A Wake of Mist and Flame

by heliopause

First published

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

Darrilon has proudly served Princess Celestia for many years, and risen to the rank of Captain of the elite squad known as the Solarian Patrol. But every day is a new challenge when your superior officer (and divine ruler) has no respect for protocol or procedure.

Illicit Flight

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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.

Sneak Preview

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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.


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With the last of their picnic carefully packed and stowed away, it was time to head to their primary destination: Grandgait. They had already covered almost half the breadth of Equestria and had still more to go, not to mention the return trip. Somehow the miles always seemed easier when he accompanied Celestia.

Grandgait was a bustling city, nearly as large as Canterlot itself, but where Canterlot was a noble city of equine aristocracy, Grandgait’s population was dominated by the merchant classes. A center of industry, its craftsponies were known throughout Equestria for their precision building, attention to detail, and intricate designs. Here, a pony could buy anything from an emerald hatpin to a walnut and glass limousine carriage.

At the city’s precise geometric center lay Grandgait Park, and at the center of the park rose the Crystal Chronometer, like a pin marking the city on a giant map. The famous landmark drew ponies every day to have their pictures taken and watch its display as it announced the hours.

Five stories tall, the Chronometer was constructed entirely of glass and semi-precious stones, allowing one to see through to the mechanisms inside and watch the turnings of the clockwork gears. Darrilon had fond memories visiting as a foal, watching the hours ring in. Everything started with a large polished lens perched atop the structure, tracking the sun, focusing it and sending beams of raw sunlight to the various sub-chambers within the chronometer. The light then passed through layers of refracting prisms, birthing rays of red, orange, and violet to race in opposing spirals up and down the tower. One brilliant green beam filled an aquamarine matrix, charging it until it glowed: a battery allowing the chronometer to function under an overcast sky. Another beam struck an array of mirrors mounted on a carousel, which began to spin, faster and faster, becoming a blur, winding the mainspring, which in turn drove the crystal gears and flywheels, visible as an ever-shifting interplay of reflected light.

After weaving through innumerable filters and mirrors, the beams would emerge from a screen of tiny portals, flowing across the clock face and becoming the hour and minute hands for the main display.

It’s dazzling and spectacular. Or, at least, that’s how Darrilon remembered it. Now the Chronometer stood dark and inert, its battery spent. No beams of light danced with its meshed gears. The capstone lens was missing; the driving engine which grabbed light from the sky and fed the apparatus, gone. Without it, the tower looked injured, like a wing with a primary feather plucked out.

Darrilon reread the message that Grandgait had set last night.

In so forth as the Chronometer, being an historical landmark, and a source of Inspiration to ponies from lands across Equestria…

He still couldn’t decide which was worse, the scroll’s legalese or its accusation. Grandgait’s mayor believed Princess Luna responsible for the theft of the Chronometer’s central crystal, and he wanted Celestia to retrieve it, or render some sort of punishment, or both.

Darrilon didn’t believe Luna had anything to do with it, and judging from her reaction this morning, Celestia agreed with him. This trip was a waste of time.

Assembled at the Grandgait city square were the mayor, his assistants, and his assistants’ assistants. At Celestia’s approach they all bowed low, their manes dusting the ground. “Princess Celestia, you honor us with your expeditious response.”

“You have raised a grave concern, Mayor,” the Princess said. “And your Chronometer is renowned throughout the land. It’s a shame for anything to happen to it.”

Everypony turned to look up at the lifeless shell of the Chronometer. It was so dead it seemed to suck the blue from the sky around it.

“And what is your evidence that my sister Luna bears the responsibility for this heinous crime?”

“She used her magic!” an anonymous pony shouted. Darrilon craned his neck to see who had yelled out. It was a pony at the far edge of the crowd, too far for Darrilon to see clearly. Whoever this pony was, he didn’t look like he belonged in this group of city officials.

The mayor sighed and adjusted his coat jacket. “It’s a matter of motive, Your Majesty. Our Chronometer is a testament to your gifts and abilities. It is powered by the light you bring to us each and every day. Clearly this”—he looked up at the stolen lens—”is an act of vandalism fueled by rage and resentment.

“The signs are obvious to those like you and me. For you see, I too am familiar with the heartache of a younger sibling who… disappoints.”

The crowd parted and gave Darrilon a better look at the pony who had shouted earlier. He did have an accent similar to the mayor’s, and the two of them could easily be brothers. But the mayor’s mane and tail were well groomed, while his brother was somewhat shaggy and needed a good brushing. And where the mayor’s hind quarters were marked with a parchment and gavel, his brother bore the mark of a wheelbarrow.

“I know how difficult it can be,” the mayor continued. “Covering up for their mistakes. Making excuses. It never seems to end.” He lowered his voice, to soften the volume of his words, if not their sharpness, and took two careful steps forward to position himself so that his hooves were in the shadow of the dark tower, while his head broke through to the sunlight. “Sometimes, when a sibling cannot hope to match an elder’s accomplishments, they seek instead to take them down, to destroy what they cannot hope to match.”

“Please, your Majesty.” One of the mayor’s assistants stepped forward. “Have you noticed anything odd about Luna’s behavior lately?”

Another townspony stepped forward. “I heard she counts numbers on a toy rack with beads,” she said, setting off a wave of murmurs through the crowd.

“Oh my,” Celestia replied. “That is odd.” Darrilon struggled not to laugh out loud.

“And I heard she likes to wear socks!” shouted yet another rabble rouser, drawing audible gasps and muttered admissions of distaste.

“Clearly, this deserves further investigation,” Celestia said—with Darrilon alone picking up her sardonic intonation. He moved to the back of the group, afraid he’d be unable to maintain a serious expression and give her away. The delegation continued forward around the perimeter of the tower base, while Celestia made noncommittal comments about ever more improbable tales of Luna’s behavior. Eventually Darrilon fell far enough behind that they disappeared around the bend, and he was able to relax, cracking a smile for the first time today.

Stepping off the sidewalk, Darrilon’s right front hoof hit something hard in the grass. There was an object buried in the ground here, the end of a wooden post or stake sticking up an inch or so and covered with a dusting of soil. Somehow it reminded Darrilon of another, much smaller town they had visited, about a year ago.

The settlement of Silver Spurs—calling it a village would be generous—had been one of Celestia’s last-minute additions to the itinerary. The town Speaker (they didn’t have any office higher than that) ushered them through an adorably amateur meet-and-greet, pointing out every accomplishment since Silver Spurs’ founding. Instead of an official delegation they were accompanied by, it seemed, every last pony in the entire settlement. The large crowd made Darrilon a little nervous, but the mood was convivial. All the amiable settlers wanted was to see their Princess.

“This is our community mess hall,” the Speaker pointed out, as they passed a large wood structure, painted red with black trim, the inside all one unpartitioned space filled with benches. “And on your left you can see our marketplace, where merchants from across Equestria gather every week to trade exotic goods.”

Earth ponies were capable of remarkable feats of construction. One of the tricks Darrilon had picked up, traveling with Celestia, was learning to spot the signs. He noticed what Celestia noticed. Recently overturned dirt, a shade darker than the surrounding fill. Patches of paint, slightly off-color as they dried to match. The way the floor felt under your hooves, when the joists had yet to settle to their final rest. A faint smell of sawdust in the air.

He was pretty certain that this “marketplace” where merchants gathered “every week” had been built just this morning. Celestia knew it, too, but she wasn’t saying anything, and so neither would he.

Before they left the marketplace they were interrupted by a couple pushing their way through the crowd. Darrilon tensed, but saw it was in fact a family, husband and wife, accompanied by their baby who couldn’t have been more than a couple days old, still wobbly on her feet and barely able to keep up with her parents.

The crowd grew silent as the young couple made their way to the front. But their courage evaporated as soon as they were directly before the Princess, and they stood there uncertain what to do next—until their newborn poked her head out from between their legs. “Please, your Majesty,” the father stammered. “Our daughter was born just this Harvest Day, and she would—I mean, we would…”

“We’d be ever so grateful,” his wife continued, “if your Majesty could give our daughter your blessing?”

Darrilon had seen variations of this same scene play out in towns across Equestria. Celestia never refused such a request; to the contrary, she seemed to draw energy from encounters like this. Everypony held their breath as the Princess knelt down to get a closer look at the child. The little foal blinked back, speechless, her huge eyes filled with the sparkling image of the Princess and her multihued mane flowing around them. Celestia bowed her head, gently touching her horn between the filly’s eyes. A pinprick of magic sparked and quickly bloomed like a bead of oil dropped onto water, surrounding the entire assembly, and then dispersing in a whispering breeze.

“Grow strong and true, little one,” Celestia said. “You have within you the power to do great deeds.”

The parents’ eyes went wide, and they thanked Celestia a dozen different ways, babbling praise and gratitude even as the Speaker tried to resume the tour. Darrilon casually moved between them, herding the family off to one side and separating them from the main group without being obvious about it, so that the tour could continue without further disruption.

The father looked down at his daughter with pride and astonishment. “‘Great deeds,’ she said. The Princess said she would do great deeds.”

Actually, she had said something else. Celestia was a master of verbal misdirection, speaking with such subtlety that ponies often mistook her meaning. Ponies tended to hear what they needed to hear. Today she had used a light comment to deepen a father’s belief in his own daughter. On the other hoof, Darrilon had witnessed the Princess deliver stinging rebukes to ponies who thought they heard only heartfelt praise.

The four of them were now safely moving away from the tour group, so Darrilon could leave them and rejoin Celestia. “You’re very lucky,” Darrilon said. “Be well.”

Before he was out of earshot, the father called out to him one last time. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”

He was talking about the Princess. The earth pony settler meant well, but his casual compliment betrayed a depth of ignorance. Princess Celestia was more inspiring, more generous—more wonderful than anypony could ever guess. Only Darrilon knew of her countless unrewarded sacrifices. If he lost his position, would he also forget what Celestia meant to the land, as the ravages of time ate away at his memories?

By the time Darrilon caught up with the group, the tour had already finished. Even with stops at every shack and hitching post, Silver Spurs didn’t have much to offer. Nothing more than a couple dozen earth ponies scratching out a living.

As they left the settlement, Celestia gave him a querying glance. “Their world is so small,” he explained. “There’s so much they don’t know.”

“Do you think their work is unimportant?”

He’d never given it much thought. “Somepony has to do it. We pegasi have the clouds. And unicorns are too…” He stopped himself before he said something inappropriate.

“…delicate?” the Princess suggested.

“I was going to say ‘refined,’” Darrilon said, recovering.

The Princess chuckled softly. Darrilon never would learn what was so important about that settlement. But Celestia did leave him some words of advice. “It would do you good to consider other viewpoints, Captain. Sometimes the firmest path can only be glimpsed through another pony’s eyes. You should change your perspective once in a while.”

Darrilon now knew why that buried post reminded him of Silver Spurs. It was a remnant of some kind of construction project. Somepony had recently built something here, adjacent to the Chronometer. But he couldn’t tell what sort of project it was from this angle, close up. He needed a better perspective.

Unfolding his wings, he took to the sky. In seconds he flew straight up, past the stories of the imposing timepiece, to a small cloud bank where he could land and observe.

From this lofty vantage point he could see traces of construction in the shape of a square to the west of the clock tower. It was a foundation; somepony had recently built, and taken down, another tower adjacent to the Chronometer. Darrilon scanned around the tower perimeter, but saw no other construction. Celestia and the city officials were on the opposite side, about half of their circuit completed. Darrilon had no trouble identifying the Princess, surrounded by her usual crowd of adoring fans.

Not everypony was so enraptured. The mayor’s brother, the one with the wheelbarrow mark, hung back at the trailing edge of the crowd, together with two of his earth pony friends, one khaki colored with a maroon mane, the other mustard yellow with blue bangs. Blue bangs looked up, spotted Darrilon, and then all three of them were looking at him—but as soon as they realized he was looking back, they broke eye contact.

Interesting. Here was his chance to prove himself to Celestia. He would handle this, just like she would. Darrilon folded his wings and power dove back to earth, raising a cloud of dust by braking at the last possible moment. He couldn’t appear in a magical flash of teleportation, but this came close.

The three of them looked sideways at him and shuffled their feet. “Hey there, Guard pony,” Wheelbarrow said. “Shouldn’t you be, um, guarding Princess Celestia?”

Darrilon ignored him; instead he paced out the perimeter of the foundation he had spotted from above. “When they first built the Chronometer,” he asked, “the primary lens was put in place by a team of earth ponies, wasn’t it?”

The mayor’s brother looked left and right, but there was nopony else Darrilon could be talking to. “Yeah, I guess…” he muttered, without meeting his gaze.

“They built a crane or something,” the khaki-colored one added. “We had to learn that in school. Ow!” He rubbed the spot on his shank where his friend kicked him.

Darrilon nodded, looking past the tower to imagine the additional construction beside it. “I’d’ve liked to have seen that. Seen ‘em build it. That primary lens must have weighed a couple tons at least.” The trio of young colts watched Darrilon as he looked back and forth between the dark Chronometer and the space where the construction crane must have stood. “I wonder how Luna carried it off.”

The question hung in the air for an awkward moment, until the yellow, larger colt, replied, “She used her unicorn magic, of course.”

Darrilon shook his head. “That’s the funny thing about unicorn magic. Every pony has their specialty. I’ve seen Luna summon monsters from Tartarus. I saw her turn a pony into spiders once.” He looked at the colts, all of them big, stocky earth ponies. They wouldn’t know if he stretched the truth a little. “Luna’s specialty is dark magic. I’m not sure a princess of the night could levitate a sun crystal—and besides, it would be much easier with a simple winch. Of course, you’d need to re-build the crane tower…”

Wheelbarrow’s friends exchanged a nervous glance. “She turned a pony into a spider?

Darrilon casually reached back with one hoof to scratch the back of his neck. “Not just one spider. It was a giant mass of spiders, hundreds of them, in the shape of a pony.” He paused, as if dredging up a memory so unpleasant it had been exiled to some cobwebbed corner of his brain. “Poor old Shimmer Skip. Celestia thought she could undo the spell if we kept the spiders together. But the spider-pony broke apart, and those spiders scattered everywhere…

His audience was now staring at him slack-jawed and goggle-eyed.

Wheelbarrow was the first to recover. “Luna isn’t going to turn anypony into a spider! Or spiders!”

“She might not turn you into spiders,” Darrilon said. “You’re the mayor’s brother. But if there’s somepony involved in this who doesn’t have political connections…?” He shook his head and shuddered. “I wouldn’t want to be in his horseshoes.”

That was all it took for the friends to turn on one another. Mustard gave Wheelbarrow a shove, forcing him to back up. “You set us up!”

“Put a bit in it!” Wheelbarrow hissed. Darrilon slowly retreated, as if to catch up with the tour group, and the other three ponies obliged him by edging the opposite direction, back away from him. “If you could just keep quiet until I get the crystal installed in the power plant, I can get my brother to—”

“You’ll get me to do what?” the Mayor asked. The main group—Celestia, the officials, everypony—had completed their circuit around the entire tower, and were standing right behind the mayor’s brother. “Is this all because of you? Another of your ridiculous schemes?”

The brothers faced each other, one stern and disapproving, the other pleading and desperate. “It will work this time, I’m sure of it!” the younger said.

“The only thing I’m certain of,” said the Mayor, “is that this is the last time you will ever cause me trouble. Take him to the detention hall, Hard Time.”

The city sheriff, a green and white pegasus, moved to take Wheelbarrow into custody. But the mayor’s brother bolted—straight through the crowd of officials, who all scrambled out of his way. “I’m not being turned into spiders!” he screamed.

Everypony just watched him as he became a rapidly vanishing dot on the horizon. But the mayor wasn’t letting his brother get away. “Follow him,” he told the sheriff. “He’ll lead you to where he’s hidden the crystal.”

Hard Time saluted and took to the air. The Earth pony didn’t stand a chance.

Darrilon assisted the city justice by identifying the other conspirators. The mayor apologized—profusely—for bringing them out to handle what should have been an internal matter. “Your Majesty, I take full responsibility. You will have my complete written report within a week.”

“Yes, Mayor,” Celestia said. “I’m sure Captain Darrilon is quite eager to read it.” Inwardly, Darrilon groaned. He used to have such fond memories of this city. “You seem to have everything well under hoof here, so I believe we’ll leave you to it?”

The city staff made half-hearted attempts to get them to stay for dinner, but everypony wanted to put this day behind them. With one last farewell, Celestia and Darrilon took to the clouds, galloping across the sky and leaving Grandgait far behind. At the uppermost heights of the atmosphere there were no trees to dodge or rocks to avoid, so a pegasus could really stretch his legs and run all-out.

The sun was nearing the horizon now, its fiery disk tinting the clouds shades of victory, of accomplishment and satisfaction. Where the winged ponies ran, the tops of the clouds became solid for them, reverting to insubstantiality after they had crossed, with the incandescent cloudstuff kicked up by their hooves swirling lazily in the air behind them: a wake of mist and flame.

Surely his performance this afternoon was proof positive of his competence. He had taken Celestia’s lessons to heart. He had unraveled the Grandgait mystery with a minimum of force and interference, using only a perfect little nudge to break up the entire mess before it could grow into something worse. His chest filled with pride and Darrilon allowed himself a wide smile. Was this how Celestia felt when her own schemes came to fruition?

The Princess turned to look at him. “Turning ponies into spiders? That’s a new one.”


“You know how much my sister loathes the stories and rumors that circulate about her, and I think you realized I was encouraging the Grandgait delegation only to measure the true extent of their disaffection. But how do you think Luna would react, were she to learn that the Guard were spreading rumors about her? Do you really think that was wise, Captain?”


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Darrilon’s brief taste of victory turned to ashes in his mouth. “Ma’am, I was only—I mean, you were…”

“You’ve been pushing yourself too hard lately, Captain. Sometimes I forget how much of a strain this kind of schedule can be on the Guard.”

Darrilon didn’t like where this was going. “Ma’am, I assure you I can handle—”

“You need some time off. I insist. For next Tuesday’s run I’ll use Thistlefell as my sole guard. You can have the day off.”

Darrilon stumbled, losing his gait for a moment. He had failed. He had thought he was proving himself, but all he had done was give Celestia another reason to get rid of him. He would spend next Tuesday exiled from her majestic presence. Alone.

The setting sun touched the mountain tops ahead. An evening gloom gathered, chilling the air to match the darkening sky. Maybe if he smoothed things over with Luna, Celestia would take him back. With the difference in their schedules though, he hardly ever saw Celestia’s younger sister, and he doubted Princess Luna even knew his name. What could he say to her to apologize for what he had done? He needed to come up with something quickly, for his job depended on it.

The stratospheric cloud layer which moments ago had been an open aerial field now roiled with dangerous divots, snags, and plateaus. Darrilon slowed to a trot, inspecting the unusual meteorology. It had been years he’d done any weather-working, but a pegasus always knows which way the wind is blowing.

A steady, unchanging breeze flowed from the northeast, turning south. Wind was usually a more capricious phenomenon, constantly changing from moment to moment. Darrilon lifted his nose, sniffed the air and triangulated. This was more like some sort of vortex. From miles around, the lines of the cloud ridges converged to one spot, directly over Trottington, the city they had visited earlier today.

Darrilon gestured, pointing out the vortex to Celestia, and they adjusted course, flying down to the outskirts of town. He had no idea what they would find there—these clouds were unlike anything he had seen before.

Trottington was being demolished.

It was hard to believe that hours earlier this was the site of a thriving, prosperous village, because now it was a challenge to find a single home still intact. The streets were littered with overturned carts and carriages squashed flat. Of the beautiful grandstand, where hours earlier Darrilon had been dazzled by an avant-garde light show, only one section remained standing, with the rest reduced to scrap lumber. Raging at the epicenter of the destruction was a nightmarish creature, a monster formed out of water, so tall it reached the clouds.

The water swirled up from streams, from the dammed river used to power the stage show, and from the saturated ground itself. These tendrils merged into a spinning column, squat at the base, tapering slightly as it rose to the sky, like an inverted water spout, fountaining out the top and cascading down the monster’s back in a saurian imbrication. Instead of arms, a ring of tentacles circled the torso, each one barbed with a tip like a flattened spade. Its crude head was a mockery of nature, little more than a gaping maw, a line of foam delineating an angled brow, and two jagged lightning-filled gashes for eyes.

At once amorphous and lethally solid, it grew a tentacle to match the dozen it already had and used it to smash the spectator stands. One brave pony rushed forward to slice through the tentacle with a shovel, but his improvised weapon passed harmlessly through the creature.

Darrilon had no idea how to fight this thing. He didn’t even know if it could be fought. “What is it?”

“It’s called a Maelstrom,” Celestia answered, and for one panicked instant he thought she had read his mind, until he realized he had spoken aloud. “Wind and water, given form and life through magic. In years gone past, it took a half-dozen pegasi and unicorns to complete the invocation.”

The monster roared with enough force to drive the air from their lungs.

Darrilon shifted into crisis mode and started down towards the town below, bracing against the wind. “We have to evacuate the city. I can corral the colts and fillies. You’ll have to return to Canterlot and—"

Celestia blocked him with an open wing. “Our role here is to observe, Captain. Nothing more.”

“But— but the monster!”

“Stand your ground, Captain.”

Never in all his years of service had Celestia given him an order so blunt. It stung like a reprimand. He hesitated, uncertain, but Celestia didn’t lower her wing until he mustered the will to step back.

Was this why she was replacing him? Had he become too familiar with her, acting on his own based on incorrect assumptions?

The scene below was agonizing to watch. He couldn’t identify anypony in charge; the few who hadn’t yet found shelter were fleeing in panic. Another house blew apart, literally exploding from an inrush of water, its timbers popping like bones breaking. Darrilon fought to maintain his footing as the hurricane winds gusted around him. Even Celestia had to take a step back, bracing her wings, and as she did, she brushed Darrilon’s flank with one wingtip—

And the entire landscape wavered and rippled.

Time slowed. The trees which a moment ago had thrashed and convulsed from the gale now swayed in a graceful waltz with airborne debris tumbling lazily by. The freight train noise from the Maelstrom became muffled, as if coming from far away.

The wind, although still there, was more like treacle than air, pushing against him with a slow insistence. He was afraid to move, for fear it would break the magic somehow. Did Celestia know he was caught in her spell?

The colors were muted as well, as if he were now looking through a thick pane of dirty, warped glass. Darrilon could see himself and Celestia without distortion, but the entire town below was slightly fuzzy and indistinct, save for one little pegasus filly: Whitewater, the young pegasus with a talent for splashing water.

She ran from house to shuttered house, seeking a place to hide. He could hear her too, her panicked breaths and pleas for help, as if she were standing beside him. A looming shadow startled her into looking up. The creature was almost on top of her.

She stumbled backward, tripping over the unconscious body of another pony lying on the ground. With a start, Darrilon recognized Jazmataz, the unicorn that had caused her so much trouble earlier. Darrilon had to give her credit—she didn’t hesitate for a moment. Taking her friend’s tail in her teeth, she dragged him backward to the temporary safety of an overturned cart.

The unicorn coughed and opened his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he moaned. “Please, make it stop.”

Whitewater reared back. “Me, make it stop? I’m not doing this!” She peeked around the cart’s edge. “It’s that thing out there!”

Bewildered as to what Celestia’s plan was, he looked over at her, and saw something that shocked him even more than the town’s devastation. Princess Celestia was praying.

“Be strong, my children,” Celestia whispered. “I have played my part and now the stage is yours. Please. Let your hearts guide you.”

To whom does the Goddess pray? She prays to the children.

“It’s your monster,” Jaz insisted, even as Whitewater shook her head in denial. “You made it.” His horn glowed as he cast the spell to charge the ditch water around them with rainbow-colored magic. “It’s why I kept teasing you. I was jealous that you can make the water move like that. But I’m really sorry and I promise I won’t tease you anymore and please make the monster go away!”

The Maelstrom looked down and noticed the two ponies below. Darrilon tensed as the creature raised a tentacle to swat them with a crushing blow. Whitewater looked up and screamed, “No!” her wings beating frantically backward, spraying the ditch water up in a wall… a sparkling wall full of water magic. A golden flash sparked across her barrier, leaving bricks of red stone in its wake. The wall of water had transformed into an actual brick wall!

The Maelstrom’s tentacle crashed into the wall, causing the monster to recoil in pain, even as Whitewater’s barrier collapsed back into a million tiny droplets. The pegasus had only bought them a few moments.

Realization came to Darrilon and Whitewater simultaneously. Her friend was right. She was responsible for it all. Somehow the unicorn magic mixed with her own water shaping talents had created a monster with the power to level a city.

“I did this,” she said.

Darrilon wondered how it had all happened. Maybe another argument had sparked enough subconscious frustration to manifest in this form. Maybe she’d been practicing her part in the show a little too long and didn’t realize what was happening.

He watched her eyes fill with anguish as the full weight of her quandary became clear. She could fight the Maelstrom and use her talents against her own creation, but to do so she would have to admit, to herself and everypony else, that she was the one responsible for it in the first place, that she had within her these horrible, destructive forces. She looked left and right, seeing everywhere around her the whole town, destroyed.

“I did this.”

It was an impossible decision for one so young. It’s always easier to curl up in a ball, squeeze your eyes shut and hope the monster goes away. Darrilon had seen colts crack during Guard training when faced with situations nowhere near as intense as this. The sight of that little pony unfurling her wings and raising herself up to face her own rampaging creation thrilled him to his core.

“I did this,” she said, “and I can undo it.”

She braced herself, taking a wide stance, and probed the wind’s fury with her wing feathers. There was something unique in how she was shaping her wings. Some feathers were rigid, guiding the air; others were loose and fluttering. Even though Darrilon could see her with preternatural detail, he knew he’d never be able to duplicate this himself. This special talent was hers alone.

Whitewater snapped her wings forward and down, spinning a pair of vortices which hit the Maelstrom where it connected to the ground. For a moment, the monster didn’t notice. But then a wobble appeared in the monster’s form and its base began to destabilize, the currents of water which formed its shape unraveling. It tried to fight the spreading infection by shifting its mass and reshaping itself, but there was nothing to fight—it was simply dissolving from the ground up. The swirling effect quickly spread upwards, erasing its tentacles, torso, and finally its head.

Just like that, it was gone. Celestia’s spell collapsed and time resumed its normal flow for Darrilon. A clear, cloudless sky stretched across the horizon. The sudden silence left by the monster’s disintegration lasted but a moment, as a pair of songbirds returned to their nest, chirping at each other.

From here it became a standard clean-up and rescue mission, putting Darrilon on the more familiar footing. He and Celestia appeared in the sky over the outskirts of town, “just missing” the great commotion. A crowd of townsponies had gathered around Whitewater, surrounding her, their mood teetering between fear and relief. It was impossible to guess if they were about to congratulate her for saving the town, or lynch her for almost destroying it—so Celestia made sure to set the mood with her own arrival, surrounding herself with a nimbus of magical energy that sparked and sizzled as they descended from above.

“It looks like you put on the most impressive show of all, Miss Whitewater. Everypony here owes you their gratitude,” the Princess said.

“Your Majesty!” the little filly stammered. She had fallen again, weak from exhaustion. Her plumage and coat were a bedraggled, muddy mess. “I didn’t mean— I mean, I didn’t know…”

Celestia flicked her left ear twice, a signal for Darrilon to move forward. He eased his shoulder under Whitewater’s wing, helping her up. She continued to lean on him even as she stood; she was still very much in shock and could collapse at any moment.

“I think we need to get you something warm to eat,” he said, as he helped her away from the crush of the crowd. “Why don’t we find a spot to rest while Princess Celestia talks to your parents?”

Such a strange talent she had. She had immense power, but that power was locked away unless she could find some friends among the unicorns. Her family eagerly accepted Celestia’s invitation to let her train in Canterlot, although Darrilon noted the pride they showed at the royal invitation was tinged with a note of relief, no doubt thinking that the town would be safer if she practiced her new talents someplace far away.

Before Celestia and Darrilon left, they talked with a red and gold stallion who was the forepony in charge of construction for town. “Don’t you worry, ma’am,” he reassured the Princess as they surveyed the damage left by the Maelstrom. “This is nothing. We can have this fixed in no time a’tall. We’ll be ready for opening night.”

Groaning and creaking, the last upright section of the grandstand came crashing down, splattering mud everywhere and forcing Darrilon to shield Celestia behind his outstretched wings. The forepony glared at the ruined structure, daring it to contradict him in front of the Princess. “Opening night,” he repeated. “You have my word.”

Second Chances

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The Palace’s southern gate never looked so inviting. Today’s excursion had been one of the longest he could recall—they were usually back much earlier—and it had been filled with errors from start to end. Celestia’s Fairy Tears bouquet still there, arranged in its decorative wall sconce, now gently mocking him with the first pinpricks of light leaking from the petals’ edges. They probably had under an hour of life left before they wilted and died, giving off a dazzling light show in the process. Celestia wrapped the flowers in a spell and carried them up the stairs to the royal chambers.

Why had she cut them this morning? It would be one more mystery he would never solve. Handing in his resignation was the best option, all things considered. Instead of firing him, Celestia had used today to show him his limitations and give him the opportunity to resign with dignity. And if he left the service, he wouldn’t have to explain himself to—

”P-Princess Luna,” he stammered. For here she was, standing before him in the Royal Suite: the one pony he had hoped to avoid. He froze, uncertain what to do as the midnight alicorn blinked back at him.

Before he could react, Celestia charged forward. “Dear sister! How are you this evening?”

Luna flashed a wan smile. At least she wasn’t in one of her moods. “I am well, Celestia. In fact I—”

“That’s wonderful,” Celestia said. “Do you know, I just got back from Grandgait, and there’s a new rumor there that you enjoy turning ponies into spiders!”

Darrilon tried to merge with the wall behind him.

Whatever good humor Luna had evaporated, and the chamber seemed to darken. “Celestia, why dost thou persist in spreading these scurrilous rumors? My reputation is but newly mended, and yet here you are tearing its cloth anew.”

“Me? I didn’t say anything. It was… it was the Solarian Captain!”

Luna glanced over at him, and he found himself paralyzed, although whether it was the start of some foul spell, or simple fear, he couldn’t tell. But just as quickly Luna dismissed him with a tiny snort, and returned her accusing gaze to meet her sister’s smirk. “Honestly, Celestia. You lack even the scintilla of maturity necessary to take responsibility for your own childish pranks.” She gathered her dignity and sauntered from the room in a cool and elegant four-beat gait, but couldn’t resist a parting comment. “That you are the elder sister is an accident of birth and nothing more.”

Once she was gone, Darrilon found he could once again speak. “Ma’am, I… I…”

“You’re welcome, Captain,” said Celestia.

She had saved him. That had been his last hope, that he could somehow patch things up with Luna. But when confronted with her face to face, he froze. He had been unable to even begin an apology, and Celestia had had to come in to rescue him.

His post outside her door stood waiting for him. To take up that post felt like an admission of defeat. “Ma’am, about today, I…”

She turned and looked at him, expectantly.

Unable to meet her gaze, Darrilon glanced out the window. But it was full dark out, and he only saw his own reflection, a white stallion floating in a sea of infinite black. The trials of the day had taken their toll on his coat and mane. His mark, his precious kite shield reflecting a quarter sun, seemed sullied by the dirt and grime.

“If I could just have one last chance. A chance to prove myself.”

Celestia’s expression softened a bit as she seemed to take pity on him. She floated the bouquet of Fairy’s Tears over to him, and he took them, puzzled at their ultimate meaning.

“These flowers are for somepony special, Captain. I need you to deliver them for me. Can you figure out who they’re meant for?”

Darrilon had no idea. But it didn’t matter. She was giving him another chance! A test, a puzzle for him to solve.

Celestia looked over at the official hourglass, measuring out his remaining shift in grains of sand. “If you take your post, Captain, and think it over, I’m sure it will come to you. In fact, I’m certain the Captain of the Solarian Patrol has all the clues he should need to solve that riddle before his shift ends.”

So, if he could figure out who the flowers were meant for before the hourglass ran out, he would keep his position. It was his very last chance. A thin lifeline indeed, but Darrilon would take it. “Very well, ma’am. Will that be all for tonight?”

“Yes, Captain. There is one last thing I need to take care of, but I won’t require your assistance for that. Good night. And… good luck.”

Celestia closed her door, leaving Darrilon effectively alone at his post. The light inside her chambers switched on, leaking out from under the door and puddling over his rear hooves.

Darrilon resisted the urge to pace. He had about thirty minutes before his shift ended. Thirty minutes to figure out who the flowers were meant for; thirty minutes to come up with an answer and save his job.

He started by reviewing every member of the palace staff. He had, in the practice of his normal duties, committed to memory a list of every pony who worked at the castle, both day and night shift. Most of them he was able to dismiss because he couldn’t imagine any plausible interest they could have for a bouquet of flowers, no matter how exquisite. Of the ones remaining, not many would have the knowledge to recognize the Fairy’s Tears as something out of the ordinary. Groats, the palace gardener, knew, of course. But he had been there and had seen the Princess cut those blossoms. It was a minor inconvenience for him, at most. Darrilon couldn’t see how Groats could be the answer. If Celestia wanted to annoy her gardener she could choose a dozen more effective ways.

He made it through the entire roster without finding a clear suspect, so he started to go through to the ponies on the admissions list, the ones who were scheduled to visit today. Could it be that some pilgrim needed an inspiring gift that would spark them to become a great artist, perhaps?

It didn’t make sense. Celestia had said, “it will come to you,” and implied that he already had enough information to figure it out, if he could only put it all together. Think!

Only a few minutes remained before his shift ended—and his career with it. Perhaps he really was getting too slow for this job. His skull felt like it was filled with leftover pudding. He must have missed somepony while working from memory; he needed to take notes. Rummaging through his saddlebags, he pulled out the Trottington light show invitation. Now if he could just find a quill—

The bouquet of Fairy’s Tears burst into a euphonic chord of light. His time was up.

Ember Snap, coming to relieve him for the night shift, appeared at the top of the stairs. Her eyes were wide, dazzled by the magic flowers he was holding, and her usually sarcastic mien now showed a puzzled smile as she came up to him for their ritual changing of the guard.

It will come to you. Oh, Celestia. He held out the flowers to Ember, who looked surprised—and impressed. “These are for you,” he told her.

And then he figured it out. Celestia had planned it all down to the last detail. He thought he knew her, knew her tricks, her little manipulations—but she was still, always, one step ahead of him. What did he have? He had a day off, a bouquet of flowers, and tickets to a show. All day long, he had been worried that Celestia was going to fire him, when what she was really doing was setting him up on a date.

“Captain Darrilon,” she said, “I had no idea you were such a romantic.”

Darrilon coughed. “Neither did I.”

She made a show of signing the duty roster. “You know, with our schedules the way they are, we never have a chance to hang out and talk.”

He scuffed his hooves on the floor and looked down at the semicircle of light he was standing in. Celestia had laid her traps and snared him perfectly, but now it was his moment. He thought about Whitewater and the decision she had to make. Was Celestia somehow watching him, even now? She had delivered him, here, to this one perfect moment.

He could still say no, and walk away.

He took a breath. “Actually, Ember, my schedule’s changed. I have next Tuesday off.”

Her face brightened. “Really? I’ve heard Trottington has this amazing new light show. But the tickets are impossible to get.”

Darrilon laughed. Ember peered at him oddly, but he couldn’t help it. “As it happens, I have two tickets to Tuesday’s show. Opening night. Would you care to join me?”

Ember twirled the Fairy’s Tears bouquet around, casually creating a spectacular interplay of shadows on the walls and ceiling. “I’ll be looking forward to it all week.”

After he had signed out on the duty roster and before he collapsed into bed, Darrilon had one last task. He had to inform Thistlefell she’ll be covering for him on the best job in Equestria. Darrilon tried to remember the last vacation he’d taken, but it must have been before he made Captain. Thistlefell would be overjoyed when he broke the news, of course. That poor mare. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

With the long day behind him, and his day off to look forward to, Darrilon felt a lightness of spirit he hadn’t known he’d been missing. This whole day had been one misstep after another: jumping to conclusions, making hasty decisions, worrying over nothing. It wasn’t like him at all. He should have been able to see what Celestia was up to, except that he’d been off-stride ever since this morning, when he found that grey hair—

Darrilon froze as a terrible thought occurred to him. Could she be responsible for that? He wouldn’t put it past her, and the curiosity burned at him. He turned back to look at Canterlot Castle, counted the windows up the tower to find Celestia’s room, and saw her light was still on.

“Did you do that to me?” he wondered aloud. “Did you plant that grey hair on my hair brush, just to rattle me?”

The light in Celestia’s window winked out.