The moment that Ms. Pullmare called us over to her table, the whole world froze. It was like a moment captured in time on a photograph; a freeze frame. For just a second, nothing existed but our little circle of light and the mayor’s judging, triumphant eyes. Then reality restarted and the murmuring crowd, looking at us now with newfound reverence, parted like a sea to let us walk on numb feet to the mayor’s table.
Rainbow Remedy’s sister sat atop her posh seat next to the Princess with a kind grin on her face and greeted us warmly when we arrived. “I’ll not have my own brother be subjected to the common dance floor,” she said. Three chairs were magicked from somewhere in the back of the room and brought to the table, two on one side and one on the other.
Princess Celestia looked bemused as we were guided to our spots, Rainbow Remedy and I on either side of Pullmare, and Grapevine between me and the Princess. Servants rushed out fine glass plates edged in gold and crystal glasses to be put in front of us, and silk napkins for our laps.
Once we were settled, the crowd let out its collective breath and began moving again, swaying in a gentle motion as the band in the corner struck up Waltz in the Solaris. Pullmare was quick to take any opportunity we had of getting a first word in to the Princess by asking, “Princess Celestia, your grace, you remember my brother, Rainbow Remedy?”
“The same whose antiseptic spell during the entrance exam turned the judges’ robes to dust?” she said. “How could I forget?”
Rainbow Remedy chuckled. “Who would have thought an old stallion like Berry Biopsy could jump so high?”
I stared at him in both shock in admiration. He was talking to the Princess, the Princess, like she was just any other pony. And she responded to his joke with her own melodious laughter, too. Between the two of them, I couldn’t help but feel out of the loop.
Pullmare, at least, seemed to agree with me. When Rainbow Remedy mentioned his entrance to Concealed College, her eyes narrowed and she fought for the reins of attention once more. “Yes, well, glad you two are on such good terms,” she said. She took me by the shoulders. “I would also like to introduce you to my two special guests: the esteemed reporter, Grapevine Lulamoon, and...her photographer.” The way she looked at me after she said her piece, I wasn’t sure whether it was just plain old smugness, or a little bit of malice. Probably both.
“Did the guards not have you thrown out of my study several months ago?” the Princess asked Grapevine.
“No, no, that must have been...somepony else,” Grapevine said. She quickly turned down her eyes and focused hard on the empty plate in front of her. “When’s the food going to get her anyways?” she grumbled, her hooves crossed over her chest.
The Princess only smiled and looked at her as a mother would before focusing her terrifyingly-kind gaze on me. I did my best to sink back into my seat, or even into Pullmare.
“Tell me, my little pony, what is your name?” she said.
“Mi- Minty Flower, your majesty,” I managed to stutter out before my tongue lost its nerve. Though I didn’t think of the words as such, they came out sounding more like Meenty Flauer, in an accent so heavy that I was surprised the words didn’t fall out of the air onto Grapevine’s plate.
“That is an interesting name,” the Princess said, “and a wonderful accent.” Then, before I could kick myself for letting my dialect get so thick again, she surprised me by asking, in Germane, “Do you speak in this tongue, Minty Flower?”
I coughed, and all I could give in reply was a surprised, “Ja.” I swallowed, and regained a little of my composure. “H- How do you know how to speak it, your majesty?”
“My duties sometimes require me to travel outside Equestria,” the Princess said. “Tell me then, little one, are you from Germaneigh?”
Speaking in my old language at least allowed me to regain my conversational footing. “No, but from a town near the border,” I said, “Derbyshire.”
If I didn’t stop looking at her face, I was going to run out of synonyms for “smile” by the time the night was over. As it was, her face somehow managed to smile in the same way she had been before, but at the same time give a different expression of nostalgia and remembrance. Weird.
“Ah, Derbyshire,” she said, “I remember your town well. It was many years ago that I held the Summer Sun Celebration there; and a fine Celebration it was.” After a second, she seemed to realize that she was staring off into space. “So, is this your first time attending the Celebration
I nodded. “Yes, your majesty.”
“And, are you enjoying yourself?”
My head bobbed again and I could feel my mouth form the words, “Of course,” but it was a lie. I didn’t want to upset her, of course; or worse, upset the crazed psychopath beside me watching our conversation intently.
While my mouth told the Princess and Pullmare what they wished to hear, my mind slipped away, back onto its old beaten tracks. Looking out over the swaying menagerie on the dance floor, I finally got a real sense of just how different Derbyshire and Fillydelphia were. The ponies here looked happy, sure, but they didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. There was just something that wasn’t quite there for them, that held them back.
The Summer Sun Celebration in Derbyshire had always been the one holiday of the year that everypony looked forward to. Our farms were too far apart and the kids kept too busy to really celebrate a proper Night Mare Night, and it was hard to enjoy Hearth’s Warming or Hearth’s Warming Eve when whoever had pulled in a bad crop that year was as obviously starved as the ponies they were meant to portray in the play.
So, for one day in the summer, our entire town came together to share food while it was still plentiful and dance and play games to everypony’s hearts’ content. It had been the one day a year that I stopped looking at newspaper jobs in Manehattan or Los Celestias and just enjoyed being at home. Because there wasn’t, at least on that day, a social caste or risk of public embarrassment to worry about: just fun.
“Are you alright?” Princess Celestia asked, this time in Equestrian.
My mouth hung open when I realized I had been ignoring the Princess for several seconds. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said quickly, lapsing back into Germane.
To my surprise once again, the Princess followed me back into my native tongue for reasons I could not completely explain. “I asked if you were good friends with Ms. Pullmare,” she said. Her gaze drifted from me, to the mayor, and back again. “She seemed very intent earlier on finding her brother and his friends.”
I looked at Pullmare, seemingly content on idly chatting with her brother and paying attention to nary a word the Princess and I said. I might have tried to spill the beans to Princess Celestia right then and there, and let her figure out the details of Pullmare’s arrest, were it so easy.
Instead, I looked the Princess in the eye and told her, “The mayor and I are very...close. I don’t think I or my friends are ever far from her mind.” Not really a lie, but still.
Pullmare leaned into our conversation by putting her foreleg around me and spoke, unsurprisingly, in Germane, “Yes, I always make sure to keep them as close as, as they say, enemies.”
That seemed to satisfy the Princess, and she returned to talking to several esteemed delegates who had wandered over to our table. For all their boredom on the dance floor and around the buffet tables, they looked positively enthusiastic to talk to her.
Our food arrived at that moment, and while everypony else was distracted, Pullmare leaned in close and whispered where only I could hear, “Glad to see you’re not as stupid as everyone else thinks.”
I said nothing in return, and instead dug into the fancy salad on the plate in front of me and ignored the rest.
Grapevine spent most of the meal picking at her plate while I inhaled pretty much whatever food was put in front of me by another tuxedo-ed servant. Another trait I had picked up from Derbyshire’s Summer Sun Celebration, I guessed; to never leave a scrap of food left over. It almost made me forget that the mare sitting on the other side of me daintily enjoying her food would have more likely than not killed me if given the chance.
“You okay?” I whispered to Grapevine.
“Are you seriously going to ask me that?” she said under her breath.
“Well, I meant besides the crazy mare sitting next to me.”
She looked up at me. “Currently,” she said, “I’m currently trying to figure out just how we’re going to get Pullmare to admit anything and attempting to find just where Marshmallow and the rest are hiding.”
“Come to think of it, I didn’t see where Sterling got off to,” I said.
“They’re all in the corner, trying to hide behind one of the buffet tables,” Pullmare said sweetly, sticking her head next to mine. Grapevine and I froze. “What? I have ears, you know.”
“Uh...” we chorused in unified confusion.
Ms. Pullmare appeared to ignore our current state of mind and continued to watch the rest of our gathered group, standing awkwardly in a clump together in the far corner. “The one in the white suit looks positively smashing, wouldn’t you say, Minty?” she said.
I could almost feel my own eyes widen as I tore my lingering gaze away from Sterling, standing apart from the others though the whole group was already by itself. Even while Pullmare’s mocking gaze, loving how much she struck a nerve, kept itself on me, I could feel Grapevine’s own stare burning into the back of my head. She had seen exactly where my eyes had gone, as well.
“Why, I do believe that his suit is almost a match to yours,” Pullmare continued. “You wouldn’t be here on a date with such a handsome stallion would you?”
“Nei- I mean, no,” I said.
“Oh, you are!” Pullmare said, almost squealing in delight. “Well, what are you sitting here for? You should go dance with your colt!”
I stared at Pullmare, trying to figure what her game was. From behind her mask of civility, anything could be lurking. I didn’t come up with anything, so all I said in return was, “I don’t think that would be the best idea...”
“But of course it would be,” Pullmare said quickly. “A mare should dance with her date, isn’t that right, Miss Lulamoon?”
Grapevine returned to staring listlessly at her food, and only gave a half-hearted, “Sure,” in return.
“See, she agrees with me too,” Pullmare said.
“And it would be especially advantageous to dance before your feet catch fire from staying still for too long,” Pullmare said in a cold tone.
I sighed. “Alright, I’ll dance.” I pushed myself out of the chair while Grapevine looked away. Before I could make it far from my seat, however, Pullmare reached her front hooves up around my neck.
“Can’t have you dancing with a camera around your neck, dear,” she said. “We wouldn’t want you to break it, now would we?”
Her hooves clumsily thumped me on the back as she removed the strap from my shoulders and I watched helplessly as my beautiful camera was placed into care of a psychotic mayor. She smirked when she saw me watching and gently ran her fetlock over it. “I’ll be sure to take wonderful care of it until you return,” she said.
I shook my head and made my way around the table out onto the dance floor. Wherever I walked, ponies stopped swaying and paused to whisper questions about the princess and the mayor or tell me about a proposition they had, some relating to business and some...not. It was a small miracle that I reached Marshmallow and the rest.
“Well look who decided to join us on the ‘common’ dance floor,” Starshine said. “How fun was it getting to sit with the Princess?”
“Pretty great, if you don’t mind the company that comes with it,” I said.
“Speaking of which, if you don’t mind me asking, why did she let you come down here?” Marshmallow said. “I mean, isn’t she afraid you’ll escape?”
“It’s not me she’s after,” I said, pointing back to the table. “She wants Grapevine and Rainbow Remedy.” I looked down at my hooves. “Plus, she took my camera.”
“Okay, that’s all fine and great, but then what exactly did letting you come over here accomplish?” Starshine said.
“Well, she wanted me to-”
I was cut off by Pullmare asking Princess Celestia, rather loudly, “Would you kindly instruct the band to play something more...jovial?” She flashed a smile that I knew was directed straight at me. “I wouldn’t want my dear friend, Minty Flower, and her date to get bored while dancing together.”
Princess Celestia smiled warmly and nodded her serene head in the direction of the orchestra. The violins sped and up and the cellos were picked to a rapid beat as the crowd began to move to the new rhythm.
“What did she mean by ‘date’?” Sterling said, speaking up for the first time.
“She seems to be under the, uh, impression that since we’re wearing matching outfits, that we must be here as a...couple,” I said.
Starshine raised an eyebrow. “Oh really now?”
I swallowed. “Yes, and she wants us to, um, dance.”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it,” Sterling said. He lowered his head. “Is it the suit?”
“Nein, nein, du siehst gut aus,” I said quickly; too quickly, in fact, for my brain to figure out that it wasn’t time to speak Germane again. Apparently one night of frayed nerves was enough to neutralize years of training myself to speak in that language only when necessary.
The other stared at me with puzzled looks on their faces. “I mean, it’s just that she kind of threatened me if I didn’t dance with Sterling,” I said. “Threatened to set me on fire.”
They nodded. “So, I guess we should dance, then?” Sterling said, offering a tentative hoof.
“Right,” I said. I let him guide me out onto the dance floor with surprising agility, until we were almost in the center of the swaying mass. The uptake in the music appeared to have lightened the mood somewhat, though many of the ponies moving past us had expressions as dead and vacant as before.
Somewhere near the middle, Sterling turned to me and asked, “You ready?”
“I think so.”
He started stepping to the rhythm, but started to pick up at a rapid pace, until his feet were moving in sync with the beat while I struggled to keep up. My hooves didn’t want to properly obey what my brain told them to do, and Sterling had to catch me a couple times before I fell over myself.
“Where did you learn how to dance like that?” I said after he did a complicated two-step move.
“Fillydelphia Prep School,” he said. “I wasn’t always poor, you know.”
There was another silence between us while I struggled to maintain something resembling his dance pattern, and Sterling seemed content with amusing himself by watching me. Eventually, he said, “You’re shaking.” He slowed down. “Are you okay, do we need to stop?”
I tried to steady myself and keep my knees from wobbling. “I’m fine,” I said, “it’s just the nerves.”
“From Pullmare?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said, though it was the first time I had thought of her since we began.
Sterling sighed. “Is it because of this ‘date’ thing?” he said.
“No, no, that’s not-”
“Because, I mean, we’re just friends, aren’t we?” he said. “We’re not even really dancing together; more like just near each other.”
“Y- Yeah,” I said, forcing a smile, “and that’s a good thing, too.”
Before Sterling could drive any more nails through the conversation, Pullmare spoke up, as if she had been listening in the whole time. “Perhaps the band should play something a bit slower...more suited for all the couples here tonight,” she announced. The orchestra complied and soft concerto rang through the dance hall.
Sterling turned to me as all the other couples rose on their hind legs to put their forehooves around each other. “Should we?” he said.
I looked over at Pullmare, who was watching me intently from her seat. I could have almost sworn that the bottoms of my hooves got a few degrees hotter. “I don’t think we have a choice.”
Sterling and I awkwardly put our forehooves around each other and tried to dance. He led, but I wasn’t so good at following, and almost caused us to bump into a couple done up in diamonds and silk.
“See, this isn’t so bad,” he said.
“Easy for you to say; you’re the one who can actually dance.”
He smiled a little bit, but then his expression grew nervous. “Grapevine said she was, uh, fine with us dancing, right?”
“Yeah, she seemed alright with it,” I said. “Why?
“She’s been glaring at me since we started,” he said. To prove it to me, he spun me around so I could get a good look, though I only got a quick glimpse of her before she turned away. If I had to guess, I would say she almost looked guilty.
“Is there something wrong with us dancing?” he said. “I mean, she knows we’re just friends, right?”
There was that word again: friend. I sighed. “Yeah, she knows.”
“Then why’s she look angry?” he said. “Is there, uh, something between the two of you?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” I said.
“I mean, you two are awfully close,” he continued, “And Joya told me the two of you spent the night alone at the Chronicler...”
I stopped dancing and nearly took both of us down before Sterling got the hint and stood still. “Gee, I wasn’t aware my relationship with Grapevine was going to be put on trial here,” I said.
He winced. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
I rubbed my forehead with one hoof and said, “Look, I understand because, yeah, we’re close. It’s just...she’s a great friend and all, but I could never see her like that.”
“Never?” he said, with what I told myself was tentative hope in his voice.
“Well, I would consider it, but...she’s had more than a few failed relationships in the past, and there’s just no way I’d want to wade into that mess.” I tried to smile a little. “Does that answer your question?”
He returned my gesture. “I think I get the idea,” he said. “But wasn’t that a little harsh?”
I peeked over Sterling’s shoulder and caught a glimpse of Grapevine, still glaring daggers coated with the green poison of envy into Sterling’s head while Pullmare tried to chat up her brother. I felt a little pang in my heart for talking about her, until I reminded myself of what had happened to her last coltfriend. “A little,” I said, “But when somepony has that much baggage...”
Sterling nodded. “That’s true.” Then, to my surprise he started to dance once again, guiding with firm hooves around my neck.
“Wh- What are you doing?” I said.
He gulped, but spoke as confidently as I had ever heard him, “I figured, instead of worrying so much about Grapevine and Ms. Pullmare, we could maybe try to enjoy that date we’re supposed to be on?”
I smiled and pulled myself a little closer to him. “You lead.”
At some point the dancing ended, and the Princess rose from her seat. “The Rising of the Summer Sun will begin shortly,” she announced. “We will begin once all ponies have gathered at the center of the room.” Jostling flanks and hooves pushed past Sterling and I as the done-up stallions and mares obediently moved to the designated location.
“Well, it was nice while it lasted,” he said with a small smile. “Are you going to have to go back to Pullmare?”
“I wish I didn’t,” I said, “but I doubt that I have any choice.” Sterling didn’t get a chance to say anything back, because suddenly there was a pop and a flash and I was back in my seat next to Pullmare, my camera back around my neck.
“No, you don’t,” she said, then smiled. “But you’ll get to enjoy a wonderful view of the ceremony.” She turned to Princess Celestia. “Would it be alright if we moved up to the balcony to watch your presentation?”
I looked to my friends as Pullmare talked. Grapevine stared sullenly at the empty table in front of her, the food long gone, while Rainbow Remedy looked like he kept wanting to say something, but couldn’t bring up the courage to do so. I, too, was tempted to say something, anything to the Princess about Pullmare, but the more friendly the conversation was with the two, the less convinced I was of even Princess Celestia believing us, let alone anypony else. A wave of helplessness took over me, and it was all I could do to sit back and watch everything unfold.
“Well of course you and your friends may move to the balcony,” the Princess said. She chuckled. “Just make sure you don’t miss the start on your way there.”
“Oh, don’t worry, your majesty, I have that covered,” Pullmare said, and with another flash we were on a little ornate platform overlooking the dance hall, our rumps firmly planted in new seats. The air smelled of acrid smoke, and I thought I could see a couple burn marks on my camera’s case, lying now against my stomach on its strap.
“I apologize for the rough trip,” Pullmare said, “my teleportation magic is just so crude compared to my brother’s, being based on fire and all.” She smiled. “So crude, in fact, that I had to learn a biological welding spell in order to tie you to those seats.”
At once, the three of us struggled to move from our seats, my wings flapping uselessly and the horns of Grapevine and Rainbow Remedy glowing bright but bearing no fruit for their labor.
“You like it?” Pullmare said. “After my brother showed off his skill at the police station, I just had to do the same.”
“Let us go!” Grapevine yelled, anger pent up through the night finally being let loose.
Pullmare looked around and then cocked her head to one side. “Really? You think just by giving me an order I’m going to let the three of you free?”
“You don’t have to do this,” Rainbow Remedy cried from his chair.
“So now we’re going for every cliche in the book?” Pullmare said. She turned to me. “Would you like to tell me that there’s still time to turn back?” When I just stared in return, she laughed and said, “You three are so serious tonight when you should at least be trying to enjoy yourselves; after all, it’s not like either of you actually have any idea of what I’m going to be doing for you tonight.”
When none of us raised an argument, she simply smiled.
Down below us, Princess Celestia now stood on a royal purple platform that had been wheeled to the head of the gathered crowd. She stood with her wings outstretched and her mane flowing as it always did, even without the slightest breeze. A hushed silence befell the crowd when the Princess cleared her throat.
“My little ponies,” she began, “it is with great pleasure that I am here to begin this year’s Summer Sun Celebration in Fillydelphia.” The gathered rich took several minutes to quiet down. The Princess waited patiently until they were done before starting.
Princess Celestia’s horn began to glow, softly at first, then brighter and brighter. The puzzle that had plagued me all night of just how we were going to watch her lower the sun inside a building was solved when a spark of magic from her horn turned the stone of the dome over the dance hall transparent.
The ponies below gasped in astonishment, and I joined them as I watched the light from the evening sun pour into the hall. The delicate stone and glass-work of the room sparkled and shined in the brilliance. Normally, the sun would have already gone down at such a late hour, but the Princess had kept it up for just the occasion.
Princess reared her head to its full height and no longer did her horn glow, but instead it looked as if her entire body was vibrating with energy. As we watched, the sun in the sky began to rise to until it was directly overhead; slowly at first, but gaining speed as it went. The shadows grew short across the wooden dance floor below as the gathered watched in complete silence. Even on our balcony, still fastened to our seats at the mercy of Pullmare, all of us were quiet. Then, as fast as the ceremony had started, it was over as the sun dipped rapidly over the horizon and was replaced by the stars and moon.
The Princess bowed her head and the dome became opaque once again, ending the ceremony. Her applause echoed like thunder in the cavernous room, and went on for what felt like half an hour. Even Pullmare gave a small, bemused clop of forehooves. Rainbow Remedy, Grapevine, and I weren’t obligated to do the same.
“Well now, wasn’t that fun?” Pullmare said at last, once the Princess had departed into the crowd to mingle with her subjects. “Best, I daresay, Summer Sun Celebration this city has ever seen.”
“So is that it?” Grapevine said. “Your big, master plan was to let Celestia’s show go unimpeded?”
“Oh, honey,” Pullmare said, “that was only the first step of my plan. The real plan won’t be in motion for a short time. So for now, sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself.”
“You think we’re supposed to be enjoying this?” Rainbow Remedy said indignantly.
“Is that not why you are here?” Pullmare shot back.
“We’re here to stop you,” Grapevine said.
“And you’re doing such a wonderful job so far,” Pullmare said. She ran a hoof through her mane and chuckled. “I mean, honestly, it’s like you’re not even trying.” She shrugged. “Ah, well, the look on your faces before you meet your demise will be amusing, at any rate.”
“You’re sick,” Grapevine growled.
Grapevine was briefly taken aback by the up-front answer. She blinked a couple times before saying, “And that’s...wrong.”
“Oh, you wish to speak to me about right and wrong, do you?” Pullmare said. “Would you like to chime in on the subject as well, dear brother?” Rainbow Remedy said nothing, and Pullmare grinned. “Then if that’s the case, why don’t we all be sinners?”
She turned to me. “Did Rainbow Remedy ever tell you how I came to the city?” she asked.
“He told me enough,” I said. She pressed closer to me, and I struggled against the restraint holding me to the chair. “He told me you stole your parents’ money and came here.”
“Is that right?” she said. Her horn glowed and Rainbow Remedy’s chair scooted closer to mine. “You told her I took our money?”
“And I suppose you told her the aeroplane story, too?” When Remedy hung his head, Pullmare nodded and said, “I thought so; seems you have to make up your own version just to sleep at night.”
“And why should I believe you’re not lying?” I snapped.
Pullmare shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” With a malicious grin, she used her horn to tip forward Remedy’s chair until his face was only a few inches from my own.
“She’s lying, right?” I asked him. He looked away. “Remedy, tell me she’s lying,” I said. “Please, tell me; tell me right now that she’s lying.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said finally.
And there it was: Pullmare was right again. “Then...what did happen?” I said slowly.
Remedy closed his eyes. “Our mother became...ill. Very ill,” he said. “And while our father took care of her, he caught it, too. There wasn’t a cure, no matter how much of our family’s fortune we spent looking for one. Eventually, they were confined to their beds.”
He took a deep breath, the continued, “I returned to Concealed College and my sister stayed with them...they died while I was taking an exam. By the time I got back, she had used the last of our money for a train ticket to Fillydelphia.” He looked away.
“But, why did you leave them?” I said. “You were training to become a doctor, right?”
“That’s why I couldn’t,” he said, “I couldn’t watch while my magic was so useless to them...so I left.” He didn’t say anything more.
“So there you have it,” Pullmare said, shoving him and his chair back across the balcony. She smiled. “Oh, the look on your face is simply delicious. I suppose ignorance truly was bliss, was it not?”
“This doesn’t change anything,” I growled.
“Oh, it doesn’t?” Pullmare said. “Then perhaps I should try something that hits a little closer to home.” It was Grapevine’s turn to be shoved up alongside me, chair and all. “While we’re pulling skeletons from the closet,” Pullmare said, “did Miss Lulamoon ever tell you what became of her last coltfriend?”
“Yes, she did,” I said. “He was in the hospital and she chose her work over him.” A pained expression started to take hold on Grapevine’s face, but I smiled and continued, “But we’re over that; there’s nothing more there for you to use.”
“Is that right?” Pullmare said. “And did she also tell you just why her dear partner was in the hospital in the first place?”
“He fell off Cloudsdale.”
“Right,” she said, “but why did he fall off?” I opened my mouth, but then closed it. “I thought as much,” Pullmare continued, “I don’t even believe she’s told another soul; the only reason I know is because I was there.”
Grapevine’s chair spun until she it was facing the mayor. “Would you like to tell it, or should I?” Pullmare said. When she didn’t get a response, her smile only widened further and she turned to me.
“Miss Lulamoon was chasing a trail I had embarrassingly left red-hot,” Pullmare began, “and I was honestly afraid she was going to catch me. So, I sent some of my colts to rough her coltfriend up.” She shrugged. “I told them nothing too bad, but apparently they got out of hand.”
“Stop! Just, stop it, okay?” Grapevine snapped.
“Oh, have I hit a nerve?” Pullmare said. “Too bad you’ll have to listen then; you are my captive audience, after all.” Grapevine’s horn glowed again in what I guessed was another attempt to break Pullmare’s spell, but nothing happened. “Now, where was I?” she said. “Ah, yes, what happened next. Your dear friend Grapevine found out about what was going to be done to her coltfriend, but at the same time she knew I was going to be leaving; and do you know who she chose to go after?”
I didn’t need her to give me the answer, though she did so; all I needed was already on Grapevine’s face as she bit her lip until it bled and tore her gaze away from the rest of us. At that moment, I desperately wished I could take back what I had said to Sterling earlier.
“Now that is the look I was going for!” Pullmare said. “Tell me, Minty, how does it feel to know your friends are about as clean on the inside as I am?”
“It feels...good, actually,” I said. For the first time, it honestly looked like Pullmare was taken aback. “What were you trying to prove?” I said. “That everyone’s as dark as you? All you did was show that everyone screws up, but that some move on from it while you keep wallowing in it.” I laughed, whether it was from bravery or just not caring anymore, I don’t know. “It’s kind of sad, really.”
Pullmare’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re going to act like you have the moral high ground, eh?” she said.
“It’s not an act. Some ponies just don’t act like flankholes all the time.” Okay, so I did sound a little preachy, but it got Grapevine to roll her eyes at least, and Rainbow Remedy even smiled a little.
“So you have nothing to hide?” she said. “No dark secrets?”
“Not that I know of; everypony already knows the worst of what I’ve done since I got to the city, and Derbyshire was too boring for any dark secret to even happen.” Which was true, really. The only stories I had from back home were weird things that happened on the farm, which weren’t exactly exciting to anyone but other farmers.
Pullmare’s mouth once again curved into a smile, and I stopped feeling so confident. “So, you have nothing to hide, do you?” she said. She snaked one hoof around my back, and my coat bristled at her touch, like my body itself was trying to reject her.
“Now, you don’t believe that I am stupid?” Pullmare said. “Boorish? Uneducated?”
“Would I be here right now if that was true?” I said, because I had to at least give her that much.
“So if you don’t think that,” she continued, slipping her hoof down the back of my dress, “then why did you bring a recording device to my party?” She yanked Sterling’s little black box out from underneath my clothes and held it triumphantly up in the air.
I stumbled through my words, in shock. “H- How did you know?”
“Ms. Peece, once she was able to speak again, told me you weren’t very quiet while making plans for my demise in your friend’s basement,” Pullmare said. She giggled. “And it wasn’t as if you made much of an effort to hide the box under your dress.”
“So what?” I said, trying to find enough courage to sound brave. “I didn’t even get a chance to use it, anyway.”
“You didn’t,” Pullmare said, clicking the blue button on the box and causing the machine to stop its soft whirring, “but I did.” My eyes widened. “I thought I might send you out with that colt you’re falling for, and see what I could I get.”
My heart froze. Grapevine’s eyes flicked from me to the box, and her expression grew hard. I wanted to tell her, warn her, but I couldn’t find the words, as if Pullmare had put yet another spell on me.
“Now, let’s not kid ourselves,” Pullmare said to me, “Grapevine’s been pining for you all night; and for longer than that, I expect.” When I tried to object, she held up a hoof and shook her head. “No, none of that. And we’re not going to kid ourselves about your feelings for that inventor, either.” She smiled. “Now, let’s see what happens when I mixed them together.” She clicked the blue button again, and it began to play.
I sat rigid as the machine played out my voice from the time I left the table, through our dance. Most of it was worthless of course, so we spent several minutes as one big ball of tension for the parts to come up that I knew Pullmare wouldn’t miss. I couldn’t help glancing at Grapevine’s face every few seconds.
Then, the section I dreaded came, and my heart caught in my throat. The tinny voice of the machine that somehow resembled mine rang around the balcony as it played back my conversation with Sterling. It was sometime around, “...no way I’d want to wade into that mess,” that Grapevine dropped back behind an unseeing mask, and refused to acknowledge my presence any longer. All Rainbow Remedy could do was look at me mournfully.
Pullmare clicked off the machine when it reached back to the point where I arrived at her table. “Why, I do believe you’ve just broken Grapevine’s heart,” she said. “Tell me, did it hurt falling off your golden tower?”
“This doesn’t change what I said earlier,” I snapped.
“Really now?” Pullmare said. “Why don’t you ask your very good friend if that’s true?”
I turned to her, but Grapevine’s eyes still stared unseeing across the room, where below Princess Celestia was starting to make her way out of the room.
“Glad we could wrap that up,” Pullmare said, staring over the balcony railing to the commotion below, “because it’s just about showtime!”
I watched as she stood and leaned over the level, and a magic bubble appeared in front of her mouth that amplified her voice as she spoke down to the crowd. “Mares and gentlecolts,” she said. “If all those associated with the Pullmare Company could stay after the Celebration ends, that would be greatly appreciated.” Nods and a chorus of yes’s sprang from the majority of the rich in the room.
She turned back to us. “All good so far,” she said happily.
“Are you at least going to tell us what’s going on?” I asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Below us, Princess Celestia walked through the crowd, followed by what members of the orchestra remained, a few rich types who weren’t associated with the company, and the group of Starshine, Marshmallow, and Sterling. Pullmare winked and crushed the black box between her hooves when Sterling walked by. Finally, only the ponies associated with Pullmare remained.
“Here we go,” she whispered to me. She resumed leaning over the railing and called up the voice-carrying magic once again. “I am glad I could gather you all here today on this special occasion,” she began.
As she went on with the formalities, I turned to Rainbow Remedy. “Can you get us out of this?” I said.
He shook his head. “Not unless you can distract her or knock her out,” he said. “The magic holding us here is fire-related, and I can’t beat her in that field.”
“Great.” I sighed. “Do you have any ideas, Grapevine?” She refused to look at me. Wonderful, I thought, we were going to die while she was still mad at me. “I’ll try to think of something,” I assured him.
“As will I,” Remedy said.
Pullmare finally moved past the formalities and on to the business message. “As some of you may not be aware,” she said. “We have taken some hits this past years, and stocks are down.” She paused. “And some of you have begun talk of moving your investments elsewhere.”
A nervous murmur ran through some members of the crowd. Pullmare held up a hoof to silence them. “Rest assured,” she said, “I have figured out a way to make sure those investments stay in our company.” She stopped to let the statement spread itself among the gathered before resuming. “In your contracts, that each of you signed, there was a clause that read that if you met your untimely demise while still having a majority of shares in this company, all assets are transferred to us.”
Now the nervous murmur was a dull roar of conversation as some ponies started to eye the open doorways, but took too long to decide. Pullmare’s horn glowed and all doors in the room slammed shut as the space around them sparkled and cracked; more of Pullmare’s welding magic, I suspected.
“I have placed explosive charges all throughout this room,” Pullmare continued, “and in a moment I will light them.” She smiled. “I promise, your shares will not be wasted; please have a pleasant death.”
Screams erupted from below as she turned back to us, a victorious smirk on her face. “I thought that went well, don’t you?” she said.
“You’re a monster,” I growled.
“Why thank you, you’re much too kind,” she said, then turned to her brother. “What, Rainbow, nothing to say to me?”
He sighed. “You can still end this before it gets out of hoof,” he said. “You don’t have to be this...this mare you’ve become.”
For a second, the look in her eyes made me think she was going to take his advice, but the moment passed and her horn glowed. “Too late,” she whispered.
The explosives in the dance hall detonated, adding to the chaos below. Instead of expanding outward, however, the magic inside them caused the full force to be expended into tongues of flame that leapt upward, rapidly filling the room with fire and foul-smelling smoke.
“And now for the three of you,” she said. “To tell the truth, I’ve almost been dreading this moment; it was nice having a captive audience for once.” She tapped a hoof to her chine. “Now, who should I start with?”
A single whip of fire extended from her horn and snaked its way to me. “How about you, Minty?” she said. “The thorn in my side that just refused to go home when given the chance...”
“Fahr zur Hölle!” I spat.
“Language, Minty; language!” she said. “While it would be enjoyable to watch Miss Lulamoon’s face as her lust object is turned to ash...it just wouldn’t be very fun.”
She let the fire waver a little bit in front of me while she thought. “Now, I have to save my brother for last, of course,” she said, then her eyes lit up. “How about Grapevine? Not only would her smug face fit so well inside a fire, but then you would have to watch and regret as the mare who just wanted to open herself up to you is burnt alive.”
She started to turn to Grapevine. “Now, doesn’t that sound-”
Grapevine, while she had been ignored, had not wasted her time. While Pullmare had taunted us with our demise while the room burned, she had slowly been scooting her chair closer and closer to the mayor, until her legs, which were free to swing about, were close enough to make contact with the Ms. Pullmare’s face. Which they did, spectacularly.
“Fuck off,” Grapevine spat.
Pullmare collapsed to the ground with a thud, and an instant later we were free of the bonds holding us to the chair chairs. It was a good thing, too, as the room was starting to deteriorate into a smoke and fire-filled mess, with the balcony as the only oasis left in the blaze.
“Rainbow Remedy?” I said.
“Leaving now!” he replied, followed by a pop and a flash.
We appeared back into reality inside a fancy, high-ceilinged, and very empty, room. “Where are we?” I said. Massive wrap-around mirrors lined the walls about halfway to the ceiling, making it appear as if we were just yet another copy of a strange group of three ponies.
“I don’t know this room,” Rainbow Remedy said. “All the areas where we came in were blocked to magic when I tried to get us there; I just had to pick a location that felt empty.”
“So now what?” Grapevine said, picking herself off the richly-carpeted floor.
“We make our escape before my sister finds us,” Rainbow Remedy said.
“We go back to help the ponies trapped inside,” I said at the same time. They both looked hard at me. “What?” I said. “We can’t just leave them to die.”
“Minty,” Rainbow Remedy said gently, “Even if I could get us back in that room, there’s nothing we can do for them.”
I pounded one hoof on the floor. “How can you say that? You have dozens of medicinal spells: you can save them!”
“Dammit Minty, I’m a doctor, not a firefighter!” he shouted. His hooves attached themselves to my shoulders, and he stuck his face close to mine. “There’s nothing we can do for them now. What we can do is escape and tell what really happened, understand?” I nodded. “Then let’s go.”
There was a large hall leading out of the room, and we bounded over to that. We nearly reached it, too. However, just before we could escape back into the depths of City Hall, Pullmare appeared before us in a burst of flame.
“Want to see a magic trick?” she said, her eyes crazed. A blazing fireball leapt from her horn at us, and if it hadn’t been for Remedy’s shield raised at the last second, we would have been literal toast; even then, we were all pushed back several feet from the brunt force of the attack.
“So you thought you could run away from me, again?” Pullmare cried, renewing her attack on Remedy’s rainbow-colored shield. “Thought you could somehow escape your fate?” A fireball danced around to one side and a stronger shield, a field of magic that resembled a plate of rainbow-colored glass, burst into being and stopped the oncoming intruder.
“You’ve already won, you don’t need us anymore,” Remedy said. “Please, sister, just let us go.”
She laughed. “Mercy? You expect, after all of this, to give you mercy?” She lashed out again with her attack, and again Remedy blocked it while Grapevine and I cowered behind him.
“Don’t tell me you’re not capable of mercy,” Remedy said. “I’ve known you far too long to forget who you really are, even if you have.”
A flame whip crashed against the top of Rainbow Remedy’s shield. “You really think you know me?” she said. “You don’t see me for ten years, and then show up claiming to know who I am better than I do?”
“Yes, I do.”
Pullmare screamed in frustration and hurled more attacks at her brother, but he continued to block then without any visible effort in a spectacular show of magic crashing upon magic. “Come on, you’re not going to fight back?” she called. Another attack. “I can do this for far longer than you can, you know.”
Rainbow Remedy said and did nothing besides work his magic.
“You sit there all quiet, acting high and mighty because you won’t lash back at your sister,” Pullmare shouted. She laughed. “But I know what it really is; it’s because you’re a coward.”
“Oh, and how is that?” Remedy said.
Pullmare smiled; she was getting to him. “You’ve always been one. You were when you abandoned our parents, and even now you remain one when you refuse to help the ponies trapped inside the dance hall.”
“There isn’t anything I can do for them and you know it,” Remedy shouted, his anger finally brought to bear.
“But isn’t there?” Pullmare said. “You teleported in here from the balcony, after all. Why not teleport back to the hall, grab some of the ponies, and bring them back here?” When Remedy didn’t say anything, she continued, “But I know why you won’t: it’s because you’re afraid. You can’t handle the idea that some of your patients might actually die. You’re afraid of losing a patient, afraid you might fail.”
Another fireball, bigger this time. “They talk about you, you know; the Doctor who never loses his patients,” she said. “But I know the truth; it’s because you can’t stand failure, so you won’t take on any case that you won’t win. It’s why you won’t help the ponies here and now, and why you wouldn’t help our parents then.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or am I wrong?”
Rainbow Remedy lowered his head. “No, you’re not,” he said, but then raised his eyes back up. “But that gives you no right to take your anger out like this!”
Pullmare’s attacks began to get heavier and more frequent, and soon Remedy began to strain under the effort of stopping them all.
“You say that doesn’t give the right to be angry,” Pullmare spat, “but do you even understand what you put me through?” Her eyes glistened. “Do you know what it’s like to watch the strongest ponies in your life wither away into nothing and know you can’t do a single thing about it, and the only who can is a thousand miles away?”
“There was no cure, no help,” Remedy said, “I couldn’t have healed them no matter how hard I tried!”
“But you didn’t have to heal them!” Pullmare shouted. “You could have at least been there; eased the pain after the money for medicine ran out.” Angry tears had started to run down her face, but she made no move to stop them. “You had the gift. Your magic soothes, it makes things better.” She struck again with her magic, though this time it seemed more to prove her point that anything else.
“All I have is this...this fire! It doesn’t heal, it doesn’t help, it consumes,” she said, then looked down. “Like a disease.”
“Golden, I’m sorry,” Rainbow Remedy began, and his sister’s eyes narrowed at the mention of her real name. “I made a mistake, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel pangs of regret for what I put you and our parents through.” He shook his head, and his voice grew cold. “But that does not excuse your actions here today; what would mother and father think if they saw you?”
I’m not sure what Remedy’s plan for that talk was, but at the mention of their parents, Pullmare lost it. Fireballs, whips, swords all sheathed in fire flew at us and no matter how many light shields were thrown in front of them, they just kept coming.
Eventually Rainbow Remedy grew tired and suddenly they were breaking through, until finally one massive fireball burst all of his shields at once in a prismed explosion of rainbows and light. The force of the break sent us all flying; Grapevine and Remedy in one direction and I in another.
The explosion from his shields collapsing had caused parts of the room’s wrap-around mirrors to break off and shards to land on the carpet, sticking out like reflectionary headstones. It was against one of these I landed, send spasms of pain up my spinal column, though doing no serious damage.
Pullmare, after being briefly stunned by the explosion, drew her attention to me, the one closest to her out of the three. Fire flashed in her eyes as she watched, smiling, my prone form try to pull itself from the ground.
“And so we are in this position once again,” she said, “I standing triumphant as you lay helpless before me.”
I didn’t say anything, but instead watched her horn carefully. I knew what was coming.
Sure enough, it glowed and a sword of flame burst in being, swishing through the air in front of the mayor. “And now it’s time to finish the job I already started,” she said. “I gave you every chance to run away, and yet you refused, and so you must set an example for those who wish to deny my will.”
The sword drew closer, and I prepared for the end. So, I did the only thing I could do in that situation. Without thinking, I raised the camera still miraculously hanging from my neck and took her picture. The flash caught her off guard and she stumbled back with a startled cry.
Blinking rapidly, she leapt at me with a renewed fervor, fire sword raised again, yelling, “You insolent fool, I’m going to burn you alive!” The sword came down and I closed my eyes, wanting to kick myself for making my last action taking a picture. Appropriate, anyway.
But again, the blow did not come. As in the jail, just before her blow touched me, Pullmare stopped. I opened my eyes to see if Rainbow Remedy had somehow come to aid again, but he still lay in the corner, struggling to move. So, I looked up.
And there Pullmare still stood, the crackling fires of the sword still hovering just inches above my head, but her eyes were not on me. Instead, she kept stock still, staring into the mirror I had landed against.
I hadn’t noticed before, but sometime during the fight or maybe in the explosion, some of the silver in her coat, which I now saw to be makeup, had come off. Underneath the silver, especially on her face, a pale yellow had started to show through.
Shakily, Pullmare placed a hoof that was no longer silver onto the surface of the mirror and, appearing to realize that it truly was her reflection, recoiled in horror before collapsing to her knees. The fire sword withered and petered out, forgotten. “So I really did it,” she whispered, “I became a monster.”
She sagged under a newfound weight as I scrambled out from under her and across the mirror to get away. She didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she spoke softly, maybe to me or just herself, “You never quite believe them what they tell you that you’ve become.” She reached out again to touch the mirror. “Not until you’ve seen it for yourself.”
I said nothing, but instead watched intently as the mare who, just moments before, had been trying to burn me alive, reached up with one slow hoof and began to wipe away more of the makeup. I don’t think she noticed.
“And you tell yourself that every little bad thing is for the greater good,” she said, “until you wake up one day and realize that there is no greater good.” She closed her eyes. “That you’re the villain.”
She broke down again, and something strange came over me. I don’t know if it was the heat of the moment or just a lesson long ingrained in my head by my mother even after the words were long forgotten, but I reached out one careful hoof and laid it on Pull-, er, Golden’s shoulder. She didn’t object.
Her horn glowed again, but this time, instead of flames bursting forth onto my skin, it caused the make-up on her coat to wash away, and the gray in her mane to disappear, leaving behind a spectacular white. It wasn’t a happy change, though.
Golden looked mournfully at me, then down to hooves that she raised in front of her face. “I just sacrificed the lives of ponies who trusted me for a company...how could this even happen?” she whispered.
I didn’t have a good answer, so I just kept my hoof on her shoulder, only for someone who did know the answer to show up. “Everypony makes mistakes,” Rainbow Remedy said, limping into the conversation. Grapevine followed suit close behind, though she didn’t look as worse for wear as Remedy did.
“Not like this they don’t,” Golden said quietly. She shuddered and turned to Remedy. “For what I did do, and for what I almost did, I-, I....I’m sorry, though it makes so little difference now.”
Remedy smiled a little. “Remember what I told you out in that daisy field, the day before I left for Celestia’s school?”
“That...you’d never hate me, no matter what I did?” she said slowly.
Before she could repulse him, Remedy wrapped his sister in a hug. “And I still don’t.”
Golden, surprised by his touch at first, quickly let him in, and let go of herself onto his shoulder, repeatedly telling him, “I’m sorry.” I removed my hoof and stood next to Grapevine, who didn’t say anything.
He patted her on the back. “I forgive you,” he said, then took her by the shoulders. “Now come on, we need to leave. This room’s already starting to get hot; we need to leave.”
At that, though, Golden pushed her brother away. “I’m not going,” she said.
“No, we are not having this discussion, not now and certainly not here,” Remedy said quickly. “You are coming with us whether you like it or not.”
Golden shook her head sadly. “I can’t leave,” she said. “The things I’ve done...the world needs to know my story, but I can’t be around to see it.”
“You’re not doing this!” Remedy pleaded, even as he saw in his sister’s eyes how made up her mind already was. “I just got you back; I’m not going to let you slip away again.”
He was ignored as a magic field pushed us all back from her. She smiled and turned to Grapevine and I. “Please, if you can, tell them...I found my way back, in the end.”
Even as Rainbow Remedy desperately leapt forward to stop her, Golden’s horn, back to its original color that matched its owner’s name, fired up and the ornate mirror room disappeared and Remedy’s outstretched hoof struck the stone of the City Hall tower staircase.
“No!” he shouted, banging his hoof against the wall again and again. “No, no, no, no, no!” He slumped against the stone. “I was so close,” he said. “So close to having her back and then...” A sob escaped his throat.
Below us the building shuddered as something flammable went up in an explosion somewhere down below us. Feeling that seemed to give Remedy resolve. He stood up.
“I’m going for her,” he said. “She’s blocked off the room to magic, but I can get there on foot.”
“Are you crazy?” Grapevine cried. “You’re going to get yourself killed doing that! We don’t need another casualty to add to the list.”
He looked up at her, then snorted. “Nothing you can say is going to stop me.” Just in case, he kept his horn active menacingly, and I was reminded of the spell he used on the guard from earlier.
Grapevine knew she was beat, and only moaned in frustration as she watched Remedy gallop down the stairs and out of sight, but when I tried to go after him, she grabbed me firmly by the foreleg and spun me around.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said.
“But, we have to help,” I pleaded. “There’s no way Remedy’s going to make it back by himself!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Grapevine snapped. “He’s lost; he made his choice. But you...” The grip she had on me tightened and she sighed. “Look, I don’t care how you feel about me anymore,” she said, “but I care about you, Minty, and I’m not going to lose you like I lost Spotlight.” She dragged me closer. “I’m not going to make the wrong decision again.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but another explosion rocked the tower and I let the fight in me go. Something inside of me knew that, even if Rainbow Remedy somehow managed to get out, the search for his sister was over before it began. So, I didn’t object when Grapevine pulled me behind her up the stairs in a race to beat the flames engulfing the outside of the tower to the roof.
We emerged onto the landing platform from before, thoroughly tired and out of breath. “Now what?” I said. Over the edge, flames licked high into the sky. “I can’t fly us down; the heat’s too much.”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” Grapevine said. She paced on the roof even as the surface got hotter and hotter from the fire. She tapped her chin and looked up, then burst into a grin.
“What, what is it?” I said.
“Do you think you could fly us up?”
I shook one of my wings. “Yeah, but Serenity’s across town,” I said. “After all we’ve been through, I don’t think I can make it.”
Grapevine grabbed my head and yanked it so I could see what she saw. “We don’t need Serenity, if our own little slice of heaven is on its way.”
Looking closer, I realized I could see a large black dot moving closer to us, silhouetted in the moon. A black dot that looked very similar to a certain airship.
“Can you make it?” Grapevine said.
The building shifted as another explosion rocked it. “I’m going to have to.”
She climbed on my back and clung with her hooves around my neck as I took off just as the flames finally swallowed up the landing platform. Lucky they did, too, as the hot air gave me a nice pocket that I rode up on, soaring as fast as I could toward the airship.
Thoroughly spent after the longest flight in my life with another pony on my back, I crash landed into the Halcyon’s waiting landing bay, the doors open just for us.
Malcolt was waiting for us. “We saw the flames and figured you two had to be at the bottom of it,” he said. He looked behind us. “Where’s the rest of them?”
Grapevine looked at me, then answered, “They’re fine, they’re all fine.”
Malcolt smiled. “Glad to hear it.”
“Hey Mal,” the roughian colt, Jennet, called, “Do ya want me to close the hatch?”
Mal shook his head. “Nah, let’s let them look for a little bit; we can close up once we’re past City Hall.”
Both Grapevine and Mal helped scoot my tired body around as the Halcyon drew over City Hall. The hoof Grapevine had been using to help balance me didn’t move from my shoulder after we were done, but at that moment I didn’t object.
We watched as the airship slowly flew over the top of the building, now almost unrecognizable as the former City Hall. Instead, it became a pyre to all those still inside, and perhaps, too, to Rainbow Remedy.
But even knowing that, as I watched the weather teams finally arrive with their rainclouds and the firemares with their trucks and hoses, a strange calm came over me as my body let all the torments that had led up to this night go. Because, no matter the outcome, it was over, and I was still alive.
“Hey, Grapevine?” I said.
I smiled. “I think we’re going to be okay.”