Photo Finish’s exclamations sounded throughout the shoot as Fleur de Lis leapt from pose to pose.
“Yes! Yes! Unt Indeed Yeeeeees!”
Fleur had found she was partial to posing to the point of it being second-nature. Fancy had pointed it out on their first meeting at the garden party at Invitro Hall and simply accepted it to be her habit. Some of her friends shared that outlook while others would have her stop for the sake of social propriety.
Yet Photo Finish loved this quirk of hers.
That itself felt very gratifying.
“Remember, Fleur” the eccentric photographer declared “Ze pose must bring out your character, your inner self, your Magicks! Let ze camera capture your very heart. Do not simply think, Fleur. Feeeeeeel!”
Fleur arched her back and leaned against the marble pillar, one foreleg raised above his head as she showed off the purple lace gown, clinging to her chest and trailing down her back legs.
“Ze key to being a model is accepting vhat you are” Photo Finish lectured “Are you proud or are you humble? Are you sociable or solitary? Are you nice or are you...naughty?”
She may have raised her glasses an inch but Fleur must have blinked.
“Zen, vhatever you find yourself to be...you must make it look good. You must make it shine!”
Fleur had come to accept she was, or at least had become, vain early in her adolescence.
And had therefore decided to pursue a career where vanity was welcome. In fact, allowing her to express that vanity on camera made her far less inclined to do so in public.
Yet she never felt vain around Fancy Pants. In her experience, the stallion seemed to have an aura surrounding him that made her strive to be worthy of his affections which always felt so out of reach.
Fleur remembered the Rejuvenation Festival that evening in Ponyville when they'd met. She hadn’t wanted to be noticed. She hadn’t even really wanted to go out. When she saw the Princess, she’d tried to stay as close to her as possible, just to feel safe in the crowd.
The memory of what happened at the Royal Theatre still burned in her mind. It had left her with a lingering fear of being noticed by ponies like Nitpick.
But Fancy was making it all go away.
“Hold ze pose...aaaaaaand...Yes!”
The cameras went off at once as images of the slim, reclining mare were saved and readied for finishing.
“Sufficient vork, everypony” the photographer said, swinging from exuberance to sobriety in an instant “I...Photo Finish...am satisfied”
The crew began to pack as Fleur got to her hooves.
“So...” she said slightly nervously, as was common among those who spoke with Photo Finish “Am I doing well?”
“Vell enough, Fleur. I...Photo Finish...believe experience vill properly perfect your style and technique to perfection”
Fleur wasn’t afraid to admit, Photo Finish was disparaging and critical toward her. But then Photo Finish was disparaging and critical toward everypony. The mare was difficult to deal with but working under her was fortunate, at least for those who fell short of the often highly discriminate major modelling agencies in Canterlot.
Photo Finish herself was intent on making the modelling, and indeed advertising, scene more diverse in Canterlot and places like it. That alone was reason enough for some to put up with her aloofness.
“Scusi! Where is Signora Photo Finish?!”
A heavily accented voice that cut through the chatter on the set came from a honeydew-green earth pony mare in a blue and white jumpsuit with bold, decorative eyeliner and a mane and tail both curled into great ginger balls.
It was Stella Zeppole, a glamorous Bitalian model and photographer and one of Photo Finish’s several apprentices, who was bustling in with a selection of papers.
Photo Finish sighed and turned to her.
“Vat is it now, Stella?”
Stella Zeppole had spent too long with Photo Finish. She had adopted the same penchant for dramatics as her tutor. Fleur knew it wasn’t a cultural trend at least. Her mother was Bitalian, at least partially, and wasn’t nearly as prone to melodrama as Stella was.
“Is of great importance that you must see we have a problem!” the mare prattled “This report just came in from the budget group! Is very, very bad news, signora!”
Photo Finish snatched the papers from Stella’s hoof and ran over them silently. Fleur was certain that the photographer’s glasses bulged to nearly twice their size before Photo Finish gave a snarl and ground the papers underhoof, swearing in Farman, her native language.
Or Haustrian. Nopony actually knew for sure.
“Ze Schweinehunds have hindered us again!” she screeched.
“What? How?” Fleur asked, startled.
“Our competitors, they have booked every shooting location in the city already!” Stella wailed.
“Ze Park, ze Cafe District, ze Lakeside View, even ze College Grounds! And all in the same month! ZIS IS A VITCH-HUNT!”
“To put us out of the picture, that’s why” Pretty Vision, another apprentice known as ‘Anna Conda’ on the catwalk, grumbled “They want us out of business. One sure fire way is to give us nowhere to work until after the deadline”
“Zey vould have us sell out!” Photo Finish roared “Join in zeir pathetic trend of empty style upon empty models! All milk-vhite-coats and tied-up blonde-manes! Faces of cardboard and personalities to match! All conformism and consumerism! No thinking! No feeling! I...Photo Finish...refuse to associate viz dummkopf ponies who spit in ze face of imagination!”
The set grew quiet as Photo Finish panted furiously, red-faced, her mane sticking out wildly in strands.
“I could help”
All eyes turned to Fleur. This was often something she enjoyed on most occasions but here it was rather daunting.
“How?” Photo Finish’s tone was flat and almost threatening.
“Well...” the slim model tilted her head in thought and spoke.
“What about Briefly Manor?”
“Are you crazy, girl?!” Pretty Vision snorted “No stuck-up royal son of a nag is gonna’ let us use their estates for our shoot! At least not without breaking our budget”
“Wait, wait, Pretty. Fleur has a point” the curt Neighponese makeup-artist, Powder Rouge, interjected “Briefly Manor is owned by Fancy Pants. Fancy Pants is quite different, yes?”
“Exactly” Fleur looked Photo Finish in the eye “Miss Finish. You need a garden shot, correct?”
“Access to antiques?”
“And views overlooking the city?”
“Yes!” Photo Finish exclaimed with realisation.
“Briefly Manor has it all. And if I let him know of your predicament, I guarantee you Fancy Pants will let you use his home for your shoot for as long as you need at no charge”
“WUNDERBAR!” The photographer flung both hooves in the air in exaltation “Go and speak viz Fancy, Fleur, and ensure all of Equestria may behold ze magicks and I...Photo Finish...shall be eternally grateful!”
Elsewhere in Canterlot, another wave of camera flashes lit up the podium as the current Royal Council Chairstallion, Fancy Pants, addressed his cabinet and the press.
“And that, I believe, answers your question” he said courteously “Anything else you wish to inquire about before we finish here?”
There was a general rattle of frantic volunteers.
“Mr Chairstallion, what do you have to say about these plans to build refugee camps for Saddle Arabian migrants?” asked one journalist.
“I say that I’m ashamed I haven’t done it sooner” the gentlecolt answered “Saddle Arabia is facing a global crisis. All over the region, violence and civil unrest plague its streets as revolutions turn on themselves and tyrants take each other’s helm on a daily basis. Already, the once beautiful region of Shajarat has descended into near-total anarchy. The innocents ponies caught up in this madness must be given relief and quickly”
“But how to you condone spending taxpayers money on indulging foreigners?”
Fancy Pants adjusted his monocle with mild displeasure.
“Firstly, the refugee campaign will be financed by charity fundraisers, presided over by myself and my colleagues. Nopony will be forced to contribute, merely encouraged. The city revenue will not be touched. And secondly, my good pony, they are not foreigners in their own lands, said lands being near inhospitable to them in these times. Let there be no doubt. We in Canterlot are privileged beyond words. Many outside the capital are nowhere near as lucky. The money some of us spend in a month on wine or carriage hire or trips to the spa could finance no less than three of these camps for a whole year. I’d like everypony to think on that. It is, quite simply, a matter of principle. I trust I’ve been clear enough to satisfy you?”
There was silence.
“Splendid” he said, nodding “Good day everypony”
He left the podium and its mob of probing reporters and retired to his study to gather his belongings.
Before he could do so, Raven Inkwell emerged with a worried expression.
“I’m very sorry, Mister Chairstallion, sir, but Miss Carcassonne wanted to speak with you. She...doesn’t seem willing to be put off”
Fancy gave a sigh and looked at the Council Secretary sympathetically.
“Quite alright, Miss Inkwell, send her in”
The bespectacled mare nodded, smiling and opened the door to Fancy Pants’ office.
The mare, Carcassonne, would have been beautiful if she didn’t look so unfriendly. She gave Fancy Pants a scowl as she strode in, rudely pushing past the secretary and glaring at the Chairstallion.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well what?” Fancy Pants replied calmly “I’ve told you before, I’m not telepathic”
“My constituency wants to know if you intend to honour the needs I was intent on meeting” she said sternly “Needs you promised would be met by you while you remained Chairstallion”
“I remember, Miss Carcassonne” Fancy sighed “And I shall give you the same answer as I did two weeks ago. I am doing, and continue to do, all I can. It is too early to make assumptions and unwise at any rate”
Carcassone slammed her hooves hard on the ground.
“I’m not to be put off, old stallion!” she growled. Raven Inkwell edged back but Fancy seemed content to remain firm.
This wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with Carcassonne.
“I have no intention of ‘putting you off’, young Miss. I understand your intentions and shall work to improve Canterlot society by adopting your stances but let me be clear, your way is not the proper way to behave in your chosen field of work”
“Really?” she eyed him with disdain “You find strength in mares like me ‘improper’?”
“Not at all. Strength is a virtue, Miss Carcassonne. Thoughtlessness and self-importance, however, is not”
The scarlet unicorn glared.
“I stepped down from my candidacy so that ass, Nitpick, could be thwarted, Mister Fancy Pants. You were, to me, the lesser of two evils, but don’t think I won’t be able to give you Tartarus if you betray me”
“You do not set a good example with this talk of ‘betrayal’, my good mare” Fancy Pants looked down over his monocle “You have admirable amounts of passion, Miss Carcassonne, and fair ideals but the plain truth is you are simply not a sensible pony. You confuse caution for cowardice and counsel for treachery. This is fundamentally unbecoming for one who seeks to become a politician”
“Does Nitpick not share this trait?”
Fancy Pants snorted.
“Nitpick surrounds himself with sycophants. None of them would offer counsel or suggest caution unless they were paid. You should not take lessons from him”
“I don’t plan to” Carcassone’s eyes furrowed with what could have been resignation “You have at least done well as Chairstallion, Fancy Pants. However, I get concerned by the fact that you speak so much of wishing to fight elitism and privilege in the government while you seem to embody those qualities. You come from a rich and noble background and you’re not the first member of your family to serve as Chairstallion or even the second. Don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical to act this way?”
“Would you rather I chose instead to emulate ponies like Nitpick?” Fancy smiled knowingly “Miss Carcassonne, fighting conformity is often all it takes to end it. I did so and things, overall, have improved. In doing so, my ideals are fully demonstrated. Anypony can accomplish anything no matter what detriments they may possess in anypony else’s eyes”
Carcassonne closed her eyes and exhaled through her nostrils.
“So you say” she said flatly “Thank you. Good day, Mister Chairstallion”
The scarlet pony left the office without another word.
In truth, Fancy Pants understood that Carcassonne meant well. It was simply that she was overbearing and ended up making too much noise for not good enough reasons.
She wasn’t a bad pony but she could be really quite unreasonable.
Even so, it was a bad day for her and most of Canterlot when she was vetoed by her own supporters and Nitpick took the lead in the polls.
Which was why he still wasn’t done thanking Earl Grey for giving him this chance to stop the disgusting Lord Magistrate in his tracks.
“Right then” he turned to the Secretary “Miss Inkwell, I’m running short on time. Thousand Island and Swan Song are throwing a fundraiser for me at the Royal Gardens later this afternoon and I need to get ready. But I’d quite like to send Fleur a message before then. Could you possibly bring up the magic orb for me?”
“Of course, sir”
Fleur put down the crisp fresh letter with her growing collection of invitations signed with Fancy Pants’ name. Mementoes of their time together. Sighing contently, she flopped down exhaustedly onto her bed and levitated her magic orb onto her bedside table.
“Creme de la Creme Ponyville Ice Cream Parlour” she commanded and lit up her horn.
The orb clouded with a primrose-pink mist that fizzed and crackled like a storm-cloud. As it swirled and tumbled around in the ball of glass it was steadily joined by a similar mist but beige in colour. Then cleared to reveal a couple looking straight at her. Fleur de Lis’ parents, Bourbon and Florentine Blend.
Bourbon Blend was a fairly large earth pony stallion with a cyan coat and a light-brown mane that grew wild on his head like it had been struck by lightning. His great moustache was much the same. His eyes were a bright electric blue and the smile he wore was iconic in his family. His cutie mark was a chocolate biscuit, with a bite taken out of it, surrounded by a bubbly beige swirl.
Florentine Blend, née Wafer, in contrast, was quite small and, approporiately, waif-like. She possessed a pale pink coat with a yellow mane that was tied up in a hairnet studded with turquoise stones as if shaken with sprinkles. She had a certain tiredness to her look most of the time but was nonetheless always very friendly. Her cutie mark was a triangular wafer with a delicate edge that resembled lace.
Florentine was a unicorn and it was her magic that was allowing them to make contact.
The two were ice-cream ponies and were skilled in their trade. Manehattan, where they’d both grown up, was unfortunately a place hard to find work without heavy competition. A pony-eat-pony world as they said.
When they came to Ponyville, they had half-expected the already-existing-and-prosperous Sugarcube Corner and House of Fudge to give them a hard time.
As it turned out the two businesses were quite relieved. It fell to them to supply treats for the ponies of the town but ice-cream wasn’t their strong-point. Sugarcube Corner specialised in cakes and other such baked goods whilst House of Fudge was a confectionary business. Neither of them were masters of the trade and though their attempts were never bad it could simply have been so much better and artisans of the craft coming to town meant they could either learn from them or leave the task up to them, giving both of them more time to work on their own specialism. The three businesses had worked in close harmony together as a result and often helped each other in coming up with ideas and recipes. Bourbon Blend and Mrs Cake had worked together in coming up with Sugarcube Corner’s new recipe for profiteroles. And together, Bonbon, the Cakes and the Blends had designed a much-enjoyed Hearth’s Warming Bombe for the town fair.
Fleur’s parents had been blessed with a foal not long after setting up shop in Ponyville. A foal they cared for and loved with all their being. A foal they had sent to the prestigious School For Gifted Unicorns when she showed signs of advanced skill in magic with little hesitation. Fleur had felt spoilt and it wasn’t a feeling she particularly liked dwelling on. She had resolved to try her hardest to pay her parents back for all they’d given her as soon as she was able.
That wasn’t entirely to say Fleur had lived an easy childhood, but she’d been given a lot by her parents and though she wasn’t one for refusing help, she was very much one for repaying it.
One of those ways she repaid it was by regularly getting in touch.
“Hi mum, hello dad” she began in a casual way she only adapted to when in Ponyville.
The two ponies beamed at her in a way that made her feel all of six years old again.
“Ah! There’s our petit-chou!” Bourbon exclaimed, his moustaches shaking like branches in the wind.
“Hello Fleur darling. How are things with you?” Florentine cooed, her eyes twinkling with delight as she spoke to her daughter.
Fleur and her parents talked long about what sort of pony Fancy Pants and Photo Finish were, how her modelling was going, what it was like at all the nice places Fancy took her to, and so on.
The question they were all secretly hoping to have answered was if she thought she had recovered.
Though, what with Fleur acting so full of life and merriment like never before, it certainly seemed to be the case.
“So this Monsieur Fancy Pants, he treats you well?” Bourbon asked.
“Like a princess, daddy!” Fleur answered “He doesn’t spoil me or anything, not in that way but...he makes me feel so...” She sighed “I can’t really describe it. I just feel so...so...whatever the word is...around him. It’s just so wonderful! I’ve never felt this way since before I left Ponyville”
“Well that’s all we need to know” Florentine said “Just make sure you always let him know how much it means to you. Else, he may start asking himself what he’s doing wrong”
“I will mummy, I promise” Fleur chuckled as the magic clouds began to flicker around them “Sorry, I think somepony else is trying to speak with me”
“That’s alright, dear. I hope things go well for you. See you soon” Her parents called and waved goodbye as the magic in her orb changed colour. The beige dissipated and was replaced by bright gold.
With an eagerness that nearly rivalled Pinkie Pie preparing a party, Fleur made contact.
“Ah, there we are” Fancy’s ever-charming voice sounded out the orb and his face came into view “Hello there, Fleur”
“Fancy!” Fleur gave an instinctive check of herself in a nearby mirror “This is a lovely surprise. How are you?”
“Quite jovial, now that I can see you” he said, smiling “I can’t talk for long, however, much as I’d like to. I simply wondered if I might make a small request”
Fancy took a moment to bask in the glory of Fleur’s smile and spoke courteously.
“Well...this afternoon, they’re throwing a fundraiser for me at Royal Gardens. I’m afraid the gathering itself is members-only but should I grow tired of everypony’s fawning and badgering, which I likely will and quickly, I will retire further into the precincts, the undergrowth as it were, the Central Gardens and the like, for a bit of peace and quiet” he chuckled “It would mean a great deal to me to see you there. The truth is that I feel positively invigorated with you around and catching up with you in the gardens and giving us a chance to be ourselves would be quite divine”
“You don’t even need to ask, Fancy” Fleur gave the orb a kiss that just made her feel all the more girly “I’ll be there”
“Splendid” he blushed at the symbolic kiss “I had a feeling you’d be the one to make my day. I’ll see you later then. Have to go now but thank you. Ta-ta!”
He seemed rather flustered as he said farewell.
Though Fleur felt that way whenever anypony even mentioned Fancy Pants. She wasn’t one to judge.
Fancy Pants felt he could have handled the conversion on the orb a little more gracefully.
Then again, he hadn’t that much time before he had to set out. He could be forgiven for being to the point.
His mind was a blur as he stepped down the great staircase from his dressing room at Briefly Hall to greet his awaiting household.
“Ooh, mercy me!” Fuss Pot gasped as she took in the sight of him “You really are pulling out all the stops, aren’t you, sir”
“I thought I might” the master of the house said, shrugging “They’d be disappointed if I seemed too laid-back”
“Tres bien, Monsieur Fancy Pants!” Plumette cried giddily “You look mais héroïque in ze garb you wear!”
“I’m very glad to hear it. It served another hero well after all”
“It’s wonderful to see you in the outfit, sir” Ramekin pointed out “But don’t you think it’s a bit too formal?”
“Perhaps, old Rammy. Still, better to impress on this occasion. And besides...” Fancy chuckled “I’ve always felt like a pony going into battle every time one of these bally parties and meetings crop up”
The servants laughed.
“Ye do the Manor right proud, sir” MacTrowel declared “Ye would nae’ see grander a braw and noble sight, ah can say for sure”
“Your assurance is highly valued MacTrowel” Fancy cupped the gardener’s shoulder before turning to his butler “And you Tom? Any words before I ‘enter the fray’, as it were?”
The butler smiled.
“Only that the outfit suits you, sir, as well as it did Second Lieutenant Lord Knickerbocker himself”
His master blushed, not quite as much as when Fleur had given him that symbolic kiss but it was clearly noticeable.
“That means a lot, old chap” He gave his household one last look as he stood, magnificent, in the ceremonial uniform of the Gallivanters Guard, owned and worn by his ancestor, Knickerbocker, which had hung in the largely empty smoking room behind a glass cabinet until now. In one hoof, he carried an ornate walking stick. With a flash of magic, he pulled at the end and showed off the thin blade sheathed within. The servants clapped as he nodded one last time and left for the Royal Gardens.
‘Righto then’ he thought ‘If this doesn’t show them I take pride our history, nothing will’
In the Central Gardens, Fleur listened to the classical music above, likely played by the wonderful cellist, Octavia Melody, they’d met at the gala with the skill and refinement that was demonstrated.
The Royal Gardens were divided into Lower, Central and Upper tiers. It wasn’t designed to separate class for occasions but it was often used to do so nonetheless. A practice which she knew Fancy disapproved of.
Still, she knew he would attend this fundraiser as he did for everypony who did him favours, for he was a gracious stallion who always did his best to personally and publically acknowledge all that other ponies did for him.
Fleur had chosen not to wear her uniform that day seeing as they’d largely be alone and there was no need for ceremony.
She wondered what Fancy was wearing. He almost always wore a suit and she’d never seen him without his monocle.
He was certainly a pony who stood out in the crowd.
She waited on a stone bench at the wall of the Central Gardens. Above her the fundraiser played out and likely end much the same as it often did. With Fancy Pants being approached, congratulated and praised by ponies he didn’t know nor knew him all too well.
He wasn’t without friends, that she knew very well. Some of his associates in the council such as Raven Inkwell, Earl Grey and Fine Line were very open and affable around him and treated Fleur well whenever they met.
But Fancy had admitted to her that it got tiring, being admired, and even pursued, not for what he was or did but for what he had.
Often it made him feel like he had very little in the end.
But she’d make him feel differently.
She promised herself.
He had her.
And she had him.
Fleur spun round with a hopeful look, hoping to find Fancy Pants standing before her, looking as regal and gallant as a fairytale prince.
Instead, her expression immediately soured as she beheld a very different kind of prince.
“You again?!” she barked at Prince Blueblood who was making his way toward the bench, dressed plainly in a white neckerchief and a grey cloak, almost clandestine in design.
“Fleur, please, don’t be like this” His tone was as serious as it was last time before they’d been interrupted “I told you I needed to tell you something”
“And I told you I wasn’t interested! I told you to go away! So I’ll tell you again and this time you’ll listen” She kicked the ground aggressively and spoke with emphasis on each angry word.
“Go! Away! You! Spoilt! Pompous! Dimwit!”
Blueblood rolled his eyes and spoke regardless, hints of sincerity in his voice.
“Fleur, I assure you, you need to hear what I have to say. Just let me make my point and I’ll be out of your mane”
“What point do you have to make?!” the mare griped.
“You are wrong about Fancy Pants” he stated “He isn’t what he seems, not in the slightest”
“What would you know about it?!”
“More than you’d think. Believe me, I was as surprised as you’re going to be but I’ve become acquainted with a pony who Fancy intends to ruin for his own gains. A pony who rightfully should have all that Fancy Pants keeps for himself”
“This sounds very unlike the Fancy I know” Fleur said, unimpressed.
“Exactly” Blueblood had a knowing look in his eye “Because the Fancy you know is a façade. He’s a master of manipulation, that stallion, and he has all of Canterlot duped. But he’s up to something. Something you wouldn’t believe”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t even believe it right now”
“Please, just come with me and let me show you” the prince sounded tired, almost desperate “I’m just trying to help you, Fleur...” he paused and spoke to her with wide, earnest eyes.
“I consider you a friend...whatever you may think...” he said “And I don’t want my friends to get hurt. Please...all I ask is that you let me show you what I’ve learnt and speak to the pony who knows the true Fancy Pants”
Fleur eyed Blueblood’s face.
One thing she’d learnt at the School For Gifted Unicorns was that among Blueblood’s numerous faults was that he was a bad liar. He rarely bothered in fact, behaving rudely and critically to any who he felt deserved it.
And if he was lying, Fleur supposed there’d be little in it either way.
And supposing he was telling the truth...
No, she couldn’t think that way about Fancy.
Even if he wasn’t all he seemed, he was still one of the best things that ever happened to her.
And she could never bear losing him.
“Fine...” Fleur sulked “I’ll come with you and listen to the...whatever it is you want me to listen to but will you please leave me alone after that?!”
“I promise” Blueblood said, smiling unperturbed “I won’t waste time saving somepony who doesn’t want to be saved”
Blueblood motioned her to follow him as he led her down the Central Gardens and into the Lower tier.
Most of the Lower Gardens was tree-space. In the centre was a clear-cut lawn that served as a golf course or an amateur hoofball field on a good day. Currently, nopony was using it and so the Lower Gardens were almost completely silent.
Fleur could no longer hear the music from the fundraiser high above.
It was like venturing underground.
Still they walked on for what felt like hours.
“Are we close?” she asked irritably, hoping hard this wouldn’t take her out of Fancy’s way “How much longer”
“Well...” Blueblood looked confused “He was meant to meet us here” He glanced through the undergrowth.
“Give me a moment” he said as he left Fleur by a great oak, its mighty branches and hordes of leaves nearly blotting out the sky above her, and ventured down a pathway flanked profusely by brambles.
He took care not to cut himself as he edged forward, little by little, and found a tall khaki-coloured pegasus with a close-cropped mane and a piercing gaze, nearly camouflaged thanks to his earthly coat and dark uniform.
The pegasus did not react at all to seeing him, suggesting the prince was expected.
“You’re with the Lord Magistrate, aren’t you? One of his guards?” Blueblood began, recognising the pegasus’ apparel as bodyguard gear.
“Yes, your royal highness” he answered flatly, his voice low and gravelly “He is seeing your friend now. You no longer need to remain here. His Lordship will ensure things run smoothly. Please vacate the area”
“Oh...” the prince was taken aback and glanced around awkwardly.
He had expected that he would stay around to see how Fleur reacted and to perhaps remind her that he was always available when Fancy fell short of the ideal.
It seemed that plan had changed
“Um...very well...I...suppose I’ll talk to Nitpick later”
“Very good, your royal highness”
Blueblood made to depart the Lower Gardens. He was glad to do so. The thick, tangled undergrowth was no place for a royal like him.
Once the unicorn was out of sight, the pegasus carefully made his way up the tree and readied to take to the skies.
His employer had ordered the prince watched closely.
Fleur pouted under the oak, resolving to herself that either Blueblood would start making sense or start talking in a much higher pitch.
Somewhere, her treasured Fancy Pants would be waiting for her. And there was nothing she wanted less than to disappoint him.
There was a rustle from behind her.
Sighing, tired of waiting, she turned round.
“Blueblood, I’m really losing patience with...”
It was not Blueblood.
As she recognised the newcomer, her face lost nearly all colour and her lilac eyes opened wide with terror.
An old stallion stood before her, flanked by two guards, a unicorn and an earth pony, both possessed of earthly coats, dark uniforms and cold, cruel gazes.
Lord Magistrate Nitpick possessed quite a similar gaze.
“Well now...” he mused “I hadn’t expected you to have the cheek to show yourself in the capital” He sneered disdainfully “Indeed, that’s one of the many things about you Ponyville mares I find so distasteful”
“No!” Fleur screamed suddenly as she stumbled trying to back away “Don’t come near me! Don’t you dare touch me!”
Nitpick’s smirk curdled with malice as his guards moved in to surround the mare before them.
“Still just as unruly as before” he murmured “You, madam, require a sharp lesson in courtesy”
His tone was horribly nonchalant. Like nothing else concerned him. The same look he'd shown her in the theatre.
Of course, why would he be concerned? He had guards. Fleur didn’t. And they were alone.
“Get away! I’m warning you!” Fleur’s horn lit up as she adopted an aggressive stance, her legs spread out on the ground.
“I am a student of the School for Gifted Unicorns!” she yelled “Come near me and my magic will burn you until there’s nothing left, I swear it!”
One instant she was standing before them, fury burning in her eyes and booming in her voice.
The next instant she was lying on the ground, pain jolting through her temples as a magic containment ring shot from the unicorn guard’s belt and locked itself over her horn, blocking her off from her magic and forcibly incapacitating her.
“Well...” Nitpick said, pacing toward the downed Fleur “How fortunate for us that my guards are so well versed in anti-magic procedure”
Struggling to keep on her hooves, Fleur was overcome by the ring emitting a pulse that swept through her body, her muscles locking and steadily feeling as if they were rapidly gaining in weight.
She couldn't feel her horn at all.
One last ditch attempt to use magic produced a mediocre firework-like specimen that fizzled to a fine mist before it passed the leaves.
Drained, she fell to the ground, panting and whimpering.
He signalled with one hoof and the earth pony guard grabbed Fleur by the shoulders and held her with force against a tree.
He turned back to Fleur, pinned to the tree by his guards, trembling before the stallion who had tried to hurt her all those months ago. And now seemed intent on hurting her beyond all help.
“You, young mare...” he said icily “...have caused me immeasurable inconvenience. For that, you shall be punished. And once you have been punished you shall go to everypony you ever spoke to and tell them of how you lied and cheated in service to that mincing little parasite, Fancy Pants. How you intended to besmirch my good name for the sake of his re-election prospects. And then both of you will suffer for it. Oh yes, my pretty little bird...” He gave a sickening grin as he trailed a hoof underneath the petrified mare’s outstretched neck, feeling her flesh quiver and knowing retribution was at hoof.
“I will make you sing a very...different...tune!”
Blueblood was nearly stumbling as he made his way out of the Lower Gardens, cursing the abundance of brambles.
What he wouldn’t give to have the whole place mowed down.
‘What need do the commoners have for gardens anyway?’ he thought ‘Besides wallowing in the mud?’
A snap of branches and a raucous torrent of bird calls caught his attention, nearly falling on his back as he stood at the edge of the clearing, watching as a small, primrose-pink magic bolt pushed with great difficulty out of the treetops and dissipated.
It was exactly the colour of Fleur’s magic.
It was a distress signal.
He was puzzled. Why would Fleur send a distress signal? It was true that they weren’t telling her she wanted to hear but she wasn’t so hysteric as to cry for help in that situation. And the signal was terribly weak, most beginners could make a better attempt. And Fleur was gifted in magic. The only reason she’d have to make such a mediocre spell was if...
Blueblood paused, working things out in his head, liking how they sounded less and less.
Fleur would only have failed in that spell if she’d been interrupted.
Sweat flowed plentifully from his brow as the image of Nitpick’s murderous face back in the study fixed itself in his brain, flashing before his eyes like a bout of lightning.
He felt sick.
He’d remembered everything Nitpick had told him.
He’d remembered the Lord Magistrate telling him Fleur had tried to seduce him in the theatre and made a scene when he pushed her away, humiliating and degrading a key member of Canterlot’s aristocracy.
He’d remembered the Lord Magistrate telling him Fancy Pants had been duping her into doing this with Nitpick and several others he saw as rivals.
And he’d believed him.
Why? That was the question that flooded his brain as he placed one hoof against a tree to steady himself.
Why had he believed him? Blueblood knew the Lord Magistrate as corrupt, he’d bribed him numerous times after all.
And Fleur was never one to seduce dirty old stallions like Nitpick for anypony.
And Fancy Pants wasn’t one to use mares for that very purpose.
Yet he’d believed him because he so wanted it to be true.
To have everything work out the way Nitpick described it. To have Fancy Pants gotten rid of, Nitpick in charge, himself as an unchallenged royal free of responsibilities and Fleur, in her gratitude, fitted round his hoof.
It sounded so perfect he found it impossible not to, at least, pursue it.
A flapping of wings above him, too loud to be any common forest bird, caused him to duck and peer through the canopy.
The pegasus from before was overhead. He was searching for him.
He ducked back into the forest as the shadow of a flying pony circled around, veering towards the clearing.
Blueblood clasped his mouth to silence his haggard breath, barely believing this was happening.
Something was wrong.
Somehow, something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.