• Published 4th Jan 2012
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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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VII. The Opportunity of a Lifetime

VII. The Opportunity of a Lifetime

The crew of the airship Fancy Free clustered together silently on the vessel’s wooden deck, each taking a moment to simply savor the excitement of racing. Fancypants magically kept a tight rein on the ship’s wheel in order to hold a steady course, while Rarity and the others stood watching the sky and the other airships.

From her limited vantage point near the middle of the deck, Rarity’s view of the ground below was completely obscured. That, however, didn’t mean that the view was boring. On the contrary, the sky around her was all abuzz with movement. Off to the left and right, or rather port and starboard, the other ships plowed through the clear air. Each ship was keeping its distance from one another for the moment, and they were all matching the same pace, waiting to see who would make a move first.

At the same time, the interstices between the airships were filled with pegasi. Dozens, if not over a hundred spectators had poured out of the stands after the start, and now they kept pace with the race. Rarity knew the pegasi would grow tired and head back eventually, but for now the scattered flock of ponies seemed instilled with competitive fire, none wanting to be the first to give in and go home. A number of the Royal Guard and a pair of Wonderbolts also flew alongside, keeping the spectators a safe distance from the airships and their spinning propeller blades. The other Wonderbolts had raced away in different directions, flying to their stations along the race route in order to fulfill their tasks as course monitors.

“We’re getting close to cruise speed now,” Tempest announced.

“Rarity my dear, would you be so kind as to reduce the throttle one notch?” Fancypants asked.

Rarity was only too happy to appear useful, and she pulled the throttle lever back until the indicator read “ahead full.” As she throttled back the power, she felt the vibration caused by the steam engine gradually smooth out until she could barely feel it.

“Done,” she reported. “But I don’t understand; isn’t the point of a race to go as fast as possible?”

“Yeah, sure,” Elbow Grease spoke up. “It’d be great to run her flat out all the time, but we’d run outta fuel tomorrow, and probably blow up the boiler. Ya gotta baby an engine like the beauty we got on Fancy Free here.”

“I see,” Rarity replied, beginning to understand one of the complexities of the regatta. “So part of racing is managing how hard to run the engine in order to go faster, and how much fuel we burn. It’s not just about steering better and flying faster all the time.”

“Precisely my dear,” Fancypants said. “The Alicorn’s Cup is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will require the skills of everypony on board to win it. The good colonel will give us our bearings; Miss Windlass designed the modifications that make us competitive and will keep all of our instruments running shipshape; Elbow Grease here will keep the engine happy and healthy, and help give us that last extra bit of power when it truly counts; and you, my dear, can lend your capable hooves wherever they are needed.”

“I’ll do my best,” Rarity offered dubiously, wondering not for the first time whether she might be best suited to scrubbing the deck.

“We haven’t all had the chance to read the briefing materials yet,” Windlass said to Fancypants. “I think we need to have a planning session as soon as possible.”

“So we shall,” Fancypants replied. “Right now, however, we must keep our attention on the race. The first waypoint marker that we have to retrieve as proof of our following the race course will be coming up shortly. According to the dossier, we must obtain a specially-marked apple from Ponyville as proof of having passed the first waypoint, and by my estimate we are now more than halfway to Ponyville already.”

“An apple from Ponyville?” Rarity exclaimed in surprise. “Are we landing then?”

If the teams had to land to get a special apple, then she might be able to see her friends again. In fact it was a near certainty that she would! After all, who in Ponyville would supply apples besides Applejack of Sweet Apple Acres? After yesterday evening’s eventfulness, it would be heartening to see the girls one more time, before she left the security of Equestria completely.

Maybe, Rarity thought, her parents and Sweetie Belle would be there too, and Spike, and maybe Fluttershy would even bring Opalescence to say goodbye to her mama before she had to fly away again! She felt a twinge of guilt at leaving her poor cat behind for nearly a week, but at least with Fluttershy she was in capable hooves. Opal surely understood that her mama couldn’t turn down this opportunity, didn’t she? On second thought, Rarity decided that she would be extra mindful of Opal’s claws when she returned home, and probably for sometime thereafter.

“Actually, we shall be remaining aloft for this leg of the race,” Fancypants responded. “The instructions state that the apple in question is to be taken from a race volunteer in a tethered hot air balloon somewhere over the town.”

“Oh,” Rarity said, crestfallen. She would only see her home from high above, and she wouldn’t see her friends until the race was over. Perhaps she could at least watch, and imagine the friendly faces of the ponies below. “I hope it’s no imposition, but would you mind terribly if I just stand at the rail and watch for a moment? I’d love to see the town as we pass over.”

“Not in the slightest,” Fancypants replied cheerfully. “In fact, perhaps you could do us the favor of maintaining a lookout. The rules prevent Colonel Tempest, or any of the griffons for that matter, from flying ahead to scout, so we must search the skies for the marker from on board.”

Rarity nodded, and Fancypants levitated a wood and brass spyglass toward her. She was reluctant to cross spells after her experience with Blueblood, so she took the instrument in her mouth and walked to the very front of the deck, stopping just short of the bowsprit. Here the force of the wind whipping against her face and body was greater, and for the first time Rarity was grateful for the unfashionable jumpsuit she was wearing. Whatever coarse material it was woven from was keeping the wind and its accompanying chill at bay far better than any of her own clothing would have. That still didn’t mean it wasn’t uncomfortably cold. Suppressing a shiver, Rarity let go of the spyglass and caught it magically. Before putting it to her eye, though, she decided to look down at the world below without its aid.

The wind and the pegasi spectators beginning to struggle to keep up told Rarity that she was traveling quite fast, but distance obscured speed and the panorama below slowly crawled through her field of view. She could see the river Canter wending its way down from the mountains and south, descending through vales and meadows and finally broadening into long and narrow Lake Harmony, which looked like a shiny pane of blue-gray glass from Rarity’s vantage point. Ponyville wasn’t very far away now, she knew, lying just downstream of the far end of the lake.

Lake Harmony was ponymade, created when the Celestia Dam had been erected to harness the Canter’s energy and feed it into the magilectric grid emanating from Canterlot. Without the grid, unicorns in Ponyville and the other cities and towns in the core of Equestria would have to be constantly re-enchanting every magical appliance they used, and everypony else would have to work their machines by hoof. Phonographs would have to be constantly cranked, Rarity would have to go back to a hoof-operated sewing machine, and Twilight’s entire basement full of odd gadgets and manufactures would be rendered inert.

Rarity had been a foal when the dam had been completed, but she still heard the old-timers complain about how it had sapped the flow of the river near town. By the time the Canter trickled past Fluttershy’s cottage and into the Everfree Forest, it was little more than a placid stream. Ponyville’s grist mill had shut down because there wasn’t enough flow to turn the millstone to grind flour anymore. Now Ponyville’s flour was carted in from elsewhere in Equestria. That was the price of progress.

From high above, even monumental things that had changed life for ponies forever, like the lake and dam, seemed tiny and almost incidental to the vast landscape of which they were part. It was amazing to Rarity that so much of the land, even this close to Canterlot, consisted of undeveloped fields and forests. She wondered how many ponies it took, working full time, just to care for those forests and the creatures living there. Just how much land, for example, was Fluttershy actually responsible for looking after, and how many creatures therein? What would happen if nopony cared for the trees and animals? Rarity would make a point to ask her friend these questions when she finally returned home.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Fluttershy asked. “I don’t usually fly as high as this.”

“It’s lovely,” Rarity agreed. “The altitude certainly gives one a whole new per - wha? Fluttershy?” Rarity lifted her head up to see her pegasus friend flying alongside the airship. “How?”

“How do you think?” Rarity whipped her head in the opposite direction as she turned to see Rainbow Dash winging her way through the air to her left. “Did you forget that somepony knows these guys?” Rainbow Dash indicated the dark blue-maned Wonderbolt stallion flying just a few lengths away from her. “They said we could pay you a quick visit.”

“If you don’t mind, that is,” Fluttershy added.

“Of course not, darling! I’ve missed you. Both of you,” Rarity said, raising her voice to be heard over the wind. “All of you, in fact, and Ponyville too.”

“Hey!” Colonel Tempest shouted, galloping forward to the bow of the ship. “Don’t let them onboard!” He waved a hoof as if to shoo Rarity’s friends away.

“Colonel!” Rarity was taken aback by the normally staid pony’s abrupt harshness. “These are my good friends.”

“It doesn’t matter who they are, if a sixth pony touches down on deck, then by rule we are overcrewed and instantly disqualified. Keep them away from the airship!”

“Hey, easy there big guy,” Rainbow Dash said, maintaining a respectful distance from the side of the craft. “I know the rules. We’re not gonna touch your precious airship.”

“See that you don’t!”

“Oh, Rarity, I hope we didn’t get you into any trouble,” Fluttershy said, barely audibly above the wind. “I would just feel so terribly awful if we got you into trouble.”

“Don’t worry about that, dears,” Rarity replied. “I’m close friends with the captain of this vessel, so we needn’t worry too much about the colonel’s temperament. Besides, he’ll get over it.”

“So,” Rainbow Dash began, “I can’t believe Miss Canterlot herself is feeling homesick for ol’ Ponyville.”

“If you knew what I’ve been through, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity began before sighing dramatically. “Well, let me just say that it hasn’t exactly been a pleasure cruise.”

“Really? Because it kinda looks like a pleasure cruise,” Rainbow Dash replied with a sardonic grin, gesturing expansively to encompass the air yacht. Rarity glared at her friend for dismissing her troubles so casually.

“Hey girls, we’re almost to Ponyville now,” Fluttershy said, tactfully stopping Rainbow’s line of inquiry. “I’ll bet you can see your boutique from here, Rarity.”

Fluttershy was right. The fields and forests were giving way to plowed fields and dirt roads, and not far beyond was Ponyville. The town seemed so small, no bigger than any one of Canterlot’s many districts. She raised the spyglass to her right eye and closed the other. There was the town square, and if she just traced along Stirrup Street to the west … yes! There was Carousel Boutique!

Rarity hoped she wasn’t losing out on too much business this week. Should she have hired somepony to run the shop while she was gone? But who? Maybe her mother could have taken her place. No, what was she thinking? Nopony would buy couture gowns from a middle-aged mare in trotting pants who sounded like she just got off the carriage from Whinnyapolis!

“Oh my stars,” Rarity suddenly gasped, looking back and forth between her friends and moving the spyglass away from her face. “I completely forgot, I’m supposed to be on lookout duty! There’s a balloon somewhere over the town that has marked apples in it, and we need to collect one to prove that we’re following the race course.” She raised the spyglass again to frantically search for the marker balloon.

“Um, it’s right there,” Rainbow Dash said, stretching a hoof straight out in front of her.

Rarity followed her friend’s outstretched leg toward the horizon until she saw, straight in front of the airship but a fair distance below, a pink hot air balloon floating over the far side of Ponyville.

“You saw that from here?” Rarity asked, surprised. She’d never have been able to pick the balloon out from all of the buildings of the town below, at least not until they were much closer. She could still only just barely see it in her spyglass.

“Well, mostly I just know it’s there ‘cuz Fluttershy and I were over there before we raced over to say hi,” Rainbow Dash replied.

“You see, Applejack, Pinkie, Twilight and Spike are giving out the special apples,” Fluttershy explained. “When the mayor received the instructions from the race committee this morning and asked for volunteers to go up in the balloon, we all thought it would be a great way to see you and cheer you on.”

“Yeah, even though you’re just a slowpoke unicorn, it’s pretty cool that you’re in a flying race,” Rainbow Dash granted.

“Oh, thank you!” Rarity said, surprised and thrilled to have the chance to see all of her closest friends, if only briefly. “You’re all such good friends. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. Just wait here for one moment while I tell the others about the balloon.” Happy to be in the company of friends, and so close to home, Rarity trotted merrily back to the steering console.

“Fancypants, er, captain, I’ve seen the balloon. It’s straight ahead on the other side of Ponyville, probably about fifty lengths below where we are flying now,” Rarity announced proudly.

“Excellent! We should be there in mere minutes. Do you think you could handle retrieving the marker?” Fancypants asked, checking the flight instruments while he spoke.

“Yes!” Rarity affirmed, already on her way back to the bow, where Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were matching the airship’s course and speed.

“Girls,” Rarity said, “I think we’re about to return to the business of racing here, so I’ll have to bid you both adieu, but I did want to say one more thing to you, Rainbow Dash.”

“Oh no, this isn’t about Cloudsdale is it?” Rainbow Dash perceptively asked, backing away with a few flaps of her wings and throwing her forelegs out as if to push Rarity away. “You talked to Chroma didn’t you? I practically begged you not to listen to her.”

“Rainbow, please, you must know that I would never try to get involved in a family matter if I wasn’t convinced it was of the utmost importance,” Rarity started, giving her friend an imploring look. “The griffons and ponies are on the verge of fighting over the mountains where you lived when you were a foal. I was there last night when their chancellor passed away, and I have a feeling that there will be those on both sides who wrongly suspect it wasn’t an accident. He did perish while in the company of ponies, and that looks bad. Princess Celestia is staying out of the whole affair for now, so it’s fallen mainly on your family to try to salvage the situation. Your cousin doesn’t think they can do it without you. I think you should go to them, Rainbow Dash. There, that’s all I’ll say about it.”

“Listen Rarity,” her friend began, crossing her forelegs, narrowing her gaze at Rarity, and somehow still keeping pace with the ship even though she was essentially flying sideways. “I don’t tell you that you should go visit your sister and parents more often, and not always be so focused on your work and your own life, do I? Let me handle my family, and my life, okay? Good luck in the race. Take care of yourself.” Rainbow Dash dove away, down toward Ponyville.

Rainbow’s response was a low blow. Perhaps Rarity should spend more time with her family, but what did that have to do with anything? It wasn’t as if Rarity’s relationship with her sister and parents was a matter of national importance. Then again, no matter how important it was, did she really have the right to tell Rainbow Dash what to do? Perhaps just this one time, yes, it was that important. She hoped that Rainbow would eventually forgive her for getting involved, even if her friend couldn’t get up the nerve to do so personally.

“Rainbow Dash has been so very tense lately,” said Fluttershy, wearing a concerned look. “We’ve all noticed it.”

“Now I’ve made it worse,” Rarity sighed. “Fluttershy, dear, please tell her when you see her how much I value her friendship. You know that I’d give anything for my friends. Just don’t tell her that I didn’t mean what I said, because I did.”

“Ok, Rarity. I’ll tell her. Now I guess I’d better be going too. It’s getting hard to keep flying in this thin air, anyway. Good luck, and I promise to keep taking good care of Opal for you.”

“Thank you for coming to see me, it means a lot,” Rarity said with a smile. “I’ll see you at the spa as soon as I return, and you can stick a cupcake in your eye for that promise.”

“Bye!” Fluttershy fell back and then dropped down out of sight.

Rarity picked up her spyglass again and sighted the balloon where the rest of her friends waited. She could just make out a group of figures in the gondola, but couldn’t see detail from this distance yet. Suddenly there was a terrific roar off to her right as the silver airship from Fillydelphia shot forward and began to dive.

Flyer is making her move on the marker!” Windlass called. Rarity saw that the young mare had taken up a position on the starboard rail.

“Flank speed!” Fancypants called out. “I need precise directions, Colonel. We’ll cut them off. Elbow Grease, my boy, show me what you can coax from that engine.”

“Bearing one-seven-eight, thirty lengths below at two thousand lengths distant!” Colonel Tempest shouted from the port rail.

Rarity wrapped her forelegs around the bow deck rail and held on as Fancy Free simultaneously accelerated and entered a shallow dive. All around the other airships were making a move toward the marker at once. They couldn’t all arrive at the same time, could they? Collisions were subject to disqualification, so surely someone would back off. Surely.

The few pegasi who had managed to keep up with the race all the way from Canterlot scattered at the urging of the Wonderbolts and Royal Guard as the airships converged on the balloon hanging in the air before them. Rarity could see that the balloon was tethered to the ground by a number of thick ropes, and now that they were descending she was able to see into the balloon’s gondola. Twilight was there, and there were Applejack and Pinkie and Spike peeking out over the rim of the gondola.

“Oh my.” The balloon was getting closer very fast, and so far none of the other airships had backed off. The griffons were closing in on the port side, and even though Fancy Free was outpacing the Fillydelphian Flyer to starboard, Blueblood’s graceful Alicorn was cutting sharply toward the marker from the far outside. Meanwhile, Rarity had to think not about an impending collision, but about getting an apple from her friends.

“Turn starboard three degrees!” Tempest called out. “Steady now!”

Seconds ticked by slowly as the balloon occupied more and more of Rarity’s field of view. Twilight and the others were shouting and waving excitedly to her, but Rarity could not hear their voices over the wind and roaring engines. She also couldn’t wave back, because her forelegs were clamped like vices around the bow rail, and she suspected that the smile she was trying to muster looked more like an expression of the terror she was feeling.

Fancypants would not slow down or give way, but she was beginning to doubt whether Blueblood or the griffons knew that. They were all coming closer, and closer, and Rarity could only wonder how she could get that apple if she couldn’t bear to look. She braced herself for the end.

Many things happened in the next instant. An apple arced through the air, gracefully tossed from Applejack’s outstretched forehoof. The crimson hull of the griffon airship flashed past overhead as it pulled up and away, abandoning an attempt to wedge itself between Fancy Free and the marker balloon. Blueblood’s airship bobbed and bucked in the air as he threw the engine and propeller into reverse and veered away at the last moment before colliding. Rarity reflexively used her magic to take hold of the incoming apple, and she watched her friends pass by and disappear behind her as Fancy Free surged forward and began climbing away into the open air. They had been cheering and shouting her name, and for that moment all Rarity wanted to do was to turn the airship around and jump from the bow straight into the embrace of her friends. Of course now it was already too late. She hadn’t even managed to wave, but at least she had that apple.

“I’ve got it,” Rarity announced, walking back to Fancypants and the rest of the crew and feeling a strange combination of excitement and melancholy. Rarity levitated the apple for all to see. It was a beautiful bright red specimen, coated in clear wax for preservation’s sake, and hoof painted with the seal of the Royal Pony Sisters.

“Wonderful job, Rarity! I knew you could do it.” Fancypants exclaimed. “That’s one down, and nine markers left to go.”

“The rest of them are a lot farther away than Ponyville, though” Windlass observed. “And I’m guessing they’re a lot more exotic than just an apple.”

“Quite so,” Fancypants agreed. “As soon as we level off and establish a steady cruise, I propose we engage the entire team for a planning briefing. Tempest, what do you expect the winds to be like at two thousand lengths altitude?”

“It should be calm,” Tempest said. “I agree that we need to plan, and that we can spare the time. No team is going to risk overburning fuel this early in the race, so we should be able let our guard down for a few hours at least.”

“Yes. Thank you,” Fancypants replied. “I anticipate that we will have ascended to cruising altitude within the next fifteen minutes, so we’ll convene belowdecks then.”

So that was that then, Rarity thought. The race was on, and they had passed Ponyville and were flying south. There weren’t very many settlements in the far south of Equestria, and those she did know of were tiny. What lay beyond the border was a mystery to her. She did know that there would be no hot baths, no warm fires, and no real food until after they crossed the finish line. Fancypants would be the only familiar face to keep her company, and Rarity had only known him by more than reputation alone for just over two months. Up here there was no family, no pets, and no old friends.

There was no Rainbow Dash to coerce into trying on dresses, no Fluttershy for spa dates, no Pinkie Pie with whom to carouse at night, no Applejack eager to join her for an early morning trot, and no Twilight Sparkle with whom she could trade magic spells and innermost secrets. She would even miss sweet little Spikey Wikey, with his adorable schoolcolt crush on her. She had to put all of them aside and focus on the here and now. It would all be worth it when she returned to Canterlot a celebrity. That was the plan, and she had to stick to the plan.

Rarity tried to spend the next few minutes being useful, but there simply didn’t seem to be anything for her to do. Tempest conducted measurements with a sextant and astrolabe while Windlass monitored the various steam and pressure gauges on the console. Elbow Grease worked on the engine below. For her part, Rarity could do little but watch the world pass by and try to stay out of the way. By the time Fancypants was ready to meet, she was aware both that she had no valuable skills when it came to the business of flying a complicated airship, and that she was feeling rather peckish.

“Alright everypony,” Fancypants called, “let us adjourn to the salon. I’ve set the ship to hold its course for the time being.”

Descending belowdecks, Rarity was thrilled to finally escape the biting wind. She was not, however, prepared for the sight that greeted her. Where before Fancy Free’s cabin had been the height of spare-no-expense luxury, with an array of posh lounges and bedchambers, now it was a single spartan room lit by a few kerosene lanterns. A low table occupied the center of the room, rows of boxes lined the walls, and four utilitarian beds hung from the ceiling on the far side of the space. A door at the rear Rarity recognized as leading to the engine room, and she was proved correct when Elbow Grease emerged covered in, well, grease. Another door at the far side must be the lavatory. Actually, Rarity thought, on a spare racing ship like this it would be called the head. Charming.

Fancypants magically unrolled a large map and used pushpins to affix it to the table in the center of the room, while Rarity and the others crowded around.

“This is the known world,” Fancypants said. “We shall fly over twenty-five hundred leagues, and see bits and pieces of most of it before we return to Canterlot. This morning I received a precise course route, and instructions for retrieving the required markers at each waypoint we pass. It behooves all of us to know where we are going, and what we must do in order to win this competition.”

“I’d like to know who chose the colors for this map. They just clash so much,” Rarity said.

“That’s so it’s easier to read,” Tempest grumbled.

“Right. Colonel Tempest, you are a trained navigator, and you’ve spent some time outside Equestria over the course of your career, so I hope you’ll be able to elaborate as to certain things I know little about. Now, as everypony knows, we’ve already passed the first waypoint. Thanks to Rarity, we have the first marker. There are nine more.”

Fancypants levitated a pen over the map and began to draw in red ink. He traced a line from Canterlot southward. “From the start line we flew almost due south to Ponyville, and now we are flying southward further still. Our present route will take us to the town of Gallopoli, a fishing town near the southern border of Equestria. The second waypoint is there, and we much retrieve a strand of Gallopolian freshwater pearls.”

Rarity had heard of Gallopoli and its famous pink pearls before. Legends, probably spread by the Gallopolians themselves to drive their business, said that if a pony made a wish while throwing one of the luminescent pearls back into the sea, the grateful spirits of the ocean would grant the wish. Rarity had never seen Gallopoli, nor one of its pearls, nor even seen the warm southern ocean. It was a shame that she’d only get to see it for such a short while.

“After the second waypoint it will already be time to leave Equestria,” Fancypants continued. “The third waypoint is an isolated cottage beyond the border, right at the edge of the Impenetrable Lands. There is an old pony living there, growing and cataloguing jungle orchids. We are to retrieve a rare flower called Badge of Courage from the botanist as the third marker.” Fancypants pulled a drawing of beautiful scarlet bloom from a folder lying on the table and placed it on the map where he had just finished drawing a connecting line.

“Next, we fly west-northwest, making for the desert at the southwestern tip of our country. There are ancient pictograms there, hundreds of lengths across and apparently carved into the earth itself by some long-lost civilization. Because they are so large, the figures are only visible from high above. We are to produce a drawing of one of these figures as our fourth marker. The fifth marker lies on the shore of the endless sea. Each year, hundreds of large, spiral-shaped shells wash up on the beaches. We simply need to pick one up and take it along.” Fancypants produced a drawing of a strange disc-shaped shell made up of a single spiralling tube as he connected his line to the far shore of the continent.

Rarity knew the western ocean only by reputation. It was known as the endless sea because as far as anypony knew, it went on forever. Ponies rarely visited to stare at its infinite gray vastness, and not only because it was a long way from the Equestrian border. The wind and waves were always relentlessly beating up on the land, the water was frigid, and no mariner had ever returned having spotted anything of note.

“Next we’ll fly inland and further north, to a forest of ancient trees long ago turned to broken stone. We must bring back a piece of petrified wood as the sixth marker. After that, we will fly a relatively short leg to Ramstein, a remote alpine village of mountain sheep. Their leader will give us a letter of transit that will serve as our seventh marker. The eighth marker will be colorful ice, or rather water by the time we return, from the Rainbow Glacier in the Frostbite Fjords of the far northwest.” Fancypants added more lines and points to the map. The glacier was practically at the north pole, and Rarity hoped that there were parkas and other warm clothing in the bags and boxes that Fancypants had packed.

“After that, my friends, we will be in the home stretch. We will enter griffon territory and stop in the city of Spearspire Eyrie to obtain a commemorative poem from the griffon poet laureate, Longfeather, for the ninth marker. After that, we make for the pegasus mining town of Stratusburg at Flurryfall Pass to obtain a brick of special cloud. That is the last marker, and accordingly we will burn whatever fuel we have remaining in order to sprint for Canterlot and the finish line.”

“How long until we reach Gallopoli?” Windlass asked, directing her question at Tempest, the navigator.

“If we remain at cruise speed, we should arrive at the waypoint at zero five-hundred hours,” Tempest replied.

“Five in the morning?” Rarity asked. “That’s practically criminal! Don’t we all need our beauty rest?”

“We’ll all get some sleep, but that means somepony has to take watch when the rest are sleeping. Even you,” Windlass said with a hint of acidity in her voice.

“Yes, we must all make sacrifices for the good of the team,” Fancypants said. “Now, we’ve discussed the flight plan. Do you have any questions?”

Nopony had any, least of all Rarity. All they had to do was follow the line on Fancypants’ map, and pick up a few baubles and odd bits along the way. How hard could it be? Suddenly, though, she remembered the one unknown that had been nagging at her.

“I don’t suppose you might know when we should expect dinner?” she asked with trepidation.

“Oh, I thought you’d never ask!” Fancypants replied with a smile. “I’m actually quite famished myself. Does that go for the lot of you as well?” When the others nodded their assent, Fancypants magically opened one of the nondescript boxes positioned against the wall and began extracting various objects. A small kerosene stove emerged, then a large metal pot, wooden bowls, some apples, and finally a large sack of oats. Once Fancypants added water to the pot and set it to boil on the stove, Rarity realized that he was making simple oatmeal.

“Oatmeal for dinner?” she asked incredulously. “You?”

“Oats and apples are nutritious and economical,” Fancypants replied. “We weren’t able to spare the weight to have a full galley on board in which to prepare more complicated comestibles, but we do have a great many bags of oats to get through. Think of it as an opportunity to temporarily enjoy a simpler life. I, for one, think that this sort of cuisine is charmingly rustic.”

Charmingly rustic, hm? Rarity remembered that Fancypants had once used that phrase to describe her friends from Ponyville. It was a euphemism for simple, unsophisticated, and naive. On the other hoof, it meant that her friends were straightforward, reliable, and unpretentious; much like apples and oatmeal. She supposed that she could live with charmingly rustic for a few days.

“Oatmeal and apples it is,” Rarity said.

“I’m gonna go topside for a minute. Check out how we’re flyin’ and whatnot,” Elbow Grease announced, standing up. “Youse guys enjoy that health food though.” Rarity watched him saunter off, pausing only to open one a pack and pull out one of his signature sandwiches.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure how he managed to get that aboard,” Tempest apologized to Fancypants.

“It’s quite alright, colonel. It’s for the best if we don’t get between Mr. Grease and his meals. Moreover, I think I speak for all of us when I say that I could go without being subjected to pickles and onions in these confined quarters,” Fancypants replied.

“Hear hear,” Rarity chimed in.

“Now, I can’t have you all thinking that this race is going to be all work and no pleasure, so I did pack a few things to make life on board a touch more bearable,” Fancypants said with a smile and a wink. “You see, I recently invested in a small company operating an automated cider press of novel construction, and their management kindly sent me a few bottles from their first batch of apple brandy, or more vulgarly, applejack. It’s quite splendid.” He drew forth a bottle and a few simple wooden cups from the same box he had taken the dinner ingredients from earlier, and began to pour.

Rarity drank applejack from time to time, usually with the pony whose namesake it was. If fresh cider was practically non-alcoholic, and true cider had a bit of a kick, then applejack was like a hoof to the face. It was a good way to start off a night out on the town, or a rowdy evening in. It was not, however, a classy beverage of the type one might expect to see imbibed by a sophisticated Canterlot business mogul. If Fancypants wanted to drink applejack, though, who was Rarity to argue? When in Canterlot, do as the Canterlotians do, the saying went. But not to excess, she reminded herself. Again.

“Here’s to my crew, to Fancy Free, and to the Alicorn’s Cup,” Fancypants toasted, after delivering a cup to each of the others present.

“Cheers,” Rarity and Windlass said in unison. Tempest mumbled something unintelligible, likely because he was holding his cup with his teeth, and Rarity interpreted it as joining in the toast. She took a sip of the applejack, found it to be the best she’d ever tasted, and then another, and one more after that. It took a bowl of oatmeal and apples, and a second cup of the apple drink, for the group of recent acquaintances to fall into a semblance of an easy conversation.

“So, Colonel Tempest, what was it like being in the Guard? Did you spend much time with Princess Celestia?” Rarity asked.

“I was not part of the personal guard,” the light gray pegasus clarified. “I was a Sky Ranger. We patrolled the border and, if necessary, made excursions outside of Equestria on royal business. It was no cushy palace job.”

“Oh, you must have visited so many interesting places,” Rarity prompted.

“I can’t talk about specific missions. I swore an oath,” Tempest replied tersely.

“Oh, come now, isn’t there one exotic place that stands out? What’s the next yet-to-be discovered vacation hotspot?” Rarity pressed, waggling a hoof tipsily at Tempest.

“Firebird Falls, on the slopes of Mount Fireforge in the empty wastes east of Equestria,” Tempest finally stated. “An endless river of molten lava pours over a sheer cliff, only to fall three thousand pony lengths, hardening into rock by the time it hits the land below. Eventually the new land forming below will reach all the way to the top of the falls, and they will disappear forever, like all beautiful things do. I met my wife there at the falls. I was on a team sent to determine if the volcano posed a threat to Equestria, and she was a nephologist with us to study the clouds in the vicinity to determine the effect of all the rising heat on cloud structure.”

“It sounds amazing,” Rarity said, taking another sip of applejack. “Do you and your wife ever return to visit the spot where you met?” Rarity caught Fancypants subtly shaking his head out of the corner of her eye, and realized too late that she might have trod into dangerous territory.

“My wife’s dead,” Tempest grunted, and downed the remainder of his third cup. “So no.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rarity began, before Tempest cut her off.

“She got a job as a cloud prospector for Skyworks, so she had to spend a lot of time flying around the Snowmanes looking for new quarry sites. One day, she didn’t come back from her surveying flight. Naturally, the griffons said they didn’t have anything to do with it, but we all knew that they got to her. I don’t know if was some of the wild ones that live in caves in the mountains, if it was punk kids, or if it was a sanctioned op in order to send a message to the cloud miners, but they got her. We found a few feathers, and that was it. I try not to think about what they must have done to my wife, because then all I can focus on is what I want to do to each and every last griffon. But I can’t think about that, because ponies and griffons, we’re all friends. Even though they’re bloodthirsty meat-eaters, we’re buddies. Isn’t that so Fancypants?” Tempest knocked his empty cup over on the table.

“Yes,” Fancypants replied authoritatively. “The griffons are our good neighbors, and that’s a relationship worth protecting.”

“So you’ve always told me. I’m going to get some air,” Tempest announced, rising a bit unsteadily to his hooves. “I’ll take the first watch tonight, by the way.”

“Are you quite sure you don’t want to get some rest first?” Fancypants asked.

“I’ll be at the helm,” Tempest stated flatly, already ascending the staircase.

“Somepony should have warned you about that,” Windlass said to Rarity once he had gone. “I made that mistake once too. At least now you know.”

“I’ll have to apologize as soon as I have an opportunity,” Rarity said. Windlass only shrugged.

“Now then,” Fancypants interrupted the pause in conversation, “I thank you both for a lovely meal and a most productive planning session. Windlass, dear, if you don’t mind, I would like to have a moment alone for a private conversation with Miss Rarity.”

Rarity wondered what he could possibly want to discuss with her in private, and why he wouldn’t have taken one of the many opportunities he had earlier to talk. Was he upset with her performance so far in the race? She hadn’t been sick yet, despite the constant motion of the ship, the thin air, and the vibration of the engine. What more could Fancypants want from her? It was his fault for inviting her along in the first place. She resolved not to tolerate frivolous, unfair criticism.

“What? Why?” Windlass asked, a mixture of surprise and betrayal on her face. Rarity suddenly remembered that the young mare seemed to fancy her captain, and she imagined what this must look like to Windlass. She blushed involuntarily.

“Windlass, we are all friends here, but this is a race, and there is a chain-of-command. Please go see if you can assist the others,” Fancypants repeated, sounding a bit more stern than his usual self. “And inform them that we are not to be bothered until I return to the deck.”

“Yes sir,” Windlass said resignedly, staring daggers at Rarity. Fancypants waited for her to leave before speaking.

“Rarity,” he began warmly, “I hope you’re becoming acclimated to life as a cross country airship racer.”

“Everything has been peachy keen so far,” Rarity replied quickly, shifting nervously in her seat behind the table and still wondering what this could be about. Surely Windlass couldn’t have rightly suspected that Fancypants’ intentions toward her weren’t pure! Also, who says “peachy keen?” She had to keep it together.

“You’re wondering why I’m meeting with you alone, now, when I could have done so at any time before,” Fancypants began. He let out a sigh, and magically retrieved a dark gray bottle and two small crystal glasses. He spoke as he poured a measure of a clear, almost shimmering liquid into each glass. Whatever it was, it obviously wasn’t more applejack. “You’re going to be upset with me for this, I’m afraid, but I am desperate. I wanted a captive audience.”

“C-captive?” Rarity stammered, trying not to be obvious as she looked around Fancypants toward the staircase to the upper deck. She was fairly sure that she should get by him if she were truly desperate. More than one pony had underestimated her physicality in their day. Then again, she had a bit of drink in her. She wondered how much Fancypants had drunk.

“Yes, my dear.” Fancypants set the two glasses on the table between himself and Rarity. “I’m not entirely sure what this is actually called. I do know, however, that is the most delightful stuff that I’ve ever had the pleasure to sip. It’s over a thousand years old you see, and it bears the seal of Princess Luna, but there’s no name or vintage on the bottle. My family acquired a case of it a long, long time ago, and it must be enchanted because not a single drop has ever gone bad.”

“You were explaining why you wanted to meet with me,” Rarity prompted, not daring to drink the unknown beverage yet.

“I was,” Fancypants said. returning the bottle to its storage place. “Miss Rarity, I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I would say that our first chance encounter must have been predestined. I’d never met a pony with such innate good judgment, who was willing eschew sycophantism, who stood up to me, and for her friends and what she believed. The fact that you are a sharp businessmare and a creative genius is merely the cherry on top.”

“Go on,” Rarity said warily, still unsure what Fancypants wanted.

“As of late I’ve been throwing all of my resources behind a project to acquire a stake in all of Equestria’s forward-thinking industries. We’ve diversified into airships, steam engines, self-propelled carriages, cider presses, railroads, and farm equipment, to name a few. I’ve done this because I believe everypony deserves a level playing field, and I believe that technology is the great equalizer that magic can’t be. In the future, unicorns will be able to be farmers and earth ponies will be able to do the delicate work that we unicorns use magic to accomplish, like surgery or your sewing. Technology will bring us mechanical equipment that can do all of these things, even without magic or digits with which to manipulate.”

“But what do I have to do with any of this?” Rarity asked. She was beginning to feel a little better now that it seemed that Fancypants didn’t intend to attempt anything improper.

“I want to retire from business,” Fancypants said bluntly. “I want to build a new political class in Equestria, with the Princesses’ permission of course. Equestria must have democracy.”

“Democracy?” Rarity repeated.

“Democracy means that everypony gets a vote,” Fancypants explained. “Every pony deserves equal access to the structure of government, and a chance to have his or her voice heard. At first, the government will be parliamentarian, and answerable to the Princesses. Some day, though, I envision an Equestria in which Princess Celestia and Princess Luna will simply observe, and not govern, our lives.”

“It sounds like a lovely idea,” Rarity said. “Honestly, though, ponies trust the Princesses to make decisions that are simply too difficult for us to make, especially since they know so much more than we do about, well, everything.”

“I don’t expect my ideas to take hold immediately. I’ll have to spend all of my time and effort championing my vision for a new Equestria. At the same time, my companies will lead the way by showing a future where ponies can be individuals, with their own dreams and ideals, where their fortunes aren’t determined by what symbol appears on their flanks and whether they have wings or a horn.”

“Even though you won’t be running your companies anymore, you plan to work in tandem with them,” Rarity deduced. She finally suspected that she might have a clue as to where this was headed. Fancypants must want her to outfit him in a stylish new wardrobe for his forthcoming political career. Of course she would be most delighted to take on such high-profile work.

“Correct,” Fancypants affirmed. “I must find a replacement. It is my fervent hope that the pony who will accept the mantle of managing the largest and most powerful industrial corporation in Equestria is you, Miss Rarity, and none other. I plan to step down shortly after this race, and I’d like you to fill my horseshoes.”

Rarity gasped. This was most assuredly not what she had expected. “Fancypants, my goodness, I don’t know what to say!” Feeling completely flabbergasted, she tried in vain to cover her shock. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about any of your businesses. I’m a fashion designer, for Celestia’s sake!”

“I didn’t know anything about them either, until I needed to,” Fancypants replied with a small smile. “You are without question one of the most intelligent ponies I’ve ever met. I fully expect that you would learn faster than I did. Please, Miss Rarity, you don’t need to make a decision now, but I want you to think about my offer over the course the race. We can discuss this further at any time you wish, but you should know that I have no second choice in mind.”

It was an unprecedented opportunity. In many ways, Fancypants was offering Rarity everything she’d ever wanted. She would truly be, instantly, a very important pony. She’d have wealth, status, and power, all at once. She would join the highest echelon of the Canterlot elite. Her decisions would affect thousands of ponies all over Equestria. On the other hoof, she wouldn’t have earned any of it. Did she want to have her dreams handed to her undeservedly?

Didn’t she deserve it, though? She always gave so much to others. She represented the spirit of the Element of Generosity itself! How could it be wrong for her to receive a little gift in return? But then, she had to consider what the girls would think. Applejack certainly wouldn’t approve of taking anything she hadn’t earned with her own hooves and the sweat of her brow. What about the others?

It was both impossible and ludicrous that such an offer had fall into Rarity’s hooves, yet here it was. A strident voice inside of was screaming for her to just say “yes, Yes, YES!” But she feared that was only the applejack talking. She couldn’t possibly make such a monumental decision this instant. She needed time.

“I’ll think about it, then,” Rarity said at last.

“That’s all I ask. Now please, have a drink with me.”

Rarity’s head was swimming with new thoughts and possibilities. How much worse could it get with another itty bitty little drink, even if she didn’t know what it was she was drinking? She raised the clear glass.

“To whatever the future may hold,” Fancypants toasted.

Rarity clinked her glass against his and swallowed a large sip of the mysterious clear liquor. Instantly, a potent mix of taste, smell, and texture threatened to overwhelm her with pleasure as the drink confounded her nose with a tantalizing scent that spoke of desire, teased her palate with flavors indescribably complex, and lovingly caressed her throat. It was the best thing she’d ever had.

“Oh my,” Rarity whispered, closing her eyes. When she opened them again Fancypants was smiling at her.

“It is a singular drink, is it not? Now that Princess Luna has returned, I plan to beg her to someday to tell me what it is, and how I can get more. For now, though, it remains a precious nectar that my family imbibes only on the most momentous of occasions, and this is surely one.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me, it really is exquisite,” Rarity said. She savored another sip, and found herself able to focus on nothing but the drink. It was a relief to give her mind a brief respite. She spent the next several minutes in silence, with Fancypants and the ambrosia-like drink as her only company. It wasn’t until she’d finished the last drop in her glass that another question came to her, one that had been plaguing her since the previous evening.

“There’s actually one last thing I’d like to know,” Rarity began.

“Anything.”

“Blueblood, er, the Duke of Canterlot, told me that you took his company from him in a hostile takeover. At the time, it didn’t sound like the Fancypants I’ve come to know. Can you tell me what really happened?”

“You spoke with the duke?” Fancypants replied, looking uncomfortable for the first time. “Rarity, whatever the duke told you, my acquisition of a majority stake in North Star was fully legal, and had been in the works for a long time. The duke may not have wanted to admit it, but his company was going to fail if I didn’t step in.”

“So you didn’t swoop in overnight to steal the company?” Rarity asked.

“Certainly not. I worked with the duke’s brother Lord Procyon for months to finalize the details,” Fancypants explained.

Rarity was surprised. If the deal had truly been in the works so long, why had Blueblood seemed surprised, and how could Fancypants have never learned the secret of the company’s supposed “engineering” department, namely that there wasn’t any such department?

“And are you satisfied with the engineering skills and knowledge that North Star will provide to your technological vision? Have you had the chance to review any blueprints or schematics yet?” Rarity pried.

“Ha ha!” Fancypants laughed. “I see you’re already cutting to the heart of it. I knew you were the right pony to be a captain of industry for tomorrow! Lord Procyon has been supplying me with bits and pieces for some time, trying to entice me into going through with the buyout. In fact, he even helped me steal Miss Windlass away from North Star so that she could help me get Fancy Free ready to race.”

Rarity sat bolt upright, her coat standing on end. Now this was a conundrum. Blueblood had said that his company had no engineers besides himself, and no real blueprints or schematics. At the time, Rarity had believed he was telling the truth. Now, Fancypants informed her that he had some of the supposedly nonexistent plans, and even had one of Blueblood’s former engineers working for him right now. Fancypants didn’t seem to be lying either. Nevertheless, both stories could not be true. Either Rarity was a much poorer judge of character than she had previously believed, or the lie was located somewhere in the middle. Maybe it was located with the young mare who was currently clip-clopping about on the deck somewhere above her.

She couldn’t simply voice her concerns to Fancypants. If he was lying, he’d never admit it and she risked making an enemy out of a powerful pony who apparently favored her a great deal. The only proper course of action would be to confront Windlass, and get the other unicorn mare’s story straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Then, maybe, she would be a position to raise the issue again.

“Thank you,” Rarity said. “I appreciate the chance to hear your side of the story.”

“I hope that I assuaged your fears,” Fancypants said.

“Oh, I feel much better now,” Rarity lied. Now, on top of everything else, she had a mystery on her hooves.

“Wonderful. You should rest now while you can. I believe you’ll take the third watch, which begins in four hours.”

Rarity needed no further encouragement. After Fancypants returned topside, she crawled into one of the available bunks and immediately passed out, completely oblivious to its rock hard mattress, thin pillow, and coarse blankets.