Return to the Gala

by GentlemanJ

First published

We can all remember how the "best night ever" turned out. Well, looks like it's time for

The seventh story in The Journey of Graves.

The Grand Galloping Gala. A night of social grace and fantastic delights for many. A night of traumatic memories best forgotten for many more. Nobody knows why, but when Twilight calls the girls together and shows them a letter plus six tickets, the conclusion is clear: they're being invited to have one more go at making it the best night ever.

Everyone's got a plan, everyone except for the reluctant Rarity. How's she supposed even enjoy herself after such a heartbreaking debacle with the horrendous Prince Blueblood? Can she still have a good time? Can a certain steely-eyed soldier help?

Chapter 1

View Online

This is the seventh story in The Journey of Graves. Special thanks go to MrBackpack, my spectacular editor, who did so much to help me craft this story.

The series begins with the first story: When the Man Comes Around.

IMPORTANT: If you haven't read the series, please head back to the beginning and check it out. While each story stands on its own, the character and relationship developments will build on each other as the series progresses.

And so, the saga continues...

Return to the Gala

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Applejack almost never got mad. Sure, she’d often get annoyed, irritated, aggravated and frustrated – particularly with Applebloom – but rarely mad. That’s why a deathly pale Pinkie Pie was understandably surprised to see her friend stomping up to the Ponyville library with a definitively angry look plastered onto her oddly shiny face.

“Whoa, what’s got you all frowny?” the chipper girl chirped, white puffs of flour billowing out with every word.

“Frowny? Oh, I’m more’n frowny, lemme tell yah,” the miffed cowgirl glowered. “There I was, gatherin’ up a whole heap o’ eggs so Granny Smith could make her world-famous apple custard, when Twilight pops up outta nowhere, gives me some sorta nonsense about a disaster, and pops off again.”

“That’s it?” Pinkie Pie frowned in confusion. “That doesn’t sound too bad.” Surely, her ever level-headed friend wouldn’t have gotten upset over just that.

“It wouldn’t have been,” Applejack answered with a wry grin, “ ‘cept she did it right in the middle of the chicken coop. Just as I was climbin’ down them rickety ol’ steps.”

“Oooooohhhhh." As Pinkie Pie's powdery face lit with understanding, the freckled farmer's grimace only grew more morose.

“Spooked the chickens, an’ they sent me topplin’ right over. But the worst part is...” and here, a tear actually trickled down her poultry plastered face, “not only did I end up with egg on mah face, Granny can’t make the custard till tomorrow. Tomorrow!”

“Wow, what a coincidence!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “Twilight did the same thing to me, only I was getting down a bag of flour from the top shelf. Come to think of it, why do we keep flour on the top shelf anyway? Hmmm... Anywho, do you think that Twilight has a grudge against baked goods or something?”

“Hardly,” came a familiarly raspy voice from above. Looking up, the pair saw Rainbow Dash drifting down, the runework frame on her back humming as the iridescent spell wings came to a shimmering stop.

“Hi Dashie!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Were you about to bake something too?”

“I wish,” the cyan-clad flyer snorted. “If I were, then Twilight wouldn’t have interrupted the most epic nap of all time. Seriously, I was sleeping so hard, I was sleeping in my sleep.”

“How do you manage that?” Applejack asked in confusion.

“Uh, I was napping and dreaming of napping at the same time?” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Tch, duh.”

“Well then, it seems like we all have a reason to pay Twilight a visit, don’t we?” another voice called out, this one light and musical. The small gathering in front of the library door turned to spot Rarity and Fluttershy approaching to join them. Both were sopping wet.

“Whoa, what happened to you two?” Rainbow Dash snorted with unabashed amusement. Rarity smiled serenely in reply, the slight tightness at the corners of her mouth the only indication that she was actually seething with barely suppressed wrath.

“Let’s just say that Opalescence likes her baths about as much as you like ribbons and lace, dear Rainbow Dash,” the seamstress replied through her strained smile, “and even less so when startled by abrupt magical hubbub.”

“So, I reckon we’re all here for the same reason then?” Applejack intoned. The knowing glances her friends gave her were answer clear enough: Twilight had gathered them here because she felt something disastrous was about to happen.

“Well, let’s find out what’s going on,” Rainbow Dash sighed as she raised her hand to pound on the entryway. “But so help me, if it’s another panic attack about a late homework assignment or something, I’m gonna–”

The door suddenly swung open. From the other side, a nervous Twilight peeked out and spotted the other girls.

“Oh good, you’re here,” she sighed as a wash of relief crossed her face. “Come in quick, I have some really important news that you all have got to hear.”

“Are you alright, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked through the veil of her dripping pink hair. “You seemed rather upset when you… dropped in earlier.”

“Upset? No, not upset,” the studious librarian said as she immediately began pacing back and forth. “But worried? Yes, I’m definitely worried. And I mean really, really worried. Why, this is probably going to be as bad as the time where–”

“Whoa, settle down there, sugar cube,” Applejack said reassuringly, her irritation at lost custard long forgotten in light of her friend’s seemingly genuine concerns. “Now, why don’t you jess relax an' tell us what’s got you all hot 'n bothered?”

Taking a deep breath, Twilight breathed out slowly and pulled out a roll of parchment from inside her sweater vest. Unrolling it with great trepidation, the young scholar reached in and held up its content, a small handful of paper slips that glittered with golden gild.

“No,” Rarity breathed.

“There’s no way…” Rainbow Dash sputtered.

“Are those really...?” Pinkie Pie gasped.

“Yup,” Twilight nodded. “Seven more tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala.”


“…Um, excuse me, Twilight,” Fluttershy whispered after several moments of silence, “but are you sure you didn’t… you know… get those by mistake?”

“Yeah, seriously,” Rainbow Dash nodded vehemently. “I mean, between trashing the ballroom, starting a stampede, and generally getting on the bad side of every singly important person between here and Las Pegasus, it’s not like we’re very high on the VIP list.”

“I wish,” Twilight sighed glumly, “but no. Those tickets were definitely meant for us.” Raising the sheaf of parchment, she morosely began to read the message it contained.

To my most faithful student, Twilight Sparkle,

As you’re probably well aware, the next Grand Galloping Gala is coming up very soon, and while I know it’s short notice, I was wondering if you and your friends would like to attend this year. Your last visit made the whole evening so much more fun, everything now seems twice as dull since you haven’t been coming back. I’d hate to be a bother, but your presence here would be so greatly appreciated. I look forward to a favorable response.



P.S. Luna shares the feeling. She hasn’t been this excited since the gladiatorial matches that last occurred some fifteen hundred years ago.

“So, yer tellin’ me that the Princess wants us to come and cause a heap o’ ruckus at her fancy shindig?” Applejack asked, scratching her blonde head in understandable confusion.

“Exactly,” Twilight wailed. “What are we supposed to do? I mean, I know the Princess said she wants us to come, but what if she’s just being polite and inviting us again to avoid hurting our feelings? Maybe she’s saying she wants us to come while expecting us to say no and showing up will actually be a problem. But what if I’m wrong and she really does want us to go and we don’t show up? We might end up seriously hurting her feelings instead!”

Applejack looked at Fluttershy, who glances over at Pinkie Pie, who turned to Rainbow Dash, who thought for a moment, then simply shrugged.

“Eh, what the hay. Let’s go.”

“…Wait, seriously?” Twilight gaped. “Just like that?”

“Yeah, why not?” Rainbow Dash grinned. "The Princess sent us an invite, and no way am I ever gonna pass up a chance to see the Wonderbolts!”

“But… that didn’t work out last time,” Twilight pointed out. “They were so busy talking to all the fancy party guests, they didn’t have time for you.”

“Psh, that’s just a teensy setback,” the colorful flyer dismissed with a flippant wave of the hand. “It’s not like I’m gonna give up just ‘cause it didn’t work out one measly time. I mean, if I did, I’d never have gotten the Buccaneer Blitz, the Super-Speed Strut, or… heck, any of my moves.”

“Actually, I sort of feel the same way,” Fluttershy smiled meekly. “I mean, I know I couldn’t make friends with the animals last time, but maybe if I tried again, it’ll work out better. That is, I hope it does…” she trailed off softly.

“So… you guys really don’t mind going again?” Twilight asked, her previous disconcertion melting away in light of her friends’ enthusiasm.

“Not really,” Applejack grinned reassuringly. “Land sakes, last time I was so caught up tryin’ to make a few bits, I never got the chance to actually let mah hair down an' enjoy the party.”

“And where there’s a party, there’s Pinkie Pie!” the curly haired girl beamed ecstatically. “So it didn’t end up like we thought it’d be; doesn’t mean we can’t still have a good time, right?”

Twilight’s nervous tension evaporated as she finally cracked a smile: she should have known better than to worry about such things with her friends around.

“Alright then,” she finished with a calming sigh. “I’ll write to the Princess and let her know we’ll be coming. Er, we will all be going, right, Rarity?”

The girls turned to the violet-haired seamstress who up until now, had been oddly quiet. Very oddly quiet. After all, if anyone should have a vocal opinion about a fancy ball, it should definitely have been her.

“But of course,” she replied, eyes wide and sounding as surprised as if Twilight had just asked whether water was still wet. “Why would you even need to ask?”

“Maybe ‘cause you were starin’ off inta space like a poleaxed mule?” Applejack smirked.

“I most certainly was not,” Rarity replied, positively bristling with indignation at the comparison. “I may have been a bit... distracted, but only because I was getting a head start designing new dresses for each of you.”

“New dresses?” Rainbow Dash snorted. “Why can’t we just wear the old ones?”

“Wear the old ones?” Rarity gasped in dismay. From the sound of it, the notion was about as disturbed as if her flyer friend had suggested going to the Gala naked. Actually, maybe even more so. “Showing up to an event like the Gala in something you’ve worn before would be utterly scandalous! No no no no no, that simply will not do!”

“But it’s only a week away,” Twilight pointed out. “You’re actually going to make another six amazing, stunning, original dresses in that much time?” Rarity just chuckled.

“Oh please, you make it sound as if it’s going to be hard," Rarity laughed. "I’ve worked with tighter deadlines before, and as long as I don’t get too many 'revision requests'," she added with a knowing smile to her friends, "it should be an utter breeze.” The other girls couldn’t help but sheepishly grin as they recalled their previous, spiritedly misguided attempts at designing their own dresses.

“So... we’re all in agreement then?” Twilight asked once more. “We’re all fine with going to the Grand Galloping Gala one more time?”

“Well duh!” Pinkie Pie cheered. “A party’s a party, and this is still one of the most specialest, most fantastical parties ever! Besides, it’s not like this entire invitation is an elaborate plot by Princess Celestia to get us back to Canterlot so she can lock us up in the dungeon all night and possibly more as a lesson for messing up her fancy party, right?”

“...Right?” the bubbly baker repeated. Her friends made no reply. The Princess wouldn’t do something like that. I mean, sure she had an odd sense of humor, but even she wouldn’t go that far.

... Would she?

“Well ah course that ain't gonna happen,” Applejack answered bracingly. “Why, we’re gonna show up tah this fancy hooplah and have ourselves a grand ol' time.”

“Great!” the pink one beamed. “Well I don't know about you guys, but I’m off to go and get ready: parties like these need ‘special’ treatment.”

The exuberant chatterbox bounded off and was quickly followed by the girls who, despite their friend’s eerily probable prediction, began to eagerly chat away about the various preparations and plans they each had for the upcoming event. All of them except Rarity, who left without another word.


Chapter 2

View Online

Chapter 2

The soft tinkling of the front door bell prompted Rarity to look up from her desk. Spectacles perched on the tip of her nose, she put down the quill and got up to see who it was.

“Twilight, back so soon?” the pretty seamstress smiled as she caught sight of the sweater-vested librarian. “I said I’d get the dresses made promptly, but even I can’t work that quickly.”

“Oh no, I’m not here about that,” Twilight replied with a quick shake of her head. “I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“Doing?” the young lady repeated curiously. “Why, I’m perfectly fine. I’ve already been toying around with ideas, so all I need to do is refine the details and the designs will be trés manifique. I daresay, they’ll put the previous Gala dresses I made to shame.”

Twilight didn't immediately respond. Rarity seemed to be doing fine. It had taken Twilight just ten minutes to clean up the mess left on her floor - what with the sticky mix of eggs, flour, and water battering up the hardwood - but Rarity had already changed into a new outfit and finished doing up her violet tresses into their usual, immaculately soft curls. All in all, Rarity looked the very picture of composure and stylish grace, as she always did. Looked, that is.

“So… you’re excited about it, then?” Twilight gently hinted. “The Gala, I mean.”

“Of course,” Rarity replied, still sounding confused at her friend’s question. “I’m always excited for new chances to showcase my work.”

“But not about the Gala itself or actually attending, are you?” Though meant as a question, Twilight finished it more as a statement than anything else. It took a moment for the meaning to sink in, but realization finally dawned in her fashionable friend’s sapphire eyes.

“I’m... afraid not,” Rarity sighed, the slightest hint of a sad smile playing on the edge of her lips as she leaned against the edge of her work station. “After spending the whole evening with – ugh – Prince Blueblood, I guess you could say I’ve been thoroughly disenchanted with the whole event.” Twilight winced in complete empathy.

“Ah, that bad, huh?” She’d never spent time with the noxious noble herself, but from Rarity’s and Applejack’s detailed expositions, to call him a boorish lout would be an insult to boorish louts everywhere.

“Let’s just say the Diamond Dogs made far better company than he,” the pretty seamstress finished dryly. “As such, the Gala no longer appeals to me as it once had.”

“But I thought you loved fancy events like this,” Twilight rejoined, now slightly perplexed and twirling her lone strand of pink hair as she wondered.

“And I still do! It’s just…” Rarity’s earnestness gave way to a weary groan. “That evening was supposed to be the night where I met my true love. Only, my 'true love' turned out to be as attractive as the back end of a bullfrog. Rather spoils the magic, wouldn’t you agree?"

“Yeah, I can see your point,” Twilight grimaced. “But still, you could always find someone else, couldn’t you? Another, um... true love, that is. After all, it doesn’t have to be a prince, right?”

“Not a prince, no,” the fashionista readily agreed. “But at this time, I’m starting to seriously consider whether looking for romance in the upper echelons of society is even worth the trouble.”

“Say what now?”

Rarity sighed again.

“Before I actually met Blueblood, I’d only really thought about status and appearance. I blame youthful naïveté, but the result is that I never really considered what else was needed to make a good man. As it turns out,” she frowned, “no amount of looks can make up for a horrible personality. I still do love society, make no mistake, but I’m afraid that many of the young men who occupy it share certain… similarities with the dear prince.”

“Oh, I get you,” the young scholar breathed in understanding. “So what you’re saying is that you think going to the Gala’s going to be a repeat of the night with Blueblood all over again.”

“Exactly," the dressmaker nodded as her friend’s words struck home. “After that night, I came to the painful realization that there’s a lot more to love than a prestigious title and a pretty face. Of course, a title would be lovely and looks are always important, but there has to be more to it than that. More substance.”

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘substance?’” Twilight asked since ‘substance’ was far from the most descriptive of descriptions. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who was confused, because Rarity’s response was little more than a half-hearted shrug.

“I wish I could tell you. I’ve been wondering that myself, but other than a few miscellaneous ideas, I really couldn’t say.”

“Well, do you want to share?” her bookish friend supportively smiled. “When I can’t get a hypothesis down on paper, I find it helps to talk it out. Sort of solidifies the idea, if you catch my drift.”

“I really wouldn’t want to bore you,” the blue-eyed beauty chuckled, a touch self-consciously as a faint flush came to her fair cheeks. “I mean, it’s just some of my idle daydreams and fancies. Hardly anything of real value, as it were.”

“Aw, come on,” Twilight grinned as she leaned in with a conspiratorial wink. “I may be an egghead, but even I enjoy a little girl gossip now and then. Spill the beans, Rarity; what’s your type?”

“Well…” the young lady began with a hesitant, but distinctly pleased smile, “First off, I’d like someone with some manners. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but at least addressing ladies as such or even ‘Miss’ is a given.”

“Obviously,” the scholarly girl chuckled as she brushed a strand of purple hair behind one ear. “What else?”

“A well-cultivated personality. It’s no good if a man has a pretty face with nothing behind it, now is there? He should be a man of experience, both well-traveled and well-read, and able to appreciate as well as discourse on matters of our common interest, like good literature, culture, philosophy, et cetera. Granted, that doesn’t mean he needs to be a chatterbox, but the ability to clearly give a coherent opinion would be greatly appreciated.”

“Um… okay,” Twilight responded, thrown slightly off by the last bit. For something that was supposed to be vague and unclear, her friend was being awfully specific and decidedly lucid in her descriptions. “What about looks? Anything specific you’re looking for?”

“Let me see,” Rarity murmured as she pursed her lips in thoughts. “Perhaps it’s because of Prince Blueblood, but I’m finding myself more partial to darker hair these days, a sort of reversal of opinions, perhaps. And of course, the man should be tall, reasonably well-built and handsome, but not prone to pickiness about his appearance.”

“Wait, seriously?” the puzzled librarian rejoined in perplexity. “I’d have thought for sure you’d want someone as into dressing up as you were.”

“As did I, and we both saw how well that turned out," the fashionista glumly muttered. "No, I’ve come to believe that a man should take care of his appearances in a general sense, but leave the details to women. After all,” she smirked, “it’s not like we can trust them to get the details right, now can we?”

“You can say that again,” Twilight giggled. “Spike still thinks that brushing his teeth any less than a full minute and forty five seconds is sufficient for proper oral hygiene. I mean, hello? Details, right?”

“Er… right,” Rarity smiled. “Anyway, it just seems like a good man shouldn’t be too bogged down by minor issues. Now that doesn’t mean he should be sloppy by any means, but rather more or less… impassive.”

“Impassive?” Twilight repeated, now thoroughly confused. “You mean like Tom?”

“I thought we agreed never to speak of that again,” Rarity hissed, then sighed as annoyance gave way to acquiescence,. “... But then again, I do suppose that’s a rather apt description.”

“So what you’re saying is that you want a guy who's... like a rock?” Twilight blinked, to which the pretty seamstress replied with an exasperated roll of the eyes.

“Well, if you’re going to put it that way, yes. I’m just saying that a man should be firmly rooted, not given to panic or worry about every little thing that doesn't go exactly as he intends. In a way, it is rather like a rock. Rain or shine, snow or storm, you can count on a good rock to be there because it's so reliable. Am I making any sense?”

“Actually… yeah,” Twilight nodded, surprised to find that she actually meant it. “Wow, Rarity, it looks like you actually put a lot of thought into this.” Rarity simply waved an airy hand and laughed.

“Oh please, it’s all just a jumble of random thoughts with no particular order and doubtfully any sense.”

Of that, Twilight wasn't so sure. Contrary to what Rarity might believe, her descriptions had actually been very descriptive. Downright specific even. After listening to her friend's list of preferences, the young scholar could basically piece together the exact kind of man Rarity was looking for: tall and handsome with dark hair, decently polite and intelligent, eloquent if not chatty with a shared taste in hobbies such as literature, and above all, strong and reliable. It was a description that Twilight couldn’t help but feel was far less disjointed than one might think. In fact, she had the distinct feeling that those traits came together in a very sensible way…


Of course.

How could she have missed it? The description had made so much sense because it had fit a certain silver-eyed soldier down to a T. In fact, it fit so well that, frankly, she was quite surprised it had taken her so long to figure it out.

“So, these things you’ve mentioned,” Twilight began as she fought desperately to keep a broad grin from breaking out. “You don’t think you’ll meet someone like that at the Gala?” Rarity sighed yet again.

“Doubtfully. The various young socialites of the male persuasion I’ve met have a propensity to act like the good prince. But even outside the Canterlot elite, I doubt I’d ever meet someone who fit my preferences so closely.”

“Maybe,” the sweater-vested librarian agreed with a loud cough that disguised an uncontained snort of laughter. “Then again, maybe you’re going about this wrong.”

“Come again?” The pretty seamstress gave her friend an odd look, as she was the one who was now confused.

“All I’m saying is that maybe you’re thinking about this too hard.” The irony of giving out advice to others on overthinking was not lost on Twilight, but she tenaciously pressed on. “Instead of going to the Gala and expecting to find Mr. Right, why don’t you just… you know… bring one along?”

“You mean like a date?” Rarity asked with wide-eyed astonishment. Twilight, giving dating advice? Would wonders never cease?

“Sure, why not?” Twilight continued, now beginning to enjoy the conversation immensely. “If you wanted, I could write to the Princess and get another ticket. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“No, it’s not that, though I do appreciate the thought,” her violet-haired friend replied. “It’s just the whole… date thing. Wouldn’t that be a bit forward?”

“It’s just a party,” the sensible girl grinned. “All you'd be doing is asking a guy to come along to keep you company, possibly dance a song or two, and help you enjoy the evening without stressing about finding your prince charming. Might give you a… a whole new perspective on things, you know?”

“I suppose it would be nice,” Rarity hesitantly agreed as she slowly began warming up to the idea. “But the question then becomes one of who should I take?

“How about Spike?” Twilight suggested. “I’m sure he’d love to be your date.”

“I’m sure he would, bless his chubby, little cheeks,” the dressmaker chuckled. “But young as he is, I somehow doubt he’d fit the bill for a companion to a high society event.”

“So, you’re looking for someone older right?”

“Of a reasonable age, yes.”

“Who could fit in at a Canterlot party, yes?”

“That would be ideal.”

“And one you could enjoy spending time with?”

“I should certainly hope so.”

“In that case,” Twilight continued, now unable to fully hide the wide smile on her face, “why don’t you ask Graves?”

“... Graves?” Rarity repeated slowly, the word passing her lips coming as a complete surprise, even to herself. “Are you serious?”

“Why not?" the bookworm brightly beamed. "You two obviously get along really well, which means that you’d have a great time together. We also know he’s been stationed in Canterlot before, so he’s bound to be more at home there than any other Ponyville boy. And besides, I'm sure he'd look really nice in some of your fancy clothes.”

The pretty seamstress pursed her lips in thought as the first, flickering ember of interest ignited in her sapphire eyes.

“I have been designing some formal wear for him... in my general line of men’s clothes. He’s my model, you see,” Rarity hastily amended. “In any case, it would be a ready fit, and I do want to draw some more attention to my expanded selection...”

“See? He’s perfect,” Twilight pressed, almost giggling in delight as she watched her fashionable friend’s reluctance crumble like a dry biscuit.

“But what about his work? He is supposed to protect Ponyville, and I’d hate to put him in an awkward situation where he’d have to abandon his post.”

“Oh, what could one night hurt?” the amethyst-eyed mage said with her own dismissive wave of the hand. “I’m sure he’d appreciate having some time off every now and then, don’t you think?”

Had Rarity been in a clearer state of mind, she would have immediately noticed that Twilight’s logic was completely inconsistent with her normally stickler-for-the-rules character. However, the pretty seamstress was not in a clearer state of mind. Right now, she was decidedly distracted because her mind was occupied by thoughts of the very unique proposition that lay before her.

An evening at the Grand Galloping Gala? With Graves? As a date?

“Well?” Twilight asked, her eyes shining with anticipation. “What do you think?”

After a moment's pause, Rarity looked up. Her eyes, which had been cloudy with thought just moments before now sparkled like sapphires as a small smile curled her lips and a faint flush warmed her fair cheeks.

“… Would you mind helping me close up? I believe I have an invitation to extend."


Chapter 3

View Online

Chapter 3

Every step that brought Rarity closer to the marshal’s home increased the number of butterflies in her taut, little tummy. For the life of her, she couldn’t quite comprehend why she was growing so jittery, but there she was, as apprehensive as she’d been for her very first fashion show.

“Honestly, you really need to get a hold of yourself,” she softly chided. “There’s nothing to get all worked up about. You’re simply going to ask a good friend if he’d like to accompany you for an evening’s excursion, nothing more.”

Whether she’d managed to convince herself, only Rarity could say, but the small skip in her step and the unconscious smile on her lips clearly betrayed her current state of mind.

Already, her thoughts were racing about all the preparations she might need to make. The formal coat she’d designed with him in mind had already been finished, but would it be enough? Perhaps she should do it in a different color, something easier to pair with her own dress. Speaking of his appearance, what about his hair? True, she did like the somewhat sleepy look his long bangs created, but maybe a trim for the occasion? It’d be a shame if he couldn’t show off his eyes on an evening like that. Perhaps she should schedule an appointment with Aloe and Vera.

And what about dancing? Of course they were just going as friends, but what ball would be complete without a few turns out on the floor? Did the marshal know how to dance? If not, she’d have to teach him how. A waltz for certain, foxtrot if they could manage it, possibly a tango, and perhaps – if she was really lucky – maybe even the salsa? Would he mind? Well, of course he'd mind, but whether he would do it anyway was the key. Perhaps if she asked him really, really nicely with a little pout and those pleading, pony eyes he seemed to have such trouble with...

The more the young lady thought, the more her excitement grew. Yes, asking Graves along would certainly make the Gala much more enjoyable. In fact, she was so wrapped up in her plans for the evening that she didn’t realize how much her pace had quickened. Before she even knew it, her heels were clicking on the wooden porch right outside the marshal’s front door. Instantly, the butterflies fluttering in her stomach morphed into the buzzing of furious bees.

“Oh, do get a hold of yourself,” Rarity scolded herself once more. “It’s just a friendly request. A friendly request and nothing more.” Thus satisfied with her own explanation, the pretty seamstress took a deep breath, steadied her nerves, and raised her hand–

–just as the door swung open.


Caught by surprise, Rarity couldn’t help but let out a small squeak of shock as she found herself face to face with the marshal. Peering down at the young lady, Graves cocked an eyebrow, his gunmetal grey eyes twinkling with something akin to amusement.

“Can I help you?” he asked, his face unnaturally smooth and impassive. Yup, definitely amusement.

“Graves,” the pretty seamstress breathed, her hand pressed to heart as she steadied herself. “I wasn’t expecting you. I mean, I was – I was coming to see you after all – but not quite so soon, or so abruptly.”

“So it would seem,” he murmured, a tiny grin pulling up the corners of his mouth. “Well, sorry for startling you. There something you needed?”

“Actually, yes there is,” Rarity said with a flushed smile, finally managing to put some semblance of composure back together. “I was just wondering if – that is to say, if you’re not otherwise occupied with something else – you might be free next week? One week from today, I mean, not the entire week, or something else like… well, you get the idea…” she trailed off, the flush in her cheeks growing into a full on blush. So much for composure.

“What I’m trying to ask is,” she tried again, her smile now slightly self-conscious, but even more hopeful as well, “will you be free on the evening one week from now?”

The marshal’s smile melted away as he reached up to straightened his hat.

“Sorry, I won’t be,” he replied, his typical gravelly tone coming through an apologetic grimace. “Thing is, I was just heading out. Have to leave Ponyville.”

“… I beg your pardon?” Rarity gaped, only now noticing that Graves had both his spell gun and rucksack slung over his shoulders; the shock of the sight jolted through her like a surge of lightning. “Leave Ponyville? As in... leaving for good?”

“No, nothing like that,” the marshal hastily amended, his eyes growing wide as he realized how his previous statement could be construed. “Just heading up to Canterlot for biannual evaluations and retraining. It’s a pain, but it’s only temporary.”

“Oh. Oh yes, yes, of course,” the young beauty replied as she heaved yet another sigh of relief after what had been a very brief, yet very anxious exchange. “I’m very glad to hear that. For a moment, I thought you’d been restationed elsewhere and were making a permanent move.”

“Heh, sorry about that,” Grave replied with a sheepish grin that quickly faded as well. “Problem is, I still won't be around that time. These things take a while, and the fastest I’ll be able to make it back will probably be ten days at the earliest.”

“Is that so,” Rarity intoned, her heart beginning to slowly sink in her chest. “Well, is there any chance you might be able to sneak away for a bit? One evening, perhaps?”

“Doubtful,” Graves answered with a heavy sigh. “We’re confined to barracks so we can’t ‘cheat’ on the tests. Like I said, it’s a pain.”

“Ah, I see.”


“... Well, no matter,” Rarity bracingly replied, her smile smile bright on the outside despite the disappointment dragging her spirit down like an anchor. “It was just a small idea of mine. Nothing worth making a fuss over.”

“Really am sorry,” the young soldier repeated, his grey eyes meeting her sapphire blues in earnest apology. “You know I’d rather spend time with you… all in Ponyville, but I’ve got my orders.” He hoped the pretty young lady hadn’t heard the stumble in his words. From her lack of reaction, it seemed that she hadn’t.

“Oh, pish tosh,” the violet-haired seamstress laughed with a dismissive wave. “Like I said, my dear marshal, it’s nothing worth making a fuss over.”

“Right,” he muttered, pulling his hat down over his forehead. “No worries.”

A moment of awkward silence

“... Anywho,” Rarity continued, “you did say you were going to Canterlot, correct?” His nod elicited a bright smile from the young lady.

“In that case, I have something you must take with you. Come along, marshal.” Without so much as a by your leave, the pretty, young lady took Graves by the hand and pulled him out of the house and down the steps.

“Uh, Rarity?” he called out as she led the way. “Where are we going?”

“Why, to my shop, of course,” she replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Knowing you, the only clothes you packed were serviceable attire and none of the nicer things you own, am I correct?”

“… Maybe…”

“I thought as much,” Rarity smirked. “Though you might not have any need for it, I simply can’t let you go to the most sophisticated city in Equestria without some decent formal attire, just in case. I’ve already prepared something, so all we need to do is pack it up and have you take it along.”

“Rarity, there really isn’t any need–” The rest was cut off as she turned and pressed a finger to his lips.

“Perhaps not,” she agreed. “But take it anyway. For me?” She looked up at him, her lower lip stuck out in the smallest of pouts as she gazed up at him with her big, sapphire eyes that seemed to sparkle like the ocean on a bright summer day.

“… Just one, alright?” he sighed, finding that he just couldn’t say no. Rarity beamed.

“Just one.”


With the screeching of steel on steel, the train began slowing down as it approached the station. Shouldering the three bundles he’d brought with him, Graves stood up and made ready for departure.

Once again, he looked down at the oil paper-wrapped parcel that Rarity had given him. “Just in case you need something nice,” she’d said. Why she’d thought he would need it, he couldn’t say, but he’d accepted it without much fuss. By now, he’d learned that when she set her mind to something, he had about as much chance of changing it as getting Rainbow Dash to give up flying.

Unbidden, a small smile came to his face as he stepped off the train and onto the spotless, cobblestone platform. Graves paused, breath catching in his throat as he once again basked in the view of Equestria’s shining crown: the great city of Canterlot.

Crafted entirely from the purest of pure white marble, the city’s many soaring spires gleamed with a brilliant, pearly sheen. Inlaid with fine filigrees of bronze and gold and topped with prismatic tiles of every color imaginable, each elegant tower stood as a shimmering work of art. And yet, stunning as they stood, those alabaster pillars were but threads in a much greater tapestry. Individually, they were grand, but when taken together and seen as a whole, these spires came together to create the truly breathtaking beauty of their country’s most glorious city.

“Never gets old,” Graves breathed as he looked up at the fanstastical sights before him. In the silence of the empty station, it was as if the whole world were appreciating the sight alongside him.

And then he blinked. Looking around, he realized the station was in fact completely empty. Why was it empty? It was early afternoon; the station should have been packed with a teeming throng of commuters. Where was everyone?

The question was soon answered as Graves caught the sound of footsteps. Marching footsteps. In a matter of seconds, a veritable stream of royal guardsmen came pouring from every entrance, faces impassive beneath their gleaming, golden helms and shining, silver spears in hand. The torrent surged forth until an entire platoon of armed soldiers stood before him, forming rank and surrounding him in an impenetrable semicircle of armored bodies.

Graves blinked once more.

“Er...Can I help you?”

From his tone and lopsided grin, the marshal sounded more like he was asking the neighbors for a cup of sugar instead of facing a score plus of grim-faced guardsmen. One of the soldiers in front, a stern looking man with a red lieutenant’s sunburst on his chest, stepped forward.

“Are you Marshal Graves?” he asked in a voice that sounded like a bullfrog with a cold.

“Yeah,” the young man nodded. “Can I help you?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the lieutenant said, “but by order of Princess Celestia, I am hereby placing you under arrest.”


For the third time, Graves simply blinked. Looking around at the other soldiers, each one shared the lieutenant’s implacable determination as grips tightened on spear shafts. The young marshal paused for a moment, took a second to adjust his hat, and just sighed.

“No, I don’t think so.”

A ripple of surprise traveled through the soldiers as several exchanged decidedly confused looks.

“I beg your pardon?” the lieutenant demanded with rapidly widening eyes. “You don’t think so?”


“And why is that?” the lieutenant demanded again, eyes grown so large that his eyebrows disappeared beneath his plumed helmet.

“Because,” Graves sighed again, “the only reason you’re doing this is because your captain made you.”


“Aw come on, how’d you guess?”

The soldiers split down the middle and a young man strode forth. With a crimson military coat, a silver saber on his belt, and a blue officer’s sash that matched the waves of his navy hair, the dashing young captain of the Canterlot Royal Guards walked up with a broad smile.

“Shining Armor,” Graves said as he wearily rubbed his temples, “Figures.”

“What? Figures?” Shining Armor laughed as he approached. “I thought they played the part really well. How’d you know it was me?” Graves gave the officer a flat look.

“Besides the fact that it doesn’t take twenty soldiers to arrest someone? You did this last time I was here, too.”

“I did?”

“You did,” the marshal affirmed with a long, drawn out groan. “Honestly, you’re a captain in the Equestrian army, but you haven’t grown up at all, have you?”

“Aw, come on, Graves,” the blue-haired guardsman grinned as he moved in to hug Graves, who quickly slipped out of arm's reach. “We don’t see each in forever and this is how you greet your best friend?” The taciturn soldier rolled his eyes.

“If by 'best friend' you mean constant tormentor, then yes. It is.”

“Ow, harsh,” Shining Armor winced as he clutched his heart with enough dramatic flair to make Rarity call foul. “I think I just might go and cry in a corner now.”

“Well, don’t let me stop you,” the grey-eyed marshal answered, his voice as flat and expressionless as a river stone.

For a moment, the two stood looking at each other. Then, beginning as a faint tremble, Shining Armor’s wounded expression cracked and he burst out into peals of laughter. Graves held on for a moment longer, but even he couldn’t fight for long and joined in as well, much more reservedly, of course, but his rich, baritone laughter did ring out nonetheless.

“Ah man, it really is good to see you again,” the young captain said as he clapped Graves on the shoulder. “How long has it been since you’ve been in Canterlot? A year?”

“Eighteen months. Not since the wendigo expedition, remember?”

“Right, right,” Shining Armor grinned at the recollection. “Otherwise, you would have been here for my wedding. You did get the invitation, didn’t you?”

“Not till a month after it was over,” the marshal admitted with an wry grin. “I was a… bit out of touch at the time.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” young captain chuckled. “You’re here now, right? That means we’ll have plenty of time to catch up!”

“Oh boy, just my luck,” Graves said with the most deadpan of expressions, a look that just caused Shining Armor to grin more broadly. “Anyway, I should probably head over to the palace first and report in,” the marshal continued as he slung up his things. “Scheduled for evals and what not.”

“Hey, I was just about to go there myself. We should head out together!” Shining Armor beamed before turning to the soldiers. “Men!” he barked, his casual demeanor now replaced with the firm resolution of an officer in command. “Form rank and fall in line: we’ll be escorting the marshal with full honors!”

“Sir!” they all cried in unison before immediately arranging themselves in columns behind the two, spears raised in salute as they stood at attention. Graves gave Shining Armor a quizzical look.

“Did you really have to drag them all into your weird, little plans?”

“Drag them in?” Shining Armor repeated in mock surprise before calling out. “Lieutenant Long Stride!”

“Sir!” barked the rough-sounding officer from before as he stepped forward.

“Lieutenant, did I drag any of you into this?” Shining Armor asked with an amused grin.

“Sir, no sir,” Long Stride replied. “Every one of us here joined you today on a voluntary basis. If I may speak freely, sir,” he said, now turning to the marshal, “it’s an honor for us to escort a hero of your caliber. So say we all.”

"SO SAY WE ALL," came the platoon’s unanimous refrain.

Graves stared at Long Stride, a flash of genuine surprise crossing his face before he turned back to Shining Armor.

“Now, I know you don’t like the attention,” the crimson-clad captain grinned as he clapped a hand to the marshal’s back, “but how could I say no when so many people wanted to come welcome you back to Canterlot?”

“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” Graves asked, the accusation clear as he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Shining Armor just smiled wickedly.

“Oh, you have no idea.”

“... Fine, fine,” Graves sighed in defeat. “Just… don’t make too much of a scene on the way, alright? I’d rather keep this all to a dull roar.”

“Whatever you want, Graves,” Shining Armor laughed before calling out once more. “Company, ten-HUT! Move out!”

So Graves and Shining Armor left the platform as a whole platoon of royal guardsmen trailed behind in a decidedly seemly scene. Looking over at the young captain, who walked along as pleased as a cat in cream, the marshal smiled wearily and silently shook his head.

Some things never changed.


Chapter 4

View Online

Chapter 4

The muted click of booted heels on stone was the only sound as Graves ascended the tallest tower of the palace’s East Wing, central command to the Equestrian Royal Army. Unlike the rest of the richly decorated and elegantly designed castle, these corridors were made of polished but unadorned stone, their solemn purpose reflected in their simple design. It was a place of order, of duty and service, and the place where the young marshal felt most at home.

Arriving at the top of the tower, the grey-eyed soldier entered a short hallway where two stern-faced sentries stood watch over a massive, bronze door.

“Halt, who goes there?” the senior guard called out, his voice level, but with an underlying firmness that made clear he would be answered. Reaching into his long, brown coat, the marshal pulled out his silver badge and held it forth.

“It’s Graves. I’m expected.”

The sentry’s eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly, just the slightest arch of surprise at hearing the name. Nodding to his junior, the two soldiers took hold of the door’s solid handles and pulled it open.

“After you, sir,” the soldier said with a small, but respectful inclination of the head. “The general’s inside.” Graves tipped his hat in turn as he stepped through, and the heavy metal door softly slid shut behind him.

The room he stood in was as spacious as it was spartan. Like the rest of the East Wing, the chamber was made of white marble, undressed and unadorned as if any decoration would distract from the work at hand. Beyond several volume and folder lined shelves, the only other furnishing in the room was a single, heavy wooden desk, just as plain and simple as the room itself. It was to this table – or more importantly, the imposing figure behind it – that the young man turned his attention.

“Sir,” Graves called, placing a fist to his heart and bowing in the most formal greeting he knew, “I’ve arrived.”

The call brought the seated man to a pause, his hand frozen above the report that lay spread out before him. He set down the quill and stood up.

The only way to describe this individual was gigantic. And hard. Standing easily a head taller than the marshal, the older man made the stone walls around him seem soft in comparison. Everything, from his steely, grey beard to ice-blue eyes spoke of a man toughened and weathered till all superfluous matter had been stripped away. He bore no adornments on his simple uniform, but there was no mistaking the aura of strength and command that he wore like a cloak. This was General Ironside, the most decorated soldier ever to serve in the Royal Guard, and supreme commander of Equestria’s armed forces.

“You’re late,” he boomed, his voice roaring like thunder as his eyes flashed with the fierceness of azure lightning. “I don’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Apologies for the delay, General,” Graves replied as he straightened into a salute, “I was momentarily detained at the station.”

“Detained?” the general growled, somehow managing to sound more grizzly-like than any bear ever could. “How exactly was the marshal I personally summoned ‘detained'?”

“Captain Shining Armor decided I required an escort to the palace,” the marshal answered in a formal, if flat, tone. “He was… rather insistent.”

The stone-faced commander gave the younger man a gaze that could have frightened off a gorgon, his eyes widening and glinting dangerously…

… before he burst out into peals of booming laughter.

“Ho ho, he did, did he?” Ironside hooted as his hands went to the table to support himself from his violent guffawing. “Oh boy. I swear, the two of you never grow up.”

“With all due respect, I’ve grown up just fine. He’s the one who insists on remaining a child.” Despite the severity of his words, a small smile still tugged at the corner of the marshal’s mouth.

“Is that so?” the general smirked, now raising an eye questioningly at Graves. “Then refresh my memory. Who was it that dragged his fellow first year into the mountains on a troll hunt, only to get lost for the next three days?”

“That was a perfectly legitimate training exercise that just… happened to not go as planned.” The stoic soldier’s stiff reply couldn’t stop the flush of crimson from spreading through his cheeks.

“Of course, of course,” Ironside chuckled. “But why are we both just standing around? Come over here and join me for a drink!” As Graves approached the desk and settled down, the general reached behind and pulled out a small, crystal bottle filled with a deep, red liquid and two matching glasses. Pouring a small measure into each cup, Ironside handed the young man one while taking the other for himself.

“Like it?” the burly officer smiled as he took a moment to savor the aroma. “Genuine Salamander fire-whiskey. Distilled with their flames and aged in raw dragon skin, the only way to get it is directly from the tribes who make it.”

“Still the connoisseur, I see.” Graves smiled before taking a sip. The liquor was strong enough to strip paint and burned like brimstone going down, but the rich finish of desert fruit and honey made it well worth the pain. “Though I have to ask, isn’t drinking at a ‘formal performance review’ against the rules?”

“Bah, forget the rules!” Ironside snorted as he drained his glass in one giant gulp. “Lousy rules are just the way stuffy bureaucrats meddle in your business. You know that I can’t review a man unless I know him, and how can you really know a man without sharing a drink with him?”

“How indeed,” the marshal agreed through a very neutral face.

“Exactly,” Ironside nodded as he poured himself another glass. “So let’s get right down to it, Graves. You’ve been spending the last few months stationed in… Ponyville, am I correct?”

“You should know,” the grey-eyed soldier countered with a slight smirk. “You were the one who stationed me there.”

“Me?” big man asked with wide-eyed innocence. “From what I hear, it was Princess Celestia who sent you a fancy letter telling you to stay.”

“Which she would never have done without consulting you, isn’t that right, General?” Graves finished with a knowing smile.

“Perhaps...” Ironside nodded as he stroked his beard in what he must have thought was a sagely manner. It sort of looked like a bear with an itch. “But let’s not get bogged down in the details. Since it happened, I’d like you to fill me in on how it was. What were the last six months like?”

“Well, sir,” Graves began, “despite the presence of unusual creatures and an elevated number of local threats, the town was well-defended. None of the citizens suffered casualties, and the continued efforts should–”

“No, no, no,” the big man called out as he irritably waved his hand. “I’m going to be reading all that in the reports, and I know it’ll be boring enough without having to hear it twice. Tell me how it was. What did you do? Who did you meet? What stuck out to you? Don't go giving me a laundry list, boy; give me a story.”

The grey-eyed marshal paused for a moment, rather unsure of how to respond to such an odd array of questions. Granted, he’d grown accustomed to a degree of unconventionality from the general, but this was weird, even by Ironside’s standards. Still, a commanding officer had asked the questions, so...

Graves began to talk, starting on the very first day when he’d met the girls in Ponyville on his original assignment to clear out the rogue soldiers. He continued on with the other stories, the troll hunt with Sweetie Belle, the chimera and skullpions with Rarity, and even some of the other non-battle related tales. It was clear that the young soldier wasn’t the most eloquent of storytellers and pithy as he was with his words, the whole affair probably took less than ten minutes. But, considering the way Ironside chuckled at the antics of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and outright roared with laughter as Graves stumbled his way through an explanation of his and Rarity’s disastrous mutual misunderstanding, the young man seemed to have done a decent enough job, all things considered.

“So,” Ironside boomed, leaning forward and pressing his fingers together in consideration as the recollections drew to a close. “How do you feel your time in Ponyville went?”

"How do I feel?" Graves wondered to himself. What in Luna’s name did feelings have to do with anything? Work was work; he had a job and he did it, so who cared how he felt during the process?

“I take it you don’t mean how effective my actions were,” the grey-eyed marshal replied, cautiously using to question to probe out his commanding officer's intentions. Ironside merely chuckled, the sound highly reminiscent of distant thunder.

“Why don’t you decide?”

Graves sat still for a moment, his slate-hued eyes gone cloudy as he considered the questions. He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, as if unsure that the words about to come out were what he really meant. He began again, almost as if reluctant to speak his mind.

“I… enjoyed myself,” he finally admitted. “It’s a nice town. The people are open and warm, and I think I’ve made some… friends there. That may be an overstatement,” he added in quick rectification, “but it was pretty... nice. I think.”

For a minute, the general said nothing at all, seemingly content to settle back and sip at his drink as he idly stroked his beard in thought. Eventually, he did break the silence, though in the last way that Graves would ever have guessed.

“Well,” Ironside chuckled, "it looks like your trip was a complete waste of time.”

“… I’m sorry, but what?!” Graves blurted out in disbelief. “A waste of time?”

“Exactly!” his commander boomed with laughter. “Playing around with kids, going to tea parties, getting quite cozy with the ladies–”

“They’re just friends,” the marshal interrupted instinctively, but the big man barreled on.

“You’ve been having so much fun, I’m surprised you managed to fit in any work edgewise.” Ironside finished off with another hooting burst of laughter, one that clearly did nothing to improve the young man’s mood.

“Sir,” Graves began in a politely neutral tone that practically bristled with indignation, “I have always done my duty. If there was a threat, I dealt with it. If there was trouble, I snuffed it out. I can’t help it if there wasn't anything for me to do, but you know very well that I do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

“Well, of course I do,” the general smiled. “Why do you think I sent you there in the first place?”

The young soldier blinked.

Well, he certainly hadn’t been expecting that.

Chuckling once more, Ironside stood up and walked over to the nearest bookcase and pulled out a thick, well-worn folder. “You do good work, boy,” he said as he returned and began idly flipping through the documents. “Really good work. Been flying solo for four years, and you still manage to pull in a steady stream of big missions. Goblin raiders in the Crystal Mountains, bandits in the Dry Dry Desert, a particularly ornery kraken in the ports of Mareyland, hoowhee, it’s got me sweating just reading about them.”

“So, how does this relate to my post in Ponyville?” the marshal asked, his head cooler, though his tone still contained a healthy dose of skepticism. His commander just grinned.

“Consider it the missing half of your file.”

“… Sir?”

“I’ve looked through your records before,” Ironside continued. “Lots of missions and exploits, but very few mentions of downtime or leave requests. In fact, aside from hospital time and mandatory evals, I don’t think you’ve taken a single day off since you set off on your own. That's why I figured I’d send you on a cushy stint in the heartlands, let you get some of that R&R you’ve been missing out on.”

“Wait,” Graves intoned, raising a hand to cut in as a very odd sort of realization began to dawn. “Are you saying that my time in Ponyville was just an excuse to make me... take a vacation?”

The general’s triumphant grin was all the answer the marshal required.

“I can see you’re still a bit lost,” Ironside replied as he chuckled at the marshal's puzzled expression. “You’re probably wondering why I’d force my best soldier to take shore leave when he’s clearly been doing so well.”

“Not in so many words,” Graves nodded reluctantly, “but yeah. Why?”

“It's actually pretty simple, really,” the general smiled, though not quite so brightly as before. “I'm just afraid you're gonna burn out. I’ll admit it Graves, you’re good, maybe even the best I've ever seen. But you're still just one man, and keep burning the candle at both ends like you have, well... even you’ll break eventually. Nobody can keep up the pace you’re going for long, and frankly, I’m surprised you’ve lasted as long as you have.”

Graves was more than a little surprised. From the way the general addressed him, a wry twist to his smile and an odd hesitance in his otherwise thundering voice, one would almost have thought that Ironside was... worried. But that was impossible. Nothing worried the general, not even facing a tribe of rampaging ogres in his skivvies.

“I appreciate the concern,” the marshal said, still somewhat taken aback by his commander’s tone, “but I don’t think you need to worry.”

“Oh?” Ironside asked, eyebrow arched. “And why not?” Graves shrugged.

“Because, sir, I don't intend break.”

The general broke out into fresh peals of laughter, an odd mix of mirth and dryness ringing out in the booming tones.

“So, the little whippersnapper thinks he’s too tough to snap, eh?” he asked with a toothy grin. “Well, boy, you may be right, and you may be wrong. I’ll say this though; I’ve heard men say those words before, and the only ones who got away with it were the ones who quit while they were ahead. So tell me, Graves. What makes you different?”

“I wouldn't say I'm different, really,” the young man replied, thumbing his nose a bit in embarrassment upon realizing how pretentious he’d just sounded. To an officer, no less. “It's just that as long as I have a job to do, I'll find some way to finish it. I mean, you've seen my record; that's just how it's always been. I don't want to imply I'm anything special, but... as long as it's my duty, I've always found some way of getting it done.”

“Hmph. Maybe you just haven't run into the really hard jobs yet,” Ironside pressed, doubt heavy in his voice, along with a faint trace of something else. "Maybe you've been on an easy stint and you're just getting cocky."

"That's possible. I know I'm still young, and I probably haven't seen half of what you have," Graves admitted with the utmost in sincerity and respect. Then his eyes changed, the soft grey of humility giving way to a steely glint of conviction. "But I've seen enough. If I were going to break, I would already have."

Ironside's face went somber.

"You're talking about Operation Elder, aren't you?"

The silence that followed in the wake of those words was deafening. Graves said nothing, but the slight tension around his mouth, the cold hardness that crept into his eyes, made his answer loud and clear.

"Look, son," the general continued, breaking the quiet with a decidedly awkward segue, "what happened then, it was rough. Celestia knows it's a miracle you've managed to come so far in the last four years, but–"

"Once again, sir, I appreciate the concern," the marshal said softly, his formal tones only slightly marred by a metallic rasp at the edge of his words. "But there's no 'but' to it. What happened was simply the cost of doing our job. We knew what we were getting into.”

"That still doesn't make it any easier to deal with," Ironside added. "Especially for you."

"Maybe not," Graves replied, the finest of fine hairline fractures cracking his otherwise iron-hard equilibrium. "But I'm still here; I haven't broken. And if I didn't break under that, then I'm good to fight on like I always have."

“... And you’re happy like that?” Ironside asked, his voice now little more than a dull rumble. “That’s what you want in life?”

Graves blinked, his tranquil demeanor broken by a shot from the blindside.

Again with the weird questions. Where by the six elements did happiness enter the equation? He was a marshal, one sworn to protect those who couldn't protect themselves. He'd known that since he was a child, lived it ever since he'd taken the oath all those years ago and never once had the issue of what he wanted or what made him happy ever entered the mix.

But if that was the case... then why did he now find that the question stirred up his thoughts like a nest of bees? Why was his mind suddenly filled with thought of lazy afternoons and sunny days, warm conversations, and bright, beaming faces? Why did he find himself thinking of that smile hued in violet and a laugh like silver bells? Why did he think of lavender?

“Sir,” he said, clearing his throat roughly and giving his head a quick shake to clear out the intruding thoughts. “I want to do my duty. Is that a problem?”

“... I suppose not,” the general wearily sighed. "You made that clear enough when you were given the Right of Petition, so who am I to oppose?"

"General," the young man began, now rather concerned by his commander's strangely passive words, "if you have concerns about something, please–" His words were cut off by the sharp crack of a palm slapping wood and a cannon-like blast of gruff laughter.

"Bah, don't worry about it, hatchling!" Ironside boomed, restored to his typical good humors once more. "Guess some things are just too advanced for a spring chick like yourself to understand."

"... Sir?"

"So you said you want to do your job, eh?" the burly officer continued, ignoring the inquiry with a wicked grin. "Fine, I'll help you do just that. But be warned, you're the one who chose it. Don't blame me if you end up regretting it.” Reaching down to a drawer with an evil cackle, Ironside pulled out a roll of parchment, one sealed with crimson wax and the winged shield emblem of the marshals.

“This request just came in,” he said, setting the roll on the desk and sliding it over. “If you choose to accept it, you’ll need to double time through your evals and go into immediate special training, ‘cause let me tell you, son, this one’s coming up hard and fast, and it’s a doozy.”

“What’s it involve?” Graves asked, doing his best to pay attention despite the very abrupt transition of topic and jarring change of pace. Ironside simply shook his head.

“Can't tell you, soldier; that’s on a need to know basis," he beamed with a face as innocent as a newborn kitten. "If you choose to accept, I’ll fill you in afterwards, but for now, all I can say is this: it’ll probably be the hardest mission you’ve ever been on. You take this, and in one week, you’ll be saying goodbye to Ponyville, maybe for good.”

This got the young man’s attention.

“Leave for good?” Graves asked, his eyes narrow and focused like twin rifle barrels. “What, you don’t expect me to make it back?”

“I honestly can’t say,” Ironside shrugged. “This mission’s amorphous, but most likely you'll end up posted there for a two year tour of duty."

"Two years?" the marshal repeated numbly. Two whole years in one place?

“And getting extracted once you're in isn't guaranteed either," Ironside added mournfully. "This is a kind of mission where you get sucked in, you might end up never leaving. Ever."

The young man stood there, staring at his commanding officer with eyes the size of silver dollars.

"You can always say no, of course,” the general added lightly, almost seeming like a casual afterthought. “I mean, I thought you'd be the best candidate for it, but I can find someone else. There's no pressure for you to accept.”

For a moment, Graves paused, eyeing the roll of parchment as he might a sleeping cobra. Maybe it was because of the general's series of strange questions, but right now... he honestly didn't know. He’d never had problems leaving for a new assignment, but Ponyville hadn’t been like other places. The people there hadn’t been like others. It had been special. Was he ready to leave that? To say goodbye to all the friends he’d made? To say goodbye to…


“... No, I'll do it,” Graves finally replied, his voice catching for just a moment before returning to its typical, steady rumble. “I'm a marshal, and I go where I’m needed.”

With this, he stood and bowed, hand to heart in the traditional salute.

Ironside looked down at the marshal, the smile on his face oddly accepting, and rather condescending at the same time. It was the sort of smile that an adult might use on a child who'd lied about eating a cookie with crumbs still on his face and, all in all, one that caused the young man no small amount of suspicious discomfort.

“Very well then," the general nodded. "Report to your barracks, get settled in, and check in with the master sergeant. Pass him this document and let him know you need the crash course. When you finish your testing, you come and see me and we’ll have you ready to go within the week. Dismissed.”

The marshal took the roll and bowed once more before exiting the general’s study.


Outside, the two guards saluted him once more as well, but for once, the grey-eyed soldier hardly noticed. The massive bronze doors slid shut behind him.

"This is it," Graves thought to himself, almost in disbelief as he slowly descended the stone stairwell, the roll of parchment held with as much cheer as he would a sack of sphinx droppings. This was really it. Time for his goodbyes.

In one week he’d be gone, shipped off to another location, another mission. Granted, he'd always known this day would come and in some ways had been looking forward to it. To be back on the front lines where his strength and skill could be utilized to their fullest potential was in some ways a comforting, even fulfilling thought. But the suddenness of it all, the abruptness of his departure left him feeling decidedly... off. I mean, with the rush of preparation, the evaluations and training to get through, he probably wouldn't even get a chance to properly say farewell. After all Ponyville had done for him and how those girls had welcomed him in, it just didn't seem right.

Well, he could at least write them a letter, right? Graves really hated writing, almost as much as he hated giving speeches, but it was the least he could do; his friends – at least, he hoped he could call them that – deserved that much. It'd be as detailed as he could make it. He'd explain how he'd gotten orders that required him to move, an issue of necessity and not one of him willingly leaving. Well, he was technically doing it willingly, but it was because of necessity. Totally different, right? Anyways, he would explain that part, apologize for his rather rude and abrupt departure–

The marshal froze, booted heels falling silent as he stopped in midstep.

It only just occurred to him that he’d told Rarity his absence would be for a couple of weeks at best. Inwardly, he winced; he'd once promised to be back promptly after a two-day excursion into the forest that had extended into six. Considering the lecture he'd gotten about inconsiderate behavior over a delay of a few days, he could only imagined the tongue-lashing she’d give him upon his return after two years.

If he even returned at all.


Now wasn’t that a cheery thought.


Chapter 5

View Online

Chapter 5

One week later:

In the dimming purple haze of dusk, the city of Canterlot filled with an excited buzz as the most magnificent ball of the year, the Grand Galloping Gala, officially began.

Canterlot was always stunning, but tonight it was simply resplendent. Pennants bearing the crests of the various noble houses draped from every palisade and promenade, adorning the pristine, white walls like blooms of colorful flowers. Strings of lights hanging between the multitudes of towers and hundreds of enchanted, floating lanterns created a second set of twinkling stars that illuminated the castle grounds in their warm, flickering glow.

Yet despite all this grandeur, the decorations of the palace still could not compete with the regalia worn by the evening’s guests. There were fur-lined cloaks, rippling satin dresses, crushed velvet coats dripping with lace, and even a gown made from what seemed to be a hundred diaphanous silk scarves. True, the city was marvelous, but it was these guests, these attendees in finery that ranged from classically elegant to exotically beautiful, that made the evening such a wonder to behold.

It was amidst all this pomp and pageantry that a coach of a pale, robin’s egg blue and neatly gilded with golden vines arrived at the palace. The pair of footmen who waited at the red carpet eyed one another curiously: almost every arriving vehicle bore some sign of nobility, but this one was completely unmarked. Even more curious, the coach was being driven by a green-haired lad in a tailored tuxedo who gave them a cheeky grin as he reigned in a team of oddly mouse-like, white horses. Curious indeed.

All curiosity, however, quickly gave way to stunned silence as the coach doors opened.

It was a rainbow. A beautiful, prismatic rainbow formed by six of the loveliest young ladies the footmen had ever seen in the most amazing dresses they could ever have imagined. From the wild hurricane of a girl clad in the bright blue of a summer sky, to the blonde beauty, whose warm smile could only be matched by the fiery tones of her autumn-hued dress, each gown was a clear and wondrous celebration of the lady's individual persona and character.

Yet as breathtaking as each of the young women looked, she did not detract, but rather seemed to enhance the beauty of her friends as well. The giggling girl in the dress of pastel pleats and ruffles fashioned like a fabulous, confectionery delight somehow formed a perfect complement to the demure maiden who blushed in a gown reminiscent of warm spring mornings. Like the colors of a rainbow, each girl stood stunning on her own accord, yet came together to make something truly magical.

“Well, girls, here we are,” Twilight smiled, stepping off the carriage and straightening the dusky gloves that went with her dress of deep evening shades,.“Back at the Grand Galloping Gala. Who’d have thought we’d be coming in for a second round?”

“Whoo nelly, you can say that again,” Applejack whistled as she nearly tripped over the heels of her new, formal boots. “I still can’t believe the Princess invited us back after all the ruckus we caused.”

“I know, isn’t it exciting?” Pinkie Pie beamed, hardly able to contain her excitement now that it was so close to party time. “It’s totally a chance for us to have the best night ever! Again!”

“It certainly was nice of Princess Celestia to give us a second chance,” Fluttershy murmured with a small but happy smile. “I just hope we don’t make things difficult for her.” Off to the side, Rainbow Dash blew a loud raspberry in response.

“Psh, don’t worry about it,” the flyer scoffed as she threw a bracing arm around the pink-haired girl. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Aside from us starting another riot that destroys half the palace?” Twilight Sparkle added with an innocent smile. “Not much, but I doubt we’ll run into any trouble. It’s not like we're a bunch of marauding orcs, now is it?”

“But of course not,” Rarity laughed, the clear, crystal tones ringing through the courtyard. “We’ve all come to have another go at the best night ever. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

Twilight frowned. Even though the pretty seamstress had said this with her usual confidence, the young scholar couldn’t help but feel that there was something slightly off about her fashionable friend’s whole demeanor. Nothing major or anything that she could really put her finger on, but something, something about Rarity tonight just wasn’t quite normal.

“You sure you’re okay with this?” the purple-haired librarian asked in hushed tones as Spike drove off to park the carriage. “If you’re not feeling up to it–”

“Twilight, please,” Rarity lightly chuckled. “Just because things didn’t work out perfectly doesn’t mean I’m going to let the whole evening go to waste.”

“You sure?” Twilight repeated as she narrowed her indigo-shaded eyelids – courtesy of Rarity once again – suspiciously before transitioning to a much more helpful tone. “Because there’s still time to make some adjustments. I’m sure the Princess could get Graves off for just one night.” Her friend returned a grateful smile but still shook her head.

“The marshal has his duties.” With an air of clear finality on the subject, Rarity rejoined the rest of their group to head down the carpeted walkway. Twilight, pursing her lips slightly, shrugged and trotted along to catch up with her friends.

However, before they had moved ten feet, the strong hum of magical energies heralded the descent of two winged guardsmen before them, which brought the entire party to a halt.

“Excuse me. Are you Twilight Sparkle and company?” the soldier on the left called out. He was an imposing figure, what with his gleaming armor and massive, translucent spell wings of the same golden hue. His deadpan expression that might have made a rock seem malleable didn’t help either.

“Er, that’s me,” the young scholar nodded hesitantly as she stepped to the forefront. “Is something the matter?”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” the other stern-faced sentry added, “but you and your friends are going to have to come with us.”

Six pairs of eyes went wide in alarm as the girls glanced at one another with expressions ranging from stark puzzlement to outright panic. After all, when a pair of fully armored soldiers comes to escort you elsewhere with nary an explanation, one could only assume that the reason was nothing good.

“Is... everything all right?” the first guard asked hesitantly as he eyed Fluttershy, who seemed like she couldn’t decide whether to start hyperventilating or burst out in tears.

“Fine. Everything’s just... fine,” Twilight answered with a queasy smile as she placed a reassuring hand on her frightened friend’s arm. “She’s just a little tense. Big night and all.”

“Er, do you need a moment?” the second sentry asked, a touch of concern creeping into his voice. “You can sit down for a bit if you need to.” The first guardsman shot him a quick frown, but at his companion’s earnest look, returned a wry grin and said nothing more. I mean, they may have been soldiers on duty, but it didn’t mean they had to be jerks about it, right?

“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Twilight said in as bracing a tone as she could muster. “It’s probably best if we just go and... get this over with.”

The two guardsmen exchanged curious looks at the obvious tension crackling amidst the young ladies. After all, it wasn't like they knew that this was the group of girls that had caused the most infamous debacle of any royal event in Equestrian history, barring invasions and returns of ancient, tyrannical beings of unholy might, of course. In any case, the two soldiers knew their orders, so they merely shrugged and powered down their wings, allowing the runework frames to retract into grooves on the back of their armor with perfectly slotted precision.

“Right then. If you’ll please follow me,” the first guard gestured, leading the way. The whole party followed after with all the joy of heading to their own execution.


Led away from the main thoroughfare that headed towards the palace, the girls instead went down a small side path leading to one of the castle’s smaller entrances. Opening the door, the guards escorted them into an expansive sitting room where a collection of comfortable looking sofas bordered a floral patterned rug. Quite nice, all things considered.

“Don’t suppose you’d mind tellin’ us what all the fuss is about?” Applejack asked with just the slightest trepidation. The guards shook their heads.

“Don't rightly know ourselves,” the first guard replied with just a hint of an apologetic smile. "Sorry."

As they stepped back out and shut the door behind them, the pent up anxiety finally burst forth and a wave of nervous babbling began.

“It’s gotta be the Princess, it’s just gotta be!” Rainbow Dash moaned as she sank onto a couch. “Oh man, Pinkie Pie was right. This was a really, really bad idea.”

“Now Rainbow, it’s probably nothin’,” the blonde cowgirl replied, fiddling with the apple-shaped brooch at her neck and trying to sound reassuring."Maybe she just wants to give us a… a little warnin’ or somethin’. You know, jess tah remind us to behave this time.” Her efforts were not well received.

“Oh really?” Rainbow retorted, her dangling golden earrings flashing as she snapped around to eye her freckled friend. “If it’s just a friendly reminder, why’d she send armed guards to escort us here?”

“Omygoodnessomygoodness,” Fluttershy breathed in a panic. “We’re not going to be arrested, are we? If we get locked up in the dungeon, who’s going to take care of Angel? He might starve!”

“Nobody’s going to starve,” Twilight said soothingly before Fluttershy started panicking in earnest. “And nobody’s going to get thrown in any dungeon. Those haven’t even been used since the imprisonment of Lusitano the Loony nearly three hundred years ago.”

“I dunno, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie interjected with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Luna’s pretty into the whole traditional Canterlot thing. Maybe she’ll push for an extra special exception and bring it back so she can boil us in oil and gobble us all up like a bunch of–” Pinkie’s demoralizing tirade was abruptly cut off as she discovered a grimacing Twilight’s fist stuffed in her mouth.

“Not. Helping.”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to continue with portents of doom and gloom, but just then, the sound of a clicking lock came from the interior door. Everyone froze and watched as the gilded door knob turn, with lead to a swinging door, which soon revealed…

“Twiley! You made it!” Shining Armor beamed.

Dramatic pause.

“… Big brother?” Twilight blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Er, what do you mean?” he asked, his smile slipping away and quickly replaced by confusion at the rather unexpected greeting. “The Princess asked me to bring you here.”

“I knew it!” Rainbow Dash cried out as she leaped up from the sofa. “You’re here to arrest us! Well, good luck with that: you’ll never take me alive!” Vaulting over the couch and lunging for the outside door, Rainbow Dash hiked her dress to her knees to hasten her mad dash for freedom. Fortunately, she collided with Pinkie Pie and both went down in a tangled heap before the overenthused flyer could make it any farther.

“Arrest you? What are you talking about?” Shining Armor asked again, blue eyes now completely bewildered. “I’m just her because the Princess wanted to ask you all for a favor.”

Silence reigned again.

“… So, you’re not here to throw us in the dungeon and boil us in oil so Princess Luna can chomp on us as punishment for messing up the gala last time we were here?” The guard captain stared blankly at Rainbow Dash as his brain tried to sort out her creative and rather disturbing tirade. He scratched his head.

“Um... no?” he offered hesitantly. “Celestia’s been looking forward to your visit all week. Why would she do that?”



It took a moment, perhaps two, but the tension finally broke and the girls burst out into fits of ringing laughter. In all their worry and panic about decorum, royalty, and propriety, it seems they’d forgotten about one very important fact: Princess Celestia had a very ‘interesting’ sense of humor to say the least.

“Whoo nelly,” Applejack hooted as she pulled her embroidered hat off and fanned herself. “An’ here I thought we’d be locked up tighter’n Granny’s stash ah special cider.”

“So, I take it everything’s good then?” the navy-haired captain smiled uncertainly.

“Yes, Shine, everything’s good,” Twilight giggled. Now that the frantic worrying was all over and done with, she caught up her brother in a big hug and squeezed him tight. “Wow, it’s good to see you again.”

“Sorry for being so out of touch, little sis,” Shining Armor smiled as he fondly patted her on the head. Carefully though: he didn’t want to accidentally mess up her very stylish do. “After the honeymoon, things just got out of hand. Cadance had her royal duties to attend to, and I was busy with work as well.”

“Oh yeah, where is Cadance anyway?” Twilight asked, looking around for signs of her favorite babysitter. “Are you two going to the Gala too?”

“Well, we were,” the crimson-clad captain began, “but she was feeling a little sick, so she’ll be staying in her room tonight.”

“Oh my, is she okay?” Fluttershy chimed in, now sufficiently recovered to begin directing her worry towards others once more.

“Don’t worry, it’s not that kind of sick,” Shining Armor assured, though now his face began to match the color of his scarlet coat. “It’s actually more along the lines of, er... feeling sick in the morning. That, plus other stuff, you know. ”

“Sick in the morning?” Twilight asked with a scrunched up face. “Why would she only be sick in the… morning…” The young scholar’s mouth fell open as the news really hit home. “No way,” she gaped. “You’re not saying…”

It started as a twitch at the corner of his mouth, which grew into a trembling of his lips, before finally exploding into the biggest, goofiest grin of all time. Shining Armor positively beamed, thoroughly red from a healthy dose of embarrassment, yet even more flushed with uncontainable pride and pure, distilled happiness.

“Looks like my little sis is about to become Aunt Twiley.”

Outside, the two guards standing at the doorway jumped at what sounded distinctly like a bomb exploding beyond the door behind them. After peaking in however, it became clear that the sound not a terrorist attack, just a bunch of very excited girls squealing with unabated enthusiasm upon discovering that a baby was on the way.

“Oh my goodness, this is so exciting!” Pinkie Pie cheered as she, quite literally, began bouncing off the walls. “I’ve never been so excited in my life, not even that time where Mrs. Cake let me lick the batter for her triple chocolate chewy chunk cake! When did you find out?”

“Only about a week ago,” Shining Armor replied, his big, goofy grin growing even wider, if that was even possible. “Cadance wasn’t feeling too good – had trouble keeping down her breakfast a few days running – so we went to the doctor to get her checked out, and he... told us the news.”

“Well I’ll be, ain’t that sumthin’,” Applejack breathed. “Y’all know if it’s a feller or a filly yet?”

“We’re not sure. The doctor said a month along's still too early to tell,” the young captain admitted. “But Cadance says she wants a little girl though: she said she liked taking care of Twiley here so much that she wants to do it again.” The aforementioned bookworm blushed a deep red at the compliment, an action which made her look very much like her big brother indeed.

“Do keep us informed, won’t you?” Rarity beamed as she approached the captain. “I’ve always wanted to make some darling, little baby clothes, but I’ll have to know whether to prepare blue or pink, you know.”

“Come on, it’s just a baby. Who cares?” Rainbow Dash said, blowing a raspberry in an attempt to act cool and nonchalant. However, not even the most awesome flyer in Equestria could keep a straight face for long. At the thought of the soon to arrive little bundle of joy, Rainbow Dash’s facade quickly crumbled into school girl giggles and delighted squeeing. Deep down, she was a girl, after all.

“Don’t worry,” Shining Armor chuckled. “If anything comes up, you’ll all be the first ones to know. After all, what kind of brother would I be if I kept my baby sister out of the loop?”

“The same forgetful big brother he's always been,” Twilight said with a roll of the eyes. “I didn’t find out about your wedding till a day before, did I?”

“Oh yeah. Again, sorry about that,” he sheepishly grinned, to which Twilight could only sigh with a warmly exasperated smile. Shining Armor, still the same, goofy brother he always was.

As she thought this, the large bell in the Canterlot clock tower tolled, chiming the advent of the ninth hour.

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, smacking himself on the forehead as he remembered. “Back to the reason I'm here. Like I said, I was sent to see if you guys could do the Princess a little favor.”

“What kind of favor?” Fluttershy inquired, returning to her ever kind-hearted and helpful self as the tolling bells roused her from the baby-induced euphoria.

“Well,” Shining Armor began, scratching his head in thought, “it seems like there’s a certain dignitary or something that’s supposed to be attending the Gala.”

“A dignitary?” Rarity asked, curiosity aroused. “Of what?”

“That’s the thing, I don’t really know,” the guard captain shrugged. “All I heard was that he’s supposed to be pretty young and rather new to these kinds of fancy parties."

“So what are we supposed to do about it?” Rainbow Dash asked, ever the one to get straight to the point.

“Seeing as how he’s new to the whole formal scene, the Princess was hoping you guys could give him a hand? You know, show him around and help him have a good time.”

“Why us, exactly?” Applejack asked. “No offense, but we ain’t exactly fancy party kind of folk ourselves. Wouldn’t someone more, ah… uppity be better?”

“I asked the same thing,” Shining Armor nodded, “but the Princess insisted it’d be the best with you. Assuming you say yes, of course.”

“Let’s do it!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “I’m always up for making new friends. Can we girls? Huh? Can we? Can we?”

“Heck yes!” Rainbow Dash called. “It’d be a crime not to share my awesomeness with more people. Which reminds me, where is this guy anyway?”

“Yeah, about that,” Shining Armor paused, “I was kind of hoping I could introduce him to just one of you at first and then bring the rest of you in after he’s warmed up to the idea.”

“Well, why in sam hill would you wanna do that fer?” Applejack asked.

“No offense,” the young officer answered as diplomatically as he could, “but you girls are so friendly that it can come across just a bit, uh... strong, and I wouldn't want him getting overwhelmed with too much excitement, you know.”

“… It would be terrible if we startled him,” Fluttershy nodded slowly. “Maybe it’s for the best after all.”

“Meh, whatever.” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Why don’t you do it, Twilight?”

“Why me?” her bookish friend questioned with an arched eyebrow. The multicolored flyer replied with a roll of her eyes.

“ 'Cause you’re an egghead, duh. Now come on, hurry up and go find this guy so we can get to the party!”

“Ugh, fine,” Twilight grumbled, not so much at the request – which in all honesty seemed like a fine idea – but more at the dubious logic behind it. “Well then, big brother, lead the way.”

“Great!” Shining Armor grinned. “Let’s do it!”


The crimson-garbed captain led Twilight out of the room and through the carved marble corridors till they arrived at another chamber just off of the main entryway. Even through the thick stone walls, the strains of music and babble of voices could be heard from the evening’s festivities.

Taking the chamber’s carved silver knob in hand, Shining Armor paused and turned back to his little sister.

“You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” she grinned nervously; it wasn’t every day you were made an official envoy of the Princess to a dignitary, after all. Shining Armor gave her a reassuring smile in return before he opened the door.

It was another sitting room, much like the one they’d come from, but furnished instead with large leather chairs placed around a heavy, dark wood table that rested on a rug of intricate geometric patterns. From one of these chairs, a tall young man in a long coat stood before making an elegantly formal, if somewhat stiff bow.

“Good evening,” he said. His voice was a deep baritone, rich yet somehow rough and stilted, as if he were unaccustomed to the words he spoke. “On behalf of myself and the general,” he began as he straightened up, “I wish to thank you for–”

The man abruptly stopped. Completely frozen except for his slowly rising brow, he stared in utter amazement at the girl who stood before him. Why he stared, Twilight couldn’t understand until she met his wide-eyed stare. His wide, silvery, grey-eyed stare.



Chapter 6

View Online

Chapter 6

“Graves?!” Twilight gaped. “Is that you?!”

The indigo-clad girl’s shocked incredulity was indeed well-warranted, as the man standing before them looked absolutely nothing like weather-worn marshal she’d come to know.

Instead of his usual drab, leather gear, the taciturn soldier now wore a stylish long coat of midnight blue, cut like a double-breasted military jacket with ornate silver buttons and matching scrollwork running down the sleeves. His favorite hat had been removed to reveal a head of glossy, raven-black hair neatly combed and smoothed back to give Twilight what may have been her first-ever uninhibited look at his face. She couldn’t decide which was more surprising, how sharply and brightly his silvery-grey eyes shined now unimpeded by his hanging bangs, or the fact that his face, while still as stoic as a rock farmer’s crop, was much younger and daresay more pleasant to look at than she would have ever guessed.

All this to say, in a rather verbose manner, was that Graves had cleaned up rather nicely. So nicely in fact, that it’d taken a while for the young lady to recognize him.

“What are you doing here?” Twilight continued, still not quite believing the elegant young man before her could really be her taciturn friend.

“I’m on duty,” he answered, sounding quite dazed and bewildered himself. “What are you doing in Canterlot?”

“Wait,” Shining Armor interjected, now mirroring his little sister’s confusion. “Twiley, you know Graves?”

“Yeah!” she replied, the distinctively low, gravelly rumble finally removing all doubt as to the young man’s identity. “He’s been in Ponyville the past few months. The Princess sent him to protect us from all the creatures coming out of the Everfree Forest.”

“Really? Ponyville?” the guard captain repeated before turning back to the marshal. “Shoot, you should have told me you were so close by; I would have come to visit you!”

“Why do you think I didn’t?” Graves replied in a tone as dry and dead as the desert.

“Hold on,” Twilight called out as she held a hand for pause. “What do you mean visit? Shining Armor, are you saying you two know each other?”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “We went to the Academy together. I’m his best friend.”

“So he keeps saying,” the young soldier intoned with a roll of the eyes. And then he paused, a perplexed look coming over his face. “Wait. Did he call you... Twiley? Don’t tell me you two know each other too?”

“Well I should hope so,” Twilight answered, sounding slightly off put. “I mean, I am his little sister.”


Twilight would forever remember this night as the one where she learned to always carry around a camera, because the look of complete, utter surprise on the marshal’s face was a priceless moment that would forever remain undocumented.

“Wait a second,” Graves sputtered as he pointed to Twilight and then to Shining Armor. “You… are his… little sister?!”

“Yeah!” she beamed, skipping over to give the blue-haired man a quick, but loving squeeze. “He’s my Big Brother Best Friend Forever!”

For a few moments, the marshal strongly resembled a fish as his mouth opened and closed noiselessly, completely flabbergasted. Eyes flitting between the pair of faces, – which he only now realized bore distinct similarities – words finally found him as he settled on the smiling guardsman.

“Since when did you have a little sister?”




“Wait, what?”

The silence that followed Twilight's perplexed utterance seemed to crackle, like thin ice slowly spiderwebbing with fissures in the promise of quick and painful catastrophe. The young lady looked to Graves, who in confusion, looked to Shining Armor who, perhaps the first to sense impending doom, looked down at his little sister with a very poor attempt at a casual smile. Slowly, the purple-haired girl's smiled shifted, the pleasure of the unexpected reunions and introductions quickly fading as she finally caught the full implication of the silver-eyed soldier’s statement.

“Shining Armor?" Twilight began, fixing her brother with a very level gaze akin to what a mountain lion might give a bunny rabbit just before lunch. "I thought you just told me that Graves is your best friend.”

“Well, actually, I said I’m his best friend,” her older brother grinned, a bead of sweat that had nothing to do with the temperature trickling down his forehead. "Details, you know?"

“So how is it,” she pressed on, her voice growing like an avalanche in its implaccable fury, “that in the more than ten years since you first joined the academy, you’ve somehow failed to mention that I even exist?”

“It… must have slipped my mind?” he smiled weakly, hoping it would help assuage his sister’s oncoming wrath.

It didn’t.


It’s a good thing that the blue-haired brother was a trained military man, or else he would never have dodged Twilight Sparkle’s lunging spear tackle. But training or no, there was no way that the guard captain could avoid his irate little sister forever. Pursuing him with the full fury that only angry siblings can feel, she finally caught him and began pounding away with great gusto, oblivious to his cries for mercy or the increasing dishevelment of her otherwise fine attire.

Graves watched all this in a state of abject bewilderment, rather understandable considering he’d just found out that his world was a whole lot smaller than he’d thought. Seriously, Shining Armor had a little sister? And it was Twilight?! He’d seen some rather odd things in his time, but this… this was just downright weird.


Fortunately for Shining Armor, Twilight’s tantrums were as short-lived as they were fierce, and after a few more choice punches to the ribs, she finally settled down.

“So anyways,” she huffed, doing her best to straighten out her dress and tiara, “I take it that you’re the dignitary that we’re supposed to be meeting?”

“Dignitary?” the marshal repeated, turning to the now rather battered captain.

“That’s what they called you,” he winced, rubbing one of the the fist-sized bruise beginning to form on his side. “You’d think they’d have just told me you were the army rep to begin with. Guess the general still has his sense of humor.”

“Army rep?” Twilight asked, now sounding more curious than incensed. “What’s that?”

“Every Gala,” her brother began, “the army sends a representative to hang out with the nobility. You know, a sort of meet and greet for public relations and what not. Except,” he continued, turning back to Graves, “I was under the impression that it was supposed to be Aerial Ace tonight.”

“Apparently, he got called away last minute,” the marshal shrugged apathetically. “ ‘Very important business’, or so I’m told.”

“So how’d you end up taking his place?” Shining Armor asked with a dubious look. “No way you volunteered for this.”

“As if,” Graves replied, actually snorting in disdain at the very thought. “The general told me he had a ‘very important assignment’ that needed immediate attention. It wasn’t till after I’d accepted that dear, old Ironside informed me about tonight’s wonderful activities.” The caustic sarcasm in his voice could have vaporized stone.

“Wow, this is great!” Twilight smiled excitedly as she completely missed the irritated bile dripping in the marshal’s tone. “So you’re going to be representing the entire royal guard of Equestria? I knew you were a great soldier, but getting personally recruited by the General to represent the army? I never would have guessed you were so important!”

“Important?” Shining Armor grinned mischievously, “Twiley, Graves here’s the–”

“–Butt end of the general’s stupid joke, nothing more,” the marshal interrupted, his words delivered simultaneously with a sharp elbow to the guard captain’s ribs.

“Uh, yeah. What he said,” Shining Armor smiled, catching his ‘friend’s’ severe look as well as the painful jab.

“This is just perfect!” Twilight giggled as she clapped her satin-gloved hands in delight. “I was a little worried that tonight wouldn’t work out for – oops, I guess I shouldn’t be talking to you about that, huh? – but it doesn’t matter, because having you here makes everything better! Everyone’s going to be so happy to see you!”

“Everyone?” Graves repeated with eyebrow arched. “You mean you’re all here?”

“Yeah!” the young lady beamed. Come on, they’re all waiting!”

Reaching out and grabbing his hand with the speed she typically reserved for snatching up new, unread books, Twilight squeed as she bodily dragged the marshal straight out the door. Zipping down the hall, the young lady quickly and forcibly lead the young man back to the waiting room, which she eagerly threw open and loudly announced:

“Hey girls! I’d like you all to meet the guy we’re taking to the party!”

Five sets of eyes turned to look at her and the man she had brought. A second ticked by. Then another. Finally, five eyes grew very large indeed as recognition dawned.

“Holey moley guacamole!” Pinkie Pie squealed with a good degree more than even her usually considerable excitement. “I can’t believe it; it’s Big G!”

“Well, if that don’t jess beat all,” Applejack breathed in a mix of wonder and pleasure. “Jess’ look at you, all dressed up and fancy like. Why, I’d betcher fit ‘n ready for Sunday brunch at the preacher’s!”

“Yeah, totally!” Rainbow Dash laughed. “Shoot, I didn’t even know you could pull off fancy duds likes that.”

“You do look very nice, Mister Graves,” Fluttershy smiled, a happy little flush appearing in her cheeks. “Oh, and it’s very nice to see you.”

“Yeah,” Graves said absentmindedly, almost inaudibly. “You all look really… nice… too…”

It’s important to note that Graves wasn’t absentminded because he was trying to be cool and aloof or inconsiderate. On the contrary, he would look back and affirm that he was in fact quite happy to see them all here. At the moment, however, he was a good bit distracted because when he’d stepped into the room, the first thing he’d seen...

“Well,” Rarity leisurely drawled, a secretive smile dancing across her lips, “this certainly is an interesting turn of events.”

She looked amazing.

Except, that wasn’t the right word. Elegantly dressed in a wondrously simple gown of shimmering, scarlet silk, Rarity looked a rose in full bloom, if such meager words could do her justice. An embroidered, violet belt encircling her lithe waist was matched by a pair of long gloves that climbed up her pale, slender arms. Both were the same shade as her hair, which had been braided like an elegant crown to grace her head. And lastly, but certainly not least, the young beauty wore but a single piece of jewelry, a heart-shaped ruby hanging from her neck by a fine, golden chain that seemed all the more magnificent as it glittered against her fair skin.

No, amazing definitely wasn’t the right word; after all, she always looked amazing. Tonight, she was perfect.

“Heellllloooooooo? Earth to Big G! You in there?”

Pinkie Pie’s unceremonious calls brought Graves out of his revelry, fortunately soon enough that it hadn’t been obvious what he had been staring at. Hopefully.

“Er, sorry about that,” he said with his most casual grin. “Guess I’m a bit nervous: not really used to fancy parties like this.”

“I hear yah,” Applejack nodded empathetically. “Why, these Canterlot fancy types don’t even know how to throw a decent shindig. Honestly, a garden party without gardenin’. Can you imagine?”

“Bah, he won’t have to worry about that,” Rainbow Dash said as she blew yet another loud raspberry. “He’s gonna be too busy hanging out with us to bother about stuff like that. Isn’t that right?”

“Of course,” he winced, as the words had been accompanied by an unexpectedly hard slap on the back for one so finely attired. But he’d put up with a lot more tonight if it meant not having to face a crowd of nobles and nouveau riche alone. Just the thought was enough to make him appreciate the girls around him a little more.

“So alright then,” Twilight smiled, glad to see everything was getting along. “Now that we’re all together, how about we head over to the Gala and get this party started?”

The proposal was met by a round of affirmation and the occupants of the room began making their way out the door and into the cool evening air. Graves moved to join them, but just as he was about to take his first step, he felt the gentle pressure of a small hand on his arm.


Rarity’s musical voice called to him.

“A moment of your time, marshal?”

At least when Graves turned to face her this time, he knew what to expect and thus maintained a semblance of normalcy in his actions. Still, he couldn’t help it when his breath caught in his throat; a girl who looked like Rarity did tend to have that effect, regardless of how prepared you were.

“Something on your mind?” he asked, doing his best to appear outwardly unruffled despite the gale force turbulence roiling in his stomach.

“Yes, there is,” she replied, pursing her lips and crossing her arms beneath her breasts. Graves coughed and made sure to focus on her eyes. It wasn’t that her dress was indecent by any means, but various aspects of her figure were certainly... accentuated in a very noticeable way.

“I thought you said you were going to be busy with your training and evaluations,” she said through a slight pout. “And here you are, gallivanting about like you’re the czar of Stalliongrad.”

“Wasn’t intentional, believe me,” the marshal answered while being very careful to keep his gaze focused on hers. “The general said he had a mission and I accepted. Turns out, the mission was this.”

“So, you didn’t reject my invitation just to come here and have fun by yourself?” she asked, her voice light and conversational, but still with just a touch of sullen in the tone.

“Rarity, when I say this is the last place on earth I’d want to be, I mean it,” he muttered. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Right now, he could have been on his way to anywhere from the Crystal Mountains to the southern continent, with very little chance to see Ponyville or Rarity – ahem – all his friends ever again.That would certainly have been worse.

Huh. That was odd. Since when had he started disliking reassignments?

“Right,” the young lady intoned with a dubious eye, her skepticism quickly reeling his attention back into the present conversation.

“It’s true,“ Graves insisted. “Fancy stuff like this gives me the willies.”

“Really? In that case, why did you look so happy when you came in earlier?”

“Did I?” he asked uncertainly. He hadn’t looked happy, had he?

“You certainly did,” the violet-haired beauty coolly affirmed. “Care to explain why if this was the ‘last place on earth you’d rather be’, as you so put it?”

“Well...” The marshal paused for a moment and awkwardly scratched his nose. He didn’t really want to say, but considering the mood she was in... “It’s just... if I had to be here, at a fancy party I mean, then... well... having you here makes it more... bearable. Sort of.”

Rarity stood there a moment, considering him with those bright, blue eyes that seemed to dissect and weigh him like a pair of sapphire scales. Apparently, the judgment was favorable, because she simply sighed before giving him a forgiving smile.

“Very well, I suppose I can overlook it just this once,” she replied, approaching and now more cheerful than before. A good deal more. “And I must say,” the scarlet-clad beauty continued as she reached out to straighten his coat, “it was certainly a stroke of brilliance making you bring this along; the midnight blue really does suit you, and the silver does wonders to bring out your eyes. Just think, where would you be if I hadn’t?”

“Underdressed and a lot more self-conscious?” Graves answered with a wry grin. Rarity just laughed, the musical sound of crystal chimes ringing like sweet music to the marshal’s ears.

“Indeed,” she smiled, “though I’m sure you would have found some way around that. You can be quite resourceful when you put your mind to it.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he dryly stated. Rarity just laughed again.

“Now, I do believe the others have moved on ahead; shall we join them?”

“After you, milady,” Graves replied with an overly flourished bow, a good deal more fluidly than before and a good deal less formal as well. With a mischievous grin, Rarity swept by him with a cool serenity that only cracked as she slowed to slip one slender arm around the marshal’s. The stoic soldier went wide-eyed in surprise at the sudden move. Surprise, but the rather pleased smile that curled the corners of his mouth indicated that there was bit more in that smile as well.

Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Sure, he’d have to hobnob with Equestria’s rich and snooty, but at least he wasn’t alone now. He had his friends from Ponyville, his obnoxious but loyal friend from Canterlot, and of course, he had Rarity. Yup, definitely not as bad as he’d thought.

However, one thing about his current situation still niggled at the back of his mind.

Was this okay? Was it fine for him to be this content? This... happy? He’d been lucky that this mission had been one of Ironside’s pranks to get him riled up over nothing. Deep down, though, he knew that it wouldn’t last. One day, he’d be given his orders to move out, and it wouldn’t be a joke that he’d have to leave. If he’d been this excited to see those girls again, this almost giddily thrilled to be with Rarity once more, what would he do when it really was time to say goodbye?

A week ago, his general had asked what he wanted and his reply had been to do his job. It had always been what he wanted and in many ways, all he’d ever really needed. But now? Now he wasn't so sure.

For the briefest of instants, a brooding thundercloud passed over the young man’s face... and then it was gone. The farewell would happen eventually whether he worried about it or not, so he might as well enjoy their time together while he could before he moved on. One thing he’d managed to pick up in Ponyville – from Pinkie Pie especially – was that sometimes, you just had to live in the present.

Besides, it's not like he had any long term commitments to worry about, right?


Chapter 7

View Online

Chapter 7

Just as Twilight began to wonder where they’d gone, she spotted Rarity and Graves hurrying after them across the castle lawn. The young scholar then rubbed her eyes and looked again; everything seemed normal now, but for a moment, the two seemed to have been walking awfully close together. Awfully close.

“Hmm,” she murmured in thought.

“Gee, Twiley,” Shining Armor grimaced as he rubbed his sides. “Are you still mad that I didn’t tell Graves about you? I told you I was sorry.”

“No, I’m not upset anymore,” his little sister sighed, filing away the bit on Rarity and Graves for analysis at another time. “Despite your tendency to be horribly inconsiderate at times,” she continued dryly before her voice softened, “I know you’re a good brother and that you really do care. If you didn’t mention me, there must have been a good reason not to.”

The guard captain’s usually jovial expression faded, the bright emotions now dampened by a slight sheen of strain, as if his internal conflicts rendered him unsure of how to respond.

“Twiley, listen,” he began, his voice dropping low to keep from being overheard. “Graves, he’s got some... weird circumstances around him. I really couldn’t ever tell him about you because–”

Trumpets blasted as the little Ponyville party walked through the massive doors and into the palace entryway. Usually, visitors would have taken in the sights all around them, what with the beautiful stained glass windows, ornate tapestries, and fantastic murals painted across the ceiling. But tonight was special because waiting at the top of the grand staircase lined with an honor guard of armored soldiers, was a sight that far outshone anything else.

In a simple gown of purest white with a corded, golden belt around her waist, Princess Celestia stood ready to greet her guests. Indeed, she needed no fancy dresses or gaudy jewelry as her ephemeral hair, shining like the aurora with the colors of a hundred rainbows, was more magnificent than the creation of any seamstress. With grace and majesty radiating from her royal person, all other sights paled like flickering candles in comparison to the brilliance of the noonday sun. This was Princess Celestia, the Sun Keeper, Dawn Herald, Queen of the Day, and ruler of all Equestria.

“Twilight!” she cried, smiling brightly as she eagerly waved to them from the staircase. “I’m so glad you could make it!”

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight squealed as she bounded up to embrace her mentor and best friend. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”

“You too, my faithful student,” she beamed, returning the hug with equal if not greater fervor. “Sunflash,” she hurriedly called out to one of the nearby guards, “do you think you could get us a few minutes? I’d like some time to catch up with my best pupil and her friends.”

With a sly grin, the soldier in question raised three fingers and waved. The other guards streamed down the stairs and fanned out, forming a barrier that gently, but firmly, warded back the gala attendees lined up to greet Celestia. Though a few of the more pompous nobles exchanged looks of consternation, most of the guests just sighed and smiled. Princesses would do as princesses would do, after all.

“I’m so glad that you could make it tonight, Twilight Sparkle,” the lively monarch said, finally releasing the girl and giving her an affectionately warm smile. “And of course,” she continued, turning to the rest of the party who’d finally caught up, “I’m thrilled to be able to see you all as well.”

The others, not quite as familiar with the most powerful woman in the country, were a little more formal and instead resorted to curtsies and bows: even Rainbow Dash did her best, despite her unfamiliarity with long dresses, or dresses of any kind for that matter.

Princess Celestia would have none of that.

“Girls, please,” she laughed with an airy wave of the hand. “After all we've been through, I thought we’d be passed the stuffiness by now. Especially you, Shining Armor. Just how long have you been my captain for?”

“Almost three years now,” he grinned sheepishly. “Guess old habits are hard to break.”

“So it would seem,” the princess chuckled before turning to the marshal. “And how about you, Graves? Surely, you’re not one for formalities.”

“Not if I can help it,” he replied with a wry grin that had Celestia laughing aloud, a sonorous sound that seemed equal parts music and radiant sunshine.

“I suppose I have to you girls to thank for his remarkable transformation,” she smiled at the Ponyville troupe. “For a while, General Ironside and I had a bet on which would happen first, Graves smiling or Luna finally meeting her sweetheart. It would seem I lost that one.”

“Sister!” a voice called out. “You promised not to tell!”

Descending from further up the stairs came Princess Luna, as simply attired in a dusky, blue gown with a silver chain belt and every bit as regal. Or, she would have been had her cheeks not been flushed in embarrassment. Even Celestia’s younger sister, the Lady of the Night with her shimmering tresses that twinkled like a starry sky, could not look serene with so much red in her cheeks.

“I promised not to tell who it was,” the elder monarch replied with a mischievous grin. “I never said I’d keep his existence a secret.”

“Oh my gosh, you have a special someone?” Pinkie Pie squealed and decorum be hanged. “Who is it? Is he cute? Is he here? Is it someone we know?”

“It’s just a pen pal,” Luna murmured, her face turning bright scarlet despite the somewhat pleased smile she wore. “We send each other letters now and again. Nothing more.”

“By now and then, don’t you mean every other night?” Celestia replied with an all too innocent expression. Luna looked absolutely mortified.

“Tia!” she gasped. “You… you…”

“Aw, don’t worry, little Luna,” Celestia laughed as she pulled her into a hug. “I’m just teasing you because I’m happy for you.”

“Well, you could be a bit more discreet,” the smaller princess replied with a rather amusing mix of regal stiffness and sulky sullenness. “It’s not like the whole world needs to know.” Her sister just laughed some more.

“Alright, alright,” the solar sovereign smiled. “Everyone, I trust you can keep my sister’s secret?”

“Our lips are sealed,” Applejack grinned, and everyone nodded in agreement. After all, it’d be decidedly unwise to do otherwise. Offend either sister, and you were likely to end up banished to the moon. Or worse, the sun.

“So, what are your plans for the evening, girls?” Celestia smiled. “The Gala’s just seemed even more dull ever since your last visit.”

“Oh not much, yer highness,” Applejack said with a broad grin. “We’ll probably run around and do our own thing fer a spell afore we meet up and really get the party started. Fluttershy here wants tah try gettin’ along with them little critters out in the garden again. I’ll jess be taggin’ along tah make sure she don’t go overboard.”

“Well, just don’t be too responsible,” the princess winked. “We could do with a little more liveliness around here.”

“Er, sure thing, princess,” Applejack answered, her grin growing a tad hesitant. It was still kind of hard separating Princess Celestia’s royal image from the comedian she actually was.

It was at this time that Luna, who’d been listening with a great deal of interest, stepped forward and spoke up.

“Pray tell me,” she began, her speech reverting to the formal language she favored when she was nervous. “These animals… you are on good terms with them, yes?”

“Well, not exactly,” Fluttershy blushed beneath the flowers woven into her cherry-blossom hair. “I mean, I’d really like to be, but our last visit didn’t exactly go according to plan.” She turned an even brighter shade of pink at the memory, and Luna merely nodded.

“We understand your dilemma,” she replied morosely. “We, too, have attempted to befriend woodland creatures both great and small. They…” she blushed as well as she dropped back into normal tones,” weren’t exactly big fans of the Royal Canterlot voice. I haven’t been able to get near them since.”

“Do you like animals, Princess Luna?” Fluttershy asked, sounding slightly surprised. She too, was having difficulties with preconceptions, like those that had formed during the princess’s stint as Nightmare Moon in their unfortunate first encounter.

“Oh yes, very much,” the night ruler beamed. “I used to have a bunch of pets before my… leave of absence." A flush of shame stained her cheeks at the recollection of her darker days. “I guess I’m just a little out of touch since I’ve been away for so long.”

“Well, in that case,” the kind young lady said with a shy smile, “would you like to - that is, if you’re not busy - come with us? Maybe?”

Luna was decidedly taken aback, but not unpleasantly so by any means.

“You would have me along?” she hesitantly asked.

“I think that’s a great idea!” Applejack hooted as she almost knocked her demure friend over with a hearty slap to the back. “Why, between the three of us, I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to corral them critters up nice an’ friendly like!”

“That would be wonderful!” Luna cried in surprise and delight, but paused. “That is, I mean…” Here, she turned to her older sister and looked up at her with big, hopeful pony eyes.

“Tia?” she began, pensively biting her lower lip as she used her cutest little sister voice. “I know I was supposed to switch with you and greet the guests, but…”

Celestia gave her sister a mocked glare before simply sighing with an indulgent smile.

“I’ll handle things here,” she said warmly. “You go and have fun.”

“Oh, thank you, sister, thank you!” Luna squealed in pure delight. “Come on, Fluttershy, I know just the place to start: it’s a little hollow where all the cutest, baby bunnies like the gather. You’ll love it!”

“Baby bunnies?” the pink-haired girl gasped. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

It wasn’t clear who was dragging who as the pair of excited young ladies ran off, but it was definitely clear how a certain level-headed cowgirl was taking the whole affair.

“Land sakes,” she whistled. “If y’all’ll excuse me, I better get after ‘em afore they bring the place down around our ears. Hoowhee.” And with that, Applejack pressed her embroidered hat firmly down and took off after them, knee-high boots clacking against the marble all the while.

“I swear, she hasn’t grown up a bit,” Celestia chuckled fondly as she watched her little sister run off. “But enough of that. I’m sure you’re all just dying to get to the party, so I’ll let you be on your way.”

“Will you have time to talk later, Princess?” Twilight asked eagerly.

“If not tonight, then tomorrow for certain,” her mentor smiled. “I’ve already set aside some rooms for you all to stay overnight should you wish. Would that be alright?”

“That’d be wonderful! Thank you!” her protégé beamed as she took up her teacher in another hug. “I can’t wait: there’s just so much I want to talk to you about!”

“All in due time, Twilight,” Celestia laughed. “But right now, there’s a party waiting for you. So go on, now: have fun!”

With a last squeeze from her student and various waves and grins from the rest of the party, the Ponyville group bade the Princess their farewells and ascended the stairs. Or, most of them anyway.

“All right,” Shining Armor called out, “this is where I say my goodbyes.”

“Wait, what?” Graves asked with a good deal of surprise. “You’re just leaving?”

“Duty calls,” he laughed. “I was actually supposed to be back on security detail after matching you to the girls. I’m already late as it is.”

“Really?” the marshal asked with eyes narrowed suspiciously. “So your fast exit has nothing to do with your abhorrence of formal gatherings?”

“What, me skipping out on a stuffy ball?” the guard captain said in wide-eyed innocence. “I’m shocked you’d even suggest that!” Graves gave him a long, hard look before finally sighing in defeat.

“Don’t suppose I could trade jobs with you?” the marshal asked wearily. Shining Armor just gave him a sympathetic smile.

“Not for a dragon’s entire hoard.”

As the guard captain bade farewell to the rest of the party and headed on his way, he was caught at the base of the stairs by a hand on his arm; it was his little sister, the burning light of curiosity once again lit in her eyes.

“Shine,” she whispered surreptitiously, casting a quick glance to make sure the others had in fact continued out of earshot. She needn't have worried; the allure of the ballroom and oncoming festivities had already drawn them along them like bees to honey, “You never did finish what were you going to tell me about Graves earlier.”

“Oh, right,” he nodded. “Well, the thing is…” he paused, taking a quick look back, before lowering his voice further. “Can’t really say now. Can you sneak off in a bit?”

“Sure,” she giggled. “Where we meeting?”

“How about the library?” Shining Armor grinned. “I might be late, so it’s the best place for you to wait, huh?”

“You take such good care of me,” she chuckled, giving him a warm hug as well. “Alright then, I’ll see you later.”

“Later, little sis,” the captain of the guard beamed, taking just enough time to return the hug before returning to his duties.


The delicate strains of the orchestra greeted them like a gentle breeze. The grand hall was just as they remembered it: glittering chandeliers of the finest crystal, magnificent statues and ice sculptures dispersed through the chamber, and of course, people. Everywhere they looked, finely dressed lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses, and so many more made their way across the floor in the intricate dance of the social forms.

“Man, how lucky can you get?” Graves muttered low under his breath, the fact that his guardsman friend had bailed out so easily rankling him to no end. Apparently, he wasn’t speaking as quietly as he thought, because Rarity turned to him and smiled.

“Come now, is spending an evening like this so tedious?”

“Of the many things on my to-do list,” the marshal replied dryly, “going wyvern hunting in my skivvies still ranks higher.” The young beauty at his side just laughed.

“That would certainly be an interesting sight,” she giggled. “Perhaps we should do that instead?”

“Get me out of here, and it’s a deal,” Graves answered with a wry grin. From the grim set of his eyes, though, he probably would have taken the trade and actually considered it a bargain.

“So, what do we do now?” Rainbow Dash blurted, now beginning to fidget in the confines of her dress. “I mean, we’re here and all, what are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight answered truthfully before turning to Rarity. “What exactly do we do at these kinds of events?”

“Why, we mingle of course!” the violet-haired girl answered with a good touch of surprise. “We make our way around the room, engage in polite conversation, and pass a wonderful time in a nice, civilized manner.”

“Okay, I’m liking it so far,” Pinkie Pie nodded. “What else?”

“Er, what do you mean what else?” Rarity repeated, not quite understanding the question.

“So I know these people aren’t exactly the ‘party’ type,” the bubbly baker said with some conspicuous air quotes, “but there’s gotta be more than just talking. I mean, come on, that’d just be boring!”

“Well, you could take a few turns on the dance floor,” the fashionista offered, but Pinkie Pie just shook her head.

“Tried that already,” she grimaced, recalling her last gala. “Didn't go over so well.”

“I think Rarity was talking about ballroom dancing,” Twilight added, working to smooth the disconnect between two very different points of view. “You know, something like a waltz, or maybe a foxtrot, possibly even salsa?”

“Exactly,” her fashionable friend beamed. “There’s certainly no shortage of activities at a ball. It’s just a little… different, that’s all.”

“Yeah, you mean boring,” Rainbow Dash interjected with the loudest, wettest raspberry yet. “Seriously, these old, snooty people wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the butt.”

“Sad as it is to say,” an unexpected voice called out, “she’s probably right.”

As one, the group turned to see who had spoken. A pair of athletic looking individuals, a man almost as tall as Graves with a head of long blue quills and a short woman with a shock of vibrant orange hair smiled and approached. Even had they not been wearing their distinctive azure jumpsuits emblazoned with jagged lightning, it wouldn’t have been hard to guess who they were.

“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh!” Rainbow Dash began babbling in uncontrollable glee, “It’s Spitfire and Soarin! Of the Wonderbolts! Eeee!”

“That’d be us,” Spitfire said with the trademark grin that graced so many posters across Equestria. “Nice to see you again, Rainbow Dash. Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”

“You remember my name?!” the colorful flyer gasped in disbelief.

“You are kind of famous,” the aerial ace smirked. “Young Flyer Competition winner who saved us with the Sonic Rainboom and helped destroyed an entire wing of the royal palace? Kind of leads to a reputation, you know.”

“Oh yeah,” Rainbow Dash mumbled, her face glowing a hot pink. “Sorry about that.”

“Are you kidding?” Soarin laughed. “That was awesome! Haven’t been to a fancy party that fun in… well, ever! We should totally hang out!”

“You...” the cyan-clad girl squeaked in wide-eyed astonishment, “... you want to hang out... with me?!”

“Well, duh!” Spitfire laughed. “I know this isn’t your kind of party, so when we heard you were coming, we stuck around to invite you to ours.”

Had Rainbow Dash died right there at that moment, she probably wouldn’t have minded, for her life was officially complete.

“You guys are welcome to join us,” the Wonderbolts captain grinned as she turned to the others. “We only had to make an appearance tonight, so we’re gonna head down to the barracks where everything’s more low key, if you catch my drift.”

“I didn’t know you hung out with the royal guard,” Rainbow Dash asked, ever curious to learn more about her idols.

“The Wonderbolts are a special branch of the ERA,” Graves explained, volunteering the information both to illuminate and to settle his slowly increasing nerves. “They focus on performance, but help out with some of our more advanced flight training.”

As he spoke, Spitfire did a double take, her eyes widening in surprise as she took a second look at the marshal.

“Well, what do you know,” she breathed in pleasant surprise. “It’s Gunmetal Graves! Never thought I’d catch you at one of these parties.”

“On duty,” he shrugged. “Military rep for the night.”

“Oh, so that’s why you’ve cleaned up so nicely,” the Wonderbolts captain laughed, giving him both an appraising look over and a very friendly smile. “Gotta say, like what you’ve done with the hair. Very nice." Whether it was chance or a deliberate action, Spitfire just 'happened' to miss the very pointed look Rarity sent her way.

“Gunmetal Graves?” Rainbow dash repeated. “Where’d you get such a cool nickname?”

“ 'Cause of his eyes,” Soarin laughed, doing his best to mimic the marshal’s unwavering gaze and failing miserably. “Ever since anyone's known him, he's always had this stare, like looking down the barrel of a rifle. People started calling him that afterwards, and the name sort of stuck, among others.”

“So, you two know each other?” Twilight asked in surprise. She never would have guessed that the marshal would be so well known.

“Only in passing,” he said shrugged. “I’m not a flyer, so I never really trained with them.”

“He was always too busy running off and saving the world,” Spitfire smiled, her words half a joke and half... not? “But I’m sure he’d rather I didn’t embarrass him with more of that, so I’m gonna head out. You all in?”

“I’m game!” Rainbow Dash eagerly called.

“Me too!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “This sounds like my kind of party!”

“Thank you for the offer,” Rarity replied graciously, “but I’ll be staying here for the evening.”

“On the clock,” Graves shrugged. “Thanks though.”

“How about you, Twilight?” the colorful flyer asked. “You coming?”

“Oh, I don’t think…” But suddenly, the young librarian froze as a sudden, incredibly devious plot appeared in her head.

Twilight took a quick look around. As she thought, their party had dwindled considerably. Spike had something about planning an after party before taking the carriage to be parked, Applejack and Fluttershy were off in the garden, and Shining Armor was back on duty. That mean that if she left with Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash for the Wonderbolts party, that would leave Rarity and Graves here. Together. By themselves. Together.

“You know what?” she smiled “I’m not much for fancy parties like this anyway. Let’s go.”

“Aw, now I kinda feel bad about leaving Graves and Rarity by themselves,” Pinkie Pie said sadly. “Maybe I should–”

“No!” Twilight cut in abruptly before hastily bringing back a smile. “I mean, I’m sure they’ll be fine on their own. It’s not like Graves is a little kid in a sailor suit anymore, now is he?”

“Definitely not,” Graves muttered, clearly catching the veiled reference to their botched time spell fiasco.

“So, we’ll just be on our way then,” the young scholar smiled as she gathered her friends and herded them towards the door. “Don’t want to be late for the party, now do we?”

“Golly, Twilight, I never knew you’d get so excited for a party like this,” Pinkie Pie cheered. “This is going to be so much fun!”

“Oh yeah,” the indigo-clad girl chuckled as she took one last look back at the pair they’d left alone. Together. This evening was going to be very, very fun indeed.


Chapter 8

View Online

Chapter 8

It took a few moments, but as Rarity stood there and watched her friends depart, it suddenly dawned on her that of their original party, the only ones still present were herself and the marshal. Just the two of them. Together.


The veritable roller-coaster of emotions that had careened its way through her head for the last half hour began another steep ascent.

The trip had started with a surge into pure, childish excitement. Truth be told, Rarity had not exactly been looking forward to attending until prospects of attending with Graves gave the evening a whole new light. Then her high hopes of replacing previous Gala memories with more pleasant ones had been thoroughly dashed when the marshal was called away on duty. However, it was due to that rather dismal valley of dullness that Rarity was nothing short of delighted when who should Twilight drag in like a lost child, but the one she knew would be gone? And wearing her designs, no less!

That glee had then morphed into something more akin to happy satisfaction mixed in with a good deal of surprise. The pretty dressmaker knew the clothes made the man, but even she was taken aback at just how good Graves really looked. The midnight blue was a perfect tone for his cool, stoic persona, one further enhanced by the coat’s martial style and fitted cut. The silver scrollwork - which had been a dreadful pain to embroider - glittered as the perfect accent, adding just a bit of flair to his appearance while smoothly drawing attention upward to his striking, grey eyes. From the top of his head to the soles of his polished, black boots, Graves looked every inch the dashing storybook hero.

Unfortunately, roller-coasters have a tendency to dive. As Rarity admired her handiwork, her mood careened off course as twinges of discomfort struck home.

The marshal had told her back in Ponyville that he’d be away on work, yet here he was. Logically, part of her knew that this must be something related to his duties. He’d said as much earlier, and she was quite certain he would never voluntarily come to a soirée of this nature on his own volition. Still, it didn’t stop it her from feeling just a bit put off; he could have said something, mentioned it at least. I mean, had she not been in attendance as well, he would have attended the Gala without her. Others would have seen his striking appearance before her and passed the time in his company. Someone else would have spent a magical evening next to the silver-eyed soldier, a place that, for quite some time, Rarity had begun feeling somehow belonged to her.

Fortunately, Graves managed to quickly redeem himself and pulled her mood sharply upward from its plunge into negativity. With a typically awkward, but still sincere admittance, he’d dissolved her concerns like so much snow on a bright spring day. Had he been anyone else, Rarity would have suspected him of trying to manipulate her feelings with sweet words and clever speech. But this was the marshal, who was too innocently simple and straightforward to do something like that. Merely one of the many reasons she found him so endearing.

Had the tumultuous tumbling of emotions ended right there, Rarity would have been perfectly content for the rest of the evening. With her friends beside her and Graves now in attendance, the Gala would certainly have been enjoyable, even without the fairy tale qualities she’d once dreamed of.

Then Applejack and Fluttershy had left, followed by Shining Armor, who was soon joined by Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Even Twilight Sparkle, much to the the pretty dressmaker’s surprise, had opted to attend the no doubt raucous party with the Wonderbolts. And even though Rarity couldn’t be sure, she had the strangest impression that just before their departure, Twilight had actually turned and given her a little wink. How odd.

In any case, this strange turn of events meant that of the original Ponyville party, only she and Graves were left together. Just the two of them. At the Grand Galloping Gala. Together.



“Well, that was unexpected.” The marshal’s deadpan comment brought Rarity out from her internal morass of convoluted feeling.

“Indeed,” she replied. “I never would have imagined that Twilight would be one for parties of the… wilder sort.”

“Anything would be better than this,” Graves muttered darkly. “I still can’t believe I have to be here all night.”

“Really now, marshal,” Rarity chuckled, “you sound just like Sweetie Belle every time she goes to the dentist.”

“I’d prefer the dentist to this any day.” The utter seriousness with which he said this only served to increase the young lady’s amusement.

“Do you really dislike society so much, Graves?” she asked, trying to suppress a smile. “You’d think that after all the time you spend fighting dragons and monsters, this should be like a vacation for you.”

“You kidding? Give me the dragon any day,” Graves answered with a wry grin. “ At least I know when it's trying to kill me.”

“Oh?” The young lady arched an eyebrow. “And just what does that mean?”

“These people,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of lords and ladies, “you can never tell ... I mean it's hard to figure out… no, wait... I don’t…” It was getting increasingly difficult for Rarity to keep a straight face as the usually unflappable marshal grew openly flustered with his struggles to describe a rather unique perspective.

“What I’m trying to say,” he said, after taking a deep, composing breath, “is that with these society people, everything gets so… complicated.”

“Complicated?” she repeated, now thoroughly confused. “Why, there’s nothing complicated about it at all.”

“No?” Graves challenged. “Then tell me. How many noble houses are there?”

“Seven major ones, she repeated instantaneously, “with thrice that in minors.”

“How many utensils do they have at dinner?”

“Fourteen, not including glassware, which adds up to twenty-two if you do.”

“And how many ways are there to say hello?” At this question, Rarity actually laughed.

“Graves, you can’t be serious! There isn’t just one way of greeting a person: it’s all dependent and requires consideration of various factors such as title, familiarity, and a veritable plethora of other issues as well.”

“Exactly,” the taciturn soldier smiled, if not exactly smugly, then at least with the satisfaction of knowing he’d made his point. “Everything’s so complicated. I can say the same thing to seven different people and have it taken seventy different ways. Where’s the sense in that?”

“My dear marshal,” the young beauty smiled affectionately, “it’s not nearly as bad as you make it out to be. There’s simply a set of rules that one must learn to appreciate the intricate dance that is life with the beau monde.”

“Hmph, too many if you ask me,” Graves mumbled. “They spent four days pounding rules on… etiquette and stuff into my head, and I still can’t tell a salt shaker from a salutation.”

Rarity knew it wasn’t the kindest thing to do, but she couldn’t help but burst out in crystal chiming laughter as the marshal spoke. To see the rugged, stalwart soldier so openly sulking, well... let’s just say the young lady found herself enjoying it immensely.

“It seems,” she continued once she’d regained her composure, “that maybe the classroom wasn’t the best way to introduce you to the topic. Perhaps what you need is a good, practical experience.”

“Say what?”

“Come, let me show you.” As she smiled and took his arm in hers, a small thrill coursed through her body like an electric shock, just as it had before. Even though she had been teasing him before and indeed was still doing so now, she couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that she and the marshal were now clearly linked together.

“So, here’s what we’ll do,” Rarity explained, speaking just low enough that Graves had to lean in closer to hear. “I’ll begin by striking up a conversation with one of the other party guests. You use what you’ve learned to engage with them, and I’ll do what I can to help you through. Simple enough, no?”

“Perhaps,” he murmured. “But what if I make a blasted fool of myself?”

“In that case, you can just leave the talking to me. Silence can be impressive, after all. And besides,” the young beauty giggled, “it’s better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Graves gave his companion a considering look.

“You’ve put an awful lot of thought into this, haven’t you?”

“Well, I am a lady after all,” she smiled serenely. “It would simply be unwise to enter a battlefield unprepared, now wouldn’t it?”

“Battlefield, huh?” he muttered. “Maybe it is.”

The conversation between them faded as a pair of rather distinguished ladies drew closer to the young couple. From the ornate ruffles and pleats of their dresses to their lilting Canterlot accent, it was clear that these were women of impeccable pedigree, no doubt conversing about topics beyond the ken and reason of a simple man such as Graves. However, one of the two, the one with a towering mass of stacked curls and a strand of pearls the size of grapes, happened to spot the violet-haired girl.

“Rarity, is that you?” she gasped, a bright smile appearing on her aged, but friendly face. “My goodness, it is, isn’t it!”

“Lady Uptown!” Rarity beamed in an affected, but sincere excitement. “My goodness, it’s been simply ages! How long has it been since we last met?”

“Not since Sir Loaded’s spring salon, which is far too long, my dear," Uptown sighed. "In fact, I was just telling Countess Propriety here about how Canterlot’s been an absolute bore these last few months. Didn’t I just say that?”

“Indeed she did,” her somewhat rounder companion nodded. “You’ve been very unkind to be so distant and deny us your sparkling charm. Why, I do think I might even be quite cross with you. Yes, quite cross indeed.” Though the words were said with the severest of expressions, the twinkle in her eye took any edge the words might have had clean off.

“I do apologize,” Rarity said with a sympatheric smile. “You know I do so love joining you in Canterlot, but these past few months have been so extraordinary, I just haven’t been able to get away. Isn’t that right, dear?” she finished, turning and giving Graves a very warm smile.

“They've been interesting to say the least,” the marshal readily affirmed despite being quite thrown off by her behavior. Teasing him by taking his arm was one thing, but giving him a look like that got him hot under the collar in an awfully distracting way.

“Yes, I have been meaning to ask about that,” Lady Uptown nodded, her eyes now fixed on Graves with a conspiratorial grin. “You vanish for months at a time and then show up to the event of the season with this fine young man on your arm. Is there something you want to tell us, hmm?”

“Oh, forgive me,” Rarity laughed with the clear ring of fine silver bells. “I was so caught up in our reminiscing, I forgot to introduce my companion. Lady Uptown, Countess Propriety? May I present to you a shining example of Equestria's armed forces, Marshal Graves.”

“A pleasure,” the stoic soldier said with a bow. Instead of the closed fist salute, he’d opted for an open hand against his heart, the correct form for social gatherings as it simply look so much nicer. Bent as he was, he couldn’t see the very pleased smile that appeared on the pretty seamstress’s face because despite his distaste for the classes, he’d clearly been paying attention.

“Well, well, this certainly is an interesting turn of events,” the countess repeated in amused surprise as he straightened. “It’s not every day we see a real soldier at one of our soirées, let alone one so finely attired. Tell me, young man, where did you get that marvelous coat?”

“It was a gift. From Miss Rarity.”

“Aha, I knew it!” Lady Uptown cheered. “Such a refreshing take on a classic design could only have come from Canterlot’s finest up and coming designer.”

“Please, you give me far too much credit,” the young lady laughed whilst turning a delicate shade of pink. “I still have a long way to go, and such an ordinary design certainly doesn't do a hero of his stature the credit he deserves.”

“Hero?” Graves repeated with a wry smile. “Now who’s giving too much credit?”

“Do you not think so?” Rarity asked with feigned surprise. “I could have sworn that it was you who saved my life from a vicious chimera not long ago.”

“A chimera?” Lady Uptown gasped in dismay. “My word, child, you had a run in with one of those terrible beasts?”

“A twenty foot tall, vicious, fire breathing monstrosity,” the young lady nodded, eyes wide with a look of horrified sincerity. “And that was after he defeated an entire pack of bloodthirsty skullpions as well.”

“I say, what’s this I hear about skullpions and the like?” A portly man in a tailed waistcoat and the most magnificent mustache Graves had ever seen approached, his gleaming monocle and curious manner of cocking his head making him look like one very distinguished owl.

“Duke Farthing!” the countess beamed as she greeted him with curtsy. “Rarity here was just about to tell us how Marshal Graves here saved her from skullpions and chimeras!”

“What’s this? Chimera’s too?” the duke hooted in surprise. “I must say, this sounds like a roving good yarn. Please, Miss, do tell.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to waste your time with such fantastic tales,” Rarity said with an all too innocent smile. “But, if you insist...”


For the next several minutes, the young beauty regaled them of adventures that Graves had quite a difficult time recalling, despite having been there himself. It wasn’t that she was lying or making anything up, mind you. It was just that the way she told it, everything seemed so much… cooler.

For one, Rarity managed to make the harried push to escape the arachnid horde sound like a glorious charge akin to the ones made by gallant knights of yore. The fight with the chimera became a masterful duel between a skillful warrior and savage beast instead of the mad scramble for cover and nerve-wracking close calls the marshal himself recalled. As for the landslide, he may as well have been skipping over the falling stones like a dandy at a Sunday dance from how she told it. Everything she said seemed to paint him a hero who’d stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, and while all the events were technically accurate, it was like comparing a Reinaissance painting to a child’s imitation doodle: possibly recognizable but in no ways the same work.

He had to admit though, she told a very good story. More than good, really. She was downright spellbinding. When Rarity started, the only ones listening were the two ladies and the odd, owlish man. As she continued however, more and more Gala attendees had begun to trickle over, some come to greet a friend and others out of curiosity at seeing a forming crowd. All, however, had stayed as the young lady entranced them with her masterful performance, each word, each gesture, each expression playing the listeners’ emotions like so many keys on a piano.

Graves was utterly blown away, by the story, of course, but even more so by its teller. He’d known she was comfortable in the spotlight, but not once had he been privileged enough to see just how much. It was natural, like a gazelle who could bound over craggy mountain tops with the speed of an eagle and the grace of a swallow. At the center of attention like this, she was in her element, and just like those blue diamonds that sparkled on her back; the brighter the spotlight shined, the more the young woman sparkled.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Rarity finished with a grand flourish, “is why when I refer to Graves as a hero, I mean it in every sense of the word.”

The marshal wasn’t exactly startled when the crowd – which at this point had swelled to well over two dozen – began clapping. What did startle him was that instead of looking at the beaming girl who’d told the story, they were instead looking at him.

“Marvelous, simply marvelous!” a pair of debutantes gushed. “To think that such fantastic champions still exist in our day and age.”

“Hear, hear!” the duke hooted with a puffed out chest. “It’s good to know that there are still such extraordinary, young men leaving their mark on the world.”

“It was nothing special,” Graves said, the heat of embarrassment rising in his cheeks as he felt more than a good bit flustered with so much attention on him. “Just doing my job.”

“Oh, don’t be so modest, Graves,” Rarity beamed up at him, “or else I may just have to tell them about how you saved my little sister from the mountain trolls as well.”

“There’s more?” a young man called out. “Now, that’s more like it!”

“Yes, yes, do tell!” Lady Uptown agreed eagerly.

“I would love to,” Rarity answered with a somewhat sad smile. “But alas, I cannot. The marshal has to make his rounds tonight, and if I leave him to his own devices, he’ll probably find some dragon to slay before the evening’s end.”

So it was with some hearty laughter and another round of applause that Rarity and Graves, once more arm in arm, disengaged from the group and walked away.

“… Whew.” The marshal heaved a huge sigh of relief once they’d made it a safe distance away. And then he smiled. “That... actually went pretty well.”

“I thought it went wonderfully,” Rarity giggled. “And you certainly did far better than your moaning would have lead me to believe. Well done.”

“I did not moan,” he scoffed, though the color in his cheeks said otherwise. “And besides, it’s not like I did anything; you did all the talking.”

“Would you rather I have stayed quiet and let you speak instead?” she asked, an eyebrow raised in amusement.

“You kidding?” he grinned. “Keep it up, and I’ll just stick to you all night long.”

“Is that so?” the young beauty smiled, giving him one more of those inscrutable looks she’d been doing with increasing frequency. “I might just take you up on that off–” a series of quick coughs prevented her from finishing the thought.

“You alright?” Graves asked as grey eyes narrowed slightly in concern.

“Fine, fine,” Rarity waved dismissively. “I’m just a bit parched: all this excitement has left my throat quite dry.”

“Why don’t you take a seat?” the marshal suggested as he lead his companion to one of the cushioned benches lining the grand hall. “I’ll see if I can find you something to drink.”

“That would be lovely,” she smiled. “Thank you.” With a last, sort of awkward grin, Graves strode off through the crowd, looking as intent about finding a beverage as he did on any of his official missions. Maybe more.

As he disappeared into the throng, Rarity heaved a luxurious sigh. It did feel good to sit down and get off her high, stiletto heels. They were so stylish, but walking became such a chore. Ah well, such was the price of fashion. But even as she rested her aching feet, the young lady found herself smiling as her thoughts drifted, as they often did of late, to the silver-eyed marshal.

He was a wonderful man, and she hoped the other Gala attendees would see that. But he was like a diamond in the rough, hard like stone, and the young lady truly wondered if anyone present tonight could spot the gem hidden under his toughened exterior. But that’s where she came in, wasn’t it? She was going to polish that rough-hewn jewel till it sparkled, till even the most highbrow of socialites could see him for the remarkable man she knew him to be. And when she was done, when he was the glittering gem that she knew he could be...

“It really is shaping up to be a wonderful evening,” she giggled to herself.

“Yes, it most certainly is.”

Looking up, Rarity’s eyes went wide, not with amusement or affectation, but in genuine, unadulterated shock. Standing before her, looking immaculate in a white tuxedo with perfectly coiffed golden curls and those dazzling, baby blue eyes made even more dazzling by his flawless smile, was the most beautiful man that Rarity had never expected to see again.

“Prince Blueblood,” she replied faintly with an even fainter smile. “What a surprise.”


Chapter 9

View Online

Chapter 9

“I tell ya, ish not eashy bein’ the captain,” Spitfire slurred, a splash of beer sloshing out of her cup and onto her hand. “Theresh jusht sho… sho much preshure from everyone. The exshpectashions… it’sh all sho overwhelming.”

“I know the feel, girl,” Rainbow Dash giggled, face flushed as she sipped from a glass of cherry brandy. “See, what you need to do is get yourself some sweet, sweet lovin’. Blow all that steam right off.”

“Oh wow, would you look at the time,” Twilight interjected with a nervous laugh as she quickly stood up. “I’d better be on my way. Don’t wanna get in the way of your… very interesting conversation.”

“You’re… you’re right, Rainbow Dash” Spitfire gaped with eyes wide in tipsy amazement. “Thass shuch good advice. It almosht feelsh like you... you know me, like you’re in my head, or shumthin...”

As the two continued their discussion, Twilight made as hasty a getaway as she could considering the barracks were packed to the gills with soldiers, servants, and miscellaneous guests. It was difficult, but when Rainbow Dash started getting that look in her eye, the level-headed librarian felt it best to expedite her own exodus.

Outside in the cool night air, she heaved a sigh of relief. They were all good people, she was sure, but those kinds of parties always made her nervous. With so much noise and such large crowds, it could get a little overwhelming, especially when you didn’t know anyone there. The trio of Applejack, Fluttershy and Princess Luna had stopped in for a bit, but had promptly left and rolled several casks away with them. Twilight had felt it best not to ask why.

Fortunately, she had better things to do with her time than ponder the mysteries of social lubricant. On her own as she was, the young scholar was now free to meet her brother and figure out just what exactly he’d intended to tell her about Graves. It would be nice to settle that niggling bit of curiosity, this was true. But in all honesty, what she was really looking forward to was the meeting’s location.

Giggling in anticipation, Twilight entered the palace and made her way to the library, taking the secret corridors and unused passageways as she had when she was a little girl. Thusly avoiding the crowds and party guests who might take her time up with idle chit chat, the indigo-clad scholar finally arrived at what was probably her favorite place in all of Equestria.


In truth, Twilight could probably have spent the rest of her life in that library. At least twenty times the size of Ponyville’s already expansive collection, the Royal Archives housed the largest collection of tomes, texts, and tracts anywhere in the world. With rows upon rows of books containing everything from modern day novels to ancient arcane grimoires, just standing between the massive stacks was enough to send a rush through the young girl’s chest.

“Oh, I’ve missed you so much,” she breathed, her heart all aflutter. “I know I shouldn’t but… ooh, it’d be really nice if Shining Armor was busy for a bit. Then I could squeeze in a little bit of reading!”

“Eh! Who’s that? Is someone there?”

From somewhere deeper in the library, a dry, dusty voice called out with much the same sound as the crinkling of old pages. The voice was soon followed by a wizened old man with thin wisps of grey hair on skin that looked like aged parchment. His eyes, however, still shone brightly behind his massive spectacles and only grew brighter at the sight of the girl in the dusky dress.

“Twilight Sparkle!” he wheezed in delight as he hobbled over. “By Marelin’s staff, it is you!”

“Professor Dewey!” she gasped and rushed over to give him a warm, if very careful hug; as the oldest scholar in Canterlot by at least a decade, he wasn’t exactly a sturdy individual, you know. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”

“And you too, my dear,” he chuckled. “This place just isn’t the same without my favorite little book worm devouring everything in sight.”

“I know, and I’m sorry I haven’t visited more,” Twilight winced in dismay. “I’ve just been so busy with my studies in Ponyville, I haven’t had a chance to get away.”

“Bah, think nothing of it,” the old man said with a dusty cackle. “Knowledge doesn’t reside solely within these walls. A young scamp like you should be out there creating new knowledge, and you’ve been doing just that. I, for one, couldn’t be more proud.”

“Thanks, Professor,” the little bookworm blushed. Coming from one of the foremost teachers in Equestria, as well as a man she considered as close as a grandfather, it was a very nice thing to hear indeed.

“Still,” he continued with a severe look, “it wouldn’t hurt to stop by just a little.”

“Will do, Professor,” Twilight giggled. “Wouldn’t want you to get lonely, now would we?”

“Me, lonely?” he called with a dusty harrumph. “I just want someone around who can appreciate my work. Speaking of which…” He paused, his eyes lighting up with excitement as he leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. “… how would you like to be the first to see my latest project?”

“Really?” Twilight gasped. “Can I?”

“Well, let’s find out,” the old man chuckled. “Follow me!”

With the same excitement as a couple of kids on Hearth’s Warming Day, Twilight followed the surprisingly spritely old professor deeper into the cavernous library. Coming upon a closed off wing marked with a “Private: No Trespassing” sign, the elderly librarian turned to address his young charge.

"I assume,” he began after producing a small iron key, “that you’ve heard about the new history museum they’re putting up in the main square?”

“But of course,” Twilight nodded. “It’s supposed to be a collection of the greatest works of Equestrian culture: paintings, sculptures, inventions, and so on.”

“That is part of it,” the elderly man chuckled as he unlocked the door. “But a major part, the project I’ve been working on, is something a little different.” Upon opening the door, Professor Dewey drew out his gnarled old wand and with a flick, lit the lamps within.

“Celestia on high,” Twilight breathed in wonder. “This… this…”

“... Is a complete collection of the histories and records of Equestria’s Royal Army,” he beamed with pride. “Organized and codified by yours truly.”

He hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said complete. The entire expanse of the spacious gallery was packed to the gills with all manners of spectacular displays. Collections of ornate swords, spears, and shields, suits of polished armor, murals of battles, portraits of heroes of old, and so much more filled the room as testaments to centuries of gallant service.

“Wow,” Twilight gasped again as she examined a particularly impressive suit of runecraft armor, the enchanted plating ready to increase its wearer’s strength fivefold with just a touch of magic. “This is incredible!”

“Isn’t it?” Professor Dewey cackled in glee. “I’ve spent the last three years developing this collection, and come fall, it will be on display for the world to see. But you get to see it first.”

“There’s just so much to take in,” Twilight breathed, even giddier as Pinkie Pie at the thought of free candy on Nightmare Night. “Where should I start?”

“Well, we could take a look at the recordings of Colonel Trebuchet, who kept a remarkably detailed record of the Battle of Appleloosa. Or, we could take a look at the paintings of the first alliance between Equestria and the Griffon Imperium. But if you ask me, the most fascinating display by far is the complete collection of military service medals.”

“Ooh, that sounds fun!" she beamed. "Let’s go see that!”

Following the professor, Twilight found herself in front of a long crystal display case where rows upon rows of medallions glittered. Pinned to an inside lining of soft, black velvet, several medals shone in gold and silver while others were cast in sturdy metals like bronze and iron and still more glittered with multitudes of precious stones.

“Wow,” the young lady said again, now suffering from an uncommon loss of vocabulary. “There’s so many of them. What do they all mean?”

“All sorts of things, really. Take this one for example.” Opening the case with a flick of his wand, his gnarled fingers pulled out the medal at the center of the display. It was a magnificent eight pointed star, the four larger cardinal points shining gold, the four minor points shimmering in silver, with a rather large and impressive looking diamond glittering in the center. “This is the Equestrian Star," he explained, "a medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry at the risk of life above and beyond any call of duty.’ It is without a doubt the highest award a soldier can achieve. Very rare for this to be given out. In fact, the last recorded issuance went to a fellow named…”

The professor continued his explanation, but surprisingly, Twilight for once wasn’t paying attention. As she’d panned her view over the display case, one particular medal had caught her eyes. Tucked into the top leftmost corner was a peculiar medal that’d she’d almost missed. Resembling a stylized dragon’s head, the emblem was carved from a mysterious, translucent black crystal that almost blended in with the jet black velvet underneath.

“Professor, what’s that one called?” the lady scholar asked as she pointed, a faint sense of deja vu tickling the back of her mind. Though she couldn't quite figure out why, that medal in particular seemed oddly familiar.

“Ah, this one?” the professor asked as he replaced the star and picked up the object in question. “Yes, the Dragonslayer’s Mark. A most curious specimen indeed.”

“Really?” the young scholar inquired. “Why’s it so curious?”

“See, here’s the thing,” the elderly academic began, his voice dropping into a hush as if he’d begun speaking of something restricted. “First, this is what you would call a campaign medal.”

“A campaign medal?”

“One crafted to commemorate a specific event, such as a single battle, or a particular campaign that had been concluded. Unlike the Equestrian Star or the Crescent of Luna, which have been consistently given throughout the years, these are only given to specific individuals who were involved in the event in question.”

“Okay,” Twilight nodded. “So what’s so curious about this one in particular?”

“Well, from my research,” the old man continued, “there are approximately thirty or so official campaign medals in Equestrian history, though the exact number is debatable as some were transitioned into consistent use. Regardless of the number, each one stemmed from a very important conflict, and none of the events in question had fewer than one hundred and thirty eight listed recipients. But this one,” he said, staring at the little piece of stone like it were a complex puzzle, “this Dragonslayer’s Mark? The number who received it was only five.”

“... What?” the young lady blinked. “Five?”

"Just five,” Professor Dewey affirmed. “What’s even stranger is that none of the names are recorded. For every single other medal, there are detailed records listing every recipient, full with rank, branch of service, and role in the event. For this one, the only information recorded is that there were five medals commission for some conflagration called Operation Elder.”

“That really is curious," Twilight replied with a bemused nod. "So what’s Operation Elder?”

“Once again, no idea,” the elderly academic shrugged. “I searched high and low, but beyond the original commission, I couldn’t find a single record that mentioned that name. The only fact I could confirm was whatever this operation was, it must have been something of extraordinary import.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“Because the originals?” Professor Dewey said, hefting up the small medal. “The originals were carved from pure dragon heartstone.”

Twilight just blinked.

“But… but that’s impossible!” the young librarian scoffed. “Dragon heartstone comes from the last drop of a dragon’s lifeblood and is incredibly hard to find. I mean, it’s so rare that if that medal really were made of the stuff, it could probably buy out half of Ponyville!”

“Precisely!” Professor Dewey exclaimed. “And that's what makes it all so mysterious! Think about it. An incredibly small number of unnamed soldiers were engaged in some unknown battle important enough to warrant medals crafted of the most valuable substance in the world. But there are no records of it. None! I’ve scoured every corner of the library, every report, every scrap of paper, and still, I’ve found absolutely nothing!”

“… Wow.” Twilight breathed once more. What else could she really say? It was rare that Professor Dewey didn’t know anything off the top of his head; he was almost as good as a walking encyclopedia. But for him to actively try to find out something and turn up nothing? It was as easy to imagine as Fluttershy punting a puppy.

“It’s so strange though,” the young scholar continued, her voice dropping to a murmur as she thought aloud. “I could have sworn I’ve seen this before.”

“Really?” the Professor asked, eyes lighting up in excitement. “Where? Was it in a reference book? Something that I may have overlooked?”

“I’m not sure,” she frowned. “It was something… something not too long ago… Ooh, what was it, where did I see it…?”


“I’ve got it!” Twilight exclaimed as the memory hit her like a blast from the party cannon. “It wasn’t a book, I actually saw the real thing!”

“You… saw the real thing?” Professor Dewey asked in wide-eyed shock. “How?

“Because it was in Ponyville! See, there’s this new guy in town, a marshal named–”

Her statement was cut off by a loud burst of dusty, coughing laughter from the Professor.

“Hey, what’s so funny?” she demanded, a little miffed that her explanation had been cut off by his wheezing guffaws.

“Oh, I’m sorry my dear,” the elderly academic apologized as he wiped a tear from his eye. “But hearing you say you saw one of these incredibly rare medals in someone’s possession, and in Ponyville of all places–”

“I did see one there,” she insisted.

“Except that’s impossible,” the old man stated simply with another dry laugh.

"What do you mean ‘impossible’?” Twilight asked, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why couldn’t I have seen it there?”

“Well…” here the elderly librarian paused, as if unsure of whether he should continue. “There was one last piece of information regarding this medal, but I didn’t want to bring it up; not exactly something a young lady like yourself would likely want to hear, you see.”

“What is it?” she pressed. “Tell me.”

“... Very well,” he sighed. “Though records don’t say who got the medals, they do state all the original medals were locked away in the royal vault for safekeeping after their... posthumous presentation.”



“… Posthumous?” she repeated faintly. “You mean…”

“I’m afraid so,” the professor nodded slowly. “Nobody currently possesses any, because the only people who’ve ever earned this medal are already dead.”


Chapter 10

View Online

Chapter 10

Twilight didn’t know where she was running or why she was running in the first place. All she knew was that she needed to be somewhere, do something, to deal with the thoughts rampaging away in her head.

All the bearers of that medal were dead. Dead.

How was it possible?

Her first instinct had been she’d been mistaken, that she’d seen something that looked remarkably similar to the medal but in fact was something quite different all together. However, upon examining the replica more closely, a heavy, leaden certainty filled her stomach. There'd been no mistake; the medals were one and the same.

Her next thought had been to suspect a forgery. Why Graves or anyone else would forge such an obscure medal had no logical explanation, but for the time being she set that aside; the important question was whether that medal had somehow been copied. Professor Dewey had shot down that hypothesis like a poorly written thesis. To get the current replica made, the aged scholar had to go petition Princess Celestia herself because only she could open the vault where the originals were held. Even then, he’d had to go with an armed escort to ensure he did nothing suspicious within despite having been a prominent figure in the palace for well over half a century.

That’s when Twilight had left, hoping the cool night air would calm her and help her reach a plausible explanation. The cool breeze did help calm her, but that only made it easier for her mind to posit new theories, each worse than the next.

If the one she’d seen in Ponyville couldn’t be a forgery, then that meant that Graves had somehow gotten his hands on the original. All five were supposed to be locked away, which meant that if he had one, it could only have been obtained through duplicity. The question still remained: how? Aside from Princess Celestia, the only other entity in history who’d ever opened that vault had been the Spirit of Chaos himself.

Was this his work? Had he returned? No, it couldn’t be. Though Twilight had only run into him once, it had been a memorable experience: flashy, gaudy, and showy, he'd behaved nothing like the Graves she knew. Or at least, thought she knew. More likely than not, the two were separate entities, though that was hardly reassuring. If they were in fact two different people, then it would mean that whoever Graves was, he had strength enough in the chaos magicks to rival the Trickster himself. Two beings out there with the power to tear reality asunder? Her blood ran cold at the very thought.

Or… maybe it wasn’t chaos magic. Could he have somehow gotten Princess Celestia to open the vault herself? No, she would never do that; the Princess would never give such a special item to anyone other than the recipient. If so, could he have somehow forced her to give it to him? Had she been brainwashed? Could Graves somehow have actually gained mind control over the Princess? If so, who’s to say he had ever let that control go? Who’s to say that she wasn’t under his control even now?

The sound of music and lively conversation brought Twilight out of her thoughts as she found herself standing outside the grand hall. From her vantage point in the surrounding gardens, she could clearly see the crowds milling about in their revelry through the illuminated windows. And there, making his way between the party goers towards the refreshments table, was the grey-eyed marshal.

Even now, she couldn't believe it. He seemed so... normal. Pouring two perfectly normal glasses of punch, he turned to scan his steely eyes over the direction he’d just come, evidently searching for someone in a perfectly normal manner. So how was it that he was the center of such a maddeningly frightful conundrum? How–

“Penny for your thoughts?” a voice boomed from behind. Jumping with a start, Twilight turned and found herself looking up at the kindly, if still imposing, face of the army’s supreme commander.

“General Ironside, what are you doing here?” she breathed, pressing a hand to settle the thumping heart in her chest. For such a big man, he moved remarkably quietly.

“Oh, I just happened to be in the neighborhood,” he said innocently, his voice a thundering rumble in the evening air. “Thought I’d stop in and see how things were going. You know, make sure that boy’s not causing any trouble.”

“Boy?” she asked uncertainly.

“Graves. The marshal,” Ironside nodded towards the window. “You’re Miss Twilight Sparkle of Ponyville, correct? I think you might know him–”

“Of course!” the young lady gasped, now making it the old soldier’s turn to jump. “General, you have to listen to me! Graves, I don’t think he’s who he says he is!”

“... He’s not?” the big man repeated in confusion. “What do you mean?”

With as much alacrity and urgency as physically possible, Twilight told him about everything she’d learned, a torrential outpouring of everything from her first discovery of the medal to this evening's startling revelations.

“And that’s all I know,” she panted, the frentic recitation having left her breathless and frazzled. “I’m not sure what he is, or what his motives are, but we have to look into this before it’s too late!”

“... Hmmm...”

That was all Ironside said. The frown that came to his face turned his entire visage into a thunderhead of dark thoughts as he stroked his steely beard in quiet contemplation. But as to what it was he contemplated, the officer said not a word. A minute passed. Then a second. Then, just when the young scholar felt her nerves were frayed to the point of snapping, he finally spoke.

“You hungry?”

Twilight blinked.


“I’m feeling a bit peckish,” the general said lightly, casually. “Thought I’d stop in at Joe’s and have myself a bear claw. Care to join me?”

“General Ironside,” the indigo-clad girl began, sounding as scandalized as Rarity at a hoedown, “is this really the time to be–”

“If we’re going to talk about this,” he interjected, his voice gentle but laced with clear resolution, “I’d much rather continue where we won’t be overheard. This is... a delicate subject to say the least.”

The worried scholar wavered on the brink of decision. Part of her wanted to act right now, to rush in there and confront Graves regardless of consequences and bring some sort of resolution to the matter. But the other part of her – the academic part – wanted answers, and she had a feeling that there was only one person at the moment who could provide.

“... Fine,” she sighed, as cooler sentiments prevailed. “Luna knows I could sure use a good donut.”


If Joe found it odd that the hulking general came into his shop with the petite and finely-garbed Twilight Sparkle, he gave no sign. As a regular hangout for the Equestrian army, enough weird things happened here that he didn’t ask too many questions anymore.

Joe quickly got the two of them settled it, the older man with his bear claw, Twilight with her jelly-filled, and a fresh cup of coffee for both before disappearing into the back: he could tell when privacy was needed and had long since learned to accommodate his customers’ needs. Food, however, was very low on the young lady’s list of priorities as the need for enlightenment quickly came to a boil.

“So?” the young lady pressed, completely oblivious to the donut before her, “what exactly did you want to tell me about Graves? Did you know about this medal thing? Is he a threat to Equestria? Is Princess Celestia in danger?”

Ironside didn’t answer, instead opting to sprinkle some powdered sugar over his pastry, almost as if trying to buy time to gather his thoughts. This continued as he took a bite, chewing slowly and thoroughly before finally setting down the dessert.

“Before I answer any of those, let me ask you this,” he said as he met the girl’s amethyst gaze. His blue eyes were firm, like twin icicles in their focused intent. “You’ve spent the last few months with that boy, yes?”

“Er... he’s been in Ponyville, and I’ve gotten to know him, so... yeah. I guess.”

“What do you think of him?”

“Well...” she paused a moment, a bit thrown off by the question, but doing her best to answer it regardless. “He... seems like a good guy. He takes his work really seriously and does his best to keep the town safe. He seems to get along with everybody, especially Rarity, and it looks to me like he’s enjoying himself. He definitely laughs a lot more than when he first got here, that’s for sure.”

“Mm, I see.” Though he lifted the cup and took a sip, Twilight thought she saw a flash of a smile cross his face.

“I don’t get it,” she continued as mild irritation began creeping into her voice. “Why are you asking me for my opinion when Graves, or whoever he is, could be an unprecedented threat to national security? What’s the point?”

“My point,” the general answered, “is that I need you to keep everything you said in mind before we continue. Graves is a pretty complicated person, and this is a complicated situation.”

“I assume you’re referring to that weird, dragon-shaped medal,” Twilight finished, more statement than question. The general simply nodded.

“Alright then,” she continued, taking a deep breath to prepare herself. “Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is that medal? What was Operation Elder?”

“Operation Elder,” Ironside repeated, his mouth twisting as if saying it left a bitter taste. “In all honesty, that’s classified information. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes we don’t tell people about. Don’t want to cause a panic unnecessarily, you know.”

“Great,” Twilight scoffed. “That really helps.”

“I can tell you this,” the older man said with a chuckle for her sarcasm. “Operation Elder was a big, and I do mean big problem. We managed to solve it, but it cost us the lives of several very fine soldiers.”

“The five people who received the medals,” the young lady said softly. Ironside nodded.

“We sent five marshals out on Operation Elder, but... none of them came back,” the general sighed, his voice growing as rough and heavy as the mountains. "What was worse, these brave soldier gave their lives to protect Equestria from almost certain destruction, and we couldn’t even let anyone know about what they'd done. We didn’t want their sacrifice to be forgotten, but the only thing we could do was have those medals made in honor of their memory. Since none of them could receive it, we presented it at their memorial service before being placed in the vault for safekeeping.”

“Then Graves did steal it?” Twilight asked in dismay. “He actually broke into the vault and took something that belonged to a dead person?”

“He took the medal, that’s true,” Ironside nodded, “but he didn’t break into the vault; we opened that up and gave it to him.”

“But... why?” the young lady asked, completely lost. “Why would they give him a medal that belonged to someone else?” Here, the older man finally cracked a smile.

“When did I say it belonged to someone else?”

Twilight blinked.

“Hold on,” she called, raising a hand for pause. “You’re telling me that the medal... belongs to Graves.”

“That’s right.”

“Which means that he was one of the five marshals who went out on Operation Elder.”

“Also right.”

“The same five marshals who all... who all died out in the field.”

“Right again.”

“But... but that’s impossible!” Twilight burst out again in all the righteous indignation at obviously erroneous logic. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not scientifically possible. I mean, sure, there’s necromancy and what not, but that’s just a combination of summoning and animation magic that uses bodies as the medium. Graves is most definitely a sentient creature capable of high level cognition, not some brain-dead shambling zombie. It’s. Just. Not. Possible!”

“You're completely right,” Ironside nodded in honest agreement. "It is impossibly; purely, unarguably, and completely impossible. Except... the impossible is exactly what Graves likes to do.”

“... You should probably start explaining,” Twilight stated flatly, her tone level despite her eyes that burned with ferocious curiosity. “And I mean, like, right now.” Once gain, the burly man smiled.

“It all begins begins with this.” Reaching into his coat pocket, the general withdrew a marshal’s badge, very much like the one Graves wore, except that his was far more worn and the metal had lost its luster long ago.

“Okay...” the young lady nodded hesitantly, “What’s this got to do with anything?”

“I’m sure you realize this badge isn’t just a piece of silver,” Ironside began. “It’s been laced with enchantments that give it several functions, such as a receiver so they can get orders while out in the field.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Twilight nodded, having seen the marshal pulling it out to find new information before. “But once again, what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, there's one function that most people don’t know about,” the blue-eyed officer continued, "and that's badge also serves as a life monitor.”

“A life monitor? You mean, like in a hospital?”

“Right,” he nodded. “The badge provides general information back to our headquarters on how the marshal’s doing. It’s not as detailed, but it does enough so that we can tell the general state of their health and whether they’re in trouble or not, certainly if their life’s in danger.”

“So...” the young lady began, the pieces slowly coming together in her head, “when you sent those marshals out on Operation Elder...”

“The magic field of the location prevented us from scrying with any detail. Fortunately, the magical signature of their target was strong enough to detect anyway and the badges are designed to broadcast pretty much anywhere. That's how we knew everything was fine right up until they met the target and the fighting began.”

“What happened next?”

“Pretty much what you’d expect. When the marshals entered combat, the signals flared up like fireworks on a summer night. They lit up and kept right on burning as those five soldiers fought like the knight Hawkwing against the Hundred Foes. After a while, though, they started going out. One after another, they started going out till there was only the target and one marshal left. But this last person did the job, because that big light burned for just a bit before fizzling out. Then... the last light went dark as well.”

“... Are you sure it wasn't a malfunction?” the young scholar asked, trying to puzzle out some rational explanation. “What if the badge was just lost, or damaged?”

“If it were lost, the signal would go on standby," Ironside replied with a solemn shake of head, "and the magical signal's so simple and sturdy, I doubt anything short of a volcano could break it. No, the only way the signal dies off completely is when there’s nothing left to send.”

“... Oh.”

“Which, is why,” the big man grunted as he leaned back in his seat, “you can imagine we were all a good bit surprised when a month after his funeral, we get a call from one of our outposts saying that Graves had just walked in carrying the biggest piece of dragon heartstone you ever did see. Needless to say, I took the first airship available and went out to see for myself and sure enough, there he was, battered and beaten eight ways till Sunday, but somehow still alive.”

“So... what your saying is...” Twilight began with a blank stare, her brain still struggling to process the horrendously implausible scenario she’d just heard. “The man who we know as Graves – the one I met in Ponyville who’s at the Gala right now – went out on a very dangerous mission, was confirmed to have passed away while on that mission, only to turn up a month later still alive and well? Seriously?!”

“Mm, I definitely wouldn’t say well,” the general corrected as he stroked his beard. “What with the number of gashes, burns and broken bones on him, it’s a miracle he made it to the outpost at all. But about all the other stuff you said? That's... pretty much what happened, yes. Even made a three month recovery in a couple of weeks, don't you know?”

The indigo-clad girl simply stared at the general for a moment before asking a single, very pressing question:

“... Is he immortal?”

From the way Ironside burst out into bellowed laughter hooting and hollering and slapping the table, you'd think he'd just been told the best punchline to pass through the Appaloosa comedy club. Even Twilight had to admit it sounded patently ridiculous, but there it was. After all, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever else, however improbable, must be the truth.

“That would actually explain a lot, considering what that boy's done over the years," he big man wheezed as he wiped a tear from his twinkling, blue eyes. "But no, he’s not immortal. Hard as it is to believe, despite his ability to turn the odds flat on their heads, Graves is, and always has been, an ordinary man.”

Slowly, like syrup spilled on a cold morning, Twilight quietly slumped in her seat as the tension visibly drained from her body like water down a sink. Mechanically, she picked up the donut and began chewing away as the hole in her stomach quickly filled with both jelly goodness and soul-soothing relief.

Graves was Graves. Despite the improbability of the entire scenario, he wasn't some crazy villain or some portent of doom and demise that had wormed its way into their lives. However crazy, unbelievable, or completely mind blowing his history was, the fact remained that Graves was exactly the same awkwardly goofy, amazingly stable, kind, normal man he'd shown himself to be.

Well, maybe not normal, but you get the idea.

“I take it I answered all your questions?” Ironside inquired as he picked up his coffee again.

“Yes, thank you very much," she replied with a weary, but grateful and crumb-dusted smile. "I really can't tell you how good it is to know that one of my best friends isn't on a date with the next avatar of destruction."

The sudden snort into his cup of coffee prompted the young lady to arch a quizzical eyebrow.

"Date?" the big man sputtered, eyes growing wide with sudden interest. "What do you mean, 'date?'"

"Wait, you didn't know?" Twilight asked in genuine surprise. "I thought you're the one who tricked him into going to the Gala in the first place."

"I most certainly did," he admitted without the faintest shred of remorse. "And I also asked the princess to invite you six along to keep him out of trouble. So where'd all this talk of a date come from?"

Realizing that the general hadn't been availed to the latest developments, Twilight leaned in and eagerly explained how what should have been a large party of Ponyville residents had suddenly dwindled to one. One who, the young lady added with great relish, had expressed some very particular interest in spending more time with a certain grey-eyed soldier.

“Is that right?” Ironside said as he stroked his beard, his wide-eyed surprise having long since been replaced by a face-splitting grin of the most malevolent sort. “So this friend of yours... Rarity.... you think she can make something happen tonight?”

“Oh, most definitely,” Twilight giggled with purely wicked delight. “In fact, I have a strong hunch that by the end of tonight, all that stuff about guns and monsters is going to be the last thing on the good marshal's mind.”


Chapter 11

View Online

Chapter 11

“A lovely evening, isn't it?” Prince Blueblood commented with a casual flip of his golden forelocks. The young lady at his side returned a small nod.

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

Bemused couldn’t even begin to describe how Rarity was feeling at the moment. Confused didn't fit the bill either. Utterly, mind-blowingingly befuddled and flabbergasted? Mmm... yeah. That was more like it.

Just minutes ago, she’d been seated on one of the side benches in the grand ballroom, resting her feet for a moment and waiting for Graves to return with drinks. That’s when the handsome Prince Blueblood, Canterlot’s most eligible bachelor, had abruptly appeared and said hello.

Looking back, Rarity realized that what she should have done was politely, but firmly snub him like any proper lady would; after all, their last ball together had shown just what an utterly incorrigible lout he was, an utter narcissist and self-centered boor. Except, when he’d glided up to her, flashing that dazzling smile of his and calling out in his honey-sweet voice, the most she could squeeze out was, 'what a pleasant surprise.'

That was how she now found herself strolling through the immaculately manicured gardens, arm in arm with the beautiful man who had given her nothing more than grief and heartache.

“You seem distracted,” he said, his mellow voice bringing the young lady out from her internal musings. “Is something wrong?”

“No, not wrong,” she answered, her own tone much less composed than she would have liked. Considering the veritable maelstrom of emotions roiling within her, it was a wonder she could speak at all. They had no connection, so why had he approached her and asked for her company? There was nothing between them, so why did she find herself so wound up, so confused with butterflies blowing gale force winds in her stomach? What was going on?

“Ah, I know what you’re thinking about,” he replied with a roguish wink. “You’re still preoccupied with that marshal back there. Grims, was it?”

“Graves,” she corrected, more by instinct than thought. “And yes, perhaps I was.”

Ah, poor Graves. He’d come back at the most inopportune time, a crystal glass of punch in each hand just as Blueblood had laced her arm into his and led her towards the door. She’d wanted to tell him it wouldn't be long, that it was just a brief chat and she’d be back momentarily. But tongue-tied as she was, all she could do was give him an imploring look, hoping the stoic soldier would understand.

From the way he'd watched her leave, silently watching with eyes like polished granite, she wasn't sure he had.

“Well, put it out of your mind,” the debonair prince said with another dazzlingly nonchalant smile. “Let’s not allow idle thoughts spoil this wonderful moment.”

And so they walked, winding a bit deeper into the garden's maze of hedges, her arm still in his, her heart beating faster with each step. Before long, they came to a small, moonlit pavilion, its weathered marble columns all wrapped with ivy and surrounded by a spectacular collection of rose bushes.

“Magnificent, aren't they?” Blueblood breathed as he approached to pluck one and inhale deeply of its scent. “I doubt there a place in the world where you could find roses such as these.”

“No, I suppose not,” Rarity murmured.

“Yet marvelous though they are,” he continued, “they are but a pale comparison to the beauty of an even rarer flower."

"Oh really? And what flower might that be?" the young lady asked in obviously cooler tones. Foul memories of their last encounter surfaced in her mind, and it was all she could do to refrain from smacking him across that much-too-pretty face of his.

Yet to Rarity’s greatest surprise yet, Blueblood merely smiled once more.

"Why, you of course." And with that, he pushed back her violet tresses and gracefully slipped the thornless bloom into her hair.

“But- Wha-?” Rarity stammered, her wits completely blown as her cheeks flushed a scarlet to match the blossom that now adorned her coiffure. Blueblood just laughed, a musical sound that rang out like the peal of brass trumpets.

“You seem surprised,” he said with one of those elegant smirks only the most upper of society's upper crust could do. “Surely a lady such as yourself must know how lovely you are.”

“It’s... it’s not that,” she choked out. “It’s just...” Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she began again in a much calmer voice, despite the fact her mind was still a mass of confusion and questions.

“At our last significant encounter," Rarity began, "I recall there being such roses involved, though with a much less... satisfactory outcome.” A momentary grimace marred her lips as she relived the unpleasant moment. “So I will admit, I find myself quite taken aback to be in the same circumstance, only with a very different result.”

A look of consternation passing over his statuesque face. In the pale light of the moon, he looked almost... noble.

“Ah yes. That is in large part why I wish to speak with you this evening, Miss Rarity. If you would join me?” With a graceful sweep of the arm, he motioned to the stone bench under the pavilion. Curious to his intent, Rarity took a seat, after which he joined her but a few inches away.

“When last we met,” the prince began, “I was young and brash, a foolhardy foal of a boy too preoccupied with myself to be concerned for others.”

“You can say that again,” Rarity muttered. Fortunately, the blonde noble didn't hear and continued.

“When I met you that evening, I believed you only to be a pretty face that could compliment my own, and as such I treated you as I would a... a hairpin, or a corsage. But instead of simply accepting it, like so many others before you, you... well, the only way I can describe it was you threw a fit.”

“Yes, about that,” the young lady coughed, a faint blush of embarrassment coloring her cheeks, “I have been meaning to–”

“It was mesmerizing.”

Rarity blinked.

“... Come again?”

“You, the way you raged, the way you stormed, it was... magnificent.” The golden haired noble reached down and took her hands in his, staring deep into her eyes with his cobalt blues as his voice rang sonorous with passion and eloquence. “Never before had someone stood up to me like that. It was a breath of fresh air, a moment of clarity in an otherwise dull and dreary word.”

“Prince Blueblood,” the young beauty stammered, her eyes shining sapphires of pure surprise. “What are you–”

“After you left, I looked for you. Truly, I did. When I met you at the christening of the airship E.A Meadowlark, I thought my chance had for us to be reunited. But alas, I was a caitiff, too much of a coward to speak with you and let you elude me once more. Well, no longer.”

Getting to one knee, Blueblood reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, black velvet box. Pulling it open, the young man revealed – in all its glittering glory – the largest diamond ring Rarity had ever seen. And considering the rings she’d seen, that was definitely saying something.

“Rarity," he breathed, "you are the sun that lights my brightest day, the moon that illuminates my deepest nights. Will you accept this ring and be my bride?”

This couldn’t be happening. There was no way this could be happening. Right now, as Rarity sat in the moonlit gardens of the Grand Galloping Gala, a handsome young prince was proposing to her and asking her to be his wife. It was everything she’d ever hoped for, everything she’d ever wanted. Everything she’d ever dreamed.

And she felt...



Slowly, she turned to look up at the sky. She looked down at the rose bushes. She looked at him. Nope. Nothing at all.

It was strange. Only moments ago, she’d been quivering with nerves and tension, wondering just what in the name of all things chic was going on. He’d been behaving so unpredictably that in all honesty, she’d half expected him to try and publicly humiliate her, maybe call the royal guards out and have her arrested, or something equally unpleasant. Never in her even her wildest dreams would she have expected him to propose.

But he had, and the violet-haired beauty found that the confession held all the impact of an inquiry on whether she preferred wheat toast or rye.

Maybe it was the same feeling as finding out how a magic trick works; the nature of the secret revealed never matters nearly so much as satisfying that niggling feeling of perplexity in the back of your head. Maybe it was the proposal gave her some kind of validation, provided some finality and closure to her feelings with Prince Blueblood. Maybe it was simply relief of not facing imprisonment or even worse, the death of her social life.

Whatever the reason was, once the prince had revealed his hand, played his cards and revealed his big secret, Rarity found that it was just didn't matter anymore. It was over.

“Well?” he repeated, his smile faltering for a moment at her long silence, “What do you say?” Mustering up the kindest smile she could, Rarity made her reply.

“I’m sorry, Prince Blueblood, but I'm afraid that I cannot accept your offer.”

“... What?!” the stunned noble cried out, his voice cracking in an oddly pubescent way. “But... but why not?”

“Frankly, my good man,” the young lady said with a prim nod as she stood up and dusted herself off, “you’re just not what I’m looking for.”

“Not... not what you’re looking for?” he sputtered. “I’m handsome! I’m rich! I’m... I’m a bucking prince! What more could you want?” For once, the young lady gave him a genuine smile, albeit one rising from sympathy that shined bright with pity.

“If you really have to ask," she sighed, "then I’m afraid it’s something you simply don’t have.” Looks were good, money was nice, and rank was certainly a plus, but they were simply not enough. A man needed to have something more, something that men like Prince Blueblood didn't have and probably never would.

Fortunately, the pretty young lady knew where she could find a man who did. So with a giggle on her lips and a skip in her step, Rarity made a quick retreat from the gazebo and left an incredibly surprise Prince Blueblood standing by himself for the second time, still confused and still the most eligible bachelor in Equestria.


Despite the large number of attendees filling the hall, Graves had a good several feet of free space in all directions around him. Not that he particularly noticed; he was much too preoccupied with his own thoughts to pay it any mind.

He was in a decidedly foul mood. Upon returning with drinks, he’d found Rarity speaking with some dandy in a white suit. It had taken all of one glance, from the top of his coiffed blonde hair to the tips of his manicured fingertips, for the marshal to instantly dislike him. After all, when self-satisfaction and smugness roll off a person like miasma, how could he not?

Still, Graves had no quarrel with the man, and so he kept his peace. The problem began when the smarmy noble had taken Rarity’s arm in his and – sparing a triumphant smirk at the marshal – led her off to the gardens for ‘a little more privacy.’

That’s when his mood had really taken a turn for the worse. Of course, Rarity was free to choose the company she kept. But that boy? Really? And the way he held her arm, his hand resting over hers like a sea lizard squatting on a rock, Graves had half a mind to to follow them out and give him a sound thrashing. He hadn’t. Rarity had chosen to go with the man, and so Graves chose to respect that decision. After all, it wasn’t like he had a right to stop her.

He’d wanted to, though. He’d wanted to take her by the hand, pull her away, and tell that man, whoever he was, to take a hike. It was a completely irrational thought, but one that he couldn’t ignore or forget, which made his mood worse. And so he brooded, leaning with arms crossed against one of the large marble pillars, his face a thunderhead and eyes flashing like silver lighting at whoever was unfortunate enough to cross his gaze.

“Well that kind of behavior isn’t going to win you many friends.”

Looking up, Graves found Rarity standing before him once more, the beautiful young woman smiling in obvious amusement as she crossed her arms in a fair imitation of his stance.

“You’re back early,” he commented, a faint trace of sullenness in his tone.

“Aw, were you lonely without me?” she giggled, quipping with him in a decidedly light-hearted manner. Unlike Graves, the time with the uppity noble had left her in a very good mood, which in turn made his worse. He didn’t like the thought of that man making her so happy.

“I’m fine,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “What concern is it of mine if you and that pretty boy are strolling around arm in arm?”

“That ‘pretty boy,’ as you call him, just happens to be Prince Blueblood, a member of the royal family,” she replied smoothly. If anything, her smile grew wider as she picked up on the marshal’s uncharacteristic petulance. “And for your information, all we did was talk.”

“Oh?” the marshal intoned, arching an eyebrow. “What about?”

“He made a request that I was in no position to fulfill,” she replied vaguely with an airy wave of the hand. “That was all.”

“I see,” Graves nodded slowly. “And just what kind of request was this?”

“Hmm... I don’t feel like telling you,” she giggled once more in decidedly playful tones. “But... I might be willing to reconsider if you make it worth my while.”

“And how would I do that?” Graves asked hesitantly. A playful Rarity was a creative Rarity, and a creative Rarity could – and probably would – ask for anything and everything under the sun.

Instead of answering him, however, the violet-haired girl simply turned and looked out towards the middle of the ballroom. There, under the stage where the orchestra played, a large space had been cleared for a multitude of couples that spun across the floor in an intricate foxtrot.

“It really is a shame,” she said idly to no one in particular as she joined him in leaning against the stone column. “We’ve been here all evening and nobody has asked me for a turn on the floor.” The cogs turned slowly, but a light finally sparked behind the marshal's gunmetal grey eyes.

“... Are you saying you want to dance?” he blinked. Of the many things he’d considered, dancing had never crossed his mind, and for good reason. He hated dancing.

“Graves, don’t be silly,” Rarity laughed in her wonderful, crystal-clear tones. “A lady never says she wants to dance. She is merely gracious enough to accept the invitation of a gentleman who asks.” Here, she merely looked up at him, her sapphire eyes twinkling in amusement as gave him a coy, little smile.

The marshal stared for a moment, just a moment, before hesitantly reaching out a hand.

“May I... have this dance?” he asked with a crooked, self-conscious smile. Quite the awkward invitation, but Rarity beamed nonetheless.

“Why yes,” she replied as she gracefully placed her hand in his. “It would be my pleasure.”

As soon as her hand touched his, fireworks exploded.

No. Literally. Fireworks actually exploded as they crashed right through the windows and set the grand hall on fire.


Chapter 12

View Online

Chapter 12

“What the hay?!” Graves called out in somewhat colorful, but rather appropriate language as a large white and orange sunburst exploded overhead with enough force to rattle the crystal chandeliers. Bafflement written clear across his face, the marshal turned to Rarity and asked, in all confounded seriousness, “Does this usually happens at fancy parties?”

“Not in the slightest,” the scarlet clad lady replied as she gaped whilst a multitude of spinning sparklers flew through the air. “I assure you I am quite as lost as you... are...”

“Oh, wait,” she groaned. “I think I see the problem.”

In through one of the broken windows climbed the trio of Fluttershy, Applejack, and Princess Luna, each covered in a thick layer of black soot and stinking to high heaven of smoke and gunpowder.

“Hey there, Rarity,” the once blond, though now grey-haired cowgirl called between hacking coughs that shook powdery ash off like a snowstorm. “Uh... how’s the party?”

“Applejack, what on earth is going on here?” the fashionista cried out as she recoiled in horror, less from the chaotic state of affairs and more from the unacceptably close proximity of so much filth.

“Ah. Well yah see, that’s a funny story,” she farm girl sheepishly grinned. “So we were out in the garden, tryin’ tah make friendly with all the animals, but them critters weren’t quite takin’ tah us like we planned. So after a little thinkin’, we figured we’d add a little... um... ‘social lubricant’ tah ease up the situation.”

“‘Social lubricant’?” Rarity repeated hesitantly. It took a moment, but her eyebrows finally shot up in sudden and distinctly unpleasant lucidity. “Dear Celestia, please tell me you didn’t–”

“Three kegs of apple cognac,” Fluttershy squeaked with an apologetic smile. “And it was the really, really good kind too.”

“In all honesty, things were going quite well,” Luna added with a casual shrug despite the rising disorder surrounding them. “Though, things may have gotten out of hand when they got a hold of the fireworks scheduled for the display later on. That... wasn’t exactly according to plan.”

“Let me get this straight,” Graves interjected, rubbing his temples as another series of explosions rocked overhead. “You’re telling me that a herd of animals are running around with enough firecrackers to blow up half the palace because they’re all stone-blind drunk?”

Before they had a chance to answer, another loud crash interrupted the conversation. Only, it wasn’t the sound of firecrackers, but the sound of the giant mahogany doors slamming open as a panicked Soarin came soaring into the hall as fast as his wings could carry him.

“I jess don’ get it, Shoarin...!” a horrendously inebriated Spitfire bawled as she burst in after the frightened flier. “WHY WON’TCHU LUV ME?!”

“You tellim, Shpitty!” Rainbow Dash cackled, staggering in with a large crowd of equally intoxicated guards and Wonderbolt team members as they cheered on the captain’s chase. “True luv conquersh EVERYSHING!”

The raucous laughter and the clanking of glasses was a perfect herald for the equally sloshed animals of Canterlot’s gardens. Attracted by the noise and revelry, a collection of jays, squirrels, herons, buzzards, bunnies, cockatoos, and even the odd caribou came waltzing in, bleary eyed and ready for a party. Laden as they were with so many fireworks, it was an explosive entrance to say the least.

“Gosh darn it,” Applejack groaned, her attention on her multicolored friend. “An’ Rainbow Dash wonders why I never save her any cider.”

“Oh my,” Fluttershy murmured as a Roaman candle went flying overhead. “I do hope she hasn’t had too much to drink. I wouldn’t want her to feel all nasty tomorrow.”

“Are you kiddin’?” the cowgirl scoffed. “She’s probably had enough to pickle a moose twice over. We’d best get over there and cut her off afore she really starts to regret it.”

“Are we staging an intervention?” Luna asked in delight. “Huzzah!”

“Sorry Mister Graves,” Fluttershy apologized, “but we’ll be going now.”

“Yup, see you around!” Applejack led the shy girl and the evening princess away, diving into the fray of sauced up soldiers and intoxicated animals who had now melded into some sort of massive mega party, complete with singing, shouting, unsteady dancing, and a generous helping of explosions all around.

“This... is some party,” Rarity murmured in morbid fascination. She’d expected some unsightly behavior before the eve’s end, but this? This was simply ridiculous.

“I know, isn’t it great?”

Turning to see what kind of madman would say that, the young couple found themselves face to face with Shining Armor, who despite being sober as a judge, was grinning just as much as any of the drunken revelers around him.

“Man, this is a total riot!” the navy-haired guardsman laughed as he threw an arm around his militant companion. “I tell you what, I haven’t had this much fun at a party since the Princesses pretended that Nightmare Moon had returned. Those girls really know how to liven things up, don’t you think?”

“If utter anarchy’s your idea of lively, then yes,” Graves said dryly. Indeed, while the soldiers and animals all seemed to be having a pistol, many of the nobility and upper class were having a much less pleasant time. The amount of high-pitched shrieking that could be heard over the explosions and drunken singing were actually quite impressive. Who knew that even large, portly men could reach such lovely soprano tones?

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Shining Armor sighed, obviously disappointed that he’d have to end the fun so soon. “Better get on it then. These rich folks aren’t gonna sort this out themselves, you know.”

“Need any help?” Graves asked with his usual, steely-eyed intent. He was technically off active duty, to be sure, but it wasn’t like he could just ignore a problem of this magnitude.

Unbeknownst to him, however, Rarity had thrown the guard captain an earnest, urgent glance behind the raven-haired soldier’s back coupled with some very vigorous shaking of the head; the young lady clearly had no intention of letting the marshal spend the rest of his evening on cleanup duty. Shining Armor, always up for a chance to mess with Graves, received the violet-haired beauty’s request loud and clear and waved off his comrade’s offer.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” the captain dismissed as the response elicited a grateful smile from the Ponyville dressmaker. “You just get your lady friend here out of the way: things might get messy here and I doubt she’ll wanna be a part of that.”

“You sure about that?” Graves asked dubiously.

“It’ll be fine,” the crimson clad guardsman laughed. “Now get outta here. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to bust out the hose soon.”

Needing no other warning than that, Graves took Rarity by the hand and ran, winding their way through the crowds to some place with hopefully, a bit more sanity.

“So, where are we off to?” Rarity asked, an exhilarating rush coursing through her as the two of them ducked Soarin with Spitfire hot on his heels and continued with their escape.

“Not sure,” Graves shrugged as he shouldered his way passed a frantic baroness and an even more frantic baron. “Somewhere quiet, hopefully.”

“Good luck with that,” the young lady laughed with crystal tones of amusement. “By now, probably every nook and cranny within the castle grounds is occupied with people sharing that exact idea.”

“... Maybe not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“There is... one place we could try,” he said slowly, giving her a curious look over his shoulder. “It’s not the nicest place, but it’s pretty out of the way: I doubt anyone who doesn’t know about it could find it.”

“Ooh, a secret hiding spot, eh marshal?” Rarity giggled. “Then by all means, lead the way.”


The noise from the grand hall faded away into nothing as the young couple, still hand in hand, climbed a narrow flight of stone stairs.

“Well, this is certainly interesting,” Rarity laughed once more. Here she was, dressed in the finest evening gown Equestria had ever seen, only to be scurrying through the royal palace like a scullery maid who’d filched pastries from the kitchen.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Graves chuckled, still holding fast to her hand as he lead the dark and winding way. Finally reaching the top of the stairs, he pushed on the ceiling door, waved away a faint cloud of dust, and helped the young lady through.

From a large skylight in the ceiling, Rarity could faintly make out that it was a large, circular room, empty save for an odd chair or two and curtains hanging over some rather sizable windows.

“You were certainly right,” she nodded, strolling around the room for a cursory look over. “Nobody would ever think of coming here.”

“Shame, really,” Graves replied. “It’s a great place.”

“Oh?” Rarity intoned. “And pray tell what makes this room so special?”

“The room’s not much to look at,” he admitted as he approached one of the windows. “But at least it’s got one heck of a view.”

Graves pulled the curtain aside and Rarity was presented with the most spectacular view of Canterlot she had ever seen. At the top of one of the palace’s tallest towers, she could make out the entire city spread below, thousands of glowing lights making the streetscape look like a sea of twinkling, golden stars.

“My word,” she breathed in awe. “This... this is certainly not what I was expecting.”

“I know, huh?” the marshal grinned. “It was supposed to be an observatory or something, but I guess plans fell through the cracks and it never got used. Too out of the way for most people, so nobody really comes here.”

“Isn't that a shame,” she smiled blissfully. “Why, I bet nobody aside from the Princesses can get a view like this. Not even Princess Cadance or Prince Blueblood.”

From the corner of her eye, Rarity caught sight of the marshal as his body visibly stiffened at the words. Clearly, mention of the blonde-haired noble still serve to rouse his ire and foul his temper. And yet oddly, brilliantly enough, the souring of his mood gave the young beauty a fantastic idea.

“That reminds me,” Rarity said innocently, keeping her back to him as she continued to gaze out the window. “The deal is still available if you’re interested.”

“Deal?” Graves repeated. “What deal?”

“You were wondering what the prince and I discoursed over,” she hinted, finally turning to give the marshal a sly smile. “Or is that no longer a concern?”

“I’m... still curious,” the grey-eyed soldier said in what he must have thought was a casual manner. “But I don’t see how I can fill my end of the bargain.”

“What, don’t you know how to dance?” Rarity teased.

“Some might say that,” he grinned wryly, “But that’s kind of beside the point because... well... there’s no music." The scarlet clad beauty smiled serenely.

“In that case, we’ll just have to make do, won’t we?”

“... You’re kidding,” he said in a mix of surprise and disbelief. “You actually want us to dance here?”

“My dear marshal, I never ‘kid’ when it comes to dancing.” From the set of her sapphire eyes, it was clear her words were no bluff.

“Is there anything else I could offer instead?” Graves suggested, thumbing his nose uncomfortably at the thought. “Something less... awkward?”

“Hmm...” Rarity pursed her lips for a moment before beaming in pure, devilish delight. “No, I don’t believe so.”

The marshal stared at her for a moment as he contemplated the – in his mind – fiendish contract lying before him. He really didn’t want to dance. Considering how terrible he was, the lack of some kind of guidance like music would undoubtedly devolve it to the level of a natural disaster, and the last thing he wanted to do was come across like a ham-footed buffoon in from of Rarity. Well, not more than usual anyway.

But on the other hand, he really, really wanted to know what the prince had done to put her in such a good mood, and since Rarity would clearly only talk if she got her way...

The silent contemplation ended with a heavy sigh of defeat. Face flushed and eyes lowered in embarrassment, Graves lifted his hand and said, with what little confidence he could muster,

“May I have this dance?”


The stoic soldier was not a natural dancer. In the few days prior, he’d been instructed on the basics by a stern teacher with a heavy accent who’d likened his dancing to “watching bears mauling carcass, only not so pretty.” That had been one of the nicer things she’d said.

“Do try to relax now,” Rarity laughed as she effortlessly spun on stone floor with the wooden-footed marshal. “I feel like I’m trying to waltz with a board.”

Relax, right. Easy for her to say. She was in her element here, gliding along as naturally as a swallow in flight while he, on the other hand, trudged along like a drunken yak. Plus, she wasn't being distracted by the silky smoothness of her dress as his hand rested on her slender waist, or the touch of her skin that made even the dress seem rough. Compared to her skin, silk was sandpaper; compared to her touch, satin was–

He barely managed to keep from stumbling over his own feet. Silently, Graves cursed himself for being such a clumsy oaf.

“You really don’t dance much, do you?” she asked, a mixture of sympathy and amusement twinkling in her big, blue eyes.

“How’d you guess?” he muttered. “Don’t get why people enjoy something so difficult.”

“Difficult?” she gaped. “Surely you jest.”

“Not in the slightest,” he replied in utmost seriousness. “I can hardly keep up, what with all the steps to remember and what not.”

“Ah, there’s your problem,” Rarity breathed. “Dancing isn't something you think about, it’s something you feel.”

“... Okay...”

“Here, try this,” she smiled. Releasing his hand, the young beauty cupped his chin and lifted. “Try not to think about the movements and just... go. Feel the rhythm of the steps and let your feet follow.”

Heeding her advice, the marshal brought his stony, grey eyes, which had been focused intently on his feet, up to meet hers sapphire blues, and...

… then...


“...There, much better,” Rarity beamed. “I must say, that’s a marked improvement. We may make a gentleman out of you yet.”

Was he doing better? He couldn’t tell, because while he didn’t know how much he was feeling any rhythm, his brain was certainly clear of any thoughts as he was completely mesmerized by the young lady’s eyes.

Those eyes of her, sparkling like the sea on a cloudless day, were just as unfathomable as the ocean’s depths. One second, they were the eyes of a consummate lady, cool and serene like a still pond on an early winter morning. The next second, they would come alive, glittering with mirth like a stream sparkling in the summer sun.

But there was also something more. Something stirred in those sapphire depths, something that heated his blood and made his heart beat faster, something that enthralled and intoxicated more than any liquor ever could. He felt like he was drowning in those azure pools, yet he couldn’t find the desire to pull himself out. Instead, he found himself wanting to dive deeper and deeper, to lose himself in those beautiful, brilliant blue depths...

“So, are we beginning to enjoy ourselves?” she smiled, her voice gently recalling him from the spellbinding effect of her eyes.

“It’s... alright,” he answered evasively, roughly clearing his throat and breaking his gaze away before changing the topic to something a little less... distracting. “So, you still haven’t told me what you and that prince boy talked about.”

“Well aren't you insistent,” she quipped with a grin. “It’s not like it was anything important.”

“Oh? Then I suppose you won’t mind telling me then,” he countered with a sly smile.

“I suppose not,” she giggled as she gracefully conceded. “Like I said, it really wasn't anything important; he simply asked me to marry him. That’s all.”

Well that got his attention right quick.

“What?!” he hissed, half in surprise and half in pain from stepping on his own toe from said surprise. “He... he proposed? Just now?”

“Indeed he did,” Rarity replied, cool as a cryo-phoenix. “Showed me the most magnificent ring. Why, it must have been a ten carat stone at least.”

“And how is this not a big deal?” he demanded, his steely eyes now focused like the barrel of his spell gun.

“Because I refused, that’s why,” she smiled serenely. “Honestly, a proposal’s only a big deal if the lady says yes. Everyone knows that.”

The marshal’s dancing improved markedly once more as he began to think about everything but the dancing. She’d been proposed to. Less than an hour ago, an honest to goodness prince had just pulled out a ring with a diamond the size of his knuckle and proposed to her.

And she’d refused.

“You seem out of sorts,” she noted, her keen eyes not missing the tumultuous emotions playing across his face.

“I’m just... surprised is all,” he admitted, realizing that any denial at this point would be a foolhardy gesture.

“About the proposal, or about my rejection?”

“Both really, but honestly, more that you said no.”

“And why is that?” Rarity asked, her eyes now that mysterious, fathomless blue that betrayed nothing of what she thought. “Why would you be surprised I said no?”

“... He’s a prince," Graves grudgingly admitted. "He’s rich, he’s probably sophisticated enough, and he’s... pretty good looking, I guess.” The last comment came out like a sore tooth and the scarlet clad girl had to bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud as he said it. “He’s pretty much what any girl would want, like something right out of a fairy tale.”

Rarity considered him for a moment before replying, her words precise and proper and once again conveying nothing of her thoughts.

“What you’ve said is true; he is all of those things and at one point, he was the man of my dreams, everything I ever wanted.”

Those words cut Graves something fierce, but he pressed on, pushing for the answer he really wanted.

“Then why’d you say no?”

“Because...” The young lady paused, pensively biting her lower lip, as if unsure of how to answer or if she should answer at all. “Because... fairy tales were no longer enough. I wanted more.”

The marshal felt his heart sink like a stone. Even a fairy tale prince wasn't enough for her. If that was the case, then what chance would a–

“You see,” she continued as her soft, almost hesitant words interrupted his train of thought, “he was everything I’d ever wanted until I actually met him and found out how shallow it all was. I needed someone with more... substance. More character, if you will. A man whom I could not just admire, but love and respect with all my heart.”

“I... see,” Graves nodded somberly. “And have you found someone like that?” To his eternal surprise, she replied with a small, but very deliberate nod.

“You... have?” he gaped.

“Yes, I have,” she smiled, the one expression lighting up her entire face with a warm, radiant glow. “He's a truly wonderful man. Kind and strong, he never hesitates to lend a hand to those in need. In fact, you might even say his entire life is devoted to helping others.”

“You don’t say,” Graves said, letting escape only a faint hint of the bitterness now bubbling up in his heart.

“Oh yes. And not only that,” Rarity continued with rapidly mounting enthusiasm, “but he’s also very, very handsome. Not in the same way the prince is, of course, but more of a... mature, masculine attractiveness that I must say, I never really appreciated until I met him.”

“Sounds like quite a guy,” the marshal muttered, his distaste now completely transparent. The young beauty simply smiled.

“And that’s not even the best part.”

“There’s more?” he gaped. This had gone well past unpleasant and was quickly approaching downright painful.

“Much more,” she nodded. “He’s also a worldly man, well traveled and well read, but surprisingly innocent as well. He’s also charming, funny, honest, a wonderfully sharp dresser, – well, he is now at least – and... oh, there's so much more, I can't even begin to list them all. But despite all these things, that’s still not the best part about him. Do you know what the best part about him is?”

“What?” Graves grimaced, unsure of how much more he could take.

“He’s humble.”

“... Hah?”

Well that was certainly unexpected.

“Yes, he is so incredibly, amazingly humble, it really boggles the mind,” Rarity giggled. “He really is the most remarkable man, but he thinks of himself as completely ordinary, or maybe even less than that. He's thinks nothing of himself even though everyone, especially myself, can see just how amazing he really is.”

"I... I see," the marshal said faintly. Pain no longer sufficed. This was pure torture.

“In fact,” she continued, her smiling growing in warmth till even the sun would seem cool in its glow, “he’s so humble, he would probably think I was talking about someone else, even after I said all of these wonderful things. Right. To. His. Face.”

Graves stopped dancing.

He stopped moving.

He stopped thinking.

He simply stood there, eyes widening ever so slowly as a sudden, painfully sharp thrill of hope flashed its way through his heart.

“You... you can’t possibly mean...” he whispered, barely able to get the words out of his hoarse throat.

“He proves me right, as usual,” Rarity laughed, her words steady and sure despite the crimson flush rising in her cheeks. “Honestly, you don’t expect me to spell it out more clearly than that, do you?”

“And... that’s what you really think?” he asked, sure he must be dreaming, certain that this was just too good to be true. “That's how you feel about... me?”

“If I didn't mean it,” she said with a smoky glance and inviting smile, “would I be leaning in so close? So very, very close?”

The two drew closer, so close that Graves could feel the heat of her breath tickling his chin, and then...

Just a moment. A brief moment of warmth, a faint touch of wetness as they met.

But that moment?

Pure bliss.

“Best night ever,” Rarity smiled, flushed and breathless and so utterly, painfully beautiful. “Best. Night. Ever.”


To Be Continued...

The Journey of Graves will continue in the eighth story: Happily Ever After