- - -
- - -
The roof of Equestria could be found in the Skyspear Mountains of the north, a vast land of rugged highlands and snow capped mountains obscured by fog and cloud. Chief among the griffin realms was Crown Roc, a great crescent carved out of two mountainsides. Permanently adorned by pearls of clouds at the various levels, it was the triumph of griffin architecture and society, and had been for nearly a thousand years, since ponykind drove almost all rival races from the southlands in the great migrations of a previous age.
Of the two mountainsides, the east-front, Ajax, was the largest, more than twice the size of the smaller north-front, Teucer. A small, third mountain to the west, Trambelus, was occupied only by a combined ground and cloud fort guarding the navigable approach to the city. Thousands of buildings clung like moss to the side of the mountaintops, white stone and blue domes and a dozen colors of banner and parapet. The highest towers were the Skyspears for which the mountains were named: places of pilgrimage and sky-worship, connections between the monasteries in the heavens and the life on the earth. Griffins were more dual natured than pegasi, hunting on the ground, sleeping in the mountains, cavorting in the sky.
Dominating part of the largest mountainside, Ajax, lay the Aerie of the High King. Tiered like massive steps leading up to a glacial throne, ringed by trees and a beehive of small domes, it was a sight to behold - a rival of Canterlot itself, though poorer and purposefully lacking in proper opulence. Much of the Palace Aerie was a barracks and citadel, functional not so much as a venue for cultural expression as it was a show of force. The Griffin Tribes were not so openly and easily united as their pony neighbors to the south.
They never had been; and in fact, never wanted to be... so united.
Prince Blueblood took in the sight as he prepared to leave.
"One would think our honored guest found the hospitality of Crown Roc lacking?" The speaker, Prince Mnemon, joined him in looking out over the edge of the airship.
Above them, the thin metal skeleton of the semi-rigid airship's envelope fluttered, attendants checking it for travel and preparing the internal ballonets for takeoff. The whole thing had been fashioned in the likeness of a sleek predatory whale or fish, from the metallic tip to the cresting empennage. Hanging from the envelope by a weave of ropes and supports, the gondola was akin to the body of a small ship, with ample luxuries and amenities for the Captain and Lord.
It was Prince Blueblood's personal air cruiser, far faster than the diplomatic cargo airship moored close by. Curiously, that vessel was still at rest in its mooring by the mountainside of Crown Roc. Only The Princess Hesperus - The Princess Evening Star - was being prepared for launch. The suddenness of it all had drawn the heir apparent from the Palace to investigate.
Blueblood turned from the sight of the mountain city to busily oversee the small crew as they went about their duties. A soft blue glow enveloped one of the rigging supports, testing its strength. Finding it acceptable, it moved on to the others.
"Take it not as a slight, Mnemon," the Equestria royalty replied as he worked. "Please be sure your father the King understands this as well. Something unsavory has come to my attention, calling me home to attend to it."
"It must be quite the news, to have you scurrying around like a mouse before a hawk," his peer among the griffins observed. He reached out to one of the flags that hung from the side of the airship's envelope. A few of the ship's streamers were emblazoned with the Star and Vesica Piscis, representing the diarchy of the divines of sun and moon, but others proudly bore the silhouette of a unicorn's bust against royal purple, crowned with diamonds. Only one family in Equestria bore the heraldry of the Old Kingdom.
The fabric pinched between the griffin Prince's claws before he let it be.
"Father had hoped to save this to the last day," Mnemon continued, looking to the side as a trio of griffins mauled a crate onboard. "But since we have concluded our business, it can be given now, I suppose. Our artisans have crafted for Lady Celestia and Lady Luna a gift that Father believes they will find to their liking. I hope you don't feel disappointed returning home without a trinket of your own, Blueblood."
The Prince snorted, glancing back at his fellow with one eye.
"Really?" he asked, and went back to making sure the ship was ready to disembark. "I was given a fine scar. I suppose that will pass for a gift to remember this trip by."
Mnemon chuckled, slapping the alabaster stallion on the back. "Yes! You understand well! Equestria and Crown Roc will be good friends when we take our places!"
"I'm already in my place," Blueblood countered, and his eyes narrowed in anger. "It is the reason I must leave."
Seeing Mnemon was still curious, and that an answer could well smooth over his sudden exit, Blueblood floated an opened letter over from where it had been tucked under his belt and cloak. The griffin lord snatched it out of the air, handling it much more carefully than he did the flag before. It fluttered wildly in the mountain wind once Blueblood's magic released it.
"Come, see where my place in the grand scheme of things has gotten me," the Prince of Equestria growled, looking up to test the airship's hull overhead.
Mnemon examined the letter: it seemed unremarkable at first. The wax seal, broken on the outside where it had been folded, but intact at the bottom of the letter itself in place of a signature, indicated it was from the Stable of Lords in Equestria. Though the Stable had been the signatory, it was not the sender. Still, the fact that it was an official communiqué from the Lords was interesting enough. To the griffin Prince, it was a curious institution to begin with, giving voice to the country's landed classes, and one the Lords of Crown Roc had no desire to emulate. A Council of Elders served to advise the griffin King; there was no need for some preening legislature.
In Equestria, the Stable of Lords had been first formed by the aristocrats of the migration in imitation of institutions in the Old Kingdom. It included religious ponies, hereditary commanders of the air guard, heralds, abbots, barons, dukes and representatives of the great district mayors. The very founders of the Stable had been the three revered ponies of the previous era: Smart Cookie, Clover the Clever, and Pansy the Fair. Blueblood, too, would have been a lord among them, as the Duke of Canterlot.
As Mnemon read the letter, however, he realized the problem.
"You have been engaged," he remarked, folding the letter back up. Blueblood, finished with checking the ship, now spared all his attention on his guest, plucking the letter out of the griffin's hand with a bit of magic.
"Should I congratulate you?" Mnemon asked, a joke neither found funny. "Do you even know this she-pony?"
"I know of Lady Antimony and her esteemed family," Blueblood answered with a frown. "They are somewhat distant cousins." He then clarified: "Ambitious cousins to be exact. I don't need to sit in court and bend ear to rumors to know what they are doing here. The Stable, engaging me without so much as a word of consultation?"
Blueblood huffed, his anger already mellowed and tempered by consideration.
"It is insulting for them to go behind my back," he explained, and tucked the letter away under his cloak. "Nevermind that Lady Rarity will not accept the terms this will impose on her. On us."
"She would be relegated to second wife?" Mnemon guessed, knowing enough of ponies - despite the impression he tended to give - to determine the unwritten consequences of the letter and the engagement.
"We only have one wife," Blueblood reminded him. "The second, third or fourth... or however many... ladies... are not even accorded a proper title. They also remain in the household only at the permission and whim of the wife, to be ejected with their children as suits her. Lady Rarity is many things, Mnemon, but she is not the type to ever accept second place in anything. She is no leman or kept mare."
Placing a hoof against the banner-edge of the airship's gondola, a frown deepened.
"I must return... muster my friends and allies... find some way to reject this engagement," he said, determined but also cautious. "Some way that does not also insult House Terre Rare or impugn the honor of Lady Antimony."
"Then," Mnemon reasoned, a little cautiously himself. "You are certain that this Lady Rarity is to be your one... and only wife? You throw away much power by aligning your family with another that, by your own admission, has nothing to materially contribute. Not to be rude, but from what I know, House Blueblood was stronger in your father's day."
"For once, your spies see some truth." Blueblood gave a frustrated, unhappy whinny. "The family was stronger... and larger... in father's day. Stronger still in my grandmother's. Our power and prestige have diminished. We have fallen far from once lofty heights. When the forty seventh came to these lands, he was a Titan! Now...?"
He shook his head, trying to stay in the present. "Picking Lady Rarity as wife will do me no favors. It will grant my house no new lands. I will reap the benefits of no new alliances. Lady Rarity has no dowry to speak of. Any hypothetical children will not even inherit her element, before you think to ask."
The stallion's eyes narrowed as he continued.
"It will earn me only enmity. Her dowry will be the ire of great houses, whose own daughters have been snubbed. To marry Lady Rarity... is the worst political move I will have ever made."
Blueblood fixed Mnemon with a hard stare.
"But it is her dream... and I can imagine myself committed to no other," the Prince concluded, calmly, before glancing back out at the mountains and clouds. "So it is a move I will make, regardless."
The two royals stood in silence for a while, the shouts of the ship's crew confirming that the Princess Hesperus was ready for launch. The King's gift had been stowed away, and Princess Celestia's gift unloaded: an intact train engine, given as part of the peace negotiation, to encourage the more civilized of Griffin Tribes to link themselves with Equestria, not only by air, but by land as well. The thought of the Sun Princess gave Mnemon pause.
"What about Granny?" he asked, chuckling at the nickname he and many generations of griffin princes previous had used for the immortal alicorn. "The Old Lady must be a trump card you can use?"
"Auntie," Blueblood primly used a label that didn't quite stress how old his beloved relative was. "Will not be able to stick her nose into this."
Mnemon raised an eyebrow at that, not understanding. "Why not? You are her nephew, however distantly. She is Princess of your realm, the spiritual head of your people. And... if I'm not mistaken, she is quite fond of Lady Rarity and all the other Mares of Harmony."
"All true," the Prince admitted, and his blue eyes caught the horizon. South. Where Equestria's green fields lay. "She will not intervene because of her most terrible vice."
"Her integrity. You must have noticed the outer seal in the letter..."
"You didn't break it," the griffin lord realized with a smirk. "Ah! Granny did, and she sent it to you."
"By royal courier," Blueblood confirmed, pushing off from the scaffold and heading to the airship's bridge. "My own letter will no doubt arrive days from now, when other plans have been put in motion." He stopped a pegasus in a sky-blue vest. "Ready the sails. We cruise as soon as our weather team builds up the wind."
"Mnemnon," the Prince added, shooing away the airship crewpony and turning quickly to incline his head in respect. "I do hate to leave the hospitality of Crown Roc so suddenly and so rudely, I do, but you must understand now. I need to fly! I need to get back! What I care for depends on it!"
"You never explained why Granny couldn't intervene," the other Prince reminded him. "I'm sure she can do more than give you some small warning?"
Blueblood's shoulders sensed, but he didn't immediately reply.
"Auntie..." he finally said, a hot breath of air against the cold mountain wind. "Auntie was the one to conceive of this engagement in the first place. That is why."
- - -
It went largely without saying that Spike had few male role models.
This wasn't the Worst. Thing. In. The. World! But it was a pain, sometimes. This being one of those times. His thoughts were a muddled, confused haze around one endlessly recursive subject in particular. He didn't let it affect his chores at the library - he wasn't sure how to talk to Twilight about it, or how awkward it would be - and he didn't let it otherwise detract from spending time with his friends, but it was always there. Rarity, this situation he had overheard... it was always in the back of his mind, enshrouded by doubt.
He needed another guy to talk to, to use as a sounding board, to just be a possible source of advice. Somebody or somepony who wasn't already in Rarity's circle of friends. Snips and Snails had been possibilities, but the pair had as much experience with girls as he did, or, honestly, LESS. A lot less. It highlighted the problem in general.
Just finding another dragon to talk to would go some distance towards clearing up his thoughts. Naturally, that wasn't possible. Dragons didn't raise their young - "they just don't have parental instincts," Twilight had explained once - and they were not the most talkative of races even under the best of conditions. He knew darn well that there was at least one dragon living nearby in Everfree, but the big green jerk was as likely to squash the 'competition' as he was to share any deep insights into dragon nature.
There would be no wisdom passed down from that source.
The only other alternative left was finding some camaraderie and common ground as guys, and just as guys, even if those ‘guys’ were ponies. It wasn't like they were all that different anyway. It wasn't like it was him - Spike - being abnormal in some way? Was it?
He was out of options.
This was also why he was at Sweet Apple Acres. The Apple family knew him, and even though his visit had been unexpected, he was greeted warmly and allowed to hang around. Applebloom was with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle at school, but he wasn't here to see any of the crusaders. He was here for advice from one of the few stallions he knew, albeit not very well.
There was nothing to do but wait as Big Macintosh finished stocking one of the barns for the fall. No stranger to repetitive manual labor himself, Spike still had to shake his head at the carts and bales of hay being stowed, together with other fruits of the farm. Pony-food, all of it. Realizing that there wasn't just one barn packed with inedible roughage, but several across Ponyville's many family farms, it just reinforced the bitter thoughts that he had nursed over the last few days: that, as much as he loved being with his friends, they were ponies. He was not.
He never would be.
It was never something that mattered much before, but... now...
After what seemed like an eternity of an early afternoon, the crimson farmpony finally finished and returned to the house. Before long, he had one of Granny Smith's apple iced teas in a tall glass, unwinding for a few minutes between time spent almost single handedly caring for half of Sweet Apple Acres. This, in turn, brought up the problem with trying to strike up a conversation with Applejack's brother: he was just not a very talkative pony.
Spike fidgeted as he tried to imagine how to start to ask what he should do about his feelings for Rarity, or specifically about Rarity's situation. He didn't want to go too much into detail to respect her privacy, after all, and he didn't want to be weird about it. He could just ask: 'hey, you know a lot about girls and relationships and stuff, right?' Big Mac was an older guy, but not that much older.
Ironically, the whole situation could've been easier - and easily avoided - if Twilight's parents had been living nearby, like they were back in Canterlot. Spike didn't know them much better than he did the Apples, but they were kind of default family. He knew they'd have some kind of wisdom to share. Parental stuff. Something.
"So, uh..." The little dragon muttered, setting his glass on the floor next to his leg. The farmhouse's patio was surprisingly cool, and a breeze rustled the shaded leaves of dozens of apple trees in the fields nearby.
"Eyup," Big Mac muttered back, taking a slow drink before readjusting the trademark wheat stalk between his lips.
For a while, the two sat in silence. Granny Smith even ducked in to leave a tray of apple cakes and slices for lunch. Slowly building up the nerve to just ask for help, for advice, Spike was pre-empted by Applejack coming up from behind and plopping down. Also on her late-lunch break, apparently.
As expected, she quickly asked him why he was here, and not in the town or with Twilight. Applejack, however, was a pony he knew. It wasn't hard to excuse himself: he was here to relax and clear his head. It was both true, and a convenient excuse. Sensing the former, Applejack nodded and relaxed for a little while next to her brother.
It... did not make broaching the conversation Spike wanted to broach any easier.
Then, without a word, Big Mac got up, stretched and started to head off.
"Yer goin' ta take care of the fence, right?" Applejack asked, still chewing a slice of glazed apple. It was only mid-day, but she already looked a little bushwacked.
"Eyup," he replied, and surprisingly added, "Ya wanna come help? Spike?"
"Oh! Me?" Spike jumped up, seeing and seizing the chance. "Sure! Yeah! I'd be happy to!"
Done asking, Mac nodded once and went back to walking: a slow, purposeful walk already set to Spike's pace. The little dragon was tempted, just for a moment, to steal a ride on the pony's back. He did it with Twilight all the time, and even her friends didn't seem to mind. With Mac, though, it would be... awkward. Probably something Applebloom and her friends could get away with, but Spike suspected that he'd just get a rather unwelcoming glare if he made the attempt to climb up.
He walked alongside the large farmpony instead.
"So, uhm..." Once again, Mac was silent, though he must have discerned that Spike wanted to ask him something. "I uh..."
Cupping his hands behind his back, Spike coughed, just spitting it out:
"Hey, Big Mac... you know about... girls and stuff, right?"
"A bit," was the response. Spike could admit he'd expected an 'eyup.'
"I, ah... need some advice," the dragon admitted.
Mac said nothing, he just nodded. Once.
Probably meaning something like 'I thought so' in Mac-inese.
"So," Spike began, kicking a small rock off the beaten path between rows of orchard trees. "Have you ever... liked a girl... a mare, I guess... who liked someone else?"
The stallion was a little slow to respond.
"Well?" Spike thought the inference was, frankly, obvious. "What happened?" In a shade of Fluttershy-like anxiously, Spike realized how personal and direct the question had to have sounded. "I mean, if you don't... if it's okay for me to ask? It is okay, right?"
Mac snorted, but gave no other sign of discomfort or annoyance.
"Didn't work out tween them," he drawled, explaining it simply, but with enough insight to also add, "Didn't work out tween her and me, neither."
For such a short answer, it carried a lot of weight: there had been a girl, then, and he had liked her. She had liked somepony else. Yet neither of the two relationships had worked out. Spike tried to imagine it as it could relate to him. Was it possible that Rarity wasn't for either of them? It was actually an option he hadn't even considered, so focused was he on... that Prince of hers.
"Did you want things to not work out between them, though?" Spike asked, and this was the crux of the matter. He cupped his mouth with a hand, gritting his teeth. "I mean... it isn't wrong to feel that way, is it? Not that you did, but... if you had? It wouldn't be weird or wrong to think that? It would be normal, right?"
"It wouldn't be selfish, right?" he blurted the question out even as he looked down at his feet, ashamed. "It wouldn't be because you..."
It wouldn't be because you were a dragon, and you fed and grew on greed.
"It ain't strange," the stallion replied, more quickly than he had with the previous questions. "Ah think... when ya like somepony like that, it don't make ya rational. Maybe it is ah bit greedy, but ya want what ya want. Ya want yer chance ta try an get it. Maybe you'll fall on yer face, but ya want the chance ta try."
Spike nearly missed a step. The chance to try?
He did. He did want that.
It was what he'd lost at the Gala. He had known from the start that the girls all had their own plans for the evening, and that Rarity wanted to 'find her Prince.' He'd never thought she would succeed, literally. Yet, against all odds, by the time the night was through, she and Blueblood seemed to have hit it off. Before long, Spike started to see him visiting Ponyville. Then Rarity began visiting Canterlot more often, and not on business. Even when she was here, in Ponyville, when she was with him it was like there was no room for... anyone else...
Nopony, no-one else, seemed to get it. Sweetie Belle thought it was wonderful and a fairy tale come true. Twilight probably thought it was fascinating and romantic and all that junk. It didn't change the fact that Blueblood was taking her away. He was taking her from them: from her friends and family. Even if she only moved to that mansion he was building outside town, it wasn't that he was physically taking her away. It was more than that. It was worse than that.
Spike didn't want him to.
He loved Rarity. He wanted her. He wasn't sure how, but he knew a strong feeling when he felt it, and this was more powerful than anything he had felt for anything ever before. It had to be love. But - but at the same time, he was smart enough to know that he was no pony. Dragons didn't "love" each other, their mates, or even their own children. They loved things. The contradiction between what he thought he felt and what he suspected he felt was too strong. He couldn't ignore his heart... or his head.
"I do want a chance," he said, dropping the veil of pretense.
"Any wrong ain't in wanting, but in doin' ... I'd think," Big Mac continued, green eyes passing over him as the farmer inspected the orchard around them. "Ah think ya gotta ask yerself, can ya be a little happy just fer somepony else bein' happy?"
"I..." Spike wanted to say yes, but the honest answer was, "I don't know."
"S'alright. Stop, listen, 'n think. A lotta life's problems sort out if ya stop, listen, 'n think." Big Mac stopped, mis-step, and raised a hoof to scratch behind his ear. "Well, would'ya look at this? Seems I got a bit turned around. We were supposed'ta be getting supplies from the shed ta fix the fence."
Yeah: quite a coincidence, that.
Still weighed down by his thoughts, but not quite as consumed by them as before, Spike followed the soft spoken stallion back up the patch to the tool shed. Mac didn't say anything else on the subject. He saw no need to, and Spike didn't ask any more. He had already said what needed to be said. Spike already felt better from having had someone to talk to.
That just left him having to help re-wire a rather lengthy section of fence.
Annoying work, but it gave him time to think... about what to do. About the letter.
- - -
Twilight tried not to look at her friend as Rarity read Princess Celestia's letter. She'd been disappointed to read it herself; for Rarity, who had to be pinning her hopes on a resolution handed down from her Princess, it would be much worse. It wasn't as if anypony had made a habit of calling the Princess for help, even when they were probably in over their heads. Not a one of them ran to Canterlot to have their problems solved with a wave or royal decree.
Now, finally, the one time that they had turned to the Princess for help, the result had been...
Conflicted and ambiguous.
Slowly, Rarity rolled the letter up and put it on a cushion nearby. Twilight checked her friend, but the other unicorn wasn't in the throes of her usual displays of despair. Instead, Rarity had a focused, thoughtful look on her face. Blue eyes found the letter, darted to the ceiling of the Boutique, and then closed as she processed the response from Canterlot.
"So," Rarity finally spoke, tapping a hoof against the soft red pillow beneath her. "I suppose we are left with a choice in where to go next."
"I'm sure if something else could be done..." Twilight offered in Celestia's defense.
"Twilight, darling, please don't worry yourself. I'm not mad. Or upset." Rarity chewed her lower lip as she thought. "A bit... troubled maybe..."
Shooing a hissing Opalescence off of one of her mannequines, the genius dressmaker swayed her head back and forth as she inserted a delicate ivory lace into the hem of one of her creations. Twilight could tell she was using it both as a form of distraction and as a way to help her think and clear her mind. The dress itself looked beautiful, as all of Rarity's creations did. This one was a bit unusual in that it had no gems other than pearl and fake ivory.
"Rarity?" Twilight asked, sensing her friend had something on her mind that she hadn't shared yet.
"Hm. Oh, I'm terribly sorry!" She paused next to the dress, looking at it with a critical eye. "It helps me focus, you know? This dress... I want it to be simply magnificent. Flawless."
Sitting up, the other unicorn cocked her head in confusion. "I thought you were wearing a different dress to the festival?"
"I am," Rarity explained with a smirk and shake of her head. "This is Lady Antimony's dress."
Twilight started at that in surprise. "What? But why-"
"She is a customer," Rarity reminded her bookish friend. "An important customer of the Carousel Boutique! I won't let any personal differences get in the way of what I love. Lady Antimony is a classically beautiful mare, with a perfect mane and perfect posture and perfect poise and she is paying for a similarly beautiful dress. So! I want it to be perfect. My best work. My master work."
Rarity's blue eyes narrowed as she grinned.
"I want to see her in this dress when she realizes she's going to lose," she said with a huff. "To me. To Rarity!"
Twilight shrunk back a bit at the intensity in her friend's eyes and voice. Nothing Rarity had described so far seemed particularly insulting, really, in her opinion. Yet from the sound of things, the two unicorn mares were bitter enemies and had become so in the span of a few sentences. Was this really all caused by the noblemare's engagement to Blueblood? Twilight just didn't quite get it. Not that she had to completely understand to sympathize and see the stress her friend had on her shoulders. Just that, if she were in Rarity's shoes, Twilight suspected she would just cut some kind of deal and move on.
That seemed like the rational response to the situation, anyway.
"Did I tell you? I exchanged letters with Fleur and Fancy Pants earlier," Rarity continued, chin held high as she levitated out a string of pearls for the dress. "Apparently, they can't help me either. Not a single one of my Canterlot friends suggested I pursue a confrontation with any member of Lady Antimony's family. And now... even the Princess...?"
At mention of Celestia, Twilight hastened to clear some things up:
"Just a minute," she interrupted, holding up a hoof for emphasis. "While the Princess herself didn't confirm this, my father was able to shed some light on what was happening in the family. The... rest of the family... that is."
This prompted Rarity to turn and give her friend her full attention. It was probably still something of a sore spot that Twilight found herself related, even distantly, to the main branch of Terre Rares that Rarity had found herself in opposition to. She just didn't quite grasp how large extended unicorn clans could be in Canterlot... or how complicated genealogies were. One of the most important and well-respected branches of magic in Canterlot related to the study of family lines, lineage, and the arranging of marriages.
A good genealogist was as well respected (and as well paid) as a good doctor, maybe more.
"When I asked them what was going on - aside from asking why I only wrote home about this and nothing else - my father told me what he had heard when he was young..."
Twilight focused her magic, projecting a copy of a genealogy chart she had formed from her letters and from her research. The branching tree went back seven generations, illuminated by a dozen important names and other blank spaces marked with XY or XX. It was incomplete, but would get the point across.
"My word! I keep forgetting how good you are at illusion magic, darling." Rarity watched with some awe.
Twilight laughed in embarrassment, still a bit flushed by getting praise. Especially for mundane stuff and helping out. This level of complex illusion wasn't that hard. Not even master-level.
"See this name here?" Twilight asked, and her magic highlighted one of the names from which all but one, the one above, branched. "This is Blueblood the forty seventh. Also known in history as Blueblood the Silent."
The name glowed, along with a date of birth and time of passing.
"About two hundred years ago, this Prince Blueblood fought during the Second Griffin Civil War. Oddly, I found conflicting information with respect to how he died..."
Twilight quickly assumed a lecturing tone and pose, one hoof raised and both eyes closed as she worked her magic and told her tale.
"One source says the rebellious Pretender King of the griffins struck him down before dying from his wounds. Another more colorful story is that the Prince developed a terrible spell that tore the wings from any flying creature in the sky, and that after the battle, he was killed by a crippled pegasus who was offended by his refusal to apologize or make amends. Hence the title 'the Silent.' Or so the book speculated."
"Anyway," she said, moving on. The two names under Blueblood the Silent highlighted. "The real mess begins with these two. Blue Belle the forty eighth, who adopted the feminine form of the title Blueblood, and her sister Arsenic. Both were born just days after their father died."
"Twins?" Rarity asked, seeing one name before the other on the family tree.
It struck her then that the tree was arranged in sibling order: oldest to the left, youngest to the right. It was clear enough to see, since the main branch - the titled leading edge of the family - was always confined to one side and marked by a little golden crown. Lady Arsenic and Blue Belle were the one exception.
Which meant -
"Lady Arsenic was the older sister by a few hours," Twilight confirmed, guessing that her fellow Element of Harmony had already figured it out. "But the family inheritance was passed onto Blue Belle."
"How can that be?" Rarity asked, contemplating the genealogy of her would-be enemy. "In an old family, a royal family, the oldest daughter should always inherit. Was something... wrong with her?"
"Lady Arsenic... she wasn't a unicorn," Twilight explained, and the mare's name faded while Blue Belle's glowed as bright as before. "According to the books I read, and according to my father, she was born an earth pony. So, despite being older, the family name passed to her younger sister. A unicorn."
Lady Arsenic, though clipped from the Blueblood line, found another branch on the tree.
The Terre Rares.
"She ended up marrying into the Terre Rare family in Two Rivers. In contrast, the Blueblood line after the split continued to be very straightforward," Twilight continued, briefly highlighting the family on the right side of the tree. It went straight from one Blueblood to another, ending in Blueblood the fifty second, Lady Blue Belle's great-great grandson. Twilight then focused on the Terre Rare lineage.
"Here's my part of the family line," she said, to demonstrate, even though Rarity had to have already singled it out. "Lady Arsenic had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood: Bismuth, Neptunium, and Kamacite. My father, Crescent Moon, is right here. I'm Kamacite's great granddaughter and Lady Arsenic is my great-great grandmother."
"I knew the name from when I was little," Twilight admitted, slipping a bit from her dispassionate lecturing mode. "But when I looked up more information on her - I didn't even know I had earth pony blood in me - there were some strange writings and rumors. There was a treatise on magic that she wrote... unicorn magic if you can believe it! Bridging alchemy and enchanting! Her sister didn't seem to have done much, but Lady Arsenic is mentioned dozens of times in arcane scrolls and notes. All very fascinating!"
Twilight lowered her voice, and her conjured illusion dimmed a bit.
"She must have been a scholar or something. Everypony knows no earth pony can use unicorn magic," she rationalized. "The Bluebloods have access to all of Canterlot's magic, forbidden or otherwise. I bet she was very knowledgeable..."
"Twilight," Rarity said, feeling the need to step in again to ask for clarity. "What were these scrolls and notes?"
Twilight shook her head. "It... isn't anything important. Esoteric magic. I guess because she still felt the need to use magic of some sort, she tried other ways?"
Rarity took a long look at the Terre Rare family.
They were all unicorns, probably, except for their matriarch, Lady Arsenic. Rarity noticed something then. Something that just couldn't be correct.
"Twilight, are these dates correct? Lady Arsenic lived-"
"One hundred and sixty six years," the Element of Magic confirmed. "Yes. I'm sure. I triple checked that."
It was an astounding age.
Granny Smith, one of Ponyville's oldest living residents, was a little over eighty years old. Lady Arsenic had lived roughly twice as long. It was commonly known that the more magically gifted a unicorn, the longer his or her life could be. There were certain spells, potions and rituals to extend longevity, but not that long. She must have been truly ancient, second only to the Princesses, when she finally passed away.
Her husband, in contrast, died in his forties.
That fact certainly wasn't very ominous.
"Her oldest daughter died?" Rarity asked, seeing that the main line was again continued by the second daughter, Bismuth.
"Oh. That, well..." Twilight licked her lips, a little hesitant to say much more. Lady Arsenic's first child was marked with an XX, but no name.
"She - she died soon after being born," she explained. "According to the family rolls."
"Oh. How sad!" Rarity shook her head sadly, knowing it must've been a tragedy for a new mother starting a new family, after being cruelly forced out of her old one. "But health care was lacking back then... so unhygienic, and there is always the risk-"
"Actually," Twilight corrected, coughing and looking nervous enough to pass for a violet colored Fluttershy. "According to family lore, the foal was born healthy... but when Lady Arsenic started to feed her, she... um... died. Of poisoning. She was considered too weak, so Lady Arsenic refused to give her a name..."
"Oh ho. That old tale?"
Both mares startled, jumped, to see a silent group of figures at the door. One of them Lady Antimony. The others were Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Pierce, and Colton Vines. Twilight knew that the latter was expected to give a wine tasting tonight to determine which vintages were to be used at the Arts Festival. They were early, though, weren't they?
A quick look at the clock instead informed her that it was her sense of time that was off.
"Should you really be repeating two hundred year old slander, Twilight Sparkle?" Lady Antimony stepped forward, eyes narrowing, but still wearing a small, amiable smile. She sounded unhappy, but looked more amused than insulted.
"Especially when the victim of said rumors is our own great-great grandmother?" she asked. "How distasteful. To see such disrespect for our shared, common blood... it's... unfortunate."
"So sorry, really," Colton felt the need to speak, too late, after having been discovered to be collectively eavesdropping. He held up a bottle of wine. "Um. This isn't a bad time? I came when I was supposed to?"
"Everypony, my apologies," Rarity said, quickly taking charge of the situation with her typical suave charm. Despite shooting a quick glare at Lady Antimony. "Twilight and I completely lost track of time."
"We, uh, should'a knocked..." Applejack admitted, blushing a bit in embarrassment. She didn't finish her sentence by saying, 'instead of opening the door and listening in.'
"It ain't true though, is it?" she asked.
"Of course not!" Pinkie Pie finally jumped in. Literally. She jumped into the room with a springy bounce. "Remember all the silly stuff they said about Nightmare Moon? She doesn't really eat ponies! Just candy! Especially candy corn and candy apples and candy suckers and candy crunch and candy canes!"
"Lady Arsenic was the victim of much slander in her lifetime," Antimony remarked, shifting to the side as Pinkie made a bouncing lap around her and then around the room.
The noblemare fixed Twilight with a calm, unblinking gaze.
"Our shared grandmother was a great mare, Twilight Sparkle. A misunderstood mare. A victim!" For just a moment, Lady Antimony's voice lost a bit of cool and she paused to collect herself. "By which I mean, please refrain from spreading such unkind rumors, especially with respect to a family tragedy."
"I should also apologize." The noblemare turned to Rarity and inclined her head. "It was terribly improper of us to listen in as we did and to enter without first asking admittance."
"But we couldn't see the diagram from the window!" Pinkie complained, stopping by Twilight's projected illusion of her family tree. "Oh! Oh!" She pointed at one of the names, seemingly at random. "Tell a story about this one!"
Twilight spared her bubbly friend a hard stare.
"Pinkie-" she warned, as the party pony tried to interact with the illusion magic, sticking her hoof in one side and out the other.
"Lord Neptunium was known for his knowledge of the tides. He served on Princess Celestia's Privy Council for thirty four years. Forty one laws bear his signature, and as Minister of Rivers he is responsible for the construction of no less than one hundred and fifteen dams, levies, breakers and locks."
Twilight stared at Lady Antimony, the source of that outburst of information.
"His preferred style of magic was water-based and his cutie mark was a canal lock," the noblemare continued, determined to answer Pinkie Pie's inquiry. "He was also known for his skill as a duelist and his mastery of the Posta Breve and Porta di Ferro. He had one wife and two dams. He once engaged a Sea Serpent in a contest of wits that lasted three straight days, all for the right to construct a dam on the River Steeple."
Pinkie Pie, looking somewhat thwarted in her randomness, pointed elsewhere on the tree without looking.
"Oh yeah? What about this one?" She demanded with a grin.
"You aren't pointing at a name. That's empty space."
"This isn't time for show and tell," Twilight remarked, looking to her (other) friends for assistance.
"Quite right," Rarity agreed. "We're here together for a wine tasting."
"And cider!" Applejack injected into the conversation, pushing a reluctant Colton Vines along. The apple farmer had a pony keg strapped to both her sides and likely a set of cups or mugs somewhere in her saddlebags.
"I... only brought my best..." Colton offered, still nervously looking around at all the powerful or unpredictable mares around him. Three were local celebrities and heroines, and to make things crazier, one of them was Pinkie Pie. It was clear by the way he kept glancing at the party pony that he wasn't entirely convinced that even giving her wine to taste wouldn't end in disaster. He turned to the only other stallion present, the cultured Pierce, for some assistance.
But the wavy-maned unicorn was thoroughly distracted by one of Rarity's embroidered vests on display.
"Pierce!" he barked.
"Oh? Oh yes!" the dandy stallion chuckled and trotted over, assuming his role as Pinkie-distraction (aka bait) for the evening. "Now, I was thinking of a merlot as our signature for the festival."
"What!" Pinkie immediately objected, as she always did, to basically everything Pierce suggested. "I want a super bubbly, super fizzy, super sparkly wine!" She punctuated each 'super' with a bounce. For effect.
"Dry wine with all the sweets you have at this event?" Pierce rolled his eyes. "Ugh."
"It's called contrast pairing!"
"It's called murder. Murder of the palate. Wine should compliment the dishes served."
"Contrasting wine is best!"
"Complimentary wine is superior."
Everypony's eyes went from one of the bickering ponies to the other.
"Contrasting!" Pierce all but yelled, and only then noticed-
"I guess you're right as usual," Pinkie relented with a shrug. "Contrasting wines it is."
The unicorn hung his head in defeat. "I hate it when you do that."
- - -
The next hour and a half passed quickly, as Colton laid out his range of local vintages. He brought his best, along with the less numerous wines from other, smaller, vineyards close to Ponyville. His preference and specialty was zinfandel, but he had a selection of lighter reds and bold white wines as well. Colton was, himself, an accredited and acknowledged sommelier as well as cultivator of both old and new world grapes.
Though not his equal, Rarity considered herself fairly knowledgeable, as well.
In fact, she had considered that it would be mostly her decision that would tip the scales in what wine to promote at the Art Festival. Pinkie and Pierce would want opposite things, naturally, leaving her with the actual decision making. Colton tentatively offered a few suggestions, but he wasn't the most assertive of stallions at the best of times. At least Fluttershy could eventually be goaded into giving her genuine opinion on one thing or another. Colton had just enough grit to stick with being indecisive, as ironic as that was.
Inhaling the aroma of the last glass of sauvignon blanc, she drank enough to whet her palate and get a feel for the taste of the wine in-mouth. It was one of her favorite, actually, with a very bold cut-grass flavor. Not as fruity as his usual selection, but with a lively, aromatic impression. Perfect for guests to sip at while chatting and milling around the festival.
Spitting the wine out into a nearby spittoon on a table, Rarity saw Applejack plying her trade with the Carousel Boutique's ... other guest.
To no pony's surprise, Apples would be factoring heavily in virtually any local event, and the Art Festival was no exception. Ponyville was an Apple Town, after all. It had been founded by the Smith Family and other settlers and it had grown prosperous in large part because of apples, particularly the once-annual Zap Apple harvest. The local economy wasn't entirely pastoral anymore, but it was still an essential source of income for the town and region, and a source of pride, tradition and history.
Cider would be just one of a few apple-products in the limelight at the Art Festival. All the food would be local. Blueblood had stressed only a few absolutes to Pinkie and the others before he left for Crown Roc, giving them great leeway and latitude to "have fun" with the festival. One of his rules had been to only use local produce. Ponyville was on the cusp of Cider Season and the Apple Clan had started on their signature drink a little early.
It made sense for her to be here, at the tasting for the festival.
It made sense for her to be chatting away with Lady Antimony.
It still rankled, however, that no pony seemed to do anything but like the noblemare. Of course, Rarity thought to herself: why would they have a problem with her? So far, she had quite visibly taken a tour around Ponyville with Pinkie Pie, spending money at a variety of local shops. She was rich, and despite being a noble, she was generous. She had even apparently offered to help renovate the Town Hall... and to construct something adjacent to it in the lot that had been destroyed during the Mare-Do-Well adventure. Celestia-alone knew what was to be built there. Probably a gaudy statue.
No: that was petty.
Lady Antimony was, Rarity knew, a smart mare. She was insinuating herself into the town. It made perfect sense if you knew, as she did, that Antimony expected to be the next Duchess of Canterlot and that her husband had suddenly developed an interest in this one little country town in his domain. It was silly to expect that, just by virtue of their differences, that all her friends would see the threat that-
Again, Rarity shook her head. Petty. Petty. She was being petty.
This whole misadventure was simply bringing out the worst in her.
But... it seemed there was only one recourse left to take...
The sound of liquid hitting the inside of the spittoon redirected Rarity's attention. The smiling face of Pinkie Pie filled her field of view, causing her to back up a step. The pink pony looked downright goofy suggesting she'd swallowed a little less wine than she had probably spat out this evening. Yes: there was definitely a very Berry Punch-like look to her hooded eyes. Eyes a lighter blue than her own stared hard at the unicorn mare.
"Don't be so grumpy, Rarity!" Pinkie suddenly declared, wrapping her front legs around her friend in a big hug. "I know everything will work out just fine!"
A little surprised by the move and by the words, Rarity's first impulse was to huff in annoyance, but she quickly sighed and realized that Pinkie had said just what she wanted and needed to hear. It was just like her to either cut to the quick or fly off on some wild tangent. The question was always which route the erratic party pony would take at any given time.
"Thank you, Pinkie Pie," she replied, patting her friend on the shoulder; a cue to disengage a bit.
"You looked like you needed it!" the bubbly earth pony remarked with a silly grin.
"I admit I have wondered how this will turn out," Rarity then realized, "Wait, you knew...?"
"Monee told me!" she supplied, and saw Rarity's smile slip a bit. "She didn't say anything mean. Just that she has to do it."
"Has to do it," Rarity repeated.
Both mares paused as Twilight trotted up, looking more sober than Pinkie. Even as sheltered and bookish as she was, Twilight was still a Canterlot mare. Rarity would be surprised if this was her first wine tasting. They were all the rage in the great palace-city.
"I wanted to say this earlier, before we got interrupted," Twilight said as she got closer. Her voice had a conspiratorial edge to it, and the three of them took note of where everypony else was.
The two stallions were chatting over by some of the male outfits on display, Pierce pointing out something on one of them. Rarity smiled at the attention given to her products. He and Colton were both cultured ponies, and Vines was even in one of the few actual professions - management of a vineyard - held in such high esteem that nobles themselves were allowed to partake in it. They had good taste and a good eye for fashion. Both had to be looking for outfits for the festival, too, maybe even a few accessories.
Applejack was still talking Lady Antimony's ears off on the other side of the boutique, the farmer with a frothy mug of cider in-hoof and the aristocrat with a glass of expensive tulip stemware. From the gestures Applejack was making, she seemed to be describing the many, many, many nuances of apple distillery, cider production and the intangible taste-enhancing powers of fresh country produce. Lady Antimony had the same expression she basically always wore: smiling placidly and amiably with her eyes half lidded. It was impossible to tell if she was paying the slightest attention or completely zoning out due to apple-information-overload.
"Say what earlier, Twilight?" Pinkie asked, blinking.
"Yes, now is as good a time as any," Rarity said.
"The reason I brought up that family tree was to explain why I think the Princess can't intervene to help you, Rarity." Twilight levitated her glass over to rest on the table with the brass spittoon. "We got a little sidetracked, but it has to do with Lady Arsenic and Lady Blue Belle."
"Oh." Pinkie Pie made a little 'o' with her mouth.
Rarity just raised an eyebrow at the strange response in her friend.
Twilight continued, regardless, making up for lost time: "Even though she was picked as heir, Lady Blue Belle didn't really seem that interested in doing anything. She was one of the few Bluebloods not to hold public office, or to hold a seat in the Privy Council or the Royal Household. She seemed to be mostly well known for her... well, for her parties."
The two unicorns coughed, eyes falling on the earth pony present.
"There are worse things to be infamous for," Pinkie wisely observed.
"After something my father wrote back to me about, I found mention of a petition from Lady Arsenic to the Stable of Lords recorded in the weekly minutes," Twilight explained, sighing. "From the look of it, it was probably a request to have one of her descendants marry one of her sister's descendants. There aren't many other ways to request 're-uniting the bloodlines' and 'correcting the loss of my privilege and inheritance.' It took time, but it got enough approval in the Stable to end up forwarded to the Princess for consultation."
Rarity closed her eyes, already having guessed what came after that.
"She probably felt sorry for Lady Arsenic," Twilight said, as always jumping to her mentor's defense. "I mean, wouldn't you? Any pony would."
"I see," Rarity said with a nod. "She agreed."
"After three generations, and not before, we would agree to see the bloodline that was lost restored in honor and matrimony to the ducal throne of Canterlot."
It was Pinkie who had spoken, and the party pony licked her lips at the surprised looks her friends were giving her. She reached up with a hoof to sip at her glass of sparkly-bubbly-fizzy wine. The same type she had been enjoying for most of the get-together. She giggled nervously.
"That's what Monee said," she finally explained. "She said," and here, Pinkie tried to adopt Antimony's normal pose and bearing. "Blueblood and I are of the fourth generation removed. It has been decided. Princess Celestia herself decided it. My family will never accept anything less than the crown and shield of Canterlot itself, our very birthright returned to us at last."
Pinkie shook her head at high speed, returning to normal.
"Her words, not mine!" she stressed.
Twilight looked dejected at being unable to help solve the situation. Even Pinkie seemed remorseful for having brought it up. There would be no resolution from above, as Celestia had already agreed in principle to the union two centuries ago. The Terre Rare family had done nothing but grow in power and influence since that time, enough to cow any potential opposition. No middling social connection, no matter their impeccable taste or reputation, would be able to sway the only ponies who had a say in the matter: the high aristocrats who made up the Stable of Lords.
"There is only one thing to do then," Rarity whispered to herself.
"I, uh - I could..." Twilight spoke up at the same time, just a little louder than Rarity's own musing. "I am part of the Terre Rare family so... maybe I could..."
Seeing her friends staring at her, Twilight blushed and suddenly found her hooves very interesting points of study. She pawed softly at the floor, swallowing as she tried to find a way to suggest the un-suggestible.
"You know," she muttered. "I could ask to take over the engagement instead... and just.. not go through with it?" She groaned, shaking her head in defeat. "No. No! that wouldn't work! Maybe-"
"It wouldn't," Rarity agreed, but put a hoof on her friend's upper leg in support. "But thank you for the thought, dear. Even if the rest of your family agreed to it, I am sure they would be insistent in taking this affair to it's conclusion."
Twilight nodded. "I know. I just... thought... there has to be something I can do!"
"If I was to be second to another mare, you would be the only one I would consider, Twilight." Rarity leaned down to touch horns with her close friend. "But there is another option left to take."
"There is?" Pinkie and Twilight asked in stereo.
"Oh! I know!" the former cheered. "You and Bluey can just elope!"
"In a manner of speaking," Rarity agreed, swirling the wine in her glass as she explained herself. "The answer is right in front of us."
"The answer is... a wall?" Pinkie slid up to Rarity's side, looking in her direction. At the wall.
"Building a wall between her and Bluey probably won't work," the party pony reasoned sagely, raising her hoof to outline a square in the air. Followed by gesturing around said wall. "She'll just walk around it. Or teleport through it. Or dig under it. Unless... this is a magic wall!?"
"You know a wall won't work, right?" Twilight asked, sounding completely serious.
"It isn't a wall," Rarity deadpanned.
"Good! Because a wall totally wouldn't work!"
"Actually a magic wall might, if you-"
"The answer," Rarity interrupted. "Is that Lady Antimony believes I can be pushed aside because she is a titled noblemare, and I am not. That is the root of this situation. Were I a member of a noble family, like the Stardusts or the Garlands, it would not matter what her family wants or what they have been promised. All that would matter is Blueblood's own opinion, and I know he will choose me."
"So you need to become a titled noblemare!" Pinkie quickly saw her plan take form. "Which means we have to conquer Equestria!"
"Besiege a castle?"
"Colonize the Channel Islands?"
"I... don't even know what that means..."
"Oh!" Pinkie snapped her hooves. Somehow. "I got it! We need to be knighted for valor!"
"Ah." Rarity slyly poked the party mare with a hoof. "That's just it, darling. We already have been. Don't you remember the ceremony at the palace after that whole Discord mess?"
Pinkie shrugged. "I remember the party afterwards!"
"I don't know, Rarity," Twilight said, having taken a more thorough and less Pinkie-ish analysis of the suggestion. "We didn't genuflect during the ceremony, and I know we didn't get slapped across the face. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a knighting. We weren't given any land or anything."
"There are two forms of accolade, Twilight... the secular and the-"
"Religious!" Twilight abruptly perked up, electrified by sudden realization and the excitement of a new idea racing through her head. "A colée is only given during the secular ceremony!"
"Exactly," Rarity replied. "Even if it wasn't her original intention, it is enough of a pretext to stand on."
"Oh! Oh! Can I do it too! I'd make a great Lady of the Realm! Lady Pinkie Pie! The Pink Knight! Woo-hooo! Hhffgg!"
Not for the first time, and not for the last, Pinkie's tirade ended with a hoof in her mouth. Rarity's in this case. Honestly: did she have to be so loud? Luckily nopony else seemed to have found Pinkie suddenly erupting into cheers and calling herself a noblemare at the top of her lungs unusual enough to even so much as glance in their direction.
Maybe she had finally hit the point of diminishing returns for zaniness?
"There is a rather troubling downside to this plan," Rarity whispered, removing her hoof from Pinkie's mouth with an audible pop.
"What could be the downside?" Pinkie asked, unperturbed by the interruption.
"A titled noble mare or stallion is forbidden to practice a trade, Pinkie," Twilight explained with a frown, concern for her friend written on her face. "If you became a Lady, like Lady Antimony, then you wouldn't be allowed to work at Sugarcube Corner."
Pinkie blinked a few times, seemed about to say something, only to find herself nearly speechless.
"But... but I love Sugarcube Corner!" She gasped, just then getting it. "So then Rarity-"
"That's exactly it," the fashionista confirmed, blue eyes firm with conviction. "I would no longer be able to run the Carousel Boutique. I could make dresses, of course, but not sell them. I would be putting aside everything I've worked for up until today."
- - -
"Are you okay, sugarcube?"
Applejack gave the noblemare a gentle prod. She seemed pretty unresponsive.
"Oh. Yes." Baroness Antimony remarked, magically dabbing her lips with a napkin. "Quite fine. This hard cider as you call it... is quite strong..."
The flushed look on her cheeks hinted that it probably wouldn't be wise to ply her with much more of the family brew, to say nothing of the real stiff drinks Granny and Big Mac brewed out back. She had been diligently spitting wine earlier, but having never sampled Sweet Apple brand hard cider before, the Baroness had been convinced to try just a 'bit' of the stuff for the road.
Not having the heart to spit out good brew, Applejack had already downed three times as much, resulting in a minor, pleasant buzz. If all Canterlot types were such lightweights they'd have to go with the traditional soft and spiced ciders for the Art Festival. It wouldn't do to have a bunch of drunken unicorns stumbling around, shooting magic everywhere.
"My father would enjoy this drink, I think," Antimony muttered, putting the glass of cider aside. "I have more... my mother's constitution when it comes to such spirits."
"Ain't nothin' wrong with that!" Applejack assured her with an overly familiar tap on the shoulder. "Yer pop's who, now? Anypony I'd know?"
"My father... is Lord Cruciger," the noblemare answered, levitating out a delicate folded fan that expanded into a maple leaf shape, adorned with gold trim. She seemed much more relaxed than she had when Applejack had first cornered her to talk about the famous orchards of Prance and Two Rivers. It was the home country of what she recalled Blueblood's favorite apple to be. The region seemed to have cornered the market when it came to pandering to the tastes of Equestria's aristocrats.
A tasty little pie that the Apple Family wouldn't mind getting a hoof in someday.
"Cruciger, huh?" Applejack asked. It wasn't a familiar name.
"You would know him if you saw him. He is a large stallion. Over twenty nine stone." The archaic form of measurement caught Applejack a bit by surprise. By her reckoning, though, it put this stallion in at even larger than her big brother.
"Dark coat," Antimony continued, as she fanned herself to cool down and compose herself. "Dark mane, as well. But he rarely travels anymore. I haven't seen him in... a few years, I suppose. Even when my engagement was advanced in the Stable of Lords he contacted me through magical means."
"Aren't ya right under him in that-there whole hierarchy of lords thing you unicorns have?" Applejack gestured to a rough set of rungs, like steps in a ladder.
"Yes. Along with a dozen other Barons and Earls," Antimony explained, glancing away at her fan. "Father rules from the family keep at Marestricht whereas my responsibilities typically keep me to either Canterlot or Mareseilles."
"It's funny." Applejack gestured over to where three of her friends were standing close together. One in particular. "Twilight never said much about her family before today."
"Hers is a distant branch of the bloodline," the Baroness explained, off-hoof. "None of us expected her magic to express itself so strongly in Kamacite's lineage, yet I have been told she is likely to be Starswirl reborn." The noblemare snorted very delicately in dismissal.
Applejack raised a curious - and defensive - eyebrow.
'Express her magic' ...? That was an odd way of phrasing things.
"Hey, now," she warned. "Twilight here's about the most powerful unicorn Ah've ever seen. And Ah've never seen a pony who studies harder."
"Apologies," Antimony quickly said, sensing she had hit a raw nerve. "I meant no insult. We are truly proud of her, and we respect both her accomplishments and the judgment of the Princess in selecting her as an apprentice."
"However," she added, before Applejack could reply. "There are limits to what one pony can achieve with more common magics."
"What's that mean?"
"...ah." The Baroness dabbed her lips again with the silk napkin, though they were already clean. "Nothing substantial. Only that we unicorns still have so much left to... learn."
Applejack nodded, willing to accept that much.
Watching the noblemare fan herself and regain her proper bearings, Applejack suddenly had an impulse to ask something. It had been niggling at the back of her head since she and Pinkie had overheard the conversation inside the Boutique from outside and decided to try and listen in. It wasn't right, of course, letting their curiosity get the better of them. Colton and Pierce, good stallions the both of them - but not particularly assertive - had just sort of stepped back to let the girls do whatever they wanted. Lady Antimony had joined in, too, despite it no doubt being improper.
She'd seemed pretty harmless back then, when she and Colton had met up with Pinkie, Pierce and the noblemare. They had exchanged introductions, and despite being a member of Equestria's highest courtly class, Antimony had come across as friendly. It helped that there had been talk about her in Ponyville lately, and that that talk had reached Sweet Apple Acres.
"It wasn't true, right?" Applejack asked, rolling her eyes to nonchalantly look around Rarity's boutique. "That stuff about yer great grandma?"
Antimony's fan stopped in midair, snapping closed with a ting of metal-on-metal.
"You mean my great-great grandmother, Lady Arsenic," she corrected, and for the second time, her tone became just a little bit emotional. Just for a moment, then it was back to her normal cool tone. "Miss Applejack, have you heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?"
The apple farmer nodded shortly. "Yep. That's about when ya do something that ends up making what ya don't want to happen, happen, right?"
"Lady Arsenic," Antimony said, as if reciting from a book. "Was cruelly mistreated in her day. She was disgraced and dishonored simply by not being born a unicorn. Though she was eldest, though she bore the most noble blood - the blood of Princess Platinum, the blood of the Old Kingdom, the blood shared with the Princess herself - she was deprived of her legacy."
"Our family was weak, two hundred years ago," she continued, passion slipping into her voice, perhaps because of the bit of alcohol in her system, perhaps because this was finally something she felt strongly about. "The Terre Rare line was old, but insignificant. The griffins pressed us from the north, Prance from the east, Whinnychester from the west."
"Now..." Her eyes widened, and something burned behind the red of her irises. "Now these enemies of my grandmothers bow to my father. They bow to me. Who then... will bow to my daughter? To her daughter?"
Almost despite herself, Applejack found that she was backing away from the older mare.
Sensing this, Lady Antimony quickly reined herself in. Her eyes closed, and it felt as if a weight had been removed from Applejack's chest. It had to be her imagination. It had to be. For just a moment there, it had almost-almost seemed as if the breath had been stolen from her lungs. Applejack was not a pony to spook easily; she had to correct herself. It was just her imagination.
In the future, however, she took note not to stare into Lady Antimony's eyes.
They were a bit unnerving, now that she thought about it.
"What was wrong... must be put right for there to be peace and justice in Equestria," the Baroness concluded, back in control of herself. "I do regret that your friend Miss Rarity has become so close to the Prince. You of all ponies understand the importance of family, Miss Applejack. You of all ponies understand what it means to honor your ancestors. The blood of an earth pony, too, flows through my veins."
"I am Terre Rare," she said, simply. "Canterlot, too, will bow to my daughters. There is no stopping this."
Applejack began to think of a response -
But honestly, what could one say to a statement like that? One thing was certain. She had misjudged Lady Antimony. The mare was normally soft spoken and friendly, reserved and delicate, but there was something undeniably disturbing about the certainty of her conviction. It was like the quiet intensity of an oil lamp - a gentle glow that seemed harmless at a distance, but that cruelly burned if touched.
"Applejack. Lady Antimony. I'm not intruding, am I?" Rarity asked, sounding amiable and hospitable as can be. The Baroness who, moments ago, had been on the verge of losing her cool, now seemed completely in her element once more. Her ever-present smile even seemed to have grown, just a fraction, in the presence of Ponyville's trend setting resident.
"Not at all," Lady Antimony purred. "We should discuss our selections for the Art Festival."
"Yes. And another matter as well," Rarity agreed. "You'll have to excuse us a moment, Applejack, if you don't mind?"
"Uh, no, but-"
But, as Rarity lead the noblemare away to talk in private, Applejack couldn't help but have the feeling that something bad was about to happen. Something really bad.
- - -
I hate to impose on you as I am, making use of your spell connection with Princess Celestia without your prior consent, but I find that circumstances have forced my hoof. I have no speedier means of sending communication to Ponyville and to Miss Rarity. I implore you to pass this on to her, as well as to Twilight Sparkle, at your soonest convenience. Please also take care to be discreet. Nopony is yet aware of this means of communication, and if you can keep it so, I will reward you upon my return.
I am to leave Crown Roc with all due haste. Until I arrive and until I muster my resources at home, my dear, you must
The linen paper did not yield easily; small purple claws dug in tight to find purchase.
With a popping, atrociously loud rapport, it finally gave way, ripping in ragged stitches. At the bottom of the letter, the signature parted neatly into Blue and blood as it tore in half, straight down the middle. Done.
It was done.
It had taken a half hour for Spike to muster the courage to do it, but now that he had, it felt a little easier to finish the job. Clawed hands worked, bunching up the resilient linen paper, folding it and then ripping it again. No one - no pony, except maybe one - would know that it had been destroyed. Just because it had been sent by some third party didn't mean that it was guaranteed to erupt from his breath and fire unscathed. If asked, he would say that it burned.
Dumping the scraps of paper into the wastebin, he carefully modulated his breath to produce only flame. Pure flame. Soon what was left became a short lived, cracking fire. It was a little risky doing it this way, but he knew enough not to send everything he belched fire on to off to the Princess. He could tell by the red flames that slowly ate away at the paper that the deed was done, and done right.
Pushing the wastebasket away, Spike fell on his backside, holding a hand to his snout.
It was wrong. He knew it was the wrong thing to do.
He'd done it anyway.
For Rarity. For her sake - for his sake - for their sake... she could not receive that letter. He could not let her receive it. Let this other family have Blueblood. Let them live in Canterlot. It was wrong, it was selfish, but he wanted them all to just go back to the castles and palaces where they belonged. This was his chance. His only chance to stop things... his only chance to...
"I'll take care of her, I promise. I'll make her happy," he told himself. He told the ashes of Blueblood's letter. He told no one. "I will."
Soon, there was nothing left of the trash and paper that had been in the bin.
He was alone, outside the library. Even Owloysius would never know.
"I - I just..." Spike slowly rose to his feet, hands balling into fists. "I just need a chance...! Don't I deserve a chance to make her happy? With me?"
He remembered how Blueblood had tricked him at the Gala with that letter. He remembered how the Prince had distracted everypony with fun while he snuck off to seduce Rarity. The depths of it all hadn't even set in for Spike then. It wasn't until days later, when she had overheard Rarity gushing to her friends about her new coltfriend, that it all became clear. It was only then that he realized it would only be a matter of time before... before...!
"I deserve a chance," the little dragon decided.
Spike didn't even notice his spines lengthen slightly.
"I do," he repeated. "I do! This is my chance."