• Published 20th Dec 2012
  • 5,951 Views, 136 Comments

A Wake of Mist and Flame - heliopause

A day in the life of Princess Celestia, as seen through the eyes of one of her guards.

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Illicit Flight

Darrilon hesitated at the balcony, looking at the royal wing of the castle across from him, then down at the courtyard below. It was quite a drop—three hundred feet, give or take—but it wasn’t the height that stopped him. As a pegasus pony and Captain of the Solarian Patrol, diving from stratospheric heights was a daily routine. No, what stopped him was the fact that this was Canterlot Castle, and regulations forbade flying over castle airspace.

He knew that regulation well—after all, he had written it. But the lightening sky told him he had less than three minutes to report to his post outside the royal chambers. To run down to ground level, cross the courtyard, and then run back up to his post in less than three minutes seemed impossible. But it was a gamble either way. He could race the clock running through the castle, or risk getting spotted on an illicit flight.

Darrilon stepped up to the balcony again, spotted a group of noble ponies, and ducked back down, grimacing. The situation was intolerable. His mornings were usually a perfect, regimented ritual. Awake by five, check the harness and armor for wear, brush the coat and mane, out the door and at his post by six at the latest. But today, his grooming had been interrupted when he spotted a grey hair on his hairbrush. Darrilon’s coat was a pristine white, and his mane and tail were blue with gold highlights. There shouldn’t be a grey hair anywhere on his body. So he had gone over his entire coat again, searching in vain for the off-color spot. When he failed to find anything the first time he had checked again, and again, and by the time he realized how late he was it was too late to do anything about it. He peeked over the balcony again, and for once the courtyard was empty.

It was against regulations, but he couldn’t see any other way. Darrilon took three steps back, spread his wings, and launched himself into the air, his shadow racing him across the grass below as he sailed in a graceful catenary through the air, landing softly on the balcony opposite, the only sound a faint ruffling of his feathers. He paused, motionless for a heartbeat, awaiting the inevitable shouts of alarm.

Miraculously, nopony seemed to have noticed his illicit flight. The royal quarters, and his post, were one small flight of stairs away. Breathing a sigh of relief, he folded his wings and took the stairs two at a time, trying to move as quickly as possible while still projecting an air of calm dignity. The Solarian Patrol was the diplomatic branch of Equestria’s Guard; as Captain, Darrilon felt that his appearance should always be befitting of a representative of Princess Celestia. Especially on days like today, where Celestia would tour the kingdom with only himself accompanying her.

Ember Snap, Personal Assistant to Princess Luna, and the guard pony Darrilon was due to relieve, paced back and forth at her post. That was a minor infraction, but it was one Darrilon was willing to overlook, given the circumstances.

“You’re late.”

Darrilon checked the official hourglass, still draining its last grains of sand. “You’re still on duty, Ember.” He signed in to the duty roster a moment before the hourglass emptied, and began scanning reports from overnight.

Impatient, she tapped her hoof in frustration. “You’re usually early. Some of us have lives outside the service.” Ember couldn’t leave until Darrilon signed out of the duty roster, but he made her wait while he went through the backlog of paperwork. The familiar routine soothed his ruffled feathers.

“Anything new I need to know about?”

Ember pulled a scroll from a section of the back wall lined with little cubbyholes and tossed it to Darrilon. “This came in from Grandgait.”

Darrilon scanned the letter, frowned, then reread it carefully. The political memorandum was full of words like “whosoever” and “henceforth”, but even worse than the vocabulary was the memo’s substance. If he understood it correctly, this was a dangerous and serious accusation.

“You don’t really believe this, do you?” Darrilon asked. Ember Snap was smirking at him. “What did Luna have to say about it?”

“I’m not going to show something like that to Luna,” she replied. “Besides, they’re asking for Celestia. It’s your problem.”

So much for today’s schedule. Darrilon shuffled through his itinerary and shifted some of today’s events to later in the week. “How is Princess Luna these days?”

When Princess Luna returned, the Royal Guard had been divided into Night and Day shifts. Darrilon, being part of the Solarian Patrol, had been assured a spot in the Day shift, and based on the stories he’d heard, he was glad to be there. Not that he disliked the dark princess, but he had spent years working with Celestia and adapting to her particular style of command. Starting over again with a new superior would have meant another long period of adjustment, something he wasn’t sure he was up to.

The downside was that Darrilon hardly ever saw Luna. An informed guard should be acquainted with every pony in the castle. For Luna, Darrilon had to make do with secondhoof reports and guard gossip.

“She seems better,” Ember said. “Not as moody all the time.” She stared pointedly at the duty roster. “You gonna sign in or what?”

At last, Darrilon stamped his hoof to the duty roster. “All right, Ember, I’ve got it from here.”

The dusky pegasus gave Darrilon a mocking salute as she left him at his post.

The door to Princess Celestia’s personal chamber was still closed, so Darrilon had a few moments to himself before the day began. The Guards’ hourglass, freshly turned for the new day, trickled grains of sand to its lower chamber one by one. Tuesdays were the days he most looked forward to: an entire day when he alone would accompany the Princess as she worked her magic, traveling across Equestria. No official chariot, not even a second guard—only the Solarian captain, Darrilon. Other ponies envied his exclusive access, imagining his position to be a plum job, working magical wonders and issuing decrees from a position of power; when in reality his post involved a great deal of hard work and frustration with Celestia’s unorthodox methods. Over time and through many excursions like today’s, he had watched her in action and learned the little tricks she used to keep Equestria running smoothly. But even after five years, she still surprised him every day with her insight and intuition. He had to remind himself frequently that she didn’t have the power to read minds.

Celestia often had her own agenda in addition to the official itinerary which Darrilon maintained. Traveling without a large official delegation and avoiding fanfare as much as possible allowed her a degree of discretion when handling delicate matters. In Darrilon’s experience, the most delicate matters were often also the most interesting.

He had worked hard his whole life, from before he had even made his Mark, to achieve this station. Dedicating himself to his military career had meant many personal sacrifices, but all of them worth it. He wouldn’t give up this job for anything. How could he when these missions were like a personal tutorial from the Princess herself on how to run Equestria, an incredible, priceless learning opportunity?

Celestia’s chamber door unlocked with a quiet click, his signal to enter. He found her facing the window, surveying her domain. Outside, the lands of Equestria were bathed in pre-dawn light, the long soft shadows merging the colorful buildings and lush mountain terrain into one muted mass. The Princess was as much a part of Equestria as the trees and the wind—as well as being his superior officer and divine ruler.

Her golden crown, the symbol of her office, levitated slowly down to rest just above her horn, the last traces of her magic fading as it settled into place. “Good morning, Captain Darrilon,” she said, still facing away from him. She was immaculate, as always, a shining example that every day he strove to match. Princess Celestia never worried about grey hairs.

“Good morning, Your Majesty.”

Celestia usually began each morning by giving Darrilon her personal additions to the day’s itinerary. Once, she had scratched the entire schedule, and instead of the stops he had planned, they galloped full-speed for hours, eventually arriving at some far, forgotten corner of Equestria, a group of standing stones ringed around a small cottage. It felt somehow holy, as if it were a shrine. The proportions of the cottage were wrong—Darrilon had to stoop to fit through the door, and the Princess was forced to kneel. Inside it seemed habitable enough, if a bit cramped. On the rough-hewn wooden table, the half-eaten remains of somepony’s lunch suggested the small house’s occupant had stepped out moments before.

Darrilon had been carrying a small box, gift wrapped with a curly red ribbon, which Celestia removed from his saddlebags and left on the table. She briefly scanned the cottage interior: a fireplace with mantle, two small circular windows, and a wooden chest in the corner, then nodded to herself in satisfaction and turned around for the long run home without further explanation.

He was tired, and a little frustrated, and new to his post back then, so he still harbored some hope that he might be able to ask the Princess a simple question and receive a direct response. “Why don’t you teleport us back to the castle?”

Celestia shook her head. “The journey is more important than the destination,” she said, leaving Darrilon to ponder that for a dozen hoofbeats. “Especially when the destination is Canterlot.”

Older and wiser now, Darrilon knew the direct approach was wasted on Celestia. He could learn more about her by observing her in novel situations, so he made sure to watch her expression with care as he took out the Grandgait scroll. “We received this last night, ma’am. The Crystal Chronometer has been damaged, and the town’s officials have asked for your help in their investigation.” He didn’t mention that they blamed Luna for the vandalism. How would she react?

She scanned the missive quickly, but to his disappointment, she didn’t betray any emotion beyond a tight smile. “This should prove entertaining,” she said, returning the scroll. “I assume we’ll be having lunch in the usual spot?” Darrilon nodded. “Good. I have a couple other stops we’ll need to make on the way. We have a busy day ahead of us, Captain!” She tossed her mane and held her head high, trotting out the door in a parody of a stuck-up royal princess. “We’d best get a move on. The sun doesn’t raise itself, you know!”

Captain Darrilon did his best to smile through gritted teeth. Someday, she would grow bored of starting each and every day with that same, tired joke. Someday soon.

Exiting the Palace through the southern gate, they passed the Royal Gardens on their way out. An astonishing variety of flora grew here, from common daisies and carnations to rare and exotic orchids. As Darrilon caught up with the Princess, he found her amongst some of the most precious blooms, cutting them down.

Groats, the Palace gardener, looked like he was close to having a heart attack. Technically, it was Celestia’s garden and he couldn’t deny her the right to tend it as she pleased. Groats was upset because Celestia was cutting Fairy’s Tears, and they only bloomed once every fifty years. Once cut, they would wither within a day—but as they died, the flowers were said to cast off a spectacular, magical glow. In their death throes, the shadows cast by the flickering lights made the petals seem to dance. Seeing the magical light show of a dying Fairy’s Tears was a rare event that only a few horticulturists had witnessed and documented.

Although today’s schedule did not have the flexibility for frivolous activities like flower arranging, Darrilon had learned that Celestia never did anything without purpose. Even a seemingly trivial or spontaneous act could later turn out to be a key component in some previously unseen long-range plan. By watching her closely, remembering and cataloging her actions, Darrilon had often gained insight as to how the Ruler of all Equestria managed her domain. His trust in her judgement was absolute. And so, even as the clock ticked away precious seconds, Darrilon patiently watched as Celestia moved a flower stem first here, then there, building up a bouquet above the flower bed, in a wall sconce decorated with flying pegasi and stylized cloud formations.

“These look lovely, don’t you think?”

“Yes they are, ma’am.” Another pony might wonder why she was wasting time, but if the Princess felt this was important, so be it. It had to be a scheme of some sort, and it had to be something short-term as well—not one of her decade-long plots, because these flowers wouldn’t last the day. Somepony today would see these flowers blooming, and their life would be changed. Who it would be or how it would happen, he had no clue.

Celestia gave him a closer look, apparently judging his response insufficient. One of the flowers separated from the bouquet, floated through the air, and attached itself to his breast plate. “See? A flower can make even a stodgy palace guard look friendly.”

Wearing a flower like that was against regulation, but he couldn’t quote regulations to the Princess. Making him wear it was typical of Celestia: always teasing, testing his boundaries to see how far she could push him. To react would only encourage her. At least the little flower was discreet; tucked away as it was, it was practically invisible. With a full day’s ride ahead, it would fall off soon enough. “The Sun Ceremony starts in two minutes, ma’am.”

Celestia stood, satisfied at last with her arrangement. “Race you,” she said, and before he could object, she was gone.

All he could do was chase after her.

By the time Darrilon arrived at the temple a large crowd thronged around the central dais. He had lost sight of Celestia after the first hundred yards, and didn’t know by how much she had beaten him. Even given a generous head start, Darrilon doubted he could win a race against the Princess. Weaving his way through the crowd, he caught sight of her again as she ascended the steps to the stage, and shook his head in amazement. Even though they had run a quarter mile, at a pace that left Darrilon breathing heavily, the Princess was not even winded. To look at her—taking her place with a stately, measured grace, her mane gently flowing, not a bead of sweat soiling her flank—nopony would guess that she had galloped here from the palace.

A hush fell over the assembly. The Raising of the Sun never failed to draw a crowd, and Darrilon felt a tingle of anticipation even though he had seen it hundreds of times before.

Celestia gazed into the distance for a moment, gathering her magic. Then, extending her full fifteen-foot wingspan, she launched into the air, pulling the sun up over the horizon. The crowd gasped, in response to the magical display and Celestia herself, silhouetted against the newborn sun, undeniably the divine avatar for all Equestria.

The air rang with the thundering of hooves as the audience pounded their approval. By raising the sun, Celestia gave life to the land. Every pony in Equestria was forever in her debt. She held a position of supreme power, a position Darrilon had never seen her abuse in the slightest. To the contrary, Celestia dedicated herself absolutely to her subjects, above and beyond any call of office. Even now, when Darrilon knew they had a long day’s journey ahead of them, and a list of tasks they would be lucky to complete, Celestia took her time with today’s audience, many of whom had travelled for days to watch this one brief ceremony.

An informal line began to form as the Princess descended to earth. Some ponies wanted hoofprints, autographs, or even photos. Some simply wanted to touch her and whisper a heartfelt “Thank you.” Every last pony left satisfied. Darrilon’s duties here were minimal; he picked up a dropped ribbon before it could be trampled into trash, and showed the ponies where they could line up to make their requests. The Princess’s generosity was contagious, an example each pony strove to follow, waiting their turn patiently and never asking for more than their fair share. Darrilon had only to stand at attention and look imposing. The crowd quickly dwindled down to one last mare and her child.

“But I know I had it with me,” the filly sniffled.

Her mother gave Darrilon an apologetic look. “She’s lost her favorite headband,” she said. “I don’t suppose you could—oh!”

Darrilon produced the red and white polka-dot ribbon he had saved from trampling. “Is this it?” he asked, the child’s squeal of delight providing all the answer he needed.

Her mother reaffixed the hairpiece. “Celestia help me,” she sighed, “you’d lose your own wings if they weren’t attached.”

The little filly fluttered her wings. “What’s that mean, Mommy? ‘Celestia help me’?”

“It’s a prayer. I’m asking her for strength, because you are such a bother it’s a wonder I can still stand after you’re done with me!” She said this last bit playfully, nipping her giggling daughter.

The filly danced out the gate with her mother. But just before they left, Darrilon heard the little girl ask, “Mommy, who does Celestia pray to for strength?”

If the mother answered, he didn’t hear. It was an interesting question. All the time Darrilon had served the Princess, he had never seen her curse, or swear, or pray.