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NOTE:

Regarding new chapters after Chapter 9.

Please use the links for FIMfiction or Fanfiction.net.

I’m switching the googledocs to ARCHIVES, meaning they’ll be the last source of content to update. Sorry if this causes any inconvenience, but maintaining 3 parallel archives for a fic in-progress seems sort of redundant, you know?

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Author Notes - Chapter Zero!

In response to comments and criticism from a group of readers, I have endeavored to better bridge the gap between TBNE and TPC with a "Chapter Zero" as a prelude - while reading C0 is not essential to the story, based on early screenings, it goes a long way to reducing the "culture shock" of many of the societal concepts in play in This Platinum Crown. I would strongly recommend that everyone go back and give it a read through. I am re-ordering the chapters as appropriate. Below is also a copy of my own table of contents used as part of my fanfic master file.

Alternate links to the story:

FIMfiction

FFN

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Table of Contents

This Platinum Crown

Chapter 0

- Following the events of "The Best Night Ever" and the time-looped Gala, Rarity's introduction to Canterlot High Society finally gets into swing. However, all is not well within the glorious castle city, and on top of preparing for Twilight's birthday party, Rarity soon hatches a plan to begin bridging the divide between two powerful stallions: Blueblood and Fancypants.

Chapter 1

- Back in Ponyville, Rarity loses herself in preparations for an upcoming Art Festival, hosted at a newly built estate just outside town. The bright expectations for the event are soon clouded by the appearance of a noblemare from Equestria's northern province of Prance.

Chapter 2

- Shocked by Lady Antimony's claims, and with Blueblood still on a visit to distant Crown Roc, Rarity quickly tried to arm herself with knowledge of her new foe. Who is this Baroness, and how deep does the influence of her family go, even in Ponyville?

Chapter 3

- Prince Blueblood makes haste to head back to Equestria on news of his unwanted engagement. Rarity resolved herself to stand up to Antimony, but missing a crucial piece of information. Spike, too, must make a choice of his own, one with a profound impact on events to come.

Chapter 4

- Drawn into a magical duel with Lady Antimony, Rarity finds an unlikely and unexpectedly effective mentor in Twilight Sparkle. But, really, how is this nonsense training? And does it have to be this humiliating?

Chapter 5

- Preparation for the duel continues, the training switching to a most unexpected place. Naturally, since the Cutie Mark Crusaders are involved, everything will go off without incident.

Chapter 6

- It's a tailgate party, from Ponyville to Everfree! Antimony awaits, while Rarity and her friends make their way through the forest. Once again, a fight waits for them at Everfree Castle, but this time one of them will have to fight alone. What is really at stake here, not just for Rarity, but for Ponyville and Canterlot?

Chapter 7

- The duel begins at last, but can Rarity's creativity and drive stand up to her opponent's experience and overwhelming skill? With her dreams on the line, Rarity refuses to back down. Of course, there's nothing in the rules against a tactical withdrawal!

Chapter 8

- Lady Antimony had never been defeated in a duel. Her record is a bloody litany of triumphs across Equestria, all in the pursuit of one goal. All for her family's supposed destiny. At the mercy of the Baroness, lost in a cruel and unending illusion, Rarity struggles to hold onto her own dream. Only one mare can wear the Platinum Crown of Canterlot.

Chapter 9

- Rarity, newly risen and confirmed in noble rank and privilege, is soon faced with the challenges and dangers of her station. The upcoming dragon migration presents both headache for the new noblemare, and opportunity for Twilight's number one assistant. While in Cloudsdale, an explosion heralds the beginning of a new confrontation, waiting on the wings.

Chapter 10

- Having followed the dragon migration to the volcanic breeding grounds of his kind, Spike tries to gain perspective on just what it means to be a dragon, and how it conflicts with his pony upbringing. In the end, he faces a choice that will have life altering ramifications. Back in Ponyville, Luna and Blueblood have plans of their own for Equestria and the upstart Terre Rare lords of Prance.

Chapter 11 

- Enter: Lady Yumi! The battle for the crown begins anew as the heiress to the land of Neighpon challenges Ponyville to a passage of arms. When Applejack runs afoul of the foreign ponies, Rarity rallies her response. High above both groups, Ritterkreuz is watching and waiting to pounce, but on whom?

Chapter 12

- Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Applejack face off against Yumi's trio of hoof-picked retainers to break the pas d'armes outside Ponyville. Do they stand a change against the veteran knights from Neighpon? A certain former Wonderbolt also picks her target, taking advantage of the confusion.

Chapter 13

- Ritterkreuz and Rainbow Dash clash above the skies of Ponyville and across the countryside. The battle on the ground may have ended, but the air war has only just begun! Lyra accepts a dangerous invitation and Flim and Flam meet up with two mysterious benefactors on the road to Sweet Apple Acres.

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( 0 )        

Chapter Zero

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        Rarity's body all but melted into the sweet scented rose water, the occasional cherry colored petal floating past her clean white coat. Light Touch's hooves and magic were simply heavenly. A golden brush with bundles of little bristles ran through her long, wet mane, massaging her scalp and the back of her neck. Another pair of hooves and gentle magic touched warm cream to her face and cared for her eyelashes. Utterly relaxed, soothed and sinfully pampered, Rarity sighed with unabashed contentment.

        This was truly the life.

        "Well, somepony sure seems to be enjoying herself," a distinctly masculine voice interrupted her reverie. "Is it wrong that I find this rather animating?"

        Rarity slowly opened her eyes, started across the bath as its other occupant, and gave him a not-so-subtle kick beneath the water. "Mind out of the gutter, if you please."

        "My dear, I assure you: my mind is not in the gutter. You'll find it is very firmly focused on what lies under this water."

        "Shall I kick a little higher next time?"

        The stallion laughed and rose from the rose-tinted water. A few stray petals stuck to Blueblood's own white coat as he stepped over to a clean white mat laid out on the floor. Bathed in the light from the circular oculus of their pavilion tent, he glowed with cleanliness and vigor. One of his two maidservants, Sandy, a shy younger mare with a fawn-brown coat and wheat colored mane, pulled away from her work on Rarity to help the Prince dry off.

        He remained calm and still as she magically dried his blond mane, using her hooves to more vigorously towel off his coat and body. Still half submerged in the decorative cast iron and porcelain bath-tub full, her mane being combed and brushed behind her, Rarity watched him with a small smile. Not that she would admit it, certainly not aloud, but it was perhaps just a little empowering to lay back and watch as...

        "Oh-h!" She covered her face with her hooves in embarrassment. "Now your lascivious thoughts have spread to me as well!"

        "My sincere apologies," the Prince replied in a tone that was anything but apologetic.

        "You have the most beautiful mane, Lady Rarity," one of the mares aiding her in her soak whispered. "Please relax. Pay no mind to His Grace."

        "What are you whispering about over there?"

        Rarity did relax a bit at the sound of Light Touch's voice, splashing a little water in Blueblood's direction. Not hard enough to reach him, but enough to get the point across. He rolled his eyes and resumed standing still and tall while Sandy brushed him down, paying particular care to smooth out and groom down his tail.

        "It is so nice to be working with another mare for once," Light Touch dared another whisper. "Please tell me when you wish to get dressed, my Lady."

        "Oh, I could just soak in here for hours!" Rarity stretched out her legs and started to rise. "But we do have our appointments. Which reminds me, I still need to get something for Twilight's birthday. Blueblood, what do you think about a dress?"

        "I think I'll pass."

        "I mean as a present! For Twilight."

        "Just get her a book. You can add your name to the one I'm getting her to save money."

        "Honestly, be serious for once!"

        "I was sort of serious," Blueblood replied with a snicker. "The book I'm getting your friend isn't exactly cheap. But I guess she likes dresses? So make her a dress?"

        Slowly emerging from the water, Rarity took Light Touch's hoof as she gingerly stepped down onto the floor. Though convention kept them both on the tournament grounds, the Prince's tent still enjoyed many of the comforts and amenities of a suite at the palace. Running water was one of the exceptions, but a nice hot bath was only a raincloud and a spell or two in the making.

        "Thank you so much for that insightful response to my question," Rarity said, hooves on solid ground. "I was thinking something casual, but dynamic, subdued and chaste but extravagant and willful!"

        "Something light," Blueblood wondered. "But dark?"

        "I'd splash you if you were closer."

        "I know you would. That's why I'm way over here."

        Rarity huffed at him in all-too-obvious annoyance, but soon the pair soon broke into laughter. A book and dress it would be. Soon the fashionable unicorn stood on a clean white mat of her own being dried off. Both Sandy and Light Touch were skilled beyond the basics - Rarity experienced this first-hoof as Light Touch did up her long mane in preparation for this afternoon's appearance. She would be wearing her mane up, today, in a multitude of tucks and curls instead of her usual single-curl left and single-curl right.

        Soon she was dry, powdered, brushed and immaculately clean. A faint hint of roses clung to her from the bath, precluding any need for perfume. Suitably prepared, she retreated behind a floral Neighponese folding screen to dress. Here, she assisted Blueblood's maidservant, being more used to clothing herself than being dressed by others. For this afternoon, Rarity had chosen a dress and saddle in silk and cotton gauze (one of her own designs that didn't seem to sell as well as it should have) with dropped shoulders and wide puffs around the sleeves. As a personal touch, she had also picked out a feather-trimmed bonnet and choker with white shell-in-cameo.

        Emerging from behind the folding screen, she saw Blueblood stretching his legs from under a barded caparison. The cloth covered him from hindquarters to collar and from shoulder to his ankles, presenting a collage of stylistic suns on one quarter, moons on another, spades on another and the last one occupied by a repeating field of compass-roses in the colors and style of his cutie mark.

        The ceremonial armor of his crinière wrapped protectively around his neck, and she could see a bit of silver-steel peeking out from where his peytral covered his chest from the front and side. The caparison itself was clearly draped over and fastened from the front where it was open. Being sport-armor, there was no need for a heavy croupière to protect his flanks, as with Royal Guard barding.

        "Well, to no-pony's surprise, you look amazing and I look ridiculous," Blueblood quipped, uncomfortably stretching out the padded metal protecting his neck with a dismissive scoff. "You wouldn't be amenable to trading outfits for the afternoon?"

        "Absolutely not!" Rarity replied with a laugh, trotting over to give him a close inspection. "You look very handsome. You'd probably look cute in a dress, too, but let's save that idea for another time."

        "What frightful subjects we broach in jest," the Prince joked, and walked around in a slow circle. "They fit this to each stallion, you know, and it always feels tight. I have always suspected some sort of scheme or conspiracy among Equestria's tailors to keep everypony coming back for refitting. Clearly the blacksmiths and farriers are in on it, too. The fiends."

        With a flick of his horn, Blueblood magically levitated a final piece of covering over his sides and shoulders. Sandy hurried, catching him as he stood still, but Rarity interposed herself. The Element of Generosity snapped one of three small clips together over his chest, securing the extra piece of cloth in place. It fell entirely over his right side and bore the heraldic seal of the family: the proud bust of a regal unicorn backed in royal purple, wreathed with diamonds.

        "You look fabulous, trust me. If it is a little tight," Rarity explained, pulling the chain a little taut. "That is because tight looks good."

        "How wonderful. Then I will look good while getting charged at and trod upon. Just what I hoped for!" Blueblood's pout was more coy than put-out. He winked at her. "At least I have one thing in my favor. Be sure to wave when I salute you so the crowd knows to envy me."

         "You'll be perfectly fine!" She quickly nuzzled his cheek. "Now, which suitably horrific mask shall you be wearing?"

        "It is not a mask, my Lady, it is a champron! Very different."

        Blueblood turned briefly before retrieving a steel and faux-leather faceguard. It bore a small rounded spike beneath and above the circular opening left for the unicorn's horn. Sturdy metal flanges critically protected the eyes. Decorative bronze embossing covered the rest, giving the appearance of a stallion's face: the false eyes narrowed in anger and a mouth clenched tight, bearing teeth. A large fleur-de-lis stuck out and up from behind the ears like a crest, inlaid with gold and bright blue.

        He fitted it in place, Rarity helping to secure it, and flipped it up so only the framework covered his face. He would need to make several rounds for the crowd before his match began and it was expected and traditional that everypony see the competitors to know for sure they were who they claimed they were. It was all part of the spectacle the nobility put on from time to time, for their benefit and for the ponies they ruled over.

        "Thank you," he said, craning his neck back and forth. "I suppose I am ready to meet Sir Diamond."

        "What was his full name again?" Rarity asked. "Something silly, wasn't it?"

        "Virgin Diamond," Blueblood answered with a chuckle. "It is a bit of a silly name, though I would not say so to his face. More importantly, you recall who you are sharing your booth with?"

        "Of course!" Rarity replied.

        "Good. Most of them aren't very important, but I do hope you will get along well with Lady Fleur. Her family has been a vassal of mine for generations and she is well connected around Canterlot, despite having fallen on hard times."

        "What I don't see is why we have to indulge Upper Crust and Jet Set," Rarity protested, her expression showing her distaste for the two pretentious and sycophantic unicorns. She had run into them, by chance, on her first day in Canterlot. They had gone on to, in the span of less than a minute, find cause to praise her fashion sense, then dismiss that fashion sense because it was from "a rural backwater," then effusively apologize for their presumption upon leaning she was staying in the castle with the Princess and Prince.

        "Both are exceedingly wealthy," Blueblood answered with a shrug. "They could be half-camel half-griffin with the personality of a Diamond Dog, but they are still rich as sin and I need their bits."

        "I hardly know what they even did to-"

        "They're from two banking clans," Blueblood said, off the cuff. "And yes, they are ruthless social climbers. You'll get used to their sort, even find them useful at times."

        Rarity shook her head, but agreed that maybe he had a point. "It doesn't mean I have to like them."

        "No it doesn't, but in time you will want your own circle of cliens," he explained, tucking a few stray hairs back and out of the way of his champron. "Many of which you will dislike personally but find useful politically. Sadly, that is just how things are in Canterlot and in court: compared to Ponyville, it is a pit of snakes eating other snakes begetting yet more snakes. My advice is to always be at least a little wary, but the one you should be really be careful of is Fancypants. Though I doubt he'll be here today."

        "Canterlot's most fashionable and charming stallion?" Rarity inquired, amused by the look of jealousy that briefly crossed the Prince's face at her glowing endorsement of the other pony. "Why would I need to be careful of him?"

        "While Fleur and her family are counted as old and trusted allies, she has taken up with Fancypants over the last year, and he is no friend of mine. If anything, I would like you to keep a watchful eye on her."

        Blueblood planned to end it there, with just a warning, but read Rarity's expression - she needed to know more. He knew that look, all but demanding, 'is that so?' So he relented.

        "If you must know, some time ago - when we were both younger - I was new to holding court. My mother had only recently passed on and Fancypants had just made a small fortune on Vaudeville. We met at the theater one night and struck up a friendship of sorts. Fancypants has been many things over the years: artist, inventor, speculator and investor. At his heart, he has always been an entertainer... and trend-setter, I suppose. I enjoyed his company and frequented many of his establishments and shows."

        Rarity nodded. Most of this was information she knew. Fancypants had made his fortune organizing, writing and promoting in Canterlot and Manehattan. He still had a hoof on the pulse of both cultural juggernauts. Later his interests had spread to other aspects of science, magic, technology and engineering. He was often called a renaissance-stallion, as skilled with investment as he was with a slide-rule or oil brush.

        "A year or so later, he petitioned me several times for knighthood," Blueblood continued. "I denied him all three times. He had not yet earned it in my eyes, and I told him as much. I also wasn't sure if his friendship was genuine or just an attempt to curry favor. I offered to accept him as a cliens instead, which I saw as a compromise, but he refused, not wanting to be chained down. Especially to a Duke who refused to give him a title. That's how I saw it anyway."

        "Is that all?" Rarity asked. "Why-"

        "That isn't all," he said, motioning for her to wait before jumping to a conclusion. "A few years after that, he was involved in building some sort of zoo or park near Fillydelphia. He had been buying land clandestinely, but he did tell the Mayor of that great city about his plan. He had to. The Mayor in turn told me, as I had taken on the mantle of Grand Veneur and Fillydelphia has long been tied to Canterlot and the Bluebloods."

        "I blocked the project," Blueblood finished. "Partly out of spite, and partly because I disliked how it involved a fake copy of Canterlot castle built to scale. At the time it seemed insulting. I said, 'better swampland than this abomination.' I actually wrote that on the rejection letter. He still owns the land but can not build on it. There was that, and sadly others. So you see... bad blood between us is the result."

        Rarity's slim shoulders slumped. "Was his project truly so awful?"

        "In retrospect, I suppose it was not, but... things were different with me then." Blueblood started towards the flap of their large tent. "Very different. Looking back I regret my haste, but what is done is done. I have tried to come to terms with him before, but things always conspired against it. I can't afford to lose face changing my mind, not right now. Maybe a few years down the road, when I shore up more support in the Stable of Lords, I can afford to flip-flop on more of my earlier mistakes and indiscretions."

        "There's just so much to do, fixing the mistakes I've made," he muttered, just barely loud enough for Rarity to hear.

        "Ah, but...!" He pushed open the flap with one armored hoof. "For now, I go to tilt Sir Diamond. Three rounds horn, three rounds dagger, and then I can enjoy a day of falconry. See you on the field, my precious jewel!"

        Rarity waved to him as he left, but her mind was already on his words from before.

        "So amends can not be made without losing face?" she asked herself with a smile. "I-de-a!"

- - -

        Celestia damn it, but Sir Diamond hit hard for a stallion with the word 'Virgin' in his name.

        Blueblood groaned, shook himself off, and hastened to his side of the palace tiltyard. Virgin Diamond, a large teal colored stallion of good unicorn stock, was still parading around, the ripped cloth of Blueblood's family crest whipping about on the tip of his horn. Common ponies in the stands were stomping their hooves in excitement and appreciation for the display of skill, while more reserved aristocrats in private booths clopped their hooves with polite self-restraint.

        It was a full attendance, but then tournaments were always popular in conservative Canterlot. It was a chance for the nobility of all stripes to put on a show; attendance, food and drink were all free and anypony from the castle city or the outlying lands had permission to attend. Other nobles from across Equestria also came, though they typically stuck to private booths and other areas where they could mingle with a select crowd. These days, the richer segments of the mercantile classes also found their way into these exclusive circles, the better to sniff out potential cliens and benefactors.

        In a place of honor on one side of the tiltyard, one booth in particular stood out.

        Virgin Diamond trotted over to that booth and raised his horn high. Princess Celestia, and a somewhat sleepy looking Princess Luna, presided over the games of the tournament. Equestria's first alicorn and revered leader magically removed the torn family crest from the knight's horn, smiling down at him graciously. Blueblood groaned. He had yet to present, having lost the first two passes.

        The attendants affixed a third herald to his right side, preparing him for the final exchange of this part of the challenge. Despite the padded barding, Blueblood could feel a sore spot swelling in the muscle of his chest where Virgin Diamond's horn-cap had slammed into him. Without the armor, and the other unicorn's horn-cap, it was likely the injury would have been a punctured lung. As it was, it hurt, both Blueblood's body and more importantly his pride.

        One of the colt attendants checked the Prince's horn cap, making sure it was on tight. He gave it a little pat, yelled that all was ready, and bowed quickly before the Duke of Canterlot. Blueblood belatedly thanked the colt, flexing the muscles of his shoulders, and cantering back onto the field. Virgin Diamond soon met him, standing at the opposite end, his horn lowered.

        A blast of magic from the sidelines signaled the next tilt.

        Blueblood snorted through the cramped heat of his champron, straining to properly identify the point on his opponent he needed to aim for. It was hard to see much of anything through the protective flanges around his eyes. Muscles straining, he picked a target and assumed a full gallop. Dirt blasted back behind him, he made one last adjustment in response to Virgin Diamond's change of pace, and then he put horn-on-point and committed.

        Impact, a shudder, a hit on his own side -

        And he was through!

        Blueblood raised his horn, blue eyes looking up to try and see if he had struck true. Beneath his champron, a wide, childish grin blossomed. A single large piece of cloth hung from the cap of his horn, speared and ripped free. He couldn't see the heraldic symbol on it from the angle it was at, but knew it to be a checkered spear-tip flanked with maple leaves. The crowd stomped and clopped in his victory.

        Blueblood also noticed that Virgin Diamond had been close to taking his herald a third time in a row. There was a small rip on one corner, but it still hung on his right side, proud and intact. Trotting triumphantly around the tiltfield, for all the crowd to see, he stopped only to present the prize to his Auntie. Celestia took the offered herald, won in fair contest, with a smile and wink.

        One out of three - it wasn't bad, especially since tilting was not his forte.

        The stallions shared a canter around the field, this time with their champrons up so the crowd could see their faces. As had been rehearsed before hand by seating and tradition, they both stopped by one private booth. There, Virgin Diamond saluted a thin framed mare with a dark gold coat and mane adorned with feathers and gold chain. There, Blueblood bowed deeply to his rather prettier mare (in his royal opinion, anyway, and whose else mattered?). Leaning over the railing, Rarity magically dropped a light scarf, the same one she had used to wave at him as he trotted by earlier. The other mare did the same, both ponies dropping their embroidered silk fabrics for their suitor to retrieve as a reward for their effort in the field.

        Tucking the wispy cloth away, safely and securely under a latch on his champron, Blueblood inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. He could smell her on it: the sweet scent of roses from the bath they had shared, the subtle flavor of the shampoo she used on her mane, and her own unique smell. It was much more subtle than the heavily perfumed essences of the noblemares in Canterlot. It reminded him, for a moment, of Ponyville and his trials and struggles there, trapped in the Gala time loop. Who could have imagined he would ever look back on it with fondness?

        But all that had led him to a good and wonderful place, where he had both the will and desire to make a difference, and in that place a generous mare stood by his side. Momentarily lost in his memories and thoughts, Blueblood only heard the tail end of the announcement.

        "...now meet honorably with daggers, in the style of ponies of old!"

        Returning to the present, Blueblood dipped his head to his Lady once again and headed off to have his horn-cap removed. The herald would stay, just as Virgin Diamond was not getting a replacement. Despite the ostensibly threatening title of 'contest of daggers' it was really much safer than the tilting with horns. There was very little risk of injury. It was mostly a bit of show for the crowd and a chance to wind down a bit: pomp and magic, the two cornerstones of Canterlot.

        Blueblood magically twirled the offered dagger in the air. It was blunt, of course, just as horn-caps were used to blunt that natural weapon all unicorns bore (it also softened the blow on both sides of the clash). This so called 'blade' would not be piercing armor or even padding anytime soon. It was there only to try and catch and remove the heralding from the opponent. The aim was much the same as the tilting earlier, but the honor was less. Prizes were not presented to the Princess, but to one's fair and loving partner waiting in a booth nearby.

        The Prince affirmed to himself that he had to get Rarity at least one prize.

        The two stallions, still in their barding, circled slowly. Virgin Diamond's magic was a teal-green, similar to his coat, while Blueblood's was a soft white-blue. They made a few feints, lunging and jumping. A dagger in this case was no rapier. It required particular sorts of fencing.

        Blueblood made a lunge, intending to rip off Sir Diamond's heraldic crest, only to miss and stumble for a moment. It was all the opening the other unicorn needed. A quick stab and swipe and he ripped off Blueblood's herald. Again.

        Back to the sidelines, for another replacement.

        Trotting in place a bit, keeping relaxed and loose - his old trainers had always emphasized fluidity of magic and movement - he re-entered the field. Virgin Diamond lunged almost immediately, intending to use the element of surprise. Silly pony. That was a good Element, to be sure, but it was no Element of Harmony to guarantee victory. Blocking, parrying, and side stepping, Blueblood spun around. Diamond did the same, momentarily losing track of the Prince's heraldic crest. A blunted dagger spun, like a saw, and nimbly ripped free a prize.

        "Ah ha!" Blueblood exclaimed, holding the torn crest aloft. He hastened to the side while Diamond fitted a replacement, magically removing the dagger from the herald and holding it up high. Rarity reached out, taking it with her hooves, smiling encouragingly.

        Blueblood chuckled as he headed into the last round, his spirits high.

- - -

        Rarity kept the two heraldic crests Blueblood had won for her neatly folded, mostly since she wasn't sure what to do with them. She also made a mental note to check some of her romance novels when she got back home. They were sadly her first and oldest source of information on courtly culture, and while the knightly stallion presenting a trophy to his true love was quite a common scene, the authors never much went into what the mares did with the prizes. Keep them, she assumed. Somewhere. It wasn't as if she had many pockets in her dress, and the ripped cloth clashed far too terribly with her ensemble to try and wear it somehow.

        Taken by a sudden idea, Rarity injected a little transformative and restorative magic into the ripped cloth. With a glow and a poof, the ripped fabric repaired itself and merged together. A little more stylistic tweaking, and it became a passable shawl, the two checkered heraldic icons on either end. In a last second spark of inspiration, remembering that the prizes were very much prizes because they were ripped, she left the ends purposefully ragged.

        Draping her new shawl over her shoulders, Rarity heard a titter from the seat next to her.

        "I don't believe I've seen that done before!" A shapely thin mare with a figure to resemble a Princess' sat to Rarity's left, watching her with amusement. Unlike most of the mares and even stallions present, she wore very little: only a sun hat to keep herself cool.

        "You do have some interesting tastes... and that magic?" she inquired.

        "I find almost anything can do with a little extra fabulosity! Don't you?" Rarity replied with a confident grin. "I'm Rarity."

        "Fleur-de-lis," the other mare formally made introduction. "Of the Iris Family."

        Rarity winced inwardly at not having a family of her own, in title, to add to her introduction. Still, she smoothly swept forward. Fleur seemed like a very informal mare.

        "A pleasure to meet you, Fleur-de-lis." Rarity held out her hoof, show-down. "May I call you Fleur?"

        "Fleur or Lily are both fine."

        "Your name is Prench, isn't it?"

        "It is," Fleur answered, relaxing into easy conversation. "We used to have land there, even a small estate. But that was a long time ago; I can't even speak the language anymore!"

        "May I ask what brings you out here?"

        "Besides watching silly stallions try to mangle one another in tight armor?"

        The two laughed, and Rarity gestured to the booth attendant. He presented a small list of flavors and available refreshments, sparing the guests of the private booth from having to mingle or leave to wet their palate. To tide the two mares over, he already had two trays of sweet strawberry gelato.

        "Besides that," Fleur explained, taking a tiny spoon to the thick low-buttermilk ice cream. "As you may know, Lord Blueblood and his family have been... patrons of my family since we came to Canterlot. Fancy was out on the town so I snuck off to put in a little political face-time with my benefactor."

        "Is that often a concern among the court?"

        "When it comes to Canterlot, appearances are everything... and nothing," Fleur warned, but quickly added in a friendly tone, "Are you staying at the castle? May I ask what it's like? You've met the Princess herself, haven't you?"

 

        Rarity happily shared her experiences, though she had to admit to not having any experience to describe the contrast between the palace life pre and post-Luna's return. Sitting in the shady overhand of the booth, as the unicorn competitions gave way to the earth pony nobility trying their hoof at wrestling and other traditional contests, Rarity found herself rather liking Fleur. Which was doubly fortunate, as she had hoped from the start to enlist the other mare in her little scheme.

        It wasn't long before she had an invitation to meet Fancypants at his private box at the Wonderbolts Derby. It was just perfect. The best part was that this plan also overlapped with her earlier half-formed plan to insinuate herself into Canterlot high society. She already had an "in" thanks to Blueblood, but she didn't want to make introductions purely on his account or by riding his tail.

        It was time for Rarity Unicorn to become the toast of Canterlot.

        Twilight's dress... she'd start on it Tuesday. When she had some more free time. It wasn't like it was going anywhere, and there were places to go, ponies to impress, and two feuding stallions to bring together!

- - -

        "Blueblood? Would you believe me if I told you that Rainbow Dash was training the Wonderbolts?"

        A dismissive snort was all the response the Prince felt he needed to share. Holding out one leg he held still as Light Touch carefully brushed and cleaned the sole and frog of his hoof. The Prince was one of the few ponies in Equestria to wear new ultra-modern aluminum horseshoes, 'light as a feather' as they were advertised. The metal was almost as expensive, per ounce, as pure gold. Inspecting the finished product and trimmed fetlocks, not too short and just a little wild, he nodded in approval and raised the other leg.

        "Not to backstep," he remarked in passing, eyes wandering to where Rarity was again getting changed, behind a different folding screen, this time in the castle proper. "But why on Equestria would you even ask such a thing?"

        "Such a what?" Rarity inquired, sill out of view. A frilled yellow saddle flew out from behind the screen to drape over the top. "Oh, you mean Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolt thing? Nothing much. She just came up yesterday."

        "Yes, you mentioned attending the derby the other day," he recalled, magically retrieving a tall glass of grapefruit juice to help start the morning.

        "I enjoyed the event and it was an opportunity to mingle a little," Rarity explained, tossing a hat out from behind the screen to deftly land on a nearby rack.

        "I wonder if there is still time to trade tickets to the big fight tonight at the Canterlot Hexagon instead of spending the evening watching Le Sacre du Printemps?"

        "Don't you dare," Rarity responded, discarding yet another hat, this time in favor of first a gold and sapphire tiara and then a vermillion beret. "Oh! This one doesn't work either! I'll need something more subdued for the opera, and then there's the gallery... maybe this one will...? Ah-ha! Perfect! Now where did I put that black turtleneck..."

        Blueblood closed his eyes, waiting for his manicure to finish. It was a couple of seconds before he realized Rarity was singing something softly to herself behind the folding screen. A song? He strained his ears to listen. After the events of the Gala, he had come to expect the occasional musical number when visiting one of the Elements of Harmony. How they came up with these things on the fly, he still couldn't imagine.

"I'll be the toast of the town,

the girl on the go...

I'm the type of pony everypony- everypony should know!"

        Curiously, both Sandy and Light Touch had chorused 'everypony' in that line.

        Mares. Go figure.

"I'll be the one to watch,

the girl in the flow...

I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!"

        No sooner had she finished cleaning his hoof, Light Touch quickly hastened to help Sandy with Rarity behind the folding screen, filling in the lines of chorus as needed. Blueblood was left standing alone, one befuddled eyebrow raised. It was certainly nice that his two maidservants, who he had come to know via the loops of the Gala - notsomuch to their knowledge - were taking so well to the Element of Generosity. But wasn't singing along with her taking this whole thing a little too far?

        His attention was also drawn to a rather surly looking feline perched atop a wooden display easel. Never having had a pet himself, unless one counted Dream Catcher, the tercer he used for falconry, Blueblood usually gave Opalescence a wide berth. The little creature always seemed to have a set of nasty claws, no matter how often Rarity took her in for a trim. The white cat now rested on top of the easel, batting a paw in dismay at some sort of picture.

        It was, on closer inspection, a picture of a dress.

        "What an impossibly impractical dress. Where would you even find feathers that long?"

        Opalescence mewed, jumping off the easel.

        "Rarity?" Blueblood asked, but she was still lost in song so he decided to waited things out.

        Slowly trotting over to a heavy crystal display case, the Prince lowed his horn an applied a bit of specific identification magic. A golden clasp clicked, wound and unlocked. Inside was a gold and firesteel collar, intricately carved and decorated with a multitude of tiny clear droplet-sized jewels. From the front dangled a small aries symbol in fine gold. Next to it was a wax seal, also made of gold. Blueblood took a moment to brush his hair back and slip on a cream white waistcloak with a high collar.

        Normally, he preferred a bow tie, but today he had some special business. Floating out the chain, he slipped it around his neck and tucked it in and under the cloth. This concealed all but the dangling clasp and black and gold silk ribbon that fell to left the right. He pulled it tight around his throat and tucked the ribbons to form a discrete loop.

         Turning around, hearing Rarity's song at an end, be smiled at the sight of her.

        "I do believe that's a new look for you," he commented with a snigger.

        "You don't like it?" Rarity asked, gracefully pirouetting in her beret, black turtleneck and matching hoof slippers. Her mane was styled down, straight down, with a little wave at the end.

        "You look like you've escaped a sorority at the Academy of Arts and Magic."

        "You don't like it," she stated, clearly wanting a yes or no answer.

        "I like it," he assured her, and grunted as Light Touch swept in to finish buttoning up his waistcloak while Sandy retrieved his overcoat. "It's actually quite fetching, I'm just not sure why you're wearing it."

        "I'm sneaking off to an exclusive art gallery opening before the auction tonight," Rarity explained, mollified by his compliment. "Modern Art, not the Classical and Neo-Classical you enjoy."

        To prove her point, Rarity pointed to one of the oil paintings adorning the east wall opposite the windows and balcony. On it, an amaranth pink unicorn mare reclined against a bed of flowers and vines, reaching out. A white stallion in flowing cloak and finery was holding high a spherical glass globe, just about to place it in her hoof. With his other hoof, he was reaching down and pinching her nipple (a task easier said than done for a pony). Behind them, the regal visage of Celestia celebrated the union with wings wide and high, a beatific expression on her face.

        "Why is he doing that?" Rarity asked, meaning, of course, the nipple pinch.

        Blueblood chuckled at her discomfort at the piece of art.

        "If you take stock of every painting in the Royal Palace, or in any of my own properties - all traditional art - you will notice that mares are never depicted as pregnant. The pinching of the nipple by a stallion is an implication that the mare in the picture carries an heir. The passing of the globe indicates the sharing of power and authority between husband and wife," he explained.

        "I see." Rarity nodded, 'hmm'ing softly.

        "Now, if the stallion is cupping the breast, that is something else entirely!"

        She batted him on the shoulder with an exasperated sigh. "I'm sure it is!"

        Lowering her hoof, she also noticed the collar he had put on earlier.

        "I've never seen that before either," she said, pointing to his throat. "In fact, this is the first time I've seen you wearing jewelry. Ever. No neckcloth today?"

        He shook his head, shifting a bit as Sandy buttoned up his overcoat.

        "Special occasion," he replied. "The Order of Aries is knighting one of Auntie's special guards. As a ranking member of the Order, naturally I must attend the ceremony with the proper regalia and pay my respects. A Brother can not refuse the summons of another Brother."

        He indulged in a small, private laugh.

        "I really wish I could tell you who were are knighting, too! You might have heard of him."

        "I understand perfectly," Rarity told him with a teasing smile. "This whole 'military order' nonsense is terribly secret, but fun, isn't it?"

        "I don't much like that phrase."

        "Exactly why I used it," she leaned forward and up to kiss him quickly on the cheek. "I'll see you again this afternoon. Enjoy your morning with the boys."

        Then it was back to that song of hers.

"Becoming as popular-as popular as can be,

Making my mark-making my mark on high so-ci-ety!

I'm the bell of the ball, the star of the show,

I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!"

        Blueblood finished getting dressed and secretly hoped the little tune didn't end up catching in his head again. The last thing he needed was to end up muttering the lyrics during the Grand Master's speech. Even if he was a pony on the go; the type of pony everypony-everypony should kn - damnit!

- - -

See how they hang on every word that I speak?

My approving glance is what they all seek!

I'm the crème de la crème, not just another Jane Doe,

I'm the type of pony every pony should know!

At home at the opera, on a fancy yacht..

Becoming the talk-the talk of all of Canterlot

I'm the crème de la crème, not just another Jane Doe,

Yeah, I'm the type of pony everypony-everypony should know!

        "Four hundred wing-power, actually! The sails can generate a very impressive rate of acceleration. There? You see that ripple in the air? We don't even need a Pegasus team to start the process anymore, the Princess Hesperus is among the first of her kind to..."

        Rarity rolled her eyes as the Prince continued to show off his new toy to a predominantly male audience. Freed from the confines of Canterlot proper, he had changed into a (relatively speaking) casual and very modern shirt with a black double-breasted overcoat and blue cravat. Golden epaulets and a stately captain's hat with formal gold buttons, motif and chin strap worn over the brim.

        Unfortunately, from the moment the part began on the Princess Hesperus, still docked on the side of a mountain breezeway, it had been impossible to pull him away from his fellow aero-nautical enthusiasts. From the deck to the engines to the balloon - an 'envelope' he called it for some reason Rarity couldn't fathom, correcting any and every reference to it as a balloon - he seemed to be on a personal crusade to show off every inch of his new airship.

        Crossing the broad sun deck of the ship, Rarity saw the other object of her little scheme.

        Fancypants had been lured aboard but thus far remained with his own clique. Having met the charming and famous unicorn at the Wonderbolt Derby, and accidentally managing to impress him with an inspired and unexpected bet on the first race, she had attended several events with him, often striking up conversation. Blueblood had implied that the other stallion held a grudge, but if he did (and his behavior on the boat, er, ship, today supported that) then he was a big enough pony not to let it interfere with how he viewed her.

        Her plan had been to bring Fancypants and Blueblood together to start to mend the fences between them. After several days of furious socializing and maneuvering she had managed to get them not just at the same party - that had been managed the day before - but in a relatively casual environment. From what she had learned, both stallions enjoyed air-yachting, having much stronger stomachs for heights than herself. The dozen or so ponies lounging around on the yacht's sun deck had already been plied with wine, sweets and perfect weather.

        By virtue of operating in Canterlot, many of Fancypants' own informal circle were formally beholden to the Duke in whose city they did business. Over the last few days, Rarity had spent much of her time bridging that divide, and in the process she had noticed something. As colloquial and charm-less as some of Blueblood's tastes occasionally ran - such as his preference for gauche liquors and his uncanny skill at darts - more often than not he still mingled within and among his social bracket in Canterlot.

        This meant only the landed and titled nobility, much like the current crop of ponies hanging on his every word as he described the acre and a half of imported cotton that made up his airship's big balloon (or envelope or whatever). Jet Set and Upper Crust seemed to be making an attempt to be the exception, sticking close to their patron. There was still something about the two wealthy unicorns that set Rarity on edge, but she tried to put it aside in favor of more pleasing company.

        She noticed Fleur levitating a colorful glass of rum and fruit and beckoned her over.

        "Any luck?" Rarity asked, hoping for some good news.

        "Fancy wants a yacht just like this now," she answered, sipping her drink with a straw. For once, she had been talked into wearing a dress, albeit a plain one of fine imported silk. "But he's still being his usual stubborn self. I asked if he wanted to join me in touring the ship with His Grace... he gave some excuse about wanting to see the ship himself."

        "I think we should get them to try and meet below decks somewhere private," Rarity told her. "Blueblood doesn't want to lose face on this and I think Fancypants is much the same."

        "He isn't normally this proud," Fleur said with a sigh. "This over-proud, anyway. I'd almost think he would sooner not build that silly park of his rather than make amends."

        Going over their plan, the two mares soon returned to their respective parties on the airship. Conveniently, it wasn't long before a steward called the guests to the aft exterior deck for coffee and a choice viewing of Celestia lowering the Sun. As the realm's domain switched over to Princess Luna, Blueblood's guests were treated to entertainment, drinks and expensive imported treats from the far south in the partly enclosed sky lounge. Later in the evening, the nobleponies and their wealthy peers would enjoy a dance in the airship's small but luxurious ballroom and stateroom amidships.

        That was when Rarity determined they should make their move.

        "Rarity," Fleur said, just as they made to part ways. "Do you really believe this to work? His Grace really thinks to make amends with my Fancy? They have not been on good terms in many years, and in all the years I have known him, Lord Blueblood never struck me as the type to - well... how to put it politely?"

        "He is a good stallion," Rarity assured her. "As is Fancypants. I know it will work! We just need to give them a chance... and a little prodding!"

        "I must admit, I don't think I share your optimism." Fleur's voice grew more quiet as she said it.

        "Don't worry!" Rarity politely touched a hoof to Fleur's elbow in comfort. "Things will work out. I promise!"

- - -

        "Wait here?" Blueblood asked, having been interrupted on his way back to the salon door and the busy stateroom full of influential and expectant ponies. Rarity had interposed herself between him and the exit.

        "Rarity, please," he continued, but stopped. "I have guests to attend to."

        The dressmaker placed a hoof to his chest. "Just stay here a moment longer. I'll be right back!"

        Rarity straightened and primped her vanilla and eggshell dress as she left the room, leaving the Equestrian Prince behind. Perplexed, Blueblood almost objected again, but finally opted to sigh and wait as she had requested. When she had first pulled him aside and into the private salon within the Princess Hesperus, he had rather hoped she wanted to talk - or do more than talk - away from the prying eyes of the ship's guests. Instead she had stood around for a few minutes, silent and increasingly anxious.

        No hanky-panky, then.

        The question remained, then: what was she up to? Turning from the door, he trotted over to one of the bookshelves. The salon and smoke room was small, as one would expect even in a luxurious airship yacht, but well furnished. Like the state room, it was made in an imitation Trottoman style, with soft divans, low tables and high vertical taboret cabinets. The walls were plain, save for geometric designs near the ceiling, instead relying on the shelves of books to provide color. It was a nice room, but compared to the library under construction at his newest property near Ponyville, it was nothing at all.

        The opening of the door behind him prompted Blueblood to slowly turn -

        And rein in his surprise. "Upper Crust? Jet Set?"

        "Your Grace," the wealthy unicorn mare greeted him with a bow. Jet Set followed a moment later by inclining his head in respect and deference. Both unicorns were impeccably dressed in shirt and bundle sweater about the shoulders, a popular ensemble of fine taste but little creativity.

        "To what do I owe the pleasure? I was expecting... well!" Blueblood chuckled. "I'm not sure what I was expecting!" he admitted, and asked, "Ah, yes, so what is all this about?"

        "My Grace, you'll pardon us for intruding," Jet Set replied, adjusting the small glasses perched on his nose. "But we have become aware of some disturbing rumors."

        "Rumors?" Blueblood asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity. "Well, out with it. What rumors?"

        "We have heard that you seek to re-negotiate with Fancypants," Jet Set continued, sounding confident of the fact. "Is that true?"

        "I have no such plans," Blueblood's response was icy. "And I question where you heard it."

        "Pardon, but - your mistress, Miss Rarity," Upper Crust said the name with a little huff. "She has been spending time with Fancypants, plying him with words of your desire to make amends."

        "Amends?" Blueblood asked, taking a calming breath.

 

        "Perhaps it would be best to see to this ourselves? Rather than rely on hearsay?" Upper Crust suggested, bowing obsequiously. "We saw Miss Rarity speaking animatedly with Fancypants on our way in."

        "Did you?" Blueblood rankled, and bulled past the pair. "Yes, let us see what gossip infects ponies ears, and what truth there is to it."

- - -

        "Miss Rarity," Fancypants had long since lost his genial tone. "While your sentiment is appreciated, we have no desire to bow to the Duke's whims. Not again."

        "That isn't what I meant!" Rarity all but pleaded, and hastened to keep her voice low. "Only that - only that if you two were to talk about this, about these issues, then..."

        "I have already been informed as to what you expected from this little scheme," Fancypants cut her off, face drawn into a frown. He glanced over her, at the party going on at the far end of the stateroom, and flexed his neck, working out his mood and putting on a cultured and collected tone of voice. Even if they were speaking quietly enough to be discrete.

        "I am an independent stallion," he stated with what had to be waning patience. "I bow only to her Highness, the Princess. Certainly I have no need to bend knee to Lord Blueblood. I see now why you went so far to find my good graces - you wished to bring me into his fold, did you?"

        "No!" Rarity objected. "No! Didn't Fleur tell you?"

        "She was the one who warned me."

         "But! Why would-" Rarity stammered, and looked around for the other mare. She found her approaching, circling around from the side of the room without a care in the world. "Why would she say something like that? Why would she-"

        "It is true, is it not?"

        "No!"

        "Isn't it?" Fleur-de-lis asked, seamlessly inserting herself into the conversation and knowing exactly what was under discussion.

        "You know it isn't!" Rarity had to fight to keep her voice down and not make a scene. "Fleur-"

        "I am sorry, Rarity," the model and noblemare said, and turned to her husband. "Fancy, please, can we just go? I'm tired and coming here was a mistake."

        Rarity was on the verge of screaming, even lunging at her friend turned traitor, but the look on Fleur's face stopped her tongue. Whether she was a convincing actress or genuinely distressed, the other mare seemed truly pained. She leaned close to Fancypants, said something under her breath, and it was enough to make up his mind.

        "My dear, perhaps it is best we retire for the evening?" Fancypants looked from Fleur, to Rarity, and then back. As always, he kept his poise and fine bearing, even as he excused himself and escorted her from the stateroom.

        "What just happened?" Rarity reached out for the retreating couple, still stunned by the turn of events. The sound of muttering and half-whispered voices seemed to close in on her, quickly silenced by the sound of aluminum clad hooves on the mahogany deck.

        Approaching her were a rather irate looking Prince Blueblood, followed by a smug Jet Set and Upper Crust. Rarity stepped nervously away, seeing them make their way through the crowd. Everything she had planned had been thrown upside down! Why? Why had Fleur turned on her? She had seemed to supportive, so - so...!

        She had seemed like a friend.

        "Miss Rarity," Blueblood said, a cold greeting from him given how much had passed between them since the Gala. "I would ask that we have some words."

        Pulling the dressmaker aside, Blueblood lowered his head until they were eye-to-eye.

        "I warned you to be cautious of Fancypants," he whispered. "What has he put into your head?"

        "Nothing!" Rarity whispered back, hotly. "Nothing at all! And I'm insulted you would think so little of me."

        "Jet Set and Upper Crust told me you were spreading rumor of what I said about my past trouble with him. That was spoken of in confidence! If I appear to bow to Fancypants, who else will saunter up to me expecting recompense?" He shook his head, blue eyes pleading. "Rarity, I am not just Prince, I am Duke. Did it not occur to you that I have cliens and ponies, Jet Set and Upper Crust included, who would..."

        "Fleur," Rarity said, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. She pushed Blueblood to the side, getting a good look at the two rich unicorns. They were exchanging pleased looks.

        "Fleur told them," she realized.

        "She was in on this, too?" Blueblood asked, raiding his head to look, not at the wealthy financier ponies, but at the exit Fancypants and Fleur had passed through a moment before. Rarity was looking there, too, still unable to fathom what had happened.

        "I just don't know - all I wanted was... was for you two to...!" Rarity choked back a sob as the realization hit that not only had she failed to bring Blueblood and Fancypants together, the situation had been made worse by the sharing of her indiscretion. Her eyes watered and she shamefully crushed them shut and galloped for a door - any door. It didn't matter, as long as she could be alone.

        She never saw Upper Crust snort in disdain.

        "Not the most dignified of displays," the wealthy unicorn muttered, just loud enough for her husband to hear. "I knew she was crass-"

        "Muzzle your wife," Blueblood hissed, not bothering to even turn around. He didn't need to add a threat to make his intentions clear. Jet Set made a quick, upset face that seemed to ask his wife, 'Celestia's throne, did you really have to say that?' For her part, Upper Crust lowered her head and said nothing else.

        With all the dignity he could muster, the Prince followed to find his special somepony.

        Fleur and Fancypants, and their maneuverings, could wait.

- - -

        Rarity was not easily consoled. Not really. Her state of mind that evening was not difficult to discern, not to a stallion of great experience and keen insight. Which was to say -

        "I can NOT believe her! I can not - OOOH! All that work! And to think I thought she was my friend! OOOH! If I ever get my hooves on her!"

        Blueblood craned his neck as a belt of fabric flew through the air, missing him by inches.

        "Ahh... Rarity," he tried to say.

        "She set me up! Set ME up! Oh, I must've looked like an absolute foal!"

        "Ahhh..."

        The Prince ducked as a pair of long feathers whipped through the air.

        "The next time I see her! OOOH! You just wait! You just wait!"

        "Uhmm..."

        And there went a flying needle, a little too close for comfort.

        It was time to put a hoof down.

        "Rarity!" Blueblood barked, finally raising his voice. "Fewer lethal flying objects, please?"

        The angry mare turned on him, glaring fiercely, only to melt a moment later into contrition. For all that she had comported herself, or tried to, between the mess on the airship party and the return to the castle, her confusion and frustration and grief were as easy to see as the puffy redness in her eyes and the running of her makeup. Giving him a silent apology with her eyes, Rarity returned to venting her roiling state of mind on her mannequine and Twilight Sparkle's would-be dress.

        "I'm sorry," she finally said, after jamming a few needled into the helpless wooden figure.

        "I really don't think you should be designing when angry," Blueblood observed, walking up to her and tapping a hoof to the mismatched and savaged dress on the poor dummy. "Unless this is some kind of gothic vampire-pony look?"

        She shook her head, sniffing. "No. It isn't."

        Rarity rested her forehead against the abused mannequine and mangled dress.

        "I - I'm so sorry I told Fleur about what you said! I am! But... would - would it have worked?" she asked, turning to him with hopeful eyes. "If I had gotten you two alone?"

        Blueblood took perhaps a second or two too long to answer.

        "Who can say?" he quickly changed the topic, "But I bear responsibility too. This was not how I wanted to introduce you to Canterlot's high society. You had good intentions and I could never fault you for that."

        "I just don't understand why she would...!" Rarity sucked in a breath, shaking her head and tossing her mane back and forth as she struggled to keep from sounding as angry and betrayed as she felt. "She seemed so supportive of the idea when we talked before. Maybe she was right. Maybe this was all just a mistake..."

        Rarity continued to work on Twilight's dress, though as much to settle her own thoughts as she hurried to meet the deadline for her friend's birthday tomorrow. Blueblood stayed up, mostly just keeping an eye on her as she stitched and transformed fabric. Only when she began to drowse off did he float her over to the bed and seek out a quill and linen scroll.

        He also retrieved a certain teak case with a chain and wax seal, one rarely used.

- - -

        So called "Hunting" lodges were not, as one could imagine, terribly common in Equestria. The reason for this was the most obvious: ponies had a deep connection with the land and the animals that populated it. Within domesticated zones, the parts of Equestria that ninety-nine percent of ponies never left, tamed animals of all sorts also had a degree of intelligence. This was particularly manifest in the belt that ran east to west across Equestria proper, with Canterlot at the center. Only the northern and southern borders, and the far west, were still somewhat wild and contained un-tamed versions of the critters most ponies took for granted.

        In light of this, most ponies would rightly balk at hunting, especially since they had little predatory instinct themselves. This was as true of noble ponies as was for commoners - hunting lodges were a cultural shibboleth and relic from a time before most griffins had been driven north and most diamond dogs retreated into the earth. Little actual hunting took place, and even then only if one counted things like recreational fishing, falconry, or flushing.

        Noble families tasked to maintain a lodge did so primarily to officially oversee and ensure the continued domestication of the area, for example, by keeping pest populations in check. Pony-forming was not permanent and any realm could revert if not constantly cared for. Outside of this critical but mundane function, the lodge was also a convenient retreat just outside city limits, typically also attached to a small noble manor house.

         It was also Twilight Sparkle's family home.

        Ptarmigan Manor cradled itself among the high peaks that also hosted Canterlot's mighty foundations. Nestled against the side of a promontory, it was reachable only via air-chariot or through a short path that wound around Canterlot's primary mountain. The region was green and bright in the cool mountain air, with sparkling clear lakes dotted between the mighty outcroppings of rock and the verdant lands below.

        A small waterfall served as scenic backdrop for the two story lodge and the small manor house adjacent, twinkling droplets of mist forming a faint cloud tinted with cascading rainbow. A channel had been cut beneath the main lodge to allow the lake behind the buildings to flow underneath and into an artificial lake with manicured grass and a track for landed chariots. Today, that lakeside parking was at a premium, with a half dozen chariots in gold and silver waiting for their owners to return.

        "Twilight! My baby!"

        "Hi, mom!" Twilight beamed at her mother's affectionate embrace, the older unicorn quickly starting to fuss over her mane and appearance. She had made the trip from Canterlot to Ptarmigan on hoof and still wore a set of plain saddlebags. Since she had already decided to visit Rarity and have her birthday party in Canterlot, it made sense to drop her things off at home and stay the night rather than catch a late train back to Ponyville.

        The idea of all her friends staying over was appealing, too - it could be another slumber party! She made a mental note to write a physical note to better organize this one ahead of time.

        "Are you getting enough to eat in Ponyville? I hear all they have are apples in that town!"

        "Mom, please!" Twilight rolled her eyes at her mother's babying. Star Sparkle's mien quickly morphed back to a lady of station after one last pinch to the cheek and she led her daughter past the lodge to the main house. The reunion with her daughter had clearly lifted her spirits, but Twilight noticed an absence or two.

        "Um, mom?" She looked around, half expecting a surprise to jump out of one of the empty rooms. "Where's dad? Or Shining Armor?"

        "Your father and brother were called off for some big secret meeting," Star Sparkle replied, annoyed by their untimely absence. "First yesterday and now this? They didn't even have time for breakfast, but they said they'd be back just after noon."

        "They took a chariot?"

        "You probably would've run into them on the road if they hadn't. You could've taken one, too, dear. We'd happily have paid for a rental. Or you could use the family carrier."

        "It was just a short walk. Besides, I've been trying to get more exercise. You know I won fifth place in the Running of the Leaves in Ponyville last year? It's probably a little unrealistic, but if I get fourth or even third this year I'll be pretty happy!"

        Soon they were at her old room on the second floor; Twilight emptied her saddlebag of everything except some bits and a few other necessities. Of course, she had every intention of staying at Ptarmigan for a few hours to meet up with the rest of her family. Then, come afternoon, she'd drop by on Rarity with the rest of the gang taking the later train. It was so nice of Princess Celestia to let them use the palace ballroom for her party! Rarity seemed to be having a very hard time in the castle-city, and it just wouldn't have been right to have the party without her.

        "Oh, were are those two?" Her mother had the drapes to the room opened wide, and she gasped and smiled at the sight of a chariot circling around from above. "There they are! Finally!"

        "So how have things been?" Twilight asked, and quickly added, "I'm sorry I haven't written more often."

        "There isn't much going on here, but your brother has been having the most interesting time at the castle! But I'll let him fill you in on that!"

        She hurried back out the room, and Twilight followed at a more sedate pace. It was nice to see home again, though with all the years spent in Canterlot's palace and sanctum, with Celestia, it was almost like her old home was a second home. She could vaguely remember being very small and looking up at the same walls and paintings and antiques; she could remember going to events in the nearby lodge and marveling at all the rare crests and heraldic flags on display, donated by visiting nobles.

        But was this really "home" anymore?

        Twilight wasn't sure. Lately, Ponyville had begun to seem more like home than even Canterlot. She had friends there, and a job at the library, and more than enough adventure to boot. The Princess was in Canterlot - was she the reason Twilight had once thought of it as home? Her parents were in Ptarmigan - it had been home too, but was it because of them? Was Ponyville her home because of the connections to ponies she had made there?

        "I noticed a bunch of other chariots outside," Twilight remembered, following her mother down a flight of stairs. "Is there a reception at the lodge or...?"

        "A few of your cousins dropped by to see you," her mother replied, magically opening a door to the side of the manor facing the lodge and the waterfall. "Your aunt Sly Sparkle is here, too. Mostly unicorns from your father's side of the family."

        Twilight nodded - that made sense. Her father was the one who belonged to a major clan. Most extended unicorn families splintered after a generation or two. Only the larger families, the older ones, or the richer ones had the finances and political inclinations to keep in touch across Equestria and to make one-pony's interests into larger entire-family interests. There were also, not coincidentally, the families that had the most to lose and to gain depending on who individual family members married. Having a large active family with connections across the country made for a strong social safety net.

        "Anypony I know?" she asked. In a large family, and her father's extended family numbered almost fifty strong, it was hard to keep track of everypony. What she meant was: anyone whose name I should absolutely know when I meet them.

        "Lord Alpha Brass is in Canterlot so he came by," Star Sparkle recalled, waving to her husband and son as they exited their chariot out by the front lake. A flight of wide stone steps could lead them up between the manor and the lodge.

        "Skipping Stone is also here, with his wife. They flew in from Cloudsdale just to see you. Your little cousin Jay is here, all grown up, and - how could I forget? Lord Wrathenow. He's a little hard of hearing, so you may have to speak up when you see him. I had expected Prince Blueblood to come by as well, but..."

        "He's with Rarity in Canterlot," Twilight said, having that tidbit of information already. "I'm sure I'll see him later."

        "He is our Duke," Star Sparkle demurred. "But, Twilight, are things.. serious between your friend and His Grace?"

        "I don't know. I suppose? Why?"

        "Oh. No reason."

        "Twilight!" Crescent Moon, Twilight's father, finally reached greeting distance. He was a tall blue stallion with midnight blue mane, neatly combed into a single short curl. Twilight was a little surprised to see him in formal clothes. Both her father and mother preferred the natural look.

        In fact, he and Shining Armor were dressed similarly: in formal looking high-collared shirts and vests. Shining Armor wore his with a belt, Crescent Moon without. Twilight couldn't place the type or design of the clothes themselves, but they seemed uniform-like. Which made sense on her brother, a Royal Guard, but less on her father. He hadn't served as anything more than a Ducal Guard Captain and that was years ago. A small golden pendant was tucked into both stallion's collars in the form of a strange looking "Y" ... Twilight recognized it, after a moment, as the symbol for the constellation Aries.

        No matter.

        It was time to catch up with some estranged family.

 - - -

        The Elements of Harmony.

        What a wonderful sextet of mares. They were sure to absolutely destroy the garden party this afternoon. Pure coincidence, surely, that Auntie Celestia had given them the palace ballroom right next to the one stretch of castle green where two dozen of Canterlot's finest were sure to be snootily enjoying themselves. Given what he had experienced at the Gala - over and over and over and OVER - Blueblood really wondered if he was right in the head to be looking forward to it.

        At least this time he would be anticipating the party-smashing fun.

        "How nice to see you all again," he greeted them with a broad, honest smile. One of his regrets, after the Gala, is simply being unable to find the time to get to know the five other mares he had studied so closely in an attempt to manufacture that elusive, perfect Gala night.

        "Well, howdy there, yer lordship!" Applejack, of course, was the first to not only speak up but grab his hoof and shake vigorously.

        "J - J - just a minute!" Rarity called from inside the suite, still putting the finishing touches on Twilight's dress. Blueblood lingered a moment in the doorway.

        "It seems she isn't quite decent yet," he explained.

        "Ah, we've all seen her naked. In fact, most of us are naked right now!" Pinkie Pie tried to sneak a peek past him, forcing him to divert a hoof to physically push her off his back.

        "You know how Rarity is." Rainbow Dash gave a groan before finally landing. "One hair out of place and she freaks out."

        "While we wait..." And by 'we' he meant all of them. "Is there anything I can do to help set up this party I've heard of? I wouldn't want you to lack for anything. Explosives, perhaps?"

        "That's sweet, but I brought plenty!" Pinkie replied, bouncing in place.

        "Naturally you did."

        "Hey!" Twilight suddenly said, pointing to his collar. "You have one of those, too?"

        "Ah, yes, this." Blueblood coughed, covering the little golden pendant. "I forgot to take it off."

        Thankfully, before prying questions could be asked - questions he was honor bound not to answer - Rarity called from behind him that she was 'ready.' Which meant that she'd managed to fix up the dress enough from the other night to make it presentable. The thing had gone through a half dozen revisions overnight as Rarity's mood drifted from anger to resignation to determination to lethargy (around when she finally fell asleep) to panic to yet more panic, but with white trim.

        "So sorry to have you wait," Blueblood said, stepping aside and motioning for the five Ponyville mares to enter.

        The six friends quickly met in a group hug, which he took as a cue to stealthily remove his collar and return it to its case. It was also fortuitous timing to retrieve his own gift. From what he had learned of her during and after the Gala loops, Twilight was a rather easy mare to shop for - she just loved books. This was convenient in several respects given who and what she was.

        "Rarity, it's so plain... so simple... so practical... so ME!"

        Blueblood raised an amused eyebrow, smirking at the sight of Rarity caught in Twilight's excited embrace. The dress, which had gone through more permutations and reallocations than Equestria's fiscal budget, had ended up as a rather chaste little cream-yellow sundress. Which was a bit of a shame, since the scandalously sexy black number Rarity had made around one in the morning had potential. Luckily he'd squirreled that one away for later, just in case its creator wished to... revisit it... sometime.

        "It's the perfect dress for my birthday party! I love it!"

        "Twilight, you do not know how happy I am to hear you say that..."

        On went the dress, and to Rarity's credit, it did look... chaste. 'Chaste' was definitely the best way to describe it. No feathers, no inlay, no stitched in gems or lace. The pink shawl gave it a little lively color, but even that was - ah - 'chaste.' Twilight loved it, though, which was what mattered. It was a work of love. Also frustration and panic. But mostly love.

        "You're thinking something weird, aren't you?" Pinkie Pie invaded his personal space, staring up at something over his head. What? Did she expect a cloud to be following him around, projecting his thoughts like some kind of weird illusion spell?

        The fact that he even thought that probably meant he needed to see a shrink.

        "My thoughts involve nothing outside the ordinary," he assured her, stepping back.

        "Twilight, everypony, I am so glad to see you. Truly! Yesterday was just terrible!" Rarity had already found a hat to go with her sundress in preparation for going out. "Thank you all for coming out to Canterlot. I was in no state at all to take a midnight train back to town."

        "Aw, twern't nothin!"

        "Yeah, don't sweat it!"

        "We're gonna sleep over at Twilight's house! I think this's even better than having the party in Ponyville!"

        "As long as we're together... um... I think that's what matters most."

        "Exactly!" Twilight agreed wholeheartedly with her friends. She then turned to the one pony present outside her normal clique. "Ahm, you can come too, if you want to?"

        "I had planned to attend the garden party next door regardless, so I would be a pleasure." Blueblood snickered inside, knowing it was only a matter of time before one party crashed face-first into the other. To wonder Auntie had been unable to resist inviting her Elements to crash the Gala. This was devilish fun.

        "I do hope you have popcorn," he added, but soon coughed and remembered, "But before that, I also have a present for you. Happy birthday, Twilight Sparkle."

        He levitated open a nearby glass case.

        The typically visible field of magic indicative of unicorn telekinesis then formed, moved through the air, and hovered to his side. Really: he did have a little too much of Auntie in him these days. The look of confusion on their faces was just priceless. He knew just what they had to be seeing: nothing. Just an empty magical field.

        "Would you stop playing around?" Rarity remarked, spoiling the fun.

        "Oh yes," he remarked with a grin. "I forgot to wrap it."

        Plucking a cut red ribbon off Rarity's easel nearby, he wrapped it around his magical field, then over, pulling it taut. The ribbon, which should have pulled into a knot, instead caught on something solid. Something small and square. A book.

        "An invisible book?" Rainbow Dash asked, flying over for a close inspection. "Uh... that doesn't even make sense!"

        "Oooh! I wonder if it's written in invisible ink!"

        "Uh, I don't think it would matter much, sugarcube. Invisible ink on invisible pages...?"

        Floating the book over to Twilight, she first took it in her own magical field, and then touched a hoof to the ribbon. Her eyes shot wide open.

        "I can see it!" she exclaimed, though it remained invisible to everypony else.

        "Ya can?" Applejack asked, shooting Fluttershy a confused shrug. "So only unicorns can see it?"

        "Now that she has touched it, only Twilight can read the actual pages or even see the cover," Blueblood finally explained.

        "Hiding in Plain Sight," Twilight read, sparkles in her eyes. "The Art of Invisibility. Unabridged edition!"  

        "Hey. Does it really have to be invisible itself?" Rainbow Dash asked, growing a little suspicious.

        She was definitely smarter than she let on.

        "The spells within are not for common use," Blueblood said, and it was the truth. Not the whole truth. But enough of it.

        Enough to convince the competitive and sharp eyed weathermare.

        Twilight tightened the ribbon on the book and bowed gracefully. "Thank you, Your Grace!"

        "I'm glad you like it; you may find it useful some day."

        "Now that we're ready, let's go party!"

        "You said it!" "All right!" "Come on, Fluttershy! You can just jump off the stairs out here." "I, um, I'd rather just walk..."

        Closing the door to the tower suite behind them, Blueblood noticed Rarity watching him and lingering behind her friends. Letting the five mares get a little distance, he slowed, expecting she had a few words to exchange. The pair of unicorns slowly descended the winding tower stairs together, side by side.

        "There's something odd about that book, isn't there?" Rarity asked.

        He chuckled. "It is an invisible book."

        "The perfect thing to hide secrets in."

        "Oh? That never occurred to me."

        "Are you going to tell me what's really in there?"

        "I don't see why," he quipped. "You can't read it."

        And there she was, looking cross at him. He held off saying more, at least until she pouted. That was harder to resist.

        "Fine," Prince Blueblood relented with a helpless shrug. "If you must know, that book contains dark and unimaginable secrets with which to subjugate Canterlot or even all of Equestria. One could call it a key to the very gates of hell itself, written not with quill and ink, but with dreams made solid, manifest and terrible."

        Rarity stared at him, long and hard...

        Before shaking her head. "If you really aren't going to tell me," she replied, sounding mildly upset but not too worried. "Then you could at least put effort into make up a more convincing lie."

        "Alas, Lady Rarity, that's simply too much work."

- - -

        Fight it all she could, Rarity just couldn't help herself.

        Maybe it was the sight and sound of the orchestra playing Schumare's 'Moonlit Night' outside. Maybe it was the elegantly dressed ladies and handsomely attired and groomed stallions. Maybe it was the shaded table of delightfully colorful and delicious looking amuse-bouches, with its ice-sculpture of Princess Celestia and waiters making the rounds, offering treats to chatting and scheming elites. Maybe it was the perfectly cut and maintained lawn, framed by fountains of crystal water and immaculate hedges cut into elaborate topiary, vines and rose bushes curling up to reach the sun. Maybe it was even the cultured game of crochet underway.

        Maybe it was one's uncultured buffoon of a Prince wagging his eyebrows at her as he enjoyed the party, taking every opportunity to remain obviously in view of the ballroom. Chatting away with a small crowd of mares. Annoying. Making exaggerated gestures as he savored bite-sized Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. Vexing. Laughing with celebrities and - and was he flirting with that cellist?! Destroy.

        "No! No!" Rarity swooned, dramatically, for good measure. "Must! Resist!"

        Besides, no matter how... attractive and cultures and wonderful...

        No, no matter how nice the party out there looked, half the ponies in that garden were probably working some scheme behind the back of the other half. Hadn't Blueblood himself called Canterlot's court a 'pit of snakes easting other snakes, begetting other snakes?' That was nothing to aspire to! All she had to do was pretend it didn't exist.

        Mind over matter.

        "Hey, look at the fancy party out there! Whatcha think they're doin' with that bat?"

        "That's a croquet mallet, AJ."

        "How do you know?"

        "I've been to tons of posh parties in Cloudsdale, and I'll have you know I'm totally awesome at that game."

        "Oh, look at all the song birds."

        "And snacks! But no chocolate. How can they have snacks but no chocolate? Oh! Oh! We should so totally bring them chocolate! It's too addictive NOT to share! Wait a second. I don't see even one balloon. Somepony tell me they aren't have a balloon-less party. Even funerals can at least have black balloons."

        So much for mind over matter.

         Her friends were just about to return to their curious mixture of eating fondue and breaking open a piñata - at the same time - when Twilight, perceptive as always, noticed one of her friends lingering longer than the others. Rarity just couldn't help it. Even after the disaster last night, even after being upset with herself and absolutely furious at Fleur, the garden party outside was like a siren drawing her to sea in a rising tide of fashion and high culture. What made it really unbearable was that she knew, she knew without a doubt, that she could fit in with Canterlot's elite. All she had to do was try. All she had to do was want to.

        "Rarity," Twilight said, still wearing the incomplete and frankly plain dress her friend hadn't been able to finish. "That other party... do you want to go?"

        "Oh, Twilight, I - I couldn't!" Rarity forcefully pushed herself away from the ballroom window. "This is your birthday and... I... I'm! So! Selfish!"

        "I don't think so! It makes sense!" Twilight blinked and smiled, somehow not comprehending Rarity's own confusion and guilt on the issue. "The Grand Galloping Gala is in a couple months, and look at all those posh ponies. I bet you could sell them lots of dresses! It's just good business sense!"

        "Well, yes, it is... I could..." Rarity replied, a little hesitantly. A little warning bell was already ringing way in the back of her mind. A little warning telling her that any second now-

        "Hey, yeah! And we could come too!" There it was.

        To cheers and the squeaking wheels of an unlimbered party cannon, the Elements of Harmony left the building.

- - -

        Canterlot's roads were designed from the start to be smooth and easy on carriage wheels, with cobblestone only on pedestrian walkways and the sides of major streets and venues. Fancypants hardly felt the occasional bump or jolt. He had on his preferred three piece dinner jacket, minus the bow tie. That item of clothing remained, unbound, in a small case by the side of his seat. Reaching up to his neck, it was easy to recall that morning, when he had worn a different item under his collar.

        A Brother could not refuse the summons of another Brother.

        Even if that so called "brother" in the Order was Blueblood.

        Fancypants flicked the collar of his shirt in annoyance. Not so much at the arrogant, ignorant noble who had, years ago, so rudely denied him a well earned knighting. The same teenage Prince who had tried to shackle him by making him into a regional cliens. The same former friend who had scuttled his plans for an amusement park where the children of nobles and commoners could mingle freely, with no booths or boxes or hedgerows between them. It was not that pony that vexed Fancypants at the moment.

        "So it was him?" Fancypants asked, nodding to himself. "He put you up to this? You are absolutely sure?" He turned to Fleur, the beautiful unicorn seated next to him. "I want to trust you, my dear. I really do."

        "It is impossible to be entirely certain," she replied, eyes downcast. "But yes."

        "And your family has already been rewarded for your little stunt?" Fancypants chuckled in dry amusement, floating up his bow tie and snaking it around his upturned shirt collar. "How sad for that cruel little colt, then. It changes nothing."

        "I am sorry, Fancy. I - I thought... you and Blueblood..."

        "Would not reconcile? I would not have thought it either. We may still not, as - aw, blast it all!"

        "I'll get it." Fleur's soft pink glow eased into his own magical field, helping to tie the purple bow to just the right length. A little tug, to pull the neckcloth together, and it was all in place. Fancypants glanced down and smiled approvingly.

        "I am so sorry, Fancy," she said again. "I wasn't just thinking of my family, I was thinking of you. And us."

        Fancypants sighed and closed his eyes, the steady rhythm of the carriage Fleur's only response.

        "In other circumstances, my dear... in another world perhaps, there could be a me and a you, in a carriage just like this one, on our way to a garden party." He opened his eyes and glanced at her, not with anger or hurt, but with honest affection. "And that Fancypants could well be lauding you for your move. But I am not him, and he is not me. I will give His Grace the chance to prove he has changed."

        "And..." Fleur said the name quietly, "Lord Brass?"

        "Yes. Him. I find it interesting he would trade an estate, even a small one like your family sold back in Prance, all for the chance to keep me and Lord Blueblood at odds. He must know I have no desire to play these political games. I am independent. I am neutral in this inane family feud-"

         "No pony can stay neutral, Fancy," Fleur said it like an indictment, and with enough heat to cause him to turn his head. "Especially not if he gave you the knighthood you wanted. I don't know what I was thinking..."

        "I can not remain angry at you, my dear. I fear love has blinded me, even in my good eye. Make no mistake, however," he cut her off, his expression hardening. "I am disappointed in you. I know exactly what crossed your mind. You were thinking: I can gain much, if I sacrifice my principles just a little. We are all presented with choices like that, but it is up to our better nature to prevail against it. Perhaps I am a little guilty as well. But there is the chance that, this afternoon, we can both make up for it."

        "And," he added, before she could say more. "And possibly even save two friendships, tossed aside in haste and bad judgment."

- - -

        "How come y'all aren't doin' any yard work? This is a garden party, isn't it?"

        Applejack - uprooting random plants. That had to be worth a drink.

        "Yeah! Yeah! Who wants to get down and dance?"

        Twilight - oh sweet Celestia, was kind of dancing was that? The epileptic boogie?

        Was that Pinkie Pie, face first in a cake?

        "I need another drink," Rarity said, still reeling a bit from downing her last one. Surely after a few more glasses, inebriation would kick in and it wouldn't seem quite so bad. Ideally all the other guests could get hammered as well. Perhaps everypony could just forget what happened!

        "Oh, this is priceless! Simply priceless."

        "You," Rarity growled at the nearby Prince who, since the fiasco began, had done nothing but sit back and watch. "Aren't you going to do something, Your Grace?"

        "Me?" Blueblood asked, pointing a hoof at his illustrious and stainless self. "I'm not getting anywhere near that cake. You see this right here?" He pointed at the ground, and to a line in the dirt. "This is just outside the disaster radius. Which means I'm nice and safe."

        "Oh, are you? Safe, that is?" Rarity brandished her glass, with a little bit of seven-and-seven left at the bottom. The shot or so of lime soda and whiskey splashed around, dangerously crashing against the remaining ice left inside.

        A pony could imagine it getting on his or her nice clean shirt, or perhaps all over their smug face.

        "I see!" Blueblood shot up, as if from an epiphany. "You're worried about your reputation and your friends making a scene!"

        Rarity could only stare at him. "You think?!"

        "If you absolutely insist, then... Oh-ho?" Blueblood pointed across the garden to a newly arriving carriage. "Is that who I think it is?"

        Rarity recognized the carriage, too. "Fancypants?"

        It was the straw that broke the camel's back. She started to slump, bonelessly, against the punch table. Having a similar sense, Upper Crust and Jet Set had also retreated to the table, partly to get away from the new party guests and partly to try and pick up where Rarity had left off in convincing the Prince to do something. Probably and preferably something that involved kicking ponies out and-or calling for security.

        "Fancypants, too!" Jet Set, for the first time, seemed to stiffen his resolve. "Your Grace, you must do something!"

        "About?" Blueblood picked that time - the worst time as usual, in Rarity's opinion - to play dense.

        "About these... these country bumpkins!"

        "Ah. Those." He tapped a hoof, impatiently. "I suppose I should do something."

        "Yes, Yes!" Jet Set cheered.

        "Please do!" Upper Crust chimed in.

        Blueblood, with all his royal majesty, infrequently applied... headed off in the wrong direction, leaving the two wealthy unicorns gaping. It even left Rarity rather surprised, until she noticed where he was headed. It was not to get involved with her friends and their merry making (and whatever it was Twilight was doing). He was headed for Fancypants. The other stallion, having just exited his carriage and gotten a look at the garden party in progress, was left stunned. Behind him, Fleur was also looking on, perplexed.

        "Oh no. No! Don't get into a fight!" Rarity broke into a gallop, almost losing her hat in the process. A rush of wind caught it, forcing her to nimbly circle around, grab it with magic, and fix it back on her head. By the time she got close, Blueblood and Fancypants were already -

        Already... greeting each other...?

        "I say, I've never seen a garden party quite like this before."

        "I figure we can have fun reining things in a bit. Do you remember that play you sponsored? The Lusty Marabian... and the garden party scene?"

        "Oh yes, one could hardly forget that!" the two stallions laughed heartily.

        Leaving Fleur and Rarity to exchange confused looks.

        "The Lusty Marabian?" she mouthed, and then asked, "Do I even want to know?"

        "It seems we've both been the victim of a conspiracy," Fancypants continued, levitating his monocle back on and straightening his collar and coat. "A conspiracy to try and set right some past misunderstandings."

        "So it seems," Blueblood agreed, and beckoned Rarity closer with a dip of his horn.

        "But... last night?" Rarity asked, looking from one to the other. "I thought...?"

        "That was all my fault," Fleur spoke up, but didn't meet Rarity's angry glare.

        "Before you admonish her," Fancypants said, leaning down to touch his cheek to Fleur's, sharing a brief but very public display of affection. "I am here because of her. I would hope you do not make the mistake His Grace and I have, and let a mistake poison a potentially profitable relationship for another ten years."

        "Of course, being the bigger pony," Blueblood explained with a haughty grin. "I am willing to first extend the olive branch."

        "And if I were to extend the olive branch first, Your Grace?"

        "I'd probably take it and ask for more."

        "You would," Fancypants remarked with a shake of his head. "I shall allow you to go first then."

        "Oh, you shall, shall you?"

        "I shall!"

        The two headed off, right into the mess of the garden party.

        "Those two...?" Rarity felt a sudden headache coming on. She decided to blame the alcohol and ice. In the interests of peace among ponies. Then again, there was one pony that had made that difficult.

        She turned to Fleur-de-lis.

        "Before either of us says anything else," Rarity demanded, "Tell me why."

        Fleur sniffed, raised her head and looked the Element of Generosity straight on. Rarity could see that she was just a little defiant, even if she looked distraught. She took a deep breath, and spoke.

        "Money," she explained.

        "Money?" Rarity snapped. "You made a foal out of me! I was - I was put through that, for money?"

        "I was asked to interfere in any reconciliation between Blueblood and Fancypants," she continued, looking away briefly before forcing herself to own up to the mare she had turned against. "In return, my family would get back lands we had sold."

        "You're nobility," Rarity argued. "Why would you need more land?"

        "My family is noble... but poor," Fleur said it with a shudder. "Every generation, we have lost more and more. My grandmother sold our ancestral estate in Prance. My mother sold her wardrobe. I was lucky enough to find a way to make money without causing us to lose title. Celestia knows that title is all we have left. I can't just ask Fancypants to support us - it isn't right. It isn't honorable."

        "So when the opportunity arose to get some of that back, I took it. Fancy and Blueblood... I really couldn't imagine that they would ever make up. It was a long shot, anyway, right?" She asked, trying to make her reasoning clear. "Besides, Lord Blueblood... his family sponsored mine when we left Prance. He was supposed to help take care of us, and we've sworn oaths to him for a hundred years. What has all that gotten us?"

        She sniffed again but kept her chin high.

        "I'll understand if you can't forgive me," she finished, blinking away tears. "I feel - I am sorry I did it. But you wanted to know why? That was why."

        Rarity frowned, but lowered her eyes. She had heard of impoverished nobility. Most ponies considered it an amusing sort of turnabout: the once noble family, with little more than title left. It was even the brunt of the occasional joke, about the rich stallion or mare from the middle classes, picking up a wife or husband and gaining title along the -

        "Fancypants!" she realized, and asked softly, "He isn't...?"

        "No." Fleur smiled wanly at the question. "I asked if he wanted to. But he wants me to marry into his family, not the other way around. He wants to earn a title, not just inherit it."

        "Fleur, is... is it really that bad?"

        "It isn't like the story books or moving pictures, where we have to move around like gypsies." Fleur actually laughed at the notion. "Nopony is starving. We simply slipped into debt, little by little. Without other estates or a strong new patron, leaving Canterlot is impossible. My mother... she learned how to dance, how to sit at court and display the finest manners, to speak old Equestrian and to defend her taste in art and spellwork. She could even write poetry. None of it helped her to actually make money."

        "But that isn't important right now," Fleur stressed, walking up to Rarity. "I should have trusted in you, but I didn't. I should've given you a chance. I don't know if you can trust me again, or... or if you hate me for what I did."

        Rarity didn't - couldn't - answer right away.

        The truth was, she wasn't sure if she could trust Fleur again. The anger of the night before had bubbled over, but deep down, she wasn't the sort of pony to nurse a grudge for very long. What was left was regret and disappointment. Fleur-de-lis had been the first pony she had called friend in Canterlot, Blueblood excluded. She and Fancypants weren't just pretty ponies with charm and money - they had both genuinely seemed like ponies she could get along with. She had felt like one of them, and Fleur had kicked that out from under her.

        It was hard to forgive.

        She stole a look over at the garden, where Fancypants seemed to be commenting approvingly at Twilight's dress, much to the shock of Upper Crust. Blueblood was already floating his way through the records the girls had brought over, probably looking for the most inappropriate music he could find. More of that 'jazz' from the Gala even.

        "If those two can try and put the past aside... I can, too." So, hard as it was, she did it anyway. Rarity shrugged, as she remembered, "Besides, you did say not to trust you, now that I think about it."

        "Hmm?" Fleur wondered, blinking innocently. "I did?"

        Rarity stared at the other mare. "You said, and I quote, 'When it comes to Canterlot, appearances are everything... and nothing.'"

        "OOH!" Fleur reached up to bonk the side of her head. "I'd completely forgotten about that!"

        Feeling a little vindicated, Rarity nodded. "So you see, I should have expected-"

        "Actually, I was talking about clothes!" Fleur exclaimed, and did a little pirouette. "And how they always go out of style. Another reason not to bother with them at all!"

        Rarity's face fell. "That was it?"

        "I think so. My word, is that pink pony throwing cake?" Fleur's eyes widened with delight as she pulled Rarity along. "How sinfully decadent!"

        "W-wait! At least let me take my dress off first! Fleur!"

- - -

        The quill moved in slow, elegant strokes...

- - -

Dear Princess -

        Or should I say, 'daddy's little princess' instead?

        I heard the most interesting story the other day. It had to do with rats.

        Bear with me. You see, imagine you have a small pack of rats in a nice little cage, all family and friends, squeaking and nibbling cheese. You then remove one of these rats, wash off all scent of her, and return her to their fellows. The rats, it is said, will turn on their former friend and family member, biting and clawing and screaming and scratching. They will not recognize her as one of the group. However, if you do the opposite and take a rat from outside the group, but wash it in the appropriate scent, it will be accepted into the new group. They will treat it as one of their own. Isn't that interesting?

        Naturally, dear little sister, I first imagined: what must it be like for that first rat? Returned home, so nice and clean? She can smell her friends and family, but upon her return, they turn on her? Can you imagine the terror of what that rat must have felt, to be bitten and clawed at by friends and family? To not even know why?

        Now, if you will humor me, sister, imagine you are that second rat. Dropped in a cage with however many strangers. They smell all wrong to you. You want to bite them and claw them and drive them away, but they surround you. They smell you and accept you, and you know it is a lie, so you bide your time. They will never smell like your real friends or your real family. So you wait, for a time, until you eventually forget who you were. You forget the smell of one pack and blend into another. How terrifying is that, sister? To lose oneself? Would you rather be that first rat, or the second?

        Both scenarios amuse me, of course, and I would see such theories put to more practical application. But I can imagine you now, reading this, and narrowing those frightful eyes of yours. Do not fret. I have merely had some harmless fun with the rats in Canterlot. On first glance, I would have to agree with your earlier observations. Our Prince will most certainly go out of his way to stick his nose into any attempts to sideline his new bed-warmer. It may comfort you to know that I don't like her either. She is naive, yes, but with a disarming charisma. Never underestimate the sex appeal of innocence.

        Lastly, and the matter you have no doubt been waiting for as you read this letter:

        Regarding own family here in Canterlot, most all are good, loyal and pliable. If ignorant. They can be counted on to act in the interests of the family as a whole, however, there are problems. Lord Wrathenow will be dead within the year. Though he did not say as much, I have the impression he will pass authority of the Canterlot branch of the family over to Crescent Moon. One last death-bed snub in response to Father's little mess, twenty years ago. This is potentially troublesome. Not only is he father of the Element of Magic, Moon has both the skill and the background to learn all he needs of our rites from Wrathenow. Both have been sympathetic to our Blueblood cousins in the past.

        The following is purely my recommendation, for I would not presume to give orders to you, little sister. You should visit him when you come to the city. You are the designated heir, after all. Impress on him that the main branch of the family is watching him closely. Shining Armor is to be wed within the next half year, to Cadence. This works well for us. Perhaps Twilight Sparkle, a fine looking lady of good breeding, could also be married off? Preferably to someone loyal to us. Use those nasty eyes of yours if you have to.

        The Canterlot branches of the family must be fixed firmly to the trunk of the tree. Or they must be pruned. Father and I both share this assessment.

With love, sincerity, and deep devotion,

Your dear, sweet brother,

Alpha Brass

- - -

(1)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1O8Ssf1NPuthP-buMTr3f94F42NaNeVEZnt6iCbTl83I/edit

- - -

(though I still recommend reading on FIMfiction or FFN. They’re easier for me to manage and update)


AN

Well, here it is. The "Best Night Ever" sequel. I expect it will be a lot more divisive than TBNE and that some people will hate it while others enjoy it. Hopefully more of the latter than the former! This was very much an attempt by me to get away with a lot of worldbuilding and to explore a hypothetical pre-modern Equestrian aristocracy and social organization and the consequences of how TBNE ended. The focus will be primarily on Rarity rather than Blueblood. My thanks as always go out to my pre-readers, beta-readers, and proofers for helping to get this fic ready!

Anyway, that's enough of my author notes.

Hope you enjoy this latest delving into MLP: Friendship is Magic.

ALSO please be sure to check out Chapter Zero to better ease the transition from TBNE to TPC.

- - -

(1)

- - -

 

                    Dawn.

 

                    The light of the freshly risen sun blasted up along the horizon with startling abruptness, as Celestia so often willed it to, amid a flourish of oranges and reds. Only a few sparse, broad-leafed trees stood out against the onrushing new day: dancing silhouettes and retreating shadows. As if on cue, the clouds overhead began to drizzle, adding to the faint, prevailing fog that shrouded the rocky valley. In the distance, the proud white and gold spires of Eternal Canterlot peeked out from around the busom of a brown and green mountain.

 

                    Momentarily distracted by the sunrise, Blueblood very nearly missed the first round of introductions. Mother's pink hooves pressed him close in silent reprimand and he faced forward. The family standing opposite his own, across in the field, was far more numerous than his own. Seated comfortably on an expensive tarp and plush pillows, the young Prince regarded the Terre Rare family in attendance, first with a critical eye, then with a little envy, before settling into disdain.

 

                    There were quite a few fillies and colts his age there, present to watch their father defend his honor. One brother and three sisters. Blueblood had no siblings of his own, but he had often wondered if that was a good thing. Other family would be competition, after all, and it was hard enough living up to everypony's expectations when you were the only alternative they had. It was sort of nice to be the default. Of the group of colts and fillies present across the field, one in particular caught his eye: a fair filly with a pinkish white coat and a reddish-purple mane. Together with an older brother, she seemed to be paying close attention, staring across the clearing with intense interest in her light violet eyes.

 

                    Umbrellas rose up, held by servants of both parties, to shelter the noble observers from the inclement weather. Blueblood glanced upward expecting to see a pegasus swoop through the air to clear away the offending sky. Then he remembered: there would be no pegasi here, not until matters were settled between unicorns and fellow gentlecolts. It was tradition, and tradition was important, even in the face of inconvenience. Even in the face of dirt and grime and discomfort. Even in the face of pain.

 

                    Father said nothing, except to remove his overcoat and step forward.

 

                    Alabaster coat and blonde mane, the Reigning Prince wore the family colors as his only son did. No other family had been asked to attend, and no others stood by Mother and himself opposite the Terre Rares. It would have been improper to involve Auntie. Father's second was a stallion Blueblood didn't recognize, though given his slade-gray coloration and size, he may have once been a royal guard. He and the Terre's chosen retainer were exchanging and inspecting the weapons of the duel: slices of génoise sponge cake had been chosen at the initial meeting, laced with a mild numbing agent.

 

                    It all seemed rather foalish, even to Blueblood the Younger, himself a young colt. Surely whatever disagreements or insults that had transpired in the past could be talked over and forgiven? The Terre Rare clan was, despite only being on the rise over the last few hundred years, very rich and very well respected.  They were distant kin, even. There were no common, ditch-digging, cloud-clearing pony-folk here. None of this seemed worth getting filthy over, much less injured or humiliated by laced pastry.

 

                    Blueblood thought these things, but didn't dare give voice to them.

 

                    Mother would have been upset by such rudeness, and Father was quite single-minded and would have cuffed him for his impudence and impropriety. Blueblood knew well that speaking would have resulted in a scolding, so he sat quietly and stole looks at the other family's colts and fillies. Were any of them thinking the same? A few looked eager to get the spectacle underway, while others were staring down at their hooves or looking to their mothers for what attitude to display. One tiny light blue filly was asleep, unable or unwilling to deal with so much adventure at so early an hour.

 

                    Father's hooves sank into the soft ground, between the border of sod and mud, still damp from the rain last night. This was not his first duel by any long shot and he had by right chosen the field of battle. Meeting him was the patriarch of the Terre Rare. He was every bit as large as Father, with a dark bay coat, steel-gray mane and mutton chops, and a featureless, oddly shaped white star as a cutie mark. The sight of the two, picking weapons - slices of cake levitating one by one into the air - reminded Blueblood of matched chess pieces, black and white, stripped bare of clothes or other adornments. The two unicorn stallions spoke briefly, in low whispers, and then turned and paced away.

 

                    "Prince Blueblood the Elder," an elderly unicorn, light gray in a dark overcoat and top hat, spoke up as he stepped between the two nobleponies, both with backs turned. Blueblood the Younger, the Fifty Second, recognized the old stallion as the Earl of Trotington. A family friend.

 

                    "Are you prepared to defend your honor, sir?" the Earl inquired, loud enough for the family members present to hear.

 

                    "I am," Blueblood the Elder replied, chin held high, the first words he had spoken aloud since dawn. Already the sun was beginning it's slow creep across the sky since its dramatic release from the horizon. Celestia would already be on her throne, no doubt awaiting petitioners... and news.

 

                    "Lord Cruciger," the Earl then asked, inclining his head towards the onyx stallion. "Are you prepared to defend your honor, sir?"

 

                    "I am," the Duke replied, with a hint of deep low-country accent. Blueblood recalled the less common title given this grand noble: 'Les Deux Fleuves.' The Duke of Two Rivers. The Duke of Two Bloods. Great grandson of the Infamous Lady, herself.

 

                    "So be it, gentlecolts." The Earl, arbiter for the duel, quickly backed away on three legs, carefully holding his hat in place as he retreated a safe distance. "Honor your families and your names."

 

                    The fight began without further warning or word from the two duelists.

 

                    Father and his opponent spun, casting the first slice of cake at the same time, guided and wreathed in telekinetic unicorn magic. In ancient times, when ponies had first come to Equestria from the Old Kingdom, polished pewter had been used for duels to draw first blood. In more modern times, pastry had become the favored means for one pony to humiliate the other without permanent injury. As most duels never progressed beyond the initial exchange, it had been a truly civilizing advance... and one that resulted in far fewer injured or crippled aristocrats.

 

                    Save for the injured pride, anyway.

 

                    Blueblood the Younger winced, squinting his eyes as the two cakes splattered midway between the older stallions, followed a second later by a crackling burst of magic. Two streams of sparkling lights, one deep purple and the other light blue, warped and twisted around one another, the contact ripping apart the animating magical forces, searing strands away like a threshing machine. Fat droplets of de-animated mana fell to the damp ground, burning tiny depressions and sizzling like angry embers of molten iron.

 

                    Blueblood the Elder stomped, three slices remaining in his arsenal. His horn was glowing a fearsome, luminescent blue, and a pulse of wild magic rippled down his neck and into the ground. There was a moment's pause and then the grass around him shuddered, twisted, and uprooted. Per unicorn tradition, only base "pure" magics were permitted in a duel, telekinesis generally being the most important skill. A hundred blades of grass now answered the call of Blueblood the Elder, straightening out into tiny, razor sharp slivers that slowly began to orbit and revolve around their master. Only then - with the grass blades collected together - did the faint magical field around them become obvious to the unaided eye.

 

                    Blueblood the Younger felt a surge of pride in him at the sight. He had known Father was a duelist of some renown, but he had never been taken to see any actual fights before. He quickly turned to the black Duke of Two Rivers, his heart beating excitedly in his chest.

 

                    The other unicorn took a thundering step forward, concentrating as more and more magic poured out of his horn. The three, still intact, slices of cake he had control over circled around him, faster and faster and faster still, until they became a white blur, too fast for a normal pony's eyes to follow. The loud crack-crack rapport of teleportation signaled the next phase of the duel.

 

                    There was a splash of brown and white as something impacted something else, a moment's pause revealing what, though not how. Father was in a different spot, one hoof in the air, eyes wide. The storm of grass-blades that had been orbiting him protectively now bore a gaping hole, punched clean through. He cantered back, quickly, and then teleported again, a trail of green chasing after him like the tail of a comet.

 

                    Blueblood blinked, and a thundering boom pricked his ears.

 

                    He didn't see Father, but the Duke was all too clear: the black stallion seemed to be blasting an entire schoolroom's worth of magic out of his horn, blanketing them with wash from his Star Field. The colt could only watch in awe as the ground split and heaved, tearing upwards like one would scoop up a dollop of ice cream. Two massive fields of earth glowed with magic as Duke Cruciger lifted them higher into the air...

 

                    And crushed the two fields of dirt and stone together like clapping hooves, deafening the assembled watchers with its thunderous rapport. He then jumped back, teleporting in midair, and reappearing higher up - the momentum from his jump continuing even after his re-appearance. Conservation of Magical Momentum. Something bright and fast and trailed by green ripped through the wet, compacted earth, and a pair of streaming missiles surged upwards in impossible-to-follow zig-zags.

 

                    Father's opponent vanished into - behind - the still hovering mountain of earth he had control over. A pair of explosions gauged craters in the mass of dirt and stone, and in a bright flash, the whole mess came crashing down. Blueblood the Younger tried to see what was happening, but to his young eyes it was all a confusing blur. By the time the earth had settled on the dueling field, it was over.

 

                    Father stood on an uprooted rock, breathing heavily, his magic reserves running low.

 

                    Duke Cruciger stood in almost the same way, perched on another rock, though displaying less fatigue.

 

                    The two stallions turned to the Earl of Trotington, who stood far on the sidelines. Both raised a hoof to signal that they were out of cake. Each had tried and failed to tag the other. There would be no more. Four attempts was the traditional limit.

 

                    "Amazing," Blueblood whispered, quietly enough that only Mother could hear. He glanced up at her. "Isn't it amazing?"

 

                    Mother didn't reply, though her blue eyes narrowed slightly.

 

                    "Mother?" he asked again, and then stared at the two duelists.

 

                    "You may both honorably step away from this matter if you choose," the Earl declared. "Or you may request à outrance."

 

                    "It is not too late for us to reconcile, Blueblood," Cruciger spoke first, raising his voice so all could hear him. "Accept my family as the kin they are. Honor the vows made by our forebears! Let us embrace one another as brothers... and equals."

 

                    Blueblood the Elder's blue eyes shot briefly back to his wife and son, and then focused on his opponent.

 

                    "Your offer, though generous, has already been rejected, good Duke," the Prince of Canterlot replied. "My decision was not meant as an insult, however. The succession of the Blueblood line-"

 

                    "Not an insult?!" Cruciger roared, stamping hard on the rock beneath his hooves, causing it to splinter. That had not been a magical feat. The black unicorn was far stronger than he appeared. Far stronger than any normal unicorn could be.

 

                    Still, he quickly calmed, taking a deep breath.

 

                    "Accept my offer," he repeated. "Or it will be à outrance. I will accept no other apology!"

 

                    "The form of apology you ask for is one I can not, in good conscience, give." Blueblood's Father nodded his head sadly. "Then... it is à outrance."

 

                    Mother's hooves pressed tightly into his shoulder at that.

 

                    At the time, Blueblood the Younger had not understood why.

 

- - -

 

                    Dueling.

 

                    Prince Blueblood hated dueling.

 

                    Not simply because it was barbaric, but because he was bad at it. Those two reasons were among the many thoughts that spun erratically through his head as his body lurched limply, side to side. His retainers were removing his warm, thick cloak, and he glanced to the side as it was floated away, a glint of sapphire and silver catching his eye. The clasp. It reminded him of why he was in this mess.

 

                    Rarity.

 

                    Plus his own big mouth and recently embraced impulsiveness.

 

                    Stupid idiot.

 

                    She would have called him that to his face, were she here. It was a good thing she wasn't. Auntie Celestia would probably have thought the same - Idiot Nephew! - but at least she wouldn't have actually said it, leaving him to read it in her expression and in her eyes. As for Auntie Luna...? Well, as least with her around, he may have had a vocal cheering section, courtesy of the Royal Voice. No, no: it was best that none of them were around.

 

                    Getting mauled was bad enough; no need to be nagged at either.

 

                    Soon, not only was the cloak gone, but his comfortable Merino top-frock overcoat. He spared a minute, still in a bit of a daze, to remind his attendant to keep it clean. It was expensive, after all: the finest wool, the lapels embroidered with imperial silk gathered and hoof-spun by pony artisans. Oh, and his scarf as well. It was gorgeous Cashmere, and a Hearth's Warming gift from his beloved Auntie.

 

                    Truly excellent bespoke tailoring was a lamentably dying art in Equestria, at least when it came to stallion fashions. Perhaps it was a good thing that he had to be undressed for this, after all. It simply wouldn't do to get blood on such fine clothes. At least, no matter what else, his wardrobe would survive this cursed affair unscathed.

 

                    Blueblood's breath came in slow, cold gasps as the frigid mountain air wrapped around him, his body bereft of anything but the coat he had been born with. It was a beautiful coat to be sure, but in no way acclimated to these climes or the task at hoof of keeping him warm at the moment. Canterlot was technically built atop a mountain, like many old style unicorn stronghold towns, but not this absurdly high, nor this inhospitably far north! Canterlot was temperate, save for the winter months. What sort of insane, barbaric beast would actually desire to live this high in the damned mountains?!

 

                    "Yoh!" "Yoh!" "Yoh!" "Yoh!"

 

                    A griffin, of course.

 

                    Mnemon was this particular griffin's name. Prince Mnemon, if one included his title.

 

                    Eldest son of the King and heir apparent, he was a sizeable creature, again and a half the size of even a large pony like Blueblood or his armored bodyguards. Already bare of the hunting coat and cloak that he had been wearing before the calling of this foalish duel, Mnemon was rearing, facing his fellows, and flexing his muscular wings and razor sharp claws.

 

                    Blueblood felt a trickle of nervous sweat run down his brow as the hooked talons of one of the griffin Prince's royal hands clenched and unclenched. It reminded him of the claws on Dream Catcher, his little hunting tercer. Just.... writ large. Very large. Pony-rendingly large.

 

                    The rear legs of his opponent were no more comforting a sight. They rippled with muscle as he scraped and pawed at the ground. At least the tail seemed harmless, save for the fact that it was whipping back and forth with enough force at the tip to rip the leaves and branches off nearby bushes. Golden wings stretched - larger even than Auntie Celestia's - the feathers going taunt and flexing before relaxing and snapping back. Blueblood groaned and hid his face behind his forearm.

 

                    How in the Starless, Moon Forsaken Hells was he supposed to fight this beast?

 

                    The plethora of flesh rending claws, the murderous beak, eye-gouging tail... weren't even the worst of it. Griffins as a race drew from much the same wellspring of magic that pegasi did, and Griffin Duels didn't involve a round of thrown desserts before they degenerated into bloodletting.

 

                    This really was one fine mess.

 

                    "I suppose you'd think less of me if I turned and ran?" the Prince asked, directing the question to the senior of the three Royal Guard he had with him.

 

                    Overcast was a pegasus himself, and probably understood just how boned his liege lord was.

 

                    "Respectfully, sir," the Royal Guard in standard white and blue answered in a level voice. "I would."

 

                    Blueblood scoffed, staring into the cold vapor cloud that escaped his nostrils.

 

                    "Well, you have trained to fight these sorts of enemies," he reasoned.

 

                    "Not that, sir." Overcast coughed to hide his impropriety. "Respectfully," he repeated the word, just to be sure. "I overheard what this fight is about."

 

                    "Oh? You did?" Blueblood asked, and shook his head. "Well, just keep it to yourself, then. I don't need word of this foalishness getting around."

 

                    Overcast lowered his eyes in submission. "As you wish, my Prince."

 

                    Prince Mnemon, meanwhile, had turned from his pre-fight exercises - and the improper cheering of his fellow griffins and guards - to prowl in wait for the opponent to step up. A pitiful sigh was Blueblood's only response.

 

                    The day had started off well enough. He had been invited to a boar hunt amid the craggy rocks and forests of the lower mountains. It was a barbaric practice, hunting animals for food and sport, but it was a great honor among griffin-kind and a Prince of Equestria could not diplomatically refuse. Especially when he was on a diplomatic mission to begin with. He had actually hoped that the exercise would leave his fellow Prince more open to the negotiations that were Blueblood's reason for traveling this far north.

 

                    Instead, certain words had been exchanged, and now he was about to pay for it.

 

                    "Since running and hiding is out," Blueblood pondered, glancing over at his senior guard. "You wouldn't have any advice for me, would you?"

 

                    "Sir," Overcast said, pausing only a second to formulate a response fit for a unicorn. "Don't let him grab you. Griffins rake with their back legs, but they don't kick. The females may bite, but the males won't. They're like us in that respect. Despite the size, their bones are hollow and light. Lighter than those of a pegasus. They break easily."

 

                    "And his magic?"

 

                    "Sir. I am not aware of how proficient Lord Mnemon is in that area. Naturally, one would expect manipulation of winds."

 

                    "Winds. Winds." Blueblood nodded, trying to get in something approaching the right frame of mind. The cold mountain air and biting northern wind only made him feel naked and vulnerable. The thought that his opponent could harness those forces with his magic made it even worse.

 

                    "Are you ready yet, little pony?" Mnemon jeered, stalking forward. His wings outstretched, allowing him to hover. Raising his right hand, he pointed first at the Equestrian Prince, and then up at the sky.

 

                    A spark of electricity danced at the end of his talon, lengthening into a crackling blade.

 

                    "Also lightning, my Lord!" Overcast yelled, retreating to a safe distance.

 

                    "Lightning," Blueblood muttered, eyes lidded. "Wonderful!"

 

                    He looked around for an arbiter, but didn't see anypony, or anygriffin, assuming the role. Instead, his three guards and the two pony attendants provided by the King of Crown Roc were watching from a distance while Mnemon's hunting party did the same on the opposite end of the field. Around them, winds swept across distant mountain peaks and rustled the evergreen pine trees that covered the landscape.

 

                    He began to ask, "Who is to be our-"

 

                    At which point, no longer held back, heralded by a crack of thunder, the griffin Prince pounced.

 

- - -

 

                    Snow capped mountains ran across the horizon like the serrated edge of a knife. It was beautiful, in a stark and lifeless sort of way. Deceptively lifeless, of course. Equestria had a few lands like this, wild and untamed preserves on the edge of the national border, and Blueblood knew they had abstract ecosystems of their own that functioned without pony oversight. The lands of the griffins were like that, but at least on the surface - at least from a distance - they seemed completely inhospitable.

 

                    Mnemon, however, was in good spirits.

 

                    "You sent that poor girl to my room last night?" Blueblood asked, drawing his cloak tight against the cold air. He and his guards were at the rear of the hunting column, letting the griffins do all the actual work. Only the two local ponies, both unicorns and both natives to this land of griffins, seemed to be used to the physical and mental conditions. They comfortably trotted along in their winter gear while carrying a bevy of additional supplies.

 

                    "And you turned her away," Mnemon replied with a beaky grin, his bright yellow eyes searching ahead and waiting for his servants to flush out some game. He walked as well, saving his wings for the hunt to come.

 

                    "Did you expect otherwise?"

 

                    "I picked out a real beauty for you, my old friend," the griffin Prince added the affectionate comment at the end with some irony. They were hardly friends, in Blueblood's opinion,  much less old ones. "Nothing keeps you warmer during a long night than a griffin girl."

 

                    "I'll have to take your word for it," Blueblood replied, keeping a level expression.

 

                    Griffins were a rather... curious species. Though they mated for life, before they found that one special someone they were notoriously adventurous. Crown Roc had a small population of hippogriffs that could attest to that fact. Checking in on the resident pony population was one of the unspoken reasons for Blueblood's visit, though King Mede had a reputation for fairness, he was also aged and soon to step down. Blueblood thus had little doubt in his mind that Mnemon had, over the years, sampled enough of the local life to determine where his preferences lay.

 

                    Simply Barbaric.

 

                    "Come now, I'm curious," the griffin lord pressed, rising up to gesture with a taloned hand. "Was she really not to your liking, or are the rumors I've heard true?"

 

                    Blueblood tried not to give his fellow Prince's words much weight. "Rumors?"

 

                    "That you've been gelded by that little dressmaker in the countryside?"

 

                    "If that is what you've heard, then you may wish to replace your spy master at court."

 

                    "Admittedly, we don't have the benefit of your... interesting free press out here, or your obsession with printing every little thing that comes to mind." Mnemon chuckled, his wings stretching to let him fly at the same pace Blueblood walked. "But we do get some information, second-claw."

 

                    "And?" Blueblood huffed.

 

                    "I've seen pictures of you and this seamstress. Now, I prefer my little ponies with a bit more meat on their bones, but isn't it a little scandalous? You aren't minding yourself because of this common street mare, are you?"

 

                    Blueblood's shoulders tensed beneath his cloak, but he otherwise remained calm.

 

                    "I would suggest, Prince Mnemon, that you refrain from speaking of things you know nothing about," he was a warning all the same. "Lady Rarity is no common mare."

 

                    "You may call her that, and you may wish that she had noble title," the griffin replied, leaning in closer. "But I hear she is no Lady."

 

- - -

 

                    The feel of rapping knuckles - not hooves - against his bruised and stress-worn horn snapped Blueblood's eyes open. The sensation of consciousness was then topped, like a cherry on one of Pinkie Pie's parfaits, with the added nugget of feeling stitches tighten and draw across skin, squeezing parted flesh together so it could be treated with antiseptic magic. Blue eyes closed briefly, experimenting with the possibility of mercifully slipping back into unconsciousness, before remaining open, resigned to the waking world.

 

                    He was surrounded by barbarians.

 

                    Also, he had lost the duel, rather conclusively.

 

                    "Mnemon."

 

                    "Blueblood."

 

                    The other Prince remained, sitting on his haunches, a pensive expression on his normally predatory face. Golden eyes glanced off in the distance for a moment and Blueblood took better stock of his situation. First and foremost, he didn't see his guards. Second, though he could feel the soft fur of a rug beneath him, separating his back from the cold ground, he was still outside. He recognized the flanking trees from the duel. He couldn't have been unconscious for long.

 

                    "You have good guards," Mnemon complimented, still gazing at some distant point in the trees or sky. "They rushed to your side as soon as you fell."

 

                    "They are unharmed," Blueblood immediately inquired, phrasing it as a statement that had best be proven true.

 

                    "Of course. You are our esteemed guests, after all." The griffin Prince smirked, a blast of hot breath drifting from the nostrils in his beak, forming vapor in the cold air.

 

                    Blueblood winced as another stitch tightened, then felt relief as it was cut.

 

                    "I would see them," he insisted.

 

                    "In a moment," Mnemon replied, and looked down at the beaten Equestrian noble. "Blueblood. I gave you a good scar. You should keep it."

 

                    "Good or not, I don't particularly want a scar," the white stallion grumbled, finally getting the chance to see where he had been stitched up. Predictably, he had been cut on the flank, but fortunately, not on his cutie mark. It had been when Mnemon swooped around and he had stupidly tried to kick at the griffin. Between the cutie mark and tail, two lines of red were crossed with black stitches.

 

                    A unicorn mare sat close by, putting her needle back in a medical satchel.

 

                    "A good scar is more valuable than gold," Mnemon assured him, pointing with his left hand to the wound. "This one came from a Prince, soon to be King."

 

                    Father had dueling scars; no doubt Mother had hated them.

 

                    The thought occurred to him that if Rarity saw it, she would know. She would hate it, too.

 

                    Yet, it seemed that to remove it would... offend.

 

                    Blueblood sighed, despondently. "Very well."

 

                    Mnemon smiled broadly and earnestly, turning to the unicorn mare. "Sepeia. Keep the wound clean, but no more."

 

                    "Aye, Lord." The unicorn, a pony but not an Equestrian, bowed her head and backed away.

 

                    For a long stretch of seconds, both Princes kept silent, composing their thoughts. Clearly, Mnemon was never going to apologize for taking the duel as far as he had. For a griffin, in fact, stopping a duel at 'heart's blood' was probably quite generous. For his part, Blueblood convinced himself not to relent on why he had issued the challenge in the first place. It was a matter of pride and honor. Appearances, though burdensome, still had their place in the world.

 

                    "We've never truly been friends, Blueblood," Mnemon finally said, craning his neck enough to fluff out feathers. "But we have known each other for a long time."

 

                    A little thrown by the statement, the Equestrian Prince wasn't sure how to respond.

 

                    It was true that they had known each other for quite a while. Like many royals, heirs apparent were often held "hostage" in neighboring countries. It was an old tradition to build bonds of fellowship and understanding, as well as discourage aggression. Appropriately, and in deference to the power and prestige of Equestria as a whole, Blueblood had been hostage to the griffins of Crown Roc for twelve months, living in their mountain Eyries and learning their ways. He had only been a colt at the time, having only acquired his cutie mark the year before.

 

                    Prince Mnemon, in contrast, had spent three years in Equestria as a reciprocal 'ostage,' first in Prance and then in Canterlot proper. Though he acted the part of the bloodthirsty griffin, much of the magic he had learned - to say nothing of the history, theology and other classical tenants of education - was Equestrian. The same was true of his father, the current King Mede, and his father's father, and so on. Aside from the civil war, five generations ago, there had been no war with the griffins in the four hundred years since the practice of mutual hostage taking had begun.

 

                    The two Princes had first met when Blueblood had returned home from Crown Roc. He had been a young colt back then, and Mnemon just a sprout of a fledgling, better at fighting than flying. The two had not gotten along well, though attempts had been made by their elders to form bonds of friendship in the interests of future peace. Blueblood was old enough to know why. Mnemon, aside from being blunt and abrasive in the way all griffins tended to be, was highly motivated and energetic. He admired his father and knew he would follow in his footsteps. In contrast, Blueblood was disinterested and lethargic.

 

                    'What throne is there for me?' he had asked, once, rebuffing his fellow Prince's demand that they practice what they had learned of military tactics by ordering servants around. 'Go do whatever you want while you still can.'

 

                    Not terribly diplomatic.

 

                    Still, Mnemon was clearly waiting for a response.

 

                    So Blueblood gave him one: "You stole my sweet roll."

 

                    "And you went crying to the guards about it," the griffin Prince remembered, shaking his head in disbelief. "You always did that. You were always such a little squawking chick."

 

                    He glanced up, to be sure there was no other pony or griffin around to hear them.

 

                    "Something happened to you," Mnemon guessed with a quick little sigh of his own. "You're different than before, Blueblood. I've been trying to goad you into a fight for almost two decades, and this is what does it...? Insulting your most recent conquest of a mare? I'm actually a little shocked."

 

                    Blueblood hesitated to reply. Had it really been that long?

 

                    And for what, a fight? Damned, crazy griffins.

 

                    "I... apologize for what I said earlier," the Prince of Crown Roc added, with a little hesitation of his own. He had clearly been working himself up to saying it. Griffins didn't apologize lightly.

 

                    "I'm not the one to apologize to," Blueblood said, forcing himself back up until he could manage to sit properly. It only hurt a bit, thanks to Sepeia's numbing magic. "However, I will not mention it to Lady Rarity, and thus, she will not need to hear your offer of amends."

 

                    Mnemon huffed in agreement and unspoken gratitude. This would be a matter kept between Princes... and their entourage, of course, all of whom would be encouraged to keep silent about it. If need be, Blueblood began to consider, it could be blamed on the hunt. Injuries were common when hunting wild boar, to the point where death was not an unknown occurrence. Even if they did acknowledge a duel taking place, there was no reason to get into why.

 

                    Sitting in silence, the Equestrian noble also noticed the bandages on his fellow Prince's right claw. The same hand that had likely caused the cut on his flank. Taking note of Blueblood's shift in attention, Mnemon chuckled and held up the injured hand. Two of the talons were wrapped tightly and glowing with faint magic.

 

                    "What happened?" Blueblood asked, not remembering.

 

                    "When I gave you that-" And Mnemon pointed to the scar the Prince had agreed to bear. "-you teleported, and took part of my fingers with you."

 

                    Ah.

 

                    Ouch.

 

                    "Don't even think about apologizing. They'll grow back," the griffin Prince continued with a laugh, seeing the color drain from his fellow's face. "A little discolored, but they'll grow back. More importantly, it'll make for a good scar. A Kingly scar. It was given to me by a Prince."

 

                    Blueblood wiped the matted mane from his forehead as the two shared a laugh. His horn still hurt from the stress of the duel, and, truth be told, he still felt more than a little guilty for hurting his opponent. He really did not have the mentality for this sort of thing. No amount of time would ever change that. For a few moments, though, he thought back to the Gala... perhaps if he had spent a hundred loops there practicing...

 

                    This time, it was Blueblood who caught Mnemon staring.

 

                    "What?" the Equestrian asked.

 

                    "You had a strange look," the perceptive griffin said, and turned away. "So! No more wenches, then. Just Lady Rarity?"

 

                    "She'd turn me into a pincushion if I acted improperly," Blueblood explained with a chuckle.

 

                    "You told me once that you hated mares like that," Mnemon recalled. "Didn't you want a compliant mate?"

 

                    "...I did,” he admitted, with some reluctance. “But things changed..."

 

                    Blueblood paused, half wanting to let the conversation die. He hadn't told anypony about the events of the Gala: about the time loop he had been trapped in. A part of him wanted to speak of it, almost desperately, but a larger part of him was afraid to. It all seemed, even to him now, just so damn impossible. He didn't want to burden his Princesses or worry them unnecessarily so whenever somepony found out he had knowledge he shouldn't by rights have had, he found some excuse or another. It was probably a secret best kept to himself.

 

                    Still, it felt right to say something, here. Maybe it was just a bit of griffin madness rubbing off on him. He knew that griffins mated for life and that they were absolutely loyal to their partners and to their friends. Friendship was still, sadly, a part of life Prince Blueblood had little experience with. He had gotten a fleeting, recursive taste of it in the loops, and he wanted more. If only it were so easy.

 

                    "This may sound banal," he began, letting out a deprecating snort. "But I was in a rather dark place, not too long ago. I think the best way to describe it was that I was lost. In..." He searched for the right words. "In a maze, I suppose. I learned a lot in attempting to make my escape, but couldn't find my way out... I wandered, only to find myself where I began, time and again."

 

                    Blueblood bemusedly brushed some of his blond mane away from his forehead.

 

                    "Lady Rarity helped me get out. Her generosity and her company saved me as sure as all my efforts. Even if she nags me, even if she isn't what I thought I wanted... with her, I... I feel... alive, and free." He fixed Mnemon with a serious stare. "I'm very fond of her."

 

                    Mnemon's smile widened and he laughed.

 

                    "Good!" The griffin declared, rising up on four legs. "That is good! Love your people, love your friends, and love your mate! Do this and die a good death!"

 

                    "I'll put off that last one as long as I can, thank you very much." Blueblood forced himself back on his hooves and shook out his mane. "Shall we be on our way, then?"

 

                    "Yes!" Mnemon pointed off to the forest, wings flaring before settling back in place, tucked comfortably back against his sides. "First, we shall wake up your guards, and then we shall hunt! And, in honor of your sporting loss today, I will make a concession regarding your request to build railroads though our mountain passes..."

 

                    "Wait, wait: wake up my guards?" Blueblood groaned. "I thought they were...?"

 

                    "...Mostly unharmed. Mostly, I said!"

 

                    "Wonderful."

 

- - -

 

                    A letter from the Prince?

 

                    Sitting atop her throne in the Chamber of the Sun, Celestia opened the woven linen and leather-bound scroll, breaking open the wax seal bearing the ancient signet seal of the Royal Family and Household. It was typical of Blueblood, to use the most expensive and ostentatious of materials just to write home, even though she of all ponies would be the only one to ever see it. Since he knew full well that her own tastes were of the opposite sort (she used high quality, but otherwise mundane paper for her letters), he was clearly doing it less in an effort to impress her, and more because he was just the sort of pony who liked fine things for their own sake.

 

                    Such was his way.

 

                    To my Dear Auntie and Exalted Princess

                    Celestia

                    In whose radiance the sun itself pales; in whose glory the chorus of bards find themselves speechless; in whose beauty all of Canterlot's great works aspire; in whose...

 

                    Celestia sighed and skipped past the titles. Blueblood was getting more effusive with every letter.

 

                    He had to be teasing her.

 

                    Anyway, Auntie -

 

                    You'll be amused to know that not only have I secured our interests in Crown Roc, but I have also learned a valuable lesson. A lesson about friendship. I know. I am as shocked as you are....

 

                    The pair of unicorn Royal Guards couldn't help but glance back at their seated sovereign.

 

                    Was she... laughing?

 

- - -

 

This Platinum Crown

 

Capn Chryssalid

 

- - -

 

                    It’ll be the biggest, best-est, most super terrific party Ponyville ever saw!

 

                    Nopony had been using the old western woods for years, which is probably why Bluey bought the whole area. Most all the guests should be arriving by carriage, so I - I mean: so most of the gate decorations and greeting staff (and security ponies and valets) will be around the south gate. The first thing the arriving ponies will see is the iron gate facade done up in balloons, with two super duper big um... hey, Rarity, what're are those big banner pole things called again?

 

                    "Vexillum, darling?"

 

                    "Yeah, those!"

 

                    Plus banners all along the gate, showing the shields of all the friendly families I was told to promote. Super accurate, too, since Twilight checked all the details on them just to make sure there weren't any mistakes! Up front we'll put two big, um, vex-illum-things, each with the royal crest, one with the hollowed sun on top and one with the half moon. Two pegasus teams are handling the local weather, and - Oh! There'll also be these really pretty enchanted streamers, heraldic streamers, and they'll be all fluttery and held up by the balloons. That'll be the south gate!

 

                    All the fancy party ponies will ride their carriages up and into the house grounds and across the big stone bridge. There are groups of trees - um, copses, I think? - mostly birch. A lot of it is new, but it looks really nice. When I did it, it took five minutes to get to the house from the gate, but I kind of got distracted by thinking about whether we should have an ice cream float or a candy fountain or-

 

                    "Pinkie, please."

 

                    "Oh! Right!"

 

                    The guest ponies ride up to the front of the house from the side, so they can see three of the five gardens around the property. Even though the gardens are just grass and trees, and not, like, real gardens. I said, hey! Put in a sunflower garden! Everypony loves sunflowers! Oh, and watermelons! But no. Just grass and trees and rocks and some sculptures and stuff. If I had all that money and I was building a new house, I'd have a Ferris wheel and a balloon garden and... hey, why are you looking at me like that? Okay, fine.

 

                    Finally, the guests will get to the good part!

 

                    They'll see this big, fancy mansion, tucked into a keyhole in the forest around it. There'll be all these pavilions out front, in so many colors! That's where all the artwork for the visual arts festival will be kept. Off to the side, there'll be this big, super yummy buffet! It'll be divided up into four parts. I wanted three, but Pokey said it had to be four and that it can't all be sweets. Can you believe that? Why does he always have to rain on my parade like that? Hel-lo! Everypony likes sweets, right? And I am the principal-pony primary-party-planner, so the food and stuff should be totally my call. So we'll put the cake and sweets in the center, around a big ice fountain, and the snacks and other stuff around it!

 

                    Oh! And each one will be marked with balloons of a different color: blue, red, yellow and my favorite, pink!

 

                    "Isn't pink rather close to red?"

 

                    "No. Duh! Pink is totally not a shade of red. Anyway!!"

 

                    That's only a small fraction of the balloons we'll be using. All around the house itself we'll have ninety nine different colors of balloons! Ninety nine! It'll be the best thing ever! Can you even imagine ninety nine balloons, all of them a different color! It'll be like a rainbow crown around the entire party! I'm so excited I can barely hold still!!

 

                    Oh, wait, I'm not holding still?

 

                    "Pinkie!"

 

                    "Right, right."

 

                    There'll be music, too, for entertainment. Since the front of the house is so big, and since the inside isn't done yet anyway, we can use it to show off the... um... what's it called? Oh! The oriel windows and all that other fancy stuff. There's a nice, big patio between the two curvy sets of stairs. There should be plenty of room there for Vinyl Scratch to-

 

                    "Pinkie, do not tell me you booked a DJ for this..."

 

                    "Yeah! She used to do weddings, so I figured she'd be good for this too!"

 

                    "Pinkie. That was a reception. A wedding reception."

 

                    "Oh? Oh. OH!" Pinkie Pie stuck her tongue out and tilted her head in mock confusion. "Oops?"

 

                    "I thought you were inviting Lyra and her string quartet?" Rarity asked, needle between her teeth as she worked on Pinkie's new dress. "I know I mentioned them the last time we met."

 

                    Her party loving friend shifted a bit, glancing down at her slippered hooves. "I didn't forget."

 

                    "The whole point of this is to encourage local arts," Rarity continued, levitating up a set of blue, gem-studded ear-rings to see how they looked on her model. Pinkie stole a look at herself in the mirror, cocked her head, and nodded.

 

                    "I just want to keep the party fun," Pinkie argued. "I like Lyra and all, but her music is kinda... well..." Not wanting to say boring, she instead said, "BORING!"

 

                    Pumping her hoof, Pinkie reared up to add. "I wanna Par-tay! Just like at the Gala!"

 

                    Shoulders slumping, Rarity waited for her friend to calm down and assume a normal position so she could finish touching up her dress. It was honestly a bit baffling that Blueblood had asked Pinkie to organize such a huge and important party on his property. Even for him. Rarity rather suspected he was messing around with somepony somehow. Where he had picked up that bad habit was anypony's guess.

 

                    "Since you've already booked her," the resident dressmaker relented, just a bit. "I do suppose it wouldn't hurt to have her play once the sun sets..."

 

                    "Yeah!" Pinkie cheered with a happy grin. "Now you're talking! Oh! We can have a day party and a night party theme!!"

 

                    She was nominally in charge of the festivities for the charity garden party, but Rarity had certain oversight and veto privileges. Thank goodness. Pinkie seemed to understand that this wasn't a normal party, but certain habits of hers were proving difficult to break. Hence the need for an 'executive veto.'

 

                    Case in point: having a game of 'pin the tail on the pony' and a two story tall bouncy castle (with functional battlements and a working catapult) at an exclusive event with 200-bit per plate dinner arrangements. To one's left, a priceless Trotticelli masterpiece, and to one's right, a party cannon loaded with cherry pie and whipped cream. Not that she had been able to entirely rid the occasion of party cannons, but at least they'd been kept away from the art stands.

 

                    "Oh! I can't wait to try my new party cannons!" Pinkie squeed, having clearly spent some of the money for the party on... personal requests. "Have you seen them, huh, have ya Rarity? I could partify a small town with these babies! From a mile away!"

 

                    "Hold still," Rarity reminded her friend, fixing up a minor adjustment to the piped dark red hem of Pinkie's new dress.

 

                    "I can't! I'm just so excited!" Pinkie's body started to vibrate and her ears twitched. "Oh. Oh? That... that's a funny one...!"

 

                    Ignoring the odd 'pinkie sense' silliness for a moment, Rarity stepped back to view her hoofwork in full. After the Gala, she had tried a slightly different approach to Pinkie's new dress, since she would be much closer to the center of attention at the Visual Arts Festival. It called for a more subdued approach, with more subdued colors. Pinkie's (normal) natural coloration was so bright, it presented something of a challenge to accentuate, so this time she went darker instead of matching. Something more befitting a hostess instead of a guest.

 

                    There was just the question of what to do with Pinkie's mane...

 

                    Rarity gave a soft sigh and circled around her friend, taking in the angles with her own eyes instead of relying on the mirrors. While she did so, she also went over the latest news about the party. The Heartstrings Orchestra would be prefect, and she could imagine the four of them playing on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, the looming gothic facade of the newly constructed spring palace behind them.

 

                    Rarity had already seen the facade, of course, and could picture it in her mind easily. It was a beautiful building, as one would expect from such an expensive undertaking. Blueblood had spared no expense since the Gala in breaking ground on a new home 'to bridge Canterlot and Ponyville.' At four stories high, the tips of it could be seen from the town square poking out above the surrounding trees: a number of elaborate fluted domes and refined smokestacks.

 

                    When it was finished, Rarity had been told, the new home-away-from-home for the Blueblood Family would boast no less than thirty fireplaces, fifty rooms, more than eighty hoof-crafted doors, over one hundred and forty windows, twenty of them stained glass. Two thousand panes of glass had been ordered from artisans across the principality, including Ponyville's own family operated glassworks.

 

                    While the arts festival was a charity event to encourage local artists and draw attention to fresh new talents in the areas around Canterlot, Rarity knew Blueblood well enough to realize it was also an egotistical attempt to play up the art collection he was assembling for his new home. It wouldn't do to have an extensive library - something on the order of four thousand volumes had been collected as his request and expense - and a massive art collection.... if no pony knew about it. So he was showing off his new spring retreat and its treasures, but at least he was also doing some good in light of that fact.

 

                    This was an opportunity for everypony in Ponyville to get noticed, just like she had with Hoity Toity last year...

 

                    Deep down, Rarity was also starting to wonder about something else. In the modern era, the Blueblood family traditionally resided in the Canterlot’s Royal Palace, though she knew they owned property and had homes and castle keeps elsewhere across Equestria. Why was Blueblood building such a grand home, close to his old one, but right next to Ponyville?

 

                    He hadn't said much about it before, usually opting to teasingly change the topic, but Rarity couldn't help but consider: if Blueblood was all but stating his intention to live close to Ponyville, would the time come when he asked her to join him? From the spring retreat (as it was currently called), she would remain close to her friends, but still enjoy the taste of Canterlot nobility she had always aspired to.

 

                    Was it less a retreat, and more a new family home?

 

                    It was probably a bit foalish to think of it - she would find out soon enough - but so much of her dream had already come true. The Gala had been wonderful. He had been wonderful. While not quite as... proper and Princely as she had imagined... the stallion who had swept her off her hooves that night was still much of what she had hoped he would be: he was kind (usually), soft spoken (sometimes), regal (well, most of the time... okay, fifty/fifty, as long as he wasn't given a target).

 

                    Rarity shook her head. The point was that she enjoyed being with him, and he seemed to enjoy being with her, and he was a bloody Prince.

 

                    It was like a dream come true! A sometimes strange dream. But still, a dream come true!

 

                    "Rarity! Do I have to wear this hoof-polish?" Pinkie whined, waving said ruby-coated hoof in front of her friend's face. "Do I? It's so sticky and it smells bad and tastes bad, too!"

 

                    That snapped the fashionista out of her daydream. "You aren't supposed to lick it!"

 

                    "Awn, now mah tongue is numb!" Pinkie lolled her too-long royal tongue out to demonstrate. "Ahl couldn't help it! Mlagh hooves look lgh candy!"

 

                    "For Celestia's sake!" Rarity poked the pink pony in the side, and her tongue shot back into her mouth. "Keep that thing holstered, would you? It'll put somepony's eye out."

 

                    "My tongue isn't a weapon! It just wants to make friends!"

 

                    Before either of them could go further with that so called topic, the familiar chime of the Boutique's doors caught both mares' ears. Pinkie wisely clammed up, if only for a moment, and stopped trying to demonstrate how her tongue was a 'friend to pony-kind, not an enemy.' Instead, she innocently glanced back at the door, even as Rarity turned to greet the new arrival.

 

                    "Welcome to Carousel Boutique!" She quickly called out, giving Pinkie a look that said 'I'll be right back.' "Where all the designs are chic, unique, and magnifique!"

 

                    Rarity nearly missed it, but there was a suspicious look in her friend's eye, as if Pinkie Pie recognized the new customer...

 

                    Well, even if she did, Rarity didn't recognize her, except as a customer, and at the Carousel Boutique all customers were welcome! In fact, the arrival was actually two, not one. First to enter was a large, dark brown pegasus mare in a crimson and gold military dolman and plain white pelisse - the unique fashion of the mercenary hussar that was also popular among some high noble stallions, who would wear a more ornate version of the loose pelisse jacket. The dolman, meanwhile, was a close fitting, heavily braided, short-cut coat.

 

                    The pegasus officer's dress immediately identified her as one of the few ponies in Equestria who opted for a purely military trade. She was also large enough to stand in the company of Applejack's brother, Big Macintosh, Blueblood, and the all-male Royal Guards themselves, a rare feat for a mare. The winged hussar immediately flanked the door and kept it open, having no interest in the offerings within the shop herself.

 

                    Her escort then entered: a tall, regal white unicorn mare. She had the sort of height and build that reminded Rarity of a cross between Fleur-de-Les's slim, lithe figure and Allie Way's leggy height, more like the latter than the former. Much like Fleur, this pony was slightly off-white with a blushing hint of pink, but beyond that the similarities quickly faded. Her mane was two toned: a heliotrope violet that tinted towards red, styled around her horn in imitation of Princess Luna but with a deeper curl, and contrasted with shades of paler lavender. It reminded Rarity, oddly and for just a moment, of her little  sister's mane.

 

                    A rich fall cloak covered her back in lieu of a formal saddle or dress while a pair of black boots could be seen, running from her hooves to her hock along with matching, shorter slippers of the same material on her front legs, the equivalent of the spats and gloves some non-pony races wore. A backwards facing diadem, similar to a tiara, helped to hold her mane in place behind her head, studded with dark metal and inlaid jade, the same as her collar necklace. A beautiful silk shawl trailed over her shoulders.

 

                    Intense violet-red eyes found Rarity, and the new customer - a wealthy one, apparently - smiled.

 

                    "Pleased to make your acquaintance," the mare said, gliding forward with practiced grace. She also took note of the Boutique's other customer, one Pinkamina Diane Pie. "Oh. You."

 

                    "You two... know each other?" Rarity asked, surprised. This mare didn't seem like-

 

                    "We met when I was delivering invitations to the party," Pinkie replied, for once not smiling. "Your guards aren't very friendly. I didn't get to finish singing my invitation song, and they chased me and chased me for... for...!" Pinkie huffed, puffing up her cheeks in umbrage. "Forever! Two of them were still chasing me when I got back to Ponyville!"

 

                    "I'm very sorry to hear that." The mare inclined her head in apology. "You'll have to excuse their zealousness. My family takes security very seriously."

 

                    Pinkie's bad mood, a virtual unknown, quickly started to ebb.

 

                    "Welll-lll... okey dokey lokey!" She decided, with a happy little hop. "Did you come to RSVP?"

 

                    "I have sent one in the mail; you should get it quite soon. I am actually here to meet Miss Rarity, and to see about having a dress made." The tall noblemare gave a courtly bow and introduced herself to the two Elements of Harmony. "I am the Baroness Antimony, of the Terre Rare Family. Pleased to meet you."

 

                    "Terre Rare...? Baroness?" Rarity asked, a little dumbstruck. Slowly, she checked the lapel of the guard by the door. The gold medallion bore an ox-and-star sigil.

 

                    She turned to Pinkie. "You broke into a Baron's estate to deliver an invitation."

 

                    "Umm." Pinkie bit her lower lip and giggled. "Yep! I guess I did! Actually, it was a Duke's castle!"

 

                    "Father thought she was a thief," Antimony explained, still smiling at the memory of the encounter.

 

                    It just sank in then that, Pinkie's adventure aside, they were in the presence of a daughter of a Duke, a Baroness herself. Rarity quickly bowed her head and elbowed Pinkie to do the same. Antimony took the deference in stride, and motioned for them to stop.

 

                    "Please," she insisted. "No need for that. I am not here on business, only pleasure. I would insist that you please be at ease."

 

                    One the little uncomfortable formalities and introductions were out of the way, Rarity's eyes quickly lit up with excitement and opportunity. She never had been able to talk Fleur into modeling - Fancy Pants' wife hated it, and went au natural whenever and wherever she could. He not only didn't mind this, but seemed to find it endlessly amusing.

 

                    Yet here was a titled noblemare, with (almost) Fleur's wonderful figure, asking for a dress for the Art Festival. Her coloration, specifically her mane, lead the fashion conscious mare to think of Twilight's coat, but contrasted against a white body. Rarity was confident she could put together a simply fabulous look for her... once she had an idea of her new customer's tastes in formal wear.

 

                    "Hi! We didn't get to meet before because ponies kept trying to blast and tackle me, but I'm Pinkie Pie! Of course I know who you are! I know the names and faces of ALL the ponies I invited to the big party! You'll love Ponyville! Since you're here early, do you want me to throw you a quick little welcome party! OH! We can try out my new party cannon! I've been WAITING for a chance to try out my new party cannon! You aren't easily deafened, are you?"

 

                    "Um, Pinkie Pie..." Rarity groaned, as her hyperactive friend bounced around the Baroness.

 

                    She even leaned in to waggle her eyebrows - during the party cannon part of her announcement - eliciting an angry growl of a warning from the guard near the door. Naturally, Pinkie being Pinkie, she spun around and gave the hulking pegasus a raspberry, her tongue still caught between her lips when Rarity pulled her out of the line of fire.

 

                    "If we have time, I would enjoy a small soiree," Antimony replied, unflustered by Pinkie's bouncing and proximity. "I was going to have tea with your Mayor Mare later. I would be delighted if we could speak more then."

 

                    Rarity opened her mouth to say something, anything, but a strange sensation passed through her in that moment: an almost ominous pit in her stomach. She blinked, and didn't notice when Pinkie somehow swapped the dress she had been wearing back onto a modeling mannequine, allowing her to freely bounce around the newly arrived Baroness, peppering her with questions about what kind of food she liked and how 'surprised' Mayor Mare would be to see other guests showing up. Before she knew it, Pinkie was saying 'we can finish later, right?' and bounding out the door past the bodyguard.

 

                    Left alone with this noblemare and her guard, Rarity felt an inexplicable pang of panic that came and left in a split second. It made no sense, really. Antimony was standing still, watching her with polite curiosity, waiting for her to begin her sales pitch. Her eyes were a bit intense, but no more than, say, Twilight's often got. The dressmaker just couldn't help but remember what she had said moments before.

 

                    'I am actually here to meet Miss Rarity,' she had said.

 

                    It had not been phrased in the warmest of tones.

 

                    "Well," Rarity finally said, forcing up a smile and motioning her new client over to the rear, exclusive collection of the Boutique. "Why don't I show some styles and then we can build on that?"

 

                    "That sounds wonderful," Antimony agreed.

 

                    As she began, settling back into her natural element, ensconced and encouraged by the familiar topic of fashion and dressmaking, together with the comfort of her wonderful shop, Rarity quickly found her center. This was only possibly her most important - customer - ever! So no stress or anything. Fortunately, unlike Sapphire Shores, Antimony was far less ostentatious and immediately dismissed the dresses and ensembles that relied heavily on embedded gems.

 

                    Rarity suspected that would be the case. The tastes and expectations of the aristocracy were different than those of normal 'high society.' The latter were wealthy and influential, to be sure, including moguls and media darlings alongside their ranks of poseurs and hanger's on. They chased the latest fashion craze to set themselves apart from the herd, or ahead of the pack. Equestria's tiny cabal of noble families were different from the superstars and tycoons.

 

                    Antimony's posture and tone said it all: she had nothing to prove.

 

                    Celestia never engaged in flights of fashion, and when there was no foreign Princess or Grand Duchess in the Blueblood line, everything basically stood still within the highest echelons of Canterlot. Due to this disconnect, aristocratic fashions were rather old. Antiquated, even. Anachronistic, if one was making no effort to be flattering.

 

                    Antimony quickly dismissed the sequin dress Rarity showed her next, which was a shame, since it was just perfect for her figure and coloration. She had it in both silver and gold, and if asked, could weave it embroidered with coins or bits instead of tiny overlapping hexagons. It was a risqué design, of the sort very popular in Marean this season. Too exotic, though, for this customer, even if she would have looked simply fabulous in it. By that standard, the cocktail dresses were out, too.

 

                    Rarity's own dress was among the next she showed her customer, though she ironically hoped it wouldn't catch the noblemare's eye. She was quite proud of the design, and intended to show it off at the art festival herself: the base model was an elegant swan silk layered gown in black with an antique white sash. The waist was higher than normal with an a-line skirt to flatter the flank and the rise of the tail. She had practiced dancing in her version of it, and simply loved how it flowed with her movements.

 

                    For the first time, Antimony seemed to pause to consider it, but ultimately opted to move on. It took a few more tries to narrow down the choices available. Finally, they found something for her: a long (and somewhat heavy) duchess satin gown with faux ivory guipure lace edging. It was a beautiful piece of work, but it also required wearing a steel boned corset. Hence, it was not one of Rarity's personal favorites. It was also extremely expensive, as Antimony immediately rejected the use of faux ivory for bloodless ivory.

 

                    Bloodless ivory was collected by using magic to shave off natural ivory, harvesting it without killing the animal involved. It was only made in zebra lands and imported only rarely. Rarity knew where she could get some - there was a supplier in Canterlot - but it made a dress studded with rubies look cheap by comparison. Natural grand pearl was one of the few things as rare and hard to import to Equestria, and Antimony similarly refused to use anything but the actual thing in her veil-less feathered fascinator and dress details. When Rarity told her that there was no way to make a bracelet with centered natural grand pearl in time for the festival, she compromised by switching it for a chain knot bracelet with dusted diamonds.

 

                    They were close to a final deal.

 

                    "...four layers. The lining, a support layer, the underlining and the outer fashion fabric. I'm not fond of corsets myself, but this one is fully boned throughout each panel and made to feel as soft and comfortable as possible. Everything I make here is intended for the greatest possible level of flexibility and support, but without sacrificing strength. If you look here, you may see one of my little signature styles: the boning is sewn into to the support layer, not above or below it, to keep it from shifting. This has the added bonus of keeping a very smooth, seamless silhouette."

 

                    Antimony seemed pleased with her selection.

 

                    "This will be perfect," the noblemare concluded with a discerning eye. "You need only ask, and I will cover any additional importing expenses. You may use our name to assure you are given what you need without complication."

 

                    "Oh, I'm sure it won't be half the trouble I imagine it to be!"

 

                    The two mares then moved over to the fitting area, where Rarity began to relaxing process of taking her customer's measurements. As was the habit of many dress and suit makers, she switched the conversation from their purchase to small talk while they worked. Rarity inquired about the noblemare's home: the land of Two Rivers was in the northeastern corner of Equestria, a rich and fertile province that included the region of Prance. Parts of it were also quite low and prone to flooding, or it had been in the past.

 

                    Antimony repeated some of the common facts that most any school filly would already know about her homeland. Rarity paid only passing attention. Taking the mare's measurements, she had noticed that - quite the opposite of what she had expected - Antimony's tall, curvy form was hardly as soft as it appeared. Beneath her soft coat and skin, her muscles were taut and hard, like Applejack's. Not really like most unicorns at all. She had feminine curves, enviable ones, but her stomach was almost rock hard. It was a little strange, but then, Blueblood had personal fitness trainers and a similar sort of build, so perhaps this noble mare did as well?

 

                    Her cutie mark was a star and crown, along with some constellation Rarity didn't recognize.

 

                    "Darling, you had the most lovely cloak when you came in," Rarity observed, just finishing marking down the noblemare's measurements. "May I ask where you got it?"

 

                    "I had it imported from abroad," the Baroness replied.

 

                    "The color of the hems and collar...? So very realistic I..."

 

                    "That's because it is real," Antimony explained, smiling as she continued. "Genuine sable from Castle Roc."

 

                    Genuine sable? Genuine fur?

 

                    Rarity didn't grimace, not externally. She should have suspected as much. Antimony seemed to dislike anything 'fake' and furs were not completely unknown as fashion accessories. Not that she included any genuine articles of fur or leather in her boutique. It was a practice and style of dress much more common up north where the winters turned much more bitterly cold. Necessity, now, had become more a matter of taste.

 

                    "I noticed you didn't have any," the Baroness mused, looking away and closing her eyes. She sounded and appeared completely unconcerned.

 

                    "I do not believe it is, well, entirely ethical," Rarity admitted. "My focus is on gems, anyway. I wouldn't know what to do with a... a pelt."

 

                    "Mm-hmm," Antimony replied, and her smile widened a bit. Leisurely opening her bright violet eyes, she stepped down from the platform. Rarity quickly put away her notepad and thanked her for her business. While genuine fur was something she had no interest in using in her designs, this project did accord her a chance to work in actual pearl and bloodless ivory. The dress, when it was finished, would be simply divine!

 

                    "You know, Miss Rarity," Antimony remarked, as she turned to leave. "I like you. I wish us to become fast, true friends."

 

                    "Oh. Well, I..." Rarity stumbled, not entirely sure what to say.

 

                    Fast, true friends?

 

                    "I see. You don't quite grasp what I mean." Antimony trotted closer, still entirely amiable. "The Arts Festival?"

 

                    Rarity tilted her head in confusion. "What about it?"

 

                    "I am attending it to see my new home."

 

                    Blink.

 

                    "What?" Rarity had to ask. "Your? No. Blueblood is-"

 

                    "Prince," Antimony cut her off, her tone dropping a notch from its friendly norm. "Prince Blueblood is building it. Yes." She leaned in a little closer, to add, "...and he is my husband."

 

                    Rarity blinked again, having trouble making sense of what she had just been told. It made no sense. This mare couldn't be his wife. There was no Grand Duchess in Canterlot. Blueblood had never mentioned being married! No magazine, no pony, had ever said as much.

 

                    "That's impossible," she quickly corrected the noblemare. "I'm sorry, but that can't be."

 

                    "It has already been decided," Antimony insisted, and there didn't seem to be a bit of hesitation or doubt to underscore what had to be a fabrication of the truth. She stepped into one of her slippers and tapped Rarity on the shoulder in a friendly, almost familiar manner.

 

                    "As his mistress, I'm sure you and I will grow quite close," the fair Baroness concluded, all smiles and warm words again. "I hereby guarantee you seniority over any future third or fourth, as is my right as wife. You are the element of generosity and a friend to both the Princess and the realm entire; I feel this is the least I can do. Let us be as sisters."

 

                    It took a moment, but that finally provoked a reaction.

 

                    "No!" Rarity yelled, jumping back and onto all four hooves. A stylus fell, jostled off a desk by her now erratic telekinesis. "What are you talking about? What are you saying?! Blueblood and I are-"

 

                    "Lovers," Antimony interrupted again. "I know. I don't even mind. So long as we unite the Houses, so long as we have an heir... he really can spend all his free time with you. I will permit it, but the marriage has been arranged. As I said..."

 

                    She turned to leave, her pegasus bodyguard slipping her cloak back on.

 

                    "It has been decided," Baroness Antimony glided through the door, just as gracefully as she entered. "I look forward to seeing my dress. Until then. Come along, Gewitter."

 

                    Falling back onto her haunches, Rarity slowly shook her head. It - it couldn't be. Decided. Decided? Decided by who?!

 

                    "Decided by who!" She snapped, but her guests were long gone. Stamping a hoof, she turned her head, lit up her horn, and carefully put her fallen stylus back in place. Only with that done, and order restored to her shop, did she take a deep breath. A deep, long, calming breath.

 

                    "So that's how nobleponies declare war?" she asked herself, brows slowly lowering into a scowl. "Let us be as sisters, is that it?" Behind the scowl, blue eyes burned with determination. "Ohh. It. Is. Definitely. On."

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(2)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ijr6icp3L8ehe69KMYn18KymSFAH9AL3Ysx6K5wMZa0/edit

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- - -

(2)                This Platinum Crown

- - -

 

                    My fair Rarity,

 

                    The affairs and machinations of Canterlot have once again stolen you from me. Though I am a pony in a palace, looking out over the shining  jewel of Equestria itself, I find that I am only alone, and that the only jewel I desire can be found in Ponyville. The company of Princesses reminds me only of what I am missing in being apart from you. I yearn to be done with my work here, to return to your embrace, but duty demands that...

 

                    No. Not that one.

 

                    My fair Rarity,

 

                    You would be most entertained, I think, had you come with me to visit the court of Duchess Desert Flower. They say there are no finer fabrics in all the four lands, in Kingdoms Old and New, than can be found in the dry, dusty marketplaces of this realm. I was warmly received, and though I missed you terribly, I did not forget to pass on your request for a ream of local silks and cottons. In the process, I was taken to the monastery where these worms are cocooned, and shown the lengthy process by which it is prepared. You would have so enjoyed the local fashions on display - far more than myself, I fear!

 

                    No.

 

                    No, not that one either. That was Duchess Desert Flower.

 

                    My fair Rarity,

 

                    The light of my day was in receiving your letter. I know I have been terribly negligent, substituting proper company with these impersonal exchanges, but there is so much around me that I can no longer ignore. So much that I have overlooked. So much that I never cared to bother myself over but now feel I must set right. It is as if I have been given a new lease on life since the Gala. A breath of fresh air. When I think of it, I can not help but picture you by my side. The Gala has changed so very much for me.

 

                    You have changed so very much for me.

 

                    No.

 

                    Not that one.

 

                    My fair Rarity,

 

                    I will be in Canterlot over the next month. You need but whisper it, and I will have a team of my finest stallions escort you to me in a chariot of wreathed gold and sparkling silver. I have been most miserable dealing with the Mosaic family. I was received coldly, and my efforts rebuffed. I can only conclude that I have galloped at cross purposes with another great and noble house, likely a pony of the Terre Rare clan. Few others would be so bold. I am weary, and though you know I have affection for Ponyville, I would have you join me at my home. I would have you with me, always.

 

                    Rarity slowly floated down the letter, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.

 

                    Memories of when she had gotten the letter for the first time came back. She had taken the Prince up on his offer, golden chariot and all, and had spent a wonderful carefree week in Canterlot. The thought of it brought a glow to her cheeks and nearly ruffled her composure, but it was quickly tempered by the reason she was looking through his letters in the first place. It was not to reminisce or lose herself in the whirlwind fantasy of their courtship. She was certain Blueblood had never mentioned a Baroness Antimony, but her family had been mentioned once or twice. Only in passing, however. There was nothing concrete.

 

                    "Nothing," she finally lamented. "Nothing else in any of these!"

 

                    Rarity had rolls of paper floating around her as she skimmed through letters she had read and re-read many times over. Blueblood's writing and taste in stationary were both distinct, and she had taken care to keep his correspondence with her intact and away from (uninvited) prying eyes. Sweetie Belle in particular desperately wanted to read the "love letters" her sister had gotten and Rarity had carefully exposed her to a select few.

 

                    Others... she was a little too young for.

 

                    Blueblood wrote little of the work he did except in general terms, assuming (rightly) that it would make for dry reading in most cases. He had been on a tour of Celestia's private reserves as Grand Veneur, a flurry of activity following the Gala. It had taken him across Equestria and raised a fuss in the papers. Most ponies had only limited knowledge of what their lords and ladies did behind closed doors. The fairy tale image was of endless parties and receptions, and these Blueblood did mention in his writings. However there was clearly far more behind the scenes that he did not share.

 

                    Terre Rare.

 

                    Who were they?

 

                    Carefully putting away the scrolls into their woven cases, each one tied with a blue ribbon, Rarity turned to a less reliable resort: magazines. From Pony to Fashion to The Canter, there had to be some mention of Antimony and her family somewhere. Some gossip. Some scandal. At least some pictures!

 

                    Stars alive, how could there be a hundred pictures of Sapphire Shores, and not a single one of an entire family of noblemares and stallions?!

 

                    "Ah-ha ha!" Rarity's eyes widened as she cheered, finally finding something.

 

                    It was an old issue of Pony, featuring a small article on the mare in question. Flipping through the pages, the fashionista was rewarded with a two pictures of Lady Antimony: one of her standing and addressing a small assembly in a richly adorned room, and another of her lying down on a méridienne - an elegant royal-purple chaise lounge. In the former she wore an intricate white dress, and in the latter, nothing. It accorded Rarity another look at her cutie mark: the mated crown and curious set of stars.

 

                    Eyes finding the article, she frowned, vaguely remembering it from more than a year ago. It mostly focused on the noblemare's role in promoting various charities, and in her governance of her realm. There was only a passing mention made of her family. 'Do you think your father the Duke will ever consent to an interview' - her answer being a polite but curt 'I think it unlikely.' To pour salt on the wound of her apparently being known for her charity work, she was also a great patron of the arts, particularly stone statuary.

 

                    The mare in the article spoke of underwriting a statuary garden in Pastern-sur-Mer and of the renovation of the great basilica there that dated back to the Founding period. There was no mention of a husband or an arranged marriage. Any of the gossipy questions had been very clearly vetted, removing anything truly informative and replacing it with vapid questions about her figure, other ponies' romantic affairs, and her tastes in music and theater. The interviewer did confirm for the readers that she was single and asked what sort of stallion she intended to look for in the future.

 

                    The Baroness's answer had been a dismissive: "All things, in time."

 

                    There was nothing else.

 

                    Not in that magazine, nor any of the others. The closest was a mention of the family with respect to castle construction and remodeling in Equestria. Nothing useful!

 

                    "Um. Excuse me?"

 

                    Rarity jumped, so absorbed in her hasty research that she failed, for the first time in recent memory, not to notice the familiar and comforting chime of her Boutique's bell. Somepony was at the door, and she hadn't even heard them enter. Flustered by that fact, and more than a little angry at herself - and at the newly discovered source of that distress - Rarity quickly turned and trotted over to greet her customer.

 

                    With a smile.

 

                    Always with a smile. At war with herself, she forcibly pushed her concerns down, if only for a little while. The Carousel Boutique had a reputation, one that both included and transcended her own. It was her life's work, her shop. Hers. It simply wouldn't do for her to impair it because some stuffy northern noblemare had decided to pick a fight with her.

 

                    "As his mistress, I'm sure you and I will grow quite close."

 

                    "Let us be as sisters."

 

                    The nerve of her!

 

                    "Welcome to the Carousel Boutique!" Rarity greeted the arrival, betraying none of her inner thoughts or turmoil. "Where all the designs are chic, unique, and magnifique!"

 

                    A familiar coif of wavy light blue and mint-white perked up from behind two display dresses, along with a unicorn horn. A surprisingly sharp horn. At the other end of the stallion's body, a cutie mark in the shape of a safety pin stood out.

 

                    "Oh, Miss Rarity, there you are!" Pierce, or Pokey as Pinkie liked to call him, lifted a hoof in greeting. His golden eyes darted around, clearly searching for something.

 

                    Or somepony.

 

                    "Ah. I guess Pinkie Pie left already?" he guessed, not having found his quarry. "Unless...!"

 

                    He flipped over the helm of a dress on display, and groaned at not finding anything besides pink lining underneath. Few ponies could actually find Pinkie when she chose to hide away, mostly due to her ability to squeeze into spaces seemingly too small to normally fit her body. Somewhat like an octopus, really.

 

                    "I'm afraid she isn't here," Rarity replied, letting out a little breath she had been holding. It was just Pierce. Not a customer, which meant she could go back to her... problem. And dealing with it. "Pinkie left... I suppose it must have been a half hour ago or more?"

 

                    "Great. Well, I'll find her sooner or later," he grumbled, frowning and heading for the door. "Hopefully sooner. I just found out she hired some technobeat DJ to headline with the Heartstrings... half our guests will walk out if they hear that so called 'music' playing!"

 

                    Rarity almost let him go. Almost.

 

                    "Pierce. One moment?" she asked, and saw him pause and glance back over his shoulder in curiosity.

 

                    "Yes?" he inquired. "Oh, you found out about it, too?"

 

                    "I did. And I spoke with her about it," Rarity replied, and walked closer so she could lower her voice and still be heard. "Pierce, you've gone over the guest list, haven't you?"

 

                    "I don't have Pinkie's strange sometimes-eidetic always-erratic memory," he answered, nodding. "But yes. I know most of the ponies on the list."

 

                    Rarity thought so.

 

                    Pierce was a bit of a party lover himself, but not exactly like Pinkie Pie. The thin, dapper unicorn was originally from Canterlot and he still split time between there and Ponyville. A relation to one of the noble families, though not close enough to be titled or a noble himself, his great aunt was the last one to inherit and hold a formal position. This gave him 'old blood' - breeding - but not enough property to be powerful. A lifetime of mingling and a foalhood being around both rich and middle classes, he had been raised with formal parties and grown up to work independently to organize social functions.

 

                    This had led to his line of work: party supplies.

 

                    Pierce owned several stores in and around Canterlot specializing in both office supplies, stationary, and party favors. His specialty was pins and needles, which was how Rarity knew him. Pinkie's business had prompted him to rename the Ponyville branch of 'Pins and Staples' to 'Pierce's Party Palace.' She was his best customer, and on occasion, more than that. Depending on their mutual whimsy.

 

                    This time, for once, they were cooperating. Mostly.

 

                    Fighting, but cooperating. Sort of.

 

                    It was going to be a miracle if this art festival didn't literally blow up in their faces.

 

                    "Remind me... how many noblemares are we expected to attend?" Rarity asked, already having her follow up question ready and waiting. "Titled noblemares?"

 

                    Pierce took a moment to mentally recount. "I think... let's see... we have four positive replies, so far. One decline. Three or four pending?" He shrugged. "I think that's it, anyway."

 

                    "One of them is Lady Antimony, yes?"

 

                    "Oh, yes!" He nodded again in confirmation, and turned around fully to face her. "She hasn't responded yet, but I expect she'll attend. Lady Antimony is a patron of the arts, so this sort of get together is right up her alley. I'm sure she'll make a generous donation above and beyond what we collect during the dinner and auction."

 

                    Rarity couldn't help but frown, for just a moment.

 

                    "I'm sure she will," she replied, but asked, "What can you tell me about her? Or about the Terre Rare family?"

 

                    This time, Pierce gave her a suspicious look, like he was being tested.

 

                    "What do you mean?" He raised a hoof to his chin. "The Terre Rare family administers to the province of Two Rivers, and from there, they have domain over Prance and a dozen other places. They're powerful and they're rich. What more do you need to know?"

 

                    "Pierce," Rarity said, fixing him with a serious gaze. "Please. I just need some information on them. I've..." She bit her lower lip, hating to lie. Then again, it wasn't really a lie, per say. "I've heard some rumors, you see?"

 

                    "Rumors?" Pierce seemed to accept that, and sighed. "Miss Rarity, really?"

 

                    He sighed, but did as she wanted, and elaborated.

 

                    "The Terre Rare family is... a bit reclusive and a little eccentric, maybe, but they're perfectly harmless. The whole clan is very much in tune with the old ways, so they don't normally interact much with the lower classes. They're most well known for their patronage. The old Duke has some kind of thing for rebuilding old castles, financing museums and gardens... I guess he's a believer in beautification of the country and all that? Two Rivers is a lovely realm, by the way. You really should see it some time."

 

                    "And Lady Antimony?" Rarity pressed.

 

                    "It's funny you should be asking so much about her. I heard..." Pierce trailed off, and shook his head. "Well, nevermind that!"

 

                    He waved the notion off as mere rumor.

 

                    "I actually heard that she was here," he explained with a laugh. "In Ponyville! Not likely, not till the party, I'd think. Anyhow, she's the youngest mare in the family, which would normally mean she gets the tidbits, you know? But for once, her family broke tradition. When a Barony opened up, I guess... her father gave it to her. Or something along those lines. She's done quite well for herself and she's very well spoken of. She may even be a Duchess when her father passes on or retires."

 

                    A Duchess.

 

                    A single, unmarried Duchess.

 

                    "It has already been decided."

 

                    Just what did she mean by that?

 

                    "...like her sister and her brother."

 

                    "Excuse me," Rarity interrupted, "What was that just now?"

 

                    "Her sister and brother," Pierce repeated, and as he shrugged, his wavy mane settled against the side of his face. "They both married into titles. Her oldest sister is married to the Duke of Connemara, and her brother married Marquesa Olive Branch. The two were also second cousins at the time. It caused a bit of a scandal, since he was supposed to marry into some other family. I forget which one. It doesn't matter - they're a good group of ponies, Miss Rarity. A little aloof, but well respected and much admired."

 

                    Rarity glanced away, considering what he had told her. "I see..."

 

                    "Now, if you'll excuse me," Pierce hastily added, and headed for the door to try and catch Pinkie Pie before she bounced off on yet another tangent somewhere. He nearly got there, only to stop, and speak over his shoulder a second time.

 

                    "Oh, one other thing," the departing stallion added, almost in passing. "I may be wrong about this, but your friend, Miss Sparkle. She'd probably know more, if you're really interested in the details."

 

                    He paused again, searching his memory. "That's right. Her father is Crescent Moon, right? She's part of the extended family."

 

- - -

 

                    Mister Shady had the coolest market stall in Ponyville.

 

                    It was almost as cool as hanging around Rainbow Dash.

 

                    Scootaloo hovered for a few seconds getting a good look at one of the glass displays on the main counter. The knives inside were very different than the ones used to cut up vegetables, and they were covered in gems and fancy marks and they came in pretty - but cool - looking cases that usually kept anypony from cutting themselves. Mister Shady had them on display, but Scootaloo had never seen anypony actually buy one. That didn't make them any less neat, though!

 

                    "Hey! Hey!" She used her hooves to hold onto the edge of the cart. "Mister Shady, what's that green looking stuff? On the handle and the case?"

 

                    "Eel-skin. And don't 'ang on that, you'll break something."

 

                    A dark maroon hoof gently swatted at Scootaloo's hooves, just enough to get her to stay on the floor instead of hanging from the edge of a table. That was the one problem with Shady's store: too much of it was above eye level! Filly-eye level anyway. The owner himself angled the case so she could see, just for a few seconds. Mister Shady was a pegasus, red coat and orange mane, but not much of a flyer from what Scootaloo had seen. His talent was in distance flying and finding odd things.

 

                    His store, Shady's Curiosities and Antiquities, was only open when he was in town and when he felt like working. It seemed like a pretty fun way of life to Scootaloo: less work than a weatherpony, the freedom to come and go whenever you wanted, and no boring apples or sofas to sell! Instead, there was just a hodgepodge of random stuff from all over Equestria! And a lot of watches. Why he sold so many gold watches, the filly couldn't begin to guess. Jewelry, too.

 

                    'Previously owned, already appraised' according to the cases.

 

                    "Eel skin?" Scootaloo made a disgusted face, sticking out her tongue. "Gross!" But cool, too! "Why eel-skin?"

 

                    Mister Shady put the case back as he replied, a little evasively, "Better grip that way when you hold it in your teeth. A customer wouldn't want to slip using one."

 

                    "How come they're shaped so funny?"

 

                    "'Aven't I explained this before?" he grumbled, strange foreign accent leaving his 'h's' almost silent. "They're shaped like that to go through... things."

 

                    Scootaloo quickly flitted around the cart's goods, looking for anything new, ignoring the shopkeeper's grumbling about her "going into debt for the rest of her life" if she broke anything. She'd learned over the last few years that Shady wasn't as grumpy as he liked everypony to think he was. Most of the stuff was kind of mundane: he had fancy looking rugs that were different than the ones at Rugs n' Ovens, Ponyville's rug store (and oven emporium). There were also lamps and pots and funny looking cups and stuff.

 

                    "Hey! Mister Shady?"

 

                    "What is it, kid?"

 

                    "Why's this so swirly looking?"

 

                    "It's graniteware. Don't touch it."

 

                    "What about this? What's this funny looking root?"

 

                    "That's ginseng. Don't touch it."

 

                    "Hey! What about this?"

 

                    "Antique scroll and carrying case. Very expensive. ...don't touch it."

 

                    "What about this thing?"

 

                    "Mammoth tail. Used for black magics. Don't touch it."

 

                    "Why is this floating in water?"

 

                    "That's a fire ruby. It grows when exposed to heat. Which means don't touch it."

 

                    "And this thingy?"

 

                    "That is a twig that fell from Yggdrasil, the largest tree in the world. Don't touch it."

 

                    It took a while, but a few circuits of the various items in display eventually wore out the hyperactive filly's desire to investigate anything that she hadn't seen before. By this point, Mister Shady was leaning over his table, giving her a cross look. Scootaloo pointed at him.

 

                    "What about that mask?" she asked.

 

                    He blinked, finally surprised for a second, and turned around. It took a full one-eighty before he realized she was referring to the mask on the counter. Holding it up, the salespony smiled a bit, a gesture that looked a bit strange on his normally frowning face. The mask itself was pretty scary, with black and white eyes and strange patterns like tattoos.

 

                    "This was a gift from Miss Zecora last time she visited," he answered, and quickly put it away behind the cart. "Not for sale."

 

                    "She gave it to you?" Scootaloo inquired, curious. Apple Bloom had mentioned running into Mister Shady at Zecora's hut a few weeks ago, probably making a delivery.

 

                    "Enough with the questions, kid." Shady growled, leaning forward over the counter. "You gonna buy something or what?"

 

                    "You bet!" Scootaloo flipped a trio of bits onto the counter. "The usual, please!"

 

                    With a gumpy snort, the seasoned pegasus traveler retrieved a brown paper bag. The moment it came out, Scootaloo could smell the sweet flavor of what was inside: candied flowers. Not that she wanted to be some lame cook or anything, but like any red-blooded filly, she loved candy! And this was a treat that only Mister Shady ever brought to Ponyville.

 

                    A pony could 'candy' or caramelize or preserve any old flower, of course, usually with some egg white and sugar. These were different. Different flowers from far to the south, roasted and crunchy and sugar-sweet and so-ooo good! Mister Shady always sold out when he returned with a new batch of them, but no matter when she came in, he always had at least one left.

 

                    "My last case," he told her with a put-on frown. "Looks like you got lucky, kid."

 

                    "Thanks Mister Shady!" Scootaloo wasted no time buzzing up, grabbing the bag, and opening the string tie. Soon she had a mouth-full of the roasted flower petals, hungrily munching away.

 

                    He reached over to hand her a napkin. "Try not to make a mess in my store, alright, kid?"

 

                    Scootaloo nodded, quickly wiping her mouth. Mister Shady wasn't a bad pony at all. He'd been a friend of her family for years, and he always had something for his friend's "little brat" whenever she came by. Never for free, but always at a discount.

 

                    "Nothing's ever free, kid," he had said once. "Sometimes ya get a good deal, though."

 

                    "Mister Shady?"

 

                    "What is it kid?"

 

                    "What's that up there?"

 

                    "That's an antique pegasus helmet." He almost forgot to add. "Don't touch it."

 

                    Before Scootalooo could find something else to ask about, a faint jingle sound came from the hollow beads that fell from the awning of the market cart. A mint green unicorn entered sporting a white and aquamarine mane. She glanced around for a moment before zeroing in on Shady.

 

                    "Miss Lyra!" He perked up, waving his front legs. "I've been expecting you!"

 

                    "Shady!" The musician pony greeted him, and then did the same for the other occupant of the store-on-wheels. "And... um..."

 

                    "Scootaloo," Mister Shady provided introductions.

 

                    "Hi," said filly said between munching on her candy. She knew about Miss Lyra, or at least the mare's name. She was well known as one of Ponyville's more eccentric types. She was also very pretty, at least according to Sweetie Belle. Scootaloo did figure she had a nice mane, at least.

 

                    Still, she wasn't cool.

 

                    "How was this last trip?" Lyra asked, quickly passing by the normal sets of items on display. "Find anything interesting for me, Shady?"

 

                    "As a matter of fact I did," he answered, ducking behind the counter for a few seconds. "An original, too! Not a reproduction like last time. 'Ave a seat. I'll be right out!"

 

                    "Should I ask where you've been?" the musician asked, pulling out a plain but functional sitting pillow from a set of them nearby while she waited. After asking the question, however, she took note of the filly in their midst, and seemed to hesitate on saying more.

 

                    "It's less where I've been and more where my friends 'ave."

 

                    "And where have your friends been?"

 

                    "Why, they've been all over Equestria, of 'course! Looking for... bargains..."

 

                    "None of this stuff is..." She trailed off, waving a hoof. "You know."

 

                    "I wouldn't keep it 'ere if it was. I'd use a you-know-what."

 

                    Scootaloo wasn't quite sure what the two were talking about anymore. It sounded like important - and strange - grown-up stuff. She watched curiously, but quietly, as Mister Shady retrieved a rough, dirty-brown rolled up blanket or sheet of cloth. She craned her neck to get a better look, but then he opened the roll of cloth on the ground to the side. Lyra's eyes widened as it began to reveal bits of gold and other metals.

 

                    The local Cutie Mark Crusader didn't quite see what the fuss was about. Mister Shady sold lots of gold and junk. What was so special about this stuff? As if to start to answer that, Lyra took another look at the filly, and posed the question:

 

                    "Shady, is it really alright for...?"

 

                    "Scootaloo's an okay kid," he grumbled, shrugging his shoulders. "As long as she doesn't touch anything."

 

                    "What are ya looking at?" the little pegasus asked, blinking.

 

                    "Antiques," Shady explained in all of one word.

 

                    "Is this real Etrotscan bronze?" Lyra asked, and the two adults soon began to quibble over details.

 

                    Still at least marginally interested, Scootaloo saw for herself what the pair were talking about. There was an old coin, and a small statue of a pony, and a really small ring and a weird looking plate. None of it looked like anything she had seen before in history class.

 

                    "Hey, what's that!" She finally demanded to know, no longer able to just sit back and keep quiet.

 

                    "A coin," Shady replied with a snort.

 

                    "Like a bit?"

 

                    "No, like a coin."

 

                    "The difference between a coin and a bit is the ratio of precious metal to base metal," Lyra answered, raising a hoof in the same sort of posture adults seemed to prefer when sharing their hard earned, worldly knowledge. "Bits were not used as currency until three hundred years after the unification of Equestria. This coin was made in imitation of those brought over from the Old Kingdom, but of lesser craftsmareship. See how it's lost it's luster and how poorly the details were impressed?"

 

                    Scootaloo blinked a few times in surprise. That had been... a rather more specific answer than she usually got. She pointed at the coin again.

 

                    "So it isn't a bit?" the curious filly asked. "Ya can't buy stuff with it?"

 

                    "It is valuable, but no, you can't really use it to buy anything," the musician answered, and smiled at the tentatively listening filly. "See that face on the front? That's Princess Platinum. The two wreaths around the sides represent peace, left with pegasi and right with earth ponies, and on the other side of the coin, you can see icons representing the movement of the sun and moon. Back then, the royal family still controlled the coming of night and day."

 

                    Scootaloo did see a somewhat faded face on the coin, cut or pressed out of the surface. The bumps along the edge had to be that other stuff about a wreath and peace. It was amazing Miss Lyra could recognize any of it. It was obviously a pony's face, that of a unicorn mare in profile, but there was no color or anything, and it was kind of vague and she wore a funny looking crown. Still, Lyra seemed to know what she was talking about.

 

                    "This is only a guess, but I'd say this coin was made between 100 BE and 200 AE," she concluded, sounding very knowledgeable indeed.

 

                    "Wow!" Scootaloo said, impressed. "You're pretty smart!"

 

                    Lyra laughed, eyes curving into happy crescents as a broad toothy grin graced her face. "Oh, I know a few things, that's all!"

 

                    "What about that one?" Scootaloo asked, pointing now at the statue.

 

                    "This? This is a bronze representation of Prince Star Caller," Lyra explained, levitating up the chipped and faded little statue. Despite the age, it was still very clearly a unicorn stallion, rearing up in anger, with a grinding wheel and star spokes for a cutie mark. He wore strange overlapping armor with his saddle. Part of the left front leg was broken off, but the base was intact and looked like it once had a metal plaque on the side.

 

                    "Prince Star Caller?" Scootaloo didn't recognize the name. The only Princes she knew of were the elder colts of the Blueblood family in Canterlot.

 

                    "He was Princess Platinum's cousin; he famously lead the invasion of Equestria by the Old Kingdom and fought against the First Triumvirate."

 

                    Scootaloo tilted her head, about to ask-

 

                    "Remember Hearth's Warming?" Lyra asked, and the filly nodded.

 

                    Sitting now, Shady sighed loudly, wanting to hear a lot less talking and more spending.

 

                    "After Princess Platinum, Chancellor Puddinghead and Commander Hurricane agreed to get along, they founded Equestria, but couldn't decide who was in charge, so they all tried to share power. The fighting had stopped among unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies, ending the Long Winter, but that didn't mean they were all friends. To decide what to do, the leaders of the three tribes formed a Triumvirate, which means 'three leaders.'"

 

                    Scootaloo began to get it, or, at least she figured she was close to getting it.

 

                    "So instead of two Princesses, they had three?"

 

                    "I guess that's one way to see it," Lyra agreed, nodding. "But even though ponies mostly didn't fight or hate each other so much, there was still a lot of... well, fighting... anyway... but just among those in power."

 

                    "The newfound friendship of the three leaders was finally put to the test when an army of unicorns arrived in Equestria from the Old Kingdom, lead by Star Caller. He offered to make Princess Platinum into a Queen if she joined him in defeating the local pegasi and earth ponies and building a new Kingdom. In the end, though, Platinum sided with her friends against him and using the power of friendship, they sealed his magic away. They were the two most powerful unicorns in Equestria, maybe even in the world, and she died stopping him. In gratitude for her sacrifice, all the other noble ponies in Equestria swore eternal fealty to Princess Platinum's bloodline."

 

                    "So what happened after that?" Scootaloo asked, staring at the statue for answers.

 

                    This Star Caller guy sounded kind of cool, in a rough 'take over the world' sort of way. Odd name, though. What, did he yell at the night sky for a living?

 

                    "Remember, things were different back then," Lyra reminded her, and quickly made clear why. "They say he was sentenced to be wrapped in a bag and trampled to death. But he survived, and so they tried to burn him with magic, but he still survived. According to legends, eventually he was bound with chains in the middle of a huge pit, and then a river was diverted to drown him under a lake."

 

                    Lyra floated the little statue through the air as Scootaloo's eyes widened in fright.

 

                    "Some say, even that couldn't kill him!" the minty mare remarked with a chuckle.

 

                    The little pegasus filly scowled, vigorously shaking her head.

 

                    "No way...! No way!" Scootaloo protested, eyes tightly closed as she tried not to let her naturally vivid imagination run wild. Discord and Nightmare Moon had been terrible enough! They didn't need more ancient evils waking up.

 

                    Mister Shady snorted again. "You know, ladies, this isn't a classroom."

 

                    "This statue isn't what I'm here for anyway," Lyra said, floating it back down onto the satchel. She carefully lifted out a tiny little ring instead. At least, Scootaloo assumed it was a ring. It was round like one, but too small for any pony to fit around their hoof.

 

                    "Look at this," the mint unicorn continued, holding the ring closer.

 

                    Scootaloo stared at it, but didn't see anything special. "What is it? "

 

                    "This is part of a torc," Lyra explained, and then explained some more. "What Princess Celestia wears around her neck?" She pointed at her throat.

 

                    "Oh!" Scootaloo nodded vigorously. "That thing! I thought it was... like a collar or a harness?"

 

                    "The part around the neck is a torc." Lyra then pointed at her horn. "Some torcs also have a matching segment for the horn. That's called a halo." She pointed at the ring again. "This is a halo for a horn."

 

                    "That's why it's so small?" the filly guessed, and then she remembered the weird looking plate. "That must mean that's the neck-part there?"

 

                    "That's right!" Lyra used a bit of magic to remove the larger neck torc. It was actually two segments, both recessed in the gold platter. What seemed to interest the musician was not so much the fact that it was really old jewelry, but something else...

 

                    "If you line these up..." The floating neck rings came together, like they wound around a pony's neck. There were two overlapping bits of metal with holes in them, as if something important had been pried loose. At first, it gave the impression of two broad leaves that would flank the left and right sides of the neck.

 

                    Looking closer, though, Scootaloo could see they weren't leaves.

 

                    "Those are hands!" Lyra declared, grinning madly and pointing right at one with her hoof. "Five fingers. A bit stylized, but they're definitely hands!" She then stared at Scootaloo. "Tell me, do you know any animal that has five fingers?"

 

                    "Um..." The little pegasus scooted back a bit and away from the suddenly intense unicorn mare. "Dragons?"

 

                    "Four fingers," Lyra stated, sounding cross. "Dragons have four."

 

                    "Oh. Um... ah...?"

 

                    "There aren't any!" Lyra declared, her face filling Scootaloo's field of vision. "But the five fingered hand shows up all over the ancient paleopony world! On stick figures in Diamond Dog caves in Prance! In the ancient symbol for knowledge! In Parallel B! The Trotska Lines! The murals of Pochu Ponu!"

 

                    "Lyra. You're scaring her."

 

                    The musician pony pouted and went back to chatting with Shady.

 

                    "How much?" she asked, all but licking her lips. "I can't wait to show this to Twilight and have it dated and appraised!"

 

                    "If you say so," Mister Shady replied, deadpan. "But please don't scare my customers with this human stuff."

 

                    "Look. I'm not saying it was humans..." She glanced back at Scootaloo and whispered, "But I bet it was humans!" Levitating a bag of bits out of her saddlebags, Lyra chuckled happily, clapping her hooves together in excitement. "...and I'll prove it!"

 

                    Scootaloo just focused on munching on her candied flowers.

 

                    If nothing else, living in Ponyville had taught her that sometimes it was best to just hunker down and let the crazy pass you by. Either that or find a safe spot and enjoy the show. Both worked.

 

- - -

 

                    "Why aren't there any records of magic use before the first millennium BE? Then, all of a sudden, pony civilization develops? Where's the smoking pie, Twilight?"

 

                    Of all the silly metaphors she had to use...!

 

                    "Lyra," Twilight explained with a sigh as she floated two books from Spike's claws. "There is no record of magic before the first millennium, because our current written language evolved from the Tally script used for record keeping. Most of the syntax developed gradually over the course of centuries."

 

                    "Okay," the other unicorn conceded, sitting upright in a chair inside the library. "Then why are there earth pony remains that date back four to six thousand years, but no unicorns or pegasi?"

 

                    "Pegasi live in the clouds. Why would you find remains of them in caves?"

 

                    "Ah HA! But that doesn't explain the unicorns!" Lyra pointed accusingly.

 

                    "Unicorns probably... diverged from earth ponies..." Twilight argued, though not conclusively. Lyra was right in that there were no unicorn remains found dating back more than four millennia. "Besides, unicorns emerged from highland areas like mountains. It isn't that there are no remains, just that we haven't found them yet."

 

                    Lyra groaned, and the two mares were back at their usual loggerheads.

 

                    Honestly. Humans? Really?

 

                    Of all the mystical creatures and primitive gods in folklore, Lyra had to be obsessed with the most ridiculous. How a grown pony could buy into all those insane theories about ancient humans creating pony civilization and pony races and all that nonsense, Twilight just couldn't imagine. There were perfectly reasonable explanations for the mysteries of the past - and present! - without having to fall back on the old "a human did it!" excuse. Science and magic were about experimentation and validation of meticulously and exhaustively researched proofs, not about wild conjecture and fairy tales.

 

                    Yes, there were some very strange... and creepy... cave paintings.

 

                    Yes, when seen from a certain angle and height, some monuments and pony-modified landmarks did seem to make odd shapes or cast strange shadows.

 

                    Yes, there were deliberate gaps in the historical record. Princess Luna was living proof of that!

 

                    None of it meant that fanciful hairless sky pixies were visiting Equestria from the great beyond.

 

                    Flipping through the dusty eight hundred page tome ("A Tour of Torcs," a brief History of Neckware) Twilight focused on the facts at hoof.

 

                    The neck ring Lyra had just purchased a few hours ago was of Coltic design, very intricate, made of high purity gold. A dozen complex threads of metal were grouped into ropes and twisted around each other, giving the torc a unique, eye catching appearance. It could be divided into three parts: one was the halo, which was intact, the second was the upper torc and the third was the lower torc. Those two fit together snugly, clasping together to form the torc proper. It was much thinner and more delicate than the regalia that Princess Celestia wore, which was constructed along purely post-migration Equestrian lines.

 

                    It was so delicate looking, in fact, that Twilight had been a bit worried about manipulating it, even with her fine magic. Fortunately, it was much stronger than it appeared. It currently lay on a table next to a pile of books, on top of a white felt tablecloth. The designs on it were certainly fascinating from an academic perspective. The predominant use of abstract shapes and geometric lines, rather than the images or imprints of animals, places, or specific things, like branches or leaves... implied it was made in the Late Coltic style. Use of any iconography had been frowned on in the later Old Kingdom.

 

                    Then there were the... hands... as Lyra insisted on calling them.

 

                    "Lyra, look at this." Twilight was about to float the book over, but Lyra was already up and standing next to her, looking for herself. The student of magic pointed to a symbol on the page.

 

                    "The five shaded spade, or shield, is also the pictographic character for 'war,' 'luck' and 'magic.' We still use it as the basis for the modern escutcheon. This one is just made so the fifth grade is a little cut off. See? Look at all these examples. They aren't hands."

 

                    Lyra's expression remained impassive as she read the page, and the next. Finally she sighed and backed away, shaking her head.

 

                    "If that's the case," she argued. "Then why are the not-hands on this torc clearly holding something?"

 

                    "A lozenge is often placed at the center of a heraldic field," Twilight replied, smiling gently as she saw Lyra's resistance crumble in the fact of logic and sound research. It always did. This wasn't the first 'proof' Lyra had brought to her to try and test her crazy theories about ancient humans.

 

                    In the end, it never stood up to scrutiny.

 

                    That said, it was nice to be able to talk history with some other pony in Ponyville. Even if it was a conspiracy-theory, humans-built-the-pyramids slant on things. Poor Lyra didn't reply, instead looking down to paw at the floor. It wasn't that she wasn't a smart pony, not in Twilight's opinion. Lyra was probably one of the most intelligent mares Twilight had ever met! She just let her obsession with one or two topics cloud her judgment.

 

                    "If I could just..." She bit her lip. "Aww, nevermind."

 

                    "You know," Spike just had to chime in at that moment, looking at the torc for himself. "Those do look kind of like hands. No claws, though."

 

                    "They do look like hands!" Lyra bounced right back, clasping the little dragon on the back. "See? Spike agrees with me! And he HAS hands, so he knows better than anypony!"

 

                    Twilight nearly introduced hoof-to-face at that point.

 

                    "Anyway!" She decided instead to move on to the remaining facts. "The material, construction, and style appear genuine. The dating spell confirmed that it's very old and not just a very well made fake. I could check a few more books if you want, but at this point I'm fairly certain that it was made in the pre-classical period. Or by a pony well versed in pre-classical goldsmithing."

 

                    "At least I got my money's worth for once," Lyra grumbled, ducking her head to stare at the torc front-on. "What about the two holes? They probably had gems in them, right?"

 

                    "Probably," Twilight answered, carefully book-marking her page before flipping to another, this one with pictures and sketches of ancient neckware (it also had several very interesting chapters on the evolution of bracelet styles).

 

                    "Gems were much more valuable in the Old Kingdom than in Equestria," Twilight explained, and gave Spike a friendly jab. "Raising a dragon like Spike would bankrupt a pony ten times over."

 

                    "Like I eat that much," Spike objected, just as a knock on the door briefly distracted the trio of library occupants. "I'll get it! ...Since I'm being guilt tripped about my eating habits..."

 

                    Lyra and Twilight watched him go, the later with a proud smile.

 

                    "What about magic, then?"

 

                    "I didn't find any lingering spellwork," Twilight apologized, knowing that they had both been hopeful about a find there. "Sorry. I wish I had. There's so much that ancient unicorns like Starswirl could still teach us today."

 

                    Lyra's ears flatted against her head in frustration. "I can wear it for the art festival at least..."

 

                    It sounded like a distant second place to why she had purchased the jewelry, but at least there was a silver lining. Twilight could also guess that her initial assessment and debunking would only stick for so long before the other unicorn went back to believing in her own pet theories.

 

                    "Can you find out what the two original missing gems were?" Lyra asked, even as she and Twilight noticed who was at the door.

 

                    Rarity?

 

                    "That shouldn't take too long."

 

                    "Thanks a bunch, Twilight. Pay you back the usual way?"

 

                    Twilight nodded eagerly. The 'usual way' to pay her back was to find a book she didn't already have at the library and donate it. She loved helping ponies out, of course, and would do so without asking for payment, but this was also a really great way to help the library itself. All the recent talk about charity events over the last few months had given her some ideas about raising community awareness about the town library. It wasn't just her home, after all: it was everypony's contribution to the future!

 

                    "Rarity!" Twilight greeted her friend, waving her inside.

 

                    Poor Spike was still a-twitter, asking his supposedly secret crush if he could get her anything. Twilight felt a pang in her heart for her little dragon, her little brother in all but blood. He had only redoubled his efforts to get Rarity to notice him since the Gala, and not just as a good friend. The "friend zone" Pinkie had called it once, in a conversation that soon turned to speculation about a hypothetical "twilight zone." Whatever that meant.

 

                    Regardless, it had been an enlightening conversation. Twilight wasn't as knowledgeable about relationships as she was about... well, almost everything else... but she felt for Spike. Before the Gala, Rarity had been somewhat aloof but at least single.

 

                    Now...

 

                    Before she could think further on that, however, Twilight noticed her friend seemed a bit out of sorts. She thanked Spike, and took up his offer of a cup of tea. Outwardly, she seemed mostly normal, but there was an edge to the way she stood and composed herself. Like she had bad news, news she wanted or even needed to share, but that she was a little afraid to.

 

                    "I better head out," Lyra decided, giving Rarity a friendly smile. "Rarity."

 

                    The fashion designer remained polite, despite any internal stresses. "Lyra. We will have to meet up sometime. Do you have a dress for the festival already?"

 

                    "I'll probably just dust off the one I wore to the Gala a few years ago," the musician replied with friendly grin. "If I still fit in it after years of eating Bon-Bon's sweets anyway!"

 

                    "Nonsense, darling! You're in great shape!"

 

                    "The waistline test will decide that!" She gave one last wave before leaving. "See you tomorrow, Twilight!"

 

                    With Lyra soon gone, and Spike in the kitchen boiling tea, Rarity let her composure slip a bit around Twilight, and only Twilight. Collecting herself, she trotted up to her friend and looked the purple unicorn in the eyes. Twilight leaned back a little, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

                    "Rarity?" she asked. "Is... something wrong?"

 

                    "You'll forgive me for being so forward and so rude," Rarity began, and glanced away to build up her resolve, or just not to see Twilight's face when the question was posed.

 

                    "Are you... " She finally asked, "Twilight, are you related to the Terre Rare family?"

 

                    Twilight's face scrunched up in confusion. Was that it?

 

                    "Sure! A little," she admitted. "I mean, the extended family is huge, but, yes, I guess I am."

 

                    "Do you know a pony named Antimony?" she asked, more accusingly.

 

                    "Antimony?" Twilight asked, stepping back. "No... unless you mean...? Lady Antimony?"

 

                    "Yes, her!"

 

                    "I know OF her..." Twilight thought back to her family tree, which her parents had made her memorize years ago. It was pretty useless knowledge, but noble families loved to tout their lineage. "She's... my grandfather's mother's older sister's great granddaughter."

 

                    "We're third cousins," Twilight concluded. "I think. Bear in mind I have... something like twenty cousins in my extended family. In fact, I remember reading once that almost every unicorn in Equestria is related to every other unicorn by five degrees of difference..."

 

                    Rarity seemed both mollified and confounded by this.

 

                    "I'm sorry, Twilight," she finally said, lowing her eyes. "I didn't mean to sound so... so..." She bit her lip and fell dramatically to the floor with a sigh. "This whole situation is just terrible! Just terrible!"

 

                    "The worst possible thing?" Twilight asked, drolly rather used to her friend's choice in method acting.

 

                    "Twilight," Rarity looked up at her, tears held back by a steely resolve. "This really is bad."

 

                    It was... so plainly earnest.

 

                    "Oh, Rarity, I'm the one who’s sorry. I - well, I kind if thought..." Twilight lent a hoof to help her friend back up and walk her over to where the library had some throw pillows. "What's wrong? It must be something really distressing."

 

                    Finding a pillow, Rarity lay down with a groan, momentarily hiding her eyes behind her front leg. Though prone to flights of melodrama, as her portable fainting couch would attest, it was never something she couldn't really handle. Rarity was one of the strongest ponies Twilight knew: emotionally resilient, despite frequent hiccups and difficulties, and if one were being honest, she was probably the least likely of all of Twilight's close friends to have a genuine mental breakdown. As opposed to a harmless fit.

 

                    That list sadly including Twilight herself, from what she recalled of her 'tardy report' adventure.

 

                    "Lady Antimony came to my boutique earlier today," the fashionista explained, starting from the beginning. "I was helping fit Pinkie Pie for her dress, and she just came in. It was a surprise, and I had a bad feeling even then, but I mostly forgot about it while we talked shop. Then, before she left, she said: ‘I wish we could become fast, true friends.'"

 

                    "I didn't know what she meant by that, but then she told me that the reason she was in town... was to see Blueblood's mansion. The one he was building to be closer to Ponyville!" Rarity didn't cry, but she did get angry. "She said he was her husband. Her husband! Can you believe it?"

 

                    "But... he isn't?" Twilight asked, tentatively. "I don't think...?"

 

                    "There's no way they're actually married," Rarity assured her friend and herself. "It would have been in the news. Everypony in Equestria would know! She said it was 'decided' which means somepony arranged it!"

 

                    Twilight frowned, seeing the problem, or at least part of it.

 

                    "You don't think Prince Blueblood arranged it behind your back?"

 

                    Rarity shook her head. "No. I don't. But he's also been out of the country for weeks dealing with the griffins up north. Why would Lady Antimony only come now to let me know?"

 

                    "So she arranged it?" Twilight reasoned. "Or her family did. Only recently?" She lowered from sitting down to lying on all fours. "And when she said she wanted to be friends?"

 

                    "She actually said, after I asked her about it, that we should be like sisters." Rarity crossed her hooves in front of her, trying to keep some of the anger out of her voice. "She said she doesn't care if he's with me, as long as she's his wife."

 

                    "Oh."

 

                    Twilight blushed a bit, but didn't say any more. Where was Spike with the tea?

 

                    "So?"

 

                    Rarity stared at her. "Darling, you see why this is so terrible, don't you?"

 

                    "Kind of?" Twilight asked, and shied back a bit by lowering her head closer to her hooves. "I guess not entirely. It isn't like you two can never be... close."

 

                    "Twilight," Rarity said her name like it hurt that she didn't understand. "I'd be his mistress. Not his wife! A dam!"

 

                    Twilight's first instinct was to ask how that was so bad. There were more than two mares for every stallion in Equestria, depending on where a pony lived. It wasn't as pronounced in big cities, but in the country, and in small towns like Ponyville, the ratio could be closer to three to one. There weren't close to enough eligible stallions for every mare to have a monogamous union and many ponies didn't want one to begin with.

 

                    From what she had learned in Canterlot, marriage was mostly meant to pass on property. Daughters always inherited from their mothers - usually the eldest daughter - and fathers were supposed to only pass on their property or titles to the child of their principal union. Their wife, in other words. The mares who had foals out of wedlock were dams, and the fathers of the children were sires. There was no prohibition about a sire spending time with a dam instead of his wife, only that legally he couldn't favor a dam's children over his wife's when the time came to bequeath an inheritance.

 

                    Many marriages in Canterlot were arranged: simple, practical political unions.

 

                    In fact, there were many rather popular bodies of fiction about courtly love between sires and dams, freed from the complication of family obligations and dynastic alliances. Her 'personal section' of the library had a few scandalous versions of those sorts of stories. Rarity probably had copies of her own, too, since she had been the one to introduce them to her!

 

                    "Twilight," Rarity said, pleaded almost, trying to make things clear. "Ever since I was a little foal, I've dreamed of meeting the one stallion who I could love and who would love only me. My father never had a dam, so maybe that colored by view of things... but it's always been my dream, Twilight. To fall in love and to be loved. My own very special somepony."

 

                    She buried her face in her front legs, choking back a sob.

 

                    "At the Gala... I was so nervous...!" She admitted, pausing to take a deep breath. "You can't imagine, Twilight. The Gala! Celebrities and nobleponies everywhere, and there I was, trying to fit in. When Prince Blueblood noticed me... when we danced and talked and..."

 

                    Rarity gave a raking sigh and turned to lay her cheek against her leg.

 

                    "It was a magical night, Twilight, and we connected on so many levels. It was like... my dream coming true. A Prince! And...!" The beautiful unicorn closed her eyes, preparing herself to say what came next. "Twilight, my family isn't exactly the highest rung on the social ladder. You may be distantly related to a noble family's main line, to actual noble titles, to an actual lineage, but I don't even know...!"

 

                    She frowned, depreciatingly.

 

                    "Twilight, I - I can't even trace my line back beyond my maternal great grandmother, the very mare I'm named for! My grandmother and great grandmother couldn't marry the stallion they loved. I don't know who half my ancestors even are," Rarity admitted.

 

                    "Isn't... isn't that pitiful...?" she sniffed, growing ashamed now of her thoughts. "I didn't want to be like that. I couldn't. I can't!"

 

                    She almost seemed about to say more on that topic, but buried her face again and switched tracks.

 

                    "Eventually, I thought it wouldn't matter," Rarity finally choked out. "Even though I didn't have a noble family line, I thought I could make it not matter."

 

                    Still not sure what to say, Twilight inched closer and lowered her cheek to nuzzle her friend comfortingly. She still couldn't entirely understand Rarity's distress, but she knew enough to see how it was hurting her friend. Twilight tried to imagine what she would feel, how she would feel, if Princess Celestia had been forced to take another personal student. She tried to imagine how she would worry, constantly comparing herself to this other unicorn under her mentor's wing, hoping that her place in the Princess's heart wasn't being eclipsed.

 

                    At some point, Spike had slipped in and left a tray of snacks, two cups of tea trailing steam into the air. Then he was gone, probably turned off by the sad vibes in the area. Or perhaps wanting to get involved in any "weepy girl stuff."

 

                    "I won't give him up," Rarity whispered, her mane a bit of a mess, but her determination restored and revitalized by sharing the burden with somepony.

 

                    "I won't give up on my dream!" she declared, more loudly. "Generosity or not, I refuse to bend on this!"

 

                    "I'll help any way I can!" Twilight vowed, draping a leg over her friend's shoulders. "Pinkie swear!"

 

                    Out of sight, but not out of earshot, Spike leaned against a doorframe. Closing his eyes, the little dragon crossed his arms, having heard every word. Pushing off with his tail, he silently return to the kitchen... to think.

 

- - -

 

                    Mayor Mare winced a bit at the tea.

 

                    The sweet tea.

 

                    Pinkie Pie being invited had come as a somewhat unpleasant surprise. Not that Pinkie herself was that much of an annoyance... normally. Everypony in Ponyville had come to first survive and then eventually embrace their party overlord. The problem - the dissonance - came when meeting and working with other non-Ponyville ponysonas. Especially important ones.

 

                    There had been that time at the Cakes, for example, with the Princess of all ponies...!

 

                    "Hey, are you gonna finish those?!"

 

                    And there went the remaining sweet cakes.

 

                    Amazingly, Lady Antimony seemed boundlessly patient and understanding. Having only eaten a little, spending most of the get together drinking tea and playing (or enduring) various games with her surprise host, Mayor Mare could only thank the stars that nothing had gone wrong. The Baroness was a powerful mare, even outside her domain. Rumor also had it that she was her father's favorite and intended heir, despite her youth, and there were few ponies in power who wished to cross that stallion.

 

                    "Miss Pie," the Mayor began to say, a little warningly.

 

                    "Pinkie," Antimony spoke up, placing her teacup on it's saucer with hardly a chime. "Would you like to go shopping later? I would like to see more of Ponyville."

 

                    "Oh! Shopping! That sounds like fun!" Pinkie hopped off the table, already planning out the itinerary. "We can start with the tastiest place in Ponyville, Sugarcube Corner! And then we can-"                 

 

                    "I don't need to hear where, Pinkie," Antimony cut the hyperactive element of laughter short. "I trust you to be an effective and efficient host. In the meantime, please take a seat and join us as a guest. Mayor Mare and myself have much to discuss and I'm afraid I'm a bit too tired to play around anymore."

 

                    Pinkie cocked her head in surprise.

 

                    "But... already? 'As a guest'?" Still, she seemed clever enough to know what the noblepony meant by that. "We didn't even get to play twister yet! Or charades!"

 

                    Rather than argue, the Baroness remained seated and silent. Mayor Mare's dark violet eyes shot from one mare to the other, curious as to what would happen next. Pinkie was notoriously irrepressible, so it was a little shocking when she sighed, resignedly, and flipped her mane. Licking her forearms, more than a little sloppily, she then wetted down her hair so it hung a little limp rather than stick straight up. Taking a seat by the low coffee table, she quickly cooled, adapting to the change in party mood, from hostess to 'guest.'

 

                    "It's your party," Pinkie said, in a much more reserved tone. "But as soon as you get your energy back, we're going back to having real fun."

 

                    Antimony smiled, not her normal smile, but a grin betraying a hint of smugness.

 

                    "There are many ways to enjoy oneself," the Baroness assured the party pony. Her half lidded eyes fell on Mayor Mare, bearing down on her like a pair of weights. "Did you know, Madam Mayor: I was most surprised to hear that a relative unknown had been picked by my intended to arrange the Ponyville Art Festival. At first, I wondered if he was intending to make it into... an amusement. But..."

 

                    Her eyes turned to Pinkie again, who had assumed a proper pose to drink some tea, even if she crinkled her nose at the bitterness. Even though it was sweet tea. Not sweet enough, apparently, given the fact that the pink pony was now dumping sugar directly into her cup in an effort to make the drink palatable.

 

                    "This one is more adaptable than she appears," Antimony decided. "It is a most valuable trait, adaptation, and I approve of my intended's decision. The festival should not only be enjoyable, but unique...  a fitting venue, given the peculiar events of the Gala."

 

                    Pinkie, though forcing herself to be prim and proper, raised an eyebrow in curiosity.

 

                    "The Gala?" she asked. "Hey, and what do you mean your intended?"

 

                    "Prince Blueblood." The Baroness's smile seemed genuine, but her expression was otherwise so studied, it was hard to tell. "He is to be my husband. I forget, Pinkie, you were not there when I explained this to Miss Rarity."

 

                    "That's what you wanted to talk to her about?" the party pony realized, the gears in her head spinning as she tried to imagine how that conversation had gone. "Hey! But... he's Rarity's coltfriend! You can't just take him!"

 

                    "It is a decision out of both of our hooves," Antimony replied, folding her forearms together in a polite posture of calm disinterest. "It's unfortunate that she didn't take the news better. I still wish, one day, for us to become close family. I do not desire to be the mare who crushes another's dreams."

 

                    "Ohhh." Pinkie quickly focused on the problem, or what she had heard of it.

 

                    There was no doubt in the Mayor's mind that, having heard about the dispute between her old friend and her new one, Pinkie Pie would attempt to resolve it. Somehow. Lady Antimony, despite having known Pinkie for only a short time, must also have realized what sort of actions her words would provoke. It was the sort of headache Mayor Mare would have personally avoided were the situations reversed.

 

                    Having seemingly said what she wanted or needed to say, Lady Antimony soon moved the conversation from pleasantries to business over a deck of cards, but Mayor Mare just couldn't help but keep an eye on Pinkie as well. Against all odds, the party crazy pony seemed to be acting the part of a proper lady.

 

                    Minutes ticked by, and with every one, the Mayor had to wonder if Pinkie would suddenly throw her hooves in the air out of boredom and frustration. She certainly didn't seem to be enjoying herself that much, listening to the two older mares talk on and on and on about politics and Ponyville, though she did seem interested in the card game, even if it was only bridge.

 

                    All too soon, Mayor Mare got the impression that Pinkie Pie, her mane somehow transmogrified into a waterfall of hair from a cotton candy puff, was one anecdote short of snapping entirely. Curiously, if anything, Baroness Antimony seemed to be more and more amused by this fact every minute. She waited, watching, until...

 

                    "Pinkie Pie," she finally said, breaking from the discussion of local crops and administration of dues. "Would you be so kind as to do something for me?"

 

                    "Oh!" She instantly perked up a bit at hearing her name. "What is it?"

 

                    Antimony continued to smile. "A game."

 

                    "I love games!"

 

                    "As do I," the noblemare replied, always amiable. "If you please, could you bring out the chocolate and truffles? Then we can play another game. Whichever one you want. Think of it as my thanks for your patience. But you really should learn how proper mares play cards, so you won't have to sit out next time we have tea or coffee."

 

                    "That's no problem! I didn't mind waiting!" Pinkie insisted, hunching down to mutter. "...that much..." Before bouncing back up and off her cushion. "Oh! And I know just the game! Let me get my jam box! And the croquet bat! And the football!"

 

                    Pinkie dashed out, and as she did, Mayor Mare gave a small sigh of relief.

 

                    "For the life of me, I can't imagine what she intends for us to indulge in. I just hope it isn't too... eccentric," Mayor Mare remarked, quietly. She sipped her tea, savoring the peace and quiet.

 

                    "I rather enjoy her company as a change of pace," Lady Antimony admitted, pouring a cup of lemon camomile tea into her porcelain cup. "Tell me, Mayor Mare. Do you have many enemies?"

 

                    The question almost caused the elected official to choke on her drink.

 

                    "W-what?" she asked, sputtering. "Enemies?"

 

                    "Yes," Antimony repeated, "Enemies. Do you have many?"

 

                    "I don't..." Mayor Mare coughed, politely. "Well, I suppose I have a few. One can't become elected without making a few enemies at least." She reached up to flick back some of her naturally gray mane. "Do you...?"

 

                    "I have had more than a few," the Baroness confirmed. "I don't like to think of them as such, but from the day I was born, there have been obstacles to remove from my path, many of them other ponies. Those obstacles are always the worst, as I have the greatest affection for my fellow Equestrians, but if I can, I like to make a friend and ally for every enemy. If Miss Pie becomes a friend, then I will be pleased with the balance today."

 

                    "So you made an enemy today," Mayor Mare asked, reading between the lines and seeing where the conversation was headed. "You mean Miss Rarity."

 

                    "Oh yes," the noblemare answered with her ever present smile. "I expect she's thinking, even now, of how to stand in my way. She's probably making... desperate plans. I find it so unfortunate... when two ponies can not have what they both want. This may sound arrogant, but I really do regret that things have come between us."

 

                    "I simply hope this doesn't negatively impact the town," Mayor Mare broached her main concern. "Miss Rarity and the other Elements of Harmony are pillars of the community."

 

                    "Oh, I will be delicate, I assure you. Despite being a national hero, Miss Rarity's situation makes me very sad," Antimony said, sipping her tea. It was impossible to tell if she meant it or not. Her eyes were unreadable, and her smile never shifted.  "Whichever one of us wins, Mayor Mare, will become your Duchess."

 

                    Your liege lord, in other words.

 

                    Ponyville was one of a few towns - enclaves really - that technically answered directly to the Princess of Equestria, relying on the local Duke solely for matters of security and trade, rather than taxation. It was a bit of an imposition on the noble lords, but the great old families were expected to indulge the regions Princess Celestia had vested interests in.

 

                    As the Duchess of Canterlot, a mare like this one would then have direct control over Ponyville's security and the freedom it enjoyed to trade and interact with the rest of the province. A Duchess could also be in a position to put a noose around the town, should she so choose, especially with Ponyville being adjacent to the hostile Everfree.

 

                    The Baroness's violet eyes, even half lidded, pierced the older mare. No more needed to be said. Whatever got in her way, she would push aside. She would remove it. Ponies. Enemies.

 

                    Obstacles.

 

                    "Despite being one of Princess Celestia's special administrative regions, Ponyville seems to be in some financial trouble, Mayor Mare," Antimony observed, and the town official had to remember to blink as the noblemare's eyes bored into her. They were almost... hypnotic.

 

                    "Let us make arrangements, now, for what is to come," she continued, always with a smile. "You will find in me a powerful and generous ally... it would be a shame for another to so benefit from my largess."

 

- - -

(3)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zUlHsJ107mkypNfP-JvsDRwhczz6ZfvcWUmm7tA7Fuo/edit

- - -


- - -

(3)                This Platinum Crown

- - -

 

        Crown Roc.

 

        The roof of Equestria could be found in the Skyspear Mountains of the north, a vast land of rugged highlands and snow capped mountains obscured by fog and cloud. Chief among the griffin realms was Crown Roc, a great crescent carved out of two mountainsides. Permanently adorned by pearls of clouds at the various levels, it was the triumph of griffin architecture and society, and had been for nearly a thousand years, since ponykind drove almost all rival races from the southlands in the great migrations of a previous age.

 

        Of the two mountainsides, the east-front, Ajax, was the largest, more than twice the size of the smaller north-front, Teucer. A small, third mountain to the west,  Trambelus, was occupied only by a combined ground and cloud fort guarding the navigable approach to the city. Thousands of buildings clung like moss to the side of the mountaintops, white stone and blue domes and a dozen colors of banner and parapet. The highest towers were the Skyspears for which the mountains were named: places of pilgrimage and sky-worship, connections between the monasteries in the heavens and the life on the earth. Griffins were more dual natured than pegasi, hunting on the ground, sleeping in the mountains, cavorting in the sky.

 

        Dominating part of the largest mountainside, Ajax, lay the Aerie of the High King. Tiered like massive steps leading up to a glacial throne, ringed by trees and a beehive of small domes, it was a sight to behold - a rival of Canterlot itself, though poorer and purposefully lacking in proper opulence. Much of the Palace Aerie was a barracks and citadel, functional not so much as a venue for cultural expression as it was a show of force. The Griffin Tribes were not so openly and easily united as their pony neighbors to the south.

 

        They never had been; and in fact, never wanted to be... so united.

 

        Prince Blueblood took in the sight as he prepared to leave.

 

        "One would think our honored guest found the hospitality of Crown Roc lacking?" The speaker, Prince Mnemon, joined him in looking out over the edge of the airship.

 

        Above them, the thin metal skeleton of the semi-rigid airship's envelope fluttered, attendants checking it for travel and preparing the internal ballonets for takeoff. The whole thing had been fashioned in the likeness of a sleek predatory whale or fish, from the metallic tip to the cresting empennage. Hanging from the envelope by a weave of ropes and supports, the gondola was akin to the body of a small ship, with ample luxuries and amenities for the Captain and Lord.

 

        It was Prince Blueblood's personal air cruiser, far faster than the diplomatic cargo airship moored close by. Curiously, that vessel was still at rest in its mooring by the mountainside of Crown Roc. Only The Princess Hesperus - The Princess Evening Star - was being prepared for launch. The suddenness of it all had drawn the heir apparent from the Palace to investigate.

 

        Blueblood turned from the sight of the mountain city to busily oversee the small crew as they went about their duties. A soft blue glow enveloped one of the rigging supports, testing its strength. Finding it acceptable, it moved on to the others.

 

        "Take it not as a slight, Mnemon," the Equestria royalty replied as he worked. "Please be sure your father the King understands this as well. Something unsavory has come to my attention, calling me home to attend to it."

 

        "It must be quite the news, to have you scurrying around like a mouse before a hawk," his peer among the griffins observed. He reached out to one of the flags that hung from the side of the airship's envelope. A few of the ship's streamers were emblazoned with the Star and Vesica Piscis, representing the diarchy of the divines of sun and moon, but others proudly bore the silhouette of a unicorn's bust against royal purple, crowned with diamonds. Only one family in Equestria bore the heraldry of the Old Kingdom.

 

        The fabric pinched between the griffin Prince's claws before he let it be.

 

        "Father had hoped to save this to the last day," Mnemon continued, looking to the side as a trio of griffins mauled a crate onboard. "But since we have concluded our business, it can be given now, I suppose. Our artisans have crafted for Lady Celestia and Lady Luna a gift that Father believes they will find to their liking. I hope you don't feel disappointed returning home without a trinket of your own, Blueblood."

 

        The Prince snorted, glancing back at his fellow with one eye.

 

        "Really?" he asked, and went back to making sure the ship was ready to disembark. "I was given a fine scar. I suppose that will pass for a gift to remember this trip by."

 

        Mnemon chuckled, slapping the alabaster stallion on the back. "Yes! You understand well! Equestria and Crown Roc will be good friends when we take our places!"

 

        "I'm already in my place," Blueblood countered, and his eyes narrowed in anger. "It is the reason I must leave."

 

        Seeing Mnemon was still curious, and that an answer could well smooth over his sudden exit, Blueblood floated an opened letter over from where it had been tucked under his belt and cloak. The griffin lord snatched it out of the air, handling it much more carefully than he did the flag before. It fluttered wildly in the mountain wind once Blueblood's magic released it.

 

        "Come, see where my place in the grand scheme of things has gotten me," the Prince of Equestria growled, looking up to test the airship's hull overhead.

 

        Mnemon examined the letter: it seemed unremarkable at first. The wax seal, broken on the outside where it had been folded, but intact at the bottom of the letter itself in place of a signature, indicated it was from the Stable of Lords in Equestria. Though the Stable had been the signatory, it was not the sender. Still, the fact that it was an official communiqué from the Lords was interesting enough. To the griffin Prince, it was a curious institution to begin with, giving voice to the country's landed classes, and one the Lords of High Roc had no desire to emulate. A Council of Elders served to advise the griffin King; there was no need for some preening legislature.

 

        In Equestria, the Stable of Lords had been first formed by the aristocrats of the migration in imitation of institutions in the Old Kingdom. It included religious ponies, hereditary commanders of the air guard, heralds, abbots, barons, dukes and representatives of the great district mayors. The very founders of the Stable had been the three revered ponies of the previous era: Smart Cookie, Clover the Clever, and Pansy the Fair. Blueblood, too, would have been a lord among them, as the Duke of Canterlot.

 

        As Mnemon read the letter, however, he realized the problem.

 

        "You have been engaged," he remarked, folding the letter back up. Blueblood, finished with checking the ship, now spared all his attention on his guest, plucking the letter out of the griffin's hand with a bit of magic.

 

        "Should I congratulate you?" Mnemon asked, a joke neither found funny. "Do you even know this she-pony?"

 

        "I know of Lady Antimony and her esteemed family," Blueblood answered with a frown. "They are somewhat distant cousins." He then clarified: "Ambitious cousins to be exact. I don't need to sit in court and bend ear to rumors to know what they are doing here. The Stable, engaging me without so much as a word of consultation?"

 

        Blueblood huffed, his anger already mellowed and tempered by consideration.

 

        "It is insulting for them to go behind my back," he explained, and tucked the letter away under his cloak. "Nevermind that Lady Rarity will not accept the terms this will impose on her. On us."

 

        "She would be relegated to second wife?" Mnemon guessed, knowing enough of ponies - despite the impression he tended to give - to determine the unwritten consequences of the letter and the engagement.

 

        "We only have one wife," Blueblood reminded him. "The second, third or fourth... or however many... ladies... are not even accorded a proper title. They also remain in the household only at the permission and whim of the wife, to be ejected with their children as suits her. Lady Rarity is many things, Mnemon, but she is not the type to ever accept second place in anything. She is no leman or kept mare."

 

        Placing a hoof against the banner-edge of the airship's gondola, a frown deepened.

 

        "I must return... muster my friends and allies... find some way to reject this engagement," he said, determined but also cautious. "Some way that does not also insult House Terre Rare or impugn the honor of Lady Antimony."

 

        "Then," Mnemon reasoned, a little cautiously himself. "You are certain that this Lady Rarity is to be your one... and only wife? You throw away much power by aligning your family with another that, by your own admission, has nothing to materially contribute. Not to be rude, but from what I know, House Blueblood was stronger in your father's day."

 

        "For once, your spies see some truth." Blueblood gave a frustrated, unhappy whinny. "The family was stronger... and larger... in father's day. Stronger still in my grandmother's. Our power and prestige have diminished. We have fallen far from once lofty heights. When the forty seventh came to these lands, he was a Titan! Now...?"

 

        He shook his head, trying to stay in the present. "Picking Lady Rarity as wife will do me no favors. It will grant my house no new lands. I will reap the benefits of no new alliances. Lady Rarity has no dowry to speak of. Any hypothetical children will not even inherit her element, before you think to ask."

 

        The stallion's eyes narrowed as he continued.

 

        "It will earn me only enmity. Her dowry will be the ire of great houses, whose own daughters have been snubbed. To marry Lady Rarity... is the worst political move I will have ever made."

 

        Blueblood fixed Mnemon with a hard stare.

 

        "But it is her dream... and I can imagine myself committed to no other," the Prince concluded, calmly, before glancing back out at the mountains and clouds. "So it is a move I will make, regardless."

 

        The two royals stood in silence for a while, the shouts of the ship's crew confirming that the Princess Hesperus was ready for launch. The King's gift had been showed away, and Princess Celestia's gift unloaded: an intact train engine, given as part of the peace negotiation, to encourage the more civilized of Griffin Tribes to link themselves with Equestria, not only by air, but by land as well. The thought of the Sun Princess gave Mnemon pause.

 

        "What about Granny?" he asked, chuckling at the nickname he and many generations of griffin princes previous had used for the immortal alicorn. "The Old Lady must be a trump card you can use?"

 

        "Auntie," Blueblood primly used a label that didn't quite stress how old his beloved relative was. "Will not be able to stick her nose into this."

 

        Mnemon raised an eyebrow at that, not understanding. "Why not? You are her nephew, however distantly. She is Princess of your realm, the spiritual head of your people. And... if I'm not mistaken, she is quite fond of Lady Rarity and all the other Mares of Harmony."

 

        "All true," the Prince admitted, and his blue eyes caught the horizon. South. Where Equestria's green fields lay. "She will not intervene because of her most terrible vice."

 

        "Vice?"

 

        "Her integrity. You must have noticed the outer seal in the letter..."

 

        "You didn't break it," the griffin lord realized with a smirk. "Ah! Granny did, and she sent it to you."

 

        "By royal courier," Blueblood confirmed, pushing off from the scaffold and heading to the airship's bridge. "My own letter will no doubt arrive days from now, when other plans have been put in motion." He stopped a pegasus in a sky-blue vest. "Ready the sails. We cruise as soon as our weather team builds up the wind."

 

        "Mnemnon," the Prince added, shooting away the airship crewpony and turning quickly to incline his head in respect. "I do hate to leave the hospitality of Crown Roc so suddenly and so rudely, I do, but you must understand now. I need to fly! I need to get back! What I care for depends on it!"

 

        "You never explained why Granny couldn't intervene," the other Prince reminded him. "I'm sure she can do more than give you some small warning?"

 

        Blueblood's shoulders sensed, but he didn't immediately reply.

 

        "Auntie..." he finally said, a hot breath of air against the cold mountain wind. "Auntie was the one to conceive of this engagement in the first place. That is why."

 

- - -

 

        It went largely without saying that Spike had few male role models.

 

        This wasn't the Worst. Thing. In. The. World! But it was a pain, sometimes. This being one of those times. His thoughts were a muddled, confused haze around one endlessly recursive subject in particular. He didn't let it affect his chores at the library - he wasn't sure how to talk to Twilight about it, or how awkward it would be - and he didn't let it otherwise detract from spending time with his friends, but it was always there. Rarity, this situation he had overheard... it was always in the back of his mind, enshrouded by doubt.

 

        He needed another guy to talk to, to use as a sounding board, to just be a possible source of advice. Somebody or somepony who wasn't already in Rarity's circle of friends. Snips and Snails had been possibilities, but the pair has as much experience with girls as he did, or, honestly, LESS. A lot less. It highlighted the problem in general.

 

        Just finding another dragon to talk to would go some distance towards clearing up his thoughts. Naturally, that wasn't possible. Dragons didn't raise their young - "they just don't have parental instincts," Twilight had explained once - and they were not the most talkative of races even under the best of conditions. He knew darn well that there was at least one dragon living nearby in Everfree, but the big green jerk was as likely to squash the 'competition' as he was to share any deep insights into dragon nature.

 

        There would be no wisdom passed down from that source.

 

        The only other alternative left was finding some camaraderie and common ground as guys, and just as guys, even if those ‘guys’ were ponies. It wasn't like they were all that different anyway. It wasn't like it was him - Spike - being abnormal in some way? Was it?

 

        He was out of options.

 

        This was also why he was at Sweet Apple Acres. The Apple family knew him, and even though his visit had been unexpected, he was greeted warmly and allowed to hang around. Applebloom was with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle at school, but he wasn't here to see any of the crusaders. He was here for advice from one of the few stallions he knew, albeit not very well.

 

        There was nothing to do but wait as Big Macintosh finished stocking one of the barns for the fall. No stranger to repetitive manual labor himself, Spike still had to shake his head at the carts and bales of hay being stowed, together with other fruits of the farm. Pony-food, all of it. Realizing that there wasn't just one barn packed with inedible roughage, but several across Ponyville's many family farms, it just reinforced the bitter thoughts that he had nursed over the last few days: that, as much as he loved being with his friends, they were ponies. He was not.

 

        He never would be.

 

        It was never something that mattered much before, but... now...

 

        After what seemed like an eternity of an early afternoon, the crimson farmpony finally finished and returned to the house. Before long, he had one of Granny Smith's apple iced teas in a tall glass, unwinding for a few minutes between time spent almost single handedly caring for half of Sweet Apple Acres. This, in turn, brought up the problem with trying to strike up a conversation with Applejack's brother: he was just not a very talkative pony.

 

        Spike fidgeted as he tried to imagine how to start to ask what he should do about his feelings for Rarity, or specifically about Rarity's situation. He didn't want to go too much into detail to respect her privacy, after all, and he didn't want to be weird about it. He could just ask: 'hey, you know a lot about girls and relationships and stuff, right?' Big Mac was an older guy, but not that much older.

 

        Ironically, the whole situation could've been easier - and easily avoided - if Twilight's parents had been living nearby, like they were back in Canterlot. Spike didn't know them much better than he did the Apples, but they were kind of default family. He knew they'd have some kind of wisdom to share. Parental stuff. Something.

 

        "So, uh..." The little dragon muttered, setting his glass on the floor next to his leg. The farmhouse's patio was surprisingly cool, and a breeze rustled the shaded leaves of dozens of apple trees in the fields nearby.

 

        "Eyup," Big Mac muttered back, taking a slow drink before readjusting the trademark wheat stalk between his lips.

 

        For a while, the two sat in silence. Granny Smith even ducked in to leave a tray of apple cakes and slices for lunch. Slowly building up the nerve to just ask for help, for advice, Spike was pre-empted by Applejack coming up from behind and plopping down. Also on her late-lunch break, apparently.

 

        As expected, she quickly asked him why he was here, and not in the town or with Twilight. Applejack, however, was a pony he knew. It wasn't hard to excuse himself: he was here to relax and clear his head. It was both true, and a convenient excuse. Sensing the former, Applejack nodded and relaxed for a little while next to her brother.

 

        It... did not make broaching the conversation Spike wanted to broach any easier.

 

        Then, without a word, Big Mac got up, stretched and started to head off.

 

        "Yer goin' ta take care of the fence, right?" Applejack asked, still chewing a slice of glazed apple. It was only mid-day, but she already looked a little bushwacked.

 

        "Eyup," he replied, and surprisingly added, "Ya wanna come help? Spike?"

 

        "Oh! Me?" Spike jumped up, seeing and seizing the chance. "Sure! Yeah! I'd be happy to!"

 

        Done asking, Mac nodded once and went back to walking: a slow, purposeful walk already set to Spike's pace. The little dragon was tempted, just for a moment, to steal a ride on the pony's back. He did it with Twilight all the time, and even her friends didn't seem to mind. With Mac, though, it would be... awkward. Probably something Applebloom and her friends could get away with, but Spike suspected that he'd just get a rather unwelcoming glare if he made the attempt to climb up.

 

        He walked alongside the large farmpony instead.

 

        "So, uhm..." Once again, Mac was silent, though he must have discerned that Spike wanted to ask him something. "I uh..."

 

        Cupping his hands behind his back, Spike coughed, just spitting it out:

 

        "Hey, Big Mac... you know about... girls and stuff, right?"

 

        "A bit," was the response. Spike could admit he'd expected an 'eyup.'

 

        "I, ah... need some advice," the dragon admitted.

 

        Mac said nothing, he just nodded. Once.

 

        Probably meaning something like 'I thought so' in Mac-inese.

 

        "So," Spike began, kicking a small rock off the beaten path between rows of orchard trees. "Have you ever... liked a girl... a mare, I guess... who liked someone else?"

 

        The stallion was a little slow to respond.

 

        "Eyup."

 

        "Well?" Spike thought the inference was, frankly, obvious. "What happened?" In a shade of Fluttershy-like anxiously, Spike realized how personal and direct the question had to have sounded. "I mean, if you don't... if it's okay for me to ask? It is okay, right?"

 

        Mac snorted, but gave no other sign of discomfort or annoyance.

 

        "Didn't work out tween them," he drawled, explaining it simply, but with enough insight to also add, "Didn't work out tween her and me, neither."

 

        For such a short answer, it carried a lot of weight: there had been a girl, then, and he had liked her. She had liked somepony else. Yet neither of the two relationships had worked out. Spike tried to imagine it as it could relate to him. Was it possible that Rarity wasn't for either of them? It was actually an option he hadn't even considered, so focused was he on... that Prince of hers.

 

        "Did you want things to not work out between them, though?" Spike asked, and this was the crux of the matter. He cupped his mouth with a hand, gritting his teeth. "I mean... it isn't wrong to feel that way, is it? Not that you did, but... if you had? It wouldn't be weird or wrong to think that? It would be normal, right?"

 

        "It wouldn't be selfish, right?" he blurted the question out even as he looked down at his feet, ashamed. "It wouldn't be because you..."

 

        Were different.

 

        It wouldn't be because you were a dragon, and you fed and grew on greed.

 

        "It ain't strange," the stallion replied, more quickly than he had with the previous questions. "Ah think... when ya like somepony like that, it don't make ya rational. Maybe it is ah bit greedy, but ya want what ya want. Ya want yer chance ta try an get it. Maybe you'll fall on yer face, but ya want the chance ta try."

 

        Spike nearly missed a step. The chance to try?

 

        He did. He did want that.

 

        It was what he'd lost at the Gala. He had known from the start that the girls all had their own plans for the evening, and that Rarity wanted to 'find her Prince.' He'd never thought she would succeed, literally. Yet, against all odds, by the night was through, she and Blueblood seemed to have hit it off. Before long, Spike started to see him visiting Ponyville. Then Rarity began visiting Canterlot more often, and not on business. Even when she was here, in Ponyville, when she was with him it was like there was no room for... anyone else...

 

        Nopony, no-one else, seemed to get it. Sweetie Belle thought it was wonderful and a fairy tale come true. Twilight probably thought it was fascinating and romantic and all that junk. It didn't change the fact that Blueblood was taking her away. He was taking her from them: from her friends and family. Even if she only moved to that mansion he was building outside town, it wasn't that he was physically taking her away. It was more than that. It was worse than that.

 

        Spike didn't want him to.

 

        He loved Rarity. He wanted her. He wasn't sure how, but he knew a strong feeling when he felt it, and this was more powerful than anything he had felt for anything ever before. It had to be love. But - but at the same time, he was smart enough to know that he was no pony. Dragons didn't "love" each other, their mates, or even their own children. They loved things. The contradiction between what he thought he felt and what he suspected he felt was too strong. He couldn't ignore his heart... or his head.

 

        "I do want a chance," he said, dropping the veil of pretense.

 

        "Any wrong ain't in wanting, but in doin' ... I'd think," Big Mac continued, green eyes passing over him as the farmer inspected the orchard around them. "Ah think ya gotta ask yerself, can ya be a little happy just fer somepony else bein' happy?"

 

        "I..." Spike wanted to say yes, but the honest answer was, "I don't know."

 

        "S'alright. Stop, listen, 'n think. A lotta life's problems sort out if ya stop, listen, 'n think." Big Mac stopped, mis-step, and raised a hoof to scratch behind his ear. "Well, would'ya look at this? Seems I got a bit turned around. We were supposed'ta be getting supplies from the shed ta fix the fence."

 

        Yeah: quite a coincidence, that.

 

        Still weighed down by his thoughts, but not quite as consumed by them as before, Spike followed the soft spoken stallion back up the patch to the tool shed. Mac didn't say anything else on the subject. He saw no need to, and Spike didn't ask any more. He had already said what needed to be said. Spike already felt better from having had someone to talk to.

 

        That just left him having to help re-wire a rather lengthy section of fence.

 

        Annoying work, but it gave him time to think... about what to do. About the letter.

 

- - -

 

        Twilight tried not to look at her friend as Rarity read Princess Celestia's letter. She'd been disappointed to read it herself; for Rarity, who had to be pinning her hopes on a resolution handed down from her Princess, it would be much worse. It wasn't as if anypony had made a habit of calling the Princess for help, even when they were probably in over their heads. Not a one of them ran to Canterlot to have their problems solved with a wave or royal decree.

 

        Now, finally, the one time that they had turned to the Princess for help, the result had been...

 

        Conflicted and ambiguous.

 

        Slowly, Rarity rolled the letter up and put it on a cushion nearby. Twilight checked her friend, but the other unicorn wasn't in the throes of her usual displays of despair. Instead, Rarity had a focused, thoughtful look on her face. Blue eyes found the letter, darted to the ceiling of the Boutique, and then closed as she processed the response from Canterlot.

 

        "So," Rarity finally spoke, tapping a hoof against the soft red pillow beneath her. "I suppose we are left with a choice in where to go next."

 

        "I'm sure if something else could be done..." Twilight offered in Celestia's defense.

 

        "Twilight, darling, please don't worry yourself. I'm not mad. Or upset." Rarity chewed her lower lip as she thought. "A bit... troubled maybe..."

 

        Shooting a hissing Opalescence off of one of her mannequines, the genius dressmaker swayed her head back and forth as she inserted a delicate ivory lace into the hem of one of her creations. Twilight could tell she was using it both as a form of distraction and as a way to help her think and clear her mind. The dress itself looked beautiful, as all of Rarity's creations did. This one was a bit unusual in that it had no gems other than pearl and fake ivory.

 

        "Rarity?" Twilight asked, sensing her friend had something on her mind that she hadn't shared yet.

 

        "Hm. Oh, I'm terribly sorry!" She paused next to the dress, looking at it with a critical eye. "It helps me focus, you know? This dress... I want it to be simply magnificent. Flawless."

 

        Sitting up, the other unicorn cocked her head in confusion. "I thought you were wearing a different dress to the festival?"

 

        "I am," Rarity explained with a smirk and shake of her head. "This is Lady Antimony's dress."

 

        Twilight started at that in surprise. "What? But why-"

 

        "She is a customer," Rarity reminded her bookish friend. "An important customer of the Carousel Boutique! I won't let any personal differences get in the way of what I love. Lady Antimony is a classically beautiful mare, with a perfect mane and perfect posture and perfect poise and she is paying for a similarly beautiful dress. So! I want it to be perfect. My best work. My master work."

 

        Rarity's blue eyes narrowed as she grinned.

 

        "I want to see her in this dress when she realizes she's going to lose," she said with a huff. "To me. To Rarity!"

 

        Twilight shrunk back a bit at the intensity in her friend's eyes and voice. Nothing Rarity had described so far seemed particularly insulting, really, in her opinion. Yet from the sound of things, the two unicorn mares were bitter enemies and had become so in the span of a few sentences. Was this really all caused by the noblemare's engagement to Blueblood? Twilight just didn't quite get it. Not that she had to completely understand to sympathize and see the stress her friend had on her shoulders. Just that, if she were in Rarity's shoes, Twilight suspected she would just cut some kind of deal and move on.

 

        That seemed like the rational response to the situation, anyway.

 

        "Did I tell you? I exchanged letters with Fleur and Fancy Pants earlier," Rarity continued, chin held high as she levitated out a string of pearls for the dress. "Apparently, they can't help me either. Not a single one of my Canterlot friends suggested I pursue a confrontation with any member of Lady Antimony's family. And now... even the Princess...?"

 

        At mention of Celestia, Twilight hastened to clear some things up:

 

        "Just a minute," she interrupted, holding up a hoof for emphasis. "While the Princess herself didn't confirm this, my father was able to shed some light on what was happening in the family. The... rest of the family... that is."

 

        This prompted Rarity to turn and give her friend her full attention. It was probably still something of a sore spot that Twilight found herself related, even distantly, to the main branch of Terre Rares that Rarity had found herself in opposition to. She just didn't quite grasp how large extended unicorn clans could be in Canterlot... or how complicated genealogies were. One of the most important and well-respected branches of magic in Canterlot related to the study of family lines, lineage, and the arranging of marriages.

 

        A good genealogist was as well respected (and as well paid) as a good doctor, maybe more.

 

        "When I asked them what was going on - aside from asking why I only wrote home about this and nothing else - my father told me what he had heard when he was young..."

 

        Twilight focused her magic, projecting a copy of a genealogy chart she had formed from her letters and from her research. The branching tree went back seven generations, illuminated by a dozen important names and other blank spaces marked with XY or XX. It was incomplete, but would get the point across.

 

        "My word! I keep forgetting how good you are at illusion magic, darling." Rarity watched with some awe.

 

        Twilight laughed in embarrassment, still a bit flushed by getting praise. Especially for mundane stuff and helping out. This level of complex illusion wasn't that hard. Not even master-level.

 

        "See this name here?" Twilight asked, and her magic highlighted one of the names from which all but one, the one above, branched. "This is Blueblood the forty seventh. Also known in history as Blueblood the Silent."

 

        The name glowed, along with a date of birth and time of passing.

 

        "About two hundred years ago, this Prince Blueblood fought during the Second Griffin Civil War. Oddly, I found conflicting information with respect to how he died..."

 

        Twilight quickly assumed a lecturing tone and pose, one hoof raised and both eyes closed as she worked her magic and told her tale.

 

        "One source says the rebellious Pretender King of the griffins struck him down before dying from his wounds. Another more colorful story is that the Prince developed a terrible spell that tore the wings from any flying creature in the sky, and that after the battle, he was killed by a crippled pegasus who was offended by his refusal to apologize or make amends. Hence the title 'the Silent.' Or so the book speculated."

 

        "Anyway," she said, moving on. The two names under Blueblood the Silent highlighted. "The real mess begins with these two. Blue Belle the forty eighth, who adopted the feminine form of the title Blueblood, and her sister Arsenic. Both were born just days after their father died."

 

        "Twins?" Rarity asked, seeing one name before the other on the family tree.

 

        It struck her then that the tree was arranged in sibling order: oldest to the left, youngest to the right. It was clear enough to see, since the main branch - the titled leading edge of the family - was always confined to one side and marked by a little golden crown. Lady Arsenic and Blue Belle were the one exception.

 

        Which meant -

 

        "Lady Arsenic was the older sister by a few hours," Twilight confirmed, guessing that her fellow Element of Harmony had already figured it out. "But the family inheritance was passed onto Blue Belle."

 

        "How can that be?" Rarity asked, contemplating the genealogy of her would-be enemy. "In an old family, a royal family, the oldest daughter should always inherit. Was something... wrong with her?"

 

        "Lady Arsenic... she wasn't a unicorn," Twilight explained, and the mare's name faded while Blue Belle's glowed as bright as before. "According to the books I read, and according to my father, she was born an earth pony. So, despite being older, the family name passed to her younger sister. A unicorn."

 

        Lady Arsenic, though clipped from the Blueblood line, found another branch on the tree.

 

        The Terre Rares.

 

        "She ended up marrying into the Terre Rare family in Two Rivers. In contrast, the Blueblood line after the split continued to be very straightforward," Twilight continued, briefly highlighting the family on the right side of the tree. It went straight from one Blueblood to another, ending in Blueblood the fifty second, Lady Blue Belle's great-great grandson. Twilight then focused on the Terre Rare lineage.

 

        "Here's my part of the family line," she said, to demonstrate, even though Rarity had to have already singled it out. "Lady Arsenic had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood: Bismuth, Neptunium, and Kamacite. My father, Crescent Moon, is right here. I'm Kamacite's great granddaughter and Lady Arsenic is my great-great grandmother."

 

        "I knew the name from when I was little," Twilight admitted, slipping a bit from her dispassionate lecturing mode. "But when I looked up more information on her - I didn't even know I had earth pony blood in me - there were some strange writings and rumors. There was a treatise on magic that she wrote... unicorn magic if you can believe it! Bridging alchemy and enchanting! Her sister didn't seem to have done much, but Lady Arsenic is mentioned dozens of times in arcane scrolls and notes. All very fascinating!"

 

        Twilight lowered her voice, and her conjured illusion dimmed a bit.

 

        "She must have been a scholar or something. Everypony knows no earth pony can use unicorn magic," she rationalized. "The Bluebloods have access to all of Canterlot's magic, forbidden or otherwise. I bet she was very knowledgeable..."

 

        "Twilight," Rarity said, feeling the need to step in again to ask for clarity. "What were these scrolls and notes?"

 

        Twilight shook her head. "It... isn't anything important. Esoteric magic. I guess because she still felt the need to use magic of some sort, she tried other ways?"

 

        Rarity took a long look at the Terre Rare family.

 

        They were all unicorns, probably, except for their matriarch, Lady Arsenic. Rarity noticed something then. Something that just couldn't be correct.

 

        "Twilight, are these dates correct? Lady Arsenic lived-"

 

        "One hundred and sixty six years," the Element of Magic confirmed. "Yes. I'm sure. I triple checked that."

 

        It was an astounding age.

 

        Granny Smith, one of Ponyville's oldest living residents, was a little over eighty years old. Lady Arsenic had lived roughly twice as long. It was commonly known that the more magically gifted a unicorn, the longer his or her life could be. There were certain spells, potions and rituals to extend longevity, but not that long. She must have been truly ancient, second only to the Princesses, when she finally passed away.

 

        Her husband, in contrast, died in his forties.

 

        That fact certainly wasn't very ominous.

 

        "Her oldest daughter died?" Rarity asked, seeing that the main line was again continued by the second daughter, Bismuth.

 

        "Oh. That, well..." Twilight licked her lips, a little hesitant to say much more. Lady Arsenic's first child was marked with an XX, but no name.

 

        "She - she died soon after being born," she explained. "According to the family rolls."

 

        "Oh. How sad!" Rarity shook her head sadly, knowing it must've been a tragedy for a new mother starting a new family, after being cruelly forced out of her old one. "But health care was lacking back then... so unhygienic, and there is always the risk-"

 

        "Actually," Twilight corrected, coughing and looking nervous enough to pass for a violet colored Fluttershy. "According to family lore, the foal was born healthy... but when Lady Arsenic started to feed her, she... um... died. Of poisoning. She was considered too weak, so Lady Arsenic refused to give her a name..."

 

        "Oh ho. That old tale?"

 

        Both mares startled, jumped, to see a silent group of figures at the door. One of them Lady Antimony. The others were Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Pierce, and Colton Vines. Twilight knew that the latter was expected to give a wine tasting tonight to determine which vintages were to be used at the Arts Festival. They were early, though, weren't they?

 

        A quick look at the clock instead informed her that it was her sense of time that was off.

 

        "Should you really be repeating two hundred year old slander, Twilight Sparkle?" Lady Antimony stepped forward, eyes narrowing, but still wearing a small, amiable smile. She sounded unhappy, but looked more amused than insulted.

 

        "Especially when the victim of said rumors is our own great-great grandmother?" she asked. "How distasteful. To see such disrespect for our shared, common blood... it's... unfortunate."

 

        "So sorry, really," Colton felt the need to speak, too late, after having been discovered to be collectively eavesdropping. He held up a bottle of wine. "Um. This isn't a bad time? I came when I was supposed to?"

 

        "Everypony, my apologies," Rarity said, quickly taking charge of the situation with her typical suave charm. Despite shooting a quick glare at Lady Antimony. "Twilight and I completely lost track of time."

 

        "We, uh, should'a knocked..." Applejack admitted, blushing a bit in embarrassment. She didn't finish her sentence by saying, 'instead of opening the door and listening in.'

 

        "It ain't true though, is it?" she asked.

 

        "Of course not!" Pinkie Pie finally jumped in. Literally. She jumped into the room with a springy bounce. "Remember all the silly stuff they said about Nightmare Moon? She doesn't really eat ponies! Just candy! Especially candy corn and candy apples and candy suckers and candy crunch and candy canes!"

 

        "Lady Arsenic was the victim of much slander in her lifetime," Antimony remarked, shifting to the side as Pinkie made a bouncing lap around her and then around the room.

 

        The noblemare fixed Twilight with a calm, unblinking gaze.

 

        "Our shared grandmother was a great mare, Twilight Sparkle. A misunderstood mare. A victim!" For just a moment, Lady Antimony's voice lost a bit of cool and she paused to collect herself. "By which I mean, please refrain from spreading such unkind rumors, especially with respect to a family tragedy."

 

        "I should also apologize." The noblemare turned to Rarity and inclined her head. "It was terribly improper of us to listen in as we did and to enter without first asking admittance."

 

        "But we couldn't see the diagram from the window!" Pinkie complained, stopping by Twilight's projected illusion of her family tree. "Oh! Oh!" She pointed at one of the names, seemingly at random. "Tell a story about this one!"

 

        Twilight spared her bubbly friend a hard stare.

 

        "Pinkie-" she warned, as the party pony tried to interact with the illusion magic, sticking her hoof in one side and out the other.

 

        "Lord Neptunium was known for his knowledge of the tides. He served on Princess Celestia's Privy Council for thirty four years. Forty one laws bear his signature, and as Minister of Rivers he is responsible for the construction of no less than one hundred and fifteen dams, levies, breakers and locks."

 

        Twilight stared at Lady Antimony, the source of that outburst of information.

 

        "His preferred style of magic was water-based and his cutie mark was a canal lock," the noblemare continued, determined to answer Pinkie Pie's inquiry. "He was also known for his skill as a duelist and his mastery of the Posta Breve and Porta di Ferro. He had one wife and two dams. He once engaged a Sea Serpent in a contest of wits that lasted three straight days, all for the right to construct a dam on the River Steeple."

 

        Pinkie Pie, looking somewhat thwarted in her randomness, pointed elsewhere on the tree without looking.

 

        "Oh yeah? What about this one?" She demanded with a grin.

 

        "You aren't pointing at a name. That's empty space."

 

        "This isn't time for show and tell," Twilight remarked, looking to her (other) friends for assistance.

 

        "Quite right," Rarity agreed. "We're here together for a wine tasting."

 

        "And cider!" Applejack injected into the conversation, pushing a reluctant Colton Vines along. The apple farmer had a pony keg strapped to both her sides and likely a set of cups or mugs somewhere in her saddlebags.

 

        "I... only brought my best..." Colton offered, still nervously looking around at all the powerful or unpredictable mares around him. Three were local celebrities and heroines, and to make things crazier, one of them was Pinkie Pie. It was clear by the way he kept glancing at the party pony that he wasn't entirely convinced that even giving her wine to taste wouldn't end in disaster. He turned to the only other stallion present, the cultured Pierce, for some assistance.

 

        But the wavy-maned unicorn was thoroughly distracted by one of Rarity's embroidered vests on display.

 

        "Pierce!" he barked.

 

        "Oh? Oh yes!" the dandy stallion chuckled and trotted over, assuming his role as Pinkie-distraction (aka bait) for the evening. "Now, I was thinking of a merlot as our signature for the festival."

 

        "What!" Pinkie immediately objected, as she always did, to basically everything Pierce suggested. "I want a super bubbly, super fizzy, super sparkly wine!" She punctuated each 'super' with a bounce. For effect.

 

        "Dry wine with all the sweets you have at this event?" Pierce rolled his eyes. "Ugh."

 

        "It's called contrast pairing!"

 

        "It's called murder. Murder of the palate. Wine should compliment the dishes served."

 

        "Contrasting wine is best!"

 

        "Complimentary wine is superior."

 

        "Contrasting!"

 

        Everypony's eyes went from one of the bickering ponies to the other.

 

        "Complimentary!"

 

        "Contrasting!"

 

        "Complimentary!"

 

        "Contrasting!"

 

        "Complimentary!"

 

        "Complimentary!"

 

        "Contrasting!"

 

        "Complimentary!"

 

        "Contrasting!" Pierce all but yelled, and only then noticed-

 

        "I guess you're right as usual," Pinkie relented with a shrug. "Contrasting wines it is."

 

        The unicorn hung his head in defeat. "I hate it when you do that."

 

- - -

 

        The next hour and a half passed quickly, as Colton laid out his range of local vintages. He brought his best, along with the less numerous wines from other, smaller, vineyards close to Ponyville. His preference and specialty was zinfandel, but he had a selection of lighter reds and bold white wines as well. Colton was, himself, an accredited and acknowledged sommelier as well as cultivator of both old and new world grapes.

 

        Though not his equal, Rarity considered herself fairly knowledgeable, as well.

 

        In fact, she had considered that it would be mostly her decision that would tip the scales in what wine to promote at the Art Festival. Pinkie and Pierce would want opposite things, naturally, leaving her with the actual decision making. Colton tentatively offered a few suggestions, but he wasn't the most assertive of stallions at the best of times. At least Fluttershy could eventually be goaded into giving her genuine opinion on one thing or another. Colton had just enough grit to stick with being indecisive, as ironic as that was.

 

        Inhaling the aroma of the last glass of sauvignon blanc, she drank enough to whet her palate and get a feel for the taste of the wine in-mouth. It was one of her favorite, actually, with a very bold cut-grass flavor. Not as fruity as his usual selection, but with a lively, aromatic impression. Perfect for guests to sip at while chatting and milling around the festival.

 

        Spitting the wine out into a nearby spittoon on a table, Rarity saw Applejack plying her trade with the Carousel Boutique's ... other guest.

 

        To no pony's surprise, Apples would be factoring heavily in virtually any local event, and the Art Festival was no exception. Ponyville was an Apple Town, after all. It had been founded by the Smith Family and other settlers and it had grown prosperous in large part because of apples, particularly the once-annual Zap Apple harvest. The local economy wasn't entirely pastoral anymore, but it was still an essential source of income for the town and region, and a source of pride, tradition and history.

 

        Cider would be just one of a few apple-products in the limelight at the Art Festival. All the food would be local. Blueblood had stressed only a few absolutes to Pinkie and the others before he left for Crown Roc, giving them great leeway and latitude to "have fun" with the festival. One of his rules had been to only use local produce. Ponyville was on the cusp of Cider Season and the Apple Clan had started on their signature drink a little early.

 

        It made sense for her to be here, at the tasting for the festival.

 

        It made sense for her to be chatting away with Lady Antimony.

 

        It still rankled, however, that no pony seemed to do anything but like the noblemare. Of course, Rarity thought to herself: why would they have a problem with her? So far, she had quite visibly taken a tour around Ponyville with Pinkie Pie, spending money at a variety of local shops. She was rich, and despite being a noble, she was generous. She had even apparently offered to help renovate the Town Hall... and to construct something adjacent to it in the lot that had been destroyed during the Mare-Do-Well adventure. Celestia-alone knew what was to be built there. Probably a gaudy statue.

 

        No: that was petty.

 

        Lady Antimony was, Rarity knew, a smart mare. She was insinuating herself into the town. It made perfect sense if you knew, as she did, that Antimony expected to be the next Duchess of Canterlot and that her husband had suddenly developed an interest in this one little country town in his domain. It was silly to expect that, just by virtue of their differences, that all her friends would see the threat that-

 

        Again, Rarity shook her head. Petty. Petty. She was being petty.

 

        This whole misadventure was simply bringing out the worst in her.

 

        But... it seemed there was only one recourse left to take...

 

        The sound of liquid hitting the inside of the spittoon redirected Rarity's attention. The smiling face of Pinkie Pie filled her field of view, causing her to back up a step. The pink pony looked downright goofy suggesting she'd swallowed a little less wine than she had probably spat out this evening. Yes: there was definitely a very Berry Punch-like look to her hooded eyes. Eyes a lighter blue than her own stared hard at the unicorn mare.

 

        "Don't be so grumpy, Rarity!" Pinkie suddenly declared, wrapping her front legs around her friend in a big hug. "I know everything will work out just fine!"

 

        A little surprised by the move and by the words, Rarity's first impulse was to huff in annoyance, but she quickly sighed and realized that Pinkie had said just what she wanted and needed to hear. It was just like her to either cut to the quick or fly off on some wild tangent. The question was always which route the erratic party pony would take at any given time.

 

        "Thank you, Pinkie Pie," she replied, patting her friend on the shoulder; a cue to disengage a bit.

 

        "You looked like you needed it!" the bubbly earth pony remarked with a silly grin.

 

        "I admit I have wondered how this will turn out," Rarity then realized, "Wait, you knew...?"

 

        "Monee told me!" she supplied, and saw Rarity's smile slip a bit. "She didn't say anything mean. Just that she has to do it."

 

        "Has to do it," Rarity repeated.

 

        Both mares paused as Twilight trotted up, looking more sober than Pinkie. Even as sheltered and bookish as she was, Twilight was still a Canterlot mare. Rarity would be surprised if this was her first wine tasting. They were all the rage in the great palace-city.

 

        "I wanted to say this earlier, before we got interrupted," Twilight said as she got closer. Her voice had a conspiratorial edge to it, and the three of them took note of where everypony else was.

 

        The two stallions were chatting over by some of the male outfits on display, Pierce pointing out something on one of them. Rarity smiled at the attention given to her products. He and Colton were both cultured ponies, and Vines was even in one of the few actual professions - management of a vineyard - held in such high esteem that nobles themselves were allowed to partake in it. They had good taste and a good eye for fashion. Both had to be looking for outfits for the festival, too, maybe even a few accessories.

 

        Applejack was still talking Lady Antimony's ears off on the other side of the boutique, the farmer with a frothy mug of cider in-hoof and the aristocrat with a glass of expensive tulip stemware. From the gestures Applejack was making, she seemed to be describing the many, many, many nuances of apple distillery, cider production and the intangible taste-enhancing powers of fresh country produce. Lady Antimony had the same expression she basically always wore: smiling placidly and amiably with her eyes half lidded. It was impossible to tell if she was paying the slightest attention or completely zoning out due to apple-information-overload.

 

        "Say what earlier, Twilight?" Pinkie asked, blinking.

 

        "Yes, now is as good a time as any," Rarity said.

 

        "The reason I brought up that family tree was to explain why I think the Princess can't intervene to help you, Rarity." Twilight levitated her glass over to rest on the table with the brass spittoon. "We got a little sidetracked, but it has to do with Lady Arsenic and Lady Blue Belle."

 

        "Oh." Pinkie Pie made a little 'o' with her mouth.

 

        Rarity just raised an eyebrow at the strange response in her friend.

 

        Twilight continued, regardless, making up for lost time: "Even though she was picked as heir, Lady Blue Belle didn't really seem that interested in doing anything. She was one of the few Bluebloods not to hold public office, or to hold a seat in the Privy Council or the Royal Household. She seemed to be mostly well known for her... well, for her parties."

 

        The two unicorns coughed, eyes falling on the earth pony present.

 

        "There are worse things to be infamous for," Pinkie wisely observed.

 

        "After something my father wrote back to me about, I found mention of a petition from Lady Arsenic to the Stable of Lords recorded in the weekly minutes," Twilight explained, sighing. "From the look of it, it was probably a request to have one of her descendants marry one of her sister's descendants. There aren't many other ways to request 're-uniting the bloodlines' and 'correcting the loss of my privilege and inheritance.' It took time, but it got enough approval in the Stable to end up forwarded to the Princess for consultation."

 

        Rarity closed her eyes, already having guessed what came after that.

 

        "She probably felt sorry for Lady Arsenic," Twilight said, as always jumping to her mentor's defense. "I mean, wouldn't you? Any pony would."

 

        "I see," Rarity said with a nod. "She agreed."

 

        "After three generations, and not before, we would agree to see the bloodline that was lost restored in honor and matrimony to the ducal throne of Canterlot."

 

        It was Pinkie who had spoken, and the party pony licked her lips at the surprised looks her friends were giving her. She reached up with a hoof to sip at her glass of sparkly-bubbly-fizzy wine. The same type she had been enjoying for most of the get-together. She giggled nervously.

 

        "That's what Monee said," she finally explained. "She said," and here, Pinkie tried to adopt Antimony's normal pose and bearing. "Blueblood and I are of the fourth generation removed. It has been decided. Princess Celestia herself decided it. My family will never accept anything less than the crown and shield of Canterlot itself, our very birthright returned to us at last."

 

        Pinkie shook her head at high speed, returning to normal.

 

        "Her words, not mine!" she stressed.

 

        Twilight looked dejected at being unable to help solve the situation. Even Pinkie seemed remorseful for having brought it up. There would be no resolution from above, as Celestia had already agreed in principle to the union two centuries ago. The Terre Rare family had done nothing but grow in power and influence since that time, enough to cow any potential opposition. No middling social connection, no matter their impeccable taste or reputation, would be able to sway the only ponies who had a say in the matter: the high aristocrats who made up the Stable of Lords.

 

        "There is only one thing to do then," Rarity whispered to herself.

 

        "I, uh - I could..." Twilight spoke up at the same time, just a little louder than Rarity's own musing. "I am part of the Terre Rare family so... maybe I could..."

 

        Seeing her friends staring at her, Twilight blushed and suddenly found her hooves very interesting points of study. She pawed softly at the floor, swallowing as she tried to find a way to suggest the un-suggestible.

 

        "You know," she muttered. "I could ask to take over the engagement instead... and just.. not go through with it?" She groaned, shaking her head in defeat. "No. No! that wouldn't work! Maybe-"

 

        "It wouldn't," Rarity agreed, but put a hoof on her friend's upper leg in support. "But thank you for the thought, dear. Even if the rest of your family agreed to it, I am sure they would be insistent in taking this affair to it's conclusion."

 

        Twilight nodded. "I know. I just... thought... there has to be something I can do!"

 

        "If I was to be second to another mare, you would be the only one I would consider, Twilight." Rarity leaned down to touch horns with her close friend. "But there is another option left to take."

 

        "There is?" Pinkie and Twilight asked in stereo.

 

        "Oh! I know!" the former cheered. "You and Bluey can just elope!"

 

        "In a manner of speaking," Rarity agreed, swirling the wine in her glass as she explained herself. "The answer is right in front of us."

 

        "The answer is... a wall?" Pinkie slid up to Rarity's side, looking in her direction. At the wall.

 

        "Building a wall between her and Bluey probably won't work," the party pony reasoned sagely, raising her hoof to outline a square in the air. Followed by gesturing around said wall. "She'll just walk around it. Or teleport through it. Or dig under it. Unless... this is a magic wall!?"

 

        "You know a wall won't work, right?" Twilight asked, sounding completely serious.

 

        "It isn't a wall," Rarity deadpanned.

 

        "Good! Because a wall totally wouldn't work!"

 

        "Actually a magic wall might, if you-"

 

        "The answer," Rarity interrupted. "Is that Lady Antimony believes I can be pushed aside because she is a titled noblemare, and I am not. That is the root of this situation. Were I a member of a noble family, like the Stardusts or the Garlands, it would not matter what her family wants or what they have been promised. All that would matter is Blueblood's own opinion, and I know he will choose me."

 

        "So you need to become a titled noblemare!" Pinkie quickly saw her plan take form. "Which means we have to conquer Equestria!"

 

        "No."

 

        "Besiege a castle?"

 

        "No."

 

        "Colonize the Channel Islands?"

 

        "I... don't even know what that means..."

 

        "Oh!" Pinkie snapped her hooves. Somehow. "I got it! We need to be knighted for valor!"

 

        "Ah." Rarity slyly poked the party mare with a hoof. "That's just it, darling. We already have been. Don't you remember the ceremony at the palace after that whole Discord mess?"

 

        Pinkie shrugged. "I remember the party afterwards!"

 

        "I don't know, Rarity," Twilight said, having taken a more thorough and less Pinkie-ish analysis of the suggestion. "We didn't genuflect during the ceremony, and I know we didn't get slapped across the face. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a knighting. We weren't given any land or anything."

 

        "There are two forms of accolade, Twilight... the secular and the-"

 

        "Religious!" Twilight abruptly perked up, electrified by sudden realization and the excitement of a new idea racing through her head. "A colée is only given during the secular ceremony!"

 

        "Exactly," Rarity replied. "Even if it wasn't her original intention, it is enough of a pretext to stand on."

 

        "Oh! Oh! Can I do it too! I'd make a great Lady of the Realm! Lady Pinkie Pie! The Pink Knight! Woo-hooo! Hhffgg!"

 

        Not for the first time, and not for the last, Pinkie's tirade ended with a hoof in her mouth. Rarity's in this case. Honestly: did she have to be so loud? Luckily nopony else seemed to have found Pinkie suddenly erupting into cheers and calling herself a noblemare at the top of her lungs unusual enough to even so much as glance in their direction.

 

        Maybe she had finally hit the point of diminishing returns for zaniness?

 

        "There is a rather troubling downside to this plan," Rarity whispered, removing her hoof from Pinkie's mouth with an audible pop.

 

        "What could be the downside?" Pinkie asked, unperturbed by the interruption.

 

        "A titled noble mare or stallion is forbidden to practice a trade, Pinkie," Twilight explained with a frown, concern for her friend written on her face. "If you became a Lady, like Lady Antimony, then you wouldn't be allowed to work at Sugarcube Corner."

 

        Pinkie blinked a few times, seemed about to say something, only to find herself nearly speechless.

 

        "But... but I love Sugarcube Corner!" She gasped, just then getting it. "So then Rarity-"

 

        "That's exactly it," the fashionista confirmed, blue eyes firm with conviction. "I would no longer be able to run the Carousel Boutique. I could make dresses, of course, but not sell them. I would be putting aside everything I've worked for up until today."

 

- - -

 

        "Are you okay, sugarcube?"

 

        Applejack gave the noblemare a gentle prod. She seemed pretty unresponsive.

 

        "Oh. Yes." Baroness Antimony remarked, magically dabbing her lips with a napkin. "Quite fine. This hard cider as you call it... is quite strong..."

 

        The flushed look on her cheeks hinted that it probably wouldn't be wise to ply her with much more of the family brew, to say nothing of the real stiff drinks Granny and Big Mac brewed out back. She had been diligently spitting wine earlier, but having never sampled Sweet Apple brand hard cider before, the Baroness had been convinced to try just a 'bit' of the stuff for the road.

 

        Not having the heart to spit out good brew, Applejack had already downed three times as much, resulting in a minor, pleasant buzz. If all Canterlot types were such lightweights they'd have to go with the traditional soft and spiced ciders for the Art Festival. It wouldn't do to have a bunch of drunken unicorns stumbling around, shooting magic everywhere.

 

        "My father would enjoy this drink, I think," Antimony muttered, putting the glass of cider aside. "I have more... my mother's constitution when it comes to such spirits."

 

        "Ain't nothin' wrong with that!" Applejack assured her with an overly familiar tap on the shoulder. "Yer pop's who, now? Anypony I'd know?"

 

        "My father... is Lord Cruciger," the noblemare answered, levitating out a delicate folded fan that expanded into a maple leaf shape, adorned with gold trim. She seemed much more relaxed than she had when Applejack had first cornered her to talk about the famous orchards of Prance and Two Rivers. It was the home country of what she recalled Blueblood's favorite apple to be. The region seemed to have cornered the market when it came to pandering to the tastes of Equestria's aristocrats.

 

        A tasty little pie that the Apple Family wouldn't mind getting a hoof in someday.

 

        "Cruciger, huh?" Applejack asked. It wasn't a familiar name.

 

        "You would know him if you saw him. He is a large stallion. Over twenty nine stone." The archaic form of measurement caught Applejack a bit by surprise. By her reckoning, though, it put this stallion in at even larger than her big brother.

 

        "Dark coat," Antimony continued, as she fanned herself to cool down and compose herself. "Dark mane, as well. His cutie mark is a single unicursal hexagram. But he rarely travels anymore. I haven't seen him in... a few years, I suppose. Even when my engagement was advanced in the Stable of Lords he contacted me through magical means."

 

        "Aren't ya right under him in that-there whole hierarchy of lords thing you unicorns have?" Applejack gestured to a rough set of rungs, like steps in a ladder.

 

        "Yes. Along with a dozen other Barons and Earls," Antimony explained, glancing away at her fan. "Father rules from the family keep at Marestricht whereas my responsibilities typically keep me to either Canterlot or Mareseilles."

 

        "It's funny." Applejack gestured over to where three of her friends were standing close together. One in particular. "Twilight never said much about her family before today."

 

        "Hers is a distant branch of the bloodline," the Baroness explained, off-hoof. "None of us expected her magic to express itself so strongly in Kamacite's lineage, yet I have been told she is likely to be Starswirl reborn." The noblemare snorted very delicately in dismissal.

 

        Applejack raised a curious - and defensive - eyebrow.

 

        'Express her magic' ...? That was an odd way of phrasing things.

 

        "Hey, now," she warned. "Twilight here's about the most powerful unicorn Ah've ever seen. And Ah've never seen a pony who studies harder."

 

        "Apologies," Antimony quickly said, sensing she had hit a raw nerve. "I meant no insult. We are truly proud of her, and we respect both her accomplishments and the judgment of the Princess in selecting her as an apprentice."

 

        "However," she added, before Applejack could reply. "There are limits to what one pony can achieve with more common magics."

 

        "What's that mean?"

 

        "...ah." The Baroness dabbed her lips again with the silk napkin, though they were already clean. "Nothing substantial. Only that we unicorns still have so much left to... learn."

 

        Applejack nodded, willing to accept that much.

 

        Watching the noblemare fan herself and regain her proper bearings, Applejack suddenly had an impulse to ask something. It had been niggling at the back of her head since she and Pinkie had overheard the conversation inside the Boutique from outside and decided to try and listen in. It wasn't right, of course, letting their curiosity get the better of them. Colton and Pierce, good stallions the both of them - but not particularly assertive - had just sort of stepped back to let the girls do whatever they wanted. Lady Antimony had joined in, too, despite it no doubt being improper.

 

        She'd seemed pretty harmless back then, when she and Colton had met up with Pinkie, Pierce and the noblemare. They had exchanged introductions, and despite being a member of Equestria's highest courtly class, Antimony had come across as friendly. It helped that there had been talk about her in Ponyville lately, and that that talk had reached Sweet Apple Acres.

 

        Yet...

 

        "It wasn't true, right?" Applejack asked, rolling her eyes to nonchalantly look around Rarity's boutique. "That stuff about yer great grandma?"

 

        Antimony's fan stopped in midair, snapping closed with a ting of metal-on-metal.

 

        "You mean my great-great grandmother, Lady Arsenic," she corrected, and for the second time, her tone became just a little bit emotional. Just for a moment, then it was back to her normal cool tone. "Miss Applejack, have you heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

 

        The apple farmer nodded shortly. "Yep. That's about when ya do something that ends up making what ya don't want to happen, happen, right?"

 

        "Lady Arsenic," Antimony said, as if reciting from a book. "Was cruelly mistreated in her day. She was disgraced and dishonored simply by not being born a unicorn. Though she was eldest, though she bore the most noble blood - the blood of Princess Platinum, the blood of the Old Kingdom, the blood shared with the Princess herself - she was deprived of her legacy."

 

        "Our family was weak, two hundred years ago," she continued, passion slipping into her voice, perhaps because of the bit of alcohol in her system, perhaps because this was finally something she felt strongly about. "The Terre Rare line was old, but insignificant. The griffins pressed us from the north, Prance from the east, Whinnychester from the west."

 

        "Now..." Her eyes widened, and something burned behind the red of her irises. "Now these enemies of my grandmothers bow to my father. They bow to me. Who then... will bow to my daughter? To her daughter?"

 

        Almost despite herself, Applejack found that she was backing away from the older mare.

 

        Sensing this, Lady Antimony quickly reined herself in. Her eyes closed, and it felt as if a weight had been removed from Applejack's chest. It had to be her imagination. It had to be. For just a moment there, it had almost-almost seemed as if the breath had been stolen from her lungs. Applejack was not a pony to spook easily; she had to correct herself. It was just her imagination.

 

        In the future, however, she took note not to stare into Lady Antimony's eyes.

 

        They were a bit unnerving, now that she thought about it.

 

        "What was wrong... must be put right for there to be peace and justice in Equestria," the Baroness concluded, back in control of herself. "I do regret that your friend Miss Rarity has become so close to the Prince. You of all ponies understand the importance of family, Miss Applejack. You of all ponies understand what it means to honor your ancestors. The blood of an earth pony, too, flows through my veins."

 

        "I am Terre Rare," she said, simply. "Canterlot, too, will bow to my daughters. There is no stopping this."

 

        Applejack began to think of a response -

 

        But honestly, what could one say to a statement like that? One thing was certain. She had misjudged Lady Antimony. The mare was normally soft spoken and friendly, reserved and delicate, but there was something undeniably disturbing about the certainty of her conviction. It was like the quiet intensity of an oil lamp - a gentle glow that seemed harmless at a distance, but that cruelly burned if touched.

 

        "Applejack. Lady Antimony. I'm not intruding, am I?" Rarity asked, sounding amiable and hospitable as can be. The Baroness who, moments ago, had been on the verge of losing her cool, now seemed completely in her element once more. Her ever-present smile even seemed to have grown, just a fraction, in the presence of Ponyville's trend setting resident.

 

        "Not at all," Lady Antimony purred. "We should discuss our selections for the Art Festival."

 

        "Yes. And another matter as well," Rarity agreed. "You'll have to excuse us a moment, Applejack, if you don't mind?"

 

        "Uh, no, but-"

 

        But, as Rarity lead the noblemare away to talk in private, Applejack couldn't help but have the feeling that something bad was about to happen. Something really bad.

 

- - -

 

        Sir Spike

 

        I hate to impose on you as I am, making use of your spell connection with Princess Celestia without your prior consent, but I find that circumstances have forced my hoof. I have no speedier means of sending communication to Ponyville and to Miss Rarity. I implore you to pass this on to her, as well as to Twilight Sparkle, at your soonest convenience. Please also take care to be discreet. Nopony is yet aware of this means of communication, and if you can keep it so, I will reward you upon my return.

 

        Lady Rarity

 

        I am to leave Crown Roc with all due haste. Until I arrive and until I muster my resources at home, my dear, you must

 

        The linen paper did not yield easily; small purple claws dug in tight to find purchase.

 

        With a popping, atrociously loud rapport, it finally gave way, ripping in ragged stitches. At the bottom of the letter, the signature parted neatly into Blue and blood as it tore in half, straight down the middle. Done.

 

        It was done.

 

        It had taken a half hour for Spike to muster the courage to do it, but now that he had, it felt a little easier to finish the job. Clawed hands worked, bunching up the resilient linen paper, folding it and then ripping it again. No one - no pony, except maybe one - would know that it had been destroyed. Just because it had been sent by some third party didn't mean that it was guaranteed to erupt from his breath and fire unscathed. If asked, he would say that it burned.

 

        Dumping the scraps of paper into the wastebin, he carefully modulated his breath to produce only flame. Pure flame. Soon what was left became a short lived, cracking fire. It was a little risky doing it this way, but he knew enough not to send everything he belched fire on to off to the Princess. He could tell by the red flames that slowly ate away at the paper that the deed was done, and done right.

 

        Pushing the wastebasket away, Spike fell on his backside, holding a hand to his snout.

 

        It was wrong. He knew it was the wrong thing to do.

 

        He'd done it anyway.

 

        For Rarity. For her sake - for his sake - for their sake... she could not receive that letter. He could not let her receive it. Let this other family have Blueblood. Let them live in Canterlot. It was wrong, it was selfish, but he wanted them all to just go back to the castles and palaces where they belonged. This was his chance. His only chance to stop things... his only chance to...

 

        "I'll take care of her, I promise. I'll make her happy," he told himself. He told the ashes of Blueblood's letter. He told no one. "I will."

 

        Soon, there was nothing left of the trash and paper that had been in the bin.

 

        He was alone, outside the library. Even Owloysius would never know.

 

        "I - I just..." Spike slowly rose to his feet, hands balling into fists. "I just need a chance...! Don't I deserve a chance to make her happy? With me?"

 

        He remembered how Blueblood had tricked him at the Gala with that letter. He remembered how the Prince had distracted everypony with fun while he snuck off to seduce Rarity. The depths of it all hadn't even set in for Spike then. It wasn't until days later, when she had overheard Rarity gushing to her friends about her new coltfriend, that it all became clear. It was only then that he realized it would only be a matter of time before... before...!

 

        "I deserve a chance," the little dragon decided.

 

        Spike didn't even notice his spines lengthen slightly.

 

        "I do," he repeated. "I do! This is my chance."

 

 

 

- - -

(4)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OnBencouubcnCMr2ayIy2B4AzpQ_E0ZSTUmLmXNhpqQ/edit

- - -


- - -

(4)                This Platinum Crown

- - -

           The rafters of the great hall shook from the pounding winds outside, buffeting the thick glass windows and rattling the stones and timbers. It was fitting weather for a national day of mourning. Out there. In Equestria.

               Inside the Hocksbach Hall of the Terre Rare, the mood was solemn, but far from mourning.

               Lanterns cast long, flickering shadows that etched across walls and marble floors. Massive feasting and drinking tables had been pushed aside to make room and hooded figures stood in rows to left and right. Sworn guardponies in blue and black armor guarded the exits and entrances. This was the lair of the Terre Rare for the night. The night when bells tolled and Canterlot wept.

               "Prince Blueblood is Dead." Lord Cruciger sat at the head of the family, at the front of the great dining hall. White bandages covered half of his face and much of his upper body, concealing his left eye. The right, however, remained. It glared at those assembled before him, the orb dark and menacing.

               "Your young cousin, Vladimir, is now Blueblood," he declared, voice a thunder within the hall. "Prince Blueblood, the fifty second. Tomorrow, we attend his ascension, present him gifts, and wish him well."

               Nopony dared speak.

               Cruciger's one eye closed and he sighed: a deep bass rumble. "Stand to my left, Alpha Brass. Be seated before me, Polished Jewel..."

               A young, light blue mare with a dark black mane trotted out from the right side of the extended family. She was joined by a younger colt with a golden coat and mane. For the occasion, both wore only a simple cloak, adorned by family insignia in silver, iron and gold. The young colt, not yet a stallion, stood obediently by his father's side. His sister, Polished Jewel, bent down to bow first, and then sat at attention on the cool marble floor of the hall.

               "Chalice."

               Another, even younger, mare followed her sister. Her coat was a pale pink and her mane a dark rust and puce red. She bowed to her father, the family patriarch, just as her older sister had done. This, despite being a little awkward, caught in that age between fillyhood and maredome. She sat with dignity, though her posture and blinking betrayed her anxiety.

               "Antimony."

               The youngest of the three sisters - a young filly only recently in possession of her cutie mark - emerged and bowed gracefully to her father. Her coat was white, with only a faint hint of pink, and her mane was bundled up into a bun of lavender and orchid violet. She sat to the right of her older sisters, tallest to shortest in good order.

               "One of you," Cruciger declared, "Shall marry Prince Blueblood."

               The hall remained silent as a tomb - no pony could express surprise at the news.

               "I have given this eye and this face," their patriarch continued, gesturing to the bandages that concealed the left side of his face. "Honorably lost. Blueblood was our enemy. Blueblood has always been our enemy. Blueblood shall always be our enemy."

               He stared down at his daughters with one cold, onyx eye.

               "Remember this face of mine... when you take your vows with him. When you lie with him. When you bear him foals. One of you, my daughters, shall be the death knell to the weak and corrupt line that so shamed our beloved and great mother. One of you shall be the vengeance of Lady Arsenic, made flesh. We shall absorb them, replace them, and purge away the decadence of the last two hundred years."

               He pointed down with a dark hoof.

               "One of you... will do this," he finished.

               The three daughters dared only a moment to glance at each other. Polished Jewel's shoulders tensed, holding herself back from springing forward to volunteer. She was haughty, but beautiful, and she knew how to turn stallion's heads even at a young age. Chalice looked more nervous, but her shyness was not to be mistaken for meekness. She blushed and fidgeted with her hooves, imagining how she could make the family's long harbored dreams take form.

               Antimony, the youngest, simply stared forward, seemingly unmoved.

               "Father!" Polished Jewel finally said, unable to hold herself back any longer. "Which of us is to have this task? This honor?"

               Lord Cruciger's one good eye narrowed.

               "Is it not obvious?" he asked, curling a lip in reproach. "I would think the answer self-evident."

               The two older sisters shifted, suddenly uncomfortable, not knowing what to say.

               "The honor," Antimony spoke up, for the first time. "Will go to the strongest of us."

               Cruciger's smile could almost be mistaken for pride.

               "Yes," he said, and the bandages of his face crinkled as his smile broadened. "We choose not just a wife... but a conqueror. You three are my daughters. You three are Terre Rare. As always, we shall rise up those who show merit... and cast down those who show weakness. And frailty!"

               He stomped a hoof for emphasis, and the vast Hall shook in it's foundations. Flecks of wood and dust fell from the rafters and the howling, mourning winds outside - kicked up by the pegasi on royal orders of the widowed Duchess - bleated their chorus against the window panes. Lights flickered, dimmed, and then resumed their enchanted duty. The late-Prince had taken Cruciger's left eye and much of his face, and even one of his lungs, but the patriarch of the Terre Rare was still no crippled stallion.

               He lifted his hoof out of the imprint it had made in the marble.

               "Four generations we have waited," he said, reminding them, not for the first time. "Four generations we have grown. Biding our time. Making allies. Crushing enemies. Our lands are rich. Our ponies thrive. Our star is rising, and soon to be ascendant. My successor as clan head will be one of you three. The strongest of my children."

               He took a deep breath, and boomed: "Leave my sight, now, if you do not wish to shoulder this burden."

               Cruciger could likely have assured them that there would be no repercussion for bowing out early. No punishment or censure. He did not say it, likely because none present would believe it. To show cowardice now, to show dishonor, would turn any pony into a family pariah. The eyes of cousins and uncles, aunts and grandparents, were on the two mares and one filly sitting in the middle of the hall.

               The Duke of Two Rivers did not compliment them for their lack of fear.

               "I now strip you of all but your names and your titles as noble-by-birth. You shall have a small weekly stipend to last all of three years. You will not be given lodge in our castle, keep, or estate..."

               His one baleful eye moved from daughter to daughter, judging.

               "You shall be given the company of five allies of your choosing, or five chosen knights. Equestria itself is to be your battleground..."

               Lord Cruciger's gaze finally fell on his youngest child, and after a moment, Antimony had to look away. She felt his attention wander, and resumed staring up at him, no longer risking eye contact.

               "The first of you to rise, of your own merit, through your own toil, by your own strength... to the rank of Baroness," he declared. "Shall be our heir! She shall be educated in our family secrets and she shall carry our rights into Canterlot!"

               "My children! My brothers and sisters! My family...!” The clan patriarch’s words, barely out of his mouth, already stirred excitement within the assembled Terre Rare. They nickered and shifted in place, eager to hear what they knew to be coming.

        "We stand at the cusp of a new era in Equestria! Our seers have seen great change, great discord, great opportunity, in the immediate future. I speak not of new technologies, or even new magics. This is a time when the upstart sons of bankers, of tinkerers, of merchants... all grow to believe themselves the equals of old and noble houses. The great horse of change is rising, to be either harnessed... or chained. Or sacrificed."

               "My daughters!" Cruciger roared. "Prove yourselves worthy! Prove yourselves and seize the power that is before you! One day, one of you may sit an equal to the Holy Princess herself! All that was stolen from us: the legacies, the secret knowledge, the Forbidden Power of the Old Kingdom...! All shall be returned!"

               "And Equestria," he added, with a snort. "Shall rejoice... with us."

- - -

        The framed picture floated gently within a sparkling magical grip. A pair of smiling parents sat behind their two daughters, one old enough to look embarrassed at having to dress up and wait for the photograph to be taken, the other little more than a foal. The white stallion in the picture sported a colorful island shirt and a rich brown mane. His wife was pink with a bold iris-blue mane, gold earrings and a modest pearl necklace around her neck. A young mare with long legs and a thin body sat in front of them, giving the camera a put-out, frustrated look. Her little sister was more peacefully asleep in her mother's legs.

        "Your family," Lady Antimony observed, carefully putting the photograph back in place.

        Standing close by, Rarity noticed which picture had caught the other mare's eye.

        "Yes. That was Sweetie's first birthday," she recalled. "The camerapony took forever to get the shot right."

        "Your younger sister, Sweetie Belle." Antimony proved to have done her research - the cutie mark crusader had never come up before in conversation. "I have two sisters, you know, but we have not been close in many years. We all love our family, but we hardly know each other any more. Is that not ironic?"  

        "But, apologies, I seem to have lost myself for a moment," the noblemare corrected herself, wearing the same false smile she always put on display. "We were discussing the champagne for the festival?"

        "We were," Rarity replied, but didn't immediately pick up where they had left off.

        The two pale coated unicon mares had retreated upstairs, to the Boutique's living areas to talk, ostensibly about the wine selection. Rarity felt a little emboldened here, in her Boutique and in her personal quarters. Here, she knew where everything was, where everything needed to be, and where everything made sense. It was the beating heart of her world. Her small collection of family photos lay in the center of even that, on the dresser by her bed.

        "Family is important to you," Rarity said, instead, putting aside the matter of wine and the upcoming festival.

        "It is everything to me," Lady Antimony's response seemed genuine.

        Her hostess lowered her eyes, a curl of indigo mane falling across her face. "You must think me terribly selfish, then-"

        "You are the Element of Generosity," Antimony interrupted, before Rarity could express any further regret. "You have right to happiness. I should have said so before, when we first met, but for all you have done for Equestria you do have my deepest and truest thanks and my utmost respect."

        To Rarity's surprise, the Baroness Antimony bowed her head and folded her front legs in a posture of deep, courtly submission. It probably should have filled the seamstress with pride, but seeing such a deep genuflection from one of Equestria's most powerful nobles only made her uncomfortable. Her dream had always been to stand among the ranks of Equestria's finest, true, but Rarity had never sought adulation of this sort.

        "For freeing Princess Luna," the Lady of the court continued. "And for defeating the spirit of Discord, we express our sincere appreciation and gratitude."

        "I - I wouldn't say I did terribly much," Rarity found herself muttering, probably to her detriment, since her entire plan revolved around cashing in on this same wellspring of respect and authority. "Only what was required of me. I only wished to be a good friend, you see... and things just sort of happened..."

        Antimony rose, flicking back her violet mane so it no longer concealed her eyes. "You are too modest. My dear husband has picked well, in you."

        Ugh.

        And there things went, back to the insurmountable difference between them.

        "You call Blueblood your husband," Rarity accused, trying not to let her temper get the better of her. "But does he even know about this engagement?"

        "In the final analysis, his knowledge of it... is as important as his consent," Antimony answered, unruffled by the indignation in her hostess. "Which is to say, I do not lose sleep over it. He will learn of it when it is his time to do so, and he will accept it as is his place in the world. The houses must be reunited."

        "You don't even know him!"

        "Should I know him?" the Baroness inquired, raising an eyebrow in curiosity at the strange question. "He can sire foals, can he not? My spies would have told me were he wounded or otherwise broken. The royal genealogists have confirmed that he is not impotent."

        Seeing Rarity about to object again, on romantic grounds, the Lady held up a hoof for silence.

        "It's unfortunate... but you have some mistaken pre-conceptions of this affair," she explained, somehow without sounding condescending. Instead, her tone was like that of a disinterested announcer for a game.

        "Perhaps we will come to love one another in time," she speculated, but without enthusiasm. "Foals, they say, often bring parents together. But beyond any of that, ours is to be a political alliance between families. The line of Bluebloods has grown soft and weak - they have lost the respect of the common pony. For two hundred years, they have become objects of... fun. They have become flighty little things, cantering from party to party and shirking their duties and responsibilities. They are not what Princes and Grand Duchesses should be."

        "Do you understand?" Antimony asked, raising a hoof to eye level. "When a rung of a ladder is rotten and weak, it must be ripped out and replaced. That is all."

        "I do not desire a courtly romance, nor would I feel inclined to indulge in one, even if it were put before me." She snorted in dismissal. "I would be quite content to leave such things to you. I spoke only the truth when I wished you to become my sister in consummation. There is no dishonor in becoming dam to a Prince."

        "If there is no dishonor, then why don't you become second to me?" Rarity asked, testily. The noblemare's little tirade and dismissal of romantic life - of the very aspects of court and nobility that the seamstress so adored - rankled her. It was the romance and passion and virtue of the noble class that ponies held in esteem. What use was a court that made a mockery of courtly love?

        "Second... to you?" Lady Antimony's eyes widened a fraction in what could have passed for mirth. "Even if you are an Element of Harmony, I'm afraid that's impossible."

        "And I won't let a mare who only cares about power and ambition be my Duchess!" Rarity asserted, not backing down. For a moment, the two locked gazes, but Lady Antimony averted her eyes with practiced poise, blinking first.

        Her response was a simple: "How unwise."

         Rarity took a deep breath, summoning her courage and willpower.

        This was it.

        "I am asserting my right to privilege as Element of Generosity, as agent of Her Majesty, Princess Celestia, by the Grace and Harmony of the Principalities and Duchies of Equestria. I petition henceforth to be esteemed and entreated in rank appropriate to my standing."

        Rarity puffed out her chest, reciting the words:

        "To our heirs and successors in perpetuity, we would appoint, give and grant unto them the degree, style, dignity and title so bestowed on us. By these honors, we would be so ennobled."

        The room was almost deathly silent.

        Lady Antimony's eyes moved, slowly, towards the Element of Generosity. Rarity's own blue orbs met them, just like before. For all of a second. This time, Antimony did not avert her gaze. A chill ran down Rarity's spine and she was forced to look away, unnerved.

        "I would not object to such decree, bestowed on such pony," the Baroness agreed. "Nor would the Stable of Lords, I expect. You have earned such respects."

        Without warning, her hoof lashed out, striking Rarity across the face hard enough to cut the inside of her mouth.

        "So you remember it," Antimony decreed. "You may never need suffer another. We recognize you as noble, so long as you comport yourself in a manner befitting a unicorn of our station."

        Rarity smiled, despite the lingering pain of the strike - the traditional, ancient colée that a noble unicorn endured as their coming of age or at their ascension to recognized title. The ones she had read about in books and magazines described the colée as a "kiss in the cheek." The Terre Rares clearly preferred an older take on things. It was always meant to represent the last offense a noble unicorn would have to suffer in silence.

        This "kiss on the cheek" was one Rarity Unicorn would not soon forget.

        "Can you object now, to his choosing me over you?" she asked, sensing triumph.

        At last - at last she was noble.

        It had come about in a way she hadn't wanted, riding on the coat tails of her friends and the Elements of Harmony, but there was no time to slowly insinuate herself into Canterlot's ruling classes. The quick route had been the only one left open to her. Now, taken, she felt flushed with excitement and victory.

        Lady Antimony stared at her for a moment, before shaking her head.

        "I can not," she admitted, and a hint of menace entered her tone. "But... unfortunately... you seem to have misread the situation. Again."

        "Misread?" Rarity asked, huffing. "What have I misread?"

        "You assume that because you are worthy... that you are not still weak." Antimony stood, and stepped towards the other mare to whisper, "But you are. Bound by her words and her blood oaths, the Princess is forbidden to intervene in this, and what other allies do you have in Canterlot? That effete bauble peddler, Fancypants, and his merchant hangers on? My family controls the three richest provinces in Equestria. We keep the roads safe, the mines secure, and the mills running. Oppose us? The Stable of Lords would sooner leap, en masse, off the Serene Falls."

        "Let me tell you what will happen to you," Antimony hissed, slowly stalking around Rarity, her eyes glowing softly in the room's fading light.

        She barely seemed to be whispering, but her voice filled Rarity's ears like poisonous honey.

        "If the Blueblood Line breaks their vow; if he marries you, a noble lady of common birth and common blood... then he will be censured in the Stable of Lords. We can not legally stop it from happening, but I assure you, the both of you shall earn the enmity of my father, of me, and of all the Terre Rare."

        "In conflict between us, Equestria itself will suffer, but it will not suffer alone," she vowed, settling behind Rarity to place her hooves on the fashionista's shoulders. "As Oath-Breaker, Blueblood will be blamed for it. He will be cursed. For incompetence. For negligence. For dishonor. The Stable of Lords will oust him and strip him of his Duchy. He will be forced to abdicate his throne, and he - and you - will be sent to preside over some poor, dusty colony in the middle of nowhere."

        "Everything will be taken from him," Antimony whispered in Rarity's ear, close enough to tease it with her breath. "Like Blueblood the twenty third, who was judged insane. Like Blueblood the thirty first, who was in fact impotent. Like Blueblood the eighth, who died without heirs. Did you think his to be an unbroken line? Another will take his place. A cousin. My own brother, Alpha Brass, exists simply because of that possibility. Or even my distant cousin Leon, who I will marry instead."

        Slipping away from her ear, Rarity saw the noblemare stalk back around to her side.

        "You both will live in disgrace, as pariahs," she promised, her raised voice and cruel words cutting the other mare to her heart. In her mind's eye, Rarity could see herself by Blueblood side as they were forced from Canterlot, exiled from the royal court. Even Ponyville, so close to the palace city, would pass them by, leaving her friends and family behind... forcing her to choose between the stallion she had given up everything for, and the life she didn't think she could survive leaving.

        "The stallion you love will no longer be a Prince," Antimony drove the point home, like a stake. "And every night, he will look at you - and you will see it in his eyes. He will blame you. And you will blame yourself."

        She leaned in closer, close enough to kiss Rarity's cheek, sharing one last prediction, "Until that silent reproach turns to hate. And everything you two wished to have will turn into smoke and ashes and tears."

        Rarity felt a sound hitch in her throat and she crushed her eyes closed, trying to dispel the horrible images Antimony's words had so vividly conjured up in her mind. She sniffed, trying to pull herself together. However long it took, by the time she opened her eyes to glare at the Terre Rare Baroness, Lady Antimony was still standing, still waiting. She had always been tall and beautiful, but now, she looked truly menacing, even without trying to be so.

        "Do you understand now?" she asked, feigning compassion. "Claiming nobility means nothing. Nobility is only a word. Even the Platinum Crown itself is nothing more than a twisted piece of metal. Power is what matters... and except as a conduit for the Elements of Harmony... you have none."

               Shocked silent, Rarity barely heard the door fly open; she didn’t and couldn’t even register the identities of those responsible for the intrusion until the shouting started up. Voices without faces filled the air as she tried to collect herself.

               "That's it! I ain't gonna listen ta any more ah this hogwash!"

               "Monee, how can you say such mean things!"

               "Is it wrong to speak the truth, just because a pony finds it uncomfortable to hear? You two are more sheltered than I thought. And, should you really make a habit of listening in on other pony's conversations like this?"

        "Rarity? Are you okay?"

        "It's one thing ta tell the hard and rough truth, it's another ta act like a bully!"

        "Yeah! You told me you wished you could be Rarity's friend!"

        "Well, ain't ya got nothin' ta say? Huh! Cat got yer tongue? We're talkin' to ya!"

        That seemed to snap Rarity out of her daze. She blinked, rapidly, and noticed Twilight standing next to her, shaking her. She turned her head and saw Pinkie Pie and Applejack ganging up on Lady Antimony. More the latter than the former. Pinkie looked upset, but Applejack was predictably furious. The apple farmer had her hooves bunched up in the noblemare's coat. For her part, Antimony was making no effort to either speak or shake the earth pony off.

        It occurred to Rarity, suddenly, that Antimony's bodyguard from before, Gewitter if she recalled the name, wasn't around. It was considered improper and unbecoming for a noble to act forcefully or untoward with a non-noble. Antimony would probably sit there and take whatever Applejack did to her. It would have - should have - probably been a vicarious pleasure to see her friend give the Baroness a good scare. But it wasn't what she wanted.

        Besides - this wasn't over yet.

        "Applejack," Rarity said, hurrying over. "Please treat her more gently. She is a guest in my home."

        The Element of Honesty frowned, but released her hold on the other mare.

        "Ah don't know what's goin' on between you two, but the things she said to ya - the way she said it - it wasn't right!" Applejack insisted, quickly backing away from the tall unicorn. "High falutin' threats are still threats!"

        "You all think them threats, but the truth is the truth," Lady Antimony stated, in what passed for her own defense. "Be it ugly or beautiful, offensive or enlightening. This is not about me. This is about history, and family, and justice."

        The tension between the four mares thickened, but one quickly found her voice.

        "I understand you can not back down," Rarity said, holding her head high. "Your family would never let you. There is only one way to settle this without one of us losing face."

        Twilight alone seemed to get what her friend meant.

        "Oh, wait-" she began to object.

        "I accept," Lady Antimony cut her off. "What will we use?"

        "Cupcakes," Rarity replied, too quickly for anypony else to speak up. "From Sugarcube Corner."

        "And the time?"

        "Three days. The maximum allowed."

        Antimony inclined her head in consent. "Then the place shall be the Castle of the Sisters in Everfree. At dusk."

        "That effectively cuts the time to two days, plus one day to travel," Rarity realized, but accepted regardless. "Fine."

        "It is agreed, then," the Baroness said, raising her chin. With as much grace as she could muster, she cut between Applejack and Pinkie, her violet tail swishing behind her as she left. On her way out, she crossed paths with Pierce and Colton Vines, the two stallions cautiously peeking in from outside the room. The pair exchanged a worried look that seemed to mean: 'oh great, more trouble.'

        "What was all that about?" Applejack asked, still glaring back at the door Antimony had left through. She turned to Rarity. "What was that about cupcakes and the castle?"

        "A - a duel," Rarity answered with a slight stammer. "I think I need to sit down. Or better yet-"

        With a bit of magic, she pulled over her fainting chaise, and laid into it with a dramatic sigh.

        "A duel?" Pinkie asked, looking rapidly from the door frame to her friend. "OH! Like a cupcake eating competition! That makes sense!" She cupped her chin with a hoof, nodding sagely. "Unicorns are so enlightened!"

        "A magical duel," Twilight began to explain, only to look over at her friend. "Oh, Rarity. I don't think that was very smart..."

        "Don't you worry none, sugarcube!" Applejack propped herself up against the back of the fainting couch, playfully punching the melodramatic unicorn on the shoulder. "After what ya did during the Sisterhooves competition, I bet you'll beat the stuffin' outta that fancy mare!"

        "Yeah!" Pinkie Pie bounced over, landing next to Rarity and pressing their cheeks together in a hug. "And then you'll both be best friends, forged in the fires of combat!"

        Twilight groaned, realizing she wasn't going to get much of a chance to speak her own concerns. Namely, that Rarity probably didn't have much more than the faintest idea how to actually fight a formal unicorn duel. The sort of duel that Lady Antimony had probably been weaned on, given family records and the fact that she had explicitly referenced obscure fighting styles used by her forebears earlier in the evening.

        Still hanging out a careful distance away behind the doorframe, the only two stallions in the Boutique exchanged befuddled looks.

        "What do you make of all this, Colton?"

        "I honestly don't know, Pierce. Furthermore, what is it with mares and group hugs?"

        "Can't rightly say. Looks fun, though."

        "... Don't even think about it, Pierce."

        "As if I would."

- - -

        "You didn't peek, did you?"

        "As if I would need to." Blueblood emerged from behind the compass rose topiary sculpture of his cutie mark. "One glance was all it took."

        Rarity peeked out from behind his sculpture, the three diamonds of her cutie mark crafted by magic in scale but ten times size. A hunt of illusion gave the impression of three living gemstones suspended in midair where the groomed hedge had once risen like a pillar. The would-be diamonds even twinkled, catching the light of the full moon far overhead.

        The Gala was still underway, back in the Palace, but the tail end of the magical night was one they had decided to spend together. The sky was so amazingly clear, despite all the light from the palace and the surrounding city of Canterlot. Rarity looked up, breathed in the cool night air, and felt a hoof take hers and lead her out from behind the sculpture.

        Blueblood was... not quite the stallion she had expected.

        She had expected a Prince, of course, but one from her novels and foalhood fantasies. The popular press only fed that image: of a gentle and chivalrous noblepony, a social animal both aloof and engaging, a stallion both imposing and welcoming. Blueblood was not these things. Though one of Canterlot's heavenly bodies, he seemed to have erratic social orbits. He spent time chatting with Wonderbolts, with Fluttershy in the garden feeding animals, with both a complete stranger and the Princess herself, dancing to common "swing" music - only to again switch, abruptly, to introducing a formerly unknown Luna to his connections among the court.

        He seemed too impulsive, too unpredictable, too flighty and unconcerned to be the prim, proper and dignified Prince she had been lead to believe. It was as if he had woken up one morning, realized that the Gala was tonight, and decided to throw all caution and decorum to the wind. Seeing him, she had gone from confused, to shocked, to a little scandalized, to intensely curious. This wasn't the Prince she had read about, or even the Prince she had dreamed of.

        Maybe he was something even better.

        "Miss Rarity," he asked, leaning in close. It didn't hurt, in Rarity's opinion, that at least one thing about him proved true from tabloid to flesh and blood. He was a handsome pony. Strikingly so.

        "I've wanted to ask you, for a while now," he continued, sounding curious and a little unsure. "Why me? Out of all the stallions you could have been with tonight? Why is it me?"

        "Oh." Rarity looked away, not so much out of shyness, but a hint of shame.

        "Is it because I'm the... a Prince?" he guessed. "Is it because you read about me in some tabloid and caught your fancy?"

        Rarity almost gaped - was he a mind reader or something?

        "I'd be lying if that wasn't a factor in it," she admitted, and it seemed almost as if he had expected that response. In a way, she could understand why. He was Equestria's Most Eligible Bachelor, after all, and while (before today) Rarity hadn't been all that informed as to what he actually did as Prince and Duke of Canterlot, it was likely to be important. There could be no way for him to truly separate his public image from his private life.

        A little guiltily, she further realized that she had, early this evening, fallen largely into the 'yes, exactly because you're a Prince' camp. There was only the one, after all, unless one counted foreigners. He was famous, handsome, rich, and single. Beyond that, Rarity didn't really know much about him. Nopony did. Not... that she thought of herself as after him for his money...

        Sadly and brutally honestly, it was probably because he was the social pinnacle of Canterlot.

        He was the height of the tallest mountain; a stallion like no other. There were a dozen Dukes, but only one Prince. What did it say, then, about the mare who won him? What did it say about her that she tried, and that she had come to the Gala, just for that purpose? Nothing good, really. It was not a fact she wanted to admit to, not now, not with him. Not when it would ruin this perfect night, this best night ever.

        "I see," he said, softly, having heard enough as it was.

        "You aren't what I read about," she quickly added, and his ears twitched as he stared at her.

        "I'm not?" he asked, beginning to walk past her.

        "Well," she explained, and decided on honestly. Even if it was undiplomatic. "All those articles painted you as the most elite of the elite. Prince Blueblood the fifty-second. Lord Grand Veneur. Most eligible bachelor in Canterlot. Destined to marry any number of the nobility's finest. A unicorn of impeccable taste and unmatched refinement."

        He chuckled, amused. "Actually, that does sound like me."

        "Nothing mentioned dancing, or... what was it?" she asked, thinking back to his swing dancing with similar merriment. "The 'sea pony swim'? Much less gardening and common topiary."

        "Do you know what I expected?" she asked. "I expected to spend the night stargazing, talking about art and being toured around the Palace."

        For some reason, that made him cough and he quickly sucked in the night air, pushing down a throaty laugh. Maybe he had planned just that, and thrown it out the window at the last second? Wouldn't that have made for a... different night?

        "We do sponsor half the artists in the country," he reminded her. "And auntie needs a place to store it all." He looked up at the night sky and raised a hoof. "And it is a nice, clear night."

        Rarity silently agreed, taking in the view, but keeping him in sight too.

        "Miss Rarity," his voice and face grew a bit more serious. "You should know that I was never the pony you imagined me to be. If you had met me on a bad day, I think you would have been... very disappointed. The truth is that I've enjoyed driving mares away. I've enjoyed rubbing their faces in what I'm not."

        His confession should probably have surprised her, but it didn't, not after what little she had seen of him tonight. Back in Ponyville, she had her fair share of admirers as well, and there were times when she was not entirely kind to them. Her ride for the night, the very same ride all her friends had shared, had been acquired with a little 'Tactical Wooing.' It wasn't much of a stretch now, with her image of him as a perfect Prince already cast aside, to realize how a stallion in his position could take some advantage of the situation. Especially if a potential suitor encountered him at an inauspicious time.

        "And why didn't you?" she asked. "You seem to know every pony at the Gala. You knew who I was. Why am I any different? Is it because I'm one of Twilight's friends?"

        Another possibility occurred to her, one that had often lurked in the back of her mind. How many ponies knew why she was really at the Gala tonight? How many knew what had happened, that night, in Everfree Forest?

        "Is it..." she wondered, with some trepidation. "Because I happen to be one of the Elements of Harmony?"

        Blueblood paused at that, as if in thought.

        He shook his head. "Thinking back... I think it was because you were the most beautiful mare in the Gala... and because I knew you were interested in me. It had nothing to do with Harmony. Or fame. Or honor."

        He sighed, rough and weary, thinking back to the past. "When I was little, and other ponies used to use blocks to make castles and towers. I was the one who picked the nicest one... and kicked it. That was so long ago... but I still feel that part of me, in here." He tapped his chest, and frowned. "I think that's what auntie meant before. That's what she meant."

        Not sure what he had meant by that - 'what auntie meant before?' - Rarity opted for silence, and Blueblood quickly realized his slip of tongue, also turning quiet. It started as an uncomfortable silence, of the sort common to when one pony said something strange that the other overheard, but it soon turned light and airy, even comfortable. He chuckled under his breath at his own silliness and she smiled in sympathy.

        Rarity touched her hoof over his.

        "I don't believe you're that kind of pony anymore." She looked into his eyes, a blue similar to but different from her own. "And since you don't seem to be the Prince your press paints you to be, I think it proper I find out the real you..."

        BRREEEEEEEEEEE

        "AAAAGHHH!!"

        Rarity found her dreams rudely cut short by the bleat of a whistle what had to be inches from her sensitive ears. Launching straight up and off her bed, hooves flailing madly, she landed on her back in an explosions of feathers, pillows and blankets.

        WWWWOOOoooooooo

        Blowing a pillow out of her face, the normally fashionable, currently irritable unicorn managed to sit up and turn her head in the direction of the warbling noise. It was the window. To be more specific: it was a figure perched where her window should have been, the drapes now wafting in the morning air and the shutters thrown open.

        "About time you got up!" Rainbow Dash dramatically announced, pointing at her friend, now rather rudely returned to the world of the waking. A sports whistle fell from her lips to hang by a chain around her neck, complimented by a bright blue cap on her head and a black and white sweatshirt.

        "We've got a full schedule of training ready for your race and it starts with a ten kilometer dawn jog around Ponyville!"

        She showed off a rather crudely drawn piece of paper half crumpled under the ministrations of a clipboard. It showed a pony with a loopy horn running, and then lifting weights, and then running again, and then lifting weights, and then doing more running. Another figure was also rather prominently displayed to be sleeping on a cloud the entire time with over-sized Z's filling the air.

        "If this doesn't whip you into shape, nothing-"

        Mid declaration, she noticed her victim had turned around in the bed and gone back to sleep.

        BRREEEEEEEEEEEE

        A second later, and a pillow smacked her in the face.

        WWWoooOOOoooo

        "Awake again?" Dash asked, the pillow falling away from her face.

        "No."

        "No?"

        "No! No! Did you have to interrupt my dream when it was just getting to the good part!?" Rarity was suddenly up and shaking the intruding pegasus by the shoulders. She slumped, spun, and landed on the edge of her bed. A quick look in the dresser mirror confirmed her state: her mane was a mess, like every morning she didn't curl it, her tail was all frizzy and uncoiled, her eyelashes weren't on, and there was enough sleep in her eyes to build the foundations of a small sand castle. She groaned pitifully and wiped her eyes with her hooves.

        "Oh my... maybe we should've just waited for her to wake up on her own?"

        "Sorry, but that's boring. No way am I gonna wait around for that long!"

        "Fluttershy, you too?" Rarity asked, seeing a curl of pink mane and two golden hooves hanging onto the bottom of her windowsill. Fluttershy peeked over the edge, looking guilty.

        "Darling, please, what is this commotion about?" she asked, and then added for good measure, "And why does nopony respect any other pony's privacy anymore?"

        "Well," Fluttershy answered, punctuated by an: "Um. We heard. That is-"

        "We heard you got challenged to a race!" Rainbow Dash cut her off, adjusting her sports cap with a cocky grin. "So we thought we'd come over to help you train!"

        "You thought that," Fluttershy corrected in a tone barely above whisper. A little louder, she explained, "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

        "I'm fine, thank you both. But - And-" Rarity moved her mouth, but no words came out, until, "Just... how did you even find out about this so quickly? And why would you ever think it was a race?"

        "You mean it isn't?" Dash asked, and tossed a card out of a clip in her visor.

        Catching the note with a little uneven, half-awake magic, Rarity skimmed through the blocky, cutsey, cartoonish writing. The source should have been obvious from the get go. Who else used such tacky, bright pink stationary outside Hearts and Hooves Day?

You are cordially invited to

Rarity's

BIG FIGHT

Tailgate Party!

At the Spooky, Forbidden Castle of the Sisters in Everfree Forest

SEE

Ponyville's Dauntless Dressmaker

TAKE ON

Prance's Peerless Prizefighter

Invitation Only!

(I don't want to get in trouble again, and you don't want me to get in trouble, do you? Oh! Don't tell Rarity. Oh wait, she probably knows. Hi Rarity!)

Please RSVP with your preference(s) in:

Hot Dogs [_]

(you didn't put an x did you? How come you guys don't like hot dogs?)

Salsa [X]

Guacamole [_]

Artichoke-Spinach Dip [_]

Pretzel Wings (plain) [_]

Pretzel Wings (salty) [X]

Pretzel Wings (hot) [_]

Pretzel Wings (super hot) [_]

Pretzel Wings (Twilight-destroying) [X]

        "How nice," Rarity said, returning the note. "Apparently my duel of honor is now a prime-time sports event. Perhaps I should wear a mask and a colorful costume."

        "Can you?" Dash asked, intrigued by the-

        "NO!" Flopping back on the bed, Rarity rolled herself up until she ended up buried in her blankets. It was so nice and warm all wrapped up like this. Maybe, if she was lucky, she'd wake up and find out that she was just having one weird dream on top of another. Then she'd probably wake up to find Opalescence scratching up something valuable and think: well, at least this isn't another crazy dream.

        "Boy, she's really wrapped up tight in there!"

               "Maybe we should leave?"

           "Giving up already? All you have to do is - is, ugh - tug this part and - mmfg - hey, a little help?"

        "I don’t know..."

               "Fluttershy, you want to help her, don’t you? Well no pony can win a race without at least a little practice! Especially for an out of shape-"

               "Who's out of shape!?" Rarity suddenly emerged from her cocoon, once again forced awake by the endless chatter and potential dig at her actually rather fit form. Face to face with a grinning Rainbow Dash, she realized she'd been goaded out of bed. Again.

               Defeated, the tired dressmaker finally rolled out of bed, levitating her morning sundries to help armor her for the long day ahead. After all, even the worst of challenges were best confronted when looking at least passably presentable. First: some water to wash the sleep from her eyes, then some moisture crème, and then a comb and brush for her mane, then another brush for her coat...

        "So why's this race of yours taking place in Everfree, anyway?" Dash asked, tapping her hoof impatiently, but successfully resisting the urge to use her whistle again.

        "First of all," Rarity began, magically arranging for her mane and coat to receive their brushing in parallel, all while she prepared a quick lather and curler, spat out a bit of mouthwash and made her bed to exacting specifications.

        "It is not a sweaty, barbaric race!" she insisted, looking over her shoulder to make sure that point got across. "This is a dignified, traditional duel of artistry, magic and personal conviction between respected noblemares."

        Rainbow Dash groused shamelessly. "Wha-at?" she asked, and stuck out her tongue. "Lame."

        "Um... then... what is it?" Fluttershy asked, finding an unobtrusive spot to land and sit down.

        "It is... well, first, we meet up at the assigned place and time," Rarity explained, pausing only to vigerously brush her teeth. "With our seconds, and any attending friends and family. An attempt is made to mediate the dispute by friends and family of the two ponies involved. If that fails, then they separate either ten or twenty paces and attempt to hit one another with one of a set number of pastries or cakes."

        "And you unicorns do this instead of just having an all-or-nothing, winner takes all, loser goes home crying, race?!" Rainbow asked, rolling her eyes. "Like I said: lame! And I got out all my cool training stuff for nothing! Even my saddle weights!"

        "I appreciate the thought," Rarity replied, straightening her eyelashes. "But it is a strict contest of magic, not gymnastics or athletics."

        "So you just sit there and throw cake at each other?"

        "In a manner of speaking, yes, though I suppose one could move around if one needed to."

        "And if you get hit by the cake you lose?"

        "Exactly, darling. To be struck is a 'humiliation' and concession to your opponent."

        "Um, Rarity?" Fluttershy spoke up, a little hesitant to jump into the conversation between her two extroverted friends. "What if no one is... um... humiliated?"

        "Then the duel can end with both parties having properly satisfied their honor," The fashionista answered with a smile. A smile that quickly faded away.

        "So it just ends with no winner?!" This seemed to shock Dash more than anything. She shook her head in visceral disgust making an 'bbbblllegh' sound and tossing her mane left and right. "Somepony has to win and somepony has to lose! You can't have ties! There's nothing lamer than a tie! A tie is like kissing your brother! Gross!"

        "But Rainbow, you don't have a brother-"

        "I was speaking metaphorically. The point is: it sucks!"

        "If..." Rarity spoke up, catching the two pegasi mid-discussion. She looked down, at the floor, and then back at her dresser mirror, feeling a little anxious. "If no pony is humiliated... and they still can not be made to reconcile their differences, then the fight becomes à outrance."

        "To the end," she translated. "Technically. To the death, that is."

        Rarity finished the rest of her morning grooming in silence. Mane properly combed and styled, she admired herself in the mirror for a moment longer. Everything seemed fine. Normal. In it's proper place. Under control.

        "To the death!!" Dash finally blurted out. "You're kidding right!"

        "I can't imagine any pony actually takes it that far in this day and age," Rarity assured her, trying to sound dismissive despite the increasing worry building up inside her "We live in civilized times, after all. It's just a term. A linguistic relic from a long ago. No pony would kill another pony over..."

        The brush clattered against her dresser, until she forcefully put it down.

        "Over... this sort of thing," she concluded, glaring at the brush as if to blame it for her magic reflecting her anxiety.

        "Um, Rarity?" Dash asked, flying over. "Maybe you should fill us in on what's going on? This actually sounds kinda serious."

        Seeing the concern on her friends' faces, how could she say no?

        "Very well, I suppose it can't hurt at this point. You see, it began last week..."

- - -

        "Why did you say those mean things last night?"

        Gewitter seemed to be slower than she used to be.

        It took all of a full second for her to realize her Lady's personal space had been invaded without warning. In her defense, few ponies would have expected Pinkie Pie to emerge from a folded umbrella of all things, but a bodyguard really had to expect most anything, now didn't she? The last few years had made her a little complacent when it came to her mistress. The Gewitter of their mutual youth would have been faster.

        Of course, the Gewitter of their mutual youth would also have tried to decapitate the bouncy pink pony.

        That would not do.

        Holding up a hoof, Antimony motioned for Gewitter to release Pinkie Pie's shoulders. The burly pegasus mare seemed a heartbeat or two from throwing the other pony over the horizon, even if it meant taking her chair with her. Pinkie, in contrast, had one hoof under her hastily acquired chair and the other bunched up in the tablecloth. She did not seem intent on being easily ejected or dislodged.

        Seeing her mistress give consent for the intrusion, Gewitter snorted, released the party pony and resuming her post nearby. Quite a few customers around the Tulip Cafe seemed to startle at the brief commotion, but upon seeing the source of it, relaxed into relative indifference. It was perhaps the most fascinating thing about this young mare: the people of this town had grown used to her antics. To her. Quirks and eccentricities and all! It was quite wonderful and fascinating to see.

        "Why did you say those things, Monee?" Pinkie asked again, releasing her deathgrip on her chair and the tablecloth now that the noble's bodyguard had been mollified. "They were so mean! I just don't understand!"

        Lady Antimony ignored her for a moment, instead, to sip her tea.

        "Good morning, Pinkie Pie," she finally said. "Would you care to join me for elevens?"

        Scrunching up her face, Pinkie Pie groaned and stood... and then sat back down.

        "Why thank you, Monee!" She readily, carelessly even, mixed formality with familiarity. "And good morning to you, as well. I would be happy to join you for brunch!"

        "How lovely," the noblemare replied, floating out a second platter and cup of tea from the set she had been served. "Please allow me. This is a very sweet blend, so you may enjoy it."

        Pinkie, growing increasingly impatient, none-the-less put up with Antimony's own quirks.

        She took the proffered cup, and the offer to share elevens (brunch, in this part of Equestria), and they exchanged formalities and platitudes. It was all quite required before politely broaching other matters, such as the incident last night. Restless energy, of the sort Pinkie had in spades, was really something to control. It was like steam in a boiler. Properly directed, it was productive. Improperly directed, it was explosive.

        "Do try the white sausage," Antimony said, moving the plate in question closer to her guest.

        Pinkie's nose twitched, likely not finding the offering too pleasant. Peeking up at Antimony, and wanting to go back to her original reason for coming here, however, she eventually relented. Taking one of the sliced vegan sausages between her teeth, she flipped it high into the air before catching it in her mouth and biting down. It was mostly oatmeal, onions, vegetable fat and spices. Given the fact that Antimony herself had needed to tell the cafe's cook how to prepare one properly, it was not a very popular dish in Ponyville.

        Perhaps because of the onions?

        "If that is not to your liking, I have always been fond of tapenade, and-"

        "Monee," Pinkie said, after drowning the taste in her mouth with a gulp of rather steaming-hot tea. "Why did you say those things to Rarity? They were so not-nice!"

        "I am aware of that," Antimony replied, setting down her cup with a barely audible 'ting.'

        "Then why did you say them!" Pinkie demanded to know. "You should apologize! You and Rarity will never be friends if you're mean to her!"

        Antimony closed her eyes, letting out a soft breath; slowing the conversation.

        "A tree."

        "A tree?" Pinkie asked, raising an eyebrow unnaturally high.

        "Have you ever cultivated a tree?" the noblemare inquired, and explained, "It will naturally grow towards the sunlight, greedily even, and sometimes the leaves must be trimmed, the branches pruned, or the trunk wired. Similarly, cutting and grafting can be used to encourage growth instead of discourage it."

        "Another way to put it is the more well known metaphor of the carrot and the stick. Lessons are not always most effectively learned by simple statement of the facts. These facts must be accompanied with either a positive or negative response. In attempting to dissuade your friend from her foalishness, I opted for the stick over the carrot. It is unfortunate... that she did not heed my words."

        "Wait. What?" Pinkie's perplexed face stared at Antimony from across the table.

        Twitch.

        "I was harsh with my words because I wished for my point to be taken with utmost seriousness," she explained, much more simply.

        Pinkie leaned back in her chair, forelegs crossed.

        "Was that it?" she asked, apparently deep in thought.

        "What else would it be?" Antimony asked, pouring out a new cup for herself and her guest. "The one you should speak to is your friend, Lady Rarity. It is too late to honorably remove herself from her issued challenge, but if she swears to put herself in my care, or to end her courtship with Lord Blueblood, then I shall express my willingness to end this affair amicably."

        "And if she doesn't?"

        "Then I will still end it. But I will not do so... amicably."

        "And if she wins this duel thingie?" Pinkie asked, full of questions this morning.

        "That is no more possible than it is for a mouse to hunt a cat," Antimony answered, without a trace of arrogance. Nor was it arrogance - it was fact. Simple fact.

        Pinkie Pie sat stony silent for a little while. She was normally such a bubbly, upbeat young mare. It was a little sad to see her so struck by what had happened the night before. Not that it was unexpected, but it was a little sad. She genuinely seemed to want, or even need, for everypony to get along. However, such things were only possible when there was order and understanding. These two things were the basic virtues of friendship... and harmony.

        Order and Understanding.

        "You both will live in disgrace, as pariahs."

        Antimony blinked. "Excuse me?"

        "The stallion you love will no longer be a Prince," Pinkie Pie said, repeating her words from the other night. Rather accurately. Even the inflection was the same. "And every night, he will look at you - and you will see it in his eyes. He will blame you. And you will blame yourself."

        Pinkie leaned across the table, inching closer to drive the verbal daggers home. "Until that silent reproach turns to hate. And everything you two wished to have will turn into smoke and ashes and tears."

        Antimony closed her eyes, veiling her expression behind a cup of tea.

        "You didn't need to say those things," Pinkie Pie finished, leaning back again.

        "We have a difference of opinion, in that case." The noblemare lowered her cup. "Furthermore, any future words exchanged between myself and Lady Rarity may take place on the dueling field. I will not speak with her before then. It is improper."

        "I want you to promise not to hurt her."

        For the second time, Antimony blinked in surprise.

        "Pardon?" she asked, staring across the table at the pink party pony.

        "I want you to promise not to hurt Rarity when you have this duel thing," she repeated, and stuck out a hoof. "You have to Pinkie promise!"

        Looking down at the hoof, and then back at the other mare, Antimony frowned. Just a little.

        "Very well..." she replied with a shrug. "If it will set your mind at ease. What is this... Pinkie promise?"

- - -

        "So you don't know any fighting magic?"

        "For the last time, Rainbow Dash, I do not. Why would I have bothered to learn such a thing? Who would even have taught it to me? That sort of magic is the responsibility of royal guards and nobleponies."

        "Yeah. And who here is one of those crazy nobleponies, now?"

        "That is beside the point. There is no need to make a mountain of a molehill."

        "You know," a certain chromatic pegasus said, as Twilight entered the room with a stack of books wreathed in her magic. "There was this one half-unicorn in Daring Doo and the Temple of Doom and he could rip a mare's heart right out of her chest! Tali-ma! Tali-MA!"

        Rarity brushed Rainbow Dash's hoof off her chest.

        "Honestly," she huffed.

        "Even though he was only in one book, Mola Ram really was one of the best Daring Doo villains," Twilight chimed in, two stacks of books to her left and right as she saw down.

        "I know!" Dash agreed. "I really like the adventures where Daring Doo is up against mortal bad guys and not just more monsters, you know? The end is usually so much more satisfying!"

        Mid-gushing, as if remembering she was talking about books, Rainbow Dash affected an air of nonchalance, tossing her head high.

        "I'm just saying," she quickly reminded them. "Just a little fun between practice and stuff."

        The four mares shared a little laugh, Rainbow Dash included. It was still a fresh joke among them: their anti-egghead pegasus friend suddenly finding an almost addictive love of the Daring Doo series. She had already blasted through twelve of the sixteen volumes currently in print, reading almost as fast as she flew.

        Since Dash was almost at the end of the series, Twilight had tried to expose her to other authors and genres to little success. Even similar adventure novels didn't seem to have the same visceral punch that Daring Doo had. There was something about Doo herself that Rainbow Dash really identified with. It couldn't even be just the author, since the Daring Doo novels had been published by a number of writers.

        Hopefully, the weathermare wouldn't put down books once she finished the last of the Doo series.

        What was she up to again? 'Daring Doo and the Heart of the Wild?'

        "Hey, Twilight." Dash suddenly seemed to think of something. "How do they pick the Daring Doo authors anyway? Can anypony just write a Daring Doo story and send it in?"

        "I think the publisher owns the rights to it, but there's always fanfiction."

        "Fan-fiction?"

        "Fanfiction."

        "Fanfiction..."

        Seeing they had strayed into some less than familiar territory, Twilight set her hooves in place and brought out one of her books, floating it over to Rarity. This morning, when she and Rainbow and Fluttershy had come over, had been strange. Spike had been acting oddly lethargic and reclusive, like he had eaten too many gems from the stash he thought she didn't know about. He had been slow, even reluctant, to answer the door and let anypony in.

        It was just one situation on top of another. Still, Twilight resolved to look into it as soon as she helped Rarity prepare a bit for her duel. Spike was remarkably mature and responsible for his age; his problems could probably wait a little while, especially if he didn't feel the need to bring them up. Very likely he was already halfway to solving whatever problem was on his mind.

        "Dueling for Dummies?" Rarity read the cover page of the book with an un-amused expression.

        "It's just a title for a set of books," Twilight assured her. "Not, you know... that you're a dummy..."

        "Dueling seems kind of dumb, though," Dash commented, resting on her back with her hooves behind her head. "Throwing cake around and then trying to kill each other? Crazy."

        "I told you, it isn't like that!" Rarity came to the defense of the ancient and noble tradition. "It is a matter of honor, and standing, and courage. It embodies all the values and virtues we hold dear, not just as unicorns, but as civilized and respectable ponies."

        "I never thought you'd feel so passionately about it," Twilight admitted, opening another book, peppered by multi-colored bookmarks throughout the pages.

        "I always found it romantic," the fashionista replied, giving the 'Dueling for Dummies' book a closer look, pages flipping as she took it from Twilight's magic into her own. "Two stallions, meeting at dawn or dusk, to defend their honor... or the honor of the mare they love!"

        She frowned, as she reached the 'ode to humiliations' section of the book.

        "I never expected I'd be the one defending my honor," she added, and cringed at a picture in the book. "My word: chocolate mousse? How dreadful! Would that ever wash out?"

        "Um..." Fluttershy spoke up from where she lay, her forelegs tucked primly under her. "Twilight, is it true that ponies can get hurt doing this?"

        "Of course not!"

        "All the time."

        Twilight and Rarity looked up from their mutual books to send questioning looks at each other.

         "Twilight," Rarity said, finding her voice first. "There's no need to scare the poor dear."

        "Well, it does depend on the type of duel and who you are dueling with," the Canterlot bookworm replied, biting her lower lip. "But, Rarity... injuries are actually pretty common in duels..."

        Rarity tilted her head in unsettling puzzlement. "You're serious?"

        "Maybe," Twilight said, coming to a decision. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe this is something more easily demonstrated, rather than just reading it in a book."

        "Wait a second! Wait a second! You're telling us not to read books?" Rainbow Dash suddenly sprung to her hooves. "OH ho HO! This should be good!"

- - -

        It was a relatively warm, pleasant Ponyville day - the kind of day where surely nothing strange or humiliating was to befall anypony. The sun was almost to its midway peak overhead and only a smattering of extremely fluffy - tame - clouds remained to obscure the perfect blue sky. A few colored specks, high flying pegasi, soared leisurely across the horizon. It was autumn, creeping closer to the Running of the Leaves every day, so it wasn't hot even at noon. Birds chirped happily among the bushes and trees. Even the unpleasantness of the Everfree seemed far away in the carefully maintained glades around the town.

        Out back behind the town library lay a broken down old gazebo in a clearing.

        It was just the spot.

        "Okay," Twilight began, running a hoof through her mane. "How to put this? I'm good and ready, so... I guess... try and hit me, everypony?"

        "Did I say this'd be fun?" Rainbow Dash snickered, calmly tossing a ripe, rotten apple in the air with one hoof. "This is so gonna be fun!"

        "Um, do we have to?" Fluttershy was seated on her haunches, looking guiltily at the rotten fruit she had been given. "Where did you even get these?"

        "Are you sure about this, Twilight?" Rarity seemed hesitant to even handle the gooey old apples, and that was even with her magic.

        "I think I'll be fine," Celestia's apprentice assured them. "You'll see what I mean."

        "Then what are we waiting for!" Dash reared up, wings flapping, and threw the first proverbial stone. Or mushy apple in this case.

        Only for the apple to curve, a few hoof-lengths from Twilight's nose, rotate around her, and then zip back in the direction it came, shrouded in a purple aura. Dash yelped at the incoming projectile, jumping into the air and contorting her legs in every direction to avoid being hit. The mushy apple blasted by her face, passing through the green and blue streaks of color in her mane-

        Until it hit one of the wooden supports of the gazebo with a loud crunch and splatter.

        "Problem?" Twilight asked, cracking a smile. "I should warn you: Princess Celestia trained me to teleport this way."

        "By throwing apples at you?" Rarity gawked.

        "Moldy oranges, actually." She suppressed a shudder. "...and bananas."

        "Okay! Number two now!" Dash scooped up two more apples from a nearby bucket and spun, throwing one and then the other. This time, instead of redirecting them, Twilight vanished with a soft flash of light. Her hooves touched the ground, for just a moment and then she arched her head to the side.

        Rarity's apple missed, became wrapped in a sheath, and spun around.

        She had to jump to the side avoid it splashing into the ground where she had been standing. Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, continued to barrage the blinking unicorn with a stream of thrown fruit, her cyan forelegs a blur. Quickly cupping the bucket under one leg, she took to the air.

        "Let's see how you handle this!" she yelled, spiraling overhead to rain gooey destruction. "Death from ABOVE!"

        "Um! Watch out!" Fluttershy squeaked, finally throwing an apple of her own.

        Rarity laughed, getting in the spirit of things as she levitated out a dozen of the old apples that had been stockpiled behind the library. All three mares unloaded on Twilight Sparkle, trying to hit her just once. If anything, it got harder as Twilight put genuine effort into avoiding the flying fruit. Her teleports became louder and brighter as she used them in faster and faster intervals until they took on a lighting-like rapport.

        An apple spiraled past her, swinging into an arc, joining a half dozen others.

        It wasn't just blinking and object capture, either. Twilight was much faster on her hooves than any of her friends imagined, and the ground became streaked by slashes of magic and divots torn out by teleportation. It was impossible to pin her down in one spot. Even trying to grab her with a magic field resulted in a fizzle as she broke free.

        "YAAAAHH!" Rainbow Dash came from above, tossing her empty bucket aside and dive-bombing, two apples in her right front hoof.

        Fluttershy's foreleg was a blur as she gave one last throw.

        Rarity's face was etched with determination as she projected her last four apples at her friend.

        Twilight landed, back where she had originally started. Her back legs cut a furrow in the grass and dirt, horn trailing sparkling magic and light. Dash was only a few pony-lengths away, intending to throw her apples from extremely close range, a move further amplified by her downward dive. It proved to be her Achilles heel, as well. When Twilight counter-attacked, she felt it first.

        "One!" Twilight announced, sweeping a foreleg up.

        Rainbow Dash's blur came to an immediate halt as something soft and fast slammed into her chest, sending her tumbling off course.

        "Two!" Twilight spun, deflecting Fluttershy's throw down and into the ground.

        Another rotten apple swept across and up, kicking up blades of grass, to slam into the shy pegasus' stomach with a messy, if basically harmless, splatter.

        "Three!" She faced Rarity, and then vanished-

        Behind the tumbling Rainbow Dash.

        The four apples splattered against the back of the falling pegasus turned pony-shield. Rarity squeaked, looking around for where Twilight had gone. By the time Dash hit the ground, rolling and cursing, she was nowhere to be found. It only even occurred to the fashionable unicorn to look behind her a moment too late.

        The sting of rotten fruit hitting her face filled the air with an ear-shattering scream.

        Birds took off from trees in shock and fear.

        "My face!" Rarity moaned, wiping the foul smelling, slimy apple bits away with her hooves. With a sickly "ohhh...!" she fainted on the spot.

...

        Sitting outside, towels drying from a line, the four mares faced each other.

        "I don't get it!" Dash yelled, stomping a hoof in indignation. "How did you get so fast!?"

        Twilight Sparkle, the mare sitting on her haunches in the grass, next to a pile of books, did not seem particularly threatening. She did not look like she had just made a mockery of her friends attempts to hit her with what had to be four or five dozen rotten apples. She looked like plain old Twilight. Granted, 'plain old Twilight' was also the one who had levitated an Ursa Minor while magically milking a dozen cows... and juggling a water silo.

        "Conservation of Magical Momentum," she answered, opening one of her books to a page covered in scribbles and equations. Dash just threw up her hooves in exasperation.

        "In other words," Twilight explained, closing the magical physics book. "I kept speeding up."

        "Obviously you kept getting faster!" Dash asked again, "How did you do it! More importantly: can I do it?"

        Twilight sighed, and dropped her physics textbook physically into her hooves.

        "What's the difference between this..." She carefully tossed the book from one hoof to the other, a little clumsily. "And this?"

        She took the book in her magic, and spun it around her, faster and faster.

        "One is fast and the other slow!" Dash answered. Wrongly.

        "It loses energy when you move it from one hoof to the other!" Fluttershy declared, and shrunk a bit as all eyes turned to her. "I mean: I think?"

        "You're right," Twilight replied, and raised a hoof to punctuate her explanation. "If a pony is running, and they teleport, they'll still be moving when they re-enter the material plane. You thought you saw me stop and teleport, but I never stopped moving. Put another way: using magic, you can theoretically speed up while appearing to stand still."

        That seemed to do it.

        Rainbow Dash's eyes grew wider and wider as it sunk in.

        "Speeding up," she said, looking down at her hooves. "While... standing still?"

        "The most basic form of defense in a unicorn duel is to teleport," Twilight went on. "It is also among the most difficult to master. Some unicorns study teleportation their entire lives. One of my Professors back in Canterlot was a stallion called Whitemane. Ponies used to say he was so good that he can teleport a spider's web without damaging it... and without the spider in the web even noticing."

        "And I can't teleport at all," Rarity realized. "How can I duel with Lady Antimony if I can't keep up with her? Then again, maybe she can't teleport either?"

        "My grandparents followed family tradition and trained my father to teleport by forcing him to blink across a river," Twilight cut her off. "Every time he fell in, he had to swim back to the shore and start over."

        Her listeners were left stunned silent.

        "Really?" Dash found her voice first. "Wow. That's actually kind of cool."

        "It was wishful thinking, I suppose. So, assuming she is proficient in teleportation, what am I going to do?" Rarity asked, thinking back to Twilight's demonstration. "I can't teleport and it would take weeks to learn. I do suppose... I can create illusions and redirect things?"

        Twilight nodded, having come to that conclusion herself. "The other alternative is blocking, but that requires more brute force than you probably want to use. Dodging is only part of it, though. You also need to hit the other pony and you need to develop a counter-magic focus."

        "Counter magic?" Fluttershy inquired.

        "This." Twilight demonstrated, and a magical field wrapped around her three friends, lifting them off the ground. For a few seconds, she let them hover there in varying states of surprise. Of course, they knew Twilight could lift them, or in Dash's and Fluttershy's case, grab one of them by the tail.

        "The first and most important thing is to learn to use your magic to resist other magic," Twilight lectured, lowering them back into place... but not dropping her magical field.

        Dash crossed her forelegs and nodded in perceptive agreement.

        "Makes sense," she said. "In racing, some ponies will use a 'bump' to try and throw their opponent off balance or trip them up. The best time to use a bump is right when everypony starts. It's kinda dirty, but ya gotta be prepared for it."

        "I didn't know that!" Twilight's smile lit up at finding out something new. She quickly focused back on current events, however. "To start, why don't you try to get out of my magic right now?"

        "Even us?" Fluttershy asked, flailing her legs and clearly not liking her chances.

        "Any object with natural magic, which is to say any living thing, can develop a magical resistance," Twilight replied. "Try to imagine yourself as a bubble or a balloon about to pop. You want the pressure inside to be equal to or greater than the pressure outside."

        The next few minutes passed in silence (except for Dash's occasional grumble) as the three mares tried to do was their book-loving friend suggested. Fluttershy found it easy to remain still and concentrate, whereas Dash constantly shifted and readjusted her legs in a battle to get comfortable. Rarity tried to keep still, but it was difficult to imagine oneself as a bubble or balloon, much less one about to burst. On the other hoof, she could feel Twilight's magic around her and how her own magic tried to push it away. Experimentally, the fashionista tried to use her horn...

        Only to find that she couldn't use magic at all.

        "That won't work," Twilight said, having either seen or sensed the attempt. "As long as you remain within my levitation magic, you can't fly. Or use magic of your own. You're completely helpless."

        "How dreadful!" Rarity grimaced. "Is this how you learned to do this?"

        Twilight blushed, fiddling with her hooves even as she tried to read one of her many books.

        "Well, not... not exactly," she admitted. "The Princess, well... she... well, I don't know if you want to do that..."

        "Do what, dear?" Rarity asked, her bright blue eyes shining. "You know how much of a bind I'm in! If it worked for you, and worked well, too...! You're a genius with magic, Twilight! It must be able to do something for me!"

        "If you're sure..."

- - -

        Ten years earlier:

        "Are you sure about this, my little pony?"

        Celestia was so great!

        This was so exciting!

        Twilight could hardly contain herself, mere moments from erupting into another fit of giggles. She had to be the luckiest filly in Canterlot! No! In all of Equestria! Celestia, the Princess herself, was going to teach her magic! The last few weeks had been spent studying and reading with the beautiful alicorn, and now, finally, they were going to start some hooves-on instruction!

        "Yes!" Twilight, just a filly, hopped around Celestia's legs. "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"

        "The quick and fun way it is, then!" The Sun Princess agreed with a wide grin, one eye closing into a cheeky crescent. Holding out a regal, gold-trimmed hoof, the mighty and wise Princess of Equestria produced the means by which her student and apprentice could unlock the mysteries of magic.

        Well... that is to say...

        Celestia held out an old, metal bucket.

        "Magic!" she groused, mischievous grin still in place.

        Twilight Sparkle soon learned not to look forward to when her mentor's one visible eye squinted impishly. That was the day when the equation, Mischievous Grin (Mg) + Princess Celestia (Pc) = Trouble (T) received its initial proof.

- - -

        Sweetie Belle, and for that matter, her fellow Crusaders, had seen some unusual and remarkable things since beginning their seemingly never-ending quest to obtain cutie marks. They had climbed the highest peak - er, hill - in Ponyville, and encountered the rare and deadly - kind of - fresh-water octopus. They had snuck into Everfree Forest! That was pretty scary and impressive. How many fillies can say they survived a run-in with a cockatrice?

        What she saw now, though?

        This was weird.

        "Hi girls!" Twilight waved them over with a friendly smile. She wasn't the only one either. An assortment of ponies had gathered around the spectacle. Pinkie Pie and Applejack were selling candy and apple-snacks respectively, and the others? The other ponies seemed otherwise occupied.

        Sweetie winced as one mare gave the tennis ball a throw, bouncing it off her older sister's side.

        "Not bad! Not bad! Now watch a master!" A mint colored unicorn floated another tennis ball out of a basket, put it in her hoof, and stood up. How Lyra could balance properly, much less make a strange stepping throw, Sweetie Belle couldn't imagine. The ball bounced off Rarity with a "poing!" and flew through the air.

        The bucket on Rarity's head began to wobble.

        "No no no no no!"

        SPLASH

        Indigo mane slumped and unbound beneath the torrent of cold water.

        "Un-believable!" Sweetie's sister groaned, grabbed the bucket with her magic, refilled it, and then got back up on the log to balance on two legs, one front and one rear. Back in place, the pelting continued, as a nearby sign declared: DRENCH ME IF YOU CAN

        It looked to Sweetie Belle like she had been, and already was.

        At least her wet mane was kind of sparkly, for some reason.

        "Ah, Twilight?" Applebloom asked, as all three crusaders had paused to watch the spectacle. "What's goin' on here?"

        "Magic," Twilight answered, punctuating it by throwing a ball of her own. One Rarity clearly hadn't been expecting. Knocked off balance by the sudden impact to the back of her head, her one arm and one leg that had been stuck out for balance began to comically pinwheel to the exclamation of "Ah! wait! wait no! Ah!"

        "I warned her," the librarian explained.

        SPLASH

        "Not again!"

- - -

        Celestia's sun began to set.

        The cutie mark crusaders had come, stayed for a while, and eventually left the various older mares to their own devices. Eventually the rest of the town had grown bored with repeatedly soaking their most fashionable mare and also wandered off, leaving an increasingly bored Rainbow Dash with most of the work of throwing things at her friend. Twilight pitched in, as necessary. Fluttershy came and went, often asking to make sure Rarity wasn't getting sick or feeling under the weather.

        By later afternoon, Sweetie Belle alone had come and gone a second time.

        It quickly became clear why: Rarity's parents were in town, and it was only a matter of time before they came to see what all the fuss was about. It was actually a miracle they hadn't come sooner, but work must have taken them out of town or otherwise kept their ears from the local rumor mill. Twilight had never seen the expression on her parents' faces like she did on Rarity's - Celestia had trained her at the Palace, and her parents had lived in the city below. Twilight suspected her father would shrug, even if he had been there, but her mother would definitely have freaked out.

        "Rarity! What is this? What are you doing!?"

        A bit like that.

        "Balancing, clearly," the family's oldest daughter replied. "Or trying to."

        "Honey, is there something you want to tell us?" Her father scratched his chin, trying not to look as amused by the situation as he clearly was. "I didn't realize buckets were in fashion this year."

        "Oh, ha-ha-ha!" Rarity stuck out her tongue as she mock-laughed.

        "Dear," Rarity's mother nudged her husband. "Be serious for once."

        "I would, but this situation is just too funny. Remember how hard it was to get her to bathe when she was little?"

        "I never thought a filly could love playing in the mud so much..." Rarity's mother shook her head. "Dear, please, what on Equestria are you doing out here?"

        "If you must know," the suffering unicorn replied. "I'm training."

        "Training?" her father asked. "Don't tell me! My daughter is finally going to follow in my hoofsteps!"

        "Yes, all this will make me Ponyville's greatest quarterback."

        "Second greatest maybe..."

        "Dear!"

        "There is really a very good explanation for this," Rarity said, and winced as a tennis ball bounced off the side of her head. "Twilight! Really! Now of all times?!"

        Twilight wanted to feel guilty for it... but it really was hard to. After all, it was for Rarity's own good.

        In the back of the librarian's mind, a little white alicorn was snickering.

        "As I was saying," she began anew. "I have a very good reason for being in this rather ridiculous position. Or at least I trust I do."

        "Do tell," her mother asked.

        "I have... well, I've ended up in a duel," Rarity explained, and rushed through the rest rather quickly. "You see, I just recently petitioned to join the nobility and found myself in a bit of a dispute. With another noblemare. That would be the Lady Antimony, who you have no doubt heard is in Ponyville."

        The two older ponies were silent.

        "Huh. That all?"

        "Dear."

        "What? This is more surprising to you than dragon attack? Or parasprite invasion? Or a rampaging bear made out of stars? Or..."

        "Why are we only hearing about this now?" Rarity's mother cut her father off before he could continue, likely for some time, repeating the many dangers and oddities that have picked Ponyville as their playground.

        "I'm afraid it's all been rather too sudden to ask for much consultation." Blue eyes glanced over at Twilight, and Rarity sighed, contrite. "I... I mean, I am sorry this is the first you have heard of things. I should have spoken to you when I first ran into this... situation."

        Twilight hated herself for throwing another tennis ball, then, but Rarity ignored it (her parents glared, though) as she explained what had come into her the last few days. She told them, in somewhat hushed tones, about how Lady Antimony had come to her store to order a dress for the art festival, and then how she had informed Rarity that she would - at best - only be a dam in Blueblood's household.

        Rarity told them how she had worried and tried to find out what to do. How she had contacted her close friends in Canterlot and eventually how she had come to the decision to fight fire with fire and stand up to Antimony. Her parents reacted with bemusement at her rationalization for declaring herself noble, thanks to the Elements of Harmony. It was possible they had expected something similar, sooner or later. For most mares it probably would have remained a boastful dream - the upper echelons of unicorn society were not eagerly inclusive.

        For Rarity, it was a leap, the price of which was leaving her old life behind.

        Not wanting to dwell too much on her decision there, Rarity moved onto the specifics of why she was currently balancing a bucket on her head while trying not to fall off a log. Also why her friend seemed to be pelting her with tennis balls. Unfortunately:

        "It occurs to me... that I really don't know why on Equestria I'm doing this!" Rarity suddenly yelled, slowly turning to stare at her good, dear friend, Twilight Sparkle.

        Said good, dear friend quickly found a book to hide behind.

        stomp-stomp-stomp

        "Twilight!" An alabaster hoof peeked out over the rim of the book, drawing it down. "Aside from repeatedly soaking me to the bone, what has all this foalishness actually accomplished?"

        Bearing a pout at having her reading interrupted, Twilight nodded and closed the book. Even as she put it away, her magic levitated the bucket off her friend's head. It was still full of ice-cold water. Without a word of explanation, letting action speak instead, Twilight Sparkle wandered a yard or so away, turned around, and upended the bucket over herself.

        Water splashed and fell-

        And rippled, leaving her dry.

        "You didn't notice," she said, at the trio of boggled expressions. The water had rolled off her body without actually getting her wet. She pointed at Rarity... and at Rarity's dry mane and coat.  Looking down at herself, the dressmaker realized she hadn't actually been wet. Not for hours.

        But neither did she remember drying off.

        "I - I don't understand," she stammered, looking herself from flank to fetlock.

        "Magic!" Twilight declared, holding up the bucket with a hoof.

        "But," Rarity protested. "But the tennis balls-"

        "They had two purposes, but one was to annoy you so you lost your balance and got wet," Twilight explained, putting the bucket on her head without breaking her stride. "This bucket enchants the water you fill it with to keep it ice-cold."

        "Then that 'ancient artifact' Princess Celestia left you...?"

        "It's actually just an old ice bucket."

        Gob-smacked, Rarity could only point at her friend accusingly.

        "The enchantment is why this works," Twilight continued, smiling. "When you learn to resist magic on yourself, to repel foreign magic, this enchanted water won't get you wet. Instead, it will slide right off, like water on oil."

        "Go ahead!" She bucked her head, and the bucket flew through the air to end up caught in Rarity's magic. "Try it."

        Turning and trotting slowly, and then with a touch more haste, Rarity did just that.

        Filling the bucket at the trough, like she had all day, she floated the pail over her head and paused. Glancing back at Twilight and her parents, she closed her eyes, and upended. Water fell all over her... and washed off her without a trace. Her mane sprang back up and curled without even a hint of moisture. She was dry. The ground at her hooves was muddy, but she was dry!

        "It actually worked!" Rarity sounded like she could hardly believe it. She gave a happy little giggle and cheered before throwing her head back and laughing out loud. "It actually worked!"

        "Then the other reason for the tennis balls?" her father inquired, leaning close so only the librarian and his wife could hear.

        "Officially, they're used so she keeps her concentration, even when agitated," Twilight explained, deadpan. "I think they're also used to keep the trainer amused during the whole process."

        Oh, and how smug that little white alicorn in her head was now.

        As if to drive that fact home, Rainbow Dash picked that moment to bounce one of the tennis balls off Rarity's flank, causing an immediate argument between them. "The training was over!" "It was? But I still have some balls left to throw!"

        "This is only the start," Twilight warned Rarity's parents, trying not to be distracted by the unicorn vs pegasus grudge match.. "If she's going to have a chance of winning that duel, I'm going to have to pull out all the tricks."

        'I never told her... but Lady Antimony... they're only suspicions, but I don't think she's a normal pony.'

- - -

        "Cross my heart,

        And hope to fly,

        Stick a cupcake in..."

        Antimony stared at her hoof, inches from her face.

        "My eye?" she asked, smiling. Her expression darkened as she withdrew her hoof with a grimace, the pristine white coat around the horseshoe starting to smoke. The little rhyme Pinkie had made her repeat quickly brought the smile back, though she closed her eyes and repeated it in her head instead of out loud. It was not wise to keep them wide for very long.

        "You seem to have taken a liking to Laughter's Bearer."

        "She has a sunny disposition, devoid of pretense," Antimony explained, inclining her head towards her right side. "And she reminds me of somepony."

        "She does?" The air shimmered and a tiny twinkling star suspended in a sea of black appeared, becoming visible only to vibrate with the chiming, otherworldly voice. "Who?"

        "Isn't it obvious?" the noblemare asked, in imitation of her patriarch.

        Despite the darkened and insubstantial little star by her side, Antimony was alone in the vast athenaeum of Blueblood's new estate. The building was only partly complete and furnished, but it was passable as a base of operations for the time being. The engagement passed by the Stable of Lords gave her access to it, though not the more secure family holdings of Canterlot's Prince and Duke.

         It was a splendid retreat, built in imitation of the pegasus style: two stories high, a vaulted ceiling gave the impression of an airy, open sky, while carved marble pillars rose up, bearing busts of Celestia and Equestrian Venus statuettes. The room had the illusion of being circular but was, in fact, a hexagon. The walls themselves were lined with books in row after row. A dozen sliding stairs provided access to the upper volumes. The central area contained yet more sections of the library, recessed into the floor in imitation of a parting cloud, or risen above in crystal cases. These were the rarest books; the showpieces of the magnificent collection the Prince had assembled.

        Almost invisible, tiny dark forms skittered over books.

        Searching.

- - -

(5)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ts_cDKdJk_E8c9OBfgRZiLIgOThSBB8W_OzgavKUOOU/edit

- - -


- - -

(5)                This Platinum Crown

- - -

        Rarity entered the library refreshed after a good night's sleep. She'd even had time to cook a quick breakfast with Sweetie and her parents before gathering a few things and heading out. True, yesterday's 'training' had been rather embarrassing, but it had produced some tangible results so it could be forgiven for appearing so unorthodox. Celestia had trained Twilight properly, after all, and Rarity trusted Twilight to similarly show wisdom in passing on what she had learned.

        In a good mood, she was even happier to see Spike answer the door.

        "Good morning, Spike!" she favored the little dragon with a friendly smile. He returned it, a little nervously, but with innocent affection.

        "H-hi, Rarity," he swooned, but just as quickly, seemed to deflate. Biting his lip, he took a step back. "You - you probably don't want me in the way, so..."

        "Not at all! In fact, I brought something for you!" Rarity wiped her hooves on the library's entryway mat and entered, closing the door behind her with a swoosh of her tail. She'd come with one of her favorite little saddlebags on her back, a dark red number she had picked up on a trip to Canterlot. Using a bit of magic, she retrieved a white bag tied with a loop of golden thread.

        "For me?" Spike asked, wide eyed with wonder and excitement and hope. "Really?"

        "Yes, I was thinking the other day, that this whole terrible experience with Antimony has really shown me how wonderful all my friends are. Everypony seemed so worried about me, the very moment they heard; I just had to repay them somehow. Not a dress this time, but maybe a hat?" She leaned in to ask in a conspiratorial tone. "Twilight doesn't have many hats, does she? Or wigs?"

        The image of Twilight Sparkle in a puffy white wig caused the baby dragon to cough, rather than laugh out loud.

        "I really hope not," he said, choking back a snicker. "I really, really hope not. But hats!" He quickly amended. "I don't think she has any hats. Not stylish ones anyway, like you'd wear, Rarity."

        "That is so sweet, but I bet you're wondering what I got you?" she asked, and levitated over the little white bag. "Just between you and me, I've come into some very interesting materials lately and seem to have a few extra. I know you love gemstones, so I wanted to see if any of these are to your liking?"

        Spike slowly and carefully opened the gem-bag before reaching in with three fingers and then a whole hand. Opening his palm, he saw a number of sparkling silver and pink pearls, some round saltwater cultured, and others freshwater and bulb-shaped. There was also an oval shaped amethyst and several cut pieces of watermelon tourmaline. The last piece, at the bottom of the bag, was wrapped in paper: a small, rare scarlet emerald, also known as red beryl.

        "A certain somepony has a dislike for anything but very small, very fine gemstones," Rarity explained with a frown. "I just finished her neckline and flourish last night, and thought: wouldn't it nice to give these to someone who will actually appreciate them?"

        "Spike?" she asked, when she noticed he hadn't responded. "Oh, you don't like-"

        "I love them!" he blurted out, staring up at her with wide green eyes. "I do."

        A little conspicuously, though, he slid the pearls back into the bag first.

        "Especially this red beryl," he muttered, licking his lips and staring into the rose colored, multifaceted gem. It was small, but extremely rare in the otherwise gem-rich Equestria. "There's only one deposit that produces it in the entire country! I've never had one before!"

        "Well, bon appétit!" She started as he ran over to embrace her in a hug.

        To her surprise, he started to sniffle.

        "Spike?" she asked, blinking in confusion. "Are you alright?"

        "I'll make it up to you," he said, quickly stepping back and putting the gems away in their silk bag.

        "It was a gift," she reminded him, further confused by how her response only seemed to deepen his frown. "You don't need to make it up to me. We're friends. You're my Spikey-Wikey!"

        "I - uh - I'll go get Twilight!"

        Leaving the perplexed unicorn mare behind, Spike ran off.

        "How strange." Shrugging, Rarity quickly put aside the peculiar behavior and took a look around the library while waiting for her friend to come down. The town library was very cozy and inviting, even for the less than literature-obsessed. Most interesting of all, there was a table with a sheet over it - some sort of experiment, knowing Twilight.

        A dozen books were also on reading podiums or bookmarked and stacked around the table.

        Definitely some sort of experiment, then. Further evidence was in the blackboard-on-wheels that lay reclined against the wall. Sketches, diagrams and arcane script covered all but two corners of the chalkboard. A long list of names were crossed out. Rarity, curious, trotted over for a closer look. The pony names, on inspection, were actually the names of gemstones.

        Hearing hoofsteps descending down the stairs, Rarity turned to the table.

        "Good morning, Rarity!" she heard Twilight call down. "Did you eat already?"

        "I had a light breakfast, yes, but thank you." She inspected the sheet on the table. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you working on under this?"

        "Go ahead an take a look!" Twilight replied, Spike close behind her.

        "Don't mind if I do. What could...? Oh, I recognize this!" Rarity folded up the white sheet she had pulled off of the supposed experiment in progress. "This is that relic Lyra brought in the other day, isn't it? Some sort of archaic torc?"

        Twilight nodded, but sighed in frustration. "That's it! I've been working on it in my spare time: checking the dates, trying to find sources in my books, things like that. I even had a picture taken and sent to Canterlot to see if they had any more information to help in reconstructing it."

        "It doesn't appear broken to me," the dressmaker replied, leaning closer for a better look. The torc was positioned over a wooden bust of a unicorn mare, her chin held high as she looked off dramatically in the distance. The artifact seemed terribly antiquated and out of fashion to Ponyville's trendsetter, lacking even in the overly romanticized exaggeration of period pieces. The loops around the neck looked uncomfortable and far too small, too tightly bound together, and the ring around the horn also seemed far too gaudy.

        It was a little hard to believe that unicorns used to wear such things.

        She did, however, see what Twilight had to be referring to. Peering closer, she saw the tiny empty depression in the strangely shaped golden leaves about the head. There were two of them.

        "You mean these little pits?" Rarity asked, pulling back. "I can see what you mean. Something would've been embedded in them."

        "Gems, probably," the other mare replied. "I tried everything to find out what used to be in there, but: nothing! Every spell came back without a clear response."

        Rarity pulled up a foreleg to tap her chin.

        "Did you try Clover's Clairvoyance?" she asked.

        "Clover's Clairvoyance was the very first thing I tried," Twilight replied, and gave a soft 'hmm' before listing off her other attempts. "After that, I tried Insomnia's Intuition, Insight and Information. Decal's Dedicated Discernment. Decal's Dweomer Detection, both regular and advanced. Then I tried Penny's Penetrating Precognition and even Starswirl's Sixth Sensing."

        "Nothing!" Twilight exclaimed, clearly at the end of her magical rope. "Sixth Sensing and Decal's spells told me that there was something missing, but not what. Penny's came back with 'try again later' and Clover's Clairvoyance, which usually works so well, returned 'inconclusive' three times. I think I've exhausted what I can do here."

        "Well, Twilight, you could always have asked me to help," Rarity noted with a broad smile, briefly rubbing her hooves together and trotting up closer to the troublesome torc. "I know a little about the delicate art of lapidary myself, and while I respect the work put into all those spells, I'd like to try one of my own to see if I have any luck."

        Twilight, just then, seemed to recall how Rarity had taught her more than a few gem-related spells, all of which she had created herself. The gem-finding spell in particular was one Rarity took pride in, having combined an illumination spell, a detection spell, and a transparency spell. The result was a unique piece of magic-weaving that made finding buried gems as easy as seeing them glow underground, like a lamp beneath murky water.

        "What do you have in mind?" the librarian asked, stepping aside and out of the way but watching her friend closely. A bit of a prodigy herself, she could copy many spells just by seeing them once, or by reading incomplete formulas in books.

        "You could call it a 'sense style' spell," Rarity explained, pacing before the torc and wooden bust. "Call it... Rarity's Rubric Refinement."

        "It passes the alliteration test," Twilight joked, "But what does it do?"

        Rarity bowed her head to the artifact, already beginning her spell; energy pooled from her horn into a glittering field as the magic took 'shape.'

        "Like I said," she repeated. "It senses style. Other spells, like Clover's, investigate an object as if it were a word with a letter missing. That works well if you already understand how the common pronunciation and language structure exists. But it would be less useful in a different language. Just the same, Decal's spells work by attempting to analyze the magic as if it were a chemical formula, looking for the missing element following known rules. But if you don't know the rules..."

        "Then you get an inconclusive result," Twilight realized, nodding in agreement. "But that would mean there was something strange with the object in the first place?"

        "Not strange," Rarity corrected her friend, the spell unfurling from her horn to engulf the torc. "Just unfamiliar. This spell I'm using attempts to feel for the artistry of an object - to read the intention of the maker, left in the material. If whoever made this put their heart and soul into it then there should be an imprint of their desire left... reaching for somepony to make it whole."

        She gasped, and licked her lips, having found something.

        "A little illusion and..."

        Rarity's magical field expanded, just for a moment, and an enlarged image of the five-fielded spade - definitely not a hand, contrary to what some pony said - appeared. In the center of it, where the depression had been, a clear diamond-like sphere pulsed with energy. Colors reflected within it, seething as they attempted to break free. Rarity could hold the projection for all of a second and a half before it got away from her and shattered, turning to dream dust.

        "I lost it," she lamented, falling back onto her flank. Reaching up to the side of her head, she closed her eyes and tried to recall what she had seen and felt. "There was... a pony... pouring something. It didn't feel like a normal gem. It wasn't. Something special. Reflection. Purity. Something... pure...?"

        "Something... pure?" Twilight asked, and her violet eyes lit up. "Spike!"

        "Uh, yeah?" Her always handy, always capable assistant jumped out in front of her.

        "I think I know what it is!" she exclaimed, and looked down at him. "Water! Spike, you know where I keep the pure water?"

        He nodded, stealing a look at Rarity, who still seemed to be recovering from her spellwork.

        "Yeah," he said, after that moment of hesitation. "Downstairs, in the lab area, bottom drawer? Bunch of glass and crystal vials?"

        "That's them," she confirmed. "But!" she stressed, suddenly. "I need the one in the tin bottle, inside the brown box. It has the pictogram for 'virgin' on it. You know that one, right?"

        "Not really... but I got it! I'll find it and be right back!" He took another look at Rarity, convinced himself she was fine, and ran to the door to the basement lab. Watching him go, Twilight could've sworn she also heard him mutter something about 'silly pony pictograms' but then he was gone.

        "Twilight?" Rarity asked, coming back to her senses. She looked confused. "Water? I'm fine-"

        "Not for you," her friend tried to explain. "The answer is water. It wasn't a gemstone at all. It was water."

        "I'm afraid I don't follow," the fashionista admitted.

        "Water," Twilight said again, and clarified her meaning a moment later. "Pure water. The ancients considered it a powerful alchemical reagent, and we still use it for certain spells and enchantments today."

        "But... really? Water?" Rarity frowned. The revelation seemed like a let-down; she had clearly been expecting something more fabulous or dramatic, like an Ingot of Living Lava, or a Moonstone, or an Eternal Eye.

         "Just... water?" she asked, failing to see why Twilight was so excited.

        "Not just water," the studious pony replied. "Pure water. Don't think of it as the kind of water we drink, like from a well or a river."

        "Magically purified water," she explained, with the certainty that came from being convinced she had finally solved a puzzle after days of hitting and missing. "They gather it from mountain glaciers or from the northern pole and store it in airtight glass. The glass itself still contaminates some of the ice, so when it gets here, they discard some of it. The rest is repeatedly distilled, passed through magical filters and then treated by..."

        Seeing Rarity bracing for a long technical lecture, Twilight groaned and cut to the point.

        "Magically pure water has less than one particle of contaminant for every trillion particles of water," she said, hoping it got the point across. While far from scientifically minded, Rarity did seem to realize, at least a little, just how unusual this ultra-pure water was.

        "So these... gemstones, that aren't gemstones... are ice?" Rarity reasoned, looking at the torc sitting on the wooden bust.

        "Magically crystallized," Twilight answered, and turned as they both heard Spike come up the stairs. The little dragon had a medium sized, carefully wrapped case in his hands. Thick thread kept the entire package bundled up.

        "This is it, right?" he asked, lifting it up so Twilight could take hold of it with her magic.

        "Just what we needed, Spike! Thank you!" Twilight Sparkle sounded almost giddy as she opened the infrequently used case. Within the bundle, a much smaller cylinder emerged, looking more like a liquor flask than a proper magical vial. It was a far cry from the test tubes and expensive crystal ampoules downstairs.

        "There used to be a time when this," she said, pointing at the metal flask caught in her telekinetic aura. "Was worth a hundred times more than gold. It's still pretty expensive, actually."

        "Is that why you probably haven't used it in..." Spike tried to guess. "I don't even know how long?"

        "Not since you were little, when I started learning basic alchemy under Princess Celestia." Twilight cocked her head at the metal flask. It was impossible to tell if there was even any water in it anymore. She gave it a little shake. "There's still some in here!"

        "I still don't quite see why this water, however purified it has become, is so special." Rarity stood back up, determined to watch whatever Twilight did next.

        "Truly pure water was considered to be impossible to actually make," Twilight said, trotting over to the torc, and leaning it - and the bust - on its side. "In some alchemical and philosophical circles, there is power in trying to achieve the impossible. Because water always has some tiny impurity, no matter how hard or how long it was processed, some ponies believed 'True Water' would take the form of a perfect element, transforming whoever made or it drank it into a similarly perfect being."

        "Some sort of philosopher stone, I guess?" she speculated and shrugged. "That's all ancient history, but highly purified water does have magical properties under certain conditions. When magically frozen, for example, it doesn't melt or warp when exposed to heat. Highly precise lenses are sometimes made out of magically frozen pure ice, and... in ancient times..."

        She activated some kind of switch on the flask's nozzle, and a drop of sparkling clear water fell.

        Right into the empty depression in the torc.

        "They called it a Captured Star."

        The moment the drop hit the concave pit, it froze and crackled, loud enough to hear. It seemed impossible that such a small object could produce such a sound, like a glass shattering. Twilight ignored it, focused on her task, and quickly spun around the torc and the wooden bust. Another drop fell, landing into the second depression. The sound repeated itself, and this tiny sphere of water also crystallized into a perfect, pure orb.

        Setting the bust and the relic back in place, Twilight trotted back, wide eyed.

        "Wow. Wow!" she enthused, excitedly clapping her hooves together. "It actually worked! Wow! And that sound! It must've been an exo-magical reaction!"

        Almost Pinkie-like, she started examining the newly restored torc from every angle, inspecting it from one side and then the other and then from below, and then from above. She even reached out to touch it... only to quickly draw back at the last second.

        "No. Wait. No touching," she reminded herself in a quiet voice. "No touching until you know what it does! Remember rule number fifty seven..."

        "Twilight?" Rarity asked, remaining far enough away so as not to trip the other unicorn up as she pranced around.

        "Hm?" Twilight suddenly appeared to the fashionista's left side. "Oh! Sorry! This is just so interesting!"

        "Well...?" she asked. "Is it magical, or...? What exactly happened?"

        "I have absolutely no idea."

        Twilight's deadpan response prompted Rarity to shake her head in despair.

        "No!" Twilight stared into her eyes. "I really have no idea! Isn't that amazing! Isn't that exciting!?"

        "If you say so," Rarity replied, taking two steps back and forcing her friend to quickly regain her balance or fall forward.

        "Yes, well, thanks to you, I think this afternoon will be very interesting indeed!" She quickly composed herself, the silly high from a moment ago being put away for later. When she was alone. Alone with so many books to read and so many experiments to run!

        "Before that," she reined herself in again, and pointed at Rarity. "We need to cover your training for today."

        "Yes, I do suppose we must," Rarity agreed, her enthusiasm not quite up to task. "What outlandish spectacle am I to make of myself today?"

        "That depends entirely on you," Twilight replied with a little grin. "Today, you're going back to school."

        "School?"

        "School. Kindergarten to be exact."

        Rarity blinked, twice, just in case this Twilight had been replaced by some sort of mirage or doppelganger. An insane one. Or perhaps she was actually Pinkie Pie in a clever disguise?

        "You must be joking," Rarity said, finally. "You must be."

        "I am absolutely not joking," the town librarian and eccentric Princess's apprentice replied, still with her grin intact. "You are going to kindergarten today. That's your training."

        Rarity raised an elegant eyebrow. "Really?"

        "I guess I'll explain it from the beginning," Twilight Sparkle began, her mind drifting back to the not so distant past...

        "Remember when I said that ancient ponies put stock in achieving the impossible? When I was learning magic from the Princess, one of her favorite tricks was to ask me to do either something nearly impossible or something completely impossible. In the former case, I quickly learned that what she wanted was to see me either cheat or find some roundabout way to do what she wanted. In the latter case, she mostly wanted to see me try."

        "So, she'd say something like..."

        "Twilight Sparkle!" Celestia declared with a smile. "Today's assignment is to find a human and ask him his name!"

        "Or..."

        "Ah, Twilight Sparkle! Today's assignment is to tell me, in your own words, what a star smells like!"

        "Or..."

        "Twilight, have you read this fascinating novel about this Daring Doo character? It says here, she found the recipe for dragon butter. Can you imagine it? Dragon butter! I would love some for my toast tomorrow morning. Why don't you look into that!"

        "You get the idea," Twilight grumbled, one eye twitching. "The Princess especially liked the human ones. What kind of music would a human like? How much wood could a human chop if a human could chop wood? Ugh...! Anyway, after one of those failed assignments, I returned to her empty-hooved."

        "Twilight Sparkle!" she declared, but with a titter proving she wasn't serious. "You have failed me, for the last time!"

        "I wasn't too worried, since I could tell she was holding back laughing. But then she said..."

        "As punishment, you can spend tomorrow in magic kindergarten."

        "Magic kindergarten?"

        "Magic kindergarten."

        "I see."

        "I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But then she said..."

        "I'm not kidding." Celestia loomed over her fully grown but still much smaller student.

        "Oh dear."

        "Magic kindergarten!?" Twilight-the-student gasped, one eye wide and the other shrunken to a pinprick. "Wh- wh-"

        "It's just a shame you'll be the only grown up pony there!" she added with a mischievous grin, her wings wide behind her in anticipation and amusement. "Oh well!"

        Rarity boggled. "She actually...?"

        "Sent me to magic kindergarten. Yes, she did." Twilight nodded, remembering it well. "I spent the rest of the day thinking about what she had said, especially the fact that it was a 'shame' that I was going to be the only grown up pony in the class. Everypony was sure to laugh at me! That was when I got the idea: I didn't have to be the only grown pony in the class!"

        "You didn't?" Rarity asked, but Twilight didn't answer. Not right away. She waited.

        And Rarity got it.

        "Of course!" she realized, blue eyes wide. "An illusion spell!"

        "I studied the spell and disguised myself as a filly," Twilight confirmed, nodding slowly. "I almost made it to the end of the day, too... but I lost my cool, the spell broke, and everypony laughed at me."

        "The next day, Princess Celestia said that since I had so-ooo much fun in kindergarten, that I could spend a week there. So she sent me to another, different magic kindergarten for five days." Twilight noted the end of the story with pride, "And I went those five days without the illusion breaking even once."

        "So I have to maintain this illusion all day?" Rarity asked, seeing now what her so called training was based on. She didn't sound confident in her chances. She was already quite skilled with illusionary magic, but this was different than a short ten minute presentation or fashion show. This was an intricate, body-wide illusion maintained for hours on end.

        "I guess I don't have to pretend to keep you in the dark at this point," Twilight replied, and answered honestly. "First, you don't have to keep the illusion up all day."

        "Oh, thank goodness, I-"

        "Just all school-day!"

        "Ugh."

        "Second," Twilight continued, grinning at Rarity's put-out expression. "This exercise will test you, not only on endurance, but on finesse. You'll need to maintain an illusion that is contact-sensitive, around dozens of ponies - even if they are very young - all while interacting with them and multi-tasking. If you can do this, then you'll have no problems either using illusions or countering them during a duel."

        "But," Rarity protested, already starting to resign herself to this latest (potential) humiliation. "I don't know an illusion spell quite like this."

        "I'll use it on you, and then you just need to maintain it," Twilight assured her, and put a hoof to her shoulder in comfort. "Don't worry! Of course... if the illusion breaks, you won't be able to re-cast it... so make sure it doesn't break, and make sure you don't lose your focus, and you'll be fine!"

        "Wonderful," the fashionista remarked, dreading the upcoming day's 'training.' "Is that all?"

        "Well, maybe one other thing..." Twilight remarked, and lifted a hoof-

        A hoof with a tennis ball in it.

        "No. More. Tennis. Balls."

- - -

        "Hello everypony! I'm Dewdrop Dazzle! Wonderful to meet you!"

        Rarity smiled through the illusion. From her perspective, Cheerilee appeared to be staring at her chest rather than her face. Of course, from the school teacher's perspective, Rarity was a pint sized little pony with an aqua blue coat, purple eyes and a pink and yellow mane that fell over the left side of her face and neck. The color scheme was not Rarity's preference in design for her alter ego, which Twilight had considered to be "Perfect! The more you dislike how you look, the better! You should never get too comfortable in your own illusion!"

        Hence, Rarity - now Dewdrop Dazzle - stood at the front of her little sister's class. Behind her, her name had been written on the blackboard in chalky, but elegant and flowery script. Even if it wasn't her real name, the least she could do was present it with a little style and flourish! Twilight had refused to say whether Cheerilee was aware of the classroom deception or whether she was playing along or what.

        "Best you don't know," the librarian had said, wagging a hoof and sporting a mischievous grin.

        To Dewdrop Dazzle, that probably meant: "She has no idea!"

        Heavenly bodies, this was a recipe for disaster.

        "My, what lovely penmareship you have, Dewdrop!" Cheerilee remarked, staring at the name on her board and then back to the rest of the class. "Everypony, why don't we all introduce ourselves to our new transfer student?"

        "Hi, Dewdrop Dazzle!" came the chorus from around the classroom.

        Followed by the little fillies and colts introducing themselves. So far: so good. No pony recognized her through the illusion. The biggest danger was in physical contact. Anypony waving a hoof above her head could well catch themselves on her real mane, or even end up poking her eye. Just sitting in these tiny seats was going to post an uncomfortable and unwelcome challenge.

        Lost in her own thoughts, Rarity - which was to say: Dewdrop Dazzle - missed a few of the introductions from around the room. Still, she wasn't worried about that. She knew Sweetie's friends from school... most of them anyway. It wasn't terribly hard to recall which one was which. They were all such a cute bunch!

        "Why don't you take a seat, Dewdrop?" Cheerilee gave her a gentle nudge forward.

        "Thank you, Cheerilee-"

        "Miss Cheerilee, please?" the older pony corrected, forgivingly.

        Dewdrop nearly planted face in hoof.

        "Miss Cheerilee, of course!" She laughed nervously. "I'll just be taking my seat!"

        Okay: that probably didn't sound too relaxed.

        'Relax you foal!'

        She leisurely, but not too leisurely, and quickly, but not too quickly, took a seat. In retrospect, it may not have been all too wise to take the seat next to her little sister, but having Sweetie Belle close by was comforting. Dewdrop had been trying to keep her little sister out of Rarity's business - and this was getting confusing - suffice to say, Sweetie Belle did not know much about Twilight's bizarre training and it would be best if she remained unburdened by the whole misadventure that had descended on Ponyville and it's resident dressmaker.

        Thank Celestia, she had no idea her sister was in disguise as a classmate!

        Knowing poor Sweetie, she would have blurted it out five minutes into the charade.

        "Now class, why don't we continue where we left off, with Equestrian vocabulary and sentence structure..."

        No disrespect or offense to Miss Cheerilee, but there was not much to her teaching that could invigorate the mind of a mare her own age. Nor should there be, really. This was a class of young ponies, not an evening at night school or a seminar. Uncomfortably wedged between her desk and chair, and trying not to have her illusion come apart like an over-ripe melon, Dewdrop slowly but surely began to slump forward. It was hard to keep good posture in an uncomfortable chair when one was bored out of one's mind.

        Thought straying again, she remembered the last seminar she had attended, back in Canterlot. It had been during a fashion exposition. Hoity had invited her but then disappeared for the entire event, leaving her to mingle freely. Guest speakers from across Equestria had held panels on the future of the industry and especially in the marketing of new fabrics and textiles. Two handsome unicorn brothers had been there, too, trying to sell a new "patent pending automatic weaver" of some sort or another. It had been a marvel of modern unicorn magi-technology, at least until it jammed.

        What had their names been again? One of them had the most fabulous moustache...!

        "Dewdrop Dazzle!"

        It took a moment to sink in that Cheerilee - Miss Cheerilee - had been calling her name.

        "Oh! Oh, yes?" She quickly sat up straight, eyes forward.

        The earth pony schoolteacher had a cross expression and tapped a ruler in the corner of her mouth against the blackboard. For emphasis, no doubt.

        "Would you mind telling me which of these sentences contains an irregular plural noun?" she asked, despite the ruler between her teeth.

        Dewdrop Dazzle stared at the three sentences written on plan, blocky text:

        - The three pegasi had a race.

        - Four dogs chased a ball.

        - The stars were very bright outside.

        Beneath her illusion, Rarity frowned. What in Equestria was an irregular plural noun?

        Thinking quickly, she realized, of course: it was a noun! There were a few nouns in those sentences. A plural one, then. Those were... 'stars,' 'dogs,' and 'pegasi.' Naturally! One of them was irregular, then. Whatever that meant. Was this really elementary Equestrian?

        "We're waiting," a high pitched voice joked from the front row. The source, easily identified by her snickering, was a rather self-satisfied looking little pony with a tiara on her head. Was that really allowed in school? What happened to the dress code?

        "The... first one?" Dewdrop finally guessed, grinning anxiously at the still-waiting Cheerilee.

        "That's correct," the schoolteacher replied, with a tone that implied she knew the supposed transfer had guessed the answer and gotten lucky. Dewdrop breathed a sigh of relief. Getting an elementary school question wrong? That would have been simply unforgivable, even if nopony knew it was really her.

        "An irregular plural noun," Cheerilee explained, probably not for the first time. "Is one that we can not simply add an 's' or 'es' to at the end. Here are a few more examples, in several categories..." She took the chalk in-hoof and wrote on the blackboard. "A single leaf becomes several leaves. One mouse in a house can mean many mice hiding where you can't see them. Some nouns are the same in singular and plural, like sheep."

        She turned to the class, continuing the lesson.

        "Who here can name other irregular plural nouns? Let's go around the room. Remember that in Equestrian, the transformation of a singular that ends in a 'y' is not always irregular. 'Donkeys' is regular while 'ponies' is technically irregular..."

        Around they went, in a less than organized fashion, as students yelled out whatever words they could come up with. Hoof and Hooves, Tooth and Teeth were quickly taken, and as the class thought up ever more exotic words, Cheerilee sorted them into various types on the board: 'oes' transformations, 'ies' transformations, and so forth. A filly with a curly red mane quickly added two exotic additions, displaying her knowledge of the material: 'ae' and 'ices.' That one was definitely the study-bug of the group.

        It actually wasn't terribly boring.

        Which, from Dewdrop's unique point of view, certainly had to be seen as a credit to Cheerilee's teaching and personality. She loved her job, and it was reflected in how engaged she was with her students. Sadly Sweetie Belle appeared to lose interest once her teacher went back to constructing example sentences of some of the suggested words. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, too, began to appear less than studious.

        When Dewdrop finally saw her sister taking notes, she took a moment to chide herself. Sweetie did well enough in school! Of course she was paying attention. Though she really should learn to use her magic to write; it allowed for much more attractive use of script. Still, at least she was diligent.

        And then Sweetie Belle, her dear sister, folded her note up, tapped Scootaloo on the back, and passed her studious notes off to her friend. To copy. Surely.

        Scootaloo hunched over, opened the note, and clearly tried to restrain a laugh.

        Passing notes in class!

        "Sweetie Belle!" Dewdrop leaned over to whisper. "Just what are you doing?"

        "Nothing!" the other filly whispered back.

        "You're going to get in trouble if you pass notes. What would your - I mean, don't pass notes!"

        "I won't get in trouble if you don't tell on me," Sweetie hissed back, and looked away with a huff.

        Rar-

        Dewdrop sat in her chair and stewed. Sweetie Bell was definitely going to get a talking to later. It would have been nice to say things got better as the day wore on, but as they often did, things got progressively worse. After Cheerilee turned the subject to mathematics, Sweetie all but began to zone out. Dewdrop knew that expression well! It was the same 'I'm bored! You better keep an eye on me!' look that she had seen in her Boutique many times before. Usually right before she didn't keep an eye on her sister, freeing her to cause some trouble in an attempt to be useful or productive or creative.

        That aside, though - and not to tempt fate - things were going quite swimmingly!

- - -

        Recess.

        Despite the encroaching chill of fall, the weather was still pleasant enough to allow everypony to eat and play on the grounds surrounding the schoolhouse. It was one of the few times all the various grades could mix together, though they tended to segregate by age group. Older colts came together with some of the mares to race or play hastily organized team sports; some of the pegasi, a minority in Ponyville's school system, practiced flying; many others just relaxed, enjoying their time away from lessons, blackboards, and well meaning teachers.

        The Cutie Mark Crusaders had their own reasons for getting together at recess.

        "Lemme see what ah got for lunch today... looks like apple fries! Apple juice! Apple sauce! And Apple noodles!"

        "Apple noodles?" Scootaloo leaned over from where she sat to take a look for herself. "Those don't look much like noodles to me."

        "Ah think it's a Manehattan recipe," Apple Bloom replied, holding up a round, foil-wrapped dish from her lunch box. Inside was an orange crumb-encrusted casserole with a whiff of cinnamon. "It may look a little funny, but it's good! Wanna try some?"

        "Uh... No, I'll just take your word for it."

        The three fillies ate quickly under the shade of a well manicured oak tree, many of the leaves already mottled with reds and oranges not yet ready to fall to the ground. Acorns, though, were in abundance, freely trampled into the ground by playful pony hooves. Those not so interred were quickly requisitioned by a large colony of Ponyville's tame squirrels. Scootaloo finished first, her lunch being granola bars and energy drink. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom took only a little longer, though the former picked at her small lunch as much as she ate it.

        "Hey, Sweetie Belle, there something wrong?" Scootaloo asked, already having found a large red and blue ball to occupy herself with. She wasn't so occupied she couldn't pick up on her friend's moods, especially when they were pretty obvious.

        Sweetie shook her head. "I've just been thinking... about my sister Rarity."

        "Ya mean about how she was doing that weird balance-on-a-log thing yesterday?" Apple Bloom asked, packing up her cleaned place and finished drink. With a little click, she closed her lunchbox and put it behind her.

        "Mom and dad didn't wanna talk much about it, but even before yesterday I noticed her acting a little strange." Sweetie Belle glanced down at her salad, mostly finished, and then back up at her best friends. "I don't know if it'll help us get our cutie marks or anything... but if you guys want to help me...?"

        "Of course we'll help!" Scootaloo spoke first, grinning happily. "Like you even need to ask!"

        "Yeah! We didn't get our cutie mark crusader spies, counter-spies, or spy wars cutie marks last month, but that doesn't mean we can't get some other kinda investig- investigative... cutie marks!" Apple Bloom pumped a hoof. "I bet ya already have some kinda plan, right, Sweetie Belle?"

        "A plan. Well, yeah, kinda." The little white unicorn turned to her side, picking up her book bag and opening it in front of her. "I figured... my sister seems to write a lot to Prince Blueblood, so maybe one of their letters says what the problem is? It must be pretty serious for Rarity to be willing to get soaking wet over."

        "Or make a scene like she did yesterday!" Scootaloo bluntly added. "Course, it was pretty fun hittin' her with tennis balls!"

        "Ah'm kinda glad we didn't get a cutie mark for that. A throws-things-at-other-ponies cutie mark? That'd just be weird."

        "So these are the letters?" Scootaloo asked, as Sweetie Belle finished picking the handful of scrolls and envelopes out of her bag.

        "A bunch of them, anyway," Sweetie replied, spreading them out on the cool grass. "I didn't have time to check the dates."

        "Ah thought ya said she was hiding these from ya?" Apple Bloom held one of the scrolls, tied with red thread, up to eye level. It even had a little velvet bag to keep it in. Fancy!

        "She just left them lying around. It was a lot easier to pick up a few while she wasn't looking!" Sweetie Belle, livened up by the participation of her friends in her attempt to find out what was wrong with her sister, really did not see how this plan could go wrong. Really. Not yet, anyway.

        "We've only got a little more time before class starts again, so let's get to it!" Scootaloo declared, arbitrarily swiping one of the envelopes. Slipping out the paper inside, she started reading only to make a disgusted face. "Aw, it's all mushy lovey-dovey stuff!"

        Apple Bloom wasn't quite sure what to make of the letter she picked first.

        "Ah don't even know what a buncha these words mean. What language is this? Prancy?"

        She could at least recognize it, since she had learned to speak Prancy. For a few hours, anyway, thanks to Heart's Desire and some creative zebra alchemy.

        That had been an odd day.

        "Not this one," Sweetie said, carefully putting the scroll back in its case with the string.

        "Hey, Scootaloo, what's this word? This one here?"

        "Hm." Sweetie Belle finished the letter, even checking the reverse side. "Not this one either."

        "Hey, Scootaloo. See this word? Quee- cue-es, no, wait. Kwee-es-ents? Hey, Scootaloo, are you listenin' ta me?"

        Sweetie looked up from her letter to help Apple Bloom with whatever new word was giving her difficulty. Scootaloo seemed completely immersed in one of Rarity's letters. She hardly even noticed her earth pony friend poking her on the side.

        And why were her wings starting to flare out?

        "This one is too hard!" Apple Bloom finally gave up on Blueblood's scroll and decided to instead investigate just what had her pegasus friend so distracted. Leaning over and stretching her neck, she started reading aloud:

        "My dear Prince. Your last letter left me a titter for our reunion. In return, I think it only fair to ask if you remember that summer's day you reserved the spa for us. Do you remember, my beloved stallion, how..." Apple Bloom's voice trailed off, her lips moving but not forming words.

        "Yeah," Scootaloo muttered, though not to any question in particular. "This is an interesting letter."

        "Wouldn't that hurt?" Apple Bloom asked, seriously contemplating the matter. "The animals on the farm sure don't do it that way."

        "What are you two talking about?" Sweetie Bell demanded, only to gasp. "Quick! Put them away!"

        It only took a moment for Apple Bloom to see what she meant. Two very familiar fillies were headed over, no doubt looking to cause trouble. She scrambled to scoop up the letters on the ground, grass and all, dumping them into her arms and them making for Sweetie's bag. The little unicorn, meanwhile, tried to get the last offending letter out of her other friend's hooves without ripping it.

        "Scootaloo! Come on!"

        "Just - just a second. This can't be right. I just have to read it one more time to be sure."

        "Well, well, well, what do we have here?"

        At the sound of Diamond Tiara's voice, even Scootaloo managed to bring herself into the here and now. The cutie mark crusaders glared at Ponyville's richest, most spoiled little filly. Silver Spoon wasn't exactly welcome either, especially since she was basically attached to the other filly's flank half the time. The two were the only fillies in the school to wear actual jewelry to class, as if everypony didn't know who their parents were and how much money they had.

        Silver Spoon, gray on gray with her mane in a fashionable braid, stuck out her tongue in childish pique. Clearly, she didn't quite respect the Very Important Business that the cutie mark crusaders were oft involved in. Very Important.

        "Look at these blank flanks!" she said, raising her voice to add volume to Diamond Tiara's more soft spoken condescension. "What sort of stupid schemes do you think they're up to this time?"

        Diamond Tiara sighed in mock despair. "How long has it been again? More than a year? Pumpkin Cake will probably get her cutie mark before you foals do."

        "Nuh-uh! She's barely a few months old!" Sweetie Belle declared, having clearly identified a logical fallacy in the other filly's supposition. "There's no way she'll get a cutie mark before we do-"

        Sweetie paused.

        "Oooooh," she realized with a pout. "I get it. Anyway!" She pointed dramatically at the two interlopers. "At least we don't smell! Smell bad. Because you don't shower. Or bathe. You're smelly."

        "I hope you three aren't holding out for a trading-insults cutie mark," Diamond Tiara quipped.

        "What do you care?" Apple Bloom intervened, just finished stuffing Sweetie's bag full of notes and grass.

        "Yeah!" Scootaloo declared, pointing... and then trying to smooth her wings out.

        "I would, but you three and actual reading materials, all existing in the same space?" Tiara smirked. "Something's up. Isn't that right, Silver Spoon?"

        The other filly chuckled. "Maybe they're reading about the cutie marks they'll never have. I bet they never get cutie marks!"

        "Not very creative, but whatever," Diamond Tiara didn't spare her friend from her share of criticism. "Since we came all the way over here, why you'd you tell us what you're up to? It'll make for some after-lunch entertainment."

        "No way!" all three cutie mark crusaders declared in unison-

        "These are my sister's!" One of the crusaders just couldn't stop while she was anywhere near ahead. "You'll never get your hooves on them!"

        Scootaloo and Apple Bloom just stared at their unicorn comrade.

        "Oops?" Sweetie Belle chirped.

        "Great!"

        "Can you even imagine?" Scootaloo snickered. "This one letter would just blow their little minds!" She then glared at her wings, still poofed out. "Arg! Stupid wings! Stay down!"

        "Now I'm really curious. Why don't you just-"

        "SWEETIE BELLE!!"

        The roar came not from Crusader, Tiara or Spoon. Instead, the new transfer student from Canterlot seemed to be running in their direction, hell on hooves. Actual honest-to-Celestia steam seemed to be billowing out of her flattened ears and a crazed look filled her eyes with a primal fury. The five fillies could only stand frozen in place, stunned, at the oncoming demon that was an enraged Dewdrop Dazzle.

        "You give me those letters right this instant!!"

        It took a moment for the demand to sink in... and for a response to percolate.

        "N - no way!" Sweetie Belle yelled back, and with what little magic she had she made a grab for her bag and ran for it. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, with more excitement than was probably natural in little fillies their age, jumped between the crazy transfer student and their friend.

        "Those aren't yours!" Apple Bloom yelled, setting her hooves in the ground and bracing herself.

        "Yeah! So back off!" Scootaloo, not one to wait, charged in on all fours.

        Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon could only stand, dumbfounded, and watch as the charging Dewdrop Dazzle juked to the left, jumped and twirled acrobatically overhead, neatly leaping right over both Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and themselves. As she passed overhead, something invisible managed to lightly smack both fillies in the face... and then the aqua-colored blur was gone.

        "What." Diamond Tiara gaped.

        Silver Spoon touched a hoof to her cheek. "The?"

 

        "Heck!" Apple Bloom cursed, racing past the duo. "Let's go!"

        Followed a second later by another blur of amber and purple.

        Sweetie Belle's little legs carried her clear over a sandbox, pilfered letters and book bag slung over her shoulder. Fillies and colts in the grade below flattened themselves and stared up as another figure, and then another, and then another bounced right over them in a madcap chase around the schoolyard. Around another tree and between two bushes, Sweetie Belle dashed through a trotting course, startling the pair of runners working off lunch by cantering around the school.

        'How?!' her pursuer couldn't help but curse. 'How can she run so fast with such little legs?'

        Four skid marks ripped up a long patch of grass as Sweetie Belle cut, hard, and ran right. The sudden course change nearly threw Dewdrop, whose longer legs - outside the illusion - struggled to make the same tight turn on already uprooted sod. Her target was back to running in a straight line.

        A line that took her right into and through, a hoofball game.

        Naturally, the universe working as it did, the ball ended up nestled purely by chance in the speedy little unicorn's bag. Beneath her illusion, it took all the self control she had for Rarity not to scream, "COME ON!"

        "Our ball!"

        "Is that out of bounds?"

        "Oh, what? Hey!"

         "Catch. That. Filly!" One of the older players yelled.

        And, in the span of a few seconds, it seemed as if half the school was on Sweetie Belle's hooves.

        "WHY!" Dewdrop Dazzle could be heard to scream. "Why is this happening today of all days?!"

- - -

        "Detention. I can't believe I have detention."

        "You deserve it. I was just keeping my sister's stuff safe!" Sweetie Belle, clearly, didn't like her situation much either. The two sisters, though only one of them knew the relation, had been left to stand outside the classroom on either side of the door to 'think long and hard about what they did and how ponies could have been hurt by their recklessness.'

        "Mom and dad are gonna kill me!" she lamented, banging the back of her head against the wall.

        "You bet they are!" Dewdrop promised. "What were you thinking going through m-mmMissss-" good recovery there. "Rarity's stuff?"

        "None of your business!" Sweetie continued to sulk.

        Between them, through the wooden door, they could hear the class inside in progress. Sweetie would be saddled with extra homework to make up for what she was missing. Dewdrop too, though Rarity had no intention of actually doing homework, no matter what her bibliomaniac friend-turned-trainer Twilight Sparkle had to say about it. A line had to be drawn somewhere, for Celestia's sake.

        "You're sure Miss Cheerilee has all the letters?" Dewdrop asked, closing her eyes and trying to keep her illusion spell up. It had come disturbingly close to slipping during that insane chase around the school.

        "None of your business."

        "For your information, it is my..." The disguised unicorn cut herself off. There was no point going down that road, not now. "I mean: those letters weren't yours to take or to read, Sweetie Belle." She sighed, seeing that her little sister was intent on ignoring her. Of course, there were supposed to be quiet in the hall, not having a conversation.

        Still.

        "How would you have liked it if I read that letter you passed to Scootaloo?"

        "That's different!" Sweetie protested, glaring for all of second before looking downcast. "I didn't do it to be mean."

        She scuffed her hoof against the hallway floor.

        "I just... I was just worried. I just wanted to help," she muttered, wiping the tears from her eyes. Then she turned defiant again. "I don't even know why I'm talking to you. You got me in so much trouble."

        "Sweetie Belle..." Rarity, beneath the illusion, had to fight herself not to try and hug her sister, seeing her so distraught. The source of it, really, was sitting right outside Cheerilee's homeroom. The whole reason why Sweetie Belle had been so desperate to try and find out what was wrong.

        "I kind of know your sister," she tried to explain, since dramatically declaring 'Sweetie Belle - I am your sister!' was likely a bit too over the top. "Miss Rarity. She talked about you a lot, you know? I bet if you ask her, and show her how worried you are, she'll do everything she can to explain things and make you feel better."

        Dewdrop smiled, seeing Sweetie give her a curious look.

        "I'm sure she never meant for you to be so worried about her," she said, and Sweetie smiled back before looking down at her hooves. After that they kept silent, letting the time slowly trickle by. It was actually a bit relaxing. Dewdrop found it much easier to concentrate on the illusion when there was nothing else to interact with or offer distraction.

        If only it wasn't leaving her so tired; had Twilight really spent days like this?

        It seemed impossible, even for her.

        "Hey, Rarity?"

        "Yes, Swee-e-ee - oh...!" Dewdrop planted her face in her hoof and turned to see her little sister grinning triumphantly. "I can't believe I fell for that."

        Unbelievable.

        "How did you figure it out?" She had to know.

        Sweetie Belle blushed and shrugged. "I dunno. I just had a funny feeling when you were chasing me earlier. Like it was familiar."

        "So much for nopony knowing," Rarity-as-Dewdrop replied, rolling her eyes. "Let's just keep this between us, shall we? No need to tell Twilight."

        "Tell Twilight what?" Sweetie asked right back. "I still don't know what's going on."

        "I'll explain it later."

        "You promise?"

        "Hm."

        "And you meant what you said before?"

        "Of course."

        "And you aren't mad at me?"

        "..."

        "And you aren't mad at me?"

        "..."

        "You aren't mad at me."

        "..."

        "You aren't mad at me? Rarity? Yeah. You're still mad, aren't you?"

        Before they could go on, however, the door opened.

        Miss Cheerilee stuck her head out, glaring at the two fillies. "Have you two learned your lesson?"

        "We sure have, Miss Cheerilee!" Sweetie Belle answered, looking up with dewy puppy-dog eyes. "No more rough-housing! Promise!"

        "Ah, yes. It is an incident never to be repeated," Dewdrop replied, trying to look more contrite than she felt.

        "Okay," the schoolteacher decided, opening the door wide. She rarely closed it. "Come on in. We have a special guest arriving soon."

        Dewdrop followed Sweetie into the classroom, one question left on her lips.

        "Special guest?"

- - -

        Inside the Dewdrop disguise, Rarity's eyes were wide in shock.

        But of course. Of. Course. With her luck today, who else would the 'special guest' be?

        "Everypony," Cheerilee addressed her class with a happy smile. "Let's all give a warm welcome to our special guest for today. We're very lucky to have her visiting the school..."

        "Lady Antimony," she finished, bowing her head to the mare standing before the classroom. "The Baroness of Mareseilles."

        Who else?

        It was Lady Antimony in the flesh. The noblemare was wearing a delicate seashell and honeydew chiffon shawl and saddle, undoubtedly custom designs she had brought with her from Prance. A cloak, different in color than the one she had worn to the Boutique, was loosely and comfortably draped over her shoulders. Her mane, too, had been styled and done up in a looped knot high on the top of the head behind the horn, flanked by intricate curls. Dewdrop - Rarity - quickly identified it as a neoclassical look, and the shawl especially seemed to be of very intricate design.

        If only she could get a closer look at it!

        No. No. Now was not the time to think about fashion.

        Antimony's new look also implied that while one of them had been training her toned flank off, the other had been spending hours at the mane stylist! That fact did little to brighten Dewdrop's mood.

        "Hello, everypony," she greeted the class with stately little inclination of the head. "A pleasure to meet you."

        A mixture of "Hello, Lady Antimony" and "Hello, Baroness Antimony" greeted the noblemare from all around the classroom. For her part, Dewdrop mumbled her own greeting. Antimony's perpetually half-lidded eyes passed over the class of fillies and colts and Dewdrop had to repress an involuntary shiver as that gaze came and went from her as well.

        The illusion, however, held.

         "Lady Antimony is here to talk about her home and about life as a member of a noble court," Cheerilee explained, and Dewdrop got the impression that the class had been given at least some forewarning about a guest. Only she had been caught unaware.

        "Did everypony find Two Rivers and Prance on the map after school yesterday?" the teacher asked, and the classroom replied with a variety of yeses. "In that case, let's all listen carefully to what Lady Antimony has to say. I'm sure she'll be happy to answer questions when she's finished."

        "Your Ladyship?" Cheerilee finished, bowing her head and walking back behind her desk.

        "My little ponies," Antimony began, smiling warmly at the class of children. "As you know, I am Antimony. Though a Baroness, please informally address me as just 'Lady.' I was born twenty three years ago in northern Prance, in a family keep and estate in the country. My loving father was the great Duke, Lord Cruciger, and my mother the learned scholar and poet, Twinkling Star Light, second daughter of the late Duchess Dancing Star Spark. My Barony is the province of greater Mareseilles. Has anypony been to Mareseilles before?"

        "Oh! I have!" Naturally, one little filly raised her hoof.

        "How wonderful," Antimony replied, motioning for the little pony to stand up. "Would you please introduce yourself?"

        "My name is Diamond Tiara!" the pink and lavender filly said, and gave a practiced bow. "My father is Filthy Rich and my mother is Patent Pending."

        "I know those names," the noblemare commented after a polite pause. "Ah, yes, your father owns a retail franchise of some sort. Barnyard Bargains, I believe? Your mother is a noted inventor. I should like to meet her sometime. I assume you visited Mareseilles on business?"

        "We were visiting family, Lady Antimony."

        "I'll remember that." To Dewdrop, that phrase seemed just a little ominous. Then again, when it came to this mare, her opinions weren't exactly unbiased. "What did you think of my city, Diamond Tiara?"

        The little filly took her seat again and bit her lip as she tried to remember.

        "I was very little, but... I remember it being big. Not like Manehattan, with tall cloudscrapers, but very wide! With beautiful stone bridges and gardens and palaces and walls!"

        "Yes. While some cities have grown upwards, like Manehattan, most older cities have grown outward as ponies settled around walls and along roads." Antimony began describing 'her city' of Mareseilles.

        It was, to her credit, renowned as a beautiful and well maintained city and one of the jewels of Prance. 'Dewdrop' had seen pictures of it: more urban than most of the country, it boasted long, clean boulevards, wide and inviting streets and a large number of museums, churches, gardens and parks. More than even that, it was known as a city of palaces and villas built along a crystal clear and long-tamed river. The farmland around the city was dotted with rustic vineyards and unicorn monasteries dedicated to the study of magic. Ironically, the one thing is clearly lacked was the thing Antimony's father was most well known for: renovated and restored fortifications from the migration era.

        The class listened patiently as she discussed more of her home and some of the noteworthy ponies it had produced over the centuries: composers, artists, inventors and statesponies of high office. All too quickly, however, fillies and colts began to slump or rest their heads on their hooves. Glancing over at Miss Cheerilee for some sort of assistance - a fact 'Dewdrop Dazzle' found secretly amusing - Lady Antimony quickly and wisely opted to skip ahead to the question and answer part of her presentation.

        This was something even Dewdrop found more interesting: there was little information on Antimony in the public record. She raised a hoof and hoped to get at least one question in before the noblemare left for the afternoon.

        "Diamond Tiara?"

        It seemed Antimony had a favorite filly already.

        "What's it like being a Baroness?" the little pony asked, conspicuously adjusting the expensive tiara in her mane.

        "It is a lot of work," Antimony replied, always smiling. Oddly, Dewdrop got the feeling that she was genuinely smiling, at least this once. Even her eyes seemed to have lost their sense of bored, patient malice.

        "The social functions we host are the most well publicized aspect of our duties as noble lord," she continued. "But they are only the public face of rulership. Parties are venues... opportunities... for alliances of interest to be made. It allows us to meet with other connected ponies and ply them for opinions or press them into compliance. Every social gathering is expensive and attracts attention; they are rarely held for pure personal amusement."

        "To rule as a noble is also to bear great responsibility, bestowed on us by Fate and the grace of the Princesses." Here, those violet-red eyes turned on Dewdrop, just for a second. "You rule not for yourself, but as a member and representative of a noble family. Your actions reflect the greater desires of the family, and of the province, and of Equestria itself. Every noble hopes to bequeath a stronger, richer land to her son or daughter than she herself inherited."  

        "Don't you get to order ponies around, too?" Diamond Tiara blurted out, despite not being called on a second time.

        "Some of them," Antimony answered with a sly look. "In practice, the only ponies most nobles 'order around' are our personal household, our guards, and our immediate subordinates."

        "But - but aren't you in charge?" the filly protested.

 

        "That is not quite how it works." The noblemare pointed to the class with her hoof. "There are four rows of desks in this classroom. Miss Tiara, let us call your row Prance. Apple Bloom, is it?"

        Apple Bloom abruptly sat up. "Uh, yeah, but how did-"

        "Let us call your row Whinnychester. To your left?"

        "Silver Spoon!" The filly at the head of the row declared.

        "Your row will be Cavallo. And the young pegasus on the leftmost row will represent Neighpon." Antimony neatly divided up the classroom. "Miss Cheerilee here will represent the Princess, at the head of the four rows. Imagine that every pony thus organized wears their allegiance to the one in front, with all four of you at the end of the row swearing allegiance to your teacher, the Princess. Together, you all represent roughly three million ponies."

        "Diamond Tiara. Do you see how your authority is limited by this arrangement?" Antimony gestured to the front, at Cheerilee, and then behind her, to a chubby colt in the middle row. "You take orders from the Princess, and give orders to those immediately below you. Whether those orders are followed by your classmate depend on your relationship with those you rule. If... um... what is your name, little colt?"

        "Pocky," the smoke colored colt said in little more than a shy whisper.

        "If Pocky there is not an honorable pony, then he will not follow your orders or he will scheme behind your back. If he is in a stronger social position than you, then he will attempt to make you subordinate to him. Due in part to the great size of Equestria, a strict hierarchy of lords and ladies is necessary for society to function, from the divine pinnacle..." Antimony swept her hoof from 'Princess Cheerilee' to Diamond Tiara, Pocky, and blue coated filly behind him. "To the lowest Earl, to even the most humble stable-hoof."

        "While the actual political organization of every province in Equestria varies, this gives you an idea of how the powers of even great lords are limited by personal strength and charisma."

        Antimony then explained, "For example, in my family domains, all ponies now swear allegiance first to their Duke and then to their Earl or Mayor. In turn, their Earl vows obedience to their Baron, and every Baron gives their oath to their Duke. This is the system passed down to us by our wise matron and great mother, Lady Arsenic. Barons and Earls thus lose even more independent power in exchange for a more... progressive system of governance."

        "Hey, wait! Ah just noticed somethin'!" Apple Bloom spoke up, twisting around in her chair. "Mah row's only got Twist in it, but Diamond Tiara's row has two other ponies! And Scootaloo's row has both Sweetie Bell and Snips and Snails in it, and they're the only three unicorns in class... except Dewdrop, I guess. But these rows ain't even!"

        "No, they are not," Antimony agreed. "Not every province is as rich or as powerful as every other. Cities like Manehattan, Cloudsdale and Stalliongrad have disproportionately more power than their size would indicate. Cloudsdale in particular has tremendous influence, as it contains the largest pegasus population in the country."

        "If I were to continue the analogy, I would say... Equestria is made up of thirteen rows. Five with one pony in it, four with three ponies, and four with two ponies."

        As Antimony spoke, a small piece of chalk sketched out thirteen rows of different length on the blackboard, connected at the top by a pyramid. There, at the top of the pyramid that was Equestria, Antimony drew a globe with lines around it: a living sun.

        "The balance of power is here, at the very top: it is found in the unquestioned strength and majesty of Canterlot, of the immortal Princesses, and of the noble Stable of Lords. And, of course, in the network of trade and friendship that ties our country together..."

        "But you see how one's word is the cement that binds Equestria's social order together," Antimony concluded, looking around the classroom. "The greatest privilege of a noble mare is to serve and strengthen her realm, and to act with strength and honor. It is a privilege any noble must be prepared to put her life on the line for. Diamond Tiara: that is what it means to be a Baroness. My apologies for such a lengthy response, but it is a complicated question to pose. Authority does not mean autonomy."

        "Any other questions?" Cheerilee asked, but most of the class had become quiet.

        Finally, one brave colt raised his hoof.

        "Snips?"

        "Lady Antimony," the other chubby colt - really, Rarity couldn't help but think, colts these days did need to exercise more - spoke up, a rather goofy grin on his face. "You said a noble mare needs to be strong, right?"

        "That is correct," Antimony replied.

        "Do you know Trixie? Are you more powerful than her?"

        "Trixie?" The name didn't seem to ring a bell and Antimony cocked her head in puzzlement. "I'm afraid I don't recall that name. Who is she?"

        "The Great and Powerful Trixie!" Snips repeated, and then picked a target closer to home. "If you don't know her, what about Twilight Sparkle? She defeated an Ursa Minor!"

        "Ah, yes. Twilight Sparkle, I do know, just as I am aware of her encounter with the Ursa Minor."

        Dewdrop leaned in closer, finally and truly interested in Antimony's response. This: the subject of magic, was actually pertinent to her situation. If she were fortunate, she could even glean some information to help her in the upcoming duel.

        "Twilight is the personal apprentice of the Princess herself, and by all I have read of her, she is a true magical genius," Antimony said, without even a hint of bitterness or reproach. If anything, she sounded a little proud of her distant cousin. "To add to this, she is also the Element of Magic and the fulcrum of the Elements of Harmony. We all expect great things from her. If I had to measure myself against such a mare, I believe I would be found wanting."

        "Twilight Sparkle," she concluded. "I would expect her to be more powerful than myself, when it comes to most forms of magic."

        Dewdrop didn't wait to be called on to ask, "Most forms of magic?"

        Antimony didn't seem to have much worry explaining herself.

        "Every since I was a little filly, trying to get my cutie mark, I have had problems controlling large star fields and auras. For you non-unicorns, that means the more magic I use, the harder it is for me to form it into anything useful. You may imagine it as a faucet. Turned just a little, you get the flow of water you desire, but turn it just a little more, and the steady stream becomes a blast. My sisters often found my situation very amusing, as they all mastered their magic at an early age."

        "I resolved to master the arts of magic that required very little magical input, but that could benefit from a steady flow of energy," she said, and asked, "Can anypony here guess what those arts are? One of the unicorns maybe?"

        "Oh! I know!" Sweetie Belle waved her hoof in the air and happily guessed, "Illusion magic!"

        "That is one of them," Antimony confirmed. "Can anypony guess the other? Anypony at all? Perhaps I should demonstrate it, then." She trotted over to Scootaloo. "Excuse me, but you are...?"

        "Scootaloo," the little pegasus answered, looking up at the tall noblemare.

        "Hello, Scootaloo. Would you mind giving me one of your feathers for a demonstration?" Antimony inquired.

        "Yeah, okay I guess." The only pegasus in the class, Scootaloo craned her neck to bite one of her loose feathers and plucked it with a wince. Lady Antimony levitated it out of Scoot's mouth, and into the air. She then passed it to Miss Cheerilee.

        "Very carefully," she asked, "Could you hold this feather by the calamus?"

        "I suppose so," Cheerilee agreed, cautiously biting down on the quill of the feather with her front teeth. "This isn't dangerous, is it?"

        "Oh no, no danger at all. Just don't slip or touch the feather with your lips," Antimony replied with a reassuring smile. "That would be very bad."

        Even as she finished speaking, the noblemare floated over a piece of paper, positioned it over the vane of the feather, and brought it down in a smooth motion. The stationary cut like it wasn't even there, and as Antimony brought it back up and down, repeating the motion, it shaved ever thinner strips of paper away. Like confetti.

        Scootaloo's feather had been turned into a razor.

        Then, for effect, Antimony put away the paper. A good thing, as Cheerilee was staring cross-eyed at the lethal weapon that she now held between her teeth. Replacing the letterhead, Antimony levitated out an apple from the teacher's desk. At the unicorn's will, it rotated and spun like a top before being introduced to the feather-blade. Within seconds, it had been diced into shredded peels of apple skin and flesh. Lastly, with the shredded apple still held in a magical field, Antimony lifted up a piece of chalk and dropped it into free fall.

        It passed over and through the feather, neatly separating into two halves.

        "I believe that should suffice for a demonstration," the Baroness decided, and raised an eyebrow. "You can give me the feather now. It's safe."

        Releasing the quill, Cheerilee quickly stepped back and away as it floated, quite feather-like, to the ground. Antimony caught it before it could touch the ground and returned it to Scootaloo's desk. The little pegasus was very careful to touch it herself, just nudging it with a hoof before realizing it was back to normal.

        "To alter the physical properties of an object to suit your desires without changing the appearance of said object," Antimony spoke up, raising her voice a little assure she was heard. "This is the essence of enchantment. When most discuss this art, they refer to it's utility: what spells can be attached to what object. Can this icebox be enchanted to keep my drink cold? Can this granary be enchanted to resist disease or repel pests and rodents? Can this torch or lamp be enchanted to burn, long after it should have extinguished?"

        "Those are really only the simplest applications," she explained, and touched one of the thick textbooks on a shelf nearby. "At my desire, a book like this can become as light as a bubble."

        Tossing the book into the air, it seemed to turn almost weightless. Like a bubble in the breeze.

        "Should I wish it," she continued, but returned to the front of the class. "A feather can become as heavy as an anvil. A pillar of stone can become as malleable as jelly. Water can be as hard as glass. Straw as slippery as oil."

        "Starswirl himself once said: a unicorn, at all times, strives for mastery over the world around him. When a unicorn's wishes and the world we call 'reality' are one and the same, then that being can be considered no longer a pony, but a transcendent being. Or, in his own words: invincible."

        Antimony smirked, closing her eyes.

        "No pony, even the Princesses, can be said to embody Starswirl's ideal, but that is why it is an ideal and not an actual goal. Since you are all here, and I have shown you my art of enchantment... why not also demonstrate... the power of my illusions?"

        Lady Antimony's eyes opened, now bright red, and the classroom melted away.

        Fillies and Colts gasped as desks disappeared, turning into dust. Cheerilee even reared as her desk and blackboard dissolved. The ceiling quickly followed, and as it disintegrated, a cloudy winter sky took it's place far overhead. Distant mountains where there should not have been any revealed themselves.

        Dewdrop felt a change come over her, despite the illusion, and she looked around in a desperate bid to try and understand what was happening. Within a few heartbeats every trace of the classroom had been removed. The students were standing on a stone and straw covered parapet overlooking a citadel in the mountains. It was not built strictly to the Canterlot style, but in the older functional designs that had been copied from the Old Kingdom. Flags fluttered in the wind and the edge of a courtyard could be seen far below, studded with graves behind a beautiful ancient chapel.

        It was not just the world around them that had been changed. Everypony had been dressed in a warm woolen parka, even Antimony herself. Dewdrop - Rarity - held up a hoof, feeling the chill of the air on it, but at the same time, the sheltering warmth of the garment she knew couldn't be there. This was one of Antimony's illusions?

        This?

        This was... insane... it was impossible!

        "Where - where are we?" Cheerilee asked, even more perplexed than Dewdrop likely looked. She was moving in a small circle, staring with wide eyes at the sudden change in scenery.

        "This is one of my father's refurbished keeps," Antimony said, trotting over to the crenellated edge of the round stone turret that they had appeared on. "The castle stronghold of Gaskinring. I spent my foalhood here. By all means, have a look around. This illusion is not limited by the size of the room you believe yourselves to be in."

        Dewdrop still couldn't believe what she was seeing. Or feeling. Or hearing.

        A faint, drifting snow fell from the clouds overhead. She watched as Apple Bloom opened her mouth and caught one of the snowflakes, clearly feeling it and tasting it on her tongue. Other colts and fillies were running around, playing and exploring. Cheerilee seemed confused about just how to handle the situation, running back and forth to keep everypony in sight before deciding to treat the whole strange experience as a sort of field trip.

        It was all just... so impossibly real.

        "You don't seem to be enjoying my illusionary reality, my little pony."

        Antimony's voice sent a chill down Rarity's spine, cocooned within her own illusion. She glanced over her shoulder at the older mare. Antimony looked like she knew. After doing all this, how could she not know? Could she not see through -

        Rarity's heart stopped, as she saw it.

        There was something behind the Baroness. Something shifting and dark, with a single light within. Was it another illusion? Was it a part of this impossibly realistic but unreal world? Hadn't anypony else noticed it? The shifting pool of starstuff floated behind Antimony's mane and disappeared from view.

        "This illusion is... incredible," Dewdrop admitted, backing away.

        "Why thank you!" Antimony, for just a second, seemed ignorant of just who she was speaking to. Then her eyes narrowed and her smile widened, just a little. "I suspect you'll enjoy more of my illusions should we meet again."

        The older unicorn's eyes trailed wisps of ethereal carmine as she turned and trotted away.

        'She knows. She knows who I am.'

        Dewdrop quickly caught up with the rest of the class as they wandered around the crown of the castle and then descended inside. The stone walls felt real. The heat from the many fireplaces, some of them massive and highly ornate, all felt real. One of the colts, Snails, even stubbed his hoof on one of the stone steps. Which should have been impossible. It wasn't real. How could anypony hurt themselves against something that wasn't even real?

        "I think it's time we got back to the classroom," Cheerilee finally said. By this time, they had walked from the roof of the castle, through great halls and furnished rooms, and down into the courtyard they had first seen from above. The only thing missing were other ponies. The castle had been empty.

        "We don't... have to go back up there to go back, do we?" the schoolteacher asked. "I'm afraid this sort of thing really isn't my area of expertise."

        "Don't worry. We never left the classroom so returning you is actually quite simple." Antimony closed her eyes, and the world suddenly shattered. The feelings, the sounds, the cold air and warm clothes, it all vanished. As if it were never there. No: it hadn't been there. No matter how good Antimony's illusions were, they hadn't actually been there.

        The classroom returned - everypony was still in their seats. They hadn't even moved. At the front of the room, Lady Antimony grinned; a confident smile directed at one student in particular.  It was no wonder she wasn't worried about the duel, only a day away. It made sense now.

        'She's... she's too... too strong! This is insane!'

        "When an enemy can not tell where their reality ends and my reality begins," the Baroness remarked with a dark chuckle. "It becomes clear in their eyes. First confusion. Then fear. Then panic... and finally, anguish." The illusions within her eyes danced like inner fire. "Or as I prefer to call it: understanding."

        'Dewdrop Dazzle' remained silent as the class said their goodbyes to Lady Antimony and thanked her for taking the time to visit not just their class, but apparently all the classes being held. Her parting words had been an upbeat: "Certain others in my family may disagree, but I believe with all my heart that Equestria's true strength is forged not in a barracks or factory floor, but in a schoolroom. Everypony study hard and do your best!"

        It was a nice sentiment, though Rarity couldn't see many of the students cheering for the "study hard" part of the Baroness's farewell. To say nothing of the "anguish, or as I call it, understanding" comment.

        Having her leave and the normal class resume was a relief; the 'Dewdrop Dazzle' facade was still intact and the illusion holding. The day was almost over, and despite feeling emotionally and magically drained, Rarity took some personal comfort in having basically pulled off Twilight's task - a task she herself had considered nearly impossible. Perhaps she was underestimating herself? Invigorated, and in spite of her fatigue, she felt a surge of confidence: she had almost done it.

        It was almost over!

        It wasn't until a few minutes later, after Antimony left, that that bubble of confidence burst.

        "Generosity. Let me see you sweat."

        The voice had been little more than a whisper in her ear, but it echoed in Rarity's mind, and as she gasped in surprise she felt the hairs of her coat stand on end. The illusion - her own illusion - shimmered in front of her eyes, and looking down at her front legs she could see white sticking out from beneath retreating aqua. Panicking, Rarity redoubled her focus, horn glowing hard as she tried to hold the failing, fraying illusion spell together.

        Cheerilee continued to speak, her back turned to the class, and every pony's eyes forward. No one noticed! No one saw! Not yet!

        'Come on! Come on! Hold together!'

        Seeing the illusion fade around her legs, and even around her mane, Rarity desperately tried to layer a replacement directly on top, fixing the failing spell with a patchwork of new ones. It also proved her undoing, as the glow from her horn and furious spellwork attracted the attention her failing illusion didn't. In the seat in front of her, Silver Spoon turned around to stare, confused. She was followed seconds later by Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, that Pocky colt, and others. Even Cheerilee paused in her lesson to gape.

        "D - Dewdrop Dazzle!" she finally cried out. "Just what are you doing, young lady?!"

        "AH! Nothing! Wait!" Rarity stumbled back out of the too-small chair, waving her hooves. They were a mismatched quilt of replacement colors, each just a shade off of the ones below or above. Illusion spells normally came naturally to her - she was good at them! But suddenly everything was just going wrong or coming apart at the seams!

        "I can explain this!" she cried. "It isn't what it looks like! Or, rather - rather! There is a good reason for this!"

        "Dewdrop," a familiar voice whispered, and Rarity blinked, only to see Sweetie Belle holding onto her shoulders. "There's nothing wrong."

        "Nothing wrong?" Diamond Tiara snapped, snaking her head in bemusement. "What were you doing? Casting magic on yourself?"

        "Dewdrop," Cheerilee also spoke up. "Are you feeling alright? Do you need to see the nurse?"

        Why - why were they still calling her that?

        Couldn't they see...?

        Rarity slowly got back into her seat, squeezing between it and her tiny desk. By all rights, by her own eyes, it looked like her illusion had failed. Hadn't it? She turned to Sweetie Belle - the only one in the room she knew, knew - and saw worry, but not panic.

        She hadn't been revealed; the illusion hadn't failed.

        It was - it was all -

        "Antimony."

- - -

        "Ma'am?" Gewitter whispered, her gruff voice kept low as the pair left the school.

        Trotting alongside the burly pegasus hussar, Lady Antimony squinted her eyes.

        "As expected, Gewitter," she replied, looking up and inhaling the crisp afternoon air. "The Elements are powerful indeed, even in a dormant state. I don't feel so bad about being cautious earlier."

        The pegasus guard bore a look of surprise, eyes wide, at her Lady's admission.

        "Ma'am," she whispered again. "Is something wrong?"

        The noblemare slowly shook her head in the negative. "Not at all, Gewitter. I only find that I am looking forward to tomorrow. It is merely tension. Excitement. Anticipation."

        Antimony led the pair as they headed downtown. There were arrangements to make with the Mayor; the debt starved town of Ponyville was all but in her hooves. Once the local obstacles were sorted out and the Elements of Harmony cowed, Canterlot would fall into the laps of the Terre Rare without so much as a mutter of discontent. Her intended, that simpering fool Blueblood, would not long survive the consummation of their wedded bliss. No matter how uncooperative he wished to be. At last, at long last, the base of the pyramid that was Equestria would submit whole and entire to the sons and daughters of Lady Arsenic.

        It would be divine justice, an earth pony's justice, two hundred years in the making.

        "Tomorrow," she whispered. "Tomorrow, as dusk falls, I will humble an Element of Harmony. Tomorrow, I will seal the fate of a noble house. Tomorrow I take my place. I almost wish my dear husband-to-be could make it home in time to see me crush his little mare-toy." Antimony's sniffed in dismissive disdain. "Not that he will, but I'm sure he will try."

        In a nearby marketplace, ponies called out their wares, appealing to passerby. Ponyville's town center boasted an idyllic little street market, so common in the country. Watching the common ponies in this communal place, for once free from offensive cameras and predatory intrusion, it reminded her of where she had come from: the powerbase that was the country, the dirt and bones and soul of Equestria. It was from this that she had risen to seize the richest Barony in Prance and win her father's love and respect. It was strength. Personal strength. The power of just one pony, like the Princess herself, to bend the world to her unwavering will.

        That was what mattered.

        "I just..." Antimony hesitated to give voice to her thoughts, and for a time, the two walked in silence. "I just don't understand her. That Rarity. Does she really think she can win? That a few days of training will enable her to pull off some miracle? Is she stubborn or just stupid? A smart mare would give in. A smart mare would already have given in. I have not been unreasonable. We could have been close friends and sisters."

        Antimony closed her eyes, making sure not to look at anypony or anything nearby.

        "It vexes me." Her brows twitched, but she kept her eyes firmly closed. "Tomorrow. I'll make her pay for troubling me so, Gewitter. I'll make her kiss my hoof and beg for mercy."

- - -

(6)

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Y4XoeZ5RwMm0ubZh2zEkwFkSBagM4ZKn3TiaiYWfxF4/edit

- - -


AUTHOR NOTE

In caps, because this is an important note.  In response to the comments and concerns of some helpful readers, I went back and produced a “Chapter Zero” to better bridge the gap between the end of “The Best Night Ever” and “The Platinum Crown” paralleling the events of “Sweet and Elite.” While it is not required reading, so far reader response has been positive. Hopefully, for both future readers and current ones, it will help to ease people into some of the cultural shibboleth so prevalent in TPC.

Also, Chapter Zero contains a Table of Contents with links to all the Chapters, for ease of navigation. Righto. That should be it. Updates in the front and rear of the fic!

- - -

(6)

- - -

        "I'm sorry, what?"

        "I asked if you could sit by my side in the upcoming duel," Antimony repeated, setting down her now empty saucer of sorbet, a tiny silver spoon balanced on top. "As family, it is only proper. Ah," the regal Baroness added with a little gasp. "Sir Spike, please do not touch the entremet. Though edible, it is merely for show."

        "Oh, uh - sorry!" Across the dinner table, a purple claw pulled back from the decorative swan that had been placed next to his two glasses of grape and apple juice. It was made of gingerbread and swam in a little saucer of jam, looking very much like a proper desert dish. The back had been hollowed out as a vessel for glittering gemstones, mints and sweetbreads, though Spike would probably be the only one in attendance enjoying the gems as more than a display item.

        "I'm sorry," Twilight Sparkle apologized from her seat next to him. "I just - I know it is tradition, but Rarity is my friend. She deserves my support."

        "I understand that," her hostess replied. "My request is merely for appearances. A family should always show solidarity, should it not? Even though you have been training Lady Rarity to oppose me, I would not have it drive wedges between the branches of our great and loving clan."

        "I guess I'll think about it?" Twilight answered, after thinking it over for a few seconds. She poked at her between-meal berry sorbet, spooning a tiny portion into her mouth to cleanse the palate. "I really just wish you and Rarity could somehow come to terms?"

        Antimony raised an imperious eyebrow. "As do I."

        "You want her to come to your terms," Twilight observed with no small amount of criticism in her tone. "That's not exactly the same thing."

        "Things are as they are, Twilight Sparkle," the older mare admonished, but soon adopted a more forgiving expression and voice. "Please, let us not spoil this meal with talk of such onerous topics. I wish only for us to reacquaint and warm to one another."

        "Madam," a server spoke up, having waited for a pause in the conversation. "Econdo Piatto is served: quenelle dumplings, grated apples and dough, browned, with butter, cinnamon and glazed sugar. Served on a bed of mixed greens with a sweet vinaigrette. Please enjoy."

        The reprieve of the servers arriving with the next meal dish helped to dissuade an argument from forming between the two unicorn mares. The food itself was exquisite; Lady Antimony had reserved an entire room of Ponyville's most expensive A-list restaurant for herself and her guests. All two of them. The staff, the owner, and the chefs were no doubt bending over backwards to accommodate their potential patron.

        On her way in with Spike, Twilight had even noticed some of Ponyville's richest families eating in the restaurant outside. Like her, they had gotten dressed to eat out, as was the custom among Equestria's mercantile and noble classes.  Unlike her, they did it often. Twilight couldn't remember the last time she had worn a dress - much less forced Spike to put on a little suit - just to have dinner. It had seemed prudent to not snub her distant cousin's invitation, however, so she came. If nothing else it was free food... but the sense of separation from the rest of Ponyville, of celebrity, was not something Twilight Sparkle relished. This once, though, she could endure it.

        A part of her still held out hope that some step could be taken to diffuse Rarity's situation, if only she could find out what it was.

        Unfortunately, Antimony did not seem inclined to entertain much talk of the duel. Whenever the topic came up, or threatened to come up, she plead for it to change to most anything else. Twilight, hoping to be polite, had not pushed as hard as she had told herself she would before the meal. Instead they had spent the first course (a delicious artichoke, cheese and olive antipasto) talking about her parents and about her time in Canterlot, the two intermittent courses (a small tomato consommé with rich onion and carrot undertones, followed by a single vol-au-vent spinach pastry) talking about the Princess and magic in general, and then the pause before the main dish discussing Ponyville and her arrival there during the Summer Sun celebration.

        This, in turn, prompted discussion of how and when Lady Antimony planned to make her trip to the ruined Everfree castle for the duel. In turn, this also presaged the Baroness' comment that Twilight, as family no matter how distant, should sit by her side of the field during the event. Twilight had already taken sides, to nopony's surprise, in support of her friend. There was no doubt she wished Rarity to win the duel. Antimony seemed to understand that and accept it, but wanted protocol followed for appearance's sake.

        "I have found myself wondering," Antimony spoke up, as the three ate in relative silence.

        As was the way of the nobility in polite rather than casual settings, they tried to eat with their hooves as much as possible, in keeping with the ancient role of 'breaking bread' that had long since passed into antiquity. It was considered mannerly to eat without magic, but while still coming off from the effort unsullied and with proper decorum. To an outside observer, like Twilight, the belabored effort was actually a little comical. Princess Celestia ate with her magic almost all the time, forgoing formality and pretense.

        "With great curiosity," the Baroness amended. "What is it like to bear an Element of Harmony? Much less, to command the most powerful of all Elements?"

        Twilight wiped her lip with a napkin, observing the niceties she hadn't otherwise bothered with in years. She had heard that Applejack spent some time in Manehattan as a filly, learning manners and the mores of the upper class there. Twilight sympathized.

        "Well," she answered, with some hesitation - how to even describe it? "I don't know if you can say we command or even 'bear' the Elements. I mean, we don't even have them with us most of the time. The Elements themselves - the bijou or lavaliere - are kept in a secure place. But they don't function like any sort of magic I've experienced before."

        "Oh?" Antimony inquired, fascinated. "But their power...?"

        "It isn't something we really control," Twilight admitted. "It is more of a reflection of what's in our hearts. When Discord, well, discorded myself and my friends, we couldn't use the Elements of Harmony. They didn't respond to us because the harmony in our hearts and the friendship between us had been corrupted. He must've known that, but what he didn't know was that friendship can't be extinguished so easily. The memories of our adventures, the feelings of friendship, were all still there. Buried. Waiting."

        "When we remembered who we were, and why we were friends," she finished, with a small smile. "We bounced right back!"

        "All well and good, but... does that mean you can't control this magic? Doesn't that frighten you?" Antimony asked, looking past the moral of the story to the functional utility. "What if the Elements use this bond to act against your interests? Your description sounds rather vague, as if these weapons have a will of their own."

        "They aren't a danger," Twilight assured her. "Like I said, they seem to respond to positive thoughts. Virtues, if you will. I don't think we could empower our vices if we tried. Besides," she added, seeing Antimony about to inquire further. "The Elements of Harmony are something we would only use in case of an emergency and..."

        Twilight paused, just then, and realized the question behind the question.

        "You're worried Rarity will try and use the Element of Generosity against you?" she guessed.

        The noblemare concealed her response with a sip of dry wine.

        "Yes," she finally admitted. "Not just that she would use the Element, but that I may damage it somehow if I act in my defense. The Elements of Harmony are essential to the defense of the nation."

        "That would be cheating, though, wouldn't it?" Spike asked, speaking up for the first time since he introduced himself, three courses ago. "Rarity," he assured the Baroness. "Would never cheat."

        With practiced ease Antimony dipped her head to the side. "My apologies if my worry prompted offense."

        "I guess it only makes sense you'd consider the possibility," Twilight reasoned. "But I give you my word, the Elements won't leave my - oh!" She abruptly muffled herself with a hoof.

        "It seems I have put you in an uncomfortable spot," Antimony commented with a chuckle. "Rest assured, I have no interest in the Elements of Harmony. They are bonded to you and your friends and they are valuable weapons against unknown threats. I would protect them with my life."

        "But you'll fight Rarity for Prince Blueblood?" Spike asked, balancing a small red gem in his palm.

        "Surely you are not suggesting that it is endangering the country itself to, what? Keep her from wiggling into bed with that - with our beloved Prince?" Antimony's voice betrayed just a little of her frustration, as did her near slip of tongue. "It is for the good of Equestria, and for the good of the Terre Rare family, that I pursue this engagement with force and vigor. Rest assured that it brings me no personal pleasure to earn anypony's enmity."

        "Have you even met Blueblood?" Twilight asked, but quickly corrected herself. "His Grace, Prince Blueblood, I mean."

        "I have had the pleasure of his company at previous functions," Lady Antimony replied, but carefully studied her response. "He is fair, and... 'charming.' I have long anticipated the reunion of our two Houses and my time as his wife and Duchess."

        "But-"

        "Twilight, surely you are aware of the root of the verb 'wed' are you not?"

        Twilight glanced down at her food: sometimes an encyclopedic knowledge didn't help one's case. "It comes from the Old Equestrian, meaning to pledge or bind. It also refers to the transfer of goods or property involved in dowry."

        "Exactly," Antimony replied with a single nod. "It is your friend who wishes to make this into a confrontation. For me, this is a contract between families that must be honored. I believe you understand this, but find it at odds with your loyalty to this Rarity."

        Twilight knew she'd been read like a book, but still persisted.

        "If we could all just talk things through..."

        "Please," the older mare remarked, shaking her head and trying to steer the topic away. "If you insist on speaking of stallions, let us not discuss that one or the situation he is the cause of. Instead, I would ask if you or your parents have made arrangements for yourself yet, Twilight Sparkle? I know several eligible and delightful stallions of title and worth that-"

        "You're wasting your time," Spike interrupted, crunching a ruby between his teeth like a piece of candy. "Twilight's ideal boyfriend is a giant checklist. Probably full of chores."

        "Spike!"

- - -

        Spitfire collapsed into the soft, forgiving weight of the wild cloud, letting the moisture wash over her face. It was one of the benefits of wild clouds: they were both solid enough to hold up a pegasus and yielding enough to soak those that knew how to handle them. It was refreshing little respite, however brief, from her current mission - a mission looking very much like a failure.

        Nothing.

        There was no sign of the Princess Hesperus anywhere.

        The Prince's ship had disappeared in the north of the country. There were very specific flight paths for large airships in Equestria, and if the Prince had left Crown Roc as Captain Thunderhead suggested, then his ship should have been within a relatively small space of a hundred square kilometers. Vice-Captain Raging Storm herself had headed up the search. Officially the mission was still filed as an 'escort.' Squad Two and Squad Three were supposed to rendezvous with the Princess Hesperus as it entered the populated parts of the country between snowy Stalliongrad and more northerly Mos-Cow, perform a few celebratory maneuvers, and then take up security.

        It was the other side of the Wonderbolts. They were a display troupe for aerial maneuvers, but they were first and foremost still a military unit on secondment from Cloudsdale's Territorial Air Guard. They had few ceremonial duties outside that great cloud city but the big-wings often sent them on missions where color guards would raise suspicion. The pretense of practicing maneuvers or putting on a show was something most uniformed pegasi could not take ample advantage of.

        The free-range cloud beneath Spitfire shook with added weight, and she looked up to see Soarin standing close by. He ducked his head to check on her, but silently motioned for her to get back up. Groaning, she forced herself back onto her hooves, shaking clinging moisture out of her fiery, golden mane. If Soarin was here, that meant -

        "WONDERBOLTS! ASSEMBLE!"

        Spitfire sighed in time with her partner as the two shot straight up and into a lazy arc.

        Nopony had a voice like Raging Storm. Within seconds, Spitfire saw other streaks curving across the wild sky, all a solid blue plus one other distinct color, from red-on-blue to silver-on-blue to neon green. All were answering the call of their vice-captain, a normally nondescript looking mare with a spiky blond mane cut shorter than Soarin's own unruly frill. For unknown reasons, their esteemed senior Wonderbolt had taken to the idea of covering her blue body jacket with cloudy stars instead of lightning bolts. The result was jarring, but the stubborn pony never hesitated to defend her choice in style. Never quietly, either.

        "Unit One!" She roared at full blast. "REPORT!"

        "Nothing in my sector, vice-captain!" Zip Line replied, the silver-maned mare trying in vain to raise her voice to anything near Storm's preferred ear-splitting decibel.

        "Nothing in my sector either, vice-captain!" came the refrain all down the line. Spitfire and Soarin chorused their response, wings fluttering to keep them in a hover as they shouted their lungs out.

        For just a moment, it was silent, and everypony's ears began to relax.

        "Un-acceptable!" Raging Storm suddenly yelled, somehow directing her voice at all three of them. "Continue your search pattern! Radius twenty kilometers! If it is out there I want it found!"

        Spitfire blinked, and the angry vice-captain was nose to nose with Soarin, staring into his wide eyes.

        "Well, I'll bed a donkey! Our resident comedian is grinning!" she blared, her voice powerful enough to flatten his ears and blow back his mane. "Well, kid, you find something funny about us being out here?"

        "No, Vice-Captain!"

        "Oh! I see! You think this is a waste of your time, huh, precious?!"

        "No, Vice-Captain!"

        "I bet you'd rather be painting your hooves and playing with your dick, isn't that right?"

        "No, Vice-Captain!"

        "How many hooves am I pointing in your face, cadet?"

        "One hoof, Vice-Captain!"

        "So you CAN see! AND count! In-bucking-credible! Now wipe that smirk off your face before I do it for you!" Raging Storm was quick to zip back to where she had been flying before, in a literal streak of blonde, blue and red light. "You five DO know what we're looking for, don't you?"

        "Yes, Vice-Captain!" all five yelled.

        "This is a Celestia damned zeppelin!" Raging Storm explained it anyway, waving her hooves out wide to demonstrate. "A hundred star-damned pony lengths long! Maybe if it were a PIE onboard you'd have found it already, Soarin? Isn't that right, you out of shape sorry excuse for a stallion? You think I didn't catch you dawdling around?"

        "Sorry for dawdling, Vice-Captain!" Soarin replied with his standard goofy grin, the same one that always pissed Raging Storm off, and the same one that always prompted her to pick on him. Though to hear him say it, it was just motherly affection and empty nest syndrome. "I'll do better next time, Vice-Captain!"

        "Vice-Captain!" Spitfire spoke up, as soon as her partner finished. "Is it true there are griffins about, Vice-Captain?"

        "If there are, and I am neither confirming nor denying that there are bloodthirsty, pony eating savages in these mountains, you are to follow standard operating procedure! You are to follow this procedure even if one of said griffins is nibbling on your leg and you have to limp back in to report, dragging the beast along for the ride. I want colors. Clan markings. Tail banners! Not every griffin is allied with Equestria!"

        "Yes, Vice-Captain!" all five Wonderbolts barked as one.

        "Then get to it, Wonderbolts!" Raging Storm raged, her turquoise eyes narrowing behind her goggles. "Rendezvous at cloud twelve and give me those twenty kilometers! Go Go GO!"

        "Consider it done, Vice-Captain!" Soarin screamed and zipped off. He was followed, moments later, by his squadmates, Spitfire included. The mare, taking the rear, could've sworn she heard Raging Storm mutter something about some 'spunky little brat.' Knowing how weird the Vice-Captain and captain were, they would develop a liking for fellow oddballs. Maybe the key to Wonderbolt promotion was to be as bizarre as they were in some way?

        Ah well, the job description never said any of them had to be normal. Just that they had to be the best.

        There was no time to talk to any of the others as they flew. Within seconds they were at cloud twelve and then they broke formation, each one heading out like spokes in a wheel. Spitfire couldn't help but hope that at least one of the squads were having some luck. While she didn't know the Duke of Canterlot very well (in fact, she hadn't met him at all before the Grand Galloping Gala) he seemed like a fun guy. One time she and Soarin had run into him in Canterlot and they'd even dressed down and hit a bar, all while avoiding his Royal Guard escorts. It had been a fun night, though he'd sworn them into secrecy about it later.

        Where could he have gone?

        Captain Thunderhead had sounded sure that the Duke had left Crown Roc two days ago. Where his information came from, Spitfire couldn't begin to guess. The weather north of Equestria was too wild to reach top cruising speeds for airships, but he had to be close by. Hadn't there been Royal Guards with him, too? There were always a few rebellious and potentially hostile griffin tribes around, but none of them were crazy enough to attack a well guarded airship.

        Spitfire sighed and circled as she guessed at her distance from cloud twelve. It was largely based on personal intuition and spatial recognition. An experienced flier got a "feel" for different speeds and could use that to calculate distance as long as they accurately kept track of time.

        Below her, the dense hilly forest seemed to stretch on from horizon to horizon, constrained only by the more rugged peaks to the north. Passing over a rise, she caught sight of something artificial - gold and silver and blue - over the edge of the forest. Angling her body and wings, the Wonderbolt spread them wide to slow into a slower banking curve.

        "Oh no..." she could only whisper.

        Peeking out from where it was impaled by the forest's tall, thick trees:

        Wreckage.

- - -

        Rarity kicked off the covers of her bed, shifting uneasily before leaving the embrace of the sheets entirely. It was a dark night, bathed only in the glow of a quarter moon, but it wasn't the lack of light or the dim stars that left her feeling restless. Glaring angrily at her normally comfortable and normally neatly made bed, she now saw tangled blankets and tossed pillows.

        A little bit of magic fixed the covers and smoothed out the sheets, and satisfied by the look of it, Rarity took another try slipping into bed. Inching herself into the layered warmth, she sighed into her pillow and tried to relax. Twilight had told her to get plenty of sleep; tomorrow was the day. No more foalish training. Tomorrow she faced Antimony in an honorable and proper magical duel. For love. For the good of Canterlot and Ponyville. Everypony, even if they didn't know it, was counting on her.

        She just... needed to get some sleep.

        Why was it so hard to just go to sleep? The covers had to be too hot or too tight, perhaps. She loosened them up a little to get more air in; to breathe. From lying on her back Rarity switched to lying on her side, legs splayed out at first and then legs tucked in. Neither helped. Desperate, she tried flipping her pillow upside down, momentarily reveling in the cool side of the pillow... before it warmed, and her situation went back to what it had been a minute ago.

        Why? Why couldn't she just fall asleep? Was it too early?

        Was it because she wanted to be out on the town or to see the outdoor play Ponyville's newest and most gracious noblemare had sponsored, all the way from her home? Hardly. Antimony was just pandering to ponies, buying their goodwill with shows and appearances and sweet words. Rarity curled up and crushed her eyes closed. Her bed had always been big and soft and inviting, but now it felt empty. She was doing this for love, after all: putting her life and her livelihood on the line. Now, the night before it all came to a head, she had to spend it alone? It seemed so unfair.

        Rolling over again, she stared out the open window - the same window her friends had taken to bursting through to help her in one way or another. She remembered seeing Fluttershy, just the other day, hanging on the edge as Rainbow Dash blew on that accursed training whistle of hers. Her eyes drifted to the door where her friends had eavesdropped on her conversation with Lady Antimony, bursting in to her defense when the noblemare's cruel words had left her momentarily stunned. They would all be there tomorrow, but one pony she wished to see... wouldn't.

        Flat on her back, Rarity sighed, all but giving up on sleep for the night.

        Was it - was it fear?

        Was she afraid of tomorrow? Afraid of Lady Antimony?

        Closing her eyes, Rarity could vividly recall those illusionary eyes, hypnotic and churning, together with the panic they had caused. Perhaps even without meaning to, the noblemare had demonstrated her superiority in a field of magic Rarity had considered herself at least skilled in. It was like meeting a dressmaker not just with twice her skill, but ten times her ability.

        "When an enemy can not tell where their reality ends and my reality begins... it becomes clear in their eyes. First confusion. Then fear. Then panic... and finally, anguish. Or as I prefer to call it: understanding."

        It was... silly.

        She had faced Discord himself, a spirit of disharmony from ancient times. She had faced an enraged green dragon in his own lair. She had kicked a manticore square in the toothy snout. How could this one mortal pony elicit more consternation - not fear, surely - than even a rampaging hydra? Especially since she was convinced Antimony, no matter her own ill wishes, would not kill another pony. All the noble unicorn would do was take away the stallion she loved, humiliate her, and strip her of her shop, her work and her pride. If nothing else, she would be left with her life. Why? Why couldn't she sleep?

        "Generosity. Let me see you sweat."

        Was this... was she still in an illusion?!

        Panic began to well up from within. If it as an illusion, could she even tell? Was she still in that classroom, head on her desk, drooling and lost in a manufactured dreamworld? Was that why she couldn't get to sleep? Because one couldn't sleep when one was already in a dream?!

        "Rarity?"

        Sitting upright, her breath caught between her lips, the Element of Generosity noticed a familiar silhouette against the crack of her partly open bedroom door. The panic from before ebbed and she sighed as Sweetie Belle entered, looking around with wide green eyes. With a bit of magic, Rarity lit up one of the lamps on her dresser. Foalish - she was being foalish, letting her fear get the better of her. There would be plenty of time for panic tomorrow, but not tonight.

        "I couldn't sleep," Sweetie said, and propped herself up on the side of the bed. "Can I sleep here tonight?"

        "Of course you can," Rarity replied, and smiled as her sister jumped onto the bed. She leaned in close to whisper, "You know, I was having trouble falling asleep, too, so you aren't the only one."

        Sweetie, not the neatest of little ponies, dove under the covers and made herself comfortable. At least she didn't dive bomb into them like a certain friend from a certain farm, but Rarity obliged her to make a little mess of the sheets. It wasn't like she was doing any better or worse herself tonight. Turning around, feeling the warmth of her family behind her back, Rarity found herself a little grateful Sweetie had slept over instead of spending the night with their parents.

        "Hey, Rarity?"

        So: she wasn't asleep yet.

        "Yes?"

        "You aren't still mad at me, are you? Because of the letters I took?"

        "I'd mostly forgotten about it until now," Rarity joked, laughing and feeling Sweetie chuckle, too. Then she tugged on the covers, and the older sister of the pair had to tug back to keep them from all bunching up on the left side of the bed. Honestly!

        "Sorry," Sweetie apologized, and the covers went a little slack.

        Rarity buried her nose into her pillow. "You're forgiven."

         "Good night."

        "Good night, Sweetie. Sleep tight."

        Tomorrow.

        She would worry about it tomorrow. Rarity closed her eyes and slept.

- - -

        "Your company this evening was most welcome, Twilight Sparkle. It would be a pleasure to repeat this outing at a later date."

        "Yours as well, Lady Antimony."

        The two unicorns, separated by different branches of the same family tree, bowed in polite farewell. The older of the pair, the Baroness of Mareseilles, had a dark brown traveling cloak levitated just over her shoulders and saddle. Twilight in contrast bore only the weight of a sleeping baby dragon. Spike had fallen asleep near the end of the theater troupe's rendition of Don Pasquale. Despite both a unicorn providing subtitles in real time and a printed out playbill for the outdoor audience, all the speaking roles had been in Cavalian and had followed a very filling meal for dinner. Many of the younger members of Ponyville in attendance had not made it to the last fifteen minutes of the comedy.

        "You are sure it isn't an imposition...?" Twilight began to ask, for the second time.

        "No. Not at all. In fact, you may be better acquainted with my husband than I am. I can not imagine he would take offense at my letting you into our library," Antimony replied as she donned her cloak and motioned to her ever-present bodyguard, Gewitter. The huge pegasus mare grunted, donning a similar cloak over her uniform.

        Gewitter was, Twilight had noted, one of several guards to have taken up residence in Blueblood's half-complete villa outside Ponyville.  Their number was made up of pegasi and unicorns, all dressed in similar red and gold military dolmans. Only Gewitter seemed ready to accompany their mistress to her forthcoming duel. The others were stationed around the house, and likely on the roof or around the manor's sprawling back acres.

        "Thank you again," Twilight said, inclining her head.

        Antimony made as if to leave, approaching the door outside, only to pause.

        "Not to pry," she remarked, glancing back over her shoulder at the other mare. "But why is it you wish to make use of the library here?"

        "Oh. That's easy enough to answer!" Twilight assured her with a happy grin. "I need to check a few references on pre-classical and classical spellwork. Specifically the structure and organization of Reinmare Star Fields, the nature and disposition of magical amplification via low density inorganic solids, oh, and I need to double check the elastic theory of aether propagation as a result of both invocation and convocation."

        For a moment, the sheer technical density of Twilight's words baffled her fellow unicorn and magic user. Antimony shook her head in much the same way most of Twilights friends and acquaintances did after hearing a few sentences of technomagical babble. Muttering a soft "very well," the Baroness started on her way... only to pause once more.

        "Aether propagation?" she inquired, but didn't turn around. "And Reinmare Fields?"

        "Yes! Aether propagation! Talk about obscure, right? Do you know anything about it? I found the most interesting artifact the other day!" Twilight gushed, taking a moment to shift the weight of her assistant slightly. Just enough so she could raise a hoof and make a few gestures.

        "A torc of all things!" she went on. "Coltic in style. I thought it was inert, but after Rarity found out how to fix it I discovered a latent spell matrix still within the internal field. All the spells that fizzled before suddenly started identifying new things! I can't wait to tell the Princess about it!"

        For some reason, Antimony tensed, one hoof scraping against the floor.

        "How... interesting," she slowly and carefully replied. "That you would come into possession of such a thing. You have not worn it, have you?"

        "Oh no! Not until I know what it does and how it does it!" Twilight assured her. "Rule fifty seven. Always know what an artifact does before you use it."

        "You own this torc?" Antimony asked, slowly, still with her back to her distant cousin.

        "Ah... actually, no. A friend of mine, Lyra - you might know her as Miss Heartstrings?" Twilight asked, and Antimony did glance back at her finally, as if to check for the truth in her words. "It's technically hers."

        "I see," the Baroness replied, and reached for the door. "Good luck with your studies, Twilight Sparkle."

        She had just turned the knob, when a pink blur exploded out of the entryway.

        "HI!"

        "Holy stars!" The noblemare reared up and fell flat on her backside. "Pinkie Pie?"

        "That's me - umh!" The party pony, appearing literally out of nowhere, was in turn quickly caught in a restraining hold by Gewitter, the pegasus already growling at the hyperactive pink hassle. Twilight almost felt sorry for any royal guard or otherwise that tried to get between Pinkie and one of her new friends. There wasn't a security system in Ponyville Pinkie couldn't casually breach, sometimes stealthily, sometimes by tripping it everywhere at once.

        "How did - how did you get here?" Antimony gasped, trying to compose herself as she fell forward back onto her hooves.

        "Well that's a funny question," Pinkie replied, squirming in Gewitter's hooves. "I opened the door!"

        "How did you come to this door?" Antimony asked, pointing at the villa's gilded entryway.

        "I opened another door, walked around a little, then opened this door!" Pinkie explained, her back legs kicking as Gewitter held her in place. "Come on! Lemme go!"

        "Release her, Gewitter. Pinkie is no threat." Antimony hesitated a second, and muttered, "Probably no threat."

        "You're leaving already?" Pinkie asked, falling onto all fours. She then pointed to the traveling cloaks Antimony and her servant wore.

        "I must be at the castle by dawn," the noblemare replied. "I have received a rather specific summons."

        She nodded to Twilight Sparkle a second time and left the manor house. Not surprisingly, Pinkie followed close behind, hopping up and down and still full of energy despite the late hour. Outside, her destination beckoned: a parked chariot with decorative wheels, axle and an ornamental yoke pole fashioned in the likeness of arched, intricate vines. The sides were high but without a permanently affixed top to guard against the sun or rain.

        It rested close by a fountain statue of a rearing unicorn, twin scrolls in her forehooves representing wisdom and power, respectively. The unicorn herself was mythological: the primordial pony, "Lady Victory," supposedly crafted by the gods from dust, water, air, and a drop of divine blood. Those who observed the statue closely could see a small third eye beneath her horn, representing enlightenment in harmony with magic.

        "Oh! You're flying to the castle!" Pinkie guessed, seeing the pair of pegasi fixed to the chariot's yoke.

        "Did you expect I would slog through that wilderness?" Antimony asked and huffed. "I think not."

        "You should be careful anyway," Pinkie warned, still hopping around the Baroness, utterly carefree. She only stopped when Antimony mounted the chariot's seat.

        "It would be convenient if something were to happen to me before the duel, would it not?" she wondered, only to draw back at seeing Pinkie's smile fade.

        "You think that's what I meant?" the earth pony asked, sounding saddened by the thought.

        "Lady Rarity is your close friend," Antimony replied, holding up a hoof for Gewitter to wait at the reins. "I would not begrudge you if you held such thoughts."

        Pinkie Pie shook her head, vigorously enough that her cotton candy-like mane became a blur.

        "I meant what I said!" she declared, stomping a hoof. "Be careful on the way to the castle. After the duel, you know, you're invited to the party, too!"

        "Oh? You are that confident your friend will beat me?"

        Pinkie shrugged. "Nope! But whoever loses, I want to be right there to cheer her up!"

        Antimony blinked and shook her head, far more confounded by Pinkie's strange outlook and approach to life than any of Twilight's technobabble. "And you came all the way here just to say that?"

        "And to ask you why you didn't return one of these!" Pinkie ducked her nose into her tail, rummaged around for a moment - whipping out a rubber chicken, a Neighponese hoof trap, and what looked like a piece of sponge cake - before finally producing a small piece of pink paper. Floating it out of her mouth, Antimony took a moment to stare at the invitation.

        "Is this... a joke?" The corner of her mouth curled up a bit. "How rich! What are these - these pretzel wings? What is this 'tailgate' party?"

        "Check the box for hot dogs," Pinkie insisted, leaning over to whisper. "Nopony seems to be asking for hot dogs. They're good. Trust me."

        "Very well. I do not see how it can do harm." Antimony levitated a mysteriously produced quill pen held between Pinkie's teeth. Checking the box required, she handed the list back.

        "WHO-HO!" Pinkie cheered, somehow tucking both invitation and pen back into the folds of her puffy pink tail. "Finally, somepony to eat hot dogs with!"

        "I pray your good mood remains infectious, and I trust I will see you and Rarity tomorrow at the appointed hour." Antimony, unable to resist an amused chuckle, motioned for Gewitter to get them on their way. Cracking the reins, the pair of pegasi stallions spread their wings in preparation for take off.

        "This so called tailgate party," Antimony inquired, just before they left the ground. "It is a private affair, is it not?"

        "Very private!" Pinkie promised, yelling up at the chariot as it circled and took to the air.

- - -

        "P- P- Pinkie Pie! Just what is all this?!"

        "Can't you tell? It's a party!"

        Rarity stared, lost for words.

        Dozens of ponies were in colorful masks, many of them wearing decorative unicorn horns in place of hats, dancing and enjoying the free food before the long trek through Everfree to the supposedly Forbidden Castle. Music blared from the back of a cart where an enchanted gramophone record player had been set up. Tables full of morning treats and lemonade were set up next to another food cart, run - of course - by the Apple clan. No doubt it would fall to Big Macintosh to haul the overladen thing through the forest to the castle.

        But - but this whole enterprise -

        "How?" Rarity finally rediscovered her voice. "However did you manage this?"

        Her question, sadly, was directed at empty space.

        Pinkie Pie had already moved on, bouncing from place to place to encourage everypony to wear one of the masks provided. In all honesty, when she had joked about Pinkie turning her honor duel into a spectacle, she had been exaggerating. Clearly the very act of exaggeration was a mistake when it came to Pinkamina Diane Pie. She must've taken sarcasm for challenge.

        "Come on, Bon-Bon! Put it on! Foam hands rule!"

        "NO!"

        "This is..." Rarity muttered under her breath, watching the eccentric pair of room-mates argue over a strange foam hand with a 'R' on it. "I don't even know where to begin..."

        Rarity found solace and refuge in one of her dearest, oldest, and most stable of friends. Good luck and a sharp eye helped her find Fluttershy by one of the mask stands, looking back and forth in indecision. Unfortunately, along the way she ended up bumping into or passing by a dozen different acquaintances from around town all wishing her luck. The sentiment was welcome, but this level of attention was simply... unheard of. It had to be improper! Duels were meant to be quiet, private affairs!

        As she approached, Fluttershy finally buckled under and picked one of the glittery white masks. Putting it on, she turned around just in time to 'eep' and take halfway to the air. To Rarity's surprise, Fluttershy's mask had exaggerated black lashes and oval eyes and a pearl white horn. It could only be, she realized, a mask of her.

        "Oh, um. Hello Rarity. I hope you don't mind. I mean. This." She reached up to remove the mask, but Rarity gently stopped her.

        "It's actually flattering," she assured her friend, though it was a bit of a little white lie. "I don't mind."

        "Hey. Rarity," a whisper prompted her to turn around-

        And jump in surprise as a pale unicorn mask with red glittery eyes stared at her.

        "WA-ahahaha!" A rainbow colored tail swooshed through the air as it's owner laughed, hooves holding her sides as she flew in tight little loops. Catching her breath, Rarity glared up at her other pegasus friend and fellow Element of Harmony. Apparently part of said element of loyalty involved pranking and testing pony's patience.

        "That wasn't very nice," Fluttershy observed.

        "Aw, come on! I have red eyes, so I think this Antimony mask fits me pretty well!" Dash leveled out in the air and added, "I hope you totally kick her flank, Rarity! I just think the mask is cool. Hey, Fluttershy, you psyched up for those hot pretzel wings later? We totally gotta get Twilight to try some!"

        "I don't want her to get a tummy ache," the ground based pegasus argued.

        "That's the whole point!"

        "Plain pretzels are fine..."

        "Fluttershy, I love you, but you're terrible when it comes to putting peer pressure on, like, anypony."

        "That's true, I am."

        "Well, look who finally got up!" Applejack came up from behind to give Rarity a friendly nudge. "This is the big day, sugarcube! You get yer beauty sleep?"

        "I did, for what it's worth," she replied, accepting a platter overflowing with country style scrambled eggs and apple slices. Her friends really did know her too well. "Thank you so much. What do I owe you?"

        "On the house," Applejack insisted. "We're gonna make a pretty penny caterin' this here duel thing."

        "That reminds me. These events are not really meant to be, well..." Rarity looked around, a little guiltily. "You are all my dear friends, so an exception would be made, but-"

        "But what?" Dash asked, flying a bit closer.

        "You must not be aware of this, but magical duels are traditionally held by unicorns and only in front of other unicorns," she explained.

        The earth pony and pair of pegasi were silent for a long second.

        "Good thing we've got these masks then!" Dash realized with a grin.

        "Oh yes. I see why we're supposed to wear them now."

        "Ah was thinkin' ah gettin' a Twilight one. Too many ponies around here wearin' Trixie masks."

        "Yeah, since when did she get so darn popular?"

        "What's wrong with a Trixie mask?" The last member of their group finally appeared, lavender beneath and behind her baby blue mask. Twilight looked from one friend to another and finally shrugged.

        "I just think it's ironic," she explained, explaining her choice in mask. Though technically she didn't need one. Pointing at the other true unicorn present, she quickly asked, "So, ready for your last bit of training?"

        "More training?" Rarity gasped, aghast. "I have a duel at sunset!"

        "Which means plenty of time to get some last second training in!" Twilight leaned in, looking a little menacing behind her Trixie mask. "You should take my advice. Anything you can do I can do better. You don't want to end up with another bright green mane, do you?"

        "Sweet Celestia, no," Rarity said, and laughed along with her friends. Really, at this point, 'fighting' Trixie would be a welcome relief.

        "So what potentially humiliating training am I to undergo this time?" Rarity asked, standing up on her hind legs. "Walking on stilts while casting magic, perhaps?"

        "That's not a bad idea!" Twilight realized, floating out a notepad to write it down. "Maybe later."

        "...please don't."

        "For now," she answered, and her magic levitated out six small tennis balls, each with a glow to it in a different color. One was bright purple, another blue, another pink, another gold... it didn't take long for the pattern to set in. One was even a colorless white.

        "Tennis balls," Rarity observed as the balls floated around her. "I am growing a little tired of tennis balls."

        "Good!" Twilight declared. "Today, you're going to lead us through the forest to the castle. And by 'us' I mean everypony here."

        "Let me guess the rest," Rarity said, already seeing the tennis balls float over to her friends, color coded for their convenience. "Along the way, you're going to throw these balls at me."

        "You have to catch or dodge each one before it hits you," Twilight finished, nodding as Rarity's spot-on guess. "But here's the catch. You can't look at who you're returning it to. You need to tell just by the color of the ball and the trajectory it follows."

        "Also!" Pinkie Pie added in, appearing out of thin air. "I'm pretty sure that if we get there late, you lose by default."

        "Wonderful!" Rarity sighed... but then noticed the white ball.

        If she had to return the colored tennis balls to her friends, then what was this one for? Then again, knowing Twilight, and getting a sense for Twilight's mentor, maybe the answer was obvious.

        "Perhaps," she realized, smirking evilly. "This will be more fun than I thought."

- - -

        "Time Keeper."

        "Shady Deal."

        The two stallions pulled aside from the festivities just as the trek through the Everfree finally got underway. Finding a little distance and privacy among the slightly thinned throng of reveling, partying ponies, Shady Deal also took a moment to adjust the white unicorn stallion mask over his face. His compatriot with the hourglass cutie mark had a nearly identical mask, but blackish blue in color.

        "Pinkie sure knows how to overdo it, doesn't she?" Shady asked with a chuckle.

        "I believe Pierce would say, if he were here: overdoing it is her specialty. Still, I'd wager a crowd like this is unexpected."

        "But you've noticed our escorts?"

        The brown coated earth pony stallion nodded very slowly. "I have."

        "And?" Shady prompted.

        He motioned his head subtly towards one of the guardponies helping chaperon Pinkie's Party Parade through the forest. The Everfree was still dangerous, even for a large group of ponies. The Mayor, or even Pinkie herself, had helped ease ponies worries about monster attack by asking for outside assistance. These were no royal guards purloined from Canterlot's Grand Palace. They weren't even locals.

        Instead, the party had a retinue of Lady Antimony's hussar guard watching the forest for danger. The ponies, sometimes in the trees, sometimes on ground level, all wore the distinct burgundy-red uniform of the Two Rivers Guard. A few Ponyville residents had attempted to talk with them earlier, but now they were left to their business of keeping any potential threats away from the townsfolk.

        "I have identified twelve individual members of the guard," Time Keeper replied, trotting casually alongside his merchant comrade. "The only one missing is the Baroness' personal bodyguard. That one is a hard read."

        "But you're sure they're all 'ere?" Shady asked, eyes following one of the pegasus hussars as she flew overhead.

        "I am always sure," Time Keeper replied in a dour tone. "Though dressed identically, their faces and body types have been committed to memory. I would know them even if disguised. Six mares; six stallions. Two captains, one with a small scar on her left lip, the other a stallion with a slight overbite. The former light blue eyes, the latter teal, one at the front of the group the other at the rear. Need I go on, Shady Deal?"

        "No. Quite alright." The pegasus stopped him. "Celestia's flank, I almost forgot how creepy you are with that."

        Time Keeper chuckled behind his dark mask. "It keeps the mind occupied. That is all."

        "Sure it does." Shady hopped a few steps as he brought a hoof to his chin. "So none of them are being left behind in Ponyville?"

        "Not unless the Baroness has called in reinforcements overnight," Keeper answered. "I can not account for ponies I have not met."

        "Things in Ponyville are getting a little too hot for me," Shady grumbled, unhappy.

        "If Lady Antimony wins today, these red coated fellows are something you'll have to get used to," Time Keeper said, not sounding too worried. "We'll all simply have to adapt."

        "Yes, well, that's easy to say. Some of us 'ave benefited from all the guards in the province sticking to Canterlot and the major roads." Shady then added, in a low whisper, "Do you know what they do to smugglers in Prance? I'd rather not end up in a state run mine after running clandestine errands for the old lady."

        "I'm sure she'd arrange for one of us to bail you out," Time Keeper assured his friend, a small smirk on his face. "Eventually."

        "Blasted Bluebloods," Shady growled under his breath.

        "The situation is as it is. There is no point bemoaning it."

        "Do you think Antimony will win?" Shady finally asked, the two falling quiet as another pegasus hussar cruised past, her green eyes scanning the noisy crowd. They were a mile or so into the forest now, but a pony could hardly note the gloom of Everfree with the music playing from two pulled carts and everypony hopping along while chatting and eating snacks. At the front of the would-be parade, the six mares of harmony were tossing colored, glowing balls back and forth. The streaks of light could be seen even from the back of the line.

        "Do we know anything about our girl's chances?" Shady asked again, still keeping his voice low.

        Time Keeper was silent for a moment, waiting for any and all potential listeners to disperse.

        "By any rational analysis," Keeper eventually replied. "Lady Rarity's chances are, statistically... near zero."

        Shady Deal whistled, very quietly. "That bad, eh?"

        Again, his earth pony friend waited a few seconds before speaking.

        "Very little is known of Baroness Antimony's dueling style," he admitted. "Even to me. It is publicly known that she is a master of Il Fior and very likely also accomplished in both Posta Longa and Di Bicornio. She likely began training at the age of three or four. While records of duels are not officially kept, I would estimate that she has defeated over a dozen other unicorns in as many years across the length and breath of Equestria. I do not believe, in all that time, that she has ever been defeated. Not even once."

        "So, what?" Shady asked, his frown deepening at Rarity's prospects. "She's some kinda Rainbow Dash of duelists?"

        "Only in the sense that both are highly skilled in their respective forms of competition." Time Keeper explained, "Many of these duels were likely to cement her position as most suited to wed our Prince and become Grand Duchess. As you can imagine, the position is highly coveted among our country's noblemares. Only one may wear The Platinum Crown of Canterlot, so bequeathed by the Princess herself."

        Shady shook his head. Unicorns. Crazy.

        "Near zero?" he repeated. "That bad?"

        Time Keeper walked in silence, and the two stallions jumped as one over a large root.

        "Two years ago," the earth pony replied. "Lady Antimony had a duel with Lady Sand Dune."

        "Desert Flower's daughter?" Shady knew that name and that pony. Sand Dune was a pretty little thing: peach colored coat, blue mane, ocean-spray eyes. Very pretty mare. He did a lot of business in Marabia and Cavallo where the two families were entwined in blood and trade so he knew her by looks and reputation. Many considered the heiress of Marabia to be the most beautiful pony in all of southern Equestria.

        "You are aware of the magic Sand Dune commands, are you not?"

        Shady shrugged. "I know what she looks like and I know who to bribe to slip things out of the province."

        "A thousand years ago, Lady Sand Dune's family repaired the First Hourglass," Time Keeper said with a look that implied his friend really should have brushed up on his history. "The one brought over from the Old Kingdom. The one damaged by Star Caller. They still keep it. They still keep time with it."

        "That kind of magic?" Shady realized and shuddered. Old Magic. Creepy stuff.

        "No different than the honor of moving sun and moon," Time Keeper admonished him. "Unlike the Terre Rare, the family lands of the Quartz Clan are full of moles. Information is easily obtained. Lady Sand Dune was a master of her family's magical arts, the most talented in generations. As you have no doubt noticed by the road tolls you avoided when you traveled there, her family is attempting to bolster their finances and keep up with the Terre Rares. I only assume that part of their overall play for power involved having their daughter humble Lord Cruciger's heir. An incident was manufactured and a pretext made for a duel."

        "But she lost," Shady Deal guessed, and Time Keeper nodded.

        "Neither mare was seen for over a month." Behind his black unicorn mask, the punctual earth pony smiled. "As I said: Lady Sand Dune's mastery over her family's unique magical domain is something to behold. She is said to have once kept an entire burning building frozen in time."

        What more needed to be said?

        It was hard to believe a pretty little mare like Sand Dune could be capable of such a feat, but such were the unique powers of the greatest of unicorn clans... and among those few elite noble families the Terre Rare stood highest. Lady Antimony was their heiress and representative. She had beaten a pony who could control time. What chance did a dressmaker from Ponyville have?

        "If Miss Rarity loses..."

        "Then this land will fall into Cruciger's hooves... but we will continue to watch over the Elements of Harmony," Time Keeper informed him, adding a glare for good measure. "We will both do as we must, no matter the circumstances."

        Deal hung his head low in disgust. "Damn it. What about the - the Princesses?"

        Time Keeper chuckled. "That's a good question."

- - -

        "You must understand, I'm not normally such a violent pony."

        Teleportation, Blueblood had learned, was quite useful. Difficult, since it was a category of spellwork that did not come anything near naturally to him, but useful. He had spent the equivalent of several months back in the Gala loops learning to refine his teleportation spells. Back then it had been a necessary means to achieve his goal of a perfect Gala. He still thought it possible he would be trapped in the loops had he not gone back to school and taught himself this basic albeit often frustratingly difficult skill. He had escaped the loops, but kept the skills: and teleportation was perhaps the most useful of them all.

        For example: it made it rather easy to catch one of his treacherous pursuers by surprise. Pegasi, you see - they never expected a unicorn to attack them while flying. A bit of a racial conceit, perhaps? Natural when one group thought themselves masters of all things airborne.

        "You just happened to catch me at a very bad time," Blueblood explained, putting more pressure on the back of the downed pegasus' head and driving his face into the dirt. He was one of the Princess Hesperus' compliment of royal guards. Treacherous royal guards, it turned out. Not moments after the confusion of the airship's crash, they had attempted to capture their charge and Prince. It was all terribly dishonorable.

        The pegasus guard tried to move to break free, but Blueblood's magic had him by the wings. It was the most effective way to immobilize a pegasus: don't bother grabbing the tail or neck. The wings were very sensitive. Very dangerous, too, if the pony in question knew how to use magic to sharpen them. That, however, was not a problem when one was a unicorn.

        A little more pressure, and Blueblood's hoof planted the guard's face into the ground.

        "I've actually been called a bit of a dandy, you know?" Blueblood said, his voice just loud enough for the traitor guard to hear. "I recall one paper once wrote that I had 'no profession, interest or talent other than the pursuit of elegance.'"

        His hoof pressed down just a little harder.

        "Which I think is rather unfair." Casually, the Duke of Canterlot magically lifted the ex-guard by the wings and tossed him against a tree. "It is true, I do enjoy the finer things in life: rich food and good clothes... beautiful mares and elegant surroundings. I do disdain violence, including the sort I am inflicting on you right this moment. However, do not mistake me for a ninny or careless popinjay."

        "A mare I care deeply for is in no small amount of danger," he continued, leaning down to look the guard in the eye. "Furthermore, you and your comrades have betrayed your sacred oaths. I'm quite tempted to indulge in that same violence I normally abhor. So: how about you tell me why you sabotaged my ship? And to which upstart noble I should send the bill for its repair?"

        "That would be me, I'm afraid."

        Blueblood's expression darkened at the voice - unexpected, female, vaguely familiar. Leaving the guard be for the moment, he turned and frowned in the direction of the speaker. He had been expecting to flush out more of the traitorous detachment aboard the Princess Hesperus in this rustic little mountain village. They had followed him, hounded him, for more than twenty hours straight. The only way to make any good time getting to Ponyville wasn't simply to elude them. They needed to be eliminated or incapacitated in entirety.

        There was another reason why he had picked this remote village to make a stand. Not far past the quaint brown homes and shops lay a train station. Blueblood intended to either stow aboard or hijack the train to get back to his home province. Predictably, the conspirators had downed his airship on the border of Terre Rare controlled territory. There was no way he intended to take chances by putting faith in that family's small army of red-coated guardponies.

        That in mind, he glared at the newcomer.

        The voice told him the gender, female, but the pony's size indicated otherwise. Mares were rarely larger than stallions, especially ones his height. A plain white cloak covered her body, concealing her face but bulging where it could not conceal a horn. A sparkling platinum chain dangled around her throat, connecting to leaf-shaped clasps around her shoulders. The cloak and hood were secured there, wrapped tightly and firmly in place. Two other treacherous royal guards flanked her, glaring back at him. Perhaps they were annoyed at having to chase him for the better part of a day and then put up with him ambushing their comrades?

        Well! Their comrades should have watched their back. A unicorn could teleport virtually anywhere, and Blueblood was not in the mood to engage in a fair match. It was time to drive that point home. The faint aura around his horn rippled and he teleported, vanishing from sight and reappearing just behind the group. Sparkling tendrils of magic reached out to seize the three -

        Only for the trio to vanish in a poof of smoke and light.

        "She saw it coming?" Blueblood gasped, and teleported again.

        He exited his star field at the apex of the village's schoolhouse, hundreds of yards from where he had ambushed the other guard. Well manicured hooves touched down on the brown-tiled roof, skidding a bit before finding purchase. Blueblood felt a perfectly focused burst of magic send a tingle down his spine and turned, eyes narrowed, to see the cloaked unicorn and her two treacherous guards appear almost in spitting distance.

        pop

        Displaced dust blasted away from his hooves as he set down on an empty section of dirt road. He was followed, less than a second later, by the trio. One, two, three pinpricks of light expanded into pony shapes. Blueblood tried to get a read on the other unicorn's magic, but couldn't, despite the fact that she had to be reading the direction and magnitude of his own spellwork. She was good. There was no denying it.

        She even had the audacity to smirk beneath that hood concealing her face.

        This mare was very, very good.

        Two more times in quick succession he teleported, pausing on the eave of a clocktower roof. Here, there was room for barely two ponies to stand, side by side. The entire village could be seen stretched out below, including the largest building of all: the train station. Railroad tracks cut through the side of town opposite the river and led all the way south.

        Blueblood allowed himself a triumphant grin. What would his pursuer do now? There was no room to follow him with a teleport of her own. Would she reappear into midair? It would be amusing to see the seemingly master teleporter's legs flail around in impotent opposition to gravity. When and if she did so... Blueblood prepared another spell, to counterattack in that one moment of weakness. He really did not like violence, this was true: but to get to Rarity, to protect her from the machinations of the same Terre rare who had killed his father, he was more than willing to dirty his hooves a little.

        In a triplicate flash of light, the trio appeared, as expected, in midair.

        The two guards, startled but still pegasi, quickly unfolded their wings. The unicorn, though. Her long legs kicked, she began to fall. Blueblood tensed. The cloak flew back from her shoulders as she pitched backward -

        Only for two white wings to snap out, arresting her tumble.

        The smirk beneath her hood broadened into a wide smile.

        "My wings..." she said with a titter. "My wings are so pretty. Don't you think so? Nephew?"

        "Starless hells!" Blueblood gasped, and nearly tumbled off the clocktower roof. "A-Auntie?"

        Those two majestic wings flapped, bringing her closer. Too shocked to protest, Blueblood could only look up, trying to see her face beneath the white hood. Then she was close enough, and Princess Celestia's magic enveloped him. the wayward Prince felt the familiar tingle of a teleportation spell, and then the village - and his erstwhile plans - vanished in a cloud of smoke.

- - -

        "She comes."

        Half lidded eyes turned to the heavens as night turned to day. Hours before an unexpected party parade left Ponyville for Everfree, as the rays of the sun stretched out over the horizon, Lady Antimony felt the presence of the mare she had been expecting. There were very few who could summon a Baroness at a whim. There were fewer still whose presence pierced the veil between the sky and the eternally dark heavens. The mistress of the World's Moon was approaching.

        Next to the Lady, Gewitter tensed, her wings spreading not in excitement but anxiety. It took a moment for her to realize the slip in control and return them to normal. It was as the sun finally ripped free of the distant horizon that it began: a column of chattering, screeching, flocking bats appeared, momentarily turning the sky dark with their combined shadows. A hundred of them swept low; Gewitter closed her eyes and Antimony did the same, letting them pass and feeling the beat of their wings against her body.

        Where most of them went after that, she couldn't say.

        However, when her eyes opened again, the swarm of flying rodents were already beginning to coalesce at the topmost parapet of the decaying, ancient Everfree castle. Leathery wings merged, melting together into a dark mass, then a dark blue coat, and then an unfurled pair of feathered wings. Cerulean blue eyes opened wide from within the forming body, revealing a head crowned by a long, magnificent horn. A lighter shade of blue detached, ripping free into a mane that glittered and billowed in the passing wind. Finally, the royal regalia manifested: a black crown hooked around and behind the horn, then a thick black torc around the neck and chest, lastly silver horseshoes and slippers over the bare hooves.

        "Beautiful..." Antimony's voice was barely a whisper.

        Powerful.

        So wonderfully powerful.

        This was it! The very pinnacle of the pyramid: a power and position shared by only one other.

        This was Princess Luna.

        The pair bowed low as four hooves, decked in silver, lightly drifted down to the ground of sparse grass and rubble that surrounded the castle. Though Everfree itself was a thick deciduous forest, the craggy plateau that supported the abandoned palace of the Princesses sported only a few trees, shrubs and grasses within the ruins. Nature had done a sub-par job reclaiming the land, despite Everfree's fierce reputation as a refuge of wild and untamed natural processes.

        "We remember you," Luna spoke in the plural, but at a thankfully reduced volume.

        "Princess." Antimony remained bowed, not yet having been given permission to rise.

        "You may rise," Luna said it, at last, ad the noblemare and her bodyguard stood on all fours before the alicorn Princess. "Yes," she repeated. "We recognize your face. From the Stable of Lords."

        "You swore your allegiance to us," Luna recalled.

        "As did all those of my family," Antimony reminded her in a soft, polite voice. "Our Princess returned to us... I am fortunate to have ruled in such a time as to renew our ancient vows."

        "Yet you antagonize one of the six who rescued us from my darkness," Luna admonished, but quickly raised a hoof to forestall protest. "Rest assured, we will not intervene in any way with your duel tonight. Despite it being held on the grounds of our former home."

        Antimony bowed her head in respect, holding her tongue.

        "We will only observe," Luna promised, looking down on the other mare with curious, analytical eyes. "You are here to make good on the promise given to Lady Arsenic, your great-great grandmother, is that right?"

        The Baroness, cautiously eschewing obsequiousness, looked up at her Princess.

        "It is so, Highness."

        Luna cocked her head to the side. "We have been told that, for two hundred years now, your family has built itself up for this moment."

        "That is also so, Highness."

        "And now you wish to return, in body and soul, to Canterlot?" the Princess inquired.

        "We do," Antimony replied, firmly.

        "And what of your Barony?" the alicorn asked, as if she was simply curious. "What of your father's realms, which you will also inherit? Deux Fleuves? Whinnychester? Prance? The Western Reaches?"

        "We shall administer those as well!" Antimony exclaimed, and swiftly bowed her head.

        "Your lands have grown quite rich," Luna admitted. "Perhaps it would be a boon to give you Canterlot as well? Our poor nephew and his forebears have mismanaged these lands. We knew his greatest grandfathers and grandmothers. They were very different than he."

        "We-"

        "Yet," the Princess continued, butting the Baroness off. "Have you considered that, if not for the circumstances of Lady Arsenic's exile from Canterlot at the hooves of her sister... that you and yours would not exist? More importantly, that your lands would still be divided, their ponies made poorer in your absence?"

        "Princess. Highness!" Antimony interrupted her superior, looking up at what could have been mistaken for indignation. "Are we to put aside and forget the injustice of the past; the suffering of our great mother, Arsenic? The indignity of being cast out of Canterlot? The land that was our birthright? Whatever good fortune we enjoy in the present, my family has achieved it in spite of our enemies, not because of them. Insults must be answered in kind. The Bluebloods must...!"

        "Must?" Luna prompted, locking eyes with the unicorn mare for just an instant.

        "They must... yield," the Baroness choose her words carefully. "And accept us as equals."

        Luna's eyes narrowed and she sighed.

        "Though not the only reason, we did come here wondering if we could somehow talk you out of this duel," she admitted, slowly trotting past the noblemare and her bodyguard to look out over the Everfree beyond the chasm that separated castle from forest.

        "We wondered if you were set on this course simply out of duty or resignation. Perhaps a generous gift of lands or bits to yourself and your father could forestall this confrontation?  Perhaps even in exchange for a royal favor. We had thought much on this since hearing news. We see now that we were mistaken. Neither words nor gold nor promises shall deter you from this. We see it in your eyes."

        Antimony raised her head and turned to watch the alicorn's back.

        "It is why I exist," she stated. "It is even etched into my flesh: my own cutie mark. Terre Rare must return to Canterlot. Terre Rare must rule Canterlot. We will avenge Lady Arsenic and we will serve you and Princess Celestia. We shall serve you better than Prince Blueblood and his family ever could!"

        "And in the process, you will make good on that mark on your flank?" Luna wondered, glancing back over her shoulder. "We have seen that in your eyes as well, and we know what you have drawn contract with. Do not forget what aided in our escape, only a year ago."

        A little self-consciously, Antimony shifted her cloak so it covered her cutie mark: a star and crown, imposed over a constellation. One of the four Great Constellations that ruled the airless heavens beyond the veil. Looking back, there never had been a doubt what she could do with her life. Father had always known. Despite the endless trials set before her. It had been obvious the moment her parents looked into her eyes.

        "There is no pony better able to embrace the great magics of Lady Platinum," Antimony replied, carefully and mindfully closing her eyes. "I have proven it before and I will prove it again. By the end of this year, Blueblood will be my husband and you will see how worthy a servant I can be, Princess."

        Luna turned, the swiftness of it not giving Antimony time to bow her head. With the latter's leggy height, the two almost stood eye to eye.

        "Yes. I will watch you," Luna whispered, breaking from the royal 'we.' "You should know: I have grown rather fond of my nephew. His misery - and the suffering of the bearer of Generosity - could well earn my enmity. Please remember that, Baroness."

        Luna trotted off, momentarily leaving Antimony and Gewitter behind. She didn't notice the former digging the tip of one hoof into the ground in anger. Blueblood. Rarity. Who didn't seem to want to stick their neck out for those two lately? It was baffling. The Prince was a charmless, incompetent buffoon. The Element of Generosity was a stubborn mule of a mare.

        However, as long as the Princess held to her word and did not intervene...

        Then this 'duel' was a foregone conclusion. Luna, too, would learn to accept the strength and rightness of the Terre Rare. In time. It was why she had held the duel at this ruined castle, after all: to lure out one of the Princesses. Celestia had never once attended a duel as far as any pony knew, so Luna witnessing the defeat of Lady Rarity was just as planned. Not in a hundred years would the dressmaker forget that she had lost, not just in front of her friends, but in front of a Princess.

- - -

        At last, the crumbling castle came into view.

        For the first time since she had begun leading the Ponyville parade through the thick Everfree forest, Rarity hesitated and nearly stumbled. They had traveled at a sedate, easy pace through the untamed nature preserve, and for some odd reason, the pictures of the forest Blueblood had kept in his study had flashed to mind. He was responsible for these lands and others like them throughout Equestria: the last, pony-free remnants of the world his ancestors had found and claimed, by force and by friendship, so very long ago.

        It was far less frightening in a rowdy, loud throng of fellow ponies. Rarity's mind had soon forgotten why her body was marching down a dirty, overgrown forest trail. It had put aside the reason why her dear friends were attempting to pelt her with glowing tennis balls.

        Instead, she had thought back to the Summer Sun celebration, and the journey that forged their friendships. They had joked and gossiped and, yes, they had hurled tennis balls at the back of her skull. Not a one of which had hit, so really, it was mostly just a minor annoyance. They had even paused to linger long enough for Steven, the sweet but somewhat dandy Sea Serpent to come out of hiding along his stretch of river. It was truly a shame that he did not easily take to land with his long, serpentine form. The parade had waited just long enough to serve a quick meal to the tired partygoers, receive an invigorating prep talk from Pinkie Pie, and then they were back on the trail.

        "Do be careful, Miss Rarity! And good luck!"

        It had been good to see him again.

        But now -

        Now the castle itself was in sight, and like a bill come due, her fear and insecurity from the day before became impossible to ignore. The old rope bridge had been replaced with a sturdy span of wooden beams. It was magical construction: one could tell transmuted trunks and branches from hoof-cut planks and hoof-spun rope. It would make crossing much easier for everypony - no frightfully swaying rope bridge that threatened to send one into the abyss below at the merest gust of wind.

        Yet at the opposite end of the new bridge, in the shadow of the castle and the steadily setting sun, Rarity could see her opponent. The mare who had not only thrown her life into disarray, but the mare who had stabbed her heart with fear in Cheerilee's classroom. Antimony. The beautiful, ambitious, powerful unicorn... nothing like the fair and carefree nobles of books and tales of courtly romance. Had some dashing rogue attempted to abduct the chaste daughter of the Terre Rare, he likely would have spent the rest of his life drooling into a pillow in a hospital, his mind lost to a frightful illusion.

        Three days.

        She had trained for only three days. She had been acknowledged as noble for only three days. What madness had gripped her to think she could prepare herself for this on such short notice? What tail-biting lunacy had convinced her challenging this other mare was in any way a wise move? Rarity screed her eyes shut. The answer was as obvious as it was irrational.

        This mare could not be his wife.

        This mare could not become her Duchess.

        "Is that Princess Luna?" Dash blurted out from off to Rarity's side. "I guess she's here for the show!"

        "She got my invitation!" Pinkie cheered, but then added in a less happy tone. "Didn't RSVP, though. Which means... I think we have a third volunteer for our hot dog eating competition!"

        "Rarity," Fluttershy's quiet voice prompted the unicorn to glance over at her timid friend. "Are you okay? I was, um.. going to..."

        A tennis ball, glowing gold, caught in Rarity's magic inches from her shoulder.

        "Sorry," Fluttershy muttered, but couldn't repress her smile. "Are you ready?"

        "We can throw more stuff at you if you aren't ready!" Dash volunteered.

        "Quite alright!" Rarity assured her, and looked from one friend to the next. All had stuck with her; all had helped in any way they could. One in particular stood out: Twilight Sparkle lowered her horn, and all the enchanted tennis balls slipped out of hooves and into midair. Even Rarity's own, which she had used to take more than a few shots at her fellow Elements of Harmony.

        One by one, they returned to Twilight's saddlebag.

        "Now," the librarian said. "Your training is done. Everything else is up to you, Rarity."

        "Thank you, Twilight. Thank you all!" The six shared a quick hug, and then raced across the bridge. Rarity didn't need to look back to know much of Ponyville was behind her, including her parents and her little sister. It was the whole of her family. She had no Great and Noble House, no clan with great name. She had both less than that, and more than that.

        And, to her surprise, more still waiting on the other side.

        "Rarity!" a refined voice greeted her. It was Fancy Pants and Fleur.

        "I regret our other friends couldn't make it from Canterlot," he continued, trotting slowly from the impressive pegasus-drawn carriage he had taken out into the heart of Everfree. As always, Canterlot's famous stallion-about-town, renaissance pony and connoisseur was impeccably dressed in a casual black suit and high collared vest shirt. His bow tie was black instead of his preferred purple, but his monocle was the sa