I stood in the station looking out at the night sky. A special train had been brought in to convey Princess Luna and her retinue straight to Baltimare. Once we were there, three identical ships would be waiting in the harbor. We would board one and all three would set off on slightly different courses. Nopony would know for sure which one the princess was on.
Mentally, I went through my checklist again. Twenty house guards had arrived as expected. Sixteen palace guards, too. Finally, four temple guards had arrived precisely on time, shrouded in silver cloaks with the hoods drawn. In retrospect, there was little chance I could pass them off as palace guards, but I doubted the gryphons would have any clue who they really were.
Everypony boarded the train and we were off. Princess Luna sat quietly in the private passenger car, looking out the window as Equestria went by. I couldn’t get a read on her. She seemed to be conflicted. There was pride there; this was to be her first official journey as a head of state, after all. I also think I sensed fear. Alicorns are ponies, too, and ponies can be afraid.
I took a seat next to Miley Hooves, who was sitting across from Exemplar Ferrel. She was openly staring at the unicorn temple guard, so I gave her a gentle nudge.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
The unicorn’s head turned and her blue eyes caught ours. “Why are you sorry? Curiosity for the sake of curiosity is not rude. Do I appear so different to you?”
“Staring is rude. I’m sorry,” Miley repeated before shaking her head. “No, not different. Just… different? You aren’t like most unicorns. You remind me of the princess.”
Ferrel bowed her head. “You have my gratitude. We model ourselves after our alicorns so that we may be closer to them. We seek to do as they do and spread harmony across the world.”
Miley fidgeted. “Is it true that your magic is some of the most powerful in all of Equestria?”
“That depends on how you define power. We study magic that protects and heals. Never do we stray from that. Some ponies would say that such magic is not powerful because it cannot be used for personal gain or for force,” the unicorn explained.
I chimed in, “And what would you say?”
Ferrel’s gaze shifted to me. “Power does not interest me, but our magic is quite strong. The longer a temple guard practices, the stronger the spells become. The more faith a guard has, the wider the effect.”
Miley blinked at that. “Faith? Really?” I nudged her and she looked up at me.
A smile crossed the unicorn’s face and she replied, “Yes, faith in the alicorns and faith in harmony. We believe that if we have faith in them, they will have faith in us and bestow their aid when we need it most. Thus, the spells have a wider effect.”
“Amazing,” I mused with a smile. “Though I’m intrigued, I hope I never have the opportunity to see your magic.”
“Indeed,” the unicorn replied, watching Miley. The petite mare was looking back and forth between Ferrel and Princess Luna.
“What defines a protection spell?” I asked.
“The definition is somewhat broad,” Ferrel admitted. “In general, protection spells shield ponies from some type of harm. Others may strengthen a pony and give her the ability to keep going even when injured, at least until the body is no longer capable of doing so. Others are more subjective. For instance, gravity spells.”
Tilting my head, I asked, “Gravity spells? For protection?”
“Indeed. It is tough for a pony to do harm when they feel as if they are being pulled towards the ground. It makes flying most difficult and removes the advantages a pegasus possesses,” she explained.
I didn’t like the sound of that at all, but thankfully she was on my side.
We fell silent for a moment and then Miley chimed in, “So if you worship alicorns, why don’t you go and talk to Princess Luna? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
“Miley,” I said hurriedly.
“That would be inappropriate,” Ferrel replied.
“No it wouldn’t. I talk to her all the time.” Miley beamed.
“Miley!” My voice rose this time.
“It would be inappropriate for me,” Ferrel replied again.
“I don’t think s—” Miley managed to get out before I covered her mouth with my hoof.
“Apologies, Exemplar. Some things look a lot simpler to our youth.”
“Of course, Sergeant. Thank you. If you will excuse me, I believe I need some sleep,” she said, getting up.
I followed suit, keeping a hoof on Miley. The unicorn and I bowed and she went to the sleeper car. I glared at Miley and she squeaked, “What? What did I do?!”
“Never discuss religion with ponies! It’s rude. If she says it’s inappropriate, it’s inappropriate. For her, at least,” I explained.
Miley’s ears folded. “Sorry, boss… it just seems weird. There is an alicorn right there.” She pointed as if I was unaware. “But I promise I won’t pester her about it.”
“Good,” I replied before sitting back down. I leaned over on the small mare, putting my weight against her.
“What are you doing, Sergeant?” she whined as she struggled to hold me up.
“Your punishment is that you have to be my pillow. That way I’ll know exactly where you are.”
Miley huffed. “Rude!”
The rest of the train ride went without incident and I discovered that once she stopped squirming Miley actually made a pretty good pillow. I filed that away into my mental ‘useful information’ storage when I woke up. Most of the other ponies, other than the ones on duty, were still asleep. I got up and went to check on those who were awake. They had nothing to report.
Princess Luna was still sitting in her seat and I went to her. “It will be time for you to sleep soon, won’t it?” I asked. The sun was due up and usually the princess was in bed just after.
“I suppose so… though I am too anxious to sleep,” she admitted.
“Are you worried something will happen, Princess?” I asked as I felt the hairs of my coat standing up.
She shook her head. “No. I have not been part of royal proceedings for quite some time. My sister has handled it all. Now I am finally taking my rightful place, but I am uncertain. Failure here may lead to aggression with the gryphons.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Nerves again. We'd already had one pep talk about this. “I see. Princess, you are not your sister, nor should you try to be. You are an alicorn in your own right and one worth emulating. I have faith in you to do the right thing. You will not fail.”
Princess Luna smiled slightly and said, “I am glad thou hast so much confidence in me. I hope it won’t be misplaced.”
“Never,” I said and patted her hoof. The train started to slow and it was clear we were pulling into the station. “We should get ready to transfer to the ship, Princess.”
She nodded in agreement and we got on our way.
There is one thing in life I had never experienced up until that point: being on a ship. As a foal I had loved stories about pirates and swashbuckling. Those stories didn’t mention anything about being seasick. Sailing may be for some ponies but it was not for me.
Every day I spent as much time in the air as I could. I flew patrol around the vessel until I dropped with exhaustion. Once that had happened it wasn’t long before the seasickness took me. It really made doing my duty difficult, but thankfully the lieutenant seemed to be unaffected. He kept ordering me on patrols so we could try to hide the fact that I was a mess.
By the time we reached Nordanver, I was exhausted… exhausted and exceedingly thrilled to see it. It took all of my self discipline not to dive off the deck and fly to the land. I wanted to roll around in nice, immobile grass, but I had a job to do. It was time to get serious.
I supervised the princess’s disembarkation and the security of her carriage. We had requested there be no fanfare or welcoming parade and that wish had been honored.
We were met by a unit of gryphon soldiers under the command of Captain Alastair. He watched us like a hawk and it felt as if he was counting my ponies.
“You look ill, Sergeant,” he called to me as I sat on top of the carriage.
“Green is the latest in guard fashion,” I replied as seriously as I could.
His guards formed up in front of and behind ours and we marched our way to the palace that sat in the heart of Margull. Tomorrow, Princess Luna would meet with Duke Cassius’s brother, King Ranald. Until then, I planned to sleep as long as I could once we got to the palace.
King Ranald was a very gracious host. He set Princess Luna up with an entire wing of his palace. It came complete with a place for her to sleep, work, and relax. There was also a reasonable supply of nearby bedrooms for us. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough beds for everypony but we made do with that.
Ponies on opposite shifts shared easily enough. That solved most of the problem, but there were still a few too many of us due to my respecting common procedures and hierarchy. I set Exemplar Ferrel up with her own room and did the same for the lieutenant. I’m all for equality, but ponies like them have appearances to keep.
Orchid, Iridescence, and I shared one room with two beds. We figured at any given time at least one of us would be up and awake. I did the same for the sergeants in charge of the palace guards that were supporting us. All in all, it was a workable situation. I was glad the lieutenant had rejected the idea of bringing even more ponies.
After I had worked all of that out, I put Orchid in charge and collapsed into one of the beds. I had not had a good night’s sleep in days and if I was going to keep my wits about me, I would need it. If I were to guess, I’d say I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I woke up much later, some time in the middle of the night. Iridescence was gone and Orchid was sound asleep in the opposite bed. Shift change had clearly happened without my involvement. I was still pretty groggy and could have used more sleep but decided it would be best for the first sergeant to get up and do some rounds. I was stiff as I dressed myself, but I finally got ready and made for the door to leave.
When I opened it, I found a figure standing there staring at me. I reared back on instinct and settled into my battle stance. It took a moment to dawn on me that I was not in danger.
Exemplar Ferrel never moved and finally said vacantly, “Be wary, Silent Knight. Be wary.” And, just like that, she turned and walked off down the hall.
“What in Celestia’s name?” I asked out loud before stepping out of the room. I looked down the hall but the unicorn was gone. That unnerved me and I hurriedly went to check on my guards.
Iridescence asked the moment I walked up, “Are you okay? You look… I don’t know how you look.”
“I just saw a ghost,” I replied and then motioned with a hoof. “Status?”
She blinked. “All is well at last check. The next check is in a quarter hour. What do you mean you saw a ghost?”
“Exactly what I said. I saw the temple guard Ferrel outside of my door. She told me to be wary and then disappeared.”
Iridescence shifted my helmet so she could get at my forehead. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? Do you have a fever? That ship did a number on you, after all.”
“You’re probably right,” I replied, starting to come down. “Still, I’m going to stick around for the next check and then get back to bed unless you need to be relieved.”
“I think you’d best sleep,” Iridescence said. “You clearly need it more than I do. If I get stuck I’ll go get the lieutenant. He won’t mind.”
That was true. The lieutenant wouldn’t mind at all. “Alright. Let’s get to that check… and start staggering the intervals a bit. I don’t want to be too predictable. Sleep deprivation or not, we shouldn’t make it easy.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” she replied and we went to check the guard posts together.