Introduction: Shady, Backroom Deals
The night streets of Fillydelphia were abuzz with activity. Unlike distant Canterlot, the City of the Unbridled Mare reveled in Princess Luna's contribution to the celestial rotation, and in the glimmering magelights of Shetland Avenue, street artists plied their trades, partygoers staggered drunkly, and hoodlums eyed potential marks. A vibrant, dangerous magic coursed through the brisk midnight air, the spark of life and equinity that set this city apart from its brethren.
Down the center of this virile artery trotted three stallions – two earth ponies and a unicorn, the former flanking the latter. The pony on the right wore a red-and-black pinstripe jacket, three buttons, and a dusty top hat tipped at a crooked angle atop his yellow-maned head, his iron-gray fur streaked with sweat and grime. Green eyes, one of which was slightly out of alignment with the other, glared out from beneath a few loose strands of mane. Opposite him strode a russet-furred giant, his ice blue mane trimmed in an aggressive spine, similar to the head spikes of a dragon. A small scar under his right eye, in the shape of a hook, and a cutie mark in the shape of a black baton, served to complete the bruiser look he had obviously worked hard to maintain.
By comparison, the unicorn, while slightly taller than either of his companions, was of much slighter build. His blue, windblown hair was slicked down, parting on either side of the white horn jutting from his forehead, and held back by a transparent green visor. A tiny handlebar mustache graced his upper lip. A pair of saddlebags draped across his frame jangled slightly with his movements, occasionally swaying partially reveal his cutie mark – three golden crowns set with black gems.
The motley trio came to a stop outside a nondescript teal building, the earth ponies shooing away a few revelers leaned against its wall. The pony in the top hat knocked on the wooden door, twice rapidly, then more deliberately three more times. A section of the door slid aside, revealing a set of red eyeballs that took in its visitors. “Who're you supposed to be, then?” The eyeballs asked, roving as they spoke.
“The royal census takers, just stopping by.” Top Hat Pony stated, almost as if reading from a script. “Need to ask a few questions.”
The eyes bobbed up and down twice. “Right, get in here.” The displaced section slammed shut, and the trinity heard several locks disengage. The door swung open, and the short blue doorpony motioned them inside.
“He here?” The russet pony grunted, regarding the smaller equine with disinterest.
“Just came in the back. Did anyone follow you?”
“You think I was born yesterday?” Blue Spikes spat, clearly incensed. “We doubled back twice. We're clean.” He shouldered the yellow stallion aside, his companions following in his wake.
They trotted down a short hallway that curved twice before emerging into a wide, short warehouse filled with crates and barrels. Amidst these stood three more ponies, two dark-clad brown unicorns, each wearing one half of a masquerade mask, one silver, one gold, and a stocky burnt-orange pegasus whose cutie mark displayed two dice, each rolled so the one was face up. He rose from his seat atop a large crate, and with some effort flapped his wings to land between his two guards.
“Ah, Facets,” he grunted as his hooves touched the ground, “It's good to see you again. What have you for me?”
The blue-haired unicorn bowed, his visor scraping the floor as he did so. “I have all the components, as promised, but without the exact measurements of each crystal I was unable to actually construct the mount.” His voice wavered a bit, a little of his native Phrench lilt creeping in. “Also, there is still the matter of my payment.”
The pegasus' nostrils flared. “That was not the deal. The deal was you build the mounts and deliver them here tonight, then receive your payment.”
“Tell me you aren't that foalish, Snake Eyes.” The jeweler shook his head, causing the orange pony's lip to curl. “I can't build mounts for stones I don't have the measurements for. I need to see them.”
“We already gave you the measurements, jeweler. Is it possible you're holding out on us? Hoping for a larger sum?”
“You gave me three measurements for each stone, yes, but you neglected the fourth dimension – the magical measure that governs the resonant frequencies each rock generates.” Facets spoke quickly as the two earth ponies escorting him moved closer. “I need to be able to adjust my equipment for those variables, or the whole mounting will come apart the first time you use it.”
Snake Eyes observed the unicorn for a moment, lips pursed in concentration. His lackeys gaze switched back and forth between their boss and the object of his scrutiny. After a moment, the pegasus grumbled, “Very well,” and gestured to the unicorn on his left. The guard levitated a sleek, black case from beneath his robe, holding it out, wreathed in his green magic, for the jeweler to see. Facets' horn glowed gold, and the lid swung aside. Set in velvet lay six gemstones, each of different colors and unique shapes. They glistened in magical aura Facets projected as he picked each one up and set it back down. After examining each one, he nodded.
“I have the measurement. Now, my fee.”
“No. Finish your work first.” Snake Eyes tone was pure steel.
“I must insist - “ Facets jaw snapped shut as the two earth ponies leaned in, Blue Spikes rolling his shoulders. “Then again, perhaps it can wait.”
The white unicorn levitated the saddlebags off his back and laid them out on a tablelike crate nearby. The two earth ponies followed him, while Snake Eyes watched from a respectful distance. Facets withdrew a trio of thick, polished brass bars from the first sack, and a small obsidian orb from the second.
“What are those?” Snake Eyes asked, eying the items curiously.
“These,” Facets held up the bars, slowly spinning them in front of his face, “Are what I will use to form the mounts. This,” and suddenly he propelled the black sphere directly towards Snake Eyes' face.
One of the unicorns threw up a force field as the tiny ball rocketed towards the pegasus. The ball burst, erupting in a cloud of inky black smoke that seemed to fill the room instantaneously. Several grunts of pain issued forth from the cloud, followed by the sound of the two unicorns launching force spells at the spot where Facets had stood moments earlier. The thud of a body hitting the warehouse floor brought a vicious grin to Snake Eye's lips, which froze when a voice whispered in his ear.
“Is merely a distraction.”
Facets shoulder-rammed Snake Eyes off his feet and into the guard on his right. The jeweler spun around to face the other unicorn, spinning the now-assembled bronze staff in his hooves. Before the guard could react, Facets cracked the butt of the weapon across his forehead, then flipped his legs out from under him with the other end. Before the guard even had a chance to hit the ground, Facets cast a spell that sent him sailing into the side of one of the crates with crushing force. The wood buckled and cracked beneath force of the guard's impact and collapsed on top of him. The second guard was just turning to face the sound when the green visor bounced off his nose, causing him to flinch. Taking advantage of the distraction, the jeweler bucked his opponent across the cheek with both hind legs, knocking him out cold.
Coughing and spluttering, Snake Eyes ran, making a beeline for the door, his wing beating frantically as he attempted to take flight. He was nearly there when a magic tether wrapped around his legs and sent him tumbling into the wall. Facets was on him in the blink of an eye, pressing his face into the cold stone floor.
“Who... are you?” The orange pegasus choked, his cheeks pushing between his teeth as he spoke.
Facets leaned down, bringing his mustachioed muzzle right up to his captive's ear. “The name's Fancypants.” His Phrench accent had vanished, replaced by an unmistakable drawl. “The most important pony in Canterlot.”
Chapter 1: A 'Chance' Meeting
Fancypants reclined in the guilded carriage, pulled by four of Celestia's guard, a small smile gracing his muzzle as he fastened the last of two immaculately polished gold cufflinks around his fetlock. Fillydelphia had long since faded in the coach's rear window, replaced by the golden glow of dawn.
"We'll be arriving in Canterlot in just a few minutes, sir." One of the guards stated, loudly enough to be heard over the wind whistling through the open viewports.
"Thank you, sergeant." Fancypants replied politely, even though this information was far from new to him - in his line of work, a stallion often traveled to the far reaches of Equestria, and knew exactly how long it took for one of the Princesses' carriages to convey a single pony between each city.
Make that one pony, he thought wryly, and one particularly heavy piece of baggage.
As the sun rose, so did Canterlot's residents, and all marked the passage of Fancypants' carriage as it touched down on the streets, heading towards the castle at a gallop. Some ponies turned to whisper to one another as they passed, and Fancypants could read his name on some of their lips. There was no doubt that Canterlot's most important citizen was being rushed to the castle, but why? Briefly the ivory unicorn mused on what it would be like to be as ironically in the dark as the vast majority of Celestia's subjects were - to be oblivious to the schemes of mad ponies that went on in their midst, to be unaware of just how tenuous the Sun and Moon Princesses' control of Equestria's borders actually was.
The palace gates swung aside as Fancypants' carriage passed into the courtyard, and a row of royal guards greeted him. The coach rolled to a stop and a unicorn held the door open so the celebrity could disembark. He stood at the foot of the castle's ivory steps. At the top, sparkling mane flowing in an ethereal wind nopony else could feel, stood Princess Celestia. A step to the left and forward of her was the Captain of the Royal Guard, Shining Armor, his 'on-duty' face stern and composed. He met Fancypants' eyes and flicked his left lid ever-so-slightly in what might have been an abbreviated wink.
Fancypants sank into a bow, his horn nearly scraping the ground. "Princess Celestia."
"Fancypants." The princess intoned, her voice neutral. It was no secret among the inner circle that Celestia, while holding no particular ill will towards Fancypants, generally disliked the necessity of his employment. The Sun Monarch prefered upright dealings, facing problems head-on, rather than 'skulking in the shadows' and 'trickery'. Nevertheless, the fact remained that many problems required the subtle touch of subterfuge. Whenever possible, the older alicorn would delegate such responsibilites to Princess Luna, whom had a much greater talent for them. "I trust your mission was successful?" As she spoke, she descended and moved to the back of the wagon, Fancypants falling into step beside her, opposite Shining Armor.
"Indeed it was, your majesty." Fancypants turned to face her, his back to the carriage. "I recovered the False Elements," and here he aimed a kick at the back of the wagon, just to the left of the wheel, "and took the pony responsible for commissioning them into custody.”
As the hoof connected with the wood and metal of the wagon's carapace, an unseen catch was loosed, and the bottom section of the wall fell away, forming a ramp, which the pony in question, all four legs shackled together, an iron muzzle over his mouth, wings chained securely against his sides, tumbled down. He landed with a thud and a muffled exclamation. Painfully, he raised his head, eyes streaming as they adjusted to the sudden sunlight. What he saw when they did gave him no comfort.
“Snake Eyes.” Celestia's eyes narrowed, and the orange pegasus began to tremble. “You have commited crimes against the nation of Equestria and her people. I hearby decree that you shall be imprisioned until such time as a trial can be arranged, and you will then be tried by a jury of peers and sentenced as they see fit.” She turned her head towards Shining Armor. “Take him away.”
“Right away, your majesty.” Shining nodded to the closest guards, who looped a spear beneath the criminal's front legs and lifted him between them, dragging him up the steps and toward the dungeon. The fat pegasus struggled against them, but Shining pressed his silvery horn against the miscreant's forehead, and he went limp. Another one of the guards extracted a bag, containing the False Elements, from a hidden compartment beneath one of the carriage seats.
“Unfortunately, Fancypants, your report will have to wait.” The alicorn's tone left no doubt as to the sincerity of her statement. “I have an important guest to welcome to the Castle this morning.” Celestia turned away from him, “Princess Luna will meet you in her tower. She has another assignment for you.”
“Of course, my liege.”
Fancypants climbed the long marble staircase to Princess Luna's tower, his breath catching a little as he ascended. He had been in Fillydelphia masquerading as a simple jeweler for a couple weeks, but he could admit to himself that lack of physical exertion had little to do with his labored halations. When he reached the apex, he took a moment to compose himself before knocking thrice on the heavy oak door.
“Enter,” Intoned an unmistakable voice, bringing the faintest of smiles to the stallion's lips. The door was wreathed in a dusk-blue aura, and it swung ajar.
Princess Luna sat on her haunches near the fully transparent, nearly two story wall, gazing out past the reaches of Canterlot, towards Ponyville, to the southwest. The sun had not yet reached its zenith, and thus did not yet cast any light directly into the chamber. Fancypants had often wondered how the princess was able to sleep during the day with such a grandiose window admitting illumination, but she seemed to manage just fine, and to pry further simply to satisfy his curiosity would be quite rude.
“Fancypants.” The smile that graced Luna's lips, unlike her sister's, was genuine. She crossed the room with a flap of her wings and landed just a few feet from him, her starry mane flowing behind her as she touched down. He bowed. “Do cease thy pleasantries, my friend, we have no company to impress here.” The princess chastised playfully, her tone light.
“Mi'lady, it would be quite improper to neglect showing you the deference afforded by your station, even in private as we are.” Fancypants allowed a bit of that playfulness to creep into his voice as well. “We wouldn't want any spies getting the wrong impression.”
Luna's eyes sparkled, though her face remained stoic. “It does my heart good to see thee well, my friend. I would ask about the result of thy mission, but I observed thy arrival from the balcony.” She took a step closer, and it looked as if she were about to say something, then changed her mind. “I... didst worry for thee when thee didst not return last week.”
Fancypants was ready for this. “Yes, unfortunately Snake Eyes had already hired another jeweler to fit mounts for the False Elements. I was forced to improvise, and after that incident our portly pegasus friend was less inclined towards trust – I had to persuade him, which took longer than expected.” The pony spy glanced out the window, taking note of the long dawn shadows sprawled across the balcony. “During that time I was under close observation, and could send no report.”
I missed you too, your highness.
“I understand. In any case, thee no doubt performed admirably, as thou hast always.”
“Always, your majesty. I've had excellent motivation these last few years.” His heart froze for a second, and he backpedaled, “At no point has the security of Equestria seemed more important than now.” He finished and stood tall, hoping the crack in his voice had merely been his imagination.
A bit of the light in Luna's eyes dimmed, though they still shone like pools of starlight. “Speaking on the subject of Equestrian security, we hath a new mission for thee,” She said, slipping back into the royal vernacular, “Our sister is entertaining a guest from Ponyville. We hath reason to believe that this pony is in danger, though beyond that, we canst do little more than speculate. We wish for thee to spend as much time as possible with her, and protect her, if necessary. It is imperative that thou dost not reveal thy nature or objective to her – rather, frame it as a chance meeting and blossoming friendship, perhaps even a - ” she paused, just briefly enough for Fancypants to notice, and her cheeks colored slightly, “a very close friend.”
“Of course, your majesty. I'll be on my way at once.” The air seemed to be getting uncomfortably hot, and Fancypants had the sudden urge to flee the room. “I'll bring Fleur de Lis with me, that should allay suspicion.”
Though Luna showed no emotion on her face, Fancypants could have sworn he saw the fur on the back of her neck rise. “If thou thinkest it best.” Her tone was carefully neutral. “Keep in mind the dangers of involving civilians in such operations.”
“You needn't worry about that.” Fancypants chuckled. “I can always trust Fleur to be one thing – affluent. It won't be hard to bump into this target in the marketplace.” At Luna's silence, he rushed to change the subject. “What is the guest's name?”
It hadn't been difficult to convince Fleur to go shopping – he had dropped a hint that with less than a month left before Hearth's Warming Eve, she would be left behind by her peers who were already picking out their winter corsets, and she was off and running. Flighty Fleur, as he affectionately thought of her, was an aquaintance who clearly desired to be much more. Fancypants had no doubt this was due more to his standing with the princess and Canterlot's elite than any actual interest in him as a pony, but for today's purposes it mattered very little.
He saw the white unicorn mare coming from about a block away, supporting no less than six bags with her magic. A fluffy white cat was nestled in a saddle carrier laid across her back. On her immaculately groomed flank glistened three perfect diamonds that formed her cutie mark. She was talking quickly to herself as she walked, clearly distracted, offering Fancypants the perfect opportunity. Quickly detaching himself from Fleur, he stepped out into the road and into her path.
The resulting collision sent bags flying everywhere. In a moment of inspiration, Fancypants twisted his head so one covered his face as it fell. Fleur hurried to his side and pulled it off almost as soon as it came to rest on his horn. He flashed the young mare his most alluring smile. She gasped.
“Fancypants!” She breathed, barely above a whisper.
The stallion in question clambered to his feet, brushing himself off. “I say, that's one way to make an introduction.” He pointed his muzzle skyward, instinctively know Fleur would follow suit.
“Oh my goodness, I am so sorry, I didn't see you there,” the mare seemed contrite but distracted, “it's just that I've got so many bags, and I was trying to get back to my suite at the castle and-”
That cleared up any doubt in Fancypants' mind. “You're staying at the castle?” He inquired, in his best 'intrigued' voice.
The mare was busy picking up her scattered purchases, trying to be polite and efficient at the same time. “The Princess invited me to stay in one of her suites.”
“You know the Princess?”
Fleur lifted one of the bags, inspecting it while gauging Fancypants' reaction out of the corner of her eye. She picked up on his interest (as intended). “Hmm, a pony with expensive tastes, I see?”
“Oh, it's for an esemble I'm making for a friend. Her birthday is in a few days.” The violet-maned unicorn took the proffered bag from Fleur, then deposited her wide-eyed pet into another. She started off down the road, calling over her shoulder, “Again, I am really sorry I bumped into you.”
“I'm not.” Fancypants replied, bringing her up short in mid-step. He chuckled inwardly as she looked back at him with wide blue eyes. “You are obviously somepony worth bumping into!” The mare's mouth hung open slightly, clearly taken aback by his sudden attention. Fancypants felt a slight pressure on his back as Fleur leaned over him, hooves under her chin, but he paid little heed to her. “Listen, I have a VIP box reserved at the Wonderbolt's Derby this afternoon. Would you,” he feigned considering his words carefully, they had been prepared long before this moment, “would you be so kind as to join me and a few of my companions there?”
The unicorn's shock doubled. “Me?” She managed.
“But of course, my dear.” Fancypants encouraged smoothly.
His target was at quite a loss, fumbling words for a few moments before squeaking out a protracted, “Sure”.
Gotcha. Fancypants trotted past his new, thoroughly stunned, acquantince. “We'd love to see you there, um...” He waited for her to supply the name he already knew.
“Rarity.” Fancypants smiled as he walked away, Fleur hurrying to catch up to him. His target was on her way back to her room, and would likely remain there until the Derby. That would give him time to run an important errand.
“Fleur, will you be all right if I leave you here? I have a meeting with an old friend of mine that I have no desire to be late for.”
“But of course, my dear.” Fleur mimicked, looking a little disappointed, though she wouldn't dare refuse his suggestion. Fancypants wondered if she would even bat an eye if he revealed what he truly did for a living. He excused himself with a bow, leaving the pink unicorn to brave the marketplace on her own.
During his very brief breaks from constant duties as Captain of Celestia's Royal Guard, Shining Armor liked to take short walks in the castle gardens with a small picnic lunch. The enclosed sanctuary was quiet, even during the day, cut off from the bustle of the city and the echoing halls of the palace, its own little paradise. Shining liked to sit by a small pond near the center, a place where he and his little sister, Twilight Sparkle, had often come to play in their younger years, just a stone's throw from the hill where he had first taught her to fly a kite. As he settled down on his haunches, he thought briefly of Twili, gone away to live in Ponyville nearly two years now. He hadn't heard much from her other than the occasional letter Celestia passed on to him, but he knew she was doing well. The kid was brilliant, a natural talent with magic, and strong-willed enough to make the best of any situation. Even though he missed her, he acknowledged that moving away from the castle might be the best thing that had happened to her in her life – she had a home, and friends who cared about her. And who could have guessed bookish Twilight, who ignored other mares her age in favor of study and magical training, would have formed such a strong bond with anypony other than himself? Despite himself, the Captain grinned, remembering the picture Celestia had shown him of his sister and the five mares she had taken on as her best friends. She was happy, and that was all that mattered.
Shining's reverie was interrupted by a slight displacement of air behind him, barely perceptible even in the garden's silence. He rolled forward just in time, tucking his body into a tight ball, as an extended hoof ruffled his azure mane. As he uncoiled, spinning to face his attacker, a pair of hooves impacted on his armored chest, knocking him back and off balance.
Fancypants lunged forward, not giving Shining Armor a chance to regain his footing, striking with his forelegs in a series of quick punches. Shining parried the first few, then took a jarring blow to the cheek. Rolling with the punch, Armor whipped his back legs around, hitting Fancypants in the neck with both knees. The celebrity pony stumbled to the side, and Shining brought his front left hoof down on the back of Fancypant's knee, which buckled to the ground. The Captain jerked his head foreward and down, bashing his face into Fancypants', and knocking him senseless. Shining pinned him before he had a chance to rise.
“Do we really need to continue this, Fance? I haven't got much time left before I have to get back to work, and if we keep this up we'll end up knocking my lunch all over the place.”
“Of course. Forgive me.” Fancypants climbed to his hooves and dusted himself off. “I hope I didn't hit you too hard – I would hate to give Cadance reason to come looking for me.”
Shining grinned. “And I would have hated to ruin that jacket – is that Andravida?”
“Calabrese.” Fancypants chuckled. “I say, it's hardly sporting that all I have for defense is designer clothing while you get a set of platinum armor.”
“You should have thought of that before you turned your nose up at the offer to join the Guard.” Shining settled down on the grass, opening the picnic basket with his magic and tossing an apple to Fancypants, who caught it with the golden glow from his horn. “We get form AND function in our gear.”
The two sat for awhile in silence, looking out at the sparkling pond as it reflected the midday sunlight, each with his own thoughts for company. Presently, Fancypants spoke again.
“How are things between you and the Princess? I've not spoken to her since before you and I last conversed.”
“It's going really well.” Shining's smile was as radiant as Fancypants had every seen. “I want to show you something.” Eyes twinkling, he produced from one of the unseen pockets in his armor's chestplate a golden necklace, bound at the front with a clasp that formed the shape of a heart. It was a simple design, polished gold, and yet elegant, finely crafted by the best smith in Canterlot. As Shining Armor turned it in the light, Fancypants could make out an inscription on the inside of the band – 'My love eternal for you, S.A.'.
“It can't be...” Fancypants grin grew to match Shining's. “You sly griffon! You're finally going to ask her?”
“Next Friday, on our anniversary.” The Captain nodded enthusiastically, replacing the necklace.
“Well, since you have roughly a thirty percent chance of success –“ Fancypants was cut off for a moment as Shining shoved him with one hoof, “Let me say I wish you the best. I can't think of a better couple in all of Canterlot... though now that I think about it that really isn't a remarkable achievement.”
“Thanks, Fance. I do have a request, actually – it's kind of a big favor.” At Fancypants' questioning look, he added, “Like a 'request this date off from work' favor.”
“I'd like you to be the Best Stallion, Fance.”
A moment of shocked silence passed, punctuated by the splash of a large fish in the middle of the pond.
“Well?” Shining asked, his voice tinged with concern.
Fancypants shook his head, breaking into another wide grin. “I don't know what to say.” He looked up and caught his best friend's eye. Brothers in all but blood, he thought. “I'd be honored, Shining Armor, to be your Best Stallion.”
Chapter Two: A Day at the Races
Rarity, wearing a wide-brimmed pink hat with an absurdly long plume, trotted quickly into downtown Canterlot, bound for the stadium where the Wonderbolt's Derby was being held. The bounce in her step spoke volumes of her excitement.
As she rounded a corner, she nearly bumped into a clutch of ponies being ushered around a large roadblock. Apparently one of the tall buildings on the side of the road had experienced some structural integrity issues, shedding a large pile of white marble and masonry into the middle of the street. Rarity pursed her lips – the Derby was going to start within the next ten minutes, and if this crowd held her up – what would Fancypants think? She glanced around looking for another route, and within a few moments she found one – a dark alley between two of the buildings on the left side of the street. The rubble didn't extend any further than the next intersection. With a little luck and hustle she would make it to the stadium in good time. She didn't notice the black shadow that detached itself from the wall to slink behind her as she made use of her newfound shortcut.
Unfortunately, the alley didn't open immediately onto the next street, and Rarity was forced to turn left and travel down a silent avenue, perhaps three ponies wide, between the stores that opened onto both streets. It was surprisingly dark her, and almost stifling. The fur on the back of her neck began to stand on end as she imagined something dark and terrible slithering through the gloom behind her, but when she turned, lighting her horn, there was nothing. She shivered, turning around and hurrying on at just short of a gallop. The shadow kept pace, lurking just outside her bubble of light.
As Rarity reached the end of the long alley, she caught a glimpse of sunshine from around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. As she extinguished her horn, the shadow loomed behind her, rising on its back legs to strike.
A blue hoof hammered into the base of the shadow's neck, then wrapped beneath its front right leg, locking across its chest. The shadow was hefted foricbly over its attacker's flank and hurled into the alley wall. It hit the stone surface and latched there, rather than falling straight to the ground.
Fancypants gave the shadow no time to recover. Both his back hooves found the creature's chest, compressing it into the wall behind it. Surprisingly, rather than crumple in an unconcious heap, the shadow reached out to wrap a limb around Fancypants' sturdy neck. It twitched, forcing the unicorn facefirst into the wall beside it. The tendril constricted, slowly cutting off Fancypants' lungs from the outside world. Violet rings began floating across his vision. The stallion pummeled the shadow's arm-tentacle repeatedly with his front right hoof to no avail, the creature barely flinched at each stroke. The dirt-caked wall ground against Fancypants' cheek, a bit of the grime rolling into his eye and illiciting a stinging tear down his muzzle. A strangled gasp escaped his lips.
Rarity, who had moved scarcely a step since the encounter began, turned sharply, her azure eyes peering into the gloom. Both combatants ceased struggling, holding still as stone as her gaze passed over them. The mare shivered, feeling as though the dark was looking back at her, watching, and turned to dash out onto the street.
Another tentacle wrapped around Fancypants' head, pushing it back and forcing his mouth open. He could feel trickles of the shadow running up his neck towards his widespread jaws, and decided he had no desire to find out what the horrifying monstrosity had planned for him. His horn glowed golden, levitating the monocle he carried in his front jacket pocket into the space between them. The crystal disc rotated so the narrow end was pointed at the beast, and he thrust it forward, deep into the shadow's right eye.
The unearthly shriek that issued from the shadow's jaws pierced Fancypants' eardrums, but loosened its grip on his throat. Shaking himself, he wedged his horn under the monster's chin and kicked hard against the cobblestones with all his strength. The shadow lost its footing and toppled backwards, slamming into a dumpster set against the alley wall. The ivory horn punched through the beast's unarmored throat, and it flailed, gurgling, for a few moments, before sinking to the ground.
Fancypants staggered back, wiping sweat from his brow. He pulled a hoofcherchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eye, quickly extracting the invasive particles, then tugged the monocle out of the monster's face. It detached with a squealch, and Fancypants shuddered inwardly as he cast a cleansing spell on the eyepiece.
Lighting his horn, he regarded the creature he had just killed. It was not equine in shape, more like a gangly spider with too few legs. Its body was bulbous and segmented, with a thin, long neck upon which rested a sharp, fanged head. It did not have two eyes, as Fancypants had first assumed, but four, two set further back where the ears should have been on a pony. Its four spindley legs were tangled in a heap around its body. It wasn't bleeding, and had in fact left no ichor behind on the stallion's horn. He examined his monocle, hoping he hadn't damaged it with his unneeded spell.
Stepping back, Fancypants angled his horn toward the sky and sent up a beam of energy, invisible to anypony not specifically designated during the casting. Luna's experts would see to the creature. Right now, he had a derby to attend.
Fancypants arrived moments before Rarity, sneaking in the back and greeting a few of his guests as he passed them. The mare had been detained by the guard, but Fancypants' arrival defused the situation.
“Rarity, jolly good to see you! So glad you could make it.” The guard let her pass. As he climbed the stairs, Rarity beside him, he examined the violet-maned unicorn out of the corner of his eye. She looked a little flustered – perhaps the dark alley had a deeper effect on her than Fancypants anticipated. He leaned in close to her as they approached the box.
“Don't be nervous, dear. Smile.” She glanced up at him, surprised by his intuitiveness, and the stallion offered her an encouraging look. Any energy she would have devoted to investigating further was suddenly swept up in a small gaggle of Canterlot elite that surrounded Fancypants, all talking at once. “Everypony, this is Rarity.” Fancypants spoke above the chatter, not allowing himself to be sidetracked by their conversations. “She's staying at Canterlot Castle.”
At this, the assembled ponies froze, turning their attention towards the newcomer. As they began to quietly discuss the poor mare, an announcement boomed across the stadium.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, welcome to the Wonderbolts' Derby! The competitors are taking their places at the starting line, and the race will begin momentarily.”
Fancypants needed his guests to focus on Rarity again. According to the dossier Princess Luna had given him, one of Rarity's close friends was a Wonderbolts hopeful. “I'll be rooting for Rapid Fire, of course. He's sure to take home the grand prize.” He focused on Rarity even though his head was turned towards his other guests, who were hurrying to support his opinion, silently hoping she would take the bait.
She did. “I don't think he stands a chance against Fleetfoot.” Rarity instantly began to blush as all the guests gasped, turning towards her. The moment was short-lived, though, as the Wonderbolts took off, rocketing across the track. Rarity hurried to the edge of the box, watching with rapt amazement as the pegasus fliers traversed the course twice in a matter of seconds.
The announcer boomed as the team passed the finish line, “And it's Fleetfoot by a nose!” Fancypants' guests began murmuring amongst themselves again, regarding Rarity with curiosity. It was very seldom that someone contradicted Fancypants' opinion, and even rarer that they were correct.
The white stallion approached her, feeling victory within his grasp. “Bravo, Rarity. I say, how did you know Fleetfoot would be victorious?”
Emboldened by her success, Rarity spoke more freely, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “My friend Rainbow Dash talks about her all the time. She says what Fleetfoot lacks in size, she makes up for in speed.”
One of the upper class mares, Pish Posh, spoke up from beneath her wide-brimmed yellow sunhat. Her voice was nasally and would easily have grated on a less even-tempered pony's nerves. “And who is this 'Rainbow Dash'?”
Rarity glanced back and forth, stammering. “She's the Wonderbolt's trainer, of course.”
Fancypants allowed the other ponies to absorb the clever lie, then corroborated it. “Staying at Canterlot Castle and she knows the pegasus that trained the Wonderbolts! I told you all this was an important pony!” Rarity dabbed at her face with a hoofcherchief. Fancypants took her hoof in his and raised it between them. “Three cheers for Rarity, my new favorite party guest!” The surrounding ponies cheered enthusiastically, and Rarity beamed. Fancypants joined her – he'd completed the second objective of his mission.
With Rarity fully integrated into high society, Fancypants needed to watch her less often. The eyes of the masses would unknowingly take on some of the load, dramatically reducing an assassin's opportunities to make another attempt. All he needed to do was drop a hint here and there, “Why, there would hardly be any point opening your gallery tonight if Rarity can't make it,” or, “Your dinner party just wouldn't be the same without Rarity.” When she was actually in her room she was well protected – Celestia had seen to that – so the only time Fancypants needed to be truly vigilant was during her transitions between social events.
With Rarity safely tucked away at Vance van Vendington's charity auction the next morning, Fancypants walked to Canterlot castle. He was accepted without fanfare through a side entrance. He went straight to the gardens, where he stopped next to a tall old tree near the base of the castle wall. Running his hoof along the trunk, he found a rough, dark knot, and twisted it. A faint musical chime rang out, and he whispered, “Amiciti.”
A section of the castle wall slid down and in on itself, and Fancypants stepped through the gateway. The stone crept back into place, and the stallion ignited his horn, bathing the narrow passage in golden light. At the end of the hall stood a wrought steel door, from the other side of which voices drifted faintly. A small smile tugged at Fancypants' lips as he recognized a particular set of resonant tones.
Princess Luna stood on a raised raised platform that overlooked most of the room. Addressing her were a couple of earth ponies, carrying charts and clad in long white labcoats. Two more ponies, an earth pony and a pegasus, were positioned on either side of a solid stone table, over which hung lights, magnifying lenses, and medical toolkits. Splayed out on the surface lay the creature Fancypants had slain the previous morning, some of its limbs supported by steel cables.
The yellow earth pony on Luna's right, wearing a pair of thick, dark-rimmed glasses, his cutie mark a bubbling beaker of liquid, was explaining the chart he held before the Princess. “The creature is clearly of magical origin, based on the samples we took from -”
“Fancypants!” Luna's eyes flicked away from the charts, meeting her agent's. Fancypants felt his breath catch in his throat, and swallowed hard, cursing himself for being so obvious. The Princess gently pushed the chart aside, drifting across the cold stone floor to meet him. She carried herself with such poise, gracefully swaying with each step. Fancypants carefully inhaled and let the breath out slowly through his nostrils, trying to make the action as covert as possible. “We have just been discussing thy latest acquistion.” She leaned close, breathing her next words into his ear and sending a shiver down his spine. “Thank you for saving me from the long-winded doctor. I don't know how much more biological analysis I could have borne.”
“I live to serve, my Princess.” Fancypants prayed his honorific hadn't sounded too honeyed, but Luna merely smiled, her shoulder brushing his as she turned to stand beside him.
“Please, good doctor, the abridged version shall have to do. Our agent's time is precious.”
The doctor looked rather put off, but continued, his eyes roving towards the corpse splayed on the table. “Initially I would have said we've never seen anything like it before, but in reality, this is a projection that has been in use for hundreds of years.”
“A projection?” Fancypants echoed. “It isn't real?”
“Indeed not, Agent Fancypants. Homonculi are actually quite common among the more talented unicorns even to this day, though they usually manifest as short, winged ponies or magical creatures. Most magically inclined ponies use them to assist with day-to-day experiments and chores. It has been a long time since I've seen a homunculus this big, though – and this is certainly the first time I've seen one in the form of... whatever it is emulating.”
“So this gives us no clue as to Rarity's attacker?” Fancypants kept his voice even, despite the surge of disappointment that welled up in his chest.
The sunflower-hued stallion huffed softly, clearing his throat. “Well – not exactly. While we can't identify the culprit based soley on the use of this particular conjuration, every unicorn generates a specific magical resonance – much like a unique hoofprint – whenever they cast a spell.” The doctor's smile grew as Luna and Fancypants exchanged a hopeful glance. “If we perform a retrocast scan on the homunculus, we will be able to get an impression of that 'hoofprint', which we can then compare to the records in the Equestrian Unicorn Registry Office.”
“Doctor, that is absolutely brilliant.” Fancypants moved to the guardrail to look down at the homunculus. The pegasus was leaned in close, extracting a sample from one of the limbs with a small syringe. The earth pony, a gray stallion with an orange mane, had stepped back, slightly behind his coworker, one hoof inside the front of his jacket -
“Look out!” Fancypants shouted, but his warning came too late. The gray earth pony had already thrown his weapon, a bright, reflective orange globe, directly at the back of the other pony's head. The sphere shattered, splashing silvery liquid across the table and pegasus, which ignited as it hit the air. The pegasus screamed as his mane caught fire, launching himself onto his back and rolling frantically on the floor. The intruder turned to flee, heading towards a doorway on the far side of the room.
Fancypants and Luna moved at the same time, the unicorn leaping over the railing, the alicorn beating her wings and covering twice the distance in half the time. As the princess passed him, Fancypants caught a glimpse of the hostile pony turning down one of the side passages that led back up to the castle.
The passage ended in a breakaway wall behind a statue in the great hall. The intruder burst through it, startling several guards. Luna thundered through the opening just behind him, bellowing, “SEIZE THAT PONY!” Two guards moved to stop the hostile, but he slid between them like water through cracks in a stone. The gray stallion galloped up a set of stairs, heading for the higher palace chambers. As he passed, he caught a hanging tapestry in his teeth and yanked it down behind him. Its folds dropped down on the pursuing princess, who was just above him, throwing off her balance. The guards charging up the stairs were hit by it in the same moment, and their weight working against Luna's momentum sent the night monarch hurtling into the marble banister at the top of the steps. The railing shattered, and Luna collapsed in a pile of broken stone against the far wall.
While this was happening, Fancypants galloped into the hall. A matching stairway ran up the opposite wall, which the unicorn followed, arriving at the landing as Luna crashed in front of him.
“Your majesty!” He ran to her side, but she weakly waved him away.
“Worry not for us!” Her eyes, dilated to different widths, flashed angrily. “Apprehend the miscreant!” She slumped against the wall. Fancypants tarried a moment beside her before racing down the corridor after the saboteur.
The villain led Fancypants and the few guards that trailed behind them up to a balcony that overlooked the city several stories below. The nearest building was a pegasine leap away, which seemed to matter little to the intruder – he planted his back hooves on the stone guardrail and jumped, without hesitation, into the thin air, clearing the palace walls and landing several seconds later on the roof of one of the houses below. He slid to the edge of the roof and jumped a second time, landing in the cloth awning of a fruitstand on the street below.
The guards stared in shock, but Fancypants quickly took in his surroundings, spotting one of Celestia's standards, a massive, billowing banner, hanging to the left of the balcony. He took a running leap, firing a precise pair of piercing spells as he did, and caught the bit of fabric he'd separated in his teeth. The flag tore down the middle, slowing Fancypant's descent enough for him to kick off the wall.
Across the street, set in the side of the building the intruder had ended his leap on top of, was an open deck with a pair of intricately etched glass doors that led into the dining room beyond. Fancypants crashed through these, sending razorlike shards skittering across the floor and illiciting a scream from the unicorn matron who was reclining on a long couch next to the entrance. Fancypants ignored her, scrambling to his feet and charging down a spiral staircase into the main entryway. His horn glowed and the double doors were thrust aside with such force that they banged against the walls, hinges splintering.
The intruder had landed on the street moments before, and was sprinting down the avenue towards the industrial district, a little over a mile from the palace. Fancypants kept pace with him from the far side of the road, dodging ponies as they went about their daily business. Presently, the gray stallion came up alongside a ponyshoes warehouse, slowing down to a trot. Fancypants modulated his gait, coming to a stop and leaning against the stone wall of the tailor's that stood opposite the warehouse. He glanced down at his jacket, stained with masonry dust and torn by the glass shards. A hoof touched his shoulder, and he turned to see a disheveled young mare, her dirt-streaked fur dark pink, looking at him with hopeful eyes.
“Spare a bit, mister?” She asked.
Fancypants looked back at the warehouse, where the stallion was climbing the steps to the front door. He quickly undid the buttons of his shirt and slid the entire ensemble off his back. He laid it across the astounded beggar's foreleg. “Have a lovely day, ma'am.” Without a backwards glance, he trotted across the street and slipped through the front door.
The inside of the warehouse was loud, pony workers shouting at each other as boxes of shoes were tossed onto conveyer belts, their operators cantering along until the next shift pony arrived. Large glass windows set high in the walls let the sunlight pour in. The air was thick with the scent of stallion sweat. Fancypants immediately moved to the left, keeping close to the wall, his eyes trained on his quarry, who walked down the middle of the assembly room floor. He came to a clothes rack, on which hung several sets of worker's overalls. Fancypants slipped into one he deemed his size, then started after his target.
Weaving through banks of machinery, the unicorn quickly caught up with the earth pony, who had shed his lab coat. The gray stallion climbed up a set of steel mesh stairs on the far end of the chamber, and Fancypants had to tuck his head and fall into line with some of the workponies as the saboteur carefully surveyed the floor. Satisfied, the target shouldered aside a door to the warehouse office and disappeared inside. As the door swung closed, Fancypants examined rectangular chamber that hung from the ceiling.
“What do they know?” A gravelly voice inquired from the shadows.
“Nothing yet.” Ironsides sat back on his haunches, stretching his legs. “They were going to trace the magic, but I put a stop to that.” A savage grin split his dull gray muzzle. “They're clueless.”
“Excellent work.” The voice intoned. “I will tell Freckles to resume his efforts immediately. Withdraw to the safehouse and await further instructions.”
“Understood, master.” There was a crackling noise, and the room warmed noticeably. The light bars on the ceiling flickered, and then glowed brightly. The speaker was nowhere to be seen.
“I say,” Ironsides spun around, recognition sending icy chills down his spine, even as the hoof connecting with his cheek sent rivulets of fire along his jaw, “clueless seems a bit harsh.”
Author's Notes: There may be some formatting errors herein, please point them out to me, I wanted to get this out before work. This chapter took much longer than expected and I'm not entirely sure I'm pleased with how it turned out. As always, I welcome any and all feedback.
Chapter 3: Vanity Fair
Fancypants tucked his shoulder under the gray stallion's chin and shoved his opponent up onto his back legs. Both of Fancypants' hooves pounded the other pony's ribcage several times before the Ironsides fell back on his haunches, kicking with both hind legs into the dusk agent's stomach. Fancypants staggered back as the much larger earth pony rolled to his hooves again.
“You're quick on your hooves for a hornhead.” The gray earth pony sneered. “I didn't expect any of Celestia's pawns to track me after that jump.”
“If you think you're dealing with a pawn -” Fancypants ducked under Ironsides' sweeping haymaker, cracking the saboteur's other elbow with the side of his hoof, “You're gravely mistaken!” As the false doctor's leg buckled and he fell forward, Fancypants shifted his weight and brought the force of his entire body down on the back of Ironsides' neck. The dazed earth pony struggled to rise, but Fancypants bucked him in the sternum with both back hooves. Ironsides crashed into the wooden table in the center of the office, falling through it and leaving it in splinters. A strange green orb, about the size of a tennis ball, rolled out of the wreckage, stopping next to the doorway.
Fancypants advanced on the fallen pony, whose eyes were closed. His steel-colored barrel rose and fell with his shallow breathing, and the light from windows fell across the mark on his flank for the first time – a seven-petaled white flower sprouting from a pentagon of parched soil. As Fancypants eyed the mark, brow furrowed, the equine's hooves wrapped around the largest fragment of table, a four-by-five piece of jagged wood, and broke it across the side of the unicorn's body.
Fancypants was spun around in a half circle, and a pair of gray hooves wrapped around his neck. Ironsides heaved the white stallion bodily into the air, throwing him against the flimsy sheet metal of the wall. The structure caved slightly, sagging with the impact.
“My father named me Ironsides after I survived being crushed by a falling tree at eleven months.” The gray stallion growled, stalking towards his stunned prey. “It'll take nothing less than a charging minotaur to put me down.” Fancypants, seeing double, aimed a spell, his horn glowing. The brute charged, hitting the unicorn as he fired off a burst of searing golden energy, the beam wildly tracing across the far wall.
Something in the superstructure snapped, weakened by the aggressive magic, and the entire office lurched to one side, the shattered bits of table tumbling to the now-lower left corner. At first the workhorses below took no notice, but the sound of rending metal soon overpowered the din of the factory room. Startled ponies stared mutely upwards as the office detached from the ceiling, the staircase crumpling beneath it as it fell. Jagged sheets of metal were torn away from the roof, tumbling towards the dumbfounded ponies. Shocked into action, they turned and ran.
Ironsides hit the office ceiling with a sickening crunch. He felt his shoulder pop out of joint and grimaced as a shard of wood punched through the thick hide of his back. Four hooves landed on his stomach. Fancypants dropped on him, forcing all the air from his lungs. The agent rolled away before his opponent could retaliate. As Ironsides struggled up on his one good leg, Fancypants kicked him hard in the jaw, and then swept his hoof under the bruiser's knee, sending him crashing down once more. The white stallion darted away once more, barely finding time to brace himself against the walls before the room hit the ground.
Dust settled on what was left of the office. The fall had ripped the room asunder, cleaving it down the middle and crushing the remaining halves. Sharp metal stalagmites jutted out of the ground like the broken teeth of a beaten boxer, punctuated by tartar composed of ink, paper, and splintered wood. The clock over the door hung almost comically off the remnants of the doorframe, spinning slowly as it coughed out a hollow, wracking tone.
A pile of rubble burst in a volcanic shower of golden sparks, and Fancypants stumbled into the sunlight. Dimly, he heard the muted shouts of the rescue ponies pouring into the factory, pegasus spotters flying by overhead as unicorns summoned triage tents and earth ponies muscled through the perimeter of wreckage. The agent's breath pounded in his ears, and he shook his head to clear it. A minor healing spell trickled down from the tip of his horn, easing his aching muscles and leveling out the audial contrast.
Several heavyset stallion rescuers picked their way through the mess, catching site of Fancypants and hurrying forward, shouting to him, but the socialite ignored them, his eyes focused on a trailing of blood running down one of the jagged edges of a forcefully retired wall and weaving away towards the back of the factory. He pursued the crimson guide, still a bit unsteady on his hooves, and presently emerged from the disaster area on the far side. There he found the body of a unicorn rescuepony, a young green stallion, barely out of colthood, stripped of his hardhat and barding, his neck twisted at a disturbingly impossible angle. A set of bloody hoofprints traveled a bit further before being blotted out by the soot and dirt of the factory floor.
“...and aside from the tragic accidental death of Clover Leaf, one of the rescue ponies on sight, there were no serious injuries. Princesses Celestia and Luna have extended their heartfelt condolences to Clover's loved ones. Vance van Vendington, Canterlot's premier auctioneer, has graciously donated the proceeds from his recent reconstruction charity to Clover's family. In times like these, we encourage everypony to hold tight to those dear to them...”
Fancypants let the newspaper slide onto the table, a tight feeling in his chest. He sipped the tea Luna's attendants had brought him, the rich, autumnal flavor lost on his numb tongue. The Moon Princess sat across the table from him, her legs tucked beneath her, inscrutable eyes watching him intently.
“Degraded soldering on the support structure may assuage the public's curiosity for the time being, but no doubt the Architects will want to do a follow-up investigation.” The agent pursed his lips.
“No doubt,” Princess Luna echoed, shifting slightly as she tossed her head, “I have given Celestia a commission project that should keep them busy for at least long enough to fabricate some evidence to corroborate our story – those statues of her are obscenely detailed, after all.”
“Did we recover anything from the homunculus?”
“No.” The tightness in Fancypants chest increased as Luna continued. “The saboteur did his job well, none of the samples survived.” The princess took a breath, frustration furrowing her azure brow. “We didst manage to recover the orb thee mentioned, the one thy quarry was communicating through.” As she spoke, her horn glowed, and a sheet of parchment crossed the table, gently bumping against Fancypants’ porcelain saucer. He set the teacup down and lifted the page. In the center was a masterful sketch of the admittedly simple orb, flanked on either side by detailed magical analyses of its inner workings.
“A modified scrying orb?” Fancypants lifted his monocle to his eye, sending out a mental command to the lens to record every detail of the document as he perused. “Designed to enable two-way voice communication over long distances – your Highness, this is unprecedented.” He looked up from the brief, eyes meeting with Luna’s. “If we could reverse engineer this technology, we would be able to coordinate our operations across the country with much greater effectiveness.” To date, all instructions he had received from the princess had been communicated by courier delivery or left in dead drop sites. The turnaround for new intel and orders, while streamlined by years of practice, was slow.
“This could be even faster than Celestia’s link to Twilight Sparkle.” Fancypants’ raised his eyebrows, and Luna caught the gesture. “Princess Celestia has been able to send letters to her student, Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville and receive responses within minutes. Such magic is beyond me, unfortunately.” There was the slightest hint of something, perhaps envy, in the princess’s tone, as if remembering another time.
“Have we been able to establish a link to the other side?” Fancypants’ inquired, hoping to pull his superior’s thoughts away from her sister.
“We have not.” Luna seemed to return to the present, the moment forgotten as quickly as it arrived. “Whomever thy target was communicating with has most likely cut ties with this particular device for good. As far as this particular investigation goes, we have arrived at another dead end.” Fancypants closed his eyes, frustration surging through his chest. It must have shown on his face, because when he opened his eyes, Luna was quite close to him, their muzzles almost touching. His heart thumped hard in his chest, suddenly alert.
“We shall get another chance.” Luna breathed, barely above a whisper. “Take heart. Do not despair. Our enemy has not finished with Miss Rarity yet. Keep her safe.”
Fancypants nodded. Luna held his gaze a moment longer before turning away, and Fancypants discretely exhaled, surprised to discover he had been holding his breath. “Thou are dismissed.”
The agent lingered for a moment, his eyes on the starry mane flowing from his lady’s neck, and wondered if she felt any of the things he felt, if their closeness meant as much to her as it did to him. At times he felt so sure, and yet he stayed his hoof, to preserve the professionalism between them. He regarded her as a friend, one of the closest he had, one of the only ponies in the world to see him as he was.
Rarity had gathered a rather large following amongst the Canterlot elite. A number of ponies had taken to following her about, mirroring her choices and opinions, be they on the quality of pieces of artwork or what hors d’evoures to consume. A social function hardly passed without her making an appearance.
Just a short time before he left for Fillydelphia, Fancypants had purchased a sky yacht, painstakingly constructed by Canterlot’s artisans as a party vessel for the rich and famous. It was finally finished, and the most important pony in Canterlot was throwing a maiden voyage party, complete with christening. Naturally, everypony who was anypony would be there, and Rarity would be attending in the coveted role of Guest of Honor. It would be she who performed the actual christening.
Rarity gazed up at the massive vessel, for a moment forgetting the cluster of sycophants around her. She stifled an excited giggle; it wouldn’t do to let the aristocrats know exactly how elated she was. Guest of Honor – and on a luxury yacht! A shiver of pleasure caused the fur on her spine to stand on end. “What a beautiful little boat.” Her statement was met with murmurs of assent from her admirers.
“What a beautiful little ship, my dear.” The voice that spoke did so with utter surety, arrogance, and no small amount of self-satisfaction. It was a tone that took Rarity back almost nine months, to the Grand Galloping Gala.
“Prince Blueblood.” Rarity turned, inclining her head slightly, teeth gritted. The surrounding nobles bowed. The tall white stallion, blond mane perfectly groomed, flashed a smile that would have swept any less grounded mare off her feet (and Rarity had to admit, she had once been much less grounded). “It’s so… good to see you again.”
The prince’s brow furrowed, his blue eyes scanning her face. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
Rarity was about to remind him exactly the terms on which they’d last spoken, but caught herself. The prince was not jesting, that much was clear – at any rate, she suspected he was not sharp enough to feign ignorance simply to irritate her. Instead, she smiled. “We met briefly at the Magic Exhibition in Manehattan six months ago. I’m sure you don’t remember, you were quite busy at the time.”
“Ah, yes, of course, the Magic Exhibition.” Blueblood nodded knowingly. Rarity nearly sighed in relief, once again catching herself. She really was getting quite good at that. Applejack would not be pleased, but she seemed so far away now. “If you’ll accompany me, Guest of Honor, we can begin the festivities.”
It was Rarity’s turn to look confused. “But shouldn’t we wait for Fancypants? Isn’t this his party?”
“Of course, you haven’t heard.” Somehow, the Prince managed to turn the simple statement into an insult. “Fancypants was held up in an audience with the Princesses. He asked us to start without him.” Blueblood turned away, looking over his shoulder. “If you’ll join me on the pedestal, we can begin.”
Fancypants was meeting with the princesses? Rarity was taken aback. She knew Fancypants was important, but apparently she was unaware of exactly how important. A thought struck her: She had no idea what Fancypants did. Perhaps he was an advisor of some sort?
“Ahem.” The Prince’s voice cut through the mare’s musings. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, looking at her impatiently. He jerked his head towards the tower. Nine months had done little to improve his charm. Rarity took a deep breath, letting her frustration slip away. She was not about to let the arrogant chaffburner ruin this beautiful day. She was Rarity, Element of Generosity, and looking fabulous, if she did say so herself. Not even the reminder of the worst date in Equestrian history could diminish that. She exhaled and opened her eyes, following the Prince up the steps.
Fancypants arrived minutes after Rarity let the bottle swing, his customary tuxedo exchanged for a rough navy jacket over a knitted grey turtleneck sweater. Atop his head sat a peaked cap, navy and white with a black brim, a black shield bearing a golden anchor sewn on the front.
The yacht was just loading its passengers, and Rarity was standing off to the side of the boarding ramp, uncharacteristically alone. As the agent approached, his favorite party guest caught sight of him, a smile that was more than just acknowledgement – relief, perhaps – touched her muzzle.
“My sincerest apologies, Miss Rarity,” Fancypants bowed slightly, “I had intended to join you for the christening.”
Rarity brushed the remark aside with a wave of her hoof. “No need to apologize – I understand a meeting with their majesties cannot be rushed.” She turned towards the gangplank, missing Fancypants’ moment of confusion. “Shall we?”
The socialite regained his composure in a heartbeat. “After you, my dear.”
As they climbed the ramp, neither noticed the pair of gleaming yellow eyes that gazed at them from the gaggle of nobles congregating near the prow.
The party was in full swing. The yacht was flying low over the countryside just south of Canterlot, the sun was shining bright and clear, and the aristocrats were busily mimicking their betters. Secretly, Fancypants was glad everything was going so smoothly. After the string of disappointments – losing the first and second killers, the scrying stone leading to another dead end – it was oddly relaxing to return to his cover life and lay low for a bit. He found himself genuinely enjoying the superficial nattering of his fellow nobles. Rarity was on the bow, the center of attention, basking in the glow of approval from the other ponies. She was just finishing a joke about bovine accents, and in the cascade of laughter that followed, the fashionista beamed. Her eyes met the agent’s and held them for a long moment. Those beautiful eyes told a tale of simple gratitude, and for the first time in what seemed like years, Fancypants felt genuinely at peace. At least something good had come of this – he had made a young girl happy. It was not often his job allowed him to feel appreciated.
Fancypants excused himself from the conversation he was half-listening to and stepped up on the raised platform just in front of the helm, clearing his throat. The conversations quieted and everyone turned their attention towards Canterlot’s most important pony.
“Greetings, assembled friends and comrades, and welcome to my new yacht, the Red Herring!” Fancypants paused for a moment, waiting for the applause to die down. “I’m sure you’ve all been looking forward to this as much as I have, and it is my hope that you all enjoy yourselves immensely!” The stallion gestured with a hoof to Rarity, standing in the assembled crowd. “I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge my Guest of Honor, Rarity. I met Rarity in the marketplace a few days ago, and in the time since I can say with utter certainty that she has proven herself a mare of grace, impeccable taste, and if I may be so bold, astonishing beauty.” He thought he detected the slightest hint of a blush beneath Rarity’s big, blue eyes. “This is a pony that will go places. Be sure to keep your eyes on her.”
As he spoke these words, his eyes drifted slightly, to the pony standing just behind the beaming mare. The gray stallion, golden eyes gleaming and a satisfied half-smirk on his face, orange mane tied back in a loose braid, wearing a spotless tuxedo jacket.
Fancypants paused a moment too long, and the crowd started to murmur. Rarity looked suddenly worried, concerned eyes searching her host’s face. The tense moment passed, and Fancypants finished. “She is a rising star. Rarity!” The nobles applauded, and the unicorn’s face lit up like a filly on Hearth Warming’s Eve.
Fancypants approached Ironsides, muscles tensing reflexively – he couldn’t engage the powerful earth pony in the middle of the crowd, not without destroying his cover. The saboteur was talking animatedly with Jet Set and Upper Crust, two of the most odious of Canterlot’s elite. As Fancypants approached, Jet Set turned to acknowledge him.
“Good to see you, Fancypants – such a lovely party.” The black-maned stallion elongated the ‘o’ in ‘lovely’, stretching the word at least two syllables farther than it was meant to go. “We have someone we’d like you to meet.” He led the host over to where his wife was tittering over some joke Ironsides had just made.
“Fancypants,” Upper Crust cooed, gesturing to Ironsides, “allow me to introduce Spring Bloom, an important visitor from Manehattan. Spring Bloom, this is Fancypants, our esteemed host.”
“My my, all the way from Manehattan?” Fancypants smile did not reach his eyes as he nodded pleasantly to Ironsides. “What business brings you to Canterlot, Spring Bloom?”
“The business of succession, I’m afraid,” Ironsides sighed softly, “Unfortunately, my late uncle has passed away, leaving his company, The Pony Express, in my hooves – perhaps you’ve heard of us?”
“The mail delivery company, of course, I remember now. My sincerest condolences to your family.” Fancypants turned Jet Set and Upper Crust. “Would you both be so kind as to give me a moment alone with our new neighbor?”
“But of course, Fancypants. Enjoy the party, Mr. Bloom!” Upper Crust had to tug her husband away from their host with a tiny burst of pale blue magic.
“My mother’s name for me.” Ironsides said by way of explanation.
“That’s a fairly bold play, coming to confront me in the open.” Fancypants kept his expression friendly. “If you think I’ll hesitate for even a second to throw you over the side of this boat just because there are witnesses, know all that will mean is a little extra paperwork for me.”
“Oh, no – the scary Night Agent is going to toss me off the ship.” Ironsides’ voice was savage, though he retained his genial smile. “Discord preserve us! Relax, Agent. If I wanted a fight I’d have taken you out before you got on the yacht. I’m here to talk.”
There was an icy pause, while around them the blizzard of the party continued to whirl. The two enemies stood there, smoldering eyes locked, confident, easy smiles on their faces. Had anypony stopped to notice, they could have cut the tension between them with a knife.
Fancypants finally responded, “Talk, then. You have my undivided attention.”
Ironsides gestured slightly with his head, and Fancypants followed him to the edge of the ship. The gray stallion gazed out across the fields and rolling hills, towards Ponyville, and the Everfree Forest beyond. “Your princess, Celestia, is not the godlike figure her subjects seem to believe. She may seem to rule with a benign hoof, but this is a lie, and she allows atrocities to occur under her watch.” He glanced sidelong at the agent, who watched him intently. “Did you know that just a month ago, a farm in Ponyville was nearly stolen by a pair of con artists? The Mayor, charged with guarding citizen’s wellbeing, facilitated the illegal competition. That farm had been in the family for more than one hundred years, and if it hadn’t been for the common ponies rejecting the two buffoon’s faulty product, they would have waltzed in and forced the Apples into homelessness. The Mayor did nothing. Of course, she was more than willing to accept money from that same family to fix the town hall – money for a public building that should have been allocated to her by authorities in Canterlot.”
“So this is your justification for attempting to assassinate a mare from Ponyville?” Fancypants shook his head. “You’ll have to do better than that, Ironsides. I’m not buying it.”
Ironsides ignored him. “My father served on Celestia’s Royal Guard, as I’m sure you know by now.” He glanced at Fancypants, observing his stoic façade. “You didn’t? Well, there you go. My father was a pegasus – First Lieutenant Graywing, serving directly under Guard Captain White Knight.” Fancypants knew White Knight was the captain before Steel, Shining Armor’s predecessor. “Old Graywing never forgave me for being born an earth pony, as I couldn’t follow in his footsteps. I tried so hard to please him, but nothing I ever did was good enough. The only time I ever saw him smile was the day I earned my cutie mark – the day he gave me my name.”
“I left home as soon as I was old enough. Father didn’t even say goodbye. Mother begged me not to go, but I couldn’t stand living with the old chaffburner any longer. She died soon after I left. I didn’t even go to the funeral.” There was a touch of regret in Ironsides’ tone. A solitary green leaf fluttered past on the breeze. “I went to Manehattan, where I fell in with Straight Flush and his gang. I’ve always been resilient, and he employed me as a fighter in the underground rings. They were dismantled a few years ago.”
Fancypants knew this, too – he had been primarily responsible for taking apart Straight Flush and his Aces operations.
“I saw things in Manehattan – rulers abusing their power to gain more, empires built on the backs of the little pony. Gradually I realized my father was the product of this flawed system, kept in place for over a thousand years by your great Sun Princess – a princess who imprisoned her own sister on the moon.”
“That’s a tragic little story, Ironsides.” Fancypants kept his voice neutral, lowering it slightly as a pair of nobles trotted past. “You still haven’t given me a reason not to let gravity inform me what color your insides are.”
Ironsides rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to impress anyone now, Fancypants. I could have killed you when the factory collapsed, but I didn’t. You’re strong, but you can’t beat me in a straight fight.”
Fancypants raised an eyebrow. “When did I give the impression it was going to be a straight fight?”
“Just leave Rarity alone for a few hours tomorrow, at midday. We’ll do the rest.” Ironsides smiled grimly. “Do that, and soon the princess and her mockery of a government will fall. You can’t be blamed. You can help us change the world.”
“Who is ‘us’ exactly?”
“Does it matter? Concerned citizens.” Ironsides chuckled. “You would be a great asset, and one I would hate to waste.”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought in the last ten seconds, and my answer is a firm and resounding negative.” The boat swayed gently, and Fancypants feigned stumbling sideways into his guest. His left foreleg hooked around Ironsides’ neck, the other locking across his windpipe. As he squeezed, while the earth pony fell against the railing, bracing himself with both front hooves, the socialite brought his face close to that of his adversary. “What I am wondering, however, is why you thought such a weak and poorly formed argument would sway a loyal servant of the crowns like myself?” Ironsides’ grimace turned into a grin, this one feral and triumphant, and a chilling thought struck the agent. “You didn’t, did you?”
“No.” He rasped. “But it’s too late to save your little Element now.” He thrust his head forward, cracking his formidable skull against the unicorn’s muzzle. One of his front hooves struck the agent in the ribs, and Fancypants released him, stumbling back. “If you hurry you might be in time to clean up the mess.”
Fancypants regarded him for a moment, then turned and galloped across the deck. Chuckling, Ironsides turned back to the Equestrian panorama. He pulled a candied hazelnut out of his breast pocket, popped it in his mouth, and crunched away contentedly.
As Rarity stood on the deck, basking in the affirmation of her admirers, she glanced out over the starboard bow and saw Ponyville, her home, small and innocuous in the distance, on the fringes of the Everfree Forest. Her thoughts carried her back there for a moment, to her friends, particularly Twilight, who was responsible for the kind offer that had brought her here. I really must get to work on that dress I promised her. Rarity gently shook her head. As long as she was here, she might as well enjoy herself; she would get started as soon as she returned to her suite in the castle.
“Pardon me, Miss Rarity,” Prince Blueblood spoke from just behind her. The other nobles bowed.
Putting on a tolerant expression, Rarity turned to the pony she had once regarded as her one true love. “Your highness seems to have a knack for sneaking up on a pony.” Frankly, the Prince was the last stallion she wanted to see right now. As casually as possible, she scanned the deck for Fancypants; their esteemed host was engaged in an amiable chat with Jet Set, Upper Crust, and a pony she didn’t recognize.
“I do pride myself on my stealth and cunning,” The prince flashed a pearly white smile, and some of the noblemares giggled like fillies. Rarity could hardly keep from rolling her eyes. “If I may, I’d like to borrow you from your friends for a moment… in private.” The sultry tone in his voice left little room to doubt the Prince’s intentions. The violet-maned mare could have gagged.
“As tempting as your offer is,” Rarity put as much con into the word as she dared, “I am afraid I shall have to decline. You see, my friends and I are quite thirsty, and there’s a very nice breeze close to the bow. Good day, your majesty.” Without waiting for a reaction, the fashion designer turned on hoof and marched towards the concession stand, ignoring the gasps and murmurs of her followers. They filed after her, leaving the awestruck Prince standing awkwardly by himself, jaw hanging open.
Rarity allowed herself a tiny smile. That felt good.
She helped herself to a bit of the punch, the gaggle of mares and stallions around her following suit. As she sipped daintily from her glass, a gray pony wearing a top hat and monocle, one who had introduced himself yesterday as Herald, sidled up casually beside her. “Miss Rarity, I don’t mean to interrupt, but Lyrica has ripped the hem of her dress. I told her you can’t even notice it, but she’s refusing to come out of the cabin. I don’t mean to be a bother, but could you have a look at it?”
Rarity nodded knowingly; she would hate to have everyone notice a tear in her outfit at such an event. “I’d be more than happy to help.” She turned to her hangers-on. “Everypony, I’ll be right back in just a moment.”
The cabin was large and luxurious, as befitted a pony of Fancypants importance. There was a desk in the center of the room, lit by a long line of glass windows along the back wall. Several bookshelves filled with books on airship operation and navigation, likely for show, stood between the two doors that led into the cabin. A globe and spyglass sat on the desktop, along with a copy of Star Swirl’s Guide to the Amniomorphic Spell.
Rarity stepped lightly into the room, looking around for the noblemare. “Lyrica? Lyrica, darling? Are you here?” There was no response. The white mare looked beneath the desk, but saw only what one would expect to see beneath one.
“Looking for someone?”
Rarity wheeled, eyes set in a glare. The Prince had that stupid smirk on his face, and the fashion designer sorely wanted to wipe it off.
“You’re a hard mare to get alone,” Blueblood spun the globe on the desk with an extended hoof. He kept his eyes fixed on Rarity, roving along her forelegs, her barrel, her flanks. “But sooner or later, everypony says yes to me.”
Rarity moved towards the door, but the sizable stallion blocked her path. She tried to move around him, but he moved at the same time. “Prince Blueblood, I demand you let me pass. I have no desire to say yes, I haven’t since the day we first met, and I never will!”
Something clicked in the Prince’s mind. “An oversight,” He murmured to himself, “but inconsequential.” He stepped forward, running a hoof across the other unicorn’s jaw. “You will be mi – oof!”
As soon as he touched her, Rarity’s horn glowed blue, the mirroring aura wrapping around the book on the desktop, which swung with deadly accuracy to club the larger stallion across the face. In his moment of distraction, Rarity darted past him, galloping for the door. With an angry snarl, the Prince spun around, sinking his teeth into the fur of her back leg. With a tremendous show of force, he swung her by her leg in a half circle, sending her headfirst in the desk. The impact knocked the globe onto the carved wood floor.
Rarity lay on the floor, the room spinning around her. The Prince loomed above her, rising up on his hind legs, and in that moment, Rarity knew she was going to die.
A white silhouette caught the Prince just beneath the shoulder, driving the wind from his lungs. Fancypants tackled Blueblood onto the desk and over it, pummeling the other stallion’s muzzle with three powerful punches. The Prince tucked his legs beneath Fancypants’ chest and heaved, throwing the agent away. Fancypants landed on all fours, firing a golden burst from his horn. Blueblood ducked aside, lips split in a feral grin. He ran forward, head set to run Fancypants through with his massive horn, when the globe connected with the back of his rear legs, causing him to stumble. The agent stepped sideways and latched his arm beneath the stunned prince’s chin. The larger stallion’s barrel kept moving forward, and as his legs flew out from beneath him, Fancypants brought his leg down, boxing the thick blonde skull against the floorboards.
“Fancypants!” Rarity shouted, and the agent looked up. Rarity leaned against the desk, a coil of rope from one of the bookshelves held loosely in her flickering blue aura.
Prince Blueblood swung wildly with a forehoof, and Fancypants danced back, his horn glowing. Rarity tied the end of the rope into a loop, and as the Prince struggled to his feet, she threw the loop, aiming at his head. She missed, and the coil of rope fell on the floor next to him. Snarling, Blueblood snatched the rope in his teeth and started towards the mare.
Fancypants landed heavily on his barrel, catching the noose in him mouth. He yanked it up and over Blueblood’s head, cinching it tight with a burst of golden magic. The Prince choked as the rope forced his cheeks back, shaking his head furiously. He heaved his rump into the air, wrapping a foreleg around Fancypants’ neck and throwing him off. The agent curled the rope around the offending appendage, twisting to land on his feet. Another blast of magic right in the Prince’s eyes blinded him, and Fancypants bucked him hard in the jaw. The Prince reared up on his hind legs to soften the blow.
Taking advantage of the moment, Fancypants threw the rope over Blueblood’s head, using a precise application of magical force to make it tighten across his back, trapping his left foreleg against his side. “Tie it to the doorknob!” Fancypants shouted, looping the rope twice more around the Prince’s form as he tottered unsteadily on two legs. Another pull brought the stallion’s legs together, and Fancypants curled the proximal end of the rope into a complex knot, securing it by sliding the spyglass into the eyehole. He glanced back at Rarity, who was just pulling her own knot tight.
“Done!” The white mare yelled, the end of the rope still in her mouth. Fancypants spun and bucked, putting a bit of magic into the blow. He was sure he felt the Prince’s ribcage crack as the kick hurled the stallion into the glass window behind him. The rope spooled out for a few moments before going taut, the door rattling slightly with the impact.
Fancypants and Rarity inched up to the window, peering over the sill and down the thirty feet to where the Prince Blueblood swayed, struggling, in the afternoon breeze.
“I do believe he was even more irritating that time than on our first date.” Rarity announced, perhaps slightly louder than necessary.
The night agent fired the invisible beacon into the sky above the airship before responding. “You’ve met before, then?”
“At the Grand Galloping Gala last year; the least he could have done is pretended to remember it, though I suppose I did humiliate him in front of the entire party.” Rarity looked down once more, a small smile touching her lips. “Somehow, this is much more satisfying, though the circumstances could have been better.” A sudden realization struck her, and she gasped, “Fancypants, your new ship! I am dreadfully sorry! He tricked me into coming back here with him, and –“
“Rarity, Rarity, my dear, no need to apologize. It’s quite clear to me his highness has had far too much punch today.” He leaned in close, “Truth be told, I never could stand the arrogant foal.” The agent straightened, brushing off the front of his turtleneck and fixing his hat. “No, he’ll have forgotten the whole thing by tomorrow. All the same, I think it might be best if you stay close to me until we land.” Producing a key, Fancypants locked the door Rarity had affixed Blueblood’s lifeline to, then led her to the other.
“I heartily agree.” Rarity moved up next to her host, brushing shoulders with him as they stepped out and he locked the door behind them. “The prince can hang there until he’s blue in the face, for all I care.” As the two started out to the main deck, they glanced at each other, stone faced, until Rarity couldn’t hold it in any longer. She giggled, and Fancypants started to chuckle, and in moments both of them were laughing uproariously.
The pegasi moved in silently, in perfect formation, concealed by the bulk of the cabin from any of the passengers. Each of them was clad in a black flight suit, with dark goggles and masks covering their muzzles. Six of them flew in to surround the immobilized stallion, four of them stretching an adhesive sheet of cloth beneath the captive, two flying up to sever the rope. Blueblood fell into the sheet, and the flyers quickly bundled him in it, flying in concentric circles until the unicorn was swaddled up to his neck, unable to move. Supporting him between them, the pegasi turned towards Canterlot, landing just outside the city.
The prisoner was hustled down a series of dark tunnels, finally brought into a wide stone chamber, the wall etched with ancient pony hieroglyphics. The pegasi unceremoniously dropped Blueblood on the ground with a thud before vanishing into the shadows.
Blueblood attempted to speak through the rope still in his mouth, spittle flying with each exhalation. “Reweth me! Bon’t you dow who I ab?”
Hooves sheathed in metal clicked on the floor behind the Prince, and he tried to twist around, but couldn’t muster quite enough momentum. An aura of deep blue surrounded him, and he felt himself being lifted off the floor, held upside down in front of his captor.
“No, assassin, we do not know whom thou art – we knowst, however, whom thou are not. Our nephew has been recovered, unharmed, from whence thou imprisoned him. Thou art not Prince Blueblood, though thy recreation is uncanny.” The false Blueblood spun to face his captor. Princess Luna stood with her face close to his, and she could read the terror in his eyes. Her horn glowed bright, and the assassin’s eyes squeezed shut. A searing bolt of magic severed the gag in his mouth, and he coughed, gasping. Luna tilted her head, eyes hard, face an expressionless mask. Sweat beaded on her prisoner’s brow, and he swallowed reflexively.
“Now, we shall have a conversation,” Luna’s horn lit once more, a burning wave of energy searing across the assassin’s form, eliciting a scream of fear and pain, “On what thou art.”