“What the hay?!” Graves called out in somewhat colorful, but rather appropriate language as a large white and orange sunburst exploded overhead with enough force to rattle the crystal chandeliers. Bafflement written clear across his face, the marshal turned to Rarity and asked, in all confounded seriousness, “Does this usually happens at fancy parties?”
“Not in the slightest,” the scarlet clad lady replied as she gaped whilst a multitude of spinning sparklers flew through the air. “I assure you I am quite as lost as you... are...”
“Oh, wait,” she groaned. “I think I see the problem.”
In through one of the broken windows climbed the trio of Fluttershy, Applejack, and Princess Luna, each covered in a thick layer of black soot and stinking to high heaven of smoke and gunpowder.
“Hey there, Rarity,” the once blond, though now grey-haired cowgirl called between hacking coughs that shook powdery ash off like a snowstorm. “Uh... how’s the party?”
“Applejack, what on earth is going on here?” the fashionista cried out as she recoiled in horror, less from the chaotic state of affairs and more from the unacceptably close proximity of so much filth.
“Ah. Well yah see, that’s a funny story,” she farm girl sheepishly grinned. “So we were out in the garden, tryin’ tah make friendly with all the animals, but them critters weren’t quite takin’ tah us like we planned. So after a little thinkin’, we figured we’d add a little... um... ‘social lubricant’ tah ease up the situation.”
“‘Social lubricant’?” Rarity repeated hesitantly. It took a moment, but her eyebrows finally shot up in sudden and distinctly unpleasant lucidity. “Dear Celestia, please tell me you didn’t–”
“Three kegs of apple cognac,” Fluttershy squeaked with an apologetic smile. “And it was the really, really good kind too.”
“In all honesty, things were going quite well,” Luna added with a casual shrug despite the rising disorder surrounding them. “Though, things may have gotten out of hand when they got a hold of the fireworks scheduled for the display later on. That... wasn’t exactly according to plan.”
“Let me get this straight,” Graves interjected, rubbing his temples as another series of explosions rocked overhead. “You’re telling me that a herd of animals are running around with enough firecrackers to blow up half the palace because they’re all stone-blind drunk?”
Before they had a chance to answer, another loud crash interrupted the conversation. Only, it wasn’t the sound of firecrackers, but the sound of the giant mahogany doors slamming open as a panicked Soarin came soaring into the hall as fast as his wings could carry him.
“I jess don’ get it, Shoarin...!” a horrendously inebriated Spitfire bawled as she burst in after the frightened flier. “WHY WON’TCHU LUV ME?!”
“You tellim, Shpitty!” Rainbow Dash cackled, staggering in with a large crowd of equally intoxicated guards and Wonderbolt team members as they cheered on the captain’s chase. “True luv conquersh EVERYSHING!”
The raucous laughter and the clanking of glasses was a perfect herald for the equally sloshed animals of Canterlot’s gardens. Attracted by the noise and revelry, a collection of jays, squirrels, herons, buzzards, bunnies, cockatoos, and even the odd caribou came waltzing in, bleary eyed and ready for a party. Laden as they were with so many fireworks, it was an explosive entrance to say the least.
“Gosh darn it,” Applejack groaned, her attention on her multicolored friend. “An’ Rainbow Dash wonders why I never save her any cider.”
“Oh my,” Fluttershy murmured as a Roaman candle went flying overhead. “I do hope she hasn’t had too much to drink. I wouldn’t want her to feel all nasty tomorrow.”
“Are you kiddin’?” the cowgirl scoffed. “She’s probably had enough to pickle a moose twice over. We’d best get over there and cut her off afore she really starts to regret it.”
“Are we staging an intervention?” Luna asked in delight. “Huzzah!”
“Sorry Mister Graves,” Fluttershy apologized, “but we’ll be going now.”
“Yup, see you around!” Applejack led the shy girl and the evening princess away, diving into the fray of sauced up soldiers and intoxicated animals who had now melded into some sort of massive mega party, complete with singing, shouting, unsteady dancing, and a generous helping of explosions all around.
“This... is some party,” Rarity murmured in morbid fascination. She’d expected some unsightly behavior before the eve’s end, but this? This was simply ridiculous.
“I know, isn’t it great?”
Turning to see what kind of madman would say that, the young couple found themselves face to face with Shining Armor, who despite being sober as a judge, was grinning just as much as any of the drunken revelers around him.
“Man, this is a total riot!” the navy-haired guardsman laughed as he threw an arm around his militant companion. “I tell you what, I haven’t had this much fun at a party since the Princesses pretended that Nightmare Moon had returned. Those girls really know how to liven things up, don’t you think?”
“If utter anarchy’s your idea of lively, then yes,” Graves said dryly. Indeed, while the soldiers and animals all seemed to be having a pistol, many of the nobility and upper class were having a much less pleasant time. The amount of high-pitched shrieking that could be heard over the explosions and drunken singing were actually quite impressive. Who knew that even large, portly men could reach such lovely soprano tones?
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Shining Armor sighed, obviously disappointed that he’d have to end the fun so soon. “Better get on it then. These rich folks aren’t gonna sort this out themselves, you know.”
“Need any help?” Graves asked with his usual, steely-eyed intent. He was technically off active duty, to be sure, but it wasn’t like he could just ignore a problem of this magnitude.
Unbeknownst to him, however, Rarity had thrown the guard captain an earnest, urgent glance behind the raven-haired soldier’s back coupled with some very vigorous shaking of the head; the young lady clearly had no intention of letting the marshal spend the rest of his evening on cleanup duty. Shining Armor, always up for a chance to mess with Graves, received the violet-haired beauty’s request loud and clear and waved off his comrade’s offer.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” the captain dismissed as the response elicited a grateful smile from the Ponyville dressmaker. “You just get your lady friend here out of the way: things might get messy here and I doubt she’ll wanna be a part of that.”
“You sure about that?” Graves asked dubiously.
“It’ll be fine,” the crimson clad guardsman laughed. “Now get outta here. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to bust out the hose soon.”
Needing no other warning than that, Graves took Rarity by the hand and ran, winding their way through the crowds to some place with hopefully, a bit more sanity.
“So, where are we off to?” Rarity asked, an exhilarating rush coursing through her as the two of them ducked Soarin with Spitfire hot on his heels and continued with their escape.
“Not sure,” Graves shrugged as he shouldered his way passed a frantic baroness and an even more frantic baron. “Somewhere quiet, hopefully.”
“Good luck with that,” the young lady laughed with crystal tones of amusement. “By now, probably every nook and cranny within the castle grounds is occupied with people sharing that exact idea.”
“... Maybe not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There is... one place we could try,” he said slowly, giving her a curious look over his shoulder. “It’s not the nicest place, but it’s pretty out of the way: I doubt anyone who doesn’t know about it could find it.”
“Ooh, a secret hiding spot, eh marshal?” Rarity giggled. “Then by all means, lead the way.”
The noise from the grand hall faded away into nothing as the young couple, still hand in hand, climbed a narrow flight of stone stairs.
“Well, this is certainly interesting,” Rarity laughed once more. Here she was, dressed in the finest evening gown Equestria had ever seen, only to be scurrying through the royal palace like a scullery maid who’d filched pastries from the kitchen.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Graves chuckled, still holding fast to her hand as he lead the dark and winding way. Finally reaching the top of the stairs, he pushed on the ceiling door, waved away a faint cloud of dust, and helped the young lady through.
From a large skylight in the ceiling, Rarity could faintly make out that it was a large, circular room, empty save for an odd chair or two and curtains hanging over some rather sizable windows.
“You were certainly right,” she nodded, strolling around the room for a cursory look over. “Nobody would ever think of coming here.”
“Shame, really,” Graves replied. “It’s a great place.”
“Oh?” Rarity intoned. “And pray tell what makes this room so special?”
“The room’s not much to look at,” he admitted as he approached one of the windows. “But at least it’s got one heck of a view.”
Graves pulled the curtain aside and Rarity was presented with the most spectacular view of Canterlot she had ever seen. At the top of one of the palace’s tallest towers, she could make out the entire city spread below, thousands of glowing lights making the streetscape look like a sea of twinkling, golden stars.
“My word,” she breathed in awe. “This... this is certainly not what I was expecting.”
“I know, huh?” the marshal grinned. “It was supposed to be an observatory or something, but I guess plans fell through the cracks and it never got used. Too out of the way for most people, so nobody really comes here.”
“Isn't that a shame,” she smiled blissfully. “Why, I bet nobody aside from the Princesses can get a view like this. Not even Princess Cadance or Prince Blueblood.”
From the corner of her eye, Rarity caught sight of the marshal as his body visibly stiffened at the words. Clearly, mention of the blonde-haired noble still serve to rouse his ire and foul his temper. And yet oddly, brilliantly enough, the souring of his mood gave the young beauty a fantastic idea.
“That reminds me,” Rarity said innocently, keeping her back to him as she continued to gaze out the window. “The deal is still available if you’re interested.”
“Deal?” Graves repeated. “What deal?”
“You were wondering what the prince and I discoursed over,” she hinted, finally turning to give the marshal a sly smile. “Or is that no longer a concern?”
“I’m... still curious,” the grey-eyed soldier said in what he must have thought was a casual manner. “But I don’t see how I can fill my end of the bargain.”
“What, don’t you know how to dance?” Rarity teased.
“Some might say that,” he grinned wryly, “But that’s kind of beside the point because... well... there’s no music." The scarlet clad beauty smiled serenely.
“In that case, we’ll just have to make do, won’t we?”
“... You’re kidding,” he said in a mix of surprise and disbelief. “You actually want us to dance here?”
“My dear marshal, I never ‘kid’ when it comes to dancing.” From the set of her sapphire eyes, it was clear her words were no bluff.
“Is there anything else I could offer instead?” Graves suggested, thumbing his nose uncomfortably at the thought. “Something less... awkward?”
“Hmm...” Rarity pursed her lips for a moment before beaming in pure, devilish delight. “No, I don’t believe so.”
The marshal stared at her for a moment as he contemplated the – in his mind – fiendish contract lying before him. He really didn’t want to dance. Considering how terrible he was, the lack of some kind of guidance like music would undoubtedly devolve it to the level of a natural disaster, and the last thing he wanted to do was come across like a ham-footed buffoon in from of Rarity. Well, not more than usual anyway.
But on the other hand, he really, really wanted to know what the prince had done to put her in such a good mood, and since Rarity would clearly only talk if she got her way...
The silent contemplation ended with a heavy sigh of defeat. Face flushed and eyes lowered in embarrassment, Graves lifted his hand and said, with what little confidence he could muster,
“May I have this dance?”
The stoic soldier was not a natural dancer. In the few days prior, he’d been instructed on the basics by a stern teacher with a heavy accent who’d likened his dancing to “watching bears mauling carcass, only not so pretty.” That had been one of the nicer things she’d said.
“Do try to relax now,” Rarity laughed as she effortlessly spun on stone floor with the wooden-footed marshal. “I feel like I’m trying to waltz with a board.”
Relax, right. Easy for her to say. She was in her element here, gliding along as naturally as a swallow in flight while he, on the other hand, trudged along like a drunken yak. Plus, she wasn't being distracted by the silky smoothness of her dress as his hand rested on her slender waist, or the touch of her skin that made even the dress seem rough. Compared to her skin, silk was sandpaper; compared to her touch, satin was–
He barely managed to keep from stumbling over his own feet. Silently, Graves cursed himself for being such a clumsy oaf.
“You really don’t dance much, do you?” she asked, a mixture of sympathy and amusement twinkling in her big, blue eyes.
“How’d you guess?” he muttered. “Don’t get why people enjoy something so difficult.”
“Difficult?” she gaped. “Surely you jest.”
“Not in the slightest,” he replied in utmost seriousness. “I can hardly keep up, what with all the steps to remember and what not.”
“Ah, there’s your problem,” Rarity breathed. “Dancing isn't something you think about, it’s something you feel.”
“Here, try this,” she smiled. Releasing his hand, the young beauty cupped his chin and lifted. “Try not to think about the movements and just... go. Feel the rhythm of the steps and let your feet follow.”
Heeding her advice, the marshal brought his stony, grey eyes, which had been focused intently on his feet, up to meet hers sapphire blues, and...
“...There, much better,” Rarity beamed. “I must say, that’s a marked improvement. We may make a gentleman out of you yet.”
Was he doing better? He couldn’t tell, because while he didn’t know how much he was feeling any rhythm, his brain was certainly clear of any thoughts as he was completely mesmerized by the young lady’s eyes.
Those eyes of her, sparkling like the sea on a cloudless day, were just as unfathomable as the ocean’s depths. One second, they were the eyes of a consummate lady, cool and serene like a still pond on an early winter morning. The next second, they would come alive, glittering with mirth like a stream sparkling in the summer sun.
But there was also something more. Something stirred in those sapphire depths, something that heated his blood and made his heart beat faster, something that enthralled and intoxicated more than any liquor ever could. He felt like he was drowning in those azure pools, yet he couldn’t find the desire to pull himself out. Instead, he found himself wanting to dive deeper and deeper, to lose himself in those beautiful, brilliant blue depths...
“So, are we beginning to enjoy ourselves?” she smiled, her voice gently recalling him from the spellbinding effect of her eyes.
“It’s... alright,” he answered evasively, roughly clearing his throat and breaking his gaze away before changing the topic to something a little less... distracting. “So, you still haven’t told me what you and that prince boy talked about.”
“Well aren't you insistent,” she quipped with a grin. “It’s not like it was anything important.”
“Oh? Then I suppose you won’t mind telling me then,” he countered with a sly smile.
“I suppose not,” she giggled as she gracefully conceded. “Like I said, it really wasn't anything important; he simply asked me to marry him. That’s all.”
Well that got his attention right quick.
“What?!” he hissed, half in surprise and half in pain from stepping on his own toe from said surprise. “He... he proposed? Just now?”
“Indeed he did,” Rarity replied, cool as a cryo-phoenix. “Showed me the most magnificent ring. Why, it must have been a ten carat stone at least.”
“And how is this not a big deal?” he demanded, his steely eyes now focused like the barrel of his spell gun.
“Because I refused, that’s why,” she smiled serenely. “Honestly, a proposal’s only a big deal if the lady says yes. Everyone knows that.”
The marshal’s dancing improved markedly once more as he began to think about everything but the dancing. She’d been proposed to. Less than an hour ago, an honest to goodness prince had just pulled out a ring with a diamond the size of his knuckle and proposed to her.
And she’d refused.
“You seem out of sorts,” she noted, her keen eyes not missing the tumultuous emotions playing across his face.
“I’m just... surprised is all,” he admitted, realizing that any denial at this point would be a foolhardy gesture.
“About the proposal, or about my rejection?”
“Both really, but honestly, more that you said no.”
“And why is that?” Rarity asked, her eyes now that mysterious, fathomless blue that betrayed nothing of what she thought. “Why would you be surprised I said no?”
“... He’s a prince," Graves grudgingly admitted. "He’s rich, he’s probably sophisticated enough, and he’s... pretty good looking, I guess.” The last comment came out like a sore tooth and the scarlet clad girl had to bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud as he said it. “He’s pretty much what any girl would want, like something right out of a fairy tale.”
Rarity considered him for a moment before replying, her words precise and proper and once again conveying nothing of her thoughts.
“What you’ve said is true; he is all of those things and at one point, he was the man of my dreams, everything I ever wanted.”
Those words cut Graves something fierce, but he pressed on, pushing for the answer he really wanted.
“Then why’d you say no?”
“Because...” The young lady paused, pensively biting her lower lip, as if unsure of how to answer or if she should answer at all. “Because... fairy tales were no longer enough. I wanted more.”
The marshal felt his heart sink like a stone. Even a fairy tale prince wasn't enough for her. If that was the case, then what chance would a–
“You see,” she continued as her soft, almost hesitant words interrupted his train of thought, “he was everything I’d ever wanted until I actually met him and found out how shallow it all was. I needed someone with more... substance. More character, if you will. A man whom I could not just admire, but love and respect with all my heart.”
“I... see,” Graves nodded somberly. “And have you found someone like that?” To his eternal surprise, she replied with a small, but very deliberate nod.
“You... have?” he gaped.
“Yes, I have,” she smiled, the one expression lighting up her entire face with a warm, radiant glow. “He's a truly wonderful man. Kind and strong, he never hesitates to lend a hand to those in need. In fact, you might even say his entire life is devoted to helping others.”
“You don’t say,” Graves said, letting escape only a faint hint of the bitterness now bubbling up in his heart.
“Oh yes. And not only that,” Rarity continued with rapidly mounting enthusiasm, “but he’s also very, very handsome. Not in the same way the prince is, of course, but more of a... mature, masculine attractiveness that I must say, I never really appreciated until I met him.”
“Sounds like quite a guy,” the marshal muttered, his distaste now completely transparent. The young beauty simply smiled.
“And that’s not even the best part.”
“There’s more?” he gaped. This had gone well past unpleasant and was quickly approaching downright painful.
“Much more,” she nodded. “He’s also a worldly man, well traveled and well read, but surprisingly innocent as well. He’s also charming, funny, honest, a wonderfully sharp dresser, – well, he is now at least – and... oh, there's so much more, I can't even begin to list them all. But despite all these things, that’s still not the best part about him. Do you know what the best part about him is?”
“What?” Graves grimaced, unsure of how much more he could take.
Well that was certainly unexpected.
“Yes, he is so incredibly, amazingly humble, it really boggles the mind,” Rarity giggled. “He really is the most remarkable man, but he thinks of himself as completely ordinary, or maybe even less than that. He's thinks nothing of himself even though everyone, especially myself, can see just how amazing he really is.”
"I... I see," the marshal said faintly. Pain no longer sufficed. This was pure torture.
“In fact,” she continued, her smiling growing in warmth till even the sun would seem cool in its glow, “he’s so humble, he would probably think I was talking about someone else, even after I said all of these wonderful things. Right. To. His. Face.”
Graves stopped dancing.
He stopped moving.
He stopped thinking.
He simply stood there, eyes widening ever so slowly as a sudden, painfully sharp thrill of hope flashed its way through his heart.
“You... you can’t possibly mean...” he whispered, barely able to get the words out of his hoarse throat.
“He proves me right, as usual,” Rarity laughed, her words steady and sure despite the crimson flush rising in her cheeks. “Honestly, you don’t expect me to spell it out more clearly than that, do you?”
“And... that’s what you really think?” he asked, sure he must be dreaming, certain that this was just too good to be true. “That's how you feel about... me?”
“If I didn't mean it,” she said with a smoky glance and inviting smile, “would I be leaning in so close? So very, very close?”
The two drew closer, so close that Graves could feel the heat of her breath tickling his chin, and then...
Just a moment. A brief moment of warmth, a faint touch of wetness as they met.
But that moment?
“Best night ever,” Rarity smiled, flushed and breathless and so utterly, painfully beautiful. “Best. Night. Ever.”
To Be Continued...
The Journey of Graves will continue in the eighth story: Happily Ever After