“I’ve known this day was approaching for weeks, but I still can’t believe I’m really doing this,” Rarity said to Twilight Sparkle between sips of coffee with cream.
“You deserve it. It’s such an honor to have the opportunity to actually participate in the Alicorn’s Cup,” the lavender mare replied, at the same time using her magic to pour herself another cup of tea.
The sun was only beginning to cast its rays over the green hills around Ponyville, and the two friends were the first customers of the day in the only cafe in town. Despite the early hour, Rarity was already wearing a dark purple dress made of overlapping layers of rich fabric, and she had perched a small but elaborate feathered fascinator atop her head. A neat but not insubstantial stack of luggage was arranged next to the cafe table.
“Participate is far too strong a word,” Rarity replied. “I’m the ‘fifth’ on the team. According to Fancypants, that means my only responsibility is to move from one side of the airship to the other when asked, in order to lean the ship and turn faster around the marker buoys. A lot of the ships are sponsored by big companies, and so a corporate executive usually is the fifth crewpony. Because Fancypants is actually commanding his own airship, though, he invited me to be his team’s extra.”
“It’s going to be so exciting,” Twilight Sparkle enthused. “I know you’ll do a great job, no matter what your responsibility is.”
“There’s just one problem,” Rarity confided, resting her head in her forehooves.
“You mean the dinner tonight,” Twilight knowingly replied.
“Yes!” Rarity exclaimed breathily. “I’ll have to spend hours in the same room as him. Tradition says that all the racers have to attend the pre-race banquet, captains and crew, so I can’t get out of it.”
“Maybe you won’t have to interact with Blueblood. Isn’t he hosting, after all? He’ll probably be too busy to even notice you,” Twilight suggested.
“Technically, yes. Because Blueblood is the sponsor of the Royal Yacht Club, which is the official host club for the regatta, he is also hosting the dinner tonight. It’s not the same as if you or I or Pinkie was hosting a dinner, though. He’ll have staff preparing the meal and coordinating everything,” Rarity explained.
“Hmm,” Twilight mused. “I suppose if you really want him to stay away from you, I do have a Repel Spell that I could …”
“That’s alright,” Rarity interjected. “I’m a grown mare. I’ll have to handle this like an adult.” She sighed. “Really, this is all my fault anyway. If I had just kept away from Blueblood the last time I saw him, none of this would be an issue.”
“Well, I know I don’t usually say things like this,” Twilight began, “but maybe some things happen for a reason. It’s like when we five all saw Rainbow Dash’s sonic rainboom and then got our cutie marks, or like Pinkie Pie’s crazy premonitions. Even I have to admit that sometimes the world works in mysterious ways that I can’t understand. If you hadn’t, you know, jumped on Prince Blueblood two months ago, then you probably wouldn’t be racing in the Alicorn’s Cup today. And who knows what other amazing opportunities you might get from being in the race?”
Rarity looked appreciatively at her friend, and placed a grateful hoof over Twilight’s. “You really are the best friend a girl could ask for, Twilight. You always know just what to say.”
“Thanks,” Twilight replied with a bashful smile. “Now go on. You’ve got to catch the morning train to Canterlot.”
“Right!” After the leisurely breakfast, Rarity was left with only minutes before the train was due in Ponyville. She finished her last sip of coffee and pushed back from the table, then levitated all of her belongings in a cloud of luggage that hovered beside her. She waved goodbye to Twilight and began trotting toward the train station.
“Good luck!” Twilight Sparkle called from behind. “We’ll all be looking up to see you tomorrow!”
Rarity had little time to spare and increased her pace to an easy canter as she made her way to the station. Twilight’s words were reassuring, but she could not shake the little flutter in her belly that accompanied any thoughts of the race or tonight’s banquet. She had come to terms with the fact that she had unresolved issues with Prince Blueblood. Realistically, though, they would never be resolved. She absolutely hated the stallion, yet she had been compelled to kiss him. He was rich and handsome, but Equestria was full of rich, handsome stallions.
Maybe this twisted fascination had something to do with her special talent, that she had discovered when she earned her cutie mark. Her greatest ability was to find the beautiful in the mundane. She knew which seemingly ordinary rocks hid beautiful gems inside, and how to turn drab fabrics into beautiful clothes. Then again, who was she kidding? Blueblood’s dull exterior hid no gem inside. He was hollow from his coat all the way down to his core. All she had to do was get through this evening and this race, and then she would be free of him.
“Hey there fancy lady!” a familiar voice called down from above. Rainbow Dash lightly touched down on the path beside to Rarity and matched her pace. “Since you’re going to be in a race, and since that is my speciality, I thought I’d stop by and offer a few pointers before you go.”
“Thank you, but I’m really just going to be standing there trying not to look foolish,” Rarity said to her pegasus friend.
“Pointer number one: focus on your breathing. The air is thinner up there at high altitudes, so be careful not to hyperventilate.”
“Thanks, but I’m not going to be exerting myself,” Rarity replied.
“Pointer number two: don’t pitch up your wings at low speeds, or you might stall.”
“This is an airship race,” Rarity protested. “There are no wings.”
“Pointer number three: keep your eyes on the prize.”
“I’m not sure you’re clear with respect to my responsibilities in the race,” said Rarity, rolling her eyes. “But I’ll try to remember these.”
“One more thing,” Rainbow Dash said, anxiously shifting her gaze back and forth. “If you run into my cousin, don’t listen to anything she says about me.”
With that Rainbow Dash rocketed skyward and was gone. Before Rarity had time to ponder the pegasus’ advice further, she had arrived at the train station, and no sooner had she checked the arrival and departure listings than the Canterlot Express chugged into the station, belching smoke and steam.
Rarity hurriedly bought her ticket, and was surprised when the agent informed her that the train was nearly full. Of course, she realized, there would be many ponies from all over Equestria on their way to Canterlot to watch the start and end of the race. She turned her luggage over to the porter and climbed onto the train as soon as boarding was announced. Though it meant parting with quite a few extra bits, she had paid for a private booth in the first class coach car. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts for the duration of the trip out into the country and up the mountain to Canterlot. Rarity watched through her window as the train rumbled out of the station, but then pulled down the shade and lay down on the plush bench in her booth.
It had been an uneventful couple of months since her “debut” into high society. In the end, her fabricated identity had fallen apart, and Fancypants and the others had learned that she was just a simple dressmaker from Ponyville. Contrary to expectations, though, Rarity hadn’t been expelled from their circle outright. Instead she had enjoyed a measure of acceptance from Fancypants and his coterie. She still maintained friendly correspondence with a few of the ponies she had met, and she indulged herself to think that she had forged the beginnings of an actual friendship with Fancypants. Despite that, she didn’t really believe that the important ponies in the capital had much time to spare thinking about her, all the way out in the countryside. It had therefore been something of a surprise when invitations began to arrive pertaining to the regatta that, by now, everypony in Equestria was talking about.
Blueblood’s invitation had come first, offering her a box seat to “watch me embarrass you, Fancypants, and anypony else who dares disrespect my royal birthright by winning the Alicorn’s Cup in record time.” Even though Rarity had given her oral promise to attend the race, she decided to decline in order to avoid another encounter with Blueblood. Then, just as she was about to deliver her response to the postmare, Fancypants’ letter had been delivered. The stallion had eloquently explained what an “absolute delight” it would be to be “graced” with Rarity’s presence, and implored that “nopony else would do” as his team’s “esteemed guest and honored fifth crewpony.”
This second invitation was impossible to turn down. Not only would she get to spend more time with Fancypants, she would be an actual part of the year’s biggest spectacle in the entire nation. More than just the opportunity to mix and mingle with Canterlot’s high society, this event would bring together the fanciest members of all the world’s nations. Why, there would be ponies, and zebras, and griffons, and Celestia knew what else! All of them would be very important, and Rarity would be one of them, just like she had always dreamed.
Imagining herself as Celestia’s noble envoy, attired in the finest and rarest fabrics and gems of Equestria and travelling to pony cities and foreign courts far and wide in the vital service of diplomacy and good taste, Rarity eventually drifted off to sleep. She didn’t awaken until the locomotive’s whistle signalled that they were pulling into Canterlot Central Station. After startling awake, Rarity magically retrieved her compact from her tote and gave herself a quick inspection. There was scarcely a hair out of place, and she had arranged herself carefully enough to avoid rumpling her dress. Not a single feather of her ornate fascinator was bent or broken. Her makeup was perfect. She was ready for the capital.
Rarity entered the line of travelers exiting the rail car and lightly stepped off and onto the wide platform. Porters were already unloading suitcases and bags onto waiting trolleys, and she was able to easily locate and collect all of her belongings. She looked upward to find the time. Rising over the grand train station was a slender clock tower constructed of white marble and gold, as was the fashion for significant buildings in Canterlot.
The tower displayed three enormous clock faces in a vertical row. The central face displayed the time in hours, minutes, and seconds. The uppermost clock indicated the month, day, and the current phase of the moon. Finally, the lowest clock was connected to a variety of meteorological instruments and had one long needle that pointed to different paintings representing the expected weather. Rarity did not know, nor did she particularly care, how the clock operated. All that currently mattered was that it reported the time accurately. She was relieved to see that the train had arrived on schedule.
Rarity followed the influx of ponies crowding through the entrance to the station itself, taking care to maintain her magic so as not to lose any of her luggage. There were so many unicorns at the station that the air was thick was with floating bags, boxes, and briefcases, and Rarity had to keep her wits about her just to avoid being walloped. Within the cavernous interior of the station, long lines of ponies queued up to purchase tickets, and hundreds of others were walking, trotting or galloping every which way, depending on the urgency of their need to catch a train. Rarity had never seen the station so busy, and she knew it must have to do with the approach of the Alicorn’s Cup.
“How I am ever going to find Fancypants in this crowd?” Rarity wondered aloud.
“Perhaps I could find you instead?”
Rarity turned toward the recognizable voice and was rewarded with the sight of Fancypants and his driver, both resting on a bench against the station wall. Fancypants set down the newspaper he was reading and stood up.
“Fancypants!” she exclaimed excitedly, before adding more demurely, “it’s good to see you.”
“It’s splendid to see you again as well, Miss Rarity. It’s felt like a rather long time since I last had the pleasure of your company.”
“The pleasure is mine. I cannot thank you enough for inviting me to join you in the race,” Rarity replied.
“There is no pony who I would rather have with us,” said Fanypants. “You are a singular mare, Miss Rarity, and not only due to your wit and impeccable taste. I’ll have you know that after you left Canterlot I learned that you are one of the ponies who saved us all from Night Mare Moon and the dreaded Discord. It is truly my honor to have a heroine of Equestria accompanying me in the race for the Alicorn’s Cup.”
Rarity could only blush a deep crimson in response. The entire messy “savior of Equestria” business was really Twilight Sparkle’s purview, after all. She was just the other unicorn’s friend, and for whatever reason fate had chosen her to bear one of the Elements of Harmony in times of need.
Apparently sensing her embarrassment, Fancypants spoke again. “Right, well then, let’s get moving. I have some friends who I’d very much like to introduce to you.”
Rarity followed Fancypants and his driver as they weaved a path through the crowds and out the opposite side of the station. Outside, they faced a broad thoroughfare that led to downtown Canterlot, and Fancypants’ steam carriage was waiting at the side of the road. Rarity and Fancypants clambered into the back of the vehicle while the driver stowed Rarity’s things and found his seat at the front.
“To the facility, Coltsworth!” Fancypants called out as his driver worked to start up the noisy steam engine. “Tally-ho!”
“The facility?” Rarity inquired once they were moving. “That sounds entirely mysterious. Might you be taking me to see one of your industrial complexes?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” replied Fancypants. “The facility is a former warehouse where my team is preparing for the race. It’s not posh by any means, and I would ordinarily never invite you someplace so aesthetically challenged, but I’d love for you to meet them before the banquet tonight.” He paused. “And in all honesty we still have a great deal of work to finish before my airship is ready.”
“But I thought you were racing in Fancy Free,” Rarity pointed out. “She seemed perfect when I flew with you around the mountains.”
“Quite right, my dear. Quite right. I am indeed racing Fancy Free, but in order for her to be competitive in this race, we have been making modifications. Everything designed purely for comfort had be lost in order to save weight. We have replaced the propulsion fins with propellers, and my team is doing everything it can to improve the output of the steam engine. As you know, I am in the uncomfortable position of racing in a pleasure craft designed and built by a rival company, so we must improve on the original product in order to have a chance.”
Rarity watched through the carriage window as gleaming downtown Canterlot gave way to simpler buildings and homes, and finally to the soot-stained factories and warehouses of the industrial district. The carriage finally stopped in front of one large, boxy, and particularly dilapidated building.
“Is that it?” Rarity asked dubiously, finding it hard to believe that Fancypants would even enter such an eyesore. The building looked like it should have been condemned ages ago.
“I do apologize for taking you to such a misbegotten part of Canterlot, Miss Rarity. I admit the facility isn’t very pleasing to look at from the outside, but we have done a bit of work spiffing up the interior,” Fancypants explained. “Please, follow me.” He stepped out of the carriage and helped Rarity down before walking briskly toward the warehouse. He used a forehoof to tap a rhythmic sequence on an old steel door barring their way. Rarity recognized the pattern must have been the equivalent of a “secret word” to gain admission to the building. After a moment the door slowly opened inward with the terrible grinding screech of rusted metal on metal.
Completely out of her element and unsure what to expect, Rarity followed her host inside. The sight that greeted her nearly took her breath away. In stark contrast to the wasted exterior of the building, inside everything was clean and contemporary. The walls were painted hospital white and gas lamps provided bright illumination. The space buzzed with the sound of machines; engines whirred, gears clicked, and tanks of clear fluid bubbled energetically. The hull of Fancypants’ yacht rested on wooden supports that looked like giant sawhorses in the center of the space. The airship had been repainted a clean white with red racing trim, and Rarity could easily spot numerous changes to the shape and structure of the airship. An earth pony wearing an iron mask to shield his eyes appeared to be using some kind of portable fire to meld an angular piece of metal to the side of the hull.
“As I said, we’ve made some improvements to the interior,” Fancypants said to Rarity. “This building is the secret research and development facility for the company which is sponsoring our ship in the race. And of course, since I own the company, we get to use the building to prepare.”
“Welcome back, sir,” a feminine voice called out from behind Rarity, causing her to jump. She wheeled around to face the speaker and saw a light pink unicorn mare wearing rumpled green coveralls and thick protective boots over her hooves. Despite her workpony’s attire, it was plain to see that this was a young and very attractive mare. Rarity saw that she had been the pony who opened the door for them. “The last maneuvering stabilizers are being welded in place now, so we’re actually running ahead of schedule.”
“That’s wonderful news,” Fancypants replied. “Windlass, this is my dear friend Rarity, Equestria’s greatest young fashion talent. As you know, Rarity will be our fifth for the regatta,” he said by way of introduction. “Rarity, Windlass is the most promising young engineer I’ve ever met. She designed most of the modifications we are implementing on Fancy Free, and she will be part of my crew for the race.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Rarity said, inclining her head respectfully in the Canterlot fashion. “I can see you’ve already done quite a lot of work on the airship.”
“Thank you, it’s an honor to meet you, Miss Rarity. I’ve heard all about you from the boss,” Windlass replied. “Actually, most of the design is on the inside. We had to turn a heavy luxury cruiser into a racer, so I had to cut out a lot of the original bulkheads and supports, while still keeping the ship structurally sound. It was quite a challenge!”
“Indeed,” Fancypants agreed. “Now, since we are ahead of schedule, Windlass, why don’t you collect the rest of the crew so that we can sit down to a spot of lunch. I, for one, am famished.”
“Aye aye,” Windlass said with a smile before trotting out into the enormous workspace.
Rarity was extremely hungry, a fact which Fancypants must have been aware due to the audible growling of her stomach. She marvelled that even now, when he needed to be focused on preparing for the Alicorn’s Cup, he was playing the good host.
“Windlass is a brilliant engineer with an amazing gift for understanding machines, but she’s not an air sailor,” Fancypants admitted after the mare had departed. “The others, however, are old hooves at this sort of thing. In fact, my second has been flying practically since he was foaled.” Fancypants said the last with a small smile.
“Perhaps your second is a pegasus?” Rarity guessed.
“Astute as always, my dear!” said Fancypants. “Colonel Tempest is recently retired from Her Highness’ service and has taken on a professorship at Cloudsdale University teaching navigation. He is in charge of our celestial navigation, as well as judging the winds and weather to plot our best course for the race.”
“And that means the other must be the earth pony I saw using that fire tool,” Rarity concluded.
“Correct. Elbow Grease knows steam engines inside and out. It’s his job to get us every bit of horsepower that the engine can give. I’d trust nopony else with that job.”
“That leaves me,” Rarity said with a frown. “And I don’t add any value at all. Are you certain you wouldn’t be better off with just the four of you?”
“Nonsense,” Fancypants replied. “The fifth crewpony is perhaps the most important position of all. Not only will you help us shift the weight of the airship when maneuvering, but it’s also a proud Alicorn’s Cup tradition to race with five. The fifth crew member is also known as something of a good luck charm; it is said that the right choice can bring favorable winds and fair weather. And most importantly, if I don’t have somepony along with whom I can have a pleasant conversation, I think I shall lose my mind. As it turns out, I have precious little in common with our solider, junior engineer, and mechanic. You are absolutely not excess baggage, Miss Rarity.”
“Thank you for that,” Rarity replied, mollified. “I promise to do whatever I can to help win this.”
A pleasant, if simple, lunch was served by Coltsworth, who was apparently more than just a driver. As promised, Rarity had the opportunity to meet her future crewmates. Windlass’ boundless enthusiasm reminded her of Twilight Sparkle, if the latter had been obsessed with studying aerodynamics instead of magic. Tempest was possessed of a solemn quietude that completely belied his given name, but was in keeping with his long career in the Guard. Finally, Elbow Grease was a friendly, though somewhat uncomfortably direct, Fillydelphian. He always brought his own lunch, and Rarity quickly learned not to get between him and his “hoagie,” which was apparently some sort of sandwich.
After the midday repast, Fancypants offered her a tour of the facility. It was brimming with examples of new technology still in development, such as an improved generator for installation at the Celestia Dam near Ponyville, and a sleeker version of the steam carriage that had no passenger compartment. They dawdled as Rarity let her companion wax poetic about the virtues of the coming technological revolution in Equestria, and before she realized it hours had passed.
“We will have to leave shortly for the reception,” Fancypants noted. “As you know, it’s being hosted by the Duke of Canterlot and his family. I wanted to ask whether that will be an issue for you. If you like, I can make arrangements for our team to be seated as far away from the head of the table as possible.”
“Thank you, but it won’t be a problem,” Rarity said. “I can take care of myself.”
“Of course,” Fancypants replied. “I would never purposely imply otherwise. Do you have any questions about the banquet that I can answer?”
“Hmm,” Rarity pondered. “What can you tell me about the other teams? I know that there will be formal introductions, but I’d love to know something in advance. Are they all company teams like yours?”
“Now there’s a good question! Eight teams have been qualified to compete by the committee responsible for administering the regatta. Of those, four are entirely corporate-sponsored teams. Mine, or ours I should say, is one of them. The others are the duke’s, a team of pegasi sponsored by Skyworks Industries of Cloudsdale, and a team sponsored by something called Everfree Shipping. I’d never heard of the latter before, but they seem to have no shortage of finances. It pains me to make the allegation, but if I had to pin them down, I’d say they seem to be high-value smugglers or even mercenaries. Their captain is a creature called a “camel,” who I’m told hails from a far-away desert.”
“Goodness, how exotic!” Rarity exclaimed. “But then who is sponsoring the other teams? Wealthy racing enthusiasts?”
“One team is being sponsored by a consortium of earth pony farmers, if you can believe that. I think the Equestria Citrus Council is looking for publicity by pushing the angle that earth ponies can do anything anypony else can do. Of course they are right, if they had anyone on their team who knew how to race an airship. My sources tell me that they do not. The other three airships are publicly-sponsored civic endeavors. One is from Fillydelphia, and the other two are the griffon entrants.”
“Oh, so there are griffons in the race?” Rarity asked. “The only griffon I’ve ever met was a most unpleasant individual.”
“I’m afraid that you may find a certain standoffishness characteristic of the species. Actually, there is a bit of a border dispute with the griffon clans at the moment regarding rights to the only pass through the Snowmane Mountains. I can only hope that coming together in the interest of peaceful sport will help sort that mess out before the rhetoric on both sides escalates further.”
“Surely the Princesses will help smooth things over,” Rarity said confidently.
“Surely,” Fancypants repeated evenly and without enthusiasm. His tone seemed to Rarity to foreclose upon further conversation about the matter.
The time to depart arrived, and the ponies exited the facility to begin the journey to Blueblood’s estate. The other crew had their own carriage, so Rarity had Fancypants to herself once again. If she was going to have the opportunity to pry further about the prince-who-was-not, this would be her last, best opportunity to do so in privacy.
“I don’t feel quite comfortable asking about this,” Rarity prefaced, “but I have a few more questions about the Duke of Canterlot.”
“Why, go right ahead,” Fancypants replied. “I assure you, though, that stallion is every bit as shallow as he seems.”
“I was just wondering, why does everypony call him Prince Blueblood, if he’s not really a prince?”
“The answer to that question is older than Equestria itself,” Fancypants replied. “Since you had the honor of performing in Canterlot’s holiday pageant this year, you must be quite well versed in the story of the first Hearth’s Warming.”
“Yes, it was quite a surprise to receive the invitation from Princess Celestia to perform,” Rarity said, perhaps sounding too pleased with herself. “I portrayed the unicorn Founder, Princess Platinum.”
“Quite so, and may I say that the review in the Canterlot Times was quite complementary. I believe the words were, ‘deliciously horrible.’ That’s quite a complement for anypony playing the part of Princess Platinum!” Fancypants chuckled to himself. “Ahem, as I was saying, the story has become somewhat allegorical over the years, but it retains kernels of truth. Before Equestria, there was a unicorn kingdom, and a real Princess Platinum. Her father, the Unicorn King, was called Blueblood.”
“You don’t mean to say that Blueblood traces his ancestry back to the Ancient Kingdom?” Rarity said, eyes wide in surprise.
“Oh yes,” Fancypants replied. “All the blood nobles in Canterlot claim some heritage to olden times. Some claims are more tenuous than others, as is always the case with such petty things, but Blueblood’s genealogy is not in doubt. The duke is, in fact, the true heir to the Unicorn Kingdom, and the direct descendant of King Blueblood, Princess Platinum, and all the rest.”
“What happened to them?” Rarity asked, intrigued.
“Even I am not entirely clear on just how or when Princess Celestia and Princess Luna came to govern Equestria, but I know that when they came to power, the old royal family became more of a tourist attraction than anything else. Princess Celestia gave them the hereditary title of Duke or Duchess of Canterlot, perhaps to smooth things over, but they’ve been in decline ever since. Now the family may not survive another generation with no stronger heir than a layabout playpony like Duke Polaris of Canterlot, the self-styled Prince Blueblood the Twenty-Fourth and heir to the Magic Throne of Cornutopia.”
“That’s quite a story. I just can’t believe that I played the part of his many-times great grandmother in the Hearth’s Warming pageant,” Rarity said, feeling a bit queasy at the thought. “I do see how he could be related to Princess Platinum though.”
“Quite right,” Fancypants said. “But I will say this about the duke, he is an accomplished aviator and air sailor, and his airship architects are second to none. He means to win the race tomorrow.”
“He can’t stand a chance against a team like yours, can he?” Rarity asked.
“Of course not,” Fancypants cheerfully replied. “But not only because we are the best. The duke races alone, with no team. He talks about it being the honorable way to race, but I believe that the truth is that nopony can stand to be around him, or bear taking orders from him. By himself, it’s going to be nearly impossible to even steer at racing speeds, let alone win.”
“That’s almost sad,” Rarity said, but received no reply.
They rode in silence for some time. Eventually the carriage left the buildings of Canterlot behind and instead was surrounded by tall fir trees and tiny, glittering alpine lakes nestled among the peaks outside of the city proper. Without warning, the vehicle made a sharp turn and abruptly stopped. Rarity looked out her window and gaped at the sight of what appeared to be an ancient stone castle, complete with moat, drawbridge, portcullis, and crenelations, standing alone in the forest like something out of a fairy tale.
“He lives there?” she asked incredulously.
“Oh yes,” Fancypants replied. “Since before Canterlot as as we know it today was founded, the old royal family has lived in that castle, watching it crumble around them.”
Rarity and Fancypants exited the carriage, and Rarity gave the castle closer scrutiny as she waited for the rest of the airship crew to arrive. The flag of Equestria flew from the highest rampart, but next to it, and only slightly lower, fluttered the unicorn head on a purple field of diamonds that represented the ancient kingdom. The past was gone but had not been entirely forgotten by this family, it seemed.
The next instant found Rarity instinctively ducking as a large number of wide-winged shadows flashed past, appearing for all the world like those of enormous predatory birds. Not birds, she realized, glancing skyward. Griffons. Ten of the hybrid creatures were streaking across the sky in a wedge formation, all clad in shining mail and brightly-colored military regalia. The leader emitted a piercing screech from his eagle beak, and the griffons turned as one toward the land below, their tufted lion tails fluttering behind them. They alighted next to Rarity and Fancypants, and maintaining martial precision, turned to face them.
The lead griffon was a burly male wearing a bronze helmet with a crest of blood-red feathers. The upper and lower portions of his beak didn’t quite line up correctly, as if he had suffered a major injury there, and Rarity could see that one of the talons on his clawed front legs was missing. This griffon was an old warrior. The others, male and female, stood straight and tall like the soldiers they obviously were. One of the griffons standing just behind the leader, a sinewy, grizzled veteran in black mail, seemed to be appraising Rarity almost hungrily. She shuddered involuntarily.
“Esteemed Fancypants,” the lead griffon croaked. His speaking voice brought to Rarity’s mind the image of a dying crow.
“Chancellor Ninetalons,” Fancypants acknowledged, lowering his head respectfully.
“We look forward to our immiment victory over the ponies,” Ninetalons said in a low voice.
“In the race, you mean,” Fancypants replied. Rarity saw the two eyeing each other warily.
“Of course!” the griffon exclaimed, punctuating the statement with a ragged cough and an unnatural movement of his twisted beak. Rarity realized that the scarred old griffon had just laughed and smiled. For her part, she remembered what Fancypants had said about the land dispute with the griffon clans, and she wasn’t sure that Ninetalons had been referring to the race at all.
The second carriage containing the rest of Fancypants’ team then pulled up, and Tempest, Windlass, and Elbow Grease emerged, all wearing formal attire. Tempest immediately began glowering at the assembled squadron of griffons, and the other two looked noticeably uncomfortable standing before the mainly-predatory creatures. Rarity wondered whether they had ever met a griffon before this moment.
The developing staring contest was interrupted as more carriages drove into the castle courtyard, all of these pulled by teams of earth ponies. The first colorful coach was spherical and painted bright orange, and from it stepped five dainty mares, each wearing an ornate gown in a different pastel citrus color. That had to be the team from the Equestria Citrus Council, Rarity realized. The next carriage also deposited earth ponies, but this time the arrivals were five strapping young stallions dressed in dapper blue dinner jackets with gold trim. Rarity recognized the colors of Fillydelphia and knew this must be the city’s sponsored team.
The third carriage to pull up was painted black, and to Rarity’s surprise was pulled by a team of zebras. The cast of characters who emerged from it were no less surprising. First came a male zebra, followed by a muscular earth pony stallion with a dark brown coat. Next came a female zebra with a smaller equine trailing behind her. The smaller one was striped like a zebra in the front, but had a solid coat like a pony from his chest to to his hindquarters. Finally, a creature emerged unlike anything Rarity had ever seen before. It was tall and gangly, with a flabby sheep-like face and a great hump upon its matted, golden-haired back. The strange creature wore a patch over one eye and wore a long cream-colored scarf around its neck. Were these the smugglers Fancypants had described? What had he called their captain? A camel. That bizarre creature was a camel. Rarity couldn’t imagine what sort of garment it would take to make that ungainly silhouette look fashionable.
Finally, five pegasi appeared from the clouds and circled the courtyard once before gracefully touching down. Like Tempest, they glared uneasily at the ten razor-clawed griffons in their gleaming helms and mail. Rarity was surprised to see that one of them, a white-coated mare about her own age, had a multicolored mane and tail not unlike Rainbow Dash’s. She remembered her friend’s words back in Ponyville and realized that this must be the aforementioned cousin.
Nopony, or other creature for that matter, seemed willing to be the first to move toward the castle and the banquet waiting therein. Instead, the crowd milled uncertainly about the courtyard, the teams whispering among themselves. Rarity wondered why Blueblood hadn’t come out personally to greet them and invite them inside.
The situation beginning to move past slightly awkward and edge toward uncomfortable when a sleek open-topped phaeton thundered up the path and into the courtyard. The stallions pulling it had clearly galloped some distance at top speed, and they wasted no time in unhitching themselves and collapsing to the ground to catch their breath. The phaeton’s lone occupant, wearing a vest, bowtie, and a single red rose pinned to his lapel, hopped lightly to the ground. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair slightly mussed, as if he hadn’t slept, but other than that he was his unmistakable self.
“Welcome all free creatures to my royal abode,” Blueblood shouted, his voice sounding to Rarity a bit weary. “I believe dinner is being served in the East wing. Please follow me.” He trotted past the crowd and through the heavy wooden front door of the castle, as if nothing could be more natural in the world than for the host to show up late to his own important banquet.
The crowd stood stock still for a moment, processing Blueblood’s unexpected appearance, before rushing toward the castle door en masse. Rarity and Fancypants were closest to the entrance and moved swiftly to avoid the crush.
“This promises to be a very interesting meal,” Fancypants said to Rarity as they entered the castle. “Very interesting indeed.”