A beautiful, curling alto echoed against the walls of the enormous chamber of a room ornately decorated in rich mahogany fixtures, and gold gilding. The late morning sun shone in from the open window, and was joined by a delightful breeze. As the gust blew in, and ruffled a lovely blue mare’s fevered fur, she relaxed, and the nervous flush in her cheeks began to fade away.
As Sonata’s song ended, she and the two vigilant figures that made up her audience were left in a dreamy silence. After a moment, the observant ponies stood, and stomped their hooves in applause. One of them, an orange-bearded unicorn stallion, did so on shaky hoof. The aged, orange earth mare that stood by his side helped to support him.
“Delightful. Absolutely enrapturing as usual, my dear,” the elder Lord Goldenstalks exclaimed. “It seems your voice becomes more lovely with each visit.”
Sonata noted how today the former Earl’s voice was particularly more weak and raspy than usual. A slick glimmer shone in the stallion’s wide eyes, one that gave credence to his swiftly failing health. The blue mare felt her heart become heavy, and her smile faltered. Taking a low bow, she exhaled a long breath, glad for the performance to be over with.
“I-I thank you, My Lord. I am most fortunate that after all this time you have yet to tire of me, especially with as legendary a voice as the Countess’—”
“Oh, n-n-nonsense!” the former Countess, Ginger, interjected with a warm smile. “Both of your voices are beautiful in their own distinctive ways, and i-i-it is better that they are not compared. After all, how should one compare an elegant rose bush to a h-happy garden patch of pretty tulips?”
Ginger looked toward her husband, and he nodded in agreement. His weakened jaw fumbled for an off kilter smile. Sonata’s cheeks, again, went red.
“You do me too much honor, My Lady,” she said with another low bow. The former Countess smiled.
“Well, you will s-s-simply have to oblige us, then. Won’t you?” she stammered. She never noticed the small grimace growing upon her husband’s face.
Suddenly, the elder lord’s hind legs gave an odd tremor, and then failed him. He stumbled down ever so slightly before being caught by his wife who quickly bid Sonata to pull a chair over.
“M-my Lord!” Ginger exclaimed. “Are you not feeling well?”
She peered into his eyes. It seemed the elder Goldenstalks could not reply. Instead, he nodded his head, his expression twisted into one of confusion and embarrassment. Sonata, who had taken many paces away from the pair, now kept her eyes trained reverently upon the floor so as not to embarrass the old lord. She said nothing. Soon, the orange mare gazed up at her with a stern look.
“I th-think that is enough for today, my dear. I do thank you for c-coming. You know how very much My Lord enjoys your visits. G-g-go now to the Earl. I believe he is in his private study at this hour. He will see you off.”
Sonata tried to hide her clear discomfort with these words. The Earl's study? Why did it seem that she was constantly put at odds with the dictates of her status? They knew she was a commoner. They knew it was less than appropriate for her venture anywhere beyond the great hall of Goldenstalks manor.
“Yes, thank you, My Lord. Thank you, My Lady,” Sonata replied meekly, keeping her eyes trained upon the floor. Slowly, she backed out of the chamber, and out into the sprawling hallway. When the door was shut, she leaned against it, and slid down to the floor with a relieved sigh.
It wasn’t that she dreaded these visits to the Goldenstalks estate. By now she was quite used to them. After all, she had been making them ever since the first time her mother and father had arranged her performance for the Earl those many years ago. Yet, to this day, the idea of performing alone before nobles, the thought of being judged, and potentially being hated, still racked her with fear and anxiety. Everyday, she tried her best to do her best for everypony she might have called an acquaintance; thus, it set her mind to worrying when she found herself amongst those who were under no obligation to see her as anything besides a worthless peasant, regardless of what her talents or passions might have been.
Still, she could not deny that the trip she made to the estate today was absolutely necessary. Lately, things had been quite difficult for her. No matter how hard she worked, nowadays it seemed that she was always coming up short pertaining to funds for herself and the farm; thus, these trips to the Goldenstalks manor for short performances for the former Earl were quite useful with providing a quick income when there was nothing else to be had. It was a shame that the elder Lord's son—the current ruler of the realm—did not have such a heart for her melodies as his father did. Considering the aging master's current state, Sonata couldn't help but worry about what would befall her should anything happen to him.
She shook her head free of these thoughts. It was a disgrace that she might think such things pertaining to the former Earl whilst he was ailing. How selfish she was being.
Running a hoof across her elegantly braided mane, Sonata stood back up, straightened her dressy, white robes, and headed down the long corridor. Upon reaching its edge, she found a waifish servant standing there, waiting and sneering. Sonata, already knowing why, stared down at the floor, away from the brown earth stallion's eyes.
This particular corridor was forbidden to most servants of the house as it contained the private chambers of the Earl's family. Sonata, being a commoner, would also typically not be suited to traverse therein. As usual, due to the fondness the former Earl and his wife held for her, she was made the unwilling exception.
"I... I was instructed to be taken to the Lord Goldenstalks’ private study," the blue mare stammered, almost wincing at her own words.
Expectedly, she heard the stallion before her let out a scoff of disbelief that caused her as much distress as he probably hoped it would. Following a few paces behind him, she trotted along more winding hallways, and up a few flights of stairs before the stallion came to a rather large, and magnificently carved, wooden door. Ordering the blue mare to stop her walking, he knocked upon the door, and waited to be addressed. A call came from inside of the room, bidding him to enter.
“Miss Sonata Dusk, My Lord,” the stallion murmured, sounding as if he were unbearably burdened to announce her name in such a dignified manner. As she listened, Sonata busied herself with straightening her mane and robe, hoping that she was presentable enough for the Earl’s company.
“Ah, yes. The farmer’s daughter,” came a low, rather bored-sounding voice from within. “Send her in.”
The stallion stepped back out of the room, and stood to the side of the doorway. His hoof extended outward to usher the mare in. A vindictive smirk spread across his face as she passed.
Upon entering the private study of the current Earl, Upright Goldenstalks, Sonata couldn’t help but allow her gaze to wander about the lavish room. There were shelved walls filled with scrolls and books of all kinds, a comfortable sitting area against the opposite wall, and in front of a tall window, a vase full of beautiful, golden-hued flowers sat upon a pedestal. No doubt the lady of the house had chosen these to brighten the room. She had a notoriously keen eye for all that could be deemed elegant.
The servant stallion slammed the door behind her, making her jump, and reminding her of whose presence she was in. Allowing her eyes to dart toward the Earl, she found him sitting at his large desk which was covered in documents and scrolls of all sorts. He used his orange-hued magic to scrawl voraciously upon a fresh piece of parchment with a quill feather pen. It was as if he had already forgotten she was there. Immediately dropping her gaze toward the floor, the wary mare performed a low bow.
“My Lord,” she greeted him, then opting to wait in silence.
After tarrying there for a lengthy amount of time, Sonata was beginning to wonder if the Earl had not seen her at all. She slowly lifted one hoof toward her mouth, planning on forcing a cough, or clearing her throat in order to draw his attention. Thankfully, before she could do so, she heard the quill stop scratching, and the sound of it clacking loudly back into its inkwell. Her confusion was once again replaced with anxiety as she could almost feel those icy blue eyes beginning to bore into her lowered head.
“The Lord and Lady enjoyed your performance, I take it,” he said matter-of-factly. His voice was calm, collected, and altogether piercing. Indeed, everything about the Earl made it seem as if he was actually made entirely of stone or ice. Sonata let loose a small gasp as he addressed her. She stammered for words, her eyes still trained upon the floor.
“I… I’m sure I would not know, My Lord, b-but I do hope so.”
“Nonsense,” the goldenrod unicorn replied. “After all, you would not be standing here in my study if they had not.”
Sonata heard the quill rising out of the inkwell once again, followed by the sound of more ruffling parchments and pen scribbling. Assuming his attention had been drawn away, she took a moment to glance upward toward the Earl. Finishing with this document abruptly, he turned and caught her gaze, much to her surprise.
“How fortunate you are that the Goldenstalks household has developed such a fondness for your voice. Wouldn’t you agree, Miss Sonata?” Upright asked her. There was something hidden behind those icy eyes. Through her fitful gaze which darted sporadically between his face and the floor, she could only imagine that she had seen spite in him. It was no secret that the current Lord Goldenstalks did not hold the same fondness toward music as his father did. The nervous mare also knew that Upright was well aware of why she continued to make these trips to the manor in order to sing for his mother and father—money. They both knew she and the Fylleion farm were dealing with hard times. They both knew that he would inevitably be made to pay her for her “troubles” in order to satiate the demands of his ailing father. It was no secret to Sonata that the Earl hated this. She could only imagine how very much—to somepony as overly practical as he—the “squandering” of funds upon singers probably seemed an unnecessary waste.
“Yes, it would seem so, My Lord. I pray that you feel the same way.”
Upright did not reply. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Sonata glanced up toward his face only to find him peering at her, his mouth barely turned up in a poorly hidden smirk of disdain.
“Come,” he commanded her, then turning his head to look somewhere beneath his desk. His magic flared.
Sonata took a deep breath, and slowly stepped forward. The sound of her hooves on the pristine wood echoed across the otherwise silent room. When she stood directly before the stallion’s immense desk, he looked up at her, and with his magic, tossed a money pouch onto the bare surface before him.
“I believe that should be sufficient,” he replied. Sonata, not wanting to seem too eager, did not move to touch the pouch until the Earl himself huffed with irritation, and extended a hoof, motioning for her to take it. Snatching it up with her teeth, Sonata then performed a low bow.
“Thnkyw, Mm Lrrd,” she mumbled, accidentally dropping the pouch onto the floor. “T-thank you, My Lord.”
She picked up the item, then bowed again, beginning to back away towards the door. By this time, Upright had gone back to pouring over his documents, scribbling here and there. Still, just for good measure, she gave one more bow as her backside bumped into the door. She quickly opened it, and practically stumbled out into the corridor. Breathing another huge sigh of relief as she leaned against the wall, the blue mare didn’t notice that the servant stallion had been standing by the side of the entryway the entire time. When she spotted him, she jumped, nearly spilling the contents of her pouch all over the floor.
“Oh! Oh, fennel! You almost startled me to death, you did!” she exclaimed, straightening her robes, and fixing her mane. Her face flushed with embarrassment. The servant stallion eyed her, unamused.
“I dare not even think it,” he replied, sarcasm dripping from his tone. He then turned to direct her to follow him back down the hallway toward the servant’s exit. “This way, if you please.”
“Uhh, y-yes. Just hold on,” Sonata stammered as she tried to hitch open the small purse given her by the Earl just enough to be able to peer inside. Holding it by one of its drawstrings, she maneuvered its contents about so that she might be able to comfortably walk whilst counting the money. “J-just a moment!”
By the time she had successfully figured a way to carry the thing, the brown stallion had all but lost his patience. Clearing his throat, and stomping his hoof, he started on down the hall without her. She quickly trotted along to catch up, the pouch jingling as it hung from her teeth. Her brow furrowed as she peered down into the thing, counting the bits as precisely as she could manage, and then recounting them just to make sure.
“Thvn, eiff, nnn,” she murmured to herself under her breath. Perplexed she repeated the count. “Thvn, eiff, nnn… Wrrt a mrrmnt.”
She grimaced. Her lovely raspberry eyes glimmered with worry.
“This isn’t right,” she murmured, accidentally dropping the purse again. “Oop! Wait a moment! We must go back.”
The brown stallion did not slow down, nor did he turn to look her way.
“I’m afraid that would be impossible. The Earl is very busy, and should not be disturbed again.”
“B-but this isn’t right. There has been some sort of mistake!” she exclaimed, snatching up the pouch between her teeth. The servant before her remained unmoved.
“The Lord Goldenstalks does not make mistakes,” he scoffed.
Irked, she let out a low, frustrated growl before stomping her hoof with finality, and turning about to race back down the hallway. Hearing her run away, the brown stallion turned about with a gasp.
“Wait! What do you think you’re doing? Come back here!” he cried, setting off after her.
By the time she burst through the Earl’s study doors, startling him into spilling ink all over a document he had been writing, the brown stallion had already caught up to her. He latched hold of Sonata’s robe with his teeth, and had begun to drag her away.
“What is the meaning of this?” Upright roared, standing and slamming his front hooves upon his desk.
“Aplgies, My Lrd!” the servant stammered through his clenched teeth as he tried to pull Sonata away. “She’s gnn mad!”
“Apologies, My Lord!” Sonata exclaimed, dropping the purse from her teeth. “I had to speak with you again. Please, give me audience! It is a very important matter! You see, it seems that there’s been a miscount of the contents of this pouch.”
She attempted to hoof the servant off of her with her hind leg to no avail. The Earl looked from one to the other, disgusted by the ruckus and the disarray they were creating. After only a moment, he grimaced, his shoulders shaking. At once, a bright beam of orange light escaped from his horn, and he stomped down hard upon the floor.
“Enough!” he thundered. Both the mare and the brown stallion went still and silent. “Spitshine? Out!”
The brown stallion gave his master an incredulous gaze.
“B-but, My Lord—”
“Out!” Upright repeated, gesturing toward the door.
Looking rather dejected, and a bit stunned, the brown stallion quickly stood up straight in as dignified a posture as he could manage after being scolded in such a way. He then turned tail, and left the room, closing the door behind him. Sonata was left standing quite frazzled and flustered in the middle of the floor. Her dismay only grew as the Earl approached her. Using his magic to pull a chair toward her, he then levitated her into its seat. Drawing the small pouch of bits off of the floor, he used his magic to stretch it open. Eyes moving continuously between the rattled blue mare and the contents of the purse, his expression remained stern and wholly unamused. After what seemed to be an eternity spent in silence, Sonata heard the Earl take a deep breath, and watched as he then levitated the pouch back toward her.
“There are nine bits in this pouch. That is the correct amount,” he murmured, turning to head back toward his desk.
“Forgive me, My Lord,” Sonata exclaimed, taking a deep breath before she powered through her next words. “I-I’m afraid you are mistaken. Th-there should be thirteen bits. That is the usual amount given to me by the former Lord.”
Upright had all but frozen mid-step with his back still facing Sonata. The blue mare seemed to shrink further and further into her seat as his head slowly turned around so that he might gaze at her with a confounded glare. Turning his body, he walked toward her, yet again.
“What did you just say?” he murmured, an almost lethal tone in his voice. Sonata gulped, wishing that she could just take her words back and leave. Still, what was done was done. If she was to be on the Earl’s bad side, she would at least have her thirteen bits.
“Th-there should be… thirteen bits… in… the… pouch?” she squeaked, her eyes now trained straight ahead into the Earl’s broad chest. Holding her breath until her cheeks turned purple, she willed herself to gaze up at his face. When she did, she found him giving her a cold, narrow-eyed look. He ground his teeth behind tightly pulled lips.
“Miss Dusk?” the Earl murmured.
“Yes, My Lord?” Sonata choked, beginning to feel an old urge to draw into herself, and forever be silent beginning to take hold of her. She attempted to cough out a tightening sensation growing about her throat.
“There has been no mistake," the stallion finished.
The Earl lowered his head so as to look Sonata straight in the eye.
“I think it would do us both some good at this point, Miss Dusk, if I were to make you aware of all the things of which I am aware. Naturally, these things concern you.” Upright turned to pace the length of his room, and then pace back.
“For example, are you aware, Miss Dusk, that I am aware that the Fylleion farm has been doing poorly in terms of keeping up enough stock for the rapidly increasing populations of both Greenwaters and Trotchester?"
Sonata bit her lip.
"Yes, My Lord, but you see—"
"Also, are you aware that I am aware that despite all of these shortcomings, you still receive the minimum payment from my estate that is required to sustain and enhance your farm to keep up with these growing demands?"
Upright traversed the floor once again, until he stood directly before her.
"Yes, I am, My L—"
"And, are you aware that I am aware of the added income that you acquire during your forays in the Greenwaters market?"
Sonata's eyes went wide, and her mouth sealed itself shut. The vice-like sensation about her throat clamped her voice box closed as she listened to the Earl's tone go very low.
"What I simply cannot seem to understand, Miss Dusk, is how you could possibly be in need of more bits when, according to my books, you receive exactly as much as is required, and then some. What do all of those bits go toward, I wonder?"
The room was silent for a while as they looked at one another. Sonata, now curled up into her seat, stared at the Earl as if on the brink of stunned tears. Clearing her throat, she managed to force out pained croaks.
"I can assure you, I wouldn't know either, My Lord. Y-you see, my mother and father have only left the physical maintenance of the farm to me. I-I'm not privy to their personal ledger besides what it takes to maintain the farm. All the other payment I receive is sent off to them to be used as they see fit."
Upright reached upward, and stroked his chin in a fashion that anypony might have said was reminiscent of his father.
"And how, Miss Dusk, is that any concern of mine?"
Sonata raised her hoof, and inhaled as if to answer before she realized she had nothing to say to this. Looking desperate, she leaned forward in her chair, half raising up to meet the Earl's gaze.
"My Lord, this land is yours. I can only do with it as much as you would allow. I am trying to expand. I am! In fact, I was going to get started today, but I need thirteen bits, My Lord, thirteen bits to pay my workers. If I can't have that much I cannot do as you wish," Sonata blurted while looking quite perplexed. She was sure that she didn't know where all of those words had just come from.
Gazing back up toward Upright who seemed to be studying her deeply, the blue mare was nearly bowled over out of her seat when she saw his horn begin to glow with magic. Peering behind him, she then caught sight of four gold bits floating upward, out of the stallion's desk, and toward her. Neatly and efficiently, they fell into her now opened and floating pouch. The drawstrings pulled tight, and at once, fell into the blue mare's lap. Her head rose to smile brightly at Upright, only to, again, be met with that icy, blue glare.
"Allow me to make something absolutely clear to you, Miss Dusk. While I may be able to tolerate the old Lord's ridiculous obsession with your frivolous, provincial pastimes, I cannot and will not tolerate your carelessness with Goldenstalks property. If you and your family continue to squander what it is that has been so graciously put under your care, then make no mistake, it shall promptly be taken away, and given to somepony who can prove themselves more... efficient. Do you understand?"
The blue mare cowered before the stallion, gulping down a lump in her throat.
"Y-yes, My Lord," she squeaked.
"Good," Upright said after a beat. "You may leave."
He turned around with an air of finality, and slowly began to head toward his desk. Rising to her hooves, her face flushed, Sonata began to straighten her robes just as she heard the sounds of energetic hoofsteps approaching out in the hallway. Before she could pull herself away from her hems, in from the hall rushed a gorgeous, yellow mare, as brilliant as the midday sun itself. She was draped in lavish purple robes, and her mane glittered with gold. In her magenta-hued unicorn magic, she levitated a fresh bouquet of golden-hued flowers.
“Good day, My Lord," she began with a sigh, not yet having noticed the other pony in the room. When her glimmering eyes landed upon Sonata as the blue mare was straightening her hems, her face at once looked utterly incredulous. Seeing this, the shaken earth mare quickly tripped onto the ground, but saved what little face she had left by rolling into a low bow.
"G-greetings, My Lady Countess!" she yelped, keeping her eyes trained toward the floor.
Hearing nothing, Sonata allowed her eyes to trail upward, only to catch the Countess' gaze shifting angrily—suspiciously even—between herself and Upright who now sat writing at his desk, looking rather disinterested. The blue mare recoiled into herself.
Everypony in Greenwaters was well aware of the Countess Goldenstalks’ impatience. It seemed as if the Earl Goldenstalks' wife—who, in every sense of the word, was perfect—could not understand those who did not meet her constant demands for perfection. In her quest to, apparently, be the most flawless and upstanding noblemare in peerage to the Canterlotian throne, she took hold of the affairs of the estate with an iron grip practically as soon as the Earl had said "I do," at the altar. On the one hoof, Sonata could not remember ever seeing the estate look more gorgeous, more perfect. Ponies came from afar just to stand beyond its gates to get a glimpse at its lush gardens and colorful courtyards. On the other hoof, all these enhancements took extraordinary pony power. The Countess' constant displeasure with almost everything anypony would do without her instruction assured that the Goldenstalks' estate staff was on rotation and replacement on a frequent basis. Anypony who worked in the Goldenstalks household could thank their lucky stars if they lasted more than a week; a month, and you were warranted a party in town by the rest of the staff.
Still, considering she would make the occasional trip to the Goldenstalks manor, or in this case, their country estate, it was apparent to Sonata that over time, the Countess’ disposition was becoming more and more inconsolable. Naturally, knowing the ways of common, country folk, it was only a matter of time before the rumors began.
Those rumors, as the sociable blue mare was made privy to whilst in the company of friends, had much to do with the Countess’ failure to give the Earl an heir. After all, her place as Countess could never be solidified until she could produce an undisputed successor to the Goldenstalks Earldom. Of course, there was speculation that stated the Earl was just too boring and bored to take any interest with the glorious creature by his side. Another said that maybe he simply kept too many mistresses to be bothered with being weighed down by marriage and fatherhood. That one made the least bit of sense since everypony knew there was nopony as lovely as Lady Adagio. Also, such a bore and by-the-books type of pony as Upright Goldenstalks couldn’t possibly have had the wherewithal to actually act upon the notion of keeping a mistress. One more rumor—the most believable one—stated that perhaps the Lady Adagio had no interest in the Earl at all. Hardly anypony took an actual intimate interest with the stallion, maybe because there was barely any magnetism there to be attracted to. It was clear from the start that the match between them was made out of necessity, and had never turned into a bond of growing desire that one would hope for such mandatory pairings. Regardless, the reality of the situation remained that, try as she might with her absolutely enthralling...well… everything, after three years of marriage, the Goldenstalks nursery remained as quiet and empty as ever. It was no wonder that the Countess, considering the ever increasing precariousness of her predicament, had become more on edge, more obsessed with perfection in lieu of her inability to be perfect in her most important duty.
Looking at her now, Sonata could see her lovely features curling into an angry grimace. Those berry red eyes seemed to go hot.
“What is she doing in here?” the Countess asked in a dangerous tone. Upright, predictably unmoved, gave a loud sigh, and continued to write. His eyes never lifted from the parchment.
“She’s here to collect payment for her visit, as usual.”
“Yes, but what is she doing in here?” the Countess retorted, any effort made to keep the composure in her voice quickly fading. “That is usually done in the great hall, is it not?”
The Earl did not reply. It was all Sonata could do to force herself not to blurt out in her usual fashion to tell the Countess that she was wondering the same thing, and that she would much rather have preferred the great hall, herself. To her own dismay, she found that her lips began to tremor, and move of their own accord.
“Mmmy… My Lady, I—” she began. However, before she could get anything more out, she saw those bitter eyes slide back toward her from where she was bent low upon the floor. They went wide with disbelief.
“How dare you? I have not given you permission to address me directly,” she hissed.
Sonata, now terrified, bowed her head so low that her forehead made a dull ‘THUD’ as it hit the wooden floor.
“Get out,” the Countess spat, and no sooner had she, did Sonata bound up from the floor. Without another word or look toward either of them, she bolted from the room, down the stairs, and down the hallway toward the servant’s exit. She didn’t stop running until she was well beyond the estate’s grand gates.
Out of breath, Sonata then stared back up toward one of the manor’s windows just in time to catch sight of the Countess peering down upon her. The beautiful, yellow unicorn grimaced, and then used her magic to close off her view by tugging a curtain over the pane.
After taking a moment to wipe the startled tears from the corner of her eyes, Sonata straightened her braid, and made an attempt to decipher what it was about her in particular that had irritated the Countess so thoroughly. After all, it wasn’t as if this was the first time that the two had met. Realizing that the thought of all this threatened to haunt and worry her for the rest of the day, the lovely blue mare shrugged off her ponderings, and then turned to secure the bits pouch she carried to her side. Taking a deep breath, she then began down the path toward the farmlands. Noticing the level of the sun in the sky, she decided it would be best to take a shortcut, and veered right once coming upon the edges of a deep forest.