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In a world full of grays, it’s nice to see some color every now and again. Maybe that’s why she’s so bloody popular these days.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie," she calls herself up on her little makeshift stage. She juggles red-hot fireballs in her forehooves. She summons a lightning cloud right above her, holding out a jar to capture a bolt, showing the crowd the blue lightning bouncing back and forth across the glass like an angry blue moth yearning to break free. She’s really outdone herself this time around, and for once, the crowd knows it. In these tough times, it’s great to have a stage artist who really pours her heart and soul into her work just to bring a smile onto  everypony’s face. I think it helps some of them forget the worldwide depressions – both in our economy and in our very environment.

Her gray witch’s hat, dotted with too many gray moons and stars, rises off her head with a simple levitation spell and passes through the crowd, collecting bits as it goes along. This in itself is unremarkable – any unicorn in Canterlot can do that. What’s actually amazing about this magic is that as she does so, her snout starts elongating, her gray coat becoming more furry as she morphs steadily into a small fox with a bushy tail. Rarely have I seen morphing magic, and rarer still such flawless magic worked with a concurrent spell.

Most of the crowd goes wild. I just give a smile and a nod at the unicorn-turned-fox. The fox catches my nod and winks back. She knows that coming from me, my nodding is a round of applause.

I take solace in those purple eyes and colorful spells, knowing that not everypony’s lost all will yet. It’s such a shame, that it will be her last showing in Canterlot. At least I’ll get to see her one last time after the show.

I first met Trixie about a month ago, right as the Great Depression was really starting to make itself felt…

--------

Octavia sat alone at a booth in Doughnut Joe’s small restaurant, staring out of a clear gray window into a sunny, gray sky.

Joe tried his best to keep the place clean and cheerful, but this was rather hard to do when the world around you is nothing but gray – gray windows, gray floor, gray doughnuts, gray skies. It’s not his fault, though. Discord is still on the loose. The god of chaos busted out of his stone prison a long time ago. The Princesses both expected he’d come out swinging against Canterlot with exploding flying pigs and plagues of burro mariachi bands. He’d draw the country’s greatest heroes, or the ‘Mane Six’ as the radio station in Manehattan dubs them, all over him like moths to the flame. There he’d be facing his kryptonite, the Elements of Harmony. They would bury him in his stone prison once again, and that would be the end of the matter… or so the Princesses thought.

Octavia’s right hoof listlessly stirred a cup of would-be black coffee with a spoon. Taking the spoon in both hooves, she raised it out of the cup, tasting the essence on the spoon’s hot edge. She stared briefly at the spoon, noting that at least a sense of taste had not yet been taken away.

There, in the spoon’s reflection, Octavia noticed another pony approaching her from behind.

The earth pony sat down across from her, a colt with a gray coat, gray mane, and gray eyes. Discord was beginning to seep into living things now, rendering them totally gray in appearance if not in personality. Octavia herself had already seen her neat, flowing mane turning from a shiny jet-black to a dull gray. For her, it was only a matter of time before she became like the rest… but what could she do?

The stranger held a newspaper in his mouth. Gently, he lay it down on the table, rolling it out in front of Octavia. The paper itself was the Arts & Entertainment section of the Canterlot Times. The Times remained afloat, largely because there seemed to be no shortage of bad news these days; the Arts section, on the other hand, had taken a big hit after several big-name companies had suddenly found themselves victims of financial Ponzi schemes and went belly-up, one after the other. A few well-meaning members of the Canterlot nobility had attempted to save some of these companies… alas, the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra, of which Octavia had been a cellist, had gone under roughly half a year previously. Octavia hadn’t been able to find honest work since.

The front page of the Arts & Entertainment section showed an arrogant-looking gray unicorn mare, brazenly smiling for the camera, dressed in an astral-themed cloak and hat.

“Why don’t you go?” The stranger said, smiling innocently at Octavia. “It could be worth your while.”

--------

When I first met Trixie, I had to wonder what I’d done to deserve watching.

A set of wooden floorboards popped out from beneath this travelling wagon, each section of floor unfolding from the last until finally I found myself staring at a crude but professionally-done makeshift stage. I had to admit – at the time, I felt a bit nostalgic. Before it became a respected profession, theatrical performances were largely confined to travelling stages such as these. They’re very useful for quick escapes if the crowd doesn’t like your acting… or, worse yet, if they just don’t like any acting.

This was about as good as the show got. One moment later, the unicorn mare herself teleports on stage, falsely grinning like a total charlatan. She then proceeds to perform cheap tricks that any buffoon can perform fresh out of magic kindergarten, all the while proclaiming her nearly infinite greatness. It’s all a joke, but the crowd doesn’t even care. They’re all stamping their hooves and cheering on because they sure as hell don’t want to turn back to reality at the moment.

And yet, as I stared at the stage, I couldn’t help but notice that although the rest of her had long since turned gray, Trixie’s eyes burned with a bright purple hue. Though her act was a sham, somewhere down inside that phony cloak and witch’s hat lay a pony with passion. It was easy to read in those eyes just why I was directed to her. A pony like that is afraid to say nothing.

She’s just afraid of doing anything.

--------

Trixie sighed, and plopped down at last on the straw pallet in her small travelling wagon.

For all the work I put into this gig, she thought, ponies remain as stingy as ever. I suppose the Depression isn’t helping, nor all this gray. She pawed listlessly at the gray wooden floor of the wagon. Gray walls, gray wheels, even gray fireworks. Whoever heard of gray fireworks!?

She slammed a hoof down in quiet frustration.

“Curse you, Twilight Sparkle,” she muttered darkly to herself. “It’s bad enough you had to show me up… though I admit it wasn’t your fault. But must you take an eternity hunting down a god of chaos? How difficult can it be to track down someone like that?”

Her horn glowing, Trixie levitated her gray witch’s hat covered with gray stars and moons off her head, promptly flipping it over to watch a few gray bits fall onto the floor. One took an unlucky bounce off the inside of her hat, bouncing off of her horn, provoking a curse.

“I just had to go into stage magic, didn’t I?” she mused bitterly. “I wanted to see the world and meet all kinds of bumpkin ponies! Ha! What a torpid world this has turned out to be. They all just stomp their hooves and cheer their stupid little pony minds off. I mean, Celestia!” She got up and walked towards the back wall of her wagon, on which was fastened a small mirror. Trixie stared at her reflection. “Every performance, it just gets simpler and simpler to make them applaud! All I have to do is bow and they just stomp, stomp, stomp! Don’t they realize what a stupid act this is? It used to MEAN something when I did it. I used to pull out all these truly fantastic tricks and stunts…” she sighed, looking dejectedly away from the mirror. “But they never seemed to care.”

“Is that so?”

Trixie jumped with a loud “AH!”, spinning around to find an earth pony mare standing in the doorway of her wagon. Like most ponies these days, she was entirely gray – a long, flowing, straight gray mane on top of a gray body. Around its neck hung a gray collar and bowtie, holding in place a small gray bow for a stringed instrument. The gray earth pony came complete with a gray tail pooling on the floor. However, unlike most ponies, her cutie mark – a bright lavender treble clef – remained unchanged by the Depression.

It did not, however, take Trixie long to recover her character. “What are you doing in here!?” she angrily demanded. “Did the Great and Powerful Trixie grant you permission to barge in? Begone at once!” She thrust a hoof forward towards the door.

“My apologies for intruding,” the earth pony replied calmly, bowing her head. “I couldn’t help but overhear your lament of pony society these days.”

“…Ah.” Trixie looked over her visitor. “You seem to be faring well. Come to gloat, have you? Come to bellow your superiority over the Grayed and Petulant Trixie?” She snorted at her own self-deprecation. “I may not have money to spare, but I still have some dignity left!”

“Do you?” The earth pony coolly replied. “Because you just admitted you’re not even trying anymore… though frankly, I see your point. Why bother?”

“Hmm? What’s your angle?” Trixie stared suspiciously.

“Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Sonata, a cellist in the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra… or rather, I WAS a cellist before they closed down.” Trixie nodded at that; the orchestra had been a major victim of the recent financial scam wave, going under as a result of such heavy losses. Though Discord’s involvement was heavily suspected, the world of financial trading and options and swaps and speculations remained relatively new, and evidence impossible to obtain. “And yet before that time, I could not help but observe how the audience always clapped their hooves and cheered no matter how poorly you played. Yes, the critics in the newspapers could observe you well enough, but did the audience yokels catch you missing the D flat? Or hitting a C sharp when you needed a B? No. They don’t know the difference. They just follow each other as one brainless crowd.”

Trixie blinked, briefly taken aback by such scathing remarks. “That is precisely what I’m complaining about!” she replied eagerly. “I used to blast myself out of cannons, then reappear from beneath the stage when everypony thought I’d gone for miles! I used to juggle fireballs, catch lightning in a jar, even morph myself into a fox and multiply into a thousand! No pony could ever guess which one was the real Trixie!” She stopped, realizing how emphatically she was waving her hooves about in the air, recalling her glory days. Her eyes narrowed with anger as she settled back down. “But you’re exactly right. They don’t know the difference between saying you defeated an ursa major and actually doing so. They don’t even care.”

“No, they don’t,” Sonata replied sadly. “Not anymore. That’s why I came in – it’s heartening to meet a fellow artist who understands our troubles, even if she’s not in the same art as myself.” She bowed before Trixie, then turned around, walking back towards the door. “Well, I must be off – I need to find work again at some point. My bills won’t pay themselves, sadly.”

Sonata looked back at Trixie.

“But I should tell you, living in this city as long as I have: they may not be as cultured as they like to believe, but the unicorns of Canterlot will care nothing for you if you don’t make your performance more… classy.”

--------

For a pony so proud, I found her surprisingly… easy to sway. My advice, of course, was not wrong – once she cleaned up her act, Canterlotites began to take notice. It started off slowly, with one or two additional ponies standing around for an extra minute or two. My past audiences were so large that I could never keep track of such things, but Trixie noticed. I suppose a mare in her position simply had to.

She just began with simple things, like making repairs to the stage and applying varnish and finish to the wood to give it a bit more elegance and charm. She considered giving the wagon a new paint job, but of course, things remained gray around here, so paint would not have done much good. She gave her cloak and hat makeovers, opting for a few constellations in place of so many cheesy moons and stars. “It’s really working,” she told me excitedly one evening. “My proceeds from these shows have roughly doubled! Thank you so much for the advice!”

I just smiled back. Everything was proceeding flawlessly, culminating at last in tonight’s performance. She said she’s not fond of staying in one place for too long, and in any case she feels like she’s recaptured the magic of her glory days. Her eyes remain as bright as they ever were, but now she can also see as clearly as she ever had. She has her life back when very few ponies can say the same.

Perhaps that’s why I can’t help but feel a small pang of guilt...

--------

Trixie and Sonata stood side by side, staring out into the night sky.

Canterlot was a city built on a large plateau carved into the side of Mount Atlas, named for the first pegasus to scale the massive peak. As such, portions of Canterlot teetered over the edge of the valley far below. The valley itself was uninhabited, dotted with trees and occasional refuse from ponies who lived close enough to the edge to just chuck it all right off. It was said that occasionally over the centuries, corpses ended up down in that small wood, too. Infrequent rumors of ghost sightings down there led to the moniker ‘The Haunted Wood’.

Yet for such a morbid place existing so far below, the edges of Canterlot were thought to be the most beautiful places to visit. If felt like you literally stood upon the end of the world. Look north, and you saw the endless Nimbus Fields stretching across the horizon. Look south, and you could see the town of Ponyville nestled close to the Everfree Forest, both far away. Look west, and you could dimly see the distant peaks of the Sierra Regatta Range, named for the airship races that took place every year through those mountains.

“Do you come out this way very often?” Trixie asked.

“Not terribly often,” Sonata replied. “In my younger days at Canterlot University, this was once a place for couples to meet. I tended to be more interested in my studies than the local stallions. It is a very pretty sight, though. It reminds me that although the good times may be gone, they will one day return with new vigor.”

“I’m sure they will.” Trixie stepped forward and laid what she considered a reassuring hoof on Sonata’s shoulder. “These are rough times we all go through. Yet I think I’ve finally realized that no matter what times you live in, they are rougher still if you go it alone. Sonata, I’ve given the matter a lot of thought, and….” Trixie gave her new friend a warm smile, reflected in her proud purple eyes. “You’re the one who saved me from myself, and I think I’d like to help you in return. What would you say about travelling around with me for a while? I admit your talents are somewhat different from mine, and I’m not sure how you’d complement my style… but it’s better than hanging around here jobless. You could see the world, make new friends in distant lands, make a fresh start in life. What do you say?”

Sonata paused, mulling over the offer.

--------

A sonata is a musical piece consisting of four movements. Each movement differs in tempo, rhythm, and melody; all four are held together by subject and style. In a way, I truly do fit my false identity.

The first movement is observation, where I first catch a glimpse of the target.

The second movement is befriending, where I move in and get very close and personal…

Octavia moved forward, wrapping her hooves around Trixie’s neck in an embrace, one which Trixie rather slowly and awkwardly gave back. As the two ponies comforted one another, Octavia glanced around the area, as though scanning for anyone else in the area before letting go, pulling back so that she stood right before Trixie's face.

The third movement…

I'd wondered for a while now how to go about this part. In any confrontation between a unicorn and an earth pony, the unicorn wins almost every time due to her magic. I cannot silence a unicorn to prevent her from casting spells, nor do I have much time before she can cast. It was very fortunate for me that when I first met her, that coin bounced off Trixie's horn. I found it rather strange that she would be upset by an annoying but otherwise harmless act of gravity.

Because of that accident, I later discovered using the Canterlot library that because so much potent magical energy is stored in the horn, a unicorn's horn is very sensitive. A slight flick of the horn, such as that caused by a falling coin, hurts a unicorn; a full-force punch leaves it in the grip of agony.

The third movement begins thusly.

Trixie staggered backward, gasping in pain, eyes clenched tightly from the hard hoof-smack delivered to her horn. She stumbled backward, trying vainly to put distance between herself and the pony she thought was a great friend. It was a marvel she could even do that much, but as Octavia once more closed the distance between the two, Trixie managed to squeak out one last word:

"Why!?"

I slam my hoof right into the side of her jaw, knocking her to the ground. She struggles, swinging her hooves out blindly in hope of hitting me, but I simply jump over her body and at this point, it's all over. I slam my hoof down into the side of her head, feeling her jaw snap, watching blood start gushing out of her mouth. I see her barely open one teary eye, still begging me to stop, still believing that somehow, for some reason, I'll put the hoof down and pretend like this didn't just happen.

I keep smashing my hoof down onto her skull, dragging up blood and bone each time I pull back until finally Trixie stops moving entirely. It’s one hell of a way to end a friendship… but with the world the way it is right now, a pony must do what she must to survive. I don’t know who she pissed off – a would-be lover who stared too long into those eyes, perhaps. I’ll never know now, that’s for sure. All I know as I grab her corpse and fling it over the edge of Canterlot into the Haunted Woods far below is that somepony put a lot of bits on her head, and I needed the money.

Octavia’s eyes, watery throughout her train of thought, slowly hardened back into the cold, rational eyes of a paid killer.

And the fourth is to wash the blood off my hooves and cash her check in the morning.

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