The One Who Got Away

When Gaberdine is awarded a noble title by Princess Celestia, he soon finds out that his new lands contain several surprises. For starters, there is no land in his new barony. Secondly, his new castle turns out to be a broken-down riverboat. And third is… seaponies.

Baron Gaberdine has a lot to learn about his new barony. And himself.

Fortunately, he has a very young teacher.


4. Pressure Test

“Within a long recess there lies a bay:
An island shades it from the rolling sea,
And forms a port secure for ships to ride;
Broke by the jutting land, on either side,”

—Virgill, The Aeneid

The morning dawned in subdued shades of teal and pink as the sun ascended into the cloud-strewn sky. Despite the nightly choir of birds and bugs, Gaberdine had slept fairly well, even having adapted to the slight rocking of the ship/castle at its moorings whenever a barge would pass by on the river. It was the sound of bits moving across Equestria as thousands of tons of freight that could never have traveled by expensive pegasus cart waddled upstream and downstream in the tender embrace of chunky steam tugs.

After discussing the finances of the Barony of Fen with Sen yesterday, he had a growing respect for the staggering amount of cargo that swept up or down the river every day, as well as the miniscule percentage of bits charged for transit fees that came right off the top. The Barony of Fen could easily charge far more, but there was already a fair amount in the bank, and expenses were almost trivial. The shipping companies paid for their own traffic service and shared legal liability for accidents through a very well-organized voluntary insurance program, leaving the barony with the sole task of hiring contract labor to mark the shifting channel with enchanted flags so that the cargo would not wind up spread across snags of underwater stumps or uncharted rocks.

“Mornin’ Baron,” said Sen, opening the door to his bedroom with a shoulder and carrying two cups of coffee on his back. “Looks to be a storm tomorrow tonight.”

“I thought these things were scheduled,” groused Gaberdine as he took a sip of scalding hot coffee and then tried to suck cold air across his tongue.

“They is. Picked up the schedule from Gravel Flats yesterday. Says there’s gonna be a fairly big ‘un tomorrow stretching into the night ‘cause of scheduling problems, but I’ll bet it’s a real blow on account of you’re new here an’ the weather patrol always likes to put together a show for the new baron. They've been stockpiling thunder clouds for months.”

Sen sat down at the table and produced a tattered checklist. “Baron Miller, he put together a list of things to do during a storm, but if’n you want, you could just take a room in town until it blows over. Not that there’s anything to worry about. Castle Paradise has taken worse and still floats. Worst case, I’ll put the auxiliary generator onto the pumps. Even if she sinks, it’s fairly shallow here at the dock. Take a couple days to float her again, but nuttin’ serious.”

* * *

Just as Sen said, the clouds overhead grew as the day wore on and the pegasi weather team seemed to be stacking them a lot taller than anything he had ever seen in Canterlot. Gaberdine had decided to go ahead and put the condenser unit back together without a full cleaning, since a little lime and scale in the system was inevitable, and once he had Castle Paradise docked in Baltimare, the restoration specialists would probably just tear the whole system down anyway. Besides, if the weather did get rough tomorrow, the main engine could drive the pumps a lot more efficiently than the dinky little auxiliary unit, and even if the castle would only sink a little, it was his castle now, and he much preferred it not to sink at all.

The condensing unit in the engineering room was a giant puzzle of pipe and clamps, which did not bother him at all. Gaberdine loved putting together puzzles, with all of the little pokey-out bits fitting into all of the little pokey-in bits and revealing a picture as the process went on. Sometimes he would even put together a puzzle upside-down just for the practice.

After all, that was how he got a puzzle piece as his cutie mark.

While Sen took a break to trudge around above decks and check the heavy rope hawsers before going into town to reserve a room at the small country inn for the new baron, Gaberdine continued his work with frequent references to the book. Pipes and clamps fit together with a whistled tune that he remembered from yesterday, turning into a brief whistled duet as the scrabbling sound of a small filly became audible through the nearby open porthole.

“Hello there, Mister Baron Gaberdine.” The young filly from before poked her head in through the porthole and whistled at the progress he had made in assembling the condenser. “Wow, that’s really good. You’re almost done with the vertical risers.”

“Yes, I am,” said Gaberdine, turning a torque wrench with his magic on the next to last pipe. “Did you watch Baron Miller take the condenser unit apart?”

“Oh, yes!” The little filly squeaked with delight and used her magic to pick up a nearby twig as a pointer. “He told me all of the names for the parts. Those are the Bucking Stubborn Flanges at the end of each of the Bucking Stuck Condensing Pipes, and the Bucking Frozen Backflow Valve that you have to hit with a Bucking Hammer when it misbehaves, and the Bucking Stubborn Frozen Pump Full Of Sand down at the bottom that he replaced with a Bucking Wrong-Sized Pump that he had to send back to the Bucking Idiots at the Bucking Factory to get a Bucking Right-Sized Pump.”

“Oh,” said Gaberdine, momentarily overwhelmed by the phrase ‘bucking’ repeatedly coming out of the mouth of such a small and innocent-looking filly. “Well,” he said after a few moments of recovery, “since you know so much about the engine, why don’t you help me put it together? I’d like to get it going by the time Sen comes back from town so I can take a hot shower.”

“You’re not going to sail Castle Paradise down the river, are you?” Ripple put on the most pitiful big-eyed begging expression that was only spoiled by her occasional glances towards the still unassembled parts of the condenser.

“Not for a few days, at the least.” He paused with the flange only slightly tightened and added, “Or maybe a week. It’s actually somewhat relaxing out here. I never realized how cluttered my life had become until now. Maybe after I get the boat… I mean castle repaired back to its original condition, I’ll bring it back here every once in a while. It could be a vacation.” He took the clamp that Ripple floated over to him and applied it to the other end of the pipe while thinking about the concept.

The ship/castle was far too small to host an overnight party for more than four or five friends, but for as long as he had lived in Canterlot, he had not accumulated more than… well, they were more business associates and casual dinner conversationalists than friends. Mother had despaired over him attracting a proper mate among the eligible unicorn mares in their social circle, particularly since he had the socially unacceptable position of third son. Still, it was far better than the barbaric times in ancient pony history where they used the phrase: “First son for the estate, the second for the military, and the rest for the gelding irons.”

Now that he was a titled noble, the dating scene would open up again with his parents gathering up an entire flock of the rather odd horned ducks who swam in Canterlot’s social waters. There would be social occasions galore, with balls and parties where ‘coincidence’ would match the new Baron Gaberdine against an endless string of mares who never would have even looked at him before.

Castle Paradise could serve as a refuge during those trying times, unless it was tied up at a refurbishment yard in Baltimare. Then it would only be a weak excuse that could not provide a desired sanctuary.

Reassembling the balky condenser took his mind off the problems that he would be facing in the near future, and as he floated the last part into place while Ripple read the instructions out of the book, a change in plans seemed in order.

“Ripple, would you like it if I were to leave Castle Paradise moored here for a few more months?” he started while torquing the circle of bolts around the top of the low-pressure condenser casing.

“I thought you were going to get it fixed up to original condition,” said Ripple.

“Well,” started Gaberdine, waving his torque wrench for emphasis, “this is a lot of fun, now that I have a helper. And it seems like a waste to let a bunch of other ponies have the fun of playing with my new toy.”

“Will you go swimming with us?” asked Ripple, bouncing her head up and down at the porthole and making her short mane sway.

“Eh… I suppose, once I can take a hot shower afterwards.”

That seemed to drive the little filly into fits of joy, and she babbled happily about how she was going to show Gaberdine all of the fun places where Podunk had the most fun playing and diving for whatever it was that ducks ate. He smiled as she talked, taking specific care to get every flange and clamp properly torqued to the book’s specifications until the last part was in place, and he lit the fire under the freshly refilled boiler with a soft ‘whump’ of coal oil.

“In the old days, it used to take steamships hours to get a head of steam up,” said Gaberdine, paraphrasing from the promotional materials that had came with his childhood toy. “Modern boilers have an incremental feature that allows low-pressure steam within a few minutes of the fire. After the storm is over, maybe you and your mother can come along and we’ll take Castle Paradise out for a little jaunt in the river. Would you like that, Ripple?”


“Oh, that would be…” Ripple trailed off as the smile that had lit her face faded into a frown. “No. I don’t think my mother would like that. She’s very shy.”

“Well, bring her by sometime and I’ll talk to her,” said Gaberdine, engrossed in the slow movement of pressure gages on his newest toy. “Right now, I want to test out the main bilge pumps and the fresh water systems. Hot showers, here we come.”

The cautious movement of a lever labelled ‘Bilge’ resulted in a soft ‘thug-thug’ of a pump and Ripple calling out, “There’s an icky black cloud of gunk coming out of the bottom of the castle, Mister Baron Gaberdine.”

“Good.” Gaberdine waited until the pump began to make a dry sucking noise before turning it off. “Half-way there. Let’s see how the freshwater filtration system works now.” A second lever marked ‘Water’ caused the complex mechanism of the freshwater systems to begin to whirl and chirp as perfectly clear water began to pour into the transparent reservoir of the now-empty boiler reserve. It took a remarkably long period of time to fill, but he waited patiently as it would have been foolish to leave the reserves empty. After all, if the previous owner of the castle/steamship had not kept the reserve filled, Gaberdine would have needed to manually clean and fill the reservoir one bucket at a time in order to get the engine up to steam, and that could have taken another whole day.

Once the reserves were filled, the clean water produced by the filtration system began to spill over into the secondary drinking water system, and Gaberdine finally began to relax. Everything seemed to be working just like the manual had claimed, in a complex process made simple by pony engineering and organization.

“Wonderful,” murmured Gaberdine, his mind filled with thoughts of soap suds and a long, hot soak. The quiet thug-thug of the pump raised his spirits, as each thug was a glass of water or a few moments of blissful showering, possibly even enough to run an entire bath in the somewhat small but still pony-sized tub in his bathroom. The insulated hot-water tank was a top priority for filling, and his smile grew as the water level topped off and its temperature began to rise. The drinking water tank was next, filling from the bottom with swirls of pure water filtered out of the muddy river and soon to be turned into a long and soapy shower. Unfortunately, the anticipation of his upcoming shower blinded him to the slow raising of a pressure gage and the small line of steam spouting out of a cracked fitting that suddenly ruptured.

With an explosive crack and scream of escaping pressure, a small fragment of a brass flange shot across the engineering room, releasing a blinding cloud of boiling steam into Gaberdine’s face. He stumbled back from the controls with a foreleg thrown across his face, unable to use his magic on the various levers and knobs on the other side of the jet of escaping steam even if he could see. The shriek of escaping steam was matched by a childish scream of fright as Ripple shouted, “Mister Gaberdine! What happened!”

“Something broke in the high-pressure lines,” he shouted back through the billowing clouds of vapor that filled the engine room. “I need to turn off the oil feed and vent the boiler, but I can’t see!”


“I said turn off the Bucking Oil Feed and pull the Bucking Emergency Pressure Vent!” he bellowed.

“Oh! I’ve got it!” The deep rumbling of the rock oil feed abruptly stopped, replaced by the stentorian whoosh of the pressure relief valve as it vented the boiler into what was probably a huge white cloud of water vapor over the castle. Gaberdine stood and panted in delayed panic at the thought of what could have happened if Ripple had not been there or had panicked in the same way that he had. The sharp sting of pain across his face was a shameful reminder of his negligence that could have killed them both, although thankfully he could still see if he squinted out from swollen eyelids. In Canterlot, a pegamedic with an air ambulance could be at the estate in a matter of minutes, and although there were a number of pegasi up in the sky today putting together tomorrow’s storm, most of the rural weather team were probably not medically qualified for what could easily have been a life-threatening injury.

“Mister Baron Gaberdine? Are you all right?” The plaintive whine in Ripple’s voice was an obvious indication that the frightened little unicorn filly was far more important right now than his own introspection, and he cleared his throat to sound at least a little less frightened himself before he responded.

“Yes, Ripple. I’m fine. Just a little singed across the face, but nothing serious. How about yourself?”

“Oh, thank Neptune,” she gasped. “I was so scared when the steam came bellowing out and you were stuck behind it and I thought you were all boiled up, but I heard you shouting and I grabbed the controls for the engine in my magic just like you said and…” There was a sudden silence, followed by a piercing scream. “I got my cutie mark! Look! Look!”

Despite the clouds of water vapor still filling the engineering spaces, he managed to squint through swollen eyelids enough to see the greenish-yellow of Ripple’s coat outside the porthole with what appeared to be a white fluffy cloud on it. “Isn’t it great! It’s steam! I’ve got steam for a cutie mark! I have to tell Mom!” There was a quiet splash from out in the lagoon and the area suddenly felt much emptier, although he could not help but smile as he finished shutting down the boiler despite the throbbing pain in his face that blurred his vision.

She sounded so happy. In all my years in Canterlot, I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as when I got my cutie mark. It’s been all downriver since then, I suppose.

By the time he had shuffled out of the below decks engineering spaces, his eyes were swollen nearly shut. Gaberdine was looking forward to lying down in his bed with a damp towel over his face, and was stumbling slowly along the corridor while using his magic to guide himself when he heard a voice.

“H-hello? Baron Gaberdine?”

It was a female voice that deserved a special place in the Canterlot Opera, singing arias for Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to the applause of thousands. It was a voice that he could listen to reading a grocery list and be fascinated about how it would end. It was a voice… that he had not responded to, despite standing in the hallway without moving for a significant amount of time and even though all the owner of that exquisite voice could probably see of him was his tail and his puzzle-piece cutie mark.

“Yes? I mean, yes. I’m Mister Baron Gaberdine. I mean Gaberdine. Ma’am.” He struck his horn on the wall of the castle when he tried to turn around and almost fell down as Ripple’s worried voice cut through the embarrassed silence.

“I thought you said you weren’t hurt, Mister Baron Gaberdine.”

“Call me Gabby,” he babbled in response, trying to open his eyes and closing them immediately as the setting sun glared through a hole in the patchy cloud cover and stabbed him right in the eyes. “And I’m not injured severely,” he continued with a foreleg held over his face. “I just need to lie down for a while with a damp towel. Tomorrow I’ll be as right as rain. In the rain. Tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?” The musical lilt to that melodious voice only emphasized the depths of concern in it, and Gaberdine felt an overwhelming urge to just lie back and allow himself to be fussed over, if only to keep her speaking.

“Well…” he started, trying not to feel guilty and failing. “If you could get me a clean towel and dampen it a little. That would help. You’re Ripple’s mother, aren’t you?”

“Y-yes. I’m sorry if she’s been a bother, but—”

“On, no!” protested Gaberdine out of reflex. “She even—”

He paused momentarily with quick consideration for his next words. “She saved my life” would imply that Ripple had been in the kind of danger that a properly concerned parent would react negatively to, while “She has been helping me with the engine” was far too mild of praise for the assistance the little unicorn had provided. Unfortunately, his hesitation allowed Ripple to rapidly insert her own interpretation of the recent event.

“You should have seen it, Mama! The steam was all hissing out of the Bucking High-Pressure Flange and filled the whole engine room up so I couldn’t see Mister Baron Gabby, but he yelled out what bucking levers I needed to pull and I did and all the steam went up into the air with a big whoosh! It was so cool! When I grow up I want to work on steam engines and ride up and down the river, blowing the bucking whistle and waving at the ponies along the shore. When we get the castle fixed up, can I help drive it up and down the river, Mister Gabby?”

“I didn’t teach her the name of the engine parts,” he added weakly. “The old baron did.”

“I… see.” There was a clunking noise from the hall closet, the sound of a faucet being turned, and a soft, damp towel wrapped itself gently around Gaberdine’s stinging eyes. Even the magic field that held the towel seemed beautiful, with the gentlest of touches and a faint tingling that he recognized as one of the more advanced healing spells. “I think we should allow Mister… that is Baron Gaberdine to lie down for a while, Ripple. We can talk about other things later.”

“Excellent idea,” said Gaberdine, allowing himself to be led down the hallway by an exquisitely soft if slightly damp shoulder against his. Ripple's mother guided him to his bedroom and placed him down on top of the covers before fussing with the damp cloth over his eyes. He did manage to get one eye open enough to get a glimpse of the quiet unicorn mare who was examining his minor burns, but at a sharp glance, he obediently closed his eyes to allow her to finish. The beautiful unicorn seemed so much like a creamy white doe who was ready to flee at a moment’s notice. He did not want to give her even the slightest excuse to be startled, but there was something that a true gentlecolt should always ask that he had forgotten in the confusion.

“Beg pardon, Madam, but I did not get your name.”

There was a brief interruption in her gentle magical touch on the damp cloth on his face that for one terrifying moment seemed to indicate she had fled. “Pearl,” she finally said in that sweet angelic voice that really deserved a background chorus.

“Oooo,” said Ripple in a long, drawn-out trill. “You’re smiling. Mister Baron Gaberdine, do you like my mommy?”

“Ripple!” gasped Pearl. “I’m sorry, Baron Gaberdine. She’s such a forward little filly that—”

“Oh, no!” said Gaberdine, holding up one hoof but quickly putting it back down when he heard the sound of frightened movement away from him. “She’s been just fine, Missus Pearl. In fact, if she had not been here and remained calm when I had my accident with the steam engine, I could have been injured far worse than this minor scalding. You have a brave little filly, Ma’am.”

“I-I know,” whispered Pearl. “Sometimes too much.”

“Nonsense,” huffed Gaberdine. “In fact, in appreciation for her assistance, I would like to invite Ripple and her family to dine with me tomorrow… well, I suppose the storm is scheduled for tomorrow. The day after tomorrow for dinner. Would you happen to be free then, Ma’am?”

“Well…” Without being able to see the beautiful young unicorn, Gaberdine was unable to tell if she was tempted or revolted by his offer, but his heart sang with joy as she added, “Baron Miller used to have all of us over for dinner after major storms so we could talk about work.”

“Wonderful!” Gaberdine fairly beamed with happiness, trying not to think about how that expression looked with a damp towel thrown over his face. “Then it’s settled. I’ll have Sen make all the arrangements once he gets back from town.”

“Very well. Well, we should be going now. Are you certain you will be all right until he gets back, Baron Gaberdine?”

“Please. Call me Gabby.” Gaberdine arranged himself against the covers and stuffed a pillow under his head while thinking. Reluctantly, he came to the conclusion that trying to keep the beautiful young mare at his side to nurse him through his minor injuries was a bad idea, and that a quiet candlelit dinner for just the three of them would be a much more appropriate approach. “Don’t worry. I’ll be perfectly fine. I shall see you at dinner the day after tomorrow then, M’lady.”

“Thank you… Gabby.”

The echoes of that delightful word bounced around the bedroom long after the mare and her daughter had departed, lasting even after Sen returned from his trip into town with groceries and a reservation at a local Stall and Breakfast for him to wait out tomorrow’s storm. He could not help but repeat every single word of their conversation to the quiet servant, who seemed much more concerned about Gaberdine’s minor injuries than the revelation that the castle had running water again, some of which would even still be hot for a few hours.

It even lasted into the evening as Gaberdine and Sen examined the fractured fitting and determined that metal fatigue was the culprit, and that a thorough examination with a crack-detection spell for every single part of the engine would be required before trying to fire up the boiler again. He hummed to himself while writing the order for a replacement part to the company, making little doodles of interconnected hearts in the margins of the catalog form before sealing up the letter with the included bank draft and giving it to Sen for tomorrow’s mail.

And as if the thought of mail had triggered it, he pulled out another sheet of the enchanted parchment from Princess Celestia and wrote a correction to his latest census, sending it on the way to Her Highness before turning for his own bed.

Barony of Fen
Official Census (Second Revision)

Permanent Resident(s)
One (1) loyal old earth pony named Sen, currently residing on a houseboat

Transient Resident(s)
One (1) brave young unicorn filly named Ripple who swims in the lagoon
One (1) beautiful unicorn mare named Pearl, who is Ripple’s mother


P.S. If at all possible, Your Highness, could you arrange a note of congratulation for Ripple on the occasion of getting her cutie mark? It would mean quite a lot to her, and as the new Baron of Fen, I would be deeply indebted to you for this indulgence.

Your faithful servant

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