Between the sisters, all transgressions were forgotten in an instant. Turning to wrench her dress from Moonstone’s teeth, Violet got to her hooves, and straightened herself. She secured the physician’s spell her sister had given to her so that it could not be seen beneath her cloaks. Adagio followed suit, smoothing out her own gown as well.
It was true that the rift between Adagio and her older sister had grown far deeper over the years for various reasons, the greatest of them being sheer jealousy and spirit of competition. Adagio was well-liked, and her husband so bland that he was actually seen as agreeable in comparison to the likes of Duke Vision, the tyrant. Violet, though not as admired as her younger sister, had long since proved herself with her grace, wit, and cunning, and had never once failed in reinforcing her image as a perfect lady. She was the picture of diplomacy, and having given birth to an heir—and then some—stood upon a pedestal the likes of which her sister could not seem to attain for herself. However, there was still one thing and one thing only that was sure to bring even these two rival siblings together in camaraderie: disdain for their mother.
“Moonstone!” Violet spat, knowing there wasn't much time left until all chaos broke loose. “The cider and goblets. Get rid of them!”
“Damn!” the younger mare squealed, collecting the items up into her magic, and dashing them wildly out of a nearby window. She then turned to stand in a perfect queue alongside her sisters just as the Baroness was entering the room. Trailing behind the older mare were the servants, Beryl and Turq. The both of them were clutching the sides of a single, red velvet box between their teeth.
The sound of the pitcher Moonstone had tossed from the room resounded against something hard in the garden below. A stallion’s scream echoed up through the window, and the din of it all made the Baroness recoil.
“What in the blazes was that sound?” the aged mare inquired, eyeing her three suspiciously perfect daughters. She never noticed Moonstone nudging Adagio in the leg with a hoof beneath her robes, or Adagio nudging Violet in much the same way. The eldest sister squeaked in surprise as her sibling’s hoof caught her in the rear.
“Nothing at all, Mother,” Violet choked. “We were simply finishing up with Adagio’s robes.”
“Improper! You two should be waiting in the salon,” Starry huffed, turning to pass an accusing eye toward the two maidservants behind her. “As fortune would have it, I found these two lounging in the antechamber, gossiping, and fooling about with your diadem, my dear! You should take care to discipline your servants more effectively! What if they had damaged it?”
Beryl and Turq, eyes going wide with fear, cowered in the presence of the noblemares. As far as they could decipher, the looks all three sisters were now giving them implied terrible punishments to come. Luckily for them, Moonstone, Adagio, and Violet were seasoned actresses, well-acclimated to the tastes of their mother.
Taking a moment to clear her throat, Adagio stepped forward, Beryl now in the crosshairs of her gaze. Before she began to speak, she passed the cowering green mare a wink. Her mother, too busy fiddling about with the diadem case, did not spot this, but fortunately, the servant mare caught sight of it just in the knick of time.
“Foolish fillies! How dare you abandon your mistress on a day as important as today? What would I have done if my sisters had not been here to attend me?” Adagio scolded the two trembling maidservants.
Turq, who had not managed to catch the Lady’s wink, practically collapsed onto her face. Eager to avoid any punishment that might come at the hooves of the Baroness, Beryl fell down beside her.
“F-forgive us, My Lady. We only thought that since you commanded us to—Eep!”
The poor, blue mare’s lament was quickly silenced by Adagio discreetly stomping down upon her foreleg.
“Lazy things. I shall be sure to deal with you after the day’s proceedings. For now, I can't bear the sight of you. I wish to be alone with my mother and sisters. Beryl? You and Turq may take your leave, and await me in the dining chamber. I don’t suppose I could stand to eat any of that food, so you had better find something to do with it before my return. Is that understood?”
Beryl, barely able to maintain her act of distress for want of a good laugh, quickly bowed to her mistress, and rounded about Turq’s trembling body. She snatched her tail up into her teeth, and without another word, dragged the mare away to a side door leading deeper into the Countess’ apartments.
Adagio smiled as they disappeared through the door. Surely, the two could find a way to forgive her that scolding after their fifth helping of custard cake. Her mirth was only half-lived, however. For, not even a full ten seconds passed after she dismissed them both before she heard her mother gasp.
“Adagio Dazzle Glow!”
The golden mare winced, dreading whatever scolding she was now about to claim for herself.
“Yes, mother?” she sighed, turning about to face the aged mare.
“The veil for this diadem. Where is it? And don't you dare tell me you've lost it!”
Adagio sank even deeper into her purple frills.
“Mother, it is rather old fashioned. Only the older ladies of the court wear—”
“Poppycock!” the Baroness exclaimed. “Your accouterments are provided for you by the royal family. You shall wear every last piece; is that clear? Now where is it?”
Straightening her back, lifting her chin ever so slightly, Adagio passed her mother a stubborn but submissive glare.
“Yes, mother,” she groaned. “It is in my chest.”
Without wasting another moment, the golden unicorn’s horn glowed a ruby red as she, again, dug back into the large chest sitting in the chifferobe across the room. Her mind flashed back to the earlier incident that had taken place between Violet and herself, and strangely enough, part of her felt glad that it had happened. Surely, her mother’s hawk-like eyes would have immediately spotted the physician’s spell in the vial from a mile away had it still been there. In the meantime, Violet shifted about anxiously in her own dresses. No doubt she had been thinking the same thing, and it had made her equally as uncomfortable.
After rummaging about within the chest for a few moments, at last, a fine, transparent length of sparkling, purple fabric came floating out and across the room. Reluctantly, Adagio allowed the cloth to fall into her mother’s silver beam of magic.
“Isn't that lovely?” the Baroness murmured to herself. Turning about to eye Moonstone who was currently trying her best not to snicker. “Moonstone, help your sister with this at once.”
“Y-yes, mother!” the youngest Glow exclaimed with a quick curtsy before snatching up the two pieces in a green glow, and racing toward her frilly sibling.
Adagio smirked at the mare. How quickly Moonstone seemed to lose her nerve as soon as their mother beckoned her. What a phony.
“Now, hold still, Gio,” the younger mare murmured as she approached. “This shall hurt me far more than it shall hurt you.” Then carefully, she opened the red velvet jewelry box with her magic, and pulled from it a gorgeous diadem, decorated in purple and gold pointed rays. Raising it high above Adagio’s head, she opened its clasp, and slowly pushed it on. When the golden mare again lifted her head, every eye in the room sparkled in reverence.
“Oh, Adagio...” the Baroness gasped. “It suits you well.”
“She resembles the sun doesn’t she?” Violet murmured. It seemed that even she could not help but crack a smile of admiration.
Wanting very much not to tarnish the piece with the veil floating about in her magic, Moonstone bit her lip, and allowed the fabric to float gently onto the top of her elder sister’s head. Immediately, the youngest mare’s smile faltered.
“Hmph… Not quite the same effect, is it?” she snorted, doing her best to hold in another great laugh.
“I knew it!” Adagio exclaimed with a roll of her eyes. “It looks hideous!”
“Nonsense!” the Baroness cut in, marching forward, and shoving her youngest daughter out of the way. “It only needs a bit of adjusting is all.”
Adagio found it the most difficult thing to do to stand still whilst her head was being pulled to and fro in the midsts of her mother's magic. Not counting her wedding day, this was the most important moment of her entire life, and her nerves had been tested to their brink. Perhaps it was time for a little revenge.
“Stop fidgeting, Adagio, or I'll tear it!” the Baroness scolded as she continued to tug at her mane.
“I hear the two sisters are attending,” Adagio murmured, her hooves innocently clacking together. She held back a laugh when Violet’s head snapped about in her direction, the look upon her face completely mortified.
“Whaaaaaat!” the Baroness screamed, sparks exploding from her horn to light up the room like fireworks. “How did… Who told...”
The aged mare spun about to stare at her eldest daughter.
“Violet, what did you know of this?”
At first she felt slightly regretful, but now it gladdened Adagio’s heart to see her elder sister cower in such a manner.
“It is only hearsay, Mother, and nothing more! Please, calm down!” the mare tittered, her voice rattling.
“Bite your tongue, young lady! I will have none of your stories, today!” Starry exclaimed.
And now Moonstone was snickering. If only the unicorn court could witness such a fascinating sight: an aging Baroness telling a Duchess, well in her prime, what's what.
“Truly, Mother, I swear I do not know. It was simply a word or two that I have heard in passing from the Lord Vision. Nothing more!” Violet now looked as if she might burst into tears. “Please do not tell anypony. I believe he is the only one who has said such a thing. If it is not true, then he would be terribly cross with me for embarrassing him at court!”
The room descended into a tense silence as Starry studied her groveling daughter, her eyes peering and prodding, searching for any traces of a lie. Unable to verify such a thing, she huffed to herself.
“That Lord of yours,” she snarled. “If he would spend half as much time learning to bite his tongue as he does running his mouth…”
She trailed off, unwilling to finish for the sake of her daughter’s honor.
“Very well. Still, if it is a possibility, then it is imperative that you look absolutely perfect,” Starry muttered below her breath, turning to face Adagio once more. Rushing forward, she reared up the hems of her silver robes, and shoved up her sleeves. “Let me have another go at that veil!”
“Mother, no!” both Moonstone and Adagio protested just in time for the guardspony to clear his throat, and let loose yet another bellowing cry from the outer hall.
“Pree-sen-ting the Right Honorable, the Earl of Sardhoof!”
Everypony froze mid step. All eyes went wide.
“Lord Goldenstalks? Here? Now?” Moonstone hissed, looking quite confused.
“W-w-why this is... most irregular,” the Baroness stuttered as she moved to straighten her daughters’ robes with her magic. She then bowed low to the ground and stayed there.
Moonstone, being outranked by the Earl, followed suit by her mother's side. Only Adagio and Violet remained standing by the time Upright barged through the door, looking about the chamber boredly as if there was no question at all that he belonged there.
“My Lord,” both the Baroness and Moonstone chirped in tandem, never moving from their positions. The Lord Goldenstalks calmly sauntered past them, not even offering them a hoof, much less a passing glance. Instead, his eyes locked with Violet’s, and he made haste to approach her, nodding his head in respect as she offered him her hoof.
“Duchess,” he greeted her curtly after taking her hoof in his, and giving it the customary kiss.
“I am most unfortunate on this happiest of days, Earl,” Violet tittered, passing the regally belted and cloaked stallion a smile. “For it is the last that you shall be required to offer me such pleasantries.”
Lord Goldenstalks, not being one for what he deemed ‘useless small talk,’ cocked a brow. An unenthusiastic moan rattled about somewhere within his chest.
“Yes, well. Such is the life we lead, My Lady,” he sighed, directing his icy blue gaze about the room. It eventually fell upon Moonstone and her mother who were teetering uncomfortably in their bowed stances. Waving his hoof, the Earl finally bid them to stand.
“Yes, yes. Rise, rise,” he stated impatiently. “You needn’t destroy your gowns for my sake, Baroness.”
At last, his piercing eyes fell upon his wife. She forced a smile at him, taking the opportunity to give him a curtsy even though he was the last pony she wished to see at the moment. She eyed him nervously as his scrutinizing gaze never left the top of her head.
“My Lord,” she murmured sweetly, edging a bit closer.
“What in Bullion’s name is that thing atop your head?” he clucked, using his magic to snatch the veil away. Adagio, not knowing whether to feel slightly ashamed or utterly vindicated in the presence of her meddling mother, stammered for words.
“I… Well, it is a veil, My Lord,” she began quietly. “It is customary to wear it, you see, when—”
“Nonsense,” the Earl interrupted her, tossing the fine gossamer off somewhere to the side, and directing a foreleg from her head down to her hooves. “This should prove quite sufficient, I think.”
Never once did he appear to notice how radiantly she shone in all of her finery.
“Yes, My Lord,” Adagio muttered with another short curtsy. The resentment in her voice was clear. She didn't dare meet the gazes of her sisters lest she was egged on to say something to the Earl that she'd regret.
There was a beat of silence as they looked at one another. Upright appearing unmoved at first, and then, something within the frigid stallion seemed to shift. Could it be? Perhaps, indeed, he was now actually seeing his wife instead of just studying her as he was prone to do. Adagio could only wonder what type of miracle might have brought about such a reaction. Was it her diadem? The mare, feeling her bitterness melt away, passed him a coy smile. Her cheeks went warm.
“Is there something very important for which you have come to my chambers, My Lord?” she inquired, stroking her long, styled mane.
Sadly, this question snapped the Earl from whatever saccharine thoughts his unaccustomed mind had been attempting to form, and he quickly cleared his throat. Still, when he spoke, his gaze softened, his voice sounded a bit unsure of itself.
“Hm? Oh, yes, well, I… I simply wished to... ”
In that moment, Upright became aware of the many eager eyes now hungrily trained upon him, awaiting his next words with bated breath. Even Beryl and Turq had managed to pop their heads in through the dining chamber’s side door whilst chewing voraciously upon pieces of blueberry pie.
“Can a stallion have no sanctuary away from the prying eyes of mares?” he bellowed with a great flash of his horn. At once, Beryl and Turq again disappeared into the dining chamber whilst the Baroness and Moonstone straightened out their robes, and raced for the door. The both of them bowed low to the ground before turning to exit the room for good. Moonstone made doubly sure to pass her kin a wicked wink as the door was shutting behind her.
Violet, being Duchess, was free to take her time as she left the chamber. The Lord Goldenstalks, bound by the peerage, cleared his throat, and bowed his head in respect one last time.
“Duchess,” he murmured, smoothing a hoof over his sashes, “forgive my outburst.”
Violet nodded graciously in his direction. She daintily swept past the couple, and moved to walk to the stallion’s rear where she could pass her sister an unsmiling glare. Readjusting a fold of silk, she briefly flashed the physician's glass vial directly into Adagio’s line of sight as a warning, and was soon gone.
The Earl looked about nervously after everypony had departed, just to make sure that no one else had been unaccounted for.
“My Lord?” Adagio prodded, attempting to regain his attention.
“Ada, are you sure that it is wise to leave the servant fillies with your provision in that manner? I could have sworn I just spotted them eating—”
“My Lord,” Adagio repeated, reaching out to turn her husband's face toward her. “You were saying?”
This seemed to work quite well. Her hoof descended back to the floor, and even as it did, the Earl’s eyes remained trained solely upon her.
“Right, well,” he coughed—one might think he was suffering from a sore throat that day—“I wish to… to speak with you about a very important matter.”
And then he stood there, staring nervously at Adagio’s smiling face. A few seconds passed, and then twenty before the golden unicorn’s brow furrowed.
“Yes? What is it?” she inquired. Now she, too, was starting to feel nervous.
Spurred on by her persistence, the Earl took a deep breath. It was a rather charming show of vulnerability of a sort that Adagio had rarely seen from him. Fending off her desire to chuckle lest he hide his emotions away from her forever, she cleared her throat, and waited patiently instead.
“Right. Well, Ada, while I do respect your desire to be discreet about the entire matter, I daresay that such an occasion, needn’t require discretion. After all, he—” The Earl stammered, flashing a nervous smile at his wife, “or she, of course, would be our first, and… Well, I suppose that is reason for public celebration.”
As the stallion rambled on, Adagio felt herself becoming more and more confused. At last, after a good minute or so of this, she placed a hoof upon her husband's chest to quell his blubbering.
“Upright, what are you on about?” she sighed.
The Earl seemed regretful for everything he had just said. Now cross with himself, he stomped his hoof.
“Perhaps it would be better if I simply showed you.”
Using his magic to reach into an inner breast pocket, he pulled out what appeared to be a small, blue, velvet jewelry case. Without saying another word, he presented it for Adagio to open.
Flipping the lid with her own magic, the mare’s stomach sank when she saw what lay within: a jade green brooch designed into the shape of a proud, blooming hyacinth.
This pin, in this particular shade, depicting this particular flower, was a well known symbol amongst the nobles of Canterlot. It implied fertility, and was usually worn by expectant mothers-to-be of the peerage for the duration of their entire pregnancy. While the type of green stone used as well as the hyacinth’s design was changed to fit particular tastes, the message was always clear.
An aura of dread descended upon the Countess as she realized what was happening. Gulping down her panic, she forced an expression of utmost joy onto her face.
“Oh, Upright. It’s lovely,” she breathed, not having the gall to do anything but stare at the piece.
“That it is,” he huffed in relief, levitating the pin up into his magic. “It is my mother’s. She wore it whilst she was heavy with… well… with me.”
The pin floated toward Adagio’s chest.
“And now you shall do the same for our son… or daughter... of course.”
Adagio jolted back away from the pin and her husband’s haze of orange magic. Her eyes were wide with astonishment.
“Y-you wish for me to wear this to the Great Hall, My Lord?”
The Earl paused, not having expected the mare to retreat beyond his reach. Snorting a ridiculing laugh, he walked toward her again.
“But, of course. Why else would I gift this to you on such a day as this, Lady Countess?”
Again, Adagio rushed beyond his magic’s reach, this time looking anxious, very much out of sorts. The cool, calm demeanor she was trying to keep plastered onto her maw was quickly crumbling.
“Oh, really, Upright,” she tittered, choking on a very forced laugh. “Do you truly think it wise to... to…”
The apprehension in her voice made the Earl pause.
“Is something the matter?” he inquired, raising his chin, his icy eyes peering at her closely. Adagio’s first instinct was to recoil in his line of sight. Instead, she straightened her posture, lifted her head confidently, and cleared her throat.
“Of course not, My Lord,” she lied. Thinking quickly, she passed him another coy smile, and took a step forward to adjust the stallion’s collar, making sure not to use her magic, but instead, her dainty hoof. “However, do you think it wise to blend these two occasions together? Surely, doing so would diminish the joy of both. Wouldn't you agree?”
The Earl considered this for a moment.
“I tend to think not,” he quipped.
He moved to apply the pin once again. The Countess, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the trouble she had gotten herself into, again dodged out of the way. For just a moment, it occurred to her that perhaps the wisest thing to do would be to confess to her husband, explain everything to him, and hope for his mercy. It would be far easier to do now rather than if she were to embarrass him in front of the entire court in one month’s time.
The notion was tempting. It called to her to relinquish her secret. She was caught up in the fantasy it provided as, slowly, her mouth opened to speak the truth.
“M-my Lord, I… I must beg your forgiveness,” she stammered, taking another step back. “The truth is…”
She gazed into his eyes, seeing nothing but confusion therein.
“The truth is that I… I am not…”
The stallion’s brow creased again. His eyes now seemed to burn. It didn't take long for the golden mare to lose her nerve. She forced a tittering laugh, and flipped a loose curl out of her face.
“I aaaam... not quite sure I can withstand the pressures of the day,” she chirped. “It is the second most significant day of my entire life, as you know, and there is a rumor floating about that the two sisters shall attend. I don't suppose I could possibly bear any more attention than that.”
The stallion remained silent, studying her as he mulled over whatever thoughts were now racing through his head. Adagio passed him a faltering grin, praying that he would believe her tale. All hopes for this wish were dashed when she watched his expression curl into an annoyed grimace. They had been married going on four years now. She knew well what that look meant, and bowed her head in defeat as the pin held within her husband’s magic made its way in her direction.
“This isn't a request, Adagio,” he stated coldly, carefully pinning the jewel onto the left side of the mare’s collar. “You shall don this pin, and you shall soon find the ‘pressures of the day,’ as you put them, quickly disappearing behind a more fulfilling sense of maternal pride. You shall see.”
He approached her, inspecting every bit of her appearance as usual. When he gazed upon her reproaching frown, he reached forward with a hoof, and lifted her head high.
“Chin up,” he commanded. “And try putting on a smile, will you? I shan’t tolerate you looking as if you're attending my funeral.”
The Countess’ mind was ablaze, and for all her might, she could not hide the scorn in her eyes. Before her stood an Earl, this dull, overly serious, and cold stallion whom she had given up her entire life and all of her freedom for. Yet, for all her tireless efforts to provoke some sweet sentiment within him, to stir some passion and mercy for her in his heart, it always seemed that this Lord Goldenstalks would forever treat her as a means to an end more than he would ever feel inclined to treat her as a wife. Though the stallion did not lack perceptiveness, and there were times where she could clearly see him trying to emote for her sake, especially during moments one would think of as intimate, Upright’s well of sentimentality always ended up swiftly running dry.
It drove Adagio mad that she should have to subject herself, as brilliant as she was, to the likes of him and his commands, all because she would forever lack the power to be his equal. Day by day, she found herself growing more resentful of him, even as she continued to hope that on yet another day things might change for the better.
She had grown to love the Earl once upon a time. Now, she only felt constant heartbreak and confusion. It was all suffocating, killing her slowly, and like any creature trapped against its will, she longed for her freedom from him; she longed to leave him before her resentment eventually grew into raging despise. For all the things that he had said and done, she still did not wish to hate him.
Still, on today of all days he would choose to do this to her, and she wanted payment, something, anything, for the sheer humiliation that would eventually come of it all. Her mind landed upon her sister Violet’s threats, and she resolved herself to addressing the matter that very instant. After all, Upright always demanded obedience and perfection from her when it came to upholding the Goldenstalks household and its members. Why couldn't she seek benefit for her own kin as well?
As the Earl leaned in, and jutted a hoof forward to adjust her hyacinth pin, Adagio studied his face, waiting for the perfect opportunity to speak. Realizing after a few seconds that when it came to Upright there probably would be no perfect opportunity, she cleared her throat and took a deep breath.
“I was hoping to speak with you as well.”
“Is that right?” the Earl hummed, barely paying her any attention in lieu of adjusting her pin. “What about?”
“Well, you see,” she continued on, flicking a lock of mane back over her shoulder, “it has again been brought to my attention that you have yet to send aid or reinforcements to Edinbridle.”
The Earl’s gaze quickly darkened, and his hoof dropped away from Adagio’s collar. Straightening his back so that he towered over her, he passed his wife a disdainful sneer. Despite all of this, somehow the mare managed to power on.
“My Lord understands the precarious times in which we live. Edinbridle’s innocents suffer. The kingdom suffers, and we are Vision’s closest and strongest allies.”
As sensible as her words were, the Countess simply could not break through her husband’s chilly exterior, a fact that worked to annoy her greatly. She returned his irritated sneer in kind, and edged forward to boldly prod at his chest.
“One would think that on such a joyous occasion, an Earl of Sardhoof and the new Duke of Buckston would be capable of finding it within himself to extend some of his grace and kindness upon his peers… his very family, no less!”
“Violet has put you up to this, hasn’t she?” Upright inquired calmly, cocking a brow. “Again, begging aid on behalf of her husband, I see. And you, Ada, attempting to play both sides of the fence, as usual.”
Adagio recoiled with indignation.
“And why shouldn't I?” she huffed. “Am I not family and friend to both? As are you?”
“Ada, I shan't have a discussion such as this with the likes of you,” the Earl sighed, refusing to take the mare’s frustration seriously.
“The likes of…” Adagio gasped, donning a grin of disbelief. “Oh, I see. I understand clearly now. I am only worthy of relaying messages that suit me, and miraculously doing it as much as possible with my mouth shut.”
Her magic sparked to flip the front of her gown down straight, snapping the cloth and allowing it to make a loud, startling ‘pop’. She dared face the Earl with a wide-eyed, furious gaze of her own. Upright remained unmoved.
“If I am able to make concession for you and your pin despite my hesitations, then I cannot see why you are unable to do the same for me, your wife, on what is surely a far more important matt—”
“The only important matter is whatever I deem the important matter to be,” Upright hissed, stomping his hoof. It would seem that he had finally lost his temper. “There is no compromise if I do not will it, there is no concession, there is no discussion. Your opinions on politics and war, Ada, are inconsequential to me.”
The mare stood there looking quite stunned. Never before had her husband been so brash with her, and his making her subjection so embarrassingly clear between them both only worked to make her feel like a fool. Her lips bumbled about as she searched for some form of clever retort. Upright beat her to it.
“I understand that you are a defiant pony, as am I. You are of quality, you are educated, and you are respected amongst many of your peers, as am I. But alas, Ada, I am Earl, and I shall soon be Duke, and those things are things you could never attain alone. Not as you… are.” The stallion directed a hoof at her entire body; the implication was clear. “Perhaps, instead of entertaining this futile attempt to defy me, you should try resigning yourself to your position like so many other mares would be willing to do if put in your place.”
Adagio’s eyes snapped open wide, and her head rose to stare at the Earl. What did he mean by mentioning ‘other willing mares’? Was he threatening her as well? First Violet and now this. So much for the bonds of family.
“W-what are you saying Upright?” she inquired, trying to decipher the truths hidden in his eyes. “What ‘other mares’?”
A strange look passed over the stallion. Though he did not smile, he seemed far too eager to settle into witnessing his wife’s discomfort.
“You worry about your power and position, and go about it all in the wrong ways. It surprises me, because I would have pegged you as being far more intelligent than that,” the Earl sighed, shaking his head. “Worry yourself about what is asked of you, Ada. Nothing more. Obsess yourself with the matter of our son. It is only he who can give you the undisputed love and prestige that you seek. Fail to do these things, and it should not come as a surprise when others, wish to dispute your position.”
Adagio stood before him, her jaw hanging open in shock. She was confused, furious, terrified. The Earl was very good with encouraging these emotions within her in his own devious way. His calm demeanor provoked her, and he knew it. He was a clever stallion and a savant with his words. He used them to expertly imply horrible consequences, to plant seeds of doubt within her own mind whilst he himself remained blameless. He regularly chided her for her growing paranoia, and was slow to admit that he was the reason she was often paranoid. He made her question her position, his love, and his faithfulness almost as if he could see clearly her own guilt and unfaithfulness. He forced her to feel like a failure for being emotional and having a temper. Worst of all, he was adept at convincing her into believing that he was always right about her shortcomings.
“The sooner you learn to accept these things, Ada, the happier you shall be. You will see in time that I am right.”
Her entire body shook with offense, as if it wanted to leap beyond itself from the sheer indignity of it all. Attempting to huff out the fire in her chest, she forced herself back up to her hooves, though they trembled terribly. Her pride, her intelligence no longer mattered in that moment. Swallowing the flame that roared inside of her until it drowned itself in her belly, she lowered her head, sighed out the smoke, and nodded obediently. Stepping forward to stand before him, making absolutely sure to keep her gaze directed at the floor, she then cleared her throat.
“I understand now, My Lord. Forgive my outburst. I am a bit out of sorts today.”
Even without looking, she could feel the smug smile the Earl was now wearing. Giving her a satisfied nod of his own, he looked her over once more.
“You are forgiven,” he stated. “I acknowledge that your nerves may be getting the better of you.”
The stallion lifted his chin, and turned about to stand by her side. He inspected and straightened his own uniform before glancing over toward his wife who was sulking and looking rather distant.
“Ada, what have I told you about smiling?” he sighed, rubbing his temples.
As if she were under his spell, the mare’s smile instantly grew wide and beaming, though she could not hide the dark truth burning in her deadened eyes. The Earl presented to her his foreleg, bidding her to take it.
Adagio instinctively curtsied. Her teeth gritted and ground together as she attempted to force pleasant words through them.
“Yes, My Lord. I would love nothing more,” she hissed before ambling forward beside him, toward the chamber door.
As they stood before the threshold, awaiting the guardspony to allow them through, Adagio couldn't help but dwell on how much she wanted to distance herself from the Earl. In that moment, she disliked his musk, those striking eyes of his that always dug into one’s heart, the stiff, unnatural feel of his foreleg as he held hers. Doing her best not to cringe, she forced herself to face him, lest she give these thoughts room to fester and turn into hatred. Above all, she must not learn to hate him.
“My Lord… err… Upright?” she murmured just as she heard the guardspony shuffling about beyond the threshold.
“Yes?” the stallion inquired, looking curious, and surprisingly, quite innocent. This managed to momentarily soften the stone that had become Adagio’s heart, and she passed him a sweet smile.
“I love you,” she murmured, wishing so very badly that she meant it. She searched him again for some sign of tenderness, some small affection… anything.
Clearing his throat and averting his gaze back toward his front, the Earl seemed a little less than comfortable. His cheeks went a slight tinge of red. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something.
“Yes, well, Ada,” the stallion blubbered, now gone a bit wide-eyed. “I...erm...I... suppose that I... feel the same.”
The Countess’ smile faltered. She doubted the stallion’s ability to even comprehend what love was. Remembering herself, she quickly forced her grin wide again, and turned to face front. She could now only imagine how much they, as a pair, probably resembled a picture of complete perfection. As the two listened to the tables and chairs of their families and in-laws shifting and turning about in the salon and antechamber beyond the doorway, they both supposed that, perhaps, at least for this occasion, they could pretend to be perfect, indeed.
“Pree-sen-ting the Right Honorable, the Earl and Countess of Sardhoof!”
“I can feel you, now. I know you can hear me. You are close, aren’t you?”
“...And who are you?” Adagio whispered to herself. Everything before her eyes was awash in swirls of color. Her head reeled, and her insides all felt hot. Unaware of her surroundings she never noticed her sister edging up close to her, looking at her slack jawed expression with suspicion.
“Gio? Are you alright?”
“We have come to Canterlot castle to see you. Only you.”
“Why?” Adagio blubbered to herself, eyes still glazed and directed toward some dark distant corner. “Out of my head. Do you not know that drawing out the wits of a noble by means of magic is a capital offen… a capital off...”
“Gio, what the blazes are you blubbering to yourself about?” Moonstone whispered, placing a hoof upon her sister’s shoulder.
“There are many in this world who do not adhere to your unicorn law, many who were here long before your kind ever existed. Still, if I have offended you, I do apologize. It was not my intention.”
“Gio! Look at me!” Moonstone hissed, cuffing the golden unicorn back into consciousness with a hoof to the side of her head.
Adagio’s eyes snapped open wide, and her head darted about for a moment as she attempted to remember where she was. The space around them was wide and dim save for the soft, afternoon light that lined the lengthy stone corridor to her left. At her right sat a grand, double door. That’s right. They had come down to the corridor outside of the grand hall to await the beginning of their peerage ceremony. From beyond the grand display of oak wood, she could hear the excited chatter of the enormous audience within.
“Goodness, Adagio. What was all that about? Are you feeling ill? Was it the cider?” Moonstone inquired, touching her sister’s forehead. The Countess pulled away, gratefully shaking her head.
“I… I am well, Moon,” she lied, shaking the odd sensation of magical residue from her head. “I was only thinking.”
Ignoring the perturbed frown her younger sister was passing her, Adagio allowed her gaze to drift over to where her husband now stood next to his accompaniment for his audience with the king and queen. It was to be expected that Prance would serve as the Earl’s honor guard during the ceremony, considering that the Lighthoof family had served as knights in the Goldenstalks household for two generations.
Adagio smiled inwardly to herself as she watched her beloved white stallion straightening out her husband’s uniform. He nudged him playfully in the shoulder as the two conversed. Every now and then, his eyes would dart her way, and then inevitably, down toward the green pin that shone brightly upon her collar before he looked away. A guilty feeling tugged at her heart when she noticed the consistent pain in his eyes. He was angry, and yet doing his best to hide it through forced laughter and pleasantries. Adagio wished she could tell him the truth of the entire matter right then and there, but knew that it would be impossible.
“Vision is sitting in the aisle, by the way,” Prance laughed, leaning in close to Upright. “Say the word, My Lord, and I’ll be sure to fly the Goldenstalks banner directly up his nostrils as you pass him by.”
Moonstone, who was serving as Adagio’s escort for the ceremony, let off a grand guffaw.
“Oh, please do it, Lighthoof,” she chortled, never noticing the exasperated glares they were both receiving from the Earl. “I’d give my inheritance to see the look on Violet’s face after something like that.”
“Moonstone,” Adagio chided the younger mare, shaking her head to signal to her that perhaps now was not the perfect time for her antics.
Upright pulled himself out of Prance’s grasp, flinging the knight’s foreleg off from where it was wrapped about his shoulders.
“That won’t be necessary, Lighthoof,” he sighed, dusting his uniform clean. “I’d like it better if the proceedings were to pass as quickly as possible.”
He turned to face the double doors of the great hall when he heard the trumpets blaring beyond them.
“To be perfectly honest, I’ve never much liked these sort of… festivities. This amount of pomp and ingenuine pleasantry hardly seems necessary, wouldn't you agree?”
Prance’s lively, purple eyes cut in Adagio’s direction.
“Yes, well, if only we were all as adept with defining ‘pleasantry,’ as you were, My Lord,” he muttered. Adagio hung her head, and dared not look at him. The sound of his chuckling only made her feel more uncomfortable. What a mess this day was turning out to be.
Placing a hoof over her lips, eventually, the golden mare cleared her throat and stepped forward. It would be for the best if they all acted hastily before things between them turned too sour to hide.
“Alright, Lighthoof, you jester. That will be quite enough of that,” she chirped, taking the white stallion by the shoulder, and turning him ‘round to face front by her husband’s side. Then, pulling Moonstone to her own side, she smoothed her robes out, and stood straight. Two maidservants of the castle, both unknown to Adagio, pulled the trains of their gowns out, and then silently retreated back into their shadowy corners.
“Let's get a move on, then,” Moonstone tittered, nodding for the guardsponies standing at attention by the double doors to open them up. “The sooner this is all finished, the sooner I shall be able to drink myself silly on cider and dance a proper La Colta.”
Adagio grimaced. Prance snorted to keep from laughing. Upright ignored them all as he continued to fuss with his uniform.
“And there it is,” the Countess sighed. “I was wondering how long it would take for you to say something completely inappropriate, Moonstone.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, sister,” the younger mare jested. “I have never said a single inappropriate thing in my entire life.”
“It is a commoner’s dance,” Adagio pressed.
“It is in fashion these days,” Moonstone quipped.
“Allow me to guess which portion of it is your favourite, My Lady,” Prance chortled, ignoring the golden mare’s protestations.
“The portion where I allow a complete stranger to air out the underside of this ridiculous dress, of course,” the brash, purple mare retorted, taking the opportunity to give the knight a good cuff on his flank.
“Of course,” Prance replied, extending his hind leg to cuff her back.
The younger mare gasped, and burst out into a fit of giggles.
“For that, Lighthoof, you shall be my first victim at the ball this evening. Just you wait and see!”
“By Bullion, you two are like children!” Adagio hissed, as she broke in between the two to separate their foalish bickering.
Outside of the hall’s enormous windows, the late afternoon sky was clear. Thankfully, there were still enough money-loving pegasi in the kingdom for the royals to request that they make the day a pleasant one. However, this was the extent to which all niceties with the pegasi went unless they were part of the king’s own guard. Even then, the great hall was void of them considering the dangerous circumstances of the times. Be it cruel or precautionary, today, it was strictly forbidden for pegasi to be present in the hall, now packed with gentry and nobles from all over the land, lest any one of the winged ones decide to prove themselves a traitor to the unicorn king or an assassin to any one of his unicorn subjects. Still, through the grand glass windows of the great hall, one could easily see the entire flock of them calmly preening their feathers whilst sitting upon the great lawn, and passing their grim, scornful glares toward the spectators inside. The sight of them was rather eerie, and set the entire palace on edge. It proved a good distraction when the Earl and Prance finally entered into the room.
From where she stood behind the opened doorway, Adagio could still make out the beauty of the great hall, and the almost ethereal, white, glow that emanated from the raised platform to the front of the room where the king and queen awaited them. Up in the balcony, and off to the left behind a meshed screen sat two shadowy figures, their silhouettes brandishing both horns and wings: the two sisters. When the golden king Bullion beckoned her husband and his guard forward, both hidden alicorns stirred, and turned themselves upon their cushions.
Suddenly, Adagio felt her knees go weak. Her eyes could not be drawn away from the lofty platform. There was a strange heat that crawled over her as she looked at the two shadows up there, the taller one in particular. It seeped up her hind legs, through her belly, past her chest and settled into her cheeks feeling like a flame. The world slowed around her. She could hear voices as tones: the booming, jovial intonations of Bullion as he welcomed the new Duke with honorifics, and the calm, deep sounds of her husband’s voice as he boredly went through the motions of replying. All the while, the one significant figure in her mind remained the silhouette of the elder alicorn sister.
“Ah. So, there you are,” the young mare’s lighthearted voice rattled through Adagio’s skull. It was the same voice she had been hearing upon entering the grand corridor a few moments prior. “I've wanted very much to know if it was true.”
She looked around, wondering if anypony else had heard it. Moonstone passed her a perplexed look upon seeing the deep rose in her cheeks.
“Gio?” she murmured, reaching out to touch her sister’s foreleg.
Adagio, too consumed with the experience, turned back about to look at the balcony, ignoring her kin.
“I… if it was true?” she stammered out loud, now drawing the attention of the two maidservants standing a few steps away.
The voice in her head chuckled lightly to itself.
“I have dreamt that you were very beautiful. I simply wanted to see for myself… You are.”
Increasingly, the feeling of desperation began to fester and grow within her. Something about the enchanted voice’s quality put her at edge, as pleasant as it sounded otherwise. It felt as if she was being threatened, but she knew not why. The fleeting ghost of thoughts she had never thought, memories she had never experienced, began to flash across her mind's eye. Something about… somepony’s white flank… the ornate image of a shining sun… castle ruins…
“Lies,” the Countess dared to hiss, drawing a few strange looks from the spectators sitting near the door in the back rows of the grand hall. “You two have come to… to…”
“Oh, no. Not again,” Moonstone groaned. “Gio, what are you on about, now?” Her eyes darted about as more ponies began to glimpse the spectacle beyond the doorway. The Lady’s eyes were directed upward, lips moving as she stood there frozen and flushed.
A strange moon… an old, gray unicorn and his funny, purple hat… a rainbow in the sky… the sound of screaming, wailing, lamentation.
“Do you feel threatened by my sister and me?” the voice inquired.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Adagio replied quietly, trying her best to sound imposing. “Why are you showing me these things? What is their meaning? Answer me.”
“I'm afraid I am able to see and know only that which you have seen and known,” the voice sighed. “I am not showing these things to you. You are seeing them because we are learning of one another.”
“Learning of…” She trailed off, shaking her curls in frustration. “Out of my head, with all due respect. Do not continue to torture me this way.”
She received no reply.
In that moment, it didn't matter that somehow the Lady knew that she was speaking with the eldest of the revered alicorn sisters. Animosity for them had been born within her. She knew not why or what she was meant to do with the emotion, but it was pungent and heavy, enough that she could taste it.
“Ponies are looking!” Moonstone hissed, stepping beyond her sister to partially block view of her through the doorway. She absolutely could not let anypony else see whatever sudden madness her elder kin had come down with, especially not the royal family… especially not the new Duke Goldenstalks. Dabbing at the sweat upon the elder mare’s golden brow, she continued speaking to her in a hushed voice.
“Gio…Now is not the time for this…”
“Lady of the Sardhoof?” the voice in Adagio’s head echoed, blotting out whatever sounds her younger sister was making. Its tone had lost its jovial quality. This time, it successfully filled the golden mare with a sense of dread. “It appears that we are out of time, and yet there is so much more on which we should speak. You shall permit me a dance at the ball.”
“Th-that is far too bold of you, don’t you think so, My… Lady… My…” Adagio stuttered, leaning her body forward and jutting her chin up in the direction of the balcony.
“Celestia,” the voice replied. “I am Celestia, and my sister is Luna. This is what you may call us for now.”
At the front of the hall, the new Duke Upright Goldenstalks of Buckston had risen, and stepped aside to the sound of fanfare and hoof stomping. The king turned to return to his throne, and as he did so, Queen Corona, a magnificent, pale blue mare with a horn that looked as fine and brilliant as carved diamond, rose from hers.
Moonstone gawked in terror. She was out of time.
“Adagio, stop it! Look at me, right this instant!” she hissed shaking her sister’s shoulder, and then rushing to stand by her side.
All heads were now turning to face them where they stood in the doorway, Upright’s included.
“Celestia,” Adagio blurted rather loudly as she watched the figure behind the screen in the stands flutter its wings and settle back down into its sitting cushion.
“Worry not, Lady Sardhoof. In time, we three shall eke out the steps of our own dance.”
Adagio was rocked from her glamor. The haze fell away as a dream might if one were to receive a swift cuff to the chest. The sweat on her brow began to cool. Her eyes began to focus. Her chin lowered. She looked out into the immense hall at the confused—and amused—glares she was now receiving. Upright was grinding his teeth behind tightened lips as he glared daggers into her. The gentle, all-forgiving smile of the queen was the only thing that managed to set her taxed mind at ease amidst all of this distress. It was decided then: At once, Adagio made the kingdom’s matriarch her beacon.
“Countess Sardhoof,” Corona began, a soft beam of white light escaping from her horn, “approach the throne.”
Hearing fanfare calling them forward, Moonstone touched the back of her sister’s foreleg, and breathed a sigh of relief when their eyes met. Adagio passed her a tired nod, and together they stepped forward through the doorway.