Well, here it is. The "Best Night Ever" sequel. I expect it will be a lot more divisive than TBNE and that some people will hate it while others enjoy it. Hopefully more of the latter than the former! This was very much an attempt by me to get away with a lot of worldbuilding and to explore a hypothetical pre-modern Equestrian aristocracy and social organization and the consequences of how TBNE ended. The focus will be primarily on Rarity rather than Blueblood. My thanks as always go out to my pre-readers, beta-readers, and proofers for helping to get this fic ready!
Anyway, that's enough of my author notes.
Hope you enjoy this latest delving into MLP: Friendship is Magic.
- - -
- - -
The light of the freshly risen sun blasted up along the horizon with startling abruptness, as Celestia so often willed it to, amid a flourish of oranges and reds. Only a few sparse, broad-leafed trees stood out against the onrushing new day: dancing silhouettes and retreating shadows. As if on cue, the clouds overhead began to drizzle, adding to the faint, prevailing fog that shrouded the rocky valley. In the distance, the proud white and gold spires of Eternal Canterlot peeked out from around the busom of a brown and green mountain.
Momentarily distracted by the sunrise, Blueblood very nearly missed the first round of introductions. Mother's pink hooves pressed him close in silent reprimand and he faced forward. The family standing opposite his own, across in the field, was far more numerous than his own. Seated comfortably on an expensive tarp and plush pillows, the young Prince regarded the Terre Rare family in attendance, first with a critical eye, then with a little envy, before settling into disdain.
There were quite a few fillies and colts his age there, present to watch their father defend his honor. One brother and three sisters. Blueblood had no siblings of his own, but he had often wondered if that was a good thing. Other family would be competition, after all, and it was hard enough living up to everypony's expectations when you were the only alternative they had. It was sort of nice to be the default. Of the group of colts and fillies present across the field, one in particular caught his eye: a fair filly with a pinkish white coat and a reddish-purple mane. Together with an older brother, she seemed to be paying close attention, staring across the clearing with intense interest in her light violet eyes.
Umbrellas rose up, held by servants of both parties, to shelter the noble observers from the inclement weather. Blueblood glanced upward expecting to see a pegasus swoop through the air to clear away the offending sky. Then he remembered: there would be no pegasi here, not until matters were settled between unicorns and fellow gentlecolts. It was tradition, and tradition was important, even in the face of inconvenience. Even in the face of dirt and grime and discomfort. Even in the face of pain.
Father said nothing, except to remove his overcoat and step forward.
Alabaster coat and blonde mane, the Reigning Prince wore the family colors as his only son did. No other family had been asked to attend, and no others stood by Mother and himself opposite the Terre Rares. It would have been improper to involve Auntie. Father's second was a stallion Blueblood didn't recognize, though given his slade-gray coloration and size, he may have once been a royal guard. He and the Terre's chosen retainer were exchanging and inspecting the weapons of the duel: slices of génoise sponge cake had been chosen at the initial meeting, laced with a mild numbing agent.
It all seemed rather foalish, even to Blueblood the Younger, himself a young colt. Surely whatever disagreements or insults that had transpired in the past could be talked over and forgiven? The Terre Rare clan was, despite only being on the rise over the last few hundred years, very rich and very well respected. They were distant kin, even. There were no common, ditch-digging, cloud-clearing pony-folk here. None of this seemed worth getting filthy over, much less injured or humiliated by laced pastry.
Blueblood thought these things, but didn't dare give voice to them.
Mother would have been upset by such rudeness, and Father was quite single-minded and would have cuffed him for his impudence and impropriety. Blueblood knew well that speaking would have resulted in a scolding, so he sat quietly and stole looks at the other family's colts and fillies. Were any of them thinking the same? A few looked eager to get the spectacle underway, while others were staring down at their hooves or looking to their mothers for what attitude to display. One tiny light blue filly was asleep, unable or unwilling to deal with so much adventure at so early an hour.
Father's hooves sank into the soft ground, between the border of sod and mud, still damp from the rain last night. This was not his first duel by any long shot and he had by right chosen the field of battle. Meeting him was the patriarch of the Terre Rare. He was every bit as large as Father, with a dark bay coat, steel-gray mane and mutton chops, and a featureless, oddly shaped white star as a cutie mark. The sight of the two, picking weapons - slices of cake levitating one by one into the air - reminded Blueblood of matched chess pieces, black and white, stripped bare of clothes or other adornments. The two unicorn stallions spoke briefly, in low whispers, and then turned and paced away.
"Prince Blueblood the Elder," an elderly unicorn, light gray in a dark overcoat and top hat, spoke up as he stepped between the two nobleponies, both with backs turned. Blueblood the Younger, the Fifty Second, recognized the old stallion as the Earl of Trotington. A family friend.
"Are you prepared to defend your honor, sir?" the Earl inquired, loud enough for the family members present to hear.
"I am," Blueblood the Elder replied, chin held high, the first words he had spoken aloud since dawn. Already the sun was beginning it's slow creep across the sky since its dramatic release from the horizon. Celestia would already be on her throne, no doubt awaiting petitioners... and news.
"Lord Cruciger," the Earl then asked, inclining his head towards the onyx stallion. "Are you prepared to defend your honor, sir?"
"I am," the Duke replied, with a hint of deep low-country accent. Blueblood recalled the less common title given this grand noble: 'Les Deux Fleuves.' The Duke of Two Rivers. The Duke of Two Bloods. Great grandson of the Infamous Lady, herself.
"So be it, gentlecolts." The Earl, arbiter for the duel, quickly backed away on three legs, carefully holding his hat in place as he retreated a safe distance. "Honor your families and your names."
The fight began without further warning or word from the two duelists.
Father and his opponent spun, casting the first slice of cake at the same time, guided and wreathed in telekinetic unicorn magic. In ancient times, when ponies had first come to Equestria from the Old Kingdom, polished pewter had been used for duels to draw first blood. In more modern times, pastry had become the favored means for one pony to humiliate the other without permanent injury. As most duels never progressed beyond the initial exchange, it had been a truly civilizing advance... and one that resulted in far fewer injured or crippled aristocrats.
Save for the injured pride, anyway.
Blueblood the Younger winced, squinting his eyes as the two cakes splattered midway between the older stallions, followed a second later by a crackling burst of magic. Two streams of sparkling lights, one deep purple and the other light blue, warped and twisted around one another, the contact ripping apart the animating magical forces, searing strands away like a threshing machine. Fat droplets of de-animated mana fell to the damp ground, burning tiny depressions and sizzling like angry embers of molten iron.
Blueblood the Elder stomped, three slices remaining in his arsenal. His horn was glowing a fearsome, luminescent blue, and a pulse of wild magic rippled down his neck and into the ground. There was a moment's pause and then the grass around him shuddered, twisted, and uprooted. Per unicorn tradition, only base "pure" magics were permitted in a duel, telekinesis generally being the most important skill. A hundred blades of grass now answered the call of Blueblood the Elder, straightening out into tiny, razor sharp slivers that slowly began to orbit and revolve around their master. Only then - with the grass blades collected together - did the faint magical field around them become obvious to the unaided eye.
Blueblood the Younger felt a surge of pride in him at the sight. He had known Father was a duelist of some renown, but he had never been taken to see any actual fights before. He quickly turned to the black Duke of Two Rivers, his heart beating excitedly in his chest.
The other unicorn took a thundering step forward, concentrating as more and more magic poured out of his horn. The three, still intact, slices of cake he had control over circled around him, faster and faster and faster still, until they became a white blur, too fast for a normal pony's eyes to follow. The loud crack-crack rapport of teleportation signaled the next phase of the duel.
There was a splash of brown and white as something impacted something else, a moment's pause revealing what, though not how. Father was in a different spot, one hoof in the air, eyes wide. The storm of grass-blades that had been orbiting him protectively now bore a gaping hole, punched clean through. He cantered back, quickly, and then teleported again, a trail of green chasing after him like the tail of a comet.
Blueblood blinked, and a thundering boom pricked his ears.
He didn't see Father, but the Duke was all too clear: the black stallion seemed to be blasting an entire schoolroom's worth of magic out of his horn, blanketing them with wash from his Star Field. The colt could only watch in awe as the ground split and heaved, tearing upwards like one would scoop up a dollop of ice cream. Two massive fields of earth glowed with magic as Duke Cruciger lifted them higher into the air...
And crushed the two fields of dirt and stone together like clapping hooves, deafening the assembled watchers with its thunderous rapport. He then jumped back, teleporting in midair, and reappearing higher up - the momentum from his jump continuing even after his re-appearance. Conservation of Magical Momentum. Something bright and fast and trailed by green ripped through the wet, compacted earth, and a pair of streaming missiles surged upwards in impossible-to-follow zig-zags.
Father's opponent vanished into - behind - the still hovering mountain of earth he had control over. A pair of explosions gauged craters in the mass of dirt and stone, and in a bright flash, the whole mess came crashing down. Blueblood the Younger tried to see what was happening, but to his young eyes it was all a confusing blur. By the time the earth had settled on the dueling field, it was over.
Father stood on an uprooted rock, breathing heavily, his magic reserves running low.
Duke Cruciger stood in almost the same way, perched on another rock, though displaying less fatigue.
The two stallions turned to the Earl of Trotington, who stood far on the sidelines. Both raised a hoof to signal that they were out of cake. Each had tried and failed to tag the other. There would be no more. Four attempts was the traditional limit.
"Amazing," Blueblood whispered, quietly enough that only Mother could hear. He glanced up at her. "Isn't it amazing?"
Mother didn't reply, though her blue eyes narrowed slightly.
"Mother?" he asked again, and then stared at the two duelists.
"You may both honorably step away from this matter if you choose," the Earl declared. "Or you may request à outrance."
"It is not too late for us to reconcile, Blueblood," Cruciger spoke first, raising his voice so all could hear him. "Accept my family as the kin they are. Honor the vows made by our forebears! Let us embrace one another as brothers... and equals."
Blueblood the Elder's blue eyes shot briefly back to his wife and son, and then focused on his opponent.
"Your offer, though generous, has already been rejected, good Duke," the Prince of Canterlot replied. "My decision was not meant as an insult, however. The succession of the Blueblood line-"
"Not an insult?!" Cruciger roared, stamping hard on the rock beneath his hooves, causing it to splinter. That had not been a magical feat. The black unicorn was far stronger than he appeared. Far stronger than any normal unicorn could be.
Still, he quickly calmed, taking a deep breath.
"Accept my offer," he repeated. "Or it will be à outrance. I will accept no other apology!"
"The form of apology you ask for is one I can not, in good conscience, give." Blueblood's Father nodded his head sadly. "Then... it is à outrance."
Mother's hooves pressed tightly into his shoulder at that.
At the time, Blueblood the Younger had not understood why.
- - -
Prince Blueblood hated dueling.
Not simply because it was barbaric, but because he was bad at it. Those two reasons were among the many thoughts that spun erratically through his head as his body lurched limply, side to side. His retainers were removing his warm, thick cloak, and he glanced to the side as it was floated away, a glint of sapphire and silver catching his eye. The clasp. It reminded him of why he was in this mess.
Plus his own big mouth and recently embraced impulsiveness.
She would have called him that to his face, were she here. It was a good thing she wasn't. Auntie Celestia would probably have thought the same - Idiot Nephew! - but at least she wouldn't have actually said it, leaving him to read it in her expression and in her eyes. As for Auntie Luna...? Well, as least with her around, he may have had a vocal cheering section, courtesy of the Royal Voice. No, no: it was best that none of them were around.
Getting mauled was bad enough; no need to be nagged at either.
Soon, not only was the cloak gone, but his comfortable Merino top-frock overcoat. He spared a minute, still in a bit of a daze, to remind his attendant to keep it clean. It was expensive, after all: the finest wool, the lapels embroidered with imperial silk gathered and hoof-spun by pony artisans. Oh, and his scarf as well. It was gorgeous Cashmere, and a Hearth's Warming gift from his beloved Auntie.
Truly excellent bespoke tailoring was a lamentably dying art in Equestria, at least when it came to stallion fashions. Perhaps it was a good thing that he had to be undressed for this, after all. It simply wouldn't do to get blood on such fine clothes. At least, no matter what else, his wardrobe would survive this cursed affair unscathed.
Blueblood's breath came in slow, cold gasps as the frigid mountain air wrapped around him, his body bereft of anything but the coat he had been born with. It was a beautiful coat to be sure, but in no way acclimated to these climes or the task at hoof of keeping him warm at the moment. Canterlot was technically built atop a mountain, like many old style unicorn stronghold towns, but not this absurdly high, nor this inhospitably far north! Canterlot was temperate, save for the winter months. What sort of insane, barbaric beast would actually desire to live this high in the damned mountains?!
"Yoh!" "Yoh!" "Yoh!" "Yoh!"
A griffin, of course.
Mnemon was this particular griffin's name. Prince Mnemon, if one included his title.
Eldest son of the King and heir apparent, he was a sizeable creature, again and a half the size of even a large pony like Blueblood or his armored bodyguards. Already bare of the hunting coat and cloak that he had been wearing before the calling of this foalish duel, Mnemon was rearing, facing his fellows, and flexing his muscular wings and razor sharp claws.
Blueblood felt a trickle of nervous sweat run down his brow as the hooked talons of one of the griffin Prince's royal hands clenched and unclenched. It reminded him of the claws on Dream Catcher, his little hunting tercer. Just.... writ large. Very large. Pony-rendingly large.
The rear legs of his opponent were no more comforting a sight. They rippled with muscle as he scraped and pawed at the ground. At least the tail seemed harmless, save for the fact that it was whipping back and forth with enough force at the tip to rip the leaves and branches off nearby bushes. Golden wings stretched - larger even than Auntie Celestia's - the feathers going taunt and flexing before relaxing and snapping back. Blueblood groaned and hid his face behind his forearm.
How in the Starless, Moon Forsaken Hells was he supposed to fight this beast?
The plethora of flesh rending claws, the murderous beak, eye-gouging tail... weren't even the worst of it. Griffins as a race drew from much the same wellspring of magic that pegasi did, and Griffin Duels didn't involve a round of thrown desserts before they degenerated into bloodletting.
This really was one fine mess.
"I suppose you'd think less of me if I turned and ran?" the Prince asked, directing the question to the senior of the three Royal Guard he had with him.
Overcast was a pegasus himself, and probably understood just how boned his liege lord was.
"Respectfully, sir," the Royal Guard in standard white and blue answered in a level voice. "I would."
Blueblood scoffed, staring into the cold vapor cloud that escaped his nostrils.
"Well, you have trained to fight these sorts of enemies," he reasoned.
"Not that, sir." Overcast coughed to hide his impropriety. "Respectfully," he repeated the word, just to be sure. "I overheard what this fight is about."
"Oh? You did?" Blueblood asked, and shook his head. "Well, just keep it to yourself, then. I don't need word of this foalishness getting around."
Overcast lowered his eyes in submission. "As you wish, my Prince."
Prince Mnemon, meanwhile, had turned from his pre-fight exercises - and the improper cheering of his fellow griffins and guards - to prowl in wait for the opponent to step up. A pitiful sigh was Blueblood's only response.
The day had started off well enough. He had been invited to a boar hunt amid the craggy rocks and forests of the lower mountains. It was a barbaric practice, hunting animals for food and sport, but it was a great honor among griffin-kind and a Prince of Equestria could not diplomatically refuse. Especially when he was on a diplomatic mission to begin with. He had actually hoped that the exercise would leave his fellow Prince more open to the negotiations that were Blueblood's reason for traveling this far north.
Instead, certain words had been exchanged, and now he was about to pay for it.
"Since running and hiding is out," Blueblood pondered, glancing over at his senior guard. "You wouldn't have any advice for me, would you?"
"Sir," Overcast said, pausing only a second to formulate a response fit for a unicorn. "Don't let him grab you. Griffins rake with their back legs, but they don't kick. The females may bite, but the males won't. They're like us in that respect. Despite the size, their bones are hollow and light. Lighter than those of a pegasus. They break easily."
"And his magic?"
"Sir. I am not aware of how proficient Lord Mnemon is in that area. Naturally, one would expect manipulation of winds."
"Winds. Winds." Blueblood nodded, trying to get in something approaching the right frame of mind. The cold mountain air and biting northern wind only made him feel naked and vulnerable. The thought that his opponent could harness those forces with his magic made it even worse.
"Are you ready yet, little pony?" Mnemon jeered, stalking forward. His wings outstretched, allowing him to hover. Raising his right hand, he pointed first at the Equestrian Prince, and then up at the sky.
A spark of electricity danced at the end of his talon, lengthening into a crackling blade.
"Also lightning, my Lord!" Overcast yelled, retreating to a safe distance.
"Lightning," Blueblood muttered, eyes lidded. "Wonderful!"
He looked around for an arbiter, but didn't see anypony, or anygriffin, assuming the role. Instead, his three guards and the two pony attendants provided by the King of Crown Roc were watching from a distance while Mnemon's hunting party did the same on the opposite end of the field. Around them, winds swept across distant mountain peaks and rustled the evergreen pine trees that covered the landscape.
He began to ask, "Who is to be our-"
At which point, no longer held back, heralded by a crack of thunder, the griffin Prince pounced.
- - -
Snow capped mountains ran across the horizon like the serrated edge of a knife. It was beautiful, in a stark and lifeless sort of way. Deceptively lifeless, of course. Equestria had a few lands like this, wild and untamed preserves on the edge of the national border, and Blueblood knew they had abstract ecosystems of their own that functioned without pony oversight. The lands of the griffins were like that, but at least on the surface - at least from a distance - they seemed completely inhospitable.
Mnemon, however, was in good spirits.
"You sent that poor girl to my room last night?" Blueblood asked, drawing his cloak tight against the cold air. He and his guards were at the rear of the hunting column, letting the griffins do all the actual work. Only the two local ponies, both unicorns and both natives to this land of griffins, seemed to be used to the physical and mental conditions. They comfortably trotted along in their winter gear while carrying a bevy of additional supplies.
"And you turned her away," Mnemon replied with a beaky grin, his bright yellow eyes searching ahead and waiting for his servants to flush out some game. He walked as well, saving his wings for the hunt to come.
"Did you expect otherwise?"
"I picked out a real beauty for you, my old friend," the griffin Prince added the affectionate comment at the end with some irony. They were hardly friends, in Blueblood's opinion, much less old ones. "Nothing keeps you warmer during a long night than a griffin girl."
"I'll have to take your word for it," Blueblood replied, keeping a level expression.
Griffins were a rather... curious species. Though they mated for life, before they found that one special someone they were notoriously adventurous. Crown Roc had a small population of hippogriffs that could attest to that fact. Checking in on the resident pony population was one of the unspoken reasons for Blueblood's visit, though King Mede had a reputation for fairness, he was also aged and soon to step down. Blueblood thus had little doubt in his mind that Mnemon had, over the years, sampled enough of the local life to determine where his preferences lay.
"Come now, I'm curious," the griffin lord pressed, rising up to gesture with a taloned hand. "Was she really not to your liking, or are the rumors I've heard true?"
Blueblood tried not to give his fellow Prince's words much weight. "Rumors?"
"That you've been gelded by that little dressmaker in the countryside?"
"If that is what you've heard, then you may wish to replace your spy master at court."
"Admittedly, we don't have the benefit of your... interesting free press out here, or your obsession with printing every little thing that comes to mind." Mnemon chuckled, his wings stretching to let him fly at the same pace Blueblood walked. "But we do get some information, second-claw."
"And?" Blueblood huffed.
"I've seen pictures of you and this seamstress. Now, I prefer my little ponies with a bit more meat on their bones, but isn't it a little scandalous? You aren't minding yourself because of this common street mare, are you?"
Blueblood's shoulders tensed beneath his cloak, but he otherwise remained calm.
"I would suggest, Prince Mnemon, that you refrain from speaking of things you know nothing about," he was a warning all the same. "Lady Rarity is no common mare."
"You may call her that, and you may wish that she had noble title," the griffin replied, leaning in closer. "But I hear she is no Lady."
- - -
The feel of rapping knuckles - not hooves - against his bruised and stress-worn horn snapped Blueblood's eyes open. The sensation of consciousness was then topped, like a cherry on one of Pinkie Pie's parfaits, with the added nugget of feeling stitches tighten and draw across skin, squeezing parted flesh together so it could be treated with antiseptic magic. Blue eyes closed briefly, experimenting with the possibility of mercifully slipping back into unconsciousness, before remaining open, resigned to the waking world.
He was surrounded by barbarians.
Also, he had lost the duel, rather conclusively.
The other Prince remained, sitting on his haunches, a pensive expression on his normally predatory face. Golden eyes glanced off in the distance for a moment and Blueblood took better stock of his situation. First and foremost, he didn't see his guards. Second, though he could feel the soft fur of a rug beneath him, separating his back from the cold ground, he was still outside. He recognized the flanking trees from the duel. He couldn't have been unconscious for long.
"You have good guards," Mnemon complimented, still gazing at some distant point in the trees or sky. "They rushed to your side as soon as you fell."
"They are unharmed," Blueblood immediately inquired, phrasing it as a statement that had best be proven true.
"Of course. You are our esteemed guests, after all." The griffin Prince smirked, a blast of hot breath drifting from the nostrils in his beak, forming vapor in the cold air.
Blueblood winced as another stitch tightened, then felt relief as it was cut.
"I would see them," he insisted.
"In a moment," Mnemon replied, and looked down at the beaten Equestrian noble. "Blueblood. I gave you a good scar. You should keep it."
"Good or not, I don't particularly want a scar," the white stallion grumbled, finally getting the chance to see where he had been stitched up. Predictably, he had been cut on the flank, but fortunately, not on his cutie mark. It had been when Mnemon swooped around and he had stupidly tried to kick at the griffin. Between the cutie mark and tail, two lines of red were crossed with black stitches.
A unicorn mare sat close by, putting her needle back in a medical satchel.
"A good scar is more valuable than gold," Mnemon assured him, pointing with his left hand to the wound. "This one came from a Prince, soon to be King."
Father had dueling scars; no doubt Mother had hated them.
The thought occurred to him that if Rarity saw it, she would know. She would hate it, too.
Yet, it seemed that to remove it would... offend.
Blueblood sighed, despondently. "Very well."
Mnemon smiled broadly and earnestly, turning to the unicorn mare. "Sepeia. Keep the wound clean, but no more."
"Aye, Lord." The unicorn, a pony but not an Equestrian, bowed her head and backed away.
For a long stretch of seconds, both Princes kept silent, composing their thoughts. Clearly, Mnemon was never going to apologize for taking the duel as far as he had. For a griffin, in fact, stopping a duel at 'heart's blood' was probably quite generous. For his part, Blueblood convinced himself not to relent on why he had issued the challenge in the first place. It was a matter of pride and honor. Appearances, though burdensome, still had their place in the world.
"We've never truly been friends, Blueblood," Mnemon finally said, craning his neck enough to fluff out feathers. "But we have known each other for a long time."
A little thrown by the statement, the Equestrian Prince wasn't sure how to respond.
It was true that they had known each other for quite a while. Like many royals, heirs apparent were often held "hostage" in neighboring countries. It was an old tradition to build bonds of fellowship and understanding, as well as discourage aggression. Appropriately, and in deference to the power and prestige of Equestria as a whole, Blueblood had been hostage to the griffins of Crown Roc for twelve months, living in their mountain Eyries and learning their ways. He had only been a colt at the time, having only acquired his cutie mark the year before.
Prince Mnemon, in contrast, had spent three years in Equestria as a reciprocal 'ostage,' first in Prance and then in Canterlot proper. Though he acted the part of the bloodthirsty griffin, much of the magic he had learned - to say nothing of the history, theology and other classical tenants of education - was Equestrian. The same was true of his father, the current King Mede, and his father's father, and so on. Aside from the civil war, five generations ago, there had been no war with the griffins in the four hundred years since the practice of mutual hostage taking had begun.
The two Princes had first met when Blueblood had returned home from Crown Roc. He had been a young colt back then, and Mnemon just a sprout of a fledgling, better at fighting than flying. The two had not gotten along well, though attempts had been made by their elders to form bonds of friendship in the interests of future peace. Blueblood was old enough to know why. Mnemon, aside from being blunt and abrasive in the way all griffins tended to be, was highly motivated and energetic. He admired his father and knew he would follow in his footsteps. In contrast, Blueblood was disinterested and lethargic.
'What throne is there for me?' he had asked, once, rebuffing his fellow Prince's demand that they practice what they had learned of military tactics by ordering servants around. 'Go do whatever you want while you still can.'
Not terribly diplomatic.
Still, Mnemon was clearly waiting for a response.
So Blueblood gave him one: "You stole my sweet roll."
"And you went crying to the guards about it," the griffin Prince remembered, shaking his head in disbelief. "You always did that. You were always such a little squawking chick."
He glanced up, to be sure there was no other pony or griffin around to hear them.
"Something happened to you," Mnemon guessed with a quick little sigh of his own. "You're different than before, Blueblood. I've been trying to goad you into a fight for almost two decades, and this is what does it...? Insulting your most recent conquest of a mare? I'm actually a little shocked."
Blueblood hesitated to reply. Had it really been that long?
And for what, a fight? Damned, crazy griffins.
"I... apologize for what I said earlier," the Prince of Crown Roc added, with a little hesitation of his own. He had clearly been working himself up to saying it. Griffins didn't apologize lightly.
"I'm not the one to apologize to," Blueblood said, forcing himself back up until he could manage to sit properly. It only hurt a bit, thanks to Sepeia's numbing magic. "However, I will not mention it to Lady Rarity, and thus, she will not need to hear your offer of amends."
Mnemon huffed in agreement and unspoken gratitude. This would be a matter kept between Princes... and their entourage, of course, all of whom would be encouraged to keep silent about it. If need be, Blueblood began to consider, it could be blamed on the hunt. Injuries were common when hunting wild boar, to the point where death was not an unknown occurrence. Even if they did acknowledge a duel taking place, there was no reason to get into why.
Sitting in silence, the Equestrian noble also noticed the bandages on his fellow Prince's right claw. The same hand that had likely caused the cut on his flank. Taking note of Blueblood's shift in attention, Mnemon chuckled and held up the injured hand. Two of the talons were wrapped tightly and glowing with faint magic.
"What happened?" Blueblood asked, not remembering.
"When I gave you that-" And Mnemon pointed to the scar the Prince had agreed to bear. "-you teleported, and took part of my fingers with you."
"Don't even think about apologizing. They'll grow back," the griffin Prince continued with a laugh, seeing the color drain from his fellow's face. "A little discolored, but they'll grow back. More importantly, it'll make for a good scar. A Kingly scar. It was given to me by a Prince."
Blueblood wiped the matted mane from his forehead as the two shared a laugh. His horn still hurt from the stress of the duel, and, truth be told, he still felt more than a little guilty for hurting his opponent. He really did not have the mentality for this sort of thing. No amount of time would ever change that. For a few moments, though, he thought back to the Gala... perhaps if he had spent a hundred loops there practicing...
This time, it was Blueblood who caught Mnemon staring.
"What?" the Equestrian asked.
"You had a strange look," the perceptive griffin said, and turned away. "So! No more wenches, then. Just Lady Rarity?"
"She'd turn me into a pincushion if I acted improperly," Blueblood explained with a chuckle.
"You told me once that you hated mares like that," Mnemon recalled. "Didn't you want a compliant mate?"
"...I did,” he admitted, with some reluctance. “But things changed..."
Blueblood paused, half wanting to let the conversation die. He hadn't told anypony about the events of the Gala: about the time loop he had been trapped in. A part of him wanted to speak of it, almost desperately, but a larger part of him was afraid to. It all seemed, even to him now, just so damn impossible. He didn't want to burden his Princesses or worry them unnecessarily so whenever somepony found out he had knowledge he shouldn't by rights have had, he found some excuse or another. It was probably a secret best kept to himself.
Still, it felt right to say something, here. Maybe it was just a bit of griffin madness rubbing off on him. He knew that griffins mated for life and that they were absolutely loyal to their partners and to their friends. Friendship was still, sadly, a part of life Prince Blueblood had little experience with. He had gotten a fleeting, recursive taste of it in the loops, and he wanted more. If only it were so easy.
"This may sound banal," he began, letting out a deprecating snort. "But I was in a rather dark place, not too long ago. I think the best way to describe it was that I was lost. In..." He searched for the right words. "In a maze, I suppose. I learned a lot in attempting to make my escape, but couldn't find my way out... I wandered, only to find myself where I began, time and again."
Blueblood bemusedly brushed some of his blond mane away from his forehead.
"Lady Rarity helped me get out. Her generosity and her company saved me as sure as all my efforts. Even if she nags me, even if she isn't what I thought I wanted... with her, I... I feel... alive, and free." He fixed Mnemon with a serious stare. "I'm very fond of her."
Mnemon's smile widened and he laughed.
"Good!" The griffin declared, rising up on four legs. "That is good! Love your people, love your friends, and love your mate! Do this and die a good death!"
"I'll put off that last one as long as I can, thank you very much." Blueblood forced himself back on his hooves and shook out his mane. "Shall we be on our way, then?"
"Yes!" Mnemon pointed off to the forest, wings flaring before settling back in place, tucked comfortably back against his sides. "First, we shall wake up your guards, and then we shall hunt! And, in honor of your sporting loss today, I will make a concession regarding your request to build railroads though our mountain passes..."
"Wait, wait: wake up my guards?" Blueblood groaned. "I thought they were...?"
"...Mostly unharmed. Mostly, I said!"
- - -
A letter from the Prince?
Sitting atop her throne in the Chamber of the Sun, Celestia opened the woven linen and leather-bound scroll, breaking open the wax seal bearing the ancient signet seal of the Royal Family and Household. It was typical of Blueblood, to use the most expensive and ostentatious of materials just to write home, even though she of all ponies would be the only one to ever see it. Since he knew full well that her own tastes were of the opposite sort (she used high quality, but otherwise mundane paper for her letters), he was clearly doing it less in an effort to impress her, and more because he was just the sort of pony who liked fine things for their own sake.
Such was his way.
To my Dear Auntie and Exalted Princess
In whose radiance the sun itself pales; in whose glory the chorus of bards find themselves speechless; in whose beauty all of Canterlot's great works aspire; in whose...
Celestia sighed and skipped past the titles. Blueblood was getting more effusive with every letter.
He had to be teasing her.
Anyway, Auntie -
You'll be amused to know that not only have I secured our interests in Crown Roc, but I have also learned a valuable lesson. A lesson about friendship. I know. I am as shocked as you are....
The pair of unicorn Royal Guards couldn't help but glance back at their seated sovereign.
Was she... laughing?
- - -
- - -
It’ll be the biggest, best-est, most super terrific party Ponyville ever saw!
Nopony had been using the old western woods for years, which is probably why Bluey bought the whole area. Most all the guests should be arriving by carriage, so I - I mean: so most of the gate decorations and greeting staff (and security ponies and valets) will be around the south gate. The first thing the arriving ponies will see is the iron gate facade done up in balloons, with two super duper big um... hey, Rarity, what're are those big banner pole things called again?
Plus banners all along the gate, showing the shields of all the friendly families I was told to promote. Super accurate, too, since Twilight checked all the details on them just to make sure there weren't any mistakes! Up front we'll put two big, um, vex-illum-things, each with the royal crest, one with the hollowed sun on top and one with the half moon. Two pegasus teams are handling the local weather, and - Oh! There'll also be these really pretty enchanted streamers, heraldic streamers, and they'll be all fluttery and held up by the balloons. That'll be the south gate!
All the fancy party ponies will ride their carriages up and into the house grounds and across the big stone bridge. There are groups of trees - um, copses, I think? - mostly birch. A lot of it is new, but it looks really nice. When I did it, it took five minutes to get to the house from the gate, but I kind of got distracted by thinking about whether we should have an ice cream float or a candy fountain or-
The guest ponies ride up to the front of the house from the side, so they can see three of the five gardens around the property. Even though the gardens are just grass and trees, and not, like, real gardens. I said, hey! Put in a sunflower garden! Everypony loves sunflowers! Oh, and watermelons! But no. Just grass and trees and rocks and some sculptures and stuff. If I had all that money and I was building a new house, I'd have a Ferris wheel and a balloon garden and... hey, why are you looking at me like that? Okay, fine.
Finally, the guests will get to the good part!
They'll see this big, fancy mansion, tucked into a keyhole in the forest around it. There'll be all these pavilions out front, in so many colors! That's where all the artwork for the visual arts festival will be kept. Off to the side, there'll be this big, super yummy buffet! It'll be divided up into four parts. I wanted three, but Pokey said it had to be four and that it can't all be sweets. Can you believe that? Why does he always have to rain on my parade like that? Hel-lo! Everypony likes sweets, right? And I am the principal-pony primary-party-planner, so the food and stuff should be totally my call. So we'll put the cake and sweets in the center, around a big ice fountain, and the snacks and other stuff around it!
Oh! And each one will be marked with balloons of a different color: blue, red, yellow and my favorite, pink!
"Isn't pink rather close to red?"
"No. Duh! Pink is totally not a shade of red. Anyway!!"
That's only a small fraction of the balloons we'll be using. All around the house itself we'll have ninety nine different colors of balloons! Ninety nine! It'll be the best thing ever! Can you even imagine ninety nine balloons, all of them a different color! It'll be like a rainbow crown around the entire party! I'm so excited I can barely hold still!!
Oh, wait, I'm not holding still?
There'll be music, too, for entertainment. Since the front of the house is so big, and since the inside isn't done yet anyway, we can use it to show off the... um... what's it called? Oh! The oriel windows and all that other fancy stuff. There's a nice, big patio between the two curvy sets of stairs. There should be plenty of room there for Vinyl Scratch to-
"Pinkie, do not tell me you booked a DJ for this..."
"Yeah! She used to do weddings, so I figured she'd be good for this too!"
"Pinkie. That was a reception. A wedding reception."
"Oh? Oh. OH!" Pinkie Pie stuck her tongue out and tilted her head in mock confusion. "Oops?"
"I thought you were inviting Lyra and her string quartet?" Rarity asked, needle between her teeth as she worked on Pinkie's new dress. "I know I mentioned them the last time we met."
Her party loving friend shifted a bit, glancing down at her slippered hooves. "I didn't forget."
"The whole point of this is to encourage local arts," Rarity continued, levitating up a set of blue, gem-studded ear-rings to see how they looked on her model. Pinkie stole a look at herself in the mirror, cocked her head, and nodded.
"I just want to keep the party fun," Pinkie argued. "I like Lyra and all, but her music is kinda... well..." Not wanting to say boring, she instead said, "BORING!"
Pumping her hoof, Pinkie reared up to add. "I wanna Par-tay! Just like at the Gala!"
Shoulders slumping, Rarity waited for her friend to calm down and assume a normal position so she could finish touching up her dress. It was honestly a bit baffling that Blueblood had asked Pinkie to organize such a huge and important party on his property. Even for him. Rarity rather suspected he was messing around with somepony somehow. Where he had picked up that bad habit was anypony's guess.
"Since you've already booked her," the resident dressmaker relented, just a bit. "I do suppose it wouldn't hurt to have her play once the sun sets..."
"Yeah!" Pinkie cheered with a happy grin. "Now you're talking! Oh! We can have a day party and a night party theme!!"
She was nominally in charge of the festivities for the charity garden party, but Rarity had certain oversight and veto privileges. Thank goodness. Pinkie seemed to understand that this wasn't a normal party, but certain habits of hers were proving difficult to break. Hence the need for an 'executive veto.'
Case in point: having a game of 'pin the tail on the pony' and a two story tall bouncy castle (with functional battlements and a working catapult) at an exclusive event with 200-bit per plate dinner arrangements. To one's left, a priceless Trotticelli masterpiece, and to one's right, a party cannon loaded with cherry pie and whipped cream. Not that she had been able to entirely rid the occasion of party cannons, but at least they'd been kept away from the art stands.
"Oh! I can't wait to try my new party cannons!" Pinkie squeed, having clearly spent some of the money for the party on... personal requests. "Have you seen them, huh, have ya Rarity? I could partify a small town with these babies! From a mile away!"
"Hold still," Rarity reminded her friend, fixing up a minor adjustment to the piped dark red hem of Pinkie's new dress.
"I can't! I'm just so excited!" Pinkie's body started to vibrate and her ears twitched. "Oh. Oh? That... that's a funny one...!"
Ignoring the odd 'pinkie sense' silliness for a moment, Rarity stepped back to view her hoofwork in full. After the Gala, she had tried a slightly different approach to Pinkie's new dress, since she would be much closer to the center of attention at the Visual Arts Festival. It called for a more subdued approach, with more subdued colors. Pinkie's (normal) natural coloration was so bright, it presented something of a challenge to accentuate, so this time she went darker instead of matching. Something more befitting a hostess instead of a guest.
There was just the question of what to do with Pinkie's mane...
Rarity gave a soft sigh and circled around her friend, taking in the angles with her own eyes instead of relying on the mirrors. While she did so, she also went over the latest news about the party. The Heartstrings Orchestra would be prefect, and she could imagine the four of them playing on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, the looming gothic facade of the newly constructed spring palace behind them.
Rarity had already seen the facade, of course, and could picture it in her mind easily. It was a beautiful building, as one would expect from such an expensive undertaking. Blueblood had spared no expense since the Gala in breaking ground on a new home 'to bridge Canterlot and Ponyville.' At four stories high, the tips of it could be seen from the town square poking out above the surrounding trees: a number of elaborate fluted domes and refined smokestacks.
When it was finished, Rarity had been told, the new home-away-from-home for the Blueblood Family would boast no less than thirty fireplaces, fifty rooms, more than eighty hoof-crafted doors, over one hundred and forty windows, twenty of them stained glass. Two thousand panes of glass had been ordered from artisans across the principality, including Ponyville's own family operated glassworks.
While the arts festival was a charity event to encourage local artists and draw attention to fresh new talents in the areas around Canterlot, Rarity knew Blueblood well enough to realize it was also an egotistical attempt to play up the art collection he was assembling for his new home. It wouldn't do to have an extensive library - something on the order of four thousand volumes had been collected at his request and expense - and a massive art collection.... if no pony knew about it. So he was showing off his new spring retreat and its treasures, but at least he was also doing some good in light of that fact.
This was an opportunity for everypony in Ponyville to get noticed, just like she had with Hoity Toity last year...
Deep down, Rarity was also starting to wonder about something else. In the modern era, the Blueblood family traditionally resided in the Canterlot’s Royal Palace, though she knew they owned property and had homes and castle keeps elsewhere across Equestria. Why was Blueblood building such a grand home, close to his old one, but right next to Ponyville?
He hadn't said much about it before, usually opting to teasingly change the topic, but Rarity couldn't help but consider: if Blueblood was all but stating his intention to live close to Ponyville, would the time come when he asked her to join him? From the spring retreat (as it was currently called), she would remain close to her friends, but still enjoy the taste of Canterlot nobility she had always aspired to.
Was it less a retreat, and more a new family home?
It was probably a bit foalish to think of it - she would find out soon enough - but so much of her dream had already come true. The Gala had been wonderful. He had been wonderful. While not quite as... proper and Princely as she had imagined... the stallion who had swept her off her hooves that night was still much of what she had hoped he would be: he was kind (usually), soft spoken (sometimes), regal (well, most of the time... okay, fifty/fifty, as long as he wasn't given a target).
Rarity shook her head. The point was that she enjoyed being with him, and he seemed to enjoy being with her, and he was a bloody Prince.
It was like a dream come true! A sometimes strange dream. But still, a dream come true!
"Rarity! Do I have to wear this hoof-polish?" Pinkie whined, waving said ruby-coated hoof in front of her friend's face. "Do I? It's so sticky and it smells bad and tastes bad, too!"
That snapped the fashionista out of her daydream. "You aren't supposed to lick it!"
"Awn, now mah tongue is numb!" Pinkie lolled her too-long royal tongue out to demonstrate. "Ahl couldn't help it! Mlagh hooves look lgh candy!"
"For Celestia's sake!" Rarity poked the pink pony in the side, and her tongue shot back into her mouth. "Keep that thing holstered, would you? It'll put somepony's eye out."
"My tongue isn't a weapon! It just wants to make friends!"
Before either of them could go further with that so called topic, the familiar chime of the Boutique's doors caught both mares' ears. Pinkie wisely clammed up, if only for a moment, and stopped trying to demonstrate how her tongue was a 'friend to pony-kind, not an enemy.' Instead, she innocently glanced back at the door, even as Rarity turned to greet the new arrival.
"Welcome to Carousel Boutique!" She quickly called out, giving Pinkie a look that said 'I'll be right back.' "Where all the designs are chic, unique, and magnifique!"
Rarity nearly missed it, but there was a suspicious look in her friend's eye, as if Pinkie Pie recognized the new customer...
Well, even if she did, Rarity didn't recognize her, except as a customer, and at the Carousel Boutique all customers were welcome! In fact, the arrival was actually two, not one. First to enter was a large, dark brown pegasus mare in a crimson and gold military dolman and plain white pelisse - the unique fashion of the mercenary hussar that was also popular among some high noble stallions, who would wear a more ornate version of the loose pelisse jacket. The dolman, meanwhile, was a close fitting, heavily braided, short-cut coat.
The pegasus officer's dress immediately identified her as one of the few ponies in Equestria who opted for a purely military trade. She was also large enough to stand in the company of Applejack's brother, Big Macintosh, Blueblood, and the all-male Royal Guards themselves, a rare feat for a mare. The winged hussar immediately flanked the door and kept it open, having no interest in the offerings within the shop herself.
Her escort then entered: a tall, regal white unicorn mare. She had the sort of height and build that reminded Rarity of a cross between Fleur-de-Lis's slim, lithe figure and Allie Way's leggy height, more like the latter than the former. Much like Fleur, this pony was slightly off-white with a blushing hint of pink, but beyond that the similarities quickly faded. Her mane was two toned: a heliotrope violet that tinted towards red, styled around her horn in imitation of Princess Luna but with a deeper curl, and contrasted with shades of paler lavender. It reminded Rarity, oddly and for just a moment, of her little sister's mane.
A rich fall cloak covered her back in lieu of a formal saddle or dress while a pair of black boots could be seen, running from her hooves to her hock along with matching, shorter slippers of the same material on her front legs, the equivalent of the spats and gloves some non-pony races wore. A backwards facing diadem, similar to a tiara, helped to hold her mane in place behind her head, studded with dark metal and inlaid jade, the same as her collar necklace. A beautiful silk shawl trailed over her shoulders.
Intense violet-red eyes found Rarity, and the new customer - a wealthy one, apparently - smiled.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," the mare said, gliding forward with practiced grace. She also took note of the Boutique's other customer, one Pinkamina Diane Pie. "Oh. You."
"You two... know each other?" Rarity asked, surprised. This mare didn't seem like-
"We met when I was delivering invitations to the party," Pinkie replied, for once not smiling. "Your guards aren't very friendly. I didn't get to finish singing my invitation song, and they chased me and chased me for... for...!" Pinkie huffed, puffing up her cheeks in umbrage. "Forever! Two of them were still chasing me when I got back to Ponyville!"
"I'm very sorry to hear that." The mare inclined her head in apology. "You'll have to excuse their zealousness. My family takes security very seriously."
Pinkie's bad mood, a virtual unknown, quickly started to ebb.
"Welll-lll... okey dokey lokey!" She decided, with a happy little hop. "Did you come to RSVP?"
"I have sent one in the mail; you should get it quite soon. I am actually here to meet Miss Rarity, and to see about having a dress made." The tall noblemare gave a courtly bow and introduced herself to the two Elements of Harmony. "I am the Baroness Antimony, of the Terre Rare Family. Pleased to meet you."
"Terre Rare...? Baroness?" Rarity asked, a little dumbstruck. Slowly, she checked the lapel of the guard by the door. The gold medallion bore an ox-and-star sigil.
She turned to Pinkie. "You broke into a Baron's estate to deliver an invitation."
"Umm." Pinkie bit her lower lip and giggled. "Yep! I guess I did! Actually, it was a Duke's castle!"
"Father thought she was a thief," Antimony explained, still smiling at the memory of the encounter.
It just sank in then that, Pinkie's adventure aside, they were in the presence of a daughter of a Duke, a Baroness herself. Rarity quickly bowed her head and elbowed Pinkie to do the same. Antimony took the deference in stride, and motioned for them to stop.
"Please," she insisted. "No need for that. I am not here on business, only pleasure. I would insist that you please be at ease."
One the little uncomfortable formalities and introductions were out of the way, Rarity's eyes quickly lit up with excitement and opportunity. She never had been able to talk Fleur into modeling - Fancy Pants' wife hated it, and went au natural whenever and wherever she could. He not only didn't mind this, but seemed to find it endlessly amusing.
Yet here was a titled noblemare, with (almost) Fleur's wonderful figure, asking for a dress for the Art Festival. Her coloration, specifically her mane, lead the fashion conscious mare to think of Twilight's coat, but contrasted against a white body. Rarity was confident she could put together a simply fabulous look for her... once she had an idea of her new customer's tastes in formal wear.
"Hi! We didn't get to meet before because ponies kept trying to blast and tackle me, but I'm Pinkie Pie! Of course I know who you are! I know the names and faces of ALL the ponies I invited to the big party! You'll love Ponyville! Since you're here early, do you want me to throw you a quick little welcome party! OH! We can try out my new party cannon! I've been WAITING for a chance to try out my new party cannon! You aren't easily deafened, are you?"
"Um, Pinkie Pie..." Rarity groaned, as her hyperactive friend bounced around the Baroness.
She even leaned in to waggle her eyebrows - during the party cannon part of her announcement - eliciting an angry growl of a warning from the guard near the door. Naturally, Pinkie being Pinkie, she spun around and gave the hulking pegasus a raspberry, her tongue still caught between her lips when Rarity pulled her out of the line of fire.
"If we have time, I would enjoy a small soiree," Antimony replied, unflustered by Pinkie's bouncing and proximity. "I was going to have tea with your Mayor Mare later. I would be delighted if we could speak more then."
Rarity opened her mouth to say something, anything, but a strange sensation passed through her in that moment: an almost ominous pit in her stomach. She blinked, and didn't notice when Pinkie somehow swapped the dress she had been wearing back onto a modeling mannequine, allowing her to freely bounce around the newly arrived Baroness, peppering her with questions about what kind of food she liked and how 'surprised' Mayor Mare would be to see other guests showing up. Before she knew it, Pinkie was saying 'we can finish later, right?' and bounding out the door past the bodyguard.
Left alone with this noblemare and her guard, Rarity felt an inexplicable pang of panic that came and left in a split second. It made no sense, really. Antimony was standing still, watching her with polite curiosity, waiting for her to begin her sales pitch. Her eyes were a bit intense, but no more than, say, Twilight's often got. The dressmaker just couldn't help but remember what she had said moments before.
'I am actually here to meet Miss Rarity,' she had said.
It had not been phrased in the warmest of tones.
"Well," Rarity finally said, forcing up a smile and motioning her new client over to the rear, exclusive collection of the Boutique. "Why don't I show some styles and then we can build on that?"
"That sounds wonderful," Antimony agreed.
As she began, settling back into her natural element, ensconced and encouraged by the familiar topic of fashion and dressmaking, together with the comfort of her wonderful shop, Rarity quickly found her center. This was only possibly her most important - customer - ever! So no stress or anything. Fortunately, unlike Sapphire Shores, Antimony was far less ostentatious and immediately dismissed the dresses and ensembles that relied heavily on embedded gems.
Rarity suspected that would be the case. The tastes and expectations of the aristocracy were different than those of normal 'high society.' The latter were wealthy and influential, to be sure, including moguls and media darlings alongside their ranks of poseurs and hanger's on. They chased the latest fashion craze to set themselves apart from the herd, or ahead of the pack. Equestria's tiny cabal of noble families were different from the superstars and tycoons.
Antimony's posture and tone said it all: she had nothing to prove.
Celestia never engaged in flights of fashion, and when there was no foreign Princess or Grand Duchess in the Blueblood line, everything basically stood still within the highest echelons of Canterlot. Due to this disconnect, aristocratic fashions were rather old. Antiquated, even. Anachronistic, if one was making no effort to be flattering.
Antimony quickly dismissed the sequin dress Rarity showed her next, which was a shame, since it was just perfect for her figure and coloration. She had it in both silver and gold, and if asked, could weave it embroidered with coins or bits instead of tiny overlapping hexagons. It was a risqué design, of the sort very popular in Marean this season. Too exotic, though, for this customer, even if she would have looked simply fabulous in it. By that standard, the cocktail dresses were out, too.
Rarity's own dress was among the next she showed her customer, though she ironically hoped it wouldn't catch the noblemare's eye. She was quite proud of the design, and intended to show it off at the art festival herself: the base model was an elegant swan silk layered gown in black with an antique white sash. The waist was higher than normal with an a-line skirt to flatter the flank and the rise of the tail. She had practiced dancing in her version of it, and simply loved how it flowed with her movements.
For the first time, Antimony seemed to pause to consider it, but ultimately opted to move on. It took a few more tries to narrow down the choices available. Finally, they found something for her: a long (and somewhat heavy) duchess satin gown with faux ivory guipure lace edging. It was a beautiful piece of work, but it also required wearing a steel boned corset. Hence, it was not one of Rarity's personal favorites. It was also extremely expensive, as Antimony immediately rejected the use of faux ivory for bloodless ivory.
Bloodless ivory was collected by using magic to shave off natural ivory, harvesting it without killing the animal involved. It was only made in zebra lands and imported only rarely. Rarity knew where she could get some - there was a supplier in Canterlot - but it made a dress studded with rubies look cheap by comparison. Natural grand pearl was one of the few things as rare and hard to import to Equestria, and Antimony similarly refused to use anything but the actual thing in her veil-less feathered fascinator and dress details. When Rarity told her that there was no way to make a bracelet with centered natural grand pearl in time for the festival, she compromised by switching it for a chain knot bracelet with dusted diamonds.
They were close to a final deal.
"...four layers. The lining, a support layer, the underlining and the outer fashion fabric. I'm not fond of corsets myself, but this one is fully boned throughout each panel and made to feel as soft and comfortable as possible. Everything I make here is intended for the greatest possible level of flexibility and support, but without sacrificing strength. If you look here, you may see one of my little signature styles: the boning is sewn into to the support layer, not above or below it, to keep it from shifting. This has the added bonus of keeping a very smooth, seamless silhouette."
Antimony seemed pleased with her selection.
"This will be perfect," the noblemare concluded with a discerning eye. "You need only ask, and I will cover any additional importing expenses. You may use our name to assure you are given what you need without complication."
"Oh, I'm sure it won't be half the trouble I imagine it to be!"
The two mares then moved over to the fitting area, where Rarity began to relaxing process of taking her customer's measurements. As was the habit of many dress and suit makers, she switched the conversation from their purchase to small talk while they worked. Rarity inquired about the noblemare's home: the land of Two Rivers was in the northeastern corner of Equestria, a rich and fertile province that included the region of Prance. Parts of it were also quite low and prone to flooding, or it had been in the past.
Antimony repeated some of the common facts that most any school filly would already know about her homeland. Rarity paid only passing attention. Taking the mare's measurements, she had noticed that - quite the opposite of what she had expected - Antimony's tall, curvy form was hardly as soft as it appeared. Beneath her soft coat and skin, her muscles were taut and hard, like Applejack's. Not really like most unicorns at all. She had feminine curves, enviable ones, but her stomach was almost rock hard. It was a little strange, but then, Blueblood had personal fitness trainers and a similar sort of build, so perhaps this noble mare did as well?
Her cutie mark was a star and crown, along with some constellation Rarity didn't recognize.
"Darling, you had the most lovely cloak when you came in," Rarity observed, just finishing marking down the noblemare's measurements. "May I ask where you got it?"
"I had it imported from abroad," the Baroness replied.
"The color of the hems and collar...? So very realistic I..."
"That's because it is real," Antimony explained, smiling as she continued. "Genuine sable from Castle Roc."
Genuine sable? Genuine fur?
Rarity didn't grimace, not externally. She should have suspected as much. Antimony seemed to dislike anything 'fake' and furs were not completely unknown as fashion accessories. Not that she included any genuine articles of fur or leather in her boutique. It was a practice and style of dress much more common up north where the winters turned much more bitterly cold. Necessity, now, had become more a matter of taste.
"I noticed you didn't have any," the Baroness mused, looking away and closing her eyes. She sounded and appeared completely unconcerned.
"I do not believe it is, well, entirely ethical," Rarity admitted. "My focus is on gems, anyway. I wouldn't know what to do with a... a pelt."
"Mm-hmm," Antimony replied, and her smile widened a bit. Leisurely opening her bright violet eyes, she stepped down from the platform. Rarity quickly put away her notepad and thanked her for her business. While genuine fur was something she had no interest in using in her designs, this project did accord her a chance to work in actual pearl and bloodless ivory. The dress, when it was finished, would be simply divine!
"You know, Miss Rarity," Antimony remarked, as she turned to leave. "I like you. I wish us to become fast, true friends."
"Oh. Well, I..." Rarity stumbled, not entirely sure what to say.
Fast, true friends?
"I see. You don't quite grasp what I mean." Antimony trotted closer, still entirely amiable. "The Arts Festival?"
Rarity tilted her head in confusion. "What about it?"
"I am attending it to see my new home."
"What?" Rarity had to ask. "Your? No. Blueblood is-"
"Prince," Antimony cut her off, her tone dropping a notch from its friendly norm. "Prince Blueblood is building it. Yes." She leaned in a little closer, to add, "...and he is my husband."
Rarity blinked again, having trouble making sense of what she had just been told. It made no sense. This mare couldn't be his wife. There was no Grand Duchess in Canterlot. Blueblood had never mentioned being married! No magazine, no pony, had ever said as much.
"That's impossible," she quickly corrected the noblemare. "I'm sorry, but that can't be."
"It has already been decided," Antimony insisted, and there didn't seem to be a bit of hesitation or doubt to underscore what had to be a fabrication of the truth. She stepped into one of her slippers and tapped Rarity on the shoulder in a friendly, almost familiar manner.
"As his mistress, I'm sure you and I will grow quite close," the fair Baroness concluded, all smiles and warm words again. "I hereby guarantee you seniority over any future third or fourth, as is my right as wife. You are the element of generosity and a friend to both the Princess and the realm entire; I feel this is the least I can do. Let us be as sisters."
It took a moment, but that finally provoked a reaction.
"No!" Rarity yelled, jumping back and onto all four hooves. A stylus fell, jostled off a desk by her now erratic telekinesis. "What are you talking about? What are you saying?! Blueblood and I are-"
"Lovers," Antimony interrupted again. "I know. I don't even mind. So long as we unite the Houses, so long as we have an heir... he really can spend all his free time with you. I will permit it, but the marriage has been arranged. As I said..."
She turned to leave, her pegasus bodyguard slipping her cloak back on.
"It has been decided," Baroness Antimony glided through the door, just as gracefully as she entered. "I look forward to seeing my dress. Until then. Come along, Gewitter."
Falling back onto her haunches, Rarity slowly shook her head. It - it couldn't be. Decided. Decided? Decided by who?!
"Decided by who!" She snapped, but her guests were long gone. Stamping a hoof, she turned her head, lit up her horn, and carefully put her fallen stylus back in place. Only with that done, and order restored to her shop, did she take a deep breath. A deep, long, calming breath.
"So that's how nobleponies declare war?" she asked herself, brows slowly lowering into a scowl. "Let us be as sisters, is that it?" Behind the scowl, blue eyes burned with determination. "Ohh. It. Is. Definitely. On."