It was Misses Clouds who had found her in the wee hours of the morning, lying unconscious and broken in Swift’s dark and empty cellar. It was Misses Clouds who always seemed to find her there. Aria’s purple and green strands of mane, having grown far longer over the years, splayed themselves against the gray, clouded flooring, and concealed her still face. Her battered wings had managed to wrap themselves haphazardly around her body for comfort from the cold.
Always one to be in a huff, Clouds tried her best to stifle her desire to cry over the familiar visage of Aria’s unmoving form, and instead hurried to spread a large bedding sheet she had been carrying onto the floor. Moving to the unconscious mare’s side, she shoved her into the middle of the sheet, and gathered up the edges into a toteable knot. When Aria was but a small filly, it had been far easier to grab her up by the tail or carry her upstairs from Swift’s cellar upon her back; however, now that she was fully grown, she proved far too heavy for the old pegasus to lift.
Biting down upon the knot in the sheet, Clouds then pulled Aria as gently as she could manage back up the endless stairway toward the upper rooms where her chamber was located. She dragged her for quite a while down dark, unpopulated hallways before she came to a large door. Unlocking the thing with a worn key, Clouds pulled Aria’s form into the room, and shut the door behind her.
Quickly untying the knot, she ran off to fill a bucket with water in the servant’s bath house which sat directly next to her chamber. Upon her return, she bent down beside the unconscious mare, and began firmly tapping her cheek.
“Aria! Miss Aria Blaze!” she hissed, her voice full of worry and terror. “Please! Please wake up!”
At first there was no response. Bracing the younger mare’s head with her hoof, Clouds fought down a yelp when she realized one of her eyes had been totally blackened.
“Spirits of the winds, please, no,” she breathed to herself, staving off yet another round of tears. Reaching over toward the bucket, she picked the thing up, and quickly splashed a great deal of water onto Aria’s face. The mare groaned. Another splash, and she sputtered to life with a round of coughs.
“Oh, thank the stars,” Clouds cried as Aria’s one good eye opened, and her vision began to focus. Tears finally rolled down the older one’s cheeks as she watched the rose-colored mare’s gaze slowly train itself upon her. “You gave me a fright, Miss! Forgive me, please! I left you for far too long this time. I was ordered to tend to the banquet all evening, and couldn’t get away. I’m sure that beast planned it this way. Oh, I was so afraid. I thought that this time he would surely…”
Clouds could not finish her own sentence, finding the notion in her head too abhorrent to bear. Aria, who had been listening in a daze, shivered in pain before attempting to push herself up to a seated position.
“Careful, Miss,” Clouds chided her gently. “Your wings are a right mess. We’ll have to patch you up. Oh, Aria, I did truly think this time he’d finally done it.”
Clouds stared at her again, her eyes welling up before she lunged forward, gathering the mare up into a relieved embrace. Aria coughed in pain, and patted her back.
“Come now, Clouds. That’s enough of that,” she croaked, forcing a pained laugh. “You know it will take far more than Swift to be rid of me.”
Clouds poured a bucket of water over Aria’s head as the mare sat stewing in a warm bath a few moments later. She hissed back the pain of liquid hitting all of her scrapes and bruises, but eventually settled into the tub with a sigh. More lively than she seemed to be a few moments ago, the older, lavender pegasus now bustled about, fetching scrubbers, and mysterious bottles from off of the window sill where she had left them. Upon returning to Aria’s side, she popped open one of the bottles, and gently turned the younger pegasus’ head to face her.
“Here now, Miss. Let me see that eye.”
Aria winced as Clouds gently prodded the swollen and blackened thing. The older mare growled to herself angrily as she produced a clean cloth, and poured the contents of the bottle into it.
“That monster. The day I get the key to the Lady’s poison cabinet is the day he goes,” Clouds huffed, slamming the bottle down. As she patted the moistened cloth onto Aria’s eye, the younger mare studied Clouds’ face.
“You mustn’t say such things,” Aria began very seriously, her voice still hoarse. “What if somepony were to overhear?”
“Let them,” Misses Clouds retorted. “Everypony hates him. You know the only reason Lady Mist tolerates his presence is because of that accursed agreement.” Aria nodded, and sighed, once again choosing to close her eyes.
By now, she knew the story well, having heard it repeated numerous times amongst the kitchen staff, and the household servants of which she was but one of the number. Everypony in Gales knew the story of Lady Mist’s ancestor, Fillius the Great, the founder of their city. However, the part of the story many often forgot to mention was the part that explained that when he had defeated the dragon hoard to found the city, he had done it alongside his closest companion, one of his legionaries, Agallopetos Swift. When all had seemed lost against the biggest and most fierce of the dragon hoard, Agallopetos had not only saved Fillius’ life from the literal jaws of death, but with his help, wounded and drove the creature away for good. On that very same day, Fillius swore an eternal oath to his friend that the Mists and the Swifts would be forever bonded. The well being and good fortune of one would spell nothing less for the other, and if any of their descendents should ever think to break this bond, they would forfeit whatever inheritance their forefathers had passed down to them.
“Believe me, she hates him just as much as anypony else. Here’s to hoping that one day she might put some of that fortune to good use, and get rid of the bastard,” Clouds continued on.
Such bonds that superimposed themselves upon the will of those who had no power to choose usually ended tragically. Aria acknowledged this as truth. Midnight Swift, Agallopetos’ descendent, had followed in his ancestor’s hoofsteps by rising to the ranks of an honored commander, a great pegasus of war. He had not been known for his cruelty then, not until the Lady Mist called him away from the heart of Gales to work in her household, fulfilling the bond of their forefathers. The reason why, to that day, remained a mystery, but knowing the Lady Mist, everypony supposed it was probably for guarding against something scandalous that might have the potential to ruin her. Aria would often sit around the other servants as they speculated tirelessly about what this possible scandal could have been. It bored her, to be quite honest. All that really mattered about it all is that Swift had grown cruel as he found life under the Lady quite unbearable, to say the least. He shunned her offers of fine rooms and riches, opting to dwell as far away from her as possible whilst still being on estate grounds. They often spent hours in her study arguing over things that the rest of the household could only wonder about, and they never once shared a moment that could give rise to the idea that their forefathers were once the best of friends. Strangely enough, from time to time, Aria found herself wondering if Swift’s own pain was why he treated her with such cruelty. She wondered if the stallion wasn’t pitiable despite the fact that he was a degenerate.
“Clouds?” she began, stroking her chin thoughtfully. “Do you suppose that perhaps I should… forgive him for what he does? Perhaps the Lady Mist brings grief upon him just as—”
“No, Miss Aria!” Clouds nearly screamed, reaching into the tub to grab her by the shoulders, and stare into her eyes. “Don’t you ever say that. Don’t you ever attempt to sympathize with him. What he does is wrong. He wreaks cruelty. He is venomous. Don’t you ever let him poison your mind as well; for, then he would have truly conquered you.”
Aria, quite startled, met Clouds’ stern gaze while shrinking into the water. She nodded her head fervently in hopes that the older pegasus might release her shoulders. When she finally did, she continued on dabbing the younger mare’s eye with the potion-soaked cloth, pretending as if Aria had never made such a disturbing and foolish statement.
“That should take care of it. The potion is fortified with unicorn magic this time. This dreadful thing will be gone, hopefully, within the hour.”
Clouds grimaced to herself whilst she soaked the cloth in the potion once again.
“Why, by the four winds, why must he always strike your face? He fears you catching somepony’s eye. He dreads the day somepony takes you away from this horrible place, and gives you the good life that you deserve! I know it!”
Aria scoffed as Clouds helped her lean forward so that she might begin applying the healing balm to her battered wings.
“Indeed. I’m sure Mist would be just delighted to let me go,” Aria hissed as Clouds carefully expanded one of the mare’s wings with her hoof.
Clouds frowned at her words.
“Oh, Aria, why don’t you at least try, and see? There are many eligible stallions in Gales. Some you’d remember from when you were but a filly! I’m sure I could think of something to coax some of them here, and—”
“Most of the other children ignored me if they weren’t busy being my tormentors. Why in the heavens would I marry any of them?” Aria inquired, her voice growing resentful. Clouds’ expression grew rather irritated.
“The servants of the house, then. You do know that Comet Racer will be leaving to open his trading outpost on the edge of the city next month. A mare with your charm should have no trouble with him. I’m sure of it. Why can’t you just try?”
Aria turned to give Clouds the most pitying of smiles.
“Clouds, no upstanding pony of honor would have me. You’ve heard the horrible things they say about Swift and me.”
Clouds shook her head, and winced her eyes shut to stave off a feeling of disgust.
“Never you mind those malicious lies, Miss. Deep inside, everypony knows the truth.”
Clouds’ lips tightened closed as if some invisible force had forbidden her to speak more on the topic. She felt sick and helpless looking down at the poor mare who now sat staring at her own marred reflection in the water. In her eyes, the old, lavender pegasus saw a beautiful defiance, one that had existed since her childhood, but also one that was growing weak and wearing thin with time.
This was not the only way in which Aria had noticeably changed, however. As the years passed by, Clouds had watched as that proud and burning rebelliousness was slowly smothered by Aria’s gradual realization that she could not figure a way to free herself from the woes of Mist and her estate. This was after many escape attempts over the years which had all proven to be futile. As this awareness dawned on the younger mare, that brash energy died down into a more watchful and patient simmer. She had become even more quiet, having learned harsh lessons, in many ways, about being too quick to open her mouth and speak her mind. She had become more glum, and quite often unamused in response to the inexplicably strict dictates that controlled her life, the worst of all being her inability to ever leave. Those towering gray walls, and murky dark hallways had been the same hallways she had lurked down her entire life. Her sharp and eager mind became bored amidst the mundanity, her disposition became quite short and often harsh with those estate ponies she had learned to decipher over the years. To Clouds, it often seemed as if the mare was biding her time until something happened, but she was quite sure that neither she nor Aria knew what that ‘something’ was. It was a relief, at least, that the fuchsia pegasus appeared to had not yet given up hope for her life. Having dedicated herself to keeping Aria as safe as she could from her torments, the stress nearly did prove too much for Clouds to handle; yet, she persevered, using the younger mare as her inspiration. For, if Aria could be filled with fortitude under such duress, then surely Clouds could also find a way to do the same.
After applying the salve to the mare’s other wing, the older pegasus gently laid them out to hang over the edges of the tub. Gathering together Aria’s long mane, she moved to her rear, and began to comb it through. Fortunately for her, the rose-colored pegasus could not see the frustrated tears falling from her eyes from where she sat.
“Miss Aria, I’d never be able to forgive myself if I were to lose you. I tell you this all the time, and it seems you have yet to oblige me on any of my suggestions. You have to find a way to escape. It’s only a matter of time before… before—… You must promise me that you will at least try with Comet Racer. Please.” Clouds heard the younger mare sigh, and watched as her shoulders slumped into the water.
Aria felt herself growing more and more irked by the older pegasus’ frantic worrying, not that she would ever outwardly turn against the other mare in anger. Over the years, Misses Clouds had proven to be the closest thing to a loving family that Aria had ever known. She was a beloved friend, and vigilant protector in whichever minute ways she could manage. It was not lost on Aria that had she not been under Clouds’ protective watch all of these years, she might have very well already been dead. However, she could never confront the older mare with the harsh truth that her incessant suggestions, spurred on by feelings of helplessness, no doubt, would always and forever prove to be futile. Clouds seemed to be in denial about the very blatant fact that Aria’s inability to leave Mist’s estate was not the result of some passive force, a story spawned by countless coincidences piled up to create accidental captivity. This was active imprisonment; everypony knew it, but could never figure what the reason for it might be. The estate guards fervently watched for her, especially if she ever happened to go too near the gates. It seemed the household would be put into a panic whenever they—Swift especially—could not account for her whereabouts. Though she was now an adult, even now, she was still required to remain hidden and locked away in her rooms during any visitor’s day, a practice that had begun long ago after the incident with Madame Rosedawn. She was never allowed even the smallest opportunity to dream that perhaps a friendly or loving connection with somepony else might ever lead to her freedom. Indeed, the secrecy of her existence was made quite clear, and everypony who was a part of the Mist household knew this, just as much as they all knew about the torments she had been enduring all these years at the hooves of Swift; yet, none of the cowards dared say anything. None of them dared venture out for help, knowing that the power of the Mist name superseded any and every law that one might claim was just and good.
The younger mare grimaced as her thoughts wandered back to Comet Racer, yet another strapping, young stallion that Clouds was using to alleviate her own worries, and to stave off having to finally accept the truth. He, of course, had not been the first stallion that the old matron had suggested as a means for Aria’s escape. Somehow, somewhere along the way, her desire for Aria’s happiness was overshadowed by her desire for the mare’s survival. She no longer considered the fact that perhaps Aria might not have wanted to continue on had she no hope of someday being content, especially with somepony who she should be expected to marry. Clouds would claim that Aria did not want to try to make connections with somepony else, but what she had not known was that to Aria this was already a notion that had long ago proven to be a flop. The elder one did not realize that the vice-like grip that the authorities of Mist’s estate had on her could never allow her even the smallest inkling of an independent life, and this included anypony she might have cautiously chosen to give her heart to.
There was once a mare, not too long ago; Cirrus Weaver was her name. A seamstress in the main house of the Mist estate, she was neither the brightest, bravest, nor the strongest of pegasi, but Aria had found her radiant. A bubbling, honey-colored, ball of life and joy, she had stumbled into her one evening while the dour mare had been delivering Lady Mist’s supper, and had immediately taken a liking to her. Not having worked at the estate long enough to have caught on to the rumors about Aria, Cirrus grew to be a singular, shining light in the glum pegasus’ dim world. Despite the seamstress’ naivete, she proved to be the one pony who could make her laugh, the one pony who showed profound interest in her personal feelings—at least those of which she was willing to reveal—and the one pony who did not fear her song, but in fact found it beautiful. It didn’t take long for her to win Aria’s heart.
Of course, with the understanding that such feelings shared between mares were frowned upon, it could be expected that Aria had no plan to ever reveal her sentiments to Cirrus out loud. The mare’s company seemed more than enough. In the end, however, it didn’t matter since back then, Aria’s mannerisms had been quite transparent, something she could kick herself for now. Always stuttering and going red around the mare, it wasn’t too long before her feelings for Cirrus had become yet another unspoken piece of common knowledge amongst the Mist household staff. Being ever the popular and social pony amongst the servants, this of course meant that, soon enough, Cirrus came to hear of these rumors. She was surprisingly quick to return Aria’s affections. Little did the two know, during their secret meetings by the cloud garden whilst furtively holding hooves as Aria read poetry to her, that an insidious eye was upon them both.
Aria knocked her forehead with her hoof, and grimaced as she sank deeper into the tub water. Even now she wondered how she could have ever been such a grand fool, how she could have ever allowed herself to become so comfortable, so careless as to allow Swift to see them, to understand them, to understand her. The inevitable reckoning for allowing herself to find happiness didn’t take long. Cirrus was a sociable and optimistic pony, but she was, indeed, also gullible, rather naive. Swift, being a former tactical stallion of war, made quick work of her.
He had called for his supper one evening, and everypony knew that he would only accept the meal if brought by Aria. As usual, Misses Clouds accompanied her so as to dissuade Swift from any funny business. The young mare had been in a relatively affable mood that evening, having secretly planned another meeting with Cirrus by the cloud garden wall for later on. Knowing Clouds would not do too much to dissuade her, she had even begun to hum a quiet tune to herself as she neared Swift’s dark, chamber door.
Moving to knock, she was surprised to find the doorway unlocked. Opening the thing, and calling from outside for the stallion to fetch his fare, she at once had heard a strange sound coming from deep within the murky room. Bidding Clouds to stand watch by the door, Aria persevered, and ventured forth into the gloom. As she moved further into the room, the sound she had heard began to take shape and form—belabored breath, a mare’s groaning. She could hear it coming from around the bend of boxes that Swift stored near the front of the chamber. Aria’s eyes went wide as she considered that perhaps she had caught Swift in the act of torturing yet another victim. Running quickly toward the sound, hopefully to save whichever soul had been so unfortunate as to draw the wicked attentions of the dark stallion, Aria turned the bend, and pushed past the threshold into Swift’s grim inner chamber. She froze on the spot. The plate clenched between her teeth clattered to the floor, spilling its contents everywhere. Her mouth gawked in silent horror as her hind legs threatened to collapse.
“Cirrus?” she croaked, barely above a whisper. At the sound of her name coming from Aria’s mouth, the honey-colored mare’s head shot up to stare at her in equal horror from where she lay—sprawled, flushed, and sweaty beneath Swift’s sturdy, armorless, form.
“A-Aria?” Cirrus yelped, pushing away the long, damp, strands of mane that hung in her face, and immediately shoving Swift’s wickedly grinning maw off of her bare belly. The sprightly mare’s body began to shiver with anguish as she watched Aria’s entire visage cave in upon itself, her heart breaking straight down the middle. “Aria, p-please, let me explain… This is—… I don’t...”
Her voice began to crack as she stumbled out of Swift’s bed, and onto the floor. She watched as Aria began to retreat out of the room, her head shaking in disbelief. From the shadows where he lay fevered and content in his own depravity, Swift began to chuckle. The sound cut the air like a knife.
“I don’t think there’s anything much to explain, Love,” he said, staring at Cirrus’ shaking form. His eyes slid over toward Aria, and the bile rose into her throat as she watched his smile grow even wider. “Do you, Miss Aria?”
She ran, fast and far away.
That was the last time she ever saw Cirrus, the sprightly pegasus who she had loved so. Of course, soon after that night, Swift was hasty in having the mare defamed, and dismissed from the Mist estate for her “disorderly conduct”. There were many times between that incident and her departure that she had attempted to speak to Aria, to explain to her that which the dour mare really didn’t care to know. She even had Misses Clouds deliver to her a long, drawn out letter of which Aria only read a few words, something about an “agreement” with Swift and a “negotiation of freedom”. All naive rubbish that no longer mattered. The entire letter was immediately torn to bits and tossed to the wind. How could Cirrus say these things to her thinking that Aria would not recall every horrid aspect of that unspeakable picture, down to the smallest detail, down to the tiniest glimmer of the satiated smile that she’d seen on Cirrus’ face before she had called her name? It wrecked her. The images of that smile would not fade from her mind, so much that she could no longer bear the thought of her knowing that fiendish stallion had played her so effortlessly. Perhaps it was, in some ways, selfish on her part, but nopony, if they had been privy to her personal feelings for the other mare, could have denied that it wasn’t completely understandable.
She closed her heart off, then. She made herself an iron-clad wall for the sake of any other pony that might fall prey to the dark stallion. Bit by bit, she had to admit that Swift was pulling her apart. Now, he had even found a way to control her ability to love. Lest he completely destroy her heart, she committed herself to never acting so foolishly again.
Her mouth, by this time, had sunk below the level of the tub water. Blowing lazy bubbles as she let this memory fade from her mind, she considered Clouds’ proposition, wondering what woes would befall Comet Racer if Swift were to find out about him. She scoffed to herself, spurting water as a radical notion came to her. Why should she care about Comet Racer? She didn’t love him, and certainly Misses Clouds had not supposed that she should. He was simply a means for escape, a feasible out. If courting Comet Racer could bring her freedom, then wasn’t that all that mattered? Wasn’t her freedom what would bring her the most happiness? If the plan failed, then none of it would have to matter; for, no greater harm or benefit would come to Aria that was any different from that which she had been enduring for years. Certainly, there was no detriment in making a fresh attempt at a covert escape. She didn’t have any other plan of action at the moment, anyway. After a beat of silence, Aria turned her head toward Clouds.
“Alright. I’ll do it.”
Clouds’ audible sigh of relief echoed throughout the empty bath house as she finished with Aria’s mane, and laid the shiny length back down across one of her shoulders.
“That is a relief to hear, Miss. Truly it is,” she breathed, trying to stifle an overjoyed laugh.
Now, moving with more gusto, Misses Clouds picked up a scrubber, and trotted again to Aria’s side. Lifting one of the mare’s hooves, she began to scrub the thing shiny. Aria, whose injured eye had now healed enough to open, stared at the elder pegasus, and then groaned in exasperation.
“Clouds, what are you doing? You know they’re just going to get dirty again once I go down to the kitchen.”
“Just putting the finishing touches on you, Miss Aria. That’s all. Never know when you might meet somepony nice,” Clouds blurted, trying to hide her very apparent smile. Aria sighed, and rolled her eyes. She did not reply, instead choosing to sink again into the welcoming waters.
Before she headed downstairs for the day, Aria had gathered her long mane into a tail that fell over her shoulder, and was tied with the two pretty ribbons that Madame Rosedawn had gifted to her so long ago. Never revealing how much the two small pieces of silk meant to her, Aria had managed to carry them around all this time without having them confiscated or stolen. She then slipped on a large, bland, tan shawl that Misses Clouds had gifted to her in order to better hide the never-fading bruises upon her body as well as the mark emblazoned upon her flank. The lovely star and forte symbol had come in about a year after the incident with Rosedawn, much to everypony’s dismay, but to nopony’s surprise. Though she personally thought it beautiful, its testimony to her love of song and music was a searing mark of shame upon her in the Mist household. It attested to her inner defiance, and her inability to be dissuaded from what was forbidden to her. Indeed, she could hide her love of song only as much as she could now hide her beloved mark—superficially, with a large, woolen, cloth.
The shawl made her look rather frumpy, but who was she trying to show off for anyway? Poking at her eye to make sure that the bump was mostly gone, she then opted instead to push more mane to the front of her face to hide whatever might be left of the bruise. She then exited her chamber, being careful not to wake the other two maidservants with whom she shared the room.
The vast kitchen was quiet and empty, as it usually was when she entered in the mornings. Promptly getting down to the business of bellowing the cloud hearth hot for cooking, fetching the cooking water, and scrubbing the floor, Aria worked hastily, and in silence, enjoying the moment’s peace she had to herself before the hectic day began. She had been doing this for years now. As soon as she had grown too old to be adoptable, the Lady Mist had made sure to promptly add her to the household staff. Of course, she had been appointed as nothing more than a scullery maid, and knowing Mist, she knew it was unlikely that she would ever be anything greater than that. However, at least now she was being paid—albeit meagerly—for all of the floors she was made to scrub. Of course, it was never enough to buy or do anything extraordinary. It was certainly not enough to somehow purchase her escape; yet, it did bring its small pleasures. Occasionally, she would purchase candy from the street vendors that neared the estate gates. She wasn’t allowed to leave for any reason; so, the money would be passed to the peddler through the fortified bars under the watchful eyes of the Mist household guards. On other occasions, she would purchase reading scrolls from her colleagues who were happy to trade for what little extra funds they could get. Aria’s love of reading was only surpassed by her love for song. As she grew up, she had discovered that, besides her voice, reading made a great way to escape—be it ever so briefly—from her arduous life.
As she scrubbed, she tried as hard as she could to keep the events of the night before out of her mind. Of course, nights spent in the company of Swift were nothing short of abhorrent; thus, this task proved quite difficult. She would not deny that over the years, her mettle had grown stronger, her hide tougher, and after a time, the villainous stallion's blows became but another tick on the list of offenses that she was made to endure on occasion. Where her eyes once avoided his gaze in youth, they had gradually learned to meet them, filled with fury and spite. Where her lips had been sealed shut until ordered by his word to sing, she eventually took small delight in opposing him, defying his command until she could bear the pain no more. Only then would she open her mouth, giving him just a lyric, only a taste of what he so desired. She had thought that she was no longer fearful—until relatively recently.
As she grew into marehood, a few ponies who had proved casually kind to her had, from time to time, revealed to Aria their admiration for what they called her “comeliness”. Of course, she could never understand what it was they had been talking about, and most of the time they only mentioned her looks because they wondered why she never thought to pull her mane out of her eyes, or stop wearing enormous, frumpy shawls about her lovely, slender frame. However, none of these things seemed to matter to her. How could they when, deep down, she knew that her appearances could do nothing to help her? She hadn’t thought to linger on such things until Swift had begun to notice them.
Recently, during their visits, she would find his words far too beguiling, his touches far too suggestive to have been something she had ever dealt with before. Confronted with threats of something new and far more terrifying, she found herself beginning to worry and fret all over again. With ghastly memories of Swift and Cirrus haunting her mind, she would hide from him whenever words on the winds said he was looking for her. She would make sure that she only brought him his meals alone during the day when she would be missed, and if it was suppertime, she would always deliver the meal along with Misses Clouds. She also tried her best to never travel close to his route at night. Knowing this, she had to acknowledge that what had happened the evening before was inevitable. There had been a banquet, like Misses Clouds had explained. It was large, and lasted all evening. Most of the household servants were called away. She had been one of the few exceptions, of course, and it was during her trek to fetch more water for cooking that Swift had snatched her, dragging her off to his dusty cellar whilst her screams went unheard.
Aria smiled proudly to herself as she got up to fetch the piles of bowls meant for the wards’ breakfast. She had not revealed to Misses Clouds that this time around, she had managed to withstand him. Not one of her precious notes ever escaped her throat at his beckoning, even when he had struck her in the eye, making her black out. Surely, the elderly mare would have chastised her, and asked her why it should matter in that worrying tone of hers.
“Just sing him a blasted song!” she would probably say, but Aria knew that Clouds could not understand. Clouds could not grasp that her song was her friend, her will. It was hers alone, and a rare gift if given to anypony else. Swift could never dream of deserving such a precious thing.
Snatching up a giant cauldron, Aria flew it over to the hearth, and plopped it down upon the flurry of swirling, heated air. She then flitted over to the pantry, collected together mounds of fruits, and a large sack of grain, and brought them over to the enormous work table to prep them. Pushing up the edges of her large shawl, she snatched up a sharp blade, and masterfully twirled it upon the tip of her hoof before beginning to chop.
She smiled when the beat of the blade hitting the tabletop seemed to trigger her musical wellspring, instantly lifting her mood. Her tail swished to the rhythm as she began to feel that familiar itching sensation in the spot below her neck. At first she hummed to herself, a habit of caution brought on by having been caught singing far too many times. Her head shot up, a disdainful grimace on her face as she realized that if she could withstand Swift, she could withstand anypony. Besides, the kitchen would be empty for quite a while, anyway.
Into a dragon’s maw with them all!
Throwing caution to the wind, she took a deep breath, parted her lips, and allowed the enrapturing melody to fill the room.
We’ll never see the day,
When they shall let her fly away,
But they shan’t rattle me,
I know that they shall never see,
What guides my way.
Peels and skins fell to the floor by her hind legs as Aria moved swiftly through the pile of fruit. After she had completed this task, she figured she might as well go ahead, and prepare the bag of oats since the cook had not yet arrived. Tearing the sack open, she then danced, and twirled through the air in the absolute comfort of her own company as she flew it over toward the large, heated cauldron. There, she began to pick up bucket after bucket of the cooking water she had fetched earlier, dumping it into the enormous pot. As usual, she lost herself in her song, never noticing how the air itself began to tremor and hum happily along with her. Likewise, it never occurred to Aria that as she had grown, consequently, the once subtle effects of her childhood voice had transformed into something far more powerful.
Not something to perceive.
Not just some simple ‘Do Re Mi’,
On which I can depend.
And every part of me agrees,
It is the key,
That draws me from those monsters in the dark,
It always whisks me far away.
Once she finished with the water, Aria began to scoop mound after mound of oats into the liquid until the giant thing was filled to the brim with thick, mealy lumps. Flitting high into the air where she knew the cook kept the spices upon a hidden shelf, she quickly snatched up the cinnamon and sugar, and descended again in front of the cauldron, pouring some in bit by bit as it began to bubble. Snatching up a large, wooden spoon, she stirred the pot as she wiped away a bit of sweat beginning to form on her brow.
No matter how they try,
That part of me could never die.
And someday I’ll,
Bid farewell to this grayness.
Someday I’ll cross that open sky.
Soar far away,
When the porridge was done, Aria carefully pulled the massive pot from the heat, and dragged it toward the long work table. There, she laid out endless rows of bowls in the blink of an eye, and carefully began to pour a heaping helping into each one, tossing a medley of fruit atop the portions as she went.
Someday I’ll see that sunset on the sea,
Fair and free,
Forget my troubles in good company,
And my melody.
She never noticed how the very air had seemed to catch a fire with song until after the melody had finished, and the pleasant itch on her chest had begun to fade. Tilting her head back in a state of euphoria, she took a deep breath.
“That one is worth keeping,” she snickered to herself, confining the tune to the catalog of her memory.
The kitchen’s back door slammed hard, making Aria gasp, and hop back into alertness. Hoping that whoever was lurking there in the shadows had not heard her entire tune, she quickly turned about, and finished filling the rest of the bowls, putting on a pretense that she had been concentrating in complete silence.
“Morning!” she called anxiously, now assuming it was the cook, Bellypuff, as she heard slow hoofsteps begin to approach.
“You’re in luck today, Mum,” she said, forcing a nervous laugh as she heard the figure move to stand directly at her back. “It seems I lost track of what I was doing, and already finished up the wards’ breakf—”
A hoof came down hard upon her shoulder, and spun her about. She felt her stomach drop as she peered into two, flaming red orbs hovering over a sinister grin. Retreating quickly away from them, she backed up against the table, nearly tipping over some of the bowls in her wake.
“What are you doing here?” she murmured, eyeing Swift over with disgust. His grin only seemed to grow wider.
“My job,” he said flatly, as he began to circle the table. “I happened to be completing my rounds as I passed by, and swore I heard the faint traces of a song on the breeze. It seemed I was correct in my suspicions.”
He paused on the opposite side of the table, directly across from Aria. Looking her over, he noticed that she was not covered in bruises and welts.
“Clouds patched you up quite well this time, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did,” Aria spat. Swift ground his jaw at this.
“You should really be more careful, Love—”
“Don’t call me that,” Aria growled, her purple eyes burning. Swift stared at her for a moment, and blinked before taking a deep breath, and continuing on his trek about the table. He seemed to be busying himself with inspecting the bowls she had prepared.
“You should really be more careful, Aria. Somepony less forgiving than I might have heard you.”
Aria retreated down the length of the table once more as Swift made a beeline directly toward her.
“Less forgiving,” she scoffed, a defiant smile spreading across her lips. Swift, noticing this, breached the rest of the distance between them, and continued to push on until he had cornered the mare up against the cold wall. Pressing herself hard against its surface, Aria turned her head in an attempt to get away from the sensation of Swift’s hot breath against her skin.
“What do you want?” she asked, a twinge of desperation betraying her show of courage. She shut her eyes tight as she felt him bring his face so close that his lips brushed against her cheek. Her legs threatened to collapse from under her.
“I want…” Swift began, enjoying the sight of the mare cowering before him, “...supper.”
The dark stallion pulled himself away from her casually, and stood there, a smug smile upon his face. He seemed to draw delight from Aria’s current expression of confusion.
“Delivered by you, of course, and only you. You can spare me the sight of that fat, gawking, matron, or any other of your bird brained companions. I just want you.”
Aria blinked, and let loose a spiteful laugh.
“Do I look like a fool? I’d much sooner be whipped.”
“That could be arranged,” Swift stated matter-of-factly, inspecting one of his enormous, worn, hooves.
“I don’t care,” Aria continued. “The answer is no.”
Swift’s eyes seemed to spark as he turned to face her, closing the distance between them once again until they stood nose to nose.
“You shall, or else the Lady Mist will hear about your little performance.”
“She cannot do anything to me,” Aria retorted, her eyes never wavering as she glared back at him.
“No, but I can,” Swift snarled, reaching out to wrap his hoof around Aria's neck, pushing himself up against her.
“Get off of me,” she croaked, struggling to push him away to no avail.
“If you haven’t noticed, Mist obliges my every whim under pain of destitution, and we both know that the “Lady” could never allow that. Either you come to me tonight, or she makes you come, but I’m afraid I shall have to express my deepest displeasure if you force my hoof toward the latter.”
“I’m not afraid of you anymore, Swift,” Aria breathed, her voice clearly shaking.
“Perhaps you should be. Perhaps you should extend some of that fear toward your beloved Matron… or the children,” Swift murmured, grinning wildly as he watched Aria’s eyes go wide.
“You shan’t harm any of the wards or Clouds,” she growled under her breath, fresh fury in her gaze. The dark stallion gave a smug huff.
“Well then, it would seem we have come to an agreement, hm?”
Aria said nothing as, gradually, her eyes fell from Swift’s horrible grin, toward the floor. A beat of silence passed between them both before, with much hesitation, she nodded her head.
“Good mare,” he said, tracing the length of her mane with his hoof. Reaching down, he ran his hoof across her tail, curled it around to grip it, and gave it a quick, cheeky tug before turning toward the table where the wards’ breakfast sat. As he passed by to trot toward the door, he made sure to swat a few bowls off of its surface with his tail. He laughed to himself as they shattered onto the floor, spilling their contents everywhere.
The mare held her position against the wall until she heard the back door slam shut, after which she slid in defeat down to the floor. Burying her face into her hooves, she sat there, allowing her mind to sink into a deep fog. Perhaps, for a moment, she could once again forget where she was, and what she seemed fated to endure.
Suddenly, a thought, a blazing hot flicker, flashed before her eyes.
“Comet Racer,” she breathed to herself, quickly jumping to her hooves with resolve. Then racing toward the pantry, she pulled out some flour. Dragging it over toward the work table, she shoved aside some of the bowls, then fetched some water, and a myriad of other ingredients. Tossing back the edges of her shawl once again, she set herself to work. There was very little time before the cook arrived, and she simply had to be finished before then.
The back courtyard was mostly empty this early in the morning save for the random main household servant here and there. Aria pulled her shawl tighter around her body to stave off the cool morning air. Between her teeth, she clenched a large item tied with a pretty piece of scrap cloth. Quickly, she trotted off in the direction of the cloud gardens, knowing that Comet Racer, being a stocker for the Mist household, would be bringing in goods by one of the small back gates.
Flying over a particularly large mound of cloud, she looked down toward one of the gates behind the garden, and spotted two ponies standing there. A passing guard below saw her flying above him, and immediately called out to her.
“You there! Blaze! You know the rules. No flying outside of the buildings! Get down, now!”
Aria rolled her eyes, and slowly descended until she was standing in front of the guard. He continued to glare down at her. She did know the rules, namely that all of the Mist household guards were ordered to take particular care to keep her from flying about whenever she was too close to the gates, fearing an escape. They often claimed that the rule applied to all of the pegasi who occupied the Mist household, but Aria knew better. If there was one thing that was completely and utterly absurd to say to a pegasus, it was that they were forbidden from flying.
Stupid, mindless, brutes.
“Beg pardon. I forgot,” she hissed through her teeth, passing him a very forced smile before trotting off past him in the direction of Comet Racer.
As she approached Comet, whose back was facing her, she noticed that he seemed to be energetically discussing something of great importance with the other stallion standing before him. Aria caught only a few words before the stranger gestured to Comet Racer that somepony was approaching.
“Yes, I’m certain nopony has seen this except for me,” the stranger had said as he passed Comet Racer something that looked like a thick, plaid-decorated money satchel. Comet Racer snatched the thing, and hid it inside of one of the pockets of his shirt.
“Good, the rest shouldn’t be a—”
This was when the stranger had cleared his throat. Aria stood before them patiently, eyes turned down toward the clouds, the decorated sack hanging from her teeth.
“Hey, isn’t she that mare who—” the stranger began quietly to Comet Racer.
“Aria?” Comet interrupted, giving her a quizzical look. “W… what are you doing all the way out here?”
At the announcement of her name, a guard who had previously been standing back to the side of the open gate doorway, quickly slid himself into place between the threshold to block any potential path of escape. Again, Aria rolled her eyes. Forgetting the guardspony, she cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and approached Comet Racer until she was standing directly before him. She felt her cheeks going red as she put the package down gently in front of him, not knowing what to do next.
She had never been too good with the ways of showing romantic affection. Situations like this one would probably always feel strange and unnatural to her. Nervously gathering her shawl about herself, she took a deep breath, looked into Comet Racer’s eyes, and forced out something as close to a beguiling smile as she could muster.
He seemed to get the hint, and gave her a pleasantly surprised grin of his own.
Thank the stars.
Clearing her throat one more time, she walked near enough for him to smell how the morning air clung to her mane. Then, she turned and headed further on down the gate, back toward the garden. As she passed, she deliberately made sure to let her tail wrap itself around his hoof, ever so slightly. After she had cleared enough of a distance, she heard both of the stallions let out a great exhale.
“By thunder, that’s some mare. How did a dud like you manage that?” the stranger said before being jabbed in the gut by Comet.
“Shut it, will you? She can still hear you, you idiot,” the red stallion chided his companion. Aria smirked.
The rest would be simple, practically a waiting game. She knew that Comet Racer would love the cakes she had made for him, and inevitably come to her again to return the cloth she had wrapped them in. She would then simply rinse and repeat, laugh at his jokes, laugh at his friend’s jokes, hopefully share at least one interesting conversation with him, and then, probably after a kiss that he definitely wouldn’t deserve, he would insist that she come away with him next month. It now seemed more fortunate, in her opinion, that he was a tradespony. She knew that Comet often used many big carts, crates, and boxes to carry his wares back and forth. Perhaps she might even be able to fit herself inside one of them to get out. It seemed, most certainly, to be a rather good plan.
She smiled to herself as she daydreamed about her inevitable victory over Mist and her minions, never once noticing a dark, grim figure lurking in the distance atop a tall puff of cloud. She was snapped back into reality by the sound of heavy hooves, and her neck craned in its direction just in time to see a dark, violet tail disappearing over the mound. Pondering to herself a moment, she shrugged off a strange and sudden feeling of unease, and quickly headed back up toward the wards’ quarters.
“Be seated!” the headspony bid the endless rows of children as he stood before them. Immediately, and in one, mechanical motion, all hundred or some odd foals took their seat. As Aria stood at the rear of the hall with the rest of the kitchen help, waiting to serve the food she had prepared, her eyes darted about the room, eyeing the young ones. What Swift had told her in the kitchen earlier had startled her more than she had realized. Remembering those dark days from her childhood, she couldn’t help but wonder and fear the notion that Swift might possibly be tormenting other young wards at the orphanage. Scanning for bruises or a hint of any silent whimpering, Aria never noticed her name being called.
“Blaze!” shouted the head cook, Bellypuff, a large, round, and quite fearsome green mare. Aria gasped, her head spinning about just in time to catch her tossing a stack of bowls toward her back, and then shoving another into her mouth. Having had much practice balancing the dishes, Aria grunted a sharp, indecipherable apology before turning to head toward one long row of hungry children, all of them eyeing the balanced bowls atop her back hungrily.
Passing each one out quickly, Aria had finished with the stack held between her teeth in no time. Fluttering over to the opposite side of the long row, she began to pass out the ones balanced atop her back. Strangely enough, her gaze never directly met with any of the wards’ eyes. Something about them made her uncomfortable, especially those who were slightly older in age. She didn’t know why, but it almost felt like they were able to see right through whatever small authority she might have pretended to wield because of her adulthood to the battered, morose mess of a filly that still remained buried somewhere inside of her. Their gazes always held this twinge of wonder as they watched the pretty, shawl-draped pegasus pass their way. Perhaps they wondered why she was deigned to hold the position of the lowest staff in an estate orphanage. Maybe they assumed that it was because she was hiding something unforgivable. Or maybe some of the staff rumors about the history of her voice and subsequent imprisonment had found its way to the children’s ears.
The bowls clinked as they began to shake between her teeth. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. The eyes—She couldn’t bear them. As she came to the end of her table where a small colt, one she had not seen before, sat waiting eagerly for his breakfast, she breathed a sigh of relief. Quickly plopping down the bowl in front of him, she began to march away. A tug upon her tail stopped her dead in her tracks.
Not expecting the sensation to be so reminiscent in her mind of the lewd touches Swift had forced upon her earlier that day, she spun around to find the little colt holding tightly onto her tail with his teeth. He stared up at her warily.
Her mouth curled in upon itself until only a small hint of a line lingered below her nose. The rose in her cheeks seemed to drain away. She found that she had no words as the strangest sensation of anxiety descended upon her. She felt as if the entire room could somehow see those horrible things Swift had done.
“Mum,” the colt began in the most cautious of voices. “This bowl has a crack. M-may I have another?”
The child seemed to wither in Aria’s line of sight as he saw her violet eyes go wide. At once, the only thing she could think to do as more sweat rolled down her neck, was to yank her tail out of his grasp. Her lips quivered for just a moment before a sharp intake of breath.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.
At once, the low din in the hall ceased as all eyes turned to stare at the fuchsia mare. The small colt shrank into his seat in fear, nearly disappearing beneath the table itself. This only worked to rile her up even more. Taking a step backward, her eyes darted about the room. Words bubbled in her throat, and began to rise. As if acting of their own accord, her lips moved again.
“Don’t any of you ever touch me! I do not like to be touched! And why do you all look at me in that way?”
“Miss Aria!” the headspony huffed as he slammed his long wooden staff into the floor, insisting on her silence. Her eyes darted toward his direction.
“Is it that you think I do not notice? That I don’t know what it is you say about me when my back is turned?”
The distressed mare never saw Bellypuff inching toward the great hall doorway behind her. At once, the large cook darted through the threshold, and down the corridor, calling a name that Aria could not determine.
“Miss Aria, I will tolerate no more of this insolence!” the staff-wielding stallion shouted as he made his way toward her. “You are dismissed! Retreat to your chamber at once!”
Trotting up to her, he moved to grab her by the shawl, and drag her toward the door. She snatched the cloth out of his teeth, and backed away. The faint hints of a tremor could be seen coursing through her hind legs.
“I said get off of me!” she screamed, clutching the cloth around her body even tighter. The stallion’s eyes went wide, startled by the mare’s outburst. It seemed his loss of control over the situation had become clear as a few of the younger wards then began to cry. Aria reeled at the sound. Panic overtook her, and she spun about, unable to spy her own exit through her increasingly blurred vision.
“Aria!” a voice called to her through the fog.
“Stay… stay away,” she gasped, fighting off a powerful wave of nausea.
“Miss Aria Blaze!” the voice shouted again as Aria felt a hoof come across her jaw—hard.
The sting of the blow seemed to knock the instinctive panic right out of her, bringing her back to her senses. Turning about, wide-eyed and breathless, she was stunned to find Misses Clouds standing before her. Bellypuff lingered silently at the elder’s side.
“That will be quite enough!” Clouds huffed, staring down at her. “Come with me!”
As if for the very first time, Aria glanced about the room at all of the gawking, horrified eyes trained upon her. A few of the foals had moved to hide beneath the table whilst many more of the servants whispered amongst themselves.
“I…” Aria stammered, meeting Clouds’ gaze again. Before she could get anything out, she felt her stomach turn, its contents rushing up through her gullet. Shoving her way past the elder pegasus, she dashed through the hall doors, and turned to stumble out into the yard.