Octavia blinked, and like waking from an strange dream, she was in Canterlot.
The old man standing behind her tapped his hooves against his bag. “Well, it was nice meeting you, miss Octavia. Good luck with your tour.”
Octavia smiled politely, trying to remember the man’s name. She had told him several times during their conversation on the train, that--no, it’s not a tour, it’s just one gig tomorrow morning, a small party at the castle--but if he couldn’t remember that either, perhaps she could be forgiven. Before she had a chance to recall it, he hobbled off down the platform towards the visitor’s center and disappeared into the crowd. The train’s horn sounded again, a single tall note flying off into the darkness. She turned to watch the machine depart and eyed the cart she’d been in a minute before. Her seat was empty. The window was dark. She wondered if it was too late to hop aboard and revisit the bar car.
Once she could no longer see her old seat, she resettled her cello case on her shoulders, dug her hands into the pockets of her peacoat, and headed for the exit.
When Octavia first started gigging, the sight of Canterlot in low light mesmerized her. No matter how high she looked, everything seemed alive with lights. She wasn’t just a passive observer to the mighty city anymore. She was a highly skilled musician who, for fifty bits an hour, would travel from Ponyville to wherever in the kingdom and play whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. Buildings seemed taller. Lights from distant towns in the plains beneath Canterlot mountain flickered like coins at the bottom of a deep well. Like opportunity.
This time, her eyes got as far up as the street signs on the corner. East Derby Boulevard and Steeplechaser Street. The lights of her memories felt faded, almost grayscaled. The streetlights were dingy, and they buzzed like muted trumpets as she passed beneath them. Distant stormclouds cast the far-off villages in a deep haze. She turned onto Steeplechaser and listened for the sound of faint jazz music coming from a bar half a block down. She still wondered, make no mistake. Back then she wondered. That was a few years ago. Now she wondered about what drink she would get.
The music stayed low as she entered the bar. The tune was soft and old, like the men playing it. Mutred trumpets and wire brushes. They bowed their heads as if chained to the slow half-time pulse. Octavia counted the patrons before making for the bar.
“You here to play?” the bartender asked. “The jam ended an hour ago.”
“I’m just here for a drink,” she replied. “Do you mind if I take up that booth over there?”
The bartender nodded. “Whatcha want?”
So she slid her cello case into one side of the booth and herself into the other, tipped up her drink and then asked for another. This was how it went on nights like these. No matter where she went, no matter which city she was in, she always wound up in this same booth, sitting across from the same cello, staring at it like a jaded lover. The drink tasted the same no matter what she ordered. The lights outside looked the same. Streetlamps flickering in orderly rows, buildings in the distance glowing softly like the milky way might in a place with less light pollution.
It didn’t really matter, she surmised. Her nightly reclusion was more than a habit. No matter what she did, she seemed fated to return to the same night over and over again, drink the same drink and make eyes at the same instrument. Trapped in a loop. In the daylight she could move around and trick herself, but when the lights fell she found her way back to this place and went from there.
Luckily for her, tthat place was a bar.
The band finished up their tune. The pianist leaned low to the keys while the bassist grabbed a bow and rolled it across his strings. The bartender clapped. Octavia grabbed her cello case and threw a few coins onto the table before heading out.
City sounds assailed her the moment she stepped out of the bar. The band had pushed it away for as long as they could, but now she felt it fully against her ears. Something was missing--not from the city but from her. What was it about these things that couldn’t be felt unless felt in absence? Winter’s harshness never bit as deep as when it caught her leaving someplace cozy and warm. The rumbling of city sounds played upon her ears the loudest when she had nothing else to listen to. Loneliness crept up on her in moments of comfort.
Well, Octavia decided, something had to be done. She didn’t think it, but she changed her route all the same. She still knew which turns to make, which streets led to dead-ends and which would take her through short cut alleyways.
On the way, she tried different tactics to minimize the noise. Focusing on her footsteps seemed to help a little, so she imagined turning a volume knob hooked up to the city itself. Gradually, the noise of industry and sirens faded until only her footsteps remained. She imagined what she must have looked like from one of the windows nine or ten stories above her. Two strange bodies walking in tandem, one skinny and one wide, both dressed in concert black. She imagined her footsteps bouncing off the glass and brick, hanging for a moment in the air, then falling back to the street.
The modern architecture around her slowly began to give way to buildings of pristine white stone as Octavia entered Canterlot’s historical district. Some blocks away, the outlying spires of the castle rose above glass office buildings and aging apartments. The castle and all its parts were still the tallest structures in the city, though Octavia doubted they’d retain that title for too much longer. People could build towers so much higher than they could just ten years ago. When the new palaces rose up and eclipsed the old, she wondered if she’d miss this view.
There was no time to ponder it. On her right rose a row of blocky apartment buildings, all cut in white stone. She stopped at the last one, hesitated, and walked to the entrance. Her legs felt heavy. Was it the drinks or the gravity? She couldn’t tell--and at any rate, what did it matter? Here she was.
Fluorescent tube lights buzzed above the door, masking the sounds of the city. It was just how she remembered it. The buzz, the smell of a communal place. The names on the doorbell, sorted in alphabetical order.
She stopped on one name in particular--Lyra Heartstrings.
Octavia had been here before. Many times before. The strangest thing wasn’t that she was back, but that it felt like she had never left in the first place. Like she could ring the buzzer and a cheery voice would come through the little speaker in the wall and say, “Who is it?” and Octavia would say, “Just a stranger,” and the door would rattle as the lock slid away and she would walk up the three flights of stairs she hated and stare in breathless amazement at the little sign on her door--her door!--with her name on it right underneath the only other name she would ever relinquish top billing for, the only one--
Octavia jerked her hand away from the buzzer and waited. The lights droned on and on. Canterlot roared in the distance, somewhere. Now it was just a whisper.
“Who is it?” came a voice from the speaker, cheery despite the hour.
She got no reply. Octavia was already halfway up the block.
Octavia walked the remaining ten blocks to the Canterlot Star Hotel in silence. Somewhere in the back of her mind she could sense the noise closing in, but she couldn’t feel it now. It mattered less, somehow. There was the sign for the Canterlot Star Hotel a few blocks away. The thought of a fresh bed filled her with life. Forget Canterlot. Forget the gig tomorrow. Walking up. Checking in. Getting off her feet. Maybe visiting the pool if it was open. That was what mattered.
The lights of the hotel lobby stung, but Octavia hardly minded. Plastic atmosphere music dribbled from a pair of speakers somewhere in the ceiling. The wallpaper was bright. The attendant looked like she had been smiling the entire night.
Octavia trotted to the main counter and pulled out a credit card. “I’d like to check in, please.”
“Of course,” the attendant said. “Name please?”
“Princess Celestia. No, I’m sorry, I’m sure you get that a lot.” She giggled--gods, what was in those drinks? It felt so good to talk to another person, even one that was contractually obligated to smile when she talked. A strange feeling of happiness filled her chest. “The name is Octavia Philarmonico.”
“Of course,” said the attendant, still smiling away. The card came back, along with a room key. “You’ll be in 251, your majesty.”
The high lingered as she trudged up a flight of stairs to her room. It was a strange feeling, she surmised, to be alone and alive in a city as large as Canterlot. Outside, all she could see were the buildings. Here in the stairwell, things felt smaller. Easier to deal with. She shrugged off her cello case and took it by the handle as she made her way down the hall.
After a brief moment of fumbling with the card lock on her door, she finally made it to her bed for the night and flopped down. Her shoes came off first, then her peacoat. Next went the bowtie. She breathed a long sigh, like someone coming outside for the first time in days.
The warmth she’d felt a moment before went away all at once. What could she do now? Staring at the ceiling was out of the question--she’d do enough of that when she went to bed. The only TV channels were news, like she needed more of that, and the movies were all pay-per-view. Wi-fi cost twenty bits a day. The hotel bar was closed. The room shrank.
Her mind wandered back to the blocky white row of apartments. The buzzer. The noise. She wondered, as everyone with a broken heart did at some point or another, when the feeling would end. The future had been thrown out of focus. The years of happiness she almost had--where would that potential energy go?
She didn’t know. The bed squeaked softly as she rose to her feet and dug into the big pocket of her cello case. Out came a change of clothes, an orange bikini she forgot she’d packed, and a little makeup bag. The clothes she laid out on the little bedside chair for tomorrow. The makeup bag went on the bedside. The suit came off. Octavia knew one place where she felt like she belonged, and it certainly wasn’t in this cramped hotel room.
Though the elevator was cold and the stiff carpet of the hotel lobby felt strange beneath her bare feet and the receptionist shot her a sour look as she walked by--though whether it was for her attire or the joke, she couldn’t tell--the feeling of warmth as she followed the signs towards her destination washed the discomfort away. The lights grew brighter the closer she got. Carpet turned to tile. Somehow, she found it in her to smile. For it there was one thing the Canterlot Star Hotel was good for, more than a quiet room and a soft bed and a place far away from all the former homes Octavia had ever known, it was the pool.
Once inside the pool room, she walked along rows of empty metal-framed recliners until she reached the very end of the row, furthest from the door. The room was long, with tall windows on three sides and wide skylights making up half the ceiling. Lights from the pool threw soft shades of blue across the room. When the water rippled, its reflection in the ceiling shimmered. The city outside was gone, swallowed up in crescents of pure white light.
She grabbed an old fashion magazine from the nearby table. Every so often she’d turn the page and hum a little. Her real focus was on the glass ceiling, where light from the pool danced against the glass. Hopefully, if anyone else came by they’d think she was a businesswoman relaxing after a day of travel, or a tourist with no friends in town to stay with. If she had sunglasses, she would have put them on just because. From the outside, she reckoned she looked pretty cool.
She felt better than cool, though. Here she felt real. Realized. When she closed her eyes and breathed in the faint smell of chlorine, she felt like a famous musician reclining in her mansion, basking in her own luxury. In her mind, she had just thrown a wild party with all her famous musician friends. The drinks had all been drunk, the music all played out. The partygoers sang deep into the night before going their own ways. Now it was just Octavia, reclining beside her empty pool, the ringing cacophony of long-finished music playing in her ears. No city noise. No blocky white apartments. No bottom billing. Just Octavia, and her pool.