The airship docks in lower Canterlot were strangely quiet, the silence punctuated only by the occasional clip clops of workhorse’s hooves on cobblestone and the steady pitter-patter of rain on copper rooftops. Rivulets of refractive drops streamed between the cobbles, feeding limpid pools on the uneven surface. Few ponies were out in the streets. Most instead chose to remain home, warm and cozy by their fireplaces or hard at work in their dry, clean, shops and offices.
But on the docks, a lone pony remained, stoic in stance and martial in stature. Ruddy brown fur and white-feathered fetlocks stood in stark contrast to the matte black overcoat and military utility saddle he wore. A sabled mane, washed clean but faded from the years, peeked out from beneath a gold-trimmed garrison cap. Pins depicting a phoenix with outstretched wings, rank emblems of an REA colonel, adorned the stallion’s lapels.
Colonel Aristotle Ironwing shifted his wings around the saddle, tilting the mounted umbrella to better cover his tail and tapping the collar of his overcoat with a hoof to ensure that it remained in place to block the early-morning chill. The weather crews could not have picked a better day to bring rain to the Gilded City. Why couldn’t he have boarded his airship to Stalliongrad dry and comfortable?
“A pipe and pint would have served me better,” the pegasus stallion muttered, shaking his head.
He blew his gathered breath out of his nostrils, the blast of warm air forming a small cloud of mist in the chill. How long had it been now? A month? Maybe a more? It was hard to tell anymore. Aristotle adjusted the brim of his garrison cap with a hoof, less out of necessity than the idle need to do something with his hooves.
To be sure, retirement had its perks. The old warhorse set his own schedule now. There were no more patrols, no more meetings, no more menial jobs, no more planning of menial trips that the Royalty and courtisans took in exhaustive detail. He was free, free to do as he saw fit with his pension and the remainder of his assuredly long life.
But there was always a catch. His previous service was, if temperamental, engaging. There would be no more travel to exotic locales, sampling local cuisine, and visiting with native diplomats. Ennui was now constantly nipping at his hooves. The service of Her Majesty was forever interesting, if nothing else.
Aristotle’s ears perked up at the unmistakable sound of carriage wheels on cobbles. “Right on schedule it seems.”
Through the fine mist of falling rain, the clip-clop of hooves and the clatter-clotter of wheels grew louder unit finally, its source came into full view. The carriage was decorated with the ornate white and gold finery of the local REA garrison’s couriers. While ordinarily open-topped, the car’s frames and tarps were deployed, providing foul-weather protection to the carriage’s occupants. Aristotle maintained his place as the carriage slowed and stopped just in front of him. The lead Pegasus, an orange stallion sporting Master Sergeant chevrons on his gold ceremonial armor, detached himself from the carriage harness and snapped off a crisp salute to the colonel.
Aristotle returned the salute. “At ease, sergeant. I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes, sir,” the stallion replied curtly. “Whenever you’re ready, sir.”
The ruddy pegasus stepped up to the carriage door, gently opening it with his teeth. The very interior seemed to glow with ethereal radiance as the carriage’s sole occupant stepped from the cabin. The mare’s gilded hooves gently clicked as they touched the cobbles. She stood up slowly, rising to her full height and neatly folding her magnificent wings by her side. Even without considering her horn and gem-studded tiara, she towered above the rest of the Equestrian population; as tall as the colonel was, the mare was a full head taller still. Her mane and tail of many colors flowed out behind her, seemingly suspended in midair by the aether itself. Aristotle carefully stepped back from the carriage, keeping his umbrella level so as to prevent any stray rainwater from splashing upon his charge.
“Your Majesty,” the colonel said, holding a hoof up in salute. “It is an honor to serve you again.”
“And it is an honor to be served by you again,” Celestia smiled, returning the salute. “Come now, Colonel, we must get out of this rain!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Aristotle said, moving to flank the Princess while keeping the umbrella steady.
Celestia took the lead, trotting up the gangplank of the airship. There were very few ponies about at this hour and in this weather. The occasional crew member or coach passenger merely bowed and politely moved out of the way, none lingering for conversation or fawning over the Princess. Aristotle smiled. Perhaps the military overcoat was still good for something.
There was no finery or escort, no party or marching band for Celestia’s arrival. For the most part, Aristotle and the Princess were entirely alone on deck. While the typical Canterlotian would find it improper, the mindset of a diplomatic security officer was that of an eternal pessimist. In spite of the fact that Equestria proper was safe to those who would even think about harming the Princess, the Outlands were often not so accommodating. The colonel very much preferred the small and intimate setting and reversed his prior judgment of the Canterlot weather crews.
Over the years, Princess Celestia had proven herself far more understanding than many of the Canterlot elite that the colonel had had the displeasure of escorting. Rather than whine and complain about the slightest pinion out of place or speck of dust in their quarters, Celestia bore any and all conditions with patience and grace. Here was a monarch-- nay, deity-- who was willing to spend a night in a foxhole if it meant being near and dear to her subjects and her servants in the Royal Equestrian Army. That alone gained her much respect from the Colonel. It would take a fool to think her a tyrant or despot.
“Do you know why I asked to accompany you today, Colonel?” the Princess began as they walked.
“It matters not what I know, ma’am. I merely do as Your Majesty commands.”
“You have known me for many years of service with the Honor Guard, Colonel Ironwing,” Celestia continued. “I would think that you would realize by now that you are free to speak your mind with me at any time.”
Years of service did nothing to blunt the sweetness of Celestia’s voice to Aristotle’s ears. The Princess spoke with a certain ethereal mellifluence, the measured vocabulary that came with millenia of existence blending seamlessly with a soft lilt that carried the vitality of youth. It was a joy to hear her speak and any young guardspony had the right to be infatuated with the Princess from her voice alone.
“If it pleases Your Majesty,” the Colonel chuckled.
Celestia smiled faintly as she walked, careful to stay beneath the cover of the colonel’s umbrella. “Colonel, do you recall that mission to Aquellia at the end of the Cimmarron Border Dispute?”
“There were many, Your Majesty.”
“I speak of your first meeting with Aiden Razorclaw.”
“Yes, I recall that incident quite... perhaps fondly is the wrong word...”
It was not uncommon for IV Order of the Honor Guard to offer their diplomatic protection services to the counterparts of Equestrian envoys while in foreign lands. Thus, IV Order not only protected the Princess and her advisors while abroad, but also Aquellian leadership or Punda Millia Elders while they moved about between talks. It was far more uncommon for the escort units of IV Order to actually engage in armed contest.
“Aquellia will forever have a special place in my heart,” the colonel said, a light rasp creeping into his voice. “I spent much of my career there; invested a lot of time and effort...”
Aquellia has been in a revolutionary situation for quite some time. Because of the political structure, very few griffons controlled much of the wealth and influence in the land. While their leadership had been expedient and lead to great advances in science, technology, and wealth, many of the lower-class griffons are dissatisfied with their stature in life. The demonstrations and petitions put forward by Aquellia tal-Abir-- the Aquellian Workers Party-- were usually peaceful, but violence was not unheard of.
“...my blood, my sweat, my tears...”
Aristotle was a tactician and analyst, not a combatant. While he had earned a reputation among the REA officer corps for being the most bullish of his OCS class, he was an educator at heart; he left the instigation to the enlisted stallions under his command. But of course, as they taught in boot camp, nothing ever goes as planned.
“... Aquellia is a strange land. A land of plenty and a land of want. It bears the lash marks of hardship and the crown of triumph. But finally, it has the dubious distinction of being the only land to have shed my blood..."
Griffons possessed natural weaponry: claws, beaks, wings. Lithe frames coupled with strong musculatures and predatory biological hardware made them brutally efficient killing machines, even if unarmed and unarmored. Ponies were peaceful creatures by nature. The warriors of the REA had to be retrained from the ground up to break every instinct to run at the first sign of trouble or spare a killing blow against an opponent hellbent on ending their existence.
“... Aiden Razorclaw was lucky. Or perhaps we were the lucky ones. Either way, we got to see first-hoof what the leadership faced every day...”
The Honor Guard had come on a mission of peace. Yet there they were, embroiled in senseless violence. Crossbow bolts stung. But mitigated by armor and blunted by adrenaline, a sniper’s quarrels meant little to a disciplined Equestrian soldier. The fight was over in seconds. The sniper lay dead, slumped over his window, crossbow burned and broken by a unicorn marksman’s brightlance spell. Rebels lay dead or dying at ground level, their bodies broken and bleeding from throwing themselves against the soldiers of the Royal Equestrian Army’s elite and being forcefully repulsed with fire and fury.
“... it wasn’t pretty...”
Aristotle closed his eyes, pausing for a moment. They had traded blows fiercely, claws against hooves, bolts against armor, but in the end, Aristotle had gotten the better of his adversary, leaving the griffon as nothing more than a bleeding heap in the dirt. In spite of the years, in spite of the advancement in pay grades, in spite of the transfer back to Equestria, that moment was firmly burned into Aristotle's mind. The griffon was just a boy. There was no malice in his eyes, no hatred, only the impassioned fire of a zealous heart and patriot’s soul.
The princess stopped, calmly resettling her wings as she stared into the distance. Aristotle followed her gaze, realizing that they now stood on the elevated stern of the airship, overlooking the valley below. The mist surrounding Canterlot and the Eponine Mountains gradually tapered off, giving way to fair skies over the valley proper. Off in the distance, the black granite spire of Dragon Mountain rose, towering over the rolling fields of apple trees and golden wheat below.
“I understand that you saved Aiden Razorclaw’s life during the ambush,” Celestia said quietly.
“It’s true,” the colonel said, idly scanning the scenic vista before him. “I took both the sniper’s quarrel and the rebel’s claw and blade for Minister Razorclaw that day.”
"You should be proud, Colonel."
“The Griffons called me a hero and my wingmates called me a champion."
“And yet you are troubled, even after all these years,” the Princess said.
“Is it that obvious?” the Colonel snorted acerbically. "I knew better than to let that tripe get to my head. The loss of life is not something I revel in, my dear Princess, even if the casualties were not ponies."
A faint smile tugged at Celestia's lips, not of derision, but of subtle satisfaction. Aristotle himself had been one to use such gestures while training new IV Order recruits. Many were young and headstrong, stallions and mares who wanted to see the world, who thought that they could fight their way to the top. But Hoplon was not about fighting. As their name implied, they were the shield, not the sword. They represented Equestrian resolve and the desire to protect what was dear to them.
Many who washed out failed to understand that simple concept. But those that remained brought that simple smile to Aristotle's face, the smile that he caught at the edge of perception on the face of the Princess. He had passed the test.
“You never answered my question, colonel," Celestia said, looking down at Aristotle.
"Your reasoning is inscrutable, Princess," Aristotle replied, meeting her gaze. "But I suspect you are planning to tell me."
The colonel smiled as his friendly jab was enough to elicit a mild giggle from Celestia. The Princess covered her muzzle with a hoof, clearing her throat as she continued. “I requested to meet you because I value your opinion, Colonel. Your level-headedness and unwillingness to compromise the values which you hold dear has seen Equestria through dark days. Your words carry weight with me, colonel. I would hope that my words carry weight with you as well.”
Aristotle involuntarily bit his lip. Nerves. It had been years and the nerves were still there when dealing with the Princess. Regaining his composure, the Colonel quickly formulated a response.
"I am not the first, Your Majesty, and I will certainly not be the last. I do not deserve all the credit."
"This is true, colonel, but please hear me out," Celestia said, raising a hoof. Aristotle nodded slowly as the Princess continued.
"As a mortal, death is part of life. It is neither an abberation nor an obstacle to be conquered. It merely IS. But violent death is not something to be taken lightly. There is no glory to be had in senseless slaughter and no justice when a peaceful and reasonable solution can be reached with a concerted effort from both sides."
The Princess closed her eyes, breathing deeply of the misty morning air. Though a light breeze blew through the docks, funneled by the mountains from which the city was carved, her sparkling mane of many colors was unaffected. Aristotle, in contrast, was forced to adjust his garrison cap once again, tucking a few stray strands of his salt and pepper mane back into place with a hoof.
"You have seen death first-hoof, Colonel Ironwing..." Celestia started, taking steps toward the railing. Aristotle was quick to accompany her, ensuring that she remained under the cover of his umbrella at all times. The two stood on what seemed to be a precipice now. Behind them was nothing but rock and airship superstructure, but ahead nothing but a straight drop into the valley below.
"...and thus you understand the value of life. I need more stallions like you at my side."
“I am humbled by your praise, Your Majesty,” Aristotle said, bowing his head in deference. "But surely you did not come out into the rain just to lavish compliments upon me!"
"Patience, colonel!" the Princess laughed. "I was about to get to that!"
“I require somepony on the outside," she continued. "The new REA officer corps is eager, but inexperienced. They do not know of the hardships endured by the Diplomatic Corps and the operators of IV Order in forging the Aquellian peace. Somepony needs to be there remind them if the need arises.”
“But why me, Your Majesty?" the colonel asked. "Would they not listen to your decrees?”
“I do not wish to rule by decree, Aristotle," the Princess replied. "I only wish that my subjects will understand, and through that understanding, thrive in the peace rather than merely living in it. The new blood sees me as more deity than pony. While flattering, I believe it interferes with effective communication in the government circles. As experienced as I am, I am not infallible.”
Celestia slowly turned, facing back towards the gangway. Anticipating her movements, Aristotle once again moved to flank her, staying close by her side as she trotted across the deck. A sheer vertical rock face rose precipitously to their left, marking the boundary of the last berth in the airship dockyard. Tiny rivulets ran down the surface of the cliffside, coalescing into largers streams the sprayed droplets into the air around them, giving the deck a ghostly, but oddly calming quality.
“What would you have me do, Princess?” Aristotle asked as he trotted beside her.
“Colonel Aristotle Ironwing," Celestia said, her voice taking on a much more official tone. "I am giving you a new assignment. Though you are long retired from the service of the Honor Guard, I require your continued services as an REA advisor. You are to brief Operations Command: Central on the state of Aquellian politics and their relationship with Equestria. You are to keep them appraised of political developments both potential and current and offer an outside opinion on matters of the state. I expect only the best from you, Colonel.”
“It would be an honor, Your Majesty,” Aristotle said, suddenly halting, clicking his hind hooves together and offering a salute.
“The pleasure is all mine, Colonel," Celestia replied, returning the Colonel's salute. "It is only fair to reward my faithful servant with the life that brings him joy and vigor. I will have an adjutant contact you tomorrow.”
The sound of wheels on cobbles once again caught Aristotle's ears. Looking for the source of the sound, Aristotle realized that they had already come to the bottom of the gangway and were not waiting at street level. The Colonel chuckled silently to himself. All these years and somehow, Celestia still managed to hold him in her spell.
Materializing out of the rain once again, the carriage pulled up to the gangway. The orange pegasus sergeant repeated his earlier performance, unhitching himself from the carriage before scrambling back to open the weatherproof door. The sergeant stood aside, coming to attention and snapping off a crisp salute, a salute returned by both the Colonel and the Princess.
“Colonel.” Celestia said as she stepped back into the carriage.
“Enjoy your trip to Stalliongrad!” the princess smiled.
“I will be sure to do so, Your Majesty," Aristotle beamed.
The sergeant slammed the door of the carriage shut and hitched himself again, trotting off into the mist with Princess in tow. There was no magical break in the clouds. There was no sudden abatement of the weather. There was only the old warhorse standing on the cobbles in rain, blowing clouds of breath into the mist, perhaps wishing for pipe and pint again.
But all the same, Aristotle was happy. Retirement no longer meant endless ennui punctuated by occasional check-ins from the office of veterans’ affairs. He had purpose, a mission. There was still work to do that he could thoroughly enjoy doing. Perhaps his service to Equestria did not have to end. Instead, it could begin anew.