• Published 25th Apr 2014
  • 2,372 Views, 70 Comments

A Turnabout in Kind - alexmagnet

A dinner party gone awry; a priceless relic stolen; Rarity accused of grand larceny. All signs point to a conviction, but even with an ace Canterlot attorney on her side, she'll need more than a few "Objections!" to win the day.

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3 — The Party Perturbed

“I can’t believe him! ‘Reserved for ponies of equal standing’! Who does he think he is, anyway? The absolute nerve! You’d think that being in Fancy Pants’s good graces would be enough, but nooooo! Not for some ponies, it seems. Some ponies only care about the name, and if they don’t know the name already, it isn’t worth knowing! Oh, why does this always happen? Every time there’s a party, there’s always one stallion that just drives me up the wall! Why, why couldn’t this have just been a perfect evening for once? Haven’t I worked hard enough to deserve that much?”

She rounded on Fluttershy abruptly. “Well, haven’t I?”

Fluttershy blinked. “Um…”

Rarity sighed. “No, that’s all right, Fluttershy. I couldn’t honestly ask you that, anyway.” Turning back to the lavatory mirror, she took up her brush against a few more stray hairs. “Oh, I swear this sort of stress is going to be the death of me.”

Fluttershy looked around the bathroom, searching for any answers among the shining marble walls, the gleaming silver fixtures, or the luxurious towels. Unsurprisingly, there were none to be found.

“Well, maybe he just, um…”

“No, no! Don’t you dare try to defend him! That was inexcusable behavior!” She took another deep breath. “Still, I’ll just have to be the better pony. I simply won’t rise to his goading. And I won’t let it ruin the evening.” She stamped a hoof on the polished tile. “Yes, I will go out into the party with a smile on my lips and a gracious fire in my heart! Look out, world! Here comes Rarity, once again!” She struck out a hoof, pointing it at the door. “Let’s go, Fluttershy!”

Do we have to? It’s nice and quiet in here… “Okay.” Falling into step behind her, they passed through the door and out into the hallway.

The sounds of slow, deliberate music, and the low, constant murmur of a dozen different conversations drifted toward them from the entrance hall. Padding into the foyer, they could see that the mingling was well underway. The guests were spread about in their own little circles, each discussing some event or some business transaction, or some aspect of Canterlot politics.

To Fluttershy, it might as well have been the surface of the moon. Or the pits of Tartarus. Or the depths of the Everfree Forest. Actually, no, she’d much prefer the Everfree, because at least then she’d just have to deal with manticores and cocatrices.

It was fortunate, then, that she had an experienced mingler at her side; Rarity surveyed the crowd with a look of subdued excitement. Leading Fluttershy into the thick of it, she said, “Well, we aren’t going to do any good standing here, Fluttershy. And we have plenty of ponies to choose from.”

“But are any of them going to want to talk to us?” Fluttershy asked. Please tell me they aren’t. It’ll be so much easier.

“Oh, I’m sure at least some of them will. Let’s see if we can’t find a friendly face.”

With Fancy Pants roaming the room somewhere, interacting with his guests, it seemed to Fluttershy that friendly faces were in short supply. She spied the brightly hued form of Posh Panache flitting among the various gatherings, and Fleur de Lis had a good third of the room gathered around her, though she seemed to hardly notice. Cavalier Cairn was nowhere to be found, fortunately.

“Tell you what,” Rarity said, “why don’t we go and speak with Mr. Avant Garde again? He seemed a respectable sort.”

Fluttershy followed Rarity’s gaze, to where the portly gentleman and his female companion stood apart from a mustachioed stallion in a top hat. Truth be told, she noticed Silk Stocking and her huge dress first. “Okay.”

As they passed through the crowd, Fluttershy couldn’t help but notice the glances she and Rarity were getting. It seemed Rarity’s earlier prediction had come true; their outfits certainly were turning heads. She just wished they’d turn away quicker.

Nearing the circle of ponies, she could hear Avant Garde speaking.

“...It is a matter of probabilities, in estimating whether they are enough to constitute proof. This type of calculation is more complicated and more difficult than one might think. It demands a great sagacity generally above the common people. The success of charlatans, indeed, of all who abuse public credulity, is founded on errors in this type of calculation.”

“So, what you mean to say,” said the stallion with the top hat, “is that most ponies are bad at math?”

Garde chuckled. “Far from it. I mean simply that most lack the experience necessary to form logical conclusions. It is as much a learned behavior as it is an innate one.”

“If that’s the case, Mr. Garde, how does one learn this behavior? Or teach it to the common folk?”

Garde smirked. “So convenient it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. As I said, it is all a matter of experience. And experience is the best teacher.”

The pony in the top hat seemed to lack a reply for that, giving Rarity the opportunity to slide in.

“Well, well, well, Mr. Garde. It seems you’re all involved in a very deep conversation here.”

“Ah, Ms. Rarity.” He bowed his head to her. “Yes, we were just discussing matters of politics. And who is fit to engage in them.”

“Hmm… politics.” Rarity made a face. “I must admit, I’m not very familiar with the topic.”

“Well, politics is my occupation, after all.” Garde grinned proudly. “And if I do say so, it is a most noble endeavor.”

“I suppose I will have to take your word for it. If I may inquire, Mr. Garde, what exactly do you do in politics?”

The pony in the top hat laughed. “My dear, you’ve just opened a floodgate. If you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid I’ve heard all of this many a time. Mr. Garde, I beg your leave.”

“By all means, my good stallion.” When the other pony had gone, he turned back to Rarity. “He wasn’t the most engaging conversationalist, anyway.”

Rarity held a hoof to her mouth. “Well! I can only hope we prove better. Please, you were saying?”

“Yes, since you asked, I am a senator in the Noble Houses.”

“Ah, Fancy Pants explained as much, but not what you did, exactly.”

“That’s the eternal question, isn’t it? One day, we may be discussing trade agreements with the Griffon Kingdoms, the next we may be voting on a new city ordinance, and the day after that, we may be drafting new laws concerning property taxes, or composing a memorandum advising the Princesses on the public view.”

Rarity blinked. “‘Advising the Princesses’? You mean they’re not directly involved in all of this?”

“No, and that is the whole point. The Noble Houses were founded by Princess Celestia specifically to handle these sorts of mundane issues. As it reads above the door to the assembly, ‘Deliberatio Non Delegatio’. ‘Deliberation, not delegation’. We represent the interests of the people, and do our best to serve them.”

“Well, it certainly sounds like you keep yourself busy.”

“We try our best. And the good ponies of Equestria will settle for no less.” He stood up straighter, adjusting his glasses. “I daresay our endeavors do the public more good than they imagine. Tell me, my dear, are you familiar with Prince Blueblood?”

Rarity laughed nervously, looking away. “I, uh… am rather more familiar with him than I’d care to admit.”

Avant Garde laughed, a strong and hearty noise straight from the belly. “Say no more. Well then, you might be interested in hearing what happened when he tried to introduce a certain bill into the Noble Houses about a year ago, one which would impose sanctions on any business that did not keep its premises free of puddles.”

Rarity sighed, shaking her head. “Why does this not surprise me?”

“It came as no surprise to most of us, either. What was surprising was that he had the support of the Mason’s Guild, and several other senators, besides.” He snorted. “Fools multiply folly. Evidently everypony was keen on forcing the city to adopt some new gutters. It was never going to pass, though, not without certain tactics on Blueblood’s part…”

His words faded into the background as Fluttershy felt her mind beginning to wander, and her gaze with it. Mr. Garde seemed entirely well-meaning, but if she was perfectly honest, everything he was saying was mostly going over her head. Her sole experience with anything political was with Ponyville’s mayoral elections, and since nopony ever saw the need to run against the incumbent, things tended to be rather simple.

Simple. Just how Ponyville ought to be. The thought of home drew her whole head like a compass, instinctively pointing toward the town.

To her surprise, she found her drifting gaze had met that of Silk Stocking.

She seemed surprised as well, blinking once before offering her a small smile. She opened her mouth, as though she was about to say something, then apparently reconsidered. Sweeping a crimson bang out of her eyes, she took a timid step closer.

“You are Fluttershy, oui?”

Fluttershy shrunk back a little. “Um, yes. I’m, uh… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”

Non, non!” Silk shook her head, sending her pillar of hair swaying. “It is no problem at all. If anything, I should apologize. We have hardly spoken.”

That’s never a problem, believe me. “I suppose we haven’t, no.” She wracked her brain for some small talk. “Um… if you don’t mind my asking, what do you do, Ms. Stocking?”

“Oh, well, I…” she looked aside. “I suppose I… maintain a household.”

Fluttershy cocked her head. “‘Maintain a household?’”

“Yes, I come from a very wealthy family.” She gestured to her attire. “Petite surprise, non? We have so much money, I was, how do you say, ‘born into retirement.’”

“You mean you don’t have to work at all? You have that much?”

She looked strangely sad. “Oui. All my life, I have lived in a mansion, waited on by servants.”

“But, surely you have some hobbies?

“I read a lot. I like to study architecture.” Her face brightened for a moment. “I suppose one of my favorite things to do is to design mazes. I hear there is a grand labyrinthe in Canterlot Castle. Is this true?”

Fluttershy suppressed a shiver. “Um, yes, there is. I’ve been inside. It’s… big, yes.”

“Oh, I will have to ask Avant to take me there sometime. Tell me, do they have birds there?”

Is this a question? “Um… yes? I mean, there are birds all over Canterlot.”

“But do they have any grand birds, like flamants?”

“You mean phoenixes? Princess Celestia has one. She’s… actually not that big.”

Non, non. I mean the pink birds with the long legs.”

“Oh, flamingoes? No, they wouldn’t do well in Canterlot. They need very specific living conditions in order to thrive.” Fluttershy blinked. “You… Um, sorry, but it sounds like you, well, don’t have much experience with nature.” She winced. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be so… blunt.”

Her lips drooped, and her ears with them, as her eyes cast themselves somberly to the side. “Ça ira. I have… never been the strongest of health,” she said. “It has been that way ever since I was a young filly. Mes parents never let me play outside, for fear I would hurt myself or get sick.”

“Oh, how awful!” said Fluttershy, and she meant it. “I can’t imagine being cooped up inside all the time. I know my chickens would go crazy if I did that to them.”

Silk gave a bright laugh. “Les poulets? You have them? How funny!”

“Um… Funny?”

Oui. With the way they go ‘cot cot cot’ and strut along, pecking at the ground.” She giggled. “They are so funny!”

Fluttershy giggled herself. “Yes, I suppose they are.” She smiled at Silk Stocking, and was pleased to find her smiling back warmly. “I’d love for you to meet Elizabeak and the rest of my chickens. You should come to Ponyville sometime.”

“Ponyville?” She blinked. “Where is that?”

“It’s a little town just south of Canterlot. It’s really rather lovely, especially in the summer like this. There’s all sorts of festivals this time of year, plus the lake is always nice and cool. Oh, and of course, there are all sorts of animals, from squirrels to beavers to birds and beyond.”

Silk sighed, her gaze drifting upward. “It sounds très magnifique.” She looked at Avant Garde. “Perhaps I will ask Avant if we may take a vacation there instead.”

Fluttershy nodded to herself. What do you know? Maybe mingling isn’t so bad. With a deep breath, she turned back to the other two ponies in their circle. Avant Garde appeared to be wrapping up his story.

“…And so, Prince Blueblood spent twelve hours pontificating on the merits of gutters to an empty hall.”

Rarity held her head in her hoof, shaking it and grinning. “I can see it all now, Mr. Garde, and it is magnificent.”

He laughed. “He’s never been able to live it down. Any time he dared enter the assembly, somepony would cry, ‘Here comes the Orator! With his Flood of Words, and his Drop of Reason!’”

“So, um,” said Fluttershy, smiling, “it sounds like the Noble Houses are a fun place to be.”

Avant Garde nodded. “Good to hear your voice weigh in, Ms. Fluttershy. And yes, they can be. For the most part, however, we deal with more serious issues. Take our Snowbound friends, for example. It has been quite a challenge to build relations with them up to this point.”

Fluttershy quirked an eyebrow. “How come?”

“Well, let me ask you both this,” he said, straightening his glasses. “Had you ever heard of the Snowbound Republic before Fancy Pants mentioned it?”

“I’ll admit, I had never even heard of the place,” said Rarity. Fluttershy shook her head.

He gave a knowing nod. “That’s because, as much as they could be, they were a lost civilization until recently.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”

“The Republic has always been isolationist. From their very beginnings, they’ve mostly kept to themselves. I understand they’ve dealt with many internal problems, not least of which is the frigid climate in which they live, but from that they’ve forged quite a country. And only recently have they decided to open their borders to us. I have since served as ambassador, one of only a hoof-full who have been allowed to visit in centuries.”

“And I presume Fancy Pants is one of those others?”

“Indeed.” He looked around. “Mr. Panache has also been there. If I could find him, I’m sure he’d love to—”

“Did shomeone shay my name?” Suddenly, Posh Panache was among them, chewing on a sprig of alfalfa. Somehow, he’d managed to bypass all of their gazes despite his florid attire. “And yesh,” he said, swallowing, “I would indeed love to tell of my adventures there. Have I mentioned how I was the one who made first contact?”

Avant Garde looked at the assembled mares, smiled, and said, “By all means, my good stallion, enlighten us.”

“Ask and ye shall receive.” Posh cleared his throat, sounding like rooster choking on its morning crow. “So, there I was, riding one of my airships over the northern reaches when we were suddenly set upon by windigoes.”

“Windigoes?!” both Rarity and Fluttershy exclaimed.

Oh, mes étoiles!” said Silk Stocking. “You mean the beasts really exist?”

“Milady, I have the soiled trousers to prove it. They came from nowhere, straight out of the frigid air, braying and howling like the Hound of Tartarus itself! They surrounded us on all sides, battering their hooves against the hull”—he used one hoof to bang against the ground, demonstrating, rather vividly, what the windigoes did—“and to our horror, the wood began to freeze! With each strike, they came closer and closer to rending the hull asunder! My breath turned to frost, and I thought ‘Surely this is the end!’” He held a hoof to his forehead in a dramatic gesture that made even Rarity jealous. Suddenly, he snapped his hoof back down, and a sly grin came across his face. “But do you know what happened next?”

Rarity shook her head. “I haven’t a clue.”

Posh’s face lit up with the childlike glee of a foal on their birthday. “Just at the last moment, when all hope was lost and I’d resigned myself to my fate, who should arrive but one Gilbert Whitehill, accompanied by a cadre of his personal guards.”

“Mr. Posh?” said Fluttershy, tilting her head to the side. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but who is this Gilbert Whitehill again?”

Posh clicked his tongue. “Goodness, Fancy Pants hasn’t even told you the names of our guests yet? How very unbecoming. I’m aghast, agape, aggrieved.” He frowned. “Hmm, perhaps I wouldn’t go that far, but since he’s already done you the dishonor of not telling you of Gilbert the Great and Glorious, I don’t suppose you’ll mind me doing it, hm?”

Rarity chuckled, bowing her head a bit. “Not at all, Posh. Please, carry on.”

“Oh, with pleasure. And with visual aids!” He was away in a flash, and when he returned a second later, he was carrying his upturned bicorn, filled with an assortment of salt and pepper shakers, in one hoof and a boat of cream in the other. In one smooth motion, he arrayed them on the floor between them.“Now, as I was saying, myself and my crew were being harried by a group of particularly troublesome windigoes.” He picked up a few of the salt shakers and tapped them against the cup. “But, as luck would have it, we happened to be passing by one of the great steppes often patrolled by the Snowbounders, though I didn’t know it at the time.” He moved the pepper shakers in a bit closer. “The windigoes had broken through the upper decks and grabbed one of my most senior officers. Rough Seas is no small stallion, let me tell you. A lifetime of working on trading vessels had made him quite the formidable pony. He was as strong as an ox, and bigger than any I’d ever seen. But that didn’t stop the windigoes. They scooped him up like he was a newborn foal.” Posh used one of the salt shakers to spill a bit of the cream on the table.

“Oh dear,” said Fluttershy, covering her mouth. “I hope he didn’t get hurt.”

Posh gave Fluttershy a reassuring smile. “Oh, not to worry, my dear. He’s fine now, though I was less certain at the time. I thought he was a goner for sure, and that I’d be next. But, like a bolt of lightning, as soon as the windigo had taken Seas off the deck, it was struck by a monster of a griffon. He barreled over the windigo like it wasn’t even there, and he managed to catch Seas as he fell at the same time. No easy feat, I can assure you of that.”

“Surely this griffon couldn’t have done all this by himself,” said Rarity, raising her eyebrow a bit. “You did say there was a group of them, correct?”

“Oh, there was a group of them all right,” said Posh, now grinning ear-to-ear. “But I can assure you my memory of the event is as clear as the water in those glasses. Gilbert, as I found out was his name later on, took out at least four or five of the windigoes himself, and that was after saving Rough Seas. He dropped the officer back on the deck before going to fight more windigoes, and when he did, I saw him up close for the first time. I told you that Rough Seas was as big as an ox, yes? Well, Gilbert made Seas look like a baby deer next to him. He towered over all the other griffons that were with him, and even they were not exactly small.” Posh picked up one of the pepper shakers and started knocking over the salt shakers one by one. “After he’d saved Seas, Gilbert set about taking out the windigoes. He was faster than any pony I’d ever seen, and more agile than his massive frame would make you suspect. He moved like an eagle, but hit like a lion, which, I suppose makes sense now that I think about it.”

Avant Garde, who was busy cleaning up the mess Posh was making with his demonstration, said, “Griffons are known for their strength and speed, make no mistake. Gilbert, however—”

“Gilbert was different,” said Posh, interrupting Garde and taking back the reigns of the story. “He wasn’t just fast. He could outrun any of the windigoes as they tried to flee. He wasn’t just strong. He grabbed the vile beasts by their necks and sent them plummeting towards the ground like they were pebbles.” He held up the pepper shaker in his hoof, admiring it like you would fine jewelry. “No, Gilbert Whitehill is in a league of his own. A cut above the rest. The cream of the crop. Top of—”

“Yes, yes, we get it, Posh,” said Garde, scooping the last of the spilled salt onto a plate and handing it to a passing maid. “Gilbert is certainly something special. Of that you ladies can be sure.”

Posh tossed aside the pepper shaker and the put his hoof on Rarity’s shoulder. He grinned widely at her. “And tonight you’re going to meet Gilbert.”

Fluttershy shuddered slightly. “He sounds scary,” she said. “I’m not sure I want to meet him.”

Posh laughed jovially, patting Fluttershy on the back. “Nonsense! If there’s one thing I learned from that day Gilbert saved us, it’s that you should never judge a chicken before it’s hatched. Wait, I think I’m mixing up my metaphors again. What is it?” He tapped a hoof against his chin. “Something to do with books, I think.”

“Oh, there you ladies are! I was worried I had lost you in the crowd,” came a voice from behind Rarity. She turned to see Fancy Pants making his way through the crowd towards them. Evidently Posh Panache hadn’t noticed though as he was still thumping his head with a hoof, staring up with a far off look in his eye. Fancy Pants leaned in and whispered to Fluttershy and Rarity. “Come now, while he’s distracted. There’s plenty more guests I’d like you ladies to meet. I’m sure Posh won’t mind if we step out.”

Rarity tried not to let it show too much, but Fluttershy could hear the relief in her voice as she said, “Yes, I do hate to leave Mr. Panache, but there’s a whole party full of guests.” She gave a little grin that quickly turned into a look of sheer terror. “Oh no...”

“What?” said Fluttershy. “What is it, Rarity?”

With a trembling hoof, Rarity pointed toward the table filled with hors d’oeuvres. There, creeping along the edge of the table, was Opalescence. She was eyeing the platters of food as only a hungry cat can.

“Hmm… How did she get out?” Fluttershy wondered aloud.

“What was that?” said Fancy Pants, turning back the mares. “Did you say something?”

Rarity quickly snapped back to Fancy Pants, a bright and unassuming smile on her face. “What was that? Oh, no, no,” she waved her hoof dismissively, “it’s nothing, Fancy Pants, darling. A mere slip of the tongue.”

Fancy Pants raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. “As you say, my lady. Come then, I’m sure we can find some excellent company here somewhere.”

Rarity waited for Fancy Pants to turn back around before she whipped back to Fluttershy, her eyes wide. She leaned in and hissed into Fluttershy’s ear. “She shouldn’t be here. Not now!”

Fluttershy tilted her head in curiosity. “I know we closed the door. I could have sworn the window was closed, too…”

“Oh, this isn’t good! If anypony sees her, they’ll start asking, ‘Whose cat?’ That’s not a question I’m prepared to answer!”

Fluttershy looked at her. You brought her here in the first place, Rarity…

“Quickly, Fluttershy! Go over there and coax her back to the room as quietly as possible.”

“Why me?”

“If I go, she’ll make a fuss. This needs to be done quietly. Please Fluttershy, this is no place for a little kitten like her!”

She's not a kitten anymore, Rarity... “Okay, I'll take care of her.”

“Thank you, Fluttershy. I'll run interference for you.”

As she slipped away, quickly catching back up with Fancy Pants, Fluttershy heard Rarity resume her conversation with a much louder volume. “So, you were saying, Fancy?”

With head bowed slightly on instinct, Fluttershy broke away and made her way toward the table. Her pace was slow and cautious, her eyes wide and darting around the surroundings rapidly. Her dress was still drawing curious gazes, though hopefully that meant the assembled aristocrats weren’t paying attention to Opal.

As she drew near, she began to smell the hors d'oeuvres. The table was well-laden with all sorts of delicious-looking dishes—alfalfa leaves cut into appealing shapes, exotic plants such as pomegranates, citrus fruits, and some spiky things she couldn't identify—and toward the end were… fish bites?

Unless her nose was fooling her—and it was usually nice enough not to—fish was being served. Sure enough, as she got closer, she spied a platter of what appeared to be salmon filets, garnished with assorted greens.

Odd. Why would they serve this sort of thing to ponies? Indeed, it seemed the platter was untouched, except for where somepony had apparently scraped the vegetables off of one of them. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, though, not if the hungry-eyed feline staring up at them had her way. With a few final steps, she made her way up, placing herself between Opal and the room at large.

Apparently, she was rather adept at being stealthy. Opal barely registered her approach, though that might have just been apathy on her part.

“Hello, Opal,” she whispered once she was in range.

The cat looked back at her, if only for a moment.

“Um, I'm afraid you'll have to come with me, Opal. This is no place for a little cat, I'm sorry to say.”

Opal seemed to perk up at this, giving Fluttershy her attention.

"Yes, I'm afraid you'll have to stay in the room until this is all over. There's going to be a lot of other animals here soon. I know you're not one for other animals, and I wouldn't want to impose."

Opal looked back at the table, then gave her an inquisitive meow.

“Shh! You need to be quiet Opal.” She looked around. Nopony seemed to have heard her. “Here, if I get you some of that lovely fish, will you come back to the room with me?”

She seemed to contemplate that for a moment. Then she meowed, nodding her head.

“Okay, then. Quick, hide under the tablecloth while I get you your plate.” She lifted up the edge of the white cloth, ushering Opal underneath. The cat looked up at her impatiently as she closed her in.

Sparing no time, Fluttershy quickly grabbed a small plate from the table and began loading it up. She was hardly an experienced judge, but from what she could tell, the little bites were delicious—she detected all manner of spices, plus fresh lemon. Half a dozen would do.

“All right, Opal. I’ve got your fish. Now, just keep it under the table. I’m going to slide the plate right under—”


Fluttershy’s eyes widened and she nearly knocked her head on the table as she spun to face the source of the voice.

He was an older stallion, with slate-gray fur and a long, silver mane. He wore a white three-piece suit, the gray of his fetlocks poking from his sleeves like some sort of fancy cuffs. His hooves were white, matching his outfit, and on his flank was a picture of a bone on a black slate.

“I’m no psychologist,” he said, his voice stern and gravelly, “but is there a reason you’re conversing with the tablecloth, Miss?”

“Um…” She pawed the carpet nervously. “N-no reason in particular. None at all.”

“Hmm…” With a green glow, he withdrew a notepad and pen from within his coat, flipping the pages over. “You are Ms. Fluttershy, correct?”

“Yes, that’s me.” She wracked her brain, searching through the dozens of faces she’d met out on the front porch. “And you’re… Um…”

“Sterling Hoof, M.D.” He scribbled something down, muttering to himself. “Patient exhibits numerous psychological abnormalities. Slight amnesia, schizophrenic symptoms.” His gaze suddenly snapped back to her. “Tell me, Miss, how long have you had these carnivorous urges?

“I-I’m sorry?”

He nodded to the plate of fish. “It’s rare to see a pony exhibiting such behavior outside of extreme starvation. Do you regularly consume meat, Miss?”

“Oh no!” She shook her head. “No, not at all! T-this is all a big misunderstanding. I”—she paused, watching him writing down even more notes—“Um, are you really writing all this down?”

“Of course. Any medical puzzle requires notes.”

“But I’m not sick…”

“Really? Your jaundiced fur could indicate any number of nutritional deficiencies.”

“T-this is how my coat always is…”

“So it’s genetic, then. Hmm… that makes things difficult.”

“N-no! I’m fine!” she blurted. “I mean, I’m sure I’m perfectly healthy, Doctor. Thank you.”

“If that’s the case, there must be some other explanation for your behavior.”

“Well, I…” She suddenly felt something brush against her back leg. She jumped, leaping to the side, and to her horror, found Opalescence happily munching her way through the plate of fish. Fluttershy looked up at Sterling Hoof, her ears flattened against her head.

He nodded. “I see. And here I thought I might have an opportunity to exercise my diagnostic muscles.” He sighed. “Oh well.”

Slowly, Fluttershy spoke up again. “Um, can you please do me a favor and not tell anypony about this?”

He glanced at his notebook. The corner of his mouth twitched, slightly. “I think we’ll just file this whole affair under ‘doctor-patient privilege.’”

“Um… T-thank you, Doctor.”

“No harm done, Miss, as it should be.”

Wrapping Opal surreptitiously beneath one of her wings, Fluttershy made all due haste away from the foyer. Remind me never to get sick in Canterlot...

If there was one thing Fluttershy could be proud of, it was that she’d learned the layout of the manor fairly quickly. The swiftest route back to the guest room was through the patio and out into the central garden where she could sneak in through the rear staircase, hopefully without being seen. With Opal still secured under her wing, Fluttershy quickly slipped outside.

Luckily, it seemed nopony had made the migration outside yet, and so she was, thankfully, alone. The sun was just hanging above the edge of the rooftops; a little longer, and the courtyard would be plunged into shadow. Birds flitted from hedge to rustling hedge, their chirps accompanying the babbling of the central fountain. And the sound of voices.

As she rounded one of the hedges, she recognized them. It sounds like Mr. Garde and Silk Stocking.

“He really has done much to improve this place,” said Avant Garde thoughtfully. “I remember when he first inherited it from his grandfather, it was all but falling apart.”

“Ah, I do enjoy old houses. So much character in the walls, you could almost speak with them.”

He chuckled. “Take care you don’t get lost in that character, my dear. There’s still a long night ahead. Fancy hasn’t even brought out the vintage wine yet.”

Silk Stocking laughed in an airy tone. “Très drôle. I won’t lose myself, I assure you.”

Fluttershy surveyed the area, weighing her options. The pair was right in the middle of her route to far door. Were she alone, she could take flight and maybe slip past them, but with Opal, she didn’t dare risk it. Cats weren’t meant to fly, after all, and usually made that fact well-understood with claws and fangs. Maybe she could leap across the gap into the concealment offered by the next hedge… No, there was no way she’d be quick enough, even without her dress slowing her down. Maybe if—

“Ah, Ms. Fluttershy!” Avant Garde called to her. “What are you doing out here?”

Darn. Upon reflection, it was probably not a good idea to ponder the finer points of tactical espionage while in plain sight.

“Oh, I was just, um, heading back to our room to get something,” Fluttershy said, doing her best to hide Opal under her wing. Well, with my cover blown, I might as well take the direct route. She gave them an awkward smile, moving closer. “Um, well, I hate to bother you, so I think I’ll just be on my way. To the room.”

“You’re staying in one of the guest rooms?” Garde looked at her inquisitively. “Tell me, did Fancy Pants ever get around to fixing the loose boards in the corner room there?”

Opal was starting to squirm. “Uh, I don’t know,” said Fluttershy. “We’re staying in that room up there”—she pointed to the second-story window just off the center—“and I haven’t noticed any loose boards.”

“Ah, the lavender room, then. Yes, as I recall, that was where Fancy’s grandfather used to keep his study.”

“Really? Well, that’s very interesting, but—” she cut off as a very feline “meow” suddenly sounded from beneath her wing.

Avant Garde and Silk Stocking both raised their eyebrows.

“Um, that was… my stomach growling. It’s like a ferocious tiger in there!” She laughed, forcing a grin.

Garde gave her a good-natured chuckle. “Well, I knew you were an animal keeper, Miss, but a tiger? Not a beast to be trifled with. Please, do what you must to tame it.” He motioned away with an outstretched hoof.

“T-thank you, Mr. Garde. I’ll just—Oh!”

Opal suddenly squirmed loose, plopping to the ground in front of her. She held her nose high, sniffing at the air, and with a purposeful stride, started padding over toward Garde and Silk. Her green eyes seemed fixed on Garde for some reason.

Silk giggled. “I think she likes you, Avant.”

“Indeed.” Opalescence was rubbing up against Avant Garde’s leg, letting out a soft purr. Garde chuckled again, bending down to the cat’s level. He leaned down, reaching out a hoof and petting her head, eliciting more purrs. “She certainly seems friendly.”

Oui,” Silk said, watching the cat closely. “Very friendly.”

Opal suddenly reached a paw up. Fluttershy followed her grasping paw, and saw what she was reaching for: the lapel of Garde’s coat, or rather, what was pinned there. It had small, sharp wings, and a long, narrow beak with two dark gemstones for eyes. It was made of bright copper, with shades of patina showing along its edges. Honestly, it ought to have caught her attention sooner, given what it was shaped like.

“Is that… a Green Violetear?” Fluttershy said, pointing to it.

Garde looked at her, wide-eyed. “Why, yes! You have quite the eye for birds, Ms. Fluttershy.” He looked down at the thing. “Yes, in my youth, I helped found a small volunteer fire company, and we kept Canterlot’s East Quarter safe for many years. This little fellow was our symbol.”

“What happened to the company?”

“I wound up disbanding it many years down the line. Once I entered Canterlot University, I no longer had the time for such things.” He looked away, up above the courtyard walls. “Fancy Pants made sure of that.”

Fluttershy looked at him oddly. There was something in the way he said that…

Opal suddenly lunged for Garde’s lapel. Fluttershy wrestled her back, fur flying every which way. “No, Opal!” she scolded. “That was very rude! Apologize to Mr. Garde right now.”

Garde laughed. “Well, I guess my little hummingbird is a little too lifelike!”

Opal mewed, reaching out for Garde’s pin once again, but Fluttershy pulled her away. “Opalescence! What has gotten into you?”

“No, no, it’s quite all right, my dear,” said Garde, waving his hoof and giving Fluttershy a kindly smile. “She’s just a cat after all.”

She could feel her face flushing with embarrassment. She flicked her gaze to Silk, who was looking at her amusedly. “I should…. get her out of here. I’m so sorry.”

“The cat in gloves catches no mice.” He grinned. “Run along, then.”

Fluttershy hardly needed to be told twice. As quickly as she was able, she raced from the courtyard and up the stairs. Once inside, she placed Opal on the bed with her plate of fish, saying, “Now, you stay here. Okay, Opal? It won’t be good if anyone else spots you running around. You’ll get Rarity in trouble.”

Opal regarded Fluttershy with an indifferent look. She gave a plaintive meow, then started tearing into the fish on her plate. Fluttershy nodded, satisfied, and then slipped back out before the curious cat had a chance to escape again.

Closing the door behind herself, Fluttershy let out a little sigh of relief and headed back. Fluttershy carefully made her way down the steps and back into the main ballroom, where the party had continued in her absence. If only it had finished, too…

Her eyes scanned the many ponies, seeking Rarity. It should’ve been easy—they were both wearing unique dresses, after all—like trying to spot a red squirrel among so many gray ones. Sure enough, she was standing near the far wall. And she wasn’t alone.

Cavalier Cairn was standing in front of her. His horn was alight with a golden glow as he held up a glass of red wine. He seemed to be speaking evenly, with an easygoing smile, though the frown on Rarity’s face belied any cheer.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this… Swallowing heavily, Fluttershy hurried to her friend’s side.

As she approached, she heard Cairn’s smooth voice speaking. “Are you sure? It seems as though there’s something you wish to say.”

“There is,” Rarity said, her voice hard and even, “but it wouldn’t be fit for polite company.”

Cairn glanced at Fluttershy. “Oh, is that who this is? ‘Polite company’?” His grin widened. “Odd name for a pony.”

No, my name is…

“Her name,” Rarity cut in, “is Fluttershy. And I’ll stop you right there, since I won’t tolerate any disrespect toward my friends.”

“One of your friends? Ah, I suppose I should’ve guessed.” He looked between the two of them. “Such… unique attire. It certainly stands out from the crowd.” He lifted his glass, taking a sip.

Rarity’s eyes narrowed, scanning his face. Evidently she was trying to determine whether that was a compliment or not.

“What matters, however,” Cairn continued, “is whether you stand out from the crowd.”

Rarity’s narrowed gaze turned into a full-on glare. “Excuse me?”

“Canterlot doesn’t care what you say or do, Lady Rarity. It cares about what you have to barter with. So, what’s your commodity?”

She tossed her head back. “Well, the lovely thing about my particular set of skills is that they’re easily displayed. Fashion is my passion, and my livelihood.”

“Then you would know that it’s not the clothes that matter, but the pony beneath them.” He gave an obvious glance to his own outfit. “Canterlot already has many tailors. If you aim to step into that arena, you’d better be prepared.”

Rarity reached up, stroking her mane. “I’m quite confident I can stand with the best.”

His eyes roved her dress. He gave a stiff nod. “Yes, I concede that’s likely true.”

She looked at him levelly. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“Hmm… How very tragic, when a stallion can’t be taken at his word.”

“You’re an exception to the rule, I suppose.”

“Indeed I am exceptional. One of the perks of being me, I suppose.” He raised his glass in toast to himself, taking a sip.

Rarity chuckled, shaking her head. “If you weren’t standing in front of me, I could scarcely believe anypony could be so arrogant.”

“At least I’m arrogant for more than my own sake. Unlike most of the ponies here, I at least have some of my own achievements to stand on.”

“Really?” Rarity’s words dripped with sarcasm. “And what, dare I ask, have you contributed to society, Mr. Cairn?”

“It’d be simpler to list what I haven’t. When your law career is as stellar as mine, individual moments tend to fall to the wayside.”

“Ah, you’re a lawyer.” Rarity nodded grimly. “That explains things.”

He grinned, showing off his white teeth. “And now who’s being disrespectful? Your Honor, I object to the witness’s last statement and request new testimony!”

“Oh, don’t you start bringing your courtroom antics in here. This is a friendly gathering, and the last thing—”

“‘A friendly gathering?’” He barked a quick laugh. “Nopony in Canterlot gathers simply to be friendly. There’s always a motive.” He tilted his head back, looking down his nose at her. “So, Lady Rarity, let’s hear yours. What are you doing at this little gathering?”

Her expression would’ve cracked a mirror, but she began to speak, nonetheless. “I came here at the request of a friend.”

“Hold it.” Cairn struck out his hoof. “Who is this friend, exactly?”

“Fancy Pants, of course. He requested that I come and help prepare the manor for the party.”

“Just you, then?”

“No.” Rarity turned to Fluttershy. “He asked for Fluttershy, as well.”

“Oh?” Cairn’s gaze also found her. “And would you care to explain why, Miss?”

Not really, no. “Um, I’m just here to—”

“She’s also here to help with the party,” said Rarity. “And that’s all you need to know, Mr. Cairn.

Cairn’s grin widened. “Very well. Please continue, Lady Rarity.”

She frowned. “I believe I answered your question.”

“Oh, you’re finished?” His expression was one of surprise, but his eyes still carried his grin. “Thank you for proving my point, then. You’re here on business. Nothing friendly about it.”

Her eyes flashed. “I will have you know that Fancy Pants is a dear friend of mine and—”

“And how much is he paying you, exactly?”

Rarity’s jaw dropped open. “Wh—No! Not a bit! And I wouldn’t think of asking!”

“Ah, but of course. Money exchanged puts the matter to rest, but a favor?” Cairn regarded Rarity like a hawk sighting its prey. “A favor is a grand investment. Easily repaid, and highly profitable.”

“Y-you…” Rarity spluttered. “How dare you—”

“It’s a fine strategy. Easily worthy of Canterlot. Find the stallion on top of the heap, wile your way into his good graces, and begin building the debt. A favor here, a favor there… Soon enough he’ll be in arrears, and then you can collect on it all at—”

Enough!” Rarity burst out. “You, sir, are an absolute cur! Honestly, I don’t know how Fancy Pants could have let in such an ungentlemanly, uncouth, uncivilized lowbrow like YOU!

The hum of conversation died, plunging the foyer into absolute silence. Even the band had ceased playing. Fluttershy’s gaze darted around the room, finding every pair of eyes now focused on the three of them. She cringed back, riveting her gaze to Rarity for safety.

Rarity’s own gaze was fixed on Cairn, and his with hers. His expression hadn’t shifted from that same half-lidded look of smug disdain. Slowly, deliberately, he lifted his glass to his lips and took another sip. Swallowing, he cast his gaze around the room, one eyebrow arched.

“Well, carry on, ladies and gents,” he said. “Don’t let us distract you from the festivities.”

One by one, the ponies in the hall turned back to their own conversations. The band began playing once again. Fluttershy let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding; Rarity also seemed to deflate, the recoil of her outburst finally hitting home.

Cairn let the noise hang between them for a moment. “That, Lady Rarity, is precisely why.”

Her glare returned in full force. “What do you mean?”

“It’s quite simple. Look around you. You see how these ponies reacted? Not a one thought to speak out against me, and do you know why?” He grinned. “It’s because I would outspeak them.”

“You’re a blowhard.” Rarity growled. “I think we’ve well established that.”

“No, no, don’t misunderstand. Here”—he pointed to a pony across the room—“see the fellow in the grey coat? That’s Overland Route, owner of the Southwest Railway.”

“And? What does he have to do with anything?”

“Well, when his railway began switching away from pony-driven engines, the unions tried to argue that it was a violation of labor statutes, since it put so many drivers out of a job. Long story short, I argued that since the new engines created new maintenance jobs anyway, there was no net loss, and therefore, no case.”

“Wonderful. I think I see what you’re getting at.”

“Oh, I’m hardly finished. That… healthy lady over yonder? Ms. Verdant Wood, one of the biggest paper magnates in Canterlot. She owns some of the largest tracts of timber south of the Unicorn Range, all thanks to me.”

“So, you’re a charity now?”

“No, I simply argued for her property rights. She and West Weald over there both laid claim to the same land, citing ancestral rights. A bit of research into the Canterlot Archives produced a document that I used to prove her claim the valid one.

“And then I spun around and filed a suit for Mr. Weald not two months later. Turns out Ms. Wood had tried floating her timber down one of his rivers without his permission. That was a fun case. Stellar reactions from all involved.

“Madame Pish Posh over there? She wouldn’t be wearing that dress if I hadn’t defended her against a copyright suit for the design. Mr. Arpeggio? His career wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t brought several imitators to suit. Sir Coal there owes his hold over Canterlot’s hearths to me. And as for our host Mr. Fancy Pants—”

“All right!” Rarity hissed. “We get it! You have an impeccable record in court. You’re also an absolute louse.”

The insult bounced off of him. “Not just impeccable, my dear. Immaculate. I have never lost litigation. That’s the sort of reputation that gets around rather quickly, and a good reputation is a good commodity.”

She scowled at him as though he were something scraped off a sewer worker’s hoof. “So what you mean to say is you’ve long since sold yourself.”

“No more than anypony else here. If you want to know how this city stays fixed to the mountainside, Lady Rarity, it isn’t because of sturdy construction. It’s because of ponies like me, who make sure there’s enough money going around to hold it all together.” He lifted his glass, knocking it back in one quick pull. When he looked at them again, his eyes were hard. “Sorry to spoil your illusions of good company, but that’s just how it is in Canterlot. Have a pleasant evening.” Without another word, he trotted away into the crowd, leaving the two mares alone.

For the second time, Fluttershy let out a breath she’d been holding. The last time she’d experienced such a choking atmosphere, dragons had been involved. Rarity looked like she was about to breathe fire herself. Or shoot it from her eyes.

Well, I guess I’ll have to say something here. She took a deep breath.

“Fluttershy,” Rarity suddenly said, “I want you to promise me something.” Her voice was hard and quiet.

“Y-yes, Rarity?”

“Whatever else happens tonight, you will not let me speak with that… barbarian again. Do you understand?” She looked at her with a mad flicker in her eyes. “Not. A. Word.”

Fluttershy felt her body leaning back on reflex. She gave a tiny nod.

“Well, I daresay that could’ve gone better,” said Fancy Pants, who’d been standing off to the side a bit during the argument.

Rarity sucked in her breath, noticing Fancy Pants for the first time. She bowed her head a bit. “I’m dreadfully sorry for the commotion, Fancy. It was entirely my fault. I shouldn’t have let that… that…”—she breathed in slowly—“Mr. Cairn get to me. I apologize for disturbing the party like I did.”

Fancy Pants smiled knowingly. “Oh, it’s quite all right, my dear. Happens to the best of us. Besides”—he waved his hoof across the hall—“the party is still going, see? You didn’t disturb anything.”

“Yes, well, all the same, I apologize for my rudeness.”

Just then, a maidservant came up to Fancy Pants. She cleared her throat to get his attention, then said something to him that neither Fluttershy nor Rarity could hear. Then, just as quickly as she’d appeared, the mare was gone again, and now Fancy Pants wore a wide grin on his face. He looked at them with almost childlike glee. “Ladies? Excuse me a moment.”

He stepped toward the center of the room, clearing his throat, and announced to the room at large, “My good mares and stallions, may I have your attention, please?” He paused, waiting for absolute silence. “I have just been given some fantastic news. It seems our other guests will be arriving shortly. Please join me out front, so that we may gift them an Equestrian welcome!”

“Hear, hear!” somepony shouted, and the rest broke into raucous applause.

Rarity, for her part, was eager to take Fancy Pants’s hoof as they began moving toward the front entrance. Fluttershy, on the other hand, now felt a pit in the deepest part of her stomach. She recalled what Posh Panache had said of their leader, Gilbert Whitehill, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.

Oh, I hope he isn’t mean...

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