Something about the fear of the unknown.
Something about an act of faith.
A prayer for blessings and good luck.
A quick supplication to the two miracle sisters.
And a thank you thrown in somewhere for good measure.
This was the eighth time Sonata had sung the enrapturing chant. Slow and purposeful, she still wasn't sure what part of her mind the words had spawned from, or what they really even meant. But at least it helped her to feel a bit better.
This had all seemed like a very good idea when Prance had first thrown the Countess' official notice in her face. Now, staring out at a room packed full of commoners, artisans, socialites, and nobles alike, Sonata found it quite difficult to keep in mind why she was planning to put herself through such torment in the first place.
Her level of enthusiasm had been unmatched when they had first walked into the grand hall a week ago. It was beautiful, built open and spacious, perfect for a singer's voice to carry, as would be expected. There were two levels worth of audience area: the floor space, a standing pit which was reserved for the commoners like her, and the balconies and boxes, reserved strictly for the aristocracy. It hadn't ever occurred to her at any point before that evening, but in that heated and pregnant moment directly before she went on stage, she found herself nothing short of terrified by the notion of being ogled and judged by the town's elite.
Many had attended. Filling seats had not been a problem. It seemed that, somehow, everypony already knew who she was. The commoners knew her from her exhibitions in the marketplace of course, and she could only assume that the nobles currently present knew of her by way of the House of Goldenstalks. All that had been necessary was to pay a few colts half a bit to go around town announcing her intended performance date, and they all flocked right in when the time finally came.
Still, the sight of the crowd unnerved her, and she wondered in that moment how a pony as seemingly astute as Prance could so often act with so little regard for her own self consciousness. She tried to tell herself that it was for her own good, and had always been. After all, she would have never been familiarized with the Goldenstalks if it had not been for him.
“Just like when we were children,” she muttered to herself on the odd chance that lashing out at somepony in spite might have proven to be the thing that calmed her nerves. It wasn't.
Speaking of Prance, the stallion was currently nowhere to be found. As soon as they had arrived that evening, a few hours prior to her performance, he had made a hasty escape to somewhere unknown. It baffled Sonata as to why he would do such a thing, but every time she would feel her annoyance by her friend's behavior flare, she'd subsequently remember how odd he had been acting as of late.
Ever since the evening he had run out on her, the stallion's behaviour had become increasingly erratic, his mannerisms quite grim. Nowadays, his brow usually remained furrowed, even when he and Sonata were making light conversation. He would often disappear from the cottage late at night when he thought Sonata was asleep, and if he did not return home inebriated, he would usually return furious. Sonata could never admit it to him, much less herself, but she dreaded Prance during those moments. She dared not speak to him or be caught in his presence for fear that he might lash out at her in frustration or anger.
The culprits were the scrolls. She had a nagging sense that this was the case. Ever since that first night, they had not stopped appearing, neatly rolled pieces of finely pressed paper, tied with a simple string, and appearing in a flash of berry red magic that smelled of roses. It had only been a week, and Sonata was certain that the stallion had already received at least thirty. The way they made the room perpetually smell of sweet musk after they had appeared made it easy to conclude that they had come from a lady, probably his mysterious, nameless mare. She wondered if everything was alright between them. Perhaps they were going through a rather nasty lover's quarrel.
Then again, perhaps it was herself that proved to be the problem as she was much more inclined to believe. Perhaps the scolding she had given Prance the week prior had inadvertently made him feel guilty for ever having left her. Maybe she was now standing in the way of Prance and his dreams, whether it be in some far off land, or in the warm embrace of his lover. Maybe she was being utterly selfish by asking him to stay with her.
Sonata frowned, and shook her head free of these thoughts. Now was not the time for them, and all they were managing to do was make her more anxious. Looking out at the crowd through the stage's enormous red curtain, she could see that the parterre had already been filled by those familiar faces from the marketplace. Sliding her gaze upward, to her dismay, she could also see that the balcony seats had also almost been completely filled by dour-faced nobles—all except for one, glaringly empty space. That space was reserved for the guest of honor who had yet to arrive, Sonata's unexpected patron, Lady Goldenstalks. She could imagine the Countess would be late this evening, what with all of the far more important issues taking place in the kingdom at the moment.
The rumors of conflict to the North were no longer just rumors. Debon Air's pegasi, having blocked off Edinbridle's sunlight all week, had finally incurred the wrath of Duke Vision in kind. It didn't take long for a spat to transform into a series of armed clashes between local unicorn and invading pegasus forces. Meanwhile, more and more earth ponies of Vision's realm, stuck suffering in between the two powers, had become increasingly drawn into the hushed world of the earth pony rebels who dared defy the unicorn monarchy.
Sonata found it interesting how Lord Goldenstalks had not yet sent any reinforcements to aid Vision. But then she thought on Vision's horrid disdain for non-unicorns, and the Earl's actions seemed to make a bit more sense. With the knowledge that Lord Goldenstalks' mother was an earth pony, Sonata could dare to conclude that perhaps he might have wanted to see Duke Vision fall, even if his wife, Lady Violet Vision, was Lady Adagio's sister.
Bringing her mind back to matters at hoof, Sonata took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and for the ninth time, sang her chant. Immediately, her nerves were calmed. The slowly, curling melody proved heady. It wrapped itself around her brain, and filled its every corner, leaving very little room for anxiousness. Lost in her own world, Sonata never noticed the light hoofsteps resounding from behind her. A smile threatened to escape her until, suddenly, she heard a second voice break through her solitary reverie with a gorgeous, harmonizing hum.
Her heart skipped a beat. That voice was familiar. No, not just familiar—famous. Her head snapped around as she hoped beyond hope that her eyes would not see who she knew was the owner of those distinctly husky vocals. To her complete dismay, they did. Approaching to stand before her was Lady Adagio herself.
Instantly, Sonata's mind drew a blank save for the sound of her own internal screaming. Her body instinctively curled into a low, trembling bow. She watched as two pristinely manicured hooves came to a stop directly in front of her nose.
“M-my Lady,” Sonata gasped, gulping down the lump that had risen into her throat. She remained silent, not quite sure of what to say next. Considering the unpredictability of the Countess' mood, it didn't seem too bad of a decision to make.
"That is a beautiful tune you were singing," the Countess confessed, slightly amused. "Where did you learn such a lovely thing?"
Sonata fought down the urge to reply with a scream, and instead took a deep breath.
"I-I thought of it myself, My Lady."
"I see," the silken voice came again, now sounding intrigued. "And is this so for all of your tunes?"
"Yes, My Lady. I only sing what comes to me," Sonata replied. She realized that her responses were rather short and concise. It seemed to make sense that she could not incur any inadvertent wrath from the Countess as long as she didn't stray far from the path that the Lady's questions were carving.
"What comes to you..." Lady Goldenstalks murmured thoughtfully.
There was a drawn out silence during which Sonata could only think to nod her head. After a moment, she watched as the two pristine front hooves took a small step backward to allow her some room.
"Rise," ordered the Countess. Before the entire word had even left her lovely lips, Sonata was already up. The Lady's regal eyes studied her thoroughly. So much so that Sonata felt compelled to look away.
"I must apologize for my shortness with you when last we... met," the lovely unicorn declared, much to Sonata's shock. "I'm afraid I had not been feeling very well that morning."
"M-my Lady," Sonata stammered, her face instantly going red. "There is no need at all to apologize to the likes of me. You've already helped me far too—"
"Your financial troubles are the least of my concerns. That is not why I did this," the Lady interrupted.
Both Sonata's and the Countess' lips drew in tight. Gazing at her, Sonata could sense that the unicorn had said something she had not meant to.
Appearing to catch herself rather quickly, the Countess raised her head, cleared her throat, and rung the sudden tightness out of her shoulders.
"I, like my husband's father, am a lover of beautiful music. You, Miss Dusk, are one I have deemed to be exceptional at making it, more so than anypony else I have ever heard. This performance, as far as I'm concerned, is long overdue and much deserved. It is here at Glow Hall that your voice shall e'er find a home, and it is here that I should hope you would stay so that I might be able to watch you evolve... so to speak."
There was something intriguing about the way she said these words though Sonata could not put her hoof on what. It was almost as if there were a deeper meaning to them, something that the Countess was not telling her. Still, in her currently flustered state, she could manage to do nothing more than bow in reverence.
"I'm sure I do not know what to say after receiving such a compliment from the greatest voice the kingdom has ever known. My Lady, you do me too much honor. How could I ever repay—"
"Sing beautifully. That is all," the Countess chirped. When Sonata rose one last time, she was met with the slightest of smiles gracing the unicorn's face. "And I have absolutely no doubt that you shall."
With that, the Lady tipped her head to the side, and allowed her body to turn in the same direction. With one graceful twirl, she spun about to depart, leaving Sonata standing alone and awestruck behind the towering, red curtain.
Soon after the Lady had gone up to take her seat in the center of the balcony, the lamps were dimmed. Sonata's breath quickened. It was time.
Trying to come up with a reason not to panic—especially in Prance's absence—Sonata took a moment to ponder to herself. She thought on how stressed and worried she had been over the past week, and how difficult earning enough funds had been for much longer than that. Now, before her lay the opportunity to never have to worry about such things again. She had free reign over Glow Hall, and the ears of all the rich nobles that would hear her. By some miracle, Lady Goldenstalks, the same mare who had scolded her so harshly a few days prior, had now decided to bless her with the opportunity to practically reach into the aristocracy's overstuffed purses, and pull out as many bits as she pleased. If she did well tonight, it could mean a whole new, far easier life for her. Could she really squander such an opportunity?
"Most certainly not," she muttered to herself. Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath, and then slowly made her way out from behind the curtain.
She nearly wilted where she stood in center stage, even though the entirety of the commoners' area broke out into cheers. Despite the comfort she received from gazing down upon all of their adoring faces, Sonata still could not help but be drawn to pay far more attention to the skeptical, shrouded, cloaked, and fan-veiled visages of the aristocracy. Try as she might to ignore them, old visions of Prance’s mother gazing down upon her in disgust replayed over and over in her mind.
Her legs began to quiver, and her silence drew out long so that it became odd for the audience to behold. As if only to make matters worse, a small snickering and hum of whispers began to spread across the balcony. As she stood there, sweat beginning to trickle down the back of her neck, all the poor, blue mare could bring herself to do was to stare directly at the Countess. The beautiful unicorn was seated comfortably, chin raised, with a smile upon her face. It annoyed Sonata that one could never quite tell the meaning behind the Lady's smile, and whether or not she was projecting pride, smugness, or spite. If she weren’t so mortified at that moment, Sonata would have surely felt something akin to resentment.
Always the nobles.
Why did it seem that she was never wrong in her assumptions of them? Many of them were harsh and cruel in their judgements on the valor and worth of commoners like her, and she hated herself for giving them ample opportunity to supplement these absurd notions.
Spite blossomed within her now, and as she stood there, Sonata couldn’t help but train all of those feelings onto Lady Goldenstalks whose berry red eyes continued to glare daggers down upon her from where she sat behind the balustrade. Had everything she just told her backstage been a lie, something to force her guard down so that this sting of shame might hurt that much more? Why the dirt would she do such a thing? Did the Lady hate her? And if so, why?
Sonata held her breath. She felt her face going hot as she seriously considered backing off of the stage. Just as she lowered her head, and moved to make a hasty retreat, the oddest noise came echoing down from the balcony. It was the deliberate sound of a single hoof against wood. Somepony, besides those standing on the bottom level of the hall, was stomping for her. Raising her eyes upward again, she looked around to see who it was that dared do such a thing on her behalf. Her ears darted about, listening for the source of the sound until, finally, both they and her eyes trained once more upon the Countess. Sonata gawked.
There the beautiful mare stood, stomping for her, faster and faster. Her smile was bright and clear as day. Slowly, in accordance with the pony of highest stature, the whisperings of the upper level quieted down. Soon everypony else had also gotten to their hooves, beginning to stomp in kind.
Stuck in a moment of pure astonishment, Sonata didn’t notice her muscles beginning to relax, or her breath now beginning to flow more easily until something in the back of her own mind called out to her.
Now, Sonata! Do it now!
Snapping back into awareness, she faced the audience, full of fresh confidence. At once, she felt the wellspring in her head open up. Perfect words poured forth into the forefront of her mind, preparing to leap from her tongue. Taking a deep breath, her eyes trained upon those in the balcony—the Lady, especially. She then stepped forward, and opened her mouth.
Things moved quickly after that evening. Naturally, her performance had been one for the books. For the next few months, all anypony who had attended could talk about was how Sonata had miraculously managed to make the aristocracy get up and dance, something a commoner had never before been able to accomplish. It was a thought that still managed to make Sonata smile to herself, even all of these months later. This wasn't to say that her performance had been completely without its faults—those faults being the two ponies who seemed to have not been deeply moved by her song. The first was Prance who ended up never showing that evening. The second was Lady Goldenstalks, the one pony in the room who, instead of getting lost in melodic euphoria, sat staring pensively at Sonata throughout her entire performance. For all intents and purposes, the beautiful unicorn seemed to not have been moved by her song at all. Still, Sonata found that she could not remain angry at either of them when they both managed to dutifully attend each and every one of her following performances. Even if the Countess never did end up smiling and dancing, and even if both she and Prance always happened to disappear ten minutes before the performance's scheduled conclusion, it was enough for Sonata that they both always showed.
The amount of funds she had amassed after that first night’s performance was massive. In no time at all, she had paid off what she had promised to her parents—by way of the Lock & Stock Safeguard, of course. Never once did she wonder why Echo Hum and Silent Wing—that ever grim pair—seemed so overcome with contentment when they arrived to retrieve all two hundred plus bits of it. This was of no concern to Sonata, however, since one weekly performance at Glow Hall was enough to bring in more than what was required to not only support her parents, but to return onto Lord Goldenstalks the extras she had earned from his household during her visits. And even after all this, there was still more money left to repair the cottage, to pay ponies to help work more of her fields, and to keep herself well fed, indefinitely. Surely, even in these increasingly unstable times, things seemed to be looking up for her.
And the times did prove unstable, indeed. In those very same weeks following Sonata's first performance at Glow Hall, the world around her seemed to churn and upheave just as her own life had.
Prance, after weeks of increasingly bizarre behavior—and cryptic answers to Sonata's probing questions about what might have been causing it—was called for duty to aid in dealing with the conflict in the North. He was sworn to protect the sanctity and stability of the kingdom-at-large after all, and so, for the months that followed, had been making sporadic trips into town to meet with the Lord Goldenstalks so that they might discuss what should be done about their warring neighbors.
Those long, lonely days were subsequently put to foul use considering Sonata's own penchant for self consciousness. The stallion's growing restlessness over time, his unhappiness even, made her anxious. It didn't take long for her increasing paranoia to lead her to believe that Prance had desperately wanted to get away from her for some reason she had yet to settle on. Perhaps now that everything was comfortable for the farm, he felt there was no longer any reason to stay. Perhaps after all of her hard work, he had concluded that she had not needed as much help as she let on in the first place. Maybe he was just bored of country ponies and their country ways, and longed for his mysterious mare lover in town. Whatever the reason might have been, Sonata felt a growing urge to express her worries to the stallion. She needed him to know that if his happiness would require his absence, that she did not wish to be the pony that stood in the way of it.
This particular morning was bright and beautiful. Sonata had risen early—as she was prone to do by habit—to get to work on an apple pie. There was no particular reason to be making an apple pie today, of course, other than the fact that now she had the free time in which to do it, and that it also kept her mind off of the fact that Prance had, once again, gone missing. A pie every other day seemed a great way to fill those spaces that would usually be packed full of worry and fret otherwise. Sometimes she would keep the pastries for herself, but more often than not, she would use them as excuses to visit her countryside acquaintances. She was certain that in these times, none of them ever minded the unexpected company, especially if it afforded them the opportunity to catch up on news and gossip. Today, this apple pie would be going to Begonia Blossom who Sonata heard had been suffering from poor sleep as of late.
Her brow furrowed at the thought of the orange-red mare. Ever since the evening that Sonata had scolded her so harshly, things between them had never quite returned to what they had been before. No matter how many explanations, pies, and apologies were given her, it seemed that there still remained in Begonia's heart a stubborn barb of resentment that refused to be pulled loose. Her words with Sonata were no longer quite as flourished or laced with emotion. Their visits, while growing longer with each go, still remained a far cry from what they used to be. It was a difficult thing to accept, the tarnishing of a friendship. Still, ever hopeful, Sonata tried to remain positive. Maybe today would be much better.
Kneading out the pie cover dough upon a newly made worktable which sat inside of her newly painted cookery, Sonata never once heard Prance entering the room over the sound of her own thoughts. He walked up behind her just as she was pressing the edges of the pie together, and bending down to tote it to the oven. She gasped, and dropped the pan back onto the counter when his hoof landed upon her shoulder.
"Prance!" she squawked, pressing her hoof against her chest. When she pulled it away, it left a flour print in her fur. "You nearly startled me to death!"
"Sorry, sorry!" Prance croaked. He yawned loudly whilst the mare turned to pop the pastry into the spotless oven. "I would have returned before you woke, but the Duke figured it would be a good idea to discuss, and then repeat his ideas on diplomatic strategy for the rebellion in Edinbridle this morning. I swear he's managed to become even more neurotic ever since he ascended to that title."
Sonata paused for a moment, confused by Prance's usage of the title "Duke" to refer to Lord Goldenstalks. She didn't imagine she would ever get used to that, but regardless, what was done was done.
The Earl and Countess Goldenstalks were no longer an Earl and Countess. Thanks to the expiration of some old and distant relative, they had recently taken on control of a wide expanse of land directly north of their realm, bordering Lord Vision's. In kind, they had been made Duke and Duchess. There had been much fanfare and a big to-do about it all. The pair had even traveled to the unicorn court in Canterlot for their peerage ceremony. Supposedly everypony who was anypony had attended. Marmalade had even told Sonata that the revered, young alicorn sisters, Celestia and Luna—the only alicorns to be born of this age—had made an appearance at the ceremony as well.
Knowing by now that it was pointless to question Marmalade, Sonata had wanted to consider this news a good omen. To be in the presence of a natural born alicorn was already so rare. Out of anywhere in the whole wide world, they only existed in the hills on the far side of the ancient mountain in Canterlot, and had been there since time immemorial. The fact that not one, but two alicorn foals had miraculously been born so that ponies of Sonata’s time might have been granted the privilege of witnessing them grow just seemed an added blessing for this age. However, looking at the way the tides were now turning, Sonata couldn't help but feel that perhaps the alicorn sisters' presence was simply a harbinger of trials and tribulations to come. Perhaps extra goodness was required in the world in order to balance out the darkness everypony seemed to feel coming.
Chaos was brewing below the surface. Something foul had hatched, and let forth its spray of poison into the world, and it seemed possible to trace its genesis all to that one argument between a bigoted unicorn duke and a hot-headed pegasus commander. The dread of war and rebellion, desperation and delusion seized many hearts and minds over a mere matter of months. Every pony on land and in the sky had a common hunch, a universally shared sense that insisted horrible things would surely come to pass. There would be a shift, both messy and chaotic. That much was certain. Then things would no longer be as they were before. Whether this inevitable change would be for better or worse was something that nopony had yet to predict. All anypony could do was to simply wait it all out, and hope that when the bottom inevitably fell out from beneath them, it would not be for too long.
In some small way, Sonata Dusk could not help but feel slighted by the universe. Why was it that when one heaping pile of worry was dealt with, an even larger pile seemed to be waiting in the wings for her? War? Rebellion? Really? What in the dirt was she ever supposed to do with news of that nature? It hardly took any effort at all on her part to come to the conclusion that, for as long as she could manage, she wanted to have no part in any of it, not Vision's silly battle, not any earth pony uprising, and not whatever foulness was sure to come from all of that negativity and conflict.
She grimaced at these thoughts, trying to fight off the voices in her head that told her that this time, she really was acting selfishly. Just because she had yet to be touched by all of these upheavals in the world didn't mean that those whom she cared for had not.
She finally turned to face Prance. He smiled coyly at her.
"Another pie? Who's it for this time, I can only wonder?”
Sonata shot a snide smirk in his direction, and turned back around.
"Begonia," she muttered, busying herself with wiping her hooves clean. She didn't see Prance's smile falter, but still she knew that was what it was doing, even with her head turned.
"I see. Splendid! She can always use your visits, especially nowadays."
There was a brief pause in the conversation as the stallion waited for Sonata to finish with her work. When she looked idle enough, he spoke again.
"Come sit with me by the well. Just for a little while. We haven't done it in so long."
He nudged her playfully in the side, coaxing her to look at him again. It was only then that Sonata caught a strange flash of something, some undecipherable emotion in his eyes. What was that? Sadness? Some type of guilt? He seemed barely able to look at her directly. The expression was almost too forlorn. It startled her. Nervously, she nodded her head. Would this be the day he told her he had tired of her? Would this be the day he finally said he would be leaving for good?
"Yes," she replied, her voice no louder than a murmur. She followed him silently out of the cottage's back door.
The air was cool. The great oak remained steadfast and still where it had always been. As the gentle breeze blew, the grasses bowed, dancing to and fro. It was serene. Even Prance's face—at least what she could see of it out of the corner of her eye—seemed supremely calm. He sat beside her, eyes closed as if deep in thought. Turning her head slightly to get a better look, Sonata couldn't help but notice how much more defined the tired creases and shadows beneath his eyes had become. She was sure it was all her doing, intentionally or not. She mustered up some courage, and opened her mouth to speak.
"I've been having sour dreams," he muttered before she could even get a word out. Trying to readjust her mind to the unexpected outburst, Sonata gulped a few times, cleared her throat, and peered at the stallion.
"Y-you have? Imagine that! Begonia has been having bad dreams as well," she sputtered, her eyes wide with curiosity. "What about? Sometimes I have these horrible dreams about drowning in a giant bowl of bitter dandelion stew, and the only way for me to escape is to eat my way ou—"
"Nonsense," he stated, almost spitting the words out spitefully. His brow was now furrowed with frustration. "The first few minutes are of incoherent babbling, wild laughter. For a moment, I see a creature, something that resembles a dragon or a snake with legs, but not quite. It's terrifying. It laughs, and never makes any sense when it speaks."
The stallion's violet eyes popped open. The look in them seemed to hint at delirium
"Then, always after the snake creature disappears, I have terrible visions. Visions about those that I love. Bad things, impossible things happen to them." His voice lowered to a wary hiss, almost as if he feared that somepony—or something else—might hear him. "It’s always the same dream. It always seems so real."
Sonata instinctively shrank away from him. Her mouth gawked open and shut, not knowing what to say.
"Wh... What do you think is causing it, Prance?"
The stallion shook his head.
"I suspect it is residual of being so near to the battle. There is an extraordinary amount of aggressive unicorn magic and willpower floating about. This quarrel between Vision and Debon Air has already become more big and aggressive than anything ponies have seen within a few centuries. Perhaps the spreading ill will of Edinbridle's unicorns is able to cause..."
His voice trailed off. Now he looked even more perplexed, and had begun to shake with frustration.
"You're probably right," Sonata murmured, saddling over to nuzzle against him for comfort's sake. "You always seem to know best about—"
"But not here," Prance interrupted, staring at her.
"Eh? W-what do you mean?" Sonata asked.
"The only two places where I don't have the dreams are when I'm on the Fylleion farm or at Goldenstalks manor. Why is that?"
Sonata momentarily seemed to be lost in thought.
"I'm quite certain I wouldn't know, Prance. I find this all far too confusing. I can't help but feel terrible for you."
Prance's eyes closed again, this time as if in defeat. Seeing that her attempts at comforting him were proving fruitless, Sonata decided that perhaps it would be best to change the subject.
"Your... Her. Is she well?"
She felt hopeful when the stallion's eyes popped open again, the tiniest of smiles upon his face. There was a moment during which he seemed to be fumbling for words. When he could not find any, he settled for a heavy sigh.
"There... there is something I must tell you, Sonata."
Suddenly, all of her previous fears from earlier that morning came rushing back to mind.
"Yes?" she squeaked. The look she gave him was pitiful, a failing attempt at mustering courage. "What is it?"
"I... You... you are most dear to me. Do you know that?" the stallion remarked softly, unable to look at her.
Sonata seemed befuddled.
"I know... But what makes you say such a thing at a time like this, I wonder?"
There was a pause as Prance gulped loudly.
"In the case that something should... should ever happen, will you promise me that you shall do your best to stay well and to be happy?"
Sonata shook her head in confusion until suddenly it dawned upon her. This was it. This was the conversation, the one where he tried to find a way out of her world. Well, if that was the case, far be it from her to stand in his way. Lowering her head so that Prance might not see the fat tear that promptly escaped from her eye, she gave him a weak nod.
"I promise," she sighed, and with that heavy breath, she felt her heart collapse. Her body went cold. She was sure that what she was feeling was the same as what a flame felt after being doused in water. Still, she knew that this too was just another stone that she would have to maneuver around. It wasn't impossible, was it? Not for her.
"We had better head back," she mumbled in a flat tone. Bounding to her hooves, she began walking rather mechanically toward the cottage. "My pie shall burn."
He sat doing what he always seemed to be doing nowadays: pouring over papers that had been strewn about her sitting room floor for months. With each visit to Goldenstalks manor or quick trip beyond, the piles would grow bigger and bigger. When he had tired of reading, he would simply just fall asleep next to the mounds upon the floor.
His work was beyond her, so she would never ask questions about any of it. Sometimes she would just sit silently with him arranging flowers or carefully sewing new cushions with her teeth as she spied on him out of the corner of her eyes. He would remain unmoved, increasingly tired-looking and pensive. That was the way he looked right now as Sonata bustled about the cottage, preparing to head down the road to Begonia's.
After she had put on her kerchief and hat, she gathered the pie up into a clean cloth that could be carried by the teeth. She noticed that his eyes never followed her as she approached the door. To her, each step lasted an eternity, and came with fond memories of moments the stallion and she had spent together. As she stared at him, she tried to burn the image of him sitting like that into her mind for fear that it might be the last one she would ever see. More than anything, she wanted to run and embrace him, to tell him how much he meant to her, but something stopped her from doing so. Perhaps it was the fear that she might come off as weak or clingy. Maybe she was afraid she might shame him into remaining where he was no longer happy, and that was the last thing she wanted.
Pushing open the cottage door, she cleared her throat until she had caught his attention.
The words escaped from her mouth in a small croak.
When he smiled at her, the melancholy in his eyes was clear as day. He nodded his head, and stared almost as if he too were trying to burn her image into his own mind.
"Safe travels, Sonata," he murmured.
With that, she crossed the threshold, and slowly closed the door behind her.
She found Begonia working in her enormous garden which was just as well since it was the perfect place to sit and talk. The children were up by then. With their spirits lifted by Sonata's presence, they now spent their time playfully chasing each other around the yard. The foals never seemed to notice how the two mares sat quietly before one another at Begonia's garden table, both forlorn, and both trying their best to pretend everything was just fine. It took a while before Sonata decided to lead with conversation.
"I saw the Duchess' servants walking down the path toward your cottage last week. Did she have another party?"
Sonata held her breath as she cut a piece of pie for her friend. What an utterly horrid way to force a conversation. Yet, to her surprise, Begonia's face broke into a tiny smile. She huffed a laugh, and stared into the slice of pie before her.
"Of course," the orange mare jibed, her voice cracking and tired. "Now that she is Duchess, it seems she cannot help herself. Every two weeks on the dot, another party. My garden shall surely be bare before the season's out."
Leaning down toward the pie, Begonia took a polite nibble from it.
"I could have never imagined one pony might love posies so much."
Sonata forced a small laugh as she cut herself a piece of pie as well.
"Anyway, it is well enough if she were to uproot the entire thing, and haul it all away," Begonia muttered, letting off an unintentional growl. She immediately looked apologetic for having said this.
"Come now, Begonia. You don't mean that," Sonata clucked. "Flowers are your passion. You love them!"
Things went deathly silent as the blue mare watched Begonia's eyes shut. When they opened again, her gaze had gone distant.
"I can barely stand the sight of them anymore. I keep dreaming that the flowers talk to me, whispering madness. I keep dreaming that they uproot themselves, and begin crawling all over me. And then that horrid, flying lizard creature just watches, laughing and laughing..." the orange mare trailed off. Sonata froze, realizing immediately what her friend was telling her.
Begonia’s gaze moved toward her foals who were playing rather close to the rose bushes now. Her brow twitched with worry.
"I would think little of it if the children had not begun to dream the same things. I try to keep a straight face for them, and tell them it's nothing. But they're growing quickly. They're smart children. They know that something is wrong. And I can't explain to them..."
Sonata nodded her head trying to think of what she could possibly say to her friend to comfort her.
"Prance says it may be residue from being so close to negative unicorn will," she added, urging her friend to finish her pie. "Maybe if you were to get away for a little while..."
Begonia nodded. It seemed that she needed to believe such a thing now more than ever.
"Lighthoof is smart. He's probably right," the orange mare murmured. Catching her second wind a moment later, she forced herself to sit up straight and feign strength.
"How is Lighthoof anyway? Still busy as ever, I imagine," she inquired with a smile. Now, it was Sonata's turn to look bitter.
"Very much so," the blue mare replied. Begonia's grin faded.
"Still acting strange, then?” she added, tapping her hoof against the table. "Still disappearing in the middle of the night, is he?"
"He always says it's to travel to Goldenstalks manor or to town."
"Oh, that Lighthoof. Don't you fret about it, Sonata. It's probably just a mare. You know him," she chortled, taking an enthusiastic bite out of her pie. The look on her face made Sonata smile. For a moment, it almost felt like old times between them, before the dreams, before Debon Air, and before the two hundred bits.
"You're probably right, Bea— I mean... Begonia," Sonata stammered. She dropped her gaze guiltily toward the table. The quiet that followed was embarrassing. Sonata forced in a deep breath, and resolved herself to ending it.
"Sorry," she muttered to her companion. It took a moment, but soon she heard Begonia sigh.
"Bea. You can still call me Bea, my dear," the orange mare beamed.
Sonata, rather stunned, glanced up into her eyes to catch her smiling warmly. She returned the grin, feeling far calmer, happier. The sun seemed to shine a bit brighter now. The sky seemed a bit bluer. Not wanting to ruin the moment with more of her own babbling—for fear that she might say something foolish—she decided it would be a good time to take her leave. Raising up slightly off of the cushion, she nodded her head.
"I should get back," she proclaimed, trying to hide the fresh cheer in her voice. "I sang for Glow Hall two evenings ago, and really must clean my robe today."
As she reached down to fetch her wide brimmed hat from where it lay beside her, she saw Begonia jump forward anxiously out of the corner of her eye.
"Wait!" Begonia yelped, much to Sonata's surprise. Startled, the blue mare took a step backward.
Looking apologetic, Begonia forced herself back down to her seat.
"Don't leave. Not just yet. Please."
Slowly, Sonata retook her seat, eyeing her friend worriedly. Begonia, feeling rather self conscious, shot an embarrassed smile in Sonata's direction.
"I haven't been telling you this every time you've come to spend the day, but... Th-the dreams don't come when you are here," she whispered, eyeing her garden cautiously. "When you are here, we don't suffer when we sleep. Won't you please stay? Just a little while longer. F-for the children. So that they might sleep a bit. I-I shall keep you company."
Sonata could barely hide the worry that plastered itself upon her face. She nodded, her brow furrowed with concern. Begonia didn't seem to mind it. When she realized Sonata would not leave, she was instantly filled with a surge of energy. Reaching forward, she happily moved to cut them both another slice of pie.
Night had fallen by the time Sonata returned to her cottage. It turned out that Bea was in more dire straights than she was willing to let on. She told her that she had wanted her around so that Petunia and Peat Moss might be able to rest. However, most of the remainder of Sonata's visit consisted of watching Begonia sleep for hours under the shade of a young sapling whilst the children continued playing in the yard. Begonia was exhausted, and it had been made utterly clear that she had not been getting much, if any sleep. Even after staying well into the night, Sonata was glad to have done it if it meant she could bring her friend some small semblance of peace.
It wasn't until she had reached her hoof up to touch her cottage's front door that the entire morning spent with Prance came rushing back into her mind. At once, she began to tremble, noticing that through the window, she could not see any lamps lit inside. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward, and pushed against the door.
“Miss Sonata Dusk!” came a familiar voice calling from her rear. Quite shocked to be having somepony sneak up on her this wretchedly late at night, Sonata spun around, squealing. It took a moment for her to recognize the strangers by the gate as Echo Hum and Silent Wing, the two pegasi from Lock & Stock.
“I do wish everypony would stop sneaking up on me that way!” Sonata yelped, pressing a hoof against her chest. Echo and Silent looked completely and utterly unmoved by the earth mare’s distress. Taking a step forward, the white pegasus reared up, and casually leaned her body against the fence post.
“It’s midweek, Miss Dusk. Our patron is expecting a delivery from you.”
Recalling that she had, indeed, done a performance at Glow Hall two evenings before, Sonata slowly began to nod her head, and slumped down in relief upon the grass.
“Right! The money! Of course! Slipped my mind again, it did. Pardon me,” she laughed nervously. “Things are just so unpredictable and distracting what with the North, and the rebellion, and the… singing...”
She trailed off when she noticed that not only did the two pegasi not care one lick about what she was saying, but that they both also looked extremely exhausted and short on patience, almost as if they too had missed a night or two of sleep. Peering at them in the light of the moon, she could even make out the dark rings encircling their eyes as they glowered at her.
“Right. I… I’ll just go, and fetch it then,” Sonata murmured, turning about to face her door.
Knowing she had not the luxury of worrying over Prance any longer, she pushed her way into the darkened cottage, and turned to face the main room.
It was completely empty, void of all signs that Prance had ever been there. His papers were gone, his trappings were gone, and he had even managed to pull the room together neatly before his departure. Sonata’s heart sank. What she feared most had finally come to pass.
Making her way through the room, she peered about, searching for some small sign that she was perhaps mistaken when, suddenly, her eyes caught a glint of something somewhere in the dark. She turned her head to see that there was an item lying on the floor in the shadows beneath the window sill. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it was a rather ordinary-looking scroll. Thinking Prance had accidentally left it behind, she reached down to pull the thing closer, and then unfurled it in the window's light. Squinting at the writing it contained, she realized that she had seen this style of script before.
"You are in danger! It has to be tonight! I shall wait for you by the fountain," she read out loud.
The message was very short, succinct, and quite mysterious. Also, the scroll smelled of roses. Thus, Sonata immediately recognized it as yet another message from her, Prance's nameless, faceless lover. Yet still, she wondered why the writing seemed to strike her as familiar. Where, oh where had she seen it before?
Picking up the scroll between her teeth, Sonata momentarily looked up and out of the window to catch the two pegasi now roaming about her yard. By the looks of it, they were pacing the length of the cottage, eyeing things thoroughly, digging through the bushes, and acting quite strangely, to put it plainly.
Sonata, at first taking the pair's behavior as par for the course, thought nothing of it. She turned, and headed toward her bedroom, scroll clamped in her mouth. Her mind was still struggling to recall its author.
Very curly lettering. Very regal. She's well learned.
Her eyes squeezed shut. The image of somepony specific now sat at the very edges of her mind. She never even noticed Echo and Silent beginning to edge their way toward the cottage's front door as she honed in on that image in her head. As soon as they both stepped into the dim, main room, it dawned on her, clear as day.
"Lady Goldenstalks'," she gasped to herself. "The Duchess!"
When she heard a hoof accidentally trip over a nearby cushion, she spun about. Flustered and wide eyed, she spotted the two pegasi edging forward, eyeing her suspiciously.
"Is something the matter, Miss Dusk?" Echo inquired, leaning slightly to one side. "You look as if you've seen a spirit!"
"Obv cours—" she accidentally dropped the scroll "—Of course not! That's the silliest thing I've ever heard in my life! I just… I just ah… had forgotten where I put the payment for a moment. That's all.”
She picked up the scroll, and quickly bustled off toward her bedroom. "Jss wait a moment. I’ll be rght back," she said through her teeth.
Peering at the two from behind the corner of her bedroom door, Sonata could see them now searching through her things more aggressively. It was clear that they were on a mission of which she was not privy to. She wondered what it might be and prayed that her increasing paranoia was wrong in assuming that—
“Miss Dusk?” Echo called again from the main room. Sonata drew her head away from the door with a gasp.
“Y-yes?” she shrilled.
“We were both wondering if you had seen that Sir Lighthoof recently.”
Sonata clamped her hooves over her mouth to contain her panicked squeak.
“Uhh… N-no! He has been very scarce around these parts as of late, what with the conflict to the North, and whatnot. Yes, I imagine he is far… far away by now.”
There was an odd silence. Sonata could almost hear the gears whirring in the heads of the two pegasi.
“W-why do you ask?” she prodded further, fighting off the fear of what the answer might be. “Is something the matter?”
“That is classified information I’m afraid,” Echo replied, unexpectedly popping her head in through the bedroom door to glare at Sonata directly. The blue mare, trying to save face, bolted to her hooves, and raced over toward her chest—but not before sliding the Countess' scroll behind a nearby potted plant.
Cocking a brow at the earth mare’s jumpy behavior, Echo pushed further into her bedroom.
“We’d just like to have a chat with him. It has something to do with a new patron we’ve acquired. Thus, it is rather important—Pardon me. Would you mind very much if I...”
Almost as if she owned the place, Echo barged her way past Sonata as she was reaching for the handle of the large chest. The white mare reached forward to shove the lid open herself. Poking her head into the large box, she began to dig around within it. Sonata dared not say anything in protest.
“Hmm,” the pegasus hummed to herself, her brow furrowing with disappointment when she did not find whatever it was she had been looking for. Even still, she reached into the chest one more time, and removed the large sack that Sonata used to hold gold bits.
“Thish ish yer payment I assume?” Echo inquired, clutching the satchel in her teeth. Sonata nodded slowly. She then watched as the white mare turned around, slammed the lid of the chest shut with her hind hoof, and walked toward the door.
Her first inclination was to not say anything, to just keep silent until the two intruders left her alone. But by and by, Sonata felt something familiar igniting in the pit of her stomach, and rising up into her chest. It was the same feeling of defiance she had felt when Prance had dragged her through the streets of Greenwaters those few months ago. Who did these pegasi think they were? She had gone through so much to work, maintain, and keep her home. For these two to take it upon themselves to barge their way in, and tear it apart seemed highly disrespectful. Slowly, her lips parted, and before Echo had even stepped out of the room, a slew of words spilled from Sonata's mouth.
“Now, wait just one moment. I should think that if you two feel so free as to invade my home without permission that I would at least have the privilege of knowing why. Why are you asking after Pr— Sir Lighthoof, and what does it have to do with rummaging through my belongings, hm?”
She instantly regretted saying anything, even more so when she watched Echo freeze mid step in the bedroom doorway. The pegasus slowly turned around to stare at her, a venomous look in her eyes. Sonata gulped down a lump caught in her throat. The lump seemed to hit her stomach at the same time and with the same force with which the satchel in Echo’s mouth hit the floor.
“Do you know what I've always found quaint about provincial earth ponies such as yourself, Miss Dusk?" Echo began slowly, a lethal quality in her tone. "You have very little to worry about. Ponies such as yourself rise up in the morning, trot about watering weeds or—I don't know—pounding things with large, blunt stones or whatever it is that you do, then you send your wares off to the rest of the kingdom. And the rest of your time is spent wisely keeping your bumbling... simple... mouths... shut. Very little troubles, very few cares, very quaint. Wouldn't you agree, Miss Dusk?"
Sonata felt her cheeks going hot with indignation even as she began to tremble.
"Th-that's not tru—"
"Thus, the reason eludes me, Miss Dusk, as to why you would think yourself so..." the mare snorted disdainfully, "complex as to be made privy to matters as important and sensitive that they should concern safeguards to the kingdom's elite as well as a royally ordained knight."
"Just a moment! Th-this is my cottage, and you have no right to—"
Echo pushed the blue mare back against a wall, and brought her face very close so as to drive her point home.
"There is a price that comes with being the bearer of burdens such as ours. There are those who would do bad things, very bad things to ponies who know what we and your Sir Lighthoof know. Are you certain, Miss Dusk, that you are willing to relinquish all that you have recently regained in life—your friends, your farm, your well-being—for nothing more than one selfish, foolhardy inquiry?"
Sonata, too stunned to speak, cowered in the mare's piercing, silver line of sight. Seeing the earth pony so shaken, a sly smile spread across Echo's face. She leaned in closer until their noses touched.
"I shall ask you once more, Miss Dusk, and do take into consideration all that you hold dear before you reply. Do you know the whereabouts of Sir Prance Lighthoof?"
It took all of Sonata's effort to keep her voice box from clenching shut as it used to in her childhood. Steadily, she shook her head. Her lips stammered, searching for any word that would come.
"N-no... G-gone," she squeaked, wishing more than anything for the pegasus to just leave her be.
There was a brief pause as Echo studied her face, searching her eyes for a lie. With a heave, she backed away from the shaken earth mare, and turned to fetch the satchel from the floor.
"For your sake, I hope you are speaking the truth," she cautioned before leaving the room to rejoin her companion.
It took a moment before Sonata could regain her composure—not to mention the feeling in her legs. When she did, she rose, and moved to peer around the bedroom door just in time to catch Echo tossing the satchel to Silent Wing.
"Nothing of worth in the bedroom... or her," Echo muttered, practically pounding the cottage's door open with her front hoof. Silent Wing snickered to himself as he tied the satchel to his belt.
"Should have let me try. Bet I could get somethin' out of her," the stallion chortled, even whilst Echo rolled her eyes, and shook her head.
"Ugh" she groaned, unfurling her ivory wings. "Let's fly. We've much ground to cover before night's end. Remember, he wants the entire countryside done by morning. You go West, I shall head East."
"Right, right. All business, no fun with you, ah, Hummy?" Silent Wing continued, trying and failing to hide his wide grin. He spread his enormous wings out wide, and darted off into the sky. His laughter echoed throughout the evening, and easily worked to infuriate his partner. Steadying her nerves, Echo took a deep breath, and began to flap her shining wings.
"...shall kill you one day," she grumbled before she too jettisoned into the night.
When Sonata was quite certain that they were gone, she released the breath she had been holding, and moved out into the living room. Seeing that the pegasi had left the door open, she quickly moved to slam the thing shut.
No sooner had she collapsed onto the floor, breathing a heavy sigh of relief did she hear a heavy, frantic knock coming from the cottage's back door.
"Ohhh, what is it now?" she groaned, her head tilting backward, and making a loud 'THUD' against the wall. Wearily, she stood up, and made her way into the kitchen. She grumbled to herself the entire way.
"Mercenaries be damned," she hissed as she moved to the back door, and pressed her hoof against the wood. "One more unexpected visitor, and I swear I shall—"
The door swung open to reveal two ponies standing outside in the dark. One of them was completely hidden within a billowing, black cloak. Sonata gasped as she gazed directly into the other pony's familiar pair of glimmering, violet eyes.
"Prance!" she hissed, an overflowing sense of joy suddenly coming over her. She leapt forward, wrapping her forelegs about his neck, and pulling him in close. "I thought you'd gone forever!"
"No, Sonata, I—"
"I thought it was the dreams, or the North, or that mare of yours."
"Sonata, listen to m—"
"Those two pegasi came back! They tore the cottage apart looking for—"
"Sonata!" Prance yelled, pressing his hooves against her shoulders, and shaking her. It was only then, in that quiet space that Sonata finally noticed the wild, frantic look in his eye.
"You already know, don't you?" she breathed.
"Yes," he replied sternly. "And I have to ask a favor of you, my friend. The greatest favor I've ever asked of anypony."
"Name it," Sonata replied, her head nodding rapidly.
It was then that Prance motioned toward the cloaked figure who, up until that moment, had been standing to his rear in complete silence.
"Hide her... Just until I return," he urged. The desperation in his voice was clear.
"H... 'her'?" Sonata asked, taking one wary step toward the cloaked pony.
There was a tiny voice in the back of her mind that insisted that she go no further, that she grab Prance, pull him into the cottage, and promptly lock the door behind them both. But like the stubborn and curious mare that she was, she paid it no heed. She was drawn forward by the pristine, yellow hooves of the stranger, the perfect posture that could be seen even whilst draped in thick, dark fabric. Her heart began to beat faster and harder in her chest. Another step. Her eyes moved upward. She could see pristine curls hanging down out of the cloak's hood, gorgeous, orange ringlets that were quite familiar to her. One more step, and finally she stood before the figure. Beneath the hood, a pair of serene, berry red eyes, stared down into her. By and by, the stranger pulled their cloak back. Sonata's breath caught in her throat. She shook her head, not wanting to believe what she was seeing.
"N... n-no," she stammered as Lady Goldenstalks herself took one step toward her.
"Miss Sonata," the Duchess began in that beguiling tone that she was known too well for. In one curt movement, she reverently bent her head in Sonata's direction.
The sound of her voice sent a shiver up Sonata's spine. In a flash, the earth mare was on her belly, in the dirt.
"Y-your Grace! How can I—... What should I—..."
Sonata's voice trailed off into nothing when she felt a hoof gently curl beneath her chin, directing her gaze upward. Her eyes connected instantly with the Lady's. Therein, Sonata saw resolve and even a bit of shame.
"I think you would agree, Miss Sonata, that under the present circumstances, there is no longer any need for such formalities."
Without another word, the Lady lifted the blue mare back up to her hooves. Sonata, her face now gone all hot, trembled at the sensation of the golden unicorn's touch. Unable to meet the Duchess' gaze again, she settled for staring at her mouth. To her surprise, the perfect pout curved upward into a faint smile.
"Call me Adagio."