- - -
- - -
The Platinum Crown of Canterlot.
Celestia glared at the cursed thing, resting innocuously on a blood red sheet within the Princess Reliquary. Her ire was not directed at the entirety of the crown, only part. It was two pieces in all, and the larger piece that sat on a lower pedestal was of no concern. The platinum framework was inlaid with white palladium-gold, supporting five broad-leaf style arches and a purple velvet cap. Set within each arch were the five most prominent amethyst gemstones for which the crown was famous. Less well known were the 96 smaller precious stones, mostly diamonds, that gave the crown an ephemeral glitter when touched by sunlight or an enchanting twinkle under moonlight.
That crown was superficial; it was of little consequence.
It was the circlet of the crown, the part nopony saw or would recognize at first glance, that mattered most. The actual crown within the Platinum Crown.
That crown was a simple, seamless belt of meteoric iron. Tiny grooves held a crisscrossing pattern of aqua pura, frozen in space and time. Platinum banded the top and bottom. There were no other gemstones or adornments. At the time, when it had first been made, it had taken the efforts and resources of a small, war torn country of unicorns to produce the required grade of aqua pura; it had taken the finest earth pony smiths to salvage and shape the meteoric iron; the strongest pegasi from ruined Pegasopolis forged it all together with lightning and thunder.
None of which would have been necessary if not for that mad pony following the three founders to Equestria. His hubris; his insane, blasphemous ambition, even after his fall it had nearly destroyed the new world and ponykind with it. It was beyond the ken of mortal ponies, even the pride of immortal Princesses, to re-order the Heavens themselves. Now, more than a thousand years later, only the Royal Family even knew of the crown-within-the-crown and among them, only she, Celestia, knew its importance to Equestria.
The Princess of the Sun reached to the iron band -
And recoiled as it shocked her gilded hoof.
"Still?" She whispered, accusingly, the inanimate object not deigning to respond. "Still you reject me? It seems to be the curse of this family... to fight amongst ourselves..."
Platinum and Star Caller.
And now, a millennium later, the Terre Rares.
"Vernal Equinox has been dead for over ten years," she whispered. "Your seal is weaker than I've ever seen it. Still you treat me like a stranger. To think mother would insist on enchanting such a picky piece of jewelry."
Celestia's mane covered half her face from view, on the other half, her violet eye narrowed in barely concealed irritation. In the past, there had been little threat in allowing the crown to go two or even three decades without renewing Platinum's covenant. The seal had been strong, then. Centuries had gone by without Celestia worrying much about it at all. The last two hundred years, unfortunately, had seen a steady decline in the quality of the seal's renewal.
No matter what else, Canterlot needed a new Duchess.
- - -
Fluttershy sat in the shade of a parasol, a myriad of little tassels hanging from the canopy swaying in the breeze. She was in a part of the Canterlot Gardens she had not visited much before: a section with numerous geometric basins and water fountains. Bronze statues of animals and ponies stood out from within carefully manicured bushes thick with flowers. The hedgerows were smaller and shorter here, allowing a visitor to see much further than normal. She could even see spires from the surrounding Canterlot City against the blue horizon.
It was actually an enjoyable change of pace. There were fewer animals here, but more birds.
One thing Fluttershy had quickly deduced about her new friend Chalice was that she loved birds. Her current interest lay in a pair of swans swimming across the clear blue water of one of the basins. In her painting, they were contrasted against a bronze water spout of a swan. Though there was such a statue, Fluttershy hadn't seen the swans approach it, so there was clearly some artistic license taken. This time, she had watched Chalice's painting from the start and seen the first rough sketch evolve into a vibrant spectacle of watercolor.
It was quite remarkable just how many birds from around the country Celestia had in her private gardens. Coming to this spot, she had seen ones never before encountered in her trips here: flamingos and cranes and exotic bright orange and green ducks (probably teals) and, of course, the swans. The birds were unfriendly, at least to start, but the others had soon returned her song and gathered around her. Fluttershy didn't want them to associate her with food just yet. That could come later. For now introductions were enough.
It was looking to be another pleasant day outside.
Neither mare spoke much. Chalice had brought the parasols (expensive looking ones, too) and a small book on the gardens and their layout. Fluttershy had brought a few snacks with her, enough for the both of them plus some extra for her animal friends. A few, she knew, would smell her from afar and seek her out. They weren't that far from where they had all first met.
Having largely finished her newest painting, Chalice took a break to lie down nearby. She didn't seem to use her magic very often, but she did manage a little to coax out two juice boxes from a pack she had brought. Fluttershy took the other with a nod of her head. She had wondered what the color Chalice's magic would be, but it was a pale white.
"Have you ever had a pomelo?" Chalice asked, floating out two large, green fruits. "Would you like to try one?"
"Is it bitter?" Fluttershy asked, inspecting the strange fruit. It looked like a large pear.
"It's sweet, but you eat it with salt."
The soft spoken unicorn flexed her magic, just a little, and the two fruits bisected, then again and again, until each one had been cut into eight neat, perfect slices. Fluttershy was quietly impressed: most unicorns didn't 'cut' with their magic. They used a knife, albeit one they manipulated magically. Chalice also gave Fluttershy a saucer and sprinkled it with coarse grained sea salt.
Delicately picking up a slice with her hoof, Fluttershy mimicked what her friend was doing, dipping the slice into the salt and then biting into it to suck the juicy fruity flesh off of the thick rind. She smiled at the taste - it was sweet! A little messier than biting into an apple, but very good! The salt added an interesting texture and layer of taste. She wondered where the fruit came from.
"I've never heard of... a pomelo... before," she guessed at the name, but got it mostly right by the look on Chalice's face. "It's good."
"I'm glad you like it," the unicorn mare replied. "We import them from tropical islands. My family, I mean. ... My brother does."
"Have you ever visited the tropics?" Fluttershy hoped the other pony answered yes. She'd read so many things about the animals and plants down there!
"No. Sorry." Chalice turned her eyes down and demurely sucked on one of the pomelo slices.
"Oh. That's okay!" Fluttershy found herself raising her voice a little, to her own surprise. "I was just curious... I've never met anypony from that far away."
"Are you from Cloudsdale?" Chalice inquired. Most pegasi around Canterlot had roots there.
Fluttershy nodded. "My parents are. I don't... go up there that often myself."
"Why not? You don't like the clouds?"
"I don't... I'm not good with heights," Fluttershy admitted with a shameful blush. It wasn't her proudest feature: imagine, a pegasus who was afraid of heights! It was almost as silly as an earth pony afraid of the ground or a unicorn afraid of magic!
"I don't much like heights either," Chalice said, smiling but not laughing.
Fluttershy smiled back, glad she hadn't been made fun of. Still, though she hadn't dared to say as much, she was very curious to learn more about her friend. If nothing else, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie and Rarity would want to know all about who she had met in her trip to Canterlot.
"Um, if you don't mind me asking, where are you from? You said you were here with your brother?"
Chalice looked down at her hooves.
"I'm from... north of here," she said, barely above a whisper. "My brother... he's sort of my caretaker when we're away."
"He sounds very nice."
"He's very protective." Chalice blinked her purple eyes and looked past Fluttershy. The pegasus turned and saw two bunnies crouched to her right. They seemed to be keeping almost out of sight, using her as a shield.
"Hey there." Fluttershy motioned them closer. "Come on."
One of the rabbits - one she recognized from the other wing of the garden - tensed to come forward only to balk at the last second. It bolted off, taking the other with it, to hide in a nearby bush. Fluttershy's shoulders slumped.
"Why did they...?"
"Sorry, I think that was me," Chalice apologized, fiddling with her juice box. "Animals don't like me very much."
"Why ever not?" Fluttershy directed a reproachful stare at the bushes and the vanished bunnies. "That was very rude of them."
"Please don't be upset with them. I'm sure they have their reasons."
They made a little small talk after that. Fluttershy told her that she would be going back home to Ponyville soon, but that if she could, she should visit. She was confident that the animals there would be more accepting, since most of the ones in Celestia's gardens retained traces of wildness. Chalice didn't seem very convinced, but promised she could drop by if she could. Then she returned to her swan painting.
Fluttershy still found it odd.
'Reasons?' she wondered. Chalice seemed nice enough. Quiet. Friendly. It seemed rude to just ask, but: 'What reasons could they have?'
"Fluttershy," the unicorn said, finishing up her painting. As she often seemed to do, she spoke without turning around. "When you go back to Ponyville, please be careful. I've been told there are dangerous ponies headed there."
- - -
"Yes. Here is fine."
It was early morning just outside Ponyville, the first rays of the sun catching the damaged upper levels of the town hall. From the slope of a hill, between the town and the many outlying farms, a pony could see the entire town sprawled out before her. Some of the more distinct buildings stood out, even at a distance. The Gingerbread Shoppe with the lovely sweets, for example, and the circular Boutique near the main road, and how could anypony forget the great, hollow tree that contained the town library? It was particularly wonderful. A pony with the right affinity could see and feel the swell of natural magic in that place.
"These eastern towns are quite pretty," a mare said, taking a seat on a square cloth laid out before her. Her retainers set up a rectangular shade behind her before backing away. The mare didn't seem to pay them much mind.
"The trees are rather dull, though," she mused. Forest green eyes evaluated the rusty orange and red of the autumn foliage around down, finding it lacking. Her nose crinkled at the sight of Everfree, finding it even worse. "And that hideous forest will have to be removed. How offensive it is."
She extended a hoof, her leg draped in white. Following the gesture, a retainer set a small breakfast for his lady. A cup of tea soon lifted to her lips, turned slightly, and permitted her to drink. In Ponyville, the citizens were just starting to wake up and see to their daily routine.
Behind the mare in white, a number of ponies were also going through a routine and dressing themselves. They washed themselves with damp cloths before putting on silk shirts and belts. A brightly polished cuirass of rectangular, overlapping lamellar scales followed after laced greaves around legs, tied and fastened with red cord. Skirts, cuisses, attached to the flank, forming barding. Finally, long shoulder guards, rectangular and flexible, flowed down from withers to elbow.
"Be sure to obey all the conventions of this land, Master Shigure," the mare said, still watching out over the town below. "I would not unnecessarily irritate my beloved Prince."
The response came from a stallion with a black armored face mask, a menpo, the Neighponese equivalent of the better known Equestrian champron. A pair of backwards facing antlers distinguished him from the other ponies and their metal kuwagata, again, a counterpart to the local use of decorative crests like the cross or fleur-de-lis. Blue eyes watched from behind the face-armor, navy blue against a sky blue coat.
Yumi sipped her tea as Master Shigure, and then three others, descended the hill to where a road and a bridge cut through to the town. Two of the armored ponies planted a flag bearing the heraldic mon, or crest, of the traditional plum blossom. The upper field behind the flower bore a half moon on the left and a full sun with twelve rays on the right. Beneath it, on the shield potion of the herald, green was cut by a saw-like line of gold, representing fertility.
Their first potential challenge came from a pair of curious pegasi. They wore the colors of the Compagnia della colomba e croce. The duo swept low, circled, and landed to investigate. Yumi watched closely, wondering if there was a knight among them. Alas, there did not seem to be. The two mercenary pegasi laughed at some joke and soon took to the air.
Their contract had expired in the morning.
Naturally, a good mercenary did not fight on an expired contract. Yumi smiled; it was just as she had expected. The special guards brought in for the migration would not be stepping in to defend the road or the bridge. They had no interest in a "pas d'armes" as it was called in this part of the country.
"Let us see how the locals handle themselves," she whispered to herself.
She was lucky, as fortune had it. She didn't have long to wait.
- - -
The cart jostled slightly as it traveled down the well worn road. Nestled inside against a barrel of their family's finest, Apple Bloom tried to finish the homework she probably should have done last night before bed. Or before dinner. Or before her chores... Or before she went cutie mark crusading. Dazedly staring down at the boring lines of math problems, the little filly groaned. It was looking increasingly less likely that she was going to earn a Cutie Mark Crusader Theoretical Mathematicians cutie mark any time soon.
Big Mac was the only pony in the family with a head for fancy numbers.
Walking alongside the cart, Applejack directed the occasional disciplinary glare at her younger sister. She was well past the age when anypony should have had to force her to do her schoolwork on time. It was a matter of responsibility, just like one shouldn't have to be reminded to do one's chores.
"Ah'm almost done. Ah didn't have that much left ta do!" Apple Bloom said under her breath, but still loud enough to hear. "Ya can stop givin' me tha evil eye, sis."
"Just make sure ya finish before we drop you off."
"As long as it gets done, geez, who cares how close ah cut it?"
Another glare and Apple Bloom buried her nose in her math book.
Applejack smirked to herself, picking up the pace a little to walk side by side with her brother. If Big Mac noticed the extra weight in the cart that was his youngest sibling, he didn't mind. The sturdy workhorse had a fresh sprig of wheat between his teeth but had also picked up a dusty hat to wear on the way to market. It sat easily on his mop of a messy orange mane, protecting his eyes from the early morning sun.
It couldn't hold a candle to her Stetson, of course.
"You really should'a seen the migration, you know," she said as the two crested a small rise.
Big Mac dipped his nose and shook his head slightly. "N'ope."
"Aw, come on. Weren't you a little curious?"
"Don't tell me you were afraid to see them?" Applejack asked, leaning in close to try and get a good look at her brother's face. He coughed and turned away.
"Big Macintosh," she pressed, playfully zipping around in front of him. "Are you afraid of dragons?"
He looked up from behind his hat, eyes shaded.
"Maybe a little bit," he answered, breaking from his usual 'eyup/n'ope' preferences. He also pointed a hoof forward, the gesture momentarily jerking the cart to a stop. "What's that?"
"Hm?" Applejack turned around to face forward down the road. There seemed to be a big old flag of some sort sticking out from a pole. The apple farmer couldn't recall the proper name for those kinds of fancy flagpoles, but she recognized them. Canterlot and the areas around it had tons of them all over the place.
"I dunno," she said, trying to recall if she had seen those colors and patterns before.
"Hey, what's goin' on? Why'd we stop?" Apple Bloom asked, peeking out from the back of the cart. "Oh, look! Applejack! There's a bunch ponies in funny costumes by the bridge?"
"Probably some more of those 'Free Company' fellers," Applejack reasoned.
Quite a few had come by the farm and one of them, a unicorn, had used to magic to set up a fire suppression circle incase any of the dragons in the migration got ideas about swooping down for roasted apples (with a side of BBQ pony). They'd been polite and friendly enough, though the unicorn hadn't spoken much Equestrian. Granny Smith had brought them some crumbled apple pie to eat while they stayed on watch on top of the roof and one of the pegasus stallions had shared a few stories from abroad.
It was downright funny to imagine that they were all working for Rarity of all ponies. The starry-eyed dressmaker she remembered from when they were both fillies! Now she was a Baroness, if that didn't beat all.
"Ah don't think so!" Apple Bloom called out from her perch on top of a barrel of apples. "They look like ah different kinda funny."
Soon Applejack got a good look of her own.
Apple Bloom was right. They weren't the Free Company types Rarity had hired. There were four of them, plus a fifth sitting in the shade of some kind of umbrella. Two were on each side of the road and bridge and their dress was... well, it definitely wasn't like anything local. Each one had little flags on their back, like the big one but with just the flower on a green background.
Apple Bloom continued to watch, her last few math problems forgotten as the cart continued down the road. Two of the ponies in fanciful armor, a unicorn and a pegasus, advanced waving a hoof in greeting.
"Hold!" The male of the pair said, a unicorn, projecting his voice but with a strange accent. "Be either of you knights or servants of the Baroness Rarity?"
Apple Bloom couldn't help but giggle from her perch. "Knights? Us?"
"We're just passin' through, unless ya wanna buy some apples," Applejack answered for the three of them. "What's this all this about over here?"
"We are challenging the ponies of this realm to a pass of honor," the mare of the duo explained. It was hard to see much of her face behind her half-mask but her wings fluttered easily at her sides. "To cross this bridge, any pony of courtly standing must fight us or be shamed."
"Why?" Apple Bloom asked, now completely distracted from her remaining homework.
"It is a challenge," the mare tried to explain. "A test of skill and honor in defense of one's land. Do any of you know who is the mightiest knight in Ponyville?"
"Uh... I dunno. Do we have any knights in Ponyville?" Applejack turned to her brother.
Big Mac just shrugged.
"Canterlot's fulla knights and frilly noble types." Applejack pointed over to the towers of the castle-city, visible against the mountains and the horizon. "Ah think you've got the wrong town."
"This is the realm of Lady Rarity, is it not?" the mare inquired.
"Eyup," Big Mac answered her.
"Rarity's a friend of mine, but..." Applejack gave the armored mare a long look. "Ah, guess this is her realm now, kinda. Look, just what're you ponies after?"
"We are to humble her by defeating her knights," the stallion of the pair answered with blunt honesty. "Are you saying she has none? Truly?" He laughed, and not in the way Pinkie Pie would approve. "Then bring word and have her come herself!"
"Yes," the mare agreed, and Applejack could see the smirk behind her lacquer mask. "We shall skip her non existent knights and humble her this very morning! I shall personally cut off her tail and wear it as an uwa-obi!"
"If you are not knights, then you may pass," the male with the mocking laugh told the Apple trio. "You need only bow in passing to Yumi-hime."
- and that got her goat, and her apples.
"Now wait just a second here!" Applejack boldly poked the armored stallion in the chest. "We don't bow to nopony but the Princess! We don't even bow ta' the Prince when he comes by, so yer in fer a real shock if you think we'll bow to yer Yumi-humi or whatever her name is! Don't even get me started on threatening one of mah friends!"
The stallion backed away, but the eyes behind his mask glared at her.
"We have no desire to fight with farmers or common folk," he said. "Only nobles and servants of the Baroness."
"Applejack," Big Mac warned, having seen the signs of an impending appleplosion forming. "We don't want Apple Bloom here to be late."
"I'll write Cheerilee a note." Applejack craned her neck, stalking up to the stallion who had backed off. "You want a servant of the Baroness, do ya? Well, the way I see it, ah do owe her a favor or two. Kickin' yer flanks should help even that score!"
"Master Shigure!" the mare called back to an approaching stallion with a black mask and antlers. An earth pony by the look of it. "This one is not a knight, but she wishes to fight! What do we do?"
Mister Antlers chuckled, the interlocking armor over his shoulders shaking slightly from the movement. Applejack could see his blue eyes behind the featureless mask.
"I know of this one. She is a respectable and worthy opponent. You may fight her, if she wishes it," he gave permission. "Announce yourselves."
The two ponies stood straight, holding their heads high.
"I am Yudachi!" the male declared first. "You may call me Evening Squall! I am a third generation retainer to the family of Yumi-hime and I am trained in the Bounding Barrier Style!"
"Suzukaze," the mare said, eying Applejack with sudden interest at hearing she was somepony important. "In Equestrian, Cool Breeze. I am a second generation retainer to the family of Yumi-hime and I am trained in the Piercing Current Style."
"And what about you?" Applejack asked Mister Antlers.
"I only need announce myself to those who have defeated my subordinates," he replied, but inclined his head in respect. "However, I will make an exception for the one who helped seal Discord. I am Shigure, 'Late Rains.' Among other styles, I am honored to represent the Jade Pillar and the Iron Temple."
"My line has served the family of Yumi-hime for twenty-four generations," he finished.
'Twenty four generations?!'
"Ah'm Applejack..." The farmpony, finding that a little inadequate, added, "Mah family's been here fer four generations. And ah guess mah style's Apple Buckin'."
"Apple... bucking?" Suzukaze asked, not familiar with the word. "What is this technique, Master Shigure? Are we to provide her with weapons?"
"No," the earth pony replied. "She fights in the same manner as the Fuji Clan."
"Ya'll know the Fujis?" Applejack asked, surprised. "Well, shucks! They're our cousins! Ain't this a small world?"
"If you wish to accept our challenge," Shigure told her, stepping to the side. "You need only pick an opponent you deem worthy..."
"You!" Applejack pointed at Antlers, a cocky grin splitting her cheeks. "Ah'll fight you!"
"That is unwise."
"Earth pony to earth pony!" Applejack insisted. "No fancy magic or flyin' around! Just pony to pony! You know about mah cousins, too, so ya won't complain when I buck ya clear across the river."
"Master Shigure!" Suzukaze barked, bowing her head to him. "You mustn't! This one is not worthy! She is neither noble nor a knight! Please allow me to show her humility!"
"Or me, Master!" Yudachi exclaimed, also bowing his head. "You are Yumi-hime's right hoof!"
"Hey, I may not be noble, but mah grand-pappy was the old Baron ah Ponyville! That good enough for ya?" She smirked at the shocked looks of the two objecting ponies. "I'd say it is!"
"If that is your wish, Applejack of Ponyville." Shigure lifted his hoof, just a little, to shoo his two subordinates away. They retreated at his order to stand back by the bridge. The other member of their group, an earth pony Shigure identified as 'White Dew,' was also looking over. No doubt he had only a vague idea what was going on. Suzukaze whispered something to him and he stood up to watch carefully.
"If you lose, Miss Applejack," Antlers warned as he turned to walk a few paces away. "I am required by tradition and law to take a token from you. Spurs, if you have them, a sword or a lance."
"I ain't got any of those." Applejack stretched out her legs, digging her back hooves into the dirt. She made sure to put some distance between herself and the apple cart. Big Mac was watching with an even expression, but she could tell by the way he shifted the stalk of grass around in his mouth that he wasn't happy. Apple Bloom was still on top of a barrel, excitement on her face.
"Your hat, then."
She never noticed Big Mac plant his hoof into his face. She only had attention enough for one stallion at that moment. Shigure finally stopped, turned, and faced her.
- - -
Apple Bloom shuddered as her sister legs wobbled, Applejack's breath coming in ragged gasps. An unsteady hoof reached up to pat her hat down and keep it in place. The ground was cracked beneath her hooves and Applejack stumbled, almost tripping on herself, as she tried to regain her balance. What was worse, Apple Bloom could see the tension in her sister's legs from overexertion. She had seen it before when Applejack overdid it and pushed herself too hard.
"One... more... TIME!" she yelled, running towards the immovable object that was the funny dressed pony called Late Rains.
Hooves kicking up clods of dirt, Applejack juked to the left, then to the right to catch the other pony by the side. The foreign pony turned his head to follow her movement but made no other effort to dodge or face her. Applejack's hooves cut a long line in the ground as she spun around, a hundred and eighty degrees. Her back legs tucked in, muscles bunching in preparation to kick.
Apple Bloom forced her eyes shut at the sound. When she dared to open them, for the eighth time, she saw her older sister twist limply through the air. Eight times now, she had tried to buck this strange pony; kicks that could knock apples from the highest branches of the thickest apple tree, all to no effect. Every time, she bounced off. She had kicked Shigure in the chest, in the ribs, in the throat and in the flank.
Just now, she kicked him in the face.
Applejack couldn't land on her hooves this last time. She hit the ground on her side, gasping as the air knocked out of her lungs. Her Stetson rolled to a stop a pony-length away, bottom up in a patch of grass. With a pained groan she tucked in her legs, the muscles still twitching. One hoof slammed down as she bit back a cry.
"Is that it? Master Shigure?"
The stallion with the black mask and antlers nodded, once. "I believe so, Yumi-hime."
The other speaker was an earth pony in a bleached white dress marked by green floral patterns over a similarly pale white coat. Her eyes were the same color of green and her dark black mane fell straight over her shoulders and the side of her neck. This was the 'Yumi-hime' the others seemed to be following, even the antlers-guy.
"You spoke highly of her earlier and you are not prone to exaggeration," Yumi said, spearing the prone apple farmer with a disappointed scowl. "I expected more. This is like watching a donkey kick a wall."
Apple Bloom pressed down hard on the apple barrel beneath her hooves.
"Shut yer yap!" Applejack spat, bracing her front legs to pull herself up.
The foreign mare narrowed her eyes and nodded to one of her servants. Without warning, something spun through the air to land inches from Applejack's face. She flinched involuntarily, eyes opening to see what had almost hit her. Apple Bloom saw it too, though she hadn't been able to see what it was as it flew through the air.
It was a spear.
The end buried in the ground sported a long, thin steel blade. It reminded Apple Bloom of the tool she'd seen her siblings use to cut dead branches off of trees. It even had serrated edges on one side of it, but this tool looked like somepony had stuck a long knife onto the end of a pole. The blunt end still vibrated from the shock of impact, the long wooden shaft sporting a soft black bite-grip to make it easier for non-unicorns to hold onto and manipulate.
"Take it," Yumi commanded. She turned to her servant with the antlers. "Master Shigure. Please give Miss Applejack your neck."
"As you wish, Yumi-hime." The stallion reached up to a loop of red around his neck. Untying it, he pushed apart a seam in his scale cuirass. He then used the same hoof to pull down part of his white tunic, exposing the coat color of his bare neck.
Applejack stared mutely at the stallion and then back at the spear, buried blade-first in the ground.
It was sharp.
"Go on. Take the spear. Use every bit of your strength," the white mare advised, snapping out a small fan and waving it at the two ponies. "I will allow it."
Applejack shook her head, her blonde mane falling over her face and eyes, slick with sweat.
"Is this some kinda trick...?"
"Trick?" Yumi asked, blinking innocently. "No trick. But you can not harm Master Shigure without a weapon, now can you? Unless you admit defeat?"
Applejack's own eyes, also green, glared back at the arrogant foreigner. Then they moved on to her opponent, who still stood without moving, exposing his neck. It was impossible to see what expression he may have had behind his mask. Applejack snorted, reaching for the shaft of the spear -
Only to swat it away and knock it onto the ground.
"Ah said what ah said." Apple Bloom's sister slowly made her way past the spear to where her hat had fallen. She bit down on the edge of the family Stetson, a pained shudder racing across her frame. With a flick of her head, the hat spun through the air.
The antlered foreigner caught it with a hoof, releasing the hold on his tunic.
"Ah don't know why... but ah can't..." Applejack turned to Apple Bloom and her brother, exhaustion betrayed by her heavy breathing and a look begging forgiveness in her eyes. Applejack was a proud pony, but between keeping her word or holding onto her pride, she had to make a choice.
"Applejack," Apple Bloom whispered, and she jumped down off the cart. She heard Big Mac move, too, but he was still strapped to the dolly. Bloom got there first, doing what she could to help hold her sister up and keep her from falling.
"Ah concede," Applejack told the foreign ponies, and just saying it seemed to hurt her more than the rest of the fight's injuries put together.
"I accept your concession, Miss Applejack." The pony with the antlered helmet bowed his head. The other three, the two loudmouthed pegasi and the pony in the back, quickly followed their master. Only the pony in white refrained.
Yumi-hime continued to fan herself, seeming disinterested now that the fight was over.
"We have our first token of the day," she said. "See to their injuries and have them on their way."
"Ah can't believe... ah lost..."
Applejack hung her head in shame. Apple Bloom could guess that it wasn't just the fight that had her sister to heartbroken. She had bet their father's hat and lost it. Seeing it clipped to the belt of another pony, as a trophy... and then seeing Big Mac wearing one of his own, even if it was just a dusty work hat... Apple Bloom saw tears in her sister's eyes. Tears she hadn't shed even when her body had hit the ground and spasmed in pain.
"Never you mind me." The apple farmer wiped her face and stood up straight. "We've got apples to sell, and you need to get to class, Apple Bloom. Ah'm sure if you tell Cheerilee what happened she'll excuse ya for being a little late. You finished your homework, didn't ya?"
"Uhm... yeah..." Apple Bloom knew she wasn't going to be inheriting the Element of Honesty anytime soon. "Ah finished."
"Good. Get goin'! Ah'll meet up with ya in a couple minutes." She slumped forward, her body too tired to keep up her front for very long.
A shadow briefly loomed over the group of them: the armored Neighponese earth pony. He lowered his head and gently touched a hoof to her flank. Whatever magic he used it couldn't be seen with the naked eye, but its effects could be heard. Applejack sucked in a relieved breath and rested her head on the grass.
"She will be fine," the pony explained - a doctor of some kind - invisibly working his magic to treat Applejack's burning muscles. "But it was unwise to challenge Master Shigure. Despite many battles and many years of service, I have only ever seen two ponies cause him harm."
"I just don't get it," Applejack argued, despite her tired state. "Kickin' him... by Celestia, it was like kickin' a rock. Harder than a rock."
"A master of the Iron Temple Style can not be harmed in such a way." The Neighponese healer leaned in closer to whisper, "But it is good you did not use Yumi-hime's spear. I respect your sense of honor, Miss Applejack."
Applejack closed her eyes, her breath slowing as she came down from an adrenalin high.
"Go on, Mac. Apple Bloom. I don't need ya fussin' over me."
"Okay, sis." Apple Bloom gave her a quick hug before retreating back to the cart.
Climbing back up, she saw Big Mac take off his hat and drop it on the ground nearby. He was still hitched to the cart and soon they were headed over the bridge. The three foreign ponies were watching them, the pegasus and unicorn pair seemed wary, but the earth pony with the antlers didn't seem concerned. As they passed by, he reminded them.
"Please bow to Yumi-hime before you go."
Apple Bloom wasn't particularly inclined to follow his request, but the Apples were an honorable and upstanding family. Big Mac stopped the cart and bowed his head slightly. Apple Bloom did the same, though she glared angrily at the white unicorn on the top of the hill. Soon they were across the bridge and headed into town.
Those ponies had caused this trouble because of Rarity. Apple Bloom didn't understand why. She had heard that Sweetie Belle's sister was a Baroness, now, like Lady Antimony who had talked to their class. But for Ponyville. Was this Yumi-lady also some kind of noblemare? Why was she here? What did she want?
- - -
"Your Grace. Your Ladyship. We have a problem."
Rarity barely heard the pegasus as he flew down to land in front of her. By her side, Blueblood slowed to a stop and cantered around to face the guard. Pinkie had an easier time. Her bouncing, bounding stride somehow came to a midair halt before dropping her right down to the ground like a sinking stone. To the fashionista's private pique, neither her friend nor her would-be fiancé seemed winded by the morning jog.
An endless reserve of sugar-based energy was only natural for a strange miracle of pony evolution like Pinkie Pie, but even Blueblood seemed in excellent shape. His physical trainer, a powder blue earth pony mare named Rock Candy, likewise came to a slow before turning around. Like Pinkie, she wore leg warmers and a jogging outfit with the addition of a star spangled bandanna. A stopwatch hung from around her neck.
"My apologies for the interruption," the guard, who Rarity recognized as Mercury (having had him follow her around several times), bowed his head in apology.
"Think nothing of it." Blueblood magically wiped his face with the a kerchief. "Which one is it?"
"Lady Yumi, my Lord."
"Yumi?" Rarity asked the royal guard and retainer. "The Garland Family Yumi?"
"Yes, my Lady." Mercury turned to the two nobles for guidance. "She has set up a passage of arms outside Ponyville, next to the bridge out of town."
"A passage of arms?" Pinkie asked, zipping up between Blueblood and the guard. "What's that? Hey Bluey, what's that? Ponies don't have arms, they have legs! Shouldn't it be a passage of legs?"
Mercury gaped at her invasion of the Prince's personal space but Rarity only shook her head in bemusement. Blueblood never seemed to mind Pinkie's indiscretions, privately finding her antics and outlook 'whimsical.' She was also the only pony Rarity knew who shared some of his more peculiar tastes in music. She did notice Rock Candy, Blueblood's new personal trainer, frowning at the pink party pony.
"It is a martial game where one pits one's knights against those of another noble."
"Oh! A game? Sounds fun!"
"It is very much like pin the tail on the pony... except with a bigger pin," Blueblood remarked, seemingly without worry. He turned to Rarity. "I'm sure Lady Yumi has set her banner within Ponyville, my Lady. Which means-"
"I must respond personally," Rarity answered him.
This turn of events wasn't unexpected. Blueblood had been warning and preparing her for almost two weeks to receive noble visitors to Ponyville and Lady Antimony's parting warning had not gone unheeded. It was part of why she joined him most mornings for his constitutional. Aside from wanting to keep in shape and maintain her figure in light of all the rich food he plied her with. Until they formally and finally tied the knot on the steps of the Palace Chapel this, too, was a fact of life.
"She waited for your Free Company contract to expire," Blueblood reminded her. "Do not be hasty and do not underestimate her."
"Hey Bluey!" Pinkie interrupted, sitting next to the much larger Sir Mercury. "You said this was a game for knights, right?"
"Knights and Ladies," he confirmed.
"Allow me to company you, Lady Rarity." Mercury stomped his hoof once. "I will gladly meet these Neighponese in the field."
"And me too!" Pinkie made the exact same move, though instead of a solid 'clomp' her hoof somehow made a 'suuee.' What, did she have woopie cushions for horseshoes?
Rarity couldn't help but stare worryingly at her friend. "Pinkie Pie, this is-"
"I missed one party!" she declared, the forward curl of her poofy mane falling over her face and obscuring her eyes. "I don't want to miss another. Please?"
"This is serious, Pinkie."
"And this is my serious face!" Pinkie replied, looking up... and trying to suppress a silly smile.
"That's your serious face?" Blueblood asked, poking her gently on the cheek. Like the springs of a trap set off, whatever control she had over her smile broke, resulting in an over-eager girlish grin.
"No! My serious face!" Pinkie mashed her hooves into her cheeks. "Ruined! And I practiced all night, too!"
"Rarity. Take however many ponies from my service as you need," Blueblood said, amusement absent from his voice or face. "Once they are yours, you can not return them. Mercury will accompany you as my representative."
She nodded, having heard that before. "I understand."
"Understand this: Lady Yumi is not Lady Antimony," he said this to both mares, Rarity and Pinkie. "She did not come to Ponyville to cement her position or to convince you to remain out of her way. She will not duel you or give you time to prepare for her tricks. She is here to dethrone you and to humiliate you. She is here to publicly make a show of the fact that you are not fit to be Baroness."
"Then we shall just have to prove her wrong," Rarity assured him.
"You know where I will be. I only hope... I wish that," the Prince said, taking a deep breath. Rarity leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the lips, cutting off. Watching them, Pinkie giggled and wagged her eyebrows, shamelessly nudging the stoic royal guard next to her.
"From what my spies tell me, you should beware both her archery and her magic. If she consents to a fight, strike quickly and do not let her see you coming," Blueblood finished. "Good luck."
It wasn't long before Rarity, Pinkie and Sir Mercury disappeared from sight, leaving the Prince and his personal trainer alone among the gardens and trimmed rows of trees. Without another word, Blueblood returned to the road and his morning jog. Alone. Rock Candy knew what to do. As he cantered around a marble statue he took a left turn, taking a more circuitous route around to the back of the manor.
There was still no news on the other threat approaching Ponyville.
- - -
There was a reason why Blueblood had dismissed Sandy and Light Touch as he got dressed. It was much the same reason why he hadn't locked his bedroom window. That reason being that he didn't want the lock broken. Tightening his bow tie in the mirror, he felt the sudden gust of cold air from outside but didn't let it ruffle him.
"Morning. Your Grace."
"Good morning, Ritter." He straightened his collar out and turned around. "Could I interest you in breakfast?"
"Buck that shit."
The former Wonderbolt perched like a gargoyle in the open window, jagged mane and tail swishing in the breeze, in the latter case much like a hungry's cats. She was bereft of uniform or any other adornment, letting her vicious, predatory smile and gleaming eyes make more a statement than clothes could hope to. Her gray body and harlequin green mane stood out starkly against the purple curtains.
"You remain as classy as ever," he quipped, expression darkening.
Rather than reply, Ritterkreuz sniffed the air and hopped down from the windowsill. Brazenly stalking over to the large mahogany four-poster bed in the center of the room, she bent over to smell the sheets, folded and cleaned as they were. Her shoulders tensed, wings rising and lowering.
"Hard to believe this little kitten of yours beat that bitch, Antimony..."
Ritter passed by the bed to look around the rest of the room. She quickly picked out a framed gemstone, squinting to make out the details carved into its faceted surface. Blueblood doubted the mare recognized the cutie mark cut into the gem, blue on turquoise.
"I don't really like her," Ritter told him, finally leaving the distractions of the room to focus entirely on him. "Anyway. I've spent the last few days beating idiots half to death; I'm horny."
"That's a shame," Blueblood replied, not flinching away as she came up right in front of him. At her full height, she was just about as tall as he was. "I hear there are some new treatments for female hysteria. Would you like use of our fainting room?"
The former Wonderbolt licked her lips, chuckling.
"Why would I need to clop off when you're right here, and your little kitten is off fighting Yumi?" She reached a hoof up to snake over his shoulders. "Let's have some fun, Your Grace."
"That isn't going to happen, Ritter." Blueblood pushed her back, not with his hoof, but with his magic. He knew from experience that a physical fight was just what she wanted most. It was also a fight he couldn't win with her. No pony in his employ could remove this mare from the premises against her will.
"We aren't teenagers anymore," he said, as she started to spread her wings, resisting his telekinetic push for space. "You caused quite the mess in Cloudsdale."
"So what?" Ritter narrowed her eyes, and his magical hold on her broke, dropping her hooves to the carpeted floor. "Being a Wonderbolt was boring. And we aren't that old, Your Grace. Come on! Just a quickie and I'll be out of your mane. A little something to keep me awake."
He opened his mouth to quip -
"It has to be you," she cut him off, her hungry grin widening as she prowled around him. "You may be a big baby, and you may think you're in love with that kitten, but you're not. You're like me. You'll get bored with her... you always do."
Blueblood sighed, but kept her in front of him, even if it meant side stepping slightly.
"I knew you'd come to me first," he said. "In fact, I'm glad you did. Ritter, I'm asking you... begging you: please... return to Cloudsdale. Tell the Governor General-"
"Daddy always wanted us to shack up," Ritterkreuz interrupted him, and in a flash she was up and breathing the same air. Her tongue darted out to lick the tip of his nose. "You know I'm the best you'll ever have... and you're the only one I don't grow bored of, Your Grace."
"I am a Prince of Equestria," he reminded her, turning up his nose and leaving her to bite his chin. "Return to Cloudsdale."
"Make me," she dared. "Have your guards drag me off. I'll kill them."
"You will not." He glared at her with cold blue eyes.
"I'll maim them, then. Since you're such a mommy bear." She gave his chin one last nip before spinning and sauntering away towards the window. Ritter touched a hoof to the windowsill and looked back over her shoulder.
"Are you sure you aren't in the mood?" she asked, her tail swaying back and forth. "I remember you used to like a quick roll in the hay in the morning."
"I still do," he admitted, adjusting his lapel. "With my fiancée."
Ritter sniffed, facing out the window.
"You told her I'm coming?" she asked.
"Good. More fun that way."
And with a rush of wind, she was gone.
- - -
Applejack watched the road while she recuperated. These foreign ponies had picked their spot well. The bridge connecting Ponyville to most of the farms opposite the direction of Canterlot prevented anypony from theoretically making the effort of going all the way around to get to town, traffic was also light enough that the four Neighponese didn't get swamped, like they would if they blocked up a thoroughfare. Additionally, almost all the ponies crossing the bridge were ones on business, mostly farmers taking their good to the market in the morning.
The intention was clear: send a message to the pillars of the local economy rather than inconvenience ponies who would be less likely to bring a complaint to the Mayor... or to the new Baroness. So far, nopony aside from herself had bothered to make much of a fuss. They stopped, talked briefly with the four foreign "knights" in the funny armor, bowed to the white mare on the hill and went about their way.
The pegasus and unicorn pair also seemed to enjoy requesting some small token to prove that they had stopped a pony. They had asked for a single carrot from Carrot Top's family, the smallest available jar of honey from the Comb Family, a bundle of hay from Last Straw (the old coot had predictably sputtered and launched into a long spiel before being sent on his way), a few pieces of asparagus (that had been amusing to watch, given the notorious price gouging that family engaged in)... the only exceptions were un-escorted mares, who were asked to leave a piece of cloth if they had one, and children who were let through without fuss. It reminded Applejack, guiltily, that on top of everything else, she had probably made Apple Bloom late for class.
But then there was her father's hat... her precious Stetson...!
All the other stuff was kept on a blanket out in the open, probably to draw Rarity or some other noble-types into heroically winning it back as part of this tom-fool game of theirs. Her hat was not. Antlers kept it clipped to his belt while he stood by the side of the road, letting the others handle things. She longed to snatch it back. Somehow. Her legs, now mostly recovered, cautioned her against it.
She still didn't understand why her kicks had been so ineffective. Ponies, especially earth ponies like her brother, could get pretty tough. She knew that. But Big Mac would at least get knocked off his hooves if she gave him a good buck to the side. Antlers over there hadn't moved even an inch. She may as well have been bucking a cast iron statue of Celestia for all the good it did.
A sudden rustling among the foreign ponies drew Applejack's attention.
They turned to face back down the bridge towards town, and averting her eyes as well, Applejack soon saw what had caught their eye: another banner, dipping and bobbing up and down as the pony bearing it kept to a measured pace. Emblazoned on the banner, a shield with a regal purple border surrounded a prominent apple tree, the three apples in the bough's branches each sporting a silver line through them. To the left of the tree was an open book, and to the right an estoile - a star with six wavy points.
It had to be.
As much as the sight of her friend coming filled Applejack with renewed confidence, she also couldn't resist shaking her head in bemusement at the fashion-crazy pony going a little overboard with the pomp. Would it have been so hard to just run over?
Instead, Rarity cantered gracefully over the bridge in a steel, silver and pure white cuirass with cerulean blue barding. Small blue gemstones set into brass fasteners strapped the chest piece in place. Walking just behind her and to her side, Applejack could see a royal guardpony, a pegasus, the gold and polished bronze armor unmistakable anywhere in Equestria. Opposite him was the pony with the banner. Bouncing.
"Pinkie Pie?" she groaned.
"HIYA Applejack!" The hyperactive party pony enthusiastically waved. "The cavalry has arrived!"
"Only you three? That's it? How... disappointing." Up on her hill, Yumi yawned, covering her mouth with her fan. "Where is my dear, sweet Prince? Master Shigure? Attend to me."
She hadn't spoken loudly enough for Rarity or her group to hear, but Applejack had heard. Standing up, she rushed over to meet with the so called 'cavalry.' Yumi was finally being roused from her shady spot on top of the hill, but Applejack ignored that for the time being.
"Am I glad to see you!" Applejack called out, meeting her friends halfway across the bridge. "But didn't ya bring any other fightin' types?" She pointed quickly at the one royal guard. "Why only him?"
"No offense," she hastily added.
"None taken," the guard replied with a dip of his head.
"I am the cause of all this trouble; it is only right I see to it myself. Besides," Rarity dropped her voice to a hush. "Ponyville is not exactly swimming with martial ponies. Bringing even one royal guard to a meeting like this is something of a faux pas."
"In that case, sugarcube, I'd like to volunteer for another shot at 'em!" Applejack's gaze wandered back to the Neighponese knights, and especially their leader and that mare they all deferred to.
"Oh! Oh! Grudge match!"
"Somethin' like that."
"Thank you darling," Rarity said, resting a hoof on the farmer's shoulder. "I had been hoping for volunteers in town, but... well. you know." Not a martial town. "And this is very much a contest of local prowess."
"What about Twilight?" Applejack asked. After all, she was the most knowledgeable and powerful unicorn in Ponyville.
"What about Twilight?" Rarity asked in return, smiling mysteriously. She then trotted past to continue across the bridge.
Assembled and arrayed against her were the four armored ponies. The pegasus and unicorn were on the right side of the road and the two earth ponies on the left. Yumi stood in the middle of the road between them. With her standing straight, Applejack could see that the foreign mare was normal pony size and height. There didn't seem anything ostensibly odd about her, even on closer inspection, except maybe the rounded snout. It gave her a youthful sort of look, enough that it was likely she was Rarity's junior by a few years.
Applejack's green eyes narrowed, tightening in concealed emotion.
"I have the pleasure of introducing myself as Lady Yumi, daughter of Lord Yama, heiress to the province of Neighpon." The earth pony mare crossed her hooves and slowly bowed. "I am sorry, but my name does not translate well into common Equestrian."
"I am Lady Rarity, Baroness of Ponyville. It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Yumi." Applejack suspected Rarity was telling a little white lie, but it was convincing enough to pass muster, especially combined with her proper and courtly bow. The farmer rolled her eyes.
All this high faleutin' nonsense. No wonder her grandpappy wanted no part of it.
"We have come to engage Ponyville in a friendly pass of arms," Yumi continued, gesturing to her left and right and the two pairs of attendants. "I humbly invite you to challenge my retainers in any manner you wish so that the honor of this town may be demonstrated for all the world to see."
"How kind of you. I see you have already acquired quite a few prizes this morning," Rarity replied, her blue eyes darting over to the small pile of assorted foodstuffs and trinkets. Applejack didn't imagine it was worth much, not in terms of actual bits, but this wasn't about bits.
It was about something more valuable than just money.
It was about pride.
"We have," Yumi agreed and her smile widened a fraction, taking on the beginnings of a smug tug of her cheek. "But curiously, we have not yet encountered any of Canterlot's famous knights or gendarmes. Nor have we been visited by our betrothed, the Prince."
Rarity's left eyebrow twitched.
"Ponyville normally has little need for knights or gendarmes." Rarity even kept a civil tone as she explained, just a hint of irritation in her voice. "Darling, as for Prince Blueblood, I'm sure he'll come see you at his earliest convenience."
"I do long to see him again." Yumi sighed dreamily. "We were parted most cruelly by that fiendish Baroness, Antimony. You have my true and sincere thanks for dealing with her."
"Funny." Rarity covered her mouth as she softly laughed. "Despite working quite closely with him, I can't recall Blueblood mentioning you before. At least, not as his betrothed. Perhaps we have had a mistranslation? Have you two met before?"
"The Prince and I have met before, yes."
"Oh?" Rarity still feigned ignorance. "Where? If I were to ask him, would he remember it?"
Yumi's smile, once bordering on smug, slipped into a displeased frown. Her fan flipped out to conceal her face below the eyes. It didn't take a mind reading unicorn to see that Rarity had successfully located, struck, and then jammed a needle into that nerve.
"Do you wish to observe our servants from the shade...?" she asked.
"Thank you, but no." Rarity gave a polite bow of her head. "This is my town and my ponies have business to conduct. We should be out of their manes."
Applejack, at the moment, wanted nothing more than to slap her friend on the back. She couldn't have said, "Get the heck outta our town!" better herself. Well, she could have just said it, but Applejack doubted it would have the same one-two buck to it!
Yumi's white coat blushed pink as she huffed and stormed back up the hill.
"Ooh! She's angry!" Pinkie whispered. Loudly. "I was gonna ask if she wants a Welcome to Ponyville party, but may-y-y-be I'll save that for a little later!"
"That might be a good idea," Applejack whispered back, just as loudly.
At their Master's prompting, the three Neighponese once again repeated their formal introduction. Applejack noticed both Evening Squall and Cool Breeze eyeing Rarity like a prize hog at market. It hadn't been more than a few hours since the mare of the two gloated about making Rarity's tail into some kinda fancy belt. Applejack as a rule didn't quite buy into her old friend's obsession with fashion, or any of that nonsense, but there was no way she'd let that happen.
"A Lady should not dive right into a melee." The royal guard she had brought with her stepped forward. "I am Sir Mercury, of Her Highness Celestia's household guard. I have the honor to serve both the Prince and Canterlot's future Duchess, the Lady Rarity!"
The over-eager Neighponese pegasus eyeing Rarity clearly thought, if only for a moment, about accepting the Royal Guard's challenge. She was the obvious choice, being another pegasus. Looking for some sign, she turned to her comrades, and then to...
"Master Shigure," Yumi declared, having resumed her comfortable spot on the hill. "Surely a Royal Guard should only be asked to meet our finest?"
"As you wish, Yumi-hime," antler-helm responded with typical deference. He slowly began to trot off to the far side of the road, well away from the others. Mercury seemed ready to follow, but Applejack hurried to stop him, just long enough to share something.
"Just a second there, partner," she said as his look which seemed to ask 'what, did you want to fight him?' "He's got some kinda thick skin or magic or somethin.' I kicked him hard enough to split open an apple tree and he didn't even feel it."
Sir Mercury looked past her at the waiting Neighponese pony.
"I see." He nodded and continued on his way to the field. "Thank you, Miss Applejack."
"I was worried for a moment there," Cool Breeze remarked, pointing an armored hoof at Rarity. "I claim the Baroness."
"Oh! And I'll take on this guy!" Pinkie exclaimed, bouncing on her hooves and sprinkling confetti over the bemused Neighponese unicorn of the group, Evening Squall.
"I guess that leaves you and me, sugarcube." Applejack smiled to end up with the pony who had helped heal her legs after her run in with old Antlers. White Dew was a fellow earth pony and he bowed respectfully before walking off and away from the others. As she followed the brown coated foreigner, a question occurred to her.
"Ya'll mind answering something?" she asked.
"That depends on the question, Miss Applejack."
"When the others introduced themselves they mentioned how long their families had served and such. Third generation or whatever." Twenty forth generation in one case. "But you didn't."
"I am the first of my family to have the honor of serving the Garland Clan and the family of Yumi-hime. I have not yet inherited the honor the others have."
He stopped on a patch of deep green grass a good stone's throw from the road. Rarity and her pegasus opponent had that stretch to themselves. Further past them, Pinkie and Evening Squall had found their own spot - though the poor unicorn seemed mostly to be nodding his head up and down as the pink party lover pretended to be a bouncing ball.
Much further down the road, a loud TING of metal on metal indicated the fourth duel had begun in earnest. Applejack privately wished Rarity's royal guard luck. She had a feeling he was going to need it.
"Till you submit," White Dew declared, raising a hoof in salute.
Applejack grinned, breaking into a run. "I ain't gonna fall flat twice!"
- - -
Leaning over the edge of a cloud, a gray pegasus stared down at the fight below her.
"Oooh!" she awed as the duels began.
Sitting next to her, another gray pegasus angrily scowled.
"Hey! You! Get offa my cloud," Ritterkreuz snarled. "You trying to pick a fight or something? Huh? Huh!"
"Oh, hey! I didn't see you!" The wall eyed pegasus mare reached into her saddlebag to enthusiastically munch away on a snack. Crumbs tumbled from her mouth onto, into, and through the cloud. Ritterkreuz gave the similarly colored mare a curious frown. Why wasn't she moving? Was she dense? Suicidal?
"You want one?" the mailmare asked, holding one of the muffins out as a peace offering.
Accepting the baked bread, the former Wonderbolt warily sniffed it. "You know," she warned the smaller pegasus. "If this is poisoned, I'll kill you."
"What do you mean? It's blueberry!" Derpy gave her a serious albeit off-target stare. "Poison would ruin the muffin! Who would do that?"
Ritterkreuz took a tentative bite - and damn, it was actually pretty good! Almost as tasty as watching her competition beat each other senseless and draw first blood.
'Lucky bitches. I wonder which one I should finish off first?'