• Published 15th Jul 2014
  • 1,534 Views, 106 Comments

Manehattan Madness - Ardashir

It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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The First Day: In The Big Apple

Chapter 2
The First Day:
In the Big Apple

“EEEP!” Fluttershy shrank down on the seat, pressing against Applejack as their crimson-and-gold landau shot across 42nd Avenue; the centerline tracks jarred her teeth with a Bang Ba-Bang! as the open carriage turned onto 42nd just ahead of an oncoming cable car.

“Fluttershy, darling!” Rarity called from the vis-à-vis front seat facing the two; as the buildings cut off the sight of Grand Central’s limestone columns and great train shed, the elegant unicorn’s magic pulled the pegasus back into her seat. “There’s no need to be so excited! This pace is quite normal for Manehattan!” Turning her head over the dashboard, she called down to the pair of earth pony stallions in harness. “Isn’t that right, gentlecolts?”

The cable car raced past them, bell ringing and grip-pony neighing something lost in the noise of the traffic.

“It most soitanly is, Lady!” the green-coated one in the left traces called back in a thick accent. Like his roan teammate, he wore the crimson-and-gold livery of the Manehattan Royal Hotel. “So tell your friends not to worry, we’ve done this hundreds of times!”

Rarity looked back to the intersection, at the drayage van following them from Grand Central; two more earth ponies, teamsters almost the size of Big Mac, pulled it through the turn behind the carriage. Another cab shot past, barely missing the carriage-and-van convoy, its cabbie snorting with flattened ears, “Hay, buddy, up yours!”

The two teamsters behind them answered with some similar neighs. Applejack whooped laughter to hear them; Rarity and Fluttershy both reddened, then the cab was past and they were clip-clopping down 42nd Avenue.

“Must we go so fast?” Fluttershy half whimpered in her fear. “Wouldn’t it be, umm, nice of us to let other ponies go first?” Applejack just laughed and lightly nuzzled the pegasus’ mane.

“Aww, come on, ‘Shy, live a little! Manehattan can be a pretty lively place sometimes. Ah wouldn’t give it up for the farm, but…” She looked off to the side, at the three- and four-story buildings lining the street. A cluster of taller ones – much taller – loomed ahead, against a sky filled with pegasi and the occasional griffin.

If Ponyvillle was thatch and half-timber and Canterlot was alabaster, gold, and turquoise, Manehattan was brick and brownstone and sidewalk newsstands and pushcarts and ear-flattening noise, smelling of pony and punctuated with limestone.

“Hay, Rares!” Applejack pointed with one forehoof at a facade of black marble amid the brick-and-brownstone, trimmed with chrome and Prussian blue. “Ain’t that the movie that got ya all bent out o’shape?”

Rarity craned her head around to follow AJ’s foreleg, froze as she recognized the ebon movie palace set with Lunar imagery. She read the large marquee as they passed:

Now Showing
Public Life of a Fashionista’s Sister

On the posters flanking the entrance, a larger-than-life face of a haunted-looking young unicorn mare against a blurry background looked back at them.

Fluttershy was about to say the mare on the posters looked so much like Sweetie Belle when Rarity answered in a voice as quiet as her own.

“No. It’s worse. It’s a sequel.” She drooped her head, amethyst mane cascading like a curly ribbon. “This is The Worst Possible Thing – why do they make those movies where we’re all axe murderers or the like?” She looked up at her two friends in the opposite seat.

“How could anyone suspect us of being anything other than the sweetest, the most honest, most generous – HAY! WATCH IT, YOU IDIOTS! GO JOIN THE WONDERBOLTS IF YOU WANT TO RACE THROUGH THE STREETS!”

A closed carriage rocketed past them, sending the landau jolting against the curb. Fluttershy squimpered, then the other carriage vanished down 42nd, two pegasi in the livery of the Manehattan Constabulary in low-altitude pursuit.

Rarity turned back to the carriage ponies. “Oh, dear! Are you all right? You didn’t get hurt by those lunatics, whoever they are?”

“We’re fine, lady,” the two assured her. Fluttershy watched them with professional concern as they started pulling back into the street, in good shape despite their spooking. Applejack stared back after the vanished carriage and snorted, her ears down.

“Yeesh! It ain’t even the weekend, what’re they carryin’ on for?”

A block later, they pulled up in front of another marquee, attached to a pony-made mountain of terracotta-trimmed brick, taller than the High Tower of the Sun Palace in Canterlot, craggy as a griffin aerie with setback terraces and light wells. Fluttershy looked up at the crags, toward the landing stages over thirty floors up where a pegasus chariot came in for a landing, fighting the winds around the tower.

She’d stayed in some hotels like it back when she worked for Photo Finish, but none so grand. That memory made her shiver. I don’t want to go through that again, but if Rarity really needs me…

“Please, sirs, if you would,” Rarity spoke to the carriage ponies. “As soon as my models and I check in…”

“You’re not one too?” The younger teamster said. When Rarity bent a smile on him, eyelashes fluttering, he blushed. “I thought youse were all in town for that fancy fashion show.”

“No, dear,” she said, her voice even warmer now. “But I do thank you for the compliment. And I am in town for the Spring Fashion Show. Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you there?” The younger stallion looked poleaxed at the smile she gave him. His older partner just rolled his eyes. Then, in a much more businesslike tone, Rarity continued, “But as I was saying, if you would be so kind as to wait out here, I’ll be checking in. But immediately afterwards I’ll have to be going over to Dressage Hall for setup. And I would appreciate it so very much if you would wait for me here. Enough to add, oh say, twice the usual tip?” The tired stallions brightened considerably at that offer. They held themselves upright as though on guard duty at the royal palace. The drayage ponies looked slightly less pleased at the idea of having to haul half the contents of the van to the Hall.

“Thank you so very much.” Fluttershy and Applejack began taking their luggage down from the drayage van – saddlebags for them both, with Fluttershy mouth-carrying an additional overnight bag. Rarity followed, levitating her personal luggage onto the bellpony’s cart – half a dozen bags, the same number of hatboxes, and a couple full-sized steamer trunks.

The van remained two-thirds full; Fluttershy looked at it and remembered her modeling days. Okay; two outfits per model per day minimum, plus anything needed for repairs or last-minute inspiration on Rarity’s part, and emergency supplies just in case something goes wrong… Maybe I ought to be glad that Rarity packed that small a load.

“Yeesh, Rares,” Applejack said as more bellponies came out to help with the load, giving puzzled looks to the three mares. Fluttershy blushed; Applejack ignored it; Rarity took it in stride, batting her eyelashes at them as she piled even more luggage atop first their carts, then atop them. The stallions seemed to sway under the load, but they kept their hooves and started after the mares into the hotel as Applejack continued, “We’re just gonna be in town three ‘r four days. Ain’t no need ta go bringing yer whole fancy Boutique with you.”

“Applejack, please!” Rarity gave her a horrified look as they passed through the doors. The hotel lobby opened before them like the Gala Hall at the Sun Palace, two stories high, worked in marble and with copies of classic sculptures set in niches along the walls. Below the mezzanine balustrade, a massive desk of teak and ebony sat before them staffed with busy mares and stallions checking guests in as Rarity added, “This will be a fashion show. And while I just know that my ideas are utterly unique to me and that nothing will go wrong, in the unlikely chance that either disaster or last-minute inspiration strikes –”

Applejack whistled as she looked at the main desk and the towering painting of Old Manehattan behind it. Glowgem chandeliers hung high overhead, one getting a quick polish from a pegasus and unicorn maid working together.

“Hooee! This is one fancy Hay and Stay!”

Rarity winced from where she was signing them in.

“The Manehattan Royal is NOT a ‘Hay and Stay’!”

Fluttershy shrank from the sudden attention from all the well-dressed Manehattanites in the lobby, suddenly aware that she and Applejack were both nude as was usual in Ponyville; even Rarity was in a capelet-dress with matching saddle, blazoned with the sigil of Carousel Boutique – two elegantly-lashed eyes and a long curled ribbon-mane.

“Now then…” Rarity turned to her two companions, room keys and paperwork floating in her horn’s aura. “I’ll be heading to Dressage Hall with the van to get everything ready for tomorrow. You two can go upstairs and settle into the rooms – Suite 1401, fourteenth floor.” Rarity turned to leave but stopped to add, “Oh, and if a unicorn mare named Yellow Jacket – gold coat, black mane, cutie mark three wasps – shows up, let her in. She's staying with us for the show.”

“Just who is this here ‘Yellow Jacket’ anyway?” Applejack called after her, her voice echoing across the lobby and gathering more stares. Fluttershy eeped and stepped closer to AJ.

“She's a model, recommended by, ah,” Fluttershy wondered at the cautious look in Rarity's eyes as she dropped her voice, “by somepony we all know in Canterlot. She'll be helping us at the show while taking care of some, ah, private business here in Manehattan. “Please, dears, she’s with us; do be polite to her if she shows up!”

“'Course Ah will, Rares,” Applejack said, idly scratching behind her ear for a moment with one hoof. She examined whatever it was she'd found before flicking it into a nearby waste basket. The well-dressed ponies watching nearby shuddered in disgust and left hurriedly. Rarity's right eye began to twitch. “Yah know Ah'm th' friendliest pony around.”

“Of course,” she said, sounding hoarse. A somewhat strained smile spread across her muzzle as she said, “And Applejack, darling? One teensy little thing?” Her horn glowed; a bridle of purple magic closed over the palomino's muzzle, keeping her quiet while Rarity pressed her face close to hers and said in a whisper that Fluttershy strained to hear, “Please, please, for my sake, speak in the accent your aunt and uncle Orange cultivated in you! Models have a reputation for dignity, grace, and beauty. Speaking like a cowfilly is NOT a part of that.” Rarity released Applejack. AJ frowned at her. The white unicorn clasped her hooves together and looked at her pitifully. “I swear I’ll make it up to you.”

“Ah, alrigh –” Applejack broke off at Rarity's horrified look. “I meant to say, very well, dear,” Applejack said. “Only for you, though, and only until we return to Ponyville.” Fluttershy stared at her in shock to hear AJ, of all ponies, speaking like she’d been born and raised in one of the best neighborhoods in Canterlot or Manehattan.

“Applejack, I never knew you could talk like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way you normally talk of course.”

“Aw, it’s nothin’ –” Applejack glanced at Rarity and sighed. “I mean, it’s nothing, Miss Fluttershy. I had to take almost a year of elocution lessons when I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle Orange. I suppose some of it stayed with me.” The smile vanished from Rarity’s face as the palomino said, “But like Ah said, soon’s as Ah’m back in Ponyville, Ah’m talkin’ normal again for the rest o’ mah life!”

Apparently this promise would suffice for Rarity. The fashionista handed the room keys over before almost galloping back outside, hooves ringing on the imported lobby rugs.

Applejack snorted. “Come on, 'Shy,” Applejack snorted, indicating the bank of lift cages. “Let's mosey on up, Ah mean,” she snorted, “Let us see to our rooms.”

They and their luggage-loaded entourage entered the first lift on the left.

“Where to?” The earth pony operator asked as he levered the cage closed.

Fluttershy opened her mouth around her overnight bag strap, but Applejack beat her to it in fluent Uptown Manehattanite.

“Fourteenth floor, if you please.”

As the lift passed floor after floor, Fluttershy looked around at the ornate ironwork, her bag becoming heavier and heavier in her mouth. The bellponies stayed at the back of the lift, shifting a little to keep the piled luggage balanced. Fluttershy wondered if the youngest of them was watching her and Applejack with some fascination. She lowered her head, hiding a gentle blush behind her long pink mane. She'd never liked being a center of attention. Friend or no, why had she agreed to do with with Rarity?

Because she is a friend, that's why. And somepony has to be there for Applejack, she has no idea what modeling can be like...

“Fourteenth Floor!” the lift operator called out as they came to a stop, then mouthed the door-lever. The cagework opened with a crash and they trotted out, the carpeting soft and lush beneath their hooves; Fluttershy liked how it silenced their steps. The lightest-loaded bellpony pulled ahead, leading them down forking and twisting corridors lined with numbered doors.

The corridor ended at a door marked “1401”, a paneled one-piece with a transom top instead of the two-piece dutch doors of Ponyville. Applejack took out the key, gripping the broad handle in her teeth before inserting it into the room lock. It took a moment or two of working it back and forth, with frustrated snorts from AJ before it opened. Beyond lay a small vestibule lit by glowgem wall-sconces; two similar doors opened to the left and right.

“There!” Applejack’s ears rose back to their usual position as she entered the vestibule and checked the side doors. Both opened onto rooms, the one to the left with a massive canopied bed and the one to the right with two smaller beds. Looking back at the laden bellponies, she indicated the left door with a forehoof and said in her best Manehattanese, “Just bring everything in, gentlecolts. Everything marked with blue gemstones to the left, everything marked with apples or butterflies to the right. We’ll straighten it out ourselves.”

The two stood back while the parade of laden bellponies entered, heading through the left-hand door, building a mountain of steamer trunks and garment bags and luggage in Rarity’s room of the suite. Occasionally one would heft a small bag into the other room.

When the parade had finished, the two older bellponies turned to Applejack, who dropped several gleaming golden bits into their hooves. “From Miss Rarity and us. Thanks for all your help, it is so dearly appreciated.” The stallions turned to leave, all save the last one, the youngest with the cart. He had the typical earth-toned coat and mane of an earth pony. His livery covered his cutie mark; Fluttershy wondered what it might be. He stared at them in something like awe.

“Is there something we can help you with?” Applejack asked him. Judging by the look on her face, Fluttershy knew what AJ thought she'd hear herself.

“Beg pardon, miss,” he said in a slightly squeaky tone. So much so Fluttershy half wondered if he even had a cutie mark under his livery. “But... you're them, aren't you? Some of,” he gulped, “The Element Bearers?”

Fluttershy flushed bright pink. Applejack looked like she wanted to laugh out loud, but she kept it to a smile.

“We sure are,” she said. “That all?” Now it was the stallion's turn to blush.

“W-well, I just w-wanted t say, it's a real honor meeting heroes of Equestria like you.” Fluttershy wondered if her cheeks were on fire. The stallion said, “Annnd... if it's not too much to ask...” He reached his head back under his livery; when it returned, he bore a small black book in his mouth. Applejack just rolled her eyes.

“Oh, sure! Just hoof it over.” The stallion gave them the autograph book along with a pen, one thankfully lacking teethmarks to show use. “Ya want anythin’ in particular?” He shook his head so energetically Fluttershy hoped it wouldn’t fly off his neck. Applejack grinned and swiftly mouth-wrote her name in it. The butter-yellow pegasus followed suit and handed it back over. He took it back, his eyes alight with joy, and trotted down the hall to join the others. Only after she closed the vestibule door did Applejack snort laughter.

“Heh-heh! Ah sure never thought Ah'd be getting' fans, of all things!”

In the room to the right, Fluttershy shrugged off her saddlebags by one of the twin beds, set her overnight bag in the closet, then trotted to the curtained window wall at the end, beside the door to the suite’s shared bathroom. Grabbing the curtain baton in her mouth, she pulled the drapes back to reveal a small setback terrace, a miniature roof garden as well as a pegasus landing balcony.

Beyond the terracotta-trimmed parapet lay the western Manehattan skyline. Blue skies spotted with fluffy white clouds being herded by pegasi, more pegasi and occasional griffins flying the tall-building obstacle course – Fluttershy shuddered as the thought of the updrafts and downdrafts and wind gusts and resolved to stay on the ground as much as possible. Obstacle courses scared her, ever since flight school with Rainbow Dash.

The terrace faced due west, over a sea of slate roofs; beyond them rose the masts and spars of ships docked along the West Side Waterfront. Beyond them, the smokestacks and coal-smoke plumes of the mainland industrial district – not as gloomy as Fillydelphia’s Magarac steel mills, but still far too Big City for her.

“Nice view,” Applejack’s voice came from behind her. “Ah gotta, I mean, I simply must remember to visit Aunt and Uncle Orange while I'm in town.” She frowned. “Better check on Babs too, and see how she's doing. I promised Applebloom I'd speak to her about how everything went between the CMC and her when she visited a little while back.”

“Oh…” Fluttershy looked around. “There should be a… voice tube by the desk.” She pointed a butter-yellow forehoof. “It should connect to the front desk, and a hotel like this should have a messenger service; you could send a ponygram by pegasus courier.”

“But first, we better sort through all that stuff in Rares’ room.” The palomino earth pony started out the door to the vestibule. “Come along, ‘Shy.”

In the other room of the suite, the pegasus and palomino looked at the near-wall of luggage. Most bore the three blue diamonds of Rarity’s cutie mark or her sigil for Carousel Boutique, that exquisite mane-curl with long-lashed eyes.

Applejack opened one she remembered from Rarity’s packing frenzy two days before and looked inside. Fluttershy joined her to marvel at all the frills and lace.

“Why do we have to wear all the fancy duds?” Applejack said with a snort as she gently removed a white leather saddle inlaid with diamonds and sapphires. Fluttershy thought it looked magnificent. “I never did like dressin’ up fancy, 'cept when Ah gotta. Couldn't Rarity just show her own fancy clothes off herself?”

“Oh, no! Not at the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show!” Fluttershy fluttered up before Applejack to get her attention. “Rarity will need to keep an eye on the other Houses’ ensembles and designs; she’ll probably be doing last-minute alterations depending on what looks they present. She needs us.”

“Hold on there, sugarcube! Don’t the show have their own models?”

“Oh, no!” The pegasus’s eyes went wide, like a jacklighted deer. “This is her first time IN the Show; it’s important to her that she brings her own in-house models; all the major fashion houses do. And I…” she drooped her head and blushed “…have name recognition, from… my own time on the runway. She has to make an impression, and she always said that you,” Fluttershy blushed even more, “You were the loveliest mare in Ponyville, except for me. At least you would be if you took better care of yourself, and –” She broke off a little late.

“What?” Applejack said. “Ah take GREAT care o' mahself!” She lifted first one back leg and then the other, muscles rippling under her golden coat.

“That's, er, not quite what she meant.”

“Whatever,” Applejack grumbled. She set the saddle back and took something else out. A fringed rodeo jacket set with spinel, polished amber, and other golden and yellow gemstones. The soft brown of the jacket matched her hat perfectly. Fluttershy remembered it originally being white, Rarity offering to make a new matching hat for Applejack to wear, and the palomino's stubborn refusal. “Say, ain’t Rarity supposed to have somepony else showing off her fancy-schmancy duds here at the show?”

“Oh yes, she's getting help from a model named Yellow Jacket. A unicorn from Canterlot.” At Applejack's suddenly wary look, Fluttershy added, “Oh, she's no noble. And Rarity told me that Princess Celestia recommended her.”

“The Princess? She must be okay, then.” The palomino relaxed. “Ah guess a model couldn't be near as nasty as some o' those nobles, anyhow.” Fluttershy gulped at Applejack's words. She remembered just how nasty some of Photo Finish's models could get. If not for the favor she owed Rarity due to her hiding That Wolf out in her shop, her home, her form, a while ago, she would have never agreed to this no matter how her best friend begged on Spa Day.

Up on that stage... In front of everypony... Everypony watching me...

# # #

“Lady, you can’t take your stuff in and set up yourself. Guild rules.”

Rarity had heard horror stories about the Manehattan Teamsters’ Guilds. Now, at the delivery entrance of Dressage Hall, in the shadow of Saddleback Center, she was living one.

“Now, gentlecolts,” she said, turning on the charm to the four-stallion herd of large earth pony porters, “there must be some accommodation for a pretty mare who’s new to the city.”

“Only what youse can carry on your own,” the unmoved forestallion replied, pointing a forehoof at Rarity’s mountain of steamer trunks and wardrobe cases. “Without magic. Anything else, it’s bits. Up front.”

It’s not the bits, it’s the principle, she thought, wishing she had Fluttershy with her to use The Stare.

Rarity stamped a forehoof. “Now, gentlecolts, I can understand you insisting on a tip, and I’m normally quite a generous tipper, but this has gone from tip to shakedown –”

“Is there a problem?” a mare’s voice interrupted in a no-nonsense tone. A plain-looking mare, an ocean-grey earth pony with a short-clipped pink mane and a scissors-and-thread cutie mark, in a lavender blouse and bib cravat of silk lace. Beside her, a mulberry-blonde unicorn in crystal-trimmed glasses levitated an overflowing clipboard.

The porters shrank before the new mare’s gaze like Fluttershy before a dragon; even the forestallion’s ears dropped.

“Uhhhh… No, Miz Hemline, we’re just –”

“About to assist me in taking my inventory and Spring line backstage for setup,” Rarity finished the sentence, with a look at the now-sweating forestallion.

The earth pony mare turned her gaze to Rarity, who suddenly understood what Fluttershy’s Stare must feel like. “And you are?”

“Rarity of Ponyville,” she blurted out automatically, “owner and designer of House of Rarity, Carousel Boutique.”

The unicorn aide flipped through her clipboard, showed it to her boss.

“Ah, yes, the new House,” the obvious lead mare said to nopony in particular, then her lavender eyes were burning into Rarity again. “As the show’s most junior House, you’ll be in Room 57, in the back. Take care, it’s easy to get lost back there. Really should hire some minotaur guides…”

“And you are?” Rarity squeaked.

“Prim Hemline, show director and emcee.” The mare turned back to the Teamsters. “What are you waiting for? Assist her to 57.”

The parrot-mouthed mare was right; the hall needed minotaur guides for their backstage labyrinth. Corridors branching off corridors, arrows marked on their hardwood floors for navigation, lined with numbered doors bearing tacked-up sigils of fashion houses and cutie marks. Hoity Toity, Photo Finish, Finest Silk, Pommel, Polomare, all the big names of Equestrian fashion.

Other ponies, both Hall porters and others in the liveries of the various fashion houses crowded the labyrinth, bearing crates and wardrobes and other equipment in a maelstrom of action. Among the frenzy, occasional models explored the maze, checking the layout and making sure where their House’s dressing and workrooms were.

Hauling a wheeled wardrobe case beside the Teamsters, Rarity kept her eyes on the elegant mares, their manes and tails and backstage casual wear as elaborate as her own. She was in her element now, among her peers, the Thoroughbreds of fashionistas…

Then the procession stopped at a door numbered 57 and marked with the Carousel Boutique sigil. The forestallion stepped forward with key in mouth, unlocked the door, and dropped the key in Rarity’s neck-purse.

“Here ya are, lady. Number 57.” Then without a word the Teamsters dropped the entire mountain of baggage in the corridor before the door and left without stopping for a tip. “You’re on your own.”

Rarity stood there for a moment as the four porters disappeared, staring at the pile of trunks and cases and baggage all but blocking the corridor. Just as she levitated the first wardrobe case, a Fancy-accented mare’s voice she vaguely remembered from the Canterlot Garden Party came from behind her:

“You look like you’ve just had The Prim Hemline Experience. That mare could teach intimidation to dragons.”

Turning to follow the voice, Rarity saw three unicorns coming up the corridor; a white-coated stallion with blue mane and tail in suit, vest, and monocle between two statuesque mares whose near-identical appearance whickered supermodel. One with pale pink, almost white coat and cutie mark of three stylized lilies; the other her twin recolored in gold with black mane and tail with three wasps in flight on her flanks – the unicorn she’d been hoping to see.

“Why, Rarity!” Fancy Pants stepped forward and bowed his head in polite greeting. “Wonderful to see you again, dear! It's been forever, since the royal wedding, wasn't it? I trust everything's been going well for you and your friends in Ponyville, and that charming little sister of yours. She's Sweetie Belle, I think?” He turned to Yellow Jacket. “See, I thought we'd find her here.”

“Miss Rarity,” Yellow Jacket said, stepping forward and bowing her head slightly. Very slightly. “I am sorry if I made you wait.”

“Oh, don't blame her,” Fleur cut in. Amusement bubbling in her voice, she said, “My stallion here,” she gave Fancy a gentle nip along his mane and smiled when he blushed, “and I made her acquaintance on the trip from Canterlot. She fascinated him, and once somepony or something fascinates him he simply has to discover all he can about it or them.”

“So good to see you dear. I trust the trip was, ah, uneventful?” Rarity said to Yellow Jacket, remembering the “for your eyes only” message from Princess Celestia about her – by incognito Royal Courier instead of Spike-o-gram, written with the royal “we”, signed with Celestia’s formal title and full reign name:

Queen Vespid will be in Manehattan at Our express request… Her cover identity will be a unicorn named Yellow Jacket, modeling for your Boutique… Extend her all possible assistance.

Her Immortal Highness,

Celestia Solaria Invicta

The “unicorn” smiled and nodded. Rarity turned to Fancy Pants and Fleur. “And thank you for minding her. Yes, everything is going well in Ponyville. No monster attacks for almost a year now. Oh, save for that trouble with the dragon a while ago.”

“You mean the one after the wolf disguised as you?” Yellow Jacket said innocently. “I understand he looked so much like you. How can we be sure you're Rarity?” Fleur and Fancy looked amused, Yellow Jacket grinned. Rarity cut her a glare.

“I will proceed on the basis that this mare is indeed Lady Rarity Belle,” Fancy said. “Said basis being, she worked magic which we saw, while the wolf didn't, and her magic had the proper coloration.” Fancy smiled at her. “That and you have the manners and poise that only an education at a Canterlot finishing school can provide. And lastly, I saw Ardi fulfilling his diplomatic duties in Canterlot before we left.”

“Oh yes,” Rarity said, smiling at Yellow Jacket as inspiration struck. “I understand you hosted a party for him and Princess Celestia's Tame Changeling Queen as well, didn't you?” Yellow Jacket glared, the pupils of her eyes slitting for an instant, before acknowledging it with a tight smile and nod. More seriously, Rarity added, “That was rather decent of you, sir. I understand neither of them has had a pleasant time of it at their duties.”

“It's been difficult, but they bear up nobly,” Fancy said. Another pair of Teamsters hurried by, rolling racks of dresses bearing Photo Finish's camera-flash sigil. Looking first at Rarity's pile and then around, he said, “Perhaps Fleur and I can offer some small assistance with setup? Things seem to be a bit busy here.”

“Oh, no need,” Rarity began automatically, then she looked again at the pile of baggage. “Er, perhaps it would be best.” Four horns glowed with magical auras, and the first four pieces – two wardrobes and two steamer trunks – levitated from the pile.

Rarity was first into the dressing/workroom. It was small, with a dressing table and glowgem-lit vanity mirrors for three models, an even smaller attached bathroom, show schedules and instructions tacked up on the walls, and barely enough room for her supplies, equipment, and workspace. She looked around in dismay, then caught Fleur’s eye as the retired model came through the door.

“You will have to hurry when you dress your models, especially if you perform any last-minute alterations,” she warned after a quick look around the room. Rarity slid the two wardrobes upright against the wall, opening them to reveal hanging racks of Rarity Originals as Yellow Jacket and Fancy Pants floated in the first two trunks. Then more. Then even more, with Rarity galloping around trying to figure which went where along the plastered walls.

Gawkers stopped in the hallway outside – models and show staffers staring as though poleaxed at the famed Lord Fancy Pants of Canterlot doing drayage for a one-mare junior House. Rarity didn’t bother hiding her smile from where she was setting up her hoof-treadle sewing machine and repair/alteration supplies.

Close to an hour later, the last trunk had been brought in, broken down, unloaded, and stowed against the wall, stacked with the others. Every piece in its proper place to Rarity’s satisfaction.

Fleur gave a scan around the room, indicated the dress-heavy wardrobe racks with her horn. “Make sure those are back in the wardrobes and closed when you’re gone,” she added in a warning tone, “And be sure of the locks on everything you leave here at the Hall when you're gone. They have security, but that won't stop any determined espionage or sabotage.”

Rarity's surprise must have been obvious as Fleur continued, “Oh, yes. It happens. Back when I was on the catwalk one House had their entire line ruined when somepony opened their crates and poured acid over everything they brought. Their entire line ruined – a whole year's work. Led to quite the neighing battle backstage between the victim and the accused.” She winced and shook her head, mane rippling. “I got too close and lost a chunk of mane to somepony's teeth. And they noticed Fancy Pants helping you. They know you're serious competition now.”

“I certainly intend to be,” Rarity said. She rechecked the locks on her cases, both physical and magical. Fleur watched with a frown. “Oh, is something wrong?”

“Those locking spells aren't the best,” she said. “Here, let me.” She bent her horn to the lock on the main crate, filled with bolts of fabric. “Use your magic along with mine, and it'll recognize you later. Else you'd need a specialist in wards and protections to open them for you.”

“And Prince-Consort Shining Armor is busy up near the Arctic,” Fancy Pants added.

Rarity set her head alongside Fleur's. For a moment she saw that pale purple eye so close, caught a whiff of familiar flowery perfume the same as her own. Then two horns glowed as one. Rarity watched closely, but she soon recognized that Fleur's skills were no empty boast. She'd learned much about magic from Twilight, and it was enough to recognize that despite her cutie mark Fleur's skills in magic were not minor. The spell wove in and around itself and the physical lock, and she caught a glimpse of her own magic 'signature' in with it. And it was done.

“Try it,” Fleur said. Rarity did, first without magic. The crate stayed shut. Rarity gave a small nudge with her magic, and it opened easily. Fleur looked pleased. She and Rarity repeated it with the other cases, then the wardrobe racks. “There,” she said when they'd finished. “Not perfect, somepony could always cut their way in, but that'd be too noticeable to ignore.” She stepped back and took a deep breath. “My uncle would be pleased, at least. He refused to let me go to modeling school until I 'knew an honorable trade'. He always said that we of Prance,” she looked at her cutie mark, “must strive to be the best at whatever we do, be it modeling or working as a locksmith and setting spell-wards for the Thoroughbreds. And always, be graceful.”

“Now dear,” Fancy said. “You always tell me when you say I'm lecturing ponies.” She pretended to look abashed, but her smile gave it away. Fancy turned to Rarity. “Oh! I should add, part of the reason we're in town is to take in Rescue at Midnight Castle at the Hippodrome; I understand it's considered the best performance and cast in decades. Audiences love it. I already invited Miss Yellow Jacket to join us later,” the mare looked pleased; Rarity wondered if she simply looked to feed on the audience's emotions, or if she expected to find Changelings there; “and she said yes. Of course, as she'll be with you, then I simply must invite you and your associates along as well.”

“Oh, you're too generous,” Rarity said as they all filed out of the now-ready room and both white unicorns locked the door. “But there's so much work I need to do this show.” Besides, I've seen that story a hundred times already.

“But I do thank you –”

The one stallion among three mares raised his monocle. “Did I mention that Audra von Adler is playing the lead?”

“Audra von Adler?” Rarity stopped in mid-gait, her eyes wide. “THE Audra von Adler? The one the critics call, 'the second Filea von Herzog'?”

“The very same,” Fancy Pants said. “Oh, and if you're on the way back to your hotel, perhaps we can give you a lift there in our carriage? Where are you staying – ah, the Royal? Fine place, that. I understand Audra stays there herself. Well, let's be off, then.”

Rarity agreed, though she wasn't sure how she got the words out. Her mind was awhirl as she followed the other three unicorns through Dressage Hall, from the chaos of the backstage labyrinth to the main backstage ready room to the Discord-level chaos of the Main Hall.

Tools hammered and magic glowed as earth pony/unicorn construction crews set up the runway from backstage into the center of the Hall; above, pegasi hung banners of fashion houses from the ceiling between the great chandeliers as for a Royal Reception; Rarity looked around in vain for hers.

The runway ended in a promenade around a turntable, similar to the one at Rarity’s debut show in Ponyville. AKA the Gala Dress Disaster, when she’d messed up bad right in front of Canterlot industry bigwig Hoity Toity. Her eye twitched at the memory – her Walk of Shame down the catwalk in front of all those ponies – including Hoity Toity, whose review could have broken her for life – followed by three days upstairs at the Boutique, locked in her bedroom having a breakdown.

The flashback didn’t lift until they were through the Hall, through the lobby, and boarding a finely-made carriage out front. As the two liveried chauffeurs hauled the carriage into traffic-clogged 39th Avenue, Rarity started planning ahead, at the opportunity Fancy Pants just dropped before her.

Audra von Adler, maybe the greatest actress of the age, not just in Manehattan but at the Royal. Her own hotel! If, if I could speak with her, somehow get her to appear in just one of my dresses, my reputation would be made! She began to run over ideas for how to achieve it. Nothing foolish now, no crashing the room, nothing like what Dash or Pinkie Pie might do, but handled discreetly and with all the respect due a reigning queen of the stage from a cultured fashionista.

Nothing can possibly go wrong! She looked at Yellow Jacket, seated beside her, eyes wide as she took the city in. The changeling in the shape of a yellow unicorn licked her lips, almost seeming to taste the air for any trace of changeling pheromones, then looked back at Rarity, a slow smile spreading over her face.

Okay, almost nothing.

I hope.

# # #

Fourteen stories above 42nd Avenue, Fluttershy sunned herself on the suite’s setback terrace, preening her wings as Celestia’s sun inched down towards the waterfront. Rainbow Dash would have taken off from the terrace to soar, but Fluttershy couldn’t stop thinking of the wind currents channeled by the buildings. A dragon-sized shadow fell over her and the terrace and she eeped, looking up in panic. Not a dragon but an airship, four pegasus escorts guiding it over city airspace.

Fluttershy watched the giant gaudy fish-of-the-sky pass overhead, towards the tallest of the towers on the south end of the island – the Equestria State Building, two airships already moored to the great sculpted beacon that topped the tower. A cluster of tall buildings rose above the brick and brownstone roofs near the great tower, among them a Discord’s Postpile of a tower flanked by similar, smaller slabs. She recognized them, knew what they meant for the next few days, and shivered. 30 Back. Saddleback Center. And Dressage Hall…

The terrace door to the right of the bathroom window – the one to Rarity’s room – swung open and the unicorn’s voice rang over the terrace.

“Fluttershy! There you are! Come inside! This has been SUCH a day, and I simply MUST share all the good news with you both!”

The butter-yellow pegasus went inside, long tail dragging behind her, pink mane veiling her eyes.

Rarity stood in the main sitting area of the room, a delighted smile on her face, forehooves beating a quiet tattoo on the carpets. Applejack appeared through the vestibule doorway, minus her trademark hat, looking like she’d just been woken up.

“Oh, dear, Applejack, you look terrible! You need rest, dear…”

Then both earth pony and pegasus noticed the fourth pony in the room – a statuesque golden unicorn with ebon mane and tail and a three-wasp cutie mark, lounging on the room’s chaise lounge/fainting couch with the cool poise of a model.

Rarity continued “…but not right now! Right now you need to meet my, ah,” Fluttershy saw her glance sidelong at the strange unicorn for a moment, then continue in a more cautious tone, “Carousel Boutique's third model for the show, Yellow Jacket.” She stepped back and indicated the unicorn, who lowered her head and gave a slightly superior smile in greeting, like a thoroughbred from Canterlot.

“Charmed to meet you again, Miss Fluttershy, Miss Applejack,” she said, her voice sounding both as cultured as Rarity's and somehow familiar. AJ looked or maybe just glared at both unicorns from under her bedmane. Yellow Jacket added, “I trust everything has been going well in Ponyville?”

“Sure has,” Applejack grumbled. She stretched, and walked over to look Yellow Jacket in the face. ”But just who-all are you, and how do ya know us?

“Oh, we've met before in Canterlot…” she began as if she knew more – a lot more – than she was telling. Rarity cut in almost immediately.

“Yes, at a celebration! Don't you remember?” AJ scowled at her friend, as did Fluttershy (very mildly). She began to wonder why Rarity acted so jumpy. Rarity hurried on with, “But things have already gone so well! I went to Dressage Hall, and who should I meet?”

“Umm, her?” Applejack pointed at Yellow Jacket. Rarity went on without missing a beat.

“No! I mean yes! I mean,” she snorted and shook her head, elegant purple mane spilling, “Fancy Pants and his, ah, his lady Fleur de Lis! From the Canterlot Garden Party, you remember? They were talking with Yellow Jacket...”

“Wait, you mean the ex-model Fleur?” Fluttershy blushed crimson as both Rarity and Applejack looked at her, ears down in mild surprise at her breaking in. The pegasus reddened but said, “Oh, I'm so sorry, I never meant to interrupt, but Photo Finish told me about her. She was the top model in Canterlot for years.” Until she got tired of everything and quit it to settle down with Fancy Pants, Fluttershy thought, remembering the scorn in Photo Finish’s voice.

“They were kind enough to help me find Dressage Hall and keep me company until Rarity showed up,” Yellow Jacket said. “They pointed out a great many things on the way here, from the train ride through the city. Very observant, those two.” She seemed to scowl to say it. Fluttershy wondered what the problem was. Meanwhile the excited Rarity hurried on.

“It was such a stroke of luck for me! Fancy Pants and Fleur will be observing the show, they said they wanted to see MY creations in particular! And even better,” Rarity lifted her head high and almost danced, “Fluttershy, Applejack, you will simply never guess just who is staying at this hotel!” She finished with a look that showed her desperate hope that they'd try.

Applejack rolled her eyes. Fluttershy could almost read her mind. They needed to take a guess so Rarity could get it out of her system. “Gee, sugarcube, Ah dunno,” the palomino said. “Princess Luna?”

“What? Oh, no no! But almost as good!” Rarity laughed. “Audra von Adler! Staying in this very hotel!”

“Who the hay is ‘Audra von Adler’?” Applejack said. “Sounds griffin ta me.”

“Oh, she is! The best griffin actress in either Equestria or the griffin aeries, maybe the most famous actress anywhere. The critics often call her ‘Filea von Herzog, come back to life’!” Before either could ask who she was, Rarity closed her eyes and sighed. “Fluttershy, darling, you remember the griffin villainess in A Dodgy Business? That romantic scene in the film adaptation of A Touch of Griff? The scene in She Can’t Help It where those milk bottles erupt as the griffiness struts past? Or the actress who helped her pony and griffin theater troupe escape from King Sombra in To Fly Or Not To Fly by tricking that brutish guard captain?” She pressed one hoof against her chest and breathed out dramatically. “Oh, and she's done live stage as well, like Born Yesterday and Fillydelphia Story and Return to Canterlot. So much work, and so many awards!” She looked and frowned to see them both still looking confused. Her horn glowed and a folded paper came out of her saddlebag, surrounded by the glow of unicorn magic. “See, here she is!” She unrolled and displayed it with a flourish.

Fluttershy and Applejack both bent close to look. It was yesterday's Manehattan Times, the theater section with a picture of an elegant griffinness front and center. Every feather in her hood preened to perfection, her eyes outlined and emphasized, her chest plumage bursting out of her dress’s neckline as she gave the photographer a “come hither” look that smoldered.

“She's starring in the latest production of Rescue at Midnight Castle at the Hippodrome over in the Theater District, it's THE show of the season. She doesn't do much live stage any more, especially in Manehattan. She normally makes ‘movies’,” Rarity shuddered in a not entirely affected fashion, “in Los Pegasus or Vanhoofer. In fact I think she came from the griffin aeries near there.”

Rescue at Midnight Castle?” Applejack shook her head. “Ya mean those theater and movie fellas finally got 'round ta that old chestnut?” Rarity looked mildly annoyed. Fluttershy privately agreed with Applejack. “Rescue” was one of the Old, Old Stories; the book most ponies first read it in along with so many other tales of Dream Valley and Paradise Estates was even titled that. Fluttershy remembered hearing it from her father, and she thought that most ponies could say the same. It showed up in books ranging from the finest collector editions to those dime novels and maybe even the “pulps” for all she knew. Meanwhile Applejack said, “Ah don't remember any griffins in that story.”

“No, she's starring as Megan...”

“Whoa there!” Applejack walked right up to Rarity. The white unicorn frowned at her as she said, “You back me up here, ‘Shy. Ah remember that story. Megan was an alicorn, not some griffin!”

Fluttershy wondered if she looked as worried as she felt. She'd seen and heard and once even dared participate in a discussion like this before, and she hoped her friends would be more reasonable than those other ponies.

Unfortunately they wouldn't.

“Now, now, Applejack,” Rarity said in a somewhat superior voice. “That's just a theatrical convention. Nopony knows what Megan really was, just that she ‘came from a faraway land’ and was summoned by the Dream Valley ponies with unicorn magic.” Fluttershy winced to see Applejack's brow furrow at her friend's words. Before the palomino could cut in with the counter-argument that earth pony magic was what brought Megan to their ancestors with a days-long gallop, Rarity continued, “Now, I read the original version when I attended finishing school in Canterlot, and Megan is never described in the oldest pediscripts. Everypony just assumes she was an alicorn because she could wield all the Elements of Harmony like the Princesses could long ago...”

“Umm, I thought she used a 'rainbow of light' to stop Tirek,” Fluttershy said.

Both her friends looked at her. “An’ how’s that different from us stoppin’ Nightmare Moon an’ Discord?”

Yellow Jacket watched the proceedings with a cryptic smile, seemingly quite content to stay out of all this.

“In any event, that's why they always cast Megan as an alicorn,” Rarity said. “Just like they always cast Tirek as a minotaur because of his ‘great dark horns’.” Rarity shrugged. “But she's never actually described.”

Fluttershy broke in, her voice soft. “And the name ‘Megan’ does sound more griffin than pony.” Applejack looked down at the mouth, but she gave way. Fluttershy just felt happy that Lyra wasn't there to bring her wild theories into it. She still remembered the furious argument the seafoam-green unicorn got into with Twilight when Twi tried that “literary discussion circle” in Ponyville. “Oh, doesn't the ‘von’ in her name make her some kind of noble?”

“Not necessarily,” Rarity answered. “It usually indicates the aerie of origin, back from when griffins were split into small tribes.” Sounding so much like Twilight Fluttershy wondered why a soapbox didn't appear beneath her, she said, “In some aeries every griffin is a von-something, and it's not uncommon for it to be used in a stage name. Theater arts aren’t that respectable among griffins, so a lot of them use one.”

“But still, she is something special,” Rarity added. “Quite the femme fatale and sex symbol among griffins, called another Filea von Herzog.” Noticing her friends' incomprehension, she said, “Oh she was another great griffin stage actress from almost a hundred years ago.” With a gleam in her eyes, she said, “And if I could get her to endorse House of Rarity, then it would be such a feather in my hat!” Rarity lifted one of her creations as she spoke. Fluttershy wondered how any more feathers could be fit into it.

“Okay, so this here Audra's all that,” Applejack said, sounding tired. She walked over to the chaise lounge and Yellow Jacket. “Now, just who're ya, and why’d Princess Celestia recommend ya?” Rarity looked worried as the palomino continued, “An' no tall tales about just for bein' good friends with the Princess, or how ya met us in Canterlot once.” Applejack scraped one forehoof against the carpet, “Cause Ah don’t remember ever meetin’ ya, and Ah wouldn’t forget a pony who looked like ya.”

Rarity cringed as Yellow Jacket slid off the chaise lounge, rose to her hooves facing the palomino, tall as Big Mac or Princess Luna. Fluttershy watched wide-eyed, worry and uncertainty chasing their tails in her eyes as Yellow Jacket’s horn began to glow.

“Actually, we have met,” the tall unicorn snorted. “In the Gala Hall of the Sun Palace, three months ago. You…” she indicated Applejack with a forehoof, “were chasing that wolf around and you,” she shifted the pointing hoof to Fluttershy, “were shielding him.”

The golden glow spread from Yellow Jacket’s horn to her eyes. Fluttershy shrank back wide-eyed; Applejack’s thighs and shoulders tensed. “As for why you don’t remember me…” The room dimmed as curtains drew themselves over the terrace door and side windows. “This is why.”

Golden fire flashed before their eyes. When the three ponies could see again, a yellow-carapaced Changeling Queen stood in place of the yellow-coated unicorn.

Applejack started to rear up and clear her forehooves for action when the temporary paralyzing spell slammed into her, clamping down on her mind and turning her and Fluttershy into statues.

“So then,” Queen Vespid said to them. “Satisfied?”

The frozen pegasus gave a faint squimper. Applejack glared at Rarity.

Vespid just smiled at the unicorn, showing fangs. “I think they took it well.”

The Changeling turned back to the two ponies held in her golden aura. “I’m here with the consent of Princess Celestia. You don’t need to know the reason, only that the Princess wishes you to extend me all possible cooperation.”

Applejack’s and Fluttershy’s eyes darted to Rarity; the white unicorn nodded.

“She is. I received an official message from the Princess three days ago.”

“And you,” Vespid shifted her attention to the unicorn. “If you ever again refer to me as ‘Celestia’s Tame Changeling Queen’, I. Will. Hurt. You.”

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