"Eyes forward, no slouching, both hind and front legs together, no muttering, address all visitors as "Master" or "Madame", do not flutter your wings unless flying to a designated area, or specifically asked by an elder of the house to do so, and I shall pray that you shall remember to keep your mane tidy at all times. Have I made myself quite clear?"
To this, the stout, elderly, lavender-colored pegasus received no reply. Instead, what she heard coming from behind her was the gentlest sound of a melancholy melody being hummed. As pretty as the tune was, it nevertheless, had little affect on her. Swishing her tail in irritation, and raising a brow, the elder pegasus spun around. She flew over to the young one in her midsts on shaky wing, and cleared her throat. "Miss Aria Blaze! I said have I made myself quite clear?"
The small, rose-ish pegasus' attention was drawn back to her elder from whence it had previously been placed, namely outside of the window where lay the most gorgeously sunny day. Aria shrank before the older pegasus, apprehension very apparent in her deep purple eyes. She gasped when a strand of her bone straight, brightly colored mane fell out of the frighteningly neat bun it had been placed into. Tucking it back quickly, she performed a very short, and slightly off-centered bow whilst lowering her gaze to the floor. "Yes, Mum!" she replied in a small voice. "Quite clear, Mum!"
"And no singing! Have you not learned from before? Has it not been made utterly clear how much this displeases the lady of the estate?" the elder pegasus exclaimed, a strange twinge of desperation accenting her words. "Do you not remember what will happen?"
"B-but, I have not done anything wrong, Misses Clouds," the young pegasus stammered, even quieter than before. "Why can't I ever be allowed to sing? All the mothers, and fathers, and artisans like it. Why can't I?" The smaller pony became quite distraught and confused as she stood there on the brink of tears.
Noticing the filly before her begin to shake and shiver, Misses Clouds' stern gaze softened. She sighed heavily, and allowed a smile to crack the surface of her wrinkled face. Landing gently upon her hooves, she reached under Aria's chin, and lifted her gaze so that they might look at one another. "Don't be worried, and don't be distraught, my child. You are of the sweetest and loveliest of fillies in the lady's care. Any patron would be most fortunate to have you. They can see this even without the songs. Chin up. Your time shall come."
At these words, little Aria's nervous expression faded, and she lunged forward to embrace the elder pony. At first the lavender pegasus welcomed the nuzzle until her eyes opened slightly, and she caught sight of a rather large, purple bruise beneath the young one's front leg. Her expression immediately grew dark as she continued to embrace her.
After a while, Aria let go, and performed her small bow one more time. "Thank you, Misses Clouds," she shouted cheerily before flying past the other pegasus, and out of the fillies wing's bedroom door.
As she went, Misses Clouds noticed the same lock in Aria's bun fall out of place again. She sighed wearily, and shook her head. Trotting out into the hallway, she called after her. "Your mane! Remember, Aria!"
When the young one had disappeared around the corner, Misses Clouds huffed wearily, her expression immediately falling into one of utter indignation. She turned straight away, and marched off down toward the opposite end of the long corridor. Upon reaching a large room at which, on the far side lay a massive double-door made of thick gray cloud, Misses Clouds quickened her pace.
When she reached the entryway, she didn't bother to knock, choosing instead to storm right in, ready to unleash her rage at whoever sat within. She immediately stifled her words when she noticed not one, but two pegasi inside of an enormous, grimly decorated personal chamber and study. At the large, gray table ahead sat a stern-looking pegasus, also gray of color, mane jet black, and pulled back into a tight, neatly kept bun reminiscent of the one Clouds had made for Aria earlier on. This bun was then surrounded by a rope of jet black braid. Her body was wrapped in a billowing white robe, and upon her braided and bunned crown sat a wreath of golden flower petals. If it weren't for the well-formed sneer set firmly upon her face, the pegasus could have been thought a gentle queen by appearances alone.
Leaning on the table from where he stood on the other side was an equally grim-faced, though slightly younger looking pegasus. His coat was the drabbest of blues, and his mane a deep, greasy violet. The stallion's entire body was covered with what appeared to be worn, dented armor.
Upon Clouds' abrupt entrance, the both of their heads spun around, and their bodies tensed. It was clear to her that she had just interrupted what appeared to have been an extremely important and private conversation. "M'lady," she said curtly, making a small bow as her eyes met the gray mare's. When her gaze trailed over to the blue stallion, the expression on her face quickly drew up into one of poorly hidden disgust. "Master Swift," she murmured. It was clear she would have preferred to not have to address him at all. "Mum, a word, if you will."
"Is it very important, Matron Clouds? I am quite busy at the moment," the gray pegasus sighed in disinterest. She began to straighten rolls of parchments upon her table, threatening to give her attention to something else if it, indeed, wasn't.
"'Tis, M'lady. Quite. Important," the elder pony said through gritted teeth, her eyes darting anxiously between Swift and the genteel mare.
Taking the hint, the gray pegasus dropped her parchments, flipped the edges of her robes across her lap, and leaned forward. "Swift, we shall continue this later. Do not forget what it is I have told you," she said without ever looking up.
"And do not forget what I've told you," Swift hissed at her angrily before turning about, and marching out of the door without a word to Misses Clouds.
The moment he had left the room, Clouds exhaled a breath she had not realized she'd been holding. Her muscles relaxed.
"Get on with it, Matron," the gray pegasus said, slightly irritated.
It took a moment still for Clouds to decide on exactly what it was she wanted to say, and how it should be posed. "Lady Mist, once again, I am here to implore you to take pity on the little ward Aria Blaze. Just a moment ago I found yet another bruise on the poor creature's body. That would be the fifth this week. The fifth! Something must be done! I beg of you!" Misses Clouds urged, her face clouded with worry.
"Matron Clouds," Mist groaned with a roll of her eyes as she inspected her pristinely manicured hoof, "these are children of which we speak! Children play, they fight, and they are bruised in the process. Once again, I must urge you to find solace in these quite reasonable truths."
"She is beaten, not bruised," Clouds hissed. "The other children, they torment her. All for the child's beautiful voi—"
"Not a word on it, Clouds! Not again. I shall have none of it! Time and again I have told that little... thing to never sing. I have done all I can. My conscience is clear. If she disobeys the instructions given her, and feeds the fires of the other wards' jealousy, what else am I to do? They are what they are. They are wards, and must be whipped—" Mist caught herself mid-sentence, and quickly changed direction, "—I mean... molded into honorable ponies. Aria Blaze has disobeyed my wishes. Had she not, she would not be suffering at the hooves of her peers."
Misses Clouds was boiling over by this point. Straightening the white shawl that covered the equally white, neatly kept mane that sat atop her head, she stormed forward, slamming her hooves onto Mist's table, staring daggers of fire into her eyes. "Those bruises are not only the work of children, not the one I saw today. I know this. I feel you are aware of it as well. Yet, it is under your supposedly watchful gaze that this poor foal's torment is allowed to continue! It is under your gaze that... that—"
"Silence!" the gray pegasus thundered, standing on her hind legs, and slamming her hooves against the table, rattling a goblet of hard cider that sat nearby. She brought her face dangerously close to Clouds'. "How dare you?" she hissed. "Was it not I who took you in from the cold and rain? Was it not I who fed you, and brought you on as the caretaker of my wards? I could have left you down there on the dirty roadside begging for scraps from the earth ponies, and surely hunger and illness would have made quick work of you. I am your saviour and your mistress, and this is to be my payment? Endless suggestions of the foulest deeds taking place under my roof?"
Things became very quiet then. The grimness of Mist's chamber sank into Misses Cloud's very bones. Slowly, she backed away, composed herself, and gazed at the floor. She was shaken, but it was clear that she remained steadfast in her feelings.
"Leave, now. Go and meet the benefactors and families. This will be the last time I shall entertain these ridiculous fantasies, Clouds. The next time..." Mist's voice trailed off tellingly.
Without another word, Misses Clouds performed her short bow, turned tail, and slowly walked out of the study. Her ego might have been bruised, but her head was raised proudly.
"And you embroidered these ribbons all by yourself?" the finely robed, clearly well-to-do pegasus asked the yellow-maned filly. She took another moment to stare at the unevenly sewn curls and rainbow colored flowers upon the lovely strip of silk draped in her hooves.
"Yes, Madame! All by myself!" the young pegasus replied with a huge smile that clearly showed off her one missing front tooth.
The affluent pegasus covered her mouth to silence her laugh. "Oh my. How very talented you are, little Miss..." she trailed off, waiting for the filly to supply her name.
"Star Dust, Madame," she replied, bowing low.
"Yes. Star Dust. You know, Star Dust, you are really very good at sewing. Why, I would venture to say that given time, and the proper training of course, you could be one of the best one day, like me. Is that something that interests you?" the lovely pegasus said, flipping her perfectly pinned curls out of her face.
Star Dust's eyes brightened. "Very much, Madame. I would love that," she breathed, barely able to contain herself.
"Very good. Now, Star Dust, how would you enjoy a stroll with me through the cloud gardens?" the fancy pegasus asked, patting the young one's head sweetly. "Then perhaps a chat with the caretakers, yes?"
"Oh, I would enjoy that, indeed, Mum—I mean... Madame!"
The atmosphere in the Mist estate's courtyard was quite festive that day, probably because of the beautiful weather. The patrons were numerous, and the sound of laughter and playing could be heard all about. Lady Mist, the mistress of the estate, was the most wealthy and influential pegasus in town. It was rumored that she was one of the descendants, and the most recent heiress, of the legendary Fillius the Great, 'Conqueror of the Wilds'. It was he and his legionaries who had supposedly founded the city at Gales three hundred years prior after fighting off a hoard of angry dragons that had been roaming the area. All of this was purely speculation, of course, but what was certain was the Mist family's power over the local populous and its affairs. Supposedly, no great decision about the city or its inhabitants could ever be made without first consulting Lady Mist. Even locally elected officials trembled in dread whenever she made clear that any of their decisions had displeased her. One wave of Mist's hoof could bring about the end to a career that had taken a lifetime to achieve, and everypony knew it was best to remain on her most amicable side.
However, while Lady Mist might have, to a large extent, controlled the tongues and actions of Gales' leaders, the same could not be said for the common folk. Amongst them rumors about the Lady abounded. One such piece of gossip claimed that lately the Mist family, due to the generational squandering of their fortunes, had fallen into a desperate state of affairs, and had taken up questionable business endeavors in order to replenish their wealth. Another stated that the Lady kept what could be called a collection of hopeful suitors and patrons—none of whom she had any intention of marrying—in order to continue funding her lavish lifestyle. Yet, the most popular piece of hearsay, by far, was the report about the children's ward that Mist kept on her extensive estate grounds. In an obvious attempt to pass herself off as motherly, and a lover of all children, she had ordered the construction of a massive orphanage—the first of its kind—into which she took in these "poor little lost souls", in order to feed, clothe, house, and hopefully raise them to be socially acceptable young foals. In all actuality, at least according to the townsfolk, the young ones were taken in, groomed, and "maintained" by her staff until they could be sold off to rich families who did not have children of their own, or to various artisans or craftsponies as apprentices. It goes without saying that all of Lady Mist's "children" came with a very high price tag. After all, these foals were being raised to be the best of the best, and only the best of the best should ever have come to see them. No words were ever spoken about those young ones who Mist might have claimed were irredeemable. Perhaps nopony wanted to think on it.
On that particular day, there was a large table ladened with drink and cakes for the visitors placed out in the courtyard. Even though Lady Mist had expressly forbidden the wards to partake of them, Misses Clouds had told them all in secret that if offered a treat from the table by a visiting adult, then it would be quite alright. Some of the children played games of jumprope or hide and go seek amongst themselves, while the more emboldened of them approached patrons they found quite interesting, to touch their fine robes or to hear them speak more clearly in their most dignified accents. The quietest of the children usually sat off to themselves doing something like drawing on papers with pieces of colored wax or molding small pieces of cloud near the garden. However, with all these goings on, there was one small, pinkish pegasus that was missing from the festivities.
Aria sat hidden inside of a nook near the outer sidewall of the cloud garden. She was kneeling down on the ground on all four legs, mane a mess and disheveled. There were endless patches on her face and body where she was covered in bruises and dirty rain water. Her head was bowed in silence as she tried to sniff back her enormous tears. The noise of the other children enjoying themselves only caused her more distress, and the sound of what appeared to be Star Dust's voice nearing the garden along with one of the patrons nearly made her scream. Aria wouldn't have ever claimed to hate much of anything or anypony, but that Star Dust, to her, was not a somepony. She was a monster, something unspeakably horrible. The white and yellow filly had it out for her ever since Aria first opened her mouth to sing on her first visitors day, and had unintentionally stolen the attentions of half the patrons to the orphanage. Needless to say, it wasn't difficult for Star Dust to then gather the support of the other children behind her in deeming little Aria a menace and a threat, one that had to be dealt with if any of them could ever hope to be adopted.
At first they would tease her, tell her her voice was strange and ugly, and that was why it had received all of the attention it did. Then the pranks began. Spit in her food, well hidden thunder clouds in her bed, hurling water sacks at the headmistress and other staff, then blaming it on her was par for the course. That alone earned her countless missed meals, and long nights scrubbing the orphanage bathhouses clean. Finally, when all of these things still proved useless in dissuading Aria from her very apparent passion for singing, things became physical. Pinches, punches, and slaps, torn robes, and unraveled ribbons were to be had. She knew by now that it was almost guaranteed that she would end up dirty and bleeding on any given visitors day, and all because of that horrid Star Dust.
Like clockwork, Star Dust and her rotten cohorts had gotten her again today before the first visitor had ever arrived. They had dragged her behind the building, and threatened her about keeping her 'filthy' mouth shut. When she shoved Star Dust in the chest, attempting to stand up for herself despite her smaller size, they showed her just how serious they were by kicking her about, and dousing her in unclean water, making her utterly unpresentable for the day. It was to the garden wall she ran. She had learned that hardly anypony came here, except sometimes for the estate's head guard, Midnight Swift, whom she also despised with all of her being. He had discovered her there one night whilst making his rounds, and even now it was something that Aria had deeply regretted, though she never spoke of why. But today... Today was a visitors day, and she also knew that the grim and almost disturbing sight of Swift sometimes put the patrons off their festive moods. Thus, the Lady had told him long ago to make himself scarce during these occasions. Yes, at least today she knew she would be safe in her secret place. She knew that at least here and now, it would be alright to...
Take me away to the sea, the sea,
Bear me down to that shining shore.
There I shall roll in the depths, the depths,
There I'll know gray skies no m—
"I say! Who could this be? Where is that beautiful sound coming from?" came a distinctly female voice.
Aria gagged herself with a gasp, trying her best to disappear into the nook where she was hidden. She knew that it was expressly forbidden by almost everypony at the orphanage for her to sing for whatever reasons they gave themselves. She knew what would happen if anypony found out. The sound of clouds puffing underhoof could be heard as somepony approached. She saw their casted shadow growing larger and larger until, finally, around the bend came a finely-dressed, pink pegasus. She wasn't quite as old as Misses Clouds, but the wrinkles appearing around her eyes were telling all the same.
When she caught sight of the frightened, disheveled little filly, her eyes went soft. "Oh, darling. There, there," she said edging closer. "What has happened to you? And pray tell, where does one acquire such a lovely voice?"
"I... I..." Aria stammered, eyes darting about nervously to make sure no one else was listening in on the conversation.
However, before she could get anything out, the lady pegasus had scooped her up, set her right upon her legs, and had begun cleaning up her robes. "Come now, child. There is nothing to fear. I am here with you," the pegasus said gently. She thought to herself for a moment before reaching into a fine green purse carried at her side. Pulling out two cookies from the refreshment table in the courtyard, she held them out to the child.
Aria, eyeing her cautiously, reached out, and took one between her teeth. Her eyes brightened ever so slightly at the delicious taste.
The pink mare smiled at her again, took a cookie of her own, and bit down upon it. She then did something rather astonishing. She removed her purse, and sat down before Aria in a rather carefree manner. Pulling the filly close, she contemplated the child's long, unraveled mane. With a mischievous smile, she reached into her purse again, pulling out two, pretty, purple ribbons. Gently, she began running her hooves through Aria's locks, first on the right side of her head, then the left. "Would you believe that I am a singer, as well?" the fancy pegasus said as she gathered one half of Aria's mane together, and tied one of the purple ribbons around it. "Well, I was once a singer. The voice, unfortunately, is only a temporary instrument, but even now, it is still my greatest passion." She then gathered up the other side of Aria's mane, and tied the last ribbon, forming two, rather flattering pigtails.
Aria, quite surprised to hear the mare speaking to her in such a friendly way, could honestly not imagine what would have been the proper thing to say in response to all of this news.
Apparently, she took too long trying to think of something, because as soon as her lips had parted, the older, pink pegasus spoke once again. "Where did you learn that enchanting song, my dear?" she asked, pulling two shorter locks of mane that would not fit neatly into each pigtail down to either side of Aria's face.
Aria fought down the lump in her throat, and decided that, for once, she would follow her heart without fear. She shrugged, and looked down at the clouds under her hooves. "I'm quite sure I do not remember, Madame. I... I guess I've always known it," she replied in a small voice. "It helps me to feel better."
Even without turning around to face the older pegasus, Aria could feel her warm smile upon the back of her neck.
"And have you ever been to the sea, my dear?" the odd noblemare posed.
"Yes," Aria replied, racking her brain for a vision that barely remained. The sight of the setting sun, and the sensation of sand against her belly was something that had somehow ingrained itself upon her young mind. "When I was very, very, very little. I can barely remember it now."
The filly gasped in surprise as she felt the older pegasus' hooves catch her on her sides, and spin her around to face her. She was met with a bright, affectionate smile that she had not quite been expecting.
"Well, then I suppose we will just have to go again, and create a new memory for you. What do you think of that? Would you like to come along with me for a few days? Just to see," the mare posed gently, understanding how nerve racking this entire ordeal must have been for one so young.
At first, the meaning of her words didn't click for Aria. She rolled every possible interpretation around in her head until the only one left that made sense was the one where this kindly mare would take her away from this horrid place. Her eyes lit up in a way that they hadn't for so long, and she immediately lunged forward, embracing the older pegasus. She was almost afraid to let go for fear that something, somewhere, would snatch her away, never to return.
"Well, I suppose that settles it!" the mare laughed.
"Aria. What a fitting name. Pray tell, who gave it to you? One of the nurses?" the older pegasus asked as she and Aria strolled slowly back out from the garden wall nook.
"No, Madame Rosedawn. I did," Aria answered enthusiastically as she finished yet another biscuit hanging from her mouth. "My name has always been Aria. This was one of the only things I remembered when I awoke."
"Awoke?" Rosedawn asked, raising an eyebrow. Her wings perked up out of curiosity.
"Yes, on the beach where the rain cloud pegasi found me. They are the ones that brought me here to Gales, to Lady Mist's estate."
"Ah, yes, the patron of our fine city, kind-hearted Lady Mist, lover of all foals," Rosedawn said, making sure that Aria missed the sarcasm leaking from her words. "And how does the Lady Mist see that you are treated? Quite well, I imagine." Rosedawn knew the answer to this question, but she just wanted to see what the young one would say.
Aria said nothing, her head bowed low. She curled into her own body as she trotted along amongst the clouds.
The sight of it was disturbing to Rosedawn, and suddenly she realized she had made a grave mistake. "Your song," the older pegasus breathed, quickly trying to change the subject. "Finish that lovely song for me, my dear. After all, I did interrupt you. Sing it now, and we shall both sing it when we go to the sea."
Aria's heart fluttered whenever Rosedawn mentioned the sea. She didn't know why, but something about it called to her even though she could only speculate that she had seen it but once in her entire young life. That, as she had expressed before, was the day she was discovered upon the shore, tired and soaked to the bone, singing gibberish to herself. That was a song that she no longer could recall. "I would like that very much, Madame," Aria murmured before glancing about quickly to make sure no one was around. When she was sure, she took a deep breath, and parted her lips.
Shed no tear for me, my love...
She couldn't help it. It happened every time she sang. Aria was suddenly quite unaware of the subtleties of her surroundings, already lost deeply in her song. Besides, today for the first time in perhaps ever, she was truly happy. She could think of no better moment to get lost in her tune. Never did she notice how quickly she and Rosedawn had been nearing the courtyard as she sang. Never did she notice how her voice began to echo and reverberate in the most unnaturally beautiful way, as if the very sky itself were singing along. The air harmonized with her as if her happiness itself had taken on a voice of its own. The oval birthmark between her chest and neck began to itch slightly, but she paid it no mind.
For now I've too many to know...
She never noticed how the lively sound of children's laughter and adult chattering slowly disappeared, little by little, to a curious mumble of speculation, and then to awestruck silence.
I pray one day we shall meet again...
She never noticed the look of absolute astonishment and wonder that settled upon Madame Rosedawn's face as she stared at the little marvel with the most ethereal of voices.
And embrace in the fathoms below.
Her eyes were closed as she finished her song, and smiled to herself. Taking a deep breath, she allowed the world around her to slowly come back into focus, only to realize that the air had gone dead silent, save for the sound of hooves upon the clouds as she and Rosedawn turned the corner into the courtyard. Her expression of content immediately fell into one of utter despair as her gaze was suddenly met with the sight of the entire congregation of children, visitors, and staff—Lady Mist and Swift included—gathered in the courtyard. They all stared back at her.
One rather emboldened patron who, by the looks of his soot-covered robe appeared to be some sort of smithy, pointed directly at Rosedawn with his worn and yellowed hoof. "Was that... Did that sound come from you?" he asked with nothing but astonishment in his voice.
It was all Rosedawn could manage to mumble something that barely resembled words, and to then motion, purely by instinct, toward little Aria Blaze who was shrinking into herself more and more.
All of the other children stared at her, huffing and shaking their heads in disappointment. Some were on the brink of tears, knowing from experience what just one "dose" of Aria's voice could do to their own chances on visitor's day. As for Lady Mist, her expression was one of utter fury. Next to her, looking quite fearful, stood Misses Clouds. Without a word, Mist turned her head to stare indignantly at Clouds, and simply pointed toward the grim orphanage doorway, directing her to take Aria inside.
Slowly, the stout, lavender mare approached the filly, sadness and disappointment becoming more and more apparent on her face until they stood in silence before one another. "Come now, child," she sighed in the most weary of voices. "That will be quite enough."
Aria could no longer face her or anypony at this point. Instead, when she saw Clouds' hooves turn, and begin to walk away, she simply followed them, head hanging low. She saw the hooves of Lady Mist stomp quickly past her toward where Rosedawn stood. Before the grim, gray mare could near the fancy pink pegasus, she was already attempting to clarify exactly what had just happened, spewing out words such as "cursed" and "troublemaker". Perhaps it was the last shred of hope in her heart that made Aria glance backward toward Rosedawn. She stared at the mare's face, looking for the same affection, the same promises that had lived there a few moments prior. All she saw there was shaken confusion and worry as the pink mare watched her being led away. Something inside Aria's chest cracked. Suddenly, she became lightheaded, and the world around her felt surreal. Staring up toward the giant, grim, gray clouds of the orphanage's front door, she never noticed the crowd parting right down the center to make way for her. She walked along as if being lead to the gallows, knowing that all of them were hearing the horrible things that Lady Mist was saying about her. Aria knew exactly what was to come now, and perhaps forever after. She knew that there was never to be any song by the sea.
Hungry, bruised, and covered in grime, Aria put the final touches on the estate's bathhouse floor, and threw down her scrubber. She had been sent straight away to work without lunch or supper that evening with the promise of much harder labors to come. In the meantime, while the caretakers weren't watching, the other wards mercilessly beat and pummeled her as punishment for her earlier misdeeds.
The rest of the estate had gone to bed long ago, and she alone remained awake, surrounded by the now spotless bath. Staring down into the darkened, dirty bucket of water she had been using to clean, Aria caught sight of her own wretched reflection. She decided that the image suited her quite well before angrily tossing the scrubber into the bucket, accidentally making the water splash all over herself. Sighing again, and accepting what she deemed to be her own extraordinary stupidity, she tucked her soaked and loosened strands of mane back into the now reformed bun she was made to wear. Somehow, it felt as if the damned thing had been pulled even tighter than before, if that were at all possible. Biting down on the handle of the pail, she wearily flapped her wings, and floated upward. Her hooves barely scraped the flooring as she flew out of the back door to dispose of the dirty water.
Pouring the contents of the pail about bit by bit so as not to send a missile of grime hurtling down to any unfortunate souls upon the earth, Aria never once noticed the dark figure who watched her from a small, lit doorway on the other side of the estate's back yard. Her head bolted upward when she heard somepony whistle nearby, trying to catch her attention. Her heart immediately began to race, and her entire body shivered anxiously.
Just ignore it. Just ignore it, she thought to herself.
Breaking her own rule, and quickly dumping the rest of the water out of her bucket in one place, she then immediately picked up the pail, and flapped her wings as hard as she could, preparing to speed off toward the children's quarters. She had only gotten slightly off of the clouds when she heard something large whip past her in the darkened atmosphere. Out of fright, she dropped the pail, and extended her little wings to fly at as fast a speed as they could manage.
Her face careened into a figure that had seemingly glided down from nowhere to block her path. She squealed as she grabbed her nose, and fell back down toward the clouds, hitting them hard with a loud 'POOF'. Groaning in pain, tears forming at the corners of her eyes, it took her a moment to actually regain a sense of where she was.
Slowly, her eyes opened, and out of the blurriness formed the body of a grimey, grim-faced, blue pegasus stallion covered in worn and dented armor. "Well, hello there, Love. And what are you doing out here at this hour?" Swift said, in the most oily, patronizing manner. "Only no goods are out and about this late."
Aria jumped quickly to her hooves, and stood before the much larger stallion, shivering, and staring down at the clouds. Her eyes were wide with fear, and she could not manage through the emotion in order to form a reply.
"You, there! Answer me!" Swift commanded, stomping his hoof down hard, and scaring her into jumping backward.
Aria couldn't help but gawk into his flaming, blood red eyes. "I... I was told to clean the baths, Sir. But I'm done now, Sir," she barely managed to mutter.
"Oh, well if you aren't a right angel," Swift said sarcastically, trotting backward just a bit to take a look for himself through the bathhouse doors. "Impeccable, as usual, little Miss..."
"Aria... Aria Blaze, Sir," she replied.
"Aria Blaze," he repeated, smiling a rather wide and sinister smile. "Beautiful name. Well, Aria Blaze, what say you to a plate of biscuits from the gathering today? Such hard work must surely be rewarded."
"No, Sir! No, thank you, Sir," she blurted, preparing to flap her wings again. "I am very, very sleepy. I must go home now, Sir."
Suddenly, a large hoof reached out before she could get anywhere, caught the very edges of her wings just as they splayed outward, and pinned them down hard to the clouds by the feathers.
Aria stifled a scream, not from pain, but from terror, as she slowly glanced up into those red eyes. For all the fire that could be seen within them, they had somehow gone dull, cold, and very serious.
Tears threatened to stream down her face.
"That crying. You know that I cannot tolerate that accursed crying," Swift growled below his breath.
Aria hit the wall hard as she was thrown into the small, unkept room next to the cellar that Swift called home. As the world swirled around her, she heard the loud sound of the door lock shift into place. The streaks of multi-colored light from the stream of rainbow that fell in the corner to brighten the small room stained the walls as well as the mountains of junk around her. It let off an eerie glow.
Please, please, please...
Before she had even regained her vision, she blindly bolted off in the air toward the sound of the lock, but was caught by a strong front leg. She was carried over near the rainbow fall where she was promptly plopped down onto a crudely formed stool at a crudely formed table, all of them made from gray cloud. Swift did not release her until she had stopped squirming. He then walked away somewhere behind a nearby stack of large boxes. She found this strange, but realized that it was because he was probably sure that she would not be able to figure a way to escape. Eyes darting about the room, she tried to find some hole, some crevice through which she might possibly be able to squeeze in order to evade him. She began to hyperventilate when she found that, indeed, there was none.
She snapped back into the present when a loud 'Clack!' came from before her as a platter of biscuits was placed onto the table. Midnight Swift slowly walked around her, inspecting her closely. Suddenly, with one swift motion, he reached out to the pin that held her mane in place, and snatched it out.
Aria's beautiful strands of purple and green tumbled down about her shoulders. In a way, she was thankful that at least now she could hide her face from him.
"I cannot understand why somepony with such a beautiful mane must be made to pack it away as one would a pile of old winter scarves," Swift muttered to himself as he carelessly tossed the pin away over his shoulder, and continued around the table. He plopped himself down on the other side.
The long silence that followed made Aria want to scream. She prayed to the child miracle Celestia for mercy, wishing that Swift would be struck by a sudden bout of blindness just so that the staring might stop.
"Well? Eat up," Swift said after a while, feigning sudden cheer. He grabbed one of the cookies for himself, broke it in half, bit down upon one piece, and held the other out for Aria. "They are quite good!"
She didn't take it. Her eyes slowly glanced up at him, then down to the plate before her.
Seeing that she was not going to be tempted with treats, Swift dropped the act. His expression became grim once again. "You are the one with the golden voice," he said casually, leaning forward onto the table. "I remembered your beautiful song from when last we met. Come now, dear. Sing me another."
"P-please, S-sir. I m-must go home," she begged one last time in the most pitiful way, her voice shaking erratically. She could manage no more after Swift stood up, reached across the table, and struck her across the face. Gazing up toward him in shock and terror, holding her now doubly sore cheek, she recoiled when, in his eyes, she saw desperation instead of rage.
It was all still strange and quite confusing to her, but gradually, it became something which she knew she simply had to accept. Happening upon her by the garden wall that first evening, Swift had heard her singing, and came rushing to see what its source was. Somehow, in that brief moment, he had managed to acquire what could be called a dangerous addiction to the sound of her voice. He told her it eased the spirit, calmed the mind, and quelled the body better than any other thing he had ever been privy to. Since that evening, Swift had made it clear that he intended to hear whatever song he wished to hear, at whichever time he chose, forcing them out of her in whichever way proved most successful. She remembered the first time that it had happened. He had beaten her and beaten her, forcing her to sing until she was too exhausted to even speak. Then, he beat her some more just to make sure that there was not even one more note left in her. It was a memory that would never leave her for as long as she lived, and now cowering there, she was being forced to relive it.
She could do nothing else but gaze at him, her mind racing. When Swift was sure that she would not object again, he took his seat, and made a motion for her to proceed with the song he had longed for.
In that silence, as the stinging of her cheek began to spread, the reality of Aria's perilous predicament finally dawned on her, and as it did, her own face fell blank. Her eyes went wide and dim, staring straight ahead to nothing in particular. Forcing her body to go numb, she told herself that this horrid situation would eventually come to an end, and repeated this in her mind until she believed it. Something new, something that burned was birthed within her at that moment—a fire of resistance that grew into a rage. It grew and grew, but did not reveal itself upon her surface. She had been born in song. Song was what had saved her, and salvaged her heart on countless occasions. Song had been her only companion in her darkest times, and now here it dangled precariously in front of one who threatened to take even that away from her, to take away her song's ability to allow her some comfort, some escape from this pathetic thing she called her life. It was then and there that she promised herself that no matter how much anypony tried, no matter how many beatings she might receive from Swift or otherwise, she would never allow them to take away her only friend in order to warp and change it into yet another thing that would serve to hurt her.
Somehow, she willed her lips to part, and inhaled deeply. As she did so, she allowed the world around her to disappear, to turn into a place where only she and the song existed. In this place, she knew which song always helped to quell the pains of her heart. Gently, she began to sing, the ethereal sound beginning to fill every last shadowed corner of the small cellar room. She never even noticed Swift leaning forward eagerly, and sighing in complete satisfaction as the melody wrapped itself around his brain. She never even noticed her own tears flowing endlessly as she stared ahead into nothingness. In spite of them, her voice never shook. Assuredly she sang until even she disappeared, and the song was the only thing that existed.
Take me away to the sea, the sea...