- - -
- - -
Her Serene Highness, Princess Cadance, entered the Royal Lunarium with a pair of her personal Royal Guard. Waiting for her inside, Her Royal Highness, Princess Luna, sat on a raised silver and steel dais, also flanked by a pair of her own trusted Night Guard. The Palace Lunarium was her own counterpoint to Celestia's Solarium, the dark yang to her sister's yin. Arcing over the heads of the moon's mistress, a domed opaque roof replicated the Heavenly Vault in miniature, interrupted only by a large magical magnification of the moon that remained stationary at all times: the literal physical and spiritual center of a rhythmically shifting night sky.
It was never 'day' within the Lunarium. Luna had a natural and innate preference for the night that went beyond the cosmetic and that long predated her role as Princess; this was reflected in her personal chambers and antechambers. Specially treated and enchanted glass filtered out the rays of sunlight even in the middle of the day, maintaining an eternal twilight within the room to fit the never-setting night sky above. Many ponies forgot that, even as the sun and moon traded places in the heavens above them, the heavens themselves were unchanging and immutable. At least in this era.
Luna felt comfortable in her sanctum, not simply because of the atmosphere and design of it, but because it was also the centerpiece of her wing of the Palace. Her Night Guards patrolled the darkened halls both day and night. Since the Grand Galloping Gala and her public debut - with some help from her nephew - she had received more supplicants and more attention all hours of the day. Night Court alone was not sufficient. Princess Luna had been forced to fully rebuild her bureaucracy, including those servants of hers who worked during the sun-touched hours.
Some ponies came to her; others were summoned.
Princess Cadance had been summoned.
The young alicorn bowed deeply to her senior and superior, her timing, grace and elegance as perfect as one would expect. If anything, she extended the depth and length of her bow by a few seconds before gesturing for her guards to wait for her outside. Luna watched them go with outwardly impassive eyes. Cadance's current guards were Royal Guards themselves, distinguished from their normal peers by minor embellishments on their armor. From their roster, they were all pegasi... despite frequent rotation in and out of the general population of Celestia's Royal Guard.
Princess Luna's ears flattened at the sound of the door closing behind them, leaving only the two Princesses and the two Night Guards. The young alicorn looked to her elder with bright, expectant eyes and a cautious smile that Luna couldn't feel up to returning. There was something about Cadance that the Lunar Princess couldn't quite put her hoof on. She had expressed her doubts in this to her nephew, but he failed to truly grasp them.
Looking back on it now, it wasn't so much her Bitalian ancestry or any other sort of ancient history that lay at the root of Luna's well concealed wariness. It wasn't the awkwardness of seeing a mortal alicorn elevated - all ponies were born mortal after all. The immortality of two alicorn sisters in particular was the exception to the rule, circumstances there hopefully never to be repeated in all the annals of equine history. In Luna's time, many ponies had still harbored thoughts of immortality being a perversion of the natural order, though that line of thought had clearly died out over the last thousand years.
Nor was there fault or failing in Cadance's appearance or her magic or even her manners. Mi Amore Cadenza was a lovely young alicorn, her brand of magic was aesthetically appealing and befitting a Serene Princess Minor, her manners were impeccable and Celestia seemed fond of her...! There was something else. Something under the surface. For so public a figure, she had recently taken pains to erase her tracks. She was formal and proper, but not the outgoing lady Celestia and even Blueblood had described.
'Is it her, though?' Luna wondered. 'Or me? I can hardly say I know her well.'
"I am at your service, Princess," Cadance said, dipping her head for the faux pas of speaking first, even if only to ask for a command.
"We have not been long in your acquaintance," Luna replied and a unicorn servant floated over a plate of chilled sweets for the Princesses to share. "But we would wish to share words." Two large tulip glasses were gifted with a small portion of rosé wine, glittering as the two alicorns carefully picked their drinks up with a cantrip of telekinesis.
"Is something wrong?" Cadance asked, inhaling the smell of the wine before politely partaking in it. "This isn't a problem with the wedding, is it?"
"No, it is not," Luna answered, her ethereal mane glittering as it caught the light of the artificial moon overhead. "It does, however, involve one who would be your guest to the affair."
"We would very much like to speak with you about Lord Alpha Brass."
The name evoked a small smile from Cadance, one that didn't quite reach her heliotrope eyes.
"Brass?" she asked, sipping from her wine to cover her pause. "He's an old friend of mine. What would you like to know, Princess?"
"We spoke with Shining Armor earlier," Luna informed the mortal alicorn but failed to elicit any visible response. "You three were friends as foals in Canterlot?"
"Before we all got our cutie marks," Cadance confirmed, her smile widening slightly. "I was new to Canterlot and the two boys were learning magic at the Academy. I believe Brass was under the care of the Bluebloods at the time while... our current Prince was in Crown Roc. Things came apart when the His Grace returned home, as you must know."
That much, Luna did know. Alpha Brass, like many high born colts, spent a fraction of his youth being raised outside his home province and outside the care of his family. Much as Princes were exchanged as hostages with other lands, noble young ponies were exposed to more than just their inherited realm to better build Equestrian unity. The practice originated in Equestria's founding as a means to centralize control in the years before Discord. As a beneficial side effect of the tradition, if the family members of noble families had to live in Canterlot then they were much less likely to incur Canterlot's ire. If anything, Celestia had let the last thousand years of peace erode the politically functional tradition.
During his foalhood, Duke Cruciger's only son had often been seen in the company of the newly adopted alicorn Princess Cadance and his branch family cousin, Shining Armor. This much had been confirmed not only by Celestia and Shining Armor himself, but also by accounts from the time. The Royal Governess, Matilda, had even recorded it in her papers.
The three did not seem that close anymore, but...
"Have you had much contact with the Marquis?" Luna asked, using Brass' official title as the husband of Lady Olive Branch.
"Not in an official capacity," Cadance replied, finishing her wine but seemingly disinterested in the chilled berries and treats offered. "We used to write letters to each other once or twice a year, just to keep in contact and remember the old days... and more recently he has become involved in the upcoming wedding. Lord Cruciger has tasked him with helping arrange certain things on behalf of the Terre Rare family and to assist in handling my inheritance outside Equestria-proper."
"And your biological parents?"
"What of them?" Cadance inquired, craning her neck slightly in curiosity.
"Your biological family is well known to us as political opponents of the Terre Rare," Luna said, trying to gauge the young alicorn.
"You'll forgive me for saying so, but my original family has been excluded from the wedding for good reason." Cadance's smile slipped away, indicating her displeasure, but she sounded almost apathetic instead of upset. "If they can not come to terms with my marrying Shining Armor, then that is their problem, not mine. Please, Princess," she continued, putting down her wine glass with a ting. "May I ask just what this is about? I leave soon for-"
"A party," Luna interrupted, cutting to the quick. "We know. Your itinerary indicates you have been invited to a party hosted by Lord Alpha Brass at an... unknown location."
"Unknown location makes it sound very ominous," Cadance replied with a polite titter, her gilded hoof over her mouth to hide the laugh. "He has a sort of airship, you see, that he uses to impress ponies."
"Shining Armor was also invited, though he tells us he is unable to attend." Princess Luna sighed. "The truth is that we have some concerns about the Terre Rare family. Recently, Lady Antimony attempted to press her engagement to our nephew, Lord Blueblood."
"I have heard the rumors." Cadance huffed, displeased. "But I also heard that one of the Elements of Harmony has somehow fallen for my so called step-brother. She has my sincere condolences."
The animosity between the adopted Princess and the lordly Prince was no secret. By virtue of being an alicorn, Cadance had been adopted by the Royal Household and raised as Princess of Equestria. Which was not to say she was princesses du sang, or a princess 'of the blood.' If circumstances had been different, it would have been likely that she would already wear Canterlot's Platinum Crown. Fortunately, or unfortunately, she was too close a blood relation to the Prince and the Stable of Lords had long since ruled against it (likely at the behest of Lord Cruciger).
"We spoke with Blueblood not more than a few days ago. In passing, your name came up and he spoke fondly of you," Luna told the Princess Minor. "Surely it is not too late to begin mending fences."
"If there were fences to mend, then perhaps you would be right." Cadance shook her head in the negative: no, there would be no reproach between them, at least not on her end. "I don't know what sort of leaf he's trying to turn over recently, but as far as I'm concerned it really is too little, too late."
"Is that why you were not present for the previous Grand Galloping Gala?"
"Exactly that, yes. As for Antimony," the young Princess continued with a carefully neutral expression. "The mare is as untrustworthy as they come. I am quite sure she will renege on her promise and attempt to find some other way to seize power in Canterlot. I have even heard... from Shining Armor... that she has recently mobilized her personal guard in Prance! Now, I do not pretend to be versed in military affairs or even court politics, but that sounds threatening, does it not? With all due respect, Lady Luna, Antimony is the bad egg in that family, and it is her you should watch for mischief. Alpha Brass is a true gentlestallion."
There was a chime-like ting as a glass settled down on the silverware platter, released by Luna's magic. Antimony. Antimony was another potential problem. It was true: she was making aggressive moves in Prance, but to what end?
"We have heard rumor of this and of other matters in the north," Luna admitted, closing her eyes briefly as she considered the potential implications. "Princess Cadance, if you can help us allay our concerns, we would be in your debt. Can you do this?"
"Naturally, I would be happy to pass on any rumor I hear while in Brass' company," Cadance answered after a moment's polite pause. "Though I can already tell you what little will be at the party."
She raised a hoof and waved it to the left and right, dismissively. "Brass will show off some new artifact or another, or perhaps some new 'talent' or artist he has discovered, or some philanthropic cause that has caught his imagination. Everypony will appear duly impressed by this before spending the evening in luxurious indulgence. If his daughters happen to be there, then everypony will either be passed out or in each other's hooves by midnight. I have been to many of these parties and they are all the same."
For a moment, a strange flicker passed behind Cadance's eyes, as if she was just realizing something. It was evident on her face for the first time in the conversation, like an actor deciding to improvise a new line in a play. Her smile broadened, revealing a few pearl white teeth.
"You could come with me," Cadance added, almost eagerly. "Uh, well, I didn't make it sound very proper before, but that's only because I've been to so many of these parties! As I said. You would enjoy it! Since Shining Armor can't come, so wouldn't it be a delightful surprise for us to show up together?"
The sudden exuberance in the young Princess caught her senior by surprise.
"We are afraid we must decline." Luna narrowed her eyes at Cadance, and the mortal alicorn shrunk back and quickly regained her proper poise. "Besides which, we would not be able to attend without a cadre of my Night Guard. We doubt Lord Alpha Brass would wish to see such an intrusion without advance notice."
"Yes, of course not..." Cadance suddenly smiled brightly. "What was I thinking? Sorry! I get like that sometimes! Don't worry, though! I'll be your eyes and ears at the party! You can count on me."
"We are pleased to hear this," Luna said, dipping her head in thanks.
The two mares exchanged small talk for a few more minutes before the elder Princess dismissed her junior. Outside, Luna could see the two Royal Guards that were Cadance's escorts on the Palace grounds. They followed her dutifully as she trotted away, one of them stealing a quick look back at the Lunarium before falling in step.
"Permission to speak?" a voice to her left asked.
Luna glanced to her side, where one of her faithful Night Guards had his hoof to his chin in thought. "As always, you may speak your mind, Wrath."
"Lady Cadance," he mused, brows furrowed. "She hasn't attended a Grand Galloping Gala in over a decade. Even ones not hosted and sponsored by His Grace."
"You know this, how?" Fury asked, standing to Luna's right side.
"I was a member of her guard for eight months. I shared the rotation with Point Blank three years ago." Wrath frowned as he recalled the Princess' words from a few minutes earlier.
Luna's eyes returned to the nose closed doors, and to the Princess who had once sat before her.
- - -
Rainbow Dash held the cold compress to the inside of her left wing before settling back against her softest cloud chair. It was wonderfully plush and sinfully soft, giving a feeling of weightlessness; normally, she didn't like soft-stuff that much, but it was perfect for crashing on after a hard day's weatherwork. Or, more likely, a hard day's training. She'd never expected to fall back into it after barely surviving a midair duel with one of her former idols gone rogue.
"So what - what happened?" she asked, watching Spitfire and Soarin.
Not for the first time, the thought that the Wonderbolts - the Wonderbolts! - were hanging out in her house shot through Dash's head, making a few little loops this time to make sure she paid it some much needed attention. She mentally nodded to herself, agreeing that it was totally awesome, but adding the caveat that now was really not the time to go fangirl on things. Later. More vocal gushing could come later. Her little midair fight with Ritterkreuz had just left her too exhausted to muster more than a Fluttershy grade 'woo.'
Luckily her bachelorette-pad was nice and clean enough to give her two guests a good impression (as long as they didn't see her mess of a bedroom).
"What's going on?" she asked again, turning to the two ponies in her home. "Why did I just get into a fight with Ritterkreuz? Why did she say she was... that she had..."
Spitfire had been seated close by, a dire look on her face as she checked Dash's injuries.
"Ritter... Ritter's gone rogue," Soarin spoke up from further away.
He was distractedly examining one of the Wonderbolts posters on the wall in the living room, next to her cases of trophies, probably to give some privacy while Spitfire checked on Dash's wings. He had the hood of his uniform pulled back, revealing his face and azure-blue mane. Soarin was supposedly the goofball of the group, and a favorite among Wonderbolts fans - especially the mares. He chanced a look back at her with a grave expression.
"I never thought I'd see Wonderbolts fighting Wonderbolts," he muttered, and went back to staring at the poster. "Not ever."
"Ritter's always been difficult to work with, but turning against her own team?" Spitfire asked, shaking her head. It was unheard of for Wonderbolts to turn on their own. "She says she did it for fun, but that's what she says about everything. I don't think anypony really knows why she turned on us, just that we have to catch her and stop her."
"Twilight said she was one of the mares after Rarity," Dash recalled, thinking back to when the two of them had been ambushed.
Hopefully Twilight was alright; Ritterkreuz had done something to hold her down by the horn, preventing her from using magic. Dash had tried to keep the fight away from Ponyville, but now she couldn't help but worry about her friends. Even if Twilight was fine, what had happened with Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Applejack? The plan had been for everypony - well, except Fluttershy - to corner that Yumi mare.
"What's happening in Ponyville?" she quickly asked. "Do you guys know? Have you heard anything? There was this Yumi pony outside town..."
"We were briefed on that," Spitfire replied, nodding her head. "The situation in town doesn't seem to have changed, for what that's worth. We aren't here for Lord Yama's daughter, though."
"His Grace has given us the authority to let us chase down Ritter," Soarin explained. "But I don't think the Vice-Captain would want to get involved in unicorn feuds."
"Except Ritterkreuz is here for the same reason Yumi is! Twilight said so!" Dash winced as the cold compress under her wing slipped a bit against her ribs. "They're both here to mess with Rarity."
Seeing looks of confusion on Soarin and Spitfire's faces, Dash's shoulders slumped.
"She outright told me that she was originally planning to fight Yumi or Rarity, but then something changed her mind and she went after... I guess she went after me?" Dash found herself having some trouble putting certain things together. "Wait, so she knew who I was?"
"We all know who you are," Soarin spoke up, though he still had his back to the two mares.
"This isn't the best way to tell you," Spitfire continued for him. "But after what you did at the Young Flyers Competition, and with saving us, and recognition of the thing with Discord... a lot of ponies were speculating on when you'd join us."
"The Wonderbolts want me to join them?" Dash, injuries forgotten, bolted out of her cloud-cushion. "Oh my gosh! You aren't kidding, are you?" She landed in front of the seated Spitfire and began to shake her by the shoulders, eyes alight and sparkling. "Tell me you aren't kidding!"
"I-I'm n-not k-kidding..." Spitfire's orange eyes boggled as Dash's excitement got the better of her strength. "Aren't you s-still hurt?"
"I just got a second wind!" Dash proclaimed, throwing one hoof into the air in triumph. "A little good news is good medicine!" Abruptly, a shiver ran up her legs, then her body, and then up and into her hoof. "And there goes my second wind..."
Plopping down onto her cloud-couch, she devolved into little 'owie's.
"I'll celebrate later," she decided, her excitement slowly fading and giving way to the seriousness from before. "So, Ritterkreuz heard about me from you guys?"
"Probably," Spitfire confirmed. "She said she'd originally planned to fight Lady Yumi or Lady Rarity?"
"It probably has something to do with Blueblood." Dash snorted, not out of dislike, but distaste. If Ritter was like Antimony before her, then she wasn't even after Rarity's coltfriend out of affection or anything rational. She was in it for the power that came from a wedding ring. Rainbow Dash could understand two mares fighting over the same stallion, or even the same mare, but over some title?
"Antimony?" Ritter asked, shaking her head. "Not really. I couldn't care less about politics or about being Duchess. Blueblood's a good lay and we've had some fun times, but that's as far as it goes. Being a Wonderbolt was boring, especially since they kept telling me what to do. So I quit. There are some strong ponies in this town and I wanna crush 'em. That's all there is to it."
"Or maybe..." Dash wondered, red eyes glancing off at the floor. "I guess I'm not sure." She returned to Spitfire. "You knew her for two years, right? You were on the same flight team and the same squad."
"We flew together since her rookie year, but..." Spitfire frowned, looking back at Soarin for a moment. "The things she said. Maybe we weren't even friends? Maybe if I had... I don't know... but she was my wingpony. My responsibility!" Spitfire stomped her hoof against the floor of the cloud house in visible frustration. "I should have seen this coming! I should have-"
"This isn't your fault," Soarin said, walking up alongside her and giving her a friendly pat with his left wing. He turned to Dash, and she could see that his own frustration and anger was at war with his grief: Wonderbolts should not have to fight Wonderbolts.
Rainbow Dash couldn't agree more.
"Can you tell us about what happened?" he asked the weathermare. "We only caught sight of the Rain Boom."
Dash nodded and recalled the fight with Ritterkreuz from start to finish: from the initial rush through Ponyville to the lake to the chase into the quarry and finally to the Sonic Rain Boom. Soarin and Spitfire listened intently, and Dash privately wondered how combat capable they were. The Wonderbolts were mostly formation flyers, but almost all of them had a military background. She knew that many of her own stunts were originally based on military maneuvers: flying tricks and techniques that often went back hundreds of years. Then again, if a pony went back far enough, all of pegasus society was rooted in some martial exploit or another.
"The thing with her wings," Spitfire explained, as Dash finished her story. "The explosions... it's called the Galloping Grenadier. She used it to destroy an entire hangar back at Wonderbolt Headquarters. And," Spitfire paused a moment to collect herself and compose her growing anger towards her former teammate. "And she used it to wound Captain Thunderhead."
"So there really was no training accident?" Dash asked, having guessed at the answer. Of course there was no accident. Ritter really had turned on her team. She really had... hurt her superior officer and her former comrades. For a pegasus especially, it was unforgivable!
"She fought Captain Thunderhead when she quit. A few others have been injured, too, chasing her down."
"Nopony... you know? Killed?"
"Thank Celestia, no." Spitfire could breathe a sigh of relied at that, at least. "But as you've seen, Ritter is extremely dangerous. With her Galloping Grenadier, it's almost impossible to fight her in the air."
"The Vice-Captain thinks we have to wear her down or ambush her," Soarin added, raising a hoof to tap his chin. "The only other option is..."
"To be faster than the explosions," Dash finished, her body relaxed into the cloud-couch but her voice tense.
"Rainbow Dash," Spitfire said, pointing at her. "You may be the only pegasus who can do that. The alternative is more wounded Wonderbolts."
"The Vice-Captain wants to do this ourselves. For the honor of the team." Soarin picked up where his partner left off.
"But I think... Ritter picked a fight with you for a reason," Spitfire continued, lowing her hoof to the floor. "Because she thinks you can beat her. We can train you to beat her... without anypony else getting hurt."
"This is probably a lot to ask, but-" Soarin began to argue.
"I'll do it," Dash interrupted him. "I'll do it."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Just because we're asking, you don't have to..."
Rainbow Dash shook her head, and Soarin's voice trailed off before he could finish. Closing her eyes, Ponyville's number one weathermare - and one-time hero, nevermind Mare-do-Well - remembered the collectors card she had so prized just a few years ago. The Ritterkreuz she had run into, savagely grinning even as she dragged them both down into a crash, wasn't like the cocky Wonderbolt Dash had looked up to.
Had the last two years just been a charade? Had she just been pretending to be part of her squadron? How could anypony turn her back on her friends and teammates? How could any pegasus turn her back on being a Wonderbolt? It was just so hard to believe.
'I don't know... but...'
"I'll do it," she said again. "I'll stop her."
"We'll stop her," Spitfire promised, holding out her hoof. Soarin put his hoof on top of hers a second later, and Dash followed a moment after that. This wasn't exactly how the weathermare had imagined first working with her idols, to take down another of her idols, but so be it. It was a promise, now.
The rumbling of her stomach kind of ruined the moment, though.
"Sorry," Dash mumbled, holding her treacherous midsection. "Geez."
"I'll get something to eat," Soarin volunteered, grinning as he headed for the door.
Spitfire coughed, causing him to freeze in his tracks. "You're going for pie, aren't you?"
Just as he reached to open it, a knock on said door brought an early end to the lightening mood. One wing snapping out and back, ready to strike, Soarin opened the door a crack to look outside. Dash thought for a second about objecting: just from what she had seen earlier, if Ritterkreuz wanted inside, she wouldn't knock on the front door. More likely, she'd blow it up, or just punch through a wall. Was it Raging Storm and the other Wonderbolts, then?
Soarin stepped back, revealing a Royal Guard in gold and alabaster.
"My apologies," the guard said in practiced monotone, having already noticed both Soarin and Spitfire. The presence of two Wonderbolts didn't seem to affect him in the least. "The Prince sent me to fetch you, Miss Rainbow Dash."
- - -
Spitfire followed Rainbow Dash to the Prince's chateau outside Ponyville while Soarin returned to the Wonderbolts' mobile headquarters. Slowly circling around back the two mares could see a small group in attendance by the entrance of the hedge gardens. Their Royal Guard escort veered off to the side to find a perch on the roof near a set of ornate chimney pots.
Spitfire didn't join him, but she did keep back and out of the way as Rainbow Dash reunited with her worried friends. She also took stock of who she knew to be in attendance. The local Baroness, Lady Rarity, was quick to check on the town's leading weathermare. She wore a somewhat fanciful version of armor in style among courtly unicorns, with a variation of the usual gems and jewels motif. She was also coincidentally the mare who had nearly knocked Spitfire's teeth out with her flailing after her fall off the edge of Cloudsdale.
There was also a bouncy pink earth pony in contrast to a much more subdued straw-colored local, a pegasus mare with a pink mane and another unicorn all in shades of purple, save for the streak in her mane. These had to be the other Elements of Harmony, though Spitfire couldn't remember their names. The two stallions in the area were the Prince - who Spitfire knew - and a somewhat beat-up looking Royal Guard. The latter seemed to be briefing the former in hushed tones...
Then the noblestallion noticed her and beckoned the Wonderbolt over.
"Prince Blueblood," Spitfire said, inclining her head in respectful but still casual greeting as she approached. "Nice to see you again."
"And you," he replied, looking past her for a moment at the mares of harmony. "Miss Dash isn't hurt, is she?"
"Nothing serious. She's amazingly tough... but I guess a pony would have to be to pull off a Rain Boom."
"This is Sir Mercury, of Her Majesty's Royal Horse Guards," Blueblood introduced the battered and bruised Royal Guard. "Sir Mercury, this is Miss Spitfire of the Wonderbolts."
Despite the bandages, he bowed and offered polite respects. "Miss."
"We heard that Lady Yumi instituted a pas d'arms outside town?" Spitfire inquired, clearly wondering if that was where Sir Mercury had earned his current condition.
"It was swiftly broken up," Blueblood answered. "Unfortunately, Lady Yumi escaped along with one of her retainers."
"Only one?" Spitfire asked. "That doesn't sound so bad."
Blueblood shook his head sadly. "You'd think it wouldn't be, but..." Seeing the six mares regrouping and heading over, he opted to hold his tongue. "But the situation is more complicated than it appears."
Spitfire wanted to ask more, but bowed out as the Baroness and her friends came over. The Vice-Captain would be interested in what went on here and if there were other potential complications in the search for Ritterkreuz. The Wonderbolts couldn't afford to go into this without a plan, no matter how unprecedented it was. The fact remained that they were fighting a pony who knew them - knew their weaknesses - while they knew little of her in return.
What, then, did His Grace know that they didn't?
"I can't recall ever speaking more than a word to Lady Yumi before, but, well... I'll just out and say it," Blueblood told them as they relaxed around the shaded villa gardens. "Ritterkreuz and I were lovers for a time."
The reactions of the mares in attendance were varied. Fluttershy hid her face in embarrassment, Rainbow Dash was listening intently, Applejack still seemed to be missing her hat and for want of a replacement compulsively ran a hoof through her mane, Pinkie Pie was on the grass upside down, as if listening to a bedtime story... and Twilight Sparkle was, well, she was taking notes. Only Rarity seemed disinterested, having heard this before.
"We knew each other as foals in Crown Roc," he explained, keeping his tone aloof and professional. "We were both part of the hostage program that shuffled the children of nobles around Equestria and... sometimes outside of it. Later, as adults, we enjoyed each other's company. It was never anything serious, nor will it ever be."
He didn't try to explain that, for a time, he had enjoyed that fact about Ritterkreuz. The pegasus mare was of high birth in Cloudsdale, but not marriage material in the least. It had been empowering and refreshing to be around her. She had been right in reminding him that he had gotten bored of and disgusted with noblemares in Canterlot. She had been right in reminding him that she, alone, had been there to provide consequence-free company for him.
The times, however... had changed.
"Hostage program?" Rainbow Dash asked, freely interrupting. "So you guys swapped kids?"
He was a little surprised she knew about it, though her description was a bit brusque.
"Essentially," he confirmed.
"That sounds terrible," Fluttershy muttered, hoof scraping the ground in nervousness as her comment attracted attention from everypony present. "I mean... separating foals from their parents..."
"The experience was largely positive, in retrospect," Blueblood was mindful to say, and to make sure they all understood. "A noblepony can live his entire life in one wing of a castle. It is a good thing to have him - or her - experience life elsewhere in the country. It also serves to bring together ponies and other races who would otherwise be unable to form... friendships..."
Blueblood thought of Prince Mnemon for a moment, the boisterous griffin laughing as he held up a glass of mead in one claw and a cooing wench in the other. Colorful friendships were still friendships. Loony griffins. At the time, he had really hated being sent to Crown Roc, but now? He privately wondered how Rarity would take it, though. Sending away one's foal for years at a time could be hard on parents unaccustomed to the ways of nobility. He snuck a glance at her, but she had her eyes closed and her expression guarded.
"I don't think my personal background with her is that important, not compared to finding a way to keep her safely contained," he concluded. "I have given the Wonderbolts permission to pursue her, but my personal recommendation is that you leave her be."
"Let her be?" Spitfire couldn't keep quiet at that, speaking up from where she sat next to Sir Mercury. "You'll forgive me for saying so, but the honor of the Wonderbolts is at stake."
Blueblood nodded, understanding. "I know, but Ritterkreuz has always been encouraged by conflicts and especially fights. When we were little, I remember her not hesitating to fight griffins older than herself at the drop of a hat. My worry is that, if things go far enough, somepony could end up killed. We all want to avoid that, don't we?"
"If we let her be, she'll only come after you," Spitfire replied, pointing a hoof at the Prince, and then at Rarity. "Or you." Then Dash. "She's already come after you. You can't mean to just sit still and wait for her?"
"That's why I invited everypony here," Rarity spoke up, addressing first the Wonderbolt and then her friends. "I have been thinking about this since the business with Lady Yumi earlier today..."
She trailed off a bit, unsure how to proceed.
"Thinking about what?" Twilight prompted. "Rarity?"
"I..." the newly titled noblemare raised a curled hoof to her mouth, glancing away as she sighed softly. "This is such an improper way to ask this... you'll have to forgive me. But..." She faced her five closest friends, sucking in a breath.
"I'd like all of you to help me," she pleaded, lowering her head enough for her violet mane to almost touch the grass at her hooves. "Please. Become my gendarmes. I don't think I can do all this on my own."
"Gendarmes?" Applejack asked first. "Uh, ya mind translatin' that inta plain Equestrian?"
"Knights," Blueblood explained. "But without formal title. Are you familiar with coutilliers? Or, in your case-" He pointed at a certain pink party machine. "A couleuvrinier?"
Pinkie blinked up at him. "Actually, my party cannon is technically a type of saker."
"How you even know these things-"
"So you want us to be knights but without all the silly stuff like not being able to have jobs?" Pinkie jumped up in a single bounce to land near Rarity, wrapping her into a big hug. "Why don't you say so! Of course I'll help! That's why I came along this morning!"
"Ah'm still not sure ah understand..."
"Yeah," Dash agreed, nodding at Applejack before turning back to Rarity. "I mean, of course we'll help anyway we can, you know that."
"Yep," the apple farmer agreed.
"Definitely," Twilight Sparkle chimed in.
"I don't see why not." Fluttershy's enthusiasm was a bit restrained, but beneath it all was a clear desire to help her friend. Blueblood felt momentarily jealous of his would-be fiancée - she had no lack of good and loyal friends willing to stick with her through thick and thin.
"Thank you all so much, really, but you should know this position isn't entirely consequence free," Rarity warned, smiling from within Pinkie's enthusiastic embrace.
Twilight twirled her feathered pen in midair, momentarily taking a break from her notes. "We'd be able to help you out if other nobles try and challenge you or the town..."
"But," Blueblood reminded her. "Effectively, this makes all of you targets instead of just one of you. It isn't a matter to take lightly."
"You're assuming every pony looking to make trouble will also follow your rules." Rainbow Dash stepped forward and gestured to her left wing: bandaged, though not badly enough to keep her from flying. Her implication was clear: not every pony would give a flying feather about unicorn rules of challenge and protocol.
"Count me in," Dash demanded, her mouth curving into a smirk. "I've already got a fight on my hooves. May as well get a paycheck for it, too!"
"Huh. Y'all know I ain't the type to sit on the sidelines." Applejack also stepped forward. "Count me in, sugarcube!"
"I'd be happy to help any way I can," Fluttershy chimed in. "Though fighting isn't... um..."
"Don't sweat it, Fluttershy!" Dash zipped over to grab the other pegasus by the shoulders. "You can command our killer butterfly swarm!"
"Oh, but my butterflies would never hurt anypony..."
"This won't make us 'sir' this or 'sir' that, will it?" Applejack asked, turning to the resident noblepony. Not the little lavender one either, since Twilight's friends seemed to forget that fact about her: that she was still a high born noble herself, and the heiress of the Canterlot Terre Rare.
"Ser is a more popular salutation these days rather than Dame or Madam," Blueblood informed her before cracking a grin. "Ser Applejack."
The apple farmer snorted in bemused dismissal. "Still too fancy for my tastes."
"I think it's safe to say we're all willing if you are, Rarity," Twilight said, less caught up in the moment. She tilted her head to the side as she asked the other unicorn mare, "If I remember right, if we're going to be your gendarmes specifically..."
"I know," Rarity said, disentangling herself from Pinkie Pie as all her friends came together in a close circle. "I know I can count on all of you... and you can count on me. I promise: I will never let you down. And I will not let the Yumis or Antimonys of Equestria undermine Ponyville. Not on my watch!"
- - -
Lyra hadn't believed her eyes at first.
Set out before her, without pomp or ceremony, lay a Brayehard original, diatonic single-row harp with fully functional double-action pedals! An electrum stamp on the base even proved that it was one of the hoof-made pioneers in harp design, one of only fifteen made that year! The core was solid, cocobolo hardwood with a polished finish broken by intricate tropical inlays of vines and birds. Gold strings caught the light from nearby lanterns. She had expected a basic forty-seven string concert harp, not a priceless two hundred year old antique!
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Am I really allowed to use this?" Lyra looked up but her guard escort was gone. "Hello?"
She had apparently left the musician alone to prepare for the night's dinner entertainment on one of the garden terraces overlooking the cloud-grounds below. It was quite a sight, too! A table had already been brought out to the terrace with ornate chairs, all on a marble balcony overlooking an exotic garden built into the clouds. The delicate, distant murmur of running water came from a pair of brooks that flowed around and below the terrace. Amid the transplanted greenery statues raised up, posing as if frozen in mid-dance, serving as a backdrop for the small stage on which she stood.
Lyra sucked in a deep, calming breath and went about familiarizing herself with her instrument for the night. Little tuning or preparation was apparently required: the harp itself was in excellent shape, so it was mostly a matter of mindset. This was not the first personal audience she had been hired for. Harps, and her own preferred lyres, were high culture instruments in Canterlot. Lord Alpha Brass was the first Marquis, or pony of such high standing, to request her services...
Soon, servants had the table prepared and Lyra set up her sheet music to begin playing.
Alpha Brass himself was the first to appear, taking a seat at the head of the stately table. He was dressed casually for the brisk evening meal in the open air and shot a wink her way as he picked a wine from the cellars to be fetched by a servant. It was strange to realize that the wine cellars, in this particular house, were however-many thousand pony-lengths in the air. Even pegasi - fond of wine - normally had to keep it sequestered in mountains and other high places.
His presence was soon followed by that of an upset looking earth pony mare in white and her escort, an older, serious looking stallion. By their dress, their clothes almost robe-like, both were foreigners to the Equestrian heartland. The pair were followed by another stallion and mare, unicorns and not earth ponies, but these two were clearly a married couple. Both thanked Alpha Brass for the invitation, excessively in Lyra's opinion, before taking places at the table.
Finally, two younger mares entered the terrace from the side door, one bouncing in a manner that immediately reminded Lyra of Pinkie Pie, except this unicorn mare's mane was a wild, barely brushed blue. The other followed at a more sedate pace, her mane was deep crimson red. The two unescorted mares sat at the end of the table opposite Alpha Brass.
"Hi, daddy!" the blue-maned one said, smiling as she jumped into her seat.
"Good evening, father," the red-maned one said, bowing deeply and taking her seat with due Canterlot decorum.
"My daughters," Alpha Brass introduced them to the other four guests. "Eunomia and Euporie. We dine tonight with our good friend, Lady Yumi and Meister Late Rains and our guests Broad Way and Score Card. Please, everypony, sit and enjoy yourselves. Euporie, would you lead us in the Celestine Prayer?"
"Sure thing!" the blue-maned sister cheered, putting her hooves together in front of her. "Thanks a bunch, Princess Celly, for all the light and good stuff you give us! We totally owe you one and not just in a 'I'll pay you back later' way, or a 'sure, I'll help you move out of your apartment some time, let me just free up my schedule, ah, Tuesday? It has to be Tuesday? Yeah, Tuesday isn't really good for me' kind of way. But in a real deep and spiritual way. I think. A-PONY."
"Agimus tibi gratias, dilectissima Celestia," the other sister finished, a look of exasperation on her face.
Lyra has to choke back a laugh at the scandalized look on the two Manehattan ponies faces at the rather divergent liturgical approaches provided for the evening's repast. The two foreign ponies, on the other hand, seemed disinterested and confused, respectively, on the part of the older stallion and the younger mare. Though the names from before seemed familiar. Yumi? That was a neighponese name. Was she related to the Garland Family?
And then there were the two younger mares. Alpha Brass was so young, only a few years older than Lyra herself. It took a moment to recall that he was married to the much older Lady Olive Branch who had to be, what? In her fifties? These two had to be his step-daughters. Odd that he didn't have any children of his own, then.
No matter - it wasn't her business.
What mattered was her concentration on playing! Now was not the time to slip up!
Luckily, the music flowed from her harp more easily than she ever remembered it. Perhaps it was the magnificent instrument in her hooves and magical touch that made it all flow together so easily? It was, without doubt, the finest harp she had ever had the privilege to use. Or was it the relaxing atmosphere, with the night sky stretched out overhead in all its glory? The air this high up should normally be thin, she remembered hearing from pegasus friends, but it felt almost intoxicatingly rich where she was now. It was all so... so wonderful.
Closing her eyes, Lyra let her familiarity with one piece of music take her mind away. She almost slapped herself for risking it a moment later, but her magic seemed to have a mind of it's own. Even the guests at the table seemed lulled in by her playing, pausing in their conversations to watch and listen.
'I feel like I could do this in my sleep!' Lyra thought, finishing her piece to light clopping applause. 'No. Not just that. I feel... I feel like I could do anything...!'
The magic in her -
It felt thick and raw and hungry, like it hadn't since she had first mastered the lyre. It -
At the head of the table, Alpha Brass smiled at her and Lyra blushed before returning to her harp. What kind of silly thoughts had that been? She was just getting a little heady from putting on one of the best performances in recent memory. Magic was magic, after all.
By the final dessert course, the table had been lulled into sleepy contentment.
Lyra retired to her quarters only to meet a note on her bed. Next to it was a small case and what looked like a book underneath it. Leaving the dinner guests behind had strangely sapped the energy from her - as if the heady rush she had enjoyed while playing for them transformed into a groggy crash after she left. Lyra found herself looking forward to tomorrow. If it was the harp or even the air outside that had so invigorated her, so filled her with confidence in her skills as an artist and musician, then it would be good to repeat the experience.
In the meantime -
She floated up the note, to take a look.
"A superb performance deserves a reward," Lyra read, raising an eyebrow at the strong, flowing script on the vellum. "I look forward to seeing you with one gift, and speaking with you of the other."
Curious, the musician examined the discrete velvet case, wrapped in a loose light-green ribbon the color of her mane. Lyra's eyes widened at the sight of what was inside: a necklace of studded mint-cream colored pearls. Her tired grin growing into a full on smile, she hastily tried the gift on. The color was just perfect, the same shade as the edge of the white steak in her mane and tail! Where had - who had - well, it had to be the Marquis giving her these gifts, didn't it? Who else would?
Who else could afford to!
Oh, but Bon Bon would be SO murderously jealous when she got back!
Admiring the string of pearls in front of a body length mirror, Lyra remembered the book. Floating it over almost as an afterthought, she caught a few letters on the cover as she turned it over. It was an old book, with no picture on the front. Just the title.
The Equus Formicarius
The infamous text on witches and pre-classical cults! Flipping open to the first page, Lyra was greeted by a sigil she knew all too well: the constellation Orion! Depicted not as a pony, but as a mysterious two legged spirit-beast, just as it was worshipped and recorded by ponies centuries before the migration! She had tried to find a copy of the Equus Formicarius for years, but distribution of the book was prohibited due to it's heretical nature. Only academics could get their hooves on it.
How had -
"I look forward to seeing you with one gift, and speaking with you of the other."
Clutching the book protectively to her chest, Lyra's grin widened yet more.
It was a good thing she had two gifts, now. Bon Bon was going to be jealous, alright, but she probably wouldn't want (more) forbidden literature in their house. This little gift, Lyra knew to keep to herself. The pearls were great and all, but this - this was priceless!
Without further delay, she jumped onto the soft queen sized bed, flipping through the book.
"I think I'm gonna like it here!"
- - -
Cutie Mark Crusading was hard work; don't let anypony tell you otherwise.
It also came with certain occupational hazards. "Hey! Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! What happened to the first aid kit? It isn't lost again, is it?"
"Ah don't think so," Apple Bloom replied, trotting over to check the storage trunk Scootaloo had just opened. The apple filly ducked her head in to root around. "Now that's strange. Ah don't see it in here!"
"That's why I'm asking if anypony used it before today," Scootaloo turned to the third crusader; Sweetie Belle seemed deep in thought over a map of the town dotted by post-it notes, each one with a different cutie mark drawn on it. "Sweetie Belle? Are you listening?"
"Sorry, what?" the little unicorn asked, snapping out of her one-filly brainstorming session. "The first aid kit? Isn't it in the trunk?"
Scootaloo simply pointed to where Apple Bloom was flank-in-the-air as she tossed assorted bits of crusading equipment out of storage. Official CMC meeting minutes ended up on the floor, tumbling out of their folder, followed by official CMC headgear and official CMC wilderness vests and official CMC secret code lists. Most all of it was one-off stuff they'd used once and then retired, but the first aid kit was actually pretty important.
The pegasus filly scratched at the scrape she'd gotten after her last crash. Crashes, it seemed, were just a part of life. Rainbow Dash seemed to crash a LOT so it wasn't like Scootaloo felt bad about the occasional face-first into a fence, or a tumble off of a log, or getting scratched up by bushes and branches, or falling off of or buzzing into a tree, or that time she full-speed crashed into Rumble at the schoolyard or falling off of a table while secretly practicing dancing or -
Or maybe it was best not to dwell on just how often she ended up using the official CMC First Aid Kit. The answer being 'pretty often.'
"Well, it sure as heck ain't in here!" Apple Bloom emerged from the trunk, vigorously shaking her head to free it of clips and papers and scraps of paper mache (which they probably should have just thrown out). She hopped out of the trunk and into her hooves. "Ya should just go use tha one back at the house. Ah'm sure it'll turn up somewhere."
"I guess," Scootaloo said with a sigh.
"More importantly, you seein' any patterns emergin' yet, Sweetie Belle?" Apple Bloom soon forgot about the missing first aid kit, her attentions turning back to the elaborate post-it chart that now dominated part of their clubhouse's east wall.
"Patterns within patterns," Sweetie mumbled, a magic marker dangling from her mouth as she spoke. With one bold stroke, she connected Cheerilee's cutie mark around to City Hall, where three other cutie marks represented Mayor Mare, Filly Buster and Fine Print. All public servants, Scootaloo supposed, though their cutie marks were pretty different.
Sweetie Belle hmmed and turned her attention back up to where, in the right corner, she had written in the golden ratio of 1:3:5, the most common arrangement of cutie marks. It was in turn connected to a flying saucer and the words "Bitvarian Illuminati" and then to "Reinaissance Fairs" and then to Princess Celestia. And then to a slice of cake. Curiously, she had also traced a line between the Illuminati and Rainbow Dash.
Scootaloo didn't have high hopes that they would get their 'Conspiracy Theory Cutie Marks' anytime soon...
"Hey, how come ya haven't connected anythin' ta my robots square?" Apple Bloom pointed accusingly as a picture of a pony with a nut and bolt for a cutie mark.
"Robots aren't real," Sweetie Belle informed her as she made a note in the corner: Extra-Equestrial Hybrids and Pod-Pony Shapeshifters.
"I guess I'll be right back." Scootaloo rolled her eyes and jumped down from the clubhouse, her wings doing little to catch the air before she hit ground. Sweetie Belle was a great friend and all, but sometimes she had very... unorthodox approaches to Cutie Mark Crusading. It had always been that way. The two fillies simply had markedly different views on what was and what was not the ideal way to go about earning a cutie mark and, typically, how much physical risk was involved along the way. At least Apple Bloom was having fun with it. Scootaloo could still hear her arguing about the plausibility of a "robot conspiracy" as she reached for her scooter.
It was just a quick ride back to the Apple family house.
Of course, it would've been an even quicker trip if she could fly. Even Rumble could fly. Scootaloo tried not to dwell on that too much; there were some unusual looking clouds overhead. Dozens of circular cloud-rings marked the sky at odd intervals along with a few faint contrails. They were probably markers for cloud construction or placement. Scootaloo scanned the air, looking for one weathermare in particular. She'd heard what sounded like a Rain Boom earlier in the day but after that? Nothing.
Catching a vault off of a slightly upturned rock, Scootaloo hopped off her scooter and landed on her hooves. Up ahead, she could see the barn and the farmhouse where Apple Bloom lived. Scootaloo remembered sleeping over with the other Crusaders there - and being spoiled by Granny Smith - but that had been in the first few weeks after they'd met Apple Bloom. A year ago, give or take.
If she recalled right, the first aid kit was in the downstairs bathroom -
Scootaloo was almost to the door when she paused, just catching what seemed like movement. Turning around, she narrowed her eyes to see if it would repeat itself, like the wind. Nothing. Tempted to just write it off and head inside, Scootaloo followed her gut, and her instincts told her to investigate. Creeping close to the door of the lofty red barn, she found it both open and unlocked. Craning her neck, she checked the fields for Big Macintosh. If there was some pony in the barn, it would probably be him.
"Big Mac?" Scootaloo asked, nudging the barn doors open a little wider. "Hello?"
There was no wind inside the sturdy old barn and no hanging fabric to catch it, except for a large blue tarp tied around a piece of farming equipment. Crusty old hay crunched underhoof as Scootaloo inched deeper into the shadowy storage shed. There were bales of the stuff tied together and stacked up like blocks along the walls. A long line of barrels broke up the monotony, one of them knocked onto its side. Drawn to this singular irregularity, Scootaloo caught a flash of red.
The first aid kit!
On the verge of picking it up, the little pegasus hesitated a second time, but not for no reason. Not far from the first aid kit, she could see splotches of red on the hay. It was easy to see that the normally stamped down straw had also been disturbed by something big. Turning around in a slow circle, purple eyes searched around the seemingly empty barn.
"Is somepony here?" she asked, nearly stepping on one of the bloodstains. "Are you hurt? I don't have a doctor cutie mark but..."
A trickle of dust fell from the rafters above the upper tier of the barn.
Scootaloo gulped as she caught sight of what had to be a small manticore, hidden among the rafters. It had the same scary wings she had read about and glowing red eyes and... and the tail was kind of droopy. And where were the claws? Reining in the urge to bolt for the exit, Scootaloo craned her neck and squinted to get a better look. It wasn't a manticore, it was... a pegasus?
"Looks like I've been spotted," a voice that was very much equine came from above. "What's up, kid?"
"I'm not a kid!" She recalled Shady Deal's preferred nickname for her; best to try and nip the name-calling in the bud. "The name's Scootaloo! Who are you and what are you doing up there? Did you steal our first aid kit? Are you hurt?"
"So you're not-a-kid." The pony in the rafters chuckled. "I'll call you runt then, instead."
"Runt is worse!"
The pegasus stalked among the shadows, making it hard for Scootaloo to get a good look at her. "Yeah, I did take that first aid kit from this little tree house. Sorry, but I think I needed it more than you did." A pause, as the eyes of the rafter mare narrowed. "Oh. I guess you need the band aids, huh?"
Scootaloo covered the scratch on her foreleg with her hoof.
"As for what I'm doing up here?" The strange pegasus continued. "Well, I'm on the run."
"From who?" Scootaloo asked, though she had a guess -
"Everypony, really," the mare remarked with a laugh. With a single swoop, she flipped back and glided around to land within a few hoof-lengths. Up close, she was as big as Scootaloo had imagined, towering over the orange filly.
Scootaloo backed up a step, but didn't let her anxiety show itself as fear.
"Everypony?" she asked. "Are you... a bad pony or something?"
"I don't believe in bad ponies... or good ones. I know ponies you'd probably think were good, and I've seen them do plenty of bad things." She stuck out a large hoof, pointing past Scootaloo and to the still open first aid kit. "You can take that back as soon as I finish with it. I promise."
"You can use it after I'm done with it," Scootaloo replied, not shrinking back.
The strange pegasus snorted a blast of air strong enough to ruffle Scootaloo's mane as she lowered her head to eye level with the filly. Her shoulders tensed... but only before she sat down on all fours, tucking her legs neatly under her. Large wings folded back and along her side.
"Fair enough, runt."
"I'm not a runt! I have a name!" The little filly pointed with her hoof, poking the large mare on the nose. "Scootaloo!"
The gray coated mare just rested her head on her crossed forelegs. She still hadn't given her name yet. Drawing up to her own full, albeit small, height, Scootaloo turned her back to the other pegasus and pulled over the first aid kit with her teeth. Inside were the band-aids she wanted and the first aid ointment. Dabbing a bit of the lotion onto the corner of her left hoof, she gently rubbed it over the scrape on her other front leg. A small hodgepodge of band-aids followed, sticking to her coat as a pair of messy X'es.
"How'd you get that scrape, runt?"
Scootaloo turned to glare at the somewhat frightening pegasus.
"How'd you get that scrape..." the rough mare repeated. "Scootaloo?"
"A tree," she answered, satisfied.
"Crashing into the stream would've been worse," the filly reasoned with a grin. "At least I'm not wet, too."
There was a brief pause, before: "Can you fly yet?"
"Of course I can fly!" Scootaloo objected, but then noticed the doubtful look on her guest's face. "A little bit."
"You've got runty wings," the big mare said.
Scootaloo's frown said more than she felt the need to.
"Small, swept planform. Low aspect ratio. Only nine primaries. Means you're a finesse type flyer." the rude mare snickered, shamelessly, at her analysis. "A runty finesse type flyer."
"Do you always insult ponies younger than you?"
"Them and everypony else." She motioned with her head to the first aid kit. "You done?"
"Yeah... but before I give it over- " Scootaloo winced as the mare's look turned steely and markedly less playful than before. "Tell me the truth. Why are you hiding here? You said you were on the run. Are you some kind of criminal?"
"Does it matter?" the big mare asked.
"I don't want to get an 'aiding and abetting' cutie mark!" Scootaloo bounced back as the mare reached for the first aid kit. "Tell me what you did first!"
The gray pegasus mare growled, but lowered her outstretched hoof.
"I quit my team," she admitted.
The frown deepened, but she did elaborate. "Being with them was holding me back. Their rules pissed me off." She rudely snorted again, in the sort of way Cheerilee always said mares and fillies shouldn't. "It was only a matter of time before... before it got bad. So I left first. They weren't happy about it, and I don't blame 'em. We settled our disagreements with our hooves and teeth. I blew up their clubhouse when I left."
"Happy now?" the big mare prompted. "How about giving me the needle and thread?"
"...okay," Scootaloo decided, trotting closer with the handle of the kit in her mouth. "But this is Cutie Mark Crusader property. You only get to use it with my supervision."
The strange pegasus growled again, but nodded (rolling her eyes, too, but Scootaloo ignored that). The older pony had much finer control of her wings than Scootaloo did, to the point where she could even pick up a needle with them. She had clearly been using her wings, as best she could, to stitch up a bad cut on her flank where her hooves and mouth couldn't quite reach. After seeing the gist of what needed doing, Scootaloo tried her own hoof at it.
Pricking the needle and thread through the cut skin, she figured it was probably a good thing Sweetie Belle wasn't around. Even if she could get over her squeamishness, needlework was not her forte. Even she shuddered a bit whenever the needle drew the occasional bead of blood as it bit too deep. Scootaloo could only imagine that it had to hurt. The gray pegasus only watched, untroubled by the amateurish stitching.
"So I told you how I got my scrape, right?" Scootaloo swallowed her hesitation and dared to ask, "how'd you get hurt? A fight?"
"I was eaten by an eel."
The needle paused, mid-pierce, in Scootaloo's trembling hoof.
"That rainbow bitch led me right into a nest of giant eels," the gray mare explained with a wide, almost ecstatic grin. "It was pretty fun."
"Rainbow... Dash, you mean?" Scootaloo asked, carefully.
The rough mare nodded, watchful but seemingly relaxed. "Yeah. Her. That was a great time."
"And, um - how did the fight end?" the little filly asked, trying to sound cool about the whole thing. "With Rainbow Dash?"
"I almost had her... chasing her down at angels five or six... but then she hit me with a point blank Rain Boom. You know what that is?" The mare let out a long, rumbling breath and Scootaloo shook her head, playing dumb. "A Rain Boom is like... being kicked by a dozen earth ponies all across your body. There's this flash of colors and then you blank out and it's all gone. I knew there was a pony who could do a real old-world Rain Boom, but I always figured she would be..."
She seemed about to say more, but stopped herself.
"Anyway, it was a good time," she said instead.
Scootaloo faced away and tried to finish the stitch on the pony's flank, her mind racing. The Rain Boom earlier - it must have been Dash fighting this pony. From the sound of it, she had either won or gotten away. So she was all right. Hopefully.
And this pony -
Scootaloo wondered what she would do when - or if, she had to also consider - she got free. By the older mare's own admission, she was some sort of fugitive. She didn't deny being a bad pony. She had fought with Rainbow Dash, and Scootaloo couldn't imagine why. Even if she had left her previous team, she sure as hay wasn't one of the local weatherponies. Why fight with Dash? Why fight with anypony?
The smug grins of Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon reminded her not to be hypocritical.
"Thank you, Scootaloo." The gray mare stood back up, flexing her back leg. Scootaloo, snapped out of her thoughts, took immediate notice of the other pony's cutie mark. She had seen it before while working, but... were those explosions? What kind of cutie mark was that, and how did a pony get it? For blowing things up?
"You're still a runt, though," she added, nickering. "We don't have the same sort of wings, but... I guess I owe ya something for the help. And for not ratting me out." She turned her eyes down, assuming a rather more threatening expression, despite the smile. Or maybe because of it. "You won't rat me out, will you, Scootaloo?"
The little filly hid her face by closing up the first aid kit.
"Why were you fighting with Rainbow Dash?" she asked.
"What's it matter?"
"Rainbow Dash is... she's like my big sister," Scootaloo lied, and the fabrication was pretty easily exposed by her biting her lower lip. "She's... she..."
"I'm only interested in strong ponies," the gray pegasus stated, lifting her chin high. "She's the strongest pegasus in this town. I want to beat her Rain Boom. I want to surpass it and let all of Equestria know that I did it. You understand?"
Scootaloo shook her head. "Not really."
Rather than be angry or upset, the rough mare chuckled again. "Well, you are still a little runt."
"I'm not a runt!"
"You're a runt until you learn to fly," the mare told her, and with a swoop of her wing she picked Scootaloo off the ground, supporting her weight with a few extended feathers. "How hard are you willing to work to earn your wings?"
"Are you saying you can help me?" Scootaloo asked, rather than answer the question. She narrowed her eyes, not bothering to hide her skepticism.
"I need food, water, and a place to keep out of sight," the other pegasus explained. "Help me and I'll help you. Of course, if you aren't interested..."
Scootaloo checked her flank: no aiding and abetting cutie mark. Not yet, anyway.
"Let me think about it," she replied, and poked the older pony with a hoof. "Hey! What's your name anyway? I already told you who I am, now you need to tell me who you are!"
- - -
"Spike! Who left this-"
Twilight Sparkle winced as the absence of her number one assistant hit home, yet again. Owloysius was handy, but aside from flying over with the scroll in her claws she was a long way from giving any context on who sent it or when. Unlike her assistant, she also had little interest in the who-game, not when she had so many other things on her plate.
"Thank you, Owloysius," she said, floating the scroll out of the owl's talons.
"You. Thank you."
"..." Twilight's eyelids lowered as she caught herself being drawn in. Owloysius flapped, waiting for the inevitable response to play off of. Instead, Twilight gave a look that said, 'You know who.'
Incapable of chuckling, Owloysius flew back to her perch. She always got feisty at night and, knowing the bird well, Twilight magiced open a nearby oriel window. With a happy little hoot, the owl took off for the night. Hopefully, she didn't end up eating any of the town mice Fluttershy knew by name.
"Alright, now: this letter..."
Trotting towards the middle of her library home, Twilight rotated the scroll around to find the wax seal. Without Spike around, Princess Celestia had resorted to sending a few letters via courier. Given this fact of life at the moment, her dutiful student had expected to see the traditional sun-disk and radiant array behind it that was the signet-signature of the Princess of the Sun.
Instead, she took note of the eight-pointed asymmetrical star that was the trademark of her own family: the summer solstice arms pointing north-west and north-east left shorter than the winter solstice arms. The eight-pointed star itself was a symbol common in Canterlot, representing the creative octogram of magic and occult wisdom, going all the way back to Clover and Starswirl. No other family used an asymmetrical star, however. It was very distinctive, especially when paired with the family coat of arms: unicorn, waves, star, and either sun-disk or crescent-moon.
Breaking open the seal, Twilight unfurled the letter from home. Her eyes skipped only a few lines before prompting her to suck in a breath.
"Uncle Wrathenow... dead?"
She remembered seeing him on her birthday, back at Ptarmigan Manor. He was old, and sick, and mother had been right about needing to shout for him to hear her. That hadn't been very long ago; just a week or two before the mess with Rarity and Antimony. Wrathenow had been the head of the Kamacite descended branch of the Terre Rare, senior to the Neptunium branch but still inferior to Bismuth and the main line. If he was dead... then...
My daughter, I write to you with grave news. Lord Wrathenow, your esteemed Great Uncle, has passed on. We all did what we could for him, but in the end, the doctors could only ease his passing. Our entire family mourns him, but this sad news is not the only reason I write to you now. It is merely the catalyst.
Before his death, Lord Wrathenow named me as family head in Canterlot, to represent and lead all of Lady Kamacite's descendants. I have already made to occupy Hocksbach Hall and to request the fealty of our relatives here. I expect most will comply without incident, but Lord Cruciger is also demanding a family convention in Prance where he will decide a new head of the Canterlot branch of the family. You must understand this, Twilight: we will not be going to Prance and we will respectfully decline Lord Cruciger's invitation. If you receive an invitation from him, or from any of our extended family outside Canterlot, you are to politely decline. With one exception.
I have discovered things, learned of things, from Lord Wrathenow. I can not speak of them here, but even if it brings us to conflict with Lord Cruciger, I must secure our family and uphold my promise to your Great Uncle. Know this: Lord Wrathenow was visited by Lady Antimony soon after your birthday. After that visit, he was unwilling to speak, even to his nurses or close family. The main branch silenced him, but not before he passed on much of his knowledge to me.
I have been so dreading this final part of the letter. What I ask of you now will be difficult, my daughter. Let me first say that I am so proud of you: I remember when you were just a newborn foal, when you first struggled to stand, when you fell asleep with your face in your books, trying so hard to learn magic. You've grown into such a fine Lady, accomplished so much, made so many wonderful friends, and become a national hero. I love you, Twilight. I do.
But, I must also ask this of you: for the good of our family, you and only you are in a position to bring to us Canterlot's Platinum Crown. With it, and your brother's upcoming marriage, we can secure the loyalty of all our extended family. We will have upheld the honor of our family's founder, Lady Arsenic, where the main branch failed. Without the Crown and the honor it represents, I fear we will soon fall into a period of family dueling that will only result in tragedy.
I pray you consider my words and that you can find common ground with your friend, Lady Rarity. Whatever you decide to do, I will accept your choice. You are my daughter, now and forever. Nothing can ever change that or take you away from me. Two final things. First, you must not let the Princess catch wind of this turmoil. The family must not be seen to lose face. Second, earlier, I mentioned an exception, a pony you can trust who is not from our branch of the family. I can not name him in this letter, but he will send somepony contact you. I have told him to use a name you will recognize.
Be safe and well.
Twilight Sparkle slowly rolled up the letter, eyes straying towards the un-stoked fireplace. Family politics was something she had been glad to escape from in becoming the Princess's apprentice. Eyes drawing into a frown, she conjured up enough fire to turn the crisped firewood inside into hot embers. Hesitation and a second thought prevented her from tossing the vellum into the burning pile.
Wrathenow... dead, and her father...
'For the good of our family, you and only you are in a position to bring to us Canterlot's Platinum Crown.'
The wax seal of the Sparkle family cracked as her magic grip on the letter tightened.