Swift’s eerie cellar was deathly quiet as he and Aria sat before one another at his dark table. He eyed her over, leaning to one side whilst running his hoof around the base of a large goblet of hard cider. The expression on his face was a strange amalgam of perplexity and disdain for the mare. Aria sat opposite of him, perfectly composed and defiant in spite of her, again, blackened eye. She was wrapped in Clouds' old shawl which had been collected for her as a vindictive gift from the dark stallion. Even still, though sitting there dressed in her clothing of shame, her gaze floated proudly somewhere above Swift’s head. Finally, having had enough of her audaciousness, the stallion grimaced, and sat up straight.
“I ask for supper, and you give me a two day witch hunt,” he stated plainly. “Mare, you try my patience.”
Aria cocked a brow in her usual fashion.
“I thought we both could do well with a little change of pace,” she deadpanned, never once glancing at him. Swift immediately pounded his hoof upon the table, making Aria flinch; yet, still, she sat tall.
“Why this endless impudence? Why can you not see that it is your own stubbornness that brings about your suffering?”
Aria did not respond to the stallion’s rage. He stomped his hoof down harder, bidding her to answer. She sneered and leaned forward.
“Because you are a fiend. Because you are cruel and unjust. There is nothing else to do but be impudent."
Taking a moment to allow the point to sink in, she then sat upright, and straightened her shawl.
"Why did you order the dismissal of Comet Racer?” she blurted, the question having lingered in the back of her mind since her forced return to the Mist estate. Swift stared at her for a moment before inhaling sharply.
“It wasn't I who dismissed Racer. It was the Lady Mist herself. I simply acted upon orders received." The stallion seemed to relish in the confused look upon Aria's face. "You seem to have been expecting to hear a different tale."
"No," Aria lied, still unable to hide her befuddled expression. Swift smiled.
"He was a thief. He stole a satchel of gold bits out of the estate vault,” he stated, running his hoof over the rim of the goblet again.
“You lie,” the mare hissed. The stallion's amusement seemed to fall away in lieu of irritation.
“Indeed I do not, Miss,” he retorted. After a beat, he stood, and marched away. When he returned it was with a satchel hanging from between his teeth. The bulky thing was printed in a plaid fabric, the one Comet had been collecting from his companion two mornings ago by the wall. Dropping the satchel down upon the table, yet another pouch spilled forth out of the first. Upon inspecting it, Aria found the Mist family seal printed clearly upon its side. Quite skeptical about the implications of all this, the mare shook her head.
“This is a ruse. None of this is proof of anything. You could have stolen both of these from their rightful owners.”
Swift gave her an exasperated look. His countenance went grim.
“And why, in your opinion, Miss Aria, would I do such a thing? Do you suppose I have been given reason to take up disfavor with Comet Racer?"
Again, Swift's crimson eyes bored into her, studying her, waiting for a slip up. She shook her head, and again looked to the floor. The stallion's eyes narrowed.
"I can admit that I have many faults, but being a liar is not one of them. I cut the satchel off of him myself in front of the entire staff. You may ask any of them.”
“Th... that cannot be,” Aria stammered, her eyes darting as she remembered back to two evenings before, the servants whispering to each other, not stepping forward to help the struggling Comet; and Comet and his friend’s strange behaviour when she had startled him earlier that day.
“That just cannot be.”
Swift cocked a pitying brow at her, and scratched tiredly at his dark violet forelocks.
“I have been doing this for a while, Miss, and I must say that I am quite good at it. It is of no concern to me what you believe. If you cared to delve into the matter, you would see that I speak the truth. You on the other hoof...”
Aria blinked as the stallion took a moment to produce a beautifully colored piece of cloth from where it had been hidden behind his breastplate. It was the cloth with which she had wrapped her gift to Comet Racer the day before. Her features curled into a grimace.
“What were you planning to do?” he asked plainly.
“Nothing,” she lied.
“Miss Aria,” Swift began matter-of-factly as he stood up, and paced about the table. “Somepony who has lived the life that I have knows a lie when they hear one—an amateur lie, at that. You were planning on seducing this Comet Racer hoping for a route of escape. Does that sound more like the ‘truth’?”
Aria paused, furious at herself for having been so simple.
“Only as much as Comet Racer as a thief sounds like the truth,” she murmured, sounding quite unsure.
“You loved him, then?” Swift asked, stifling a chortle. “A fine pair you two would have made, a sorceress and a swindler!”
Aria did not reply, acknowledging that they both already knew the answer to his question. Her head slumped with exhaustion. Heartbroken, she recalled how very close she had been to her beloved sea. She longed to somehow find herself miraculously in her magical woods, one more time. She yearned for the safe, enveloping feeling of her soothing spring to take away all of her troubles. A horridly invasive sensation began to bore into her when she heard a strange sound escaping from Swift's throat. Her brow furrowed, and she held back a moan as she realized that he was humming the tune she had been singing in the kitchen two days prior—her song of freedom, her song of escape. He was taunting her.
“Why…?” she groaned under her breath. Caught off guard by the pained and weary sound, Swift turned to stare at her.
“Why all this?” Aria yelled, her eyes darting upward in fresh fury. “Why do you insist on torturing me? On keeping me here? Surely, Swift, somewhere inside of that cold armor, you must still have some semblance of a heart! Why can you not be settled with my absence?”
Swift continued to look at her as if he were entertaining the idea of actually answering these inquiries. With a glimmer of interest in his eye, he took his seat, and leaned forward upon the table.
“You used somepony as a means of obtaining some reckoning for yourself, have you not?” he asked her again calmly. Aria still found it a difficult thing to hear. “If this is the case, then we seem to be more like-minded than you may think.”
Aria’s eyes went sharp and livid.
“I am nothing like you,” she hissed. Swift worked his jaw, and after a pause, continued.
“I was like you once: on fire, stubborn as a mule, sure about my future prospects, and those of the ones that I once held dear. Then came that noble wench, Mist.” He took this opportunity to down his goblet of hard cider, and then pour himself another. “With her incessant conniving, and her seedy relations, she took that… them all... away.”
A look that Aria had never seen coming from Swift swept across his face. It was a look that seemed to signal the remembrance of old woes. At once, the gauntness of his appearance, the weary and tired shadows around his eyes became glaringly apparent. Aria found herself wondering just how much the stallion had changed from that rumored, shining hero the other servants claimed he once was.
“But because of you, I came to know joy once more,” he said with fresh determination in his voice. “Because of you, I have retrieved from the depths some semblance of myself again. You wouldn’t very well expect me to just give that all away, would you?”
He laughed as if the thought of keeping her captive would have made perfect sense to anypony. Aria’s features twisted in disgust as she watched him down another whole goblet of cider.
"You're just fortunate I was there when that deranged, babbling forest-dweller attempted to run you through," he mumbled to himself, half distracted by the fact that he was now trying to pour more drink from an empty bottle. Aria's entire face drooped in shock, her eyes blinking in confusion.
"Th-those daggers... That was... you?" she breathed unable to make sense of somepony she utterly despised being so quick to save her life one minute, and then strike her unconscious the next. Swift didn't answer as he was too eager to rush off, and retrieve yet another bottle of cider. Upon his return, he popped it open, and opted to drink straight from the container itself. Aria's conflicted emotions clashed only briefly before the overwhelming part of her that hated the dark stallion won out.
"Well, Swift, it would seem that you have saved my life," she murmured, then motioning up toward her blackened eye, and the dismal room that surrounded them both. "And here it is in all of its splendor. I hope you weren't expecting any sort of gratitude."
Swift chuckled in that gruff, grating voice of his as he wiped the moisture from his chin.
"Of course I wasn't, Miss Aria. That would be something quite unbecoming of you, and to be honest, something quite useless to me," he said taking another swig of the drink. "As much as it would delight me for you to return my affections, even I, being a stallion of reason, must concede that this would be highly unlikely at this point. Am I correct in saying so?"
Aria sneered in spite of the smug smile upon his face.
"Absolutely," she hissed slowly, hoping the vitriol in her reply would cut into him like a knife. To her dismay, Swift's smile only grew brighter. His crimson eyes glistened under the powerful spell of drink.
"I saved you because you and your voice are precious to me, something that I cannot live without," he continued calmly, pouring a portion of drink into the goblet, and sliding it to sit before Aria. She did not touch it.
"You mean only my voice," the mare corrected him, pushing the goblet away toward the center of the table.
"On the contrary, Miss," he said with ease, now taking the opportunity to wrap the decorated cloth Aria had given to Comet Racer around his hoof. "You, as well."
Aria made a noise filled with disgust and ridicule.
"How quick you are to break and destroy that which is so precious to you," she scoffed.
"I don't particularly enjoy doing those things," Swift said, leaning back in his seat. "I take no delight in it. However, I'm afraid that from the very start, you have shown me that these things are, indeed, a necessity. All that I have done, I've done to get what it was that I needed, just as you have."
Aria now looked absolutely incredulous. She leaned forward, pounding her hooves upon the table.
“I would’ve never hurt anypony. I would never try to...” she stifled herself, quickly sifting through years of horrible memories. “...I don’t do the things you do.”
“Don’t you?” Swift laughed. “You did it to Comet Racer. You drew him in, were willing to allow him to love you, yet were so quick to leave him in ropes, right there by the gate, being dragged to his punishment, were you not?” Swift seemed to delight in the disquieted look that crossed the mare's countenance. "Be honest with me just once this evening, Miss Blaze. Do you truly care what has happened to the stallion? Did you think of him even once while you were out there, flying through those forests? Does it matter to you where he is now? If he is even still alive? When you thought you were the reason for his misery, did you care at all?"
"Stop it," Aria hissed.
"Did you?" Swift exclaimed, urging her to reply.
Aria contemplated the questions if only to prove to herself that he was wrong. However, as she mulled them over, to her alarm, she found that the first and only feeling that she got while picturing Comet's face was slight guilt. That was it. Her heart didn't swell for the want of his safety. Tears didn't fall for fear that he might be harmed. For all intents and purposes, she had practically felt nothing. After all, he was just another figure in a flat painting, a pawn amongst those who were mightier. An uncomfortable silence passed between the two figures sitting in the shadows as Aria found she could not look at the self-gratifying grin now on Swift's face.
"I didn't think so," the stallion said. "You need your freedom with a burning passion, don’t you? You do not wish to concede that, given the opportunity, you would do anything, hurt anypony you had to for it.”
“No,” Aria breathed, shaking her head as if to convince herself. Swift cocked an amused brow at her.
“These things have a way of crescendoing,” he stated, inspecting the delicate cloth wrapped around his hoof. “One day, the consequences of our actions may bring about the dismissal of a few servants, perhaps a good whipping or two. Before you realize it, you find you have learned to care far less for being the cause of far worse, all for a taste of that single, glorious, coveted thing.”
Aria sat there in silence, lost in her own head. Was it possible that what the stallion said to her had been the truth? Was it possible that anypony, even she, might carry in them the potential to become the type of monster that Swift was? Could she do the type of things he had done, all to get her way, her due piece of happiness? Eyes slowly rising to meet his, she was distraught to find that, now, she could no longer imagine Swift without separating him from his evil. To her, the worn, hollow-eyed stallion had begun to look as depleted and drained as she had felt. A horrible tremble traveled up her spine as she recalled Misses Clouds' warning about allowing herself to sympathize with the scoundrel. She knit her brow, and again looked defiantly toward the floor.
"M...my desire for freedom... is not the same as your obsession with me," she murmured, only hoping that she was actually right.
"You are my freedom. It is the same thing. The evidence of this is what we would be willing to do to obtain the things we want," Swift mused, absent-mindedly drawing one of his black hilted daggers from its scabbard, and rocking the shining thing between his hooves. He grinned when Aria's mouth drew up into an unsure scowl.
"You're raving mad," she mumbled beneath her breath, sniffing at him in scorn as she glanced off to some far corner.
Sensing the weakness in her will, Swift stared at her for a moment, his eyes flaring up before he took a deep breath, and made his way to the other side of the table. He moved to stand behind her. Reaching out he brushed the mane away from her nape, and brought his own face close. The mare edged away in disgust.
“You are my glorious, coveted thing,” he said, bringing his hoof up to hook around her shoulders, “and I shan’t ever let you or your song go.“
“They were never yours to release, Sir," she hissed disdainfully, even as he grazed her jawline with his lips. "And you shall never have either without great difficulty." She craned her head away from him. Not strong enough to resist his grip, she cringed as she felt him kiss the pulsing flesh of her neck.
“So be it, but make no mistake. I shall have them,” he breathed into her collar, sending one wandering hoof down her side, under the hem of her shawl, and ever so slowly, up the innerside of her hind leg. Aria jolted aside, shoving his hoof away. Fed up with the stallion's antics, she whipped her head around to look at him, and at once, spat in his face. She glared at him, pure insolence in her eyes. Holding her tightly, Swift gazed back, peering through his frazzled forelock. His entire aura grew incensed. At once, a grim shadow seemed to darken those burning eyes of his as if he were caught in a sudden trance. He huffed, winding his hoof onto the cloth of her shawl. Then snatching the entire thing from around her, he tossed it unceremoniously to the floor. Aria's gaze remained unmoved as she gulped down a dreadful lump that seemed to rise into her throat. A sickly look befell her as a beat of horrible understanding passed between them both.
Bounding upward, she hoofed Swift across the muzzle. Then, kicking the table into his path, she made a quick dash toward the door. Reeling for only a split second, Swift easily leapt over the obstacle in his way, and caught her in his teeth by the tail. She fell hard against the floor. Scraping and struggling for freedom, the terrified mare gazed in horror at her own shadow writhing desperately against the dark and eerie walls as she was pulled back into the gloom. Flipping her around to face him, Swift loomed over her, planting both of his hooves to either side of her downturned ears.
Huffing to regain her breath, she watched him wipe away the blood she had drawn from his face. With that glazed expression of simmering fury, he then slowly brought his nose down against her barrel to inhale the scent of her. Making a last ditch effort to reason with the deranged stallion, Aria cleared her throat, and did her best to control her own trembling, even as she felt Swift's breath working its way up her belly.
"Y-you are out of sorts this evening," she said, feigning cordiality as she kept her wide eyes directed toward the ceiling. It was a ludicrous thing to say at this point in time, all things considered, but in her desperation, she figured that maybe addressing him reasonably would bring some semblance of calm back into this daunting situation. Taking a chance to glance at his face once more, her stoic expression began to fracture as she saw no understanding there, no mercy at all. There was nothing else but dreadful resolve and determination within those burning eyes. Still, she continued on, even as Swift's lips grazed against her chin, and her voice began to crack.
"Come, let us return to the table, and... and I shall sing for you," she stammered, attempting to push the stallion away with her hoof. Swift easily wrenched it off, and pinned it to the floor. He scoffed, knowing well enough that even in this circumstance, especially in this circumstance, what she offered to him so willingly was nothing but a deception.
"More lies, lies, lies, Miss Aria. On the contrary, I can assure you, you shall sing gloriously before we're through," he huffed with the most venomous of smiles, then reaching upward to unhook his breastplate. With one nimble movement it went clattering into some dark corner. This action heightened Aria's panic. Eyes darting about, she suddenly caught sight of something glinting at Swift's side where it was tied about his barrel. Beginning to reach out toward it, she found that it was just a hair out of her grasp. Desperately, she stretched her foreleg, hoping that Swift would not turn and notice. Finally, the stallion brought his lips up to meet hers. She turned her head away, terrified. The air suddenly became oppressive, too thick to breathe; everything began to spin.
"Swift, if there is anything left in you of the hero that Gales remembers, then for his honor's sake, don't do this," Aria gasped. Swift recoiled ever so slightly, and peered at her, as if taking offense to her words. With his hoof, he forced her face upward once again. Staring into his eyes, Aria found that now the crimson had all gone dark like stale blood.
"Do not speak on things of which you know nothing. I am reviving that stallion," he hissed, then pressing his lips firmly against hers. Aria reeled at the invasive sensation, and the taste of cider upon his tongue. She recoiled at the smell of his sweat. Yearning for air, she suddenly experienced her vision dip in and out. Growing fearful that she might faint, her wings instinctively began the arduous task of pushing her up off of the floor, struggling against the dark stallion. Her hoof now managed to brush the hilt in his scabbard. She was so close. The lights in her eyes dimmed again when she felt him knock her wings out from under her, and pull her haunches upward. With one rapid motion, he dragged them up against him. Heaving as she felt his weight bear down upon her belly, Aria made one final effort to reach forward, and knock Swift's blade from its sheath. Pounding upon the hilt, it flipped in the air, and landed upon her shoulder where it cut a small, bleeding scratch into her flesh. It then fell to rest beside her head. She saw Swift's brow furrow in confusion at the sight of the blade. As she attempted to reach out to clasp the thing between her teeth before he could snatch it up, the sound of the world around her faded away, only to be replaced by a singular, pulsing note. A bright, green light flashed before her eyes before everything around her seemed to vanish into nothingness.
A blood-curdling shriek echoed throughout the rear courtyard, loud and piercing enough to wake the ever wary Misses Clouds from her slumber. Befuddled by grogginess, it took her a moment to realize that the shriek had not been just any ordinary scream. There had been a strange timbre to it, almost as if it were flowing, echoing, like a whistle or a musical note. Eyes going wide with sudden realization, she bounded from her bed, raced out of her chamber, and down the servants staircase; out into the back courtyard she ran.
“Aria? Miss Aria, where are you?” she cried into the darkness, eyes darting around, searching for the source of the screaming. A horrid notion occurred to her. If she had heard Aria like she thought she had, then that meant the guards had found her, and brought her back. There was no way in which Clouds could figure why she might return to this horrid place if she had actually managed to evade them. If this was the case, then she knew who had her. Quickly, she turned to fly toward Swift’s chamber door.
She was halfway there with the door in sight when she witnessed the thing violently swing open. The sound was loud enough to stop her dead in her tracks. She suddenly noticed a strange, deathly silence consuming the atmosphere as she watched one, shaky, rose-colored hoof appear from behind the open doorway in the distance.
Aria slipped into the courtyard, kicking Swift’s chamber door shut with her hind leg. With difficulty, she began to drag her hooves across the clearing. Her head hung low. Her long mane was loosened, and disheveled, obscuring her face from the side. As the mare took one small, unsteady step after another, Clouds could hear her quietly mumbling something to herself in a cracked and shaking voice. Glancing down at her path, the old mare realized, to her horror, that Aria was trailing blood. Clouds’ legs went weak, long feared nightmares forcing themselves into her mind.
“Miss Aria?” she croaked almost too quietly to hear. In the distance, the younger mare never halted her slow trek across the yard. It took a moment for Clouds to realize that she was headed toward the wards’ bath house. Watching the mare disappear into the dim lamplight of the building, she soon worked up the courage to follow.
She approached slowly, and as she did so, the sound that Aria had been emitting became both clearer and stranger to the ear. It was too quiet to be crying, too crystalline and pure to be a scream. The words forcing their way through this strange, piercing sound, were indecipherable, but borne on heaving, frantic breaths.
As Clouds pressed herself up against the outside of the door, she noticed a glowing red twinge bouncing from some unknown source onto the empty bath house walls. Inhaling some courage, the old pegasus quickly went around the corner, and gasped in horror.
Aria Blaze sat inside of one of the many tubs, scrubber in her hoof, practically scraping at her flesh with the large brush. Miraculously, around her body, and in a pillar high up into the air above, floated dancing blobs of clear and crimson liquid—blood and water. Her disheveled main hovered about her, swaying of its own accord, now making clear to Misses Clouds the contorted and deranged expression upon the younger mare’s face.
“The stench... The… stench,” Aria mumbled to herself, beginning to scrape away at her hind leg. It was then that Clouds realized that the singular piercing note she had heard was echoing in the air in spite of Aria’s bumbling mouth. How could it be that the two separate sounds were emanating from her at once?
Swallowing nothing, her mouth gone dry, Clouds took a terrified step toward the tub.
“Miss Aria?” she repeated.
Aria’s head whipped around to face her, and it was only then that Clouds realized what the eerie red glow had been. The younger mare’s eyes glowed completely crimson, two searing fires set into an enraged, rose-colored bezel. Clouds paused instinctively, and then willed herself to persevere. She took another wary step forward, outstretching her foreleg, trying not to make any sudden movements as the entranced mare stared blankly at her with those horrible eyes.
“Please, Miss Aria. I just want to help,” the matron murmured as she neared the edge of the tub. Something in Aria seemed to wither, almost as if she recognized Clouds through her bewitched fog. A tear rolled down one of her cheeks as the scrubber in her hoof began to work again, grating against her fur. It didn’t take long for her to begin drawing her own blood.
Contrition, remorse, repentance, and rue,
“Useless,” Aria hissed to herself after a third voice emanating from somewhere within her let loose the frightening melody.
I renounce you all and birth malice anew.
“Get his stench off. Get his stench off me,” Aria repeated in her normal intonation over and over through the haze of hypnotizing noise. As the melodic refrain echoed throughout the air one last time, the younger mare’s expression became like stone. Though Clouds could not see the pupils of her eyes through the blazing red, she knew that they were trained directly upon her. Suddenly, another sound rose up out of her aura, and swirled about in the air. It was a growling—the sound of a large unnameable beast, weaving in and out of the manic melody that echoed off of the walls. The older mare's breath caught in her throat.
Savor the sweetness of this time,
For, now I have you all in my ravenous eye.
“Oh stars,” Clouds whimpered at the younger mare's words. She noticed a shadow, something green and barely visible, beginning to rise up out of Aria's back, and seep from the corners of her glowing eyes. She reached out to touch the mare, but all too late.
Like the breaking of a floodgate, Aria's entire being unhinged. Her jaw dropped open, and a bellowing cry echoed throughout the air as if made by some deranged chorus. The water around her swirled violently as an invisible force blew Misses Clouds backward through the air. Aria watched as Clouds hit the far wall, and fell to the floor before what was left of her vision was blanked out by furious red.
Aria awoke with a gasp in the early afternoon in what she realized was Misses Clouds’ empty bed. Taking a moment to collect her bearings, she then shot upward. Tossing about in a confusion, she tangled herself in the blankets before deciding to calm down. Slowly picking her way out of the mass of cloth, she then sat up and took a deep breath. Her brow was knit in confusion as she began to tap her forehead with her hoof, desperately trying her best to account for the transpiring of events the night before. The first thing that flashed into her mind was the image of Swift bearing down over her. Her head began to shake in fear of what she might remember next. Her hoof dragged down the length of her face in dread as she remembered the groping in the dark, pleas gone unheard, the muffling of her frantic breaths with Swift’s own lips, the fallen dagger... Then the memory ended abruptly.
Racking her brain for more, she felt a wave of panic befall her when she realized there was nothing else. It was as if the rest of the memory, between Swift’s chamber and Clouds’ bed, had been completely erased or never existed at all. Fearing the worst from Swift, she wrapped her forelegs around her body. Rocking back and forth a few times, she tried to work up some courage.
Calm down. Think a moment.
Her eye still hurt, though even now she could smell the strong scent of Clouds’ magic balm wafting to her nose. The old mare had patched her up after something or other. Moving her forelegs about, she felt small twinges of pain there, too. For once, she was happy that she still ached enough to gain some sense of what had happened to her as she turned her neck to and fro, and fluttered her wings. Finally, with much hesitation, she gulped down a lump caught in her throat, and brought her hoof down to her lower abdomen. Holding her breath, she pushed down upon the spot, and exhaled a great sigh of relief when she felt no pain at all. Feeling a bit more confident, she moved her hind legs, and found that, save for the ache from wandering about the forest for a day and a half, there was nothing that felt startling or new there either.
“Stars,” she breathed, falling backward into the pillow.
What time of day is it?
She sat up again, realizing that the sun was bearing straight down in the sky. Flipping the covers off of her body, she heard the distinct sound of papers falling to the floor. Pausing a moment, she turned around to see a few scrolls, and loose parchments scattered about on the other side of the bed. Walking toward the pile cautiously, Aria then bent down, and placed them back in order. Flipping over the folded parchment that sat atop of the stack, she discovered, written in large, crooked letters, the words: ‘To Miss Aria Blaze’.
Flipping open the folded paper, Aria absent-mindedly sat back down upon the bed, placing the rest of the stack next to her as she began to read.
My Dearest Aria,
By the time you read this, I will be gone. My favourite, bright-eyed, little ward, I’ve stood by over the years, and have watched as those beautiful lights in your eyes slowly receded because of those who have been judged to be wicked and cruel. Yet, now, after much sorrowful contemplation, I must admit to you, and to myself, my own guilt for adding to your torments.
There is a mare, Madame Rosedawn as you know her, who you met once, many years ago. I think you would agree that was the closest to happiness and freedom that you have ever been until yesterday. I also tend to mark that day as the day on which your confinement to the Mist estate began. I know you rue that day, my little ward. I see the longing in your eyes whenever Rosedawn’s name is mentioned. I must now confess to you, Miss Aria, that your beloved Rosedawn has never been too far away.
All these years, she has never forgotten you. For, you see, she and I have been keeping correspondence in an attempt to find your route of escape. After you were sent away to your chambers on that fateful day, she asked after you, but the Lady Mist refused her. When Rosedawn insisted, she was banished from the estate forever. However, before she departed I managed to steal a private moment with her to ask after her home location. From that day forth, whenever I would go to market, I would have a messenger deliver a letter to her, and she would do the same by unicorn magic. Those well-to-do pegasi do have access to the most amazing resources, I do concede.
She loves you, Miss Aria, and if anypony could and would make a happy home for you, it would be she. Even now, as you have grown into the most beautiful of mares, she would still have you as one would a beloved daughter.
Enclosed here are some of our correspondences, only enough to inform you briefly of what I should have told you long ago. Also enclosed is information I have provided for you from Lady Mist’s own private vaults. It is dreadful, but I feel, necessary for you to know. Be steadfast and strong, my dear Aria. For this crime, I will surely never be able to see you again. After what I have witnessed last night, I know now that we are out of time…
Not taking the time to finish the last part of the letter, Aria tossed it down momentarily, and moved on to the correspondences, all of them littered haphazardly upon small, discreet squares of parchment.
To the Honorable Lady Rosedawn:
I humbly thank you for accepting this correspondence on behalf of our shared and most important of interests. Forgive me if my letters remain brief. I am being watched, always.
Matron Castinette Clouds
Aria anxiously flipped the page to read another.
Dearest Matron Clouds,
My heart goes out to you. I am open to any course of action that you might suggest. The filly has not left my mind since my visit to the Mist estate. It would seem that Aria, in the very short time that I have known her, has become very dear to me. I am at your disposal. In the meantime, I shall converse with my most trusted friends to see what, in the ways of law, can be done to have the child released.
To the Honorable Rosedawn:
I am truly regretful that all of my plans to have the child smuggled out of the estate have amounted to nothing. No one would dare cross the Lady Mist, and they fear Swift’s retribution. The filly has now grown too big. I’m afraid this course of action will no longer prove fruitful.
Dearest Matron Clouds,
After all these years, my heart is heavy to hear of the torments the filly faces, but I remain as steadfast and determined as ever. Once again, the courts have refused to take up my plea. Those cowardly magistrates tremble at the thought of Mist’s retribution. I fear I have come to an impasse.
How is she? Tell me the potion has given her some comfort.
She is doing much better. The potion helped immensely with her bruises. I thank you for sending it. I regret to inform you, however, that after careful research, I’ve concluded that none of our guards have proven penetrable in their allegiance to Commander Swift. His grip on their will seems to be absolute. I shall persevere onward in my efforts.
Please give Aria these manepins as a birthday gift for her coming of age. You do not have to inform her who they are from. They are in the shape of stars, just as you claim her mark appears to the eye. I hope she finds some happiness today, and the same to you.
Staring in confusion at the paper, Aria looked around her to see if, somehow, the item of which the letter spoke was dropped. Soon enough, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something flash in the midday light. Bending over to pick the small, shining objects off of the ground, she gasped in awe as she got a better look at them. The manepins were fine, made of silver, and accented with two large gorgeous stars upon each of them. They did indeed remind her of her markings. A small smile spread across Aria’s lips. Picking the letters up again, she continued onward after taking a moment to place the pins into a pocket sewn inside of her shawl.
If only you could see how wonderfully she has grown. Not only is she brilliant, stubborn, a good cook, and sharp as a tack, but also her beauty shines brightly even in the darkest of these gloomy hallways. I am very much proud of the mare she has become, especially under such duress. Unfortunately, I fear that I am not the only pony who notices these things. Many eyes are upon her now, and very few of them kind. We must work faster.
Please send more of the healing potion at your earliest possible convenience.
I fear I’ve made a horrible mistake. I hired private aid to attempt Aria’s rescue. A day or two after doing so, he disappeared. Upon returning to me, I found he had been beaten into confession. He used my name, and Aria’s. I, thankfully, had told him nothing about you. Have you not heard any of this news? I dread what may happen.
I have heard nothing of this. Swift and his stallions are very clever. They are probably withholding this information for a reason. Fear not. I shall keep a watchful eye on them all. Thank you for sending more healing potion.
At this point, after flipping the page, Aria noticed that the next letter was another written by Misses Clouds. The writing was scrawled, and disordered. What appeared to be tear stains streaked the page.
It appears we have run out of time. She escaped and was caught. My fears have become a reality. Something has happened to our dear Aria. Terrible. Oh, terrible. You must send help. Her eyes, and that unearthly shrieking. Something has happened.
A request. Please return unto me all of the letters I have written to you, including this one, so that I might show her, so that she might understand what has happened. She must know the horrid truth of it all. I will retrieve things from the estate vault. Thus, this shall be the last time I shall write to you. Take care of our dear Aria.
May the spirit of the skies watch over us all.
Her hoof now shaking, Aria turned, wide-eyed, to the final letter lying near the bottom of the pile.
Tell her to prepare. I am on my way. Go with good winds, my friend.
My eternal thanks,
A tear fell from Aria’s eye as she took all of this information in. With belabored breath, she attempted to calm herself and think. Clouds was gone, but where? Why? And what terrible thing had she seen? Did it have something to do with why she couldn't remember the events from last night?
By the way she spoke in the letter, it seemed that much of Clouds' mysterious departure had to do with the scroll that the old mare had taken from the estate’s vaults. Perhaps some answers would be in there. Putting the letters down, she picked up the scroll that had been included with the stack, took a deep breath, and unfurled it.
It was some type of ledger. That much was immediately clear. As Aria scanned the document, her eyes fell upon Swift’s name listed for something. The payments written upon the ledger, all of which were marked out as if they had been forgiven, were to Lady Mist as she assumed it might be. Glancing at the dates, the fuchsia mare was surprised to find that they spanned many years, almost as long as she had been present at the orphanage.
She wrinkled her nose in confusion. Rolling through the thick ledger more and more, it seemed almost comical. The prices increased over the years, but regardless, every last one of them was crossed out. Surely, the Lady Mist had written them in simply as a means of nagging Swift in an attempt to make him care about the price he was costing her. It looked like a favour had been done for one or the other, perhaps both.
After a while of rolling, the comedy faded away into a disturbed sense of dread. One had to wonder what could have possibly held the dark stallion’s interest for so long that he would be willing to take up the chance of possibly owing an exorbitant amount of payment for all of these years. She gulped, fighting off a sickening notion beginning to take root in the back of her mind. Her eyes grew red, as she fought off tears, realizing the conclusion to this tale before she had even seen it. Clamping her shaking lips shut, she spun to the end of the reel where a name was listed—her name.
“Ward Aria Blaze,” she repeated to herself, trying to make what she was seeing real in her mind as the tears began to blur her vision. “P...patron… Commander Midnight Swift… T-title holder…?”
She huffed loudly, and closed her eyes, looking away for a moment to compose herself. Scratching her nose as if to hide—from no one in particular—how much distress this was causing her, she picked up the scroll again, and continued reading.
“Title holder, The Most Honorable Lady Fillimene Mist hereby releases the above listed goods, products, and/or services for usage by C...Commander Midnight Swift for utilization at his/her discretion in return for the payments received as listed…”
She dropped the scroll. There was nothing else she needed to see. She crumpled to the floor into a shaking, woolen ball. Clamping her hooves against her mouth, and burying her face into the thick shawl, she let out a muffled wail.
So, there it was. After wondering why she had been confined to the estate for all these years, all along, it had been because she had already been purchased. Not adopted like a beloved child or a skilled apprentice whose papers and payments were signed and relinquished with the utmost contempt, as if the participants couldn’t bear it. Instead, she had been bought like a tool, a pet. All of these years, she had been like a caged bird for Swift to poke and prod for his own obscene amusement. This was why Rosedawn was banished, and forbidden to ask after her. This was why Mist had her locked away after that day. All this talk about her behaviour, all this incessant wondering where she went, the forced songs, the beatings, were never meant to change. She was not a pegasus in their eyes. She was a thing to be used until she broke.
Feeling the bile rising up into her throat, Aria sat up at once, shaking her mind as free as she could manage from her anguish. Sniffing back the urge to break down again, she took a deep breath, and reached toward Clouds’ first letter, the one addressed to her. Blinking her eyes clear of their blurriness, she brought the letter close in order to finish it. She read the words out loud, her voice hoarse, but resolute.
...Please do not resent me, but remember me fondly. All I’ve ever done was in an attempt to help you. Now, you must do for yourself. The others have relayed that you are being punished for running away, and will not be down today. Do not raise suspicions. Only take what is essential. Rosedawn is coming for you. Be prepared.
May your life be filled with all the wonderful things that you deserve, my dear Aria.
Forever yours and with love,
Aria hadn’t tears enough for another go ‘round on the grief cloud. It took but a moment for a sense of determined resolution to take hold as the reality of the situation dawned upon her. Moving quickly, she snatched up the letters and the scroll, and bolted from the room.
In a grim, dark chamber fortified with gray cloud, two dazed, crimson orbs flickered to life. Midnight Swift groaned, tapping his aching forehead as he rolled over onto his back. He glanced about his chamber. The place was in shambles. Boxes, once towering to the ceiling, had tumbled and cracked open, spilling their contents everywhere. His table and chair were overturned as well as the food and drink that once sat atop of them. Trying to sit up, he hissed as a sharp pain racked his side, and a dull one ached between his hind legs. Eyes going grim as he remembered what transpired the night prior, he quickly forced himself to his hooves whilst muttering to himself.
“Bewitched shrew,” he growled as he stumbled toward his overturned sitting stool. Setting it upright, he took a seat.
Still feeling the sharp pain at his side, he turned to take a look, and spied a large, bleeding laceration on his abdomen. Looking back to where he had been lying, he caught a glimpse of a red-tipped dagger sitting in a small puddle of his own blood. His eyes followed a small trail of crimson as it led from the puddle toward his chamber door. Pounding his hoof furiously upon the table, he took a deep breath, and then set about retrieving the materials to patch himself up. As he did so, thoughts of vengeance planted themselves deep within his demented, delirious mind, and quickly began to germinate.
“Aria Blaze,” he grunted to himself as he gingerly set to work bandaging his side. “At long last, my patience has waned.”