• Published 6th Dec 2014
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Twilight Sparkle of the Royal Guard - King of Beggars



Twilight Sparkle is the newest member of Celestia's Royal Guard. Fresh out of the Military Academy, she's ready to prove herself, but will her first assignment be too much for her to handle?

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Chapter 2 - The Love Boat

After inspection, Twilight did as ordered and marched straight for the throne room, eager to begin her new assignment. As much as she had enjoyed her lunch breaks with the princess, she was really looking forward to having a more mobile position. As part of a private security detail, she’d be following Princess Cadance around as she attended her daily business. Granted, she had no idea exactly what Princess Cadance’s daily business was, but it had to be more interesting than watching ponies walk in and out of a kitchen carrying plates of cheesy-crackers.

The sentinels stationed outside the throne room eyed her carefully as she approached. They were tired, on the final legs of their night watch and waiting to be relieved of duty by the day watch, but their faces and posture betrayed none of that. Twilight knew those little signs, though – she’d seen them in the mirror enough times to recognize the look of a couple of ponies just waiting to hit the mess hall.

“Decurion Twilight Sparkle to see the princess at her behest,” she announced.

Both guards looked up, and it took Twilight a second to realize they were looking at her helmet. The crest of her galea still bore the pattern of a Legionary, which didn’t match with her stated title. It was a small thing, but being stationed this close to the princess always put guards on extra high alert for little inconsistencies like that.

“Oh, uh, new promotion,” she said with a nervous laugh. “Orders just came down last night.”

The senior guard considered this in silence, then nodded to his partner and they allowed her entry.

The throne room was one of Twilight’s favorite places within the castle grounds. The Royal Gardens and the Courtyard may have been more decorative and impressive, but the cavernous hall of the throne room was easily the most majestic.

Unlike the rest of the palace, there was very little decoration in the throne room, likely owing to the fact that it also served as the audience chamber where the princess met with her subjects and held court. Large groups of excited nobles were often packed into the chamber, tight as sardines in a tin, all jockeying to get the princess’ attention – not the kind of place you would want to keep a priceless Mane Dynasty vase, or any other fragile antiques.

What really struck a chord with Twilight were the stained-glass windows. They were enormous works of art, stretching from the marble floors to the vaulted ceilings high above, with many depicting important events from Equestria’s past. As a filly, she imagined what it would be like to have one of those windows displaying some great deed of hers. As an adult, she knew the likelihood of getting one of the glass murals dedicated to her was very unlikely, but it was nice to dream.

To her surprise, the pony awaiting her wasn’t Celestia, it was a gray coated pegasus that she immediately recognized as Optio Whippoorwill.

The Optio stood in the middle of the long red carpet leading up to the golden dais supporting Her Highness’ throne, his eyes focused on the clipboard he was holding.

“Decurion Twilight Sparkle,” he called to her without looking up. “Approach.”

Twilight swallowed hard and marched up the carpet, trying to look impressive as possible. She stopped a few paces away from him and stood at attention. “Optio, I was told I would be meeting with Princess Celestia.”

Whippoorwill grunted and flipped a page on his clipboard. “You will, but first she’s having breakfast. She gets peckish in the morning – I understand it’s very difficult to lift the sun.”

Twilight wasn’t sure if her C.O had just made a joke or not, so she remained silent and at attention.

The minutes ticked by without another word as the Optio went over what she presumed to be the reports made by the night watch Tessararius. As he flipped the final page he let out a sigh.

“Good, I like quiet nights,” he commented to himself. He tucked the clipboard under his wing and adjusted his glasses. “At ease, Decurion.”

Twilight realized that it was quickly becoming a trend for her to be glared at by her superiors, and she wasn’t happy about it. Steel Century’s eyes were intensely hard, but with a hint of weathering like an old boot left in the sun. In contrast, Whippoorwill’s green eyes were sharp and calculating – it made her feel like a piece of meat being sized up by a great big hawk.

“According to the castle’s chefs, you’ve been joining the princess on her little snack trips,” Whippoorwill stated simply. “And here you are a week later, promoted and being assigned as personal guard to her niece.”

His tone wasn’t accusatory or even disapproving. He was merely stating the facts as he’d gathered them.

“Would you be at liberty to divulge nature of your talks?” he asked with a raise of his eyebrow.

“We didn’t talk about anything special,” she reported truthfully. “It was pleasantries about the day and sometimes we discussed the news; chit-chat, sir.”

His ears perked at mention of the news. “Any news stories in particular that she seemed… interested in?”

“No, sir.”

He sighed heavily and removed his galea, running a hoof through his dark-blonde mane. With his helmet removed Twilight could tell that Whippoorwill was quite a bit younger than she’d guessed, but he wore the stress of his position in the nearly invisible strands of silver in his mane.

“I see,” he commented tiredly.

“Is this about my new assignment?”

“Maybe, I’m not sure,” he said cryptically.

Twilight blinked in uncertainty. “Sir?”

“We don’t know what your new assignment is about, Decurion Twilight Sparkle,” he told her as he replaced his helmet. “All that the Captain and I know is that you were to be promoted, assigned to Princess Cadance, and we were ordered to book your passage by train to Manehattan.”

“Manehattan?” she asked.

“We also know that Princess Cadance won’t be joining us for the Summer Sun Celebration,” he said with a frown. “That in particular is leaving us with a lot of questions and Princess Celestia is playing this very close to the chest. It’s making me… uncomfortable. I don’t like secrets unless I’m the one keeping them.”

Further questions were cut short as a door opened and Princess Celestia strode into the room, a unicorn scribe following a respectable distance behind her, reading from a scroll as he walked. The Optio took his place to the right of Twilight, and they stood at attention as Celestia ascended the stairs of her dais to take the throne. Her assistant pulled a quill from some unseen compartment behind the throne and began checking items off a list and making small notes here and there.

“Whippoorwill,” Celestia said with a fond smile. “Thank you for keeping my new Decurion company, you are dismissed to return to your duties.”

Whippoorwill shifted on his hooves, as though struggling with himself about whether or not it was worthwhile to ask permission to stay. He sniffed sharply, saluted, and turned to march down the carpet to the entrance. He paused long enough to shoot Twilight a final, curious glance and silently mouthed, “Good luck,” before he left.

The princess turned to her assistant, who seemed to sense her gaze without looking up from his scroll. He stopped writing only long enough to bow and left the room, still writing furiously even as the door shut behind him.

“Decurion Twilight Sparkle, you’re out of uniform,” the princess said with mock disapproval once they were alone.

“I’m what?” Twilight asked in confusion. She was already doing a mental assessment of her uniform and wondering how she could’ve passed inspection if she’d forgotten a shoe or left a buckle undone.

Celestia lifted her hoof and tapped at her crown with her golden shoe. “The crest on your galea?”

“Oh!” Twilight exclaimed. She’d completely forgotten about that. “I’m so sorry, Your Highness! I was only promoted yesterday, and most of the other helmets don’t fit me without some extra padding, and I didn’t want to be late to inspection again so I still haven’t put in the order yet, but I’ll do it right away!”

Celestia laughed daintily at the girl’s flustered, breathless response. “Calm down, Twilight, I’m only teasing. You really must learn to relax.”

Twilight took a deep breath and treated Celestia’s comment as an order to be at ease. “Sorry,” she said bashfully. “I’ll get it taken care of today.”

“There will be time for that,” Celestia told her. “But first, I’d like to apologize. I’m afraid your new assignment means that you’ll be missing the Summer Sun Celebration this year.”

“Because you’re sending me to Manehattan?”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “I see Whippoorwill has been talking,” she said. She looked at the entryway that the Optio had left through and tapped a hoof on her throne in thought. “He never misses a beat, that boy…”

Celestia chuckled to herself and turned her gaze back to Twilight. “I’m getting off topic. Yes, you’re going to Manehattan, but you’ll be leaving for Saddle Arabia from there.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. “You’re sending me abroad?”

“I’m sending Cadance,” Celestia explained. “You’re going to be protecting her on her trip.”

Twilight composed herself, standing at the ready to receive her orders. “Understood. What do I need to know?”

“You’ll be leaving for Manehattan at noon, and you should arrive by evening,” Celestia informed her. “Once there, you’ll proceed straight to the airship docks and search for dock C-7. Ask for Captain Sky Chaser. Princess Cadance will be waiting for you.”

Flags began going up in Twilight’s head when she heard the dock number. If the airship docking arrangements in Manehattan were anything like the ones in Canterlot, the C docks were reserved private and small business class airships. If it were a military ship, it would leave from the A docks, and large commercial class ships like the kind that would be contracted to ferry a high-profile client like a princess would be moored in B docks.

“What about the rest of the security detail?” Twilight asked, setting aside the oddity of the airship’s location. “What about servants? How large is her retinue?”

“There will be nopony else,” Celestia said simply. “It’s just you.”

Twilight was taken aback. A diplomat going abroad was always accompanied by an entourage of servants and assistants, as well as a standard security force of at least two guards – and that was only for diplomats. It only made sense that a Princess like Cadance would have a fairly sizeable number of ponies accompanying her on a trip to such a faraway land.

The Optio’s concerns over the details of Twilight’s assignment were suddenly very understandable.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Twilight said with a shake of her head as she failed to make heads or tails of the situation. “You’re sending Princess Cadance abroad only a few days before the Summer Sun Celebration, leaving via a non-military vessel, with only one guard. Your Highness… is there something going on?”

There was a moment of silence that hung in the air as Celestia considered her answer. Twilight didn’t like questioning her princess like this, but if she was going to do her job then she needed to know exactly what she was getting into.

The tension stretched on until it was broken by Celestia with a cheerful titter. “Oh, Twilight, there’s nothing going on. This is just a good-will mission. The usual diplomatic silliness to smooth out a few ruffled feathers, you see. I know it’s at a rather inopportune time, but as much as I would prefer having my lovely niece at my side for the festivities, I’m afraid royal obligations come first.”

“But… but why only send me?” Twilight asked lamely. “Why are we taking a civilian vessel?”

Celestia’s noble demeanor never even faltered. “Honestly, Cadance prefers to travel with a very small entourage. One guard, especially one of your qualifications, is more than enough for this sort of assignment. As for the choice of vessel – Captain Sky Chaser is a retired military veteran that I often hire when I need a trustworthy courier.”

Twilight didn’t like this – she didn’t like this at all. There were too many uncertainties and too much hoof-waving about this assignment. Something big was brewing, and she was being sent away; sent away with an important charge, but still sent away.

She wanted to ask more questions, she wanted answers… but that wasn’t her place. The words of the Centurion rang in her ear as she accepted the fact that there were some things she wasn’t allowed to know: “Nopony ever got anywhere in the Royal Guard by questioning the Big Mare.”

“As you say, Your Highness,” Twilight said, her voice affecting more confidence than she really felt. “I’ll do my best to make you proud.”

“I know you will,” Celestia said with a sigh of relief. Her horn lit as she cast a spell that summoned a scroll with a quiet pop of displaced air. “This is your itinerary. Captain Sky Chaser will be receiving a copy of the same. The return date is fairly open, but stay in Saddle Arabia at least a few days so you can enjoy the sights.”

Twilight accepted the document with a salute. “Yes, Your Highness.”

* * *

It was well past sunset when Twilight finally arrived in Manehattan, but the nice thing about the city was that it was easy to get lost in the crowds, no matter what time of day it was. The streets were tightly packed as the nightlife equivalent of early risers and the ponies headed home from a late day at the office jostled one another as they hurried along the brightly lit streets.

To any random passerby, Twilight was just some tourist, dragging an old steam trunk behind herself on wheels that squeaked with every tug of her magic. The princess may have been trying to play this off as a routine diplomatic mission, but Twilight got the feeling that discretion was the watchword. To those ends, Twilight had left the barracks wearing only a pair of saddlebags. Her armor, along with her dress uniform, some books, and a number of emergency supplies, were all stored safely in the trunk.

She briefly considered taking a taxi to the airship docks, but decided against it, owing once again to her desire to remain inconspicuous and forgettable. Luckily, the train depot wasn’t all that far from the airship docks, so walking wouldn’t put her too far off schedule.

Twilight kept a brisk trot the whole way and arrived at the docks in short order.

The docks were very dark compared to the rest of the brightly lit city. There were no night clubs or restaurants along this side of the island’s waterfront, so the street lights were spaced further apart and more than a few were burnt out or simply broken and never repaired. The darkness suited Twilight just fine.

She passed by the gates of the various piers, her head down as she passed Manehattan’s Royal Guards at the military docks and the civilian security at the commercial pier. She reached the unsecured public docks and passed through an arched gateway with an enormous letter C written across the top in faded red paint.

Airships were a funny thing. The design was deceptively simple – essentially nothing more than a normal boat acting as a gondola, suspended from an enormous balloon via a series of suspension cables – but the science involved in making ‘flying boats’ was marvelously complex.

Sadly, most ponies that could afford the luxury of their own private airship, even a small one, were less interested in helium-to-air ratio control ballasts than they were in impressing their friends with their expensive toys. Airship pilots could make a fair living for themselves without ever owning a vessel of their own, simply by renting out their expertise to weekend-warriors looking to take a spin around the Manehattan skyline in their vanity purchases.

She passed several airships docked in the water, and a few parked on land, that were painted up to look like fish, or whales, or covered in odd designs meant to evoke the artistic movement du jour. One peculiar airship looked like it had been made from an old parade float of Princess Celestia – she would definitely try to fit that in her mission report when she got home.

Unlike the surrounding vessels, the ship moored at dock C7 was a simple affair: a sturdy but well traveled looking boat beneath a plain gray balloon with a few repair patches here and there. It was also a bit larger than most of the other ships, though not quite as large as a commercial ferry, and the battered propeller mounted to the back of the thing looked far too small to move such a large vessel. Along the bow, written in chipped white paint, was the airship’s name: The Old Mistress.

A grim-faced pegasus stallion stood at the base of the gangplank, watching Twilight approach with obvious tension. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but she could tell from his posture that he was probably also Royal Guard.

“Twilight Sparkle,” she announced as she drew near, purposefully leaving her title unspoken. “I’m here to see a Captain Sky Chaser.”

The stallion relaxed visibly. “He’s on board, along with the package,” the guard explained. “Good luck to you.”

Twilight watched as the guard left, having fulfilled his duty to deliver the princess and guard her until relieved. He probably hadn’t been told anything other than where to deliver the princess and the name of who would be taking custody of her.

Twilight eyed the gangplank as it swayed in time with the boat and tested it suspiciously. She pressed down, ready to pull back in case the wooden plank gave way beneath her weight.

“First time on a boat, missy?”

Twilight looked up into the wide, grinning face of an earth pony stallion in a navy blue pea coat, leaning against the railing. Maybe it was the enormous, bushy black beard, but something about the stallion struck a chord with her and she found herself smiling back.

“Captain Sky Chaser?” she asked.

“Aye, missy,” he said, widening his grin. “And you’d be Twilight Sparkle, I’d take it?”

Twilight put aside her uncertainty and climbed the plank with confidence. Her pride as a Royal Guard wouldn’t let her show trepidation in the face of something as petty as a rickety bit of wood. Her trunk lifted into the air behind her at her command and dropped to the deck with a quiet thud.

“I’m Twilight Sparkle, yes,” she said, extending a hoof towards the russet-coated stallion, which he enthusiastically accepted. “I understand the package is aboard?”

The captain let out a quiet, throaty laugh as he released her from their shake and tapped the deck with the same hoof. “Aye, aye, it is, your ‘package’ is down below. Now that you’re here we can be underway.”

“Do you need any help?” Twilight asked hopefully. It was her first time on an airship, and she was very interested in the takeoff procedures and pre-flight safety checks.

“No offense, missy, but you’ll be a bigger help in your cabin and out of my way,” he answered simply. “Got no time for training swabbies, we’ve a schedule to keep. Go on down below, if you would please? Your cabin’s the one immediately starboard, the package is first door to port.”

Twilight nodded sadly. She was disappointed, but schedules were important, so she did as she was bade and headed for the cabin at the aft of the ship. She opened the door to the cabin and found two sets of stairs – one that ascended into the glass-windowed pilot’s cockpit above the cabin, and another that descended below deck. She tapped curiously at the wall-mounted electric lights and wondered what sort of generator the ship might have.

Out on the deck she could hear the sound of Sky Chaser’s hooves striking the deck as he hurried through his final preparations for takeoff. She glanced over her shoulder and watched for a few moments as he darted about, undoing the ropes and guy-wires that moored the boat and the balloon to the docks.

“I could’ve done that…” she commented sourly.

She descended the stairs and found herself in a narrow hallway, only just barely big enough for two large ponies to stand side-by-side. Further down the hallway were a few more doors that she presumed lead to other cabins, as well as a heavy, bolted door that probably led to the hold.

It took a second for her to remember which side was starboard and which was port, but she found her room and stepped inside.

The cabin was a simple affair with a bed, a small writing desk, and a bare electric bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was also surprisingly spacious – almost twice the floor space as her quarters back at the barracks. She pulled her trunk in behind her, set it against the wall, and dropped her saddlebags atop the trunk.

A yawn came over her without warning, reminding her that she’d been on her hooves since before sunrise. As inviting as the bed looked after her long day of packing and travel, she knew she would have to at least check in on the princess and introduce herself before she could turn in for the night.

Twilight stepped out of her room and knocked on the door directly across from hers.

“Princess Cadance?” she called. She pressed her ear against the door, listening for any kind of response. When no answer came she knocked again with a bit more force and raised her voice a notch. “Princess Cadance? Are you in? This is Decurion Twilight Sparkle.”

She listened again.

Normally, Twilight would never think of entering a pony’s private chambers uninvited, but her duty to oversee the princess’ safety took priority over social niceties. She opened the door and cast a weak lighting spell as she peeked into the darkened room.

The tiny mote of light at the tip of her horn was just bright enough that Twilight could make out the specifics of the room. The cabin was an exact mirror duplicate of her own room, save for a few designer luggage cases stacked neatly against the far wall.

The reason for the lack of reply became clear as Twilight’s light fell upon the bed, where something shifted beneath the covers with a squeak of rusty bedsprings. The bed’s occupant snorted and began to snore with quiet, nasally whistles.

Twilight squinted into the darkness and noted that whoever was under the covers had a tricolored mane of violet, rose, and gold. The writing desk had been pushed closer to the bed to be used as a nightstand, and a bejeweled crown sat in an opened jewelry case next to a golden necklace. Although she’d never met Princess Cadance in the flesh, she’d seen the princess from afar before – sitting in a carriage or waving to crowds from a stage – and recognized that distinctive mane-coloration and the royal accoutrements she wore.

The princess had already retired safely to her bed, which meant Twilight was free to do the same, but nerves got the better of her. She stood in the doorway for a few more minutes to watch the slow rise and fall of the covers as Cadance slept. The gravity of her duty hit her all at once – that this pony was now her sole responsibility. If anything happened to Princess Cadance with no other guards around, it’d be entirely on Twilight’s head.

“Don’t worry, princess…” Twilight whispered softly. “I’m going to keep you safe, no matter what…”

Twilight closed the door just as the boat lurched. The bottom fell out of her stomach at the unfamiliar motion as the ship rose slowly into the air and away from the docks.

* * *

The first thing Twilight noticed when she woke up the next morning was the queasiness. Fascinating or not, she decided that she didn’t like airships. A stiff crosswind pushed against the side of the boat just as she was coming to this decision, causing the whole ship to sway and reinforcing her assessment.

Twilight cycled through the medical and First Aid spells she knew, and when she found nothing useful she cursed her own lack of foresight. She made a mental note to head straight for the library the second she was back in Canterlot, so she could research for some sort of cantrip that could counteract airsickness. Even if she never again set hoof on a long-distance airship, she’d feel more secure with such a spell in her tool-kit.

She checked a small clock mounted to the wall of her cabin. As much as she would’ve liked to stay in bed and nurse the disgusting feeling in her tummy, the sun would be up soon and she’d have to get up with it.

She climbed out of bed and stood still for a while, trying to get her sea-legs – or air-legs, as it were. A minute or two passed and she felt well enough to pull her armor from the steam trunk and dress herself for duty.

The sound of feminine laughter flittered down the stairs as she stepped into the hall. Unless Captain Sky Chaser had a very strange laugh, Cadance had risen early.

“Ugh… Late again…?” she muttered sadly as she climbed the stairs to report for duty.

Twilight Sparkle had never really paid all that much attention to the appearance of other ponies. Sometimes a classmate would nudge her and point out an attractive stallion or mare and Twilight would simply shrug and go about her day. Sure, she could appreciate that somepony else was attractive, and of course she’d had her moments of private fantasy, but she’d never been outright struck by anypony’s appearance.

As Twilight stepped out onto the deck and got her first up-close glimpse of the princess, she realized that Princess Mi Amore Cadenza wasn’t just anypony, and that she was strikingly beautiful… from a completely objective, morphological standpoint, that is. That is to say, her facial features were properly symmetrical and her mane billowed in the cool pre-morning breeze like a field of grass. Her alicorn nature also made her svelte and tall – statuesque like Celestia in peach-colored miniature. And the way she seemed to glow in the bright shine of the slowly setting full moon… well, the overall effect was quite pleasing to the eye…

…objectively speaking.

“They’re beautiful,” Cadance commented as she stood against the side of the boat, peering into the water below with bright-eyed interest.

“Princess Cadance?” Twilight called, pulling the attention of her shipmates from whatever they were looking at.

“Looks like we were a little loud, Your Ladyship.” Sky Chaser pulled an old wooden pipe from between his lips and banged it against the rail. “We woke the swabbie from her beauty sleep.”

“Oh, you must be Decurion Twilight Sparkle,” Cadance said with a radiant smile. “I suppose you’ll be my guard from now on. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

Twilight ran over and lowered her head in respect to the princess. “Your Highness, please forgive me for sleeping in so late. I didn’t expect you to be up this early.”

“I-It’s fine, really,” Cadance assured her with a nervous laugh.

“If it would please Your Highness, we should go over your royal itinerary for this journey,” Twilight suggested. Hopefully she’d be able to at least impress Princess Cadance with her professionalism and dedication to detail.

Cadance smirked. Mare or stallion, Royal Guards were always so serious. “There’ll be time for that later. The captain and I were about to watch the sunrise and we stumbled on a little surprise.”

“What sort of surprise?” Twilight asked, her curiosity piqued by what could be so interesting this far from shore.

She nodded towards the open sea. “We were just watching this jellyfish…” She turned to Sky Chaser and tilted her head. “What did you call it?”

“A swarm,” Sky Chaser replied. He lit his pipe and sucked blissfully at the flavored tobacco.

“Thank you.” She turned back to Twilight. “We were watching this jellyfish swarm swim by. Have a look.”

Twilight went to the edge of the deck and looked out over the sea. They’d dropped altitude to bring them only a few meters above the water, and as far as Twilight could see there were glowing electric-blue jellyfish floating along with the waves. They were a mass of bioluminescent dots, lighting up the sea like a river of stars pulled along by the currents.

“As I was about to say before we were stumbled upon,” Sky Chaser began. “These jellies are mighty pretty, but you don’t want to bite one. It wouldn’t be a good time for you.”

“Who would bite a jellyfish?” Cadance asked with a giggle.

“His name was Wave Runner,” the old earth pony explained with a puff of smoke and an added flourish to his voice, “and he was the dumbest pony I’ve ever met. This was back when I was in the Infantry. My buddies and I were on leave in the tropics, so we did what any good soldiers would do with full coin purses and five days of freedom in paradise: we drank the island dry. Three days into our binge, old Wave Runner wanders off and finds himself a beached jellyfish, just like those ones.”

“And he tried to eat it?” Cadance gasped.

He shook his head. “Nah. Best we could figure he was just trying to toss it back into the water. Tried to pick it up with his mouth and didn’t know it’d sting him up like it did – on account of him being dumb as a brick. It was sweet in its way.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the story. “Was he okay?”

“Aye, well enough,” Sky Chaser said with a nod. “We got him to a medic before his throat closed up. They mixed him up some sort of salve to relieve the stinging. Never found out what was in it, but it stunk up the barracks something awful whenever he jammed a hooffull of it into his mouth.”

“That story can’t possibly be true,” Twilight said in disbelief. “Even if he was drunk, nopony would be dumb enough to try and pick up a jellyfish.”

“It’s true as the day is long, missy!” Sky Chaser declared with a thump of his chest. “If it’s not true, may the sun never rise again!”

Twilight and Cadance both turned craned their necks over the side of the boat, looking nervously to the East. As if on cue, the very first tinge of orange sunlight spilled over the horizon, pushing away the night as the moon fell to the West.

“See?” Sky Chaser gloated. “Nothing to worry about. Your old captain wouldn’t steer you wrong – and speaking of steering, I should get us back into the air. Jellyfish spotting is well and good, but we’ve got to be across this pond by tomorrow night.”

Sky Chaser blew a smoke ring and held up his right-rear hoof, bending the leg experimentally. “Although… the old trick knee is aching. Tends to do that when we’re in for strong winds. If we catch a good jet stream we might end up a bit ahead of schedule.”

The old stallion nodded to his passengers and walked towards the cabin, with a billowing trail of smoke from his pipe following him like an old steam engine. They watched as he disappeared through the door and re-emerged moments later in the window of the cockpit. He waved down at them and began pulling levers and turning cranks, causing the boat to tilt upwards at a shallow angle.

The queasiness returned to Twilight at the shift in elevation. She definitely didn’t like airships.

“You’re looking a bit green,” Cadance teased. She smiled at Twilight’s poorly concealed discomfort, and the following attempt to regain her stoic countenance. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone – not everypony is meant to fly. Besides, the currents are much more stable at high-altitude, so the ride should be smoother once we’re properly in the air.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Shall we discuss the itinerary, then?”

Cadance sighed and sat hard on the deck, gazing out over the sea as it slowly fell away. “I already know the itinerary. Two days at sea, one day over the desert, arrive in Saddle Arabia, spend a week there, then we go home.”

Twilight blinked. “Erm… right…”

“Can’t we just sit here for a bit?” Cadance pleaded. “Please?”

The day before, Twilight had spent the train ride planning out exactly how she would debrief the princess. She’d prepared tips about self-defense, contingency plans for any number of scenarios, a discussion about what to do if they were separated, one about what to do if she was killed by an assassin and the princess was on her own – it was all very important information... but it could wait.

It was her voice that did it. Cadance’s voice, from the first second Twilight had heard it, was light and musical… except in that plea for simple company. The Royal Guard’s foremost duty was to serve the princesses in whatever capacity they may need, and at the moment what Princess Cadance needed was somepony to sit with her and ease whatever silent burden she was carrying. Her week spent watching the kitchens and snacking with Princess Celestia came to mind, and Twilight wondered if maybe she’d been unwittingly fulfilling this particular role all along.

Twilight took a seat next to the princess, a respectable distance away, and watched the clear blue skies in absolute silence. True to the princess’ words, the sway of the boat became less pronounced the higher they went, and the intermittent gusts of wind became a fast, steady stream of air. The propeller at the rear of the boat came to life with a high-pitched whine as it hurried them along the jet stream.

Her stomach settled, Twilight was able to enjoy the beauty of the open sky. There was nothing else for miles in any direction she looked. Even the great swarm of jellyfish had gone out of sight from their change in elevation and the coming of the sun. The only thing to watch was a thin line in the hazy distance where the pale blue skies and the dark blue seas touched to form the horizon.

“Twilight…?”

Twilight turned to Cadance. The other mare’s beautiful face was twisted up in hesitation. There was something clearly on her mind, but something else was keeping her from voicing her worries. Twilight merely sat and waited.

“Tell me about yourself.”

For the second time that morning, Twilight blinked in surprise. “Oh, okay, well… I studied at the military academy, I graduated first in my class, I have certifications in—“

Cadance interrupted her with a sigh. “No, no, I don’t want your service file. Tell me about you.”

Twilight floundered a moment as she tried to understand the princess’ meaning. “I… do you mean like my parents?”

Cadance nodded. “Parents, siblings, hobbies… I think I have a right to know a little something about the pony that’s protecting me.”

“Of course,” Twilight laughed nervously. “Well, my mom is a music critic for The Canterlot Sun, and my dad is the Royal Astronomer.”

Cadance let out an impressed whistle. “Wow, Royal Astronomer? You must be really prou—”

Cadance sat up quickly and gaped at Twilight with wide eyes. “Wait! Your dad is the Royal Astronomer, Night Light?”

Twilight leaned away from the princess who was now leaning in uncomfortably close. “Y-yes?”

“Your brother is Shining Armor?”

Twilight almost got up and backed away from the strange look she was receiving. “Yes, him and Spike.”

Cadance leaned back until she tipped over and fell on her side. She rocked back and forth, lightly chuckling from behind her hooves.

“I take it you know my brother,” Twilight said in confusion.

Cadance sat up, shaking her head and grinning like Twilight had told her some incredibly funny joke. “Of course I know Shining Armor,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “I am Princess Celestia’s niece, and he is her personal student, after all.”

“Oh, of course… duh…”

“Yeah, duh,” Cadance giggled. “What a small world.”

“Sooooo… you two are friends then?” Twilight guessed.

Cadance frowned and tilted her head from side to side in thought. “Well… yes, but mostly no, but it’s also kind of complicated.”

“Complicated how? Did you two have a fight? Some kind of falling out?”

“Okay, look,” Cadance said with a huff, “I’m only admitting this because it was a loooooong time ago, and because I know that you know that if this ever gets back to him, I can have you shipped off to the coldest, frozenest, most remote part of the kingdom…”

Twilight gulped hard, damning her natural curiosity. It wasn’t that she’d ever even dream of betraying royal confidence, but the idea of being sent to some frozen tundra for the rest of her days was a pretty daunting threat. She really, really hated the cold.

Cadance’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she confessed: “I may have possibly had maybe the teeniest itty-bittiest little smidgen of a crush on him when I was a filly…”

Twilight snorted with laughter. The Princess of Love, crushing on her brother? The very idea was comical. Sure, he was a handsome guy, and he kept in pretty good shape for a civvie, but a princess?

“Don’t laugh!” Cadance shouted as the blush in her cheeks deepened. “There weren’t a lot of ponies my age in the castle, and all the other stallions in school were too nervous to even talk to me.”

Twilight bit her lip to hold back the chuckles. “Okay, okay, no more laughing,” she said breathlessly. “So what happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if you had a crush on him, why did he never bring you around the house for dinner or anything?”

Cadance threw her hooves into the air in exasperation. “Ugh, I tried! I practically threw myself at him, but good luck getting him to pull his nose out a book long enough to notice a completely hot filly just champing at the bit for a date. After a while I just gave up and we sort of drifted apart. A girl can only take so much rejection, you know?”

Despite her promise, Twilight did chuckle a little at that. “He wasn’t always like that.”

Cadance tilted her head curiously. “How do you mean?”

“He wasn’t always so… absorbed in his studies,” Twilight sighed. She turned back to the sea and stared into the shapeless horizon as her thoughts turned back to her brother. “He’s got this really incredible sense of duty. The only thing he’s ever really wanted to do was to serve Equestria, and I guess somewhere down the line he finally decided that the best way to do that was to be the best scholar he can be.”

“Love of his country, huh?” Cadance reasoned, putting Twilight’s phrasing into the context of her own field of expertise. “Sounds more like something you’d say about a soldier than a scholar, but I guess I can see it. He does a lot for the nation on Aunt Celestia’s behalf.”

“Funny you should say that – the thing about soldiers, I mean. He actually did want to be a soldier when he was younger. Specifically, he wanted to join the Guard.”

“I didn’t know that,” Cadance said as she scooted closer to Twilight.

“He doesn’t really talk about it much,” Twilight explained. “Mom and dad didn’t even find out about it until a few years ago.”

“Why didn’t he end up in the Guard, then?”

“He passed his test. The one for Canterlot Academy, I mean.”

Cadance nodded. “I’d heard that test was the reason Aunt Celestia accepted him as her protégé, but Shining Armor never really talked about. He hatched Spike during that test, right?”

“Yup,” Twilight said. Her lips curled into a smile as a wicked thought came to mind. “I could tell you that story if you want.”

“Oh, yes, please,” Cadance pleaded gleefully, her nostrils practically tingling with the scent of something gossip-worthy.

“Now, keep in mind, this is all before I was born, and this is just the way my dad tells it. Shining is actually really embarrassed by this story.”

“Then this is already my favorite story,” Cadance said with a grin.

“So he gets the offer to take the entrance test for Celestia’s school and our parents make him go take the test,” Twilight began. “The test was for him to try and cast a spell on a dragon’s egg. Any spell would’ve done it, even just lifting it.”

“That’s a pretty tough test,” Cadance commented. “Dragons are really resistant to magic. Even as eggs, magic just kind of rolls off them like water off a duck’s back.”

“You’re telling me,” Twilight chuckled. “Try having one for an older brother. It gives the term ‘roughhousing’ a new definition when your opponent is twice as strong as you and almost impossible to cast magic on.”

Cadance leaned over, nudging Twilight with her shoulder. “Go on, what happened next?”

“Okay, okay. So here’s the part he’s embarrassed by: he was standing there, straining to lift the egg, with all these adults watching him. You can imagine he was pretty nervous. Well, one of the proctors reaches for a cup of coffee and knocks it over. Shining Armor is so wound up and so deep in concentration, that the sound of the cup breaking spooks him into having a magical-surge.”

“No way!”

“Yes way. He surges, and the unfocused magical output is enough to not only hatch the egg, but cause Spike to grow big enough to crash through the ceiling. Princess Celestia sees this dragon sticking up out of the roof of her school and goes to find out what happened. She offered to take Shining as her personal student on the spot when she heard the story.”

“Wow,” Cadance whispered. “No wonder he never wanted to talk about that… That’s kind of silly, getting such an impressive position all because of a coffee cup. Is that how Spike ended up as your brother, too?”

Twilight nodded. “After Princess Celestia got Spike back down to baby size, somepony needed to take care of him. They’d never intended for anypony to actually hatch his egg, so they had no contingency plan. My mom offered to take him in, and Shining started prancing around and cheering about having a new little brother.”

Cadance giggled. “Okay, now the story rolls right back around to cute.”

“He has his moments of cuteness,” Twilight agreed. “I still don’t think he’s in your league, though.”

Cadance lowered her head behind a wing in shame. “Ugh, I never should’ve told you that,” she groaned.

“It actually would’ve been nice if you two could’ve gotten together,” Twilight said with a sigh. “I really worry about him sometimes. He’s so withdrawn these days. He only ever really talks with Spike, and I think that he might not have any other real friends. I know for a fact he doesn’t talk with any of the ones he had when he was a colt.”

Cadance emerged from her hiding place and scratched at her chin thoughtfully. “I think I’ve heard that he keeps in touch with a lot of other scholars and researchers.”

Twilight shook her head sadly. “Those are colleagues, not friends. He needs somepony who can help him loosen up and come out of that shell he’s put up around himself.”

“I’m sure he’ll find somepony,” Cadance kindly assured her. “He’s a great guy, despite his many, many faults. Somepony’ll reach him one day.”

Cadance wrapped a wing around Twilight, offering what little comfort she could. She’d never had siblings of her own, so she could only imagine what it would be like to worry over one. In all her years of studying the many forms of love, sibling love had always been one her favorites.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Cadance shouted as she pulled away from Twilight. “I was asking about you, so how’d we get on the topic of your brother!?”

Twilight shrugged.

Sky Chaser chose that moment to cough loudly into his hoof from the cabin doorway.

“Begging your pardons, missy and Your Ladyship,” he said, “but I thought you’d be interested in knowing that breakfast awaits you in the galley.”

“Don’t think this means you’re off the hook, ‘missy’,” Cadance teased as she hurried towards breakfast. “We’ve got a few days before we get to Saddle Arabia, and I’m going to get to know you if it kills us.”

* * *

“So there I was,” Sky Chaser proclaimed dramatically from his stage atop the hatch covering the hold, “twenty drunk pegasi air-ponies surrounding me, shoving furniture against the walls. Their C.O. – the most truculent little lass I ever had the pleasure of bedding, though that came later – trots up to me and jabs her hoof right in my chest and asks, ‘You want to repeat that, grunt?’ And wouldn’t you know it? I did want to repeat it!”

Twilight galloped in a circle around the spacious deck of the ship in the early-morning light, taking care to keep her breathing steady and measured. Every stride she took caused the books she’d stuffed inside her saddlebags to thump heavily against her sides. The bag wasn’t too distracting, and had the benefit of simulating the feel of maneuvering in her armor without getting it all sweaty.

She’d been up for a while now, and had been surprised to find Captain Sky Chaser also above deck when she came up for her morning exercise. Sky Chaser, being a soldier himself, was used to being an early riser, and never quite got out of the habit. Twilight knew this because he was perfectly happy to regale her with that fact, along with a seemingly endless number of others about his youth in the Infantry.

His tales were interesting, even if they did often stray into the more bawdy aspects of military life, but Twilight had heard at least a dozen stories in the single day she’d been in the old stallion’s acquaintance. She was only really half listening to his rambling at this point. Sky Chaser didn’t seem to mind, at least. He seemed perfectly happy to just have somepony to talk to, whether they were listening or not.

“And that’s why they don’t put bubblegum in MRE’s anymore,” Sky Chaser said, finally winding down his latest yarn. “It’s all because of little old me, and that magical, horrible night in Hayvana.”

“They still put bubblegum in MRE’s,” Twilight countered. She finished her thirtieth lap around the deck and began a set of pushups. “I have some in my trunk down below.”

“Bah, maybe in the ones they issue to guards,” Sky Chaser said dismissively.

“They’re the same packages,” Twilight said with a frown.

“How would you know? You’ve never been in the Infantry.”

“Because they come from the same manufacturer!” Twilight replied. All MRE’s, or Meals Ready-to-Eat were made by the Sunny Fields Food Conglomerate, a network of farms that served the needs of a hungry army. It didn’t matter what branch you were in, you ate the same crackers and cheese paste as everypony else.

The door to the cabin opened with a creak, announcing the presence of the princess. Twilight leapt back to attention, while Sky Chaser merely snickered at the young soldier’s reflex and touched a hoof to his temple with a half-saluted wave.

“Tut-tut, Twilight,” Cadance said as she emerged from the cabin. “You know better than to question your elders. And besides, the true mark of a good storyteller is that you’re never sure what of what you’ve heard is the truth.”

Sky Chaser laughed heartily at the princess’ assessment. “Aye, aye, Your Ladyship! You’ve got the measure of things better than missy, I’d say!”

“Why thank you, Captain,” Cadance said with a giggle. “Are you working out, Twilight?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Twilight replied. “Just doing my best to keep fit.”

“Well don’t stop on my account,” Cadance said airily. She sat on her haunches, leaned against the cabin, and fluttered her eyes coquettishly. “I’m perfectly fine with sitting here and watching you.”

Twilight was very certain that she was being teased, but never the less, she suddenly felt very self-conscious.

“That’s… okay…” Twilight said bashfully, a blush rising in her cheeks. “I was just about done, anyway.”

Cadance pouted adorably and crossed her arms over her chest. “Aw, no show? No fun.”

Sky Chaser snorted with barely controlled mirth from behind Twilight. “Since Your Ladyship is up, why don’t I go cook up our breakfasts?”

“Thank you, Captain Sky Chaser,” Cadance said with a smile. “You’re ever the gentlecolt.”

“I live to serve,” Sky Chaser commented as he strode past his two passengers and through the cabin door.

The second the door shut behind the old earth pony, Twilight and Cadance could hear him singing a limerick that, while set to the tune of a foal’s song, seemed to be about a drunken housemare and a bucket of carrots.

Twilight flushed again. Being in the armed forces, she was used to hearing that sort of dirtiness, but it was pretty embarrassing to hear it being sung within earshot of Equestrian royalty. A lady as refined and noble as Princess Mi Amore Cadenza surely wouldn’t be used to such vulgarity.

“What a silly song,” Cadance said as she pressed her ear to the door. She began humming along with the tune and choked back a laugh as the limerick reached a punchline.

Twilight sighed and removed her bags, lifting them off her back with her magic and gently setting them down. She stretched out the soreness in her muscles from her light workout. Her body temperature was rapidly dropping now that she was no longer moving, and the chilly high-altitude winds nipped at her sweaty coat.

She felt the presence of somepony approaching and opened her eyes to find the princess stalking closer. Twilight got that same self-conscious feeling again as Cadance circled her, humming curiously and staring her up and down.

“You know…” Cadance began to say. “You’re very cute out of uniform.”

Twilight hid behind her mane shyly. “T-thank you…?”

Cadance paused on her second lap around Twilight, her eyes fixed on the smaller mare’s flank. “It’s a shame that your armor covers up that Cutie Mark,” Cadance said softly. “It’s very pretty. What talent does it represent?”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably as the princess examined the six-pointed starburst pattern on her flank.

“It’s Magic,” she said. She had to resist the urge to sigh as she awaited the question that always came next when she explained what her Cutie Mark stood for.

Cadance blinked. “What sort of magic?”

There it was.

“Pretty much any kind. The starburst signifies my problem solving skills and ability to master new skills, especially magical ones.”

Cadance frowned as she wrapped her head around the idea that a pony could have such a nebulously defined Cutie Mark. A Cutie Mark was usually something much more specific than that. Though, considering what her own Cutie Mark stood for, she supposed it wasn’t too difficult to believe.

“So…” Cadance began. “So you know a lot of spells?”

“I have learned and memorized over two-dozen spells, and more than half have practical applications in the field,” Twilight explained. Sometimes, when answering this line of questioning, Twilight rounded that number down, for fear of sounding like a braggart. But she surmised that the princess wouldn’t be so easily impressed, and she definitely did have a right to know the extent of her guard’s capabilities.

“So it’s mostly combat magic?”

“Mostly, yes, but I’m a quick study for anything, honestly,” Twilight answered. “I just prefer to study combat magic because… well… it’s my job.”

“How odd – impressive, but odd,” Cadance commented appreciatively.

“It’s not any odder or more impressive than a pegasus having a Cutie Mark signifying her flying skill,” Twilight pointed out. “Or an earth pony having a mark that shows she’s a good farmer. I’m just a unicorn that’s very good at the thing that unicorns do.”

“When you put it that way it makes sense,” Cadance conceded.

Cadance walked to the edge of the deck and scanned the water for signs of anything interesting. She and Twilight had spent most of the day before sitting on the deck, talking about anything that came to mind and enjoying the serenity of the open seas. Although Cadance didn’t outright ask Twilight to join her, she got the feeling that the princess wanted somepony to keep her company again.

“Twilight…” Cadance began carefully as Twilight joined her. “If I were to ask you something, would you answer me truthfully, no matter what?”

Twilight was taken aback momentarily. “Of course, Your Highness, I’d never dream of lying to you.”

Cadance turned to the smaller mare, her eyes filled with worry. “Do you know why we’re going to Saddle Arabia?”

“I was told it was a diplomatic mission,” Twilight answered after some thought and despite her leftover doubts from her briefing in the throne room. She felt her heart sink as she saw the disappointment written across Cadance’s face.

“I see…” Cadance whispered as she lowered her head in defeat. “So she doesn’t trust you either? At least it’s not just me.”

“Is this what you’ve been worried about this whole time?” Twilight asked.

Cadance smiled sadly. “I’m that transparent, huh?”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Twilight offered.

“I probably shouldn’t.” Cadance sniffed loudly, only just barely holding her frustrated tears at bay. “I wouldn’t want you thinking I’m pathetic.”

Twilight shook her head. “I could never think that.”

Cadance didn’t answer right away, but Twilight waited patiently for the princess to come to a decision. She wanted to help Cadance in whatever way she needed, not just because she was a Royal Guard and Cadance was Equestrian Royalty, but because it felt right to do so. In the short time she’d known Cadance, she’d found herself growing fond of the princess. Cadance was kind, prone to silliness, and – most importantly to Twilight – she was humble.

This wasn’t about duty, this was about… Twilight wasn’t sure, but it was something more than duty, it was something personal.

“Aunt Celestia told me that this was a diplomatic mission, too,” Cadance admitted. “She said that the sultan is displeased about some minor detail of a trade agreement we signed over ten years ago.”

“You think she lied about that?” Twilight asked in surprise.

Cadance shook her head. “No, I know he’s been niggling over that parchment for years now. But this isn’t something that needed a visit. It could’ve been hashed out through correspondence, like the other dozen or so times he’s taken offense to some vague wording or unclear intent in the agreement. And even if it did require a diplomatic intervention, it could’ve waited a few more days until the end of the Summer Sun Celebration.”

Cadance stood and leaned out over the edge of the boat, her gaze turned East, in the direction of Canterlot. “Something’s going on, I can feel it. None of the other advisors noticed it, but something was bothering Aunt Celestia, and whatever it is, she doesn’t want me there while she deals with it.”

Twilight rubbed her shoulders nervously. She’d finally come down from her post-workout rush and the chill in the air was becoming uncomfortable.

“Do you know what my job is, Twilight?” Cadance asked.

“You’re a princess, right?” she immediately answered.

“And what does that mean?”

Twilight mulled it over. Of course Princess Cadance was a princess, the way Centurion Steel Century was a Centurion, or Chef Lollipop was a Chef – they had titles that matched their professions. Was ‘princess’ a profession? It would have to be, since it’s technically what Cadance did for a living. But what did that job entail? She knew what that meant for Princess Celestia, but not for Princess Cadance.

“I’m not sure…” Twilight admitted.

“Honestly? Neither am I.”

Cadance spun around and sat back down, carefully folding her wings and pressing her back to the side of the boat.

Cadance took a deep breath, and let it out with a ragged sigh. “You know, I got my Cutie Mark the day I became an alicorn. Aunt Celestia said that it happened because my talent was something powerful, something that would someday change the world. That’s why she adopted me into her family and made me a princess.”

Twilight nodded. The story of how Princess Cadance, as a young filly, had reformed the witch Prismia with the power of her love was fairly well known. More than a few books had been written on the subject, and Twilight actually owned a first edition copy of one of the better ones.

“My official title is ‘Princess of Love’,” Cadance stated, “because my special talent is helping others understand their own capacity for it. Love brings living creatures together – it creates harmony. It’s magic, Twilight, and I’ve dedicated my life to the study of that magic in all of its forms.”

“Do you know what I do with the knowledge I’ve gained?” she asked, her voice tiredly bitter. She waved her arms around dramatically. “I do this. I smooth out diplomatic wrinkles, glad-hoof irate nobles, and foalsit uppity dignitaries. I have no real responsibilities.”

“You don’t think what you do is important?” Twilight asked.

Cadance just shrugged. “I know it’s important, but I just wish she trusted me to do more.” She looked up and into Twilight’s eyes, hoping to find more understanding than pity. “I love Equestria, I love all of my little ponies, and I want to do more for them. But every time I ask Aunt Celestia for the chance to do more, she just tells me that my time will come eventually. But she’s been telling me that for years. How much longer do I have to be a princess in name only?”

Cadance looked away, wiping frustrated tears away with a swipe of her hoof. “I’m sorry,” she laughed. “I must sound so petulant.”

“Not at all,” Twilight soothed. “I understand what it’s like living in somepony else’s shadow.”

Cadance gave a watery smile at that. “I guess you would, wouldn’t you? It can’t be easy being the little sister of Shining Armor, Princess Celestia’s number-one student.”

“It’s a lot to live up to, yeah,” Twilight confessed with a smile of her own.

“Thanks for listening, Twilight,” Cadance said gratefully. “I feel better having gotten all that out to somepony… I’m glad you're my guard.”

“I’m always here for you if you need to talk, Your Highness,” Twilight said reassuringly. She stood and levitated her bags onto her back, securing them just tightly enough that they wouldn’t slide off as soon as she moved. “Unless you want to talk about something else, I should probably get cleaned up for breakfast. I smell like an old sweatband.”

Cadance leaned forward and sniffed deeply, wrinkling her nose in exaggeration at Twilight’s odor. “Well I didn’t want to say anything…”

Twilight bowed her head in respect as she excused herself.

“Wait!” Cadance called just as Twilight was reaching the cabin door.

Twilight turned back, tilting her head curiously at the command. “Is there something else?”

Princess Cadance sat on the deck, her back straight and tense as she rubbed her hooves together sheepishly.

“I… wanted to ask if you could do me a favor and… maybe you could call me Cadance?” she asked with uncharacteristic shyness. “Without the ‘Princess’ part, I mean.”

“I don’t know if that’s strictly approp—“

“Not all the time!” Cadance said quickly, cutting off Twilight’s rebuttal. “Just when we’re alone, you know? I think I’d like it if we didn’t have to use things like titles and ranks when it was just the two of us…”

Twilight couldn’t help herself. “Okay then… Cadance…” Her heart skipped a beat as she allowed herself to say Cadance’s name without the pretense of titles or social standing. The thrill of breaking discipline and calling her princess by her name was an odd mixture of emotions. She felt very naughty, like she was breaking the rules – and in truth she was breaking the rules of conduct – but it also felt right and good.

Cadance sighed in relief, the corners of her mouth curling into a happy grin. “Thank you, Twilight.”

Twilight returned the smile. “You’re welcome, Cadance.”

* * *

Rest eluded Twilight that night. She lay on her back, staring up into the pitch black of her cabin as she struggled to take hold of whatever abstraction was keeping her awake.

It hadn’t been a particularly remarkable day, aside from her and Cadance’s little talk that morning before breakfast. They’d mostly lounged on the deck of the ship, chatting and reading together to pass the time. Cadance had been surprised to find that Twilight was as well read as she was. Royal Guards weren’t idiots by any stretch of the imagination, but there weren’t many that read classic literature recreationally.

Captain Sky Chaser had kept mostly to himself, tending to the ship and watching the instruments for any irregularities in the atmosphere. Wild storms were very rare in Equestria, but this far out at sea it was safe to assume that they were just a tad out of the jurisdiction of the Canterlot Weather Patrol. Although, he did periodically pop in on them to spin another dubious yarn about some heroic feat or drinking contest, and on one occasion the story was about a heroic drinking feat.

The stories were almost always unsavory, but mostly humorous. Twilight hadn’t liked how crude the captain was being in the princess’ presence, but whenever she voiced her opinion on the matter she’d be shushed by Cadance who would then ask Sky Chaser to finish the story. After a few times of being voted down, Twilight just gave up trying to curb the saltiness of the conversation whenever Sky Chaser got involved.

The only real surprise of the day had been that Sky Chaser’s tricky knee had proven accurate, or at least coincidentally correct. The winds had been in their favor and hurried them across the ocean in record time, and by early-afternoon they were already at the Zebrican shores. They had to leave that jet stream behind, but they were still a half-day ahead of schedule and by mid-afternoon the next day they’d be docking in the airship port in Saddle Arabia – just in time for the Summer Sun Celebration.

Was that the reason for her unrest? Some sort of foalish pre-holiday excitement? No, that didn’t make any sense. Although the Saddle Arabians celebrated their own version of the Summer Sun Celebration, it wasn’t the same thing as being there to see Princess Celestia raise the sun in the flesh.

Perhaps it was worry. Whatever looming event had been bothering Princess Celestia was going to coincide with the Summer Sun Celebration, Twilight was sure of it.

She held a hoof to her chest, noting the fierceness of her heartbeat and the unease in her stomach that, for once, wasn’t attributed to airsickness. Whatever was the cause of her distress, she wouldn’t be getting to sleep any time soon.

Perhaps some night air would do her good?

Twilight cast a dim lighting spell and climbed out of bed with a groan. She left her cabin and let her illumination spell die as she stepped into the well-lit hallway. The doors to Cadance’s and Sky Chaser’s rooms were both closed, which meant they’d probably already turned in for the night.

Twilight lightly stepped up to Cadance’s door and pressed her ear against it. Even through the door Twilight could hear that faint nasally whistle of the princess’ snore. Twilight held back a giggle at the cuteness of the dainty little noise, but made a note to herself to talk to Cadance about it. Cute or not, the snoring seemed to be a recurring issue and she definitely should see an otolaryngologist about the possibility that it could develop into something more serious down the line.

Twilight ascended the stairs and stepped out onto the deck. To her surprise, she found that she wasn’t the only one who’d been having trouble sleeping.

Sky Chaser stood at the bow of the ship, leaning precariously over the rail. His back was turned to her, but in the bright moonlight she could see the trails of smoke billowing from pipe.

He didn’t even look over his shoulder as he called out: “Missy... Seems I’m not the only one with trouble sleeping.”

Twilight walked across the deck to join the old captain at the fore. “How’d you know it was me?”

He sucked at his pipe a few times and pulled it away to blow another column of smoke. “Would you believe that I know every sound aboard my ship, including the difference between the sound of your hoofsteps and Her Ladyship’s?”

“I might believe it,” Twilight answered wryly. “I might also believe that you had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing who it was when you heard the door open, so you went for it in the hopes of looking all mysterious and impressive.”

Sky Chaser coughed, choking on the smoke in his lungs as he began to laugh. “Aye, I might believe that, too,” he said with a smile.

Twilight placed her forehooves up on the railing and peered over the side. Below them, the desert whipped by, the sands still and barren of life. From this high up she could see the lines in the sand where the desert winds sculpted the dunes of the great sea of sand. It was like seeing the ocean frozen in time, the waves unmoving until acted upon by an outside force.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Twilight commented. “Peaceful.”

Sky Chaser grunted in agreement. “Aye, but like anything beautiful, this desert is dangerous. You’ll never find a more unforgiving heat than what you’ll find here. The air may be chilly now, but come morning we’ll be able to cook our breakfast out here on the deck.”

Twilight nodded at the wisdom in that. “So you couldn’t sleep either, huh?”

“Had a bout of the old terrors,” he admitted freely. He glanced at Twilight out the corner of his eye and noted the way she raised her eyebrow. “Don’t be so shocked. You live as long as I have and you’ll pick up a few bits of baggage yourself.”

“Want to talk about it?” Twilight asked.

He sucked at his pipe and mulled it over.

“Spiders,” he said. “Awful little bastards. Can’t stand them, what with their having too many legs, too many eyes, and too many damned fangs.”

“Ah, arachnophobia,” Twilight said. “Lots of ponies have that.”

“But how many ponies have actually seen a spider the size of a pony?” Sky Chaser asked dramatically.

Twilight scoffed. “Spiders the size of a pony?”

“Aye, and mean as sin itself,” Sky Chaser explained with a thump of his hoof against the ship.

Twilight grinned and took a seat on the deck, settling herself in for another of Sky Chaser’s tall-tales. A bedtime story was just what the doctor ordered.

But the story never came. Sky Chaser just sighed and tapped his pipe against the rail, snuffing it out before he stuck it in the breast pocket of his coat.

“And you, missy?” he asked. “What’s keeping you from dreamland?”

“I’m not sure…” Twilight admitted. “I’m just restless. My pulse is elevated, my body temperature is up a little, my cheeks are flush… and despite all that I feel very… energetic. It’s very odd. I really hope I’m not coming down with something.”

Sky Chaser snorted loudly and began to chortle like she’d just said something very funny.

“Aye, aye, it seems you’re coming down with quite the sickness, missy! One I’ve seen many times before!”

“You think you know what’s wrong with me?”

“You’re sick, girl!” he guffawed. “The best kind of sick: sick with love!”

Twilight shot to her hooves and rounded on the captain. “What!? I’m not in love!”

He shrugged. “A crush then, but you’ve definitely got the bug.”

“Okay then, if you’re so smart, who do I have a crush on?”

“Who do you think?” he asked with a raise of his brow. He nodded down, indicating something below deck.

Her eyes widened in shock. “No,” Twilight muttered with a shake of her head. “No, that can’t be it. I’m just… just stressed out about the mission! And even if I was… that, for Cadance, it’s not like it would matter.”

“And why wouldn’t it matter, missy?” he asked with genuine confusion. “I see the way you and Cadance have been carrying on. She likes you well enough, so I reckon you’ve got as fair a shot at her as anypony.”

“It wouldn’t matter because she’s a princess!” Twilight whispered sharply, as though afraid their conversation would be overheard. “I’m just a soldier. I’m not even close to being in her league.”

“And?” Sky Chaser asked with a scoff. “Her Ladyship doesn’t strike as the type to care for that sort of thing. And I’m supposing you must’ve forgotten, but she wasn’t exactly born a princess.”

“Even still… She’s my princess, and I’m her guard. It would be inappropriate.”

“You’d hardly be the first guard to fall in love with a princess,” he laughed. He began to walk towards the cabin, chuckling the whole way. “Afraid there’s no hope for you, missy, you’ll never get to sleep now. As for me, I think I’ve kept my pillow waiting long enough.”

“Yeah, well… same to you!” Twilight called out as the cabin door shut behind him. She held her face in her hooves and groaned. “’Same to you’? Ugh, what did I even mean?”

She stood and climbed up onto the spot of the bow where she’d found the captain, letting the wind whip through her mane.

Love? Really? That was what he thought? There was no way she would fall in love in only a few days of meeting somepony. That was ridiculous.

A crush, on the other hoof… wasn’t entirely out of the question. It would certainly fit with her symptoms.

She sighed and leaned against the rail, watching the desert zip by as they were sped along to their destination. It was a nice distraction, the stillness of the desert. It played a comforting counterpoint to the bothersome thoughts trying to beat their way to the surface of her mind. She ignored them for the moment. Whatever was going on with her – crush or not – could wait a few minutes, or days, or months, or decades…

For now she just wanted to concentrate on the mission: protect the princess, assist her in her duties while she’s in Saddle Arabia, and see to her safe return. Everything else could wait until they were safely back in Equestria.

There was a flash of movement out the corner of her eye, drawing Twilight’s attention off the port side. It was still dark out, but the moon cast enough light to illuminate the silhouette of something trudging along in the distance. A thin line trailed behind it, showing the path it cut through the soft desert sands.

Her horn lit up as she cast a spell, framing her eyes with a glow of magic that magnified her vision. It was a simple, effective spell for combat unicorns meant for use in the field in place of binoculars.

Twilight adjusted the spell, bringing the distant figure into focus. It was just a bit bigger than a pony and wiry thin, wearing a travelling-cloak that drug along behind it. Something large and round bounced against its side with every step it took.

“Is that a diamond dog?” she wondered aloud. The general outline of it fit the body-type of a dog, and there was a fairly large diamond dog population in Zebrica.

Just as she was about to dismiss her spell, the dog staggered and collapsed. She watched breathlessly, waiting for him to get up, and she began to worry when he didn’t.

It was obvious that something was wrong with him, but from this distance there was no telling what it could be. He needed help, but the fact of the matter was that it wasn’t her problem. Her only responsibility was to the princesses and citizens of Equestria. For all she knew this diamond dog was some mad-dog that escaped from a local asylum.

She shook her head, determined to leave it be. She had a mission and there would be no deviation.

She watched in surprise as the dog began to move again. He rose to his paws and managed a few more steps before collapsing once more.

Twilight ended her spell and ran to find the captain.

* * *

Author's Note:

Finally, we get to the plot. I withheld release of this story until I got to the end of this chapter because I wanted to get a lot of the backstory and such out of the way. Exposition dumps are better when they're taken in smaller bites.

Side note: yes, Cadance's origin is the one from that chapter book.

Thank you for reading. I hope you've enjoyed reading up to this point, and that you'll all join me for the next installment. Please be excited.

Next Chapter: Basenji

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