• Published 2nd Jul 2018
  • 1,553 Views, 114 Comments

Menace to Propriety - PatchworkPoltergeist



As part of their joint effort to grow closer, come together as a family, and comply with their therapist, Diamond can choose a new pet. Any pet at all. (Terms and conditions may apply.)

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From Canterlot With Dove

Diamond’s stomach rumbled.

Beneath her chin, four dozen cupcakes lined a golden tray in a perfect grid. Each cake was shaped into a little heart with wings of sculpted sugar, edible glitter reflecting speckles of light across the silk tablecloth. A crystal centerpiece divided them by color, with sunny yellow icing on the left and periwinkle blue on the right.

To Diamond Tiara’s best guess, the colors represented the bride and groom, but why give the cupcakes wings if both ponies were unicorns? Something symbolic, probably. Or tradition. Or some other shallow excuse to cover up the fact that nopony remembered the real reason anymore and they just did it for the sake of doing it. Most weddings seemed to work that way.

She peered at the buffet table where Spoiled Rich snarled at one of her assistants. Spoiled probably knew, but it wouldn’t be worth bugging her in the middle of work.

Her stomach growled again. Diamond edged one step backward, eyes focused on the topiary garden occupying this section of the estate. Adults skimmed past in flowing gowns and slick tuxedos. Once or twice, somepony stopped to admire the frills in Diamond’s designer dress, but never for more than a second.

She took two steps backward.

That’s right, folks. Nothing to see here. Only a precious little filly keeping out of the way. An adorable wedding guest caught up in the pomp and circumstance of What’s-Her-Name and What’s-His-Face’s wedding. No different than any other pony. A blur in the crowd.

Three steps back.

The table brushed against Diamond’s rump. Her hoof dusted the edge of the closest cake and cupped around it. She kept her eyes on the flood of ponies rushing around her. None of them bothered to look past their own nose, and even if they did, who’d miss one little cake?

Slowly, she dragged the cupcake off the tray. Closer… closer… yes! After a quick check to see if the coast was clear, she licked her lips and lifted the cupcake to her muzzle.

“Put it back.” Spoiled Rich’s eyes never left the clipboard. A winged shadow passed over the pages of numbers and schedules flipping under her polished hoof. “Tell me something good, Valentide.”

A red pegasus hovered above the buffet, her white tail curled up to avoid the parfaits. “The last of the bridesmaids finally arrived, but now we miiiight have another problem.”

Spoiled rolled her eyes. “Well, of course we do.”

“There’s no need to panic, but it seems as though she got just a teensy bit confused about the dress code.” Valentide rubbed the sweat under her lace collar. “She, um, showed up in apricot pink instead of salmon and wants to know if she needs to change.”

Spoiled’s chin snapped up. “Oh, of all the stupid—of COURSE she needs to change! We can’t have eleven salmon dresses and one apricot; she’ll stick out like a twisted hoof. At least tell me we still have the backup dress.” She flicked an ear and glared at the cupcake in Diamond’s hoof. “Diamond Tiara, don’t make me tell you twice. I’ve got enough to worry about without you ruining the buffet. And get off the walkway, you’re underhoof.”

Diamond wrinkled her nose and put the cupcake back. “Fine.” I wouldn’t be underhoof if you just let me stay home by myself.

“Put it back without the attitude.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Diamond stepped off the stone sidewalk, frowning at her hooves. Five bits said Spoiled would find something wrong with that, too. “Don’t sulk in front of the guests, Diamond. You’re carrying your tail too low, Diamond. No, don’t carry it that high, Diamond. You’re breathing too loud, Diamond." Sheesh.

Her stomach growled again. This morning’s fruit and cereal had already become a distant memory. The buffet sparkled in the corner of Diamond’s eye.

Spoiled wheeled on the red pegasus. “Well? Do we have it or not?”

“We do, but, uh… the dress is a size three.” Valentide squirmed in her designer shoes. “She’s a nine.”

“Tell Tux to have her dressed and in position in ten.” Spoiled went back to flipping through the wedding list, checking off items as she went.

Behind her, Diamond reached for the candied roses.

“But Mrs. Rich, it doesn’t fit!”

“Then the whale should have thought of that before she showed up twenty minutes late in apricot. We’ll make it fit. There’s got to be a corset somewhere arou—Diamond Dazzle Tiara what did I JUST tell you?!”

Diamond clutched the candied petals and met her stepmother’s glare. “You said not to touch the cupcakes. Nopony’s gonna miss a couple of petals.”

Spoiled stepped forward.

The petals dropped from Diamond’s hoof. “Fine, what about the cheese plate? The salad bar? I’m starving.”

“I told you to eat before we left—” Spoiled closed her eyes and breathed slowly through her nose. When she unclenched her teeth, she spoke with calculated patience. “Diamond. Sweetheart.”

The “sweethearts” only came out during a crisis or before getting the riot act. This sounded like both. Diamond braced.

“Sweetheart, you can have something after the ceremony’s over and the buffet opens. It’s only another hour or so.” She scowled in the pool house’s direction. “Assuming we get this dress issue sorted out in time.”

“Issue? What issue?” A light purple unicorn marched across the lawn, lashing her long tail. Her jeweled Princess Dress—all the rage this season, according to the magazines—clinked against the massive gem hanging from her neck. Bracelets blazed on her fetlocks, diamonds sparkled in her ears, and emeralds threaded through her tail. The mare’s every move jingled. “As I recall, your brochure promised my daughter a perfect wedding reception. A perfect reception on time.”

Spoiled’s jaw wrenched into a smile. If one could call that sharp curve of clenched teeth a smile. “Absolutely, and a perfect reception is what she’ll get, Carat Cut. It’s a minor wardrobe note, nothing to worry about. Have you seen the ice sculpture?” She indicated the life-sized ice unicorns crossing horns behind the raspberry fondue.

“Mm. I’ve seen it.” The unicorn didn’t even look at it. “Lily positively insisted on the thing. No accounting for taste, I suppose—in décor or grooms.” Her green eyes skimmed Spoiled up and down. “Among other things. In any case, you’ve managed an adequate job here, Rotten. No, wait, your mother remarried some time back… it’s Rotten-Milk now, isn’t it?”

“It’s Rich,” Spoiled said. The calcified smile unwound into something bordering a frown. “Mrs. Rich.”

“Oh, that’s right! I did hear you finally tied the knot some years ago. Goodness, I thought that had been a rumor. Suppose I owe Silver Frames that martini.” Carat Cut chuckled to herself. “Well, a belated congratulations to you, Mrs. Rich. It took only—what, two decades? Twentieth time’s a charm, am I right?”

Spoiled hacked up a joyless laugh and returned to the clipboard.

“Anyhow, I hope we can get to the altar and rip this bandage off sooner than later. The less time with the new in-laws, the…” The jeweled unicorn trailed off as her eyes slid to the pink filly staring back at her. “…the better…”

Showtime. Diamond Tiara curtsied, letting her tiered dress wash over the grass like the tide. She politely dipped her head and flashed the smile that conquered last year’s pageant circuit. “Good morning, ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Diamond Tiara.”

Behind the clipboard, Spoiled cleared her throat.

Oh, right. “Congratulations on your daughter’s wedding. She must be excited to be married in such a pretty home.” Although “pretty” stretched it when every house in this neighborhood looked exactly the same, save for the address numbers. Diamond had no idea how ponies didn’t wander into the wrong place by accident.

Carat Cut didn’t hear a word. So much for this morning’s etiquette drills. “You brought your foal to work, Rich?” She spat out ‘foal’ like a swear word. “With all that prattle about your husband, one would think a mare of your, eh… ‘stature’... could afford a nanny.” Carat stepped back, sneering at Diamond like a saddle off the clearance rack.

Spoiled Rich tensed and looked up from the clipboard. Yesterday, she had eviscerated a waiter for dilly-dallying with the complimentary bread. Last week, she nearly got the mailmare fired for mishandling a package. This morning, she stayed silent.

High society had its own sneaky, silent ways of fighting. Ponies socked you in the mouth with a whisper and cut your stomach open with giggles. It was all delicate and complicated, and you had to know your hoofwork before stepping into the ring. Diamond Tiara might have been fairly new to society battles, but she knew from experience that Spoiled had to at least be a green belt. Her stepmother could cut down this overstuffed overdressed nag in three sentences if she wanted to.

If she wanted to.

Diamond stared up at her. Say something.

Spoiled Rich blinked at Diamond once, frowned, then returned to the clipboard. “Valentide, are the birds set up yet?”

“Finished an hour ago, Mrs. Rich. Sixty-six as requested: half white rollers, half black magpies on standby for release.”

Above Diamond’s head, ponies pressed on as if nothing had happened. As if it didn’t matter—she didn’t matter.

“Good. Do a second check and tell the pâtissier I’ll be there in ten.”

Diamond’s stare congealed into a glower. “Sure Valentide, I’ll rush on over to talk to the cake guy I already talked to eight times today. No, I don’t have better things to do. It’s not like my kid’s worth defending or anything.” Not against the Canterlot elite, anyway. If it were a penniless nopony, then Spoiled might have said something. Might.

And really, what did she even expect? That Spoiled would swoop in to defend her at the drop of a pin? Fat chance of that happening before the school election, fatter chance of it happening now, and it was stupid to think otherwise. Stupid. This whole thing was stupid, everypony here was stupid, and this dress itched.

Diamond dug her hooves into the lawn. Soft, cool soil dug into the caulkins of her horseshoes. One more thing for Spoiled to yell at her for.

Why couldn’t she have gone to Whinnyapolis with Dad instead? Even if business conferences didn’t have anything for foals—which Diamond still didn’t believe for a second—she could have ordered room service and read comics. She could have explored the hotel. Found an arcade with Prance Prance Insurrection. Slept all day. Fallen down an elevator shaft. Eaten a broken glass salad. Anything would be better than getting treated like last week’s horseapples.

A hot bubble of anger swelled in her chest, rising and rising and rising until it got caught in her throat. If she let it, it’d keep on rising until it fogged up her eyes and head, until mad was all she saw. Diamond remembered Doctor Belfry’s advice, took a deep breath, and counted to fifteen.

Okay.

Better.

Who needs her? I can take care of myself. She swallowed hard and swung to face the unicorn.

“We could afford a nanny if we wanted one, ma’am.” Diamond spat the same venom Carat had used with “foal”. It tilted more than a few ears. Good. I work better with an audience. “You see, Mother and I are spending quality time with each other today while she multitasks.”

Carat Cut narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

Diamond fluttered her baby blues and tilted her head. “You know about multitasking, right? When ponies work on more than one thing at once? Here, lemme explain it.” She clapped her hooves as if eagerly explaining a science project. “See, our family works for a living, and we do this, like, totally wacky thing where we raise our own foals. Also, I outgrew daycare eight years ago.”

Carat Cut stared. Bullies, jerks, and high-class snotrockets weren’t accustomed to pushback, especially not from ponies expected to roll over and play dead. Sometimes it took a second. Slowly, her lips tightened into a thin line.

Ah, there it goes.

Diamond Tiara flashed her cutest ever-so-pleasant wedding-guest smile toward the rest of the guests. Valentide audibly awwed. According to Diamond’s pageant coach, she only had a couple more years of cute left; use it or lose it, right? It’d be more than enough to cover her tracks for the spectators.

Carat Cut took a decisive step forward.

What, you’re really going to attack a cute little filly in front of all these ponies? Diamond locked eyes with the unicorn. I’m bored, I’m hungry, I’m adorable, and I know how to cry on cue. Her smile grew teeth. Try me.

For a second, it actually looked like she would. Carat Cut got five stomps in before Spoiled Rich cut between them. “You’ll have to forgive my daughter, Mrs. Carat. With all the excitement, sometimes little fillies don’t quite know what they’re saying.” She offered a conciliating smile.

That seemed enough to let Carat Cut leave satisfied. When she’d gone out of sight and the crowd passed on, Spoiled shot Diamond a glare to freeze Tartarus twice.

Diamond adjusted her tiara with an unapologetic sniff.

“Valentide, my dear, would you help my daughter find something to do with her time? She appears to be in a mood.” Before Diamond could protest, Spoiled nudged her into the assistant's waiting wings. “Keep her out of trouble and everypony’s way until after the ‘I Do’s.”

Because that’s a great way to spend quality time. What a joke—as if spending a couple of hours together would do anything but get them on each other’s nerves. Standing next to each other all day didn’t make them close.

“Sure thing. We’ll have a great time, won’t we, Diamond?” Valentide offered one of those shut-up-the-adults-are-talking smiles. “But are you sure, ma’am? There’s still a lot to cover before—”

“Tuxen Tails will cover you. Besides, everypony’s arrived, and you got the couple to the altar; the hard part’s finished.” She turned on Diamond.

“And you...”

“Yeah, I know.” Diamond rolled Valentide’s wings off her withers. “Behave.”

“For somepony who knows, you certainly don’t show it.” She considered Diamond’s sour expression a moment, sighed, and added, “Alright. I know this might not have been what you expected from today—”

No, this is pretty much it.

“—but we’ll leave in an hour or so. Then we can get lunch and spend our real quality time together and do…” Spoiled twirled her hoof in the air indicating whatever she thought fillies Diamond’s age did. “Until then, can you at least pretend to be somepony with manners?”

Diamond Tiara sucked her teeth.

“Or do you want me to tell your father and Doctor Belfry that you didn’t even want to try?”

Please. Why should she have to try when Spoiled didn’t even give her the time of day? She liked it better when they just stayed out of each other’s way and never spoke.

“If I recall, you shook on it.”

Dad’s words bounced back all the way from Ponyville. And you never, ever go back on a hoofshake. Slowly, Diamond lifted her gaze and reached into her pocket. “And you’re really going to keep your half of the deal? Anything I want?”

“Within the established parameters, yes. Anything you—” Spoiled blinked at the white paper drawn from the pocket of Diamond’s dress. “You brought that all the way to Canterlot?”

Diamond Tiara brandished the typed contract, complete with signatures from all three members of the Rich family, plus Randolph’s as a witness. “Why would I get it in writing if I wasn’t going to use it? Like, that’s the whole point.”

“I’ll hold my end if you hold yours. We can talk more about it after the wedding. Keep that dress clean, it wasn’t cheap.” With that, Spoiled whistled over a black and white stallion. “Tux, let’s go see about that dress.”

Valentide drew her new charge under her wing again and led her down the walkway. “C’mon kiddo, I’ll give you the tour.”

Together, they navigated the lavish wedding party. Diamond found herself introduced to the big house she couldn’t enter, the lavish buffet she couldn’t eat, the extravagant decorations she couldn’t touch, and fancy ponies she didn’t know.

Among these ponies was Lily Lace, the bride herself. She had a soft yellow coat, talked like a Coltifornian for some reason, and looked like she wanted to either laugh or cry, but couldn’t choose between the two. (According to Valentide, most brides were like that.) She was much nicer than Carat Cut, and fawned over the gems stitched into Diamond’s dress.

“Like, it’s like you fell into a magical lagoon of sparkles and dreams, you know? Oh, and those little heart cross-stitches in the hem? Ugh, shut up, I can’t even!”

The rest of the wedding was nothing Diamond hadn’t seen before. Less, actually. She squinted at the purple and white lilies lacing the archway above the chairs, a pathetic copy of Upper Crust’s six-hundred-layer rainbow rose pagoda. Lily’s family must have been in a lower price bracket; they’d probably busted the bank to keep up with the trends. Nopony blew their nose in this town without checking if the handkerchief was in style.

At the edge of Diamond’s attention, Valentide blabbed on about the soon-to-be newlyweds. “…got them to meet again in Manehattan, and like my charts said, he absolutely dazzled her on the runway.”

Her story drifted in and out through a cloud of background noise: String quartet preparing a pop song cover. Carriages rolling outside the fence. Family of the groom laughing at bad jokes.

“…and right then, I knew we’d had our pair…”

Small talk from ponies who mattered. Big talk from ponies who didn’t. Cooks yelling at each other. Cooing—wait. Cooing?

Diamond’s ears swiveled toward the pool house, where she discovered a tall cage of brass bent into the shape of a heart. The inside pulsed with movement, a writhing white mass flecked with black and pink. It reminded her of the waves crashing on the banks of Horseshoe Bay when the froth drew back from the rocks.

“…your mom won’t admit it, but she saw it clear as day. You can take the mare out of matchmaking, but you can’t take the matchmaking out of the mare, as I always say.” Valentide finally realized Diamond had stopped walking beside her. “You want to see the birds before the release, kiddo?” She checked the mostly empty audience seats. “We’ve still got about ten minutes.”

“Yeah, okay.” And quit calling me ‘kiddo.’

Up close, it didn’t sound like cooing anymore, but a solid breathing mass. The sound rumbled under Diamond’s coat—not thunder, but a purr, soft and enormous with life. She pressed her nose against the mesh threading between the bars to get a better look. Some just looked like regular white doves, while the others had long black necks and slimmer bodies.

A white earth pony crouched at the foot of the cage, greasing the wheels on the bottom. She smiled and waved when she noticed their approach. “Hello there, Valentide. And who is this?”

“Diamond, this is our bird wrangler, Dainty Dove.” Valentide’s wing patted her charge’s head. “Dainty, this is Mrs. Rich’s daughter, Diamond Tiara.”

“Hi.” Diamond didn’t bother with hoofshakes. If this mare answered to Spoiled, they could skip the pleasantries and get to business. “How many pigeons are in there?” With so many birds flapping around in a small space, she could barely tell them apart, much less count them.

“Thirty-three magpies and thirty-three white rollers for the bride and groom respectively.” The wrangler frowned at her. “And these, young filly, are doves, not pigeons.”

They sure smelled like pigeons. Despite being washed and groomed for the event, all the decorum in the world couldn’t stop a pigeon from pooping. They waddled with that silly head bob like the pigeons from the park, too.

Diamond raised an eyebrow. “What’s the difference?” If they were all doves, it couldn’t be color. The skinny long-neck ones had black feathers from the shoulders up.

“Breeding,” Dainty said. “You can find pigeons mulling around any old hot dog stand, but a dove!” She took a bird from the cage, a delicate little white thing that cuddled in her hooves and barely cooed at all. “A dove is something special. They’re bred to be.”

In other words, the same difference between weeds and wildflowers. As always, it all came down to marketing.

Dainty knelt to let Diamond Tiara pet the dove’s soft feathers. “This one’s Pretty Boy Sixteen.” At Diamond's perplexed look, she added, “They’re named after their sires and dams, so we know who’s who when it’s time for nesting.” She put Pretty Boy Sixteen back in the cage and gestured to a black and white dove preening beside the door. “That one’s Babyface Eighty-Eight, and next to her is the mate, Cupid One Six Five.”

Something snagged Diamond Tiara’s tail. When she tried to flick it off, that something yanked. “Ow!”

Her tail snatched away the cage, where a ratty magpie pigeon had pecked a hole in the mesh. Its gangly black neck dangled from the bars as if the brass heart had sprung an oil leak. One pus-white eye blinked at her, then the other. Strings of Diamond’s tail hairs dangled from its coral pink beak like purple drool.

Diamond flicked her tail out of reach. “Hey, watch it! This tail’s worth twice the price of your cage, you know.” Sure, it had been insured, but that didn’t mean she ran around letting random birds rip hairs out.

The pigeon’s head twisted upside down, tail hairs tangling over its eyes.

“Sorry about that. You’ve got to watch that one.” Dainty Dove poked the raggedy bird with a baton, glaring at the hole it had pecked through the mesh. “Ugh, I just replaced this. Shoo!” She jabbed the pigeon until it flapped to a higher shelf. It smacked the sides of the cage on its way up, leaving a trail of broken feathers behind. “Blasted thing’s torn up half the aviary, and that’s the least of it. If you can believe it, Two Three Seven’s got some of the best papers in the flock, but…”

Both ponies glanced at the scrawny magpie pigeon, who tilted its head at them. The head kept going. Slowly the neck leaned back and back and back until it bopped the bottom of the shelf. Feathers scattered as it jerked itself back into place, blinked out of synch, and pooped on one of the white doves.

Diamond rose to her hind legs for a better view. The pigeon pressed against the mesh, staring back with its weird milky eyes. If the elongated neck weren’t so crooked, he could probably carry his head higher than all the other birds. Once upon a time, maybe somepony had grabbed his head and stretched it out like taffy, or maybe he stretched his neck to reach some food and it stayed that way.

Continents of bare skin mapped his chest and torso where feathers had fallen out, and his raggedy black tail feathers fanned out in random directions. His long neck jerked upright as he marched back and forth along the shelf, ruffling his wings and cooing to himself. While he walked, the dark feathers in his neck caught the sun and glimmered with subtle rainbows. Two Three Seven boasted the slim build and ugly-beautiful aesthetics of an avant-garde runway model. The breeding showed.

“What do you call this one?”

Dainty Dove shooed it from the side of the cage. “A menace.”

A red face poked around the corner of the cage. “Hey there, Di,” said Valentide, who’d known her all of forty minutes and hadn’t earned the right to call her ‘Di’ yet. “What are you—augh!” She yanked Diamond from the cage, spreading her wingspan to shield her charge. A pony'd think the birds would explode any second. “Compassionate Cadance in coitus, what is THAT?!”

The birdcage erupted in startled flapping and frenzied coos. Diamond Tiara sneezed at the feathers rubbing her muzzle. “I’m fine. It’s just a little bird.”

She poked her head over the wing to see the scraggly pigeon huddled against the mesh. The pupils dilated in and out like a camera snagging snapshots. Locked up in a cage, he couldn’t do anything to anypony even if he wanted to. Valentide didn’t have to scream at him; it wasn’t like he asked to be here either.

Valentide dialed her volume to a harsh whisper. “Dainty, what the hay? What’s this thing doing in the release?” She cringed at the crust flaking on the pigeon’s beak. “Ugh, it looks diseased. Diamond Tiara, do you feel alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Her eyes popped wide. “Is your dress okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Oh goodness, if anything happened Mrs. Rich’ll have my wings in a splint!”

Diamond shoved the wings off of her. “I told you, I’m fine!” Adults never heard you the first time. If they weren’t going to listen, what was the point of asking in the first place?

In the corner of the cage, the pigeon with the wonky neck bit at his own feathers. What little plumage it had puffed and fluffed the way Rarity’s cat did when it went to the vet. Diamond had to admit Valentide might have a point. “Is he sick?”

“He’s getting over a cold right now, but Two Three Seven is otherwise... well, he’s physically fine. I’ve got the vet report if you want it.” Dainty sighed at the bird wobbling in circles on the cage floor. “Just a drama king that’s flown into one too many mirrors. You can’t give me one day without static, can you, menace?”

The wonky-necked pigeon flapped at her, puffing the few feathers it had, but it stayed put.

Dainty Dove took out one of the other magpie pigeons for Diamond to hold. It had the same colors, but more gala tuxedo than a thrift-store jacket. Its feathers glossed from the smooth elegant neck to the perfectly manicured toenails. It vaguely reminded Diamond Tiara of Silver Spoon’s butler.

The bird gave a lilting musical coo, stretching its swanlike neck to soak up the sun. A dignified, handsome little thing, polished to a shine. “You’re okay, I guess.” She gave it back to its keeper to put back.

Valentide nodded in approval. “I don’t know why you brought the raggedy one at all when you’ve got plenty of good ones.”

“Yes, thirty-two good ones that aren’t busy nesting. However, if I recall,” Dainty sniffed, “the instructions explicitly called for thirty-three, no more and no less. Unless you’ve got a pedigree Trottingham Magpie Pigeon under your petticoat, this is the best we can do.”

“Couldn’t you work with one less bird?”

A hard snap of elastic echoed across the yard. Both ponies turned to the pool house where a bridesmaid struggled to walk in a dress bursting at the seams. Mrs. Spoiled Rich watched with little pity.

Valentide flicked an ear. “Okay, stupid question.”

Dainty Dove bobbed her head. “Agreed.”

With everypony else distracted, Diamond knelt by the corner of the cage, where Two Three Seven pecked at bits of mesh. The hole had grown to twice the size of a coin. She stuck her hoof halfway in and wagged it at him. “You’re ready to ditch this party, huh?”

The pigeon tapped its crusty beak against her horseshoe. It tickled.

“Yeah, me too.” She stroked a bare patch of skin on his chest. If “the menace” really wasn’t sick, why did he have so many missing feathers? Did he get into fights with the other birds? Diamond hadn’t seen any of the others come close to him; maybe the rest of the flock held a grudge. “Did you do something bad?”

The pigeon’s gangly neck twisted to the side and went lopsided. It blinked at her upside down.

“Guess you’ve got a different perspective.” Since she didn’t have anypony around to do it, Diamond smiled at her own little joke.

Above her head, Dainty talked shop with Valentide. “…besides, the menace is one in over sixty flying five feet in the air. Nopony will know the difference.”

Diamond Tiara watched her while she stroked the pigeon’s bare patches. “He’s perfectly fine, physically.” The dove keeper had snuck in a stipulation: a line of fine print to sidestep a different problem. Money-back guarantees came a dime a dozen, and no businesspony made a profit without cutting corners.

“They fly and home back in a few minutes by instinct. Even this moron can do it.” Dainty smirked. “He’d better if he doesn’t want a ticket to the cat’s supper dish.” She laughed to show that she’d been joking.

Valentide laughed along to be polite.

Diamond Tiara clutched the contract in her pocket and narrowed her eyes.

The string quartet shifted into a romantic ballad. Most of the galley seats had been filled, with plenty more guests on their way. Bridesmaids, ushers, and family of the couple took their places.

“Oooh, here we go!” Valentide bounced into the air, clapping her hooves. She swept Diamond away from the birdcage with another one of her placating smiles. “Let’s go find your mom. We’ll see the birdies again after the wedding, kiddo.”

Diamond watched the heart of gold shift from mesh-and-wire to a solid mass again. Perspective worked funny that way. “I’m counting on it, Miss Valentide.” And she’s not my mom.

They slipped through the aisles to the center of the bride’s section where Spoiled Rich awaited them. The tip of her moussed tail twitched while she examined the arc of lilies threading above the galley.

At a glance, it was impossible to tell if her irritation came from Diamond Tiara, a work incident, or something else totally unrelated. Probability and personal history suggested a combination of all three. The tricky part was figuring out Diamond’s personal percentage of that irritation. She rounded it to sixty percent to be safe. Diamond twitched her ears at distant cooing. Better not roll the dice.

“Hello, Mother.” She spoke just above a stage whisper.

“Hello, Diamond. Nice of you to finally join us.” Spoiled slightly angled her head to peer at them. “You made it by the skin of your teeth.”

Please. These things never start when they’re supposed to. They had like, five minutes before the wedding march at least.

The sequined pleats of Diamond’s dress spread neatly as she sat. She kept her hooves in her lap and her tail curled neatly. “I’m sorry for our tardiness, it’s my fault. Valentide and I were having such fun at the wedding, we lost track of time. We met Lily—uh, Miss Lily Lace and the band, and so many other interesting ponies.”

Dainty Dove wheeled the heart cage into position behind the altar. Close enough to see a wonky neck flopping out of the side.

Every tooth in Diamond’s smile sparkled. “Did I mention I’ve been on my best behavior?”

Useful for once, Valentide backed her with a smile and nod. “Yep. Good as gold, ma’am.” Her wing reached to pat Diamond on the head.

Diamond shifted so that the wing hit her withers instead. For insurance, she tilted her head, twirling her mane in her hoof. “By the way, I decided what kind of pet I want.”

Spoiled nodded to herself. “And there it is.” She kept her neutral wedding day smile, but Diamond Tiara knew when a pony frowned on the inside; most of Spoiled’s smiles went that way. This one didn’t feel like an angry-on-the-inside smile, however, so… good enough?

Appealing to emotion would get her nowhere fast. Smarter to go for logic and hard facts first. If Diamond needed an emotional vote, she could always appeal to Dad later. “It fits all of the contract stipulations, even the fine print parts. I checked.” She hadn’t, but she’d memorized it this morning in case the paper copy ran into trouble.

Valentide winked and gestured at the dove cage. “I practically had to drag her away,” she whispered. “She’s been staring at ‘em ever since. It’s adorable.”

Spoiled blinked in surprise. “Wait. You don’t mean the doves?” Her eyebrow rose. “Like a wedding dove? Not a screeching parrot or some absurd monstrosity from the Everfree?”

“Yes, ma’am,” chirped Diamond Tiara.

“And you DO mean a regular normal dove. Not a grubby rat with wings you found by the fence.”

“I do, ma’am.”

Spoiled blinked a couple of times, searching for a catch. She pointed at the heart cage. “Like one of those?”

“No, not like one of those.” Diamond stretched her neck to see the grubby magpie pigeon circling the bottom of the cage. “Exactly one of those. I already know which one I want, too. He’s got a pedigree and papers and everything. He’s the prettiest one in the whole flock. Mother!”

“…oh.” Spoiled’s icy posture melted less like frost in winter and more like ice cream in summertime. “Well. That does indeed sound like a suitable pet, Diamond Tiara, but I thought we might pick something out together.” She gave Diamond’s shoulder a little side-hug. “Doesn’t that sound like more fun?”

So we can get something stuffy and boring you like instead? Yeah, no. Given the chance, Spoiled would probably try to talk her into getting some sluggish, ornamental thing that couldn’t even come out of its tank. A sea anemone or a jellyfish or whatever.

“No thank you, Mother. I like this dove.”

Spoiled started to say something else, but the wedding procession began before she got a word out. “We’ll talk to Dainty about it after the ceremony.” She brushed bits of grass off Diamond’s dress and adjusted the mane strands around her tiara. “Sit up straight, we’re starting.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Did her room have space for a triple-decker cage? Maybe if she moved the vanity to the other corner and the bed closer to the wall. Diamond let her legs waggle over the edge of the bench, mapping out the layout in her head while the wedding procession passed. If the pigeon really did fly into mirrors, maybe they should move the vanity into another room? Actually, did they even need a big cage at all? It might be better if he slept in a smaller cage and flew around free most of the day.

Wish I’d brought my blueprint stuff…

Something wet plopped between Diamond’s ears. Then again. She snapped out of her interior design plans and frowned at the cloudless sky. “Huh.” Another droplet fell on her foreleg. Diamond turned to the sniffling pegasus beside her. Valentide had buried her face in her wings, sobbing so hard tears dripped off her primaries. Guess now I know why her name is Valentide. She edged out of the splash zone. More like Valen-tsunami.

“Are you okay?” Diamond had never seen an adult cry in public before, except when Nana Impossibly died. Even then, nopony had cried this hard.

“Oh… never better, kiddo.” Valentide wiped her eyes with a soggy wing. “I… It’s just the flowers a-and the music and they’re so beautiful a-a-and they love each other so muuuuch!”

Spoiled nodded. “Yes, and to think if not for us, they wouldn’t have made it here at all.” Rolling her eyes, she offered Valentide a handkerchief. “Celestia’s sake, we’re not even into the vows yet.”

“Thank you.” Valentide inspected the designer monogram and dabbed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, I promised not to make another scene.”

“I suppose it can’t be helped.” The tip of Spoiled’s tail tapped Diamond’s haunch. “I hope you know better than that. You do that sort of thing—”

“On my own time, in my own space. I know.” Diamond clenched her jaw before she let out something she’d regret. What, does she think I was born yesterday? Crying in front of other ponies might as well be handing over your house keys to strangers. Anypony two steps out of the crib knew that.

At the podium, the official led the couple into their vows.

Valentide clutched the handkerchief to her chest, cooing louder than the dove cage. “I think this is my favorite part of the job.”

“Then by the love and blessings of all gathered, by crown and contract, I decree you husband and wife. May you go in harmony.”

“Mine, too.” Something weird happened to Spoiled’s face, then. Little wrinkles creased around her round eyes, suddenly gone bright and sparkling. The hard lines of her cheekbones softened and rose like a plump biscuit out of the oven. Her bottom jaw slackened, and the corners of her mouth turned upwards.

After a moment, Diamond realized Spoiled Rich was smiling. Like, smiling the way normal ponies smiled, all happy and stuff. It fuzzed Diamond’s mane and made her feel all jumbled and weird and messed up inside. Watching her felt like watching a goldfish tap dance, or a teacher rap multiplication tables. She might have laughed if it didn’t also feel like somepony had stepped on her stomach.

The string quartet swung into another ballad. On cue, sixty-six doves burst into the sky in a great cloud of black and white. No, wait… sixty-five. A black and white speck broke from the group, dipping and bobbing and corkscrewing through the topiaries. Diamond stood on her chair trying to follow it, but she couldn’t see through the crowd.

Cameras flashed and snapped and clicked on every side. Today would snag the society section’s front pages, no doubt. Sparkling in the sunshine, doves banked and weaved around the arc of lilies and up, up into the sky: a perfect symbol of a new couple’s future unfurling before them, precious and promising and everlasting as the cloudless blue.

Barely audible under the applause and the cheers and the band and the sobbing, something went thunk.

The crowd oohed and ahhed. Valentide cried even harder, while Spoiled clasped her hooves and sighed with relief.

The bride and groom tried to suck each other’s lips off.

A flurry of chefs and waiters scrambled to wheel out the buffet. Carat Cut, (seemingly) proud mother of the bride, posed to cut the seven-tier wedding cake. A speck of white plopped in her hair. She frowned and looked up. She looked down. Slowly, her mouth fell open.

Spoiled Rich went ashen.

In the thick of the crowd, Dainty Dove took three steps backward, then bolted.

Diamond Tiara stood on her hind legs, squinting over the mass of wiggling shoulders to see the buffet table. Starbursts of frosting and feathers coated the tablecloth, the grass, and half the buffet.

A winding skid mark smeared through seven feet of buttercream and fifteen tiers of gutted red velvet. At the bottom of the nine-thousand-bit cake, pigeon Two Three Seven twitched on his back and pooped on the silverware.