Of Politics, Pranks and Ponies
Beside a crackling fire, an elderly unicorn mare passed the afternoon knitting quietly in her snug, book lined sitting room. She had a woolen shawl wrapped around her shoulders, as early autumn days could be cool in the hills north of Canterlot mountain. A gentle tap on the door failed to interrupt the clicking of her wooden needles."Permission to enter Your Grace?"
With a long suffering sigh, she lowered her unfinished textile, "Enter, Pen, but be quick, I only just got myself warmed up, and you know how drafts pain this old mare." A faint alabaster glow surrounded the handle as the door opened just enough to admit a slender unicorn stallion barely into young adulthood.
"The days' correspondence has arrived, Your Grace." announced the handsome colt, his ivory white coat brushed to a flawless shine. His black bow-tie, immaculate tuxedo and close cropped mane and tail of gleaming copper lent him the appearance of the perfect butler, a fact which clearly irritated the Lady of the house.
"I thought I had hidden that monkey suit away, Pen Scratch." He shrank back slightly at her withering glare, before rallying himself and charging into the fray.
"My uniform had been misplaced somehow, fortunately I located it, in an old strongbox, under the woodpile in the back garden potting-shed. By chance I happened to have discovered the key to said strongbox in the flower box outside Milady's window. My apologies for the tardiness of the evening post that this caused." He smiled with just enough smugness to reveal his amusement and just enough humility to irk her further.
"Your father never discovered that hiding place in all the forty seven years he served me. I can see that you will be a more formidable opponent, Pen." The pace of her knitting slowed to a gradual halt as she glared at the infuriating colt with grandmotherly affection and annoyance. "Shall we continue with the post? Or are you planning to wait until I blow away to dust?"
A bundle of parchment and documents slowly came to rest on the desk in the corner near her threadbare but still elegant chaise lounge. Taking his place, her tormentor began to read. "Percheron Paper Products requests a lease and logging rights in the north eastern Everfree, totaling seventy thousand acres. They offer two hundred thousand bits per annum and guarantee-"
"Denied, the next topic if you please" she cut him short gently but firmly.
"Your Grace, this contract is quite fair and Percheron has a reputation for environmental sensitivity-"
"Denied." she repeated even more firmly. "Let's move on shall we?" the clicking resumed with vigor and speed amazing for a mare so wizened.
"A request from the Mayor of Ponyville for permission to widen the highway to Canterlot, all costs to be paid from the town coffers-"
He sighed softly and continued. "Cloudsdale Air Lines, Pegasus Parcel Service, Air Equestria and the mayor of Ponyville have all petitioned together for the creation of an airfield at the base of Canterlot mountain, to expand service to Ponyville and Canterlot-"
"Denied, do we have any further business today?" she feigned a yawn with entirely too much dramatic stretching.
"Your Grace, this contract alone would increase your annual income by nearly two hundred percent, just for the land leases alone. The benefits to Your Grace aside, the citizens of both Canterlot and Ponyville would receive great economic advantages-"
"Still denied, Pen, if you are quite finished arguing with me, perhaps my afternoon tea would restore my flagging strength." Her smile showed both calm tolerance and firm resolve.
"Actually, Your Grace I am not finished arguing with you. Since taking over from my father I have been going over the accounts, do you realize that the Duchy of Canterlot nets an income (Your Grace's income) of two hundred and seventy six thousand bits annually?"
She smile serenely, "Oh dear, that is quite a lot! Perhaps my rents are too high!".
Pen felt faint, the room began to sway slightly around him. "Your Grace, the Earl of Hoofington spent nearly THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND bits last year, on renovations to his chicken coops!"
She fixed him with an icy stare while her lips turned up in a faintly crooked grin. "Are you suggesting that my poultry suffer from inadequate housing? Have you received complaints from the hens scribbled on the egg shells?" Her grin grew wider, beginning to resemble the one that the Princess Celestia displayed, when she was enjoying a joke no pony else seemed to understand. "Shall I send for the Gamekeeper to poll the chickens as to their opinions of the Earl's lavish coops?"
"No Your Grace, no complaints, no polls, Your Grace no longer even has a Gamekeeper, he retired some six months ago, and is now living on Marethas Vineyard on his ridiculously generous pension."
"Oh how wonderfull for old Stagswell, such a kind dear deer- dear deer, I made a funny!" She chuckled to herself briefly. "What about his grandson? Did he not want the job?"
"Your Grace, he wished to hire on at his father's rate, so I declined."
"I should say you were correct! Hire him at thirty percent over his father's pay, and send him something nice from Sugarcube Corners, and if I hear one more 'Your Grace' from you I will dock a week's pay."
Pen fumbled his documents for a moment, aghast at this idea. "Your Grace, do you realize that between payroll and pension commitments, you have allocated nearly forty percent of your income, in perpetuity? My ridiculous salary consumes twelve percent by itself!"
"You seemed such a smart young stallion, does that seem like the kid of thing a clever pony would tell his employer, after she had just docked his pay? Honestly, what do they teach you at that university these days?"
"Your Grace could dock me a week's pay twenty three and a half times every year and still leave me enough to live comfortably- in a park-side penthouse in Manehatten. Your Grace MUST gain control over those generous impulses or I shall be forced to begin selling off parcels of your estate just to maintain the house and grounds!"
She turned to him in icy fury and whispered, chilling the poor colt to the bone. "Not. One. Pebble. Not a clod of dirt, not even the dust under my welcome mat will be sold from this estate while I live. No land leases, no mineral rights, no: roads, bridges, airfields, train tracks, or lemonade stands will be approved without my EXPLICIT consent. Am I clear Mr. Pen Scratch?"
His face fell as he spoke softly. "Then, Your Grace, I must tender my resignation, I cannot watch as you drive yourself into poverty, I shall vacate before sundown."
"Dear Pen, you have served me what? Six months? Your father served for more than four decades before you and was never so infuriating. My family has held the Duchy of Canterlot for nearly one thousand years, and your family has been in faithful service for eight hundred of those, that tradition will not end in my lifetime. If you attempt to resign, I will call your father back and have him tan your haunches until you believe that your cutie mark is a paddled fanny."
She smiled in matronly pleasure and continued. "Your father never wanted you to go to the university, I forced him to send you, believing, as I still do, that a new era is coming to Equestria, and ponies like you will forge a bold future for us. I had hoped that beyond the education you received, you might learn to relax and (as the foals say) lighten up, like your sister Vinyl. Sadly you seem to be a stodgy old stick in the mud." She rose and motioned him to assist her as she walked slowly into the hall and down the stairs to the basement.
With a breath of still potent magic, she lit the lamps in the stone vaulted cavern below the mansion, illuminating a vast array of filing cabinets. Some, near the stairs, were of gleaming steel, as the room stretched away they became painted metal, then wood, finally devolving into ancient chests fit for a pirate opera stage set. "Here, in this room are the records of my duchy for nearly one thousand years, all of these files are petitions, permit requests, lease requests and offers to buy land, all denied out of hoof. I never showed your father this, because he took my word as law in the old way, the old tradition."
Pen stood in wonder at the sight, at once fascinated by the expanse of history contained in this room, and horrified by the deliberate economic and cultural stagnation it implied. "Centuries Your Grace, Centuries of missed opportunities, failed innovations and wasted potential. How could you let this continue? How could the Princess allow it to go on like this?"
She hugged him close, pretending to need his support. "Let us retire to my sitting room for tea and I will explain everything, but be prepared, you may never look at my little backwater of the empire the same way again." The Duchess of Canterlot said with a saucy wink.
With Pen seated in a comfortable chair and wrapped in one of her shawls the Duchess began her story. "One thousand years ago, one of the Royal Pony Sisters who rule Equestria went off her nut. Princess Celestia tried everything she could to rein in her sister, Princess Luna, but she failed and was forced to banish her to the moon."
"I know all this Your Grace, it was in all the papers last year-" He interrupted in frustration.
"Every story begins somewhere, dear Pen, the question is, where does it end? That is what our story is about, beginnings, endings, and that middle part where things get done, sometimes in surprising ways. Now shush you young whippersnapper or you shan't have another scone, big ponies are talking."
"I am a big pony." He muttered in the time honored manner of all colts and fillies who had ever been, or ever will be subjected to the cursed 'big ponies are-' formula.
"The Princess Celestia used the greatest magik known to pony-kind, the kind of magic you need to spell with a 'k' to prove how over the top it really is. With the power of the Elements of Harmony she cast her beloved sister to the moon for a thousand years."
"Unfortunately, the Elements of Harmony are not intended to be used by just one pony, not even an immortal Princess. To use the Elements with precision, with elegance and style, it takes six ponies with a special bond, each possessing a piece of the magik within themselves. Our mighty Princess is so many wonderful things, but six ponies she is not, so rather than wielding a scalpel, to cut away the taint of madness dominating her sister, she used a club, to bash poor Luna to the moon. Be a dear and put another log on the fire."
With the hearth once more blazing cheerfully she continued her tale. "That is the thing about immortality, you get the chance to learn from your mistakes, and how Celestia did learn! She hatched a plot, destined to take fifty generations to come to fruition. She would cultivate those special ponies needed to cure poor Luna's madness, using all the wit and devious intelligence that Equestria's greatest prankster possessed. That is where my several times great grandfather came into the picture. He was a minor noble on the far edge of the country, with small estates and little wealth, but he adored irritating self important nobles, even when it cost him dearly, politically or financially. He was just the pony the Princess needed for her project. More tea sweetie?"
"Our whole clan was uprooted and brought here, to Canterlot and granted this duchy on a few simple conditions: we refuse any development or expansion, we sell nothing ever, we let the Princess have a free hoof in her social experiment, and we deny any royal influence on our activities. Did it not seem odd to you that Canterlot Duchy has only two population centers? The Capitol, and Ponyville, unheard of in an estate this size, and our rents, scandalously low, yet no ponies moved here en mass. No industry grew, the forest remains unexploited, all part of the plan, Her plan."
"If the Princess had set up this land under the royal aegis, political ponies would never have left her in peace to bring her idea to life, a village, small, simple, wholesome and trapped in a time long past. My ancestor however, considered the idea to be the greatest opportunity to tweak the patrician noses of the nobility he had ever heard. The fury unleashed in court when Princess Celestia settled this land on Grampy Apple Pie was legendary, the head of the Blueblood clan nearly burst his girdle at the news. Grampy Pie relished that moment so much that he took every opportunity he found to remind those Bluebloods of just how little he cared for their power and influence."
"This land has been held in stasis economically and culturally, and cultivated with fanatical devotion over the centuries, like those lovely bonsai gardens from Neighpon. All with one goal in mind, to bring together six ponies of great virtue, capable of using the Elements of Harmony as they were meant to be used, with friendship, compassion and love, the ultimate weapon of peace."
"So what Your Grace suggests, is that this entire region of the country is-"
"Yes, a rescue mission, disguised as a practical joke, disguised as a foalish noble family's eccentric decline, wrapped in a pretty and quaint illusion. If I run low on funds, the royal treasury will shower me with bits until I drown. Now do you see why you are so monstrously overpaid? Why all my staff is compensated so generously? They are either in on the greatest secret in the nation, or so loyal to me that I cannot deny them anything. Besides, my clan is so hated by the other nobles after so long, once you work for me you can never find employment elsewhere."
He sat in stunned confusion at these revelations. "But if Princess Luna has been cured, why continue like this?"
"My dear Pen, nearly every innovation, invention and creative work over the last seven hundred years has come directly from poor forgotten Ponyville. The cotton gin, the steam engine, cloud factories, trains, even our economic system, all have their roots here in quaint little Ponyville, the forgotten hamlet on the edge of the Everfree forest. We are close enough to Canterlot that no one ever thinks to look closely at us, unless they want something, to exploit something. Here we have the greatest concentration of creative minds in all of the nation and in every field of pony endeavor and it is simply overlooked. Jingle Purse Morgan-Stallion the great financier and economic innovator, born in Ponyville. The Hoofwright brothers, first in flight, soiled their first diapers in that little town, then went to Hoofington to invent the sky chariot. Even Marco Polopony, the great explorer, snuck out of his house eight hundred years ago and wandered to this very estate while his flanks were as blank as that expression on your face."
She went on into the late evening, as old ponies will do when they find a willing listener for their tales, relating the wonders she had seen, and those passed down through the generations. Finally she grew weary and sent her young steward off to his bed with a final ..."and that's how Equestria was made."
An end but not The End.