The Canterlot Garden Party was an annual tradition. It was a great honor to be invited. Cheerilee couldn’t believe her good fortune.
She wouldn’t be going as herself, though. Princess Luna had assigned her to undercover security. It worried Cheerilee slightly that a party needed that—needed her. What could cause the Princess to take that kind of precaution?
Rarity, Ponyville’s fashion designer, had been contacted to make Cheerilee’s outfit. Princess Luna had sworn the dressmaker to secrecy.
Rarity was sympathetic to Cheerilee’s cause. Through convoluted means, she had briefly been a vampire herself. Cheerilee was not sure exactly how that had happened, but it somehow involved Valiant and that caused her to dislike thinking about it.
“Hold still,” ordered Rarity. “I can tell you’re nervous.”
“I’ve never had a fitted dress before,” Cheerilee admitted.
“Oh my, really? Well, I certainly couldn’t ask you to pay, then” said Rarity. “Regardless, Princess Luna has arranged compensation, so this dress will be the absolute best!”
“Um, I think I would prefer not to stand out,” mumbled Cheerilee.
Rarity looked surprised. “Well…I could tone it down a little. We can take off the feathers, and most of the jewelry. I suppose if I must, I could also remove about half the lace.”
“Please,” said Cheerilee.
“The Princess also asked me to provide you with a nice pair of sunglasses,” noted Rarity. “The weather for the party will be clear, of course.” She spun around a display of eyewear next to her dressmaking supplies, taking a moment to decide what would look best.
“A nice monochrome pair, I think,” said Rarity. “These will help with the simple look, and you can wear them with other things in the future, if you like.”
Cheerilee examined the sunglasses. The frames were black and the large lenses were almost that dark. “These are great, thanks.”
Rarity continued fussing over her. It was quite a bit more involved than Cheerilee expected, but that was okay. She might not get another opportunity to visit the Canterlot Garden Party.
The day of the event was a Saturday—no school. Cheerilee rode the train to Canterlot while wearing her disguise. Her mane had been elegantly curled, and her identifying features were concealed by the dress and large sunglasses. She sat a few rows behind a group of ponies that included Rarity, Twilight, and for some reason Valiant. Rarity gave Cheerilee a sly wink, but none of the other ponies appeared to recognize her.
They all disembarked at the station. Cheerilee didn’t exactly mingle with their group, but was close enough to hear some conversation. Twilight seemed confident that this year’s Garden Party would be less crazy than the year before, when her birthday happened to fall on the same date. Cheerilee also heard one of them mention the phrase "party cannon."
A pony stood at the garden gate taking names. "Countess de la Cheer" said Cheerilee, remembering her cover identity. The security pony consulted his list and nodded her through.
Cheerilee wished she didn't have to be so dramatic about things. After all, wasn’t undercover work supposed to be unnoticed?
She sighed. What did a schoolteacher know about being undercover? In fact, what qualifications did she have to get this job? Was being a vampire all it took? Cheerilee wished she could ask somepony, but now was not the time. She saw the host of the party was coming her way.
“Ah, a new face,” said a handsome white unicorn. His eyes ran over her dress appreciatively. “I’m afraid I don’t know your name, my dear.”
Cheerilee told him her pseudonym. “And I presume you are the famous Fancypants?” she asked.
The stallion smiled. “You are correct. Please enjoy the party, Countess.” He drifted away to talk to other ponies.
Standing awkwardly all alone, Cheerilee looked around. The group from Ponyville that she had shared the train with stuck together by themselves. Many of the Canterlot ponies seemed displeased by their presence, but Fancypants treated them well enough.
“Hey, you’re the Countess, right?” asked a voice.
Cheerilee turned, looking at the heavily made-up mare who had spoken. “That’s right. Pardon me, but are you Sapphire Shores, the pony of pop?” She had spotted several celebrities at the party, and felt somewhat awed to be among them.
“That’s right,” answered the show pony. “Wow, I’ve never met a Countess before. Does looking that good just come with the title? You're faaantabulous, darling.”
“Why thank you,” answered Cheerilee. Surprisingly, her disguise allowed her to feel more relaxed. For a moment, she allowed herself to believe she really was a countess.
“Well, maybe we can hang out again sometime,” said Sapphire Shores, turning away. “I’ve got to go talk to Photo Finish now. Bye!”
Cheerilee turned her gaze elsewhere. The sunglasses had been a very good idea. She could look around without anypony knowing where her eyes were pointed.
The disguse seemed to be working well. Not that there were many Ponyville residents at the party to recognize Cheerilee, but it helped her get comfortable in her role. It was almost fun to pretend to be another pony for a while. Almost. She was still on the job.
The masquerading Countess glanced over to where Sapphire Shores was chatting with Photo Finish, the famous fashion photographer. Photo did not seem to be listening. In fact, her face was turned in an entirely different direction. Cheerilee noticed her head was up, as if looking over the crowd.
Curious, Cheerilee followed her gaze across the garden. She let out a small gasp of surprise to find that the fashion pony was staring at none other than Valiant.
The stallion wore a hostile expression. He had locked eyes with the photographer, and as Cheerilee watched, he pointed his hoof towards his own face and then at Photo Finish. Knowing Valiant as Cheerilee did, his gesture probably meant something like I’ve got my eye on you, picture bitch.
After several minutes, Valiant got bored with the staring match and went on his way. And still Photo Finish didn’t take her eyes off of him. Cheerilee observed as she tracked the orange pony's movements through the crowd. She clearly was not afraid of him, and that actually troubled Cheerilee.
Valiant was a psychopath, no two ways about it. Anypony who willingly crossed him was either ignorant, or was powerful enough to deal with whatever revenge scheme he would probably concoct. Cheerilee assumed the former about the photographer.
Rather than see a messy spectacle carried out in front of everypony at the garden party, she decided that the situation needed to be defused.
Quickly running through her options, Cheerilee decided that the best plan would be to distract Valiant. It would probably be easier than trying to explain to the notoriously eccentric Photo Finish what kind of mistake she was making.
Cheerilee made her way through the crowd and caught up with Valiant at the refreshments table. Her disguise as a Countess gave her confidence.
“Pardon me, sir, what is that you’re wearing?” she asked.
Valiant took a dainty sip of punch from a glass. “The Carousel Boutique of Ponyville made this tuxedo. I enjoy their designs so very much.” He spoke with a trace of a posh accent. It was so completely out of character for him, that Cheerilee almost laughed.
“It looks very good,” she said. And it did. She just couldn’t stand what was inside it.
Valiant rolled his eyes as if she’d said something silly. “Yes. Every girl’s crazy about a sharp dressed man.” He walked away, humming something to himself.
Cheerilee wasn’t sure what to do next. After a few moments' thought, she decided to go find Photo Finish, to protect her if nothing else. Strangely, the photographer did not appear to be in the garden any longer.
After a quick glance around, Cheerilee did manage to locate Sapphire Shores, who was sitting at a table by herself. Cheerilee walked over, intending to ask where Photo Finish had gone. The pop star had a blank look in her eyes and was sitting perfectly still.
“Are you all right?” Cheerilee asked. She waved a hoof in front of the other pony’s eyes.
Sapphire blinked a couple of times and looked around. “I guess I spaced out there for a second.”
“Do you know where Photo Finish is?” asked Cheerilee.
“Nope, sorry.” The singer moved to get up but stopped. “Hey, what’s that?”
Cheerilee pulled the tablecloth back. Sapphire’s rear hooves were bound to the legs of the table. More troubling, however, was a large crystal beneath the table, pulsing with energy.