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.


5. The Tempest

“O Aeolus! for to thee the Princess of Heav'n
The pow'r of tempests and of winds has giv'n;
Thy force alone their fury can restrain,
And smooth the waves, or swell the troubled main-“

--Virgill, The Aeneid

“Good morning, Mister Baron Gaberdine.” Ripple popped up over the edge of the castle deck and watched Gaberdine, who had a number of metal fittings and a book spread out across the deck in front of him. “What’cha doooin?”

“I am advancing my education in an unseen direction.” Gaberdine smiled inside and outside as he moved the thick spellbook closer to the damp little unicorn. “The crack detection spell is fairly simple, and since I don’t want to hire some specialist from Baltimare to run up here and overcharge me something fierce, I decided to learn it on my own and examine all of the engine fittings myself. The only problem is I don’t have anypony to check my work. What I really need is an assistant of some sort who can learn the spell with me and help me with the job. Now where could I find somepony like that?” He suppressed a chuckle at the way Ripple bounced in place and splashed her back legs in the water.

“Me?” she squeaked.

“Well…” Gaberdine made a show of looking around. “I was really wanting to find a big unicorn who has their cutie mark in something engineering.”

“Me! Me!” Ripple swapped ends and stuck her damp rump up over the edge of the deck to show off her new steam cloud cutie mark.

“I suppose,” said Gaberdine with obvious false reluctance. “Hop up here on the deck and we’ll work through learning the spell together. As long as you don’t show me up by learning it first, that is.”

There was a splash and Ripple reappeared over the edge of the deck, although she remained with her rear end in the lagoon and her front legs apparently braced on the low ridge running around the ship just below the rail. Joy filled her sparkling green eyes in a wave of emotion that made Gaberdine smile despite his best efforts. The little unicorn picked up the spellbook in her magic and floated it closer for inspection. “Do you really think I can learn the spell first? Mamma won’t even let me try transmutation spells yet.”

He could not help but chuckle. “Transmutation spells are tricky. The crack detection spell is just a sound spell to vibrate the part like this.” Turning to the pile of parts in front of him, Gaberdine picked up a bracket in his magic and struck it gently with a brass rod, producing a noise much like a small bell. A second part produced much the same sound, but a third part, a complicated brass fitting with a small hole in it, produced nothing but a dull thunk.

“Wow,” said Ripple. “That’s awesome.”

“That’s only the first part of the process,” said Gaberdine. “Without the spell to test the parts in place, we would need to disassemble the entire engine, and that could take a month or two, provided we could even get it all taken apart by ourselves.”

Ripple frowned. “I would think putting it all back together would be the hard part.”

“Au contraire, my brilliant little filly.” Gaberdine turned slightly and pointed to his own cutie mark of a puzzle piece. “I have yet to find a puzzle so complicated that I can’t put it together. Spells, however…” He shifted the spellbook to one side and plunked down on the deck fairly close to Ripple so they both could read.

“Let’s see how this works.”

It actually worked fairly well. Ripple turned out to be quite bright for her apparent age, and followed along with the theory and practice of the spell at nearly the same speed as Gaberdine. To be honest, he always had problems with acoustic spells, but it still was a little humbling to find himself putting greater effort into the learning process due to a small filly having reached the end of the page and splashing her hindquarters in the lagoon while impatiently waiting for the next paragraph.

After a few hours of work, Sen came by with a ‘light’ lunch by earth pony standards: a few daisy and daffodil sandwiches, a collection of apples and oranges, a few rolls with jam, and some piping hot hayfries right out of the galley. The little unicorn filly remained at her place on the edge of the deck, politely minding her table manners as if she were at a formal dinner with the Princess instead of just leaning over the deck of a shabby broken steamship with a wannabe baron. Gaberdine contented himself with one of the apples and a sandwich while Sen settled right down on the deck alongside them in what would have been a frightful violation of class separation in Canterlot, but here seemed only natural. He was on good terms with the reclusive little filly, inquiring about the health of her mother and other relatives, as well as promising to purchase the latest Quackers storybook that was supposed to be released in a few weeks. By the time lunch was over, the thick clouds overhead made Gaberdine decide not to expand their class through the afternoon, but instead help Sen tidy up the ship and get it ready for the storm due that night.

After Ripple used her magic to stack up her empty plates and grab an orange for later, she vanished off into the lagoon with a quiet splash while Gaberdine carried the lunch plates to the galley for cleaning. Sen seemed to be in a quiet mood, but as they put the plates in the sink and added some tepid but clean water, the servant finally asked the question that seemed to be bothering him.

“Sir, have you noticed anything… unusual about Ripple?”

“Not really,” admitted Gaberdine. “She’s very a very bright little unicorn filly, but other than that. Well, and the fact she never comes up on the deck and likes to splash her hind legs in the water all the time. She spends so much time in the lagoon, I was starting to think she’s a…”

He paused, then glanced over at Sen, who was scrubbing away at the lunch dishes with an unusual intensity. “Sen, is she a seapony?”

“Sir,” said the elderly servant, putting a dish into the rinse water, “that is a river out there. Seaponies live in the sea.”

“Well, yes, I know that,” said Gaberdine with a downward twist to his lips and a growing regret for his terse words on their first day in Castle Paradise. “I apologize for treating you so casually, Sen. It’s just… seaponies?”

“Refugees, for the most part.” Sen passed Gaberdine a dry towel, which he took as a cue to begin drying the dishes and stacking them back in the cabinet. “They’ve all lost a father or husband in some sort of war that cropped up about a decade ago and hasn’t really died down yet. Every once in a while, a new one shows up or an old one goes back home. The old baron, he charged them a little for their safe refuge and paid them quite a bit more for helping put snag and stump warnings in the river channel. We ain’t lost a barge at all since they started doing that. Insurance rates are way down and all it costs is a few bits and some food for special occasions.”

“Seaponies.” Gaberdine dried a few more dishes and put them away while thinking. “So Pearl is a seapony too?”

“Reckon so,” said Sen, pulling the drain plug and emptying the sink. “Ripple said you invited her and the family to dinner tomorrow night.”

“Well, yes, but…” Gaberdine paused in thought. “Seaponies. I had always thought of them as a myth.”

“More like a Miss, sir. There ain’t but a few males who ever come this far upriver. Skittish as the dickens. I’m surprised that Ripple’s mother even set hoof on board the castle with some new pony in charge here. She’s one of the braver ones, but it took nigh onto a year before she even would swim up to the side of the castle, and I ain’t never seen her set hoof on deck before.”

“Seaponies. Huh.” Gaberdine wiped his hooves off and folded the towel. “Well, I guess I’ll find out more tomorrow at dinner. Do you need anything before I head into Gravel Flats this afternoon? You did reserve a room for me on land for the storm, right?”

“Yes, sir. Miss Shutters over at the Cozy Stable sets a fine table. You enjoy yourself in town and I’ll keep the castle above water until you get back, sir.”

Gaberdine paused at the doorway and shook his head. “No. On second thought, I found out yesterday how dangerous it can be on board the ship without somepony to watch your back. The storm will only make things worse. Since this seems to be a fairly safe harborage, I’ll stay in my cabin tonight, just in case the storm gives you any problems.”

Sen actually seemed a little flustered by the offer. “Very well, sir. Thank you. If you want to come with me while I make my rounds, we should be able to get everything tied down and all ship shape before the first raindrop falls. I guess there’s more river water in your blood than I expected.”

* * *

There may have been river water in Gaberdine’s blood, but it had been thinned out by generations of his family living in Canterlot to the point where the slow surges that made the castle rise and fall at the moorings felt unnatural, and he was really starting to yearn for a solid bed that rested on a foundation of pure granite extending right down to the solid core of Equestria. The cottonwood trees surrounding the lagoon cut the gusty wind down to a low roar, although Gaberdine could not help but think about the tendency for cottonwood to splinter and break during a storm, and fret about the number of branches which could conceivably be blown onto the castle in the middle of the night.

As he remained curled up in bed with the spellbook, Gaberdine considered how this was a different experience than storms in Canterlot, relatively tame things that would have angry unicorns shouting at the weather patrol if a single shingle or birdhouse was blown away. The country weather patrol seemed to enjoy putting on the show this evening. The brilliant flashes of lightning that lit the night felt a little like a rural concert, with the rumbling aftershocks that blended together into a subsonic sensation that was felt in the chest more than heard, intermixed with brilliant flashes and stentorian crashes of nearer acoustic releases. It made studying the crack detection spell a very difficult proposition, what with such an interesting distraction.

While reading in bed, he had left the door to the corridor open in order to hear Sen in the event the elderly earth pony called out for anything in the night, but instead of his strong tenor, the sounds of scratching duck feet were heard. In a few moments, Podunk and his little family of three wet pinfeathered ducklings waddled through his bedroom door and vanished under the bed just as casually as if it were their normal hiding spot from bad weather.

Note: Mop and clean under the bed tomorrow to get rid of any duck poo and find some sort of storm shelter for Ripple’s pet that doesn’t involve my bed.

He had just given up trying to study any more about the crack detection spell and floated the book back onto the shelf when a particularly loud crash of thunder nearly made him jump out of his sheets. Grimacing at the noise and suspecting a sleepless night awaited, Gaberdine curled up under his covers in an attempt at slumber when a second deafening crash elicited a sharp gasp and some slithery flopping out in the hallway.

“Podunk? Are you in here?” The quavering voice and the rhythmic flap-flap-flap of something wet and soft plopping down the hallway made Gaberdine’s heart hammer momentarily before his common sense reminded him that Ripple was a seapony, and as such had… whatever seaponies had instead of hooves.

“He’s safe, Ripple,” he called out. “He’s hiding under the bed with the family.”

A brilliant sheet of lightning sliced across the distant sky, illuminating the worried little unicorn seapony who poked her head into his bedroom. “A-are you s-sure, Mister Baron Gabby? The thunder frightens—”

The resulting crash of thunder from the massive distant lightning strike washed over Castle Paradise like a physical wave, rattling the windows in their frames and propelling a somewhat damp and terrified little filly into the bed to clutch at his side and tremble. It felt odd to see flat flaps of skin like a flipper where a proper shank and hoof should be, but the little filly’s crushing grip was not inconvenienced one bit by her lack of hooves.

“I’m n-not s-scared,” she stammered. “M-mama says I’m h-her b-brave little f-filly.”

While some small part of his mind could not help but be put off by the wrongness of the little aquatic pony, the much larger part twinged with sympathy. As odd as she was to his Canterlot perceptions, she was still just a frightened little filly, and deserved sympathy, not pity.

“Shouldn’t a brave little filly be with her mother, keeping her safe?” asked Gaberdine.

“S-she’s upriver,” said Ripple. “A barge got loose in the storm, and my family is helping the tugs keep it from crashing into a snag.” The little unicorn seapony tunneled deeper into the blanket with a deep sniff. “I always used to hide in Mister Baron Miller’s bed whenever we had storms before. When it was empty. I c-can go back to my nest if you want.”

Gaberdine considered the offer for a brief moment. There was no way that he could be helpful with the barge rescue effort, even if he could find the place in the driving rain. It was a frustrating sensation of helplessness to think of Ripple’s mother and her family endangering their lives while he was safe and warm here, but at least he could provide comfort for the one left behind.

Ripple did have the distinct odor of river water about her, and his mind had still not completely wrapped around the concept of ponies with flippers or fins. However, he remembered far too well his own foalhood when the relatively mild Canterlot storms would blow and he would sneak down the hall to crawl into Father’s bed. The big stallion would scoot off to one side of his bed so his little son could climb up and sleep without kicking him, and the two of them would lie there and listen to the rain, mixed with Mother’s snoring from the next bed over. And when Celestia raised the morning sun, he would awaken to the scent of hotcakes and fresh fruit, which made the foalish embarrassment of hiding from the storm somehow bearable.

Floating down an additional blanket for Ripple, Gaberdine scooted over so the little filly could have a place to curl up into a nest of her own, tucking the blanket around her with his magic once she had gotten situated. She must have been exhausted, because she put her head down and was snoring before he was done, and remained almost motionless while he just laid there and listened to the thunder and the rain.

It could have been hours later when the idea occurred to him, just lying in the darkness with only the sound of the storm and Ripple’s quiet snores for company. Using as little light as possible, Gaberdine lit his horn and floated over another sheet of Princess Celestia’s parchment, which he filled out in slow, quiet strokes. When done, he applied a spark of magic to the enchanted scroll and watched as the smoke drifted out the door on its way through the rain to Canterlot.

After which, he fell sound asleep.

Barony of Fen
Official Census (Third Revision)

Permanent Resident(s)
One (1) loyal old earth pony named Sen

Transient Residents (Refugees)
One (1) young seapony filly named Ripple
One (1) beautiful seapony mare named Pearl, who is Ripple’s mother 
An unknown number of other seaponies, who are currently rescuing a barge upriver.


P.S. If at all possible, Your Highness, could you find some way to reward the seaponies who are rescuing the barge? It does not seem to be within their normal work arrangement. As before, I would be deeply indebted to you for this indulgence.

Your faithful servant
Baron Gaberdine

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