'Twas a rare thing indeed for the Ephorate and the Gerousia to hold a joint session, and rarer still for almost all to be in attendance (the only absentee being Ephor Bright Charger, who was still embroiled in her skirmishes with the griffon reivers). The Ephors and Geronts both had duties to attend to, and in the case of the Gerousia many of its members also felt the troubles that come with advanced age. Such is an inevitable hazard of assembling a council of Elders—the venerable Dawnburst Charger required assistance from one of his granddaughters simply to make his way to the meeting chamber.
I took a place at my father's right hoof, for obvious reasons, and was quite pleased when Rightly chose to place himself on my other side (1). It had been far too long since I had the opportunity to spend much time with my father—with his ascension to the Gerousia and my own elevation to the Ephorate, duty kept us separated far too often for my liking.
1: Shadow's father, Cyclone Kicker, was a bit young to be a member of the Gerousia, which normally only contains ponies who have reached retirement age. However, the laws of Lyequinegus made an exception for ponies who were no longer able to serve on active duty on account of injury or illness. In Cyclone's case, an injury to his eyes early in his career eventually led to blindness as he aged.
As the meeting had not yet properly come to order, I took the rare opportunity to engage my father in casual conversation. "How are you finding life in the Gerousia, father?"
"Tolerable enough," Father announced, though with a grumble to his voice that made his lack of enthusiasm for his new post clear. "I preferred my days in the Ephorate, though. I've gone from having an active role in things to sitting around with all the other venerable elders while the new generation actually runs things." He let out a snort and shot a disparaging glare in the general direction of some of his fellow Geronts. "For all the talk of advising the current leadership and allowing them to benefit from our collective wisdom, we spend far more time swapping old war stories than actually doing anything of value."
"I am sure it is not as bad as all that." I suspect that the platitude might not have sounded as sincere as I would have liked. 'Twas hard to deny that with the Commander so long absent from Cloudsdale, there was little for the Gerousia to do. Presenting the Commander with the occasional list of recommendations was hardly sufficient work to occupy twenty-eight ponies. Even were Commander Celestia present, I suspect that the Gerousia's collective wisdom would pale before that of an immortal who had been centuries old when our elders were all suckling foals.
"The Gerousia makes many valuable contributions to the running of Pegasopolis, sir." I was a bit surprised that Rightly had seen fit to involve himself in our conversation, though perhaps I should not have been. If he one day hoped to ask for my hoof in marriage, then he would naturally want my father to hold a favorable opinion of him. "It is often said," Rightly continued, "that the Ephorate addresses today's problems, whilst the Gerousia attends to next year's."
"Because leaving the future in the hooves of ponies who have none left is a wise policy." I confess that Father's comment caused me some worry, but thankfully his tone remained light enough to convey the impression that he was not entirely serious. He pointed a hoof to one of his fellow Geronts. "If I'm to judge, Dawnburst is likely to be dead in a year's time. You think he is truly concerned with the future?"
"Many ponies will look to their legacy as they advance in age." A second later Rightly awkwardly shuffled his wings, perhaps unsettled by his less than ideal choice of words.
"Aye." A distant look came into my father's eyes, and his voice turned just the slightest bit downcast. "But some ponies also think to make the most of the days they have left. A legacy is a fine thing to have, but there are times when I could care less how ponies will think of me once my time is over. 'Tis not as if I shall be present for any adulation or scorn that might be heaped upon me at my funeral."
I began to grow concerned by my father's melancholy frame of mind. I knew he had been less than ecstatic about his early retirement to the Gerousia, but I had hoped that he merely needed time to adjust to his new station. 'Twould seem I had been o'er optimistic in my assessment.
"'Tis a sad thing, to see warriors grow old." Father waved a hoof in the general direction of his fellow Geronts. "To know that our best days are behind us, and now we have nothing better to do but gather around to relive our old glories." He let out a resigned snort. "Yet still, we all play our part, for the good of Pegasopolis. I've sacrificed much for our fair country—the years of my life, my health, my eyesight, even a husband, and now 'twould seem that even my dotage is to be given over to the service of our nation."
I placed a hoof over my father's, while Rightly, at a loss for words, struggled to think of what he might say. After a few awkward seconds, my father waved a dismissive hoof through the air. "Bah, listen to me. Now I've become a grumpy old codger."
Rightly found his voice. "If you wish, sir, I am sure we could arrange a proper retirement for you instead of duty in the Gerousia."
Father grumpily waved the suggestion away. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't have some kind of work to occupy my time. I might as well keep to it." He let out an amused snort. "I suppose I'm rambling now. If I'm old enough to be in the Gerousia, then clearly I'm old enough to be allowed to ramble as well."
"Not that you were spare with your ramblings even when you were still on active duty," I gently prodded him.
"Another curse of old age," Father grumbled. "My daughter has no respect for me anymore. 'Tis fair enough though—my granddaughter has no respect for her either. No doubt thanks to a good deal of encouragement on my part."
"So I have thee to thank for my daughter's unique sense of humor." I gave him a gentle nudge. "I shall not forget that, Father. See to thy defenses, for this crime shall not go unavenged." I turned to Rightly and favored him with a smile. "I trust that I can count upon the full support of Clan Doo in this coming conflict?"
"Interference in another clan's internal affairs is usually frowned upon." My smile disappeared, and Rightly hastily amended, "Though I think an exception can be made in this case."
Father let out a bark of laughter. "'Twould seem she already has you wrapped around her hoof, Ephor. One shudders to think how much worse 'tis likely to grow once you actually begin properly courting her."
Rightly immediately fell silent and the jovial mood died, replaced with awkward silence. I was sorely tempted to have words with my father about his lack of tact, but that would only serve to draw all the more attention to his indelicate statement. Besides, Rightly might think my offense at my father's bluntness indicated that such advances would be unwelcome, which was certainly not my intention.
Thankfully, the awkward silence came to an end as Rightly cleared his throat and made an obvious but most welcome change of subject. "Shadow, I would have thy thoughts on the incident within the Striker clanhold."
Ah, yes. That was the reason for this joint session of Ephor and Geronts, so 'twas natural there would be some discussion on the matter. "Was there some important fact my testimony failed to account for?" (2)
2: From this, we can infer that Shadow gave an account of what happened to her fellow leaders. Presumably, this wasn't included in her memoirs because it would result in needless duplication.
"Neigh, thy account was quite complete," Rightly reassured me with an easy smile. "'Tis not a matter of fact I seek from thee, merely one of opinion." He shuffled his wings a bit, no doubt feeling a certain awareness of those limbs now that we were in the midst of discussing poor Swiftwing's cruel fate. "As you were present for his reaction, I thought you might best judge whether Steel might have authorized the Clipping."
I thought back to that day, and the Ephor's reaction. "I do not believe he did. Steel Striker is no fool—if he wished his daughter Clipped, he would have arranged the crime in a manner where it would not be so quickly discovered."
"Not to mention the sheer idiocy of it all," Father snarled. "He'll be lucky to keep his position as Ephor, not to mention that I'd be stunned if his clanmates aren't planning to ask that he step down as leader of the Strikers. He may have had no role in the crime itself, but it still occurred within his very household, and he still gave the training of his daughter over to Hammer. He need not be guilty of the crime to bear some measure of responsibility." Father gave an angry wave of a hoof. "To think, a Clipping in this day and age. I had thought such ancient evils were a thing long forgotten."
"More's the pity that it is not," Rightly announced solemnly. He cast a measuring look over the assembled ponies, then turned back to me. "I do not think it likely that he shall be stripped of his place in the Ephorate. We've no reason to believe that he was complicit in the crime, and 'twould be most unfair to heap further troubles upon a stallion who has already lost two children to this incident."
"The chirurgeons were unable to restore her wings, then?" I had known it unlikely that such horrific wounds might be mended, but still I had hoped that it might be possible.
"Neigh." Rightly gave a sorrowful shake of his head. "'Twas a struggle just to preserve her life. The amputation was not done well, or cleanly."
Father let out an annoyed snort. "Yes, I'm sure the poor filly would be far less devastated if she'd been offered some milk of poppy to dull the pain, and the stumps were properly cauterized after the lout finished mutilating her." My father scowled at nothing in particular and snorted in disgust. "What is to be done with Hammer Striker, in any case? Is there to be a trial, or..."
Rightly grasped the unasked question easily enough. "Striker confined him to the clan brig, and saw to it that a blade was provided for him. One of the wing blades forged for his sister, in anticipation of her becoming a full warrior of Pegasopolis." I could not help but admire the aptness of that particular touch. "'Twould seem that Hammer still had some small shred of honor left within him."
A fitting enough end to the matter, though a simple suicide was a far cleaner death than one such as Hammer deserved. Still, far better that than a long and drawn-out trial that would put the Strikers' shame on public display. The guilty party was removed, and justice was served. "I trust Steel also pronounced damnatio memoriae upon Hammer?" (3)
"Indeed," Rightly confirmed.
3: A particularly nasty form of posthumous punishment, in which all record of the offending pony is erased from the clan archives. To future generations, it would be as if the pony in question never existed. Especially gruesome in a case like Hammer's where the condemnation immediately followed his death, since it would mean his body would be left to rot on one of the refuse piles below Cloudsdale instead of being properly attended to.
"As good of an ending as the matter can have, I suppose." Hopefully Swiftwing could take some comfort in the fact that justice had been done to her attacker. Neigh, that was a foolish thought on my part. No amount of justice or righteous vengeance would restore her wings to her. A pegasus without wings was in a truly terrible condition, moreso even than a unicorn denied their magic. So much of what a pegasus is comes from our capacity to fly, our ability to take to the skies at a moment's notice. 'Twas possible to live in a city like Cloudsdale without the gift of flight—most of the city is designed with some concessions to those too young or old to fly—but every day would be a constant reminder of the racial legacy she had been denied. Most pegasi who lose their flight chose a life 'pon the ground, rather than face that.
Rightly's voice pulled me from my contemplations. "The Commander will not be pleased to hear of this."
That was a considerable understatement. A second later, I grasped Rightly's reason for raising the matter. "I am to inform her of what has passed here, then?"
"Aye," Rightly confirmed, to my sorrow. "I would also ask thee to also inform her of Charger's ongoing troubles with the griffons. Her last message included a request for the Commander's authorization to cross the border to rout them out of their holes."
Well, mayhap there would at least be some small parcel of proper soldier's business to offset the darker news I had for Commander Celestia. While the Commander naturally needed to be informed of Swiftwing's Clipping given the severity of the crime, I had hoped that such an unpleasant duty might not fall upon me. 'Twould seem I was not so fortunate.
While the scandal surrounding Swiftwing Striker's Clipping had quite consumed Cloudsdale, the rest of Equestria continued on quite oblivious to matters 'mongst the pegasi. The Commander's plans to make an extended visit to the earth ponies before her venture to Cloudsdale had continued apace and thus when Gale and I made ready to depart, our destination was not Canterlot, but Manehatten.
I suspect that of the three titles Commander Celestia bore, that of Chancellor of the Earth Ponies was the least burdensome. As a matter of culture, the earth ponies have always preferred a certain level of self-reliance rather than look to their government for support. I confess, even with the benefit of all my years and hindsight I cannot entirely understand that frame of mind. Surely the farms and crafts of the earth ponies could be handled much more efficiently with proper governmental oversight, rather than trusting the average farmer, carpenter, and blacksmith to see to such things on their own. The inevitable result of such complete freedom of action is a descent into chaos and anarchy.
Manehatten shows that well enough. The city has none of Pegasopolis' austere beauty or Canterlot's refined elegance. Indeed, it was passing difficult to say anything definitive about the city as a whole. To all appearances Manehatten was not a city that had been carefully constructed and planned so much as a large collection of buildings clustered around a single central location. It was as if the city simply grew as a result of random ponies wandering into its outskirts, building home and business, and then gradually absorbing those outskirts into the city proper without the slightest thought for street layout or defensibility.
Yet for all that, I suppose there was a certain charm to it. While on a larger scale the city was a disorderly mess, if one flew close enough to observe the finer details there was a degree of appreciation to be found in the individual appearance of the buildings. Each home and shop showed something of the character of its owner, as opposed to the more uniform nature of most unicorn cities. Much like the earth ponies themselves, their city simply presented itself as it was, uncaring of any who might pass judgement against it for not meeting some imagined ideal.
The flight was by necessity a slow one, as this time Gale and I did not journey alone. Though it was a dim hope, there was a chance that the Commander might be able to offer some succor to poor Swiftwing. If there were any pony in Equestria capable of restoring a pair of lost wings, it would be her. Thus, poor Swiftwing rode upon my back, napping fitfully as we flew.
From what I understood, the crippled filly had fallen into a severe state of melancholy ever since regaining her faculties after her Clipping. That certainly matched my own observations thus far—not even Gale had been able to draw poor Swiftwing out of her shell. In the end, there was little we could do beyond allow the filly her peace. Such a dark mood was only natural after suffering such a horrible loss. Hopefully, if the Commander repaired the damage to Swiftwing's body her spirit would recover soon enough.
Less optimistically, if the Commander were unable or unwilling to restore Swiftwing, then a city like Manehatten might offer many opportunities to find a new family to take her in. Surely there would be at least one family of acceptable means and character that would be willing to take Swiftwing in and help her acclimate to life on the ground. With any luck, we might even find a family employed in a craft that would give her cause to interact with her clan on a regular basis. Mayhap a family of blacksmiths? Swiftwing could still operate a thunderforge so long as she had some aid in gathering the needed clouds, and combining earth pony ironcraft with that of the pegasi might be a valuable thing indeed.
I took some comfort in pondering various scenarios and outcomes for young Swiftwing, ranging from the realistically optimistic to mere flights of fancy like the Commander taking Swiftwing for her own. I found such relatively idle thoughts a soothing diversion—certainly far better a use for my mind than lingering upon the crimes that had befallen the poor filly or how the Commander was likely to react to the news.
On our way to the Commander's Manehatten residence, we passed over a park where I espied a single mare upon a raised platform, giving a speech to relatively small crowd. I was too distant to hear the words, but what little of the general tone of the rhetoric I could grasp was enough to pique my curiosity.
My daughter took note of my curiosity, and moved to address it. "That would be Apple Tree, the Commander's opponent in the upcoming election for the Chancellorship." Gale shot me a faintly amused smile. "They say she is likely to be one of the stronger candidates to stand against the Commander, if only because she has a larger family than most, so more ponies will vote for her out of a sense of obligation."
"It seems a foolish exercise to even bother with such elections in the first place," I opined. "The Commander wins these little popularity contests by such an o'erwheleming margin that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Better to save everypony the time and trouble of going through the process."
"Mayhap so." Gale spared a look at Apple Tree, still in the midst of her rhetoric. "What confuses me is why anypony would choose to stand against the Commander in the elections to begin with. As thou said, there is no hope for victory in such a contest. Why fight a battle that cannot be won?"
"I can think of several reasons." Though I was not terribly familiar with the intricacies of earth pony elections, one does not rise to the position of Ephor by remaining wholly ignorant of the nature of politics. Even in a completely different society, certain tactical realities remained true. "Most likely, Apple Tree hopes to gain something merely by standing in the contest." I waved a hoof down at the small knot of ponies listening to the politician. "Would any of them care to hear her words in other circumstances?"
Comprehension dawned on my daughter's face. "So she stands against Commander Celestia not because she thinks she can win, but because she seeks the notoriety that comes from opposing her in the election."
"Not all battles are fought with the immediate objective of claiming absolute victory." I was somewhat tempted to take the opportunity to begin lecturing my daughter on the finer points of grand strategy, but now was not the best time to play instructor. Still, it would not do to allow my daughter to grow too linear in her thought processes—if nothing else, it reflect poorly upon my ability to properly instruct her in the area of my own expertise. (4)
4: For the record, Shadow's special talent was asymmetric warfare. I admit, I'm rather curious just what an asymmetric warfare cutie mark would look like, but unfortunately there are no surviving detailed descriptions of exactly what her cutie mark looked like, just a few vague mentions of it featuring a bladed wing.
Our arrival at the Chancellor's mansion in Manehatten cut short any further discussion on the matter, however. The building seemed to be in the midst of no small amount of chaos, with earth ponies and unicorns both bustling about and attending dozens of varied errands. If not for the fact that two fully armed and armored pegasi inevitably drew a great deal of attention, my daughter and I might well have been lost in the crowd entirely.
Thankfully, the milling collection of groundbound ponies gave us a wide berth until a smartly dressed earth pony stallion approached us. "Ephor, we received word of your impending arrival. If you'll follow me, the Chancellor await you in—"
Our escort was quite abruptly cut off by one of the young unicorn pages I vaguely recalled having seen in the Commander's court in Canterlot. "Ephor," she dropped before me in what was no doubt intended to be a respectful bow, though I've little taste for traditional unicorn grovelling, "it would be my honor to escort you to Her Majesty at—"
"Excuse me," the earth pony interrupted in turn, "but I have already undertaken the task of bringing the honorable Ephor before the Chancellor. Your services are not required here."
The page stiffened at that, and her upper lip curled up in a politely furious snarl. "My family has been in service to Her Majesty the Queen of Unicornia for three generations. That remains true regardless of where she currently resides, and escorting visiting dignitaries is part of my currently assigned duties. I will thank thee not to interfere with them."
The earth pony let out an incredulous scoff. "Thou wouldst thou me then, child? (5) And to think, the unicorns supposedly have a reputation for class and sophistication. T'would seem that thou hast forgotten, child, that within these walls Celestia is the Chancellor, not a Queen."
5: Presumably, this unnamed earth pony official is exaggerating the page's age—traditionally, most pages in the Canterlot court assigned to Celestia herself would be in their very early teens. Young, but hardly a child.
The page let out a scandalized gasp before drawing herself up and righteously announcing, "Her Majesty Celestia, first of her name, Queen of all Unicornia, Sol Invictus..." As our offended young page proceeded to list every single grandiloquent title the unicorns insisted on bestowing upon the Commander, I quite agreed with our earth pony escort's impatient hoof waving. I could think of far better uses for my time than hearing such a litany of honors. "...and Benevolent Coryphaeus of all Wisdom, remains my Queen regardless of where her travels take her," the page finally, mercifully, concluded.
Gale and I exchanged a look, and the two of us wordlessly stepped around the squabbling servants and proceeded along unescorted. It has often been my experience that the less authority a pony has, the more jealously they tend to guard it. It is baffling to me that the Commander's servants would at times fall into vicious conflicts over such minor affairs as who had the right to place her silverware or provide her with a glass of tea.
Thankfully, there were several signs placed upon the walls and convenient maps to aid any visiting ponies in finding their way around, so we had little difficulty locating the Commander's office. Truly, I had cause to lament the absence of such helpful navigation aids from the Royal Palace in Canterlot, and was tempted to suggest that the Commander see to adding them at the soonest opportunity. Admittedly, Canterlot Palace suffered a number of other gaping design flaws, such as far too many windows which were incapable of opening or too small to allow a pegasus easy access. If the Palace were meant to serve as a defensive bastion that might be understandable, but the castle was clearly decorative in nature.
After some minutes of following signs and consulting maps, Gale and I finally found our way to the Commander's office. Earth pony and unicorn alike stepped aside from our path to the Commander. Mayhap word of Proud Line's fate at my hooves had spread even as far as Manehatten—'twould not be surprising when it seemed half the population of Canterlot had accompanied the Commander in her visit. I was grateful for it—I was not in the mood to have anypony standing between me and my Commander at the moment.
As we neared the entrance to the Commander's office, I turned to my daughter. "Gale, I would have thee absent thyself from my meeting with the Commander."
My daughter was understandably taken aback by the request. The frown she directed towards me was troubled, and perhaps a touch offended. "For what reason, mother?"
I looked to the filly resting upon my back, and Gale grasped my meaning quickly enough. 'Twould be most awkward to have Swiftwing present for the meeting in which we discussed her mutilation. Far better to leave her in my daughter's care than to hoof her off to some minor functionary, especially one who might not grasp all that the unfortunate filly had suffered. A particularly unobservant pony might even overlook the fresh bandages on Swiftwing's back and conclude that she was a mere earth pony.
Though Gale grasped my intention well enough, from the way her frown did not fade 'twas clear that she did not entirely approve. I suppose 'twas inevitable that removing her from my right hoof would invoke her displeasure, however good my reasons. There was an added degree of stiffness and formality to my daughter's salute. "I shall fulfill thy wishes, Mother."
"You have my thanks, daughter." I made a mental note to do my daughter a kindness at some point in the near future. Gale deserved better than to be relegated to the sidelines, however important her current task might be. I transferred the sleeping filly to my daughter's back with only a small measure of difficulty.
Gale took it upon herself to nuzzle the filly before she could fully wake. "Be at peace, Swiftwi—" A pained look crossed Gale's face, and she fell conspicuously silent. Even Swiftwing's very name seemed a cruelty, given her current condition. I could only pray that the Commander might spare her any further pain.
With my young charge disposed of for the moment, I went onward to meet with the Commander herself. Compared to the throne room in Canterlot, the Chancellor's Office in Manehatten was quite sparsely decorated. In place of lining every exposed surface with gold and coating it with a gross excess of gemstones, the office featured tasteful hardwood falls and floors, supplemented by fine carpets and tapestries. Undeniably elegant and luxurious, but opting for a certain elegant simplicity rather than the overbearing ostentation that appeared to be the current fashion within Canterlot.
The Commander herself sat behind a desk of polished cherrywood, speaking with an earth pony I knew by reputation as Fertile Fields, Vice-Chancellor of the Earth Ponies. In theory, he served a similar function to the Grand Vizier of Unicornia, though the Commander's extended stay in Unicornia meant that much like the Ephorate, he had long exercised de facto rule. Thankfully, what little I could judge of the Vice-Chancellor's bearing indicated that he did not begrudge Commander Celestia her rightful rule.
A shadow fell over the Commander's face the instant I entered the room. Given that she had seemed quite pleased to see me in the past, I could only surmise that word of the Clipping had already reached her ears. That would hardly surprise me—between the need for me to remain and testify for my fellow Pegasopolan leaders and the necessary delay whilst we waited for Swiftwing to be well enough for travel, it was near to a week after the incident had occurred.
Nonetheless, whatever fragmentary rumors had reached the Commander's ears were a poor substitute for a proper eyewitness account. "Commander, I come bearing grim news. A terrible crime has occurred within Pegasopolis: one of your subjects has been Clipped."
The Commander visibly flinched at the news. "I have heard the rumors, though I hoped them false or exaggerated. Tell me, Shadow, how did such a thing come to pass?"
"I should think such a thing obvious." I felt a twitch of aggravation at hearing the voice of the Commander's Grand Vizier. Though I was quite pleased that the Commander had not opted to leave all Unicornia in Sunbeam Sparkle's hooves, it did unfortunately mean that the Archmagus remained at Commander Celestia's side rather than comfortably distant.
Sunbeam produced a dusty tome whose title I could barely read. On the Customs and Traditions of Our Winged Kin: An Account of Pre-Lyequingian Pegasoplis. That title boded ill, and I could guess at her reasons for using such a book easily enough, given the matter at hoof. Sure enough, she opened the volume and quoted the damning passage. "And the venerable Commander Alaemors did declare: 'If any amongst us should prove themselves incapable of performing a warrior's duties, then they are unworthy of holding a place within our society. Frailty is the most unforgivable of sins, for an army is only as strong as the least of its soldiers. Toleration of weakness only breeds further weakness, leading to the decline of our great society. If any pegasus, whether adult or child, should lessen our society, let their wings be severed, and let them be cast away as one would a diseased and rotting limb.'"
Sunbeam closed the book with an indecent degree of relish, and a triumphant smile appeared on her face. "I believe that makes the reasons behind the mutilation of that unfortunate child quite clear. Wouldn't you agree, Ephor?"
Sunbeam Sparkle was beginning to test my patience. "If we are to quote ancient law and verse at each other, I believe I have a passage that is of far greater relevance." I was quite thankful that my father had insisted I commit the laws of Lyequingus to memory. "'The practice of Clipping is henceforth banned throughout all of Pegasopolis. Such barbarities have no place in our great society. If any pegasus is found to have done such a thing, then it is they who have proven themselves unworthy of a place in Pegasopolis. Let their wings be severed, and let them be cast out in the place of their victim.'" I turned to the Commander and offered a conceding nod before adding. "Commander Luna later modified the laws to a somewhat more civilized form, though no less harsh in their condemnation of the practice."
The Archmagus scoffed. "Fine words, but at this very moment there is a filly outside this office whose wing-stumps are plain for all to see. Clearly, these supposedly ancient customs are not so dead as you would have us believe, Ephor."
I let out an annoyed snort and brushed her words aside with a wave of my hoof. "You would claim that ancient customs that have been banned for centuries are still being practiced on the basis of a single fool's actions? As disgusting as this crime was, 'tis but an isolated incident. There has not been another Clipping in Pegasopolis in living memory."
"Is that truly so?" A malevolent smirk appeared on her face, and light the color of a brightly burning flame flared from her horn. A moment later, a long scroll hovered at her side, suspended in a field of her magic. "I have here a list of two hundred and five young fillies and colts of an age with poor Swiftwing whose wings were similarly severed or mangled to point of uselessness, all within the last twenty years. Naturally the official records state that these injuries resulted from 'training accidents' or other similarly benign causes, but one wonders how many of these incidents were properly investigated?"
Sunbeam applied her magic once more, producing another scroll. "'Tis also passing curious how often foals born weak and sickly or with some other natural or genetic flaw perish suddenly a short time after their imperfections become apparent."
"Yes, one can scarce imagine what might cause a weak and sickly newborn to perish." I waved a hoof, dismissing her baseless evidence. "You have no proof of any crime, or even any proof that your supposed statistics are accurate. Surely newborns perish 'pon the ground as well, and young colts and fillies have ever been prone to wounding themselves at the age when they still believe themselves all but invincible."
"'Tis entirely possible that in many of these cases nothing untoward has occurred," Sunbeam conceded far too easily. I braced myself for her next argument, but despite attempting to prepare myself I was still caught at a loss for an answer when she spoke. "But if even a quarter—neigh, if even a tenth of these cases represent true crimes, I believe that merits investigation, would you not agree, Ephor?"
I took several moments to carefully consider my answer. "I think such an investigation as you propose would uncover no crimes, and serve merely to waste a great deal of time and upset many decent ponies by digging into the most painful incidents of their family history."
"Ah, we might upset somepony," Sunbeam remarked with biting sarcasm. "How terribly inconsiderate. Clearly, that is a far graver matter than the possible mutilation or murder of foals within Her Majesty's realms." Her smile turned coldly triumphant. "How many more victims must there be, Ephor, before protecting our youngest and most vulnerable subjects becomes as important as sparing the feelings of their abusers? A dozen? A hundred? How many more children must suffer before you will bestir yourself?"
"I grow tired of your disingenuous assertions, Archmagus." I felt myself growing choleric once more—'twould seem the Archmagus had something of a talent for inciting such moods in me. "This affair is none of your concern, Vizier. The Ephorate does not seek to involve itself in every crime that occurs within the borders of Unicornia, nor do we feel it necessary to harp upon the ancient crimes of thy own society. Are dark magics still practiced within the towers of Canterlot's great magi? Do your own kind still make dark pacts with foul beings for power, or use your magic to make mind-slaves of the populace?"
"Every society has its ancient crimes from less enlightened times," the Archmagus conceded far too easily for my liking. Sure enough, she was quick to return to the matter of Clipping much like a dog returning to consume its own bile. "But the matter which concerns us today is no ancient and long-forgotten cruelty, but a horrifying mutilation which occurred less than a week ago in the very household of one of Pegasopolis's rulers. Not to mention the possibility that more such crimes have passed, only to be deliberately ignored."
"You go too far, Archmagus." I could hear the carefully restrained fury in my voice, and forced myself to take a calming breath before I continued. "The Ephorate is composed of ponies whose honor is above repute. We do not flout the Commander's laws, nor twist their words to serve our personal ambitions. I have been more than tolerant of your continued unwanted and unwarranted interference in matters that are none of your concern, but I begin to tire of indulging your whims. Nothing that passes within Pegasopolis lies within your jurisdiction, and in attempting to involve yourself in our affairs you severely overstep your own authority. Stay your course, or Pegasopolis might take a greater interest in the internal affairs of Unicornia in the future."
The Archmagus let out a mocking little laugh. "Ah, the diplomacy of pegasi: threats, denial, and deflection instead of conversing like civilized ponies." She pointedly turned her head to the side, so that she no longer looked me directly in the eye. "If it offends you to have the other tribes look to the welfare of Pegasopolis' children, then mayhap 'tis past time your tribe saw to setting its own house in order." Before I could answer she turned back to me, and took an aggressive step forward. "How do you intend to resolve this latest crime within your tribe's borders? Will there be significant changes made to ensure that such a crime could never come to pass again, or did you simply plan to inform Her Majesty how awful this is, cast aside the ex-pegasi into the care of earth ponies or unicorns, and wash your hooves of the matter?"
I grew even more wroth with her, if such a thing were possible, and glowered at her balefully. "Do not insult her—she is a pegasus unto the day of her death. Your inability to grasp that the actions of a single deluded young stallion who acted on his own do not represent some deep flaw within pegasus society is most irksome."
"You may claim that the lad who Clipped her acted on his own as much as you wish, but I am dubious." Vizier Sparkle gave a dismissive wave of her hoof. "Surely you cannot think it mere coincidence that this supposedly isolated incident perpetrated by a single stallion acting on his own initiative just happened to occur within one of the oldest and most traditional clans in all of Pegasopolis. A clan known for its strict adherence to many of the harsher and more ancient beliefs of your kind, in point of fact. And now, after the filly is Clipped, you have come to place her 'mongst the other tribes, distant from her own kind, precisely as your own ancient customs say you should. Mayhap the situation is not so clean and uncomplicated as you attempt to make us believe, Ephor."
I confess that those words unsettled me a great deal. While I had not thought of the matter as such nor intended to do so, in placing Swiftwing upon the ground in the aftermath of her Clipping we were in a sense following the letter of the old laws. I struggled not to let my doubts show clearly upon face, 'lest the Archmagus see them and seize upon the advantage. "Swiftwing is to be placed with the groundbound tribes as a matter of practicality, not some form of exile because she is unworthy to dwell in Pegasopolis. 'Tis an unfortunate reality that her injuries no longer allow a life 'mongst her kin. If she cannot be restored, then it is my firm intention to arrange a proper and loving home for her. I shall hardly kick her to the gutters and cast her from my sight and heart, as the old ways would dictate."
The Grand Vizier rolled her eyes at me and let out an incredulous scoff. "So you offer her a kinder and gentler form of exile? How very noble of you. And what are her father and mother's opinions on the matter? I can not help but observe that they are notable primarily by their absence."
I knew nothing of young Swiftwing's mother—Steel Striker had never married, nor maintained a regular paramour. I vaguely recalled hearing that Swiftwing and Hammer both had been the children of his blood rather than choice, so I suppose Steel must have gotten the both of them upon some willing and suitable mare. 'Twould not have been difficult for a stallion of his station to find a mare willing to provide him an heir or two, and unlike the earth ponies and unicorns it is not the pegasus way to be overly concerned about bloodline purity or maintaining the bonds of matrimony. The children were his: no other fact was relevant to the matter.
Were I a materialist, I would pay many golden bits to watch Sunbeam make this exchange with Steel Striker. Let her tell him to his face that he was a poor father, and mayhap even allowed his daughter to suffer her cruel fate. Most likely he would stoically endure her words, and then once she ceased her prattling smite her upon the cheek and seek juris ungula. It would be a fine thing indeed, to see her crushed beneath Steel Striker's iron-shod hooves.
Now was hardly the time for such pleasantly diverting thoughts, however. The Archmagus clearly expected an answer, and as the Commander was bearing witness to our discussion I fully intended to answer her charges. For his part Fertile Fields had absented himself from the room at some point during the argument, which quite possibly made him the wisest of us all. "Your concern for the opinions of other ponies is most refreshing, Archmagus. I am sure that my fellow Ephor would enjoy having a foreigner such as yourself lecture him at length about the failings of his clan and society."
"Mayhap my words have been blunt and tactless." I braced myself for another cutting remark from the Vizier. By now, I had quite grasped that any concession she offered would inevitably be followed by one. Sure enough, she unleashed another barb a few moments later. "It would seem that my distress at hearing of the mutilation of a mere child and concern for her well-being have o'erwhelmed my sense of delicacy for the moment."
Mayhap 'twas time to turn her own tactics against her. One would think that most ponies would be prepared for such an eventuality, but in my experience a surprising number of opponents could be fooled by such a relatively simple artifice. Few ponies are prepared to have their own weapons turned against them. "I share your concern and distress, Vizier, and am glad to know that we have some point of agreement that we might build upon." I gave an appropriate short pause before delivering the following strike. "You have my personal assurance that the matter shall be addressed through the proper channels with the utmost swiftness." I left unspoken the fact that the Archmagus herself was not a part of said proper channels.
The Grand Vizier's upper lip curled up in a contemptuous sneer. "Oh, so the guilty party will soon be brought before the courts of Pegasopolis, I trust?"
"A trial will not be necessary," I answered simply. "The guilty party took his own life from shame shortly after his apprehension."
"All in the name of preserving the honor of his clan, I am sure." Acid dripped from the Archmagus' voice. "No need for a proper trial or investigation, just have the culprit kill himself, and you can sweep the whole mess under the rug and pretend it never happened. Beyond which, now you need not worry that he might say something horribly inconvenient, such as claiming that he was acting under his father's orders instead of acting on his own initiative. Why look into the truth of things when you can simply have the fool who got himself caught removed, shuffle the victim out of sight, and move on with life as if none of this ever happened?"
If Grand Vizier Sparkle intended to insist on continuously running her mouth, my patience might soon reach its end. "This is none of your concern, Archmagus," I responded tightly. "The Ephorate is not required to obtain your approval before it acts, though I am sure your vain ambition would enjoy such a thing. Pegasus affairs are none of your concern, and continued attempts to interfere in them are most inappropriate."
Archmagus Sparkle let out an incredulous scoff. "So I am to be unconcerned when I see a mutilated child outside this very office because according to some ancient and long-obsolete treaty it is out of my jurisdiction?" She directed a hoof at her own horn, and let her magic flare slightly to emphasize her point. "Shall I let this preclude my own morality and concern for my fellow ponies?"
Neigh, the cavity in her chest where most have a heart would preclude her showing such concern regardless. Sadly, 'twould not be politic to speak that thought allowed, so I opted for a more diplomatic turn of phrase. "Your heartfelt concerns for the wellbeing of all pegasi hinders those whose duty it is to uphold the law."
"Upholding the law?" She countered incredulously. "I see nothing of law in how your kind have addressed this matter. No trial or public inquiry has occurred, or any proper investigation by the legal authorities. Instead you have barbarity and brutality dressed up in the robes of law and tradition." The Archmagus fixed me with a piercing stare. "I wonder if you might clarify something for me. How precisely did Hammer Striker manage to sneak a wing blade into his cell in order to take his own life? Or did some other pony, perhaps even Ephor Steel himself, in fact offer him the offending blade?"
"And what if he did?" I met her gaze challengingly. "Justice comes in many forms, and not all of those follow the niceties of Unicornia. The guilty party was suitably punished, and the Ephor and his clan were spared the indignity of a long, public trial which would drag the entire family name through the mud. Despite the picture you wish to paint, we did make a proper investigation of things, and found no reason to believe that the Ephor knew of or consented to his daughter's Clipping."
"An easy thing for any investigation to conclude when everypony who might dispute that conclusion has been removed from the picture," Sparkle deftly countered. "You claim that there is justice in Pegasopolis, but all I see is a culture that conspires to cover up its own failings. If there is to be any end to these abuses of the youngest and most vulnerable of Pegasopolis' citizens, I believe it cannot come from a pegasus."
"So that is the goal you try to hide behind your forked tongue this time!" I cried out hotly. "You would cast aspersions upon all Pegasopolis as a means to justify granting yourself some o'erwhelming authority to manage our affairs. You—neigh, I thou thee, thou would-be despot—thou shalt not exercise thy tyrannies over Pegasopolis."
"Calm thyself, Ephor." The Commander's voice cut in like like a red-hot wing blade passing through a griffon's flesh. I confess that as my argument with Sparkle had grown more and more heated, I had near forgotten that we were still in the Commander's presence. "I am certain that Sunbeam's intention is not so dubious as thou wouldst believe."
Her point was well taken. I would have preferred that she take a more active role in this discussion, but from all I had heard that was not the Commander's way. Her position atop the tribes would quickly become awkward if she were seen to be playing favorites, regardless of the truth of the matter.
Once I had a few moments to regain my calm, I was somewhat surprised at just how wroth I had become. 'Twould seem that the Archmagus has a definite talent for causing me aggravation.
I opened my mouth to speak, though I confess that I was unsure of what precisely I might say, but my words were stolen from me by a young filly's cry of pain from the other room. I was on my hooves in an instant, my mind flashing back to my discovery of poor Swiftwing's gruesome fate only a week past. I suspect that I shall never again hear a child bawling over some minor scratch without being reminded of that horrible day.
In my haste I did some damage to a rather expensive door that did me the discourtesy of standing between myself and my objective. Soon enough, I had returned to the waiting room where I had left young Swiftwing in my daughter's care. To my immense relief, they were both unharmed, though Gale had taken the crippled filly aside and was speaking to her.
If Swiftwing were unharmed, that did raise the question of where the cry had come from. A few seconds later I espied its source: young Midnight sat at the other side of the room from Swiftwing, nursing a bloodied lip and sporting several rapidly-forming bruises on her face.
I quickly trotted up to my daughter, and my voice came out tight and terse. "What happened?"
A pained look crossed my daughter's face. "I am uncertain," she confessed. "I offered to watch over young Midnight for the Archmagus when she passed by on her way to meet with thee. I was speaking to one of the staff to make arrangements for some passing diversion for the two of them, and turned my back but for a moment. One minute they were speaking to each other quite civilly, and the next Swiftwing was striking her and screaming."
Before I could make further inquiry, Archmagus Sparkle stormed into the room, immediately marching to her daughter's side. She took a few moments to look over young Midnight's injuries, then whirled upon poor Swiftwing in a fury. "Thou wouldst dare to strike my daughter?"
"Peace, Archmagus," Gale hastily cut in, placing herself between the enraged Grand Vizier and her own crippled charge. "'Tis inevitable that children will have minor scuffles. Neither of them has suffered any lasting harm, and—"
Archmagus Sparkle turned the full focus of her fury upon my daughter. "I trusted thee with the care of my beloved daughter, and return to find her beaten and bloodied. Is this some petty vengeance for my disagreements with your mother, then?" Her horn flared with light the color of an open flame, and I felt the room's temperature climb rapidly enough to make me begin sweating. "You have erred greatly, Gale Kicker, if you thought that I would tolerate an attack upon my daughter."
My wing blades snapped forth, not quite moving into striking distance, but placed in such a way that they could quickly move there if I desired it. I felt my mind slide into the state of utterly cold and dispassionate analytical calm that always seemed to come to a pony's mind when battle was mere moments away.
A clash of arms with the Archmagus would be a quick, brutal thing. That was the nature or any fight between a spellcaster and a proper warrior. Simply put, neither of us had many ways of effectively defending ourselves against the other's attacks. While I could certainly attempt to dodge her spellfire, that was hardly a viable long-term solution. By the same token, even an Archmagus would be hard-pressed to hold off an experienced fighter who drew close enough to launch a sustained assault. Consequently, whichever one of us hit the other faster and harder would win.
That basic tactical reality created its own diplomatic problems. Since if things came to blows it was vital to strike quickly and with o'erwhelming force, it was a hazardous thing for either of us to drop our guard now that tensions had risen so high. Backing down first would create an easily exploited window of vulnerability, and I did not think it wise at all to give Sunbeam Sparkle an opening she might use to end me.
Sunbeam wore a contemplative frown on her face, and after a few seconds gave an almost resigned shrug, presumably having come to the same conclusion as I. Matters between us had simply escalated too far for either of us to back down now. "So we come to it then, Shadow? So be it." I tensed, preparing to make my strike the instant I saw an opening, while Sunbeam gathered her power and began crafting some spell which would likely reduce me to cinders if it connected.
Before either of us made our move, the Commander stormed in and gave quick flap of her wings, slamming into the space between us and effectively breaking the standoff. As if that were not enough to make her point on its own, she also subjected us to a dose of the Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice. "STAY THIS MADNESS!"
The effect upon the both of us was immediate. It is a difficult thing to explain, but the Commander carries a certain sense of authority around herself. While it is normally a subdued sort of thing that merely inclines those around her to a certain level of polite deference, right then that aura of leadership was so o'erpowering that before I even realized it I had taken several steps back, returned my wings to my sides, and snapped off a parade-cloud salute to the Commander. For her part, the Archmagus stepped back and immediately ceased her spellcasing, and seemed to have almost instinctively turned to Celestia and prostrated herself on her knees, as unicorns are wont to do.
"This dispute between the two of thee has gone too far." E'en if I were not all but compelled to agree with the Commander by her sheer force of presence, I could not gainsay her on that point. If not for the Commander's intervention just now, it might easily have ended with either myself or the Archmagus dead on the ground. Such a clash would do little good for the rest of Equestria, especially with how delicate matters stood between Pegasopolis and Unicornia at the moment. "It ends," Commander Celestia declared in a tone that made it clear she would not tolerate any dissent from either of us. "Now."
I was not mad enough to dispute her. "Aye, Commander."
"As you wish, Your Majesty," The Archmagus responded just as quickly. Thankfully, it seemed that the prospect of inciting the Commander's fury would be enough to reign in the worst of Sunbeam's temper. In a way, I could understand her anger: were it my daughter beaten and bruised, I would be sorely tempted to enact an equally swift retribution. However, just because I could empathize with her reasons did not mean I would tolerate her actions.
The Commander fixed me with a baleful glare, then shifted her gaze to the Archmagus once I was suitably cowed. I am not ashamed to admit that Commander Celestia can utterly intimidate me when she sets her full strength to the task. "If the two of thee shall insist on bickering like children, then I shall henceforth treat thee as such." The Commander fixed us both with a look that was equal parts uncompromising steel and regal disdain. "If either of thee feuds with the other again, thou shalt both be confined to thy quarters, and denied all but the simplest of meals, and of course there will be no desserts."
I took her chastening to heart. Harsh though her words were, I was also greatly troubled by the mere necessity of such a discussion. It was not a pleasant feeling to know that I had failed her so badly that she felt the need to bawl me out like a fresh recruit. "Aye, Commander. It shall not happen again."
I prayed that I might be able to keep that promise. For all that I valued my word of honor, if Archmagus Sparkle ever dared to threaten Gale again, I would gladly face whatever condemnation the Commander felt appropriate afterwards. No mother, not even the cold and heartless Sunbeam Sparkle herself, would idly tolerate a threat against her own child.
Speaking of the Grand Vizier... "My apologies." From the way insincerity positively dripped from her words, and the fact that she only spoke them whilst looking to the Commander, I could surmise that this falsified apology existed only for the Commander's benefit. "I allowed my choler to overtake me upon seeing the injury of my beloved daughter. My dear Midnight is at a sensitive age to have such violence brought down upon her. To face such cruelty is a terrible thing at any age, but especially she nears the time when her unique talents will manifest themselves. If she is her mother's daughter, her talents are likely to be considerable."
"No doubt." The Commander offered young Midnight a brief reassuring smile before returning her attention to the two of us, her face once more a mask of schooled indifference. "In truth, I care not for how justified either of thee believes thy anger to be. If I were to listen to all the excuses ponies offer off for their misbehavior, I would be occupied until even my days came to end. This ongoing feud between the two of thee ends. Am I understood?"
A rare thing occurred as the Archmagus and I reached a full and near-simultaneous accord. Neither of us were foolhardy enough to say no to Commander Celesita. Though t'was no doubt clear to one of Celestia's considerable abilities that promise of peace was only secured by coercion, that seemed to be enough to satisfy her for the nonce. "Now that this folly is concluded, let us return to the matter at hoof. On the matter of Sunbeam's proposed investigation into the possibility that Clippings or murders have gone unreported within Pegasopolis, I believe her concerns are well-founded." If I had not so recently earned the Commander's wrath, I might have objected to her decision. As it was, she held a hoof to forestall any comment I might offer. "While I think Shadow is quite right that that the vast majority of these cases saw nothing untoward happen, I also believe that e'en if only one in a hundred of these incidents represents an actual crime, that leaves behind too many unaided victims."
I did not agree with the Commander's decision, but I would not dare to gainsay her. I could only make the best of the situation presented to me. "If it is your wish, Commander, then it shall be done." I shot a thinly veiled grimace at Sparkle. "Despite what some might claim, Pegasopolis has no dark secrets to hide."
"I look forward to seeing that confirmed at the investigation's end," the Commander announced decisively.
I gave a sharp nod. "I shall oversee the matter personally, Commander."
Much to nopony's surprise, Sparkle objected to that. "Respectfully, Your Majesty, there is a culture of conspiracy and cover-up surrounding Clippings in Pegasopolis. An outside perspective is needed to crack through this ... web of shadows."
She incorporated my name into her quip. How very droll. "You think it likely, Archmagus, that a pony with little knowledge and few contacts in all of Pegasopolis could uncover that which remains hidden from the Ephorate. Especially when you are an outsider interfering in the internal affairs of Pegasopolis, and likely to be as unwelcome as you would make if I were investigating crimes in Unicornia."
"Thy points are both well-made," the Commander declared, effectively ending the debate before the two of us could degenerate into arguing once more. "Fortunately, I have come upon a solution that should satisfy both parties and make the investigation all the stronger: the two of thee shall work hoof-in-hoof in this matter." She gave Sparkle and I both a look that all but dared us to voice any complaints. "I trust there are no objections to this?"
While I wondered in the privacy of my mind if the Commander had suddenly taken leave of her senses, I would certainly not dare to say as much to her face. "As you wish, Commander."
From the way her jaw clenched at the news, I suspect that for once Sparkle and I were in complete agreement—neither of us looked forward to carrying out the Commander's orders. "Understood, Your Majesty." Sparkle accompanied her agreement with some more customary unicorn grovelling. "It will be as you command. Shall I make plans to proceed to Cloudsdale immediately, or will it be sufficient to begin investigating the matter upon our scheduled arrival in Pegasapolis?"
The Commander raised a thoughtful hoof to her chin for a few moments. "Such an exhaustive investigation will take time to arrange, Sunbeam. Seeing to the preparations for it 'ere our scheduled departure for Cloudsdale seems a valuable use of thy time."
Sparkle gave a short bow of her head. "You have my assurances that all shall be in readiness by the time we set hoof in Cloudsdale."
"The matter is settled, then." At least I would have more than enough time to forewarn the Ephorate and make some preparation to mitigate the damage Sunbeam might cause.
With the business of state resolved, I could finally return my attention to more personal matters. Gale had taken it upon herself to see to the two slightly damaged fillies whilst Sparkle and I discussed our business with the Commander. With no further obligations holding me back, I began checking Swiftwing and Midnight over. "They are fine," Gale reassured me. "Somewhat battered, but nothing thou needest worry about."
Swiftwing spared a disdainful glance at Midnight. "I have suffered worse than her on the training grounds, yet she sniffles like a newborn foal."
Midnight turned to her attacker, her expression neutrally blank. "Maybe I do not wish to cover the pain I am feeling, unlike you." Midnight's head cocked to the side, and a faintly curious frown appeared on her face. "Does hurting me lessen your own pain?"
The fillies' speech seemed to remind the Commander of their presence, and moments later she stood before them, cutting whatever rejoinder Swiftwing intended to offer short. The crippled young filly quailed slightly, no doubt somewhat apprehensive at the thought of meeting her Commander, especially when she had so recently borne witness to the Commander's displeasure. Commander Celestia's face softened into a gentle and maternal smile, and she dropped down to Swiftwing's level. "Hello, my little pony."
Swiftwing gave a nervous swallow, then looked up to meet her Commander's gaze and very hesitantly raised a foreleg to salute. "Hello, Commander Celestia."
The Commander beamed indulgently at her little soldier. "Know that thou art my honored guest, Swiftwing Striker, until such time as we can find a suitable family to care for thee."
The tension slowly left Swiftwing's shoulders, and the stubs of her wings twitched in what would no doubt have been a hopeful flitter before her mutilation. "I am most grateful for your generosity and kindness, Commander."
"Thou needest not thank me for such simple hospitality," the Commander announced modestly. Having experienced the Commander's hospitality myself, I can say with confidence that it is anything but simple.
A mischievous smile appeared on Commander Celestia's face as she leaned her head in close to young Swiftwing's and declared in for a conspiratorial whisper, "Now, child, once I am finished attending matters of state, I propose that we venture to the kitchens and have our fill of cake. One of the many perks that come with being a Chancellor or a Commander or a Queen is that everypony must give me as much cake as I want."
Swiftwing gave the first smile I'd seen on the child's face since the severing of her wings. "I have had this dish on occasion... I remember it being..." Swiftwing's words slowly trailed off as her eyes travelled over Midnight Sparkle. The younger filly's ears were flat on her head, and she let out a tiny hiccup that was clearly the result of a suppressed sniffle. I suppose I should not be surprised that Archmagus Sparkle had not yet moved to comfort her daughter. No doubt she hoped that Midnight's pain might yet be transformed into some manner of political capital.
The Commander met Swiftwing's eyes, then cast a pointed look in Midnight's direction before returning her attention to the older filly. Swiftwing followed the Commander's gaze, but merely remained in place and worried at her lower lip. When Swiftwing remained motionless after several long moments, the Commander very gently nudged her forward.
Swiftwing cast a quick look back to the Commander, and then very slowly and with clear reluctance approached Midnight. The younger filly flinched away imperceptibly as her attacker approached, moving half a hoof-length toward her mother. After several painfully silent moments, Swiftwing spoke in the put-upon tones of a child being compelled into an apology. "It was wrong of me to strike you, Midnight Sparkle. I offer my apologies."
Midnight regarded Swiftwing with her usual neutral and faintly curious expression, but could not entirely hide the nervous tremble in her voice when she answered. "I-I suppose it is polite to accept. Though I do not even know why you struck me to begin with. All I did was make some inquiries about your wings. Or lack thereof."
Swiftwing gave an angry twitch that I could not blame her for, but after a tense moment the wounded young pegasus took a deep breath and calmed herself. No doubt the fact that myself, the Commander, and Archmagus Sparkle were all present and giving her our full attention served to restrain any violent impulses. "You made inappropriate inquiries, Midnight Sparkle. My situation is no macabre jest."
Midnight tilted her head to the side and stared at Swiftwing with unnatural intensity. She very slowly blinked, her eyes ever so subtly out of sync with each other. "Who said your situation is a jest?" The young filly inquired flatly. "I merely wished to understand your predicmo—predika—" Midnight let out a frustrated little snort and stamped on the floor. "Why you are the way you are," she concluded lamely.
Gale stepped between the two fillies to forestall any further conflict between the two. I went on guard once more, if only because it put my daugher within Sparkle's line of sight. I did not think it likely the Archmagus would attack my daughter now, but when it comes to Gale's safety I am perhaps a touch paranoid. "Her predicament," Gale pronounced the word slowly for Midnight's benefit, "is very raw to her, Midnight. Mention of it is akin to iodine on a wound."
Young Midnight's eye's brightened in comprehension. "Ah! So talking about it will bring her great pain but prevent an infection of the spirit? Is that what you are saying? In that case, I must speak to her about it as often as possible."
Swiftwing's ear twitched several times, and voice was thick with barely restrained fury. "Neigh."
My beleaguered daughter let out a put-upon little sigh. "Only the first instance, Midnight. T'would be akin to the loss of your horn." I suspect that Gale most likely regretting her decision to involve herself in the first place. She might have been better advised to leave the matter to the Commander, who appeared fond of fillies and was no doubt substantially more experienced in such things than the both of us together. Unfortunately for my poor daughter, Commander Celestia seemed content for the moment to observe Gale's floundering.
The two fillies gazed in each other's general direction, awkwardly refusing to meet each other's eyes. Midnight was unconsciously rubbing a hoof along her horn, whilst Swiftwing's tail was agitatedly flicking back and forth. I suppose awkward and uncomfortable silence was at least preferable to the previous state of things between them.
'Twould be wise to secure this tentative peace while it lasted, else we might find ourselves relegated to serving as mediators between the two for hours longer. "The fillies have settled their dispute, it would seem. Mayhap it is time we returned to the business of running Equestria?"
"Ah, once again I must neglect my subjects for the sake of my realm," the Commander grumbled under her breath. It seemed that unlike myself or Sparkle, Commander Celestia preferred the problems of fillies to those of nations. I suppose they were at least more easily solved. At length, she turned to my daughter. "Gale, if thou couldst escort thy two young charges to the dining room and watch over them for a few moments longer? Fear not, I shall be along to take them off of thy hooves shortly."
Gale nodded, though by the frown on her face I would hazard that she misliked being relegated to minding over the foals. "Aye, Commander." She reluctantly began leading the two fillies off, making a point to keep herself between the two of them to prevent any further clashes from escalating beyond harsh language and sullen glares.
As the fillies were about to make their departure, Sparkle finally deigned to speak about her Midnight's behavior. "I will give my daughter a lecture on social decorum later to prevent further incidents such as this, Your Majesty." She directed a pointed glare at Midnight, who gave a slight flinch and turned her head so that her mother could not make eye contact.
I had some small measure of sympathy for Sparkle as a fellow mother, and one who had also found her daughter vexing at times. However, 'twas abundantly clear that more than mere lectures are needed for yon filly, and I rather strongly suspected that many of young Midnight's oddities were due to how Sparkle raised the child.
Once Gale and the fillies were out of the room, the Commander turned to the two of us and offered a slightly strained smile. "Well, if two young fillies can resolve their differences, surely an Ephor and a Vizier can manage?"
Surely the Commander does not oversimplify intergovernmental politics so easily? There was a world of difference between my dispute with Sunbeam Sparkle and the minor scuffle between Swiftwing and Midnight. (6)
6: I don't think Celestia would agree.
"I am sure we can find some way to develop a proper working relationship." Sparkle announced coolly. "If we are to take your example to heart, Your Majesty, then perhaps I might write Shadow's father to request her presence for an overnight visit? No doubt we could trade idle gossip about which stallions are particularly pleasing to the eye and strike each other about the head and shoulder with pillows."
"Sunbeam..." A hint of warning entered the Commander's voice.
"How would Your Majesty prefer that I bond with the Ephor and resolve our 'foalish' disagreement, then?" Sparkle demanded. "Shall I offer her fine gifts? Wine her and dine her? Ask her politely to accept my friendship?"
"Mind thy tongue, Sunbeam," the Commander snapped. For a second I hoped that she might be genuinely wroth and I was bearing witness to Sunbeam's downfall, but a moment later Commander's Celestia's scowl transformed into an amused smirk. "If the two of thee continue thy arguing, I might conclude that, like many young ponies in the throes of passion, the two of thee express thy mutual affection through constant bickering. I am sure an arranged marriage with my own blessing would do much to strengthen the bond of friendship between Pegasopolis and Unicornia."
The Commander can be cruel when the mood takes her. Better that I accept Sparkle's proposal of a meal—the worst she might do is poison me.
Thankfully, the Commander did not make good on that most terrifying of threats. "I leave the details of any arrangements to the two of thee. All I ask is that you learn to properly work alongside one another, rather than remain constantly at each others' throats." A haunted look crossed the Commander's eyes, and her voice took on a slightly ethereal tone as she added, "It is of the utmost importance for all Equestria that the two of thee set aside thy differences."
The Commander's point was well-taken regardless of my personal dislike for Sparkle. Shadow Kicker might freely despise Sunbeam Sparkle, but open discord between an Ephor of Pegasopolis and the Grand Vizier of Unicornia could cause no end of difficulty. 'Twas best if we maintained a level of professional courtesy, at the very least. "Aye, Commander."
The Archmagus genuflected towards her queen. "It will be as you wish, Your Majesty. Protecting the children of Equestria is, of course, of far greater importance than any personal dispute between myself and the Ephor."
The Commander looked the both of us over, and gave a slight nod. "Very well." Her businesslike demeanour faded away, and an impish smile took its place. "Now, unless there is anything else, I do believe I have two young fillies to dote upon."
So pleased was I to be done with the uncomfortable topic of Clippings that the second matter at hoof nearly slipped my mind. Thankfully, I remembered the matter in time. "There is one other thing, Commander. Griffon reivers are troubling our borders once more. Ephor Charger wishes permission to cross into griffon territory to put an end to the attacks."
"You want to invade the griffons?" Sparkle let out a disparaging scoff, and was no doubt preparing some scathing remark when she recalled the all-too-recent censure the both of us had received from the Commander. When she spoke again, her voice had returned to it usual calm, controlled tones. "Your Majesty, I strongly advise against such a course of action. Minor border incursions along the griffon border have been an unfortunate reality ever since our first contact with the griffons. A few bandits are hardly worth causing such a fuss over."
"Those bandits are victimizing innocent ponies," I countered tersely. "Ponies that are under the Commander's protection."
"And I am sure that warriors of Pegasopolis can adequately chastise any raiders who dare cross the border," the Grand Vizier answered. "Any bandits who cross the border will be dealt with by our forces. Those that do not are hardly a concern for Equestria."
"Equestria will always be plagued by griffon reivers if we allow them to establish secure bases on our frontiers." I suppose I should not be surprised that a pampered Canterlot pony like Sparkle had no understanding of military strategy. "Seeing off the occasional raid does little to deter future attacks, and unless you would dispatch a full army to the region our patrols cannot hope to protect the full length of our border against any possible intrusion."
"So you would provoke the griffons to war because your fellow pegasi cannot secure our borders?" the Archmagus demanded acidly, earning her a reproving look from the Commander.
"We have hundreds of miles worth of land and airspace to secure," I answered her calmly. "Unless you wish for hundreds of thousands of ponies to continuously comb every single inch of ground, clump of dirt, and speck of cloud, there will be opportunities for small bands of reivers to slip past our defenses."
"Your point is well-made," the Archmagus reluctantly conceded. "However, a cross-border assault on these bandits would be most unwise. It has long been said that the only thing which can ever unite all the griffons in a single cause is a threat from without." (7)
7: The griffons at this time were still politically fragmented. While Griffonia was theoretically a single political entity united under the High King, in practice most High Kings were largely powerless figureheads. Effective power within Griffonia lay in the talons of lesser kings, dukes, and other nobles, most of whom constantly plotted, schemed, and warred against each other. Thankfully, modern griffons only kill each other over politics once every few decades.
"You would have the reiver's victims go unavenged, then?" I challengingly met the Archmagus' gaze, all but daring her to confirm my accusation.
The Commander had apparently heard her fill of our discussion. "Vengeance accomplishes little, Shadow. As one of our great sages once said, 'an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.'" Commander Celestia slowly shook her head. "If we send forces across the border into griffon territory, it would violate our long-standing peace treaty with the High King. How do you think our subjects on the border would fare in the case of open warfare between pony and griffon?"
Her point was well-made, but I was less than happy with her conclusion. That is not to say that I disagreed—the cold logic of the situation was that a single day of war would kill far more than a hundred years of reiver raids. However, just because the logic was clear and indisputable did not mean I had to like it. "Very well, Commander. I have nothing more to report."
The Commander turned to her archmagus and raised a single eyebrow. Sparkle bowed once more, since that was apparently a prerequisite for unicorns to have any form of communication with their queen. "There is nothing else that requires Your Majesty's immediate attention, neigh."
The Commander gave a single nod. "Then I bid thee both good day. Though it saddens me, I am afraid you should return to Cloudsdale posthaste, Shadow." She offered me a warm smile that seemed more personal than one would expect from their Commander. "'Twould be a pleasure to interact with thee when duty does not strictly dictate our roles." With that rather cryptic comment, Commander Celestia departed.
Once the Commander was out of the room, Archmagus Sparkle turned to me and unleashed a particularly baleful glare. No doubt that moment of personal favor from the Commander had done little to endear me to her. "It would seem we are destined to work with one another until this matter involving the Clippings is concluded." From the way the words left her mouth, one would think that the Commander had ordered her to serve as barracks-whorse. Granted, that might be a far better use for Sunbeam Sparkle than her current position.
Sadly, the Commander's prohibition on open quarreling prevented me from voicing those thoughts. Instead, I opted for something moderately more diplomatic. "Let us pray it is resolved quickly, then."
"Quite." Sunbeam Sparkle's eyes narrowed, and she unflinchingly met my gaze. "Do not cross me in this matter, Ephor. There are ways I might express my displeasure with you that you will not enjoy, and not even Her Majesty can save you from the full measure of my wrath."
"I shall bear that in mind." I did not bother offering threat of my own. Words are easily spoken, and all too often meaningless. If it came to that, I would let my blades speak for themselves.
My colleagues' concerns about the Commander suddenly rang far truer to me. I know not what concerned me more: her haste to ignore the ancient treaties that bound all Equestria together simply to sooth a single pony's ego, or her willingness to abide by a treaty even when the other signatory freely violated it, simply because that same pony advised such a course. Neigh, perhaps what troubled me most of all was Commander Celestia's decision to overlook Sunbeam Sparkle's naked lust for power, even if that power came at the cost of all Equestria.