• Published 20th Dec 2012
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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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Their next destination was one that Celestia had added to Darrilon’s schedule: a small town named Trottington, where a group of entrepreneurial ponies had apparently combined unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony magics into some kind of stage show. The show’s producers, proud of their creation, had invited Celestia to a sneak preview performance. Accompanying her to events such as this was one of the perks of Darrilon’s job.

The town was only a few miles off, and the easy pace Celestia set would see them there in plenty of time, as well as giving them a chance to talk along the way.

“Last week you mentioned you had some promising officers coming up through the ranks,” she began. “Is there one in particular you would recommend for the Solarian Patrol?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve had my eye on a pegasus named Thistlefell for a while. Distinguished record. Plus, she has a certain… mental flexibility I think you would appreciate. She’d make a fine addition to the unit.”

“Good. I’ve been looking for somepony to promote up to Solarian officer. Some fresh blood will keep the unit from going stale.”

Darrilon hesitated. He was the most senior officer in the Solarians. If Celestia thought the unit was becoming stale, did that mean she’d need senior officers to retire? Did she know about his unauthorized flight this morning? Was this her subtle way of telling him he’s on the way out?

Perhaps he had failed one of Celestia’s tests, a test he hadn’t even known he had taken.

These Tuesday solo missions with Princess Celestia were the highlight of his week. Darrilon couldn’t imagine spending the time any other way. His career—his whole life—had been devoted to attaining this role. He had known this was his destiny, from the moment he had made his Mark. Without Celestia and the Solarian Patrol, he—

“Is there a problem, Captain?”

“No ma’am,” Darrilon replied, trying to keep his voice as flat and formal as possible. “I’ll inform her tonight. She’ll be thrilled.”

Thistlefell was a fine young pegasus, but Darrilon was not ready to be put out to pasture. He would have to make a special effort today, to demonstrate his worth to Celestia, prove that he still had what it takes to be Captain of the Solarian Patrol.

The sound of their hoofbeats changed from the dull thudding of the packed dirt to the staccato clip-clop of a paved road, approaching the outskirts of Trottington. Darrilon glanced down at his legs, already covered in a thin film of earth and grime, and back to the dusty hoofprints they left behind them, tracking all the miles to Canterlot, farther than he could see.

Celestia detoured them around the main city gates, choosing instead to enter the city through a more rural section to the east. Normally any city receiving a royal visit would assemble an official delegation to meet the Princess, and when she toured with her normal retinue this delegation would greet her, escort her from place to place, and ensure she saw only the best that the town had to offer. But Celestia preferred an unfiltered view, so she took advantage of the times she travelled with only a single guard to observe the settings on a more intimate level.

Trottington was bisected by the Delamare river, running roughly northeast/southwest through the town. As they cut through an orchard on the city outskirts, Darrilon noted a large earthworks project along the river’s banks. The town’s earth ponies had redirected and channeled the river, forming a lake roughly the size of the Wonderbolt’s practice arena back at Canterlot. Outflowing trenches directed water towards the town center, similar to irrigation canals. The scale and expertise of the engineering was impressive.

The ground itself was saturated and marshlike in places, making walking a bit difficult as the muck sucked at his hooves. Stepping around yet another mud puddle, he almost didn’t notice that Celestia had stopped, concealed in the leafy shade, to observe a pair of foals a bit further down the river bank.

“Stop it, Jazmataz! You’re making me late!”

A sea-green pegasus filly was trying to fly off, but Jazmataz, a medium blue unicorn with a saxophone mark, held her back with a restraining spell. She struggled a bit, her flank heaving as she drew in air, the wavy curls of her mane tossing back and forth. But her wings were more delicate than powerful, and she didn’t have the strength to pull away.

“What are you gonna do, Whitewater? Splash me to death?”

Her cutie mark was a spray of water, arcing back against itself in an odd figure eight. Was splashing her talent? She certainly tried, flapping her wings to blast air downwards, ricocheting off the ground and raising a spray of water which fell over the blue unicorn. Although her blasts were uncannily accurate, the water merely moistened the unicorn’s coat.

Darrilon looked to Celestia, but the Princess remained hidden in the orchard, taking no action. He could easily break up this little spat before it grew to something more serious, but not without orders. He had faith in Celestia, and would show her the depth of his trust. The Captain of the Solarian Patrol would follow Princess Celestia’s orders, spoken or unspoken, no matter how strange or difficult.

Sure enough, his faith was rewarded when a third pony came into view. She had a parted curtain cutie mark, and Darrilon guessed from the way Jazmataz dropped his spell and backed off that this earth pony was an authority figure of some sort.

“Miss Dancer, Whitewater dumped a ton of water on me!”

“I did not!” the filly squeaked. “You were—”

“That’s enough,” Miss Dancer snapped. “Whitewater, you’re late for rehearsal.”

“But I—”

“Go. Now.”

The filly tromped off, passing a little too close to the spot where Darrilon and Celestia were hiding, although Whitewater never looked in their direction. “They’re so ratty all the time,” she muttered, sulking back to her rehearsal. “Why are all the horn heads like that?”

Miss Dancer turned her attention to the colt before Whitewater was out of sight. “And you, Jaz. Don’t think for a second I believe you’re innocent. I don’t want you causing any more trouble this afternoon. We have a very special visitor coming today and everything must be perfect.”

The little colt dipped his head and became a perfect model of decorum. “Of course, Miss Dancer.”

Celestia started to back away, and Darrilon retreated with her. Children could be cruel sometimes, but a pony had to learn to stand up for herself. That poor pegasus filly, though, with a talent for splashing water. Not every pony could have an awe-inspiring gift.

Celestia was looking at him. “Sometimes the most powerful talents need a little push.”

Darrilon shivered. She can’t read your mind. Even so, he forced himself to think of something else. His own mark was a flawless kite shield, reflecting a rising sun. Wasn’t that proof enough that this position was rightfully his? And if it wasn’t, what did that mean for Darrilon? What happens to a pony who can no longer walk his destined path?

At the town center, Celestia and Darrilon met up with the show’s production staff, who gave them a VIP tour of the backstage facilities and escorted them to their seats at the auditorium. The general audience seating rose some height above the stage, providing drainage and a drier, more comfortable footing. In higher tiers above this area rose the VIP seating, the box seats, and finally, at what Darrilon judged to be the best seats in the house, a box reserved for Princess Celestia. Darrilon took his customary position at her right.

“We’re still working out a few kinks in the system,” the show’s producer explained. He produced a pair of tickets with a flourish. “Perhaps Her Majesty would return for our opening night…?”

Darrilon accepted the tickets on Celestia’s behalf, stowing them in his saddlebag. He intercepted all such gifts, for later cataloging, storing, and writing the inevitable thank-you notes. “We’d love to attend,” he said, “but you do understand the Princess has a very busy schedule.”

The producer accepted this excuse with no small reluctance, but his further protests were interrupted by the house lights dimming. Below, groups of ponies took their places, waiting for their cue, and a hush fell upon the arena.

A trio of earth ponies started things going by raising a gate, allowing a rush of water to flow through a wide channel dug around the center stage. At regular intervals around this channel were stations of unicorn ponies. As the water flowed past, the unicorns dipped their horns in the water. Through some spell Dar was unfamiliar with, the unicorns were able to color the water, charging it magically and making the stream run in rainbow hues.

The technicolor stream next flowed past groups of pegasi, who caused the water to break up and swirl through the air by rapidly fanning their wings. Darrilon spotted the little pegasus Whitewater in one of these groups. She looked so happy, splashing water, doing her part for the production. He should have guessed that there was a place for every pony talent.

And then, as he watched, the colored water began to form pictures in mid-air. Giant flowers bloomed, spreading their petals and swaying in an imaginary breeze. Stylized ponies ran across fields of grass, exploded into pinwheel fireworks and re-formed into flocks of fiery birds trailing whorls of smoke. The liquid kaleidoscope swirled and twisted in patterns large and small, and the longer he stared the more Darrilon thought he could see other images, pictures hidden within the overall portrayal which seemed to hint at a greater significance and meaning than the simpler, surface imagery; but every time he tried to look directly at those other images, they vanished, like a mirage evaporating under the desert sun, only to reappear again, maddeningly, somewhere else in his peripheral vision.

Darrilon forced his eyes closed and gave himself a shake to break free of the mesmerizing display. It was all quite impressive, but he was on duty. Protecting the Princess meant he couldn’t get distracted by pretty picture shows. So he opened his eyes again, but with careful professional detachment, taking in the whole of his surroundings.

Nothing stood out as a pressing security concern. By the ground floor rafters, a game of catch had been abandoned, the gaudily decorated ball having been forgotten as soon as the show began. The entire audience—in fact, everypony not directly involved with the show—was rapt with attention at the spectacle before them. Even Princess Celestia had fallen under its spell.

The director, scanning the production with a critical eye, paused to check for Celestia’s reaction. “What do you think, your Majesty?”

“Oh, it’s quite beautiful,” Celestia said. “Almost perfect.”

“Thank you, it— wait, almost perfect?”

Celestia raised a hoof. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sure nopony will notice that small gap on the bottom right.”

The director frowned and looked back at the show. He whispered instructions to one of his assistants, and Darrilon watched the command get passed all the way down to the stage below, where Miss Dancer (the stage manager) listened, nodded, and motioned for some of the ponies to move closer together.

One of those ponies was Whitewater. Now she was practically flank to flank with Jazmataz and his friends. Darrilon glanced over at Celestia. She was up to something. But what?

The water where the unicorns dipped their horns began to churn and bubble like it was boiling. The images in the water screen above started to flicker and lose coherence, but Darrilon was much more interested in the drama playing out below. He couldn’t hear what was being said down there, but neither Whitewater nor her antagonists looked at all happy to be working in such close proximity. Darrilon tensed, anticipating the inevitable fight, but before it could happen, the water itself rose up and… growled? He was too far away to see it clearly, but something had spooked the unicorns into backing down. The water calmed, and the picture show resumed without a hitch.

Whitewater seemed as confused as everypony else. Had she done something, or was it unicorn magic? Darrilon thought he had seen a face in the—

“Oh, Captain Darrilon!” Celestia exclaimed. “Did you catch that bit where they formed our flag out of shooting stars? Truly spectacular, don’t you think?”

Darrilon snapped his eyes forward and nodded. “Yes it is, ma’am.”

After they had left Trottington, Celestia never mentioned her little subterfuge, and Darrilon knew it would be futile to ask. Like the flowers she had cut in the palace garden, he would have to wait and see how it all played out. With a little more luck, he might uncover some more clues today. For now, he couldn’t see any significance in a couple of troublemaking foals, but it was a rare day when he could fit together one of Celestia’s puzzles before the last piece was revealed.

On the other hoof, Celestia wasn’t at all reluctant to discuss the water show’s magical effects. Although the spell was new to Darrilon, the Princess had seen it before. This particular combination of pony magics, she told him, had first been discovered centuries ago, but had been lost at some point, and only now rediscovered.

Darrilon found that difficult to believe. “Just… lost, ma’am? It’s a beautiful and spectacular effect. How could something like that just be lost?”

Celestia paused for a moment, considering her answer, but as she turned back to reply she spotted a shady glade framed by tall oak trees which fluttered with cooling breezes. “My, what a perfect spot for lunch. Are you hungry, Captain?”

His stomach had been rumbling for the past couple miles, but he never let his own needs affect their schedule. Darrilon began unpacking their meal from his bags and setting up a picnic. Today’s royal repast began with a pomegranate and goat cheese appetizer, followed by toasted sandwiches of watercress, arugula, and caper berries, accompanied by a cool, fizzy mint beverage.

Celestia, as usual, ignored the food the castle staff had prepared, and ambled over to the edge of the glade. This was one of Equestria’s borders; on the other side grew the wild flora of Everfree. Celestia took two steps across the boundary and lowered her head. While Darrilon dined on the finest of Canterlot cuisine, the Princess began to graze, eating the grass of the Everfree Forest.

He no longer felt guilty, eating the lunches that some of the most distinguished chefs in Equestria had prepared for their beloved ruler. The first time she had asked him to indulge himself, he had refused, citing matters of propriety. Reluctantly, Celestia had confided in him that there had been threats of poison against her, and she needed him to taste everything for safety. Darrilon had been horrified that somepony might even consider such a thing, but he gradually accepted the duty of royal food taster with stoic determination, until he realized how foolish he was for believing her in the first place. In the end, Celestia got what she wanted. He ate everything the Canterlot kitchens prepared each day, and gave Celestia a full and honest accounting of how wonderfully tasty it all was, so that she could convey her honest compliments to the chefs.

Darrilon had grazed on raw grass before, during training exercises in the Guard and on long missions when they couldn’t pack food. But eating grass from the Everfree Forest! The tiny blades looked wrong. They were bent and disfigured, flawed with tears and ragged edges. No two blades were the same height or the exact same shade of green, unlike the uniform Equestrian grass Darrilon was familiar with. Some of the grass shaded to yellow or spotted brown! Just the thought of eating it made Darrilon’s stomach roil. And yet, Celestia had come here to the edge of the Everfree Forest, day after day, year after year.

He watched her as she cropped a mouthful, chewed it slowly, and then swallowed with a grimace. She caught him looking at her and flashed him an exaggerated expression of disgust, bugging out her eyes and sticking out her tongue. “Blecch!”

Darrilon looked away and stuffed the last bite of watercress sandwich in his mouth, trying not to smile. Beneath him, the familiar Equestrian grass carpeted the ground in dense green perfection from his hooves to the glade’s border. This little pasture had grown since the last time they had been here. The spot where Darrilon now stood used to be a part of Everfree.

Equestria was expanding, one mouthful of grass at a time. Celestia worked tirelessly to expand her empire in so many ways, without recognition, without thanks, without anypony even knowing what she did. Except Darrilon.