A E G I S
-by quotidian torture-
- - - - -
The throne room was as he remembered it from the last time he had been there, years ago. All polished, silver-flecked marble, inlaid with gold and trimmed with the faintest hint of diamond filigree. It spoke of power. Elegant, yes. Restrained and dignified, absolutely. But power nonetheless.
Power that, for the first time, he felt he was treading dangerously around.
Still, he asked again.
“Are you sure, your highness?”
A long sigh told him her answer before she spoke. “For the third time, yes.”
He felt a hitch in his throat, a sense of overstepping his bounds. Apology was necessary. “Forgive me. It is not my place to question your wishes, of course, but...”
Her expressions softened, the barest glimmer of a grin creeping across it. “But?”
He sucked in a relieved breath and continued. “It’s just that... well, your Sister has the full protection of the entire Royal Guard, yes? So what difference does assigning one more make?” And why me, of all the candidates? He thought.
The Princess smiled, radiant as the sun in the skies above, and all worry at offence fled from his thoughts.
“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that you doubt my judgement.”
And just like that, he was back to mortified. By the Heavens above, if she wasn’t just toying with his emotions...
“O-Of course not, your Highness. I only, ah-”
“Good.” She said, still smiling. “Now if you would be so kind as to excuse me, I have a sun to set.”
He took his cue, bowed, and fled.
- - - - -
Nightfall swept across Equestria.
It came, as it always did, with a surprising swiftness. The sun dropped from the sky like an ember floating down from the updraft of a camp fire, disappearing over the horizon to make way for the moon to climb in its wake. Darkness slid over the mountains of Canterlot, chasing the light from its former home, across the plains, and finally over the edge of the world. It pooled in the shadows of the hills at the great city’s feet and dripped off the towers of the royal palace.
One tower in particular that I couldn’t stop staring at. The thin, tapering spire that housed the private quarters and study of Princess Luna. The tower that I was already supposed to be at.
Well, no sense delaying things further. No reason to put off my meeting with the Princess of the Night, second most powerful being in all of Equestria and former arch-enemy of the Princess I had sworn my allegiance to, years ago.
Nope, no reason at all.
I swallowed air through a dry throat and started walking. Walking and not flying, mind you, because I needed some time. Not because I was scared, perish at the though. One of Celestia’s Royal Guard, shaking in his shoes like a little foal? Of course not. No, because I needed to come up with something, anything to say to Princess Luna. Yeah. That was it.
So how to go about this?
A thousand pardons for the interruption, your Highness, but your Sister has commissioned me as your personal guard and assistant, and... uh... I thought I’d better get on that right away?
Hello your Highness, I hate to be a bother, but you see, Princess Celestia thinks that you’re going a bit batty all cooped up in that tower, and she wants someone to keep an eye on you. You know, to make sure you’re not going to go full Nightmare Moon on us again.
No, idiot, that’s even worse.
Hey moonbeam, whaddaya say you and me get out of this stuffy old tower-
I can’t help but smack myself in the face with a hoof for that one. Good Goddesses no, what am I thinking?
Hello, my name is Ineighgo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to-
Hilarius as it might be, no.
I’m jerked out of my thoughts thanks to my own clumsy hooves, nearly tripping over the first in a huge number of marble steps. Of course I can’t help but let my eyes follow it up, and up, and up, as it winds around a tower decked in lambent silver and soft cerulean moonstone.
“Oh, cloud-chaff. I’m here already?”
I can hear a note of grating panic in my own voice, but I tamp it down and start climbing. A few minutes later, and with nothing further in my mind except a renewed dislike for the pony that invented stairs, I’m at the door.
It’s unguarded, of course. The palace grounds are practically a fortress unto themselves, but inside, there’s no need to post a guard at each individual room. That’s not a particularly important fact, but it means I’m alone while I smooth my mane, brush down any errant feathers, make sure my armor looks well polished, and generally do what I can to stall.
Finally, I can’t put it off any longer. I raise one steel shorn hoof to the door and knock.
I knock again, and again, but no answer. Alarm slithers through my guts. I know Luna should be coming to the door. She’s not entertaining guests, as she never has any. She should be awake. She just raised the moon not half an hour ago, after all! But then... oh no. That would be the prefect time for somepony to break in, wouldn’t it? No one would even know anything had happened until dawn! Oh, wouldn’t it be just my luck to be the one that finds the Princess kidnapped? Or worse!
I try the door, and to my surprise and horror find it unlocked. I slip through, wincing at the faintest creak of the ancient hinges. The hallway beyond is surprisingly cosy for a Princess of Equestria. Plain stone walls, covered with rich tapestries, a thick carpeting that’s perfect for muffling my hoofsteps as I creep forward, all senses on alert.
A sound carried through the hall. Faint, muffled by the tapestries and lush carpet, but still there, at the edge of hearing. A rhythmic *clacking* sound, coming from behind a far door, one that must lead to the Princess’s private library. I shuffle towards it, regretting even the noise the places of my armor make as they shift over one another. By the time I reach the door, the clacking noise has become maddening. I have no idea what it could be, but my imagination supplies a host of grim images. Bone trinkets, fashioned from the Princess’s fresh cor-
Oh shut up brain you are not helping!
I suck in one last gasp of air, steel myself, and burst through the door, prepared to unleash eleven kinds of fury on whoever has trespassed on the territory of the Royal Guard.
Princess Luna jumps up from her desk in surprise, leaving behind a thick ledger and what I dimly recognize as an ancient but obviously well worn abacus, of all things. I realize that the archaic device accounts for the mysterious clicking noise about the same time that I realize I’m intruding on the private quarters of one of the two great powers of Equestria. I can actually feel the color drain out of my face, and I’m about to stammer apologies and beg forgiveness when a tome as thick as my foreleg whistles through the air on a plume of midnight black magic and slams into my head.
My helmet absorbs the majority of the impact, much to the relief of the squishier bits of my head, but I’m thrown back by the force and dashed against the wall of the corridor behind me. It takes me a moment to regain my senses, and when I do, the Princess of the Night is standing over me, tendrils of darkest sky lashing the air around her furious form.
“What is the meaning of this?” She hisses, another book cocked and ready in case she doesn’t like the answer I give.
- - - - -
Ten minutes and one explanation later, and I’m staring into a teacup in her Majesty's lavishly appointed sitting room. Princess Luna takes a sip from her cup and glaces at me.
“So my sister is behind this, is she?”
I nod. My explanation left me in one pleading gasp and now it’s as if every word I’ve ever known has fled under her gaze.
“Isn’t that just like her? Sending someone to check up on me.” She sighs. “Well, I can’t fault your intentions for breaking in like that, at least, but next time, try knocking.”
I almost point out that I did. Three times, in fact. But I quickly think better of it. I glance at my helmet, sitting on the floor next to my chair. There’s still a dent from where Ponygenes’ Known Histories hit it at what must have been mach one.
The Princess takes another dainty sip.
“So does she think I’m plotting some kind of elaborate revenge up here? Perhaps that I’ll go ‘full Nightmare Moon’ on her again?”
She must be able to read my answer in the way my eyes bug out of my skull. Or maybe the rumors are true and she really can read minds. Either way she seems satisfied.
She shakes her head.
“If she wanted to say so, she could have at least done it in person.” She snorts and turns to me. “Let her know that I’m just fine, thank you very much. I’m up hear because I’m catching up after our little spat, not planning to overthrow her and bring about ‘everlasting night’.” She makes little quoting gestures with her hooves in the air by her head and I feel like I’m going to start screaming because this is not how I pictured my introduction going, at all.
Still I have a job to do.
“Er... your Highness.” She turns back around to give me her full attention. “I wasn’t sent to ‘check up on you’. Your Sister has assigned me to be your personal guard and assistant.”
She raises a wry eyebrow, a gesture I’ve seen a so often on Celestia that just looks wrong on the stoic face of her younger sister.
“So she’s given me a foalsitter? Someone to keep an eye on me?” Her voice, already pitched to the sarcastic, is laden with derision. She sits there a moment, teacup hovering beside her, seemingly lost in thought. Finally, she comes around.
“Very well. I thought She was beyond this sort of thing, but there’s nothing for it. I’m still on probation, after all.” She fairly hisses the word. “And besides, you’re loyal to the Princess of the Sun, are you not?”
I nod, not liking where this is going.
“So if I ordered you to leave, would you?”
“I...” Well, I don’t know how to answer that one. “Princess Celestia ordered me to protect and assist you as best I can. Leaving... doesn’t seem to serve that goal.”
“I thought as much.” She sighs. “Well, maybe you’ll serve some purpose, after all.
- - - - -
“Some purpose”, it turned out, apparently meant “feathered book replacement device”. I spent the next eight hours either standing in silence by the doorway or sorting and retrieving books from the Night Princess’ sprawling collection.
Finally, based off of no metric I could discern, she decided to call it a day. Er... night. Whatever. Either way, I was supremely grateful. I might be a bit of a night pony, but this was ridiculous.
“Well.” She said, marking something in her ledger and then slamming shut the latest in a series of tomes on ancient Equestrian magic. “I suppose if you’ve no other virtues, you can stay quiet. That’s an undervalued skill, I’ve always thought.”
She levitated the book over to its spot on the shelf all on her own, and then waved me off with a shake of her hoof.
“I assume my sister has told you you’ll be staying in the guest suite?”
I nod, feeling the muscles in my neck creak with exhaustion.
“Very well then. Off with you. You look half dead, and I’ve got a moon to set.”
I turn to go, but she stops me.
“Wait.” I turn back around, already wincing at the thought of another book to the brain. “I’ve just realized. All this time, and I never asked your name.”
She shakes her head.
“I’m so used to thinking of the Royal Guards as a monolith, no individuality or identity, but if you’re going to be my ‘personal assistant’,” There’s just a hint of a sneer there, this time. “Then I’ll need a name.”
I wince, knowing what’s coming.
“Ah, it’s Hoplon, your Highness.” I pause. “But my friends call me Hop.”
She’s smirking now, but the laughter I expected, that I’m so used to, doesn’t come. I get the feeling that laughter hasn’t crossed those lips in a long, long time.
“That’s an... interesting name. You’ll have to tell me the history behind it, sometime.” She brushes past me on her way to the balcony.
“Sleep well then, Hoplon.” She calls over her shoulder.
With that, she leaves me to find my new quarters on my own. Thankfully, there aren’t too many rooms to try, and I manage to find the guest apartment on my third attempt.
It’s not exactly lavishly appointed, but it beats the guard quarters by a wide margin. A wide bed, a table and chair, two chests of drawers, and a grooming nook with a full sized tub, everything decked out in the same dusk blue that the Princess seemed to favor.
I strip out of my armor, carefully stack it by the foot of my bed, organized for ease of assembly, and then collapse into the bed. I’ll have to take it to the smithy later, to get the dent in the helmet pounded out.
I’ve barely pulled the covers up over my chest before I’m drifting off to one last thought:
By the clouds above, the ‘Mare in the Moon’ is a total bi-
But then I’m asleep.
- - - - -
When I wake up, it’s light out. That might not seem like much, but the Royal Guards are kept on a fairly tight schedule. I’m used to dragging myself out of bed before dawn so I can attend to my morning duties before going on shift. Now, I don’t know what time it is, or even where I am.
A quick glance around my new quarters fixes that, though.
“Ah stars. So last night wasn’t some kind of insane dream...”
What I really want to do is curl back under the covers and drift off back to sleep but, as I keep reassuring myself, I’ve got a job to do.
I roll out of bed and more or less onto my hooves. The movement makes my stomach let out an undignified gurgle, big enough to make me wince at the sensation. I sigh. Last night had been full of books and awkwardness, but no food. The Princess hadn’t taken a break for food, so neither had I.
“Okay, stomach. I know you’re hurting, but some things just take precedence.”
See, last night, I’d spotted a tub, and since Princess Luna hadn’t come to shake me out of bed personally yet, I figure I’ve got some time to make use of it. See, us lower ranking Guardponies have the (dis)pleasure of shared quarters, which means communal showers, which means, at least on my part, more embarrassment than is probably healthy.
But here, well. Here’s a private tub, and I intend to enjoy it as well as I can.
- - - - -
I spend a truly decadent fifteen minutes in the tub, scrubbing and preening and generally working the remnants of last night’s stale sweat and fear out of my coat, mane, and wings. Finally, I climb out of the water and dry off, then trot over to the mirror to make sure I look presentable.
My coat is fine, the same dull grey it always is, like the underbelly of a storm cloud that’s already emptied its soggy cargo. My mane and tail are alright too, given that I keep them both trimmed close and dyed the traditional royal blue of the Equestrian Guard. My eyes though, eugh. They’ve got more bags under them then Hoity Toity’s fall luggage lineup. Plus my wings. Feathers poking out everywhere.
And if you think I’m being overly fussy with my appearance, you’ve obviously never been a Royal Guard. The only thing more important than looking tough is looking official, and if I can’t do the first, well...
It only takes me a few minutes to straighten my pinfeathers and strap on my armour, and then I’m out the door and on the hunt for breakfast. I discovered last night, when she prepared tea for the both of us, that the Princess doesn't have her meals delivered. Instead of relying on a servant, as would befit royalty, she’s had an entire kitchen fitted into her tower, along with the study, library, and bedrooms.
It’s certainly weird, but it fits with what I’ve heard of her personality. Reclusive to the point of antisocial, and self reliant to a great degree. If she’s so used to being on her own, then it’s no wonder she’s irritated by my presence.
Ah, but I can’t think too deeply about that now, not while my stomach is threatening armed insurrection. I find a bowl, some oats in the pantry, and fresh sliced fruit in the cooler, and chow down. It pains me a moment, thinking that I’m eating the Princess’ food, but Her sister was adamant about my relocation. I’m to stay here, on call for Princess Luna, for whenever she may need me, which means taking my meals here.
Over thinking your orders is generally frowned upon in the Guard, but a bowl of oats all to myself gives me time to ponder. I still haven’t worked out exactly why Princess Celestia would send me to look after her sister. Luna can see to her own business well enough. She’s not embroiled in affairs of state like her older sister, so she doesn’t need an aide or scribe, of which I’m neither. If she suspects a return of Nightmare Moon, then one guard isn’t going to make much of a difference.
And why me, of all ponies? Certainly there are others better suited to the task. Specifically, other mares. I can’t imagine the scandal if word breaks that Princess Luna has a buck for a “full time” attendant. Plus, it’s no secret that I’m not exactly the best guard in Equestria. Not the strongest or fastest or cleverest or even the toughest (although I’m more than used to soaking up punishment in the training ring.) I can’t even imagine what the rumors in the barracks must be like. Probably cries of favoritism and screams of injustice.
I shake my head in a futile attempt to clear the niggling doubts from my mind. My bowl’s empty so that means thinking time is over. I clean it off and put it away in a hurry. I’d better find the Princess. Maybe this time I can say hello without a terrifying torrent of tomes.
- - - - -
She’s not in her study, or her bedroom, or any other room in the tower. Frantic little scenarios are starting to creep back into my mind.
She’s been kidnapped and held ransom, on my watch! Oh, Princess Celestia will banish me to the moon! Or the sun! Or no! A thousand years on the sun, then a thousand years on the moon, then the rest of eternity floating in the empty void of space! Oh, the shame my family will endure! Oh the-
*Clunk* The sound of an armored hoof striking a helmeted head.
Shut up brain!
There’s only one more place up here to search, and then I’ll have to head down and comb the palace gardens. Not that she ever really leaves her tower, so the odds of finding her there are slim in-
I burst out onto the balcony in time to catch Princess Luna raising the moon for the evening.
I’ve seen Princess Celestia raise the sun on numerous occasions, every citizen of Canterlot has, but each time, it never fails to impress me. A grand display of the strength and generosity of the ruler of Equestria. A spectacle for all of her faithful subjects.
This is different, somehow. Princess Luna is no less majestic, soaring into the air, wings spread wide, horn luminescent with power as the moon rises behind her, silhouetting her against the sky as her night falls over the land. But it’s not as showy as the raising of the sun. Which I suppose fits the Princess of the Night, in all her subdued glory.
She lands on the balcony with the barest of hooftaps and simply stands there for a moment, eyes shut, taking long, even breaths. Then she smiles and looks over to me.
“So, you’re awake, finally.” The words should sting of disappointment, but with that faint smile, they’re almost playful in tone. She seems so different, somehow. More relaxed, more at ease. Certainly not as snippy as she was last night. Of course I can’t blame her. An angry pegasus barging into your study is bound to put anypony on edge.
“Yes, your Highness.” I nod in reply. Of course I don’t mention that she’s the reason I’m so exhausted, keeping me up all night like that. Or that with the winter solstice approaching, the nights are longer than the days, and so I really didn’t sleep all that long. Any justification on my part would like be an excuse for more books. (I suppress a shudder at the thought.) Besides, I don’t want to spoil this new mood she’s in, whatever it is.
“Well, come along then. I was just about to have my after-moonrise tea.”
She turns and strides back into the tower, and I follow.
- - - - -
We’re back in the study, the same place as my ‘interrogation’ the night previous, even seated on the same couches, with the same (or identical) teacups filled with the same full-bodied blend the Princess apparently prefers. Search me why she insists on preparing tea for the both of us when she’s got an assistant for that, now.
I’m perched on the end of a lush, powder blue ottoman, sipping at my tea and nervously picking at the straps on my armor, wishing she would just say something, by the stars, anything!
Finally, she clears her throat and gently levitates her teacup to a nearby table.
“So. Hoplon.” She says.
“Please, your Highness. Hop will do.”
“But that’s what your friends call you, and I am your Princess, am I not?”
I wince. Yet another faux pas. “Of course, your Highness.”
“I’d prefer your rank, but I’ve not yet been made aware of it. Captain, perhaps? Lieutenant?”
“Er... no. Just Officer, your Highness.”
She raises an eyebrow at that, and I feel a flush creeping up my cheeks. I’ve only been with the Royal Guard a few years now, so I’m not exactly behind on the career path, but I’m not exactly ahead, either, as would befit the lucky buck given the privileged position of personal assistant to a Princess.
“Indeed?” She says. “Just ‘Officer’? How... interesting.”
I manage another sip of tea without spilling the whole cup or breaking off the handle.
“I thought you looked a bit young for such an... advanced position. Still, there must be some reason you were hand picked by my dear sister. At least, other than your name.”
I can feel my eyes narrow at that. I’m trying very, very hard not to let Her Majesty know exactly how I feel about being mocked.
And then she sighs, and it’s maybe the weariest sound I’ve ever heard.
“You’re right, of course. It’s not fair of me to laugh at you for your name. It’s not like you picked it, after all.” She sighs again. “Please, ah... forgive me. I’ve just been... tired, lately.”
I blink, not sure how to respond to that. Did the Princess, Equestrian royalty, just ask me to forgive her? I watch her refill her teacup, not sure of how to react.
“Well.” She starts. “Surely my sister must have seen something in you that made her select you.” She pauses, thinking. “Tell me of yourself, if you would.”
“Uh... pardon me, your Highness?”
“Well, if you’re going to be hovering around me for... however long Celestia insists you stay, then I want to know about you. Where you come from, why you joined the guard, that sort of thing.”
“Oh. Well if you insist, but surely there’s nothing so interesting about me that it merits taking up any more of your time-”
She just stares at me, as if saying Really now, does it look like I have a lot on my plate?
“Well, let’s see. Like most pegasi, I was born in Cloudsdale. My parents were strong classicists, hence the name. It’s a long running tradition, you see. My father, he’s an architect under Frank Lloyd Heights, is named ‘Doric’, and he comes from a long line of classicist pegasi. My mother even changed her name when she married him, to Corinthia, to better fit in with his family you see-”
“I’m sorry.” Luna interrupted. “But you seem to have lost me. Classicists?”
“Oh!” Well I hadn’t expected that question. She seemed nothing if not well read. Of course, she has just come back from a thousand year ‘vacation’, so she’s probably not up to speed on, well, everything.
In fact, given when she was banished, the classical Equestrian period would be right around...
“Hmm. Well, your highness, Classicists are simply ponies with a fascination for the era of equestrian history right after your... ah... after Princess Celestia banished Nightmare Moon.”
Her expression turns dark for a moment, and I wonder if I’m going to have to start dodging furniture, but she seems to soften just as quickly. I have to hope she doesn’t blame me for broaching such a tender subject.
“So, they are fascinated with the time just after I... left. And they take names from that time?”
“Oh, no, not all of them.” I reply, relieved to be talking and not ducking for cover. “I mean, not every pony is as serious as my father. He’s quite renowned for his collection of classical artifacts. Anyway, I suppose they wanted me to carry on the tradition, hence the name.” I shrug. “If I had been born a filly instead, they would have named me Ionia, but I suppose that dubious honor would have gone to my sister if...” I can’t help but trail off. “Well... I’m an only foal.”
She says nothing, her expression unreadable. Maybe thinking about all the things she’s missed, or maybe picking up on something in the tone of my voice. I suspect she’s more perceptive than most.
“Anyway.” I say, eager to move on. “I was a bit of an egghead as a colt. I went to a classical academy in addition to flight school. It was, ah, informative, but it won me no friends among my fellow Cloudsdale youth.” I grimace, remembering all the ‘fun’ times after flight camp.
“It led me to... dislike bullies, those that pick on the weak and defenseless, those smaller and younger than them.” I pause. “And what better way to stand up for the downtrodden than by joining the Equestiran Guard?” I smile. “My father was less than pleased. I assume he wanted me to follow in his hoofsteps. Become a great designer, study the antiquities, all that academic stuff, but I really didn’t have the head for it.” She snorts. Maybe she doesn’t believe me. I do have a habit of speaking formally when nervous that could be mistaken for greater intelligence that I’m gifted with.
“Ah, well. We can’t have everything we want.” I say with a grin. I hope she’ll leave it there, as I may have glossed over some things, like the five year period between when I was kicked out of the Academy and when I joined the Guard, but oh well. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right? Fortunately, she seems satisfied with my little tale. She nods, and stands up from her couch, levitating our cups and the teapots to the sink in the kitchen.
“Well Hop.” She used my nickname! That’s a good thing, right? “I admit I’m still not entirely sure of why my sister picked you, but I think I have a good idea.” She trots off to the library, our conversation in tow. “And, having someone familiar with Equestrian history will come in handy.”
I feel a wide grin spreading across my face. That has to be it! Princess Celestia knows my academic history. Of course she’d pick a pony with an education to help out her bookworm of a sister! I trot after Princess Luna, feeling tremendously pleased with myself. That’s got to be why I was picked.
- - - - -
To be continued in Chapter 2
- - - - -
(A special thanks to Monsieur Talon, for his “Progress” Fics, which were both hilarious, and an undeniable influence for this particular story. Of course, I just had to take it in a darker direction, but, well, you’ll see.)
(Oh, and if you don’t like my interpretation of Luna, feel free to let me know, but at least wait a few chapters. She’s more than meets the eye, the same as any pony.)
A E G I S
-by quotidian torture-
- - - - -
(This is a placeholder. Aegis is now under revision pending new updates!)
(The original chapter two has now been folded into chapter one.)