks and boisterous music in the distance
  2291. >But when you and Quill come through, they part like the Red Sea
  2292. >As soon as you pass, they get straight back to drinking and celebrating
  2293. >It makes you wonder about just how sensitive ponies are to the moods of others
  2294. >Quill was able to tell straight away that not only was something bothering you, but it wasn't just a single thing
  2295. >Maybe it's some kind of innate empathy?
  2296. >It would certainly explain their skills in keeping the peace for so long
  2297. >You enter the tavern at the ground floor of the inn, and are greeted by the sounds of a massive celebration
  2298. >You can barely squeeze through the crowd, and the bar staff is running their tails off getting orders
  2299. >But eventually, you make it to the stairs and climb to your suite
  2300. >Even on the stairs outside your room, there are ponies, though they're far quieter than the crowd downstairs
  2301. >You don't stick around to find out why they're here, merely entering the ornate door and shutting it behind you
  2302. >The noise of the party is muffled, but just audible at the edge of hearing
  2303. >You fall backwards onto the bed, letting out a long sigh
  2304. >Quill hops up beside you and lays her head down on your chest
  2305. >The two of you stay silent for a moment, enjoying the closeness and warmth you share
  2306. >Quill is the first to speak up, her tone gentle and kind
  2307. >”I know it's probably hard for you to talk about how you're feeling. You don't want to be seen as a weak leader. But it's just me here, Anonymous, we're together and we're alone. There's nothing to hold back.”
  2308. >You stare up at the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then you take a deep breath and talk with her
  2309. “It's just, the general got me thinking. Am I the kind of person that would order such terrible things if it meant winning the battle? Humans have done so many terrible things, and for so many years, maybe it's simply part of who I am. Like a cutie mark, maybe it just takes the right time and circumstance to come out.”
  2310. >You look down at her, finding a bit of solace in her kind, warm gaze
  2311. >Her eyes are the colour of the deep sea
  2312. >Your cheeks flush, and you continue to speak, focused on her beautiful eyes
  2313. “But does it really matter if I'm doing it to protect Equestria? Just where is the line that separates soldier from monster?”
  2314. >Quill lets out a deep sigh, nuzzling against your chin
  2315. >A heavy silence hangs in the room
  2316. >Even the sounds of the party seem to have died to give birth to the lack of sound in your suite
  2317. >Fireworks burst in the distance, showering the room in an eerie red glow
  2318. >Your hand gently strokes Quill's mane, and you will her to speak, to respond, to make you feel even marginally better in some way
  2319. >”I don't know, Anon. Maybe there isn't a real line though, maybe being a soldier and a monster isn't something that you can clearly segregate.”
  2320. >You draw in a long breath, listening to the bursts of fireworks in the distance
  2321. “Maybe to be a soldier you have to be a bit of a monster. I guess the question is really, how much of one can you be before you go mad?”
  2322. >Quill's hoof traces circles on your chest as she thinks
  2323. >You take another deep breath, her mane smells like a spring day after the rain
  2324. >She inches closer to you, and you feel her hot breath on your cheeks
  2325. >”Maybe it doesn't matter, as long as you're protecting those you love.”
  2326. >You feel your blush deepen, and your body tenses
  2327. >Another firework bursts, painting her in bright blue light
  2328. >Her eyes shimmer in the fading glow, and you see her own flush in the dying light
  2329. >The distance closes further
  2330. >Did she always have those freckles that now stood out starkly on her cheeks?
  2331. >Her nose brushes against yours, and she breathes in sharply at the contact
  2332. >Another rocket bursts in the night sky
  2333. >You finally move
  2334. >You press your lips to hers, and the hushed atmosphere is broken with a cheer from the downstairs
  2335. >Your lips separate, and Quill breathes heavily against you, her eyes wide
  2336. >The noise quiets once more, and the night air stills
  2337. >Quill moves in again, more intense in pressing herself against you
  2338. >You press back, just as eager as she is
  2339. >The night sky erupts in noise and colour again, and the two of you with it
  2340. --
  2341. >You lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling
  2342. >The sun has risen, and pulled you out of your fitful dreams
  2343. >Soon, you'll need to get up and prepare to board the boat that would take you back to the mainland
  2344. >Your little 'vacation' was over, and it was time to be the leader of the country once more
  2345. >The warm weight laying on your chest keeps you from rising immediately though
  2346. >Since you woke, you had been thinking about her
  2347. >Every conversation replayed, every little gesture brought back, tiny snippets of talk pored over as though you were looking for grains of salt on a white sand beach
  2348. >You couldn't deny your attraction to her, and certainly it seemed she felt the same feelings for you
  2349. >But a lingering barrier remained, despite last night
  2350. >The knowledge that, no matter what, you could never show this feeling before anyone else
  2351. >Even Luna, as accepting as she had been about the casual contact and closeness you two shared, could no be allowed to see this new facet of you two
  2352. >A stirring on your chest brings you back to the present
  2353. >Quill gazes up at you, a tired smile gracing her face, her mane mussed in an adorable way
  2354. >”Good morning, Anon.”
  2355. >You return her smile and stroke her ruffled mane
  2356. “Morning, Quill. Did you sleep alright?”
  2357. >She nods and lets out a great yawn
  2358. >”Yeah, I feel like a whole new pony.”
  2359. >With a foalish giggle, she nuzzles against your neck and stretches her legs out
  2360. >You chuckle softly and shift so you're sitting up against the backboard
  2361. “Well this new pony in my bed had best be ready to get up to catch the boat back to Baltimare.”
  2362. >She gives you the strongest pout she can muster at this early hour
  2363. >It's strange that a pony so stoic like her was suddenly acting so goofy
  2364. >It really was like a totally different pony had woken up beside you
  2365. >But you quite like it, you think to yourself as you ruffle her mane and swing your legs off the bed
  2366. “Come on now, we still have a country to run. And as much as I wish it were possible, we can't do that from bed.”
  2367. >You stand up, and Quill hops from the bed beside you
  2368. >After stretching out, you take a suit from you suitcase and dress yourself quickly
  2369. >You carefully fold the white uniform that had been your attire for the past few days and stash it away in the luggage
  2370. >Quill gives you a cheeky grin as she brushes her tail against your legs on the way to the door
  2371. >You grab your luggage and follow her out the door, giving the luxurious suite one last glance before shutting it behind you
  2372. >The two of you quietly walk past a sleepy looking barmaid and exit the inn
  2373. >The misty streets glowed like fire with the rays of the sunrise
  2374. >You saw a few ponies as you were walking down to the docks, mostly anglers and sailors it seemed
  2375. >It made sense, no one who didn't have to be up would be after a night like the last
  2376. >Even if you hadn't taken part in the revelry, you could practically feel the weight of the near universal hangover
  2377. >But the warm morning was quickly dispelling any poor feelings that had been set on your chest
  2378. >The cries of gulls mingle with the faint horns of ships in the outer harbour, and the smell of the sea grows stronger as you approach the docks
  2379. >A great many military ponies crowded around the great cargo ships that we're waiting to bring them back to the mainland
  2380. >You approach one of the smaller boats, the small crowd of junior officers letting you pass by without comment
  2381. >Many of them are bandaged in various ways, and shy away from any contact from you or their fellows
  2382. >You push down the lump forming in your throat, and approach an earth pony in the uniform of a captain
  2383. >You smile at him as he turns to address you
  2384. “Good morning, sir! Have you got room on your craft for two wayward travelers?”
  2385. >He looks the two of you over and lets out a weary sigh
  2386. >”Of course sir, we're not quite overloaded yet. We'll be boarding in ten minutes, please feel free to mingle with the others while we prepare.”
  2387. >You don't question the abruptness of his speech, he looks utterly exhausted
  2388. >Instead, you walk to the edge of the dock and gaze out at the mouth of the harbour
  2389. >Quill sits beside you, and the two of you watch the masts of ships breaking above the still foggy seas
  2390. >Before long, the captain of your vessel calls out for boarding, and you join the line of injured ponies
  2391. >It's a quiet, solemn endeavour, the captain calling out names, and the other ponies responding quietly
  2392. >Not long after you settle your luggage in the hold, you hear the call for the lines to be cast off
  2393. >You quickly run up the stairs, just in time to watch the ships pull out of port as one, and blast their foghorns into the misty morning
  2394. >The cries of gulls accompany the ships as they form a line and sail out from the port
  2395. >After some time, the sun has fully come over the horizon, and the only noise comes from the rumble of the engines and crashing of waves against the bow
  2396. >Quill clops up and stands beside you at the side of the boat
  2397. >You share the quiet air, relishing in the quiet moments you know will so soon be coming to an end
  2398. >After a while, she places a hoof on top of your hand
  2399. >”Come on, Anon, let's find a place to get settled below. We ought to be ready for our arrival.”
  2400. >You nod and follow her below decks, taking one last look at the port of Trottingham slowly fading into the fog behind you
  2401. >It's late in the day, as the train clacks along the tracks on its way to Canterlot
  2402. >Quill is napping on one of the bench seats as you stare out the window at the passing scenery
  2403. >You decide you've been sitting long enough, and as quiet as you can you leave the seat and wander about the train
  2404. >As you cross into another car, you catch the eye of a pony wearing the uniform of the Wonderbolts
  2405. >A grey coated mare, her wings are braced and bandaged, taking up most of the bench she's sitting on
  2406. >You take a seat across from her, giving the mare an easy smile
  2407. “How're the wings doing, soldier?”
  2408. >She returns the grin, and you see the tips of her wings twitch
  2409. >”They're alright sir, just a touch sore now. The doc says I should be winging around again in a few months.”
  2410. >Your smile broadens at the mare's easy temperament
  2411. “That's good to hear, what's your name?”
  2412. >Her smile falters and her wingtips twitch again
  2413. >”Second Lieutenant High Winds sir, Wonderbolts First Squadron lancer.”
  2414. >You hold out a hand to her, a glimmer in your eye
  2415. “Anonymous, regent of Equestria. And may I say, it's a pleasure to meet a pony that was serving under General Luna personally. You and yours did damn fine work in Trottingham.”
  2416. >Her smile grows again as she shakes your hand with a hoof
  2417. >”Thanks very much sir, and I gotta thank you for the new equipment. It kept me from being hurt too bad.”
  2418. >You swallow hard as you glance at her wings
  2419. “So uh, if you don't mind me asking, what happened?”
  2420. >She grimaces and strokes the bandages with a hoof
  2421. >”I don't mind sir. It was griffon grapeshot, the bastards somehow managed to elevate one of their cannons up. Got off a shot at me before we could take them out. The plate took most of it, but my wings...well they're a little harder to armour up so a few balls got into them. Hurt something awful, but the rest of the guys busted that crew and got me out before they could get to me. Made a real mess of things for me, though, but I'm still here.”
  2422. >You nod along with the story, and Winds looks forlornly out the window, quieting right up
  2423. >”I feel like I'm abandoning them though, sir. Even with busted wings, I'm sure I could do something.”
  2424. >You lay a gentle hand on her withers
  2425. “You're doing the best thing for them right now, Winds. The absolute best thing is that you recover and get back to them ready to fight. Hard to do that with injured wings, right?”
  2426. >She looks back at you and smiles sadly
  2427. >”I guess you're right sir. Still don't feel good being on a train back to Canterlot after one battle.”
  2428. >You pat her back gently and stand up from the bench
  2429. “Don't you worry, I bet you'll get back to them just in time to take Griffonstone.”
  2430. >Her grins grows and she nods eagerly
  2431. >You say your goodbyes and walk back to the car you had come from
  2432. >It's a strange feeling, knowing that there were others like her who had been hurt in the fighting, but still wanted to press onward
  2433. >Partially inspiring, but there's something terribly tragic about it as well
  2434. >You sit down beside the still sleeping Quill, and return to watching the hills pass by in the fading glow of the sunset
  2435. >You rest a hand on your sleeping friend's back as you gaze out the window
  2436. >And you can only pray that she never ends up that way
  2437. --
  2438. >Ah Canterlot, as little as you were looking forward to getting back to work, it was good to be back
  2439. >The train platform was crowded with well wishers and families welcoming their brothers, sisters, and fathers back home
  2440. >The atmosphere is electric all through town, like a reflection of Trottingham had been
  2441. >Banners of the various units taking part in the campaign waved all through the streets
  2442. >Streamers were hung from the gutters and blew in the gentle breeze that flowed through the winding streets
  2443. >As you were walking to the castle, a great deal of ponies stopped you to ask questions or give their congratulations
  2444. >On any other day, you would have paused to entertain their curiosities for a moment or two, but today you had a little too much on your mind
  2445. >So instead you employed every ounce of skill to dodge around their questions and move on
  2446. >It still delayed you by near a half-hour
  2447. >Fortunately, your train had made good time to Canterlot and you still had a few minutes to spare before you had called for a general assembly
  2448. >It was a bit more than the usual minister meeting, encompassing not just the heads of ministry, but high level nobles, ranking officers of the general staff, even some industry leaders
  2449. >A properly full house, and allowing proper use of the audience chamber for the first time since you'd sat on the throne
  2450. >It also marked the first occasion you would actually be sitting upon the throne
  2451. >That was something you had avoided since taking Celestia's place, you had wanted to be seen as a caretaker rather than a ruler
  2452. >But now you had come to understand, symbolic gestures aside, you were the leader of Equestria
  2453. >And you needed to start truly showing it
  2454. >When you finally reach the castle foyer, you send Quill off to clean herself up, and you go to do the same
  2455. >Twenty minutes later, you're in the already packed audience chamber, sitting atop Celestia's throne dressed in your white regalia
  2456. >Every seat at the round table that had been brought into the room is filled, and a great many more ponies are standing to the sides of it
  2457. >Even knowing how many had been invited, the crowd surprises you
  2458. >But before long, the doors are shut with a dull crash and you stand to address the ponies gathered before you
  2459. “Good evening, everypony. Allow me to first give my congratulations and thanks to the leaders of industry that have made time in their hectic schedules to appear with us. Your diligence has given Equestria a strength in arms that no others can equal. And to the nobility, who have endured the hefty taxes that these unfortunate times have forced upon us, I thank you for the bits that sustain the defense of this great nation. And of course, my fellow ministers, I am grateful for your assistance in ensuring this nation does not crumble into chaos.”
  2460. >There's a scattering of polite applause that dies down quickly
  2461. “But I have not called you here only to give you praise, no matter how well deserved. For as the leaders of Equestria, we must look ever forward to the dawn, even in the darkest of nights. I have invited you here this evening because we must discuss the future of the nation, beyond this vile war we have been thrust into. We must have a plan for development beyond war industry, for construction beyond warships, for training beyond rifle drills. And so we assemble here, in the audience chambers of the princess sisters, so that we may plan a bright future for the country they have protected for millennia.”
  2462. >Another round of quiet clopping accompanies the end of your little speech, followed by low murmuring that fills the chamber
  2463. >You allow the chatter to go on for a few moments, but soon it's time to get back on track
  2464. “Now then.”
  2465. >The ponies quiet up immediately, gazing up at the throne with various expressions
  2466. “I would like to first ask the ponies of industry, what sort of development along economic and logistical lines might you think of? Perhaps something to do with the rail system, or a new idea for research? Please be courteous to your fellow industrialists and raise your hooves with suggestions.”
  2467. >After a moment of awkward silence, you see a hoof raise from the right side of the room
  2468. >You gesture vaguely in the direction of the outstretched limb
  2469. “Yes, the mare with the beige and brown mane, please.”
  2470. >The mare in question widens her eyes and hesitantly begins to speak
  2471. >”I-I'm Shod Hooves sir, manager of Aurora Rail, the largest rail corporation in Equestria. We've recently begun preliminary plans to twin the rail lines across the country, and for the expansion of switching yards in the larger cities. With the resurgence of domestic production, and the movement of the military and contracted trains, the lines have been quite entangled. To twin the lines would allow greater volume of cargo and ponies to be moved across the land, and the expansion of the yards would ensure a smooth transition of cars to other lines.”
  2472. >Despite concluding in a firm tone, there's a clear display of worry on her face
  2473. >But you smile good-naturedly
  2474. >The idea had crossed your mind before to twin the rails, but there had never been a great deal of support when there was no need
  2475. >But now, the idea may gain some traction with the clout of the leading rail corporation
  2476. “Thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Hooves. I cannot speak for my fellow ministers, but we shall certainly take the idea under consideration. Please have your engineers and managers submit a full proposal the moment it is prepared.”
  2477. >She nods her head eagerly and steps back, melding into the crowd again
  2478. >You gaze around the room, and see a white hoof thrust up into the air, waving earnestly
  2479. >With another gesture and little encouragement, the pony speaks up
  2480. >”Sir, Furious Fire, I'm the lead engineer of the Canterlot Armoury. Though my development is usually arms focused, most recently a member of my crew has come up with a way to reduce the soot produced by any coal burning apparatus. We would like, if possible, to receive research assistance from the factory engineers to expand on this technology. It would be of great use for maintaining air quality as more foundries are built.”
  2481. >You scratch your chin at the suggestion
  2482. >Environmental impact of the industry hadn't actually been considered too serious, but if there was a way to nip pollution in the bud, it was best to start looking at it sooner than later
  2483. “Thank you very much Mr. Fire. We'll look into devoting some researchers to the technology. Next?”
  2484. >And on it goes, well into the night
  2485. >Some of the suggestions are excellent, such as standardizing safety measures across workplaces, others are ludicrous like issuing larger and larger coins for progressively greater sums
  2486. >But Quill faithfully writes down even the most mad suggestion
  2487. >More than a few opinions were voiced on the war itself, and though you allowed the ponies to say their piece, you avoided talking about it as much as possible
  2488. >This forum was for planning the national economy, not its defense
  2489. >Many hours later, you're exhausted, but yet another hoof rises from the audience
  2490. >You pray to whatever pony god there is, that it's the last one
  2491. >Without prompting, the stallion speaks in a strong, if odd sounding voice
  2492. >”Well sir, I haven't heard what plans there are for the changelings. If the griffons took Celestia's absence for a sign to attack, could they not as well? Perhaps it's best we move to find them now, and sort them before they become a problem.”
  2493. >You narrow your eyes at the stallion, an odd feeling of suspicion creeping in your gut
  2494. >It's hard to put a finger on it, but this wasn't right
  2495. >He seemed oddly aggressive, especially for nobility
  2496. “I'm sorry, sir, I missed your name.”
  2497. >He stomps a hoof on the marble tiles of the chamber
  2498. >”That's not important, sir. What's important is a solution!”
  2499. >You share a sidelong glance with Quill before turning your attention back on the pony
  2500. “Well despite their attack on Canterlot, I don't believe any aggressive action is in order. If possible, I'd prefer to engage diplomatically with them and come to a resolution that doesn't needlessly endanger anypony.”
  2501. >The stallion heaves a great sigh...of relief?
  2502. >”Thank you, sir.”
  2503. >Without further hesitation, he's engulfed in sparkling emerald fire
  2504. >The ponies immediately near him scream and back away as rapidly as the crowd allows
  2505. >A general atmosphere of panic begins to pervade the room, and a number of guards surround the stallion with rifles at the ready
  2506. >Finally, the flames dissipate and standing before you is a changeling
  2507. >He appeared larger than the average drone, and bore a pair of bright eyes the colour of dried amber
  2508. >But as you look closer, you see that he's in far worse shape than depictions of his species were shown
  2509. >Along his side, ribs could be seen pressing against the soft areas of his midsection, and his legs seemed to be shaking with effort
  2510. >The captain of the guard looks up to you, and you raise a hand for him to hold fire
  2511. “Do not shoot him unless he present an immediate threat to your men or the ponies, captain.”
  2512. >The guard nods and you rise from the throne, slowly approaching the changeling
  2513. >To his credit, the chitinous creature holds his head high, not betraying any kind of fear or even discomfort with his situation
  2514. >But when you stand before him, he lowers his head to you
  2515. >”Lord Anonymous, I come before you on behalf of the great hive queen Chrysalis. She believes that, with the change of Equestria's throne, a peaceful resolution between our peoples may be possible. She acknowledges the wrongness of attacking Canterlot, and prays that you might forgive past transgressions in order to forge a new, prosperous relationship.”
  2516. >He sounds earnest and honest in his address
  2517. >But moreover, it carries a pleading tone, one born of desperation
  2518. “Tell me, changeling, why does she send an emissary now, and more why did you come before us as a spy, disguised so no one could see? Just who was it you have replaced with yourself?”
  2519. >The changeling keeps his head bowed as he speaks
  2520. >”The queen believes that, with your recent war, you may be more willing to engage in diplomacy, instead of interrogating me and gaining the location of our hive to crush us underhoof. She acknowledges she may be wrong of course, and preparations are made for their continued hiding. As for coming in form, I would not be allowed to enter Canterlot as I am now, so a form was required. Worry not, he was a pony of no stature from a town far West of here, and he is at home with his family. A simple trick of hypnosis allowed me into the great halls, and nopony has been harmed by my actions. I do apologize for the subterfuge, but it was necessary to address you directly, lord.”
  2521. >You consider his words, gazing around the hall at the shocked expressions
  2522. >But in those fearful gazes, you see more than a few looks of curiousity
  2523. >It's hard to fault Chrysalis' logic in this situation, with a war already ongoing it would be difficult, nigh impossible, to open another front, especially one born of aggression,  without a great deal of ill will
  2524. >You look specifically towards your fellow ministers
  2525. >Their own shock has faded, and was replaced with varying gazes of everything from disgust to interest
  2526. >You decide that this could wait, at least for long enough for the shock to fade
  2527. “I cannot answer you immediately, but nor will I turn you away. Though it pains me to begin a potentially beneficial relationship with aggressive action, you will be kept in the cells until we can address this tomorrow. I do not believe my fellow Equestrians would tolerate rash judgment in matters such as this.”
  2528. >The changeling lowers his head further, in a bow
  2529. >”As you see fit, lord. My queen has ordered me to be at your service until such a time as I receive an answer. I shall abide your decision.”
  2530. >You gesture to the guards, and they form a box around the changeling and lead him out of the audience chamber
  2531. >When the doors shut behind the troop, you smile widely at the ponies in the room
  2532. “Well ladies and gentlecolts, I believe that's quiet enough excitement for tonight. I thank you all for your valuable contributions to the development of the nation, and look forward to the implementation of the ideas you have brought forth tonight. I wish you all a pleasant evening.”
  2533. >The guards that remained in the chamber open the door once more, and amidst a wave of murmuring, the ponies exit the throne room
  2534. >As the last ones exit, you trail behind them, accompanied by Quill to your bedchamber
  2535. >After looking around furtively, she enters the room behind you, doffing her bags and hopping onto the bed
  2536. >You massage your aching temples and collapse on the bed beside her
  2537. >She lays her head on your chest and lets out a low chuckle
  2538. >”Who would have thought that, after all these years, the changelings would be back and suing for peace. It's like some kind of farce is being played out before our eyes.”
  2539. >You let out a low chuckle yourself
  2540. “You're not kidding, I nearly had a heart attack when he showed up. At least it put a cork in anymore questions for the night.”
  2541. >You feel Quill nod against your chest
  2542. >”I can't believe some of their ideas. I mean, expanding the grounds of the Canterlot Gardens. Where, off the side of a cliff? Honestly, some ponies...”
  2543. >She trails off with a laugh, but begins breathing deeply
  2544. >After a few minutes of silence, you give her side a gentle poke
  2545. >All you get is a sleepy murmur, and a twitch of her legs
  2546. >You sigh and make yourself more comfortable in your bed
  2547. >You hadn't planned to sleep with Quill tonight, but you certainly weren't going to wake her up and send her away
  2548. >Besides, you think as you yawn, you could hardly deny the comfort of curling up with a warm pony
  2549. --
  2550. >It's mid-morning, you're exhausted, and in front of you is the most cooperative changeling you've ever met
  2551. >Granted, he was also the only one you've met so you could be biased
  2552. >But his relatively friendly attitude did nothing to quell the churning in your guts
  2553. >Bugs had always weirded you out, so a horse sized one certainly wasn't doing you any good
  2554. >At the very least, you're able to keep your composure
  2555. “Let's start with your name.”
  2556. >The changeling's wings twitch as you address him
  2557. >In a chittering voice, he answers you without hesitation
  2558. >”My queen has named me Chitin, my lord.”
  2559. >How original of her
  2560. >Still, his answer was direct and delivered politely, so he understood diplomacy
  2561. >It seemed Chrysalis didn't take you for a fool then
  2562. “So then, Chitin, you said last night that Queen Chrysalis had sent you on a diplomatic mission. What exactly is she proposing?”
  2563. >Chitin clears his throat, a sound that makes the guards in each corner of the cell tense
  2564. >They were understandably on edge, many of them had served in the Royal Guard during the invasion
  2565. >You had objected to these specific ponies as the guards of the changeling, but it was hard to argue with their experience
  2566. >If Chitin had been insulted by it, he betrayed no such feelings
  2567. >In fact, his face showed so little expression it made you wonder if he could actually feel emotion
  2568. >His voice interrupts your thoughts
  2569. >”My queen desires the opening of negotiations with your government. Of special concern for her is the foundation of nesting grounds and pony actions toward sister hives. While our hive has yet to be found by ponies, others have not been so lucky. During the last brooding alone, sisters reached a mortality of three-quarters.”
  2570. >Though you don't entirely understand the time period, anything resulting in a mortality rate that high was more than a crisis
  2571. >You steeple your fingers and gaze evenly into Chitin's aquamarine, faceted eyes
  2572. “Help me understand some things, Chitin. First of all, what exactly is a 'sister hive'? How many are there, and are any of them willing to engage us as you are now? While I understand the desperation of the situation, I can hardly commit to actions that could risk ponies on the word of a single changeling. My ponies would never accept such a thing, and even with the situation explained and the absolute guarantee of their safety, it would be a hard pill for them to swallow.”
  2573. >Chitin breathes deeply, the plates of his namesake expanding outward
  2574. >”Our sister hives are just as they sound, lord. Their queens are kin of ours and through this we foster cooperation. As for their number, I cannot say for fear of endangering them, but they have expressed their willingness to follow suit with us, should our own diplomatic ventures succeed.”
  2575. >You scratch your chin, thinking about all you knew
  2576. >This was most likely all you were going to get out of him, and it's only barely enough to make a decision
  2577. >Granted, this was only a preliminary discussion and no real commitment had to be made
  2578. >But if engaging in diplomacy meant removing a possible threat to Equestria, it was hard to argue against at least trying
  2579. >You let out a long sigh and sit up
  2580. “Well, I certainly can't commit to any terms at this point. However I believe that we might be able to establish some sort of peace talks. Do you have some way to contact your hive, Chitin?”
  2581. >For the first time, you see him smile
  2582. >He sits up straighter, his chitinous plates clicking as they fit closer together
  2583. >”I will contact her immediately, lord. My queen will be most pleased to hear of your...welcoming nature compared to your predecessor. May I have a moment?”
  2584. >You make eye contact with each of the guards, one who wears an expression of distaste
  2585. “I believe we can accommodate that. Afterwards, I'll have you put up in a proper guest room, still under guard of course. I'm certain you understand.”
  2586. >Chitin bows his head as you stand from your seat
  2587. >”As you say, lord.”
  2588. >You make a gesture to the guards and they follow you as you exit, shutting the door behind them
  2589. >None of them say a word, but you can practically feel the aversion radiating from them
  2590. >They probably wouldn't be the best ones to have keeping an eye on Chitin, going forward
  2591. >As you exit, Quill approaches you with an uneasy expression on her face
  2592. >”How did it go, sir?”
  2593. >You beam at her, for once happy with diplomacy
  2594. “Better than I could have thought. Arrange for our guest to be put up in some proper chambers, it wouldn't do to have our first changeling emissary kept in a cell.”
  2595. >You see her face twitch, but she merely nods at your order
  2596. >”Of course sir. Are you ready for the press conference? The reporters certainly weren't ecstatic about the delay.”
  2597. >You'd almost forgotten about that, if you were honest
  2598. >The conference had been bumped so you could speak with the changeling immediately, and hopefully get some answers
  2599. >It had worked out, of course, but it was unsurprising that the press wasn't happy about being kept waiting
  2600. “Yes, I believe I am, Quill. Shall we?”
  2601. >She nods again and leads you through the winding halls of the castle
  2602. >Despite the size of the castle grounds, it's not long before you've arrived to the receiving chamber for the press
  2603. >Quill trots over to the microphones and announces your arrival
  2604. >Before stepping up to the podium that had been set up, you straighten your suit and paste the best grin you could on your face
  2605. >Time to face the music
  2606. “Good afternoon, everypony. How are you all today?”
  2607. >A smattering of voices, most positive, resound through the crowded room, and you drive on
  2608. “I'm certain I don't need to explain the rules of courtesy to you all, so let us begin without further delay.”
  2609. >Immediately as you finish, a hoof shoots up straight in front of you
  2610. >You point to its owner, and he begins without preamble
  2611. >”Mr. Anonymous, in your most recent address you made a great number of remarks that could be considered inflammatory. We thought the plan was to make peace with the griffons, not to drag the war out further.”
  2612. >Your cheek twitches at the rebuke
  2613. >Though it wasn't truly surprising that the speech was being brought up, you hadn't expected it to be the first question
  2614. “Thank you for your question. You are correct, the plan certainly is to make peace with the griffons. However, as they have shown, that peace cannot be sustained from a position of perceived parity in power. Moreover, a secondary goal had been set before that address. Namely, the liberation of the Capra lands that had been conquered decades ago by the same regime that has attacked us. I'm certain you can agree that, especially given their recent behaviour, the current griffon leadership is in dire need of an adjustment in perspective.”
  2615. >A bead of sweat trickles down your back, but the pony doesn't push further with his line of questioning
  2616. >You pray it's because he was satisfied with your answer
  2617. >Another hoof, and another question, come on the heels of your answer
  2618. >”Mr. Anonymous, we know of the recent conference for economic development after the war, but what of a plan to end this war?”
  2619. >You grind your teeth together, knowing your answers in this regard are limited by necessity
  2620. “As of this time, I can only discuss that there is in fact a plan in place. However, I cannot speak of specifics, as they are military secrets by obligation. The consequences of their leaking prior to their implementation could have disastrous effects on the campaign, and I must implore you to limit your questions to already implemented plans.”
  2621. >Without so much as a pause, another hoof and question
  2622. >”Then can you answer why everypony, including your fellow ministers, were kept in the dark about the fact that a campaign had even been launched? According to our sources, the plan had not even been discussed prior to the deployment in force.”
  2623. >Your grip on the podium tightens
  2624. >Hadn't you just explained that these were military secrets for a reason?
  2625. “As I stated before, this information was classified. The matter, however, was brought to me as a completed presentation and received my approval prior to its implementation. Again, any leak of this sort of information could prove deadly to the soldiers involved and as such it is extremely compartmentalized.”
  2626. >Another question, hard and fast
  2627. >”So why were you the singular being they brought the plan to? Are you entwined so much with the military that they consider you as their absolute voice?”
  2628. >You feel your teeth grinding at how oblivious some of these questions are
  2629. “As I am filling the position of Princess Celestia, I also fill the role of commander-in-chief. This is simply the nature of the position. However, the approval of these plans is not made lightly.”
  2630. >”And what about this news of a changeling showing up in the capital? Are you doing nothing to ensure good security of Canterlot?”
  2631. >Well, the rules could only last so long, you suppose
  2632. “Yes, a changeling did appear last night. And rest assured, he was taken into custody. However, he came to us with overtures of peace and diplomacy and as such is of no threat to us. In fact, this opens new avenues of security for the country, without any lives needing to be taken.”
  2633. >The questions keep coming, one after another, for over an hour
  2634. >They asked about everything, from speculation of just how many changelings had infiltrated to exact budgetary breakdowns now that the war economy was coming into swing
  2635. >And so, so many questions about the war itself
  2636. >Deployed numbers, casualty numbers, logistical plans, equipment statistics, ship building progression, and on and on
  2637. >But finally, mercifully, the conference was called to an end
  2638. >As soon as the last press pony exits the receiving room, Quill is at your side with a glass of cold water
  2639. >You drink from it, praising the princesses for sending you such an amazing assistant
  2640. >Not long after you have quenched your thirst, Quill speaks up
  2641. >”They seem to be quite the vultures, sir.”
  2642. >You chuckle at her comment
  2643. “I can't disagree with that. Who knew that even after getting an answer, they'd ask the same question eight more times with different words?”
  2644. >You two share a laugh, taking a moment to relax
  2645. >But the moment cannot last, unfortunately, for there's still work to be done
  2646. “Well Quill, shall we see how our new ambassador is settling in? I'm sure he's had time to contact his hive by now.”
  2647. >She nods and gestures for you to follow her
  2648. >It doesn't take long to find the room, its door flanked by a pair of Royal Guards in resplendent gold
  2649. >You knock on the door, courtesy was always best after all
  2650. “Chitin, how are you settling in?”
  2651. >Silence
  2652. >You knock a bit harder, perhaps he's merely asleep?
  2653. >This time, as you press your ear to the door, you hear a faint wheeze
  2654. >Your eyes widen, and you shove your way into the room
  2655. >Lying on the bed, the gaps in his hard plates leaking ichor, lays Chitin
  2656. >Without pausing, you sprint over to him immediately, pausing and giving Quill a pointed look
  2657. “Get a doctor, now. GO!”
  2658. >She gallops off, and the guards burst into the room as she leaves
  2659. >You bare your teeth at them, looking as predatory as you can
  2660. “Out.”
  2661. >Despite themselves, they immediately return to their posts outside the room
  2662. >Sometimes it was a blessing to not be a pony
  2663. “Chitin, are you alright? What happened to you?”
  2664. >He doesn't answer, simply wheezing unhealthily
  2665. >You break into a nervous sweat, cradling a diplomatic disaster in your arms
  2666. --
  2667. >An hour later, your feet are sore from pacing back and forth outside the room
  2668. >You can feel a stitch developing in your side, and once more swear to start exercising properly
  2669. >Quill was still away, gathering the ponies you had asked her to as soon as she'd returned with the doctor
  2670. >And finally, the doctor exits the darkened room, wiping his hooves with a cloth
  2671. >You halt in front of him, and he stares up at you with tired eyes
  2672. >”Well my lord, you can thank Celestia for making me study changeling anatomy after their attack on Canterlot. That one's fairly beat up, broken snout, small rupture in the thorax, but they're hardy creatures. He'll pull through, just needs some rest now, and bandage changes once a day.”
  2673. >The doctor taps his hoof on the ground, his brow furrowing
  2674. >”The injuries were consistent with a truly violent beating, and I'm rather certain there was the imprint of a shod  hoof in one of the changelings plates. Take that as you will, my lord, but I'm fairly certain whoever did this was a pony.”
  2675. >The doctor lowers his head and begins to walk away slowly
  2676. >As you go to enter the room, his quiet voice from behind you makes you pause
  2677. >”My lord, even though he's just a changeling, do find whatever beast did this and make him pay.”
  2678. >You turn and give the doctor an empty grin
  2679. “Of course, doc. You can rest assured that I'll be losing a great deal of sleep until this whoreson is found.”
  2680. >The doctor nods, a small smirk touching his face at your cursing
  2681. >It was quite the rare occurrence for you, especially these days
  2682. >Chitin's room is quiet, the windows shuttered and curtained to replicate the darkness of a hive, for his comfort
  2683. >A soft, eerie glow comes from the bed, organized in twisted and weird shapes
  2684. >Bioluminescence you realize quickly
  2685. >The glow pitches up and fades, in time with Chitin's now soft breathing
  2686. >Gone was the desperate wheeze you'd heard earlier, he sounded quite comfortable in fact
  2687. >You suppose that doctor must really know what he was doing
  2688. >As you take a seat by his bedside, the Chitin stirs in his slumber
  2689. >The hisses and clicks he makes are unnerving, but you were going to wait here until he woke up
  2690. >It was impossible to leave him alone at this point
  2691. >A gentle knock comes from the door and it creaks open on its old hinges
  2692. >”Anonymous, sir? The officers from the deployment section are here as you asked.”
  2693. >You turn, giving a tight smile
  2694. >At least something was going right, for now
  2695. “Excellent, please come in gentlecolts.”
  2696. >The two officers, and Quill, come and sit on their haunches in front of you
  2697. >You lean forward, your expression growing grim
  2698. “As Quill may or may not have told you, the changeling ambassador was under security lockdown by the Royal Guard, until this afternoon. Quill and I found him lying in bed, beaten and bleeding. As of approximately three hours past noon, the Royal Guards have been dismissed in their diplomatic security roles. This is where you come in.”
  2699. >Your hands grip on themselves tightens and you grit your teeth
  2700. >As distasteful as this was, it was absolutely necessary
  2701. “What I need your section to organize is two things. First of all, assigning soldiers to guard the changeling ambassador against assault and worse. Soldiers from outside Canterlot only, if you please. The second is a section of military police, again from outside Canterlot, to arrest the entire roster of guards assigned to this duty.”
  2702. >Even in the gloom of the darkened room, you see the eyes of all the ponies widen
  2703. >You hadn't informed Quill of this before her leaving, and though it pained you, it was what was required to ensure no guardponies got wind of this before they were taken into custody
  2704. “I understand this isn't an easy order to follow, and I assure you it's just as hard to give. But make no mistake, whether or not the ambassador is a changeling, assault is assault. I don't need to tell you what havoc an entire hive of furious changelings could wreak on a nation in wartime. I want to be sure they're wreaking it on our enemies. Do either of you have any questions?”
  2705. >The two officers share a look, then the younger of the two opens his mouth
  2706. >”Sir, what do we do if they resist?”
  2707. >You lean back, a frown tugging down the edges of your mouth
  2708. “Treat them as you would any other pony resisting arrest.”
  2709. >You see the two of them swallow hard, and the elder speaks up in a hesitant voice
  2710. >”A-and if they band together?”
  2711. >You close your eyes and sigh heavily
  2712. “We don't need another war on our hands, so try and keep it non-lethal. But if they shoot first, cut them down like chaff. I won't tolerate seditious behaviour, even if they are Royal Guards. Am I clear?”
  2713. >They share another look, more sure but still clearly nervous
  2714. >”Yes sir.”
  2715. >They answer in unison, a firmness entering their eyes
  2716. >You dismiss the officers and lean further back in your chair as Quill leans against your legs and lays her chin on your knees
  2717. >”Sir, is this really a good idea? I know the military has a firm support base, but I believe a great many ponies will side with the Royal Guards, especially here in Canterlot. There's no love lost for changelings here.”
  2718. >You lay a hand on her head and rub gently
  2719. “That may be, Quill, but guards or no they are under the law. Assault is assault, whether on a pony or another species.”
  2720. >She nods, but her voice still holds uncertainty
  2721. >”Still sir, I don't think we need any more destabilization.”
  2722. >You sigh heavily, rubbing your eyes
  2723. >She's right of course, but you didn't have to like it
  2724. >On one hand, you could simply tell Chitin that it was a complete unknown as to who attacked him, and there was no proof to indict anypony
  2725. >Of course he may have seen his attacker, which would reflect even more poorly on you that even saying you couldn't find the guilty
  2726. >But on the other hand, there was an investigation into the Royal Guards, an organization that had existed for thousands of years
  2727. >They certainly wouldn't take kindly to being investigated, and you weren't sure how they would act if one of their own was charged with the assault
  2728. >If you were anywhere but Canterlot, you would see no problems with simply rounding up the guards in public and performing a thorough, invasive investigation
  2729. >But here in the capital, public opinion sided firmly with the throne, and the Royal Guards by extension
  2730. >Even if you had taken over Celestia's position, you weren't a part of the royal lineage and that meant to many in Canterlot, you had no claim to the throne
  2731. >It was in part why you had gone to such lengths to ensure ponies accepted Luna as reformed, so that you could maintain a semblance of royal endorsement
  2732. >You pinch the bridge of your nose, the days events taking their toll on you
  2733. >As though sensing your state, Quill clambers into your lap and curls up
  2734. >Your eyelids feel as though they weigh a thousand pounds, and your eyes like they are caked in salt sand
  2735. >Chitin still wasn't stirring, and the castle was quiet
  2736. >The warm air of the summer evening was pulling you closer to sleep
  2737. >It couldn't hurt, you suppose, to take a short nap
  2738. >In what felt like minutes, you were once more awake
  2739. >As the bleariness in your eyes clears, a pair of glowing orbs appear in the darkness
  2740. >You feel your heart jump straight into your throat and let out a muffled choking noise
  2741. >A soft, hissing voice comes from the area of the orbs, and finally resolves just what it was
  2742. >”My apologies, lord. I did not mean to frighten you so.”
  2743. >Of course, you had fallen asleep in Chitin's room, it shouldn't have surprised you but sleep always had this effect on your memory
  2744. “Don't worry about it, Chitin. How are you feeling?”
  2745. >A chittering chuckle echoes dryly in the small room
  2746. >”Considering the damage sustained, I am alright. Whichever of your ponies worked to heal me did well, though my organs ache.”
  2747. >You grimace at the casual tone his voice carries
  2748. >He focuses in on you and continues to speak, his voice growing more serious
  2749. >”I have not informed my queen of this, my lord. I believe that would compromise any diplomatic efforts we go to.”
  2750. >You sit back in your chair, stunned
  2751. >Your expectation was an immediate termination of any kind of talks followed by the coincidental leaking of classified documents to the griffons
  2752. >As though reading your mind, Chitin continues
  2753. >”My queen ordered me to...'turn the other cheek' unless my life were in danger. And since I am still alive, my life was not in danger and so I do not need to report this immediately.”
  2754. >A bead of sweat stings your eyes, and your tongue darts out to wet your lips
  2755. “W-well I must thank you for this. I've had the military launch an investigation into the incident separate of the Royal Guards, and using ponies from outside Canterlot. Hopefully this will alleviate some of the possible bias the ponies of Canterlot have towards changelings. Do you remember at all who attacked you? Any sort of information would be of great help to us in bringing the culprit to justice.”
  2756. >The glowing orbs shift, and somehow you're able to tell he's looking straight into your eyes, despite the gloom
  2757. >He gets closer, and his voice becomes quiet and monotone
  2758. >”I have no memory of who attacked me, my lord. It is something you shall have to find on your own, unfortunately.”
  2759. >The galloping of hooves sounds in the halls as you realize the implication
  2760. >While he wasn't going to report this to Chrysalis, he wasn't aiding you in finding the culprit either
  2761. >It wasn't that he didn't hold ill will over the incident, it was that he was forcing an apology of a different kind
  2762. >'Either find who did it, or you'll never find us'
  2763. >A pounding at the door snaps you from your thoughts, and Chitin retreats under the covers of his bed
  2764. >The moment he does, the door bursts open and a frantic looking soldier gallops in, panting heavily
  2765. >”My lord Anonymous, there's an incident in the guard barracks!”
  2766. >You open your mouth to ask for clarity, when a singular crack of a gunshot echoes through the halls
  2767. >The soldiers eyes widen, as yours mirror him
  2768. >Quill starts violently and falls off your lap, but she's an afterthought in the shock of the moment
  2769. >Without a word, the soldier turns and gallops toward the sound of the shot, and you hot on his heels
  2770. --
  2771. >The impromptu command center was a hive of activity
  2772. >Messengers ran to and fro frantically speaking into officer ears wherever they happened to be
  2773. >Fresh soldiers were taken in, pushed along, and sent off every second
  2774. >A miasma of madness hung in the warm evening air, the scent of summer overwhelmed by the reek of adrenaline
  2775. >At the center of it all, a command table laid out on several large crates
  2776. >A number of officers, including one of the two you'd spoken with earlier, crowded around it amidst a heated argument
  2777. >But when you approach, their conversation cuts off and they salute you sharply
  2778. >You return the gesture and lean your hands on the makeshift table, hunching over to come closer to their level
  2779. “Alright troops, what's the situation?”
  2780. >The senior officer, a major, tells you the whole story
  2781. >Apparently instead of a section of MPs, an entire platoon had been assigned to the detainment of the guards
  2782. >Of course, sixty well armed ponies walking into the barracks and demanding the surrender of any guard that was assigned to the ambassador went over poorly
  2783. >A heated argument began, questioning lines of authority, the jurisdiction of the Royal Guards, who technically weren't a part of the military, and the veracity of the orders
  2784. >It had sparked a brawl, and finally shots to be exchanged, between the parties
  2785. >It was unknown which group had fired first, but the result was several wounded guards and soldiers, and the imprisonment of two soldiers who hadn't managed to retreat with their comrades
  2786. >Of course, now there was a standoff between every guard in the barracks and at least two platoons of regular infantry, plus the MPs
  2787. >You could feel a migraine developing at the base of your neck
  2788. >It seemed there was always some new, creative disaster happening
  2789. >Though you can't deny your own hand in this one
  2790. >But there was no time to pass the buck around the room
  2791. "Alright, do we have a solution to this? Preferably one that doesn't involve artillery and fusillades, I'd rather not have a civil war."
  2792. >There are some nervous glances all around
  2793. >"W-well sir, we were hoping that you could help us with a diplomatic solution. After all the solutions you hammered out with the griffons when you were in the foreign ministry, we're confident that you can solve this with no trouble."
  2794. >You blink slowly and glance at his rank insignia
  2795. >Only a captain, and a quick look around tells you he's the senior officer here
  2796. >So it wasn't incompetence, it was inexperience that was the enemy of the day
  2797. >He was probably one of the nobles that had been snapped up at the beginning of the war and had been put on the accelerated curriculum
  2798. >It didn't make this any less of a fine mess
  2799. >You glance around, your eyes finding a crate with the stencil of a piece of armour on it
  2800. >A grin takes on your face as the gears in your mind begin to turn
  2801. "Alright then, where exactly are these guards holed up?"
  2802. -
  2803. >Twenty minutes later, you stand behind a makeshift barricade with a group of antsy soldiers
  2804. >You adjust the ill fitting armour that had been strapped to form a makeshift breastplate
  2805. >Individually, the various pieces were too small, the wrong shape, or just plain useless to you
  2806. >But a bit of engineering, and copious leather straps, you and the ponies had managed to slap together something that provided a modicum of protection for you
  2807. >Better than the cotton of your white uniform did at least
  2808. >You'd have to look into getting some proper armour fitted, especially if you needed to visit hostile lands
  2809. >But for now, it was good enough even if it appeared you had simply decided to wear the entire kitchen
  2810. >And so, despite the urging of the officers and the pit in your stomach, you stepped over the barricade and called out to the obstacles the guards had erected themselves
  2811. "This is...”
  2812. >You trail off, unsure of exactly how to address yourself
  2813. >'Lord' seemed to be the most common form, but technically you weren't a noble
  2814. >'Regent' also seemed applicable, but you felt it constituted the presumption of a permanency of your post
  2815. >But then, it dawns on you, the perfect title to fit your roles both past and present
  2816. “This is Chancellor Anonymous, I demand to speak to the officer in charge of this section of the Royal Guard.”
  2817. >In the stillness that follows your pronouncement, you hear shuffling from behind the opposing battlement
  2818. >The helmeted head of a guardsman pops up, a garish crest denoting his commanding role
  2819. >”I'm watch commander Buckler, senior officer here. Pardon me saying so, but it's about time you showed up to cow this peasant army into backing down.”
  2820. >The sneer on his face shows his clear disdain for the ponies of the army that were opposite him
  2821. >Your eyebrow twitches at the 'peasant army' comment, and you hear a jeer from behind you
  2822. “What I'm here to do, guard, is to negotiate your standing down, the return of the ponies you've taken prisoner, and discussion of detaining the roster of guards responsible for the changeling ambassador becoming injured.”
  2823. >You see the eyes of the guard widen in alarm
  2824. >He turns from the barricade, apparently to confer with other ponies at the barricade
  2825. >After a moment, he turns back to you
  2826. >”We're willing to negotiate, please come this way sir and we can discuss your terms.”
  2827. >You blink, momentarily stunned at their easy cooperation
  2828. >But the surprise is replaced immediately with with suspicion
  2829. “Before I come over, you're going to release the ponies you've taken prisoner. Once they're safe with the military, I'll come over and we can talk.”
  2830. >Another moment of hushed conference
  2831. >”We'll have them sent over the battlements. We'll have them walk over as you come to us.”
  2832. >You nod firmly
  2833. “Done.”
  2834. >A few minutes later you and the soldiers who were taken, one of whom was wounded, trade places, and you join the guards who lead you to their barracks
  2835. >A table has been set up, and the pony you'd been speaking to before was seated there with a nervous look on his face
  2836. >”Please sir, have a seat.”
  2837. >You sit down across from him and prepare to avert a rebellion
  2838. --
  2839. >”Sir we could not have known--”
  2840. >You cut the guard off with a sharp gesture
  2841. “I'm not interested in excuses or laying blame, commander. I'm here to bring a conclusion to this madness.”
  2842. >The guard, Buckler was his name you recall, seems taken aback by your pointed words and his tone when he speaks again is more subdued
  2843. >”Yes sir, of course. I and my guards only want to reach a peaceful resolution to this...unfortunate circumstance.”
  2844. >You narrow your eyes at his wording
  2845. >It was clear he was trying to worm out of any punishment you cared to dispense
  2846. >You let out a quiet sigh
  2847. “Commander, the way I see it, your cohort disobeyed orders and subsequently mutinied against lawful rule.  The only peace resolution comes with the your total surrender.”
  2848. >You see the commander swallow hard, and his eyes flit about the room
  2849. >When he remains silent, you continue
  2850. “Rest assured commander, I only want to bring the ponies that assaulted the changeling diplomat. Assuming no further resistance or injury, I give you my word that the punishment for this incident will be light.”
  2851. >Buckler narrows his eyes at your apparent easy acquiescence
  2852. >”Pardon my Prench sir, but where's the catch? Nothing is ever so easy as that.”
  2853. >Your face hardens, growing severe, and you lean forward across the table
  2854. “You're right, commander. While there may be little to no direct punishments dispensed, outside those who committed willful assault, the Royal Guard as you know it will be no more. You will keep your posts, but shall be rolled into the military proper in a ceremonial role. This means adherence to the chain of command, to lawful orders given by your superiors, and of course thorough accountability measures.”
  2855. >The watch commander chokes back either a scream or a guffaw, making you narrow your eyes at him
  2856. >After composing himself he speaks in a disbelieving tone
  2857. >”You can't honestly believe that the elite Royal Guard would ever allow themselves to be rolled into a peasant army like that, sir! Surely you're joking.”
  2858. >A frown grows on your face and you knit your brows together, the insinuation irking you
  2859. “I'm not, and don't call me shirley.”
  2860. >Buckler blinks rapidly, and you see a bead of sweat streak down his forehead
  2861. >”Sir, the others certainly won't stand for this. There will be a proper mutiny if you do this!”
  2862. >You shake your head slowly, sadly
  2863. “Then they'll stand before the guns of the infantry. Peaceful or not, this little insurgency will end. The only question is whether the Guard will remain an entity within the military, or be forgotten as a relic of the past, who fought against the betterment of Equestria.”
  2864. >There is a long, pregnant pause as Buckler considers his choice
  2865. >You're considerably surprised at his hesitation, you would think this an easy choice for even the most prideful pony
  2866. >After all, it wasn't just his own life that he was taking into account, but the lives of every pony in the barracks and opposing him
  2867. >Even in the many years you'd spent in Canterlot, you couldn't think of a time a pony had been more callous
  2868. >Finally, Buckler speaks once more
  2869. >”I'm going to need it, in writing, you won't bring undue prosecution against my men. The ones who committed assault, sure, but not the ones who participated in this. They only had the interests of their brother-in-arms at heart, not malice.”
  2870. >He stares down at the table as he makes his proclamation, and you feel more than a little ashamed
  2871. >Despite your living with them, you still held ponies to the same ideas you held for humans
  2872. >Old habits, you suppose, but it's a firm lesson for you
  2873. “Of course commander, if you would allow it I'll have somepony bring in parchment and we'll draw up the agreement right here.”
  2874. >He nods and holds out a hoof to you
  2875. >”I'll escort you to the barricade, sir.”
  2876. >You shake his hoof and follow him back to the battlements
  2877. >The tension is palpable, but as you cross the lines again, it seems to thin just a bit
  2878. >You're immediately approached by the nervous captain you had spoken with before, looking more distraught than ever
  2879. >”Sir? I've drawn up a plan for a full out assault, we can have their lines broken inside a few hours.”
  2880. >You chasten him with a dismissive gesture, a modicum of your earlier cynicism returning
  2881. “No need, captain. I just need some parchment, peace in our time and all that.”
  2882. >He lets out a breath, visibly relieved by your words
  2883. >”Oh thank Celestia, I was praying that they would see reason. I was right to call you immediately, sir.”
  2884. >You give him a withering gaze, and address him with a note of aggression in your tone
  2885. “You wouldn't have needed to call me if you'd listened to orders. A section of military police, not a blasted platoon of regular infantry. What in Equestria was running through your head?”
  2886. >He blushes and stares at his hooves, kicking at the cobblestones underhoof
  2887. >”I-I needed to ensure security sir. The Royal Guards are elite, they would have easily overpowered a mere section.”
  2888. >Your voice rises, as does your temper, at the excuse
  2889. “They wouldn't have tried to resist, captain. If you had brought a force reasonable to your demands, they would have complied, but instead you brought overwhelming numbers and they took it to mean you were acting on your own! You're relieved, captain. Send for your former subordinate and go to deployment to be reassigned.”
  2890. >The captain looks up at you, his eyes large as dinner plates
  2891. >”B-but sir, I only did what I thought was necessary!”
  2892. >Your cheek twitches as he continues to protest
  2893. >How could he not understand that, whether here or on a battlefield, using too much wasn't always, or even usually, a good thing
  2894. >Sending a battalion to attack a platoon would waste troops, ammunition, and time that could be better spent on different things
  2895. >Perhaps though, the ponies in the troop assignment group could find a better fit for him
  2896. “Enough. You're dismissed.”
  2897. >He's finally silent, hanging his head low as he leaves the command center
  2898. >The room is silent as they watch him go, and as the door shuts there are nervous looks all around
  2899. >You massage your temples, trying to ease the sudden pressure you were feeling behind your eyes
  2900. >An odd, leathery flapping makes your ears perk and you look around the room for the source
  2901. >When you don't find the source, you begin speaking with an anomalous soldier near you
  2902. “Trooper, can you send for someone from the foreign ministry? I need an unbiased pony to witness these negotiations, otherwise I'm certain somepony is going to make a greater fuss than before with this.”
  2903. >The flapping sounds again, and you're able to zero in on the source above you
  2904. >A pair of yellow eyes with slitted pupils stare down from the rafters above your head, and you start at the sudden appearance
  2905.  >A pair of dark, leathery wings unfold and the bat pony drops gracefully to the floor in front of you
  2906. >He bows low before you as he speaks up in a rasping voice
  2907. >”My lord Anonymous, please allow me to bear witness to thy negotiations. I can substitute as a third party, and we have interests in these proceedings as well.”
  2908. >Your words fail you for a long moment
  2909. >It was the first time you had actually seen one of Luna's guards, unlike the Royal Guards, the Chiropteran Wardens acted subtly and used more subversive methods to ensure security of their princess
  2910. >There were many rumours about them, from their being able to turn invisible, to them eating meat
  2911. >The only clear thing about them was that they unnerved regular ponies, but right now you felt more curious than fearful
  2912. “And what is your name, warden?”
  2913. >He rises and grins, baring the fangs that had such a fearsome reputation
  2914. >”My name is Dusk Echo, lord. I am the one appointed as liaison by the Unseen. Please lord, allow me to accompany you and ensure your safety through these trials.”
  2915. >It doesn't take you long to consider the offer
  2916. >After all, this was a group of ponies that you hadn't seen before, let alone had time to speak with and understand
  2917. >And his appearance would be likely to dissuade any opposition to the terms you would set down
  2918. “Very well, Dusk, let's be on our way.”
  2919. >Without another word, the two of you depart to cross the lines once more
  2920. --
  2921. >When you enter the barracks again, you take a bit of satisfaction from seeing Buckler flinch at the sight of Echo
  2922. >But for his part, the bat pony merely grins and addresses the watch commander in his raspy voice
  2923. >”Good day to you, watch commander. And how are you, in this hour of fading light?”
  2924. >He had a strange, rather esoteric way of speaking
  2925. >Formal and oddly poetic, it seemed to serve as a counterpoint to his savage appearance
  2926. >And it seemed to work at unnerving your diplomatic partner, so without acknowledging it in any blatant way, you merely sit at the table
  2927. “Well then, shall we begin Mr. Buckler?”
  2928. >You forgo his title deliberately, making it clear the position he was in
  2929. >Your slight doesn't go unnoticed, but the guard takes his own seat, accompanied by a young looking officer
  2930. >Perhaps his aide, or the only other officer here, you think as they lean over the tabletop
  2931. >But they don't address you, to your surprise
  2932. >”Warden Echo, what a pleasant surprise that you would be joining these negotiations. You're here as a witness, I presume?”
  2933. >His tone indicates anything but warm feelings
  2934. >But Echo, to his credit, responds in a far more gentle tone that you would have thought
  2935. >”Partially, watch commander. But also I come to negotiate the position of the Chiropteran Wardens and communicate the desires of my superiors. Consider me as a witness and an interested party, if you would.”
  2936. >Both the guards furrow their brows, and the younger one bursts out
  2937. >”That's unacceptable! These negotiations are between the Royal Guard and the military alone!”
  2938. >The three of you shoot him withering gazes, not even his commander appreciates the sentiment it seems
  2939. >Clearing his throat, Buckler speaks up as his colleague sits abashedly
  2940. >”Yes well, this is most unexpected. But be mindful warden, these are primarily to determine the state of affairs of the current situation. I would request you do not try and turn this to selfish objectives.”
  2941. >Echo's grin only widens further
  2942. >”I would never dream of it, watch commander. My interests lie solely with the best interests of Equestria as a whole.”
  2943. >The way he says it is unnerving, even to you
  2944. >It sounded almost as though there was a sinister edge to his voice, but if Buckler had detected it he makes no comment
  2945. >Instead, he fixes his gaze on you
  2946. >”I do hope there will be no more...surprises.”
  2947. >You smile warmly at the officers and show them your open palms
  2948. “Not at all, Mr. Buckler. I simply believed it would be a fine idea to have an impartial witness to the proceedings.”
  2949. >He stares at you with a fiery gaze
  2950. >Either furious at your idea of an impartial witness or certain you're lying to his face
  2951. >Frankly it doesn't matter which one
  2952. “So then, you agree that the Royal Guard, as it is today, shall be placed under the command structure of the military. Furthermore, a full investigation of the ponies involved in the assault on the ambassador will be conducted and you ensure the full cooperation of your stallions in said investigation.”
  2953. >Buckler furrows his brow and shoots a gaze at the younger guard beside him to keep the junior quiet
  2954. >”Yes, as I said it's distasteful but I can agree to it. In return, you promise fair treatment and light punishment for those involved in this unfortunate scuffle. As I stated before, they only had the interests of their fellow guards at heart. I assume of course that, as a branch of the Guard, the Chirpoteran Wardens shall be incorporated into the military structure as well.”
  2955. >You hadn't actually thought of that before sitting at the table
  2956. >It would make sense of course, putting them into the intelligence branch would be an incredible asset for the troops
  2957. >Perhaps they might even train some units to specialize in night fighting, or clandestine operations, or who knows what
  2958. >Your train of thought is interrupted by Echo clearing his throat
  2959. >”That is, in fact, why I've come to this discussion. By the nature of our organization, to become part of the military would be exceedingly troublesome. Without revealing any dangerous information, we require the freedom of our own command structure to be as effective as we are.”
  2960. >You look over at the bat pony, not expecting him to chime in so quickly
  2961. >But out of the corner of your eye, you see Buckler fuming as Echo continues
  2962. >”As per our previous agreement with Her Majesty Princess Celestia, we desire to retain our autonomy from the bureaucracy that can hobble other organizations. And in return, we shall of course continue to serve in the capacity we already do.”
  2963. >Buckler slams his hooves down on the table, startling you and drawing Echo's full attention
  2964. >”Absolutely unacceptable! The Royal Guard has served the princess for millenia, through the most troubling times in our history. Our proud heritage dates even prior to the Wardens existing, and yet you would deny us the self-same treatment as you? Unthinkable, it would be a deplorable stab in the back!”
  2965. >Echo's smile doesn't falter and he keeps an even tone as he responds
  2966. >”On the contrary, it would merely be upholding agreements that were put in place for the betterment of all Equestria.”
  2967. >Buckler grinds his teeth together, and his subordinate speaks up in his place
  2968. >”Is that what you call being allowed to slink around in the dark, cutting deals that would never be allowed, and  'disappearing' anypony that tries to stop you? At the very least, WE protect ponies and ensure proper security. You and your ilk are just a criminal gang that happens to work with the government.”
  2969. >The only sign of his annoyance is a twitch in Echo's cheek
  2970. >His tone has lost any semblance of respect and carries a midnight chill when he retorts
  2971. >”You may think of us what you wish, but do not dare question our dedication to ensuring the safety of Equestria and the princesses. Your beliefs of our activities are irrelevant so long as you understand we are your allies.”
  2972. >As Buckler opens his mouth to continue you feel that this has gone on long enough already
  2973. “Enough, we've strayed far enough from the topic at hand already. I believe some form of autonomy is permissible, Echo, but I would like to foster cooperation as well. Perhaps the devotion of a full team of Wardens to liaise with different levels of government and military?”
  2974. >Echo's brow furrows in thought, but Buckler shouts in exclamation before he can offer a response
  2975. >”You can't seriously be considering this, Anonymous! These...these creatures fought on the side of Nightmare Moon in the rebellion! They caused havoc for Equestria for nearly three centuries after, there's no way they can be trusted without heavy oversight!”
  2976. >Echo's gaze turns thoughtful as he replies to Buckler, his tone not carrying the same edge it had before
  2977. >”It is true, we fought on the side of our princess. And would you not have done the same, had Celestia raised your kin from ash and ruin? Unlike you, our oath is in our very blood, not words on parchment. I could no more betray the lunar princess than you could become an alicorn, watch commander. But the fact of the matter is we were welcomed back into the fold by Princess Celestia, and absolved of the crimes of our fathers. And now we come in an attempt to ensure a peaceful resolution to your own rebellion against the crown and you believe we work against you? Not even Discord is so mad.”
  2978. >This is going nowhere fast
  2979. >The two guards shout over each other at the bat pony, who simply endures the tirade with a neutral mask on his face
  2980. >Evidently, bringing Echo in had been a mistake, but at the same time did the liaison of the sister unit to the Royal Guard not deserve to be privy to this?
  2981. >Perhaps it was just the stress of the situation, but there's no doubt the guards were overreacting to his presence
  2982. >Before long, you tire of the petty insults that the shouting has devolved into
  2983. >You slam a closed fist down on the table, silencing their bickering in an instant
  2984. “Enough! Watch commander, while I can appreciate how you feel to a degree, I don't think you understand just how little room to bargain you have. And what little you have is rapidly being burned away by your petty whining. I will give you one more chance; accept the terms as they have been laid out or you will no longer be considered anything more than seditious elements to be eradicated.”
  2985. >You see the understanding and fear dawn in the eyes of the young officer, an officer cadet you note, finally recognizing his rank
  2986. >Buckler's face twists in a series of emotional displays, but finally settles into a scowl of defiance
  2987. >You feel a pang in your heart as he gives his answer, filled with venom and vitriol
  2988. >”So be it. I'll not stand by while my brothers are thrown aside like livestock. All Equestria shall know of the discord you spread amongst even the tightest ranks, Anonymous. I pray that peace never visits you and every victory turns to ash in your mouth. You're not fit to even speak the name of Princess Celestia, much less take her throne. Begone.”
  2989. >In silence, you and Echo rise and leave the room
  2990. >As you cross the lines for the last time, your heart is heavy
  2991. >Everything had been going as well as it possibly could, you had never expected letting in one pony could have such an impact
  2992. >It's not hard to find blame in Echo and his sudden appearance, but you cannot let it rest entirely with him
  2993. >You're certain you could have found an acceptable deal for all parties involved
  2994. >You know it
  2995. >But you hadn't, you'd lost your temper and delivered an ultimatum that would make even the griffons balk
  2996. >And instead of having the desired effect of cowing Buckler, it had hardened his heart
  2997. >So it is that you find yourself in the command room, your head in your hands, with a crowd of soldiers and officers waiting to hear your words
  2998. >And you have no idea what to say
  2999. --
  3000. >A hoof brushes against your arm, and you look down to see Echo staring at you with an almost sheepish look on his face
  3001. >”My deepest apologies, lord. I had not expected his reaction to my presence to be so poor.”
  3002. >You shake your head slowly, your foul mood deepening further
  3003. “No, I shouldn't have brought an unknown into that. Novice mistake on my part, don't worry too much about it.”
  3004. >Echo absently kicks a hoof against the cobbles looking down, but looks back at you with firmness returned to his gaze
  3005. >”Nevertheless, for my part in it I must take responsibility. Have the troops hold their position, we shall take care of this mess.”
  3006. >He eyes the darkening sky as he speaks, and a chill runs up your spine
  3007. >You can imagine exactly how an autonomous 'security' organization would deal with this problem
  3008. >But you weren't about to give up on the guards quite yet
  3009. “Before you do anything of the sort, I'm going to try and talk some sense into them one more time.”
  3010. >He lowers his head in a shallow bow, but you see the savage smile sitting on his face
  3011. >”As you wish, lord. I shall prepare for the inevitable, but hold for your word.”
  3012. >Another shiver, and you feel goosebumps rise on your neck
  3013. >But you push down the unease and turn to an officer bearing the emblem of lieutenant
  3014. “Soldier, get me a megaphone. I have an announcement to make.”
  3015. >The officer salutes you sharply
  3016. >”At once sir!”
  3017. >A few moments later, you stand behind the barricade beside a number of soldiers manning it
  3018. >You lift the megaphone to your mouth and address the rebel guards across the hall
  3019. “Royal Guards of Equestria, your dedication to your brothers is admirable, and you have made clear that your courage does not waver. Truly, you have shown you are more than deserving of your status as guardians of the princess and Equestria.”
  3020. >You pause for a moment, considering the weight of your next words and just how they might be received
  3021. “But now, that dedication has led you astray. You stand in opposition to the crown and against the defenders of the realm, and this sedition threatens the harmony of Equestria itself. Even as I appreciate your loyalty to your brothers, this is something that cannot stand. I ask you, I beg you, look within and truly question if a mere misunderstanding is worth upsetting the delicate position Equestria stands in. Would you continue along the path of disharmony and discord you have slipped onto?”
  3022. >You let the words hang for a moment in the still air of the deepening night
  3023. >When you resume, there is a touch of emotion all to genuine in your voice
  3024. “Please, I do not wish to see any blood shed over such a petty mistake as this. With all here as my witnesses, if you come back to us, back to harmony, there shall be no repercussions. You will be welcomed as prodigal sons, celebrated for your understanding of the value of unity, and for the wisdom of your choice.”
  3025. >Again, you pause, struggling to find your words
  3026. >This situation is affecting you far more than you would have thought
  3027. “I will give you time to think. Please, loyal guardians of Equestria, come back to us.”
  3028. >You trail off, unable to think of anything else to say
  3029. >So you stand at the barricade, staring across the hall as the minutes stretch out before you
  3030. >As you're about to turn away in despair, you hear muffled shouting from the way of the Royal Guards
  3031. >After a final, shouted exclamation, you see a young looking pony hop over the barricade and sprint over to your side, his weapon cast to the ground
  3032. >As he charges toward you, a pair of soldiers push a crate aside to make room for him
  3033. >He slides to a stop behind your battlements, panting heavily, his mouth beginning to foam from the exertion
  3034. >At your feet, he bows deeply, professing an apology with every desperate breath he takes
  3035. >Getting over your shock, you lay a hand on his withers gently
  3036. >He twitches at the contact and looks up at you with wide, fearful eyes
  3037. >But his return has salved your spirit, at least a small amount
  3038. >You give him a warm, paternal smile and pat his back soothingly
  3039. “All is forgiven, go get some rest. See the lieutenant back there, he'll get you a place to rest.”
  3040. >The young guard quiets down and nods, tears welling up in his eyes as he gallops into the command room
  3041. >After another few minutes of waiting, you return to the command room, a sudden tiredness pressing down on your shoulders
  3042. >You take a seat at the table in the center of it all, rubbing your eyes
  3043. >A sergeant approaches you cautiously, standing beside you and delivering a rigid salute
  3044. >”Sir, there's a pony at the door to see you. We've kept her outside the command room, but she swears she knows you. One Cursive Quill?”
  3045. >Your tiredness is immediately replaced with a flare of anger
  3046. >These idiots should have known who she was
  3047. >You reign the feeling back as you recall you had specifically ordered troops from outside the city to be deployed
  3048. >Instead you settle on a sigh of resignation to show how you felt about his action
  3049. “Send her in, please. And spread the word, she's permitted wherever she needs to go.”
  3050. >The sergeant nods and trots off
  3051. >Moments later, a frantic galloping reaches your ears and a very distraught looking Quill hops onto your lap
  3052. >She buries her face in your chest, heaving great gasps of air and choking back sobs
  3053. >A quick look around tells you that many ponies have vacated the room, and the remaining ones are pointedly ignoring you
  3054. >Gently shushing her, you stroke her back to calm her, wrapping your arm around and tightly embracing her
  3055. >It takes a long while for her to calm down enough to speak, still hiccuping as she looks up at you with a tear streaked face
  3056. >”I was s-so worried Anon! Th-the guards, they wouldn't let me in, and there was all the shouting! I thought you'd been hurt!”
  3057. >Quill trails off, burying her face in your chest again
  3058. >You stroke her mane to calm her, not saying a word
  3059. >Right now she just needed to be comforted, not given excuses
  3060. >An hour later, she's calmed down and fallen asleep in your lap, and the command room is quiet around you
  3061. >A number more of the Royal Guards had passed through, some tearful, others with their heads held high
  3062. >But it had been at least a half hour since the last one had passed through, and a report from the barricade said the only ones left just happened to be the ones who had been on the guard roster for Chitin
  3063. >And of course, Buckler had stayed as well
  3064. >Echo had returned ten minutes ago, informing you that he was prepared to 'solve the problem'
  3065. >But you were hesitant
  3066. >Certainly you didn't want this crisis to go on any longer than it had to, but to use such methods?
  3067. >It was strange in a way, going to war with the griffons hadn't affected you in the slightest, you had even felt gleeful at hearing of their total defeat in Trottingham
  3068. >Perhaps it was because these were ponies, not your own people but they had taken you in when you'd nowhere else to go
  3069. >It made sense for you to be more attached to them, but it was only now you understood how deeply those attachments ran
  3070. >But now, you steel yourself, putting on the politicians mask of neutrality you had perfected
  3071. “Go.”
  3072. >At the word, Echo trots away silently, leaving the command post behind
  3073. >A part of your heart breaks, and you can't stop a couple tears from falling from your eyes
  3074. >A nuzzling at your belly reminds you of why you made the choice though
  3075. >It was ponies like Quill, like Fluttershy, like all your friends in Ponyville that you stained your hands with these decisions
  3076. >The cost of upholding harmony and unity had to be paid
  3077. >But just how much of your soul would that cost be?
  3078. >You don't sleep at all that night
  3079. >Even though the number of soldiers has dwindled to a skeleton crew and the lines have been quiet all night
  3080. >Perhaps it was because, a few moments after that true, deathly quiet had begun, Echo had sidled up to you and told you that the situation had been resolved
  3081. >You may have been optimistic, but you weren't naive, you knew exactly what he was implying
  3082. >Perhaps it was because you'd sent a protesting Quill off to her own room
  3083. >It had taken a great deal of assurance that you would be perfectly safe, especially with the resolution and being surrounded by military troops
  3084. >But eventually, she'd listened to you
  3085. >You didn't want her around to feed off your stewing mood
  3086. >Perhaps it was the inspection of the guard barracks you had undertaken after getting word of the completion of Echo's...work
  3087. >It had been clean, disturbingly so
  3088. >Better organized and cleaned than it had been when you had been in there negotiating for peace
  3089. >You had ordered the troops manning the barricade to solemn silence and to take down the fortifications
  3090. >You'd have to deal with the press in the morning for certain, maybe that was what weighed so heavily on you
  3091. >How would ponies react to knowing their beloved Royal Guards had rebelled against you?
  3092. >Though it hadn't been all of them, in fact it hadn't even constituted a military platoon
  3093. >And perhaps more importantly, none of the other guards around the palace had come to their rescue, remaining faithfully at their posts
  3094. >Truly, how many ponies knew exactly how many had actually rebelled?
  3095. >You could spin it as though they had all come back over peacefully after understanding their mistake
  3096. >In fact, that would be practically easy compared to other options
  3097. >But you left that choice for later, worrying away at it would do nothing but give you an ulcer
  3098. >Still, you hadn't found rest despite giving up on worrying
  3099. >Much later in the evening, perhaps it was early in the morning though, you find Echo at your side
  3100. >After some time sitting in silence, you decide to distract yourself with conversation
  3101. “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Echo?”
  3102. >He glances about the empty room, then inclines his head in a curt bow
  3103. >”So long as it does not compromise the security of my kind, I shall do my best to answer, lord.”
  3104. >You scratch your chin, wondering exactly what the boundaries were
  3105. “Well how about the beginning. Where did you guys come from? I mean, you're not exactly pegasi right?”
  3106. >He lets out a thoughtful hum and looks at the table you sit at
  3107. >”We were, once. In eons past, just after the unification of ponykind, we were pegasi. So the stories go, we had build the grand city of Cumulopolis, the city that touched the sky. So high up was the cloud base that it was a mere speck to those who could not soar as we did. We were so high that many of us dreamed we could even touch the stars themselves.”
  3108. >He trails off, gazing out the window with a distant look and a sad smile
  3109. >When he doesn't speak for a long moment, you continue the line of questioning
  3110. “Where was Cumulopolis? I've never seen reference to that outside old legends, hell I didn't think it was real.”
  3111. >He turns his face to you, his look grim
  3112. >”The moon wept.”
  3113. >You blink slowly at the cryptic turn of phrase
  3114. “Explain.”
  3115. >He sighs and returns his gaze to the stars outside, his gaze one of fanciful desire
  3116. >”A piece of the moon herself broke off and fell through the sky. All of our ancestors gathered and gazed at the tear the moon had shed with wonder. Then it seemed to shatter across the night sky. Mere moments later, the city was totally destroyed. Anypony that survived the calamity was...changed. No longer could they walk in the day with ease, nor navigate by the rays of the sun. They were stripped of their feathers, their wings becoming dark and leathery. They became outcasts among their own people, the pegasi. They thought themselves punished for daring to brush their wings against the dome of the sky”
  3117. >His gaze takes on a beatific quality as he continues to stare at the moon high above
  3118. >”But Princess Luna came to them, sought them out of the caves they had sequestered themselves in. Though she did not know why the moon wept, she swore that she would not stop seeking a way to give us back our first bodies. And so they swore their blood, and ours, to the princess of the night. Though many millenia have passed since then, we still keep faith that she shall return us to how we were.”
  3119. >He continues to gaze wistfully at the night sky, his eyes unfocused and misty
  3120. >You take some time to consider the tale
  3121. >It was easy to dismiss it as just an origin myth, something to explain why the bat ponies were so different from every other kind of pony
  3122. >But the conviction Echo had relayed it with, and the care he had taken in choosing his words, keeps you from simply calling it a story and being done with it
  3123. >It certainly explained their devotion to Luna
  3124. >And perhaps that moon rock had some kind of magic in it, it certainly wouldn't be far-fetched that that would be the case
  3125. >After all, you had seen stranger things even in your short time in Equestria
  3126. “But why take on the role that you have? You could have easily been taken under the Royal Guard, you probably would have even been welcome to the night shift.”
  3127. >He let's out a short chuckle and returns to looking you
  3128. >”Nay, we had seen a need for a force such as ourselves. We had become an old mare's tale, the pegasi that flew to close to the moon and were struck down for hubris. We embraced it, eventually. Only a few of us would ever be in the public eye, and only accompanying Princess Luna. Later we established the role I now fill, as we realized that sometimes we must...coerce certain ponies to help in tasks. And so it came to be that we would be the wall in the night, doing things that no reasonable pony would consider, all in order to keep Equestria safe and serve the will of our princess.”
  3129. >You scratch your chin and remember something that one of the guards had mentioned earlier
  3130. “And you sided with Luna during the Fall, right?”
  3131. >His ears flatten against his skull
  3132. >You probably could have phrased that far better, but you were totally exhausted dammit
  3133. >His answer is hesitant, as though expecting rebuke at any second
  3134. >”Yes, we sided with Nightmare Moon. Stories from those of the time recount some inexplicable...draw to her. They knew their actions would harm Equestria but...it didn't matter for some reason. Even the tales have nothing but speculation, that perhaps it was the same blessing that made us as we are which had us so unquestioningly loyal. The princess is inexorably tied to the moon, after all. But it does not matter, we fought against Equestria openly then and continued to foster rebellion for two centuries after until Celestia herself found our homes and brought us back under Equestrian rule.”
  3135. >Your eyes widen at the mention of rebellion even two hundred years after Luna's banishment
  3136. >That would have been the Great Eastern Rebellion that had seen the disbanding of the military as a whole
  3137. >'The Eastern Frontier in Flames', that had been the title of the book you'd read all about it
  3138. >How long ago was that now?
  3139. >Before you'd taken the throne certainly
  3140. >And now with the reestablishment of the military proper, and Luna being one of the top generals, the bat ponies were coming and offering you their service
  3141. >Circles within circles
  3142. >Maybe it was just how tired you are, but the thought sends a chill up your spine
  3143. >You had spent so long studying and participating in politics that you saw double meanings everywhere
  3144. >But this kind of recursivity was something that felt new, and entirely unwelcome
  3145. >The horizon had begun to brighten while you stewed over the information you had garnered
  3146. >You see Echo's gaze flicking to where the sun would soon appear and back to you
  3147. >With a wave, you dismiss him, his thoughts easy to understand
  3148. >He gives you a deep bow and trots out the door, leaving you alone in the room lit only by the predawn light
  3149. >There was so much to do today, you'd be addressing the media about the matter of the guards, still going on with the changeling talks, poring over military and industrial reports, and who knew what else
  3150. >You try to rub the sandpaper feeling from your eyes, knowing that you had to at least appear attentive to the ponies
  3151. >You begin to wander back to your room, determined to go about a regular routine for the day
  3152. >Or as regular as you could make it
  3153. >Something to distract you from all the excitement of late
  3154. >Boring was fine, it just had to be regular, routine
  3155. >Anything normal
  3156. --
  3157. >Your room is encompassed in a deep darkness, such that you cannot see your hoof in front of your face
  3158. >Despite the late hour and the excitement of the day, you find yourself totally unable to sleep
  3159. >Anon had sent you away, and you're worrying over why exactly he had among other issues
  3160. >Like your feelings towards him, the weight of your duty to Equestria, and the assignment you had been given from the lips of Celestia herself
  3161. >You are Cursive Quill, and you're starting to wonder where it all went wrong
  3162. >It had been such a simple job, being detached from what little there had been of the Equestrian Defense Force intelligence section and assigned to watch Anonymous
  3163. >And of course, to intervene if need be
  3164. >Of course, Princess Celestia had not defined the point at which you were to intervene, nor HOW to intervene
  3165. >That in itself was a problem, especially considering how you felt lately
  3166. >Being around him made you giddy, made you want to prance around like a little filly and catch his attention at every turn
  3167. >But you remained professional around him, totally composed as you had been taught
  3168. >Mostly
  3169. >You're fuming about your display earlier
  3170. >Breaking down in front of a bunch of rank and file soldiers, being comforted by the person that was supposed to be your boss, never mind showing off how close you were to him
  3171. >The worst part of it was, no matter how illogical it had been, that feeling of worry and fear was all too genuine
  3172. >You had dismissed stories of agents 'going native' or siding with the targets they were supposed to be spying on
  3173. >Now you knew better
  3174. >You had seen it coming too, back in Ponyville when he'd made that first speech
  3175. >You knew that it was just acting, that he was pretending to feel what he said in the words, you were sure of it
  3176. >So many years working as an analyst had told you exactly how those words were calculated to stir feelings in the hearts of ponies
  3177. >And yet it worked on you
  3178. >Maybe it was because he had shown through actions that he truly did mean what he said, or at the very least strove to do as he said
  3179. >He was kind, earnest, brave, intelligent, and for whatever reason it touched you in a way that had compromised your work
  3180. >It was hard to believe anyone, much less a non-pony, could break you of your cynicism at this point
  3181. >But he had, and he'd given you hope
  3182. >Something you hadn't really felt since...
  3183. >No
  3184. >You wouldn't fall down the hole of thinking about that, not now, not ever
  3185. >From beneath your hooves, you face peeks out and stares towards the heavy curtains covering the window
  3186. >You let out a huff and get out of bed, trotting over and throwing the curtains open to reveal the full moon gazing down on you
  3187. >You stare straight back, fury in your eyes
  3188. ”You know, don't you Luna? You always knew but you never told him, why not? Could it be you don't trust him, or do you just get your entertainment watching me fall further from Celestia's grace every time I get near him? Does it make you giddy watching me torture myself every second I spend with him?”
  3189. >The second you finish your little rant at the moon, a dark shadow spreads across it
  3190. >You feel a shiver run up your back as the shadow stretches into the room, drawing ever closer to you
  3191. >A voice, cold as the night sky but tinged with heartache, echoes behind you in the dark room
  3192. >”Is that truly what you think of me, Cursive Quill?”
  3193. >You whirl about and find Luna herself standing there
  3194. >Your face twists in a sneer as it all comes together at last
  3195. >Obviously you had fallen asleep, and now you were dreaming that the princess of the night was before you herself
  3196. >Of course, she was directing a campaign so this was just an apparition of your own making
  3197. >You reply to the phantasm towering over the black space where the door had been, your voice dripping with bile and venom
  3198. “Of course it's what I think of you, Luna. The great lunar princess, who presided over all things miltiary, couldn't spot an intelligence plant. That or the redeemed princess who just loves to watch a subject suffer while she watches quietly.”
  3199. >'Luna's' ears flatten against her skull and she look downright ashamed
  3200. >So of course, you continue, how could you not?
  3201. “But you've been enjoying that for years haven't you? Oh of course, you've found time to visit the dreams of every pony in Ponyville, every guard and scribe in the palace. Even half the nobles who've had barely any troubles get a dreamwalk from the radiant princess Luna to help them solve their problems. But me? No, I guess giving my entire life to the throne, having my fillyhood destroyed, and never finding a real home just isn't enough to warrant a bit of help.”
  3202. >You blink back bitter, stinging tears as the illusion of the princess appears more and more piteous
  3203. >It almost, almost, stops you from continuing
  3204. >This had weighed and worn on you so much that even in a dream it was offering catharsis
  3205. >But before you can carry on with your tirade, words too quiet from 'Luna's' mouth stop you
  3206. >They're choked out with a sob and so soft you can't believe what you had heard
  3207. “What was that, 'princess'?”
  3208. >She draws herself up, puffing out her chest and even with tears glistening in the false moonlight of the imaginary sky manages to look noble
  3209. >'Luna' steps up in front of you, but even her enormity does not cow you
  3210. >You know she isn't real
  3211. >But the wing that wraps itself around you, the warmth of her body, the sorrow you can physically feel emanating from her
  3212. >It feels real
  3213. >Her voice cracks as she speaks softly, her tone almost maternal
  3214. >”I'm sorry, Quill.”
  3215. >You feel your heart speed up, but you're not about to give in to an illusion
  3216. “Yeah, whatever. This is all in my head anyway.”
  3217. >You feel the wing tighten around your back, and a warm droplet hits your forehead
  3218. >”You truly believe that? It is indeed me, Cursive Quill.”
  3219. >No, it couldn't be
  3220. >You push against the lump forming in your throat, the part of you that desperately desires this all to be real
  3221. >You can't quite keep the hope from your voice, but it still comes tinged with bitterness
  3222. “Prove it.”
  3223. >One of the wings pushes your chin up so you are looking into her teary, red eyes
  3224. >Her voice is firm, absolute, more than befitting of a diarch such as her
  3225. >”In the morning, after you and I awaken, I shall send a telegram to Canterlot. It shall be an official report, but will have in it the phrase 'the love of a mother'.”
  3226. >You can feel your heart breaking in two at even the idea of reading those words
  3227. >Instead of facing her any longer, you squeeze your eyes shut and pull your face away from her wing
  3228. “Just...just go. Don't give me something else to be disappointed about.”
  3229. >You feel her pull away from you and against your better judgment, you turn to watch
  3230. >As she steps towards a door that had appeared in the void across from the window, she faces you with a sad smile
  3231. >”I shall show you, Quill, the love you have yearned for.”
  3232. >You grit your teeth in a snarl at her words, even as hot tears pour down your face
  3233. >But she's gone before you can retort, leaving you alone to bask in the rays of the unreal moon, crying like a lost filly
  3234. >The room around you fades away, and you feel a warm feeling spread across your face
  3235. >When you next open your eyes, the morning sun sparkles through the fine glass of the windows, warming the tracks the tears had made on your muzzle
  3236. >You sniffle a bit as you recall the dream, but as you trek to the shower to prepare yourself for the day, you steel your heart against the feelings
  3237. >It wouldn't do for you to appear so disheveled in public
  3238. >Especially not for a mere dream
  3239. >The day is boring, as many days tended to be for you
  3240. >Anon met with the press first thing, and as ever you accompanied him
  3241. >Before the conference, you'd offered some cards about what to say to certain questions
  3242. >Cards that, against your better judgment, you had spent a solid half-hour making instead of doing other things
  3243. >Like compiling observations, you know, doing your job?
  3244. >But you had wasted it on working FOR him
  3245. >The day had only become worse from there
  3246. >After the dreary questions of the media, half of which were just constantly regurgitated ones of the status of the Royal Guards and the standoff, you'd gone to speak more with Chitin
  3247. >Even though you weren't personally affected by their previous invasion, being around him was enough to make your skin crawl
  3248. >It didn't help that, sometimes, he seemed to be giving you an almost lascivious look
  3249. >You weren't sure how to interpret his gazes, it was just a gut feeling
  3250. >Still, the talks went surprisingly well, and Chitin had opened up after Anonymous told him of the...results from the guard uprising
  3251. >You'd nearly curled your lips in a sneer at the mention of that incident
  3252. >Damned elitists, they could have made things so much easier if they had just gone along with the investigation
  3253. >You didn't even hold anything against them for wanting to retain independence, if anything you understand the feeling well
  3254. >It was just...damn
  3255. >At least the changeling seemed pleased that his attackers had been 'taken care of', as it had been so delicately put
  3256. >But the ground had been laid for proper peace talks, you'd even sent a message off to the Crystal Empire
  3257. >If you could get them on board, it was possible the Changelings as a whole would never have to hunt for food again
  3258. >And as an intelligence plant, you couldn't deny their utility as spies
  3259. >They were practically built for the job from the genetic level up
  3260. >The day continues on, a boring meeting with officials that you take notes on, for Anonymous of course
  3261. >Eager as he was, he had some bad habits
  3262. >Like never, ever taking a note himself unless he was speech writing
  3263. >Sometimes you're amazed he made it this far, but mostly you're impressed by how well he's done
  3264. >After all, he wasn't even a pony
  3265. >You really did admire him, both professionally and...otherwise
  3266. >He was determined to see the best in everything, to work towards a peaceful solution to whatever problems there had been
  3267. >Truly, a being after Celestia's own heart
  3268. >But his way of ensuring peace was quite different to hers
  3269. >He'd once confided in you about it, as he had come to do after a while
  3270. >His world was one of constant violence and strife, even coming to, as he had horrifyingly called them, 'world wars'
  3271. >As in plural
  3272. >It had sent a shudder up your spine to even imagine it
  3273. >Millions of beings throwing their lives away, and for what?
  3274. >He swore to you he wanted that fate to be avoided for Equestria, that he wanted everypony to be able to live happy, healthy lives in comfort
  3275. >It had become clear to you both after the gryphons declared war that such a peace would not be easy to come by
  3276. >So Anonymous had laid his plans bare before you and Luna
  3277. >Under his plan, Equestria would become the most powerful country the world had ever known, militarily and economically
  3278. >The idea would have been considered abhorrent even ten years ago
  3279. >But war had a way of moulding even the most hardy of wills
  3280. >Nopony knew where Celestia and Twilight had gone, and without the security of the Elements of Harmony and, no offense to Luna, the most powerful magic users in Equestria, this was it
  3281. >But he wasn't a bad pony, person, he was just trying to make the best of a nightmare
  3282. >He was kind, gentle, loving, you'd seen what lay beneath the iron shackles he kept on his heart during business hours
  3283. >And you loved him
  3284. >You mull that thought over as the day goes on
  3285. >Yes, loved, like a mare does a stallion
  3286. >There was no more getting around it, certainly not after Trottingham
  3287. >Oh the bliss of that night in the glow of fireworks, his lips against yours, the warmth of his embrace
  3288. >It gave you shivers just to think about it
  3289. >Your gaze is far away, reliving that night, as he parades before a crowd, making a speech about the unity of all ponies from guards to grocers or somesuch
  3290. >It's all blather, taking up the little time the day had left
  3291. >The time before you could let down your persona of a prim and proper scribe and just be his
  3292. >Luna knew, you knew she knew, but she had never made a comment about it, never given you a look of distaste or any sign of discomfort with the way you acted
  3293. >Luna....
  3294. >She said that there would be word today, just for you
  3295. >A frantic messenger charges up to the two of you as Anon finishes receiving his applause from the crowd
  3296. >You perk up immediately, he's wearing a military outfit and the sigil of the communication brigade
  3297. >”Chancellor, a message from the army!”
  3298. >Your eyes widen, this was it!
  3299. >Anonymous nods his consent and the pegasus messenger opens the paper and clears his throat
  3300. >Almost delirious, you lean in to catch every word he says, holding your breath in anticipation
  3301. >Your dream...
  3302. >”Contact with enemy. Stop. Beachhead currently under bombardment. Stop. Landing delayed. Stop. Glory to Equestria. End.”
  3303. >...was just a dream
  3304. >You want to cry, to scream, to demand more of the messenger
  3305. >But even as your body shakes subtly, Anonymous thanks and dismisses the messenger
  3306. >He lays a hand on your withers, a slight touch to direct you, and you follow after him numbly
  3307. >You're not sure why you had thought the dream to be real
  3308. >Maybe you had just wanted some kind of hope, something to hold on to
  3309. >It barely registers when the door clicks shut behind you and Anonymous lays back on his bed
  3310. >Without prompting, you hop up beside him
  3311. >You NEED him
  3312. >He lays a gentle hand on your mane, without force, without intent
  3313. >His voice is quiet, kind, warm like an island sunset
  3314. >”What's the matter, Quill?”
  3315. >The way he said your name, never 'Cursive', never in anger, never formal when you were together
  3316. >You break down on his chest, sobbing about the dream that had never come, about the snake of a Luna that had come to you in the night, promising love and mending
  3317. >He strokes your mane, listening without judgment, without the bored affectation of a professional
  3318. >You love him
  3319. >You HATE this
  3320. >But you love him
  3321. --
  3322. >You awaken to your little assistant clutching you fiercely
  3323. >You can't resist reaching down and scratching behind her ears, and she gives a contented murmur as she presses her face against your chest
  3324. >Come to think of it, she had been incredibly clingy in what little private time you had shared as of late
  3325. >If you didn't know better, you'd think she was insecure, afraid you'd leave her
  3326. >But that was silly, she knew exactly how you felt about her
  3327. >She shifts, nuzzling against you and throwing a hoof over your chest
  3328. >Damn she was cute
  3329. >When did you start falling for this mare, or for mares in general?
  3330. >Couldn't have been long ago
  3331. >But then, it wasn't as though you went around gawking at mares about town
  3332. >Not only because it was unprofessional and completely unbecoming of a ruler, but you simply had no frame of reference to find them attractive
  3333. >So why was Quill the exception?
  3334. >You consider this as you listen to her slow, deep breathing and the quiet thud of her heartbeat
  3335. >For one, she was the most adorable thing you'd seen, here or in the last world
  3336. >Sure, some would say 'oh but that's subjective', but dammit you worked hard to get to where you were and by god, you would make her cuteness law if you needed to!
  3337. >But it wasn't just that
  3338. >Since you had fallen into this role, she had been by your side whenever you had needed her, and even when you hadn't
  3339. >She was loyal to the point that it practically put its element to shame
  3340. >And had a work ethic that would make even the most meticulous pony give up even trying to match
  3341. >But was it any of that that made you fall in love with her?
  3342. >After a long time thinking, you decide no
  3343. >Those had been factors in it sure, but what was the keystone that made it all work together?
  3344. >It falls into place, at long last
  3345. >She felt the same way you did
  3346. >Not just that she loved you, nor that she may or may not find you attractive
  3347. >No, she felt the same way you did, deep inside where you never let anyone else, pony or otherwise, in
  3348. >She was alone, just like you
  3349. >Perhaps not in the same sense that she was the last of her kind, but you had seen how she'd acted around everyone, besides Luna and yourself of course
  3350. >Never rude or unkind but...distant
  3351. >You had never asked her about her friends, but nor had she ever talked about having any
  3352. >The fact was, outside you and Luna, her social circle seemed non-existent
  3353. >Just the same way you had been when you'd arrived, even before you'd arrived perhaps
  3354. >Sure, over time you had grown close with some ponies, Fluttershy especially, but there had always been some kind of wall between you
  3355. >It hadn't really mattered, caused no problems, but you hadn't really been at home with them
  3356. >But Quill was different
  3357. >There hadn't been any sort of barrier between the two of you, even in the worst situations you had always been happy with her around or at least better than without
  3358. >The little pony lets out a quiet whimper, and your stroke her cheek gently
  3359. >No, you two complemented each other well, it was only natural that eventually you would share these feelings
  3360. >And they were shared...right?
  3361. >The sun that has been lazily creeping over the covers now rests squarely in your eyes, pulling you from that train of though
  3362. >Time to start the day
  3363. >You give Quill a little shake and she snorts, stretching her limbs out as much as she can with how she was sleeping
  3364. >”Whas-- 'non, time to get up?”
  3365. >You scratch behind her ears and she lets out a little sigh, bringing a grin to your face
  3366. “Yeah, time to get up and face the adoring public once more.”
  3367. >She scoffs and bit and stares up at you with a disapproving gaze
  3368. >”We don't have any public appearances today though, didn't you read the schedule.”
  3369. >You had, of course
  3370. >You ruffle her mane and sit up a bit in bed
  3371. “Just a little joke, Quill. Come on though, we don't want to make the changelings wait.”
  3372. >As you swing your legs over the side of the mattress, you recall exactly what Chitin had told you
  3373. >The queen herself was coming
  3374. >All it had taken was your telling him of the fate of the guards, he had apparently sent word immediately
  3375. >That had sat poorly with you until you'd fallen asleep
  3376. >You were more willing to forgive and make peace with them than most, it seemed, but it made you question your efforts
  3377. >Just how close were they to Equestria, how deeply burrowed into society had they become since their banishment?
  3378. >Close enough to make you nervous, it seemed, deep enough to be a problem if it came down to it
  3379. >As you stand under the stream of the shower, you jump back as Quill hops into the small tub with you
  3380. >With pure instinct, you cover yourself up and your temper rises
  3381. “What do you think you're doing, Quill?”
  3382. >Her tone is sleepy when she responds
  3383. >”I'm getting a shower, duh. Scooch over please?”
  3384. >She turns and you see her half open eyes immediately flit to your crotch
  3385. >Instantly they fly open and she scrambles out of the tub
  3386. >”Sorry, sorry! I didn't mean to Anon!”
  3387. >You regret snapping at her, but are mostly surprised with her reaction
  3388. >Surely it wasn't the first time she'd seen you naked, right?
  3389. >You blush yourself as you hurriedly begin scrubbing your body to take your mind off the fact that it was indeed
  3390. “D-don't worry about it, Quill. Honest mistake.”
  3391. >Definitely need to focus on washing
  3392. >As you step out of the shower and wrap a towel around your waist, you see Quill facing a corner of the small bathroom
  3393. “Hey, it's all yours Quill.”
  3394. >She simply nods, staying exactly where she is
  3395. >You come over and gently lay a hand on her withers
  3396. “You okay?”
  3397. >She once more nods her head, this time speaking up in a quiet voice
  3398. >”Yeah, just fine. I'll be done in a few minutes, okay?”
  3399. >You rub her back a bit, then exit the bathroom without speaking again
  3400. >She was probably just embarrassed, you think while dressing yourself in the pristine white uniform once more
  3401. >Nothing to worry about, really
  3402. >You eye the uniform as you pull it on
  3403. >Apparently somepony had managed to clean and press it while you had been asleep
  3404. >You're not entirely sure when or how, but you certainly appreciate the effort
  3405. >It wouldn't do to show up before the changeling queen herself looking dreary and mussed
  3406. >Quill trots out of the bathroom a few moments after you finish changing, her mane already pulled back tightly and glasses donned
  3407. >Less than a minute later, she's standing beside the door, saddlebags on and ready for the day
  3408. >You smile and kneel down to be on her level and gently stroke her cheek
  3409. “Well then, my little pony, shall we start the day?”
  3410. >Quill gives you a half-grin as you ape Celestia's common form of address
  3411. >Before you stand and leave, you give her a quick peck on the cheek
  3412. >She blushes fiercely, but doesn't object
  3413. >Were you being overly affectionate today?
  3414. >Maybe so, but you had earned the right to be a bit lovey, and Quill more than deserved it
  3415. >Because at the end of it all, you would face down everything that came against you
  3416. >Together
  3417. --
  3418. >A pair of MPs push open the great oaken doors to the Grand Receiving Chamber
  3419. >Possibly the most heavily decorated place outside the throne room itself, you felt that it would be the perfect place for such deliberations as this to take place
  3420. >Especially when working with one of Queen Chrysalis'...temperament
  3421. >You had been briefed of course, about what to expect when speaking with her
  3422. >Still, you weren't entirely sure that you were prepared to deal with such a being as her
  3423. >For instance, the broad smile you've plastered on your face nearly falters when you see her lounging on one of the chairs at the table
  3424. >But it still keeps, and you spread your arms in a welcoming gesture
  3425. “Queen Chrysalis, I do apologize if I've kept you waiting. Have you found the accommodations to your liking?”
  3426. >Her eyes flick up to meet yours, and she gives you a chilling, almost predatory, smile
  3427. >”Chancellor Anonymous, yes they are quite pretty. I thank you for meeting with me at long last.”
  3428. >Her gaze turns on Quill and that smile definitely becomes predatory
  3429. >”And who is this young mare?”
  3430. >Quill takes an involuntary step back as Chrysalis turns her attention to her
  3431. >You lay a comforting hand on her withers and cool your tone of voice
  3432. “This is my assistant, Cursive Quill. She will be helping us to draft the first outlines for any kind of treaty.”
  3433. >Chrysalis returns her gaze to you and raises a brow, but doesn't question you further
  3434. >Instead she stretches and sits up in the chair, her face settling into a more neutral expression
  3435. >”I believe we've wasted enough time on pleasantries, shall we begin?”
  3436. >You take a seat, as does Quill beside you, and fold your hands over one another, setting your own neutral expression
  3437. “Down to business then? Very well, since you made overtures towards us I can assume you have some conditions you want fulfilled. Of course, I must be sure that whatever agreement we come to can benefit Equestria as a whole, you understand.”
  3438. >She seems to feign boredom and looks at her hoof before responding
  3439. >”Yes, yes, of course. My demands are quite simple, chancellor, my changelings shall not be hunted and accosted. In return, we shall not kidnap ponies to sustain ourselves, only skim the bare minimum of love we need to survive. It's not a convoluted deal.”
  3440. >You lean forward on the table, unconvinced by her act
  3441. “Come now, Queen Chrysalis, the last time you were in Canterlot you attempted to overthrow the throne. I doubt someone with your...ambition would stop your demands there.”
  3442. >It seems she can't stop a slight grin at your commentary, though it doesn't touch her eyes in the slightest
  3443. >”To a degree, you are correct. I have many demands I would make of you, however I understand the position I am in. I imagine you have something you want though, do you not?”
  3444. >Chrysalis glances down at Quill, as if you make a point
  3445. >You simply return her empty smile and reply in a neutral tone
  3446. “There are some things I would like to negotiate on. But for now, Quill please note down these as a possible baseline for us to come back to.”
  3447. >Quill nods silently, scratching her namesake on the paper in front of her
  3448. >Your smile drops away once more as you face Chrysalis
  3449. >You know it won't be easy to convince her of what you want, even less so with the uncertainty of what you were going to offer
  3450. “Well now, Queen Chrysalis, I would like us to perform a...cultural exchange of sorts.”
  3451. >She leans forward, smiling coldly
  3452. >”I must say, chancellor, we do not exactly produce great works of art or epic stories. I wonder if you truly wish for a 'cultural exchange' as you so politely put it.”
  3453. >Your cheeks twitch, she saw straight through your attempt at subtlety
  3454. >It was your hope that you could ease into this idea, but it seemed Chrysalis wanted to skip straight to the point
  3455. >So be it, you had no problem avoiding politicking
  3456. “I applaud your directness, queen. You are correct, given the current state Equestria finds itself in I would like to propose not just peace accords, but possibly military cooperation.”
  3457. >Chrysalis' eyes widen as Quill whips around to face you, and they speak as one
  3458. >”What?!”
  3459. >You tap a finger against the wood of the large, round table
  3460. “I understand our kinds have no history of cooperation, however--”
  3461. >Quill whispers in your ear, cutting you off from your thought
  3462. >”Sir, you can't be serious about this. They've preyed off ponies for the past hundred years, this isn't something that will just go away overnight.”
  3463. >Chrysalis appears to be snarling at the very idea herself
  3464. >You take a deep breath, time to step this back a notch
  3465. “My apologies, I was getting a bit ahead of myself. Allow me to explain, Queen Chrysalis. You see, I studied the aftermath of the Canterlot incursion and found something to be rather interesting. It seemed, of all the changelings captured, killed, or witnessed by ponies, not one was armed. What's more, only very few bore armour of any kind. I do not mean to be presumptuous, but I believe this points to a deficiency with your hive, a lack of soldiers.”
  3466. >This was a gamble, certainly what you said was as true as the reports were
  3467. >But the conclusion you had drawn from it was only the most likely of the various possibilities, not a fact in itself
  3468. >Chrysalis' face has drawn tight, and she leans in
  3469. >When she speaks her voice is a low growl
  3470. >”Continue.”
  3471. >It's not a request
  3472. “Well, if your species has any similarities besides appearance to some from my home, a soldier caste is overspecialized for a species without a firm resource base. I would suspect that, adept as they may be with infiltration and magic, your drones are far from warriors. Especially considering that six mares with no training outside schoolyard scraps at best were able to defeat so many.”
  3473. >With the way the changeling queen is looking at you, you're surprised you haven't dissolved in a puddle of acid
  3474. >But with how furious she is, you know you've either read the situation perfectly, or have committed a gaffe with no hope of recovery
  3475. >You can feel the sweat pricking your back as you simply try to focus on breathing evenly
  3476. >After a long, painful silence, Chrysalis' gaze softens and she gives a defeated sigh
  3477. >”I must say, chancellor, your intelligence resources far outstrip what we had thought they were. You're correct, my drones are not soldiers, far from it. However that is all the more reason to not cooperate with you militarily, it's far too early for us to dare trust you with such a thing.”
  3478. >Well it had been an ambitious idea
  3479. >Especially with nothing firm to offer in return, but nothing ventured
  3480. “A fair point, Queen Chrysalis. One thing that is certain is how you must appear in the public eye.”
  3481. >Chrysalis squints her eyes at you and she leans forward
  3482. >”And what exactly do you mean by that, chancellor?”
  3483. >You hold out your open palms to forestall any protest from her
  3484. “I mean that it's not likely that ponies will simply trust your word up front. Just like Discord did, you will have to prove your intentions.”
  3485. >She taps a hoof against her chin, thoughtfully
  3486. >”Perhaps I could give some help in your current conflict. We would, of course, need to discuss some kind of compensation for the efforts of my drones.”
  3487. >You give her and easy smile and nod
  3488. “Of course, of course. Once the last party finally joins us, we can truly get into the details of this truce, along with any compensation you require.”
  3489. >Chrysalis gives you what seems to be her first genuine smile
  3490. >”I look forward to that then, chancellor.”
  3491. >Her gaze flicks down to Quill once more and her face becomes stern
  3492. >”There is a matter I would like to discuss with you as well, of the record.”
  3493. >You nod to Quill, who lays her writing quill on the table
  3494. >Chrysalis shakes her head, looking at Quill more pointedly
  3495. >”In private, if possible.”
  3496. >Quill looks up at you, her trepidation clear and her look one of silent disapproval
  3497. >But someone had to make a first step towards trust
  3498. “Very well. Quill, if you would?”
  3499. >You gesture to the door, and Quill hesitantly leaves through it
  3500. >The great door shut with a soft booming behind her, and Chrysalis faces you once more, leaning forward with her predatory gaze back in place
  3501. >”Now then, shall we discuss your little love affair?”
  3502. >To your credit, you manage to not react to her words or the mocking tone that they came with
  3503. >But your gaze cools and you lean back in your chair, taking a deep breath to control any outburst
  3504. “I'm sorry, Queen Chrysalis, I can't say I know what you're talking about.”
  3505. >She gives you a disbelieving look and arches a brow at you
  3506. >”Truly, chancellor? You are not a foal trying to hide something from your mother. I would have expected honesty at negotiations like this.”
  3507. >You maintain the cold stare and blank face as you respond
  3508. “I believe I would be aware of any affair I was having, and I certainly do not appreciate the insinuation.”
  3509. >Chrysalis rolls her eyes and lounges on the chair she had been seated in
  3510. >”Oh please, chancellor, even if I weren't able to sense the love practically pouring from you, I'd see it in your actions. You and that delectable assistant you have, such an adorable couple. She's a bit bookish for most stallions, but you're hardly most stallions, or even one at all.”
  3511. >You feel a touch of anger and her coy grin, and more than a  little flush of embarrassment at being found out so easily
  3512. “How did you know?”
  3513. >She lets out a giggle and leans back in the chair
  3514. >”As I said, I can feel your love for her. And hers for you, of course. It's rather adorable, the great leader and little assistant, all business in public and desperately in love behind the curtain. The kind of thing cheap romance novels are made of.”
  3515. >Despite your best efforts to keep a stoic demeanor, you can feel your ears heating at such open discussion of the topic
  3516. >It elicits another laugh from Chrysalis, who seems to be enjoying herself with this
  3517. >”Don't worry chancellor, I don't plan to air your dirty laundry to the masses. Frankly, the fact that you even have such feelings makes you much easier to deal with. Those princesses are so far removed from their ponies that it's not even maternal love they feel. I dare say, Celestia seems to care only for her ponies as she would care for her jewelry or hoofcups. That is a dangerous way to feel for your subjects,  but you do truly care.”
  3518. >Though your ego swells at the praise, your gut is chilled by her description of Celestia
  3519. >She must be toying with you, feeding you little hints to make you prideful and thus easier to predict and control
  3520. >Hopefully
  3521. >Without prompting, she carries on
  3522. >”Little Quill though, she seems rather conflicted. Though her love is sweet and delicious, there's a faint hint of despair and desperation to it. A poison dart in the apple tart, if you would.”
  3523. >She had baited you perfectly
  3524. >You were too curious about what she was talking about, and can't keep the question from your lips
  3525. “What do you mean?”
  3526. >She looks at you incredulously, evidently not believing your question is genuine
  3527. >However, she indulges it anyway
  3528. >”Her love has itself attached to sharp strings, it has the distinct taste of things that love should not be. Yours is sweet and good, as is hers but for the bitter taste of desperation.”
  3529. >You lean forward, resting your chin on a fist
  3530. “Speak plainly, Chrysalis. I need to know whether this is going to be an obstacle or not.”
  3531. >She leans forward as well, her face taking on a more serious look
  3532. >”She does love you, there's no doubt about that Anonymous. But her love is hurting as much as it may feel good. She is desperate to love you, but there are darker emotions that drag on that love. I am no expert in human relationships, but I dare say I know ponies better than they know themselves. Were I you, I would take her aside and speak with her.”
  3533. >You lean back, taking in what she told you
  3534. >A long breath that you didn't know you had been holding finally escapes your lips
  3535. >So far, she seems to have been telling the truth
  3536. >But, and it was a big but, she was the queen of a species that was built for infiltration and subversion
  3537. >Still, she had been sincere enough to shake you
  3538. >Perhaps that had been the intent, to shake you up so you would be easier to manipulate during the proper negotiations for peace
  3539. >To get favourable terms for herself while limiting anything you could get from her
  3540. >That would be just like something like her--
  3541. >Your downward spiral of thought is interrupted by a knock at the great door
  3542. >Briefly, you wonder where that thought had come from, but you clear it from your mind and call out to the knocker
  3543. “Come in.”
  3544. >A messenger enters and lays down a telegram copy on the table before beating a hasty retreat
  3545. >You didn't even have time to thank him
  3546. >As you read the telegram, a relieved smile comes over your face
  3547. >You silently give thanks to whatever god granted you this little favour, for only a god could have made something like this happen
  3548. >Clearly noticing the sudden relief, Chrysalis speaks up in a curious, though teasing, tone
  3549. >”Well that must be good news, is your marefriend pregnant?”
  3550. >Now it's your turn to roll your eyes, but you take the snipe in good humour
  3551. “No, this is excellent for the both of us. The Crystal Empire has agreed to send a delegation to these peace accords, they'll arrive tomorrow.”
  3552. >Chrysalis' face turns up in a sneer
  3553. >”And why, pray tell, are you bringing that wench and her cuckold of a husband into peace accords between Equestria and the Grand Hive?”
  3554. >You barely hold back a snort at the grandiose name she's applied to her kingdom, with how little it was
  3555. >Still, you had to entertain her question
  3556. “Equestria's war transferred over to the Crystal Empire when it changed hands, or hooves as it is. As well, she is the princess of love, and she controls an artifact that is powered by and puts out love. Would that not solve any problems you have with food? Would that not make it easy for you to uphold your promise of not kidnapping or draining any ponies?”
  3557. >Chrysalis opens her snarling mouth to answer, but you forestall her with a raised hand
  3558. “I understand how you must feel about her, she and Shining Armor are the reason your attack on Canterlot failed. But with you trying to make amends it's important, now more than ever, to include all parties that were wronged. The only reason I'm not recalling Luna is that she's leading a campaign, and the elements don't need the additional stress. Trust me, as you did with Chitin, all will be well.”
  3559. >She closes her mouth and stares at you for a long moment
  3560. >Finally, she replies
  3561. >”Very well, chancellor. I will abide this invitation, though I do not appreciate being led about by the nose. I will be most displeased if this does not go as well as you have planned.”
  3562. >You let out a short sigh and smile at her again
  3563. “Thank you, Queen Chrysalis. Now, perhaps a short tour is in order? Just a little publicity stunt really, and a few questions from some news ponies. Nothing intrusive, I had them submit their questions for screening before you arrived.”
  3564. >She stands from her seat and gives you a strange grin
  3565. >Her moods seem more fickle than the weather back on Earth
  3566. >”I suppose I can live with that. At the very least you had the basic courtesy to ask me first.”
  3567. >The remark is tinged with a bit of sarcasm, but you had been fully prepared for her to refuse you
  3568. >So you open the door and gesture to the wide hall beyond, where a team of military police wait to escort you
  3569. “After you, queen.”
  3570. >She lets out an airy laugh and brushes your shin with her tail as she passes you by
  3571. >”Quite the gentlecolt, thank you chancellor.”
  3572. >You follow her out and join the army stallions in walking through the halls
  3573. >Time to put on a little show
  3574. --
  3575. >You sit at the head of a rather small, old oak table
  3576. >You had decided to move the negotiations proper to a more intimate and less ornate chamber, minimizing any possible divides between the sides
  3577. >Of course, this decision had been made before you'd actually known just who would be representing the Crystal Empire
  3578. >When you had received Princess Cadence and Shining Armor themselves, you had been shocked
  3579. >It was entirely unexpected that either would show up for this, let alone both
  3580. >You had even thought Shining to be off leading troops in the North
  3581. >They were taking this seriously then, at the very least
  3582. >But their presence coupled with the choice of room had brought about an all new problem
  3583. >The atmosphere
  3584. >It was so thick that no knife could even try and cut it, and so tense it could support a bridge
  3585. >The first ten minutes had been spent trading barbs, and after that had finally petered out in uncomfortable silence
  3586. >The primary reason you'd been hoping for someone other that Cadence or Shining had been precisely because of this
  3587. >At least it was only ten minutes
  3588. >Finally, you clap your hands together
  3589. “Well, with such...pleasant greetings out of the way, shall we get down to the business of the day?”
  3590. >Silents nods all around the table
  3591. >The legal adviser you had asked to come gives you a strange look, but nods along with you
  3592. >You'd had Quill off on errands, and you needed someone more versed in the specifics of this sort of thing to ensure everything was above board
  3593. >Fortunately the ministry of justice was happy to provide
  3594. >You smile broadly at the relative cooperation, and lean forward on the table
  3595. “Well then, let's get straight to it. Princess Cadence, I would like to propose that the changelings be granted a small amount of love from the Crystal Heart in order to ensure they don't starve and have no need to feed of ponies in order to survive. It would be beneficial for all of us if--”
  3596. >Cadence cuts you off with a raised hoof
  3597. >”Absolutely unacceptable, we will not compromise the security of our ponies and borders just to allow the enemy to thrive off our kindness. I am more than certain there is another way, Anonymous.”
  3598. >Chrysalis lets out a long suffering sigh and speaks up in a dismissive tone
  3599. >”There are, in fact, two other ways. We could skim bits of love from villages near our hive, or perhaps move nearer to a large city. However, this would require us to fully integrate into pony society.”
  3600. >Shining pipes up in a relatively cheerful tone
  3601. >”Well that's a good thing, isn't it?”
  3602. >Both Cadence, Chrysalis, and you give him an incredulous look
  3603. “General, you understand the depth of the divides between ponies and changeling right?”
  3604. >He blinks a couple times and snorts
  3605. >”I understand better than anyone, chancellor. Perhaps you forgot that that bug foalnapped my wife and tried to take her place, not to mention imprisoning my sister and invading Canterlot.”
  3606. >You lean back in your seat, taking the tirade easily
  3607. “Then you should understand why such integration simply isn't possible at this time. Especially not in the middle of a war, as we are.”
  3608. >Chrysalis leans forward on the table and smirks before speaking up sarcastically
  3609. >”You're forgetting the second option of course. We go back to foalnapping and draining, treating you as prey once again.”
  3610. >Cadence and Shining look appropriately appalled, but you just give Chrysalis a withering glare
  3611. >Her smirk turns to a frown when she looks at you, and she clears her throat
  3612. >”Of course we have no plans to return to that method. It's entirely unsustainable with our current population, let alone with the rapid expansion and advancement of the Equestrian military. No, we want a lasting peace where we can raise drones to adulthood without fear of being hunted and exterminated or starving to death.”
  3613. >There's a moment of uncomfortable silence, a long moment
  3614. >You decide, at last, to be the one to break it and move on
  3615. “So then, let us come back to this issue later. For now, let's discuss the cessation of hostilities between our species.”
  3616. >Nods all around the table, so you continue
  3617. “First of all, the conditions. Equestria and now the Crystal Empire will stop any and all ongoing hunts of changelings. We will not engage in any military or civil operations against their hives. In return, the changelings will immediately cease any and all operations within the territories of Equestria and the Crystal Empire. All infiltrators will return to their hives at once, and no more will enter Equestrian or Crystal Empire territory in disguise.”
  3618. >Both Chrysalis and Cadence nod, but Shining narrows his eyes
  3619. >”And how exactly do you plan to enforce that? They can be literally any creature they want to.”
  3620. >Chrysalis clears her throat
  3621. >”Not quite any creature. The vast majority of my changelings are restricted to quadrupedal forms. Only the most advanced shapeshifters can take on bipedal or other sorts of forms, and only after years of work.”
  3622. >Shining Armor rolls his eyes at her response
  3623. >”Oh, my mistake. You can only change into the creatures that inhabit the lands you want to make peace with.”
  3624. >Time to stop this before it got out of hand, again
  3625. “In terms of preventing their infiltration, our magical researchers have made a recent breakthrough in the detection of illusion magic. I cannot reveal the details, but I am more than certain it will be sufficient when we can deploy it generally.”
  3626. >All three of your peers look at you with wide eyes
  3627. >Shining is the first to break the stunned silence
  3628. >”And why, pray tell, have you not shared this research and information with us before? Are we not your allies?”
  3629. >The legal adviser gives you a cautionary glance
  3630. >An unnecessary reminder to watch your words
  3631. “General, I'm sure you don't need a reminder of the sensitive nature of magical research. Aside from that, this project was already underway when Celestia was on the throne, you would be better asking her. Perhaps it's simply because there are no technology sharing agreements between our countries.”
  3632. >Cadence leans forward, a look of confusion on her face
  3633. >”Is that true, do we have no such agreements? I thought for certain we had something in place...”
  3634. >This time it's Balanced Scales, the legal adviser, who speaks up
  3635. >”There was an agreement that was planned to go through a year ago, but it lapsed due to more pressing issues.  I was part of the team reviewing the measures that were to be taken if it came to negotiations, but was called away in a late stage. Perhaps we might discuss it more, now that it is relevant once again.”
  3636. >You nod in agreement
  3637. “Just so, we could even include it in these negotiations if you wish. After all, it's more relevant here than anywhere else.”
  3638. >Both Shining and Cadence nod in agreement, though Chrysalis seems rather unhappy with the idea
  3639. >”So if it comes to pass that we must skim from excess love to survive, we won't be allowed to do so in disguise? How exactly would you propose we accomplish that, then?”
  3640. >Cadence shrugs at the question
  3641. >”That's not our problem, Chrysalis. You're the one that got yourself into this mess, you ought to be glad we're having this discussion at all.”
  3642. >Shining adds onto his wife's words with some of his own
  3643. >”Exactly, you're the one that initiated hostilities here. Now you want us to just give you sustenance for nothing at all? Preposterous.”
  3644. >You can see Chrysalis seething at their outright refusal
  3645. >You clear your throat and lean into the discussion
  3646. “Perhaps she might be able to offer something in return, hm? We're at war remember, changelings could be a valuable augmentation to our intelligence services.”
  3647. >Chrysalis shoots you a glare, but now it's Shining that leans in with a smile
  3648. >The military was his department, after all
  3649. >”Now that's certainly an interesting proposal. Of course, we would need to somehow keep them on a leash. Not to mention that certainly does not pay the way for the feeding of an entire hive of the creatures.”
  3650. >To your surprise, Chrysalis doesn't simply shoot down the idea of cooperation at this point as she had the day before
  3651. >Perhaps she understood that this was one of the few things that could be used as a bargaining chip
  3652. “Well what do you propose then, general? I'm not certain the changelings have a massive industry in order to buy your sustenance.”
  3653. >His smile turns on you, growing a bit wider as it does
  3654. >You can already tell you're not going to like this
  3655. >”We hear you're building a new kind of ship, chancellor. We want one.”
  3656. >You clench your teeth so hard they creak, feeling as though they may break
  3657. >Certainly, the uptick in naval shipbuilding hadn't been clandestine, but Celestia was being kept under wraps for the most part
  3658. >Officially it was just a mass transport of unprecedented tonnage, a joint contract between the military and shipping industry
  3659. >Work hadn't even been completed to the point of reinforcing where the turrets would go, so there wasn't anything obvious to give it away
  3660. >You'd be having a long conversation with Dusk Echo about these leaks
  3661. >Damn!
  3662. >Blindsided twice in two days by ponies knowing things they shouldn't
  3663. >It was getting tiresome
  3664. >Well, you'd just have to grin and bear it for now
  3665. “That's classified information, general.”
  3666. >He shrugs and leans back in his seat
  3667. >”What's a little classified information between allies? Now then, we both know that the Crystal Empire doesn't have much in the way of naval strength. I believe it to be in both our best interests to change that.”
  3668. >Well, that you can't deny at least
  3669. >The Crystal Empire did have a coastline that bridged the Northern Passage, not to mention joint control of the Northern Narrows
  3670. >But it was still so soon after Sombra had been vanquished, there simply had been other projects that needed their funds
  3671. >Now of course, they saw an easy way to strengthen their navy without burning through their admittedly considerable budget
  3672. >Technically, it wasn't blackmail, just regular extortion
  3673. >You still wouldn't stand for it
  3674. “Whether or not we are building a new ship class, we would not simply give it away if it was even being developed.”
  3675. >You see the legal adviser smirk his approval at your skating around the truth of the matter
  3676. >Truthfully, you despised this sort of politicking
  3677. >It would be so much simpler of all parties could just lay out their desires and negotiate from there
  3678. >But this was the way of things, and so you participated
  3679. >Shining Armor nods and makes an open gesture with his hooves
  3680. >”Nor would we expect such a thing, chancellor, merely a simple...discount.”
  3681. >You share a glance with Scales, and a quick look tells you Chrysalis seems to be enjoying the tit for tat
  3682. >Shining carries on, Cadence's approval clear on her face
  3683. >”We will, of course, pay material costs for the construction. But we want our own engineers working alongside yours, learning how to build these new warships. You, of course, could easily accommodate such ponies I'm certain.”
  3684. >You lean forward, and when you speak your tone sounds as though the air itself would freeze
  3685. “General, we're amidst the first war Equestria has fought in eight centuries. We're on the brink of making peace with one of the few species that preys on ponies, and we're beginning a new technological revolution. While we are happy to share with our allies, we will not allow our good graces to be exploited.”
  3686. >Shining opens his mouth to respond, but Cadence cuts him off
  3687. >”Perhaps it can wait until after the war, hm? We are merely thinking of our security for the future, Anonymous. No one wishes for better relations with Equestria than myself, but please try and understand our perspective. Your proposal compromises our security, so why would we not ask for something to help that same security to be more robust?”
  3688. >She's an excellent diplomat, but that smile is wrong
  3689. >It doesn't quite reach her eyes, and you feel like it's just there to mollify you
  3690. >You know she doesn't approve of your actions or politics, and cares even less for the influence you've held over Luna
  3691. >You'd have to keep an eye on her, but for now you would play nice
  3692. “That would be more agreeable. We can discuss more specifics at a later date, but I assume this means you're open to the idea of changelings feeding from the Crystal Heart?”
  3693. >Shining grits his teeth as tight as you had earlier
  3694. >Cadence though, maintains her relatively cheerful demeanour
  3695. >”Possibly. First we would need to get our hooves on this detection spell to ensure no clandestine infiltration occurs.”
  3696. >Chrysalis chuckles and speaks up in a mockingly wounded voice
  3697. >”Oh please, princess. Do you not trust me?”
  3698. >Cadence's smile nearly falters, but her tone is steely
  3699. >”Frankly, no I do not. But if  this ensure none of my little ponies will be foalnapped and drained dry, then I may consider it.”
  3700. >Chrysalis nods in approval
  3701. >”Perhaps you are fit to rule that frozen waste. Tell me Anonymous, would we be able to help this research along in any way? Once that enchantment is complete we can truly prove our good intentions and speed all this business along.”
  3702. >This time it's Balanced Scales who gives an answer
  3703. >Well, he was a unicorn, so it would make sense for him to know a bit about spellcrafting
  3704. >”While I cannot get into specifics, it would make things go much easier if we had...subjects to test with. Nothing invasive of course, but we lack a great deal of knowledge about changeling magic, so to have changelings transforming for us would make it much simpler to tailor.”
  3705. >Chrysalis leans forward and nods her assent
  3706. >”Very well, and perhaps in exchange they may be allowed to skim love for the hive? You cannot get something for nothing after all.”
  3707. >Scales nods and you smile at the changeling queen
  3708. “That sounds more than acceptable, Queen Chrysalis. I'll get word to the research team about this as soon as a deal is signed.”
  3709. >Cadence speaks up from her side of the table
  3710. >”And what of us, chancellor? Will we be involved in this spellcrafting? We have a number of powerful mages and a vast repository of mystical knowledge.”
  3711. >You wave the suggestion away dismissively
  3712. “No need, Princess Cadence. When the enchantment is perfected we will be sure to share it with you, especially if it will assist you in trusting the changelings.”
  3713. >She nods and leans back, apparently satisfied
  3714. >Shining remains leaning on the table, so you address what you assume he's still wondering about
  3715. “As for the ship, we were planning to announce her building in four months, when the guns are scheduled to be installed. You will keep silent on this matter until such a time, and then you may approach the shipyard to negotiate a contract. I'm sure we can provide some...leniency when it comes to payments”
  3716. >You glance at Balanced Scales, who nods his confirmation
  3717. >Good, still within the boundaries of the legal system at least
  3718. >Shining nods as well, seemingly satisfied with the terms you'd laid down as well
  3719. “Good, then let's start drafting the documents. Balanced Scales, if you would?”
  3720. >The unicorn takes a sheaf of papers and lays them on the table in front of him
  3721. >Time to get to the real work
  3722. >You are Cursive Quill, assistant and marefriend to the most powerful being in Equestria
  3723. >You're waiting for him in the foyer of the small meeting chamber he had chosen for negotiations
  3724. >And you're fuming silently while you wait
  3725. >Not only had he sent you away from the first meeting with Queen Chrysalis, but now he had sent you on errands while negotiations were going on and had replaced you with another pony
  3726. >The logical administrative assistant in your head tells you that the other pony was just a legal expert, someone to make sure everything in the treaty agreement was above board
  3727. >Of course it's drowned out by the jealous mare that is full of abandonment issues and far worse
  3728. >Was Anon bisexual?
  3729. >No, he hadn't shown any signs of it before
  3730. >But then again, before he'd been thrust into Celestia's throne, he had never shown signs of strong leadership either
  3731. >Besides, it's not like they could do anything in front of sovereigns of other nations
  3732. >So you were clear on that
  3733. >Probably
  3734. >You curse yourself silently in every language you can think of
  3735. >Why was it this one being, not even a stallion
  3736. >What happened to your decade of training, and the professional mare that had come out of it
  3737. >The answer was obvious of course
  3738. >Anon had happened, and Celestia had thrown you at his feet
  3739. >You're not sure which you resent more at this point
  3740. >Probably Celestia, you respected her but you loved Anon
  3741. >And then there was Luna, the dream walker who had never laid a single hoof in your dreams really, despite your delusions of it
  3742. >Even now that still weighed on your heart
  3743. >Of course, some foalish part of you still believe she would come through
  3744. >After all, her last message was sent when she was under attack
  3745. >Maybe she just didn't have time to include the little phrase she had told you
  3746. >The phrase that has echoed in your mind every day
  3747. >'The love of a mother'
  3748. >Buck her, and her damned magic
  3749. >Next time you saw her you'd...
  3750. >Probably do nothing
  3751. >You lay down on the bench as your thoughts spiral ever downward
  3752. >A spy, a sneak, that's all you were
  3753. >Not some powerful guard or a stoic soldier, nor even a simple but strong farmer helping Equestria along
  3754. >You were just a lurker, hiding in the shadows, stabbing in the back
  3755. >When Celestia returned and everything was laid bare, would you do that to Anon?
  3756. >Could you bring yourself to shatter his heart, would it be the straw that finally breaks you?
  3757. >The worst part is, no matter your decision, you'll be a traitor
  3758. >But which betrayal would be worse?
  3759. >You suppose it would depend on what happened between now and when Celestia returned
  3760. >Anonymous had done his absolute best with what he had been given, and really hadn't done anything to harm Equestria
  3761. >So you wouldn't really have to do anything but tell that to Celestia
  3762. >Maybe you could even leave the intelligence corps, become his assistant for real
  3763. >Or maybe even his wife, you think with a blush colouring your cheeks
  3764. >Can humans and ponies even have foals, you wonder
  3765. >Well adoption was always an option if not, or getting a donor, or..
  3766. >No! Stop that!
  3767. >You shake your head roughly and let out a quiet sigh
  3768. >Sure it was better than thinking down about yourself, but hardly a good thing besides
  3769. >You don't even know that Anon would want to marry you, let alone have foals
  3770. >Dammit, this sort of thinking is making you feel like a school filly obsessing over a crush
  3771. >You're a grown mare, you'll face this stuff when it comes down to it
  3772. >With a huff, you rise from the seat and trot through the halls of the palace
  3773. >You certainly didn't need all this right now, a quick trot through the empty passages would clear your mind well enough
  3774. >After a while, you find yourself in one of the darker passages decorated with all many of tapestries, instead of the usual great stained glass windows
  3775. >Here was the history before the sisters, before the founding of Equestria even
  3776. >The cloths alternated between the three tribes it seemed, showing everything from the founding of Cloudsdale to the Southern Expansion, and even the discovery of the Crystal Empire
  3777. >So many great ponies through history, so many stories and myths
  3778. >Everypony carried a piece of that history within them, an inexorable tie to those gone before
  3779. >It was almost enough to cheer you up
  3780. >But in some ways, you feel you had tarnished that ancient reputation
  3781. >Earth ponies were strong, proud, and stubborn to a fault
  3782. >You were stubborn to be sure, but your body carried little more strength than a unicorn and you were more servile than proud
  3783. >You look up at Strongback the Pathfinder, founder of Trottingham who had led a thousand ponies against the inhabitants of the Griffisch Isles and won without a single casualty
  3784. >His eyes are kinder than you would ever have thought, almost paternal you decide
  3785. >Did he lead them away to find a better life, despite others opposing him?
  3786. >Even though the rulers at the time considered him a betrayer, now he was one of the heroes of Equestria
  3787. >How would you be seen when everything was said and done?
  3788. >How would Anonymous be seen when Celestia returned to her throne?
  3789. >Strongback holds no answers for you, so you turn to continue your walk
  3790. >From the shadows beneath one of the many tapestries, a deep, hissing voice echoes forth
  3791. >”So, the little spy looks for answers in the long dead eyes of her kin. How strange that such an agent could not find answers of her own.”
  3792. >You whirl about, dropping instinctively into a more stable stance to defend yourself
  3793. >Seeming to slide from the deep darkness beneath a tapestry depicting the Crystal Heart, the changeling ambassador Chitin appears
  3794. >You don't let your guard down even for a heartbeat as he approaches you
  3795. “You shouldn't be here, changeling.”
  3796. >He gives you a quizzical look and gazes up at the tapestries around the hall
  3797. >”And why ever not, agent? There is nothing valuable here but the lessons of your ancestors, and not even we would dream to take that from you.”
  3798. >You shake your head and rise slightly
  3799. “I mean that you have an escort and they shouldn't have let you off on your own.”
  3800. >His eyes return to yours and his lips carry a small smile on them
  3801. >”You mean those foals playing at soldier? Please, they couldn't escort a cart of apples, much less a changeling such as I. But if you're worried about my skulking about, you needn't be. My queen has given me strict orders to be approachable and friendly. And I was, for as many reporters as I could stand.”
  3802. >He lets out a long sigh, and you feel a touch of sympathy for him
  3803. >Journalists were some of the worst examples of ponies in all the land, you couldn't fault him for getting tired of them
  3804. >”I asked one of the soldiers where I could learn more of the history of your kind. He pointed me to the Royal Archives, where I wasn't allowed. However, the archivist mentioned these tapestries and the windows that were on public display, so I thought I might venture and learn.”
  3805. >You cock your head at him
  3806. “What for, to blend better with ponies?”
  3807. >He looks up, thinking for a long moment before answering
  3808. >”No, though that is important. The reason I came here was because I realized that, though I know your modern culture and ways well, I know not of where you came from. I knew little of the roots of the traditions you practiced, nor the tales you told of those gone by.”
  3809. >He brushes the tassels at the bottom of one of the many banners
  3810. >”I was curious to see the world through the eyes of an identity not stolen, but gifted. And these are those gazes woven in silk.”
  3811. >You stare up at the tapestry, one showing the first meeting of unicorns and earth ponies
  3812. >An interesting choice for him to draw attention to
  3813. “I'm not sure I entirely understand, ambassador.”
  3814. >He turns back to you and gives you a cheeky smile
  3815. >”Please, just Chitin is fine; and I'm rather surprised you wouldn't. Does the good chancellor know then, that you are the sun's agent in his court? That you are to intervene if you personally view his actions as harmful? I had not thought you so open about such things.”
  3816. >Your ears fall flat against your skull and you take a step back
  3817. “H-how did you...?
  3818. >He chuckles and sits on the marble tiled floor
  3819. >”These walls may not have ears, but they are not deaf, Cursive Quill. Your room is not far from mine, and the stone carries sound better than still air.”
  3820. >Your mouth is drier than the Badlands and you can feel sweat pricking the back of your neck
  3821. >Chitin comes no closer than he is, but seems to loom over you all the same
  3822. >”Worry not, your internal politics are of no concern to me if they do not interfere with this peace. Though I do wonder why the sun would plant an agent so close to one she personally chose to lead her country. Perhaps the sun wished to play matchmaker as her niece does?”
  3823. >You clench your teeth until they creak, wishing you had never begun wandering the palace
  3824. “So if you don't care, why confront me?”
  3825. >He taps one of his holey hooves on his chin, silent for a moment
  3826. >”I suppose I wished to see if I was correct, for one. It proves I am still adept at gathering intelligence despite being in the hive so long. But as well, you hold a position similar to my own in days gone past, and you are perhaps one of the only ponies who could ever hope to relate to an infiltrator. Perhaps I am just getting sentimental in my old age.”
  3827. >You want to stop indulging him, but your curiosity has taken the reins from your initial fear
  3828. “What do you mean, you don't look older than any other changeling.”
  3829. >He chuckles and gives you a mocking half-bow
  3830. >”I thank you, Cursive Quill, but I am one of the oldest in my hive. I am one of three from Queen Thoraxia's final brood, and before she met her end, she bade me to stand by the side of her daughter. At the time Chrysalis was quite rash, and I was given order that, were she to ever endanger the hive irrationally, she was to be immediately destroyed. Of course, she never did and I fell into the role of her aide-de-camp. I did much the same as you do now, though with a hive instead of a country.”
  3831. >He pauses, brushing the cloth above again
  3832. >”So I did indeed hope you could see as I did, and perhaps that I could offer you a modicum of comfort. But just so, I had hoped you might understand as I do, as all changelings do, the feelings that come with leading the life of someone who is not you.”
  3833. >You stare down at the lifeless tiles, tracing the veins running through the marble
  3834. >Yes, now you understood exactly what he mean
  3835. >You had no desire to, but you did
  3836. >That was the life you had led in the intelligence corps, and the life you still led now because of Celestia's last order
  3837. “How do you deal with it, Chitin? I can't anymore, I just want to be Cursive Quill, assistant to the chancellor.”
  3838. >His grin widens and his voice carries a bit of mirth in its hissing tones
  3839. >”Just his assistant?”
  3840. >You blush at the implication, but he continues on in a more soothing voice
  3841. >”I jest, but the answer is not a desirable one. In truth, changeling infiltrators are retired from their field duties after ten years. Beyond this, it has been found that they grow more attached to those they are supposed to spy on, they grow sympathetic to their fears and hopes. I suppose I am the last example of one of those who skirted that far-gone line. Even in the most untenable times, I supported Queen Chrysalis. Not out of fear or blind devotion, but because I believed that her choices were not made hastily or foolishly. She cared for her subjects, even when she had to sacrifice them, and in turn I began to care for her.”
  3842. >He sighs and looks down the hall wistfully
  3843. >”An infiltrator in love is an ineffective tool, no more valuable than a broken chisel. So I retired myself from my task in the only way I could. I met with Queen Chrysalis away from any others, I knelt before her, and I told her everything.”
  3844. >His hoof scuffs the tiles and he looks back at you, his eyes still far away
  3845. >”The infiltrator Chitin died at her feet. In his place was Chitin, the aide of Queen Chrysalis, a devoted drone who willingly abandoned the yoke of one for the chains of another. But though I was chained, I was I for the first time in over a decade. That alone carries far more value than to be free but not I.”
  3846. >He stands and approaches you, laying a holey limb on your sunken withers
  3847. >It feels far warmer than you had thought it would, softer too
  3848. >”Perhaps the chancellor will forgive you, understanding that you bore him no ill will. Perhaps he will have you executed. But even should he decide to cast your bones to the wolves, you will be you. To die as yourself is the kindest thing this world can offer.”
  3849. >Though his words sound cold, you understand the intention behind them
  3850. >You lift your head and meet his kind gaze with a smile
  3851. >In that moment, he looked almost like Strongback
  3852. “Thank you Chitin, I think I know what to do.”
  3853. >He pats you gently then turns about and slinks away into the growing shadows of the hallway
  3854. >”Of course, Ms. Quill. I am always happy to help the staff of an ally.”
  3855. >With that he seems to vanish, leaving you alone once again but with a new found ember of hope in your heart
  3856. >The ember flares and sends warmth through your limbs as you begin to canter back to the foyer of the meeting chamber
  3857. >You feel certain again, as though the mire you had found yourself drowning in had suddenly given way to solid ground once more
  3858. >When you arrive in the foyer, you find it occupied by a rather frazzled looking messenger
  3859. >The moment he spots you, he canters over and stands bolt upright
  3860. >”Ma'am I have a telegram for the chancellor, but he's currently still engaged in negotiations. I duties that still need tending, would you mind passing it along to him?”
  3861. >You offer the stallion, no he still looked like a colt, a kind smile and nod
  3862. “Of course, soldier. I'll be sure he gets it.”
  3863. >He lets out a breath and smiles eagerly
  3864. >”Thanks a ton ma'am! Here, just don't open it. It's eyes only and all that.”
  3865. >He hands the telegram to you and you nod in confirmation
  3866. >With that, he trots from the room and into the otherwise quiet halls
  3867. >You stare at the wax seal on the paper, wondering just what it could be
  3868. >You glace around surreptitiously, seeing that the room is indeed quite empty
  3869. >Perhaps a little peek wouldn't hurt...
  3870. >You do have clearance for this sort of thing after all
  3871. >With deftness that your hooves belie, you open the seal without breaking it
  3872. >You quickly skim the letter with a trained eye, it's a battle report from the front line from Luna herself!
  3873. >A pang of disappointment goes through your heart and you nearly close the paper up
  3874. >But something in you, a little tug at your heart, makes you read it again more carefully
  3875. >You reach the end and your eyes widen
  3876. >It couldn't be
  3877. >No, it had just been a dream, there was no way
  3878. >And yet there it was
  3879. >Your eyes grow misty as you close the telegram and make it seem as though it was never read
  3880. >The door to the meeting chamber creaks open and Anonymous walks out with a wide grin on his face
  3881. >”Oh, hello Quill! What's that you've got, telegram for me?”
  3882. >You nod and hand it to him, swiping a foreleg across your eyes
  3883. >Without opening the seal, he kneels down and looks at you with concern on his face
  3884. >”Hey, is everything okay Quill?”
  3885. >You nod and give his knee a little nuzzle, heedless of who might be watching
  3886. >Everything was perfect
  3887. --
  3888. >This was a nightmare
  3889. >The charts on the table, the poor communication ability, the supplies now drying up
  3890. >You are Princess Luna, leading a campaign in crisis
  3891. >The past month had actually been quite the blitz of the griffons
  3892. >From the first landing to where you now stand, outside the walls of Griffonstone, had been relatively simple to roll over
  3893. >Casualties had been low, and unrest had hardly cropped up
  3894. >Though perhaps that lack of unrest was due to the only non-pony standing around the tactical map
  3895. >General van den Tann had been of immense help in the conquered towns, promising fine treatment and an end to the reign of their corrupt emperor
  3896. >It seemed he was rather popular among the populous, as outside scattered, small protests there had been no resistance to the new rule
  3897. >Of course, nothing was free and he'd been promised the possibility of a place in the new administration
  3898. >That wasn't something you were looking forward to addressing with Anonymous, when the time came
  3899. >Then again, perhaps he'd simply trust your judgment
  3900. >None of it pertained to the matter at hand, though
  3901. >All the villages and towns you had fought through and shed blood to take we nothing compared to Griffonstone
  3902. >A mountaintop city, similar to Canterlot in that regard, Griffonstone was a monstrous fortress
  3903. >Ten meter high walls surrounded the city itself, and the sole path that wound round the mountain had dozens of blocks and battlements obstructing the path
  3904. >It was at the foot of a grand mountain range that blocked all but a single side of it, and the cliffs were nigh unscalable
  3905. >You did have some form of a plan though
  3906. >Unfortunately, it required far more ammunition than you had at your immediate disposal
  3907. >Something about a bad batch of shells and mass shipper bottleneck that meant you weren't getting what you'd requested
  3908. >Still, you would make do with what you had
  3909. >”Princess, I shouldn't need to tell you that this plan borders on criminal.”
  3910. >It was Colonel Shod, commander of the artillery battery that had managed to keep up with the breakneck pace of the war
  3911. >He was an excellent officer, if a bit staunch in how he took to fighting
  3912. >You let out a quiet sigh and tap the marks you had made on the map
  3913. “Borders on but, with the notice we've been issuing over all radio bands and the leaflets we've dropped, isn't.”
  3914. >The colonel grimaces and stares down at the papers as though they may leap for his throat
  3915. >You understand his uneasiness, this was not something that you would have considered even a week ago
  3916. >As laid out, the plan was to shell the city until its inhabitants gave in and surrendered
  3917. >This alone was a terrible undertaking, but it was the only way to ensure the unconditional surrender of the griffons
  3918. >But you had made an addition to this plan, something that made it far worse
  3919. >Magic
  3920. >Two weeks ago, you had received a shipment of profoundly special artillery shells
  3921. >Embedded in each one was a stabilized resonance crystal, a physical manifestation of mana
  3922. >With these in the shells, and certain inscriptions laid on them, a unicorn of even moderate potential could turn a lethal high explosive shell into a cataclysmic weapon of absolute devastation
  3923. >The violence of even one of this items, let alone a thousand, was enough to turn the stomach of even the most stoic of soldiers
  3924. >Which is why you had told no one but Colonel Shod about the new weapon
  3925. >And now you had laid the plan bare to him, he was the only pony that you could trust to execute it
  3926. >For as mired in morality and the laws of warfare, he would follow his orders even if they sent him into Tartarus
  3927. “If it makes you feel any better colonel, I would rather do this any other way. But with our numbers, resources, and the result of that damned foalish general's 'probing' assault, it's this or we march home.”
  3928. >Shod stays quiet for a long moment, and you can see he is truly weighing these options
  3929. >You knew how he felt, for you felt the same
  3930. >And were you your sister, you know what your choice would have been
  3931. >Better to be shamed than to have a blood drenched soul
  3932. >But you are not your sister
  3933. >You are the princess militant, the baleful moon, the Nightmare
  3934. >The elements had removed the taint of Nightmare Moon from your soul, but you could still remember everything
  3935. >You knew well how terrible war was, and the cost of winning
  3936. >In recent times, you even felt that old, hideous tug at your heart, trying to lull you back to the depth of the Nightmare
  3937. >Oh how easy it would be to walk that path and turn this city to dust with a flick of your mind
  3938. >But no, you would not succumb to the ancient foe again
  3939. >Finally, the colonel lets out a long sigh and hangs his head
  3940. >”As you say, princess. I cannot see any other way without shedding the blood of everypony here and coming. I will tell my troops to load and sight in, we will await your command to begin.”
  3941. >Without waiting for a reply, he exits the command tent with a new weight resting on his shoulders
  3942. >You're left alone with General van den Tann, who looks at you with a mixture of sorrow and resolve in his gaze
  3943. >”So then, we will be forced to rebuild our greatest city on the bones of our people.”
  3944. >You give him a sympathetic look and close your eyes
  3945. “I would rather you not have to rebuild at all, general. I truly am sorry.”
  3946. >The griffon breathes slowly and shakes his head
  3947. >”No matter, this is war. We are resilient, we will weather this as we have every conflict before.”
  3948. >You nod and hold open the flap of the tent
  3949. “Well then, general, I'll have them escort you back to your quarters. I must inspect the troops.”
  3950. >General van den Tann gives you a curt bow and leaves the tent, two ponies following after him
  3951. >He was quite a strange being, you think as you begin to wander the camp under the afternoon sun
  3952. >Instead of being broken in defeat, he had offered his assistance to you
  3953. >And what help he had been, a number of times he had offered valuable strategic input and he was able to engage with the griffons on a level that no pony could ever hope to
  3954. >Of course since he was a griffon, but it was more than just that
  3955. >From what you gathered, he had come from a village at the Southern tip of the Empire and had garnered great respect for his high position from such lowly birth
  3956. >It had certainly made the village elders and town leadership capitulate much easier than was thought possible
  3957. >But here, at this great city, that respect had long since grown threadbare
  3958. >You can see your pegasi messengers returning to the camp, and you have no doubts of the tidings they bring with them
  3959. >When they report, your heart sinks lower than ever before
  3960. >You had expected some unacceptable terms of surrender, or perhaps some modicum of kindness for the civilians in the city
  3961. >But it was not to be
  3962. >There would be no surrender, and every last griffon in the city was blood-sworn to resist according to the messengers
  3963. >So it was as you reported to Colonel Shod who stood beside his several dozen guns with a tired expression mirroring your own
  3964. >The crews stood by, shells and powder bags prepared, an extra unicorn standing by the reserve shell pool for each quartet of artillery pieces
  3965. >Shod gazes up at you, a remorseful look writ upon his face
  3966. >You knew he would carry this to his grave
  3967. >”Permission to begin the fire mission, my princess?”
  3968. >You know the answer he wants, and the one you want to give him
  3969. >To hold his fire, to simply wait out the griffons in a traditional siege, to spare them the horrors about to be unleashed on their city
  3970. >You don't trust your words, so you simply nod
  3971. >The slight movement feels exhausting, your head feeling as though it it made of iron
  3972. >Shod's gaze steels as he turns to his gun crews and draws a deep breath
  3973. >”Troops, load high explosive, check elevation, and make ready to fire.”
  3974. >It takes them only a moment to follow through and perform their final checks
  3975. >Shod opens his mouth to give the final order, but you stop him short with a gentle hoof on his withers
  3976. >He looks up at you and takes a step back, understanding
  3977. >You wouldn't allow this blood to be on his hooves
  3978. >After a deep breath, you give the command that damn you
  3979. “Fire!”
  3980. >For the rest of the day, and well into the evening, the guns keep up a constant stream of shells
  3981. >Nopony in the camp sleeps, least of all you
  3982. >The chatter of the radios carries on with the barrage, pegasi spotters calling in hits and adjustments as needed
  3983. >By the time the moon has risen fully, the conventional explosive munitions are totally exhausted
  3984. >You're surprised the supply lasted as long as it did, but then you didn't have a full battery of guns either
  3985. >The gun crews retire to their tents, you've decided to give them some respite and resume bombardment with the dawn
  3986. >In the mean time, they could get some food, water, and much needed sleep
  3987. >Atop the distant mountain, Griffonstone burns
  3988. >The shells had shattered anything they hit, then had set fire to the ruins
  3989. >You could see great pillars of smoke glowing in the dim, ruddy firelight and smell the devastation that your order had wrought
  3990. >You feel your face grow damp beneath your eyes
  3991. >Crying, you're crying at doing your duty
  3992. >It just went to show then, despite all the titles, infamy, and legends surrounding you
  3993. >Deep down, you were still a pony
  3994. >You wipe the tears away with your forehoof, and feel a strange compulsion to look at the damp fur
  3995. >Black
  3996. >Your gut churns and you hurriedly wipe away the rest of the liquid from your cheeks
  3997. >Only now do you notice how thick it feels, almost like syrup
  3998. >You take a deep, shuddering breath and force down the bile that threatened to rise from your guts
  3999. “No, not now...”
  4000. >You quiet mutter is quickly cut off as you hear the approach of steps behind you
  4001. >You finish wiping away the dark fluid from your face and return your gaze to the burning city
  4002. >The gruff, unmistakable voice of General van den Tann speaks up from beside you
  4003. >”It is quite the sight, is it not?”
  4004. >A glance at him shows tracks of glistening tears streaking down the downy feathers on his face
  4005. >In some small way, you're surprised at how soft-hearted he was at the sight of this, but you do understand and it soothes some of the fears you held over your promise to him
  4006. “Indeed it is, general. Though I must admit some distaste at such wanton destruction.”
  4007. >He shakes his head and heaves a long sigh
  4008. >”It is of no concern, princess. My brethren have supped the wine of victory for so long they are well drunk. Though I regret that such an object lesson is require, I pray the biting hunger of defeat will blunt their future appetites.”
  4009. >You allow yourself a small smirk at the analogy
  4010. >It's quite fitting for the reaction that your call for surrender had brought, overconfidence that only a drunk could muster
  4011. “Still, I shall personally see to it that Griffonstone is restored as quick as we can allow. Needless suffering is not something we wish to inflict.”
  4012. >The general lets out a bitter chuckle and gestures to the distant spires with a claw
  4013. >”It seems that such suffering will not be needless. Look how the Imperial flag still flies over the city, they show only the foolhardy bravery of a nestlet. This alone ought to be cause enough for the emperor's execution, he acts as though he is a chick playing at fantasy.”
  4014. >You can't help but silently agree with his assessment, harsh though it may be
  4015. >It seemed that the griffon emperor cared little for those who ought to be in his direct care, and less for the consequences his resistance would have
  4016. >The baleful glow of the fires begins to dull, either being purposefully extinguished or guttering out with a lack of fuel
  4017. >You pray it is the former
  4018. “I do hope he shall see reason by dawn, general. I have held our most destructive weapons in reserve, but if they shall not surrender then I'll have no choice but to unleash them.”
  4019. >He looks up at you with tearful eyes and nods
  4020. >”Yes, I can smell the mana leaking from those remaining shells. I'm no sorcerer, but even a man blind, deaf, and dumb could sense what lies within that unforgiving steel.”
  4021. >His beak turns up in a rueful smile as he looks back at the dull glow from the depths of the griffon capital
  4022. >”There is a small part of me that wishes to see just what such weapons are capable of, though. Perhaps, deep down, we griffons are hopelessly addicted to war. I must admit, when this war began I marched at the head of my troops with pride in my chest and a smile on my face. Despite all the hardships, casualties, and the humiliation of defeat, I cannot say that I was disappointed by you princess.”
  4023. >His gaze grows distant and wistful as the glow of fire is replaced by that of the moon
  4024. >”Baiting two full brigades into abandoning their defensive positions, luring them into a perfect ambush, the maneuver from the forest. If you ever grow tired of being a princess, do consider coming to us. Your strategy would be a welcome breath of air from some of the other fools about the court.”
  4025. >You give him a smile and gaze at the horizon as the moon you had lifted almost unconsciously into the sky begins to sink below the distant mountains
  4026. “Perhaps, in the future, our forces might train together. I don't believe I could ever abandon my ponies though, and I'm sure you feel the same about your own people.”
  4027. >He nods, letting out a tired sigh and turning about
  4028. >”Indeed I do, princess. Well, the hour grows late and these old bones require some kind of sleep. Do be so kind as to keep the barrage quiet, wouldn't you?”
  4029. >You quietly chuckle at the jest
  4030. “Of course, I'll ensure the guns are not too loud just for you.”
  4031. >With that, he's gone
  4032. >You see the gun crews beginning to stir from their tents, and you know the final shots of this war are about to be fired
  4033. >Colonel Shod approaches you, a grim expression on his stoic face
  4034. >”The flag still flies, my princess?”
  4035. >You nod solemnly, all traces of your previous mirth gone
  4036. >”Then I shall have the gun laid and loaded shortly. We shall await your orders.”
  4037. >Without another word, he walks stiffly towards the raised barrels of the artillery pieces
  4038. >You cannot fault his shortness, he is no doubt taking this harder than you
  4039. >For a while longer, you stare out at the distant city, hoping against hope that someone in there may see reason and raise a white flag, or that a messenger would come at a blazing pace to bring news of surrender
  4040. >But nothing comes, and the sun has long broken over the horizon
  4041. >It is time then
  4042. >You approach the artillery crews, your face grim
  4043. >The magic leaking from the breeches is easily apparent to you, and the wrongness of it does not go amiss
  4044. >Still, this was the only way to ensure they surrendered without too bloody a sacrifice from your ponies
  4045. >And so you address the troops as they stand ready, one extra round for each gun sitting beside the great instruments of war
  4046. >That was all it would take, after all
  4047. “Mares, stallions, my subjects, my charges, my friends. This is a dire hour indeed. We find ourselves faced with an unrepentant enemy that refuses to surrender until their last breath is drawn. I do not dare to throw away the lives of ponies when we have such a small force as it stands. And so it comes to this, the razing of the city. Know that, were there any other way that this could be resolved I would shed my own blood to make it so.”
  4048. >You draw a deep breath as the churning in your stomach worsens
  4049. “But we have tried, and we have waited as long as we can. Know that not one of you carries the blame for this action. This blight rests squarely upon the shoulders of the griffon emperor and on my own. I bear it with no remorse, for I know by this order that thousands of ponies shall live long lives where they may not have.”
  4050. >You pause a moment to let your words sink in before steeling yourself
  4051. “Troops, make ready!”
  4052. >Final checks are made, breeches sealed, and at last the guns stand ready for their hellish work
  4053. “Fire!”
  4054. >A deafening eruption blasts over you as the battery fires as one
  4055. >While the shells are still in flight, you issue your orders
  4056. “Load!”
  4057. >The action is done as a wave of violent mana backwash rushes over you
  4058. >An eerie violet hue eclipses the sun momentarily before you give the final order of the war
  4059. “Fire!”
  4060. >Another blast, this time you turn to see the results even as the acrid taste of bile coats your tongue
  4061. >In the distance, the city once more comes alight with brilliant hues of purple and vibrant cobalt
  4062. >Again, the wash of tortured mana comes over you, and you're compelled to your knees
  4063. >You cannot hold the sick back any long, and you open your mouth as a torrent of vomit soaks the ground beneath you
  4064. >Your ears pick up the sound of other unicorns becoming sick as well, the distortion of the world that they could sense all too well overcoming them
  4065. >A look down at the puddle terrifies you, and you hurriedly kick dirt over the black puddle
  4066. >You wipe your face and rise to your hooves shakily, staring out at the city
  4067. >Its walls were shattered, its once great spires thrown to the ground beneath and shattered
  4068. >Within moments, you see on the single standing parapet of the castle, the flag has finally been struck
  4069. >Your wish finally becomes reality as a stark, white banner unfurls itself over the devastation that the city had become
  4070. >Victory had never come so bitter
  4071. >The streets of Canterlot are awash in celebration
  4072. >Cider flows like water, as it has for the past several days, but today the revelers are especially boisterous
  4073. >Today was the day that Emperor Willem Gunnar finally came to Canterlot to sign the peace treaty with yourself and Princess Cadence
  4074. >You are Anonymous, and you feel a weight finally lift from your chest
  4075. >Four months of war was already too much, the several thousand ponies that had given their lives was orders of magnitude too many
  4076. >But the sacrifice was not in vain, Equestria was finally safe
  4077. >The feeling of the city has swept over Quill as well, she has a spring in her step as she wanders the streets beside you
  4078. >It's something you haven't seen since well before the war began, and you couldn't be happier today
  4079. >The victory, the mood, Quill's return to happiness, even the public appearance of the treaty signing and public speech couldn't drag you down
  4080. >Eventually, you reach the train station
  4081. >You'd had some difficulty making your way through the press of ponies, but had somehow made it with your clothes unstained and sober as the day you were born
  4082. >Quill was a bit worse for wear, having been pulled into an impromptu song and dance, but was more than able to remain at your side
  4083. >And so you wait among a massive crowd waiting to welcome home the first victors Equestria had seen in centuries
  4084. >At least they had allowed you to the front, as befit the ruler of a nation
  4085. >You stand beside a few other ministers on the platform, making small talk while the distant trail of smoke grows larger
  4086. >Simple discussion of implementing ideas like pollution clearing spells and expansion of the rail lines, nothing you wouldn't have spoken of at a meeting
  4087. >After all these were your co-workers and, occasionally, political rivals
  4088. >To speak outside the realms of business was wasteful, and possibly dangerous to boot
  4089. >But as the brakes of the train begin to squeal while it pulls into the station, the conversation stops as the cars do the same
  4090. >Steam hisses from the engine as the machine settles, and after a moment the doors open to reveal Princess Luna and General Iron Greaves
  4091. >But just behind them is the true guest of honour, and as they step out so to does the former griffon emperor, Willem Gunnar
  4092. >Even in defeat, his clothes tattered and fur unkempt, he keeps a regal posture and exudes arrogance
  4093. >A small, smug smirk touches your lips and you spread your arms wide
  4094. >You have to shout to make yourself heard over the raucous cheers
  4095. “Welcome home, our victorious heroes!”
  4096. >The cheering redoubles as Luna and Iron Greaves give a short bow
  4097. >You finally focus on Luna, and notice the state she's in
  4098. >She looks totally exhausted, dark eye crescents clear even on her deep, blue coat, her normally flowing mane subdued and dirty, and her eyes bloodshot
  4099. >Iron Greaves too looks tired, though less bedraggled than the night princess
  4100. >But the state that Luna was in makes you realize that, if this was the effect on a princess, the general soldiery must be shocking
  4101. >You can finally understand the mistakes that the politicians of Earth had made
  4102. >But you would not fall into the same traps, you silently vow to establish a fund for their wellbeing as soon as you could
  4103. >Perhaps even using some of the stores liberated from the griffons, it would be true poetry to use that to aid those who had taken it
  4104. >But that would have to wait, for now you would be parading with Gunnar and his escort to the Grand Plaza of the city
  4105. >Princess Cadence was already waiting there for the official signing
  4106. >As you walk towards the table, the escort is busy keeping the crowd back the whole while
  4107. >You're surprised at the obscenities you hear from them, even though they're almost cute in their language you hadn't thought ponies to have so much bile
  4108. >But proof was heaped on you for every step you took
  4109. >Behind the escort, a procession of troops was welcomed with cheering and ecstatic shouts
  4110. >The switch from one to the other was jarring, but the troops more than deserved such praise, but all managed to stay professional while enjoying it
  4111. >All told, it takes a half hour for what should have been a ten minute walk
  4112. >At the very least, the former emperor hadn't been struck by anything more than a rotten tomato
  4113. >But he remained quiet and held his head high for the entire gauntlet
  4114. >You could respect his for his will, even if you hated the arrogance that it stemmed from
  4115. >The two of you leave the escort behind as you climb the steps to the stage that the table had been set one
  4116. >Cadence sits with a stern expression on her face, taking up one end of the ornate table
  4117. >You seat yourself at the center and have Gunnar at the other end
  4118. >A terse silence remains between the three of you as General Stalwart Shield, the defense minister, makes a short speech to summarize the events of the day
  4119. >Finally, he floats a scroll over to the table and rolls it out in front of the three of you
  4120. >In turn, with the griffon signing first, all three of you sign the instruments of the Griffon Empire's surrender
  4121. >Gunnar had held his pen over the document for a long while, but finally he had issued his signature
  4122. >You and Cadence didn't take nearly so long, and within a few minutes Stalwart Shield was showing the document off to an ecstatic crowd and media cameras
  4123. >After a moment of grand standing, he gestures to you
  4124. >Time for you to make the grandest speech you ever have
  4125. >The cheers die down as you take to the center of the stage, and you take a deep breath before beginning
  4126. “Mares and gentlecolts, today marks a new cornerstone in the history of Equestria. In just four months, we have transformed our ill-equipped and meager defense force into the mightiest force the world has seen.”
  4127. >You see Stalwart Shield swell with pride, along with the soldiers who line the crowd
  4128. “It is that force that has delivered us from the brink of disaster, that force who so bravely sallied into the first battles in eight hundred years. And what battles they fought! At Trottingham they defeated a force twice their size, and at the gates of Griffonstone five thousand ponies took the capital itself!”
  4129. >A loud cheer goes up from the crowd, who could not be so elated at the news of such victories
  4130. >Was the praise over the top? Certainly, but in such a victory like this dramatics were more than welcome to heighten the mood ever further
  4131. >To be happy in victory was what could help heal the wounds of war
  4132. “The flag of Equestria flies over the battlements at Griffonstone, but let us not forget the cost of war. Not just to our own, but to our allies and enemies alike. To Princess Cadence of the Crystal Empire, you and your husband have my eternal gratitude for your invaluable aid in keeping the enemy at bay in the North. And even now, the Equestrian Corps of Engineers has been sent to Griffonstone to help rebuild the city.”
  4133. >You pause to take a breath, and the crowd holds their own in anticipation
  4134. “We must keep in mind that this war was not one of conquest, but of liberation. Our military does not stand to take the lands of others, but to protect our home and the homes of those we call friends. Even now, a delegation from Capra comes to discuss the independence of their nation and a team of experts seek griffons to serve on a new high council. Never again shall the griffons find themselves led by their beaks into a war they did not want. Never again shall they need to endure the atrocious conditions of war without necessity. We shall assist them in rebuilding their nation and ensure their peaceful return to the world stage.”
  4135. >The crowd doesn't cheer for this, sensible enough, but they applaud the feeling behind them
  4136. >When they fall silent again, you continue
  4137. “So let us carry onward, on to a bright future of peace and prosperity. And let us leave not one of our allies behind, but carry them forth with us into a new golden age!”
  4138. >The applause builds slowly at first, but soon grows into a deafening raucous
  4139. >You smile warmly and wave to the crowd and Princess Cadence comes and joins you
  4140. >Gunnar is led away to be spoken with later, you still had to discuss what was to become of him and his nation
  4141. >But for now, you still had some public relations to do with Princess Cadence
  4142. >You look over to her and hold out a hand to shake
  4143. “So then princess, shall we go together?”
  4144. >For perhaps the first time you've seen, she gives you a genuine smile as she takes your hand and shakes it
  4145. >”Yes, chancellor, let's.”
  4146. >And so you walk off the stage and into a Equestria's new golden age
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