- - -
- - -
Rarity melted into the guilty pleasure that was a skilled brush running through her mane.
"Oh. Light Touch, have I mentioned how divine you are? Simply divine."
"You have, my Lady," Light Touch replied from behind her, continuing her ministrations. The tension of the day evaporated under the supple hooves and practiced strokes of Blueblood's superbly skilled maidservant. The light blue mare was worth her weight in gold and then some. Utterly relaxed into the bedroom's fainting couch, savoring the pampering that signified the end of a long day, Rarity finally felt removed from all the troubles she had faced... and the ones that appeared on the horizon.
The odious fighting with Yumi's henchponies outside Ponyville; the mad rush after finding about Twilight and Rainbow being attacked; the mental exhaustion of weighing her options, for and against dragging her dear friends deeper into her own mess... it all seemed distant. For a time, at least. It was all left to fade into the background noise in the more remote reaches of her mind, alongside worries of how to finance her gifts to Ponyville: the new reservoir project for the pegasi she had a surveyor looking into, the new mage tower Twilight had suggested and last, but not least, the renovation and rebuilding of the town hall that had been promised Mayor Mare. If it had been possible, she would have taken up the suggestions of all her friends, but those three were the most practical projects on the table.
A more cynical side of her also had to admit that the idea of her gifts being things of permanence was attractive as well. Long after she was gone, she would leave Ponyville a better place than it had been when she was born into it. Ponies would be able to point to her gifts to the town and remember. It was egotistical - she knew that - but hopefully history and her friends wouldn't begrudge her that teeny tiny bit of narcissism. She was paying for it, after all!
"Mmmm..." Rarity sighed softly as a bundle of her mane found itself set to roller for the night. "Oh, that reminds me. Blueblood tells me your birthday is... a week from now, isn't that it? And the Art Festival is in a few days! Would like me to fit you for a dress?"
"One of my Lady's designs?" Light Touch asked, but continued, guessing correctly at the answer. "If it please my Lady, I would be honored."
"It really would please me," Rarity replied, a little sliver of exasperation escaping despite her relaxed mood. "I miss my shop. I miss..." she shook her head, resisting another sigh. "I miss things I never thought I would. As I can no longer sell dresses, or anything else, I can at least make them and give them to those close to me! I dare somepony to tell me I can not do at least that."
"I pity the pony to bear such ill tidings," Blueblood's voice heralded his entrance to the room. Rarity couldn't help but smirk at the distinctly feminine curlers in his own mane and dual nightcap he had with him - by which she meant both the light cloth protecting his mane and the tiny glass of brandy floating alongside the Prince. He disrobed easily and flashily, teleporting out of his robes and over to the bed, leaving his clothes momentarily suspended in midair. Sandy, the poor dear, hurried to catch them before they fell to the floor.
"Light Touch, I wanted to ask, before we were so rudely interrupted-"
"Rudely?" Blueblood inquired with mock offense, reclining on the bed with a small book.
"Before that," Rarity began again. "I wanted to ask where you were from, if you don't mind me asking? I'd like to add some details to your dress to reflect any local flair...?"
"My Lady, I was born in Whinnychester, but I'm afraid there is little flair to my background." Light Touch didn't sound upset by that fact. "Sandy, however, comes from exotic Bitaly. She may even have Imperial blood."
The younger, dusky brown unicorn meekly shook her head. "I never said... I mean I don't know, but... I doubt it."
"Still, Bitaly itself is quite exotic, to say nothing of Mareabia!"
"The Quartz Family is singularly intolerable," Blueblood commented from the sidelines. "The richest pony in Equestria could arrive in their lands with a full purse and leave the next day without a bit to his... or her name."
"Since my sweet, oh so charming Prince feels the need to interject himself into every conversation-"
"Not every conversation." Blueblood only had one eye on his open book, the other meeting her gaze with an amused twinkle.
"Every conversation," Rarity repeated, a bit more of her good cheer leaving her as one or two thoughts from before came back to the forefront. "There was also a matter I wanted to bring up with you."
"Ah. Sounds serious," he observed, rightly for once. "What is it? The gendarme business?"
"There was that, earlier. I'm still not sure I'm doing the right thing, dragging everypony into this mess. Your mess, really. Or our mess, now." Rarity's shoulders slumped and she leaned back into her fainting couch to try and get comfortable again.
"I think it would be more of a fight to keep some of them from not getting involved." Blueblood shrugged, but had the decency to put away his book while he talked with her about things. "Even Fluttershy wants to help, and that little pony wouldn't hurt a fly. Literally, she would avoid the fly. Or politely ask it for right of way. The rest would have to be chained down to keep them out of the fray."
"And I doubt the chain would even work on Pinkie Pie!"
"Oh no, that would require a twenty four hour elite guard, dedicated solely to keeping her from jumping in to help. Around the clock magical surveillance." He laughed with her, rolling his eyes. "I still don't know how she does what she does. The mare could confound Starswirl himself."
"It... the issue is..." Rarity hesitated a bit, wondering if he would just guess at it. Unfortunately, the Prince's perception only extended so far. He gave her a questioning look that seemed to say, 'well?'
"This morning, during the fight with Yumi's pegasus guard, Cool Breeze, I felt... I was excited by facing her. Defeating her." She hastened to give voice to her own reasoning and rationale. "Of course, I'm sure that feeling is only natural. Since the duel with Antimony, I've trained to defend myself and Ponyville. It makes sense that finally putting all that into practice would get the blood flowing. I understand that."
"But... I am not a fighter, Blueblood," she admitted with unveiled worry. "I do not want to be one. I do not want to be like Antimony... taking pleasure in fighting... and from the sound of it, this Ritter mare seems to be cut from the same sort of cloth. The dueling and the intrigues... don't you see how it goes to their heads? I can't be like that." She frowned, despite Light Touch's hooves massaging her shoulders. "I won't."
Blueblood studied her for a moment before smiling, reassuringly. "My dear, you won't be."
"How do you know?" she pressed.
"It isn't just that I do think I know you fairly well, but I know Antimony - admittedly less well - and I know Ritter. You fight for very different reasons than they do. And if that changes in the future..." He held his hoof to his chest as a vow. "I promise you will be the second, or maybe third to know!"
Despite her worry, his antics brought a smile to her face. "Pinkie Promise?"
"I suppose I can let you get off with a regular promise this once."
"Element of Generosity, indeed."
Rarity rolled her eyes. Her mane nearly readied for bed and her spirits lifted a bit, she adjusted her posture on the fainting couch a bit to be a little more flirty. He noticed right away, but it served to throw him off balance when she asked a follow up question that had occurred to her only recently.
"How did you feel after winning your first duel?" Privately, she wondered if he had experienced the same heady rush that -
Blueblood raised a noble eyebrow. "What makes you think I've ever won a duel?"
Only a last second save kept her from falling off the couch.
"Be serious!" she demanded.
"I am being serious. Mostly serious." He conjured up the book he had closed so it floated around over his head like a captured moon. "I'm no duelist. I've never pretend to be otherwise. Really, what makes you think I've won any serious duels at all?"
"You've... never won a...?" Rarity bit her tongue before finishing that sentence, realizing how rude it had to sound. "I mean..."
"Fighting and dueling was never a high priority for me," her Prince admitted, throwing chivalry and the myth of courtly, noble bravery to the wind. "I never told you...? Not this-you..."
"Ah! Nevermind that!" He sat up on the bed, putting the book aside again. "Long story short - actually, maybe this is something I should go into more detail about? Hm. What to say? You must have been quite young, but you know when my father died?"
Rarity nodded. She remembered hearing it from her parents: the Prince, their Prince, had passed away. She didn't even know what he looked like. Not off the top of her head, though surely Blueblood had pictures or paintings of his family somewhere. Didn't he? Thinking on it, she couldn't recall any pictures of his family in his manor home.
"My father died dueling Lord Cruciger," Blueblood explained, pausing and closing his eyes for a moment. "His rib cage was... broken. Crushed." He held up a hoof, and slowly lowered it down against the soft sheets of the bed. "Like one would step on an egg, or..."
For a moment, he had a distant look to his blue eyes.
"Or... like a donut, where all the filling comes out." His description sent a shiver down her spine, and even Sandy and Light Touch had frozen at the words and the implication. Blueblood quickly shook out of his stupor and shrugged. "We couldn't even have an open casket for his funeral. His face was intact, at least, praise Celestia."
"You... saw that?" Rarity dared to ask, moving to get up and hug him, like she would any of her friends, much less this stallion who had come to mean so much to her. "Oh, Blueblood..."
"It was a long time ago," he quickly added, motioning for her to remain, and that he was fine. Still, she got up off the couch to at least sit nearby, at the edge of the bed.
"I was told to take pride in the fact that Lord Cruciger did not escape unscarred, but... that sort of thing is small comfort, really. A tragedy, everypony said. I was promptly crowned the next day and given the Duchy. Long live the Duke, three cheers, huzzah, huzzah, huzzah." Looking away from her, he still wore a wan smile. "I was terrified of dueling after that. Terrified."
"Any pony would be," Rarity assured him, touching a hoof to his side. "It isn't something to be ashamed of."
"It was, though," he said, turning to face her and holding her hoof with his own. "I was Duke. I was a Prince, and the one and only thing that was asked of me was to maintain appearances. That includes at least having the courage ponies expect of their Duke of Dukes. That simply is the way of the world. When I was little... I told my mother the essence of what I just told you. That I was afraid."
He shook his head; Rarity already knew he had a mixed view of his mother.
"She told me, 'one day, you will find out what honor means to you, and see the value of defending it, even to the death.' I lived all the way up to just a few months ago not having found anything worth defending, much less risking death for. One of the saddest things is that... even up to the day she died, I don't think I ever measured up to my father in my mother's eyes. But who can know for sure?"
"That," he concluded. "Is why I am not exactly the stallion to come to for tales of dueling and honor."
Rarity, at a loss for words, could only express her sympathy with her eyes. There was so much tragedy in -
"Hold me!" he exclaimed, jumping shamelessly into her forelegs to rub his cheek against her chest. "I'm so sad, only physical intimacy can make me feel better!"
A second later, he found himself sprawled out on the floor.
"Aww!" he whined. "No pity sex?"
"What kind of a Prince are you?!" Rarity loomed out over the edge of the bed, shaking an accusing hoof at him. "Honestly! You lecherous colt! Making a grab for me like that!"
Blueblood grinned up at her, both of them knowing that at least he had snapped them out of the dour spirit left by his story. He really was a terrible Prince: not very noble at all! What charms he had were entirely unorthodox or improper. He couldn't even brood properly over a tragic past.
"There was one duel, though," he told her, still upside down with his legs in the air. "I think even Auntie agreed that I had to come to accept that a pony like me - stars and heavens, especially a pony like me when I was growing up - that I was bound to end up challenged and dueled."
"Especially a pony like you?" Rarity asked, skeptical. "Why the 'especially' in there?"
"Oh, I was a naughty little colt!" he exclaimed with another lusty grin. "Did I ever tell you about my second governess, the young one, and how I snuck into her quarters once to..."
He coughed, self-consciously, as he finally took stock of her cross expression.
"Forget about that. Where was I again?" he asked, scratching his chin. "Oh yes, well, after I returned from Crown Roc, you've heard that one before, I had the pleasure of meeting my newly adopted step-sister. Just before my mother's funeral."
"Mi Amore Cadenza," he didn't recite the name with very much fondness. "A winged unicorn, plucked from the land of her birth to reside in Canterlot as an honored guest and adopted ward of the daughter-less Blueblood family. Just like most everypony, she's a relation, but this time one too close to marry."
"You haven't spoken much of her before," Rarity observed from above him.
"I haven't had much to say about her," Blueblood replied from the floor. "We didn't get along then and we don't get along now. Mostly my fault, really, but that's another story. Skip forward a bit, and I catch wind of this little fling she has going on with some ambitious little would-be royal guard. You may have heard of him from your friend, Twilight Sparkle. Shining Armor?"
Rarity shrugged, not knowing the name.
"Really? Twilight never told you about him? The two are very, very close." He chuckled to himself. "Or they should be. Ask her about him sometime. So, Shining Armor - the colt is a Terre Rare brat. A Canterlot Rare, so not as bad as the rest really, but there was bad blood from the start. I didn't like him."
"You said something, didn't you?" Rarity could only guess at what.
"Something unkind. I did indeed!" Blueblood pointed up at her. "I won't say what, only that it was quite inappropriate for a colt of my age, and that everypony agreed it was both witty and scathing."
"You like to toot your own horn, don't you?"
"Not at all. I much prefer beautiful mares do it for me."
"Now, let me finish this tale of martial glory! So Shining Armor, being a beacon of Canterlot values, not to mention a good, stalwart, self-sacrificing son of the Terre Rare-" Blueblood said that part with embellished disdain. "-he challenges me to defend the honor of his Lady. I accept, mostly because I really liked the idea of sending him back home with his tail between his legs, but also because he was about the same age as me and twice as clumsy. He was in that gangly legs phase. We were just old enough to duel, since we both had our cutie marks, but still too young to do it without supervision. I knew Auntie had my back."
The Prince rested the palm of his hoof against his face, undoing one of the mane curlers.
"So the appointed day comes, sunrise, and we go out there. Two little colts. We go through all the stupid pomp and ceremony. Grievances this and grievances that. Shining Armor calls me a 'stupid jerk' and I call him a 'ruffian with no class' and then he calls me a 'fop' and then I call him a 'lackwit' and this goes back and forth until he says I have 'a mane like a filly' and then I ask if he 'wants to kiss me, now, instead of Cadance.' So stupid."
"Even back then, he had his shield spells. He's famous for them now, you know." Blueblood tried to animate the fight with his hooves in the air, drawing rough shapes for the field. "I knew all about it, and came to the duel with a spell so the pastry would chase him around and wait for his shield to drop."
"That actually sounds pretty useful!" Rarity was impressed. If she had a spell like that -
"Oh, it worked wonderfully. At chasing ponies. It just wasn't very discriminating in its targets."
"Oh?" She suddenly had the image of the havoc caused by pony-seeking cupcakes laced with numbing agent flying wildly around Canterlot. "Ooooh!"
"We spent almost an hour running around, somehow possessed of enough magic to try and duel, but absolutely no common sense or experience. Finally, he manages to hit me with... stars, what was it? Some sort of cruller, covered in icing, I think. Bam! Right on the nose. I fell down."
He paused in the story, pursing his lips.
"Actually, a bit like I am right now!" he objected, from face up on the floor. "But then he rushes over, babbling. 'Are you okay? I didn't break your nose, did I? If it's broken, can I see it?' Mostly I remember him saying 'I didn't mean to hit you so hard!'"
"I then asked him," Blueblood continued quickly, motioning with his hooves. "'How hard did you mean to hit me then, you oaf?' And he says - he says to me, 'Just hard enough for you to remember it, your Grace.'"
Blueblood laughed at the memory, but Rarity was already barely restraining her own amusement at the picture he painted. She still remembered seeing him as a colt, that one time he had visited Ponyville to renew his Ducal vows. It had been enough then to plant the seeds for a decade of daydreams. She had never imagined him actually doing anything foal-like, though he must have been a child, even with his title.
"The crullers didn't even have the usual numbing agent," he admitted as his chuckles died down. "I think... I think that was the only duel I've had that I enjoyed. For what that's worth. And after it was over, Auntie took us to the Palace and we had lunch and ice cream. I think we were her entertainment for the afternoon."
"What happened to Shining Armor?"
"That same oaf became the Captain of the Royal Guard." Blueblood shuddered, but only in humor. "He'll be my very well removed brother in law once he finally marries Cadance. Yours too."
Rarity was a moment away from cracking a joke of her own, when she realized something. Something Blueblood himself possibly hadn't.
"Was that...?" She asked, cautiously. "Did you just...?"
Propose to me?
"What?" he asked, seeing her confusion but not the reason why. It took a moment, mentally backtracking, for him to realize it, too. And, for once, it left him a little speechless. "Oh, uh - well - I, that is..."
"Come on up," Rarity finally offered, holding out a single, manicured hoof to help pull him back up and onto the bed. "Next time, make it romantic."
"Romantic. Duly noted."
"On that topic, though, I should probably meet this step-sister-in-law I'm probably going to have.... w-what's so funny?"
"My dear, you already have. One of them. You see, Shining Armor is..."
- - -
Twilight Sparkle shot out of bed with a start.
Glancing around the room, her attention lingering on Spike's empty little bed near the door, she couldn't quite place where that sudden feeling of night terror had come from. Suspiciously narrowing her eyes, the Element of Magic lowered herself back under the warm covers.
It was probably nothing anyway.
- - -
It was just an hour after the merciless sun reached its apex, the perfect time of day to grab a quick nap in the shade or sleepily finish another chapter of Daring Do and the Ocarina of Time. That was what any normal pegasus would be doing. Unfortunately, it wasn't what Rainbow Dash was doing.
Rainbow Dash spiraled, face first, into a cloud bank, her impact kicking up wave-like whips of fluffy white vapor. By the time she came to a complete halt, having carved a trench in the cloud with her face, only her flank stuck straight up out of the cloud, a multi-colored tail draping limply between her legs. It took a second or two for the weathermare to recover enough to sputter and kick her way free, falling flat on her stomach.
"Uuh. It's too hot for this kind of stuff..." Dash groaned, petulantly closing her eyes as something fast and blue zipped in from the corner of her vision. "I could sure go for a nap right now."
"And I could really go for some pecan pie," a stallion's voice replied, "but we don't always get what we want, Rainbow Dash. You hear me? If you want to beat Ritterkreuz, you need to work harder! Train harder! Push your body to the limit of endurance and put aside everything else except for-"
"Aw, sweet! My pie's here!"
"Hey, what was that about not getting what we want?" Dash growled, still sprawled out on the cloud even as her trainer and Wonderbolt hero bounced up and down like a hyperactive little kid.
"I don't know how you're doing it or what the crazy machine is, lady, but I think I love you!" Soarin exclaimed, already inhaling the smell of incoming pie. "And this town! I've dreamed of pie deliveries for so long...! You're like a dream come true!"
Dash's left eye twitched as Soarin and Pinkie flirted shamelessly to the methodical 'thump-a-whump' of the party pony's strange flying machine. She closed her eyes and tried to shut it out: pie this and pie that. Apparently the acclaimed Wonderbolt had checked out the local confectionary and bakery stores yesterday, realizing he would be flying over Ponyville for at least a week, and discovered that Sugarcube Corner now had deliveries. Even to cloud-homes. Or more likely Pinkie Pie had come up with the silly idea on a lark.
No matter how it started, it was breakfast pies - somehow - and brunch pies and now lunch pies, and give it a few more hours, she would probably fly up to deliver dinner pies, too. Soarin was lucky he had good credit. By the end of the week his tab with Mr and Mrs Cake was bound to be record breaking and/or career ending. If Pinkie Pie didn't run him ragged first. The poor stallion had no idea what he was getting into.
"...as for the filling... surprise me..."
"I always try to surprise everypony, so that's no problem at all!"
"Enough with the pies!!" Dash exploded off the cloud and shook her entire body like a dog, spraying water from her crash over her trainer and best friend. Both of them were being so annoying!
Huffing and puffing as she caught her breath, Pinkie and Soarin at least looked a little guilty. Up to and until Soarin slowly raised the pie he had ordered to his mouth to take an obnoxiously slow and deliberate bite. He was looking pretty damn casual despite kicking her into a cloud just a minute ago! Dash was about to say just that when Pinkie filled her vision, the party pony's legs churning to keep herself aloft on her gyro-copter-thingie.
"Hey, Dashie, you've got a - a bit of cloud... I'll get it..." A pink hoof tried to wipe a bit of cloud off her friend's face, only to pass right through the condensed vapor. "Just - just a second. I'll get it."
Again with the hoof in her face.
"Almost got it. Wait. Almost. Hold on. Just about. Wow, that's slippery. Almost..."
"You'll never almost get it!" Dash angrily batted the cloud out of her mane. "You can't interact with clouds, remember!"
"Oh yeah!" Pinkie banked around with her flying machine into a tight circle. When she came about, she somehow had a small box balanced on the tip of her nose. "I got some lunch for you, too! Eat up!"
"Huh? Lunch? For me? Hey, thanks!" Dash gleefully snatched up the box of sweets, ripping the top off and popping a slice of coffee cake into her mouth. As one would expect from Sugarcube Corner, it was delicious! There were also a few cookies inside, along with some sort of round disk-like pastry sprinkled with dusted sugar. Picking one out for an experimental bite, Dash was rewarded with a blast of raspberry goodness. Sugarcube Corner had the BEST stuff in Ponyville, bar none!
With food like this, the silliness could be forgiven... for a little while longer anyway.
"So how's the training going? Huh? Is there anything I can help with? Oh! I know! How about sticking a party cannon on your back?" She turned to Soarin, eyes lit up and already imagining the insane possibilities. "Can you do that? Or we could put one under each wing! Or better still, we could put it under your chin and call you a warthog! Then we could put firecrackers and lots of rockets under your wings instead!"
"Wait. What?" Dash finished chewing one of the cookies and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "First of all, why 'warthog?' Why not something cooler... like Thunderbolt!"
"Warthogs are cool," Pinkie argued, but not very persuasively. "You can try Thunderbolt, but it won't catch on."
"What's she talking about again?" Soarin asked, already confused. Dash shook her head. He wouldn't be able to keep up with Pinkie at the rate he was going. His tolerance for the crazy just wasn't up to it yet.
Rainbow Dash shrugged, helplessly. "Beats me. I usually just pick the one part that makes sense and run with it."
Pinkie just giggled. Still nibbling away at her lunch, Dash saw that Soarin had already finished his pie and had the empty platter spinning idly around one of the feathers on his right wing, much to Pinkie's amusement. Since they had a moment, the pink pony removed one of her forelegs from the handlebars of her flying machine to reach down and retrieve what looked like a mug of cider. Of course, that wasn't possible. Cider season was still more than a day away and AJ's family always stuck to the same schedule, refusing to bend even for pleading cider-starved friends.
Heedless of that fact, Pinkie Pie took a swig from her stein and came back with a rather distinctive cider-moustache that she promptly wiped away with her tongue. Her unusually long tongue. But what the heck! Was that cider?! How had she talked Applejack into giving her cider before cider season!?
"What is that?" Dash asked with strained casualness. Even Soarin seemed to notice the tension in her voice as he looked from pegasus mare to earth pony and back again.
"What? This? Oh! I'm so glad you asked!" Pinkie tapped the mug, now safely locked in place below the handlebars of her gyro-copter. "This is my new, super special, half-liter clip-on mug holder! I actually have three of them, one for the front seat and one for the passenger side - oh wait, I don't have a passenger side - and one in the back. I mean, I don't really have a back seat yet either, but you could hold onto the back and hope you don't fall. And while you're back there, you have a place to put your cider! Isn't that neat?"
"I meant the cider."
Pinkie blinked. "What. But. My cup holder. Isn't it neat?"
"It's amazing!!" Soarin rushed forward to grab hold of Pinkie's gyro-copter, his eyes wide and sparkling with joy. "A way to hold your drink while flying! Awesome! You're a genius, Miss Pie!"
Dash's expression fell and Pinkie pointed slyly over to her recently acquired Wonderbolt admirer.
"See? Some-pony likes my ideas." She leaned over the edge of her handlebars to stare deeply into Soarin's eyes, coquettishly batting her eyelashes. "You really think I'm a genius? Tell me more."
"You have to make one for me!" Soarin pleaded, letting go of her copter to grasp one of her hooves. "Please? So simple, so functional, but so stylish! Finally, a way for a pegasus on the go to bring his drink with him! You could put it on a harness of something!"
"I meant the cider! The cider!" Dash exclaimed, stomping one hoof into the cloud beneath them. "You two can get a private cloud later! Where. Did. You. Get. That. Cider."
- - -
"So this is what it will look like?" Mayor Mare inquired, looking cross eyed at the architect's scale model. "Must it be so... tall? Ponies will be able to see it from clear across town."
"By nature, mage towers are rather tall," Filly Buster's observation was dry, but accurate. The gray old stallion happened to be the town's Assemblypony and representative in the Equestrian Lower House. Like Ponyville's Mayor, he had been a civil servant all his life, the difference being that he spent most of his time in Canterlot. "It obeys our zoning ordinances for constructions outside the town center."
"I'm sure you've already given the project your blessing," Mayor Mare replied under her breath.
"Mares in glass houses, Mayor."
"I think it looks great!" Twilight Sparkle circled around the back of the miniature tower. The Mayor and Assemblypony had been invited over for a viewing of the planned project on behalf of the potential architects chosen. Mage towers were more common in Equestria than office buildings - of which Ponyville already had plans to construct at least one - but since they were inevitably hubs for unicorns, most of the design firms that specialized in them had headquarters in Canterlot.
"I especially like the arrangement of the refractor and dome up top!" Twilight continued, utterly engrossed. Crouching down so the base of the tower was at eye level, she oh-so carefully reached up towards the observatory pinnacle, where a tiny model lens stuck out.
"Our design," the chief architect for the proposal batted away her hoof. "Will be a fully functional and stand-alone facility, accommodating all the traditional facets of a Canterlot Mage tower, but with the added benefits of a much wider foundation space. The sort of benefits that can only really be found in the country, like this."
The engineer-pony, a large bodied Canterlot unicorn stallion with a slide-rule for a cutie mark, magically pointed over to the blueprint on display. A beam of light from his horn produced a red spot that circled one of the lower foundation sections.
"We have an astrophysical laboratory here, on the sun-wing, along with a mechanical workshop. The Lunar wing is primarily living quarters for resident mages, the third floor having a amenities and quarters for the Archmage and Curator. Further up, we have rooms and field-supports for magical experimentation and tutelage, the traditional 'spiral library' occupying the first third of the tower proper..."
"Finally!" He circled the top of the spire. "Our design can incorporate a switching 76 centimeter heliostatic refractor and zonal astrograph. We can also add a revolutionary, new 20 centimeter Bittrow spectrograph with a magically augmented twelve meter achromat. Our design firm's partnership with Canterlot Optics ensures the installation of only the highest quality observatory equipment. We recently constructed a mage tower in Buckingham capable of five point five arc-second per millimeter spatial recognition imaging."
"And the lens?" Twilight asked, bouncing with excitement. "What about the lens!"
"Our achromatic refractor lenses are produced by Glassoix Brothers in Prance."
"I used their eight-eight centimeter lens once in Canterlot!" Twilight gushed, zipping back over to the model in glee. "It was amazing! We'll take it!"
"Madam Baroness?" the architect inquired, bowing to his would-be employer and waiting for her say-so.
Rarity has been listening in silence for most of the morning, knowing next to nothing herself about mage towers or observatories. Really, all the projects she was prepared to fund and begin construction on were out of her depth. One mage tower really seemed the same as any other, at least functionally. Only one of the designs had been aesthetically objectionable. This one was a very traditional ivory tower for the most part, but with an expanded three story base. She could picture it on the stately hill overlooking the town.
...And Twilight did like it.
"Very well," she decided in favor of the proposal, raising a hoof and waving it to indicate the matter was now closed. "Make the arrangements."
"As you say, my Lady."
The Canterlot unicorn bowed a second time, deeply, and quickly packed up his things to leave. All except the scale model, which Twilight insisted on keeping. Rarity could already see the day dreams in the studious unicorn's head: losing herself in the spiraling staircases and endless rows of books, spending all night in the stuffy observatory, constantly pestering whatever poor mages did move in to run the tower. She'd get away with it, too, since it would be the Sparkle Tower Observatory.
"Yes, well, we have yet to decide on the matter of the second reservoir," Filly Buster warned, though he knew as well as anypony present that his stamp of approval was mostly a formality. He stole a quick look at Ponyville's new Baroness, his golden eyes hiding a very well concealed disdain.
Filly Buster, like all Assemblyponies in Equestria, occupied the lower legislative house of the Stable of Lords. The upper house was fully populated by nobleponies from across the country and it had the real power, controlling all issues of taxation and appropriation. The lower house was full of lawyers who did the difficult work of wording and writing laws. Like many in his position, he was not very fond of Equestria's entrenched aristocracy, a point of view that may or may not have been made worse by his being an earth pony while most nobles were unicorns.
The Assemblypony adjusted his black tie and smoothed back his ice-blue mane.
"Mayor Mare?" he asked, tilting his head in her direction.
"Ah. The reservoir? Yes!" Mayor Mare coughed and deferred the decision. As usual. "Miss Sparkle! What was your overview on the reservoir plans?"
"Oh, that." Twilight's interest faded rather noticeably. She floated the model mage tower over to a safe spot in her library while thinking up her response. "Hard to say, really. All the ideas have some merit."
Filly Buster frowned, sighed even, until he noticed Rarity frowning. Then on came the usual veiled, shallow smile. He was up for re-election soon, and winning over the pegasus community in Ponyville by being associated with a new reservoir was win-win for him. The new Baroness was bankrolling everything; all he had to do was go along with it but that didn't seem to be enough for the esteemed legislator. Rarity had never met her 'representative' in the House of Lords before, but she had developed a rather negative view of him since becoming Baroness. The former dressmaker was quite sure the feeling was mutual, though neither pony would admit as much.
"The easiest solution-" by which Filly Buster likely meant the quickest solution. "-is simply to tap into Ponyville's Puddinghead Lake, behind the dam. We have a massive volume of water up there in the mountains. I know for a fact that Canterlot doesn't use even a drop of it. We can have a new spillway built, and..."
"Puddinghead is supposed to be recreation-only," Mayor Mare spoke up, showing she had at least paid attention earlier when the proposals had been introduced by the environmental surveyors. "Isn't it? I'm sure it is. Fairly sure."
"Do you know anypony who actually goes up there to fish or swim?" Buster argued and the Mayor relented. "Even before the new dam, I think it was... what? The backyard for some noble family or another. Before they went bankrupt. I say we finally get some use out of it!"
"The lake itself is part of a preserve," Twilight recalled.
"So we drain it a little," the Assemblypony urged. "It isn't drinkable. It's too far from town to be of any commercial use. We don't have tourists visiting it. Tap it. For silver bits we can restock a second service reservoir twice the size of our current one! Three times, even! We could sell water instead of importing it."
"What was the volume of the Highland Reservoir outside town?" Rarity asked.
"Six hundred and ninety thousand cubic hooves," Twilight answered, taking control of the conversation with the model tower distraction out of the way. Or at least out of sight. "That's the theoretical maximum. Current capacity is only eighty percent. Rarity, I think Assemblypony Filly Buster has the right of it. Given the alternatives, tapping Puddinghead Lake is probably the cheapest and easiest proposal."
"Thank you, Miss Sparkle."
"But," Twilight hastened to add, "ponies do go up there more than you think, Assemblypony. The land was also a part of Canterlot before Ponyville was founded."
"You leave that to me, ladies." Filly Buster smirked, knowingly. "I have friends in Canterlot who can smooth over these sorts of 'problems.' When the land was vacated, it defaults to the closest municipality."
"Are you sure we're closer to the lake than Canterlot?"
"No. But I am sure my lawyers can press our claim harder than Canterlot will."
"Everfree is out, as you know," Rarity reminded them. "I spoke to Blueblood about it, and he said what he always says about Everfree."
"That it's full of monsters?" Twilight guessed, snapping her hooves. "Or that he'd sooner sit on a nail than spend ten minutes there? Or that the outline of it from above looks like a skull with the castle as one of the eyes?"
"That it is a protected this-and-that," the seamstress turned Baroness said, rolling her eyes. "Though he has said those other things, too. Just as well: I wouldn't want to upset poor Steven anyway, so I don't mind that much that we can't use it. He said Froggy Bottom was a possibility, on the border as it is... but Fluttershy..."
Twilight nodded. "She'd be really broken up if we drained it. She has friends there."
"Friends? What, like frogs and fish?" Filly Buster gave the three mares a strange look. "Really?" he asked in a droll voice. "Frogs."
"And beavers and ducks and other animals," Rarity told him. "We can get more water from the lake, without damaging it, than we could from Froggy Bottom."
"Good! We're all agreed then? There's really no need to beat around the bush here!" Filly Buster seemed excited by the prospect, and by the votes it would win him. Mayor Mare, facing no competition for another two years, remained more ambivalent. Rebuilding the town hall was her primary concern. The legislative stallion eagerly rubbed his hooves together.
"I've heard from fellows in Cloudsdale that Ponyville is being seriously considered for the next water drawing," he told them in a tone of voice that was both warning and opportunistic. "We should see to this as soon as possible."
"Agreed." "It will mollify the pegasus constituency." "I think so."
No sooner did they come to a consensus, however, than a ruckus from outside caught their august attention. It sounded like a song and dance number. A big one.
"Is that a..." Twilight's ears twitched. "A steam whistle?"
- - -
Applejack shifted the pencil from one side of her mouth to the other.
The barn was stocked and ready: forty barrels ready to be rolled out for cider season. Currently empty, of course. They would fill them up as the week went on, ten per batch, building up an ever increasing supply. Every year she could remember Sweet Apple Acres sold out, especially in the first four days of the season. According to Big Mac's number crunching, they'd end the season a smidge in the black. All the recent disasters - especially those Tartarus-cursed parasprites - had really cut into Sweet Apple Acres' profits.
"Ah guess there's always the rodeo competition, too..." Applejack mused as she looked over one of the barrels, tapping it lightly with a hoof to produce a dull ring. If she won first place this year, the prize money could go straight into the family savings. Thank Celestia Rarity had come up to help fix the town hall, too! If she hadn't, Applejack suspected that she'd end up roped into using the prize money to help the town and not her family.
Then again, the rodeo wasn't any time soon, and in the meantime...
The sound of heavy hoofsteps prompted the apple farmer to check over her shoulder. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of her brother, short of breath, his orange mane matted with sweat. Had he run all the way from the town? For that matter, if he was here, who was in town selling apples?
"Big Mac! What in tarnation are you doin' here?" Applejack advanced on her brother, already guessing it had to be something important to send him running pell-mell back home. "Who's mindin' the stall and the market? What's goin' on?"
Succinct as always, Mac said only one word in response:
- - -
"So he's Flim. The other one is Flam?"
"I thought you said the one with the mustache was Flam?"
"I dunno! And I still don't know what nonpareil means!" Pinkie Pie admitted, the usual - and literal - spring in her step. Rainbow Dash flew just off the ground, craning her neck at the mass of ponies gathered around the back of the town marketplace.
Heck, it looked like a party!
A cider party!
Peppermint striped flags with the names 'Flim' and 'Flam' waved from poles and a brightly colored banner advertised a 'cider garden - the Flim Flam experience.' The centerpiece of the whole festival in miniature seemed to be a wheeled contraption, a machine of some sort. There were various barrels, some opened and tapped, and others on display. Ponies crowded around tables and, just by the smell in the air, Rainbow Dash could confirm the rumors. Cider!
"Cider! Free samples! Half price specials! One bit each? Wow!" Dash darted up to a sign... a sign full of different cider flavors. It was like she'd died and gone to cider heaven! Or at least a respectable cider coma.
"Oh! The Appleoosa Express was really tasty!" Pinkie said, quickly catching up to her speedy friend. "And the Apple and Blackberry cider was great, too! Oh, and you have to try the Tom's Rock Hard Cider! Mm-mmm-mmm!"
"so... much... cider..." Dash whispered, and blasted off to the samples table, only to come to a skidding stop in the face of a line that formed and winded around like a snake. Gaining a little altitude, she could see who was holding things up. From the look of things it was the unofficial town 'master of drinks,' Berry Punch, carefully and thoroughly inspecting the wares. She could be at it for hours!
Groaning, Dash skipped the free samples and flew over to where the machine was in operation, sucking up apples from a barrel and processing them into cider. Gears churned and pistons chugged and sparkly green unicorn magic provided the power. A family of ponies were gawking at a transparent window that let ponies see into the guts of the cider squeezer.
Shaking her head, forcing away all other distractions, Dash lived up to her name and took to the actual cider stand with all due speed and discretion. The line was shorter here, mostly because it moved so fast! Flim and Flam already had a bunch of barrels on tap and the machine was filling up more than enough to make up for what ponies drank.
Even while attending to different booths, both unicorns had their horns on full blast, too, probably to power the chugging contraption. Well, they could do whatever they wanted to if it made good cider! It was only a minute or so - feeling like much more - and then Dash found herself at the front of the line, face to face with a smiling unicorn stallion with the same sort of coat and mane colors as Apple Bloom. Opening her mouth to order, the memory of the last few years of cider season suddenly came back to sap some of her enthusiasm.
"You guys have lots of cider still, right?" she asked, just to be sure.
"As much as you can drink, young filly," Flim - it was probably Flim - replied with a friendly, engaging smile. "What can I get ya? First drink's free! Don't forget, if you buy a Super Squeezy Jumbo Mug, you get a discount on your next four drinks!"
"I'll just... I'll have..." Dash's eyes wandered back to another poster advertising all the different cider flavors. "The Appleoosa Express? And, uh, one of the Cloudsdale Unfiltered! And a Tom's Rock Hard!"
"You got it!" Flim concentrated for a moment, a crackle running through the magical aura around his horn. Aside from powering the machine, he was also handling distribution: three mugs zipped through the air in a showy spiral, lining up at three different barrels and filling up with three different types of frothy, thick cider.
The mugs floated over, just out of reach. "Two bits for the three drinks, Miss."
A split second later and the two vibrating coins were flat on the table. Cyan forelegs reached out to claim her cidery treasure, and chuckling to herself, Rainbow Dash carefully made her way around the line behind her.
It had been a running gag at the last few cider seasons to always, always, always find some way to ruin her cider. Even if she finally got a mug of the first-come-first-serve platinum-rare liquid. Not this time. Not this time!!
"AHH!" Dash's forelegs flew wide at the sudden surprise, tossing her drinks clear into the air. Blasting off at top speed, a blue blur just managed to grab every one out of midair before any of the mugs could tumble and spill. Wings flapping, Dash slowly lowered herself back to the ground.
"Pinkie PIEEE!!" She whirled on the Element of Laughter. "That wasn't funny!"
Pinkie cocked her head to the side, blinking innocently. "It wasn't?"
"Not at all. I'm guarding these mugs with my life! And, in fact, before I tempt fate any more than I just did by saying that-"
Putting two of the mugs onto a nearby table, Dash picked one and quaffed it in a single, long, luxurious gulp. The tang of apples and the blast of flavor hit right away, drowning out her worries and leaving only a raft of contentment floating on a tranquil sea of satisfaction. The mugs were unlabeled, so she couldn't be sure anymore which one she was drinking, but if it was worth a guess, it had to be the Appleoosa Express. There was a rough and tumble sort of quality to it with a complex aftertaste.
"Aaaaaaaaaa...!" Dash slumped, bonelessly, to the ground. "That's the stuff."
"These guys sure know their cider," Pinkie agreed, and for the first time, Dash noticed what was in her hooves. It was a mug. The mother of all mugs! Bigger than the one she had just drunk from, with pictures of Flim and Flam on it along with an apple, minus a slice, and a slice minus an apple. Probably their cutie marks. Printed in big, pink letters was: Pinkie Pie.
She actually had a mug with her name on it!
"Where did...?" Dash began to ask. "How did...?"
"Oh! I'm already one of their preferred customers!" Pinkie explained, holding out the super sized cider stein. "I got a custom mug and everything! You have to check out the gift store, too! They have a Super Squeezy model kit, and a book on apples, and toys and shirts and games and mugs with your name on them and a rewards program so when you buy cider you get points towards free stuff! I really wanna get the Super Squeezy pinball machine! Do you think the Cakes will mind if I have a pinball machine in my room?"
"Isn't your room right over theirs?"
"I'm sure they'll be totally cool with it, then." Pulling herself back up, Dash picked out another random mug and downed its contents. This one was more airy than the last, with a flavorful cinnamon taste to it and plenty of frosty head. It had to be the Cloudsdale Unfiltered. Good stuff!
Pinkie took a moment, not responding or anything, just being her usual weird self and checking around Dash's wings. Like she expected to see something there.
"Heeey!" she finally said. "Did you check the bottom of the lunch box I gave you?"
The party pony did something she rarely did, just then. She groaned.
"There was an invitation at the bottom!" she explained with an upset pout. "How could you miss it?"
"I guess I was distracted. By Soarin's crazy training, or... cider... or you flirting with the guy I'm training with," Dash said that last bit with a little growl. At the inflection there, Pinkie again did something she rarely did: her typical grin morphed into a smirk as she leaned in closer.
"That's not a problem is it?" she asked. "If you want to keep somepony from playing with your toys, Rainbow Dash, you should really put your name on them. Like my name on my new cider mug!"
"That's the last thing on my mind right now. Besides, what about Pokey? Or that jerk, Dan?" Dash tried to gauge her friend's reaction but Pinkie's mind was, as always, pretty much inscrutable and unfathomable. Save for one universal constant, anyway. "So, what, I guess you're throwing a party welcoming him to Ponyville?"
"And Spitfire," Pinkie corrected her, conveniently forgetting the other issues brought up a moment before. "I want her to come too! And any of the other Wonderbolts! Where are they, anyway?"
"Aside from Soarin and Spitfire, I have no idea." Dash tried not to let it worry her. She knew what they were doing. "Probably still chasing that crazy Ritterkreuz. And before you even think it, do not try and give that pony a welcome party!"
Pinkie feigned shock at the mere suggestion. "Consorting with the enemy, me? Pinkie Pie? Does that sound like something I'd do?"
"Yeah. It does."
"Oh yeah. It does sound like something I'd do! So maybe I'll go do it!" Pinkie giggled as she began to recount her upcoming itinerary. "I still have a party planned for Squally and his friends at the hospital today-"
"Squally? You mean those three ponies working for what's her name?"
"Yu-mi!" Pinkie corrected, pronouncing it 'you-me'. "It is a funny name, isn't it? And those are the ones! It's a get-well-soon, sorry-for-bursting-your-bubble-literally party! Then after that-"
"What about your actual work?"
"What about the town's weather?"
For just a moment, the two mares and old friends narrowed their eyes at each other... before breaking into a fit of giggles. There were plenty of other pegasi to mind the weather while their team leader took a few days leave. Thunderlane and Cloudkicker could fill in and step up. As for Pinkie, well, the Cakes seemed to be less her bosses and more like her doting, somewhat indulgent parents. Either that or she had some kind of double or clone doing all the work for her while she zipped around town. With Pinkie Pie, that was an actual possibility.
"Awww, yeah. This is what it's all about, you know?" Turning around to lean bodily against the table, refreshed and already a bit light headed, Dash nodded to herself in leisurely bliss. "Even with all the trouble around us now, this is good. Just taking it easy and-"
"Oh, lookie! Applejack's here!"
And, wouldn't you know it, she did not look happy.
"-and... I should probably learn when to keep my mouth shut."
Tossing whatever guilty feelings she had aside for the moment, Rainbow Dash gulped down the last mug of Tom's Rock Hard Cider. She had a feeling she'd need it.
- - -
Applejack preferred being angry to being in a panic. These jokers were selling cider at one bit per drink, but they were also compounding that with all sorts of gimmicks. She couldn't imagine how they were breaking even, especially with a stocked free sample table. Maybe they made it up in merchandizing or some kind of brand name scheme? A part of her had to admire the salesponies for turning anything and everything into an advertisement for themselves and their products. That part of her was largely overshadowed by the very real threat that Sweet Apple Acres would go broke before even cashing in on this year's cider season!
"We're the world famous Flim Flam brothers; traveling salesponies nonpareil!"
"What does that mean!" Pinkie Pie cried, grabbing Flam by the cheeks. "Tell me! You keep saying it but what does it meeeaaaan?!"
Their act suddenly cut short, the mustached unicorn stared down at the pink pony. "It means-"
"Nevermind what it means!" Applejack snapped, bumping Pinkie out of the way. She jabbed a hoof into Flam's chest. "Where'd you two come from? Where are ya gettin' all these here apples?"
"From all across Equestria, of course!" Flim announced, to her and to the crowd of thirsty ponies they had momentarily extracted themselves from. "Brought to this very community by the miracle of magic and modern steam-powered locomotion!"
"In fact, just about the only apples we don't have a cider for are Ponyville's own delicious Sweet Apples!" Flam picked up where his brother left off.
"That's right, brother o' mine!" Flim spun around, pirouetting over to suddenly stand at Applejack's left side. "Say, Miss, could it be, could it be possible, that by the cutie mark I see you're the famous Applejack of rodeo rise fame?"
"And could it be, I ask you could it be, that you've come here to sell your apples and join the Flim-Flam Family of Perfect Potables and Designer Drafts?"
"Now wait just a second-"
"It isn't every day we get this opportunity-"
"Visiting such a fine community-"
"To see the expansion of a new world of cider-"
"With your apples-"
"And our know-how!" Flim finished, wrapping a foreleg over her side. "We could make Super Sweet Apple Cider!"
"Cider! Cider! Cider! Cider!" The crowd chanted, bouncing up and down in excitement.
"Super Sweet Apple Cider!" Flam called to them, dramatically tossing his hat into the air before catching it. Completing another little turn, with seemingly half of Ponyville behind him chanting 'cider, cider, cider' he directed a confident grin Applejack's way. "What do ya say, sister?"
"Now wait just one second!" Applejack bumped Flim away and held up her hooves to the chanting crowd of ponies. "Sweet Apple Acres makes it's own cider. Everypony here knows that. Ya'll haven't forgotten that we were just about to start cider season tomorrow!"
The reminder did quite a bit to tone down the chanting, to Applejacks' relief, but -
"You guys always run out."
"Yeah, that's right!"
"Now we'll have more cider than we can drink!"
Applejack shifted uncomfortably side to side. To her relief, the initial complaint hadn't come from Rainbow Dash, who watched from the front row of the crowd, but like a brushfire it started mutters about the yearly cider shortages that always hit the town. Applejack didn't wear blinders - not outside of a race anyway - and she wasn't a foal. She knew as well as anypony that certain problems cropped up during cider season. The family could only make so much of it, and the generations old policy of selling drinks, first-come first-serve at the farm, probably originally an incentive to get ponies to visit and see the apple trees, now made distribution to the town more complicated.
Seeing one of her good friends missing out on the first or even second or third day of cider season, year after year, also didn't help paint a positive view of certain traditions. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. If the family could sell in bulk at a good margin...
"Say Ah went along with this," Applejack whispered, finding Flim and Flam once again flanking her left and right. "How'd we split what we sell?"
"Why, seventy-five-twenty-five, I'd say!" Flim whispered back, still enthusiastic to close the deal.
"Ah, generous as always, brother!"
"Really? Ah was gonna suggest fifty-fifty, maybe, but..." Applejack narrowed her eyes in realization. "Wait. You mean you'd get seventy-five."
"But of course!" Flim replied with good cheer. "It is our invention and our magic."
"And now, our market," Flam added, with just a teeny bit less cheer and more threat. "Unless you think you can out-sell us now that we have our hoof in the door?"
- - -
"Applejack, dear, if I could have a moment to ask you about your part in the art festival-"
"Not right now, Rarity."
"But...! Oh dear." Rarity couldn't recall the last time she had seen Applejack storm off in such a sour mood, hooves stamping the road with every step away from the marketplace. Actually, no, that wasn't accurate. She did remember it: it was just after she'd convinced the farmpony to help her model some fashionable work-clothes... that may not have really been work clothes. This time the offense seemed rather more ominous.
"What happened?" Twilight asked, having hung back with the Mayor. All three mares had seen Applejack storm into the marketplace, and now, storm back out.
"I don't know." Mayor Mare's attention seemed first and foremost on the crowd of ponies, her political muscles tensed to find some way to take advantage of any newly popular trend. "But there certainly seems to be some sort of commotion in the market. Shall we investigate?"
Rarity watched Applejack disappear down the road, blue eyes narrowing.