Celestia’s horn burned with the light of the sun as they stepped through the hidden doorway behind the Throne Room. Raven trotted behind her, her own horn glowing faintly with another light spell, tinted in her soft reddish magic.
“It has been a long time since I’ve walked through this passage,” Raven commented as the wall slid closed behind her.
“I wish it were not necessary,” Celestia admitted. “But as the moon rises, we cannot afford to take chances.”
“Do you think she even has such powers, Princess?”
“I do not know.” Celestia hated saying those words, but they needed to be said. She could not claim to know all. She may appear to be a goddess to some of her subjects, but she knew her own limitations all too well. “Even after all this time, I do not know. Still, we cannot risk it.”
“Princess, there’s something else isn’t there? This cannot be just about… her.”
“Yes.” Celestia said. “There is. Something else.”
The old tunnel was a relic of days long past, when Equestria’s national status wasn’t nearly as stable. Now, it was used by a few select members of staff. Indeed, Celestia herself had only walked through this corridor ten times in the last century.
None of those times had turned out particularly pleasant.
Still, she was able to drop her light spell just as they rounded the first corner. On cue, the magic torches lining the walls sprang to life as Celestia stepped over the ancient ward of protection. Celestia looked back at Raven as her aide glanced down at the softly-glowing sigil carved into the stone floor. With that, the stone corridor was now fully lit, though there wasn’t much to see. The passage was completely utilitarian.
I may be acting somewhat paranoid, Celestia mused as she stepped over another ward. But if I am right, then moonlight is the least of our concerns.
There were some things even the Princess of the Sun could do nothing about, and Celestia loathed feeling helpless more than anything.
Raven didn’t speak as they passed the final sigil and arrived at an intersection. The corridor turned out of sight to the left and to the right, but Celestia ignored both paths and stepped forward to slide her horn into a large door inset into the wall. Etched into the door was what her more traditionally-minded subjects called the Solar Sigil, which was really little more than a stylized version of her own cutie mark and the same thing the events staff pulled out during every Summer Sun Celebration. The sigil burned with golden magic as the final wards dropped. The door swung inward on silent hinges revealing an empty room.
Celestia nodded for Raven to precede her, and then followed her inside. With a casual wave of magic, the door shut and the wards reengaged. They were left in complete darkness until five glowing sigils burst to life. A wave of magic washed over Celestia and Raven, then the sigils above and below them shifted into brilliant blue discs of magical energy. There was a flash, a sense of weightlessness and then only afterimages remained.
“Starswirl was not a subtle pony, was he?” Raven groaned beside her in the darkness.
“Starswirl had many admirable traits,” Celestia commented dryly. Her own night vision had been ruined by the spell. “Subtlety was not among them.”
Double doors swung outward from the two ponies, revealing a short stone and wood corridor ending in another door emblazoned with a seal Celestia had grown to dislike. Any time she had to see this seal, it meant her subjects were in peril. Often more peril than even she could handle alone.
The seal itself was simple enough: the Solar Sigil surrounded by sixteen small stars with a larger star inset into the center.
Beneath it were three words:
Equestrian Secret Service.
Raven stopped the Princess before she could take another step. “Your Majesty, if you’ll just tell me what you’re looking for, I’d be happy to acquire it for you. You don’t have to do this personally.”
“A Princess must do many things that make her uncomfortable, dear Raven.” Celestia said, her eyes locked onto the door at the end of the corridor. “This is simply one more.”
Raven opened her muzzle to protest, then only nodded.
“Still, thank you for the offer.”
Celestia stepped out of the teleportation alcove, and trotted toward the door. Raven dutifully followed. Before they reached it, it opened with a wash of gray magic.
As expected, Captain Insight stood at attention beyond the portal, six of her officers standing in a hastily-arranged honor guard, all at perfect attention. As usual, the royal blue unicorn’s uniform was impeccable down her captain’s epaulets, pressed to the point where it would likely bring a tear to a drill sergeant’s eye.
The room itself wasn’t large but, unlike most rooms in the Castle, this was a place dedicated to function above form. Desks were placed in tight cubicles, each stacked with papers, quills, scrolls and more. All of it circled the massive magical map of Equestria standing in the center of the chamber. The walls were lined with maps, charts, lists and photographs.
Celestia’s eyes glanced around the room, seeing the phrases that kept her kingdom running. She let slip a small frown, but corrected the error almost instantly.
‘Threat Assessment.’ ‘Targets of Opportunity.’ ‘Watch List.’ Celestia’s eyes narrowed at the sight of them. They may be necessary, but I refuse to enjoy them. One day, I will see this place shut down.
Not today, but someday.
“Your Highness!” Captain Insight lowered her salute, her horn glowing as the door closed behind Celestia and Raven. “This is an unexpected honor, especially at this late hour.”
“Captain,” Celestia replied dryly. “The circumstances that call me here rarely keep anything approaching a sane schedule.”
The captain nodded, her eyes not even twitching at the Princess’s mild rebuke. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Does she even know how to smile?” Raven asked quietly beside her.
One of Insight’s officers who was close enough to hear Raven’s comment coughed out something that sounded vaguely like “Not without three pints of hard cider.”
Celestia didn’t bother responding, though the edge of her mouth quirked a little.
Captain Insight speared the ‘coughing’ officer with a glare that could have melted obsidian before returning her attention to the Princess.
“What’s the situation, Princess?” Insight asked. “What can the ESS do for the Crown?”
“Simple intelligence. Nothing more.”
“No action required at present, ma’am?”
“No, Captain. Please have your officers return to their duties. We’ll be heading to your archives.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Insight snapped off another salute before turning to address the ‘honor guard.’ “Return to your duties. And Lieutenant Whisperwind, report to me tomorrow morning at zero-seven-hundred.”
The ‘coughing’ pegasus winced and nodded as he scurried off to a cubicle on the far side of the room.
“If you’ll follow me, ma’am,” Insight said. “I’ll escort you to the archives.”
Celestia wanted to tell Captain Insight to let the young lieutenant off with a warning, but to do so would be to ruin the cherished chain-of-command. Long ago, she had learned to trust in her subordinates—especially the military ones—to handle their own affairs in their own way. To do otherwise would undermine the entire hierarchy.
Maybe I’ll make a note to send Whisperwind a nice bottle of cider anonymously.
Captain Insight led the way, each hoof moving in perfect precision. Her subordinates quickly became ten times more focused upon their work the moment the captain came within sight. They passed through several more workrooms with ponies shuffling papers, reading reports and drawing diagrams. Even at this late hour, the ESS was a hub of activity.
One changeling spotted in the Badlands near the border, and the entire military and intelligence community goes into an uproar that lasts for months. General Steelfeather is demanding a pre-emptive strike, Admiral May Blossom is expecting daily aerial recons.
Celestia shook her head as they stepped into a tight corridor almost too small for her large frame.
It’ll end up like every other sighting in the last century: a lot of fuss over nothing. So long as we keep it out of the public eye, anyway.
“Ma’am, we’ve arrived.”
Celestia nodded, returning her mind to the present. At the moment, she had more pressing concerns than changelings.
“Very well, Captain. Accompany us within. I will require all reports gathered in Cloudsdale from eight years ago.”
Captain Insight frowned even as her horn lit up, deactivating the wards on the heavy iron door of the ESS archives. “Cloudsdale, ma’am?”
“Was I unclear, Captain?”
“No, ma’am!” Insight snapped off yet another salute.
Military intelligence. Even after a thousand years, they never change.
The twin doors swung outward with a faint grinding, revealing rows upon rows of dark gray filing cabinets stretching into the distance. The archive itself was a single massive room, lit by the same torches in the corridor outside the Throne Room. It was cool in here, the air kept clean through the same arcane air purifiers used in most libraries. Even though the room extended to the very edge of eyesight, Celestia knew this was simply the last fifty years.
So much work for so little return, Celestia mused, but those rare moments have saved Equestria a dozen times over. Better to stand vigilant at the empty gate, than to leave it unattended for the single time the dragon wanders in.
Celestia wasn’t surprised Insight knew exactly where to go. One of the reasons she was the head of the Canterlot ESS Branch was because of her nigh-encyclopedic memory. Celestia and Raven followed in her wake as Insight led them down two and a half rows. She gazed at a filing cabinet identical to every other, save for a few mystic symbols etched into the metal. Briefly, her magic flared once more as a drawer popped out.
“This is the Cloudsdale intelligence gathered in 989.”
“There’s at least two hundred files in there!” Raven protested.
Insight turned to Raven with a cocked eyebrow. “We pride ourselves on being thorough, Miss Raven.”
“Indeed,” Celestia commented. “I’ll need all the ones during the months of summer.”
“As you wish, ma’am.” A stack of files a few inches high lifted out of the filing cabinet in an aura of gray magic.
Celestia took them in her own magic, and floated them beside her. “Excellent. If you’ll show us to a private conference room, Captain, it would be appreciated. Raven and I must not be disturbed.”
The captain didn’t seem capable of going more than a few minutes without a salute. It was only by sheer force of will Celestia managed not to roll her eyes.
A few minutes later, they were outside a door labeled ‘Conference Room D.’
“Captain, please post somepony here to make sure we are not interrupted. I do not require you to perform this action yourself. You have more important duties.”
Captain Insight turned, and began to march down the corridor when something occurred to Celestia.
“Captain,” her voice echoed in the corridor. She didn’t want to ask this, but it was simply another necessity.
“Please gather a report on any unauthorized accesses to the Starswirl the Bearded Wing of the Royal Canterlot Archives in the last ten years. I’ll require it as soon as possible. That is the only reason you may disturb us. Please handle the inquiry personally and quietly.”
“Of course, ma’am!” Shockingly, she saluted. “You’ll have it by midnight, ma’am!”
“Thank you, Captain. You’re dismissed.”
A final salute was offered before Captain Insight trotted away on her new assignment.
“Princess?” Raven asked beside her.
“I suspect it might be prudent to send a barrel of hard cider to Lieutenant Whisperwind and Captain Insight.”
Celestia smiled. “You know me too well. Once we return to the Castle, make it two for each. Also, remind me to enforce some sort of casual day for all ESS branches each week. If that captain doesn’t find a way to relax, she’s going to sprain something.”
Raven nodded, summoned her clipboard and scribbled something with a quill she kept tucked in her mane.
“Now,” Celestia glanced at the reports still floating beside her. “Let’s pray my memory is playing tricks on me, and this was all for nothing.”
“Princess, that’s never occurred once in all the time I’ve been your aide.”