RENS Hornblower (French pre-Dreadnought Jaureguiberry)
RENS Neptune (HMS Victoria and Albert I)
RENS Jack Sparrow (IJN Izanami class destroyer)
Alternia could not help but frown slightly as columns of changelings marched down the gangplank to the RENS Neptune, her diplomatic craft. Moored beside it was the battleship the RENS Hornblower and the destroyer the RENS Jack Sparrow.
“Are you need to bring all of these changeling on this trip, Chrysalis? They are two hundred of your best changeling soldiers and chevalliers?” she asked, turning to her sister.
Chrysalis shot Alternia a flat stare. “The Empress has pulled under entire ships, Alternia. And your Mirror Guard is only sixty strong.”
Alternia grimaced. “You’re right. I’m just…”— she turned away— “worried that you are putting too many of your changelings at risk for me.”
A warm hoof wrapped over Alternia’s back, and she looked back into Chrysalis’s smile. “For my little sister, I’d do anything. Let’s get on board and under way.”
Two days into Voyage aboard the RENS Neptune…
Being the Royal Diplomatic Yacht, the RENS Neptune had a number of facilities and equipment for the relaxation and enjoyment of those aboard, and they were not exclusive to the diplomats either. When Princess Alternia, then acting as Celestia, had commissioned the ship, she had insisted upon equipment that could bring all members of opposing delegations together.
It led, in Cyndra’s opinion, to one of the greatest things on the ship, a really really nice mess hall normally for the guards of any delegations, and now used by the changelings and ponies aboard the Neptune.
Why was it so great? Well the mess hall served delicious food, had basically unlimited ice cream, a stage for performances, and a bar. There was also food infused with love from both Chrysalis and Alternia and it had the effect of making every changeling very happy.
Cyndra was one of those, and she now sat down in the corner of the mess hall with some of her closest colleagues.
“So, Harlequin, have you had any progress trying to confess your feelings to Princess Alternia?” Buzz asked, a wide grin on his face.
Wait. Harlequin and my aunt? thought Cyndra.
Her eyes wide, Cyndra stared at Harlequin, who buried his head in the table and covered his ears with his hooves. “Nope, I’m not saying anything.”
Diamondshell had been watching the pair with a bored look, but at Harlequin’s response the edge of her mouth twitched in a ghost of a smile. “So some progress has been made, captain?”
“Wait, what’s this about Harlequin and my aunt?” Cyndra demanded as her brain recovered from its temporary shutdown.
Looking up from her notebook, Raven pushed her glasses up just a bit with her magic and chuckled. “Don’t you know, Cyndra? It’s the worst kept secret in the Mirror Guard and the castle that Captain Harlequin has a hopeless crush on Princess Alternia.”
Cyndra’s eyes narrowed on Harlequin. “You do?”
Harlequin swallowed and nodded. For a moment, the smaller female changeling looked as if she was channelling the stature and imperiousness of her mother.
“Alright, why do you like her, Harlequin?” Cyndra asked.
“That’s a rather obvious question, don’t you think, Cyndra?” asked Buzz.
Diamondshell finished the last of her ice cream and pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Well now that I think about it though, we’ve never heard about why Harlequin likes her highness.” She nudged Harlequin with a hoof. “Come on, Harlequin, you know Buzz is just being Buzz. I’m pretty sure he’s jealous.”
Harlequin raised his head, smiling tentatively as Buzz glared at Diamondshell.
“I am not!”
“You totally are.”
Buzz opened his mouth to retort and shut it. “Okay maybe a bit, but I don’t dig for her highness as hard as Harlequin does…” A sly look came over Buzz’s features. “Or you for that matter.”
If changelings could blush, and they couldn’t, Diamondshell would be red as a tomato.
“You take that back, Buzz, I’m warning you!”
Seeing the fury and embarrassment on Diamondshell’s face, and sensing her emotions, Buzz quickly backtracked.
“Sorry! That came out wrong. I well…” Buzz frowned and Cyndra could sense genuine curiosity from him. “I was just wondering how you went from hating her highness to being ready to bow to her.”
Diamondshell didn’t meet Buzz’s gaze. Instead her eyes shot to her mug of hot tea, which she took a slow sip out of.
“She gave me a chance to prove myself,” said Diamonshell simply.
Everypony and changeling present understood however. Cyndra had to chuckle. Only her aunt could de-fang the prickly chevalier with such a simple gesture.
Taking another sip, Diamondshell glanced at Harlequin. “I believe you were supposed to explain to us why you fell in love with her highness, Harlequin.”
The head captain was a little annoyed that he hadn’t escaped scrutiny, but he didn’t hesitate in answering.
“Her compassion, Diamondshell. I fell in love with her because of how she treats all of us, and her ponies, with such compassion.” Harlequin’s smiled as his eyes glazed over slightly. “I love her smile, how she tries to make every pony and changeling comfortable. I love that she is so strong, unyielding in the face of doubt, though willing to admit her own mistakes.”
Cyndra could sense something else was making Harlequin particularly happy about her aunt. There had been a slight spring in his steps since the link a few days ago. The captain was incredibly tight-lipped around it and whenever she had asked him about it, he very neatly side-stepped her inquiries.
“Well, my aunt tends to have that effect on ponies,” said Cyndra.
Raven nodded. “Indeed, which is why we are following her into seas ruled by a monstrous, battleship killing, changeling munching, super-kelpie.”
Buzz gritted his teeth. “Fighting that won’t be easy. You got a plan, Captain?”
Harlequin nodded, his eyes narrowed. “I have discussed it with her highness, and she will be covering it in the briefing with us tomorrow. Basically, should such an engagement occur, we are to provide support by magical and ranged means, as well as make sure that other kelpies cannot interfere. Her highness would act as vanguard against the monster, as only someone of her power can hope to engage the Empress directly and survive.”
“Essentially, we are keeping her back clear and doing whatever we can to land hits. That’s not a bad plan. What if her highness is incapacitated?” asked Diamondshell.
“We get her out of there and withdraw while using suppressive fire tactics. If we are near enough to Venecia we fly her there. We have no way of engaging such a threat on our own.”
“Fair enough,” said Buzz. He pursed his lips. “What about engagements versus kelpies?”
“Unfortunately, we’re on a boat and while we do know that they’re capable of manipulating water and are great in melee, that’s it. And considering our confined position, we will likely end up engaging them in melee. Use the tight corridors, and create crossfires and choke points when possible in the larger rooms. Keep an open mind, trust your instincts, but don’t act rashly would be my advice.”
Cyndra frowned. “What if their Empress grabs the ship and starts dragging it down?”
“We get her out of the ship under escort of the entire Mirror Guard. To do that we leave a pair of changelings behind to block the corridor every time we see a kelpie to buy the main group time to find an exit. Once we finally get out, we regroup midair to assess the situation. Be aware that the kelpie Empress might have powers atypical of kelpies, which means she might have stronger and better control over arcane magic. I trust you have memorized the ship layout by now?”
Buzz and Diamondshell nodded grimly, as did Cyndra and Raven. It had been one of the first things Harlequin had told them to do when they got on board.
“You know, considering what we can do, or the lack of what we can do against the kelpies, I think it is quite clear some of us are not coming back,” said Raven quite suddenly.
Diamondshell sighed. “I think we all know that, but if there is a chance of finding out anything more about the kelpies, it will be worth it.” She glanced at Raven. “I find it quite impressive that you decided to join us, Raven. You have very little combat experience after all.”
Raven chuckled. “Just as her highness needs you to protect her, she will need me to help her with writing up the plans for whatever measures Equestria will be taking during this crisis. I could not abandon her side in this moment, not when she so needs it.”
Cyndra finished the last of her chocolate and wiped her lips. “Not to mention, if my aunt can really pull off making a treaty with the kelpies that will hold and end this crisis, I would gladly follow her to whatever end,”
“Hear,” said Raven, Buzz, Diamondshell and Harlequin at the same time.
And for a while the five sat in a companionable silence, sipping their drinks and enjoying the chatter of guards and changelings around them.
“For what it's worth, this was fun. We should do it again if we have the chance. Tomorrow?” asked Harlequin.
Buzz nodded and grinned. “Tomorrow.”
Alternia was loath to spend taxpayer dollars on extravagant accommodations, but as the stateroom of her ship often became the private meeting chamber between herself and other diplomats for “unofficial” discussions, she invested accordingly to impress. The stateroom decor was therefore understated, but rich. Mahogany and oak panelled frames carved with images of ponies, of events from Equestrian history, partitioned the expansive stateroom chamber into private sleeping area, lounging room, game room, and bathroom. The furnishings, though bolted down for safety’s sake, were made from polished, rustic cedar woods from Zebrica and the west coast of Equestria.
It was in the lounge room, on the large central table, which could also be transformed into a pool table, that Alternia, Chrysalis and Retariusil now poured over a map of the approach to Venecia.
“Sister, do you have a plan for getting us to Venecia safely, and for attracting the kelpie Empress’s attention?” asked Chrysalis.
Alternia grimaced. “Getting there is easy. We’re following an old sailing trade route that appears to be, according to the data we have collected, the only safe route to the waters near Venecia. No ships that have followed this route or been on it have been attacked. What is more difficult is attracting the Empress’s attention, but for now, I’d like to avoid that. Our chances of even attempting to make a diplomatic agreement without that book are slim.”
Chrysalis nodded. “Right, we need to try to get the book. It opens our options and depending on what we could find, solving the crisis might depend on it. We are going to have to move off the trade route to get to Venecia however…”
Alternia sighed. “That is true. But at least most of our approach should be safe. Retariusil, what do you think?”
Alternia didn’t hold up much hope for a particularly eloquent answer, however. Retariusil had pretty much given only nods, and jotted down notes on her parchment as Alternia and Chrysalis explained the situation that Equestria and the changelings were in.
So it was a bit surprising when Retariusil’s features scrunched up in consternation and she frowned.
“I don’t know. There is a good chance the book might not tell us anything. Mom seemed quite enthused about it. However, I can’t guarantee that the information we find will give us any edge over the kelpies, considering their strengths over water. Moreover, we know we are now fighting the seaponies as well from what Celestia just told us.” Retariusil’s head drooped to the table as she groaned. “There is really going to be no way I can ever avenge my mother is there? Our enemy is just too strong.”
Alternia and Chrysalis couldn’t help but exchange sidelong glances.
Alternia, isn’t this the time you say something infuriatingly enlightening? thought Chrysalis to Alternia.
The thought Alternia sent back to Chrysalis was tinged with exasperation. Considering that I honestly wanted to kill you at one point, I don’t think I am best changeling to give advice on how to handle vengeful feelings.
Chrysalis didn’t even bother hiding the glare she sent at Alternia as she thought. Well I killed our mother unintentionally! I can hardly say anything in regards to getting over vengeful feelings! Besides, you forgave me didn’t you?
Alternia nodded, but her mouth tightened. Yes, but we can hardly ask Retariusil to forgive a kelpie empress who likely ate her mother alive.
Alternia, I’m just saying we should—
“I know the two of you are talking in each other’s heads!”
Alternia and Chrysalis turned back to Retariusil, who was now glaring at them.
Chrysalis sighed. “Retariusil, we’re sorry, we just want to—”
“I don’t need comforting!” snapped Retariusil. Chrysalis frowned and opened her mouth, but Alternia nudged her sister’s shoulder.
And so the sisters waited as Retariusil continued to rage.
“I am the daughter of Queen Murmillar, her heir. The blood of the Great Hive Mothers flow through me! I am not scared of a stupid brute kelpie empress who knows nothing of subtlety and…”
Retariusil blinked back her tears and swallowed as Alternia and Chrysalis simply stood, not judging her, just waiting.
“Who… who took my mother away from me… whom I will never see again.” Sniffling, Retariusil wiped her eyes and sat down. “Who left me in charge of her hive… which I never wanted.”
Chrysalis nodded. “I know the feeling.” Retariusil frowned, as Chrysalis sat down beside her. “When my mother died to save Alternia from my anger. I realized… how foolish I had been. I had rulership of her hive, the remnants of it anyway, but she was gone. I killed my sister.” Chuckling dryly to herself, Chrysalis shook her head. “There were moments when I thought about ending myself, but one thought kept me going… the fact that my mother also lived on in me. That I had to live on, to rule, to preserve the legacy of my mother.” Chrysalis smiled. “Your mother lives in you, Retariusil, by your actions, you keep her memory, her legacy alive.”
Swallowing, Retariusil shut her moist eyes and sat there, sniffling as Chrysalis and Alternia watched.
“Thank you, Queen Chrysalis,” managed Retariusil after a long while.
Chrysalis stood back up and helped Retariusil up. “You’re welcome, Retariusil.”
“And if you need to talk to us, our doors will always be open,” said Alternia kindly.
Sunset Shimmer and most of the crew had thrown themselves on dry land the first thing. Some had torn right down the makeshift pier set up after the tsunami and kissed the ground fervently.
Celestia hadn’t done so, but Sunset could tell her friend’s shoulders relaxed as she stepped onto dry land and greeted the Dogess and her contingent of guards.
“Princess Celestia, welcome to Venecia,” said Dogess Sebastiana, bowing. She was a younger earth pony with strawberry blond hair and a peach coat covered by her worn white-red robes of office. Her eyes however, were hardened by tragedy and disaster through the past few months.
Celestia nodded. “Thank you, Dogess Sebastiana for receiving us.” She winced. “I’m sorry we were not able to save some of your sailors.”
Sebastiana sighed. “You did what you could. I’m sorry they put you in mortal danger of that… monster. My engineers will start repairs to your ships immediately.”
“About that, Sebastiana, with the list of problems my officers radioed ahead, how long would these repairs take?” asked Celestia.
Sebastiana frowned and gestured to the Venecian docks. Most of the piers and drydocks had been rebuilt, but they were all mostly empty of ships. “If we worked around the clock, about a week. There is a lot of reconstruction going on, but we have quite a few idle hooves when it comes to dockworkers. They haven’t had a thing to do considering we are being blockaded.”
“Blockaded… an apt term. Hast thou received the news from Princess Alternia about the presence of a safe trade route?” Celestia asked.
“Yes…” Sebastiana blinked. “Your highness, where are you going with this? Why would that trade route matter at this point?”
Celestia shuffled closer to the Dogess, her voice hushed.
“I intend to have the fleet leave Venecia immediately, once the repairs are completed.”
Sunset, who was near enough to hear, bit her lip, but didn’t say a word, lest she cause a panic among the crewmembers who were on shore. Similarly, the Dogess managed to swallow her own shock down and respond in a similarly suppressed tone, though hers was far more indignant.
“Your highness, you are risking your fleet and your life if you try for that trade route!”
Celestia nodded. “I am aware, but Venecia has food enough for two weeks?”
Sebastiana grimaced. “Three with careful rationing, which we are quite used to by this point. Your sister has set up an air supply route, which probably will extend that to about a month and a half. She apparently has also begun talks with the Griffon Kingdom about ways they can supply us by air.”
Biting her lip briefly, Celestia leaned in closer to Sebastiana. “Still, my crew and this fleet is thus an unnecessary drain on your already limited resources. Our ships cannot help with your defense, considering how useless they are at sea warfare and I’m worried our military presence here might simply escalate the Kelpie Empress’s measures to starve us out. We need to leave, and with the hope of this safe route, we might be able to do so safely.”
“But have you figured out why the kelpies aren’t attacking any ships along that route?” asked Sebastiana.
Grimacing, Celestia shook her head. “Unfortunately no, but what choice do we have at this point? If we stay, we starve. If we go out as soon as possible, we at least have a chance to escape the deadlock.”
Sebastiana pursed her lips, but nodded. “Understood. I’ll have the repairs started. By your leave, your highness.” Celestia nodded and Sebastiana galloped off to shout orders.
“Enjoy this respite while you can, Sunset,” said Celestia, turning to her friend.
Sunset nodded numbly. “I will try.”