- - -
- - -
The rafters of the great hall shook from the pounding winds outside, buffeting the thick glass windows and rattling the stones and timbers. It was fitting weather for a national day of mourning. Out there. In Equestria.
Inside the Hocksbach Hall of the Terre Rare, the mood was solemn, but far from mourning.
Lanterns cast long, flickering shadows that etched across walls and marble floors. Massive feasting and drinking tables had been pushed aside to make room and hooded figures stood in rows to left and right. Sworn guardponies in blue and black armor guarded the exits and entrances. This was the lair of the Terre Rare for the night. The night when bells tolled and Canterlot wept.
"Prince Blueblood is Dead." Lord Cruciger sat at the head of the family, at the front of the great dining hall. White bandages covered half of his face and much of his upper body, concealing his left eye. The right, however, remained. It glared at those assembled before him, the orb dark and menacing.
"Your young cousin, Vladimir, is now Blueblood," he declared, voice a thunder within the hall. "Prince Blueblood, the fifty second. Tomorrow, we attend his ascension, present him gifts, and wish him well."
Nopony dared speak.
Cruciger's one eye closed and he sighed: a deep bass rumble. "Stand to my left, Alpha Brass. Be seated before me, Polished Jewel..."
A young, light blue mare with a dark black mane trotted out from the right side of the extended family. She was joined by a younger colt with a golden coat and mane. For the occasion, both wore only a simple cloak, adorned by family insignia in silver, iron and gold. The young colt, not yet a stallion, stood obediently by his father's side. His sister, Polished Jewel, bent down to bow first, and then sat at attention on the cool marble floor of the hall.
Another, even younger, mare followed her sister. Her coat was a pale pink and her mane a dark rust and puce red. She bowed to her father, the family patriarch, just as her older sister had done. This, despite being a little awkward, caught in that age between fillyhood and maredom. She sat with dignity, though her posture and blinking betrayed her anxiety.
The youngest of the three sisters - a young filly only recently in possession of her cutie mark - emerged and bowed gracefully to her father. Her coat was white, with only a faint hint of pink, and her mane was bundled up into a bun of lavender and orchid violet. She sat to the right of her older sisters, tallest to shortest in good order.
"One of you," Cruciger declared, "Shall marry Prince Blueblood."
The hall remained silent as a tomb - no pony could express surprise at the news.
"I have given this eye and this face," their patriarch continued, gesturing to the bandages that concealed the left side of his face. "Honorably lost. Blueblood was our enemy. Blueblood has always been our enemy. Blueblood shall always be our enemy."
He stared down at his daughters with one cold, onyx eye.
"Remember this face of mine... when you take your vows with him. When you lie with him. When you bear him foals. One of you, my daughters, shall be the death knell to the weak and corrupt line that so shamed our beloved and great mother. One of you shall be the vengeance of Lady Arsenic, made flesh. We shall absorb them, replace them, and purge away the decadence of the last two hundred years."
He pointed down with a dark hoof.
"One of you... will do this," he finished.
The three daughters dared only a moment to glance at each other. Polished Jewel's shoulders tensed, holding herself back from springing forward to volunteer. She was haughty, but beautiful, and she knew how to turn stallion's heads even at a young age. Chalice looked more nervous, but her shyness was not to be mistaken for meekness. She blushed and fidgeted with her hooves, imagining how she could make the family's long harbored dreams take form.
Antimony, the youngest, simply stared forward, seemingly unmoved.
"Father!" Polished Jewel finally said, unable to hold herself back any longer. "Which of us is to have this task? This honor?"
Lord Cruciger's one good eye narrowed.
"Is it not obvious?" he asked, curling a lip in reproach. "I would think the answer self-evident."
The two older sisters shifted, suddenly uncomfortable, not knowing what to say.
"The honor," Antimony spoke up, for the first time. "Will go to the strongest of us."
Cruciger's smile could almost be mistaken for pride.
"Yes," he said, and the bandages of his face crinkled as his smile broadened. "We choose not just a wife... but a conqueror. You three are my daughters. You three are Terre Rare. As always, we shall rise up those who show merit... and cast down those who show weakness. And frailty!"
He stomped a hoof for emphasis, and the vast Hall shook in it's foundations. Flecks of wood and dust fell from the rafters and the howling, mourning winds outside - kicked up by the pegasi on royal orders of the widowed Duchess - bleated their chorus against the window panes. Lights flickered, dimmed, and then resumed their enchanted duty. The late-Prince had taken Cruciger's left eye and much of his face, and even one of his lungs, but the patriarch of the Terre Rare was still no crippled stallion.
He lifted his hoof out of the imprint it had made in the marble.
"Four generations we have waited," he said, reminding them, not for the first time. "Four generations we have grown. Biding our time. Making allies. Crushing enemies. Our lands are rich. Our ponies thrive. Our star is rising, and soon to be ascendant. My successor as clan head will be one of you three. The strongest of my children."
He took a deep breath, and boomed: "Leave my sight, now, if you do not wish to shoulder this burden."
Cruciger could likely have assured them that there would be no repercussion for bowing out early. No punishment or censure. He did not say it, likely because none present would believe it. To show cowardice now, to show dishonor, would turn any pony into a family pariah. The eyes of cousins and uncles, aunts and grandparents, were on the two mares and one filly sitting in the middle of the hall.
The Duke of Two Rivers did not compliment them for their lack of fear.
"I now strip you of all but your names and your titles as noble-by-birth. You shall have a small weekly stipend to last all of three years. You will not be given lodge in our castle, keep, or estate..."
His one baleful eye moved from daughter to daughter, judging.
"You shall be given the company of five allies of your choosing, or five chosen knights. Equestria itself is to be your battleground..."
Lord Cruciger's gaze finally fell on his youngest child, and after a moment, Antimony had to look away. She felt his attention wander, and resumed staring up at him, no longer risking eye contact.
"The first of you to rise, of your own merit, through your own toil, by your own strength... to the rank of Baroness," he declared. "Shall be our heir! She shall be educated in our family secrets and she shall carry our rights into Canterlot!"
"My children! My brothers and sisters! My family...!” The clan patriarch’s words, barely out of his mouth, already stirred excitement within the assembled Terre Rare. They nickered and shifted in place, eager to hear what they knew to be coming.
"We stand at the cusp of a new era in Equestria! Our seers have seen great change, great discord, great opportunity, in the immediate future. I speak not of new technologies, or even new magics. This is a time when the upstart sons of bankers, of tinkerers, of merchants... all grow to believe themselves the equals of old and noble houses. The great horse of change is rising, to be either harnessed... or chained. Or sacrificed."
"My daughters!" Cruciger roared. "Prove yourselves worthy! Prove yourselves and seize the power that is before you! One day, one of you may sit an equal to the Holy Princess herself! All that was stolen from us: the legacies, the secret knowledge, the Forbidden Power of the Old Kingdom...! All shall be returned!"
"And Equestria," he added, with a snort. "Shall rejoice... with us."
- - -
The framed picture floated gently within a sparkling magical grip. A pair of smiling parents sat behind their two daughters, one old enough to look embarrassed at having to dress up and wait for the photograph to be taken, the other little more than a foal. The white stallion in the picture sported a colorful island shirt and a rich brown mane. His wife was pink with a bold iris-blue mane, gold earrings and a modest pearl necklace around her neck. A young mare with long legs and a thin body sat in front of them, giving the camera a put-out, frustrated look. Her little sister was more peacefully asleep in her mother's legs.
"Your family," Lady Antimony observed, carefully putting the photograph back in place.
Standing close by, Rarity noticed which picture had caught the other mare's eye.
"Yes. That was Sweetie's first birthday," she recalled. "The camerapony took forever to get the shot right."
"Your younger sister, Sweetie Belle." Antimony proved to have done her research - the cutie mark crusader had never come up before in conversation. "I have two sisters, you know, but we have not been close in many years. We all love our family, but we hardly know each other any more. Is that not ironic?"
"But, apologies, I seem to have lost myself for a moment," the noblemare corrected herself, wearing the same false smile she always put on display. "We were discussing the champagne for the festival?"
"We were," Rarity replied, but didn't immediately pick up where they had left off.
The two pale coated unicon mares had retreated upstairs, to the Boutique's living areas to talk, ostensibly about the wine selection. Rarity felt a little emboldened here, in her Boutique and in her personal quarters. Here, she knew where everything was, where everything needed to be, and where everything made sense. It was the beating heart of her world. Her small collection of family photos lay in the center of even that, on the dresser by her bed.
"Family is important to you," Rarity said, instead, putting aside the matter of wine and the upcoming festival.
"It is everything to me," Lady Antimony's response seemed genuine.
Her hostess lowered her eyes, a curl of indigo mane falling across her face. "You must think me terribly selfish, then-"
"You are the Element of Generosity," Antimony interrupted, before Rarity could express any further regret. "You have right to happiness. I should have said so before, when we first met, but for all you have done for Equestria you do have my deepest and truest thanks and my utmost respect."
To Rarity's surprise, the Baroness Antimony bowed her head and folded her front legs in a posture of deep, courtly submission. It probably should have filled the seamstress with pride, but seeing such a deep genuflection from one of Equestria's most powerful nobles only made her uncomfortable. Her dream had always been to stand among the ranks of Equestria's finest, true, but Rarity had never sought adulation of this sort.
"For freeing Princess Luna," the Lady of the court continued. "And for defeating the spirit of Discord, we express our sincere appreciation and gratitude."
"I - I wouldn't say I did terribly much," Rarity found herself muttering, probably to her detriment, since her entire plan revolved around cashing in on this same wellspring of respect and authority. "Only what was required of me. I only wished to be a good friend, you see... and things just sort of happened..."
Antimony rose, flicking back her violet mane so it no longer concealed her eyes. "You are too modest. My dear husband has picked well, in you."
And there things went, back to the insurmountable difference between them.
"You call Blueblood your husband," Rarity accused, trying not to let her temper get the better of her. "But does he even know about this engagement?"
"In the final analysis, his knowledge of it... is as important as his consent," Antimony answered, unruffled by the indignation in her hostess. "Which is to say, I do not lose sleep over it. He will learn of it when it is his time to do so, and he will accept it as is his place in the world. The houses must be reunited."
"You don't even know him!"
"Should I know him?" the Baroness inquired, raising an eyebrow in curiosity at the strange question. "He can sire foals, can he not? My spies would have told me were he wounded or otherwise broken. The royal genealogists have confirmed that he is not impotent."
Seeing Rarity about to object again, on romantic grounds, the Lady held up a hoof for silence.
"It's unfortunate... but you have some mistaken pre-conceptions of this affair," she explained, somehow without sounding condescending. Instead, her tone was like that of a disinterested announcer for a game.
"Perhaps we will come to love one another in time," she speculated, but without enthusiasm. "Foals, they say, often bring parents together. But beyond any of that, ours is to be a political alliance between families. The line of Bluebloods has grown soft and weak - they have lost the respect of the common pony. For two hundred years, they have become objects of... fun. They have become flighty little things, cantering from party to party and shirking their duties and responsibilities. They are not what Princes and Grand Duchesses should be."
"Do you understand?" Antimony asked, raising a hoof to eye level. "When a rung of a ladder is rotten and weak, it must be ripped out and replaced. That is all."
"I do not desire a courtly romance, nor would I feel inclined to indulge in one, even if it were put before me." She snorted in dismissal. "I would be quite content to leave such things to you. I spoke only the truth when I wished you to become my sister in consummation. There is no dishonor in becoming dam to a Prince."
"If there is no dishonor, then why don't you become second to me?" Rarity asked, testily. The noblemare's little tirade and dismissal of romantic life - of the very aspects of court and nobility that the seamstress so adored - rankled her. It was the romance and passion and virtue of the noble class that ponies held in esteem. What use was a court that made a mockery of courtly love?
"Second... to you?" Lady Antimony's eyes widened a fraction in what could have passed for mirth. "Even if you are an Element of Harmony, I'm afraid that's impossible."
"And I won't let a mare who only cares about power and ambition be my Duchess!" Rarity asserted, not backing down. For a moment, the two locked gazes, but Lady Antimony averted her eyes with practiced poise, blinking first.
Her response was a simple: "How unwise."
Rarity took a deep breath, summoning her courage and willpower.
This was it.
"I am asserting my right to privilege as Element of Generosity, as agent of Her Majesty, Princess Celestia, by the Grace and Harmony of the Principalities and Duchies of Equestria. I petition henceforth to be esteemed and entreated in rank appropriate to my standing."
Rarity puffed out her chest, reciting the words:
"To our heirs and successors in perpetuity, we would appoint, give and grant unto them the degree, style, dignity and title so bestowed on us. By these honors, we would be so ennobled."
The room was almost deathly silent.
Lady Antimony's eyes moved, slowly, towards the Element of Generosity. Rarity's own blue orbs met them, just like before. For all of a second. This time, Antimony did not avert her gaze. A chill ran down Rarity's spine and she was forced to look away, unnerved.
"I would not object to such decree, bestowed on such pony," the Baroness agreed. "Nor would the Stable of Lords, I expect. You have earned such respects."
Without warning, her hoof lashed out, striking Rarity across the face hard enough to cut the inside of her mouth.
"So you remember it," Antimony decreed. "You may never need suffer another. We recognize you as noble, so long as you comport yourself in a manner befitting a unicorn of our station."
Rarity smiled, despite the lingering pain of the strike - the traditional, ancient colée that a noble unicorn endured as their coming of age or at their ascension to recognized title. The ones she had read about in books and magazines described the colée as a "kiss on the cheek." The Terre Rares clearly preferred an older take on things. It was always meant to represent the last offense a noble unicorn would have to suffer in silence.
This "kiss on the cheek" was one Rarity Unicorn would not soon forget.
"Can you object now, to his choosing me over you?" she asked, sensing triumph.
At last - at last she was noble.
It had come about in a way she hadn't wanted, riding on the coat tails of her friends and the Elements of Harmony, but there was no time to slowly insinuate herself into Canterlot's ruling classes. The quick route had been the only one left open to her. Now, taken, she felt flushed with excitement and victory.
Lady Antimony stared at her for a moment, before shaking her head.
"I can not," she admitted, and a hint of menace entered her tone. "But... unfortunately... you seem to have misread the situation. Again."
"Misread?" Rarity asked, huffing. "What have I misread?"
"You assume that because you are worthy... that you are not still weak." Antimony stood, and stepped towards the other mare to whisper, "But you are. Bound by her words and her blood oaths, the Princess is forbidden to intervene in this, and what other allies do you have in Canterlot? That effete bauble peddler, Fancypants, and his merchant hangers on? My family controls the three richest provinces in Equestria. We keep the roads safe, the mines secure, and the mills running. Oppose us? The Stable of Lords would sooner leap, en masse, off the Serene Falls."
"Let me tell you what will happen to you," Antimony hissed, slowly stalking around Rarity, her eyes glowing softly in the room's fading light.
She barely seemed to be whispering, but her voice filled Rarity's ears like poisonous honey.
"If the Blueblood Line breaks their vow; if he marries you, a noble lady of common birth and common blood... then he will be censured in the Stable of Lords. We can not legally stop it from happening, but I assure you, the both of you shall earn the enmity of my father, of me, and of all the Terre Rare."
"In conflict between us, Equestria itself will suffer, but it will not suffer alone," she vowed, settling behind Rarity to place her hooves on the fashionista's shoulders. "As Oath-Breaker, Blueblood will be blamed for it. He will be cursed. For incompetence. For negligence. For dishonor. The Stable of Lords will oust him and strip him of his Duchy. He will be forced to abdicate his throne, and he - and you - will be sent to preside over some poor, dusty colony in the middle of nowhere."
"Everything will be taken from him," Antimony whispered in Rarity's ear, close enough to tease it with her breath. "Like Blueblood the twenty third, who was judged insane. Like Blueblood the thirty first, who was in fact impotent. Like Blueblood the eighth, who died without heirs. Did you think his to be an unbroken line? Another will take his place. A cousin. My own brother, Alpha Brass, exists simply because of that possibility. Or even my distant cousin Leon, who I will marry instead."
Slipping away from her ear, Rarity saw the noblemare stalk back around to her side.
"You both will live in disgrace, as pariahs," she promised, her raised voice and cruel words cutting the other mare to her heart. In her mind's eye, Rarity could see herself by Blueblood side as they were forced from Canterlot, exiled from the royal court. Even Ponyville, so close to the palace city, would pass them by, leaving her friends and family behind... forcing her to choose between the stallion she had given up everything for, and the life she didn't think she could survive leaving.
"The stallion you love will no longer be a Prince," Antimony drove the point home, like a stake. "And every night, he will look at you - and you will see it in his eyes. He will blame you. And you will blame yourself."
She leaned in closer, close enough to kiss Rarity's cheek, sharing one last prediction, "Until that silent reproach turns to hate. And everything you two wished to have will turn into smoke and ashes and tears."
Rarity felt a sound hitch in her throat and she crushed her eyes closed, trying to dispel the horrible images Antimony's words had so vividly conjured up in her mind. She sniffed, trying to pull herself together. However long it took, by the time she opened her eyes to glare at the Terre Rare Baroness, Lady Antimony was still standing, still waiting. She had always been tall and beautiful, but now, she looked truly menacing, even without trying to be so.
"Do you understand now?" she asked, feigning compassion. "Claiming nobility means nothing. Nobility is only a word. Even the Platinum Crown itself is nothing more than a twisted piece of metal. Power is what matters... and except as a conduit for the Elements of Harmony... you have none."
Shocked silent, Rarity barely heard the door fly open; she didn’t and couldn’t even register the identities of those responsible for the intrusion until the shouting started up. Voices without faces filled the air as she tried to collect herself.
"That's it! I ain't gonna listen ta any more ah this hogwash!"
"Monee, how can you say such mean things!"
"Is it wrong to speak the truth, just because a pony finds it uncomfortable to hear? You two are more sheltered than I thought. And, should you really make a habit of listening in on other pony's conversations like this?"
"Rarity? Are you okay?"
"It's one thing ta tell the hard and rough truth, it's another ta act like a bully!"
"Yeah! You told me you wished you could be Rarity's friend!"
"Well, ain't ya got nothin' ta say? Huh! Cat got yer tongue? We're talkin' to ya!"
That seemed to snap Rarity out of her daze. She blinked, rapidly, and noticed Twilight standing next to her, shaking her. She turned her head and saw Pinkie Pie and Applejack ganging up on Lady Antimony. More the latter than the former. Pinkie looked upset, but Applejack was predictably furious. The apple farmer had her hooves bunched up in the noblemare's coat. For her part, Antimony was making no effort to either speak or shake the earth pony off.
It occurred to Rarity, suddenly, that Antimony's bodyguard from before, Gewitter if she recalled the name, wasn't around. It was considered improper and unbecoming for a noble to act forcefully or untoward with a non-noble. Antimony would probably sit there and take whatever Applejack did to her. It would have - should have - probably been a vicarious pleasure to see her friend give the Baroness a good scare. But it wasn't what she wanted.
Besides - this wasn't over yet.
"Applejack," Rarity said, hurrying over. "Please treat her more gently. She is a guest in my home."
The Element of Honesty frowned, but released her hold on the other mare.
"Ah don't know what's goin' on between you two, but the things she said to ya - the way she said it - it wasn't right!" Applejack insisted, quickly backing away from the tall unicorn. "High falutin' threats are still threats!"
"You all think them threats, but the truth is the truth," Lady Antimony stated, in what passed for her own defense. "Be it ugly or beautiful, offensive or enlightening. This is not about me. This is about history, and family, and justice."
The tension between the four mares thickened, but one quickly found her voice.
"I understand you can not back down," Rarity said, holding her head high. "Your family would never let you. There is only one way to settle this without one of us losing face."
Twilight alone seemed to get what her friend meant.
"Oh, wait-" she began to object.
"I accept," Lady Antimony cut her off. "What will we use?"
"Cupcakes," Rarity replied, too quickly for anypony else to speak up. "From Sugarcube Corner."
"And the time?"
"Three days. The maximum allowed."
Antimony inclined her head in consent. "Then the place shall be the Castle of the Sisters in Everfree. At dusk."
"That effectively cuts the time to two days, plus one day to travel," Rarity realized, but accepted regardless. "Fine."
"It is agreed, then," the Baroness said, raising her chin. With as much grace as she could muster, she cut between Applejack and Pinkie, her violet tail swishing behind her as she left. On her way out, she crossed paths with Pierce and Colton Vines, the two stallions cautiously peeking in from outside the room. The pair exchanged a worried look that seemed to mean: 'oh great, more trouble.'
"What was all that about?" Applejack asked, still glaring back at the door Antimony had left through. She turned to Rarity. "What was that about cupcakes and the castle?"
"A - a duel," Rarity answered with a slight stammer. "I think I need to sit down. Or better yet-"
With a bit of magic, she pulled over her fainting chaise, and laid into it with a dramatic sigh.
"A duel?" Pinkie asked, looking rapidly from the door frame to her friend. "OH! Like a cupcake eating competition! That makes sense!" She cupped her chin with a hoof, nodding sagely. "Unicorns are so enlightened!"
"A magical duel," Twilight began to explain, only to look over at her friend. "Oh, Rarity. I don't think that was very smart..."
"Don't you worry none, sugarcube!" Applejack propped herself up against the back of the fainting couch, playfully punching the melodramatic unicorn on the shoulder. "After what ya did during the Sisterhooves competition, I bet you'll beat the stuffin' outta that fancy mare!"
"Yeah!" Pinkie Pie bounced over, landing next to Rarity and pressing their cheeks together in a hug. "And then you'll both be best friends, forged in the fires of combat!"
Twilight groaned, realizing she wasn't going to get much of a chance to speak her own concerns. Namely, that Rarity probably didn't have much more than the faintest idea how to actually fight a formal unicorn duel. The sort of duel that Lady Antimony had probably been weaned on, given family records and the fact that she had explicitly referenced obscure fighting styles used by her forebears earlier in the evening.
Still hanging out a careful distance away behind the doorframe, the only two stallions in the Boutique exchanged befuddled looks.
"What do you make of all this, Colton?"
"I honestly don't know, Pierce. Furthermore, what is it with mares and group hugs?"
"Can't rightly say. Looks fun, though."
"... Don't even think about it, Pierce."
"As if I would."
- - -
"You didn't peek, did you?"
"As if I would need to." Blueblood emerged from behind the compass rose topiary sculpture of his cutie mark. "One glance was all it took."
Rarity peeked out from behind his sculpture, the three diamonds of her cutie mark crafted by magic in scale but ten times size. A hunt of illusion gave the impression of three living gemstones suspended in midair where the groomed hedge had once risen like a pillar. The would-be diamonds even twinkled, catching the light of the full moon far overhead.
The Gala was still underway, back in the Palace, but the tail end of the magical night was one they had decided to spend together. The sky was so amazingly clear, despite all the light from the palace and the surrounding city of Canterlot. Rarity looked up, breathed in the cool night air, and felt a hoof take hers and lead her out from behind the sculpture.
Blueblood was... not quite the stallion she had expected.
She had expected a Prince, of course, but one from her novels and foalhood fantasies. The popular press only fed that image: of a gentle and chivalrous noblepony, a social animal both aloof and engaging, a stallion both imposing and welcoming. Blueblood was not these things. Though one of Canterlot's heavenly bodies, he seemed to have erratic social orbits. He spent time chatting with Wonderbolts, with Fluttershy in the garden feeding animals, with both a complete stranger and the Princess herself, dancing to common "swing" music - only to again switch, abruptly, to introducing a formerly unknown Luna to his connections among the court.
He seemed too impulsive, too unpredictable, too flighty and unconcerned to be the prim, proper and dignified Prince she had been lead to believe. It was as if he had woken up one morning, realized that the Gala was tonight, and decided to throw all caution and decorum to the wind. Seeing him, she had gone from confused, to shocked, to a little scandalized, to intensely curious. This wasn't the Prince she had read about, or even the Prince she had dreamed of.
Maybe he was something even better.
"Miss Rarity," he asked, leaning in close. It didn't hurt, in Rarity's opinion, that at least one thing about him proved true from tabloid to flesh and blood. He was a handsome pony. Strikingly so.
"I've wanted to ask you, for a while now," he continued, sounding curious and a little unsure. "Why me? Out of all the stallions you could have been with tonight? Why is it me?"
"Oh." Rarity looked away, not so much out of shyness, but a hint of shame.
"Is it because I'm the... a Prince?" he guessed. "Is it because you read about me in some tabloid and caught your fancy?"
Rarity almost gaped - was he a mind reader or something?
"I'd be lying if that wasn't a factor in it," she admitted, and it seemed almost as if he had expected that response. In a way, she could understand why. He was Equestria's Most Eligible Bachelor, after all, and while (before today) Rarity hadn't been all that informed as to what he actually did as Prince and Duke of Canterlot, it was likely to be important. There could be no way for him to truly separate his public image from his private life.
A little guiltily, she further realized that she had, early this evening, fallen largely into the 'yes, exactly because you're a Prince' camp. There was only the one, after all, unless one counted foreigners. He was famous, handsome, rich, and single. Beyond that, Rarity didn't really know much about him. Nopony did. Not... that she thought of herself as after him for his money...
Sadly and brutally honestly, it was probably because he was the social pinnacle of Canterlot.
He was the height of the tallest mountain; a stallion like no other. There were a dozen Dukes, but only one Prince. What did it say, then, about the mare who won him? What did it say about her that she tried, and that she had come to the Gala, just for that purpose? Nothing good, really. It was not a fact she wanted to admit to, not now, not with him. Not when it would ruin this perfect night, this best night ever.
"I see," he said, softly, having heard enough as it was.
"You aren't what I read about," she quickly added, and his ears twitched as he stared at her.
"I'm not?" he asked, beginning to walk past her.
"Well," she explained, and decided on honestly. Even if it was undiplomatic. "All those articles painted you as the most elite of the elite. Prince Blueblood the fifty-second. Lord Grand Veneur. Most eligible bachelor in Canterlot. Destined to marry any number of the nobility's finest. A unicorn of impeccable taste and unmatched refinement."
He chuckled, amused. "Actually, that does sound like me."
"Nothing mentioned dancing, or... what was it?" she asked, thinking back to his swing dancing with similar merriment. "The 'sea pony swim'? Much less gardening and common topiary."
"Do you know what I expected?" she asked. "I expected to spend the night stargazing, talking about art and being toured around the Palace."
For some reason, that made him cough and he quickly sucked in the night air, pushing down a throaty laugh. Maybe he had planned just that, and thrown it out the window at the last second? Wouldn't that have made for a... different night?
"We do sponsor half the artists in the country," he reminded her. "And auntie needs a place to store it all." He looked up at the night sky and raised a hoof. "And it is a nice, clear night."
Rarity silently agreed, taking in the view, but keeping him in sight too.
"Miss Rarity," his voice and face grew a bit more serious. "You should know that I was never the pony you imagined me to be. If you had met me on a bad day, I think you would have been... very disappointed. The truth is that I've enjoyed driving mares away. I've enjoyed rubbing their faces in what I'm not."
His confession should probably have surprised her, but it didn't, not after what little she had seen of him tonight. Back in Ponyville, she had her fair share of admirers as well, and there were times when she was not entirely kind to them. Her ride for the night, the very same ride all her friends had shared, had been acquired with a little 'Tactical Wooing.' It wasn't much of a stretch now, with her image of him as a perfect Prince already cast aside, to realize how a stallion in his position could take some advantage of the situation. Especially if a potential suitor encountered him at an inauspicious time.
"And why didn't you?" she asked. "You seem to know every pony at the Gala. You knew who I was. Why am I any different? Is it because I'm one of Twilight's friends?"
Another possibility occurred to her, one that had often lurked in the back of her mind. How many ponies knew why she was really at the Gala tonight? How many knew what had happened, that night, in Everfree Forest?
"Is it..." she wondered, with some trepidation. "Because I happen to be one of the Elements of Harmony?"
Blueblood paused at that, as if in thought.
He shook his head. "Thinking back... I think it was because you were the most beautiful mare in the Gala... and because I knew you were interested in me. It had nothing to do with Harmony. Or fame. Or honor."
He sighed, rough and weary, thinking back to the past. "When I was little, and other ponies used to use blocks to make castles and towers. I was the one who picked the nicest one... and kicked it. That was so long ago... but I still feel that part of me, in here." He tapped his chest, and frowned. "I think that's what auntie meant before. That's what she meant."
Not sure what he had meant by that - 'what auntie meant before?' - Rarity opted for silence, and Blueblood quickly realized his slip of tongue, also turning quiet. It started as an uncomfortable silence, of the sort common to when one pony said something strange that the other overheard, but it soon turned light and airy, even comfortable. He chuckled under his breath at his own silliness and she smiled in sympathy.
Rarity touched her hoof over his.
"I don't believe you're that kind of pony anymore." She looked into his eyes, a blue similar to but different from her own. "And since you don't seem to be the Prince your press paints you to be, I think it proper I find out the real you..."
Rarity found her dreams rudely cut short by the bleat of a whistle what had to be inches from her sensitive ears. Launching straight up and off her bed, hooves flailing madly, she landed on her back in an explosions of feathers, pillows and blankets.
Blowing a pillow out of her face, the normally fashionable, currently irritable unicorn managed to sit up and turn her head in the direction of the warbling noise. It was the window. To be more specific: it was a figure perched where her window should have been, the drapes now wafting in the morning air and the shutters thrown open.
"About time you got up!" Rainbow Dash dramatically announced, pointing at her friend, now rather rudely returned to the world of the waking. A sports whistle fell from her lips to hang by a chain around her neck, complimented by a bright blue cap on her head and a black and white sweatshirt.
"We've got a full schedule of training ready for your race and it starts with a ten kilometer dawn jog around Ponyville!"
She showed off a rather crudely drawn piece of paper half crumpled under the ministrations of a clipboard. It showed a pony with a loopy horn running, and then lifting weights, and then running again, and then lifting weights, and then doing more running. Another figure was also rather prominently displayed to be sleeping on a cloud the entire time with over-sized Z's filling the air.
"If this doesn't whip you into shape, nothing-"
Mid declaration, she noticed her victim had turned around in the bed and gone back to sleep.
A second later, and a pillow smacked her in the face.
"Awake again?" Dash asked, the pillow falling away from her face.
"No! No! Did you have to interrupt my dream when it was just getting to the good part!?" Rarity was suddenly up and shaking the intruding pegasus by the shoulders. She slumped, spun, and landed on the edge of her bed. A quick look in the dresser mirror confirmed her state: her mane was a mess, like every morning she didn't curl it, her tail was all frizzy and uncoiled, her eyelashes weren't on, and there was enough sleep in her eyes to build the foundations of a small sand castle. She groaned pitifully and wiped her eyes with her hooves.
"Oh my... maybe we should've just waited for her to wake up on her own?"
"Sorry, but that's boring. No way am I gonna wait around for that long!"
"Fluttershy, you too?" Rarity asked, seeing a curl of pink mane and two golden hooves hanging onto the bottom of her windowsill. Fluttershy peeked over the edge, looking guilty.
"Darling, please, what is this commotion about?" she asked, and then added for good measure, "And why does nopony respect any other pony's privacy anymore?"
"Well," Fluttershy answered, punctuated by an: "Um. We heard. That is-"
"We heard you got challenged to a race!" Rainbow Dash cut her off, adjusting her sports cap with a cocky grin. "So we thought we'd come over to help you train!"
"You thought that," Fluttershy corrected in a tone barely above whisper. A little louder, she explained, "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I'm fine, thank you both. But - And-" Rarity moved her mouth, but no words came out, until, "Just... how did you even find out about this so quickly? And why would you ever think it was a race?"
"You mean it isn't?" Dash asked, and tossed a card out of a clip in her visor.
Catching the note with a little uneven, half-awake magic, Rarity skimmed through the blocky, cutsey, cartoonish writing. The source should have been obvious from the get go. Who else used such tacky, bright pink stationary outside Hearts and Hooves Day?
You are cordially invited to
At the Spooky, Forbidden Castle of the Sisters in Everfree Forest
Ponyville's Dauntless Dressmaker
Prance's Peerless Prizefighter
(I don't want to get in trouble again, and you don't want me to get in trouble, do you? Oh! Don't tell Rarity. Oh wait, she probably knows. Hi Rarity!)
Please RSVP with your preference(s) in:
Hot Dogs [_]
(you didn't put an x did you? How come you guys don't like hot dogs?)
Artichoke-Spinach Dip [_]
Pretzel Wings (plain) [_]
Pretzel Wings (salty) [X]
Pretzel Wings (hot) [_]
Pretzel Wings (super hot) [_]
Pretzel Wings (Twilight-destroying) [X]
"How nice," Rarity said, returning the note. "Apparently my duel of honor is now a prime-time sports event. Perhaps I should wear a mask and a colorful costume."
"Can you?" Dash asked, intrigued by the-
"NO!" Flopping back on the bed, Rarity rolled herself up until she ended up buried in her blankets. It was so nice and warm all wrapped up like this. Maybe, if she was lucky, she'd wake up and find out that she was just having one weird dream on top of another. Then she'd probably wake up to find Opalescence scratching up something valuable and think: well, at least this isn't another crazy dream.
"Boy, she's really wrapped up tight in there!"
"Maybe we should leave?"
"Giving up already? All you have to do is - is, ugh - tug this part and - mmfg - hey, a little help?"
"I don’t know..."
"Fluttershy, you want to help her, don’t you? Well no pony can win a race without at least a little practice! Especially for an out of shape-"
"Who's out of shape!?" Rarity suddenly emerged from her cocoon, once again forced awake by the endless chatter and potential dig at her actually rather fit form. Face to face with a grinning Rainbow Dash, she realized she'd been goaded out of bed. Again.
Defeated, the tired dressmaker finally rolled out of bed, levitating her morning sundries to help armor her for the long day ahead. After all, even the worst of challenges were best confronted when looking at least passably presentable. First: some water to wash the sleep from her eyes, then some moisture crème, and then a comb and brush for her mane, then another brush for her coat...
"So why's this race of yours taking place in Everfree, anyway?" Dash asked, tapping her hoof impatiently, but successfully resisting the urge to use her whistle again.
"First of all," Rarity began, magically arranging for her mane and coat to receive their brushing in parallel, all while she prepared a quick lather and curler, spat out a bit of mouthwash and made her bed to exacting specifications.
"It is not a sweaty, barbaric race!" she insisted, looking over her shoulder to make sure that point got across. "This is a dignified, traditional duel of artistry, magic and personal conviction between respected noblemares."
Rainbow Dash groused shamelessly. "Wha-at?" she asked, and stuck out her tongue. "Lame."
"Um... then... what is it?" Fluttershy asked, finding an unobtrusive spot to land and sit down.
"It is... well, first, we meet up at the assigned place and time," Rarity explained, pausing only to vigerously brush her teeth. "With our seconds, and any attending friends and family. An attempt is made to mediate the dispute by friends and family of the two ponies involved. If that fails, then they separate either ten or twenty paces and attempt to hit one another with one of a set number of pastries or cakes."
"And you unicorns do this instead of just having an all-or-nothing, winner takes all, loser goes home crying, race?!" Rainbow asked, rolling her eyes. "Like I said: lame! And I got out all my cool training stuff for nothing! Even my saddle weights!"
"I appreciate the thought," Rarity replied, straightening her eyelashes. "But it is a strict contest of magic, not gymnastics or athletics."
"So you just sit there and throw cake at each other?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes, though I suppose one could move around if one needed to."
"And if you get hit by the cake you lose?"
"Exactly, darling. To be struck is a 'humiliation' and concession to your opponent."
"Um, Rarity?" Fluttershy spoke up, a little hesitant to jump into the conversation between her two extroverted friends. "What if no one is... um... humiliated?"
"Then the duel can end with both parties having properly satisfied their honor," The fashionista answered with a smile. A smile that quickly faded away.
"So it just ends with no winner?!" This seemed to shock Dash more than anything. She shook her head in visceral disgust making an 'bbbblllegh' sound and tossing her mane left and right. "Somepony has to win and somepony has to lose! You can't have ties! There's nothing lamer than a tie! A tie is like kissing your brother! Gross!"
"But Rainbow, you don't have a brother-"
"I was speaking metaphorically. The point is: it sucks!"
"If..." Rarity spoke up, catching the two pegasi mid-discussion. She looked down, at the floor, and then back at her dresser mirror, feeling a little anxious. "If no pony is humiliated... and they still can not be made to reconcile their differences, then the fight becomes à outrance."
"To the end," she translated. "Technically. To the death, that is."
Rarity finished the rest of her morning grooming in silence. Mane properly combed and styled, she admired herself in the mirror for a moment longer. Everything seemed fine. Normal. In it's proper place. Under control.
"To the death!!" Dash finally blurted out. "You're kidding right!"
"I can't imagine any pony actually takes it that far in this day and age," Rarity assured her, trying to sound dismissive despite the increasing worry building up inside her "We live in civilized times, after all. It's just a term. A linguistic relic from a long ago. No pony would kill another pony over..."
The brush clattered against her dresser, until she forcefully put it down.
"Over... this sort of thing," she concluded, glaring at the brush as if to blame it for her magic reflecting her anxiety.
"Um, Rarity?" Dash asked, flying over. "Maybe you should fill us in on what's going on? This actually sounds kinda serious."
Seeing the concern on her friends' faces, how could she say no?
"Very well, I suppose it can't hurt at this point. You see, it began last week..."
- - -
"Why did you say those mean things last night?"
Gewitter seemed to be slower than she used to be.
It took all of a full second for her to realize her Lady's personal space had been invaded without warning. In her defense, few ponies would have expected Pinkie Pie to emerge from a folded umbrella of all things, but a bodyguard really had to expect most anything, now didn't she? The last few years had made her a little complacent when it came to her mistress. The Gewitter of their mutual youth would have been faster.
Of course, the Gewitter of their mutual youth would also have tried to decapitate the bouncy pink pony.
That would not do.
Holding up a hoof, Antimony motioned for Gewitter to release Pinkie Pie's shoulders. The burly pegasus mare seemed a heartbeat or two from throwing the other pony over the horizon, even if it meant taking her chair with her. Pinkie, in contrast, had one hoof under her hastily acquired chair and the other bunched up in the tablecloth. She did not seem intent on being easily ejected or dislodged.
Seeing her mistress give consent for the intrusion, Gewitter snorted, released the party pony and resuming her post nearby. Quite a few customers around the Tulip Cafe seemed to startle at the brief commotion, but upon seeing the source of it, relaxed into relative indifference. It was perhaps the most fascinating thing about this young mare: the people of this town had grown used to her antics. To her. Quirks and eccentricities and all! It was quite wonderful and fascinating to see.
"Why did you say those things, Monee?" Pinkie asked again, releasing her deathgrip on her chair and the tablecloth now that the noble's bodyguard had been mollified. "They were so mean! I just don't understand!"
Lady Antimony ignored her for a moment, instead, to sip her tea.
"Good morning, Pinkie Pie," she finally said. "Would you care to join me for elevens?"
Scrunching up her face, Pinkie Pie groaned and stood... and then sat back down.
"Why thank you, Monee!" She readily, carelessly even, mixed formality with familiarity. "And good morning to you, as well. I would be happy to join you for brunch!"
"How lovely," the noblemare replied, floating out a second platter and cup of tea from the set she had been served. "Please allow me. This is a very sweet blend, so you may enjoy it."
Pinkie, growing increasingly impatient, none-the-less put up with Antimony's own quirks.
She took the proffered cup, and the offer to share elevens (brunch, in this part of Equestria), and they exchanged formalities and platitudes. It was all quite required before politely broaching other matters, such as the incident last night. Restless energy, of the sort Pinkie had in spades, was really something to control. It was like steam in a boiler. Properly directed, it was productive. Improperly directed, it was explosive.
"Do try the white sausage," Antimony said, moving the plate in question closer to her guest.
Pinkie's nose twitched, likely not finding the offering too pleasant. Peeking up at Antimony, and wanting to go back to her original reason for coming here, however, she eventually relented. Taking one of the sliced vegan sausages between her teeth, she flipped it high into the air before catching it in her mouth and biting down. It was mostly oatmeal, onions, vegetable fat and spices. Given the fact that Antimony herself had needed to tell the cafe's cook how to prepare one properly, it was not a very popular dish in Ponyville.
Perhaps because of the onions?
"If that is not to your liking, I have always been fond of tapenade, and-"
"Monee," Pinkie said, after drowning the taste in her mouth with a gulp of rather steaming-hot tea. "Why did you say those things to Rarity? They were so not-nice!"
"I am aware of that," Antimony replied, setting down her cup with a barely audible 'ting.'
"Then why did you say them!" Pinkie demanded to know. "You should apologize! You and Rarity will never be friends if you're mean to her!"
Antimony closed her eyes, letting out a soft breath; slowing the conversation.
"A tree?" Pinkie asked, raising an eyebrow unnaturally high.
"Have you ever cultivated a tree?" the noblemare inquired, and explained, "It will naturally grow towards the sunlight, greedily even, and sometimes the leaves must be trimmed, the branches pruned, or the trunk wired. Similarly, cutting and grafting can be used to encourage growth instead of discourage it."
"Another way to put it is the more well known metaphor of the carrot and the stick. Lessons are not always most effectively learned by simple statement of the facts. These facts must be accompanied with either a positive or negative response. In attempting to dissuade your friend from her foalishness, I opted for the stick over the carrot. It is unfortunate... that she did not heed my words."
"Wait. What?" Pinkie's perplexed face stared at Antimony from across the table.
"I was harsh with my words because I wished for my point to be taken with utmost seriousness," she explained, much more simply.
Pinkie leaned back in her chair, forelegs crossed.
"Was that it?" she asked, apparently deep in thought.
"What else would it be?" Antimony asked, pouring out a new cup for herself and her guest. "The one you should speak to is your friend, Lady Rarity. It is too late to honorably remove herself from her issued challenge, but if she swears to put herself in my care, or to end her courtship with Lord Blueblood, then I shall express my willingness to end this affair amicably."
"And if she doesn't?"
"Then I will still end it. But I will not do so... amicably."
"And if she wins this duel thingie?" Pinkie asked, full of questions this morning.
"That is no more possible than it is for a mouse to hunt a cat," Antimony answered, without a trace of arrogance. Nor was it arrogance - it was fact. Simple fact.
Pinkie Pie sat stony silent for a little while. She was normally such a bubbly, upbeat young mare. It was a little sad to see her so struck by what had happened the night before. Not that it was unexpected, but it was a little sad. She genuinely seemed to want, or even need, for everypony to get along. However, such things were only possible when there was order and understanding. These two things were the basic virtues of friendship... and harmony.
Order and Understanding.
"You both will live in disgrace, as pariahs."
Antimony blinked. "Excuse me?"
"The stallion you love will no longer be a Prince," Pinkie Pie said, repeating her words from the other night. Rather accurately. Even the inflection was the same. "And every night, he will look at you - and you will see it in his eyes. He will blame you. And you will blame yourself."
Pinkie leaned across the table, inching closer to drive the verbal daggers home. "Until that silent reproach turns to hate. And everything you two wished to have will turn into smoke and ashes and tears."
Antimony closed her eyes, veiling her expression behind a cup of tea.
"You didn't need to say those things," Pinkie Pie finished, leaning back again.
"We have a difference of opinion, in that case." The noblemare lowered her cup. "Furthermore, any future words exchanged between myself and Lady Rarity may take place on the dueling field. I will not speak with her before then. It is improper."
"I want you to promise not to hurt her."
For the second time, Antimony blinked in surprise.
"Pardon?" she asked, staring across the table at the pink party pony.
"I want you to promise not to hurt Rarity when you have this duel thing," she repeated, and stuck out a hoof. "You have to Pinkie promise!"
Looking down at the hoof, and then back at the other mare, Antimony frowned. Just a little.
"Very well..." she replied with a shrug. "If it will set your mind at ease. What is this... Pinkie promise?"
- - -
"So you don't know any fighting magic?"
"For the last time, Rainbow Dash, I do not. Why would I have bothered to learn such a thing? Who would even have taught it to me? That sort of magic is the responsibility of royal guards and nobleponies."
"Yeah. And who here is one of those crazy nobleponies, now?"
"That is beside the point. There is no need to make a mountain of a molehill."
"You know," a certain chromatic pegasus said, as Twilight entered the room with a stack of books wreathed in her magic. "There was this one half-unicorn in Daring Doo and the Temple of Doom and he could rip a mare's heart right out of her chest! Tali-ma! Tali-MA!"
Rarity brushed Rainbow Dash's hoof off her chest.
"Honestly," she huffed.
"Even though he was only in one book, Mola Ram really was one of the best Daring Doo villains," Twilight chimed in, two stacks of books to her left and right as she saw down.
"I know!" Dash agreed. "I really like the adventures where Daring Doo is up against mortal bad guys and not just more monsters, you know? The end is usually so much more satisfying!"
Mid-gushing, as if remembering she was talking about books, Rainbow Dash affected an air of nonchalance, tossing her head high.
"I'm just saying," she quickly reminded them. "Just a little fun between practice and stuff."
The four mares shared a little laugh, Rainbow Dash included. It was still a fresh joke among them: their anti-egghead pegasus friend suddenly finding an almost addictive love of the Daring Doo series. She had already blasted through twelve of the sixteen volumes currently in print, reading almost as fast as she flew.
Since Dash was almost at the end of the series, Twilight had tried to expose her to other authors and genres to little success. Even similar adventure novels didn't seem to have the same visceral punch that Daring Doo had. There was something about Doo herself that Rainbow Dash really identified with. It couldn't even be just the author, since the Daring Doo novels had been published by a number of writers.
Hopefully, the weathermare wouldn't put down books once she finished the last of the Doo series.
What was she up to again? 'Daring Doo and the Heart of the Wild?'
"Hey, Twilight." Dash suddenly seemed to think of something. "How do they pick the Daring Doo authors anyway? Can anypony just write a Daring Doo story and send it in?"
"I think the publisher owns the rights to it, but there's always fanfiction."
Seeing they had strayed into some less than familiar territory, Twilight set her hooves in place and brought out one of her books, floating it over to Rarity. This morning, when she and Rainbow and Fluttershy had come over, had been strange. Spike had been acting oddly lethargic and reclusive, like he had eaten too many gems from the stash he thought she didn't know about. He had been slow, even reluctant, to answer the door and let anypony in.
It was just one situation on top of another. Still, Twilight resolved to look into it as soon as she helped Rarity prepare a bit for her duel. Spike was remarkably mature and responsible for his age; his problems could probably wait a little while, especially if he didn't feel the need to bring them up. Very likely he was already halfway to solving whatever problem was on his mind.
"Dueling for Dummies?" Rarity read the cover page of the book with an un-amused expression.
"It's just a title for a set of books," Twilight assured her. "Not, you know... that you're a dummy..."
"Dueling seems kind of dumb, though," Dash commented, resting on her back with her hooves behind her head. "Throwing cake around and then trying to kill each other? Crazy."
"I told you, it isn't like that!" Rarity came to the defense of the ancient and noble tradition. "It is a matter of honor, and standing, and courage. It embodies all the values and virtues we hold dear, not just as unicorns, but as civilized and respectable ponies."
"I never thought you'd feel so passionately about it," Twilight admitted, opening another book, peppered by multi-colored bookmarks throughout the pages.
"I always found it romantic," the fashionista replied, giving the 'Dueling for Dummies' book a closer look, pages flipping as she took it from Twilight's magic into her own. "Two stallions, meeting at dawn or dusk, to defend their honor... or the honor of the mare they love!"
She frowned, as she reached the 'ode to humiliations' section of the book.
"I never expected I'd be the one defending my honor," she added, and cringed at a picture in the book. "My word: chocolate mousse? How dreadful! Would that ever wash out?"
"Um..." Fluttershy spoke up from where she lay, her forelegs tucked primly under her. "Twilight, is it true that ponies can get hurt doing this?"
"Of course not!"
"All the time."
Twilight and Rarity looked up from their mutual books to send questioning looks at each other.
"Twilight," Rarity said, finding her voice first. "There's no need to scare the poor dear."
"Well, it does depend on the type of duel and who you are dueling with," the Canterlot bookworm replied, biting her lower lip. "But, Rarity... injuries are actually pretty common in duels..."
Rarity tilted her head in unsettling puzzlement. "You're serious?"
"Maybe," Twilight said, coming to a decision. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe this is something more easily demonstrated, rather than just reading it in a book."
"Wait a second! Wait a second! You're telling us not to read books?" Rainbow Dash suddenly sprung to her hooves. "OH ho HO! This should be good!"
- - -
It was a relatively warm, pleasant Ponyville day - the kind of day where surely nothing strange or humiliating was to befall anypony. The sun was almost to its midway peak overhead and only a smattering of extremely fluffy - tame - clouds remained to obscure the perfect blue sky. A few colored specks, high flying pegasi, soared leisurely across the horizon. It was autumn, creeping closer to the Running of the Leaves every day, so it wasn't hot even at noon. Birds chirped happily among the bushes and trees. Even the unpleasantness of the Everfree seemed far away in the carefully maintained glades around the town.
Out back behind the town library lay a broken down old gazebo in a clearing.
It was just the spot.
"Okay," Twilight began, running a hoof through her mane. "How to put this? I'm good and ready, so... I guess... try and hit me, everypony?"
"Did I say this'd be fun?" Rainbow Dash snickered, calmly tossing a ripe, rotten apple in the air with one hoof. "This is so gonna be fun!"
"Um, do we have to?" Fluttershy was seated on her haunches, looking guiltily at the rotten fruit she had been given. "Where did you even get these?"
"Are you sure about this, Twilight?" Rarity seemed hesitant to even handle the gooey old apples, and that was even with her magic.
"I think I'll be fine," Celestia's apprentice assured them. "You'll see what I mean."
"Then what are we waiting for!" Dash reared up, wings flapping, and threw the first proverbial stone. Or mushy apple in this case.
Only for the apple to curve, a few hoof-lengths from Twilight's nose, rotate around her, and then zip back in the direction it came, shrouded in a purple aura. Dash yelped at the incoming projectile, jumping into the air and contorting her legs in every direction to avoid being hit. The mushy apple blasted by her face, passing through the green and blue streaks of color in her mane-
Until it hit one of the wooden supports of the gazebo with a loud crunch and splatter.
"Problem?" Twilight asked, cracking a smile. "I should warn you: Princess Celestia trained me to teleport this way."
"By throwing apples at you?" Rarity gawked.
"Moldy oranges, actually." She suppressed a shudder. "...and bananas."
"Okay! Number two now!" Dash scooped up two more apples from a nearby bucket and spun, throwing one and then the other. This time, instead of redirecting them, Twilight vanished with a soft flash of light. Her hooves touched the ground, for just a moment and then she arched her head to the side.
Rarity's apple missed, became wrapped in a sheath, and spun around.
She had to jump to the side avoid it splashing into the ground where she had been standing. Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, continued to barrage the blinking unicorn with a stream of thrown fruit, her cyan forelegs a blur. Quickly cupping the bucket under one leg, she took to the air.
"Let's see how you handle this!" she yelled, spiraling overhead to rain gooey destruction. "Death from ABOVE!"
"Um! Watch out!" Fluttershy squeaked, finally throwing an apple of her own.
Rarity laughed, getting in the spirit of things as she levitated out a dozen of the old apples that had been stockpiled behind the library. All three mares unloaded on Twilight Sparkle, trying to hit her just once. If anything, it got harder as Twilight put genuine effort into avoiding the flying fruit. Her teleports became louder and brighter as she used them in faster and faster intervals until they took on a lighting-like rapport.
An apple spiraled past her, swinging into an arc, joining a half dozen others.
It wasn't just blinking and object capture, either. Twilight was much faster on her hooves than any of her friends imagined, and the ground became streaked by slashes of magic and divots torn out by teleportation. It was impossible to pin her down in one spot. Even trying to grab her with a magic field resulted in a fizzle as she broke free.
"YAAAAHH!" Rainbow Dash came from above, tossing her empty bucket aside and dive-bombing, two apples in her right front hoof.
Fluttershy's foreleg was a blur as she gave one last throw.
Rarity's face was etched with determination as she projected her last four apples at her friend.
Twilight landed, back where she had originally started. Her back legs cut a furrow in the grass and dirt, horn trailing sparkling magic and light. Dash was only a few pony-lengths away, intending to throw her apples from extremely close range, a move further amplified by her downward dive. It proved to be her Achilles heel, as well. When Twilight counter-attacked, she felt it first.
"One!" Twilight announced, sweeping a foreleg up.
Rainbow Dash's blur came to an immediate halt as something soft and fast slammed into her chest, sending her tumbling off course.
"Two!" Twilight spun, deflecting Fluttershy's throw down and into the ground.
Another rotten apple swept across and up, kicking up blades of grass, to slam into the shy pegasus' stomach with a messy, if basically harmless, splatter.
"Three!" She faced Rarity, and then vanished-
Behind the tumbling Rainbow Dash.
The four apples splattered against the back of the falling pegasus turned pony-shield. Rarity squeaked, looking around for where Twilight had gone. By the time Dash hit the ground, rolling and cursing, she was nowhere to be found. It only even occurred to the fashionable unicorn to look behind her a moment too late.
The sting of rotten fruit hitting her face filled the air with an ear-shattering scream.
Birds took off from trees in shock and fear.
"My face!" Rarity moaned, wiping the foul smelling, slimy apple bits away with her hooves. With a sickly "ohhh...!" she fainted on the spot.
Sitting outside, towels drying from a line, the four mares faced each other.
"I don't get it!" Dash yelled, stomping a hoof in indignation. "How did you get so fast!?"
Twilight Sparkle, the mare sitting on her haunches in the grass, next to a pile of books, did not seem particularly threatening. She did not look like she had just made a mockery of her friends attempts to hit her with what had to be four or five dozen rotten apples. She looked like plain old Twilight. Granted, 'plain old Twilight' was also the one who had levitated an Ursa Minor while magically milking a dozen cows... and juggling a water silo.
"Conservation of Magical Momentum," she answered, opening one of her books to a page covered in scribbles and equations. Dash just threw up her hooves in exasperation.
"In other words," Twilight explained, closing the magical physics book. "I kept speeding up."
"Obviously you kept getting faster!" Dash asked again, "How did you do it! More importantly: can I do it?"
Twilight sighed, and dropped her physics textbook physically into her hooves.
"What's the difference between this..." She carefully tossed the book from one hoof to the other, a little clumsily. "And this?"
She took the book in her magic, and spun it around her, faster and faster.
"One is fast and the other slow!" Dash answered. Wrongly.
"It loses energy when you move it from one hoof to the other!" Fluttershy declared, and shrunk a bit as all eyes turned to her. "I mean: I think?"
"You're right," Twilight replied, and raised a hoof to punctuate her explanation. "If a pony is running, and they teleport, they'll still be moving when they re-enter the material plane. You thought you saw me stop and teleport, but I never stopped moving. Put another way: using magic, you can theoretically speed up while appearing to stand still."
That seemed to do it.
Rainbow Dash's eyes grew wider and wider as it sunk in.
"Speeding up," she said, looking down at her hooves. "While... standing still?"
"The most basic form of defense in a unicorn duel is to teleport," Twilight went on. "It is also among the most difficult to master. Some unicorns study teleportation their entire lives. One of my Professors back in Canterlot was a stallion called Whitemane. Ponies used to say he was so good that he can teleport a spider's web without damaging it... and without the spider in the web even noticing."
"And I can't teleport at all," Rarity realized. "How can I duel with Lady Antimony if I can't keep up with her? Then again, maybe she can't teleport either?"
"My grandparents followed family tradition and trained my father to teleport by forcing him to blink across a river," Twilight cut her off. "Every time he fell in, he had to swim back to the shore and start over."
Her listeners were left stunned silent.
"Really?" Dash found her voice first. "Wow. That's actually kind of cool."
"It was wishful thinking, I suppose. So, assuming she is proficient in teleportation, what am I going to do?" Rarity asked, thinking back to Twilight's demonstration. "I can't teleport and it would take weeks to learn. I do suppose... I can create illusions and redirect things?"
Twilight nodded, having come to that conclusion herself. "The other alternative is blocking, but that requires more brute force than you probably want to use. Dodging is only part of it, though. You also need to hit the other pony and you need to develop a counter-magic focus."
"Counter magic?" Fluttershy inquired.
"This." Twilight demonstrated, and a magical field wrapped around her three friends, lifting them off the ground. For a few seconds, she let them hover there in varying states of surprise. Of course, they knew Twilight could lift them, or in Dash's and Fluttershy's case, grab one of them by the tail.
"The first and most important thing is to learn to use your magic to resist other magic," Twilight lectured, lowering them back into place... but not dropping her magical field.
Dash crossed her forelegs and nodded in perceptive agreement.
"Makes sense," she said. "In racing, some ponies will use a 'bump' to try and throw their opponent off balance or trip them up. The best time to use a bump is right when everypony starts. It's kinda dirty, but ya gotta be prepared for it."
"I didn't know that!" Twilight's smile lit up at finding out something new. She quickly focused back on current events, however. "To start, why don't you try to get out of my magic right now?"
"Even us?" Fluttershy asked, flailing her legs and clearly not liking her chances.
"Any object with natural magic, which is to say any living thing, can develop a magical resistance," Twilight replied. "Try to imagine yourself as a bubble or a balloon about to pop. You want the pressure inside to be equal to or greater than the pressure outside."
The next few minutes passed in silence (except for Dash's occasional grumble) as the three mares tried to do what their book-loving friend suggested. Fluttershy found it easy to remain still and concentrate, whereas Dash constantly shifted and readjusted her legs in a battle to get comfortable. Rarity tried to keep still, but it was difficult to imagine oneself as a bubble or balloon, much less one about to burst. On the other hoof, she could feel Twilight's magic around her and how her own magic tried to push it away. Experimentally, the fashionista tried to use her horn...
Only to find that she couldn't use magic at all.
"That won't work," Twilight said, having either seen or sensed the attempt. "As long as you remain within my levitation magic, you can't fly. Or use magic of your own. You're completely helpless."
"How dreadful!" Rarity grimaced. "Is this how you learned to do this?"
Twilight blushed, fiddling with her hooves even as she tried to read one of her many books.
"Well, not... not exactly," she admitted. "The Princess, well... she... well, I don't know if you want to do that..."
"Do what, dear?" Rarity asked, her bright blue eyes shining. "You know how much of a bind I'm in! If it worked for you, and worked well, too...! You're a genius with magic, Twilight! It must be able to do something for me!"
"If you're sure..."
- - -
Ten years earlier:
"Are you sure about this, my little pony?"
Celestia was so great!
This was so exciting!
Twilight could hardly contain herself, mere moments from erupting into another fit of giggles. She had to be the luckiest filly in Canterlot! No! In all of Equestria! Celestia, the Princess herself, was going to teach her magic! The last few weeks had been spent studying and reading with the beautiful alicorn, and now, finally, they were going to start some hooves-on instruction!
"Yes!" Twilight, just a filly, hopped around Celestia's legs. "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
"The quick and fun way it is, then!" The Sun Princess agreed with a wide grin, one eye closing into a cheeky crescent. Holding out a regal, gold-trimmed hoof, the mighty and wise Princess of Equestria produced the means by which her student and apprentice could unlock the mysteries of magic.
Well... that is to say...
Celestia held out an old, metal bucket.
"Magic!" she groused, mischievous grin still in place.
Twilight Sparkle soon learned not to look forward to when her mentor's one visible eye squinted impishly. That was the day when the equation, Mischievous Grin (Mg) + Princess Celestia (Pc) = Trouble (T) received its initial proof.
- - -
Sweetie Belle, and for that matter, her fellow Crusaders, had seen some unusual and remarkable things since beginning their seemingly never-ending quest to obtain cutie marks. They had climbed the highest peak - er, hill - in Ponyville, and encountered the rare and deadly - kind of - fresh-water octopus. They had snuck into Everfree Forest! That was pretty scary and impressive. How many fillies can say they survived a run-in with a cockatrice?
What she saw now, though?
This was weird.
"Hi girls!" Twilight waved them over with a friendly smile. She wasn't the only one either. An assortment of ponies had gathered around the spectacle. Pinkie Pie and Applejack were selling candy and apple-snacks respectively, and the others? The other ponies seemed otherwise occupied.
Sweetie winced as one mare gave the tennis ball a throw, bouncing it off her older sister's side.
"Not bad! Not bad! Now watch a master!" A mint colored unicorn floated another tennis ball out of a basket, put it in her hoof, and stood up. How Lyra could balance properly, much less make a strange stepping throw, Sweetie Belle couldn't imagine. The ball bounced off Rarity with a "poing!" and flew through the air.
The bucket on Rarity's head began to wobble.
"No no no no no!"
Indigo mane slumped and unbound beneath the torrent of cold water.
"Un-believable!" Sweetie's sister groaned, grabbed the bucket with her magic, refilled it, and then got back up on the log to balance on two legs, one front and one rear. Back in place, the pelting continued, as a nearby sign declared: DRENCH ME IF YOU CAN
It looked to Sweetie Belle like she had been, and already was.
At least her wet mane was kind of sparkly, for some reason.
"Ah, Twilight?" Applebloom asked, as all three crusaders had paused to watch the spectacle. "What's goin' on here?"
"Magic," Twilight answered, punctuating it by throwing a ball of her own. One Rarity clearly hadn't been expecting. Knocked off balance by the sudden impact to the back of her head, her one arm and one leg that had been stuck out for balance began to comically pinwheel to the exclamation of "Ah! wait! wait no! Ah!"
"I warned her," the librarian explained.
- - -
Celestia's sun began to set.
The cutie mark crusaders had come, stayed for a while, and eventually left the various older mares to their own devices. Eventually the rest of the town had grown bored with repeatedly soaking their most fashionable mare and also wandered off, leaving an increasingly bored Rainbow Dash with most of the work of throwing things at her friend. Twilight pitched in, as necessary. Fluttershy came and went, often asking to make sure Rarity wasn't getting sick or feeling under the weather.
By later afternoon, Sweetie Belle alone had come and gone a second time.
It quickly became clear why: Rarity's parents were in town, and it was only a matter of time before they came to see what all the fuss was about. It was actually a miracle they hadn't come sooner, but work must have taken them out of town or otherwise kept their ears from the local rumor mill. Twilight had never seen the expression on her parents' faces like she did on Rarity's - Celestia had trained her at the Palace, and her parents had lived in the city below. Twilight suspected her father would shrug, even if he had been there, but her mother would definitely have freaked out.
"Rarity! What is this? What are you doing!?"
A bit like that.
"Balancing, clearly," the family's oldest daughter replied. "Or trying to."
"Honey, is there something you want to tell us?" Her father scratched his chin, trying not to look as amused by the situation as he clearly was. "I didn't realize buckets were in fashion this year."
"Oh, ha-ha-ha!" Rarity stuck out her tongue as she mock-laughed.
"Dear," Rarity's mother nudged her husband. "Be serious for once."
"I would, but this situation is just too funny. Remember how hard it was to get her to bathe when she was little?"
"I never thought a filly could love playing in the mud so much..." Rarity's mother shook her head. "Dear, please, what on Equestria are you doing out here?"
"If you must know," the suffering unicorn replied. "I'm training."
"Training?" her father asked. "Don't tell me! My daughter is finally going to follow in my hoofsteps!"
"Yes, all this will make me Ponyville's greatest quarterback."
"Second greatest maybe..."
"There is really a very good explanation for this," Rarity said, and winced as a tennis ball bounced off the side of her head. "Twilight! Really! Now of all times?!"
Twilight wanted to feel guilty for it... but it really was hard to. After all, it was for Rarity's own good.
In the back of the librarian's mind, a little white alicorn was snickering.
"As I was saying," she began anew. "I have a very good reason for being in this rather ridiculous position. Or at least I trust I do."
"Do tell," her mother asked.
"I have... well, I've ended up in a duel," Rarity explained, and rushed through the rest rather quickly. "You see, I just recently petitioned to join the nobility and found myself in a bit of a dispute. With another noblemare. That would be the Lady Antimony, who you have no doubt heard is in Ponyville."
The two older ponies were silent.
"Huh. That all?"
"What? This is more surprising to you than dragon attack? Or parasprite invasion? Or a rampaging bear made out of stars? Or..."
"Why are we only hearing about this now?" Rarity's mother cut her father off before he could continue, likely for some time, repeating the many dangers and oddities that have picked Ponyville as their playground.
"I'm afraid it's all been rather too sudden to ask for much consultation." Blue eyes glanced over at Twilight, and Rarity sighed, contrite. "I... I mean, I am sorry this is the first you have heard of things. I should have spoken to you when I first ran into this... situation."
Twilight hated herself for throwing another tennis ball, then, but Rarity ignored it (her parents glared, though) as she explained what had come into her the last few days. She told them, in somewhat hushed tones, about how Lady Antimony had come to her store to order a dress for the art festival, and then how she had informed Rarity that she would - at best - only be a dam in Blueblood's household.
Rarity told them how she had worried and tried to find out what to do. How she had contacted her close friends in Canterlot and eventually how she had come to the decision to fight fire with fire and stand up to Antimony. Her parents reacted with bemusement at her rationalization for declaring herself noble, thanks to the Elements of Harmony. It was possible they had expected something similar, sooner or later. For most mares it probably would have remained a boastful dream - the upper echelons of unicorn society were not eagerly inclusive.
For Rarity, it was a leap, the price of which was leaving her old life behind.
Not wanting to dwell too much on her decision there, Rarity moved onto the specifics of why she was currently balancing a bucket on her head while trying not to fall off a log. Also why her friend seemed to be pelting her with tennis balls. Unfortunately:
"It occurs to me... that I really don't know why on Equestria I'm doing this!" Rarity suddenly yelled, slowly turning to stare at her good, dear friend, Twilight Sparkle.
Said good, dear friend quickly found a book to hide behind.
"Twilight!" An alabaster hoof peeked out over the rim of the book, drawing it down. "Aside from repeatedly soaking me to the bone, what has all this foalishness actually accomplished?"
Bearing a pout at having her reading interrupted, Twilight nodded and closed the book. Even as she put it away, her magic levitated the bucket off her friend's head. It was still full of ice-cold water. Without a word of explanation, letting action speak instead, Twilight Sparkle wandered a yard or so away, turned around, and upended the bucket over herself.
Water splashed and fell-
And rippled, leaving her dry.
"You didn't notice," she said, at the trio of boggled expressions. The water had rolled off her body without actually getting her wet. She pointed at Rarity... and at Rarity's dry mane and coat. Looking down at herself, the dressmaker realized she hadn't actually been wet. Not for hours.
But neither did she remember drying off.
"I - I don't understand," she stammered, looking herself from flank to fetlock.
"Magic!" Twilight declared, holding up the bucket with a hoof.
"But," Rarity protested. "But the tennis balls-"
"They had two purposes, but one was to annoy you so you lost your balance and got wet," Twilight explained, putting the bucket on her head without breaking her stride. "This bucket enchants the water you fill it with to keep it ice-cold."
"Then that 'ancient artifact' Princess Celestia left you...?"
"It's actually just an old ice bucket."
Gob-smacked, Rarity could only point at her friend accusingly.
"The enchantment is why this works," Twilight continued, smiling. "When you learn to resist magic on yourself, to repel foreign magic, this enchanted water won't get you wet. Instead, it will slide right off, like water on oil."
"Go ahead!" She bucked her head, and the bucket flew through the air to end up caught in Rarity's magic. "Try it."
Turning and trotting slowly, and then with a touch more haste, Rarity did just that.
Filling the bucket at the trough, like she had all day, she floated the pail over her head and paused. Glancing back at Twilight and her parents, she closed her eyes, and upended. Water fell all over her... and washed off her without a trace. Her mane sprang back up and curled without even a hint of moisture. She was dry. The ground at her hooves was muddy, but she was dry!
"It actually worked!" Rarity sounded like she could hardly believe it. She gave a happy little giggle and cheered before throwing her head back and laughing out loud. "It actually worked!"
"Then the other reason for the tennis balls?" her father inquired, leaning close so only the librarian and his wife could hear.
"Officially, they're used so she keeps her concentration, even when agitated," Twilight explained, deadpan. "I think they're also used to keep the trainer amused during the whole process."
Oh, and how smug that little white alicorn in her head was now.
As if to drive that fact home, Rainbow Dash picked that moment to bounce one of the tennis balls off Rarity's flank, causing an immediate argument between them. "The training was over!" "It was? But I still have some balls left to throw!"
"This is only the start," Twilight warned Rarity's parents, trying not to be distracted by the unicorn vs pegasus grudge match.. "If she's going to have a chance of winning that duel, I'm going to have to pull out all the tricks."
'I never told her... but Lady Antimony... they're only suspicions, but I don't think she's a normal pony.'
- - -
"Cross my heart,
And hope to fly,
Stick a cupcake in..."
Antimony stared at her hoof, inches from her face.
"My eye?" she asked, smiling. Her expression darkened as she withdrew her hoof with a grimace, the pristine white coat around the horseshoe starting to smoke. The little rhyme Pinkie had made her repeat quickly brought the smile back, though she closed her eyes and repeated it in her head instead of out loud. It was not wise to keep them wide for very long.
"You seem to have taken a liking to Laughter's Bearer."
"She has a sunny disposition, devoid of pretense," Antimony explained, inclining her head towards her right side. "And she reminds me of somepony."
"She does?" The air shimmered and a tiny twinkling star suspended in a sea of black appeared, becoming visible only to vibrate with the chiming, otherworldly voice. "Who?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the noblemare asked, in imitation of her patriarch.
Despite the darkened and insubstantial little star by her side, Antimony was alone in the vast athenaeum of Blueblood's new estate. The building was only partly complete and furnished, but it was passable as a base of operations for the time being. The engagement passed by the Stable of Lords gave her access to it, though not the more secure family holdings of Canterlot's Prince and Duke.
It was a splendid retreat, built in imitation of the pegasus style: two stories high, a vaulted ceiling gave the impression of an airy, open sky, while carved marble pillars rose up, bearing busts of Celestia and Equestrian Venus statuettes. The room had the illusion of being circular but was, in fact, an octagon. The walls themselves were lined with books in row after row. A dozen sliding stairs provided access to the upper volumes. The central area contained yet more sections of the library, recessed into the floor in imitation of a parting cloud, or risen above in crystal cases. These were the rarest books; the showpieces of the magnificent collection the Prince had assembled.
Almost invisible, tiny dark forms skittered over books.