"And welcome to you, as well. Would you care to make a donation, ma'am? The structure is going to need furnishing once it's completed, and every little bit adds up," I added to my proposition with a false smile. The elderly unicorn mare flashed a somewhat-toothless grin as she adjusted her mask before digging into her coin purse.

"Of course! My, what a strapping young prince you are, dear. It's so nice of you to organize such a magnificent ball!" she cooed whilst handing over the glittering coins. I deposited them in a collection box before nodding and offering yet another saccharine, stinging smile. She returned the gesture, and walked on toward the dance floor. The old bat was right about one thing- the ball was magnificent.

I peered out through the eye holes of my brilliant blue and golden, sequined mask to take in the sheer extravagance of the Grand Hall, all done-up to my exact specifications. Everypony was mingling in costume- the masquerade component being my idea, because I, unlike Shining Armor- had class, and the guests were certainly enjoying themselves. Banners and ribbons, elegant sconces and statues, magical lighting, a full orchestra, headed by some very attractive grey pony with a treble clef upon her flanks, and the finest cuisine that could have been asked for. The splendor and sophistication of the night was absolutely perfect.

With my mind still upon perfection, my eyes gravitated toward the pink alicorn of my dreams, sat solemnly at the head table, next to both of my aunties. Celestia and Cadance were chatting away about something, both giggling like school fillies as Luna watched, seemingly bored. The former pair was done up in full costume, Celestia in a classical bird mask, while Cadance opted for the simpler, more elegant one-eye cover, her hair in magnificent, flowing tresses. Luna wore only a monocle and dress. It was so like her to actively try to take the fun out of everything.

I felt a cold hoof upon my shoulder, and immediately tensed as I expected the worst. What I got instead was worse than the worst.

"Not bad, Blueballs. I don't like this kinda thing, but it's pretty nice. Looks like you finally did something that will impress the idiots that make up society."

Willow Wisp gave my shoulder a series of successively harder claps with her hoof, culminating in one that I was quite sure would leave a welt. I hissed as I forced a smile, still collecting bits from guests who were entering the ball somewhat late. Out of consideration, I grit my teeth and spoke in a whisper as she leaned in.

"I hate you. I truly do, with all of my being."

"Aw, love you too, big guy," she replied with a cheeky grin. I tried to calm myself with several breaths, doing my best to focus on something, anything less obnoxious than Willow. Interestingly enough, my mind landed upon Moss. Any port in a storm, I supposed. Where was he?

"Oh yes. The love is clearly returned. You are just my favorite unicorn, let alone pony." I looked her up and down, finding that she was wearing her usual golden armor... with a helmet. I suppose she at least tried, but this mare had absolutely zero in the way of fashion sense. To think she was somewhat influential within the guard... no wonder the foals still wore only breastplates.

"Aw, you're trying sarcasm. That's cute," she dragged out the last word, making it into almost a little song as she shook the hoof of a stallion in line. "Care to donate? You look important, so don't skimp, or I'll cut you."

"Willow!" I whisper-hissed, quickly jabbing my foreknee into her chest. "This is my job, and you'll drive them away!" I cleared my throat and tried to repair the damage done. "I'm sorry, sir, she completely lacks social skills. And a brain. Please, come right in, but do d-"

The stallion merely huffed and walked past the velvet rope, donating nothing as he continued out onto the dance floor. The stupid bitch had cost us revenue! She had to go. No other option remained, and I refused to let the night get worse. However, fate has a funny way of taking your declarations and spitting upon them before stomping them into the mud, so with a simple catcall, the night did, indeed, get worse.

"Daaaaaaaaaamn you are lookin' fine, my mare," the familiar harbinger of stupidity stated as he walked up, apparently next in line. "Even better than the last time I saw you."

"Hey there. Moss, right?" Willow inquired. Upon receiving a nod, she blew her mane out of her face and shifted a bit while pulling back the rope to allow him entrance. "You're lookin' pretty sharp, too. What are you doing after all of this?"

I rolled my eyes before looking the stallion up and down, only to find that Willow was completely right. There Moss stood, dressed in a full suit, bought with bits that I had so graciously loaned him. He looked quite dapper, and even his mane was combed and his body washed, going by the scent of... my cologne. Equally noticeable was my tie around his neck, and one of my masks upon his face. That was certainly not part of the deal.

"Nopony cares!" I bellowed, immediately working up a rage as I gripped a hoof around the rapier at my side. "I knew I shouldn't have let you stay in my room the last two nights! Thief!"

"That ain't news, cutie. You'll get it back, just let me in, yeah? Chill out, Blue. You're supposed to be likeable. Remember our little chat?" he added with a threatening tone. I would have none of it.

"I do, and you are supposed to be at the head table, as of half an hour ago!" I huffed, thoroughly through with the idea of this whole, idiotic farce already. "Willow, you are hereby demoted to door-bitch. Come on, you wastrel." I gripped Moss by the knee and dragged him toward the dance floor, leaving a whining Willow to bluster and threaten to her heart's content at the entrance gate while I attended to far more important things.

"You did prepare a speech, yes?"

"Well yeah. I keep my word, you know." He pulled up the strap on his long-nosed doctor's mask, his face a bit sweaty underneath. Had I not known him better, I'd have thought he was nervous. "You doin' okay?"

"Of what concern is it to you?" I snorted, picking up the pace as I shoved a twirling couple out of our path while the mare worked into an elegant dip. The pair fell over to a chorus of gasps, and I couldn't help but feel the faintest twinge of pride. They hadn't donated, the cheap bastards.

"I consider you a friend, regardless of what you think of me. One of the few I've got, and might be able to trust," he replied. I merely fell silent, mulling it over within my mind. The more the word 'friend' passed through it, the more... right it seemed. I decided not to fight him, and simply answered the question.

"Thank you, I am quite fine. Come, we need to meet with Twinkling Douchebag and get the speeches underway."

Moss chuckled, but his mirth turned into curiosity in a seamless transition. "Why do ya hate him so much, anyhow? He seems like a nice guy to me."

I looked over to the stallion in question, and he was currently conversing with several guests in a small circle around the head table. He stood in an elegant, mostly metal costume, wearing a bright smile to go with his jester hat and mask. The combination was so fitting- the eternal protector and knight, with a crowning of a complete goofball and approachable pony. He was everything that I was not... and had everything that I did not. I merely sighed, the familiar feelings of jealousy and anger beginning to rise up within me. Moss and I stopped just out of earshot of the captain and his entourage, and I found myself being nuzzled by the smaller stallion, in public, no less. For once... it was somewhat comforting.

"...it's Cadance, isn't it? I'm sorry, man. I know what it's like. Trust me."

Moss said nothing more as he trotted off to his seat at the table, a fact for which I was grateful. I still couldn't comprehend the notion that he cared... but he was a cheat and a swindler, just like me. Perhaps that was why he cared... but I vowed to be careful and cover my flank, just in case. I couldn't let anypony get close, beyond a certain point, and that was the truth for what seemed like decades. Only one alicorn had broken through that barrier... and after our last conversation, that point may as well have been null and void.

"Hey, there he is! The stallion that set this whole shindig in motion! Fillies and gents, this is Prince Blueblood, the unicorn who organized this party for me!" Shining Armor beckoned me over as his little group proceeded to clap and nod. The feeling was somewhat nice, so I offered a small bow and stepped up. My attention remained only upon him, as those around us seemed to blur into the background. Pleasantries could wait. We had a schedule, damn it, and we were sticking to it.

I cleared my throat and inclined my head toward Shining, gaining from him the quirk of a brow. "I think it's about time you made your little speech, followed by Moss, so that this party can officially begin."

"Oh! Yeah, sure. If you'll all excuse me," he sang, offering the politest smile and small gesture of a hoof to his friends. They all nodded and backed away, none of them the least bit upset... and none of them paying me any attention as they retreated. Typical.

"So... any preference, or things you want me to include in this?" he asked as we both sat down. He cast his eyes about the room as the wait staff began to pour out of the kitchens, lead along by Flare. The ponies carried trays and pitchers, and quickly began laying out spreads all along the head table, along with the many circular tables surrounding the dance floor. Most of the guests got the hint and began to move toward their assigned seats, as two stallions began walking up and down our table, pouring wine into our goblets as they went.

"None. This is my party, but your show. As always," I said through grit teeth. Shining frowned a bit, his expression and tone humble as he watched one of the staff walk up. The pegasus was tall, and clad in a starched, white jacket, with a white mask covering most of his face, the ensemble completed by a chefs hat. A few pale blonde strands of hair poked out from beneath the cap, and accented his yellow fur quite nicely. I could have sworn he looked familiar, but passed it off as sheer coincidence while he discarded an empty caraffe and began pouring wine into Shining's goblet from a fresh pitcher.

"Vlad... you'll have your glory soon. I'll make it up to you, on my honor." Shining nodded to the familiar looking pony as he finished pouring, and the pegasus retreated behind the table to stand near to Shining as the unicorn tapped his fork upon the goblet to signal the beginning of his speech. The entire room fell silent in an instant, and all eyes were upon Shining.

"Fillies and gentlecolts," he began. "We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the start of something beautiful. The beginning of a movement to provide housing to those in need, and take in more of Canterlot's disadvantaged. With the help of my beautiful wife, Princess Cadance," he shot her an adoring look. I threw up in my mouth a little bit. "I've been able to break new ground, and offer up this opportunity to those in need. That being said... before we go any further, I think we need to recognize a pony who worked his flank off to bring us all here tonight, and put a lot of effort into making this event a successful one. Give it up for the stallion I consider a true noble, a friend, and just maybe, a bit of a brother. Raise your voices for Prince Blueblood!"

I blinked in shock, not having expected to be incorporated or recognized in his little speech. The crowd began to clap and cheer, and they did so for me. It was the greatest ego boost I'd had in a long time, and so I puffed out my chest and basked in pride as I was finally given some credit. Auntie Celestia, Shining Armor, Cadenza, and Moss all joined, as did Luna, albeit reluctantly. As the fanfare died down, Shining nodded and smiled at me, and I returned the gesture while he raised his goblet.

"A toast to the real pony we should honor tonight, alongside this noble cause. Let's all drink to Prince Blueblood!"

The ponies did as he asked, and as he began to bring his goblet toward his lips, I caught sight of something... odd. There, within the wine, was a small, bright red clump of moss, swirling and dancing among the currents of the liquid. Shining brought the edge of the chalice to his lips, and began to drink.