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Of Crowns and Colors

by TheDriderPony

“SEAFOAM!”

Seafoam Green flinched and dropped his brush as a hollering voice swept through his workroom like a Southern maelstrom. He snatched it from the air a mere moment before it hit the floor and sank it into his rinsing cup.

He only had a few seconds of warning and he needed to make them count.

He jumped off his ladder, wings flaring to slow his descent to the floor, claws guiding down the rails to keep the fall straight. The moment he landed he was on the move again. Sheets were tossed over early drafts and supplies he stuffed back into cabinets and drawers. Organization could come later, for now things just needed to look tidy.

The sound of gilded hooves and armoured claws clicking down the corridor sent him into overdrive. The room was passable, good enough at least so long as no one looked too closely. All that was left was himself. He ripped off his dirty smock, tossed it behind the door where no one would see, and whipped on a clean one; all performed in a single motion that couldn’t have possibly been done without copious amounts of practice. Practice he was suddenly incredibly thankful for.

A low whine cut through the room as the door’s squeaky hinges gave him a final warning before he was subjected to intrusion, inspection, and quite possibly interrogation. Thank Falma the market had been out of oil. Giving his apron one tag tug to center the bow, he froze his spine ramrod straight in a parade rest that would satisfy any drill sergeant.

If only his visitor wasn’t so much worse.

The door swung open, slamming into the back wall with a final pained squeak. A troupe of guards quickly filed in, tall hippogriffs wearing armor engraved with the royal crests. Sunlight glinted off the polished aquamarine stones set in their pauldrons and joints, forcing Seafoam to resist the urge to squint or glare. He was half sure at least one of them was angling it at his eyes on purpose.

The guards, six in total, entered the room insilence and quickly formed up two ranks on either side of the door, creating a corridor for the real guest of honor. Seafoam swallowed his nerves and tried to ignore how his heart seemed to be trying to escape his chest.

The hippogriff was tall, taller than ever her guards, and walked with a poise that made full use of her long legs. Silks in vibrant colors draped her frame, swishing and swirling with each movement. Her demeanor was calm, serene even, like a selkie stepped forth from a chick’s bedtime story to seduce sailors into the sea. But her eyes betrayed a different story. They were hard and piercing as arrowheads. Arrowheads aimed right for his vitals.

“Seafoam,” she breathed, drawing out the words like his name was an unfamiliar new word.

“Y-Your Majesty,” he replied, barely managing to keep the squeak out of his voice. Sweat beaded across his brow, though he dared not try and wipe it. He lowered himself into a bow, bending as far as he could till the feathers of his forehead nearly touched the floor. The sweat gathered up on a single feather, merging into a single salty drop.

“You may rise.” He stood and the sweat drop slid back along his feather and traced down the side of his beak. “I trust you are well?”

“Of course, Queen Calyso. Very well. Quite well even. Why, I don’t think I’ve ever been so well in all my life! I-”

“Cease.” With a single word his beak snapped shut. “I did not come to listen to your simpering drivel, nor do I particularly care how well you are. You, are a tool. And when I ask how a tool is performing, it should be understood that my intention is quality of the tool’s workings. Am I making myself clear?”

“Y-Yes, your majesty.”

She waited, her expression unamused. “Well?”

Seafoam swallowed. He’d messed up. Somehow, he’d said something wrong. He’d been lying, of course, about understanding her. You don’t disagree with Queen Calyso, even when she’s wrong, which she never was because she’s Queen Calyso. Backtrack, backtrack. What exactly has she said? Not the tool, but it’s workings? If he was the tool then…

Clarity came in an instant and he quickly jumped back into gear. “The painting! Yes, of course! It’s right over here.” He took a step but hesitated, eyeing the guards. When none seemed to make any move to stop him, he continued to the canvas that took up most of one side of his studio.

It stood nearly three times as tall as he was and twice as long, tip to tail. Half of it was only sketchwork, thick black lines of charcoal making the rough shape of the Queen on her throne. Behind her was a balcony, and all of Mount Aeris spread out behind and beneath her beyond that. The view from that particularly wasn’t nearly as good in person, so he’d taken a few artistic liberties in order to better enhance his Queen’s grace. And hopefully her mood.

“I’m still in the early stages, but progress is moving according to schedule.” The words came easier now, now that he was in his element. “I’ve been using only the finest paints, of course, to best capture your image. Ochre mined from the Zebrican plains, white from crushed mother-of-pearl, black from the Abyssian’s obsidian farms.”

“I see.” Her tone was plain, neither supportive or dismissive which Seafoam took as a good sign. “The suppliers are not giving you any trouble.”

It wasn’t a question. “No, ma’am. Everyone has been more than happy to contribute supplies to the project. Exc-” He cut himself off before he accidentally said something that would get his head cut off. Unfortunately he wasn't quick enough for it to escape her notice.

“Except?” She spat the word, eyes narrowing. “Except what?”

He swallowed nervously. No going back now. “The… the Equestrian’s, your highness. They insist on, for whatever foolish reasons, charging payment.” He winced, preparing himself for whatever would come next, be it a tirade or a swordblade.

Queen Calyso studied him carefully then looked back to the painting. Her expression darkened and she muttered something that Seafoam couldn’t catch. Her attention snapped back to him. “And what do the Equestrian have that is so important?”

“Y-Yellow,” he stammered. In for a bit, in for a bullion, he reasoned. No backing out now. “In order to capture your coat in all its truly brilliant glory, I need a very specific yellow pigment. It can be approximated with substitutes, but I would never dream of using something less than the best on your portrait!”

He thought back to his interactions trying to source it over the past few weeks. Arguing via letter with that insufferable mare. Weighing the risk of using a substandard color versus risking his Queen’s displeasure. Why couldn’t she just understand that he didn’t have any money and, beyond that, that he was making paint and not cider? Half his letters had been spend trying to drive in that fact. Anger gave him the courage to press on, heedless of consequences.

“There is a cultivar of apple that grows in only one part of the world, deep in the Equestrian heartland. The taste is sour, almost inedibly so, but its skin makes the most stunning yellow golden pigment. The supply is controlled by a single mare, the farmer who first created it.”

“And this… farmer is why my painting is not yet complete?”

Not yet complete? Even if he had all the paint on claw it wasn’t scheduled to be done for weeks yet! “...That is correct.” He felt very little remorse at throwing that cantankerous mare under the wagon. She had her Princess to protect her. He didn’t.

Queen Calyso considered him and Seafoam stiffened under her gaze. There was no escaping her sight. No matter if you were the lowest laborer or a noble in her own court, that gaze saw through everything and everyone. Sunlight scattered off the jeweled beading on one of her silks and dazzled across his eyes. He wondered if it might be the last light he would see before being thrown in a dungeon for incompetence.

Woe be unto whichever of his apprentices was ordered to finish the painting in his place.

But fate, it seemed, was smiling on him that day. Her piercing gaze moved off him and back to the painting. “So be it.” Seafoam felt a great pressure lift off his neck as his Queen turned and began heading towards the door once more. “Continue working, Seafoam. I shall be having words with Celestia about this. One way or another, you shall have your apples and I shall have my portrait.”

“O-Of course, your Majesty. Thank you, Majesty!” He called as she left the room, her guards hustling in double time to circle around and get in front of her. He’d done it. He’d survived another visit from his patron. As the door swung shut, he allowed himself to relax and let out a sigh of relief.

“And clean up your studio next time!” He jumped as the Queen’s voice chased back down the hallway. “It’s a pigsty!”

The door clicked shut, leaving Seafoam alone with his art and his racing heart.

---

The sun was sinking down below the horizon as Seafoam set down his brush for the last time of the evening. He’d made good progress today. The background was nearly complete and he’d had just enough crushed gemstones left to bring out the depth of colors in the balcony. All that remained was the white void where Queen Calyso’s body needed to be. The shape was there --he’d had the colors for her eyes and mane-- but like the body still had only the barest definition and remained the color of the basecoat.

When was the yellow going to arrive? Weeks had already passed since he’d last had an inspection and yet he’d heard no word. Communication with the apple supplier had been taken out of his claws and time was drawing short on when the painting was to be completed.

He was startled from his introspection by a knock on the door.

A knock that turned out to be a meaningless courtesy as the hippogriff on the other side opened the door and walked through without any leave nor permission. He was young and wore the uniform of a messenger from the palace. The single stripe on his armband said he was only an apprentice though, so Seafoam didn’t bother assigning him much importance.

“Yes? What is it, I’m very busy here.”

The messenger took a scroll from under his wing and unfurled it. “I’ve got an edict from her Majesty herself.” Seafoam straightened up instinctively and increased his consideration of the visitor by several notches. The young hippogriff looked at him from around the edge of the paper. “You want to read it or should I?”

His estimation dropped back down. “That’s part of your job, isn’t it?”

He shrugged and began to read. “So, basically, it… uh…” his eyes scanned ahead, “Okay, so there’s a lot of flowery stuff here, but the gist of it-” How had this dullard ever gotten a messenger job with an attitude like this? “It says you’re to stop working on the painting of the Queen.”

Seafoam’s train of thought was brought to a screeching halt. “What?”

“Yeah, says you should stop working on it and take whatever you’ve got and rework it into a painting of Princess Celestia of Equestria. Quick. Like, really fast. She really goes on for a while about how important it is that you do this fast for an official gifting ceremony in a few days.”

Days?! Getting it this far had taken weeks and now he was expected to change the primary centerpiece in days? And since when had his Queen ever backed down from getting anything she wanted?

“And,” the messenger continued, “There’s some pony coming soon and you’re to make a live painting of her as well.” Another painting? At the same time as this one? He could feel his blood pressure rising already.

“Who?” he asked, “A noble? Someone in her royal family?”

“Eh…” his eyes scrolled down the parchment. “Doesn’t give a name. Whoever they are, it says you’re supposed to treat her with as much dignity and respect as you’d give the Queen herself.”

Seafoam felt his blood switch in an instant from hot and racing to ice cold. On the same level as the Queen? Queen Calyso didn’t even put other world leaders on the same tier as herself! Just who was this pony that was so important? Princess Celestia herself? Someone above her?

The last thing he remembered was seeing the floor rush up to meet him as he passed out.

---

Seafoam fiddled with the cords of his apron as he awaited his guest. The painting formerly of his Queen and now of Princess Celestia had been finished in a several day blur of no sleep and now his second subject was on the way. Not to mention that the Queen had barely been seen in public in days.

He could hear the distinct sound of hoofbeats coming up the corridor, distinct from the hoof-and-claw steps he knew.

This was the mare that had made his Queen yield. The mare that had convinced her to turn what would have been the biggest portrait in the Long Gallery into an apology gift to a foreign power. He couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

The door squeaked as it opened and Seafoam wondered if it was too late to turn and fling himself into the sea.

“Woo-wee! Them’s a dang lot of stairs you got in this place!”

The mare was… surprisingly mundane looking. She dressed plainly, with wearing nothing more than a sea-stained hat; nothing like the rich clothes of the nobles he’d seen visiting the royal court. Her pale green coat was rough and barely kept, and her mane was a simple style of two braids that had been worked together into a bun. She barely even looked old enough to be his mother.

She approached him easily, a wide and genuine smile on her face. “Well howdy there! You must be the artsy fellow, aincha?”

He struggled for a moment with her vernacular, but made an educated guess. “I- Yes? My name is Seafoam Green.” He tentatively offered a claw. The mare grabbed it like it was a snake and shook with wild abandon.

“Pleasure to meet ya, Foamy! Name’s Smith, but you can just can me Granny; everypony back home does!” She looked him up and down appraisingly. Seafoam realized, much to his horror, that in his nerves he was still wearing one of his paint-stained smocks. “So yer the guy who’s gonna be doing a painting of me? You look like a hard worker; I like that in a colt.”

He struggled to comprehend this mare. This couldn’t be the right pony. With his mind stuck between gears, his mouth continued on autopilot. “Thank you. I look forward to working with you on this piece. Would you care to take a seat?”

The mare moved towards a stool. Not the secondary throne the Queen had relocated to his studio, but the stool he normally sat at his worktable. “Don’t mind if I do! These dogs are barking. Gotta say, yer a lot nicer than that one that showed up at my farm.”

“What?”

“Oh yeah, I was worried you was all like that. All big and haughty and full of yerselves. When she came to my farm cussing and barking orders I had half a mind to bend her over my knee!" She chuckled darkly. "The other half was thinking something much worse."

Seafoam blanched at the thought of what horros might have occurred on that faraway farm. And yet, here this mare sat, calm as anything, getting an expensive apology gift from the Queen known for her dislike of commoners.

Perhaps this was the right mare after all.