It took a few moments, but as Rarity stood there and watched her friends depart, it suddenly dawned on her that of their original party, the only ones still present were herself and the marshal. Just the two of them. Together.
The veritable roller-coaster of emotions that had careened its way through her head for the last half hour began another steep ascent.
The trip had started with a surge into pure, childish excitement. Truth be told, Rarity had not exactly been looking forward to attending until prospects of attending with Graves gave the evening a whole new light. Then her high hopes of replacing previous Gala memories with more pleasant ones had been thoroughly dashed when the marshal was called away on duty. However, it was due to that rather dismal valley of dullness that Rarity was nothing short of delighted when who should Twilight drag in like a lost child, but the one she knew would be gone? And wearing her designs, no less!
That glee had then morphed into something more akin to happy satisfaction mixed in with a good deal of surprise. The pretty dressmaker knew the clothes made the man, but even she was taken aback at just how good Graves really looked. The midnight blue was a perfect tone for his cool, stoic persona, one further enhanced by the coat’s martial style and fitted cut. The silver scrollwork - which had been a dreadful pain to embroider - glittered as the perfect accent, adding just a bit of flair to his appearance while smoothly drawing attention upward to his striking, grey eyes. From the top of his head to the soles of his polished, black boots, Graves looked every inch the dashing storybook hero.
Unfortunately, roller-coasters have a tendency to dive. As Rarity admired her handiwork, her mood careened off course as twinges of discomfort struck home.
The marshal had told her back in Ponyville that he’d be away on work, yet here he was. Logically, part of her knew that this must be something related to his duties. He’d said as much earlier, and she was quite certain he would never voluntarily come to a soirée of this nature on his own volition. Still, it didn’t stop it her from feeling just a bit put off; he could have said something, mentioned it at least. I mean, had she not been in attendance as well, he would have attended the Gala without her. Others would have seen his striking appearance before her and passed the time in his company. Someone else would have spent a magical evening next to the silver-eyed soldier, a place that, for quite some time, Rarity had begun feeling somehow belonged to her.
Fortunately, Graves managed to quickly redeem himself and pulled her mood sharply upward from its plunge into negativity. With a typically awkward, but still sincere admittance, he’d dissolved her concerns like so much snow on a bright spring day. Had he been anyone else, Rarity would have suspected him of trying to manipulate her feelings with sweet words and clever speech. But this was the marshal, who was too innocently simple and straightforward to do something like that. Merely one of the many reasons she found him so endearing.
Had the tumultuous tumbling of emotions ended right there, Rarity would have been perfectly content for the rest of the evening. With her friends beside her and Graves now in attendance, the Gala would certainly have been enjoyable, even without the fairy tale qualities she’d once dreamed of.
Then Applejack and Fluttershy had left, followed by Shining Armor, who was soon joined by Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Even Twilight Sparkle, much to the the pretty dressmaker’s surprise, had opted to attend the no doubt raucous party with the Wonderbolts. And even though Rarity couldn’t be sure, she had the strangest impression that just before their departure, Twilight had actually turned and given her a little wink. How odd.
In any case, this strange turn of events meant that of the original Ponyville party, only she and Graves were left together. Just the two of them. At the Grand Galloping Gala. Together.
“Well, that was unexpected.” The marshal’s deadpan comment brought Rarity out from her internal morass of convoluted feeling.
“Indeed,” she replied. “I never would have imagined that Twilight would be one for parties of the… wilder sort.”
“Anything would be better than this,” Graves muttered darkly. “I still can’t believe I have to be here all night.”
“Really now, marshal,” Rarity chuckled, “you sound just like Sweetie Belle every time she goes to the dentist.”
“I’d prefer the dentist to this any day.” The utter seriousness with which he said this only served to increase the young lady’s amusement.
“Do you really dislike society so much, Graves?” she asked, trying to suppress a smile. “You’d think that after all the time you spend fighting dragons and monsters, this should be like a vacation for you.”
“You kidding? Give me the dragon any day,” Graves answered with a wry grin. “ At least I know when it's trying to kill me.”
“Oh?” The young lady arched an eyebrow. “And just what does that mean?”
“These people,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of lords and ladies, “you can never tell ... I mean it's hard to figure out… no, wait... I don’t…” It was getting increasingly difficult for Rarity to keep a straight face as the usually unflappable marshal grew openly flustered with his struggles to describe a rather unique perspective.
“What I’m trying to say,” he said, after taking a deep, composing breath, “is that with these society people, everything gets so… complicated.”
“Complicated?” she repeated, now thoroughly confused. “Why, there’s nothing complicated about it at all.”
“No?” Graves challenged. “Then tell me. How many noble houses are there?”
“Seven major ones, she repeated instantaneously, “with thrice that in minors.”
“How many utensils do they have at dinner?”
“Fourteen, not including glassware, which adds up to twenty-two if you do.”
“And how many ways are there to say hello?” At this question, Rarity actually laughed.
“Graves, you can’t be serious! There isn’t just one way of greeting a person: it’s all dependent and requires consideration of various factors such as title, familiarity, and a veritable plethora of other issues as well.”
“Exactly,” the taciturn soldier smiled, if not exactly smugly, then at least with the satisfaction of knowing he’d made his point. “Everything’s so complicated. I can say the same thing to seven different people and have it taken seventy different ways. Where’s the sense in that?”
“My dear marshal,” the young beauty smiled affectionately, “it’s not nearly as bad as you make it out to be. There’s simply a set of rules that one must learn to appreciate the intricate dance that is life with the beau monde.”
“Hmph, too many if you ask me,” Graves mumbled. “They spent four days pounding rules on… etiquette and stuff into my head, and I still can’t tell a salt shaker from a salutation.”
Rarity knew it wasn’t the kindest thing to do, but she couldn’t help but burst out in crystal chiming laughter as the marshal spoke. To see the rugged, stalwart soldier so openly sulking, well... let’s just say the young lady found herself enjoying it immensely.
“It seems,” she continued once she’d regained her composure, “that maybe the classroom wasn’t the best way to introduce you to the topic. Perhaps what you need is a good, practical experience.”
“Come, let me show you.” As she smiled and took his arm in hers, a small thrill coursed through her body like an electric shock, just as it had before. Even though she had been teasing him before and indeed was still doing so now, she couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that she and the marshal were now clearly linked together.
“So, here’s what we’ll do,” Rarity explained, speaking just low enough that Graves had to lean in closer to hear. “I’ll begin by striking up a conversation with one of the other party guests. You use what you’ve learned to engage with them, and I’ll do what I can to help you through. Simple enough, no?”
“Perhaps,” he murmured. “But what if I make a blasted fool of myself?”
“In that case, you can just leave the talking to me. Silence can be impressive, after all. And besides,” the young beauty giggled, “it’s better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Graves gave his companion a considering look.
“You’ve put an awful lot of thought into this, haven’t you?”
“Well, I am a lady after all,” she smiled serenely. “It would simply be unwise to enter a battlefield unprepared, now wouldn’t it?”
“Battlefield, huh?” he muttered. “Maybe it is.”
The conversation between them faded as a pair of rather distinguished ladies drew closer to the young couple. From the ornate ruffles and pleats of their dresses to their lilting Canterlot accent, it was clear that these were women of impeccable pedigree, no doubt conversing about topics beyond the ken and reason of a simple man such as Graves. However, one of the two, the one with a towering mass of stacked curls and a strand of pearls the size of grapes, happened to spot the violet-haired girl.
“Rarity, is that you?” she gasped, a bright smile appearing on her aged, but friendly face. “My goodness, it is, isn’t it!”
“Lady Uptown!” Rarity beamed in an affected, but sincere excitement. “My goodness, it’s been simply ages! How long has it been since we last met?”
“Not since Sir Loaded’s spring salon, which is far too long, my dear," Uptown sighed. "In fact, I was just telling Countess Propriety here about how Canterlot’s been an absolute bore these last few months. Didn’t I just say that?”
“Indeed she did,” her somewhat rounder companion nodded. “You’ve been very unkind to be so distant and deny us your sparkling charm. Why, I do think I might even be quite cross with you. Yes, quite cross indeed.” Though the words were said with the severest of expressions, the twinkle in her eye took any edge the words might have had clean off.
“I do apologize,” Rarity said with a sympatheric smile. “You know I do so love joining you in Canterlot, but these past few months have been so extraordinary, I just haven’t been able to get away. Isn’t that right, dear?” she finished, turning and giving Graves a very warm smile.
“They've been interesting to say the least,” the marshal readily affirmed despite being quite thrown off by her behavior. Teasing him by taking his arm was one thing, but giving him a look like that got him hot under the collar in an awfully distracting way.
“Yes, I have been meaning to ask about that,” Lady Uptown nodded, her eyes now fixed on Graves with a conspiratorial grin. “You vanish for months at a time and then show up to the event of the season with this fine young man on your arm. Is there something you want to tell us, hmm?”
“Oh, forgive me,” Rarity laughed with the clear ring of fine silver bells. “I was so caught up in our reminiscing, I forgot to introduce my companion. Lady Uptown, Countess Propriety? May I present to you a shining example of Equestria's armed forces, Marshal Graves.”
“A pleasure,” the stoic soldier said with a bow. Instead of the closed fist salute, he’d opted for an open hand against his heart, the correct form for social gatherings as it simply look so much nicer. Bent as he was, he couldn’t see the very pleased smile that appeared on the pretty seamstress’s face because despite his distaste for the classes, he’d clearly been paying attention.
“Well, well, this certainly is an interesting turn of events,” the countess repeated in amused surprise as he straightened. “It’s not every day we see a real soldier at one of our soirées, let alone one so finely attired. Tell me, young man, where did you get that marvelous coat?”
“It was a gift. From Miss Rarity.”
“Aha, I knew it!” Lady Uptown cheered. “Such a refreshing take on a classic design could only have come from Canterlot’s finest up and coming designer.”
“Please, you give me far too much credit,” the young lady laughed whilst turning a delicate shade of pink. “I still have a long way to go, and such an ordinary design certainly doesn't do a hero of his stature the credit he deserves.”
“Hero?” Graves repeated with a wry smile. “Now who’s giving too much credit?”
“Do you not think so?” Rarity asked with feigned surprise. “I could have sworn that it was you who saved my life from a vicious chimera not long ago.”
“A chimera?” Lady Uptown gasped in dismay. “My word, child, you had a run in with one of those terrible beasts?”
“A twenty foot tall, vicious, fire breathing monstrosity,” the young lady nodded, eyes wide with a look of horrified sincerity. “And that was after he defeated an entire pack of bloodthirsty skullpions as well.”
“I say, what’s this I hear about skullpions and the like?” A portly man in a tailed waistcoat and the most magnificent mustache Graves had ever seen approached, his gleaming monocle and curious manner of cocking his head making him look like one very distinguished owl.
“Duke Farthing!” the countess beamed as she greeted him with curtsy. “Rarity here was just about to tell us how Marshal Graves here saved her from skullpions and chimeras!”
“What’s this? Chimera’s too?” the duke hooted in surprise. “I must say, this sounds like a roving good yarn. Please, Miss, do tell.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to waste your time with such fantastic tales,” Rarity said with an all too innocent smile. “But, if you insist...”
For the next several minutes, the young beauty regaled them of adventures that Graves had quite a difficult time recalling, despite having been there himself. It wasn’t that she was lying or making anything up, mind you. It was just that the way she told it, everything seemed so much… cooler.
For one, Rarity managed to make the harried push to escape the arachnid horde sound like a glorious charge akin to the ones made by gallant knights of yore. The fight with the chimera became a masterful duel between a skillful warrior and savage beast instead of the mad scramble for cover and nerve-wracking close calls the marshal himself recalled. As for the landslide, he may as well have been skipping over the falling stones like a dandy at a Sunday dance from how she told it. Everything she said seemed to paint him a hero who’d stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, and while all the events were technically accurate, it was like comparing a Reinaissance painting to a child’s imitation doodle: possibly recognizable but in no ways the same work.
He had to admit though, she told a very good story. More than good, really. She was downright spellbinding. When Rarity started, the only ones listening were the two ladies and the odd, owlish man. As she continued however, more and more Gala attendees had begun to trickle over, some come to greet a friend and others out of curiosity at seeing a forming crowd. All, however, had stayed as the young lady entranced them with her masterful performance, each word, each gesture, each expression playing the listeners’ emotions like so many keys on a piano.
Graves was utterly blown away, by the story, of course, but even more so by its teller. He’d known she was comfortable in the spotlight, but not once had he been privileged enough to see just how much. It was natural, like a gazelle who could bound over craggy mountain tops with the speed of an eagle and the grace of a swallow. At the center of attention like this, she was in her element, and just like those blue diamonds that sparkled on her back; the brighter the spotlight shined, the more the young woman sparkled.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Rarity finished with a grand flourish, “is why when I refer to Graves as a hero, I mean it in every sense of the word.”
The marshal wasn’t exactly startled when the crowd – which at this point had swelled to well over two dozen – began clapping. What did startle him was that instead of looking at the beaming girl who’d told the story, they were instead looking at him.
“Marvelous, simply marvelous!” a pair of debutantes gushed. “To think that such fantastic champions still exist in our day and age.”
“Hear, hear!” the duke hooted with a puffed out chest. “It’s good to know that there are still such extraordinary, young men leaving their mark on the world.”
“It was nothing special,” Graves said, the heat of embarrassment rising in his cheeks as he felt more than a good bit flustered with so much attention on him. “Just doing my job.”
“Oh, don’t be so modest, Graves,” Rarity beamed up at him, “or else I may just have to tell them about how you saved my little sister from the mountain trolls as well.”
“There’s more?” a young man called out. “Now, that’s more like it!”
“Yes, yes, do tell!” Lady Uptown agreed eagerly.
“I would love to,” Rarity answered with a somewhat sad smile. “But alas, I cannot. The marshal has to make his rounds tonight, and if I leave him to his own devices, he’ll probably find some dragon to slay before the evening’s end.”
So it was with some hearty laughter and another round of applause that Rarity and Graves, once more arm in arm, disengaged from the group and walked away.
“… Whew.” The marshal heaved a huge sigh of relief once they’d made it a safe distance away. And then he smiled. “That... actually went pretty well.”
“I thought it went wonderfully,” Rarity giggled. “And you certainly did far better than your moaning would have lead me to believe. Well done.”
“I did not moan,” he scoffed, though the color in his cheeks said otherwise. “And besides, it’s not like I did anything; you did all the talking.”
“Would you rather I have stayed quiet and let you speak instead?” she asked, an eyebrow raised in amusement.
“You kidding?” he grinned. “Keep it up, and I’ll just stick to you all night long.”
“Is that so?” the young beauty smiled, giving him one more of those inscrutable looks she’d been doing with increasing frequency. “I might just take you up on that off–” a series of quick coughs prevented her from finishing the thought.
“You alright?” Graves asked as grey eyes narrowed slightly in concern.
“Fine, fine,” Rarity waved dismissively. “I’m just a bit parched: all this excitement has left my throat quite dry.”
“Why don’t you take a seat?” the marshal suggested as he lead his companion to one of the cushioned benches lining the grand hall. “I’ll see if I can find you something to drink.”
“That would be lovely,” she smiled. “Thank you.” With a last, sort of awkward grin, Graves strode off through the crowd, looking as intent about finding a beverage as he did on any of his official missions. Maybe more.
As he disappeared into the throng, Rarity heaved a luxurious sigh. It did feel good to sit down and get off her high, stiletto heels. They were so stylish, but walking became such a chore. Ah well, such was the price of fashion. But even as she rested her aching feet, the young lady found herself smiling as her thoughts drifted, as they often did of late, to the silver-eyed marshal.
He was a wonderful man, and she hoped the other Gala attendees would see that. But he was like a diamond in the rough, hard like stone, and the young lady truly wondered if anyone present tonight could spot the gem hidden under his toughened exterior. But that’s where she came in, wasn’t it? She was going to polish that rough-hewn jewel till it sparkled, till even the most highbrow of socialites could see him for the remarkable man she knew him to be. And when she was done, when he was the glittering gem that she knew he could be...
“It really is shaping up to be a wonderful evening,” she giggled to herself.
“Yes, it most certainly is.”
Looking up, Rarity’s eyes went wide, not with amusement or affectation, but in genuine, unadulterated shock. Standing before her, looking immaculate in a white tuxedo with perfectly coiffed golden curls and those dazzling, baby blue eyes made even more dazzling by his flawless smile, was the most beautiful man that Rarity had never expected to see again.
“Prince Blueblood,” she replied faintly with an even fainter smile. “What a surprise.”