The Lunar Rebellion

by Chengar Qordath

Chapter 1: Gathering Shadows 1

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I confess that I am not entirely certain why I have chosen to write this account.

One could speak of all the normal reasons a retired soldier such as myself would choose to put her experiences into writing. I could offer long-winded commentary about how I wish to offer the benefit of my wisdom and experiences to both my own generation and generations hence. I might choose to carry on at great length about the uniqueness of my experiences, and how ordinary ponies across the world might apply the insights I have gained to their own lives.

In truth, I would find such an account to be unbearably pretentious. While I shall not engage in such false modesty as to claim that I have nothing of value to contribute to the sum of all knowledge, I do not think myself so brilliant that the world would suffer for not having my own opinions added to it.

Perhaps, then, I have written this account to secure my own legacy in the pages of history? I would be far from the only old soldier who has done such a thing. I could go on at length about my triumphs, regale my readers with the story of how I faced impossible odds and claimed victory by dint of my own skill on the battlefield. My failures, by the same token, could be explained away or shifted onto the backs of others, and my more disputed decisions might be explained in full.

However, such a self-aggrandizing account holds even less interest to me than one that merely seeks to feed my own ego. In truth, I feel that, if anything, my reputation is already far too exaggerated. Many have sought to make more of me than what I truly am, to place me upon some pedestal as a perfect, unerring figure. Even before such veneration bore its ultimate fruit I found such things tiresome, and after some of the events that ultimately transpired as a result of my inflated reputation the thought of doing anything that might add to it fills me with no joy.

Perhaps the simplest answer is the correct one. That like many soldiers who have survived the maelstrom of war and lived to old age, I find myself compelled to look back and reflect upon my experiences. Ultimately, I have chosen to commit such reflections to the written page so that I might consult my thoughts and sharpen memories that old age has begun to take from me.

It is in some ways a terrible thing to finally grow old. To wake every morning feeling the fresh aches and pains of old war wounds, to watch helplessly as my mind and body both begin to fail me. I see now why many an old soldier chooses to seek one final battle, that they might die in a blaze of glory rather than seek a death in bed, long after their best days are behind them. However, for all the sorrows that age brings, I think I prefer it to the embrace of oblivion, or the other alternatives that have been offered to me.

You will forgive me if my account begins to ramble or depart upon tangents at times. Such is the privilege of old age. One can only hope that whoever faces the difficult task of editing my words into a coherent and readable account curbs the worst such excesses. (1)

1: To be honest, she’s not that bad about it. Then again, I’m just the latest in a string of nine hundred years worth of editors, so maybe the ones who came before me chopped all the worst of it out.

So, having established the reasons I have chosen to share this account with my readers and the rest of Equestria, it would behoove me to offer some additional thoughts on what this account entails. While it is not the only event of significance in my life, I have chosen to restrict my account to the civil war that occurred in the one hundred and tenth year of Celestia’s sole reign over Equestria, commonly known as the Lunar Rebellion. While there are many worthy tales to be told of earlier and later times, it is the Rebellion which weighs most heavily upon my mind. I shall leave any accounts of later events in the hooves of far more capable authors than I.

I have decided to write my account in three parts, the first discussing the events leading up to the beginning of hostilities, the second discussing the early stages of the war, and lastly covering the war’s conclusion and perhaps briefly touching upon its aftermath.

While I have attempted to faithfully recreate all the events of the Rebellion, I will confess that certain details might be literary embellishments on my part. While I should like to think that I have remembered all the important events, one can hardly expect to recall the details of every single conversation one had many years ago. Even the memory enhancement magics offered to me by Archmagus Midnight Sparkle can only bring a limited degree of clarity to events so long past.

So, without further ado, I shall begin my account on the seventeenth day of the Month of Fevers...

It is a troublesome thing to have business in the city of Canterlot.

It seems a rather curious thing to say about one of our sister-races, but in many ways the capital of Unicornia is more alien to me than the lands of other species. The Griffin Kingdoms are alien indeed to ponykind, but griffins and pegasi both share a proud warrior heritage that gives us common ground to build upon. Amongst the unicorns, I have often felt that aside from the basic details of our anatomy we have nothing at all in common. Though that perception has waned as I came to know them better in following years, at the time it was still fresh in my mind.

My mood was not helped by the fact that I could look forward to many future visits to Canterlot. As the newest member of the Ephorate (2), it naturally fell to me to engage in those tasks which the older members found undesirable. Such are the benefits of seniority.

2: The ruling body of Pegasopolis. I will provide a full explanation of the inner workings of the Pegasopolan and Equestrian governments in an editor’s note once I can do so without disrupting Shadow’s narrative flow.

After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that my daughter should accompany me on this excursion. It would be of value to her if she had greater experience with the other races of ponykind. Like many pegasi her age, Gale had almost never ventured down from the clouds to mingle with groundborne races. If she was to succeed me in ruling the clan one day, as I had so recently succeeded my father, then such experiences would no doubt be of benefit to her.

In addition, if serving as a liaison to Canterlot and Commander Celestia was to be a regular part of my duties, I would benefit greatly from having Gale close to hoof. Once she had appropriate time to gain the lay of the land, her subtler skills would be of great value to me. In Canterlot, knowledge was of far more use than a sharp wing-blade, and it was knowledge that was Gale’s stock in trade. I had no doubt that within hours of our arrival she would begin constructing a web of contacts and informants to keep me apprised of events in the city.

In politics, even moreso than on the battlefield, knowledge is the key to victory.

Now that the topic of knowledge had come to my mind, it seemed prudent to assess my daughter’s knowledge of her groundborne counterparts. “Tell me, my daughter, what experience dost thou have with the other pony races?”

My daughter faltered briefly in the air as her wings fell slightly out of tempo for a brief moment. Thankfully, she recovered herself quickly enough. We were still high enough in the sky that a fall would be most unpleasant, and there were few enough clouds to break any such tumble.

My concern for her must have shown on my face, for she gave me an easy, confident smile. “Fear not, Mother. Thy question simply caught me unawares.” I suppose I should have had a bit more faith in her flying abilities—she is a mare grown, after all. In my defense, Gale rarely flies in full armor, but certain proprieties must be observed for a ceremonial occasion on par with meeting Commander Celestia. I must say, even if she normally preferred to gird herself in lighter armor than full plate, my daughter did cut a rather fetching figure in the clan’s red armor. It fit quite nicely with her green coat and blue-and-white mane.

Perhaps I was simply being maternal. As a mother, it is entirely fitting that I worry about her, even needlessly. I can only hope that this does not advance from the occasional bit of worry to outright doting.

After several moments’ consideration, Gale finally answered my question. “I fear I know little of the ground or those who dwell upon it, beyond the basics of my education. I know that earth ponies farm and build, unicorns use magic and craft. Was there something specific thou wouldst ask of me?”

I decided to put her knowledge to the test. It would be most embarrassing if my daughter lacked even the most basic comprehension of our destination and hosts. “Let us focus on unicorns for the moment, given that our business takes us to Canterlot. Our duty is to liaise with the Commander and interact with her court as needed to promote the interests of Pegasopolis.” There was a hint of a smile upon my lips as I amended. “‘Twould be passing difficult to do such a thing if we lack any knowledge of Canterlot, its denizens, and the workings of its own government, wouldst thou not agree?”

“‘Twould prove slightly challenging,” Gale answered with a giggle. Gale’s eyes drifted slightly to the side as she put her mind to work dredging up half-remembered lessons from earlier times. “Unicornia is a monarchy with an entrenched aristocracy who controls most positions of power and influence, though there are magocratic elements as well.” Gale turned to me with a slight frown. “I am curious, Mother, as to why they would believe that bloodlines are of such importance that they should dictate who holds positions of authority.”

“Like many things about our brethren, I confess that it eludes me as well.” I took a few moments to ponder the matter more deeply. “Whether they dwell in the clouds or ‘pon the ground, all ponies share a love for clan and family. Perhaps a belief that bloodline should dictate leadership ultimately grows from such. There is also the matter of practicality—even amongst our own kind, it is rare indeed to see an Ephor or Geronte (3) who does not hail from one of the major clans.”

3: A member of the Gerousia, an advisory body of retired generals.

Gale favored me with a fond smile as she answered, “But our leadership comes from the major clans because any clanless pony who shows talent is adopted into a clan, not simply because bonds of blood make for superior leadership.”

I conceded the matter with a nod. “Still, much like with our major clans, the noble houses of Unicornia control considerable resources.”

“Ah, but of course.” Gale rolled her eyes and gave me a slightly bemused grin. “I forget about the importance of monday in ground society.”

“Money,” I gently corrected her.

Gale gave a very slight grimace at her error. “Why place such importance upon a few shiny pieces of metal? It seems foolish to me. The farmer gets money for his crops, gives it to the blacksmith for his tools, the lumberjacks for wood, the tailor for his clothes, and whatever else is needful.” Gale gave a dismissive wave of her hoof. “‘Twould seem far more efficient if instead of accompanying every single exchange with a hooffull of baubles, they simply provided each other with that which was needed, as we do.”

“Such a thought has often occurred to me as well.” I shot a look in the general direction of Canterlot. The city was still some distance away, but close enough that we could begin to see its gleaming spires and proud towers. “I suspect it might prove difficult for our earthbound kin to emulate our ways. In the clouds we have neither need nor use for most material goods, but on land there are a truly bewildering variety of things that everypony needs or desires. The Ephorate can have difficulty enough satisfying every request for weapons, armor, food, and other such necessities.” I waved a hoof down at the farmland below us. “Imagine the burdens a government would face if it needed to balance every single need and desire for all the hundreds of goods our groundbound counterparts desire.”

“So they use money instead.” Gale brought a hoof up under her chin as she gave thought to the matter. “Thy reasoning is sound, and there is some logic to their ways, strange as it may seem to me. It still seems a needlessly complicated way to resolve such matters, at least to one such as me.”

“Our kin can be passing strange, indeed.” I let out an amused chuckle. “I confess that it took me some time to grasp the purpose of money. The presence of such things as markets still mystifies and annoys me in equal measure. I do not understand why those who dwell on the land feel the need to construct special places for the sole purpose of attempting to cheat each other out of their goods.”

“And thou wouldst have me work amongst such alien ponies, and attempt to exercise my skills in a society I barely understand.” Gale gave a rueful chuckle and slowly shook her head. “Ah, but thou canst be so very cruel to me sometimes, Mother. Have I failed thee in some way, to have earned such harsh punishment?”

“I have every confidence in thy ability to persevere through such challenges.” We were beginning to draw near Canterlot, so I angled my wings so that I would begin gently gliding downwards. “I would never ask something of thee that I believed to be outside of thy ability to accomplish.”

“Let us hope thou art wise in what thou wouldst ask of me, then.” Gale grimaced at a particularly unpleasant memory. “My introduction to cauliflower was … trying.”

“And yet, thou art fully capable of eating it.” I felt the barest of smirks work its way onto my face. “It is simply that thou dost not wish to.”

“One can hardly hold my distaste for it against me when it is so very distasteful,” Gale grumbled. “Let us hope the Commander’s chefs do not serve any while our business keeps us here.” Gale shot me a look and asked. “How long dost thou anticipate our business will require that we linger in Canterlot? Is this to be an extended stay, or a short visit?”

“We will remain here until Commander Celestia no longer has need of us.” My daughter clearly found such an open-ended answer less than enlightening, so I opted to offer her a bit more information. “I do not anticipate an extended stay. The delivery of the Ephorate’s report on the state of Pegasopolis is largely a matter of routine business. So long as there is nothing amiss, we should only need to remain for a few days while the Commander reviews the report and composes a reply.”

“So we are nothing but glorified messengers then?” Gale did not seem pleased with the thought. “Such lofty duties to grant to one of the five leaders of Pegasopolis. Are we to conduct an inspection of latrines once this matter is concluded?”

I will confess that my own thoughts had travelled down similar avenues when I first learned of my assignment. In truth, I think I would prefer an inspection of latrines to becoming mired in the court at Canterlot and dealing with politics. Latrine duty was far cleaner. “Commander Celestia requires that one of her Ephors be present while the reports are under review, in case there are any points that she would inquire upon. ‘Tis far more efficient to have an Ephor ready at hoof than to send messengers back and forth.”

Gale’s nose crinkled slightly as she took note of an inconsistency in my words. “If this be such routine duty, then why am I to accompany thee?”

“Perhaps I merely wished for time to bond with my beloved daughter,” I spared a brief smile for her before returning to the matter at hoof. “While the matter is routine enough, the court at Canterlot is a political center, and one that is nothing like High Command in Cloudsdale. I am on unfamiliar ground, and I wish to know the lay of the land.”

“And the knowledge I can offer thee might be of use if the interests of Pegasopolis come into conflict with those of certain members of the court.” Gale grinned and shot me a sharp salute. “Fear not, Mother. Canterlot holds no secrets that are beyond my ability to uncover.”

The two of us began slowly circling the palace, taking ample time to allow the Commander’s guards to see us and take note of our peaceful intent. While this was largely a matter of ceremony in these harmonious times, we were still fully armed and armored warriors approaching the center of government. A sudden, unexpected arrival might provoke an unfortunate incident if we happened upon a particularly high-strung guard. The Unicornian Royal Guard is not the most disciplined of formations, and in truth I suspect they have no skills other than the ability to cut a striking figure on the parade ground.

“We have not yet landed, and already I look forward to our return to Cloudsdale.” Something about the decorative nature of the Unicornian Guard offended me. That they would play at being warriors when in truth they were little better than living decorations.

“I can believe it.” Gale shot me a distressingly knowing smirk. “Though I cannot help but wonder if thy eagerness to return stems from a longing to see our clanhold again, or if you simply pine for the company of Rightly Doo.”

Now it was my turn to falter in my flight. There are times when having a daughter with such a talent for information gathering can have distressing unintended consequences. “Ephor Doo is pleasant enough company, but methinks thou reads overmuch into the fact that we have enjoyed each other’s companionship.”

“Mayhaps I do.” The smile on my daughter’s face made it abundantly clear that she did not believe a word of it. In fairness, she was right to do so. “Mayhap I have imagined how thy eyes linger overlong upon him whenever he is nearby. One can hardly blame thee when he is so fine to look upon. I am sure the fondness in thy voice when thou speakest of him is nothing but mere friendship and the respect of comrades.”

I felt a hint of choler building within me at her teasing. “Perhaps thy talents could find a more worthy use than to pry into my possible romantic prospects, daughter.”

If my mild rebuke offended her, she did not show it. My daughter knows me well enough to be aware that there was no heat behind it. Less fortunately for me, the fact that I was not truly wroth with her encouraged her to continue in her current course. “Fear not, Mother. Thine eyes are not the only ones which linger.”

Damn her for her spying, but I was glad to hear it. I have not yet had occasion to speak with Rightly upon the matter. His wife and newborn foal both are but a year dead, and despite any feelings that I might have had for him, it would not be proper for me to make such an approach until an appropriate mourning period had passed.

I was, perhaps, a touch hasty in landing, but I wished to place hooves upon the ground so that my daughter might be forced to put an end to the matter—at least for the moment. Gale is well aware that for all of our private closeness, certain proprieties must be observed when we are in the public eye. For all her humor and enjoyment of such diversions, she would not dare make light of me in a way that might be seen as lessening my public regard.

The two of us made our landing a short distance from Canterlot Palace’s main entrance. I confess that while I normally prefer the proud cloud columns and simple efficiency of Cloudsdale to Canterlot’s marble opulence, there was a certain appeal to the palace itself. Certainly it served to convey the splendor and grandeur of the Unicornian monarchy. For all that my rational mind wanted to be offended by the wasteful extravagance of the palace’s rich tapestries, stained-glass windows, and lush carpets, I was still impressed.

As we trotted through the entryway, Gale’s mouth dropped slightly, and her pace slowed as she tarried to look upon a particularly fine tapestry showing Commander Celestia’s defeat of Nightmare Moon. I stepped beside her and gave her a very gentle nudge. “Have a care, daughter. ‘Twould be most unfortunate if we occupied ourselves overlong with taking in the sights and were mistaken for wandering tourists instead of visiting dignitaries.”

Gale blinked several times and forcefully tore her gaze away from the tapestry. “My apologies, Mother. I was simply...” She scuffed a hoof through the carpet as she struggled to find the right words to explain herself.

After a few moments of awkward silence, I had mercy on my poor daughter. “It is quite alright, Gale. Thou art unused to such sights.”

My daughter very slowly nodded, and with a visible effort tore her eyes away from the tapestry. “It is very ... colorful.”

One could hardly blame my daughter for finding the sudden variety that had been introduced to her color palette somewhat distracting. For all that I love Cloudsdale, one can hardly deny that while it is a wonderfully flexible building material clouds do inevitably lead to a certain drabness. With the thankful exception of the ponies who dwell within the city itself, it is a rare thing to see any color in Cloudsdale beyond white cloud and blue sky. For all that its inhabitants might vex me at times, I cannot deny that there is beauty to be found upon the earth. From what I have seen of the ground, there are few places more beautiful than the royal palace in Canterlot.

Perhaps I had erred in bringing Gale here for her first excursion to terra firma. It might have been more prudent to schedule her first missions to simpler places, that she might have time to adjust before we moved on to Canterlot. The sudden introduction of so many new sights might prove to be rather overwhelming for her—it was clearly a struggle for her to remain focused upon our task in the face of Canterlot’s wonders.

Thankfully, my daughter was up to the task. I would have to arrange a proper tour of the palace and the city for her once our business with the Commander came to a conclusion for the day. Best to indulge her curiosity when there was time and opportunity to do so without interfering with our duties, rather than leave it to linger unsatisfied.

“Perhaps our visit to Canterlot shall prove more enjoyable than thou feared, Mother.” My daughter has always been an optimist at heart.

As the two of us approached the Commander’s throne room, a party of Canterlot Royal Guard met us. The commanding officer of the unit was easily identified by the ridiculous amount of ornamentation upon his armor, making him look more akin to a peacock than a proper soldier. Though I had little familiarity with such things at the time, I suspected that if one sold his gold-lined and bejeweled armor in the markets of Canterlot, it would provide a substantial sum that could be put to far more worthy uses than constructing this insult against proper smithing.

To make matters worse, his rank insignia indicated that he was a mere lieutenant. In light of the fact that such armor rested upon what was in truth little more than a doorpony, one shudders to think at how elaborate the higher-ranking officers are likely to make their wargear. Perhaps it is the combat doctrine of the Canterlot Guard to blind their enemies with the magnificence of their armor?

Despite being somewhat shorter than I, the lieutenant still somehow deigned to look down his nose at me. “State thy name and business with Her Majesty Queen Celestia and the Royal Court.”

The condescension in his tone offended my sense of honor, but in my experience it is a rare thing indeed to find a unicorn noble that is not haughty. I shall never understand why the Commander thinks it wise to reserve all officer ranks within the Unicornian armed forces for the nobility. Perhaps it was simply another concession made to those who hold power and privilege, though I should think the Commander could find a way to satisfy her nobles without undermining the effectiveness of her armed forces in the process.

For the moment, however, I would simply have to endure the fact that the Commander has allowed some less than suitable ponies into positions of authority. Since unicorns seem to place such value on every little bit of ceremony and appearances, I drew myself up to my full height and spoke authoritatively. “I am Ephor Shadow Kicker of Pegasopolis, here to deliver the Ephorate’s report on the state of Pegasopolis to Commander Celestia.”

My daughter did her best to imitate my poise. “Captain Gale Kicker of Pegasopolis, and...” She hesitated for a moment, then waved a hoof at me. “I am accompanying the Ephor.”

“I see.” The lieutenant sniffed and turned his nose up at us. “I regret to inform thee that I am unfamiliar with anypony by the name of ‘Commander Celestia’ present at Court today.” His voice reached new levels of condescension as he added. “Art thou, perhaps, thinking of Her Majesty Celestia, first of her name, Queen of all Unicornia, Sol Invictus, Pony of the Three Tribes, Ruler of all Equestria, Duchess of Canterlot ... and so forth?”

I became quite wroth with him, both for the clear insult in his words and improper familiarity with which he addressed me. (4) My tone was quite terse as I answered him. “I speak of Celestia, Commander-in-Chief of the forces of all Pegasopolis, and no other.”

4: At this point I should comment on a language issue that would be lost on most modern readers. Older Equestrian has two different forms of second-person address: “you” and “thou.” Which one is appropriate to use depends on context. “Thou” is normally reserved for close friends, family, and social inferiors, while “you” is more polite and formal. Thus, our less than intelligent lieutenant is offering Shadow Kicker a fairly serious insult by addressing her as “thou” instead of “you.”

The foolish lieutenant opened his mouth to spout some new level of idiocy. Thankfully his sergeant did the duty of veteran sergeants, and stepped between the fool and his folly. “Sir? In light of the fact that they are visiting dignitaries, perhaps we should overlook their desire to adhere to their own customs instead of following Canterlot norms?”

For a moment I wondered if the lieutenant would have wisdom enough to take the opportunity his sergeant had offered him. After several seconds’ consideration, the pretentious guard reluctantly nodded, and conceded with poor grace. “I suppose we can hardly expect those ponies from less sophisticated tribes to grasp the subtleties of proper court behavior.” I suspect he had not intended for us to overhear that statement, but his whispers were not nearly so silent as they should be. The overdecorated lieutenant turned to the two of us and addressed us properly. “Ephor, we shall inform Her Majesty of thy presence here.” He took a very slight step to the side and indicated a door. “Through here, thou will find chambers to adjust thy appearance after thy flight from Pegasopolis, and to store thy weapons and armor.”

I confess I was sorely tempted to press the matter, but there was little to be gained from browbeating a lieutenant who was rather too full of himself. The Commander was waiting for us, after all. I might send Gale to have words with the Captain of the Guard before we departed from Canterlot, though. I rather doubted that a mere lieutenant was authorized to offer such disrespect to visiting leaders from the other tribes. If he acted so before a foreign leader, Equestria might easily face a diplomatic incident.

Still, my pride was not so fragile that I must answer every insult with juris ungula (5). Gale and I proceeded to the waiting room, which was every bit as richly appointed as one would expect from the Unicornian royal palace.

5: An Old Equestria term, which literally translates as “Justice of the Hoof.” A formal term for dueling, which was still legal in Equestria at the time.

Gale settled down onto a chaise and gratefully stretched her wings. “I cannot say much for their manners, but the unicorns do at least grasp the value of comfort.” My daughter shifted about, making herself comfortable. “I do not think there is a room so fine as this in all of Cloudsdale. And to think, this is merely a place us to tarry until the Commander has time to see us.”

“The unicorns are fond indeed of their luxuries.” I did not avail myself of the room’s comforts as my daughter so eagerly did. In truth, I suspect that it is comforts such as these which breed the likes of the foolish lieutenant we so recently encountered. In Pegasopolis such actions would never be tolerated, but the ease and luxury of Canterlot had allowed a certain attitude of indolence and egotism to take root. I suspect that the unicorns as a whole would benefit greatly from incorporating a touch more austerity into their society.

Still, there were a few practical things within the room. First and foremost, a mirror. While I am not given to vanity and indulging upon my appearance, I was to meet with the Commander shortly. It was only fitting that I take a moment to look myself over and ensure that nothing was out of place. The mirror might be larger than I required and studded with pearls and silver along the rim, but it still served its purpose well enough.

Aside from some slight messiness in my mane (and it was inevitable that there would be many stray golden hairs after the flight from Cloudsdale to Canterlot) all appeared to be in order. The braid had held in my tail despite the journey, and I kept my mane short enough that restoring it to order took naught but a few strokes of a manebrush. Thankfully, some practical-minded pony had thought to include one in the room, and even more gratefully it looked more like an actual tool rather than an overstudded luxury to chip my teeth on.

My armor required a few minor adjustments, but that was only be expected. As would anypony facing an extended journey, Gale and I had loosened straps and made other efforts to reduce the discomfort of wearing it while we travelled. Having my breastplate sit ever so slightly crooked is a minor thing on the road, but now was the time to address that issue. Thankfully, the weather had been accommodating enough that Gale and I had not worked up a lather in the process of our travels. ‘Twould be unfortunate indeed if we arrived before the Commander reeking of rust and sweat.

Once the adjustments were made, all was in readiness. Whoever was responsible for stocking the room had not thought to include such useful tools as polish for armor or wing-blade, but I had already anticipated as much, and Gale and I had both seen to the matter last night. My armor was almost gleaming blood-red, sitting quite nicely against the dark grey coat that had inspired my parents to name me Shadow.

Now that I had seen to myself, it was time to look after my daughter. Gale had already taken it upon herself to correct her armor, but there were other matters to address beyond that. Her mane and tail both became rather badly disordered over the course of our journey. Not that this was an unusual state for her to be in—in truth I would scarce recognize my own daughter if mane and tail both were not in a messy, windblown mass. However, we were to meet with the Commander soon, and such things should be attended to. Gale let out a slight murmur of protest as I took the manebrush to her, but offered no further complaint. In truth, I suspect she secretly enjoyed my occasional bouts of maternal doting.

Just as I had begun to make some progress at restoring my daughter’s mane to something at least vaguely resembling order, there was a knock upon the door of our temporary chambers. I set the brush down beside my daughter and took a half-step away. There is a time and a place for maternal affection, but it is not something I usually care to parade about in front of all the world. Especially not if the one at our door was the foolish lieutenant. “You may enter.”

Thankfully, it was not the lieutenant, it was his sergeant. The veteran unicorn dropped halfway into a bow on instinct before remembering just who he stood before, and altering it to a salute instead. “Ma’ams. I wish to apologize for my commanding officer’s behavior. Lieutenant Proud Line is very new to his duties, and still adjusting to the demands of his station. I hope he did not offer you any grave offense.”

I returned his salute, as did Gale. “Despite what the social customs of thy kind dictate, I would say that it is thou who is the true noble and gentlepony, not thy commanding officer.” The sergeant stood a little straighter at that complement. I felt a hint of a grimace on my lips as I announced, “I believe that before my departure I shall have words with the Captain of the Guard about this incident, though I shall be certain to include thy role in resolving it.”

The accommodating sergeant winced and reluctantly shook his head. “I would not advise such a course, ma’am. The Captain of the Guard thinks quite highly of his son, and would not hear a word against him—even from one of your status.”

“Ah. So that is how it is.” Small surprise our less than wise lieutenant would think so highly of himself when his father holds such a position. Even his superiors would not dare to correct his behavior, lest they incur his father’s wrath. Another unfortunate byproduct of Unicornia’s ways, I am sure. When I was younger and more foolish, my own superiors never hesitated to speak of when I erred, even though my father held the post of Ephor until he retired to the Gerousia and I took his place. Or perhaps it was because of his station. In either case, my father would not have tolerated any show of favoritism, and none would dispute that I earned the right to succeed him through talent and hard work. But I digress.

The sergeant gave us both a nod. “With your permission, ma’am, I should return to my post before my absence is noted.”

“Very well, return to thy post, and I thank thee for thy words.” Once the nameless sergeant had made his departure, I retrieved the manebrush and returned to my work upon Gale.

I am hardly a vain mare, but my daughter ought to look her best before the Commander. Call it … maternal professionalism, if you must. It is not every day one makes introduction of one’s daughter to the ruler of all ponykind.

Gale accepted my ministrations for a time, but eventually my doting began to try her patience. As I struggled with a particularly troublesome knot in her mane, she gently put hoof on my shoulder and halfheartedly grumbled. “Mother, while I appreciate thy efforts, I am quite capable of taking care of myself.”

“Hush, my child,” I gently chided her. “Whenever thou attemptest to restore thine own mane to proper order, the result is wanting.”

Gale crossed her forelegs in front of her on the chaise and rested her chin upon them, a slight pout on her lips. “So I am to be treated as but a filly, despite being a mare grown?” My daughter shot me the barest of smirks. “If I am to be treated as such, then thou couldst at least ply my favor with sweets once our business is concluded.”

“That would please thee, I am sure. I have no doubt that something could be arranged—the palace chefs are likely to be most accommodating of any request that one of the Commander’s guests might wish to make of them.” My daughter has always had something of a fondness for anything with a distressingly high sugar content. I confess that I enjoy such things myself on occasion, though rarely as greatly as she does. Pegasopolis might be a place of bare necessities, but even we like to enjoy the simple pleasures of a good confectionary.

While for the most part I care little for luxuries of Canterlot, I will admit that the first time I returned to Cloudsdale after enjoying the Commander’s chefs, it was a painful transition. The clanhold’s mess hall has neither the time nor the desire to produce some of the more complex dishes I have enjoyed at the Palace. Such is the price of having fewer chefs with more ponies to feed between them.

Gale fell silent, no doubt distracted by the possibilities of having a small army of skilled cooks eagerly waiting to fulfill her every whim. Though I pitied the cuisiniers she would shortly victimize, such thoughts did at least still any further token protests to my maternal attentions.

I had finally begun to bring my daughter’s mane to a satisfactory state when there was another rap upon our door. Sadly, this time it was not the sergeant come to make peace, but Lt. Proud Line returned with word from the Commander. Sadly, she had not been made aware of his actions or had an opportunity to correct the deficiencies in his behavior. With any luck, I would have the opportunity to do so before long.

“Her Majesty has deigned to grant thee an audience.” The lieutenant’s tone made it clear that he could not grasp why she would do such a thing. “I shall escort thee to the throne room once thou art prepared to depart, though one can hope that thou will not leave Her Majesty waiting overlong for thy arrival.”

“We are already prepared to meet with the Commander,” I answered tersely.

“Truly?” Line raised an eyebrow and gave the two of us a critical look, as if there were something dreadfully wrong with our appearance. “I see. No doubt thou art unfamiliar with the laws and customs of Court.” Condescension in the form of false politeness dripped from his voice. “Allow me to explain: thou may not enter Court while so armed and armored, it is an insult to Her Majesty and her guards.”

Oh. We certainly would not want to show a lack of respect for certain members of the Unicornian Royal Guard.

Line continued on, oblivious to my thoughts. “To bear arms in Court shows that thou dost not have faith in the Guard’s ability to provide protection to all who dwell within the palace. Furthermore, ‘tis an insult to the hospitality Her Majesty has so graciously offered thee. As such, I am afraid I must ask thee to surrender thy arms and armor—thou hast my word of honor that thy possessions shall be stored in the armory and returned undamaged upon thy departure.”

Gale and I shared a look, and no words were needed for each of us to know the other’s thoughts on the matter. We were in accord. “My blades are in the service of Commander Celestia,” I announced formally. “It is the gravest of insults to both myself and the Commander to ask that I surrender them.”

Line’s second-in-command attempted to step in and defuse the situation once more. “Sir, Her Majesty has always allowed Pegasopolan representatives to remain armed within the palace, and even within her very presence.”

For a moment I hoped that might be the end of the matter. Precedent and policy were clearly not on Proud Line’s side, and prudence dictated that he back down and allow the matter to rest. Unfortunately, it was not prudence that dictated Proud Line’s actions, but wounded pride. Already he had once been forced to give ground and concede a dispute in full view of the ponies under his theoretical command. To those who are young and proud, there are few things more intolerable than the public loss of face. In a way, it was a small miracle that his sergeant had been able to convince him to let the matter rest once.

But a second withdrawal while the memory of the first still burned brightly in his mind was too much for the young noble. And so his pride drove him to action that common sense ought to have prevented. “Guards, secure their weapons.”

The ponies under Line’s command knew the folly of this order as well as anypony, and so instead of following it they looked to their sergeant, hoping he might find some way to countermand the order. While Line was a fool, he was not so much of one that he could not grasp the mood of those under his command. His already wounded pride was no doubt further stung by such a clear sign that they had no faith in his leadership. His cheeks burned with mixed shame and fury. “I have given an order, and thou shalt obey it! Now secure their weapons.”

I spoke my daughter’s name, and she needed no further prompting. Gale flicked a wing in Line’s general direction, and a breath later a steel spike embedded itself in the wall only a hair’s breadth away from Line’s head. The fool jumped back in shock, while the Guards under his command cringed back. For her part, Gale smiled at Proud Line as if they had exchanged casual pleasantries. “You wish to take our weapons? There is one.” She helpfully pointed an armored hoof to the spike, as if there were any chance he might have missed it. “Would you like the rest?”

Line shot wide-eyed looks between Gale and the weapon she had thrown at him as his brain slowly struggled to wrap itself around what had just passed. Shock slowly transformed into a fury. “Thou—thou wouldst dare to attack one of the Queen’s guards within the Queen’s own palace? Monstrous! Guards, take them into custody at once! They may cool their hooves in the palace dungeons until Her Majesty decides upon a fitting punishment!”

After several seconds of stunned silence, the guards under Line’s command approached us with clear reluctance. “I am deeply sorry for this, ma’am,” their sergeant informed me, “but we must follow our commander’s orders.”

“As I am sorry for what shall fall upon thee and thine because of those orders.” I gave the guards who were slowly moving to encircle the two of us a careful, evaluating look. I did not feel particularly threatened. The palace guards are far better suited to ceremonial and decorative duties than proper soldiers’ work. I shifted stance, prepared to move at a moment’s notice, but not yet outright threatening. Gale stepped to the side and turned, so that now she covered my back, not that I particularly expected a surprise attack from these toy soldiers.

The unfortunate sergeant winced and dropped his voice, speaking as privately as he could to me under such circumstances. “Madam, I beg of you, let it end here. Her Majesty will not tolerate your imprisonment, and I would be most upset if something unfortunate happened during any struggle you might choose to offer.”

“Thou needs not be so fearful of what is to come.” I felt the ghost of a confident smile on my face. “I am well-versed in how to subdue an opponent without resorting to lethal force or leaving behind crippling injuries.”

The poor stallion sighed. “Madam, I know of the reputation your race holds for being skilled warriors, but you are outnumbered, and we have magic. There are six of us, and but two of you. Please, it would not end well.”

His count was perhaps a touch optimistic by virtue of including Proud Line as a combatant, but it was not inaccurate. “Thou art quite correct. There is an inequality here that must be attended to at once. Gale? Focus thy attention on the lieutenant, and leave the remainder to me.” I turned back to the very confused sergeant. “Is that an acceptable accommodation, or shall I also bind a hoof behind my back as well?”

At this point, my readers might begin to think me foolishly overconfident. Under other circumstances that might not be an unfair assessment, for even the strongest of warriors would struggle to defeat five opponents simultaneously. For all the disparity in skill between myself and my opponents, numbers do convey a considerable advantage. Especially in a fight where I did not wish to use lethal or crippling force unless absolutely necessary.

However, in this case there were several factors mitigating the numerical disadvantage. The ceremonial polearms of the Canterlot Guard were ill-suited for a close-quarters skirmish such as this, and Gale and I both likely had far more experience in true battle. However, our most important advantage lay in the matter of morale: as Commander Hurricane once famously declared, a single motivated but untrained soldier was worth a dozen trained but unmotivated ones. Though in truth I think he o’ercredited the importance of morale and undercredited discipline. As Lyequinigus herself once said, while morale is important, it is discipline that truly wins battles.

Whatever the case may be, this was a battle my opponents did not wish to fight. Given half an excuse to do so, they would gladly abandon the field. As importantly, they would hesitate to strike, both for fear of eventual wrath from the Commander and because in their hearts they knew that their cause was unjust. Against such opponents, a single decisive and overwhelming strike would suffice to cow them into submission.

“Lieutenant.” I turned to face Proud Line, my expression grim, but confident. “I offer thee one last chance to end this matter without bloodshed. Thee and thine shall stand aside, allow myself and my daughter passage, and that shall be the end of the matter.” Well, at least until I informed the Commander of what had passed here, but why quibble over relatively minor details?

Ever the fool, Line refused to accept the final olive branch I so graciously offered him. “Surrender peaceably, and Her Majesty may offer thee mercy.” The lieutenant let out a malicious little laugh. “Thou shalt find that thou hast erred, and erred greatly, in making an enemy of me, for I and my father—”

I am sure Proud Line would have continued on at some length if we accommodated his desire to do so, but I saw no reason to. I have far more productive uses for my time than indulging the blathering of an idiot child. Additionally, ponies of Line’s dubious caliber rarely expect to be struck unawares, before they have finished strutting about and posturing.

Cruel necessity dictated that the sergeant who had struggled so greatly to prevent matters from coming to a head be my first victim. The other guards clearly looked to him as a leader in the place of their woefully unqualified commander, and when he fell it would devastate their already low morale. Proud Line would need to fall as well, but I had already placed him in my daughter’s capable hooves.

I struck without warning, and opened with the traditional first strike against any unicorn—a sharp blow to the horn. When facing a unicorn in battle, ‘tis always prudent to remove their spellcasting ability as quickly as possible. In almost all cases, a unicorn without their magic is a far lesser threat. While I did not smite him overhard upon the horn, even a relatively light strike would disrupt any spellcasting for the next several seconds. That was more than enough time for my purposes.

The unfortunate sergeant instinctively flinched away to protect his horn from any further harm, allowing me an easy opening to follow my first attack with a wing blade blow to the side of his head. Naturally, I gave him the flat of my blade instead of its edge. It would no doubt leave a very impressive-looking bruise, but there would be no serious harm from the strike. The attack was still more than sufficient to drop the unfortunate sergeant to the ground, though I suspect that had he truly been motivated to do so it would have been within his capacity to continue the fight.

With the sergeant down, that left four ponies standing. I moved for the two standing to my left and swiped a wing blade in their direction. The strike came nowhere close to hitting, but that was never my intention. Instead, the attack served to block my opponents’ view of my hooves for a critical fraction of a second as I shifted my stance. For all the importance of the wings in wielding the blades they carry, one can still deduce a great deal about what one’s opponent is planning merely by noting the placement of their hooves.

If my opponents had been able to see my hoofwork, they might not have been taken quite so badly off guard by my sudden break to the side. Instead, the larger of the two guards was caught completely by surprise when I flanked him, planted my forehooves solidly on the ground, and proceeded to buck him in the side for all I was worth. The strike sent him staggering back into his companion, and the two fell to the floor in a tangle of armor, weapons, and limbs.

That left only two guards still standing, but by now I had largely expended the element of surprise. Thankfully, that was far from my only advantage. One common weakness of our groundborne kin is a certain tendency towards two dimensional thinking. I suppose it is an understandable oversight amongst ponies who can never move any further from the ground than a single jump can carry them.

A quick jump and a few flaps of my wings carried me over and above the both of them, and a spin-flip ensured that I was at the proper orientation when I landed between the two of them. While I could have used my downward momentum to strike a pair of powerful blows, I opted for mercy instead. The edges of my wing-blades on the backs of their necks was a more than adequate statement. “Yield.”

My demand was shortly followed by the sounds of two weapons clattering to floor as both guards wisely complied with my request. With that, the matter was decided. True, the sergeant and the other two were still physically capable of resisting if they truly desired to do so—and might have even made things difficult—but none of them had the heart for it.

As for Proud Line, my daughter had not been kind to him. Two of her throwing spikes had found a home in his forelegs, and the proud unicorn was clearly struggling to hold back tears of pain as he stared down at his wounds in shock. If my daughter’s aim had proven true and Line was the pampered dandy I had every reason to believe he was, then I could safely say that he was in far too much agony to even contemplate spellcasting.

Before I could move on to contemplating how best to address the matter of our having captured several members of the Commander’s Royal Guard, I heard the sounds of hooves stomping upon marble floors. After a few seconds of guarded wariness I realized that this was not the sound of fresh guards come to relieve their fallen companions, but rather that we were being applauded.

A moment later another unicorn appeared from thin air, presumably having concealed herself through the magical arts up to this point, and offered a brief moment more of applause before ceasing. While I had not yet had the pleasure of a proper introduction, I knew this mare quite well by reputation. The Archmagus of Canterlot—and Grand Vizier to the Commander, in her role as Queen of Unicornia—was a rather infamous figure. While Sunbeam Sparkle officially only held power over Unicornia’s affairs, the simple fact that she stood ever by the Commander’s side made her a figure of importance for my purposes as well.

That is not to mention that her position of power over Unicornia’s mages made her important in her own right. While our smiths could craft fine steel at our thunderforges, even the sharpest blade and sturdiest plate could be further improved by unicorn magic.

The Archmagus approached us, contemptuously stepping past the wounded and mewling Proud Line, and respectfully inclined her head to me. “A commendable performance indeed, Ephor.” A faintly amused smirk ghosted across her face as she casually ran an off-white hoof through a mane of red and gold. "'Twould seem that the skill of Pegasopolis’ warriors is not at all exaggerated.” She cast a contemptuous look down at Lt. Line, though in truth her expression was somewhat difficult to read when one of her green eyes remained hidden behind her full mane. “Or perhaps the abilities of our own guards have been allowed to slide into a particularly wretched state.”

Gale shot a faint frown at Sparkle, and I suspect she shared my thoughts in wondering how long the Archmagus had been content to silently witness a steadily worsening situation. Perhaps it would be wise to move on to another topic before Gale said something honest, if perhaps politically unwise. “Archmagus, I do not believe we have been formally introduced.” I formally extended my hoof to her. “I am Shadow Kicker of the clan Kicker, Ephor of Cloudsdale. It is my pleasure to meet you, and to introduce you to my daughter Gale.”

To my annoyance, instead of shaking my hoof as I’d intended Sparkle brought it up to her lips. There are but two ponies I care to be kissed by in any way—one of them is my daughter, and the other is not the Grand Vizier of Unicornia. Once she was done with that minor but still irksome act, her gaze shifted to Gale. “I was under the impression that you had not yet wed, Ephor, let alone so long ago as to have a daughter grown to full adulthood.” The Archmagus fixed Gale with a scrutinizing look for several long moments, then returned her gaze to me. Presumably, the differences in build, color, and other physical traits led to her conclusion. “I see, you adopted.”

I stepped over to Gale and made a point of draping a wing across her back. “She is my daughter.” In hindsight my tone was harsher than the Archmagus’ words merited, but I had heard that adoption was held in fairly low regard amongst unicorns. I suppose it is inevitable, given their obsession with maintaining bloodlines and family ties. Whatever the reason for their odd beliefs, I would not tolerate any disrespect towards Gale simply because she was not the daughter of my flesh, but one of choice. She is my daughter, and any who would gainsay that would face my wrath.

Sunbeam hastily raised her hooves before her, bowing her head in a conceding nod. “Peace, Ephor, it was merely an observation. I meant no offense to either of you.” She looked behind her, and a slight frown creased her face. “I had thought to introduce my daughter in turn, but it would seem that the child has made herself absent.” She took a few more moments to look about her, and then raised her voice with a hint of aggravation. “Midnight? Where art thou?”

A few moments of searching revealed a filly, presumably the missing Midnight, standing before the forgotten Proud Line. She was dark of coat and had an ill-favored look about her, not at all helped by the open fascination with which she stared at the bleeding stallion. With a touch of eagerness that was truly unnerving to hear in the voice of one so young she asked the guard. “Art thou likely to perish from thy wounds?”

Before the lieutenant could offer any answer beyond a pained groan, the Archmagus swooped in and snatched her daughter. “Midnight, I have told thee more than once not to stray from my side, especially when we are in the palace on the Queen’s business.”

The child blinked very slowly, and spoke in a fillyish whine of protest that served to make her words all the more unsettling. “But mother, I have never seen a pony die. I want to know if the light really does leave one’s eyes at the moment of death.”

The Archmagus spared a contemptuous glance for Proud Line, then returned her attention to her daughter. “He will not die, Midnight. His wounds are relatively minor, he simply makes too much of them because he is weak.” The filly opened her mouth for another question, but her mother gently cut off. “I will answer anything else thou might wish to ask later, but for now thou shouldst introduce thyrself, as I taught thee.”

The filly slowly blinked and nodded, then turned to face us and gave a dainty curtsy along with a polite smile that came nowhere close to reaching her eyes. “Greetings. I am Midnight Sparkle, daughter of Archmagus Sunbeam Sparkle. It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

I politely returned her greeting, but Gale saw fit to surprise me. “Archmagus, your daughter is most adorable.” Gale’s voice dropped to a muted whisper as she murmured, “More than passingly strange, and with macabre tastes for one so young, but still adorable.” Gale cleared her throat, and returned to the Archmagus. “Might I have your leave to hug her?”

Sunbeam blinked several times, as if the request had taken her unawares, but then very slowly nodded. “If it would please you to do so, then I see no harm in it.”

A few seconds later the filly let out a surprised squawk of protest as Gale swept her up in her hooves, hugging the child so vigorously that I feared for the safety of young Midnight’s ribs. Gale’s hugs have always been rather ... enthusiastic.

My daughter eventually relented, releasing the Archmagus’ daughter from her grasp. Midnight simply stood upon the floor, staring at Gale silently for several seconds, and then tonelessly announced, “Mother. A strange pony just hugged me. Why did she do that?”

If Gale was remotely disturbed by the filly’s nature, she gave no sign of it. “I hugged thou because thou art an adorable little filly, of course.” Gale dropped her head down to Midnight’s level, and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And dost thou know what we do for adorable little fillies?” When the child uncertainly shook her head, Gale eagerly provided her with the answer. “We get them ice cream!” Gale glanced back to the archmagus and offered her a nod. “With thy mother’s leave, of course.”

Midnight’s eyes widened at the offer, and for the first time since meeting her I saw a relatively normal expression upon her face. Childish glee. The filly turned to her mother, an eager grin on her face. “Mother, can the strange pony who has offered me ice cream take me away? Please?”

Archmagus Sparkle shot a brief smile down at her daughter. “I suppose there is no harm in allowing you a small indulgence, though I trust that afterwards thou shalt return to thy studies with renewed vigor?” Midnight eagerly nodded her agreement.

“It shall have to wait until after our meeting with the Commander is concluded, of course.” Shortly after the words left my lips, I found my daughter and the Archmagus’ daughter looking at me as if I had proudly announced my allegiance to Discord and Nightmare Moon both in the space of a single breath. “I am certain the Commander will not ask us to tarry overlong,” I somewhat hastily amended, lest I face the full force of a sad filly and a disappointed daughter.

My answer seemed to satisfy the both of them, and soon they were merrily chattering away with each other. Well, to be more precise Gale was chattering, while the filly answered her questions and showed occasional flashes of normal childishness that only made her oddities stand out all the stronger. ‘Twas most disturbing to see a child who showed almost as much enthusiasm for sweets as she did for the prospect of witnessing a pony’s death.

I could hazard a guess as to why my daughter had taken such interest in the strange young filly. Gale had shared a few of the tricks of her trade with me, one of which was the value of children as an information source. Children will often overhear far more than adults will credit them for, and rarely do they understand the full import of all that passes around them. They are also quick to trust and easily swayed by such simple things as an offer of candy and friendship—I was certain that before long Gale would thoroughly subvert the Archmagus’ daughter.

With my daughter occupied with making a new friend/contact, I fell into step alongside the archmagus herself. “‘Twould seem our daughters are bonding quite nicely.” I was not normally one for small talk and pleasantries, but such things are often expected in Unicornia. When in Roan...

Archmagus Sparkle spared a brief look for her daughter, who was in the midst of eagerly asking Gale about her experiences as a soldier. A brief but entirely genuine smile appeared on the grand vizier’s face. “Indeed, ‘twould seem that my daughter enjoys the company of yours. That is good—she has fewer friends than a filly her age should. Fillies do require a certain level of social interaction if they are develop the appropriate interequinal skills.”

So the dark-minded child with macabre tastes had few friends? One can scarce imagine why that might be. I found it strange that a mother could speak so coldly of her daughter’s lack of friends, but it was becoming quite clear by this point that both of the Sparkles were more than passing strange. Perhaps it was time to take a better measure of the elder of the two. I have heard no shortage of rumors about the Archmagus, but rumor is a poor substitute for fact. “I am curious, Archmagus. How much of the confrontation between myself and the lieutenant did you witness?”

Archmagus Sparkle let out a low chuckle and ran a hoof through her mane. I confess, I was somewhat curious that she did not find the fact her mane fully obscured one of her eyes more troublesome—though there was more than one rumor circulating as to why she chose to keep one eye hidden. “I was not present for the initial confrontation between yourself and that worthless foal, but I saw the latter half unfold in its entirety.” She offered me an approving smile. “I must say, you disposed of the fool quite admirably.”

“You were present for much of the time before weapons were drawn and violence became inevitable?” I left the obvious implications of that statement unspoken. I need hardly have pointed out that the Archmagus of Canterlot could easily have intervened to resolve the matter before bloodshed, even if only a relatively minor amount of it, was the only way to resolve the matter.

“Indeed.” The Archmagus’ lips curled up in a faintly mocking smirk. “Truly, Proud Line is a far greater fool than I had thought.” She gave a cavalier toss of her head. “I suppose I might have intervened to spare him the pain and humiliation you delivered, but truthfully I think it was past time he experienced such a thing.”

“I do not think I could gainsay you on that matter.” I might have smiled ever so slightly, until my darker thoughts reasserted themselves. “‘Tis not Line my thoughts lingered upon, though, but rather the ponies unfortunate enough to serve under his command.” I grimaced at the memory of wounding the sergeant who had done everything he could to prevent matters from ending so badly. “I took no pleasure in fighting soldiers who were only my foes because their commander lacked basic common sense.”

“Yes, I suppose that was their misfortune.” Sunbeam gave a careless shrug and said no more on the matter.

It took a fair portion of my self-control not to scowl at the archmagus for showing such casual disregard for the soldiers within the Commander’s palace. ‘Twould seem that not all of the rumors about her were baseless. Hopefully Gale’s efforts to win the confidence of her daughter would grant further insight into the Archmagus’ designs.

The two of us proceeded along in somewhat painful silence for a few moments, until the Archmagus delicately cleared her throat. “I am curious, Ephor. How long do you and your daughter intend to remain in Canterlot?” She moved a bit closer to me, within what most would consider to be their personal space, and her voice dropped to a low, sultry whisper. “If your daughter is to be entertaining mine for the duration of your visit, ‘twould only be fair if you allowed me to offer you a few pleasant diversions in turn. I am sure Her Majesty would approve of us fostering improved relations between Unicornia and Pegasopolis.”

After several seconds of careful deliberation, I answered her offer. “It is my understanding that Canterlot holds the finest libraries in all of Equestria. We’ve fewer books than I would like in Cloudsdale; if you could offer me a tour of the facilities, that would be most appreciated.”

The archmagus gave a barely perceptible stumble and blinked several times. I suspect she was unused to being rejected so flatly. She was certainly comely enough, at least as far as I could appreciate the beauty of a mare, but from what I had seen of the vizier, her character was every bit as foul as her flesh was fair.

After several seconds of furious silence, the Archmagus answered me, her voice tense with fury and perhaps a hint of humiliation. “I am sure I can have one of the servants arrange something suitable for you.”

‘Twould seem that rejecting her might have made an enemy of her, or at least undone whatever amicable relations might have blossomed from the friendship between our daughters. I suspect that if not for the upset it would no doubt cause her daughter, the archmagus might have attempted to put an end to that as well.

We came within earshot of the throne room before we were within sight of it. ‘Twould seem that the Commander was still presiding over the Unicornian Court at the moment. The Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice carries rather well.

Gale reluctantly broke from young Midnight’s side and returned to mine. The Archmagus excused herself and entered a few moments before us to take her place at the Commander’s side and announce our arrival. Then, it was time for us to make our own entry.

I took the lead, with Gale marching on my right side a half-step behind me, as befits a subordinate officer. The two of us made for quite the sight, marching into the throne room armed and girded for war. Certainly, we made for a marked contrast to the painted dandies and finely-appointed ladies who filled the Commander’s court.

I truly wonder why she chose to make Canterlot her primary residence when it requires such a large cadre of idle nobility demanding her presence. I suppose that I can understand why the Commander does not dwell in Cloudsdale, given that two thirds of her subjects cannot even reach the city. However, surely the earth ponies could offer her accommodations that came with a greater measure of practicality and fewer useless hangers-on continually attempting to curry her favor. Perhaps the easy luxuries of Canterlot had seduced the Commander into remaining here, despite the accompanying aggravations.

I stopped before the throne and formally saluted Commander Celestia, drawing a few annoyed grumbles from the nobles. No doubt they expected me to grovel and genuflect as they did, but she was not a queen to me as she was to them. She was the Commander, and one salutes their superior officers.

The Commander returned our salutes (6), and thankfully moderated her volume before she spoke. “Shadow Kicker, I am pleased to see thee. I trust that all is well in Cloudsdale?”

6: Presumably this means that Gale saluted Celestia as well, though Shadow does not explicitly confirm it.

“As well as it ever is.” I used a wing to gently nudge my daughter forward. While my daughter was clearly trying to show the confidence and poise expected of a Kicker and an officer of Cloudsdale, she still shuffled her hooves uncertainly as she stepped up. I suppose a hint of nerves at meeting the Commander was understandable. “Commander, it is my pleasure to present to you my daughter, Gale Kicker.”

The Commander offered Gale a benevolent smile and a slight nod. “It is my pleasure to meet thee, Gale. I am sure thou hast made thy mother and thy clan very proud.”

“It is my ardent hope that I have done so.” There was the slightest of nervous squeaks in my daughter’s voice when she addressed the Commander, but when next she spoke it was with slightly more confidence. “And I hope to continue to do so, and serve you well.”

The Commander nodded to her again. “I am sure that thou shalt do so.” The matter of introductions concluded, she turned once more to face me. “I presume thou art here to deliver the Ephorate’s report on the state of Pegasopolis and the Gerousia’s latest round of recommendations and requests that require my approval?”

The Archmagus, who up to this point had been quite content with merely mingling amongst the crowd of nobles, chose to speak up in a half-whisper that was clearly intended to be heard by all. “No doubt their requests for new materials are as inflated as ever.” The remark drew several chuckles from the assembled nobles.

The barb rankled, but I would not give her the satisfaction of seeing that or even acknowledging the comment. Instead, I opened my saddlebags and placed a considerable stack of documents before the Commander. “I shall remain at your disposal while you review the reports, in case there are any matters that you require a member of the Ephorate to clarify.”

“Very well.” The Commander saluted once more. “I would ask that thou and thy daughter avail thyselves of my hospitality for the duration of thy stay in Canterlot.” A slightly sad smile graced the Commander’s face as she added. “I wish that we could speak at greater length, but I fear that as much as Commander Celestia would enjoy speaking with thee, Chancellor Celestia is already overdue for a meeting with Fertile Fields to discuss the preparations for this year’s planting season.” The Commander dropped her head nearer to mine, and privately added. “There are times when I feel that managing three different realms, each with their own government and traditions, is almost more trouble than it is worth.”

After that private aside, Commander Celestia cleared her throat, and I braced myself for what was to come. “THE BUSINESS OF THE ROYAL COURT IS CONCLUDED. WE THANK THEE FOR ATTENDING UPON US, AND LOOK FORWARD TO MEETING WITH THEE ALL AGAIN AT TONIGHT’S ROYAL BANQUET.

So there was to be a banquet? Well, fine food was the one luxury Canterlot had to offer which I could appreciate. Perhaps, despite the troubles with the guards and Archmagus, this was not an entirely lost cause.

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