Intriguing

by Purple Patch

First published

In the great and perilous metropolis of Canterlot, Fancy Pants and Fleur must foil a nefarious outbreak of corruption together.

Fancy Pants, Canterlot's most important (non-alicorn) pony has fallen in love.
But love may have to wait for he stands to assume a third term in office as Royal Canterlot Council Chairstallion, pitted against his arch-rival, the corrupt and disgusting Lord Magistrate Nitpick.
Fleur de Lis, budding model studying under Photo Finish, still bears the scars of a run-in with Nitpick and has grown close to a certain gentlecolt who she sees as a protector and friend and perhaps more?
In the shadows of the capital, Nitpick and his associates plot to ruin the two for their own sinister ends and call upon a fearsome mercenary who, many years ago, turned Fancy Pants' life upside-down.
-This story is a spin-off of You Shall Go To The Gala. I recommend reading that to fully understand the plotline and characters
-The fantastic Cover Image is by girlsay on Deviantart
(Sex tag for innuendo and harassment themes...nothing comes of it, okay?!)

Prologue

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The noise of clashing blades, gunfire and more than a few explosions echoed throughout the royal square of Shajarat City.

Emir Mustaqir drew back from the ornate window with horror as he watched the green and red flags of his guards fall and lie burning with their bearers as the rebels, flying banners of blue and gold, swarmed into the square, yelling cries of ‘Peace’, ‘Justice’ and their favourite, ‘Death to the Emir’.

Safe for now in the comfort of his luxurious chambers, he turned to his Colonel of the Guard.

“Sahaq!” he bellowed “I want my palace locked down! Nopony enters or leaves without my consent! Tell me reinforcements are arriving! Tell me or lose your head!”

Colonel Sahaq, a strapping, scar-faced, maneless earth pony with a cracked chalk-white coat known by the rebels as ‘The Trampler’ held up one hoof, his one good blue eye wide in concern.

“You must remain calm, your eminence. I assure you, Major Bisra is on his way with an army of loyal pegasi and sky-chariots. He informed me that they would make contact with Shajarat City in less than five minutes from now. We should be...”

The transceiver at his belt starting buzzing with static. Sahaq grabbed it, turned away from the panicking Emir and answered.

“What is it?”

It took a moment for him to realise the sounds of battle weren’t only coming from outside.

They were coming from across the transceiver as the caller yelled over the noise.

“Colonel! This is Bisra! Ambushed en route to Shajarat! We need reinforcements!”

“What? What’s happened up there?” Sahaq barked.

“Damn it! It’s chaos up here! Our mercenaries betrayed us! They’re slaughtering our troops! Missiles, depth charges, gas, everything! We’re being wiped out! Our formations have crumbled! We have no-gyarghszzzzzzzzfffffft-”

Sahaq paused, his lips twitching as empty static invaded his ears.

“H-h-hello?” he asked, dumbfounded “Is...Is anypony left out there?”

“Colonel! Your eminence!” a guard from outside the chambers yelled “Somepony’s here! They’ve broken in”

Sahaq grabbed his sword and motioned to the Emir.

“Stay here, your eminence!”


The cadre of hoof-picked red-coated, black-maned guards had their muskets primed on the lone intruder in the palace hall.

The stallion before them knew of their background.

They had been trained since birth by Sahaq and his fiercest lieutenants. Raised and pitted against each other in pits, killers before their sixth birthday, secret police and bodyguards to the Emir whom they venerated like a father and god and protected with their lives.

Yet there was fear in their eyes as they faced him.

Of course there was. They’d been taught to believe they were invincible.

But the bodies of their brothers piled outside had proven them wrong.

Sahaq pointed his scimitar at the intruder.

“Stand down, rebel, in the name of his eminence, the Emir!” he snarled “You are under arrest! Kneel!”

The stallion took one step forward.

“Do not move! That is an order! Kneel! Now! Or die where you stand!”

The stallion tilted his head slightly.

“I said kne-”

The stallion threw a hoof.

Sahaq was thrown across the room, breaking like a porcelain vase upon the decorative pillar beside the chamber door.

He was dead before he hit the ground.

The guards stared at the figure, their muskets shaking in their hooves.

Before they could fire, the stallion drew a single small curved knife and threw it with expert precision at the great candelabra in the hall.

Their main source of light.

As the heaving mass of glass, metal and candle-wax crashed to the floor, all Tartarus broke loose as the assassin made full use of the shadows now available to him.

The Emirate Guard had been taught to fight till their last breath, to march until sundown and to kill and torture any pony suspicious enough to catch their eye.

The stallion flashed a menacing grin.

‘Somepony should have taught them to eat plenty of carrots’ he thought.

‘Good for seeing in the dark’


Emir Mustaqir clung to his bedpost as the cacophony of screams, curses and the clangs and clatter of metal upon metal rang in his ears.

One by one he heard the voices of his guard cry out in fear, alarm or pain as this unknown, unseen horror slaughtered them like a timber-wolf among rabbits.

There was one last voice. A voice of a young stallion, likely no more than sixteen, stammering and whimpering.

“Enough! I surrender” he begged.

There was a clicking sound and the stallion begged louder.

“I surrender! I surrender! I-”

‘Bang!’

The sound of a gun barrel cut through all surrounding noise and was followed by a thump.

Mustaqir’s ears piqued.

His guards carried muskets.

Perhaps they’d held off whoever was at his door.

Ever so tenderly, he let go of the bedpost and edged toward the doorknob.

He was swiftly knocked flat on his side by the door slamming him in the face as it opened.

As he gathered his vision and took a look at the stallion before him, he crawled backwards on the floor, wailing as his guard had done.

“Stop! Please! You can’t do this!” he babbled “I’ll give you money, jewels, chariots, palaces, mares, whatever you want! Please! You can’t kill me! I’m your Emir!”

The assassin eyed the Emir. Years ago, Mustaqir was among the most powerful ponies in Saddle Arabia, revered by all. He’d passed by a dozen portraits entering the palace already, all of them depicting an emerald-green unicorn with a shiny mahogany-brown mane and beard and piercing indigo eyes, standing proud above his domain.

Yet before him was a quivering wreck, unwilling to meet his maker.

But then they always were.

As the stallion paced toward him, the Emir’s horn lit-up instinctively. One last ditch attempt to extend his own life.

In one swift motion, the stranger’s hoof reached into a small satchel upon a belt slung across his shoulders and threw a cloud of crystalline powder at the Emir’s face. The unicorn, Mustaqir gave a scream of anguish as his horn began fizzing and cracking. Any magic available to him was cut off, attacking his nerves and leaving him virtually senseless.

Then the stallion did something truly strange.

He began to sing.


It was a slow, melancholy dirge that he sung almost like he had to, without mirth or merriment.

‘Oh clasp your weapons to your chest

Take what’s yours and burn the rest

All horses tire of their whips one daaaay-eeeeee-oooooh’

He took a coiled rope from his belt and idly began to wrap one end around the Emir’s neck.

‘So join me, those who don’t fear death

To fight until your final breath

For blood will wash our troubles all awaaaay-eeeeee-oooooh’

Making sure the rope was tight, the singer walked to the window and tied the other end of the rope to the curtain rod. Then, holding the struggling Emir by the mane, he sung the final verse.

‘And in the meadows and the towns

Silence falls and so do crowns

And ghosts and corpses come outside to plaaaay-eeeeee-oooooh’

He gave a chuckle to the Emir as he held him against the window.

“Forgive me” he said apologetically “I like to finish with a song and that one seemed appropriate. The Shirish Revolts. Cold Slean Carrow sung that before the Green Giant had him hung” He shrugged “Slean was a better killer than he ever was a singer but like I said...appropriate”

The Emir gave one last scream as he was flung through and out the window, falling with the shattered glass before coming to a sudden stop as the rope grew taught.

Outside, the crowd cheered.


“Is he here?! Has he done it?!”

Commander Nahadas, the leader of the Shajarati Rebellion, gazed around at the ruined palace and slain guards. The copper-coated, blue-maned pegasus stallion was escorted by two guards clad in black leather with masks that hid their faces.

“Hello?” he called out into the Emir’s chambers “Are you hurt?”

The door opened and the leader of his mercenaries greeted him.

“Not as far as I can see,” he answered before bowing “Commander...or should I call you President? What titles will you be assuming?”

Nahadas gave a modest laugh.

“I shall have no need of this palace or its adornments. A triarch consisting of me and my friends, Shirafa and Majid, shall be formed to govern Shajarat, until the most capable statespony is chosen. The war is over. The Rebellion thanks you for your help...Cascadius”

Cascadius smiled as Nahadas continued.

“The wealth the Emir hoarded will be shared among the citizens, open trade and fair pay will be reintroduced and Shajarat...” he sighed, proud and content “Shajarat will at last know peace”

“Ah yes...” Cascadius put a shoulder upon his employer’s shoulder “Peace. Where old ponies may die content and young foals may grow up safe. Where the ponies will till the soil together and rejoice in abundance. Good for the land and good for the ponies...but alas...”

There was the sound of a knife being drawn.

Then Nahadas’s green eyes widened as he stared at the bloodied tip of the dagger protruding from his chest. He keeled over, gasping for breath that wouldn’t ever come, staring with fast-fading vision at the smiling Cascadius, who whispered one last utterance to him.

“...bad for business”

Cleaning his blade with a handkerchief, the mercenary leader turned to his two guards, who hadn’t moved since they’d arrived.

“You” he pointed to one “Go to Shirafa and tell her that Majid murdered Nahadas”

The guard nodded.

“And you” he pointed to the other “Go to Majid and tell him that Shirafa murdered Nahadas”

The guard nodded.

“And then meet up with the others at the rendezvous point, wait it out and then fight for whichever side will pay more for you”

They left the palace without a word. Giving the dead rebel leader one last look that almost seemed apologetic, Cascadius turned on a transceiver and spoke.

“We’re all finished up here. Pick me up outside the palace and make it snappy” he ordered bluntly.

“I’ve got an appointment to keep...in Canterlot”


*


The cameras whirred to life, the lights went on, the music started playing and the yellow-coated, blue-maned newsmare began to speak.

“Good morning, Equestria. I’m Masquerade and you’re listening to Capital News live from Canterlot. Our top story, news of the Royal Council Chairstallionship Elections has become the talk of the capital and beyond as the deadly game of politics nears a close with weeks to spare”

Various photos, profiles and charts came up behind her.

One of a crimson mare with a blue, yellow and white striped mane, silver eyes and a grey patch upon her forehead.

The other of an ancient-looking mottled-pale-green stallion with a wispy beard and accusing eyes.

“The election began, as it often does, with two candidates. One, Carcassonne, a budding young civil servant with tough stances on reducing poverty, corruption and the need for exported goods in Canterlot and its surrounding residencies. The other, Nitpick, Canterlot’s distinguished Lord Magistrate and the Sixth Earl of Speck, known to many to be a proud ultra-conservative traditionalist. As expected, Carcassone built popularity among the middle-class citizens whilst Nitpick appealed to the elite. Problems, however, emerged from both sides. While Nitpick’s supporters praised him to no end, Carcassone was vilified by members of her own cabinet, labelling her rash, temperamental and inexperienced. On the other side of the spectrum, numerous allegations of corruption fell upon Nitpick during his time as a Magistrate which the populace were quick to become suspicious of. Most shockingly, the Earl of Speck was involved in a sexual harassment scandal at the theatre where he was reported to have molested a trolley mare and offered her money for pleasure. The trolley mare, who does not wish to be named, fled to her home, Ponyville, because of course it is, and had the whole place in an uproar, not that hard to accomplish for a town that considers an apple shortage the calamity of the century”

There was a mild laughter from those present.


“But in all seriousness, this scandal prompted several other mares in and around Canterlot to come forward with similar accusations, though only the case of the trolley mare was confirmed. In the wake of this scandal, Lord Nitpick lost a great deal of favour with his own circle and those they represented. In the wake of both these candidates disappointing their voters, local Council member, Earl Grey, in a controversial political statement, declared he was voting for the current Chairstallion, Fancy Pants of Briefly Manor, to assume a third term in office. Chairstallion Fancy Pants is, as many around Canterlot know, one of the capitals’ most respected and influential ponies who is credited to have revitalised Canterlot’s economy and social equity in his first year in office and since went from strength to strength. This prompted several of his fellow council members and their associates to do the same and, in weeks, the movement for Fancy Pants to take on a three-term session in office has topped the charts, leading by at least fifty votes”

The photo of the monocled, moustachioed Chairstallion appeared between the two candidates. It may have been purely by accident that they chose to have the photo of him illuminated by the rising sun with his blue mane blowing in the wind.

“Miss Carcassone has recently gone on to resign from her candidacy, reluctantly voicing support for Fancy Pants’ cabinet. Nitpick, meanwhile, assures the ponies who will listen that it is he who will lead Canterlot into a golden age. Princess Celestia would not comment on the events, stating that elections are matters of public faith which she cannot and will not intrude upon”

“Nonetheless, Fancy Pants remains in the lead and his supporters are doing all they can to keep it that way. If he wins, he will officially become Canterlot’s longest-serving Chairstallion as well as the youngest-appointed, two titles that are certain to look pretty good on his resume...and his plaque”

The photos disappeared, replaced by a single photo of an eccentric-looking cyan mare with a silver fringe and pink-tinted glasses.

“In other news, prominent photograph artist, Photo Finish, proclaims she has assembled a spectacular cadre of models and is preparing a fashion shoot later this month, time and place to be decided, and promises it will be a magnificent, unmissable occasion where all of Canterlot may behold what she calls ‘Ze Magicks’ for themselves. A full summary and an interview with Miss Finish herself will follow up later this afternoon”

“And now onto Sextant with the weather”


*


The light but definite noise from the meal-gong resonated across Briefly Manor. Fancy Pants was often up before the gong went and was dressed and ready for breakfast not a moment after it had subsided. Making his way to the dining hall, he greeted the butler, Tombola, who pulled out a chair and presented the morning paper.

“Good morning Tom, old chap. How does today look?”

“A clement day, sir, by my assumption” the famously-efficient butler answered as Ramekin, the bright but cautious waiter, entered and placed a breakfast tray of buttered crumpets, poached eggs, button mushrooms and, of course, a cup of tea, upon the table.

Fancy took an eager sniff of the fresh meal before him, already feeling very much awake, and thanked the one who brought it.

“Thank you Rammy. Give my compliments to the cooks, there’s a good fellow” He turned back to Tom “Any new goings-on that may concern me?” the gentlecolt asked as he tucked a napkin into his collar.

“Nothing that I would assume you to be uninformed of, sir” Tom replied “Only that his grace, Count Stained Glass, sends you his best wishes and states that he is very much enjoying his stay in Ponyville, finding the country atmosphere exceptionally pleasing and the company charming beyond words”

“Ah excellent, I thought he might like it. Anything else?”

“One last point of interest, sir. Miss de Lis wishes you to know she will be returning to Canterlot a day from now”

The mention of the mare’s name brought a dreamy look to Fancy’s face. To think it had been just over six months since they’d met that fateful Rejuvenation Festival in Ponyville. It always seemed like it had been yesterday that the elegant young Fleur had walked into Fancy’s largely empty life.

Since becoming the Canterlot power-player everypony knew him as, Fancy Pants had always owned more than he could ever dream of.

But her friendship was the first thing he ever felt he had.


“Sir?”

“Hm? What?!” Fancy jerked his head up before he could dip his moustache in the butter and blinked dimly at his butler who was eying his master with a raised eyebrow.

“You rather seemed to have drifted off if you don’t object to me saying so, sir”

The gentlecolt shook his head.

“Sorry, Tom, old fruit. Don’t know what came over me there. I’ll ah...I’ll make a start on this breakfast, shall I? Before it gets cold”

“It’s quite alright, sir” he made to leave but stopped halfway to the door and turned back to the master of Briefly Manor.

“May I ask if you will you be obtaining to invite Miss de Lis here again, sir?” he said at length.

Fancy Pants cleared his throat and gave a sheepish look to his faithful major-domo.

“You rather hit the proverbial nail on the noggin, Tom” he chuffed “If that’ll sit well with the household, of course”

“Perfectly, sir. We shall be on hoof to make arrangements whenever the opportunity presents itself” And with that, Tombola bowed and exited the dining hall, leaving his master to finish, or rather begin, his breakfast.

“Well?”

The butler looked round to see Ramekin and two more of the household staff collected just outside dining hall. The vivacious and excitable Prench-Chineighse maid, Plumette; and the pernickety but kindly old housekeeper, Mrs Fuss Pot, who had once been Fancy’s nanny when her master was a colt.

They were waiting on the butler’s word with baited breath.

Tombola paused and spoke with an air of authority.

“Need I remind you all that in refined households such as Briefly Manor, servants are not privy to their master’s private affairs unless their master would expressly wish it so” He took note of a glimpse of shame in their faces before continuing.

“But to curb your curiosity, the master does indeed plan to continue seeing Miss de Lis”

The three ponies each jumped a foot in the air and cheered.

“Yes! I knew it!” Ramekin whooped “I knew those two would get together, this is amazing! They’re brilliant for each other!”

Magnifique!” Plume could barely stop herself giggling “Zis is so parfait! Like all ze romantiques. Ze noble pony falls for one so far below their station and brave ze discriminations of ze world togezer!”

“Ooh, Princesses be praised! How blessed I am to see this day!” Mrs Fuss Pot exclaimed “Oh it does me’ old heart proud, so it does. Who’d ‘ave thought it, eh?!”

“Is everything alright down there?” They heard their master call out from the dining hall. All four of them snapped to attention instinctively.

“Quite alright sir. I was simply informing all present of possible visits from Miss de Lis” Tombola replied steadily.

“Righto Tom. Carry on”


*


The sunrise from Sweet Apple Acres was a sight one would be happy to take to the grave.

To the Apple family, however, that sight always meant there was work to be done.

Applejack had just finished herding the well-meaning but easily-startled cattle into the field and was pausing a moment to catch her breath and enjoy the last few minutes of the early Ponyville morning.

Resting against the fence, she caught sight of a peculiarly-thin alabaster mare trotting curiously down the meadow path.

She waved to her as the visitor drew close.

“Howdy-doo, missy!” she hollered “Fine morning, doncha’ think?!”

The mare had been looking at the ground with vague interest and jumped slightly when the farm-pony called out to her.

“Sorry, ma’am” Applejack apologised “Didn’t mean to scare yer’ none”

“No, no, it’s quite alright” The mare approached, smiling politely “I don’t get out that much, at least at home. I’m just out here to collect my thoughts a bit”

“Fine by me” Applejack leaned over the fence in a friendly fashion “Ain’t yer one of Lyra, Colgate an’ Pepperdance’s friends? From that big city, Canterlot?”

“Yes, that’s right” Fleur extended a hoof daintily “I’m Fleur. Fleur de Lis”

“Well ain’t that a fancy old namesake. Ah think Lyra an' Pepperdance mentioned you before” The farm-pony shook the hoof warmly “Pleased to meet’cha. Ah’m Applejack”

Fleur shook it in a slightly absent-minded fashion.

“Heh...Fancy” she murmured.

“Hm? Whassat now?”

“Oh nothing, nothing” The slim mare cleared her throat.

“Well if yer don’t wanna’ talk about it” Applejack brushed her mane-tail dismissively “So, is there anythin’ I can help ya’ll with? Frankly, you look like you could do with a good deal a’ feedin’. Why, yer’ all skin n’ bone!”

“Oh um...” Fleur glanced at her figure with some amount of insecurity “It’s quite alright. I’m a model, you see. I’m working at Canterlot”

Applejack gave a whistle of surprise.

“Sound’s difficult” she said.

Fleur tilted her head from side to side.

“At times. I’ve just got a break though. Thanks to...a friend...” she trailed off, gazing dreamily into nothing in particular.

“Uh...yoo-hoo” Applejack waved her hoof in front of her.

“Oh, I’m so sorry” Fleur shook her head, her trailing primrose mane threatening to whack the farm-pony in the face.

“Now wait just a gosh-darned’ second” Applejack said coyly, twiddling her hoof in front of the bewildered Fleur “Ah remember Lyra an’ Pepper went to the gala a few months ago an’ couldn’a stopped hootin’ about their friend 'Fleur' fallin’ fer an important stallion” She rolled her eyes “They made a lotta’ jokes about his moustache that ah’m glad lil’ Bloom weren’t around to hear”


Fleur sighed.

“You caught me” She conceded “It hardly matters, most of my friends know and they’re all impulsive gossips. We went to the Gala together but...well, neither of us has exactly decided where we stand, as it were”

“Both of y’all waitin’ for t’other to make their move, is that it?”

“Exactly”

Applejack nodded knowingly.

“S’alright. Mah Pa told me that’s how he and mah Ma ended up spendin’ a lot of the first few years they knew each other”

“Oh really?” Fleur chuckled “What happened in the end? It couldn’t have lasted forever”

“Well...” the farm-pony tilted her head “Ah reckon Granny Smith constantly hanging around and tellin’ ‘em to jus’ get on with it already took its toll...but they told me that Pa once went out to fight a timber-wolf who’d been skulkin’ round the farm fer’ too long, huntin' the livestock. But this wolf was a monster. Pa didn’t expect to come back. Now he owns a hat, a treasured Apple family keepsake passed down from generation to generation. We never let it come to harm and an Apple father only leaves it home if he thinks he might not come back. An’ he always leaves it with the pony he loves an’ trusts most in the world. Now when he went off to fight that big ol’ wolf, he left that hat with the mare he fell in love with...the mare who became mah Ma. And Big Mac’s an’ Bloom’s Ma too”

She nodded with satisfaction.

“Tha’s how yer’ get yer’ special somepony. At the end o’ the day, it ain’t about flowers, chocolates or promises yer’ don’t intend to keep. It’s about trust, what yer’ willin’ to do an’ how far yer’ willin’ to go. Ya just need to show him ya care in a way only you can do. Mah Pa gave mah Ma the symbol of his trust an' when he came back home, all cut and sore, mah Ma dressed his injuries an' told him there an' then that she loved him an' knew he loved her. An' the rest is history”

Fleur was quiet. She let the words of the farm-pony sink in.

“...okay...” she mumbled “...how?”

“Well...” Applejack shrugged “...that’s gotta’ be yer’ own call, darlin’. Don’t yer worry, ya’ll think of somethin’”

“I suppose” Fleur sighed, recollecting her moments with the gentlecolt of her dreams “The thing is...he hasn’t only treated me, he’s done so much more than that...he’s...” She blinked, amazed at her own words.

“He’s protected me”

“Protected yer?” Applejack repeated curiously “From what?”

The mare hung her head.

“From Canterlot” she answered sullenly “Have you ever heard of Lord Nitpick?”

“Well, ah think ah saw somethin’ in Pa’s paper ‘bout it. Ain’t he that wrinkly old judge who’s trying to make himself...ah dunno’, City Official or something?”

Fleur gave her a look of mild surprise.

“What?” the farm-pony asked defensively “Just ‘cause I live on the farm, don’t mean ah’m not informed or nothin’”

“No, no, I’d never...”

“S’alright. Ah saw his picture an’ asked Pa what it was all about. Pa said it was all big-city nonsense an’ he wouldn’t trust this Nitpick fella’ farther than he could buck the Princess’s palace”

Fleur giggled.

Wouldn’t trust him farther than he could buck the Princess’s palace’, I’ll have to remember that” It didn’t take her long to look serious again “But your father’s right, he’s corrupt, indifferent...dishonest...”

“Well, that’s all I need to know” Applejack stamped her hoof “No Apple with pride ever associates themselves with dishonest folk”

“But he’s worse than that” Fleur was about to go further but took in how young Applejack must have been and reworded her problem.

“He’s been...threatening me”

“Well then ya’ll should tell somepony, quickly”

“I did but...I’m afraid I’ve put them in danger” Fleur felt herself shudder “I couldn’t live with that. It’s my problem. I didn’t want to make it theirs. So...should I still stay with them if I can’t protect them the way they protect me?”

She fell to her knees, resting her forehead on the fence.

“Sometimes I wish I’d never told anypony”

She felt the wish to start weeping.

Before she could, however, she felt Applejack place a hoof upon her shoulder.

“Sweetheart” The farm-pony said sympathetically “Ah’m afraid all lies or even secrets come out sooner or later”

Fleur made a mental note to thoroughly wash that shoulder but nonetheless appreciated the gesture.

“See, a couple a' months ago, mah brother, Mac, took in a stray dog he’d found an’ kept it hidden in his room. Didn’t want our parents to find out, y’see. Well it only took a few weeks for this dog to start howlin’ and Mac had to come clean. Course, he was in a heap o’ trouble but our main priority was taking care of the poor beast. Mac called over a friend who’s good with animals an’ she told him she was gonna’ give birth. Ah tell ya, it was all hooves on deck but Mac did most of it to make up for keeping quiet. Sure enough, the old dog gave birth to a litter o’ pups an’ we’ve been takin’ care of ‘em ever since”


“I see” Fleur said slowly “So...keeping quiet about unpleasant truths can often have worse effects”

“That’s often the case, darlin’, just as tellin’ somepony can make it better. Trust me”

Fleur thought back and remembered a dinner she and Fancy had shared at a wonderful Ghoran Restaurant called The Tasty Treat. He was flustered from an incident involving Derpy Doo, the cute, wall-eyed mare from the Gala, her unspeakable aunt and that peculiar Doctor who liked bowties. Derpy Doo had a foal which, it had only become known to her and others, belonged to the Doctor. He had kept it secret for several reasons. Two of the most prominent being firstly that he wasn’t certain if Derpy would take well to the news, and secondly that his past was apparently quite an eventful time where he may have made enemies that he wouldn’t want coming after his wife or foal.
But in the end, such worries were unfounded. Derpy had been overjoyed upon finding the father of her precious filly, the greatest gift ever given to her, and Princess Celestia herself swore she would protect the Doctor and his newfound family from anything that may emerge from past, present or future.

It had been six months since that dinner and the brief but perfect walk across Canterlot Royal Gardens that followed.

It seemed the message of that story was that the painful truth wasn’t nearly as dangerous as trying to hide from it. Allowing misfortune to fester unchecked only caused far greater damage to oneself and others that letting it loose still fresh. And misfortune was always better endured beside others who understood.

Truthfully, Derpy and the Doctor’s problems had been far greater than hers, she didn’t mind admitting it. But perhaps the same lesson applied.

“Thank you...Applejack” Fleur said at last “I’m going to visit my friend in Canterlot tomorrow and...I think this has helped me a lot”

“Glad t’ be of service, darlin’”

“AJ honey, c’mon back inside! Yer’ Ma and ah needs somepony to look after Bloom while we fetch the caravan”

Applejack turned and waved to an enormous, shaggy pale-beige work-horse with a wide-brimmed hat who was calling to his daughter from the homestead.

“Ah’ll be right down, Pa!” Applejack yelled back.

She nodded to Fleur.

“Well, ah gotta’ get back to work but it’s been nice talkin’ an’ ah hope it helped”

And with that she sped off in the direction of the Sweet Apple homestead.

Fleur gave a sigh.

Tomorrow she would be leaving her home behind and returning to Canterlot once more.

What she would find there would be left up to fate.

But she could face it.

As long as she had her Fancy beside her.

Chapter 1

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“Don’t talk to me about Fancy Pants! Fancy Pants makes me sick!”

Lord Magistrate Nitpick was just able to resist flying into a rage at the mention of his arch-political-rival’s name. He poured himself another glass of whisky as he sat brooding in his armchair in the smoking room of Invitro Hall.

Looks of agreement were thrown his way from many of those present. His litigator and representative, Earwax; his friend and fellow campaigner, Sir Cumbersome Clout; and his two daughters, Monocular and Binocular, sat upon the various chairs and couches, addressing the Lord Magistrate. The only pony in the room who wasn’t looking at him was his wife, the caustic Countess Magnifying Glass, who stood beside the fire, cradling at the poker.

All of them shared his hatred of the current Royal Council Chairstallion. Fancy Pants, in recent months, had caused them no end of humiliation and defamation in the circles of the capital.

“The very idea of that...that...usurper standing above me, a descendent of the ancient line of Speck, is an insult to Canterlot society itself!”

“I couldn’t agree more, your lordship” Earwax toadied, as was his custom “I have no doubt that you will overcome him”

“His sort shouldn’t be allowed in politics!” Sir Cumbersome blustered “They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere! He ought to be shot!”

“I hope somepony gets rid of him and puts daddy in charge!” Monocular sneered.

“Then we’ll able to do whatever we want, as we should be!” Binocular pouted.

“Well then, what do you intend to do about it?!” Countess Magnifying Glass spun round and barked, causing the five complainers to jump in their seats.

There was a pause as their eyes shifted to and fro, waiting for somepony else to speak up first.

The Countess sighed.

“Must I really do all the thinking around here?” she griped “Honestly, the amount of time you magic-damned idiots have spent sitting around saying how much you want to get rid of this irritating stallion, you could’ve actually done it by now!”

“B-but...what do we do, mummy?” Monocular asked.

“Well, I’ll explain it, shall I?” Magnifying Glass said acidly to her offspring “And I’ll word it just like you two, simple as equinely possible!

“Yes, mummy” the sisters mumbled weakly in unison.

“Right then,” The Countess strode to the middle of the room and held the attention of all around her “Ask yourself this, if that’s not too much brainwork for you. Why is Fancy Pants the Royal Canterlot Council Chairstallion?”

Sir Cumbersome gave a derisive noise and answered immediately, puffing on his cigar.

Broagh! It’s thanks to that maudlin, reformist drip of a Chairmare he had for a mother!”

“Alright, let me word it differently since you clearly don’t quite understand” The Countess said flatly “Why is Fancy Pants remaining the Royal Canterlot Council Chairstallion?”

There was another silence as the ponies around her threw clueless glances at one another.

The Countess tutted and answered her own question.

“Because he’s popular!” she snapped “He’s young, he’s accomplished, he’s fashionable, he’s courteous, put simply, husband of mine, he’s everything you aren’t!

“If you say so, dear” Nitpick squeaked.

“And not to mention he can keep his hooves to himself” Magnifying Glass glowered “Regardless, his reputation is his main strength. Ruin that and we ruin him”

“How?” Earwax asked.

“Oh for Tartarus’s sake, Earwax, what sort of lawyer doesn’t know how to pull off a smear campaign?!” The Countess brandished her poker meaningfully.

The Countess had always scared the Glass household and today was no exception. Since her house-arrest six months ago, she had done nothing but brood on the slights inflicted upon her by her niece, by Ponyville’s mayor, by Fancy Pants and by Princess Celestia.

She may have been, ever so slightly, losing her marbles.


“Now listen, there’s got to be something Fancy Pants is weak against,” she began “No pony is untouchable or unstoppable. Celestia’s banishment of her own sister is proof of that, and Fancy Pants is not a greater pony than the Princess...” She pursed her lips.

“Though that’s not saying as much as one would think”

“Ah, my sweet, please...” Nitpick interjected “Take care on how you speak of her highness, I’d like no curses upon my house”

“Shut up, Nitpick, this is my house, not yours” His wife snapped back “Lausenhaus Court was your house, remember? Which you lost to Caesar Dressing in that bet! Remember?!

Nitpick shrunk in his armchair as the Countess gave him a withering glare.

“The day I ask you for advice on showing restraint, my dear husband, is the day my imbecile niece saves Equestria with her wits!”

At the notion, Monocular and Binocular engaged in sardonic laughter, more of out of obedience than anything else.

A look from their mother shut the two up instantly.

“So...ask yourself, what is a pony like Fancy Pants vulnerable to?” She continued.

Her words were met, as she expected, with clueless expressions.

“Well we find out, don’t we!” she answered “There has to be something! That’s why I’m sending over a professional”

There was a pause.

“But I’m here already” Earwax pointed out.

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response” The Countess slowly paced back to the fireplace, turning away from the rest of the household “Regardless, this...contact of mine will get the job done. He’s used to far more perilous scrapes. Spying on a politician is hardly new to him or particularly difficult. He will find something we can use against this slippery, self-righteous do-gooder and gain control. The sooner you’re Chairstallion, Nitpick, the sooner this damn magic field is lifted and I can turn that miserable Ponyville into a wasteland!”


“In the meantime, I have an idea how to boost our chances in the polls, as it were” Sir Cumbersome piped up, a proud grin on his face.

“By all means, speak, old Clout” Nitpick said.

“Well, it’s quite simple” the hulking earth pony explained “The Princess is not allowed, by official conduct, to voice opinions on the Chairstallionship Elections but other royals are exempt from this code”

“Lady Mi Amore Cadenza will never support us” Earwax said gravely “Last I heard, she was quite keen on Carcassonne’s movement”

“It’s not Cadenza I’m talking about, Earwax, I meant somepony else entirely” Cumbersome puffed out his chest “A pony who is descended from the first and most ancient line of unicorn kings. An eligible bachelor and well-known across the social circles”

Blueblood?!” the Countess exclaimed, clearly disappointed with Sir Cumbersome’s idea.

“Well...” Clout lost a lot of his confidence “...he is a royal. And our families contribute profusely to his trust-fund”

“Blueblood is an unparalleled twit!” Magnifying was close to screeching “You’ll lose more votes than you’ll gain with him around!”

“He doesn’t have to support us vocally” Earwax suggested “If we had a mere fraction of his funding, it could cause our popularity to surge, don’t you think?”

“He won’t support us for free!” the Countess shouted him down “And he’s not interested in politics anyway! He’s a layabout! I tell you now, no good can come of getting Prince Blueblood involved!”

“It’s worth a try, darling” Nitpick simpered “He’s often at the Hanoverian in the VIP section. We’ll meet him tomorrow morning and discuss what can be done”

The Countess eyed him as one would an individual who’d told a tasteless joke.

“Fine” she hissed, before pointing the poker at her husband’s nose “But Paradise help you, Nitpick, if he messes this up!”


*


The train at last came to a stop at the station with a loud but not piercing screech on the rails.

Fleur de Lis had returned to Canterlot.

Carrying her luggage with her magic, as most unicorns did, she made her way outside in tender, dainty steps on her famously long and sleek legs. Making her way through throngs of the arriving and the departing was where Fleur’s characteristic of being unusually tall came in handy, as well as identifying certain individuals. She did so, catching sight of a certain blue-maned, moustachioed and monocled stallion.

She gave a joyous gasp.

“Fancy Pants!”

Catching sight of the gentlecolt who’d stolen her heart, she put another of her unique aspects to use, her slimness, as she raised her luggage above the heads of the ponies around her and galloped out of the crowd. Before she knew it, she was standing, grinning like a fanfilly, in front of Canterlot’s most important stallion.

“Hello again, Fleur”

Fancy Pants was certain he was bearing one of the most goofy-looking smiles known to ponydom as he stood face-to-face before his treasured companion who believed much the same of herself.

Yet to each other, their smiles were as beautiful as Celestia’s sunrise.

“How was your journey?” the gentlecolt managed to say after some amount of time.

“Oh fine”

Both had hoped that conversation would have lead somewhere.

No hope it seemed.

Fancy tried a different tactic.

“Shall I help you get your things home?”

“Um...well...I wouldn’t want you...to...” Fleur began to mumble.

‘Oh shut up, you brainless bimbo!’ A voice in her head hissed ‘Do you want to spend time with him or not?’

“Er...thank you, Fancy” she decided to say at last.

And with that, Fancy took half of Fleur’s bags (some of the heavier ones) and the two made their way to Fleur’s apartment. But not before the stallion whispered one last thing that made time stop for the mare beside him.

“Fleur...I missed you”


Fleur’s apartment was a modest specimen of student or graduate living. Not unpleasant but certainly not luxurious. And it didn’t take particularly long to feel cramped. The mare seemed fond of clothes and her wardrobe was fit to bursting (Though the wardrobe in question wasn’t huge so that could be forgiven). A scrying-orb, a means of information-gathering, social contact and entertainment for unicorns, lay upon a small table. Fancy Pants had known at heart that Fleur was more intelligent than she looked but he was surprised to see so many books on a shelf beside the table. There were the classics, he was pleased to see; Courser, Shaking Spear, Vector Logo, Rein Horsten, Plot Thickens and the like.

Above them were the Singing Snow and Flame Novels, a popular series.

And above them were a row of Neighponese manga and light novels.

The flat’s owner glanced nervously at her guest, who gazed round a moment and spoke.

“Well this is quite cosy”

Fleur gave him a look that suggested she knew he was being kind but appreciated it nonetheless.

“Thank you for helping me. You can just put my things just at the end of the bed, I’ll go through them later”

“Righto” Fancy Pants did so, carefully placing down the luggage.

They spent some amount of time staring at each other.

‘Well?’ Fancy Pants asked himself ‘You’ve been pining for her for six months now. Aren’t you going to say something to that effect?!’

‘Are you new at this or something?’ Fleur’s thoughts snapped ‘He’s in your apartment. Private time. What are you waiting for?!’

They both broke the silence at once with the exact same suggestion.

“Tea at Genial’s?”

They both nodded.

Ironically, now that they were alone together, there seemed to be nothing that made them more uncomfortable.

“One moment” Fleur piped up before having a general rummage through her wardrobe.

She emerged with a blazer and tartan skirt, both burgundy and violet in colour. Fancy raised his eyebrows.

Fleur shrugged, blushing.

“I just thought...” she explained timidly “With you in your jacket and all, I thought I might wear something so as to not look...well...”

“Naked?” the gentlecolt put forward.

“I was going to say unpresentable but I suppose that works too. My old college uniform, you understand”

“Yes, yes, I...I noticed that. Very well, my dear Fleur. If you so wish, I should not object. Shall we...?” He gracefully held the door open as Fleur walked beside him, dressed in the blazer and skirt of a college graduate.

Exiting the apartment complex, and taking a quiet street to Genial’s Cafe, the presence of a photographer in the high floor of a building opposite went completely unnoticed by the enamoured couple.

‘Well, would you look at that’ He chuckled at the sight of the mare’s garb, taking several shots of the couple on a high-resolution camera.

‘Who’s a naughty pony then?’


*


Conkers, Blueblood’s butler, chauffeur and bodyguard was an intimidating pony, a hulking, shaggy rust-red-coated pegasus with a spiky blonde and ginger mane and a trailing, bushy tail. To assume he’d once been a Wonderbolt wouldn’t have been out of the question.

Lord Nitpick and Sir Cumbersome found themselves cowering at the sight of him as they showed him their passes and were led to the VIP section of the infamous Hanoverian Club, a haven for eccentric and irresponsible aristocrats to waste unwise quantities of bits upon the baser sort of luxuries.

Blueblood could often be found here in the mornings, having likely spent the night.

“Your royal highness”

A particularly unfortunate feature about Conkers was his voice. High-pitched and squeaky, it didn’t match his character. He didn’t enjoy speaking but often, his employer would make him do so anyway. Blueblood saw it as a means of preventing his servant from getting above himself.

“Yes, Conkers? What is it now?” The Prince’s voice asked slightly sleepily.

“Lord Magistrate Nitpick and Sir Cumbersome Clout request an audience”

“Oh very well, let them in”

Conkers gestured to his employer’s room and the two visitors were led inside.

Prince Blueblood reclined upon a chaise longue that would have been low if not for the mounds of cushions surrounding him and his two acquaintances. Upon each of his knees was a young mare. One was a pink-coated earth pony with a mane of gold and chestnut tumbling down her neck while the other was a tall unicorn, jet-black with silver-mane that hung straight in beaded braids. Both were scantily-clad while Blueblood was wearing a white dressing gown with gilded accents.

Nitpick took a moment to gawk at the two before Sir Cumbersome cleared his throat and brought his friend back to his senses.

“Welcome, dear sirs” he declared. He was clearly quite drunk “Please sit down”

The only available seats were two hoofstools before the Prince. Swallowing their pride, Nitpick and Sir Cumbersome sat upon them.

“Your highness...” Nitpick began in a fawning manner he usually reserved for his wife or the Princess.

Royal highness, if you please” Blueblood interjected. The mares beside him giggled.

Nitpick gave a fractious sigh whilst Sir Cumbersome muttered under his breath but they remained courteous.

“Your royal highness...I have a proposition for you”

“Well, I hope it’s more cocktails else you might make me a little disappointed” He gave them a meaningful look.

Nitpick subtly seethed and threw Conkers several bits.

“Cocktails, please, for his royal highness...and ourselves”

“Lord Nitpick, where are your manners?” Blueblood butted in “Have you forgotten about my little treasures here?” He massaged their necks with his hooves “They’ve had a long night and deserve a few libations, don’t you think”

Grumbling, Nitpick forked over a few hoof-fuls more of his money and the Prince’s attendant gave a small smile, bowed and departed.


“On that matter, allow me to introduce you” the Prince chortled, his hoof under the pink mare’s chin.

“This is...sorry, what was your name again?”

“Fragrant Magnolia” the pink mare pouted.

“Right, right, thought so. She’s an artist, this one, skilled in song and dance...and many other things” He turned to the black mare “And this is...now I remember this one...” He trailed off.

“Silvanberry” the black mare said for him.

“There you have it. She’s from Mareakkesh. If half the Mareoccan mares are as pretty as her, I’m thinking of spending some time over there”

He gave a grin he must have thought looked charming and the two mares kissed him on both cheeks.

“Cocktails, your royal highness” Conkers re-emerged with a set of classy cocktails upon a silver tray.

“Ah, good stallion” Blueblood took his drink eagerly and threw his valet a few bits “Here, buy yourself a cider, why don’t you?”

The ginger pegasus bowed gratefully and left. Working for Blueblood had its perks. The prince was demanding and arrogant by nature but he could be generous to those who serviced him well, a trait that made him well-sought after in Canterlot society.

The reason Nitpick and Cumbersome were meeting him, no doubt.

Blueblood toasted his glass with his female companions, drank and turned back to his visitors.

“So gentlecolts,” he began “How may I entertain you?”

“Well, let me explain” Nitpick said “As you may be aware, I am currently running for Chairstallion of the Royal Canterlot Council”

“Lord Nitpick” Blueblood scoffed “I’m going to need a lot more drinks before I’m ready to talk about politics

“No, no, your high-royal...highness...ahem...I simply want some amount of...well...assistance...from you...so to speak”

“I’m watching those hooves, sir” the prince snapped as Fragrant Magnolia drew back from the Lord Magistrate’s hoof, too close to her back-leg than she was comfortable with. Blueblood placed a hoof on her shoulder and spoke to Nitpick in a severe manner.

“Do not think of distressing these mares, I will not permit it”

“F-forgive me, your royal highness. I...what I mean is...”

“Our opponent is causing us some amount of trouble” Cumbersome finished his friend’s sentence.

“Carcassonne?” Blueblood asked “Oh, that young prude had some rather tactless things to say about me...and my sweet companions”

“She was so mean” Fragrant Magnolia whined, sidling up to the prince’s chest.

“Probably just jealous” Silvanberry snorted, massaging the prince’s shoulder.

“It’s not Carcassonne we speak of, she’s...no longer a problem” Nitpick continued “I speak of the current Chairstallion, who stands to assume a third term in office”


What?!” Blueblood’s tone grew incensed in a moment “But...he can’t do that!”

“Oh, I entirely agree but the stallion will simply not be reasoned with”

Blueblood sat back and fumed.

“That moustached moron has given me nothing but grief since he assumed office!” he snarled “Removing privilege after privilege, lecturing me in the royal court, rattling on about ‘merit’ and ‘equity’ and ‘populism’! He turns his nose up at me every time we cross! He dares to call me a layabout!

“Good gracious...” Nitpick tried his hardest to look shocked “The...the very idea...how...how unseemly of him”

“Indeed...most vexatious!” Cumbersome made an attempt to bluster “Nothing could be farther from the truth”

“Right, that’s exactly what I said!” Blueblood sneered “I told my aunt he was trouble but would she listen?! Nooooo! No, she likes this crackpot and his feckless ideals and where does that leave me?!” He slumped back in his couch as the two mares rushed to relax him.

“I was so looking forward to seeing the back of him this year” he groaned.

“Well, you might yet get the chance” Nitpick said, positively snapping to confidence “It is our intention to thwart this buffoon and put him in his place for good”

Blueblood raised one eyebrow.

“Intriguing...I’m listening”

“You are equal to Chairstallion Fancy Pants in reputation and superior in position by royal lineage” the Lord Magistrate stated “If you were to...show him up, as it were...cause quite a scene...perhaps even provoke him into aggravation...it would further our cause quite significantly. And once he was out of the picture, I would be voted Chairstallion” Nitpick brought himself up smugly.

“Now, your royal highness, I am a traditional stallion. I have always believed in the divine right and ancestral privilege of the elite in Canterlot. Under my jurisdiction, you shall never have to suffer rebuttal or chastisement as if you were a foal. You, Prince Blueblood, would be as highly revered as the ancient kings you are descended from”

A smile played on the Prince’s lips as he took a sip of his cocktail and spoke, his diamond-blue eyes gleaming.

“Go on...”


*


Genial’s was a small but trendy cafe just outside of the square. Couples often went there, particularly the clandestine kind.

Fancy and Fleur were led to an outdoor table by a kindly, old waitress who set off to prepare them tea the instant they sat down.

Genial’s was one of the many eatery chains owned by Grand Duke Caesar Dressing, a business partner of Fancy Pants. Fancy and Caesar’s son, Thousand Island, had been classmates.

As such, Fancy often got a discount and could ensure the same for Fleur.

“Um...do you like it?” Fleur asked “The outfit, I mean?”

“Oh yes, of course” the gentlecolt said, adjusting his monocle “I’m just a little concerned you might be getting a little overanxious”

“Don’t be like that, Fancy. Think about it” the mare sighed somewhat forlornly “There’s you, Fancy Pants, a stallion who everypony from here to Fillydelphia knows by name and face, always well-dressed and easy to spot in a crowd, as I demonstrated at the station. I just wouldn’t feel right not at least trying to make an effort. I don’t want ponies to think I’m wasting your time”

“Fleur” Fancy held her hoof “Whatever you feel comfortable with is fine by me but never think it’s a must. These clothes I wear, I wear because I enjoy wearing them. If you enjoy wearing shirts or skirts or nothing at all, I would not object. You are your own pony, as I am”

“Th-th-thank you” Fleur couldn’t help but stammer, fumbling idly at the menu.

“Here we are, dearies” The waitress returned with steaming cups of tea. The milk and sugar was already set upon the table for them to add at their leisure.

“Thank you, my good mare” Fancy said “The bread and butter pudding for me, I think, please. And for you, Fleur?”

Fleur took a moment to think. Her model’s diet hadn’t been overly hard for her to adjust to but she made sure to be careful.

“The fruit and granola yogurt sundae please”

The waitress nodded and retreated inside.

“You know, I still have the dress” Fancy broke the silence.

“The...my gala dress?”

“Yes, remember. You left it with me for safe-keeping. It looked...magnificent on you, I have to say. And I wouldn’t mind if you wished to wear it more often”

“No, no, Fancy” Fleur said, blushing “I couldn’t wear something as fine and expensive as that for daywear. The gala was a special occasion and...I’m very grateful you bought it for me. I wish I could repay you somehow”

“No repayment necessary, my dear. Your company that evening was more than worth the expense”

Fleur stifled a touched giggle.

“I’m glad we could spend that evening together”

“You kissed me”

“What?”

“At the gala” Fancy Pants explained in a tone he was trying to keep frank.

“Oh yes...yes I did...” Fleur brushed her mane idly “Sorry”

“Sorry?” Fancy’s moustaches danced on his upper lip as he chuckled “My dear girl, what reason have you to be sorry?”

“Well I...” Fleur decided she needed to stop pausing awkwardly between sentences “I just feel like sometimes I’m taking too many liberties with you”

“Not at all, darling” Fancy’s gaze was causing her heart to flutter in her chest.

“I say, Fancy!” A stallion’s voice from inside the cafe beckoned to the gentlecolt. A young light grey pony with a sand-yellow neckerchief and gold-rimmed glasses was hailing him.

“Well bless my soul, it’s old Thousand Island himself” Fancy Pants got to his hooves “One moment, Fleur, I’ll be right back”

Before he went inside, he gave the mare a gentle kiss on the cheek as she had done six months ago at the gala.


‘What a shot’ the photographer murmured.


For a moment, the mare was completely still and silent.

‘He Kissed Me!’ A Pinkie Pie Party kicked off in her mind.

She was glad to have the privacy required to be able to break into a bout of girlish giggles, tapping her hooves upon the ground excitedly.

She stopped a moment.

He had kissed her.

She had no idea whether it was too late or soon. What exactly was their relationship? Were they more than friends? She had always hoped so but now that it seemed he felt the same way did that mean she had to try harder to earn his affections or not as hard?

After the gala they’d departed as firm friends. Fancy had kissed her on the hoof as she arrived and when she left but she had kissed him on the cheek. Throughout that evening and the next day they spent together, part of her would have given everything for that kiss to be returned. The other part felt almost scared of that kiss, as if it would drag her into a place she had no idea how to escape or continue from.

Were they in love?

Or were they only trying to be in love?

She composed herself and decided.

Either way, it was nice.

“Fleur?”

She raised her head, expecting to see Fancy Pants returned to his chair.

Instead she was looking at somepony quite different.

An old schoolmate.

And not a fondly remembered one.

She spoke his name with distinct distaste.

Blueblood!


“Well now, this is a pleasant surprise” the prince said, suavely, as he sat down.

Surprise is right. Not so sure about the part before that” the mare sneered.

“Come now, Fleur, is that any way to treat a dear friend?”

“Friend?!” She snarled “You laughed and mocked me like the rest of them! What was that name you had for me? Bleurgh de Lis?!

She caught sight of him sniggering at his own joke. It earned him a hateful glare.

“Well...” he said defensively “You did spend a lot of time being sick”

“I had a disorder!” It was all she could do not to scream as memories of her early school-life invaded her mind, nearly bringing tears to her eyes.

The prince shrugged.

“Well that was all in the past. We were foals, Fleur. We grew out of it”

“And what you grew into, Blueblood, was nearly twice as unbearable”

“Don’t be like that, Fleur darling” He leaned forward “I know you’ve always secretly had feelings for me?”

Feelings?!” she seethed “I couldn’t stand you, you creep! I still can’t stand you! When I ever said otherwise?!”

Blueblood didn’t seem put-off.

“Your eyes have always said what your mouth could not” he said, relaxing in Fancy’s chair.

“Well perhaps it’s time my mouth said what my eyes have not!” She made to rise.

“Not so fast, Fleur” He put a hoof on that of Fleur’s who pulled it away with revulsion “I’m worried about you”

“Oh really?” She didn’t sound particularly convinced.

Blueblood folded his forelegs and asked the mare a question.

“Is it true you’re seeing Fancy Pants?”

“I hardly see how that’s any of your business”

“It might be” he said, smirking “I imagine you’re interested in his...how shall we say...perks...financial-wise”

“Are you trying to say-”

Blueblood cut off her indignant response.

“Well you’re riding the wrong stallion, I’m afraid. Fancy’s finished, my dear. You’d better jump reins while you still can”

Fleur gave a derisive laugh.

“Oh, and what do you base those conclusions on?” she snapped.

“Fancy’s made enemies” Blueblood’s relaxed tone did not change “And it’ll cost him dearly. He’s only rich and powerful while circumstances allow it. And that’ll end very soon, trust me. I have reliable sources”

“I honestly don’t believe this” Fleur shook her head derisively “You’re trying to scare me away from Fancy Pants?!”

“I'm just trying to help” Blueblood flashed her a smile “Besides, if its money you’re concerned about, a word from me will have you swimming in the stuff”

“Get out of here” Fleur glowered at the prince, her voice dripping with spite.

“Fleur, don’t be like this”

“Get out!”

“Fleur don’t be an idiot” His tone became harsh “I am simply trying to-”

“Excuse me?”

Blueblood rolled his eyes and snapped his head around to face the newcomer.

“What do you want?!”


In the next instant, Blueblood found himself hurled with great force upon the sidewalk as Fancy Pants stood over him, glaring daggers through his monocle.

“She you asked to get out, sir” he said in a tranquil manner that only heightened his daunting image “I suggest out you should get

“You...wha...” he stammered, struggling to his feet “Don’t you know who I am?!”

“Everypony in Canterlot knows exactly what you are, Blueblood” the gentlecolt answered with disdain.

Prince Blueblood!” the golden-maned stallion snarled “You will address me as Prince Blueblood!”

“I will call you by that name, Blueblood, once you’ve earned it. So far you have done nothing of the sort”

“I...you...” the younger stallion was turning red in the face “You think you can get away with this? I’m a royal! I’ll have you-”

“That’s quite enough of your nonsense, young stallion” A hoop of golden magic shut the prince’s mouth tight as Fancy turned his back to him, his horn glowing “You will head home and wash your suit, you look very untidy. And this had better be the very last time I see you giving this young mare any grief. Is that understood?”

The magic dissipated and the prince fell to one knee, regaining his breath before scowling furiously at the Chairstallion.

“You’ll regret this, Fancy Pants” he seethed.

“I said enough!” Another gust of golden magic clipped the prince’s fetlocks, sending him sprawling on the pavement once more.

Regretting leaving Conkers at his suite, Blueblood retreated, muttering a string of unpleasantries involving Fancy’s voice, his mother, his private areas and what they took part in, day-to-day.

Fancy returned to his seat, adjusting his collar and monocle nonchalantly, met with a face on Fleur de Lis so stunned one would think she’d seen Laurelore and Discord fly in, dance the can-can then fly out.

“I’m terribly sorry about that, my dear” he said “I simply couldn’t allow that oafish colt to distress you in such a way”

“No, no, it’s...it’s...” Fleur cursed her imagination. Months of reading romance novels and she couldn’t sufficiently praise her hero.

They both turned to their side and took notice of the waitress, carrying a tray of their chosen refreshments which rattled on one hoof as she stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“Ah...allow me” Fancy set the tray down on the table “I deeply apologise for the commotion, madam. I assure you, it won’t happen again”

“Oh, it’s alright” the waitress managed to say breathlessly “Just so long as it’s over”

Before she departed, she leaned over and whispered subtly to Fleur as Fancy set about pouring them fresh cups of tea.

“You’ve got a fine stallion there, young miss. A fine stallion indeed”


*


“I want him punished! Do you hear?!”

Prince Blueblood was giving Countess Magnifying Glass a run for her money in ranting as he, Lord Nitpick, Sir Cumbersome and Earwax brooded in the Lord Magistrate’s study.

“So he assaulted you?” Sir Cumbersome asked.

“Yes!”

“And mocked you to your face?”

“Yes!”

“And interrupted your conversation?”

“Yes! I just told you!”

Nitpick nodded, hunched over his desk in thought.

“Most extraordinary” he murmured “Have you got that, Earwax?”

“I have indeed, sir” the lawyer answered, writing down the details as Blueblood described.

“I can have these either sent to the journalists, or the courts”

“Do both!” Blueblood barked “He’s not going to get away with this! He’s gone too far!

“Who was this mare you were talking to?” Earwax piped up “We’ll need witnesses and with proper encouragement she can tell the story our way”

“An old friend” the prince said “A unicorn mare called Fleur de Lis”

There was a pause.

Earwax glanced around uneasily while Sir Cumbersome and Lord Nitpick wore looks of grim recollection.

“What?” Blueblood asked anypony who’d answer.

“I’ve heard that name before” Nitpick said, his voice becoming a growl.

Sir Cumbersome gripped the arms of the chair as he remembered.

“That mare at the theatre” he hissed.

Blueblood was clueless.

“What theatre? What happened? What’s going on?”

“Your royal highness...” Nitpick interjected, raising a hoof. He lit a lamp at his desk, bathing his face in a glow.

Blueblood saw a very unfamiliar expression emerge in his face. Normally he looked either smug, stuck-up and overconfident or fearful, fawning and sycophantic.

Now his face was neither.

It was calm.

Collected.

Murderous.

“Prince Blueblood” he said, his voice dripping with a hunger for retribution “Here’s what we’d like you to do...”

Chapter 2

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“Yes!”

Photo Finish’s exclamations sounded throughout the shoot as Fleur de Lis leapt from pose to pose.

“Yes! Yes! Unt Indeed Yeeeeees!”

Fleur had found she was partial to posing to the point of it being second-nature. Fancy had pointed it out on their first meeting at the garden party at Invitro Hall and simply accepted it to be her habit. Some of her friends shared that outlook while others would have her stop for the sake of social propriety.

Yet Photo Finish loved this quirk of hers.

That itself felt very gratifying.

“Remember, Fleur” the eccentric photographer declared “Ze pose must bring out your character, your inner self, your Magicks! Let ze camera capture your very heart. Do not simply think, Fleur. Feeeeeeel!

Fleur arched her back and leaned against the marble pillar, one foreleg raised above his head as she showed off the purple lace gown, clinging to her chest and trailing down her back legs.

“Ze key to being a model is accepting vhat you are” Photo Finish lectured “Are you proud or are you humble? Are you sociable or solitary? Are you nice or are you...naughty?

She may have raised her glasses an inch but Fleur must have blinked.

“Zen, vhatever you find yourself to be...you must make it look good. You must make it shine!

Fleur had come to accept she was, or at least had become, vain early in her adolescence.

And had therefore decided to pursue a career where vanity was welcome. In fact, allowing her to express that vanity on camera made her far less inclined to do so in public.

Yet she never felt vain around Fancy Pants. In her experience, the stallion seemed to have an aura surrounding him that made her strive to be worthy of his affections which always felt so out of reach.

Fleur remembered the Rejuvenation Festival that evening in Ponyville when they'd met. She hadn’t wanted to be noticed. She hadn’t even really wanted to go out. When she saw the Princess, she’d tried to stay as close to her as possible, just to feel safe in the crowd.

The memory of what happened at the Royal Theatre still burned in her mind. It had left her with a lingering fear of being noticed by ponies like Nitpick.

But Fancy was making it all go away.


“Hold ze pose...aaaaaaand...Yes!”

The cameras went off at once as images of the slim, reclining mare were saved and readied for finishing.

“Sufficient vork, everypony” the photographer said, swinging from exuberance to sobriety in an instant “I...Photo Finish...am satisfied”

The crew began to pack as Fleur got to her hooves.

“So...” she said slightly nervously, as was common among those who spoke with Photo Finish “Am I doing well?”

“Vell enough, Fleur. I...Photo Finish...believe experience vill properly perfect your style and technique to perfection”

Fleur wasn’t afraid to admit, Photo Finish was disparaging and critical toward her. But then Photo Finish was disparaging and critical toward everypony. The mare was difficult to deal with but working under her was fortunate, at least for those who fell short of the often highly discriminate major modelling agencies in Canterlot.

Photo Finish herself was intent on making the modelling, and indeed advertising, scene more diverse in Canterlot and places like it. That alone was reason enough for some to put up with her aloofness.

Scusi! Where is Signora Photo Finish?!”

A heavily accented voice that cut through the chatter on the set came from a honeydew-green earth pony mare in a blue and white jumpsuit with bold, decorative eyeliner and a mane and tail both curled into great ginger balls.

It was Stella Zeppole, a glamorous Bitalian model and photographer and one of Photo Finish’s several apprentices, who was bustling in with a selection of papers.

Photo Finish sighed and turned to her.

“Vat is it now, Stella?”

Stella Zeppole had spent too long with Photo Finish. She had adopted the same penchant for dramatics as her tutor. Fleur knew it wasn’t a cultural trend at least. Her mother was Bitalian, at least partially, and wasn’t nearly as prone to melodrama as Stella was.

“Is of great importance that you must see we have a problem!” the mare prattled “This report just came in from the budget group! Is very, very bad news, signora!

Photo Finish snatched the papers from Stella’s hoof and ran over them silently. Fleur was certain that the photographer’s glasses bulged to nearly twice their size before Photo Finish gave a snarl and ground the papers underhoof, swearing in Farman, her native language.

Or Haustrian. Nopony actually knew for sure.

“Ze Schweinehunds have hindered us again!” she screeched.

“What? How?” Fleur asked, startled.

“Our competitors, they have booked every shooting location in the city already!” Stella wailed.

“Ze Park, ze Cafe District, ze Lakeside View, even ze College Grounds! And all in the same month! ZIS IS A VITCH-HUNT!”

“But why?”

“To put us out of the picture, that’s why” Pretty Vision, another apprentice known as ‘Anna Conda’ on the catwalk, grumbled “They want us out of business. One sure fire way is to give us nowhere to work until after the deadline”

“Zey vould have us sell out!” Photo Finish roared “Join in zeir pathetic trend of empty style upon empty models! All milk-vhite-coats and tied-up blonde-manes! Faces of cardboard and personalities to match! All conformism and consumerism! No thinking! No feeling! I...Photo Finish...refuse to associate viz dummkopf ponies who spit in ze face of imagination!”

The set grew quiet as Photo Finish panted furiously, red-faced, her mane sticking out wildly in strands.

“I could help”

All eyes turned to Fleur. This was often something she enjoyed on most occasions but here it was rather daunting.

“How?” Photo Finish’s tone was flat and almost threatening.

“Well...” the slim model tilted her head in thought and spoke.

“What about Briefly Manor?”


“Are you crazy, girl?!” Pretty Vision snorted “No stuck-up royal son of a nag is gonna’ let us use their estates for our shoot! At least not without breaking our budget”

“Wait, wait, Pretty. Fleur has a point” the curt Neighponese makeup-artist, Powder Rouge, interjected “Briefly Manor is owned by Fancy Pants. Fancy Pants is quite different, yes?”

“Exactly” Fleur looked Photo Finish in the eye “Miss Finish. You need a garden shot, correct?”

“Yes”

“Fine architecture?”

“Yes”

“Access to antiques?”

“Yes”

“And views overlooking the city?”

“Yes!” Photo Finish exclaimed with realisation.

“Briefly Manor has it all. And if I let him know of your predicament, I guarantee you Fancy Pants will let you use his home for your shoot for as long as you need at no charge”

WUNDERBAR!” The photographer flung both hooves in the air in exaltation “Go and speak viz Fancy, Fleur, and ensure all of Equestria may behold ze magicks and I...Photo Finish...shall be eternally grateful!”


*


Elsewhere in Canterlot, another wave of camera flashes lit up the podium as the current Royal Council Chairstallion, Fancy Pants, addressed his cabinet and the press.

“And that, I believe, answers your question” he said courteously “Anything else you wish to inquire about before we finish here?”

There was a general rattle of frantic volunteers.

“Mr Chairstallion, what do you have to say about these plans to build refugee camps for Saddle Arabian migrants?” asked one journalist.

“I say that I’m ashamed I haven’t done it sooner” the gentlecolt answered “Saddle Arabia is facing a global crisis. All over the region, violence and civil unrest plague its streets as revolutions turn on themselves and tyrants take each other’s helm on a daily basis. Already, the once beautiful region of Shajarat has descended into near-total anarchy. The innocents ponies caught up in this madness must be given relief and quickly”

“But how to you condone spending taxpayers money on indulging foreigners?”

Fancy Pants adjusted his monocle with mild displeasure.

“Firstly, the refugee campaign will be financed by charity fundraisers, presided over by myself and my colleagues. Nopony will be forced to contribute, merely encouraged. The city revenue will not be touched. And secondly, my good pony, they are not foreigners in their own lands, said lands being near inhospitable to them in these times. Let there be no doubt. We in Canterlot are privileged beyond words. Many outside the capital are nowhere near as lucky. The money some of us spend in a month on wine or carriage hire or trips to the spa could finance no less than three of these camps for a whole year. I’d like everypony to think on that. It is, quite simply, a matter of principle. I trust I’ve been clear enough to satisfy you?”

There was silence.

“Splendid” he said, nodding “Good day everypony”

He left the podium and its mob of probing reporters and retired to his study to gather his belongings.

Before he could do so, Raven Inkwell emerged with a worried expression.

“I’m very sorry, Mister Chairstallion, sir, but Miss Carcassonne wanted to speak with you. She...doesn’t seem willing to be put off”

Fancy gave a sigh and looked at the Council Secretary sympathetically.

“Quite alright, Miss Inkwell, send her in”

The bespectacled mare nodded, smiling and opened the door to Fancy Pants’ office.


The mare, Carcassonne, would have been beautiful if she didn’t look so unfriendly. She gave Fancy Pants a scowl as she strode in, rudely pushing past the secretary and glaring at the Chairstallion.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well what?” Fancy Pants replied calmly “I’ve told you before, I’m not telepathic”

“My constituency wants to know if you intend to honour the needs I was intent on meeting” she said sternly “Needs you promised would be met by you while you remained Chairstallion”

“I remember, Miss Carcassonne” Fancy sighed “And I shall give you the same answer as I did two weeks ago. I am doing, and continue to do, all I can. It is too early to make assumptions and unwise at any rate”

Carcassone slammed her hooves hard on the ground.

“I’m not to be put off, old stallion!” she growled. Raven Inkwell edged back but Fancy seemed content to remain firm.

This wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with Carcassonne.

“I have no intention of ‘putting you off’, young Miss. I understand your intentions and shall work to improve Canterlot society by adopting your stances but let me be clear, your way is not the proper way to behave in your chosen field of work”

“Really?” she eyed him with disdain “You find strength in mares like me ‘improper’?”

“Not at all. Strength is a virtue, Miss Carcassonne. Thoughtlessness and self-importance, however, is not”


The scarlet unicorn glared.

“I stepped down from my candidacy so that ass, Nitpick, could be thwarted, Mister Fancy Pants. You were, to me, the lesser of two evils, but don’t think I won’t be able to give you Tartarus if you betray me”

“You do not set a good example with this talk of ‘betrayal’, my good mare” Fancy Pants looked down over his monocle “You have admirable amounts of passion, Miss Carcassonne, and fair ideals but the plain truth is you are simply not a sensible pony. You confuse caution for cowardice and counsel for treachery. This is fundamentally unbecoming for one who seeks to become a politician”

“Does Nitpick not share this trait?”

Fancy Pants snorted.

“Nitpick surrounds himself with sycophants. None of them would offer counsel or suggest caution unless they were paid. You should not take lessons from him”

“I don’t plan to” Carcassone’s eyes furrowed with what could have been resignation “You have at least done well as Chairstallion, Fancy Pants. However, I get concerned by the fact that you speak so much of wishing to fight elitism and privilege in the government while you seem to embody those qualities. You come from a rich and noble background and you’re not the first member of your family to serve as Chairstallion or even the second. Don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical to act this way?”

“Would you rather I chose instead to emulate ponies like Nitpick?” Fancy smiled knowingly “Miss Carcassonne, fighting conformity is often all it takes to end it. I did so and things, overall, have improved. In doing so, my ideals are fully demonstrated. Anypony can accomplish anything no matter what detriments they may possess in anypony else’s eyes”

Carcassonne closed her eyes and exhaled through her nostrils.

“So you say” she said flatly “Thank you. Good day, Mister Chairstallion”

The scarlet pony left the office without another word.

In truth, Fancy Pants understood that Carcassonne meant well. It was simply that she was overbearing and ended up making too much noise for not good enough reasons.

She wasn’t a bad pony but she could be really quite unreasonable.

Even so, it was a bad day for her and most of Canterlot when she was vetoed by her own supporters and Nitpick took the lead in the polls.

Which was why he still wasn’t done thanking Earl Grey for giving him this chance to stop the disgusting Lord Magistrate in his tracks.

“Right then” he turned to the Secretary “Miss Inkwell, I’m running short on time. Thousand Island and Swan Song are throwing a fundraiser for me at the Royal Gardens later this afternoon and I need to get ready. But I’d quite like to send Fleur a message before then. Could you possibly bring up the magic orb for me?”

“Of course, sir”


*


Fleur put down the crisp fresh letter with her growing collection of invitations signed with Fancy Pants’ name. Mementoes of their time together. Sighing contently, she flopped down exhaustedly onto her bed and levitated her magic orb onto her bedside table.

Creme de la Creme Ponyville Ice Cream Parlour” she commanded and lit up her horn.

The orb clouded with a primrose-pink mist that fizzed and crackled like a storm-cloud. As it swirled and tumbled around in the ball of glass it was steadily joined by a similar mist but beige in colour. Then cleared to reveal a couple looking straight at her. Fleur de Lis’ parents, Bourbon and Florentine Blend.

Bourbon Blend was a fairly large earth pony stallion with a cyan coat and a light-brown mane that grew wild on his head like it had been struck by lightning. His great moustache was much the same. His eyes were a bright electric blue and the smile he wore was iconic in his family. His cutie mark was a chocolate biscuit, with a bite taken out of it, surrounded by a bubbly beige swirl.

Florentine Blend, née Wafer, in contrast, was quite small and, approporiately, waif-like. She possessed a pale pink coat with a yellow mane that was tied up in a hairnet studded with turquoise stones as if shaken with sprinkles. She had a certain tiredness to her look most of the time but was nonetheless always very friendly. Her cutie mark was a triangular wafer with a delicate edge that resembled lace.
Florentine was a unicorn and it was her magic that was allowing them to make contact.

The two were ice-cream ponies and were skilled in their trade. Manehattan, where they’d both grown up, was unfortunately a place hard to find work without heavy competition. A pony-eat-pony world as they said.

When they came to Ponyville, they had half-expected the already-existing-and-prosperous Sugarcube Corner and House of Fudge to give them a hard time.

As it turned out the two businesses were quite relieved. It fell to them to supply treats for the ponies of the town but ice-cream wasn’t their strong-point. Sugarcube Corner specialised in cakes and other such baked goods whilst House of Fudge was a confectionary business. Neither of them were masters of the trade and though their attempts were never bad it could simply have been so much better and artisans of the craft coming to town meant they could either learn from them or leave the task up to them, giving both of them more time to work on their own specialism. The three businesses had worked in close harmony together as a result and often helped each other in coming up with ideas and recipes. Bourbon Blend and Mrs Cake had worked together in coming up with Sugarcube Corner’s new recipe for profiteroles. And together, Bonbon, the Cakes and the Blends had designed a much-enjoyed Hearth’s Warming Bombe for the town fair.

Fleur’s parents had been blessed with a foal not long after setting up shop in Ponyville. A foal they cared for and loved with all their being. A foal they had sent to the prestigious School For Gifted Unicorns when she showed signs of advanced skill in magic with little hesitation. Fleur had felt spoilt and it wasn’t a feeling she particularly liked dwelling on. She had resolved to try her hardest to pay her parents back for all they’d given her as soon as she was able.

That wasn’t entirely to say Fleur had lived an easy childhood, but she’d been given a lot by her parents and though she wasn’t one for refusing help, she was very much one for repaying it.

One of those ways she repaid it was by regularly getting in touch.


“Hi mum, hello dad” she began in a casual way she only adapted to when in Ponyville.

The two ponies beamed at her in a way that made her feel all of six years old again.

“Ah! There’s our petit-chou!” Bourbon exclaimed, his moustaches shaking like branches in the wind.

“Hello Fleur darling. How are things with you?” Florentine cooed, her eyes twinkling with delight as she spoke to her daughter.

Fleur and her parents talked long about what sort of pony Fancy Pants and Photo Finish were, how her modelling was going, what it was like at all the nice places Fancy took her to, and so on.

The question they were all secretly hoping to have answered was if she thought she had recovered.

Though, what with Fleur acting so full of life and merriment like never before, it certainly seemed to be the case.

“So this Monsieur Fancy Pants, he treats you well?” Bourbon asked.

“Like a princess, daddy!” Fleur answered “He doesn’t spoil me or anything, not in that way but...he makes me feel so...” She sighed “I can’t really describe it. I just feel so...so...whatever the word is...around him. It’s just so wonderful! I’ve never felt this way since before I left Ponyville”

“Well that’s all we need to know” Florentine said “Just make sure you always let him know how much it means to you. Else, he may start asking himself what he’s doing wrong”

“I will mummy, I promise” Fleur chuckled as the magic clouds began to flicker around them “Sorry, I think somepony else is trying to speak with me”

“That’s alright, dear. I hope things go well for you. See you soon” Her parents called and waved goodbye as the magic in her orb changed colour. The beige dissipated and was replaced by bright gold.

Fancy Pants.

With an eagerness that nearly rivalled Pinkie Pie preparing a party, Fleur made contact.

“Ah, there we are” Fancy’s ever-charming voice sounded out the orb and his face came into view “Hello there, Fleur”

“Fancy!” Fleur gave an instinctive check of herself in a nearby mirror “This is a lovely surprise. How are you?”

“Quite jovial, now that I can see you” he said, smiling “I can’t talk for long, however, much as I’d like to. I simply wondered if I might make a small request”

“Of course”

Fancy took a moment to bask in the glory of Fleur’s smile and spoke courteously.

“Well...this afternoon, they’re throwing a fundraiser for me at Royal Gardens. I’m afraid the gathering itself is members-only but should I grow tired of everypony’s fawning and badgering, which I likely will and quickly, I will retire further into the precincts, the undergrowth as it were, the Central Gardens and the like, for a bit of peace and quiet” he chuckled “It would mean a great deal to me to see you there. The truth is that I feel positively invigorated with you around and catching up with you in the gardens and giving us a chance to be ourselves would be quite divine”

“You don’t even need to ask, Fancy” Fleur gave the orb a kiss that just made her feel all the more girly “I’ll be there”

“Splendid” he blushed at the symbolic kiss “I had a feeling you’d be the one to make my day. I’ll see you later then. Have to go now but thank you. Ta-ta!”

He seemed rather flustered as he said farewell.

Though Fleur felt that way whenever anypony even mentioned Fancy Pants. She wasn’t one to judge.


*


Fancy Pants felt he could have handled the conversion on the orb a little more gracefully.

Then again, he hadn’t that much time before he had to set out. He could be forgiven for being to the point.

His mind was a blur as he stepped down the great staircase from his dressing room at Briefly Hall to greet his awaiting household.

“Ooh, mercy me!” Fuss Pot gasped as she took in the sight of him “You really are pulling out all the stops, aren’t you, sir”

“I thought I might” the master of the house said, shrugging “They’d be disappointed if I seemed too laid-back”

Tres bien, Monsieur Fancy Pants!” Plumette cried giddily “You look mais héroïque in ze garb you wear!”

“I’m very glad to hear it. It served another hero well after all”

“It’s wonderful to see you in the outfit, sir” Ramekin pointed out “But don’t you think it’s a bit too formal?”

“Perhaps, old Rammy. Still, better to impress on this occasion. And besides...” Fancy chuckled “I’ve always felt like a pony going into battle every time one of these bally parties and meetings crop up”

The servants laughed.

“Ye do the Manor right proud, sir” MacTrowel declared “Ye would nae’ see grander a braw and noble sight, ah can say for sure”

“Your assurance is highly valued MacTrowel” Fancy cupped the gardener’s shoulder before turning to his butler “And you Tom? Any words before I ‘enter the fray’, as it were?”

The butler smiled.

“Only that the outfit suits you, sir, as well as it did Second Lieutenant Lord Knickerbocker himself”

His master blushed, not quite as much as when Fleur had given him that symbolic kiss but it was clearly noticeable.

“That means a lot, old chap” He gave his household one last look as he stood, magnificent, in the ceremonial uniform of the Gallivanters Guard, owned and worn by his ancestor, Knickerbocker, which had hung in the largely empty smoking room behind a glass cabinet until now. In one hoof, he carried an ornate walking stick. With a flash of magic, he pulled at the end and showed off the thin blade sheathed within. The servants clapped as he nodded one last time and left for the Royal Gardens.

‘Righto then’ he thought ‘If this doesn’t show them I take pride our history, nothing will’


*


In the Central Gardens, Fleur listened to the classical music above, likely played by the wonderful cellist, Octavia Melody, they’d met at the gala with the skill and refinement that was demonstrated.

The Royal Gardens were divided into Lower, Central and Upper tiers. It wasn’t designed to separate class for occasions but it was often used to do so nonetheless. A practice which she knew Fancy disapproved of.

Still, she knew he would attend this fundraiser as he did for everypony who did him favours, for he was a gracious stallion who always did his best to personally and publically acknowledge all that other ponies did for him.

Fleur had chosen not to wear her uniform that day seeing as they’d largely be alone and there was no need for ceremony.

She wondered what Fancy was wearing. He almost always wore a suit and she’d never seen him without his monocle.

He was certainly a pony who stood out in the crowd.

She waited on a stone bench at the wall of the Central Gardens. Above her the fundraiser played out and likely end much the same as it often did. With Fancy Pants being approached, congratulated and praised by ponies he didn’t know nor knew him all too well.

He wasn’t without friends, that she knew very well. Some of his associates in the council such as Raven Inkwell, Earl Grey and Fine Line were very open and affable around him and treated Fleur well whenever they met.

But Fancy had admitted to her that it got tiring, being admired, and even pursued, not for what he was or did but for what he had.

Often it made him feel like he had very little in the end.

But she’d make him feel differently.

She promised herself.

He had her.

And she had him.


“Fleur?”

Fleur spun round with a hopeful look, hoping to find Fancy Pants standing before her, looking as regal and gallant as a fairytale prince.

Instead, her expression immediately soured as she beheld a very different kind of prince.

“You again?!” she barked at Prince Blueblood who was making his way toward the bench, dressed plainly in a white neckerchief and a grey cloak, almost clandestine in design.

“Fleur, please, don’t be like this” His tone was as serious as it was last time before they’d been interrupted “I told you I needed to tell you something”

“And I told you I wasn’t interested! I told you to go away! So I’ll tell you again and this time you’ll listen” She kicked the ground aggressively and spoke with emphasis on each angry word.

“Go! Away! You! Spoilt! Pompous! Dimwit!

Blueblood rolled his eyes and spoke regardless, hints of sincerity in his voice.

“Fleur, I assure you, you need to hear what I have to say. Just let me make my point and I’ll be out of your mane”

“What point do you have to make?!” the mare griped.

“You are wrong about Fancy Pants” he stated “He isn’t what he seems, not in the slightest”

“What would you know about it?!”

“More than you’d think. Believe me, I was as surprised as you’re going to be but I’ve become acquainted with a pony who Fancy intends to ruin for his own gains. A pony who rightfully should have all that Fancy Pants keeps for himself”

“This sounds very unlike the Fancy I know” Fleur said, unimpressed.

“Exactly” Blueblood had a knowing look in his eye “Because the Fancy you know is a façade. He’s a master of manipulation, that stallion, and he has all of Canterlot duped. But he’s up to something. Something you wouldn’t believe”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t even believe it right now

“Please, just come with me and let me show you” the prince sounded tired, almost desperate “I’m just trying to help you, Fleur...” he paused and spoke to her with wide, earnest eyes.

“I consider you a friend...whatever you may think...” he said “And I don’t want my friends to get hurt. Please...all I ask is that you let me show you what I’ve learnt and speak to the pony who knows the true Fancy Pants”

Fleur eyed Blueblood’s face.

One thing she’d learnt at the School For Gifted Unicorns was that among Blueblood’s numerous faults was that he was a bad liar. He rarely bothered in fact, behaving rudely and critically to any who he felt deserved it.

And if he was lying, Fleur supposed there’d be little in it either way.

And supposing he was telling the truth...

No, she couldn’t think that way about Fancy.

Even if he wasn’t all he seemed, he was still one of the best things that ever happened to her.

And she could never bear losing him.

“Fine...” Fleur sulked “I’ll come with you and listen to the...whatever it is you want me to listen to but will you please leave me alone after that?!”

“I promise” Blueblood said, smiling unperturbed “I won’t waste time saving somepony who doesn’t want to be saved”

“Good”


Blueblood motioned her to follow him as he led her down the Central Gardens and into the Lower tier.

Most of the Lower Gardens was tree-space. In the centre was a clear-cut lawn that served as a golf course or an amateur hoofball field on a good day. Currently, nopony was using it and so the Lower Gardens were almost completely silent.

Fleur could no longer hear the music from the fundraiser high above.

It was like venturing underground.

Still they walked on for what felt like hours.

“Are we close?” she asked irritably, hoping hard this wouldn’t take her out of Fancy’s way “How much longer”

“Well...” Blueblood looked confused “He was meant to meet us here” He glanced through the undergrowth.

“Give me a moment” he said as he left Fleur by a great oak, its mighty branches and hordes of leaves nearly blotting out the sky above her, and ventured down a pathway flanked profusely by brambles.

He took care not to cut himself as he edged forward, little by little, and found a tall khaki-coloured pegasus with a close-cropped mane and a piercing gaze, nearly camouflaged thanks to his earthly coat and dark uniform.

The pegasus did not react at all to seeing him, suggesting the prince was expected.

“You’re with the Lord Magistrate, aren’t you? One of his guards?” Blueblood began, recognising the pegasus’ apparel as bodyguard gear.

“Yes, your royal highness” he answered flatly, his voice low and gravelly “He is seeing your friend now. You no longer need to remain here. His Lordship will ensure things run smoothly. Please vacate the area”

“Oh...” the prince was taken aback and glanced around awkwardly.

He had expected that he would stay around to see how Fleur reacted and to perhaps remind her that he was always available when Fancy fell short of the ideal.

It seemed that plan had changed

“Um...very well...I...suppose I’ll talk to Nitpick later”

“Very good, your royal highness”

Blueblood made to depart the Lower Gardens. He was glad to do so. The thick, tangled undergrowth was no place for a royal like him.

Once the unicorn was out of sight, the pegasus carefully made his way up the tree and readied to take to the skies.

His employer had ordered the prince watched closely.


Fleur pouted under the oak, resolving to herself that either Blueblood would start making sense or start talking in a much higher pitch.

Somewhere, her treasured Fancy Pants would be waiting for her. And there was nothing she wanted less than to disappoint him.

There was a rustle from behind her.

Sighing, tired of waiting, she turned round.

“Blueblood, I’m really losing patience with...”

She stopped.

It was not Blueblood.

As she recognised the newcomer, her face lost nearly all colour and her lilac eyes opened wide with terror.

An old stallion stood before her, flanked by two guards, a unicorn and an earth pony, both possessed of earthly coats, dark uniforms and cold, cruel gazes.

Lord Magistrate Nitpick possessed quite a similar gaze.

“Well now...” he mused “I hadn’t expected you to have the cheek to show yourself in the capital” He sneered disdainfully “Indeed, that’s one of the many things about you Ponyville mares I find so distasteful

No!” Fleur screamed suddenly as she stumbled trying to back away “Don’t come near me! Don’t you dare touch me!”

Nitpick’s smirk curdled with malice as his guards moved in to surround the mare before them.

“Still just as unruly as before” he murmured “You, madam, require a sharp lesson in courtesy”

His tone was horribly nonchalant. Like nothing else concerned him. The same look he'd shown her in the theatre.

Of course, why would he be concerned? He had guards. Fleur didn’t. And they were alone.

“Get away! I’m warning you!” Fleur’s horn lit up as she adopted an aggressive stance, her legs spread out on the ground.

“I am a student of the School for Gifted Unicorns!” she yelled “Come near me and my magic will burn you until there’s nothing left, I swear it!”

One instant she was standing before them, fury burning in her eyes and booming in her voice.

The next instant she was lying on the ground, pain jolting through her temples as a magic containment ring shot from the unicorn guard’s belt and locked itself over her horn, blocking her off from her magic and forcibly incapacitating her.

“Well...” Nitpick said, pacing toward the downed Fleur “How fortunate for us that my guards are so well versed in anti-magic procedure
Struggling to keep on her hooves, Fleur was overcome by the ring emitting a pulse that swept through her body, her muscles locking and steadily feeling as if they were rapidly gaining in weight.

She couldn't feel her horn at all.

One last ditch attempt to use magic produced a mediocre firework-like specimen that fizzled to a fine mist before it passed the leaves.

Drained, she fell to the ground, panting and whimpering.

He signalled with one hoof and the earth pony guard grabbed Fleur by the shoulders and held her with force against a tree.

He turned back to Fleur, pinned to the tree by his guards, trembling before the stallion who had tried to hurt her all those months ago. And now seemed intent on hurting her beyond all help.

“You, young mare...” he said icily “...have caused me immeasurable inconvenience. For that, you shall be punished. And once you have been punished you shall go to everypony you ever spoke to and tell them of how you lied and cheated in service to that mincing little parasite, Fancy Pants. How you intended to besmirch my good name for the sake of his re-election prospects. And then both of you will suffer for it. Oh yes, my pretty little bird...” He gave a sickening grin as he trailed a hoof underneath the petrified mare’s outstretched neck, feeling her flesh quiver and knowing retribution was at hoof.

“I will make you sing a very...different...tune!


Blueblood was nearly stumbling as he made his way out of the Lower Gardens, cursing the abundance of brambles.

What he wouldn’t give to have the whole place mowed down.

‘What need do the commoners have for gardens anyway?’ he thought ‘Besides wallowing in the mud?’

A snap of branches and a raucous torrent of bird calls caught his attention, nearly falling on his back as he stood at the edge of the clearing, watching as a small, primrose-pink magic bolt pushed with great difficulty out of the treetops and dissipated.

It was exactly the colour of Fleur’s magic.

It was a distress signal.

He was puzzled. Why would Fleur send a distress signal? It was true that they weren’t telling her she wanted to hear but she wasn’t so hysteric as to cry for help in that situation. And the signal was terribly weak, most beginners could make a better attempt. And Fleur was gifted in magic. The only reason she’d have to make such a mediocre spell was if...

Blueblood paused, working things out in his head, liking how they sounded less and less.

Fleur would only have failed in that spell if she’d been interrupted.

Sweat flowed plentifully from his brow as the image of Nitpick’s murderous face back in the study fixed itself in his brain, flashing before his eyes like a bout of lightning.

He felt sick.

He’d remembered everything Nitpick had told him.

He’d remembered the Lord Magistrate telling him Fleur had tried to seduce him in the theatre and made a scene when he pushed her away, humiliating and degrading a key member of Canterlot’s aristocracy.

He’d remembered the Lord Magistrate telling him Fancy Pants had been duping her into doing this with Nitpick and several others he saw as rivals.

And he’d believed him.

Why? That was the question that flooded his brain as he placed one hoof against a tree to steady himself.

Why had he believed him? Blueblood knew the Lord Magistrate as corrupt, he’d bribed him numerous times after all.

And Fleur was never one to seduce dirty old stallions like Nitpick for anypony.

And Fancy Pants wasn’t one to use mares for that very purpose.

Yet he’d believed him because he so wanted it to be true.

To have everything work out the way Nitpick described it. To have Fancy Pants gotten rid of, Nitpick in charge, himself as an unchallenged royal free of responsibilities and Fleur, in her gratitude, fitted round his hoof.

It sounded so perfect he found it impossible not to, at least, pursue it.

And now...

A flapping of wings above him, too loud to be any common forest bird, caused him to duck and peer through the canopy.

The pegasus from before was overhead. He was searching for him.

He ducked back into the forest as the shadow of a flying pony circled around, veering towards the clearing.

Blueblood clasped his mouth to silence his haggard breath, barely believing this was happening.

Something was wrong.

Somehow, something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Chapter 3

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Here he was again.

Somewhere he’d rather not be, talking to ponies he’d rather not talk to and saying things he’d rather not say.

Fancy Pants did so love the high-life.

As usual, Swan Song had presented him in pomp and ceremony and, accompanied by Golden Gavel and Silver Frames, was ensuring he was never short of refreshment, information and compliments for every breath he took.

And the sad thing was that the three acquaintances of his were among the least sycophantic of his retinue.

Some ponies he still didn’t quite know the names of were truly beyond all help. If he’d have shown them the contents of his handkerchief they’d have said it was praiseworthy!

Still, he appreciated the effort Swan Song had made for him and Thousand Island was ready with jests and tales of their foalhood at Trottingham Academy. As an earth pony, he hadn’t gone to the School of Gifted Unicorns but the memories of the academy years between Fancy’s magic studies were still very much alive in their minds.

But regardless, he was looking forward to taking a break later and meeting Fleur in the Central Gardens.

Just the thought of her standing there with that lovely smile kept him going.

“I remember, Fancy,” Thousand Island chuckled “...how you once succeeded in dropping an entire raspberry blancmange sculpture on the Marchioness of Braggadocio. Don’t you remember that, old colt, at Monterey Jack’s estate?”

Fancy blushed and rolled his eyes as Swan Song, Golden Gavel and Silver Frames chortled in unison and Earl Grey shook his head, stifling his own laughter.

“You mean that awful snob, Lady Prepotentia?” he asked “Well...strictly speaking, I only meant to levitate it over her but you know what I was like with my magic”

“She was asking for it, old fruit!” Thousand gave him a nudge with his elbow “The way she made Fine Line and Éclair Crème cry like that! You were defending a good mare’s honour, sir!” He slapped him on the back as Fine Line giggled beside him.

“You were very noble, Fancy” she said a little teasingly “Me and Éclair were laughing all through the day. They must have heard her scream in Fillydelphia!”

“The truth of the matter was that she laughed at the story of the Natter Jack Poltergeist and I hoped if I just levitated the plate it was on, rather than the whole thing, nopony would notice and the mare below would think the old ghost’s curse had fallen upon her. As it turned out, something indeed fell upon her but...it wasn’t a curse”

“How wonderfully droll!” Swan Song tittered.

“How marvellously witty!” Golden Gavel guffawed.

“How splendidly amusing!” Silver Frames hooted.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure” The receiver of their praise gave a tired sigh.


“Really, young Thousand Island, we’re trying to show the ponies here that Fancy Pants is a capable and sensible Chairstallion” Earl Grey admonished, his smile betraying his amusement “Regaling us with the follies of his youth is rather counter-intuitive”

Tchah, nopony’s perfect, Earl!” Thousand said, shrugging “Besides, the public want to know you’re a merry old soul who knows how to have some good honest fun once in a while. They’re tired of all these stuffy, self-important snobs in office. They want somepony relatable”

“Thousand’s not wrong, chaps” the blue-maned gentlecolt chuckled “Still, better to be discreet”

“Not backing out are you, Earl?” Fine Line asked.

“Not likely” the old unicorn blustered “I’ll vote for Fancy this election and the next. I’ll vote for him however many terms he does a good job. I see no reason to get rid of something good just because it’s no longer new. He’s a politician, for goodness sake, not a bottle of milk!”

“Well said” Fine turned to Fancy “In fact, we’re considering a petition to the Princess to reintroduce the position of Lord Minister”

“I say, now really” Fancy started “That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?”

“Well an indefinite position would avoid all this fracas every few years. The Princess would be the one to keep or remove you and she’s a level-headed sort” Earl Grey put forward “The hours would be easier and you’ve more than earned the honour. Canterlot needs you, Fancy. We need you”

“No, no, it wouldn’t feel right to undermine the whole system like that”

His colleagues shrugged in admittance and proclaimed another toast.

“Your pardon, Mister Chairstallion” Swan Song’s butler, whose name Fancy hadn’t yet committed to memory, stood before him “But his royal highness, Prince Blueblood, is outside the estate and demands to see you without delay”

Fancy rolled his eyes as those around him gave him glances indicating they shared his disdain for the prince’s antics.

“I won’t be a moment” he told them and walked swiftly to the end of the garden. He had found himself instinctively walking in a ‘marching’ manner several times since putting on Knickerbocker’s old uniform but everypony had complimented him for it. It gave him great pride.

And it added to his air of authority which would hopefully prevent the prince from getting above himself again.


He sensed something was off once he’d got a good look at the prince’s face.

“Blueblood” he began and noted that the young stallion did not attempt to correct him “You don’t look well”

“Fancy...help...” Blueblood’s voice was hoarse and hushed and the hood on his cloak was up.

Fancy wasn’t entirely sure this was indeed the Blueblood Equestria knew.

“What’s wrong?” he asked “Tell me”

“Fancy...” He was beginning to weep, his legs wobbling ungainly “I’ve done a terrible thing!”

He fell to his knees.

“It’s Fleur”

What?!” At the mention of the mare’s name, Fancy grabbed the prince by the neckerchief and hauled his face toward his own.

“What’s happened to her?!”

“It’s Nitpick...” Blueblood whimpered “He’s got her in the Lower Gardens...I’m sorry, Fancy, I’m so sorry!”

Fancy did not hear the prince’s apologies. He released him, leaving him sobbing, practically lying on his belly, and turned his gaze to the Lower Gardens.

It would take at least five minutes to get from where he was to Fleur and Nitpick if he went by the walkway.

And he didn’t know how many minutes he had.

“Fancy what’s wrong?” Thousand was making his way over, his voice full of concern.

“Thousand, I must go” the gentlecolt barked, eyes blazing with zeal “A mare needs me”

“Pardon?”

And like a bolt of magic, the Fancy Pants took a running leap off the Upper Garden Tier down into the Central and ran on, his teeth gritted, his walking stick tucked around his foreleg.

‘Fleur’ he whispered to himself ‘I will protect you’

On the Upper Gardens, the ponies present stared perplexed as their stallion charged like a mad beast.

Octavia gave her cello a glance and spoke dejectedly.

“I didn’t think I was playing that badly"


*


Fleur gave a pained gasp as the two guards wrapped ropes around her chest, lashing her tightly to the tree, stealing her breath away. Try as she might, any amount of struggle amounted to precisely nothing. She shut her eyes tight, desperately praying this was just a particularly bad dream.

“You Ponyville mares clearly aren’t aware” Nitpick purred obscenely as his hoof trailed down Fleur’s neck and gripped her tender shoulder “Nopony in Canterlot escapes the long foreleg of the law. And around here, young mare, I am the law”

“Stop it!” she hissed, striving in vain to move her head away “Stop touching me! I’m not your toy!”

“Here, for the moment, you are whatever I wish you to be, my dear” Nitpick began to move his hoof up and down Fleur’s back leg “You have only yourself to blame. I made you a generous offer for your company at the theatre that night but you instead elected to take advantage of me” He glowered at her, gripping her chin and forcing her eyes toward his own “And caused me great amounts of disgrace”

“I didn’t want your money!” she retorted “I didn’t want anything from you!”

“Oh please” he snorted “All that mane and make-up on a mare of your status? My dear filly, you may as well have worn a price-tag

That did it. Her rage boiled up, Fleur lashed out and bit her captor hard upon the hoof he held her with.

Nitpick gave a cry and drew back, nursed the bite-mark which had begun to bleed, and glared at Fleur with eyes like furious white-hot beads of metal.

“You little nag!” he snarled as his free hoof flew out and struck her viciously across the cheek. Her head was thrown to one side and hung low, tears falling from her eyes mixed with a streak of blood emerging upon one side of her face.

The earth pony guard beside her looked to her master, who gave him a nod. Obligingly, he landed a sturdy punch to Fleur’s chest, causing her to double up as far as her bonds would allow and cough furiously.

The unicorn, meanwhile delivered Fleur an electric shock, causing her to spasm violently against the tree, her perfect face twisting in agony, and then slumped sideways. She was unable to scream, choking and gasping painfully for air.

“I think that’s enough of that” Nitpick sneered “Let’s leave her face alone. We wouldn’t want to spoil that now, would we”

“Please...” Fleur managed to whimper, tasting blood in her mouth “Please don’t...”

“Ah yes, that’s a little more courteous, I think” The Lord Magistrate give another sadistic leer “But I’m not sure you’ve quite learned your lesson yet. Let’s see, shall we?”

Fleur could feel him breathing upon her neck as he drew close.

He smelt appalling. His hooves were stained with tobacco and felt rough and coarse as he trailed them along her body.

“Stop...” she whimpered, her worst nightmares since their last encounter becoming all too real “Please...you can’t...”

“Hush” Nitpick ordered, horribly quiet “It’s the Lower Gardens, young mare, nopony comes round here. Nopony will hear you...or believe you once this is over. Here, far from critical eyes, I shall be allowed to do society a service and discipline you”

“No! Don’t do that! Stop! No!” Fleur found her voice, yelling and sobbing as the stallion’s horrible hooves worked their way across her “You can't! You mustn't! Stop! No! NO!

“Nopony’s coming, little wench” Nitpick was inches from cackling “Nopony can-gyargh!

He was cut off from his statement by some form of wooden shaft flying through the trees and delivering him a great blow directly across the spine, knocking him to the ground enfeebled. His guards snapped to defend their employer but before they could even get close, a bolt of golden magic caught the unicorn in the chest, blowing him back into a nearby tree-trunk. The earth pony grabbed a truncheon and made to raise it as a stallion leapt into the fray and dealt him a mighty hoof across the face.

The newcomer stood before them, adopting an aggressive stance, teeth bared and eyes blazing but speaking in a surprisingly calm and collected tone of voice.

“Sirs, I am a reasonable stallion. So I shall give you exactly a minute to release Fleur de Lis immediately. If not, sirs...then I will, very swiftly, stop...being...reasonable


Fleur had been close to blacking out when Nitpick had begun his sick game. Her eyes had instinctively shut tight in the hope that by the time it was over, what she hadn’t seen might not linger in her mind.

But she could hear. She heard Nitpick cry out in pain, the guards beside her fall and a voice.

That wonderful voice.

“Fancy?”

She opened her eyes.

The stallion she loved had indeed worn a suit, a suit that exactly resembled the uniform worn by the statue of Knickerbocker in Briefly Manor. It was blue, white and gold in colour with a winged white shoulder pad adorned with a fibrous crimson trim and a pearl spike, half-a- metre long, representing Princess Laurelore’s favour. A walking stick hovered beside him gripped in gold magic.

No, only half a walking-stick...and half a sword.

Fancy Pants was truly dressed for war.

Though Nitpick was still sprawled pathetically on the ground, his two guards had gotten to their hooves and drawn their metal truncheons. The truncheons in question had a pointed edge on one side, for breaking doors, locks and, perhaps, bones.

But not a blade, as Fancy was about to demonstrate.

Undaunted, the gentlecolt put his academy fencing lessons to the test, his blade spinning and whirling before the attackers like a dancing miasma of gleaming metal. His sword occupied the unicorn who held his truncheon with his own magic. The earth pony, meanwhile, charged towards him, raising his weapon above his head.

With a leap and bound, Fancy dodged the truncheon strike which, to the guard’s anger, embedded itself in the tree before him. As the earth pony fought to free it, the gentlecolt gave him a solid back-hoof to the side before going after the unicorn.

Now with full control over his sword, he quickly gained the upper hand, getting in decent strikes on his opponent, delivering deep cuts on his legs. As he cut close to the fetlock, the guard gave a cry and dropped to one knee.

Fancy Pants saw definite fear in his eyes as he raised his sword just below the unicorn’s neck.

“Back down” he commanded “I won’t ask tw-eyargh!

He cursed himself. He’d made a rookie mistake.

Never turn your back on an opponent before making sure he’s unconscious.

The earth pony had grabbed him by the chest and was hoisting him up to suffocate him.

Fancy felt his ribs straining in the guard’s grip. He sincerely hoped his suit was starched enough to keep them from breaking.

“Quick! Whack him!” the earth pony yelled.

The unicorn had gotten to his feet and was obligingly raising his truncheon with a vengeful grin.

“Say goodbye to your teeth, pretty-colt!” he snarled.

Fancy quite liked his teeth however and he had little wish to lose them. Bracing himself, the gentlecolt grabbed the earth pony’s constricting forelegs and barked.

“I think not, sonny-jim!” he barked.

And placing pressure on his back-legs, he vaulted upwards and kicked out with both back-hooves, catching the unicorn full in the face, knocking him out for six.

With a roar, the earth pony hurled his foe against a tree. Fancy hit the trunk with a smash, landing in a heap of fallen leaves and groaning. He wasn’t sure if anything was broken but he’d certainly feel a mite sore in the morning.

Regaining balance, he groggily continued his duel.

Only he realised quite late he no longer had his sword with him.

Ducking a would-be-truncheon strike to the nose, he searched round frantically for his blade.

‘Blast it!’ he thought as he dodged another strike ‘Where the ruddy hay did it land?’

The earth pony seemed to be asking the same question. Though from the look of him, he didn’t much want the question answered while Fancy Pants was still breathing.

The third strike caught Fancy upon the shoulder, bringing him to his knees with a cry, clutching at the injury.

With a grimace of triumph, the earth pony raised his truncheon to finish the job.


“Fancy!”

A mare’s strained voice cut through the commotion and Fancy’s sword hovered weakly in between the two.

Encased in primrose-pink magic.

Fancy instinctively took hold of it and blocked the incoming strike.

In retrospect, he probably should have taken hold of it with his magic.

Not his teeth.

Blocking the truncheon was more effective than he would have thought but it still caused no small amount of pain and tremor to his general jaw area. Fighting it off, he brought up the sword to lock it with the pointed edge of the guard’s weapon. But the earth pony had the advantage of brute strength and Fancy found himself pressed hard against the ground.

He couldn’t hold on for long.

A glint upon the leaf litter partly caught his attention and he felt lights go off inside his head.

It was the downed unicorn’s truncheon.

Suddenly holding the sword in his teeth seemed a very good idea.

Fancy Pants’ horn blazed gold and the truncheon rose behind the guard. With as much force as would render the strike both safe and solid, he brought the rod of metal round in an arc toward his foe who had just looked up and widened his eyes quite noticeably.

“Oh-”

He didn’t have time to finish his expletive so, for the sake of propriety, Fancy assumed he was about to say ‘Oh dearie me’, as the truncheon gave the earth pony a sound clobber around the head, giving off a rather satisfying ‘Ding!’ sound as the assailant was thrown a clear three feet through the air and landed senseless upon the ground.

Fancy Pants was victorious.

It felt suitably fulfilling.


“Fleur? Are you alright” he panted, glancing over at the tree.

Fleur de Lis sagged against her bonds motionlessly, her head bowed and covered by her mane.

Fancy Pants tilted her chin up and saw that she was completely comatose, her brow moist with sweat and her eyes blank.

He remembered to his worry that she was still wearing the anti-magic ring.

Levitating his sword in that duel must have taken staggering quantities of energy.

Any longer and it could have killed her.

“Oh Fleur...” he murmured, feeling hot tears at his cheeks “My poor Fleur”

He checked her pulse and winced as she felt it going unnaturally slow.

Magic exhaustion was akin to suffocation in unicorns. It could literally sap the life out of the user or leave them permanently handicapped, physically or mentally.

She needed help.

With a flash of his sword, he cut her bonds and removed the magic ring with care. As she fell into his forelegs as limp and torpid as a ragdoll, he gently rested her upon the ground on her side.

Kneeling, he used a magic transference spell, advanced magic but, fortunately, a spell he’d never had particular trouble with in school.

Fleur’s inert body flickered with life. Her chest heaved upwards as she gasped for air, looking utterly bedraggled.

Fancy looked over her. Her beautiful figure was dotted with bruises and a few cuts here and there. A red streak lined her right cheek and a great blue-grey hoof-mark had formed in the middle of her chest. She may have broken several ribs.

Her body was hot and he could have sworn he smelt smoke on her. Gently brushing at her mane, he wasn’t surprised to feel mild static snap against his hoof. She had been tortured with electricity spells.

The mare’s breath came out in scared, silent shudders as she curled up on the ground, nursing her bruises and covering any areas she didn’t want harmed. Tears were pouring from her eyes and running down her face.

It broke his heart to see his darling Fleur, a mare so full of charm, wit and liveliness, so badly beaten and frightened.

He would make this right. He swore it.

There was a groan behind him as Nitpick slowly scrambled to his hooves, rubbing his aching back.

Fancy had been angry when he heard that the Lord Magistrate had tried to have his way with Fleur those months ago.

Now, witnessing him going far further and having to prevent it at risk to his life and that of Fleur’s, he was no longer angry.

He was completely and utterly enraged.

Grabbing the old stallion by the collar, he slammed Nitpick against a tree and hissed with pure, untainted loathing.

You depraved, worthless piece of trash!


Nitpick’s eyes focussed and he steadily realised the gentlecolt before him was intent on hurting him, if the floating sword inches from his eye was anything to go by.

“Wha...you...tha...” he babbled “Fancy Pants...you...are...is that a sword?!

“Well...” Fancy Pants gave him a mordant scowl “It certainly isn’t a bouquet of roses”

“You...you’re mad!” he spluttered “You touch me and everypony in Canterlot will call you a criminal!”

“You seriously overestimate your standing in the capital, Nitpick” The sword gave a meaningful turn, just enough to sting without drawing blood “I believe Canterlot will think rather less of you when they find out you tried to force yourself on a young mare your thugs had beaten and tied up in the forest! The authorities will not allow this to go unpunished!”

At this Nitpick’s frightened face grew hateful and arrogant, his lips curling around his jaw in a feral grimace.

“Authorities?” he growled “And what authorities would that be? The Courts? The Press? The Royal Guard? They’re all in my pocket! And besides, you’re my competitor. You’d say anything about me and it would carry exactly zero weight! You can’t touch me!”

He doubled up as the gentlecolt broke civility and delivered him a hefty punch to the gut.

“Wrong” Fancy hissed.

“You...you can’t do this!” Nitpick choked “I’ll have you locked up! Locked up and hanged!”

“You’re my competitor. Anything you say would carry exactly zero weight” Fancy felt unclean repeating Nitpick’s words but it satisfied “You’re quite right, Nitpick, I cannot see you punished for what you’ve just done...for now...but don’t think that means you will be allowed to continue this perverted endeavour. If you try to harm this mare, or any other, again, sir...I tell you now” Fancy’s hooves gripped at the Lord Magistrate’s collar and the sword hovered around his throat.

“There won’t be a single thing, no law, no code, no witness, which will prevent me from tearing you apart!

Nitpick’s cowardly expression returned as his quivering hooves raised in front of his face.

Fancy had made his point...almost.

“In the meantime,” he said calmly “here’s so you don’t forget”

The sword whipped forward and Nitpick fell to the ground, howling as he clutched his bleeding shoulder.

Argh! To Tartarus with you, Fancy Pants!” he roared “You’re mad! Mad, damn you! Just like your parents!”

He shut up as the sword tickled his chin again.

“Little survival tip, Nitpick” Fancy said, turning his back to him “Never insult the parents of somepony with a sword at your throat. And take care in the Lower Gardens in future, you don’t want any more cuts from the brambles”

And with that, he left the Lord Magistrate in the dirt and set about helping Fleur de Lis.

Fleur was no longer crying. From the looks of her, she’d passed out or very nearly.

Struggling to keep composed, Fancy picked her up, held her back-legs in one hoof and rested her head over his shoulder.

He wouldn’t be able to move fast on three legs but he wasn’t about to let Fleur remain here any longer.


He didn’t go unnoticed making his way back home. Nopony said anything, at least not to him, and he didn’t care.

From the look of his stern, steely-eyed expression and walk that was close to marching, it was clear that whatever had happened was quite a serious incident.

He knew he’d have journalists a-plenty crowing outside his home come morning but he’d worry about that later.

Fleur was breathing, he could feel it upon his shoulder, but it was weak and haggard. She needed help and quickly.

He made his way to Briefly Manor as fast as he was able, ignoring the looks others gave him.

One such look came from a hidden photographer who knew that the sight of them could be interpreted in several different ways.

Elsewhere, Prince Blueblood caught his breath in an alleyway as his valet offered him a bottle of cider. He took it and drank it readily.

“Thank you, Conkers” he gasped “You’re a good stallion”

The valet smiled.

“You’re very welcome, sir” It had been years since he had chosen willingly to speak out loud.

The Prince got to his hooves, somewhat invigorated, and turned to the unconscious pegasus stalker. Conkers had subdued him as soon as he was called for, being exceptionally skilled at hoof-to-hoof combat.

“Right then” the prince said “I think we should hand this ruffian to the guard. He’s got some explaining to do..."

He sighed with what Conkers hesitated to believe was shame.

"Then I must see..." he murmured "...a friend”


*


Fleur awoke with a weak groan. One she wasn’t sure had even made noise.

Her head was killing her.

It took all the effort in the world to open her eyes and even more to focus.

She definitely wasn’t at home, that she could tell before she could fully see.

Her apartment ceiling never had a painting on it.

She took notice of the couch she was lying upon, a gaudy item but comfortable. It made a more comfortable bed than her own apartment’s. A linen blanket was draped over her and cushions served as a pillow below her head and back hooves.

She wracked her head, ‘wrack’ being the right word with the headache she had, for what had happened before she must have passed out.

She wished she hadn’t. Her mind filled with the awful images of Nitpick approaching her, touching her, hitting her.

A horrible thought entered her head.

What if he was still around? What if he’d continued his sick game after she passed out and was keeping her in his domain, completely at his mercy?

She raised her blanket and took note of bandages and plasters placed in various parts of her body. Even so, bruises dotted her body and angry red streaks lined her chest and forelegs from the ropes that had bound her.

She definitely wouldn’t be modelling any light-wear garments for a while.

Though Nitpick didn’t seem like the sort of pony to give her dressing and rest in such a way. If she was his prisoner, she likely would’ve woken up in a cellar or an attic.

The scenery seemed familiar. All quite traditional but kept very clean. Very little in the room showed signs of wear.

Then it dawned on her. She could’ve laughed.

The smoking room at Briefly Manor.

Fancy Pants had finally found a use for it.

She felt so much more relaxed as she remembered hearing Fancy’s voice in the forest. Feeling his magic flow through her, helping her breathe and move again. Feeling his gentle hooves pick her up and wrap themselves around her like the warm blanket that covered her.

Protecting her.


“Ooh, pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle

Fleur recognised Prench when she heard it. Her father spoke it regularly. But the voice was female, light and lilting.

Groggily, with quaking limbs, she sat up and turned to face a pretty little pegasus maid with Chineighse features, prominent blush and a long dark mane with a fringe. She had placed a feather duster back at her belt and was gazing at the mare upon the couch worriedly.

“Are you feeling alright, mademoiselle?” she asked “You are awake earlier zan we would have assumed”

“Oh...I...” Fleur found speaking a lot more difficult than she had once done. Her hoof fell to her forehead and she felt the need to lower herself back down on the couch again “I...don’t...I don’t feel good...”

Repose toi, mademoiselle. You do not need to worry” The maid assured her, hurrying to her side and placing a gentle hoof on her shoulder “You came here, very injured but we all ensured you were properly cared for. Pris en charge, you see”

“Now then, Miss Plumette, what’s the commotion?” A reedy, almost wheezing voice came from a room close by and a neat but weathered-looking dark-grey goat appeared. At the sight of Fleur moving, he ambled over to the maid’s side.

“Ah, how are we then, ma’am? A little wonky, I’d imagine” he spoke with a West Trottingham accent through several missing teeth “No worries. You’ll be right as rain in a few minutes”

“Fancy...” Fleur murmured.

“Ah yes, the young master had you brought in, so he did” the goat chuckled “Caused a right panic but we had you taken care of”

Oui, Monsieur Fancy Pants entered looking quite ze gallant, you know” the maid giggled “He would not rest until he knew you would recover”

Fleur gave a great exhale of relief, close to joy at their words. Fancy had saved her.

Fancy had protected her.

“Oi now, give ‘er some room, you two” A dumpy, bespectacled silver unicorn mare entered with a massive tea tray. Behind her, a small grey colt with a well-combed red mane followed her with a china pot and a pair of dainty stainless silver tongs.

The goat and the maid parted for her as she set the tray down on the table and smiled in a motherly fashion at Fleur de Lis.

“Good to see you’re awake, ma’am. The master’ll be pleased to hear it, so he will”

“Aye and no mistake” the goat added “When I recall what he looked liked when he came in from the cold, as it were”

“I’m sorry...” Fleur began weakly, confused at the sight of so many unfamiliar faces “Is this...Briefly Manor?”

“I very much hope so, ma’am, else we’ve been taking care of somepony else’s house for free” the goat laughed. The colt and the maid joined in but the large mare tutted in disapproval.

“Not now, Mr. Gruffleby” She turned back to Fleur.

“This is Briefly Manor, love, and the master had you sent ‘ere to recover. And it was lucky for you, he did. You were a right state when he carried you in. But don’t you worry, you’ll feel much more at home with a good cup of tea inside you, I’ll reckon”


“I’ve...been here before...” Fleur mumbled “I’m...Fleur...Fleur de Lis”

“So we’ve been told, dear” The dumpy mare set about pouring tea “You didn’t see us though last time you came here, I’m afraid”

“No...sorry...I only saw the...butler...and the waiter...”

Oui, Monsieur Tombola and Ramekin, zey told us all about you”

“Well, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, ma’am, though we’d have preferred it under better circumstances but regardless. We shall introduce ourselves, if you’d wish” the goat said, bowing “I am Billious G. Gruffleby III, formerly Sergeant Major of Her Highness’s 3rd Caprine Chargers Regiment and caretaker here at Briefly Manor, I’ve also served as the master’s lawyer, driver and, in a pinch, I can do a spot of bodyguarding. Oh yes, my old fighting days aren’t behind me just yet”

The maid took over, giggling at the old goat’s bluster, and curtseyed.

Oui mademoiselle, and I am Plumette, enchanté. I am ze maid around ze manor. I keep ze place tidy. I can also manage ze weather, play musique and if I must, I know some fighting techniques from ma mère’s side of ze family”

“Alright you two, that’s enough now” the large unicorn said sternly, before turning back to Fleur “How would you like your tea, Miss?”

“Um...” Fleur felt like it wasn’t exactly the time or place to be making tea but the earnest look on the mare’s face in front of her pressured her into accepting “Milk please...and two sugars”

“Of course, ma’am” he turned to the colt beside her “Alright, Tinny, you heard that?”

“Yes, auntie” the colt said, possessed of a similar voice which he was quite eager to use, calling out the request as if he were relaying orders on a train or barge.

“Two sugars, no more, no less”

Also being a unicorn, the colt picked up the tongs with his magic, a periwinkle blue in hue, and set about removing two cubes of sugar from the china pot and placing them in the tea cup on the tray. His aunt stirred the tea and offered it to Fleur who gladly took a sip.

“Thank you...” Fleur mumbled, feeling somewhat revitalised “And...you?”

“Ooh, where are me’ manners?” the mare flustered.

“Yes, auntie, where are your manners?” the colt asked cheekily.

“Hush, Tinny” she ordered the colt with a stern but not exactly angry look, before answering Fleur.

“How do you do, ma’am? I’m Mrs Fuss Pot, the housekeeper around the manor. I’ve more than several duties, one of which being tea-making as you can see, and I take pride in each one, as I should”

The colt waved his hoof meaningfully. Mrs Fuss Pot sighed and continued.

“And the colt here is me’ nephew, Tinny. He helps around the manor wherever he can. He’s a good colt, is our Tinny”

“Hello, Miss Fleur” Tinny said excitedly “We’ve all been really busy helping you. Everyone in the manor’s saying Master Fancy Pants saved your life!”

“Yes...” Fleur sighed, managing a smile “Yes he did”

“It was Lord Nitpick, they said he'd captured you” Tinny continued in stride “He’s horrible, he is. They say he’s crooked. But Master Fancy Pants isn’t afraid of him! He isn’t afraid of anything! And he had his sword with him, so he did! I bet he looked cracking good when he rescued you, ma’am! I bet he fought off a thousand guards, armed to the teeth, and a dragon! No, ten dragons! With laser beams attached to their heads!

“Trelawney Tintinnabulous Can, you control yourself this minute!” Fuss Pot snapped “It’s not right for you to turn whatever this poor mare’s suffered through into storytale rubbish”

“Sorry, auntie” The colt bowed his head shamefully “Sorry miss”

“It’s alright” Fleur gave him a smile “Where’s Fancy Pants now?”

“He’s resting himself downstairs. Took quite a beating, whatever happened” Gruffleby said “Took him long enough to realise he’d twisted his fetlock and nearly shattered his shoulder-blade. But he wouldn’t have it seen to, not 'till he knew you were safe. He wanted to give you his bed but Tom said it would be easier for everyone to help in the smoking-room”

“He’s asked us to check on you so many times, mademoiselle” Plumette added “His poor heart is heavy with inquiétude

“He’ll be glad to know you’re alright, miss” Fuss Pot turned to the door “Shall we bring him up?”

“I..I need to go down and-” Fleur made to rise but a cramping in her joints put an end to that. The servants present steadied her and returned her to the couch.

“Nonsense, dear. You need your rest. Stay here and the master will come straight up for you. He weren’t near as badly beaten as you were, love. He’s alright getting up the stairs”


“Yes...yes, I was”

The master’s voice behind them caused Fuss, Tinny, Plumette and Gruffleby to jump to attention as Fancy Pants, still in his uniform and propping himself up with his sheathed walking stick, stood in the doorway, gazing at Fleur with caring eyes.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I...I think so” Fleur murmured “Though...my head feels like there’s a griffin tavern fight inside my skull...and my legs ache worse than after posing for still-life...Fancy...” She stared at him “You...you saved me...”

“As best I could” He made his way over to her, limping slightly and wearing the face of a truly regretful pony “I am so...so sorry that I couldn’t get to you sooner”

“Fancy” Fleur paled as another horrific thought entered her aching head “He...he didn’t...”

“No, dear Fleur” Fancy interjected, banishing that thought, before taking a measured breath “Had he done so, he would not have seen tomorrow’s sunrise”

Gruffleby cleared his throat.

“Perhaps there is work around the manor that requires our attention, ladies and gentlecolts”

“I think you're quite right, Mr Gruffleby” Fuss Pot agreed “Come along, Tinny, let’s set about preparing some supper”

“But I want to hear about the fight” the young colt whined.

“I'll tell you what happened over supper, Tinny, don’t worry” Fancy assured him “You go and help your auntie, there’s a good chap”

Oui, let us depart” Plumette gave the colt a gentle pat on the back as the four servants bustled out the door “Perhaps ze story is not suitable for foals”

“Why? Was there lots of blood and swearing?” Tinny badgered any who would answer.

“You’ll find out later, young’un” Gruffleby chuckled

“Did the dragon lasers get him?”

“Oh hush up now, you little rascal, and let’s get supper ready” Fuss Pot clucked, shutting the door behind them.


Fancy and Fleur stared at each other for what seemed like a lifetime.

The gentlecolt knelt down, wincing as he momentarily put weight on his twisted fetlock, and gazed at Fleur on her level.

“Forgive me, Fleur” he began “Had I known you were in danger...”

“No...” it was her turn to interject “You couldn’t see my distress signal spell, I doubt anypony could...” She weighed that sentence in her mind “How did you know?”

“I was informed beforehoof” Fancy answered “By Blueblood”

Fleur scowled in distaste at the stallion’s name.

“He sent me down to the Lower Gardens. He was leading me right into Nitpick’s trap”

“I know” Fancy placed a calming hoof on her shoulder “He came to me soon after I’d gotten home and explained everything. He was...not proud of what he’d done, especially after he found out exactly what the Lord Magistrate planned on doing to you. I let him understand, in no uncertain terms, that he should have known better than to trust scum like Nitpick but I am inclined to believe his story”

“Are you sure he wasn’t involved?”

Fancy shrugged.

“He’s never been a good liar”

“And what about Nitpick?” Fleur asked, clutching the edges of her blanket on impulse.

Fancy frowned.

“I’m afraid we cannot press charges, at least at the moment...but rest assured, I made him regret coming after you and I believe he will be disinclined to return”

“Fancy...” Fleur’s delicate hoof reached out for his as she leaned over and kissed him, on the lips, causing the gentlecolt, as usual, to blush wildly and blink at her in that manner that she found so very enchanting.

“F-Fleur...” he stammered “I-I-I...”

“Shh” Her hoof moved to his lips and felt the kiss she’d just given him. She smiled, looking far more like her elegant self and whispered some words he’d been longing to hear.

“Thank you...my love...for protecting me”

Chapter 4

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Nitpick winced with every step, cursing Fancy Pants every time.

He’d make him suffer for this, he swore it. Him and that painted nag he was so fond of, Tartarus knew why.

He’d prove him very wrong. The Chairstallion couldn’t make the accusations he was throwing on his competitor carry any weight. The wound he’d given the Lord Magistrate was quite another matter.

He’d chosen to take a carriage, largely to avoid anypony taking note of the state of his guards. The unicorn, Culverin, had two black eyes while the earth pony, Morion, had been fitted with a neck-brace. He wasn’t afraid to show off his own injury but the look of those meant to defend him would cause derision. He’d save baring his wounds for the court.

Hopefully, the pegasus, Arquebus, whom he’d placed with his client, would still be ready for service. Arquebus had his orders. If he was seen, he’d inform his target that the Lord Magistrate had ordered him to protect his allies from Fancy Pants’ cronies...if any existed.

He’d never imagined manipulating royalty would be this easy.

Perhaps he’d see if he could have an audience with Celestia.

She was a very shapely mare after all. And never aged.

For now, however, thwarting that insolent monocle-sporting nemesis of his was his main priority.

At the door of Invitro Hall, its grand mural reflecting the sunlight, he grunted in pain as he pushed it open.

Morion steadied him gently. Nitpick glowered, swearing another violent oath upon the head of Fancy Pants, and strode in, taking a moment to admire the mural on the inside of the door, depicting the Banishment of Rememberly, and made his way to the smoking room.


‘Thwack!’


It took a while for Nitpick to fully gather his senses as he lay on his back with a stinging cheek, staring up at his ‘beloved’ wife who loomed over him seething like a dragon king who’d found thieves in the shinier part of his hoard of treasure and with roughly the same voice and tone.

“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”

Nitpick flopped upon the floor like a fish, cowering and babbling.

“M-m-my...my...my dear...my sweet, you...”

“Don’t you ‘my dear and/or sweet’ me, you contemptible insult to stallionkind!” she roared and with a flash of carmine magic round his collar, Countess Magnifying Glass hauled her husband to his hooves and hurled him with some force into a chair which nearly tipped over from his landing. He glanced around fearfully and noted Sir Cumbersome Clout, Earwax and his two daughters, all of them nursing their cheeks suggesting that he was somewhat late to the family meeting.

“I give you one instruction!” Magnifying screeched, her face twitching and convulsing in unconcealed rage “Just...OOOOONE...instruction! Be discreet! That means no spying...no threatening...and absolutely no drooling over mares, particularly not the kind that can't keep their mouths shut!” She took a deep breath through flared nostrils and spoke quieter with distinct faux-tranquillity.

“And what happens?”

“Now, now, listen...” Nitpick stammered “Wh-whatever that cad, Fancy Pants, told you is a filthy lie”

“Fancy Pants hasn’t said anything, you boob! You think his opinion matters to me?!” the Countess groaned.

“But...then...who...”

“I did” A voice came from around the corner as Prince Blueblood and Conkers walked through the doorway, both possessed of grim, sickened expressions at the gathering before them.


“Y-y-your royal highness” The Lord Magistrate got to his hooves, trying hard to ignore the pain and kowtowed “Y-your aid is essential. Fancy Pants has gone completely insane!” He pulled on his coat to reveal his scar “You see here! He struck me, your royal highness, in broad daylight with an unsheathed blade! And he said things, things about you and I that you wouldn’t believe!”

“I’ll tell you what I believe” the prince barked, glaring blades not dissimilar from the one that made Nitpick’s injury “I believe you have only yourself to blame, Nitpick, for what you did to Fleur de Lis and, for that matter, what you attempted to do further!”

“What?” The Lord Magistrate’s face jerked in alarm.

“I know the truth, Nitpick!” Blueblood snarled “You lied to me! You lied when you told me Fleur had tried to seduce you on Fancy’s instructions! I now know the truth from reliable sources. You tried to force yourself on her! You scared her! You hurt her! You humiliated her without the merest shred of shame or sympathy! And worse, you hoped to finish the job!”

“Your highness...”

Royal highness, you cur!” Blueblood spat “You wanted to hurt her, Nitpick, in the most barbaric way! And I...” He looked shamed, blinking away what may have been tears “I helped you...I was wrong to aid you in this, I won’t deny it, not in company like this. I aided you in sexual assault! And I doubt I’ll sleep for weeks because of it”

“Your...your royal highness” Nitpick made some uneasy attempt to fawn, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. The Countess turned her back to them, occupying herself by prodding the contents of the fireplace with the poker.

“Please be reasonable...whatever mistakes were made that day were made by the mare and Fancy Pants! They assaulted me! You can take it from my honest word that the imposter who calls himself Chairstallion is no good!

“No good? You and I clearly disagree on the definition of what is and isn’t good” the prince said sternly “Fancy Pants assaulted you in order to protect an innocent mare. That, in my opinion, is the very definition of goodness. I have no doubt that you and your guards were unafraid to hurt or kill him or any other law-abiding citizen who interrupted your sordid act. How can you stand there and declare yourself in the right?!”

“I am certain, your royal highness...” Sir Cumbersome stood and began cajoling “...that you will understand our side of the argument far better over more agreeable circumstances. Perhaps an increase of our funding on your estate would make up for any grievance we may have...inadvertently...caused you”

Blueblood gave him a cold glare which set him swiftly back in his seat.

Nitpick and Cumbersome wondered if the prince had been taking lessons from the Countess herself.

The Countess meanwhile knew the pair of them were simply cowards.

“Sir Cumbersome” Blueblood said “I am henceforth choosing to formally refuse your contributions to my trust fund”

“Wh...” Nitpick was taken aback. In fact, everypony in the room, even the Countess, was taken aback.

Blueblood never refused money.

“B-because of this...Fleur de Lis?”

“Because of what you did to her!” The prince sounded more exasperated than anything else, infuriated the ponies before him couldn’t comprehend the fact that they had done something wrong.

“And for that matter,” he continued “lying to me about it. I don’t take well to being played for a fool, Nitpick. You should have known that. You had me aid in your sickening scheme to so cruelly harm Fleur de Lis. It may interest you to know that the pegasus you sent after me saw fit to pin me in an alleyway and threaten me with harm should I send for the Royal Guard. Fortunately for me, Conkers was close by. Upon hearing what befallen Fleur and Fancy Pants from the chatter of several concerned citizens, I immediately went to Briefly Manor to properly discover the true story. When I think of what I’d chosen, instead, to believe before then, I feel sick to recall it. I will endure it no more, sirs. Whatever flaws they say Prince Blueblood may possess, I will never, repeat never, and, once more for good measure, Never be associated with ponies like you!”

He drew himself up “Your stallion, Arquebus, will return after thorough questioning from the Royal Guard. And I shall look elsewhere for financial support. Surely there is another way for me to expand my fortune than to enrich the tormentor...” His voice cracked.

“...of my friend”

And with that, he turned his fetlocks and marched with his valet out of Invitro Hall before giving one last order.

“And get rid of that tasteless mural!”


The door slammed and there was a moment of silence.

“Well...” the Countess sauntered sarcastically into the middle of the room again “You two certainly handled that well, oh yes, just peachy” She sucked her teeth, her eyes bulging, and screamed.

“YOU HONESTLY ASTOUND ME! NOT ONLY HAVE YOU TOTALLY HUMILIATED US WORSE THAN YOU DID AT THE THEATRE, THANKS TO THE EXACT...SAME...MARE, BUT NOW YOU’VE ONLY GONE AND HACKED OFF A ROYAL! OH PARADISE ABOVE AND TARTARUS BELOW, GIVE ME NIGHTMARE MOON! DISCORD! TIREK! SOMBRA! LAVAN! CATRINA! HYDIA! REEKA AND DRAGGLE AND THE BUCKING SMOOZE! ANYTHING BUT YOU! COMPARED TO YOU WITLESS, SLOBBERING IDIOTS, EVERY HORROR THAT PLAGUED EQUESTRIA FOR THE PAST FEW HUNDRED MILLENNIA WOULD BE A JOY! HONESTLY, A HORDE OF GIANT LOBOTOMISED NAKED MOLE-RATS WITH PROJECTILE BLADDER INCONTINENCE WOULD BE MORE USEFUL, CAREFUL AND ALL-ROUND WELCOME THAN YOOOOOUUUUUUU!”

The stallions and mares all shrank in their seats as the Countess panted like a rabid animal, her mane a mess, her eyes pulsating in their sockets, her mouth curled in a bared-teeth snarl and drooling slightly.

It definitely didn’t look good for her health...mentally.

Or theirs...physically.

“I’ll...see if I can keep this under the carpet” Earwax piped up, his voice barely a squeak, and took the opportunity to exit the room.

The Countess seemed content not to react or move from her position. At all.

All those present in the room swiftly followed the lawyer’s suit, edging past the Glass family matriarch as if the merest pin-prick would blow the house sky-high.


As Cumbersome closed the door gently behind him, the Countess engaged in a heavy sigh.

“You can come out n-”

She was interrupted with a hoof carrying a glass of whisky appearing in front of her.

“Fancy a little drinky?” Cascadius asked.

Magnifying Glass took it, scowling.

“Don’t say ‘Fancy’. It makes me want to burn something” She swigged it down, made a face and sighed.

“You know I don’t like it when you do that”

“And you know I don’t like being predictable” The uninvited guest sat down in the chair Nitpick had been hurled in moments ago and suddenly sat back up again, staring aghast at the seat.

“Good grief, I hope this is just sweat” He chose another chair and spoke in a level tone.

“You’ll be pleased, perhaps for the first time today, to know that I was not spotted”

“That, at least, is a blessing” the Countess rested on another chair “Are they good enough?”

“You tell me” He tossed her a handful of at least a dozen photos of Fancy Pants and a slim, alabaster mare, in some photos wearing a school blazer and tartan dress.

The Countess rifled through them

“Well they’re clear enough” She admitted “But none of these are particularly...Ah!”

Her eyebrow rose as she found a photo of him in what must have been fancy-dress, appropriate for his name, and her carrying an unclothed and quite possibly unconscious mare through the streets in one foreleg.

“Nopony saw this?” she asked incredulously.

“Nopony chose to” Cascadius shrugged, pouring himself a whisky for himself “By now they’ve probably convinced themselves they were seeing things. The papers will change that”

The final photo was taken through a window. The mare was in a bed or what passed for one. She looked woozy, maybe even drunk.

She was kissing him on the lips.

“Hm...Intriguing” The Countess said at last.

“Perhaps she’s looking to get into some Fancy Pants, and I’m not sorry I made that joke” Cascadius chuckled “He spends an awful lot of time with her”

“Who is she?”

“Fleur de Lis” Cascadius answered matter-of-factly while rather expecting the result.

The Countess leapt from her seat like it had suddenly burst into flames and scattered the photos.

“F-F-Fleur de Lis?!” she stammered “Th-THE Fleur de Lis? The same...but...” She picked up the photos with her magic and scanned them again “You mean to tell me that the mare...that my husband ran into...and the mare that Fancy Pants...is...cavorting with...are the same...damn...mare?!

Cascadius took a sip of his whisky and answered, smiling.

“Just so”

The Countess snarled.

“I’ll have his skin hanging from a coat-hook for this! This is the mare he was drooling over? The mare that got him into this mess? For the love of Tartarus, she looks young enough to be his grand-daughter!”

“Yet she’s been with Fancy this whole time” Cascadius pointed out.

“Well exactly, I mean...”

Every muscle in the Countess’s body must have moved in unison as her face twisted into a demonic leer of triumph.

“Oh...” she mused “I do believe we can make this work to our advantage”

She paced leisurely over to the end of the smoking room and flung open the doors as if she were about to burst into song.

Family Meeting!

It was close enough. Cascadius was honestly disturbed by how unnaturally joyful she seemed but decided to play along and swiftly hid away while Nitpick, Cumbersome, Earwax, Monocular and Binocular re-entered the room as puzzled as they were disturbed.

“Come and sit down everypony” Magnifying Glass called out sweetly “I have some very good news”


*


“Are you sure you’re alright walkin’, love?” Mrs Fuss Pot was living up to her name, fussing over Fleur as she made her way, gingerly, to the carriage waiting just outside Briefly Manor.

Her injuries had been tended to sufficiently. There was no chance of them getting worse but it did nothing to stop them hurting.

Fuss Pot wasn’t alone. Tombola, Plumette, Ramekin, Gruffleby and almost every living thing in Briefly Manor considered it a matter of principle to see Fleur de Lis home without injury.

The master of the manor was no exception. Fancy hadn’t stopped holding her hoof since she got on her own four, aching hooves again. Walking down the steps, past that wondrous statue of Fancy’s ancestor that resembled him more than ever, Fleur felt the pain and cramping across her body ebbing away. It was slow but steady. The ponies who’d healed her knew their craft. In a few days, she would be back to normal and hopefully ready to model again.

Fleur found a seat in the carriage, Fancy opening the door for her. She got in and sat down, feeling a little guilty having got up from the couch she’d been lying upon for hours only to sit down in the carriage. Fancy Pants sat down in the seat facing her, gave her a reassuring smile, nodded to the drivers, waved to his household, and they were off.

“I hope you’ve had a...fairly enjoyable stay at my little estate, Fleur” Fancy said modestly.

“Of course, Fancy” Fleur still sounded tired but her smile was back, at least “I’m sorry for being such a trial”

“Not at all”

“No really-” Fleur butted in “I mean...you and your household sent up supper in the smoking room and all the messages you had to send...and tomorrow there’s bound to be hundreds of journalists outside your house in the morning thanks to me. I-”

“Stop right there” Fancy held up a hoof. His tone was frank and formal, as opposed to the manner he’d adopted before now, obliging, vapid and somewhat distant. He’d had a lot on his mind. And it seemed Fleur’s words had brought him out of that state.

“Now listen carefully” he said “Whatever has happened and will happen thanks to what befell you and the lengths I went to help you recover from it were no fault of yours. And even if they were, I still do not consider it necessary to hold anything against you. I want you to understand that”

Both his hooves wrapped around hers as he gave her a smile that always settled her, despite his own firm belief that the smile made him look like an utter goof, and whispered.

“I want to help”

Fancy’s hoof was nothing like Nitpicks'. It felt smooth, polished, unblemished and yet so comfortable.

These were the hooves that warmed her.

She felt giddy at the touch, hoping it was just the fatigue talking.

“Are you alright?” Fancy asked instinctively.

“Fancy, could you...” Fleur mumbled, fidgeting with her mane as she took another liberty.

“Could you sit beside me...here?” She patted the carriage bench she sat upon.

“Of course, darling” Fancy sidled himself over and, in about an instant, he and her were sitting a bare inch apart.

Both of them felt themselves blush and hoped it wasn’t too prominent.


Fancy cleared his throat and began talking. His voice was something Fleur found strangely soothing.

“I managed to catch Photo Finish while you were asleep. She was...incredibly worried for your well-being, Fleur, and I do mean that genuinely” he chuckled “I think she’s growing fond of you. She understands you may be off work for a week and I said you should be alright by the time she starts her fashion shoot”

“Oh that reminds me” Fleur’s head shot up and she gazed up the gentlecolt earnestly “Fancy...Photo Finish couldn’t find any decent shooting sites. Her competitors are trying to leave her dry. I...I promised her she could produce the shoot at Briefly Manor”

“Of course. I’ll let her know”

She had at least expected a pause. It would have seemed that wasn’t the case.

Fleur asked herself why she was surprised. She said it to herself once again, this was Fancy Pants. There were few stallions more willing and capable of helping others and she knew none but him.

Able to relax, Fleur began to lean over on his shoulder, her horn gently brushing his parted blue mane that she was so very fond of.

“Are you tired?” he asked before correcting himself “Sorry, rather silly question there”

“It’s alright” she said sleepily “Could you...hold me?”

Fancy raised an uncertain eyebrow.

“Like...” He awkwardly edged his foreleg over her shoulder “This?”

A sudden symphony of Fleur’s laughter filled the carriage, startlingly but not shockingly, as the gentlecolt’s hoof stroked her shoulder. Fancy jumped in his seat and apologised, secretly hoping the mare’s laughter he so enjoyed listening to wouldn’t end quite so soon.

“I-I-I’m terribly sorry, what...what exactly...”

Fleur caught her breath and held the hoof around her shoulder.

“Careful, Fancy...” she giggled tenderly “I’m ticklish...”

‘Ruddy Jackpot’ Fancy heard bells go off in his head but he kept himself composed.

“I’m sorry”

“Don’t be...” Fleur rested against his shoulder again “I like it. You can keep on doing it if you want”

“Oh...erm...” Fancy felt the wish to laugh himself “Very well”

Fleur was closing her eyes. She didn’t laugh as Fancy began obligingly caressing her neck but gave a contented sigh which was, to Fancy, just as pleasing.

“I’ll wake you when we get to your flat, shall I?” he asked.

“Hm...” came the reply followed by some more words he was desperately waiting for.

“Do you love me, Fancy?”

The gentlecolt paused, weighed the sentence, looked again at the beautiful mare he blessed Paradise daily to have at his shoulder, and answered.

“Nothing has convinced me otherwise, Fleur” he said, giving her a kiss on the forehead “And I doubt anything ever will”

There was another contented sigh, little more than a whisper.

“I love the way you talk”

And that was the last sentence uttered by Fleur de Lis before indulging in an hour and a half of sleep on the carriage home.

Fancy thought he might carry her up to her room.

Hopefully he’d remember which room exactly was hers.

His worries would keep till tomorrow.


*


Tomorrow, as expected, brought his worries. Specifically in the form of a frenzied mob of press officials swarming Briefly Manor’s courtyard in the early morning hours. MacTrowel was weeding the lettuces by the time several journalists saw fit, against their better judgement, to pester him.

“Excuse me sir, can we ask you a few questions concerning the master of this estate?”

“Look’ ere, lad. Unless yir’ a bonny Trottish lass in a bonny wee kilt, shove orf!”

“I’m sorry, sir, do you work here?”

“Ach, yir’ sloower than an ungreased Telsh waitress, ye ken!”

“Would you be willing to tell us what your master was doing with the slim mare that was seen yesterday?”

“An’ betree’ th’guid master’s trust? Ach nay! Ye be roond th’twist ye’ greet baboon!”

“Pardon...sir?”

“Hawee’ wit’ ye! Hawee’, ya scroongin’ clompin’ sons o’ fishwives! Afore’ ah take the hoo to ya goolies!”

“Sir, please calm down. Sir, please put down the rake. Sir, we’re going now!”

That swiftly put an end to their conversation with the hardy Trottish gardener.

Gruffleby, in the meantime, had his own methods for dealing with inquisitive and unwelcome individuals.

Old war stories.

“Aye, so there me and the lads were, surrounded from all sides by General Gurglemere and his henchgriffins, when one of them, a hulking berserk, or Bloodbeak as they were called, hits me over the head with a banjo! Now I never reason with a Bloodbeak, let alone a banjo-playing one so what I do is I-”

“Sir...what does this have to do with the mare your master’s been seeing?”

“Not a thing, where was I? Ah yes! So I give the bounder the old one-two and...”

“Coo-ee? Can I get you lot any tea?” Mrs Fuss Pot poked her head out the kitchen window.

“No! We don’t want any tea!” Most of the journalists were already regretting coming to this house of madponies “We just want to see the master of the manor! The Chairstallion, Fancy Pants!”

“Well then, you’ll just have to wait. Anypony want a scone?”

By the time Fancy Pants emerged, immaculately dressed as ever, the press outside were happy to accept that the mare had simply been a guest at the fundraiser who had injured herself getting out of a carriage and had been escorted to the hospital by the Chairstallion. Anything would do to be rid of the Briefly Household.

As the press departed, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake, MacTrowel, Gruffleby and Fuss Pot turned with satisfied smiles to the master of the house who smiled back and complimented them.

“Jolly good work, chaps” he chuckled “Now I believe we should all engage in some breakfast while the day’s still young”


*


“So have we all got that?” The Countess paced by each of her addressees, poker trailing along the carpet “I don’t want to have to repeat myself. Remain discreet. Let nopony believe anything awry has happened. Do and say as little as possible until we are ready to play our cards and there won’t be a single thing Fancy Pants can say or do to avoid public and permanent humiliation”

“A brilliant strategy, my darling” Nitpick chimed, rubbing his hooves.

Anything seems brilliant compared to your planning, fool” Magnifying sneered at her husband “You just make sure you do your job or you’d better start reading the vacancies pages”

“Nothing will go wrong, your ladyship” Cumbersome held up a hoof “We are very much ready to put that impudent moustache-twiddling twit in his place for good”

“Make sure he can never rise again. Were it only I was able to leave the house, things could be over a lot quicker. In the meantime, I must rely on you absolute geniuses. And yes, that was sarcasm!” She scowled at them but, for once, they seemed too hopeful and eager to notice.

“With this information we may be able to make him give up the position willingly” Cumbersome guffawed.

“Not without severe backlash and suspicion” the Countess snapped.

“Well, it wouldn’t be out of the question, my dear” Nitpick leaned over “After all, his mother gave up the position, didn’t she...”

He must have thought that sounded remotely subtle.

“In the sense that she died, Nitpick. We’re not going that far, not yet anyway” She spoke louder, catching their collective attention.

“Look, I’m not asking for much but I trust I’ve been clear enough. Don’t. Plough. This. Up”

“There shall be no question of any such incident, my lady” Cumbersome said as they exited the room.


Once the door was closed, Nitpick, Cumbersome, Earwax, Monocular and Binocular engaged in a bout of triumphant laughter and cheering.

“He’s finished!” Cumbersome roared “At last that cad, Fancy’s, finished! Done for! He won’t be able to charm his way out of this, no sir! Oh yes, he’ll be sorry”

“Yes, yes...” Nitpick nodded, before edging over to Earwax for reassurance.

“He is finished, isn’t he, Earwax?”

“Absolutely, your lordship” Earwax sniggered “The photos can’t and won’t be denied by anypony. The press love smut and this amount of dirt on Canterlot’s ‘Goodcolt’ will be lapped up by every paper in Equestria like foals with chocolate milk. Everything that has transpired in the last few months will work to our favour and that’ll mean the swift and brutal end of Mister Fancy Pants and his treasured reputation”

“Ha!” Nitpick cackled “He’s done! Him and his worthless little nag!”

“She’s so ugly” Binocular snorted.

“And skinny” Monocular sneered.

“I hope we get to put her in a pair of stocks for what she’s done! For weeks and weeks and weeks”

“Yes and then we can throw mud at her”

“Mud? Ha! I’m going to throw stones”

“Well I’m going to beat her with a stick!”

“Me too! A really long, thin stick like mummy used on stupid old Irregular!”

“And maybe we can shave her mane off and make a cushion!”

“And her tail and coat and everything!”

They both gave their father gazes with pleading eyes.

“Can we, daddy? Can we?”

Nitpick imagined a Fleur de Lis tied up outside in the frozen winter, night and day, with her neck in the stocks, hairless and shivering, covered in mud and filth and battered with stones with sticks.

Far from the proud and prudish Ponyville trollop that had cost him so dearly.

The thought gave him great pleasure.

“I think we can arrange for that, my dear girls” he chuckled.


“Come then, friends, let us open the gates of death for Mister Fancy Pants, shall we?” Cumbersome chortled.

“Wait, hang on” Earwax piped up “I thought the Countess wanted this kept secret”

“Oh come now, Earwax, be a sport” Nitpick pleaded, grinning wildly “Just imagine Fancy’s face!”

“Earwax, old fellow” Cumbersome stated “Her ladyship wants this kept secret for a time, at least till the most recent incidents have died down, from other ponies in Canterlot. Letting Fancy know, however, poses us no threat. You said it yourself, he can’t deny the photos no matter what we say about them”

Earwax tilted his head.

“I suppose that’s true”

“Earwax, he’s been making fools of us for years on end” the Lord Magistrate assured, placing a hoof on his lawyer’s shoulder “Think how many times his stupid little smirk has won over the courts and conned you out of an honest pay-check. This is fate, my dear colt, the will of Paradise that he now receives the other end of the public’s opinion. Let us be pious and act as its servants. After all, it would be cruel not to give him a few days to clear his desk and kiss his fame goodbye”

Earwax gave a smug smile.

“I like your way of thinking, my lord”

Like eager foals rushing out the classroom, the greater part of the Glass Household flew out the door, grinning hysterically.

Behind them, Cascadius shook his head.

‘Shall I prepare the room for Mister Plough-Up?’

Chapter 5

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Fancy Pants gazed at his ancestor’s uniform one last time.

Unlike Knickerbocker, Fancy had never taken to battle. Not actively, anyway.

He’d served in diplomatic posts on several occasions and had, once or twice, been required to fight on such occasions when things got awry, hence where his fencing lessons came in handy, and he had a fairly decent eye for strategy, a proficient board-game player in his youth.

He’d learned that the North Onagerian Republic’s troops had taken to calling him ‘The Three Eyed Swordsteed’ in fearful whispers after he and the young Lady Cadence fought their way out of an ambush on the alpine valleys, thereafter treating him like some sort of bogeypony to keep their children from misbehaving.

And Warlord Schnortel of the Gomphotherian Empire had offered two-thousand slaves for the gentlecolt’s head after his armies were crushed thanks to Fancy Pants and King Kintampo’s friendship and collective tactics won the day against the empire’s plans for the invasion of West Zebrica. An empty threat as it was largely thanks to that defeat that the warlord no longer had any slaves or much of an empire any more.

But through these few but prominent deeds, facts had become legends and the more Fancy had, the more difficult it became to live up to them. When he’d revisited Kintampo’s kingdom several months after preventing Gomphotheria’s invasion, the West Zebricans had been shocked that this fabled friend of their kings looked so very normal.

And normal wasn’t something others called him very often.

He’d decided long ago that he wouldn’t spend his days chasing a legend. No matter who he was related to or was friends with, he’d be his own stallion and he’d make his own choices and live his own life.

After all, there were many, perhaps countless, ways to be a hero.

Smiling at the uniform, returned to its glass cabinet, he left the manor in the early afternoon.

On the manor grounds, he heard the loud and enthusiastic barking of a young colt.

“One, two, three, four! Left-Right! Left-Right!”

Sure enough, Tinny Can, Mrs Fuss Pot’s precocious but playful nephew was marching briskly up and down the grounds, a long stick held over his shoulder as a guard would hold a spear or a firearm.

“Hello, Tinny, you little scamp” Fancy chuckled “What are you up to?”

“Master Fancy Pants, sir!” Tinny spun round to face the master of the manor, slammed the stick into the ground and saluted.

“I’m keeping watch for Nitpick and his evil hench-ponies, in case they come back looking for trouble”

“Ah, good colt, young Tinny” the gentlecolt said, patting him on the head “I trust you’ll give them a good solid poke with that trusty weapon of yours”

“Yes, Master Fancy Pants, sir! Mister Gruffleby says if I see Nitpick or anypony working for Nitpick near the manor, I should do what he did against the griffins and ‘Stick it up ‘em!’ I don't know what that means but they do not like it up ‘em, Mister Gruffleby says, they don’t like it up ‘em!”

Fancy Pants laughed nervously and took a step back from the stick.

“Yes...yes...very good, young Tinny” He cleared his throat and made his way out of the grounds “Carry on”


*


Carcassonne could feel the eyes on her as she walked the streets of Canterlot. The names they had for her.

Failed Candidate.

All Talk.

Not Even Second Best.

All her life she’d strived to be the best.

Better than her sister.

Better than her classmates.

Better than anypony and everypony she knew.

And she’d stopped asking why a long time ago.

But now the plain truth was in front of her in the eyes of anypony who looked at her.

Not the best. Not even second best. Nopony.

And in politics it was the worst. It was like after she’d failed to become Chairstallion, she was expected to turn invisible, the way they looked at her. And in every gaze, Carcassonne saw somepony who could have voted for Nitpick.

She hoped they’d voted for Fancy. Voting for her seemed like too much to hope for.

She hadn’t even gotten to polling season when her own cabinet stabbed her in the back.

Too headstrong. Too reckless. Too damn proud.

Had any of them ever supported her because they were her friend? Like Fancy and Nitpick had?

And would that have been an honest win? Would it even have made a difference?

Carcassonne entered an alley, not the shabbiest specimen but private, and hurled aside her coffee cup, letting it bounce away after leaving a great faded-brown splash-mark on the wall.

Even leaving the house had become a never-ending barrage of insults, reprimands and bad memories.

Did she even have a friend left in the-


“Carrie!”

The scarlet unicorn spun round instinctively and took in the newcomer who’d intruded on her.

It was an alicorn, not a common sight at the best times. A pink mare with a long flowing mane of many colours and a kindly face with wide, sympathetic eyes and smile that could charm diamonds from a dragon.

“Oh...it’s you” It took a great deal of effort to muster the same amount of aggression she’d had for the mare before her as she had during their school years.

“Hey...Cadence”

Cadence gave her a gentle hug. It didn’t sit well with Carcassonne who had never enjoyed being touched.

“Please let go”

The young alicorn did so and looked at the unicorn with a merry expression.

“Carrie, it’s been months! I’ve missed you so much” As usual her bubbly personality was both grating and strangely elating “Are you free for the day? I know a great milkshake bar if you’re interested”

“Not now, Cadence!” Carcassonne groaned “You know I’m not really on board with this whole ‘BFFL’ thing you have going on with just about everypony else”

Cadence’s face fell which made Carcassonne’s do the same.

One of the most unnerving things about Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was that you never knew when she was using her powers to make you feel the way she wanted you to. Sometimes you questioned whether she ever needed to use them.

Something about her just made it so hard to push her away.

“I’m sorry, Carrie”

“And you know I don’t like that name”

“But...” Cadence looked forlorn “I was just so happy to see you”

“Why?”

“Why...” The alicorn looked confused “Because you’re my friend”

“No, I’m not! Come on, Cadence!” Carcassonne groaning, sounding not so much angry as exasperated “When have I ever acted like a friend? When have I ever done anything to be called a friend?!”

“You haven’t done anything to not be called a friend...Carcassonne” Cadence said uncomfortably “I mean, okay, you were a little rough around the edges but...”

“I was a jerk, Cadence!” the scarlet mare said, with equal anger and shame “I was never nice to anypony, I was always pushing ponies around or pushing them away, just so I could be the best...and look where it got me”

“Don’t be like that. Striving to succeed is admirable and there’s nothing that wrong with being competitive”

“It was more than that, Cadence, and you know it, I...” Carcassonne paused, sighed and lowered her head “You were the only pony in my class that wasn’t afraid to talk to me and make me feel better and...I never gave you the slightest bit of thanks”

“Well...” Cadence began in a motherly tone “It’s not too late for that. Maybe if you’d like to come with me for milkshakes, we can talk this out”

Carcassonne took a long, dismal look at her own classmate and closed her eyes in resignation.

“Sure, why not? I need a pick-me-up and I spilled my coffee”

“I thought you hated coffee”

“I do” she sighed “But I’ve had to get used to a lot of things I hate”

Cadence paused, a look of true hurt on her perfect features and spoke like a scolded foal.

“Am I...one of those things?”

Despite herself, Carcassonne couldn’t help but put a friendly hoof on her shoulder, or at least made her best effort to do so.

“No, Cadey” she said “I’ve never been able to hate you” As Cadence smiled, she did too. It was infectious.

“C’mon" Carcassonne sighed "let’s get your damn milkshakes”


*


Fancy Pants found the Royal Gardens a great deal more comfortable without so many crowds.

Just the place to gather his thoughts and generally unwind.

And reflect on his relationship with the most beautiful mare he knew.

And how he’d nearly lost her.

He remembered the sight of her when he’d fought off Nitpick and his thugs, the poor, helpless, beaten and bloodied mare, lashed to a tree-trunk and barely conscious. As he’d laid her on the ground and transferred his magic, he was praying that she would be alright.

He couldn’t have dealt with losing her.

Not since the death of his parents would he have felt so alone.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts.

She was fine now, her injuries would heal and her mind was undamaged. He’d done everything he could and he did it well. Everypony thought so.

So why was he so concerned?

He sighed and answered his question.

Because he hadn’t done enough. What Nitpick had done had warranted far more than a stern talking-to and a few cuts and bruises. He should have been rotting in a cell after how he so cruelly treated Fleur.

Fancy Pants closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nostrils, struggling to put his enemy’s taunts and threats out of his mind.

They wouldn’t get to him. Without support, they would fall. And they’d been low on support from the very start.

He need to keep calm. By now, Blueblood would have withdrawn all support from Nitpick’s campaign and the disgusting Lord Magistrate would likely be nursing his wounds from both Fancy’s sword and his wife’s inevitable rampage.

Fancy Pants was safe. And so was Fleur de Lis.


“Fancy Pants”

The gentlecolt turned his head and his expression swiftly curdled to a look of hatred and distaste.

Lord Magistrate Nitpick, Sir Cumbersome Clout, Earwax, Monocular and Binocular were approaching him with cocky, arrogant grins.

Fancy Pants got to his feet and eyed them disdainfully.

“You have far greater gall than I ever thought possible from you, Nitpick, to show your face to me after what you did” he sneered “Though that’s hardly saying much”

“Ah, Fancy Pants, ever the demonstrator of the dry wit and insolent tongue” The Lord Magistrate smiled through gritted teeth.

“What do you want?” the gentlecolt was abstaining from his usual courtesy.

“We are...concerned for you, Fancy Pants” Sir Cumbersome spoke in a civil and gracious manner which was, frankly, bizarre from him “We believe that the stresses of your office have become...detrimental to your health”

“Well, they haven’t” Fancy Pants said curtly “Thank you for your concern. Good day”

“Not so fast, if you please” Cumbersome’s more usual threatening tone returned only momentarily before he cleared his throat and continued “You see, Fancy, most recently your ideals have been growing more and more...”

“Idealistic?” Fancy suggested sarcastically.

“Well exactly” Clout hadn’t acknowledged the sarcasm “And we feel that we should ask, before it’s too late, don’t you think you’ve done enough?”

“No, not really” Fancy answered ‘Not while scum like you are still allowed to roam free’

There was an uneasy pause.

“Don’t you?” Cumbersome’s forced smile was probably cramping the muscles in his face “Not even a little?”

“What do you want from me? I am tired of this charade” Fancy snapped “My time, patience, wit and honour are being simultaneously wasted simply by talking to you. If you haven’t got anything sensible to say, kindly stop beleaguering me with your presence”

The five before him gave a united sigh and played their card.

“Care to explain?” Cumbersome asked menacingly as he handed Fancy the photos.


Fancy Pant’s surveyed the pictures with shock as the times he had shared with Fleur de Lis hovered in his magic hold before him, projected on paper.

The cafe visits, the carriage rides, the candlelit dinners, even the simple, private conversations they’d had at their own homes.

How had anypony taken these photos? Some were so close that it would have been impossible not to notice.

“Have you been spying on me?” he barked.

“Spying on us, you mean. No two of you stand on your own in those photos” Cumbersome said, smirking “We have our methods”

“And also copies” Earwax pointed out “Safe and out of your reach, ready to be sent to those that may wish to know”

Fancy raised one eyebrow in an unimpressed manner.

“So I have a marefriend. Do you really wish to spread it around the capital like playground banter?”

“Not just any marefriend, my good sir” Nitpick chuckled “Is this not Miss Fleur de Lis? Daughter of Ponyville ice-cream ponies and failed modelling worker?”

Fancy chose to ignore the insult, reluctantly.

“And what if she is?”

Nitpick and Cumbersome looked at each other in mock puzzlement.

“Well, is it not a slight coincidence...” Cumbersome asked “That the very mare who made such outrages claims about your greatest political rival is suddenly seen with you in several...intimate scenarios?”

“I...” Fancy’s eyes widened, aghast “I met Fleur after your attack on her at the theatre!”

“Did you now?” Nitpick was unperturbed “Well, it’s a pity these photos aren’t dated. As far as anypony knows, these could have been taken long before that, perhaps even before elections season”

“You...you’re trying to blackmail me?”

“No, Fancy Pants, we’re simply trying, as we were before, to convince you to step down. This is simply another reason for you to do so” Nitpick chuckled “If you do not announce your resignation from the Re-Electoral Candidacy and your current position as Royal Council Chairstallion within three days, these photos will be seen in every paper in the capital and beyond”

“Leading to your immediate vilification and the total loss of support for your cabinet” Cumbersome guffawed. Beside him, Earwax sniggered in a nasally fashion while Monocular and Binocular cackled like a pair of hags.

Fancy stared at the photos, deaf to the laughter before him, his face ashen, his eyes so wide his monocle threatened to drop.

“You...” he struggled to remain firm “You won’t be believed. Ponies have seen me and her together”

“Once or twice” Cumbersome scoffed “Nopony knows when this little clandestine relationship began and anypony that does can easily be kept quiet. And though she appeared at the gala, it was in silks and jewels, not a school uniform. You’d be surprised how much difference that can make. Ironic, isn’t it. In your wish to stop anypony knowing the truth, you’ve doomed yourself to something far worse”

“In any case, Fancy...” Nitpick sneered “You might want to save yourself some time and dignity and start packing your desk”


Fancy Pants sat down on the bench, his eyes still fixed on the photos.

Eventually, he looked up to see the triumphant leers of his enemies.

“What...” his breath was heavy and shuddering “What...happens to Fleur?”

“I thought you’d never ask” Nitpick cackled “If these photos go out to the press, then Miss...de Lis, is it? She will implemented in the scandal, held accountable as an accomplice in political corruption and official misconduct, find herself unable to escape justice as you will...and be sent immediately to prison. And, with a few tweaks, will remain there for the entirety of her life”

“What?” Fancy gaped “No! No, she did nothing wrong!”

“She did ample wrong, young stallion!” Nitpick threw him a sadistic snarl “She humiliated me! She went blabbing to her bumpkin friends in Ponyville and made a mockery of my noble house and standing! She’s the cause of all this, it’s only right she be made to pay for it”

Fancy was too shocked to speak.

“Should you step down, willingly, however, her punishment will be considerably lighter” Cumbersome said, leering “She will simply head back to Ponyville to continue her humdrum little life and career as an ice-cream pony. I’m afraid, to avoid the scandal, you’ll need to keep interactions with her infrequent...that is to say non-existent. Still...if she ever does worry about her finances, Nitpick and I might be able to offer her a...” He chuckled cruelly “significantly high-paying job”

“I can think of several” Nitpick chortled.

Fancy lowered his head, shutting her eyes tight, striving to hope this was little more than a bad dream.

A tear from his right eye rolled down his face and rested on the rim of his monocle as the photos fell from his dissipated magic.

He stared at the photo that had landed below his hooves. The photo of their kiss.

It was so close and clear. How had he not seen it?

Fleur.

He’d doomed her.

“Three days, Fancy Pants” Nitpick said smugly “Not a day longer. Time to make way, young sir. This is a game that you could never hope to win”

And with that, Nitpick snatched back the photos with a flash of olive-green magic and left with his retinue, all of them laughing.

The images of their time together were ingrained inside Fancy Pants’ head as he stared into the void with horror and despair. What had been treasured memories, privy only to the two of them would now be little more than schoolyard smut, thrown around with the day’s gossip between anypony that would listen.

He would be ruined. He’d lose everything, his position, his house, his friends.

And Fleur.

Fleur de Lis, the mare he had grown to love so much, would be a prisoner, a pariah, a broken pony.

All thanks to him.

Every memory of their time together turned against him, everything he and his parents had built threatened with destruction as a cause of it and no way to stop it.

Alone in the gardens, unable to find any reason to remain composed or even optimistic, Fancy removed his monocle, held his head in his hooves and wept.


*


Carcassonne had to admit it. Cadence knew where you could get a darn good milkshake.

Donut Joe’s was an unpretentious but able eatery. A favourite among students but largely ignored by the upper-class.

For this, Carcassonne was grateful. She was also grateful of the frosty chocolate and black cherry milkshake she was currently in the process of slurping with enthusiasm she hadn’t felt in months.

“See” Cadence said proudly as she drank her own tutti-frutti milkshake “Told you you’d like it here”

“Okay, fine, you can be right now and again. Don’t rub it in” Carcassonne grumbled, failing to hide her smile.

“I’m right in more ways than one. Carrie,” Cadence leaned over “I want to help. Tell me what’s wrong. When you left school, you let a lot of questions go unanswered”

“Maybe I didn’t want them answered” Carcassonne said flatly, lowering her gaze.

“And did that help you?” the young alicorn’s tone was calm and composed, as if she were a teacher.

The scarlet unicorn scowled and slowly gave her a forlorn look.

“How do you do that?” she asked.

“What?”

“Figure ponies out. Just...answer their questions with...another question? It’s weird. It always has been. Ponies just come to you and you just...I always thought it was mind-control but...it isn’t, is it”

“It’s what I do, Carrie” Cadence said plainly “I help ponies. I like to help ponies. It’s one of main reasons why I want to become a Princess...and I want to help you. Please, Carrie, just tell me what’s wrong”

Carcassonne sighed and looked up at them.

“Well...were to begin? There’s the fact that I haven’t been able to measure up to...anypony I promised. There’s the fact that I ran for government and got betrayed by my own cabinet before the polling even started. There’s the fact that the current Chairstallion sees me as an idiot not fit for government and the running Chairstallion probably thinks a lot worse. There’s the fact that now everypony in the capital sees me as some sort of washed-up waste of a mare, the fact that any ponies that actually supported me have now been let down completely and I have no idea who or how many they are and finally, the fact...” Her tone began to fall into a dejected whine “...that I’m now sitting here, whinging like a little nag...to you...a pony who always wants to help me...no matter how many times I push her away”

Her head lowered and Cadence was almost sure she saw tears in the headstrong mare’s eyes.


“Carrie” the alicorn began “I want to know what happened”

“What?”

“The final magic trial. Back at school. It was the big day, you were going to show up everypony with your magic prowess, perform every spell there was, prove yourself the best and win, just like you were always saying, like you were always trying to do”

Memories of their school days sunk into both their heads. Neither of them found it particularly pleasant.

“But you never showed up” Cadence continued “You just...disappeared. And later we got the letter that you’d quit. No explanation, no plans, nothing. Now, you can’t just pass something off like that and you were never one to back down, even if there wasn’t any point. Whatever you’d done, whatever you were capable of, this wasn’t like you. You were throwing away everything you’d worked for without even trying...So what happened?”

Carcassonne sighed, her own silver eyes unable to meet those of the alicorn.

“Have I ever mentioned my sister, before?” she asked, emotionlessly.

“Yeah, once or twice, you let slip something. And...it didn’t sound like you two have a great relationship”

Had

“What?” Cadence paled at what she’d just heard.

“All my life...” Carcassonne said slowly, as if each word undid a great chain wrapped across her body “I have lived in my sister’s shadow. Paris, her name was. Living back in Boulette City. She was the favourite. Of my parents, my teachers, my...well, the ponies who could’ve been my friends. And she was way better at magic to boot. And boy, did she never let me forget it”

“I’m sorry to hear that” Cadence interjected “But...I don’t think that’s all there is, is it”

“It’s not...” Carcassonne took a gulp of her milkshake, not from the straw, and continued in a heavy tone “Even when I got into the School For Gifted Unicorns, she never held back about how worthless I was. In Boulette, it’s kind of considered a stigma if the Princess smiles on you, it’s like selling out or something. But anyway...she’d always be there to smack me down whenever I felt good about myself. I was always trying my best, always overcompensating, always trying to show you and everypony else up...and it didn’t make any difference. Then the trials began. The day had finally come. I was gonna’ ace the trial, become Celestia’s best student and show everypony in Canterlot, Boulette and everywhere else that I was the best. And I was gonna’ do it totally without help and make history”

Momentarily caught up in her pride, she paused. It reminded Cadence of a deflating balloon or melting ice.

“Then...” Carcassonne said, her voice cracking “I got a note...from my parents...three days before the Final Trial. Paris...had been attacked...in an alley near a club in Boulette. She’d been left disfigured, paralysed...She went into a coma...and never came out...”

“Oh...no” Cadence raised a hoof to her lips “Carrie, I...I’m so sorry”

“I’d really rather you weren’t because that’s not the worst bit...even though it should be”

“I...I don’t understand”

Carcassonne held her head in her hooves.

“Cadence...I didn’t quit because my sister got hurt. I quit because I knew now that there wasn’t any point in competing! I’d lived my entire life hoping that one day I could finally beat my sister and right before I get the chance this curd happens! How could I show up Paris now?! There was no point and nothing about it would make me feel good! It was as if...it was if the world was just out to mock me”

“But...what about Paris?!” the pink alicorn exclaimed, sympathy swiftly turning to outrage.

“Exactly! What about Paris?! The words I’ve been hearing all my life” Carcassonne groaned “Paris this, Paris that. Even now, during the magic trials, what would have been my finest hour became all about her...I was nothing. Always...second...best”

“Carcassonne!” Cadence placed a hoof against the scarlet unicorn’s cheek as if ready to strike it “Don’t you care at all?”

She’d called her by her full name.

She only did that when she was upset with her.

This time Carcassonne could do nothing to hide her tears.

“I didn’t...not for a long time...” she murmured “I only started recently...after I failed in the election...It took my greatest failure to realise every other failure...and now that’s all I am” She sniffed as Cadence slowly drew back her hoof “My sister died three years ago and I never even addressed it until now! And she’s just one of the hundreds I’ve hurt in my stupid, pointless quest to be the best and stomp on everypony. I hurt you in school when I called you a freak without a family! I hurt Raven when I stole her coltfriend! I hurt Sonata when I filmed her in the shower and used it to blackmail her! I hurt everypony and now...now it’s too late to make it better...”

“Carrie” Carcassonne felt Cadence’s hoof again, gently lifting her by the chin.

Cadence smiled at her. It always made you feel like you weren’t alone.

“Now listen, Carrie, because this is very important” she said calmly and clearly, her words of wisdom prevalent in Carcassonne’s swimming head.

“It’s never too late”


“You...” the scarlet mare stared into Cadence’s beautiful lilac eyes “You’d...forgive me?”

“I’d do more than that” Cadence said “I’m going to help you, Carrie. I’m going to make sure everypony you know realises how you’ve changed and that you can change further. You can make this better, Carrie, anyone can. That’s one of the keystone premises of the ideals of harmony. A pony who seeks redemption is a strong force, stronger than any magic in Equestria”

Carcassonne sighed.

“Can you help me, Cadey?” she asked “Can you help me become...like you? Can you help me in helping others? I’d like to help others, I’d like to know how it feels. That should have been the reason I ran for government, that should have been the reason I tried to be the best...I want to know how to help others...and you’re the best at that”

“It’s easy once you know how” Cadence chuckled “Your milkshake’s getting tepid”

Carcassonne took a grateful slurp of her beverage, relieved to have gotten so much off her chest.

“I’m sorry, enough about me. How have you been doing?”

Cadence giggled.

“Its fine, Carrie, I’m doing okay”

“Has Shining finally...”

“Not yet” Cadence sighed “But...he’s getting there. Our friends never let us hear the end of it. Sunset and Flash Sentry are working on it too. Timber Spruce has come out...”

“Called it”

“And...I heard that Sour Sweet is going out with one of Earl Grey's sons. Oh and...Do you remember Fleur de Lis?”

Carcassonne thought a moment.

“Was she that thin mare that Blueblood, Suri, Top Tier and Peach Dream were always picking on?”

“Yeah...well I heard she was seen around Fancy Pants”

Carcassonne blinked.

“Oh you are kidding me!”

“No, seriously, Sugarcoat told me-”

“No, Cadey, listen” Carcassonne’s tone turned grim and measured, glancing around the diner and whispering “I’ve been...investigating Nitpick for some time...and if what you say is true...Fancy and Fleur might be in more danger than they know”


*


It was with a heavy heart that Fancy sat down at his desk in his study at Briefly Manor.

He hadn’t spoken since his encounter with Nitpick and his cronies and already the servants were beginning to whisper that something was up. He had expected this. It wouldn’t change anything.

‘Fleur’ he prayed ‘Forgive me...If you can’

Taking a quill, and making sure he didn’t lean over the paper, and thus stain it with suspicious tears, he wrote a letter.


*


Fleur’s injuries hadn’t quite healed yet but she was well enough to walk and Powder Rouge had very generously offered to give her some very useful healing salves.

The Neighponese mare was up on the set now, trying on the latest in faux leather tights, under her nom-de-plume, 'Oshi Roi'. Known for her stoic poses and calm yet mesmerising gaze, Oshi Roi before the camera was quite something to behold.

Fleur sat on the sidelines, resolving to still come in to the modelling shoots even in her current condition, in order to give Photo Finish advice or encourage the other models, most of whom were steadily warming to her.

The slim alabaster mare was dressed in a magenta jacket and tights for both the cold and to hide the marks upon her skin. She applauded warmly when Powder Rouge came off the set.

“Well done, Powder!” she cried as the Neighponese mare sat down “You were brilliant”

“You are very kind, Fleur”

“Personally, I think you oughta’ show ‘em more flank” Pretty Vision chuckled as she changed, prompting Powder to turn up her gaze in an aloof manner.

“I am above such vulgarity” she said in monotone.

“Sure, babe” Pretty ignored her and turned to Fleur “You feeling alright today, Lizzie?”

‘Lizzie’ had become her nickname for Fleur. It made her smile. The modelling circle was becoming less like a competition to Fleur and more like a community.

“I’m doing okay, Pretty. The cramps are gone but Photo doesn’t think I should model until the bruises are gone”

Pretty Vision growled at the memory of the angry marks on Fleur’s body.

“Just let that punk try anything again, I’ll open so many cans of whup-flanks on him! Stallions like him just make me puke!”

“It’s alright, Pretty” Fleur raised one hoof slightly “Fancy made his point very clear...quite literally”

“I’d have loved to have seen that” the tanned, blonde mare said, grinning.

“You are very lucky, Fleur” Stella Zeppole said, fixing her hair “Fancy is a brave stallion if he’s willing to go so far to help you. He seems to like you very much”

“Yeah, I think you two would be great together” Pretty declared.

“Likewise, you are clearly quite intended” Powder piped up.

‘Great, more shippers’ Fleur thought, sighing. It was no secret that those who were privy to her and Fancy’s relationship were quite enthusiastic about pushing it further.

Though she couldn’t fault them. The two of them really did have a very special bond.


“Excuse me, Miss Fleur?”

The icy-blue-coated and wild-pink-maned Soigné Folio appeared. Despite her name, her nom-de-plume being 'Mayfair', she was a Trottingham filly with a common background, her low-pitched, emotionless tone and rustic drawl unhidden. As a mare she was collected and somewhat mordant, possessed of an authoritative nature, but she was never actively unpleasant. She was holding a letter out to Fleur de Lis.

“Somepony from Briefly Manor sent this to you. It’s enclosed. Give her some privacy you lot”

Somewhat begrudgingly, the other models edged away and went back to preparing.

Fleur knew at a glance the letter was from Fancy Pants. She recognised his handwriting and the seal of Briefly Manor.

She was excited, as she often was when given attention from the stallion of her dreams, but at the same it felt somewhat suspicious. Fancy often met her in person, on the set was no exception. He’d appeared to encourage her on several occasions.

What was he doing sending a letter?

She opened it and began to read.


The pink, fringed, competitive High Style, nom-de-plume ‘Vidalia’, was having a hard time satisfying her employer.

“No...” Photo Finish said monotonously as the model moved her hoof to every position “No...No...No...Ye-no”

“What angle exactly should I have my hoof?”

“Ze angle...” Photo Finish barked “...zat expresses your inner self! Ze mystery! Ze MAGICKS!”

High Style rolled her eyes. Beside her, her spiky-maned co-worker, the bubbly Roxie Stick, stifled a giggle.

“What does that even mean?” High Style groaned.

“Pay more attention and you vill-”

The eccentric photographer was interrupted by a sudden, agonised wail as Fleur de Lis rushed out of the set, sobbing uncontrollably. All eyes turned as the letter she’d been reading lowered slowly to the ground, as the slam of the lavatory door echoed down the hall.

“Er...” Pretty Finish managed to say “What just happened?”

“Zat is vat I, Photo Finish, vant to know! Vat happened to Fleur?! Vat is ze reason for crying?!”

Almost tentatively, Soigné Folio, retrieved the letter and read it.


Miss Fleur de Lis


I have spent the last day thinking about our current relationship.

And I do not believe it wise to continue.

I am aware you may have thought otherwise and I am sorry to tell you that it was a very foolish assumption.

I have a position and reputation to keep and relations with you would prove quite hazardous to both.

Henceforth I will ask you not to visit me or speak to me in public ever again.

I will also advise you to leave Canterlot indefinitely.

I am afraid I have been lying.

I do not believe you are not suited for the modelling circle or indeed much else in the capital.

I must ask you to stay away.

This is not your home and I am not the stallion you will share it with.

I know you must be quite upset to hear this but that fault is your own.

You exercised thoughts far above what you should have known to be possible.

Time at home will do you good.

I would advise leaving at once.


Goodbye Fleur


Sincerely,

F.P

P.S. This letter will self-destruct in two minutes.


There was a crackle as the centre of the letter caught alight. Instinctively, Soigné threw it in the sink and diluted it under the running tap.

For a moment, the only sound across the set was the heartbroken sobbing of Fleur de Lis.

“That...JERK!” Pretty Vision yelled “I’ll kill him for this! I’ll bucking GELD the son of a nag! How dare he does this to-”

“Pretty, calm yourself, please” Powder Rouge placed both hooves on her co-worker’s shoulders “There is nothing we can do”

“I...Photo Finish...cannot believe zis” the photographer murmured, stunned

“It’s just horrible...that poor mare” Roxie sounded close to tears.

“NO!” Photo Finish exclaimed loudly, causing all present to jump in surprise “You misunderstand. I...Photo Finish...cannot believe zis! I, Photo Finish, VILL not believe zis! Somezing here is not right”

“What?” Pretty asked.

“I, Photo Finish, have known Meister Fancy Pants long enough to know zat he vould never, in good conscience, break a mare’s heart, in particular a mare close to him”

"Look, um...boss." High Rise interjected hesitantly"I know he can be a swell guy but...maybe, just maybe he's not quite as swell as they say? I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying it's possible."

The eccentric Stirropean photographer adjusted her shades and sighed.

"Ach so ein quarkhaufen..." she grumbled in her home tongue and fixed her models with a glare.

"Meister Fancy Pants recently saved Fleur de Lis from sexual assault. Now, of ze course, any decent pony vould vork to do ze same but if zey vished to keep zemselves, how you say, not directly involved, zey vould get help, yes?" She shook her head "All Meister Fancy Pants had to do vas call ze guard. But he did not. He vent in himself, at ze risk of his own life and saved Fleur personally, alone, to ensure nopony else got involved in a matter zat concerned them and zeir mutual vorst enemy. He nearly broke his shoulder in ze process..."

She breathed deep through her nostrils before continuing, indignant rage boiling in her voice.

"Unt now, I, Photo Finish, am expected to believe zat zis stallion, who risked his life to not only save the mare he claims to love from zis horror but ze inevitable trauma and public scandal following, who did everyzing he and his household could to keep her safe and help her brave life's many struggles...I, Photo Finish, and meant to believe zat now zat zey have finally confessed to each other zat zey may be in love...HE IS JUST GOING TO DECIDE, OUT OF ZE VERDAMMT BLUE, TO PUT AN END TO IT?!"

Her yell echoed through the photo studio. All others were quiet.

She drew herself up “Forces most vicked have threatened both Fleur and Meister Fancy Pants since zey met each other! Zey are at vork! I, Photo Finish, am sure of it! Somepony, somevere is trying to manipulate ze lovers and destroy zem completely! And ven I...Photo Finish...find out who is behind zis...”

Her voice lowered as her hoof ground upon the floor. The models around grew nervous of their employer’s cold rage yet, at the same time, shared the feeling.

“I...Photo Finish...am going to be a very...angry...mare”

Chapter 6

View Online

In the cacophony that pulsed across the Hanoverian, the resonant, overdramatic laughter of the famous Canterlot critic, Hoity Toity sounded out before he sipped daintily from a cocktail, waved his cigarette holder and addressed his associates.

“Magnifico, Lord Magistrate! Quite, quite magnifico”

“I rather thought so”

Satisfied with their victory, Nitpick, Cumbersome and Earwax had gotten sufficiently drunk and were indulging in a very traditional gloat among those they could trust. Hoity Toity had seemed quite interested to know how they’d brought down the Chairstallion without raising their voices and they’d only been too happy to inform him.

“You should have seen his face!” Cumbersome bellowed, shaking with laughter “He’s trapped in a corner, pinned like a rat! Appropriate really, ha!

“We have the copies at the Canterlot Gazette Headquarters” Earwax chuckled “And if anypony tries to steal them or asks about them, they have orders to print the paper immediately”

“Ah, very clever” Hoity Toity declared “You’ve certainly been very thorough, my friends. If I were you, I’d make the most of it”

“Really?”

“Absolutely! Take him for all he’s worth!” Hoity Toity’s cigarette lighter danced around his face, partially hiding him in the smoke “He’s been making fools of us since his first term. You’ve only got three days to pay him back, make it last!”

“I think we shall!” Cumbersome guffawed.

The celebrity critic was approached by a slim Neighponese beauty with extensive make-up and a dark blue mane tied up in a bun with several elaborate hairpins. She took a hold of the end of his silver mane and nodded at the private chambers meaningfully.

Hoity Toity lowered his glasses glanced at his friends who were grinning just as meaningfully.

“If you’ll excuse me, gentlecolts” Smiling, he got to his hooves and followed the mare through the curtains.

Then, turning a corner, they left through the fire exit and nipped into an alleyway outside the club.

The stallion blanched at the sight of a dirty puddle close by but resolved to steel his heart and call out.

“Are you there?”

A pair of bright magenta circles shone in the darkness.

“Yes, I...Photo Finish...have arrived”


The photographer emerged from the shadows, Soigné Folio and Stella Zeppole at her side. Despite her sinister entrance, she looked upon Hoity Toity with would could have passed for affection.

“Vat have you learned, my friend?”

Hoity caught his breath and spoke.

“Photo, darling, you were right. Nitpick and his cohorts blackmailed Fancy Pants. They have photos of the times he’s spent with Fleur and have told the Gazette that Fleur lied about the attack on her at the theatre on Fancy’s instructions. It’ll cost him dearly, he’ll almost definitely lose the election and the mare may suffer as a result” he fanned himself with a handkerchief and winced uncomfortably “You wouldn’t believe the things they said they would do to her. I felt quite ill laughing with them”

“You have done vell, Hoity” she said, cursing her foes “Bah! Cursed Paparazzi Schwein! To zink zat a mare who vorks with photography is threatened by photos! Meister Nitpick must pay dearly for zis!”

“So he’s sent Fleur away to protect her” Soigné surmised.

“He must save her life by breaking her heart!” Stella sniffed forlornly “Too, too sad!”

“Quiet! Ve are not beaten yet!” Photo held up a hoof “Is zere any vay ve can destroy or confiscate ze photos?”

“Unfortunately, none that I can see” Hoity twiddled one hoof upon the ground “They say they have the photos at the Gazette office and they’ll publish it the instant they feel threatened”

“Damn unt blast!” She stamped in indignation “My career is endangered and so is Meister Fancy and Fleur’s. Ve have to defeat zem! Has zis plan any veakness you can identify?”

“I regret to say their scheme does seem pretty watertight. It’s quite certain they had outside help”

“Blueblood?” Soigné asked

“No, this is...unlike him” Hoity answered.

“Agreed. Fleur told us Blueblood is above what Nitpick is capable of” Powder Rouge said calmly as she watched the alley behind a store sign “He is no gentlecolt to be sure but he is nowhere near this vile”

“Well...I was going to say he’s not particularly clever” Hoity added “Certainly not to this level. None of them are. Nitpick’s a fool, Cumbersome’s a toad and Countess Magnifying Glass is, quite frankly, insane. Whoever supplied them the photos clearly knows what they’re doing. And...” he glanced around nervously and gulped “It could be dangerous”

“Ve are prepared”

“I...rather meant...for me

“Courage, Hoity, all zat ve need from you is to lead zem on, make zem overconfident”

Hoity Toity sighed and bowed “I’ll see what I can do”

“Halt” Photo Finish held up one hoof “You are quite right. Zis puts you in danger. Zey must not know. Ve do not know vat whomever is responsible is also capable of. You must look...convincing”

Before Hoity could ask what exactly that meant, Powder Rouge grabbed him, ruffled his mane, loosened his collar and planted six well-lipsticked kisses across his face and neck.

Hoity blinked behind his dark glasses and gave a flustered exhale.

“Well...that’s...golly”

“Bloody hay, Powder!” Soigné exclaimed.

“It is for Fleur’s sake” Powder Rouge said flatly.

“Hm...Maybe I’d appreciate Fleur being in danger more often” Hoity Toity chuckled giddily before withering under a threatening glare from the mare who had just kissed him.

“That wasn’t funny” Powder Rouge hissed “Get back inside. We continue as planned”


*


Fleur de Lis hadn’t left her flat since she received the letter.

That horrible letter.

How had Fancy sounded so cruel. It was so unlike him.

Too unlike him. She kept on saying that in her head. Over and over, clinging on to the hope that he had another reason for hurting her so.

But what reason would he have?

Was Nitpick behind this?

Had the letter even come from Fancy?

Her friends in Photo Finish’s modelling circle had assured her they would make it right.

And that only made her feel worse. They were in enough danger from their business competitors already.

With how this was playing out, Nitpick was likely behind that as well.

She sat on her bed, quietly weeping, struggling to work things out.

She was at a loss.

Should she call her parents?

She wasn’t sure she was able. She hadn’t wanted to tell them about her most recent scrape in the Lower Gardens. When she thought back to how they’d reacted after they knew about the business at the theatre, an incident of this nature didn’t bear thinking about.

Should she call her friends?

Lyra, Colgate, Pepperdance and all her other Ponyville friends, though always dependable, were far away. And there was no telling what would happen to them if they got caught up in this.

And what friends she could rely on in Canterlot had been given enough trouble already.

Fleur took a deep breath and got to her hooves.

She could bear it no longer. She simply had to see Fancy Pants. If he had meant the cruel words he’d spoken of, she’d have him say it to her face. It was hardly likely to hurt her more than the letter. And if he hadn’t meant it, if her friends were right, if there was the slightest chance that the bond they shared could be protected, that he could be protected, she’d take it.

They’d come too far to fall at this stage.

He was the best thing that had ever happened to her in a long time.

She wasn’t giving him up without a fight.


She wasn’t paid close attention to on the streets. She was dressed in a plain beige coat with a hood up and walked briskly. Usually she enjoyed attention but, at this stage, blatancy was not the key.

She hadn’t been to Briefly Manor that often but she knew it was atop the hill overlooking the city. Once she’d found the path to the hill, it was simply a matter of making her way to the top.

With the fate of their relationship in doubt, Briefly Manor, perhaps for the first time, looked unwelcome.

Taking a glance over her shoulder, Fleur approached the door and knocked it.

There was silence for a moment.

Before she could knock it again, Tombola appeared in the doorway. His face was flat and serious, without its usual charm.

“Miss Fleur de Lis” he said, his voice as devoid of emotion as his expression “We were not expecting you”

“Tom...” Fleur’s voice, however, was fraught with worry. It was as if all the friends she’d made through being with Fancy Pants had suddenly turned on her “I...I need to talk to Fancy Pants”

“I am afraid, Master Fancy Pants is not at home”

“Can I wait for him?”

“I am sorry to say that I must ask you not to. He informed us that we are no longer to have any relations with you”

Behind him, Fleur noticed Ramekin, Plumette, Gruffleby and Fuss Pot looking over the butler’s shoulder, pity and guilt apparent on their expressions.

“Wh-where is he?” Fleur asked, growing more anxious by the moment.

“I...cannot say”

“You must know, Tom!” the mare began to wail.

“I...I do, Miss de Lis” The butler’s reserve was beginning to waver “But, I was given expressed instructions...”

“Please, Tom...please” Fleur de Lis sunk to her knees. Confusion and despair wracked her body with sobs “I just...I don’t understand...I don’t want to lose him...not...not like this...”

Tombola glanced awkwardly at the weeping Fleur, turned to his impatient subordinates and decided, just this once, to disobey his master’s orders.

“Miss de Lis” he bent down, placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder and whispered “He’s in the Royal Gardens” He looked at her with great sincerity, as worried as she was “Please talk him out of this madness”

“I will, I promise...thank you...thank you, Tom!” Fleur hugged the startled butler and sped off in the direction of the Royal Gardens.

Tombola, never one for great shows of affection, adjusted himself and turned to the rest of the household, who stood beaming at him with distinct admiration.

“Well done there, Tom, me’ boy!” Gruffleby gave him an appreciative pat on the shoulder with one cloven hoof.

“Very nice of you to help a lady in distress, sir” Ramekin chuckled.

“I believe it was...necessary” Tombola cleared his throat bashfully and straightened himself “Now then, come along, back to our duties”

“Yes sir!”


*


She didn’t like the Royal Gardens as much as she had once done.

Fleur was relieved, at least, that it wasn’t the Lower Gardens. She didn’t she could stand to walk among those horrible trees, knowing that Nitpick could be hiding behind each one.

The Central Gardens were largely topiary hedge rows and pine trees. The garden itself led to the mighty Royal Labyrinth but that was barred to those without invitation.

She prayed he didn’t have an invitation.

It was growing dark in the late evening when she finally spied him.

He was slowly making his way to the edge of the garden, his back to him. His hooves were weak, his body swaying with each step, as if he were half-dead. His head was raised but without a hint of pride. Even the colours of his coat and mane seemed waning.

It was if he himself had received a letter similar to the one he wrote to Fleur.

He looked a far cry from the Fancy she’d known these last few years.

She was tempted to comfort him. It hurt her to see him in this state.

Then she remembered the letter. As the harsh, heartless words flowed around her mind once again, she was instead tempted to confront him.

Steeling her mind, she elected to bide her time and keep herself hidden in the hedges. She would know how this came about. First his words had lost all grace and goodness and now, it seemed, so had the rest of him.

Fleur had, unfortunately, never been too good at keeping herself hidden, even in the darkness. The only way to keep an eye on him without being spotted was by spying from over the other side of the hedge. Or, if possible, through it.

All she knew that, if she needed to burst out and show herself, it would be quite inconvenient. It took forever to get twigs out her mane.

Fortunately, she’d always been light on her hooves and while she was quite a noticeable sight, if she wasn’t heard, Fancy Pants wouldn’t turn round.

As she slunk along the hedges, Fancy Pants came to a stop. She froze, terrified that she may be seen or heard. Taking a great risk, she peeked through a gap in the foliage.

Fancy wasn’t looking at her. He was looking straight ahead of him. He looked frightful. His mane and moustache was dishevelled, his eyes were glassy and moist from tears. Her own eyes widened as she noticed the most atypical feature about him.

He wasn’t wearing his monocle!

All thoughts of him writing that letter out of a sense of cruelty he’d kept hidden were banished instantly. She realised now that this was serious. Something had happened to Fancy Pants. Something unspeakable!

His hooves were shaking slightly as he stood and looked around, the blank look on his face making his movements appear almost robotic.

He cleared his throat, which seemed more of a difficulty to him than usual, and called out.

“I know you’re there...Talk to me”


Fleur covered her mouth with one hoof as she gave a small gasp.

She prepared to make a sincere apology and offer a comforting hoof.

But then somepony else replied before she could.

Somepony with a very familiar voice.

“You’re rather early, Fancy, my friend”

Lord Nitpick and Sir Cumbersome emerged from around the corner of the hedge. They weren’t unaccompanied. The earth pony and unicorn guards were beside Nitpick while Cumbersome was joined by a pony she’d found out before to be his valet, Cringeworth, a scrawny, stuck-up sycophant with a wheat-yellow coat, a powder wig and prominent buck-teeth. She knew Cringeworth dearly enjoyed licking his master’s hooves while spitting it back upon others, Fancy Pants in particular.

She was surprised to see that Fancy Pants did nothing to show his distaste for the stallions so deserving of it.

In fact, his expression seemed almost cowed.

“I...” he murmured, his voice hoarse and haggard “I’ve done as you told me...I’ve...I’ve sent Fleur away” His voice cracked on the sentence, blinking away tears.

Fleur felt tears in her own eyes to see him this way but resolved to keep watching. What had possessed him to hurt her and himself in such a way? And how was Nitpick behind it?

“And I will...sign my resignation in two days time...You will become Chairstallion...and I will not interfere” He breathed in deeply “You win, Nitpick...Now please, get rid of those photos...and leave Fleur alone”

Fleur watched, grinding the soil beneath her hooves in rage, as Nitpick and his cohorts smirked menacingly at the stallion she loved.

“You want us to get rid of the photos, Fancy Pants?” the Lord Magistrate asked innocently before giving a derisive snort “Now why would we do that?”

Fancy Pants gaped in shock.

“Wha...I...I did as you asked!”

“Yes, Fancy, that was what we asked...but not what we wanted” he paced toward him “The truth of the matter is that you’ve simply been far too great an annoyance for anything less than what we were threatening you with and the time and opportunity for you to simply step down and leave with your dignity intact is long past. To be perfectly clear, Fancy Pants, we gave you three days notice for you to pack up and flee our gaze, not for any chance to negotiate. There is to be no negotiations. We will see you destroyed or never seen again, one may lead to the other but, in any case, the end result is the same. The Gazette will have its story and its pictures in three days time” He grinned “And it’s worth mentioning that the story’s been added to, thanks to the suggestion of a good friend at the Hanoverian. You mentioned you were concerned at how your friend would get off when the story came out and so we...rearranged it a little to accommodate her”


Fleur watched Sir Cumbersome approach with several small pieces of paper in one hoof. She assumed that these were the 'photos' they spoke of. He was admiring them as one would a priceless antique.

“It occurred to me, Fancy,” he began “that the uniform your little friend wears is meant for the students of Preparatory College...this, of course, raises questions about just how old this mare is...”

“No!” Fancy’s tone grew harsh and almost tired, like he was losing his temper with a difficult foal “Damn you, Cumbersome, this serves no purpose! She’s twenty-six!”

“She doesn’t look twenty-six” Cumbersome retorted “In fact, she looks significantly younger. Perhaps ten years younger, maybe younger still...at least that’s what they’ll all be allowed to assume”

“No, no, no, now...now you’re just being foalish!” Fancy snapped, stuttering, as if enraged by idiocy more than anything else “You can’t lie about her age! She doesn’t...look...younger! She doesn’t!

“She does...if we say she does” Cumbersome hissed menacingly, puffing out his chest in triumph.

At this, Cringeworth made an attempt to emulate his master.

“Yes indeed! Our word is taken as gospel around the capital, don’t you know! And you’ve no idea how fervent the public are when determined to punish a-GAWK!” He paused as he was lifted off the ground with his master’s hoof gripping tightly around his neck.

“Cringeworth...” he snarled “What have I told you about interrupting?!”

“Yes...sir...sorry...sir” he managed to rasp before being dropped gracelessly upon the grass. Cumbersome proceeded to wipe his hoof upon his jacket in distaste before continuing.

“But my idiot valet is quite correct. Whatever argument you put up will be shouted down by the mob at your door” He leered “Don’t worry, your friend Fleur will be treated as an innocent victim. An unnaturally tall and thin adolescent, groomed into sexual service by a stallion above the law. She will avoid prison time or even much punishment, other than a considerable time in therapy”

Fleur stared at Fancy. There was something in Fancy’s eyes smothered under all the despair, rage and confusion that looked almost like relief. Was he seriously considering allowing this to happen to him just to protect her?

“Fleur...” he began, his voice wavering “Fleur...will never...back up your story”

Cumbersome gave a sadistic chortle.

“You’re quite wrong, Fancy Pants. At first, I’m quite certain, she’ll deny everything, lost in the lies you told her since you abducted her all those years ago. But, as I said, she’ll be given therapy...very special therapy...at a very special hospital”

If Fancy was wearing his monocle, it would have dropped from his brow as his eyes widened as far as they could, his face aghast.

“No...” he gasped “Not...not that...not...not Glanders Gate!

“Oh not to worry, Fancy” Nitpick added, calm and composed as he’d never been before “Fleur de Lis won’t be harmed in the slightest. But then, she won’t be Fleur de Lis. Fleur de Lis will never have existed. Because by the end of it all, she’ll be a completely different mare

They left in very much the same way Fancy Pants had seen them last, cackling in victory, leaving him paralyzed with dismay.

Slowly, walking in a manner similar to limping, the Chairstallion made his way home.

Behind the hedge, Fleur crouched, weeping into her hooves. Those who wanted them both destroyed were resorting to the murkiest of schemes, perverting their treasured memories together to turn the populace against them. And yet her beloved Fancy was still thinking about her, risking all he had left to save the mare he loved.

She shut her eyes tight and gritted her teeth, finding her hooves on the ground.

She so desperately wanted to jump in as he did, free her darling from his peril and brain the despicable monsters responsible.

But this was something more complex than simply a daring rescue. This was a tactical matter. It would require patience and no small amount of resources to see this through.

She swore she’d make this right. Nitpick would not have his way, not after everything they’d been through.

They’d come too far for anything other than the happy ending they knew they’d earned together.


*


Fleur had never returned to her flat.

A frantic desk-pony had informed her that her employer had wished to see her without delay.

From the look of the desk-pony, Photo Finish had not taken no for an answer.

The slim mare had headed to Photo Finish’s set as fast as her hooves could carry her, hoping that one day she’d grow a pair of wings and not have to worry about ruining the hooficure on the gravel.

She entered to see the eccentric photographer and her entourage questioning a dark-coated, silver-maned stallion in the quiet, unused set.

It didn’t take Fleur long to realise this was Hoity Toity standing in her company. What took significantly longer was guessing why he was here.

“Fleur, dear amica!” Stella greeted her ecstatically “We may have a solution for your problem, signora!

“Wh-what?” the mare was led to the gathering and made to listen closely.

Photo Finish and Hoity Toity were talking at close lengths.

“Vat possessed you to give zem zat idea?” Photo Finish barked.

“Listen, I know it puts Fancy and Fleur in more danger but think about it. Now we can disprove it!” the celebrity critic explained “If they lie about her age, all we need to do is produce proof that she is, in fact twenty-six. Birth Certificates and passports can’t lie”

“Okay so we can prove that Fleur’s not underage but we can’t prove anything else” Roxy Stick butted in.

“We don’t have to” Hoity Toity said knowingly “The Princess’s rules are very clear. The Gazette and all other newspaper publishers may print whatever they find but not a word of it must be false or even assumed. It must all be proven true with references. If a single sentence is backed-up insufficiently or not at all, it is removed from the shelves, cross-examined and everypony who has gathered and supplied the information must publically come forward and offer irrefutable proof or immediately plead guilty to media manipulation”

“The Gazette will never risk that” Pretty Vision said.

“Exactly, so they won’t have it published!” the stallion was practically hopping on his hooves “And even if Nitpick does, those photos will prove he’s guilty of invasion of privacy and extortion which will have his name removed from the polls instantly”

“Ha! We got him by the nuts!” Pretty roared with glee.

“Wait....everypony wait!”

Upon hearing her voice, every pony in the room indeed waited and turned to Fleur de Lis, slightly guilty yet compassionate looks on their faces. The alabaster mare stood up, her face a picture of astonishment.

“You’ve been trying to protect us?” she asked “You knew about Fancy being blackmailed?”

“Did you honestly doubt us?” Photo Finish asked “I...Photo Finish...am not vun to zink ze vurst of ze best and vice versa. It only leads to trouble and I, Photo Finish, do not do vell viz trouble. Meister Fancy Pants being so cruel to vun he cares for is, to me, a contradiction in ze terms...he vould have, at ze very least, spoken zose heartless vords to you in person. How could he not unless he did not mean ze vords he put onto paper? I, Photo Finish, vas suspicious. So I, Photo Finish, and my friends, how you say, did some digging. Ve heard of vat ze Lord Magistrate and his grunt-vorkers vere aiming to do to ze two of you and ve vould not allow it”
“Miss Finish and I are good friends, Miss Fleur” Hoity added, politely bowing “I, shall we say, located myself among Nitpick’s trusted and gave Photo and her girls any useful information while pouring a little poison in his ear for good measure. We know all he intends to do and how to stop it”

“You...” Fleur’s hoof flew up to cover her open mouth as tears appeared in her eyes “You’d do that...for us?”

“Vat?! You did not really zink zat I, Photo Finish, ran a successful business viz many loyal employees just by being zreatening, did you?” The photographer gave a dry chuckle, ignoring the nervous laughter from her models, and placed a hoof on Fleur’s shoulder “Vatever I, Photo Finish, may say or zink about you, Fleur de Lis, you vere villing to vork under my proverbial ving, get along viz my fellows and make my art zat much more...magick! I, Photo Finish, aim to repay zat kindness. As do ve all”


Fleur hugged her employer for what must have been a considerable time. Photo Finish was noticeably uncomfortable.

“Ah...yes...zank you...you are very kind...please let go now...”

“One problem though” Soigné Folio butted in “We have only three days, which isn’t long just to point out, to inform all of Canterlot that Fleur is, in fact, not underage. If we draw too much attention, it’ll look suspicious. Nitpick will publish his lies and the ponies of Canterlot will believe him. Even if he has to admit to blackmail, Fancy and Fleur won’t escape unharmed”

“So we’ve got to wait for an opportune moment to let everypony know” High Style surmised.

“We cannot afford to wait! We have only three days as she said!” Stella exclaimed.

In the commotion, Fleur wracked her brains. There had to be something they could do. How hard was it to tell ponies about herself? She did it all the time. She was expected to do so during the...

She stopped, her lilac eyes wide as porcelain plates, as it dawned on her.

The opportune moment.

“Everypony listen!” she cried out, silencing those present. She took a deep breath and addressed Photo Finish.

“The modelling shoot” she said firmly “It must take place...at Briefly Manor...tomorrow”

“WHAT?!” Pretty Vision gave her a look that suggested severe doubt in Fleur’s sanity, Soigné Folio facehoofed, Stella made a swooning motion and High Style’s jaw hit the ground.

“Lizzie, are you completely freaking crazy?!” Pretty screamed.

“It takes us days to prepare the shoot if we are lucky, Miss Fleur” Powder Rouge stated more tactfully “I fear you do not realise that”

“Leave it out. The dopey bird’s lost to us” Soigné groaned “Hold her under some cold water, quick”

SILENCE!” Photo Finish’s bellow had its desired effect. Drawing herself up, she made her declaration.

“It vill be done! And no argument! Ve vill work through ze night if ve have to! Need ve remind you zat it vas Meister Fancy Pants who offered to use his own house and home to use as our set, for no charge at all?! Zis is a matter of principle! A vun-time event, I assure you, but a necessary vun! Fancy and Fleur vill be tormented no longer! I...Photo Finish...vill not allow it! And neither shall any of you!”

There was a pause.

“I’m in” Roxy Stick declared.

“Same here” Pretty Vision added.

“I as well” Powder Rouge stated.

Before long, the entire entourage were in agreement. Hoity Toity gave Fleur an encouraging nod as Photo Finish raised one hoof in the air and bellowed once again.

“Rouse our crew and gather all necessary equipment and costumes, now! And I, Photo Finish, mean now!”

“Good luck everypony” Hoity Toity waved a handkerchief in a manner better suited for ladies waving their loves goodbye “I’ll make sure Nitpick and his thugs are kept away. Keep fighting the good fight!”

“Zank you, now GO!” Photo Finish yelled as she prepared for a rather hectic day ahead of her.

Hopefully, if all went according to plan, it would be worth it.


*


Tombola braced himself considerably before entering his master’s office.

“Sir?”

Fancy Pants was sat at his desk, his head lying upon his hooves. Tom glanced at the small glass cabinet where he kept his monocle when not in use. It was there. Fancy had taken it off which always meant something was very wrong.

A bottle of wine, nearly empty, was next to him. The drained glass was resting on its side, sliding back and forth between his fore-knee and the bottle.

As he drew closer, Tom saw that his master was shaking.

The butler edged forward, facing him opposite the desk, cleared his throat and tried again.

“Sir?”

Fancy’s head jerked up. It wasn’t a comforting sight. Tombola took note of the bags forming under Fancy’s eyes, the unkempt mane and the definite droop of his moustache. His master wasn’t well.

He hadn’t seen him this desolated since the death of his parents fourteen years ago. He felt both pride and concern in the fact that this mood was so unusual to his master.

“Sir...If I may say...” he began at length “The household worry for you...You have not left your office since your return...You have not smiled since this morning...We presume, sir...that something unpleasant happened to you”

Fancy Pants said nothing but simply nodded dully.

“Would you care to divulge, sir?”

Fancy blinked away tears and looked down.

“I’m sorry, Tom...” he murmured.

“It’s quite alright, sir” Tombola bowed “Whatever you may decide. We simply worry”

“I see...”


Fancy Pants had never felt so wretched. Since the morning’s horror, he had immediately sought some way to thwart the plan but found none. Lost in worry, he sent that letter.

The memory of it still made him feel sick. He dreaded to imagine how his poor Fleur would react.

But anything would do. The love of his life could think about him however she chose as long as she was safe.

Nothing else mattered to him.

Overcome with shame soon afterward, he tried again to think of a decent way to escape from the peril he found himself in. Try as he might, everything seemed hopeless. The plan was concrete. If he made a move he would crumble and if he stood still the effect would be the same. He was trapped, lost and unable to find aid.

He had just stood there.

The laughter of his foes rang in his ears. He’d just stood there and let them threaten everything he loved. He should have fought them as he had in the Lower Gardens.

‘You should have stood up to them, Fancy’ He could almost his father’s voice with his own inside his head ‘Like a stallion!’

Jolting in his chair, he found himself staring into Tombola’s concerned eyes.

“Sir, do you need a doctor?” he asked.

Fancy closed his eyes and groaned, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, old chap” he said gloomily “I’m not myself” He put the wine-glass back upright and poured himself another drink slightly unsteadily “Did you want to tell me anything, Tom?”

“Yes sir” he said, as composed as he could manage “Miss Photo Finish wrote to inform us that she’s had to move her modelling shoot at the manor to tomorrow. She understands this may hinder any plans we have somewhat but asks sincerely if we may help prepare”

“Oh...of course” Fancy answered.

It was the least he owed Photo for depriving her of Fleur. He still couldn’t believe what he’d written.

But perhaps, in Ponyville, she’d be safe.

That was all he needed.

“Tell her I’ll help in any way I can. I trust you can convince the rest of the household to do likewise”

“Of course sir” Tombola said, his hope improved.

At least his master hadn’t abandoned his famous generosity.


Bowing, he exited the study and found Fuss Pot, Gruffleby and Plumette conversing in the corridor.

“I, for one, am rather looking forward to the shoot” the old caretaker chuckled.

“Of course you are, you dirty old goat!” Fuss Pot clucked “I expect no nonsense from either party or there’ll be trouble, d’you hear?”

Ce n’est pas juste!” Plumette whined, stamping her hoof “Wiz so many young mares about, how will I get Monsieur Ramekin’s attention? What if zey try to steal him away?”

“He’d make ‘em regret it, love” Gruffleby said sarcastically, dodging Fuss Pot’s hoof swiping round the back of his horns.

“That’s enough” Tombola’s voice cut the chatter. Though not loud or sudden, it was possessed of a commanding tone few could match.

“Apologies, Mister Tombola” Fuss said sincerely “Some of us were just concerned. Has poor Mister Fancy spoken yet?”

“He has. He promises me that he will be helping Miss Photo Finish with the shoot tomorrow”

“That’s some good news at least” Gruffleby sighed.

“Is zere nothing we can do?” Plumette asked frantically “Monsieur Fancy Pants is so mélancolique! It breaks ze heart to see him zis way!”

“Ours is not to question, Miss Plumette. His affairs are his own. We may offer comfort only if he wills it” Tombola said gravely “However, willing it may require some time and effort on both our parts. I have never seen him this way in a great amount of time, during an incident I am hesitant to recall. At least one of us must be beside him at all times. I do not like to suggest such a thing but...I fear he may do something drastic”

Plumette cupped her mouth.

“Oh my poor little lambkin” Fuss was close to tears “I never hoped to see him hurt like this again”

“Not to worry, lad” Gruffleby patted Tom on the foreleg “We’re on hoof, always. I’d sooner have been crippled and maimed in the Griffin Wars than let down old Fancy”

“Same ‘ere. I’m not letting the colt I helped raise since birth tear himself apart like this. I’ll be with him day and night if I have to”

Mais oui! I shall be beside him. All of us shall be beside him, however long this terrible gloom lingers over ze manor”

Tombola smiled.

“He’ll be very pleased to hear that”


*


“Geez, and here I thought I was the one who enjoyed breaking the rules”

Carcassonne felt equal amounts of excitement and fear as she and Cadence leafed through the confidential reports in the restricted Judicial Archives opposite the Royal Council Chambers.

“What?” Cadence asked innocently “As a royal, I can come in here whenever I want. Granted I need to notify them and have a council escort but I’ll sign myself in later and you...kinda’ count as government...till the elections are over”

“Thanks for rubbing that in” Carcassonne snapped “You owe me another milkshake”

Cadence couldn’t help but chuckle but soon returned to business.

“So Fancy Pants’ parents were found dead outside the Canterlot City Hall?”

“Yeah, the report says the bodies were likely moved post-mortem but it doesn’t make any guesses where from” Carcassonne said grimly.

“I remember hearing about it in school” the pink alicorn murmured “Celestia was distraught, didn’t talk for days. Half of Canterlot was in tears”

“They were much admired” Carcassonne said shrugging “He was a dedicated doctor, she was a celebrated philanthropist and politician...they didn’t deserve to die like that” Her voice darkened “Somepony should have been with them. Somepony should have helped them”

“Did anypony suspect this was a political act?”

The scarlet unicorn snorted derisively.

“Anypony with a lick of sense! Nopony had the guts to say anything though. What enemies the two had were not ponies you wanted to mess with”

Cadence hesitated to ask the question.

“Like the Glass family?”

“Tell me about it” Carcassonne chuckled “Nitpick and his wife were always clashing with them. They’d been great friends with Stained, Countess Magnifying’s father, but after he was committed they constantly came to verbal blows with the Countess”

“When was Count Stained committed?”

“Not too long before they were killed. I know what you’re thinking, most ponies know that the Countess had her own father declared insane to get his inheritance but the courts allowed it. And both she and Nitpick had watertight alibis on the night of Pantaloon and Petticoat’s murder”

“They could have hired a hitpony” Cadence suggested.

Carcassonne shook her head.

“Their financial details were searched thoroughly. Nothing was found”

“You don’t think she did it?”

“What the hay gave you that impression?” Carcassonne was close to laughing.

“Would the Countess really do that?” Cadence asked with concern.

Carcassonne sighed and spoke in a sing-song fashion.

“You’ve never met Countess Magnifying Glass have you, my dear, sweet naive Cadey”

"Admittedly no, but once we find anything...if we find anything..." she grinned "I'm going to enjoy introducing myself"


The Judicial Archives had but one window, a small specimen with no way to use as a means to enter and even fewer ways to look in.

Yet someone had found a way.

‘Should have taken my advice, my lady’ the unseen figure mused watching from the building opposite, a considerable distance away.

‘They’ll just cause trouble if you let them all live’

Chapter 7

View Online

“GET ME ZE LENS! NOT ZAT LENS! VHITE BACKGROUND! NO! BLACK BLACKGROUND! NO! BLACK AND VHITE BACKGROUND! ADJUST! FOCUS! MORE FOCUS! STAND UP STRAIGHT! WHO LEFT ZIS HERE! VAT ARE YOU STANDING AROUND FOR! SET UP ZE EQUIPMENT! NOW!”

Photo Finish’s yelling echoed across Briefly Manor. If anypony in the vicinity had plans for sleeping-in they were swiftly demolished.

“We’re going as fast as we can, Miss Finish” Ramekin put his waiter skills to the test, carrying photographic equipment and costumes around with his magic and handing them out to those that required them.

“Not! Fast! Enough! Ve begin in two hours! Two hours is not enough time to be slack!” The photographer stamped both hooves on the ground as she snarled like a rabid beast, her mane sticking out in strands as all ponies around her frantically bustled to and fro setting up the shoot. They had begun preparations at five in the morning. Any earlier and it would have begun to show on the models.

Mrs Fuss Pot was on hand to supply regular refreshments of tea, coffee and hot-chocolate which they were all exceedingly grateful for.

It was nearly ten o clock. The shoot would begin at noon, held at Briefly Manor.

There wasn’t a moment to lose.

Fleur was practically hiding behind the set, helping Pretty Vision, Powder Rouge and Stella Zeppole get ready.

“Just remember to leave time for yourself, Lizzie” Pretty Vision said, though in her garb and makeup she was no longer Pretty Vision. She was Anna Conda.

“Remember, this is your first day on the spotlight. Make it memorable for everypony” Powder Rouge finished fixing her hair and adopted her Oshi Roi nom-de-plume.

“I know, I know” Fleur fussed “But you’re all on first and...I don’t want Fancy...or one of Nitpick’s spies...to see me before then”
“Just remember, Fleur” Stella got to her hooves, adopting the persona of Gali Lea “As soon as you come on, you will be safe, you will be invincible, you and your beloved...as long as you act that way. Do not show fear, they prey on it! Make them fear you! It was hard for all of us, our first time on stage” She looked down slightly “I myself had...very conservative parents...they did not approve...it took a long time for us to reconcile again...a very long time”

Fleur’s face fell at the thought. She had always known she was privileged, comparatively at least, to have two parents who always admired and encouraged her in her life’s decisions. So much so that the idea of parents not being proud of their foals was something that seemed almost alien to her.

“Oh Stella, I’m...I'm so sorry” Fleur gave her a heartfelt hug. Gali Lea seemed startled but Anna Conda and Oshi Roi were quite touched by the spectacle.

“Careful, Fleur, my make-up” The lime-green mare whined, though returned the hug daintily.

“Don’t worry, Lizzie. Your story isn’t so different from ours” Anna Conda placed a hoof on her shoulder “We’ve all been through a fair amount of curd to get this far and we’re not letting you fall in it face-first. Not after you and Fancy single-hoofedly saved our careers for free”

“We will be on early. If you still need help, we shall assist once we are finished” Oshi Roi assured her.

“It’s okay, my magic should be alright to get everything ready. Do you know what I’m wearing?”

“Right here” Anna Conda produced a shimmering magenta jumpsuit with silver accents, possessed of a high collar and adorned with a faux-fur lining in a mix of colours ranging between periwinkle blue to deep lavender. It wasn’t the most eye-catching specimen but it did look good, especially on her. The suit hid her still-healing injuries yet was tight-fitting enough to show off her figure. In short, a good start.

“See you later, Lizzie” Anna winked “Knock ‘em dead”


*


Fancy Pants had dressed himself in the morning. Unusual for him.

It wasn’t that he was incapable but he often enjoyed starting the day conversing with Tombola, who would give him the day’s news and arrangements while adorning the master of the manor with the day’s garments.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed by Tombola as he watched his master emotionlessly trudge down the landing stairway, past the statue of Knickerbocker’s Knighthood, without a shred of mirth.

“Sir” the butler said “You didn’t come down for breakfast”

“No, I...” Fancy’s gaze was blank and bleak “I don’t have much of an appetite”

Tombola closed his eyes as his patience gave out to his anxiety.

“Sir, forgive my bluntness but your despondency is making us very concerned. What exactly has transpired that puts you in such a sullen mood?”

Fancy Pants had almost passed him by when he paused, lowered his head, sighed and turned back to his butler.

“Alright, old chap...I’ll come clean...” He shrugged dejectedly “I was beaten. And now I stand to lose everything...everything” His voice was close to cracking “I’m so sorry, Tom...I fear our times together are about to come to an end”

“Sir?!” Tombola gave him an incredulous look “I would never contemplate abandoning you. Even at your darkest of hours. And I can safely say likewise for the rest of the household. Whatever fate befalls you, sir, I shall be happy to bear it beside you, as I have always done”

Fancy Pants made to adjust his monocle before realising he wasn’t wearing it. It made him feel half-dead.

“Tom...what happens to me will likely destroy me...Briefly Manor will become the property of my enemies...you would not be faulted for resigning now while there’s time...I do not want to think about how you will be treated when the new masters arrive”

“Sir...with all due respect, you’re talking complete poppycock” Tom was nearly chuckling “If these cads ever set hoof in Briefly Manor, we’ll make them regret it. I personally will refuse to acknowledge them as the masters of this house and, as such, will be under no obligation to serve them. I’ll ensure they are late for any and all essentialities. And likewise, sir, Mrs Fuss Pot will make sure the food gives them the heave-ho and that which does not go in their stomachs will be strewn upon their person by Mister Ramekin, Miss Plumette will ensure dust and vermin thrive upon their beds, Mister MacTrowel will take up the bagpipes in the late night, Mister Gruffleby will let slip the location of valuables to burglars and I imagine that scamp, young Master Tinny, would find it amusing to stalk the corridors in the guise of the vengeful spirit of Knickerbocker himself, complete with a bloody sabre. Regardless, sir, they’ll either send us from the manor or leave of their own accord and quickly”

Fancy managed a light chuckle at the notion.

“Do you know, Tom, I believe they would...” With what looked like great physical effort, he raised a hoof and patted Tombola on the shoulder “No matter what happens...I’d like you to know that, in my honest opinion...you’re a splendid chap, a dedicated butler, a much-respected gentlecolt and a...dash it all, a damn good friend”

Tombola’s smile was quite a wondrous sight, Fancy had never seen it until now. A stallion so composed, so proper, so used to showing as little emotion as possible, to see him smile was a spectacle that was worth the wait.

Though it wasn't near as lovely as Fleur's smile. The sight was enough to raise one out of any form of misery and into a world of light and colour.

He wondered if he'd ever see it again.

“I am most gratified to hear you say that, sir” Taking advantage of his master’s slight elation was the work of a moment “Now, sir, I believe the guests will be arriving shortly”


With a weary sigh, Fancy Pants exited Briefly Manor and stepped into the grounds. Though not as expansive as the Upper Royal Gardens, they were close to being just as luxurious as friends and acquaintances gathered and made themselves at home, mostly ignoring the large set covered by a checkerboard-patterned tent.

The famous critic, Hoity Toity, who Fancy Pants had little positive or negative interactions with, was conversing with Photo Finish. The two seemed almost friendly. Strange as both were ponies who few would see as friendly towards anypony let alone each other.

As he made his way around the gathering, the greetings and praises of friends, acquaintances or otherwise were barely heard in his ears. Nopony pointed out the lack of any monocle but it didn’t take a master wizard for anypony to realise.

He saw friendly faces, Earl Grey, Thousand Island and his father, Raven Inkwell, Fine Line, Éclair Crème, Primrose, even Prince Blueblood. All of them respected him, all of them supported him.

And he’d let them all down.

‘This must have been how Carcassonne felt all those months ago’ he thought dismally, a faint smile of blank courtesy riveted to his face as he approached the set.

Before he could get a word out to Photo or her ensemble, flood-lights came on all around the set and the tent was swept away to reveal the small but lavish modelling set. The mare of the hour herself, strut up on stage with a microphone and bellowed out to any who could hear, most of Canterlot at least, smiling brightly and giddy with excitement.

“Ladies and Gentlestallions! Stuten und Hengsten! I, Photo Finish, velcome you all to ze show! I vould first like to zank our most amiable Chairstallion, Meister Fancy Pants, for allowing zis show to take place here at his fundraiser, free of charge. I can see vhy he has the respect from so many in zis vondrous city”

There was a general vocal agreement and applause from the crowd. Fancy Pants smiled and nodded modestly, his anxieties still raging like a torrent in his mind.

“Unt now, sirs and madams, you see before your eyes, ze vonders of the modern dressmaking society brought to you by zis season’s most daring designers and vorn by my most talented of models”

He waved a hoof to the stage, beckoning over the models one by one. Each one appeared adorned with a dress that seemed to suit them perfectly. Both dress and model were unique, composed, confident and utterly beautiful. The crowd was generous with their enthusiasm, stamping hooves upon the grass as loudly as etiquette would allow. All Fancy Pants could think about was how much he had looked forward to seeing Fleur on the stage, no doubt dressed in a piece of finery that would fit her just so well and do all it could to make her look more stunning than she already always did. She was still the foremost matter on his mind. He didn’t know if that made him a better or worse stallion for putting everything he had in danger and failed at even that.

On and on the show continued and no show of glamour could compare to the image of his beloved that Fancy held in his mind. Yet it all reminded him of Fleur de Lis and how he had broken her heart and doomed her to pain and degradation. Would she live out the rest of her life convinced that the stallion she had loved so much held nothing but disdain and apathy for her? And what sort of life would that leave her with?

He could endure it no longer. Quietly turning away from the show, he prepared to go inside, barely listening to Photo Finish’s gleeful commentary.
“Zank you, Xylosa! And now, presenting our newest addition to our glorious troupe, tventy-six years old, born in Ponyville, eloquent, educated and as tall and graceful as a gilded goddess in spring...Fleur de Lis!”


Fancy’s eyes widened, unworried about dropping the absent monocle as he spun back round a full 180° and stared at the set as, passing by Roxy Stick, or Xylosa on the stage, was...her.

Fleur de Lis strode in, each little step a pose, dressed in clothing that Fancy had never really thought beautiful until now.

In truth she could have worn anything and would’ve suited her.

Pausing every length of the walk to wow the crowd with a playful posture, smiling enchantingly all the while, Photo Finish continued her introduction.

“Fleur de Lis is fortunate enough to be vearing a silver-embroidered, high-collared, fiber-trim suit in this season’s shade of pink, a stunning garb by ze gifted designer, Rococo Pommel and Daughter, appear in person for same-day custom-design guaranteed”

‘Rococo Pommel. Good to know that marvellous old mare’s still thriving’ A small thought popped into Fancy’s head. For the moment however, his attention was drawn predominantly to Fleur de Lis and her domination of the scene. There was no other word for it. Even in her most elated of moods, he’d never seen her show such splendour. It wasn’t even the astonishing suit she wore that made her so impossible to ignore. It was her sheer amount of confidence, of poise, of undaunted power.

She really was a goddess.

She was missing only the wings. And even then, she was close enough to an alicorn without them.

At least in Fancy’s eyes.

Though the crowd were close to the same opinion judging by their applause. As Fleur reached the end of the walk, he stood up on her two back hooves, a feat only capable by those with great reflexes or physical development, then spun round on one, her mane and tail flying around her like a pair of splendorous veils as pink as a winter sunset. Throwing her hooves behind her head, she brushed back her mane and let it dance before her, flowing out like a delightful pearl-pink stream. As Fancy stared out, his heart a-flutter, he just caught sight of her wink towards him.

The uncontrollable storm of gloom and anxiety that had bombarded the gentlecolt’s thought dissipated into the ether as he continued to watch Fleur de Lis make her exit.

She had stayed.

She hadn’t given up.

Fancy bowed his head, full of admiration.

She had possessed far more resolve than he had ever believed.

“Zank you, zank you all for your enthusiasm on zis day! Now silence!” Photo Finish bellowed “Ve vill continue ze shooting around ze Manor. Please vatch at your leisure but no interference of any kind vill be permitted. Ve vill also be allowing interviews viz our splendid models if your curiosity must be sated, starting viz our budding newcomer, Fleur de Lis. Until zen, mares and stallions, you have been a...satisfactory audience...I go!”

And with amazing speed that could have been mistaken for teleportation, Photo Finish had left the stage as the models were free to explore the manor and interact with its assembly.

‘Fleur...’ Fancy thought, thoroughly stunned at what he’d just seen ‘You really are extraordinary’


*


Earwax’s clients paid well but he could name few who didn’t get on his nerves.

Always so paranoid. A conspiracy here, a harassment scandal there and all the while he’d be sent back and forth collecting and the necessary information to use or destroy.

Then again, ponies didn’t pay six figure sums to arrange an injury lawsuit.

The pegasus arrived at the Canterlot Gazette headquarters, a towering skyscraper with shimmering cyan windows and gilded adornments, more as a means to fit in the rest of the scenery in truth. He stepped inside and was met with a receptionist before the elevator. He rapped on the desk and gave a curt introduction.

“Mr Earwax. You may have heard of me. I’m here to see Mr Buried Lede, the head of the company”

“Yes, thank you, I know the name of my boss” the secretary gave him a sarcastic look.

“Just send me up” Earwax growled. Unperturbed, the secretary pressed a button at her desk and the elevator opened as he’d demanded.

Earwax walked in and was sent up swiftly to the head of the company’s office.

As the doors opened, he found Buried Lede looking significantly unfriendly. More so than usual.

Buried Lede was a ruthless and notoriously caustic earth pony with a dark orange coat, a grey flat top of a mane and a moustache that spanned the length of his lip. He was almost always on edge, complaining or demanding one thing or another but had lapped up the smut on Fancy Pants with great enthusiasm, eager to publish it to a gossip-hungry populace at the slightest excuse.

Earwax had rather expected his arrival to be well-received. Instead, it seemed, nothing was further from the truth.

“Ah...Mr Lede...I trust you’ve been waiting for me”

“Oh ya bet I have, Earwax, ya bet yer mama’s flanks I have!” he snarled, taking a cigar out his mouth and waving it around frantically “Do ya read the Magnifique Fashion magazine?”

Earwax wasn’t expecting such a question.

“No...Not really my interest...” he said plainly.

“Well I’ve just started” Buried Lede snapped, eyes close to popping in fury, for whatever reason Earwax was unsure of “And ya know why I’ve just started? I’ll tell ya why I’ve just started! Because it might help me to know when some stuffed shirt is selling me stuff that could get me blacklisted by the media office!”

“...what?” Earwax took a step back, sensing all was not well as Buried Lede threw down the latest issue of Magnifique.

Depicted on the front, in a high-collar, fiber-trim pink suit, was the tall, young mare from the photographs.


Earwax’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and his jaw dropped several feet as he gave a weak exclamation.

“...oh buck...”

“Oh buck, indeed, pally!” Buried Lede yelled “The mare you claim to be an underage vagrant groomed for sexual service and political sabotage by the Royal Council Chairstallion, I was led to believe, turns out to be Canterlot’s newest up-and-coming model for that crazy Farman photographer! And guess what, her name, age and background appear in her profile! Fleur de Lis, twenty-six years old, born and raised in Ponyville, works part time as an ice-cream pony...who woulda thunk it!”

“Now...Mister Lede, I can explain...”

The irate CEO slammed a hoof down on his desk.

“Ya got yer head between yer flanks if ya think I’m gonna’ listen to anything else ya gotta’ say! It hasn’t ended well so far, I can tell ya’ that! When ya sent me the photos, which it’s worth pointing out went missing when I found this magazine on my desk this afternoon, ya promised me that Fancy Pants was due to fall in a citywide scandal the ponies of Equestria would never forget. As per yer recommendations, I pulled several strings and had it sent past the proofing and editing offices ahead of time to prepare for immediate publication...oh how wonderful it all sounded” He leaned forward, teeth bared.

“So ya can imagine my shock and dismay when those same offices tell me that, under Royal Decree No. 176 concerning confirmation and verification of any and all news and information required before being shown to the public, the Canterlot Gazette is facing temporary suspension and formal investigation of sources which, for the uninformed, is PRETTY BUCKING BAD FOR BUSINESS!”

“I...I...” Earwax was speechless.

“Save it!” He started backing a suitcase “Let me tell ya, this the last time I ever consider even touching information yer’ve sent me again, do ya hear me! Now if ya excuse me, I have to make a sincere apology to the Royal Council and quite possibly to the Princess herself in two hours and I assume ya have places to be! Now get the hay outta’ my office!”


Earwax’s mind was awash with fear as the elevator took his back to the ground floor.

Somehow somepony had moved before they did.

How? Who?

Nopony else was supposed to know but Fancy and he couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Something had gone wrong.

And now he was the one who’d have to tell Nitpick.

And his wife.

He gave a shudder at the thought.

The door opened and the receptionist smiled sardonically.

“Hello, Mr Earwax, was Mr Lede happy to see you?”

“That’s none of your concern!” Earwax barked.

“Of course not. Oh, by the way, there’s a stallion who wants to talk to you. He’s waiting outside”

Fuming at the inconvenience, Earwax stormed outside where a white-coated, blue-maned unicorn stallion stood in armour.

“Mr Earwax?” he asked calmly.

“Look, I really don’t have time to be answering questions right now, I’m a busy stallion, so make this quick” the lawyer snapped.

“Of course, I just have one question” the guard said, his horn flashing as several small pieces of paper rose in front of Earwax’s face.

“Are these yours?” the unicorn asked.

Paling significantly, Earwax gaped at the photos of Fancy Pants and Fleur for a moment before turning tail to run, only to find himself grabbed by the shoulders and hoof-cuffed by an enormous and humourless chocolate-brown mare with a jet-black slicked-back mane.

“I believe that answers the question, sir” she growled, deep but calm and strangely articulate.

“Thank you Corporal Blockbuster” the unicorn said as he turned to a rangy orange pegasus landed before them “And well done, Private Flash Sentry for bringing me these photos”

“Just another job well done for us, Sarge!” Flash Sentry said proudly.

“Indeed. You’re still getting three week’s fatigues for breaking into a private residence and stealing items”

Ignoring the muffled insults Flash Sentry strewed upon him, the unicorn glared at the apprehended lawyer with disdain.

“Mr Earwax. I am Sergeant Shining Armour of Her Majesty’s Palace Guard. You’re under arrest for invasion of privacy, extortion and public slander. Take him to lock-up”


*


“Oh stop being such a drama-queen, Cascadius, things are going off without a hitch! Victory is certain”

Countess Magnifying Glass looked remarkably confident considering her general demeanour a day ago, her trademark smirk etched into her face, as she triumphantly gazed out the window in the smoking room, calmly sipping whisky.

Cascadius, meanwhile, sat in a small armchair, his eyes closed in thought.

The only time one can be certain of victory...” he murmured “...is after it has happened -Daimyo Furin Kazan of Hakuba, Master Strategist and Wielder of the Four Rings. He said it right before his faction, the Iron Sun Shogunate, suffered a crushing defeat at the hooves of Princess Laurelore and Lady Kimono in the War of the Fifth Ring. Sashimono, the eighteenth Shogun, didn’t listen to him. That was why there wasn’t a nineteenth”

The Countess sighed.

“Is this how you kill ponies then, Cascadius? By boring them to death? I’m not interested in what some rice-chomping Chineighpony said over a millennia ago”

Neighponese

“What?”

The Countess raised an eyebrow and drew back slightly as Cascadius shot her a positively venomous glare, as she’d said something uncouth about a member of his close family.

“Furinkazan was not Chineighse, he was Neighponese. They are very different countries. His skill and wisdom crafted Neighpon into a society of unparalleled warriors. He was an exceptional pony and I shall thank you, milady, not to speak ill of him”

The Countess stared at his humourless expression a moment then turned away, tutting.

“You didn’t tell me there was another alicorn in Canterlot” Cascadius said, changing the subject but keeping his morose tone.

“Well...she was only a filly last time I hired you” the Countess shrugged “This would be Lady Mi Amore Cadenza then?”

“Yes...she is...unusual” Cascadius placed his hooves together in front of his lips in thought “When did she ascend?”

“Does it matter?”

“It matters to me” He had answered very quickly, as if snapping.

“Nopony knows. Celestia found her that way, wandering the wastelands to the north”

Cascadius’s eyes widened but that was the only change in his position.

“How old was she?” he asked.

“Barely older than a foal, or so I was told”

A slight smile crept into Cascadius’s features.

“Interesting” he said.

‘Another opportunity...’ he thought ‘To reclaim the prize that was stolen from me...stolen by him His hooves pressed angrily into the arms of the chair ‘But later...later...once he is dealt with...I never make the same mistake twice’


“Are you sure you won’t have a drink?” the Countess asked, hints of mockery in her voice “Hoity Toity has quite an eye for these things”

“Who?” Cascadius turned to face her.

“Oh don’t you know him? Famous celebrity critic around Canterlot. Gave my husband some congratulatory gifts at the Hanoverian”

“Congratulatory...you mean he knows?”

“There’s no harm. We hold all the cards” She swigged the whisky, cleared her throat and chuckled “The plan is foolproof”

“Explain to me, milady, how a foolproof plan is carried out by fools

“Oh for Tartarus’ sake, even those blockheads can’t mess it up! He hasn’t any other option but to submit to us”

“He hasn’t...She has”

The Countess paused and eyed him.

“What do you mean?”

Cascadius looked at the Countess as one would a stupid puppy, with amusement and a hint of pity, as he got to his hooves.

“Why don’t we see what’s on the orb?” he asked sweetly.

Heart starting to constrict with worry, Magnifying Glass lit up her horn at the smoking room orb. The crystal ball filled with carmine smog and projected the image across the wall.

The image of a very familiar mare on the fashion channel.

There was a pause. Cascadius looked away, smirking slightly as the sound of a glass of whisky being dropped from a moderate height onto the floor sounded across the smoking-room before he left the room, no doubt through an exit only he knew.

Countess Magnifying Glass stood almost completely still.

Then she remembered how to use her voice again.

“NITPICK! GET IN HERE NOW!”


*


Fleur was led to a podium where a couple of journalists and several guests saw fit to surround her and satisfy their inquiries.

“When did you start modelling?”

Fleur gave a giggle and answered honestly, nothing to hide.

“Well, I went into modelling as a part-time job during my final years at school, nothing too important. I’ve been working freelance until now. I do quite like working in the business, it’s difficult sometimes but it’s all worth it and it’s good to do the things you love”

“Your profile says you’re from Ponyville? Anything to say about that?”

“It was a good place for my parents to start their business. It was lovely growing up there. I’d actually recommend visiting there to anypony. I’m not afraid to say it. I do love it here in Canterlot but Ponyville is a beautiful town, there’s nothing quite like it”

There was a murmur ranging from agreement to disagreement from the crowd.

“Would you say you are currently in a relationship?”

Fleur gave an exaggerated sheepish look.

“Ah...I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit of a shut-in in recent years, odd for a model, I know, but...let’s just say I’m still adjusting to the city life” She shrugged “But I’d say, given time...there might be somepony special to me but...” She gave a wink and a cheeky nudge of the camera with her forehoof “I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another time”

“Fleur de Lis! You are required!” Photo Finish boomed from the manor.

“Oh, and that I think will have to do. Thank you all, everypony, read my story in the Magnifique, you’ve been a great audience”

Giving them a dainty wave goodbye, Fleur strutted off toward the manor.

In the commotion of the guests and reporters, Tombola neatly deposited a small flat circle of glass into Fleur’s chest pocket and gave her a meaningful nod.

Stage Two of the plan was underway.


Fancy Pants half-sat, half-stood in the corridor of Briefly Manor, puffing like a bellows, a day and a night of endless anxiety lifted from his shoulders, as well as thoroughly flustered by Fleur’s performance.

This was it then, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Why did it feel so exhausting?

Just around the corridor, Photo Finish’s entourage were posing beside pieces from his modest but definitely sufficient art collection.

It must have been Vidalia who was on at the moment, last time he checked. And for once, Photo Finish said nothing about changing her posture. Today was definitely a productive day for them.

Even if Fleur hadn’t come back, it would still have felt laudable.

Now, no matter what Nitpick did to him, he was safe in the knowledge that his beloved was safe.

Fancy Pants braced himself to meet the mare of his dreams again. He hoped to Celestia that she had forgiven him for the letter he sent. It would be difficult to build their relationship back up again after what had happened, especially with the press about.

Hopefully he’d find a way around it. And even if, worst case scenario, there was no way for them to get back together, at least he had done all he could to protect her.

In fact, he had gone one step further.

He had helped her protect herself.


“Excuse me?”

A very familiar and very lovely voice beside him turned his head.

There she was. Fleur de Lis, still in her suit.

Behind her were a handful of ponies. Perhaps a couple of journalists among them.

Just faces in the crowd.

It didn’t matter now.

Fancy Pants adjusted his bowtie and prepared to speak.

He was cut off as Fleur’s magic produced an item that had, until a day ago, been very precious to him.

“Is this your monocle?” she asked “I think you left it on the courtyard table. I didn’t think you’d want to lose it”

“Th-thank you...”

As she gently placed it back on him, Fancy felt more himself than ever before. Invigorated, he spoke as he had done that fateful Rejuvenation Festival in Fleur’s hometown.

“Charmed...You’re a very kind...and if you don’t mind me saying...very pretty young mare”

It was always her smile. The most beautiful thing about Fleur de Lis was always her smile.

Behind them, the guests gossiped among each other and the journalists worked on catchy headline titles but Fleur de Lis didn’t care.

He just watched as Fancy Pants adjusted his monocle, gave a smile and became his old self.

It was good to have him back.


*


In the smoking room at Invitro Hall, the Glass family household and cohorts cowered in unison as Countess Magnifying Glass stood stock-still, lips white, eyes bulging as Masquerade the newsmare appeared on the channel.

“That’s right Canterlot! Love is in the air, especially around Briefly Manor as reporters are flocking to broadcast the goings-on where, according to rumour, the current Chairstallion, Fancy Pants, and an upcoming model in Photo Finish’s circle named Fleur de Lis have apparently fallen for each other at first sight! The two were unwilling to divulge into details but when asked their honest opinion, the Chairstallion’s friends and acquaintances had inklings that their relationship will become fruitful and believed the two were very suitable for each other, judging by Miss Fleur de Lis’s announcement at the modelling shoot held at Briefly Manor”

The cameras appeared on Fleur de Lis, who had been handed the microphone and was standing in her suit before the crowd, smiling proudly.

“Thank you all so much for coming here on this very special day” she began “Hoity Toity, who I’m sure you know well, has declared this the most eventful and unique fashion show he’s seen in a while and guarantees us the highest ratings in the capital”

There was a great round of applause as Hoity Toity gave a modest bow before Fleur continued.

“Now, what you may not know is that Mister Fancy Pants allowed our shoot to be held at Briefly Manor absolutely free of charge”

There was a murmur of surprise and a round of applause for Fancy Pants.

“Therefore,” Fleur said, beaming “with the profits made significantly higher than expected and more than enough investments to kick-start our enterprise, Photo Finish and company have decided that the money raised today will go straight to the funding of refugee camps in Shajarat as Fancy Pants proposed at his last speech, if you’ll remember. I’m told we’ll have enough to properly feed, shelter and protect over two million Saddle Arabian refugees for as long as they may need. And we couldn’t have done it without you”

There was a raucous applause that was likely sounded all across the capital as Fleur, Fancy Pants, Photo Finish, Hoity Toity and the cast and crew of the modelling shoot all received lavish praise from the throng of guests.

“With this grand show of generosity and, more importantly, the success of his promised proposals,” Masquerade continued “The votes for Fancy have climbed to nearly eighty percent of the-”

The carmine magic inside the orb flared and rumbled like a thunderstorm, exploding outwards, causing the orb to crack slightly and the image projected across the wall to dissipate and fade away.


Nitpick, Cumbersome, Monocular, Binocular, Morion, Culverin, Arquebus and Cringeworth all stared fearfully at the Glass Family matriarch who turned to them with the morbid, rigid smile of a pony who has thoroughly lost their marbles.

“How...did...this...happen?” she asked, her voice fluttering between octaves maniacally.

“I...I...I can’t imagine, my dear...” Nitpick whimpered “I...he...there was no way he could’ve...he was defeated, we saw it in his eyes when we...”

He stopped, doing an amazing impression of a suffocating haddock as his dear wife paced toward him, the sickly grin chiselled into her features.

“When...you...what...darling?” she hissed, her eyebrow twitching frantically.

“When...” Nitpick gulped and answered in a decidedly high-pitched tone “When we told him...

The Countess’s teeth grinded against each other, her lips still stuck that ghastly grin as she closed her eyes, breathing deeply through flared nostrils.

“You....told him?” she said, horribly calm.

“...yes...”

“Our plan?”

“...yes...”

Another deep breath.

“I see”

“M-m-milady” Cumbersome stammered “He was powerless, if you had seen his face. There wasn’t a thing he could do to stop us”

“Well...that’s obviously not true...” Magnifying Glass growled “Otherwise we wouldn’t have seen what we just saw...”

“B-b-but...the photos...we...he couldn’t have...” Nitpick blustered, sweating profusely, and snapped to Arquebus “Contact Earwax immediately, tell him to get in touch with the Gazette!”

The khaki pegasus pulled out a transceiver, tuned it and held it to his ear for several moments.

“Ah...er...sir...” he mumbled “Mister Earwax...is in prison...”

“What?!” Nitpick wailed “Why?!”

“Well, sir...” Arquebus put away his transceiver and shifted on his hooves “They found the photos”

Clammy-browed and goggle-eyed Nitpick sat down stunned as the Countess drew herself up, her face as red as her magic.

“I blame myself...” she said flatly “I really hadn’t thought to tell you...I didn’t consider it all that necessary at the time...”

“T-t-tell us...what?” Cumbersome burbled.

“Oh well...it’s very simple...” the Countess’s horn crackled and flared as those around her watched with horror, making plans to bolt at the first opportunity.

“When you have a knife at somepony’s back...when you have poisoned their drink...sabotaged their carriage...trip-wired their door...when you are waiting in the shadows for the chance to spring out and end their days...YOU! DON’T! TELL! THEM!"


All Tartarus broke loose as the Countess let loose an unearthly scream and set about rearranging the entire smoking room, furniture, appliances and antiques flying at all those present, all the while bellowing insults.

“IDIOTS! MORONS! CRETINS! FOOLS! NITWITS! BLOCKHEADS! DUNCES! PEABRAINS! DOLTS! IMBECILES! NUMBSKULLS! TWITS! CLODS! BUFFOONS! NINCOMPOOPS! DIMWITS! SIMPLETONS! BUNGLERS! STUPID...STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! GAAAAAAARGH!”

All ponies barring the Countess tried in vain to escape unscathed. Nitpick hid behind an armchair to avoid the dreaded poker landing somewhere profoundly uncomfortable before the armchair itself set about flattening him into the floor. Cumbersome fell in a heap, painting after painting shoved over his head, the frames hanging round his neck. Binocular ran around, screeching and yelping as the poker thrashed at her enormous backside while Monocular struggled to remove a vase that had become stuck on her pinched, little head. Cringeworth was bowled out the room as a dresser took him straight in the face and carried him out, landing in the hallway with a crash. Morion, Culverin and Arquebus made to hold the Countess down but ended up battered by her flailing hooves far worse than they’d gotten from Fancy Pants in the Lower Gardens. In the absence of any nobler ways out, the seven helpless ponies streamed out the door of the smoking-room and were disinclined to stay in Invitro Hall for the remainder of the hour as the Countess finished thoroughly demolishing the smoking room, standing in a heap of debris, breathless and delirious.

Cascadius gazed at the aftermath and nursed his temples with one hoof.

‘I want to go back to Saddle Arabia’ he thought as he brought out a fresh whisky bottle and a glass from another room.

“I presume this is the congratulatory gift then?” he asked innocently.

“Shut up! Just shut up!” The Countess sounded close to sobbing “I’m not thirsty!”

“Just as well. I am” He poured a glass and downed it. Barely reacting to the strength, he smiled at the vintage.

“Mmm...Thane MacCaledon’s Finest” he said with mirth “Hoity Toity really does have good taste. At least when it comes to whisky”

“Well I’ll be interested to know where he gets it so I can DROWN HIM IN IT!” Magnifying Glass screamed.

Sighing, Cascadius put one of the armchairs back up and sat down.

“Am I to understand that the time has come for more...aggressive methods?”

“As far as possible!” Magnifying Glass stared him dead in the eye "I don’t care what you have to do, or who you have to send, I want them dead! Fancy Pants! Fleur de Lis! Photo Finish! Hoity Toity! Blueblood! Carcassonne! Earl Grey! Everypony! I will not be satisfied until I can paint the walls of Invitro Manor with their blood!”

“Oh I can do better than that” Cascadius said, smiling “I can give you free reign over Canterlot for a day and a night. Tomorrow morning a terrible disaster will befall Equestria that will require Celestia’s immediate and prolonged attention. In that time, all your little demons will be purged. I have a friend coming over to take care of Carcassonne. She and this Cadenza we were talking about have been digging up dirt on us and I think we’re done letting that slide aren’t we”

“See to it that it’s done!” The Countess barked, eyes as cold and bloodless as a pair of icicles “I want Fancy Pants’ demise to be as long and painful as you made that of his parents!”

Cascadius closed his eyes and pursed his lips in what almost looked like regret. Then he spoke.

“Your wish, my lady, is my command”

Chapter 8

View Online

Fancy Pants more than made up for the morning he’d spent in sullenness the day before. He spent the morning engaging in conversation with anypony who would speak with him, enjoyed a hearty breakfast and a bit of a dance up and down the stairs, his tweed dressing gown flapping round his sides.

He simply felt so much more alive.

He was safe. Fleur was safe. Briefly Manor and all those in it were safe. The ponies he loved and cared for were safe and soon enough, those who had sought to change that would be getting their comeuppance.

He and Fleur’s relationship was the talk of the city and, for once, he cared not. Fleur de Lis had demonstrated herself to be just as magnanimous as him and twice as determined and deserved her growing reputation as a dazzling mare of wonder. He was honoured to be associated with her and have so many believe the two of them belonged with one another and he knew for certain she felt likewise.

Overall, Fancy Pants concluded, things were good.

Below the staircase that the master of the manor was bounding up and down on, Tombola and Mrs Fuss Pot were conversing, enjoying the sight of their master’s mirth.

“Ooh, it really is lovely to see him more his old self, so it is” Fuss sighed “I never could stand to see the young master downcast”

“Yes, dear madam, I do believe the worst is behind us” Tombola chuckled.

“Ay-up, all!” Gruffleby emerged, his face pale “Don’t look now but you might want to make the place presentable. It’s the Nephew-Crusher herself”

Tombola’s face fell.

“Rather spoke too soon” he groaned, taking his leave and heading to the stairs to see his master.

“Sir?” he called “Much as I hate to spoil your jubilation, her ladyship, Mrs Bustle Bloomers, is due to arrive.

Fancy Pants’ moustaches jerked in horror as he rolled his eyes.

“Aunts” he sulked “What a ruddy nuisance”


To be fair, though his aunt has earned the nickname ‘The Nephew-Crusher’ around Briefly Manor, Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers wasn’t by way of being his answer to Countess Magnifying Glass. Thinking about what poor Derpy had endured still made him shudder.

His father’s elder sister had never been outright abusive, especially during his younger years. To call her stern, however, would be the understatement of the century. The overseer of his foalhood, Bustle Bloomers had no patience or toleration for foolishness of any kind. Pantaloon’s family came from centuries of noble heritage and while he may not have made such a fuss about it, Bustle Bloomers certainly did. She had always turned her nose up at Petticoat and, though pleased enough with them bringing up a colt, she took it upon herself to remind her young nephew of his standing and responsibilities at every occasion, treading harshly on any mischief on his or his mother’s part. Since his parent’s death, Aunt Bustle Bloomers had been something of a guardian and while she definitely cared a lot about the safety of her nephew, it would have helped if she didn’t see so many things as being dangerous to him, namely having a life in general. She was one of those unfortunate cases where her concern for the family honour far outweighed her concern for the family itself.

Aunt Bustle Bloomers never ‘visited’, only ever ‘inspected’. If she was at Briefly Manor, chances were her nephew had done something wrong in her eyes and she was going to make her position known.

‘When Aunt Bustle Bloomers wants you to do a thing you do it,’ Fancy had always said ‘Or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with Tirek!’ Checking himself in the mirror to notice anything out of place, he trotted down the stairs and met her aunt in the courtyard.

The carriage Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers travelled in was decorative but small and her aunt, having put on a substantial amount of weight in her elder years, took a significant time getting out, back-end first. Fancy noticed Ramekin, Plumette, Gruffleby and Tinny Can barely stopping themselves from laughing and truthfully, he felt much the same.

Finally, Bustle Bloomers emerged, a tall but portly matriarch with a dark grey coat and a blue-grey perm of a mane that was showing more grey than blue. Dressed in a grand indigo dress that almost carried her along the ground and a hat with feathers of all sorts sticking out, she was not likely to be mistaken in a crowd. Combined with her habit of looking over her opera glasses and anypony and everypony, she was obnoxious to those who knew her for about a minute and terrifying to any who knew her longer.

The silence of the courtyard was broken by the yapping of the Grand Duchess’s constant companion, Horatio, a West Highland White terrier that boasted the impressive skill of being able to bark incessantly nonstop throughout the day pausing only for meals and had contributed to Fancy’s general discomfort around most members of the canine family.

Ambling forwards, showing few signs of her growing age debilitating her, Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers gave her son the once-over with her opera glasses.

“Fancy...” she began, her voice reedy but strong, every word straight from the diaphragm “You look very unhealthy...You really shouldn’t spend so much time in the city...We must talk inside”


*


The first time Princess Celestia had ever sat upon the royal throne, she had been little more than a foal under the tutelage of Star-Swirl and Princess Laurelore. She and Luna had clambered over the gaudy seat for hours, giggling all the while.

And even now, after centuries, the throne always made Princess Celestia feel like a child.

She took one look over the latest polling reports.

Fancy Pants was ahead by nearly ten times the number of votes of his opponents.

On that particular front she could rest easy.

On another matter she was, at present, hearing from her niece, Lady Mi Amore Cadenza, about her recent visits to the Council Archives.

“I hope you understand, young Cadence, that you should have requested permission from a council member” Her tone was serious but not stern. Nonetheless, Cadence shifted about on her hooves uncomfortably.

“I know, Princess, and I’m sorry, but the information in those vaults were crucial to my studies”

“And what studies were those, may I ask?” Celestia raised one eyebrow.

“Combating political corruption” Cadence looked up with a proud expression “I believe Nitpick’s been hiding something from his fellow councillors and covered up a monstrous act many years ago”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, my niece, but most of various misdemeanours are, at this point, common knowledge” She leaned forward “I’m told you’ve been conducting these ‘studies’ of yours with Miss Carcassonne”

“That’s right” Cadence took note of her aunt’s suspicious expression “I really think I can help her. I know you and her never really got along and both she and I can accept that was mostly her fault but I’ve already got her to come to terms with most of her mistakes”

“I am grateful for that but allowing her to chase after her political rivals, with aid from the royalty no less, could set her down the path of something much worse”

“Princess Celestia, I know Carcassonne can be reckless and perhaps quite vindictive but I believe I’m becoming a good influence on her. She’s agreed to let me handle the...”


“Princess Celestia!” A messenger burst in, pale-faced and ashen “It...It’s an emergency! You’re needed at once!”

The two alicorns spun round and took great notice of the newcomer’s panic.

“What has happened?!” the Princess asked.

The messenger took a breath and explained in an anxious tone.

“Bittsburgh...The city of Bittsburgh...It’s burning!

“What?!” Celestia’s pearl-pink eyes widened with horror.

“The steelworks...there was an explosion...well, a chain of them...all over the industrial districts! The flames are spreading all over the streets! The weather ponies can’t cope! Hundreds will die! We...we need you”

“Worry no more. I will head to the city with all haste. Lady Mi Amore Cadenza...” The Princess of Equestria’s sun turned to her niece “You and the Royal Council shall meet here at the palace and take charge over Canterlot until my return. I should not be long but I expect you to act with prudence”

“Of course, auntie...er, you highness” Cadence bowed.

“Good messenger, please rest in Canterlot, you have done very well” Celestia told the messenger before her horn lit near up as bright as the sun she carried up at daybreak and teleported out Canterlot.

The messenger looked closely at Princess Cadence, his face blank.

‘Vibrant coat. Mane multi-chromatic but blended. Eyes wide and slightly diagonal with heavy lashes and extended lacrimal area. Slight change in colour at the wingtip. Wings are wide-feathered like that of a peahen. Non-Equestrian origins. Definite. Flutter Valley? Possible. Crystal Empire? Much more likely’

“Are you alright?” Cadence asked.

“F-f-forgive me, my lady” the messenger stammered, bowing “I...I’ve never seen an alicorn before”

“It’s alright” she said smiling “I need to be going. I’ll be back soon if there’s anything else so wait in the palace rooms if you’ve nowhere else to go. If not, nopony will mind if you explore the city”

‘Cutie-Mark. The Crystal Heart. Confirmed Imperial, possibly of the ancient lineage, pre-Sombra. Wings are kept clean but show signs of moulting marks typical of withdrawn pegasi. Used them a lot in younger years, not so much now. Closer to pegasus than unicorn, stronger genes on the pegasus side. Cutie-mark seems old judging by the length and blending of the coat colour on and around it so acquired it younger than most, prodigious, gifted with magic and awakened alicorn power early. Alicorn power- Unknown, definitely cosmic, possibly psychological phenomena, most likely high level’

“Thank you, your grace” he said.

‘Best Course Of Action: Examine Weaknesses While Avoiding Direct Confrontation’

And he was gone.


*


“Fancy”

“Aunt Bustle Bloomers”

The two noble ponies sat on opposite sides of the dining table, trying their hardest to enjoy a light brunch. Horatio occupied a chair of his own beside his owner, who fed him treats of freeze-dried shrimp in a tender fashion reserved for him alone. Bustle Bloomers adjusted her opera glasses, sipped from a teacup and spoke in an imperious tone to his nephew.

“I wish to question you sharply on recent events and how they have been interpreted by the public”

“I see” Fancy said “Carry on”

“I am told you allowed a...‘Modelling Shoot’ to be held here at Briefly Manor”

“Yes, that’s right” Fancy answered, clearing his throat and bracing himself “The photographer’s a friend of mine”

Bustle Bloomers gave a drawn-out sniff.

“And I am also told you and one of the models, a gangly, ostentatious and...common individual were at each other’s side”

The gentlecolt sighed.

“Manner of speaking...yes”

“Fancy” Bustle Bloomers shot him a withering glare “It is young stallions like you that make a pony with the future of the race at heart despair

Fancy tapped his hooves and gave a small reply.

“Oh”

“Do not act as if this is a minor inconvenience, Fancy. I can assure you, it is not” She stood up and paced around impatiently “For years I have sought about making you a match with a decent wife. For goodness sake, you grew up with countless young mares of equal or higher standing. If you had simply shown more interest when I showed you to the Princess and her ward...”

“I told you, Miss Cadence was already seeing a stallion” Fancy said in a level tone.

“That was completely beside the point! The match would have cemented the family with royal status and lineage” she snapped “You are thirty years of age, Fancy. You should be breeding foals by now. Instead, you waste your time behind a clerk’s desk and ignore the responsibilities of the family. And now...now I hear you’re cavorting with a backwater mare who is paid to flaunt herself on the morning publications! Well, what have you to say?”


Fancy Pants eyed his aunt for a moment.

The fear he had of his aunt made way for his indignation of hearing Fleur’s name insulted.

Turning to his plate, he took a sip of tea and spoke plainly.

“Her name is Fleur de Lis...and she saved my life”

Bustle Bloomers titled her head suspiciously.

“I beg your pardon?”

Fancy Pants closed his eyes in bitter recollection and continued.

“I almost gave up yesterday, auntie. I suppose you would have been relieved if that happened. I met Fleur a while ago when I visited Ponyville. She came to Canterlot to find work and we started seeing each other. At the time, I really wasn’t certain if I was in love with her or not. Then she was attacked, by ponies who sought to destroy me as well as her. I put a stop to it and saw fit to take care of her. We grew fond of one another, I have to say”

“Fancy, I...”

Fancy Pants held up one hoof slightly, quite gingerly, as the words came pouring out his mouth regardless of how he thought they’d sound on his or his aunt’s ears. Bustle Bloomers looked distinctly peeved that she’d been interrupted but seemed resolved to listen.

“Then they tried to harm me but harming her and vice versa with blackmail and slander of the most heinous kind. They wanted me to surrender and Fleur to suffer. At first, I had a chance to leave with dignity and so I gave Fleur the same opportunity...and only by breaking her heart. Looking back I probably should have done something about this. I am, after all, a kinspony of Knickerbocker and a Lord of Briefly Manor. Showing courage in the dragon’s mouth is our way of living. But...at that point I was simply far too worried. They came back with far worse demands and would be satisfied with nothing more than the utter destruction and degradation of myself and all beside me. Everything and everypony I loved was threatened and I had not enough time or resources to foil their scheme but, unknown to me, Fleur de Lis did. It is largely thanks to her that our family stand proud...by her ‘Flaunting herself on the morning publications’ as you put it”
He paused, taking in Bustle Bloomers’ incredulous stare.

“Well, what have you to say?” he asked, mirroring her aunt’s words moments before.


“Now listen to me, nephew of mine” the matriarch said sternly “You mistake me, entirely. Firstly...I would most certainly not been relieved. While it is true I believe your dabbling in politics is bad for you, and a waste of time, I would not have wanted you to leave in disgrace”

“Afraid it’ll shame the family name?” Fancy asked, sipping his tea.

“Fancy! That is unreasonable!” His aunt blustered, distinctly offended “I do worry about you, Fancy! I do not want you to come to harm for any reason, I had hoped you had realised that” She cleared her throat “And...As to this mare, this...Fleur. If, indeed, she has taken to helping the family then, by all means, I would be grateful and I may even see fit to reward her for it but engaging in this liaison with her is irrational”

“I don’t see why not. Me and her share a great many things”

“Then, by all means, keep her as a friend. That would be perfectly acceptable. I would not wish to share in that friendship but I would not object to it. Who you are friends with is your business. But starting this relationship with her. To what end?”

“She makes me happy”

“And what of the family name, you foolish colt?!” she barked, slamming her hoof on the floor “Your happiness does not take priority. This mare is not of noble-blood or even marginally wealthy and has few prospects to improve that. She readily engages in a career that is fundamentally pretentious and that’s not even counting her...aesthetic disproportions” She paused a moment “I am sorry for pointing it out but though you may see her dissimilarity as no fault of her own and, knowing you, quite endearing, there would be no guarantee society would think likewise. She would fail to raise the family’s status or even keep it where it is. And if your story is to be believed, she put you in danger more than she got you out of it”

Fancy narrowed his eyes at that statement.

It was true that they had tried to harm him through his love for Fleur.

But his love for Fleur wasn’t something he was prepared to lose. She was worth any danger.

“If you enjoy her company, Fancy, continue your friendship with her but I tell you now, you will not marry her and expect my approval”

“I’m sorry to hear that, auntie” He took another sip of tea “I’ll have to do without it”

Bustle Bloomers stared at her nephew.

“You never used to be this way, Fancy” he said disapprovingly “This Fleur has a bad influence on you”

“I know. I like it. I think I’ll keep seeing her”

Bustle Bloomers gave an infuriated sigh and sat back down, tossing a shrimp to Horatio.

“I have been away far too long” she clucked “You have seen fit to forget your duties”

“Duties, aunt of mine?” Fancy looked up “Do you not read the paper? My duties are to Canterlot and its Royal Council. How can you say I’m wasting my time? How can you say I am not good enough for it when most of the city is contradicting you”

Bustle Bloomers gave a deep sniff, frustrated by her nephew’s nerve.

“I am displeased that you think of me this way, Fancy” There was a hint of desolation in her voice “I have never believed you are not good at what you do. I personally believe you’ve done very well as...Chairstallion, is it? Well, as a politician, you have excelled, I do not deny it. I simply believe it is not in your best interests to pursue this endeavour. You were born to be a noble, Fancy Pants, instead you choose to be a bureaucrat. I did not approve when your father admired your mother for engaging in this field, I approve of you following her path even less. Your mother was a very good Chairmare and I understand that your father loved her very much and I do not begrudge him of that. My point is, he could have done a lot better, given his standing and opportunities, and so could you”

“You would rather I stand down and let a stallion like Nitpick take control?”

“Ah yes, I was rather expecting you to ask that” Bustle Bloomers did something quite surprising.

She removed her glasses and smiled.

Fancy Pants was not used to her smiling.


“Now Fancy, I understand that Royal Council Chairstallion is a prestigious position, no doubt the reason the Lord Magistrate covets it. Oh yes, I know what sort of stallion he is and I don’t deny he’d make an awful ruler, vain, cruel and self-seeking. But he wouldn’t really be a ruler, would he, not in practice. The Princess is the ruler. The Chairstallion is merely the monitor”

“You can’t deny it’s a powerful position, auntie. I’ve done a great deal as Chairstallion”

“Yes, but was that solely because of your position, Fancy, my colt?”

Fancy Pants thought a moment, stunned by his aunt’s words.

“No...” he said quietly “I did a great deal because of others...a Chairstallion needs to be agreed with, supported, backed and obeyed in order to get anywhere and to do that, he must appeal to his equals. There’s no obligation to serve him and no reprisal for refusing him”

“And why did nopony refuse you?”

“Well...” Fancy thought the answer was obvious “Because I’m popular”

“And is Nitpick popular? In the Council, that is?”

“Of course not. They can’t stand him. Not even Jet Set and Blueblood think he’s any good. He doesn’t show up to most meetings because of it. It wouldn’t matter how many ponies voted for him. Even if he gets in power, if the council don’t support him then he’s little more than a scapegoat and there’s nothing he can-”

He stopped, utterly flabbergasted and staring at his aunt, who sat nodding sagely and petting Horatio.

“Exactly” she said “So why are you so worried about him? He becomes Chairstallion, so what? The ponies that didn’t vote for him will never support him, and the ponies that did will stop when they learn his promises were all sour grapes. He’ll have spent eons worth of time and wealth on an enormous target on his trousers. I knew his father, Nosepick, a cheat, a liar and a paradigmatic buffoon. He pursued the position of...oh what was it...Grand Treasurer, finally got it through bribery and threats of all kinds, beating all his rivals, my husband among them. And do you know what happened? He walked out after his first month in office and he looked half-dead by the end of it, some said he was actually dribbling! He never got to touch the money he thought would all be his and his desk was never allowed not to be flooded with paperwork. I’ve seen sixteen Chairstallions in my lifetime, weak and strong, but not one of them could ever be as mighty as they were as candidates. Acquiring your position is easy. Keeping it and making use of it is altogether more difficult. But you’ve kept it for eight years and been among the most active of its holders. That takes true power. And I’ve always been impressed by it, Fancy, I just believe you could more with it than serving a glorified desk-job and cavorting with a small-town social climber”

Fancy had never seen this side of her before. Her aunt had always been intelligent, that much could be said but this wasn’t simply smart, this was wise.

The benefits of age and a life spent examining the higher echelons of society.

Fancy took a deep breath. Weighing her aunt’s words proved arduous but he made up his mind.

“I understand, auntie. And I am grateful for your concern and your advice...” he said bluntly “But I am still staying on for my third term...and I’m still seeing Fleur de Lis”

Bustle Bloomers’ face fell and she gave a weighty sigh.

“Whatever for, you silly colt?” she grumbled.

“The same reason I became Chairstallion in the first place” Fancy answered smiling “Because ponies want me to”


Shaking her head, Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers, rose from her chair, gathered up Horatio and eyed her nephew one last time.

“Sometimes I really do despair of you, nephew of mine” she said gravely “As you wish, if you will not take my advice, I will not force you. You are old enough to make your own decisions. But should those decisions lead to unpleasantness, do not expect my sympathy”

“I wouldn’t dream of it” Fancy said, hiding a smirk at the corner of his mouth.

“Very well” She sounded tired “Mister Tombola, please be so good as to call back my carriage”

“At once, your ladyship” Tombola said, bowing. The butler, until now, had been transfixed by the conversation between the master of the manor and the dreaded aunt.

“And if you must keep seeing this mare, Fancy, at the very least...” she gave him an icy glare that, to his shock, steadily mellowed out.

“Take good care of her”

“Of course”

Bustle Bloomers cleared her throat and spoke with a modicum of respect for her nephew.

“Not that it’s the smart thing...or the wise thing...but it’s the right thing”

“Sir?!” Gruffleby cantered in, or whatever the goat equivalent was, out of breath.

“Permission to speak, sir!” he panted, knowing that waiting for an answer was unnecessary with Fancy Pants “Lady Mi Amore Cadenza and Earl Grey summon you to the Royal Council while the Princess is in absentia”

“Really?”

“Yes, sir. Her ladyship also asks that you retrieve some documents from the council archives, dated as follows”

He handed him a slip of paper with a few dates scrawled on it. Fancy Pants deposited it into his jacket pocket and nodded.

“Inform her I’ll be on my way”


*


The messenger had indeed explored the city.

In fact, he'd explored most of the mountain and the river below...many ages past.

Swirled in mist, supplies and munitions from overseas were received on the river bank only on rare occasions. Smugglers had once used this part of Equestria to peddle illegal cargo into Canterlot but the Royal Guard had put a stop to that kind of thing centuries ago. Not much point smuggling in Canterlot anymore.

But nonetheless, in the mist and silence, a small passenger boat went largely unnoticed. It was a poor excuse of a ship, rusted and creaking, but it served its purpose.

The boat was carrying an old friend.

“Hey, you!” The boat’s driver and captain, a stallion as out of shape and crude as his ship, gave Cascadius a yell “You the contact?”

“That’s me” The messenger threw off his garb and showed himself.

The captain glanced behind him to one of his passengers.

“That him?” he asked.

“Oh yes”

A dark red pegasus with a spiky burnt-umber mane and black spots running from his face all the way down his back, jumped up onto the pier. He was dressed in a khaki coat with plenty of pockets and belts slung across his body and his head was topped with a bottle-green beret. His once rugged face was marred by a pale diagonal scar that covered one eye and nearly split his face in two.

Nonetheless his smile was quite friendly, at least to the messenger, showing off his gold tooth.

“Cascadius, you magnificent plot-hole!” he guffawed “It’s been too long”

Cascadius laughed and hugged the pegasus before him.

Bloodhound” he chuckled “So glad you could make it”

“Aw, you know I could never turn you down...not when there’s money involved” Bloodhound, a fellow mercenary feared across all of Outer Equestria, gave a wink “Got us what you needed. Weapons straight from Fort Alaric, Boulette”

Cascadius rolled his eyes.

“Really?! Ploughing hay, if I’d asked you to get a bag of ice you’d have gone to the freaking Summit of the Windigos!”

“What? You asked for proper weapons” Bloodhound said, shrugging “And after that job in Bangdok went south, I’m not taking any chances. No worries. The Boulette Marine Corp’s armaments are just as good as ever but the folk who use them leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately I found fine fellows who could handle them more than sufficiently”

He gave a whistle and a gang of hard-faced, cold-eyed mares and stallions from the every corner of Equestria emerged from the boat


“Excellent” Cascadius sighed “So you know the drill. The colt we said we’d spare last time you were here?”

“Yeah?”

“Plans changed”

“Ah, shame” Bloodhound sucked his teeth “Still, last time, Corax and Blue Murder were with us? You think we can still pull this off?”

“It’s all in hoof” Cascadius said casually “How are those two, by the way?”

“Well, Corax went missing in the Cognito Rainforest, but I expect he’ll pop up sooner or later”

“He could cut his way out of anything. Did he find the Headstone Horn then?”

“Oh yeah, and he’s enjoying its tune”

Cascadius gave a sigh.

“Fantastic. A half-insane Shaking-Spear-spouting cannibal with a newly-acquired army of ghouls. Oh, he’s gonna’ be Tartarus to work with and no mistake”

“Damn right” Bloodhound chuckled “And as for Blue Murder, I hear she’s got a job in North Onageria as a principal interrogator”

“Really?” Cascadius asked, slightly puzzled “A full-time job at her age?”

“Well, she’s got a foal to care for now, hasn’t she”

“Ah yes. Little Tungsten. I must remember to send him a birthday present”

“You’d better. Old Blue’s very protective of her little offspring. Remember that bully four houses down?”

Cascadius hooted with laughter.

“Whoo, she was not happy with that colt, was she?”

“No, she was not”

“Speaking of which, did you get even with that senator who stiffed you?”

“Yep. I took your advice” Bloodhound grinned, his gold tooth gleaming “I didn’t lose my temper or even use a bad word. I just left him a little message”

“What?”

“His daughter”

Cascadius eyed his friend.

“A little unprofessional”

“Hey, I didn’t kill her. I didn’t even touch her. Most of her was alright...” he cleared his throat “The parts that wouldn’t burn

Cascadius and Bloodhound looked at each other a moment.

Then both of them burst out laughing.

“Oh Tartarus, I have missed you!” Cascadius chuckled.


“Right then, to business” Bloodhound said, calming down “Am I to help you with the wet work again?”

“Not this time. I need you to be a bit more proactive”

“Continue”

Cascadius produced a photo of a scarlet unicorn with a multi-coloured mane.

“This is Carcassonne. Adept in elemental magic but not the best strategist from what I’ve seen”

Bloodhound gazed at the photo.

“And?” he asked.

“I’d like you to kill her” Cascadius said “My treat. Consider it a late Hearth’s Warming Gift”

“Oh, Cassie, you shouldn’t have” Bloodhound chuckled, catching sight of Cascadius’s irritated expression.

“Don’t call me Cassie” he grumbled.

“Hey, love-birds!” the ship’s captain yelled “Times a’ wasting! Where’s my damn money?!”

“Alright, keep your mane on” Bloodhound said, drawing an augmented knife from his coat pocket. Holding it in his hooves, he let in catch the sun “This is an Imperial Haustrian Ceremonial Dagger. Only twelve of these exist in the world. This one was gifted to me eight years ago by Archduke Freischutz in the Battle of Stohnendenwald. It was used to skin the false King of the Moanwood Deer alive. The blade saw over a hundred battles before then and has seen over a thousand since”

“I’m not interested in your bucking life story, buddy! How much is it worth?!”

Bloodhound narrowed his eyes and answered in a flat tone.

“Just over a quarter of a million bits on the underground auction”

“That’s more like it!” the ship’s captain licked his lips and held out his hoof “Throw it over!”

There was a dull whistle as the knife went sailing through the air and, rather than land in the captain’s hooves, elected instead to bury itself in the stallion’s forehead, causing him to topple back, open-mouthed, goggle-eyed and very, very dead.

Very poor choice of words” Bloodhound said dismally as he silently flew over and retrieved the dagger. As he did so, Cascadius grabbed the edge of the boat and attempted to pull it open at the hull. There was a mighty metallic groan and the front of the ship tore open and took in water. His work done, Cascadius gave the boat a great push out to sea where both and its late captain steadily started to sink.

Bloodhound flew back to the port, cleaned his dagger, took one look at the sinking ship and turned back to his old friend.

“No respect for culture, some ponies” he tutted “Right then, let’s get cracking”


*


Fancy Pants arrived at the Royal Council in good time. It wasn’t too far away from Briefly Manor and taking the carriage would have been far more costly, time-wise, as there seemed to be a general congestion city-wide. Travelling by hoof was best in this case.

Flinging open the doors, he found Earl Grey, his distinguished old mentor.

“Fancy” he greeted him “Did you hear the news?”

“Not all of it, old colt” Fancy answered, catching his breath “What exactly has the Princess flying off so fast?”

“You’re not going to believe this...A firestorm at Bittsburgh”

“Goodness gracious” Fancy Pants’ eyes widened, though not enough for him to drop his monocle “I very much hope it’ll be alright”

“It was their good fortune a messenger got through. Unfortunately most of the council cannot. I don’t know if you saw the traffic outside but I’ve already heard Jet Set can’t make it and...” Earl said, before the door slammed open again.

An oddly dressed and dishevelled stallion had appeared.

“Mr Grey, sir?”

“Yes, that would be me” Earl Grey turned to him “What seems to be the problem”

“I came from the telegram office, sir” the messenger said “Your...your wife, sir...”

Earl Grey paled.

“What do you mean?”

“She sent a message, sir. Your sons, Pokey and Ponet...they had an accident...she doesn’t know how it happened but a magic bow...they lost control and...”

“Wh-wh-what happened to my sons?!” Earl Grey cried, grabbing the messenger’s shoulder.

“They’re in the hospital, sir” the messenger said “In the next street. Would you like me to call a carriage?”

“No, no, I’ll walk. Thank you” The messenger took his leave as a panic-stricken Earl Grey turned to his Chairstallion.

“Fancy, I...”

“You go and see your sons, Earl. You’re needed with your family. I’ll explain everything” Fancy Pants said calmly “Good luck”


Earl Grey dashed out the doors as Fancy Pants watched.

His prayers were with them.

Venturing into the Council chambers, he unlocked the door to the archives and checked the dates.

Upon realising, his heart was gripped by concern.

All of the dates were in the very same month his parents were killed.

Checking down the archives, he found the drawer and leafed through the folders.

His mind was tumultuous with questions he’d always wanted answered.

Why was Lady Cadence interested now? What possible reason did she have? She was little more than a filly when this took place.

The folder felt heavy, more heavy than others and shutting the drawer took more effort than normally required. With great effort, Fancy slammed the folder down on the table and opened it.

The documents were blurry. Instinctively, Fancy Pants removed his monocle and set to cleaning it.

He only just realised that the archives smelt appallingly musty. So much that it was almost...

He swayed.

Overpowering.

‘What...’ he thought, fumbling with his monocle and struggling to keep balanced ‘What’s going on’

Then he heard something.

Singing.


“Oh ‘twas mighty brave to storm a cave.

A’ teemed with jaws of knives.

And tha’ bravery brought them endless fame

But cost them all their lives”


The singing was slow, mournful and had a certain rustic drawl to it.

It seemed familiar.


“Till at last from out the blackness

came a poor dishevelled soul.

A’ cradling his brother’s body

And a' weeping like a foal”


Then he recalled the lyrics.

This was the song Gruffleby sung when he was drunk and a song his father had sung him to bed with as a lullaby.

The song of his ancestor, Knickerbocker, and the Gallivanters.


“H’away boys, to and fro.

We’ll teach ‘em how to fear.

We hold the Gallivanting line”


The singer was coming closer, heavy hoof-beats, drumming to his song, echoing down the hall.

Barely able to stand, Fancy Pants scrambled behind the door and waited, gasping for clean air and utterly terrified.


“H’away boys, on we go.

Be heard from far and near.

For one more Gallivanting time”


He was in the doorway, whoever he was. Fancy Pants did his best to hold his breath.

If he could just get a jump on him...

WHAM!

In the time it took to blink, a hoof, clad in metal, burst through the door and knocked the Chairstallion against the wall.

His monocle went sailing across the room as he hit the ground.

Stunned, Fancy Pants rolled on the floor, his vision growing worse by the moment.

The intruder shut the door, now left with a great hole in the middle. His hooves were encased in steel but the rest of him was covered by black rubber gear and his head was hidden by a gas mask, two glowing scarlet disks staring into him.

His voice was clear through the mask, he knew not how, but disguised, far too low for any normal pony and his tone was utterly devoid of emotion


“Hello, Mister Fancy Pants...I’d like you to come with me”


Managing to place one hoof on the ground, Fancy Pants glared at his attacker and lit up his horn with golden magic.

He never truly saw him move but in an instant, Fancy’s face was covered by something that felt like salt and smelt like soot. Shaking his head, blinking away the crystals in his eyes, he looked around, trying to make sense of his surroundings.

He found that impossible.

He was in a dark place.

And he could hear Fleur screaming.

Finding he could walk, he stood up and turned round.

A horrific sight met his eyes.

Fleur was being torn apart, inside and out, by a repulsive creature, a seething mass of tentacles and tusks.

Looking closer, he realised the creature possessed the leering face of Lord Magistrate Nitpick.

Stunned at the sight, Fancy fell to his knees and his vision blurred.

He felt hot, burning. He could smell burning.

He looked up and saw burning. Briefly Manor burning.

The windows were boarded up and the hooves of his household were flailing around desperately.

The screams of his friends rang in his ears. Tombola, Fuss Pot, Gruffleby, Ramekin, Plumette, MacTrowel and little Tinny Can cried out for help as they burned alive.

The creature causing Fleur such pain rose above the burning house in the clouds of smoke, cackling like a madpony.

He was losing.

Fancy was losing everything.

Grinding his hooves into the ground and lowering his head, Fancy Pants charged forward with a bellow.

The door gave way and he fell in a heap. The new feeling of coldness gripped him to the bone, shutting his lips together and locking his muscles tight.

He felt wetness beneath him and blinked.

The floor was red. The walls were red.

His parents were red. Hung up on the wall by chains, facing each other, mutilated and degraded in almost every way. They were all red.

Everything was red.

In vain, he tried his utmost to open his mouth to scream but only a huffing noise, like a bellows came from his lungs.

Then he realised the noise was coming from elsewhere.

Right in front of him.

The scarlet eyes of the gas mask drew back as Fancy’s vision cleared.

He was chained to the wall in a dark, dank room.

The gas-mask-wearing stallion stood before him. Beside him was what looked like a rolled-up tent.

A single light above them flickered.

The stallion looked up, adjusted the bulb and spoke.


“Do you know what nemesis means?”


Fancy Pants couldn’t speak. A gag around his face and between his teeth impeded any attempt to open his mouth.

He drew his head back as ‘Gas-Mask’ unravelled the tent, revealing nearly every variety of instruments of pain and torture. Knives, pliers, clubs, hooks, electro-shockers, the list was endless.

‘Gas-Mask’ answered his own question.


“A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent. Personified in this case by a horrible plot. Me”

Chapter 9 Part 1

View Online

Fleur de Lis made the most of a lie-in when she could.

The day before had been a long but worthwhile one and she was looking forward to the afternoon.

She resolved that she must take Fancy Pants to Ponyville soon. He had before mentioned that he enjoyed visiting there and it would be the perfect place to find some privacy. There were so many things she had longed to say to just him and him alone.

And quite a few more things, Fleur was forced to admit, she wanted to do.

She wasn’t afraid to deny it. Not anymore.

She was in love with Fancy Pants and there was nothing she wanted more than to spend her life beside him.

He was, put simply, the stallion of her dreams. Dreams she had long thought very far out of reach.

For years her looks had gotten her ridiculed until the age when they became ‘appropriate’. And those that saw her never loved her. They only desired her, lusted after her, made her feel like a mere object on display.

But Fancy Pants had not only been a different stallion, he’d shown her a different world. A world where she was safe, protected from the cruelties of her past and allowed to make friends with those who understood her.

Stretching out as she often did with several elegant poses and brushing her mane out of her face, she gave her horn a surge, heating up the kettle on her desk. Standard morning routine for Fleur, the kettle would have boiled by the time her shower was finished and the tea would be ready by the time her mane was brushed. The tea, once ready, would revitalise her and prepare her for the day.

A light breakfast of a lemon and lime zest yoghurt and a tangerine later, Fleur strode out her apartment and into Canterlot city in good spirits. Her mane danced in the light breeze and her smile was cheery enough to brighten up all the rest of her.

Yesterday had been wonderful. She’d saved the career, reputation and, quite possibly, life of her beloved and their relationship together was stronger than ever. Photo Finish had soared to the centre of the fashion and photography circle and she and her models had celebrated with drinks and dance at Briefly Manor.

There, Fancy and Fleur had shared in a dance. It wasn’t as grand as the ones they’d shared at the gala but, Celestia be good, did it feel perfect. It was all she could do not to skip through the streets.

Her worries were over and so were those of Fancy Pants.


She received the message from Fancy left on her orb early in the afternoon, after getting some lunch at Genial’s. He’d be occupied till the late afternoon, whereupon he was planning to meet her for dinner at the Tasty Treat but, upon hearing he’d be leaving the Royal Council Hall, she decided they’d meet there and head to Restaurant Row together.

Apparently, Fancy would have quite a full day as Celestia had taken absence to head with all haste to the city of Bittsburgh where a firestorm had broken out in the industrial districts. She’d caught it on the orb. The devastation looked appalling but she was certain the Princess would take care of things.

She thought she might wear something simple, just to show Fancy that, although she still enjoyed dressing-up, she didn’t have to worry so much about making an impression around him. With a quick browse of her wardrobe, she concluded that a lilac jacket would do and perhaps a quartet of pale amber socks. A nip into the bathroom to put on a little eye-shadow and she was done.

She gave herself the once-over in the mirror, posing several times. It would suffice.

The walk up to the Royal Council Halls wasn’t arduous. It was late afternoon, as he’d requested and just starting to get dark. The building was situated far from the main street, atop a podium reminiscent of ancient architecture. Hopping up the steps, her hooves tapping hard upon the stone slabs, she noticed how quiet the atmosphere was.

The area around the Halls was almost entirely abandoned.

Looking down the road, she saw the traffic was entirely diverted from the street. It would’ve explained the terrible congestion she saw at lunch. Some roadwork ponies seemed to be on a break a few yards away.

Still, she would have expected the hall to have somepony watching the door at least.

Then again, it would be so like Fancy to make do without such extravagances.

Fleur tapped on the door. It opened as her hoof made contact with it.

She found it distinctly odd that the Royal Council Hall would not only be unminded but unlocked.

Something didn’t feel right.

Gently opening the door, and stepping inside, she saw the Royal Council Chamber was deserted. Yet the lights were on and the door was unlocked so they couldn’t have closed the meeting already.

Most of the windows were open. Fleur had to get used to how chilly it was becoming.

She called out.

“Hello?”

Only the hum of the fluorescent light could be heard in the room.

Then, out the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of colour speed down the adjacent corridor.

“Wait!” She cried but it was clear whomever was around was not up for waiting.

Following the stranger into the corridor, she passed by a series of metal doors. Each one looked similar but for one.

One with a generous-sized hole punched through it.

Now Fleur was concerned.


*


‘Damn them! Damn Fancy! Damn Fleur! Damn Blueblood! Damn Carcassonne! Damn Celestia! Damn Photo Finish! Damn them all!’

The Lord Magistrate paced, fuming, up and down the alleyway outside the Hanoverian, remarking that this must have been where Hoity Toity, a stallion he thought his friend and ally, ‘Damn him!’ had met with that deranged foreign photographer and plotted his downfall.

Hiding in the alleys like the rats they were.

‘Damn them for forcing me to this level! Damn them for degrading me in this manner! Damn them all to Tartarus!'

He nursed his shoulder. The cut still hadn’t completely healed. The scab was fresh and crimson, just visible underneath his doublet.

There were fresher injuries that pained him as well, namely the bruise at his side where the armchair his wife had thrown around the smoking room had collided with him.

‘Mad nag! The sooner I’m rid of her, the better. Once I’m Chairstallion I’ll send her to her father’s old room at Canterlot Psychiatric and ruddy well leave her to rot. Damn her!’

“Nitpick?”

Sir Cumbersome Clout and Cringeworth appeared in the alley, halted by Nitpick’s three bodyguards. Nitpick nodded to them and piped up eagerly.

“My friend. Have you gathered support?”

“I sent word to some of the toughs in the local gangs. I’ve gathered a reasonable assortment”

“Oh yes indeed, a very reasonable assortment!” Cringeworth fawned with vigour “Sixty fighting stallions, all armed, twelve of which with buckshot rifles” He was silenced by a hoof to the head from his master.

“What he said” Cumbersome continued “They won’t charge us vast quantities, just enough for drinks”

“Excellent”

He would make them all pay. They’d sought to ruin him. But Lord Magistrate Nitpick would not go down lightly.

The Lord Magistrate left the alleyway, joined by Sir Cumbersome, Morion, Culverin, Arquebus and Cringeworth and, on the outskirts of Canterlot, largely ignored in the chaos the congesting traffic in the city square, inspected the sixty hired thugs, of all them crude, untidy and possessed of mean temperaments and meaner weaponry.

“Gentlestallions. Canterlot’s highest noble families thank you profusely for your service this night. I, Lord Magistrate Nitpick, intend on heading to the town of Ponyville, a fair few miles from here, two hours by carriage, and bringing down a dangerous fugitive, one Miss Fleur de Lis, daughter of ice-cream ponies. It is likely we will meet some resistance, not particularly challenging for hardened fellows like yourselves. I expect you to deal with them as you see fit, whatever that may be”

The thugs nodded, grinning.

“My friend and associate, Sir Cumbersome Clout, and my bodyguards, Morion, Culverin and Arquebus, will stay in Canterlot. My bodyguard, Morion leading them, will apprehend one Prince Blueblood and one Hoity Toity at the Hanoverian Club, take them to the abandoned warehouse three streets down and ensure they suffer for the insults they have paid our family. Culverin will head to the workstation of Photo Finish and do the same to her and all her co-workers. Arquebus will be doing his job alone. Meanwhile, Sir Cumbersome will head to Briefly Manor and storm the place. Take everything you wish and burn the rest. Succeed and drinks and mares at the Hanoverian shall be yours. Our family is generous to its supporters”

The thugs cheered in unison, their eyes gleaming greedily.

“Right then. A third of you come with me, another with Sir Cumbersome and another with my guards. Twenty stallions and four rifles each. Organise yourselves with all haste! We leave at once!”


*


The door creaked open and, Fleur realised, had one of its hinges snapped.

She was looking at rows and rows of grey metal drawers and folders bursting with documents.

It must have been the archives.

Fleur gave a sniff. It smelt awfully musty in the archives. In fact, it felt awfully musty everywhere. It would’ve been the reason why every window she’d passed was open.

They must have been cleaning with something strong-smelling.

But how would that explain the hole in the door? She would have expected them to be working on this. On the archives of all places, a hole in the door was bound to cause trouble. Anything could happen to...

A glint on the floor caught Fleur’s eye.

It was right under a table where a hefty folder was placed.

She peered down and picked it up.

As she drew it out of the shadow, she knew it wasn’t simply the open windows that made her feel cold.

Her eyes widened and her mouth drew open in a horrified gasp.

It was Fancy’s monocle!

Something was wrong.

Fancy barely ever left his home without his monocle.

And he never ever lost it!

Something must have happened. Something terrible.

Giving a gulp, her eyes fluttered to the folder on the desk.

Had Fancy been reading this?

Had he been interrupted?

Gingerly, her hoof reached out and lifted the binder.

“DON’T!”


A flash of bright cyan magic encased the folder as there came the distinct sound of a string snapping.

Fleur spun round where a scarlet unicorn with a multi-coloured mane was glowering at her, her horn blazing as a wire on the table struggled to come away in two pieces, barely kept together with her magic.

“You...” she growled “Idiot!”

“Wha...what’s going on?!” Fleur stammered “Who are you?!”

“Okay, listen, I’m going need you to run” the unicorn said desperately, straining through her spell “Follow me and run. Trailing shield, double-layer. It’s our only chance!”

Fleur stared, utterly confused.

“Are you deaf?! Start bucking running!”

Sensing the necessity of the situation, Fleur did so without much complaint, but not before placing the monocle in her jacket pocket and lighting up her horn to carry the folder.

“Shields up! Now RUN!

As the two mares ran, a tremendous explosion from the archives sent the door fling off its hinges and crumbling against the wall as the oncoming fire sped down the hallway, fast catching up to them. The magic from the unicorn created a bubble-like field of translucent cyan magic, right behind them, keeping the fires at bay. Fleur did her best to add to it, grabbing the folder in her mouth and using her magic to create a second layer on the shield that would ensure the building wouldn’t collapse upon them. She could feel the fire lapping at her hooves as rubble fell from the ceiling all around them.

Galloping down the corridors as fast their hooves could carry them, sweat pouring down their brows, Fleur and the shield-caster finally reached the Royal Council Doors.

The shields dissipated as they leapt out the doorway and the explosion encompassed the building, blowing the two mares across the street. They landed hard upon the stone slabs, groaning and nursing their bruised sides.

“Ugh! I feel like I just escaped a Trifle Bay Movie!” The scarlet unicorn said, holding out a hoof to help Fleur to her hooves “You’re a very lucky mare”

“I...I...Fancy!” Fleur exclaimed, gathering her senses as the Royal Council Hall burned behind them “We’ve got to go back for Fancy!”

“He’s not in there, Fleur! I looked all over the place! Someone’s abducted him, or worse”

“A-are you sure? Are you absolutely...Wait” Fleur started to mumble, blinking “How do you know my name?”

“I do read the magazines, you know. You looked great in that jumpsuit, by the way”

“Er...thanks...so...why were you looking for Fancy? And...wait, I recognise you, you’re...you’re Carcassonne!”

“Yeah, Fancy hasn’t much good to say about me but I’m trying to turn over a new leaf...and save your coltfriend”

“I...wait...you mean...” Fleur was too confused to string sentences.

“He’s in danger” Carcassonne sighed “You thwarted their blackmail scheme last time. Now, it seems, they’re going for a more conventional approach. With Celestia gone, Lady Cadence is running the palace. She asked Fancy to bring her some documents but he never showed up. When I checked, I found the door busted and the folder we were after trip-wired with explosives”

“How do you know about this?!” Fleur exclaimed.

“Because me and Cadence have been reinvestigating the deaths of Pantaloon and Petticoat, Fancy’s parents. Those documents you have there...” She pointed to the folder that had landed beside Fleur in the fall “contain information about who hired who to do the job”

“Did...did Fancy know?”

“No. We thought it was safer that way...We were wrong” She gritted her teeth “Fancy’s parents were killed because they were treading the hooves of a certain thoroughly corrupt Lord Magistrate and his spiteful, grasping nag of a wife. History’s repeating itself”

“Then...my Fancy...” Fleur gasped, tears appearing at her eyes “We’ve got to save him!”

“I’d worry more about yourselves, m’ dears!”

Fleur and Carcassonne turned their heads to face the road.

The area had been blocked off with concrete barricades and the traffic ponies from earlier had replaced their jumpsuits for hardened hide armour, balaclavas and bandoliers and were pointing some distinctly unfriendly weapons at them.

Motorised Bolters. Funnel-shaped automatic crossbows, capable of firing a hail of quarrels in half the time it took to cast a magic bolt. State of the art weaponry in what were known as the ‘contested zones’ of Equestria, cities and sites who constantly prepared for war but didn’t often see it, Boulette among them. These ponies however, looked like they’d seen a lot of war and quite enjoyed the sight.

A scar-faced red and black pegasus in a green beret was striding towards them, idly spinning a thick-bladed sword around one of his hooves. He smiled, giving off a glint from his gold tooth.

“I’m afraid this was all rather unplanned, though not altogether inconvenient. First...you’re going to give me that folder...and then...you’re going to die, I’m afraid to say. Don’t worry, my friends are expert killers. Cooperate and they can make it as quick and painless as you like. Or resist...and they can make it as slow and painful...as I like”


*


“Can you hear me, Fancy Pants?”

The gas-masked torturer’s voice was the only real sound in the room.

Fancy’s jacket, shirt and bowtie were folded in a pile on the table where the torturer had placed his tools.

Fancy Pants’ breathing came in shuddering, haggard whistles through his nostrils as his gag was far too tight to speak through and too hard to bite through.

The masked stallion spoke again, his voice oddly calm and composed.

“Before we start, I’d like you to know this is nothing personal. I don’t like torture. I don’t dislike it, either. I’m very impartial in that regard. But whatever is requested of me I carry out”

He paced over to the table and surveyed his instruments.

Cold sweat was beading all the way across Fancy’s body as he struggled at the manacles that bolted his hooves to the wall.

“You’ve probably realised you’re gagged. That is not a mistake on my part. At no point through any of this will you be required to speak. It could prove a problem were anypony to hear you. I’m not an interrogator, I’m merely an assassin. If I had my way, I’d have cut the mains on Briefly Manor and blown you to kingdom come in one giant accident. Quick, simple, efficient and leaving behind no trail. But...I don’t have my way. So, with that in mind, I suggest you do your best to relax and take your mind of it. Here...”

The torturer opened a box that, instead of containing some hellish contraption of agony, revealed itself to be an old record player. Setting it, the torturer turned back to him and gave a content sigh through his mask, which made a muffled hissing sound, as the room filled with a gentle classical piece.

“Ah...Spheric Artie’s Gymnopedie No. 1...the original...Sexton Melody’s orchestra adaptation is nice but I’ve always found the sections a bit too bombastic. Doesn’t capture the same...sensation”

His metal-encased hooves slid around a dark, wide-bladed machete. There was a click and the tips of his hoof curled around it like some silver shellfish, whisking it off the table, let it catch the light, and placed it upon Fancy’s bared chest.

The chained prisoner gave a muffled whimper as the chill from the blade spread across his ribs.

“Now...I should warn you, Mr Fancy Pants...this is going to hurt quite a bit”

The blade slid forward. Fancy stared at the sword pushing underneath his skin, feeling it rattle against his ribs as blood fell from his open wound, first in running drops, then plentiful streams, pouring down his chest.

He didn’t feel anything at first, just...cold.

Then he screamed, or at least tried to through the gag, as pain shot through his body. He twisted his neck from side to side, trying in vain to escape his manacles as the blade continued slicing through his skin.

“I did warn you”


*


“So that’s when things got dicey”

Prince Blueblood and Hoity Toity had gotten sufficiently drunk and were pausing in the red-lit alley that linked the Hanoverian’s bar to the private rooms. Fragrant Magnolia and Silvanberry were supporting them, slightly listening to their accounts, surrounded by silence of a diverted street.

“Fancy Pants was completely surrounded and poor Fleur de Lis was faced with a fate worse than death!” Blueblood waved one hoof around dramatically, a half-full bottle of champagne in his other hoof “It was up to us! With a cry of ‘For Equestria!’ I, Prince Blueblood charged into the fray. The armies of Nitpick quivered at my coming as I drew my trusty blade and felled a dozen of the filthy cowards before they could even blink! ‘Your Royal Highness!’ Fancy cried out as I picked him off the ground ‘I feared you would forsake us in this hour of need!’ ‘Ha!’ said I ‘If I could not shoulder a dear friend and rescue a darling damsel then what sort of Prince would I be?’

I, meanwhile,” Hoity butted in “knew that the enemy would surely swarm them once they regrouped so, in the midst of the chaos, I appeared before Nitpick’s bodyguard, cutting a dashing figure. ‘Looking for somepony, gentlecolts?’ I asked casually before proceeding to give the ruffians several marks on their person they wouldn’t soon forget!”

“Not bad, Hoity” Blueblood snickered “Still, it’s a shame you were all the way over there. You missed me bring down that dragon! Huge beast...with...with a laser gun attached to its head!

“Impressive, I’m sure, your royal highness” Hoity scoffed “I myself didn’t chance upon any dragons but I did happen to stumble upon a few manticores. Certain they regret crossing me, that’s for certain”

“All well and good, but you weren’t there to see me face the sea serpent...and the krampus...and the horde of sabre-toothed leprechauns!”

“Oh that’s a bunch of baloney, Blueblood, everypony knows leprechauns are extinct!

“Well, you two were very brave” Fragrant Magnolia giggled “And I’m sure you’d both like to relax after your gruelling dice with death”

“That would we would, madam, with great pleasure” Blueblood chuckled.

“Come on then” Silvanberry said, seductively “Only the best for two dauntless heroes of Equestria”

“Lead the way, you sweet belladonnas!” Hoity chortled as they reached for the door to the rooms.


A heavy metal spike impacted itself in the woodwork of the door causing Fragrant Magnolia and the Prince to scream in terror as a leering pale earth pony appeared from the street, a rifle in hoof. Twenty armed stallions behind him, murder in each of their eyes. Two carriages blocked the street, one the red carriage belonging to Lord Nitpick, the other the white carriage of Sir Cumbersome Clout, Cringeworth standing beside it, smirking triumphantly.

“I’ve got some bad news for you, boys” the rifle-toting earth pony sneered “The boss wants a word”

“M-M-Morion...” Hoity Toity gulped, recognising Lord Magistrate Nitpick's bodyguard instantly “What...what do you think you’re doing?! When we tell the Princess what Nitpick’s been up to...”

“Buddy, if you think you’re going to have teeth or a tongue by the end of this, you’re crazy” Morion paced over to face them, his cruel smirk illuminated in the glow of the red light overhead.

“Morion, please...” Blueblood held up his hooves “Don’t...don’t hurt us...we’re very wealthy stallions”

“So is Nitpick. And he’s going to become a lot wealthier”

“Please, sir” Hoity whimpered “We can work this out with your employer, I promise!”

Morion tilted his gaze toward the two mares. Silvanberry bared her teeth aggressively as she shielded a quivering Fragrant Magnolia.

“And who are these pretty little things?”

“Now...now listen, Morion” Hoity Toity piped up, doing his best to stand up straight on his shaking hooves “You have us where you want us. You have what you were after. Let the mares go. They’re...they’re not involved”

Morion sniggered, gesturing to his henchstallions.

“They are now”

“No!” Blueblood and Silvanberry’s horn lit up but both unicorns found themselves writhing on the floor as Morion threw two magnetic anti-magic rings, automatically latching on to their horns and rendering them immobile. Four of the thugs grabbed the jolting Blueblood and the terrified Hoity Toity.

“Stop, Morion, please!” he wailed “You don’t have to do this! Just let us talk, we’re civilised ponies, we...”

“Shut it!” Morion’s foreleg shot out and struck the celebrity critic across the face, cracking his glasses and leaving him semi-conscious.

As two more of the thugs grabbed the mares, Morion smiled and gave orders.

“The rest of you take the red carriage and head to the warehouse. You three stay here” He licked his lips “I want to get to know these two a bit better”

“Mister Morion, Sir Cumbersome Clout ordered no delays” Cringeworth butted in pedantically.

Morion shot him a venomous glance.

“Just as well I take orders from the Lord Magistrate” He gave the sycophantic valet a shove “I won’t be long. Wait by your carriage with the boys. That’s me giving you an order”

Cringeworth nervously stared a moment at Morion before turning back to the carriage without a word.


*


The door to Photo Finish’s set was cut open with a red-hot ray of magic.

Culverin and ten thugs sauntered inside. The set was dark but the lights in the dressing room were on.

Photo Finish and all her models were inside.

Culverin nodded to one of the henchponies who fired a blast of buckshot at the ceiling.

“Oh girls, are you decent?!” Culverin yelled mockingly “It really makes no difference. We’re from Invitro Manor. Our employer would like to ask some questions. You’ve got till the count of three to come out or my boys here drag you out. And they don’t like to wash their hooves. Sound good to you?”

There was no reply but the snap of the lock on the dressing-room door.

“One...”

The thugs crowded around the door.

“Two...”

Culverin’s horn lit up as they prepared to break in.

“Three!”


*


Earl Grey found his wife sitting, ashen-faced, by two beds in the hospital ward. A bright blue curtain on the opposite side of them shielded a couple of quiet, young nurses, washing their hooves in a basin.

Upon seeing him, the navy-blue mare fell into his fore-hooves, weeping uncontrollably.

“Earl! Earl, thank Celestia!” she wailed.

“It’s alright, Crochet” he struggled to remain composed “I’ve been speaking with the doctors. They’re going to be fine”

Crochet wouldn’t stop crying. It was odd from a mare who often remained so on top of things. An excellent parent, better than he ever could have been.

Beside them both, Pokey Pierce and Ponet Pierre lay on their backs upon the two beds, still and silent, bodies and faces covered in bandages, hiding terrible magic burn marks across their figures.

Earl gazed at his sons and sniffed, taking all the effort he could muster to prevent himself from sobbing on his knees.

This was all his fault. He should have known the threats they’d made last time were still within their means.

“Where’s Perry Pace?” Earl asked.

“Perry wasn’t so close to the blast. They’re checking him for eye and ear trauma” Crochet said quietly through tears “He blames himself. I blame myself...I-I don’t know what happened, Earl. One minute, Pokey and Ponet were having one of their bets, hitting the bull’s-eye, the two of them bickering, Perry laughing and then...” she swallowed hard “As Pokey took his shot he...he clutched at his temples and...The blast, Earl, it nearly burned both of them alive!” Crochet started weeping again.

Earl Grey and Crochet Doily had lived apart since their sons were foals, their work and travelling causing far too many detriments on their marriage and child-raising. The separation wasn’t messy. They still loved each other dearly and, in recent months, had started getting back together as Earl Grey considered retirement, much to the joy of their sons.

However distant they’d become, Earl Grey’s family meant everything to him.

To keep them safe, many years ago, he’d committed a great injustice.


“Earl!” Crochet grabbed his shoulder, looking over it as Earl turned.

A grim-faced khaki pegasus was standing behind the closed door to the hospital ward.

He was holding a bolt rifle in his fore-hooves, a lethal weapon that would fire a sharpened spike of metal with roughly the same sound as a stapler.

“Councillor Grey” he asked, sardonically “I’m afraid you made the Lord Magistrate very unhappy”

“Arquebus...Wait” Earl Grey raised a hoof, standing in front of her wife “Listen to me! I didn’t know! I did all I could!”

“You were meant to keep an eye on him, Mr Grey. Make sure nopony put their noses in our business” Arquebus said, lowering the rifle to aim at the motionless form of Pokey Pierce “You were warned what would happen if you didn’t”

“Please...” Earl fell to his knees, tears pouring from his eyes “Nitpick can do what he likes to me but please...please don’t hurt my family”

“I have my orders, sir” Arquebus gave a smirk “As did you. You’ve only yourself to blame” He cocked the rifle “Goodbye, Mr Grey”

The old unicorn stood as the pegasus before him took aim.

“Crochet...” he murmured, his voice cracking “I’m so sorry”

“Earl...” He felt the forelegs of his wife clutch his shoulders as Crochet shut her eyes tight, hoping that she’d be first and wouldn’t have to watch her husband and sons die in front of her.

“I love you”


*


“My best advice is to take your mind of it. Listen to the music, let it...take you away” His voice sounded almost reassuring “I’ve got some nice Von Webber if you fancy a bit of Farman opera? Would you prefer that?”

Fancy Pants shot his head forward and threw every insult he knew at his tormentor. With the gag, it only came out as muffled growls and groans, bloody spittle spraying between his lips, but the rage and hatred he felt for this monster before him would not be quiet.

The torturer gave a grim look as if he’d understood every word.

“Defiant to the end, eh?”

He sighed and removed the blade. Fancy Pants gave a gasp and writhed, choking on the cloth between his teeth as his wound bled in torrents.

“You should know you are dead pony” the torturer said “And your friends are in similar positions”

The chained stallion raised his head, eyes wide with horror at his words, more horror than he’d shown when the knife went into him, his tormentor noticed.

“My employer wants you to watch them all die but that, for me, is a bit extravagant. You will be allowed to watch Miss Fleur de Lis die however. That I believe I can arrange”

Fancy Pants screamed an incomprehensible word, one-syllable, beginning with an ‘n’ and drawn-out, over and over again as he flailed hopelessly against his retraints before breaking into sobs, his rage giving way to despair.

“It’s funny, isn’t it” The masked sadist had his back to his victim “Harm a pony through their own flesh and you only get so far. The body may break but the heart, mind and soul can still hold out many times longer...But harm a pony through those they love...and they’ll fall like a leaf in autumn. Body, heart, mind, soul, everything just...decays in front of you” He sighed “It’s something I’ve always found very...intriguing”

His metal hoof placed the bloody blade back down on the table and picked up an electric prod, sharpened at the tip.

“I spent months trying to figure you out, Mr Fancy Pants. I would have spent longer but...plans changed” He shrugged “You were willing to go to any lengths to protect those you cared about, whoever they were. And that devotion was...infectious. You saved Fleur’s life, she wants to save yours...I’m glad she could do that. I’m glad she could honour her dept to you before you both died”

He looked into Fancy’s despair-ridden eyes, the blood-red goggles reflecting the gentlecolt’s horrified visage.

“You were a very intriguing pony, Mr Fancy Pants...” He grasped the handle of the prod and, with a hum and a buzz, the instrument crackled with electricity.

“And I’m really going to miss you”

Chapter 9 Part 2

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The fires of Bittsburgh were, at last, dying down.

Princess Celestia soared overhead, checking for any remaining devastation before landing before the cheering crowd.

Between them, her wayward but, no less, valiant student handed a baby filly to her frantic parents.

“She wasn’t burned, ma’am. She might be coughing for a bit but she’ll be alright”

“Sunset Shimmer!” The Princess called out in a commanding tone.

The amber unicorn had been blackened by smoke and drenched in hose-water but her face was full of pride.

“How many times do I have to tell you to think ahead?!” Celestia barked “You should have informed me before rushing into the flames!”

“Hey, I had to save the ponies trapped inside! You know I specialise in manipulating the elements, I wasn’t in any danger”

“Sunset Shimmer, I had to bring down several buildings to prevent the fire from spreading! If you had been in one of them and...and I didn’t know, I...” Celestia felt her eyes watering and not from the smoke and sparks.

Her student’s steadily face fell and she fell into a hug with her teacher.

“I’m sorry, Princess Celestia...I didn’t mean to worry you” There was something begrudging in her tone.

“I’m just...I’m just glad you’re alright” Celestia struggled not to cry “Just please, stay close to me next time”

“I don’t have wings, remember?” the unicorn managed to chuckle.

Celestia looked up to see the throngs of Bittsburgh’s denizens gathered.

The local Mayor, a gaudy, bearded stallion called Rocker Feller, stepped forward and knelt.

“Your highness, on behalf of the city of Bittsburgh, I thank you for your aid today. Had you not appeared when you did, the death toll would have been staggering”

Celestia bowed her head humbly.

“I merely did what any Princess should do, Mr Rocker Feller...and the loss of life was still great...I am truly sorry”

“The city still stands thanks to you” Rocker Feller’s voice was solemn but strong “We will mourn our losses and then set to rebuilding our home” He cleared his throat “It is simply incredible you appeared when you did. We were unable to send out any form of distress signal. Our communications were cut off completely and we couldn’t send away any rescue ponies. We feared no help would come”

Celestia paused.

They hadn’t sent any signal.

Any message.

Or any messenger.

“Could you please repeat that?”


*


Fleur de Lis and Carcassonne stared at the bolter barrels pointed at their faces.

Things did not look peachy for them overall.

“Mr Bloodhound, sir?” One of the assailants asked.

“In a moment” The pegasus they called Bloodhound paced over to the two mares, smiling with that golden tooth of his.

The ponies holding the bolters didn’t look like they would regret using them.

Fleur felt her mind going wild. An explosion in the Royal Council, Fancy Pants abducted and now armed gunponies in the streets.

Had the whole of Canterlot gone mad?

The Princess had only been gone a few hours!

“I’ll be taking that folder now, if you don’t mind, then you’ll be coming with us” Bloodhound said calmly “You’re wanted alive, Miss de Lis”

Fleur looked at the folder in her hooves then at Bloodhound then at Carcassonne.

“Fleur” Carcassonne whispered out the side of her mouth “I’ll need you to run. I’m about to do something stupid!”

Fleur wanted to argue. She’d barely known this unicorn a minute but she’d shown herself to be very brave and eager to do good, despite her roughness.

“Do you want to see your Fancy one last time?” Bloodhound asked.

Fleur’s ears piqued.

“He...” she mumbled “He’s alive?”

“Depends on the time” The pegasus shrugged “So...are you coming? And are you going to hoof over the folder? Please”

He smiled again.

“Buck you, we’re keeping it!” Carcassonne yelled.

Bloodhound clouted her across the face with one hoof and pointed his sword at Fleur’s forehead.

“Last chance, missy” he snarled, his scarred eye twitching.

Fleur forced her eyes away from the sabre and checked on Carcassonne, who was picking herself up off the floor, glaring at the stallion in front of her.

Fleur whispered.

“So am I”

“The folder! Now!”

“You know what?” Fleur said, putting the folder under her foreleg “Buck you too!”

Scowling, Bloodhound raised his sabre.


A blast of cyan and primrose magic took him off his hooves and discombobulated the ponies around him as Fleur and Carcassonne fired a magic pulse simultaneously before rushing for cover in an alleyway to the right of the smouldering council hall, metal bolts flying after them as they took cover behind a concrete barricade.

Carcassonne winced and grabbed her shoulder, bleeding from a cut that had just missed her neck.

In mid-air, Bloodhound spread his wings, slowing his fall, found his hooves and gave a feral growl.

“Oh, you girls wanna’ play rough, eh?! Fine by me!”

The hail of fire continued as Fleur and Carcassonne lowered their heads. Carcassonne’s horn flared and she fired several blazing missiles at her pursuers.

“Back off, plough-pushers!” she yelled “I’ll have you know I was top of my class in self-defence magic!”

“Soon fix that!” they heard Bloodhound yell.

Carcassonne peered over as she saw the red pegasus readying a diamond-shaped vial filled with fine colourless crystals. As he lit it, the crystals swiftly started turning grey then black, hissing and fizzing violently.

As Bloodhound lobbed it forward, Carcassonne gave a yelp of alarm and fired a small but swift pulse spell, shattering the vial and sending the crystals flying away into the sky.

“Curding hay!” Carcassonne swore “Where the buck did they get one of those?!

“What are you talking about?” Fleur yelled over the sounds of heavy fire as she was grabbed by the shoulders by the scarlet unicorn.

“Fleur, listen” she ordered “I need you to head to the palace with that folder! Let nothing stop you! Lady Cadenza needs to know what’s going on and quickly!”

“I-I-I can’t leave you here!” Fleur stammered.

“Wake up, for Celestia’s sake! Armed hit-ponies are running around the city! This needs to be stopped!” She gave a swallow and Fleur could make out a tear running down her cheek “I’ll make sure they can’t follow”

“I...no!” Fleur shook her head wildly “You shouldn’t...”

“What other choice do we have?!” Carcassonne screamed, watching as Fleur’s eyes drifted behind her.

That might do it”


Bloodhound’s head jerked over his shoulder as he beheld the great ball of magenta magical energy heading towards them.

“Hit the deck!”

Three of the hitponies were thrown across the pavement, the rest ducked and took aim as a pegasus mare with a coat and mane of luscious pinks and purples flew overhead.

“Er...Boss?” One them asked with dread “Was that an alicorn? Because that was not in the contract!”

“Shut up and shoot her, damn it!”

“Step away from my lady!”

A white-coated, blue-maned Palace Guard Sergeant, accompanied by fellow soldiers and officers of the Royal Guard, all shielded and armed with spears, swords, maces, tridents and bows, charged into the street.

“And now there’s this plot-hole!” Bloodhound groaned as he pointed his sabre at the Sergeant before him “You want to run away, boy!”

“No, sir” The sergeant’s horn flared a lavender-purple and a sword and shield levitated in front of him “I do not”

With a roar, Bloodhound and Shining Armour leapt at each other, clashed blades and began to duel. Guards and hitponies did the same across the street.

Bloodhound was a survivor, and often a victor, of some three thousand battles all across Equestria and the lands outside it.

Sergeant Shining Armour was a recently promoted officer with a comfortable upbringing and very little actual experience in the field.

But the mare he had always cared for in ways he still did not quite understand was in danger and he wanted to protect her.

That made them evenly matched.


Fleur stared as the pink alicorn landed in front of her and Carcassonne and flashed a smile.

“You okay, Carrie?” she asked, noticing the cut.

“Not my worst day, Cadey” Carcassonne chuckled “What the hay took you so long?”

“Hey, I had to get someone to watch the palace. I just hope Jet Set and Upper Crust don’t let it go to their heads!” She turned to the alabaster mare “Fleur de Lis, pick your jaw up off the floor”

Fleur de Lis shook her head and blinked as the folder under her foreleg lit up in a magenta field and disappeared.

“That’ll send it to my chambers” Cadence said with satisfaction “Thank you, Fleur, you’ve done very well”

“I...Fancy...” Fleur said anxiously “Where’s Fancy?”

“We don’t know...But I have a way to find out if you trust me” Cadence put a hoof on one of Fleur’s shoulders “Do you have anything belonging to Fancy Pants?”

Fleur nodded and produced the monocle.

“Excellent” Cadence exclaimed, her face lit up with hope “How often has he worn this?”

“All the time”

“Great, now listen to me, Fleur” Cadence took a deep breath “Do you love Fancy Pants?”

“Yes, yes, of course!” Tears began to fall from Fleur’s lilac eyes.

“With all your heart?” Cadence’s horn began to glow.

“And more! I’d do anything to protect him! I love him! I love Fancy Pants!

Cadence smiled.

“That’s very good to hear”

The monocle lit up with magic, a combination of Fleur’s pink and Fancy Pants’ gold, creating an amber, honey-like field around it which started trickling down Fleur’s hooves, illuminated on the ground as, as swift as a bird on the wing, it formed a trail down the streets and alleys, leading far away into Canterlot.

“Follow your heart, Fleur de Lis” Cadence said sagely “And save the stallion you love”

“Thank you, Lady Cadenza, thank you!”

Clutching the monocle to her chest, Fleur ran faster than she had ever done in her life, leaving Cadence and Carcassonne pinned down behind the barricade.

“I hope she makes it” Carcassonne found herself saying.

“There, you see” Cadence chirped “That’s caring. Now come on, prize student, we’re not letting the colts have all the fun!”

Carcassonne burst out laughing as they prepared to go over the top.

“Holy Firsticorn, I’m really rubbing off on you...Celestia’s probably gonna’ kill me for that”


*


As Earl Grey and Crochet closed her eyes, there came the sound of something sharp puncturing flesh.

Then Arquebus giving a pained growl.

“Ow! Son of a nag...what...the?” He turned around, face contorted with indignation as a nurse stood behind him holding an empty syringe.

“Hello” she said cheerfully. Her voice wasn’t female. In fact, not much of her looked at all female.

The nurse was slim and angular but possessed of a definite male physique with a light beige coat and a shaggy dark forest-green mane. Taking off the surgeon’s face mask, Private Timber Spruce of the 3rd Palace Grounds Platoon gave a smile.

“What...” Arquebus stumbled, dropping the rifle with a clatter “What was that?”

“Miss Screwloose’s special medication”

There was a pause as Arquebus stared blankly at the stallion who’d drugged him.

“Okay” he mumbled and promptly collapsed on the floor.

“Ooooookay, he’s out” The other nurse appeared, no more feminine than Timber Spruce, removing a surgeon’s mask and hat to show himself as a bright orange, navy-maned pegasus “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing much, he won’t be getting up for a while and there’s the boys from the 1st Platoon on the way here”

The orange pegasus narrowed his eyes.

“So why am I standing here dressed as a nurse?” he growled.

“You tell me, Flash” Timber Spruce chuckled.

“The buck, Timber?!” Flash Sentry threw down his disguise with indignation “When I saw you in the outfit, I thought you were on covert ops!”

“I was...and feeling very pretty”

“But why didn’t you tell me I didn’t have to dress up like this?!”

“Well because then it wouldn’t have been funny!” Timber Spruce explained slowly before bursting out with laughter.

Flash Sentry fumed, his coat turning significantly redder.

“Timber Spruce, I swear to Celestia, I will end you!”

“I do beg your pardon...my good ladies...” Earl Grey piped up, his voice fraught with confusion and suspicion “But would you mind telling us what the blazes is going on?!”


*


Seething, Morion tied a bandage round his hoof as his two cohorts held the struggling Fragrant Magnolia and Silvanberry against the wall. One of them chuckled.

“Quite a nasty nip, she gave you”

“Shut up!” the hulking earth pony yelled as he grabbed the pink mare by the chin and pressed her head against the wall, causing her to whimper, struggling helplessly.

“You’re gonna’ regret that” He said, horribly quiet, as he turned to his accomplices “Either of you got a pair of pliers?”

“No, got a mallet though” One of them answered, hoofing it over.

“That’ll do”

“No! Leave her alone!” Silvanberry screeched, desperately trying to muster some magic through the debilitating ring.

“Shut it, both of you, and learn something” Morion snarled “Come tomorrow morning, if you two aren’t the sorriest little pay-rides in Canterlot, then you sure as hay’ll be the sorest!

“Maggie, no!” Silvanberry wailed.

He raised the mallet as Fragrant Magnolia closed her eyes.

“Hey, plot-holes!”

Morion had time to look up as an armoured blue-grey earth pony with a dark, scruffy mane and a white patch over one eye came dropping from the roof of the Hanoverian. His cohorts did not have that same time as the pony’s back hooves came down cracked on their heads, knocking them out cold before he slammed into Morion, grabbing him by the neck.

The blue-grey stallion was dressed in the armour of the Royal Palace Guard, complete with the plumed helmet.

And, while wearing that helmet, he had seen fit to head-butt Morion repeatedly.

“Buck you!” he yelled with each collision between his helm and the villain’s head “Buck you! Buck you! Buck you! Buck you! Buck you! Buck you!”

His rage spent, he threw the bloodied, comatose Morion to the ground distastefully and turned to the two mares. Fragrant Magnolia was gingerly removing the ring from Silvanberry’s horn before bringing her into a thoroughly relieved hug.

“You two ladies okay?” he asked, saluting, slightly dazed “I’m Private Stumbler of the 3rd Palace Grounds Platoon”

“Thank you, sir” Silvanberry said breathlessly, shouldering her sobbing friend “We’re alright”

“Glad to hear it. I need you to head to the club, ask the barpony to call the guard and tell them what happened here. Do you know where they took Hoity Toity and the Prince?”

“They said something about a warehouse. They’ve got a white carriage waiting down the street”

Nodding gratefully, Stumbler looked down to see the carriage.

And an assortment of young mares walking towards it.

In very much the same way guards like him walked into battle.


Cringeworth stopped picking his nose and jumped as the mares started picking the locks of his master’s carriage.

“I say, look here! Stop that at once!” he squawked, addressing a platinum-maned, cyan-coated mare with deep pink shades “This is the carriage of the esteemed Sir Cumbersome Clout! You’ll all be whipped for laying your hooves upon-”

His empty threats were cut off by a very full one, namely the mare’s hoof striking him in the face and pinning him to the front of the carriage.

“Start driving” she ordered calmly.

“Wh-what?” Cringeworth stammered, trembling with fear.

“Zere is a red carriage zat ve vant you to follow”

“B-b-bu-bu-bu-but...”

“If you do not abide to my commands zen I, Photo Finish, vill tear out your intestines zen I, Photo Finish...” The Photographer leaned forward and hissed.

“Vill buck zem!”

The models took a step back from their employer, glancing at each other.

One of Cringeworth’s teeth fell out his open mouth as he stared into Photo Finish’s shades.

“Driving now” he said in a high-pitched, robotic tone.

Vunderbar


*


Photo Finish had been working on a remix, aided by her old college friend, Vinyl Scratch, a heavy-dubstep theme typical of her friend’s preference.

Culverin and his followers had the great privilege of being the first to hear it...at its highest possible volume and accompanied by every combination of strobe lighting available to the photographer.

The intruders were now groaning and spasming on the floor in the grips of colossal seizures.

It was a wonder the set hadn’t caved in.

Corporal Blockbuster, wearing protective dark glasses and earmuffs, calmly turned off the stereo system, walked out the dressing-room and began hoof-cuffing every one.

“Very good work, Private Comet Tail. You certainly proved yourself useful getting the message to Miss Finish”

“What?!” Comet Tail, a yellow-coated, blue-maned Ponyville-born unicorn asked, yelling over the earmuffs.

Blockbuster sighed.

“I turned off the music, Private. You may remove the earmuffs”

“What?!”

Rolling her emerald eyes, Blockbuster marched over to her subordinate and removed his earmuffs for him.

“Aw, I was enjoying that. Vinyl’s a legend back in Ponyville...Hope I can get the download”

Comet Tail chipped in, hoof-cuffing the criminals while humming the tune and bopping his head.

“Do you believe Miss Finish and her girls can handle things, Private?” Blockbuster asked.

“Oh trust me, you don’t know Photo Finish” he chuckled.

“And what of Nitpick’s venture to Ponyville?”

“You don’t know Ponyville”

There was a pause.

“And Miss Fleur de Lis?”

“Seriously, Busty, how often do you get out?” Comet Tail asked, exasperated.

Blockbuster rose to her full height, towering over Comet Tail and snarled.

Don’t...call me...Busty

Below her, Culverin gave a groan. The Corporal eyed him distastefully, remembered his filthy words and knocked him out with a mighty hoof to the temples.

She turned back to a concerned Comet Tail and gave him an innocent look.

“Resisting arrest”

Comet Tail laughed, shaking his head.

“Whatever you say, Corporal”


*


Briefly Manor appeared to be asleep. No lights were on and no doors were open.

Sir Cumbersome Clout and his gang changed that as they kicked open the doors to the great hall and marched in.

Sir Cumbersome himself carried a sledgehammer. He was looking forward to smashing the statue of Knickerbocker.

He saw it before his gleaming eyes.

“Take whatever you like and then burn it! Burn it to the ground!”

“Do we have guests?” A voice called out, its owner hidden in the corners of the manor.

The thugs pointed their weapons out in front of them, the cover of darkness no longer on their side.

“Who’s there?!” Cumbersome barked “Surrender!”

Pacing into their view, the inimitable Tombola smiled, took of his hat and revealed a horn glowing eggplant-purple as magic-enveloped weapons, instruments and even suits of armour turned to face the intruders.

“You really should have knocked”

Chaos erupted in Briefly Manor as its attendants leapt into the fray and gave the unwanted guests the welcome they deserved.

Mrs Fuss Pot slung hot foodstuffs at anypony unlucky enough to catch her eye and followed them up by the pots and pans she’d used to prepare them. Ramekin cantered through the skirmish, silver platters spinning around him in an aerial ballet, knocking down those who drew close. Plumette flew down from the rafters, twirling and weaving with grace but, instead of brushes and feather dusters, he carried in her hooves a pair of Okineighwan tonfas which she wielded with equal elegance and ferocity. MacTrowel strode in from behind them, blocking the door, wielding a hefty spade he swung around his head like the claymores of his Highland kin. Gruffleby took a swig of brandy from his hip-flask, reared up on his hind-legs and with a great bleat of ‘Charge, me’ boys!’, stampeded into the heart of the battle, horns down, sending any foe he made contact with flying through the air.

Before Sir Cumbersome could bring the sledgehammer upon the statue, Tombola sprang up and grappled him, landing several punches upon the mean-spirited aristocrat with a free hoof.

“Cad! Bounder! Rapscallion!” he roared before being thrown to the ground, Cumbersome’s brute strength overcoming his own. The monstrous stallion raised the hammer high above his head with a triumphant leer.

There was a hiss behind them. Cumbersome’s face snapped to an expression of abundant discomfort as he dropped the hammer on the floor and jumped a clear five feet in the air, yelping in a high-pitched manner as Tinny Can appeared from behind where Sir Cumbersome had once stood, a red hot poker in his hoof raised victoriously.

“THEY DO NOT LIKE IT UP ‘EM!” he yelled at the top of his voice, rivalling his opponent’s scream.

Tombola blinked.


*


Nitpick’s journey to Ponyville was made possible by a squalid cargo train that stopped by Ponyville on its way to Trottingham.

Again, he cursed his enemies for forcing him to this level.

He and his hired thugs swarmed off the train and made their way to the humble ton of Ponyville.

The town was quiet at this time of night. There were only a few late-workers out and the rest were calling it a day.

Even so, a cadre of armed stallions marching into their local square did not go unnoticed.

But Nitpick didn’t care. He wanted to make an example.

A large blue stallion with a wild mane and a wilder moustache was approaching a parlour marked ‘Crème de la Crème’ with bags full of groceries when he noticed the old noblestallion and his guard approaching him.

Excusez-moi, can I ‘elp you?” he asked, his Prench accent thick as cheese.

“You there!” Nitpick snapped “Where is Fleur de Lis?! I demand you show us to her immediately!”

The moustached stallion was quiet for a moment, then narrowed his eyes.

“Why is it you wish to know?”

“That is none of your concern! Fleur de Lis is a wanted criminal and this town will not shelter her unless it wishes to suffer severe retribution at our hooves!”

“I do not know you, monsieur

“Pah!” Nitpick scoffed, puffing out his chest “Ignorant, foreign trash. I am Lord Magistrate Nitpick, the Sixth Earl of Speck and soon to be Chairstallion of the Royal Canterlot Council!”

The stallion in front of him tilted his head and placed the bags down beside the parlour door. He slowly spoke.

“I see. Well...I am very glad to have found you...finally...”

“Oh?” Nitpick raised one eyebrow, alarmed that the small-town pony knew of him “And why is that?”

He only received the answer to his question once he was sprawled out on the dirt, floored by a mighty hoof as the great Prench stallion roared with unbridled rage.

“Because you’re the salaud who made my daughter’s life a living Tartarus, you disgusting barbarian!”

“Where is he?!” An enraged, accented female voice rang out the parlour as a demented-looking mare rushed forward, her horn blazing beige “Where’s that codardo! I’ll kill him! I swear to la Principessa, I’ll kill him!”

“Stop! Stop, I say!” Nitpick screamed as his guards honed in, pointing their weapons meaningfully at the vengeance-driven husband and wife.

The Lord Magistrate slowly got to his hooves, nursing his injury, his eyes twitching.

This was the final indignation. Did nopony have any respect for him?

He’d be avenged on the whole pack of them if he had to burn down all of Canterlot.

“You have struck a noble of Canterlot...” he hissed “Your punishment will not be light!”

“Excuse me?”

“WHAT NOW?!” Nitpick spun round, frustrated beyond all measure...

And slowly gaped at the mass of Ponyville’s denizens gathered behind him and his gang, armed with an imaginative variety of instruments and grinning like they’d just found the biggest Hearth’s Warming Gift of all time.

A dumpy blue mare with a pink mane twirled around her head stepped forward, a rolling-pin in one hoof.

“Lord Magistrate Nitpick. We’ve all heard so much about you” she said sweetly “Our little Pinkie’s asleep at this hour but, on her behalf, let me be the first to say...”

She raised her rolling-pin as the mob surged forward.

“WELCOME TO PONYVILLE!”


*


“Now what do you reckon we ought to do with ‘em first?”

Blueblood and Hoity Toity, tied to opposite chairs, whimpered in unison as the thugs that held them prisoner eyed them as if decided how to rearrange their faces.

“I say we wait for Morion” one of them suggested “He’s the one his lordship left in charge and he might bring those two mares with him. Wouldn’t mind getting to know them myself”

“Nah, knowing Morion, they’ll probably show up with their teeth missing”

“Morion’s a nut! He knows torture better than any of us”

“So it’ll be worth finding out what he’s got in store for these two suckers”

“Please...” Hoity Toity squealed “Whatever Nitpick’s paying you, I’ll double it”

“Can’t do that, I’m afraid. It wouldn’t do betray his lordship’s trust now would it, boys?” One of the larger members of the gang said to the agreement of his colleagues.

“You can’t trust anything Nitpick says” Blueblood pleaded “He’ll swindle you first chance he gets!”

“Well then...” Another ruffian said, drawing a knife “We’d better make sure he knows we’re serious”

Helpless as their captors advanced on them, the two prisoners shut their eyes tight.


“Help meeeeeee!” Cringeworth screamed in terror as he burst through the door and jumped behind the henchponies, cowering pathetically.

He was swiftly followed by Sir Cumbersome’s white carriage smashing through the door and most of the wall around it.

Falling about, blinded and choked by dust, the thugs looked up to see the eccentric photographer and her models standing over them.

“I...Photo Finish” she declared “Have Arrived!”

Morion’s henchponies rushed to fight off their assailants, grabbing their weapons.

The models, all bedecked in tinted glasses of various colours and shapes, responded by demonstrating what their employer had taught them in the field of photography as they started taking shots of their foes with old cameras.

The ones with the heavy flash.

As their foes stumbled blindly, the mares set about giving each one bruises that were likely to hurt a great deal in the morning.

In mere moments the warehouse was theirs.

“Photo!” Hoity Toity said, sobbing with happiness as Powder Rouge cut their conds “Oh, you magnificent belladonna!

“Hoity, my friend...I, Photo Finish...am glad you’re safe”

The critic and photographer hugged warmly, to the shock of all those present who had never known the two to be friendly ponies at the best of times.

Blueblood cleared his throat.

“Well...ahem...very nice work, girls. Much appreciated” He straightened his mane and gave Pretty Vision a dashing grin “I don’t suppose any of you fine ladies would like to-”

“No chance” Soigné Folio interrupted.

The Prince gave dismal shrug.

“Worth a shot”


*


Briefly Manor had been, so far, successfully defended.

Many of Sir Cumbersome’s less ambitious subordinates had already fled the premises.

Sir Cumbersome Clout himself was hiding in one of the corridors, nursing the undignified injury inflicted on him the colt from earlier and walking in a peculiar fashion.

“Boss!” One of the gang called out “We’ve found his old bag!”

Four thugs had located Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers who had just left the powder room and was taking in the sight of the quartet of armed assailants before her.

“Ha!” Cumbersome guffawed, victory somewhat closer at hoof “Trapped like the rat you are! Back down, madam, and order your household to do the same!”

Grand Duchess Bustle Bloomers raised her eyebrows slightly.

“Well, well...Whatever will I do?” she asked in a level tone.

In the next instant, some mean strikes from her hooves had brought down two of her foes, a blast from her horn had sorted a third and the fourth was finished by a clobber from her handbag.

Suddenly Cumbersome felt far less certain of victory as he took a step back from the fearsome matriarch.

“Oh don’t worry” she said, smirking devilishly “I’ve got something special for you”

Lighting her horn, a hefty slice of foil-wrapped meat was removed from her handbag, unravelled, and quickly jammed in the back of Sir Cumbersome’s belt.

She then gave a piercing whistle and called out.

“Dinner time, Horatio!”


Screaming like a terrified schoolfilly, Sir Cumbersome Clout galloped frantically out of the Manor, a frienzied white terrier on his fetlocks, yapping wildly.

The Grand Duchess shook with laughter, stomping her hoof on the ground.

“Such fun!” she hooted.

All across the manor, the household celebrated their triumph. Plumette took the opportunity to grab Ramekin and give him a mighty kiss on the lips which Fuss Pot made sure to shield Tinny’s eyes from.

“A fine days work, if I may say so” Tombola said with satisfaction, though secretly harbouring abject fear.

Only he had been privy to the exact details of the message.

His master had gone missing.

He prayed Fleur would find him as Lady Cadence had promised she would.

Outside, Sir Cumbersome shoved his way to the head of the fleeing ruffians as thy piled into three armoured carriages parked outside the manor. The noblestallion thumped his hoof on the seats once he was sat down, grimacing in pain.

“Get us out of this rancid madhouse! To Invitro Hall! Now! We must...wait a moment” He and his cohorts glanced around with worry. “I didn’t have any carriages parked!”

The door shut behind them and bolted. A suave-looking white earth pony stallion with a slicked-back baby-blue mane appeared in the barred window.

“That’s right, you didn’t...but we did” He said, flashing a smile “Pleased to meet you. I’m Sergeant Orion, Royal Guard. You’re under arrest”


*


Stained Glass didn’t sleep as well as he used to. It would take time, Nurse Redheart had said, for the pschological trauma to recede.

He had become partial to walks down Ponyville’s main street in his dressing gown. Night was quiet in Ponyville and easy for ponies to relax.

This night, however, turned out to be an exception.

Stained watched with curiosity while passing Carrot Top’s garden as Ponyville’s locals were engaged in an almighty brawl with a collection of shifty-looking fellows clearly not used to such stiff opposition.

Fillies and colts across the street had woken and were poking their heads outside, enjoying the show with shouts of ‘That’s my dad down there!’ and ‘Smash ‘em up, big sis!’

Sitting down and magically lighting a pipe, he watched a bedraggled old stallion crawl over.

“Quick! Hide me!” he wheezed.

Stained narrowed his eyes.

“Is that you?” he asked “Nitpick?”

His son-in-law, battered and bruised all over his horn crooked and useless from a direct blow, raised his head and grabbed hold of Stained’s foreleg.

“Stained! Thank Paradise! Please, you need to stop this!”

“My dear fellow...I don’t quite understand?” he said calmly, removing his hoof from Nitpick’s grip.

“Th-they...they’re trying to kill me!” Nitpick pleaded “You need to help me, your lordship, hide me, get me out of here, anything!”

“Oh I...I’m terribly sorry, sir...I don’t understand...I’m a little slow of mind, you see” Stained said as slow as he could manage “My mind isn’t what it used to be, I’m afraid...It’s probably why my dear daughter and her grand old husband saw fit to send me to the loony-bin”

“Oh...now...now listen, that...” the Lord Magistrate whimpered “That was her idea! I-I-I was against the whole thing, truly! P-Please, your lordship, be reasonable!”

“There you are!” An eager Lyra Heartstrings approached them and began dragging Nitpick by the fetlocks with deep orange magic “You get back over there, you dirty old creep! We’re not done with you yet!”

“Nooooo! Stained! Help me!” The subject of Ponyville’s indignation was dragged away, hooves trailing feebly across the grass as he loudly lamented his fate.

Count Stained Glass gave a contented chuckle, puffing on his pipe.

‘And it serves you jolly well right, you filthy little blister!’


*


The trail took her further and further into Canterlot, some streets bustling with life, others as empty as a void.

Still Fleur galloped on, her thoughts of Fancy overwhelming any feeling or acknowledgement of fatigue.

It took her down filthy alleyways, puddles splashing as she dashed through them, likely staining her socks considerably but she didn’t care.

All that mattered to her was Fancy.

She started to feel cramping around her chest and limbs but forced herself to fight through it.

Then she realised these were no cramps at all.

They felt like cuts. Deep ones.

The trail finally took her into a run-down part of the city and led inside a condemned skyscraper. Kicking down the boarded-up doors, Fleur found her way inside, numerous rats retreating into the brickwork at her coming. The trail lead upwards, how far, Fleur had no idea.

There was an elevator in the middle of the room, a squalid thing but it looked functional.

Getting inside, and lighting up her horn, the elevator whirred into life, taking her up at at steady pace.

The trail ascended upwards, as if dripping from the ceiling. Fleur gazed upwards. It looked as if it went all the way to the top.

Another bout of pain shot through her and she found herself screaming, clutching at her chest. It felt as if she was being flayed.

Then another scream. But it wasn’t her own. She could hear the sound of Fancy Pants’ cries of agony ringing in her ears.

Removing the monocle and looking into it, she saw it turning red.

Then a pair of eyes, crimson as blood, glowed in the middle of a hellish gas mask as a figure, glad in protective gear, looked up at her.

“Well...it doesn’t look like you’ll last very much longer”

The way he said that, one would’ve thought he regretted his actions.

Then the monocle showed her what this masked pony was looking at.

She covered her mouth in horror as the limp body of Fancy Pants hung helplessly from his shackles, bleeding from lacerations both he and his tormentor had lost count of.

He gave a series of weak, muffled whimpers as he struggled to muster up the energy to raise his head.

“It is a shame...I’d hoped to bring her in here with you...but no worries”

A wickedly-sharp knife glinted in his hooves.

“You’re both going to the same place after all”

Another scream rushed through her skull as Fleur felt agony pierce between her ribs.

She raised her head to the ceiling, breathing heavily.

He was killing him!

He was killing her Fancy!

Baring her teeth and shuddering with rage, she lit up her horn, causing the elevator to jolt and rocket upwards at five times its speed.

It found its destination at last, slamming to a halt on the ceiling as Fleur ripped open the grate and rushed forwards, following the trail like a hound following the scent of its quarry.

She would protect him!


*


Bloodhound didn’t look like he was faltering as he wiped his brow with his free hoof and spun his sword around him with a bellow.

‘So much for that idea’ thought Shining Armour grimly.

But while Lady Cadence was in danger, he wouldn’t back down either.

Once again they charged at each other, blades clashing, sending sparks flying in all directions.

As the chaos unfolded, Lady Cadence turned to Carcassonne with a wild grin.

“Carrie, I’m gonna’ sing it!”

“No, don’t sing it!” the scarlet unicorn groaned.

“Oh, you bet I’m gonna sing it!”

“Yeah, you’re gonna sing it”

“And you’re gonna sing with me!”

“That is something that’s gonna’ happen, isn’t it” Carcassonne said with resignation.

“You know it is! And a one, and a two, and a one-two-three”

“What are they doing?” Bloodhound asked his opponent, genuinely puzzled.

Shining Armour shrugged, sharing that same puzzlement as Carcassonne and Cadence burst into song.

It was a song based of a Disneigh masterpiece that a young Carcassonne had written for herself to stroke her own ego and only sung it quietly to herself when she felt anxious or stressed, which was often.

One day Cadence had overheard it and Carcassonne had caught her singing it, causing her to throw a volley of insults at the alicorn for spying on her.

Now, however, between friends, it felt very different.


“Nooooo-oooooone tricks Carcassonne”

“No-one sticks Carcassonne”

“And she never can break so don’t fix Carcassonne”

“As you see, I excell at In-ci-ner-ating!”

“Yeah, what a mare, CARCASSOOOOONNE!”


The two mares spun around in circles, the full extent of their magical capabilities demonstrated with a bombardment of powerful self-defence spells, causing chaos among the mercenaries, many of whom saw fit to quit while they still had the hooves to carry them.

“Gah, plough this! Abort!” Bloodhound barked “Abort, I said! We’re not taking on an alicorn! Get out of this damn city!”

His wings took him off the ground as he threw a look of loathing and rage at Sergeant Shining Armour.

“This isn’t over, boy!” he snarled “I’ve got your scent!”

And he took to the air as his cohorts dispersed as quickly as they’d appeared.

Regaining his breath, Shining Armour responded.

“Yeah, I’ve got yours too! You know what? It stinks!”

He didn’t think that comeback was excellent but it earned him a raucous applause from the guard who gathered their injured and cleared the area. The Sergeant’s first instinct was to check on the acting-Princess of Equestria.

“My lady” He knelt, wincing from his injuries “We responded to your instructions. The Royal Guard have secured the city. Nitpick’s attempted coup has been foiled”

He felt the alicorn remove his helmet and give him a gentle kiss on the forehead.

Shining Armour’s face glowed pinker than the coat of the mare he’d grown to love.

“Well done, Sergeant. I was right to rely on you” She looked up at the night sky.

“Now the rest of our hopes lie with the power of true love”


*


The torturer was nearly finished. Fancy Pants could tell from his hesitation as he hung from his restraints as limp and broken a ragdoll.

Even breathing had become hard.

The music had stopped at last.

“Mr Fancy Pants...are you listening?”

A cold metal hoof tilted his head upwards as he stared, once more, into the lifeless red eyes of his soon-to-be-killer, feeling the edge of a knife resting below his chin.

“I’d like you to do something for me...Now this is very important so pay attention...When you find the next world...whatever that might be...I want you to find your parents...and tell them I’m sorry”

Fancy Pants blinked.

Had he finally gone mad?

“When I met them, they asked that I spare you, their precious colt...They were prepared to die together, nothing else suited them, but their son...They could not bear to see him hurt. I told them that, regrettably, I could not make any promises...As you see”

Fancy Pants stared with horror at the pony before him. Memories from between hours or years flooded through his mind.

Fourteen years, he’d wondered what sort of pony could have murdered his parents in cold blood.

He’d always seen the unknown culprit as a monster, not a pony at all, driven by a need to cause chaos and mayhem, hurting as many innocents as possible.

Instead it was this pony before him, a pony so nonchalant and casual in his atrocities.

This was worse than anything he could have imagined.

“Yes...I know this is a lot to take in, but trust me...It’s all over now. I just need you to do that for me? Understood? Excellent”

Fancy felt the knife dig into his neck. Soon, he knew, it would cut through him and he would bleed out, sending him to the great unknown and leaving countless life-long questions unanswered.

He closed his eyes, wondering how his parents must have felt as they accepted their fate.

“Goodbye, Fancy Pants. I am happy I got this chance to meet you”


‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’

The masked pony turned his head as there came noises from behind the door. The sound of hooves kicking and stomping upon it.

This wasn’t meant to happen.

Nopony was meant to be here.

Nopony was meant to find them.

Glancing back at Fancy Pants’ prone form, he edged toward his table and reached for a bolt pistol.

The door smashed open and a furious unicorn mare emerged, her horn a primrose inferno as she readied a mighty spell.

The pistol rose, the metal hoof curling round the trigger.

“GET AWAY FROM MY FANCY, YOU MONSTER!!!”

The unicorn’s bellow was followed by the roar of a colossal magic surge, sending the torturer flying back, hitting the wall and then falling through it as the wall itself gave way to the unstoppable magic.

He fell from the top of the skyscraper, legs flailing with an anguished cry.

“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMN!"

The cry became fainter and fainter as he vanished into the city underworld.

Panting, barely keeping on her hooves, Fleur de Lis stared at the twisted figure of Fancy Pants.

Sobbing at the sight, she lit up her horn, near exhausted from the spell, and unlocked the bolts holding him to the wall.

The gentlecolt’s body slumped forward into the forelegs of the mare he loved.

His entire body had been sliced in every direction, burned in other places with methods she did not wish to think about.

His horn was grey and cracked, tiny crystals stuck to it like wasps.

Fleur tore off the blood-soaked gag covering his mouth.

He wasn’t breathing.

“Fancy...” Fleur wept “My poor Fancy..”

He gave a groan and coughed, blood running out the corners of his lips.

“Fancy! Fancy, it’s alright!” Fleur used what little magic she had left to heal him some way, working carefully to keep his heart beating at a safe speed while steadily closing his lacerations “It’s alright, Fancy, I’m here! I’m here for you”

The stallion's eyes flickered.

“F-F-Fleur?” he mumbled.

“Yes, Fancy...Fleur is here”

“Whoa!” A royal guard had flown through the enormous hole in the wall and fumbled with a transceiver. Fleur and Fancy Pants knew him from the gala.

“This is Flash Sentry! The Chairstallion has been found on Crooked Horn Boulevard alive but seriously wounded, highest floor of the tallest building. You’ll know it when you see it. Bring a sky chariot and medics! Now!”

He smiled at the two.

“Don’t worry. Help is on its way”

Fleur’s tears fell in torrents down her cheeks but she smiled as Fancy’s eyes opened at last.

“You hear that, Fancy? Help is coming!” She held him close and closed her eyes.

“I’ll protect you...my love”


*


“Damn”

In the darkness of a particularly grimy and unseen part of Crooked Horn Boulevard’s alleyways, a gas-masked pony gave a groan as one of his metal hooves finally rose and pushed himself off the ground.

Overhead, a sky chariot soared across the streets and hovered by the skyscraper, ponies entering and exiting through the great hole he’d fallen through.

Instinctively, he removed his mask and turned his rubber suit inside-out to show a dirty woollen coat which he wrapped around his body.

Anypony who saw him would mistake him for a common vagrant down on his luck.

Not worth their attention.

His transceiver buzzed as he discreetly held it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Cascadius, what the buck?!” Bloodhound sounded furious “You told us the alicorn would stay in her palace! All in hoof, you said!”

“Something...went wrong” he said, coughing.

There was a pause. Then Bloodhound continued in a worried tone.

“Cass...Pal, are you okay?”

“I...I made a mistake”

“Cass, you never make mistakes!”

"I know...I haven’t been keeping control...But I’ll soon fix that. I’m sorry about this, Bloody. This is my fault. I’ll make it up to you. Abandon the mission. Rendezvous outside the city. I’ll meet up with you later”

“You sure you’re alright, pal?”

“Yeah, yeah, I just...” He gave a grunt as he forcibly shoved a dislocated shoulder back into place “Just need to reflect a bit”

“Okay...We still get paid, right?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. Leave it with me”

“Alright. Meet up with you later. Good luck”

The transceiver gave a buzz of static and switched off.

Propping himself up against the wall, waiting to recover from the both figurative and literal fall he’d suffered, Cascadius rose his head to the sky with cold, callous eyes.

‘Fleur de Lis...I underestimated you. That’s not a mistake I make twice' A metal hoof scraped along the ground 'You interrupted my work and made me look like a fool...that was your mistake...you won’t get to make it twice. Seven years is long enough for me to have a plan. You’d better hope it’s not long enough for you to forget. You’d better hope, by the time I’m ready, you’ve ascended to alicornhood, because once I’m done with those who wronged me before...You’re Next!'

Chapter 10

View Online

Princess Celestia had returned to Canterlot.

And she was relieved to see it in one piece.

Private Flash Sentry of the Royal Guard had been too frantic and overexcited to explain anything other than ‘We kicked flank’ and she needed to get the whole story.

The first thing she wanted to do was see how her niece had handled running the place.

To say she was surprised when she saw Jet Set and Upper Crust sat, quite uncomfortably, on the Royal Throne would be an understatement. Upon noticing her, the two noble ponies showed similar surprise mixed with some amount of fear as they squeezed free of the throne and abased themselves.

“Your highness, your magnificence, we are...glad to see you in such good health” Jet Set flattered.

“We were informed of how you so valiantly prevented devastation at Fillydelphia” Upper Crust fawned

“Bittsburgh” Celestia corrected them, her tone unfriendly.

“Exactly” The couple gave her a sycophantic smile “Her ladyship has excelled herself upon the throne but, poor dear, she felt very tired a few hours ago and asked us to keep order while she...recuperated, as it were”

“Purely temporarily, of course”

“Oh...I see” Celestia glanced at the massive portrait of the two courtiers, in the process of being hung up on the palace wall by their servants who were shifting uncomfortably under her gaze.

“Oh, that old thing?” Upper Crust blurted out “Oh that...that...all a misunderstanding...You see, we ordered a portrait done a few days ago, just arrived for us”

“Th-they sent it here when they found out we were filling in for Lady Cadence” Jet Set chuckled nervously, mopping his brow “We...we were just leaving it here for the moment...we were going to send it to...to...toooooo...er...”

“Maison Du Pompé, perhaps?” Celestia suggested meaningfully.

“Yes, yes, of course. Back home at Maison Du Pompé” Upper Crust clucked “You...you didn’t think we were going to hang it in the palace without...without your royal permission, did you?” She laughed half-heartedly “The idea!”

“Preposterous” Jet Set agreed “Just a...just a momentary convenience. We’ll...we’ll have it moved at once now that...now that her highness has returned”

The servants lugging the great portrait grumbled as they left the way they’d come.

“Well thank you for your time and effort, Marquis Jet Set and Marchioness Upper Crust” Celestia smiled “But I believe you’ve done enough for one day and I shall wish to return to my royal seat. You’ll want to be heading home too, I trust”

“Oh very much so, your highness, thank you”

“We’re so glad you’ve returned, your highness”

The two left staring at the floor, something they did not do often.

Celestia gave a deep sigh as she made her way to Cadence’s chambers.

Flash Sentry and Sunset Shimmer watched her leave before the headstrong unicorn turned to the guard.

“You know, Timber Spruce told me what happened”

“Er...” Flash paled “What...exactly...did he say?”

“He said you helped take down a perp and rescue Mr Fancy Pants”

“Uh, yeah...” The pegasus brushed the back of his mane with his hoof “Yeah, it...wasn’t easy. I’m glad Timber was impressed”

“He also said you look damn good in a nurse’s outfit”

“Oh, he’s a dead pony!”

“It’s okay, nursie, I don’t mind” Sunset chuckled, sidling up to him playfully “It’s something we have in common”


The young alicorn lay on her bed, accompanied by a bandage-swathed Sergeant Shining Armour, who was sitting patiently beside her along with a young lavender unicorn filly with a pink and indigo mane.

Upon seeing the Princess, the little unicorn dashed into her forelegs, smiling brightly.

“Princess Celestia!” she squealed.

Smiling in a motherly fashion, Celestia knelt down and nuzzled the young one.

“Hello my dear little Twilight, how have you been?”

“I’ve been fine! Shining and Cadey were telling me what happened while you were gone!” She hopped about excitedly “They fought off an army of really scary-looking ponies! With illegal weapons! That’s to say the scary ponies had weapons, not Shiny and Cadey! They weren’t using illegal weapons ‘cause...that’d be illegal” She caught her breath and regained her senses.

Celestia gave a gentle lilt of laughter.

“I’m glad you’ve been entertained, my little pony. Now you should be getting off to bed, it’s very late”

Twilight gave a small yawn.

“O-okay...” she toddled off, turning back once more “Can Cadey sing a lullaby later?” She shifted on her hooves “I know I’m a little old now but...when Shining said there were armed ponies in the streets, I...I got a little scared”

“Oh Twilight” Cadence hopped up and gave the little mare a gentle kiss on the forehead “Of course I’ll sing you a lullaby. I’ll just be a few minutes with the Princess. I’m sure Mr Smarty Pants can keep you safe”

Twilight Sparkle gave a giggle, waved them goodbye and left.


Shining Armour got to his hooves and saluted his princess.

“I’d like the full details on what transpired today, please Sergeant”

“Yes, your highness” Shining Armour spoke in a military tone “Her ladyship, Mi Amore Cadenza, assumed regency under your wishes while you were providing aid to Bittsburgh’s Industrial District. She was going to bring the Royal Council to the palace to discuss allegations of corruption referring to the Lord Magistrate Nitpick. The members were asked to bring documents relating to this matter to the palace but, owing to the congested traffic, only Chairstallion Fancy Pants and Councillor Earl Grey made it to the Royal Council and Earl Grey had to leave for hospital at the wish of his wife, Lady Crochet Doily, after learning his sons, Pokey Pierce, Perry Pace and Ponet Pierre, had been involved in an archery accident that left them hospitalised”

“I’ve heard all this, what happened after that?” Celestia said bluntly.

Shining Armour cleared his throat and continued.

“From what we’ve gathered, your highness, the Royal Council House was gassed in order to incapacitate the Chairstallion. It’s believed he was still physically assaulted before his abduction. The folder containing the necessary documents was trip-wired with explosives that went off at around o’ seven-hundred, today”

“And what did you do?”

“Well, it’s not so much what I did, your highness. You see...her ladyship...” He gave Cadence a flustered glance “grew concerned when the Chairstallion did not appear and elected to set out a search. Not long afterwards, Private Stumbler had been ordered to...infiltrate...local gangs on the outskirts of Canterlot, who’d been gathering in a large group for purposes unknown”

In truth, Stumbler had simply wandered into the group absent-mindedly and hastily claimed he was one of them but the Sergeant felt it best to omit that detail


“When informed that a one Sir Cumbersome Clout of Loutly Towers, had been the one who had gathered them, Lady Cadence suspected Sir Cumbersome’s ally, Lord Nitpick, to be responsible. We questioned Nitpick’s lawyer, Mr Earwax, who’d been arrested the day before. He seemed fairly willing to talk when it was clear to him that he would not receive any help from the Lord Magistrate and confirmed Lady Cadence’s suspicions. We had, admittedly, gotten our facts mixed somewhat. We believed Nitpick had abducted the Chairstallion and was going after his political opponents. While ponies in his employment were indeed sent after Councillor Earl Grey, Prince Blueblood, Mister Hoity Toity and Miss Photo Finish, Lord Nitpick himself was heading by train to Ponyville where he believed Miss Fleur de Lis, a mare with supposedly intimate relations with the Chairstallion, was staying while Sir Cumbersome was intent on looting and burning Briefly Manor, the Chairstallion’s family residence”

Celestia’s brow furrowed.

“Such a vindictive, spiteful act. I trust he was stopped”

Shining gave a small chuckle.

“To be perfectly honest, your highness, their plan was very poorly thought out. I don’t know whether Lord Nitpick truly believed Fleur was at Ponyville after she appeared in person at the modelling shoot at Briefly Manor the day before or whether he was simply intent on making an example. His family household, Invitro Manor, has a certain enmity towards the town and he may have been hoping to kill two birds with one stone. But regardless, the residents of Ponyville...took exception to his intentions. The Mayor sent me a message a couple of hours ago saying that Nitpick and his associates had been apprehended and were on route to Canterlot by train to be delivered to her highness. Lady Cadence had, however, sent the Royal Guard, led by Sergeant Orion of the 2nd Platoon, to Briefly Manor. He informed us that the household had seen fit to rigidly defend the estate and Sir Cumbersome Clout and those beside him were swiftly repelled, running into the awaiting guard”

“I shall deal with them personally” Celestia growled.

“There’s more, your highness. I sent my platoon in search of the ponies her ladyship was certain that Nitpick had targeted, I myself sought after Fleur de Lis at her flat but found her missing but the room showed no signs of disarray. I discovered, on her orb, that she was planning on meeting the Chairstallion outside the Royal Council House. When I informed her Ladyship, her friend, Miss Carcassonne, went immediately to the Council House while we relayed orders to the guard. Upon hearing of the explosion, her ladyship mustered the remaining troops and headed, with all haste, to the site...Your highness”

He glanced around, as if concerned the attack was still going on.

“I do not believe the attack on the Council House was Nitpick’s doing. The abduction of Fancy Pants and the destruction of the archives were far too coordinated. An entire squad of mercenaries, dozens strong, were able to disguise themselves as roadwork ponies, divert all traffic from the road the Council worked on, blow up the building and pick off any survivors without anypony but Lady Cadence knowing. It is my firm belief these ponies were professionals, quite unlike the small-time thugs the Lord Magistrate relied on. They were well-trained in combat and strategy and, dare I say it, they showed great amounts of loyalty. During their retreat, they were set on getting everypony among them out of there in one piece, along with their weapons. Their leader, who we’re searching the criminal database for, even bided time for his ponies to escape by challenging Lieutenants Flitter and Cloud Chaser to a two-on-one duel. Though greatly outmatched, he fought until his mercenaries had left Canterlot, then escaped using flash-bang grenades. We suffered no fatalities but we’ve many injured”

“Just so long as they are no longer in the city...You believe the two events aren’t connected?” Celestia asked, tilting her head.

"It’s not that, your highness. They are connected, we’re sure of it. But I believe Nitpick was working with somepony, somepony far more powerful and dangerous than he could ever dream of being”

“I suspect the Countess” Cadence piped up.

“I wouldn’t think so” Celestia stated, pursing her lips “Countess Magnifying Glass is smarter than her husband but only marginally and a lot less cautious”

“Even so, she could well have been involved” Cadence urged her aunt.

“We cannot accuse anypony without proof”

“Uh...can I chip in here?” The three ponies turned to Flash Sentry, who was holding up his hoof nervously.


“Private...” Shining said at length “Is that lipstick?”

“Huh? Oh this?” The orange pegasus hastily rubbed his cheek. “Nonono...the...the perp caught me in the face when we brought him in”

“I thought he was unconscious?”

“Yeah, er...reflex. Look, the thing is, there might be more to it that just this event” He stood up and spoke in a serious manner “Before we stepped in, Earl Grey’s would-be-assassin, a pegasus named Arquebus, told Earl Grey he’d let the Lord Magistrate down and disobeyed orders. Arquebus had been arrested by the guard three days earlier for assaulting Prince Blueblood, presumably on Nitpick’s orders. He said nothing when we questioned him so we hid a tracking crystal in his belt. He was ordered to kill Earl Grey at the hospital but the traffic impeded him so we...disguised ourselves and waited. He said something about ‘Keeping an eye on him’. At first, I thought he meant Fancy’s lead in the polls but me and Timber were talking earlier. It didn’t make sense. Earl Grey was the one who put Fancy in the polls in the first place. And if he was impeded in the traffic then Arquebus couldn’t have been part of the fake road-works scheme. I think there’s more to it than that and when I asked Earl Grey about it, he said he’d have something he’d need to get off his chest” He stepped to the side to reveal the elderly unicorn standing before them with a solemn expression.

“Your highness,” he knelt “I fear I must confess a terrible injustice”

There was a pause.

“Speak” Princess Celestia’s tone was unemotional.

“It was many years ago, your highness...fourteen to be exact”

“Pantaloon and Petticoat...” Cadence whispered.

“I had nothing to do with the murder itself...but I had something to do with its cover-up” Earl Grey cleared his throat, blinked several times and did his best to continue “You may remember I led and financed the investigation. I was close...closer than I was letting on. Until one day when I went to check my desk and I found...the good Countess standing outside my office. Now, she’d always despised me, she didn’t mind showing it. We were not friends or even anything friendlier than enemies. I had put a stop to many of her more controversial acts and before their deaths, I was aiding Chairmare Petticoat and her husband in proving Count Stained Glass sane and safe, which would have greatly diminished Magnifying Glass’s chances for comfortable inheritance. And she and her husband had always given me a look, like that of a wolf towards a bear. Hostility, suspicion, but most of all a sense of jealousy...and some small amount of fear. But that day there was no fear. Not in her. The way she looked she was a wolf...and I was a weasel, to be chased away if I approached and eaten if she saw fit. We passed each other without a word and I looked in my desk” He gulped “There was a knife, a simple thing but meant for warfare, a proper soldier’s tool. It was sticking upright in my desk drawer, stuck through a photo of my family, the names and numbers of my son’s fraternity rooms at the School for Gifted Unicorns, a shopping list containing some of the foods I know my wife is partial to...and a note, scrawled in untidy handwriting I did not recognise. And when I looked back up...the Countess was gone...And the next day, so were the knife and the notes”

“What was on the note?” Celestia asked, her tone significantly more sympathetic.

Earl Grey took a deep breath and answered.


No Interference...I shall remember those words until my last day in this world” He shivered “But you see, your highness, I had seen Nitpick too that day before and after getting that note and his look was the look he’d always given me. The fear was there. And only the day after did he start seeing me as less a bear and more a weasel”

“You mean to say...” Celestia said, her eyebrows rising “She made the threat...not Nitpick?”

“She was involved!” Cadence exclaimed.

“I would stake the honour of my great ancestor, Twinings the Tactician, upon it” Earl Grey declared “Your highness...I cannot ignore what I have done...After receiving that letter, I called off the investigation, increased royal guard influence in the area where Pantaloon and Petticoat were found dead...and tried to forget...But every day I went into office, I saw how Nitpick looked at me and knew that the threat was still there, hanging over me...”

“But then why did you support Fancy Pants in the polls?” Shining asked.

“Spur of the moment, really. I’d taken the lad in, taught him everything his father and I had been taught, watched him grow. After Carcassonne failed, I couldn’t bear to see Nitpick take charge of the city. I could not be certain how long it would take before he decided he no longer needed me or my family. There would be blood in the streets, I knew it...so I acted. A day afterwards, I got a visit from Arquebus, relaying orders from his master. Nitpick wanted to know exactly what Fancy Pants was up to and prevent any chance of him stumbling upon the documents he was so keen to get rid of. He couldn’t destroy them. You’d need signed and reviewed permission to do so and that would lead to hooves pointed. I would have nothing to hide, he knew it. Nitpick is good at one thing, covering his tracks. But the Countess is the one behind this, there can be no doubt”

“Very well” Celestia said, bowing her head “Earl Grey...while what you did was wrong, nopony could fault your reasons. It is obvious Nitpick was unafraid to kill your family and any other who chanced upon what you knew...and even then you managed to do good by nominating Fancy Pants”

“But...I have caused Fancy Pants fourteen years of grief. Knowing his parents died in agony and never knowing who was responsible! And my support for him practically caused the chaos that unfolded today!” Earl spluttered.

“Earl...you have had the same threat of terrible loss hanging over you for the fourteen years Fancy was able to recover from his own, partly thanks to your help. That’s punishment I would not envy and worse than any I could think of...”

She remembered the last few weeks before the rise of Nightmare Moon, seeing her sister become so cold and distant, just waiting to snap. A sword above her head, a weight upon her shoulders, crushing her.

She would not envy it at all.

“Go and see your wife and sons, Earl. However way you choose to make amends will be of your own decision”

Earl Grey stared a moment, caught his breath, bowed and left.

There was a pause.

“Do you think I made the right choice?” Celestia said at last to Cadence and Shining.

“He’s been through enough” Shining said “I know I probably would’ve done the same if they came after my family”

“Indeed” The Princess turned “You have done very well, my little ponies, and you deserve your rest. I have received the documents retrieved from the Council House and will review them immediately”

“Thanks, auntie” Cadence chirped before following Shining Armour to the room of her favourite little filly in Canterlot.


With a weighty sigh, Princess Celestia entered her chamber.

Overall, she’d done a fine days work.

The moon shone bright through the balcony.

‘One day’ she thought, a bitter tear rolling down her cheek.

She paced over to the chair where the folder from the Council Archives had been placed.

She’d need to examine these. Accusations or defences of powerful ponies would cause chaos if she wasn’t able to add her own opinion.

And she’d need to look for that messenger. She had quite a few things she needed to ask him.

Opening the folder, the first items she found were a collection of deeds, receipts and bills. Each one was stamped with the Glass family seal.

She gave them a quick skim then paused.

She looked them over again, slowly and clearly.

The sheets fell limply to the ground as she stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed, pale and shaking from horn to hoof.

A few faint words managed to free themselves from her quivering lips.

“Oh...no...”


*


Countess Magnifying Glass looked out the window, gazing at the smoke and flames emanating from the smouldering remains of the Royal Council Chambers with a victorious smirk, swilling her whisky inside its glass.

Good-bye Carcassonne, Fine Line, Jet Set and all those other meddling bureaucrats and campaigners.

She took a sip of her whisky.

She’d be saying good-bye to an awful of ponies she’d never liked. And hello to a chance for some real power.

Fancy Pants would be found dead, mutilated to a level beyond speaking of, barely recognisable.

Fleur de Lis, the papers would say, committed the act in a paranoid frenzy, harming herself as she did her lover, as her shocking wounds indicated before committing suicide by...Well that was up to Nitpick, really. It would be cruel to deny him that justice.

The terrible murder-suicide would take place at Briefly Manor which would be found burned to the ground with everypony in it come morning. It was like Fleur de Lis to be showy, in life and in death.

Meanwhile, road-works across the city caused terrible congestion and chaos on the streets, numerous ponies being victims of traffic collisions, injured or killed walking or driving, the most prominent being the well-known stallions, Prince Blueblood and Hoity Toity. Such horrific injuries, there was no way to save them.

Worse still, the road-works inadvertently caused multiple gas leaks in several areas of Canterlot, causing the Royal Council Halls, the hospital and the set of Photo Finish to tragically go up in flames with few if any survivors and absolutely no witnesses to any other cause of the attacks.

And outside of Canterlot, largely unnoticed in the mayhem, the normally calm and peaceful town of Ponyville would be subjected to a raid from ponies or creatures unknown. Many casualties, among them the Mayor, the Judge, the ice-cream ponies, the bakers, the nurses, the games inspector, most of the town council and their immediate families.

The local mail-mare and her family would go missing.

Later she would turn up at Invitro Manor, a completely different mare.

Nothing would ever be mentioned of any husband or foal she may or may not have had.

Oh it would be terrible for the Princess, she did not doubt it. Perhaps enough to truly push her over the edge. Her sister had cracked just under a hundred years ago. In for a bit, in for a diamond. Alicorns were always so unreliable. She thought of the mural on the door to the manor. Once she was gone...then things would really look promising.

‘I hope you live long enough to watch, daddy-dearest’ she thought, her icy-blue eyes gleaming ‘It’s not ‘Lucky’ Looking that becomes the Princess. No, no, it’s not the good daughter, the favourite, that excels. She’s rotting away in a haunted valley somewhere with that loutish upstart of a husband you liked so much while the daughter you always frowned on, lectured, reprimanded like a child...she goes on to-’


There was a bang on the door.

The Countess paused and waited.

There was another banging.

Why hadn’t the servants answered?

Fuming, the Countess made her way downstairs to the entrance hall and opened the door. She stared at the newcomer, her icy eyes wide as saucers.

“Wh-what...what happened to you?!” she exclaimed.

“Drink...please...”

Cascadius was bruised and beaten all over and there were places on his body that weren’t supposed to bend the way they were bending.

Instinctively, she gave him the glass decanter and fumbled around for a glass, only to find he was drinking it straight from the bottle in heavy gulps. Throwing his head forward, the mercenary closed his eyes, coughed and found a seat by the fire, nursing his injuries.

“Cascadius...” Countess Magnifying Glass said, her triumphant vigour diminished completely “What happened?”

The stallion paused and spoke without looking at her.

“Do you want the long version or the short version?”

“Long”

He took a breath and answered.

“We lost”

“Wh...What was the short version?”

“Damn”

“I...I don’t follow. Speak sense!”

Cascadius took a breath and another gulp of whisky before explaining.

“Your husband and his associates were thwarted at every turn and my mercenaries came under attack from Lady Cadence and the Royal Guard. We were unable to complete our objectives...and I was interrupted before I could finish my task...by one very ticked-off supermodel”

“Fine but it’s all taken care of, correct”

“Incorrect...Very incorrect” Cascadius cleared his throat “Everypony is alive”

“Wh-wh-WHAT?!” the Countess’s eyes bulged in their sockets “You...you mean Fancy Pants is still alive?!”

"Yes. Everypony is alive, milady”

“What, Fleur de Lis?”

“Everypony is alive, milady”

“Carcassonne?”

“They’re all alive. Everypony is alive, milady”

“Blueblood isn’t, is he?”

“Everypony is alive, milady” Cascadius was failing to get his point across.

“...Not Earl Grey!”

“Ploughing hay, yes! Earl Grey, everypony! Everypony is alive, milady!”

“Mayor Merry Weather?! Tell me she’s not alive!”

“She’s alive, milady! Everypony is alive! Everypony – is – alive – my – lady!” Cascadius snapped, thoroughly exasperated.

“Wait...” The Countess blinked, holding up one hoof “Are you trying to tell me everypony is alive?

“You don’t have any more whisky do you?”

The Countess began stammering, spluttering and gasping for air as Cascadius leaned forward in front of the fire.

“You...you mean you failed?!”

“We acted too soon. We’ll need to think it through a little more-”

“SHUT UP!” She screamed, shivering with fury, her eyes sunken, her lips dripping with spittle “YOU WERE MEANT TO KILL THEM! ALL OF THEM! YOU’RE MEANT TO BE EQUESTRIA’S BEST ASSASSIN! WHAT SORT OF KILLER LEAVES EVERYPONY ALIVE! THIS IS PATHETIC! I CAN’T RELY ON ANYPONY!”

“Calm yourself, milady, this is a minor setback”

“Minor?! MINOR?!?! YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT YOU USELESS, SPINELESS, BRAIN-DEAD, INCOMPETENT, BUCKING PLOT!!!

She clutched the poker in her hooves, too lost in rage to focus on magic and swung it at the stallion with full force.

She felt it collide with something and opened her eyes.

Cascasius had lifted one of his hooves in front of his cheek.

The poker had slammed into it and bent round slightly from the impact.

Slowly, his hoof slid round the metal rod and snatched it from her grasp, passing it to his other hoof and dropping it nonchalantly in the corner of the room.

She took a step back as Cascadius rose from his chair without turning his head toward her, his expression showing little more than mild disappointment.

Like a rotating machine, he turned and looked her in the eye.

His voice was unnaturally tranquil.

“I feel like you don’t appreciate me”


His hoof shot out like a pouncing wolf, grabbing the countess by the throat and holding her face inches from the roaring orange flames rising and flickering in the fireplace.

“Argh-what-wha-what are you doing?!” the Countess spluttered, coughing and spitting out smoke and sparks “Stop! Stop you madpony! I’ll have you-”

“Shhh” Somehow Cascadius’s whisper was heard over Magnifying Glass’s screams as he leaned forward, his face glowing in the fire, and spoke in his tranquil tone.

“Don’t talk...just listen very carefully. I...have followed your orders to the letter...To the letter” he repeated “If this plan of yours did not work...even though it was carried out exactly as you wanted it...then who do you think is at fault here?”

“I...”

“I said no talking” He’d barely raised his voice yet she shut up immediately as he let him continue, trying hard to keep her face and mane out of the fires.

“I have given you nothing but my best advice. Remain calm, act with caution, move carefully, plan ahead, no grand theatrics and learn to control your temper...At no point, through any of this, did you choose to act on that advice. You have left your plans in the hooves of absolute idiots, and while acknowledging and rebuking their idiocy, you insisted on relying on them regardless. You constantly complicated and dragged out tasks that could have been accomplished with subtlety and efficiency purely to satisfy your own spite. Lastly, you acted entirely on your own sense of personal vendetta, rather than any semblance of necessity or responsibility...I have seen some pretty terrible plans and the ponies who made them. Hay, I once worked for a paranoid megalomaniac who honestly considered hopscotch the pinnacle of strategy” He gritted his teeth and growled out the side of his mouth.

“It’s not strategy if you don’t have an opponent! It just...doesn’t work that way! Hopscotch is moving forward over lines! That’s - it! How delusional could anypony be?!”

“Wh-what are you talking about?!”

“Ah-ah-ah...no talking” Cascadius adjusted his grip. The coals were dangerously close to the Countess’s face. She could feel her makeup running down her cheeks from the heat, her eyes stung from the fumes.

“Sorry, lost my train of thought. Back again. As I was saying, I try not to mind too much when my employers or officers make mistakes. Mistakes makes us what we are, after all, nopony’s perfect...But what I take real issue with is when they try to shift the blame on others...namely the only one who’s got a shred of skill around here. That, my lady, ticks me off. So I’m going to make myself clear on this. I have more talent and knowledge and experience in eliminating one’s enemies than you can even comprehend so you should reflect on that whenever you so much as contemplate calling me incompetent...do you understand? You may talk now”

“...yes...” A pained squeak escaped the Countess’s lips as the last of her resolve burned away in the fireplace.

“Sorry, you’ll have to speak up”

“Yes!” she wailed as she was hauled out of the inferno. She crawled on her knees, shaking wildly as Cascadius gently brushed the soot from her shoulders and mane and offered a handkerchief for her face “You...you’re mad!”

He shrugged.

“That’s never bothered you before”

“I...”

“Shhhh...” That tranquil tone was consistent “Don’t worry. These disagreements are natural but I’m just glad we understand each other. It’s very simple” He sat down and put his hooves together under his chin “I’m in charge now. I make the plan, I pay the bills and I decide when, where, how and who we’ll strike. I hope you realise I’m not so quick to forget failure and please understand when I say I do not need you anywhere near as much you think I do so don’t embarrass yourself by trying to find leverage on me. Because you won’t. Because there isn’t any, not available to you anyway...Now” He got back to his hooves “I think my limbs are in better shape. I’ll be off covering your tracks. Then we can make plans in the morning”


*


Beep

Beep

Beep

Beep

‘Dash it all, Tom, me and Fleur are trying to sleep’

Beep

Beep

Beep

‘Tom, old chap, I’m sorry if we’ve been keeping you up but you’ve had your fun, surely’

Beep

Beep

Beep

‘I’m sorry, Fleur, he’s not usually this stubborn. Alright, Tom, have it your way, I’m coming down but that had better be the end of it!’

Grumbling, Fancy rose his head.

“FANCY!”

The gentlecolt gave a surprised yelp as he was grabbed by the shoulders by the sobbing mare of his affection.

“Fancy! You’re alright! Thank the alicorns! You’re alright! I was so worried!”

“Oomph! Careful now, Fleur!” Fancy wheezed “I just got up!”

“Sorry...sorry” The alabaster mare withdrew her hold and gently laid him back down again by the shoulders.

Fancy took a moment to take in his surroundings.

He was lying on a hospital bed with an excessiveness of teal around the room. He felt giddy just looking at it but soon realised that may have been due to something else.

There was a conducting crystal above his bedpost that glowed gold on and off, like that of one’s pulse. He felt warmth emitted from it that filled his body almost completely.

He pushed down the thin covers of the bed and glanced down.

His body was almost completely covered in bandages and grafts, deep red incisions sown up and covered across his chest, waist and limbs. Nothing had been severed from him or mutilated beyond repair but the sight still shocked him.

“Good grief” he burbled, still half-delirious “Where’s my jacket?”

“You have far more important concerns than your jacket, my errant colt” He looked up to see Aunt Bustle Bloomers standing on the other side of his bed. Tombola, Fuss Pot and Tinny Can were beside her and the on Fleur’s side were Earl Grey, Photo Finish and Carcassonne.

“Hello everypony” he murmured “Sorry I overslept”

“Oh Fancy, you can’t joke about this” Fleur was still weeping “You nearly died! That monster was cutting you open! He was torturing you to death”

As Fancy Pants glanced at his hoof, still stained with blood from a fresh graft, the memory of the bright red eyes staring through him flooded back as he regained his senses with a jolt.

“Did...” he panted “Did you catch him”

“Sadly no, but I wouldn’t count on seeing him again” Earl Grey said calmly “He fell from the top an eight storey high skyscraper. I doubt anypony could’ve survived”

“I won’t feel safe...until that horrible mask of his...is hung up in the evidence locker” Fancy struggled to get up “He killed them...My parents...He told me”

“What?” Fleur started.

“He told me...he was sorry...he told my parents...that I would be spared...before he killed them...”

The ponies around him hung their heads.

“We’ll find him, Fancy” Carcassonne said grimly “And if he survived, we’ll make him wish he hadn’t”

“I...when do you think I’ll be out?”

“The hospital staff said you will be able to walk by tomorrow afternoon, sir, but prudence and caution is advised” Tombola said “I’ve prepared your father’s walking stick if you needed it”

“I will want to speak with Princess Celestia as soon as I can get up”

“We can arrange for that, sir” Tombola got to his feet, putting his hat back on “Shall we leave you to recuperate, sir?”

“Fleur” Fancy managed to say “I have something...I’d quite like to tell her”


The reaction was mixed around the room. Tombola, Fuss Pot and Tinny Can had faces of excited glee, Bustle Bloomers and Earl Grey shook their heads but betrayed heartened smiles and Photo Finish and Carcassonne gave knowing smirks as the seven ponies left the room, leaving Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis alone.

“Fleur...” he said, his voice a mellow drone “You saved my life...”

“I-I-I only...what happened was...” she gulped and took a deep breath “Yes”

“How?”

“I looked for you in the archives. I found your monocle” She retrieved it from her coat pocket “I met Carcassonne and we got out of the Council Hall before it burned down. We were attacked and Lady Cadence and the guard came to help us. Cadence helped me work a spell to find you...She...” She stumbled with her words, determining how they sounded in her head “She said it was love magic...The fact that I loved you so much...led me to you”

“Do you believe that?” Fancy asked, his face expressionless.

Fleur thought a moment.

“It depends...”

“On what?”

The alabaster mare leaned over and kissed the stallion on the lips.

“On whether you believe that”

Fancy blinked, gazed at the beautiful, kind and ever so strong mare in front of him and kissed her back, long and lovingly.

“I love you so much...Fleur de Lis”


*


“That was lovely” Shining Armour said as his little sister yawned, the soothing sensations of Cadence’s lullaby taking effect.

Little Twilight Sparkle snuggled up with Mr Smarty Pants and sighed, staring at her brother and foalsitter with her wide purple eyes.

“So at the end...what happened to Scorpan?”

“They say he’ll return when he finds a way to bring peace to his lands forever. Star-Swirl went with him so you know he’ll succeed”

“And where there any others who joined Scorpan?”

“Of course. Many centaurs and gargoyles saw the error of their ways and made peace with Equestria. No race in the world is ever always evil. There is good everywhere if you know how to find it”

“And what about Mimic?”

“She took over Star-Swirl’s role as Wizard of Wizards until the day her master returned”

“But if she becomes Wizard of Wizards, what happened to her brother, Gimic?”

Cadence thought a moment.

“He...became an explorer, teaching magic to the lesser known races across the world”

“Where is he now?”

“Er...in Fluffle Puff Land”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Dancing around with the Fluffle Puffs, I guess”

“You sure?”

“Yeah”

There was a pause.

“Okay” Twilight smiled and rested her in the pillow.

Shining knew his part in the ‘good-night’ ritual. He took the small photo of him, Twilight, his father Night Light and his mother Velvet and kissed the image of his parents.

“Good night mom, good night dad” he said and hoofed the photo over to Twilight who did the same before closing her eyes and letting the joy of dream-land find her.

Smiling, the alicorn and stallion left the room, closing the door gently behind them.


“Lovely song there, missus, if you don’t mind me saying”

A creaky old caretaker, dressed in the dark blue cloak and wide-brimmed hat of the School Mason Workers, stood smiling, resting on his broom.

“Thank you, sir” Cadence said tenderly “Now, Sergeant...Maybe you’ll need a little song to sleep too”

“Uh...I don’t know about th-whup!” Blushing furiously, Shining was held by a lock of his blue mane held in Cadence’s magenta magic as the two left the remainder of the night to their own fancies.

The caretaker watched them slowly disappear and smiled.

Propping the broom against the wall and hanging the cloak and hat upon it as if the wearer were resting, at least from a glance, he turned to the door.

‘It’s always the ones we love’

Retrieving several miniscule appliances and placing them in a rotating cog-work device, he carefully pressed it against the lock and, turning several dials this way and that, unlocked it.

Smiling, barely making any kind of sound, Cascadius opened the door to Twilight Sparkle’s bedroom and walked inside.

Finale

View Online

Giggling, Lady Cadence left the room of Shining Armour.

“Sleep well, brave stallion” she called back.

“How do you remove this lipstick?!” Shining asked frantically “I can’t show up for drills like this, I need to-”

She closed the door and left, skipping for her chambers.

She really did like Shining Armour.

True love was built on friendship and they’d been friends since they were foals.

And taking care of little Twilight had always been a good way for them to spend time together.

For that, she’d always be grateful.

She’d really need to look out for that little filly.

With a relieved sigh, she flung open the door to her room and readied herself for sleep. It was around midnight, well past her bedtime.

After a shower, toothbrush and all the necessary procedures, she reached for the blankets, knowing that sleep would feel very well-deserved today.

Catching something in the corner of her eye, she turned her head slightly.

Then she gasped, barely stopping herself screaming and stared at the thing hung on the inside of her chamber door.

It was a gas-mask.

With the most horrible blood-red goggles she’d ever seen.

It lolled morbidly by its straps on the upper centre of the bedroom door. What it was hanging from was a mystery.

Tentatively, as if she were afraid it would jump out at her, Cadence stepped towards it and took it off.

What she saw made her eyes boggle.

There was a knife impaled in the door, an expertly-crafted army dagger.

Pinned to it was the family photo in Twilight Sparkle’s bedroom. She could tell from the little handwriting and hoofmark.

There they all were. Night Light, Velvet, Shining Armour and little Twilight Sparkle.

There was a note behind it. She could see its corner just poking out.

With shaking hooves, she moved the photo and read the note.

No Interference.


Cadence ran. She ran as if there were bombs about to blow in the vicinity, as there had been in the Royal Council Halls. She needed to find help.

“Auntie!” she cried out “Princess Celestia!”

“Cadence?” The two alicorns nearly knocked into each other as Celestia came round the corner, her face tired, devoid of emotion “What has you so upset at this time of night?”

Cadence gasped for air, tears of horror running down her face.

“Aunt Celestia, you need to come quickly! I’m being threatened! Shining’s being threatened! Twilight’s being threatened! You need to see!”

Haggardly, she dragged her aunt to her chambers and flung open the door.

She stared, wide-eyed, at the inside of her bedroom door, bare and stainless. There wasn’t even any sign of the stab-mark.

No knife, no mask, no photo, no note.

“Wha...wha...it was...how...I...” she stammered.

“Cadence, are you unwell?” Celestia asked calmly.

“There was a knife, Auntie Celestia! S-stuck in the door! A-a-and there was a gas-mask...and Twilight’s family photo!”

“Cadence, you need to calm down”

No Interference! There was a note! It said No Interference! Just like Earl Grey!”

The towering white alicorn was quiet a moment. Her face betrayed anxiety...and perhaps more than that.

Cadence had never seen her aunt ‘afraid’. But she definitely looked close.

“Lady Mi Amore Cadenza” Celestia said flatly “I must ask you to rest and ease your concerns. I will look into this...”

“You...need to put the Countess under arrest! Shining and Twilight, they-”

“Cadence, listen to me” Celestia placed one hoof calmly but firmly on her shoulder “I have looked into the reports and found nothing out of the ordinary. Nitpick had a close ally but it is not likely the Countess knew of this”

“But...but Earl Grey...the look she...”

“Cadence, my little one, the Countess gave him a nasty look before he came across the threat left to him. That, as far as we know, could just be it. He was worried. He grew suspicious. It was natural. But the Countess is still under house arrest, we have a guard at the manor at all times. Nitpick and Cumbersome have both been apprehended, the mercenaries have been driven off and...” She thought about the assassin.

“And everypony is safe. Now please, Cadence. You must get some rest. You’ve had a very hectic day and it’s important for you to relax and put it behind you” She gently nudged her niece towards the bed “You’ll feel better in the morning”

“I...I just worry about them”

“I do too, my treasured Cadence, but there’s no reason to fear. Shining Armour and Twilight Sparkle are safe and sound with me to protect them...And I promise you, I shall”

“Okay...” Cadence reluctantly made her way under the covers and rested on her side “I’m sorry...”

“It’s alright, my darling. Good night”

She gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead as Cadence always did to Twilight Sparkle. Closing her pink and purple eyes, Cadence, at last, found rest.

Celestia couldn’t help but check the door closely, just to confirm what she’d told Cadence.

Heading back to her chambers, her expression and thoughts darkened black as her sister’s night as she felt old wounds burning on her skin and the knowledge of long-forgotten threats resurfacing in the sea of her memories.

‘You’re back aren’t you...you evil, murdering scum!’


*


Bloodhound clenched his teeth as he applied the salve to the anti-septic soaked plaster to his wounded foreleg and held it tight with a bandage. Beside him, a purple-coated, dread-locked Fillypino unicorn mare cleaned her rifle and gave him a dark look.

“Those two twins really had it in for ya’, mate” Her accent was Horsetralian “I could imagine yer’ none too pleased with ‘em”

“You mistake me, Balisong. These wounds will be my marks of honour” He tensed his hoof as the bleeding subsided “Those two gave me one of the best fights I’ve had since the Iron Sun Insurgency”

“They nearly scudding killed ya’!”

“Exactly. I’ve travelled the world searching for a proper challenge for years upon end. If that’s the least of what their lieutenants have got, I’m looking forward to seeing what their leaders can do” His golden tooth glinted as he smiled “And to think, I thought these Equestrians were soft. When next we meet, I’ll know what they’re capable of and how to overpower them...then I’ll make them squirm in pain before I take their heads”

Around them, the other thirty-four mercenaries rested, many dressing their injuries, hidden in the hills a few miles to the mountains. Safe enough to light a fire without being spotted.

It hadn’t been their proudest day. As a rule, they tended to look down on Canterlot and its denizens. They’d only joined Bloodhound for a chance to earn some quick cash and keep the weaponry they took from Fort Alaric.

Instead, each of them had a black mark down on their résumé since tonight.

Balisong scowled and nursed the side of her neck.

“Well, me and Bovril are still smarting from our little fracas. Sergeant Star Hunter he said his name was. Gave us a proper dust-down. And you know what he got his cutie mark in? Astronomy! Bucking astronomy! He’s a part-time guard in Canterlot and spends his nights counting twinkly lights in his damn telescope and he still beat us!” She threw down her rifle and hissed.

“Ploughing scud, Bloodhound! We’re meant to be hard-flank mercenaries, veterans of the bloodiest battles in modern history! Most of us had a head-count before we even got our cutie marks! I got mine at the Siege of Maneila, making my own torturer, an actual Tikbalang, beg for mercy for five straight minutes! Armies across the known world curd themselves when they see one of us, let alone three dozen! How the buck could everything have gone this wrong?!”

“Because we didn’t know what we were up against”


The camp’s denizens rose and pointed weapons at the newcomer.

“Hooves down, boys and girls” Bloodhound commanded “It’s our contact”

“Bloodhound...” The newcomer glanced at the pegasus’s wounded foreleg “You look ploughing awful, what happened to you?”

“Had to hold the line. Couldn’t let them take any of us or our stuff. Your orders, remember?”

The stallion before him gave a proud smile and hugged him, taking care not to damage his bandages.

“You’re a good soldier, Bloody” He turned and smiled at the mare “Alright, Bali? Didn’t knock you around too badly, did they?”

“I once turned the tables on a Tikbalang torturer, Mr Cascadius, I can’t stress that enough” Balisong said sardonically, rubbing her neck “This? This is nothing”

“Good to hear it, love” He gave her a pat on the shoulder and gathered those present around the fire, his body illuminated in the dead of night.

“Right...Hello everypony. Good to see you’re all in one piece” His tone was formal, almost apologetic “First, let me start by saying I’m sorry. What happened here happened because I hadn’t properly planned things out. I acted too quickly, I lost control, I made a mistake. I take full responsibility. None of this will look bad on your résumés. You’ll receive the payment you were offered. This time, it’s all in hoof. And I do mean that”

There were understanding nods from his compatriots as Cascadius continued.

“But let me be very clear on this. What happened here will not be forgotten. Not by them...and not by us. And it won’t be the last time Canterlot sees us. Regardless of the end result, we still infiltrated the capital city of alicorn-ruled Equestria with the bare minimum of resources and interventions. That, in itself, is an achievement and you should be very proud of it”

He smiled as a teacher would to a class of A-and-B-Level students.

“We lost because we hadn’t planned for every possibility...next time will be different. It will be seven years before we can safely make our move...but that means we have seven years to gather everything we can. Weapons, recruits and most importantly Intel. We – find – out – everything! Everything there is to know about Canterlot and those that reside in it. Do this right and next time, there won’t be a thing that can stop us. Next time, we’ll come at them with everything we have” His face darkened “Tomorrow morning sharp, we send messages to everyone who owes us anything and tell them the time has come to repay their depts. I’ll secure you travel and passing in and out of the continent. Balisong,” he pointed to the mare “Any word from Corax? At all?”

“Yes, sir” Balisong answered “He’s left the Cognito, he’s hanging around in Western Tapiri, Llamalland to be precise”

“Good. Find him. Shadowplay” He pointed to a quiet, orange, blue-dappled batpony with a white ponytail and an eyepatch.

“Sir?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

“You’ll get in touch with Blue Murder”

“As you wish”

“Gringore, you break the Cult of Piggsycorn’s leaders out of Manehattan Penitentiary”

A pale, green-maned mare with excessive lipstick and deep scars at the corners of her lips nodded, grinning morbidly.

“If I’ve missed anypony, you’ll know in the morning but move quickly. We don’t know if or how long we have before the Princess starts looking for us. Cover up any way you could be traced, don’t be caught in groups larger than three and above all, learn everything you can. Any information is useful. In seven years time we meet up, where and when you’ll know closer to the time but stay in safe contact till then”

He smiled, his eyes and teeth gleaming in the light.

“When we come back, there won’t be a single living thing that won’t see the flames or hear the screams of our enemies!”

His audience gave a great cheer, slamming their hooves and weapons on the ground in unison until Cascadius raised a hoof for silence.

“But for now, my friends...for now...” He got a notebook and pencil and smiled brightly.

“Who’s for take-out? My treat!”


*


It got boring in hospital.

Fancy Pants decided the first thing he’d do once he was out would be to go for a long walk, however much it hurt.

Though he’d likely get enough exercise taking home the steadily growing collection of get-well-soon gifts cluttering his bedside table.

Fleur had stayed by him however long she was allowed. The doctors practically had to plead with her to let the gentlecolt get some rest.

Swan Song, Golden Gavel and Silver Frames had shown up, all terrified at the news of his brush with death and relieved beyond words (Though they made a decent effort) to hear of his recovery. Despite how trying they could be, Fancy was glad to see them. They were good friends, fussy and exuberant at the best of times, but damn good friends.

Earl Grey had visited and, weeping by the end, told him of the terrible secret he’d kept hidden, expecting their lifelong friendship to end swiftly and violently.

He seemed quite surprised when his old student forgave him with little trouble. After all, Fancy Pants had tried to cover up the truth to keep those he loved safe just days earlier. Fancy did admit to feeling a little aggrieved at the knowledge but when he thought of what Earl had been threatened with, it was impossible to not see his reasoning. Earl had a wife and three sons who Nitpick could easily have dealt with in very much the same way as Pantaloon and Petticoat. And until experiencing very nearly the same fate, Fancy had been unaware of just what his parents had suffered through. Earl Grey, who was leading the murder investigation, must’ve known everything.

Earl had promised to make right his mistakes. With the threat, as far as he knew, lifted, he would reopen the case and make sure the killer was found and brought to appropriate justice.

He’d learned from Earl Grey that Nitpick, Cumbersome, Earwax and their henchponies had been apprehended, all caught in the act of high treason, ready to be sentenced accordingly by the afternoon. The lightest sentence would be upon that of Cringeworth, an accessory in kidnapping, attempted murder and sexual assault. He’d get six years. The rest would likely spend significantly longer in prison and, if they ever got out, exile from Canterlot.

The thought gave him immense satisfaction.

It wasn’t long after Earl Grey’s visit that Princess Celestia herself appeared by his bed.

Fancy made to rise from his bed in order to kneel but was stopped by a gentle hoof upon his shoulder.

“You require rest, good stallion, and more than deserve it” she said calmly “All of Canterlot will be relieved to know you are alright”

“As you wish, your highness” Fancy could move his limbs again, that at least was reassuring “The doctors here have saved me considerable time in recovering. One would hardly think I’d nearly died at all”

“I confess, Lady Cadence insisted she use her magic to heal your more grievous wounds” Celestia said, looking out the window “It was unorthodox but I allowed it. You may find your heart beating quicker than usual for the next few days so don’t do anything too arduous”

“What a bore, I was looking forward to a bit of polo later on” Fancy chuckled before his face fell and he grimly asked.

“Did we find him?”

“No” Celestia did not need to ask who ‘he’ was. She knew very well “But we shall. We shall make sure this is never allowed to happen again” She lowered her head “I do not know how this happened, I cannot imagine! But somehow a whole squad of international criminals found their way into the capital, made off with you, blew up the Royal Council House and would’ve killed anypony unlucky enough to cross them! And I couldn’t...do...a thing!”

“Your highness, please, that is simply not true” Fancy Pants rose his head and spoke in a level tone upon hearing the Princess’s voice cracking “You were in Bittsburgh, saving most of the city and its populace from a raging inferno. I...I was left in charge. And Cadence but she more than pulled her weight. What sort of Chairstallion am I that, while battle raged on across the city and all its defenders, great and small, excelled in bravery, wisdom and valour, was hung up by my hooves in the middle of nowhere getting tortured?”

“The sort of Chairstallion Canterlot needs” Celestia answered firmly “Let us conclude that neither of us are at fault and be done with it”

“As you say, ma’am”

“Do you believe you will be well enough to walk by this afternoon?”

“I will do my very best, your highness. If not, I have Fleur, Tom, Thousand and many others to support me”

“Excellent. I will not want you to miss the Royal Gathering”

“Certainly” Before Celestia left, Fancy Pants asked one last nagging question.

“Princess...the pony who tortured me...Do you know him?”

Celestia was quiet a moment, closing her eyes and swallowing as memories came flooding through her mind, grinding against her skull like the tips of daggers.

Memories she dreaded looking upon about much as the banishment of her sister.

“Yes...” she said at last “Yes, I do”


*


Countess Magnifying Glass had not slept a wink.

She lay upon the four-poster bed, propped up against the bedpost, not so much brooding as sulking.

How had everything gone so wrong in such a short expanse of time?

That night was going to be perfect. She’d been waiting for that night for so very long.

Yet now, she was worse off than ever and the only pony left who she could rely on was now threatening her.

And there wasn’t a thing she could do.

Monocular and Binocular, her daughters, hadn’t seen fit to worry too much about her father’s arrest. It wasn’t the first time he faced the courts and likely expected the whole thing to blow over in days.

In truth, they were openly more concerned about the significant lack of the things their father had promised.

More power.

More money.

Clothes and jewellery fit for a queen.

And so on.

But they knew better than to pester their mother for those same things. They were likely off to the commercial district to waste their bits and flaunt their purchases.

She really would have to do something about those two.


“I made tea” A voice from nowhere in particular sounded as Cascadius entered the room, a mug of tea in his hands.

“I don’t want tea” Magnifying sulked.

“I didn’t make it for you” Cascadius retorted defensively, holding it close “This is my tea” He took a sip, smiled and sat down “You look lovely, by the way, very healthy”

“Shut up” she snapped.

Cascadius frowned, put the tea down on a nearby desk and stood, that horribly calm tone back in his voice.

“Sorry, what was that?”

The Countess’s ardour diminished significantly.

“N-nothing...” she squeaked.

The mercenary broke out in a chuckle.

“I’m messing with you. I can take general unpleasantness. I’m not sensitive or anything” He sat back down and sipped his tea “But you should know I’ve made plans”

“Good” the Countess took a grateful breath “How soon can we take action in Canterlot?”

“The same time we can take action in Ponyville. Seven years. Until your house arrest is over. No more, no less”

She let loose a frustrated growl, wringing her hooves and slamming them on the blankets of the bed.

“How am I supposed to wait seven years? What am I supposed to do with my life?! Watch paint dry?!”

“Have you considered writing fanfiction?”

“Oh shut up!” This time he only stifled a chuckle as the Countess groaned “They’re out there. My fetid little niece, that pernicious Doctor, their disgusting offspring, that miserable filly-fooling Mayor and Judge, that meddlesome Chairstallion, his painted pay-ride, the layabout prince, they’re all laughing at me! I can hear it in my sleep!” She grabbed her temples and rocked back and forth on the bed.

“Deep breaths, milady, deep breaths” Cascadius advised “You’ll want to know something, might cheer you up”

“What?”

“Our beloved monarch, thanks to her close circle, pretty much knows of your involvement in yesterday’s caper and the assassination of poor old Pantaloon and Petticoat all those years ago”


The Countess jerked her head forward.

“How is that meant to cheer me up?!” she squawked, flinging off the covers of her bed and setting about filling a suitcase “They’re after me, I knew it! I have to leave!”

“Er...magic barrier” Cascadius pointed out.

“I’ll worry about that later, hoof me my purse!”

“No” the stallion said flatly, deciding, on this occasion, to stop the Countess doing something stupid “Sit down, shut up and listen”

The Countess looked round with a look of indignation...and saw the look Cascadius gave her.

She did as she was told, sitting down on a nearby chair, her luggage spilling out its case.

“Now...as I was saying” the paymaster said calmly “They know you were involved. And they rescued the details of the assassination from the flames. I’ve taken care of this, however. Unlike some, I make sure to plan ahead in case of most, if not all, possibilities” He sat back down and sipped his tea.

“Milady...do you know how many mercenaries you’ve had me hire since you and I began our little partnership?”

The Countess gave him an awkward look and shook her head.

“Neither do I, but it’s a lot. You hire them for pretty trivial things too. The thugs your husband hired to raze Ponyville and Briefly Manor could’ve done half the tasks you set my mercenaries to for the price of a bottle of cider. But only the best for you, as we agreed”

“What’s your point?” She sounded worried.

“As you know, you always pay me in full. I receive the money and make sure our hard-working band of killers do the same. But you want to know the truth?”

There was a pause.

“I haven’t” he answered “Every mercenary you ever hired receives portions of his pay-check annually. That’s the deal”

“But...but I gave you what you offered them”

“Yes, you gave me the money, milady, I just haven’t given it to them” Cascadius explained, taking another sip of his tea “Not a single one of our workers has received his or her payment in full and won’t do so for at least eight years”

“But...but...but they’ll kill me!” she spluttered.

“Not while you’re still paying them. But of course, that’ll end if you’re ever sent to prison. I imagine if these charges are brought up all your finances will be confiscated. And my friends will never receive the money you owe them...Milady” He leaned forward and rested his chin on his hooves “That mural on the door to the great hall. What does it depict?”

“The High Hooves of Equestria banishing Rememberly the Bonnycorn” Magnifying Glass said with an air of pride.

“Yah-huh, and do you know what happened to the High Hooves?”

“The common ponies revolted. Formed the three tribes”

“Yes, but what happened to the High Hooves?”

The Countess was quiet as Cascadius answered.


“The Royal Army they boasted of? They didn’t have one. Their army was comprised of mercenaries, paid to keep order across the domain. But using money to protect you only really works when you have a lot of it. When the common ponies stopped paying taxes, that money soon ran out. And you don’t ever stop paying a mercenary who fights for you” His eyes gleamed “Their capital was Hycarion, correct? Well, there’s a reason it’s only ruins now”

“You...you mean...”

“Yep” Cascadius smiled brightly “If my lads stop receiving their pay, they’ll come right over to Canterlot and get it some other way”

“Wha...I...how...How Is That Good News?!” the Countess screamed “They’ll kill me! They’ll eat me alive!”

“Oh no they won’t” he raised a hoof calmly “Because you’ll be safe and snug inside a dungeon cell, imprisoned for the crimes Celestia knows you are guilty of. But my chums wouldn’t be ones to travel all the way over here and go back home empty-hoofed. If you can’t give them what they want, they’ll find somepony else who can. When the High Hooves stopped paying their army, they burned Hycarion to the ground and slaughtered and looted everypony they met. And the same will befall Canterlot should you come to any unpleasant end. And now...” He leaned back in his chair “Celestia knows this. In the folder containing all your crimes against Canterlot, I saw fit to leave all financial records of the ponies you’ve hired. She now knows that harming you or your finances in any way would bring disaster upon the ponies she adores...and she won’t want that” He smiled “Will she?”

The Countess stared with her ice-blue eyes, her face blank as she carefully worked things out in her head.

Then she smiled.

And slowly began to laugh.

“Ha...haha...hahahaha...AHAHAHAHAHAHA!” She threw her head back, cackling like the Gloom Witches of old Equestria “I’ve got her! I’ve got her by the skin around her tender royal plot! She’s mine! Canterlot is mine! I can get away with anything! I’m invincible!

‘Thwack!’

Her gloating was cut off by a short, sharp slap across her face from the stallion in front of her, glaring with contempt.

“Don’t. Be. Stupid!” he barked “I said the Princess can’t touch you, that doesn’t mean nopony will. Could be somepony who doesn’t know about this little detail or somepony who doesn’t care. Nopony is invincible! I make a living by burying those who say those words. The last pony who yelled that out at the top of his lungs was immediately frozen solid by exploding windigos! Everypony has a weakness and I make it a point to find out each one while defending my own with equal care. You should try to, at least, attempt the same! You sound like a damn fool and I severely dislike working with fools”

The Countess was quiet, holding a hoof to her cheek, looking considerably diminished as a pony.

Cascadius almost felt sorry for the pathetic sight in front of her.

“Things are escalating” he said calmly and firmly, like a lecturing parent “And we need to prepare for every prospect or threat that may come our way. Everypony has their weakness and we’ve got the next seven years to find out each and every one of our enemy’s”

He sat back down, smiling politely.

“Mister Hopscotch I told you about earlier? I don’t remember his name, it was quite long, clichéd and highly narcissistic but he thought he was invincible. He said his hoof-picked army was the best in the world, naturally superior to common ponies he kept saying. Well, when they got their superior flanks royally bucked in the war with Equestria many years ago, he went berserk. Everything he’d let himself believe was a lie but he couldn’t see that, even then. He blamed me. I was a mere pony, worthless, inferior, treacherous, fighting for money and thus I was responsible for his defeat. So he sent his forces after me. You know what defeated them?” He chuckled “A well-placed mortar at the nearest dam. Because despite their natural superiority in magic, flight, physical warfare, beauty and almost everything else so they said...not a single one of them could bucking swim! And after that, I made it a point to make sure Mister Hopscotch had absolutely no doubts that there was nothing ‘mere’ about this pony!” His face fell as he snarled resentfully for a moment before he took a sip of tea and relaxed.

“Wh-what was the point of telling me that?” the Countess asked anxiously.

Cascadius shrugged.

“Nothing much. I felt like getting it off my chest but my point is, milady...” he rose and turned to the shadows from whence he always appeared and disappeared.

“Don’t be like Mister Hopscotch. He didn’t have an easy time getting to know my bad side. Make me proud while I’m gone. Bide your time, learn what you can, don’t get overconfident...and you and I will dance on the graves of those who opposed us”


*


Twilight Sparkle quietly paced alongside her brother in the light of the morning on Canterlot’s bustling streets.

Her head was fixed on the pavement, trying hard to recollect.

“Twiley, you okay?” Shining asked.

Twilight’s memories flooded back to last night.

Her dream was interrupted by the familiar yet unexpected sound of the door creaking open.

Twilight Sparkle opened her eye a millimetre.

A stallion stood in the doorway and had just closed the door behind him.

The moonlight through the curtain and her father’s blue night light brought out his appearance clearly.

He was smiling.

But not at her. He hadn’t even looked at her.

Steadily, he walked over to the chest of drawers. His hooves made little noise but for slight taps, like the sound of clinking coins. Pausing at the drawers, he reached out with his fore-hoof and took hold of her family photo. Turning round, he carefully began removing it from the frame.

“Hey”

He showed very little surprise upon hearing the squeak of the little filly rising from her bed and staring at him with wide, confused eyes.

“Hello” he said, calmly, still smiling “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“You woke me up”

“Ah...sorry” He took a step towards her.

“Who...who are you?” The little filly clutched her little doll.

The stallion in her room answered, every word slow and drawn out.

“Just...call...me...Mister...Clever”

“Mister Clever?” Twilight blinked “Am...Am I dreaming?”

“Would you know if you were?”

“I suppose not. I don’t often know until I wake up”

“Well, there you are. I suppose you’ll know in the morning” He gazed at the photo “You have a lovely family”

“You...you can’t take it” she sniffed.

“I need it a moment”

“But...but that’s mum and dad and big brother Shiny! I...” she began tearing up “I can’t go to sleep without it! I start missing them! I miss the days when dad used to tuck me in and mum used to kiss me goodnight and Shiny used to tell me stories...p-please don’t take it”

“Don’t cry, little one, there’s no need to worry” Mister Clever sat down on the bed beside her “Now listen. The ponies in this photo? Your family? Well, I need this photo, just for a moment, to protect them”

“From what?”

“Nothing you need to worry about. Little Twilight Sparkle, here is my promise” He gently tucked her under the covers “When you wake up in the morning, your family will be safe and the photo will be back where it belongs, in its frame, on its desk, just like always. And I only make promises when I know I can keep them. So you know this is true” He smiled earnestly. It was the smile of a teacher or even a parent, calm, kind, wise, protecting you from the terrors outside.

Twilight Sparkle stared at that smile.

“Okay” she lowered her eyelids “Only how am I going to wake up tomorrow if I can’t get to sleep?”

“Well, let me help you” He cleared his throat and pointed to her alarm clock “What noise does a clock make?”

“Tick-tock”

“Right, now, say it with me” He waved a hoof slowly from side to side as he sung.

“Tick...Tock...Tick...Tock...Tick...Tock”

“Tick...tock...tick...” Twilight felt her eyelids growing heavy as Mister Clever slowly and quietly began to sing.

“Tick-Tock. Goes the clock.

Forget your tears and sorrow

Sleep tight. Through the night.

‘Till all is well tomorrow”

The filly was soon asleep as the stallion got to his hooves and removed the photo, placing the frame back on the drawers, exactly in place.

“Tick-Tock. Goes the clock.

Recall the night you met me.

Shut eyes. If you’re wise.

You never will forget me”

Twilight had closed her eyes completely. But she still heard.

The metallic clunking of Mister Clever’s hooves, the creak of the door, the click of the look and the singing of one last verse in a much less musical tone, growling and gasping and, she was certain, slightly giggling.

“See-Saw. Close the door.

He cradled and he rocked her.

Tick-Tock. Goes the clock.

Even for the Doctor”


“Twilight?”

When Twilight’s mind returned to the world of ‘here and now’, she was standing in front of her brother, eying her with concern, as they stood in the Throne Room of the Royal Palace, amidst a crowd of the city’s most important ponies all conversing among themselves.

“Twilight, are you okay? Do you need me to take you home?”

“No, no, I’m okay. I’m okay, please...” Twilight clutched her elder brother’s fore-hoof “I don’t want to miss this”

“It’s okay, Twiley” He gave her a nuzzle “I’m here for you”

He was always there for her. Right beside her, just like in her bedroom photo, which, sure enough, had returned to its frame on her drawers when she woke up that morning.

Maybe it was all just a dream.

“Shining! Twilight!”

Both sister and brother found themselves wrapped in the forelegs of Princess Cadence, who hugged them breathlessly. Carcassonne, who’d been talking with the alicorn earlier, cracked a smile at the sight.

“I’m so glad you’re okay!” Cadence gasped “I got so worried!”

“Calm down, Cadey, nothing bad happened, did it?” Shining gave her a gentle pat on the head as Twilight gazed up at her.

“Did you have a bad dream too?” she asked.

Cadence stared at the filly and stallion before her. They were smiling, just as they did in that photo.

That photo on her door, pinned by that knife.

No Interference.

“Yes, Twiley. A really bad dream...I nearly lost the two of you”

Shining gave her a gentle nuzzle as Twilight hopped about.

“I know what’ll make you cheer up” She bent her knees meaningfully. Cadence smiled and did the same before the two chanted together.

“Sunshine, sunshine!

Ladybirds awake!

Clap your hooves

And do a little shake!”

As they fell about laughing, their moods thoroughly brightened, Carcassonne watched with a deadpan expression.

“This is seriously my life now” she muttered.

“Carrie, I’d like you to meet my favourite little filly in Equestria and her amazing elder brother!” Cadence called them over.

Carcassonne approached somewhat tentatively and smiled.

“Hey” she began “How you doing?”

“We’re good. Thanks for helping out yesterday, I’m...” Shining cleared her throat “I’m glad you and Cadence came out okay”

“Tch, no biggie” the scarlet unicorn said, shrugging “What, I mean, it’s not like I’m gonna’ let scum like Nitpick get away with murder...or anything else really. Cute filly you have there”

“Oh yeah, this is Twilight Sparkle, my amazing little sister. Say hello, Twiley”

“Shh...Shh...It’s the princess” Twilight piped up excitedly as Princess Celestia made her entrance. All ponies present knelt in unison.


“Greetings my beloved subjects” she announced “Yesterday, an attack upon our city, our home, was prevented by ponies who have proven themselves to be fearless heroes of Canterlot and unwavering friends, truly committed to the ideals of harmony. We gather here at court to ensure those involved in this chaotic event are given what they deserve”

She nodded and the doors to the right of her were opened as Privates Flash Sentry and Stumbler dragged in Nitpick and Cumbersome Clout, who struggled in their hoof-cuffs, pleading and lamenting their fate.

“Please! This is all a misunderstanding!”

“We have perfect alibis! Ask our servants!”

A stamp of Princess Celestia’s gilded hoof brought them to silence. The two guilty stallions knelt, trembling before their monarch.

“Lord Magistrate Nitpick of Lausenhaus Court, Sixth Earl of Speck, and Sir Cumbersome Clout of Loutly Towers. You have been found guilty of high treason, official misconduct, corruption, illegal warfare, the attempted murder of Chairstallion Fancy Pants...and involvement in the murder of Chairmare Petticoat and Lord Pantaloon” Celestia said gravely, eying with loathing “Have you anything to say?”

There was a pause as Nitpick and Cumbersome stared, goggle-eyed at the Princess.

Then Nitpick’s hoof shot to his side.

“It was him!” he exclaimed “He did it! He was the one behind it! I had no part in any of it!”

Cumbersome’s face turned crimson.

“Why you lying sack of worms! He made me do it!”

“I did nothing of the sort, you treacherous ham-hoofed toad!”

“Yes you damn well did, you backstabbing scum-sucking mollusc!”

“Enough!” Celestia adopted her royal tone, her voice echoing across the palace “As Princess of Equestria, I declare you traitors to the realm and enemies of the crown! I denounce you and attaint you! I strip you of all titles and holdings and sentence you to fifty-six years imprisonment and subsequent exile from Equestria! Privates Flash Sentry and Stumbler, you may take them away”

Hurling insults and accusations at each other, the two criminals were dragged away through the doors of the Royal Palace to be handed over to the awaiting police cart. Cadence and Carcassonne smiled triumphantly at each other.

“I’ve waited a long time to see that” the scarlet unicorn chuckled.

“Step forward, Miss Carcassonne”


The mare started at the Princess calling out her name as she awkwardly made her way to the centre of the court.

Celestia smiled.

“I am told you and your newfound friend, Lady Mi Amore Cadenza, did sterling work in uncovering these nefarious acts taking place in our city. All of Canterlot thanks you beyond words”

A week ago, Carcassonne would have said ‘Well it’s about time’. Now, for reasons beyond her knowledge, all she could manage was...

“Er...Thanks...That means a lot”

“Indeed. It is clear to me that you have learned much in these last few days and I will ensure you are rewarded appropriately. You will henceforth occupy a position on the Royal Council. Lady Justice of Ponyville was offered the position of Lord Magistrate but refused. We may consider you for the role”

“I...thank you, your highness, thank you” Carcassonne knelt and bowed her head, touched beyond words and blushing copiously.

“It is the least you deserve. Thank you, Carcassonne”

The scarlet unicorn stumbled back beside a smiling Cadence amid enormous rounds of applause.

“If my sister could see me now...” she began breathlessly, before being interrupted by Cadence’s gentle hoof on her shoulder.

“She’d be very proud, Carrie”

“Step forward, Shining Armour and the 3rd Palace Grounds Platoon”

Twilight gave an awed gasp as Shining Armour, Corporal Block Buster, Privates Flash Sentry, Stumbler, Timber Spruce, Comet Tail and six other mares and stallions stepped forward, saluted, removed their helmets and knelt.

“You brave ponies of the Royal Guard were first to the call to arms across Canterlot. Your dedication and resolution are inspirations to us all. Sergeant Shining Armour. I am promoting you to First Lieutenant of the Canterlot Royal Guard and Commander of the Palace. Corporal Blockbuster shall fill your former position and the rest of you shall be promoted to Privates First Class and all members of the 3rd Palace Grounds Platoon are awarded the Order of the Six Crowns. All guards who participated in the defence of Canterlot are also awarded the Order of Merit”

Sergeant Shining Armour took significantly longer getting to his hooves than he had his knees as he stared, open-mouthed while Stumbler was forced to place a firm hoof on Flash Sentry’s shoulder to prevent him from performing multiple mid-air cartwheels of victory. Finding their composure at last, the 3rd Palace Grounds Platoon bowed and dispersed.

Shining Armour craned down to hug his ecstatic elder sister.

“You’re the best, First Lieutenant Big Brother! You’re amazing!” she squealed.

“Step forward, Miss Photo Finish”

Unusually quiet and humble, the eccentric photographer stepped up.

“I am told you and your group of co-workers set out to rescue a prince of the realm and a prominent socialite from a painful end at dead of night. You let nothing stand in your way and were unafraid to face armed ponies intent on bloodshed”

“Zat is...quite correct. Zey had captured friends of ours. Ve did vat we thought vas right”

“I am very glad you did. Miss Photo Finish, I will ensure your deeds are known throughout Equestria and if you find yourself in need of funds or places to work with, know that the crown and Canterlot owes you a great dept”

“Your highness...I...Photo Finish...am honoured” She bowed her head low.

“Step forward, Fancy Pants”

Most of the court gasped as Fancy Pants appeared, gingerly walking with a gilded cane. Quite accustomed to seeing him so full of vim and vigour, this was almost alien to them.

Nonetheless, the Chairstallion seemed in good spirits as he smiled and bowed his head.

The Princess cleared her throat and began.

“Yesterday we very nearly lost you. It is true that only when we are so close to losing things do we really how precious those things are. Fancy Pants, you have carried out every duty and responsibility of Royal Council Chairstallion with competence and dedication unrivalled. I have been speaking with your fellow councillors and some of your most vocal supporters and decided...”

She took a deep breath.

“Mister Fancy Pants of Briefly Manor. By the authority invested in me by the throne of Equestria and all ponies under it, I hereby name you Lord Minister of Canterlot”

Fancy’s monocle fell from his wide eye and dangled from its chain as he goggled in amazement.

Lord Minister. A title not held or even heard of since the departure of Star-Swirl the Bearded in the first century of Princess Celestia and Luna’s reign.

For the rest of time, his name followed Star-Swirl the Bearded in the annals of history.

“It is the least you deserve, good stallion” Celestia said, smiling proudly “And I am certain that you will be as good a Lord Minister as you were a Chairstallion. We wish you luck in your new career”

“I...I...” Fancy Pants gasped, struggling to begin his speech.

‘Oh bother’

“Thank you” And, feeling shakier on his hooves than ever, he took his position at the side of the throne, lower than the absent Princess Luna but on equal standing with Lady Cadence and Prince Blueblood.

He caught sight of his household, friends and aunt who, unusual for her, stomped in applause, her face wild with glee and pride.

Of course. A place in the history books.

At last he’d made her proud.


“Step forward” Celestia said one last time “Fleur de Lis”

All eyes turned to the tall, slim alabaster unicorn who stepped lightly toward the throne and bowed.

“Fleur de Lis” Celestia said, her voice humble “You bow to nopony”

And the Princess did quite the most amazing thing the young mare had ever seen her do.

She bowed. To her.

As did the rest of the crowd. All mares, all stallions, old and young, nobles, guards and socialites, even Blueblood and Cadence.

The only pony who couldn’t manage was Fancy Pants who sat before her just as surprised as she was.

Celestia rose, along with the crowd and smiled.

“You saved our most respected politician and, quite possibly, most of the city through your actions. You uncovered the plot to assassinate leading officials, held your own against hardened war criminals and boldly sought out and rescued Chairstallion Fancy Pants despite immeasurable risk to yourself. My good and gracious mare, you may ask for anything you would have of us. While it is in our power, your greatest wish is yours”

Fleur gazed up at Celestia then Fancy Pants then to the crowd as a single tear rolled down her blushing cheek.

Then she looked back at the stallion she loved with the look she’d always given him...and noticed the same look.

“I think I already have it...your highness”

Celestia gave her a smile of limitless pride and nodded her head.

“Spoken like a pony truly blessed by the magic of friendship. So be it, Miss de Lis. I believe that shall be all”

She knew it wasn’t but let the court clear nonetheless, giving her new Lord Minister a helpful hoof as he rose from his chair.

“Fancy...” she whispered “I think you know the first and foremost of your duties...” She subtly placed a small decorative box into his jacket pocket.

“I do, your highness” he said, breathing deeply “I do indeed”

Willing himself to ignore the pain in his muscles as best he could, Fancy Pants made for the palace grounds.

He found Fleur by herself, resting against a statue of Star-Swirl, Fancy’s new predecessor.

The crowd made way for him as if he were close to alicornhood.

He’d never get used to it but right now, that wasn’t significant.

“Fleur”

She turned and stared at him with those longing eyes.

“Hello...my lord minister” she mumbled “C-c-congratulations...I’m sure you’ll do very good work”

“Come now Fleur, we’ve more important matters to discuss...” He drew himself up “Fleur de Lis. For a long time I have looked to you for comfort and guidance in the trials I faced and...I know you have done the same with me”

He grew conscious of the crowd of ponies, most of whom he knew, observing the spectacle but he didn’t turn away.

“I could not have survived these last few turbulent days without you, Fleur de Lis, nor you I. And I mean that quite exactly. You have saved my life as I’ve saved yours and we’ve done so for no greater reason than...we cannot bear to be separated from each other...and every moment I feared I might lose you caused me greater pain than anything that monster you defeated could’ve done...so I’m ending those moments...forever”

“Fancy...” Fleur held a delicate hoof over her mouth as she gasped, tears starting to run down her cheeks freely “Do you mean you...”

“Yes...Fleur de Lis” He gave a slight grunt of pain as he got to one knee, the mare he loved steadying him gently, as his horn glowed gold and the box opened up in front of her to reveal the most wonderful and dazzling horn ring Fleur had ever seen, sculpted like a golden crown and adorned with a chain of pearl lilies.

“Will you marry me?”

Fleur found herself falling to her knees as her face met that of the stallion of her dreams.

“Yes...” she began to whisper before her voice steadily became a cry of untold joy as she wrapped her tender forelegs around his shoulders “Yes. Yes. Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“YES!” All eyes shot toward the butler, Tombola, who had jumped up on his hind legs with his hooves raised high.

He paused, returned to all-fours and straightened himself.

“I mean...ahem...congratulations, sir”

“Oh go on, Tom, don’t hold it back”

“Very good, sir”

At the butler’s sign, the rest of the household began to dance about with joy, elated beyond all measure as various members of the crowd did likewise. Fancy and Fleur looked out as dear friends and relations celebrated their love for each other before looking back at each other and sealing it with a deep, passionate kiss.

‘How sweet’ An unseen figure said as the prison cart he drove left the Royal Palace behind.

‘It’s always the ones we love’