Rarity had been lying awake in bed for what felt like hours when the first rays of dawn cautiously poked their way in through the ragged opening in the Alicorn’s hull. She kept still for a while, watching the illuminated portion of the room grow as the sun began its ascent. The light reminded her that somewhere, far away, her Princess had raised the glowing disc from its hidden place of rest. Even in this inhospitable place, Rarity was touched by the same radiant aura of warmth and safety that beamed down on Equestria. The sun gave her a small measure of hope. Now it was time to rise along with it.
It had not been an easy night, and what sleep she had gotten had been fitful at best. The jungle creatures had overcome their fear and surprise at the intrusion into their home, and had returned en masse, filling the darkness with strange noises: droning insects, birds warbling shrilly, and the seemingly unending ululations of what Rarity guessed were troops of monkeys gathering to bed down for the night. Twice during the night some creature’s piercing screech had caused Rarity’s heart to flutter in panic, as the sound conjured the image of a squadron of griffons swooping in for the kill. She still could not say with certainty that the sound had not been a griffon’s hunting cry, but the fact that she had survived the night suggested that at the very least the disguised Alicorn had not been found.
Turning to her right, Rarity found her snout bumping up against the little wall she had made by rolling up all the available sunflower yellow bedsheets into a long serpentine barrier between herself and Blueblood. Neither of them had been willing to abandon their respective claims to the bed, so she had devised this impromptu means for keeping the peace and preventing contact, inadvertent or otherwise. Even at night it had been too hot and sticky to contemplate using the blankets as designed, but they were effective as a territorial border.
Propping herself up on a foreleg allowed Rarity to see over the blanket wall. Blueblood still slept, quiet and unmoving for the moment. He had tossed and turned for most of the night, and she had briefly contemplated taking him up on his offer of the floor more than once, just to have a better chance at uninterrupted sleep. The bed was designed to barely accommodate two ponies on intimate terms, and was wholly inadequate for a stallion and mare who wanted nothing to do with each other, one of whom could not keep still.
Looking more closely at the sleeping Blueblood, Rarity felt a twinge of concern mixed with revulsion. The gash on his head, just behind his left eye and below his ear, was not looking good. It had formed a greenish-brown crust that was clearly visible under Blueblood’s white coat, and the matted wet hair in the area suggested the wound was still weeping fluid. Rarity had spent enough time taking care of her rambunctious sister to recognize the telltale signs of an infected cut. Worse, a red area in the center of the gash suggested that it was not yet entirely closed, and therefore was still vulnerable to new pathogens. Blueblood would need medical attention if he was unable to deal with the infection on his own. This was just one more reason to get back to civilization as quickly as possible. In the meantime, they would at least have to wash and dress the injury. Rarity resigned herself to the task.
“Wake up,” she said loudly, prodding Blueblood’s still form. “If we’re going to get moving we mustn’t sleep in all day. This was your idea, remember?”
“Cream, four sugars,” Blueblood mumbled incoherently, blindly fending off Rarity’s prodding hoof with his own flailing leg. “Some shaved chocolate would be nice.”
“It’s time to … wait, you take four sugars in your coffee? No wonder you chew wakewort instead.” Rarity was appalled. Blueblood clearly had no idea how to brew a proper cup of coffee, or he would never defile his beverage like that. “It really is time to get out of bed.”
Blueblood blinked twice and then opened his eyes. “Oh, right. You. This place. Now I remember. By the way, color me surprised that you prefer bitter to sweet. Coffee was made for sugar.”
Rarity rolled out of bed and moved over to the other side of the cabin, where the tiny kitchenette was located and the supplies were kept. Many of the barrels, boxes, and cartons had been strapped to the wall and were still in place. The rest had been knocked asunder when the massive grappling claw impacted the airship.
“Very funny, but correctly brewed coffee is a mix of the right amount of boldness and the right amount of mellow complexity, but it never tastes burned or bitter. Correcting tragic misapprehensions is a favorite pastime of mine, so I trust you’ll allow me to demonstrate the error of your ways.”
“Now?” Blueblood raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Surely you don’t mean for us to sally forth without breakfast?” Rarity asked in mock surprise. “I looked in your larder last night, and you still have more provisions than we can carry with us. We may as well eat our fill now, before we regret not having enough later.”
Blueblood shrugged. “Carry on, then. I suppose I haven’t eaten a full meal since Canterlot.”
“We must take care of another issue first, I’m afraid” Rarity said. “The gash on your head appears to be infected.”
Blueblood stood up and frowned. “Fantastic. I shall be the first of my noble line to be struck down by jungle fever. Finally I feel like a true pioneer.”
“Already with this melodrama? Surely you have some medical supplies on board.”
“I knew I forgot something.”
“Well then, do you by any chance have something strong to drink?”
“I think you have a problem.” Blueblood screwed up his face in a mixture of surprise and disgust. “You haven’t even had anything to eat yet.”
“I am asking for your benefit, not mine,” Rarity snapped. “The alcohol will help clean out the wound, and there does not seem to be anything better with which to work.”
“Oh.” Blueblood walked over to a large cloth bag in a corner of the room. Opening it, he extracted a large coconut with a cork inserted into it and set it down on top of a convenient barrel. “One of the stallions taking care of the mooring lines back in Gallopoli threw this to me. He said I looked like I needed to relax, so I presume it is something alcoholic. Feel free to have a nip of it if you simply can’t resist.”
Rarity held the coconut down with her forehooves and pulled the cork free with her teeth. The unmistakable aroma, a mixture of alcohol, fragrant spices, and cloying sweetness, instantly informed her that the substance inside was rum. Inhaling more deeply left Rarity feeling lightheaded, which left her with the impression that the proof of this particular spirit was quite high.
Rarity set the rum-filled coconut back down and set to work on her next task. She removed the pillowcase from her pillow and levitated it over to where she stood by the sink, before using a combination of magic and her teeth to tear it into strips.
“What are you doing now?” Blueblood asked, the rapidity of his speech evincing surprise and dismay. “I trust you realize that those pillowcases are the finest Camelonian cotton.”
“If you would be so kind as to shut up and stand still,” Rarity said. She wet one of the strips and walked over to Blueblood, keeping the remaining dry pieces of fabric floating beside her. Trying not to look to hard at the stallion’s wound, she began dabbing at it with the damp strip and soon had cleaned away the excess pus and fluid. Next, Rarity stuffed the second strip into the opening of the rum-filled coconut, and then turned the whole thing upside down to get the cotton fully saturated with rum. She removed the strip and turned back to Blueblood. A small part of her relished what was about to come next.
“This may sting a bit,” Rarity said. She was prepared for protestation, but not for the earsplitting scream that issued forth as she pressed the rum-soaked strip of cotton onto Blueblood’s injury. There was no question that it would have drawn the attention of the constabulary had they been back in any city or town in Equestria. She hoped it wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention here. It did sound rather more animal than pony in nature.
“What was that?” Blueblood finally asked after taking a full minute to simply breathe deeply with his eyes squeezed shut and his jaw clenched.
“Spiced rum,” Rarity replied. “The alcohol should help to clean out your wound and stop any further bleeding. By the smell of it, this is fairly close to medical grade in potency.”
“You’re a regular Nurse Nightingale,” Blueblood said, looking askance at Rarity and raising a hoof to touch the gash on his head. Rarity knocked his foreleg out of the way before it could get close.
“Don’t touch it!” she snarled. “It’s clean now.” She still had a few more dry cotton strips left at her disposal. One was carefully folded to form a small pad, and this she pressed down on top of the wound. She magically joined the remaining two end to end to form a single long strip, and then wrapped it twice around Blueblood’s head and under his blond mane. She tied it tightly behind his head and then stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“Now then, you might pull through,” Rarity said with a small smile. In truth, she was more than a little concerned about the infected wound, but there was nothing to be gained by dwelling on it obsessively, and no reason to cause Blueblood to worry as well. Moreover, she had to admit that Blueblood looked rather more roguish with the bandage around his head.
“I look like a mental patient,” Blueblood groused. Rarity could see him checking his reflection in one of the remaining shards of the shattered lavatory mirror. “A fiendishly handsome mental patient, but still. Thank you for the treatment, I suppose.”
“The pleasure was mine,” Rarity replied. “I, for one, think it adds a certain dangerous charm, as if you were the type of stallion to, say, crash a half-million bit airship in the middle of an impenetrable jungle, while being pursued by a murderous cabal of warmongering conspirators.”
“Quite an imagination you have,” Blueblood replied with a bemused smirk.
“Indeed. I find it helps in my line of work. You have to have a vision in mind when designing an outfit, you know. I’ve imagined entire worlds for my seasonal lines before. This time, though, I must admit that the story practically wrote itself.”
“Breakfast, then?” Rarity prompted.
“Indeed,” Blueblood replied, with a barely perceptible but undeniably real hint of enthusiasm.
“Good. Bring me the coffee and I’ll show you how to brew it properly, and I’ll handle the rest.” Rarity was not particularly inclined to do anything for Blueblood, let alone tend his wounds and cook him breakfast. Circumstances, however, dictated her actions. She could not have him succumbing to infection while they remained far from Equestria, and more importantly, she could not stand idly by while any pony went through life thinking his coffee required four sugars. That was the sort of culinary travesty her little sister would commit, or her poor misguided mother, but not the Duke of Canterlot. For shame.
Variety was lacking, as there were only biscuits, apples, hard cheese, oats, and butter, but it was still better than the available fare on Fancy Free. Rarity had to give some credit; the weight savings from Blueblood’s lightweight engine solution and from his lack of friends willing to race with him allowed for a higher standard of living than might be had otherwise. She set a small stack of biscuits and a bowl full of apples down on Blueblood’s drafting table, along with a miniature tub of butter. She then levitated Blueblood’s small kerosene stove up and gently set it in place so that its straddled the sink. That would do in the limited amount of space available. She retrieved the coffee pot from where it had fallen on the floor, and set it in place on a burner.
“I only have grounds,” Blueblood said, almost apologetically, as he placed a burlap satchel on a stack of boxes next to Rarity.
“Then that will just have to do.”
Blueblood’s coffee pot was the two-stage design Rarity preferred. She filled the base with water from the tap, inserted the filter above, added the appropriate measure of grounds to the filter, and then used magic to screw on the upper stage, which collected the brewed coffee. This design ensured that even though the water in the lower stage was boiling, its temperature lowered to a point at which it would not burn the coffee grounds as pressure forced it upwards through the grounds and into the upper stage. Rarity lit the stove and left the coffeepot to its ordained task, which would take about five minutes.
Even if nothing else in this place could be right, or lovely, or clean, or organized, then at least there would be good coffee, made the right way - bold, but not bitter. Rarity had tasted Applejack’s coffee once. The farmer simply threw a heaping portion of grounds into a pot of boiling water, and strained the result into cups. It was undrinkable to Rarity, though Applejack happily consumed it black. Even that coffee did not deserve four sugars.
“I suppose it would be too much to ask for a porcelain saucer and demitasse,” Rarity said.
“This is a racing yacht, not the Grand Hotel,” Blueblood replied. “I have wooden cups.”
“Wooden cups it is.”
Blueblood occupied his too-small bench and Rarity perched on the edge of the bed with the drafting table between them. Blueblood had found a utility knife for use in sundry shipboard tasks and the two unicorns passed it back and forth as they buttered biscuits and sliced apples.
“Tell me about your brother,” Rarity said after swallowing a bite of hard, dry biscuit. “I hate to pry, but he is trying to have us both killed.”
Blueblood turned away, his cheeks flushing. “What is there to say? Procyon and I are both named after stars, but beyond that we have little in common. We have never been as close as brothers are expected to be. Where I had the old family wanderlust and became addicted to airships and exploration, he spent days poring over the family finances, always calculating and tabulating and looking for the next big investment opportunity. In truth, you could not name a more boring pony in Canterlot. His cutie mark is a compass arrow crossed with a slide rule, for Celestia’s sake!”
“If he is so concerned with numbers, what could he possibly hope to gain financially from this scheme? Isn’t the more obvious goal to usurp your title and become duke?”
“Procyon never even hinted that he wanted my title before, and why would he? It’s meaningless, utterly without real responsibility, and entails that I spend an inordinate amount of time before the public. That is the last thing Procyon would want. As for money, while I may have ruined the fortunes of North Star, our family still has wealth enough, with income producing properties scattered across the realm. I honestly cannot fathom his true motivations.”
“Perhaps you should consider,” Rarity began, “that he may more jealous of you than you realize. Do not mistake this for a compliment, but you are something of a cultural icon in Equestria. You spend your time building airships, attending parties, and offending the sensibilities of mares. I saw your brother, and I must say that he did not exactly strike me as the type of stallion who would naturally become a household name as a bon vivant and heartbreaker. With you gone, he might finally have his day in the sun, as it were.”
Blueblood paused, apparently considering this. “Jealousy is not really sufficient reason to forge a conspiracy to plunge Equestria into war, is it?. Why not just hire somepony to off me? Why have you attacked? Why sabotage the Alicorn’s Cup?”
“Those are the questions of the hour, aren’t they,” Rarity replied. She stood up and crossed the short distance over to the stove. A delightfully heady aroma and her internal clock said that the coffee was ready. “I suppose the important thing is that we are still alive, and therefore whatever nefarious plan hinges upon our demise may not come to fruition. If we manage somehow to stay alive, that is. Anyway, I want you to try this and then tell me it needs cream and sugar.”
“You realize that it isn’t even done yet, don’t you? One is supposed to wait for the pot to make a gurgling noise, which means that all the water has been taken up.”
“Oh you poor creature,” Rarity said, shaking her head pityingly. “That sound just means that the you have left the coffee too long on the heat. At that point you are burning it.” She set two steaming cups down on the table. “Sip this.”
Rarity’s own first sip was exquisite. Blueblood had not exaggerated the quality of his exclusive source. The flavor was bold, rich and complex. Even in the heat and humidity, the beverage provided an invigorating kind of internal warmth that gave a spark of promise and excitement to the day’s beginning. “Lovely,” she said.
Blueblood looked up after his first sip and set his cup back down. “If I did not know this was coffee, I would hardly recognize it.”
“Oh come now,” Rarity began irritably, “I know that it is good, so you needn’t insult it just to try to get a rise out of me.”
“No, no, I mean that I never knew what coffee was supposed to taste like before now. This is phenomenal,” he said without a trace of sarcasm. “It really is. You must teach my breakfast staff.”
“Why thank you,” Rarity replied, quite pleased. “You don’t really have breakfast staff, do you?”
“Not half as many as Princess Celestia has,” Blueblood replied. “My time is valuable. When I am not working I have functions to attend and sleep to catch up on. Somepony else has to feed me.”
“Feed you, and groom you, and attire you, I would wager,” said Rarity. “It is quite disconcerting that a pony who holds such little responsibility over his own life is now responsible for mine. I’ve been meaning to ask, how do you intend to lead us back to Equestria? Have you got a spell to point us in the right direction?”
“I have maps and a compass. The fact that I have a talent for navigation does not mean that I use magic to do it. If that were the case, how would earth ponies and pegasi even earn their marks?”
“True. I suppose I should be happy that you at least read maps. That’s more than I can say for most stallions.”
“Not that this place appears on any maps,” Blueblood noted. “I will be making an educated guess as to the correct direction, and the terrain we encounter is likely to alter our course drastically.”
“In other words, we may have to walk a much further distance than we would travel by air.”
“Count on it.”
“Then we should finish here and set off at once,” Rarity concluded. The realization that they were further from home than she had known was unnerving. There was no more time to waste on coffee and idle chitchat.
“I rather liked your original idea of having a nice breakfast,” Blueblood said. “After we’re finished, I shall determine the lay of the land and choose a path out of here. You can pack.”
“Why do I have to pack your supplies?” Rarity huffed. “Just because I made coffee does not mean that I am now your valet.”
“I’m sorry,” Blueblood replied. “I merely thought you would be less likely to forget something critical. My understanding is that you have an eye for detail.”
“Oh,” Rarity said. Flattery did not always work with her, but flattering her most prized skill was more likely than not to succeed. “Yes, that’s true. Go on then and pick a path home, preferably one without monsters, snakes, or griffons, if that isn’t too tall of an order.”
Blueblood nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
The unicorns finished their breakfast in silence. There was enough coffee for a second cup, and Rarity drank hers as quickly as she could while still savoring it. By the time she finished it, Blueblood was done as well. He disappeared up the staircase to begin scouting the surrounding landscape.
“What did you do?” Rarity heard Blueblood shout in surprise. “This is supposed to be an airship, not an exercise in interpretive landscape design!”
“Sorry, did I scratch the paint with a branch?” Rarity called back. “Here I thought the goal was to avoid being discovered by griffons. I do hope any harm I did will blend in with the giant hole in the hull and all the damage from crashing into a forest of trees!”
“Touché,” Blueblood replied. “Thorough job you’ve done, I must say. I can hardly see the forest for all the trees that you pulled down over the top of my ship. I’m sure the effect works equally well in the opposite direction.”
“Cute. Now would you just go? I have work to do.”
Blueblood chuckled and began walking away. Rarity could hear his hoofbeats as he traversed the deck of the Alicorn, but the sound disappeared when he clambered onto one of the fallen tree trunks that served as a gangplank down to the forest floor.
“Okay, Rarity, time to pack,” she said aloud. “Nopony is better at packing for trips than you are. At least, nopony is more thorough.” Perhaps the most honest way to put it would be to admit that nopony brought more suitcases filled to the brim with every conceivable bit of bric-a-brac that she might conceivably desire to have at some point during a trip. “There are no porters to carry your bags here, Rarity, but that’s no problem. You’ll just have to prioritize.
It was not much more than a year ago now that Twilight Sparkle had led her and the rest on a quest into the western mountains to convince a slumbering dragon to clear out of Equestria. What had she packed then? Scarves, certainly, on account of the cold. A matching tiara. Now that Rarity thought about it, she hadn’t been very pragmatic at the time. Of course, compared to Pinkie Pie, her packing skills were practically those of a trained survivalist, but then again Pinkie usually had her party cannon as backup. Perhaps she could obtain a fashion cannon. But what would a fashion cannon even do? Whatever it did, Rarity was sure it would be fabulous.
Rarity shook her head to clear it. Her internal monologue was being less helpful than usual at the moment. Applejack was a sensible pony. What would she think to take? She would tell Rarity to pack “practical-like.” The most practical things Rarity could think to pack were food, water, something useful for shelter against the elements, perhaps tools, and Blueblood’s maps and navigational aids. Now she was on the right track. Before she could pack anything, however, she needed something in which to pack it.
Rarity began digging through the boxes, cartons, barrels and casks littering the cramped cabin. Finally, the thought occurred to her to look underneath the bed, and there she found a thick cotton saddle pad and an accompanying sturdy canvas pannier. The pannier’s two large bags would rest on either side of a pony while the attached saddle pad distributed the weight across her back. Of course Blueblood could have told her where to find it before he left, but Rarity was too happy to have found something so useful to be truly annoyed.
There were no fabrics in the cabin tough enough for her to make another pannier or saddlebags out of whole cloth, so the one would have to do. She magically lifted the saddle and pannier onto her back and cinched the assembly tight around her middle. The saddle and bags were oversized for her frame, but they wouldn’t fall off. It was good that she could wear it, because she had something even bulkier and heavier in mind for Blueblood. The journey would take days, and it would do no good to run out of supplies.
Rarity removed the pannier and began gathering supplies for her next project. Spare rope was always plentiful on airships, and she quickly collected as much as she needed. There were two-gallon casks of water near the rear of the cabin, probably for use in case the complicated plumbing system failed. She lashed four of them together with the rope, weaving and knotting it expertly to form a net that kept the barrels from moving, and which could be draped over a pony’s back and secured at the neck. This would be Blueblood’s burden.
Finally, she filled one of the pannier bags with as much food as she could fit, prioritizing biscuits and cheese over the more cumbersome and less calorie-rich apples, though she packed plenty of those as well. In the other bag she placed useful equipment: more rope, Blueblood’s small knife, a blanket and sheets folded as tightly as she could manage, a small kerosene lantern, and a box of matches. Blueblood had his maps and compass with him, and Rarity decided he could choose which of those to bring on his own. After a moment’s hesitation she also packed the rest of the rum and the remaining pillowcase, in case the stallion’s injury required additional ministrations.
She tested the pannier again and decided that any more weight would be out of the question. Rarity understood that this modest amount of food and water was unlikely to bring them out of the jungle, but finding more would be a concern for a later time. This was all they could carry. She was pacing back and forth across the cabin, wearing the pannier and trying to assure herself that she could in fact carry it, when Blueblood returned.
“Goodness, I’ve seen pack mules stagger under less,” he remarked. “I assume that pannier is meant for me.”
“This is mine, actually,” Rarity replied. “Yours is there.” She pointed to the tangle of ropes and barrels she had created. “Somepony needs to carry the water.”
“I applaud your effort, but have you forgotten that this is a tropical jungle? I’m certain that water will be the least of our worries.”
“Really? You already have had one wound become infected overnight, just from being in this place. I, for one, am not going to stake my life on trusting that any water we find or collect here is safe to drink. Pardon my crassness, but a case of the trots could be fatal here with no good way to rest and rehydrate, and I simply refuse to go out that way.”
“I see your point,” said Blueblood looking faintly disgusted, but also slightly amused. “Speaking of water, I am pleased to report that the lake we splashed down on is fed by a river that was hidden by the trees while we were flying overhead. There are distant hills to the northeast, in the direction of Gallopoli, and I strongly suspect the river flows down from them. If we follow it we should be able to stay on the right track and move fairly quickly, compared to attempting to force our way through vegetation. It will also be much more difficult to become lost.”
Rarity was suddenly struck by an idea. “This river, is it deep and wide enough to float the Alicorn, if were able to somehow move it?”
Blueblood shook his head. “I thought of that, but it would take days to patch the holes in the hull, and even then it would not be safe. If we could patch the hull and if we could somehow find a way to move this entire airship back onto the lake, the river could narrow or become too shallow at any point, and even if that did not happen we might sink. The Alicorn was designed to be able to land on water in instances where there was not enough available space on dry land, but not designed to float there indefinitely. The hull is not adequately sealed for days of river travel.”
“Then we go,” Rarity said simply.
She helped Blueblood slip into the water-carrying harness she had made, and tightened it around his neck and barrel so that it would not slip. Blueblood’s compass was attached to a cloth lanyard which he placed around his neck, and he slipped his folded maps between the mesh of ropes on his back, so that they were held securely against his body.
“Are you going to keep wearing that?” Blueblood indicated the Gallopolian pearl necklace around Rarity’s neck. “It seems rather pointless now.”
“I like it,” Rarity replied defensively. “Besides, Mayor Wavewalker said these pearls can help ponies in distress, and I am most certainly in distress at the moment.”
“Well, if you won’t give up on such silliness, then allow me this.” Blueblood walked over to the black bag from which he had pulled the coconut earlier that morning, and this time pulled out a shiny red apple. In fact, Rarity saw that it was one of the specially-marked apples that her friends in Ponyville had been tasked with distributing as the first race marker.
“You’re not going to …” Before Rarity could finish her admonition Blueblood had already taken a huge bite out of the special apple, chewed briefly, and swallowed. “You know that apple is covered in wax, right?”
“Pff, it is only beeswax, and I am making a statement about the futility and fragility of life here, and officially marking the utter failure and demise of the Alicorn’s Cup at the same time,” Blueblood replied. “Which I now regret doing.” He made a show of wiping the taste of the wax off his tongue with the outside of a forehoof.
“Why don’t we just get moving,” Rarity suggested.
The two heavily-laden ponies ascended the staircase to the airship’s deck and then cautiously walked single-file down the thickest and most stable fallen tree trunk available, being careful not to snag their packs on any of the branches and foliage Rarity had set in place to disguise the ship.
As they began walking away from the wreck and toward the lake beyond, Blueblood turned back to face the fallen airship for a final time. “I gave you three years of my life, and you gave me not even two days. You never worked properly, and you brought me nothing but trouble. All that aside, you kept me alive, and her too, so I believe I shall call it even. Goodbye, dear Alicorn.”
“Quite the tumultuous relationship you two had,” said Rarity. She paused to wait for Blueblood to tear his gaze away from the airship and begin walking again.
“Yet it lasted longer and proved only slightly more hazardous to my health than any of my previous dalliances with mares.”
“I’ll kindly request you not relate any of those sordid affairs,” Rarity said, perhaps too quickly.
“Suit yourself, but I do have some good stories. For example, that skinny pink minx that used to hang all over Fancypants once overturned a bowl of punch on my head at a charity ball on the castle green, for reasons that were only partially my fault. And how could I forget the mare who got cake all over me, causing me to trip and knock over one of Princess Celestia’s priceless golden statues, thus precipitating the entire Grand Galloping Gala falling into chaos.”
“You don’t really want to talk about that, do you?” Rarity’s voice was as low and threatening as she could make it. If Blueblood wanted to talk about the gala, then she would talk about the gala, but the conversation wasn’t going to be anything to joke about.
“That time was mostly my fault,” said Blueblood. “Perhaps exclusively.”
Rarity turned to the stallion with one eyebrow raised in surprise. “Is that supposed to be your lackluster version of an apology?”
“Perhaps I merely believe that we would be better served by getting along out here,” Blueblood replied.
Rarity sighed. She didn’t want to do this, but now the matter had been forced. She had to speak her mind. “I want you to understand something right now, before we go any further on this ill-conceived journey. You and I both know how I felt about you once, and we both remember recent history. To me, you still are and you always will be the stallion who led on and humiliated a naive girl from Ponyville who foalishly believed that she was a lot more worldly than she really was, and for what? For sport? For laughs? Simply because you truly are that much of a self-absorbed lout? I do not forgive you for the way you acted during the Grand Galloping Gala. For that matter, I do not forgive myself for what happened later at the yacht launching. It was shameful behavior, but it was because I let you get under my coat. I am not letting you do that again. Right now, I must rely on you to get back to Equestria, and so we must make nice, and we will. I refuse, however, to absolve you of your past behavior just so that you can feel better about yourself and keep your massive, fragile ego intact.”
They walked in silence for a moment, before Blueblood finally spoke up. “You know, I don’t think there’s any salvaging my ego at this point. It does take the wind out of one’s sails to hear one’s behavior recounted like that, and it does not help matters when one’s own family is trying to kill him.”
“Chin up,” Rarity replied. “Knowing you, you’ll be back to fully believing that you are a tragic hero and a gift to the mares of Equestria in no time, whether or not I accept a half-hearted apology.”
“And if I truly was sincere, would that make a difference?”
“Yes, it would,” Rarity replied at length. “I am not the type to spurn genuine contrition. The problem is that I have no way to tell the difference, and for your apology to be meaningful you would have to be a different stallion that the one who I know you to be. If you ever did change, it would be your actions that proved it.”
“Then I retract my apology, since it was apparently worthless in the first place. I won’t play a game that has no way to win.”
“Your problem is that you think this a game. Also, your retraction is hereby accepted,” said Rarity tersely. “Now let’s move on, shall we?”
“Fine. Look here,” Blueblood swept a foreleg in front of him to encompass the small lake that spread out before the unicorns. “If we follow along the water’s edge to our left, we will soon reach the river I discovered earlier. The banks are broad enough for us to walk without becoming entangled in vegetation.”
“You are the one with the compass flanks, so lead on,” said Rarity. “Our lives are in your hooves.”
The river was exactly as Blueblood had promised. It was broad enough to be called a river and not a stream, though just barely, and it flowed languidly downstream into the lake. The water was such a dark blue that it was almost black, and no rocks broke the surface. That suggested to Rarity that the river was deeper than its breadth alone indicated. If only it had flowed in the opposite direction, it would have been a relatively simple matter to fashion a raft out of vines and fallen logs and float back toward Equestria. Alas, it did not, and there was nothing to be gained by trying to fight the current without a proper watercraft.
Blueblood, as promised, led the way forward. The banks of the river were narrow shelves of soil compacted onto and in between tangled tree roots that twisted as they snaked toward the water. The supportive roots were all that kept the soil from washing away downstream. Small plants and flowers grew in the thin soil here, but new trees could find no purchase. There was just enough space to walk between the steep drop-off into the water and the greenery that quickly grew impassable on the other side.
Life in all of its myriad forms, strange colors, and raucous voices was everywhere. Monkeys crowding each other on thick branches chuffed disapprovingly at the ponies passing underneath, and the squawks of parrots alerted the rest of the forest to the interlopers. A rainbow of butterflies fluttered wherever there were flowers, and there were many, many flowers of every shape, color, and size. Fluttershy would be on cloud nine. Rarity merely hoped nothing crawling, slithering, buzzing, or fluttering would land in her mane.
As many clicks, chirps, and clucks as there were filling the air, Rarity did not hear the one sound for which she was keenly listening. She was positive that by now the remaining airships would already be fanning out over the forest, searching for the missing Alicorn and Stiletto, but she heard no drone of propellers overhead yet. She was suddenly struck by a horrific notion. What if it was worse than she had feared, and even more of the other ships had been lost than she had seen with her own eyes? What if they had all been attacked by the marauders? That would explain why nopony had found them yet - there was nopony to search.
No, that couldn’t be the case. The airships were flying too far apart for the same ship that intercepted Blueblood to have then chased down the others. Moreover, it would have been difficult enough in a storm to pinpoint and track one ship. Chasing down the others would have been impossible. As for Stiletto, the more Rarity considered it the more she became convinced that Graywings had been done in by one of his own crew. It made sense that if the conspirators could assassinate the griffon chancellor, infiltrate Fancypants’ team, and field their own warship, then they could have one of Graywings’ griffons on their payroll as well.
The others were out there, somewhere. Rarity was sure of it. It was merely that, as Blueblood had said, this forest was unfathomably big, and the swath where the missing airships could have gone down was expansive in its own right. She would just have to put thoughts of rescue out of her mind, and rely on her own four hooves to carry her to salvation. Or rather, she would have to rely on her own hooves, and Blueblood. If he really wanted to apologize to her he could start by leading them back into Equestria, alive and intact.
They day wore on, and Rarity eventually found that she was beginning to feel the strain of her heavy pannier. She wondered how Blueblood was faring. Smatterings of idle conversation had long since given way to determined silence. It was a mindless endeavor, placing one hoof in front of the other while keeping a roving eye out for dangerous creatures and for roots and obstacles that could trip her up. The last thing either of them needed was a broken bone. They had been walking for hours, matching every meandering bend and turn of the river. Perhaps now they could spare a moment to rest. The idea of a drink of water was particularly appealing.
“Down! Be silent!” Blueblood whispered loudly, breaking Rarity’s reverie. She immediately knelt low to the ground.
“What is it?” she whispered, daring to creep forward up to Blueblood’s side.
“Smoke.” Blueblood gestured upstream with a foreleg.
There, not more than a tenth of a league distant, Rarity could see tendrils of gray smoke curling into the air near the riverbank. Concentrating, she made out a small shelter constructed of leafy green fronds and branches. Seconds later, fear gripped her heart as a large griffon male glided down out of the treetops and alighted next to the structure. Another male appeared from behind it to greet his comrade. If these two discovered Rarity and Blueblood, they would surely have to fight for their lives.
“What should we do?” Rarity asked, petrified.
“I don’t know,” Blueblood whispered back. “This must be a patrol out hunting for us. Right now, we are downwind of them, but they will smell us after we walk past. At the same time, we must follow the river or risk becoming stranded in the jungle. This seems like another scenario with no way to win, and I already told how much I hate those.”
“Well they must be making a fire for a reason,” Rarity theorized. “Perhaps they are having lunch, and they will be so distracted by the smoke and food that the don’t notice us.” She watched as both griffons disappeared from view behind the structure they had built upon the riverbank.
“That leaves entirely too much to chance, Blueblood replied. “However, what if we don’t try to sneak past? What if we take advantage of the fact that they cannot see or smell us at the moment, and we spring an ambush on them?”
“That would be suicide!” Rarity hissed. “They have talons, and claws, and probably knives and firesticks as well. What do we have?” She was aware that she would not last three seconds against an armed griffon in a one on one fight.
“Magic!” Blueblood replied, looking positively exuberant about his insane proposition. We shall creep closer while they rest in the lean-to, and I will use my magic to push it over on top of them and their campfire. You bash them with rocks while they are down.”
“You’re joking, surely. I will most certainly not be hitting any creature with a rock, griffon or not. Do I look like some kind of paleopony barbarian to you? Moreover, knocking some branches and leaves over is not going to do anything but alert them to your presence. The leaves are too green to catch fire, if that’s your aim.”
“Doubt my plan all you want,” Blueblood replied. “Your reticence doesn’t change the fact that we must get past them. You’ll just have to leave everything to me.” Ignoring Rarity’s whispered protestations, he unfastened his pack of water casks and began slowly creeping toward the griffons’ lean-to, keeping his profile low to the ground.
“If you are trying to impress me, getting us killed is not the way to do it!” Rarity said as loud as she dared. Blueblood ignored her. He really was going to go through with this and get them killed. She was practically frozen with fright, but realistically there were only two legitimate options. First, she could run as fast as she could back the direction whence they had come, all the way to the Alicorn, and hope for somepony to miraculously appear to rescue her before the griffons found her. Second, she could try to help.
Neither option seemed promising at the moment. She was certainly not going to hit anyone with a rock, but perhaps there was another way to be useful. Perhaps, Rarity thought as an idea sprang unbidden to mind, the best way to help would be to make Blueblood’s plan superfluous by accomplishing her own first. She unfastened her pannier and opened the compartment with their supplies. Once she had what she needed she immediately galloped headlong into the forest, racing against her own travelling companion.
When Rarity peered out of the trees by the riverbank moments later, she found herself staring straight at a pair of griffons who currently seemed not to have a care in the world. They relaxed at a small table by a roaring fire, over which roasted some small creature on a spit that rested on forked branches. They held playing cards in their talons, and were obviously engrossed in some kind of game. A pair of firesticks, each as long as Rarity’s entire body, rested ominously against the outside of the griffon’s shelter. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Blueblood, stealthily creeping closer so that he could put his foolhardy plan into action. She still had time to complete her own objective first.
As she had gambled, the griffons were not in a hunter’s frame of mind at the moment. They didn’t notice the long, thin white serpent that slithered toward them out of the trees where Rarity hid. If they had, they might have noticed that it was not a serpent at all, but a long braided rope outlined by a faint blue glow. Moments later, Rarity herself stepped into plain view.
“Yoo-hoo, boys, over here!” she called out loudly, prancing lightly toward the griffons’ riverbank lean-to. Both members of the hunting party immediately jumped up, knocking over their card table and sending a spray of playing cards into the air. “You look like nice young fellows,” Rarity continued. “Is there any chance you could show me to the nearest Equestrian embassy? I was trying to get to Canterlot and it seems I’ve lost my way. I must have taken that wrong turn at Baltimare.”
The two griffons looked at each other and squawked something unintelligible before turning back to Rarity. With a mighty flap of their powerful wings, both griffons accelerated toward her. They only traveled half a length, however, before they fell back to earth with a terrific thump that also brought their entire shelter crashing down.
“Oh!” Rarity exclaimed. “I’m so sorry, I forgot to mention that I roped your tails to your tent poles while you were otherwise preoccupied! Who won the card game, by the way?” The griffons let Rarity know of their fury via alternating shrieks and roars. Her plan was working, and she only needed to finish tying them up. Rarity magically unwound the second length of rope she had carried over. At that moment, however, she realized the flaw in her plan. Griffons were strong. The pair, still tied to the lean-to, began crawling toward her, dragging it behind them. They still had all of their natural offensive weaponry, even handicapped as they were.
“Don’t even move another half a hoof,” Blueblood said, appearing beside Rarity. Both of the griffons’ firesticks floated in the air in front of him, pointing at their owners. Confronted with their own deadly weapons, the griffons lay still, and Rarity swiftly tied them up so that they lay on the ground back to back, wings pinned and talons bound tightly to their sides.
“That was certainly ... something,” Blueblood said, after both ponies were certain that the griffons were securely under control.
“It was,” Rarity agreed, finally catching her breath. “It worked, did it not?"
"Improbably well," Blueblood replied.
“I have absolutely no idea.”