"No, no, no, no, NO!" Rainbow broke away from her friends and hovered in the middle of the room, her wings buzzing like a hornet in agitation. "Where is she? Fluttershy! Why isn't she here?"
"That lying snake!" Rainbow began to pace on the wing, flitting back and forth rapidly overhead. "He's not even going to give me a chance to follow his stupid instructions. He took Fluttershy. Fluttershy!"
"If he's done anything to hurt her, I'm going to ring his neck. No! I'm going to take him up as high as I can fly and drop him!" She snorted a plume through her nose. "Actually, why wait? I'm gonna drop him right n—whoa!"
A hard tug on her tail dragged her to the floor. Before she could move, Pinkie pounced, grabbing her face between her hooves and bringing them eye to eye.
"Dashie! Listen! Fluttershy's fine. Wild Rose came by a little while ago and asked for her help with some animals."
"But…but…but…she's in danger out there! Nopony's watching out for her." She tried to pull back, but Pinkie refused to let go and she only succeeded in squishing her cheeks. "What if he does decide to do something to her?" she slurred through pursed lips.
"What in the hay are you talkin' about, Sugarcube?" Applejack asked. She spat out Rainbow's tail, but stood on the tip of it in case the pegasus tried to get airborne again.
"Yes, Rainbow, what is going on?" Twilight and Rarity moved into her line of sight, both looking concerned and a little frightened. "What happened?"
"Goldhoof," Rainbow growled. "That lying, weasely, sneaking—uh, Pinkie, could you let me go? My face is starting to hurt."
Pinkie stepped back, letting Rainbow rub her sore cheeks. In the slight pause, Twilight sat down before the pegasus and looked at her seriously.
"Rainbow, calm down and start from the beginning. You ran into Goldhoof on your date?"
"No, after." She ground her teeth angrily. "He probably waited until he knew Linden wasn't around. I was coming up the stairs and there was this maid with a whole lot of laundry. I flew over her so she didn't have to back up. That's when he started in on how a proper princess shouldn't do that and I should make the servants get out of my way. Then he started talking about all the other girls he thought were better for Linden than me, and what it takes to make a proper lady, and he gave me one of my feathers and wanted to know where Twilight was, then he told me to follow all his rules and marry Linden or my friends would be hurt, and that's when I kicked him and came back here!" She paused to take in a huge gasp of air while her friends exchanged confused looks.
"Any of you get that?" Applejack asked.
Rarity shook her head and tapped Pinkie on the rump. "Darling, I think you're starting to rub off on her."
"Maybe," Pinkie agreed, nodding.
Rainbow groaned, dragging a hoof over her eyes. "No! Listen. Somehow Goldhoof found out that I flew to the quarry the other night and that Twilight and I went there last night. He doesn't want us to know what they're looking for, and he said if I didn't follow his instructions and rules, he would make sure my friends all got hurt…starting with Pinkie Pie."
"What!" the unanimous cry echoed through the chamber and the girls all turned to Pinkie Pie. The earth pony sat down, looking more confused than upset.
"Why would he want to hurt me?" she asked after a moment. "Did I do something to offend him?" Her huge eyes filled with tears. "Oh no! I never offered to throw him an extra special King's Advisor party! We've been here for weeks and he's probably heard all about my parties and has been waiting all this time and now I've hurt his feelings!" She raced from the room, leaving them all goggling speechlessly after her, and returned with her saddlebags. "I've got to fix this right away!" Streamers and confetti and deflated balloons began to fly through the air as she dug through the bags. "Twilight, Rarity, you'll be on streamer patrol. Dashie, I'll need your help hanging the banner. Applejack, you can start with the balloons, then go down to the kitchens and get some snacks for—"
"Pinkie! Hold on."
"Yeah, Dashie? What's wrong? Oh, did you want to get the snacks? I guess that could work—it doesn't take very long to hang a banner."
"No, Pinkie, Goldhoof doesn't want a party. He…he called you 'the annoying pink one'."
"Annoying pink one?" Pinkie sat down again, a blue streamer dangling from her ear.
"Clearly, he's an uncouth, villainous beast who doesn't know how wonderful it is to have a friend like you," Rarity said, giving her an affectionate hug.
"So he knows somehow that you and I went to the quarry," Twilight said thoughtfully. "Does he know what we found there?"
Rainbow shrugged. "Not sure. He didn't say anything about that. Just that the kingdom has its secrets and it's one of his jobs to protect them."
"But how'd he know?" Applejack queried. "Ah mean, Ah know he's a unicorn and all, but he can't be everywhere at once. And he has to sleep sometime, don't he?"
"You don't…" Twilight's eyes widened in horror. "You don't think that pony from the library recognized us and told him, do you?"
"I think he has spies all over the castle," Rainbow stated. She stood up and jerked on her tail, pulling it out from under Applejack's hooves and sending the orange pony staggering sideways. "Maids and gardeners and cooks and pages. He even said that a good maid keeps an eye on things and a good gardener reports when he sees something out of the ordinary. I'll bet we flew right over some of the gardeners this morning and we've gotten so used to them that we didn't even notice. Who knows how many of them report to him?"
"Spies?" Pinkie said in a small voice.
"Spies," Rainbow agreed emphatically. "They could be anywhere! He could have the entire castle staff answering to him."
"Rainbow, darling, you're sounding a little paranoid." Rarity gave a nervous little laugh. "I suppose a few might be under his special employ, but all of them? That would mean Lilac Breeze and Foxtail have been spying on us all from the start. Do you believe that?"
The pegasus sat down again, glowering beneath the fall of her fire-colored bangs. "I don't know. The only thing I do know is I'm not going to sit by and let that unicorn hurt my friends."
"You might want to stand up then, Dashie," Pinkie Pie suggested.
Rainbow's eyes flickered to her friend, who gave her a beaming smile, and the blue pony let out a strangled chuckle. "Pinkie," she began, then settled for giving her a hug.
"This definitely changes things," Twilight murmured, frowning thoughtfully. "I was hoping we could go to the quarry again and investigate that castle, but clearly that is out of the question. I suppose I could try to find out something about it in the library…"
"Oh yes, darling, because looking up books on buried castles and ancient Saddellian civilizations wouldn't look suspicious at all," Rarity said dryly.
"True. Well, I suppose I could be very discreet about it and look them up while I'm researching a way out of this marriage for Rainbow."
"Ah don't know about that," Applejack spoke up. "Sounds like Goldhoof is even on to your research, Twi. He wants Rainbow and Linden to get hitched, so he's not gonna take kindly to you lookin' up loopholes to his laws. We don't want to do anything to make him follow through on his threats."
"Then what can we do? It's not like we can complain to the king—he hasn't even bothered to talk to us and we're supposed to be royal guests!" Agitated, Twilight ran a hoof over her mane, mussing up the normally straight and orderly strands. "I wonder if it would be an international incident to use a persuasion spell on Oak Bough to get us an official audience or—"
"What about the Elements of Harmony?" Pinkie chirped. "If we could find them, then Twilight could do the friendship spell and make her eyes go all white and glowy and then Goldhoof wouldn't be so mean and evil anymore."
"But we have no idea where they are, Pinkie," Twilight protested. "And even if we—"
"Sure we do," Rainbow interrupted. When her friends all looked at her in surprise, she rolled her eyes and threw up her hooves. "Isn't it obvious? Goldhoof has them."
"Now, Sugarcube, there's no way we can know that for sure," said Applejack skeptically. She frowned as the pegasus gave a bitter laugh.
"Who else could it be? He's obviously got the palace guard at his disposal and he's the only pony in Saddellia who knows magic besides Twilight and Rarity. Of all the things we brought with us, only the Elements were stolen. The king and queen have all the jewels and jewelry they could want. So, unless this other unicorn we heard about is wandering around the castle unseen, who else would bother to steal a bunch of necklaces?"
"And the big crown thingee!" Pinkie reminded her.
"And a big crown thingee. I'll bet he knew they were magical and he stole them to try and make his own magic more powerful, since the court now knows that floating fruit and lighting candles is filly's play compared to what a unicorn like Twilight can do."
"I guess it's possible," Twilight said hesitantly.
"Well, if'n it is true, we need to go to the king and demand that he make Goldhoof give them back to—you know, Rainbow, that's gettin' real annoyin'," she snapped when Rainbow Dash laughed again.
"Like the king would bother taking his snout out of his wine long enough to listen to us," Rainbow retorted. Her eyes were angry and slightly wild, but relief flooded her features when there was a sudden, gentle knock on the door. "Fluttershy!" she said, spinning around.
Twilight bit her lip to keep from pointing out that Fluttershy was unlikely to knock on the doors of her own rooms—it was obvious that Rainbow wasn't going to relax until she was sure all of her friends were safe and sound. Sometimes loyalty was more of a burden than a blessing.
Sure enough, it was not Fluttershy, but Linden and his friends who greeted them when Rainbow flung the door open. The prince smiled grandly and swept into a low bow, causing Fletcher to snicker behind him. Without breaking form, Linden kicked out a back hoof, wiping the smirk from his friend's face.
"My lady, it's been far too long since I last saw you."
"That's right," Tiny spoke up from behind him. "Nearly a whole hour!"
"Might as well've been a year." Linden shook his mane and shuddered dramatically. "May we come in—I have an exciting invitation for all of you."
Rainbow stepped back without a word and sat on her haunches, her eyes flickering out to the hallway as though willing Fluttershy to suddenly appear. Stepping into the room, Linden's smile turned to a look of concern and he glanced over his shoulder at Fletcher.
"Hey, go smile at Rarity for a bit, would you?"
The green pony looked from the prince to Rainbow Dash and bobbed his head quickly. "I hear and obey." He slipped off to Rarity's side, already favoring her with a brilliant smile. Nightfire and Tiny took their cues from him and discretely edged away.
"Alright," Linden said once he and Rainbow were alone. "What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Rainbow dragged her gaze from the doorway and tried to look nonchalant. "What makes you think something's wrong?"
"Because when I left you earlier, you looked like you had been walking on clouds—now you look like one is hanging over your head. What is it? Are Rarity and Foxtail fighting over dresses again?" He cocked his head to one side, eyes twinkling. "Do I need to have somepony thrown in the dungeon?"
"Ooh! Could you do that?" Rainbow's head snapped up eagerly, until she realized he was just joking. "Oh, haha, funny."
"Come on, talk to me. Something's bothering you." Linden stepped closer and pressed his forehead against hers, staring into her eyes. "Let me help if I can."
Rainbow Dash sighed heavily, torn between trusting Linden to help her and putting the prince and her friends at risk of Goldhoof's treachery.
"Okay, Linden, there is something going—"
"Whahaha!" Rarity's delighted squeal rang through the room and the white unicorn began to prance in place. "We're invited to dinner with the king and queen!"
"Fletcher!" Linden snapped.
Fletcher shrugged. "My smile wasn't working for some reason. You never said we couldn't tell."
"What's going on?" Rainbow asked. "Dinner?"
Linden scowled at Fletcher, who only grinned back. "It was going to be a surprise. Tonight there is to be a dinner, only select members of the court to attend. My parents will both be there, so this will be a great time for you to broach your queries to the king, since he still hasn't seen fit to grant you an official audience."
"Oh! That…" Twilight met Rainbow's eyes. "That would be wonderful, Prince Linden. An honor."
"Yes, wonderful!" Rarity bubbled. "But what will we wear? I suppose we could do some type of theme…Foxtail had that pink satin…ooh, it's a lot of work for so little time, but I'm sure we could manage if we get Fluttershy to help."
"We saw Fluttershy out in the garden with Lady Wild Rose," Tiny informed them. "It looked like they had coaxed all of the rabbits on the castle grounds to them and were busy feeding them carrots."
Rainbow brightened at the mention of Fluttershy, then gasped, her eyes taking on a calculated glint.
"Linden, will Lord Goldhoof be at this dinner?"
"Most likely. He attends all the castle functions."
The pegasus tapped her chin thoughtfully, then broke into a wide grin. "Well then, like Rarity said, we have a busy afternoon ahead of us. We're just going to have to go fetch Fluttershy since her freaky knowledge of sewing will probably be the only thing keeping Rarity from combusting." She pressed up against Linden, surreptitiously nudging him towards the door. "Lot of work to do to get ready in time."
Linden stared at her, unnerved by the sudden change. "A-are you alright, then?"
"Yeah, great! Totally awesome! Just looking forward to dinner and all. I bet it'll be delicious." She gave him a slight push, causing him to stumble. "Save me a seat next to you, okay?"
The prince was utterly baffled, but decided not to question the complete flip of her emotions. Chocking it up to one of the many mysteries of mares he would probably never understand, he gave her a dubious smile. "Okay, if you say so. I'll see you a few hours." Still throwing her worried looks, he stepped back into the hall, followed quickly by Tiny, Nightfire, and Fletcher as Rainbow Dash ushered them out.
"See you soon, boys!" she called, closing the door on their bewildered faces, then turning around to find her friends all staring at her.
"Rainbow Dash, that was incredibly rude," Rarity declared. "Fletcher was telling me about his father, Straight Arrow. We'll be able to meet him tonight at the dinner."
"Yeah!" Pinkie Pie agreed with a pout. "And Tiny was just asking me if there was anything special I'd like at dinner because he's good friends with the head chef."
"I know, I know. I'm sorry! But I had to get them out of here so I could tell you how we're going to get the Elements of Harmony back." She rubbed her hooves together, and beckoned for her friends to come closer. "You must be the one rubbing off on me, Twilight, because this is totally an egghead idea, but I really think it can work. First, Applejack, you need to go to the gardens and bring Fluttershy back here. Then here is what we're gonna do…"
Rarity's mane was still slightly disheveled from the stress of designing and making their outfits when the colts arrived to escort them to dinner. She had somehow managed to create six flowing skirts from the pink satin and had only collapsed into hysterical tears twice during the process. Each skirt followed the same pattern and only the different colored edging on each one kept them from being identical. Pinkie's sash belt was a pale blue that brought out her eyes.. Fluttershy had a belt of pale green ribbon with a matching strand wound through her long hair. Applejacks's yellow sash was tied in a large bow on either side of her haunches and Twilight had a white headband in her mane to go with the wide, white belt of lace on her skirt. For herself and Rainbow, Rarity had reserved swatches of glittering black and purple sheath and even Foxtail had to nod her approval at the final result.
"I didn't think it was possible," the Saddellian seamstress had reluctantly admitted, "but you all look beautiful."
The colts all agreed, and Rarity nearly melted when Fletcher presented her with another flower to weave into her mane, saying that he loved the new style.
"You look excited," Linden said to Rainbow Dash, who practically pranced beside him down the hall. "You are aware that this is a dinner with my father, right? You remember my father?"
"Sure I do. Big guy, crown, terrible table manners."
"That's the pony. And he hasn't changed since our last meal together." The prince gave her a look very much like a begging puppy. "I just don't want to have a repeat of the other night if he gets, uh, upsetting again."
"I won't go flying through any windows, if that's what you mean," Rainbow told him with a flick of her tail.
"Or, if you do, you could take me with you," Linden suggested. "We could fly all the way to Equestria."
Rainbow pulled in a sharp breath. "Would you really come with me?" she asked, surprised to find her voice squeaking as she realized just how much she would love that. She heard a tiny nicker behind her, one that sounded suspiciously like Applejack, and folded her ears back with a frown. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she continued, "But you're a prince. You couldn't really leave all this behind, could you?"
"In a heartbeat."
"Really!" Rainbow's wings shot up excitedly, the feather tips fluttering as she grinned.
"If you wanted me to. I would go anywhere with you."
"What do we have here? Discussing your honeymoon already?" Queen Bright Song trotted down the hallway to them and greeted her son with an affectionate nuzzle before giving Rainbow Dash a hug. "I'm so happy to hear that. You look lovely, my dear. What a darling idea, to dress your ladies like you. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the other mares following suit after tonight."
As Rarity beamed, the queen walked them to the dining room, waving a hoof impatiently at the herald who tried to announce them at the door. A dozen ponies were already gathered inside, mingling around the table and sipping from silver goblets. Rainbow recognized Star Trillium among them, but the mauve mare looked away when their eyes met.
"This is going to be a simple affair," Bright Song told them. "No fanfare and announcements and only a few select guests. It's time we get to know each other better, as family."
"Uh, hehe, family, yeah, um, is that berry juice?" Breaking away from the queen, Rainbow picked up a goblet with her teeth and tossed her head back, downing the contents in a single gulp. To her surprise, it turned out to be pumpkin ale and she immediately began to choke and sputter.
"Mares," a voice said contemptuously as she continued to cough. "Can't hold their drink."
King Oak Bough stomped into the room with a nervous looking page shadowing his steps. He walked past his wife and son without a word and dropped heavily into the ornate chair at the head of the table. The page immediately scampered to fill his goblet and the king quaffed the ale. This seemed to be the signal to be seated, for all the other guests quickly scrambled to their places.
Rainbow was once again seated at the head of the table beside Linden, with Lady Buttercream directly across from her. The pale yellow mare greeted her warmly, smiling and gushing over the cuteness of her outfit, then asked her if she had come to any decisions on her wedding plans yet.
"Uh, no…not, um, yet."
"Well, you'd better hurry, my dear. You don't want to leave all the important decisions until the last minute. Everything must be planned and perfect for a princess."
"It would seem that she and Linden have started with the honeymoon plans first," Bright Song said with a wink in Dash's direction.
"Oh yes! How exciting!" Buttercream bubbled. "The first trip as a couple is so romantic. Have you decided where you want to go? The western holdings are very nice and there are many families who would be only too honored to host the prince and princess, isn't that right, Calla?" She nudged the mauve mare beside her, who prickled at the casual touch and looked at Rainbow Dash rather coolly.
"No doubt," she said in a smoothly cultured, though high, voice. "His Highness has always been welcome at our manor." She paused to sip delicately from her goblet, but not before Rainbow caught the sneer that had twisted her otherwise attractive face. "But I would expect the princess would be eager to travel to her own holdings—the Blue Hills are supposed to be lovely in the winter and she hasn't even seen the land she was so generously gifted."
The mare looked far too much like Star Trillium, who was keeping her gaze studiously on the empty plate before her, to not be her mother. Fluttershy had told them all about her conversation with Wild Rose and now the pegasus stiffened slightly.
"I'm not a princess," she pointed out.
"Yet," Bright Song and Buttercream said in unison.
"Nothing's been decided yet."
"Course it has," Oak Bough suddenly spoke up from the head of the table. "All that's left are the ridiculous details mares concern themselves with like dresses and colors and cake."
Rainbow bristled, opening her mouth to argue, but subsided when Twilight placed a hoof on her shoulder. A moment later, servants appeared with plates of bright, summer salad. Oak Bough buried his snout in the fresh greens and started to eat, causing his wife to shake her head in exasperation. When the servants placed her own salad before her, she nibbled with far more grace and delicacy.
"This is delicious, Your Majesty," Rarity said as she levitated a juicy bite to her mouth.
"Mm, yes, it's the daisy leaves. They're so nice this time of year. It's just too bad they can't be stored through the winter for this would be a perfect appetizer for the wedding dinner." She winked at her son and Rainbow Dash. "But there are plenty of dishes that will be just as wonderful. A nice pumpkin soup, perhaps, with herbs and sweet cream."
"That would be delightful!" Buttercream said with her usual optimism. "I just adore pumpkin soup, don't you, Calla?"
Calla Lily's lips twitched. "I tend to avoid such rich fare myself, but I suppose if you don't care too much about your appearance…" She turned to her daughter, who had finished most of her salad, and contemptuously shoved her plate away from her, making the young mare flinch.
An uncomfortable silence followed that soon had Pinkie Pie's eye twitching. Unable to stand the oppressive atmosphere, she stood up in her seat and loudly cleared her throat. When everypony had given her their attention, she took a deep, steadying breath.
"Why wouldn't the clam share his treasure?" she asked in a perfectly serious voice.
Calla Lily stared at her, completely nonplussed and rather annoyed. "I'm sorry, but what in the world are you talking about?"
"Because he was a little shellfish!"
Tiny snorted into his salad, sending a flurry of daisy petals showering through the air. One drifted down to land perfectly balanced on the tip of Fletcher's snout. As the green colt went cross-eyed to stare at it, another silence fell over the room, broken when Linden began to laugh.
"Looks good on you, Fletch," he called down the table. "You should consider a mustache."
Fletcher shrugged and swiped at the petal with his tongue. "Could use some lemon juice."
Calla Lily turned away, disgusted, but Tiny raised his muzzle from his salad and wiped his lips with a napkin, then asked with a completely straight face, "What is it that even the most careful pony overlooks?"
Pinkie sat back down and frowned thoughtfully. "A valley? No, no, um, a mountain? No, wait, a…huh, I don't know. What?"
"His nose," the plum-colored colt supplied, pointing at Fletcher's snout.
The pair were still swapping jokes when the servants appeared with the second course of thinly sliced squash and grilled mushrooms in a buttery, wild onion sauce. As usual, the king was served first and then the food was presented down the table.
"Lady Dash," Calla Lily cut through Pinkie's latest joke and turned a simpering smile towards the prince and the pegasus. "I was much impressed by your performance during the tourney. Is it true that, in Equestria, there are some ponies who do nothing but such aerial shows as their job?"
"Well, there are the Wonderbolts," Rainbow replied, surprised that the noble pony would know of them. "They're the best stunt flyers in all of Equestria."
"And you want to join these Dunderbolts, don't you?"
"That's Wonderbolts. And yeah, I've been training for the Wonderbolts since I was a little filly. Someday I'm going to get accepted to the Wonderbolts Academy and then I'll get to show them my stuff and…I…uh…" She stammered to a stop, aware of Linden beside her and a strange, confused mix of feelings that left her tongue-tied.
"Fascinating." Calla Lily nibbled a piece of squash, grimaced, and pushed the plate away. "And what a dedicated young mare you are, to give up such an exciting future in order to marry and run a country. It's too bad Saddellia doesn't have anything like the Dunderdolts—"
"—but our country has such an obvious lack of pegasi. I do hope you won't feel lonely without any of your own kind here."
"Yeah." Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, deciding she didn't like this mare one bit. "I can tell your concern for me is overwhelming."
Linden snickered at her side and affectionately patted one of her wings. The motion was small, but full of meaning, and Calla Lily's face flushed angrily.
"I guess falling in love has nothing to do with convenience or logic," Fluttershy said softly, looking out from beneath her thick hair at Star Trillium. "It all depends on the ponies and how they feel about each other."
"Beautifully said, my dear," spoke up a handsome, dark green stallion with Fletcher's eyes and friendly smile.
At the head of the table, Oak Bough grunted and announced that the conversation was boring him. Waving a hoof, he ordered entertainment and a refill of his tankard. Two servants bustled to comply, one bearing the pitcher of ale, the other cantering out of the room to fetch the palace musicians. Lightfoot and his pale companion appeared quickly, as though they had been waiting in the wings for the king's call. With no preamble, they took their places in a corner of the room and immediately set to playing. Bright music filled the air, and by the time the main course was over and dessert had been served, Pinkie Pie had abandoned the table to join in.
"I thought Goldhoof was supposed to be here tonight," Twilight Sparkle whispered to Rarity after awhile. "It's getting late and I haven't seen him anywhere."
The white unicorn sniffed. "It would be just like him to throw a wrench in Rainbow Dash's plan."
"We're going to have to come up with a plan B, then."
"I'm not sure, but maybe we could—"
"Huh!" Pinkie Pie suddenly plopped back into her seat between them and pooched her lips out in a pout. "That was rude!"
Pinkie indicated the two musicians, both of whom were packing up their instruments. "Thistledown. I was singing with her and when the song ended I just asked her what part of Equestria she was from and her eyes got really big and she turned away and wouldn't talk to me anymore."
"Thistledown?" Rarity frowned thoughtfully. "Why is that name familiar to me?"
"You've heard it before?" Twilight asked.
"I'm sure of it, but I have no idea where." The white pony tossed her head. "Well, I'm sure it will come to me eventually. But Pinkie, what makes you think she's from Equestria? Did she tell you?"
"No, it's in her voice? Can't you tell?" At Twilight's blank look, Pinkie sighed and said, "Don't you hear it when she sings and talks? She's not from Saddellia. She's from somewhere in Equestria, but she wouldn't tell me where." She sulked as the two entertainers bowed to the king and left the hall. "And now there's no more singing."
"Thistledown…Thistledown." Rarity tapped her hoof against her chin. "Could it…no, maybe it was from that article…no, no, it was something else…somethi—that's it!"
"What?" Twilight and Pinkie looked at her expectantly.
"Do you remember Bramble, the reeve from Shiredale?"
"Of course," Twilight said flatly. "He threatened us with pitchforks and locked us up."
"That's right. He was upset because his cousin had disappeared in the raids. His cousin, Thistledown."
Twilight's mouth dropped open. "Are you saying that Lightfoot's partner is…?"
"One of the stolen ponies, yes!"
"I'm sorry, did you just say stolen ponies?" Calla Lily's piercing voice rang out loudly enough to stop all other conversation at the table and made Rarity realize that, in her excitement at remembering where she had heard the name, she had forgotten to whisper. Now she and Twilight had the entire table's attention. Even King Oak Bough had stopped in midchew to stare at them.
Twilight gave Rarity a panicked look—this was not how she had wanted to broach the subject to the king. She hesitated, hoping he would lose interest and go back to his food, but Calla Lily put an end to that possibility by trilling, "I'm sure I'm not mistaken. I distinctly heard you say stolen ponies."
"What's this?" Oak Bough grumbled. He jabbed a hoof at Twilight. "Unicorn, explain this."
With no option but to comply, Twilight took a deep breath. "Your Majesty? I guess, well, perhaps now would be a good time to speak about relations between our countries? You see, my friends and I did not come here for a neighborly visit. There have been some disturbing events in Equestria and we need—"
Oak Bough belched loudly, cutting her off, and returned to his fruit trifle.
"Father!" Linden went from looking mildly concerned to mortified. "They're our guests, not to mention the friends of my betrothed. This sounds important."
"It is very important, sire," Twilight pressed on, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "For both of our kingdoms. You see, there have been some issues at the borders between Saddellia and Equestria. A lot of ponies have gone missing and—"
"Missing, you say?"
All eyes turned towards the door, where Goldhoof had suddenly appeared. The slate unicorn bowed low before the table.
"Please forgive my despicable tardiness, my lords and ladies. Duty calls, as you know." He smiled at Rainbow Dash, who couldn't help glowering back. "I was hoping I wouldn't miss anything important and it seems I have walked into the most interesting conversation of the night. You say ponies have gone missing, Miss Sparkle? Please explain this."
Twilight glanced quickly at her friends, who all nodded encouragingly to her. "Well, you see, it's been happening in the border towns and small villages. There were reports of ponies being taken from their homes and—"
"Taken? By force?" Bright Song raised an eyebrow, looking surprised. "You mean ponynapped?"
"Yes, Your Majesty, I'm afraid so. Dozens of ponies have been stolen from their homes on the Equestrian side of the border. Princess Celestia asked us to come to—"
"Wait a minute!" Oak Bough's face turned thunderous as he figured out the implications of her words. "Are you daring to suggest the ponies of Saddellia is responsible for this?"
A gasp went up from the dinner guests, which was quickly drowned out as Goldhoof began to laugh loudly.
"Ah don't see what's so funny about this!" Applejack snapped indignantly.
"Oh, f-forgive me," the unicorn chortled. "Of course, you don't see… a moment, please!" Still laughing, Goldhoof trotted down the hall to the servants' doors and slipped out of the room. In his absence, the guests stared at the Equestrian ponies in shocked amazement and Linden turned to Rainbow Dash, his handsome face a picture of confusion. "Rainbow, what is all this about? Missing ponies? You've never said anything about ponynapping. Why haven't you mentioned this before?"
"I-I wanted to tell you," Dash said quickly. She touched his hoof and winced as he recoiled from her. "And I swear I was going to, but…"
Goldhoof returned to the dining room, throwing the door open loudly and walking in with two ponies in tow. Rainbow threw up her hooves in frustration.
"…we kept getting interrupted," she muttered.
"Ladies, I have somepony for you to meet. I know you've had the pleasure of listening to our resident musician, Lightfoot, but have you been introduced to his young protégé, Thistledown?" He stepped aside and beckoned the pale mare forward. "Would you tell everypony where you're from, my dear?" he asked her.
Thistledown's head was hanging low and she stepped forward as slowly as possible. "Equestria," she whispered, unable to meet their eyes. Her slender frame trembled from nose to tail.
"I knew it!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed.
"And if you're from Equestria, home of our soon-to-be princess and her entourage, however did you come to be here in Saddellia?" The advisor's eyes widened in mock horror. "You weren't ponynapped, my dear, were you? Did Lightfoot steal into your home in the middle of the night and spirit you away from your family?"
"N-no, sir!" Thistledown finally raised her head, looking horrified. Quickly, she stepped to Lightfoot's side and nuzzled him. "That's not what happened at all! I…I ran away from home so I could be a musician."
"What!" Applejack, Twilight, and Pinkie Pie cried, just as Rarity gasped and clapped her hooves to her mouth.
"I was right! You are Bramble's cousin."
Thistledown paled beneath her coat and her eyes filled with tears. "I didn't mean to worry anypony!" she wailed. "I just didn't want to live as a farmer in that tiny village for the rest of my life. I w-wanted to sing and play and have ponies listen to my music."
Lightfoot stepped protectively in front of the young mare. "I often go traveling to learn new elements for my music. Sometimes my travels take me out of the kingdom and into different lands. I met Thistledown on my last journey and was amazed by her musical talent, and I asked her to join me as my partner and protégé."
"But her family thinks she was stolen by raiders!" Rarity snapped. "Her cousin is terrified that she is hurt and afraid and being held against her will!" The white unicorn glared at the pale green musician. "How could you do that? How could you run away and leave them all wondering what happened to you? You could have told them!"
"No, I couldn't!" Thistledown cried. "I couldn't tell anypony! They would never have understood and they would never have let me go. Th-this was my only chance."
Rarity opened her mouth to berate Thistledown again, but stopped as she abruptly swooned. Raising a hoof to her forehead, she sat back in her chair, looking pale and fragile. In an instant, Fletcher was around the table and at her side, holding her steady and calling for water.
"No, no, I'll be alright," Rarity told him, though her voice wavered and her eyelashes fluttered weakly. "I'm just…it was all so upsetting and I…I think I just need to lie down for a little while."
"I'll help you to your rooms," Fletcher said without hesitation.
"Oh, thank you, Fletcher. You're such a gentlecolt." Rarity slid off her chair with his help, but immediately crumpled to the floor. "I'm sorry, I just feel so dizzy." She looked up and locked eyes with Twilight Sparkle. "My head is simply spinning."
Catching on to Rarity's ploy just an instant before Twilight, Fluttershy hurried to her friend and stroked her mane gently.
"I don't think she should walk, Twilight," she said in her soft voice. "Maybe you could help her back to the Emerald Rooms."
"Nopony is going anywhere," Oak Bough snapped, slamming a hoof hard enough on the table to knock over several goblets.
"I agree," Bright Song said in a much more controlled voice. She lifted a napkin and dropped it on a spreading pool of pale orange ale before it could leech under her plate. "Twilight, you have raised some very grave concerns and I feel we must discuss them now before anything gets out of hoof."
"Yes, your majesty, of course," Twilight replied. "I don't have to go anywhere—I can send Rarity back to the Emerald Rooms with my magic."
"She worked all afternoon on our dresses," Rainbow Dash spoke up "It probably wore her out."
Bright Song hesitated, her eyes flickering briefly towards Goldhoof, who gave an almost imperceptible shrug. Then Rarity gave a small whimper and leaned back against Fletcher, and the queen grudgingly dipped her head.
"Very well, but the rest of you will stay here and explain this accusation."
"Um, your majesty?" Fluttershy's voice was very faint, but Bright Song turned to her immediately, eyes flashing with annoyance. The yellow pegasus shrank back in her seat with a nervous squeak, but forced herself to continue. "Um, I'm so sorry to ask this, but, um, if it's alright with you, I would like to go with Rarity back to the rooms to keep her company, that is…if you don't mind."
"Isn't it the duty of a lady's maid to stay by her lady at all times?" Bright Song pointed out.
"I'll still have Applejack, Twilight, and Pinkie," Rainbow said quickly. "Besides, Fluttershy really doesn't like arguing…" She glanced at the colt sitting stiffly beside her and lowered her voice to a murmur. "…and something tells me there's going to be lots of arguing."
Bright Song let out a little whinny of frustration. "Very well! Go!"
Quickly, before the royals could change their minds, Twilight left her chair and went to stand in front of her two friends. Fletcher gently set Rarity in her seat and stepped away, not eager to be caught up in whatever magic Twilight planned to do.
"I will come check on you," he promised the white unicorn. "Feel better."
With the gathered Saddellians watching raptly, Twilight's horn began to glow with her faint, magenta aura. The same aura began to spread over both Fluttershy and Rarity, causing Buttercream to first coo with appreciation, then yelp when a loud crack and flash of light split the air. When the light faded, both ponies were gone.
"Goodness!" Buttercream exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hooves. "I knew unicorns had magic…but never knew you could make ponies disappear."
"I didn't," Twilight explained. "I teleported them both back to the Emerald Rooms."
"Yes, yes, so much excitement," Goldhoof said drolly. "And it's caused our musicians quite a bit of upset." He turned to Lightfoot, who was trying to comfort the sobbing Thistledown. "You're both excused now. Thank you."
Sending the remaining girls a scathing look, Lightfoot nudged his distraught partner into a trot and vanished from the hall. Once they were gone, Goldhoof moved to the head of the table, standing between the king and queen.
"Now, ladies," he said in a smooth, slightly amused voice, "you have some explaining to do."
On the other side of the castle, the same bright flash of light suddenly illuminated a darkened chamber and Rarity and Fluttershy landed in a rough heap at the end of an ornate bed. Rubbing her head, Rarity sat up with a groan and looked around.
"Well, I do believe Twilight's aim was spot on, though she could certainly use some practice on the landing."
Fluttershy got slowly to her hooves and looked around nervously. "For a minute, there, I didn't think we'd make it."
"I know, darling, and I am so sorry about that. It would have been all my fault if we'd missed our chance, but when I realized that mare had simply up and left her family without a word…" The white unicorn paused and ground her teeth. "Why, if I wasn't a lady, I would have kicked the thistles right off of her. Her family is worried sick and she's been here the entire time, fiddling away with that minstrel."
"I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt them," Fluttershy murmured. "She seemed terribly upset."
"Well, she should be." Rarity gave her mane an annoyed toss and vented a rather unladylike snort. "Well, anyway, we'd better get started. Who knows when Goldhoof will come back from the banquet hall? It certainly won't help our cause if we're caught in here."
Fluttershy gazed around at their surroundings skeptically. "Do you really think the Elements of Harmony are here?"
"Rainbow Dash certainly does." Rarity spotted a candle on the nightstand and touched it with her horn, which emitted a faint, blue glow. Instantly, a cheerful little flame sprang to life on the wick. "There! That's much better. Now we can see what we're doing."
"Are you sure that's a good idea? What if somepony sees the light?"
"But we'll never find anything stumbling around in the dark. Go and pull the curtains closed and I'll put something under the door."
Fluttershy complied, covering the windows so their meager light wouldn't be seen from anypony outside. Once they felt sure the room was secure, they started their search. Rarity went to the tall, wooden wardrobe and began sorting through the advisor's clothing, wrinkling her nose at the unicorn's poor fashion sense, but not finding any sign of their necklaces in any of the folds or pockets. Fluttershy opened the chest at the foot of the bed and dug through a myriad of papers and trinkets, but had no better luck.
"There's nothing in here," she told Rarity, who had turned her attention to a series of boxes from the top shelf of the wardrobe. She was lowering each one in turn using her magic, opening them to inspect the contents, then levitating them back to the exact place where she had found them. Finding nothing of note, she turned to survey the room once more.
"How about under the bed? I'll check the desk."
Goldhoof's bed was just as large and ornate as the one in the Emerald Rooms, though the sheets and curtains were a dark, gloomy burgundy. The bedskirts fell to the floor and, when Fluttershy hesitantly lifted the corner with a hoof, the dark void beneath made her meep breathlessly.
"We have to hurry, Fluttershy," Rarity hissed from the large desk.
"Okay, okay." Fluttershy picked up the candle with her teeth and set it carefully on the floor beside the bed. She was just about to creep into the enclosed space when Gumdrop hopped out of her mane and dropped to the floor. Giving the timid pony a cheeky salute, the little mouse darted under the bed.
"Oh, thank you, Gumdrop. Good boy. I'll check under his pillows." She hopped up onto the mattress and searched through the curtains, then pranced to the head of the bed. On the way, her hoof tangled in a fold of blanket and she stumbled, yelping as she tumbled head first into the wall. Desperately, she threw out her hooves to break her fall, then gasped as one of the stones shifted under her weight, sliding backwards nearly six inches before stopping with a loud click.
"Oh goodness! Rarity! Rarity, come here! I found them!" she called as another stone swung out like a cabinet door, revealing a hidden compartment roughly a foot wide and deep. There, on the velvet-lined interior, the six Elements of Harmony glittered beautifully in the candlelight.
Rarity closed the desk drawer she had been searching with a loud bang and performed a leap onto the bed that would have made Rainbow Dash proud. Laughing delightedly to see the Elements, she levitated her own diamond-shaped necklace onto her neck. "Rainbow was right! A hidden cubby. How did you know?"
"I didn't. I just, sort of, stumbled onto it." Fluttershy put on her own Element and lifted Pinkie's from the compartment. "Now Twilight can do the Harmony spell."
"Yes. So we'd better get back to the Emerald Rooms as quickly as we can." Rarity removed the remaining Elements with her magic and tucked them securely into her mane and tail. She swung the cubby door closed and hopped off the bed, turning briefly to straighten the blankets and pillows, then blew out the candle and returned it to the nightstand. "There! Almost everything as it was before."
"I sure hope the other girls are doing as well at the banquet," Fluttershy said, smiling. She picked up Gumdrop and gave him a kiss before placing him back in her mane, then lifted off the ground with a few flaps of her wings and wrapped her forehooves around Rarity's middle. "Here goes nothing," she whispered, struggling to pick up the unicorn and fly them both to the window.
"A-are you sure you're up for this, darling?" As Fluttershy fluttered over the sill, Rarity made the mistake of looking down and was overcome by a wave of vertigo. "I know I am in fabulous shape, but dinner was a little heavy and…"
"I…can…do…it!" Fluttershy gasped. Squeezing her eyes closed, she flapped her wings as hard as she could and jerkily carried them around the castle. Rainbow's plan was for her to fly Rarity straight through the windows into the bedchamber of the Emerald Rooms, but, try as she might, it wasn't long before she ran out of steam and started to flag, threatening to drop them both into the gardens far below. At Rarity's panicked insistence, she steered for the nearest window and staggered through, dropping them onto the floor of a corridor two floors down from their chambers.
"I'm sorry!" she squeaked, panting with the exertion, her wings hanging limping at her sides.
"No, no, darling." Rarity got to her hooves and hugged her friend tightly. "You did wonderfully! And we're not far from the rooms—we'll just have to walk from here."
Quickly, they trotted down the corridor to the stairs and started upwards. They were just making the last turn to their own floor when a tall shadow appeared, blocking their way. Rarity gasped, falling back a step and bumping into Fluttershy, who gave a little scream. Quickly, the unicorn made her horn glow, lighting up the stairwell and illuminating the serene, smiling face of Nightfire.
Ah, ladies." The colt bowed respectfully. "What a surprise to find you here. I thought you'd retired from the banquet due to illness."
"Y-yes, yes, I did," Rarity stammered. She quickly draped a hoof over her brow. "And I'm still feeling very dizzy. Unfortunately, Twilight's aim was a bit off and she teleported us downstairs. We've had to come up from the gardens."
"Really? Twilight missed her mark? Huh, I'll bet that doesn't happen very often." He stepped backwards to let them join him on the landing.
"Yes, odd, isn't it? Well, I don't blame her. The palace is so large and I'm afraid I might have upset her during the dinner."
"I'll say. And quite an upset it was. They're still down there talking—and Lady Dash is having a hard time keeping up with all of Goldhoof and the queen's questions."
Rarity winced and exchanged a glance with Fluttershy.
"Was it very bad, Nightfire?" Fluttershy spoke up. "Is that why you left the banquet?"
"Me?" The colt shook his head. "No, after your sudden bout of illness, I thought it would be a good idea to check on you and make sure everything was alright. I figured nopony would miss me at the banquet."
"That's very nice of you," Fluttershy told him.
"I suppose. I had a feeling something was wrong when you both wanted to leave so suddenly." He cocked his head suddenly, eyes locked on Rarity's throat. "That's a beautiful necklace, Miss Rarity. Funny, but I don't remember you wearing that earlier."
Rarity's eyes widened and her hoof flew to the purple stone of her necklace. She had completely forgotten to take it off.
"Oh! O-oh, this old thing?" she said with a weak laugh. "I had it on for a little while, but it's rather heavy and awkward, so I took it off during dinner. You probably didn't notice."
"I see. And you say Twilight managed to teleport you down to the gardens?"
"Y-yes, thereabouts," Rarity temporized.
"The gardens? Not Goldhoof's tower?"
The two mares froze, staring at the orange colt.
"Goldhoof's tower?" Fluttershy said after a moment. "No, um, it was definitely the gardens."
Nightfire turned to her, looking slightly hurt. "Now, Fluttershy, I thought we were friends. Why would you lie to me?"
"Lie?" Rarity laughed again, even more weakly. "Why, Nightfire, whatever do you mean?"
"I mean, I don't believe Twilight Sparkle missed her mark with her teleportation at all. It's not an easy skill to learn, but once you've got the knack of it, you're very unlikely to go wrong. Here, let me show you."
Before either girl could react, a blood-red glow surrounded Nightfire's head, sweeping outwards to envelope them all. Fluttershy managed one terrified scream before the light flared to blinding brilliance. When it finally faded, the upper corridor was gone, replaced by three dark, stone walls that shimmered faintly with moisture and slime. Where the fourth wall should have been, there was a solid grate of thick, black bars firmly set into the stone at the floor and ceiling. Beyond the bars was a narrow hallway studded with guttering torches mounted on iron scones. Nightfire stood beneath one of these flickering lights, looking into the cell at the two mares and smiling thinly.
"You see? Precision is not difficult at all."
"Nightfire?" Rarity looked around in bewilderment. "What is this? How did you…?"
The orange colt blinked. "Oh, you still haven't guessed? Give me a moment then." He shook his head briskly, tossing his mane from side to side. As he did, an orange horn appeared under his bangs on his brow.
"You're a unicorn!" Fluttershy gasped.
"Not much gets past you…well, unless hidden by a glamour, I suppose."
"You're working with Goldhoof," Rarity accused. She reared up against the bars, pushing on them and testing their strength. They held firm and she had to settle for glaring at the smug colt.
"Oh, you mean 'Dad'? Actually, he's been working with me."
"But what are you doing?" Fluttershy asked tremulously. "Why are you taking all of those poor ponies from their homes and forcing them to work in your mines?"
"Is that really all you care about? Some no-account village ponies from some unknown smattering of huts in the middle of nowhere? Is that really why you and your friends came here?"
"Of course it is!" Rarity snapped, affronted. "It doesn't matter if they lived in the most opulent Canterlot apartment or the tiniest backwoods shack, they are still Equestrian citizens and Princess Celestia was horrified when she found out they'd been enslaved. We came here to find out why they were taken and to make sure they were duly released."
Nightfire laughed loudly, the sound far from the genial tone they had come to know from him. Fluttershy whimpered and ducked behind Rarity.
"Ooh, please don't laugh like that," she murmured.
"And let us out of here this instant! We are guests of this country and this…this treatment is utterly unacceptable!"
"No, I don't think I will." Nightfire snorted and shook his head, suddenly mirthless. "You girls are getting entirely too nosy—snooping around the quarry and sneaking about the castle where you don't belong. How else could you have found these?" His horn glowed again as he tore the Elements of Harmony from them, floating them through the bars to his side. Rarity tried to fight back, her blue magic briefly playing tug-of-war for her Element, until Nightfire snarled and sent a blast into the cell that sent both mares crashing back into the dank, far wall.
"You beast!" Rarity got shakily to her hooves. "You—you scoundrel!"
"Ouch." The colt mockingly crossed his chest with a hoof and started to back away. "Your words wound me, Rarity…but this is your own fault. Goldhoof told Rainbow Dash to watch her step, but it doesn't seem like she took the admonition to heart. So, if vague threats against her friends won't keep her out of our business, we'll see what two missing mares will do."
"You're not going to leave us in here!"
"That was the plan. I know for a fact that you can't teleport, and Twilight won't be able to help you if she doesn't know where you are. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm really curious to know how the royals are dealing with the rest of your friends now that the real reason for your visit is out. The way Linden was looking at Rainbow Dash was quite…different from before." Turning to the nearest torch, he extinguished the flame with his magic, plunging the cell and hallway into darkness. "Have a good night, ladies," he called. The last they heard was the sound of his hoofsteps, fading into the distance.
The rest of the banquet was a complete disaster and Rainbow Dash wanted nothing more than to escape to the quiet and comfort of the skies, where she could find a nice cloud in which to bury her head.
After Rarity's outburst and quick escape from the room, Dash, Twilight, Pinkie, and Applejack had found themselves having to answer many questions about their true mission from Equestria and reasons for being in Saddellia. Goldhoof asked the most, standing imperiously beside the king, who mostly glowered and grunted at their truthful replies, but Bright Song had added a few well placed comments of her own. Hers were directed at Rainbow Dash and seemed determined to force her into confessing her true feelings for Linden or admit that she had been playing him for a fool in order to get close to the royal family. Calla Lily and Star Trillium, staying carefully quiet to avoid being sent from the room, had listened avidly, smiling at one another in the face of Rainbow's distress.
For his part, Linden remained completely silent, sitting as though cast in stone beside her, his jaw set in a firm line. When Fletcher scoffed at Goldhoof's accusation that they had brought the hyleenas to the forest using Fluttershy's animal skills, the prince quelled his friend with a single, hard look, forcing the green colt to sit back with an outraged grumble.
"That is so ridiculous!" Rainbow snapped, her wings rising of their own accord. "How could we have known Linden was out with his friends?"
"Or that he had separated from them for his tracking game?" Twilight added.
"You've already proven yourself to be quite proficient with your magic, Miss Sparkle," Goldhoof pointed out. "In fact, you have delighted in showing the members of this court that you possess skills we all never knew were possible. One of those skills could easily be divining the future or the ability of farsight."
"I don't know anything like that," Twilight protested, her cheeks blushing red. "And I haven't delighted in anything of the sort—I've only shown you what you asked me to demonstrate."
"How can we possibly believe you when you've fed us nothing but falsehoods until now?" Bright Song asked. Her normally gentle demeanor had vanished, leaving her cold and formal, with flashing eyes and a biting tongue. "All this time we have graciously hosted you here in our home, providing you with the best we have to offer, while you have secretly been on some spy mission from your princess."
"Now hold on, y'all," Applejack interjected. "We haven't lied to you in the slightest. We told y'all that we were here to discuss border issues and to work out a peaceable agreement between our countries. We fully intended to bring up the missin' ponies and what the escaped one said when he got to Canterlot. We requested an audience as soon as we got here—it's y'all who haven't bothered to see us."
"And what about giving Rainbow Dash the Blue Hills when you knew it would trap her into your betrothal?" Pinkie Pie asked, unsmiling. "That was the biggest, meanest meanie of a lie if ever I heard one!"
"And the worst thing that could ever have happened to you," Linden said, bitterly breaking his long silence.
"I never said that and it's not true!" Rainbow argued, glaring at him. "Meeting you has been one of the best things that ever happened to me!"
"Well, you sure have a strange way of showing it." Linden pushed his chair back and stood up. "I've had enough for tonight. I'm turning in. Tiny, let's go."
The huge, plum colt gave Pinkie Pie a mournful look, but obediently went to Linden's side.
"Goodnight, my lady," the prince said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. With a jerky bow, he left the banquet hall, oblivious of Rainbow's magenta eyes following him out the door. Her ears drooped and her wings fell to her sides.
"I guess I'm done too," Fletcher announced, ignoring the look his father gave him and trotting around the table. As he walked past the girls, he brushed against Twilight Sparkle's hoof and gave her a tiny wink. She breathed a sigh of relief—at least one pony still liked them.
"Your highnesses, please," Twilight said into the small lull that followed Linden's departure. "I know you're both feeling worried and confused, but I assure you that we have only ever had the best interests of our two countries in mind. We truly did want to tell you from the moment we arrived in Saddellia, but our opportunity never came and things just got out of hoof. Now, you trusted us before, enough to want Rainbow to marry your only son, can't you please trust us again?"
Bright Song pursed her lips and swished her tail back and forth slowly. "But what you have said makes no sense, Twilight. A castle in the quarry? Hundreds of kidnapped ponies working to dig it out? Our own trusted advisor privy to the entire enterprise, along with some mysterious unicorn none of us ever knew existed?"
"It all sounds like a fairy story," Goldhoof scoffed. "Something made up to foment trouble. I have already proven that you were mistaken about Thistledown. Isn't it just as obvious that these other ponies have also fled their humdrum lives for something more exciting?"
"All of them?" Pinkie laughed. "You're kidding!
"I know it sounds too strange to be true!" Twilight said desperately, "but it's all real. Rainbow Dash and I have seen it with our own eyes!"
"And we're just supposed to believe the two of you, instead of the advisor who has served my family for years?" Oak Bough growled.
"If you don't believe 'em, go to the quarry and see for yourself," Applejack suggested.
Oak Bough let out a very unpony-like roar and swept a half a dozen plates from the table with a sweep of his leg. "Who are you to give me orders? I'm the king! I don't take orders from anypony!"
"Then how can we prove it?" the farm pony snapped, unfazed by his anger.
"There's nothing to prove," Bright Song announced with finality. "At least not tonight." She wiped her forehead with a hoof and sighed. "It's late and a perfectly good evening has been ruined. I, for one, agree with Linden and feel there is nothing more we can accomplish tonight by sitting here and arguing. I suggest we all retire to rest and continue this discussion in a formal audience tomorrow before the court and council after our tempers have cooled."
"A wonderful idea, your majesty," Goldhoof agreed. "Though may I suggest a guard see the young ladies back to their chambers and keep watch at their doors for the night?"
"Why?" Rainbow had been quiet since Linden had left. Now she glared wearily at the gray unicorn. "We're not going anywhere."
"Past performance on your part makes it hard for me to believe you, my dear. We certainly wouldn't want to see you or your friends hurt in an attempt to do something unwise."
It was an obvious threat, though thinly concealed in concern for their welfare. Rainbow bristled and Applejack lowered her head, looking ready to spring on the unicorn, but Bright Song agreed, putting an end to any protests they may have had. A trio of guards were called in to escort the four of them back to the Emerald Rooms, ending the banquet and any further discussion of the quarry. They went quietly, though not happily, especially when Calla Lily leaned close to Buttercream and said, just before they left the hall, "Looks to me like Linden has become the most eligible bachelor in the country once again."
"That could not have possibly gone worse!" Storming into the Emerald Rooms, Rainbow angrily tore off her banquet dress and tossed it on a chair. "What was Rarity thinking, blurting out about the missing ponies like that?"
"Ah don't rightly know, Sugarcube," Applejack replied cautiously, knowing Rainbow was upset and needed to vent somehow. "But it seems to me it was purely accidental and all. She found out that minstrel pony has been safe and happy all along while her family's been worried sick and she just got all upset. Can't say as I blame her."
"At least she realized what she'd done and still managed to stick to your plan," Twilight temporized. She removed her own dress and draped it carefully beside Rainbow's, then looked around the sitting chamber. "Huh, I thought she and Fluttershy would be back by now—I wonder where they are."
"Probably fell asleep waitin' for us." Applejack yawned widely, her head tipping so far back that her hat fell off. "Ah was startin' to think that dinner was gonna go on forever."
"I'll go check," Pinkie volunteered, but Rainbow shook her head and started for the bedroom.
"Nah, I'll go."
"Now Rainbow Dash, you be nice," Applejack warned, pushing her hat firmly onto her head once again. "It twarn't nopony's fault."
"Oh, I'll be nice," Rainbow called back, then added under her breath, "if dumping a pitcher of water on her head can be called—waaiih!"
Linden was sitting on the chaise by the windows. He watched expressionlessly as the startled pegasus shot into the air, her mane and tail sticking up in shock.
"Hi," he muttered when, wide-eyed and gasping, she fluttered back to the floor.
"Linden! What in the name of Celestia are you doing here?"
"Fletcher was most adamant that I not let the evening end as it did and suggested I come talk to you," he said, slipping off the chaise and ruefully showing her the bruised spot on his skull that still smarted from Fletcher's particular method of persuasion. "Tiny agreed with him, though not in the same manner, luckily for me."
It was meant as a joke, but neither pony felt like laughing. As they stared at one another, Applejack and Pinkie Pie rushed in to investigate Rainbow's scream, but quickly backed out again without a word when they saw the prince.
"So." Rainbow sat on her haunches and crossed her forelegs petulantly. "You're only here because of Fletcher and Tiny, then?"
"No. Not entirely. I felt bad for walking out before we'd had a chance to talk things through. But I…I still can't believe you lied to me."
"I didn't lie! I just…didn't tell you everything."
"Oh, don't give me that, Rainbow!" Linden snapped. "It's the same thing!"
The pegasus hesitated, frowning. "Not really. And, don't you think I wanted to tell you? But how well would that have worked out?" She crossed her eyes and spoke in a high, squeaky voice. "Hey, Linden, we came here because hundreds of Equestria ponies have been viciously ponynapped by your country and we think your family has something to do with it. Wanna help us prove it?" Adopting her own voice again, she added, "I'm sure you would have jumped at the chance."
"You never even trusted me enough to find out." Linden dragged his hoof across the floor, scuffing the carpet. "And, you know what? That's what upsets me the most. If you really cared about me at all, you would have told me the truth."
"Oh really?" Eyes flashing at his words, Rainbow jumped up, wings flapping. "I don't care, huh? You want the truth, do you? Fine! Get comfortable and I'll tell you the truth. I'll tell you everything!" She immediately launched into the story of Twilight's arrival in Ponyville and the appearance of Nightmare Moon, which had started their journey into the Everfree Forest in search of the Elements of Harmony and their subsequent discoveries of what virtue they each embodied. As she spoke, she darted back and forth and around in circles about the prince's head, until Linden's eyes wobbled and he grew dizzy staring up at her.
"Rainbow, stop! Wait! Will you just come down here for a minute? I can't understand you when you're flitting and hovering about like that."
"Oh, so now you don't like flitting and hovering? Well, you probably should have thought of that before you decided to marry a pegasus!"
"I didn't say that—" He flinched as the blue pony swooped low, the tips of her feathers slapping his face. "Ow! Look, I just…" Linden whinnied helplessly and dropped to the floor, closing his eyes. "It's not right. Everything was so perfect and now it's all coming apart."
He heard the pegasus land beside him and felt her feathers again, all softness now as they draped over him. "Don't you get it now, Linden? I'm the Element of Loyalty. I have a duty to my princess and my country and the ponies of Equestria. But then I met you and…" She pulled away and went to stand near the window, looking gloomily out. "That's when things got really confusing, because I felt like I should be loyal to you too, but telling you everything could have been dangerous for our mission, and even to you, but not telling you was just…." Groaning in exasperation, she dropped her face onto the windowsill and covered her head with her hooves. "My brain hurts."
Linden chuckled, despite himself, and climbed to his feet, joining her at the window.
"Mine too," he said, sitting beside her.
"I really did want to tell you," Rainbow said, her voice muffled by the stone. "And I did try, but every time I started to say something we got interrupted."
The prince hesitated for a moment, then tentatively placed his hoof around her shoulders. He breathed a sigh of relief when she immediately leaned into the embrace. "You know, I sort of remember that. On our first date, you said you had something to tell me and then—"
The door in the front room suddenly opened and closed loudly. A moment later, Pinkie Pie rushed in, looking nervous. Seeing them sitting together, she skidded to a halt, looking torn between dancing for joy and delivering her news. Amazingly, she decided on the latter.
"It's the queen!" she exclaimed, pointing over her shoulder. "And she wants to talk to you, Dashie."
"My mother?" Linden looked startled. "What could she want?"
"The way this night is going?" Rainbow shrugged. "She probably wants to yell at me too. I doubt she wants to talk china patterns for the wedding." Sighing heavily, she started to follow Pinkie out of the room, but Linden hurriedly stepped in front of them.
"Pinkie, you didn't tell her I was here, did you?"
The pink pony shook her head. "She didn't give me a chance. She just came in and told me to get Rainbow Dash."
"Good. Let's keep it that way, okay?"
"Why?" Pinkie wanted to know.
"She probably wouldn't want me to be here and the last thing I need right now is a motherly lecture."
"Ditto." As she stepped past Linden, Rainbow flicked his face with her tail, earning a grin. Feeling a little better, she trotted into the front room, where Twilight and Applejack sat by the fireplace with Queen Bright Song. Her friends looked worried, but the queen smiled warmly enough and beckoned Rainbow to join them.
"Lady Rainbow Dash," she said with a nod.
"Lady?" Rainbow raised her eyebrows as she hopped onto a chair. "So that still stands? Even after everything we told you?"
Bright Song laughed cheerfully. "Of course, my dear. You still saved my son's life—I haven't forgotten that. Now, let's talk about this unsavory situation with the quarry slaves…" She paused briefly, running the tip of her hoof along the arm of her chair. When she spoke again, all the warmth had gone out of her voice. "Tomorrow, at the council audience, you're going to tell everypony that you were lying and made up everything you claim you saw at the quarry."
"What!" The girls gaped at her, dumbfounded.
"If you do," Bright Song continued as though she hadn't heard, "we will eventually let you return home unharmed and peace can continue between our kingdoms. I will even promise that no further slaves will be taken from Equestria."
"So it's true then!" Twilight Sparkle burst out. "The royal family is involved with the ponynappings and the castle in the quarry."
Bright Song smirked. "Oh please. Do you really think Oak Bough has anything to do with this? The king is a complete idiot who wouldn't notice if this castle had suddenly flown up into the clouds so long as he had his muzzle buried in a goblet of pumpkin wine."
"So it's you then!" Rainbow accused. "You and that snake, Goldhoof! I should have known, since you're the one who tricked me with the Blue Hills. You've been enslaving ponies from all over Saddellia and, when those ran out, you started taking them from Equestria too!"
"We needed workers," Bright Song replied nonchalantly. "And it's not like they were truly missed—indeed, we had been collecting from the Equestrian borders for months before news reached your precious princess."
"But why? What's so important about that buried castle?"
"It's not so much the castle, as what is in it. Something that will finally put things to rights here in Saddellia." She closed her eyes briefly, a peaceful smile crossing her features. An instant later, it vanished as she fixed them all with a stern scowl. "That's really all you girls need to know."
"Ah beg to differ!" Applejack's tail was lashing about in rage. "Do you really expect us to just trot ourselves on home and leave those ponies here to your tender mercies?"
"You will if you know what's good for you." The queen's pretty eyes flicked about the room curiously. "I notice there are only four of you present. Haven't you wondered where the other two are?"
"Rarity and Fluttershy!" Pinkie gasped.
Rainbow's wings flared and she rose off her seat with an agitated buzz. "What did you do to them!"
"It would seem your teleportation spell sent them to the wrong end of the castle, Twilight, though I am quite certain that was not a mistake on your part. After that utterly pitiful performance Rarity put on at the banquet, it was clear you all had something planned. Searching Goldhoof's chambers for your missing necklaces and crown, I presume."
"Where are they?"
"Your friends, or the jewelry? Oh, well, I suppose it doesn't really matter. They're safe, for now. Your friends were caught trying to return to these rooms and have been secured in a place where they won't have any more opportunities for such distasteful snooping. I mean, really, girls, in the house of your hosts? Isn't that a little rude?"
"No ruder than havin' our things stolen from us in the first place."
"What are you going to do to our friends?" Pinkie asked, tears flooding her eyes. "You're not going to hurt them, are you?"
"Well, that depends on you four." The queen stepped down from the chair and walked gracefully to the door. "Linden is feeling very hurt and betrayed right now, Rainbow Dash, but I believe he cares enough about you to get over it. Should he deign to speak to you again, I advise you not to mention anything of this conversation to him. If you do feel such an urge, remember your two friends." She pushed open the door, but paused long enough to look over her shoulder at the still hovering pegasus. "I had such high hopes for you as a daughter-in-law. What a shame." Shaking her head, she walked out of the room.
The door had barely slammed behind her when Linden appeared from the bedchamber, his face pale and troubled.
"Linden." Rainbow spun a loop and landed, trotting quickly to his side. "I—"
"It's alright." The prince glared at the door. "I heard everything."
"Rarity and Fluttershy," Pinkie whimpered. Applejack put a hoof on her shoulder and the pink pony turned, burying her face in her friend's yellow mane and sobbing.
"They're probably being held in the castle dungeons. Don't worry, we'll get them out," Linden said stoutly. "But first, Rainbow, how far can you carry me while flying?"
"Flying? I don't know. Pretty far if I have to. Why?"
Linden led them all to one of the windows in the bedchamber and pointed out into the night. "Because I need you to take me to the quarry. It's time I saw this underground castle for myself."
Well...that sure took longer than I expected it to. Between conventions and visiting nephews and painting a motor home, I thought this chapter would never get finished. It seems like I say this at the end of every chapter, but so sorry for the long wait. I swear, every time I post something, I promise myself that I am going to start the next chapter immediately and surprise all my awesome readers by having it out in no time. Then life happens.
Anyway, I hope this installment has left you breathless with shock and anticipation, and not thinking murderous thoughts towards me because of the cliffhangers.
I will be starting school at the end of August, as well as attending the Bronycan convention in Vancouver. I am going to make every effort possible to get more writing and postings finished before the gloom of trigonometry looms over my completely right-brained head. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
As always, reviews are welcome and much appreciated. Let me know what you think!