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Chapter 21: A Rose’s Weapons
As more ponies from the Barrier Lands made their way into Canterlot, the initial shock and worry that the citizens met them began to be replaced with a mixture of feelings: curiosity, resignation, suspicion, even enthusiasm. The nobles remained doubtful, even when Princess Celestia picked out some of them to be teleported to the Barrier Lands. The middle and lower class ponies didn't raise as much of a fuss. They still trusted their princess even after the things she admitted. Equestria was under attack and, until it became more obvious that there was something else going on, they were willing to lend a hoof.
The legionnaires, for their part, were polite and well-behaved. Save for a few incidents, they conducted their draft calmly. Many showed some interest towards Canterlot’s technology, particularly the train that transported them to the city as well as the airships. They also put some effort into trying to befriend the citizens despite what they had to do.
For Octavia, however, even these efforts only betrayed a more unsettling aspect of these ponies. Sitting inside a local café, she watched as a pair of legionnaires walked past a window. These legionnaires did everything as if they were in a play: they spoke as if they had a script, they acted as if they were choreographed, and every move they made was a reflection of restraint and deliberation. Even the two who just walked by did so with their gazes focused and paces in a no-nonsense hurry. ‘And to think that, soon, even my friends will be behaving like them,” she thought.
The gentle rain that had been falling all morning only served to worsen Octavia’s melancholy. She had come to her favorite café to try to relax for a while. Her coat and umbrella were still dripping from the rain. When she had arrived for the morning recital earlier, it turned out that a quarter of the orchestra had been drafted and about as much had decided to volunteer. The performance would have trudged on if three-quarters of the audience seats weren't empty. Canterlot simply wasn't in the mood for music right now. Her thoughts went to her friends and fellow musicians. When the draft began, it was her brother who answered the call, sparing her from having to go. Most of her friends, however, now had the misfortune of being only foals. The Equestrian Legion held no interest in Canterlot’s music and their new recruits had to set aside musical instruments for barding and tramplers. She looked towards her own instrument, the cello she kept close to her at all times, and sighed. Not that there was going to be much work for musicians like her for a while. Maybe even for good.
The sound of the front door's bells tinkling brought Octavia's attention to the café’s entrance. A golden brown unicorn stallion had entered. He had an impressive dark blond mane, swept back and arranged more like a lion’s mane than a pony’s. He had a luxurious beard to match, one with a few streaks of black in it. He took off his coat and hung it on the rack provided by the cafe, revealing a a tailor-made, dark red suit. Octavia’s eyes went to his belt, however, and the long swords strapped to it. Sure enough, he had no cutie mark. Still, his demeanor marked him differently from the legionnaires. He caught sight of her staring, smiled warmly, then bowed in greeting. Embarrassed, Octavia looked away and focused on her cup of tea while he went over to order something.
“Pardon me,” somepony said. Octavia nearly choked on her tea before she looked up. Whoever was talking to her had a voice meant for opera; a rich, stentorian tone that she certainly didn’t expect. She looked to her side and found that the stallion from the entrance had approached her. He still had that smile he had greeted her just a few moments ago. “This is a bit lonely at the moment, would you grant me the pleasure of your company while I enjoy this coffee?”
Octavia stared for a few more seconds before realizing that this pony was waiting for an answer. “Oh, um…” She caught herself and remembered her manners. Perhaps this wasn’t a legionnaire. He could be a noble from the Barrier Lands who had arrived with the Equestrian Legion to visit. “Very well,” she said.
The stallion dipped his head slightly. “Thank you,” he said. “My name is Lion Court, and you are?”
“Octavia. You are from the Barrier Lands, aren't you? Are you a legionnaire?”
Lion Court sat across the table from Octavia and took a sip of his coffee. “Yes and no,” he said. “It’s true that I came with the Legion, but I am not affiliated with them. I came here to experience the Heartland’s culture before certain…elements bring about alterations.” He glanced at the window just as another pair of legionnaires walked by.
Octavia followed his gaze and mentally agreed. “Is it going to get that bad?” she asked.
“Perhaps.” Lion Court took on a more reassuring tone. “The Legion serves an important purpose, Lady Octavia, but it is all but blind to the things beyond that purpose. Beauty, art, music…the Legion has little use for these things.” He suddenly glanced at the cello next to Octavia. “Pardon me for noticing, but I see that you have an instrument with you. Are you a musician of renown in this city?”
Octavia put a hoof over her cello and pulled it a little closer. “Well…I don’t mean to brag, but I have performed in some very important events here in Canterlot,” she replied in as modest a tone as she could. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but show a hint of pride. It wasn't easy to build a career in music here in Canterlot. Nobles were harsh and fickle judges. With so many aspiring musicians eager to take any opportunity coming her way, all it took was a poor performance to toss her out on the street.
“Such a wonderful turn of events!” Lion Court said. “I have been looking for musicians all over this fine city and haven’t been met with success. Now, while I’m taking a break, I run into one!”
“Many of the musicians have been recruited into the Legion,” Octavia said glumly. Whatever pleasure she could have taken from this pony’s elation was washed away by that reminder of Canterlot’s state.
“A tragedy,” Lion Court said softly. “But let’s not dwell on things we cannot change.” He leaned on the table with both hooves and stared at Octavia intently. “Not everypony coming from the Barrier Lands is an agent of the Legion. I represent a more private group interested in preserving the things the Legion will simply trample. If what you said is true, it would be my honor to present you to my mistress.”
Octavia held her cello a little tighter under Lion Court’s stare. He sounded so reassuring and his offer piqued her curiosity. Just a few moments ago, she was bemoaning the thought of being unable to find much work in the coming days. Now, here comes somepony from the same place as the Legion who was offering her some solace. It sounded too good to be true. It could very well be. “Perhaps I should consult with others about this first,” she said.
“Of course,” Lion Court replied. He produced a card from one of his suit’s pockets and placed it on the table. “Both my mistress and I are temporarily staying at this address. Come at any time.” He took another sip from his cup and set it on the table. “But listen to me, talking about business so quickly after making an acquaintance! Let us set that aside for something more pleasant, shall we?”
“Yes,” Octavia replied with a smile. She found herself listening more often than talking. Lion Court spoke his first experiences with Canterlot and what he thought of Equestria’s capital. Just hearing somepony from the Barrier Lands sincerely admiring Canterlot felt great and there was something so…grand about the way Lion Court sounded. She didn't know how many minutes they spent talking, but she had noticed that her tea was already cold and his coffee was gone.
“I’m afraid it’s time for me to go,” Lion Court said. He stood up and bowed slightly. “I hope we meet again soon, Lady Octavia.” With that, he left the café.
Octavia’s gaze followed Lion Court until he disappeared from view. She looked to the card he had left with her, taking note of the address. She found it a little odd, however, for a Barrier Lands noble to suddenly decide to stay in Canterlot. Did they not have fine, wealthy cities in that land? She took her cello, left the cup of cold tea on the table along with a small tip, and headed out.
She barely got two steps out of the door when somepony crashed right into her. The cello flew from her hooves along with her umbrella, skidding across the damp pavement before stopping against a street light and, to her horror, on a puddle. Something else flew from the collision, it looked like a small stone tablet.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn't see you coming and, hey let me help you with-!”
Octavia barely heard the high pitched voice from whoever had clumsily plowed over her. She rushed towards her cello and inspected it. The case had been soaked. She didn't dare open it now and let the rain ruin the instrument completely. All she could do was get it somewhere dry and hope for the best.
“Here let me help you with that!”
A pink hoof reached over Octavia’s shoulder to take the cello. She slapped it away and stood up. She turned towards the stupid, three-legged ox of a pony who blundered into her, a few choice words already about to leap from her lips. When she saw who it was, however, she stopped.
There was no mistaking that poofy pink mane and that high-pitched whine of a voice. It was the pink pony. The same pink pony who had ruined Octavia’s first Grand Galloping Gala, then followed it up by crashing into Fancy Pants’s party at the royal gardens. Both events were among her most important and the pink pony had blundered into them in succession.
“I’m so sorry!” the pink pony said. “I was busy looking at this tablet while walking that I didn't see you. Are you okay? I hope your instrument is okay!”
Octavia answered all the questions with a single frigid stare. Without a single word, she took her cello, strapped it to her back, then went her way.
The news about Princess Celestia banishing her own student along with her friends was known all throughout Canterlot. Twilight Sparkle…it was only recently that Octavia was able to put the name and the pony together. She had heard about the princess’s protégé, but never actually knew the pony in any way. It had turned out to be the purple unicorn in the plain yellow dress flailing about, Octavia refused to call it dancing, in the garden. More importantly, “Twilight Sparkle and her friends” turned out to be the same group that the wretched pink pony belonged to. With Princess Celestia’s announcements, it was now plain enough that this group of ponies was involved in the Legion coming to Equestria. If they weren’t completely responsible for it.
‘Of course she’s involved,’ Octavia thought as she tried to hurry away. ‘Whatever that pink pony touches ends up being ruined. Should I even be shocked that she and her friends have succeeded in ruining all of Canterlot?’
“Wait!” the pink pony cried out as she ran after Octavia. She laid a hoof on Octavia's shoulder, eliciting another withering stare.
“Don’t touch me!” Octavia snapped.
“I just want to-!”
“You have done enough! Oh, believe me, pink pony, you have done more than enough!”
The pink pony fell back, allowing Octavia to get away. She rounded several corners, then hurried to a shade. She inspected the case and, to her horror, she noticed that it had been badly torn during the fall. Water had already leaked inside. She opened the case, desperately praying that the cello was alright.
The water had soaked deeply into the wood. Octavia stared at it for a while. Her cello was ruined. Perhaps there was some restoration shop out there capable of undoing the damage. Maybe some unicorn somewhere had the right spell for the job. All she had to do was put some effort into it…
But what for? The apathy that clutched at her formed tears in Octavia’s eyes. Just considering that question made her chest draw tight. A hoof touched her shoulder again. She was about to slap it away when she heard the voice that came with it.
“So soon?” Lion Court asked. “Have you come to take up my offer?”
Octavia looked around her in surprise, suddenly realizing that she had come to the very address that Lion Court had provided her. “N-no…” she said. She tried compose herself before she faced this stallion. Cello or none, she still had to show some dignity. “Not that I could.” She forced a wry laugh. “Not when my cello is like this.”
Lion Court looked at the instrument. “Nonsense,” he said. “My mistress came to this land to help its culture. A little water damage is not going to stop her. Come, come, I’ll introduce you.” He took her by one hoof and led the way.
Octavia let herself be pulled along. It looked like they were about to enter one of the bigger apartments in Canterlot. It was only fitting. Lion Court’s “mistress” sounded like a noble from the Barrier Lands, perhaps the first who wanted to be a patron of music from that strange, hostile place. Her eyes widened when he veered to one side and into the alley next to the building. “Wait,” she said. “Where are we going?” Her heart sank when he opened the door to what appeared to be a service entrance. She went inside as he stepped to the side and gestured for her to go ahead, expecting to stumble into the kitchens or something.
Instead, she found herself suddenly standing inside a magnificent hall. The floor, walls, and ceiling were obsidian, polished so that they reflected perfectly. A pale luminescence filled the entire hallway, but Octavia couldn't find the source. It was as if the light was simply there. Three doors lined either side of the hall while the end had a pair of enormous double doors. Octavia looked behind her and found Lion Court standing there, smiling. He hadn't closed the door behind him as there wasn't one. “Where are we?” she asked. The sight of the hall nearly took her breath away.
“My mistress’s temporary home,” Lion Court replied. “Come, I want to introduce you to her as soon as possible.”
They walked through the hallway, passing through each pair of smaller rooms. The doors were of a silvery crystal, also polished to a mirror-like finish. “These are the rooms my fellow agents and I stay in,” Lion Court said. “Wonderful accommodations, especially given how quickly they were created.” They came upon the double doors. “And here are my mistress’s quarters.” Lion Court paused and listened. “Ah, busy as usual,” he said. “Your timing will be impeccable.”
Octavia glanced at her cello. The instrument was in no condition to play. What was Lion Court expecting of her? There was no time to ponder, however. The doors opened and she followed the stallion into the room.
If Octavia still had any lingering doubts about the class of pony she was being introduced to, they crumbled into nothing as soon as she laid her eyes on the room. A luxurious red carpet covered the floor. Every furnishing seemed to be gold-trimmed ebony: the lamps, which held not bulbs, but glowing crystals, the desk by one side of the room, the coat rack close to the door…
Then, there was the raised bed at the center. It was circular, just as the room was. It was hard to make out any details because Octavia’s eyes were drawn to the pony reclining upon it. All of a sudden, she felt completely unprepared for this meeting. She was dingy, damp, and uncombed. There were probably water stains on her normally pristine white collar and her mane was far too disheveled. Lion Court’s “mistress” was, perhaps, the most beautiful mare she had laid her eyes on: lustrous black coat, a flowing crimson mane that spilled all around her, eyes of the softest gray…the sight of both black-feathered wings and a horn left Octavia in awe. Every pony she had seen like that had been royalty. She wasn't just faced with a Barrier Lands noble, she was faced with a Barrier Lands princess.
“How are Hassyth’s little ponies, Longstride?” the princess asked. That was when Octavia finally noticed the multiple magical images lined up before Lion Court's mistress . She tried to get a closer look and recognized some of them as scenes from Canterlot, another one showed a building that she knew was in Baltimare, yet another was of Trottingham. The images were moving as if they were following the eyes of somepony.
“Proceeding as planned,” was the reply. Since there was nopony else in the room, Octavia assumed that it was from one of the images. “They ran into trouble with a Legion patrol, but they will be in striking position soon.”
“Excellent, I’m going to nudge Rainbow Dash your way soon. Stay alert.”
The princess dismissed all the images and looked up to her guests. “Back already, Lion Court?” she asked. “I had expected you to linger in Canterlot to enjoy the sights.”
“I will, mistress,” Lion Court replied. “But work has to come first.” He gestured towards Octavia. “This is Octavia. Octavia, this is my mistress, Black Rose.”
Black Rose turned her gaze on Octavia. “Lovely,” she said with a smile. “Are you sure you followed Warsinger’s signals and not your own tastes?”
Black Rose gestured with a hoof. In response, something stirred from the back of the room. A globe of red light suddenly floated forward, hovering briefly near Black Rose, then slowly making its way towards Octavia. “Looks like Warsinger approves,” she said. “Sterling work as usual, Lion Court.” She turned her gaze towards Octavia again. “I've been quite stressed lately. There is so much at stake, so many plans in motion, and I have to do it all while my beloved hunts me like a criminal. Will you play me something, Octavia? Something soothing from the Heartland’s musical culture.”
Octavia gazed warily at the now circling light. Still, she heard what Black Rose said. She removed her instrument from its case. She had done her best to wipe down the cello, but she doubted it was going to sound remotely right. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that,” she said. “My cello…”
“You needn't worry,” Black Rose said. “Warsinger is all that it will take.” The globe of light landed gently on the cello, then flashed briefly. Octavia gasped and clutched the instrument tightly. When the light faded, however, nothing seemed to have happened. She looked at the cello. The water stains had disappeared. “Please…” Black Rose said. “I would love to hear a short performance. I have a great many tasks ahead of me and your music will be vital to their accomplishment.”
Before Octavia even realized it, she had already set the cello in place and she was already holding the bow. Something soothing…she picked a quick piece that would fit. She had no idea what was going on, but to hear this magnificent princess say that she was needed helped put her at ease. With life in Canterlot falling apart for her, discovering this new place was nothing short of a miracle. She could play here, where she would be with an appreciative audience, away from that wretched pink pony, her friends, and the stone-faced, uncaring Legion.
As Octavia played the piece, she noticed something about her cello. Not only was it still playing wonderfully, it seemed as if it was playing better than ever. The notes flowed perfectly, making her smile at her own performance. “Warsinger” sounded ominous, but if it could repair her precious cello and make it even better, she welcomed it.
Black Rose’s smile grew wider at the end of the piece. “More than what I had hoped for,” she said. “I would love to welcome you to my little group, Octavia. Won’t you join me in protecting Equestria from those who would ruin it?”
Lion Court had just closed the door after escorting Octavia to her new room. There was more to take care of than just welcoming their new member. Her records in Canterlot will have to be modified lest ponies start looking for her. What was expected of her had to be explained in better detail. For now, Octavia agreed to stay with them because she could play her music here as well as because of Black Rose's sheer presence. Before she could be remotely considered a proper Thorn, she had to be loyal to their cause. That was going to take a lot of slow, steady work. Still, he was in agreement with Black Rose. Warsinger had picked its new player well. For now, there were the other things he had in mind.
“Are you returning to Canterlot, Lion Court?” Black Rose had asked right before Lion Court began to escort Octavia.
“Yes, mistress, I still plan on preparing the Element of Generosity for our inevitable proper meeting.”
“While you’re there, would you mind picking up a present for Blue Moon? He should be reminded that there are no hard feelings between us and prison does get quite boring.”
“I have just the thing.”
Lion Court was about to activate his dimensional key when he heard the voice of another Thorn.
“So how was Rhapsody’s replacement?”
“My dear Sable, Octavia is not replacing anypony. She’s a brand new member of our little family.” Lion Court turned around and faced the dark green pegasus mare.
Sablesteel stood at the end of the hallway and stared at Lion Court with a frown. “If she can get Warsinger playing, she can be whatever she wants to be in this group,” she said as she tucked a stray lock of her wavy gray mane behind her ear.
“Black Rose has assigned me the task of getting her ready,” Lion Court replied. “I will do just that. Speaking of assignments, I’m surprised you’re spending time here.”
“Just stopped by for a quick break,” Sablesteel replied.
“Would you care to do me a small favor?” Lion Court asked.
“I know that you've been assigned to put the Element of Joy through ‘a little adversity’. All I ask is that you refrain from actually taking the lives of her loved ones. A broken element will set our mistress’s plans back for years.”
Sablesteel was silent for some time. She closed both her eyes and folded her forelegs in front of her. Lion Court knew the gesture well. Once she had made a decision, Sable would open one eye first. The blue one indicated a positive response while the green one would often mean a horrifying, noxious death for somepony. To his relief, the blue eye appeared first. “No promises,” Sable said as she headed for her room. Before she closed the door, she paused and spoke. “And, Lion Court, if you sleep with that new mare, I will beat you to death with her severed head.”
“You wound me, my dear Sable.”
“Oh, you’ll know if I've wounded you.”
Lion Court bowed his appreciation, then went on his way. As his mistress had mentioned, there was so much to do…