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I groaned and sat up, cradling my head in my forehooves. It felt like somepony had spent the night slamming my head into the concrete roof of the Chronicler building. I held a hoof in front of my face in a vain attempt to ward off the sunlight streaming over the rooftops and between the skyscrapers of Fillydelphia. Who was Celestia trying to impress, anyway? It’s not like she had much competition when it came to raising the sun.
My back popped and creaked when I moved onto my hooves, a result of using a building for a bed. Strangely, though, only half of my body felt sore in that kind of way, the other felt...I don’t know, rested? I looked to my left, and my heart sank when I saw the reason why. Oh no.
“Bah!” I cried, jumping away as fast as I could from the sleeping form of Grapevine. I scrambled across the roof and laid on my back, breathing hard. Calm down, I told myself. What’s the matter with two friends sleeping together for warmth? A bottle of whiskey clinked when I moved one hoof out from under me. Okay, maybe a few things.
I looked around a little before softly calling, “Hey, Grapevine...are you up?” No response. I tiphoofed over to where she lay and said a little louder, “Uh, I think it’s time to wake up.” She sniffed but remained asleep. I took a big gulp and poked her. “I think you should probably go ahead and get-”
She awoke with a start and jumped up, slapping me in the face with one hoof. “Huh, z- what, who is that?” she said. She glanced around until her eyes locked on me, lying on the ground where I fell. She scratched the back of her head. “Oh, uh, sorry Minty; didn’t see you there.”
“It’s alright,” I said, taking the offered hoof and pulling myself up. The spot on my cheek where she connected throbbed. “I probably should have expected that.”
“Probably,” she said. Grapevine popped her neck and ran a hoof through her hair, which had no visible effect on its tangled mess. “So what’s going on?”
“You tell me,” I said. I kicked one of the empty bottles and sent it flying off the roof. “What exactly happened last night?”
For the first time, Grapevine took notice of the whiskey bottles and blankets lying around her. Her eyes sped from them, to me, then back to herself, and the cycle was repeated several times over with her eyes getting wider and wider until she finally shook her head and laughed.
“It looks to me like we found Ornate’s liquor cabinet,” she said. “Sorry if I fell asleep on you; I do that sometimes.”
I coughed and looked away. “Are you, um, sure that was it?”
“You’re implying something?”
“Good,” Grapevine said. She rolled her eyes when she saw me blush. “Don’t flatter yourself; you’re not exactly a stallion.”
“I think I’ve managed to figure that one out.”
“Just making sure you remembered,” she said. “Wouldn’t want you getting any wild ideas about last night.”
“Oh, I won’t,” I said. But that wasn’t true. Drunken memories were already coming back, and I was starting to suspect there was an entirely different reason for my soreness. Still, better not to bring it up to Grapevine, I thought. Not right now, anyway; she’d just blow me off.
“Right, well, let’s go ahead and get off this roof,” Grapevine continued. I followed her as she led the way back into the Chronicler offices.
The marks of a wild night were more apparent downstairs in the newsroom. Broken bottles and upturned crates lay everywhere, as well as their foul-smelling products. Printer’s ink was spattered on the floor into a crude drawing of Pullmare. Vulgar and suggestive graffiti surrounded the drawing, and while most of them were scrawled in Grapevine’s hoofwriting, I winced when I saw some of them written in Germane.
“Shouldn’t we, uh, clean this up?” I said.
“Would there be a point?” Grapevine answered. “It’s not like anypony’s going to show up today.”
“Well I still think we should at least try to keep it nice.”
“Fine, you do it.”
I looked around one more time at the aftermath of an exceedingly messy night and shook my head. I didn’t exactly agree with her reasoning, but didn’t want to spend part of my possibly-last day in the city cleaning up our mess. “Nah, you’re right,” I said.
We walked out of the building and Grapevine locked the door behind us at my insistence. The streets were empty save for mares, and a few stallions, making the walk of shame home after being kicked out by whoever they had spent the night with. I was ready to comment on this to Grapevine, until I realized the comparison struck a little too close to home. I shook my head, again. The cold morning air was obviously getting to me.
But that wasn’t the only feeling our trip invoked. The tall buildings loomed over us as we went, standing about and solemnly guiding us to our destination like great guardians of Tartarus. It came from the uneasy feeling that our journey, our last journey of that night would begin soon, and it was from Joya’s shop it would start.
We arrived at the West Fillydelphia store in silence. I expected Joya’s shop to be as asleep as the rest of the businesses around it, but it blazed bright as the evening star. I moved to knock on the door, but Grapevine barged through without a glance around.
The first thing that struck me when we walked in was how clean the salesroom was. The ponnequinnes once more stood bare in neat orderly rows, and outfits sat folded on their shelves. Joya looked up in surprise when we came in, but her face quickly grew a smile and she bounded over to us.
“You’re here, you’re here!” she said. We were both wrapped in side-splitting hugs as she picked us up and brought us to a circle of ponnequinnes that she had prepared. On them were five dresses and two suits. Mine and Sterling’s were right next to each other’s, of course.
I had seen them before, so while still impressed, I wasn’t quite in awe, but it was apparently Grapevine’s first time to see her dress. The gown wasn’t as flowing as mine, and really would rest just below her flank. It was royal purple, and had some sort of stylized question mark lying just below the chest, outlined in gems.
“I- it’s amazing, Joya,” Grapevine whispered, running a hoof along the silk fabric. “Did you really do all this by yourself?”
“Yep,” Joya said. She frowned. “Why does everypony find that so hard to believe?”
I put a hoof around her shoulder. “We’re just grateful, is all,” I said. She regained her smile and motioned for Grapevine to come over to the middle of the circle. Joya pulled the dress over Grapevine’s head and let her walk around a little bit, the dress flowing over her as she moved.
“Like what you see?” Grapevine said when she saw me looking. I glared at her but she shrugged it off and turned to Joya. “The dress is lovely.”
“Glad you think so,” Joya said. She let Grapevine walk around a little bit more while I saddled up to her.
“So, uh, has anypony else arrived yet?” I said.
“Sterling’s here, yes.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
“More or less,” she said. “He’s in the basement, last I checked.”
I thought about saying more, but instead just mumbled thanks and walked back past the register and the kitchen to the basement door. I’d only been down there once, and it had scared the daylights out of me. Now, I was scared to go down for a different reason.
The basement was dark, and I made sure to flip on the lights before I descended the rickety stairs. Didn’t want a repeat of last time; I still had a bruise on my rump from that fall.
Her basement was similar to what Sterling’s had been; messy and disorganized. Instead of machine parts, however, bolts of fabric and old ponnequinnes littered the ground and made piles in the corner while design drawings lay everywhere.
Sterling himself sat with his head down at a bench in the middle of the clean spot in the room. He looked to be lost in thought as he peered down at something in his hooves, and every few seconds he would reach up and scratch a little spot behind his left ear.
I walked up beside him and said, “Hey Sterling, what’re you doing?”
He jumped and sent a screwdriver flying through the air. “Oh, um, hey Minty,” he said. “I was going to ask Joya to send you down, but I guess you got back faster than we thought.”
“And what exactly did you want me for?” I said. A few ideas came to mind, but weren’t exactly likely at that point in time.
“Remember the machine you asked me to build?” Sterling said.
He held out the little box he had been fiddling with. “Well, I finished it,” he said. The machine looked liked little more than a plain box, with two buttons on the top; one green and one blue.
“How exactly does it work?” I said.
“Well, the initial machine was much too large and complicated for what we needed,” he said, “that is, until Rainbow Remedy stopped by last night and lent his magic to my work. This is the result.”
“That’s great,” I said, “but I meant to ask what the buttons do.”
“Oh.” He blushed and held the box closer to my face. He pointed first to the green button. “This button activates the feature you asked for: it can amplify somepony’s voice loud enough to be heard from up to one hundred feet away.”
“What’s the blue one do?” I said.
He pressed it and said, “It records your voice...” He let it go then tapped it again, saying, “..and plays it back again.” Sure enough, the little box spoke Sterling’s exact words. “Rainbow Remedy said you might find a use for it.”
I felt my eyes widen. “So...I could get Pullmare to confess backstage, and then play it in front of everypony with the amplifier?”
“Well, yes, I guess you could...in theory.”
I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Do you know what this means?” I said.
He was wrapped in a quick hug by me before I could let my brain take over and tell me to cut it out. “It means we have an actual advantage over her for once,” I cried.
“T- That’s great, Minty,” Sterling said. He coughed. “And not that I don’t mind, but don’t you think your hugs a little tight?”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. I let go of him and quickly backed away, trying to hide my reddening face. “Just nice to know we might not be completely screwed tonight.”
“Glad to know I could be of service,” he said, then laughed. “I just hope it’ll help when you’re at the Celebration.”
“You mean when we’re at the celebration,” I said carefully. “We’re going together, with matching outfits and everything, remember?”
Sterling smiled, just for a second. “Right.”
After a few minutes of awkward silence and constant attempts to bring up our impending date for the Celebration but never getting the courage to actually say anything, I excused myself and went upstairs.
In my absence, Marshmallow had shown up, her hair done up in a rough bun and reading glasses perched on her face. “There you are, Minty,” she said.
“Yeah, here I am,” I said. “But I thought you and everyone else were going to come over later today?”
“Rainbow Remedy and Starshine are working on something before they get here,” Marshmallow explained, “but Joya stressed how important it was I showed up early.”
“Because of this,” she said, using her magic to levitate a box from out behind her. The box opened in front of her, revealing a variety of brushes, makeup, and other such tools inside.
“You came here to fancy yourself up?” I said. “Couldn’t you do that from home?”
Marshmallow smiled. “They’re not for me...”
I looked at Joya, who was smiling expectantly at me, and at Grapevine, who had a little smirk adorning her face. “Wait, wait,” I said, “why do I have to get done up? I’m the only one here who showers every day and everything!”
“You need this more than the rest of us,” Marshmallow told me. “The first battle you’ll fight tonight is with Pullmare over looks. If you’re going to want everypony to take you seriously when you reveal to them that their beloved mayor is a psychopath, then you’d do best not to look like a street bum.”
“T- That makes sense, I guess,” I said. “But are you sure we have to do a full makeover? Maybe just run a brush through my hair...”
Marshmallow started up the stairs. “I’ll run a bath.”
I watched her disappear into the upstairs bathroom. “Do I really look like a street bum?” I said.
“Yep,” Grapevine said from her seat behind Joya’s counter. Her eyes flicked over the latest copy of the Manehattan Times. “Like you just stepped out of a dumpster.”
“Not really,” Joya said, after giving Grapevine a look. “It’s just in comparison to Ms. Pullmare, who’s going to be all dressed up...”
“Yeah, I get the idea,” I said. I sighed and trotted up the steps to the upper story of the shop, leaving Joya to fuss over Grapevine sitting in her dress. We’d been a pretty simple family back home, and besides bathing more often than acceptable in earth pony cities, I’d never actually done anything to my appearance more than run a comb through my hair. Mother had said it wasn’t proper to dress one’s self up too much, that it wasn’t the Germane way.
I pushed open the bathroom door. Well, considering my past week, I thought, the Germane way can go take a jump into Styx. Marshmallow was waiting for me inside, her tools of cosmetic trade spread out on the room’s small counter and inside the sink. The washbasin was already filled.
“Get in,” Marshmallow said.
“Won’t it be a little cold?” I said.
She smiled. “I activated my family’s account, just for today. We’ve got hot water and the best supplies bits can buy.”
“Alright then,” I said. I took a deep breath and eased myself into the water. Like she had promised, it was warm. Hot, even. Not the kind of uneven hot that comes from boiling the water over fire, but a nice, uniform warmth that spread over the whole top.
I let myself lay back and fill out the tub. “This is nice,” I said.
“You haven’t seen anything, yet,” Marshmallow said with a short laugh. Her horn glowed and bubbles began to spread across the surface of the water while a tingling sensation began on the surface of my skin.
“What’s happening?” I said. I resisted the urge to frantically scratch at my scalp.
“Do you like it?” Marshmallow said.
Before I could ask just why she would think I was enjoying feeling like a pony-sized poison joke rash, the tingling stopped. It was replaced, instead, with a blanket of warmth that settled down my flank and up my wings. I sighed in relief. “Where’d you learn how to do this?” I said.
“A spa back in Canterlot,” Marshmallow said. “My friends and I used to go there all the time, but I was the only one who wasn’t afraid to talk to the ‘help’. They were so eager to teach me what they knew that I felt bad for them; I don’t think anypony ever spoke to them besides giving orders.”
“How come?” I said.
Marshmallow spread some foul smelling liquid in my hair that caused it to untangle and fall down around my eyes, capturing me in a world decidedly more orange. “It’s just the way things are done in Canterlot,” she said. “You just pretend the poor aren’t there.”
“But I thought Canterlot didn’t have any poor.”
“Technically, Canterlot, the city inside the castle, doesn’t have a single underprivileged pony within its walls,” she said. “But all the little towns and suburbs around the mountain are fair game.”
My face burned a little when Marshmallow scrubbed at my flanks with another, different chemical; this one apparently made my cutie mark stand out. Or, in my case, made my lightbulb shine. “So the ponies in Canterlot just pretend the poor don’t exist?” I continued, half out of actual interest and half out of a desire to take my mind off the vigorous scrubbing I was receiving.
Not that she seemed to mind one bit; her voice didn’t waver no matter how hard she worked. “That’s the big reason my family and I never really got along,” she said. “They saw it as a non-issue, and I...didn’t.”
“Is that why they kicked you out?” I said.
Marshmallow laughed. “They didn’t send me to Fillydelphia until I decided to express my views publicly,” she said, “at the Harvest Moon Ball in front of every royal family in the city.”
“So you could say they were royally pissed off?” I said. Okay, even I had to cringe at that pun.
Marshmallow gave me a short pity chuckle. “You should have seen the looks on their faces.”
I didn’t get much of a chance to talk for a little while after that. Marshmallow applied even more herbal soaps and other stuff that I have no name for, all in the name of making me presentable. My coat was thoroughly washed, my hooves polished until they shined, and my mane brushed so many times I swore Marshmallow forget I wasn’t a doll.
In the end, wrapped in a bathrobe and sitting on the edge of the sink while Marshmallow fancied up my hair again, I came to the conclusions that I both enjoyed looking like somepony who hadn’t walked right off a farm and that I never wanted to look that way again.
“Are we done yet?” I said, again.
“Almost,” Marshmallow said. “Remember, we don’t want to hurry a job like this.”
“But if we don’t go faster, the Celebration will start without us...”
She laughed and gave a little tug at one particularly pesky knot in my mane. “We’ll be done with plenty of time left,” she said. Then, she paused and said quietly, “I didn’t think you’d be so eager to go to this...knowing what’s liable to happen.”
“I’m not eager, not really,” I said, “it’s just that if I focus only on what’s coming next, maybe I can keep the fear away for a little while.” I had a quick look at the door to make sure nopony was eavesdropping before I told her quietly, “Don’t spread it around, but...I’m scared.”
“It’ll be our little secret,” Marshmallow said. “Though, I won’t tell you that you don’t have any right to be scared; underestimating Miss Pullmare is the last thing you want to do.”
“Speaking from experience?”
She nodded. “Miss Pullmare was the first pony to greet me when I came here, and she and I butt heads every chance we get. That job at the library is what I fell back on after she had my last venture closed.”
“What did you do before working in the library?” I said. For some reason, I found it difficult picture her doing anything but handing out books all day.
“It was a soup kitchen that was sitting on prime retail land,” she said. “First it was the almost-daily inspections, then paying off critics to give us bad reviews...we had to call it quits after ‘sompony’ let loose a dozen mice in the kitchen.” She sighed. “The site’s a department store now, owned by the Pullmare Company.”
“It sounds like you’re pretty invested in us beating her tonight, then,” I said.
“I don’t want you to just beat her,” Marshmallow said, “Make her regret that she ever came to the city.”
I blinked at how quickly Marshmallow came to a passionate response. Though, I couldn’t blame her, or really even disagree with her. My hair was finished anyway, and I was instructed to follow her downstairs for my dress.
It was dark outside by the time that all of us, save for a still-absent Rainbow Remedy and Starshine, were fitted into our Summer Sun Celebration outfits. Grapevine and Marshmallow lounged around in theirs, Marshmallow’s being just a touch-up of an old deep crimson Gala dress, over by the store’s register while Sterling and I stood awkwardly next to each other in our matching clothes over by the kitchen door.
Joya, meanwhile, twirled around the room haphazardly in her newly-revealed dress. It was a pink and white frilly thing, and bobbed in the air whenever she took a flying leap. “I’m done,” Joya shouted repeatedly as she pranced around. “I’m done and everything looks perfect!”
Her mood was contagious, and soon we were all smiling and grinning like it was Hearth’s Warming morning. It was Grapevine, though, who was the first to return to our usual reality.
“So where’s Remedy?” she said. “It’s getting late; if we don’t leave soon, we’re not going to get there until the party’s half over.”
“I’m sure they’ll be here soon-” Marshmallow started, but trailed off when a knocking came at the front door.
Joya leapt up and threw open the door, but instead of our rainbow-maned friend, there stood a brown-coated earth pony wearing a duster a few shades darker than he was. “Well, hi,” he said to the donkey in front of him whose head looked like it was barely containing the smile on her face.
“Come on in,” Joya cried, pulling him inside.
“Am I at the right place?” he asked in his same drawl that he had used at Serenity’s docks.
“You’re there,” I said. I took a step toward the middle of the store, closer to the airship captain who had given me a courtesy fly up to Serenity after my night with Pullmare.
His eyes widened. “Well there you are,” he said. “And don’t you look a might pretty tonight!” His gaze swept over me and rested on Grapevine, who had quietly walked up beside me to study our new arrival. “Why, your friend here isn’t too bad, either.”
“Just who in the hay are you?” Grapevine snapped.
He made as to take off his hat and sweep it across his chest, though he had nothing with which to sweep. “Name’s Malcolt, Malcolt Reinolds. But you can call me Mal; all my friends do.”
“Alright, Malcolt,” she said, “What exactly are you doing here?”
“Oh, excuse me, where are my manners?” he said. “Your friend Rainbow Remedy sent me here to pick y’all up and take you to the Celebration.”
“Take us in what, exactly?”
Mal led us, smirking, outside and onto the quiet sidewalk. Quiet, that was, except for a strange buzzing noise.
Even before Grapevine asked what the noise was and Mal answered, “Look up,” I was craning my neck up and starting to laugh like a fool. Hovering a dozen feet above Joya’s shop, buffeting the roof tiles in its wake, was Malcolt Reinolds’ airship. It looked the same as it had a few days before: gray-blue balloon surrounded by the metal struts of the superstructure, with a large cargo bay beneath.
“Well, what do you think?” he said.
“What a piece of junk!” Grapevine said.
“P- Piece of junk?” Mal said. He looked up at his ship, then back to her. “Now listen here, little miss, this ship may not be the belle of the ball, but she’ll get you where you need to go.”
“I’ll just be impressed if we reach the Celebration in one piece,” Grapevine said. “Speaking of which, how are we supposed to get up there?”
Mal was about to speak, but he turned around and stared up at his ship. “Why that-” he muttered. “Jennet, throw the ladder down already,” he called up. There was a short delay, but a rope ladder fell down to our level.
He threw the ladder to Grapevine. “You first.”
“You want me to climb this,” she said, shaking the flimsy rope and watching it sway all the way up, “in a dress?”
“It’s this or explaining to all the guards at the front door exactly why they should let you in,” he said. “So, get going.”
Grapevine glared at him but began to ascend the ladder anyway, and Marshmallow followed her up. Their dresses blew in the breeze, and I’m fairly sure Marshmallow turned a few shades whiter for most of the trip. Sterling went after them, until only Mal, Joya, and I were left on the ground.
Mal turned to me. “You ready?” he said.
“I guess so,” I said. “How did Rainbow Remedy even convince you to do this, anyway?”
“Told me I could add it to what you already owe me.”
“Wonderful.” I noticed that Joya was starting to move away from us and down the street. “You coming?” I said.
She turned. “Huh? Oh, no, I’m heading out to a fiesta uptown!”
“Um, why?” I said.
“Donkeys aren’t exactly...accepted...into Pullmare’s parties,” she said. “I mean, we’re allowed to go, but, well, I’ve had enough dirty looks to last me a lifetime already; I don’t need anymore.”
I winced. “Well have fun, alright?”
“I will,” she said, then winked. “And I’ll be waiting for your triumphant return.” With that, she trotted off down the road, away from the City Hall.
I watched her go and then started up the ladder. It swayed mightily the whole way, but I extended my wings and kept my balance. As soon as Mal was up too, the blonde-maned pilot slammed the throttle down and the airship lurched away from Joya’s shop.
We soared over the city, heading for the bright beacon that was the Fillydelphia City Hall. Most of the other air traffic that I could see was already concentrated around the building’s main tower, so the rest of the skies were ours. I stood with Malcolt and his pilot, a cerulean-colored earth pony introduced as Haygan, in the ship’s cockpit while the others lounged in the cramped dining hall or cargo bay. Grapevine and Sterling seemed set on avoiding each other, which gave me a strange sense of relief.
“So how exactly is this going to go?” I asked once the tethering spires pinned to the top of City Hall came into view. “There’s going to be guards on the landing platform too, you know.”
“Yes, but the guards at the top won’t be so resisting when that friend of yours catches their eyes with a bit of loot,” he said. “They’ll let you in just fine.”
“If you say so,” I said.
“Hey, the Captain’s great in these situation,” Haygan said. He tapped a hoof against his chin. “Well, great at getting us into them, but as for getting us out...”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Mal said. “Just concentrate on getting us to that landing spire without drawing any undue attention to ourselves.”
“Right,” Haygan said. He steered the ship onto a leisurely, round-about course toward the tower.
Before long, a foreign authoritative voice came over the ship’s radio. “Incoming craft, identify yourself and state your business at once,” it said.
“This is the airship Halcyon,” Haygan said into a small mike inlaid on the dashboard. “Our business is dropping off guests for the party.”
“You’re not on the list-” the voice said, but was stopped by a crackling sound on his side, like somepony was muting what was being said.
Eventually, a different voice came on. “Halcyon, you are cleared to land at Spire 4,” the new one said. “It’s the one marked with the blue lights.” The radio winked off, and our ship flew on toward our destination.
Malcolt took me through a hall and down a flight of metal stairs to the ship’s cargo bay. Unlike on my flight to Serenity, the bay was clean of stray parts and garbage. Everypony else was already there, including a fiery-red earth pony mare who stood protectively by her Captain once he entered. Jennet, too, was there, running his hooves testily along a massive rifle over by the bay’s door controls.
“Listen up,” Mal said. “We’re nearly to the party, and once we get there, I don’t want no funny business. When y’all disembark, you’re to keep your heads down all quiet-like and keep out of trouble until you reach Rainbow Remedy, he’ll be waiting inside.” He paused. “I’ve never had my ship impounded, and I don’t mean to start tonight, understood?”
When everypony nodded, he seemed to ease back a little. He trotted over to Jennet beside the door controls while I saddled up beside Grapevine.
“You nervous?” I said.
“No, I do this kind of thing all the time,” she snapped. When I winced, she looked away. “Just...ask me when it’s over, okay?”
I nodded. Neither of us got to say a word more as at that moment the ship ground to a metal-shrieking stop. We were there, apparently. I re-found my footing just as Mal punched a large red button on the console next to him and the cargo bay doors began to work their way open.
His two crewmates didn’t say anything to us, though the Captain himself gave us a parting, “Good luck,” that was barely audible over the sound of the door’s gears.
The doors opened all the way and the four of us piled out onto the airy landing platform. At that time, the party was already in full swing, so the area was empty save for a couple guards who refused to acknowledge our existence and a few late-arrivals dressed in ridiculously over-the-top outfits. They tut-tutted at our appearance and ship, but it was easy to ignore them. If we were going to get all riled up over some trust fund junkies, it would have been best to turn back right then. Behind us, the Halcyon raised its doors and heaved itself into the sky once more.
Rainbow Remedy was waiting for us on a landing inside the tower. The stairs were cramped and we were having a hard time of it when he stepped out of the shadow, dressed in what looked like an odd cross between a normal suit and a doctor’s coat.
“Good, you made it,” he said.
I was leading the way down, so I almost jumped out of my skin at his sudden appearance. “R- Rainbow Remedy, what are you doing here?” I said.
He looked at me like I might be daft. “I’ve come to lead you all safely to the party,” he said. “Starshine’s already waiting inside.”
“Since when is there an un-safe way to enter a party?” Grapevine said.
“Since Ms. Pullmare started posting guards at every entrance,” Remedy said. “She knows we’re coming, and she’s not going to make it easy.”
“So, uh, how are we going to get past the guards?” Sterling said.
Remedy smiled. “Just follow me.”
He led us down, down to a door at the bottom of the tower. He gingerly opened it and waved us through. The hall outside was empty of guards or partygoers alike. “I paid off the guards here, too,” Remedy explained. “But don’t expect the others to be as malleable.”
We snaked down a series of side hallways less ornate than the rest, which Remedy told us were servant passages. The walls were panelled in unadorned wood that creaked under our hooves and got my heart beating faster whenever I thought somepony might be able to hear us.
The hall ended in a plain wooden door that Remedy opened to reveal a more modern office inside. The dark room was lined with two rows of wooden desks, each with a silent typewriter sitting atop them. On a normal business day, it would have been as boring as any other office, but at night, especially on that night, it was downright creepy.
“Where are we?” Marshmallow said.
“Used to be the council meeting room until they got a new one; now this is just an accounting office,” Remedy said. “We should be safe in here, for now.”
Grapevine nodded her head. “I remember seeing this room on the blueprints,” she said. “We’re not far from the main hall, and by extension, the party.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” I said. “Can’t we just go ahead and get in there?”
“It’s not that simple,” Remedy said. “We’ve been able to avoid guards by taking servant passages so far, but even those are blocked when they enter the main hall. If we want to get in, we’re going to have to get past Pullmare’s stallions.”
“We’re going to split up,” he said. He pointed to Marshmallow and Sterling. “The two of you will go on ahead of us; Starshine is waiting inside for the two of you to enter the hall. Once you do, meet her at the guards in front of our entrance--there, you will start a fight to distract the guards, allowing the rest of us to sneak in without anypony being the wiser.”
“But, won’t we get thrown out?” Sterling said.
Remedy shook his head. “They wouldn’t throw out any of their boss’ guests. More than likely, the guards will simply advise you to break up the fight, maybe threaten you a little with expulsion; nothing serious.”
“And if they recognize me?” Marshmallow said.
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,” Remedy said. He sighed. “I know we’re moving quickly, but we have no choice. Something big is going to happen tonight, and if we’re not riding that razor’s edge when it happens, she’ll leave us behind in the dust.” He stood by the room’s far door. “Just tell me when you’re ready.”
I turned to talk to Grapevine, but Sterling tapped my shoulder. “Minty?” he said.
“Y- Yeah?” I answered, trying not to sound flustered.
He pulled the amplifying box from one of his coat’s pockets. “Here,” he said, “just in case...just in case we don’t get a chance once we’re inside.”
I wanted to tell him not to talk that way, but I carefully placed the box inside a fold of my dress. “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay,” I said slowly. He looked away briefly before leaving to talk to Marshmallow and I hoped he had gotten the message.
While he and the princess had a low talk, Grapevine slowly, reluctantly, walked up to me. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said back. “You okay?”
“Do you really think this is the time to ask that?”
“Sorry, I just meant-” I said, but trailed off.
Grapevine sighed. “Look, I didn’t come to talk to you to make you upset,” she said, pulling something out from a saddlebag shoved under her dress. “I came to give you this.” The object was pulled out: it was my camera, still looking like new.
I took the offered strap and placed it around my neck, comfortable in its familiar weight. “Thanks so much,” I said.
“Just remember to get a picture for the story,” Grapevine said sullenly as she walked away from me to go look at some of the newer model typewriters in the room. I contented myself with checking every inch of the camera to assure myself that all was in working order; it was.
Finally, Remedy called us all to the door and peeked his head out. “All clear,” he said. We piled out of the office and into the high-ceilinged hallway decorated that night with bright cheerful signs hailing the return of Princess Celestia to the city after so many years of absence.
Remedy looked left and right before leading us along one wall toward the steady humming sound of conversation coming from the ballroom. When we got closer, I could see the doors had been forced open, giving us a preview of the party inside.
Massive banners strung from the balconies of the second floor overlooked a sea of gaudily-dressed ponies swarming over the tiled dance floor. Buffets piled high with food stretched out along the far walls while in the middle of them was a raised table that had at its center a special high-backed throne for the Princess. My eyes danced over her as she sat there, regal and bemused by the spectacle of the party, her technicolor mane flowing gently behind her.
“She’s really here,” I whispered before being hushed by Grapevine.
“Just remember why we need her,” Remedy said with his voice low. “And try not to gawk.”
Only a single guard stood at attention around the right door when we reached the cavernous Main Hall, but we made sure to keep to the shadows anyway.
“Show time,” Remedy whispered, prodding Marshmallow forward. Both looked at each other, gulped, and strode into the light by the door.
The guard, however, took at first no notice of them. Bored, his eyes briefly touched over the two before returning to scanning the room and, occasionally, the hallway where we hid. I thanked Luna’s lucky stars that nopony had bothered to make sure the hall was properly lit.
Marshmallow and Sterling loitered near the guard for a bit, nervously glancing around for the appearance of Starshine. It felt like an age had passed before our metal-winged friend showed up while noticeably lacking a dress of any sort, bouncing along and deliberately knocking hard against Marshmallow’s side in full sight of the guard.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” Starshine said.
“Oh, um, I’m so sorry,” Marshmallow said quickly. I could hear Grapevine groan behind me before Marshmallow realized her mistake and, taking a quick look at the guard, said loudly, “I mean, watch where you’re going, you ruffian!”
“Ruffian, who’re you calling a ruffian?” Starshine said. “You only bumped into me because you couldn’t see with your nose so high in the air!”
“Why, where does common trash like you get the idea that you’re even fit to make such an accusation about me?” Marshmallow said, louder this time and with her face pressed close to Starshine’s who, for her part, looked genuinely surprised.
The guard, finally, took notice and began to amble toward the threesome, already muttering about having to break up another fight.
“Alright, get ready to go,” Remedy said, “just as soon as his full attention is focused on them.”
It was then, however, that a burly voice from behind us spoke, “You three, what are you doing here?”
We spun around and caught sight of another guard, the one who presumably was supposed to have been guarding the other door. Hopes of him not recognizing us were soon dashed as his eyes widened and he began to speak, “Hey, you’re the one Ms. Pullmare said to-”
He never finished, however, as one wall cracked under his weight as he was thrown bodily against it through Rainbow Remedy’s magic. Immobilized in a field of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple colour, the stallion’s eyes quickly filled with fear as he struggled to move his mouth but found he could not.
“Listen up and listen good,” Rainbow Remedy said menacingly, “we’re here for a very certain purpose, and that one purpose only. If anyone disrupts that mission, the consequences will be dire, do you understand?” The guard quickly nodded his head. “If you value your continued existence, we were never here,” Remedy said. Before the guard could respond, Remedy’s horn flashed and the stallion’s eyes slammed shut and his body slumped to the ground.
“Simple anesthetic spell, should keep him out for a few hours,” Remedy said. He grabbed two of the guard’s hooves and began the process of dragging him back to the accounting office.
“Was that really necessary?” I said once the guard was safely tucked away inside the room. “You could have just gone with the knockout from the start.”
“Spells can be broken,” Remedy said. “But fear has much trickier knots to unbind. We’ll be safe, from him at least.” Grapevine didn’t object, and only nodded solemnly while I shook my head but didn’t say anything more.
Marshmallow and Starshine had, miraculously, kept the fight going while we disposed of the other guard, and we quickly slipped past the harried stallion who was trying desperately to calm down the two apparently-crazed mares. Once they saw we were through, however, they dropped their conversation with a friendly smile and went on their ways, leaving the guard to scratch his head.
Inside the ballroom, the crowd was even larger than it had first looked. It was all I could do to keep close to Remedy and Grapevine. Starshine disappeared off toward one buffet table while I lost sight of both Sterling and Marshmallow on the dance floor. Classical music warbled from a band off in one corner, led by a gray mare with a strikingly-blue mane on the violin. The ponies dancing, though, treated the music like it was a faster sort of party music, and lurched across the floor accordingly.
“How are we supposed to find Ms. Pullmare in all this?” I said to Rainbow Remedy, having to raise my voice though I was right next to him. “I haven’t seen her yet, have you?”
Remedy shook his head and tried to pop his head over a swaying couple near him. Grapevine took to simply shoving people out of our way as we tried to make it to any empty area in the room. I scanned the crowd again, but saw no sight of Pullmare, an idea that both relieved and haunted me. If she wasn’t on the dance floor, then she was definitely up to no good.
I had my suspicions confirmed as the crowd suddenly parting around us on their own venture, nearly taking Grapevine with them they moved so fast. I was going to ask why when I noticed a spotlight shining down on us from above, herding us into its circle of light.
“Rainbow Remedy, my dear brother, and his wonderful friends,” an all-too familiar voice called out over the din of the crowd from her perch at Princess Celestia’s table. “Will you not join me for dinner on this special night?”