• Published 4th Jan 2012
  • 25,718 Views, 1,518 Comments

The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants

Rarity finds herself forced into an unlikely alliance when her airship crashes far from home.

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V. Last Supper

V. Last Supper

No sooner had she reentered the castle dining hall than Rarity beheld one of the oddest sights she had ever seen. She gasped as Blueblood suddenly winced and began to whimper, bent uncomfortably to one side, and began taking tiny recalcitrant steps away from her as if he were being painfully dragged. Only once she noticed the glow of magic around his left ear did she realize that was exactly what was happening. Princess Palladium, Blueblood’s mother, magically tugged her errant son by the ear until he was hunched over before her, looking thoroughly humiliated. Despite the fact that he was at least twice her size, Blueblood cowered before the angry mare.

“Where did you go? What were you doing? Did you know that your dear brother had to entertain the guests while you were gone?” Palladium growled. She released the magical hold on Blueblood and allowed him to stagger upright. “I would say that you’re an even bigger failure as a party host than you are as a son, but how could that even be possible?”

Rarity was not sure whether to laugh at the sorry sight or flee the scene before she was dragged into it. Unfortunately, Palladium noticed her before she could make a decision.

“Oh look, did you find a new playmate already?” Palladium asked her eldest son sarcastically. “Were you off showing her your imported silk sheets? I suppose I should be happy that at least this one’s a unicorn.”

“Now see here!” Rarity spoke up. “I certainly was not shown any sheets!”

The princess ignored her, and instead looked Rarity up and down appraisingly. “Good birthing hips, I must say. She looks like she could at least produce an heir, unlike the bundles of twigs you usually bring back. Maybe you should hang onto this one. Tell me, does she have a royal pedigree?”

Rarity gaped in shock at the elderly princess as she tried to decide whether she was more insulted by the insinuation that she been with Blueblood romantically, or by the elder mare’s oblique suggestion that she was carrying a few extra pounds.

“Mother, please be quiet,” Blueblood begged, rubbing his ear with a hoof. “There are very distinguished guests in attendance. You wouldn’t want to make a scene, would you?”

“A scene? This house is already practically a zoo since you elected to fill it with these air race hooligans. I never thought I’d live too see the day that my own son kept company with such creatures. Griffons? Barbaric. Zebras? Savages. I don’t even know what that humped beast is. He doesn’t even have proper hooves. On top of that you disgrace us with a flock of pegasi and a herd of earth ponies. Did you learn nothing from your father’s mistakes? At least if you end up like him, your brother will bear the name and save us from the cloud of shame that you have caused to appear over this castle.”

“Mother!” Blueblood was glancing around with a horrified expression, apparently trying to see how many guests could hear his mother’s racist and xenophobic diatribe. As far as Rarity could tell, nopony else was paying attention. But she had listened to the ugly words, and she couldn’t let them pass without speaking up.

“I’m sorry, Princess,” Rarity began, “but there’s simply no place for that kind of talk in Equestria. Even if we don’t always understand one another’s differences, we mustn’t spurn others simply on account of them. Your family traces its line back to the founding of Equestria, so you of all ponies should recognize the dangers of bigotry and prejudice.”

Palladium wheeled on Rarity, practically frothing with anger. “And who are you, girl? Tell me the name of the mare who would dare address royalty so disrespectfully?”

“My name is Rarity.”

“What?” Palladium’s heavy-lidded eyes opened as wide as they could and she backed away a half step. “Rarity? But you look so common!” She stared at Rarity for a full ten seconds, and then turned back on her son, who cringed involuntarily as if expecting a blow. “Enough! I’ve had enough of you and your ruffian friends for the evening. I shall retire presently.”

Rarity stood watching, still unmoving, as the princess slowly maneuvered her massive gown past Blueblood and shuffled out of the dining hall, nose in the air. She recognized that Princess Palladium's parting shot worked as a clever, if cruel, pun on her name, but it had also looked like she was taken off guard by it. Why, she wondered, had the princess been startled by her name?

“What was that all about?” Rarity asked.

“That was fairly tame, actually, by her standards,” Blueblood muttered, gathering himself and trying to look nonchalant, as he hadn’t just been dragged about the room by his elderly mother. “There are no excuses to make, so I make none. My mother is a monster, and she gets worse every year.”

“I mean, why did she react like that to my name?” Rarity asked again.

“How should I know?” Blueblood asked defensively, straightening his bowtie. “She could have read the guest announcements, or saw your name in the paper in the review of that awful play. Nopony can explain what that mare says or does except her.”

Rarity was far from satisfied by the response, but decided that she had nothing to gain by pressing the matter further. Even assuming Blueblood knew more than he was saying, he wouldn’t tell her now. Besides, she had already won a small victory by bearing witness to the stallion’s embarrassing ordeal.

Blueblood sighed. “I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to pretend that never happened, and that you saw nothing,” he replied. “So instead, I propose that I just walk away and we avoid each other for the rest of the evening. Perhaps you can find a place setting on the far side of the dining table.”

“Since you’re the host of this dinner, you should know what’s going on, but allow me to elucidate. I can see from here the servers are setting out place cards,” Rarity said huffily. “The seating would therefore appear to be predetermined. If through some horrible twist of fate my seat is near yours, I demand that you eject someone on the other side of the room from your castle and put me their place.”

Before Bluebood could reply, the clamor of conversation in the hall was drowned out by the clanging of a brass bell. One of the servers, this a unicorn stallion more ostentatiously garbed than the others, rang the bell by shaking it back and forth with his magic as he waited for the crowd’s attention.

“Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “I am honored to announce that His Grace the Duke of Canterlot, Prince Blueblood the Twenty-Fourth, Unicorn Royal of Equestria, cordially invites all of his esteemed guests to join him for this evening’s formal dinner.” The servant’s deep, stentorian voice, as well as the promise of a fine meal, easily captured the audience’s attention.

Though her gaze had gravitated to the speaker, Rarity observed Blueblood and his siblings quietly move to take up positions at the dining table. The table was narrow, with one tall chair at either end and nineteen on each long side, providing forty places in total. Blueblood took up a position at one of the high-backed end chairs, presumably the head of the table. His brother Lord Procyon stood by the center chair on the long side farthest from Rarity, and his sister Ruthenium faced Procyon on the opposite side. Iridium, the youngest, stood to the right of her elder sister. Rarity noted that nopony stood near the high-backed chair opposite to Blueblood, which had been occupied by his mother when she had arrived.

The server continued with his introduction. “Representing the traditional sigil of the royal family, the compass rose, the Duke and his family shall occupy places of honor representing the cardinal directions.” Blueblood and his siblings took their seats, but Princess Palladium was made conspicuous by her absence. The servant, a consummate professional, did not miss a beat. “Unfortunately Princess Palladium’s delicate health has prevented her from joining in the evening’s feast, and she has retired to her chambers. And now, I have the pleasure of introducing four dignified guests who merit special consideration, and for whom places of honor have been reserved closest to the duke.”

Rarity wondered who might merit “special consideration.” Certainly the griffon chancellor seemed like an especially important sort, but nearly everyone here was rich, famous, or both. Everyone, that is, excepting Rarity herself. Perhaps Fancypants, on account of being the wealthiest, most connected pony in the capital, would be one of the four, though Rarity couldn’t imagine Blueblood wanting to be seated closer than necessary to his rival. Then again, his involvement with the guest list was obviously minimal, as he hadn’t known there was assigned seating, or even that she was attending.

“First, and in no order of importance, Prince Khufu of Camelon,” the servant announced. Rarity was shocked to see the one-eyed camel, who stood head and shoulders taller than anyone in the room but whose appearance gave no hint of a royal background, walk through the swiftly-parting crowd with a serene expression on his face. Polite, if awkwardly sporadic, applause followed him. The camel chose the first seat in the long row to Blueblood’s right.

“Second, Chancellor Ninetalons of Homespire Eyrie, Lord of the High Hall.” Ninetalons’ name was greeted by shrieks of approval from his kinfolk, and the grim old griffon with the battered beak and missing claw took the first chair on Blueblood’s left, opposite the camel prince. “Third, Elector Graywings of Whiteknife Eyrie.” Another griffon, who Rarity immediately recognized as the fat one who had taken his mysterious bag to kitchen, took the seat next to the chancellor, accompanied by even louder adulation than his superior.

An elector, Rarity knew, was a clan chief who led one or more eyries, and had the opportunity to be elected chancellor of the clans when the position was up for a vote. Rarity had heard unsubstantiated rumors that the electors had the right to challenge the chancellor to a fight for his or her position, but she didn’t give much weight to such gossip. She cold get the true story from Rainbow Dash when she returned to Ponyville.

That left one more. Who, Rarity wondered, was the fourth special guest, who would have to endure dinner close to not only Blueblood, but also a pair of griffons and the mysterious camel? The others were either royals or great chieftains, so the fourth should logically fall amongst that cadre. Was one of the Fillydelphians the city's mayor, perhaps?

“And finally,” the servant continued, “Rarity of Ponyville, Wielder of the Elements of Harmony and Twice-Recognized Heroine of Equestria.”

“What!?” Rarity shouted before throwing a hoof over her mouth in embarrassment. Her exclamation had drawn the unwanted attention of every pony, and everyone else, in the dining hall, and now all eyes were upon her. This was unbelievable. She clearly did not belong with the other three. She was not royal or famous, and her wealth, though growing, was not on par with the ranks of the truly elite gathered here. She was just a dressmaker, and one in far over her head at that.

What was she to do, Rarity wondered. She couldn’t very well make a run for the door. For one thing, she wasn’t sure how to escape the circuitous old fortress. She had no choice but to smile, bear it, and then find the pony responsible for putting her in this humiliating position. She had a few choice words in mind already. As the guests continued to stare at her in silence, Rarity’s lips parted in a forced, too-wide smile as she tried to look as confident as possible. To her surprise, the awkward quietude was suddenly broken by the sound of applause. There, in front, one of the citrus ponies was stomping her hooves. She was soon joined by another pony, and then another.

“Hey, she saved our town from Night Mare Moon,” one of the stallions from Fillydelphia shouted to his compatriots. “Thank you, Miss Rarity!”

“You stopped Discord! You saved my family!” another pony called out. Rarity saw that it was one of the servers. She knew they weren’t supposed to talk out of turn, but nopony seemed inclined to complain. Soon, all the servants were stomping their hooves in appreciation alongside all of the pony guests, and even some of the foreigners were applauding. Rarity flushed a deep crimson. The Canterlot elites may not have been overly preoccupied with the Elements of Harmony and the bearers of their representative spirits, but it seemed that the working class of the capital and many others across Equestria knew the story well enough, and now everyone was cheering together.

Rarity wanted to tell them to stop, that it wasn’t her they should be exalting. She wanted to explain that she wasn’t strong like Applejack or Rainbow Dash, irrepressible like Pinkie, self-sacrificing like Fluttershy, or as brave and magical as Twilight Sparkle. Yes, she had been along for the ride, but she wasn't a hero. But how, she wondered, how could she make them understand? Her explanation would ring with the hollowness of false modesty, and she would only appear to be begging to be lavished with more undeserved praise. Instead of correcting them, she silently walked, eyes downcast and face red, to take the remaining seat of the four closest to Blueblood. Her chair was to the right of Khufu the camel prince, and opposite the fat griffon, Graywings.

As she took her seat, Rarity flashed a furious scowl at Blueblood. “Not me,” he mouthed in response, and shrugged. That did little to soothe Rarity’s anger. She could grant that Blueblood had delegated the seating arrangements and management of the guest list, but that didn’t change the fact that somepony had decided to make a circus of things by grouping her with actual dignitaries, the net result being what promised to be a very awkward dinner.

“The rest of the guests may find their places,” the head servant continued. “By standing order of His Grace, the remaining seating arrangements have been made to facilitate stimulating conversation, and irrespective of any other considerations. His Grace invites you to enjoy yourselves. The wine shall be poured at once and dinner will served immediately thereafter.”

Rarity observed the remaining guests scramble to find the folded cards denominating their predetermined seats. She looked at the place setting to her right, and was grateful to read the name of Clementine Orange. She was even more delighted when Fancypants took the seat opposite the citrus pony. Rarity silently thanked Celestia for these small mercies.

As Clementine took her chair next to Rarity with a polite greeting, Rarity continued to watch the remaining guests find their places. Next to Clementine sat another of the griffons. To Rarity’s dismay it was the lean, rapacious-looking one, clad in raven black, who had earlier looked at her as if she might be his next meal. She somewhat rudely leaned behind Clementine to spy his namecard, and saw that he was “General Karroc.” Across from the general sat Fancypants’ second, retired Colonel Tempest of the Guard. The pegasus was already giving his military counterpart on the other side of the table a baleful stare, and once again Rarity was left to wonder what lunacy had inspired these seating arrangements.

Beyond Karroc and Tempest were an earth pony stallion from Fillydelphia and one of the Cloudsdale pegasi, and then Lemondrop from the citrus consortium sat across from the zebra mare. Rarity could see that the smaller half-striped equine was seated at the zebra’s other side, and she decided he must be her son. Beyond them were all the rest of the guests, with only the chair formerly occupied by Princess Palladium remaining empty. The servers were already making their way around the table with crystal decanters of red and white wine. Dinner had officially begun.

“Would madam prefer red or white wine?” a server asked, leaning toward Rarity.

“Well, how can I choose before hearing the menu?” Rarity responded testily. The debacle of her introduction to the crowd had left a sour taste in her mouth, and she was insulted that the server apparently felt she wasn’t sophisticated enough about wine pairings to at least deserve the opportunity to make an informed decision.

“Ah, I apologize for my presumptuousness,” the server said. “I meant no offense. The soup course is a seasonal carrot parsnip bisque. Next we have a cauliflower gratin with a fine farm fresh cheese from Ponyville. The main course consists of brochettes of forest mushrooms, potatoes, and fennel, over a rustic slaw of greens. To cleanse the palate there will be a salad of seasonal greens, followed by a cheese service and coffee. Does that help madam?”

If nothing else the description helped restore Rarity’s appetite. “I’ll have the red,” she said, only slightly less confidently than she would have preferred. The meal sounded rustic and hearty, and she felt certain that it called for a red wine.

“Excellent choice,” the server said, and commenced with a healthy pour.

Rarity was sure that she could have asked for a coconut with a straw in it and he would have called it an excellent choice, but no matter. She was surrounded by strangers and seated next to a creature the likes of which she had never encountered before in her life. She had just been been put on humiliating public display by whoever had decided to call her out for the “Elements of Harmony” business. Then there was the mounting animosity between the griffons and pegasi, who were almost all staring ruefully at one another. If she picked up her dinner knife Rarity was sure she could use it to cut the tension hanging thickly in the air around her. She needed to have her wits about her. She then realized she had just gulped nearly half of her glass of wine.

“Again?” she asked aloud, staring at the half-empty glass.

“Well, it is delightful vintage,” a low voice said in a thick, unplaceable accent.

Rarity swiveled in her seat to see the one-eyed camel. Prince Khufu, she remembered. His long, vaguely ovine face was covered in golden hair that mirrored the gold of his one remaining eye, and when he smiled Rarity could see real gold in place of several of his teeth. Despite the formality of the dinner, he still wore his white scarf tied tightly around his neck. Even looking as alien to Rarity as he did, his small smile made him seem somehow gentle and nonthreatening. And that, Rarity thought, was probably a dangerous assumption to make. He was, after all, supposed to be a smuggler or a mercenary. Perhaps it had even been somepony’s last mistake.

“Is pleasure to meet great hero of pony folk,” Khufu continued, in somewhat broken Equestrian.

“The honor is mine, your highness,” Rarity courteously replied. “Please disregard all this silly talk about the Elements of Harmony. I am merely a seamstress and a milliner. I fancy myself good at what I do, but a hero, no. It’s just that sometimes life puts ponies in places they’d rather not be, and doesn’t give them the option to be someplace else. Anypony could have done the things I did.”

“Too modest,” Khufu replied. “There is always choice, whatever situation is. You make right choices, not everypony would. Heroes make right choices, I know.”

Rarity didn’t know how to reply to that, so she merely acknowledged his comment with a small nod. The carrot and parsnip soup arrived, and she used her magic to try an experimental spoonful. It was thick and flavorful, warming her and reminding her of the farms and fields of her hometown at the same time. Good, she needed to remain grounded tonight, and how better than to think of Ponyville?

“Tell me, please, how does a prince become involved with a, um, shipping company?” she asked. She had to be careful not to let on that she had heard Fancypants’ suspicions as to the true nature of the camel’s business.

“Camels of Camelon, seemed, no longer wanted royals. Asked family to leave, no uncertain terms,” Khufu replied enigmatically. “See.”

He reached a hairy front foot up to his neck and grasped his scarf. Rarity noticed that he had no hooves, but only small hard nails on the tips of his two toes. Slowly, he pulled the scarf down until he revealed the edge of an old, dark red scar where no hair grew.

“Should have used stronger rope,” Khufu finished with a wry expression.

Rarity gasped as she realized that he had survived a hanging. Attempted regicide; his own subjects had tried to depose him, permanently. What conditions could have prompted such drastic measures? She couldn’t even conceive of anypony wanting to overthrow a kind and just monarch like Princess Celestia, so what sort of tyrant must Khufu have been?

“My goodness!” she exclaimed. “How terrible!”

“Ancient history now,” the camel said. “But still those who remember old Camelon call me ‘prince,’ and is hard for me to forget too, even if meaningless now.”

“So how did you come to enter the regatta?” Rarity asked.

“In my business, learned to ride winds of change. Change brought us here. Where change comes, always resistance. Friction. Heat. Sometimes enough for flame. Winds of change fan the fire, and we sell to who fears burning. Griffons see so many ponies; ponies see resources they need. The kindling awaits a spark. Much business may wait for us here. We could not pass up this race.”

Rarity was aghast. “Are you saying that you are soldiers of fortune, hoping for some kind of armed conflict? That’s horrible!”

“Too old to fight, and half-blind,” Khufu replied, shaking his head. “I am salesman. My colleagues and I sell that which can stop the conflict before it begins, or end it once it does. Zinzi, my zebra mare, is genius with firesticks and burning powders.”

“You’re weapons dealers?” Rarity asked incredulously. She wondered if perhaps Khufu's subjects hadn't been onto something when they tried to be rid of him.

Khufu gave a small nod of agreement. “Even your Equestria has its foundries and armories, no need for shock.”

“But no pony would never seek out conflict, hoping to capitalize on bloodshed and misery!”

“Hope for peace, but recognize that war is good for business,” Khufu replied evenly.

Rarity was beginning to understand that the growing conflict between the griffons and ponies in the Snowmanes was becoming quite serious. Already the carrion eaters like Khufu were circling. She resolved to beg Rainbow Dash to go to her family when she got back to Ponyville. If necessary, Rarity would drag her friend there. She would also ask Twilight to talk to Princess Celestia. Clouds and coal were not worth lives, certainly. This would have to wait, though. There was nothing she could do by herself, alone in Canterlot.

She turned away from the camel prince and back to her meal. The servers had just replaced her soup tureen with a small, oval ceramic ramekin, filled wish warm cauliflower and bubbling cheese. It smelled amazing. Whatever problems Blueblood’s family might have, they had selected a fantastic chef. Rarity couldn’t help but note, however, that this dish, unlike the soup which could be gripped by the bowl, presented a problem for those in attendance with hooves and no magic. They could not very well thrust their muzzles into something so piping hot.

While waiting for her dish to cool, she looked up to observe the crowd. The problem of hooves had been resolved by having many of the unicorn servers take a break from their serving duties to spoon feed the guests who could not otherwise enjoy the dish. Perhaps it was slightly demeaning for the servers, and a tad awkward for the eaters, but it was a workable substitute for grasping claws or magic in a pinch. Rarity had even heard of four-star restaurants in Manehattan, largely an earth pony town, where every bite was served in this way.

Meanwhile, most of the griffons were picking at their food. They could eat practically anything, Rarity knew, which was a necessary adaptation for living in the mountains where food was scarce and what little soil existed was inhospitable to agriculture. But despite this capacity for omnivorousness, they preferred meat. On the other hoof, some were not so discriminatory. The fat one seated across from her, Elector Graywings, was gorging on cheese and cauliflower and had even seized Chancellor Ninetalons’ dish at some point.

Rarity’s own food was cool enough to eat now, and she tackled it with relish. While she ate, she listened in on the other conversations that were happening all around her. Blueblood seemed content enough talking with the griffon leader, and the swooping motions of his forehooves told her that they were animatedly discussing the race. Fancypants was making cross-table small talk with Clementine Orange, and Blueblood’s brother Procyon was whispering something to the beady-eyed male zebra seated next to him. Far down the long table the mechanic, Elbow Grease, seemed to be talking sports with his fellow Fillydelphians. Rarity would recognize the hooves-raised gesture, indicating a hoofball score, at any distance. Even with his glory days long past, her father still regularly attended the games. Moreover, he would drag her along whenever he could. As such times she lived in constant fear of being spotted by ponies who would be shocked at seeing her engaged in such an unladylike pastime. Thank Celestia for sunglasses and giant hats, Rarity thought.

“The servants took care of the seating arrangements.” Rarity broke away from eating to see Blueblood speaking to her. Prince Khufu had excused himself from the table for the moment, and the white stallion was taking advantage of the opportunity in order to speak to her.

“Then you should have reviewed them. You let them make a fool out of me,” Rarity snapped.

“Actually it seemed like everypony loved you,” Blueblood observed.

“I don’t want applause for that. It’s not who I am," Rarity huffed.

“You still have to learn; in Canterlot, whoever ponies think you are is who you are. At least, that’s all that seems to matter. Tonight, you get to be the savior of Equestria, so you may as well enjoy it.”

“The main course is served,” the head servant proclaimed in his impressive basso, breaking up Rarity’s brief conversation with Blueblood. She looked up to see the servers reemerge into the room with silver-domed platters for each guest. Some were oversized, and Rarity noticed that these were placed before the griffons. She was suddenly gripped by the fear that whatever had been in the fat griffon’s bag earlier was now on the dinner table, and she braced herself as the servers ceremoniously whisked the domed lids from their platters.

It was worse than she had imagined. On each of the griffons’ plates, lying on a bed of lettuce, was a plump, gray-furred, and very much deceased animal that looked something like a cross between a short-eared rabbit and a very large mouse. The animals were presented uncooked and uncleaned, and they almost looked like they could have scurried right off of the plates; almost, because each creature’s head was stove in.

Rarity closed her eyes and fought off a wave of nausea. This was one of those times when she envied Fluttershy’s intimacy with the cycle of life. Her friend could catch fish and feed them to the otter she cared for, or feed worms to her birds, and she showed the same compassion for the most vicious predator as she did for the most adorable baby rabbit. She would have understood the griffons’ diet, and accepted it, but Rarity couldn’t get past the idea that eating flesh was horrific.

At least a few of the dinner guests handled the sight considerably more poorly than even Rarity. Many of the earth ponies, especially, looked green in the gills. Clementine Orange, on Rarity’s immediate right, threw her hooves to her mouth and immediately got out of her chair. Before Rarity could ask if she needed any assistance, she was already gone through the nearest doorway. The situation looked dire, and Rarity hoped her recent acquaintance would find a lavatory in time. As one, the griffons each lifted their four-legged entrees and lowered the furry morsels into their gaping beaks. Just like that, the grisly spectacle was over.

“Pikas,” a voice announced in an elegant baritone. “A delicacy from the mountains we call home.” The voice, Rarity quickly ascertained, belonged to General Karroc. He stood up from his chair and leaned forward, grasping the edge of the table with his eagle claws and allowing him to be seen by everyone at the dining table. “I see some uncomfortable faces. I sincerely apologize if our dietary habits have offended any of you,” he continued.

Receiving no response to the apology, Karroc forged ahead with his speech. “It was our comrade Elector Graywings who was kind enough to bring this taste of home for us tonight. You see, we griffons like to be reminded that nothing comes easily to us. We are not so blessed as you pony folk, who can grow as much food as you like. We take what we need from our lands. We hunt it. The pika is a clever little fellow, with sharp eyes and keen ears. A griffon, however, can see him hiding in his little crevice at three leagues, and can be upon him before he can react. When I was newly fledged, our mountains teemed with these creatures, but they have grown scarce over the years. This was a rare treat, so I thank you for indulging us.”

One of the Cloudsdale pegasi pushed back her chair and spoke up. “Nonsense! You scared the animals away yourselves by flying patrols all over the mountainside day and night, in plain view of every creature on the slopes. You’ve been trying to intimidate us for almost two years now. Don’t insinuate that we are to blame for your problems!”

Karroc’s voice remained calm. “I believe there is an old Equestrian proverb; an adage that you all learn in school. It answers the question, ‘where is Equestria?’ ‘Wherever storms are beaten back, wherever beasts are cowed, where sun and moon follow their track, where ponies live unbowed.’ A lovely sentiment, is it not? You think we griffons are barbaric, yet it is you ponies who learn to dominate and enslave from the day you are foaled. You expand until your hoofprints cover the land, and then you bend the world to your will, and you do not stop until the animals, the trees, the clouds, and even the very sun and moon answer to your whims.”

“At least we actually build something of value and don’t just live like caveponies in villages of dirt, rocks, and sticks,” another pegasus shouted.

“You want to know where griffons live?” Karroc asked. “Wherever the world is wild and free, and where we owe no outsider fealty.” His voice grew lower and more threatening as he continued. “If you wrong us yet further, if you try to take another acre of our land, you ponies will see that you are become the pikas, cowering and shuddering among the rocks. But we will see you, oh yes, you won’t be able to hide.”

“Any pegasus could lick ten griffons!” Colonel Tempest yelled, knocking over his chair as he pushed back from the table. Finally, something had broken through his armor of stoicism and silence, and he looked ready to buck the first griffon that came within range.

Karroc leaned forward across the table, fire in his eyes, and he snapped his beak open and closed so hard it sounded like a firecracker going off in the room.

Rarity wondered who would put a stop to this escalation before it got out of control. Blueblood, for his part, was doing nothing more than watching the unfolding scene with his head resting on a forehoof, looking almost bored with it all. Fancypants was observing with enough genuine concern on his face that she thought he might step in to say something. Though his face was impassive, Rarity imagined that Prince Khufu, next to her, was feeling euphoric as the turmoil between the species threatened to boil over. Nopony else made a move to intervene. Finally, to Rarity's surprise, it was a griffon who prevented a fight from erupting.

“That will be all, General!” Chancellor Ninetalons croaked at his subordinate while stretching to his full, impressive height. “Enough! Be seated.” He waited for General Karroc to slowly and quietly slide back into his chair. “We are guests here. It is not the right place.” Rarity noticed that the old griffon looked weary and worn down for the first time this evening. He put a claw to his head and massed his temple with his palm. “Now, be still and remember your role. I must go for a walk to clear my mind. I have grown too old for such foolishness, and it makes my head swim.” Rarity watched Ninetalons stalk away through an open door, his coat of mail jingling with each step.

“Ahem, if I may.” Fancypants broke the uncomfortable silence that reigned with Ninetalons’ departure. “Not that we've all settled down, I’d like to propose a toast. Before we drink, however, an introduction is required. We all know of the present disagreement regarding the Snowmane Mountains.”

“Whiteknife Mountains!” Grayings shouted, interrupting Fancypants.

“Regarding the mountains to the north,” Fancypants finished. “We’ve seen evidence of these troubles here tonight. I don’t wish to speak of such things. I wish to speak of the future.” He paused and gestured skyward with a hoof. Rarity couldn’t help but notice that it was a far more theatrical gesture than she was used to seeing from Fancypants. He clearly must have had a sip or two of Blueblood’s vintage tonight.

“The future,” Fancypants repeated with gusto, rolling the word around on his tongue. A ways down the table, Rarity saw Windlass, the engineer, come to attention. She stared at Fancypants, eyes shining, hanging on his words. Rarity recognized the look as one she had once worn, when she first came to Canterlot believing Prince Blueblood to be the stallion of her dreams. That explained part of her interest in participating in the race. Fancypants finally continued his speech.

“The future is why we are gathered here. As our esteemed host said, the Alicorn’s Cup doesn’t come around every year, and this year it celebrates the dawn of the age of steam power. Indeed, we are all perched together at the edge of this new age. Soon, perhaps very soon, old rivalries will become meaningless. Disparities, such as have and have-not, will fade away into distant memory. Magic, which has served us for so long, but which has also divided ponies from one another, and ponies from the rest of the world, will be displaced by technology. Cheap, ubiquitous, and available to everyone, I believe that steam power will light the way to peace, prosperity, and more importantly, equality.”

“But not true equality,” Blueblood said, speaking to the table for the first time since dinner started. “Unicorns will still have magic, pegasi will still fly, earth ponies will grow crops, dragons will breathe fire, zebras will craft potions and powders, and griffons will have talons to grasp. Besides, as long as ponies are individuals, they can't really be equal.

“No, my good stallion, I believe all of that too will change,” Fancypants said. "They say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the future, clockwork, steam power, and the new biological sciences will allow anypony to fly and crops to be grown through mechanized means, and will turn the alchemy, potions and other quackery of the present day into the bygone relics they should already be. In the future, there will be no want for food, or resources, and no reason for conflict between ponies, or ponies and griffons. All will be made equal through technology. So, in summation, I propose a toast to peace, equality, and the steam engine. To the future!”

Fancypants raised his glass, but before anyone could join him in toasting, a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the dining hall. Several guests dropped their glasses, which shattered on the cold stone, and all looked in the direction the sound had come from.

Rarity saw the empty chair to her right and guessed the source of the horrible shriek: Clementine. It sounded as if something terrible had befallen her, and Rarity didn’t need to be asked to go to her aid. She stood, kicking her chair backwards, and raced through the open doorway that the citrus mare had exited earlier. She could hear a commotion behind her, and knew the other guests would be hot on her hooves.

On the other side of the door, and through a short passageway, Rarity found herself in an open garden courtyard. With a nearly full moon shining down, she could see tall shrubs and trees surrounding her, but couldn’t find the yellow mare in the orange dress. She raced through the courtyard, looking and listening, when finally the sound of rapid breathing caught her attention. There, behind a dark shrub, knelt Clementine. Mercifully, Rarity saw that she was alive. The scream had sounded like a death knell.

“Clementine, darling, are you hurt?” Rarity asked. “What happened?”

Slowly, Clementine raised a shaking hoof and pointed to a dark shape on the ground before her, which Rarity had previously assumed was just another leafy plant. Those weren’t leaves, she realized, they were feathers.

"Oh, no," Rarity whispered. Of all the worst things that could happen ... As the rest of the guests found her and gathered around, including a pair of servants carrying gas lanterns, Rarity moved over to the prone form of Chancellor Ninetalons and listened for breathing, not knowing what else to do. She felt a pit form in her stomach as she fruitlessly searched for signs of life. After a moment she turned to the assembled group and shook her head. She could tell that her eyes were wide and her pulse was racing.

“Get out of my way!” General Karroc screeched, barreling out of the crowd to crouch beside his fallen leader. “All of you, get away from him!”

Rarity didn’t need to be told twice. She backed off and draped a reassuring hoof over the traumatized Clementine.

“What happened?” Fancypants asked the citrus mare. “What did you see?”

“I …” Clementine began, “I was sick. I couldn’t find the lavatory in time, so I came out here to the bushes. After I was done being sick, I heard a coughing, wheezing sound. I looked around, but by the time I found him he was … like that.”

By now all the griffons had formed a circle around their fallen chancellor, and the ponies and others were crowding together a short distance away. Rarity began thinking how she might escape if the situation turned ugly. Perhaps she could guess the way out of the castle, but then there would still be a great stretch of woods between her and Canterlot proper. It was probably best to huddle together with the other equines and hope the griffons calmed down.

“This is an outrage!” General Karroc shouted. “Murderers! You have killed our chancellor!”

“Nopony killed anyone,” Blueblood said, stepping forward. “That’s absurd. Ninetalons probably choked on one of your giant rats. Or he simply keeled over. I won't hear any more baseless accusations in my castle.”

“We need to notify the authorities at once,” Fancypants said.

“I’ll go. I can get to the city in just a few minutes,” Tempest volunteered. Before anyone could object, he had disappeared into the night sky.

“We will not subject ourselves to the mockery that your police would make of this tragedy!” Karroc said vehemently. “I know murder when I see it. I’ll never let you defile the chancellor’s body, just so you can spew more lies. My griffons and I will take our leave, with the chancellor, immediately.”

“Now, let’s not be hasty,” Fancypants said. “There are procedures. I’m sure we can amicably …”

“No!” Karroc screeched. “Graywings, stay with your griffons to represent all of us in the race, and ensure that the truth of what happened here tonight is told. The rest of us are returning to Homespire immediately."

Graywings looked unsure, and appeared about to protest, when Karroc spoke again.

"Obey me, fat one. You may be an elector, but you have no chance of being made the new chancellor. Stay here." He turned back to the rest of the crowd. "Mark my words, ponies, there will be a reckoning, and soon.” Finally he addressed the other griffons. “Go! Take him home!”

As Rarity watched, still holding onto the shivering Clementine, two of the other griffons took hold of Ninetalons’ body in their talons, and then pushed off with their lion paws while unfurling their long wings. They scarcely made a sound as they winged skyward with their heavy burden. General Karroc scowled at the other guests one last time before he too lifted off, alongside a female griffon. Rarity watched until their silhouettes blended with the darkness.

In the moonlit courtyard, twenty-four ponies, five griffons, two and a half zebras, and one camel remained, waiting silently, some still in shock, for the authorities to arrive so that they could report the mysterious death of Chancellor Ninetalons, leader of all the griffon clans. They had no body, no cause of death, and no witnesses save a traumatized mare who had been fumbling around in the darkness looking for a secluded place to empty the contents of her stomach. In the morning all of them were scheduled to embark on a high-speed race through the sky, traversing all the way across the charted world.

The evening replayed itself in Rarity's mind: the ancient, crumbling castle; Rainbow Dash's fretful cousin; the uncomfortable encounter in the mausoleum; Blueblood's spiteful, bigoted mother; the exiled camel prince, looking to sell his deadly wares; the stomach-churning pikas; and now, death. Even after all that happened Rarity could only think it was still going to be a long night, and how much she would miss her soft bed back in Ponyville with its fluffy pillows and satin sheets. Perhaps, just perhaps, she was not cut out to be a Canterlot pony after all.