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In response to comments and criticism from a group of readers, I have endeavored to better bridge the gap between TBNE and TPC with a "Chapter Zero" as a prelude - while reading C0 is not essential to the story, based on early screenings, it goes a long way to reducing the "culture shock" of many of the societal concepts in play in This Platinum Crown. I would strongly recommend that everyone go back and give it a read through. I am re-ordering the chapters as appropriate. Below is also a copy of my own table of contents used as part of my fanfic master file.
- - -
This Platinum Crown
- Following the events of "The Best Night Ever" and the time-looped Gala, Rarity's introduction to Canterlot High Society finally gets into swing. However, all is not well within the glorious castle city, and on top of preparing for Twilight's birthday party, Rarity soon hatches a plan to begin bridging the divide between two powerful stallions: Blueblood and Fancypants.
Chapter 1 : Antimony
- Back in Ponyville, Rarity loses herself in preparations for an upcoming Art Festival, hosted at a newly built estate just outside town. The bright expectations for the event are soon clouded by the appearance of a noblemare from Equestria's northern province of Prance.
Chapter 2 : Rare Earth
- Shocked by Lady Antimony's claims, and with Blueblood still on a visit to distant Crown Roc, Rarity quickly tried to arm herself with knowledge of her new foe. Who is this Baroness, and how deep does the influence of her family go, even in Ponyville?
Chapter 3 : It Has Been Decided
- Prince Blueblood makes haste to head back to Equestria on news of his unwanted engagement. Rarity resolved herself to stand up to Antimony, but missing a crucial piece of information. Spike, too, must make a choice of his own, one with a profound impact on events to come.
Chapter 4 : A Kiss on the Cheek
- Drawn into a magical duel with Lady Antimony, Rarity finds an unlikely and unexpectedly effective mentor in Twilight Sparkle. But, really, how is this nonsense training? And does it have to be this humiliating?
Chapter 5 : The Harsh Education of Dewdrop Dazzle
- Preparation for the duel continues, the training switching to a most unexpected place. Naturally, since the Cutie Mark Crusaders are involved, everything will go off without incident.
Chapter 6 : Determination
- It's a tailgate party, from Ponyville to Everfree! Antimony awaits, while Rarity and her friends make their way through the forest. Once again, a fight waits for them at Everfree Castle, but this time one of them will have to fight alone. What is really at stake here, not just for Rarity, but for Ponyville and Canterlot?
Chapter 7 : To Go So Far
- The duel begins at last, but can Rarity's creativity and drive stand up to her opponent's experience and overwhelming skill? With her dreams on the line, Rarity refuses to back down. Of course, there's nothing in the rules against a tactical withdrawal!
Chapter 8 : In This World
- Lady Antimony had never been defeated in a duel. Her record is a bloody litany of triumphs across Equestria, all in the pursuit of one goal. All for her family's supposed destiny. At the mercy of the Baroness, lost in a cruel and unending illusion, Rarity struggles to hold onto her own dream. Only one mare can wear the Platinum Crown of Canterlot.
Chapter 9 : Baroness
- Rarity, newly entrusted with the restored Barony of Ponyville, leans on her finances and charm to make her mark on her beloved home town. Fully aware that her challenge has not ended, only entered a new phase of battle, she prepares to defend the title so hard won. Meanwhile, the town has the honor of being directly under this generation's dragon migration while in Cloudsdale a Wonderbolt tenures her resignation with vicious force.
Chapter 10 : Grow
- Having followed the dragon migration to the volcanic breeding grounds of his kind, Spike tries to gain perspective on just what it means to be a dragon, and how it conflicts with his pony upbringing. In the end, he faces a choice that will have life altering ramifications. Back in Ponyville, Luna and Blueblood have plans of their own for Equestria and the upstart Terre Rare lords of Prance.
Chapter 11 : Challenge
- Enter: Lady Yumi! The battle for the crown begins anew as the heiress to the land of Neighpon challenges Ponyville to a passage of arms. When Applejack runs afoul of the foreign ponies, Rarity rallies her response. High above both groups, Ritterkreuz is watching and waiting to pounce, but on whom?
Chapter 12 : Return the Favor
- Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Applejack face off against Yumi's trio of hoof-picked retainers to break the pas d'armes outside Ponyville. Do they stand a change against the veteran knights from Neighpon? A certain former Wonderbolt also picks her target, taking advantage of the confusion.
Chapter 13 : Motivate
- Ritterkreuz and Rainbow Dash clash above the skies of Ponyville and across the countryside. The battle on the ground may have ended, but the air war has only just begun! Lyra accepts a dangerous invitation and Flim and Flam meet up with two mysterious benefactors on the road to Sweet Apple Acres.
Chapter 14 : Circle the Wagons
- Rainbow Dash meets with the Wonderbolts to discuss her run in with their former member gone rogue while Lyra begins to settle into the comfort of Alpha Brass's Hanging Gardens. Scootaloo makes a new 'friend' and Twilight Sparkle is the recipient of a shocking letter from home.
Chapter 15 : Battles of Honor and Cider
- Rarity shares her concerns over the previous few days with Blueblood. Plans are laid for her gifts to Ponyville and Flim and Flam's Cider Garden opens, cornering the cider market and threatening to push Sweet Apple Acres out of business.
Chapter 16 : The Lyre and the Letter
- Applejack continues to look for a way to improve sales in the face of new competition while Spitfire puts Rainbow Dash to the test. Lyra makes some strange acquaintances and Twilight goes a little loony trying to find a solution to her personal dilemma.
Chapter 17 : To My Faithful Student
- Twilight's 'brilliant plan' results in a kidnapped Prince, of sorts, and a discussion of her future and the future of the Terre Rare extended family. Isn't there some way to satisfy the needs of both friends and family? Elsewhere, Alpha Brass sees off his step-daughters, Eunomie and Euporie and his sister Chalice. Their destination: Ponyville!
Chapter 18 : The Knight and the Enchantress
- In a gambit to save her farm and her way of life, Applejack proposes a cooperative venture to the Flim Flam brothers. Scootaloo takes on chickens and Twilight Sparkle’s mysterious visitor reveals himself. After one seemingly crushing defeat or let down after another, a certain pony has a second chance to win back something that was lost.
Chapter 19 : Battles of Earth and Sky
- Ritterkreuz, Spitfire and a crack team of Wonderbolts battle across the skies of Ponyville. Blueblood and Shining Armor lock horns and Applejack struggles against the seemingly immovable challenge before her that is Late Rains.
Chapter 20 : To Move a Mountain
- Applejack’s uphill battle concludes, while Fluttershy entertains a few friends, old and new, for Decoration Day. Lyra prepares for a unique celebration and Shining Armor and Blueblood defend their precious honor. Well, Shining Armor does anyway. Blueblood has other intentions.
Chapter 21: Metaphors and Parables
- Ritter and Spitfire see their grudge match to the end; Fluttershy has some unexpected guests and Chalice shares some insights on starstuff. Lyra and Alpha Brass have a long overdue talk and so do Twilight and Eunomie.
Chapter 22 : Deals, Regrets, Decisions
- The sanctity of Fluttershy’s hearth and home is not to be taken lightly, and in that place, a deal is forged. Twilight seeks out Applejack and Pinkie Pie for advice and a financial plot is uncovered in the process. Euporie’s mischief irks Ponyville’s premier party planner, and fresh from a long day’s shooting with Photo Finish, Rarity finds an angry friend waiting for her.
Chapter 23 : What You Want From Me
- Twilight plans out her meeting with Alpha Brass and the potential terms of their alliance, and Euporie provides some insight into Eunomie and herself. The Cutie Mark Crusaders make a new foul mouthed friend and Applejack finds that she may have an unexpected ally of her own.
Chapter 24 : Plans, Partnerships and Poison
- Eunomie and Twilight learn more of one another, Applejack comes to a decision, Rarity begins welcoming guests for her New Barony's art festival and Pinkie Pie lines up a date for Euporie's party. Meanwhile, Alpha Brass and Chrysalis maneuver, the fate or doom of Equestria in their hooves.
Chapter 25 : Brass and Twilight
- Twilight Sparkle finally meets her ally: the pony who will help her, and help Rarity, defang the Prench Terre Rare and secure peace among their families and Equestria as a whole. Her ally and potential husband, in a pact sealed by blood. Alpha Brass.
Chapter 26 : Party
- Blueblood makes a decision and Twilight struggles with knowledge gleaned from her new alliance. Pinkie Pie, meanwhile, attends Euporie's grand new party as a special guest of honor.
Chapter 27 : The Games We Play
- Pinkie's experience at Euporie's party takes an unexpected turn. Chrysalis and Alpha Brass have their final meeting and, for one of them, a knife moves in the shadows, poised to strike where least expected.
Chapter 28 : A Celebration of Art and Culture
- Rarity's Art Festival begins at last, her great bridge between Ponyville and the high society of Equestria. Pinkie Pie makes some new friends and Applejack introduces one new friend to one older one. Rainbow Dash and Ritterkreuz prepare for their confrontation and Lady Sand Dune arrives bearing gifts.
Chapter 29 : Drawing Blood
- Chrysalis' agent makes her move and the Art Festival is thrown into disarray. A melee is in the making, and in the Everfree Forest, a fateful meeting is about to occur.
Chapter 30 : Friendship is a Battlefield
- Rainbow Dash and Ritterkreuz. Yumi and Chalice. And, if that wasn't enough, Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie and Applejack quickly find a grand melee of their own as the Art Festival becomes a wild and unexpected battlefield. As the conspiracies entwine and unravel, who will come out on top?
Chapter 31 : Escape
- There are few lands more dangerous than the Everfree. Chalice unleashes her true power against Yumi and Shigure, and Fluttershy and a certain Everfree native are forced to intervene. But there are more than just monsters in the Everfree. There are changelings afoot, too.
Chapter 32 : Reveal
- Rarity deals with the fallout from Yumi's sacking of her Art Festival, and between a poisoned Prince, a gaggle of avaricious teenage dragons, and a fraying relationship with Applejack, her oldest friend, the new Baroness has her hooves full almost to the breaking point. Can she cope, and can she discover the threat in her midst? Twilight, meanwhile, makes a rather unexpected discovery.
Chapter 33 : Friendship is an Alliance (I)
- Chalice seeks out Fluttershy to talk about what she saw in Everfree, the changelings consolidate their hold on power, and Rarity begins her counterattack by forging a most unlikely set of alliances. But can Lady Sand Dune be trusted?
Chapter 34 : Friendship is an Alliance (II)
- Twilight and Fluttershy ply one of their captives for information, and Rarity continues her alliance building. Can the charismatic baroness and element of generosity find a way to bring together not just friends, but enemies as well?
Chapter 35 : Interlude (the beginning)
- Arsenic and Celestia. Chrysalis and Alpha Brass. Eunomie narrates the history of the conflict that set the stage for the revolution to come.
Chapter 36 : Interlude (the end)
- The echoes of the past are heard in the future. The secrets of the Terre Rare, of the struggle for power and prestige, of the changeling conspiracy and those who would see it crushed. Brass. Cadance. Twilight. Euporie. Eunomie. All have a vision for Equestria. Only one will come to pass. Eunomie continues her story, describing the plots and schemes behind the Platinum Crown.
Chapter 37 : Cadance: The Spider's Law
- Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Held captive by Queen Chrysalis, Cadance struggles against her own helplessness and the cruelties of her captor, yet this Princess has an ace up her sleeve. The question is when and how to use it. With the wedding fast approaching and her brother languishing in despair, Cadance finally makes her move.
Chapter 38 : Sweetie Belle: Equestrian Girls
Chapter 39 : Blueblood: Press Ever Forward
Chapter 40 : Lyra: Breakout Beatdown
- - -
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( 0 )
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Rarity's body all but melted into the sweet scented rose water, the occasional cherry colored petal floating past her clean white coat. Light Touch's hooves and magic were simply heavenly. A golden brush with bundles of little bristles ran through her long, wet mane, massaging her scalp and the back of her neck. Another pair of hooves and gentle magic touched warm cream to her face and cared for her eyelashes. Utterly relaxed, soothed and sinfully pampered, Rarity sighed with unabashed contentment.
This was truly the life.
"Well, somepony sure seems to be enjoying herself," a distinctly masculine voice interrupted her reverie. "Is it wrong that I find this rather animating?"
Rarity slowly opened her eyes, started across the bath as its other occupant, and gave him a not-so-subtle kick beneath the water. "Mind out of the gutter, if you please."
"My dear, I assure you: my mind is not in the gutter. You'll find it is very firmly focused on what lies under this water."
"Shall I kick a little higher next time?"
The stallion laughed and rose from the rose-tinted water. A few stray petals stuck to Blueblood's own white coat as he stepped over to a clean white mat laid out on the floor. Bathed in the light from the circular oculus of their pavilion tent, he glowed with cleanliness and vigor. One of his two maidservants, Sandy, a shy younger mare with a fawn-brown coat and wheat colored mane, pulled away from her work on Rarity to help the Prince dry off.
He remained calm and still as she magically dried his blond mane, using her hooves to more vigorously towel off his coat and body. Still half submerged in the decorative cast iron and porcelain bath-tub full, her mane being combed and brushed behind her, Rarity watched him with a small smile. Not that she would admit it, certainly not aloud, but it was perhaps just a little empowering to lay back and watch as...
"Oh-h!" She covered her face with her hooves in embarrassment. "Now your lascivious thoughts have spread to me as well!"
"My sincere apologies," the Prince replied in a tone that was anything but apologetic.
"You have the most beautiful mane, Lady Rarity," one of the mares aiding her in her soak whispered. "Please relax. Pay no mind to His Grace."
"What are you whispering about over there?"
Rarity did relax a bit at the sound of Light Touch's voice, splashing a little water in Blueblood's direction. Not hard enough to reach him, but enough to get the point across. He rolled his eyes and resumed standing still and tall while Sandy brushed him down, paying particular care to smooth out and groom down his tail.
"It is so nice to be working with another mare for once," Light Touch dared another whisper. "Please tell me when you wish to get dressed, my Lady."
"Oh, I could just soak in here for hours!" Rarity stretched out her legs and started to rise. "But we do have our appointments. Which reminds me, I still need to get something for Twilight's birthday. Blueblood, what do you think about a dress?"
"I think I'll pass."
"I mean as a present! For Twilight."
"Just get her a book. You can add your name to the one I'm getting her to save money."
"Honestly, be serious for once!"
"I was sort of serious," Blueblood replied with a snicker. "The book I'm getting your friend isn't exactly cheap. But I guess she likes dresses? So make her a dress?"
Slowly emerging from the water, Rarity took Light Touch's hoof as she gingerly stepped down onto the floor. Though convention kept them both on the tournament grounds, the Prince's tent still enjoyed many of the comforts and amenities of a suite at the palace. Running water was one of the exceptions, but a nice hot bath was only a raincloud and a spell or two in the making.
"Thank you so much for that insightful response to my question," Rarity said, hooves on solid ground. "I was thinking something casual, but dynamic, subdued and chaste but extravagant and willful!"
"Something light," Blueblood wondered. "But dark?"
"I'd splash you if you were closer."
"I know you would. That's why I'm way over here."
Rarity huffed at him in all-too-obvious annoyance, but soon the pair soon broke into laughter. A book and dress it would be. Soon the fashionable unicorn stood on a clean white mat of her own being dried off. Both Sandy and Light Touch were skilled beyond the basics - Rarity experienced this first-hoof as Light Touch did up her long mane in preparation for this afternoon's appearance. She would be wearing her mane up, today, in a multitude of tucks and curls instead of her usual single-curl left and single-curl right.
Soon she was dry, powdered, brushed and immaculately clean. A faint hint of roses clung to her from the bath, precluding any need for perfume. Suitably prepared, she retreated behind a floral Neighponese folding screen to dress. Here, she assisted Blueblood's maidservant, being more used to clothing herself than being dressed by others. For this afternoon, Rarity had chosen a dress and saddle in silk and cotton gauze (one of her own designs that didn't seem to sell as well as it should have) with dropped shoulders and wide puffs around the sleeves. As a personal touch, she had also picked out a feather-trimmed bonnet and choker with white shell-in-cameo.
Emerging from behind the folding screen, she saw Blueblood stretching his legs from under a barded caparison. The cloth covered him from hindquarters to collar and from shoulder to his ankles, presenting a collage of stylistic suns on one quarter, moons on another, spades on another and the last one occupied by a repeating field of compass-roses in the colors and style of his cutie mark.
The ceremonial armor of his crinière wrapped protectively around his neck, and she could see a bit of silver-steel peeking out from where his peytral covered his chest from the front and side. The caparison itself was clearly draped over and fastened from the front where it was open. Being sport-armor, there was no need for a heavy croupière to protect his flanks, as with Royal Guard barding.
"Well, to no-pony's surprise, you look amazing and I look ridiculous," Blueblood quipped, uncomfortably stretching out the padded metal protecting his neck with a dismissive scoff. "You wouldn't be amenable to trading outfits for the afternoon?"
"Absolutely not!" Rarity replied with a laugh, trotting over to give him a close inspection. "You look very handsome. You'd probably look cute in a dress, too, but let's save that idea for another time."
"What frightful subjects we broach in jest," the Prince joked, and walked around in a slow circle. "They fit this to each stallion, you know, and it always feels tight. I have always suspected some sort of scheme or conspiracy among Equestria's tailors to keep everypony coming back for refitting. Clearly the blacksmiths and farriers are in on it, too. The fiends."
With a flick of his horn, Blueblood magically levitated a final piece of covering over his sides and shoulders. Sandy hurried, catching him as he stood still, but Rarity interposed herself. The Element of Generosity snapped one of three small clips together over his chest, securing the extra piece of cloth in place. It fell entirely over his right side and bore the heraldic seal of the family: the proud bust of a regal unicorn backed in royal purple, wreathed with diamonds.
"You look fabulous, trust me. If it is a little tight," Rarity explained, pulling the chain a little taut. "That is because tight looks good."
"How wonderful. Then I will look good while getting charged at and trod upon. Just what I hoped for!" Blueblood's pout was more coy than put-out. He winked at her. "At least I have one thing in my favor. Be sure to wave when I salute you so the crowd knows to envy me."
"You'll be perfectly fine!" She quickly nuzzled his cheek. "Now, which suitably horrific mask shall you be wearing?"
"It is not a mask, my Lady, it is a champron! Very different."
Blueblood turned briefly before retrieving a steel and faux-leather faceguard. It bore a small rounded spike beneath and above the circular opening left for the unicorn's horn. Sturdy metal flanges critically protected the eyes. Decorative bronze embossing covered the rest, giving the appearance of a stallion's face: the false eyes narrowed in anger and a mouth clenched tight, bearing teeth. A large fleur-de-lis stuck out and up from behind the ears like a crest, inlaid with gold and bright blue.
He fitted it in place, Rarity helping to secure it, and flipped it up so only the framework covered his face. He would need to make several rounds for the crowd before his match began and it was expected and traditional that everypony see the competitors to know for sure they were who they claimed they were. It was all part of the spectacle the nobility put on from time to time, for their benefit and for the ponies they ruled over.
"Thank you," he said, craning his neck back and forth. "I suppose I am ready to meet Sir Diamond."
"What was his full name again?" Rarity asked. "Something silly, wasn't it?"
"Virgin Diamond," Blueblood answered with a chuckle. "It is a bit of a silly name, though I would not say so to his face. More importantly, you recall who you are sharing your booth with?"
"Of course!" Rarity replied.
"Good. Most of them aren't very important, but I do hope you will get along well with Lady Fleur. Her family has been a vassal of mine for generations and she is well connected around Canterlot, despite having fallen on hard times."
"What I don't see is why we have to indulge Upper Crust and Jet Set," Rarity protested, her expression showing her distaste for the two pretentious and sycophantic unicorns. She had run into them, by chance, on her first day in Canterlot. They had gone on to, in the span of less than a minute, find cause to praise her fashion sense, then dismiss that fashion sense because it was from "a rural backwater," then effusively apologize for their presumption upon leaning she was staying in the castle with the Princess and Prince.
"Both are exceedingly wealthy," Blueblood answered with a shrug. "They could be half-camel half-griffin with the personality of a Diamond Dog, but they are still rich as sin and I need their bits."
"I hardly know what they even did to-"
"They're from two banking clans," Blueblood said, off the cuff. "And yes, they are ruthless social climbers. You'll get used to their sort, even find them useful at times."
Rarity shook her head, but agreed that maybe he had a point. "It doesn't mean I have to like them."
"No it doesn't, but in time you will want your own circle of cliens," he explained, tucking a few stray hairs back and out of the way of his champron. "Many of which you will dislike personally but find useful politically. Sadly, that is just how things are in Canterlot and in court: compared to Ponyville, it is a pit of snakes eating other snakes begetting yet more snakes. My advice is to always be at least a little wary, but the one you should be really be careful of is Fancypants. Though I doubt he'll be here today."
"Canterlot's most fashionable and charming stallion?" Rarity inquired, amused by the look of jealousy that briefly crossed the Prince's face at her glowing endorsement of the other pony. "Why would I need to be careful of him?"
"While Fleur and her family are counted as old and trusted allies, she has taken up with Fancypants over the last year, and he is no friend of mine. If anything, I would like you to keep a watchful eye on her."
Blueblood planned to end it there, with just a warning, but read Rarity's expression - she needed to know more. He knew that look, all but demanding, 'is that so?' So he relented.
"If you must know, some time ago - when we were both younger - I was new to holding court. My mother had only recently passed on and Fancypants had just made a small fortune on Vaudeville. We met at the theater one night and struck up a friendship of sorts. Fancypants has been many things over the years: artist, inventor, speculator and investor. At his heart, he has always been an entertainer... and trend-setter, I suppose. I enjoyed his company and frequented many of his establishments and shows."
Rarity nodded. Most of this was information she knew. Fancypants had made his fortune organizing, writing and promoting in Canterlot and Manehattan. He still had a hoof on the pulse of both cultural juggernauts. Later his interests had spread to other aspects of science, magic, technology and engineering. He was often called a renaissance-stallion, as skilled with investment as he was with a slide-rule or oil brush.
"A year or so later, he petitioned me several times for knighthood," Blueblood continued. "I denied him all three times. He had not yet earned it in my eyes, and I told him as much. I also wasn't sure if his friendship was genuine or just an attempt to curry favor. I offered to accept him as a cliens instead, which I saw as a compromise, but he refused, not wanting to be chained down. Especially to a Duke who refused to give him a title. That's how I saw it anyway."
"Is that all?" Rarity asked. "Why-"
"That isn't all," he said, motioning for her to wait before jumping to a conclusion. "A few years after that, he was involved in building some sort of zoo or park near Fillydelphia. He had been buying land clandestinely, but he did tell the Mayor of that great city about his plan. He had to. The Mayor in turn told me, as I had taken on the mantle of Grand Veneur and Fillydelphia has long been tied to Canterlot and the Bluebloods."
"I blocked the project," Blueblood finished. "Partly out of spite, and partly because I disliked how it involved a fake copy of Canterlot castle built to scale. At the time it seemed insulting. I said, 'better swampland than this abomination.' I actually wrote that on the rejection letter. He still owns the land but can not build on it. There was that, and sadly others. So you see... bad blood between us is the result."
Rarity's slim shoulders slumped. "Was his project truly so awful?"
"In retrospect, I suppose it was not, but... things were different with me then." Blueblood started towards the flap of their large tent. "Very different. Looking back I regret my haste, but what is done is done. I have tried to come to terms with him before, but things always conspired against it. I can't afford to lose face changing my mind, not right now. Maybe a few years down the road, when I shore up more support in the Stable of Lords, I can afford to flip-flop on more of my earlier mistakes and indiscretions."
"There's just so much to do, fixing the mistakes I've made," he muttered, just barely loud enough for Rarity to hear.
"Ah, but...!" He pushed open the flap with one armored hoof. "For now, I go to tilt Sir Diamond. Three rounds horn, three rounds dagger, and then I can enjoy a day of falconry. See you on the field, my precious jewel!"
Rarity waved to him as he left, but her mind was already on his words from before.
"So amends can not be made without losing face?" she asked herself with a smile. "I-de-a!"
- - -
Celestia damn it, but Sir Diamond hit hard for a stallion with the word 'Virgin' in his name.
Blueblood groaned, shook himself off, and hastened to his side of the palace tiltyard. Virgin Diamond, a large teal colored stallion of good unicorn stock, was still parading around, the ripped cloth of Blueblood's family crest whipping about on the tip of his horn. Common ponies in the stands were stomping their hooves in excitement and appreciation for the display of skill, while more reserved aristocrats in private booths clopped their hooves with polite self-restraint.
It was a full attendance, but then tournaments were always popular in conservative Canterlot. It was a chance for the nobility of all stripes to put on a show; attendance, food and drink were all free and anypony from the castle city or the outlying lands had permission to attend. Other nobles from across Equestria also came, though they typically stuck to private booths and other areas where they could mingle with a select crowd. These days, the richer segments of the mercantile classes also found their way into these exclusive circles, the better to sniff out potential cliens and benefactors.
In a place of honor on one side of the tiltyard, one booth in particular stood out.
Virgin Diamond trotted over to that booth and raised his horn high. Princess Celestia, and a somewhat sleepy looking Princess Luna, presided over the games of the tournament. Equestria's first alicorn and revered leader magically removed the torn family crest from the knight's horn, smiling down at him graciously. Blueblood groaned. He had yet to present, having lost the first two passes.
The attendants affixed a third herald to his right side, preparing him for the final exchange of this part of the challenge. Despite the padded barding, Blueblood could feel a sore spot swelling in the muscle of his chest where Virgin Diamond's horn-cap had slammed into him. Without the armor, and the other unicorn's horn-cap, it was likely the injury would have been a punctured lung. As it was, it hurt, both Blueblood's body and more importantly his pride.
One of the colt attendants checked the Prince's horn cap, making sure it was on tight. He gave it a little pat, yelled that all was ready, and bowed quickly before the Duke of Canterlot. Blueblood belatedly thanked the colt, flexing the muscles of his shoulders, and cantering back onto the field. Virgin Diamond soon met him, standing at the opposite end, his horn lowered.
A blast of magic from the sidelines signaled the next tilt.
Blueblood snorted through the cramped heat of his champron, straining to properly identify the point on his opponent he needed to aim for. It was hard to see much of anything through the protective flanges around his eyes. Muscles straining, he picked a target and assumed a full gallop. Dirt blasted back behind him, he made one last adjustment in response to Virgin Diamond's change of pace, and then he put horn-on-point and committed.
Impact, a shudder, a hit on his own side -
And he was through!
Blueblood raised his horn, blue eyes looking up to try and see if he had struck true. Beneath his champron, a wide, childish grin blossomed. A single large piece of cloth hung from the cap of his horn, speared and ripped free. He couldn't see the heraldic symbol on it from the angle it was at, but knew it to be a checkered spear-tip flanked with maple leaves. The crowd stomped and clopped in his victory.
Blueblood also noticed that Virgin Diamond had been close to taking his herald a third time in a row. There was a small rip on one corner, but it still hung on his right side, proud and intact. Trotting triumphantly around the tiltfield, for all the crowd to see, he stopped only to present the prize to his Auntie. Celestia took the offered herald, won in fair contest, with a smile and wink.
One out of three - it wasn't bad, especially since tilting was not his forte.
The stallions shared a canter around the field, this time with their champrons up so the crowd could see their faces. As had been rehearsed before hand by seating and tradition, they both stopped by one private booth. There, Virgin Diamond saluted a thin framed mare with a dark gold coat and mane adorned with feathers and gold chain. There, Blueblood bowed deeply to his rather prettier mare (in his royal opinion, anyway, and whose else mattered?). Leaning over the railing, Rarity magically dropped a light scarf, the same one she had used to wave at him as he trotted by earlier. The other mare did the same, both ponies dropping their embroidered silk fabrics for their suitor to retrieve as a reward for their effort in the field.
Tucking the wispy cloth away, safely and securely under a latch on his champron, Blueblood inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. He could smell her on it: the sweet scent of roses from the bath they had shared, the subtle flavor of the shampoo she used on her mane, and her own unique smell. It was much more subtle than the heavily perfumed essences of the noblemares in Canterlot. It reminded him, for a moment, of Ponyville and his trials and struggles there, trapped in the Gala time loop. Who could have imagined he would ever look back on it with fondness?
But all that had led him to a good and wonderful place, where he had both the will and desire to make a difference, and in that place a generous mare stood by his side. Momentarily lost in his memories and thoughts, Blueblood only heard the tail end of the announcement.
"...now meet honorably with daggers, in the style of ponies of old!"
Returning to the present, Blueblood dipped his head to his Lady once again and headed off to have his horn-cap removed. The herald would stay, just as Virgin Diamond was not getting a replacement. Despite the ostensibly threatening title of 'contest of daggers' it was really much safer than the tilting with horns. There was very little risk of injury. It was mostly a bit of show for the crowd and a chance to wind down a bit: pomp and magic, the two cornerstones of Canterlot.
Blueblood magically twirled the offered dagger in the air. It was blunt, of course, just as horn-caps were used to blunt that natural weapon all unicorns bore (it also softened the blow on both sides of the clash). This so called 'blade' would not be piercing armor or even padding anytime soon. It was there only to try and catch and remove the heralding from the opponent. The aim was much the same as the tilting earlier, but the honor was less. Prizes were not presented to the Princess, but to one's fair and loving partner waiting in a booth nearby.
The Prince affirmed to himself that he had to get Rarity at least one prize.
The two stallions, still in their barding, circled slowly. Virgin Diamond's magic was a teal-green, similar to his coat, while Blueblood's was a soft white-blue. They made a few feints, lunging and jumping. A dagger in this case was no rapier. It required particular sorts of fencing.
Blueblood made a lunge, intending to rip off Sir Diamond's heraldic crest, only to miss and stumble for a moment. It was all the opening the other unicorn needed. A quick stab and swipe and he ripped off Blueblood's herald. Again.
Back to the sidelines, for another replacement.
Trotting in place a bit, keeping relaxed and loose - his old trainers had always emphasized fluidity of magic and movement - he re-entered the field. Virgin Diamond lunged almost immediately, intending to use the element of surprise. Silly pony. That was a good Element, to be sure, but it was no Element of Harmony to guarantee victory. Blocking, parrying, and side stepping, Blueblood spun around. Diamond did the same, momentarily losing track of the Prince's heraldic crest. A blunted dagger spun, like a saw, and nimbly ripped free a prize.
"Ah ha!" Blueblood exclaimed, holding the torn crest aloft. He hastened to the side while Diamond fitted a replacement, magically removing the dagger from the herald and holding it up high. Rarity reached out, taking it with her hooves, smiling encouragingly.
Blueblood chuckled as he headed into the last round, his spirits high.
- - -
Rarity kept the two heraldic crests Blueblood had won for her neatly folded, mostly since she wasn't sure what to do with them. She also made a mental note to check some of her romance novels when she got back home. They were sadly her first and oldest source of information on courtly culture, and while the knightly stallion presenting a trophy to his true love was quite a common scene, the authors never much went into what the mares did with the prizes. Keep them, she assumed. Somewhere. It wasn't as if she had many pockets in her dress, and the ripped cloth clashed far too terribly with her ensemble to try and wear it somehow.
Taken by a sudden idea, Rarity injected a little transformative and restorative magic into the ripped cloth. With a glow and a poof, the ripped fabric repaired itself and merged together. A little more stylistic tweaking, and it became a passable shawl, the two checkered heraldic icons on either end. In a last second spark of inspiration, remembering that the prizes were very much prizes because they were ripped, she left the ends purposefully ragged.
Draping her new shawl over her shoulders, Rarity heard a titter from the seat next to her.
"I don't believe I've seen that done before!" A shapely thin mare with a figure to resemble a Princess' sat to Rarity's left, watching her with amusement. Unlike most of the mares and even stallions present, she wore very little: only a sun hat to keep herself cool.
"You do have some interesting tastes... and that magic?" she inquired.
"I find almost anything can do with a little extra fabulosity! Don't you?" Rarity replied with a confident grin. "I'm Rarity."
"Fleur-de-lis," the other mare formally made introduction. "Of the Iris Family."
Rarity winced inwardly at not having a family of her own, in title, to add to her introduction. Still, she smoothly swept forward. Fleur seemed like a very informal mare.
"A pleasure to meet you, Fleur-de-lis." Rarity held out her hoof, show-down. "May I call you Fleur?"
"Fleur or Lily are both fine."
"Your name is Prench, isn't it?"
"It is," Fleur answered, relaxing into easy conversation. "We used to have land there, even a small estate. But that was a long time ago; I can't even speak the language anymore!"
"May I ask what brings you out here?"
"Besides watching silly stallions try to mangle one another in tight armor?"
The two laughed, and Rarity gestured to the booth attendant. He presented a small list of flavors and available refreshments, sparing the guests of the private booth from having to mingle or leave to wet their palate. To tide the two mares over, he already had two trays of sweet strawberry gelato.
"Besides that," Fleur explained, taking a tiny spoon to the thick low-buttermilk ice cream. "As you may know, Lord Blueblood and his family have been... patrons of my family since we came to Canterlot. Fancy was out on the town so I snuck off to put in a little political face-time with my benefactor."
"Is that often a concern among the court?"
"When it comes to Canterlot, appearances are everything... and nothing," Fleur warned, but quickly added in a friendly tone, "Are you staying at the castle? May I ask what it's like? You've met the Princess herself, haven't you?"
Rarity happily shared her experiences, though she had to admit to not having any experience to describe the contrast between the palace life pre and post-Luna's return. Sitting in the shady overhand of the booth, as the unicorn competitions gave way to the earth pony nobility trying their hoof at wrestling and other traditional contests, Rarity found herself rather liking Fleur. Which was doubly fortunate, as she had hoped from the start to enlist the other mare in her little scheme.
It wasn't long before she had an invitation to meet Fancypants at his private box at the Wonderbolts Derby. It was just perfect. The best part was that this plan also overlapped with her earlier half-formed plan to insinuate herself into Canterlot high society. She already had an "in" thanks to Blueblood, but she didn't want to make introductions purely on his account or by riding his tail.
It was time for Rarity Unicorn to become the toast of Canterlot.
Twilight's dress... she'd start on it Tuesday. When she had some more free time. It wasn't like it was going anywhere, and there were places to go, ponies to impress, and two feuding stallions to bring together!
- - -
"Blueblood? Would you believe me if I told you that Rainbow Dash was training the Wonderbolts?"
A dismissive snort was all the response the Prince felt he needed to share. Holding out one leg he held still as Light Touch carefully brushed and cleaned the sole and frog of his hoof. The Prince was one of the few ponies in Equestria to wear new ultra-modern aluminum horseshoes, 'light as a feather' as they were advertised. The metal was almost as expensive, per ounce, as pure gold. Inspecting the finished product and trimmed fetlocks, not too short and just a little wild, he nodded in approval and raised the other leg.
"Not to backstep," he remarked in passing, eyes wandering to where Rarity was again getting changed, behind a different folding screen, this time in the castle proper. "But why on Equestria would you even ask such a thing?"
"Such a what?" Rarity inquired, sill out of view. A frilled yellow saddle flew out from behind the screen to drape over the top. "Oh, you mean Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolt thing? Nothing much. She just came up yesterday."
"Yes, you mentioned attending the derby the other day," he recalled, magically retrieving a tall glass of grapefruit juice to help start the morning.
"I enjoyed the event and it was an opportunity to mingle a little," Rarity explained, tossing a hat out from behind the screen to deftly land on a nearby rack.
"I wonder if there is still time to trade tickets to the big fight tonight at the Canterlot Hexagon instead of spending the evening watching Le Sacre du Printemps?"
"Don't you dare," Rarity responded, discarding yet another hat, this time in favor of first a gold and sapphire tiara and then a vermillion beret. "Oh! This one doesn't work either! I'll need something more subdued for the opera, and then there's the gallery... maybe this one will...? Ah-ha! Perfect! Now where did I put that black turtleneck..."
Blueblood closed his eyes, waiting for his manicure to finish. It was a couple of seconds before he realized Rarity was singing something softly to herself behind the folding screen. A song? He strained his ears to listen. After the events of the Gala, he had come to expect the occasional musical number when visiting one of the Elements of Harmony. How they came up with these things on the fly, he still couldn't imagine.
the girl on the go...
I'm the type of pony everypony- everypony should know!"
Curiously, both Sandy and Light Touch had chorused 'everypony' in that line.
Mares. Go figure.
the girl in the flow...
I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!"
No sooner had she finished cleaning his hoof, Light Touch quickly hastened to help Sandy with Rarity behind the folding screen, filling in the lines of chorus as needed. Blueblood was left standing alone, one befuddled eyebrow raised. It was certainly nice that his two maidservants, who he had come to know via the loops of the Gala - notsomuch to their knowledge - were taking so well to the Element of Generosity. But wasn't singing along with her taking this whole thing a little too far?
His attention was also drawn to a rather surly looking feline perched atop a wooden display easel. Never having had a pet himself, unless one counted Dream Catcher, the tercer he used for falconry, Blueblood usually gave Opalescence a wide berth. The little creature always seemed to have a set of nasty claws, no matter how often Rarity took her in for a trim. The white cat now rested on top of the easel, batting a paw in dismay at some sort of picture.
It was, on closer inspection, a picture of a dress.
"What an impossibly impractical dress. Where would you even find feathers that long?"
Opalescence mewed, jumping off the easel.
"Rarity?" Blueblood asked, but she was still lost in song so he decided to wait things out.
Slowly trotting over to a heavy crystal display case, the Prince lowered his horn an applied a bit of specific identification magic. A golden clasp clicked, wound and unlocked. Inside was a gold and firesteel collar, intricately carved and decorated with a multitude of tiny clear droplet-sized jewels. From the front dangled a small aries symbol in fine gold. Next to it was a wax seal, also made of gold. Blueblood took a moment to brush his hair back and slip on a cream white waistcloak with a high collar.
Normally, he preferred a bow tie, but today he had some special business. Floating out the chain, he slipped it around his neck and tucked it in and under the cloth. This concealed all but the dangling clasp and black and gold silk ribbon that fell to left the right. He pulled it tight around his throat and tucked the ribbons to form a discrete loop.
Turning around, hearing Rarity's song at an end, he smiled at the sight of her.
"I do believe that's a new look for you," he commented with a snigger.
"You don't like it?" Rarity asked, gracefully pirouetting in her beret, black turtleneck and matching hoof slippers. Her mane was styled down, straight down, with a little wave at the end.
"You look like you've escaped a sorority at the Academy of Arts and Magic."
"You don't like it," she stated, clearly wanting a yes or no answer.
"I like it," he assured her, and grunted as Light Touch swept in to finish buttoning up his waistcloak while Sandy retrieved his overcoat. "It's actually quite fetching, I'm just not sure why you're wearing it."
"I'm sneaking off to an exclusive art gallery opening before the auction tonight," Rarity explained, mollified by his compliment. "Modern Art, not the Classical and Neo-Classical you enjoy."
To prove her point, Rarity pointed to one of the oil paintings adorning the east wall opposite the windows and balcony. On it, an amaranth pink unicorn mare reclined against a bed of flowers and vines, reaching out. A white stallion in flowing cloak and finery was holding high a spherical glass globe, just about to place it in her hoof. With his other hoof, he was reaching down and pinching her nipple (a task easier said than done for a pony). Behind them, the regal visage of Celestia celebrated the union with wings wide and high, a beatific expression on her face.
"Why is he doing that?" Rarity asked, meaning, of course, the nipple pinch.
Blueblood chuckled at her discomfort at the piece of art.
"If you take stock of every painting in the Royal Palace, or in any of my own properties - all traditional art - you will notice that mares are never depicted as pregnant. The pinching of the nipple by a stallion is an implication that the mare in the picture carries an heir. The passing of the globe indicates the sharing of power and authority between husband and wife," he explained.
"I see." Rarity nodded, 'hmm'ing softly.
"Now, if the stallion is cupping the breast, that is something else entirely!"
She batted him on the shoulder with an exasperated sigh. "I'm sure it is!"
Lowering her hoof, she also noticed the collar he had put on earlier.
"I've never seen that before either," she said, pointing to his throat. "In fact, this is the first time I've seen you wearing jewelry. Ever. No neckcloth today?"
He shook his head, shifting a bit as Sandy buttoned up his overcoat.
"Special occasion," he replied. "The Order of Aries is knighting one of Auntie's special guards. As a ranking member of the Order, naturally I must attend the ceremony with the proper regalia and pay my respects. A Brother can not refuse the summons of another Brother."
He indulged in a small, private laugh.
"I really wish I could tell you who we're knighting, too! You might have heard of him."
"I understand perfectly," Rarity told him with a teasing smile. "This whole 'military order' nonsense is terribly secret, but fun, isn't it?"
"I don't much like that phrase."
"Exactly why I used it," she leaned forward and up to kiss him quickly on the cheek. "I'll see you again this afternoon. Enjoy your morning with the boys."
Then it was back to that song of hers.
Making my mark-making my mark on high so-ci-ety!
I'm the bell of the ball, the star of the show,
I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!"
Blueblood finished getting dressed and secretly hoped the little tune didn't end up catching in his head again. The last thing he needed was to end up muttering the lyrics during the Grand Master's speech. Even if he was a pony on the go; the type of pony everypony-everypony should kn - damnit!
- - -
My approving glance is what they all seek!
I'm the crème de la crème, not just another Jane Doe,
I'm the type of pony every pony should know!
At home at the opera, on a fancy yacht..
Becoming the talk-the talk of all of Canterlot
I'm the crème de la crème, not just another Jane Doe,
Yeah, I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!
"Four hundred wing-power, actually! The sails can generate a very impressive rate of acceleration. There? You see that ripple in the air? We don't even need a Pegasus team to start the process anymore, the Princess Hesperus is among the first of her kind to..."
Rarity rolled her eyes as the Prince continued to show off his new toy to a predominantly male audience. Freed from the confines of Canterlot proper, he had changed into a (relatively speaking) casual and very modern shirt with a black double-breasted overcoat and blue cravat. Golden epaulets and a stately captain's hat with formal gold buttons, motif and chin strap worn over the brim.
Unfortunately, from the moment the party began on the Princess Hesperus, still docked on the side of a mountain breezeway, it had been impossible to pull him away from his fellow aero-nautical enthusiasts. From the deck to the engines to the balloon - an 'envelope' he called it for some reason Rarity couldn't fathom, correcting any and every reference to it as a balloon - he seemed to be on a personal crusade to show off every inch of his new airship.
Crossing the broad sun deck of the ship, Rarity saw the other object of her little scheme.
Fancypants had been lured aboard but thus far remained with his own clique. Having met the charming and famous unicorn at the Wonderbolt Derby, and accidentally managing to impress him with an inspired and unexpected bet on the first race, she had attended several events with him, often striking up conversation. Blueblood had implied that the other stallion held a grudge, but if he did (and his behavior on the boat, er, ship, today supported that) then he was a big enough pony not to let it interfere with how he viewed her.
Her plan had been to bring Fancypants and Blueblood together to start to mend the fences between them. After several days of furious socializing and maneuvering she had managed to get them not just at the same party - that had been managed the day before - but in a relatively casual environment. From what she had learned, both stallions enjoyed air-yachting, having much stronger stomachs for heights than herself. The dozen or so ponies lounging around on the yacht's sun deck had already been plied with wine, sweets and perfect weather.
By virtue of operating in Canterlot, many of Fancypants' own informal circle were formally beholden to the Duke in whose city they did business. Over the last few days, Rarity had spent much of her time bridging that divide, and in the process she had noticed something. As colloquial and charm-less as some of Blueblood's tastes occasionally ran - such as his preference for gauche liquors and his uncanny skill at darts - more often than not he still mingled within and among his social bracket in Canterlot.
This meant only the landed and titled nobility, much like the current crop of ponies hanging on his every word as he described the acre and a half of imported cotton that made up his airship's big balloon (or envelope or whatever). Jet Set and Upper Crust seemed to be making an attempt to be the exception, sticking close to their patron. There was still something about the two wealthy unicorns that set Rarity on edge, but she tried to put it aside in favor of more pleasing company.
She noticed Fleur levitating a colorful glass of rum and fruit and beckoned her over.
"Any luck?" Rarity asked, hoping for some good news.
"Fancy wants a yacht just like this now," she answered, sipping her drink with a straw. For once, she had been talked into wearing a dress, albeit a plain one of fine imported silk. "But he's still being his usual stubborn self. I asked if he wanted to join me in touring the ship with His Grace... he gave some excuse about wanting to see the ship himself."
"I think we should get them to try and meet below decks somewhere private," Rarity told her. "Blueblood doesn't want to lose face on this and I think Fancypants is much the same."
"He isn't normally this proud," Fleur said with a sigh. "This over-proud, anyway. I'd almost think he would sooner not build that silly park of his rather than make amends."
Going over their plan, the two mares soon returned to their respective parties on the airship. Conveniently, it wasn't long before a steward called the guests to the aft exterior deck for coffee and a choice viewing of Celestia lowering the Sun. As the realm's domain switched over to Princess Luna, Blueblood's guests were treated to entertainment, drinks and expensive imported treats from the far south in the partly enclosed sky lounge. Later in the evening, the nobleponies and their wealthy peers would enjoy a dance in the airship's small but luxurious ballroom and stateroom amidships.
That was when Rarity determined they should make their move.
"Rarity," Fleur said, just as they made to part ways. "Do you really believe this to work? His Grace really thinks to make amends with my Fancy? They have not been on good terms in many years, and in all the years I have known him, Lord Blueblood never struck me as the type to - well... how to put it politely?"
"He is a good stallion," Rarity assured her. "As is Fancypants. I know it will work! We just need to give them a chance... and a little prodding!"
"I must admit, I don't think I share your optimism." Fleur's voice grew more quiet as she said it.
"Don't worry!" Rarity politely touched a hoof to Fleur's elbow in comfort. "Things will work out. I promise!"
- - -
"Wait here?" Blueblood asked, having been interrupted on his way back to the salon door and the busy stateroom full of influential and expectant ponies. Rarity had interposed herself between him and the exit.
"Rarity, please," he continued, but stopped. "I have guests to attend to."
The dressmaker placed a hoof to his chest. "Just stay here a moment longer. I'll be right back!"
Rarity straightened and primped her vanilla and eggshell dress as she left the room, leaving the Equestrian Prince behind. Perplexed, Blueblood almost objected again, but finally opted to sigh and wait as she had requested. When she had first pulled him aside and into the private salon within the Princess Hesperus, he had rather hoped she wanted to talk - or do more than talk - away from the prying eyes of the ship's guests. Instead she had stood around for a few minutes, silent and increasingly anxious.
No hanky-panky, then.
The question remained, then: what was she up to? Turning from the door, he trotted over to one of the bookshelves. The salon and smoke room was small, as one would expect even in a luxurious airship yacht, but well furnished. Like the state room, it was made in an imitation Trottoman style, with soft divans, low tables and high vertical taboret cabinets. The walls were plain, save for geometric designs near the ceiling, instead relying on the shelves of books to provide color. It was a nice room, but compared to the library under construction at his newest property near Ponyville, it was nothing at all.
The opening of the door behind him prompted Blueblood to slowly turn -
And rein in his surprise. "Upper Crust? Jet Set?"
"Your Grace," the wealthy unicorn mare greeted him with a bow. Jet Set followed a moment later by inclining his head in respect and deference. Both unicorns were impeccably dressed in shirt and bundle sweater about the shoulders, a popular ensemble of fine taste but little creativity.
"To what do I owe the pleasure? I was expecting... well!" Blueblood chuckled. "I'm not sure what I was expecting!" he admitted, and asked, "Ah, yes, so what is all this about?"
"My Grace, you'll pardon us for intruding," Jet Set replied, adjusting the small glasses perched on his nose. "But we have become aware of some disturbing rumors."
"Rumors?" Blueblood asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity. "Well, out with it. What rumors?"
"We have heard that you seek to re-negotiate with Fancypants," Jet Set continued, sounding confident of the fact. "Is that true?"
"I have no such plans," Blueblood's response was icy. "And I question where you heard it."
"Pardon, but - your mistress, Miss Rarity," Upper Crust said the name with a little huff. "She has been spending time with Fancypants, plying him with words of your desire to make amends."
"Amends?" Blueblood asked, taking a calming breath.
"Perhaps it would be best to see to this ourselves? Rather than rely on hearsay?" Upper Crust suggested, bowing obsequiously. "We saw Miss Rarity speaking animatedly with Fancypants on our way in."
"Did you?" Blueblood rankled, and bulled past the pair. "Yes, let us see what gossip infects ponies ears, and what truth there is to it."
- - -
"Miss Rarity," Fancypants had long since lost his genial tone. "While your sentiment is appreciated, we have no desire to bow to the Duke's whims. Not again."
"That isn't what I meant!" Rarity all but pleaded, and hastened to keep her voice low. "Only that - only that if you two were to talk about this, about these issues, then..."
"I have already been informed as to what you expected from this little scheme," Fancypants cut her off, face drawn into a frown. He glanced over her, at the party going on at the far end of the stateroom, and flexed his neck, working out his mood and putting on a cultured and collected tone of voice. Even if they were speaking quietly enough to be discrete.
"I am an independent stallion," he stated with what had to be waning patience. "I bow only to her Highness, the Princess. Certainly I have no need to bend knee to Lord Blueblood. I see now why you went so far to find my good graces - you wished to bring me into his fold, did you?"
"No!" Rarity objected. "No! Didn't Fleur tell you?"
"She was the one who warned me."
"But! Why would-" Rarity stammered, and looked around for the other mare. She found her approaching, circling around from the side of the room without a care in the world. "Why would she say something like that? Why would she-"
"It is true, is it not?"
"Isn't it?" Fleur-de-lis asked, seamlessly inserting herself into the conversation and knowing exactly what was under discussion.
"You know it isn't!" Rarity had to fight to keep her voice down and not make a scene. "Fleur-"
"I am sorry, Rarity," the model and noblemare said, and turned to her husband. "Fancy, please, can we just go? I'm tired and coming here was a mistake."
Rarity was on the verge of screaming, even lunging at her friend turned traitor, but the look on Fleur's face stopped her tongue. Whether she was a convincing actress or genuinely distressed, the other mare seemed truly pained. She leaned close to Fancypants, said something under her breath, and it was enough to make up his mind.
"My dear, perhaps it is best we retire for the evening?" Fancypants looked from Fleur, to Rarity, and then back. As always, he kept his poise and fine bearing, even as he excused himself and escorted her from the stateroom.
"What just happened?" Rarity reached out for the retreating couple, still stunned by the turn of events. The sound of muttering and half-whispered voices seemed to close in on her, quickly silenced by the sound of aluminum clad hooves on the mahogany deck.
Approaching her were a rather irate looking Prince Blueblood, followed by a smug Jet Set and Upper Crust. Rarity stepped nervously away, seeing them make their way through the crowd. Everything she had planned had been thrown upside down! Why? Why had Fleur turned on her? She had seemed to supportive, so - so...!
She had seemed like a friend.
"Miss Rarity," Blueblood said, a cold greeting from him given how much had passed between them since the Gala. "I would ask that we have some words."
Pulling the dressmaker aside, Blueblood lowered his head until they were eye-to-eye.
"I warned you to be cautious of Fancypants," he whispered. "What has he put into your head?"
"Nothing!" Rarity whispered back, hotly. "Nothing at all! And I'm insulted you would think so little of me."
"Jet Set and Upper Crust told me you were spreading rumor of what I said about my past trouble with him. That was spoken of in confidence! If I appear to bow to Fancypants, who else will saunter up to me expecting recompense?" He shook his head, blue eyes pleading. "Rarity, I am not just Prince, I am Duke. Did it not occur to you that I have cliens and ponies, Jet Set and Upper Crust included, who would..."
"Fleur," Rarity said, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. She pushed Blueblood to the side, getting a good look at the two rich unicorns. They were exchanging pleased looks.
"Fleur told them," she realized.
"She was in on this, too?" Blueblood asked, raiding his head to look, not at the wealthy financier ponies, but at the exit Fancypants and Fleur had passed through a moment before. Rarity was looking there, too, still unable to fathom what had happened.
"I just don't know - all I wanted was... was for you two to...!" Rarity choked back a sob as the realization hit that not only had she failed to bring Blueblood and Fancypants together, the situation had been made worse by the sharing of her indiscretion. Her eyes watered and she shamefully crushed them shut and galloped for a door - any door. It didn't matter, as long as she could be alone.
She never saw Upper Crust snort in disdain.
"Not the most dignified of displays," the wealthy unicorn muttered, just loud enough for her husband to hear. "I knew she was crass-"
"Muzzle your wife," Blueblood hissed, not bothering to even turn around. He didn't need to add a threat to make his intentions clear. Jet Set made a quick, upset face that seemed to ask his wife, 'Celestia's throne, did you really have to say that?' For her part, Upper Crust lowered her head and said nothing else.
With all the dignity he could muster, the Prince followed to find his special somepony.
Fleur and Fancypants, and their maneuverings, could wait.
- - -
Rarity was not easily consoled. Not really. Her state of mind that evening was not difficult to discern, not to a stallion of great experience and keen insight. Which was to say -
"I can NOT believe her! I can not - OOOH! All that work! And to think I thought she was my friend! OOOH! If I ever get my hooves on her!"
Blueblood craned his neck as a belt of fabric flew through the air, missing him by inches.
"Ahh... Rarity," he tried to say.
"She set me up! Set ME up! Oh, I must've looked like an absolute foal!"
The Prince ducked as a pair of long feathers whipped through the air.
"The next time I see her! OOOH! You just wait! You just wait!"
And there went a flying needle, a little too close for comfort.
It was time to put a hoof down.
"Rarity!" Blueblood barked, finally raising his voice. "Fewer lethal flying objects, please?"
The angry mare turned on him, glaring fiercely, only to melt a moment later into contrition. For all that she had comported herself, or tried to, between the mess on the airship party and the return to the castle, her confusion and frustration and grief were as easy to see as the puffy redness in her eyes and the running of her makeup. Giving him a silent apology with her eyes, Rarity returned to venting her roiling state of mind on her mannequine and Twilight Sparkle's would-be dress.
"I'm sorry," she finally said, after jamming a few needles into the helpless wooden figure.
"I really don't think you should be designing when angry," Blueblood observed, walking up to her and tapping a hoof to the mismatched and savaged dress on the poor dummy. "Unless this is some kind of gothic vampire-pony look?"
She shook her head, sniffing. "No. It isn't."
Rarity rested her forehead against the abused mannequine and mangled dress.
"I - I'm so sorry I told Fleur about what you said! I am! But... would - would it have worked?" she asked, turning to him with hopeful eyes. "If I had gotten you two alone?"
Blueblood took perhaps a second or two too long to answer.
"Who can say?" he quickly changed the topic, "But I bear responsibility too. This was not how I wanted to introduce you to Canterlot's high society. You had good intentions and I could never fault you for that."
"I just don't understand why she would...!" Rarity sucked in a breath, shaking her head and tossing her mane back and forth as she struggled to keep from sounding as angry and betrayed as she felt. "She seemed so supportive of the idea when we talked before. Maybe she was right. Maybe this was all just a mistake..."
Rarity continued to work on Twilight's dress, though as much to settle her own thoughts as she hurried to meet the deadline for her friend's birthday tomorrow. Blueblood stayed up, mostly just keeping an eye on her as she stitched and transformed fabric. Only when she began to drowse off did he float her over to the bed and seek out a quill and linen scroll.
He also retrieved a certain teak case with a chain and wax seal, one rarely used.
- - -
So called "Hunting" lodges were not, as one could imagine, terribly common in Equestria. The reason for this was the most obvious: ponies had a deep connection with the land and the animals that populated it. Within domesticated zones, the parts of Equestria that ninety-nine percent of ponies never left, tamed animals of all sorts also had a degree of intelligence. This was particularly manifest in the belt that ran east to west across Equestria proper, with Canterlot at the center. Only the northern and southern borders, and the far west, were still somewhat wild and contained un-tamed versions of the critters most ponies took for granted.
In light of this, most ponies would rightly balk at hunting, especially since they had little predatory instinct themselves. This was as true of noble ponies as was for commoners - hunting lodges were a cultural shibboleth and relic from a time before most griffins had been driven north and most diamond dogs retreated into the earth. Little actual hunting took place, and even then only if one counted things like recreational fishing, falconry, or flushing.
Noble families tasked to maintain a lodge did so primarily to officially oversee and ensure the continued domestication of the area, for example, by keeping pest populations in check. Pony-forming was not permanent and any realm could revert if not constantly cared for. Outside of this critical but mundane function, the lodge was also a convenient retreat just outside city limits, typically also attached to a small noble manor house.
It was also Twilight Sparkle's family home.
Ptarmigan Manor cradled itself among the high peaks that also hosted Canterlot's mighty foundations. Nestled against the side of a promontory, it was reachable only via air-chariot or through a short path that wound around Canterlot's primary mountain. The region was green and bright in the cool mountain air, with sparkling clear lakes dotted between the mighty outcroppings of rock and the verdant lands below.
A small waterfall served as scenic backdrop for the two story lodge and the small manor house adjacent, twinkling droplets of mist forming a faint cloud tinted with cascading rainbow. A channel had been cut beneath the main lodge to allow the lake behind the buildings to flow underneath and into an artificial lake with manicured grass and a track for landed chariots. Today, that lakeside parking was at a premium, with a half dozen chariots in gold and silver waiting for their owners to return.
"Twilight! My baby!"
"Hi, mom!" Twilight beamed at her mother's affectionate embrace, the older unicorn quickly starting to fuss over her mane and appearance. She had made the trip from Canterlot to Ptarmigan on hoof and still wore a set of plain saddlebags. Since she had already decided to visit Rarity and have her birthday party in Canterlot, it made sense to drop her things off at home and stay the night rather than catch a late train back to Ponyville.
The idea of all her friends staying over was appealing, too - it could be another slumber party! She made a mental note to write a physical note to better organize this one ahead of time.
"Are you getting enough to eat in Ponyville? I hear all they have are apples in that town!"
"Mom, please!" Twilight rolled her eyes at her mother's babying. Twilight Velvet's mien quickly morphed back to a lady of station after one last pinch to the cheek and she led her daughter past the lodge to the main house. The reunion with her daughter had clearly lifted her spirits, but Twilight noticed an absence or two.
"Um, mom?" She looked around, half expecting a surprise to jump out of one of the empty rooms. "Where's dad? Or Shining Armor?"
"Your father and brother were called off for some big secret meeting," Twilight Velvet replied, annoyed by their untimely absence. "First yesterday and now this? They didn't even have time for breakfast, but they said they'd be back just after noon."
"They took a chariot?"
"You probably would've run into them on the road if they hadn't. You could've taken one, too, dear. We'd happily have paid for a rental. Or you could use the family carrier."
"It was just a short walk. Besides, I've been trying to get more exercise. You know I won fifth place in the Running of the Leaves in Ponyville last year? It's probably a little unrealistic, but if I get fourth or even third this year I'll be pretty happy!"
Soon they were at her old room on the second floor; Twilight emptied her saddlebag of everything except some bits and a few other necessities. Of course, she had every intention of staying at Ptarmigan for a few hours to meet up with the rest of her family. Then, come afternoon, she'd drop by on Rarity with the rest of the gang taking the later train. It was so nice of Princess Celestia to let them use the palace ballroom for her party! Rarity seemed to be having a very hard time in the castle-city, and it just wouldn't have been right to have the party without her.
"Oh, were are those two?" Her mother had the drapes to the room opened wide, and she gasped and smiled at the sight of a chariot circling around from above. "There they are! Finally!"
"So how have things been?" Twilight asked, and quickly added, "I'm sorry I haven't written more often."
"There isn't much going on here, but your brother has been having the most interesting time at the castle! But I'll let him fill you in on that!"
She hurried back out the room, and Twilight followed at a more sedate pace. It was nice to see home again, though with all the years spent in Canterlot's palace and sanctum, with Celestia, it was almost like her old home was a second home. She could vaguely remember being very small and looking up at the same walls and paintings and antiques; she could remember going to events in the nearby lodge and marveling at all the rare crests and heraldic flags on display, donated by visiting nobles.
But was this really "home" anymore?
Twilight wasn't sure. Lately, Ponyville had begun to seem more like home than even Canterlot. She had friends there, and a job at the library, and more than enough adventure to boot. The Princess was in Canterlot - was she the reason Twilight had once thought of it as home? Her parents were in Ptarmigan - it had been home too, but was it because of them? Was Ponyville her home because of the connections to ponies she had made there?
"I noticed a bunch of other chariots outside," Twilight remembered, following her mother down a flight of stairs. "Is there a reception at the lodge or...?"
"A few of your cousins dropped by to see you," her mother replied, magically opening a door to the side of the manor facing the lodge and the waterfall. "Your aunt Sly Sparkle is here, too. Mostly unicorns from your father's side of the family."
Twilight nodded - that made sense. Her father was the one who belonged to a major clan. Most extended unicorn families splintered after a generation or two. Only the larger families, the older ones, or the richer ones had the finances and political inclinations to keep in touch across Equestria and to make one-pony's interests into larger entire-family interests. There were also, not coincidentally, the families that had the most to lose and to gain depending on who individual family members married. Having a large active family with connections across the country made for a strong social safety net.
"Anypony I know?" she asked. In a large family, and her father's extended family numbered almost fifty strong, it was hard to keep track of everypony. What she meant was: anyone whose name I should absolutely know when I meet them.
"Lord Alpha Brass is in Canterlot so he came by," Twilight Velvet recalled, waving to her husband and son as they exited their chariot out by the front lake. A flight of wide stone steps could lead them up between the manor and the lodge.
"Skipping Stone is also here, with his wife. They flew in from Cloudsdale just to see you. Your little cousin Jay is here, all grown up, and - how could I forget? Lord Wrathenow. He's a little hard of hearing, so you may have to speak up when you see him. I had expected Prince Blueblood to come by as well, but..."
"He's with Rarity in Canterlot," Twilight said, having that tidbit of information already. "I'm sure I'll see him later."
"He is our Duke," Twilight Velvet demurred. "But, Twilight, are things.. serious between your friend and His Grace?"
"I don't know. I suppose? Why?"
"Oh... No reason."
"Twilight!" Crescent Moon, Twilight's father, finally reached greeting distance. He was a tall blue stallion with midnight blue mane, neatly combed into a single short curl. Twilight was a little surprised to see him in formal clothes. Both her father and mother preferred the natural look.
In fact, he and Shining Armor were dressed similarly: in formal looking high-collared shirts and vests. Shining Armor wore his with a belt, Crescent Moon without. Twilight couldn't place the type or design of the clothes themselves, but they seemed uniform-like. Which made sense on her brother, a Royal Guard, but less on her father. He hadn't served as anything more than a Ducal Guard Captain and that was years ago. A small golden pendant was tucked into both stallion's collars in the form of a strange looking "Y" ... Twilight recognized it, after a moment, as the symbol for the constellation Aries.
It was time to catch up with some estranged family.
- - -
The Elements of Harmony.
What a wonderful sextet of mares. They were sure to absolutely destroy the garden party this afternoon. Pure coincidence, surely, that Auntie Celestia had given them the palace ballroom right next to the one stretch of castle green where two dozen of Canterlot's finest were sure to be snootily enjoying themselves. Given what he had experienced at the Gala - over and over and over and OVER - Blueblood really wondered if he was right in the head to be looking forward to it.
At least this time he would be anticipating the party-smashing fun.
"How nice to see you all again," he greeted them with a broad, honest smile. One of his regrets, after the Gala, is simply being unable to find the time to get to know the five other mares he had studied so closely in an attempt to manufacture that elusive, perfect Gala night.
"Well, howdy there, yer lordship!" Applejack, of course, was the first to not only speak up but grab his hoof and shake vigorously.
"J - J - just a minute!" Rarity called from inside the suite, still putting the finishing touches on Twilight's dress. Blueblood lingered a moment in the doorway.
"It seems she isn't quite decent yet," he explained.
"Ah, we've all seen her naked. In fact, most of us are naked right now!" Pinkie Pie tried to sneak a peek past him, forcing him to divert a hoof to physically push her off his back.
"You know how Rarity is." Rainbow Dash gave a groan before finally landing. "One hair out of place and she freaks out."
"While we wait..." And by 'we' he meant all of them. "Is there anything I can do to help set up this party I've heard of? I wouldn't want you to lack for anything. Explosives, perhaps?"
"That's sweet, but I brought plenty!" Pinkie replied, bouncing in place.
"Naturally you did."
"Hey!" Twilight suddenly said, pointing to his collar. "You have one of those, too?"
"Ah, yes, this." Blueblood coughed, covering the little golden pendant. "I forgot to take it off."
Thankfully, before prying questions could be asked - questions he was honor bound not to answer - Rarity called from behind him that she was 'ready.' Which meant that she'd managed to fix up the dress enough from the other night to make it presentable. The thing had gone through a half dozen revisions overnight as Rarity's mood drifted from anger to resignation to determination to lethargy (around when she finally fell asleep) to panic to yet more panic, but with white trim.
"So sorry to have you wait," Blueblood said, stepping aside and motioning for the five Ponyville mares to enter.
The six friends quickly met in a group hug, which he took as a cue to stealthily remove his collar and return it to its case. It was also fortuitous timing to retrieve his own gift. From what he had learned of her during and after the Gala loops, Twilight was a rather easy mare to shop for - she just loved books. This was convenient in several respects given who and what she was.
"Rarity, it's so plain... so simple... so practical... so ME!"
Blueblood raised an amused eyebrow, smirking at the sight of Rarity caught in Twilight's excited embrace. The dress, which had gone through more permutations and reallocations than Equestria's fiscal budget, had ended up as a rather chaste little cream-yellow sundress. Which was a bit of a shame, since the scandalously sexy black number Rarity had made around one in the morning had potential. Luckily he'd squirreled that one away for later, just in case its creator wished to... revisit it... sometime.
"It's the perfect dress for my birthday party! I love it!"
"Twilight, you do not know how happy I am to hear you say that..."
On went the dress, and to Rarity's credit, it did look... chaste. 'Chaste' was definitely the best way to describe it. No feathers, no inlay, no stitched in gems or lace. The pink shawl gave it a little lively color, but even that was - ah - 'chaste.' Twilight loved it, though, which was what mattered. It was a work of love. Also frustration and panic. But mostly love.
"You're thinking something weird, aren't you?" Pinkie Pie invaded his personal space, staring up at something over his head. What? Did she expect a cloud to be following him around, projecting his thoughts like some kind of weird illusion spell?
The fact that he even thought that probably meant he needed to see a shrink.
"My thoughts involve nothing outside the ordinary," he assured her, stepping back.
"Twilight, everypony, I am so glad to see you. Truly! Yesterday was just terrible!" Rarity had already found a hat to go with her sundress in preparation for going out. "Thank you all for coming out to Canterlot. I was in no state at all to take a midnight train back to town."
"Aw, twern't nothin!"
"Yeah, don't sweat it!"
"We're gonna sleep over at Twilight's house! I think this's even better than having the party in Ponyville!"
"As long as we're together... um... I think that's what matters most."
"Exactly!" Twilight agreed wholeheartedly with her friends. She then turned to the one pony present outside her normal clique. "Ahm, you can come too, if you want to?"
"I had planned to attend the garden party next door regardless, so it would be a pleasure." Blueblood snickered inside, knowing it was only a matter of time before one party crashed face-first into the other. No wonder Auntie had been unable to resist inviting her Elements to crash the Gala. This was devilish fun.
"I do hope you have popcorn," he added, but soon coughed and remembered, "But before that, I also have a present for you. Happy birthday, Twilight Sparkle."
He levitated open a nearby glass case.
The typically visible field of magic indicative of unicorn telekinesis then formed, moved through the air, and hovered to his side. Really: he did have a little too much of Auntie in him these days. The look of confusion on their faces was just priceless. He knew just what they had to be seeing: nothing. Just an empty magical field.
"Would you stop playing around?" Rarity remarked, spoiling the fun.
"Oh yes," he remarked with a grin. "I forgot to wrap it."
Plucking a cut red ribbon off Rarity's easel nearby, he wrapped it around his magical field, then over, pulling it taut. The ribbon, which should have pulled into a knot, instead caught on something solid. Something small and square. A book.
"An invisible book?" Rainbow Dash asked, flying over for a close inspection. "Uh... that doesn't even make sense!"
"Oooh! I wonder if it's written in invisible ink!"
"Uh, I don't think it would matter much, sugarcube. Invisible ink on invisible pages...?"
Floating the book over to Twilight, she first took it in her own magical field, and then touched a hoof to the ribbon. Her eyes shot wide open.
"I can see it!" she exclaimed, though it remained invisible to everypony else.
"Ya can?" Applejack asked, shooting Fluttershy a confused shrug. "So only unicorns can see it?"
"Now that she has touched it, only Twilight can read the actual pages or even see the cover," Blueblood finally explained.
"Hiding in Plain Sight," Twilight read, sparkles in her eyes. "The Art of Invisibility. Unabridged edition!"
"Hey. Does it really have to be invisible itself?" Rainbow Dash asked, growing a little suspicious.
She was definitely smarter than she let on.
"The spells within are not for common use," Blueblood said, and it was the truth. Not the whole truth. But enough of it.
Enough to convince the competitive and sharp eyed weathermare.
Twilight tightened the ribbon on the book and bowed gracefully. "Thank you, Your Grace!"
"I'm glad you like it; you may find it useful some day."
"Now that we're ready, let's go party!"
"You said it!" "All right!" "Come on, Fluttershy! You can just jump off the stairs out here." "I, um, I'd rather just walk..."
Closing the door to the tower suite behind them, Blueblood noticed Rarity watching him and lingering behind her friends. Letting the five mares get a little distance, he slowed, expecting she had a few words to exchange. The pair of unicorns slowly descended the winding tower stairs together, side by side.
"There's something odd about that book, isn't there?" Rarity asked.
He chuckled. "It is an invisible book."
"The perfect thing to hide secrets in."
"Oh? That never occurred to me."
"Are you going to tell me what's really in there?"
"I don't see why," he quipped. "You can't read it."
And there she was, looking cross at him. He held off saying more, at least until she pouted. That was harder to resist.
"Fine," Prince Blueblood relented with a helpless shrug. "If you must know, that book contains dark and unimaginable secrets with which to subjugate Canterlot or even all of Equestria. One could call it a key to the very gates of hell itself, written not with quill and ink, but with dreams made solid, manifest and terrible."
Rarity stared at him, long and hard...
Before shaking her head. "If you really aren't going to tell me," she replied, sounding mildly upset but not too worried. "Then you could at least put effort into make up a more convincing lie."
"Alas, Lady Rarity, that's simply too much work."
- - -
Fight it all she could, Rarity just couldn't help herself.
Maybe it was the sight and sound of the orchestra playing Schumare's 'Moonlit Night' outside. Maybe it was the elegantly dressed ladies and handsomely attired and groomed stallions. Maybe it was the shaded table of delightfully colorful and delicious looking amuse-bouches, with its ice-sculpture of Princess Celestia and waiters making the rounds, offering treats to chatting and scheming elites. Maybe it was the perfectly cut and maintained lawn, framed by fountains of crystal water and immaculate hedges cut into elaborate topiary, vines and rose bushes curling up to reach the sun. Maybe it was even the cultured game of crochet underway.
Maybe it was one's uncultured buffoon of a Prince wagging his eyebrows at her as he enjoyed the party, taking every opportunity to remain obviously in view of the ballroom. Chatting away with a small crowd of mares. Annoying. Making exaggerated gestures as he savored bite-sized Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. Vexing. Laughing with celebrities and - and was he flirting with that cellist?! Destroy.
"No! No!" Rarity swooned, dramatically, for good measure. "Must! Resist!"
Besides, no matter how... attractive and cultured and wonderful...
No, no matter how nice the party out there looked, half the ponies in that garden were probably working some scheme behind the back of the other half. Hadn't Blueblood himself called Canterlot's court a 'pit of snakes eating other snakes, begetting other snakes?' That was nothing to aspire to! All she had to do was pretend it didn't exist.
Mind over matter.
"Hey, look at the fancy party out there! Whatcha think they're doin' with that bat?"
"That's a croquet mallet, AJ."
"How do you know?"
"I've been to tons of posh parties in Cloudsdale, and I'll have you know I'm totally awesome at that game."
"Oh, look at all the song birds."
"And snacks! But no chocolate. How can they have snacks but no chocolate? Oh! Oh! We should so totally bring them chocolate! It's too addictive NOT to share! Wait a second. I don't see even one balloon. Somepony tell me they aren't having a balloon-less party. Even funerals can at least have black balloons."
So much for mind over matter.
Her friends were just about to return to their curious mixture of eating fondue and breaking open a piñata - at the same time - when Twilight, perceptive as always, noticed one of her friends lingering longer than the others. Rarity just couldn't help it. Even after the disaster last night, even after being upset with herself and absolutely furious at Fleur, the garden party outside was like a siren drawing her to sea in a rising tide of fashion and high culture. What made it really unbearable was that she knew, she knew without a doubt, that she could fit in with Canterlot's elite. All she had to do was try. All she had to do was want to.
"Rarity," Twilight said, still wearing the incomplete and frankly plain dress her friend hadn't been able to finish. "That other party... do you want to go?"
"Oh, Twilight, I - I couldn't!" Rarity forcefully pushed herself away from the ballroom window. "This is your birthday and... I... I'm! So! Selfish!"
"I don't think so! It makes sense!" Twilight blinked and smiled, somehow not comprehending Rarity's own confusion and guilt on the issue. "The Grand Galloping Gala is in a couple months, and look at all those posh ponies. I bet you could sell them lots of dresses! It's just good business sense!"
"Well, yes, it is... I could..." Rarity replied, a little hesitantly. A little warning bell was already ringing way in the back of her mind. A little warning telling her that any second now-
"Hey, yeah! And we could come too!" There it was.
To cheers and the squeaking wheels of an unlimbered party cannon, the Elements of Harmony left the building.
- - -
Canterlot's roads were designed from the start to be smooth and easy on carriage wheels, with cobblestone only on pedestrian walkways and the sides of major streets and venues. Fancypants hardly felt the occasional bump or jolt. He had on his preferred three piece dinner jacket, minus the bow tie. That item of clothing remained, unbound, in a small case by the side of his seat. Reaching up to his neck, it was easy to recall that morning, when he had worn a different item under his collar.
A Brother could not refuse the summons of another Brother.
Even if that so called "brother" in the Order was Blueblood.
Fancypants flicked the collar of his shirt in annoyance. Not so much at the arrogant, ignorant noble who had, years ago, so rudely denied him a well earned knighting. The same teenage Prince who had tried to shackle him by making him into a regional cliens. The same former friend who had scuttled his plans for an amusement park where the children of nobles and commoners could mingle freely, with no booths or boxes or hedgerows between them. It was not that pony that vexed Fancypants at the moment.
"So it was him?" Fancypants asked, nodding to himself. "He put you up to this? You are absolutely sure?" He turned to Fleur, the beautiful unicorn seated next to him. "I want to trust you, my dear. I really do."
"It is impossible to be entirely certain," she replied, eyes downcast. "But yes."
"And your family has already been rewarded for your little stunt?" Fancypants chuckled in dry amusement, floating up his bow tie and snaking it around his upturned shirt collar. "How sad for that cruel little colt, then. It changes nothing."
"I am sorry, Fancy. I - I thought... you and Blueblood..."
"Would not reconcile? I would not have thought it either. We may still not, as - aw, blast it all!"
"I'll get it." Fleur's soft pink glow eased into his own magical field, helping to tie the purple bow to just the right length. A little tug, to pull the neckcloth together, and it was all in place. Fancypants glanced down and smiled approvingly.
"I am so sorry, Fancy," she said again. "I wasn't just thinking of my family, I was thinking of you. And us."
Fancypants sighed and closed his eyes, the steady rhythm of the carriage Fleur's only response.
"In other circumstances, my dear... in another world perhaps, there could be a me and a you, in a carriage just like this one, on our way to a garden party." He opened his eyes and glanced at her, not with anger or hurt, but with honest affection. "And that Fancypants could well be lauding you for your move. But I am not him, and he is not me. I will give His Grace the chance to prove he has changed."
"And..." Fleur said the name quietly, "Lord Brass?"
"Yes. Him. I find it interesting he would trade an estate, even a small one like your family sold back in Prance, all for the chance to keep me and Lord Blueblood at odds. He must know I have no desire to play these political games. I am independent. I am neutral in this inane family feud-"
"No pony can stay neutral, Fancy," Fleur said it like an indictment, and with enough heat to cause him to turn his head. "Especially not if he gave you the knighthood you wanted. I don't know what I was thinking..."
"I can not remain angry at you, my dear. I fear love has blinded me, even in my good eye. Make no mistake, however," he cut her off, his expression hardening. "I am disappointed in you. I know exactly what crossed your mind. You were thinking: I can gain much, if I sacrifice my principles just a little. We are all presented with choices like that, but it is up to our better nature to prevail against it. Perhaps I am a little guilty as well. But there is the chance that, this afternoon, we can both make up for it."
"And," he added, before she could say more. "And possibly even save two friendships, tossed aside in haste and bad judgment."
- - -
"How come y'all aren't doin' any yard work? This is a garden party, isn't it?"
Applejack - uprooting random plants. That had to be worth a drink.
"Yeah! Yeah! Who wants to get down and dance?"
Twilight - oh sweet Celestia, was kind of dancing was that? The epileptic boogie?
Was that Pinkie Pie, face first in a cake?
"I need another drink," Rarity said, still reeling a bit from downing her last one. Surely after a few more glasses, inebriation would kick in and it wouldn't seem quite so bad. Ideally all the other guests could get hammered as well. Perhaps everypony could just forget what happened!
"Oh, this is priceless! Simply priceless."
"You," Rarity growled at the nearby Prince who, since the fiasco began, had done nothing but sit back and watch. "Aren't you going to do something, Your Grace?"
"Me?" Blueblood asked, pointing a hoof at his illustrious and stainless self. "I'm not getting anywhere near that cake. You see this right here?" He pointed at the ground, and to a line in the dirt. "This is just outside the disaster radius. Which means I'm nice and safe."
"Oh, are you? Safe, that is?" Rarity brandished her glass, with a little bit of seven-and-seven left at the bottom. The shot or so of lime soda and whiskey splashed around, dangerously crashing against the remaining ice left inside.
A pony could imagine it getting on his or her nice clean shirt, or perhaps all over their smug face.
"I see!" Blueblood shot up, as if from an epiphany. "You're worried about your reputation and your friends making a scene!"
Rarity could only stare at him. "You think?!"
"If you absolutely insist, then... Oh-ho?" Blueblood pointed across the garden to a newly arriving carriage. "Is that who I think it is?"
Rarity recognized the carriage, too. "Fancypants?"
It was the straw that broke the camel's back. She started to slump, bonelessly, against the punch table. Having a similar sense, Upper Crust and Jet Set had also retreated to the table, partly to get away from the new party guests and partly to try and pick up where Rarity had left off in convincing the Prince to do something. Probably and preferably something that involved kicking ponies out and-or calling for security.
"Fancypants, too!" Jet Set, for the first time, seemed to stiffen his resolve. "Your Grace, you must do something!"
"About?" Blueblood picked that time - the worst time as usual, in Rarity's opinion - to play dense.
"About these... these country bumpkins!"
"Ah. Those." He tapped a hoof, impatiently. "I suppose I should do something."
"Yes, Yes!" Jet Set cheered.
"Please do!" Upper Crust chimed in.
Blueblood, with all his royal majesty, infrequently applied... headed off in the wrong direction, leaving the two wealthy unicorns gaping. It even left Rarity rather surprised, until she noticed where he was headed. It was not to get involved with her friends and their merry making (and whatever it was Twilight was doing). He was headed for Fancypants. The other stallion, having just exited his carriage and gotten a look at the garden party in progress, was left stunned. Behind him, Fleur was also looking on, perplexed.
"Oh no. No! Don't get into a fight!" Rarity broke into a gallop, almost losing her hat in the process. A rush of wind caught it, forcing her to nimbly circle around, grab it with magic, and fix it back on her head. By the time she got close, Blueblood and Fancypants were already -
Already... greeting each other...?
"I say, I've never seen a garden party quite like this before."
"I figure we can have fun reining things in a bit. Do you remember that play you sponsored? The Lusty Mareabian... and the garden party scene?"
"Oh yes, one could hardly forget that!" the two stallions laughed heartily.
Leaving Fleur and Rarity to exchange confused looks.
"The Lusty Mareabian?" she mouthed, and then asked, "Do I even want to know?"
"It seems we've both been the victim of a conspiracy," Fancypants continued, levitating his monocle back on and straightening his collar and coat. "A conspiracy to try and set right some past misunderstandings."
"So it seems," Blueblood agreed, and beckoned Rarity closer with a dip of his horn.
"But... last night?" Rarity asked, looking from one to the other. "I thought...?"
"That was all my fault," Fleur spoke up, but didn't meet Rarity's angry glare.
"Before you admonish her," Fancypants said, leaning down to touch his cheek to Fleur's, sharing a brief but very public display of affection. "I am here because of her. I would hope you do not make the mistake His Grace and I have, and let a mistake poison a potentially profitable relationship for another ten years."
"Of course, being the bigger pony," Blueblood explained with a haughty grin. "I am willing to first extend the olive branch."
"And if I were to extend the olive branch first, Your Grace?"
"I'd probably take it and ask for more."
"You would," Fancypants remarked with a shake of his head. "I shall allow you to go first then."
"Oh, you shall, shall you?"
The two headed off, right into the mess of the garden party.
"Those two...?" Rarity felt a sudden headache coming on. She decided to blame the alcohol and ice. In the interests of peace among ponies. Then again, there was one pony that had made that difficult.
She turned to Fleur-de-lis.
"Before either of us says anything else," Rarity demanded, "Tell me why."
Fleur sniffed, raised her head and looked the Element of Generosity straight on. Rarity could see that she was just a little defiant, even if she looked distraught. She took a deep breath, and spoke.
"Money," she explained.
"Money?" Rarity snapped. "You made a foal out of me! I was - I was put through that, for money?"
"I was asked to interfere in any reconciliation between Blueblood and Fancypants," she continued, looking away briefly before forcing herself to own up to the mare she had turned against. "In return, my family would get back lands we had sold."
"You're nobility," Rarity argued. "Why would you need more land?"
"My family is noble... but poor," Fleur said it with a shudder. "Every generation, we have lost more and more. My grandmother sold our ancestral estate in Prance. My mother sold her wardrobe. I was lucky enough to find a way to make money without causing us to lose title. Celestia knows that title is all we have left. I can't just ask Fancypants to support us - it isn't right. It isn't honorable."
"So when the opportunity arose to get some of that back, I took it. Fancy and Blueblood... I really couldn't imagine that they would ever make up. It was a long shot, anyway, right?" She asked, trying to make her reasoning clear. "Besides, Lord Blueblood... his family sponsored mine when we left Prance. He was supposed to help take care of us, and we've sworn oaths to him for a hundred years. What has all that gotten us?"
She sniffed again but kept her chin high.
"I'll understand if you can't forgive me," she finished, blinking away tears. "I feel - I am sorry I did it. But you wanted to know why? That was why."
Rarity frowned, but lowered her eyes. She had heard of impoverished nobility. Most ponies considered it an amusing sort of turnabout: the once noble family, with little more than title left. It was even the brunt of the occasional joke, about the rich stallion or mare from the middle classes, picking up a wife or husband and gaining title along the -
"Fancypants!" she realized, and asked softly, "He isn't...?"
"No." Fleur smiled wanly at the question. "I asked if he wanted to. But he wants me to marry into his family, not the other way around. He wants to earn a title, not just inherit it."
"Fleur, is... is it really that bad?"
"It isn't like the story books or moving pictures, where we have to move around like gypsies." Fleur actually laughed at the notion. "Nopony is starving. We simply slipped into debt, little by little. Without other estates or a strong new patron, leaving Canterlot is impossible. My mother... she learned how to dance, how to sit at court and display the finest manners, to speak old Equestrian and to defend her taste in art and spellwork. She could even write poetry. None of it helped her to actually make money."
"But that isn't important right now," Fleur stressed, walking up to Rarity. "I should have trusted in you, but I didn't. I should've given you a chance. I don't know if you can trust me again, or... or if you hate me for what I did."
Rarity didn't - couldn't - answer right away.
The truth was, she wasn't sure if she could trust Fleur again. The anger of the night before had bubbled over, but deep down, she wasn't the sort of pony to nurse a grudge for very long. What was left was regret and disappointment. Fleur-de-lis had been the first pony she had called friend in Canterlot, Blueblood excluded. She and Fancypants weren't just pretty ponies with charm and money - they had both genuinely seemed like ponies she could get along with. She had felt like one of them, and Fleur had kicked that out from under her.
It was hard to forgive.
She stole a look over at the garden, where Fancypants seemed to be commenting approvingly at Twilight's dress, much to the shock of Upper Crust. Blueblood was already floating his way through the records the girls had brought over, probably looking for the most inappropriate music he could find. More of that 'jazz' from the Gala even.
"If those two can try and put the past aside... I can, too." So, hard as it was, she did it anyway. Rarity shrugged, as she remembered, "Besides, you did say not to trust you, now that I think about it."
"Hmm?" Fleur wondered, blinking innocently. "I did?"
Rarity stared at the other mare. "You said, and I quote, 'When it comes to Canterlot, appearances are everything... and nothing.'"
"OOH!" Fleur reached up to bonk the side of her head. "I'd completely forgotten about that!"
Feeling a little vindicated, Rarity nodded. "So you see, I should have expected-"
"Actually, I was talking about clothes!" Fleur exclaimed, and did a little pirouette. "And how they always go out of style. Another reason not to bother with them at all!"
Rarity's face fell. "That was it?"
"I think so. My word, is that pink pony throwing cake?" Fleur's eyes widened with delight as she pulled Rarity along. "How sinfully decadent!"
"W-wait! At least let me take my dress off first! Fleur!"
- - -
The quill moved in slow, elegant strokes...
- - -
Dear Princess -
Or should I say, 'daddy's little princess' instead?
I heard the most interesting story the other day. It had to do with rats.
Bear with me. You see, imagine you have a small pack of rats in a nice little cage, all family and friends, squeaking and nibbling cheese. You then remove one of these rats, wash off all scent of her, and return her to their fellows. The rats, it is said, will turn on their former friend and family member, biting and clawing and screaming and scratching. They will not recognize her as one of the group. However, if you do the opposite and take a rat from outside the group, but wash it in the appropriate scent, it will be accepted into the new group. They will treat it as one of their own. Isn't that interesting?
Naturally, dear little sister, I first imagined: what must it be like for that first rat? Returned home, so nice and clean? She can smell her friends and family, but upon her return, they turn on her? Can you imagine the terror of what that rat must have felt, to be bitten and clawed at by friends and family? To not even know why?
Now, if you will humor me, sister, imagine you are that second rat. Dropped in a cage with however many strangers. They smell all wrong to you. You want to bite them and claw them and drive them away, but they surround you. They smell you and accept you, and you know it is a lie, so you bide your time. They will never smell like your real friends or your real family. So you wait, for a time, until you eventually forget who you were. You forget the smell of one pack and blend into another. How terrifying is that, sister? To lose oneself? Would you rather be that first rat, or the second?
Both scenarios amuse me, of course, and I would see such theories put to more practical application. But I can imagine you now, reading this, and narrowing those frightful eyes of yours. Do not fret. I have merely had some harmless fun with the rats in Canterlot. On first glance, I would have to agree with your earlier observations. Our Prince will most certainly go out of his way to stick his nose into any attempts to sideline his new bed-warmer. It may comfort you to know that I don't like her either. She is naive, yes, but with a disarming charisma. Never underestimate the sex appeal of innocence.
Lastly, and the matter you have no doubt been waiting for as you read this letter:
Regarding our own family here in Canterlot, most all are good, loyal and pliable. If ignorant. They can be counted on to act in the interests of the family as a whole, however, there are problems. Lord Wrathenow will be dead within the year. Though he did not say as much, I have the impression he will pass authority of the Canterlot branch of the family over to Crescent Moon. One last death-bed snub in response to Father's little mess, twenty years ago. This is potentially troublesome. Not only is he father of the Element of Magic, Moon has both the skill and the background to learn all he needs of our rites from Wrathenow. Both have been sympathetic to our Blueblood cousins in the past.
The following is purely my recommendation, for I would not presume to give orders to you, little sister. You should visit him when you come to the city. You are the designated heir, after all. Impress on him that the main branch of the family is watching him closely. Shining Armor is to be wed within the next half year, to Princess Cadenza. This works well for us. Perhaps Twilight Sparkle, a fine looking lady of good breeding, could also be married off? Preferably to someone loyal to us. Use those nasty eyes of yours if you have to.
The Canterlot branches of the family must be fixed firmly to the trunk of the tree. Or they must be pruned. Father and I both share this assessment.
With love, sincerity, and deep devotion,
Your dear, sweet brother,