• Published 31st Mar 2012
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This Platinum Crown - Capn_Chryssalid



Only one mare can claim the Platinum Crown of Canterlot.

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Chapter Nine : Baroness

- - -

"WE, CELESTIA and LUNA, sovereign diarchy of the Realm of Greater Equestria and Neighpon, Northern Camelot, and of Our other Realms and Territories, Defenders of the Pegasi and the Cloudsreach, Lords Magical and Temporal, and to all Our Subjects to whom these Presents come, We do address. Know Ye that We of Our especial grace, certain knowledge, and mere motion do by these Presents advance, create and degree style, dignity, title and honor of BARONESS of Ponyville in Canterlot."

"And for Us, Our successors in perpetuity and heralds, We do appoint, give and grant unto her the said name, state and degree style, dignity, title and honor of Baroness to have and to hold unto her and her heirs of body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us, Our successors in perpetuity and heralds, that she and her heirs aforesaid and every of them successively may have, hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Stables, Assemblies and Councils within Equestria and Our other Realms and Territories. And also that she and her heirs aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights, privileges, pre-eminences, immunities and advantages to the degree of a Baroness duly and of right belonging which Lords of said rank of Realm have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy."

"In Witness whereof We have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent."

As Blueblood finished the announcement, the assembled Stable of Lords beheld the newest member of the Equestrian nobility. It was a rare occasion in many ways. Letters patent, issued by Princess, approved by the Stable, and then signed and witnessed by one or both alicorns were not that uncommon. However, it was rare indeed for both Princesses to personally attend and oversee an induction or ceremony of the Stable of Lords in Canterlot.

Both Celestia and Luna sat in their normally empty thrones, an unspoken and undeniable exclamation point to this particular ceremony. As if the word of this pony's achievements had not already become well known. She was ostensibly being rewarded for her contribution to the defeat of Discord, her application endorsed both by the Prince, the Princesses, and a member of the Terre Rare - she had also done what many thought impossible, and humbled that same Lady in a duel days after.

Prince Blueblood stomped a hoof, the sound echoing loudly in the Stable of Lords.

His magic glowing a faint Persian blue, he rolled up the gold-lined scroll in his hooves and sealed it with a platinum clasp. He then presented the letter to a unicorn mare bare of any clothes or adornments - a symbol of penitence and humility on entrance to the peerage. The white coated mare stepped forward, accepting the scroll before the other Lords and Ladies of the Equestrian High Court. Across the half-circle hall that was the highest ruling body in Equestria, with multi-colored light streaming in from a sixty tall stained-glass lancet windows, came an echoed return of hooves on marble.

"We recognize and confirm her, now, before her peers: Lady Rarity, Baroness of Ponyville!"

- - -
(9)

Baroness

- - -

Lotus carefully threaded a strand of Twilight's mane in place before clipping it down onto the metal separator. The unicorn's unusual highlights were natural but still required touch-ups to straighten them out, otherwise the result was a ragged, irregular line of pink or purple instead of a seamless contrast. Carefully, scissors-in-mouth, she cut a few strands of pink and smoothed out the rest with a fine brush. It was just part of the full-body no-expenses-spared treatment Twilight Sparkle and the rest of her friends had paid for.

Or, to be more exact, that Lady Rarity had paid for.

"Rarity, why is that when yer beau shows up in town he always seems to rope other ponies inta some kinda trouble?" Applejack asked from across the spa, her face momentarily etched with a frown.

Then the masseuse's hooves kneaded into a tender spot and her eyes rolled back as her cares melted away.

"A-anyway," she murmured, momentarily coming back to her senses. "Ah don't much like the sound'a this 'stallions-only' night he's hostin'... y'all know Big Mac ain't the type for Canterlot nonsense, but ah'd rather not risk him pickin' up any big city bad habits."

"It's just a little entertainment troupe from the city," Rarity assured her, keeping her eyes closed as rollers in her hair suffused with magic, slowly but steadily encouraging her mane to grow back to it's normal length.

"A burlesque troupe!" Pinkie Pie chirped up. "Oh, I can't believe there's a party in Ponyville and I'm not invited! Me! Pinkie Pie! Not invited to a party! Why not bake a sugar-free cake to celebrate? Or drive a cart with square wheels! Or have a firecracker that, um, shoots down instead of up, and goes eeeeeeeewwwwweeeeeeeeeoooooo-pp? Actually, that'd be kinda funny! But a party without Pinkie Pie?"

"I find that kinda funny," Rainbow Dash interrupted, her nose in a book as she reclined nearby.

"Funny like a FOX!" Pinkie suddenly sprang up and snapped her right hoof - somehow - as an idea came to her. "Hey, Twilight, I betcha you know a spell that can turn a mare into a stallion for a few hours, right? Right? Right! Then I could go to the party!"

"Uh... well, Pinkie, even if I did know that spell..."

"No way! There's really a gender-bender spell!" Rainbow Dash, the only member of the group to not be making use of the facilities, looked out from behind her Daring Do novel. "I knew it!"

"Ya sound a little too excited about it, sugarcube. There something ya wanna tell us?"

"Hey, hey! I just thought it could explain some of the coltish looking mares around town." Dash tapped her hoof to her chin in thought. "A spell like that... you never know who could be-"

"I don't know a gender reversing spell," Twilight assured them, speaking up to make sure the conversation didn't venture into uncomfortable territory. She pointed a hoof at Pinkie. "And even if there was one, it wouldn't be responsible to use it just so you can go to an all-stallion party."

"We obviously have different definitions of 'responsible,'" Pinkie Pie replied with a doe-eyed pout, that quickly turned childish as she stuck out her tongue. "I guess I could try and sneak in..."

"Um, Rarity? You don't mind Blueblood hosting this, um, event?" Fluttershy asked, neck deep in a bath of the finest imported mineral water, straight from Whitestone Glacier. Even her wings were submerged, though her long pink mane was tied and bundled up and out of the way.

"Yeah, ain't ya worried it'll get, you know, bawdy?" Applejack shot a look at the group's party pony. "Ah'm sure these things get a lot racier than that show Pinkie put on in Appleloosa."

Pinkie chuckled to herself as she dipped back into the water with Fluttershy.

"Oh, Applejack," she said, hooves blurring as she bound up her mane in a towel, lightning-quick. "The essence of burlesque is to caricature a serious topic, turning everypony's frown upside down! The bigger the joke, or the more ridiculous you make the situation, the better! As an often taboo topic, erotic humor is also an essential part of the comedy routine!"

For a few long seconds, everypony present - the spa sisters Aloe and Lotus included - simply stared at the pink pony. Pinkie seemed completely oblivious, only to open one blue eye to see the confused looks on her friends' faces.

"What?" she asked. "Did I say something funny?"

"Makes sense she'd know about weird stuff like that," Dash dryly observed, turning the page in her book with the tip of a wing. "Pastry and parties. I bet she knows even more about that stuff than you do, Twilight."

Twilight just nodded, mutely.

"As I was about to say, you really don't need to worry, Applejack. Your brother will be in the company of all of Ponyville's finest gentlecolts." Rarity flinched a bit, as a crackle of growth magic touched her scalp.

"Ah guess it is an opportunity fer him ta catch up with Filthy Rich and some of our other retail-type business partners," Applejack decided with a sigh, face down as the massage moved to her lower back. The Apple Clan and the Rich Family had been partners for three generations thanks to the bounty of Zap Apples unique to Ponyville.

"The way Blueblood described it, I suspect the entire evening will involve deals of some sort made in that nasty smoke room he had built next to his study." Rarity's face screwed in distaste. "I don't think I'll ever quite get used to all this political nonsense."

Twilight perked up as she remembered, "That reminds me, Rarity, did you give any thought to what you'll do for your gifting?"

"Gifts?" Pinkie Pie's ears shot straight up.

"Gift-ing, darling," Rarity explained. "I need to bequeath something to the city now that I have title over it. It is tradition."

"I don't get it!" Pinkie complained, floating over to the edge of the mineral bath and sticking her hooves off the side. "You have to give everypony a present now that you're a noble Lady like Monee?"

"The gift is given to the entire town, not to any one individual," Rarity answered, blushing a bit at the reminder of her new title as noblemare. "Typically, when a pony either inherits a realm or if she is given it, as I was, then she begins her tenure with a show of generosity and good faith. For example, Blueblood had a wing added to the Canterlot Academy of Arts and Magic when he became Prince. It shows a noble's commitment to her land, you see?"

"So - wait - you have to do something big for Ponyville?" Dash asked, her attention once again drawn away from her book.

"I don't necessarily have to," Rarity replied, lowering her head as Aloe checked on the rollers in her mane. "But it is expected."

"Nopony's ever done that fer Ponyville before," Applejack commented with a thoughtful breath. "Course, then again, we haven't had a Baroness or Baron in generations."

"We had a Baron?" Rainbow Dash asked, then amended, "I mean, you guys did? My family was still in Cloudsdale. But when was this?"

"Actually," Applejack fielded the answer. "It was mah great grand-daddy."

Dash snorted and had to stifle a laugh. "Come on! Really! Who...?"

"Ah told ya: mah great grand-daddy." Applejack sighed, though there was a trace of annoyance in her voice at being questioned about it. "Back when the Princess founded Ponyville, she also made Baldwin Apple inta a Lord. He was the first and only Lord a' Ponyville till Rarity here, since only the Princess herself can give titles inside special regions like our town."

"Oh!" Pinkie exclaimed, happily clapping her hooves together. "So all this time you've been a Baroness, too, Applejack?"

"No. Ain't any of ya listening?" Applejack huffed, getting up enough to prompt the end of her back massage. "Mah great grand-daddy accepted the title at first, that's true, but it got in the way. The whole thing was more trouble than it was worth so he dropped it. Granny Smith, mah folks, myself - we don't have any fancy titles and don't need 'em either. No offense ta you, Rarity, that's just me speakin' for myself and mah kin."

"But why wouldn't you want to be a Lady, like Monee?" Pinkie wondered aloud. "Rarity! Since you have to give something to the town, how about BIG party! Everypony LOVES parties and we can have TONS of fireworks and floats and a parade and - Oh! Oh! We can have a ball, a masked ball, for all the ponies who come to Ponyville from Canterlot, and rides and games and more games and food everywhere!"

Then, with more than a little slyness, Pinkie added:

"Plus, I betcha it'll help tourism! Monee said a bunch of times that her city made lotsa money outta tourism!"

"Did she?" Rarity asked, still a little bit wary of Pinkie's inside knowledge of 'Monee' aka Lady Antimony. The Baroness of Mareseilles wasn't an enemy anymore but she wasn't really a friend, either. Well, perhaps she was Pinkie Pie's friend. On the other hoof, Mareseilles was a very rich and powerful city and Antimony was similarly a very wealthy and influential noblemare. There had to be worse role models for Rarity to look to for inspiration.

"Pinkie, I'm pretty sure Ponyville already parties well above the national average," Twilight argued. "What we need-"

"Hey, if you're going to be doing something big like that," Rainbow Dash spoke up, closing her Daring Do novel and putting it aside to point at Rarity. "How about addressing the needs of us Ponyville pegasi? Huh?"

"Excuse me?" Rarity inquired, confused by the accusatory tone.

"I'm just sayin' - Ponyville's pegasus population is, what? There's about a hundred of us?" Dash shrugged, assuming it was a close estimate. "How about doing something to help us out? We're like a fourth of the entire town! Right Fluttershy?"

Fluttershy, who had been silent the entire time, mustered her voice to agree.

Sort of.

"Um. I guess."

"Well what did you have in mind?" Rarity asked, looking from the shy butter colored flyer to Ponyville's leading weathermare.

"First of all," Dash said, ticking off the points with the feathers of one wing. "Ponyville's reservoir is too small! We either need to expand it or add a second one. Cloudsdale requires an absolute minimum of stored water for each town in case it needs to make new rainclouds. We're sitting at the edge of that as-is, and that means we don't have enough to use locally."

"We have a water shortage?" Rarity asked, shaking her head. "I never noticed..."

"It isn't a shortage of water for weather," Dash answered. "Don't forget that we live in the clouds, whether it rains or not! And all clouds are made of water. So even if we've got a full reservoir down on the ground, we still have pegasi who have to go ALL the way to Cloudsdale to get the water to keep their homes from falling apart the next time a strong wind blows in."

"What we should do is tap the lake outside town!" she suggested, flying slowly across the room. "We're already using more water on farms outside town than-"

"Hey now, sugarcube! We need that water, too!"

"And, um... the lake is a protected habitat..."

"Get it from Everfree or Froggy Bottom, or something, then! It's just a big, smelly swamp."

"Froggy Bottom is a protected wetland!" Fluttershy actually raised her voice, and suck back down into the bath water with an 'eep.' "Sorry."

"Anyway, that's the big thing, but...!" Dash landed near where Rarity lay and listed the rest of her suggestions in rapid fire. "We could also use better gym facilities! Ponyville doesn't have a public bath, or a gymnasium, we have a race track but its barely three ponies wide! I mean, those aren't as important as the lack of water for cloud repairs or cloud-homes, but they're important, too!"

"So... a new reservoir?" Rarity tentatively summarized Dash's suggestion before looking to Twilight. "Is that doable?"

"I guess, sure," the other unicorn replied, crossing her legs in front of her as she ran by a few possibilities. "The lake isn't being used, that's true. And I guess we could divert water from Froggy Bottom. If the Office of the Veneur approved it."

"I think you can sweet talk them, or should I say him, into it, right Rarity?" Dash observed with a grin.

The new Baroness of Ponyville huffed in mock indignation at the suggestion.

"I guess we could also drill deeper into the local aquifer," Twilight concluded. "But..."

"Actually, since we're on the topic 'a what ta do for Ponyville," Applejack jumped into the verbal fray. "Ah've got a few ideas of mah own. For example: how about we save money instead'a spendin' it? Right now, not counting some excise and import taxes, most everypony at the market has ta pay four percent Duchy and four percent local retail sales taxes. Now, as ah recall, yer gonna be collectin' half ah' what we were sendin' to the Princess in Canterlot, right? Cuttin' sales taxes could help the local economy which'd make more money for everypony in the long run."

"Um, Rarity, not that I don't think everypony had really great ideas, but maybe - that is - if it isn't too much trouble... a lot of animals around Ponyville have to live in Everfree Forest, and you know how dangerous it can be. So, um, could it be possible to expand the borders of the town to make some safer forested areas for them? If you have some extra... time... after doing whatever."

"What? Come on Fluttershy! More forests? Look around! There's trees everywhere!"

"Not the right kind of trees."

"Ah think it's a fine idea, Fluttershy. But doin' something like that takes a couple'a years, don't it? Ah'm just sayin' that there's things we can do now to help the town. Not everypony has a government job, ya know."

"Hey! What does that mean?"

"I bet if we were having a party everypony would be too distracted to argue about stuff. You can't go wrong with cake and circuses!"

"Please! Everypony!" Rarity had to raise her voice to stop the ensuring fracas.

Rainbow Dash and Applejack muttered quick apologies and cooled off; Pinkie and Fluttershy kept by the edge of the mineral bath, peeking curiously over the edge. Rarity kept silent, giving the room a chance to release some of the built-up tension. Aloe and Lotus diligently resumed their pampering of the six mares and soon only the sound of scissors making the occasional 'snip' could be heard.

"Sorry 'bout that," Applejack said, relaxing forward again with a towel draped over her upper back. "Ah guess we got a little carried away."

"Yeah," Dash agreed, but didn't elaborate.

"What about you, Twilight?" Fluttershy asked. "What do you think Rarity should do?"

"I'm glad you asked," the bookish unicorn replied, taking advantage of everypony else sharing their thoughts on the subject. "As you know, Rarity, unicorns like ourselves are the smallest demographic in Ponyville, but like Rainbow Dash, I think there are important things that can be done for the community that will benefit not only unicorns but Ponyville as a whole. I recently completed an informal survey of young unicorns-"

"What a coincidence," a certain pegasus noted, ducking behind her book.

"Anyway," Twilight continued, glaring at the weathermare. "I'm concerned about the lack of magic-education for young ponies in Ponyville, particularly unicorns. Ponyville is an earth pony town, but the lack of opportunities for unicorns to get magical apprenticeships is creating what I call a 'brain drain' as ponies migrate to Canterlot to pursue either higher education or vocational training. The problem always comes down to a lack of local mentors!"

Having presented her argument in a timely and organized fashion, Twilight Sparkle lit up her horn to project an image of a small tower with an onion-bloom dome at the top and a spiral running along the outside, much like the grooves of a unicorn's horn. A large telescope stuck out from the apex to observe the night sky.

"I think it would be a great gift to Ponyville to construct a mage tower," she recommended with no small amount of confidence and forethought. "A small one, obviously, but it will help attract unicorn scholars and mages to the town to serve as mentors for local children who need apprenticeships. This will benefit not only the unicorn community in Ponyville; a well staffed tower can also provide a strong local resource for pegasi and earth ponies to make use of!"

"Sweetie Belle does need to start learning magic soon, and I don't think I'll be able to apprentice her," Rarity thought aloud before she could stop herself.

It was true that presently, just as in her youth, Ponyville unicorns had trouble finding proper mentors from which to learn magic. It wasn't simply a matter of school teachers, like Cheerilee. Only unicorns could really teach other unicorns, and the nature of magic meant that it was generally a one-on-one mentor-apprentice program. Sometimes that ended when the youngster developed a basic level of competence and sometimes it lasted a decade or more.

"A tower like that, in Ponyville?" Applejack sounded skeptical. "Ah dunno..."

"What's wrong with it?" Twilight asked defensively.

"Ah, nothin! It doesn't really look like a Ponyville type'a building is all," the apple farmer replied, waffling a bit. "Just... what's wrong with goin' ta Canterlot for that kinda magical stuff?"

"The same reason pegasi shouldn't have to go to Cloudsdale just to fix a cloud-wall."

"It's just my suggestion," Twilight concluded, terminating the little illusion-projection. "That's all. What were you thinking of doing, Rarity?"

"Mayor Mare wished for me to repair and refurbish the town hall. Apparently your friend Monee also made certain promises about shoring up the city's budget that the Mayor wants ME to live up to," the fashionista turned Baroness explained with a soft sigh. "Honestly, I'm not sure what to do."

"Well, how much money do you have?" Pinkie asked, now all but dangling off the edge of the bath. "Cause Monee was really rich! Really, really, super duper rich!"

"Thank you Pinkie, I know." Rarity shifted a little, folding her legs one over another. "I'll have to borrow heavily for this project, clearly."

"Can't ya just have Bluey pay for it?" Pinkie then asked, upside down.

"Then it would be Blueblood's gift to Ponyville, not mine. It would defeat the purpose." Rarity shook her head, having thought of that. "Even if the purpose is just semantics."

"You could always do nothing," Dash suggested off-hand.

"Absolutely not!" Rarity immediately objected, going so far as to clop a hoof against the floor. "Not only is this is a honored and noble tradition, I've lived my entire life in Ponyville! This is my home, and everypony came out to support me when I dueled with Lady Antimony! I must repay that now that I am Baroness! I must!"

"Just don't get carried away," Applejack warned, once again relaxed and blissfully under the tender hooves of her masseuse.

"Carried away?" Rarity dismissed the very notion with a little have of her hoof. "Darling, when have I ever gotten carried away by something?"

A moment of silence answered her, as five pairs of eyes stared her way.

"Well, I won't this time," the new Baroness promised.

- - -

"Hey, uh, Spike, right? Does Miss Sparkle know you're here?"

"She knows, and yes, I was invited," Spike explained, biting back a growl. It wasn't the first time somepony had asked him that and it probably wouldn't be the last, either. Really, with all the ponies questioning him being around, he wasn't even sure why he had come.

"If you say so," the stallion - Caramel, or one of them anyway - retrieved a drink from the bar and disappeared back into the show room.

Spike rolled his eyes as he caught some of the act on stage: a saucy play about an amorous prop-dragon chasing after a flighty alicorn Princess, the pony being too dense to realize that the dragon was after the huge gem on her feathery necklace and not her maidenhood. Which, by the way, she lost several times over tricking a progression of idiotic stallions into fighting the dragon for her. All of whom were promptly eaten.

It was a stupid, silly play. The prop-dragon would swoop down with an annoying laugh, booming some form of sexual innuendo like "give me your most precious jewel, my dear!" or "I see what you have hidden under those robes! It will be mine!" The Princess would then shriek, running away and losing some piece of her costume in the process. She would then find a knight, seduce him, and then send him to fight the dragon. Of course each noble pony-in-shining-armor met a comically grisly fate.

It was so ridiculous...

It was even kind of funny, really, though Spike found himself silently and secretly annoyed by the subject matter. More than two dozen stallions had been invited over for Blueblood's Ponyville soirée, spending the afternoon and evening watching comedic and frequently naughty theater, drinking and smoking and gambling. If Twilight could somehow see the party, Spike suspected she would have serious second thoughts about allowing him to come.

Why had he come, anyway?

Spike just wasn't sure. He sure as heck wasn't going to try and drink or smoke - not that he had done so at the Gala, either - besides which he doubted any of the Manor staff would allow it given how grossly underage he was. The plays on stage had been fun, at least until they got to this one bit about the dragon and the princess, but he missed watching with the girls. He only knew a few of Ponyville's male population, and none that well. Big Mac came closest, and Spike had hung around him for a while, but then drifted off so as not to seem... clingy.

It was probably a good chance to meet some other guys and make friends, but that was so much easier said than done. Spike didn't consider himself terribly shy. He had made due in Canterlot pretty well, after all. He had contacts and acquaintances back there, like Donut Joe and Moonchaser. Lately, though, it always seemed like he was - to be frank - that one thumb in a room full of hooves. The one dragon in the entire town.

Why was he here?

Why had he come?

Curiosity? Some belated hope that he could mingle and make new friends? Looking back, it was probably that simplest of explanations. He was curious. This was a stallions-only event, and he had been invited to attend as one of the guys. It was probably an honor. Or something.

At least there were tons of sweets to eat. Sitting at the bar, he dipped a long-handled spoon into a thick custard and cream trifle, laden with sweet fruit slices. It was apparently an alcoholic dessert, but Spike already felt a bit heady from the sugar. It was better than ice cream, even, though he doubted he'd have many other chances to binge on it outside tonight.

"Auntie likes those with sherry. She has a real sweet tooth."

Spike put down his spoon and nodded to himself. This, maybe, was another reason why he had come.

"Yeah," he replied, tapping a finger against the polished wood of the bar. The servant on bartender duty hastily dipped his head and excused himself. Spike fought off a frown but couldn't help but glare at the party's host.

Prince Blueblood. The bastard from the Gala. Despite everything, despite Antimony supposedly breaking them up, he and Rarity were still together. Spike may not have had external auditory canal like all the mammals around him, but he wasn't deaf. He'd heard everypony whispering about them, now that Rarity was a noblemare, titles and all.

It was hard - so hard - to feel happy for them.

He'd been so sure he wanted Rarity to lose to Antimony. He had even burned Blueblood's warning letter to her to make sure she ended up in the duel. Antimony should have won, forcing them apart. It was what he had wanted, it was, but during the duel - seeing Rarity struggling against all odds - he hadn't been able to bear it. He had silently cried for her to win. Even if the two of them needed to be broken up, it was wrong to have it happen like that. At least that was how he explained it to himself.

"I put you in an uncomfortable situation before," Blueblood spoke first, when it became clear Spike didn't quite know what to say to break the ice. The Duke of Canterlot reached across the bar, his magic levitating out a glass and a bottle of amber liquid.

"I know you care deeply for Lady Rarity. The same feelings I have for her," he continued, pouring a sliver of a drink onto rocky shoals of ice. "You didn't pass on my letter to her, and looking back, I can imagine why."

Spike knew Blueblood knew - he also knew the stallion hadn't told anyone. He could easily have told Twilight or Rarity. They probably deserved to know that Blueblood had tried to warn them about Antimony. Spike doubted reading it would have entirely stopped a duel from taking place, not with how determined Antimony was and how easy Rarity was to rile up when her pride was stung. Still, they probably deserved to know, and he probably deserved the anger they would have for him. It was wrong to burn that letter. It was just a wrong he hoped would lead to a right in the long run.

Rarity... he could make her happy. Spike knew he could. He wanted, so much, just to make her happy. The little dragon glared down at his spoon, still not sure what to say. "Thanks?" It was probably the right thing to say. Which wasn't to say he actually said it. Not to Blueblood.

Not to this pony stealing his Rarity.

"How do you know how to do it?" Spike asked, instead.

"Do what?" Blueblood asked, and then realized. "You mean send you letters like Auntie does." The Prince smirked into his drink. "The answer to that... is complex. No pony knows I can do it, you know. Which was why I used it to try and send that warning to Lady Rarity. In a way, you, Spike, are an ace in the hole."

"Is that why you aren't going to tell anypony what I did?" Spike asked, scooping a bit of raspberry and custard into his mouth.

"An unreliable ace is still an ace. Besides," he added, taking his drink and heading off, "telling Rarity would upset her... something I'd rather avoid."

Spike couldn't let him leave on just that. "Thanks... for inviting me."

"Don't worry about it." Blueblood started to leave, the sound of his hooves making a klak-klak on the floor behind Spike's back. "Oh, and as for the dragon thing on stage? I'm afraid Canterlot is a little dragon crazy at the moment due to the migration. The next act should be more tasteful."

Spike carefully held the silver spoon between his claws.

"What... migration...?"

- - -

"A dragon migration! Can you believe it? Of all the times and of all the places!"

The Carousel Boutique, normally Rarity's sanctuary, her fashionable bastion, had seen something of a transformation in the weeks since her duel with Antimony. As a titled noblemare, it was no longer open for 'business' as such; despite that fact, Rarity continued to fill the very last set of orders she had been given prior to her duel and accolade. Most were being finished, and had been finished, for the Art Festival next week. One dress in particular hung from a mannequine, waiting for it's owner to return from Prance.

Slowly but steadily, fewer ponies began to enter the Boutique to browse for clothing Rarity couldn't sell, only give away. The Element of Generosity herself couldn't decide whether to give away her store's dresses and accessories or whether to try and pass her precious Boutique on to another in name if not in fact. It left things in a sort of commercial limbo, replacing the lost activity with something else entirely: political dealing.

Or at Rarity called it, 'that little game.'

"It is unusual for them to pass so close to an inhabited town or city," Twilight agreed, though she didn't share Rarity's apparent distress. "But this is a real opportunity for anypony who wants to study dragons! According to early reports, there are over a hundred of them heading this way! It's exciting!"

"I think terrifying is more like it," Rarity countered, pacing over to one of her mannequines and adjusting the hat and dress it wore. Twilight could tell, by that nervous tick alone, that Rarity was troubled. It wasn't hard to guess why: not just the migration itself, but what it imposed on her.

"All these little adventures... they were a great deal more entertaining when I didn't have to personally see to their ramifications," the dressmaker turned Baroness lamented. "Ah! Yes! I-de-a!"

Hastily stripping down the mannequine, she began assembling a new ensemble from rolls of red, yellow, and purple cloth. Twilight let her friend work off some of her anxiety while she skimmed through her book on great animal migrations. It was fascinating reading! She and her friends had already seen a great migration before, at Appleoosa, with the Buffalo Tribe. Who could have guessed then that Dragons migrated, too? The Buffalo stampede was dangerous enough to get one small town up in arms.

Ponyville, situated in the shadow of Canterlot, was no Appleloosa, and Dragons were an order removed from even the most stampede-happy Buffalo. Hence Rarity's current situation, one of many on her plate at the moment.

"How much money do we have to work with?" Twilight asked, checking the elegant wooden clock on the east wall.

Rarity continued to work on her new patchwork dress. "Forty thousand bits."

"Forty thousand?" Twilight asked again, to be sure. That was not an insubstantial sum by any means. It was a year's income for many ponies.

"We've also been given a teeny tiny contingent of royal guards, but naturally they want to keep almost all of them in Canterlot!" Rarity levitated up three different patterns of forest purple and shrubbery-in-gold. "Blueblood has only a few Duchy guards outside the royal household, so... what choice is there? We have to hire free companies."

"Have you ever met a condottiero before?"

"Me? Oh, no-no-no-no-no!" The fashionista asked with a scandalized laugh, looking back at the other unicorn. "If ever met one, he or she certainly never introduced themselves a such!"

Rarity returned to her mannequine, happy little sounds indicating she had hit upon something particularly interesting. "I always imagined them to be quite roguish, swash-buckling types."

Twilight really had no more experience than Rarity did when it came to Equestria's 'free company' ponies and griffins. Academically, she knew that they were groups of adventurers and "contractors" that moved around, both inside and outside Equestria. They were frequent and convenient villains in the Daring Do series, either trying to steal or abuse whatever magical artifact the fantastic archaeologist was after that week. Like in that adventure serial, they worked for whoever paid them. Some were renowned for their honor and code of conduct, acting as "knights for hire," and others... well, others were famously much less scrupulous.

Equestria was a peaceful country, and it had been without conflict for centuries, unlike some of its more unfortunate (or more warlike) neighbors. There was little need within Equestria for large numbers of guardponies and only a few families bothered with the expense of keeping standing companies in full and permanent employ year-round. The few that did were well known.

The Royal Guard had supposedly started as one of Equestria's oldest 'free companies' that famously and eternally pledged themselves to Princess Celestia. Their rivals had then done the same, but for Princess Luna. Other companies had been raised or integrated into the hereditary rite of great families. Just a month ago, Antimony brought a number of her family's Cardinal Guard with her on her visit. By some accounts, the red coated Cardinals were spread out across four Equestrian provinces. It was likely they were the largest single company of guards in the country.

Rarity was only half done with her new dress, a strange fusion of camouflage and Canterlot high fashion, when her awaited guest finally arrived. The welcoming jingle of the Boutique's bell heralded the entrance of a pony who, just at first look, could only be a condottiero. Specifically one of the representatives sent to discuss handling security for Ponyville during the Dragon Migration.

"Miss... Sparkle, is it?" the newcomer inquired, before zeroing in on Rarity. "Your Ladyship."

The mercenary stallion was a tall and handsome unicorn with a black moustache and vandyck beard. His mane and tail were perfectly groomed and cut short. He bowed fluidly and deeply, despite the intricate white and red armor that covered him from his withers to his hooves.

Having a brother as Captain of the Royal Guard, not to mention having lived at the Palace for a decade, Twilight had grown used to seeing stallions in barding and armor. This stallion's armor, however, seemed almost needlessly ornamental. There were pouf-like frills sticking out from under his foreleg sleeves almost to the tips of his hooves and a delicate silk sash of gold and ivory that crossed his chest and covered one shoulder. Stuffed "bombasted" hose blossomed over his back legs, from haunches to mid-thigh. On his polished steel cuirass he boasted a large red-on-white cross with a star in the center and a dove on the upper left quadrant.

"Baroness," he greeted Rarity with a silky smooth Bitalian-Reinice accent. "It is an honor to meet you at last, generous and fair Lady of Ponyville."

Rarity opened her mouth but had to rethink her immediate response, likely deeming it too friendly or too familiar. She was Baroness now, and when acting as such, she had to rein in some of her instincts. Belatedly, she realized she had a pair of scissors in her teeth and measuring tape draped across her shoulders. Rarity looked much more the dressmaker than the noblemare, though she corrected that by assuming the proper poise and bearing. A haughty flick of her mane and straightening of her back affected an air of dignity and command.

"Thank you for answering my summons," she replied with a carefully measured bow: polite but not too deep. "Please feel free to name yourself and speak casually."

"I am most humbly Germoglio Bianco, duly elected Captain of the Compagnia della colomba e croce," he introduced himself with a flourish of both hoof and magic. "At your service."

"I am Rarity, of Ponyville," the freshly titled noblemare replied, and motioned to Twilight. "This is Twilight Sparkle, of Canterlot."

Twilight bowed her head and crossed her front legs in polite greeting. "È un piacere incontrarlo, signore."

"Parlate in modo bello," he replied, smiling at hearing his native tongue spoken this far from Reinice. He gave a sly wink Twilight's way before focusing entirely on Rarity. "If I may, your Ladyship, I would introduce my notary: Nastro Rosso."

Germoglio tapped his hoof two times, and a second pony entered the Boutique. A brown earth pony stallion with a normal sized frame, he wore no armor himself, but bore a sash around his neck that draped over his shoulders. It, too, bore the cross and dove of the free company. Unlike Germoglio, Nastro's cutie mark was visible: a loop of red tape around an open book.

"My Ladies," he said in greeting, bowing deeply.

"Nastro, please share with her Ladyship the standing strength of the Compagnia."

"Yes, signore." The notary coughed to catch his breath. "The Free Company of the Dove and Cross may bring to bear fifty four trained stallions-at-arms, finely armed and armored, of which eleven are unicorns, twenty one are pegasi, and twenty two are earth pony. We also command that same number in squires, plus six engineers trained in construction and siege, four mages of distinction versed in a variety of arts, and three doctors accomplished in both medicine and alchemy."

"Have any of you faced dragons before?" Rarity affected an air of nonchalance as she returned to her mannequine and her work-in-progress.

"Six years ago an orange wyrm had to be driven from a cistern in the western territories," Germoglio answered, gesturing for his notary to silently assume a place behind him. "The creature did not wish to leave peacefully and needed to be... persuaded."

"You tried talking to the dragon first?" Twilight asked, just to be sure. Dragons weren't citizens of Equestria like many other races were, but they weren't animals or monsters.

"Of course, my Lady." The condottiero raised his shoulders in a mirthful shrug. "It called us insects and maggots and demanded we leave while we could. This was not an option as our Company had been paid in advance to remove the creature. For eight days we camped around the dragon's lair and flooded it with assorted refuse. Eventually the beast was compelled to sally and protect its hoard; we then netted it to keep it from flight and used magic and muscle power to pacify it."

"I've run into a grown dragon before," Rarity said, as if that was a casual thing. "It was quite frightful. Was anypony hurt?"

"Nopony died, my Lady." Meaning there had been injuries. "Not my soldiers and not the dragon, which we released elsewhere, properly chastised."

"You are prepared to protect Ponyville if one or more of these creatures attack it?"

"We are, though it would be wisest to dissuade attack rather than respond to it." Germoglio watched Rarity closely, trying to get a read on her. Twilight could tell he was a little surprised and put off his game by the fact that he was interacting with a potential employer in a fashion shop, of all places, and by the fact that she was working rather than entertaining him.

"And you would dissuade a dragon, how?" Rarity asked, needle and thread and a flash of magic attaching a hood to the camouflaged dress.

"My Lady," he continued. "We shall post ourselves around town as a show of force and prepare highly visible magics capable of resisting flame. It is my belief that the real threat comes not from the adult dragons, who are in a haste to reach their terre amorose, but from the juveniles. Particularly the young males. They have not yet learned to respect ponies or our boundaries and may make a test of it."

"An interesting analysis," Twilight replied, giving Rarity time to consider things. "I've found very little literature dealing with dragons."

"Experience can often yield better results than a book, my Lady." Germoglio was astute enough to notice Twilight's displeasure with that answer, and attempted to mollify her. "Like all Free Companies, we also maintain our own records and battle manuals, many centuries old. We have access to information you may not find elsewhere."

The librarian slowly smiled, almost leered, at the prospect of new books and knowledge. "Really, signore?"

"Knowledge, like security, comes with a price," the stallion from Reinice reminded her with a smirk.

Rarity nodded in agreement. "Name the price, then, for both."

"Forty four thousand bits to cover five days of protection."

"But we don't-" Twilight almost blurted out.

"Forty four thousand?" Rarity interrupted her, giving Twilight a chance to button up. Negotiation really wasn't her strong point. "Twenty thousand seems more appropriate. My dear Lord Blueblood would laugh if I were to spend that much."

"Would he?" Germoglio asked, his voice soft but with an edge of steel.

"An extravagant dress can be attractive," Rarity explained, two needles in her teeth. "An extravagant soldier is unseemly."

The dressmaker shot only a quick glance the mercenary Captain's way. Twilight tensed a bit, expecting the stallion to respond angrily. It would be hard to blame him. Rarity wasn't usually this cold, especially to a stranger. Surely if she just explained that they only had thirty thousand bits to spend he would find a way to -

"Twenty five thousand for three days," he offered without apparent irritation. "Fifteen for every day after, should you need it."

"For that price, I expect you will defend the countryside as well as the town."

"You expect much then, your Ladyship."

"True, I do expect much from the things of quality," Rarity remarked, fashioning a small golden bow to the short sleeve of the camouflage-dress. "My friends and I shall be observing the migration from outside the city."

Germoglio chuckled, his armor jingling like a martial chime.

"A fair request from a fair Lady," he decided. "Very well. Two days from now, and for exactly three days, we shall protect Ponyville and all the surrounding lands from harm. During that interval, we shall be at your command, and you may command my Company through me. We may renegotiate when our contract expires. Nastro shall draw up the papers and return to you shortly."

After a round of "farewell" and "arrivederci" the mercenary Captain and his notary left the Boutique. Only moments after the door closed behind them, Rarity rested her legs on top of the mannequine to breathe a sigh of relief. She quickly composed herself and retreated away from her dress in the making to lay on the soft cushions of a fainting couch.

"Twenty five thousand is a good deal," Twilight said, her thoughts still on the fact that a compagnia di ventura of all things would or could be hoarding knowledge on dragons. Maybe there was something to all those Daring Do novels? It would be great to even get a peek at records written by ponies who actually ran into adult dragons!

"Twenty five thousand bits... even my order for Sapphire Shores was a mere two thousand bits!" Rarity stared hard into his distance as she considered what she had now, and what she could spend. "I never imagined some day I would be just - just spending so much! Like that! But with a veritable swarm of dragons set to fly overhead, the town either pays a heavy price or it holds its breath and hopes for the best."

"It could have been forty thousand," Twilight reminded her. "Now we have fifteen thousand left to give back to Prince Blueblood."

Rarity lowered her head between her front legs, her lower lip stuck out in a pout.

"Rarity?" Twilight asked.

"He did give us forty thousand to spend how we saw fit," Rarity mused. "And if - when - we do marry, it will not be his fortune it will be ours. Should I really return the little bit we have left over?"

"Fifteen thousand is hardly a 'little bit,'" Twilight argued, taking a seat close by on one of the floor pillows. "And I'm pretty sure those were Duchy funds, not personal ones."

"We could put it towards funding that tower you wanted, darling." Rarity rolled onto her back as she pondered the possibilities. "Or to the new reservoir Rainbow Dash suggested."

Twilight didn't want to say: 'isn't that embezzlement?'

Instead, she tilted her head to the side and grumbled, "I don't know..."

"Blueblood wouldn't care. It'll only be a fuss if we make a fuss of it," Rarity assured her. She was still on her back, using her hooves now to draw little shapes in the air. "I'm sure I can press the Rich family for more bits. With fifteen thousand and another loan, I'm quite confident I can afford to fix both the town hall, expand the reservoir, and lay down the foundations for that tower you wanted."

"It will be a wonderful gift for Ponyville!" she said with a happy laugh. "Oh, I can't wait to see everypony's faces when they hear the news!"

Rarity, Twilight knew, would know the Prince best. Even if she hadn't confirmed it, Twilight doubted he would mind that much. For what it was worth.

"We do need those things," she agreed. "So... I guess you're right..."

"Of course I am, darling!" Rarity flipped off her couch to resume work on her new camo-dress. "On the topic of the migration, though, I very much wanted to ask if Spike will be doing anything special?"

"Like taking part?" Twilight shook her head. "I don't think so."

"He never... socialized with other dragons back in Canterlot?"

"There are only a few of them in the entire city." Twilight made her way past Rarity; now that the meeting was over, she could get back to the library. Though she'd probably have to help go over the contract the notary left in a few hours.

"You don't think the migration will give him any ideas?"

"It might," Twilight replied, and since she had heard about it, she had given the situation more than a little thought. It was largely out of her hooves, however. She could only react to how he reacted. "But what can we do? He's been the same size for a year now, but he is growing up, little by little."

She had meant that to be the end of it, but Twilight noticed Rarity watching her instead of working on her camouflage for the migration. There was something strange to the look - like the other mare wanted to ask something, but couldn't quite find a way to phrase it. Eventually, she just focused on her dress.

"We'll have to be extra nice to him. I'll see what I can do on my end. Thanks again for dropping by, Twilight."

"Anytime, Lady Rarity."

- - -

Dragon.

Just what did it mean to be a dragon?

Spike was determined to find out. Even if he had to walk the entire way, biting back his envy of all the other ones like him, but with wings. Even then, he would find out. He would finally get some answers.

"Chubby cheeks? Waddle?" Yesterday's events ran thought his mind like a herd of angry buffalo, circling a wagon train and refusing to disperse. "Cute?"

Maybe that last one was a mixed bag.

But dragons were not supposed to be 'cute!' Even Rainbow Dash, of all ponies, had watched the migrating dragons overhead with awe and respect. Spike didn't expect to be inspiring awe much, not for years yet, but a little draconic respect would be nice. He did breathe fire, after all! Just as vexing, nopony had complimented him on his cooking either!

As if - as if blueberry scones and almond ladyfingers just materialized out of thin air! Because they did not! Spike growled under his breath as he scrabbled up the volcanic incline, his claws finding rough purchase on the bare rock. Making fun of his apron? Okay, maybe in retrospect, he should have bought one of the novelty ones that said 'kiss the cook' or 'I'm with stupid' or 'I break for gems.' Instead of just buying one of Pinkie's with a big lame heart on it.

"One tough stain against one lame dragon!"

Making fun of him in one breath and scarfing down his food with the next.

"Hmf!"

So what if he didn't act like a dragon? The cookie fits the mold it's baked in, didn't it? His entire life, as far back as he could remember, he had been Twilight's loyal and capable assistant. Being a dragon had always been secondary. He lived with ponies, so it was only natural that he acted... pony-ish, right? Even though he never really fit in with the ponies his age. Even though he never entirely fit in with the ponies Twilight's age. Hell, he couldn't even fit in with the ponies Big Mac's age, much less Blueblood's. Being Twilight's number one assistant was great, but there had to be more to life than just that, didn't there?

Looking up, Spike could see dozens of dragons still circling and soaring through the ash-laden sky. The migration had crossed west and south of Ponyville, thankfully not crossing over or through Everfree. He'd momentarily lost sight of them through the mountain passes, but after that it had been a simple test of endurance to keep the slow moving flock in sight. Open prairies had ended in a forested caldera nestled within semi-wild parklands.

Muddy hot springs bubbled from cracks in the earth, yielding poisonous pools of yellow and green. Geysers erupted from calcified mounds, betraying the turmoil building far beneath the surface. Spike took it all in. He had never seen a land like it before, but inhaling the acrid sulfurous fumes filled his lungs with vigor and his body with energy. The features of this place: plateaus of old basalt lava flows, rivers of dried up pyroclastic rock and pumice, the permeating heat and the hissing vents like cracks in the egg of the earth...

It felt good.

It felt surprisingly good!

Finally reaching the height of his climb, Spike got his first look at the migration's terminus. Even though there were still dragons overhead, the majority had already taken to roost among the crags and ledges that surrounded the three largest calderas. There were dragons of every shape and size and color, from a familiar red and green to an exotic mauve and topaz. There were even two black dragons in sight, lounging lazily in the heat from nearby magma springs, their scales the color of smoke and ash.

He also began to notice a pattern at work: almost all of the dragons at roost bore the tell-tale features of females: slimmer bodies, no horns, and narrow jaws. He recognized the green dragon from Everfree, a 'her' he supposed, languidly watching the stockier males up in the air. The sky was alight with fire as the adults... well, Spike wasn't sure what they were doing. Fighting, probably?

None of them seemed to be paying him much attention.

Down below, at the lowest point in the caldera, a group of much smaller dragons were standing upright - rather than on all fours - and yelling as they postured and played some sort of game. Spike saw a red, two purples, a white and a black and a brown. It looked like they were fighting, too, but much less seriously than their much older fathers and brothers up in the air. They were older than him, still, but it looked like a start.

"Teenage dragons, huh?" He skidded down the slope, passing by a huge slumbering wyrm on a nearby steppe. "That's more like it!"

He didn't pay much attention to the weird looking dragon who followed him down less than a minute later. The migration had brought every dragon in Equestria - possible every dragon in the world - together. A few bizarro-types were to be expected. Eight legs, though? Weird!

- - -

His name was Sir Mercury, Royal Guard and Knight of the Thistle Order and the Heavenly Garter. Honored servant of Her Immortal Highness, Princess Celestia, protector of the Royal Household, and currently in service to Her Nephew, the Duke of Canterlot and Prince of the Realm. It was his privilege to obey the commands of the household, except that those current orders - to watch and guard one Lady Rarity - were starting to look rather suicidal.

The crazy mare had donned a fanciful and none-too-convincing costume along with two of her friends. Fine enough, except that she had then pranced along the edge of the dragon migration and into the waiting jaws of a hundreds of the largest and most terrifying wyrms Mercury had ever seen. Their disguise was a flimsy piece of work, held together by gems, plaster, magic and a prayer. It was a miracle they had survived this long, and he had assumed they would turn back after tracking the dragons to their latest mating ground.

Apparently not!

The trio had instead half-flown half-scrambled up, over, and into one of the dragon infested calderas. Mercury watched them disappear from sight with despair. There was no way he could survive following them in. He was a fast flyer, true, and a skilled fighter, also true. Perhaps he could snatch them away from danger if there were two or even three dragons. Perhaps. But there were hundreds! No pony could survive if things went belly-up out there.

After the now very public incident with Lady Antimony, Lord Blueblood had not been as forgiving of his subordinates as in the past. The Prince was up to something, meeting day after day with ponies from Canterlot and abroad. In his oft-absence, he had charged Mercury as his most trusted and capable guard to the task of seeing Rarity was not surprised by another Terre Rare plot. What pony could have imagined he would, instead, end up following her here into the very gates of a draconic Tartarus?

Keeping out of sight, the Royal Guard kept a close watch. If there was a commotion, then suicidal or not, he was duty-bound to at least make the attempt at a rescue. It was possible he could buy time for Miss Sparkle to teleport them out, far from the caldera. The forest could hide them long enough for them to gallop back to a safer place.

A rustle in the bushes reminded him there was another pressing matter as well.

This one, though, he could deal with, now that they were both stalled in terms of following the three ladies from Ponyville. Stealthily stalking away, he vanished into the shrubbery, using the nearby roar of a geyser to cover the sound of his movement. Then it was only a matter of waiting. The other pursuer took his or her sweet time investigating.

A fellow pegasus - a stallion - but who did he work for?

With hardly a whisper or rustle of leaves, Mercury pounced. A white hoof muffled the other pony's yelp, or would have if he had made any sound of alarm. The tip of a knife-edged feather bit into the skin of the spy's neck. It was a trick all royal guards knew. A little bit of enchantment magic, though they could only use it on themselves. Surprisingly, Mercury's captive remained unruffled and calm despite his capture in the field.

"Don't be too 'asty, now," the other pegasus warned. "The same pony pays both our bills, after all."

Mercury scoffed. "The Prince never mentioned you..."

"Shady's the name." The pegasus managed a chuckle despite his disadvantaged position. "And I wasn't talking about 'is Grace."

That could only mean...

The Princess?

"Things're moving pretty quickly, but for now we're stuck 'ere," Shady Deal said with a knowing grin. "Why don't we compare notes?"

- - -

Cloudsdale.

The Wonderbolts private training range thundered as Hanger Four exploded, solidified clouds unraveling as the roof peeled off in long curling strips. A brief, intense flurry of cold rainwater and frozen hail fell like debris on the nearby runway, sending a half dozen pegasi into a rush to find shelter. It was followed, seconds later, by a reverberating crash as chunks of cloudcrete descended, punching holes in the firmament. A siren began to wail, filling the air with a warbling cry.

"What was that?"

"An accident...!"

"Some kinda explosion?"

"What should we do?"

While confused onlookers debated -

Captain Thunderhead pulled himself out of the crater that now stood where Hanger Four had once been. The majestic white and silver stallion glanced back over his shoulder at his broken right wing. The long feathers twitched, sending a jolt of pain up his side and across his torso. His Wonderbolts uniform was shredded into strips and tatters, hanging barely to his lean, muscular frame.

A single, cadet-gray hoof slammed into his chest, sending onto his back.

"Fun."

The hoof pressed down harder, and with it a rush of wind that flattened the Wonderbolts Captain into the exposed cloudcrete. An agitated mist seeped out and spread from the pinned pegasus. Standing over him, and then straddling him shamelessly, another Wonderbolt - a mare with cadet-gray coat and a wild, jagged green-yellow mane - licked her lips. There was a decidedly unhinged look in her jasmine eyes.

"That was fun!" she gleefully declared, still straddling him amid the ruins of the Hangar. Her face dipped down and she nibbled the Captain's ear, hard enough to draw a few drops of blood. "Thank you very much, Captain. I haven't had fun like that in what seems like forever."

She leaned back, still mounting him.

"I'd be happy to do this again... when you're all patched up." She sighed in ecstasy, raising a hoof to wipe the blood from her split lip and bloody nose. A throaty laugh began in her throat as she reveled in the sensations flowing through her. And the destruction around her.

"I wonder: since I beat you, maybe I should be the new Captain of the Wonderbolts?"

Thunderhead coughed, sneering. "That... will never happen...!"

Instead of looking cross, the victorious mare merely laughed.

"I know! I know!" She stomped hard on his chest, eliciting a pained groan from her victim. Then, with only a little reluctance, the madmare spread her wings and slowly floated off of him. "I suppose I won't be Captain, but I don't mind! Really! The truth of it is, spending time here was getting kind of boring. You Wonderbolts were boring me. I want to have fun... like I used to."

"Ritter!"

The vicious pegasus slowly turned around.

"Spitfire?" she asked in a lazy, unconcerned tone. "How nice to see you!"

Settling down onto her hooves, Ritterkreuz shook her body and spread her wings in anticipation. Snorting from flared nostrils, a chilly wind drifted out from between her clenched teeth. Standing in a very similar position, with wings wide and ready to fly, Spitfire had been caught out of uniform. The yellow Wonderbolt, her two-toned fire-orange mane blowing in the wind, snarled at her comrade and wingmate.

Ritter's mad smile only broadened at the display of pique.

"Damn you," Spitfire snarled. "Even for you... this is..."

"What? What is this, exactly? Hmm?" Ritterkreuz - her cutie mark taking the form of a trio of orange and black explosions - prowled closer to her teammate.

"Oh! I think I get it!" She seemed to realize, looking around at the destruction she had caused. She raised her front legs to glory in it. "You mean this?"

"Or do you mean that?" Ritter pointed back at Captain Thunderhead's wounded body.

"Just what in Tartarus do you think you're doing!" Spitfire roared. "Attacking the Captain?! Injuring your team-mates!"

"Team-mates?" Ritter asked with an exaggerated expression of mock confusion. "You ponies? Are you joking? You were never my team-mates! I only joined you because I thought you could keep me amused. And you did, for a while. But now I'm bored, so I'm leaving."

"You think we'll just let you go, after all this?" Spitfire asked, edging away from the madmare.

"You can send the bill to my Daddy. I'm sure he'll be happy to build another airfield for you." She leered at her former comrade. "If you want to play with me, Sparky, I can make the time. But do you think you can take me on? When your precious Captain Thunderhead is lying broken behind me? What chance do you have?"

Her eyes narrowed, noticing the other mare still edging back, warily.

"Maybe you can get a few of your friends to help. Like that cutie, Soarin? Where is he, anyway?"

"Don't you lay a single feather on him," Spitfire hissed, standing her ground.

"Touched a nerve, did I?" the other mare asked, getting closer and closer, now that Spitfire refused to back away. "How territorial. I like that."

Spitfire tensed to fight...

But Ritter simply trotted past, her jagged tail swaying behind her.

"Come find me when you want to play rough," she suggested, still chuckling darkly. "Bring all your friends, too! I don't mind groups." She then lifted a wing in passing salute. "Bye, bye, Captain! It was fun while it last-ed!"

Torn between rushing the other mare's exposed back, Spitfire blasted off to check on Thunderhead. Only up close could she gauge the full extent of his injuries and how his uniform had been shredded, even while he wore it. He was conscious, but only barely. Thunderhead - he had been Captain for years! No longer a young stallion, true, but he was a legendary flyer. A legend even among the Wonderbolts; a mentor to the most elite of combat and trick flying pegasi that made up the Corps.

Even for Ritter, the spoiled daughter of the Governor of Cloudsdale, this was going too far!

"Where does she think she's going?" Spitfire ripped away a piece of Thunderhead's uniform to help bind and elevate his broken wing. "Don't worry, sir. The base doctor should be heading here right now! He'll be here any minute."

Thunderhead's breathing was steady and he raised his head to speak.

"Sir," she pleaded, trying to get him to relax. "You don't need to-"

"Ponyville," he whispered between clenched teeth. "She's... headed... to Pony... ville..."

"Ponyville?" Spitfire asked, knowing the town. But there was no reason to go there. Not for a psychopath like Ritterkreuz. "Why Ponyville?"

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