- - -
- - -
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I asked if you could sit by my side in the upcoming duel," Antimony repeated, setting down her now empty saucer of sorbet, a tiny silver spoon balanced on top. "As family, it is only proper. Ah," the regal Baroness added with a little gasp. "Sir Spike, please do not touch the entremet. Though edible, it is merely for show."
"Oh, uh - sorry!" Across the dinner table, a purple claw pulled back from the decorative swan that had been placed next to his two glasses of grape and apple juice. It was made of gingerbread and swam in a little saucer of jam, looking very much like a proper desert dish. The back had been hollowed out as a vessel for glittering gemstones, mints and sweetbreads, though Spike would probably be the only one in attendance enjoying the gems as more than a display item.
"I'm sorry," Twilight Sparkle apologized from her seat next to him. "I just - I know it is tradition, but Rarity is my friend. She deserves my support."
"I understand that," her hostess replied. "My request is merely for appearances. A family should always show solidarity, should it not? Even though you have been training Lady Rarity to oppose me, I would not have it drive wedges between the branches of our great and loving clan."
"I guess I'll think about it?" Twilight answered, after thinking it over for a few seconds. She poked at her between-meal berry sorbet, spooning a tiny portion into her mouth to cleanse the palate. "I really just wish you and Rarity could somehow come to terms?"
Antimony raised an imperious eyebrow. "As do I."
"You want her to come to your terms," Twilight observed with no small amount of criticism in her tone. "That's not exactly the same thing."
"Things are as they are, Twilight Sparkle," the older mare admonished, but soon adopted a more forgiving expression and voice. "Please, let us not spoil this meal with talk of such onerous topics. I wish only for us to reacquaint and warm to one another."
"Madam," a server spoke up, having waited for a pause in the conversation. "Econdo Piatto is served: quenelle dumplings, grated apples and dough, browned, with butter, cinnamon and glazed sugar. Served on a bed of mixed greens with a sweet vinaigrette. Please enjoy."
The reprieve of the servers arriving with the next meal dish helped to dissuade an argument from forming between the two unicorn mares. The food itself was exquisite; Lady Antimony had reserved an entire room of Ponyville's most expensive A-list restaurant for herself and her guests. All two of them. The staff, the owner, and the chefs were no doubt bending over backwards to accommodate their potential patron.
On her way in with Spike, Twilight had even noticed some of Ponyville's richest families eating in the restaurant outside. Like her, they had gotten dressed to eat out, as was the custom among Equestria's mercantile and noble classes. Unlike her, they did it often. Twilight couldn't remember the last time she had worn a dress - much less forced Spike to put on a little suit - just to have dinner. It had seemed prudent to not snub her distant cousin's invitation, however, so she came. If nothing else it was free food... but the sense of separation from the rest of Ponyville, of celebrity, was not something Twilight Sparkle relished. This once, though, she could endure it.
A part of her still held out hope that some step could be taken to diffuse Rarity's situation, if only she could find out what it was.
Unfortunately, Antimony did not seem inclined to entertain much talk of the duel. Whenever the topic came up, or threatened to come up, she plead for it to change to most anything else. Twilight, hoping to be polite, had not pushed as hard as she had told herself she would before the meal. Instead they had spent the first course (a delicious artichoke, cheese and olive antipasto) talking about her parents and about her time in Canterlot, the two intermittent courses (a small tomato consommé with rich onion and carrot undertones, followed by a single vol-au-vent spinach pastry) talking about the Princess and magic in general, and then the pause before the main dish discussing Ponyville and her arrival there during the Summer Sun celebration.
This, in turn, prompted discussion of how and when Lady Antimony planned to make her trip to the ruined Everfree castle for the duel. In turn, this also presaged the Baroness' comment that Twilight, as family no matter how distant, should sit by her side of the field during the event. Twilight had already taken sides, to nopony's surprise, in support of her friend. There was no doubt she wished Rarity to win the duel. Antimony seemed to understand that and accept it, but wanted protocol followed for appearance's sake.
"I have found myself wondering," Antimony spoke up, as the three ate in relative silence.
As was the way of the nobility in polite rather than casual settings, they tried to eat with their hooves as much as possible, in keeping with the ancient role of 'breaking bread' that had long since passed into antiquity. It was considered mannerly to eat without magic, but while still coming off from the effort unsullied and with proper decorum. To an outside observer, like Twilight, the belabored effort was actually a little comical. Princess Celestia ate with her magic almost all the time, forgoing formality and pretense.
"With great curiosity," the Baroness amended. "What is it like to bear an Element of Harmony? Much less, to command the most powerful of all Elements?"
Twilight wiped her lip with a napkin, observing the niceties she hadn't otherwise bothered with in years. She had heard that Applejack spent some time in Manehattan as a filly, learning manners and the mores of the upper class there. Twilight sympathized.
"Well," she answered, with some hesitation - how to even describe it? "I don't know if you can say we command or even 'bear' the Elements. I mean, we don't even have them with us most of the time. The Elements themselves - the bijou or lavaliere - are kept in a secure place. But they don't function like any sort of magic I've experienced before."
"Oh?" Antimony inquired, fascinated. "But their power...?"
"It isn't something we really control," Twilight admitted. "It is more of a reflection of what's in our hearts. When Discord, well, discorded myself and my friends, we couldn't use the Elements of Harmony. They didn't respond to us because the harmony in our hearts and the friendship between us had been corrupted. He must've known that, but what he didn't know was that friendship can't be extinguished so easily. The memories of our adventures, the feelings of friendship, were all still there. Buried. Waiting."
"When we remembered who we were, and why we were friends," she finished, with a small smile. "We bounced right back!"
"All well and good, but... does that mean you can't control this magic? Doesn't that frighten you?" Antimony asked, looking past the moral of the story to the functional utility. "What if the Elements use this bond to act against your interests? Your description sounds rather vague, as if these weapons have a will of their own."
"They aren't a danger," Twilight assured her. "Like I said, they seem to respond to positive thoughts. Virtues, if you will. I don't think we could empower our vices if we tried. Besides," she added, seeing Antimony about to inquire further. "The Elements of Harmony are something we would only use in case of an emergency and..."
Twilight paused, just then, and realized the question behind the question.
"You're worried Rarity will try and use the Element of Generosity against you?" she guessed.
The noblemare concealed her response with a sip of dry wine.
"Yes," she finally admitted. "Not just that she would use the Element, but that I may damage it somehow if I act in my defense. The Elements of Harmony are essential to the defense of the nation."
"That would be cheating, though, wouldn't it?" Spike asked, speaking up for the first time since he introduced himself, three courses ago. "Rarity," he assured the Baroness. "Would never cheat."
With practiced ease Antimony dipped her head to the side. "My apologies if my worry prompted offense."
"I guess it only makes sense you'd consider the possibility," Twilight reasoned. "But I give you my word, the Elements won't leave my - oh!" She abruptly muffled herself with a hoof.
"It seems I have put you in an uncomfortable spot," Antimony commented with a chuckle. "Rest assured, I have no interest in the Elements of Harmony. They are bonded to you and your friends and they are valuable weapons against unknown threats. I would protect them with my life."
"But you'll fight Rarity for Prince Blueblood?" Spike asked, balancing a small red gem in his palm.
"Surely you are not suggesting that it is endangering the country itself to, what? Keep her from wiggling into bed with that - with our beloved Prince?" Antimony's voice betrayed just a little of her frustration, as did her near slip of tongue. "It is for the good of Equestria, and for the good of the Terre Rare family, that I pursue this engagement with force and vigor. Rest assured that it brings me no personal pleasure to earn anypony's enmity."
"Have you even met Blueblood?" Twilight asked, but quickly corrected herself. "His Grace, Prince Blueblood, I mean."
"I have had the pleasure of his company at previous functions," Lady Antimony replied, but carefully studied her response. "He is fair, and... 'charming.' I have long anticipated the reunion of our two Houses and my time as his wife and Duchess."
"Twilight, surely you are aware of the root of the verb 'wed' are you not?"
Twilight glanced down at her food: sometimes an encyclopedic knowledge didn't help one's case. "It comes from the Old Equestrian, meaning to pledge or bind. It also refers to the transfer of goods or property involved in dowry."
"Exactly," Antimony replied with a single nod. "It is your friend who wishes to make this into a confrontation. For me, this is a contract between families that must be honored. I believe you understand this, but find it at odds with your loyalty to this Rarity."
Twilight knew she'd been read like a book, but still persisted.
"If we could all just talk things through..."
"Please," the older mare remarked, shaking her head and trying to steer the topic away. "If you insist on speaking of stallions, let us not discuss that one or the situation he is the cause of. Instead, I would ask if you or your parents have made arrangements for yourself yet, Twilight Sparkle? I know several eligible and delightful stallions of title and worth that-"
"You're wasting your time," Spike interrupted, crunching a ruby between his teeth like a piece of candy. "Twilight's ideal boyfriend is a giant checklist. Probably full of chores."
- - -
Spitfire collapsed into the soft, forgiving weight of the wild cloud, letting the moisture wash over her face. It was one of the benefits of wild clouds: they were both solid enough to hold up a pegasus and yielding enough to soak those that knew how to handle them. It was refreshing little respite, however brief, from her current mission - a mission looking very much like a failure.
There was no sign of the Princess Hesperus anywhere.
The Prince's ship had disappeared in the north of the country. There were very specific flight paths for large airships in Equestria, and if the Prince had left Crown Roc as Captain Thunderhead suggested, then his ship should have been within a relatively small space of a hundred square kilometers. Vice-Captain Raging Storm herself had headed up the search. Officially the mission was still filed as an 'escort.' Squad Two and Squad Three were supposed to rendezvous with the Princess Hesperus as it entered the populated parts of the country between snowy Stalliongrad and more northerly Mos-Cow, perform a few celebratory maneuvers, and then take up security.
It was the other side of the Wonderbolts. They were a display troupe for aerial maneuvers, but they were first and foremost still a military unit on secondment from Cloudsdale's Territorial Air Guard. They had few ceremonial duties outside that great cloud city but the big-wings often sent them on missions where color guards would raise suspicion. The pretense of practicing maneuvers or putting on a show was something most uniformed pegasi could not take ample advantage of.
The free-range cloud beneath Spitfire shook with added weight, and she looked up to see Soarin standing close by. He ducked his head to check on her, but silently motioned for her to get back up. Groaning, she forced herself back onto her hooves, shaking clinging moisture out of her fiery, golden mane. If Soarin was here, that meant -
Spitfire sighed in time with her partner as the two shot straight up and into a lazy arc.
Nopony had a voice like Raging Storm. Within seconds, Spitfire saw other streaks curving across the wild sky, all a solid blue plus one other distinct color, from red-on-blue to silver-on-blue to neon green. All were answering the call of their vice-captain, a normally nondescript looking mare with a spiky blond mane cut shorter than Soarin's own unruly frill. For unknown reasons, their esteemed senior Wonderbolt had taken to the idea of covering her blue body jacket with cloudy stars instead of lightning bolts. The result was jarring, but the stubborn pony never hesitated to defend her choice in style. Never quietly, either.
"Unit One!" She roared at full blast. "REPORT!"
"Nothing in my sector, vice-captain!" Zip Line replied, the silver-maned mare trying in vain to raise her voice to anything near Storm's preferred ear-splitting decibel.
"Nothing in my sector either, vice-captain!" came the refrain all down the line. Spitfire and Soarin chorused their response, wings fluttering to keep them in a hover as they shouted their lungs out.
For just a moment, it was silent, and everypony's ears began to relax.
"Un-acceptable!" Raging Storm suddenly yelled, somehow directing her voice at all three of them. "Continue your search pattern! Radius twenty kilometers! If it is out there I want it found!"
Spitfire blinked, and the angry vice-captain was nose to nose with Soarin, staring into his wide eyes.
"Well, I'll bed a donkey! Our resident comedian is grinning!" she blared, her voice powerful enough to flatten his ears and blow back his mane. "Well, kid, you find something funny about us being out here?"
"Oh! I see! You think this is a waste of your time, huh, precious?!"
"I bet you'd rather be painting your hooves and playing with your dick, isn't that right?"
"How many hooves am I pointing in your face, cadet?"
"One hoof, Vice-Captain!"
"So you CAN see! AND count! In-bucking-credible! Now wipe that smirk off your face before I do it for you!" Raging Storm was quick to zip back to where she had been flying before, in a literal streak of blonde, blue and red light. "You five DO know what we're looking for, don't you?"
"Yes, Vice-Captain!" all five yelled.
"This is a Celestia damned zeppelin!" Raging Storm explained it anyway, waving her hooves out wide to demonstrate. "A hundred star-damned pony lengths long! Maybe if it were a PIE onboard you'd have found it already, Soarin? Isn't that right, you out of shape sorry excuse for a stallion? You think I didn't catch you dawdling around?"
"Sorry for dawdling, Vice-Captain!" Soarin replied with his standard goofy grin, the same one that always pissed Raging Storm off, and the same one that always prompted her to pick on him. Though to hear him say it, it was just motherly affection and empty nest syndrome. "I'll do better next time, Vice-Captain!"
"Vice-Captain!" Spitfire spoke up, as soon as her partner finished. "Is it true there are griffins about, Vice-Captain?"
"If there are, and I am neither confirming nor denying that there are bloodthirsty, pony eating savages in these mountains, you are to follow standard operating procedure! You are to follow this procedure even if one of said griffins is nibbling on your leg and you have to limp back in to report, dragging the beast along for the ride. I want colors. Clan markings. Tail banners! Not every griffin is allied with Equestria!"
"Yes, Vice-Captain!" all five Wonderbolts barked as one.
"Then get to it, Wonderbolts!" Raging Storm raged, her turquoise eyes narrowing behind her goggles. "Rendezvous at cloud twelve and give me those twenty kilometers! Go Go GO!"
"Consider it done, Vice-Captain!" Soarin screamed and zipped off. He was followed, moments later, by his squadmates, Spitfire included. The mare, taking the rear, could've sworn she heard Raging Storm mutter something about some 'spunky little brat.' Knowing how weird the Vice-Captain and captain were, they would develop a liking for fellow oddballs. Maybe the key to Wonderbolt promotion was to be as bizarre as they were in some way?
Ah well, the job description never said any of them had to be normal. Just that they had to be the best.
There was no time to talk to any of the others as they flew. Within seconds they were at cloud twelve and then they broke formation, each one heading out like spokes in a wheel. Spitfire couldn't help but hope that at least one of the squads were having some luck. While she didn't know the Duke of Canterlot very well (in fact, she hadn't met him at all before the Grand Galloping Gala) he seemed like a fun guy. One time she and Soarin had run into him in Canterlot and they'd even dressed down and hit a bar, all while avoiding his Royal Guard escorts. It had been a fun night, though he'd sworn them into secrecy about it later.
Where could he have gone?
Captain Thunderhead had sounded sure that the Duke had left Crown Roc two days ago. Where his information came from, Spitfire couldn't begin to guess. The weather north of Equestria was too wild to reach top cruising speeds for airships, but he had to be close by. Hadn't there been Royal Guards with him, too? There were always a few rebellious and potentially hostile griffin tribes around, but none of them were crazy enough to attack a well guarded airship.
Spitfire sighed and circled as she guessed at her distance from cloud twelve. It was largely based on personal intuition and spatial recognition. An experienced flier got a "feel" for different speeds and could use that to calculate distance as long as they accurately kept track of time.
Below her, the dense hilly forest seemed to stretch on from horizon to horizon, constrained only by the more rugged peaks to the north. Passing over a rise, she caught sight of something artificial - gold and silver and blue - over the edge of the forest. Angling her body and wings, the Wonderbolt spread them wide to slow into a slower banking curve.
"Oh no..." she could only whisper.
Peeking out from where it was impaled by the forest's tall, thick trees:
- - -
Rarity kicked off the covers of her bed, shifting uneasily before leaving the embrace of the sheets entirely. It was a dark night, bathed only in the glow of a quarter moon, but it wasn't the lack of light or the dim stars that left her feeling restless. Glaring angrily at her normally comfortable and normally neatly made bed, she now saw tangled blankets and tossed pillows.
A little bit of magic fixed the covers and smoothed out the sheets, and satisfied by the look of it, Rarity took another try slipping into bed. Inching herself into the layered warmth, she sighed into her pillow and tried to relax. Twilight had told her to get plenty of sleep; tomorrow was the day. No more foalish training. Tomorrow she faced Antimony in an honorable and proper magical duel. For love. For the good of Canterlot and Ponyville. Everypony, even if they didn't know it, was counting on her.
She just... needed to get some sleep.
Why was it so hard to just go to sleep? The covers had to be too hot or too tight, perhaps. She loosened them up a little to get more air in; to breathe. From lying on her back Rarity switched to lying on her side, legs splayed out at first and then legs tucked in. Neither helped. Desperate, she tried flipping her pillow upside down, momentarily reveling in the cool side of the pillow... before it warmed, and her situation went back to what it had been a minute ago.
Why? Why couldn't she just fall asleep? Was it too early?
Was it because she wanted to be out on the town or to see the outdoor play Ponyville's newest and most gracious noblemare had sponsored, all the way from her home? Hardly. Antimony was just pandering to ponies, buying their goodwill with shows and appearances and sweet words. Rarity curled up and crushed her eyes closed. Her bed had always been big and soft and inviting, but now it felt empty. She was doing this for love, after all: putting her life and her livelihood on the line. Now, the night before it all came to a head, she had to spend it alone? It seemed so unfair.
Rolling over again, she stared out the open window - the same window her friends had taken to bursting through to help her in one way or another. She remembered seeing Fluttershy, just the other day, hanging on the edge as Rainbow Dash blew on that accursed training whistle of hers. Her eyes drifted to the door where her friends had eavesdropped on her conversation with Lady Antimony, bursting in to her defense when the noblemare's cruel words had left her momentarily stunned. They would all be there tomorrow, but one pony she wished to see... wouldn't.
Flat on her back, Rarity sighed, all but giving up on sleep for the night.
Was it - was it fear?
Was she afraid of tomorrow? Afraid of Lady Antimony?
Closing her eyes, Rarity could vividly recall those illusionary eyes, hypnotic and churning, together with the panic they had caused. Perhaps even without meaning to, the noblemare had demonstrated her superiority in a field of magic Rarity had considered herself at least skilled in. It was like meeting a dressmaker not just with twice her skill, but ten times her ability.
"When an enemy can not tell where their reality ends and my reality begins... it becomes clear in their eyes. First confusion. Then fear. Then panic... and finally, anguish. Or as I prefer to call it: understanding."
It was... silly.
She had faced Discord himself, a spirit of disharmony from ancient times. She had faced an enraged red dragon in his own lair. She had kicked a manticore square in the toothy snout. How could this one mortal pony elicit more consternation - not fear, surely - than even a rampaging hydra? Especially since she was convinced Antimony, no matter her own ill wishes, would not kill another pony. All the noble unicorn would do was take away the stallion she loved, humiliate her, and strip her of her shop, her work and her pride. If nothing else, she would be left with her life. Why? Why couldn't she sleep?
"Generosity. Let me see you sweat."
Was this... was she still in an illusion?!
Panic began to well up from within. If it as an illusion, could she even tell? Was she still in that classroom, head on her desk, drooling and lost in a manufactured dreamworld? Was that why she couldn't get to sleep? Because one couldn't sleep when one was already in a dream?!
Sitting upright, her breath caught between her lips, the Element of Generosity noticed a familiar silhouette against the crack of her partly open bedroom door. The panic from before ebbed and she sighed as Sweetie Belle entered, looking around with wide green eyes. With a bit of magic, Rarity lit up one of the lamps on her dresser. Foalish - she was being foalish, letting her fear get the better of her. There would be plenty of time for panic tomorrow, but not tonight.
"I couldn't sleep," Sweetie said, and propped herself up on the side of the bed. "Can I sleep here tonight?"
"Of course you can," Rarity replied, and smiled as her sister jumped onto the bed. She leaned in close to whisper, "You know, I was having trouble falling asleep, too, so you aren't the only one."
Sweetie, not the neatest of little ponies, dove under the covers and made herself comfortable. At least she didn't dive bomb into them like a certain friend from a certain farm, but Rarity obliged her to make a little mess of the sheets. It wasn't like she was doing any better or worse herself tonight. Turning around, feeling the warmth of her family behind her back, Rarity found herself a little grateful Sweetie had slept over instead of spending the night with their parents.
So: she wasn't asleep yet.
"You aren't still mad at me, are you? Because of the letters I took?"
"I'd mostly forgotten about it until now," Rarity joked, laughing and feeling Sweetie chuckle, too. Then she tugged on the covers, and the older sister of the pair had to tug back to keep them from all bunching up on the left side of the bed. Honestly!
"Sorry," Sweetie apologized, and the covers went a little slack.
Rarity buried her nose into her pillow. "You're forgiven."
"Good night, Sweetie. Sleep tight."
She would worry about it tomorrow. Rarity closed her eyes and slept.
- - -
"Your company this evening was most welcome, Twilight Sparkle. It would be a pleasure to repeat this outing at a later date."
"Yours as well, Lady Antimony."
The two unicorns, separated by different branches of the same family tree, bowed in polite farewell. The older of the pair, the Baroness of Mareseilles, had a dark brown traveling cloak levitated just over her shoulders and saddle. Twilight in contrast bore only the weight of a sleeping baby dragon. Spike had fallen asleep near the end of the theater troupe's rendition of Don Pasquale. Despite both a unicorn providing subtitles in real time and a printed out playbill for the outdoor audience, all the speaking roles had been in Cavalian and had followed a very filling meal for dinner. Many of the younger members of Ponyville in attendance had not made it to the last fifteen minutes of the comedy.
"You are sure it isn't an imposition...?" Twilight began to ask, for the second time.
"No. Not at all. In fact, you may be better acquainted with my husband than I am. I can not imagine he would take offense at my letting you into our library," Antimony replied as she donned her cloak and motioned to her ever-present bodyguard, Gewitter. The huge pegasus mare grunted, donning a similar cloak over her uniform.
Gewitter was, Twilight had noted, one of several guards to have taken up residence in Blueblood's half-complete villa outside Ponyville. Their number was made up of pegasi and unicorns, all dressed in similar red and gold military dolmans. Only Gewitter seemed ready to accompany their mistress to her forthcoming duel. The others were stationed around the house, and likely on the roof or around the manor's sprawling back acres.
"Thank you again," Twilight said, inclining her head.
Antimony made as if to leave, approaching the door outside, only to pause.
"Not to pry," she remarked, glancing back over her shoulder at the other mare. "But why is it you wish to make use of the library here?"
"Oh. That's easy enough to answer!" Twilight assured her with a happy grin. "I need to check a few references on pre-classical and classical spellwork. Specifically the structure and organization of Reinmare Star Fields, the nature and disposition of magical amplification via low density inorganic solids, oh, and I need to double check the elastic theory of aether propagation as a result of both invocation and convocation."
For a moment, the sheer technical density of Twilight's words baffled her fellow unicorn and magic user. Antimony shook her head in much the same way most of Twilights friends and acquaintances did after hearing a few sentences of technomagical babble. Muttering a soft "very well," the Baroness started on her way... only to pause once more.
"Aether propagation?" she inquired, but didn't turn around. "And Reinmare Fields?"
"Yes! Aether propagation! Talk about obscure, right? Do you know anything about it? I found the most interesting artifact the other day!" Twilight gushed, taking a moment to shift the weight of her assistant slightly. Just enough so she could raise a hoof and make a few gestures.
"A torc of all things!" she went on. "Coltic in style. I thought it was inert, but after Rarity found out how to fix it I discovered a latent spell matrix still within the internal field. All the spells that fizzled before suddenly started identifying new things! I can't wait to tell the Princess about it!"
For some reason, Antimony tensed, one hoof scraping against the floor.
"How... interesting," she slowly and carefully replied. "That you would come into possession of such a thing. You have not worn it, have you?"
"Oh no! Not until I know what it does and how it does it!" Twilight assured her. "Rule fifty seven. Always know what an artifact does before you use it."
"You own this torc?" Antimony asked, slowly, still with her back to her distant cousin.
"Ah... actually, no. A friend of mine, Lyra - you might know her as Miss Heartstrings?" Twilight asked, and Antimony did glance back at her finally, as if to check for the truth in her words. "It's technically hers."
"I see," the Baroness replied, and reached for the door. "Good luck with your studies, Twilight Sparkle."
She had just turned the knob, when a pink blur exploded out of the entryway.
"Holy stars!" The noblemare reared up and fell flat on her backside. "Pinkie Pie?"
"That's me - umh!" The party pony, appearing literally out of nowhere, was in turn quickly caught in a restraining hold by Gewitter, the pegasus already growling at the hyperactive pink hassle. Twilight almost felt sorry for any royal guard or otherwise that tried to get between Pinkie and one of her new friends. There wasn't a security system in Ponyville Pinkie couldn't casually breach, sometimes stealthily, sometimes by tripping it everywhere at once.
"How did - how did you get here?" Antimony gasped, trying to compose herself as she fell forward back onto her hooves.
"Well that's a funny question," Pinkie replied, squirming in Gewitter's hooves. "I opened the door!"
"How did you come to this door?" Antimony asked, pointing at the villa's gilded entryway.
"I opened another door, walked around a little, then opened this door!" Pinkie explained, her back legs kicking as Gewitter held her in place. "Come on! Lemme go!"
"Release her, Gewitter. Pinkie is no threat." Antimony hesitated a second, and muttered, "Probably no threat."
"You're leaving already?" Pinkie asked, falling onto all fours. She then pointed to the traveling cloaks Antimony and her servant wore.
"I must be at the castle by dawn," the noblemare replied. "I have received a rather specific summons."
She nodded to Twilight Sparkle a second time and left the manor house. Not surprisingly, Pinkie followed close behind, hopping up and down and still full of energy despite the late hour. Outside, her destination beckoned: a parked chariot with decorative wheels, axle and an ornamental yoke pole fashioned in the likeness of arched, intricate vines. The sides were high but without a permanently affixed top to guard against the sun or rain.
It rested close by a fountain statue of a rearing unicorn, twin scrolls in her forehooves representing wisdom and power, respectively. The unicorn herself was mythological: the primordial pony, "Lady Victory," supposedly crafted by the gods from dust, water, air, and a drop of divine blood. Those who observed the statue closely could see a small third eye beneath her horn, representing enlightenment in harmony with magic.
"Oh! You're flying to the castle!" Pinkie guessed, seeing the pair of pegasi fixed to the chariot's yoke.
"Did you expect I would slog through that wilderness?" Antimony asked and huffed. "I think not."
"You should be careful anyway," Pinkie warned, still hopping around the Baroness, utterly carefree. She only stopped when Antimony mounted the chariot's seat.
"It would be convenient if something were to happen to me before the duel, would it not?" she wondered, only to draw back at seeing Pinkie's smile fade.
"You think that's what I meant?" the earth pony asked, sounding saddened by the thought.
"Lady Rarity is your close friend," Antimony replied, holding up a hoof for Gewitter to wait at the reins. "I would not begrudge you if you held such thoughts."
Pinkie Pie shook her head, vigorously enough that her cotton candy-like mane became a blur.
"I meant what I said!" she declared, stomping a hoof. "Be careful on the way to the castle. After the duel, you know, you're invited to the party, too!"
"Oh? You are that confident your friend will beat me?"
Pinkie shrugged. "Nope! But whoever loses, I want to be right there to cheer her up!"
Antimony blinked and shook her head, far more confounded by Pinkie's strange outlook and approach to life than any of Twilight's technobabble. "And you came all the way here just to say that?"
"And to ask you why you didn't return one of these!" Pinkie ducked her nose into her tail, rummaged around for a moment - whipping out a rubber chicken, a Neighponese hoof trap, and what looked like a piece of sponge cake - before finally producing a small piece of pink paper. Floating it out of her mouth, Antimony took a moment to stare at the invitation.
"Is this... a joke?" The corner of her mouth curled up a bit. "How rich! What are these - these pretzel wings? What is this 'tailgate' party?"
"Check the box for hot dogs," Pinkie insisted, leaning over to whisper. "Nopony seems to be asking for hot dogs. They're good. Trust me."
"Very well. I do not see how it can do harm." Antimony levitated a mysteriously produced quill pen held between Pinkie's teeth. Checking the box required, she handed the list back.
"WHO-HO!" Pinkie cheered, somehow tucking both invitation and pen back into the folds of her puffy pink tail. "Finally, somepony to eat hot dogs with!"
"I pray your good mood remains infectious, and I trust I will see you and Rarity tomorrow at the appointed hour." Antimony, unable to resist an amused chuckle, motioned for Gewitter to get them on their way. Cracking the reins, the pair of pegasi stallions spread their wings in preparation for take off.
"This so called tailgate party," Antimony inquired, just before they left the ground. "It is a private affair, is it not?"
"Very private!" Pinkie promised, yelling up at the chariot as it circled and took to the air.
- - -
"P- P- Pinkie Pie! Just what is all this?!"
"Can't you tell? It's a party!"
Rarity stared, lost for words.
Dozens of ponies were in colorful masks, many of them wearing decorative unicorn horns in place of hats, dancing and enjoying the free food before the long trek through Everfree to the supposedly Forbidden Castle. Music blared from the back of a cart where an enchanted gramophone record player had been set up. Tables full of morning treats and lemonade were set up next to another food cart, run - of course - by the Apple clan. No doubt it would fall to Big Macintosh to haul the overladen thing through the forest to the castle.
But - but this whole enterprise -
"How?" Rarity finally rediscovered her voice. "However did you manage this?"
Her question, sadly, was directed at empty space.
Pinkie Pie had already moved on, bouncing from place to place to encourage everypony to wear one of the masks provided. In all honesty, when she had joked about Pinkie turning her honor duel into a spectacle, she had been exaggerating. Clearly the very act of exaggeration was a mistake when it came to Pinkamina Diane Pie. She must've taken sarcasm for challenge.
"Come on, Bon-Bon! Put it on! Foam hands rule!"
"This is..." Rarity muttered under her breath, watching the eccentric pair of room-mates argue over a strange foam hand with a 'R' on it. "I don't even know where to begin..."
Rarity found solace and refuge in one of her dearest, oldest, and most stable of friends. Good luck and a sharp eye helped her find Fluttershy by one of the mask stands, looking back and forth in indecision. Unfortunately, along the way she ended up bumping into or passing by a dozen different acquaintances from around town all wishing her luck. The sentiment was welcome, but this level of attention was simply... unheard of. It had to be improper! Duels were meant to be quiet, private affairs!
As she approached, Fluttershy finally buckled under and picked one of the glittery white masks. Putting it on, she turned around just in time to 'eep' and take halfway to the air. To Rarity's surprise, Fluttershy's mask had exaggerated black lashes and oval eyes and a pearl white horn. It could only be, she realized, a mask of her.
"Oh, um. Hello Rarity. I hope you don't mind. I mean. This." She reached up to remove the mask, but Rarity gently stopped her.
"It's actually flattering," she assured her friend, though it was a bit of a little white lie. "I don't mind."
"Hey. Rarity," a whisper prompted her to turn around-
And jump in surprise as a pale unicorn mask with red glittery eyes stared at her.
"WA-ahahaha!" A rainbow colored tail swooshed through the air as it's owner laughed, hooves holding her sides as she flew in tight little loops. Catching her breath, Rarity glared up at her other pegasus friend and fellow Element of Harmony. Apparently part of said element of loyalty involved pranking and testing pony's patience.
"That wasn't very nice," Fluttershy observed.
"Aw, come on! I have red eyes, so I think this Antimony mask fits me pretty well!" Dash leveled out in the air and added, "I hope you totally kick her flank, Rarity! I just think the mask is cool. Hey, Fluttershy, you psyched up for those hot pretzel wings later? We totally gotta get Twilight to try some!"
"I don't want her to get a tummy ache," the ground based pegasus argued.
"That's the whole point!"
"Plain pretzels are fine..."
"Fluttershy, I love you, but you're terrible when it comes to putting peer pressure on, like, anypony."
"That's true, I am."
"Well, look who finally got up!" Applejack came up from behind to give Rarity a friendly nudge. "This is the big day, sugarcube! You get yer beauty sleep?"
"I did, for what it's worth," she replied, accepting a platter overflowing with country style scrambled eggs and apple slices. Her friends really did know her too well. "Thank you so much. What do I owe you?"
"On the house," Applejack insisted. "We're gonna make a pretty penny caterin' this here duel thing."
"That reminds me. These events are not really meant to be, well..." Rarity looked around, a little guiltily. "You are all my dear friends, so an exception would be made, but-"
"But what?" Dash asked, flying a bit closer.
"You must not be aware of this, but magical duels are traditionally held by unicorns and only in front of other unicorns," she explained.
The earth pony and pair of pegasi were silent for a long second.
"Good thing we've got these masks then!" Dash realized with a grin.
"Oh yes. I see why we're supposed to wear them now."
"Ah was thinkin' ah gettin' a Twilight one. Too many ponies around here wearin' Trixie masks."
"Yeah, since when did she get so darn popular?"
"What's wrong with a Trixie mask?" The last member of their group finally appeared, lavender beneath and behind her baby blue mask. Twilight looked from one friend to another and finally shrugged.
"I just think it's ironic," she explained, explaining her choice in mask. Though technically she didn't need one. Pointing at the other true unicorn present, she quickly asked, "So, ready for your last bit of training?"
"More training?" Rarity gasped, aghast. "I have a duel at sunset!"
"Which means plenty of time to get some last second training in!" Twilight leaned in, looking a little menacing behind her Trixie mask. "You should take my advice. Anything you can do I can do better. You don't want to end up with another bright green mane, do you?"
"Sweet Celestia, no," Rarity said, and laughed along with her friends. Really, at this point, 'fighting' Trixie would be a welcome relief.
"So what potentially humiliating training am I to undergo this time?" Rarity asked, standing up on her hind legs. "Walking on stilts while casting magic, perhaps?"
"That's not a bad idea!" Twilight realized, floating out a notepad to write it down. "Maybe later."
"For now," she answered, and her magic levitated out six small tennis balls, each with a glow to it in a different color. One was bright purple, another blue, another pink, another gold... it didn't take long for the pattern to set in. One was even a colorless white.
"Tennis balls," Rarity observed as the balls floated around her. "I am growing a little tired of tennis balls."
"Good!" Twilight declared. "Today, you're going to lead us through the forest to the castle. And by 'us' I mean everypony here."
"Let me guess the rest," Rarity said, already seeing the tennis balls float over to her friends, color coded for their convenience. "Along the way, you're going to throw these balls at me."
"You have to catch or dodge each one before it hits you," Twilight finished, nodding as Rarity's spot-on guess. "But here's the catch. You can't look at who you're returning it to. You need to tell just by the color of the ball and the trajectory it follows."
"Also!" Pinkie Pie added in, appearing out of thin air. "I'm pretty sure that if we get there late, you lose by default."
"Wonderful!" Rarity sighed... but then noticed the white ball.
If she had to return the colored tennis balls to her friends, then what was this one for? Then again, knowing Twilight, and getting a sense for Twilight's mentor, maybe the answer was obvious.
"Perhaps," she realized, smirking evilly. "This will be more fun than I thought."
- - -
The two stallions pulled aside from the festivities just as the trek through the Everfree finally got underway. Finding a little distance and privacy among the slightly thinned throng of reveling, partying ponies, Shady Deal also took a moment to adjust the white unicorn stallion mask over his face. His compatriot with the hourglass cutie mark had a nearly identical mask, but blackish blue in color.
"Pinkie sure knows how to overdo it, doesn't she?" Shady asked with a chuckle.
"I believe Pierce would say, if he were here: overdoing it is her specialty. Still, I'd wager a crowd like this is unexpected."
"But you've noticed our escorts?"
The brown coated earth pony stallion nodded very slowly. "I have."
"And?" Shady prompted.
He motioned his head subtly towards one of the guardponies helping chaperon Pinkie's Party Parade through the forest. The Everfree was still dangerous, even for a large group of ponies. The Mayor, or even Pinkie herself, had helped ease ponies worries about monster attack by asking for outside assistance. These were no royal guards purloined from Canterlot's Grand Palace. They weren't even locals.
Instead, the party had a retinue of Lady Antimony's hussar guard watching the forest for danger. The ponies, sometimes in the trees, sometimes on ground level, all wore the distinct burgundy-red uniform of the Two Rivers Guard. A few Ponyville residents had attempted to talk with them earlier, but now they were left to their business of keeping any potential threats away from the townsfolk.
"I have identified twelve individual members of the guard," Time Keeper replied, trotting casually alongside his merchant comrade. "The only one missing is the Baroness' personal bodyguard. That one is a hard read."
"But you're sure they're all 'ere?" Shady asked, eyes following one of the pegasus hussars as she flew overhead.
"I am always sure," Time Keeper replied in a dour tone. "Though dressed identically, their faces and body types have been committed to memory. I would know them even if disguised. Six mares; six stallions. Two captains, one with a small scar on her left lip, the other a stallion with a slight overbite. The former light blue eyes, the latter teal, one at the front of the group the other at the rear. Need I go on, Shady Deal?"
"No. Quite alright." The pegasus stopped him. "Celestia's flank, I almost forgot how creepy you are with that."
Time Keeper chuckled behind his dark mask. "It keeps the mind occupied. That is all."
"Sure it does." Shady hopped a few steps as he brought a hoof to his chin. "So none of them are being left behind in Ponyville?"
"Not unless the Baroness has called in reinforcements overnight," Keeper answered. "I can not account for ponies I have not met."
"Things in Ponyville are getting a little too hot for me," Shady grumbled, unhappy.
"If Lady Antimony wins today, these red coated fellows are something you'll have to get used to," Time Keeper said, not sounding too worried. "We'll all simply have to adapt."
"Yes, well, that's easy to say. Some of us 'ave benefited from all the guards in the province sticking to Canterlot and the major roads." Shady then added, in a low whisper, "Do you know what they do to smugglers in Prance? I'd rather not end up in a state run mine after running clandestine errands for the old lady."
"I'm sure she'd arrange for one of us to bail you out," Time Keeper assured his friend, a small smirk on his face. "Eventually."
"Blasted Bluebloods," Shady growled under his breath.
"The situation is as it is. There is no point bemoaning it."
"Do you think Antimony will win?" Shady finally asked, the two falling quiet as another pegasus hussar cruised past, her green eyes scanning the noisy crowd. They were a mile or so into the forest now, but a pony could hardly note the gloom of Everfree with the music playing from two pulled carts and everypony hopping along while chatting and eating snacks. At the front of the would-be parade, the six mares of harmony were tossing colored, glowing balls back and forth. The streaks of light could be seen even from the back of the line.
"Do we know anything about our girl's chances?" Shady asked again, still keeping his voice low.
Time Keeper was silent for a moment, waiting for any and all potential listeners to disperse.
"By any rational analysis," Keeper eventually replied. "Lady Rarity's chances are, statistically... near zero."
Shady Deal whistled, very quietly. "That bad, eh?"
Again, his earth pony friend waited a few seconds before speaking.
"Very little is known of Baroness Antimony's dueling style," he admitted. "Even to me. It is publicly known that she is a master of Il Fior and very likely also accomplished in both Posta Longa and Di Bicornio. She likely began training at the age of three or four. While records of duels are not officially kept, I would estimate that she has defeated over a dozen other unicorns in as many years across the length and breath of Equestria. I do not believe, in all that time, that she has ever been defeated. Not even once."
"So, what?" Shady asked, his frown deepening at Rarity's prospects. "She's some kinda Rainbow Dash of duelists?"
"Only in the sense that both are highly skilled in their respective forms of competition." Time Keeper explained, "Many of these duels were likely to cement her position as most suited to wed our Prince and become Grand Duchess. As you can imagine, the position is highly coveted among our country's noblemares. Only one may wear The Platinum Crown of Canterlot, so bequeathed by the Princess herself."
Shady shook his head. Unicorns. Crazy.
"Near zero?" he repeated. "That bad?"
Time Keeper walked in silence, and the two stallions jumped as one over a large root.
"Two years ago," the earth pony replied. "Lady Antimony had a duel with Lady Sand Dune."
"Desert Flower's daughter?" Shady knew that name and that pony. Sand Dune was a pretty little thing: peach colored coat, blue mane, ocean-spray eyes. Very pretty mare. He did a lot of business in Mareabia and Bitaly where the two families were entwined in blood and trade so he knew her by looks and reputation. Many considered the heiress of Mareabia to be the most beautiful pony in all of southern Equestria.
"You are aware of the magic Sand Dune commands, are you not?"
Shady shrugged. "I know what she looks like and I know who to bribe to slip things out of the province."
"A thousand years ago, Lady Sand Dune's family repaired the First Hourglass," Time Keeper said with a look that implied his friend really should have brushed up on his history. "The one brought over from the Old Kingdom. The one damaged by Star Caller. They still keep it. They still keep time with it."
"That kind of magic?" Shady realized and shuddered. Old Magic. Creepy stuff.
"No different than the honor of moving sun and moon," Time Keeper admonished him. "Unlike the Terre Rare, the family lands of the Quartz Clan are full of moles. Information is easily obtained. Lady Sand Dune was a master of her family's magical arts, the most talented in generations. As you have no doubt noticed by the road tolls you avoided when you traveled there, her family is attempting to bolster their finances and keep up with the Terre Rares. I only assume that part of their overall play for power involved having their daughter humble Lord Cruciger's heir. An incident was manufactured and a pretext made for a duel."
"But she lost," Shady Deal guessed, and Time Keeper nodded.
"Neither mare was seen for over a month." Behind his black unicorn mask, the punctual earth pony smiled. "As I said: Lady Sand Dune's mastery over her family's unique magical domain is something to behold. She is said to have once kept an entire burning building frozen in time."
What more needed to be said?
It was hard to believe a pretty little mare like Sand Dune could be capable of such a feat, but such were the unique powers of the greatest of unicorn clans... and among those few elite noble families the Terre Rare stood highest. Lady Antimony was their heiress and representative. She had beaten a pony who could control time. What chance did a dressmaker from Ponyville have?
"If Miss Rarity loses..."
"Then this land will fall into Cruciger's hooves... but we will continue to watch over the Elements of Harmony," Time Keeper informed him, adding a glare for good measure. "We will both do as we must, no matter the circumstances."
Deal hung his head low in disgust. "Damn it. What about the - the Princesses?"
Time Keeper chuckled. "That's a good question."
- - -
"You must understand, I'm not normally such a violent pony."
Teleportation, Blueblood had learned, was quite useful. Difficult, since it was a category of spellwork that did not come anything near naturally to him, but useful. He had spent the equivalent of several months back in the Gala loops learning to refine his teleportation spells. Back then it had been a necessary means to achieve his goal of a perfect Gala. He still thought it possible he would be trapped in the loops had he not gone back to school and taught himself this basic albeit often frustratingly difficult skill. He had escaped the loops, but kept the skills: and teleportation was perhaps the most useful of them all.
For example: it made it rather easy to catch one of his treacherous pursuers by surprise. Pegasi, you see - they never expected a unicorn to attack them while flying. A bit of a racial conceit, perhaps? Natural when one group thought themselves masters of all things airborne.
"You just happened to catch me at a very bad time," Blueblood explained, putting more pressure on the back of the downed pegasus' head and driving his face into the dirt. He was one of the Princess Hesperus's compliment of royal guards. Treacherous royal guards, it turned out. Not moments after the confusion of the airship's crash, they had attempted to capture their charge and Prince. It was all terribly dishonorable.
The pegasus guard tried to move to break free, but Blueblood's magic had him by the wings. It was the most effective way to immobilize a pegasus: don't bother grabbing the tail or neck. The wings were very sensitive. Very dangerous, too, if the pony in question knew how to use magic to sharpen them. That, however, was not a problem when one was a unicorn.
A little more pressure, and Blueblood's hoof planted the guard's face into the ground.
"I've actually been called a bit of a dandy, you know?" Blueblood said, his voice just loud enough for the traitor guard to hear. "I recall one paper once wrote that I had 'no profession, interest or talent other than the pursuit of elegance.'"
His hoof pressed down just a little harder.
"Which I think is rather unfair." Casually, the Duke of Canterlot magically lifted the ex-guard by the wings and tossed him against a tree. "It is true, I do enjoy the finer things in life: rich food and good clothes... beautiful mares and elegant surroundings. I do disdain violence, including the sort I am inflicting on you right this moment. However, do not mistake me for a ninny or careless popinjay."
"A mare I care deeply for is in no small amount of danger," he continued, leaning down to look the guard in the eye. "Furthermore, you and your comrades have betrayed your sacred oaths. I'm quite tempted to indulge in that same violence I normally abhor. So: how about you tell me why you sabotaged my ship? And to which upstart noble I should send the bill for its repair?"
"That would be me, I'm afraid."
Blueblood's expression darkened at the voice - unexpected, female, vaguely familiar. Leaving the guard be for the moment, he turned and frowned in the direction of the speaker. He had been expecting to flush out more of the traitorous detachment aboard the Princess Hesperus in this rustic little mountain village. They had followed him, hounded him, for more than twenty hours straight. The only way to make any good time getting to Ponyville wasn't simply to elude them. They needed to be eliminated or incapacitated in entirety.
There was another reason why he had picked this remote village to make a stand. Not far past the quaint brown homes and shops lay a train station. Blueblood intended to either stow aboard or hijack the train to get back to his home province. Predictably, the conspirators had downed his airship on the border of Terre Rare controlled territory. There was no way he intended to take chances by putting faith in that family's small army of red-coated guardponies.
That in mind, he glared at the newcomer.
The voice told him the gender, female, but the pony's size indicated otherwise. Mares were rarely larger than stallions, especially ones his height. A plain white cloak covered her body, concealing her face but bulging where it could not conceal a horn. A sparkling platinum chain dangled around her throat, connecting to leaf-shaped clasps around her shoulders. The cloak and hood were secured there, wrapped tightly and firmly in place. Two other treacherous royal guards flanked her, glaring back at him. Perhaps they were annoyed at having to chase him for the better part of a day and then put up with him ambushing their comrades?
Well! Their comrades should have watched their back. A unicorn could teleport virtually anywhere, and Blueblood was not in the mood to engage in a fair match. It was time to drive that point home. The faint aura around his horn rippled and he teleported, vanishing from sight and reappearing just behind the group. Sparkling tendrils of magic reached out to seize the three -
Only for the trio to vanish in a poof of smoke and light.
"She saw it coming?" Blueblood gasped, and teleported again.
He exited his star field at the apex of the village's schoolhouse, hundreds of yards from where he had ambushed the other guard. Well manicured hooves touched down on the brown-tiled roof, skidding a bit before finding purchase. Blueblood felt a perfectly focused burst of magic send a tingle down his spine and turned, eyes narrowed, to see the cloaked unicorn and her two treacherous guards appear almost in spitting distance.
Displaced dust blasted away from his hooves as he set down on an empty section of dirt road. He was followed, less than a second later, by the trio. One, two, three pinpricks of light expanded into pony shapes. Blueblood tried to get a read on the other unicorn's magic, but couldn't, despite the fact that she had to be reading the direction and magnitude of his own spellwork. She was good. There was no denying it.
She even had the audacity to smirk beneath that hood concealing her face.
This mare was very, very good.
Two more times in quick succession he teleported, pausing on the eave of a clocktower roof. Here, there was room for barely two ponies to stand, side by side. The entire village could be seen stretched out below, including the largest building of all: the train station. Railroad tracks cut through the side of town opposite the river and led all the way south.
Blueblood allowed himself a triumphant grin. What would his pursuer do now? There was no room to follow him with a teleport of her own. Would she reappear into midair? It would be amusing to see the seemingly master teleporter's legs flail around in impotent opposition to gravity. When and if she did so... Blueblood prepared another spell, to counterattack in that one moment of weakness. He really did not like violence, this was true: but to get to Rarity, to protect her from the machinations of the same Terre rare who had killed his father, he was more than willing to dirty his hooves a little.
In a triplicate flash of light, the trio appeared, as expected, in midair.
The two guards, startled but still pegasi, quickly unfolded their wings. The unicorn, though. Her long legs kicked, she began to fall. Blueblood tensed. The cloak flew back from her shoulders as she pitched backward -
Only for two white wings to snap out, arresting her tumble.
The smirk beneath her hood broadened into a wide smile.
"My wings..." she said with a titter. "My wings are so pretty. Don't you think so? Nephew?"
"Starless hells!" Blueblood gasped, and nearly tumbled off the clocktower roof. "A-Auntie?"
Those two majestic wings flapped, bringing her closer. Too shocked to protest, Blueblood could only look up, trying to see her face beneath the white hood. Then she was close enough, and Princess Celestia's magic enveloped him. the wayward Prince felt the familiar tingle of a teleportation spell, and then the village - and his erstwhile plans - vanished in a cloud of smoke.
- - -
Half lidded eyes turned to the heavens as night turned to day. Hours before an unexpected party parade left Ponyville for Everfree, as the rays of the sun stretched out over the horizon, Lady Antimony felt the presence of the mare she had been expecting. There were very few who could summon a Baroness at a whim. There were fewer still whose presence pierced the veil between the sky and the eternally dark heavens. The mistress of the World's Moon was approaching.
Next to the Lady, Gewitter tensed, her wings spreading not in excitement but anxiety. It took a moment for her to realize the slip in control and return them to normal. It was as the sun finally ripped free of the distant horizon that it began: a column of chattering, screeching, flocking bats appeared, momentarily turning the sky dark with their combined shadows. A hundred of them swept low; Gewitter closed her eyes and Antimony did the same, letting them pass and feeling the beat of their wings against her body.
Where most of them went after that, she couldn't say.
However, when her eyes opened again, the swarm of flying rodents were already beginning to coalesce at the topmost parapet of the decaying, ancient Everfree castle. Leathery wings merged, melting together into a dark mass, then a dark blue coat, and then an unfurled pair of feathered wings. Cerulean blue eyes opened wide from within the forming body, revealing a head crowned by a long, magnificent horn. A lighter shade of blue detached, ripping free into a mane that glittered and billowed in the passing wind. Finally, the royal regalia manifested: a black crown hooked around and behind the horn, then a thick black torc around the neck and chest, lastly silver horseshoes and slippers over the bare hooves.
"Beautiful..." Antimony's voice was barely a whisper.
So wonderfully powerful.
This was it! The very pinnacle of the pyramid: a power and position shared by only one other.
This was Princess Luna.
The pair bowed low as four hooves, decked in silver, lightly drifted down to the ground of sparse grass and rubble that surrounded the castle. Though Everfree itself was a thick deciduous forest, the craggy plateau that supported the abandoned palace of the Princesses sported only a few trees, shrubs and grasses within the ruins. Nature had done a sub-par job reclaiming the land, despite Everfree's fierce reputation as a refuge of wild and untamed natural processes.
"We remember you," Luna spoke in the plural, but at a thankfully reduced volume.
"Princess." Antimony remained bowed, not yet having been given permission to rise.
"You may rise," Luna said it, at last, ad the noblemare and her bodyguard stood on all fours before the alicorn Princess. "Yes," she repeated. "We recognize your face. From the Stable of Lords."
"You swore your allegiance to us," Luna recalled.
"As did all those of my family," Antimony reminded her in a soft, polite voice. "Our Princess returned to us... I am fortunate to have ruled in such a time as to renew our ancient vows."
"Yet you antagonize one of the six who rescued us from my darkness," Luna admonished, but quickly raised a hoof to forestall protest. "Rest assured, we will not intervene in any way with your duel tonight. Despite it being held on the grounds of our former home."
Antimony bowed her head in respect, holding her tongue.
"We will only observe," Luna promised, looking down on the other mare with curious, analytical eyes. "You are here to make good on the promise given to Lady Arsenic, your great-great grandmother, is that right?"
The Baroness, cautiously eschewing obsequiousness, looked up at her Princess.
"It is so, Highness."
Luna cocked her head to the side. "We have been told that, for two hundred years now, your family has built itself up for this moment."
"That is also so, Highness."
"And now you wish to return, in body and soul, to Canterlot?" the Princess inquired.
"We do," Antimony replied, firmly.
"And what of your Barony?" the alicorn asked, as if she was simply curious. "What of your father's realms, which you will also inherit? Deux Fleuves? Germaney? Whinnychester? Prance? The Western Reaches?"
"We shall administer those as well!" Antimony exclaimed, and swiftly bowed her head.
"Your lands have grown quite rich," Luna admitted. "Perhaps it would be a boon to give you Canterlot as well? Our poor nephew and his forebears have mismanaged these lands. We knew his greatest grandfathers and grandmothers. They were very different than he."
"Yet," the Princess continued, butting the Baroness off. "Have you considered that, if not for the circumstances of Lady Arsenic's exile from Canterlot at the hooves of her sister... that you and yours would not exist? More importantly, that your lands would still be divided, their ponies made poorer in your absence?"
"Princess. Highness!" Antimony interrupted her superior, looking up at what could have been mistaken for indignation. "Are we to put aside and forget the injustice of the past; the suffering of our great mother, Arsenic? The indignity of being cast out of Canterlot? The land that was our birthright? Whatever good fortune we enjoy in the present, my family has achieved it in spite of our enemies, not because of them. Insults must be answered in kind. The Bluebloods must...!"
"Must?" Luna prompted, locking eyes with the unicorn mare for just an instant.
"They must... yield," the Baroness choose her words carefully. "And accept us as equals."
Luna's eyes narrowed and she sighed.
"Though not the only reason, we did come here wondering if we could somehow talk you out of this duel," she admitted, slowly trotting past the noblemare and her bodyguard to look out over the Everfree beyond the chasm that separated castle from forest.
"We wondered if you were set on this course simply out of duty or resignation. Perhaps a generous gift of lands or bits to yourself and your father could forestall this confrontation? Perhaps even in exchange for a royal favor. We had thought much on this since hearing news. We see now that we were mistaken. Neither words nor gold nor promises shall deter you from this. We see it in your eyes."
Antimony raised her head and turned to watch the alicorn's back.
"It is why I exist," she stated. "It is even etched into my flesh: my own cutie mark. Terre Rare must return to Canterlot. Terre Rare must rule Canterlot. We will avenge Lady Arsenic and we will serve you and Princess Celestia. We shall serve you better than Prince Blueblood and his family ever could!"
"And in the process, you will make good on that mark on your flank?" Luna wondered, glancing back over her shoulder. "We have seen that in your eyes as well, and we know what you have drawn contract with. Do not forget what aided in our escape, only a year ago."
A little self-consciously, Antimony shifted her cloak so it covered her cutie mark: a star and crown, imposed over a constellation. One of the four Great Constellations that ruled the airless heavens beyond the veil. Looking back, there never had been a doubt what she could do with her life. Father had always known. Despite the endless trials set before her. It had been obvious the moment her parents looked into her eyes.
"There is no pony better able to embrace the great magics of Lady Platinum," Antimony replied, carefully and mindfully closing her eyes. "I have proven it before and I will prove it again. By the end of this year, Blueblood will be my husband and you will see how worthy a servant I can be, Princess."
Luna turned, the swiftness of it not giving Antimony time to bow her head. With the latter's leggy height, the two almost stood eye to eye.
"Yes. I will watch you," Luna whispered, breaking from the royal 'we.' "You should know: I have grown rather fond of my nephew. His misery - and the suffering of the bearer of Generosity - could well earn my enmity. Please remember that, Baroness."
Luna trotted off, momentarily leaving Antimony and Gewitter behind. She didn't notice the former digging the tip of one hoof into the ground in anger. Blueblood. Rarity. Who didn't seem to want to stick their neck out for those two lately? It was baffling. The Prince was a charmless, incompetent buffoon. The Element of Generosity was a stubborn mule of a mare.
However, as long as the Princess held to her word and did not intervene...
Then this 'duel' was a foregone conclusion. Luna, too, would learn to accept the strength and rightness of the Terre Rare. In time. It was why she had held the duel at this ruined castle, after all: to lure out one of the Princesses. Celestia had never once attended a duel as far as any pony knew, so Luna witnessing the defeat of Lady Rarity was just as planned. Not in a hundred years would the dressmaker forget that she had lost, not just in front of her friends, but in front of a Princess.
- - -
At last, the crumbling castle came into view.
For the first time since she had begun leading the Ponyville parade through the thick Everfree forest, Rarity hesitated and nearly stumbled. They had traveled at a sedate, easy pace through the untamed nature preserve, and for some odd reason, the pictures of the forest Blueblood had kept in his study had flashed to mind. He was responsible for these lands and others like them throughout Equestria: the last, pony-free remnants of the world his ancestors had found and claimed, by force and by friendship, so very long ago.
It was far less frightening in a rowdy, loud throng of fellow ponies. Rarity's mind had soon forgotten why her body was marching down a dirty, overgrown forest trail. It had put aside the reason why her dear friends were attempting to pelt her with glowing tennis balls.
Instead, she had thought back to the Summer Sun celebration, and the journey that forged their friendships. They had joked and gossiped and, yes, they had hurled tennis balls at the back of her skull. Not a one of which had hit, so really, it was mostly just a minor annoyance. They had even paused to linger long enough for Steven, the sweet but somewhat dandy Sea Serpent to come out of hiding along his stretch of river. It was truly a shame that he did not easily take to land with his long, serpentine form. The parade had waited just long enough to serve a quick meal to the tired partygoers, receive an invigorating prep talk from Pinkie Pie, and then they were back on the trail.
"Do be careful, Miss Rarity! And good luck!"
It had been good to see him again.
But now -
Now the castle itself was in sight, and like a bill come due, her fear and insecurity from the day before became impossible to ignore. The old rope bridge had been replaced with a sturdy span of wooden beams. It was magical construction: one could tell transmuted trunks and branches from hoof-cut planks and hoof-spun rope. It would make crossing much easier for everypony - no frightfully swaying rope bridge that threatened to send one into the abyss below at the merest gust of wind.
Yet at the opposite end of the new bridge, in the shadow of the castle and the steadily setting sun, Rarity could see her opponent. The mare who had not only thrown her life into disarray, but the mare who had stabbed her heart with fear in Cheerilee's classroom. Antimony. The beautiful, ambitious, powerful unicorn... nothing like the fair and carefree nobles of books and tales of courtly romance. Had some dashing rogue attempted to abduct the chaste daughter of the Terre Rare, he likely would have spent the rest of his life drooling into a pillow in a hospital, his mind lost to a frightful illusion.
She had trained for only three days. She had been acknowledged as noble for only three days. What madness had gripped her to think she could prepare herself for this on such short notice? What tail-biting lunacy had convinced her challenging this other mare was in any way a wise move? Rarity screed her eyes shut. The answer was as obvious as it was irrational.
This mare could not be his wife.
This mare could not become her Duchess.
"Is that Princess Luna?" Dash blurted out from off to Rarity's side. "I guess she's here for the show!"
"She got my invitation!" Pinkie cheered, but then added in a less happy tone. "Didn't RSVP, though. Which means... I think we have a third volunteer for our hot dog eating competition!"
"Rarity," Fluttershy's quiet voice prompted the unicorn to glance over at her timid friend. "Are you okay? I was, um.. going to..."
A tennis ball, glowing gold, caught in Rarity's magic inches from her shoulder.
"Sorry," Fluttershy muttered, but couldn't repress her smile. "Are you ready?"
"We can throw more stuff at you if you aren't ready!" Dash volunteered.
"Quite alright!" Rarity assured her, and looked from one friend to the next. All had stuck with her; all had helped in any way they could. One in particular stood out: Twilight Sparkle lowered her horn, and all the enchanted tennis balls slipped out of hooves and into midair. Even Rarity's own, which she had used to take more than a few shots at her fellow Elements of Harmony.
One by one, they returned to Twilight's saddlebag.
"Now," the librarian said. "Your training is done. Everything else is up to you, Rarity."
"Thank you, Twilight. Thank you all!" The six shared a quick hug, and then raced across the bridge. Rarity didn't need to look back to know much of Ponyville was behind her, including her parents and her little sister. It was the whole of her family. She had no Great and Noble House, no clan with great name. She had both less than that, and more than that.
And, to her surprise, more still waiting on the other side.
"Rarity!" a refined voice greeted her. It was Fancy Pants and Fleur.
"I regret our other friends couldn't make it from Canterlot," he continued, trotting slowly from the impressive pegasus-drawn carriage he had taken out into the heart of Everfree. As always, Canterlot's famous stallion-about-town, renaissance pony and connoisseur was impeccably dressed in a casual black suit and high collared vest shirt. His bow tie was black instead of his preferred purple, but his monocle was the same. Fleur-de-lis was her usual unabashed, unclothed, thin and stunning self.
His words, however, brought back another recent memory.
"Bound by her words and her blood oaths, the Princess is forbidden to intervene in this, and what other allies do you have in Canterlot? That effete bauble peddler, Fancypants, and his merchant hangers on?"
He had come, regardless.
"My word, what a scene!" he added with a rich chuckle that only grew more and more mirthful. "A hundred ponies to observe a noble duel! They will speak of this in Canterlot come tomorrow!"
"I pray they speak of an upset," Fleur remarked, greeting the nearby Elements of Harmony with a polite and graceful bow. "Of a fashion designer who defeated a Baroness."
"Thank you both," Rarity began, only to hold her tongue as Fancypants made encounter with another local celebrity.
One blue eye almost seemed to bug out as Pinkie Pie stared, long and hard, at Fancypants’ monocle. The gentlecolt took it in stride, however, at least until Pinkie began pondering out loud why anypony would wear 'half their glasses on a string.' It served to distract Fleur even more as she tried to extradite her husband from the loony pink pony.
"Twilight?" Rarity asked, quietly, while most everypony else was distracted.
Her friend leaned closer. "What?"
"Do you think I have a chance? Honestly?" she whispered and expected a whisper in response. Whatever Twilight's thoughts were, her honest and true thoughts, it would only be between them. Rarity would not have been surprised or shocked to hear a 'no.'
"You do!" Twilight whispered back, but with force and feeling. "Rarity. You do have a chance. Just be yourself, follow your instincts... and, uh... don't play by her rules. When things get tough, never play by anypony's rules. That's Celestia's rule number one."
"But, darling, isn't that a rule? A rule to not follow rules?"
Twilight shrugged. "I never really got that one myself. I mostly stuck to the rules like: never leave a pony in an elaborate death trap. Though why the Princess would even have a rule like that is kind of strange, too. But you get the idea!"
"I will think on it," Rarity decided, and stared across the courtyard. Antimony stood with a much smaller entourage: her ever present bodyguard, Gewitter. Luna stood close by, but had to be here as an impartial observer. There were four other ponies, too - unicorns dressed all in white, three with their faces obscured by masks. These were not the party masks Pinkie had handed out. These looked like metal, covering all but their ears and horns. Cloth fell like a veil around their necks and their uniforms were cloaks over chainmail and plate barding.
"Do you know who those four are?" Rarity asked, but in her normal tone. There was no need to whisper, not anymore.
"Those are Terre Rare household guards," Twilight replied. "Mage guards. Not like the hussars."
"But why are they here?"
As if to answer that very question, Antimony turned to the three, speaking too softly for anypony else to hear. The three unicorn guards moved without giving a response. Two turned on the one in the middle as he sat down on the grass. The flanking pair pressed their hooves to the ground, horns aglow - their light engulfing their seated partner. There was a crack like lightning, a swirl of dusky, dark magic, and the unicorn in the middle vanished.
In his place, the large, flickering image of somepony else now loomed.
More than twice the height of Lady Antimony, the image of a huge stallion appeared. The representation was not entirely clear or detailed; the spell imperfect. Nonetheless, the sudden application of unfamiliar magic drew a hush from the crowd of Ponyville revelers, even as they slowly camped to watch the duel and take part in Pinkie's so called 'tail-gate' party. the huge image flickered several times in quick succession, resolving itself slightly with each self-correction. The two projecting ponies to either side bowed their heads, and a moment later, so did Antimony and Gewitter.
"My family's patriarch," Twilight explained, a bit of awe in her voice at the spells being cast. At least, Rarity hoped it was directed at the spellwork. "Duke Cruciger."
Rarity saw, in the image, another unicorn stallion, his face covered by a metal mask. Though only black and white, the towering figure looked lifelike and imposing. Aside from his alert ears and immense horn, the rest of his face was concealed, save for the fact that only one eye stared out from behind the sculpted silver guise. A large mantle and cloak rested on his shoulders, covering all but his chest. There was a massive X there - what could only be a scar from some previous battle.
The towering image turned, identified the one presence it deemed worthy, and bowed deeply.
"Princess Luna," a deep, distorted voice boomed. "You do us great honor by your presence."
The alicorn nodded respectfully to the reverential projection.
"Lord Duke. A pleasure to see you again, face to face."
"What spell is that?" Rarity asked, slowly walking forward. It was time. She looked up, checking the sky, and saw the sun about to set. The horizon was bathed in red and orange: crimson and bittersweet.
"A form of body possession combined with an illusion," Twilight replied, gesturing for Pinkie to come along. She had the cupcakes after all. It was time to inspect them. "I've read about it but I've only ever seen it once before."
Rarity let out a breath she had been holding.
Formalities came first.
She, Twilight and Pinkie Pie soon met up with Antimony and Princess Luna. The alicorn, it seemed, would be acting as the Baroness's new second. It was a role of respect and honor typically reserved for a close ally or friend of the duelist: the second had the all important task of inspecting the weapons of the duel - in this case Sugarcube Corner's gourmet cupcakes - to ensure they were all identical, un-enchanted, and of proper size and weight. Twilight and Rarity both bowed briefly to the Princess, but Pinkie was too hyper to bother as she bounced up and down, holding an ornate wooden case in her mouth. It was perhaps the only reason she wasn't chattering away.
The five mares met, and Pinkie spat the case into her hooves before opening it up. Inside were ten cupcakes, all the same size, style and flavor. Carnation pink, they were generously topped with split cherries, sprinkles and cream. They may have looked delicious, but they were not for eating: each one contained a mild contact sedative. There would be no 'faking' a miss. A soft blue glow passed over the case of cupcakes followed by another, darker purple illumination. They checked out.
"When I kissed your cheek, I warned you to act the part of a noble unicorn," Antimony broke the silence, her words directed at her opponent. She motioned to the Ponyville crowd camped in the shadow of the castle. "You have dishonored me, and your own vow, by bringing this throng to a solemn occasion."
Before Rarity could respond, however, Pinkie Pie took advantage of her lips being free.
"Hey! But you said friends and family only!" she objected. "Right, Monee?"
"Friends and family does not mean half the town," the noblemare hissed. "This is an affront. Duels are conducted in locations such as this specifically to avoid... turning them into a common spectacle."
"But - but I thought...!"
"There is no need to apologize," Rarity cut her friend off. Behind her, dozens of ponies milled around on blankets, waiting. The earth ponies stuck to the ground, but the pegasi perched in trees or on pillars to get a better view. All wore unicorn masks. "These are my friends and family."
"Just when I thought you couldn't vex me further, you do so." Antimony lowered her gaze. "Unfortunate."
"We will rest here, until our sister's sun sets," Luna decreed, placing the opened case of cupcakes onto the ground. "We urge you both to make amends and recompense. Whatever has been said or done in the past, let it be forgiven. See each other with fresh and unbiased eyes and attempt reconciliation."
Antimony demurely lowered herself onto her stomach to wait. Rarity followed a moment later. Neither spoke. Soon the soft sound of hooves indicated that Twilight, Pinkie Pie, and Princess Luna had all left. It was just the two unicorns, alone.
Still, neither spoke.
Finally, the sun dipped below the horizon. It was dusk. It was time.
Antimony rose, and as she did, Rarity could see hints of buried anger in her normally placid, cool expression. Her magic flexed, and her cloak unclipped and flew off to land in Gewitter's hooves, far on her corner of the courtyard. She pawed the ground and craned her neck, working out the kinks. There may as well have been no other ponies present. Everything had fallen silent as the sun's light faded.
"This," she said, softly. "Is the very last chance I will give you. No more. Kiss my hoof and in time we may still be friends."
Rarity stared at the outstretched hoof, so well manicured, so like her own.
"I am sorry," she replied. "But no."
At her response, Antimony's hoof lowered, the offer withdrawn.
"Then I have nothing more to say to you."
With all her aristocratic bearing, the Baroness nodded and paced away, five cupcakes held in her magical grip. Rarity took the remaining five and turned, counting her paces. Both had their backs to the other. They wore no clothes. The duel was to be with cupcakes only, at least to start. After that, whatever their magic could create or transform was fair game.
There was no whistle or shot to signal them to begin; they simply turned around.
Rarity kept her cupcakes in place, all around her. Five of them. In her mind's eye, she could almost imagine them glowing in different colors, each with her own name. Applejack. Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash. Pinkie Pie. Twilight Sparkle. The glow of her magic suffused the desserts, each one taking on a unique radiance.
She felt calm. Amazingly calm. The wind rustling her mane; the slowly fading light; the muted whispers of anticipation from around the courtyard. It was like the calm that overtook her when she worked in her beloved boutique, losing track of time as she labored into the night, not even noticing it when dawn came to remind her of the sleep she had missed. Despite the walk from Ponyville, her body and mind felt loose, free, and focused.
Antimony's cupcakes began to spin.
Faster. Faster still. Until each one was a blur. The noblemare turned her head, off to the right, and two of the cupcakes shot like bullets into a stone pillar, punching clean through the old stone in a spray of debris. Like needles threading paper. Within seconds, the pillar had been cut in half, crumbling loudly to the ground. The five cupcakes - now deadly projectiles - orbited their mistress.
Rarity did the one thing she could.