It was very late by the time Lyra got home.
“Where were you?” asked Bonbon, looking up from the recipe she was studying. "I was starting to get worried."
“I was with Octavia, nothing to worry about,” said Lyra, smiling giddily. “She played her latest piece for me. Do you realize what that means?” She flopped down on the couch. “Do you know how many nobles would pays buckets of bits to hear one of her unreleased pieces? And she just played it for me. It was amazing.”
“Did you decide if you’re going to go to Canterlot?”
“Yeah, I am!” Lyra laughed. “I told her that today. I’m sorry, Bonbon, but it’s just such an incredible opportunity, and—“
“I told you already, I’m fully in favor of you going. Get me some autographs, okay?”
“You got it!”
The doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” said Bonbon. She trotted over to the door. “Hello? Oh, hi Trixie. What’s up?”
Lyra shot to her feet. “Not now,” she said. “Get out.”
Bonbon looked between the two of them. “What’s wrong?”
Trixie stepped into the threshold of the door. “Lyra, please. Just give me five—“
“I don’t want to talk to you now. Bonbon, could you please shut the door?”
Bonbon hesitated. “Uh—“
“Lyra! Please!” Trixie began trying to force her way past Bonbon, who shoved Trixie back. “I am begging you to listen to me!”
“I don’t care.” Lyra’s horn glowed. “Get out!”
She slammed the door shut just as Trixie stuck her front hoof through it. The door banged against Trixie’s leg, and the blue mare cried out.
“Trixie! Are you okay?” Bonbon threw the door open and looked down. Trixie’s leg was already beginning to bruise. “I’ll get some ice, and—“
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Trixie gritted her teeth and looked right at Lyra’s eyes. Lyra blinked – Trixie looked unusually, well, honest. “Lyra. Five minutes. That’s all I want.” She bowed her head. “Please. If you want to throw me out later, if you want me to never come back -- fine. Just give me five minutes.”
Lyra stared at her for several moments. Trixie didn't look so well -- were those bruises on her sides? She opened her mouth to ask what happened, then paused. Trixie hadn't brought those up, and that in and of itself was unusual for the attention-seeking mare. What was going on?
After a moment of thought, she said, “Bonbon, could you please be a dear and run down to the hospital? They should be able to get an ice pack for Trixie.”
Bonbon nodded and hurried out.
Trixie stepped inside. “Lyra – I’m sorry about what I said earlier. It was out of line.” She took a breath. "Way out of line. And -- and I know I shouldn't be thinking of things like that anymore. All I can do is beg you to overlook it, and..." She trailed off. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
“Just give me a few minutes to talk to you. I’m worried about you, and you’re my friend and friends don’t let their friends get hurt and, and…”
Lyra could tell how hard this was for Trixie, who so rarely thought of other ponies beyond herself. “Alright, Trixie. I’ll listen.”
Trixie took a deep breath and marshaled the arguments she'd come up with on the way over. “This Extravaganza, you said it’s a really big deal. Isn’t it unusual that the conductor would hire you without hearing you first?”
“He probably heard me at the recital we gave last month in Canterlot.”
“Not the same thing. You said it yourself, solos and playing as part of an orchestra section aren’t alike. Have you ever heard of a conductor who would hire a new musician, especially one without a professional history, without evaluating how they could do?”
Lyra hesitated. “I grant that it’s unusual, but I’m sure he just trusts Octavia. She’s one of the best, and she would never recommend somepony for a position they couldn’t fill. Besides, it’s starting in a week or so, so they wouldn’t have time for a full round of auditions.”
“Okay,” said Trixie. “Let’s take Octavia then. You’ve been in a lot of performances with her, right?”
“And for some of those, did she bring in other musicians? If you needed some unusual part or something?”
“Did she ever recommend a musician for a job, or hire one, without hearing them audition?”
“Trixie, she’s heard me play for years.”
“Has that ever mattered before?”
Lyra thought. Octavia often asked her trainees or students she knew to fill in for her groups when they needed a member… but… yes, she had always forced them to audition first. Even Lyra. “It’s not about friendship,” she’d said, when one mare had complained. “I need to know that you can play these pieces. That’s all there is to it.”
“No – but I was her closest trainee. It’s different. She trusts me completely.”
Trixie nodded a little. “Have you ever played in anything like this before – with a huge orchestra like this?”
“Well, not exactly…”
“Are you familiar with all of the music?”
Lyra shook her head. “I don’t know what pieces they’re playing yet.”
“Then shouldn’t she have had you go over them and audition, for you if not for her? It’s been months. For all she knows, you’ve slacked off.” Lyra opened her mouth, and Trixie held up a hoof. “I know you haven’t, but she doesn’t know that, since she only heard you play the one recital, and like you said, that’s not really the same as a big orchestra performance. She can't be certain that you’ll be able to play well in the Extravaganza -- especially since you've never seen the music. And if you do screw up, you’ll be the one who looks bad. Shouldn’t she have had you audition – Hay, brought some of the music with her and had you play it – just to make sure that wouldn’t happen? For your sake? Isn’t that what she would do in any other case?”
“I… yes, Octavia would normally insist on an audition. Probably even from me, for something like this. But there may not have been time. Like I said, this concert series starts really soon.”
“Then why did they wait so long to ask you? They had to have scheduled in months ago.”
“Maybe somepony got sick or quit,” said Lyra. “It happens.”
Trixie looked steadily at her. “So the conductor’s acting weird, Octavia’s acting weird, and it only makes even a hint of sense if a bunch of the lyre players had last minute emergencies and they didn’t have enough backups?”
Lyra was quiet for several moments.
Then she said, “It looks odd. I get it. But, yes, it’s completely possible that they needed an emergency fill-in and Octavia gave them my name. For that matter, it’s possible that I will have to audition once I arrive in Canterlot and Octavia is just assuming that I’ll pass without problems and so isn’t having me worry about it. I’ve known Octavia for years. If there was anything bad going on, she wouldn’t be involved… or, at the very least, if she was being forced into it, she would let me know.” She turned. “I appreciate your concern, Trixie. But I’m not convinced. And I’m still very upset with you for threatening to have me blacklisted.”
“Then let me prove it to you.”
Lyra turned back. “How?”
“I’ll – I’ll talk to Octavia. You’ll eavesdrop. If she’s setting you up, I’ll make her confess. If not, then I’ll probably just look stupid, and I won’t bother you anymore. I won’t try to stop from going to Canterlot with her.”
Lyra frowned. Trixie sounded unusually sincere and serious. “Why is this so important to you? No offense, Trixie, but even if what you’re saying is true, it isn’t going to affect you.”
“You’re my friend!” Trixie looked down. “And I know I’m not good at friendship yet, and I know I’ve screwed up a lot, but I – I want to protect you if I can. And if Greengrass gets you he’ll make you work for him and act as his agent, and it’s going to mess up your life. A bunch of the ponies that he's worked with and can't use anymore winds up in jail or exiled or something.” She took a slow, deep breath. “If you want to hate me for what I said, I get that. But please let me try to show you what I think is really going on here.”
Lyra didn’t know what to say. She’d never seen Trixie look like this. If somepony had told her the day before that Trixie would say anything like this, she’d have thought they were crazy.
She’s probably just acting; she’s a decent actor when she tries, she thought.
She was the Element of Loyalty. If it meant this much to Trixie, if there was even a chance that Trixie was being honest, she owed it to her friend to agree. Octavia would understand. Trixie would talk with Octavia, would learn that there was no deception, and that would be that.
“Fine. But I mean it, Trixie; if you don’t come up with anything, I don’t want to hear any more about this.”
“Promise.” Trixie nodded. “Leave Bonbon a note, then come to my house. I’ll get Octavia. I'll say I want to apologize, or I want to bribe her or something, but I'll get her to show up.”
“Wait. You won’t be able to hide me in the room. She’ll hear me, even if I’m just standing there and breathing.”
“I’ve got that worked out. You’ll be fine.”
“How? She—“ But Trixie was already gone.
Trixie took a few deep breaths. This was it.
She’d tried her hoof at politics before. She’d never done a very good job, but she’d tried. Ultimately, though, all of her prior schemes had been designed to benefit her. This was the first one where she wouldn’t really be helped or hurt by it (except insofar as its failure might make her look stupid, and that was pretty much the common perception of her in the Court anyway). The only pony that would lose if she failed was Lyra.
And Lyra would be hurt if she went to Canterlot. Trixie was sure of it, would have been sure even if she'd never heard of Greengrass and hadn't seen Octavia rip up Trixie's form. There were too many things that didn’t add up, too many odd coincidences in Octavia’s story. That the orchestra just happened to need a lyre player. That the whole concert series was based around the lyre in the first place. That Octavia hadn’t written but had come in person -- after all, it would probably be harder for Lyra to say ‘no’ to her mentor's face. That no auditions were needed for what was supposed to be a huge event. It just didn’t make sense, and she had to make Lyra see that.
Luna tried to teach me politics, although I guess I wasn’t very good… okay, can’t focus on that. Think. How can I get her to confess?
Octavia was (or had been) fundamentally honest, according to Lyra. Trixie could use that; Luna had taught her how. If Octavia was honest at heart, it wouldn’t be easy for her to mislead and trap Lyra, so she would be stressed from it. She’d want to tell somepony. Trixie just had to make sure that pony was her. If she gave Octavia enough of a push, made her angry enough to forget herself, she might say something stupid. Once a pony said one thing that they shouldn’t, Luna had said, they tended to give up and just spew out the rest, especially if they were stressed or unhappy from keeping the secret in the first place.
How to get that initial comment, though? Octavia was formal and probably hard to anger with insults, and Trixie had no desire to get beaten up again anyway. Maybe she could provoke the mare’s contempt? Octavia already didn’t like her, so maybe if Trixie acted like a total lout and idiot, then that would irritate the cellist. And also, since Octavia hated Trixie and seemed rather proud, fooling her might make her mad. That seemed likely.
A plan outlined itself in Trixie’s head. Start out friendly and inviting, use an illusion to make the place look a lot more comfortable, and get Octavia at ease as much as she could. Be apologetic and conciliatory. Maybe spend ten or fifteen minutes like that. Next, ‘accidentally’ reveal the illusion and otherwise act dumber and dumber until Octavia was angry – at being fooled by the illusion, at being fooled by such a dumb pony, at even having to deal with such a dumb pony. At that point, she could probably be tricked into saying something that she shouldn’t. Once she’d done that, it would hopefully be easy to coax the rest of the story from the cellist.
Trixie began setting up the illusion.
It took twenty minutes to work out the magic and get the spell running. Trixie was proud that she’d even remembered to make her horn look like it wasn’t glowing. It would be no good if Octavia figured out the illusion moments after showing up.
Somepony knocked crisply at her door.
Alright. Show time.
Trixie crossed the room and opened the door. Octavia stared at her. “Miss Philharmonica,” said Trixie, forcing an insincere smile. “I’m pleased you could come at such a late hour.”
“Musicians keep unusual schedules,” said Octavia. “It was no trouble.”
Trixie invited her in, showed her to the living room, and poured her a glass of bourbon. Her home looked about right, she decided, with rich, blue walls and thick, soft carpet. The living room appeared to be freshly cleaned, with a couple of nice couches and chairs and a few knickknacks on the tables – probably exactly the sort of room that would appeal to a formal mare like Octavia. “Please, help yourself. I’m honored to have such a distinguished guest in my home.”
Octavia waved this off. “You need not flatter me. May I ask the purpose of this meeting? Your letter was rather vague.” She looked honestly curious, which was what Trixie had been hoping for. If Octavia had just ignored the letter, the plan would have fallen apart at the beginning.
Trixie nodded. “As Night Court Representative, I felt an obligation to apologize for what happened at your residence. I was out of line.”
Octavia settled back in her chair. “I see.”
“So, hopefully, we can clear the air between us. I thought a little meeting might assist with that.”
“Of course.” Octavia smiled slightly. “Incidentally, you can drop the illusion now, Trixie Lulamoon. It doesn't fool me.”
Oh, Hay. “What – what illusion?” Trixie stammered. She'd put her best effort into it this time. What had she done wrong?
“The one you’re casting over this room.” Octavia looked almost smug. “First of all, the reverberation in here is completely wrong for a carpeted surface. The sound of our voices should be much duller. This floor – soft as it feels – has a thin carpet here and there, and hardwood everywhere else.”
Trixie hated the feeling of being completely outmatched. “Uh.”
“Second, I hear the breeze from outside.” Trixie cocked her head. There was some faint sound, but she couldn’t say what it was. “From there.” The cellist pointed at Trixie’s largest window. “A weak seal or a crack… and yet it looked freshly installed.”
“Um.” Trixie gulped. The Residency was reasonably weather-proof, but it was old and it did have a few places that needed patching up. But how had Octavia figured that out in seconds, and by ear alone? How freakishly good was her hearing?
“And, lastly you’re breathing rather heavily for a mare who’s simply sitting in a chair. One might theorize that you’re casting something.” Octavia’s smile grew slightly. “Especially given that faint, high-pitched whine I hear, which, as I recall, is emblematic of unicorn magic.”
She can hear my magic too? Oh come on! I’m great at casting quiet spells! Trixie forced herself to remain calm – though this was complicated by the fact that Octavia was apparently listening to, and studying, her breathing patterns. Fine, junk the illusion. Skip to the contempt part. Come on, I can make her angry! I’m really good at making people not like me! It’s just on purpose this time!
While she thought, Octavia began to speak again. “It is a good effort. Your horn looks dull, and the tactile sensations are a nice touch. But the auditory aspect is lacking.” Octavia sipped her flask of bourbon. “Let me guess what’s going on. You still think that I’m going to set Lyra up for something bad, so you brought her here, cast a spell to mask her and to gussy the room, and intend to try to get me to detail some evil scheme with her in earshot?”
“So you admit you have an evil scheme?” asked Trixie, brightly.
Make her think I’m a complete idiot…
Octavia rolled her eyes and rose to her hooves. “Goodnight.”
“Wait!” Trixie shot to her hooves, deliberately breaking the illusion as she did so. “Wait, hang on!”
The room, in a flash, turned back to its usual chaotic state. Old dishes and a few pieces of clothing were scattered about, and the wallpaper was dirty and faded. The carpet was indeed sporadic and thin, and the big window needed new sealant. Furthermore, instead of neatly organized stacks, the papers on Trixie’s desk were scattered all around. A few quills were mixed amongst the papers, tethered tenuously by a mess of strings to an old can.
“Lyra isn’t here,” lied Trixie. “I tried to get her to come, but she wouldn't listen to me. She doesn’t trust me anymore. But I thought if, if I could impress you with my taste or something, you’d-”
“I find it oddly hard to believe you, Trixie. I hope you won’t mind me checking for myself.”
Trixie fell silent and watched as Octavia began to slowly walk a circle around the room. The cellist paused frequently, shutting her eyes and listening to sounds only she could hear. Trixie bit her lip. Had she hidden Lyra well enough? Was Octavia even now hearing a breath, a blink, a rumbling from Lyra's stomach that would give her away?
But Octavia didn’t seem to hear anything. “Alright,” she said, opening up her eyes. “There’s nopony in earshot except you and I.”
“Like I said, she wouldn’t listen to me. She thinks you’re more trustworthy. I don’t get it, I’m usually really good at talking ponies into things, but lately…”
Make her hold me in contempt…
“I’m unsurprised. I’ve heard a lot about you, Lulamoon. You’re not very good at making friends.”
“Well, forget friendship then.” Trixie walked over to Octavia. “Look, just stop whatever scheme you’ve got going. I’ll make it up to you. I’m Luna’s student. I have influence.” She smiled winningly. “Lots of it. I’ll do more for you than Greengrass ever could.”
“You? How – how can you even think that?” Octavia raised an eyebrow. “How unintelligent can you possibly be? Everypony in the Court knows that Luna was so fed up with you that she exiled you here. And then you screwed up the Longest Night ceremony, and you’re only still in Equestria and not exiled to Tortrotto because you somehow obtained the Element of Magic. You have no influence.”
“I have influence with Luna!” Trixie repeated, as if repeating this statement would somehow help her.
“Yes, and that matters how? Can you use any of it?” Octavia smiled again. “Apparently, you’re so foalish that you not only thought I was up to something bad, but you thought I’d just tell you because you asked politely and promised me something you could not possibly provide?”
Trixie looked away. It wasn't working. Octavia hadn’t confessed anything, and she would probably leave soon. No matter what Trixie said or showed about herself, the cellist wasn’t biting.
Wait. Forget myself, Octavia doesn't care enough about me to get angry when I act dumb, but Octavia likes Lyra. I should be able to use that! If I make Octavia think that I don't appreciate Lyra, that I can't see how useful she could be, she might be contemptuous enough to...
“Well, maybe I’ll tell Luna what you’re up to!”
“I am ‘up to’ nothing.”
“You’re trying to get Lyra to work for Greengrass so you can manipulate me!” said Trixie, triumphantly. “It’s obvious! You obviously don't want her for her own sake, since she's just an unemployed lyre player, but you know I care about her, so you want to use her to force me to —“
Octavia began to turn a bright shade of red.
Got her, thought Trixie.
The musician approached Trixie. “You… you are a COMPLETE IDIOT! You think any of this is about you? Are you really that self-absorbed? You don’t factor into any of the Night Court’s calculations, because none of them hold you in anything more than mockery and contempt! Luna herself was probably hoping that you’d be eaten by some monster in the Everfree when she sent you here!” She tossed her mane. “None of this has anything to do with you whatsoever.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Trixie, trying to match Octavia’s former smugness. “Why else would Greengrass want Lyra?”
“Because she’s the Element of Loyalty, you…” Octavia hissed something inarticulate. “She’s one of the Elements of Harmony. One of the six ponies who can beat Corona. How is it not obvious?”
“Well, so am I,” said Trixie. Now, if she was right, Octavia would keep talking. She would be desperate for somepony to confide in, wouldn’t have the political chops to know to shut up, and would believe that Trixie was both too distrusted and too stupid to use the information.
Octavia obliged her. “Yes, and you support Luna. Fine. But right now, all of the Elements work for Luna. Are you able to comprehend why some nobles might not like that?”
Trixie pretended to be thinking hard. “Uh…”
“Look. Let’s say Corona does return. Say she arrives in Starlight’s territory. Starlight runs to Luna and begs for help. Luna says ‘sure,’ if Starlight votes her way on the next few motions in the Court. If he says no or dithers, no Elements arrive, and Corona lays waste until he gives in.” Octavia shook her head. “The nobles don’t want Luna to be able to threaten them with obliteration from Corona if they don’t do what she wants. They don’t want her to be slow to defend their provinces and cities because they opposed her on some tax issue. Now do you understand?”
“Well, the Elements don’t really work for Luna.” Trixie smiled. “Some might say they work for me.”
“That’s even worse. ‘Trixie, save us!’ ‘Of course, as soon as you build me my own palace!’ The Elements are too powerful to be left in your foalistine, selfish hooves.” Octavia straightened. “So, yes, Duke Greengrass and his collagues enlisted me to track down Lyra and secure her services, so that if something requiring Elemental magic does come up, he can count on her. Honestly, I’m doing Lyra a favor. A lot of nobles want their own Element, and Greengrass is a much better boss than most.”
Trixie decided to go further and continue acting dumb to get more information. It could be important. “It sure was lucky for him that the Extravaganza was lyre-based this year--” she began.
“It wasn’t luck! He was one of the big sponsors, so he told them to play lyre music. And he forced several of the lyre players to quit or run away, so they’d need understudies and backups.”
“Wow. I guess he really outmaneuvered me. I was expecting somepony to try to poach the Elements, but this was really unexpected.”
“Well, that would be why he is a Duke and you are a Representative,” hissed Octavia.
“So what’s going to happen to Lyra? When she gets into Canterlot, Greengrass threatens her until she signs a contract to work for him?”
“No, nothing so crude. He just won’t let her play at the Extravaganza until she swears to support him if he needs the Elements. He’s sponsoring, so he can veto musicians he doesn’t like. She’ll swear, she’ll play, and that will be the end of it. It’s not like we’ve needed the Elements more than once in the past millennium, so I doubt he’ll even ever have reason to call upon her.” Octavia began walking towards the door. “Either way, there’s nothing you can do about it, Lulamoon.”
“Oh. Well, can’t she just say she'll work for him, play, and leave? I mean, if he calls for her and she doesn't come, what's he going to do?”
“Lyra is intelligent enough to know that you do not break a contract with a Duke of the Night Court, Lulamoon. It is pathetic that you are not even that wise.”
Trixie had one more question. “Why are you helping him? I thought you were friends with Lyra.”
That seemed to irritate Octavia more than anything else Trixie had said. “I still am! How can you possibly be this thick?”
“What?” asked Trixie, not having to pretend to be confused.
“I… oh, I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You were always trying to be a career politician. You don’t understand how sometimes you have to choose between your friends and what you want to do in life. I suppose it helps when what you want to do is rule over other ponies, but that’s not me. I create something. That matters. That – that’s worth a sacrifice.”
Trixie frowned, not knowing what the cellist was getting at.
“I have worked very hard, Lulamoon.” Octavia looked out the window. “I have perfected my art. I have never asked for anypony to pity me or give me a job I didn’t deserve, an audience I didn’t merit. I am fully aware of my ability. I am good enough to play for the nobility and best ears in Canterlot.” She took a breath. And they began asking me to do things for them; to pass secret messages under the cover of my performances, that sort of thing. I didn’t want to, of course, as if you could understand not wanting to get involved in politics, but I was informed that my career would be over unless I complied. So I complied. I’m complying now too.” Octavia glared at Trixie. “A musician without an audience is just a dreamer, Trixie, and I don't just dream. I create. So I do what I have to do to have the career I love and to share the glory of music with the world."
“You were Lyra's mentor. Is that what you taught her?"
“We were both naïve then. Someday she’ll thank me.” Octavia scowled. “Probably the day she gets to Canterlot, signs whatever Greengrass throws at her, and then gets to play for an audience of twenty thousand ponies. I’m giving her the greatest gift she could ever hope for.”
Trixie had what she needed, and now she couldn't help it -- it was beyond her to avoid throwing in a little barb at the end. “Her? It sounds like Greengrass threatened to have you blacklisted unless you brought him Lyra. You aren’t doing this for her at all. It’s just for yourself.”
“I have worked too hard to be kicked out of Canterlot for something as stupid as this! If it was due to any flaw in my technique, I could accept that, but I will not sacrifice my passion on the altar of some noble’s stupid political gambits!” Octavia reached the door. “I will bring Lyra to Canterlot, and I will get on with my life. I will flourish and continue to perform. And so will she. And someday, when all you have to show for your life is a fiefdom in the middle of nowhere and a squadron of sycophantic toadies, when you wonder how it is that you never produced anything but only took from others, when you look at all the lives that she and I have improved and you cannot find a single pony who was better off for having met you, you will understand why I made this choice. Goodbye, Lulamoon.” She stormed out.
Trixie sighed. That had gone… well, it had gone very well for her, because Octavia had confessed, but probably not as well for Lyra. She had to go comfort the green mare. It was the friendly thing to do.
She approached the old can on her desk, and found the one string that wasn’t connected to a quill. It was taut, and careful visual examination showed that it led out of the room. Trixie spoke into the can. “She’s gone.”
The string slackened.
Trixie nodded. That was how to send a voice or a sound from one room to another, far enough away that two were out of earshot with one another, without using magic. All you needed was two cans and some high-quality wire. A foalish trick, perhaps, but sometimes those were the best.
Trixie’s back door opened, and soon Lyra was dragging herself from the garden into the room. She looked like she was about to cry.
Trixie opened her mouth to gloat, but then shut it. This wasn’t the time. “Alright,” she said. “Now we need to decide what to do about it.”