Chapter 1: A Storm Within Ivory Walls
It was everything I'd ever wanted, and had been too proud to simply ask for. All of the tension I'd been carrying for so many years, all of that anger, spite, and jealousy seemed to drift away instantly, as I finally understood what I'd been doing wrong. Lying there, in her hooves… it felt right. Feeling the warmth of the sun against my back as we rested, breathing calmly amongst the cold blades of wet grass was a sensation unlike any other, and it finally had a meaning. It was finally true, in that perfect moment- I was loved. Blackness overcame my vision as I closed my eyes, and for the first time since we had started our rocky, tumultuous relationship of prince and princess, I stopped denying fate, and accepted my place as the one she needed all along.
"Auntie Celestia!" I cried, in the shrillest, most grating voice I could manage, "That isn't even remotely fair to me, or anypony else of highborn blood sitting in this chamber, and you know it!" The accusation was chased with a harsh banging sound, and one that I knew my aunts were quite familiar with. The cold, varnished wood of the table resisted as expected while I ground my hoof into the surface as best I could, channeling a death glare at what some would describe as the sweetest creature to ever walk Equestria. I would describe her as a bloated, pampered swan with a mane resembling a chemical spill.
Soft, magenta eyes held my own icy gaze as she sat there, wings folded neatly against her sides while she considered my caustic accusation. Her expression was without judgement; her lips pulled taut as she carefully selected words to unravel my argument in a calm, reassuring manner. Always the same tactic, always adding a cold detachment, free of emotion as she danced for her subjects whilst sitting perfectly still in her gilded throne. It's amazing how hooves and necks need never move, when one can dance so gracefully with their tongue alone.
"Prince Vladimir Blueblood," she began. Always with the titles during a public forum. Not even Auntie Luna was spared being addressed as 'princess' by this posturing, pandering, problematic foal of a princess. "While I understand your concerns, and hear your displeasure, this matter has been discussed at length for the past two weeks, in council both public and private. The fact that Duke Shining Armor's proposal comes as a surprise to you, quite frankly, comes as a surprise to me. Why didn't you voice your opinion during any of the previous meetings?"
Because I wasn't paying a lick of attention during the previous meetings, you cake-gobbling cow, and you know it! The only reason I know know what's going on here is because I heard the terms 'nobles', 'taxes', and 'increase' in the same sentence! Damn you, Celestia!
The rush of blood to my cheeks was swift and obvious, a fact that drew the smallest of smirks from Shining Armor, who was sitting in his usual position at Celestia's right side. That smug bastard would get his in due time... but now, there was money involved, and that took priority!
"...Auntie. Let's be reasonable," I cooed, as I ran my foreleg along the low tabletop. A small indent in the shape of a hoof was plainly visible within the lacquered surface, which caused my blush to intensify. "Do you really need those extra bits for some... storm shelter, or whatever is being constructed with my hard-earned money?"
"...homeless shelter, dear, and yes, I do believe it necessary. It is high time that the Council of Nobility contributed something to Canterlot other than a weather report. I know it's quite easy to deliver one when your head is held so high, but the pegasi have it covered."
Shining Armor made an amused noise and brought a hoof to his face to suppress a laugh, barely managing to cover it with the least-convincing cough I'd heard since my last physical. I swear, the only noise more obnoxious than Celestia's voice in general was that bloated idiot's amused laugh. Nothing could make my blood boil faster, and my hoof found itself slammed into the table once again before I could control what I was doing. At least there was an indent to use as a guide, this time. I think it may have helped to make an even more impressive noise.
Celestia slowly rose from her chair, all smiles as she spread her wings, the feathery appendages broader than the body of an average pony. All at once, those in attendance stood, dipping their heads as they listened to her words. "If nopony has anything else to say on the matter, then I believe we can declare this forum cl-"
"Aunt Luna!" Oh, I wasn't done yet. I wouldn't surrender a single bit to the crown pansy and her entourage of do-gooders without a fight. "Don't you believe this to be a complete farce? You of all ponies should know that the royal treasury has more than enough bits to simply carry out this project without dipping its sticky hooves into my pockets. This affects you, too! You may be a princess, but you're also a noble! Stand up for your coinpurse!"
"No," the smaller princess simply replied, neither her body or face moving an inch.
"I said no." A wave of ice crept through my veins as her piercing, turquoise eyes locked with mine and traveled straight through to my soul. That mare had a way of telling you just how many ways she wanted you dead with nothing more than a simple glance. Aunt Luna had always favored expression and tone over word count when it came to expressing her opinions, a fact that brought her constant jabs from her ivory turkey of a sister.
"...Shining Armor's idea is reasonable," she added, before giving the smallest of nods to signal that she had finished speaking. That was about as helpful as it usually was, which is to say, it wasn't. Good old Aunt Luna. That left me only one other option...
"Cadance," I offered in a sweetened tone as I walked around the table, staring up the small flight of steps at my supposed 'sister'. "You've been awfully quiet this evening. Isn't there anything you would like to say?" It was a desperate gamble, and unlikely to succeed... but I am nothing if not a stallion to break new ground and make bold approaches to difficult problems.
"Yes, as a matter of fact..." The very pregnant pony took a careful step forward, and Shining Asshole was immediately at her side with a worried look. I do believe that had my eyes rolled any faster, my head would simply have removed itself from my body and begun to tumble down the hall.
"I hope that all those in need can find shelter and peace for the holidays and beyond. May this new structure being built serve as a first step to extending more love to those Canterlotians who need it most. The wealthy and privileged should never forget that others are not so fortunate, and that it is our responsibility to look out for them. After all, without a government that cares for its people, why have a government at all?" The youngest princess of the three finished her small speech with a smile, and, of course, it was met by thunderous stomping and cheering throughout the royal chambers. For once, I didn't bother to stomp in anger, instead more worried about the lurching in my stomach that signaled the loss of yet more money for a cause I couldn't care less about.
"That was beautiful, Princess Cadance. As I was saying, I believe we can conclude this forum, and walk forward together toward peace and prosperity for blah blah bloo blee bloo blah happiness and snuggles forever," is what I heard as I made my exit, furiously stomping upon Celestia's plush carpet while making my way out the door.
"...and Prince Blueblood, I would like a word with you, once everypony else leaves."
That, I definitely heard correctly. I immediately about-faced, only to regret the decision as I met Equestria's favorite couple face-to-face.
"Blueblood, looking as blue in the face as usual," Shining Armor mocked as he offered me a tiny salute. "Seriously, man, it's a .8% hit for a two-month period, and I'm taking it, too. Don't you have a heart in that flabby little chest of yours?"
The hoof prodding the edge of my frock was quickly slapped away by my own, only to draw another chuckle from the jester-turned-duke before me. That mirthful look in his eye ever since he'd finally managed to knock up Cadance made me want to rip his mane off and beat him to death with it, and his near-constant taunting when we were in public didn't help matters at all.
"Shiny... please, play nicely." There went Cadance, with her nuzzling and adoring looks while she attempted to reel in her husband. This had never happened before, in the history of the universe. "Vladimir will contribute, and in time, realize that partaking in the holiday spirit doesn't just have to be done during the holidays. Antagonizing him will only exacerbate the problem."
"Cadie, you know I'm just messing with him." Shining returned the nuzzle and entwined his hoof around Cadance's, holding her as though they'd been apart for ages. "Old Blue can take as well as he gives."
"I just wish the giving was voluntary, and I had been given warning," I spat, beginning to make my way past the pair and back toward Celestia.
"Good luck, Vladimir," Cadance offered as I walked. "Come by for tea, later. It's been far too long."
The only reply I deemed appropriate was a halfhearted grunt as I continued to move forward. I wasn't about to stop and admit that tea with Cadance was something I didn't mind, especially in front of Shining Armor. I couldn't imagine what quirky snipe he would have had just waiting to fly from his lips like a lawn dart constructed of sheer stupidity, and fortunately, I never found out. It was instead a different brand of stupidity that reached out and slapped me in the face next.
I always dreaded these moments, and I never understood her intentions. How could Aunt Celestia openly chide and mock me one moment, and ask me to stand at her side the next? Didn't she understand that I never cared for her 'softly, softly' approach, her disgusting, saccharine reassurances, and all of the airs she put upon for the public? Somewhere in there was a frustrated, angry pony, just like me, but I wasn't about to waste the time fighting to draw it out. All of these moments were a farce, and one that I would never willingly participate in... at first.
"Dearest nephew..." I never could decide which I'd come to despise more- 'dearest nephew', 'sweetheart', or... ugh, 'my little prince.' I suppose I'd have to go with the last one. "Is this matter really worth making such a fuss over? Do you remember what we've talked about, when it comes to your public image?"
Of course I remembered. Of course this was worth making a fuss about! Otherwise, I wouldn't have opened my mouth and wasted breath for the pedants staring in slack-jawed awe at the pretender before me!
"Yes, Auntie, I do," I answered with a sigh as I moved up the small set of stairs to sit before her, mere inches from the throne. I deserved to be sitting in that chair... but that would be a matter for another time. "But can't you understand how offensive I find it that a simple duke can play with the bits of a prince? I didn't work to earn and maintain this title simply to be brushed aside like a dirty beggar and watch other ponies have their whims catered to!"
"Ruling," Celestia offered in a quiet whisper as she reached a hoof out to adjust my small tuxedo, "requires a balance of give and take. Voicing your mind, and holding your tongue. Stomping your hooves and crying out only when it is needed," she punctuated with a look so poignant that I could feel my undercarriage shrinking back into my body, "and the cause is one worth championing, regardless of whether it is for yourself, or those around you." The alicorn finished with a pat to my chest, the ruffled bow tie now straight and proper, as it should always be. Such gestures of finality weren't enough to control my thoughts and lead me along like a good little sheep. They never had been, and they never would be.
"But this cause is one I care strongly about! It is not as though I act out at every gathering!"
"Mm... a fair point, though I would argue that it is rather difficult to act out when one is sleeping." Celestia stretched her wings and walked past, offering a nuzzle against the side of my neck. Every time this happened, I couldn't help but return the gesture, however faintly. No matter how often we fought, no matter how angry I was, the Royal Nuzzle had always had hypnotic power over my actions. I never understood just why.
"Now, my little prince, I know you do so love your bits, but kindly remember that you are not the only one dealing with this minor inconvenience. Is the problem that I do not pay you enough, and you are afraid that this will ruin you?"
Every red light, warning klaxon, and whistle present in my head spontaneously went off at once as Celestia began her gambit. She must have had somewhere to be, as this method of bringing me around was always a potent one, and the equivalent of her going straight for the jugular. I didn't need to be taught another lesson in 'budgeting' like last time.
"N-no, of course not! Such a paltry offering would hardly dent my resources! You know well enough that my estate is one to be admired, not pitied!"
"Then why complain?"
And so, she had me. Either insult her, insult myself, or agree and walk away. Neither of the first two options would end well for me, and so my jaw snapped shut. Isn't it funny how she would always preach that family is supposed to support each other and stand up for one another, but the majority of mine did nothing more than make me feel like a whiny foal on a regular basis? What is so wrong with looking out for number one?
The clacking of gold upon marble signaled Celestia's retreat as she began to move away from me, her singsong voice floating merrily through the air. "Do try to get in on the holiday spirit, nephew. Try doing something for one other than yourself or your family. See what happens. Happy Hearth's Warming, Vladimir."
"Hearth's Warming isn't for another two weeks, you... pony," I spat as I turned to face her, only to find the princess long gone. Was that really all I could manage?
It wasn't long before I found myself following my aunt out of the now-empty chambers, headed for destinations unknown as I pulled a pocket comb through my perfect mane. I'd always found hair-brushing to be conducive to my thought processes when I needed it most, and honestly- it often helped me to calm down. After all, everypony admired my mane, from family to officials to common street ilk, and certainly all the mares. Having something to be proud of when feeling somewhat low was always a bonus.
I do not know how long I wandered aimlessly, until a slight tickle brought upon a raucous sneeze. My head whipped toward the ground as I gave in to the involuntary embarrassment, only to find the sensation had been caused by a falling snowflake. When had I ended up outside? It didn't really matter, especially compared to the second strange sensation I felt that day as a hard impact slammed against my chest, forcing me to the snow below as I tumbled end over end and screamed.